Sunday, January 31, 2010

Don't Overthink

Writing is a very cerebral activity. It requires a lot of thinking. The problem is that it is easy to spend too much time thinking. When you have a big project you want to write, you spend too much time trying to figure out every tiny detail. When you want to do a small project, you spend too much time trying to perfect every tiny detail.

To echo the rallying cry of my own teachers, you're only a writer on days that you write. If you want to write something, then go ahead and write. You don't have to make it perfect. You don't even have to know what's going to happen next. Writing is just as much about discovery as it is about creation and fine-tuning.

I've heard it said that all of the pre-writing that a person does for a story constitutes about 20% of the whole story, and about half of it gets thrown out. So if you wrote a 100-page story, you only had about 10 pages of it in your head. The rest of it all came to you while you were writing. I can attest to that being true for me. I write my first drafts to figure out what the story is. After that, I trash it and start over, now knowing what the story is.

So if you find yourself being paralyzed by your desire to plan things out, stop it. Don't overthink. Just start writing what you know and figure out the rest of it as you go. Be a writer; write something.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Making Characters: By Association

I've heard it said that you can judge people by the company they keep. If you see somebody who hangs out with sexist jerks all the time, there is a good chance that this person is also a sexist jerk. Usually, though, things are not that simple.

People can have very different sets of friends. One person could have a friend who talks bout worldly matters like politics and religion, another friend who talks about video games a comic books, another friend who is an active participant in community outreach programs, and yet another friend who likes to tell jokes about peeing on things that shouldn't be peed on. Judging from these friends, the person in question is not easily defined. Still though, we can get an idea for the things that this person likes and would be interested in.

When you want to create characters, consider this approach: figure out who this person's friends are and why. If you can determine what characteristics your character resonates with, you will better understand your character for it.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Making Characters: By Beliefs

Suppose you came across a notebook. There was no name or marking that would indicate who the author is. Inside, you found all of the pages were filled with declaratory statements. This notebook is a collection of the author's beliefs, like a bible or a manifesto. If you read through this notebook, you would probably have a good feeling for who this person is.

People can be defined and understood by their personal beliefs. You can therefore create your characters by creating their belief system. This is not necessarily easy. In fact, trying to understand a person's beliefs is one of the hardest things to do (unless you can ask them and they feel like sharing and they have also thought about it). Of course, if the first thing you create is a belief system, then it will be very easy to understand that character's thoughts and actions.

The reason that creating belief systems is so difficult is that all the easy ones are boring. Lex Luthor has a simple belief system: power and money, and lots of it. Superman also has an easy system: no hurting the innocent. These characters are also flat and boring if those are their only motivations.

Most people have conflicts in belief. A classic example is when a person believes that fighting is wrong, but if personally attacked, will fight the attacker. It should be impossible to believe that all life is sacred, but also support the death penalty. However, these people do exist. Such people's belief systems are far more complicated than Superman's.

People tend to rank their beliefs. Stealing may be wrong, but condoning murder is far worse. So if a person could save a life by stealing something, it would be done. With conflicting beliefs, the question becomes which belief is stronger.

There are several ways to go about creating a belief system for a character. The first is to just throw a handful of random beliefs together and then try to figure out how they could work and what would cause those beliefs. For example, a character loves to play with children, enjoys making wines, and thoroughly hates the game horseshoes. Who is this person? What does he or she do? Why are those specific likes and dislikes? Does this ever cause conflicts?

If you wanted, you could create a character who specifically has conflicting beliefs. A character loves playing with children, but refuses to have any with his wife. A person loves going deer hunting for the meat, but has a pet cow that he refuses to kill.

Consider your own beliefs? What are the most important things to you? How come they are so significant? What would it be like if you had totally different important things? Would that person be an interesting character? Try writing a day in the life of that person and see what happens.

Like I said before, this is by no means an easy method. But if nothing else, it is great practice in understanding how beliefs work and realizing how vast and complex a real person's system of beliefs are.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Flip A Coin

On occasion, I have talked about the importance or being unpredictable. Writers should avoid predictable situations that have a limited number of outcomes and break unwritten rules to gain access to more possibilities than we usually think of.

With advice like this, it is easy to take it too far. For example, an unwritten rule is that the lower the odds of success, the more likely the hero is to succeed. Now, it is one thing to make a hero fail on occasion, but if you make the hero fail all the time, then you are still being predictable.

I am a fan of true randomness or chaos. If my story introduces a character on the first page, I don't want the audience to know if that character is a hero or a villain. I don't want them to know if that character will survive the whole book or die on page three. In essence, it should be a coin flip.

In fact, flipping a coin would be an interesting technique. Start writing a story. When you reach a fork in the road, assign each possibility an outcome. Flip a coin or throw a die and whatever it says, you make happen. From there, continue the story. When you reach another fork, repeat the process. This method will allow some real randomness, but still require your creativity to come up with the possibilities and write them in an interesting way.

Give chaos a shot. It could make for the best thing you've ever written. It could also make a steaming pile of garbage. That's just the nature of chaos.

Break Unwritten Rules

There are certain unwritten rules of writing and storytelling. For example, seemingly random and unimportant lessons or items will always be pivotal in saving the hero's life. The hero always wins in the end. The main character doesn't die. When secondary characters die, it strengthens the main character. These rules exist because they make for good stories. We love rooting for the underdog and seeing an individual overcome trials and adversities to be the greatest. Death is terribly sad, but when the emotions involved allow the hero to do something otherwise impossible, it gives that death meaning, making it less sad or bittersweet.

The problem with these rules is that they become predictable. Whenever a story puts the hero in mortal danger, I am never scared or worried because I know the hero cannot be killed. Do you honestly believe that Harry Potter could be killed in book three of the seven-book series that bears his name? Of course not. So why should I be worried for his safety?

