Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Pirate Murderers

What is a pirate murderer? Is it a pirate who murders people or is it a person who murders pirates? I don't know and neither do you.

As wonderful as our language is, it leaves a lot of room for ambiguities, such as pirate murderers. However, context will usually explain the meaning of an ambiguous phrase. We know which definition is intended between the sentences, "the pirate murderers polished their peg legs" and "the pirate murderers had finally made the sea safe."

The large majority of our ambiguity, though, comes from pronouns. A sentence can have many nouns, which means a pronoun can replace a number of words. Now, according to the rules of standard written English, a pronoun refers to the last noun used before it. Unfortunately, the fact that my last sentence is understandable proves that rule to be wrong.

If I say, "Chris saw Jenny eat his fries", we understand that "he" refers to Chris because Chris is the only noun that can use a masculine pronoun. But what if we have the sentence, "Chris saw Steven eat his fries"? Now we have two very different possibilities and an even chance of a person thinking one version or the other.

Now, with more context, we can still figure out what the intended meaning was. But the problem is that when we read that sentence, we will either be confused and try to figure out which meaning is intended or we will make an assumption, which has a 50/50 chance of being wrong and confusing us. Sure, we'll figure it out, but there will likely be a span of time where we are removed from the story and have to act as detectives. That is the exact opposite of what we want to do.

The best way to avoid ambiguity is to use simple sentences. Create a sentence where it is impossible for a pronoun to refer to more than one thing. Or, you could even just not use pronouns at all. Using the above example, you can either say, "Chris saw Steven eating fries", which implies that the fries belong to Steven, or you can say Chris saw Steven stealing fries", which implies that the fries are someone else's. Better yet, you could say, "Steven was eating Chris's fries and Chris saw it." Now all of the original ideas are present and are clearly said with no risk of ambiguity.

It sounds like a chore to do this stuff. It's a lot more technical than creating a universe and exploring it. However, this is part of the editing process and is necessary. If your audience doesn't understand what you're saying, you need to say something different.

Ask Interesting Questions

Suppose you were interviewing somebody famous. Let's say it was the lead singer of a world-famous band. Anyone so popular has done countless interviews and has answered every question under the sun. They've said how and why the band formed, where they get their inspiration from, and how much they love playing live shows. Now that it's your turn, what are you going to do?

If you want to be safe and basic, you can ask the same safe and boring questions that they can answer in their sleep. If you want to be interesting, then ask some interesting questions. Instead of asking them about things they've done, ask them about the things they haven't done. Ask what they would have done without music. Ask why they don't play different kinds of music. If you want to be really daring, you can ask them what their favorite flower is, or if they could be any kind of tree, what tree they would be.

When you write, you're conducting an interview. If you're writing a biography, you're interviewing a person. You ask them all the questions about their lives, how things happened and why. If it's an autobiography, you're interviewing yourself. If it's an essay, you're interviewing your subject. If you're writing fiction, you're interviewing your characters.

Remember the number one rule when you're interviewing: what is interesting is relative to what you know.

To go back to the lead singer, we don't ask the basic questions because we already know the answers to them. We could go to Wikipedia and find out basic information about famous people. We already know where they were born, what schooling they've had, who their influences are, and everything else. That's why you have to start asking the stranger questions.

But suppose you're interviewing a brand-new band that nobody knows about. This is not the time to be asking them about flowers or regrets. We need to know the basic information of these people. You have to ask them the boring questions, which are not boring if you don't know the answer to them.

Writing stories will be the same way. When a new character is introduced, the audience needs to learn all the basic background questions that make us understand who this person is and what they do. But if you have a character whose background is either common or generally unimpressive, then you start asking other questions. You start asking what they think about, what they dream of, what they regret, what they suppress.

An interview is a tool to gather information for a story. This is true for a news article and it is true for a novel. Once you have conducted your interview, you turn that raw information into a story.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Curse of The Natural

Most people have certain things that they are exceptionally good at. Some people can shoot baskets. Some people can run like hell. I can string together words.

I love the fact that writing comes naturally for me. It makes it fun to write. I can be productive and at the same time relax, ponder, or write a story that keeps me on the edge of my seat.

Of course, with this gift comes a price. I have no idea why my writing does or doesn't work. I think that melody and rhythm are very important aspects of writing. I add those aspects to my writing innately. I'm a musician (which also comes naturally to me), so sounds are a part of me as much as words are. Unfortunately, I cannot teach it.

The large part of my learning experience has been understanding why the things I do work. It can be maddening trying to break down something that you largely never think about. It's as difficult as breaking down every single thing you do when you walk.

You might wonder, why even bother doing this? There are two reasons. For one thing, I want to teach. I cannot teach somebody to be rhythmic by telling them to just feel it inside and do what feels write. Some people truly have no rhythm. I need to break down the theory and components of rhythm in order to teach them. The other reason is that I want to get better. If I don't understand what I am doing on a technical level, then I can't know what I'm doing right and what I'm doing wrong. I may be good enough, but I may be on a plateau and not get any better than I am. When I know where I came from, I will better know where I am going.

If you are not a natural, if you are somebody who has to scratch and claw and work twice as hard as anybody else to learn something, you can consider yourself to be lucky. Rest assured that you will understand a subject more thoroughly than anybody else could. You will also be the best kind of tutor and the4e best kind of teacher.

The Thesaurus

The thesaurus is one of the most dangerous tools available to a writer. And when I say a writer, I mean any person who is writing any thing. It has a good intention, the thesaurus, but it is rarely used properly.

The English language is a dense forest of vocabulary. There are countless ways to say something or express an idea. The beauty of it is that we can pick whichever word sounds just the way we want. If you're very angry, you can accent that anger by saying that you're pissed. But you want to lead your anger into the situation itself, in which case you'll say that you're infuriated at the events that have transpired.

Sometimes, though, you just can't think of the right word. You know that it means that they're really good at not wasting money, and you sort of know what it sounds like, but the word itself just isn't coming. So you pick up your thesaurus, and you look up 'cheap', which you know is the wrong word, but the right idea. You see the word 'chintzy' and it sounds kinda like what you were looking for. You figure it's good enough and then you finish writing the article for the company newsletter talking about your boss.

