Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Power of an Outline

I am very used to writing off the top of my head. It feels like I am giving impromptu speeches or stories. It also is exciting because I don't always know where I'm going to end up. It is as much an adventure for me to write the story as it is for others to read it.

Suffice it to say, I don't use many outlines. The next thing I write is going to be based on what I just finished writing. Sometimes, though, I have to write something that is very exact. I need to plan out every step of the process, so then the outline comes out.

I must say that using an outline is a totally different experience. It feels like cheating. It's like looking at a walkthrough to beat a video game. When I have an outline, I have the entire piece written in shorthand. All I need to do to "write it" is transcribe it into longhand.

But outlines aren't cheating guides; they're organizational tools. I am a huge proponent of using logic and planning in writing, and outlines are the perfect way to do that. Although I don't always use them, they are definitely a good idea.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Strong vs. Weak Language

When it comes to language and word choice, the general advice is to be strong. When you use weak language like weasel words, you sound ignorant, scared, afraid to make a stand. When you are writing something, you don't need to say "I think. . ." because it is obvious that this is your opinion. If you are confident enough to make a suggestion, just make it and don't try to protect yourself from blame.

The irony, though, is that strong language can make you seem ignorant. If you remove all of the words that say that nothing is certain and there are always arguments that can be made to any point, then there is nothing showing the audience that you have considered those points. All the audience sees is you sticking with one point and bringing up all the reasons to support it.

I believe that strong language is better for discussion. If you make a point and somebody disagrees, you can go back and forth and reach a conclusion. But if you are writing a book or a journal article that is published and static, then such discussion cannot take place.

Ultimately, a writer needs to find the ratio of strong to weak language that they are comfortable with. I don't like to cut it all out because it feels stiff and forced. I obviously like to have some, though (as you may find in this entry itself), as it softens the edge, sounds more conversational, and shows that I do understand that there are always exceptions to everything.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009


One of my favorite sayings comes from Calvin & Hobbes: "Some people work best under pressure. I work only under pressure." I find it holds very true for myself and a number of my writing friends. The scary thing about writing is that, no matter how strong your burning desire to tell a story is, it is always easy to not write. We have random time sinks on the internet, TV, video games, talking with friends, eating food, and countless other distractions. We also have to deal with obligations like going to work and doing laundry. It is far easier to not write than it is to write.

As such, the writer's best friend is the deadline. When writing becomes a requirement and not simply a hobby or a way to kill time, writers will do what needs to be done. In fact, there are those who would say that the best thing about studying writing at college is having deadlines to meet all the time. Outside of school or work, though, deadlines seem meaningless. Nobody is forcing you to produce within a time frame. They are self-imposed, which means the only way to meet them is by having a lot of will power. But if you already had a lot of will power, you wouldn't need to give yourself deadlines in the first place.

Deadlines are simply dates. Dates by themselves are powerless. What makes deadlines significant are consequences. In school, if you don't meet deadlines, you fail. In work, if you don't meet deadlines, you get fired. Self-imposed deadlines have no consequences. Granted, you could give yourself a consequence of not meeting deadlines, but that would require a lot of will power, which would better be spent just writing instead of coming up with these contingency plans.

If you want consequences, that matter, you should turn to others. Ask a friend to help you out. Set it up where if you don't meet a deadline, your friend won't talk to you until you do what you needed to do for the deadline. Or do the opposite and have your friend harass you every day after the deadline until you meet it. Whichever one is more annoying, do that. You can make up any kind of consequence that could work for you.

What is most important is that you are in a situation where not writing has a very real and significant impact on you. Ideally, we wouldn't need such situations, but when our laziness or fear or anything else takes over our desire to create, we need a swift kick in the butt to get ourselves out of such a funk and having real consequences is much more eye-opening than simply feeling bad about yourself for not meeting a self-imposed deadline.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Power of First Impressions

Some people will talk about their favorite book and how they've read it dozens of times. They say that every time they read it, they find something they never noticed before. That's all well and good for those readers, but what about all the other people? What about the people who only read something once?

Those one-time readers are important to consider. They are the majority of total readers and are not afraid to talk about something, even if they've only read it once. Writing things that are layered, have multiple meanings, and require multiple readings are wonderful and should not be ignored, but if you want to take on such an endeavor, don't forget to make it appealing on its first impression.

As much as I want to make people think with my writing, it needs to entertain first. And since you only make one first impression, you should strive to make it the best you can. This raises the question of how you test first impressions.

You can't do it yourself. You're too close to your own work to know what it is like to see it for the first time. So go to somebody else. Give it to a fresh pair of eyes. See if they react the way you want them to. If they do, then stay the course. If not, then figure out what you need to change.

Remember, though, that working with an editor has the same problem that you yourself will have: your editor will become familiar with the piece. Don't let that deter you, though. A good editor will strengthen your writing despite being familiar with it. And when you and your editor have done all you can with your piece, go and find another new set of eyes to read it. Hopefully you won't need to repeat the whole process again, but if need be, then go for it.

It is definitely useful to have a reserve of eyes to read your work. Like I said, you only make one first impression. If you run out of people to get first impressions from, you'll just have to wing it and hope for the best.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Look It Up

If I had to choose the best thing about the internet, I would say it is the sheer access to information. And I don't mean news stories or anything in that ilk. I mean things like trivia. Who was that guy in Planet of the Apes? What exactly does 'troglodyte' mean? How long is a furlong? There is no fact you can't find with in three mouse clicks.

With this instant access to information, it makes me wonder how that affects writing. I remember being told that we should always assume our reader knows nothing about the subject. It is a good teaching device to get students to write thoroughly, and it should be taught for that, if nothing else, but should we keep it for all of our writing?

In digital writing, the answer seems to be no. If you are responding to another article or referring to a picture or a song, all you need to do is link to it. For people who don't know, they can delve deeper into a subject to understand it more thoroughly, and for people who are already familiar with the subject matter, they get straight to the point of the new content without worrying about the background.

But what about non-digital writing? To what degree should we be thorough when you can't just click on a link to learn more about something? On this matter, I strattle the fence; I can take either side of the argument.

