Thursday, April 30, 2009

What Can Help Your Writing?

Everything. The End.

OK, fine, that was pretty useless. It was true, though. Almost any subject you study can help your writing.

Psychology will help you understand how an individual can think and what can affect it. Sociology and anthropology will teach you how and why groups of people think and act the way they do. Philosophy should lead you to ask questions and seek answers. Linguistics will teach you the history and evolution of language, teach you why it is the way it is and what it is exactly in the first place. Music theory will teach you about sound and rhythm, which writing is a representation of. Public speaking will teach you how to organize your thoughts and present them smoothly and articulately. English classes will teach you how to analyze writing for effective and ineffective techniques. Writing classes should give you a chance to practice those techniques yourself and blend them with your own style.

I'm sure there are plenty more subjects with useful applications. If you look hard enough, you should be able to find something useful in whatever you see. We write about what we know, the more we learn, the more we know. The more we know, the better we write.

Meaning and Society

In my linguistics class, my professor was saying that all words are neutral. It made sense to me. I started thinking of some of The Seven Words You Can Never Say On TV. How come we think they're so damn offensive? Well, it's because we all agree on it. There used to be a whole lot more words you could never say on TV, but we have become ok with "minor profanity" like damn and hell.

My professor explained it perfectly: "You cannot divorce meaning from society." It encapsulates everything I could ever wonder about the meaning of words. It's kind of a cop out, but the fact of the matter is that society decides what counts as a word and what it means.

But it occurs to me that there is more to gain from this. Different societies will have different meanings and interpretations for words. Although this is fairly obvious, I think it's worth noting that meaning comes from society, not the other way around. If you are writing about a foreign culture, the way they use words and what those words mean is a reflection of their society.

Do a people use a lot of flowery language and beat around the bush? Then maybe they're very stratified and believe highly in formality and other social red tape. What if they shoot the breeze with you for half an hour before they actually ask you the question they came to ask you? A farming culture, used to literally watching grass grow, will be used to having all the time in the world to spend before getting to the point. If a people only use important words and never repeat themselves, then they could come from a fast-paced culture that is focused on efficiency.

These are subtle aspects to people that are easy to miss, but actually using them will add a layer of depth to your creations that will be felt, even if they won't be realized.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009


Think of a very close friend. Imagine you and your friend haven't seen each other in several years. When you finally meet, it is a great, joyous occasion. There is so much to do.

You swap stories, starting with the thumbnail version of what all has happened since the last time you met. Then you start getting into a little more detail and then a little more and a little more until you're both all up to speed on everything.

Then the conversation shifts. Once the past is in the past, you go back to looking toward the future. What's the next step? Where are you going? How will you get there? This is where a realization dawns on you: this isn't the same person.

My friend never talked about settling down and starting a family, you think. My friend talked about getting an amazing job and making enough money to live out every crazy fantasy. Sometimes it's not even that drastic. Maybe your friend looks at the world in a different way. That's still enough. Now your friend says things differently, thinks about different things, sets different goals.

This can be a strange experience, but not necessarily a bad one. This is still your friend. You've shared countless memories over much time. You've grown together. While you spent time apart, you both still grew. You have become new people with new thoughts and new experiences. However, at the end of the day, you still have the warmth and comfort of a friend you've known longer than you can remember.

This is what a sequel is like. People will read a novel or watch a movie and get engrossed in the story. They learn about the characters, follow them through their tribulations, and grow an attachment to them. When the story ends, there is a loss. It's sad. We may never see our friends again, only reminisce about the first time we shared an adventure with them.

That's when we start wishing for a sequel. It lets us see our friends again. The problem is that we forget that everything else is new. Characters are in a new situation, meet new people, and have to do new things. They also have knowledge and experience that they didn't have when we first met them. As such, they act differently. They say and do different things because they are different people.

This is why people tend to get angry at sequels, saying that they're never as good as the first. A sequel can be plenty good, even when compared to the original. People need to remember that a sequel is different. It is telling a different story and using characters in a different way. If the original story was amazing because we learn about the protagonist's history and see him develop into a hero, then the sequel cannot tell that story. If there is to be one, it must be about the hero in the midst of his heroics or about the hero passing on the torch to another.

Sequels can be wonderful. They let us see our friends for one more time. Just remember, as you have grown since the last time you saw each other, so have your friends. But, remember also that they are still the same people (unless the writing is particularly terrible).

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Organ That's Also A Muscle

I'm talking about the brain. Technically, it's an organ, but when we talk about it, it is far more like a muscle. The brain can be strong or weak. Strength is relative; we can be smart enough to do what we need to do for everyday life or we can be smart enough to change the world. If we want to get stronger, we need to work out. If we don't exercise, we atrophy.

It seems like such an obvious thing to say, but it's easy to forget. I know that I myself am guilty of not writing unless I have an idea and then I only write on that. This isn't a good idea. You don't wake up and then run the 400 meter. You stretch out some, you walk around. You do some light runs or jog around. You prepare your body to work hard. Then you work hard. Then you relax. Writing is the same way. If the only thing you work on is the idea you really want to work on, then you're going to write a lot of crap.

A professor of mine said that when he would read his students' 7-page papers, it wasn't until the last page that they started saying something really interesting (it's safe to say that most of these papers were first drafts written in one sitting). This is because the first 6 pages were exercise. They were warm-ups for the mind, jostling and rustling it to start thinking about something ineresting and saying things in an interesting way.

In terms of writing, I think we have two options if we want to write something good: Either do writing exercises to warm up before working on your main project or use your main project as both the warm-up and main event, but having to write more drafts of it to clean up the practice parts.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Tuesday's Trash May Be Monday's Magic

We come up with a lot of ideas. Believe it or not, they happen quite often. The problem is that most of them suck. Whenever I get an interesting idea, I write it down. I usually put it away right afterward. Occasionally, I actually think to look at my list and see what I've written. Sometimes I have an idea that is interesting, but I have no idea how to approach it. Sometimes what I wrote down seems so boring or so stupid that I can't imagine why I decided to record it.