Uh oh, now you not only called your boss cheap, but you actually called him cheap, gaudy, and kinda dirty, all in the most colloquial way possible. Now you turned a kind sentiment into a horrible faux pas.

I rarely use a thesaurus, but I will use one on occasion. When I do, I am shocked to see the so-called synonyms. I looked up the word 'correct' and found results such as 'equitable', 'rigorous', 'stone', and 'nice'. None of these words comes even close to meaning what correct means. If you ever tried to pick a word out of a thesaurus to sound smarter or because you think it's right, you have a pretty good chance of making yourself look like an idiot without even knowing it.

The problem with synonyms is that we don't really have any in English. We have words that mean similar things, but very few that mean the exact same thing. Every time we have multiple words with the same meaning, we find ways to distinguish the words by giving them subtle differences.

In my experience, a thesaurus is a very limited tool. The only thing it can do is remind you of a word that you already know, but forgot or can't think of. Even still, you have to be lucky enough for the thesaurus to have the word you want in the first place.

If you can't think of a word that describes an idea you have, save yourself a lot of time and trouble by saying the idea. If, in the hypothetical situation above, you had simply said that your boss "never wasted money and found the best deals on everything," you would have saved yourself untold amounts of stress and grief. If you drop the thesaurus and just say what you're trying to say, you can save yourself lots of real life stress and grief, too.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Ipse Dixit

Ipse dixit is a Latin phrase. It means "he himself said it." The story goes that when the great Pythagoras taught his students math, he didn't necessarily explain why it worked. So his students, when arguing or explaining, would shout out, "ipse dixit." Pythagoras himself said this, so it has to be right.

It sounds stupid when you listen to the story. So what if some Greek guy said something? That doesn't make him right. Who cares how famous he is? He could be wrong. Heck, he could have done something as stupid as slipped up on addition.

And yet, we seem to fall prey to ipse dixit all the time. The worst time of all is at school. Our teachers barrage us with us with rules we need to follow. Essays have to start with you're going to say, the next three paragraphs are what you say, and then the final paragraph sums up what you just said. Ok. How come? What purpose does it serve? If I think that it's boring and I daydream while reading or writing it, then how come I should follow these rules?

Ultimately, the only rule you should ever follow are the ones you can explain. I start my blogs with a principle or a scene because those are the most approachable and entertaining kinds of writing. Intellectual people grasp a principle and want explanation and elaboration. Emotional or story-oriented people will get pulled into a scene and then want to understand the underlying factors and the consequences of the scene.

The only time you should follow a rule you can't explain is if it works. I have no idea why the general public likes characters who are incredibly stupid, loud, repetitive, and annoying, but they do. Lots of people make these characters and these characters always sell. It would certainly help to know why these characters work, but if you know how to make them and that people like it, you might as well just make them and enjoy the getting while the getting's good.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Don't Imitate; Integrate

Any good writer will tell you that you need to read. You need to read a wide array of writers and find the ones you like. Any writing that moves you has some quality that you should strive to understand and then employ. Even people who don't write, but enjoy reading will do the same thing. We're always attracted to things we like.

The best part about reading something really good is that it often inspires us to create. I'm sure that after you read enough Sherlock Holmes or watch enough House, you will have a great desire to write your own supergenius detective.

Now here comes the important part. If you want to write about a mystery solver, then just go out and do it.

It's obvious, I know. But I also know that the obvious needs to be said periodically. All too often, I see writers who read something they like, want to write something in a similar vein, and then don't. They keep condemning themselves. They think that they are copying or stealing from their favorite writers. They think that the only thing they will be able to make is a pale imitation.

Well, if you try to imitate somebody, it will likely come out pale. But that's the key. Don't imitate; integrate. You should be learning principles and techniques. But neither of them are completely concrete. No matter what you write, you will always sound like you as long as you don't try to sound different. Just write your mystery the way that you would write a mystery. Use he principles you've learned and apply them through the techniques that you prefer. Experiment as much as you see fit.

Never be afraid that you are stealing from somebody. For one thing, you have to try to steal. For another thing the worst thing you can do to yourself is not write while you are inspired to do so.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Stories vs. Gags

In the realm of comics, you generally have your gag strips, like The Far Side or Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, and you have your story strips like Prince Valiant or Girl Genius. Gag comics are completely self-contained. They use generic characters, make a joke, and the next installment has nothing to do with the ones that came before it. The story comics detail the ongoing and unending saga of a cast of characters.

However, there are plenty of comics that are both gag and story. It is not the comic, but a particular strip that will be one or the other. xkcd is a largely gag comic with the occasional story. Evil Inc. is a largely story comic with the occasional gag.

These hybrids occur when a comic has a recurring character or a cast of them. Gag strips don't rely on a character, so anybody can fill the role when needed. Of course, gag strips also can make use of a known character's traits to make a sort of inside joke. And since we have characters that we do get to know and get accustomed to seeing, we expect to see more parts of their life than just a single scene at a time. These become real people, so we get to see them live their lives. Sometimes life is snappy, sometimes life is a journey.

If you are writing a comic with regular characters, you will have to decide if you want to do self-contained gags for every update, if you want to make story arcs, or if you want to mix and match the two. This is usually a decision made unconsciously. When you write your scripts, you will feel what you are going to do with them. Nonetheless, you should be aware.

Gag comics are powerful, but difficult. Thinking up a completely new and unrelated joke regularly can be a difficult task. On top of that, your writing has to be spectacular because you can't count on your audience forgiving your characters for not being funny all the time because your characters are insignificant (the audience knows it's actually you who isn't funny). However, because every strip is self-contained, you can show any one of them to people and never have to explain context. Everybody is on equal ground, so when somebody stumbles upon your website for the first time, they will never be lost in what's going on because there is no continuity to have to know.