On one hand, I believe that a piece of writing should be able to stand on its own, so thoroughness is good. On the other hand, I believe that writing should be efficient, so there's no need covering ground that somebody could easily research on any of the countless devices that can access the internet.

Ultimately, it is a personal decision to figure out how much you choose to explain. Both sides are perfectly valid. If you are torn between the two, then I recommend going for sound. Which version is more pleasant to the eyes and the ears? All other things being equal, pick the one that is the most pleasant to experience.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Define Your Terms

English can be a very tricky language because any word can have any number of meanings. For example, when I said that English is a tricky language, I did not mean that it likes to play jokes; I mean that it can be complicated and difficult to handle. Of course, the context of the first sentence is enough to understand what I meant. But the principle of it still holds.

Words have different definitions (denotations). Although context usually helps us understand which definition we mean, it is not always guaranteed to work. As an extreme example, there are 38 definitions of the word 'sharp'. Without enough context, it can be very easy to misunderstand what a person is trying to say if they describe something or someone as sharp.

And as if having multiple definitions for each word wasn't enough, we also have to deal with the fact that different people understand a word in different ways (connotations). For example, if somebody starts talking about love, there is a great deal of ambiguity there. There are countless different ideas that people all call love. There is a saying that if you ask one hundred people for their definition of love, you will get one hundred different replies.

When you think about these things, it seems a wonder that we can communicate anything at all to others. And yet, we do. We are far more likely to understand what we are told than not in daily communication. Part of it is because we are using common terms in common contexts most of the time. But the other part is that we define ambiguous terms that we use.

If you are ever writing specifically about a subject, the first thing you should do is introduce your subject and your argument. The second thing you should do is define your terms. That way, everybody will know exactly what you mean right from the start and you will avoid potential arguments that might come from people who assumed you were using other denotations or connotations.

Thursday, December 24, 2009


I always think that milestones are interesting to consider. Whatever a person does, there are milestones for it. But for every activity, they are a little different. Most milestones have to deal with either time spent doing something or the number of things created. Writing uses both of these milestones.

Once you decide to be a writer or when you get your first paid gig, that is your beginning as a writer. The clock then continues uninterrupted until you either die or officially quit. But we also have milestones for how many things we create. These seem to matter more when writing short but frequent things. Blogs and webcomics, for example, definitely care about the number of entries.

What strikes me as weird, though, is how arbitrary the units of benchmarks are. In terms of time, each new unit is a milestone. Your first day, first week, first month, first year are all significant milestones. After a year, it becomes more arbitrary. The second year is significant because it is double 1. Then year 5. After year 5, every multiple of 5 is significant. 10 is very special because it is double 5, a multiple of 5, a multiple of 10 (all multiples of 10 are twice as special as multiples of five), and the first double digit.

When you look at the number of updates you've had, some of the rules still stand, but they are a little different. Humans only live so many years, so every 5 is significant. But we can create thousands of updates in our lives, tens of thousands, even. Significant milestones seem to be 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 25, 50, 100. After that, all multiples of 100 until 1000. After that, only multiples of 1000 matter. And that is what is very scary to me. When you first start writing, you are achieving things in extremely short amounts of time. If you updated every day, you would reach the first ten milestones in your first year. But in your second year, you would only reach three milestones. Every year after that, it keeps getting smaller.

Milestones are points of accomplishment. It says that you have come a long way since the last one. Arbitrary though they may be, they still make you feel very good about yourself when you reach one. If you are coming close to a milestone, let that be an inspiration to keep going. But if there is no milestone in sight, don't let it get you down. Writing is nont about the glory of reaching milestones; it is about the things you write. The pride of creating a lot is great, but it is gravy compared to the pride you should feel for each thing that you create.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Narrow Your Scope

Creating can sometimes feel like an arduous chore to accomplish. When I look at a blank page, every single possibility in all the universe is available for you to choose from. This is paralyzing. I have too many options to choose from.

What helps me best is narrowing my scope. People create amazing things when they have restrictions. I know that I have written some of my best writing when I have had a requirement for it. It's kind of like being an interior decorator. It is a lot easier to decorate a house that somebody else built than it is to have to build a house that you will then decorate.

So give yourself some restrictions or some requirements. You can make them light or severe, commonplace or insane. You could give yourself a restriction of writing a story without using dialogue, or you could try writing a story without using the word 'the'. You could give yourself the requirement to include a scene at a zoo or you could give yourself the requirement to use the phrase, "lemon-flavored ginger snaps".

Whatever you choose, you can't go wrong. Limitations like these should get your brain thinking and your hands writing. And ultimately, that is what narrowing your scope is all about.

Changes and Corrections

When somebody is editing your work, you will usually hear the words 'changes' and 'corrections'. In general, these words are interchangeable. Technically, though, they have different meanings.

A correction takes something that is wrong and fixes it to make it right. If you misspell a word, then you need to correct the spelling. The same goes for misuse of punctuation (comma splices), common phrases ("French benefits" instead of "fringe benefits"), and anything else that has solid rules.

Changes do not involve right and wrong; they only change from one form to another. If you have a sentence that is awkward, it may not be a pleasant sentence, but it isn't wrong because of that. If you rewrite the sentence, you could make it sound much better, but it is just as right as the original version was. You haven't made a correction, just a change.

Nowadays, this distinction is mostly lost. People use either term in either situation. When you are receiving editing, understand that a person may be talking about making a correction, when they are really talking about making a change. However, when you are editing somebody else's work, try to be mindful of these words. Be careful with your language. You may be the only person who notices it, but you may not be. You may also choose to educate somebody on the matter.

It is nice to be able to make a distinction between a change and a correction. As a writer, it allows you to understand how an editor views a problem. As an editor, it allows you to explain what kind of advice you are giving. Corrections need to be fixed, but changes are just opinions. This should alleviate a lot of stree in te editing process, too.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Too Busy Living

Some people have this concept of writers where we are always thinking of how o make something into a story. Writers are observers, so they spend all their time observing. This thinking leads to a question I've heard asked: "If you're always observing and thinking about things in terms of writing, can you ever really be immersed in anything?"

The answer to the question is no. If you are always thinking about writing, you can't be engrossed in a nonwriting activity. But the catch is that the premise is moot. No matter how much a person thinks about writing or observes life, there are always going to be times where we are too busy living to think about writing.

