[writing|process] Talking about doing it, and a return of the “hand of cards” theory

Yesterday I guest taught at Travis Heermann‘s literature of science fiction class at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. That was a lot of fun. I gave a very short lecture about alternate history, then we did a bit over an hour of open q-and-a. Though I do wonder when the college kids got so young?

This was a literature class, not a creative writing class, but there were a fair number of craft questions. About a third of the students are aspiring writers, so that makes sense. This got me thinking once more about the “hand of cards” theory, which I have previously discussed here: [ jlake.com | LiveJournal ] and elsewhere.

Basically, the “hand of cards” is the idea that all writers start out with a more or less random assortment strengths and talents. ([info]matociquala calls this “the box it came in”.) Much like a poker deal, this could be a weak hand, a mixed hand, or, rarely, a strong hand. As we work to improve our skills and achieve publication, we upgrade our low cards one at a time, switching focus as we go along.

What I’ve never quite done is pinned down what those cards might be. The suits, as it were. I’m pretty sure we’ve had this discussion before, but I can’t find it right now, so here I throw out some ideas, and ask you guys to comment or contribute your own.

  • Character
  • Plot
  • Setting
  • Prose style
  • Narrative voice
  • Auctorial authority
  • Dialog
  • Sensory detail
  • Gender/ethnic/orientation authenticity (specifically meaning: not your own default settings)
  • Action sequences
  • Emotional resonance
  • Thematic depth
  • Control of language (or possibly precision)

Some of these obviously overlap. I’m not wedded to any of them, though a number are fairly obvious. What have I missed? What have I got wrong? What would you add to the list?

7 thoughts on “[writing|process] Talking about doing it, and a return of the “hand of cards” theory

  1. Jake Kerr says:

    I received my English Literature degree from Kenyon College, which has a reputation for having one of the best English departments in the country, so I may be an outlier here, but I found this comment curious:

    “This was a literature class, not a creative writing class, but there were a fair number of craft questions.”

    I say it is curious because what is the studying of literature BUT the study of craft? Again, I can only speak for Kenyon, but my class discussions were almost entirely about what made great literature great, and that is, almost always, craft.

    I mean how can you study “A Cask of Amontillado” without discussing second person present tense as the way it works as a piece of art? How can you study the early career version of “The American” by Henry James and then the later career revision of that same book without discussing the stylistic and prose changes James made and how they affected the story itself? Isn’t that the study of craft? And not just craft but craft within the context of how it is effectively used?

    Anyway, as I mentioned, it is perhaps that Kenyon is just an exception, but I do find it really odd that anyone could even conceive of a degree in English Literature without that bringing along with it a deep knowledge and appreciation for craft.

    1. Jay says:

      You are certainly right. In this case, I was speaking loosely about the difference between a class focused on reading the text and a class focused on producing the text.

  2. Add “Vocabulary,” “personal experience,” “Commitment & Discipline.” Those are all individual cards.

    The suits might be Technique, Inspiration, Resonance & Enterprise.

  3. Jake Kerr says:

    Now that my random comment is out-of-the-way, I have thought about the question you asked. 🙂

    I think that the tools in the writer’s toolbox are much more complex than you outline above. Some things I would add off the top of my head:

    Prose rhythm/cadence
    Narrative structure
    Narrative pace
    Point-of-view
    Cultural assumptions/references
    Metaphor/simile

    I think part of the difficulty in lists like this are that you can very quickly–and legitimately–get deep into the elements of style and prose. The trouble is that these are important, too, so while “prose style” may encompass metaphor and simile, it also encompasses a large number of other things, and you as a writer may be good at some of them and not others. So the idea of “prose style” as a card you hold in your hand is kind of false, because it’s really a whole bunch of other cards.

    Going even further: writing well is really really hard. You can have a solid grasp of all the tools in the toolbox and still not know how to use them effectively.

  4. Jaws says:

    I’d add the joker to the cards:

    A sense of silence.

    There are places in every literary work that require the author to get out of the way. I’m not referring to that grievously misunderstood cliche about “showing versus telling” (the commonly taught version of which was refuted pretty definitively by Professor Booth a half-century ago). Neither is this all that closely related to the rhythm of the writing. The last two segments of Ursula Le Guin’s “The Diary of the Rose” is a good example of what I mean.

  5. stevie says:

    One of the reasons why Shakespeare was a great writer is that he simply made words up if the ones already available to him were inadequate for his purposes.
    Having noted that point I’m sceptical about vocabulary being a writer’s tool; my own vocabulary is around 35,000, but I don’t write. I read a lot, though…

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