Thursday, December 30, 2010

What Bathrooms?

I still find it weird that nobody poops in stories.  And it's not like I particularly want to see or read about it.  It's just that, it is a very core part of human existence.  Every other aspect is shown or implied, but excretion is not.

In stories, we have mention of travel, breathing, eating, bathing, and even sex.  But it is far rarer to come across somebody bringing up using the bathroom.  The only time it happens, somebody either gets killed along the way or finds some incredible thing.  Nobody simply excuses themselves and then returns.

I wonder if it is because of our culture or because it is unnecessary to the story that we omit bathroom usage.  I understand that a great deal of things go on that don't get mentioned in stories, so there is a valid point of them being ignored because they are inconsequential.  However, if we are trying to represent humanity and life realistically and honestly, then it seems odd that we would take such great lengths, but still leave this out.

Is there a way to do this and remain classy, or at least remain not gross?  Try it out and let me know.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

How "Don't Die" Relates to Characters

As I have finished relating "Don't Die" to writers, I think that it should also be related to characters that writers use.

In stories, it seems that there is a much higher chance for death.  Death is undeniably powerful.  It is the end.  It is dramatic. It can be heroic, pathetic, and anything in between.  But death also limits a character because they can no longer do anything else.

As long as your characters continue to draw breath, they can continue to do things, make decisions, affect the world.  They are more powerful, more effective alive than they could be in death (unless they're really awful characters).

Death is an easy out for our characters.  It's even easier because they're not real.  But that doesn't make it right.  Let your characters live.  Make them live.  And make them survive.  They'll find a way to do it, as long as they don't die.

How "Don't Die" Relates to Writers

In my previous post, I gave the most basic key to survival.  It's certainly a good one, but I didn't relate it to writing directly enough.  So I'm fixing that now.

As a writer, you're gonna write some lousy stuff.  You're also going to write some good stuff.  But either way, you're going to get your heart broken.  Somebody is going to say the worst, most hurtful things imaginable to you.  You may feel inclined to pack up and turn away, never to come back to writing.  Don't do it.  Don't give up (unless you have truly lost all of your passion or desire).  The only way to survive that kind of heart break is to not die.  Keep on writing.  That's the only way to survive as a writer.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Don't Die

There are some rough times in life.  Sometimes we find ourselves stuck in a lose-lose situation.  Every single possibility leads to an awful outcome.  When I tell stories of these, I am often asked the same question: "How did you survive that?"

I often give the same answer: "Surviving was easy. All I had to do was not die."

It's amazing the things that can happen when you don't die.  You keep on drawing breath, having thoughts, and doing stuff.  After enough time, so much new stuff has gone on that the crappy place you were trapped in is old news.

Everything stays with you.  Everything grows and shapes you, both the positive and the negative.  What you may experience you will never get rid of.  But if you get enough experiences after it, it becomes way less important.

And it's so darn simple to do: Don't die.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Fan Fiction and Poetry: Similar

I realized a while ago (and am finally getting around to writing about it) that fan fiction and poetry are actually pretty similar.  And I mean beyond the fact that girls in high school friggin' love them.

Fan fiction and poetry both make use of commonly known things.  In fanfic, it is characters, objects, and relationships.  In poetry, it is feelings and symbols.  Nobody needs a sunset explained to them, nor do they need to know the relationship between Spock and Kirk.  As such, we can progress further much sooner because of not having to establish those things.

They can also both be very dense.  This comes from that shared understanding.  Characters in fanfic do not need to go into soliloquy or extended monologue/dialogue about how they feel or why they did the things they did.  In poetry, we are writing on several levels, usually the literal level of the scene, as well as the metaphorical level of the symbolic meaning of the components of the scene.

To that end, poetry and fan fiction also share the quality of being exceptionally difficult to do well.  The ability to have well-known characters not break their canon or betray their personalities, to have them speak the way they should sound, and all while having an interesting and relevant story is hard.  So is writing a poem that can simultaneously show an interesting scene at face value, but also have that scene, elicit powerful thoughts and emotions in the blink of an eye.  That is also why the vast majority of both fanfic and poetry are trash, liked only by the person who wrote it (and not always then), and make the minute percentage of truly excellent works in the fields completely ignored.

You can probably guess my advice by now.  (Give it a shot already.)

Create The Future

I had my traditional Christmas meal at the Chinese buffet with family and friends today.  My fortune cookie at the end was particularly notable.  "The best way to predict the future is to create it."

The intent, I'm sure, is that people need to make their own luck, put in the effort to get the results they want, and not rely on anything more.  But I could only read this as a writer.  It referred to what I say: When we write, we create a universe where those stories are the truth.

As such, it made me think.  Writers often say that when they start writing, the characters take over and start living their own lives; the writers are simply recording the action taking place in the universe they created.  But, should it be the case?  Should writers start creating the future?

It might make things easier.  You know where things start.  You know how they will end.  There would be no unfortunate surprises.

Maybe that's not the point, though.  Maybe, when you're writing, you shouldn't worry about predicting the future.  Maybe it should be more about riding the wave and seeing where it takes you.

Maybe life works the same way.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Adult Conversations

My sister, her husband, and her two sons came up to visit my family.  I haven't seen them in 10 years or so.  I was still a child then.  I didn't really converse back then.  I just did, whatever it was that we children did.

But now, a lot of time has changed.  I have grown up a lot, had my own experiences, and come up with my own thoughts because of it.  I was able to talk with everybody and it really meant something to me.

I enjoyed having adult conversations.  We talked about serious things.  Not deathly serious, mind you, but real things about life and religion and politics.  We also got to shoot the breeze, tell some jokes, and crack up at hilarious impressions of people we all knew.

All of these things I simply couldn't do as a kid.  They are things I kind of do/did with my friends, but it's really different remeeting somebody after 10 years and finding out who they are (and who you are, too).

Adult conversations are something you just can't have as a kid.  It's one of the perks of age.  It's also one of the things that makes writing a constantly new experience.  As you get older, wiser, more experienced, you become a different person.  That makes you a different writer.  It's not something that will happen consciously, but every now and then, take a step back from yourself and see how your writing has changed.  And if you notice it, don't be bothered or freaked out.  Just know that it is still you.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Shut Up, For Your Own Good

I have the uncanny ability to ruin any special moment I am in.  It's not exactly the kind of ability that would let me join the X-Men (though I do often get called a mutant).  What it comes down to is that I cannot shut off that thinking part of my brain.  And I am such a witty comedian that everything somebody says I can (and generally do) turn into a joke or insincere insult.

This can have pretty disastrous consequences.  The worst comes when people are being heartfelt.  When somebody drops their defenses and exposes themselves, and all I have to say is some inappropriate crack, it cuts deeper than anything else (because they dropped their defenses) and it also makes them never want to be serious with me again.

If somebody is being kind, don't be a jerk.  Don't correct somebody's grammar when they are telling you they like you.  Don't say "that's what she said" when somebody is telling a traumatic story about childhood abuse.

You'd think this is common sense.  And it should be.  And most people may not have this problem most of the time.  But a great deal of problems occur because somebody just could not shut up for their own good.

Whether this applies to you or your characters, it probably applies.  Think about it.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Not About Temporary Things

It amazes me to go through my archives. I treat my blog as throwaway writing, but it isn't.  It's not about temporary things.  If I read something a year after I wrote it, it still holds meaning.  Sometimes it holds more meaning.

I really consider it a good sign.  Writing should be lasting and meaningful.  If the entry for any random day can be reread in the future and still appreciated, still made to make me think, still able to make me laugh, then it was definitely a good entry.

Go and pull out an old piece of writing.  Does it still affect you?  Why or why not?  If so, can you repeat it?  If not, what can you change to make it better?

Travelling To Different Planes Of Existence

Sometimes I have a conversation when I am beyond exhausted.  I use all of the power and energy I have to stay awake and pay attention, but I am running on fumes and just can't maintain it.  My eyes close, I slip in and out of consciousness.  I start dreaming.

My dreams can range from the thoroughly bizarre to the incredibly mundane.  And the early ones are usually mundane.  They're just conversations with people.  Nothing impressive, just shooting the breeze.

I'm not entirely asleep, though. I'm still trying to participate in the real life conversation.  So I keep transporting between the conversation in front of me and the one in my dreams. The other problem is that I'm not usually aware that I switched from to the other.  That's when the confusion starts up.

To the other person, a conversation about music and musicianship gets very quiet, then becomes about why a hot paint job on a car is really worth the money.

When you write, you are entering a different plane of existence.  It is a world in which everything that happens there is real. When you stop writing, you go back to this world.  Sometimes, though, you bring along some baggage.  Writing can be a very real experience, as real as the most intense dream you've had.  When you disengage from active writing, make sure you fully disengage.  Don't bring any of that baggage with you.  All it does is confuse the crap out of everybody else.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Playing In Somebody Else's Sandbox

I find it difficult to actually collaborate with other writers.  Sharing ideas and coming up with premises is fine, but working together on a single narrative rarely ends well.  I think it is a combination a desire for control (usually from both parties), and a difference in visualization of where the story goes.

