Sunday, May 31, 2009

A Good Liar

There are at least two things I know about myself: I am a writer and I am a liar. I also am pretty sure that the two are intrinsically linked. I don't know if I'm a writer because I lie or if I'm a liar because I write, but I do know that they use the same skills.

Create a world that is like ours, but not the same. Make it as realistic as possible, even if it is larger than life. Actions and reactions should be understandable and explained well. People should never question logic or motives. Small, minor, even inconsequential details add to the vividness and make it seem like it takes place through a person's eyes. All of those skills apply to writing and lying.

If you enjoy writing, I won't say that you should go out and start lying, but I will say that you might have a natural penchant for writing. Similarly, if you are a compulsive liar, I would suggest putting your skills to constructive use by lying on paper instead of doing it in person.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Make your pictures matter.

The most obvious sign between a novice comicker and a professional is the use of art. Comics are a mix of words and pictures. Both parts should be doing work. They should also be doing the thing that the other cannot.

The art shows location, position, action, and emotion. The words show dialogue and thought. The problem that novices have with art coincides with a similar problem with writing. These comics (usually strips) have two or three people having a conversation. They are sitting down next to each other (or facing each other) and speak back and forth, eventually ending with a punchline. Because there is no action going on, the people don't move. In fact, the pictures are copied and pasted for all of the panels. The only thing that changes is the facial expressions.

There is nothing more painful to watch than the same picture next to itself 4 times over. Are you writing a comic or are you writing a story? When you use the same pictures over and over again, they are merely place holders. All they do is show you who is talking. You could write a script or a play and get the same results. If you're going to write a comic, make your pictures matter.

The face expresses a lot of emotion, but it is not the only thing. Make a whole person's body show how they feel. If they're bored, why are they even looking at the speaker? Make them look away, read a magazine, play a GameBoy. If they're excited, have them leaning forward, grabbing the edge of their seats. Don't feel like you need to make your poses melodramatic to get the point across. In fact, the more realistic they are, the more the audience can connect with it.

Be efficient with your pictures. Novice strips use one picture for several panels because they are dragging out the scene. If one character has a big speech, give them a panel with just that character talking. If two people have a snappy back and forth, you can fit several quick sentences back and forth in one panel. That way you don't have to reuse one scene over and over.

The fastest thing in the universe is light. The first thing we do with a comic is see it. Do your audience (and yourself) a favor and make your comic something worth looking at.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Planning While Doing

When I come up with ideas for stories, I use one of two methods. My main method is to plan out the whole story in my head. I see the beginning, the transitions, and the end. I figure out where people are, what they're doing, and how everything works together.

It's a good method, but it comes with its drawbacks. For one thing, it takes a great deal of mental energy. If you are doing the whole thing in your head without taking notes, you run the risk of forgetting things. Sometimes a small detail could be crucial and losing it destroys your whole structure. The other problem is that it can be disheartening. Staring at a blank computer screen or an empty sheet of paper for hours on end makes you feel like you haven't done anything, even though you may have done a lot of work in your head.

Sometimes, though, I take the opposite approach. I will start writing the opening scene (it can be a scene anywhere within the story, though) and write as far as I can. Now I need to figure out where I am and where I'm going. I need to understand how I can make something good from my little seed of a scene.

Both of these methods still have a lot of similarity to them. They both require building and crafting. Both methods are like solving a puzzle (how do the pieces I have fit together). The only difference between the two is that in the first method, I am pulling an idea out of the air, and in the second method I am somewhat writing myself into a corner and then writing my way out.

As always, use whatever works for you. Any method that gets you writing, or at least thinking about writing, is a good method. But, just because you have one method that works doesn't mean you shouldn't try another. You may be surprised what outcomes other methods may have on you.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Perks of Paper

I am a child of the digital age. Even in elementary school, I was writing my homework on a word processor. For me, computers are easier to use than writing longhand. I can write faster and for longer periods of time on a keyboard than I can with a pen or pencil. Whether it is by design or by practice, writing on paper just isn't the same as writing on a computer.

However, despite the shortcomings of longhand, there are a lot of perks to writing on paper. The number one reason to use paper is the freedom of drawing on the page. Being able to place a word exactly where you want, to create any punctuation or symbols you want, to leave white space wherever you want, all make paper a pleasant medium.

Some things just work better on paper. Visual organizers, like diagrams or charts can be created just as easily as a paragraph can on paper, whereas a computer is far more limiting in that respect. Even when a document is all text, formatting can be a pain for word processors. Whenever I write scripts for my comic strip, I always write them on paper for ease of formatting. I like the way I write them and I cannot duplicate it on my computer, so I pick paper.

Technology is always improving, allowing more freedoms and abilities. For example, I can take a PDA or a cell phone and keep it in my pocket and use it to write notes and observations throughout the day. It is really convenient. It is also something I've been doing with paper long before I ever had a cell phone. Nowadays, we are getting closer and closer to the point where digital writing will be able to do everything that longhand can do, but we aren't there yet.

I'm sure there are plenty who will say that nothing can be exactly the same as feeling a pen scrape across a sheet of bristol. They may be right. In either case, until paper is completely copied, make use of the perks of paper while you can.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Get Better

I love to read webcomics I haven't read before. It's always an experience, always a discovery to be made. It's not always a good experience, but I'm usually glad I did it.

I like to give every comic a fair chance, so I have a method. I read the most recent strip/page and then a few more before that. If it still looks interesting, I go to the first comic and read it all the way through in order.

When I read through a comic, I notice one of two things usually happens. Either it starts very interestingly and gets boring, or it starts very rough and unfocused and gets cleaner and tighter. There are always exceptions, but this is the generality I've found.

