Improving as a Literature Writer

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Banana Stand
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Improving as a Literature Writer

Post by Banana Stand » Mon Oct 10, 2016 6:11 pm

Recently, I've been writing a lot of lit questions for both improvement and with the hope of eventually making something playable. One thing I've noticed as I've began to focus on constructing good pyramidal tossups on important topics is that I operate best on things I'd classify as "fringe canonical", both because it seems to be where my interests lie in terms of reading and because tossups on authors/works that have been less explored in quizbowl don't require as much digging to find buzzable, fresh clues. If I'm writing a tossup on Bernhard, I don't need to worry about stale clues on Correction or about certain plot points of The Loser being too frequently-used, but these clues can still be very memorable and important parts of those works. If I'm writing a tossup on Kafka, or one of his works, the same doesn't seem to apply and I feel like I have to reach too deep for some clues to be memorable, important, or buzzable. If I'm writing a "Metamorphosis" tossup for something Regular difficulty or above, I feel like I can either a) use extra-textual clues, something that I'm not a huge fan of doing because I don't read that much criticism or b) find some very specific quote(which may be specific to a certain translation so I have to make sure it isn't) which probably isn't that important to understanding it and may not even be buzzable for people who have read it closely once or even multiple times. This problem is alleviated slightly on longer works that are widely read/very canonical, but I still come across the problem of "is this too specific/not important enough/not given any thought when the work is studied" when writing leadins. Also, the more a work comes up, the harder it is for me to craft the middle of a tossup so that there are no obvious cliffs or overly recurring clues while still providing clues that are a substantial part of the work and would be studied.

These are all problems I have writing tossups on works/authors I am pretty familiar with. The other issue I have is writing on things that I'm just not familiar with and haven't interacted with at all outside of quizbowl, but still will inevitably have to write about whether it's to fill a distribution or because I need to learn more about them. On top of the problems I've already laid out, writing good tossups on works I haven't read is very difficult and at times I feel like it almost isn't possible. To get usable leadins for larger works that I haven't read, I usually try to find an in-depth plot summary on Sparknotes or Shmoop or something like that and mine clues that haven't really been used, or I'll go on google books and try to find decent passages to quote. Neither of these options seem that appealing to me when now not only can I know if a certain clue is relevant to scholarship surrounding the work, I also barely have any idea if it's that relevant to the work itself or if anybody who's actually read it would remember it or find it interesting. Writing on anything that I haven't read leaves a bad taste in my mouth, but it's near impossible to only write on things you've read if you're writing a lot(this mainly pertaining to things like longer novels and epic poems, for novellas, short stories, and shorter poetry, there's really no reason not to just read them) especially when there are some authors I have pretty much zero interest in reading but I feel like I'll have to write about eventually(someone like Henry James). For prolific lit writers: how do you go about constructing a good tossup on something you haven't read? Besides simply reading more core works and familiarizing myself with things I want to be asking about at Regularish difficulty, are there any suggestions on how to make interesting questions with solid leadins and early middle clues without having read a certain work?

Also, as a consequence of enjoying to write on less canonical material on average, I feel like I've grown too attached to common links for everything below Nats difficulty, simply because you can't really write a difficulty-appropriate tossup on Italo Svevo or Too Loud a Solitude, whereas Italy or the Czech Republic are totally acceptable answerlines, same going for surnames or objects/animals in multiple works. I do feel like those shouldn't be a large percentage of what I'm writing for Regular difficulty, though, and I think tossups on core works/authors should take precedence.

There's not really a thesis to this post other than I'd appreciate input/direction to previous threads that have covered this. I've recently read the discussions for 2012 WELD and 2014 ACF Nats which covered a lot of philosophical ground very well but weren't exactly what I was looking for in terms of pure improvement as a writer.
Jack Mehr
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Cody
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Re: Improving as a Literature Writer

Post by Cody » Tue Oct 11, 2016 12:16 am

I don't have much to add except that, in my opinion, writing literature tossups on long works is the hardest quizbowl writing skill. The difference between even a decent literature writer and a great literature writer is mostly immediately apparent to an uneducated observer and it makes a big difference.
Cody Voight, VCU ‘14. I write lots of science and am an electrical engineer.
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magin
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Re: Improving as a Literature Writer

