Tuesday, July 21, 2015

A, B OR C? MAYBE D?

post by Lynn

I learned how to take multiple choice tests from my oldest sister, Sally. 

“You don’t have to know the right answer,” Sally said. “You just have to eliminate the choices that are wrong. It’s the process of elimination.”

I got so good at taking multiple choice tests that in my junior year of high school, the school secretary announced over the intercom, “Lynn Griffith is the winner of this year’s Betty Crocker Homemaker of America Award for Niobrara County High School.”

My friends from home ec laughed out loud, since they knew the truth: I burned bacon, left pasta on the far side of al dente and produced cookies that spread out like wet manure.

The Betty Crocker Homemaker of America Award was presented to the person who scored highest on a test. You guessed it—a multiple choice test. I didn’t know the correct answers so much as I had, through the process of elimination, figured out the wrong ones.

This has been a useful skill in my writing life. Starting out in creative writing about nine years ago, I asked myself, what genre should I write in?

Some writers know what genre is right for them from the beginning. I wasn’t—am not—one of those writers. So I started trying different genres on for size. Screenwriting, for example. I took a class in this screenplays and found out a few things about myself:

1. I don’t write well to formulas. And Hollywood is all about formulas. When my teacher said that my set-in-the-West story should have a stampede, and “of course” my pregnant protagonist would have to confront the baby daddy at some point, I bristled.

2. I don’t collaborate well. When the teacher started to tell me that what my plot needed in order to become a good screenplay, I resisted with every fiber of my being. I wanted to yell, “Leave my story alone!” Yet this kind of collaboration is completely normal in the screenwriting world. Douglas Adams said, “Getting a movie made in Hollywood is like trying to grill a steak by having a succession of people coming into the room and breathing on it.” If you resist collaboration, you'd probably better stay away from screenwriting.

3. Writing without description makes me sad. In screenwriting, you write only action and dialogue. One director famously said, “You can’t film adjectives!” When I left screenwriting behind and started writing fiction, I was thrilled to be able to describe people, scenes, etc. once more.

Note to self: Check screenwriting off the list and move on.


Now don’t get me wrong—there’s nothing wrong with screenwriting. It’s just not for me. And I wouldn’t have known that if I hadn’t tried it.

There were also some side benefits to the experience. I improved my scene-writing and dialogue-crafting skills, and learned much about narrative arc. I am grateful for those lessons.



The advantage to eliminating some things from the genre list is that I can funnel my energies into the options that remain. So far, there’s plenty left on the list: creative nonfiction, personal essays, fiction and poetry.

I doubt I will ever narrow the list down to one thing. Fortunately, there’s always…

D: All of the above. 

How about you? 

Has the process of elimination helped you in your writing life? 

Or are you still looking? 

Or have you always known?


2 comments:

  1. Great questions! I have learned that I have a hard time writing long pieces, even long short stories. I do better with short poems and personal essays- things that can be finished (at least the rough draft) in one sitting. I always wanted to be a novel writer, and I still intend to try, but finishing long projects is not a natural strength. Like you, I would not have known that if I hadn't tried.

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  2. Active experimentation always produces a result--even if it's only a "I'll never do this again!" one. :-)

    I've heard from many sources that novels are actually a lot of scenes crafted together, so I think there may be hope for those of us who cringe at long projects. We just have to take it one scene at a time :-) Thanks for the comments Chere!

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