However, I rarely have the heart to throw out my ideas. So I hold on to them, time goes by, and another day I look at the same thought and it's genius. It makes perfect sense to me, I know just what I want to write with it and how I'm going to write it.

Although I advocate throwing out drafts that just won't work, that doesn't mean the ideas themselves have to go. It doesn't cost anything to keep your ideas, so let them stick around. One day, they may be magic.

Crossing A One-Way Street

Consider a simple scenario: You need to cross a one-way street. The traffic goes from left to right. You look left and you see no traffic, so you cross the street. Right in the middle of the street, you get run over and die. A drunk driver was careening down the street, no idea that he was going the wrong way.

Just because it's a one-way street doesn't mean you shouldn't look both ways when you cross it. Anything can happen at any time from any direction, even when it breaks the rules. In fact, it is the things that nobody can expect to happen that make for the most compelling stories.

I think this is why professionals give the advice to write yourself into a corner and then try to write yourself out. It forces you to use your mind, stretch your imagination, realize what can happen that you've never considered.

The idea of classic comedy is that a character does the opposite of the norm. I'm offered some cake, so I cut a slice out, then eat everything except that slice. 50 years ago, that was gold. Now it's old. This situation looks like it only has two outcomes, but it doesn't. If we stretch our imagination, anything is possible. I'm offered cake, I cut a slice, then a shove the plate in the person's face and tell him "just kidding, you're a horrible chef."

Suppose you're writing drama. A woman is torn between two men, one who satisfies her intellectually, the other physically. In general, she's going to choose one of those two men (assuming nobody dies). Those aren't the only options. She could find a third man who satisfies her in both ways. She could find a woman who satisfies her in both ways. She could choose to be alone, seeing both men as insufficient.

There are a lot of one-way streets in life. Things work in a certain way and the idea they could work any other way would never cross your mind. Remember to look both ways when you cross these streets; you may regret it otherwise. Just make sure that your predictability never becomes predictable.

Friday, April 24, 2009


"Flow" can be a dangerous word around writers. To some, it is a fluff word used when you have nothing better to say. To others, it is a word without meaning, used only by those foolish enough to think it is useful. I disagree with such assessments. Flow is certainly real and, although it can be used as fluff, does have a valid meaning.

Flow is sentence structure. For as much as people like to think of flow as something intangible and romantic, it is all technical. Flow is about rhythm, melody, movement, and transition.

If you listen to any great speaker, you will hear a particular beat to their speech. It tends to be regular, or at least have certain common cadences. In fact, you can imitate people by the pattern of their speech without saying a word. This is the rhythm of flow. Speak your sentences out loud. When they have a rhythm that is natural, one where you don't trip over your words or are forced to slow down to be able to say what you've written, that is a good flow of rhythm.

When you try to imitate a person's speech without using words, you will probably not be mumbling in monotone. People inflect their voice in certain ways. The ups and downs of pitch and volume make up the melody of flow. Like rhythm, speak your sentences aloud and see if it sounds natural. A good flow is one where the speaker sounds alive. Now, although this depends largely on the speaker of a work, the writing itself can lend itself to strong performances. A consistent style alone makes it easier to get into a piece and it generally doesn't throw you for a loop (though if that's what you want to do, then do the opposite of what I say).

Within a sentence, there should be a natural motion. Some words roll off the tongue. Some words become phrases, which we say so naturally that they might as well be single words. Motion is how we create the flows of melody and rhythm. Smooth words and phrases lead from one to the next, leading us to an aburpt halt. It's like shaping the land in a way that a ball will naturally roll just where you want it to. Sometimes, though, the stop is softer, more of a pause. Leading the eye, ear, and mind from stop to stop makes the rhythm and the path in between those stops is the melody.

When we move beyond a sentence, we are asked how we maintain flow from one to the next. There are no words or sounds between sentences, so what can we do? The best bet is to end one sentence in a way that naturally leads into the next. For example, if I give an idea in principle, it naturally will lead to an explanation in the next sentence. Ending a sentence with certain words naturally make you want to talk more. Those words continue on to make a paragraph. A paragraph can then transition into the next, making a chapter which flows to the next, going as long as you want. However, eventually, you will need a sentence that finishes what you wrote.

Even though flow may be technical, knowing about it should not detract in any way from its beauty.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


Music is one of those things that everybody likes. I love the fact that our society has access to music pretty much everywhere. Writers also love their music, but sometimes we have strange relationships with it.

Some writers can't write without music playing. Others can't write unless it's dead quiet. I lean far toward the former, but with some exceptions. When I'm writing, I usually need music, but it has to be the right feel. That depends on my current mood, the tone of the piece I'm writing, the time of day, and whatever other factors I can't think of. If the music isn't quite right, it won't help me write.

The problem I have is that sometimes the music that is just right still doesn't help me write. If I'm listening to a new song, I can stop writing to pay attention to this music I haven't heard before, but really like. If it is a song I already know, but really like, I can drift away from writing to start singing along at the good parts.

Sometimes I just can't listen to sounds when I write. When an idea requires my focus, like creating a new story or formulating the perfect argument, any sound will distract me too much. Reading is the same way to me. When I read other people's writing, sometimes music helps me read through it smoothly, but more often it makes it harder to enter their world. And when I read poetry, it simply must be silent. I think it's impossible to listen to music and really read poetry at the same time unless the poem was made for a particular music.

What really gets to me with music and writing is not in the writing itself, but the generation of ideas. I love to walk around as much as I can. I've gotten many an idea while walking. I'm getting constantly changing visual stimulus, but at such a low level as to allow my mind to wander. I rarely ever use portable music players, one of the reasons being that if I really like a song, I'll just sing it to myself while I walk. It occurs to me, though, that since I can so easily get lost in music, it can very well detract my usual musings and ponderings. Listening to music all the time could inhibit the ideas I would normally think from coming.