Story arcs also come with their good and bad. The good is that it can be much easier on the writing process. Every strip is a checkpoint along a journey. You can stretch your legs, go as far in-depth as you want, and get a whole lot of strips from a single concept. Stories draw in readers. They make the audience want to know what happens next, cheer for the heroes, and boo the villains. At the end of the story, the audience feels closer to te characters, which should keep them coming back. The bad, as mentioned above, is that if somebody new to your comic sees their first strip and it is in the middle of a story, they could be lost and confused. Even if you are shohwing strips that are very old or at the beginning of a story arc, if they don't know the history of the characters, it can have the same problems.

No matter which choice you make between gags and stories, you can't go wrong. Just remember to care and to do them as best as you can. If it feels right, it is right. If it feels forced, everybody will know it.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Avoiding Gimmicks

A couple days ago, I went with my mom to see the movie Up. At the ticket booth, I am told that there are no more tickets for the 3-D version. I didn't even know there was a 3-D version of the movie, so I really didn't care. I went and watched the movie and while leaving the theater, I see the poster for Up in 3-D. This sparked a conversation of how much we really didn't care about seeing the movie in 3-D. "We get it, stuff is going to fly at us."

This leads to a more important conversation: How do you employ new techniques without making them look like gimmicks?

Frankly, the only answer I have found is that you have to make the technologies integral, but not focused on. In terms of purely textual writing, the latest technology is hypertext (even though it is still quite old). The simple version is that hypertext fiction contains a large pool of information and the reader clicks on a variety of links to move from one place to another.

I think that hypertext fiction makes for a cleaner version of choose your own adventure than the paper kind, but it still feels gimmicky. If you want to understand writing that makes good use of hypertext, you should look to blogs. A good blog entry has a completely self-contained point. to it. The links are added for background or reference. When you write a reply or a review, you show anybody who doesn't know what your source material is. If people already know what you're talking about, they don't need them. If they are lost, you have given those people some help.

Hypertext is so weaved into online culture that we don't even think of it as revolutionary or any different from normal writing. That is a proper implementation of new technology. In terms of 3-D movies, a proper implementation would be one where the extra dimension allows you to show angles and sizes that could not be shown as well on a screen. Make it truly add to the telling of the story, but not the main point of the story. (The exact opposite of My Bloody Valentine 3-D)

The reason I bring this up is the world of comics. I read an article today about the potential of webcomics. One of the things it mentioned was that the experiments that have been done in making comics that use techniques that paper cannot duplicate have not fared very well. They have largely come off as gimmicky or as not being that different from paper. I would have to agree.

Now, the author says that this is natural. We have to experiment to learn and experimentation requires a lot of failure. I agree with this, too. But the most important thing that I need to add is that blind experimentation is rarely effective. Anybody who wants to play with a new technology should first look at previous experiments and learn what has and hasn't worked. Then from all that data, figure out what qualities the things that work have that are lacking in the things that fail.

If you want to use new technology and avoid looking like a gimmick, then don't treat it like a gimmick. Use it as a tool, like any other technology. Comics are more than just illustrating a story. The pictures and the words work together to accomplish more than either one does alone. Treat whatever you would do with the internet or flash in the same way. Make it useful, but not the focus.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The End

I would say that the hardest part of writing is the ending. A good story can go on for a long time. When you get s used to writing what happens next, it's hard to figure out when to stop writing. Since good stories also take place in whole worlds that have existed before and will exist after the story takes place, it's difficult to pinpoint where the flow of time stops mattering.

How you want to handle your ending depends on what kind of story you're writing. In general, we think that an ending needs to tie up every loose end. When you do this, you know you're at the end because there is nothing else that can be said. All conflict has been resolved. I generally attribute these endings to stories for children. No questions need to be asked. Any questions that are asked can be answered.

Tying up the loose ends isn't a bad thing. If you want to make a completely self-contained story that has no ambiguities, there is no better way to do it. However, there are limitations to that technique. It's hard to make a sequel when your story has resolved all of the problems there were. It also doesn't leave much to the imagination. Nobody has to wonder what's going to happen next because you can basically answer it with "and they lived happily ever after." This isn't a requirement for a story, but it is a factor that draws the audience in and keeps them there. It makes them want more, which is pretty useful for a writer.

The second section is largely the opposite of what the first section was. When you leave some loose ends, it gives the feeling of a continuing universe and gives your readers things to wonder about while you write your next installment. That's not the whole picture, though. Writing is about capturing reality, and in reality, it is quite rare that loose ends are tied up. You could have a question that remains unanswered for 60 years. A story that ends before the world ends shows us that each thing we go through is more of an episode than a complete series.

And ultimately, the ending of the story is the ending of an episode. Ask yourself, what is the actual story here? In Watchmen, which has a great deal of stories and information, the real story (or the main story) is that somebody is killing masks and we need to find out who it is and why. When that story ended, the book ended. Everything else that was going on was supportive of the main story; it explained the history of the world and the characters, which gave relevance to the main story.

It doesn't matter whether your story leaves loose ends or ties them all up, they both end when the episode ends. The Bernstain Bears is a series of episodes. Each episode ends nice and cleanly. Watchmen doesn't. However, in both stories, you are sure that it is over.

Imagine a story about a pregnant teenager. She is scared about her situation and is overwhelmed. She has her friend drive her to the drug store. While there, she goes to the baby aisle. Standing among 8 different brands of diapers and not having a single clue how to even begin understanding what she was looking it, she wonders if she even wants to keep the child.

Now, at this point, we generally think that the story is whether or not this girl keeps her baby. While it certainly could be, it doesn't have to be. This is where, as an author, you have to ask yourself what your story really is. If your story is about whether this girl chooses life for her child or life for herself, then you can go the standard route of does she or doesn't she. But maybe you want to choose the road less travelled. Maybe this story is about a girl who realizes that she has to grow up. She's been doing adult things which led to adult consequences and require adult decisions. Here, it doesn't matter what path she chooses. She realizes that she has to act like a grown-up. Once that realization happens, the story is over and it should end shortly after that, even if there are a ton of loose ends.

I've mentioned in the past the idea that a story can just be a bunch of crazy stuff that happened. I can still take either side on it, but I do have one more thing to say: if your story doesn't have a plot, it will be very difficult to know when to end it.