I have an idea for a story about a man who is very interested in solving puzzles.  As a challenge, he teaches himself how to pick locks.  From there, he increases the challenge by picking locks of people's homes at night without getting caught.  But where do I go from there?

My thought is to have him break into people's houses and walk around without being caught, just as another challenge, but he becomes so racked with guilt that he leaves little presents as an anonymous apology, leading the town to think of this mysterious person as a Santa Claus/Reverse Cat Burglar.

Another's thought is to have him continue to increase the challenge, becoming more devious and more daring with each challenge, until he finally meets his match.

A third person's thought is to have him use his powers for good and become some sort of secret agent like James Bond and becoming a classic type hero.

These are not reconcilable ideas.  They can't blend together.  One of them has to be chosen.  And from there, the story becomes that person's story.  The other co-writers are more like helpers.  And that's where the power issue comes in.  If everybody is working on your idea, you don't want them mutilating your baby.

It's difficult to play in other people's sandbox.  It's difficult to share. I'm sure that when working with reasonable people, it is not too hard to learn to be reasonable, or how to work on projects fairly and evenly.  But it will never be a walk in the park.  Imagine the difficulty of writing by yourself.  Now imagine three people trying to write by themselves.  Not gonna be pretty.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The World You Want To Live In

Different people have different desires in life, different fantasies they would like to live out.  But think about the world that your fantasies would take place in.  Are they a world you would really want?

People who want to be adventurer/warrior heroes live in an epic world of evil.  It's always clouded and gloomy.  People live short, wretched lives.  The fate of the world rests on 1-4 people.  Sure, it may be cool to be the one to save the day, but as a whole, is that really much of a pleasant world to live in?

I want to live in a world where everything has a tinge of zany.  I want a flower shop called Pistils At Dawn.  I want a cybercafe based on Mediterranean food named PetaBytes; they would sell a special snack called Pita Bites.  I would buy my bed at the Sleep With Me Mattress Store.  I want to buy candy full of anesthetics called Numby Num Nums.  I want to work out at the gym owned by Stephen Roids (SteRoids Gym).  I want pizza that has dillweed in the dough for the crust (dill dough pizza).  I want to buy graphic tees from a store that specializes in Shirt Art (or Sh'Art).

Of course, if I lived in that world, it would be very frustrating.  Sure it's witty, but the people in this world have no idea they've done anything funny.  If I had to live in that world, I can't even imagine these people would have a sense of humor, or at least not one I would go well with.  This world is great for a reader or explorer of the world, but it's not really a world I would want to live in.

When we read a story, we are really only exploring a world, sort of taking a vacation or driving through.  But the worlds that suck you in, absorb you into them, make you truly wish you could stay there, those are the worlds that are more than just entertaining at a glance.  Those are the powerful worlds, the fully-developed and fleshed out worlds that make people read and reread, just to stay in that world a little longer.

If you can create a world you would want to live in (rather than one that would be interesting to check out for a bit), that will be a sure sign it is a world other people will be interested in.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Why Make Things Complicated?

Why do we call a vocabulary a lexicon?  Why do we call words verbiage?  It seems really unnecessary.  Enough people don't know the meanings of the latter words that using them only complicates things.  And why make things complicated?

This is an issue I struggle with.  I like big words.  I happen to know a lot of them, too.  I like the way they sound, the way they feel to say.  Sometimes they have a nuanced meaning that truly expresses what I want (like "verbiage" meaning an abundance of words).  Sometimes, I just like being different and saying anything other than a common word.

That last reason is not a good one.  That's the kind of reason that makes communication less effective.  If you know a word that everybody else knows and it serves the purpose you need, just use it.  The world will be a better place.

More Discomfort or Less Comfort

"More discomfort" and "less comfort" mean the exact same thing.  So why do we choose one phrase instead of the other?  The usual answer is that "less comfort" is much easier to say or that "more discomfort" takes more time and energy to process the meaning of.  That is understandable, and I do agree with those.  But in spoken speech, both phrases are used.  So why do we say one phrase instead of the other?

From what I've seen, it hinges on the words "more" and "less".  They have different connotations.  "More" shows increasing and growth.  "Less" describes dwindling and shrinking.  (I know, no duh.)  But sometimes one meaning elucidates your point better than the other.

I woke up with a stiff neck.  I took some Advil, but it didn't help.  I had to shovel driveway before going to work, where I lifted freight that needs two people by myself. Now I'm in more discomfort than I was before.

I woke up from the best night's sleep I've ever had.  I put on my comfy shoes and headed out to work.  Of course, before I could get out of my driveway, I had to shovel it clear.  That's when I found out my comfy shoes have a sizable hole in them.  I finally got out and moved heavy crates all day.  Now I'm in far less comfort than I was when I woke up.

The difference between "more discomfort" and "less comfort" is the starting and finishing points.  When you start in discomfort, you grow to more discomfort.  When you start in comfort, you fall to less comfort.  I love that our language affords us this level of flexibility.  It is totally worth the added confusion in being able to find the words that express yourself best.  It is also worth learning the vocabulary and distinctions to be able to make use of this flexibility of language.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

They Don't, Themselves, Know

In writing, everything has a reason.  This is nothing new, both in the grand scheme of things and in the realm of this blog.  But still, I find it bears a reprisal. And along with it, the idea that that's not always possible.

We readily accept that characters have a life of their own, a mind of their own, and motives of their own.  Fictional though they are, real characters are fully-fledged human beings.  Well, real people don't always have a reason for the things they do.  Sometimes they act on impulse, only later trying to find the reason for their actions.

Arguably, writing is not real life.  It is an idealized form of real life, meant to be a medium by which we can tell a story or concept.  In that case, we may demand writing to be above the irrationality of humanity.  But frankly, I don't think I buy it.  We are humans and we respond to humans.  When we create, we create humans.
Although we always want to know the answer, the reasoning, the rationale behind people's actions, sometimes the only answer is that they don't, themselves, know.

Master Baiter

My friend has arachnophobia.  I make it a point to ask her if her favorite superhero is Spider-Man.  If she wants to see a movie, I recommend The Scorpion King.  If she has a bad feeling, I ask if her Spidey Sense is tingling.  When she starts telling me about the assorted drama in her life, I simply say, "Oh, what a tangled web we weave..."

She hates me.  She hates me, but she keeps coming back for more.  I love baiting people.  Somebody has something they're sensitive about, and although I do not actually bring up the subject, I dance just barely outside it, so I can't be scolded for bringing it up.

Similarly, people have kind of dirty minds.  I'm not sure if it's sheer humanity that makes us obsessed with sex or if it's society that makes us sensitive.  In any case, it's easy to bait people into thinking about dirty things without actually saying something dirty.  My friend thinks it's hard. That's what she said.  But I think she was just yanking me.  I really should keep abreast of the situation.

But I digress.  The point is, I'm a master baiter.  And I love it.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Excepting Acceptions

As frustrating as it is when people use a word incorrectly, it can also be fun to play around with words.  'Accept' and 'except' are a great example.  To accept something means to take something in or approve of it.  To except something means the opposite.  In short, exceptions are unacceptable.

In one of my comics with Kelly, there is a marker board in the background of the gym where our characters work.  Although I wrote the script, the marker board was all his to write or draw whatever he wanted.  In this comic here, the board says, "We don't except chocolate as payment."

When I first read it, I wanted to correct Kelly for using the wrong word.  Then I changed my mind.  I thought it was the funniest damn thing.  We run a gym, a place where people come to get in shape, yet we do not refuse chocolate as a form of payment (which is a ridiculous enough concept by itself).  As far as I was concerned, anybody who realized that there is a supposed misspelling ought to enjoy the silliness of taking it at face value.

Do a little word play of your own.  What other similar-sounding words are there?  I often see people misspell rapper as raper.  What can you do with that?  If you wanted something more pleasant, you could go for shoot/chute or colonel/kernel.

There's a lot of humor to make from misunderstanding.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Escape From The Noise

The world is a noisy place.  I don't like it. It's not sound, just noise.  Noise is distracting. It occupies your ears and vies for your attention.  It is painful and generally unpleasant.

I do my best to avoid noise.  I usually fight noise with sound.  Good background music does not insist upon itself, nor does it distract me (unless it's a really good song).  When I put on headphones, the sound also blocks out any other noise.

What is much harder to do is to find quiet.  A small room that is sound-proof, maybe with a dull hum, as though from a fan or air conditioner, not brightly lit, and devoid of people, that would be a heaven (or perhaps a haven). Such a shame that such rooms are not easily found.

Noise bothers me in general, but it's murder to write to.  By whatever means necessary, I must escape from the noise if I ever wish to write.  I think that it may be a weakness, but it is not a crippling one.  At least with music and headphones, I'm pretty well set there.  Writing at night also helps.  Everybody is asleep, no rustling or rumbling or chatting (except for other night owls, who usually have their own things to work on).

What methods do you use to escape from the noise?  Or does noise not get to you?  If that, then what does distract you from your natural writing groove?

