Saturday, October 31, 2009

Levels of Writing: Philosophy

The final level of writing is philosophy. In the past, I have called this plot. I still like 'plot', but I want to emphasize the idea of thinking. Although we can write for pure, mindless entertainment, I believe we should always strive for more. For one thing, it gives our work a timelessness. For another, it adds interest to our writing.

Watchmen was a great story. It had intrigue, excitement, suspense, action, and even some comedy to it. But more importantly, it had philosophy. It asked tough questions. What is good and evil? Do the ends justify the means? Is the truth more important than peace?

When I finished reading Watchmen, I did not stop thinking about it. It took over most of my thoughts for weeks and I have talked about its philosophies as recently as tonight at dinner. That is what lasts longer than any other aspect of the story. That is why it is so important to have in your writing.

However, I think it is usually a bad idea to write a story based on a philosophy. When you do that, you end up trying too hard to shove the ideas in people's faces and it becomes less interesting. Heavy-handed writing is never a good idea.

Philosophy is laced in your very mind. Whatever you write will naturally have your own philosophy in it. So you don't have to try. The best thing you can do is ask yourself, "what would be interesting to write about?" You can come up with general thoughts like 'slavery' or specific thoughts like 'bombardier beetles'. If you can come up with an interesting story, the philosophy will naturally come from it.

However, not everyone works the same way. Some people have a thought that they just have to share. That isn't a problem. After all, sometimes writing is expressive. Take your idea and apply it to a story. Think of it as a parable. Trust in your readers to understand the message you are trying to convey. If you can do that, you will be sure to avoid heavy-handedness.

I think it is ironic that philosophy is the most discussed aspect of writing, but it is the most passive level of writing. But there is one important fact to remember. It is not until all of the lower levels of writing are fantastic that we pay attention to the philosophy. When you read lousy writing, all you can pay attention to is how bad the sentences, words, and phrases all are. But when everything is technically right, that is when we have the luxury of pondering the philosophy.

Remember that as you write: When people are talking about the message of your story, that is when you know that everything else is right with it.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Levels of Writing: Stories

In my terms, the story is the actual events that happen. Although story is one of the highest levels of writing, it is usually the first thing we think about. When we are staring at a blank page, we all shout at the same thing: "I don't know what to write about."

In the big picture, there are two main components to writing stories. There is coming up with a story and there is continuing a story. I think most people will tell you that it is coming up with a story that is harder.

I would usually agree with those people, but you have to ask yourself why. The reason it is hard to come up with a story is that people are trying to come up with a complete story. Of course it is more difficult to come up with a novel than it is to come up with part of a novel. Break it down. Instead of coming up with an idea, just come up with a scene.

Scene's usually aren't too difficult to come up with. Sometimes you can come up with something crazy, sometimes you come up with something boring. If you think your scene is too boring, then try something to randomize it. Shout out words, anything, the first thing that comes to your mouth, and write those down. Put them into the scene.

Once you have come up with a scene, you move on to creating a story from that scene. Since every moment has events that led up to it and events that follow it, you can figure out what has happened and what will happen logically. Get into your characters' heads and understand their personality. Realize how they would normally react to situations and apply that to the situation occurring within the scene you made.

If all of this sounds familiar, it is because I more thoroughly explained how to create scenes and continue stories in a previous post. Although I am proud of this method, I have always found it to be a little dry. Sure, I could make an interesting story using this method, but I could also make a boring one with it. The interest is coming from elsewhere.

So what is the point of the story? Surely it has to be more than that, right? If you ask me, no. A story is a tool. It is a medium through which we deliver our plot. The primary duty of a story is to be realistic. We need something human that readers can connect to. We need conflict to deal with. We need surprises, twists and turns, but nothing so strange that it breaks our suspension of disbelief.

Good storytelling is important. That is why you learn every level of writing that comes before stories. Learning how to choose words, craft phrases and sentences, join them in paragraphs, collect those in sections and chapters, all of that is part of good storytelling. The final piece of the puzzle is making sure that it all makes sense. At this level of writing, making sense from point A to point B is your main goal.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Levels of Writing: Chapters

Chapters are organizational tools. And as I said in the post on sections, all organizational tools are going to be similar in composition. To keep things moving, I want to talk about the things that make chapters unique.

There are two ways you can use a chapter. It can be a large section or a gigantic paragraph. When you look at something like a text book on world religions, paragraphs are no more than large sections. You don't need to read the chapter on Islam to understand the chapter on Shintoism. And although Islam and Christianity share a common heritage, each chapter sufficiently stands on its own.

In creative writing, chapters are more like gigantic paragraphs. Where a paragraph is complete, it is very dependent on what came before it, and directly feeds into the one that comes after it. If you crack open a Grisham novel and start reading a chapter in the middle, you will be completely lost. You will also very likely not want to stop reading once you reach the chapter's end (assuming you could get into it).

As I've said previously, a chapter covers either a subject or a time period. In a traditional novel, chapters are periods of time. If you are only following one set of characters, then chapters break up periods of time (what better way to narrate 3 weeks later than a new chapter?). If you follow multiple sets of characters, then you break the chapter into sections to show what each set is doing during the period of time the chapter covers. In nonfiction work, time is often less relevant, so chapters cover subjects.

For writers, I think that chapters should come naturally. If they don't, then ask yourself one question about the thing you're writing: what's the point? What's the point of the protagonist traveling to some new city and meeting some old person? The answer will probably lead you to the natural arc of your chapter. Protagonist travels, meets person, finds new information, and continues the journey with that aid. That small arc becomes a chapter. What's the point of writing about Shinto shrines? Maybe they are a key example of the fundamental beliefs of the religion. So maybe your chapter should be about the fundamental beliefs of the religion.

As usual, the best advice is reading and writing. But don't forget to think while doing so.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Levels of Writing: Sections

Typically, the level above the paragraph is the chapter. But before we get there, I think it is important to look at sections. Although some writers use chapters as section breaks, there are many writers who do not. There are also many different kinds of sections that can be used.

No matter how it's done, all sections have one thing in common: they are complete. A section has an introduction, an elaboration, and a conclusion. A section can stand on its own. One may notice that I described paragraphs in the same way, with a beginning, follow-through, and conclusion. It is no mistake. Above sentences, all of the organization levels will have that in common. If writing didn't have a natural flow like that, it would be confusing and unpleasant.