I believe that it is important to break some of these unwritten rules. I never want my readers to know what is going to happen next. One of my main goals in writing is to make readers think. As such, surprising them is fairly integral. People don't think about things they already know, so you have to show them something they don't know.

Now, I will say that this isn't always appropriate. Breaking these rules usually results in darker stories. If you're writing a children's story, it should be kept more traditional. You also shouldn't make your characters go against their personality in order to be surprising. If you have a character who is established as being staunchly opposed to murder, he probably shouldn't commit any murder unless he has an extremely good reason for it.

Try breaking the rules and creating some uncommon situations, but still tell an interesting story. Remember that the most important part of writing is to entertain. Being different does you no good if you're boring.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Thoughts on 'Cutting'

I have three friends who follow three different fields: writing, exercising, and psychology. At first glance, these three interests have nothing to do with one another. Of course, if you tried hard enough, you could find similarities. One such similarity is that they all use the term 'cutting'. However, although the term is the same, the meanings are vastly different.

In writing, cutting is the act of removing text. It could be words, phrases, sentences, and so on. In exercising, cutting is the act of lowering body fat percentage. This can be done by burning more calories than one ingests or by adding more muscle mass (making the amount of body fat relatively lower). In psychology, or at least in therapy, cutting means a form of self-mutilation.

It occurs to me that 'cutting' is an abbreviation of sorts. In writing, we are 'cutting out' (which is synonymous with removing) and the cutting of exercising is 'cutting down' (which is lowering). The form of cutting used in mutilation is the standard form of cutting, by which I mean to slice open with a sharp object. That 'cutting' stands on its own, but it could also be short for the phrase 'cutting open'.

What this all means is that every field has its own specialized vocabulary, but not always unique words. If you are writing for an audience within that field, feel free to use that vocabulary. If you are writing for others, you should spell things out to void confusion. In general, context can explain a lot of what you are intending, but you can save your audience a lot of trouble by just explaining your vocabulary to begin with.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Brainstorming Technique: Find Similarities

An effective means of making a point is to show the similarities between two seemingly unrelated things. It is naturally interesting because most people will not have made the connection, so it provides new things to think about.

It isn't too difficult to find similarities between things. All you have to do is break things down into their most basic descriptions, and find which ones have the same descriptions. For example, a couch is cushioned furniture we lie down on. A bed is the same. From here, you can look for ideas that treat a couch like a bed or a bed like a couch. Since the two are different, there is an absurdity that can come from treating one like the other.

Of course, beds and couches aren't that dissimilar in general. If you want to be more absurd, go for simpler definitions. A couch is a big soft thing. A panda bear is also a big soft thing. Imagine writing a story wherek, instead of a couch, a person owns a panda. The panda stays in the living room and the owner will sit on it while watching TV, occasionally sleeping on it instead of going to bed. Now you have something very strange that you can play with.

The beauty of finding similarities is that it is more difficult to find any two things that don't have any similarities. A fun game to play is to pick two completely random objects and find the similarities between them. For one thing, it will stretch your mind. For another, it will get you thinking of things in unconventional ways.

There are many different ways to try this technique. You could start by choosing two things and looking for similarities or you could think of all the qualities of one thing and then look for something else that shares those qualities. You could do these exercises in your head or you could do them on paper. There's no wrong way to do this.

If you need a push, try finding the similarities between a vacuum cleaner and a garden hose. If you want something more difficult, find the similarities between a rhinoceros and a Frisbee.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Starting With Creative Nonfiction

I have often seen people who want to write something, but have no idea what to write about. If I suggest a few random ideas, they usually get rejected for not being interesting. If I ask what they want to write, it is usually a fictional story, usually of a large scale. So if they already know what they want, why can't they write it? "I don't know how to come up with it all and put it together."

I enjoy large-scale fiction, so I would definitely encourage a person who wants to create it to just go for it. But as a guide, I would recommend starting with something simpler. If a writer wants to tell a grand story, but has trouble with character actions and interactions, then I would suggest starting with creative nonfiction. Since a story is a story, whether real or fake, it will be just like writing fiction, only you already know how the story goes. If you write a nonfiction story, you already know that the characters are real, so all you have to do is learn how to portray them realistically and figure out how and why they do the things they do.

Creative nonfiction is nice because you don't have to strain to figure out what should happen next or anything like that. You can focus solely on your telling of the story to engage the reader and develop your voice. It is like training wheels for writing. Of course, I do not mean to denigrate creative nonfiction. It is just as valid as fiction. It is simply nice because you already know all of the events. The only real drawback to it is finding a story that you think is interesting enough to write down.

I won't say that everybody should write creative nonfiction before writing fiction, but I will say that it can be a very helpful first step in the writing process. Most people are already doing it anyway, justifying it as writing what you know. So just go with the flow and get writing.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

A Story is A Story

I tend to talk about writing as a whole. Part of it is that it's a lot easier to do. If everything I wrote about had a different section for each kind of writing, they would be incomprehensibly long. More importantly, though, they would be very repetitious. Although every form of writing has its own nuances, the similarities between them far outweigh the differences.

One such example is with stories. When we talk about writing a story, we usually assume it is a fictional piece, like a short story or novel. When I write about stories, I usually am envisioning a fictional work. However, most of the principles perfectly apply to nonfiction work. Use of language should be engaging and create an atmosphere for your story. People need to be characterized. The story needs a balance between information, observation, and action.

I think the main problem is that we have hangups about nonfiction. We think that because we are telling a true story, we have to be factual and upfront. That's great if you're giving a deposition, but is otherwise not necessary. Imagine you are telling your friends about a crazy road trip you took. That's a story. You also want to be entertaining, so you are going to give it a mood, an energy, pack it full of jokes and hilarious observations. You should write a nonfiction story with the same ideas.

