Wednesday, September 30, 2009

They're Already Inside You

I have a very good feeling about my comics because whenever I show them to people, they laugh. More importantly, they make me and my friend (who does the art) laugh. Whenever he reads my scripts, he laughs out loud from them. I often get the question from him, "how do you think of these things?"

Honestly, most of the time I have no idea. How is it that I can write the voice of pretentious, self-centered pricks and backwoods dimwits? How do I say the thing just fits a character right? I don't think about it much. I just stare into space and it pops into my head.

The only conclusion is that the characters already exist inside of me. Authors often say that your characters are all a part of you, but I think it is that you are a part of all your characters. I have never lived in the back woods. The closest I've ever come to living in the south is Ft. Lauderdale. Florida may be southern, but it is not The South. Similarly, I've never lived in a major metropolitan area where I was a spoiled brat. So this makes me ask, if these characters already exist inside me, but I have never lived their lives, where did they come from?

Most of them I have absorbed from observation. I was surrounded by pompous assholes in college, so I learned how they talked and acted because there was nothing else to do. I've never been surrounded by hicks, though, so that is a little different. Sometimes a character is just a toned-down caricature. Take a bunch of stereotypes of any group of people, but scale them back enough for them to be believable humans; now you have a character. Similarly, you can start with basic pretenses or concepts of a character, and then just flesh them out with experience and logic.

The First 100 Pages

When I told people to say less than they want, I warned them that saying too much will put a heavy drag on the story. The worst offender of this is the novel, where I have often heard comments like, "after the first hundred pages, it starts getting interesting."

Why should a book take a hundred pages (sometimes as high as 300) to be interesting? I know I've heard a lot of reasons, but I've never heard an excuse. People will say that it takes time for plot to develop, characters to grow, and stories to blossom or intertwine. I say that's all a cop out.

Plot should be interesting from the beginning. Plot is interesting when something is happening. People need loose ends that characters are driven to tie up. If you think it takes 100 pages to start from nothing and build the story into an intricate lattice, then maybe you're saying too much. Try skipping the boring parts and starting in medias res.

Characters should be interesting from the beginning. What make characters interesting are their thoughts and actions. The interesting characters are surprising. They may do things that make no sense to you (thus making you want to find out why) or they do the things you always wish you could do (thus making you want to live vicariously through them). If you meet a character who is too normal or too fake, we don't care. If we are introduced to a character before they have grown into an interesting person, then don't make us wait to see the change.

If your first chapter isn't interesting enough to make me want to read the second, you have failed. Now, I will admit that at a first glance, this seems to conflict with a previous article where I talk about the first 100 strips of a comic. There is a major difference, though. In that post, I am talking about individual works.

The idea of the first 100 strips is that we need experience in our craft. Every single thing we write should be better than the last thing we wrote. Every comic strip should get better, just like every book we write should get better. However, we don't expect every panel in a comic to be better than the one before it, much like we don't expect every chapter to be noticeably better within a book.

And I have the same 100 pages rule about comics, too. A comic should not be a little funny. I don't want to read 100 boring pages in a book before it's good and I don't want to read 3 boring panels just to laugh at the fourth. Always be interesting, right from page/line/panel 1.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Best Editing

Editing is a tricky thing because it is so organic. Most decisions in editing are judgment calls, which means that the answer is whatever feels right. The problem is that what feels right changes all the time.

When I finish writing something, I can't even proofread it well. My mind knows what I wrote, so it glosses over large parts of text, thus I can't filter the words for typos. Editing, which is a lot more complicated than proofing, is a lot more difficult to do.

However, whenever I read somebody else's writing, I am fairly consistent in how I edit. The difference is that I have no idea what I'm going to read next. When I read something for the first time, I am going off of gut reactions and thorough filtering. When I read my own work, I am distracted because I know what I wrote and what I intended to write.

However, there is a catch. The older a piece of writing gets, the more I forget about it. After a year or two, I may have forgotten I even wrote it. When I stumble across it, it is completely alien to me and I read it as such.

Some of the best self-editing I have ever done was on pieces that were several months old. It was a fresh start for me and none of my personal thoughts or feelings interrupted my editing process. However, some of the best self-editing I have ever done was on a piece that I had just finished writing. And considering everything I have just said, that should be impossible.

There was a catch, though. When I was editing the piece I had just written, I had my best editor with me to bounce ideas off of and to give me suggestions. That second voice was absolutely necessary. I was so close to my work (still trying to shape the wet clay) that I couldn't trust myself to know when an idea was right or not. So although I was doing the majority of the work, I could never have done it without help.

Both of these methods are great for editing, but have different nuances in use. If you are on a deadline, you don't have the time to wait and come back to a piece. If you rely on another editor to help you, you are at the mercy of their schedule and ability. And if you are on a deadline and don't have an editor to help you, you have just entered ScrewedTown. Population: you.

Say Less Than You Want

In my entry, Keep your Comments to Yourself, I ended it by saying, "If you want to be the best writer you can, then learn to say less than you want to. " I feel like that is not so much an ending as it is a beginning to a whole new subject.

When you create, you usually create in detail. Even if you don't see finely-rendered images in your head, you still know ore about your worlds and your characters than anybody else does. You also know more than anybody needs to know about them. The natural instinct is to tell as much as you know. This increases drastically if you are creating as you write. What I mean is, if you are writing your story, and you come up wit a thought or you have a realization that can be added to the story, you will likely put those thoughts down as they come to you.

And you know what? You should. If you don't write down your ideas, you will likely lose them. However, you also have to realize that most of the stuff you write is unnecessary. And after you finish your first draft, you have to slash it out. If you don't, then you probably have inferior writing that wastes a bunch of words?