Now, I'm not saying it doesn't make me think. I got the idea for this post while listening to music on a walk. However, I can't help but wonder what other ideas I may have had without the music. I guess the prudent thing to say is that experimenting and figuring out what method works best for you will always be the best advice.


For part two, we come to revising. If editing is about polishing a final piece, then revising is about turning a rough piece into a final piece. To a degree, revision takes place at all times throughout the writing process, sometimes even after the work gets published. However, let's stick with more significant revision.

When we write, we create worlds and fill those worlds with people and things. We make our creations do things and sometimes we let them do things on their own. When we revise, it's like we hit the reset button on our world and do it again. It might be subtle, as simple as changing a shirt from blue to green. It might be massive, like allowing the protagonist's mom to survive the car crash. No matter what the scale, revision is changing the world. The important question is why you decide to change the world.

Revision should always be done to make a story better. You changed the shirt from blue to green because he was wearing jeans and he didn't need to be wearing all blue. You let the mom live because the protagonist needs to see the world in shades of gray, not just dead or alive, but what quality of life.

Sometimes, revising isn't so drastic. The kind of revision I talked about is the stuff that may be happening from a rough first draft to a second draft. Sometimes revision is simply about consistency. It's a lot like editing, but for what the words are saying, rather than the words themselves. When a character says or does something out of character or when events happen in an order that is physically impossible, then revision is needed.

I wrote these posts because a friend (who is a math and physics major) asked me how a person can teach a class on Revising and Editing. The best answer I could give him is that you can really only teach the process and the stepping stone techniques. The rest comes with experience and with getting into a person's head to figure out what they're trying to do. In short, if you want to be a good reviser/editor, do it for your writing soulmate.


I hear many people using "revising" and "editing" interchangeably. They aren't interchangeable, though. That's why they're two different words. I'm splitting these into two posts for the sake of length.

Editing is about consistency. Whatever else you are ever told, it always comes down to consistency. How come we have several different style guides for writing (Chicago, MLA, APA, etc.), but none of them are wrong? It's because there is no such thing as right and wrong. When it comes to editing, consistency is everything.

Editing is the polish that you put on a final work. If you want to do it, you have to make sure that all the little stuff is done so that it's smooth from front to back. Spelling is the first step. For the most part, we all spell the same, sothat should be no problem. If there's a word you don't know or the author is using an unfamiliar proper name, ask what the correct spelling is (or look it up). The next step is punctuation, which is trickier. Punctuation is the main separator of style guides. For any written work, there is one person who has ultimate discretion on punctuation. Whoever that person is, whether it be an editor-in-chief or it be the authors themselves, find that person and find out which rules to follow.

Generally, the next stage is to check for grammar or sentence structure. This is where I feel the need to deviate. The important focus is not on grammar but on sentence structure. We all too often think of "proper grammar" when it comes to looking at sentences. No run-ons, no fragments, no ending sentences with prepositions, no using "they" as a gender-neutral 3rd person singular pronoun. The problem is that "proper grammar" is terrible. It is stiff, rigid, and unforgiving. The amount of writing that you can't do by only following prescriptive rules stifles the language.

Learning standard English grammar is useful. It gives you a base to work with. It is your first style of writing that you learn. Just remember that it's a stepping stone. In time, you will learn that every person writes things in a certain way. Your job as an editor is to learn what an author's style is and make sure that everything they write consistently sounds like them.

Monday, April 20, 2009

What Are You Writing?

If you have ever talked about our own writing, you have been asked what kind of piece it is. Specifically, they want to know a genre. Comedy, Action, Suspense, Children, Young Adult, Fantasy, Sci Fi, Slice of Life, Memoir, and the list goes on. With so many genres, it seems there is a classification for anything that could be written. And yet, despite the countless options, they very rarely describe your story very well.

One of the first problems with labeling is that no good story fits under one label. Well, some of them do. The Runaway Bunny is pretty much a straight children's story. However, The Runaway Bunny has already been written. If you were to write a story that fit perfectly and neatly into one genre, I can almost guarantee that it will be considered flat, dull, and hackneyed. In fact, I suspect that the only way to write a story that fits perfectly into one genre is to specifically try to (or to have absolutely no idea that any other kind of story exists).

The other problem with labeling is that people tend to misuse labels. Although people generally want to know what genre your writing is, they often confuse your medium with your genre. Just because you're writing poetry doesn't mean it can't be a murder mystery. Just because you're writing "fiction" doesn't mean it has to be a literary novel.

That's the real problem of labels: no one quality defines the whole of a work. I can write something that is a fictional action/suspence novel with scenes of comedy. If I tried to use any one of those words to describe the whole work, it would be extremely inaccurate.

If have learned one lesson about figuring out what to write, it's this: Tell me an interesting story. Let the scholars decide what subtext is in it and let the book stores decide what genre it is. When you write something interesting, other people will gladly do tht work for you.

Sunday, April 19, 2009


Have you ever met someone who was so similar to you that it was a little scary? You have the same sense of humor, talk the same way, think about the same things, etc. This person is your soulmate. We tend to think of soulmates as being romantic, but I would disagree. All it means is that you are on the same wavelength. You understand each other the way you understand yourselves.

I think that it is very important (or at least very useful) to find your writing soulmate. Such a person makes a great partner and a great reader. When you talk together, you bounce ideas off each other that easily become stories in your head. When they talk about their own work, it excites you.

When your soulmate reads your work, they know exactly what you are trying to do. They know what is working and what is not working. When they give you advice, they are not trying to make it into their own idea, but helping you to make it exactly what you want it to be. I will admit that a good enough reader can do those things, too, but a soulmate does it innately. A soulmate doesn't need the incredible amount of training that a top-tier reader needs because most of the thinking and understanding is done unconsciously.

If you can find a writing soulmate, consider yourself very lucky. They are one of the rarest things out there. Create the relationship, grow it, and make sure you let your soulmate know exactly how much you appreciate them.