Ultimately, a story is a story, whether real or fake. The only difference is that a nonfiction story is limited in what you can say. But even that's not a big deal. If there is a real story that you want to tell, it is probably interesting enough already, so you don't need to worry about figuring out what should happen next. But when you write fiction, characters tend to become real enough that they take over and choose their own actions. At that point, you're just as limited as you would be if you were writing nonfiction.

So remember that no matter what kind of story you want to tell, the most important thing is to be a good storyteller.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Avoid Predictable Situations

When I am following a story, whether it be a book or a movie, I can't help from wondering what will happen next. But the surest way to break me out of the story is to create a very predictable situation. At that point, I'm no longer wondering what happens next, so I just wait for the obvious conclusion to occur.

For a classic example, consider a story where the main character is sneaking into or out of a building. There is the quintessential scene where the protagonist is hiding and a guard is inches away. This is supposed to be a very tense situation, but to me it is boring. People are normally gripped with wondering if the person they've been rooting for is going to make it or not. But to me, there are only two possible options: the guard spots the hero or the guard doesn't spot the hero. So the only thing I wonder is which one the writer chose.

A classic argument to this dichotomy is the introduction of a third party. What if the protagonist's friend shows up out of nowhere and incapacitates the guard in question? Well, then it is still a case of the hero didn't get caught. And if that friend screwed up the rescue event and alerted the guards, then the hero got noticed (or at least was not completely successful in not causing a stir).

Now, one might make the argument that I am oversimplifying, that any situation can be broken down into simple paths of which one must be chosen. To that, I respond, only if you are a boring writer. These choices are easy to create because they seem so dramatic. The problem is that all of these situations have been done, usually to death. If you create situations with more possibilities, it makes it more difficult for the reader to guess what is going to happen.

Travel to new locations. Meet new people. Have large groups of people in the same area. In these situations, anything is possible. A new location may be very similar or vastly different, but it may also be a blend of the two (perhaps certain customs or phrases exist in both places, but they have different meanings). New people are always unpredictable until we learn who they are (unless you are a very flat and obvious writer). Putting several people all in the same area allows them to feed off each other. If there is an intense dialogue, another person can chime in to change directions. There can also be two different conversations going on which can merge over time. For example, if the hero is discussing a plan to sneak into a building and some kid is talking about how good he is at paddle ball until the string snaps and the ball flies everywhere, the hero could overhear that story and get an idea to create a diversion.

These are but a few examples and situations that can work. I admit that it is difficult to avoid predictable situations, but it is worth it. The point of writing for others is to entertain, so avoid predictable situations, and you will be far better at entertaining.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

There's Always More To Learn

I read a lot of comics regularly. Most of them use recurring characters. TV shows usually work the same way. One of the techniques I find interesting is learning about a character's past. Something happens in the present that makes us learn of a person or event from before we ever met the character. I think it's cool because it both creates a new story and adds depth to an existing character.

Characters don't need to have a dark and mysterious past for this technique to work, either. They simply need to be alive. If you have an adult character, they were obviously kids once. They had parents and may have had other caretakers. They may have siblings or other family members. Even as adults, they have probably had other jobs, other friends, or lived in another place where they had other experiences.

There is always more to learn about your characters. Even for you, their creator. You don't need to know their entire lives from birth to present. You can create their histories as you see fit. If you know who your characters are and how they feel, you can create instances from the past that explain why the characters are the way they are.

If you want to know who your characters are, explore their past. If you want to come up with a story, explore your characters' pasts. No matter hohw much you think you know about them, there will always be more to learn.

Old Dogs

In the an episode of Futurama, the election for the president of Earth are around the corner and the professor talks about how important it is to vote. Leela asks the professor when he got so interested in politics. The professor responds, "The very moment I became old."

I think it's funny, but it also makes me wonder, when are we old? Picking an age seems very arbitrary. Usually, when we call people old, we are implying that they are past their prime and not useful. That idea of age seems more useful than picking a number. So the question becomes, how do we know when we are losing our ability?

When I look at life, I see that it is constantly changing. The things that don't change usually die faster. If you don't grow or evolve, something or someone will come along and find exactly how to take you down. Since you never change, you become completely predictable. My general rule is that as soon as something stagnates, it instantly loses 50% of its effectiveness. In terms of being old, I will say that as soon as you stagnate, you're old.

When we are children, we are always learning changing, and growing. Everything in the world is new to us and every piece of knowledge we gain leads to several more avenues to explore. We are amazed by the vastness of it and excited to learn as much as we can. Eventually, though, we will have explored a great deal of the avenues. We have so much knowledge that we can answer any of the questions we are asked and solve all the problems we get. Then we start thinking that we know everything. And at that point, we no longer wish to learn. We already know everything, so anything else that somebody says must be wrong. That is the very moment when we become old, when we no longer want to learn.

I've heard that you can't teach an old dog new tricks. Whether or not the statement is true, the sentiment is. People, as well as dogs, get set in their ways over time. When a person no longer wants to learn, they can't be taught. If you don't want to be an old dog, keep on learning. Keep on knowing that there is always more to learn and go out and find that knowledge. Keep on changing, growing and evolving.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Proper vs. Improper English

Anybody who speaks differently than you is speaking "improper English". That seems to be how most people work. It doesn't help that we are trained as children that there is proper and improper English, which we usually call right and wrong.

I personally am very conflicted on the issue. I grew up with proper English and I learned all the rules (well, not all of them, but way more than most people know). I understand how useful it is to have a universal language and that it can only exist from standardization. I like knowing the rules, being able to use them in their right places, and especially being able to explain them. I love knowing spelling and derivations and word origins. Proper English, which is really Standard English, is comfortable.

However, I also have seen language change. I have existed during language change (we all have, but rarely recognize it until it's too late). I have studied language and I know it is impossible to stop. Heck, I know that the version of English I grew up with is so severely mangled and mutated from what English used to be that I would be a major hypocrite by suggesting that my version was proper and all others were wrong.