Friday, December 10, 2010

Don't Get Lost In Heaven

I love taking a shower.  I have warm water falling down upon me, relaxing my body, replenishing it with energy, activating my thoughts, and making me squeaky clean all the while.  It's pretty easy for me to lose track of time while taking such a pleasant shower.

Everybody has something that they enjoy that much, something where they can lose track of the world around them and exist only in the realm of that activity.  It really is heavenly.

Just don't get lost in heaven.  It's good to enjoy yourself, but when you overdo it, you don't get done the things that need to get done.

Sometimes writing is your heaven.  Sometimes heaven lets you escape from writing.  In either case, a good mix of the two makes sure that they both get done (the things you have to do and the things you want to do).  Balance is always key.

Unresolved Tension

We need things to wrap up.  We need natural, organic, comfortable ending points.  Writing is about creating tension, then releasing tension.  You absolutely cannot leave tension unresolved.

Well, actually, you totally can do exactly that.  Creating tension and leaving it there can be a great way to make people uncomfortable.  In the worst case, people simply tell you that you are a bad writer.  But in the best case, it can unnerve people more than any actual horror novel.

Like the story of the girl in her basement.  It's her little hang out spot.  After school, she puts on some music, does her homework, chats online with her friends.  Today, she finishes her last assignment, then closes her book.  She coughs.  Her book now has blood spots on it.  She coughs again, this time into her hand, and finds thick, dark chunks mixed in with more blood.  She gets out of her chair, confused what is going on.  She violently hunches forward, vomiting a solid stream of blood.  She becomes woozy, and starts swaying around the basement, her vision blurring, going gray.

When you leave tension unresolved, the reader wants more.  They want a conclusion.  Whether good or bad, they just need it to end.  By ignoring it, moving on, or just cutting it short, you force the reader to accept that there is no ending, or at least that it is one you will not get to see.  It may piss them off.  Again, they could call you a bad writer.  But they also may accept it as the kind of thing that happens in life and that they will just have to learn to accept it and hope that they can shake that nagging feeling at some point.

Thinking of Extremists

Have you ever noticed that whatever group of people you think of, you think of extremists?  Think about Muslims, Christians, Italians, Germans.  Whatever the group (unless it is one you belong to), you probably think of the most extreme, stereotypical, outlandish examples.

I'm sure it's just the way we are wired.  The best way to remember a collective is by its differences.  And the best way to remember differences is to drastically overpronounce them.  Even still it leads to some dangerous consequences.

For one thing, it makes it very easy to be bigoted.  When you start thinking of a group of people based on the worst and most offensive versions, you stat thinking that every member of that group acts as such.

For another thing, it makes for really bad writing.  You start getting into the idea of defining people by a single quality, and that all people from that country or in this religion all act the exact same way.  Sure makes for boring characters.

Think of people as people.  It's advice good both for writing and for life.  I won't be so foolhardy as to say that assumptions don't get you far.  Stereotypes exist for a reason.  But they are also generalities and not laws.  Avoid putting your foot in your mouth.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

What's Your Pride Worth

So many stories seem weird to me.  People will do anything to protect their pride.  They would rather fight a losing battle (or at least a Pyrrhic victory) rather than back down and swallow their pride.  I'm not sure if this kind of scene is something people really do or something people wish they would do.  In either case, it's so weird.

I am more than happy to kowtow to some asshole when it means preventing my asshole from getting stomped.  My pride comes from being able to avoid those kinds of problems in the first place,being able to avoid black eyes and broken bones with my words.

Then again, those may not be the qualities of a particularly exciting character, so I can understand stories not really showing that happening.  I guess my main issue is that it rings unrealistic to me.  And since realism is so very important to me, then it detracts from the story, no matter how cool it may be.  I just want to shout to those people, what's your pride worth?

Working Backwards

Growing up, I remember hearing about the idea that mystery writers took the ending and then worked backward.  It didn't make any sense to me.  Stories proceeded organically from start to finish.  The ending is a conclusion based on everything that happened before it. It simply can't be used as a starting point.

Having grown up, I can understand it better.  Once you know who the murderer is, you know why they did it, how they did it, and how they tried to cover it up.  Then you just put the other people in there and let everything unfold.

In all honesty, it still feels kind of crazy to me.  But what is even crazier is that it is the exact method I use to make jokes, and I have no problems with that.  Making jokes by working backwards is easy.

I start with a punchline.  "The early bird gets the worm."  Then I figure out the wordplay involved.  "There is a literal worm in tequila bottles."  Now I am talking about drinking tequila as getting the worm.  From there, I try to find a way to get the other key words in the punchline involved in a scene: "early" and "bird".  Early can always be visualized as sunrise, and bird can be any species, preferably very common and easily imagined (I will go with the pelican).  I now have my joke.

Did you hear about the pelican who woke up at sunrise and drank a whole bottle of tequila?  He lived by that saying: The early bird gets the worm.

Seeing the process of making the joke, it's way less funny.  That's the nature of the beast.  But to hear that joke out of nowhere is pretty comical (assuming you have good delivery).  Try it on your friends.  Still, the point is that sometimes the easiest way to write things is to work backwards.  Really, it comes down to getting the hardest part done first, then filling in the blanks to make it fit.  Once again, proving that writing is a logical process.

Monday, December 6, 2010

A Growing Zit

You wake up in the morning and notice yourself in the bathroom mirror. Aside from the ruffled hair, you look well enough.  Still have a killer face.

The day progresses, you get done the things that need to get done (school, work, chores, whatever).  You catch yourself again and notice a red spot on your cheek.  There's a zit growing there.  It's too early to do anything about it, though.  You just have to leave it be and hope it goes away.

In the afternoon/evening time, you have dinner with your friends.  It's a good meal, good conversation, all-around good times.  When you get home, you brush your teeth and see that your red spot has become a full-blown zit, complete with ugly white head.

When did this happen?  When did your cheek start getting red?  When did it start growing?  When did that white spot happen?  Your friends may have noticed the zit, by why did none of them notice it growing?

Writing works the same way (though hopefully it is less gross and ugly).  Some projects I could spend three hours at my computer and write two sentences.  Nothing has changed in my project.  Days and days go by, working a paragraph here and a paragraph there.  Then when I want to find a particular passage, I scroll up and realize that there are a lot of pages to sift through.

Somehow, you start with nothing, but add a little bit to it, and it will grow.  You may never really see it grow, but if you step back and look at the entirety of your work, you will notice that it has grown.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Irony of Cliches

I have a friend who has had a pretty rough life.  His parents didn't want him; his adoptive parents broke up; he is in major debt; and he is taking care of his younger brother.  For quite a while, all they had were each other.  While their childhood friends either burned out or were shot dead, they made it through and made it out from the shitty town they grew up in.

I so badly wish to tell this story, even in an anonymous or allegorical way.  It's just so powerful, so impressive and inspiring, I am compelled to share it.  But damn it, there are enough stories "inspired by true events" (which is the new way of saying "based on a true story") to go around.  It's such a cliche now.

But that's the irony of cliches: They're good stories; they've simply been told too much.  It is difficult to find a way to tell that story without the masses telling you how many other stories they've read that were similar.

I have always dealt with cliches by trying my hardest to avoid them.  Can I come up with a story that hasn't been done to death?  The alternate method is to simply embrace them.  Every month, a new movie comes out that is a collection of cliches, but they keep making enough money to be profitable.  Obviously cliches aren't that bad.  Accept that they're powerful to people who aren't diametrically opposed to them and that if you aren't heavy-handed, you can do just fine, even with a very cliche story.

The Power of Presence

I've mentioned in a previous entry the idea that, if you ask a hundred people what their definition of love is, you will get a hundred different replies.  This entry is based on one of the definitions I've found: Love is when you are asked for nothing more than your presence.

I like this definition.  Although it seems simple enough, there is much under the surface.  By asking only for their presence, the lover is expressing that it is nothing that is said or done that is loved, but their very being that matters.  This doesn't mean that the two people don't have a blast going out or chatting or having adventures; it simply means that the lover does not require it.  It's the closest to unconditional love you could get.

The power of presence is palpable.  Some people's smile can fill a room with happiness.  Some people can enliven your spirits just from walking in the door.  But how do we put that on paper?

It isn't easy.  It's the kind of feeling that people don't use words for.  They experience it.  They feel it.  The closest we can get to is describing how it feels or what people were thinking, but it doesn't quite express the actual presence.

It may be difficult to show, but it is also not impossible.  Write a scene about two people who love each other, and what it is like when they are in each others' presence.

Thursday, December 2, 2010


It is fucking obnoxious to see people writing with excessive exclamation marks and smiley faces everywhere.  Why can't they learn to write properly?  If they knew better words they would be able to express themselves without making my eyes sore.

Just in case you don't know me very well, I'll let you know that the above paragraph was bullshit.  Anybody who thinks that language shouldn't change or that the way things are is inferior to the way things were should jump off a bridge so that they no longer have to bear the future anymore.

You need to put flourishes in your writing, whether they be visual ones or stylistic.  You need to have a style, a feeling.  People should be able to read enough of your writing and know that it sounds like you.  And the very reason you need to use those flourishes is to gain the power you have by taking those flourishes away.