However, although they are similar, paragraphs and sections are different. A section has to be complete. Paragraphs do not. The previous paragraph here can only somewhat stand on its own. It doesn't use any pronouns that refer to nouns in the first paragraph, so we understand everything the paragraph is saying. The problem is that the ideas within them are directly based on ideas presented in the first paragraph and that they need further elaboration in subsequent paragraphs to make the most sense. Paragraphs are stepping stones from the beginning to the end of the section. Each stone has its own internal structure of sentences, but no one stone is enough to make a bridge.

Despite sections having this commonality, they still come in different forms. Sometimes that depends on the kind of writing being done. A section in a lab report will be very different from a section in a novel, which in turn will be different from a section in a history textbook.

Let's look at the lab report first. These papers already have very specific guidelines, so we don't have to figure out how to break the writing into sections, but it does provide a framework to ask why. We start with the abstract, which is basically a quick summary of what you tested, why you did it, how you did it, and what results you found. This section gives us an overview; it grounds us and prepares us for the rest of the report. Then we move into the introduction, where we elaborate on what we are testing, what we hope to achieve, and why we think it will work. This is our premise. Next we talk about our materials used, so we know how we are accomplishing our tests and how others can repeat it. The procedure section is similar to the materials section in its reasons. And then we have the conclusion, where we say what our final results are and postulate on what they indicate.

In the lab report, each section is an aspect of the scientific process. It covers all of the questions we would ask, basically providing the written equivalent of a video of the experiment. Let's see how other sections work. The history text book next.

A history text book either focuses on one location throughout time or several locations at a single period in time. For example, let's use the latter. If the book covers several locations, then each chapter would be a single location. Therefore, each section would describe a different aspect of each location. One section could be on how the government worked. Another on economy. Another on farming and/or industry.

The section that described that location's governmental system would be complete and would not require reading any of the other sections to understand it. Much like the lab report, each section covers a different aspect of this one area. When all of the sections are put together, you get a full understanding of the area. So nonfiction sections seem to be fairly similar. How does fiction fare?

I've come across my share of novels that had section breaks within a chapter. When this happened, the scene, characters, and storyline all changed. You go from the A story to the B story, so we are following the B character in their B setting. But why do we make a section break instead of just starting a new chapter? Often times, it is because what is happening in this second section is occurring at the same time as what we just read in the first section.

In fiction writing, sections are similar, but different. If we consider a chapter as a particular stretch of time, then each section shows a piece of what is going on during that point in time. Although the A and B stories will probably intertwine, the sections do not really have to do with each other; they can stand on their own. However, they also have nothing to do with each other in any other way. They don't follow the same people or the same story or the same location. Their only connection is time. Still, they are connected.

So it seems that a section is a section is a section. They organize aspects into concise parts that work on their own, but add to the bigger picture when put together. Whatever kind of writing you're doing, sections mostly follow the same way. Not every piece of writing requires sections, but you can determine what you need by how big of an area you are trying to cover.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Levels of Writing: Paragraphs

The next unit or writing above sentences is the paragraph. I think that paragraphs are ill-defined because they have no standard definition. Phrases and sentences have concrete rules of construction, but paragraphs are mere groupings of sentences.

However, I believe that paragraphs do have a definition. A paragraph contains a progression of thought or action. In an essay, the first sentence sets forth an idea, the subsequent sentences show the reasoning behind that idea, and the final sentence either concludes the thought or sends the reader into the next thought.

In a story, a character is doing something, whether it be moving or interacting or looking around, and eventually does something else. If a character is looking around a room, you would spend a paragraph saying what the character sees. You start the next paragraph when a second character comes up and starts talking.

This is where paragraphs become subjective though. Suppose in this scene, the character is being thorough in his observations. If he spends three sentences looking at a book shelf, then a dresser, then three other items, putting it in one paragraph would be a major pain for the reader. That's when you need to realize that you are grouping by the wrong units. You need to zoom in further and give a paragraph to each item.

Paragraphs need a certain bite-sized quality to them. This was not always the case, but it is now. I think it is partly because of the influence of journalistic writing, where a paragraph has three sentences, and partly because of the general shift of our culture to get bored of anything within three sentences. When I write, I can feel when a paragraph is getting too long. That's when I look at what I wrote and see if I can change my groupings.

Now, although most of my paragraphs are three sentences long, that is not a requirement. There are times where I will have a paragraph that is twice the length of my others. I would like to split it, but I just can't. Every sentence needs to be there and it is all part of the same thought, so it can't be split logically.

I believe that the bite-sized nature of paragraphs adds one very positive quality to writing, though. It demands writers to be efficient and succinct. Go and read writing from 100 years ago. You have paragraphs that take a full page. They also could be simplified to a quarter of the length. Although paragraphs have a certain maximum weight to them, it is with good reason.

As a writer, you must learn to feel when a paragraph is too long. This will probably come best from reading, especially learning from bad examples. You must learn to see how to group ideas and actions so that they fit in a logical manner within the confines of a paragraph. When your paragraph is too long, but can't be split, you need to be able to write your ideas more efficiently.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Levels of Writing: Sentences

At last, we arrive at sentences. I have been told that the art of writing is the art of making sentences. When I wrote about phrases, I said that a phrase is like a whole picture. If a phrase is a picture, then a sentence is a video.

Structurally, a sentence requires a subject and a verb. That verb, showing action that takes place over time, is what adds the motion to the thought. Sentences can be as short as two words ("he died") or extend infinitely (I saw the dog that ate the doll that had a dress that...). A sentence can hold as many phrases in it as you can put in them. That is exactly why you need to have a very strong control of your sentences.

In your schooling, sentences get a decent amount of respect. Some of the lessons are good ones. Sentence length is important. We have short attention spans and not a lot of time. Getting to the point is always a good idea. However, we also get bored very easily. If you use the same sentence structure over and over, people will get sick of hearing the same sounds over and over again.

I do believe that sentences should primarily be kept on the short side. We have a tendency to make run-on sentences to try to get as much information out as fast as possible. Sometimes we make sentences that are not run-on, but are still so long that they can't be understood without multiple readings. If you try to make your sentences short, then your sentences will only be medium-length if you go over.

But you should ask yourself, how do I know how long a sentence should be? First, consider what a sentence does. A sentence conveys a fully-formed thought. "I got in my car. I drove to the store. I bought groceries." If you wrote it as "I got in my car and I drove to the store and I bought groceries", it would be unbearable. However, the original isn't very good either. That's because it is the same sentence structure three times; it sounds like a robot talking. That is when you must learn when to combine ideas into larger sentences. "I got in my car, drove to the store, and bought groceries." And from there, you learn how to eliminate useless information to get a slick sentence like "I drove to the store and bought groceries."

