Monday, November 30, 2009

Creating Words

I love words. I love saying them, reading them, stringing them together, and even creating them. I think it's funny that we have phrases like "real words" and "made-up words" because all words are both made-up and real. Somebody had to say a word for the first time. At that point, they made it up. A word's meaning is whatever people agree it is, which means that whoever makes up a word usually gets to decide what it means.

As such, I love making up words. Not so much nonsensical words, but words that can be deciphered. A lot of our words can be deciphered if you know the code. Many of our words are simply roots with prefixes or suffixes on them. If you can learn these parts, you can make up tons of words.

For example, what is a photograph? You probably already know, but we can understand it by breaking down the word. 'Photo' means light. 'Graph' means picture. A photograph is a lightpicture, which is the process by which the picture is burned onto the film of a camera.

Now that you know that 'photo; means 'light', you can figure out other words like 'photosensitive' (sensitive to light) or 'photosynthesis' (creating with light). The same is true for 'graph', so you know that a 'polygraph' makes many pictures and a Spirograph is a picture made of spirals. Sometimes, it can be tricky. For example, 'graph' and also be 'gram'. A sonogram is a sound picture and a cardiogram is a heart picture.

Still, with enough parts in your mental library, you can start putting them together and playing with the results. Just using the ones we have here, imagine sonosynthesis. It would mean creating with sound. It may be a made-up word right now, but the concept is not impossible. 'Polysensitive' isn't in the dictionary, but if I used it in a sentence, you could understand that it means that something is sensitive to many things.

You can use this same process with more common constructions. When you add -y to the end of a word, you make it an adjective. Shine becomes shiny. Fat becomes fatty. We can also use -ish to make 'red' 'reddish' and 'punk' 'punkish'. But why stop there? You can make something 'computery' or 'froggish'.

Adding -tion makes something a noun. That's how we turn 'construct' into 'construction'. If we have the word 'hasten', the proper way to turn it into a noun is to say 'hastening'. But if I said 'hastenation', wouldn't you perfectly understand what I was talking about?

The English language has more words in it than any other language on earth. Part of that fact is that we have the luxury of creating words and modifying them to say anything we want. Half the beauty of words is making up the perfect one when it doesn't exist. Using existing words isn't bad to do, but it feels like playing in someone else's sandbox. I may be in the same box, but I'm at least going to add my own sand.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Experimental Writing

In college, I took a class called Experiments in Creative Writing. The class was frustrating to me because I had one question which was never answered: Is our creative writing experimental for ourselves or for the world?

Every writer has a personal style and usually has an all-encompassing central idea that guides the majority of their writing. I, for example, prefer third person stories that deal with people or societies with conflicting ideals. As such, if I were to write an first-person autobiographical narrative, that would be a large experiment for me. However, that was what 90% of my classmates wrote for any creative writing assignment, so it would hardly look experimental to the teacher.

Doing "experimental creative writing" is different. If you want to do something that has never been done before, you have to know everything that's ever been done before. Every time I thought I came up with something new (i.e. something I've never seen before), it has already existed, and was at least talked about by some Greek guy who's been dead for a few thousand years.

This latter form of writing is usually a waste of time. Writing is an art form older than most things in human history. It has been explored and honed into the forms we have over millenia. They exist for a reason. It is hard enough trying to find something that has never been tried and can still be called writing. If you can find one of those things, I am highly doubtful the experiment will be successful. There's probably a good reason it's never been tried before.

Despite all of this, I definitely support experimenting with your own writing. For one thing, you can never know what you'll like or excel at until you try it. For another thing, it is very easy to get stuck in a rut and keep rewriting the same stories. It will be a welcome break for you (and perhaps your readers) to do something completely different.

Try something new. At the very worst, you'll hate it and throw it away. At the very best, you could find a new love that you are passionate about.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

A Novel A Year

When I talked about turning nuggets into ingots, I said that the best way to start a great work is to write a small amount. Shortly after that, one of my writer friends shared an interesting bit of advice she heard.

If you write one page every day, then you are writing 365 pages a year. That happens to equate to a medium-sized novel. This means that You can write a novel a year, even when keeping a fairly minimum writing schedule.

Now, in reality, there is more to a novel than the mere writing of it. At the very least, there is revising and editing to be done. And if you want that novel to be published, that is a whole process unto itself. But that's not really the point here.

The point is writing. A novel a year sounds like a tremendous feat. A page a day sounds pathetically simple. But they are the same thing. It may be easier to write 365 unrelated pages a year than it is to write a good novel, but that depends on you. For one thing, once your characters start taking charge and your story falls in place, you should find yourself getting ahead of schedule.

Try writing a page a day. It's a manageable minimum rate, leaves plenty of room to work ahead, but really adds up in a short time.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Writers Like Writers

One thing I notice is that people in a given field tend to date other people in their field. Doctors date doctors. Musicians date musicians. Being a writer, I find myself attracted to writers.

I think a big reason people date in their field is the proximity. When you spend so much of your life in a field, most of the people you know are in that field. You get to know them better than most other people, so it is more likely to click with one of them. Of course, writers don't go into an office or have writing coworkers (unless you are a journalist or technical writer), so that doesn't really explain why I would be interested in writers.

Another reason people date within a field is understanding. Both my parents are professional classical musicians. Orchestral musicians have completely abnormal schedules. They work afternoons and evenings. Their season is not a full year, so they supplement either with teaching private lessons or playing gigs with other groups. The short version is: musicians work when everybody else isn't. Nobody else can understand a musician's life like another musician, and that is moreso the case with me.

One of the reasons I chose writing is that I love words. I love saying them, analyzing them, and finding the perfect word to say exactly what I mean. That love of words came before writing; I didn't choose to write and then later decide to like words. And that is something most writers have in common. When another person shares a love of words, it is a very powerful point of connection. And when somebody has such an ability with words to say something powerful, whether it be hilarious, depressing, or anything else, it is a great point of attraction. Since I love words, I love anybody that can make great use of words.

