Posts tagged ‘Writing’

The Art of Story Telling

So, we’ve started a new GURPS campaign over in my corner of the world (GURPS, for the uninitiated, stands for Generic Role-Playing System and is like D&D, but nerdier) and, this time, I’m the session leader (often call the GM – Game Master).

That means I have to come up with the story that we play through and I have to lead the players into making decisions that further the plot-line – there’s a lot of thinking on your feet that I have to do to alter scenarios based on what the players are doing but still stay true to the overall tale.

All this got me thinking about storytelling vs. writing a novel. There is a certain element that verbal storytelling has that the written word loses, no matter how eloquent the author is. I think it has to do with the storyteller’s facial expressions and tone as he tells his story, his body language and mood. All of those non-verbal cues add a new layer to the story that the written word just cannot replicate.


That’s not to say that verbal storytelling is better – I like both equally – but it is very different. I think that the oral tradition is focused on hearing, while the written word is more focused on creating visuals – painting word pictures, if you will. Because the author is not sitting in front of you, acting out his story as he tells it (i.e. making his eyes huge to indicate surprise or wonder, hunching his shoulders inwards to invoke fear as he describes a monster, etc.), he has to rely on painting a vivid enough picture that you feel those emotions yourself. A person verbally telling a story can choose just a few choice details and indicate emotions and other facets just by gestures and expressions.

Anyways, that’s where my mind wandered to tonight. I happen to enjoy both methods of conveying a story, but do you guys have any preference?


Writing Resolutions

So, I have fallen woefully behind in my book reviews, both here and over at FindStuff2Read. My newest resolution is to write one book review a week – two for this blog and two for FS2R (which you should check out btw – it’s run by Shannon Howell, who runs an awesome blog of her own).

Other than that, I just hope to keep not missing updates.

That Time of Year Again

So, it is upon us… Finals Week.

This means that Bookwyrm’s Lair will be on a short hiatus… kinda. I’ll be busy writing for school, so I won’t be putting any new content up myself, but the Beloved Husband has agreed to cover Friday’s entry. And then Picture Monday is easy enough to do. But next Wednesday’s and Friday’s entries are… unlikely.

Let’s just say, I make no promises.

See you on the other side!

Them’s Fightin’ Words, Lady!

thiefSo, it’s rare that I decide to use my blog as a platform to rant about serious things – at most, I rant about nerdy things good-naturedly. This one has a distinct lack of the friendly feelings that characterize my nerd rants.

Last night, one of my college professors decided (given that Finals are almost upon us) to have what I have dubbed “The Plagiarism Chat”. The usual version goes something like, “Cite your sources. Plagiarism is bad – don’t do it. I’ll fail you automatically and then the school will expel you if the case is severe enough. “. Professors who feel really strongly might add, “I really hate plagiarism and I have a zero tolerance policy, so if I catch you, don’t bother giving me excuses – I will kick you out of my class”.

And, given that we’re seniors in college who are due to graduate in a few weeks, that’s enough. We get it.

This professor’s version was a little different. It went something like this:

“I’m using to screen your papers. I know it’s really tempting to just lift somebody else’s work and use it in your paper as your own… especially when they’re a better writer than you. I mean, who here hasn’t copied and pasted somebody else’s material into their essays? I know you’ve all done it at one point in your lives.”

Um. Excuse me? Actually, that particular sin is one that I haven’t committed.

For the record, I have no problem submitting my paper through Turnitin, what bothers me is her wishy-washy “well, everybody does it” attitude about the whole thing, like it’s just some kind of academic faux pas that gets a slap on the wrist.

Not to mention she basically accused all of us of being intellectual thieves… yeah, I didn’t take too kindly to that. I honestly felt like standing up in my seat and roaring “You dare impune me honor, Madam!!”. Given that I’m five feet tall and skinny, it probably would’ve been pretty funny.