I hate to keep giving the same advice, but the best way to learn all of the nuances of sentence construction is to read as many of them as you can and to write as many as you can. There are too many specific examples to collect them all. Learn the principles and how to apply them and you will be ready for anything.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Levels of Writing: Phrases

Generally speaking, the next step above words in writing is sentences. But before we go there, I want to take a pit stop at phrases. Phrases are often ignored and writing suffers every time that happens.

On the technical level, a phrase is a word or group of words that act as a unit. 'Dog' is a phrase, as is 'that hostile dog from down the lane'. If words are ideas, then phrases are thoughts. In visual terms, a word is an individual item (like a tree or a car), but a phrase is a whole picture.

In terms of writing, phrases have a beauty to them that few people seem to see. Phrases can be moved anywhere you want without being harmed. To use a truly crude example, consider the phrase 'the fucking pope'. There is no difference between the sentences "I am the fucking pope", "The fucking pope am I", and "I, the fucking pope, am." Words do not have this luxury. There is a colossal difference between "I'm the fucking pope" and "I'm fucking the pope."

While some people say that writing is the art of creating sentences, I believe that it is phrases where the most interesting stuff happens. Every time you add a phrase, you add an idea. You put those ideas in order of importance. "I saw him" is a simple sentence. To add the information of time, you add a time phrase. This phrase can go anywhere, so what do we want to say? When you say "I saw him yesterday," the time is rather insignificant. It only reinforces the assumption that it happened recently and focuses it to yesterday specifically. "Yesterday, I saw him" makes the date an important frame of reference. We know immediately when something happened, so we can put ourselves in that time. "I, yesterday, saw him" stresses the time, in this case, showing that the action took place very recently. "I saw, yesterday, him" is the least likely variation of the four. It comes off as an afterthought, like the speaker realized it was relevant information in the middle of speaking. Its awkwardness can serve a purpose in storytelling, but for giving information, it is the weakest.

The most common phrases, though, are prepositional phrases. Much like time phrases, prepositional phrases are most commonly put in the beginning or at the end of sentences, but they can also be placed between any two words. Using the previous example, "I saw him", every place I put "yesterday" I could also put "in my car". And like with "yesterday", each variation has its own emphasis and slightly different connotation.

On the level of phrases, you must learn how to create a whole idea (something that can be moved anywhere without losing meaning) and and then place them in a manner that conveys the intended importance. My favorite part of writing is the fluidity of words and sentences. But really, it is the ability to move phrases anywhere that makes me smile.

Levels of Writing: Words

The next step up in this series is words. Sounds, when put into the right order, create words. Words express ideas in their simplest form. Sometimes those ideas are very simple ones (like 'iron') and sometimes they are quite complex (like 'irony').

Writing has been known as "putting words on paper." Letters simply record sounds (which is why I skipped them), but words record ideas. If you've ever sat down and thought about all the thoughts you've had, you may be surprised to see how many there are. As such we have a lot of words so we can express them all.

If English is your native language, consider yourself blessed. We have more words than any other language on Earth and have new ones being made all the time. And because we have so many words, we can express very subtle differences in meaning. Even our synonyms don't mean exactly the same thing. Big, large, and huge indicate different sizes, but they all mean that something's size is more than normal.

A writer has a duty to learn as many words as possible. Of course, it is possible that you will know a number of words that you will never use and that's ok. Knowing that these words exist is good for you. For one thing, it will give you a specific thought that you can hold on to. If you have never heard of the word 'membrane', it is difficult to come up with the idea of a membrane. Knowing more words also gives you more tools to play with. It is possible that you will live your entire life never needing to use the word 'fluoresce', but the one time that there is no other way to describe a glow, you will be glad that you have it.

Words are like atoms. Although they stand on their own, it is when they are combined with others that their true power comes in. Words are mere building blocks. The most important thing to do with them is have as many as you can. When we move forward, that is when the tools to use them will start coming into play.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Levels of Writing: Sounds

I have said in the past, "Writing is not a simple matter. It exists on several levels, as small as words and as large as ideas of life and the world around us. Every level has its own set of lessons and tools to learn. If you want to become a better writer, you need to learn all the tools you can at every level." It doesn't seem fair to say you need to learn the tools, but not help you learn, so I am going to write a post for each of the levels.

As a focus, I want to start with the smallest level and work my way up. Originally, I had made the smallest unit be words. I was tempted to do that here; words are the atoms from which writing is comprised. And much as the atom can be split, so too can the word. As such, I am beginning this series with sounds.

On the surface, sounds are not a part of writing. Writing is a silent activity and reading is, too. Writing and speech are different beasts with different techniques and nuances. This is true in part, but not completely. No matter how different writing and speaking are, they are inextricably linked. Writing is the physical representation of sound.

We write things that we would normally say. The fact that we write it simply means that more people have access to it and that it lasts longer. As such, the sounds of our words are important.

When I write, I am speaking. Sometimes it is out loud and sometimes it is in my head. In any case, writing is not a silent activity. I read in the same fashion. I either speak as I read (soft enough to not be heard) or I say the words in my head. It is the only way I can really comprehend what I'm reading.

The most important reason to be aware of sound is understanding. When a sentence is clunky, I trip over it. It makes me stop to reread it and try to understand what is being said. The loss of flow, or complete lack thereof, will eventually be enough to turn people away from reading.

Sound also has an aesthetic quality to it. A smooth, silky set of sounds soothes the soul. Sharp and pounding sounds wake up readers. The combination of soft and sharp, bright and dull, high and low, all help create a particular hue. When you wish to make a particular shade, you will have the ability to do so.

The best advice I can give is to listen to everything. Listen to normal people talking. Listen to great speakers delivering their speeches. Listen to music. Don't focus on what is being said, but how it is being said. Listen to the rise a fall, the speed up and slow down, the set-up and the punch.

On top of that, learn your vocabulary. There are a great number of words that people just don't know. Maybe they've never come across it, but maybe they just haven't heard it in forever. Regardless, the right word always conveys its meaning, partly because of its sounds. My favorite example is the word 'seething'.

There is not much more I can say on the subject, only because it can't be taught. The principles must be internalized, which can only come from personal experience. There are too many specifics to cover them all. You would have to study every word in the language. And as we will see, words have enough complexity to them.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Diaries and Journals

If you ask most people what the difference between a journal and a diary is, they will say there isn't one. Occasionally you meet people who will tell you that diaries are for girls and journals are for effeminate boys. I make an actual distinction between the two.

