Michaeline: Random Writing Advice

Do you ever take a book, and just let it fall open, put your finger on a paragraph, and read it . . . hoping to find advice and guidance? This is a very, very old fortune-telling technique, and while I don’t believe in fate, I do believe that the sudden juxtaposition of random nonsensical elements can make a lot of sense.

Brian Eno did juxtaposition with his cards of Oblique Strategies (today’s advice on Twitter: “What are the sections sections of? Imagine a caterpillar moving”).

David Bowie did juxtaposition with his music and his cut-up technique, which he borrowed from William Burroughs who used it in the 50s and 60s. (Burroughs was well known for his writing about the Bohemian subculture he was involved with; Jack Kerouac was one of his Beat buddies.)

I like just opening up a book of writing advice, and seeing what “the universe” wants to tell me. Of course, it isn’t “the universe”. It’s my own subconscious. If “the universe” tells me nonsense, I ignore it and go on. But if I like the paragraph, or if the paragraph really bothers me and refuses to let go of my imagination, I pay attention to it.

Today, I was looking at Creating Short Fiction by Damon Knight. The book has been in my backpack for the past three weeks, and last Monday I placed it in the bathroom, hoping I’d finally take a minute to start reading it again. I’m still not ready for a re-read, but opening the book and picking a paragraph at random gave me this:

“Notice that it isn’t enough to be interested or informed; it takes both. If you are interested in your subject but know little about it, you can’t satisfy the curiosity you arouse. If you know a great deal about the subject but are not passionately interested in it (like some scientists and teachers), you will put people to sleep.”

Since we were talking about research this week with Jeanne on Tuesday, I thought it was timely advice. I’ve got the third edition of Knight’s book, which was revised in 1985. It’s got a lot of practical advice for any writer, and can be read from start to finish, as well as being used for diving for pearls of wisdom.

So, I’m off to do some guilt-free research! If it interests me that much, surely I can make it interesting for at least some niche audience!

5 thoughts on “Michaeline: Random Writing Advice

  1. More random stuff, but I decided to dive a little deeper into Burroughs’ use of cut-ups (his personal life is a mess . . . ), and came across this critique of critics:

    Critics constantly complain that writers are lacking in standards, yet they themselves seem to have no standards other than personal prejudice for literary criticism. … such standards do exist. Matthew Arnold set up three criteria for criticism: 1. What is the writer trying to do? 2. How well does he succeed in doing it? … 3. Does the work exhibit “high seriousness”? That is, does it touch on basic issues of good and evil, life and death and the human condition. I would also apply a fourth criterion … Write about what you know. More writers fail because they try to write about things they don’t know than for any other reason.
    — William S. Burroughs, “A Review of the Reviewers”

    I think this could be useful for self-criticism. And as for the fourth, “Write about what you know”, well, you can educate yourself and know more than you did. It applies to the very foundational theme of your book as well as the settings and the decorations that you choose to place in your final story.

    (CAVEAT: First draft: if you are on a roll, just write something like [important information about dophins here], and keep going. You will have to go back fairly soon and peg down that information and get it right — sometimes the act of research can lead you in different directions; sometimes you find out dolphins don’t do that after all, but sharks do, and it takes your book to a whole new level of funny/meaning. But you don’t have to peg down the info in the minute. ((Well, unless, of course, you have to. Your Girls and Boys in the Basement will let you know if you have to go on a Google Dive.)))

    • The problem I’ve run into with waiting to do that research is that what I find out makes the stuff I’ve written unusable. I have an entire book based on the premise that it was possible to print half-tone photographs in newspapers by 1894. The technology existed (I did enough research to verify that), but photos in newspapers didn’t become commonplace until the 1930’s, with the arrival of the Leica camera. So having a heroine whose over-arching goal was to get the local newspaper editor to include her photographs in his paper was a non-starter.

      So, although I know it costs me time as I’m drafting, I’m going to continue to research as things crop up.

      • I’m probably a terrible person, deceiving my audience all over the place, but my standard for research is: is it (the event, development, whatever) possible, even if unlikely? If it’s possible, I’d go with it. So I’d have been okay (and would have written) the story of the heroine with the camera trying to get her photos placed in a newspaper in 1894. Technically, it was possible, and so what if she had a clunky box camera that needed long exposure times? She was a great portrait photographer! 🙂 In fact, I probably would have written that story even if half-tone technology hadn’t been invented by 1894. And then if my conscience bothered me, I’d have written a note to the reader in the beginning to explain why I shifted the time.

        I wouldn’t fudge on a fact if I were writing historical fiction and thought the history per se was more important, or if the fact I was writing around was something that everyone could be expected to know—like, I wouldn’t say the American Declaration of Independence was celebrated on Nov. 1, and I wouldn’t put a Tesla in a story that was set in 1775. But a few years? For a fact that few people would know? Yeah, I’d do it.

        Even though I spent an unconscionable amount of time yesterday trying to figure out the hierarchy of docket clerks in the Northern California US District Court system. And guess what? I’m going to fudge it.

        • I think it just depends on where you do your research, too. The New York papers had lots of photographs in them around 1899. One of my bug-a-boos is that “flashlight photography” was a thing, and was reported as a DANGEROUS thing in those 1899 newspapers (people caught on fire, that sort of thing), but I can’t seem to find out much more about it besides the disasters. I think I need to look at the specialist photo periodicals.

          There were a lot of photographers who took off for Japan at the turn of the century, so I could definitely have Bunny doing that; the story just doesn’t want to seem to go that way.

          Photography was such a fast-moving technology that I’m sure there was a huge difference between 1894 and 1899. And also, New York is different from some rural area (although, one of the few claims to fame for my hometown is being featured in Solomon D. Butcher’s family — a guy with a dream, out in the middle of nowhere, who made it happen (and died in poverty, but . . . is remembered). The New York Graphic was publishing halftones as early as 1880.

      • Oh, I agree that you should research as you go. Just not, maybe, during your 30 or 45 minute writing time (unless the Girls demand it). Do your writing goal for the day, and then look up stuff after (or possibly before you do your writing the next day, but that way lies Procrastination).

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