Monday, March 30, 2009


I'm a thinker. I think about everything and everything. It's a good asset for a writer, being able to come up with scenarios and figuring out how to deal with them. Unfortunately, there are times when I think about some pretty unpleasant scenarios.

What would you do if you lost your legs? What would you do if you lost your sight? What would you do if you lost the use of your dominant hand? The list goes on.

When I think about a scenario, I throw myself into it. I put my full mind and heart into it; I approach it as though it has actually happened and I now have to deal with it (kinda like method acting).

One of the first things I ask myself is what I'm going to do with my life? A lot of disabilities are surprisingly disabling. I love doing martial arts, and losing almost any ability makes it extremely difficult to practice. I love playing video games and not having the use of my hands would pretty much take that away from me. In fact, not having the use of my hands would make almost everything impossible to do.

And yet, I could still write. If I couldn't use my hands, I could still use my voice. We have software that can type what a person says. If I couldn't use my voice, I could use my eyes. We also have software that can track eye movement for the purposes of communication.

It seems that communication is the primary function of humanity. No matter what, the first thing we as humans try to do is communicate with other humans (and sometimes with animals). Since writing is simply communication, then no matter what you can and can't do, you will always be able to communicate, thus you you will always be able to write.

I think that writing is a truly amazing profession (or hobby or whatever else it may be) because it is, at its core, communication and it can be done by anyone at any place for as long as we live.


Luck is a part of life. Life is a part of writing. Luck is a part of writing. Luck, however, is a difficult part of writing. To a reader, good luck is cheating and bad luck is unnecessarily cruel. I believe that the trick to putting luck in a story is to have some understandable reason for the thing to happen. If it sounds like you wrote yourself into a corner and used a deus ex machina to get yourself out of it, you will be criticized for it (and rightly so). If a person befalls bad luck for no reason or if the consequences of an action were far worse than promised or expected, then it seems like you're just being a jerk to your creation. It does happen in real life, sometimes these things do happen in real life, but they are harder to pull off in writing.

I think that the best way to be able to write about luck is to think about the kinds of luck that people can have. In my experience, people tend to have two kinds of luck. People either find luck or they make luck. I tend to find my luck. My friend makes his own.

If my friend and I were both in a class together and received bad grades we didn't deserve, we would handle the situation differently. My friend would go up to the teacher, get in his face, and argue that the teacher was wrong and gave an undeserved grade. The teacher would relent and change the grade. On the other hand, I would basically accept that I got screwed over and continue to live my life as I normally would. And one day, I would find myself with unsupervised access to the teacher's grade book, at which point I would change the grade to what I deserved.

In both cases, we had good luck. The methods about getting them are very different, though they both worked. Both also had the risk of failing. Luck is random, but it does tend to favor those who help themselves. What kind of luck do your characters have? If you can answer that, you can write believable luck in your stories.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Arguing and Believing

I've said in the past that I am an arguer and that, as such, I am incapable of not arguing.  Over the years, I have had a lot of practice arguing and spent much time figuring out how to argue better.  Ironically, so much time spent immersed in logic makes a person jaded about the truth.  Every side of every argument has some amount of value to it, so neither side is 100% wrong.  This means I can argue for and against any side and that I don't actually care about either of them.  They stop being little more than games, mere ideas to manipulate and toy with.  I don't believe anything because everything is relative.

However, every now and then, I come across an argument that is different from the others.  In these special arguments, one of the sides is absolutely wrong.  Every claim is either based on incorrect information doesn't logically follow in any way.  Even the very idea of the argument can't be argued.  Or, at least, it can't be argued by me.

When I come across these arguments, one in which I can find no fault in one side and no value in the other, that is when I believe I have found truth.  Truth, or perhaps absolute truth, is so rare to find in general, let alone when arguing, that it is a very special find.  In fact, when I have found such an instance, where I have tried my best to argue both sides, but only one won, then I stop trying to be fair and accept the one side as truth (at least until somebody else can argue against it and win).

Thursday, March 26, 2009

If You Can't Be The Absolute Best, Be The Absolute Worst

This is an idea I first got from a stand-up comedian (I wish I could remember who). Although this idea mostly works for comedic purposes, I can't help but feel that there is some truth to it. Today, for example, I realized that it has relevance in terms of artistic quality. In comics, there is a saying that good writing makes up for bad art, but bad art can't make up for good writing. I only agree with this a little bit.

I am a strong advocate for good drawing in comics. I think that comics with amateur or poor quality art will have a much harder time being liked by people. Lar DeSouza's art in Least I Could Do and Looking For Group is beautiful and both are very popular comics. I will admit that the fact that they both have great writing does help.

However, I also look at comics like Toothpaste for Dinner and White Ninja, which have low quality art and unimpressive writing, yet are incredibly popular. How can such a glaring exception make any sense with the standard belief? This is where my idea comes in. Although they are exceptionally low in quality, they are still exceptional.

And that really is the heart of the matter. The point is to stick out. The only true failure is never sticking out above the sea of mediocrity that exists in any field. If William Hung can get a record contract for being the most spectacularly bad singer ever, anybody can do it.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Behind the Curtain

There is a certain irony that comes with learning about the writing process and writing techniques. When you learn about them, you become aware of them. When you read, you can notice and identify styles and techniques and tricks that an author uses. You can tell when an amateur is trying to use a technique but doesn't quite understand it yet. You can figure out exactly why it is that some things sound good and others don't.

