Sunday, September 9, 2012

Write Club: the Forms of Writing

Hey y'all.  So I was going through things in my head the other day, and it ocurred to me that all forms of writing generally fall under nine different categories.  Six of these are difficult, and three are easy.  The easy ones are generally where people begin to write, because of course there are no writer prodigies, and only very few try something like a novel before having written anything other than school work.  Most people don't even realize that they have writing as a talent unless they just putter around by accident and then figure out that they like it.

So here's a rudimentary diagram.


Novel     Short Story     Screenplay   


Poetry     Lyrics     Prose                 



 Biography     Analysis     Report        


So, as you can see, the easiest forms of writing are in the middle, because they have the fewest rules.  Notedly, the ones in the middle are usually less entertaining, with the sometimes exception of lyrics because it has music to back it up.  The middle forms can also be either fiction or nonfiction, depending on what the writer wants. 

Poetry --

It's hard to define poetry, because almost anything can be poetry.  Personally, I have a somewhat stricter definition.  It's really annoying when someone writes a sentence and claims it's poetry
      like this.
To me, this is not poetry.  However, I do realize that this is my definition, and that when you're a new person playing around with words, there's no particular reason to be too strict about rules.  After all, the entire point of poetry is to be free with form.

If I must summarize my definition, poetry is the rhythmic or rhyming usage of words to say things without directly saying them.  For example, Emily Dickinson describes hope as "a thing with feathers" in one of her poems.  This is a very unique, evocative way to say that hope is flighty and soft.  Saying a thing by saying something else is the essence of poetry, and while making sure every line has the same number of syllables or making every line rhyme is a good addition, the soul of poetry lies in symbolism.

Because poetry is so flexible, this is probably the form of writing that most writers start out with, at least when they start writing for themselves instead of for teachers.  Usually such a person is a teenager, because teenagers are at a weird time in their lives, and creative ones will want to express their emotions.  Actually, it's a good idea for all writers to putter around with poetry every so often.  Practicing one's symbolism is always a good idea. 

Poetry is listed next to the fiction forms because it uses far fetched symbolism much of the time, and is best able of the easier forms to describe fiction.  It doesn't have to be fiction, though.  Poetry is a lot like a liquid blob.  It can take basically any shape.

Lyrics --

This is fairly obvious.  Lyrics as a writing form is very similar to poetry, except that it has the benefit of music.  A lot of the time, dumb lyrics can pass because the music with it is good.  Sometimes dumb lyrics and boring music are made acceptable by sheer passion.  And sometimes, lyrics aren't necessary at all.

But that's not what we're talking about here.  We're talking about the words of songs, absent of music and passion.  Lyrics differ from poetry because they are subservient to music.  Good music will save bad words a lot of the time, but good words will almost never save bad music.  Also, unlike poetry, lyrics generally rhyme and always follow a set rhythmic pattern.  There cannot be one extra syllable or one too few.  Writing lyrics might seem harder than writing poetry, but rhythms can actually make it easier.  It gives you a format to go off of, and the natural patterns of speech related to music can bring words to your mind. 

So whether lyrics are harder or easier basically depends on the writer in question.  That's why it's in the middle of the list.  One might argue that lyrics could fit in either poetry or prose, but I think the requirements put on lyrics gives it a right to show up in this list.

Almost nobody starts writing from music, unless they are musicians first and writers second.  Other writers might write lyrics for the fun of it or for musicians, but lyrics are the realm of musicians, and this boundary should be respected.  Though of course writing lyrics for fun is fine.  It's just really annoying to do so when you know you can't express it with an instrument.

Prose --

Prose is your basic, casual writing.  It's your journal.  Heck, it's this blog.  It's basically any time when you're writing, but it's not official or for any purpose other than expressing your thoughts.  It's even when people write
 their "poetry"
        spaced out
    like this
      if it's real poetry
   and not
bad formatting. 

Okay, enough of that.  Simply put, prose is writing what you want to say.  You write it out conversationally.  Prose requires no research, no special formatting, and not even accuracy.  This is the absolute bottom of all writing, with the loosest definition and the fewest requirements.  Prose can only be judged good or bad by its grammar, spelling, and how intelligent or compassionate the writer sounds. 

Some prose, like Brene Brown's blogs, are intelligent observations based on years of study.  Others, however, are overly angsty complaints about life, or sad, pathetic attempts to manipulate gullible people's political ideas.  Prose is almost always meant to persuade or force empathy for the writer.