It's understandable for writers to like other writers. Of course, it's perfectly possible to like somebody in a completely different field. But if you do that, it will help to realize that different fields have different lives, including things like schedules and interests. An accountant talking about work may be dull as hell to you, but you telling an accountant about revision may be the same thing in reverse.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Turning Nuggets into Ingots

I had the thought today, What would I do if I had to give a two-hour speech about writing? My immediate reaction was, No problem. I've certainly written more than enough in my blog to cover that much time. But after that, it occurred to me that no one entry in my blog came even close to that length. They were closer to 10 minutes than 2 hours. They were nuggets.

There's nothing wrong with having nuggets of wisdom or insight or whatever you want to call it. The only problem is that they're small. A handful of nuggets is nice, but a solid ingot is far more impressive. I am so much more used to coming up with nuggets and sharing them, I wondered if I ever could do something larger. The theoretical speech seemed a lot more intimidating.

I kept thinking about this and I had a realization: Every level of writing above a sentence, from paragraphs onward, are simply a matter of grouping. The difference between a ten-minute speech and a two-hour speech is how much information you can cover. With 10 minutes, you can only give the most general information or you can go slightly in depth on a specific subject (e.g. you can talk vaguely about where ideas come from or you can specifically talk about word association as a method of creating ideas). With 2 hours, you could talk about what ideas are, how we treat them, how we make use of them, and cover several methods of coming up with ideas.

Then I thought about this blog again. These posts are rarely self-contained. I often link to previous entries that cover similar ground. One post will naturally lead me to a further post. If I wanted to cover a particular subject, I could find all of the posts I've made relating to that subject, reorganize them, and present them as a full unit.

So, it seems that you can't get an ingot without having a bunch of nuggets. What you need to do is gather all the nuggets of the same element, melt them down, and then carefully shape them into a single, solid unit. If you want to make a 2-hour speech, just deliver twelve 10-minute speeches on the same subject.

An important lesson is also here for writers who are afraid of big projects. A magnum opus starts with a single letter. Write something, no matter how small it is. Then write something else. Keep on doing that. Create as many nuggets as you can. Eventually, you will be able to turn them into the great work that you envision.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

No Such Thing As Proof

Suppose you write a novel. Suppose you spend two years writing and editing it. You finally show it to publishers and none of them want it. Does that prove you're a bad writer? Does it prove that nobody cares about novels anymore? Does it prove that traditional publishing doesn't work anymore?

No. Of course not. It could be a fluke or it could just be bad luck. These questions seem silly to ask, but only if you're rational while listening to them. When you get rejected, all you can think are these negative thoughts. It's understandable, and it's ok to feel those feelings, but don't let them affect your actions. No matter how much evidence you have, you will never have proof.

If you send a poem to 30 literature magazines and you get rejected by all of them, that doesn't prove that your poem is bad. That doesn't prove that it will never get accepted. You could just as easily be accepted by the very next thing you send it to.

Conversely, if you write a play for the first time in your life and it is the most popular and beloved play people have ever seen, that doesn't prove that you will ever write another good play in your life.

Now, there are trends and patterns that you should be aware of. If you make the same mistakes in your writing over and over again, it is very likely that you will make them again unless you specifically try not to. If you have a reader thata always makes the same criticisms of your work, then it is likely that anything you show that reader will get the same response unless you specifically make something different. ut even those are not guaranteed.

On any given day, I go through several moods. I'm cranky in the morning, observant in the afternoon, jovial in the evening, and silly at night. Of course, that's not guaranteed either, since he events going on in my life can also change my mood. If you ask me to read something critically, nobody can guarantee what my reaction would be, even if I read the same essay twice.

So, largely, there's no such thing as proof. No matter what you think, you can never be sure of the future. But this is not something to be depressed about. This is great news. It means that no matter how much you struggle, there is always hope, always a chance that the next one might be the winner. It also means that you never have the luxury of resting on your laurels. Whether you do good or bad, you will always have to work harder and try to do better.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Get Advice

Have you ever asked for advice and then completely disregarded it? If you have, don't feel bad about it. Although it is frustrating for the advice-giver to not be heeded, the fact of the matter is that advice doesn't work the way we think it should.

We think of asking for advice as the person not knowing what to do and needing somebody wiser and more-confident to defer to. But none of that is right. We don't ask for advice because we don't know what to do; we ask because we need more thoughts. It's not so much that we don't know what to do as it is we aren't sure what the best thing to do is. The people we ask advice of aren't necessarily smarter than us, but trusted people. They can understand where we come from and can give the thoughts that we don't think of.

Advice is also tricky because of error in communication. There are so many things that go into any situation, that it is impossible to describe them all, let alone all of the thoughts and feelings that go along with them. That means that the person giving advice is giving advice on partial information. However, that does not make it worthless.

Again, advice is about getting ideas and bouncing your ideas off of somebody else. Even if advice is given on partial information, the ideas that you get may still be worthwhile. They may be good ideas, or they may spark your mind to come up with a new idea you wouldn't have normally thought of.

In one of the first writing workshop classes I had, my teacher described a writing workshop like this: "Everybody reads your writing, they tell you how you should change it, then you ignore them and do whatever you want." It's funny, but it also perfectly explains how advice works.

So when you're writing, go ahead and get advice. It will always be good for you, even if you don't take it.

Respect Writing Exercises

Many books on writing will give some writing exercises. These are usually a prompt of some sort. They can be vague like, "Write a story that takes place on a train" or they can be specific like, "Write a short story about a jewel thief who publishes a book about his techniques." In a sense, any writing assignment you get in college is a writing exercise.

For a long time, I never respected writing exercises. They felt like cheating to me. Writing exercises were something you did when you couldn't come up with anything on your own. If you are feeling rusty and just need to practice the act of writing, then a writing exercise is great because when you were done, you could just throw it out. It kept your skills sharp, but it didn't count.