"But Kevin," I hear the doubters saying, "what if I want to give a lot of information? What if giving lots of information is my style?" Well, doubters, that would be your problem. If people aren't responding to your style, then you may want to consider changing it. If they do like your work, then why are you looking for advice? My problem with excessive information, aside from being a chore to read, is that it leads to the problem of novels that don't get interesting until after the first hundred pages.

If you aren't interesting right away, don't expect readers to stick around and wait for you to get to the point. If you want people to be interested in what you have to say, then say less than you wanted.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Kinds of Creation: Order from Chaos

At heart, I am a puzzle solver. Everything that I enjoy doing can be seen as solving a puzzle. As such, one of the ways that I create is by finding order in chaos.

Consider the way I teach creativity: take a sentence, modify it to be unusual, make up a situation that would explain the scene, then figure out what would logically happen afterward. This is a perfect example of finding order within chaos.

But there is more than one way to find chaos. You can use the tried and true method of painting yourself into a corner. Take an ordinary scene, then twist it such that the protagonists are screwed over. Some examples are lunatic trying to murder them, trapped in a room, car breaks down while rushing somewhere. Force yourself into a situation that is beyond your normal thought process, then find a way to pull through. From that self-inflicted chaos, you will create something you otherwise wouldn't.

In a more subtle way, you can play the what-if game. Take a normal scene, keep asking yourself, What if... and be crazy about it. Then try to figure out how your proposed situation could possibly work. For example, three friends are eating ice cream. What if one of them starts choking? What if the person behind the counter starts laughing maniacally? What on earth is going on and why? Maybe the server was an ex-lover, maybe an ex-con. Maybe the chokker is poisoned, maybe choking on something solid. Maybe the choker is just a spaz who ate too fast.

One could argue that all writing is a degree of finding order within chaos. When I say it, I mean figuring out why a situation is the way it is. It's about using logic to understand the world around you.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Following Footsteps

I was taking a walk at night. During my wandering, I noticed a set of wet footprints on the ground. I decided to follow them. After some time, the footprints faded and disappeared. Then I continued on, wandering where my fancy took me.

I thought about this story and realized there was some interesting metaphor in it. I followed somebody's footsteps. But where did it take me? I was more focused and determined to go somewhere while I was following them. I didn't know where they would end up, but that didn't matter at the time.

Because I followed those footprints, I ended up in a different place than I would have been had I not followed them. But, just because I followed those footprints doesn't mean I ended up in the same place that the person who made them did.

What does this have to do with writing? Copy what you like. Try something you saw or heard of that was interesting. Follow in somebody else's footsteps. Don't worry what others may say about it. You will never step in exactly the same spot as the predecessor, nor is it likely you will have the same results. However, in the mean time, you will be focused and learning and practicing. It will have an undeniable impact on your life, but it will never stop you from being you.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Little Things

Stories have a tendency to be grandiose. There's nothing wrong with that in itself, but it overshadows the power of the little things. And after all, it's the little things that make up life.

How much effort does it take to hold a door open for somebody? Not a whole lot. But, what does it say about you when you hold a door open for somebody? Sometimes, it's the one thing that makes my day. It is a minuscule gesture, but it is still a gesture of kindness. And for me, knowing that somebody would choose to be kind warms my heart.

And that is the power of little things. Holding open a door for people will never change the world, but people still do it anyway. When your characters put forth effort to do something nice, you see what they truly feel. Of course, the same thing is true when they go out of their way to be jerks. People could just as easily not do those little things, but they are compelled to do it.

The little things also have another power: they can add up to become big things. Look at love. There are two ways to show somebody that you care about them. The first is a big, flashy, brilliantly thought-out and perfectly-executed romantic gesture. The other is to do little things that add up. Do those things that take no effort, but show who you are. Tell them when they look nice. Laugh when they're funny. Give them a gift for no reason other than they think they would like it.

Making the little things add up can be thought of as repetition. When a character does something inconsequential like buying lunch for friends, it's easy to ignore, but when they're doing nice things in every scene they're in, you get a feeling of comfort and happiness from them. You know you can trust them, but you don't know quite why.

That subtle, imperceptible influence is a great power in writing. If you can affect your readers without them able to know how, you are quite a magician. And people like magic. So don't forget the little things.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Motivation of Happiness

When authors want to understand their characters, they usually ask the question, what is the character's motivation. There are a ton of answers that could come up, but they always boil down to the same thing: happiness.

There is a saying that "people don't do the same thing over and over unless they derive some sort of pleasure from it." So, logically, people do the things they do because it pleases them.

So after you find out what your character always does, find out why it makes them happy. Some characters are very transparent. They help people because the gratitude makes them happy. They work out because they love feeling healthy and looking good. It's fine for characters to be simplistic, but this sometimes leads to problems.

For example, some people love getting into arguments or they always sabotage their relationships. How can a person be happy by making themselves miserable? It's crazy, but it's also real. That's when you have to dig deeper. If a person gets into arguments, but always loses what are they really doing? Is it competition that makes them happy? Is it the attention they get from being a spectacle? Is it the fact that they get to be a victim and get people's pity when they lose? Any of it is possible.

Of course, the next question you should ask yourself is why these things make them happy. Maybe our self-destructive character has abandonment issues and needs the company. Maybe the person never had a mother and craves that nurturing pity. Maybe the person was the middle child and was just ignored all through childhood, thus desperately craving attention.

In the end, people are motivated to do what makes them happy, but motivation is the tip of the iceberg in understanding your character, not the end of the line.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Kinds of Creation: The Essay in the Aether

Creation and creativity are staples of writers, and yet they are so difficult to understand or explain. I find myself looking at the creative process in a number of ways. One of them I call the essay in the aether.

