Sunday, February 28, 2010


There is so much that goes in in people's lives that is never found in traditional storytelling. There is no epic poem where a guy is sitting on the toilet and realizes there's no toilet paper, nor is there a scene where a lady is waiting in line and can't figure out where some pungent odor is coming from. The minutia of life is just that, minute. It is small and insignificant, not worthy of being a story.

Of course, we all know that's just not true. Stories about the random stuff in life are so popular that they get their own genre: slice of life. Jerry Seinfeld made one of the most popular sitcoms of all time based on that very premise. 'Seinfeld' was called "a show about nothing", but it wasn't really about nothing. The stories always ended up becoming epics in their own right. There was a perfect storm of bad luck that made all of those little things into significant stories.

If you like to write about the little things, there's no problem with that. It's the little things that make up life. But try to give those stories a point. A subject or a message or an important task gives the audience something to hold on to and make them care about what happens next. Sometimes, real life is boring. That's why we like to escape into a good story and not just some stranger's diary.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

The "Right" Way

Writing students are often told that there's no wrong way to do something. Shortly after being told that, they are then given a laundry list of things to avoid doing. We have to use proper spelling and grammar (with slight exceptions in dialogue). We have to have a message. We have to make everything we mention be important and remember to mention every important thing. We have to have clear and smooth transitions from one idea to the next.

Even if there isn't a right way, there sure are a lot of wrong ways. So what gives? Personally, I think it is the struggle (both internal and external) between conformity and creativity. Let's face it, people like what they've already seen. Even if they don't particularly like it, they still like the comfort of already knowing it. The rules of writing tend to reflect that. The things you shouldn't be doing are the ones that the standard, regular writers don't do.

But writing, anything creative, has to break the rules. It has to break every single one of them. Rules are sterile and boring. Writing is all about being exciting and interesting. If you're just another iteration of the same ol' thing, why should anybody care about you specifically?

Every rule I've ever come up with, I could challenge. It's the nature of the beast. Writers have to have that "oh yeah? well screw you, I'm gonna do it" attitude about them. It's what drives them to break the rules and be interesting.

However, there is a saying that I first encountered in martial arts. "First you learn form. Then you break from form." And that is where the right way and the rules come from. You can't know how to break the rules until you know how to follow the rules. If you do whatever you want without every learning the rules, you may break them, but you will be completely shapeless and without structure.

Much like in jazz, the point is not simply to break the rules, but to break the rules and sound good doing it. The same is true for writing. I am sick of reading stories about lonely malcontents living shoddy lives and narrating how terrible their lives are, while actually doing nothing in the story itself. However, I have come across a number of stories recently that did just that, but I really enjoyed them. The difference was in the skill of the writer and the tweaks to the standard. Normally, such stories feel semiautobiographical. They're written by young adults who feel like their life is so terrible and they're going nowhere and the only salvation is at the bottom of a bottle. This premise is not entirely unworkable, but reading enough of it gets quite derivative. These other ones, though, they were shown in a different style. One of them was like a memoir of a woman thinking back to those times and reflecting on how they influenced the rest of her life following it. This slight change in portrayal made enough difference for me to be interested. And since the women is herself thinking about the past, the fact that she isn't doing anything doesn't matter at much. She is thinking. Her past self is also acting; she is changing over time, the description of which felt enough like action to keep me interested.

In short, the "right" way is training wheels for writers. "There is no right or wrong" is taking the training wheels off. Training wheels are great if you want to use a bike the way it was intended. However, you're never going to do sweet BMX tricks that way. Taking those training wheels off gives you the chance to fall on your face, but it also gives you the chance to look really cool. Do it when you're ready.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Understand The Mechanics and Their Potential

I had a strange dream (like there's any other kind). I was driving a car and was attacked by another motorist, causing a fatal crash. I didn't die, though. It wasn't a simulation, nor was I controlling some kind of avatar; I just remember a white flash and then I was standing outside the car, completely unharmed. Somehow, the makers of this car had created a way to prevent fatalities in a car.

This was a pretty radical idea to me. It sounded like good story fodder. I just had one problem: I have no idea how it works. Now, I know that writing can allow for soft science. We don't need to actually be able to build a time machine, we just need to say that it has a flux capacitor and the audience will nod in understanding. However, I can't even fathom how a car can either bring somebody back from the dead or prevent it from happening in the first place.

Still, I kept considering the possibility. What if I could BS some passable explanation in order to tell this story? Well, that would be great except for another problem: such technology would have massive consequences in all other aspects of life. In order to make a car that could prevent death, they had to have the technology to prevent death in general. That means that people with it couldn't be killed. That would make war and generic street crime all but impossible, which would in turn make for a very different world, one where deathproof cars are the least of our concerns.

The point of all of this is that creating new things is awesome, but difficult. The what-if game is great, especially when used for science fiction or fantasy, but it is rarely as simple as we initially think. First of all, you yourself need to understand how it works. Even if you simplify it by using some unreal piece of technology, there are some questions you should be able to answer. What does it do? How does it do that? What fuel is it using? What else can it do?

That last question leads to the other part, which is understanding the potential of this technology. Let's suppose that these deathproof cars contained teleporters that activated when the car was in a crash, sending the driver out of the car, standing near, but away from the danger of the scene. That means we have teleportation technology. People can move through walls. Objects do not need to be carried to be moved. Could people use this to break into places (like bank vaults) or break out of places (like prisons)? What piece of technology can understand when a crash will be fatal? How does it know where to teleport the driver? Could it send the driver into an even more dangerous place (like incoming traffic or off a cliff)?