I do not believe those things anymore. The main reason was that I realized one important fact: prompts do not write themselves. If you gave a hundred writers the same prompt, you may get some similar results, but you will end up with a hundred different pieces of writing. Since every person has their own style, made from their own thoughts and beliefs, you will always be creating a piece of writing that is yours.

Another realization is that ideas do not come from nowhere. When you see two people arguing out in public and you start wondering what their home life might be like, and you write a little story about it, you are still being led and influenced. It may not be as direct as a writing prompt, but the fact remains that we are regularly poked and prodded by outside influences to write. Just because you didn't grab your idea from thin air doesn't mean it isn't worthwhile.

There are a number of pieces I've written for my college classes. Some of them had particular requirements. And some of those pieces I am very proud of. Some of those pieces have won awards. I do not think less of them because they started as assignments.

So, do your writing exercises. But take them seriously. Put effort into them and make something good. Whatever you make will be yours (which should be reason enough to take pride in it), so make it something that deserves to have your name on it.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Awkward Silence

I always tell people, "I'm a writer because I suck at talking." I can't think of a conversation I've had that didn't have some kind of awkward silence. It might be actual silence, or it might be hemming and hawing, or it might be me saying "I was gonna say something, but I forgot what it was" or it could be me saying, "I want to say something, but I'm not sure how to say it."

That last one is the most telling to me. I want to be very precise. I don't want to say the wrong words. Not only do I want to be technically accurate, I also want to give the right impression. For example, if I said "I spent the night with my friend", it may be true, but it sounds like we had sex. So in a conversation, I may spend an awkward silence trying to figure out how to express that I hung out with my friend through the night, but didn't have sex, and also not trip over my own words while doing so.

This is exactly why I say that writing the way you speak is not always the best advice. When I'm on a roll, I sound great. Everything in between those moments is tragically painful. This led me to an interesting thought, though. Within any given body of text, there are hours, if not days or months, of awkward silence that you don't see.

Writing is a collection of speech. But writing is idealized speech. Writers can take their time, plan their thoughts, and craft their words. All that time they spend staring into nothingness is an awkward silence.

For those writers who struggle with speech, feel free to use my line. I can vouch for its effectiveness. But realize that writing isn't magical; it just sweeps all of those awkward silences under a very large rug. But hey, out of sight, out of mind. For those writers who don't have awkward silences when they talk, congratulations. Go enjoy being awesome. I hope you can write as easily as you can talk.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Weight of Words

In my previous entry, I talked about the weight of words. This is one of those things that I know, but never took the time to understand. It always seems so intuitive to me because it is based more in feeling than science. But I think there is at least some science involved.

In general, the weight of a word can be felt in how much it weighs down a sentence. For starters, say out loud, "sure it is." Say it very quickly, the way you would say it to your friend in a conversation. This is a very light sentence. It is made of a light number of words, each of which is light by itself. You can say "sure it is" so quickly that you don't even think about it. Sentences like these are commonly known as "sliding off the tongue".

So consider the polar opposite. A heavy sentence will have a lot of words, each of which will be particularly bulky. These sentences are so unpleasant that they are a struggle to read. For an example, I point you to any history textbook or document written by a lawyer.

So when you consider the weight of a word, consider how easy it is to say and how well it blends with the sentence it's in. The word 'so' is very easy to say. It will fit in almost anywhere without being noticed. The word 'haggard' is not so easy. You can get tripped up saying it and it takes some effort; it's a heavy word. In between those words is 'mesh'. 'Mesh' is a pretty light word, and you usually wouldn't think much of it, but in the right circumstances, it is the wrong word.

Read the following sentence: "After reviewing the job description, I believe the Staff Assistant position would mesh well with many of my interests and abilities." Now say it out loud. Take your time with it and try to feel the flow of the sentence. When you say the word 'mesh', the flow of the sentence stops. 'Position' is a nice and slick word; it makes you want to keep saying things. But in order to say 'mesh', you need to stop the air flow to pronounce that 'm'. Because of that, this relatively light word ends up being too heavy for the sentence it's in. Try the same sentence, but replace 'mesh' with 'blend' and see how much smoother and lighter the sentence is.

The more I think about weight, the more I see certain factors contributing to them. The longer a word is, the heavier it is. Length, though, is measured in syllables, not letters. 'No' is just as long as 'trash'. But the letters do matter (technically, the sounds they represent). Every sound has a different weight to it. 'K', 'D', and 'G' are all heavy sounds. 'K' is probably the heaviest sound we have. Say the phrase "cuckoo clock" and compare it to "sassafras". Both of these words are three syllables, but the difference in weight is palpable.

I know there are a lot more aspects that deal with weight of words, both by themselves and within a given sentence. However, they are less tangible. They are things that I can only feel, but cannot yet explain. So to learn as much as you can, the best advice I can give is to train your ear to recognize when a sentence gets weighed down and starts to drag. Train your ear so much that you feel it in your body when a sentence is wrong. From there, you will feel all of the nuances of weight. Even if you can't describe them, you will still be able to make use of them.

Weight is always important in writing. If a sentence gets too heavy, you can't finish reading it. That's one of the reasons I advocate shorter sentences: if there aren't a lot of words, they need to be particularly heavy to be unreadable.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Break It Down

I love talking about writing. It's my craft, my profession, something I have invested a great amount of time and personal interest in. I love discussing things I've read on every level of writing. I love discussing writing in the abstract. I love getting my hands dirty with other people's writing (a.k.a. editing). But what I have only recently realized was how I talked about writing.

I keep in contact with a few of my classmates from college. We read, critique, and edit each other's writing. When I talk with these people, I end up using pretty vague words. I was reading a sentence and the word "mesh" stuck out. I told my friend, "'Mesh' is the wrong word." My friend agrees with me. I think for a bit and say, "'Match' or 'blend' are better words." My friend agrees and replaces "mesh" with "blend".

I never really thought about it before. I knew what I was talking about and so did my peers. But then I started to talk about writing with people who weren't my peers. Another friend of mine is a beginning writer. She didn't take the writing courses that I have, hasn't studied as much, and hasn't written as much as me. But she is always picking my brain, so we discuss writing a lot.