I wondered why this might be. For those who start strong, but peter out, I think it is a matter of having a good idea, and then not getting any more ideas (or not realizing that the new ideas are lousy). For thohse who start unfocused, I think tat the comic is an experiment. It's like, the creator sees all these other comics online and wants to join the collective, or somebody who doodles a lot and wants to share them, or at least offer to share them. They are the people who are used to drawing pictures, but not writing characters, drawing scenes, but not telling stories.

If your style is going to change over time, it's much better to get better than get worse. Whatever you are uncomfortable with, you should do it. Do it a lot. Get better at it so that you aren't uncomfortable anymore. Let your old works serve as a reminder of where you came from and how far you've gone. Hopefully, you've gone far uphill and not down.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009


In general, your characters are going to have friends. Friends come in all shapes and sizes, so it's important to understand how they work.

We usually think of a friend as a companion. They are the people who share your journey with you, even if it's not always the same quest. You see them every day, sometimes spending most of the day with them. These people are certainly friends. But, they come in other varieties, too.

Sometimes friends are separated. They only see each other occasionally. Still, though, when they finally see each other, they pick right back up as though no time had passed. They are great friends. Sometimes, friends separated at childhood may hear news of the other and still they will go out and find their old friend.

However, friendships are not eternal. Many come and go. They begin, they live, and they die. What kills a friendship? Distance does not do it, nor does time; the separated friends show that.

Like most relationships, a friendship will usually end because of a grievance. If some problem comes up or a fight breaks out and the differences are irreconcilable, it will likely end the friendship. Although friends can fight often and fiercely, they always make up, or at least agree to disagree. Without that peace at the end of the day, there can be no friendship.

But there is more to the death of friendships than mere disagreement. Friendships can die from disinterest. When friends are separated by distance, they leap at the opportunity to see their friend whenever possible. Sometimes it means no more than a few hours, or even grabbing lunch, but it's ok. Getting to see your friend at all is a treat. If you ever stop caring, if you'd rather not spend the time or make the effort to see somebody, then that speaks to the level of the friendship. If somebody is 5 miles away and you still don't care enough to go and see them, they must not matter much at all.

The end of a friendship is not necessarily about blame. Sometimes people simply grow apart. Sometimes it just takes time to realize that you don't really have as much fun as you think you do with a person, that time spent with them is not always time well-spent.

The quality of friends, as well as the specifics of their friendship, make a great impact on the thoughts and actions of your characters. This is another small aspect of life that, although it can be ignored somewhat, will add depth and reality to your characters. It will help us understand them, feel what they feel, and connect with them.

Monday, May 25, 2009


Sometimes people just hate you. Nothing you write is good, let alone good enough. Most times, those people will share with you exactly how they feel.

There is no escaping the vitriol of an angry public. If you are a professional artist, you will have to share your work with others. You have to push it on people and some people will push back.

Since you can't avoid it, the important question is what you will do in response to it. The natural reaction is to attack or defend. If somebody says your work is stupid, you attack them by saying that they're stupid for not getting it. If not, you become defensive, and then try to explain your work and why you think that it is good and valuable.

I advise against both of those. As an artist, your work should stand for itself. If somebody doesn't like it, then there is nothing you can do to change it. If somebody hates insults your work so much that they offend you, don't attack them. You're being just as terrible and stupid as they are. And if you get defensive and try to justify yourself, all you're saying is that your work is not good enough to speak for itself. It is also a show of weakness.

If somebody passionately hates your work, you should be proud. Somebody looked at your work, pondered it, was greatly affected by it, and then took the time to find and communicate with you. It's an honor. It says that what you do holds a tremendous power.

I know that compliments are far nicer and more pleasant, but not everybody takes the time to write random fan mail. Random hate mail also works though. It may be fiery hot, but remember that heat rises, so it should uplift you, not keep you down.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

In an Altered State of Mind

I've been told that all creativity comes from being in an altered state of mind. I can believe it. Any time I come up with a good idea, I'm usually not thinking straight.

My ideas come from one of three places. One is when going to sleep. If I'm lying in bed, starting to nod off, all sorts of crazy thoughts go through my head (we actually start dreaming before we physically fall asleep). Another is the shower. I hear that the water hitting the head stimulates the brain. Whatever the reason, standing in a very small area with my eyes closed and water pouring down calms me and makes my mind wander. The last place is simply staring off into space. This can also be called being lost in thought. It's when I'm so focused on an idea or series of ideas that I lose all track of the real world. It's a nice place to visit, though I wouldn't want to live there.

I write best in the night time. Being particularly tired or sleep-deprived isn't helpful, but I do know that as the night progresses, my mind works differently than it does while the sun is up. In the day, all I can think about is getting work done, like doing chores and finishing a to do list. At night, I am free to explore and wonder, which is perfect for writing.

However, although creativity may come from an altered state of mind, not every altered state is productive. I can't write while I'm drunk. Many classmates could only write while drunk. F. Scott Fitzgerald was notorious for it. However, I have never had success with it. Being drunk maks me want to do things, not write things. I don't come up with ideas and I can't explore ideas I already have.

I don't advocate using any drugs (including alcohol and tobacco), but I do recognize that a writer needs some altered state to write. I hope you can find a healthy one.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

In Medias Res

It means, "in the middle of things". It is a literary technique where you start your story in the middle of things. It is a method that comes with pros and cons.

The positive aspect is that it skips the "boring parts". Sometimes people don't want to know why things are happening; they just want to know what's happening and they'll figure out the backstory as they go along. More importantly, sometimes they don't need to know why things are going on. If you have a story about an unwilling hero coming to terms with his personal problems in order to lead a small army into an epic battle, then the reasons for the war as a whole are completely irrelevant to the story. The story is about a person, not politics.