Post by magin » Fri Oct 14, 2016 12:17 am

This is a really good thread. It's very hard to write a great question on a work of literature you haven't read, but it's much easier to write a good, non-awful question. And while there's nothing like playing a really great question, I think most literature players would be thrilled to play a tournament full of merely good questions and no bad ones. Here are some ideas for writing good questions on works of literature you haven't read that have worked for me in the past:

1) Read an excerpt. A lot of long works of literature have important or interesting excerpts that you can find online or in an anthology. It's a lot easier to read a chapter of Moby Dick than the whole book, or an excerpt from Paradise Lost instead of the whole poem. If you're reading an excerpt of a literary work in an anthology, it should have footnotes and some brief material explaining the place of the excerpt in the whole book and why the excerpted part is interesting/important.

2) Read an essay. There's a ton of terrific writing about pretty much any canonical book or author you can think of. Your school probably has access to some academic databases; I'm sure your librarian would be pleased as punch to help you search them. The library's also a good place to check out interesting books about pretty much any academic topic; the more canonical the book or author, the more resources you're going to find. It's a lot easier to read a 15-page essay than a massive novel (although of course I advocate reading the novel too if you can). Critical essays are good because they highlight stuff that diligent readers of the book believe is important, and offer you a way in to understand part of it. Even better, they're a great source of useful clues. They can tell you the key scenes in a book, major lines of dialogue, recurring or meaningful images, links to other works of literature or historical events, important details, motifs...anything you could possibly want to turn into interesting and rock-solid clues.

For example, here are two essays on famous works of literature, one more academic, the other less so:

Scolding Brides and Bridling Scolds: Taming the Woman's Unruly Member links The Taming of the Shrew to historical practices of violently silencing women, and analyzes how that threat of violence constantly hovers over the "comic" aspects of the play.

Less dry/academic is Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses, a fun polemic in which Mark Twain smacks giant holes into the soft pinata of James Fenimore Cooper's writing. It's a lot more fun than actually reading Cooper, let me tell you.

If you don't want to read excerpts or essays, you can find good clues from plot summary places like Shmoop, but those are a bit up in the air; you might find a really good clue there, but I recommend cross-checking it online to make sure it's actually interesting/important. As a heuristic, you can tell that a detail or plot point is important if replacing it or removing it makes a big difference. For instance, let's take Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery"; it doesn't seem that important that it takes place on June 27th, because it could take place on any date and the events and emotions of the story would be the same.

I hope that helps!
Jonathan Magin
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vinteuil
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Re: Improving as a Literature Writer

Post by vinteuil » Fri Oct 14, 2016 10:03 am

+1 to Magin's recommendations on anthologies and essays. I've found a number of good clues by searching variations on "famous scene"/"most salient scene" on google scholar for a given work, and then searching whatever comes about that way to make sure that's a widely-shared opinion.
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Re: Improving as a Literature Writer

Post by Banana Stand » Sat Oct 15, 2016 7:44 pm

Thanks Jon(and Jacob), that's some really useful advice. I definitely agree that good/playable questions are better than no questions, and that not every question has to be perfect or even close to it. Reading excerpts is definitely something I've utilized before and will definitely continue, especially notable scenes from important works. I've also used essays in the past; I guess I just wasn't sure where the balance was between asking about the work and asking about a particular piece of criticism. Using essays as a sort of guide for what could be an important part of a work, even on things I've read, is definitely something I'll be doing in the future.
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Re: Improving as a Literature Writer

Post by magin » Sat Oct 15, 2016 8:09 pm

Banana Stand wrote:Thanks Jon(and Jacob), that's some really useful advice. I definitely agree that good/playable questions are better than no questions, and that not every question has to be perfect or even close to it. Reading excerpts is definitely something I've utilized before and will definitely continue, especially notable scenes from important works. I've also used essays in the past; I guess I just wasn't sure where the balance was between asking about the work and asking about a particular piece of criticism. Using essays as a sort of guide for what could be an important part of a work, even on things I've read, is definitely something I'll be doing in the future.
Glad to help you out. I wouldn't worry about trying to fill questions with lots of criticism clues, especially if you're not sure about how good the criticism clues are. I think it's much more fruitful to use criticism/essays as a guide for what kind of clues to ask about from the body of the literary work itself.
Jonathan Magin
Montgomery Blair HS '04, University of Maryland '08
Editor: ACF

"noted difficulty controller"

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