Occasionally, she'll ask me a simple question like, "how do you know what to get rid of when you edit?" I'll respond the way I would to anybody asking the question: "You cut out the useless words." And then I think to myself duh. It's not that I am trying to be rude or condescending; it is simply an issue I have dealt with so long ago that it no longer occurs to me that other people don't know it. But after that, she asks me, "How do you know when a word is useless?" Then that smug look vanishes from my face.

What do you mean? How do you not know when a word is useless? Wait a minute. How do I know when a word is useless? Now I have to actually think about the things I know. Well, a word is useless if it has no use. So what use is a word supposed to have? We use words to describe scenes and actions, convey emotions, move a story forward. Therefore, a useless word is one that either adds nothing to what is written or simply weighs more than it provides (and yes, I know that I need to explain the weight of a word, but I'll do that some other time).

I already knew how to edit and I knew which words to cut. But it wasn't until I broke it down that I understand exactly why I do these things. And that is very important. When you don't understand the principles behind a given rule, you are shooting in the dark. Eventually, you're going to find something that isn't standard or you may be challenged by somebody and need to defend yourself. If you can't explain why you're right, you run the risk of losing people's trust in you.

It isn't difficult to figure this stuff out. Just break it down. Every time you know something, ask why it's true. Ask yourself tough questions. Ask yourself stupid questions. If you can answer those, you can answer anything. It also prepares you to be a teacher. When you talk about your craft with people not at your level, you can never guess what questions you will be asked. But if you start asking yourself some of these questions, you'll build up your repertoire. You also might end up learning something yourself that will aid you in your own writing. If that alone isn't reason enough, I don't know what is.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Nature and Nurture

Writing always involves people. People are writers. People are the audience. And very often, people are the subject material. As such, a significant part of writing is understanding people. Therefore, we should weigh in on the nature versus nurture debate.

Is it our genetic code that makes us who we are or is it how we are raised? At this point in time, I'm fairly sure that everybody will say it is a combination of the two. So the more important question is what ratio of nature and nurture are we?

Personally, I believe that nurture has a lot more influence than nature. For one thing, I look at my family and my friends. My family is close and I am pretty similar in one way or another to all of the family members I know of. But the more time I spend with them, the more I notice the differences between us.

My friends, on the other hand, are completely unrelated to me, but are still very close. Although they are different, the more time I spend with them, the more I notice the similarities between us. We ended up having similar circumstances and developing in similar ways because of it. Of course, none of them have lived an identical life to me. And where our lives were different, we have grown to be different because of that.

I understand that observation is far from an exact science, but nothing involving behavior and emotions is an exact science. I still stick by the fact that a person's experiences in life will shape them far more than their DNA will. Just because your dad was a serial killer doesn't mean you will be, too. Of course, if your dad raises you to be a serial killer, well, that still supports my point (I just won't show up to your house to say so).

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Writing Exercise - Unconventional Truth

Have you ever heard the phrase "It's funny because it's true"? Have you ever seen a comedian tell a joke and said, "wow, I never thought about it like that"? These are so effective because they blend two aspects of comedy that are seemingly in opposition.

People like things they can relate to. Musicians love a good music joke. Mathematicians love a good math joke. But in order to make the most amount of people laugh, you need to make a joke about something everybody knows about. The problem is that things that are familiar are boring. Nobody laughs out loud while discussing the weather.

That's way people like the unfamiliar. Something new is always going to be more powerful. Since it's new, we couldn't possibly have seen it coming. A great joke is one that sets you up for a standard punchline, then hits you with a completely different one. The one problem with the unfamiliar is that not everybody can follow you. Since they don't know it, they are less invested in it.

So how does one be both new and familiar? The trick is to take something familiar and say it in a new way. Start with something simple. Find something that is true. "Birds fly." Then say it in an unconventional way. You need to be able to break things down. What is flying? Why can't we do it? How do birds do it? With enough playing around, you can turn "birds fly" into "birds fight gravity with their arms." It's not particularly great, but at least it's different (it's also off the top of my head, so get off my back).

Although I think this technique is best used for comedy, it works for all kinds of writing. Say something that is technically true, but unconventional. I'm fairly impressed with some of the things Carl Sagan said. They were true, but poetic. "A still more glorious dawn awaits: not a sunrise, but a galaxy rise - a morning filled with four hundred billion suns: the rising of the Milky Way." "The surface of the Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. Recently, we've waded a little way out ... and the water seems inviting."

As an exercise, try writing some unconventional truth. It doesn't have to be brilliant, but it should at least be new. This is partially just finding how many ways you can say the same thing. It is also going to make you create new associations and break free from common phrases. What joyous times these will be.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Conflicting Advice

It can be very confusing to be a student of writing. You are trying to learn how to create in a completely subjective field and you are going to get conflicting advice because of it. Conflicting advice is a pain in the butt because i goes against everything the beginner's mind can understand.

When we are young and learning from our parents or our elementary school teachers, we essentially know nothing about any given field and need to be told what is wrong and what is right. It's simple and easy, so we assume that all learning is like that when you are a complete beginner. But there is extremely little right and wrong in writing, so it is much harder to learn.

I know that I am guilty of giving a lot of conflicting advice, myself. I've said that you should start by creating your world and I've said you should create blank characters and fill in the blanks when you feel like it. I've said you should write the way you speak and I've said that writing and speech are different things and should be treated as such. I've said you should edit as you write and I've said you should get a first draft done and should edit afterward. How can they both be right?

The reason writing is subjective is people. Different people have different thoughts, tastes, and beliefs. People also have different preferences in how they create writing. Some people speak eloquently, so they only need to write down what they naturally say (like me). Other people sound like stuttering morons when they talk, so they need a fair amount of polishing their spoken words to make them good writing (like me). Also, people change. Sometimes a person needs to understand a character to know what he will do. Sometimes that same person needs to know what the character is doing to understand him.