This is a fight that will probably never end. The best I have been able to do is make peace with that. I have also learned to just let go and do my own thing. Standard English isn't a bad thing, so there is no reason nont to do it. But if I want to use nonstandard English, assuming I am somewhere where it is acceptable, I will not feel bad about being "wrong".

Why Did I Want To Write That?

I always get really interesting ideas when I am nestled in bed, ready to go to sleep. When this happens, I have to convince myself to crawl out of bed, put my glasses on, get some light, find a scrap of paper and a pencil and write it down. Some nights, I am just too tired to go through that effort, so I just go to sleep. This usually means that I forget the idea in the morning. Sometimes, though, I actually remember it.

It's so rare that I remember an idea that I am super excited to get to work on it. The problem is that I usually don't like the idea. I sit down and try so hard to figure out how to write what I was thinking about it, but I just don't care. I find myself asking, why did I want to write that?

I realize now that the problem is not just a matter of the idea itself, but also a matter of passion. When I get an idea, it strikes me. My whole body perks up, my mind sparks, and I just have to write. That spark needs to be kept alive. I need to turn it into an ember so I can turn that into a fire. If I have a spark and leave it alone, I may have the materials, but I won't have the energy anymore.

If you find yourself in this situation, you have a few different options. The first one is to give it up and throw it out; if it has no soul, it won't be worth writing. The second option is to push through it; perhaps by going through the motions, it might rekindle that spark of interest you had when you came up with the idea. A third option would be to leave it alone. Write down the idea and keep it on the back burner until that spark hits you again.

From experience, the best thing to do is to start writing, even if it's a pain in the butt. At least you will have something for it. If you don't do it right away, you may not get it again. If you are willing to let an idea go and you understand the risks involved, then go for it. But if you later feel regret, then maybe that's a sign that it is worth the trouble.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Diversity vs. Specialization

I love playing Super Smash Bros. I played it a ton in college with my friends and got very good at it. I reached a point where I may not win at professional tournaments, but I could destroy any casual player. I played with many different people, all of whom had different preferences on how to play.

Some of my friends loved playing 4-player free-for-all. Others preferred playing 2-on-2 or 1-on-3 team matches. Some people loved using items and others never had them on. My friends and I all got a taste of just about every variation of combat situations and got pretty good at all of them.

The same thing would happen with characters. In Super Smash Bros. Melee, which I played the most, there are 26 characters to choose from. Though there are definitely characters I liked more than others, I learned how to fight with any of them. Some I did better with, so I stuck with my favorites, but even still, I had maybe 6 different characters I would switch between regularly.

A couple of my friends, though, would only play in tournament style. This meant playing one-on-one duels with no items on a flat terrain. Essentially, these fights would be a matter of pure skill. I had no problem playing the game this way, but it was insanely frustrating because those friends were insanely good at it. They studied on how to be the most effective with a character and they only used that one person.

After enough pleading, I would occasionally get my friends to play anything other than tournament style. At that point, I destroyed them.

This story has nothing to do with writing, but it does illustrate the difference between diversity and specialization. And that does have to do with writing. As a writer, you make a number of choices about what you write. There are forms (essay, poem, short story), genres (comedy, horror, sci-fi), and subjects (judicial system, vampires, high school). You could choose to write in any form, with any genre, about any subject, or you could do the opposite and only write one very specific kind of thing.

When I was in college (during that time that I wasn't playing video games), my writing professors would say that I should specialize. I should figure out what kind of writing I want to do and focus on doing it the best I can. I admit it is pretty good advice. Being good at a lot of different kinds of writing is nice, but it also means that I won't stand out in any one field. So by specializing, it gives me the best choice of being the best writer I can be. However, it can also turn me into a one-trick pony.

That is the unending conflict between diversification and specialization. The only answer to what to do is inside you. My recommendation is to do the kind of writing you want to do. If you are writing for yourself (as opposed to doing it for a job), then you should make yourself happy. If you feel like doing several stories in a similar vein, then go for it. If you want to try a bit of everything, then do that instead. If there is a middle ground and you have about 6 different things that you like to switch between, that's fine, too. Writing something you are interested in should yield better results than writing something you don't care about. Eventually, you will weed out the stuff you don't like and you will specialize to some degree just out of interest alone.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Writing Exercise: Choose A Different Tine

It can be difficult to come up with an idea for a story that you like. It can feel like everything has already been done and whatever you come up with is ripping off another story. If you are in such a situation of writer's block, then the best cure is to start writing. Specifically, start writing a story that has already been done.

The way you will change it is by choosing a different path. At some point in a story, a character is given a choice. It can be an internal choice like being selfless or being greedy, or it can be a seemingly unimportant choice like getting Pepsi or Coke at the grocery store. Whatever the choice may be, when the character comes across the fork in the road, have them choose the alternate tine. If somebody chose to walk around a mountain, have the climb up it. It should create a whole new set of experiences which may drastically change the rest of the story.

The idea behind this practice is to get your mind moving. You start following a familiar trail. Eventually, your mind starts wandering and asking what-if questions; what if something different happened or what if the character reacted in a different way? If you don't get curious, you may also just get bored. If you are already familiar with the story you are writing, you may choose to create something totally different just to keep yourself interested. Regardless of why it happens, making a character choose a different option may be all you need to come up with a totally different story all your own.

Put A Spin on Classics

I saw the movie Avatar and had mixed feelings toward it. On the one hand, it was visually wonderful and even the 3D effects were well-executed and not cheesy at all. On the other hand, the story was really boring.