Although this post is talking about technology, all the same things can be said for societal characteristics. What if you had a society where a leader was not a prestigious job? They received no perks or castles or crowns. It was just a job. In the large scale, the people who want to lead because of prestige and riches would not be attracted to the job. Leaders of nations would be the ones who are good at leading and are simply doing a job they're good at. A lot of questions need to be answered. Most importantly, what prevents leaders from using their power selfishly? Does the same apply to businesses? Is a CEO merely another position that needs to be filled, no more prestigious than a janitor? How does that affect the way companies do business? How does that affect the zeitgeist? Do people not care about being the best or the strongest? Is good enough simply good enough?

Note that for all of these examples, I am not saying that any are stupid or would make for bad stories. What I am saying is that, if you want to make a good story in a concrete world that people can sink their teeth into, you yourself need to make sure that you can answer all the questions that your readers will likely come up with. Then those readers will be yours forever.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The "Right" Path

I find it strange that stories can simultaneously be open-ended and destined. We generally think of stories as open-ended. There are millions of possible outcomes from a given situation. Writers simply pick one of the possibilities and move on to the next situation. However, we also have the opposite mindset, which is that everything happens because of set factors (personalities, desires, loyalties, etc). Can it be both?

Personally, I lean toward the fatalist side. I think that what happens next is a direct result of what just happened. Of course, this has its own problems. The biggest problem with that is how boring things can become. When you know that everything that will unfold already exists, it takes out the excitement of actually creating. Writing becomes no more than an exercise in logical progression. While I do like logical progression, I need more than that to get excited.

I think that a writer does have power and control. Fate only exists when things are set in motion and left alone. Imagine rolling a ball down a hill. Once you start it rolling, we all know where it's going to end up. However, if you put a ramp on the hill, that changes things drastically. And that's what writers can do: throw in a curve ball.

Suppose you have two characters trapped in a locked room. The standard story will be that the characters don't trust one another, get over their differences, and find a way out of the room. That's all well and good, but a little stale. As a writer, you can do so much to change this loosely-defined situation. Maybe a third character is found who completely shifts the dynamic. Maybe a ticking clock is added, like rising water levels, to add the stress level.

Suppose a hero is heading to the big castle with his team to take down the big evil bad guy. We all know how the story ends there, but what happens when they find another village being attacked and in desperate need of help? Now they need to decide which is more important: helping a few people or helping the whole land (but at the sacrifice of that village). What if the hero is given an option to run away to a safe land, free of tyranny? Now the hero has to decide whether to help others or help himself.

The way a character acts may be set in stone, but that doesn't mean the situations they get in are. Writers are the gods of their worlds; they can create as many challenges and temptations as they want. The creativity is in coming up with an interesting obstacle course for their characters to traverse.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Create Definite Worlds

I've been collecting a list of the bad habits of timid writers. I consider myself fortunate that I have a regular supply to add. Of course, I would feel more fortunate if that supply wasn't coming from me. Today's entry of things not to do is being vague.

I have a bad habit of being indefinite. I rationalize it by saying that it leaves things open for when I want to make the decision later. If I decide that a character is a man and later realize it would be better if that character was a woman, it would be a serious pain trying to make that change. Instead, I can just have a character be a genderless blank until I decide which gender is right.

The reality of this is that I'm just being timid. I'm afraid to make a decision and I avoid it until I absolutely have to. And if there's a way to not have to make a decision, I know I will leave it ambiguous. The problem with this is that ambiguity takes away the power of a story. Instead of writing about "the local coffee shop", name it. Name everything that should have one (especially characters). If you can see how a building is laid out, present it in your descriptions. If you're being vague because you aren't sure what the answer is, then make it up.

Sure, it would be a real pain in the butt to make a drastic change that would alter the entirety of what you've already written. But you know what? That's why pencils have erasures and computers have delete keys. Sometimes it just happens that way. Writing isn't supposed to be easy. Even if it comes easily to you, it shouldn't be too easy. Put in some hard work and make a concrete world.

People like concrete worlds. It gives them something to hold on to. It gives them somewhere to escape to and learn about. If you create something particularly good, you may even find your fans cataloging the lore of your story. They'll make maps and keep track of important facts and actions. Look at Lord of the Rings; it's a classic example of a very concrete world and people really sinking their teeth into it. How many generic, poorly-defined worlds can you remember?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010


We all know (because I said it yesterday) that everybody has goals. And the largest obstacle to overcome in achieving those goals is distractions. Distractions are, basically, anything that prevents people from pursing their goals.

Distractions usually give short-term or immediate gratification, which makes them more desirable than the original goal. Somebody may want to become a world-class musician, but if this person spends all day playing video games instead of practicing music, that goal will never be realized. Video games are more fun, though. They're bright and flashy and make you feel good. You start a video game being a hero and become an even stronger hero as you progress. When you practice music, you realize that it's hard and takes a lot more than 12 hours to become the master of the universe.

Characters are still people, so they're also susceptible to distractions. As an author, if you see distractions that could potentially derail your story, you need to find a way to get rid of them. The simple way is to literally get rid of them. If the main character plays video games all day, make their TV blow out so they can't play anything. If Luke Skywalker doesn't want to leave his aunt and uncle to become a Jedi, then have people kill them off and burn their house down.