Sometimes find that things write themselves. It's like he whole story already existed, and all I really had to do was snatch it out of the ethereal world where it lives. I like this kind of creativity because it almost feels like cheating. The hardest part is wragnling an good idea in the first place, but after that, it does all the work for you.

This reminds me of Michelangelo, who believed that a fully-formed sculpture existed in every block of marble and that his job was merely to free it. Creativity feels that way to me. Writing is less about shaping and sculpting and more about taking intangible perfection and bringing it to earth.

Unfortunately, this is not something that can be taught. Only people who are touched in the head can snatch the ethereal. If you aren't, you'll have to find some other way to create. But if it's any consolation, nobody can truly rely on finding the essay in the aether. It's like relying on a muse or an inspiration; when it's there, it's great, but when it isn't there, you still have to write.

Monday, September 21, 2009


Conviction is known by many names. When it's a good thing, it is dedication and perseverance. When it is a bad thing, it is stubbornness and thick-headedness. In either case, it means that nothing is going to stop you from doing what you want.

Conviction is one of those things that makes your characters disobey you. Writers tend to be very rational. We like to plan things out. We also like to create realistic characters. When one of our characters has strong convictions, then truly nothing can stop them, not even their creator. This is not something we should fight, though.

It is our obligation to surrender to the wills of our characters, no matter how stubborn they are. If you try to bend your character to make them do what you want, you will likely break them. The best thing to dod is to simply be a historian and record the events of your characters. If you made them right, it should be interesting enough.

We should also be aware of conviction as authors. How strong is yours for writing? If you want to be a professional, can anything get in your way of writing every single day? If you want to be a hobbyist, can anything get in your way of starting to write? Your conviction should match the level of your desire. If they are out of sync, then change one of them.

Sunday, September 20, 2009


In my Introduction to Professional Writing class (which was my third PWR class), we were given the assignment to write about ourselves as an author. I turned in a paper with three words: I am succinct.

My teacher happened to love it. And yet, when she returned my paper, she had written some notes on it. The one I remember was, What about "Succinct"? There is so much to play with here. I actually got offended at that message. The whole point of the essay is that there isn't anything to play with.

I ran across this paper recently and when I saw the message in red ink, it still bothered me and I had to figure out why. What does it mean to be succinct? It means that I use as few words as possible. Ok, so why would it be wrong to simply say "Succinct"? Because unless the title of my essay was "How I Describe Myself As An Author", which it wasn't, then the word by itself is meaningless.

And that's when it dawned on me. My version was a full sentence. It is short, sweet, and ends on a staccato. When you say that sentence, it's impossible to not pound your hand on the table when you say 'succinct.' But, if that was the only word in the sentence, it will leave more people confused than impressed

Being succinct means using as few words as possible, but not being bare bones. You still have to get your point across. You still have to have style and voice and power. You can even include the occasional flourish in your writing as long as it serves your purpose. Because that is what succinctness is all about: getting to the point.

I am still succinct. My first drafts tend to be wordy (so I understand if you disagree with me), but I slash and burn when I edit. It is an effective style and I recommend that anybody try it out. Just make sure you use enough words to do what you're trying to do.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

What You Don't Say

I have talked about style in the past. I usually define it as that which is unequivocally you. Your style is the things you say and how you say it, no matter what the subject or form. However, you can also look at it the other way around. Your style is not what you say, but what you do not say.

Sometimes it is things you choose not to say. For example, I do not describe something (scenery, clothing, movements) unless it is relevant to the story I am telling. Other times, it is the things that we never think to say. The classic example for most writers is using the bathroom. Of course everybody needs to do it, but we never find ourselves writing and thinking, I bet Johnny needs to take a piss real bad right now.

If you want to know who you are, it helps to realize who you aren't. What scenes do you not like writing or thinking about? What scenes do you refuse to write about? It is not easy to find out the things that never occur to you, but there is a way. Read a lot. And take notes on every time you read something that really caught you by surprise. Surprise means you never thought about it or didn't see it coming. When that happens, you know a new thing you wouldn't normally say.

Don't be too solid in your convictions, though. Just because you don't say something now doesn't mean you'll never say it in your life. I am steadfastly against writing sex scenes in my stories. I do not see that ending any time soon. But if I get a really great idea for a story and sex is involved, I won't refuse to write the story. Remember that style changes as we change. Always be open to it.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Brainstorming Technique: Doodling

Sometimes you look at your paper or computer screen and you just don't know what to write. You need to warm up your mind. You need to start thinking abotu something anything. Once you get your gears moving, they just keep going. One way that I like to get started is by doodling.

Earlier today, I had a notebook and a pencil, but nothing to write. So instead, I just started making lines. I have no artistic talent, so most of the time, I just run my pencil across the page and keep going from there. Eventually some shape I make gets interesting and I start playing with it more.

One of the shapes I drew looked like a Spartan helmet. I always thought they were interesting because of the shape, how they have that nose guard as part of it. Then I remembered a special on the History Channel where they were talking about the Battle of Thermopylae. They said that the Spartans had metal armor, but many of there enemies used wicker armor because they were desert people and metal would have been too hot. That got me thinking about how the armor you wear tells everything about how you fight and where you come from.

Now I have an idea about a warrior whose main ability was to observe his opponents and find their strengths and weaknesses. But if I used my writing prompt technique and made it more general, I have a story idea where a person can profile others based on visual cues.

Now I have an idea. And all it took was doodling on paper, relaxing my mind, and getting my wheels turning. Everybody has their own methods for generating ideas, but if yours aren't working, try doodling.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Jokes: Set-Up vs. Inherent

In the past, I have told people to not take the easy joke. While I still agree with that, I had only scratched the surface of what I meant. The real idea is that there are two basic approaches to comedy: setting up a joke, and making a joke from a situation.