'Diary' comes from dia, which is the Latin word for day. A diary is a recording of the day. You write the things that happened, your thoughts about it, and anything else that comes to mind. A diary is usually a daily activity. Some entries may be larger than others depending on how much happened in a day.

'Journal' comes from journey, so it is a recording of you travels. And not just physical travels. If you started learning how to play an instrument, you could keep a journal of what you've practiced, what you've learned, and what your long- and short-term goals are. This is something you write in when you've taken a step, not just because a day has passed.

Of course, few things in life are completely simple. This blog, for example, is a blend between a journal and a diary. I write in it every day and part of it is my thoughts and feelings as they come to me. But the other part is me covering the steps of being a writer. When I learn a new technique, come up with a writing exercise, or reach certain milestones, they go up here.

I think my blog lies more toward being a journal than a diary, but that's mostly because I'd rather be an effeminate boy than a girl. I will admit that this distinction doesn't make much of a difference. People are going to write what they want to write first, and then give it a label. I don't think people decide to write a journal and then have to find out what goes inside of one. The one benefit of these distinctions, though, is that it opoens your eyes as to what can go into them. Writing your thoughts and experiences down is very helpful. It's therapeutic and helps you understand things better. When you see that there are several ways that you can organize those thoughts, you can be more encouraged to write them down.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Leave It in the Past

Many of the writers I have met can't stop tinkering with their stuff. They write something, revise it over and over, edit it for a nice polish, and then submit it to publishers. But every time they get rejected and their piece comes back, they revise it again. Sometimes it is little things like changing a word in a sentence. Sometimes it's major changes like nearly rewriting the whole thing.

But when I look elsewhere, like in comics, I don't see that. In fact, I see stories people saying that, though they are tempted to go back to their old work and make it better, they should leave it in the past. So what's the difference between these two groups of writers that one of them is constantly changing their works and the other is not?

My first thought is publication. When a comic gets put online, it is there for everyone to see. Although it doesn't have as much clout as being printed by a large company, it is still published. If a person's submission hasn't been published, then it is still free to modify as desired to make it better.

As much sense as publication makes, it doesn't answer all the questions. After all, several published books have multiple iterations, each new version slightly different from the other. As such, the fact that a piece of writing has been published does not make it sacred and untouchable.

So what is the reasoning for revising your old works anyway? I have found that there are three reasons it is generally done. It either corrects wrong information, adds new information, or changes the writing style to reflect what the author now sounds like. All three of these irk me.

If you have wrong information in your writing, you did a bad job writing and you had a bad editor who missed them. If you need to add new information, then I think you wrote your piece too early before all of the critical facts are in. If your writing doesn't have a degree of timelessness, I think it is lacking. As for changing your writing style, I find that the worst offender because it is like changing history.Your writing is a picture of who you are and what you think when you wrote it. When your piece is finished, the picture is taken and it doesn't need to be touched up. It belongs to history.

As you may have guessed, I lean to the side that says you should leave your past work in the past. On top of everything I said above, the best reason to do so is because of the future. If you spend all of your time making your old stuff look better, you're never producing any new stuff. All of that creative energy, development, insight, and new style is being wasted. If nobody has seen your work yet, feel free to revise and edit it as needed. But once it is done, especially once it's been published, leave it in the past.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Expression or Exploration

When we get engrossed in writing, there are a lot of questions we never ask ourselves. One of the reasons I love teaching, or even just discussing my craft is that I am forced to ask some of the most basic questions. One of those questions being why we write.

Of course, the specific motivations that drive each of us is unique, but all writing can be placed into one of two categories: expression or exploration. Any piece of writing, from poetry to scientific journals, is either an expression or an exploration for the writer.

When we have something that we know and want to share with others, we write expressively. We are confident in our message and our intent. We are so sure of what we believe that we are compelled to write it down and share it with others.

When we have a question and are looking for answers, that is when we write exploratively. Essays are great exploratory writing. Write down a question. Write down all the information you know, then try to put the pieces together. But any piece of writing can explore. Suppose you really wanted to know how a radio works. You take a radio, open it up, and try to reverse engineer it. In writing down what you learn from your experiences, you will create a technical guide that was exploratory.

If you find yourself stuck, not knowing what to write or why you're doing it, ask yourself: is there anything I know that I want to share, anything I want to find out? If there is, then you have your beginning. And since starting is the hardest part, you're now on easy street. Do you want to say something? Do you want to learn something? Then get writing. If you don't, then find something else to do with your time.


One of my writer friends has been working in journalism for a while. She absolutely hates it. She hated it from the beginning, but work is work. I'm glad that she has this experience for two reasons. For one thing, she will know to never go near that field ever again. For another, there is a lot to be learned from the journalistic style of writing.

In a journalistic style, you make damn sure that you don't repeat words. You will have to expand your vocabulary to be able to say the same thing in different words. You learn how to cram as much information as you can into sentences. You learn to vary your sentence structure. You learn to use active words that give energy and interest to your sentences. You learn how to organize thoughts and place things in order of importance.

The problem, though, is that because journalistic style is so specific, it has a tendency to corrupt your writing. When I worked in journalism, I could hear my editor correcting me when I was alone in my room doing personal writing. All of my sentences sounded like journalist sentences. They crammed as much information in as possible, even when it didn't make sense. It sounded formal and professional, even when that wasn't the subject matter. I did vary my sentences, but I just cycled through the three sentence structures that are used n journalism.

If I didn't have my personal writing at the time, I would have been in big trouble. I would have forgotten how to sound normal and struggled to relearn nonjournalistic writing. If you are in such a situation, being engulfed by a specific style, it is more necessary than ever to have a creative outlet. This blog was one of mine, as well as comics and short stories. Whatever you choose, make sure you keep up with it.

A quick forewarning, though: That style will still be in your personal writing. Part of it will never leave you. That's ok. Just make sure you keep the good parts. Stuff like using interesting verbs and not repeating words are good abilities. Keep the best, toss the rest.

Sunday, October 18, 2009


I think that one of the most dangerous things you can do to yourself professionally is think of everybody as competition. Although there are certain times and places where it is better to look out for yourself, the best way you can help yourself is to help other people.

When you reach a point where you can be looked at seriously in your field (not necessarily a pro, but at least an advanced student), you will have knowledge in certain things and you will be lacking knowledge in certain things. Some of them may be technical, like rules of grammar or learning how to use a specific writing program. But it could also be more abstract like how to come up with a good joke.