If your friend is constantly blathering on about random crap, you start tuning it out, but you also expect it.  When that friend starts talking in short, direct sentences, you know something is up.  They may be angry, sad, hurt, scared.  Whatever the cause, the sheer power if undeniable.

This is true both for your own narrative voice and for your characters' voices.  An identifiable speech pattern and vocabulary can be powerful by its own right.  A strong character giving an impassioned speech can stand all on its own.  But to show a change in that character, break that pattern and everybody will know it.

You Can Always Make A Change

Sometimes it feels like a story is locked in a certain path.  Sometimes it feels like it is the characters who are locked.  And, sometimes, it is us as people who feel we cannot change things in our lives.

In all of those cases, it is not true.  You can always make a change.  Usually we don't change things because they would make things worse (like punching bothersome people in the face).  And when every option we think of would end up making your situation worse, that is when you feel stuck.

But no matter what, you always have one more option: leave.  If you are in a bad place, walk away.  Sure, it's easier said than done, but it is always an option.  Pick none of the choices.  Go somewhere else.  Start fresh.  Explore your options.  When you feel like you only have one choice and there's nowhere else you can go, just go away.

Creativity Can Come From Ignorance

Suppose I show you an object you've never seen before.  It is a rod, about two feet long, with a five-foot string tied to one end.  What would you do with it?

Maybe you would try to use it like a whip to spur on a horse.  Maybe you would use it like a fishing pole.  Maybe you would use it like a ribbon to twirl around gaily.

All of those are perfectly viable uses for it.  But as it turns out, it is the handle and string from a pulley system, used to get heavy objects off the ground in order to load them onto delivery trucks.

Since you had no idea what it was actually for, you were able to imagine uses far beyond its intended one.  Your ignorance gave you the freedom to go beyond the standard scope of an item.

It's hard to see a stethoscope and think of it as anything but a doctor's tool to hear heartbeats (and sometimes as a safe cracker's tool to hear tumblers fall). But what could it be if you had no idea what it was?

I think it is interesting,  the complete difference between the song Mad World as originally done by Tears for Fears, and the cover of it done by Gary Jules.  The words are all the same, and there is musical similarity, but the emotional tone of the two are opposite: one being cynical and the other being depressing.  How do you hear one version and think to create the other?

Well, it would certainly help if you saw the lyrics to one version, but never heard it performed.  You would have no idea what it is supposed to be, how it is supposed to sound, or the exact message it is trying to convey.  But in doing so, it frees you to take a song that is taking a jab at modern society and turn it into an anthem for the disenfranchised.

I suggest doing the same.  Throw yourself into some ignorance.  What do you know nothing about?  Now start telling me about it.  If you don't know the real answers, start BSing. Use that ignorance to be creative.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Don't Get Lost In Thought

A lot of the writing I do is without a pen or a keyboard; it's done in my head.  The problem with that is the risk that it never gets out of my head.  I may get distracted by other people or other things I have to do. But sometimes I just nod off while planning these things out.

Though I've never thought of myself as a daydreamer, there are times when it is very easy to get lost in the fantasy worlds we create.  All of a sudden, I find myself far down the path, but have no memory of how I got there.

I don't know that there's anything that can be done about this.  The best advice is to work on willpower or to create some tricks to be able to type those daydreams as they come to you.  Of course, it may become boring, being the stenographer of events instead of a more active participant, but at least this way you'll have something to show for it.

You also leave yourself a little present.  You may not even remember half the things you just daydreamed about.  That's when that written record is pretty handy (when it makes sense).

I'm not saying you shouldn't daydream.  It's a great thing, especially when you want to start understanding or exploring your characters and settings.  Just don't get lost in thought.

Not All Music is Headphone Music

I listen to music with headphones on.  It's usually through my computer or a music player.  Sometimes, though, I will either have music running while I'm doing chores or I'll listen to the radio while I'm driving.  That's when I realize that the music sounds significantly different.

With headphones, I hear everything.  There are a lot of little sounds, effects, tracks in a song that work with the others to make it what it is.  Through speakers, the finer ones disappear.  The other sounds usually drown it out.

Not surprisingly, I prefer listening to music through headphones.  However, I have found that not all music is headphone music.  Sometimes a song will alternate quickly between right side and left side or have one some sounds go only through the right and other sounds only through the left.  Those kinds of things are fine through speakers, but through headphones, they give me a headache.

I have found that writing works in a similar way.  Some set-ups work better than others.  A good, spooky story is amazing at night with all the curtains drawn and a dim light.  A dry, factual book works better in the middle of the day while I'm waiting (like being a passenger or on a lunch break).

It's nothing that you can really help as a writer.  It's up to readers to determine how and in what ways they read your work.  However, much as you may imagine who your readers will be, you could also imagine how they will read it.  With that in mind, write in a way that will work well with the setting your work will be read in.

No Euphemisms

We like our euphemisms.  Whether it be nicknames, slang terms, or descriptions, it seems like people have trouble calling things by their names.

There are times when it's useful.  Sometimes we use shorthand just to express ourselves quickly.  When speed is of the essence and everybody knows the subject at hand, there's nothing wrong with that.

The issue I have is when I see it used because of fear or squeamishness.  When people refer to an ex-girlfriend as "my ex" or "that bitch" (the latter technically being a dysphemism) instead of her name, it means that she holds power over them.  The speaker cannot bear to use her actual name.  To use a literary example, nobody in the world of Harry Potter dared to use Voldemort's name, instead calling him "He who shall not be named".

People who are embarrassed about something will also try to avoid using a direct name.  If you see a small child who wants a cookie, but is afraid of being admonished by her parents for wanting one, she may point to a cookie jar and say "can I have what's in there" instead. And how many ways do people talk about genitals without actually saying penis or vagina?

These are the kinds of euphemisms that frustrate me.  People want to talk about a subject, but do not have the courage to do so.  But rather than mustering up the courage, they try to hide behind softer words.  If you want to talk about a subject, talk about it.  Don't be afraid of it.  And if you are afraid, act like you aren't.  If nothing else, it will make for better writing.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Make Things Balanced

My friends have exposed me to a lot of fun games that I'd never played before.  Games like Small World, Settlers of Catan, and Chrononauts are great ways to spend an evening with good people.  One of the things that I always remark on is how balanced the games are.  There is a combination of random luck and strategy involved in playing, getting an early lead does not allow somebody to breeze through the rest of the game, and no single component overpowers any other part of it.

It occurs to me that this is a good lesson for more than just making board or card games.  This is good advice for writing, too.  What fun is a character who can't die?  How boring is a character who never fails?  How boring is a character who always fails?  It is the not knowing what to expect that makes things exciting.  Giving characters that same kind of balance, not having any one of them be markedly and assuredly better than another, makes for the most interesting stories.

Of course, this is not new advice by any means, just new words.  The classic way to describe boring, predictable, overpowered characters is Mary Sue.  And really, the advice here is all the same advice you see when reading how to avoid making Mary Sues (and why they are a bad thing in the first place).

Still, sometimes new words are all we need to spice up old advice.  How balanced are the people in your works?

Thursday, November 25, 2010

You Don't Need School To Learn Examples

I don't regret the fact that I went to college.  I did a ton of growing up, met some wonderful people, and learned a great deal about writing.  However, in terms of sheer learning, school is only so useful.  There are examples all around you.  It's impossible to go a day without seeing words.  Somebody wrote those words.

I learned how much difference one word makes by looking at writing in a restaurant.  I watch commercials and read posters.  People are communicating constantly, now more than ever.  Heck, you're reading this right now (and as of this writing, it is not in a textbook).  Examples are all around you.  What's good?  What's bad?  What is effective in educating?  What is effective in persuading?

What school does offer, though, are tools.  It taught me how to see the examples all around me, how to evaluate them, how to put into words what they do and how they do it, and how to go about internalizing those abilities for my own uses.

School is by no means useless.  I do not want that to be the message.  I simply want to remind people that once you know how to teach yourself, the material can be found everywhere.

Some Candles Are Bigger Than Others

There is a saying that "the candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long."  Well, yeah, that's true.  But if we look at the analogy, we can see that there are more than just those two qualities involved. How big are the candles?  If a candle burns twice as bright, but is also twice as big, then it will burn the same amount of time.

To apply this extended analogy to people, it still holds true.  Sure, everybody burns out eventually, but some people can do more than you and do it for longer. How is that possible?  Well, they must be a bigger candle than you.

Frustrating though it may be, we're not all made equally.  That doesn't mean you shouldn't try if you aren't the absolute best of the best. It just means you do the best you can by giving your all.  Choose the amount of energy you wish to exert and know that you will burn out faster by burning brighter, and that it has nothing to do with how bright or for how long other people burn.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Compelled By The Zeitgeist

I was lunch with a woman.  At one point, she asked if I wanted another drink and I said no.  When she got up to refill her cup, I decided that I did want a refill, too, so I got up and said, "I lied.  I do want another drink."  When she heard this, she corrected me, saying that I changed my mind; I didn't lie.