I'm a Writer

When I started college (and possibly before that), I heard people say, "I write, but I'm not a writer." In fact, it was extremely common, even among the students of my major (which is Professional Writing). The first time I heard it, I was confused. How can you write, but not be a writer? That's a contradiction in terms. As I heard it over and over again, I grew infuriated at it.

I realized that people say this because they have an idealized idea of what a "writer" is. It seems like it involves people with British accents who spend a great deal of time in their study sitting in a luxurious chair, writing on parchment with a quill. These people sit down and write a perfect novel on their first try.

As ridiculous as it sounds, I think it needs to be said that this is wrong. Every writer is a human being. They're fallible. They have to write something several times to make it just right. They employ the help of others to gain ideas and perspective. They write a lot of crap and throw it out if it's no good.

People worry far too much about whether or not they are writers. That is a worthless question. If you write, you are a writer. There's your answer. The more important question is: Are you a good writer?

Being Productive

The easiest way to be unproductive is to not have ideas. From what I gather, it seems to happen to everybody. We tend to think of good ideas as rare. When we don't have any ideas, it's because they're so rare. When we get one idea, it's our lucky day. When we get a several great ideas, it's a lie. If we see ideas coming and coming without top, we think it must be a mistake, that certainly some of these must be awful. Well, as soon as we think that we are getting too many good ideas, trust me that they will stop coming.

In my experience, good ideas aren't rare. Your mind will give you enough good ideas to survive. Sometimes you need an idea and you get one. One is good enough. Sometimes, though, your mind hits a dry spell and you just can't think of any new ideas. This is where you need to pull ideas from your reserves.

What's that? You don't have idea reserves? You don't know where idea reserves come from (or possibly what they even are)? Well, that's simple. Your idea reserves are those beginnings of ideas that you have, but haven't worked on. When you are working on one idea and another idea pops into your head, you write it down so you can work on it later. When you finish working on the original idea (or if you just need to take a break from it), you move on to one of these other ideas.

Sometimes we fill up our idea reserves to capacity (if that's possible). It's not that we are trying to come up with them, they just keep coming to us. This is when you think it is a mistake or a fluke. This is when you think that you don't need to write all these down because you'll never need to use all of them. This is when you are wrong.

Like I said before, you tend to get just enough ideas to survive. If you have a massive gushing of ideas, then you better expect a very long dry spell at some point. It happens to me without fail. I save all of my ideas on a Word document. No matter how many ideas I fill it with, I will eventually reach the bottom of the barrel. Fortunately, it's about that time when I get all new ideas, but it's still scary to know that your reserves are dropping.

In short, if you have a good idea, remember that it's a good idea and save it. You never know when they won't be so easy to come by.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Accidental Genius

I would have to say that of all the genius I've had, most of it was accidental. What I mean is that, although I try to plan things as perfectly as I can, the best things just seem to happen.

When I write a story, I can only plan so much in my head. A lot of development happens as I'm writing. Because of that, I always risk writing myself into a corner. Sometimes that happens. Sometimes, I realize that because of the particular course of events, the conclusion naturally and logically will happen. I love it when that happens, when I am able to make my characters do what I want them to. All too often, they have to do something different because they're their own people.

Accidental genius can apply to anything that involves thinking. It can be a complex series of events in an epic story or it can be as mundane as planning your day. Maybe you realized that because you have to do laundry, you can spend that same time getting bills paid, killing two birds with one stone.

Genius, by this definition, can only occur when you plan out everything perfectly and all goes according to plan. Accidental genius happens when you start making arbitrary decisions, but everything still manages to work out perfectly.

I think the reason that so much of my genius is accidental is that most of life is unplannable. We have to make guesses, take chances, go with our gut, and hope that everything works out right. When things couldn't have gone any better, it's because we made a genius plan, even if it was by accident. As far as I'm concerned, genius is genius. When it happens, live it up.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Where Comedy Comes From

I love comedy. Making people laugh and smile is the only thing I want to do in life. And yet, I find it ironic that the large majority of my writing isn't very funny. How come I can speak clearly and concisely about a topic, but not make people laugh while I do it? Where does comedy come from?

From my experience, comedy comes from one of two places: extreme comfort and extreme discomfort. Imagine that you're talking about the subject that you know better than anything else on earth. Imagine that you've talked about it more times than you can count and the explanation never changes. You get bored. Eventually, you'll start cracking jokes while you talk to try to stave off that boredom. The subject is so comfortable that saying silly (or weird) things is the only way to spice it up.

Now, imagine that you have to give a speech on a subject you've never studied and barely know exists. You're trembling, your mouth is dry, and the note cards you're holding are all blank. What are you going to do? In all likelihood, you're going to start with the subject, hem and haw for a couple of minutes, then start playing around with the words of the subject (as opposed to the meaning of it). For example, if your speech was on the difficulties of establishing Green initiatives, the first thing you might say would be, "If I've learned anything from the lessons I learned as a child, it's that it ain't easy being Green." It's the worst kind of groaner, but it's better to get that than boos or silence.

Between these two extremes, there lies everything else. And everything that isn't comedy is drama. So if the extremes yield comedy, then everything between them yield drama. That's why drama is so much easier than comedy; it's not extreme. Drama, or seriousness, comes when you know something about a subject, but not absolutely everything about it. It comes when you are trying to explain an idea you just learned or when you are writing about a subject you're confident of, but for the first time.

When you write, be aware of when you're funny and when you're serious. If you're funny, is it because you know exactly what you're talking about or is it because you have no idea what you're doing? If you're being serious, is it because the piece is serious in nature, or because you are unconfident or inexperienced?

If you stick with a field or genre, make sure you write in the appropriate tone. Hard-bitten detectives don't do shtick, but they will if you start getting bored of writing serious stuff. Zany Saturday morning cartoon characters don't study the mentality of serial killers, but if you have no idea what they should be doing, you may not be able to think of anything else.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Arguing and Discussing

I find it frustrating that people have such gross misconceptions about what arguing and what discussing is. People think that arguing is shouting at somebody else about how stupid they are and they think that discussing is mindlessly talking out of your ass about anything. Both of those ideas are quite wrong.