The irony, of course, is that you aren't supposed to know or see any of those things. The audience isn't expected to be aware of literary techniques and it generally doesn't. Writing is supposed to do what it does and elicit a response from people. In fact, the better a piece of writing is, the harder it is to identify exactly why we like it. It is only when the techniques of writing are done incredibly poorly that they make themselves apparent.

Writing (among other things), can be summed up with one of my favorite quotes: "When you do things right, people won't be sure you've done anything at all."

Time Always Passes

In any world that has a continuum, time is passing everywhere. Simply put, just because the audience only sees the action of one person in one place doesn't mean things aren't happening elsewhere. Knowing this, there are certain ways we as writers can deal with the passage of time.

One method is to have time constantly moving, but looking at it through different cameras. Basically, if in a story, the end of one chapter is at 3 PM, the beginning of the next chapter is at 3:01. However, the focus of the story has shifted from northern Oregon to central Italy. The positive side to this method is that the audience always knows when things are going on. The negative side is that we can never know when things are happening simultaneously. We can only be told that things happened at the same time.

Another method is to cover the same period of time over several areas. If, in the period of time from 2 PM to 3 PM, the protagonist is interrogating a suspect, the antagonist is causing a riot, and a third party is trying to figure out what has been going on since the beginning of the story, then each group would need its own coverage during the same period of time. This technique is useful because it explains everything that happens clearly, but it comes at the cost of potentially confusing the audience. Unless you explicitly say what time it is during each scene, you need to give cues. If one chapter ends with the protagonist seeing an airplane flying over the city, maybe the next chapter would end with the same image seen from a different place. That would indicate that the two chapters occurred at the same time.

Of course, if you really wanted, you could just break the rules and have the whole world wait for you. This doesn't work very well outside of comedy, and even then any comedy that has a flow of time can do well to have events occur simultaneously for comedic purposes. (While you were trying to win the grand prize to afford a new television, I sold your video game system.)

Monday, March 23, 2009

Good Story vs. Good Storytelling

In Making Comics, Scott McCloud whips together a quick story to show various techniques for portraying a story in comics. He talks about different camera angles, pacing of a story, how dynamic to make images, and several others. At one point, he makes the note that he is using throwaway characters in a throwaway story. I was floored when I read that. I was really interested in the characters and where the story was heading. Then McCloud said that there is a difference between good story and good storytelling. If I was so interested in a throwaway story, then I suppose he just proved himself right.

This duality of story and storytelling has intrigued me ever since. I realize that both of them are integral to a succesful piece of writing. If your writing doesn't have an interesting story, people won't care. If you don't tell it your story well, people won't pay attention long enough to see if they care about the story.

The idea of story is interesting. On one hand, it can mean the plot or subtext of the events. A good story is one that has a deeper meaning, one that has a relevance beyond the actions, one that explores a facet of humanity. On the other hand, a good story can be one that a person connects with. Sometimes it's simply a matter of seeing impossible things happen and the events that follow that satisfy an audience, even if they don't teach a lesson or explore deeper thoughts.

Good storytelling is what makes a reader want to keep on reading. Word choice, sentence flow, mystery, and action all go into good delivery. When an audience trips over confusing sentences, spends too much time looking at scenery instead of interacting with it, gets too much information too soon, or keeps getting questions without ever getting answers, they stop caring. It takes a fine touch to find the sweet spot between boring and frustrating, but that is where interesting lies, and interesting is good storytelling.

Like I said earlier, I think a piece of writing needs good story and good storytelling to be good. This reminds me of two other terms, which are taste and quality. Taste (or preference) is like story. It is the subject that we personally care about. Quality is how well the story is told. Altough we tend to think of stories as simply good or bad, it is the combination of our taste and the work's quality that determine our opinion. Below are how I think the different combinations result. Although I know that story and delivery are both spectra, I have simplified it to good and bad.

Good Story/Good Delivery - Good
Good Story/Bad Delivery - Bad
Bad Story/Good Delivery - Good enough (worth reading at least once)
Bad Story/Bad Delivery - Bad

So, for one final time, everybody needs to have good story and good storytelling for success.


In Alan Moore's Writing for Comics, Moore explains plot in an unconventional way. He says that the plot of a story is not the events or actions of the story, but the implication of it. It's the subtext, what the story is really about. He used an issue of Superman that he wrote as an example. The events of the story were Superman being trapped in a hallucination where Krypton never exploded and he lived his life there. Eventually, Superman saw that the life he would have had there was not desirable and that was how he broke free from the spell.

The plot, however, was about people who live in the past or the future. It is that people should not wish that events had happened differently and they shouldn't wait for the future for their lives to get better. They should be happy in the here and now.

Although it can be confusing to use the word plot in an unconventional sense, I think it is worth it. Everybody generally agrees that stories need a plot. If plot is subtext or a bigger picture, that means that every story will have relevance beyond mindless entertainment. It would also mean that a writer is creating something worth reading. The biggest problem I see in amateur writing is a bunch of stuff that happens with no point. When I come across that, all I can say is "so what?" When somebody is trying to express an idea through the medium of a story, then we at least have an idea of how we can help to shape it to make it the most effective expression.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Wasted Words

There is a story about Mark Twain. He is writing a rather hefty message to a friend. He ends the note by saying, "If I'd had more time, I would have written you a shorter letter." There is far more truth than comedy in that saying (and it's pretty funny to begin with).

