Thursday, January 19, 2006
Instead of a story, I thought it would be fun to play a little game. Below I've copied in a quotation from Sherlock Holmes in "The Final Problem" (from "Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes" (1893) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle). In it is hidden what I think is the most brilliant advice for good writing that I've come across. But I'm not sure how obvious it is. Please leave a comment telling me what you see, and I'll reveal my solution Friday.
"Oh yes, it is most necessary. Then these are your instructions, and I beg, my dear Watson, that you will obey them to the letter, for you are now playing a double-handed game with me against the cleverest rogue and the most powerful syndicate of criminals in Europe. Now listen! You will dispatch whatever luggage you intend to take by a trusty messenger unaddressed to Victoria to-night. In the morning you will send for a hansom, desiring your man to take neither the first nor the second which may present itself. Into this hansom you will jump, and you will drive to the Strand end of the Lowther Arcade, handing the address to the cabman upon a slip of paper, with a request that he will not throw it away. Have your fare ready, and the instant that your cab stops, dash through the Arcade, timing yourself to reach the other side at a quarter-past nine. You will find a small brougham waiting close to the curb, driven by a fellow with a heavy black cloak tipped at the collar with red. Into this you will step, and you will reach Victoria in time for the Continental express."
The Solution (posted Friday):
It's hard for me to write the solution when so many of you wrote it in the comments much better than I was going to. You've added insights that I never thought of. I assumed this would be so obtuse that everyone would write something different, projecting their own ideas of writing onto the quotation. But it turned out to be just plain elemantary, a child's play of induction.
It's just like Mrs. Weirsdo wrote. When writing something, and if you wish it to be original, never take the first idea, nor the second. The third may be safe. So much has been written. Maybe everything has been written. And what do people write? The first thing that comes to mind. In order to stand out, you must do more. This was merely an introspection gained by writing the weekend stories. I find those harder to write, because the picture has been determined, and can't be changed, whereas during the week I can just scan through photos until one catches my eye with an instant inspiration.
There's also much to be said for spontaneous writing and spontaneous inspirations. But they have been rare for me. There've only been a handful of photos for which I sat down, saw them, and immediately wrote out the entire story. The other times, I sent away idea after idea until one arrived that I thought was novel. Interesting that many of the writing instructions tell people to write the first thing that comes to mind. Some of my best stories have resulted from the second or third draft. Perhaps great writing is a rare blend of spontaneity and plan.
You are all hereby bestowed with a diploma granting you the status Doctor of Indeterminacy and Synchronicity. I will be preparing those this weekend.