Arguing is about making a claim and supporting that claim. You can just as easily call an arguer an advocate. Where arguing is about proving why you are right, discussing is about trying to figure out what is right. Discussions tend to have more questions than statements. Multiple people have the same goal, rather than opposite goals. They become teammates instead of enemies.

Arguing and discussing both have their uses, though I find arguing is rarely needed. I take exception with arguing because it is so hostile. People don't like hostility aimed at them, so they retaliate with their own hostility. That's why arguments get heated so quickly and don't go anywhere. Nobody with a belief strong enough to argue for is willing to have the belief argued against.

Arguing should only be used when you know that you are 100% correct, which is why it is needed so rarely. Even still, if you are going to argue with someone, remember one important thing: the key to winning arguments is to argue logic, not facts. Most people who are completely wrong in their beliefs are missing some logical piece of information which allows their beliefs to stand. If you can show a person that their argument is illogical or significantly flawed, that is the end of the argument. Of course, if a person is showed that their beliefs are irrational and they still believe them, leave them alone, because that is a brick wall in disguise and arguing with it is pretty useless.

I prefer discussion because there are many things I don't know fully and want to learn as much as possible about. I also think that I am 100% correct on issues very rarely. What I like most about discussions is how non-threatening they are. Because one person is seeking knowledge, the other person is know trying to teach instead of win. In fact, when I do want to argue with somebody, I will usually argue in the form of a discussion. Rather than tell a person that their logic is flawed, I will ask them the question that highlights the flaw in their logic. It's a bit sneaky, I admit, but it's also more peaceful. It also means I never stick my neck out by making claims I can't necessarily back up.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Writing and Talking

I think it is utterly fascinating how connected writing and talking are in our minds. We use the terms almost interchangeably. Well, we never describe speaking as writing, but we do talk about writing as either writing or talking. In an academic paper, we could just as easily write, "In Hamlet, Shakespeare wrote. . ." as we could, "In Hamlet, Shakespeare said. . .". In fact, it is often easier to say that a writer said something.

Maybe it just means that we think of verbal communication as the generic form of communication. Or maybe it means that verbal communication is the strongest form of communication (like how a particularly poignant painting "speaks to us"). In either case, I think there is something to be learned from it.

Although all media of communication are nuanced and say things in different ways, I think that there is a tacit goal of creating works that speak. And I think that speaking is about being human (it is what separates us from all others). When I write, I want my words to sound the way that people sound (academic drivel is wasted words). Pictures either look like the real world or make me think strongly of my humanity. Good comedy does the same thing (which is why comedians are philosophers).

The next time you write, speak.

Sunday, April 12, 2009


There is a saying, "First you learn form, then you break from form." It means that you need to learn the basics. You need to learn the advanced stuff. You need to learn all of the collected knowledge of what has already been done. It is only after all of that learning that you can begin to do something different.

If you're anything like I used to be, you probably want to punch me in the face. I wouldn't blame you if you did. Because a part of me still disagrees with that. When my teachers gave me this advice, I told them, "Why do I have to learn what other people did in order to write? I've figured out plenty of stuff on my own without the aid of long-since-dead Greeks and I can keep doing so." If you think that's true for you, I won't argue. You're right. If you can figure stuff out without other people's help, then you don't need their help. It's also true that when you figure things out on your own, you understand them better and believe them more thoroughly.

However, the other side does have validity, even though it is often poorly-worded. The other side is that studying other thinkers can save you time. If it took you 6 months to start with a vague concept and evolve it into a truth or fact of writing, that's great. However, if you read the works of people who interest you, or if you go out and search for interesting people, you might save yourself five and a half months by reading that very truth that has already been discovered and clarified a long time ago.

If you have a method that works for you, I will never say that you should do something different. However, if you're already out doing your own thing, but you're the only person who thinks your writing is good, consider studying and learning about your form before trying to break away from it. Form has a lot of good information that professionals take for granted.

Saturday, April 11, 2009


In a previous post, I had mentioned that one cure for writer's block is to do something incredibly boring. This allows you to occupy your mind with creative thought. I stand by this advice. However, I feel the need to add on to it.

Something that I do very rarely, but need to do more, is go to concerts. Though my parents are both classical musicians, I have never much cared for going to classical music concerts. They usually put me to sleep (literally). However, I have found a new interest in such performances. The last few times that I've gone, ideas came to me. I had to reach for a pen or pencil and write down my ideas on the blank space on my program.

Now, it is possible that this is simply an example of ideas coming from being bored, or from the fact that I'm sitting in one place unable to move or speak, which made my mind start thinking. However, I think it is something else. Cultural activities like, classical music concerts, museums, and art galleries stimulate the mind. Where being isolated may force the mind to come up with ideas just to stave off boredom, cultural activities stimulate the mind. They compel you to think of new things, ideas that you may not have thought of otherwise.

Finding things that stimulate your mind is incredibly important. They keep you alive, keep you interested, keep you writing. And ultimately, that's what your activities should be doing.

Friday, April 10, 2009


When I was in high school, I signed up for the annual variety show. For those who don't know, a variety show is like a talent show that doesn't require talent. For my act, I chose to do some stand-up comedy.

In order to have my act approved, I had to first give them a script of the whole thing. I sat down and collected all of the material I'd written, some stuff I was working on, and arranged it for flow and transition. As I was writing everything down, all I could think to myself was, "eh, it's not that funny, but the audience is going to eat this stuff up."

I was right. The judges who read my script for approval told me that it was so funny they were laughing out loud just reading it. In fact, they enjoyed my act so much that even though there was a 5-minute time limit, they let me do my whole 15-minute act. And at the end of the night, I won second place. I'd say it wasn't bad for my first performance ever.