Oh, by the way, let me add a warning to you about blogs.  Every time you find a blog trying to convince you of something weird, check yourself.  Have they cited sources?  Are they rationally minded?  Are they stupid?  Are they clever enough to manipulate the unware?  Never let prose convince you of anything.  If it gets backed up by reality, good and well.  Just never mistake prose for reality.  It's only as good as the common opinion.  Just because it's a blog doesn't mean it's true.  That also counts for me, but all I'm trying to do is introduce a writing structure.  I'm not trying to brainwash you...for now. ;)

This too is one of the common entry ways for people to enter the writing realm.  It's a good way to develop a writing style, and in fact one that is underused.  I was reading a writer's blog once, and the way she described her story was very good.  It made me very excited to read what she wrote.  And the story itself was absolutely boring.  It was so dang formal that it sapped away all emotion.  It's just so bizarre how someone can be so brilliant as a writer until they're "WRITING".  So if you find yourself being too formal in your writing, then write some prose.

Remember, don't WRITE, just write.  Too formal can kill writing.  Unless you write like an early twentieth century British dude.  I love that style.  Lots of complex metaphors.  Note that prose is closer to the nonfiction side of things, because it's almost always nonfiction in nature.  Even the prose that is factually inaccurate is usually the honest opinion of the dope or manipulator that wrote it.  Fiction prose exists, like say commentary made by Drizzt in the Forgotten Realms books, but prose is generally honest opinion.  Even in Drizzt's case it's honest opinion coming from a fictitious character.

Okay, so that's your easier forms of writing.  These have the fewest rules, and in fact stretching conventions is the convention as far as those are concerned.  And this is exactly why they aren't very popular to read.  Poetry doesn't sell well in stores unless it's written by someone famous, and those famous people have usually been dead for decades.  Anybody and his brother can write prose, even if they have no writing talent whatsoever.  You, dear reader, only read blogs that are on a topic you find interesting or if you like the writer as a person.  You don't read them because they're complex, and every time you read a blog you know you're risking a waste of time because it might be bad or pointless.

Lyrics, too, aren't really important either, though they're more popular simply because they go along with music.  In techno, lyrics are a few poetic words that are supposed to heighten the experience.  In rap, it oftentimes barely matters what the words are as long as they keep coming and they're said abruptly (think "shizzle").  Pop music, in the last decade, has dropped most forms of symbolism in its lyrics, which is why the word "yeah" is so dang common in songs these days.  Pop disease has spread even as far as country, making the once empathetic genre just a bunch of prose about honky-tonk b'donks set to music.

Fiction and nonfiction forms are more complex than the center group, because they have more rules.  Nonfiction has stricter rules, but fiction requires an extra artistry of mind to make up the difficulty.  Basically, they're hard for different reasons.  Let's go over fiction first.

Novels --

Novels are the most difficult form of fiction, if because they not only require plot and characters, but a vast world to put all of this in.  No matter if your type of fiction is more realistic or less realistic, you have to have a consistent set of rules.  Your world has to have its own reality, its own culture (and more often than not, cultures), and it's own technological level. 

Realistic fiction authors might not think of this often, but it applies to them too.  They can't be realistic one moment, then fantastic the next, and then expect the reader to take them seriously if they return to reality.  That's one of the major reasons I don't like Star Fox Adventures.  Star Fox as a series was never realistic, but it had a set of rules that still applied.  It was realistic enough to be a technological word, as opposed to a magic world.  SF:Adventures brought in magic and changed the tone entirely, making Star Fox turn into Star Wars with animals.  Star Wars itself is a story world that includes both science and magic, and therefore the audience is already prepared to see a world with both together.  Star Fox was never supposed to be that way.

So what do I mean by world?  A world is the entirety of your setting: who your people are, what their culture is, their technological level, their language, the possible heros, the possible villians, the level of reality you want it to have, etc.  A world is everything you imagine as a background for your story.  Every little detail you've ever imagined for the way your setting and the people in it works is a part of your world.  Good writers leave implied spots in their settings, which in turn makes fanfiction writers want to fill in any perceived gaps. 

Novels, also, are generally long.  You've also got novellas, but even though these are shorter they still fall under the writing form of a novel, because of their purpose.  The purpose of a novel (as opposed to a short story) is to not only tell a story, but to create a world in the mind of a reader.  To create a place that people imagine still exists even when we aren't thinking about it, like in some alternate dimension.  Thus, no novel can be short.  It can be shorter, but it must convey more dwelling plot where we get to learn the characters, and so it has to take its time, both in the writing and reading aspects.