Writing is a thoughtful activity. We think about writing when he have the luxury of being thoughtful. If you are in the throes of passion or if you are being rushed to the emergency room, you probably aren't thinking about writing. There are too many other things on your mind, things that are more interesting and for more important to deal with right away.

However, even if you are too busy living to think about writing, that does not mean you are wasting time. For one thing, you are taking a break, which everybody needs to do. For another thing, you are gaining experiences. Writers need to know what certain things are like in real life so they can express it properly and accurately. Even if you are completely engrossed in what you are doing, you will still be able to look back on it later, when you are in a more thoughtful mood.

Writers should be writing. And the more they write, the better they'll get. But sometimes, it's ok to take a break from it. Sometimes you're just too busy living.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

I Hate Making Titles

If I had to pick my weakest point in writing, I would have to say it is coming up with titles. It is a very difficult task to do well and I am a total perfectionist about it, so I always struggle the most with it. The title is always the very last thing I create for a story.

Titles should be interesting. It is the first thing that people see, and when you are going through a list of books or essays, sometimes it is the only thing that a person sees. A title needs to pique a person's interest enough to check out the writing itself.

For a lot of nonfiction, this isn't too difficult. People looking in nonfiction are usually looking for a subject they care about, so the best thing to do is be forward. If you are writing a biography, you just say that it is a biography and make sure the person's name is in it. If you are writing an essay, you should title it after your main point.

When you get into more creative writing, you need to have more creative titles. And this is where the real difficulty comes in. A title for a creative work needs to be relevant and engaging, but not overtelling.

For example, look at Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. The Philosopher's Stone is an object with some history, so some people may be intrigued by a story that involves it. Within the story, the Philosopher's Stone is a significant object. It is talked about a lot, and ends up being very important in the main story of the book. The stone acts as a focus. The fact that it is in the title also makes us more curious.

Another example is Michael Pollan's nonfiction book, The Botany of Desire. Desire is a strong and well-known experience, but we know it in terms of humans. Botany, the study of plants, what does that have to do with desire? Well, when we read, we find out that the premise is that, although humans think that they are in complete control over plants, the reality is that we are mutually dependent upon each other and that we both satisfy desires that we each have. So the title intrigues people into reading, and then as they read, the title is a theme that runs throughout the book.

I think that the genre of fantasy has it pretty easy when it comes to titles. You can always name it after a military campaign, a quest name, or whatever artifact is the primary focus of the story. In fantasy, the writer is creating their own world and filling it with all kinds of new, interesting, and significant things, so there is an abundance of things to draw titles from.

I don't do a whole lot of fantasy, so I don't have that luxury. My stories usually involve people in our world or a world like ours. The only way I have ever been able to come up with titles was to make puns. Sometimes it's cute. If I'm writing a children's story about a fly training for a race, people would smile if I titled it Time Flies. But if I'm writing something that isn't cute, a pun isn't very appropriate. If I wrote a murder mystery in a dark, gruesome world about a person who used curses to kill his victims, it would be really inappropriate to call it The Hex Files.

I don't have any magic answers for how to come up with titles. The best I can do is what I've already said: intriguing titles that also are important objects, scenes, or people in the story itself. The best advice I have found is to not overthink it. Don't try to worry about being too clever. In the course of writing, something should come to your head as an appropriate title. If it doesn't, then sit back, look at your story , and figure out what would fit these criteria.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Not Always Read Front to Back

One of the more surprising things I learned in college is that things are not always read front to back. In fact, it seems that is the least likely way to read something in academia.

The standard method, as I have been told, is to start with the bibliography. This lets you see who the author is basing their work off of. It's kind of like meeting somebody's parents to try to understand what the person is like (that's my analogy). The next step is to read the conclusion. The conclusion will tell you the main point being argued and will tie everything into a neat little package. Then you go to the beginning and read the first paragraph of each section. This gives you an overview of what each part is.

Apparently, you don't even read the main body of text unless you are specifically looking for something. I still can't get over it. It makes sense as a reader, but as a writer, it is insane.

If I am telling a story, the best way to do it is to start from the beginning and go forward. If I'm jumping round all the time, nobody will have any idea what's going on. Of course, this advice isn't intended for fiction. It's more for reading texts, nonfiction works. But even in nonfiction, I can't imagine writing any way but front to back. I start with a main point, and logically progress from one point to the next, eventually reaching a conclusion.

When I learned this reading trick, I tried it out. As it turns out, it is pretty effective. What I realized is that a person's main point may be made of eight smaller points that all work together, so their logic may not be a simple, straight line. If you use this reading trick, you start with the biggest picture, then work your way into finer detail. When you read front to back, you constantly change level and scope throughout it.

My original thought on the subject was that, regardless of how it is read, you should always write front to back. But now I'm not sure about that. If you start wit the big picture, break that up into sections, and then write about each of those sections in depth, you may do just as well as you would trying to write it linearly.

Experiment with the writing style. You may find that you enjoy writing front to back, or you might find that you like jumping around. Just make sure you have some kind of organization. An untraditional format can still be deciphered, but a jumbled mess is worthless.

Writing is Easy

I was talking with my parents once and I made the comment that writing music is easy. They scoffed and said, "Right, and writing is also easy." Indignantly, I told them that yes, writing words is also easy. After that, I had to sit and think for a while.

I really do think writing music is easy. I can come up with a simple melody without even thinking. I just start humming and it writes itself. Once you have a melody, you add some harmony, which is as easy as choosing notes that don't sound ugly when played with the melody. You can add a little percussion to keep the beat, and you can add lyrics if you feel so inclined. Badda bing, badda boom. There's a song. The hardest part is just writing it all out.

If you look at writing in the same way, it really is just as easy. Come up with any event, no matter how intricate or mundane. Write out the event, what happens before it, and what happens after it. There's your story. The hardest part is writing it all out.

Maybe this says more about me than it does about writing. Maybe I'm some sort of genius writer, like Mozart was as a composer. I'd love to believe that, but I don't. I just put more effort into writing than most people, so I have more ability than most people do as a result of that.