I suppose the reason that offends me so deeply is because of my relationship with books. I’m an English Major – I do a lot of reading and I do a lot of writing. And I want to be an editor once I get out of college, which means I’ll be doing even more reading and writing on a professional level. So, I know the value of intellectual labor, especially now that I’m doing college senior level work. I’m reading a lot of scholarly essays and articles and using those ideas as springboards for my own original work. I’m expected to think and write at a higher level, and come up with my own ideas. The thought of someone claiming my hard work for their own is infuriating, and the thought of stealing someone else’s is revolting.

At its most mild, it’s cheating. At its worst, it’s thievery – just like snatching somebody else’s car, purse, or ipod.

And it’s so easy to cite your sources! You just put quotes on either side and a parenthetical reference at the end with the last name of the person who said/wrote it and what page you found it on (if that applies). Boom! Plagiarism averted! That being said, I really don’t see the allure of plagiarism, especially once you reach the higher academic levels,  since you have to work harder not to get caught.

So, what are your thoughts on plagiarism? Do you think of it as something that’s pretty common (and thus somehow more understandable or not such a huge deal if done in small quantities), or do you think of it as a pretty serious academic crime that should be looked down on and punished severely?

And, to add a little humor to an otherwise humorless rant, here is Tom Lehrer’s song “Lobachevsky”, otherwise known as “The Plagiarism Song” from his album, Songs by Tom Lehrer.

Day 22 – Character or Plot?

Yesterday’s prompt was:

“Do you prefer character driven books or plot driven books?”

I honestly don’t know. It really depends on the book and what I’m looking for in the story.

Character driven books are fun because you can get some really in-depth character development. They drive the action rather than the action driving them, so the twists in the story can be really unexpected – actually, character driven stories can produce really complex plots (which are always fun to read). The danger though is that some twists may seem tacked on instead of woven in and the plot may wander since it’s based on how the characters develop.

Plot driven books tend to be very cohesive and coherent. The twists and turns in the story are firmly woven in from the beginning – that doesn’t mean that they are predictable (though that can happen), but it does mean that when they finally happen there’s that feeling of, “I should have seen that coming!”. Since the plot is what drives the characters, we can often get some really strong ones since there are specific instances that spur their development. On the flip side though, writers may fall into using archetypes to populate their story, since it’s the quest that is the focus, not the individual players.

I have favorites in each of these schools of writing, so I really can’t choose between them.


Day 17 – The Merits of Fan Fiction

Today’s prompt is:

“How do you feel about fan fiction?”

Well, I blogged about this one a while back, so I’ll be lazy and repost that answer here:

Yes, I’m going there. I won’t say that fan fiction is worth just as much as actual literature, but I will say that it does, in fact, have some worth and its own set of uses within the world of reading and writing.

Given some of what’s out there, that can be a little frightening.

Now, most people, when they hear the words “fan fiction”, think of the lowest of the low – characters completely rewritten to suit the author’s whims and plunked into completely improbable situations or, worse, into horribly improbable romances. Terms like “AU”, “Slashies”, and “OCs” pop up everywhere and wonderful characters become mere parodies of themselves.

To be completely fair, probably 85% of what’s out there consists of that kind of writing. But… there is that understated 15% that is actually worth reading. I know this because, at the behest of some friends, I’ve edited a few stories over the years. This exposed me to the good, the bad, and the downright gag-worthy as I waded through chapter fragments and full stories alike.

Here’s my thinking – writing good fan fiction is actually useful practice for the aspiring author. Keeping established characters completely In Character and abiding by the rules of a universe not your own is surprisingly difficult – it takes scrupulous attention to detail, enough imagination to concoct a plausible story that would fit in the world you’re writing about, and a deft enough hand to mimic the existing style of the characters.

All this is great practice for writing consistently – a good skill to have when creating unique characters and worlds of your own. If you can’t stay true to a character that’s already been written, how can you expect to keep your own character from straying off into OOC-land? (OOC, for the blessedly uninitiated, stands for Out Of Character and is one of the biggest complaints about fan fiction).

WritingOne thing I noticed during my days of reading fan fiction is that the more underdeveloped the existing characters are, the easier it is to write your own story about them. Worlds with vague mythology or flat characters are more easily adapted to the new author’s whim than those with extensive and well-developed backgrounds.