I've talked before about a 15-word limit in sentences, but there is more to it than mere numbers. The heart of the matter is why sentences are so long. Read a newspaper or a history textbook. The sentences that make you want to beat yourself unconscious are the ones that try to say too much.

Textbooks try to cram entire lessons worth of information in a handful of pages, requiring very dense sentences. They tend to sound like, "Between the years of A and B, the nation of C, ruled by the D empire under Emperor E, Feuded with the countries of F, G, and H, mostly because of a difference of ideology, with C believing in the I religion and the rest of the countries believing in the religions of J, K, and L, respectively." This is a perfectly valid sentence grammatically. It's also 58 words. That's almost quadruple the rule. No human can comprehend this sentence fully without reading it slowly, carefully, and several times. It would be far more effective to break it up into several sentences that are digestible on one reading.

I think it is painfully ironic that newspapers are such heinous offenders of overburdening sentences. Working on newspapers was the major reason for making me aware of wasted words. The problem is that although newspapers don't waste words (or at least shouldn't), they still try to say too much. Newspapers always have sentences like, "[Quote by a Person], said Person, who has this job at some place and has some personal stake in the subject." It's like they somehow think it is good writing to cram in mostly worthless information about people just to prove that it's valid.

Newspapers and textbooks at least have an excuse for their ineffective writing style: they are condensing their information. The real problem I have is with people who can fill a page and not say anything. I think it is the surest sign of amateurism (at least a rough draft; at best an intermediate writer) to use words that have no meaning.

English is an amazing language. We have more words than any other language on Earth and seem to make new ones every day. With all these words, we can express one thought in countless ways. Although they are equal in meaning, they are not equal in effectiveness. Compare the following sentences: "There could only have been two possible options to choose from." "There were two options." They mean the same thing, but the latter sentence took seven fewer words. All I did was take out redundancies. I will admit that the first sentence does explain certain nuances that the second one does not, but the context of the rest of the scene would paint the same picture.

Redundancies are a significant part of wasted words, but not the only part. Perhaps the worst offender is the prepositional phrase. In general, a prepositional phrase is a group of words that you can put anywhere in, or remove from, a sentence without changing the meaning. They add more information, but it is not always needed. "I drove to work in my car." The "in my car" part of the sentence is a prepositional phrase. It is also worthless. If I'm driving, you can assume it is in a car. Even if I specified the type of car, it is not necessary unless that goes to explaining something else (like a Ferrari indicating wealth).

There are a few methods I use to avoid wasting words. One of them is to trust my gut. If I read a sentence or say it out loud and start getting bored or tongue tied, I know I need to delete it and try again. Another is to challenge myself to a game of Can I Write That With Fewer Words? One of my favorite methods is to pretend that you're talking to a person who is still learning English. What is the simplest, shortest, least confusing way that you can express an idea? If you can write that clearly, you can be sure that you will not be wasting any words.

Friday, March 20, 2009


I don't think that a writer or anyone else can work without juggling (metaphorically). For one thing, in the real world, we generally have to do a whole lot of waiting before we can do work. If I'm an advertiser for a company, I can't make any ads for a product until it's made. In the mean time, I have other ads that I need to work on for different products.

Another reason to juggle is to relax. I have an obligation to write at least enough comics to maintain my update schedule, so I can't get around that. The problem is that doing the same thing all day, every day is boring and draining. I need to do something else with my life to give me a break. The beauty, though, is that I can give myself a break from writing comics by writing something else. I have at least five different stories that I'm working on. None of them have due dates or obligations. They are projects that I work on for my own pleasure. When one of them is developed and thorough enough (and when I have enough time), I may turn it into an obligation, but in the mean time, it is leisure.

Juggling also helps us keep interested. If I have four projects for school or work and they all require a lot of work, I can either do one of them all the way through before moving on to the next one or I can do a little bit at a time for each of them. This is wholly a matter of preference, but I find that if I work on one project long enough, I start to day dream or get antsy. My mind is forcing me to do something other than work on it. If I switch over to another project, I am simultaneously goofing off (on the first project) and being productive (by working on the other ones).

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Separate Yourself From Your Work

A great majority of the comics made are autobiographical (essays and short stories, too). While this is not a bad thing per se, it does end up being a difficult premise, with a difficult subject. I have come across a number of bad examples and have learned some of the problems that come with them.

Life isn't always funny. Every good comedian will tell you that the best material comes from life. It's true. Sometimes things happen that are so absurd that you could never come up with it. However, just because the best material comes from life doesn't mean all of them material from life is good. Simply repeating conversations that you had isn't inherently funny. There's a reason that we have the phrase, "you had to be there."

Separate yourself from your work. Unless you are writing the comics version of a diary, your goal is not to be accurate; it is to be funny. If a sentence sounds awkward, rewrite it. If a joke isn't that funny, don't tell it. If the real comedy wasn't what he said, but how he said it, then you better be able to reproduce how he said it. If you can't, then drop it. Not everything transitions to the medium very well.

Do something! The mark of a true amateur is copy/pasting your panels. That means that you draw a panel once, then use the exact same scene and position for characters, only changing facial expressions and maybe arm movement. This is so visually boring that it makes the comic less good. There is only one comic that has ever reused art and succeeded, and it is a very notable exception. If you are simply having a conversation for your comic, then you must either have your characters doing something or you need to change up your camera angles.