The problem comes with disorienting the reader. There is no introduction, no setup; you're right in the middle of things. People have to figure out the backstory as they also continue forward in time. It makes more work for the reader (which readers don't always want).

However, there is another aspect to in medias res to consider. The only way to use the technique is to have a fully-developed world and characters. They ignore the camera because they're already in the middle of things when we start watching. I think that when you are building a new world, you should see if you could start your story in medias res. If you can't, then figure out what's actually going on in your world. If you can, then feel free to start anywhere you want.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Leave the Subtext to the Scholars

One thing that bugged me about English classes was when we had to analyze novels. Every teacher has their own interpretation of every great work and they're going to make sure that their students know their personal version.

I love the story of The Three Billy Goats Gruff, but when I tried to find out what the moral of the story was, I found that there wasn't one. In fact, there are several different views of the story to choose from. If one story has several interpretations, some of them even opposite in viewpoints, then how can we dare claim that our interpretation is "what the author intended"?

When I write, I rarely intend any kind of point. In fact, I make it a rule to not have a particular message in my stories. I do not write to teach a lesson. I write to inspire thinking. I write to explore a situation. If I want to beat somebody over the head with my opinion, there is no reason to veil it under the guise of a story. All that does is make my message less-clear. That's why I have my essays; they are simple, straight, and to the point (although they occasionally have broader applications in principle).

I love to see people interpret my work. I keep my mouth shut and just listen (which is sometimes not easy). It's amazing how people's ideas vary in scale from the intimate to the grandiose. It shows more about them than it does my own writing (or so I believe). That is how I like it and that is how I'm going to keep writing.

Tell a good story. Leave the subtext to the scholars.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Write the Way You Talk

One of the best pieces of advice I can give is to write the way you talk. It is a common suggestion; I think 'most any writer would give the same advice. Ironically, though, it is somewhat inaccurate.

The idea behind writing the way you talk is that spoken language is inherent and natural. We do it without thinking and it sounds good to us. Writing is unnatural. We have to be taught how to do it and it feels very alien to us (especially when all of our teachers force us to use a dialect of English that is never spoken). If you disregard the conventions of Standard Written English, then writing will be easier for you to do and it will be easier for your readers to understand.

The problem with the advice is that speaking can be just as difficult as writing. We trip over our words, say stupid things, rant and ramble. Good writing doesn't sound like everyday speech. It's collected, thought out, buffed and polished. Even the most natural writing is more strategic than speech. These blog posts, for example, are first drafts that I write without any planning. Whatever comes to my head is what I write. But despite that, I am thinking about what I say. When a sentence doesn't sound quite right, I rewrite it. Sometimes I get on a roll, but lose my train of thought. Then I have to remember where I was coming from and figure out where I'm going. It may sound natural, but it's actually pieces of natural speech sewn together, like Frankenstein's monster.

I still will give people the advice to write the way they talk. I think that it is the most important first step and always true, despite the minor accuracies. If you write the way you talk, then the small issues will be cleaned up in editing. If you write in a stilted or stiff manner, trying to make it sound natural will be a pain in the butt and a waste of time.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


I have mixed feelings when it comes to collaboration. Sometimes it's everything you need. Sometimes it's the last thing you need. However, despite my reservations, I believe that people should do collaborative work.

If nothing else, do collaborative writing exercises. Write a story where you alternate paragraphs. If you want to get challenging, alternate sentences. If you want to get impossible, alternate words. You can also collaborate on ideas before writing them down. Come up with a whole story together, each one of you pitching ideas and keeping the ones that you both agree with.

Collaboration is difficult for two main reasons. The first is that one of you will have an idea very well-formed in your head, which you will not want to stray from (making you wonder why you're collaborating at all). The second problem is maintaining consistency.

The first problem is a matter of personal will. If you have an idea that you really want to pursue, then don't collaborate. You can ask for help or ideas, but it is not a group project in that case. If you truly want to work with somebody, side-by-side, then be willing to put aside your original ideas and at least explore the ideas of your collaborator(s).

The second problem is a matter of finding a good collaborator. This is far more difficult. A good collaborator has to have a similar writing style, a similar taste, a similar way of seeing ways unfold. They need to be your soulmate of writing. When you can get inside each other's head, you start working as one. You will be similar, but different. You can find the ideas that you wouldn't come up with by yourself, but still fit within your original idea.

One of the best parts of collaboration is that it forces you to work. You don't want to waste your partner's time, nor look like a slouch in front of somebody you respect enough to work with. Some people work best under a deadline. Some people work only under a deadline. If you are either of these people, give yourself a deadline of being accountable to your collaborator.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Philosophy Put to Music

I love a good story. A good story will make me think for days after I've heard it (if not weeks). What makes a good story, though? It's not an easy thing to put one's finger on. Some would say that a story has to have a point, that it exists to convey an idea in the author's head. Some say that a story is about a character that has to make a decision. Still others would say that a story is no more than a bunch of stuff that happened.

Personally, I say all of the above. Socratic dialogues are essays in story form. Allegories like Animal Farm or Aesop's fables are simply the author's own ideas thinly veiled by semi-fictional characters. All of those are good stories and make me think, so there is truth there. But there is more to it.

