Friday, April 30, 2010

Do You Follow Your Own Rules?

In a previous entry, I gave the advice of writing short sentences. I said, "No matter how much you might think about it, talk about it, even discuss or argue with it, the easiest and fastest way to find out if it's good advice is to try using shorter sentences." So, the sentence that tells people to use short sentences is 36 words long (well above my recommended 15 words).

It looks like I'm breaking my own rules. This shouldn't come as too much of a surprise, though. I have found many writers who come up with lovely, elaborate systems for writing, and proceed to ignore them and wing it.

I have found that when an author doesn't follow his or her own rules, there are two possible reasons. One is that the reality of the rule is more complicated than the simple version that the author says. The other is that the author is a lousy writer. Since I'm sure that I'm not a lousy writer, then my rule must be more complicated.

In fact, I already am aware of that. That's why my exact advice is to "use shorter sentences more than long ones." Long sentences have their place in writing. They can add to the music of the writing. They can build up into a significant point. They can break the monotony of seeing too many short sentences all in a row.

The problem with long sentences is that they are heavy. Too many will drag writing to a halt. They're wonderful flourishes, but the meat of writing needs to be shorter and easily digested.

Of course, it is a lot easier to just tell people to use short sentences. It's mostly true and far shorter than giving the full explanation. It's just that mostly true isn't completely true.

If you have rules or standards or advice for writing, use them on yourself. If your writing doesn’t follow your own rules, either your writing is lacking or your rules are missing some fine details.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Feeling Your Characters

I am working on a series of books that I describe as "children's books that aren't for children". The title character for these books is Grosso the Oso. Grosso is a large anthropomorphic bear. He stands on two legs, talks normally, and nobody bats an eye at the fact that he's a talking bear. He's kind of like Smokey the Bear. The main difference between the two being that people like Smokey.

Grosso is the most hated person in all of the city. He lives in the dank alleys in a cardboard box. People who see him shout hateful obscenities and throw trash at him. On bad days, he accepts the life that people have assigned him. On good days he slinks into a hole where nobody can judge him.

Periodically, some thing happens in Grosso's life that fills him with hope and excitement. He proceeds to act on his hope, whether it be something like getting a mattress to sleep on in the alley, or buying a big cookie from the grocery store. Invariably, it explodes in his face and usually results in an angry mob chasing him back into the shadows.

These are fairly dark stories. An innocent soul is treated like a vile wretch for no good reason. It straddles the fence between depressingly cruel and hilariously twisted. One might find me to be a truly disturbed individual for making these stories. And though I won't say that I'm not disturbed (I am a writer after all), I would say that it is not the way that one might think.

When I was writing Grosso the Oso Gets A New House, I needed to think of something to destroy his current home to provide impetus for him to find a new one. The thought comes to me, how about a heavy rain makes his cardboard box collapse? I chuckled at the thought, started writing it down, then had the follow-up, the cardboard would turn into a disgusting mush that gets matted into his fur. I laughed even more. Then I felt bad. Grosso the Oso is a tragic character; he doesn't deserve the crap that happens to him.

When I write these things down, I feel them happening to my creation. And bringing misfortune and meaningless harm to something you've created should make you feel bad. Characters are not merely puppets that you manipulate. Good characters are people. They have lives, thoughts, feelings, desires, just like a real person. And nobody knows them more closely than you.

Even if you are the god of your universe when you write, you can surprise yourself with what you come up with. When something particularly cool happens, you should feel happy about your characters. When you come up with something truly horrific that happens to them, it should make you feel bad.

This is what prevents you from being a complete monster. This is not you torturing fictional people for your own sick thrills (I hope). This is you making things happen that have to happen in order to tell a compelling story. Feel your characters' pain and their joy; then tell the best damn story you can.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Learn It The Hard Way

Every lesson in writing needs to be learned the hard way. There's a lot of advice out there about writing, things you should and shouldn't do. But talk is cheap. How do you know that it's worth a damn? How do you know any piece of advice is even good?

Try it yourself. I advise people to use shorter sentences more than long ones. No matter how much you might think about it, talk about it, even discuss or argue with it, the easiest and fastest way to find out if it's good advice is to try using shorter sentences.

This same system works for the rules of avoidance. Good writing is concrete. The more abstract your words and ideas become, the harder it is for readers to connect or care. Am I right? Try it out. Write something with lots of concrete language and write something abstract. Which one do you like better? Which one do other people like better?