The set-up is what I called the easy joke. It is easy to create and it is easy to see coming. The beauty of set-ups is that whatever joke you come up with, you can set-up a situation where you can tell it. The problem with the set-up is that it is very obvious because the characters would never say the things they are saying unless they are setting us up for a specific joke.

Inherent jokes are far more natural, though potentially limited. Have you ever watched a bad movie and made jokes about it with your friends? That's inherent comedy. It naturally comes from a given situation. The difficulty of these jokes is that you have to find and uncover them. But because they are more natural, they will be funnier.

In terms of writing, it is easy to lose the distinction between a set-up and an inherent joke. When you write, you have to create stories and situations. If you are writing humor, you will also have to write jokes. So if you are creating a situation and you know jokes are coming, aren't all of the jokes going to be set-ups?

Not quite. The key word to the equation is 'natural'. Characters, even in a comedy, are defined. There are things they say and things they don't. There are realistic situations and there are absurd ones. If you are creating realistic situations, and if you have natural dialogue, then you are not setting up jokes. Some people are just funny and they say funny things. They make a witty comment or give sarcastic remarks. You can't really set up the situation for these comments the way you set up a man walking into a bar.

My personal belief is that we shouldn't be a little funny. We should have funny things happening all the time. In regard to set-ups and inherent jokes specifically, I like this format (assuming a 4-panel comic strip): set-up situation, joke based on set-up, continue story, inherent joke. Essentially, I'm putting two joke in one comic. You could also see it as getting more mileage from a single premise.

Regardless of what you call it, the point is that I am keeping the audience laughing and I am keeping them guessing. Comedy is all about the unexpected, so whether you choose4 to do a set-up or an inherent joke, make sure you spice it up.

Proofreading: A Closer Look

I mentioned before that I am a slow proofreader, but a thorough one. It would be inaccurate to say that I am a good proofreader because I am a slow reader. There is much more to it.

The first part is that words are pictures. Sure, we make them out of letters, and they are oh so malleable, but ultimately, ever single word in our language is a picture with a distinct meaning. They are no different than the words in Chinese, each one with a distinct meaning and pronunciation. The only difference is that in English, the pictures are of maps (i.e. pronunciation). So when you come across a new word, the picture may help you understand how to pronounce it, but the word itself is still largely meaningless.

The point of this is that people can tell when a picture isn't right. In the movie Coming to America, there is a fast food chain called McDowell's. The logo is obviously ripping off McDonald's, but we can all tell that they are not the same golden arches we see on the street. Words act the same way to me. My brain has logged all of the common and most of the uncommon words in a massive catalogue. When a word passes by my eyes, I say it out loud, which means I have to access the catalogue and check what word I'm reading. If a word isn't in the catalogue, then I focus on it and determine if the word is a misspelling or if I screwed up in reading it.

For rarer words, or words that I have never seen before, I have to rely on my other abilities: etymology and Latin. These two skills largely go hand in hand. I have always been curious where words come from. Whenever I was curious, I would look up words in the dictionary to find out. Most times, it can be derived from Latin. I was also fortunate enough to have taken a few years of Latin in high school. My language comprehension is almost nil, but I still have a good amount of vocabulary. These let me break down words into their components to ascertain meaning.

For example, the word 'portable' can be broken up into 'port' and '-able'. 'Port' comes from the Latin portare, which means "to carry". Therefore, 'portable' means "able to be carried". This serves two purposes. For one thing, if I can break a word down into its components, I no longer need to know how a full word is spelled; I only need to know how to spell each component. For another thing, if I know where a word comes from and I know how to spell the root word, I will know how to spell variations of the word according to the rules of derivation and inflection.

My final tool is sheer memorization. This is moreso used for rules of punctuation than anything else. I like to play games. Part of playing games is learning the rules. So, to make sure I don't screw up, I have learned the rules of punctuation and usage of particular rules. Things like usage of commas and semicolons are not mysteries to me. Commas, of course, have the most rules because they have the most ways to be used, but if you look at them in a certain way, they all pretty much mean the same things (they either function as parentheses or as prepositional phrase separators). I admit that there are times where I couldn't rattle off a proper definition of a rule, but can tell you when it is and isn't appropriate to use.

Ultimately, I think that proofreading is a skill. Although you can learn a number of techniques and tricks to make yourself better at it, some people are just hardwired for it. If you are the kind of person who notices typos on signs in the grocery store or outside of a restaurant, even when you wish you could just ignore them, you are a natural proofreader. If you have ever been on the internet and haven't noticed that nobody can spell, then you are probably one of those people, and you should make sure to hire a good proofreader before you send out anything important.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Speech's Pace

In all aspect of writing, I am very slow. I'm a slow reader, slow writer, slow editor, slow everything. It is very frustrating to most people, sometimes even myself, but the benefits are quite worth the frustration.

But before I get ahead of myself, let's start with why. Why am I so slow at everything I do? The reason is that I do everything at speech's pace. When I read, I read out loud. When I'm in public, I read out loud in my head. Sometimes I mouth words or say them quietly to myself. Basically, I always read as if I am giving a speech to a crowd.

I write the same way. Realistically, I probably write at half of speech's pace, but that is partly a limitation of my body and partly the fact that I am creating the second half of a sentence while I am typing the first half. However, I do still speak as I write. I say the words I am writing as I write them. When I get stuck or otherwise lose myself, I keep repeating the last phrase I wrote to get me back on track. I can only imagine what a sight it must be for onlookers, the crazy person talking to himself as he types.