There are other ways to get rid of distractions. Remember that we choose them over our main goal because they are more attractive. If you make the main goal more attractive, then the distractions hold no power. If the main character beats a video game and feels hollow, the realization could come that seeking a victory in the real world would be more satisfying.

Sometimes, distractions simply make us lose sight of our goals. If you go on the computer just to check your email, it is very easy to check everything else and get wrapped up in an article or a mindless game. When somebody else enters the room and tells you that you shouldn't be wasting your time, it snaps you back to reality and reminds you that you have more important things to do.

There are a number of ways to avoid or weaken distractions and they're all good. Just make sure they're natural. It is very rare that a person gets completely engulfed in an activity and then just decides to stop and do something else. Something needs to happen to start the derailment.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Everybody Has Goals

Everybody has goals. Sometimes they're objects, like winning a trophy. Sometimes they're actions, like being able to do a slam dunk. Sometimes they're maintenance, like living a peaceful, quiet life. Even people who say they don't want anything have some sort of goal in life; if they didn't, they wouldn't still be living.

If you aren't sure what a character should do, find out what that character wants. Their goals will determine what they do or choose not to do.

Of course, people often have more than one simple goal in life. There are long-term goals and short-term goals. Short-term goals may take priority because they are easier or they have a ticking clock attached, which pushes back accomplishing long-term goals. People also can lose sight of their goals, making them act in ways that don't always help them get what they truly want (though sometimes they are still trying to achieve something they think they want). Because of this, characters can have conflicts in desires, where one action furthers one goal but hinders another.

Characters don't need clearly-defined goals. Many people in real life haven't sat down and thought about what they're trying to accomplish in life. However, if you are stuck and don't know what the right action is, sitting down and figuring out your characters' goals might be exactly what you should do.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Comfort vs. Experiments

A friend of mine is in the beginning stages of making a graphic novel. Her current method is to sketch the pages out on paper, then scan them on the computer and do the rest of the coloring and shading digitally. In an email, she asked if she should change her method and do it all digitally. My response to her was, "I believe that people should do what they are comfortable with, but be willing to experiment." This is also true for writing.

If you have a method or a technique that you like, then stick with it. If it works, then keep using it. The only reason to stop or change is if it gets boring. If it's boring for you, then you should do something to spice up your writing. The tricky part is that a technique may not be boring to you, but it may be boring to your audience. In that case, it's good to have a trusted reader let you know when something gets stale.

In general, though, things get boring when you either use them too much (if you have a favorite word or phrase, refrain from using it in every sentence or paragraph) or if you make them particularly hokey (like adding "or was it?" to the end of sentences). The more subtle things are harder to pick up. If you're afraid that all your characters are too similar (which can be a serious problem), get somebody else to take a look at them. Those kinds of concerns tend to get overblown because you spend so much time in all of their heads.

Of course, the original question that this came from was more physical and technical. It was about medium. Still, the same principles hold true. If you are a writer and really love using loose leaf paper, then you should keep doing it unless problems arise. If sheets easily get lost or damaged, consider a binder or a notebook. Also, if you feel your writing stagnate (like something about the medium makes you keep writing the same things), then try a different medium to break the monotony. Do what makes for the best writing.

Starting With An Overview

My first drafts aren't exactly drafts. I consider a draft to be a fully-fleshed-out piece of writing. What I usually make is an overview. Overviews break the "show, don't tell" rule, so there will be many parts that are glossed over or just not completely written out. I find this to be a great tool for writing.

Overviews work perfectly with my writing style. My first draft is developmental and exploratory; I'm writing it to figure out what happens next. Taking time to perfect everything as I go along would be a waste because I never know when I make a massive change that would render everything I made useless. An overview avoids that problem. After I've written a story and I know everything that happens, I want to write a completely new version; this means throwing out the first draft. Since my first draft is only an overview, it is designed to be throwaway, so I don't feel obligated to salvage the good parts from it.

Admittedly, my overviews are half overview and half draft. I may set the scene by saying, "The main character and her friend are driving to the park", but I will then write out the full conversation they have during the trip. This changing of scope doesn't follow any rhyme or reason. If I get a clear image of a scene I like, I will develop it. If I can only see the broad workings as I write, then I describe them broadly. This is also nice if I get stuck, because it allows me to get the gist across and keep going (which allows me to fill in those blanks later, when I know how I should fill them).

If your writing style is similar, where you need to develop your story before working to make a pretty version, then starting with an overview may be a good tool for you. If you are more comfortable making an outline and building from that, or if you just write by the seat of your pants, then stay the course as long as it keeps working.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Read Slower or Read More

I consider myself a very slow reader. I tend to read at speech's pace. My mom, on the other hand, is a very fast reader. She can probably read six times faster than me. I'm a little jealous of that ability, except that it comes with a serious lack of retention. If she reads the same book six times, she is noticing new things that I noticed on my one and only reading.

The thing is, my mom usually does read something several times, so she isn't missing out on what she reads. I think it's very equitable. We end up spending the same time reading and we get the same amount of information out of it.

If you read slow, don't worry about it. Just make sure you're paying attention. If you read fast, be willing to reread everything for clarity. If you read fast and have full retention of what you read, then go to hell because I'm jealous of you.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Another Look on Gratification and Philosophy

I maintain that writing needs to entertain and should educate. If it isn't entertaining, nobody will care. But while you have them hooked, you should tell them a story that has deeper thoughts in it. It gives people things to think about and it also tends to make for better stories. Sometimes, though, I question if this is right.