What makes a story interesting is the decisions that characters make. We empathize with them. We imagine what it would be like if we were in their situation, what it would be like to get to make some of their decisions and what it would be like to have to make some of the decisions they made. A classic hero's tale makes us feel empowered. Choosing to say no to the forces of evil, to fight against them and win through sheer force of will, we do all the things we wish we could do. A tragic hero's tale, though, makes us feel somewhat powerless. When we think of what it would be like to lose all of the things and people we love, we feel like there's nothing we could do. But when we read of a hero who still chooses to be a hero despite that loss, it fills us with strength and courage as well.

Still, though, I believe that a story doesn't even need to have a choice. Simply seeing characters living life the way they naturally would can be interesting. Have you ever met somebody so different from yourself that you can't help but wonder how they live their life? Simply reading the story of their daily thoughts and activities would make for a good story. Imagine somebody whoh isn't merely different, but is a paranoid schizophrenic. Seeing how they encounter and deal with the world could keep you riveted.

As I said at the beginning of this post, a good story makes me think. I love thinking, which happens to be exactly what philosophy is. And in the end, all good stories are just philosophy put to music. Philosophy is examining the world around us and seeking to understand it. Sometimes we learn by listening to a well-made argument. Sometimes we learn by exploring a place we've never visited. Regardless of how, any story that makes us think is a good one, and one worth reading.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Local Television Commercials

When I watch TV, I always know where I am. Sure, the shows may be the same, and most of the commercials are, too, but not all of them. Every area has its own local commercials fr local businesses. Maybe the local pizza shop or shoe store will take air the occasional ad. You will also see the commercials for whichever grocery store your area has. But no matter where you are, it always comes down to lawyers and car dealerships.

Everywhere I have ever been has their own lawyers and car dealerships. There are about 5 of each in every location, too. Each one of them has their own commercials. The lawyers always show the same commercial they've been airing for the last 5-10 years. The dealerships are always advertising the latest sale they're having (are cars ever not overstocked, priced to move, or otherwise on sale?).

I hate these commercials so much. Terrible production quality, bad acting, stupid attempts at persuasion. And yet, there is a certain comfort in them. When you spend 5-10 years making fun of the same commercial, it becomes a ritual. It is part of my home. Local TV commercials are stupid, but my local TV commercials are special. When I spend 4 months away from them and come back to that same horrendous theme song and tag line, it reminds me hohw long I've been away and how nice it is to come back.

This is an incredibly minute detail in life, but it is in the minutia that we truly experience the world. When you write, remember details like the local TV commercials. Show that love-hate relationship with them. When people are away from their hometown, show how the commercials are still about car dealerships and lawyers, but not the right ones. The theme songs and tag lines aren't right. It isn't enough to throw a person into madness, but it is enough to make them feel uncomfortable when they're trying to relax.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Getting Work Done

For me, the hardest thing about writing (and everything else in life) is getting started. The task of writing is daunting. It's a complicated process that is physically and mentally draining. I need to set aside time for it, be in the mood or get myself in the mood to write, and actually be able to create anything worthwhile.

Frankly, that's all crap. That's just a fear mechanism in action. The fact of the matter is that once I start writing, I'm amazed at how much I actually get done.

Take my comics for example. I have two parts in the creative process. The first part is writing scripts. This means I have to come up with an idea, figure out which characters are in it, where they are, what they're saying, what they're doing, and how everything is broken up into 4 panels. The second step is to do storyboarding. This is the final draft, where I write out a very rough sketch of the panels (when I write scripts, it's either in words or in my head) and I write out the words exactly as I want them (scripts occasionally need major revision).

Writing scripts definitely seems like a daunting task. They require a lot of work. However, when I sit down and actually put forth any kind of effort, I can get 4 scripts done in a matter of a few hours. If I did this every night before bed, that would be 28 a week. Storyboarding also can be scary because it is the final draft. I need to make sure my words are perfect and that the panels don't use the same picture for all 4 panels. But that's not too bad either. The words are easy when you say them out loud and the pictures aren't a huge deal because I trust my partner to work his magic on them (that's why he draws).When I sit down and storyboard, I can get into a groove and get 10 done in a couple of hours. It really isn't that difficult.

If you find yourself being overwhelmed by the idea of writing, tell yourself that it's no big deal. If you can, find a friend to kick you in the butt and make you actually start working (deadlines are good like that, too). Once you get your hands moving and your mind thinking, you'll find it isn't as difficult as you thought.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Do What You Can Do Well

In a creative field (in all fields, really), it is great to be a one-man task force. When you do all of the work yourself, you are only accountable to you and you are working with people you can trust. You also happen to get all of the rewards and glory for your work.

The one problem with being a one-man show is that few people are good at everything. Within the world of comics, there are countless people who can draw, but have nothing to say. There are plenty of people with something to say and no ability to draw it (like me). Even when looking at writing alone, there are people with great ideas and no delivery and there are people with a beautiful voice and nothing to accompany it.

As far ass I'm concerned, people need to accept their limitations and move beyond them. Whatever you can do well, do it. But don't try to do more than that. If you're a writer who can't draw and there is a drawer who can't write, then rather than each one creating a subpar comc, they should combine their efforts to make one fantastic comic.

If you can come up with interesting ideas for your writing, but you're about as interesting as a history textbook, then draft a piece with your ideas and work with somebody who can give them life with their words. Sharing the by line is not a shame. A shame is creating an inferior work because you want to do it all.

If you simply cannot find somebody to partner with you, then by all means don't wait forever and never share your work. But if the opportunity presents itself, certainly don't pass it off. It could be the partnership of a lifetime.


Every now and then, I think it is very important to disappear. It is becoming increasingly difficult to be completely disconnected, what with the cell phones, emails, IMs, and countless other communication devices. But maybe that's all the more reason that we need to give it all up on occasion.