Go somewhere. This is very similar to doing something. Although we are creatures of habit and we often find ourselves in certain places, we should not be doing everything in the same place. If you find yourself about to draw the same scenery once again, ask yourself, ask yourself if the comic could take place elsewhere. Would it be better, worse, or the same? If it wouldn't be worse, then try putting it somewhere else, just to spice things up. Sometimes the audience needs to know that their favorite characters exist in a world that is larger than their apartment.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Learning from Bad Examples

I learn from the things I read. I generally read things I like. It makes sense to me. Why would I read things that I don't like? Why would I stay up to date on things I don't like? All it would do is continuously angry up my blood.

And yet, every now and then, I try reading something new and give it a fair shot. Sometimes, what I read is just awful. But rather than simply saying it sucks and never reading it again, I pay attention. I try to figure out why I don't laugh, or simply don't care. Then I never read it again.

There are many lessons to be learned from bad examples: movement is important, dialogue should sound natural, don't dillydally, be efficient, etc. But there is one very important thing that everybody should take away from bad examples. If a piece of writing that is so terrible can make its way from the author all the way to you, then your work can get much furtherbecause yours doesn't suck.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Dealing With Criticism

If you write, you will have to deal with criticism. Your writing is your heart and soul. It is the peak of your eloquence. It is you, outside of your body. When your writing is criticized, we feel as if we at our very core are being criticized. It hurts very badly. Nobody likes it, but it has to happen. Here are some tips I've found to help deal with criticism.

Get your drafts critiqued. Anything that has not been published is still a draft. Drafts have the quality that you know they aren't perfect. When you have people criticize work that you yourself are not happy with, it takes a lot of the sting away. If you get a first draft critiqued, it's not even like people are criticizing so much as they are helping you flesh out your writing. I would not that at this stage in the writing process, it would behoove you to find somebody who you trust and whose opinion you respect to read your work.

Look for the facts. Positive and negative reviews are opinions based on facts. If somebody likes your main character because his name is a butcher named Johnny Salami and another person hates your main character for the same reason, then you at least know that both people realize your technique. The next step is to find the reasoning why they think your facts are good or bad. If the person liked it because it made him chuckle, but the other person hated it because the story isn't supposed to be funny, then the latter opinion carries more weight.

Deal with it. If you wrote a book that was the New York Times bestseller for 26 weeks in a row, you will still find people who thoroughly hate your work. Build a thick skin. Some people just aren't in your intended audience. You can't please them no matter what you do, so let them go be unhappy.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Exploring Ideas

Sometimes I get a thought that is very curious to me. It deserves thinking about, but I don't know how to go about it. I've found a few different ways to explore ideas.

Concrete Examples:
Examples that come from real life have the benefit of being solid fact. In a conversation, the idea came up that it is complex things that are interesting. The very first thing I did was to find examples of complex or intricate things that are also interesting. I found analog clocks, human circulatory system, various governmental systems, and various economic systems are all complex and interesting. The idea has validity.

The problem with real world examples is that they are complicated. Every example has so many aspects to it that it is difficult to say what does and doesn't affect the validity of the claim (maybe analog clocks are interesting for some reason other than the fact that they are complex). So take the idea and bring it to its absolute most extreme and absurd. In doing so, you take away much of the factors and leave little room for anything but the idea itself. Particle physics is extremely complex, but is it interesting? Soap operas are absurdly complex, but are they intereting? Those are answers one has to decide on their own. From those answers, you learn more about the idea.

Consider an idea like a pendulum. When you take the idea to its extremes, it is like pulling a pendulum as far as you can in one direction. Then, you let go. In terms of an idea, the first thing you will do is test its opposite. Can simple things be interesting? Personally, I could stare at a perfect cube for hours. It's one of the simplest 3-dimensional objects, but I find it fascinating. Since these opposites both have validity, then I let the pendulum keep swinging, each time not going quite as far.

Are there complex things that are boring? Are there simple things that are boring? what do simplicity and complexity have to do with interest? Do they have anything to do with interest? Well, what exactly does make something interesting?

By the end of this process, you are usually back to being right in the middle, neither black nor white, but very gray. On the plus side, you now have some very good questions to use for pursuing your idea.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

15 Words

In Alan Moore's Writing for Comics, Moore says that a comic panel has an average of 35 words. I had never thought about it before, so I started paying attention.

Reading over my old comics scripts, I realized how much I didn't know about the medium at the time. Just trying to read them out loud was a chore. They had to be rewritten, both to save space on the panel and to be more digestible. I have a pretty good internal rhythm, so I can feel when a panel has too much in it. I thought about what Moore said and I counted the rewritten lines. No panel had more than 15 words in it.

Later on, I was writing original scripts (rather than rewriting old ones) and noticed a new phenomenon while writing. Short lines felt good. Longer lines felt really heavy. They also felt increasingly boring. Right when I reached the point that I didn't want to spend the effort on reading or writing any more, I did a word count. It was always at the 15 word mark that it got to be cumbersome.

When I read comics, I do a word count. Good lines are under 15, usually under 10 words. Once they get to 15 words, they are a chore. They don't sound natural.

I wondered if this was a phenomenon of comics or of comic strips specifically. Then I thought about text books, newspapers, and English from the 1800's and before. All of those have sentences that comprise entire paragraphs. They are also unreadable. The 15 word rule definitely works for non-comics as well. The only difference is that the rule for comics is 15 words per panel and for others it is 15 words per sentence.