In any case, once you start going into your field, you will meet other people. In large part, you can't tell who a person is or what their future holds. Talk to everybody, make as many friends as you can, get help when you need it and offer it when you can. Keep in touch with people.

Down the line, you will find that this community of friendships you have developed can work to help you out. These people, all of whom have their own fan base, can talk about you in their blogs, provide links, and spread the word. A ringing endorsement can mean a lot, especially when you have thousands of people that hang on your every word.

Also, since we are artists, we have very little to fear as far as competition goes. People in the business world can steal trade secrets and make a lot of money doing so, but art is different. I can teach somebody how to use photo shop, but they're going to make different pictures. I can teach somebody how to tell a joke, but we're still going to make different jokes. The only thing to worry about is theft, but since your work is available for all to see, and assuming you've put your name and copyright notice on, that should be no concern for you.

Don't think of other people as competition; think of them as friends who can help you out. We all work together, strengthen ourselves, make names for ourselves, and keep pushing each other ever upwards.

Friday, October 16, 2009

What You Bring With You

I'm a total homebody. I don't feel a need to travel or visit new places. I prefer the comfort of being somewhere that I know inside and out. I also like being where all of my stuff is, my files, my music, my notes. Still, there are times that require me to hit the road. But even when I'm away from my things, I still need to be a writer.

If I'm going out of town, I will usually bring my computer. I love laptops for that because I'm basically taking all of my stuff with me. However, a laptop only has so much power in it, so its versatility only goes so far. And when you don't have internet access, that's also a pain.

We have become addicted to our creature comforts and our shortcuts. This is not necessarily a bad thing; I think it's a waste of time trying to memorize a bunch of information that you can Google in 5 seconds. However, when you find yourself without those comforts, you will see what you really have as a writer.

I went out of town and brought a spiral notebook and a pencil. I wrote down thoughts and ideas on pages, doodled on some, and wrote some comic scripts out on others. I didn't have spellcheck, didn't have Google, and didn't have anything else to help or to distract me. Everything I did was in me, my mind and my body.

Even if you don't have to go out of town, try this out. Detach yourself from everything and write from what you have inside you. No matter what supplies you have, what comforts you may or may not get access to, you will know that these are the things you will always bring with you.

Write What You Want to Write the Most

Professional writers will say that writing isn't always fun. Sometimes it is difficult, unpleasant, and maddening. Sometimes when we finish a project, we're so sick of it that we don't even feel rewarded for having done it. This is a travesty. Writing should never become such a burden.

The problem most people have with writing is the feeling of "I have to do this." They aren't allowed to write anything else until they finish their current project. That's what leads you to hate yourself and your craft. You should write what you want to write the most.

For example, I write in this blog every day. Some days, I really just don't want to do it. I sit at my computer and just have no drive or energy to blog. Then, while trying to think of something to write, I get an idea for a short story. So you know what I do? I pull up a word document and start writing down that short story idea and playing with it. Now I am writing and enjoying it. If, in the middle of writing that short story, I get an idea for something to blog about, then I will switch over and start writing a post.

I always recommend this method. It also has you doing the most enjoyable thing, which will keep you at the happiest you can be. The only reason to not use this method is when you're on a deadline. When something has to get done and you don't have time to screw around, then you really shouldn't be screwing around.

If you write for a newspaper and your article is due tomorrow, then get your article done by tonight. However, if you stop being productive, then do something that makes you productive. Just like my blog, even though it needs to get done, staring at the screen and not writing anything isn't useful. By starting work on something else that engages my mind, it gets me revved up for doing the work that I have to get done.

If you have an obligation that is just unfun to do, then you have to grin and bear it. But in any other situation, do what makes you happy, no matter what.

140 Characters or Less

It's nothing new to talk about Twitter or text messaging, so I assume you know the basics of what they are and how they work. If you don't know about them, then try this. What I do want to talk about is what it can do for your writing.

Twitter gives you 140 characters and texting gives you 128. If you've ever tried to have a conversation with somebody with these, you'll find that character limit reached very quickly. Although there are shorthands you can use to save space, that's the literary equivalent of cutting off your leg to lose weight. The character limit is a restriction that helps you create within boundaries.

These systems present an excellent challenge for writers. Can you express your thought in 140 characters or less? There are a lot of ways to do so. Sometimes it's as simple as using contractions. Every time you use "you're" or "I'm", you save one character. If you only need a few extra letters, this is how you find them.

If you need a few extra words, then cut out your introductory phrases. We love to start sentences with "Hey", "You know what", "I was thinking", and so much more. Those don't add to your thought, so cut'em out. Although these phrases are natural and real, you can still sound like natural without them. This is a very important technique for writing, especially in comics, where you should try to have 15 words or less per panel.

On a bigger scale, the character limit will also help you cut through your own BS. When you want to express a thought in so little space, you avoid backstory, tangents, unrelated musings, and all the other fluff we usually add. This is a less tangible thing to talk about, so it is difficult to describe in detail. But that is exactly why you need to practice writing with these restriction: you can't learn to be concise and succinct any other way.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Hammers and Nails

There is a saying that "If the only tool you have is a hammer, you will see every problem as a nail." This is as true for writing is it is for any other field.

You ever notice how some writers use the same tricks over and over again for everything they do? Some people may call that "style". I call it lazy. That's a person who only has a hammer. Now, their methods may be good and effective, but nothing works every time. The sheer fact that you repeat your technique lowers its effectiveness each time.

If you don't believe me, watch MadTV. Almost the entire show is a collection of 1-dimensional characters that are repeated in every episode. They have 3 catchphrases at most; some only have catchsounds. If you've seen 1 minute of a sketch, you've seen the whole thing, as well as every other sketch that character has been in. It may be funny once, but that's it.

As a writer, you should try to learn as much as you possibly can in everything. Learn your writing techniques and tricks. Develop your skills. Learn how different people think, act, and talk. Think about how many ways you can explain a situation and how many ways a situation can resolve itself.

Writing is not a simple matter. It exists on several levels, as small as words and as large as ideas of life and the world around us. Every level has its own set of lessons and tools to learn. If you want to become a better writer, you need to learn all the tools you can at every level. Sometimes a hammer is a good thing to use. But when you need a chainsaw, that hammer won't do you much good.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Techniques and Skills

In the past, I have discussed techniques and tricks, saying that tricks are essentially techniques that work, but we don't know why. There is another pair that should be elaborated: techniques and skills.

To borrow from last time, a technique is an action that has a certain result. Short sentences make time pass faster. Longer sentences do the opposite. Hard sounds in words add power to them. Soft sounds in words flow smoother. These are all techniques. Every time you use them, you will know exactly what effect they will have.