This sparked a conversation about culture.  Our culture (American) is a truly bizarre one.  We are so well-trained to think that we're perfect that we cannot admit that we would change our minds.  If our initial decision is always right.  We would rather admit to being actively deceptive than admit to being wrong.

This made me realize exactly how much we do lie, and how acceptable it is to us.  And sometimes we lie for no good reason.  We lie because we're scared that we might not fit in.  We lie because it makes us look cool.  We lie because we can.

I say "we" because I am no exception.  I hate lying, but it is a difficult thing to resist.  It feels as though I am compelled by the zeitgeist to lie. Even though it disgusts me to deceive people, our culture says it is better to create this alternate reality where I did normal things than to admit to being different.

It makes me wonder: What are the people of different cultures compelled by the zeitgeist to do?  Are there people who despise alcohol, but have a glass with every meal simply because people can't imagine not doing it?  Are there cultures where physical conflict is the only guaranteed way to settle disputes and people who would love to be pacifists still trade blows because it is easier and safer than any other means?

It seems we always put our characters in our culture or ones very similar to it.  It's understandable, I admit.  You know it very well and the audience instantly understands.  But there are limitless possibilities when it comes to social mores, folkways, and laws.  Start playing the What If game and coming up with some insane cultures.  Then make some characters who don't like that culture, but are still compelled to take part in it.

No matter how different those people will seem to you, they will still be very human.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Size Is Relative

I was talking with one of my coworkers, playfully insulting him.  I said at one point that it is just so much fun demeaning him. Then he told me that I shouldn't use such big words around him.

This really surprised me.  I never thought of "demeaning" as a big word.  It was a pretty standard word.  Everybody knew what it meant and never thought much about it.

But here I was, being told that it was a big word.  All I could figure was that he wasn't a writer and just didn't care too much about language or learning words.  Maybe it was a big word because it was still rare to him.

Whatever the case, it was a sobering reminder that everything is relative.  The words you choose you may think are safe, but if you're using effective language, chances are you're going to use words that somebody will find think are too advanced (and others will think are pedantic).

There's nothing you can do about this, though.  You can't determine what words people do and don't know, nor how they feel about those words.  All you can do is write the way that feels natural, and let it attract the people who like it.

I Want A Story

For as tolerant and accepting as I am of music as a whole, some of it just doesn't do anything for me.  And the worst offenders are songs where the singer talks about how great he or she is.  Like, that's the whole song.  I'm awesome; I'm rich; I'm attractive; I'm smooth.  Well, I'm bored.

I want a story.  Don't tell me how great you are; show it to me. Tell me about things that have happened, what you did, and let me decide how great you are (or are not).  This shameless self-promotion gets so old because it all sounds the same.  Nothing interesting ever happens in it.

That's part of why I want a story. So many things can happen in stories.  Really, anything can happen in a story.  I wish I could see every medium used as a way to tell stories.  That way, things would always stay interesting.

I would warn people, though, that for as easy as it is to make any medium be able to tell a story, it is just as easy to make any medium sling self-serving schlock.  Actions will always speak the loudest.  If you absolutely must tell people how great you are, at least give them something that would compel them to agree with you.

Be Spectacularly Wrong

If I said that sharks had flippers, you might call me stupid.  Sharks have fins, not flippers.  But what if I said that sharks had propellers?  You'd either think I had mental problems, or you would chuckle.

Subtlety in writing is tricky.  If people aren't familiar with you or your style, it is very easy for subtle humor to be taken as straightforward, inaccurate statements.To avoid that confusion, the easy way is to be spectacularly wrong.

Don't go halfway; be absurd.  If you want your character to sound dumb, make him ask if zebras are those horses with the horns.  Have an inept chef make a fruit pie with whole fruits in them (as in cores and stems and rinds).

Sarcasm is the worst of them all.  When a character says, "sure, I'd love go to the movies with you", there is no way of telling if that is sincere or sarcastic (again, unless you are very in tune with the character).  To make us sure that she is being sarcastic, have her say, "Sure, I'd love to go to the movies with you. After that, we could try cyanide burgers or a refreshing dip in the shark tank."  Is it ridiculous? Most definitely.  Is the intent thoroughly clear?  Most definitely.

Even when our stories are meant to be realistic, it is larger than life.  Don't be afraid of it.  Embrace it.  Say some ridiculous things.  If you're going to be wrong, be spectacularly wrong.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Let Things Process

Sometimes we have big days.  Lots of things happen, all out of the ordinary.  Revelatory realizations occur.  You couldn't capture it all if you wanted to.  Fortunately, you don't have to.

Our brains are never not working.  Every single thing you see, hear, think about, or experience in any other way, the brain will process.  You don't need to do anything about it; it's automatic.

So let things process.  Sure, actively thinking or writing things down may speed up the process, or it may make you more aware of what realizations you come to, but no matter what, you will figure out what happened and where you want to go from there.

If you simply must write about what's on your mind (which is not a bad habit to be in), then pick one subject and focus on it.  Toss all your other thoughts onto the back burner and let your brain do what it will.  Flip flopping between a million different thoughts doesn't help you get through any one of them any faster.

Writing down your thoughts helps you process them, so process one thought to its end, then move on.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

And Then I'm Typing

An interesting phenomenon occurs while I write.  I sit and stare at my screen, thinking about what I want to say.  I compose in my head.  And then I'm typing.

This doesn't sound particularly interesting by its own right, so let me explain.  I do not finish a thought, decide that it is what I would like, then begin writing it.  I am staring into nothingness, start nodding off, wake up, and see myself typing.  My thoughts are on the page, as I had composed them in my head, but had no memory of putting my fingers to the keys.  I just see myself typing the thoughts as they come to my head and accept that it is happening.  (No reason to ask a bunch of questions about something that's helping me out.)

I think it happens because I write while being thoroughly exhausted.  I may start the writing process, nod off a bit, then forget that I had started at all.  And really, once I start writing, continuing to write is very easy.  Since one thought naturally progresses from another, and since I tend to come up with ideas in my head faster than I can put the words down, I can have a pretty continuous flow of writing even when I'm not really paying attention.

Still, it is a freaky experience, to basically wake up in the middle of an activity.  But despite that, I kind of want it to happen more.  I want to see what I make when I lose those inhibitions and just write what's in my head.  Could be gold in those mountains.

First I lose consciousness, and then I'm typing.  And now I'm famous.  Seems a logical progression to me.  One more step to go.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Too Busy Being Awesome To Be Spectacular

My friend is in grad school and is buried up to her ears in work.  I get to talk with her on average once a week (usually three times in a week, and then two weeks not hearing from her).  She leaves the school at 12:30 AM, only to return around 6:30 AM.

I am truly amazed by her.  She does enough work to keep three people busy, gets it all done, and can still crack a good joke about the whole thing.  But it is sad that I so rarely get to see her.  So in conversation, I told her, "You're too busy being awesome to be spectacular."  She laughed and agreed, and I smiled because she understood what I meant.

Those were very deliberate words.  'Awesome' and 'spectacular' are used as generic synonyms for 'very good'.  And in colloquial English, they are.  But technically (or classically), they had their own unique meanings.

Something that is awesome puts people in a state of awe.  It means that they are amazed, shocked, and speechless.  Something that is spectacular has the quality of being a spectacle.  And a spectacle is something that is seen. (Spectators spectate spectacles.)

So what I told my friend is that she is too busy amazing and impressing me (and countless others) to become particularly well-seen.  I simply used two terms with very positive connotations to describe her situation.  I got to play with multiple layers of meaning at the same time.

This is one of the things I love about language.  Because I know so much about it, I can use it in a far more powerful means.  The drawback is that only other people with that knowledge can appreciate it.  Otherwise it sounds like I told my friend that she's too busy being very good to be very good, which makes no sense.  But she did understand it and she did appreciate it, and we both smiled and laughed to know that we had this semi-secret language between us.

If you want something like that, go and study language.  Read the dictionary.  Learn that every word comes from somewhere, and that a word's meaning can be discovered by breaking it down, once you learn those root words and stems.  It really is fun.  And there are plenty of people out there who can and will appreciate it.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Still Life

Doesn't it seem like every artist draws or paints a picture of a bowl of fruit?  What's the deal with that?

Turns out, it's called still life.  And since it has a name, you know it's a real thing.

Still life is actually a pretty cool concept.  For one thing, you are creating what you see, which takes away the need to try to create from nothingness.  For another thing, it becomes a universal, uniform exercise.  The point is not to come up with the most amazing subject or concept, but merely to work on raw technique and style.  When everybody is painting fruit, the question becomes, how are you painting the fruit?

I really want to have a writing equivalent to still life.  And since I'm not aware of any off hand, I am unilaterally deciding to make the subject be shoes.

Look at a pair of shoes.  Stare at it, ponder it.  Then create it. Describe and express those shoes with your words.  This is not about making shoes a prop in a story (much like how a still life is about the bowl of fruit and not simply involving one).  Just describe those shoes sitting there, wherever "there" might be.  I don't care if they're on your feet or in front of you or hanging from some power lines.  Just paint that picture with your words.