Bottom line: No thought needs more than 15 words. If a sentence has over 15 words, it can be shortened or split. A sentence can work with 21 words in it, but those words have to matter. Even still, it can probably be made into shorter, stronger sentences. Words can have major differences in length, but they generally average out. A sentence with too many big words will sound awful before word count matters.

Fact: Every sentence in this post with more than 15 words sucks. Some sentences with less than 15 words probably also sucked.

Saturday, March 14, 2009


I was thinking about my favorite instruments today. I came up with three: trombone, cello, and bassoon. After I had those three, I started laughing. It occurred to me that they are all the exact same instrument. The only difference between the three is that one is brass, one is string, and one is woodwind. They all have the same qualities that I enjoy. They are low in sound, but not the lowest (tenor, specifically). The higher ranger of the instruments can be played to sound pomp and regal. The lower range can create a dark, somber sound, overflowing with raw emotion.

I do not think it is a coincidence that I like three instruments with such great similarities. I think it is far more likely that I have a preference for sound. I also think that I have preferences for many other things. And, I must say, I do not think I am alone.

I enjoy many kinds of writing. A good poem, an essay, a short story, a novel, a comic strip or book or novel, I like them all. But I don't like all works within those media. I like writing that makes me think of something I have never thought of before. The funniest jokes are the ones I can't see coming. The most effective drama creates a scenario or an action I have never considered. A powerful poem paints a picture I have never seen and puts me inside it.

There is a woman who I have had a number of writing workshops with. We have the exact opposite opinion on nearly everything. Whenever I write something twisted, she tells me that she wants to see it end predictably and sweetly. Neither of us is right or wrong, we just have different preferences.

I suggest that you find out what your preferences are. If you don't know, then figure out what all the stuff you like has in common. It could be very specific and concrete (robots that are powered by human brains) or it could be vague and abstract (thinking things I haven't thought before). In either case, once you know you can much more easily determine if something is or isn't your cup of tea. Or, in the case of the writer, it may help you figure out your all-encompassing central idea.

Friday, March 13, 2009

An Arguer Can't Not Argue

I was at a memorial service recently. At one point, people stood up and shared memories and experiences with the dearly departed. Something clicked in my mind. This isn't right. Something very confusing and uncomfortable is happening.

People were just saying things. They were sharing thoughts and memories, but they were without focus. They were without a "point". The eulogy had a point; he was good and loving and sweet-natured and we can all learn a great deal from his example. The sermon had a point; death is sad, but it is a part of life and God still loves all of us.

And slowly, I realized that I am an arguer. That is not to say that I am a controversy-monger. I'm merely one who, when he speaks, has a point and supports that point with his words. Every facet of my life is argument. As a scientist, I must argue against faith (believing without proof) and for evidence to understand. As a philosopher, I do the same thing I do as a scientist, trying to understand why things are the way they are. As an essayist or an academic writer, I write entire papers devoted to arguing a single point. As a logician, my very belief system is that anything that is correct can be argued to be proven correct.

Judging from my experience at the memorial, I am led to the theory that an arguer can't not argue. We are trained to observe and understand. Then we explain to others rationally why we have our beliefs (generally also saying that you should have the same beliefs). Any other use of words (aside from art) seems as strange as walking on your hands, or using math equations as a salutation.

Nevertheless, I am curious to learn more about talking without arguing. (sounds like a good book title)

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Your Happiness Makes Me Happy

Writing is a taxing act. It requires time, physical energy, mental energy, and a lot of each of them. It takes even more if you want to write something that's worth reading. So, where does all of this energy come from?

The answer is different for everybody. For some people, they just give the energy from themselves. They dig deep, muster all the strength they can, and write. Eventually, they run out of energy and want to kill themselves. It's not pleasant, but it is an option.

Another option would be to get your energy from an outside source. The classic source for "the writer" is alcohol. F. Scott Fitzgerald made it work for him (except for how it destroyed his life). Of course, you could also follow in Stephen King's footsteps and do the cocaine route (though I doubt he travels that road these days, seeing as how he's still alive). Personally, I am an empathetic person. The thing that gives me the most joy, energy, and motivation is the happiness and praise of others. As far as external sources go, it's a pretty healthy one.

So other people's happiness gives me the energy to write. How do I get other people to be happy? I show other people my writing. If my writing is good, it makes people happy. Their happiness gives me the energy to write more. I show the new writing to people and repeat the cycle indefinitely. I love a self-sufficient system. I think any system that is self-feeding without being self-destructive, no matter how needlessly complex, is a good one for a writer to follow.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Old Pros

I've been writing for as long as I can write. I've picked up what I can on my own, I've taken some classes on the subject, and I've read a few books on writing. The latter two resources tend to have advice that come from old pros in the field.

I have found that I disagreed with just about every piece of advice these writers have given. Wake up early and write while the sun rises. No thanks; I'm a night owl. Write crappy first drafts and revise after that. No way; I'll just revise while you are writing so you can make your first draft your best draft. Write at the same time every day. Yeah right; I'll write when I feel like writing (or when I need to write). Write down your ideas when you get them. Why bother; I'll remember them when I get around to it. Pick a genre. How about I pick all the genres?