I want to clarify what I mean by "the hard way". The hard way isn't necessarily painful. It doesn't mean you spend hours or days or more on a project, show it to everybody you know, and have them all call it garbage. It doesn't mean submitting it to a publication and being rejected. All I really mean is personal, hands-on experience. In my examples, I suggest using yourself and your friends as testers. I'm suggesting writing experiments which do not have to be too involved (though still sincere and wholehearted).

In fact, you don't necessarily have to write to learn some of these lessons. Go read a low quality literary magazine. You will find countless examples of terribly abstract writing with incredibly long sentences. If it makes you cringe to read, then you have experienced firsthand these lessons. And if you find yourself enthralled with that writing, then you have still experienced these lessons firsthand; you simply know that they are wrong.

The importance here is that you are not reading discussion of craft; you are reading the craft itself. Discussion of craft can be great. This is my 456th discussion of craft on this site. But discussion only goes so far. Sooner or later, you have to test that discussion to see if it holds water.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Validation Is Awesome

There are no two ways about it: when somebody says that something you've made is good, it is amazing. The nicer the compliment given, the greater you feel. And if it isn't a close friend or family member, then you should feel the urge to get up and dance in joy.

Anybody who tells you that validation isn't that great is lying to you (and possibly also to themselves). The common sentiment is usually along the lines of, "It doesn't matter what other people think about you; it matters what you think about you." Trust me, if you want other people to read your writing, if you want to get your writing published, it totally matters what other people think about you.

However, there is a truth to that idea. It is very important that you respect your writing. Of course things can always be better, but you have to be able to make something and be proud of it. You have to love that you made it and know that it is a great piece of writing. That is when you will show it to other people who will read it and compliment it, giving you that sweet, sweet validation.

People can't compliment your writing if they don't read it and they won't read it if you don't have them read it. And if you don't respect your own writing, you will never share it with anybody.

So yes, it does matter what other people think of your writing. And yes, compliments from other people are incredibly validating and awesome. But, none of it happens without you, some self-love, and some self-respect.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Love Your Knowledge

Being an observer, you end up learning a lot of things you wouldn't necessarily learn on your own. Sometimes it may disturb or disgust you, but you shouldn't reject that knowledge. Love it.

I don't do drugs, but I've heard enough people talk about them that I know a lot of the lingo and customs. Sometimes it strikes me as odd how much I know about drugs for somebody who doesn't do them. What gets even odder is when drugs come up in conversation and I start using my in-depth knowledge to somebody who never would have guessed that I would know so much about the subject. The usual assumption is that I must do drugs in order to know so much. But it's wrong. I'm just a good observer.

And although it can be annoying to get the looks and stares that come with knowledge of unpleasant things, you still should love it. Love that you're informed. Love that you know more than other people do. Love that you are aware of things outside of your personal world and that you will be far better equipped to describe them in your writing.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Thoughts on Showing vs. Telling

Sometimes I'll be watching a TV show and somebody will walk in on it and ask what's going on. So I'll say something like, "The cops thought that guy killed a bunch of people, but it was actually his son, but now the father is copping to them to save his son." This usually happens with about 10 minutes remaining in an hour-long show. The only thing left is the verdict and the final thought.

The difference between showing and telling is the difference between watching a TV show and having somebody explain the plot to you. When you show, the audience sees the conversations, the actions and interactions. They see the subtle nuance and all the twists and turns. When you tell, you give the facts and little else.

Telling is like a skeleton. It's just bare bones. It more resembles an outline than a piece of writing. Showing adds all the meat to the bones. It fleshes out the story and makes it fuller and more whole.

This analogy is making me uncomfortable, so I'm just going to stop it there. Make sure you do use showing writing to add flesh to your stories. Just don't try to show too much. Nobody likes a body with excessive amounts of flesh on it. (Gross. I'm gonna be sick.)

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Power of Vacation

I went to Cortland to visit my old college. They have an event called Scholars Day where, among other things, the Professional Writing department has a reading that students do and the literary magazine(s) are released.

The event was wonderful. The students did a good job performing, had interesting pieces, and the literary magazines were beautiful. I got to see my professors and some old friends (both older and younger than me).