Try turning off your phone, leaving it in your room. Don't sign on or log in to anything. In fact, try leaving your computer off, too. Write longhand on a sheet of paper. Leave your home and write outside. Go to a park and breathe in the fresh air. Enjoy the sights and the sounds.

I admit that I am pretty terrible at taking my own advice in this case. I like to type on my computer in my room and completely connected to people so hey know I'm available. I can even get writing done under these circumstances. But still, it is a noticeable distraction. And during those times when I actually do disappear for a while, I'm amazed at how much more work I can get done, and hohw good it feels.

Think of it as a vacation. Take a break from your normal routine and get away from it all, even if for just a few hours. If you like it, plan another one. If you don't, it cost you nothing.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Always Learning

In everything I do in life, I try to learn. Since I get bored very easily, I am in a constant need for new stimuli. The pursuit of new information and new ways to look at old information is inherently fresh, so I can do it forever.

This is why the majority of my writing is exploratory. I write to learn. It is ironic because a finished product sounds authoritative and sure. And, maybe a finished product is authoritative and sure. This blog sounds confident and definite (though I wouldn't call anything here a finished product), and part of it is, but in the writing of it, I am constantly learning.

To come up with an idea from scratch, I need to figure out what I actually care about enough to write on. I need to learn enough about it to have anything worth saying about it and to sound competent when I do speak.

As I start to write about a subject, I am still thinking about it, so I usually come to a realization about the subject in the process of writing (that has got to be the funnest part of writing). For example, my entry about good and evil was almost entirely exploratory. I started with nothing more than seeing that "good" people and "evil" people can do the exact same thing and wondering what the deal was that allowed it. The rest of it unfolded itself as I wrote.

Sometimes, though, what I learn about has nothing to do with the subject at hand. In writing my entries, I've needed to look things up quite often. It could be a fact or a quote or a definition. And it occurs to me that when I have all the world's knowledge at my fingertips, citations aren't as important as they used to be because anybody can go to Google and find out whatever they don't know or understand.

Learning is fun and exciting. It is also an inseparable part of writing. Embrace it and enjoy it.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Sturdy Saturday

I discovered today that if you spell 'Saturday' without the letter 'a', you get the word 'Sturdy'. I think it weird that when I try to say 'Saturday' without a, it feels very awkward, but saying the word 'sturdy', it feels just fine. The same thing is true for seeing it spelled.

Little discoveries like this are what make me a writer. Or rather, they explain why I choose to be a writer. Words are fun to me. They are both solid and fluid. Words have definite meanings; you can look them up. Words can be used to explain almost everything. If there's something we can't explain, we'll create a new word or phrase to describe it. And yet, words change meanings over time (Man used to mean person, but now it means male person). If you use a word in a nonstandard way, but you do it with enough conviction, you will give that word a new meaning. Get enough people using the new meaning, and it becomes the standard and official.

I love how words are just collections of sounds. Since the human body can only make so many sounds, we end up with words that are very similar to each other in sound, but not necessarily in meaning (like Sturdy Saturday). When I tell people to let their mind wander when looking for ideas, this is how my mind wanders. I look for words with similar sounds or structures and then I wonder what kind of story could be made from it (Sturdy Saturday sounds like the story of a woman trying to keep her sanity on a weekend where everything goes wrong and then some).

Words are not a mere idea to me; they are an experience. 'Seething' is a word that feels exactly what it means. 'Seething' is an anger so intense that your teeth are clenched, you're foaming at the mouth, and cartoonish steam is spewing from your ears. Just saying the word makes you close your mouth and you get an airy sound from it. And if you're actually angry enough to use the word 'seething' you're also going to say it with conviction that fully explains what it means, even if you've never heard it before.

'Pique' is unique. It is an old-world classy to me. It's a word we often use, but rarely realize (because we think it is 'peak'). It has a peculiar structure and is used when you find something peculiar. It feels like a mashup of the words 'peculiar' and 'unique' (even though it has nothing to do with those words, their sounds are similar).

English, for as confusing and irregular as it is, does have some rules. For example, 'y' sometimes turns into 'i', when 'fly' becomes 'flies'. Similarly, 'x' can turn into 'c'. Recently, it occurred to me that 'crucial' comes from 'crux'. When that realization dawned on me, it felt like I got a hug from somebody who's been looking for me for 20 years.

I've mentioned before that writing is about sharing ideas and creating art. Whichever one you think is more important, whichever one you like to do, they both come down to words. The perfect word perfectly expresses your idea. The perfect word creates the exact color you're looking for. If you love words, you might just love writing. And if you love writing, I sincerely hope you love words.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Level of Vocabulary

One of the big problems I've seen come from bad English classes is that they reinforce bad language. All of the books and essays we read are written in an old and highfalutin style. People think they need to use high-level vocabulary to prove that they're educated. Ironically, all it shows is that they're thoughtless tools.

Of course, all the people who rebel against the English class have just as big a problem: they think the level of their vocabulary doesn't matter. Sadly, it's just not true. The fewer words you know, the more difficult it is to express yourself. And if you can't express yourself with a certain eloquence (like not using "thing" and "stuff" to describe every object), you will be looked at as significantly less intelligent than others.

There is a tricky balance between high-level and low-level language. The way that English works, there is potentially a single word that exists or can be made to describe absolutely any object, action, or concept. However, that doesn't mean you should always use them. I believe that you should never use words that are more complicated than you need. If you're talking about a cartoon cow, don't call it an anthropomorphized bovine. But, if the spray of perfume was evanescent, don't feel the need to dumb it down. If a reader doesn't know a word, they can look it up, or figure it out from sound and context.