The list goes on. And so did I. I ignored the advice and kept doing what I was doing. Eventually, I found that I didn't like what I was doing. Even when I revised as I wrote, my first draft was still a rough draft. When I only wrote "when I felt like it", I found myself not feeling like it for as long as years at a time. When I thought I would remember my ideas later, all I could remember was that I had an idea, not what it was. I wrote in every genre, but some fit me a whole lot better than others.

Over time, I have found myself at least partially agreeing with everything that the old pros suggested. Well, everything except for that early morning writing thing. But I bet that one day even that will change. I have found myself writing while the sun was still up from time to time, so that's a start. I thought it was such a strange thing to be changing all of my thoughts and habits despite my fevered protests.

I realized, though, that it is another one of those things that come with age. One day, super sweet candy tastes disgusting and salads will be rather pleasant. Still, no child will ever accept that it's true. It must be discovered on their own. Advice that old writers give is good advice and it should be known, but it can't take effect until a person is old enough and personally ready to take that next step.

Of course, the scary part is that if you accept that these people's advice is correct and will eventually be true, you are then ignoring the chance that they may be wrong about something, or even that they overlooked a possibility. I think that a good writer must question everything they are told. They must never accept something as truth, but discover it on their own. Certainly they can use the advice as subjects to learn about, but the only way they can be sure of what is true or not is to find out for themselves.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Never Not Working

For as much as I have praised working at a specific time, training your brain to think during a given period, I also have to add another component to that equation. Your mind should never not be working.

I've alluded to this idea before. I've talked about how ideas come at all times during the day and that I keep paper with me to write them down. This shows that the mind always is working, even when you aren't trying to make it work. I think you should take that to the next level.

If you're working on a story and you don't have everything planned out, you don't need to be staring at a blank piece of paper or a computer screen just to come up with ideas. Do something else, occupy that part of your mind that is freaking out because you aren't getting anything done. Fold your laundry, sweep the floor, even go out and play some bowling or mini golf. Your mind will be figuring out the story while your body is doing some simple activity.

If you do feel like you need to actively think about these ideas, then do it. Just realize that there are many opportunities to do so. Are you driving somewhere? Talk to yourself while you drive, especially at red lights. You walking around? Put back the iPod and take out your idea sheet. Staring at the ceiling or floor while eating your lunch? Figure out what could be going on.

Even if we don't write every day, we should at least be thinking about our writing, getting it planned, writing it out in your head. If you gt enough planning done in your head, sitting down at your writing station is merely putting down what you've already written out in your head. You look super efficient at writing when you do it, too.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Get Started!

The hardest part of writing (of doing anything) is actually starting. Theree is this invisible barrier that stops us before we even begin. Our task seems daunting, insurmountable, unending. It isn't. It never is. If you can just get over that misconception and start writing, then you will find it's rarely that big of a deal. If you can't, then here's a few tips to try to get you started.

Write down your random thoughts. I keep a folded up sheet of paper in my pocket and next to my bed. If I don't write it down, I will likely lose it forever. I have a drawer that is slowly filling with these papers. Sometimes just looking at a single thought already written down is enough to make me want to write more.

Doodle. A blank page is intimidating, Draw some pictures, even if you can't draw. Draw a duck, a flower, or just some squares and cubes. Do you write longhand? Try writing in cursive. Try drawing the alphabet in mirror image. Put the pen on the paper and let your hand move. Close your eyes and try to draw a shape or a picture in your head and see how well you can do it without looking. Do what you need to do to fill up the page so that your writing is just filling in the blanks, rather than trying to fill up the page. If you run out of space, then you still have the entire back side of the sheet to write on.

Start in the middle. Sometimes just trying to think of that first sentence is that insurmountable goal. Well, instead of trying to climb it, just walk around it. Start writing the scene you want to write. Write out that dialogue that inspired you to write in the first place. Write a description of the city streets where the story takes place. Just because the audience reads it front to back doesn't mean it needs to be written that way.

Write a skeleton. You can call it a planner or an outline or whatever other name you like. The point is, write down the progression of the story. Where it starts, who is in it, where they go, what they do, key points, and follow it through to the end. Sometimes, when you are trying to find out the big picture, you are forced to discover the small details. And the small details of the big picture simply are the story itself.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Pick A Style

I was told by one of my writing professors that eventually I would have to pick a form of writing to stick with (e.g. poetry, essay, short story, novel). I bit my tongue, but I seriously wanted to shout out, "screw you." I wrote just about every form of writing. I also believe that the different forms of writing were all just the same thing, that the same principles applied to all of them, with only minor variations specific to a particular form.

I have since come to realize that my teacher was sort of right. I didn't have to choose a form to write in, but I did find that I naturally preferred one over all of the others. I still believe that all writing is based on the same handful of principles, but I have realized that the differences between the forms create niches, one of which a writer will fit perfectly into.

Stories exist in my mind. They play as movies right behind my eyes. My writing, therefore, is describing what is happening. I am not exploring a world, but following the camera. This leads to a very short, action-oriented style. I think it is exciting and interesting, but I do recognize that I do not describe my worlds, which takes away from the experience. That is what makes writing comics perfect for me. The writing within the comic is very minimal, only speech and some captions. The rest of the story, building the world, and showing the action, all happens with the pictures. I don't have to spend a thousand words saying what a panel can. It's efficient and effective.

I actually enjoy writing essays for the same reasons. I don't have to build a world or scenes or even tell action. My essays simply bring up an idea, then logically progress from there. No fuss, no muss, just sweet, sweet essay.