Conflicting advice serves two purposes. For one thing, you will understand that writing is an art and not a science. There is not a right way and a wrong way to do it. Also, you will learn what the various approaches to a given subject are. And if one of those approaches just isn't working, you will still have a number of other methods to try. Pain in the butt though it may be, for the field of writing, conflicting advice may be the best advice out there.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Visualize the Final Product

In most cases, when we think of writing, the words we make are the final product. There is very little in the way of formatting that a novelist needs to worry about. But writing occurs in so many other forms, each with its own nuances.

When I write fiction for a novel, I see the characters in my head. I see them move and talk and act. What I write down is simply what I see happening. These characters can go anywhere and do anything. My writing will follow them around the earth.

When I write comics, it is a little different. It starts out the same way, with me seeing characters in a setting, saying and doing things. But a comic has panels. These show the world instead of my words. As such, it is crucial to be able to tell a story that fits into panels. Sometimes, the way I would normally write just won't fit. So instead, I think in terms of panels. How much can I say in one panel? What can be shown instead of told? How can camera angles express ideas? When I am doing comic scripts, I don't even write anything down until I can see all of the panels in my head.

This point has been hammered into me even more because I've been writing a play. In theory, a play is just a means of telling a story. But in reality, not every story can be told as a play. A play can't have a ton of scene changes. It has one camera angle. It can only have so many props and actors. In order to write a good play, or even a feasible play, I need to see the play.

When I was first thinking of writing a play, I could see an empty stage in my mind. I then thought, what story can I tell that fits on this stage? I didn't want to deal with scene changes, so I knew I needed a location that could fit a whole story. I came up with an apartment. A husband and wife live there. So what story could be told where a husband and wife are in the same area the whole time. One of the answers I came up with was that one of them could get sick and the other would have to be a caretaker.

Once I had the basic premise of the story, the stage did not go away. In my head, I designed the set. It is bare bones: a bed, a couch, a stove, a door, and a few props. They are laid out on the stage in a particular order. I can see the actors, too. Every line, every stage direction I wrote, they didn't exist in the aether. I saw them happening. If I had an idea, but the actors couldn't do it, I had to scrap the idea.

If I was writing a movie script, the whole story would have been completely different. I would have included scenes outside of the apartment. I would have had cameras making interesting shots and music adding to scenes and a bigger cast of characters. A good movie and a good play are very different things.

No matter what form of writing you do, visualize the final product. See your play being performed, your movie being seen, your comic being read. If you can do this, you will spot out potential problems before they become significant issues. You will also get a feel for how your medium functions and what it is and isn't capable of.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Professional Doodling

I have no artistic ability. I can draw a draw a decent-looking cube, but that's about it. If you saw me try to draw a person, or even a flower, you'd think a twelve-year-old made it (actually, that would be a compliment). When I draw, I call it doodling because I don't think it's good enough to call it a drawing. Professional artists also doodle, but when they do it, they are doing some professional doodling.

I've noticed the same thing in other fields. When a professional martial artist throws a simple kick, it is still a very good kick. There is solid form and technique, even though the person wasn't being serious. When a professional singer hums a few bars of a song, they still belt it out with great tone.

What really surprised me was a conversation I was having with friends once. Without realizing it, I ended up going on a rant so long that it can best be described as a speech. When I finally finished everything I had to say, one of my friends started clapping. I felt embarrassed because I never talk very much and I was just realizing how long I had been speaking. When he started saying how amazing that speech was, I thought he was making fun of me. But then everybody else started nodding their heads and agreeing with him.

I guess I'm no exception to the rule. Whatever you train yourself to do, it becomes a part of your body. It runs through your blood, attaches to your muscle, carves a space in your brain. You can't turn it off ever. When you reach a professional level of skill, even your doodles will be professional doodling.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Why Do They Do That?

The more you watch people, the more you recognize patterns. The women who dress so provocatively are the ones who are the least comfortable with themselves. The guys who try so hard to be tough and dominant end up being weak-willed phonies. Their actions are a manifestation of their characteristics.

Any person who is weak-willed will relent to a strong-willed leader. That is why children are told to stand up to bullies. Since bullies are act tough, it is because they are weak-willed, so if you have the stronger personality, they will follow you instead of attack you. However, anybody who has ever dealt with enough bullies has probably found that this doesn't always work. So, there is a problem somewhere.

As it turns out, any given character trait can exist for any number of reasons. Some bullies just love the feeling of power that comes from tormenting others. Some of them like the added source of income that stealing lunch money begets. Similarly, some women who show a lot of skin simply are comfortable with themselves and don't care about the reaction. Some of them just think it's fun to play dress-up and do something they wouldn't normally do.

You may have a character that acts in a particular way, but you aren't sure why yet. If there comes a point where you want to figure it out, remember that there may be one very common answer for it, but there may also be an uncommon one that is just as valid (and potentially more interesting).

Start Vague

I have always recommended to writers that they start out by creating and thoroughly understanding a world. I still think this is a good idea, but there is also a merit in doing the exact opposite.

Start by creating two generic characters. These are blank slates that you fill in as you feel like it. Have them start talking back and forth. It can be about anything. These characters are not fully-developed people yet, so nothing they say can be wrong or disagree with their characteristics.

As the conversation goes on, you glean information on who they are, or at least who they might be. If one person keeps having snappy comments and telling jokes all the time, you may decide that the person is a professional comedian. If you want it to be permanent, then you have it come up at some point, which canonizes it.

This method of starting vague has a lot of positive aspects to it. For one thing, you can start writing right away. And since most people get most of their ideas in the midst of writing, this allows the most freedom and creativity without needing revision. There are also some things that we just can't imagine will be important. A favorite color will rarely be of any significance, so it isn't useful to put in a character bio. But that doesn't mean it will never come up. If you start vague, then you can decide what your character's favorite color is if there ever comes a time.