And that's what makes novels harder.  You, as a writer, have to sit down every day, bit by bit, and make a story where you possibly won't reap any rewards for years.  No positive feedback, no royalties, and no knowledge that somewhere out there, a stranger is reading your work.  A novel is not a summary, and can never be so.  In this manner, a novel is more like a TV series than a movie.

Short Stories --

A short story, on the other hand, is like a movie, not a TV show.  A movie's purpose is to entertain its audience once, independent of any sequels or prequels.  This is why TV shows tend to be risk being more thoughtful or philosophic, whereas movies are more short-term action/emotion oriented. 

It's the same with a short story.  Novels are meant to convey worlds, but short stories are meant to convey emotions.  A short story simply doesn't have time to go on and on about things.  It has to come to the point.  It has to make the reader feel a specific way in fewer words.  This is why writing a short story is only a little less hard than writing a novel.  Sure, it doesn't take as long, but you have to have clearer narrative and better emotion.  You don't get a lot of time to build up sympathy with characters, so each phrase counts extra.  This is why good novel writers sometimes have a hard time going to short stories.  They have trouble being concise. 

Notedly, some novel writers actually take advantage of the slow pace allowed in novels.  Like Eregon, for example.  You'd think a book about people who train dragons would be interesting, but it's dreadfully dull, as Paolini barely puts in any action at all.

And that's why it's important to practice with short stories.  Now, if you've noticed the pattern, you see that the writing forms that are important to practice are the writing forms that new writers tend to start at.  Now, not as many new writers start with short stories, but some do.  My brother, when we were very young, used to write stories about our cat Booger.  He now is probably going to end up doing a lot of nonfiction writing, but this is still where he started. 

Unlike poetry or prose, which are both relatively easy, the difficulty of a short story is meant to stretch a writer, and is usually where a new writer becomes a better writer.  It happens all the time on fanfiction net.  While poetry and prose help you with technique, short stories force you to think of all dimensions -- plot, characters, and world -- while at the same time making it so that world isn't overly emphasized.  Usually in short stories the setting is more realistic, or else the oddness of the world the characters live in is really simple, like in the short story, Harrison Bergeron, where everyone is forced by law to be equal.  We don't know much about that world, not how or why this law came to pass, because the point of the story is merely to prove that total equality cannot be expected.  It's making one point, and striking one chord.

Screenplay --

What differentiates screenplays from other forms of fiction is the emphasis on motion and dialogue.  It has no internalization.  This is about what you see with your eyes only.  Because the average person watches a lot of movies, they probably are caught up by the drama that an actor adds to the screen.  However, as a writer, one has to remember something: when you're writing a screenplay, you have no actors.  You must depend on your writing on its own merits, without the aid of someone who translates words into actions.

That's the main trouble every screenplay writer must keep in mind.   In a novel, a writer might say, "Madelaine is the sort of person that enjoys life".  This is unacceptable in a screenplay.  You cannot visualize it.  How do you act "enjoys life"?  Everything written must be either a look or an action.  It can't be something that can't be acted.

There can be no:
- "He thought to himself..."
- "He felt happy."
- "She couldn't guess what it was."
- "She's peppy and bright."

Write instead:
- "A puzzled look appeared on his face."
- "He smiled."
- "She shakes the box, listening as the present rattles inside."
- "She spun around in a circle, giggling as her skirt twirled."

Apparently, avoiding the first group of sentences is sort of hard.  Lots of new writers seem to have trouble transitioning from the more traditional story formats, because almost never does a person start out writing screenplays.  It's a bit strange, because you'd think that because screenplays have simpler narrative and clear dialogue (none of that "he said abruptly" or stuff like that) people would write them more.  I guess it's because it's easier to get a book published than a movie made. 

There's a lot to learn from screenplay writing.  You should try writing an entire page without any internals sometime.  I just might do that.  I dunno, though.  Sometimes I like to ramble on.  Rambling on is fun. 

In any case, screenplay really is the easiest fiction writing form, as far as putting plot together goes.  You might think that you have to add in a lot of camera movement, but actually directors don't like that.  They like to be able to shape the camera in their own heads to make the movie the way they want.  That's actually easier on the writer, though the writer probably feels so attached to the story he'll be a little mad if the director doesn't do it exactly the way he wants.  Remember, writers, your job is to write, not to direct.  Unless you're a director who wants to make his own movie.  It's like this: a writer that writes lyrics is not a musician, but a musician who writes songs is a writer.  Same thing with directors.

