Thursday, July 30, 2009

Books About Writing

I've read a handful of books on writing, and I have to say that I largely hate them. They're all either naive, outdated, vague, or completely useless. Whenever I read them, I got absolutely nothing out of them. I wondered why any writer would write these things aside from stroking their own ego.

It was a long time before I realized that these books didn't help me because they aren't intended to help me. Specifically, they aren't intended to help me. I'm not a complete beginner. I have been writing for years and have taken several classes on the subject. I know how to write, how to practice, how to critique. I know how to make myself do what I need to do. These books are for people who haven't gotten to where I am.

Books on writing are great for people who haven't written yet. They tend to create a place of security, where it's safe and comfortable and ok to experiment. It allows you to go out on a limb with the knowledge that there is a big fluffy mattress underneath in case you fall. Absolute beginners don't need specifics as much. They need more encouragement than anything else, to go out and try.

Once you've gotten past that point, you need more. That's where these books fail. Although I have not made an extensive search, I have not found any books with particularly great writing advice. There's good principles, but few techniques. As frustrating as that is, though, it makes sense. I think that much of a person's writing style can only be self-developed. Now, self-developed does not mean that there are no outside sources. People you talk with, stories you read, criticism you get, and countless other things will influence your writing style. However, it will ultimately be you who figures out what you like and what feels right.

Ultimately, I think that books will only be useful up until you go out on your first limb. After that, look for other influences to help you help yourself.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Perfect Practice

There is a classic saying, "practice makes perfect." It's a nice saying, but it's not quite that simple. The reality is that you do what you train to do. Practice only makes perfect if you are practicing perfectly.

That means that you should always have a goal. Writing for the sake of writing is good. It's like warming up your body. But warming up doesn't make you good at anything but warming up. You can focus on a single, specific goal, like avoiding passive voice, or you can focus on a larger goal, like making characters feel realistic.

I bring this up because it is so easy to tell people to just write anything. I've done it and almost any writing book will tell you the same. But that advice is only useful to get over the fear of writing. It will make you a writer, but it will not make you a good writer. That's why you always have a goal.

Remember, perfect practice makes perfect.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Bad Ideas Make for Good Stories

Have you ever noticed how people in horror movies make the dumbest decisions? They always go into the creepy room in the creepy building and they always pay for it. They always split up into small groups and then they make it easier to get captured. Why the heck don't they ever learn something and not go searching for a monster.

Well, consider what would happen if they were smart. A group of teenagers, after some serious thinking, decides to camp out in a creepy, abandoned house. After an hour or so, weird stuff starts happening. The lights flicker and burn out all at once. They turn on some flashlights, all of which flicker and die in unison. Everybody agrees that this is messed up and they make their way out. They go to their respective homes, go to sleep, and talk about how weird it was in school the next day. After that, nothing bad happens again.

This is the worst movie idea ever (not counting The Happening, which is undefeatable). Nothing happens. There is no conflict, no resolution, the characters aren't interesting and we don't care what happens to them.

Sometimes, if you really want a story to move along, you have to make your characters do stupid things. It can be very difficult if you are a rational person. Why would anybody do something so idiotic? Well, there's two things you have to understand. One is that you can suspend a certain amount of disbelief in order to tell a captivating story. The other is that some people are genuinely stupid. Sometimes the smart idea just doesn't occur to you, or at least not until it's too late. Talk with your friends about regrets. If they have any, it proves my point.

However, don't think that your characters have to be stupid to be interesting. You can make a perfectly good story where people do the best that they can, but still do interesting things. Consider my original terrible movie idea.

After the teenagers go back to their houses, they are so spooked that some of them can't sleep. A couple of them do, but they have terrible nightmares. They actually had the same nightmares. The next day at school, they find out that one of their friends is missing. He never made it home last night. The next night they have the same weird dreams, as well as the feeling that they're being watched. The kids have to find out what is going on, so they search the house during the daylight where they won't need electricity. They find out that there is a curse on the house and that the only way to cure it is to perform a ritual in the house at the stroke of midnight. They come back at night to do the ritual, but that is when all of the strongest forces are out and about, so they must use all of their resolve to make it work.

In this case, the characters were not stupid. They were forced to do these things. They couldn't avoid or ignore what was going on because there was no way to run. They could do what they needed to do during the day because it required them being there at night. This method, creating situations that require danger or fear, is a great way to work around making your characters stupid and blindly walking into danger or being paralyzed by fear.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Do It Until It's Boring

When you learn a new writing technique, it's going to stay in your mind. When I worked at newspapers, I was forced to write extremely short sentences and it was of dire importance that I not repeat a word or phrase (ideally for the entire article). Those writing techniques bled into my personal writing, too.

So for weeks, if not months, every time I wrote, I was focusing on making all of my sentences as short as I could (though this sentence should prove that I am not a strict minimalist) and I tried not to repeat my words unless it was a purposeful anaphora.

Now, I never really think about it. If my sentences are too long, I will feel it and rewrite it into a better sentence. There are times where I will repeat words and not notice it, but all it takes is reading something out loud to catch them.

I never think about these skills in writing because I actively practiced them until they became boring. When they became boring, it meant that I knew how to do them and I didn't need to focus on them anymore. Once you reach that level, you can move on to new skills to practice. Keep that up and you'll become a tremendous writer without even realizing it.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

A Failure for Every Lesson

In terms of writing, there are countless techniques that need to be learned. Length of sentences, rhythm, melody, dialogue, narration, characterization, plot development, revising, editing, and a million other tiny things.