Now, as your character amasses traits, there become fewer possibilities for them. For example, if a character is an adventurer, or some kind of wandering warrior, they are not likely to have any family ties and probably don't care very much about families. Since it is not a part of their world, it is something they will have no feelings about (unless their family was slaughtered or something, in which case they would have extremely powerful feelings). As such, once you have a decent idea of who your character is, you have to figure out which of the possibilities make sense to fill in the remaining gaps. It's like creating your universe in reverse.

Like I said earlier, both methods are credible and effective. The only factor is you. Some people write as actors. They become their characters and say what their characters would say. In that case, it is very important to have a firm grasp on who your characters are. Other people simply want to write a situation or a story. In that case, most aspects of a character are completely unnecessary, so the best thing to do is paint in broad strokes and fill in the blanks as need be.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


There are a lot of redundancies in writing. It exists on several levels and occurs for a number of reasons, but few, if any, of them are worth keeping.

On the smallest level, redundancies start occurring in phrases. Some of our common phrases, like 'null and void', 'cease and desist', and 'unexpected surprise' are all guilty of redundancy. Sentences are also very common. There are not common sentences the way we have common phrases, but whenever you see sentences that keep repeating the information with different words, that's redundancy to the letter. Redundancies may also exist in paragraphs, but one would hope that those would be caught easily. If they existed in any level larger than that, the writer either needs to be smacked very hard or taken out behind the shed and put out of his or her misery.

Regardless of the level, I've found redundancies exist for one of three reasons. The first is for emphasis. When you focus on a single point by using several words that all have the same meaning (like saying 'single point'), it shows that you really care about that point, that the point itself is important (as opposed to things that are affecting that point). The next reason is that the author just doesn't know what to say next. A paragraph with only two sentences is too short, but if thre is nothing else to say, the easiest thing to do is just repeat yourself until it is big enough. The third reason is that the author has multiple ideas of how to say something and can't decide which one they like more. If you have non space limits and you can't pick an option, then they just pick both.

Redundancy is one of the problems I still have. I think it comes from my oral writing style. Certain redundancies are very effective, if not downright crucial, to giving a speech. But when a person has those words in front of them and has the luxury of taking their time and rereading whenever they want, it is more effective to be concise than it is to be redundant. Whatever the reason, you are usually better off using fewer words than more. When writers give the advice to cut out unnecessary words, redundancies are the best place to start chopping.

Write to Fit the Form

There are so many different forms of writing, each one with its own set of nuances. I think there is a beauty there, that however you want your writing to be experienced, there is a form of writing just for it (and if there isn't, you can make it up). With all of these possibilities out there, it boggles my mind that writers would write in a form other than the one they intended.

My favorite example is with poetry. There are two kinds of poetry: poetry meant to be seen and poetry meant to be heard. Some poets spend more time arranging the words in their poetry than they did coming up with those words. Sometimes they create a poem whose arrangement is such that it can be read in a number of ways. And yet, with all of that painstaking effort put in, they then go on stage and read their poem aloud, making all of that arrangement worthless.

If you want your work to be heard, then make sure it is the best-sounding writing you can make. If you want it to be read, then make sure it is the best-looking writing you can make. The same principal applies for all the other nunances that go with a form of writing.

In a novel, you need to be able to characterize, convey time, create places, animate scenes, and move things along at a steady pace. In a short story, you do need these things, but on a smaller scale. In a novel, you get to know characters inside and out, but a short story's characters, we only go a little deeper than skin. The pacing between the two is also going o be different. The sheer length of the novel means that wew have to take it all in piece by piece, like taking sips from a cup. A short story, though, is like one good gulp. And by the same analogy, flash fiction is like pounding a shot.

Short stories have to glaze over finer details like every furnishing in a room. They don't have the time or space for frivolous information. As such, when you see a short story that rambles on, it becomes very painful to read because it doesn't fit the format.

Another example is with webcomics (i.e. comics who are primarily published online in regular installments). Webcomics update one strip or one page at a time. But since every update needs to be a complete work that satisfies the reader, every update needs to have a joke or a twist or something that makes the reader glad they saw the update and excited to see what happens next.

Whatever you want to write, there is a form for that. There are a great number of writing forms out there. And within each of those are a great number of writing forms. If there is something you want to write, pick the form that fits it. If there is a form that you want to write, then write something that fits the form.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Having Challenges vs. Being Challenged

We often talk about challenges. The word 'challenge' gets thrown around a lot. To a degree, it has lost an amount of meaning to it. 'Challenge' can either be a good thing or a bad thing, but it depends on what kind of challenge you're talking about.

Having challenges is generally considered a good thing. These challenges are usually obstacles that we have to overcome to reach our goals. Sometimes these challenges are external, like maneuvering through an obstacle course. Sometimes they're internal, like getting over a fear of heights. In either case, these challenges are relatively self-imposed. Basically, if the person didn't have that goal, they wouldn't have the challenges to overcome either.

Being challenged, on the other hand, is not a good thing. Being challenged is when, for example, some person comes up to you and tells you that you're no good, that he's better than you, or that you need to beat him in a competition. This is an external challenge. It isn't part of attaining a goal. It's just some guy antagonizing you.

However, this is the point where it starts getting confusing. Since e use the same word to describe both of these situations, it is easy to mix the two up. Also, since a confrontation between two people can be an obstacle to overcome in achieving a goal, it gets even more confusing. That's why it is nice to have alternate words like 'overcoming obstacles' and 'confrontations' to explain the differences.

You can't have a challenge without a goal. As such, those challenges should always be encouraging. Overcoming them will get you closer to what you want, plus it will add to your abilities that you may need in the future.

You can be challenged without a goal directly involved. These challenges do not necessarily have any meaning. Although some people will rise to these challenges, being insulted and outright attacked more often causes harm than anything good.

Challenges are a part of life, both kinds. This means that it is important for authors to understand challenges, both for themselves and for their characters. One challenge may uplift while another may crush. There are reasons for the differences.

Monday, November 9, 2009

A Whole Lot of Staring

I'm amazed at how much staring is involved in the writing process. I start with a blank sheet of paper or a blank Word document and a stare at it. A good amount of it is just searching for any kind of idea that would be interesting enough to write about. After a whole lot of staring, I start feeling self-conscious, so I start adding small, insignificant things like headings or formats. And then it's right back to staring.