I have a strange relationship with music. A good song is dangerously addictive to me. There have been times where I listened to the same song on loop for 8 hours straight. Then I did it again a couple days later. For whatever reason, it was the perfect combination that it never got boring, so I had no reason to listen to anything else. A perfect song has a musical hook and meaningful lyrics. The musical aspect is difficult to explain; the best I can do is to say that the chord progression interests me. The lyrics follow similar principles to any other kind of writing.

Interesting lyrics, to me, present a thought or a belief that I have never considered before (or sparks me to further think about a thought or idea). The irony with music is that I can never understand all of the lyrics. Some stuff is clear as a bell, and other parts are muddled and incomprehensible. So for me, it's more a matter of the lyrics I hear being interesting. This is where music comes crashing down.

Eventually, if I love a given song, I will look up the lyrics to it. Shortly after that, I lose the desire to listen to the song. The lyrics in music are always pathetic, which depresses me. The words themselves are always so abstract or nonlinear that they could never stand on their own. But what's worse than that is how little there actually is. So many songs are built the same way: Intro, A section, Chorus, B section, Chorus, Instrumental Solo, Chorus. On top of the very repetitious structure, The A and B sections are also very similar, sometimes having two or three (out of four) repeating lines. All of a sudden, this four-minute song only has 10 unique lines of lyrics, none of which are particularly catchy.

What I find odd here is that music can be so popular and so addictive, yet none of their components are particularly outstanding. Somehow, the flash of putting the music and the lyrics together makes people happy, no matter how meaningless they are separately. It makes me wonder if philosophy matters at all. Maybe all we need is enough mindless gratification.

I certainly hope that's not the case. I like to think and I like making other people think. I know that even I appreciate mindless gratification, so I'm not even any better than others. I just know that I need more than that to survive. Maybe other people are the same way and want a little philosophy in their entertainment, too.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Journey or The Destination?

What's the point of a story? Is it the journey or the destination? Most people will say it's the journey. It is meeting characters, watching them grow and develop, and growing close to them that is the important experience in reading. But plenty of people will say the opposite.

We are always afraid of spoiling a story by giving away the ending. We even have to give spoiler warnings when discussing critical plot points. On top of that, if an ending is unknown, but very predictable, it takes away from the experience. Predictability is an undesirable quality for a story, and a predictable ending is several times worse. Obviously, the destination matters.

So what does this mean for us writers? It means that you need to focus on both. If your story is great, but the actual bulk of your storytelling is low quality, people won't care enough. If your story is well-told, but too cliche or run-of-the-mill, it could be a huge success, but it will easily be forgotten. A great story has to focus on both. This is easier said than done, but if you at least try it, you have a chance of doing it right.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Make Something New

We live in a very factual culture. If you have a question about anything, you can find the answer by Googling it. We have a massive aggregator of facts in Wikipedia (which, although it shouldn't be an acceptable source for a research paper, is still very reliable). I don't have a problem with this. I consider myself truly fortunate to live in the time that I do, having universal, unrestricted access to information. However, I am noticing the effect it has on creativity.

There is more stuff being created than ever, but so much of it is either commentary on or modification of things that already exist. Consider entertainment like VH1's I love series (e.g. the 80s, 70s, 90s). It's an hour of comedians and radio personalities riffing on events and objects from a given year. The Daily Show is massively popular and it largely makes fun of clips from cable news networks Online, we have very popular websites like FAIL Blog which takes videos or still pictures and adds captions to them to make them funnier.

I don't have a problem with these either. If people are entertained, then the entertainment is succeeding. I even enjoy some of that stuff myself. But eventually, it all becomes very stale. The world feels small and boring because everybody keeps talking about the same things that everybody else already knows about (and has heard the same five jokes on it over and over again[which is really five rehashings of one joke]). That's when I just need to see something completely new.

I know there are lots of new things out there, but it can be difficult for them to reach a large audience. Go and write something new, something original, something that can stand on its own instead of borrowing from collective pop culture. If you can make something that strong, it will be noticed and then everybody else will follow it and riff on it, making the same jokes over and over again. That's just what you wanted, right?

Monday, February 15, 2010

What Happens Next

When I come up with ideas for stories, they are usually flashes. I get an idea for a scene or a character trait. I do not have the entire story unfold before my eyes. That flash stays with me. In my head, I try to figure out what the whole story is, but I have trouble with it. I can only hold on to the flash.

The only way that I can move on is to sit down and start writing. I have to write out the scene in my head. In the process of doing that, the next scene or the next element of the story reveals itself to me. And that next scene is just like the original flash; I won't be able to figure out the rest of the story until I write it out.

I can't know what happens next until I write what is happening now. I think this is appropriate, though, because that is just how memory works. We can only hold so much in our head actively. If we try to keep too much in, it just spills out and we forget it. On occasion, I try to fight this and map out a whole story in my head. Every time, the same two things happen: I struggle to get anywhere and I forget it all in the blink of an eye.

As frustrating as this is, it can also be motivating. It is very easy to spend a lot of time in your head; there's a lot of thinking involved in writing. But since this requires you to write in order to think, you have a fairly strong impetus to actually get some writing done.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Don't Be Afraid To Change Your Premise

One of the lessons I learned in my martial arts classes was that "if you need to correct yourself in the middle of your technique, it's because you screwed up in the beginning." That has always been a very important lesson to me, but I've found it not readily accepted in writing.