I’ll use Jim Henson’s Labyrinth  and the ever-popular Harry Potter as my examples.

Labyrinth for all its fun and charm has some pretty flat characters. Don’t get me wrong, this is one of my favorite movies, but so much of it is woefully under-developed (I love it anyways though).  In using that world as a base, all one must do is keep the Goblin King snarky, slightly sinister, with just the barest hint of a soft side and we’re good. Sarah can easily be rewritten into many different roles and still seem In Character as long as she’s spunky.

Harry Potter fiction is much harder to write given the complexity of the world and the extensive character designs (people do try though, *sigh*).


Draco Malfoy is most often victim to being badly written. He’s almost always written as the bad-boy with a heart of gold (not so), has been dressed in “baggy skater pants and a ripped rock band t-shirt with black nail polish” (nope – expensive suits, people, and not a hair out of place), and has had some of the most inane dialog placed in his mouth (a sneer and a cool put-down are more his style, not screaming profanity, just sayin’).

Given how thoroughly Rowling wrote Malfoy, there are only a few roles that he can play convincingly, unlike Oliver Wood and the Quidditch team, who being side characters, can be adapted to more situations without any damage to their original selves.

So, yeah, that’s about it. If you’re serious about wanting to write well, give fan fiction a shot, since writing practice is writing practice. It’ll give you a springboard, at least, to being able to write your own characters well.

“Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories” by S.S. Van Dine

We’ve been looking at Detective Fiction in my Rhetoric class these last few weeks. This set of rules (originally published in the American Magazine (1928-sept),
and included in the Philo Vance Investigates omnibus (1936)) has been one of our main sources of discussion.

I don’t agree with everything on this list, but it’s really cool to see what conventions have changed over the years and it’s also fun to think about what characteristics these rules (and the breaking of them) give to a story.

So, without further preamble, the “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories” by S.S. Van Dine:

The Detective Story is a kind of intellectual game. It is more — it is a sporting event. And for the writing of detective stories there are very definite laws — unwritten, perhaps, but none the less binding; and every respectable and self-respecting concocter of literary mysteries lives up to them. Herewith, then, is a sort Credo, based partly on the practice of all the great writers of detective stories, and partly on the promptings of the honest author’s inner conscience. To wit:

  • The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery. All clues must be plainly stated and described.
  •  No willful tricks or deceptions may be placed on the reader other than those played legitimately by the criminal on the detective himself.
  • There must be no love interest. The business in hand is to bring a criminal to the bar of justice, not to bring a lovelorn couple to the hymeneal altar.
  • The detective himself, or one of the official investigators, should never turn out to be the culprit. This is bald trickery, on a par with offering some one a bright penny for a five-dollar gold piece. It’s false pretenses.
  • The culprit must be determined by logical deductions — not by accident or coincidence or unmotivated confession. To solve a criminal problem in this latter fashion is like sending the reader on a deliberate wild-goose chase, and then telling him, after he has failed, that you had the object of his search up your sleeve all the time. Such an author is no better than a practical joker.
  • The detective novel must have a detective in it; and a detective is not a detective unless he detects. His function is to gather clues that will eventually lead to the person who did the dirty work in the first chapter; and if the detective does not reach his conclusions through an analysis of those clues, he has no more solved his problem than the schoolboy who gets his answer out of the back of the arithmetic.
  • There simply must be a corpse in a detective novel, and the deader the corpse the better. No lesser crime than murder will suffice. Three hundred pages is far too much pother for a crime other than murder. After all, the reader’s trouble and expenditure of energy must be rewarded.
  • The problem of the crime must he solved by strictly naturalistic means. Such methods for learning the truth as slate-writing, ouija-boards, mind-reading, spiritualistic se’ances, crystal-gazing, and the like, are taboo. A reader has a chance when matching his wits with a rationalistic detective, but if he must compete with the world of spirits and go chasing about the fourth dimension of metaphysics, he is defeated ab initio.
  • There must be but one detective — that is, but one protagonist of deduction — one deus ex machina. To bring the minds of three or four, or sometimes a gang of detectives to bear on a problem, is not only to disperse the interest and break the direct thread of logic, but to take an unfair advantage of the reader. If there is more than one detective the reader doesn’t know who his codeductor is. It’s like making the reader run a race with a relay team.
  • The culprit must turn out to be a person who has played a more or less prominent part in the story — that is, a person with whom the reader is familiar and in whom he takes an interest.
  • A servant must not be chosen by the author as the culprit. This is begging a noble question. It is a too easy solution. The culprit must be a decidedly worth-while person — one that wouldn’t ordinarily come under suspicion.
  • There must be but one culprit, no matter how many murders are committed. The culprit may, of course, have a minor helper or co-plotter; but the entire onus must rest on one pair of shoulders: the entire indignation of the reader must be permitted to concentrate on a single black nature.
  • Secret societies, camorras, mafias, et al., have no place in a detective story. A fascinating and truly beautiful murder is irremediably spoiled by any such wholesale culpability. To be sure, the murderer in a detective novel should be given a sporting chance; but it is going too far to grant him a secret society to fall back on. No high-class, self-respecting murderer would want such odds.
  • The method of murder, and the means of detecting it, must be be rational and scientific. That is to say, pseudo-science and purely imaginative and speculative devices are not to be tolerated in the roman policier. Once an author soars into the realm of fantasy, in the Jules Verne manner, he is outside the bounds of detective fiction, cavorting in the uncharted reaches of adventure.
  •  The truth of the problem must at all times be apparent — provided the reader is shrewd enough to see it. By this I mean that if the reader, after learning the explanation for the crime, should reread the book, he would see that the solution had, in a sense, been staring him in the face-that all the clues really pointed to the culprit — and that, if he had been as clever as the detective, he could have solved the mystery himself without going on to the final chapter. That the clever reader does often thus solve the problem goes without saying.
  • A detective novel should contain no long descriptive passages, no literary dallying with side-issues, no subtly worked-out character analyses, no “atmospheric” preoccupations. Such matters have no vital place in a record of crime and deduction. They hold up the action and introduce issues irrelevant to the main purpose, which is to state a problem, analyze it, and bring it to a successful conclusion. To be sure, there must be a sufficient descriptiveness and character delineation to give the novel verisimilitude.
  • A professional criminal must never be shouldered with the guilt of a crime in a detective story. Crimes by housebreakers and bandits are the province of the police departments — not of authors and brilliant amateur detectives. A really fascinating crime is one committed by a pillar of a church, or a spinster noted for her charities.
  • A crime in a detective story must never turn out to be an accident or a suicide. To end an odyssey of sleuthing with such an anti-climax is to hoodwink the trusting and kind-hearted reader.
  • The motives for all crimes in detective stories should be personal. International plottings and war politics belong in a different category of fiction — in secret-service tales, for instance. But a murder story must be kept gemütlich, so to speak. It must reflect the reader’s everyday experiences, and give him a certain outlet for his own repressed desires and emotions.
  • And (to give my Credo an even score of items) I herewith list a few of the devices which no self-respecting detective story writer will now avail himself of. They have been employed too often, and are familiar to all true lovers of literary crime. To use them is a confession of the author’s ineptitude and lack of originality.
    • Determining the identity of the culprit by comparing the butt of a cigarette left at the scene of the crime with the brand smoked by a suspect.
    • The bogus spiritualistic se’ance to frighten the culprit into giving himself away.
    • Forged fingerprints.
    • The dummy-figure alibi.
    • The dog that does not bark and thereby reveals the fact that the intruder is familiar.
    • The final pinning of the crime on a twin, or a relative who looks exactly like the suspected, but innocent, person.
    • The hypodermic syringe and the knockout drops.
    • The commission of the murder in a locked room after the police have actually broken in.
    • The word association test for guilt.
    • The cipher, or code letter, which is eventually unraveled by the sleuth.
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