Heck, some people might not even know what jargon is. For those people, all I can say is that is your friend, because you better not count on me to tell you that it is the vocabulary of a specific field (except for this one time). But that's just me. I have a vocabulary better than a 5th grade education and I will use it when the time is right. Sometimes a word is just perfect and I will not remove it to make sure every single person doesn't need to look it up.

Ultimately, write the way that is natural to you. If you are using big words to sound smart, you will look stupid. If you use simple words to be very understandable, you will sound stupid. If you write the way you talk, regardless of high or low level, you will sound like a real human being, which is what you should really want.

Monday, May 11, 2009

In the Face of Weirdness

All writing is about something weird. Every murder-mystery is about a particularly weird murderer. Horror is about weird things happening to normal people. Fantasy takes place in an entire world of weirdness. Slice of life is about the weird aspects of the real world.

Whenever we encounter something weird, we will have one of two reactions. We will either study it or laugh at it. As a writer, we try to make our writing lean toward serious or comedic. Unfortunately, it will always be the audience who determines which category it is.

I love the movie Kung Fu Hustle. Although it is labeled as a comedy, I love the dramatic parts of it. The comedy is nice, but I think of it as a good martial arts flick. However, Bloodsport (to keep up with martial arts movies) is a serious movie that is laughably horrible.

If you want to understand yourself as a writer, then you need to understand yourself as a person. Go watch The Boondock Saints. Look at Willem Dafoe's character (FBI agent Smecker). To say the least, it's weird. I watched it with a group of friends, all of whom were watching it for the first time. When Dafoe starts dancing around to opera at a murder scene, everybody was laughing out loud. Everybody except me. I was too curious to laugh. I had to know what exactly he was doing. Why was he doing it? How did he come up with it? Why does it work? Nobody else had those thoughts. They just thought it was really weird.

When you see something weird, do you learn or do you laugh? If you learn, then drama may be more your alley. If you laugh, then go for comedy. I have heard people say that drama is easy and comedy is hard. I have also heard the exact opposite. Really, the easier one is the one that matches you. Of course, learning to do both is always good for you.

Sunday, May 10, 2009


I don't like style guides. Frankly, I hate them. Style guides stunt language. They freeze writing in a particular manner and never let go. They also tend to be very stiff and unnatural. That said, I want to focus specifically on contractions and my own use of them.

Most style guides will tell you to simply not use them. According to my own schooling, contractions are too colloquial, so you would never use them outside of informal writing. I disagree with that. I think that contractions should be used to make the nicest-sounding sentence. No surprise, the simplest test is to read a sentence out loud and feel which one is easier to say (it is rare, if ever, that they are equal). Reading silently will feel the same way.

If you want to take a more technical view, a major importance is emphasis. Consider the sentences "I don't want an apple" and "I do not want an apple." In the first sentence, the emphasis is on 'want', or 'want an apple'. Without context, it suggests that the speaker wants something, but not an apple in particular. The second sentence has emphasis on 'not', making it seem like the speaker is rejecting an offer of an apple. The difference is subtle, but any native English speaker will always feel which one is right, especially in context.

Another major importance is rhythm. The first sentence has 6 syllables, the second has 7. Depending on the sentences surrounding it, one of them may roll off the tongue more easily than the other. For example, "The fruit basket stares at me, but I do not want an apple" and "I see the fruit basket, but I don't want an apple." After I wrote those sentences, I noticed that the first sentence has a 7-syllable phrase to go with a 7-syllable phrase and the second sentences was 6 and 6. I think that shows how syllabic balance can determine whether or not to use a contraction.

The last question to ask is what the tone is. Although I truly disagree with the idea that contractions are inappropriate in formal work, I must admit that they do affect tone. A piece written without any contractions will sound formal (and stiff) and a piece with contractions will sound conversational. Both the standard model and I agree on this point. Where we separate is that I think writing should always sound conversational (except in certain very specific circumstances). It is easier to approach, understand, and digest.

Unfortunately, if you are working for one of the few remaining large corporations, you may still be required to write in standard written English, in which case you should ignore everything I said and follow whatever style guide you need.

Saturday, May 9, 2009


I saw a game show today called Chain Reaction. It's a relatively simple game, but just the kind of mental exercise I love. In short, you take the second word of a two-word phrase and use it as the first word of another two-word phrase. For example, Tip-Top, Top-Hat, Hat-Trick, Trick-Knee, Knee-Jerk, and so forth. The game itself has other parts to it, but that is the main point, to make these chains.

I writing a letter today, I also realized that I write in the exact same manner. I start writing a paragraph with a particular subject. In talking, the subject will slowly sift to another one. By the time the paragraph has moved elsewhere, I start on the next paragraph.

The nice thing about this method is that it adds to the natural feeling of a piece. When people say that something "just flows", this is one of the things they're talking about. You could write an essay that has no formal structure, no thesis, no support, and no conclusion. If your writing transitions conversationally from one subject to another, it will be very smooth and flowy, even if it is a mindless ramble.

Personally, I try not to ramble, at least not too much. That is where the true art of writing is: crafting a work to go where you want it to, but making a natural connection for every step of the way. It's like Taking the words "tip" and "jerk" and trying to find the chains that connect them. This is by no means easy, but when you do find the right path, it is a sight to behold.

The Process

I thought it might be useful to share what my process for writing this blog is. It's nothing too fancy, but it gets the job done.

I do almost all of my creative work at night. I write my entry (or entries if I missed a previous update) before going to bed. The first thing I do is open up my Word document called "Blog Posts." This is where I keep all of my ideas for blog posts that I haven't written yet. Sometimes these are simple phrases, usually with a sentence or two to remind me what I mean. One of the current items says "Comedians are Philosophers". Another one says "Contractions - When to use them". I like to keep a certain amount of vagueness because it makes the writing process easier.