Most of these skills are things that we don't know naturally. That means there is a large amount of learning to be done. It also means that for every lesson you don't know, your writing is likely to fail in each of those regards.

Until you realize that characters don't need to do an action every time they speak (e.g. David smiled and said. . .), you are going to make that mistake every time. If you learned a new lesson for each thing you wrote, then you will write a failure for as many lessons as there are to learn.

Though it may sound depressing to know that there is so much that will need to be learned, consider it as an inspiration. Every piece you write is a chance to learn something new. If you want to know it all, then you are going to need to do a whole lot of writing. That means you can be writing for years to come and always getting better. If that's not inspiring, I don't know what is (except for sweet, beautiful lies).

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Don't Stop Believin'

In my last post, I was talking about getting past the guilt of not writing for a few days. Some people, though, are in another boat. Some people have not written for years. Some people have not written ever. When you are at that point, you think things differently.

A person who doesn't write for a few days will feel lazy or disappointed for not being better. A person who has always wanted to write, but just never started will feel worthless or that they shouldn't write.

Although you are thinking in different words, the advice is basically the same thing. Just write something, anything, even gibberish. If you haven't written in forever, then you get to make a fresh start. There are no expectations and no pressure. You are free to do anything.

Also realize that with no training and no practice, then you are a true beginner. This also means that you aren't expected to create a masterpiece. You are allowed to make mistakes. You are expected to make mistakes. Feel free to write crap, throw it out, write something else, throw that out, and repeat the process until you have actually gotten practice from all of that writing. Then you are no longer a beginner and you can be sure that you either do or don't enjoy writing and that you can be expected to produce better writing because of it.

If you have ever believed that you want to write, then don't stop believing. Turn your dream into a reality by writing something; it's just that simple. Beyond that, it's up to you.

Friday, July 24, 2009


You know you ought to draw, but you just can't sit down to do it. What can you do to get yourself writing?

My answer: guilt. When you know you should be writing and you can't you should feel bad. Feel guilty. Realize, too, that best way to cure your guilt is to write.

The beauty of guilt is that it can only affect you if you have any sense of pride or self-respect. If you feel guilty about not writing, it means you care about it.

The thing about guilt is that it can paralyze you. Then you get to a point where you feel guilty about not writing and you don't write because you feel guilty. That's a self-feeding cycle of depression and that's what you need to avoid.

If you let your guilt get the better of you, remember why you feel guilty. You feel guilty because you love writing, you care about writing, and you enjoy writing. Remember the love you have and rekindle it. If you have to, then force it. Mash your hand on the keyboard. See that the screen is covered with gobbledygook. Decide to clean it up by turning the gibberish into words. Enjoy the words you wrote and write some more. Rekindle that love, feel the pride, and get over your guilt.

Thursday, July 23, 2009


Imagine a person comes up to you and says he's going to write a story about a kid with a lousy life who discovers special powers. My response is, "Is your kid named Harry Potter or Carrie?" Most people are not so friendly, though. Many people will tell the writer that their story has been done a million times and to just not do it.

I see where they're coming from. There reaches a saturation point where another story in the same vein as so many others just has no power or interest anymore. And if you are just writing a big ol' cliche, you might as well save everybody's time and not write it.

However, there is an unintended side effect to this advice. Most people hear "don't write your cliche story" and they think it means "don't write anything." That is not at all what people mean. It certainly isn't what I mean. I truly mean what I say, no more, no less.

Suppose you start with a terribly cliched idea, like a lonely kid who discovers special powers. First of all, realize that Carrie and Harry Potter both have that premise and they could not be more different from each other. Second of all, consider this your first stage of puzzle solving. You have a very simple and overused plot. How do you make it interesting? How can you make it different? What hasn't been done yet? This could be very difficult for you, but if you can overcome this hurtle, it is a sure sign that you can overcome all the rest.

The overall message of the harsh warnings we get is not to stop writing. It's to get better at writing. Let's face it, boring writing is boring. If you want to write something that sounds just like every other work, you may be safe, but you will never grow. Push yourself to think harder, try harder, take risks, and get better.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Expose Yourself to Variety

When you get an idea of what you are interested in, it only makes sense to immerse yourself in it. If you love a good fantasy book, and you want to be a fantasy writer, then go ahead and read every fantasy book you can get your hands on. However, that doesn't mean you shouldn't read anything else.

In fact, I find that there is much benefit to reading things that are our of your personal interest. If you are a fantasy reader and writer, try everything else. Try reading slice of life or creative non-fiction (something like David Sedaris). Try reading sci-fi, horror, mystery, action, and anything else you find.

Once you get outside of your genre, two things will happen. The first is that you will see everything else that is possible in your craft (writing). The second is that you will realize what is and is not part of your genre. Somewhere there is a line where a story is simple not fantasy. Most people can identify when a story is or isn't fantasy, but few people can define what the qualifications are. Once you start reading things that aren't fantasy, you will start to notice what is missing, or at least different, and that will help you realize what is key to making a true fantasy book.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


ADD is an extremely overdiagnosed disorder which has become a crutch and a pop colloquialism. ADD now means anything as simple as daydreaming, letting your mind wander, or having thoughts pop into your head. This amelioration of a real problem is annoying to me, but I have to accept that it is the common usage.