Monday, June 22, 2009


English can be both very exact and very general. The difference between the two is qualifiers. We can put in as many as we want in a sentence to be as exact as we want.

In simple terms, qualifiers are adjectives or adverbs. They add a quality to the root word that they attach to. So qualifying sentences can simply be giving more information, as opposed to being less vague. The ball can become The red ball, which then becomes The red ball my aunt gave to me. We are adding to a simple phrase or sentence in order to give the reader as much true information as possible.

Since we want to know as much as we can, the more qualifiers we have, the better, right? Well, no. Too many qualifiers give us an information overload. We can be given so much information that we forget what that information is describing. This also brings the story to a screeching halt. All action has to stop while we get a bunch of information on one thing.

If you are confused and you don't know what to put in and what to leave out, remember one simple thing: just because it's true doesn't mean it's right. Sometimes a piece of information does not add to the story, or at least the scene. If it isn't necessary, then take it out. However, in the case where an object has a lot of necessary information, you still don't wan to dump it all on us with qualifiers. If there is that much that needs to be said, break it up into multiple sentences, so that we know it is all related, but don't get information overload.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Refreshmet of Writing

Writing has a lot of crap chutes to it. It's exhausting. It's meticulous. It's complicated. Writing is a whole lot of hard work. Some days, you pray that you never write another word again. Be careful what you wish for, though; the easiest way to stop writing is to skip one day. More importantly, though, why would anybody put themselves through this torture?

Well, the reason is that we used to think of writing as simple and fun. We did it in our personal time. We wrote the way we talked, or at least the way we wanted to sound. It was so simple and so easy.

Then we grew up. We decided that we wanted to do it as more than just a hobby; we wanted to do it for a job. It makes sense. We're always told to do what we love. But if we want to write for a living, it is no longer a hobby. Now it has become an identity. And nobody wants their identity to be mediocre. At least, we certainly don't. We want to be the best writers ever.

So we go and get some training. We read several authors, some of whom blow us away. We learn writing techniques, apply them to our own writing, and then have our work critiqued by people who don't hold any punches. Our eyes are opened very wide. We realize that writing was so easy for us because we were terrible at it. We wrote too much dialogue or too much exposition. We made two-dimensional characters and put them in cliche, hackneyed plots. Every body sounded exactly the same. There was no direction, no cohesion, no point.

So we started putting effort into our work. We made plots that were worth discussing, characters thata people cared about, actions that affected the reader, and tied it all up in the most expressive wording possible. And that is the point where we realized that writing isn't hard, but good writing is exceedingly difficult. We learned that it requires tons of attention, energy, and effort. We happily gave it to our writing, because we were sure it would take us to our goals (making money and being famous). And then when we invested a certain amount and saw nearly zero return, we lost our hope, and are in the bog of defeat.

When you're feeling worn out and beaten down, you need to find a release. Certainly, we can play games, sleep in, run around, and they do have somee merit, but sometimes there's a simpler answer.

Remember that you got into writing because it was fun. You may have written crap, but at least you enjoyed doing it. Go and do that. Write the most god-awful piece of crap that has ever graced paper. Let fly and put down whatever you want. Don't worry about what other people think because you're going to throw it out as soon as you're done. Let the joy of putting down words come over you. Remember what it was like to be a youngin' and enamored with creating.

Now, I will admit that this advice is not for everybody. In fact, when I was an underclassman in college, I would have rebuked all of the advice I just gave. I would say that writing should always have a point, that if if I don't have a point, I should keep my mouth (and pen) shut. I would say that if I'm going to write something that I'm just going to throw away, I should save my time and just not write it. I would say that doing what I suggested would make me fall back into bad habits and make it that much harder to write something good.

You may be in either one of these camps. I've been in both, and I understand how strong the conviction can be on either side. However, it doesn't matter, because both sides should remember just how refreshing it is to write.

If you are part of the latter camp and you think that you shouldn't write unless you have something relevant to say, then you should go and say something relevant. If you think writing should be for an audience and it should be as good as is humanly possible to make, then go and make it. When you put forth that much energy into your work and you are that determined to make something of the highest caliber, then the feeling you will get when you actually create something that meets your standard will be amazing. You'll feel like a living god and, if your standards are high enough, you will deserve to.

Like I said before, we have pursued writing because we loved it. Whether or not the reasons we love it have changed, we still love it. Underneath all of the crap that gets piled on, we write because we love it. If you ever forgot that, write something that you love. It's refreshing.

Saturday, June 20, 2009


I just read an article about how right-brained thinking (artistic, big-pictured, story telling) is going to be far more important than left-brain thinking because it can't be automated or easily outsourced. At the end of the article, Daniel Pink says, "When you write a caption for a cartoon, there’s no right answer. That’s one of the things that makes it challenging. Whereas, if I ask you the square root of 144 plus the square root of 81, there’s only one answer. And there’s a way to do it. You can show your work. With a cartoon caption, you don’t follow a set path to an answer; there’s no algorithm. And that makes it challenging."

I largely have to agree with this. Captions are deceptively difficult, since the set-up is given to you, and all you do is fill in the punchline. However, in a given picture, you have completely free reign to make it say whatever you want. A picture of two cats sitting in the sunlight could be as simple as that, but with the right caption, it becomes a picture of an alien with a cloaking device waking up in a drunken haze next to a man in the most realistic cat costume ever.

There was one part of captioning that wasn't mentioned in the article, but really should be. There are two methods to captioning pictures: sequitur and non-sequitur. The sequitur method is about looking at the picture, paying close attention to all of the details inside of it, and trying to make the most logical words to go with the picture. It's truly trying to fill in the blanks. The non-sequitur method is where you do the opposite. You see the picture, then bend or break conventional reality and sybstitute your own. If you see two people having a conversation, you can caption it so that neither one is speaking, and the desk plant has a line.

Sequitur captions teach you how to pay attention to detail. When you are given a scene, you can undertand everything that is going on. Non-sequitur captions teach you to explore possibility. When you're given a scene, you see what people expect to happen, and then you do something completely different. It's basically the difference between drama and comedy.

I think it is important to caption in both sequitur and non-sequitur. Even though people tend to prefer one over the other, or excel at one over the other, practicing both will stretch your abilities and your mind. It can only make you a better writer.