The usual answer I get when I tell somebody that saying is, "that's what editing is for." And the biggest frustration for me was that they had a point. Nobody should be expected to write something perfectly on their first draft, no matter how experienced they are. In fact, writers usually give the advice to write a first draft just to get the story out, and then revise and edit your piece into quality (and I am one of those writers).

I finally understood this principle when I took some writing workshops. We would read somebody's story and then critique it. If we saw a plot hole or an illogical part in a story and we asked about it, authors would try very hard to justify these things. They jumped through a lot of hoops to try to prove that they didn't make a mistake. If the author simply accepted that it didn't make sense and just changed the premise of the story, it may require a rewrite, but it would be a much better story because of it.

And that's the real lesson for writers: don't be afraid to change your premise. Just because you've written something doesn't mean it's been carved into stone. And if you did carve it in stone, there's nothing stopping you from smashing that stone and chiseling into a fresh slab. Whatever you have to do to make a better story is worth it.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Learn The Fundamentals

Sometimes it really surprises me how bad some people's writing is. Like, I understand that not everybody has trained to be a great writer, and I understand that some people just don't have an affinity for it, but even still, the examples I have seen really do surprise me. I wonder how it is possible that they have gone through school and still not learned these things.

Writing has always been part of formal schooling. It dates back to the ancient Greeks. It's one of the three R's. I've had to write for school since I was old enough to write. I've been practicing the 5-paragraph essay since the fourth grade. Even if you hated to do it, you should at least know how to write things well. Still, I see the fundamentals are lacking. For whatever the reason is, if you want to write, you should learn and practice them.

When people talk about the fundamentals of writing, they usually think of spelling and grammar. Those are definitely part of the fundamentals, but there is more to it than that. Spelling and grammar teaches you how to create acceptable sentences. After that, you still need to know what sentences to write. Stopping at spelling and grammar would be like learning how to use a table saw, but having know idea how to build a birdhouse.

The next step is learning how to argue. Think of those 5-paragraph essays you used to write. There are two kinds: supporting an argument and defending an argument. First we learn to support an argument. I believe something is true and will provide three reasons why. These are my three reasons and why each one supports me. Because of all these reasons, I believe something is true. That is the basic layout of supporting. This will teach you that everything has a reason behind it. If you believe that something is true, you should be able to say why.

The second level is a little more advanced. I believe something is true. Here is a supporting point. Some people say that point is wrong for this reason. That point is wrong, though, because of this other reason. That is why I believe something is true. In this essay, you learn that there are opposing beliefs and that both of them can have valid points. This is why it is important to be able to support your beliefs: if you can't, nobody else will believe you.

I think that these are critical writing tools that everybody needs to know (which is probably why they are compulsory subjects). Even if you never write anything outside of school, these skills are invaluable anywhere in life. You should be able to explain why your beliefs have value and beliefs you disagree with are worth less (even if they aren't worthless).

Beyond being able to argue, I think it is also useful to learn how to create. Being creative forces independence. Although there are tools and techniques to help develop creativity, the answer always comes from within and is unique to the individual. This is a skill that may not always be needed in life, so I can understand somebody opposing mandatory creative classes, but I think that it is needed enough times in life that it is worth offering.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Write What Feels Right Right Now

I've mentioned before that ideas come steadily to me on average, but it isn't a constant flow. Although I do get dry spells, I will also have times where I get more ideas than I can work on at a time. In these cases, I write down notes to remember that idea when I have the time to come back to it.

A funny thing happens, though, when I return to an idea: I don't care for it at all. I have a list of ideas for blog topics, all of which came to me while I was writing another post. Every night, I take the list and look for an idea to write about. Most times, few if any of them are appealing to me. It's not that these are bad ideas; I liked them so much when they came to me that I wrote them down so I could write them later. The only problem is that I'm not in the same mindset that I was in when I scribbled those notes.

I very much believe that we need to follow our gut. When an idea just feels right, you should go and write it. If it doesn't feel right, don't force it (unless you're on deadline and have no choice). The catch is that an idea isn't going to be the right idea forever. If you don't jump on it, you may never get that feeling again. If you do get it again, it may take a while.

Now, you might be thinking that if an idea isn't eternally right, maybe it's best to avoid. I disagree. The execution of an idea can be timeless, even if the desire to execute that idea is not. In fact, I have come across my own writing that was so old I didn't remember writing it. When I read it, I was so impressed by it that I wasn't sure I could write something so good. But, if I tried to write a similar piece again, it would never compare. The desire was gone, but the piece lived on and was good.

So write what feels right. And if an idea feels right, then write it right away. If you don't you may lose it forever.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Accurate or Powerful

I have found a dilemma in language. Sentences can either be accurate or powerful. Read a scientific journal or a philosophical article. There are a great number of maybes in them. It shows uncertainty. Granted, in our overly litigious culture, these precautions are necessary, but they make for very unimpressive reads.

On the other hand, the powerful writings are exaggerated. If I said that all writing is either powerful or accurate, I am certain that somebody could easily prove me wrong. If I said that I have noticed from my own experiences that statements tend to be either accurate or powerful, but rarely both, then I don't expect anybody to finish reading something so boring.