Absolutely everything about this movie was stereotypical, or if you want to use fancy educated words, archetypal. The characters, their actions, and the entire story as a whole are so unoriginal that Avatar has been called another clone of classic movies like Dances With Wolves and more recent movies like Pocahontas. However, despite the derivative nature of the story, I was not bored while watching the movie. In fact, I was entertained throughout the majority of the movie.

So I wonder, how come a story can be thoroughly unoriginal, yet the end product still be entertaining? Part of it is the fact that this story is a classic. And classics are classic because they are good. They are stories that affect people from all over, from all walks of life and throughout countless generations. They are solidly constructed and the important characters grow and change from beginning to end.

Even still, a complete rehash will still get boring, so there has to be another part, a new spin on a classic story. Avatar was groundbreakingly expensive. The special effects used for that movie, and the blending to make them seamless with the actors were beyond any other movie ever made. The presentation was so exquisite that it made up for the cliche story.

If you are writing prose only, you do not have this luxury. You can't spice up a basic story with dazzling images. However, you can still play with classic stories. Tell a story in your own words. Make your own characters. Add your style to it. A classic storyline can work as a great base, but feel free to branch off. When you put your spin on a classic story, it becomes yours and it becomes interesting because it is new.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Shots in the Dark

Part of the point of this blog is to give advice to other writers. In doing this, I have gained an understanding in the difficulties of giving advice to strangers I may never meet. Such difficulties seem obvious when I put it that way, but when I was a mere student, reading books of advice on writing, it seemed so strange how pointless they seemed to me. Now I know why they were.

My advice pretty much amounts to avoiding my mistakes, seeing my observations, and learning my beliefs and techniques. I don't really consider this giving advice so much as reading my diary (which, as we all know, is what blogs were in the first place). Reading a writer's diary may provide some useful information, but it may be completely useless if you are significantly different from the writer.

To me, advice is tailor-made. If I am working with another writer, I will learn that person's style, habit, and problems. When I give advice to that person, it will always be relevant. Giving irrelevant advice is a waste of breath.

However, this is not to say that all general advice is bad. If some person was reading this blog and found 99% of it to be completely irrelevant and useless, then there would still be three or four posts that would be worthwhile. In that particular case, it may not be worth trudging through that many lousy posts to find a diamond, but I doubt most people are in that position. The point is that, because my advice is not tailored to any specific person with specific problems, all of my posts are just shots in the dark. Some may talk about something that has been problematic all your life, some may talk about something you are so good at that you can't believe anybody would ever have a problem with it.

If you are reading somebody's general writing advice, take it with a grain of salt. You're reading somebody's diary. If they help you, great. If they don't help, no big deal. They weren't specifically trying to help you in the first place.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

First Can Be Best

When I revise my writing, I read through my piece and whenever I come across something that I don't like, I come up with a new version that I do like. When I really get into it, I become a rewriting machine. It is scary because it means that I don't like most of what I wrote in my last draft. But what is more scary is when I find something that I don't want to rewrite.

When I'm in editing mode, I want to edit. If I go through a page and have no changes to make, I feel like I'm missing something. But on occasion, I really like something I've rewritten. Even if I have no strong connection to it, the editor in my mind has no problems with it and might as well just leave it alone because there's nothing to do. It is at this point that the conflict comes. The editor feels like he isn't doing his job unless he makes changes, but he also shouldn't try to fix things that aren't broken.

Ultimately, I know that it is possible that the first version of something I wrote might just be the best version. I need to trust that if I can't find any problems with it, I should leave it alone. However, I also need to make sure that I never use it as a crutch. Just because I like something that I wrote the first time doesn't mean it's perfect. The bottom line is to always do whatever makes your writing the strongest. Everything else is less important.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Day and Night

I love the night. I think it is beautiful, peaceful, and serene. I also seem to only get writing done at night. While I can force myself to get writing done during the daytime, it's far more difficult than writing while the sun is down. Sometimes I think about how productive I could be if it was always night time. Then I realize that it isn't what I thought.

In the late winter, when we only get 6-8 hours of sun a day, I sometimes sleep through those hours. There have been times where I go to bed around 6 AM and get up at 3 PM. At that point, Ii'd have a couple of hours before sundown. But it would take me that long to fully wake up. When I would see that it was already getting dark out, I would feel terrible. I would say that I wasted the day. I feel like there was so much other stuff to do that I never got a chance to do because the day was already over.

Now, I admit that this flies in the face of the 8/8/8 idea that you never lose time, just rearrange it. However, the inherent understanding that night time is the end of the day is far stronger and harder to ignore. So in this case, although I basically have a full day of night time, I still don't feel productive. In fact, I feel worse than ever.

I have learned two things from doing this. One is that humans need to have both daylight and night time in their life. If you only have one or the other, it really messes with your psyche. The other thing is that writing is not so much a night time activity as it is an end of the day activity. I like to write after I have done everything else that I need to do, I'm a little tired, and I can slip into bed right after. The most important thing for a writer is balance.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Hiding Behind Pages

An odd curiosity I have noticed about many writers is that they would love to become famous for their writing, but absolutely hate to make public appearances. They spend hours trying to create the perfect, most powerful words they can, but if asked to read those words aloud, get stage fright bad enough to pass out.

It has always seemed to me that these writers are hiding behind their pages. Whether it be a fear of others, a lack of self-confidence, or any other reason, I don't like it. I know that I have been the same way and, truth be told, I'm still a pretty shy guy myself. But still, there reaches a point where you have to just take the plunge and be social out there in the great big world.

Sure, it is nice and safe behind your desk, with just you and your paper or computer, but you need to be part of the real world at least a little bit. Our ideas and inspirations come from the real world. If we never put ourselves out there, we are stunting our growth in writing ability. Besides, if youare brave and strong enough to start writing something then see it through to its very end, you are definitely strong enough to go out and be public.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Why Are We Still Writing?