The point of that little rant is that whenever people complain about their so-called ADD and how it is such a hindrance to writing, I will always tell them that they are looking at it the wrong way. ADD only makes writing difficult if you assume writing has to be done in a certain way. If you can't work hard, then work smart.

When I write, I will keep several windows open. I know that at any point, I may lose interest in my current topic. While I could sit down and write one thing for several hours, I could just as easily stare at a screen and not write a single word because I'm daydreaming. Well, if I'm writing a story outline and suddenly I know what I want to write for a blog post, I'm going to open up my Blogger window and start writing a blog post. If I only get halfway through my blog and lose steam, I'll try my outline again. If that fails, I'll see if I can think of any funny comics to write. If nothing is holding my attention, I might just look through my lists of writing ideas and see if something catches my eye.

Now, if you have a deadline, this is a dangerous method to choose. It may put you in the mood to write. It may inspire you to write what you need to get done. But it could just as easily make you do everything except the one piece of writing you need to do. That's when a certain amount of raw fortitude will do you more good than anything else. Of course, if you have several projects that all have to be worked on, then it is a good way to make sure that no one of them falls behind or gets ignored.

Most people aren't wrong; they're just different. You are who you are. Rather than try to conform to other people's styles, just find a style that works best for you.

Monday, July 20, 2009

2% Risk

In college, my professors would tell us that we need to take risks in our writing. We need to do something we've never done. We need to do things we're afraid to do. We already know that we can do the things we always do. Your current level is a crutch. If you never do things you don't know you can do, you will never get better. Without the risk of failure, there is no chance of improvement. Or, to put it in the stalest way possible: nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Now, I was quite the contrary lad then, so my first thought was, what if I take a risk, but it is completely insignificant? What if I write something that is 98% safe and 2% risk? Then I can say I took a risk but I have the luxury of feeling completely safe?

I never ended up asking the question, but I know now what the answer is. If2% of your writing takes a risk, then 2% of your writing has a chance to improve. Nothing in writing is black and white (except the ink and paper). Everything works on a continuous spectrum. The more you work, the more you will improve. The more risk you take, the more possibilities you will be aware of.

The one thing about the 2% risk that needs to be mentioned is that it isn't necessarily a bad thing. Beginning writers are generally terrified of taking risks; that's why they need professors to make them do it. If taking the smallest risk possible allows you to try something new by giving you a psychological edge, then it is a good thing. It may be slower and it may take longer than diving head first in the deep end, but you are still making an effort and actively improving. That is always a good thing.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Ask Yourself Some Questions

When I took writing classes with David Franke, he would tell his students to take the papers they were turning in, go to the back page, and answer some questions.

What is the best part of this paper? What's the worst part? What did you learn from writing this? If you could rewrite or revise this paper, what would you do differently?

This is perhaps one of the most beneficial lessons I learned from Dr. Franke. It forced us to analyze our own work. We had to critique ourselves, both positively and negatively. We had to figure out what we actually did to create our papers. We had to think about what our goals were, how well we achieved them, and how we could do better.

Frankly, this is a process that should never end. Any writer, after every draft they write, should ask themselves these questions. Although it is difficult to be your own critic (whether you are too lax or too harsh), it is usually true that you are more familiar with your work, style, and capability than any other person you know. And even if you try to hide or to deny it, you always know when something is wrong and when something is right.

If you don't believe me, then have somebody else critique your writing. If they criticize a part you know is bad, you will agree with them. If they criticize something you know is wonderful, you will fight them. Trust me, you always know the truth, even if you aren't willing to hear it.

Warm Up

My writing peers would occasionally talk with me as they were working on a project. When they started on the first page, they weren't even sure what they were trying to do. When they got to the second page, they were sure that what they were writing was crap. By the third page, they had an idea. On the fourth page, they were building up steam. At the fifth page, they were really into it and excited about what they were writing.

If my peers were writing 20-page papers, or even 10-page papers, that wouldn't be so bad. Unfortunately, they mostly wrote 5-page papers. Sometimes they wrote less than that. My professor made the comment that most of his students work in the same fashion, taking several pages to reach an interesting point, and that by the time they finally said something that captured his interest, the essay had finished.

He would have liked his students to continue writing even though they had met the page requirement. He also would have been happy for us to delete this first four or five pages and start an essay from the most interesting sentence.

The mind is like a muscle, he would tell us. You don't get out of bed and run a marathon. You walk around, stretch your legs, get warmed up to work out. I have to agree with Dr. Franke; our best writing comes after we have been writing for a while. It comes when we have gotten into a groove and a mindset of writing.

I think any writing warm-ups will be beneficial, though. If, say, you are in the middle of writing a novel and you don't want to waste your time writing a bunch of crappy pages to warm up, then write something else. Make up a short story, describe a scene, write some dialogue. Do whatever writing exercises you have picked up or make some new ones for yourself. These can then be totally throwaway works that get you into the mindset that you need to be in to do your best.