If I actually do get an idea, then the next thing I do is stare more. Now I'm staring into nothing because I'm trying to think of how to cultivate the idea. Where did it come from, where does it go, how do I word everything just right? It isn't until I get a few lines that I actually start writing any of it down.

If I'm lucky, I keep on writing. More often, I have to go back to staring, repeating the whole process of coming up with ideas and crafting them just right. If I am having to come up with ideas that I have not previously been thinking of, I will usually spend far more time staring than writing (which is probably why I have no injuries from writing or typing too much).

Everybody's process is different; this is just mine. If you have the same process, then you may also feel like you're wasting your time with all of the staring you get done. It is a frustrating feeling, but know that your mind is working. If you don't spend time just staring and thinking, you may never get any thinking done. And if that happens, then you will be even less productive than you usually are.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Don't Get Too Comfortable

Comfort is important when writing. If you're uncomfortable, whether it be because of slouching, an uncomfortable seat, or or any other problem, you'll end up spending more time readjusting yourself than actually writing.

The problem with comfort, though, is that it is possible to become too comfortable. I love sitting in a soft, cushy chair with my feet up on a table. If I sit like that for too long, I'll eventually fall asleep.

What I have found, though, is that if you are just slightly uncomfortable, it keeps you on focus. If you're sitting in a a chair that isn't painful, but isn't particularly pleasant, you won't fall asleep, but you won't need to readjust yourself either.

Another trick I've found is that if you drink a cup of tea or water as you write, that I have to pee feeling slowly creeps up on you. It is the same kind of discomfort where maving around doesn't help, but you definitely will not be too relaxed. The nice thing about having to pee is that I always want to write one more paragraph before I go through the process of getting up, going, coming back, and resttling.

Getting comfortable is nice. You get into a literal groove and you can write and write and write. Just don't get too comfortable. That's when you get lazy.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Take Your Time While Writing

I was taking a walk when an idea for a story came to me. I wanted to write the whole thing down right away before I forgot any of it. My initial thought was to try to keep it in my head long enough to make it home, where I could write it. I was so far from home that I knew I would lose much of it if I tried to keep it in my head that long.

So I pulled out my iPod Touch, which I just remembered I use to take notes on when I'm out. When I started a new note to write down my story, I realized that I didn't know the whole story. I hadn't thought of it all yet.

But holding my iPod, it allowed me to think more. I thought of the skeleton for the whole story. Then I went to the beginning and fleshed out the details of what would happen. So I started to type out the beginning, which is a time-consuming process on that machine. But there was a beauty to it. Since every thought took so long to record, it mulled over in my head for much longer. That made me think of it, the thoughts that came before it, and the ones that would follow it, over and over again, far more than I normally would.

In fact, during the time of writing that story, I was able to flesh it out thoroughly, write down every detail just the way I wanted to, and finished the whole thing right as I was a block from my house.

If I was at my computer when I got this idea and I had just started writing, one of two things would have happened: either I would have written the skeleton and left it alone or I would have written a very different version that would not have been as fleshed out.

Part of what I was doing was editing while I wrote. But the other thing I was doing was taking my time while writing. Although it is nice to be working at a fast pace, putting down ideas as they come to you, it is also nice to mull over your thoughts and really figure out what is just right. Try writing with a very slow method. Write with a pencil or with your thumb and see ow different the process and the results are.

Recovering What is Lost

One of the beauties of writing is that it can last forever. One of the tragedies of writing is when it is lost. There reaches a point where my greatest fear is that I will lose all of my writing in some catastrophic event.

Because of the digital age we all live in, we usually think that loss of writing comes from computer crashes. Ironically, those are the least of my concerns. I probably have my documents backed up three or four different ways. There are secondary hard drives, flash drives, online backup sites, and email that all save my documents.

What terrifies me is my notebooks. It's paper and I have no copies or redundancies or back-ups. I can lose it, spill something on it, or just wear the materials away from use. By the time I have maybe 20 pages of writing filled in, I am so scared to take it anywhere for fear of losing it. Realistically, once I've written anything I like in a notebook, the fear starts; it just gets worse with every additional page.

However, the fact of the matter is that, no matter how hard we try to avoid it, we will eventually lose some amount of writing. It could be an entire manuscript or it could be half of an essay. Regardless of what we lose, it gives us a quandry. What should I do?

I have found that there are three options available when you lose your writing. The first option is to accept it as a premature death, give a eulogy, and move on. I have met few, if any, writers who would actually do that. We're going to bring our writing back from the dead. That's where the remaining two options are.

Since you wrote the piece that has been lost, it should still be in your memory. As such, one approach is to try to reclaim exactly what you wrote in the original document. Some of those important words and phrases will surely stick in your head, and the rest of the writing either leads up to them or carries on from them. The problem is that the parts you don't remember usually stay forgotten. When you have a few bright shiny pieces you remember, you're really just trying to connect the dots.

The final approach is to rewrite what you had from scratch. No matter how well you plan things, a certain amount of writing will always be shooting from the hip. You write the words down as they come to you and you don't know what the next one will be. Since that is the most natural writing style, it is the best way to recover what was lost.

Personally, I do a combination of all three. When I lose a piece of writing, I just have to accept that the words have died. However, the spirit still lives on; it just needs a new body to inhabit. As such, I primarily use the third option of rewriting it from scratch. I accept that this will occasionally take me down alleys I hadn't traveled before, but I know that there is only so much I can change it. Part of what made the idea what it was, was the words used to form it. As such, when a particular concept or sentence still sticks in my mind because of its importance, I will use it as a beacon to guide me down the path I first traveled, even if it means I have to play connect the dots.