The only thing that makes writing a screenplay more annoying is the very strict formatting.  Lines have to be spaced so many inches, first time mentions of new characters need to be in all caps, there has to be a title page with its own format specifics...stuff like that.  In this way, screenplay is the opposite of poetry.  Poetry is freeflowing and lacking in rules.  Screenplay is regular and strictly visual.  Fun stuff.

The nonfiction forms of writing are often profitable.  In fact, nonfiction these days sells a lot more than fiction.  Us fiction people might be scornful at it, because it's "boring" and "inartistic", but think about it.  Which are you going to buy?  The book with a story you might not like, or a book on a subject you've always wanted to know more about?  It's much harder to predict whether or not a person will like a fiction book, and it's also much harder to critique a fiction book.  Nonfiction has the benefit of being able to be criticized for its accuracy, while fiction gets to be inaccurate as long as its entertaining -- or in the news media's case, as long as it's what the media wants you to believe.

I think the main reason why nobody really enjoys writing nonfiction (unless it's a topic they like a lot) is that school has trained us to be that way.  We write really boring essays in school that we know the teacher won't enjoy even if we do get a good grade on it.  I remember thinking as a kid that all reports were were taking facts from books and restating them in different ways.  At least I got to be homeschooled for a few years, so I got to include stuff in my reports like baby-talking to a hamster.  But most students don't get that opportunity, and essays are ideally supposed to demonstrate a student's understanding of a topic anyway.  Hamsters probably don't help in that regard.

But why not write nonfiction?  Like fiction, nonfiction is more difficult than the middle forms.  It's just harder for different reasons.  In fiction, the key is to be able to generate story.  In nonfiction, the key is to be able to observe without adding your own unnecessary input.  There are some kinds of nonfiction where it's more acceptable to add your own personal feelings, like political commentary or memoirs, but generally people reading nonfiction care very little about your opinions, and would rather just have the facts.

Oh, and one last thing about writing style. While it's important in fiction to have an interesting writing style, you've really got to just tone it down and be more to the point in nonfiction. Flowery language in nonfiction generally has a way of alienating readers. I once tried to read a book on writing, but the language was so sarcastic and metaphoric all the time that it was hard to tell exactly what the writer was trying to say. Remember, in nonfiction it's more important to get the point across than impress the readers with your grasp of the english language.

Biography --

This is the easiest kind of nonfiction.  Easiest, not necessarily easy.  This is because the plot for a biography already exists, and all it takes is research and a basic understanding of human nature to put together a biography.  That being said, a biography isn't always easy.  It's more than just writing up what you feel about a person.  In fact, I find the biographies written by huge fans or close friends of a subject are the most annoying, because they tend to be either demi-propaganda for the subject or just 2D in general. 

Remember this: a biography or memoir where little research is done is no better than prose.  In fact, this is prose -- what you think is true rather than what is true.  Just fyi.  Even if it's your own memoir, you better find out about the people around you or else your book will be one sided and unenjoyable.

There are other ways to screw up biography.  Note that if you're writing your own memoir, of course your own opinions are fine to add.  However, if you're writing about someone else, keep your dang opinions to yourself.  I was reading a biography on Winston Churchill written by Roy Jenkins, and it was horrible.  Not only was Jenkins' writing style way too long-winded, but he kept adding in his own personal beliefs.  Quite frankly, I bought the book to learn about Churchill.  I couldn't be bothered to give a crap if Jenkins is "Asquithian" or not.  On the plus side, I did learn a bit about British politics, and that led to some interesting revelations about what happened to both British and American politics in the last century.  However, it did not lead to a good biography. 

Now Mao: The Unknown Story was a far better biography.  What do I know about the authors, Jung Chang and Jon Halliday?  Absolutely nothing.  For all I know, Halliday did the biography by himself and just found an Asian person to pretend to be a co-author so people would take his research more seriously.  Or maybe "Jon Halliday" is Chang's male alias and his picture in the back is a cardboard cutout.  I read the book to learn about Mao Tse Tung, and I got what I paid for.  And you should see those citations in the back!  They sure did their research.

Overall, in biography it's a matter of pulling together elements of a story that already exist.  The characters?  They're there.  The plot?  Done.  This is where you learn that the most important part of a story, true or not, is in the editing.  Two different people with the same set of facts can create two different stories, which is why its important in biography not to inject what you think of the person.  Try to observe them as they really were, and understand their spirit.