I will say, though, that the more time you spend exploring and creating in a work, the more likely you are to find something good you weren't looking for. That is one reason that you may be best off warming up on your primary project. Either way, you can't really lose. The only way to lose is to never warm up.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Passing Time

The world you create in your writing has at least 4 dimensions (even if your characters are 1-dimensional), which means that time is passing as the story takes place. It is very rare that a story follows every action a character takes from beginning to end. Usually, there are actions that take a long time to complete, but are dull and uninteresting (e.g. travel and sleeping). When these are happening in the story, the best thing to do is to skip over that time. But how do you do that?

The easiest way is to be completely blunt. If a person starts walking toward the next town over and it takes three hours, you could simply say, "Three hours later, she arrived in town." There's nothing wrong with it, but it is an elementary technique and can get old really fast. The main issue with it is that it tells and does not show. It also has the problem that when the audience reads that the hero is starting a trip or going to bed, we are at a steady rate of time. By suddenly telling us that we have skipped several hours, it throws the reader and disconnects us from the closeness of the world.

Writers will often exclaim that we must show and not tell, but those same writers rarely give examples to explain what that means. I shall try my hardest to not be such a writer. In writing, the passage of time is an illusion. The longer you focus on a single object or action, the slower time moves. Longer sentences also slow down time. Short sentences that explain whole objects or actions in a few words do the opposite. Interest will also affect time passage. Boring things make time drag on.

Now, let's apply these principles. Let's use the example of a person traveling from one city to another. "Sheila took her first step out of the city. She knew she was facing Fairdale, but she could not see it, not even on the horizon. The next steps came easier. There was not much to see as she walked along the trail, a cactus here, a boulder there, but each one provided a distraction. The plant life reminded her of the garden back home and the countless hours under the the midday sun she spent taking care of it. The boulders, much like clouds, let Sheila's mind wander and think of what objects they reminded her of. Several reminiscings and identifications later, the sun was setting and Sheila entered Fairdale."

This is a much stronger passage of time than a simple "three hours later". But why does it work? Let's break it down. The first sentence indicates that a journey is starting. The second says it is very far away, which means it will take a long time to reach. The third says that she is actively moving. The fourth says that it was boring, which means it will feel like a very long journey. The fifth reminds us of time passing and makes us think of the sun beating down from overhead. The sixth makes us think of unknown amounts of time passing while doing nothing at all. The seventh sentence tells us that all of these actions have occurred multiple times shows us the end of the day, and says that the journey is complete.

The technique I just showed can pass large amounts of time with not many sentences. It doesn't bore the reader with unnecessary detail, but still conveys that a lot of time has passed. If you use this technique, be aware that it also creates a mood. Boring activities will make the reader feel alone and depressed, even if that is not intended. Even hwen you are excited about where you're goiong, a long enough trip is still going to take a long time. In that case, you will want to find anothere way to pass time.

Suppose that the travel was completely unimportant to the story that was going on. In our example, we could end with the line, "Sheila took her first step out of the city." After that, a new section would begin, talking about another character in another location. This continues the story while not spending time describing insignificant events like travel. When this second storyline reaches a mundane activity, then you switch back to the first storyline, but now Sheila is already in Fairdale. Now time has passed, but since it occurred at a natural break in the story, it does not bother the audience.

One final note is on the visual media, namely movies and comics. There is another way to pass time available, which is an establishing shot. Consider you have a scene in one location and it is high noon. The next important scene occurs in a different location at night. Wat you can do is show the action starting, like the character walking toward the horizon, then cut away to a scene where we see it is night time, we see that we are in a new place, and we see the main character walking into this new place. We are now aware that the journey is complete, where we are, and who we're watching. If you are writing a comic, this is best done on a page turn, because it is a new page and it takes tame for the reader to turn to it.

Friday, July 17, 2009


Any long form story, aside from a slice of life piece, is going to be about a quest. So, what's a quest.

A quest is a mission that is completed by doing several other missions. In the classic story, the hero wants to kill the villain. That's the main quest. So now the hero has to complete it by doing smaller missions. The first mission is to find out where he lives. The second mission is to go there.

Now, since a quest is made up of missions, you can realize that each mission can consist of smaller missions. Our hero has the simple mission of going to where the villain lives. But on the way, he sees a platoon of guards protecting it, so he now has the sub-mission of evading the guards. After completing the sub-mission of evading the guards, the hero completes the regular mission of getting to where te villain lives. Now he's at the third mission where he has to find and kill the villain.

Another aspect of quests is that they are malleable. Just because a main quest started with a particular mission doesn't mean that it has to stay that way. When our hero finds the villain, he has the obligatry speech before delivering the coups de grace. During this speech, he finds out that the villain was not really a villain at all. He was framed by the person who really did it and was too afraid to come clean. Now the main quest has been altered to go and find this new person and kill him.

As the main quest itself can be altered, so too can it be extended. Our hero finds this new man and kills him, thus ending his quest. But in doing so, he is unfulfilled. He cannot understand what drove the villain to do the things he did. They didn't seem random, but they had no obvious purpose. The hero now starts a new quest of finding out the history of the villain and the purpose of his actions.

It's pretty easy to see that you can use any of these methods to infinitely extend a story. More importantly, it can be used to add interest to a story. If you were reading a story where the character says, "Now that I know where he is, I'm going to hunt him down and kill him", and the very next line is a piece of narration that says, "He arrived at the castle." It glosses over a great amount of time that passed in the story's world, which could have been spent developing the character or having him jump through hoops so that we start rooting for and caring about him.