Still life is all about technique and ability (and honing them) by having identical subjects.  Go and do that with your writing.  It's just an exercise to help you out.

Let me know how it goes.

We Had To Write Crap

It frustrates me, reading the writing of people in certain age groups. It all sounds the same to me.  They all write about themselves or author analogs talking about their lives and their feelings, rarely actually doing anything within the story.  It is a struggle for me to read those stories all the way through anymore.

Of course, I'm no exception.  I'm sure I've written my fair share of crappy writing.  But that makes me all the more curious: how is it that everybody has written that same junk?  Is it possible we had to write that crap?

I can't say for certain, but it would make sense.  We all have pretty similar thoughts and feelings; it makes sense we would want to get them out on paper.  And if we are also just starting out in writing, then we wouldn't really know what is good and bad.  It is possible that we wrote this garbage because it was part of the process of figuring out what is good.

I like to think that's the case.  Writing that crap is the same as a beginning artist drawing stick figures with very squiggly lines.  It's like a beginning chef making scrambled eggs with nothing in them.

It helps me get through the day, knowing that it is a beginning phase for beginning writers.  It also serves as advice for beginning writers:  You are going to write a lot of crap.  There's no avoiding it.  You kind of have to do it in order to get to the good ones.  Just power through them and give it your all.  The harder you work, the less crap you will have to write.

Creation By Analogy

Think about the story of Chicken Little.  What if you took that story, but made the characters humans instead of animals, and made the fear be about meteors destroying the earth instead of the sky falling?  Well, you'd have what would feel like a completely different story, and yet it would be exactly the same.

There is a classic argument that, if you dig deep enough, there are only 3 stories: man versus god, man versus man, and man versus himself.  Even if you don't agree, it is unarguable that there is not a great deal of overlap in stories.  Use that overlap to your advantage.

Start creating stories by analogy.  Write the story Baby's Day Out, but the baby is a senile old man.  Write Rocky, but he's a chef instead of a boxer (this might make the scene where he's punching the beef carcass hilarious or disturbing).  Try writing Die Hard in an office building.

When you can't come up with anything on your own, be a great artist and steal.  Retell a classic story with new specifics.  Nobody will probably know.  You may diversify. You may not.  That's up to you.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Anagrams Are Fun

In my previous post, I came up with a story idea based on an anagram I made of the phrase, "anagrams are fun".  As I promised there, today will have even more.  I worked on making these anagrams, then I just made up the story descriptions off the top of my head.

Manage Fur: Saran
This could be a story about a person who has the idea cover his pets in Saran wrap to keep them from shedding.  He makes a business out of it, wrapping up animals.  When angry protesters wrap him up in his own method, he spends a day trapped in it, finally understanding what they were going through.

It could also be a collection of hilarious ads based on unintended uses for household items.

Ra, A Gun Fears Man:
This is a pivotal piece of dialogue, between the Egyptian god Ra and the Sphinx, discussing humanity. Ra makes the claim that humans sow the seeds of their own destruction, showing that humans created guns, and now their very invention strikes fear in their own hearts.  The Sphinx protests, saying that, were a gun able to do so, it would fear man.  Guns are tools, incapable of making their own choices.  They are picked up by anybody who chooses to and they do whatever they are made to do.  Man is always in control.  Regardless of the tool, people will always fear other people.

These are example of my own.  Now I have two challenges for you:

1.  Make up some story ideas for the following anagrams:
A Mean Surf; A Gran
A Nun Gears A Farm
Arrange Fans, Maus

2.  Make up your own anagrams for "anagrams are fun", post them here, and then do story ideas for the ones you make up.

Are you up to the challenge?

Friday, November 12, 2010

Ranger Fu As A Man

Gina Fu is a woman in her late thirties.  She works as a park ranger in a local forest.  Though she does enjoy her job, she is frustrated by the lack of respect she gets.  Tour groups, hikers, and campers all seem to ignore her, even her direct commands (stuff like not littering or not leaving open flames going through the night).  What really struck her was how much derision she received simply for being a woman.  So she decided to dress in drag.  She acted like a man, was convincing in looks and sound, and instantly commanded much more respect for it.  Gina was both surprised and a little disgusted by it, but she was also fascinated by it.  She kept it up, continuing to live her life as a man, until the line between who she was and who she pretended to be got too blurry to distinguish.

I'm just screwing with you.  "Ranger Fu As A Man" is an anagram of "Anagrams Are Fun".

I do enjoy anagrams.  They used to seem the most impossible task in the world.  How do you look at a phrase and come up with a whole new sentence?  It seems like something only a computer can do.  But really, it's not that bad.

Start with the word or phrase in question.  Pull out letters from the original to make a new word, then repeat the process with the remaining letters.  Just keep making one word at a time until you've used all your letters.  Then you take the new words you have and try to make sense of them.

If you are looking for ideas, try some anagrams.  I literally looked at the phrase "anagrams are fun" and got the story idea you just read.  It took 5-10 minutes. It's almost like creating something from nothing.  If nothing else, it will get you seriously thinking about words and letters, which is a great way to get warmed up for writing.

Tomorrow:  Even more anagrams based on "anagrams are fun".  Can you guess which ones I'll choose?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

You Can't Write The Way You Talk

Probably the best advice for style is to write the way you talk.  The problem is that you can't.  Or, rather, you shouldn't. No matter how much we want written words to sound like speech, they are fundamentally different.

Certain techniques of speech simply do not work in print.  In speech, you are making things up as you go along, so when you forget to add a subject, or suddenly realize you changed tracks without saying anything about it, you can tack that subject in, as though it was always supposed to be there.  In speech, you can make a slip-up, say a wrong word, say something kind of dumb, and you have to either correct yourself or hope nobody realizes it.

Certain techniques of writing do not work in speech.  Writing can use tools like hyphenations and dashes, foot notes and headers.  We can write in a more visual manner.  This is great, seeing as how reading requires looking at it.  But, this does add to the difficulty.

There are several techniques that do cross over from writing to speech and back again; that's why the advice is there in the first place.  However, there are no hard and fast rules.  It is up to your gut and your eyes and ears to know when to write like you talk, when to talk like you write, and whento leave the two separate.

You can do it.  So, go and do it now.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Are You A Consumer Or A Creator?

We are all consumers.  We read other people's stories, watch their movies, play their games.  We are the audience to countless things.  Some people like it just fine, but for others, it simply isn't good enough.

For as long as I've been a consumer, I have also been a creator.  I loved telling stories, making them up.  I loved playing the what-if game.  I loved taking a core idea and putting a new skin on it.  Watching TV was great - I did a lot of it - but I always wanted to make my own.

Some people are completely content being a consumer.  They are happy with receiving all of those ideas and being entertained by them.  I truly do understand these people.  In my unhappier times, I have tried to be a consumer only.  But it never stuck.  I had this feeling that I just couldn't shake.  I simply needed to create.

A classic question asked of writers is why they went into writing.  A classic answer is "I had to."  That's basically what my post amounts to.  I write because I have to; I can't keep it inside.  I need to get it out on paper.  But now you have a slightly better explanation.  It is an internal itch that I know I have, that not everybody on earth seems to have, and that only creating can scratch.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Fresh Starts

I've had a lot of fresh starts recently.  My most recent job is unlike any other I've previously had.  My one computer had to get wiped clean because of a virus, then I got a new one to set up.  And now I've gotten a new phone that I am playing with.

Every time I start fresh, I'm amazed by exactly how much work it is and how exhausting it is to restore things to how I'm used to.  I had a lot of settings and preferences.  I put in a good chunk of time tinkering and making things just the way I like.  And some of those changes were little additions here and there that really added up.

With my computers, I twice had to put on all the programs that I downloaded, arrange all the files I had saved, find and save all my bookmarked websites, set all of my passwords, and do all kinds of things.  My phone required setting backgrounds and ringers and alarms and the like.  And new jobs require meeting new people and learning new protocols.

The appreciation I have for settling into a groove is much greater when I find myself out of that groove.  When I write, I have a set of circumstances I like.  I am alone.  I have no distractions.  I have music playing through headphones as background noise.  It is also usually night time with no lights on except the glow of my computer.  Otherwise, it will be daytime in a coffee shop and I'll be writing in my spiral notebooks.

When I try to write in any other circumstances, it is a colossal failure.  I'm out of my groove and nothing works.  I spend all my time and energy trying to restore my current situation to my groove.

Despite the above, I still recommend a fresh start on occasion.  It shakes things up, gets you out of your rut, and makes you think.  Realize how set you have become, how much you enjoy certain set-ups, and what it's like to go without them.  You can also realize which things you do, not because they are beneficial, but because they are comfortable.

Can you identify what you like to do?  What is your ideal set-up for writing?  When you can answer that, go and do the opposite.  Try to write in the most unideal situations.  Then see what you come up with.  I'd certainly like to see it.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Take The Advice That Works

Working a job in sales has really reminded me what it's like to be a beginner.  Sure, I may have some talents.  The fact that I'm a good communicator and skilled in persuasive language certainly is a strong help, but there is still a great deal of specific things to learn.  On top of learning all the products and services that are offered, I need to learn the benefits that people do not think about and why it is worth paying for the conveniences.