For many years after that, I had learned a valuable lesson from that night: don't overestimate your audience. I studied a lot of stand-up comedy at the time. There were a lot of jokes that didn't impress me much, ones that didn't get even a chuckle from me, and yet they brought the house down. For me, it wasn't about writing comedy that made me laugh, it was about knowing what other people will think is funny and giving them what they want.

My original post was going to be that very lesson, considering your audience as simpletons who can only comprehend so much. But that isn't a very fair assessment. I had to ask why it worked. How come simple comedy works so well and yet the complex stuff that makes me laugh dies in front of an audience?

The reason simple comedy works is the same reason simple writing in any field works: it has a point and it gets to it without wasting time or energy. It is easy to understand and that simplicity adds to its power.

That's why I changed the title of this post to the current one. Good writing does not come from making expectations of your audience; it comes from making good writing. It means that any member of any audience can comprehend it, whether it is simpletons or geniuses. Writing that can do that will be equally effective to everybody.

Thursday, April 9, 2009


I've found that most good advice is good advice no matter what you do. "Take it one step at a time." That's good advice for cooking, doing homework, and even for walking. "Keep your elbows down." I use this in every martial art, playing every musical instrument, and in acting like a rooster.

As you learn certain principles of writing, see where else they work. When I talked about vocabulary, I said that you need to have basic words everybody knows, technical words that pertain to a particular subject, and you should be able to weave them in a flowing manner. This is great advice for talking, too. No matter what you talk about, you need both sets of words and using them in a sonorous manner helps the audience pay closer attention (or at least marvel at how great you sound).

In talking about style and audience, I said that you either have to write in a way that a certain group of people want or you have to write in a way that you like and look for people who also enjoy it. This applies to social interaction at its core. Either 'fit in' or be yourself. Eventually, you will find somebody (unless you're horrible at being a human being).

This is the beauty of principles. Learning an idea at its core allows you to see it everywhere. Once you know it exists, you can see every single version of it out there. If you can learn all the principles, you can learn the world.

It occurs to me, though, that we can also reverse direction on what we've been doing, and see what principles from other fields apply to writing.

The Religion Kevin Invented(tm) is bad at memorization, so there is only 1 commandment: Don't be an asshole. I think that writing is the same way. And for me, that means don't act like you're better than you are. Don't use words that sound smart, especially if you don't know what they mean. If you want to write a mystery book, don't try to sound like you're writing a mystery book (none of that "it was a dark and stormy night, and murder most foul occurred, by someone...or something!").

I've found that as much as people hate arrogance, they also don't care for excessive self-deprication. Being humble is good, but if all you can talk about is how much you suck, other people will start agreeing with you. When you write, you need a confidence about you. Rather than saying, "the room might have smelled like mothballs or something," tell me "the room smelled of mothballs" or even that "mothball filled the air." Uncertainty in writing wastes words and time and only makes you weaker. Such is also true of a lack of confidence in the real world.

So, take the time to learn some principles and see where they take you. You may find yourself quadrupling your knowledge without even trying.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Throw It Out

Say you get a really great idea for a story. You sit down and start writing your idea so you don't lose it. As soon as you begin, though, your mind hits overdrive and keeps giving you idea after idea. You write and write, elaborating on characters and actions. The plot develops, moves along, and before you know it, you've written down your whole story. Well, it's not the whole story, but it's all the major stuff that happens from beginning to end.

Now what? There is a lot to fit in. Some scenes you described in a paragraph, but would require several chapters to fully cover. Much of the bits that show characterization, the dialogue, the proper portrayal of the scenes, all need to be filled in. So where do you begin? Do you take a generic sentence and expand it until it's the right size? I suppose it might work on a logical level, but it would be far from seemless.

I see the first draft like an old car. You buy a junker for cheap, fix all the things that are wrong with it, and when you're done with that, you have yourself a shiny car that's good as new. Here's the problem with first drafts. In general, they are so beaten up and broken down that they're not much more than a rusted chassis. You would basically be building your own car from scratch. It would be cheaper and easier to just buy a new one.

So, my advice for the first draft: throw it out. The point of a first draft is for you to figure out what actually happens. After that, the draft has done its job and is no longer needed. Personally, I always throw out my first draft (and occasionally several subsequent ones, too) and redo it. It helps me keep a flow of motion, a sound of vocabulary and sentence structure, a mind for scope of importance and scene. Trying to do these broken up into small segments can be very difficult. Hence why I don't try to fix my drafts. It's cheaper and better to make a brand new one.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts

In Einstein's theory of relativity, we learn that energy is equivalent to mass. Energy equals mass times the speed of light squared, or E=mc^2. I have seen that equation most of my life. It's probably the most famous equation out there. But I never gave it much thought. I always thought of it the way I would think of buying something at the grocery store. 1 candy bar = 1 dollar. The two things are completely different, but you can exchange one for another.

As I got older, I learned more about atomic theory. The smallest unit of matter is the atom, named from the Greek word atomos, meaning "that which cannot be divided." Well, actually the atom can be split. There are three subatomic particles that make up atoms, but that's it. Nope, I was wrong again. Subatomic particles are comprised of even smaller particles which are made of energy.

Wait, what? Matter is actually made out of energy? That means that matter and energy are not just equal, they're identicle! It's not like saying that a product is equal to money. It's saying that a foot is made up of 12 inches. They're the same thing.

Suffice it to say that it rocked at least part of my world to come to this realization. And yet, matter and energy aren't exactly the same. There is something different about matter. It's more than merely condensed energy. It does things that energy can't do, has properties that raw energy doesn't have. Somehow, matter is greater than the sum of its parts.

In my last blog, I mentioned how the artwork of comics is like condensed words. It can express pages of exposition into a mere panel on a page. And yet, I think that this is not quite accurate. I think that pictures are to words what matter is to energy. They may be the same thing in principle, and yet the denser structure is somehow greater.

There exist things in this world that can only be expressed with words that do not exist. A particular look on a person's face, a feeling in the body, a complicated emotion based on a complex set of circumstances (such as why we have to steal the German word schadenfreude). A comic can express all of these ideas perfectly and succinctly. The contours of a face that shows the undescribable emotion says more than words ever could.