Still, if writing is so easy, why aren't I a prolific writer? Why isn't everybody a prolific writer? For one thing, there is a difference between writing a story and writing a good story. I want my stories to be special, to have a meaning. I want them to grab the reader and make them interested in everything going on. I want my writing to make people think and talk, not just be entertained.

The same is true of music. Writing music is easy. Writing good music is much harder. Still, if you walk into writing thinking that it is going to be difficult, you will never be able to pick up your pen. If you act like it's easy and just start writing, you will get past the hardest step (starting) without even realizing it.

Learn to Perform

Today, I listened to the worst lecture of my entire life. It was a comparison of music and mathematics, given by a doctor of mathematics from UC Berkeley. This is a subject with a lot of potential. It has been discussed a great deal by a great number of people for a great long time. I struggle to believe that this person has done much of any work on the subject at all.

The entire lecture was abysmal. The content of it had a host of problems, but more importantly, his delivery was awful. When he first got up there, I was listening to hear if his voice cracked from nervousness. It didn't, but that was about the only good thing I could say. He spoke too softly. He trailed off. He spent too much time on simple points and glossed over major ones. He repeated himself over and over again. And he ran well over his allotted time, but didn't even finish his lecture because of how long he took. As an added pain, he also wrote down all of his notes in a PowerPoint presentation, which he read off of for the entirety of the speech.

At the doctoral level of academia, I would have thought that everybody would learn some cardinal rules of presentation. This was more of a lesson in How Not to Present than anything else. But it did drive home a very important point.

Writers should learn how to perform. This is a subject that I'm sure many would object to, but I stand firm in my belief. Learning how to perform will make you a better writer. The written word is based on the spoken word, so if you know how to give a speech, you will better understand how to write a speech. You will learn how phrasing works, how to group sentences, you will understand what the sounds and the weights of words are. You will far better understand transitions, how one can be smooth, and how painful a rough one is.

The standard argument against learning to perform is that writing does not require performance. While that is true, the problem is that it is not true enough. If you write something that you want to share, it may just be that the only way to share it is by you reading it out loud. If you put in a great amount of effort and power into your writing, why would you disgrace it by giving a horrible reading of it? Similarly, what if you got really popular and had to give an interview, but you sounded like you were barely even literate? I doubt you would be happy with that. Heck, what if you met a new person, mentioned that you were a writer, and the person is shocked because you sound like an ineloquent fool?

No matter what it you do, you should learn how to perform. Learn how to speak well, speak effectively, make people care about what you have to say. Because when you are speaking about something you care about, the last thing you want is everybody listening to be bored out of their skulls.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Character Names

I hate naming characters. It is a pain in the butt and completely unavoidable. There are a number of ways that people do it, and I hate every one.

Most methods of naming characters involves the book of baby names. Some people pick a name at random and stick with it. Occasionally, they do this without the aid of a name book This is stupid for a number of reasons, so I'm going to ignore it.

What most people do with their book of baby names is look at the meanings of the names, then pick a name whose meaning describes the character. "This character is a woman trying to bring people together. Aquene is a femle name that means peace, so that will be the name of my character." I hate this method because of how hokey and hackneyed it is. Would you name one of your characters Hope because she is hopeful or brings hope to others? Then don't call that same character Hope in a foreign language. It isn't clever and it also ignores the possibility that the culture from which the name comes has a completely different context for it.

The next method people do is making up names that sound cool or tough. This is usually for science fiction or fantasy. Every alien either has an X or a Z in it's name, and every fantasy warrior has an unnecessary apostraphe. Sometimes you even get combinations like an alien race known as the K'lyzzx or a barbarian known as G'ontax.

And the truly lazy among us will either take a normal name and change one letter or spell it differently. If you take the name Peter, you can change one letter and turn it into the vaguely-French-sounding Petel. Or you can spell it differently to get names like Petier, Pitear, or the warrior known as P'tyr.

As I said before, I hate every method I just listed. I avoid all of them as much as I can, but it also leaves my options for naming pretty thin. I have a process that I use, but it is far from an exact science.

To begin with, I don't name my characters. When I write out rough drafts or sketches or storylines, I just use 'him' and 'her' as much as I can or refer to characters by their titles (the plumber, the wizard, etc.). When I reach a point that it becomes too annoying or too confusing to me (or if somebody needs to be addressed by name), I sit back, and ponder my character. Who is this person? What are their attributes and characteristics? What sounds describe this character?

And on that last question, I start making random sounds. I've talked before about how sounds are the first level of writing and they contribute to feelings we get while we read. As such, I play around with sounds until the right combination just clicks. When I had a character who was young, but a strong leader, I ended up with the name Aidan. The vowels make him sound young, but the 'd' in the center is powerful, and the 'n' at the end is solid and confident. If I wanted a feminine character, I would use vowels with soft consonants. A tough and burly character uses sharp and explosive letters tightly packed.

This method doesn't produce clever little hidden messages, like the names in te Harry Potter universe all have, but I'm ok with that. To me, sounds are more important. Names are spoken, even when we read silently to ourselves. Because of that, I believe that the sound of a name is far more important than any hidden meanings within it. The problem is that it also becomes harder to find that perfect name. Still, I do find it totally worth the effort once I do find that perfect set of sounds.

In the end, every writer creates their own method. If that method works, go for it. If it doesn't work, try something else. Every method I have tried, I have hated. That's why I chose the method that yielded the best results.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Other People's Ideas

I agree with Brad Guigar's belief that writer's block is not an inability to come up with ideas; it is a place of hypernegatvity, where no ideas you come up with are good enough in your mind. However, even if that is the case, there still remains a problem that needs to be dealt with. Regardless of the reason, the fact is that you aren't writing.

There are a lot of good exercises out there to help. In general, the best advice is to just start writing. Get out of your head and into the groove. I do agree with this advice, but I find it easier said then done. It feels like a struggle to get myself to write when I think that nothing I write is any good.

But there is one thing I have found that always gets me out of writer's block: listening to other people's ideas. When I hear somebody start explaining an idea for a story they have, it sparks my brain and puts it back in gear. All of a sudden, I get a million ideas for that story idea. I want to come up with my own plots and backstories and everything else.

Basically, it works like a writing prompt. But writing prompts don't work as well for me. Something about hearing another person talk about their ideas always works for me, though.