After the students had read, the floor was opened for others to read, so I pulled out my notebook (so glad I bring it everywhere), found something I liked, and read to the class my children's book that's not for children, Grosso the Oso Gets A New House. This was the most amazing experience ever. I had the room laughing out loud. They were eating out of the palm of my hand. On top of that, this was my first public reading where I had zero nerves, no butterflies in the stomach, or anything else like that. I was confident, clear, and articulate. All those workshops I took at Cortland really seemed to sink in.

I was originally planning on staying in Cortland a couple of days to make sure I could hang out with everybody I wanted to see. That couple of days turned into nearly a week. It turns out I was more popular than I realized. But this came with certain consequences.

I didn't bring my laptop with me. I didn't think I would be using it. It was kind of annoying not having all of my files and notes with me, but this reinforced the vacation aspect of the trip. I couldn't bring my work with me.

On the second day of the trip, I got an idea for a story that was so brilliant that I had to snatch some paper and a pencil so that I could get it all down. For the rest of my time there, I spent several hours a day just sitting alone with no distractions, working on my new story idea. It was so invigorating. I felt like such a writer. I felt reborn.

When I finally returned home, there was a certain sameness to it. It's like everything was exactly the same as it was when I left. However, there was a difference in me. I still had that energy, that excitement. I had done a killer reading that proved the quality and validity of my writing, surrounded myself with some of the best people in my life, got a fresh idea for an exciting story, and had the energy to move forward on as many projects as I could.

I couldn't have felt more different. And I was definitely needing a recharge like that. I know that a vacation like that isn't always possible. Life has a nasty habit of getting in the way of our plans. Still, the reward is totally worth the cost. You don't even need to go far away or have some amazing plan. Just get a change of scenery. Be around some different people (or some people you aren't around often enough) and leave as much baggage as you can at home.

Friday, April 23, 2010

No Expectations

Have you ever been really excited for a movie or concert or meal at a nice restaurant? When you got to wherever you were going, you had great expectations for the activity about to commence. Was it awesome? Was it as awesome as you expected?

Expectations are a tricky thing. If you expect something to happen, you will be very upset if those expectations are not realized. If you are fortunate and your expectations are met, you may be pleased by it, but you can only be so happy because you expected it to happen; you couldn't have been surprised.

If you can drop your expectations, you will be far more receptive to positive experiences.

For example, I enjoy using Pandora Radio to listen to music. Sometimes I am expecting a very specific sound when I put on a given station. If that sound doesn't come up, I get frustrated and keep clicking the next button or switching to other stations. However, sometimes I am listening to music at work and don't have the time to be selective about which song plays. In this case, I am more focused on my work than the background noise. In this state, I lose all my expectations of the music; I just sit there and take it while I work. And in this state, I find out that all those songs I would normally skip through are actually pretty nice. I enjoy them plenty, and some of them even reach my favorites list.

If you find yourself with some expectation, try to drop it. Walk into an experience without a clue as to what will happen. The experience is guaranteed to be surprising and much more amazing because of that.

Conversely, if you can't drop your expectations, consider avoiding the experience. If you read a book that you absolutely love, you shouldn't watch the movie. The general public will expect the movie to be a full and faithful transcription from page to film, and that is just impossible. Still, that's the main fuel for every person who has ever said "the book was better."

If You Can't Define It, Don't Talk About It

I sat in on a writing class this week and the teacher asked us at what point we become a fan of our own writing.

The class was silent. This included me, as I didn't have an answer prepared for that question. I did know it was true, though, because I am a fan of my own work. So why is it the case? What changed in me that made me enjoy and respect my work?

After some time (probably seconds, but feeling much longer), I spoke up. "You become a fan of your work when you can define it. When you can say, in no uncertain terms, exactly what you try to do and how well you succeed at doing it, you will become a fan of your work."

I was pretty proud of this answer. I came up with it pretty quickly and it was a good answer. I thought about the scene and what I had said throughout the rest of the day. The more I thought about it, the more I realized there was to it.

Being able to define yourself and your writing style is crucial. If you don't know what you're trying to accomplish, it will be very difficult to accomplish. If you don't know where you are as a writer, you won't know where to go next.

Now, being able to define yourself and your style and your techniques are not the first step. The first step is exposure and practice. You have to develop your mind and your muscles, gain some discipline, discover as many tools as you can and how to use them. However, once you start learning about those tools, that is when you can start defining yourself. What sentence length do you use? What kind of melody or rhythm do you prefer? What kind of story do you tell? What characters do you use? What point do you try to make (if any)?