There are certain stories that cannot be told. Sometimes an experience is awkward or strange in a way that is felt and not thought about. We are incapable of sharing the feeling, so all we can do is tell the story and end it with, "you had to be there." The you-had-to-be-there story is the bane of all storytelling. Well, almost all. With comics, we can create the world, show the situation, and make the reader feel the story instead of thinking about it. Only comics can tell the you-had-to-be-there story because you actually are there.

Some people may see comics as a bastardization of the written word. I consider it an evolution of it. Only through this medium can we do all the things that every other medium of writing is incapable of.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Visual Writing

Effective writing is generally visual writing. When you use your words to paint a picture, the audience can see what you mean. Being able to vividly describe a location, a person, or a sequence of action will allow the reader to better-understand what is happening. It allows them to enter your world.

When I read a good piece of writing, an image forms in my mind. I can see everything as though it was a picture. When I read a good novel, there reaches a point where I stop reading the words and a movie starts playing, right behind my eyes. Somehow, I am reading, turning the page, interpreting all of the words, and yet it is a moving picture to me.

This experience with novels has existed for as long as I can remember. I believe that it is and has always been a significant force in my own writing. All of my stories exist in my head. These stories are not words; they're movies. They have people, scenery, props, and everything else. My stories play through my head, right behind my eyes. When I write, I am logging the action of the movie. When people are talking, I'm transcribing the conversation. When people are driving a car or walking down the street or reaching for a flower, I am writing it as simply and concisely as I can. If I take too long, the movie will keep going and I'll miss something, which makes for a sub-par story.

My style of writing has always been described as concise and effective. I don't have a problem with it, to be honest. The only problem I have is that I know I can't paint a picture like others seem to. This is why I love writing for comics. I'm having somebody else paint the picture for me. My writing can remain the same, even become more concise, since no words need to be used to show emotion, action, or scenery.

It reminds me of the saying, "a picture is worth a thousand words." Only recently have I ralized the truth of it. When you take 1,000 words and compress them into the smallest space, you get a picture, which is the densest form that words can take.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Writing What You Disagree With

It is generally accepted that every character is an extension of its author. It sounds good, but I wonder how a person can create characters with very different personalities and beliefs.

From my own experience, I've found that I can write conflicting characters because I can take both sides of the argument. Sometimes, however, I come across an argument that I can only take one side of. What do you do when you can't take both sides of the argument? Does that mean that all of your characters agree on this one thing? That doesn't sound conducive to good writing.

The best answer I've found is to get out of your head. Instead of trying to win the argument, your characters have to have the argument. Even if you yourself think the argument itself is so stupid that it shouldn't even be made, other people disagree. If you want your characters to be realistic, they at least need to talk like real people do. They need to make the arguments that don't make sense and believe them. They need to say the things that sicken you and do it with conviction.

I think that this is how you truly make characters, to know them. While you can create a great deal by borrowing from your own thoughts and beliefs, your Dramatis Personae will only be so large and will eventually be stunted because of it.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

A Good Reader

I've written in the past that it is crucial to find a good reader for your writing. What I have not written is what makes a good reader. So let's do that now.

A good reader is useful and constructive. How they do that is relative. A good reader blends with you. What they say makes sense and it helps you write better works. However, since every writer is unique, the qualities that make a good reader depend on you. There are a few pieces of advice that are universal among good readers, so let me share those first.

Rule #1: Do not utter the cursed phrase. "It was well-written." This is the most offensive thing I have ever heard when people read my writing. It is worse than "I liked it" or "I didn't like it" because at least those tell me that it had a noticeable effect. Telling a writer that their work was well-written is like eating a meal and telling a cook that they didn't burn down the kitchen. It may be true, but it is thoroughly useless. (Sometimes, it is a compliment to say that the word choice and sentence structure is particularly delightful to read, but even still it needs to be emphasized that you are not saying it is well-written as a cliche.)

The purpose of rule #1, aside from not insulting the writer, is to help you as a reader be constructive and useful. Once you are not allowed to say anything safe and neutral, you now have to pay attention, which leads to the next main point.

Read the piece. It shouldn't need to be said, but it does. You need to read the piece so you have something to say. Read it one time and write down all of your first impressions (or tell them to the author). Then, if you can, read it again, even more closely. I recommend multiple readings for two reasons. One is that the audience will only read something they don't like once. That means that the impressions from the first-time reading need to have a certain effect. They need to be good enough to make the audience either read the piece again or like it the first time through. However, nobody gets the entirety of a piece with just one reading, so you need to read something multiple times to make sure that your first impressions aren't inaccurate.

When you finally do talk to the author, be honest. If you lie, you hurt everybody. If a particular sentence was terrible, say so. If five pages are terrible, say so. If an idea or a paragraph has confusing wording, say that you were confused and weren't sure what was going on. If something sounds unbelievable or just plain wrong, then again you have to say it. However, remember that criticism is not necessarily negative. If a character has a great line, point it out. If something made you laugh, share it. If you loved a sentence more than anything else in the piece, tell the author, "don't you dare change this sentence."

Although you should be honest, the way you say it is a whole other story. Aside from finding somebody who says something more than "I liked it", the hardest part of finding a good reader is finding somebody who says things in just the right way. Writers have different preferences in criticism. Some cannot handle anything negative. For these people, you have to be critical without being negative. Phrases like, "I think I would like it more if you. . ." and "What would you think if. . ." are going to be your bread and butter. Other people want to be torn apart. You may have to try to be vicious to appease these people. They're rare, though, so don't worry about it. Most people are somewhere between these extremes (though a majority are more toward the former).

What I've been talking about so far is being useful. It's saying things that have value and meaning. The next step is being constructive, helping to make the writing better for the next draft. What that comes down to is application. When a reader says, "I really didn't like this passage; it sounds awkward", the next thing they should say is, "Try saying it this way." This is usually focused on negative criticisms, which makes sense. If there's a problem, it should be fixed. But positive things can also be constructive. For example, "I loved the comparison of the pilot as a watermelon seed. I want to see that comparison expanded throughout the story."