The other reason to do these quest modifications is that they add excitement to the story. You can tell any story in a sentence (in the example I've been making up, it is "the hero gets wronged and kills the person who did it"). But stories are more than one sentence. So when you tell your story in more than one sentence, make it more interesting than a one sentence story. Now you have a few ways to do so.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

All In One Sitting

I've always tried to do as much writing as I can in one sitting, even when it forced me to keep strange hours. I do it because I want to keep the feel of my writing.

In my experiences, when I get into a groove of writing, I sound a particular way. I have a rhythm, a flow, a sound. I'm in a groove because I have a steady, consistent pace. Once I stop writing, I'm out of the groove and I lose my train of thought. Sometimes I can slip back into it, but it's not a guarantee. If I wait too long (whether that be an hour or a day), I may never sound exactly like I did when I first started.

When I finish a draft and go back to it, I can always find exactly where I took a break and came back to it because it sounds different. Now, I know that longer or more complicated pieces will take several sittings to create no matter what. That's why we go through several drafts when we write something. But even when I write a new draft, I still try to write as much as I can in one sitting. It always makes life easier.

Eventually, though, there reaches a point where either you simply can't write something in one sitting or you need to make minor tweaks to your work to smooth or clean it up. When you are at that point, then you should make sure to read your work in one sitting (or as few as possible) to check for any bad seams in your work.

The point of this whole thing is that you want a smooth, polished work when you go to publish. Writing it all in one setting is a technique I use to try to maintain a polish in earlier drafts. If you can maintain a style from sitting to sitting, or if you can add all of your polish at the final phase of editing, then do that and save yourself the horrifically late hours of trying to finish a draft.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Don't Take The Easy Jokes

In comedy, there are a lot of easy jokes to make. Sometimes they are the crude ones. Sometimes they are just the classic ones. In either case, I would advise against using them if you can avoid it.

There is a classic joke that just about every comic has made. It boils down to one character giving a long rant on a subject that serves no purpose but to make the speaker sound like an arrogant blowhard, immediately followed by a single phrase or action that completely makes the first character look like an idiot.

In practice, this situation is funny once, max. The problem with it is that it is wasteful. Since all of the speech is completely useless and only exists to build suspense toward the punchline, the audience completely wastes its time in reading it. I have come to the point that once I realize a strip is doing this tired bit, I just skip to the punchline and move on.

It makes you wonder why anybody would choose to do a joke so unfunny. Well, that's because it's easy. Wasting space is easy and generic slapstick is easy. Most people also have occasional glitches in their internal filter. Sometimes you think up this exact scene and it seems like quite the rib tickler. And, truth be told, if you go on the ride and really get into the strip, it is at least a little funny. The problem is that it requires so much work to get through the strip that I do not get sucked into it. I am not within the illusion, not under its spell, and that is why the strips are not funny.

Easy jokes are any joke that you see on a TV sit-com. If you watch a random episode of Friends and you can't predict at least 90% of the jokes, maybe you shouldn't be writing comedy. Those are nothing more than a collection of obvious set-ups and natural punch lines. The biggest indicator of an easy joke is that somebody says something so out of character or unrelated to the current subject that it can only exist to make a joke. Then all you do is think of any phrase that has the most obviously out of place word in it, and make a pun or other cheap joke.

The real problem with writing easy jokes, aside from the fact that they get old really fast, is that it prevents you from writing better jokes. If you're writing a comic strip, you only have room for one big punchline. If you take the easy joke, you don't have the room to put in another one.

Do yourself a favor and write a joke that you don't see coming. Take a little extra effort and it will show in your work.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A Scope of Magnitude

The most annoying thing about amateur writers is their misconception of the writing process. Students know two phrases, 'rough draft' and 'final draft', and they think that's all there is. First you write your rough draft, then you write your final draft, then you're finished.

That couldn't be more wrong. It is very rare that the first iteration of a piece is lacking only small touch ups to be perfect. Usually, there are several steps of writing that occur before a first draft is even made.

For example, I am working on a graphic novel. It is a horror story, broken into chapters, each one being a character's personal experience with the attacks. In terms of writing, the first step was to come up with story ideas. Who has an interesting story to tell and how many of them are different enough to overlap in basic premise? So I had to write several ideas that I could play around with.

The second step was to write the story outline for each story idea. How does it start? Who is in it? What are the significant things that happen in the story? How does it end? These can be as vague and general has a three-sentence paragraph or as specific as a 5-page outline. Of course, the less work I put into this step, the more I have to put in future steps, so spending the time on the 5-page outline is better if it's needed.

The third step is making a script. From the story idea, I hammer out all of the small details. Where are people? What are they doing, what is going on as time passes? What exactly are people saying. This is the step where all of the vagueness of the story needs to be taken out. This is also the step where having an outline of a 3-sentence paragraph makes for a great deal more work.

The fourth step is story boarding. From the script, I need to figure out how each spoken line and every action translates into panels on the page. While this may not seem like a step that has to do with writing in pure prose, it actually does matter. Storyboarding is about pacing. Is the action moving quickly? Then don't spend 5 panels setting up one punch; that slows down action. If you are writing your book, don't spend three paragraphs on description when exciting action is going on; follow what's interesting.

The fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth steps are penciling, inking, coloring, and shading, respectively. This is the visual version of what your words need to do in their final steps. All of the previous moments were big in picture. You were figuring out what was happening, why, and how people dealt with it. These are the steps where you get to touch up the small details. Make your characters defined and alive. Make your scenery vibrant and tangible. Draw your readers in with your story, but create a world so real that they forget it's an illusion.

Even with all of the steps I have listed, there are several skipped over. Internal revision and editing is very important. Peer review and constructive criticism helps you get through a lot of the developmental steps. I also skipped all of the preliminary steps of coming up with an idea, creating a world, a history, inhabitants, and a future.

All things considered, the writing process is a vast one. Even when you know exactly what you are doing, a large project will take large amounts of your time, upwards of months and years. To say the least, there is a lot more to it than a rough draft and a final draft. Be aware of the levels, and layers involved in the writing process. Don't let it stop you from writing, but make sure you understand what you are getting yourself into if you want to create a truly polished piece of work.

Look Through Your Audience's Eyes

There are a number of techniques that you can use to surprise the reader. Many of them involve misdirection. Consider the hero coming across a shadowy figure several times along his travels. Now, as the author, you know that this character is actually a fellow hero who is watching over the protagonist and keeping him safe from hidden dangers. Because you know that he is a good guy, it is easy to try to paint him as such. You like him and you know that everybody else will, so there's no reason to smear his face. Unfortunately, you have taken away his power. Now he's not a shadowy figure, just a guy who wears a lot of black. When he shows his true nature, it doesn't surprise the reader because he didn't seem that bad in the first place.

Now, the above example is a painfully obvious one, but it leads to the more important point. When you write, you have to look through your audience's eyes. As the creator of the story, you know far more about your characters and their surroundings than your audience ever will and you know it before your story is written. But just because you know it doesn't mean your audience does. How will people interpret a scene without the full context behind it? Maybe the scene will be obvious or lend itself to the most likely theories. Maybe the shadowy figure really is a spy and is not to be trusted.

The artistic use of this technique is to make your audience think a particular way with incomplete information so that you can blow them away when they learn the whole story. The technical use of this skill is to make sure that when people read your work, they think exactly what you want them to, whether it is the truth or not.

Little tricks can help. When two people see each other in the distance, friends will smile and shout and enemies will either show no emotion or start a fight. When you say that your main character saw another person and walked toward him, we could assume that they are friends or enemies. If you intended them to be riends, then throw in extra details. Say that he saw his friend and felt a big grin form, that he waved his hand through the air to get attention.

Writing is all about leading your reader exactly where you want them to go. Be your own reader and see where your writing takes you. That is one of te safest methods of finding out if your writing is doing what you intend it to do.

Monday, July 13, 2009


In large part, I am a reserved person. I keep to myself and talk very little. I plan for the future, but am realistic in my hopes and dreams.

When I started writing, I never expected that I would be discovered, revered, and given the world on a silver platter. I didn't even expect that my work would get accepted by most publishers. When I wrote my pieces, I couldn't wait to have my peers review it so they could rip it to shreds and tell me everything that was horrible about it. When I did submit my work to publishers, I tried my hardest to forget that I even sent it so I wouldn't be thinking about it during the waiting period.

This bothers people. There are those who think I'm depressed. They never see me excited or giddy about my writing. They never see me reaching for the stars, praying for the best, hoping for the impossible. These people, however, miss one critical point.

I write. I revise. I edit. I submit my work. I may not pray for the impossible, but I would never turn it down. I don't expect to be accepted by a publication as famous as The New Yorker, but that doesn't mean I won't let them know I'm out there.

I care about my work with all of my heart. I care about it enough to create it and work on it to make it as good as I humanly can. Rather than expend my energy on wishful thinking, I use it on planning and trying. When I submit a piece of writing to a publisher, I don't wait with bated breath; I keep working on my next project because it is a productive use of my time. When I do get accepted, you will see my excitement. I will jump with joy and shout it from the mountains. But every step that comes before that isn't anything to be overly excited about; those are just preparation for the final decision.

What this comes down to is that, for me, outward excitement is not equivalent to passion. I am greatly passionate about my work. That is why I do it, even when I'm not excited about it. I am excited by things that will happen, not things that might happen. When I get accepted by a publication, I get excited because I know in the future that I will see my words in print. When I submit my work to a publisher, I don't get excited because I have no idea what will happen in the future.

If you are easily excited, I'm not saying you shouldn't be. What I am saying is that, regardless of what emotions you feel and how you express them, all writers should have one thing in common: they love writing.

Turn Off The Noise

I like to have some kind of background noise when I write. Sometimes it's music. Sometimes it's the television. I usually have the problem that writing without some kind of noise is really distracting. Either I pick up all the ambient noise of everything around me or the quietness is deafening and I start obsessing over how quiet it is. It's like, when I choose the sound that I will be hearing, I care about it less, so I can focus on the writing.

Of course, no plan is without problems. The worst comes with the TV. Every time it is on, I start paying attention to it. If there is a stupid show on, I have to change the channel. When commercials come on, I have to mute it. When it's a show I actually like, I start paying attention to it. Suddenly hours have passed and I've gotten no work done. Music is nowhere near as time-sucking, mostly because there isn't any dialogue I'm listening to. But even still, when a song has a catchy theme or lyric, I stop paying attention to my writing and focus on that song.