From the mid-1900s to the present day, we always envision the future of communication in the same way: audio/visual. Dick Tracy, for example, had a two-way video watch. Ideas like video phones were common futuristic devices even in the late 90s when The Simpsons used it in an episode that envisioned the future. Nowadays, we go for 3-dimensional holograms for that futuristic look (though that idea was present in the '70s when Star Wars came out).

Now we are living in the future. We may not have hovercars, personal jetpacks, or domed cities, but this is definitely the future compared to the 1900s. And yet, when I look at the most common forms of communication, it is all text. Instant messengers, text messages, Twitter and Facebook updates, all are purely text. When we go to email, message boards, and blogs, we still largely see text. Although we do have increasingly sophisticated video technology, we largely don't care about it. Nobody wants video phones. Heck, people don't even like audio communication with their phones. So why is it that everybody thought they wanted video chat and holograms, but all they use is text?

Drawing from personal experiences and anecdotes from friends, I find the same thing coming up: audio/visual communication requires a lot of attention. Imagine being on a webcam and having a conversation. Much like a face-to-face conversation, you are receiving information via the words being said, the inflections of those words, and all of the nonverbal communication like facial expression and body movements. So although you are theoretically free to do other things while chatting, you will be losing a great deal of information. You have to make a decision to either spend all of your attention on the conversation or lose information by not paying full attention.

With text, though, it is permanent and can be read at one's own discretion. It is easy to send, receive, think about, and respond to (or choose not to respond to). The energy you have to put into writing to get as much meaning as possible out of it is far lower than the energy needed for a video conference, and the amount of information you get from either one is not that drastically different. I believe that is why we are still writing: it has the best return on investment of any form of communication. For that reason, I am excited to see the future, both of life in general and of writing in particular. I am happy that my chosen field, though it may change, is not dying any time soon. People still like reading, so a good writer is still useful.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Phases of Phrases

Lately, I haven't had a conversation where I didn't say "Such is life." Before that, I was always saying "largely". And before that, it was "significant", then "vast", then something else. I always go through these phases where I continuously use one phrase over and over again.

In conversation, it is pretty unpleasant. For one thing, it becomes a catchphrase. People stop listening to what you say and just wait for the catchphrase to come out. Some people will laugh at it because they will realize you are incapable of avoiding it. Other people will get annoyed by it because it is repetitive and boring, but tends to sound like you think it is the perfect word to use each and every time you use it.

Sometimes you don't even realize you are using the same phrase over and over again until somebody points it out. After that, you should become very aware of it. Every time you are going to say it again, you will think twice about it. Eventually it will bother you as much as it bothers everybody else and you will phase it out.

In writing, it mostly works the same way. Repeating words is a major faux pas in writing. When audiences see the same word coming up constantly, they start paying more attention to the word itself instead of the actual content that you've written. However, because your writing stays there for you to see, you should be able to notice when the same words keep popping up. Even if you miss it during the writing, you should see it during revision.

Although it is a good idea not to use the same words too much, don't completely avoid them. Sometimes it is a good idea to use "largely" in your sentence. Just don't put it in every sentence. Also, if you go through enough of these phases, you will find yourself with a large archive of words in your head and ready to use. Cycle through all of those words you like using. They're good words and, by the time you go through all of the ones you like, enough time will have passed for it to be natural to reuse the first one. Just be careful you don't slip into a new phase in the process.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Sequel Syndrome

If you write a good enough story, people will beg for a sequel. It seems to happen every time. The audience builds a connection with the characters, cares for them, follows them through good times and bad. When the journey is over, the audience is sad. They have to say goodbye to these friends forever. But if a sequel is made, then they don't have to say goodbye. They can keep being with their friends.

This is a great example of the power of good characters and how important they are to telling a good story. The problem is that people tend to forget that a good story is more than just the people in it. The audience gets to learn about a new world or society. They get to meet tons of new people and figure out who they are. They have to wonder if each new person met will be a new friend, a fierce enemy, or just a random passerby. Every aspect of the story is part of the experience.

That is what makes sequels so incredibly difficult to do. We already know the main characters, which ones are good (and therefore knowing that the rest must be bad), and the intricacies of the world in which they reside. At best, fifty percent of the experience is already had by reading the original.

I am not saying that a sequel cannot be done well. What I am saying is that it is very difficult. You need to be able to be just as new and brilliant in the second installation as you were in the first. That means that new characters need to come in, old characters need to go (or at least significantly change), a new area needs to be shown, and previously unknown or unmentioned aspects of the society need to come in.

For example, suppose you wrote a fantasy story about a young man who trained very hard to join his kingdom's army, got in, and fought in the great war. In this story, we would mostly see the military, the training grounds, and the battlefield. We would meet the other people in the man's group, and we would follow them as they infiltrate the country and manage to defeat the leader of the enemy army. After that story is over, how would you do a sequel? The best thing to do is make damn sure that it isn't just a rehash of the original. These people already fought a war. We don't need to read about another one.

Instead, consider what ought to happen next. The main character would become the commander of the army. The other members of his group would be his loyal generals. Top level people like this don't get sent into the front lines, for one thing. For another, this allows us to see a totally different part of the land. We can see how the royal class lives, what high society thinks of war, and how politics affect soldiers. This story could have the man, who grew up poor but devoted to his country, discover that his country cares nothing about him, his friends, or his family. As such, he could rebel against these leaders. Some of his generals would follow him, others would remain loyal to the kingdom. Now the familiar faces are in unfamiliar roles.

Sequels are an art that nobody seems to teach. I think that's why they're so difficult to do. A well-done sequel is very fun and enjoyable and just as good as the original. Use those qualities as a benchmark for audience reaction. And don't forget that a sequel should be able to stand on its own.