Analysis --

Analysis is exactly what it sounds like.  You look at a subject and write up your observations.  The main difference between this and biographies is that with biographies it's important to be intuitive and understand human nature, because a lot of the time you'll be writing about someone who is dead and have to "reconstruct" the person in question.  Analysis is more straightforward, and depends more on the use of one's eyes and less on intuition.

Analysis is writing up on any nonfiction topic, absent as much as possible of personal opinion.  In fact, there isn't really a lot of room for emotion in analysis, and this is the form of writing where it is least appreciated.  It consists of writing about things like fishing, caves, animals, making circuit boards, reading, writing, and research.  Basically any subject where humanity has substantial knowledge and the ability to do more research relatively easily. 

Let's take fishing for example.  In fishing, certain lures work better than others.  This bait will attract this fish, and that bait will attract that.  Fishing licenses cost this much, and these are the best areas to catch catfish.  None of these aspects depend on anyone's opinion, but are true or false depending only on factual circumstance.  If you're a fisherman, there are ways to fish, and there are ways to mess it up.  Do you like to fish in a nonsensical way because that's the way you think is best?  Well then, don't be disappointed when you don't catch a lot of fish.

This form of writing includes "how to" books, cookbooks, study guides, economic reports, animal guides, and most kinds of scientific research.  The key to writing this effectively is to know what you're talking about, and these books are usually not written by career writers, but those who just happen to know the subject they're talking about. 

Report --

In a way, report is much the same as analysis.  However, it differs in that it is a nonfiction account of a subject that can be open to debate.  Report is essentially one's write up of a factual event or subject, but where the facts aren't necessarily clear and research isn't always possible.  For example, history and studies of outer space.  Nobody can research history easily because we don't have time machines, and even if we did, our perspectives on a topic would still differ because two people could still see two different motivations in the same historical figure.  Likewise, space is hard because there's just so much about it we just plain don't know, and we don't have proper space ships like they've got on Star Trek.

In topics like this, flowery language and personal opinions are more acceptable.  While they should be generally kept to a minimum, in certain topics, like political commentary, they're often helpful.  While Roy Jenkins' opinions messed up his biography (I'd rather have Churchill's), Alan Derschowitz mentioning that he was a liberal actually helped his political book The Case For Israel.  After all, politics is debatable and frequently theoretical.  If I know that Derschowitz is a liberal, I understand what perspective he's coming from and how this perspective might either alter facts or help him observe the situation in Israel.  Whether I agree with Derschowitz or not is irrelevant.  I'll simply understand what he's saying better when I know where he's coming from.

It might seem to you that report is sort of like a combination of biography and analysis.  It is.  This is why it's harder than analysis.  It takes both the ability to observe and the ability to intuit.  It also takes the fiction skill of being able to generate story, because one has to take facts and figure out possibilities.  For example, if you're doing a report on an ancient civilization, you have to guess how they lived through bits of pottery and old ruins.

Also, you also need the skill of being able to tell when your theory is correct or not -- a bit that is sadly lacking in today's world of "I am always right and no I don't need to question myself" attitudes.   While this generally seems to go hand in hand with politics (It always annoys me that political commentators use too many jokes and too much sarcasm), it also exists for other areas.  For example, so many people believe that evolution disproves the existence of God.  Actually, there's no particular reason why evolution should do so, but some scientists (by no means all) so stubbornly defend evolution as if it does.  Thus any attack on evolution is seen as a religious attack, when all the dissenter might be saying is that evolution itself is flawed, absent of any beliefs about God.

In any case, reports are basically a blending of analysis and theory, and the main thing that differentiates report from prose is that the writer of the report has done proper research and is trying to be as analytical as possible.  Basically this is what you're doing when you write a report for school, if you've done your research.  If you're just making guesses based on your general experience, it's prose.  Reports require research from more than one person, preferably as many as possible.  Few people respect nonfiction that doesn't have a lot of sources, and even in biography or politics, where personal opinion is important, research is needed to make sure the background details are correct.

So, in any case, that's the scale of writing genres.  All genres fall under one of these forms -- or so I'm going to say to make myself look smart -- and generally a writer is divided by fiction or nonfiction.  While it's possible for a writer to be good at both, they'll generally prefer one or the other, and oftentimes when they try to cross sides, the fiction has a lot of philosophy in it (C.S. Lewis' Perelandra), or the nonfiction is written in story format with fictitious characters as examples.  In any case, it's better for a writer to know where they stand.  They can cross if they like, but not without knowing where they already are.

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