When I've found an idea for a post that rings with me (basically, that it starts writing itself in my head as soon as I see it), I write the title in the title menu and start writing. Since it started writing itself in my head, I don't generally struggle with the opening line the way I would when trying to construct something from scratch. And basically, I let fly. Whatever I think of, I write down. I think it makes the writing feel very natural, like a conversation.

Sometimes, when I'm writing, I find myself traveling down a tangential path. It's not that I don't want to or shouldn't follow that path. However, I do want a post to have a central topic that I am talking about. That's the one downside to writing conversationally: you diverge from the original point very easily. On the plus side, if the idea is one I want to pursue later, I pull up Blog Posts and write it down. As I've said before, sometimes you get a lot of ideas, and sometimes you hit dry spells, so save every idea you can. Blog Posts has grown and shrunk dynamically since its inception.

After I save the idea, I go back to writing my post. I continue working on my main point, working toward a conclusion. Sometimes the conclusion naturally comes from everything that's been said. Sometimes, I don't have anything else to say and I have to really think about what advice can be drawn from it. Of course, the reader is always welcome to draw their own advice from whatever I write.

When I'm done writing, I post it and delete the entry from Blog Posts. Sometimes what I had written down as a thought was radically different from what I ended up writing. I laugh about it, but move on. The blog is what I was thinking when I wrote it. That's the beauty of regular content: you don't have the time to perfectly craft everything, but what you put down is raw humanity.

I know I should go through my post and edit it, even if just for the spelling mistakes that Firefox and my eye both miss, but I don't. I'm happy to be done with it and to work on the next one when it's time. If somebody really has an issue with my typos, they are always free to contact me and point them out and I will fix them. I'm one of the only people left who doesn't mind having his spelling corrected.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Conciseness Pt. II (that's a two)

Writing style, very largely occurs at the sentence level. When I first wrote about conciseness, I focused on the sentence level. I don't regret it because that is the most important place to start and to work on. But sentences are a microcosm. Everything that you do in your sentences should also happen in your whole works.

The first rule was to split up long sentences and complex ideas. The same goes for your writing. Small paragraphs are easy to digest. Sometimes you only need to put 3-5 sentences in a paragraph because that's all it needs. Sometimes it needs much more, but that's not a problem until your paragraphs start taking up half a page or more. If you are writing a chaptered work, make your chapters as long as they need to be. Once you have addressed the point, given information, and made conclusions, move on to the next chapter. There's nothing more to say.

The second rule was to cut out needless words and phrases. In your larger works, you may find you can remove entire paragraphs or sections. We have a tendency to repeat ourselves ad nauseum. It is sometimes subtle, but sometimes not. It's a vestige from school, the 5-paragraph essay we've done far too many times. "Here's what I'm going to say. Here's the things I'm saying. Here's the things I just said." It's painful, but we sometimes find ourselves not sure what else to say. If you need to say the same thing three times, do it, but delete two of them afterward.

If conciseness is "saying everything that matters in as few words as possible," then there are some issues of definition there. Many people would argue that every bit of information adds to the whole of the work. There is some truth to that. However, I would also argue that if the color of the walls is irrelevant to a story, then adding it in only hinders the experience. I would say that the ultimate conciseness uses as few words, sentences, and paragraphs as possible to express your idea without being confusing to your readers. It sounds really unpleasant, so utilitarian. That much conciseness might be overkill, but somewhere between that and excessively flowery language is a pleasant writing style.


I am an advocate of conciseness. If you can say everything you want with fewer words, do it. If you have a complex idea that requires a whole lot of words, split it up. Cut out prepositional phrases and needless verbiage.

Our language is wonderful because we can rearrange ideas in any way we want. I can say, "I fed my kitty," "my kitty got fed," "feeding occurred with my kitty," and several dozen more versions of the same idea. However, among all the variations, "I fed my kitty" is the clearest and most concise. It says everything we need to know. The other versions are all used either for style, accentuating a particular aspect, or just being weird.

In time, and with enough practice, you can certainly learn to weave style and conciseness. As always, I recommend saying your writing out loud. If you trip on your words, so will your audience (especially since you even know what you're trying to say). If you need to read a sentence more than once to understand it, it needs to be rewritten. Keep it at 15 words or less. A giant sentence is a burden. Lighten the load for your readers.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


I have been told that all writing must contain conflict. Without conflict, nothing happens. I think I agree with this. All stories are some kind of conflict, classically man vs. nature (god), man vs. man, and man vs. himself. I've been trying to come up with some kind of counterexample, but have yet to figure one out.

The closest I have come up with is the slice of life story. Similar to a diary entry, these can simply be a telling of things that happened. There isn't an overt point to them. We see things that happen and we interpret them in any number of ways. I have read my fair share of diary entries during my time as a writing student. I must say that the large majority of them were not worth reading. They had no interest to me. I think it was the lack of conflict that made them so uninteresting (though the subpar writing technique didn't help).

The slice of life stories I have read that are interesting to me are the ones that do have conflict. Sometimes they are overt, like a secretary who has to fight against her chauvinistic boss. Sometimes they are subtle, like a secretary dealing with the fact that she has never done more with her life than being a secretary.

These stories with conflict connect with us. Even though they are not our experiences, they can remind us of our own experiences, the difficulty of conflict and all of the different ways that it can be resolved (both positive and negative). Ultimately, a story needs to make its audience care. Conflict is a tried and true method for doing so. If there is a way for me to care about a story that doesn't have conflict in it, I think it is still worth reading. If your stories have been falling flat, consider what kind of conflict, if any, you are dealing with.

