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.

The quotation:

"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.


Cooper said...

i'm calling in the troops on this one i will have to wait until my assistant returns because without limitations I write too much, think too much , see too much.

or i'll cheat and come back and see what everyone else writes.

The Alien Guy said...

I don't get it. What is Friday? Is it in the Indetermanicy Nebula? You Earth people confuse me!

Anonymous said...

Get rid of baggage and don't take the first couple of ideas that occur, but once the third one comes along, take it all the way to your destination, following all developments and changes carefully.

admin said...

I dont have a clue. The only thing that I might be seeing in that paragraph is that the author manages to aquire the attention of the reader by using many verbs and denoting action. Thats problably too complicated to be the solution. I bet its something very simple.

Sar said...

I think it impresses the need for an author to recognize that even though they may have an idea of what they intend to say (send for a hansom), good writing doesn't always happen in first draft (take neither the first nor the second which may present itself) but rather in subsequent versions where inspiration and creativity will flow (into this hansom you will jump).

Anonymous said...

Sar has a nice idea there!

I see some sort of pattern here. The instructions look like a story within a story itself!

There are events/actions that must be finished before the next is done.

Of course this is just my take.

Uhhhmmm... this is a game right? What's the PRIZE? :)

Young at Heart in San Diego said...

I agree with weirdso… but first use pen and paper jotting down ideas and just go with it, dashing through. Then edit, and when you get to the 3rd draft, use a heavy black/red pen for the final changes, and enjoy the ride. And thanks for the manflesh, even if it’s covered up.

The Mushroom said...

• Take a straight and stronger course to the corner of your life.
• Make the white queen run so fast she hasn't got time to make you a wife.

--Yes! Your move.

Zoe said...

Oh yes, it is most necessary. Then these are your instructions, and I beg, my dear friends, that you will obey them to the letter.

Don't always assume it's ok to write whatever mindless senseless gibberish that crosses your vacant skulls.

Or, wait a minute, is it to hold on to everything you write? ---- Even the mindless gibberish?

Anonymous said...

It's time to distance yourself from storymaking and translating. Expose a bit of yourself, Indie.

Since you presented us with a game. I'm involving you in one right now.

You've been tagged! Check my blog for the details!

Indeterminacy said...

There are some great interpretations here! Everyone who contributed will receive a diploma and title suitable for framing. I'll answer all these comments tonight in part two of this post.

Taorist: As a rule I don't like to answer these meme things because I don't really like them, except the ones that help spread knowledge about little known films, books, music, etc. so I'll make an exception. Here are my answers:

Four Jobs You’ve Had In Your Life
1) Package wrapper and odd jobs in a toy repair shop (my first job)
2) Selling tickets for orphans to see a circus - (telephone marketing but it wasn't called that in the 70's).
3) Supervising my former university's computer room on Sundays
4) Teaching robots how to talk

Four Movies You Could Watch Over And Over
1) M (1931)
2) Million Dollar Legs (1932) (Best absurd humor)
3) El esqueleto de la señora Morales (1959) (Best dark humor & irony)
4) Out 1 noli me tangere (1971) (A film which captures the concept of synchronicity)

Four Places You’ve Lived
1) Cincinnati/Norwood, Ohio (21 years)
2) Dallas, Texas (3 months)
3) Endicott, New York (3 years)
4) Paderborn, Germany (10 years)

Four TV Shows You Love To Watch
1) The Twilight Zone (original series)
2) Dark Shadows (original series) (
3) Get Smart
4) The Addams Family

Four Places You’ve Been On Vacation
1) Lubijana, Yugoslavia (Slovenia)
2) Sofia, Bulgaria
3) Oslo, Norway
4) Katowice, Poland

Four Blogs You Visit Daily (no time to visit any blogs daily, but these are the one I visit the most)

Four Of Your Favorite Foods
1) French Fries
2) Dr. Balke's Haselmark (mit Akazienhonig)
3) Niederegger Marzipan from Lübeck
4) Campbell's Chicken Noodle Soup

Four Places You’d Rather Be (what do all the N's mean?)
1) Deventer, Netherlands
2) Oslo, Norway
3) Ithaca, New York
4) Paderborn, North-Rhein/Westphalia

Four Albums You Can’t Live Without
1) The Velvet Underground - The Velvet Underground and Nico
2) Kievan Rus - Get Out of My Basement (
3) Gary Wilson - You Think You Really Know Me (
4) Felix Kubin & Pia Burnette - Tesla's Aquarium (

Four Vehicles You’ve Owned
1) A red tricycle
2) A red wagon
3) A brown bicycle
4) A blue 1978 Chevy Nova which I rolled over to 200,000 miles before selling it to someone else in 1987 for around $1,800

Anonymous said...