I always feel strange about using other people's ideas. I feel like I'm stealing it from them. Realistically, it isn't that big of a deal. If you are working on a basic concept and basic character structures and relationships, you could very well end up creating completely different stories. The more specific the ideas, of course, the more related your stories will be and the more it will be like you are stealing. Still, it shouldn't be that big of a concern.

Even if I don't use other people's ideas, I still am excited to create. I have new thoughts and new concepts that I can toy around with and see if I like. And at that moment, I am no longer in writer's block.

So if you feel yourself stuck in a rut or otherwise disenfranchised with writing, listen to other people's ideas. It just might spark your own imagination. If nothing else, it is another way to get out of your head.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Working in Bulk

Whenever I finish writing something, the last thing I want to do is keep writing. My brain says, "work's done. Go kick back and relax." The problem is that I get this thought after everything I write, even a warm-up exercise.

As I've said in the past, writing is a demanding activity. It is physically and mentally draining. Finishing a piece of writing is a definite accomplishment. But it's really just the beginning. When you finish a writing exercise, you are just warmed up. That puts you into writing mode. That's when you have to start a new project or continue on your next one.

Usually, though, when I am writing and get into a groove, I get ideas for other things I want to work on. As such, when I finish my first project, I like to hop right on to the next. The beauty of working in bulk is that it is so much more efficient. When you finish writing and then take a break, you have to warm up again and find the groove again. Once you're in the mood to write, just keep writing.

There is one exception that I have to this rule, and that is entries for this blog. There are times where I am writing one entry and get ideas for three more. Although I would like to write them all out in one sitting, I choose not to. There are two reasons for it. One is that I want every entry to be fresh from the day I made it. I feel like it is more genuine. The other reason is that this blog acts partly as a writing exercise. I don't want to spend all my energy on my warm-ups and then have other days where I have nothing that gets me started on my bigger projects.

In general, you should always write as much as you can. Work in bulk and then you'll only have to get ready to write once. It is always tempting to stop working after every step. But just like anything else that is worth doing, it is hard work and the best rewards will come from sicking with it and doing as much as you can.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Changing Your Mood

I'm always amazed at the power that writing has over us. Good writing can change our moods from anything to anything else. Happy to sad, angry to joyous, etc. There are a few stories that always stick into my head.

The first one, which is also the oldest, takes place with me and my family in the car. We're driving somewhere and I am just in a rotten mood. As we drive, my mom points out an area and says, "that's a college that caters to the deaf. I think it's pronounced Dee-Yoo-Vill." Without even thinking, I answer back, "if it's a school for the deaf, it doesn't really matter how it's pronounced, does it?" Everybody in the car starts laughing. They are laughing so genuinely that it actually makes me start laughing.

The second story is a bit of a downer, but is just as important an example. I was hanging out with one of my writer friends. We're chatting, reminiscing, and catching up with each other. At one point, my friend hands me a couple of papers and says to read it. I say sure, kick my feet up, and start reading through it. The story happens to be about a woman recalling her childhood. The memories were horrific, the kinds of things nightmares and emotional scars are made of. My smile and joviality quickly faded as I read through the two pages of narrative. When I finished, all I could think about was how devastating the whole thing was.

For my last story, let me explain my writing process a bit. I generally write in one of two situations. Usually, I write in the late night in my room. I have all the lights off, save the glow of my computer screen. Other times, I will walk over to my local coffee shop (well, one of the 8 or 9 in a two-block radius) with a spiral notebook or two and do that during the afternoon. What is common in both of those is that I have music running. Most of my music is not what you would call happy. Since I usually listen to music while writing, my collection is mostly slow, soft, and a little down. It's nice because it's pleasant and not distracting, but sometimes it really puts me into a funk. The irony, though, is that when I'm at the coffee shop, I'm usually writing comics. Many times, I will be feeling depressed, and then the perfect punchline pops into my head and I start laughing. I then proceed to write out a few comics, all of which are making me laugh just to think about, all while listening to depressing music.

It is amazing that reading and writing can do all of these things to me. There is one important factor in all three of those stories, though. They were all good pieces of writing. Average or mediocre writing can also change your mood, but it always changes it to boredom ("this is so uninteresting"), depression ("how come nobody can write anything that doesn't suck?"), or anger ("how come nobody can write anything that doesn't suck?!"). If you can write something that changes a person's mood in a good way, that is a strong sign that you have made powerful writing. Find out how and why it was effective and try to put that into everything you write.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Skipping the Story

Stories are an important part of writing. That's kind of a no-brainer for novelists, but it is a good lesson for all writers. If you are writing a poem, something should be happening. Even if you're describing a scene, there should be some kind of action or movement in the picture you paint. And if you are explaining principles or ideas, stories are of great help.

Stories are examples that help us understand things better. When I tell people to write short sentences, that isn't helpful until I show them a long sentence and compare it to a short sentence. If I was a philosopher and told people to feel the flow of the universe, that is gibberish until I tell them a story of what it feels like and how it's done.

My blog entries are stories in a sense. I have a setup that I progress through, which leads to my point, which I give examples of, and end with a conclusion. This is great for people who don't know what I'm talking about or don't understand exactly what I mean. But sometimes, people just want to skip the story.

The great thing about facts or principles is that they can easily be condensed and compiled. They become very manageable pieces of information that we can take with us. If I was writing a pocket book about writing, I would include all of the lessons I've put in all of my entries here, but I would reduce each post to a bulleted line.

When you skip the story, you can lose valuable information. But if all you need is the principle, then you save a lot of time and trouble by skipping the story.

As a reader, sometimes you need to skip passages of writing to get to the interesting parts. I find that when sentence structure is similar, the message is usually similar. When the first two or three sentences of a paragraph keep saying the same thing, it is usually a safe bet you can skip the whole paragraph and go to the next one.

As a writer, know that everything has a story, but not every story needs to be told. Sometimes, you need to skip the story and get to the point. The power of writing is in balancing the two of those in just the right way.

About the Blog

I don't often think about my blog as a living entity. I usually think of it as a self-imposed requirement. But recently I've been thinking of it in a bigger sense.