I have two tests that I use to see if I will like somebody as a reader. The first test is if I want to continue working on my piece after a session. If the talk and advice is so good that I want to immediately start working on the next draft, I know I have a good fit. The other test is if they catch the sentences I don't like. I don't purposely put in bad sentences to catch my readers, but I do occasionally come by a passage that I just can't make sound right. I end up doing the best I can and moving on. My best readers point out those spots (without any help) ten times out of ten.

If you can learn what style of criticism you respond best to, you will be able to find a good reader for you. If you can figure out what a writer does and doesn't respond well to, you can be a good reader for anyone.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Genre and Medium

I think the most frustrating thing about telling people I write comics is that people don't know what comics are. The only experience most of us have is either the strips in the newspaper or the superheroes at the newsstand. Comics have to be either short and funny, long and action-packed, or weird and Japanese.

The confusion comes from one simple misunderstanding. Comics are a medium, not a genre. A medium is simply a manner of communication. A genre is a style of communication. Media of writing include: comics, novels, short stories, essays, creative nonfiction, plays, etc. Genres include: comedy, drama, action, fantasy, science fiction, slice of life, etc.

Any given medium can support any given genre. Many combinations very rarely occur. Sometimes it's for good reason, though. An action play is probably too expensive, if even possible. A slice of life novel could be a marathon of dullness. However, nothing is certain, especially with somebody who is determined. I would challenge any writer to, just as an exercise, try to come up with the most ludicrous combination of genre and medium and try to make it work.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Always Being 'On'

I think there is a great misconception with people who make regular content (comics, blogs, podcasts, etc.). You should always be 'on'. Every update needs to be great. If you are doing comedy, you need to have something funny. If you are doing drama, you need to have something interesting, even intriguing.

It's ironic because as your fans grow to know you and get accustomed to you, they will be more forgiving about an update not blowing them away. The problem with this kind of thinking, though, is that every update might be somebody's first experience with you. If you have a bad joke on your current edition, people may not give you a second chance (people can be jerks like that). If you are building up a story toward a major plot point or a super funny joke, you better make sure that there are still good parts in every update. People are only so patient (again, they're jerks).

I don't mean to sound like an imposing jerk. I am more giving fair warning. I know it's impossible to make every update your best one, and I know that sometimes a joke just doesn't work as well as we'd like. I'm just saying that we shouldn't be teases and we should always try to make the audience want to come back for an update, new and old members alike.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

I Have Nothing to Write

It seems that all writers at some point have the problem of not having something to write. Though it seems a simple enough problem, there is actually much to say on the subject.

If you're having this problem, the first thing you need to know is why you have nothing to write. It could be a simple case of writer's block. The best explanation of writer's block I've heard is that your mind is being hypernegative. It's not that you don't come up with ideas, but that you shoot all of them down, believing they are no good. If this is your problem, the best cure is to put yourself in a state of boredom. Do something repetitive and mind-numbing. Sometimes your job covers that perfectly. Sometimes it's a matter of going outside and staring at clouds. Or maybe if you are lying in bed and you're in that state between being awake and going to sleep (we actually start to dream before we fall unconscious). Any of these tasks promote daydreaming (or regular dreaming), which leads to much thought generation. It also tends to be a frame of mind free of negativity, where you can explore ideas without worrying about "good" and "bad". If you find an idea that you really like or that you really want to explore, keep on it. Just write it down so you don't forget. Now you have something to write and you're writing.

Maybe you don't have writer's block. Maybe you're just in a dry spell. Where writer's block is "I can't think of anything good," dry spells are "I can't think of anything." Dry spells are frustrating because your conscious mind has nothing and your unconscious mind isn't telling you what it's doing. But despite that, the number one thing to do is have faith. Even if your mind doesn't have any water it's always drilling for a new source. One day, you will have an idea, which is usually followed by several more and then you will barely be able to get everything down (do try to, though). If you are lacking in faith, the methods for dealing with writer's block are still very effective in trying to speed up the process.

A lot of writers think they don't have anything to say. Usually, the more accurate problem is that they have nothing they want to say. Writers tend to be very personal and very private. I think that's what drives us to write. It's like communicating with people without having to actually be around other people. Even still, writing is never easy. Sometimes we have to write about the things that hurt, the painful moments, the events that scarred us for life. Sometimes we have to say the stuff that we swore we would never tell another soul. Sometimes we have to write the things that might make your family disown you. Interestingly enough, when you write these things, you might find out that people won't hate you and won't judge you. If you write about real reality, the nitty gritty truth, people will respect your courage and honesty. The only people who could be offended by the truth are the people who can't handle it. And, frankly, you don't need those people.

Some people will never feel comfortable with the secrets they keep. Though I will always recommend telling them, I can understand that some things you may just refuse. I know that I have trust issues, so I never talk about myself. And yet, I still have found much to write about. I tend to write to explore ideas. I'll start with a premise like, "what would happen if I couldn't use my legs", then I would write the story starting with me waking up in the hospital without my legs. There is a lot to consider with such a scenario. How would I get around? What hobbies could I no longer do? How different is the world when you're always sitting down? Would I look at my new life with sorrow or would I crack jokes about it? Would I even think my life was worth living anymore? This is a very serious subject, which means very serious questions need to be asked and answered. You can also choose to write comedy in the same way, though. "What would happen if I could press a button that casted magic, but I couldn't choose what spells it did?" There are infinite amounts of wacky situations that could come from it, including a story of trying to resist the temptation to press the button, hoping for the magical jackpot to occur.

If you have nothing to write, then stop writing and start finding things to write. If you have nothing you want to write, that's your problem and you either need to get over it or hang up your pen forever. If you're a writer, I advise against that last part. If you're not a writer, I still advise against it.