To any new writers out there, I would say, don't pick a style, but do let a style reveal itself to you.

Writing: From the Mind, From the Heart

In my writing classes, I seemed to be set apart from my classmates. They wrote diary entries. I created fiction.

It never seemed to fail. The semester where one of my classmates broke up with her boyfriend, there were always stories where the narrator talks about the loss of her boyfriend. All the poems are about loss of that special someone and feeling alone.

Meanwhile, I'm writing about things that have nothing to do with my life. I'm writing poems about a lamp on a pole so high that people don't know if it produces any light. I'm writing about a man who treks across the world and up the tallest mountains to find the answers to life. I write about a woman so mentally disturbed that she sees life only in terms of nursery rhymes.

I could not stand my classmates, not even a little. They weren't creating anything, just repeating incessantly things that have already happened. They weren't telling stories, just telling events. It was boring, which was a great deterrent. I also didn't have anything about my personal life I wanted to share with other people (trust issues).

So if I didn't write about things that happened in the real world, then I had to make up a world where things happened. I basically came up with a what if situation or some random scenario, and then watched the events play out, writing down what happened. I know now that certain people call this a thought experiment. Another way to describe this is writing from the mind. It is a purely concocted story, created, developed, and written in the mind.

I've never really put stock in any other kind of writing. I have always found that writing based on real life is inherently uninteresting. It is the kind of writing that belongs in a journal or diary. It is a great exercise in catharsis, but rarely meant for other people.

And yet, some times, I am in the presence of a scene of raw humanity. It is so powerful that I know it must be captured. And I know that if I can capture it properly, everyone will know it and understand it with no need for explanation. That is when I realize that there is writing aside from the mind. That is writing from the heart, capturing a scene of pureness. It can be pure joy, sadness, beauty, confusion, or any other feeling. But it is the capturing of life, of reality, of preserving it for the ages, that is where writing from the heart derives.

I still prefer to write from the mind. I personally live in the aether, in the realm of possibilities, in the search for something I have never come across before. Writing from the mind is where those things occur the most. Ironically, because of living "out there" so much, I also thirst to truly feel pure, raw emotion. I respect any piece of writing that can make me feel instead of think.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Colorless Green Ideas

There is a sentence that linguists use. "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously." This is a sentence which follows every rule of the English language, and yet it has absolutely zero meaning. And yet, if I show it to a writer, and tell them that this sentence has no meaning, I will have just started an argument.

Writers will find a way to tell me how something can be simultaneously colorless and colored. They will tell me how the intangible concept of an idea can have a color (or lack of color). They will tell me how an idea can sleep and how sleeping can be done furiously.

This sentence is pure nonsense, and yet I will be told how it is perfectly sensical. Why do writers have to argue every little thing? Why can't they just accept that something is impossible and move on?

I think it is in our blood. Writers have to challenge the accepted way. If they didn't, there would be nothing to write about. If we didn't challenge conventional ideas, we wouldn't have any other ideas. Creativity comes from exploring that which does not already exist. When we are told something is impossible, it therefore doesn't exist, so we no longer need to think about it. Writers, therefore, must think about it, to be sure that people are right or wrong.

It can be quite unpleasant being contradictory to everything (or worse, being around somebody so controversial), but such is the burden of those who wish to find that which has never been found before.

So, please, by all means, tell me about your colorless green ideas that furiously sleep.

Idea and Example

I find that the most effective style of writing is to give an idea, then follow it with an example. If I were to write about being angry, I would write something like, "After the fight, I was livid. I snatched my grandmother's vase and shattered it against the wall."

The great issue I take with many writers is relying too heavily on either of those techniques. When you spend a whole page talking about a feeling, the audience has nothing to grab onto. Nothing is tangible or concrete, so there is no connection, outside of a vague idea you're portraying. Conversely, if you spend a whole page describing the physical characteristics of a person, but never outright say how he feels or anything like that, I am left guessing at his thoughts and intentions. I may get it right, but I can never be sure, which is frustrating.

Taking the middle ground seems the best approach here. I find that the idea coming first is the best way to combine the two. When you give the idea first, it primes the reader's mind for how they should be approaching and understanding a situation. That way, when the actual scene comes in directly after the idea, the audience now fully understands what the idea was preparing them for.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

All-Encompassing Central Idea

My mother has said on numerous occasions that Steven Spielberg must have a lot of father issues. Her reason is that if you watch almost any movie he's made, it generally has a character with father issues in it. I can see it.

I saw Coraline the other day, and noticed a similar pattern about Tim Burton. His movies always seem to be about a single character who is disenfranchised (or bored) with his or her world, finds another one, then finds out that the other world is not what he or she wanted at all, choosing to go back to the first one as a wiser and happier individual. I enjoyed Coraline, but as I watched it, all I could think of was The Nightmare Before Christmas and The Corpse Bride.

This thought has been on my mind for years now, and I have come to realize and accept that all of my dramatic (i.e. not comedic) stories have an all-encompassing central idea. My stories are always about two groups of people who are at war because of different beliefs that they have about the other group. They fight, one wins, the other is annihilated. Sounds easy and boring, right?

I think that Tim Burton's movies have been interesting and worth watching. The same goes for Mr. Spielberg. The specifics within each story make them interesting. The characters, the action, the qualities of the two cultures, the differences between them, and the actual actions and repercussions are what make a story interesting.