Friday, June 19, 2009


The English language largely frowns on repetition. Because we have so many synonymous words and phrases (not to mention pronouns), we hate saying the same word over and over again. Notice how I just said "saying the same word over and over again" instead of repeating the word "repetition".

This is not necessarily a bad thing. It keeps our prose spicy and interesting. It makes a good writer very aware of the breadth of our language. It acts as another tool to keep the reader from being bored.

Sometimes, though, it can be frustrating. Especially in journalism where you may be talking about one subject for an entire article. Half the article is just creative ways to rename the same thing.

However, repetition is not steadfastly hated, just mostly hated. Sometimes repetition is a good thing. The repetition of Martin Luther King Jr.'s I Have A Dream speech is a famous example of the power it can hold. The repetition in structure (e.g. "I do not, have not, and will not. . .") can add great emphasis to a particular point. The repetition of the word 'repetition' in this sentence creates a flow that leads the reader wherever the flow takes them.

Repetition is a powerful force. When used deftly, it empowers your work. When used poorly, it destroys your work. Experiment with it. Learn and understand it. See how others use it and learn from the good examples. Learn from the bad examples, too.

Who Owns Your Work?

Copyright is a major issue with creators of anything. It's one that has a lot of simple, but incomplete answers. I by no means claim to have the answers. However, I do have one important question: who owns your work?

If you are self-published, the answer is simple: you do. You are the creator, publisher, and every other position of your own company. But every time you are working with someone other than your company, the answer is less simple.

Copyright can work in any number of ways, so if you are creating for somebody else, you should hammer out exactly how you want it. The short version is: either you own it forever, they own it forever, or they own it for some time and then you own it after that.

As a creator, the knee jerk reaction is usually, "I always want to retain the copyright to everything I own." That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it can be hasty depending on the situation. Suppose I write an article for my local newspaper about the parade down main street for memorial day this year. This is a throwaway piece. It has no replay value. You read it once, not even all the way through, and you will likely never read it again. I know that I'm never going to use it again. I may keep it for a portfolio, but it's never going to be republished. So if the newspaper tells me that any article they publish becomes their property, I don't care. I just want my check.

However, if I write a motivational, real-life story that Readers' Digest wants to publish, that may be a different matter. I may want to keep this story for later times. Maybe I will want to use it for a collection of essays in the future. If Readers' Digest wants to own the copyright to my work, they better make it worth my while.

As a writer, I don't trust the big companies for fear of them stealing my work and screwing me over. However, the companies sometimes want the copyright so that the writer doesn't get the same work published by competing companies. Both sides have the opportunity to screw over the other. That's why you always want to make sure you hammer out a complete and fair deal when it comes to copyright. A lawyer would be useful if you are in serious negotiations.

When you ask who owns your work, know that your name will always be on it (at least it better be). After that, the important question to ask yourself is if your work is something worth owning or if it's a throwaway piece. If it's a junker, though, don't treat it like junk. It's still something you put your effort into and created. Treat it as such.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009


Profanity is a difficult subject to handle in writing. On one hand, writing should capture the reality of life, and people swear in real life. On the other hand, writing is a crafted work and profanity sticks out like a sore thumb.

Personally, I don't use profanity in my writing. I think it detracts from everything. It wrecks flow, throws the reader, and steals the spotlight. I remember reading Jurassic Park as a kid and being so shocked to see some profane word in it (I forget which one, but it rhymed with either spit or suck) that I lost track of what I was reading and had to go back a few pages to remind myself what was going on.

More importantly, though, writing is one medium that really shows that profanity means you can't think of anything better to say. If I want to show a person who is at the height of his fury, profanity only goes so far. If I can find a way to properly articulate a feeling or action, that will have a stronger impact on the reader and will make me look quite brilliant for not swearing, despite how easy it would have been.

As I said before, writing capture reality and real people swear. Many of my colleagues use profanity when a character naturally would swear. I respect them for being true to their characters. Sometimes characters do things that you yourself are not comfortable with, but you have to let them be who they are. If you are in the situation where you have characters that swear, then doon't have them use pseudoswears like frick or fudge. (Still, if you could find a way around it without betraying your characters, I would respect that too.)

I think the line to draw is with dialogue, though. Narrators shouldn't be swearing. That's only acceptable if the narrator is one of the characters in the story. If you have a third person narrator in your story, there should be no profanity in the narration. Such narrators are androgynous and emotionally and politically neutral. They have no reason to swear throughout the entirety of a story.

However you handle profanity, so be it. As a writer, it is your decision, since there is no wrong answer. However, I will issue a warning that profanity's power to detract could overwhelm your writing. Run your stuff by some readers and see how they respond to it.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

We Are More Than A Collection of Facts

It is no easy task to capture the essence of a real person. Too often, we try to describe people with facts. Don't get me wrong; the right set of facts can greatly illuminate a person. When you say that your neighbor watches every football game of the season and eats the same snacks with the same beer, that tells us a lot about him. We know that he loves his routine and he's a classic stereotypical American man.

Similarly, if your husband is the kind of guy that watches Terminator 2 and then throws in Gilmore Girls season 2, it also says a lot about him. For starters, it says that he is not stereotypical for any group of people.

In both cases tough, we don't have characters. All we have are character traits and characteristics. You can't imagine what it would be like to spend an afternoon with them.

Now think about your own experiences. Think about somebody who you actually have spent an afternoon with. Can you describe what it was like? Can you explain with words what it is about that person that you enjoy, what it is like to be around them, how it feels to spend an afternoon with them? You probably can't.

If you can't, then don't feel discouraged. Few people can identify what exactly they like about people. It is a feeling, an aura that people have about them.

When we try to describe a person, all we really have are facts. Facts are concrete, simple, universal. They're the things we actually know how to articulate. Unfortunately, they are flat colors and cannot create a fully fleshed-out person.

This is exactly what people mean when they tell you to show, don't tell.