I'm sure that there are ways to make factual statements interesting. I've found myself seeking a balance between exaggerating and being overly technical, but that balance usually is in the form of switching from one to the other. I don't think it's the best option, but it is a method. The theory behind it is sound: reel them in with powerful sentences, then inform them with accurate ones.

However you do it, make sure you find a balance between being accurate and being powerful. If you only do one, your writing will suffer.

Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood

One of the drawbacks of writing is that it can't be heard. There is so much meaning that is added through tone and emphasis that understanding what the author intends can be difficult. I think the most frustrating example is sarcasm. When the words say the exact opposite of what you truly mean, people mostly think you're confused or crazy.

That is why I like to read things as though I'm saying them. Even if I am not speaking them out loud, I still do it in my head. When I do this, I can better figure out what the author is trying to say. Sometimes I have to read a sentence two or three times, but it is worth it because my comprehension will make up for that.

If you're the writer, you have probably had a point where you wanted to write something, but were afraid that it would be misunderstood. That's a good fear to have. If your gut is telling you that a passage could be confusing, then you should just rewrite it. Alternatively, you could add a followup sentence that better explains your point, but then you are spending far more words than a simple rewrite would take.

In general, people will read a passage in a way that feels most natural (meaning the way it would be casually spoken). If you want to word something in a nonstandard way, you certainly can, but it tends to be more difficult to read and comprehend. If you don't want to be misunderstood, then write simply and naturally. Unless you are going for a particular style, it's the safest bet.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Don't Trust Spellcheck

When I started my current job, my boss told me that I will need to proofread every document I wrote. I said that was no problem. She then went on to say that I need to make sure that I use my eyes to proofread, not the spellcheck on the computer. I was shocked to be told that; I can't believe anybody trusts spellcheck.

For those of you who don't realize how terrible spellcheck is, let me tell you that it's incredibly terrible. First of all, despite referring to itself as spellcheck, it consistently marks 'spellcheck' as an incorrect word. There are also certain words that simply aren't in the dictionary. For example, 'skank' is marked as incorrect. However, the list of possible corrections includes 'skanks', which makes no sense whatsoever. Spellcheck also can't handle certain constructions for words. For example, 'writer' is perfectly acceptable, but 'writerly' is not.

The other main problem of spellcheck is that it only checks spelling, not usage. If you use the wrong form of to/too/two or their/there/they're, it won't tell you there's a problem, as long as you spelled it right. Also, if you made a typo that ends up being a real word, it won't realize that the sentence is meaningless. Some of the more dangerous mistakes is typing 'hell' instead of 'he'll' or 'suck' instead of 'sick'. Now, in theory, the grammar checker should catch those things, but grammar check is even worse than spellchecker, so that's out.

I will say, though, that the spellchecker can be improved. The dictionary that it uses can be modified, having words added or removed. At the very least, you can do that to make it stop saying that your own name is misspelled. Still, though, it won't be able to tell you when you are using a word incorrectly.

I like the fact that I can catch most typos as I type because of spellchecker. However, when a document needs to be error-free, don't trust spellcheck. Use your eyes and your brain.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Do What You Know Is Right

On occasion, my friends will come to me with questions. They're having some dilemma and they want me to tell them what they should do. For example, a friend hates her job. She comes and asks me if she should quit. Now, I approach this rationally. I ask my friend to tell me what is so terrible about the job, is there anything good coming from it, what she would be doing with the free time, if there is a way to fix or circumvent whatever the problem is. Rarely does any of this stuff matter.

Most of the time, when people are asking others for advice, they already know what they have to do. What they really want is confirmation. They want somebody else to sanction the decision so they feel less guilty about it. I know this to be true because, on several occasions, I have given my advice and was thoroughly ignored because it didn't agree with what my friend wanted to do.

These same things happen in writing. For example, I hate romance in writing. It is very difficult to make it interesting and not cliched. However, if I am writing a story and I see that two characters are naturally attracted to each other, I would feel very conflicted on how to proceed. My first reaction would be to ask my writer friends on whether or not I should have my characters fall in love. This always ends up as a waste of time, though, because the answer ends up being the same every time. Of course they should fall in love. They have to. Doing anything else would be a disservice to these characters.

If you are strongly compelled to do something, you don't need to find somebody else's blessing. You already know what's right and nohing is going to stop you from doing it. Trust in yourself, bite the bullet, and take the plunge. Do what you know is right.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Thoughts on Rhetoric

In the study of writing, the term 'rhetoric' is guaranteed to show up eventually. Rhetoric is a term that is difficult to define because everybody has their own definitions for it. I define rhetoric as the quality of communication. It's a simple definition, but that's the only way to cover everything that rhetoric covers.

Writing at its core is communication. You have thoughts, pictures, emotions, all in your head, and you want to put them in other people's heads. It's like a radio signal. The source sends it out and the receiver picks it up. Like a radio signal, though, there is going to be a degradation in the quality of the transmission. There is no real helping it; it simply happens as the signal travels from the source to the receiver. The weaker the signal, the less like the original it sounds to the receiver.

When you write, you are the source and your writing is the signal. Your goal is to have your writing be so strong a signal that your audience gets in their heads exactly what is in your head. And again, the rhetoric is the quality of your communication (or the strength of your signal).

