Phillip B. Conrad

April 17, 2009

The Value of an Writer’s Manifesto

Filed under: Uncategorized — phillipbconrad @ 1:44 am

I’ve been reading a lot about manifestos on the web these days.  Almost all of them seem to have some burning need to convert people to their way of doing things.  Perhaps they are just worded emotionally for the sake of convincing the creator of the manifesto to stay true to it, I’m not sure.  I don’t want to demean the great collective artists’ manifestos of the past, like the Bauhaus movement.  I don’t have a problem with people gathering under the flag of artistic ethic at all.  After half a lifetime of working in various companies toward collective goals, I’m not anxious to emulate that experience with my writing.  I see writing as uniquely personal.  It’s one of the last great pursuits where one person controls nearly all aspects of the art.  I consider an artist’s manifesto to be entirely personal.  I will not detail mine here.  It’s something you have to develop yourself.  Although you do not absolutely need one, a personal manifesto is very helpful in keep you on track.

When you are in the heat of a project, the ideas, and your fingers, are flying.  Suddenly, you have to make a choice.  It might be a serious choice, or a trivial one, but you have to stop and think to decide which way to go.  Without a manifesto, you have to stop and ponder the choice.  You might lose your rhythm and run the risk of hitting a block or following some odd distraction off into the land of the unproductive.  However, if you have a robust manifest that you have developed, you quickly decide and keep writing.  Obviously, you can’t possibly have a manifesto that covers everything, but you’d be surprised at how many of these blocking moments can be totally avoided by logging some thinking up front about what you want to do with your writing.  Naturally, you will want to update your manifesto as you learn new things, but for the course of a single project, it’s probably best to stick with one set of rules.  At least, when you are in one phase of a project, say the vomit draft, you’ll benefit from having some basis for making quick decisions.  The idea is to have a set of rules to fall back on when you get stuck, not to paint yourself into a corner.

There’s really no limit on the kind of stuff you might want to put into your manifesto.  I try and keep mine focused on ideas that will help keep me moving forward, staying in the zone.  For expample, for a project I’m working on now, I’ve laid down a few rules on viewpoint, nothing earth-shattering, but not the kind of stuff you want to have to ponder when you should be producing words:

1.  I am using intimate third persons perspective
2.  A change of viewpoint characters is noted by at least a section break, but preferably a chapter break.
3.  The first sentence of the new viewpoint will always contain the viewpoint character’s name.
4.  The vast majority of all writing will fall under the viewpoint of the Protagonist, followed by the Protagonist’s Ally, and the Antagonist.  Any other required viewpoints should only be used if absolutely required.
5.  Anything goes in the prologue POV, in the service of providing a viable hook.

It’s easy to where this set of rules could be used for a writer’s entire career.  However, if you wanted to do a first person story, you’d have to shelve most of these rules.  Never throw away your old rules, just put them aside, because you may want to bring them right back into play for future projects.

Besides simple mechanical uses, the personal manifesto can relate to the nature of your fiction world.  If you want to set up some hard-boiled rules, you might want to include that in your world there can never be honor amongst thieves.  If you do, you won’t be writing the Godfather, but it’s a perfectly sensible building block of a more freelance crime environment.  Rules like this can help you direct your story.

You can also build in rules for your own personal work ethic:  I will write 2000 words a session, and then enjoy a Scooby Snack.

The best thing about building a manifesto is that almost all of the work in creating it can be done it time you couldn’t have been writing anyway.  Actually compiling the rules is far easier than it is to come up with them in the first place.  If they seem to contradict each other, it’s obvious and you just need to shelve the ones you aren’t using right now.  Throw a mark on them or something to indicate that they made the finals.

Although this may sound overly formal, It helps me make the most of my writing sessions.  I don’t think there’s any worse feeling than showing up for a writing session and failing for being blocked or disorganized and sloppy.  If you just pump out words to meet your quota and get that feeling that you’re going to cut those words later, it’s very depressing.  Usually, it’s not as bad as it feels, but just that feeling can slow you down, and leech the joy out of your writing.  Holding yourself to your own set of rules, can increase your efficiency and make you feel more confident at the same time.  Careful evaluation of the success or faliure of these rules, can really help you hone your craft.

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