The facts of a person are never enough. If you truly want to convey what it is like to spend an afternoon with somebody, then write what happened when you spent an afternoon with them. Don't just say that they're awesome. Don't say that they have a great smile. Tell us about the time when that smile made you laugh at the dumbest joke you ever heard. Tell us about how that same smile consoled you after your brother died. Tell us how he smiled when you tripped and spilled your whole beer all over his new shirt. Tell us how he smiled when that jerk tried to start a fight and how it defused the whole situation.

Now, the irony is that what I wrote in the above paragraph is still a collection of facts. They are deeper facts. They work together to build a character, but they have not yet created the aura or presence of the character. That comes from your actual writing skill. That comes from you painting the picture. You have to describe the bar, show your shoe catching on the bar as you stand up and making you fall. Show his shirt and his face covered in beer. Make us hear his voice as he laughs it away.

Facts are the skeleton of a character. When we see that character in a setting, interacting with other characters, and how they handle the situations they find themselves in, that is where their essence comes from. And that is how we create it in writing. If you want to breath life into your characters, then show them living.

Monday, June 15, 2009

One More Paragraph

When I was in school, my fellow writers (and probably every other student) always had the same problem with their writing assignments: "I have two paragraphs and I can't think of anything else to write."

Now, length is not something we should necessarily be worried about. If you can tell a five-page story in three pages, then write three pages (but they better be damn good). Sometimes, though, length actually does matter. Sometimes you know that there is more to say, but you just can't figure out what.

If you have this problem, then take look at your piece and consider it done. Well, consider it almost done. Just write one more paragr4aph. It doesn't have to be long. It doesn't have to be a conclusion or anything. Just write one more paragraph about whatever you're writing about.

If you can do that, then your piece is now done. Well, it's almost done. Just write one more paragraph.

I've had this same problem myself and I have found that one more paragraph can be very useful. Sometimes it's just putting in that minimal extra effort, forcing myself to think that little bit more that jump starts me into writing. By the end of a session, I'm amazed at how many one-more-paragraphs I ended up writing.

Bread and Butter

I went to the flea market with my dad today. We picked up all kinds of delicious produce. When we got home, I was getting hungry, so I looked around the kitchen for something to eat. We had just bought peaches, pears, grapes, and cucumbers. All of them were fit for a snack. Instead, I get a slice of bread, spread on some butter, and go to town.

It's funny. I'm so used to making a big production with a meal. I could have taken that bread, put on mayo, mustard, relish, lettuce, tomato, swiss, cheddar, pepper, and ham, and made monstrous (and delicious) sandwich. But I didn't. For whatever reason, I made the most boring thing possible. And you know what? It was delicious. I loved every bite of it. I enjoyed that bread and butter so much I had two or three more slices.

When we call something our bread and butter, we're often saying that it's the bare minimum. It's the plain and boring that everybody learns and knows. Once you learn that there is more exciting stuff than bread and butter, we're never supposed to have it again.

But that's just not the case. Sometimes you have to go simple. Sometimes you don't need to write a science fiction romance thriller. Sometimes you can stick to one simple story, tell it in your personal way, and let it stand as it is. If somebody is in the mood for a bread and butter story, there it will be.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

How Much Is Enough?

There is a conflict of interest when writing a story. As a writer, you want to be efficient and realistic. The two do not mix.

As a student, we are taught that you need to make every sentence, every word within every sentence, count. If you have useless words, they weigh down your piece and you should trim the fat. There is good reason for this lesson; it works. Making your writing streamlined makes for an easier read. The audience gets every important point and they all lead to the conclusion. All the loose ends are tied up in the end.

The problem with the above lesson is that it is unrealistic. It's fantastic for an essay, which is meant to lead the audience down a careful path which ends at a conclusion. But writing a story isn't the same as writing an essay. A good story absorbs the reader. They are part of a world that is fictional, but all too real.

Reality does not get wrapped up in a neat little package. People have doubts and concerns. People don't talk in a streamline way. They notice random things, thihnk strange thohughts, forget very important information. If we are looking through somebody's eyes or listening to somebody speak, we will see a whole lot of imperfection. That imperfection is what draws us in, what makes them relateable.

So there is a question that you must answer: How much is enough? How much reality do you show your readers? How much do you streamline your work? This is a difficult qustion to answer, as it is a deeply personal matter. However, if you want a start down the path, I will say that your ultimate goal is for your writing to be read and to be enjoyed. If you are lacking that, you need to change.

Friday, June 12, 2009

People Generally Suck

I don't know if you've noticed or not, but people generally suck. All too many of them are completely self-absorbed, egotistical brats. They're lazy when it comes to doing real work, but have the amazing ability to do nothing for extensive periods of time. They will burden you with their problems, but will angrily tell you to shut up, grow up, and leave them alone if you ever try to reciprocate.

While this makes life a painful toil for every day, there is one upside to it: you get plenty of free material for your writing.

The poster child for novice writers is the Mary Sue character. This is the person who is perfect in every way, everybody loves, and is usually a representation of what the writer wishes they could be in real life.

Mary Sues make for terrible writing because they are so unrealistic. The Mary Sues themselves are one-dimensional (two at best) and have wit, skills, and abilities that are impossible to have all at once. But what is more unrealistic than the character is the rest of the world. In the world, all other people love, respect, and adore Mary Sue. However, they have no reason to. Mary Sue doesn't do anything but be perfect. That's not good enough for everybody to love unconditionally.

Look at the people around you. Look at real life. That is what grips us, entertains us, interests us. We aren't looking for perfect people. We're looking for real people. And if you want to create real people, you have to remember the rule: people generally suck.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Exception That Proves The Rule

This is a saying that I love and despise. I love it because it has a very useful lesson in it. I despise it because nobody knows wha the saying actually means.

Back when the saying came about, the word "prove" had a different meaning. It meant test. When we proofed alcohol, we tested that it was not watered down. When we go to th4 military proving grounds, those are the testing grounds for weapons.

The point is that exceptions test a rule. It doesn't make any sense for an exception to show that a rule is true. Exceptions show that a rule is broken and needs to be fixed.

Suppose you have the rule that men are good at sports. I am an exception that tests the validity of that rule. Since the rule has now failed the test, it needs to be revised. You can say that tall, burly men are good at sports, then you look for exceptions to test that rule.

