Friday, February 15, 2013

Monkeys with Typewriters: How to Write Fiction and Unlock the Secret Power of Stories

The monkey with a typewriter hypothesis, if twisted around a bit, basically says that if I (as a primate) spend an infinite amount of time at a typewriter, I will eventually come up with something worth reading and eventually produce a piece of genius on the Hamlet scale.

Or, I could save myself some time, and go ahead and read "Monkeys With Typewriters," by Scarlett Thomas.

Monkeys with Typewriters is a unique book on writing that no writer would regret spending some time with.  Thomas  has a deep appreciation for the art of writing and for the intricacies of a sentence, as well as the larger, nearly mythological motifs present in storytelling. Her own novels are testimony to this.

The book begins with a theoretical discussion and the idea that there are basically only eight (or six, or twelve, or two, I forget the number) of story structures that all stories follow.   Some of the plot examples given I found myself skimming through, as they were not stories I was familiar with, but for the stories she cited that I was, it was very helpful.  As a writer, you will read this section saying, "okay already, but give me something I can use, I"m ready, ready to get started," to which the Yoda of writing responds,  "Ready are you? What know you of ready? If you end your training now - if you choose the quick and easy path as Vader did - you will become an agent of evil."

Yes, I digress, but I am sure the Star Wars myth follows one of the archetype stories as described in Monkeys With Typewriters, and the more you know about the history and art of your craft, the easier it is to stay away from the dark side of adverbs and vague sentences, and other evils the book discusses.

If the first part of the book tells you why the car runs, the second tells you how to drive, and this is where I had many takeaways.

Forever in my brain is the idea of writing “one true sentence” when you are stuck, and, in fact, the importance and beauty of writing one true sentence after another. Writing that is precise, not vague, with the crap trimmed off. (my words, not hers. Hers were much more sharp.)  I found great ideas for plot and character development, and even thought it's similar to things we've heard before, it's said in a way that strikes the writers' chord.

You will learn how words ending in the dreaded “ly” can painfully, absurdly, and begrudgingly simply be taking away the readers experience by simply writing down what someone is feeling. "Why should we expect someone to pay us for our work, or spend hours reading it, if all we've said is "She was (and then fill in the blank of how she was feeling).

As a runner and frequent marathoner, I loved the analogy to writing a novel to running a marathon. I've got a dozen marathons and three novels, so in my book, marathons are easier.

This was one of the first books I read on my new Kindle Paperwhite, and I want to say "thank you, Amazon, for making it so much easier to highlight."  I’ve got notes and notes of highlights from this book to refer to.

The author is like the creative writing teacher you had at school where eager writers stuck their stories under her nose after class. The one you had a crush on. The one who taught because she loved it, and you got used to hearing her voice, and pretended that she would always remember your name because you were different than the rest. (She won't, but you are).

Like any good piece of non-fiction, it only inspires you to read more on the topic, and I was especially intrigued by her discussion of Nietzsche who felt that "it is only through the destruction of the hero that we can really feel for him, really become one with him." The work of tragedy that destroys the hero is actually developing a more common connection to the universal human experience of "endless cycles of suffering and pain" than the cheerful, optimistic writer which attempts to hide from the reality of our existence.  I don't feel so bad now for when I go dark.

Now excuse me, I have to go stick my latest novel under the nose of my creative writing teacher before she's swamped by the rest of the class.

Mark Matthews
Author of STRAY and The Jade Rabbit

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