For one thing, why do I do it? It started as a semi-assignment. In my last semester of college, my writing professor told me in a meeting to start a blog. I should write about writing and I should do it every day. It was pretty vague, but I started it out and got a feel for it over time. But school ended in May. Why do I keep doing it? The simple answer is that I like everything that this blog does for me.

So what does this blog do for me? The first thing it does is make me write. My writing teacher, the same one who gave me this assignment, would tell his students something that stuck with me: "You're only a writer on days that you write." Well, if I write an entry every day, then I'm a writer every day. But there's more to it than simply giving myself a title. It also gets me warmed up. These blog entries are great warm-ups for me. They get my wheels spinning and my fingers moving. When I finish a blog entry, I'm in writing mode. But it is not just that I'm writing; it's what I'm writing about that also matters.

This blog makes me think about my craft. It makes me think of every aspect of my craft. I have to think about forms, genres, styles, characters, techniques, and life itself. Writing these posts forces me to think certain ideas through, or at least think about them enough to put them into words. And for me, putting something into words adds a great power to them. Whenever I get asked a question about writing or being a writer, I always have something to say that I've written an entry about. I've realized a great number of things from thinking about writing every single day and it has made me a stronger writer for it.

I don't know how long this blog will last. I have no intentions of ending it, but I wonder if I'll ever run out of ideas. I remember in the early days of the blog, I would occasionally get an idea for a post and then realize I already wrote about it. Now it's hard to keep track of them all. I am happy to have a search function to go through all my posts. Even still, I occasionally repeat myself. Sometimes I have a post that is an extension of a previous one. Other times it's more of me saying the same thing with different words.

Ultimately, I hope to keep this blog up as long as I am a writer. I hope it will continue to make me a better writer and keep me thoughtful about my craft. If you think you're missing those things, try it yourself. You don't even need to put it online. Just try to write one thing about writing every day.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Why Do You Say That?

I'm a pretty polite guy. I don't like to rock the boat, so I am pretty agreeable. You say something and I'll smile and nod. If you talk about something that I am totally clueless on, I'll usually smile and nod, pretending I understand it.

I also enjoy watching Law & Order. And in watching that show I noticed something different. Whenever the detectives are interviewing somebody and the person makes a comment like, "I didn't know he did drugs, but I'm not surprised", the cops don't just agree. They always ask the same question: Why do you say that?

People are programmed to be understanding and agreeable. Nobody likes a contrarian, always questioning people and causing trouble. If you really belong with a group, you would already understand why people would say something.

But the fact of the matter is that we aren't a part of every group. We don't know every person, nor do we know their nuances or motivations. If we wan't to learn about these people (and as writers, we should), then we need to ask that same question whenever we come across something we don't understand.

Don't be afraid to stick out. Most people love to help or explain things. You won't be ostracized or criticized for asking why a person would say something. Of course, everything should be done within limits, but in general, asking questions can only help you.

The next time you get the feeling that you should just smile and nod, don't. Instead, kindly ask the person, "why do you say that?"

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Stand-Up Comedians, Modern-Day Philosophers

I know that I am not the first person to say this, but I do believe that stand-up comedians are true modern-day philosophers. Watching stand-up is great because it's a fun time. You get entertained and you chuckle or even laugh out loud. But a really good comedian does more than that: good comedians make you think.

Consider the point of philosophy. I will grant that you can't get people to agree on the point of Philosophy, so I'm going to use my definition. The point of philosophy is to find things that are true. A philosopher says things that people know or understand, but had never looked at in a particular way. And according to this post I made, comedy is about doing the same thing. The things that are funniest to us are true, relatable, and make us think.

Comedians have to think about these things, things that cross people's minds, but are rarely pondered. They need to make connections and comparisons that other people don't make, but ring true the instant that people hear it.

Comedians are writers. Some may do a bit of freestyling, but they all have an act and bits that they plan out and practice. Although we do not read their writing, the fact that they plan it and write it down makes them writers.

If you are a writer, regardless of what form you write, you would do well to study stand-up comedians. See the jokes they tell, why good ones are funny, why bad ones fail, how they transition thoughts, what connections they make. Stand-up comedians are a very available resource and a wealth of information. Learn from these philosophers so your writing can have an interesting philosophy of its own.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Writer's Schedule

Paul Graham wrote an essay called Maker's Schedule, Manager's Schedule. In this essay, Graham talks about how computer programmers and managers run on different schedules, which can lead to strife between the two.

The manager's schedule is simple: one-hour blocks. If you need more time on a project, you can give it two blocks, but if you need to schedule a meeting, you can put off the things you're doing until the next block.

The maker's schedule is different. Programmers are needing to create, which is a longer process. These people don't just sit down and start creating. They need to see what they've been working on, think about what needs to be done, get an idea for how to do it, start working on it, and work into a groove. This usually means you have two sessions: a morning session and an afternoon session (or an afternoon/evening or an evening/late night depending on the kind of writer you are).

As a maker, every time you have to stop what you're doing, it throws you off your groove. When you get back to work, you have to start all over again. And if a manager schedules a meeting right in the middle of one of your sessions, you've basically lost that session. A meeting in between your first and second is fine, though, because it is a natural break.

Graham specifically mentions writers as one of the kinds of makers out there, but even without that mention, I found it amazing how similar the maker's schedule was to mine. I hate being interrupted because it ruins my pace and my thought processes.

However, not everybody agrees that writers work on this schedule. "Writers can write anywhere, at any time. You never know when inspiration or motivation will hit you. Since you are thinking about your work all the time, you are always working on your writing; sitting down is simply when you record your ideas."

To start with the first ideas, I will yield that you can write stuff down pretty much wherever and whenever. However, that is not the same thing as sitting down and writing. If you get an idea that you want to remember for later, jotting it down is a great way to not forget it. But you can only expand on the idea so much. If you write on paper, you will run out of room. If you write on a digital advice, it is usually a pain in the butt. Nobody has ever written a novel on their iPhone and for good reason.

As for inspiration, it is true that you may be visited by your muse at any given point, but we also know it is unreliable because of that. When you have work to do and deadlines to meet, you have to rely on yourself to get work done. Writers do not only work when inspired. That is why we need our sessions to look and think and create and warm-up and gather steam.