Thanks for playing sir.

It's a great way for us to know a little bit more of the man behind the blog.

Nice choice! (Loved the Velvet Underground with Nico--she was the haunting voice to Lou's almost-apathetic mood).

As for the results: Really, the THIRD draft? Jeesh! I always thought your stories were shot from the hip! I guess it goes to show that preparation and constant refining of stories (and blog posts!!) are important. I really learned a lot from this one.

Can we have some more?

I can hear a hunger chant in the room.......

Indeterminacy said...

Taorist: There's more about me in my autobiographical rant and I actually did do one of those memes before.

I alread posted my solution, but thought I should say a few words to what you all posted...

Alice: I think you were skirting the edge of the idea, without even knowing it. But I don't think you have too many ideas. You have a wealth of ideas. And it's lovely when you invite us to go swimming in them.

Alien Guy: Sorry if you were confused. It's Friday now. That is, where you are. Here's it's already Saturday.

Mrs. Weirsdo: If I didn't know better I'd say you were the devil himself. Except you're a Mrs., so you must have got it right because of being brilliant. You even worked out details of the metaphor that I hadn't thought of.

Viruswitch: The piece itself is very well written, I think. At least it's one of the passages that stuck in my mind. If you develop a feeling for what is good by reading and noticing the great passages, you're likely to soak up the ability by osmosis. (P.S. Now that I think of it, I stop by your blog almost every day, too. But there was only room for four on the list *heul*

Sar: It sounds like you are speaking from experience. Many times my second draft works out better, and often it's because I switched the beginning to the end. Check the comments to story #19 where I posted the first draft.

Taorist: Actually once I find the right idea, the stories might come out quite spontaneously. It depends on how "inspired" the idea is.

Young at Heart: My "drafting" is not as ordered as that. I scribble in corrections, cross out whole passages then uncross them out. Maybe colored pens would be more fun.

Mush: That remidns me, I wanted to do a chess story soon. Maybe that will be the weekend photo...

April Girl: I think it's a synthesis of both. I've felt that if I write something down that's lame, I could always find a way to make it better later. Sometimes it's just a subtle wording of one single sentence that changes everything.

Taorist: I hope you know enough about me now ;-) I would never get into keeping an online journal / diary.

admin said...

My comment turned out to be much longer and personal than it should be so I have posted it * here *.

PS: Dont worry Indie, we know you love us all ;).

Unknown said...

Good thing I was late. I was going to say "Moriarty awaits"

Indeterminacy said...

Doug: That's OK, you get the Asynchronicity diploma.

Viruswitch: What a great write up you made - we're both wondering about the same issues. p.s. I love personal comments.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Indie. Perhaps the devil does have something to do with it--you saw Doug's story?
And I am so flattered to be at the top of your frequently visited blogs list! That's the first time anyone has put Pansi and me there.
No hansom cabs have come by the last few weekends, but I will take another look at the chess guys and see if anything occurs to me.

Zoe said...

I have learnt that the best writing is the best words in the best order.
It surely isn't easy getting that from the first try : )
(For us mortals anyway :P )

Indeterminacy said...

Weirsdo: Of course I put Pansi on a pedestal before throwing old tomatoes at her ;-) (Haven't listened to Doug's story yet, but don't tell Doug).

April Girl: That was well put. There's some kind of magic about finding the right order, also. Mark Twain said:
"The difference between the right word and the almost right word
is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug."
I do try to think of the affects of words. For example in the chess story, I wanted to end it with the two playing rock, paper, scissors. The idea is better, but it sounded like a lightning bug to me. "Flip a coin" sounded better. That's just my sense of it. Don't know if others read it that way.

Anonymous said...

Flip a coin is better, because rock paper scissors still requires deliberation and the strategy of psyching out one's opponent. Flip a coin is the absolute opposite of chess.

Zoe said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Zoe said...

Interesting how Mark Twain's described it, I'll keep that in mind.
And as for your choice on the ending, I'd have to go with weirsdo : )