You will have to decide for yourself what method works best for you. If you use more than one method, you will have to figure out what ratio of the three works best. Hopefully, you will not have much occasion to practice these skills. But when it does occur, be glad that you know how to deal with it.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


I was having a conversation about characters and quirks. One person said that characters need to have a quirk, like wearing a hat or carrying a knife. She said that these make characters more 3-dimensional. I disagreed.

If you want to fill out a character, make them more human, more interesting, accessories are not the way to do it. What makes a person interesting is not the things they do or wear, but the reasons behind it.

Quirks without explanations are gimmicks. Look at super heroes and super villains. Without their motivations, the only difference between them is their outfit and maybe their super powers. The super hero is never as interesting as the person behind the mask.

The same thing is true for real people. For example, I wear boots all the time. That doesn't make me interesting. It just makes me "that guy with the boots". The interest comes from why I wear the boots. I feel secure in them. Since boots surround my ankles (unlike sneakers), I never fear that I will twist my ankle. They are also so tough and rugged that I feel like I can go anywhere and do anything while wearing them. I feel invincible in my boots.

Quirks are not necessarily a bad thing, but you have to use them properly. An object or a tick that a person has is a manifestation of their beliefs. You can't give them a hat and say that they're quirky or realistic. They have to already be real to you. Once you understand who they are, what they believe, and how they think, it will make perfect sense which quirks they might have.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Creative Nonfiction

Creative nonfiction is a form of writing that I learned about in college. Although it is pretty common at this point, most people don't know what it is by name. Basically, creative nonfiction is true things told in an interesting way. Generally, when we think of nonfiction, we think of biographies or text books, which are factual, but dull. Creative nonfiction is more like telling a cool story that actually happened.

When people ask how to write creative nonfiction, I tell them that you should really write it the same way you write fictional work. Good story telling is good story telling, regardless of how true the story is. And that inevitably leads to the question, "so what's the difference between the two?" More importantly, "how do you know if a story is fictional or not?"

Honestly, you can't. The only way to know is if the author happens to tell you. And even then, they could easily lie to you. But that's not the point. Whether a story is true or not, the most important question to me is if it's a good read.

I think creative nonfiction is a form of writing that everybody should try out. It is similar, but different from the norm. You work on your storytelling, but don't have to worry about coming up with the story. It also forces you to focus your eye more in general. When you start thinking about real stories that you want to tell, you have to think about things you have done or experienced or know about. You start thinking of things in terms of, could this be a story? How would I explain this situation or feeling in words? It opens up your mind to be a writer more and more often. And if you're a writer, that's always a good thing.

Be An Actor

If you want to get good at creating characters, the best advice I can give is to be an actor. It will give you everything you need to make a character and to make them realistic.

An actor needs to get in his character's head. He needs to understand what makes them tick, what their motivations are, what their mannerisms are, how they feel about the other characters. Although some actors do not do this, I personally find it the best method. Instead of being a performer, you are basically becoming a different person and just acting like that person.

As a writer, you need to do the same things when you make characters and when you manipulate them. They cannot be mere rag dolls. They are people and should be as real as you or me. If you wanted to tell a story about your friend to a stranger, you would need to either show or explain a number of details about your friend so that the stranger understands why your friend acts the way he does. You need to do the same thing for anybody else that you tell stories of, even if you made them up.

Acting will affect your mind, especially if you do it in front of an audience. You will be more comfortable with wearing somebody else's skin. You will understand what it is like to be loud or quiet, energetic or lethargic, but for reasons you wouldn't normally feel. When you can understand things in a way different from your own, you will be ready to create characters who are not carbon copies of yourself.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Separating Work and Home

The nice thing about writing is that you can do it anywhere. You can save yourself a lot of time, money, and trouble by working out of your home. However, there are benefits to keeping work and home separate.

I love writing at home because I can sit up in bed, laptop in my lap, cat sleeping against my thigh, and my music playing. It is so comfortable. In fact, it's too comfortable. I have too many distractions surrounding me. My cat wants attention, there are TV shows I could watch. I could be making a snack or a meal or fidgeting around or doing some other chore. When I'm trying to write, suddenly I want to do everything but write.

And my computer is often times more an enemy than a friend. I can instant message friends, play games, check facebook, twitter, comics, essays, e-mail; even though I use my computer to write, I also use it to avoid writing.

When I am not at home, say a library or a coffee house, my mind is different. I do still get distractions, like staring into space or looking around, but I also feel a responsibility to be productive far more. When I bring a notebook instead of a laptop, I have none of the convenient distractions available to me, either.

For "normal" jobs, we go to a location where all we do is work. We never go there except for working, so work is all we associate it with. The power to keep us focused is one that should not be ignored. Many writers create a home office, a room where they work and they only do work. When they are in the office, they are at work and are not allowed to leave or do anything else. It is the only way they can get their work done.

I have worked at home and I have worked out of home. They can both work. I find that I am usually more efficient when I am either at work or treating my home like work (i.e. having a mantra of "no distractions"). If you have a means to make a particular space your work space, then go for it. If you don't have it, don't worry. Just realize that you will have to rely on your willpower more than the others.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Have Faith

Whenever new writers are looking for advice or experienced writers are giving advice, it always seems to revolve around having the energy to write. How do you keep deadlines? How do you make yourself write? What do you do when you just don't feel like writing?

There's a lot of good advice out there. Most of it involves having discipline, giving enough of a damn about your craft to do it well, and kicking your own butt when you need it most. But there is another aspect that should be mentioned.

You need to have faith. You need to believe that you will do what you want to do with your writing, get done the things you need to get done within the time that you have. If you don't believe that you can do well, you will never reach your potential.

However, there is a saying about faith that I find crucial to keep in mind: "God helps those who help themselves." If you never sit down and try to write, you're never going to get your writing done. If you don't work for minutes or hours or days on problem spots to smooth them out and make them right, no one else is going to do it for you.

Believe in yourself. Believe in the supernatural forces that you don't understand but work in your favor to help you in your hour of need. Just remember that good fortune comes and goes. In the end, the only things you know you have are yourself and your abilities. Have faith that they are enough by practicing, training, and knowing that they are the best they can be.