The more your audience gets, the stronger and more effective your rhetoric is. At the basic level, you want your audience to understand what you are trying to say. If you are telling a story of a funny conversation you had, your audience should never get confused as to who was saying which line and what exactly they were talking about. On the next level, there should be an atmosphere about it. Effective rhetoric makes you feel like you are part of the story. The audience feels like they were there, watching it happen themselves. On the final level, there is the emotional state. This is what we usually think of when we talk about rhetoric: making other people feel the same way that you feel. The most effective rhetoric make s people laugh at a funny story and cry at a tragic one. Ineffective rhetoric will make a potentially funny story merely be a recollection of events that happened. And the worst rhetoric will be a confusing jumble of nonsense.

Of course, the means of achieving strong rhetoric are a whole other matter. That requires a great deal of study and practice. But it's not the kind of thing that requires a college degree in rhetoric. It's the kind of thing that requires practicing writing. If you are an effective writer, you have effective rhetoric. If you know how to make people interested in what you have to say, then you know your way around rhetoric, even if you don't know all the academic terms for it. And in the end, the skills in rhetoric are more useful than the knowledge of rhetoric. (I will grant, though, that it would be ironic if one was good at rhetoric, but lousy at explaining it.)

All Writing Counts As Writing

How much writing do you do in a day? When people ask me this question, they don't like my answers. Right now, at the bare minimum, I write one blog post, respond to emails, have at least a few conversations on IM, and post on a few message boards. According to most people, none of that is writing. Why?

All of this is colloquial writing; it's informal. We aren't writing about writerly things. Unless we are writing a story of some kind, we aren't really writing. I call bullshit.

All writing counts as writing. Writing is telling a story. Your story may be a fictional work about characters you create, or it can be about your own life (like in the creative nonfiction genre). Suppose you had a crazy experience when you went out to go bowling with your friends over the weekend. If you wrote those experiences down as a short story, then you would be writing. If you wrote those experiences down in an instant message or an email, how is there any difference? At best, the difference would be that nobody is requiring you to use standard written English. And if you believe that's the only difference between writing and nonwriting, I don't want to be your friend.

Even still, suppose that standard written English was required for writing to be considered valid. There is no reason to not use it. In fact, when I write my emails, IMs, and blogs, I am pretty much always using perfect English. I may lapse in capitalization with instant messages, but that's about the worst of it. That means that I am still writing when I do these inferior forms of writing.

At its core, writing is storytelling. An effective writer will tell a story that people will understand and will tell that story in such an entertaining way that the audience will want to listen to the whole thing. Even if you are talking about the most mundane things like the weather outside or your drive to work, you can be entertaining, interesting; you can be a writer.

Treat all forms of writing as legitimate writing and use them to practice your writing skills. The lessons you learn for formal writing are always useful for any kind of writing. Don't repeat words. Use varying sentence length. Use strong words to make your point. Avoid weak words and unnecessary phrases. If you have trouble with the rules of spelling and grammar, then practice using them with all the text messages, instant messages, emails, and everything else you regularly write in. You'll be amazed how much you can grow if you practice being a good writer every time you write something.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Use All of Your Senses

There is no doubt that sight is the most powerful of our five senses. Hearing comes next, but it doesn't even come close to rivaling sight. However, we do have 5 five senses, which means we can describe things in five different ways.

When I read stories, they tend to play as movies in my head. My mind creates mental images of the scenes and the characters and they move around as my eyes move along the pages. When I write, I find the same thing happening; my mind is showing me the actions and I am recording what I see. This is all well and good, but it tends to focus on the visual too much.

Suppose the hero walks into a dungeon in the basement of an old castle. We can see cobwebs and stone walls and shackles, but what else is there? Can you smell the concoction of sweat, feces, blood, and iron that lingers in the air, reminding the hero of the atrocities that once occurred there? Can you hear the deathly silence (or perhaps the phantom screams of the prisoners once tortured there)? Can you feel the rust on the prison bars or the dust settled on an open logbook? Can you taste the stale water standing in a tin cup?

I will admit that taste is a particularly difficult sense to write for. Tasting things requires a great amount of trust that the object will not poison or otherwise harm us. However, taste is closely related to smell, so a smell that is particularly strong or thick can be tasted, despite not actually having the object touch the tongue.

When you use more senses in your writing, you add depth and realism to your story. We are doing more than seeing the action; we are experiencing it. Although the other four senses are not as powerful for knowing our surroundings, they make up for it by acting as powerful triggers. Smell is notoriously powerful. The right smell can trigger long lost memories from decades in the past. Certain tactile feelings are similarly unforgettable. Sounds, such as a familiar voice, can be thought to help bring people out of comas or regain memories after amnesia.

If you are going to incorporate other senses into your writing, remember to make them natural. They shouldn't be a gimmick, nor should they feel like they've been artificially inserted. Talk about what somebody smells when that character is taking a deep breath or when a particular scent is noteworthy. The point is to create an immersive world.

Thursday, February 4, 2010


Perhaps the most powerful thing in life is death. It is the most extreme thing that can happen to a person. It is irreversible. It truly is the end. As such, it makes sense that it is common fodder for writing.

Death is a universal experience in that everybody knows and understands it. Death is also a deeply personal experience; the power of an individual's death depends on the closeness one had to the deceased. This is what makes death a difficult subject. Death in general is merely a concept. Joseph Stalin is attributed with the saying, "A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic." The only way to make death powerful is to kill somebody that the audience is close to.

The other problem with death is that it is so extreme. Although there are storytelling techniques that can subvert the finality of death, they either involve ridiculously circuitous plots or a fantasy world where either science or magic can bring people back. In this extremeness, death becomes easy. To make a character die becomes a quick way of getting them out of the picture. On top of that, one of the top two worst ways to end a story is to have everybody die (the other one is to make it all a dream). Making death cheap makes it meaningless.