I will also grant that we are always working on our writing (mostly because I already said so), but nobody writes a novel in their head. The majority of our creation comes to us while we write. We can only hold a handful of ideas in our mind at most. That's why we need to sit down and write out all of our thoughts. We may be processing problems subconsciously, but we can only do so much while we are not in writing mode.

So if you want to get some serious writing done, rope off a block of time (more than an hour) to sit down and write without distractions. Warm up and keep on working. Work yourself into a groove and enjoy what comes from a solid writing session. See how much more you can get out of a three-hour block of writing instead of three one-hour blocks.

Monday, December 7, 2009

First Person vs. Third Person

Suppose you have an idea for a story. Good for you. Ideas are a nice start, but the more important question is execution. You know what you want to write about, but how are you going to tell it?

There are a great number of ways to tell a story. Most of them can be described as either first person or third person narration. Whenever I get a story idea, I ask myself if I should write it in first or third person. I usually go with third person because I prefer it. But that's not a good enough reason for me. We have these two different ways to tell a story; there should be reasons to use one over the other.

For starters, first person narration should always be used when talking about yourself and your own experiences. Referring to yourself in the third person is tacky beyond words (except for when you need to write a professional bio for yourself). But in a fictional work, either method can be used.

So what's the difference between the two? In third person, you can look anywhere at any time, so if you have several simultaneous storylines going on, third person may be the way to go. Of course, since these sections have natural breaks, they could each be told in frst person as long as there are clear indicators of who is talking, so it's not necessarily about location or focus.

The third person narrator is an observer. They tell you what people are saying, doing, how they look. A narrator can't tell you how a person is feeling or thinking. Well, technically, they can, but that is called bad writing (show, don't tell), so let's just assume they aren't mind readers.

A first person narrator is a character. They are living through the story itself. They will still tell you how other people looked, what they said, and what they did. They still can't read other people's minds, but they can read their own mind, and that is a key difference. Here, the narrator is going to be acting and thinking. We learn about this character specifically, see the world through his or her eyes, feel the same emotions, ponder the same questions.

So what kind of story are you trying to tell? If your story is more about the actions and interactions of people, third person is the way to go. If your story is more about thoughts and motivations, first person makes more sense.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Making The Same Mistakes

There are a great number of lessons to learn on the road to becoming a better writer. Usually, we have an idea of how we want our writing to look and sound like. The lessons we learn and the effort we put in go toward turning our writing into a form we are happy with. Eventually, you will be able to do that. Then what?

I do not think I am the greatest writer in the world, but when I work on a project, my finished product is something I'm proud of. I have the ability to write a rough draft, then revise and edit it until all the little mistakes I made are gone. So what are my goals now in terms of writing ability?

In short, my goal is to not make those mistakes in the first place. It's largely impossible to write a perfect first draft, but at least I can work on not making the same mistakes that I make over and over again.

I don't worry about writing run-on sentences; they have never been much of a problem for me. However, I do have a problem with putting in useless words and phrases. A common one we're taught in school is to not use phrases like "I think" and "I believe". The idea is that if you are writing the paper, it is understood that we are reading your beliefs. But there are other words, words that we use in spoken language that just weigh down writing. Words like "probably" and "maybe" make you sound unsure and don't add anything to a sentence. They weaken writing.

As such, when I am writing, if I catch myself using weak language or just writing in a circuitous fashion, I will delete it and rewrite it in a clearer and stronger way. I know that if I edited my work, I would catch those mistakes and clean them up, but I just want to save myself from needing to fix anything in the first place.

Of course, this is something you can start right away. Even if you are still trying to figure out how to make your writing just the way you like it, if you notice yourself making the same mistakes, try to avoid them while you're writing the next thing.

Friday, December 4, 2009

140 Characters or Less: An Example

I've written earlier about how interesting Twitter and text messages are for writers. It can be a real chore expressing yourself in 140 characters or less. But in working within that restriction, it forces you to learn how to write as efficiently as possible. I am still fascinated by this and wanted to share an example.

I was talking with a friend through text messaging, so I had 128 characters to say what I want. A thought popped into my head that I wanted to ask. If I was in person, I would have said, "So, I was thinking, if you took a hamburger patty and cut it into two patties, then put cheese between them, would that technically be a double cheeseburger?"

That sentence is 157 characters. That doesn't sound a lot more than128, but if you don't know how to pare down a sentence, it will be difficult to trim down. So start at the beginning. We don't need to say "So". It's a verbal cue. It grabs a person's attention so they know to listen up. In a text message, the person knows they are being addressed, so you don't need to grab their attention.

The next thing to drop is "I was thinking". The very fact that you are asking a question indicates that you were thinking about it. When we say that we've been thinking about something, it means that we have been pondering it for a while as opposed to having it just pop into our heads (which we also announce if it is the case). Still, it is extraneous information, so cutting it out doesn't hurt you.

Our sentence is now down to, "If you took a hamburger patty and cut it into two patties, then put cheese between them, would that technically be a double cheeseburger?" This is 137 characters, so we are almost there. We've taken out the extraneous phrases, so let's tighten up the bulk of the sentence itself.

In the first phrase (If you took a hamburger patty and cut it into two patties), the redundancy of the word "patty" immediately stands out. In fact, since hamburger can mean the patty, you don't need it at all. You can also be more direct with the phrase and get the subject and verb out there sooner. By keeping it totally Spartan, we can turn it into "If you cut a burger in two".

The next phrase (then put cheese between them) is pretty good as it is, but if I change "between" to "on", then it indicates cheese on both patties (which is more traditional for a double cheeseburger anyway) and saves 5 characters.

At this point, we have "If you cut a burger in two, then put cheese on them, would that technically be a double cheeseburger?" This is 101 characters, so we've already reached the threshold, but we can still cut the last part down.

The last part of the sentence (would that technically be a double cheeseburger?) can be pared down easily. Turn "would. . .be" into "is", turn "that" into "it", and cut out "technically". Now you have, "is it a double cheeseburger?"

We now have the sentence, "If you cut a burger in two, then put cheese on them, is it a double cheeseburger?" This is 81 characters, well within our limit, and about as short as you can get without using abbreviations.