Everybody will develop their own style when it comes to selling, so everybody will have their own tips and tricks.  When talking about sales with other salesmen, we all share our techniques, what works and what doesn't. There is a lot of advice out there.

Some of the things that people say make a lot of sense.  Other stuff doesn't seem helpful.  I don't like to use scare tactics or be overly aggressive to make a sale.  I can't flash adorable puppy dog eyes to warm over somebody's heart (because I don't have them to flash).  When advice does work for me, I take it.  I integrate it and make it one of my own techniques.

And this is exactly the same for writing.

There are these two opposite thoughts in writing: learn all the rules until I'm good, and fuck the world - I'll do my own thing and make you like it.  What you should be doing is neither of those things, or possibly both.  Listen to all the advice you can.  Think about all of them.  Then take the advice that works.  Really, you should take the advice that works for you.  That is the stuff that will make you a better, stronger writer.  You may be able to do plenty without any advice, but listening to what else is out there saves a lot of time in not having to reinvent the wheel.  So take it all in, keep the stuff that resonates, and make something grand.

Sunday, November 7, 2010


I was sitting in a restaurant by a window.  I saw a group of a dozen people walking down the sidewalk.  They were all wearing a black out, the exact same outfit. Now, it turns out that I recognized their outfits and realized they were Amish, but I will not soon forget the fear I had to see a dozen black-clad people walking in a tight formation and a steady pace down the sidewalk right in front of me.

I can't help but remark at how disturbing identical uniforms are.  We see them in movies and other stories enough and think nothing of them.  They are generic pawns.  But to see them in real life is creepy.  It's individuals, stripped of their individuality.

But when you are somebody in a uniform, it is not that at all.  It becomes individuals in character or individuals playing dress-up.  It's like, despite all dressing the same, they are their own people.  Although some people do have a sense of camaraderie, others are linked by nothing more than their clothes.

Uniforms are an interesting tool to play with.  It is certainly easier to do in a visual medium, but not impossible.  In prose, you either gloss over them or focus on their differences.  Still, though, that is one of the angles to explore: the differences within the uniforms (and people wearing them).  Other angles may include individuality within the uniform, power of the uniform, weakness of the uniform, uniform versus uniform, uniform versus non-uniform, and so on.

A lot can be done just by playing with any one of those.  Now go out and do it.

You Always Have Something To Say

Starting this blog, I was never out of things to talk about.  And, almost 650 posts later, I am still not out.  Some days are a bigger struggle than other, but they keep getting posted.  It has led me to a conclusion I suspected when I first started.

You always have something to say.  This blog is focused on writing (at least to the degree that I can stay focused) and even still I always have something to say.  If you wanted to talk about anything you wanted, you could easily do it every day for the rest of your life.

So, what's stopping you?  Share a thought.  Maybe take one of the deeper ones and elaborate on it.  Take the idea and tell us what made you think about it.  Try making up another situation where that could take place and somebody else would have that same thought.  Bam.  You just wrote out a nice story right there.

And maybe you never want to elaborate on or develop your thoughts into full stories.  Fine.  Do something else you enjoy.  But you can always write and you always have something to write about. So go do it.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

What Changed?

When things don't change, nothing changes.  I know, big no duh.  But it is important to consider.  Cycles are continuous.  They don't change until something affects them.

If you had the same breakfast every day for a month, why would you have a different one?  There's no reason to.  The only reason to change your breakfast would be for something to knock you out of that cycle.

Any time that things are different than they were, something changed.   The important question is: What changed?  Did you get bored?  Did you get a better opportunity?  Did you run out of resources? Something effected this change; find out what.

This applies to both your characters and yourself.  For your characters, realize that all conflict comes from a source.  If you can identify the source of those problems, you can understand what motivates them and how you they can be understood and/or manipulated.

For yourself, keep it as a check of homeostasis.  Are things different for you?  Are you sleeping the same, eating the same, thinking the same thoughts?  If not, what changed?  Is it an ok thing, or is it a bad thing?  If it is bad, what can you do to affect your surroundings to make things more as they should be?

Thursday, November 4, 2010


I had a personally profound experience a while ago, one which I am still thinking about.  I was sitting around, thinking about the word 'crux'.  It's such an odd word; it holds much power in its meaning, but sounds so very odd to our ears.

The only time we use it is in the phrase "the crux of the argument", which is the single thing that holds the entire structure together.  Without a crux, everything falls apart.

I started playing around with the forms that 'crux' could take.  I came up with its adjectival form: cruxial.  That is when all of the gears started turning in my head.  I thought about my studies of linguistics, about how language changes and the specific ways that English has evolved.

'Cruxial' is not a word, even though it should be.  So what would it have become?  X's become softer, becoming S's of some sort.  It would become 'crusial'.  Or maybe. . .crucial!  Of course!  'Crux' becomes 'crucial'.  It all makes sense.  If something is crucial, then it is absolutely necessary.  If a crucial thing is missing, then the entire structure it was built on falls apart.

Although I do find language evolution interesting, I also find it frustrating.  We are so disconnected from our language's roots that we have no idea that crux and crucial are two forms of the exact same word.  Sure, I know how to use both of the words in sentences.  I know how to define both of those words, but still was totally unaware of their relationship.

Though it bothers me that I have to sit down to think about words just to understand them, I am glad that I do sit down and think about words.  I love discovering these connections that are right in front of us that we never realize for the longest time.

What have you discovered recently?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

If Nobody Was Around, How Would You Solve Your Problem?

I am a firm believer in asking questions.  There is no point wasting time and energy on a problem that can be easily solved by somebody else's experience or expertise.  Sometimes, though, there are no other people.  What do you do then?

As helpful as other people are, you can't become dependent upon them.  When all you have is yourself, will you wallow in self-pity or solve your own problems?

Take the rational approach.  What is your problem?  Is it finding the right words?  Is it conveying a particular idea or image?  Is it determining the format through which to tell the story?

Once you do that, come up with a bunch of answers.  Come up with good ones and bad ones.  When you have bad ones, explain why they are bad and what is specifically wrong with them.  When you have good ones, explain why they are good.  Play with these ideas until the right answer appears.  You may figure it out like solving a puzzle or it may dawn on you like it taps you on the shoulder and says hi.

You can solve your problems.  You're smart enough to do it.  Other people may help you solve them faster, but you can always rely on yourself.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

What's In A Name

How come Harry Potter was named Harry Potter and not Victor Steele?  Would you believe that somebody named Victor Steele lives under a stair case, gets abused by his caretakers, and is both feared and despised by countless others?  Of course not.

We treat different names differently.  Victor Steele is one of the most powerful names that is a real name.  Victor means winner and Steele is a well-know, quite strong metal (just with an extra e at the end).  It is a name of an extraordinary hero, somebody who was born to lead and was doing so since he could walk.

Harry Potter is a meek, mild name.  Harry is a nickname and Potter reminds us either of sculptures or plants, neither of which being particularly masculine in our culture.  However, it is not something silly or sad.  It is much stronger than Willy Loman (low man).  Harry Potter is the kind of name that could be powerful.  It could grow strong, even if it is not automatically strong.  It has just enough give to go from one side to the other.

What's in a name matters.  A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but few people would want to smell them if they were called pricky fart buds.  It is a subtle, but significant aspect of writing that is just as important to a character as their clothes, word choice, and views of people in general.

Pay attention to names.  Make them useful.  You don't need to give them hidden meanings.  Just give them the right sound and power for what you want your characters to be.

Better At, Not Better Than

I love my writing peers.  We get along well.  We are the right combination of serious and jocular.  We have a lot of similarities in our abilities and styles, but we certainly have our differences.  We have different subtleties, strengths.

None of them are better than me.  I am better than none of them, either.  Some are better at sarcasm.  Some are better at snark. Some are better at slice of life.  I am better at puns.

No matter how our strengths and specialties are split, we are all better at something.  Even if another person is better at several more things, they are not better than you, simply better at different things.

Sometimes you may feel the opposite.  When you hit a rough spot and you look to your peers, it may seem that they are better than you.  Trust me that they feel the exact same way about you.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Turn It On Like A Switch

How much self-control do you have?  Do you wear your heart on your sleeve, or do you have the ability to hold in your thoughts and feelings?  I think most people are pretty good at keeping things in.  Writers seem especially so.  We wear masks to fit whatever situation we're in.

Somebody is having a bad day, you become kind and caring, trying to get them to feel better.  Somebody else is having a great day, you feel great and celebrate it with them.  Sometimes you can do one right after another.  With texting and instant messengers, you can do both at the same time.

How is it that we can console one person and tell goofy jokes with another person at the same time?  It's like we can flip a switch in our head and change between our personalities.  I think it's weird, but it's also pretty cool.  We should make use of this ability more often.

Add the writer's mask to your switches.  Flip the one that makes you a great and inspired writer who can do no wrong.  If you can switch between all the rest of your personalities, this one shouldn't be any more difficult.