Broken Homes

I used to watch a lot of anime. I liked some of the bigger name series where the main characters are superpowered and keep getting stronger every time they face a new foe. During this time, I noticed that every character came from a broken home. Some of them had no family at all. Some lived with a grandparent or two. Some lived with one parent. Some only had a sibling (usually a younger one that needs to be taken care of). There were a lot of variations, but no matter what, they never had two living parents who lived together.

The thought occurred to me that maybe a broken family is needed to create a hero. If the character had a happy home life, there would be no impetus to venture out. After that thought, I looked in the background and noticed that every normal character, every villager that the heroes meet along their quest, they all have regular families. They are happy with what they have and the only thing they want is whatever bad guys are harassing them to be taken care of. Maybe that is why they are villagers and not adventurers.

This idea of the broken home is intriguing to me. It implies that the only characters that do interesting things are those with problems. And that is a pretty common theory of storytelling. The main character has a problem that is addressed, Otherwise, it is boring. But how does this work in other cultures?

I think about American stories. In America, independence and freedom are common and quite strong beliefs, so we tend to see characters who are already on their own. We never meet a hero's family. He is who he is and the experiences that shaped him were personal experiences, not time spent with or without his family. Perhaps, though, that says more than we realize. Maybe the fact that we never see a hero's family means that the hero didn't have enough of a family to matter.

Occasionally, we do see a hero who had a good family while growing up, but still became a hero. That means that something else happened that made the person unhappy. The adventuring comes to rectify some problem. Ultimately, just like the theory says, an interesting story shows characters with problems who must address those problems. Having a broken family is not a necessity, but it is a good way to create such problems in a character. One that many people can understand (even those who have not experienced it personally.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Theory and Application

When it comes to writing theory, I have come across some people with very extreme views against it. Some of my classmates hated theory. They said that the things we were being taught didn't help them become better writers. They said that the theory had nothing to do with the reality of writing; it was a theory that sounded good but was never applied, even by its creator.

Though I never completely agreed with those classmates, they did raise some points that I still consider. You could fill a small library just with books on writing theory. Everybody has their own opinions, some of which are in direct opposition to each other. So how do we figure out what is useful and what is bunk?

The simple answer is to try it out. Apply a theory to a piece of writing. If it works, keep it as a tool. If it fails, throw it away. Remember that we can write things just to experiment. Writing isn't just the creation of a final product; it can also be a laboratory where we figure out what works.

If I knew then what I know now, I would tell my classmates that they ought to try out the lessons they were being taught before dismissing them. Somebody who argues against a theory without having tried it themselves is just as foolish as somebody who creates a theory and never tests it out.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Reading Writing Theory

Theory on writing is a good thing. When people think about writing, break it down into smaller components, and figure out what they do and how they work, that information can help people get better at writing as a whole. People at any level of skill can benefit from studying writing theory, though beginners make the most use of it.

One thing I have found is that beginning writers, or people who want to start writing, tend to read a lot of writing theory. There is a lot of theory out there, from Ancient Greece to Present Day. Books about writing abound, as do blogs such as this one. It can be beneficial for beginners to read a lot of theory. They can get an idea for how much work this really s, as can they learn some common pitfalls to avoid when they start. In theory, it should give a serious leg up over other beginners.

The problem with beginners reading theory is that they will read too much of it. A beginner who learns about several dozen mistakes to avoid, techniques to use, and subjects to cover is likely to be overwhelmed. There is too much to think about, and it crowds out any ideas that the beginner may want to work on. Every sentence they write, every word or phrase, will be second-guessed for fear of being wrong or bad.

Writing needs to be dived into headfirst. Don't worry about being bad or wrong. That's why we have revising and editing. Instead of paralyzing yourself with a million thoughts, just let go of everything and write something. Even if you don't like it, you've at least gotten some practice in. You'll also know what not to do next time. As great as writing theory can be, sometimes the best teacher is experience. Don' forget to learn from it.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Shift of Power

In my last couple of posts, I've been talking about fame and power. Obviously, it's been on my mind lately. What started it all was the idea of the shift of power. When you are just beginning in your field, everybody has more experience, more knowledge, and more power. If you want to get anywhere, you have to do what these people tell you.

But as you do these things and work hard and create good stuff, it tends to be you that gets famous, which means it is you that has the power. One day, you will find that instead of listening to other people, other people are listening to you. When you tell them to do things, they will do them.

I think it is important to remember the Golden Rule in times like these. Ryan Sohmer, who writes the comic Least I Could Do and Looking For Group. was kicked out of the massive comic convention DragonCon. When this happened, he then wrote a lengthy post about it on both comics' websites. This has resulted in a numbers of enraged fans who are now specifically not going to DragonCon, as well as telling others not to go. Had the DragonCon people acted with respect and fairness, none of this would have happened. If I were to guess, I would say that they didn't realize that Sohmer had the power he does. Granted, DragonCon is bigger than Sohmer, so this is hardly going to destroy the convention, but it is going to make for bad publicity. And if similar things keep happening, more bad news will spread and it could cause more significant damage.

To the writers, I think it is important to realize that power does shift. It will not be instant, nor will you go from being a peon to a king, but you will find yourself having more sway as you have more people listening to and caring about you. Just remember that it goes both ways. If you want people to follow you, give them something worth following. For writers, that means give good writing.

Power and Responsibility

In my last post, I talked about how everything is working against you when you are new to a field, but that things change once you get a lucky break. That post was about fame, by which I mean people knowing about you or at least hearing about you. But another aspect in the same vein is power. If you are famous, it means that people are watching and listening to you. It means you not only have an audience, but an audience that cares. That means you have power.

I heard once that with great power comes great responsibility. When I look at Hollywood celebrities, I see that it is not a requirement to be a responsible person (and sometimes not even a decent human being). But I do find that people really like celebrities who do humanitarian things. If you reach a point where you have an interested audience, consider using that power for something good.