Truth be told, I don't like this sentence. It may be short, but it doesn't sound good. Efficiency isn't about making a sentence as short as it possibly can. It's about getting the most bang for your buck. I have 47 characters to play with. If I can add to those sentence and make it more effective, it is worth it.

I think "hamburger" works better than "burger". Also, since a hamburger can be either the patty or the whole thing with a bun and fixings, I want to put "patty" in there. Although the whole sentence implies that it is just a patty being cut in two, it is less confusing to specify that right away. Any normal person who hears that a hamburger is cut in two would assume that the circle would be cut into two half-circles, not that it would be cut into two thinner circles, so I want to clarify that, too.

Ultimately, I end up with the sentence, "If you cut a thick hamburger into two thinner patties and put cheese on each of them, would that be a double cheeseburger?" This is 122 characters. It is close to the limit, but it fits just fine. You may notice that I ended up putting back a number of things that I took out. The fact of the matter is that I liked them better. The way I said the sentence at the beginning is how I would have written it if I could. I cut it down because it didn't fit.

The reason I kept cutting more than necessary was that I needed to know how much space I had to work with while still keeping the heart of my idea. When I saw how much extra space I had, I decided to put in the words and phrases that sounded better, even though they were bigger.

The important thing to realize is that my original sentence and my final sentence are still different. I still have a lot of unnecessary phrases removed and I think it conveys my idea a little better. My original sentence sounds better when spoken, but my final sentence looks better in print.

This is why working within a limit is beneficial. It forces you to think about all of these aspects. It forces you to edit yourself. It forces you to ask yourself, can I do this better? I also think it's a fun game to play. But even if you don't enjoy doing this, you should still do it. Call it a writing exercise and tell yourself it is good for you and that's reason enough to do it. Because it's true. If you want to be a better writer and you don't have other people to help you or if you just don't know how to get better than you are, this will force you to develop the skills you need to become a better writer. If you do enjoy doing it, that's just gravy.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Way You Tell It

I love watching stand-up comedians. They're usually funny and they're a great source to learn from. One thing I've noticed that most comedians do is tell a funny scenario, then act it out. I was watching Steve Byrnes do a bit where he says that he doesn't like to talk about his feelings. "Whenever somebody asks me how I'm feeling, I just turn into a robot." Then he proceeds to act out that scene, where first his girlfriend asks him how he feels, and then he replies in a robotic voice "It was nice to see you. I must be going."

When Steve set up the situation, saying that he turned into a robot, that got laughs. When he acted it out, he got more laughs. It's a pretty common technique, but it can backfire. If the set-up isn't that funny, acting it out only makes it worse. If the comedian doesn't have a good stage premise, either by being too lethargic or too loud, that doesn't do the joke justice.

I think it is amazing, though, that a comedian can be funny despite his jokes. You can turn a boring joke into a laugh riot if you give it the right energy and act it out. Sometimes it isn't the joke you tell so much as it is the way you tell it. But I don't know how well that works with non-visual writing.

If you aren't writing for a comedian, a TV show, a movie, a comic strip, or anything else with an audio or visual component, then your words have to tell everything all by themselves. That isn't always easy. You have fewer options for making an impact on your audience. With no other ways to distract an audience, you usually have to rely on having a good story. Of course, the way you tell your story still matters, even if all you have is silent words on a page. All of the levels of writing go into making your story effective.

The most important aspect to consider is telling a story that fits your medium. Robin Williams is funny as heck, but he needs to be listened to. Jim Carrey is funny, but he needs to be seen. If you are writing words on a page, then make sure what you are trying to describe can be told with words on a page.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

How Many Drafts Are Enough?

In college, my writing professors stressed writing and rewriting. Get out a draft, revise it, write another draft, and repeat it until your paper is ready. I, like most of my classmates, wrote a first draft the night before it was due and turned it in without even looking it over.

Of course, although I was being a bad boy, I was not getting bad grades. I got an A's on my papers more often than not. I was happy that I could get away with it, but I felt like I was cheating myself out of learning how to write drafts.

I always wondered, though, how many drafts do we really need to write? If my first draft was good enough for an A, do I really need to write a second draft? That depends on what I want to get out of my writing.

If my only goal is to please my teacher and get a good grade, then one draft is enough. If I want to create something that I am proud to have my name on, one is almost never enough. Even if I got the vast majority of what I wanted to do correct, I would still need to fix typos I missed, clean up sloppy sentences, and cut out useless words and phrases. I know that because they plague every first draft I write (probably including every entry in this blog).

I think that writers in schools should please their teachers. But writers out of school need to please themselves. If you can read every word of your manuscript and are happy with it, you are done. More importantly, if you can read every word of your manuscript and there are no changes you want to make, then you are done.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Take A Break

It is awesome when you're writing and you get into a groove. Hours can fly by without you even realizing it. Of course, that is special to us because it is so rare. Usually, we write piece by piece and do a whole lot of staring. As such, there are a lot of things I don't worry about.

I don't worry about getting carpal tunnel syndrome. I don't worry about not using an ergonomic keyboard. I don't worry about repetitive stress issues. Simply put, I don't write fast enough or consistently enough to worry about those problems.

However, there are physical issues that shouldn't be ignored. For example, there is posture. I have never found a perfect chair for writing. When I'm at a desk, I am either sitting straight up or am hunching over. Either way, it is not very comfortable. I personally love to put my feet up and write with a keyboard or a notebook in my lap. The problem there is that it is impossible to write that way. I can either be comfortable or I can be functional, but I can't do both very well.

Even if I am not writing during a whole period of time, I'm usually sitting down the whole time. It's easy to forget how much stress that creates. If I'm hunching over, straightening my back helps, but I can still feel that I'm getting sore. If I stand up, do do some stretching, and take even a couple of minutes to do something else, it really refreshes the body.

Taking a break is also great for refreshing the mind. Sometimes we just get stuck. We think about the same things over and over again. We get bogged down by our own mind. Leaving your station, doing something else, thinking different thoughts, it clears up the fog. Once you get your gears turning again, you'll be able to pick right up when you sit down to write again.

If you write for an hour, take a break. Grab a drink, use the bathroom, or just stretch your body. If you're just staring into space anyway, you might as well do something while you're doing nothing. Breaks are good. They're good for the body and for the mind. Don't forget to take care of both.