Rules of Writing

 Posted by on November 24, 2013  Book Talk
Nov 242013

It begins in English class.  The teacher tacks posters to the walls: “Don’t end a sentence with a preposition,” “Use the active voice,” “Don’t split infinitives.”  These are the simple rules.

Every so often, I see a newspaper article or an interview with an author, talking about “rules of writing.”  These rules are more complex.  They usually refer to tips for authorship – methods for developing characters, polishing a story for publication, or simply maintaining the willpower to write despite difficulty.

A 2010 article by The Guardian collected rules for writing fiction from assorted authors.   My favorite list of dos and don’t – written by fantasy author Neil Gaiman – are duplicated here:

1. Write.

2. Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.

3. Finish what you’re writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.

4. Put it aside. Read it pretending you’ve never read it before. Show it to friends whose opinion you respect and who like the kind of thing that this is.

5. Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.

6. Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.

7. Laugh at your own jokes.

8. The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it ­honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.

On Poetry, and the Irony of Abandonment

 Posted by on November 11, 2013  Book Talk
Nov 112013

While most of my reading time is spent on novels, I always enjoy finding and reading good poetry.  Poetry is a unique form of art; it distills emotions and experiences into a compact form.  Poems are the most musical collections of words in our language – an amalgam of letters that fiddle with rhyme, rhythm, and meter in search of the perfect balance of sound and meaning.

I recently leafed through a black leather Moleskine journal on my shelf.  I haven’t written in the journal in almost a year.  I tend to get easily distracted from one project, going off in search of another.  This journal is one such case of my wandering mind.  About twenty pages are filled: my scattered and random thoughts and a few interspersed lecture notes.

The first entry was a poem.  According to the date, I read and recorded the poem on September 17, 2012.  The text makes my yearlong abandonment of the journal all the more ironic:

The Men Who Don’t Fit In, (1903), Robert W. Service (1874-1958)

There’s a race of men that don’t fit in,
A race that can’t stay still;
So they break the hearts of kith and kin,
And they roam the world at will.
They range the field and they rove the flood,
And they climb the mountain’s crest;
Theirs is the curse of the gypsy blood,
And they don’t know how to rest.

If they just went straight they might go far;
They are strong and brave and true;
But they’re always tired of the things that are,
And they want the strange and new.
They say: “Could I find my proper groove,
What a deep mark I would make!”
So they chop and change, and each fresh move
Is only a fresh mistake.

And each forgets, as he strips and runs
With a brilliant, fitful pace,
It’s the steady, quiet, plodding ones
Who win in the lifelong race.
And each forgets that his youth has fled,
Forgets that his prime is past,
Till he stands one day, with a hope that’s dead,
In the glare of the truth at last.

He has failed, he has failed; he has missed his chance;
He has just done things by half.
Life’s been a jolly good joke on him,
And now is the time to laugh.
Ha, ha! He is one of the Legion Lost;
He was never meant to win;
He’s a rolling stone, and it’s bred in the bone;
He’s a man who won’t fit in.

Nov 032013

Douglas Hofstadter has devoted his life to the exploration and replication of human thought – relating mind to matter.  His central question:  How could a few pounds of gray gelatin give rise to our very thoughts and selves?

A recent article by James Somers for The Atlantic, titled The Man Who Would Teach Machines To Think, does an excellent job describing Hofstadter’s seemingly-endless quest.

I first looked into Hofstadter in depth when I stumbled across his book: Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (more popularly known as GEB).  It was his first work, published in 1979, and an immediate bestseller and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction.  In it, Hofstadter calls for a paradigm shift in the way humans think about artificial intelligence.  The development of AI should focus on understanding and emulating the complex manner in which humans reason, not on the brute-force solving of mankind’s worldly problems.

To me, as a fledgling AI person, it was self-evident that I did not want to get involved in that trickery. It was obvious: I don’t want to be involved in passing off some fancy program’s behavior for intelligence when I know that it has nothing to do with intelligence. And I don’t know why more people aren’t that way.      – Douglas Hofstadter

The article and GEB are both excellent reading material, illuminating for the world the mind of a man whose thoughts have shaped the course of supercomputing and artificial intelligence.  He continues to search for the basis of those thoughts.