The thing about techniques is that you use them. It is active and conscious. We learn them, remember them, and use them when needed. Skills are a shade different though. Skills are internal abilities.

I can manipulate sentences. I can use the same words, rearrange them, and make a new sentence with the same meaning. (e.g. "I saw that boy and a saw that dog" vs. "I saw that boy and that dog") I can compound or fragment sentences. (e.g. "I saw that boy and his dog. They were playing." vs. "I saw that boy and his playing.") These are useful abilities that allow me to say exactly what I want and give my sentences the right feeling.

Now, there is a technique to rearranging sentences and there is a technique to splitting and joining sentences. But it is the nuances of knowing all the possibilities of manipulating a sentence, knowing what effects they will have on a sentence , and knowing which version will make the sentence sound its best that is a skill. These are abilities that I have, that I can use at will or unconsciously, that I know will always work, but I cannot articulate why.

A skill is distinct from a trick because it will always work. It is distinct from a technique because it is internalized. Techniques can be learned, but skills must be acquired. The only way you can learn to manipulate sentences is to encounter as many as you can, learn all that is possible, and then practice manipulating them.

Techniques, skills, and tricks are all powerful and useful resources for a writer. Know what each of them are and how they work, and get as many of them as you can. The more you know, the more you can do.

Sunday, October 11, 2009


Most of the writers I know are painfully disorganized. They either throw everything they write into one giant pile or they leave everything loose in random locations. This is a bad situation that can only get worse.

I admit I shouldn't be talking because I'm not any better. In fact, I have both of the problems simultaneously. On my computer, there are files with scraps of ideas all over my desktop and My Documents. There is also a folder labeled Random Shit where I have thrown most of my ideas and writings. I have about five different documents with the word 'idea' in the title, some of them with several different ideas, others with a single five-word sentence. I have completed stories, first drafts that need revision, and unfinished stories that I've never gotten around to, all lying in that folder with no way to know which is which.

However, the reason I am talking is that I am working on my organization. The fact of the matter is that it isn't even that difficult to do. First you decide how you want to organize your work, then you put your pieces where they belong. Doing this on computers is incredibly easy because you can put folders within folders and never have to worry about bulk. If you are saving physical writings, you still use the same system, but you may want to organize them differently.

Your organization labels are going to depend on how you personally operate. If you leave work unfinished to start on other projects or to give it time to develop, then have folders for ideas, unfinished, rough drafts, and finished work. If you do all different forms of writing, then have a folder for poetry, essays, short fiction, nonfiction, or whatever ones you do.

Whatever your style is, I recommend two things. First of all, give yourself a To Do pile. Sometimes you don't have the time or energy to file everything right away. Sometimes you just don't know where you want to put something. Throw it in the To Do pile and sort through that when you have a clearer head. Second, don't be afraid to make copies. If I write an essay I really like, I will have it in my folder for finished essays. However, if I submit it to a publication, it also needs to be in my folder of works I've submitted to that publication. If I end up doing any editing of a piece to get it in the publication, I now have both versions to look at if needed. There is no reason not to make copies unless you are dealing with several-hundred-page manuscripts. Because short of that, these files just don't take up much space.

However you choose to organize, make sure you get organized. One giant pile is all well and good, and the exploring is fun, but when you are looking for something specifically and you just can't find it anywhere, that is when you will wish you had a better system in place.

Author vs. Speaker

When it comes to writing, the author and the speaker are two different things. The author is the person who wrote the story. The speaker is the person who tells the story. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, the author is Ken Kesey and the speaker is "Chief". Every time in the book you see "I saw. . ." or "I did. . .", we understand that Chief saw or did whatever.

This is not a difficult concept to understand, but there are a few tricks to it. For example, the author and the speaker can be the same person. Creative non-fiction is almost entirely based on the author speaking to us. But when we read non-fiction, it is usually safe to assume that the author and speaker are one.

The real problems usually come from poetry. Poems rarely give us any bearings. Good poetry is short, sweet, and to the point. Therefore, when the poem is first person, we have no idea who the speaker is. It could just as easily be a character as it could be the author unless enough clues are given to distinguish them.

You may be wondering what the point of any of this is. Truth be told, it's mostly a pet peeve when people assume that the speaker is the author. However, I also don't like the tendencies it causes. When we assume that the speaker is the author, we assume that the speaker is always the author, which makes us think that the speaker should be the author, or that the speaker must be the author. When we reach these points, our writing suffers. We lose vast amounts of possibilities in writing when we only focus on ourselves as subjects.

That is why I feel it necessary to remind people that the speaker and the author are different people. I think that people should get out of their own head more often and write about things that aren't themselves. They should explore all of the possibilities they can, not just the ones that are the easiest to come up with. I'm not saying you shouldn't do personal first-person writing. I'm doing it every time I write in this blog. However, outside of this blog, my work is across the spectrum and I am proud of that.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Curse of Joy

It has been said that there is no greater curse you can put on a writer than to make him happy. Artists can only create through pain and misery. Every day that you spend being happy is a day wasted.

When I first heard this, I had to disagree with it. As a writer who seeks happiness, that would be a lifelong conflict I could never hope to bear. I also couldn't believe that writing couldn't come from happiness. We have paintings, music, and dances that express pure joy; why can't writing? In fact, I know that there are plenty of books that make people feel good.

It wasn't until I tried to write while I was happy that I truly understood the saying. For one thing, I had nothing to write. I was so busy being happy that I couldn't come up with any stories or ideas. I wanted to write so badly, but I was so engrossed in elation that it was the only thing I could write about. Fortunately, I still had enough sense to know that all of my ideas were lovey-dovey garbage and the only person who would enjoy reading it was no one.

I don't want to sound cold-hearted and calloused, so let me explain. Being happy is great. It is something we should all experience and strive for. But true joy is an experience. That is a time to live life, not a time to write about life. To write, we need to leave from the world, enter our minds, and record our thoughts and observations. It is best done when we are in a contemplative mood, not a joyous one.

Now, as I said before, there are writings that are very happy and makes us smile when we read them. That does not mean they are the same feelings that the authors were having as they wrote them. Some authors create happy scenes because it's the only time they get to experience them. Some authors create happy scenes simply because they are exploring the world and life and want to see what it's like. Some people want to create happy scenes because there is joy in their hearts and they wish to share it.