If you have an all-encompassing central idea, be aware of it. If you know your stories tend to have a big picture in common, make sure you aren't writing the same story every time. If you can, make this central idea work for you. Find the variations that are possible and write about them.

Or, you can take a page from Alan Moore's book and do the exact opposite. As he says, once somebody even thinks that they have an idea of what your style is, do something completely different. Are you the person who writes hard-bitten detective stories? Then write a romantic comedy. I do have to agree with that. Even if it doesn't turn out great, it will definitely keep you on your toes.

You Do What You Train to Do

This was a realization I had in the realm of martial arts, but it didn't take long for me to realize that it applies to everything. It seems like such common sense, but it is amazing how often it is ignored. People usually think that they can do things that are similar to what they train to do.

In martial arts, people think that if they train to kick through a board, then they will be able to break a person's ribs just as easily. The problem is that when you fight a person, they have this tendency to fight back. All of a sudden, that board is bouncing around, blocking your kicks, and punching you in the face, and you have zero experience in dealing with this.

Writing is the same thing, only the bruises aren't physical. Let's take this blog, for example. I do not have a large number of readers. If I skipped a day of updates, few people would notice. If I skipped a week, I bet I could still get away with it. I may not be punished by others, but I have trained my body to not write. The next day, it will be easier to not write. It will also be harder to start writing.

If you write at the same time every day, you will get in the habit of writing. When the time comes, you will feel bad or awkward if you aren't writing. From this blog, I have also found that this habit of writing also becomes a habit of thinking. In the writing of a single post, it gives me the thoughts for two or three more. If I didn't write regularly, I wouldn't think regularly.

Now, this isn't to say I wouldn't think, but it wouldn't happen as much. I always get thoughts throughout the day. It may be a combination of words I like (because of sounds or meaning), a concept that intrigues me, or a quote that seems worth investigating. The problem is that as easy as they come, they go. I have lost countless thoughts that I will never have again. So I got in the habit to write them down. I trained myself to take paper and pen with me. If not, I write it where I can or I type it on my phone, whatever needs to be done to keep that thought for the future.

The main thing to remember is the title. Train yourself to do exactly what you want to do, not an approximation. If you train to pull your punches, you will pull your punches when you shouldn't because you're used to it. If you train to write sometimes, you will only write sometimes. If you train to write rough drafts and stop, your work will never be better than a rough draft.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Style and Audience

The argument seems an unending and unanswerable one: do I continue to write the way I like to write or do I alter my style so that other people will like it more?

The simple answer is that if your writing makes you truly and thoroughly happy, you should keep writing the way you do. Your audience will be those who resonate with your style. If you have to make yourself less happy just to make more people like you, then there is a problem.

However, if there is anything that you want to change about your writing, then you should do it. Maybe your audience has some thoughts or ideas that you like. Maybe you just want to experiment until you find something that is better than your current style. Whatever it is, you should always work toward making yourself more happy.

I also want to note that this goes far beyond writing. This is relevant even to relationships with people. If you are truly and thoroughly happy with yourself, then you shouldn't change yourself just to find another person to be with. But if there are parts of you that you want to change, then you should change it. Work toward making yourself happier.

Sunday, March 1, 2009


Every now and then, something comes out that is revolutionary. It completely changes the current world, creating something that never existed before. As soon as the revolutionary work is released, the imitators will come. They will make countless clones of the same work, different enough to be given a new name, but obviously a rehashing of the original idea.

I've been thinking about this phenomenon and I realized that it is often oversimplified. Every created work has two qualities to it: concept and execution. Each of them have a spectral scale and they can occur in any combination.

A revolutionary work generally has a peak level of concept, but a less-than-stellar execution. These works are still very widely received, but are not without their criticisms.

The clones that follow a revolutionary idea have a much lower level of concept, since they are simply copying an existing idea, but they will have a much better execution. They will generally never have the acclaim of the original, but they are generally better works. They are what the original would have been if it was touched up.

Every now and then, a work comes out that is revolutionary in concept and perfect in execution. This is a masterpiece. I'm not sure we get those anymore, but it's not impossible.

And finally, there is the last combination, the work with crappy concept and terrible execution. You might want to void these like the plague.

From Back Row to Center Stage.

I've noticed a process that happens every time I listen to a song. The first time I hear it, it's no more than a melody to me. If I like the way it sounds, I'll listen to it again. The second time isn't much different; maybe this time I can hear the lyrics in the chorus. Then I keep listening to the song, over and over, each time I get a little more out of it.

I hear more and more of the lyrics. I eventually get them down (excluding the lines that are completely undecipherable). Then I start isolating the instruments. I figure out every instrument in the song and everything they play. Soon I can sing along with any instrument all the way through or bang out the percussion beats on my legs or my desk.

Ultimately, I'm making up my own lines, playing my own solos, and just generally rocking out to the song. It is as though I went from the back stage of the audience, moving up a row, closer and closer, then climbing onto the stage and joining the band.

The simple term for this phenomenon is acquisition. It can happen consciously or unconsciously, but usually both varieties occur. As a writer, we are all but demanded to acquire style and technique from other writers. While there is no way to avoid this, I will give one piece of advice on the matter.

The songs that I acquire are enjoyable to listen to the first time. They are also enjoyable to listen to for the 50th and 100th time. If you are going to spend the time, energy, and effort to understand something so thoroughly, especially if you plan on using that understanding for your own work, make sure it is enjoyable the first time and the fiftieth time, and every time in between.