One day, I was reading some of the webcomics I follow and I noticed a couple of them talking about a company called Kiva, "the world's first person-to-person micro-lending website". The aim of the website is that regular people can invest relatively small amounts of money to people around the world to alleviate poverty. These webcomic people were encouraging people to join up and really make a difference around the world.

I have also seen, many times now, webcomic creators put very nice products, like their own merchandise or specially made products, up for auction, all of the money that is made then gets donated to a local food kitchen or some other charity.

I think it is a beautiful thing to see these people helping more than themselves. They want to do good things and they are using all of the power they have to do so. I think it is great to see people at any level of power doing what they can to do good. If you are able to attain more power, try to do even more good. I can't imagine doing good would ever make you feel bad, so why not?

Fame Breeds Fame

When you talk to a full-time, professional writer, you will often hear tales of how incredibly difficult it is to get into that position. The problem is that you have this nasty Catch-22 working against you. Nobody wants to publish you because you're a no-name, but you can't gain any recognition because nobody will publish you. The same thing occurs in almost every job field that requires experience.

The general advice is to start small, pay your dues, and work your way up the ladder. Eventually, you build up enough notoriety in one field to move up to the next rung. I suppose it is still good advice. It isn't the only option out there, what with self-publishing and self-promoting online, but the traditional print publishing isn't dead yet, so I won't discount it.

Of course, when you self-publish, you still have similar problems, mainly with promotion. The internet is a big place, it takes a great deal of effort to even be a blip on a radar. If you're on the internet and nobody has heard of you, nobody cares about you.

And that is one of those strange things I've found about life: Fame breeds fame. It is damn difficult to get a lucky break, but once you do, all you have to do is keep your momentum (I admit that's an oversimplification). Once people hear about you, they check you out, they talk about you, and the word spreads. Now you've got enough notoriety that small news sources report on you, which then feeds into larger news sources. Although it seems like your work and your continuing quality and improvement are what are attracting more viewers and bigger reporters, it is moreso a case of you being famous because people are saying you're famous.

Now, I also don't want to say that fame is random. Of course something of good quality is more likely to remain famous, but that isn't a guarantee. Plenty of high quality products are never heard of, and plenty of pure trash is well-known. In terms of human beings, you rarely see a news report about that guy who helps the homeless and does free repairs for the local children's bicycles, but try not hearing about Paris Hilton.

Because notoriety is so random, it's easy to say that you should just not worry about it and try your best to do what you can. However, knowing how a system works will allow you to manipulate it. Fame works on a ladder system, much like hard work does. Start with small news sources. Get your name out there. Offer to give interviews (some reporters would love to have a story find them). Start the work needed on the fame machine, then you can let it do the rest on its own.

Just don't forget to keep making a quality product.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Comma Space

I have recently picked up an old habit I used to have. Occasionally, when I am reading or writing and I come to a comma, I say "comma space". It is a strange habit, which is why I tend to say it in my mind or whisper it very softly, but I still do it and I am not trying to stop myself. I have actually found it to be useful.

One of my writing professors, from time to time, would give a workshop on performing our work. One of the things he would tell us is that "you Yankees talk too fast." He was write. All of my classmates would rush through their performances. Some were conscious of it and others were not. People mostly do it because of fear, but there is also the fact that many people simply talk very fast by nature. It may work for a one-on-one conversation, but it makes for lousy performances.

When I say "comma space", it adds a space between the words that the comma separates. If I say it in my head (i.e. silently) instead of saying it aloud, it naturally produces the perfect amount of space that a comma indicates. If you need to practice slowing down when giving an oral speech, "comma space" is an excellent tool for doing that. It also teaches you a certain amount of phrasing; breathe in when you say "comma space" and then keep going until you reach a period or the next comma. It sounds more natural that way.

The origin of "comma space" is in typing. When I write, I tend to use the write-the-way-you-speak approach, but I take it a step further. I actually say out loud the words I am typing. I naturally speak slower than I normally would because I am not a fast typist, but things like punctuation can add even more drag to my vocal train of thought. So I adopted the habit of saying the punctuation I was typing.

"Comma space" was the only spoken punctuation that stuck, but it has ended up being the most useful. Commas are the most used and most misused punctuation mark in English. Because I announced every time I was using a comma, it reinforced where and when to use commas. The rules got stuck in my head. Now I know when to use commas by feel, even when I don't know the proper rule for it. It ended up being a learning tool as much as it was a bizarre habit.

I don't necessarily advocate people saying "comma space" as they read or write. It won't be useful for everybody. I will say, though, that if you are having a problem with speaking too fast or misusing commas, this could be a useful exercise to help with your problems. It certainly can't hurt you to try it. Just make sure you aren't around anybody who is going to make you feel bad for doing it.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Fighting Fate

In epic stories, there is often some aspect of fate involved. It may be a prophecy that is destined to be fulfilled or it may involve a brilliantly executed plan. In any case, whenever something is destined to happen, there will be some person or some motley crew that will fight against it with all of their heart and soul (and usually succeed in overturning fate).

Challenging fate is a classic trope. It plays to our heartstrings because it lets us root for the underdog. It also usually involves the height of emotion, willpower, and physical ability. It couldn't be more dramatic.

It is very rare for a story to involve fate and not try to fight it. I believe that is because it wouldn't sell. People like happy endings and feeling like they make a difference in the world. The only time fate isn't fought is when the hero is destined to be the greatest hero.

This, of course, makes me want to do the exact opposite. I want to see a story where people simply accept fate. It wouldn't make for a summer blockbuster in any way, but it would make for an interesting read. Observe the humans that every other story ignores. See how people react to the fact that their fates are sealed. See what people do in their final days, hours, and minutes.

Fate is an extreme thing. It's black and white. Humanity tends to show itself in extreme situations, so whether you would fight fate or accept it, you will see human essence. That is, unless you're a bad writer.