Ultimately, when you write, you either have to remove all distractions or temper your focus to be undistractable. Since the latter option is way difficult, I choose the former. I find that finding the right balance of noise to drown out distractions while not also calling attention to itself is less work and less difficult.

Of course, since every person is different, neither of these may be useful. You may be somebody who prefers the TV or you could love being out in the world and hearing a million sounds at once. If that is true and you know it, congratulations, you obviously aren't having problems with concentration.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Rules, No. Suggestions, Yes.

Most fiction writers will talk about their characters taking on a life of their own. Those writers will tell stories about having an idea or intention, but that their characters disagreed and took the story where they wanted it to go.

It always sounds silly and at least a little crazy. If you create your characters they do whatever you make them do. How can they control their own creator?

The reason is that the creator is receptive and responsive. If they create a story where the main character ends up killing their antagonist, the main character has to have certain characteristics. However, if you create a different main character, then that character won't have the personality traits that would have them commit callous murder like that.

Now, sure, you can force your character to kill the villain in the end, but you run into problems. It is out of character. It doesn't make sense. It destroys any reality that you have established in all of the story up to that point. If you want to make a good story, then the character traits you create will guide their actions more than your whims or desires.

There is nothing wrong with planning out the journey of your story. Figure out where you start, where you end, and important checkpoints along the way. However, realize that these are suggestions, not rules. As you are writing, you may come to realize that your characters would naturally do something different than you originally planned. If you experience this, always choose whichever is most natural. If that means revising your original path, then do so. It will make for a better story.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Critique Others

If you want to become a better writer, it will greatly help you to critique others. Read anything at, below, or above your level, and give it a solid critique. Consider all of the aspects of writing you know about and judge how well somebody's work stands. Consider technical aspects, like rhythm, movement, and melody, and consider deeper aspects like plot, believability, consistency, and interest.

If you can, critique these pieces objectively. You can enjoy a piece of writing that has no kind of rhythm, but you should at least be able to recognize that it is lacking. This is an important skill because, for as much as writing is intimate and intuitive, there is a cold, technical aspect of writing that must be appeased.

After you have done an objective critique, you should do a personal critique. When you read that piece of writing, how did it make you feel? Where you confused or lost? Did it surprise you or was it boring? These are questions that should be easy to answer because they're based on emotions and immediate reactions. The reason you do thihs is to compare it to your objective critique.

If an essay was perfectly logical and step-by-step, but it was still confusing, there is an issue. Why did this happen? Did the author move too quickly? Did they put in extraneous information that cluttered up the important parts? Discover whatever causes these dissonances in the objective and subjective critiques and then fix them.

Critiquing is always beneficial. For one thing, it keeps your skills sharp. For another thing, it keeps these aspects of writing in your conscious mind. Sure, you may naturally know how to make rhythm in your writing, but when you don't actively think about it, you don't realize when you get lazy or sloppy, or you may simply miss an opportunity to do something special.

Critique others, so that you can critique yourself.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Stop Writing About Writing

When a writer has absolutely no ideas what to write about, they invariably write a story about a writer who has nothing to write about. I don't want to read this and neither does anybody else. For one thing, I already know what it's like to be a writer who has no ideas. But even for people who aren't writers, it still remains that nobody wants to read a story about somebody who can't get any work done and wallows in their misery and frustration. The only people who enjoy stories like that already wallow in their own misery and frustration.

If you can't come up with any ideas, I'll give you my sympathy, I might even offer my help, but I will not give you my readership. Don't try to repackage your failure and tell me it's success. Keep looking for ideas and working on them until you have something good.

Be warned that prose is not the only medium where this can happen. People make movies about people making a movie. And way too many people make comics about people making comics. I've lost count of how many times I've found a comic, read the first few strips, which are about a person who can't come up with any ideas for their comic, and then the comic itself stops updating and never starts again.

Don't let this happen to you. Get out of your head. Get out of your world. Write about something that has nothing to do with you. Do whatever you need to keep yourself from being bored or lazy with your writing.

If you absolutely must write a story about a writer, at least find a hook. A show like Castle is about a writer, but one who uses his abilities for other purposes. The show is not about him alone at his desk, staring at a blank word document. It's about him actually out and about, doing something with his life. That's a story I will follow.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Getting In The Mood

I feel like writers, mostly amateur writers, are the most fickle workers around. They never seem to just write. They have to be in the mood to write. They have to be inspired to write. They have to be in the right setting to write.

Consider writing in terms of reading. Have you ever thought to yourself, I'm not in the mood for a horror story? You may not be in the mood for it, but if you pick up a good horror story and start reading it, you get pulled in. All of a sudden, you are very interested in a horror story.

Writing works the same way. You may not be in the mood to write, or maybe you simply aren't in the mood to write a horror story (or whatever genre), but just sit down and write a few sentences. The first ones may be like pulling teeth, but with every line, it gets a little easier. Eventually, you'll find yourself totally in the mood for writing.

I think that writing is a great way to get yourself in the mood to write. If that doesn't work, the next best method is to give yourself a deadline. Nothing gets you writing like lighting a fire under your butt.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

If You Don't Use It, You Don't Have It

Suppose you are a writer, but you don't write. You're not just any writer, though; if you wrote a story, it would move people to tears or fits of laughter. But you never write a story. Whatever your excuse might be - bored, busy, sick, tired - the fact is that you aren't writing.