In any case, the writers all share the quality of being in their minds as they write. It is what they think that compels them to write, not what they feel. Everything that I said about happiness can also be said about depression or rage. The fact is that any time your feelings are stronger than your thoughts, you won't be writing anything very good. That doesn't mean you should try to avoid or repress your feelings, though. Emotions are a part of life. They're going to happen. Live'em up. Just remember that you may want to stay away from your pen while doing so.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Looking Back

The great thing about doing the bulk of my writing on the computer is that it's always going to be there (except for when my computer inexplicably dies). Of course, even though they are right next to me, I rarely look at them. I maybe go through my files a couple times a year. Looking back on these works is always an experience.

Because of the time that has passed, they always are a little more alien to me. Some pieces remain close to me; I remember the story and some late nights creating them. Others are less familiar; I have to read through it to refamiliarize myself with it. One piece, though, I read through and spent an hour trying to figure who wrote it before it slowly dawned on me that I was the author.

But along with the familiarity of the piece, I am also looking at the quality of them. Most writers (most artists of any field, really) absolutely detest their old work. They have a powerful urge to either hide or destroy that work. I am not immune to these feelings. I rarely read through my old pieces because I can't stand them. I don't destroy them, but they rarely see the light of day.

However, as much as I can't stand some of my old work, I also get the occasional pleasant surprise. Sometimes I come across a document that is just filled with story ideas or I read through a piece that I just don't remember. When I read them, I am blown away. I can't believe I wrote something so good, let alone that I did it so long ago.

I am always happy to read through my old files for exactly these reasons. You should do the same thing. When you read your old work and hate it, realize that it is because you have grown and that your standards of quality have risen. When you read something you love, realize that you are a writer and have been for some time. Good ideas are not a new thing to you, so you should continue the tradition.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

No Accident

I was chatting with a friend on IM, when I caught a typo. I had written 'set' instead of 'seat'. I chuckled because it was wrong, but it was still a real word. It made me think, of all the possible combinations of all the letters in our alphabet, so few of them make real words. Even if we make real words, we still have to put them in the right order to make real sentences. And even if we make real sentences, it is even rarer to make random ones that make any sense.

If this sounds familiar, it could be that you've heard the saying that if you fill a room with monkeys on typewriters, they will eventually bang out the works of Shakespeare. As an insult to writers, it's decent. Realistically, it's silly.

Writing is a deliberate act. Everything we do is planned, shaped, crafted, and honed. Even if our ideas and our methods are random, our final product is always just the way we want it. It's no coincidence. It is not some miracle of statistics that our writing ends up the way it does. We aren't banging on keyboards and hoping for the best.

Remember this the next time you lose your heart or are banging your head on your keyboard. It may take a great deal of time to make your writing just right, but you have all the time in the world (except when you're on a deadline). In the end, it will always be as it should be. Your writing is no accident.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


When I write these entries or any other sort of essayist nonfiction, I am tempted to break them up into sections. It always seems like a good idea, but I never end up doing it.

Sections are nice because they add order. Instead of an essay requiring a smooth flow of transition, I get to throw information into its section and I'm good to go (this is, of course, an oversimplification). And because of that order, it also adds an ease of navigation. Instead of having to scan through the entire piece to find the section you want, you can narrow your search to the relevant section it would be found in.

The main reason I don't do this is that it is wasteful. I only have so much to say on any given subject, usually not enough to warrant its own section. If I did divide my posts into sections, I would have to add a lot more text to each one. And this is where the waste comes from. All of the words I would add would be padding.

Padding is not necessarily a bad thing. If you are writing a large work, say in science or philosophy, you will need to make sure that you are as thorough as possible. That padding basically is every single step from Point A to Point B. Most people already know the little steps, or at least can follow the big jumps, but this is adding a degree of thoroughness.

I have no need for padding. I write essays and blog entries. I am best served by getting to the point and leaving the BS out. Since I rarely, if ever, go above 10 paragraphs here, I don't think that there is much difficulty in navigating through any particular post.

When you write, you have to decide how much padding you need. If you need to cover every single step, add a lot of it. If you need to say your piece and be done, then keep it spartan.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009


Obsession is a force to be reckoned with. There is no feeling a person can have that is more powerful than obsession. But how do we capture obsession, that we may portray it in our writing?

The first thing to do is understand our target. What is obsession? How does it come about? What does it do and how does it change us?

Our first question should really be our last question, because in order to say what obsession is, we must find out everything else. For starters, let's say that obsession is a state where a person only thinks about one thing. That thing is also known as 'the object of affection'. These objects can be anything defined as a noun, but are usually people, things, or practices. For example, a man could be obsessed over a woman, a car, or music.

I can't say for sure what causes an obsession. I expect there are several ways that a person might get an obsession. However, from what I have seen, an obsession usually forms when a person several unfulfilled needs and the object of affection fulfills all of them. People are the usual objects of affection because they are so multifaceted; they have a lot of parts to them and each one can fulfill a different need. A car can't really fulfill a lot of needs, though you can be obsessed over a car by deluding yourself into thinking it fulfills several needs.

Sometimes, a person only has one unfulfilled need, but is is a significantly large one. Any object that fills that gap can also become an obsession. This is where a car is more likely to become an obsession. When you are so desperate for the ability to go where you want when you want, you will be equally grateful to the only thing that has given you what you needed. The car then becomes the sole, shining light of your life, at which time, you learn and memorize every single aspect of that car because you are so amazed that it can do what nothing else in your world can do.

That desire for knowledge is one of the key signs of obsession. Obsessed people usually gain an encyclopedic knowledge of their object. They know every physical quality, its history, everything it can do, and how everything works. Now, it is perfectly possible to know a great deal about a subject without being obsessed with it. An obsession is not thinking about something a great deal; what makes it an obsession is not being able to think about anything else. When every conversation, every area of discussion invariably leads to the object of affection, that is a strong sign of obsession.

If you want to capture the essence of obsession, get out of your head and get into theirs. If you are thinking rationally, you will never be able to predict obsessed people. They're inherently irrational. However, if you can understand that every thought gets directed toward their object, then you can really easily predict them. The biggest trick I've found is to remove doubt. A person with a passion will have a thought like, "I probably shouldn't do this, but I just can't help myself." The obsessed do not have thoughts like these. They are so sure of the power and glory of their obsession that nothing can ever go wrong.

That is the real essence of obsession: a fantasy land where nothing can ever go wrong. If you can paint that picture with your words, you can show a man possessed.

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Big Picture

In one of my writing classes in college an idea came to me. Since long stories are just a collection of scenes, couldn't we write the best novel ever by creating small, perfect scenes and putting them together?