Give it a shot.  Let me know what happens.

If You Don't Know How To Do It, Teach Someone Else

Do you ever find yourself staring at the blank page asking yourself, "how do I make this character compelling" or "how do I make this subject interesting to somebody other than me?"  It's easy to lose hours, or even days, doing just that.  What I find funny, though, is how easily we can answer that question when somebody else asks it.

If I asked you how to make a character compelling, I bet you would have an answer.  They might be stock answers, but if they are true for you, then they're still good.  Somehow, when you are not the one asking the question, you magically have the answer to it.  You can solve everyone's problems but your own.  Fortunately, there is a way around it.

Pretend that somebody else is asking you.  Heck, pretend that one of your characters breaks the fourth wall to ask you how to be compelling.  If not,just imagine yourself in a classroom, in front of a group of students, and one of them asks you the question you are pondering.  You don't have the ability to blow it off and you can't keep them waiting.

Start answering the question.  You may stammer or stumble over your words or trip on your tongue, but you can start working on that answer.

Put yourself on the spot.  Make yourself uncomfortable. You will find anything possible to get out of that feeling.  And if the way out is answering some puzzling question, then you have fixed two problems: being uncomfortable and knowing the answer to your question.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Redundancy As Clarification

While I was writing about redundancy yesterday, I realized that it serves even more purposes.  Redundancy can be used for clarification.

I like to use big words.  I also like obscure words.  But I hate not being understood.  So when I use a word I don't think people will understand, I repeat what I said in simpler words.

"She was seething when she found out, just furious beyond comprehension."  I don't need the second half of that sentence.  All I did was define 'seething'.  But do you know what 'seething' meant?  How many people do you think do?  It's not a very obscure word, but it is hardly common.

Now, the editor in me is making an argument.  If you are just going to define the word you wanted to use, why not just drop the word and use the definition in its place?  I have to admit that this is a valid point.  I could easily argue that words that people don't understand should simply be avoided to save time, energy, and confusion.  However, I do have an equally valid counterargument: screw them!

I like the words I choose.  If people don't understand them, they can look them up.  I am saving them that trouble by giving them a definition in the text.  And on top of that, I use words that sound good.  If you don't know what 'seething' meant, you will know it in the sentences where I use the word.

This is another exception to the redundancy rule. By repeating yourself for clarity, you are making your prose stronger, not weaker, by having more people follow you without needing to stop.  This can also be combined with Redundancy As Exclamation to reinforce how important that one large word is (which is probably why you used it in the first place).

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Redundancy As Exclamation

We are taught that redundancy is a bad thing.  Well, it certainly can be.  Saying the same thing over and over again can get old pretty quickly.  But sometimes redundancy has its uses.  For example, it can be used as an exclamation.

"This is the same exact meal I got the last seven days."  The word "exact" is redundant; it could be dropped and the sentence would not be changed.  If the meals were different, then the speaker didn't get the same meals, only similar meals.

But that word does affect the sentence.  There is a noticeable difference between "This is the same meal I got the last seven days" and "This is the same exact meal I got the last seven days."  The latter sentence, with that redundant word in it, has a stronger emphasis.  It is obvious that the speaker really cares about this fact and is stressing that the meals were not merely similar.

This one word, in fact, adds a tremendous amount of detail.  It may be unnecessary from the standpoint of grammar, but it is crucial in explaining the thoughts and feelings of the speaker.

In this case, there are no redundancies; removing that one word assuredly changes the sentence.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

"Balanced" Does Not Mean "Neutral"

Think about a classic balance scale, like the one Lady Liberty holds.  When both sides are parallel to the ground, they are balanced.  This is generally how we think of balance: everything sitting still and equally portioned out.  But there is a completely different way to be balanced.

Balance can be considered to be when positive and negative forces cancel each other out, leaving no effect.  Imagine having something that weighs 5 pounds on the left side of the scale for a day, then putting it on the right side for another day.  The scale has been balanced in a certain light.  It was up to the left for one day and up to the right for one day.  Although the scale was never level, it has been on both sides for the same amount of time.  That is a kind of balance.

Abstract examples are only so helpful, though.  Let's use people.  I post an entry here every day.  Well, not exactly.  I didn't post one yesterday.  But I'm posting two of them tonight.  If I skipped 5 days in a row, then on the sixth day, I would write six entries.  So although I am not steady, I do balance out.

If somebody never did anything good or evil, they would be balanced.  The net number is zero.  This person would also be completely neutral.  If somebody sometimes did nice things for people, but didn't do bad things, he would be considered good.  The net charge is positive.  If somebody would sometimes help out random strangers and other times assault them, this person would be balanced.  They would not be neutral at all because they have extreme highs and extreme lows, but they balance out.

Balance is important to me.  No matter what, things have to add up right. My writing time and quality has to balance out.  My characters may or may not be balanced, but they need to both be able to act unbalanced and to know how to handle the imbalanced.

Really, just remember that being fair and even does not mean being boring; it just means being fair.

Diarrhea of the Mouth

I first heard the phrase in high school.  It was one of the funniest things I had ever heard.  It is a massive, unstoppable, uncontrollable deluge of crap spewing forth in the form of speech.  It's a pretty good way to describe how most high school students speak.  But I have recently found that there is more to it and that it's not always negative.

Sometimes random words or phrases pop into my head.  I don't control it and I don't usually want to (except for choosing to say them out loud or not).  They are a completely unexpected addition to my day.  In fact, it feels like spontaneous creation to me.

I've been in the market for both a new computer and a new cell phone.  For both of them, the ease of writing is a significant factor to me.  Keyboards are just as important as sheer functionality.  But when I am sitting in front of a demo model, I have no idea what to do with it.  I know I need to type something, but what?  There's nothing I need to type, nothing I've been wanting to type.  I need to move my fingers, but they need to be doing something real.  Mashing buttons tells you nothing about the ease and comfort of typing.

This is where diarrhea of the mouth is awesome.  I just hit a button, then hit another one, then another.  Those buttons are turning into a word, which leads directly into more words, becoming a sentence, and then a paragraph.  It may make no sense, or it may be brilliant.  All I know is that it gets my fingers using a keyboard.

An example of me doing just what I described:
Every time there is a man walking by a biscuit factory, there is a dozen biscuits being bought by the end of the thirtieth day.  In some situations, seven stacks simply set silly expectations.

I don't think that was particularly good.  It wasn't funny or clever or dramatic.  It was just a bunch of drivel.  But this time, I ended up creating some alliteration.  This makes me want to do more alliteration, which is pretty much always fun (though challenging).

In this case, my diarrhea of the mouth has spawned a desire to write more and given me some ideas of things to create.  This is the best part of that spontaneous creation: sometimes it creates pure gold.  Even if it made bronze or silver, it's still a winner.

Give it a shot. Spit out the first thing that pops into your mind and keep on going.  I want to see what you've got.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Concepts vs. People

I very rarely write stories about people.  There are enough of them out there.  And as interesting as people can be, they don't hold my interest as much as concepts.

Some quick definitions: A story about people covers an individual or small collection of people and their inner thoughts and feelings and how they affect their lives.  A story about concepts is more about the world and society that people live in.

What if a nuclear holocaust resulted in two sets of people: those who live in a safe underground city, and those who are survivors of the attack on the surface?  What problems would each one have?  How do they both survive? What would happen if they discovered each other?  Those are the questions I come up with to write a story about a concept.  The people in them are incidental, mere tools with which to show my concept.

What if a person was so fascinated by solving puzzles that he learned how to pick locks just for the challenge?  What if he started picking house locks and did it while people were sleeping in them just for the extra challenge? What kind of personality would compel a person to act like that?  With that personality, what else would they be compelled to do?  Those are the questions asked of a story about a person.

Both of these are valid (and mine).  The difference between the two ends up being minimal.  Both need people in them.  People always drive a story.  It is simply a matter of how much we end up caring about the people and how much we end up caring about the world they're in.  But that decision isn't always up to us.  The readers decide to focus on the foreground or the background.  And since the foreground is people, it is easier to care about them.

Regardless of the focus you chose, you will need both people and a place for them to be.  Make them both interesting.  No matter how cool your fantasy world may be, if it is inhabited by stiff, poorly-speaking clones of each other (in that they all speak and act the same exact ways), nobody will care about it.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Be As Elaborate As The Story Demands

Although you should be as elaborate as you are allowed, that is only half of the equation.  If you are only allowed a brief moment to tell your story, you must fit your story to that requirement.  But what if you have no time constraints?  What do you do when it's all up to you?

Be as elaborate as the story demands.  Some stories are easy to tell.  "I saw a raccoon for the first time today; it was cool."

Other stories take more time and effort.  Some have a lot of backstory.  Sometimes you have to tell one story just for another story to even make sense.

Fortunately, however much depth your story needs, you can give it when you have this kind of freedom.

No matter how much freedom you have to tell a story, the story itself gives you a natural demand.  I find that to be a comfort.  I'm not in a shapeless void; I am filling in the natural shape already in place to make my story be the best it can be.