And yet, despite whatever appearance I may have, I have no qualms with my personal style or process. From what I have seen, it is what makes me as amazing as I am. When I read, I absorb every word. If a sentence doesn't make sense, I stay on it until I understand it, or at least can say it without stumbling. When my eyes start glazing over from a paragraph, I shake my head out, and start from the beginning. When you give a speech, a large amount of your feeling and power comes from your delivery more than your words, and the conviction of your delivery depends on your familiarity with what you are saying and what you are trying to say. Since I am giving a speech when I read, I have to make sure that I actually understand what the author is saying before I can move on.

The results of this method are astounding. My mom can probably read six times faster than me, but she retains probably a sixth as much information as I do. On here third reading of a book, she tells me things that she is ow understanding, that I already got on my only reading of it.

But there is an added benefit to my method. I am a fantastic proofreader (remember, I don't proof my posts, so they are not an example). That is because I am not sprinting through a page. I sit and look at every word. If I go too fast, I look at the words again. Errors leap off the page at me. It gets really annoying because I can't turn it off, but it makes me invaluable when my skills are needed.

Similar things happen to me in my writing. Things like rhythm and melody are important to me because all of my writing is meant to be heard. If a sentence makes me stumble, ties my tongue, or is just too unpleasant to say aloud, then I throw it out and try again. When I get stuck and keep repeating the last sentence or looking over my paragraph, I catch mistakes or ramblings, which allows me to edit as I write. My friend has a similar experience while she is tasting her words. Of course, when I am on a roll, that goes out the window, but that is exactly why I like being slow.

If you are a fast reader or a fast writer, try slowing down. Go at speech's pace and see what you get from it. At the very least, it could make your first draft have the feel of a second or third draft. If you are already a slow reader or writer, don't feel bad about it. Take pride in your style and take full advantage of its benefits.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Your Style

In my previous post, I mentioned personal style, saying that it is who we are. This idea deserves more than a casual mention at the end of a post, so I am giving it one of its very own.

When I was in school, the major quest for writing students was the discovery of our style. In many books about writing, authors will say that all of the techniques and skills you learn are applied to your style, which implies that you need to have a style before you can really shape your writing.

So, what is your style? Everybody has their own opinions on the matter. Stephen King says that your style is a combination the last three authors you read. I agree with with him, but only to a point. The effects that other people's writing has on you are cosmetic. You may use different words, put in a few flourishes or tricks, but even if the skin of your writing changes color, the heart remains the same.

Your style is you. It is everything that you are deep down in your heart and soul. It doesn't matter what genre or what form of writing you do, your writing will always sound like you. If you want to know your writing style, then get to know yourself. What interests you? Is it people? Places? Things? Relationships? Mechanics? These are the subjects you will look for. If you like relationships, you will write stories about people's relationships, both simple and the complex. When you write about something completely unrelated to humans, you will still search for relationships. When you write about the rain forest, you will write about the relationships between plants and animals.

How do you talk with people? Are you blunt? Do you beat around the bush? Do you start from the beginning or jump right into the juicy bits? Are you thorough, or do you just cover the main points? This is how you will write. All of your technical aspects, including vocabulary, sentence length, and preferred construction, can be found in how you communicate with others already.

The point of reading other authors is to speed up the process. There are two ways to learn: research, and experimentation. Experimentation can take a long time to try everything, and you may taint your studies because you are experimenting on yourself. Reading other people's work is like research. When you find a piece of writing that resonates with you, you can analyze it and find out the parts you like. You find out why you like it and what that says about yourself. You will usually internalize that writing style, but with enough time, you should see that you never truly copy it. You may sound similar to the original, but it will never be the same. That difference is your style. It is your variation on a set of techniques and ideas.

One final note to point out, though. Remember that your style is a reflection of yourself. Your style will never change unless you change. And if there's one thing I know for certain, it's that people change. There's nothing you can do about it, of course, but you should be aware that if something significant changes who you are or how you think, your writing will reflect that change. That is how close it is to you. That's why it is your style.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Male and Female Authors

Whenever somebody shows me a piece of writing and I don't know the author, I play a simple game: is the author male or female? I'm pretty good at this game, but considering the details surrounding it, I wish I wasn't.

The reason I started this game is that I noticed a pattern. Every time I had to read something in school and it was the most boring, painful, and annoying thing I've ever read, I wondered who wrote it. Every time, it was a woman. Once I realized that, I started playing the game. I find that every time I am similarly pained by a piece of writing, it has a female author.

It is not that I dislike women. I'm not that misogynistic. What happens is that women seem to use a style of writing that I disagree with far more often than men do. This is not so much a gender thing as it is a style thing. I don't hate Jane Goodall, Barbara Kingsolver, and Anne Lamott because of who they are. I hate them because of how they write.

This so-called female writing style is a combination of preachy and ditzy. The preachy part is that when they have a point to make, they shove it down our throats and make no apologies for it. Any time they entertain a counterargument, they ignore all of its actual points and use some trivial aspect of it to fuel their own flame. Kingsolver's essay collection Small Wonders is a prime example of this. It is not discourse in any meaningful way, just soapbox grandstanding. It belongs in a journal or a blog at best, but not a published book.

The ditzy part comes from the random and not helpful flights of fancy that these authors take. To continue picking on Kingsolver, every essay I read in Small Wonders started the same way: she is sitting in her kitchen, looking at some flower outside of her window, thinking about something. This scene doesn't set a mood, nor does it add anything to the point or argument that is made later on. It is like she is announcing how an essay came to her in the essay she's writing. That would be like going to a movie that started with the director telling you how he came up with the movie you are watching. If I wanted to know that, I would either find an interview or I would by the DVD with commentary on it.

The superfluous information takes other forms, though. Female authors tend to spend the most time describing a location or a feeling. It is not superfluous to know some basic information of where characters are and what they're thinking, but there is a point of saturation where the story is slowing down because of excess information. There is also a problem where an author will bring up a tangential story that may vaguely pertain to the original point, but is so extraneous that the actual point is lost, or at least drowned out.