When you are looking for truth, you need to find the rules. When you think you've found a rule, you then have to find an exception to prove it.

Comedy is Philosophy

If you want to find real philosophers, find real comedians. Now, I will admit that many comedians exist who are not particularly funny, but even still, they are all doing philosophy.

At its core, philosophy is the love of knowledge and philosophers are those who try to learn. Comedians do the same thing. They pay attention to the parts of the world that we rarely take notice of. They point it out, illuminate the strangeness of it, and look for an explanation (though they usually give a sarcastic or sardonic one).

Drama is not so much trying to understand the unseen parts of life as it is accentuating the serious aspects of life. It is meant to make you feel, more than it does make you think. While of course there will be overlap and exceptions, comedy tends to be where the thinking occurs, especially in the writing aspect.

If you aren't sure what to write, then decide on what you want to explore. If you want to explore human emotions, look to drama. If you want to explore why pop tarts are not even remotely tart, or why tartar in your mouth has nothing to do with tartar sauce, comedy may be more up your alley.

Keep Track of Your Goals

The classic hero story is all about characters reaching their goals. They meet many people, some of whom follow the hero wherever they go. They get sidetracked, having to put their main quest on hold to do other things.Sometimes finishing one mission will lead into another one.

It is very easy to get lost, both as a reader and a writer. The bottom line is that a character on a journey is always acting in a way to get closer to ending that journey. If the hero is looking to rescue his daughter and his companion is looking to steal a valuable jewel that the kidnapper owns, then the two of them may work together for most of the journey, but their paths will eventually diverge, both physically and ideally.

Always remember to take a step back and remember what your characters are trying to do. Although there are characters who may not have a goal and are tagging along for the fun, they are no more than ancillary because they aren't doing anything.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Be The Best In A Field

Our culture has a general attitude of "it's already been done, so why do it again". This method of thinking can be beneficial, but also very frustrating.

Because we are in constant search for something new, we have to come up with new ideas to keep people interested. For example, we can blend styles. A story no longer has to be a fantasy or a horror or mystery; you can blend those genres in whatever ratios or degrees you want. You can try to make your own genre. Experimentation is required and desired.

However, the downside to this is that people care more about the idea than the execution. People hear that a story is a horror/fantasy and they are excited by it. The author is can sell the name of the genre so well that the actual story itself can be sub par. People would rather do something different than do it well, as though that will make them stand out more (which, sadly, it often does).

Still, I submit to you a challenge. Choose a classic genre, a classic story, and do it better than anybody else ever has. Make people care about it more than other versions have. If you can make your execution powerful with a plain idea, then your execution of a story with a new idea will be fantastic.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Be Your Best Reader

For the most part, if you write, you are going to have to read what you've written to a crowd. And yet, I find the large majority of writers rather poor at reading their work. I understand that it is largely a matter of fear (public speaking being our number one fear), but you need to get over it. People may love your writing a great deal, but if they find the author read their own work poorly, it takes away the power of the writing.

The best way to get over your fear is to get into your writing. When you write, you take care of your words. They move with a given pace. They flow from one to the next. There are accents and pauses, pits and peaks, countless minute details that we are not even fully aware of. But as soon as you get in front of other people, all of that care goes out the window. You don't project your voice. You rush your words. You do everything you can to finish as soon as possible to get away from people's attention.

Take a break. Relax. Stop thinking about the audience. Pretend you are in the shower or in the park or wherever you feel safe and comfortable. Pretend that you are not just giving a performance, but are a part of the world. Tell the story the way your characters would tell the story. Similarly, read your work the way you would read to a child. They love theatrics. Entertain the child and you will entertain the crowd.

If nothing else, take some public speaking classes. You may learn a whole lot of things you didn't know. At the very least, you will get some experience out of the deal.

I will admit that writing words and speaking words are very different things. I will admit that it is very possible to be able to do one without being able to do the other. However, if you are the person writing the words, then there is nobody who could know how you want them to be said better than you. Use that position of power and give the best reading of your work possible.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Screw It Up

Writing is a planned act. We think about what we want to say, word it oh so perfectly, and revise when needed. This is the exact opposite of real life, where we often need to think of something to say to somebody immediately and can screw up in a variety of ways.

When we write stories, we get to write the perfect dialogue. People sound eloquent and educated. If somebody isn't supposed to sound clever, then they are perfectly presented as not clever. There's nothing wrong with doing this; it is effective and entertaining (which stories should be). It's just that it doesn't represent reality.

If you want to show real people, people who are flawed and can't help it, then have their words be equally flawed. Have them stumble, blank, Freudian slip, and anything else that makes them feel foolish and embarrassed.

This also opens up a realm of possibilities in the stories that you can tell. Misunderstanding (and not in the comedy of errors or the double entendre sort of way) can lead to stories that perfectly-worded speech would never come across. Sometimes people speak without thinking or say something that is true but too blunt. These kinds of miscommunications can allow for stories that define simple logic, which can spice up a story.

Writing is about capturing reality, even if it's done in a fantasy world. Look around your world, notice the imperfections, and capture them.

Friday, June 5, 2009

We Believe What We Are Told First

If you want an easy hook or twist in your story, follow the antagonist first. Make them human. They get up in the morning, put their pants on one leg at a time, eat breakfast, and chat with their friends.

Then you make the antagonist meet the protagonist and we see that the decent guy we met first is actually a cruel, heartless monster. The audience is confused. I thought he was the good guy? Wait a minute, is the "bad guy" actually the good guy? It's so simple a technique that it's basically a formula.

Another good formula in the same vein is giving the protagonist information that leads him on his quest for the large majority of the story (e.g. if you can find the jewel in the heart of the temple, you can break the curse), only to find out that the information was inaccurate or misrepresented (e.g. the gem actually powers the antagonist's ultimate weapon, and the protagonist disarmed all the temple traps for him).

But how come this works? Why do we always fall for the same ploy time and time again (unless the story is poorly-told)? From my experience, it is that people will always believe whatever they are told first. We assume that the first character we meet is the protagonist. We assume that information given by a character who isn't too shady is the truth. We assume that when we're told a character has died, they're actually dead.