One of my writing teachers told my class to avoid having characters die or writing about death. The idea was that although death is the most extreme thing that can happen to us, it is much more moving to see a person live and struggle through that life.

I do agree with my teachers on that idea. I don't think that we should avoid writing about death like the plague, but we should think twice before heading in that direction. Why are we writing about it? Is it for ourselves or is it for other people? Is it because it's easy or because it's necessary? If you have a legitimate reason for writing about death, then do it. If not, then maybe what needs to die is your story.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


Originality is a great concern for writers, especially beginning writers. Those who can break down individual stories into basic components realize that every story has already been written. Those who can't do that see that there are millions of stories already made, so it's impossible for their story to be original.

This is a paralyzing fear. When you think that none of your ideas are your own or worth sharing, you will not write any of them. And since fear is irrational, there is no reasoning that can have a meaningful impact. It is easy to say that simply writing your version of a classic story in your voice and style will give enough individuality to make it not a copy. It's a lot harder to get people to believe it.

There is no magic cure for fear. There are techniques to circumvent it, though. If somebody thinks their story is unoriginal, find out why, then simply do something different. If somebody thinks that there are tons of stories that are all original, show them that most stories are retellings of the same basic story and that it is possible to write a good story that has already been written before.

Occasionally, originality is merely a generic crutch. Though they claim that their ideas aren't original, they still don't want to write when something completely new is in front of them. In that case, the fear is merely a matter of self-confidence. And although there is no cure for that, either, the treatment for it is easy: write something. The only way to believe that you can write is to actually write. If you don't spontaneously combust, then you're a writer. Then all you have to do is become a better writer, which everybody has to do. And that's way more important than an original story, anyway.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Imposing Boundaries

Sometimes I think that my writing professors were too lax. For many of my creative writing classes, it felt like my assignments amounted to "you can write about anything you want." Sometimes it was "I want you to write about X, but if you want to write about Y, feel free to do that instead." These two are a little different, but not much. They are also very difficult to handle.

Coming up with ideas can be he hardest part of writing for some people. It can certainly be the thing that stops people from even trying to write. When you tell somebody to write about anything, they are overloaded with possibilities. They need to narrow their scope and focus on only a few possible paths.

I understand why my teachers were lax, though. They didn't want to stifle creativity. If they assign us to write a story that takes place on a train and we want to write one that takes place on a bus, we should be allowed to change the assignment because we will be creatively writing and be interested in our work, which is one of the main points of the class. But the catch is that this creativity generally comes from limitations. The student may never come up with the story that takes place on a bus if they weren't assigned a story that takes place on a train. If the student was told that they could write a story that takes place on a train, or anything else if they wanted, then the student may not go through the same mental processes and wouldn't think of the story that takes place on a bus.

So, these boundaries are important in helping students focus and think, but they are not so important that they should never be broken. The question, then, is when to break these boundaries. Personally, I think that the answer is when the student is personally compelled to break them. If I was a teacher and found that my student wrote a story that took place on a bus, I would not deduct points. I would ask why the student made the change to understand the reasoning (because I would hope it was for a good reason, as opposed to misreading the assignment), but in a creative writing class, the main point is to develop good creative writing, so that is what matters most.

Some students are not bold enough to break rules without permission, though. In academia, where grades matter and can affect the rest of one's life, I don't blame students for being hesitant to go against teachers. However, if a student wants to break the boundaries so much that he or she is compelled to ask for permission, that is good enough for me to grant it.

The important thing to remember, though, is that not every student is that compelled or motivated. I think all of my classmates in the Professional Writing major at one point said that they had no idea what to write for an assignment. Those people needed boundaries. They needed an imposed structure to build from. Teachers who don't give that structure to their students are doing harm to those he need the most help.

Compelled writers will always find a way. They will either create within a structure, break the boundaries, or create without any help in the first place. Those who aren't as compelled or inspired to write are the ones who need these boundaries, which is why you should impose them and why you should make them look very firm.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Making Characters: By Actions

I've heard it said that actions speak louder than words. In theory, if you want to know who a person is, you would be best off observing their actions. I have mixed feelings about this in real life, but as a tool for creating characters, it can be useful.

This goes along with my idea of starting vague. Start with a blank slate character, make them do some actions, and build from there. Everything happens for a reason, so whatever actions a character takes have some rationale. If you give a character some seemingly random characteristics, you can then try to figure out what would make those characteristics occur.

Similarly, I have sometimes created characters by thinking of a habit and considering what causes it. For example, most people are afraid of the rain. When storm clouds are overhead, people wrap themselves up as tight as possible. When rain is falling, they either don't go outside or will literally run from one roof to another. Other people, though, love the rain. They embrace it and run outside during a storm to play outside and jump in puddles. Both of those people looks at the other like they are weirdos.

I wonder what causes each of these personalities. Why does a person, who is made up of at least 70% water, who takes showers in falling water, absolutely hate the water? The common response is that they hate being wet, but there has to be more than that. Why does a person, who spends the vast majority of life being dry on dry land, only getting wet to get clean (and immediately drying off) love the water so much?

People think and do very strange things at times. But these things are expressions of who we are, even when we don't mean them to be. People can be defined by their actions, so creating characters that way is a great technique.