Now, I did not title this post "Female Authors Suck" and I did so for a reason. What I am saying is that there are certain styles of writing that really rub me the wrong way. Women are more prone to using that style of writing. However, this is a personal opinion. I prefer writing that has more action and less description. When somebody is making a point, I want them to get to the point. Different people, though, have different tastes.

If you want something that is "confident, but not too serious" or if you want something "thoughtful and emotional", you may just hate a lot of men's writing. We could be seen as cold in our rationality. We could be seen as to focused on the end-result. We could be accused of not stopping to smell the roses. If all of these things are problems for you, I would understand if you hated men's writing.

What I want you to get out of this is that writing styles come from within. Our writing is who we are. Women tend to have certain aspects of their writing in common because they have a gender in common. Just because one person doesn't like your style doesn't mean it's wrong. It just means your style is wrong for them. You may need to edit and revise your work, but you should never change who you are just because one person doesn't like it.

It May Be Real, But Is It Right?

I've often talked about how the point of writing is to capture reality. We want our characters, scenes, and dialogue to be realistic. But what happens when reality just isn't good enough?

Consider stereotypes. Stereotypes are bad and wrong and unrealistic, or so people would have us believe. But let me ask you, why would these stereotypes exist if there were no people who embodied them? Stereotypes exist for a reason. They are real. But should they be in writing?

Personally, I can't really stand stereotypes. I can't stand flat or 2-dimensional characters, either. They're boring. And that is what we try so hard to avoid in writing: being boring.

The whole reason we try to capture reality is that the real world is interesting. When our characters sound like people we've met in real life, we care more about them. When a protagonist is going through the same things that we have gone through, we empathize with them. When a character is the poster child for Stereotype Monthly, we look at them more as creatures in a zoo than as human beings.

I believe that the primary function of all writing is to entertain. If we can't entertain, then nobody will read our work, so anything else we try to do will automatically fail. If our characters are not entertaining, then they harm our writing. Therefore, even if a character is real and you have met such a person in real life, that does not mean that they should necessarily be in your writing. We are trying to be realistic, not real.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Keep Your Comments to Yourself

Have you ever been at a really bad movie and spent the whole time making jokes about every line of dialogue? Have you ever been at a really terrible speech and start arguing with the speaker because he was wrong? Have you ever gotten kicked out of a wedding because you laughed out loud at the priest for not realizing how suggestive his sermon was?

That last one didn't happen to it, but I was as close as possible. If I wasn't sitting next to strangers on both sides of me, I would have ruined my friend's wedding. But the more important point is what this illustrates. Some people just can't help making comments. They're usually the writer types and they usually just can't help themselves.

I really mean it when I say they can't help themselves. Their minds literally don't stop thinking. No matter what is going on, they are coming up with side comments, some of which are hilarious. The problem, though, is that this can be a serious problem (and not just in church).

The people who always make side comments when other people speak usually make side comments when they themselves are speaking. They also do it when they're writing. Sometimes they just set themselves up for a joke so good that they can't help but make fun of themselves. Sometimes they make a claim that they know people will argue, so they try to shoot down potential counterarguments. When you do this, you diminish your own work. You add unnecessary weight to your sentences, bogging them down and taking away their power.

If you want to make your writing as strong as it can be, then keep your comments to yourself. Say your main point and leave it there. Accept that if you are being serious, then some comedian is going to make the same comment that you would. If you think somebody will argue against one of your points, then win your internal argument and write that one instead. If you absolutely have to share something, put it in a footnote or somewhere else out of the way.

If you want to be the best writer you can, then learn to say less than you want to.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

First Hand Experience: Best Teacher?

Many people will tell you that if you truly want to understand what goes on in a person's head, you need to go through what they have gone through. There are some things for which I agree, and others for which I don't.

If you want to know what it's like to live in Brooklyn, then you might as well go there. Visiting will be helpful to understand what is there, how to get around, and what kinds of people you can meet. If you actually live there for a while, you will understand what really matters to people who live there, what people are really like in their heart of hearts, and everything else, all on a deeper level. Aside from the cost of living there, there's no reason not to spend some time there.

The problem, though, is that writing is a form of escapism. And it isn't just an escape for the readers; it's an escape for you, too. When you write, you get to do everything you always wished you could. That could be anything from telling off your boss to getting wrecked on mushrooms and murdering random people on the street. When it comes to these escapist fantasies (especially on the extreme side), I simply can't endorse them.

I will admit that there is no way to really know what it is like to be drunk except to get drunk, but where is the line? I would hope that nobody has ever killed somebody for the sake of being able to accurately describe what a killer was thinking. I know that writers generally have a stereotype for doing any drug they can get their hands on, but you should never do something you don't want to do just for the experience. That's the point where you need to do as much research as possible and hope you can describe things accurately (or just choose not to write about such things or people).

It is possible that nothing is as real or powerful as that which you have experienced yourself, but ultimately, you should never do things you wouldn't do regularly. You sacrifice enough for your writing as it is.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Don't Trust Your Readers

I've read a lot of people's drafts in my time. And in that time, I've realized something: sometimes I am willing to put up with people's crap, and sometimes I'm really not.

I noticed this in my writing classes, where my classmates would write pieces of the same general quality, but sometimes I would be very kind and supportive, and other times I would rip them apart. Since their work was the same, it had to be me who was different.

I was certain of it when I worked on the school literary magazine. I had to read some submissions a half dozen or so different times as it went through the process of being submitted, voted on, reviewed, edited, proofread, and laid out. Every time I read each piece, I had a different reaction to it. Some of them went from love to hate to on the fence, back to hate, back to love, and then simply accepting it.