It is a simple technique, but a very useful one. Represent a lie as a genuine truth or show the truth coming from an untrustworthy character. The latter method is nice because it makes the audience think they are a step ahead. The most important thing to remember about doing this is that if you are too heavy-handed about it, the audience will realize that you are up to something. Use a light touch. Don't tell them that a guy seemed really honest and genuine; show them that he smiled warmly and kindly.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

How Many Ways Can You Say the Same Thing?

Being able to say one thing in several different ways is a useful skill. When we tell a story orally, we usually do this automatically. We'll say a sentence that uses a big word, then say the same sentence again using simple words. "When the king heard the news, he was seething. He was incredibly angry." We do this to make sure that everybody listening understands what's going on.

For that same reason, this skill is also quite useful for teaching. I can't tell how many times I have sat in a classroom, hearing a teacher try to explain a concept to a student using the same words over and over again. The teacher didn't know how to explain it with any other words, but those words had no meaning to the student. On occasion, I have said the same thing in a different way and fixed the problem.

This also makes story writing much easier, usually in the editing stages. Sometimes a sentence just doesn't sound right. It screws up the flow of the piece and becomes a chore for the reader. The simple method is to just cut it out, but if the information is necessary, then you'll need to find a new way to say it.

There are several ways to say the same thing. The easiest way is to change the word order. Because of the magic of prepositional phrases, you can stick them anywhere in the sentence - beginning, middle, or end. Maybe it's easier to say "He stood over there" instead of "Over there, he stood." Sometimes you use most of the same words, but play with grammatical structures. That's when you turn "It was the red ball that I saw my friend I knew from middle school holding" into "It was the red ball my friend was holding. I had known him since middle school." The most drastic method to use completely new words. It's drastic, but is often the best and easiest method. Sometimes your words or thoughts are so jumbled that there is no good way to manipulate what you have. Start fresh and try it again.

Give yourself a writing exercise. Write enough to fill a page. Find the sentence that sounds the most awkward and rewrite it in 5 different ways. Then take the clunkiest paragraph and rewrite it 3 different ways. Finally, delete the page completely and rewrite. Don't try to rewrite it from memory, though. Recreate the essence, the idea, of the piece. Then you will be able to rewrite much better. You will be a better writer for it and you will be quite prepared for the next time that you wrote something you love and your computer crashes or you spill coffee on the paper.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Do What Makes You Want to Write

Nobody can be a writer all day, every day. The creative process takes too much energy to be on all the time. We all need to take a break every now and again. But what makes for a good break?

The simple answer is anything that makes you feel good. However, if you want to do yourself a favor, you should find a pastime that is relaxing and constructive. Sitting down and playing video games for hours on end is buckets of fun, but the only thing you're thinking about is the game.

Try taking a walk. For one thing, if you're sitting down while you write, moving around is a good change of pace. For another thing, walking requires no mental effort. You don't have to think about anything while you do it. If you do choose to think, you can let your mind wander. You can look at the scenery slowly changing around you and let whatever thoughts are flying around come to the surface.

We're all human, and sometimes te best thing to do for ourselves is to do something bad for ourselves (whether that be eating a gooey candy bar or rotting our minds with a TV marathon). But when you aren't enjoying that rare treat, be healthy. Take a break from writing by doing an activity that allows you to prepare for the next time you write.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009


The life of a writer is a life of fear. When you aren't writing, you are afraid you never will, that you'll never get a good idea. When you finally do get an idea, you're afraid that it's a stupid idea. When you start writing, you're afraid that nobody will like it. When you send it out to publishers, you're afraid it won't be accepted. When you get published, you're afraid you will be jeered in a scathing review.

No matter where we are or what we're doing, we are afraid. But here's the thing nobody tells you: fear is good; it prevents you from being a crappy writer. Have you ever met people who were absolutely sure that what they were writing would be fantastic and well-loved? If you have, that person is writing formula (or very deluded). Formula may be good enough. It may be perfectly enjoyable to its audience. Reader's Digest is nothing but formula and it's still ticking. However, formula is boring. It isn't powerful. It isn't effective. It is sustenance, but not a meal.

It's ok to be afraid of not having a good idea, but continue to think. If you are writing something that you enjoy, but you're stuck b4ecause you're afraid that working on it is going to mess it up, then go ahead and mess it up. Mess it up as bad as you can. Just remember to fix it in the next draft. There's no reason to be afraid that somebody will hate your writing because it's a guarantee. Nothing is universally loved. Same goes for getting published and getting reviewes. You will be rejected. A lot. But you keep sending your work out anyway.

Use your fear to your advantage. If you're afraid your writing is stale, do something different. If you're afraid you're too confusing, move slower and more clearly. Just don't get paralyzed.

Monday, June 1, 2009

There Are No Coincidences

I often say that writing needs to be realistic and it needs to be natural. It's true. However, you can never forget that it is still crafted. And because of that fact, there are certain aspects of real life that never translate well.

In real life, there are coincidences. Sometimes, things seem related, but have nothing to do with each other. In writing, there is no such thing as coincidence. If two things seem related, they usually are; then it's just a clue. If they aren't related, then it's a red herring to the audience.

But how come we can't have coincidences? The main reason is that a story isn't real life; it is crafted by a human being and shared to a human audience. Humans don't like loose ends and rough spots. We like things to make sense. We like to find patterns and logical progressions (which is why crime dramas are hit from Sherlock Holmes to CSI). When information is completely useless within the context of a story, it is supposed to be removed. If the color of a person's pants doesn't add to a story or a scene, we don't mention it. If five people in a room are all wearing identical pairs of pants, it is a strange coincidence, but if it is not relevant to a story, there is no reason to mention it.

I will note, though, that every rule of writing can be broken and still produce a good work. I have had peers that steadfastly disagreed with the rule that everything written in a story matters. They believed that you can put in plenty of information that served no purpose and still make a good story.

If you would like to put coincidences in your stories, feel perfectly free to. If your audience does not respond well to them, you know why. Take them out and see if things improve.