Now suppose you have a friend who just doesn't know how to write. Not to say that he's illiterate, but he just has no ability to tell a story. He never studied it and never picked it up anywhere else.

Are you and your friend any different from each other? I would have to say no. Regardless of the reason why, neither of you write any good stories. If you have an ability that you do not use, you may as well not have it.

If you are a writer, remember to write. My professor has said many times, "you're only a writer on the days you write." I have to agree. Now go out and be a writer.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

If Shakespeare Can Do It, Why Can't You?

I have nothing against William Shakespeare. I do have problems with people who put him on a pedestal. The people who praise his actions and condemn any other writer for doing them as destroy the English language.

Shakespeare is noted for making up words. He's apparently coined over 3,000 of them. He's also considered a brilliant genius for doing so. I dare you to go and make up a word. Show your writing to somebody who loves Shakespeare. I'd be willing to bet that they will tell you that your made-up word is "not a real word". If that person happens to be a teacher of Shakespeare at a college, I'll pay 2-to-1.

What makes a word real? All you need is a definition people agree on. People think that a word has to already exist to be real, but that's nonsense. Somebody said it for the first time at some point. After that, if it's catchy it continues to live. If it's stupid, it dies.

What I'm getting at is that you should never let an icon, or even a personal hero keep you down. I know this sounds contradictory, since I recently said that you should make sure you have someone better than you at all times, but there is a difference. If you have a hero, you should aspire to be as good as them, and then to be better than them. If you look at your hero and you say that you're never going to be as good as them, then you need to rethink what you're doing.

William Shakespeare was a human being, flesh and blood, just like you and me (unless you happen to be an android of some sort). He wrote things and he put a great deal of effort into them. Because of his hard work and his skillful care, he created amazing pieces of writing. If you work hard and care enough about your own writing, you should do just as well. After all, if Shakespeare can do it, why can't you?

Friday, July 3, 2009

Writing What Disturbs You

As a writer, you could spend your whole life writing things that are fun and happy. You may find, though, that they are rather inconsequential. They're skin-deep. They're throwaway stories. If you're writing hollow stories, you may find yourself feeling unfulfilled.

Regardless of your genre, if you want your writing to be truly powerful, it will need to disturb you at some point. If you are writing a horror story, you need to create scenes where innocent people have terrifying and violent things happen to them. If you want to create a scene of intense joy, it can only come from somebody feeling intense pain or loss. Even in comedy, the funniest jokes are the ones that make you feel uncomfortable either while you listen to them or while you laugh at them.

In general, we are afraid of the things that disturb us, especially when they come from within our own minds. Why should we confront them when we can safely bottle them up and pretend they aren't there? Well, for one thing, it's pretty unhealthy to do. For another thing, your best writing will come from those stories that scare you. Think about it. If you can write a story that is so powerful that it makes you uncomfortable to write it, it will have the same power to those who read it.

You need to make people feel something. That is why we write. Even being detested means something. The worst thing you can do is write something that garners no reaction. If you want that power, then write something that disturbs you.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Head of The Class

Do you remember the smart kid in class? That guy knew everything (the dirty bastard). Part of you wanted to beat the crap out of him and part of you wished you could be him. Ignoring the violent part of your mind, think about what it would be like if you got your wish.

Suppose you are the smartest kid in class. I have one question for you: when you don't know the answer, who do you cheat off of? If your book is no good, and your teacher is confusing, a study session won't help.

When you're the top of your class, it can be pretty nice. You're on easy street. You don't have to work as hard as anybody else does and you do just fine.

Being the head of the class can also suck for just the same reason. Without anybody to inspire you to do better, or without a rival to try to do better than, what motivation do you have to get better? What benchmarks do you have to compare yourself to? If you only have subpar students to, then being better than them is no accomplishment. At best, all you can prove is that you're at least at par.

The same thing remains true with writing, in and out of school. If you ever think you are the head of the class, you might want to consider quitting; you no longer have anywhere to go but down. If you don't want to quit, then I suggest finding somebody better than you. Find somebody that challenges your skill and ability. Find somebody who forces you to experiment with new styles and techniques. Find somebody who forces you to learn.

Once you stop learning, you are instantly half as effective as you were. Don't let it happen to you.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Good Story Arcs

In the past, I've said that story arcs allow you to get several episodes out of a single idea. This is true, but not necessarily simple. There are right ways and wrong ways to make a story arc.

If you are writing a comic strip, you are more than welcome to make a story that takes several strips to tell, but remember the cardinal rule: every strip should be interesting. I say interesting because it covers both comedy and drama. If you are writing a funny comic with a not-too-serious story, then make sure every comic has at least one joke. If you are writing a comic and telling a deathly serious story, then every strip should make the reader need to see the next one. It should have some amount of shock and intrigue that makes us have to see the results of it.

It's very easy to fall into a number of pitfalls when writing story arcs. One is giving too much information; you have all the time you want, so don't try to cram everything into a small space. Giving too little information is also a problem. Make sure you aren't repeating information too much. Just because you have no space constraints doesn't mean you should drag your feet. Keep the story moving along.

Remember that every strip you have might be somebody's first exposure to your work. If they happen to come in right in the middle of a story, that doesn't mean they should be completely lost or confused. Not every comic has to be your greatest work ever, but it does need to be interesting enough to make them read another. If every comic can make somebody want to read another, then you've get a life-long reader.