I consider myself a very good editor. I am fair, balanced, and helpful. However, I am also human. Sometimes I'm just not in a good mood. Sometimes reading something produces a knee-jerk reaction. The same is true for any human.

When you have somebody look at your writing, remember that no matter how good they are, they are giving you an opinion which is affected by how they feel at that time.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Writing Prompts

I was talking with a friend of mine who told me about a writing prompt she had made. A character's treasured object is wearing out gradually, and he or she cannot replace it. When the object stops working, he or she will have to revert to his or her former way of living. Write about his or her emotions and actions when the object is on the verge of breaking down and his or her decisions after it becomes useless. Describe how he or she resists or accepts the loss of the object, making sure to include other characters' reactions to his or her behavior.

I thought it was a rather interesting prompt. It is specific enough to focus your thoughts on a scene or progression, but broad enough that the scene could be almost anything under the sun. After she told me this, she said that the idea for the prompt came from her iPod slowly dying and not being able to get a replacement for it.

After I finished chuckling at what a great idea it was, I was amazed at what a great idea it is. Take any story, regardless of how interesting it is, and break it down into the vaguest words possible. That's a writing prompt. Once you have a vague story, you can let your imagination fly and fill in the details.

The above prompts could just as easily have been the story of a person who had prosthetic legs that were wearing out, but couldn't afford to get new ones and had to go back to using a wheelchair. It could also be a fantasy world where a wizard protected his city with the power of a magical artifact that was running out of power, so he had to use his old staff to fight off any invaders.

If you aren't sure what to write and need a prompt to get started, try this out. If it works, you will never worry about trying to find something to write about ever again. It could also help you see how similar extremely different situations can be when you look at the core principles that comprise them.

Riding A Bicycle

We have the phrase in English, "it's just like riding a bicycle." It means that some things are either so easy or so natural that you will never truly forget them once you learn how to do them. I will admit that I once forgot how to get on a bicycle, but once I figured that out, I had no trouble actually riding it.

It should come as no surprise that I will say that writing is just like riding a bicycle, but the question is why that is so. The thing with bicycle riding is that it is only so complicated. Basically, it's pedaling your feet and maintaining balance (not too difficult). So how is it possible that something as difficult and frustrating as writing?

The key to the phrase is not the fact that it's simple to ride a bike; it's why we never forget. This of one of the easiest physical acts in the world: walking. When we are born, we don't know how to do it. We have to learn how to walk, which is time-consuming and quite demanding. Once we learn how to walk, we do it all the time and never stop. If there ever came a time where we didn't walk for weeks at a time, it may be difficult to do, but we would never forget how to do it, so that mechanic will always be in our bodies.

Riding a bicycle works in the same fashion. It is very difficult to learn how to do at first, but once you learn how, you ride it all around, all day. After that, years could go by and you would still be able to ride around all day.

Writing is like riding because it is extremely difficult and time-consuming to learn how to do, but if we practice certain things a whole lot, we will never forget them. Certain broad concepts like coming up with interesting ideas is out of the question, but techniques like proofreading are totally possible. From my experience in journalism, it was heavily stressed to never use the same word twice in a paragraph (or at least not in consecutive sentences). I may slip from time to time (or just break the rule all together), but whenever I write, I always feel uncomfortable when I repeat a word too many times.

If you have not written anything for some time, or if there is some particular aspect of writing that you have not used in a great deal of time, realize that you will not be starting from square one. You may need a refresher, but you'll be back to full speed in no time. After all, writing is just like riding a bicycle.

Sadness and Happiness

When we tell a story, certain scenes are inherently happy (like the sun rising on a beautiful new day) and others inherently sad (like rain pouring down at a funeral). Some of them are simple enough, probably because they tug at the core principles of humanity (e.g. death is sad).

But any of these scenes can be turned around in a number of ways. A funeral could be a happy scene if the person who died was a murderous despot. A rising sun could be depressing if it illuminated a village that had been burned to the ground the night before.

Similarly, scenes can be changed between happy and sad because of the people in that scene. A funeral can be a happy thing if a person attending it met the woman of his dreams there. However, by adding people to a scene, we can sometimes muddle the message. When a hero sacrifices himself to defeat the villain, his funeral will be sad, but we will also be happy that the hero was successful.

Audiences are the same way: they're people. They have their own thoughts, feelings, and emotions. When they read your work, you may have a scene that is happiness in its purest form, but they may feel sorrow. This is not necessarily due to any aspect of your writing. It may just mean that you have affected them emotionally, though not toward a specific emotion. It could also mean that they just have a lot on their mind and it is influencing their judgement. In any case, realize that happiness and sadness can be a result of several different factors working together or one factor being stronger than all the others (or the audience dealing with their own things). It is very rare that an emotion is pure and simple.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Techniques and Tricks

In writing (and anything else in life), people want to know techniques and tricks. As I think about it, I find myself asking, what's the difference? If they're the same thing, then we don't need to ask for techniques and tricks; we can just ask for one. But I have a suspicion that since we say both, they are different things.

So what is a technique? A technique is an action that has a certain result. For example, using short sentences to increase the speed and power of the narrative is a technique. Every time you use short sentences, they feel more important. If you are writing and want to know how to increase the speed of the flow (or if you don't know why your somber piece sounds too excited), you know what technique to use.

And what is a trick? A trick is an action that has an inexplicable result. Telling somebody to write about the Holocaust is a trick. There is a general pattern that stories about World War II are extremely popular (Maus, Schindler's List, Night), so if you write one, you should be successful. The problem is that it is not guaranteed (and also pretty offensive). There is no reason why it will work, which is also why you can't guarantee that it will work. There is a pattern of it working, but that's just a trend at best.