Monday, May 4, 2009


One of the major things we learn when we start writing is technique and style. These are fairly ambiguous terms, but for the sake of simplicity lets say that style is a particular way of writing and techniques are the specific things you do that make up your style. For example, if you have a style that is urgent and fast-paced, you would use the techniques of short sentences and descriptive action words.

As we learn about various styles and techniques, we will find certain ones that we prefer over others. Some things just feel right. They speak to us. So we assimilate them and they become our techniques that we use in our style. This is great. We have a style! We're recognizable. People know who we are and they know that if they liked one thing we've done, they'll like the rest of it.

Well, this can be a good thing. It can also be a bad thing. First of all, if somebody doesn't like one thing you've done, it means they'll never like anything you do, which is a little sad. More importantly, though, you're going to get boring. John Grisham is a great writer and has been a best-seller often. However, he also has the stigma of writing the same book over and over again. Even if you like his work, there is going to reach a point where you've seen the same premise enough times and you can't go through another iteration of the same thing.

Alan Moore said that as soon as you can recognize a personal style or technique, it is stale. If you keep using it, you will get stale, too. If you love to transition in a particular way, do something completely different. If you're a sci-fi writer, write a romance novel or a mystery story. Always do something new. It keeps you fresh and new. It keeps people guessing, which keeps them excited (which is a good thing). If you always try something new, you will always grow and become a better writer.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

A Good Thinker

I ended my last post by saying that "a good thinker is a good writer." I couldn't get that thought out of my head. Partly, that's because I'm not sure if it's right. I sure think it is, but I'm not sure.

What makes a good writer? A good writer makes good writing, but what is good writing? This is largely subjective, but there is some common ground. I think that people can agree that writing is a combination of words and ideas.

Words are the medium through which ideas are shared. That means that writing is all about ideas. Words are simply tools. A good writer is a good thinker. Trained peons can learn how to use words to communicate a good idea. Only a thinker can come up with those ideas in the first place.

The only problem I have with this theory is that words are not mere tools. Although words contain meaning, which is used to express ideas, words have other qualities beside meaning. Every written word has the physical appearance of the letters that make it, and the sounds that the word represents, both of which can be beautifully woven. This means that writing is not about meaning, but about creating a painting and a song with words. Any deeper meaning to a lovely piece is in the hands of the audience to interpret in their own way.

I have never found extremes to be correct. This case is no different. Any writing that has a good idea, but is only adequate at expressing it isn't always worth reading (sometimes you just find the summary and save the trouble). Writing that sounds great, but has nothing worthwhile to say is like pop music: it's nice while it's there, but once you get bored, there's no reason to remember it exists.

Ultimately, there is much writing that is painful to read, but has a message worth knowing, and there is much writing that is a joy to read, but whose beauty is only skin-deep. Both have enjoyable aspects. If you can, try to write thought-provoking works that are beautifully constructed. If you can only choose one, then pick whichever one makes you happy.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

People Watching

I like to watch people. Not in the creepy way. I like to figure people out. When I see people, sometimes I can't help but ask myself what on earth could make them do the things they do.

This is actually a fantastic mental exercise. Can you figure out why that person in the grocery store is buying bargain bin dinner rolls and a porterhouse steak? Why did the person in the bank wait for 5 minutes in line, then nonchalantly leave the line, exit the bank, and never return? Why did that jerk in the bright red sports car cut you off and run a red light?

In all honesty, these are questions we may never find the answers to. However, that can't stop us from guessing. The person in the grocery store might be making bread pudding, which is better with day-old bread. Maybe she's getting cheap rolls to spite her husband, who made such a big deal about getting a porterhouse steak. The person in the bank could simply have realized that she forgot to bring her checks and left to go get them. Maybe she was sick with food poisoning and felt an attack coming on, but wanted to be discreet. The jerk in the sports car maybe just found out that his wife is in the hospital giving birth to their first child. Maybe he's just a jerk and doesn't give a damn about anything but himself.

Any scene you see could have an infinite number of reasons for its cause. Unless we do some serious detective work, we'll never know for sure. However, figuring out what might explain it, what gives an answer, even if it makes some assumptions, that will help you become a better thinker. And a good thinker is a good writer.


Consider writing a series. Write about different kinds of fruit, animals in the zoo, musical instruments, things that are blue. You can use encyclopedic entries, poems, vingettes, even novels if you're feeling daring.

A series of related works has a number of benefits. For one thing, it gives you something to write about. If you find yourself stuck, not sure what to write, you have a list of possibilities. Well, I wrote about violas yesterday and I don't feel like writing about the cello. Maybe I'll write about the harp. No, I think I'll go for the marimba. No matter what the reason or how you feel, there's almost always another entry you could write about.

A series doesn't have to be by subject, though. Maybe it's the way you treat a piece. Do a series of interviews. You could interview Benjamin Franklin, that random woman you see in the grocery store and never talk to, a #2 pencil, and one of those birds that sound like a seesaw when they chirp. We can all imagine what Ben would say. We can all take a guess at what the random woman might say. But what would a pencil have to say to you? What would you even ask it? Let your series force you to think in unusual ways. Let it make you do something new.

Because a series is naturally going to have a common thread through it, we have the ability to create an aura. Different pieces have different feels to them, like different rooms in a house. But in a series, we can create a whole house instead of merely rooms.

Ironically, because a series has a common thread through it, we also have the ability to do whatever we please. They're already connected, so now we can explore just how different similar things can be.

It's a fun experiment. If you want to give it a shot, go for it. If you think it's dumb, but you have nothing better to do, you might as well give it a shot, too.