My professor had a great reply. "Do you draw a face by creating a perfect nose, perfect eyes, and perfect ears and putting them all together?" Of course we don't. A face is a whole thing. All of its features blend together. Sometimes this means we must lose detail in the small scale in order to create the big picture.

Remember to pay attention to the big picture. It's easy to get really excited about a scene and go overboard with it. Sometimes a scene is the one you've been waiting to get to. Sometimes it's just particularly interesting to you. In either case, you should write as much as you can for your first drafts, but realize that you will have to cut a lot out. For one thing, you will usually have to say less than you want. But more importantly, you have to consider the big picture.

Every scene is a feature that adds to the whole face that is your work. Now, some features generally get more attention than others. The eyes get more attention than the cheeks do. And in your writing, a fight scene or a chase scene may get more attention than a scene of travel from one place to another. However, if the contrast between them is too great, the big picture will be damaged. Use a fine touch here. Every scene should be effective and enjoyable, much like staring closely at a picture is still interesting, but we understand that it is part of a larger whole.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Stick to Your Convictions

I went to a philharmonic concert tonight. I enjoy going to concerts, but I hate the people who go to them. Mostly it's because they're uneducated.

The number one offender in my eye is the standing ovation. Nowadays, people will stand up at the end of every song if you let them. That's like giving every entry in the science fair a blue ribbon. The point of a standing ovation is that you do it when a performance is jaw-droppingly fantastic. It has to be beyond flawless. The very fact that you applaud is good enough when the concert is good enough. When the concert is so good that applause isn't adequate, that's when you stand.

But, as I have said, people are largely uneducated. As such, they stand for everything. I refuse to join the crowd. Occasionally people have the gall to glower at me for standing in my seat. When they do, I glower right back at them. If they feel the need to start up with me, I will start up with them. I know I'm right and I will stick to my convictions ten times out of ten.

So what does this have to do with writing? The point is that there are some things that you just know are right. There aren't a whole lot of them, since most things are debateable and subjective, but there are a few universal principles. If somebody challenges you on something that you truly believe, stand up for yourself. Convictions are few and far between. If you have any, hold them dear and take care of them.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Write What Interests You Right Now

In college, in books, and anywhere else you ask for writing advice, you will be told to write about what interests you. Generally, that means you should go and do some soul searching, consider what subject you have a true and undying passion for, research the hell out of it, and start working toward some magnum opus.

Screw that. A life-long interest is all well and good, but it comes with drawbacks. Some days you just don't give a damn about it. Some days you just can't think of anything to write. It's not even that you can't think of anything good; you can't think of anything at all. So what, should you take the day off and try again tomorrow? I suppose you could, but then you've just wasted a day because you burned yourself out.

Instead of writing about what will interest you forever, write about what interests you right now. If I'm working on a horror story, there are going to be days where I'm just not in the mood for dark and dirty. Maybe I want to ponder science. Maybe I start thinking about matter and energy and how when you break matter down small enough, it actually is energy. I could do a whole stream of consciousness about the theory of relativity.

In doing that, I will get myself writing and enjoying it. I may give myself ideas that I otherwise wouldn't have thought of. These ideas may even manage to work their way into my horror story. But if they don't, they could still find their ways elsewhere. If nothing else, I went another day where I have written and enjoyed doing so. And if you aren't doing that, what are you doing?

Friday, October 2, 2009

Out of Body Experiences

There is a group of Buddhist monks who believe that one can only experience enlightenment during activities where we lose control of our body. Some of the ways to do that are not pleasant, like sneezing or dying. Some are far more pleasant, like deep meditation.

I've always been fascinated with this idea of losing control. Partly because I like having control over my body. Partly because I have experienced the loss of self. In fact, I have left my body while reading and writing.

I first experienced it with reading. In fact, it still happens sometimes. When I'm reading a truly engaging book, it actually becomes a movie that plays right behind my eyes. I see scenes and characters acting and interacting. Sometimes I can even hear their different voices.

What's interesting to me, though, is that I am simultaneously reading and not reading. While the movie is playing, I must be reading the words and turning the pages because the story continues to play. However, I have no recollection of reading the words or turning the pages; I simply remember the experience of the story.

Writing occasionally has a similar effect. I will admit it is far rarer in writing. For one thing, it is impossible to do longhand because I'm too slow. Even when I am on my computer, I am usually thinking about the next sentence or how to word things the right way, so I never get lost in my writing.

It has happened though. I have written pages in a single sitting, experiencing the story as I am creating it. Every time I approach the point where I don't know what will happen next, my brain gives me the next idea and I keep on going. It gives me just enough to never run out of ideas, but never be overburdened by them either.

When you write, seek these out of body experiences. I don't think I have ever found enlightenment from them, but I have gotten some very good ideas. If nonthing else, give yourself an experience you've never encountered before. As a writer, new experiences are priceless.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Unquotable Quotes

Every now and then, people will come up to me and say, "I've been thinking about what you said the other day." I always tell them the same thing: "What did I say?"

Whenever this situation occurs, I have two thoughts. The first is that my memory is garbage. The second is that the smartest things I say happen when I'm not trying to be smart.

Sometimes thinking is its own activity. I get so lost in a thought that I don't realize how long I've been talking. Any of the sentences I say in that time may be incredibly poignant to somebody, but to me they're meaningless by themselves; they were merely part of a larger stream of thought.

I do not regret what I do, though. I am happy that I have a stream of thought. If one of the sentences in that stream affects somebody, that's just gravy. However, I do try to be more conscious of my thoughts. Sometimes, there is gold in there that I am missing.

When I chat with my friends, I try to be as silly as I possibly can. Usually I come up with random, insane statements ("my face is significant") or scenes that are unlikely to exist in the real world ("I saw a turtle surfing on a chicken"). Most of these are throwaway jokes; I say them, we laugh, we move on. But occasionally, it occurs to me that a joke could have more than one use.

I made a joke today that played off of the phrase 'shadow boxing'. It was good for a laugh, but before I finished laughing, I realized, this is perfect for a comic strip! In fact, not only was it good for one strip, it was good for an entire series of strips.

Sometimes I'm haunted by the idea of how many great ideas I've let slip through my fingers just by not realizing how great a joke I made could be. But since I keep coming up with these ideas, I at least am not afraid of running out. Still though, I make it a habit to perk up my ears more often. When something is funny, I need to make sure I pay attention to it, especially if I'm the one who said it.

And I suggest you do the same. Tune your ears in. Search for the interesting things around you that you just aren't realizing are there. Look for some unquotable quotes and share those with the world.