Ultimately, the difference between techniques and tricks is knowledge. A technique is something that has been tested and comes with its own users manual. A trick is unexplored territory. Some people may have tried it out enough time to write it down, but there is still a great deal more to be learned. Both of them are useful, but for very different reasons. If you want all the help you can get, ask for both. But if you want something specific, ask for what you're looking for.

Friday, September 4, 2009

You Are Getting Better

I took the GRE today. The first section of the test is to write two essays. The first essay is writing about a given idea. It is opinionated and can support or deny that idea. The second essay is an analysis of argument. The point is not to argue the point, but to consider how well the argument is made.

Both of these essays are timed. The first is 45 minutes and the second is 30. In that time, I had to read the given idea or argument, formulate what I was going to say, and write it down. I did have enough time to proofread my work when I was done (thank goodness), but multiple drafts were out of the question.

I was perfectly fine on these sections. I didn't like the fact that I was being timed, but I knew that it only took me about a half hour to write a blog (including all the time I usually wasted), which is about the same length as the essays I wrote. That's when the thought occurred to me: I am so lucky that I have been writing these blogs. I have been unwittingly practicing for that section for over eight months. All I ever do is start with an idea or argument and develop it, usually without the luxury of second drafts.

After I finally finished the test, another thought occurred to me: I must be getting better at writing. It seems like a silly thing, but it was significant for me. Writing is a habit; we do it every day. But the thing with everyday activities is that we never notice the slight changes that occur over time. It isn't until we use our skills in a different venue (or by comparing them to people who don't practice as much) that we really see how far we have come.

So, to all of you who practice every day, but still question your abilities, take it from me: you are getting better.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

It's Already Inside You

When people want me to go somewhere with them, they always use the same line: "it will give you things to write about." I hate it when people say that to me. Mostly because it's crap.

"But Kevin, how come?"
Any creative writer is a pretty good what-ifer. They can take a situation and think of a dozen possible causes, a dozen possible stories of what is going on, and a dozen possible outcomes, all without even trying. I don't need to go out and see the world to come up with things to write about. I can come up with plenty of things to write about all on my own.

"But Kevin, can't they give you new ideas?"
Yes and no. If you see something in the world that you have absolutely never seen before, then yes. But these ideas are not unique to the real world. If you explore the realm of possibility thoroughly enough, you will eventually come up with these ideas and situations. You may be upset to find that somebody else already came up with it first, or that somebody else has personally lived through it, but the point is that you still came up with it on your own.

"Damn, Kevin. Is there any positive side to living in the world around you?"
Of course there is. For one thing, it lets you act like a human being. It makes you leave your safe, comfortable writing space, as well as letting you destress from everything you've been doing. But you probably meant in terms of writing. In that case, going outside can act as a catalyst. Sure, we can think of anything with enough time and thought, but we often get stuck in certain loops or themes. We also get stuck in the mentality of what we would do in a situation instead of what the character might do, or what might happen to the character without even expecting it. This is where the real world is helpful. When you have one of those "this is too insane to be real" moments or "I never would have thought of that" moments, then the world has done your work for you. In that case, sit back and cash in on that jackpot.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Edit As You Write

I never write for extended periods of time. I usually get a few sentences written down, then I have to stop. I think about what I am trying to say and how I should say it. This usually means my train of thought derails every ten feet or so. So to get back on track, I read the last sentence or two I wrote and see where it leads me.

The nice thing about this is that I also edit as I write. Coming back to my sentences and mulling them over not only helps me think of what to write next, it also makes me realize when I screwed up. I catch typos, wrong words, and some sentences that just don't taste good. Before I move on to the next sentence, I fix any problems with the current one.

But I don't just edit, I also revise. Sometimes I write a paragraph, feel bad because I struggled the whole way through it, and then say screw it and trash the whole thing. Sometimes I get halfway through a sentence and realize I want to say it in a different way.

I personally like to edit as I write. It's easy to forget changes I want to make later, so if I know there is a problem to fix now, then there's no time like the present.

Of course, it is just as easy to favor not editing while you write. Editing is its own step, so as long as your editing skills are up to snuff, you ought to catch everything you need. As long as you have ideas coming, you might as well keep writing them down. There's no time like the present.

Unsurprisingly, this is not a rule; just a technique. Some people like to always edit and some people save it for later. Try them both out and do what feels best (or whatever produces the best results).

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Come Back Later

I was talking with my writing soulmate today. She was excited because she had been particularly productive. She was telling me about her various endeavors, one of which caught my attention.

She was revising her poetry. It was stuff she had written months, if not years, ago, and never touched (and unsurprisingly was never happy with). Today, however, she looked at her poetry and knew exactly what to do with it. All of the revisions, all of the rewriting, every possible aspect just came to her and she was able to create something that she was actually happy with.

This is an important story because it perfectly demonstrates something that writing teachers will always say. When you write something, you are too close to it. You cannot revise or edit it. Heck, you usually can't even proofread it worth a damn. You need to leave it alone and come back to it when you aren't so close.

Now, that advice is good, but it was always strange to me. How is it that we can make writing better by becoming estranged to it? The answer, simply enough, is that we aren't. Your brain never stops working. You ever try to think of the name of a song and you just can't? Ever notice how it always pops in your head sooner or later? It's the same thing. When you write something, your brain knows when it's not quite right and it will continuously work on fixing it, even if you don't realize it. When it's ready, you get a message to go back to your writing and you will have all of the corrections you need, or at least the most important piece that allows you to figure out the rest.

So, when you reach a point of frustration over not being able to get your writing just right, leave it alone. Take a break and come back to it when you're ready. If there is something you remember writing a while ago, try pulling it out and see if you know what to do now. If you don't get anything for it, then put it back in storage and write something else while you figure it out.