If you can't define what you're talking about, then you don't really know it. And if you don't know what you're talking about, don't talk about it with authority. Though this sounds harsh, it is not as bad as it may seem. If you don't fully know about a subject, that doesn't mean you shouldn't talk about it at all. If you did that, you would never learn. Definitely talk about it, but do it as a form of learning. Discover as much as you can so you can better understand yourself (and also better understand and discuss others). Then you can speak about it with full confidence (and be your own number one fan).

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

World War II

I can't help but feel like World War II legitimizes media. Nobody respected comics until Art Spiegelman made Maus. After that, people had to respect the form.

The subject is a powerful one. Several superpowers were involved. Genocide was attempted, as was global domination. These are the kinds of words that are bandied about in fictional works. It is beyond the scope of normal life. It is beyond the scope of normal international war. If you want to tell a story beyond any scope, you can draw from WW2 and be both incredible and real.

Of course, what grabs people the most are the stories of individuals. Stories about survivors. Stories about individual soldiers. Stories about friends, family, even industry workers. There are countless aspects that you can draw from to make a story.

WW2 is not a subject you want to take too lightly, though. And you don't want to oversaturate the market with stories in the same vein. However, it is a very large and very powerful subject, one that you may want to consider learning about and writing about. The audience always eats it up.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Ending Sentences with Prepositions

Anybody who remembers their English classes (or stereotypes of them) knows that one should "never end a sentence with a preposition." And of course, the standard argument is that it is a stupid rule because it has no good reason to exist and makes sentences clunkier.

Both sides of the argument have valid points, but neither is completely right. Specifically avoiding ending sentences with prepositions does lead to awkward sentences. However, it is because it changes the meaning and sound of the sentence.

English, because of its grammar, relies on word order for basic meaning. A sentence needs a subject first, then a verb, then an object (if there is one). However, the order of words also determines importance. And since prepositions can be put anywhere in a sentence, it can allow us to change word order depending on what is important in a given sentence.

For example, "This is the house I live in" and "This is the house in which I live" are noticeably different sentences. In the former, it is more colloquial. That's how normal people talk. Speaking in the latter form will sound higher in class. However, even when characterization is not a factor, the first sentence naturally puts importance on 'house' and the second puts emphasis on 'live'. Although a speaker can put their own emphasis on any word, if you hand these sentences to random people and ask them to read it out loud, the majority will put emphasis where I said.

These constructions are merely tools. You use them to do with your language what you want. When you want to emphasize the noun in such a sentence, end it with a preposition. When you want to emphasize the verb, switch it around. We do not have rules of English - only suggestions. The most important thing to do is make your sentences sound good and relay the information you want them to.

Monday, April 19, 2010

I Like How You Used The Wrong Word

"I like how you painted your car red and green for Christmas."

Who knows what's wrong with that sentence?

The answer is that "how" should be replaced with "that".

Currently, people will say "I like how" synonymously with "I like that". This is wrong. They mean different things. And although I understand that language changes and evolves, this is a personal peeve.

"How" relates to the method or technique with which something is done. If you say that you like how somebody painted their car, that means that you like the brushwork or the pattern used or the evenness of the coats. You like some specific aspect of it.

"That" is factual. It acknowledges the existence, but nothing else. If you say that you like that somebody painted their car, it means that you like the fact that the car is painted in general.

Now, I am not saying that there is never a reason to say "I like how". There are definitely proper instances of its use. However, I am saying that it is definitely overused and often used incorrectly.

Words and phrases are tools for a writer. Sure, you can use the handle of a crescent wrench to pound a nail, but there's no reason to do that when you own a perfectly good hammer.

Naturally Rich Images

One of my friends was telling me about a style of writing he's been working on. He described it as explaining why you think something is important without using your personal feelings. He used as an example a six-shooter he inherited from his grandfather.

The story he told was about the gun, called The Judge. Talked about its history, that it dated as far back as the civil war, and considered what influences it may have had. I noticed, as he was telling the story, that it was both interesting and impersonal. He never used "I" in it, and yet I was drawn. I realized what he was doing that was making it work.

The story involved naturally rich images. War is always exciting. It is combat, life and death, rugged, scary. The Civil War is a significant one for us Americans. Some people are extremely close to it, some going as far as reenacting its battles. Even for those who don't particularly care about the war, it was still the battle between brothers. The Judge also became a character. Its wielder didn't matter. The Judge was the hero, the silent protagonist who we follow through time, judging others as worthy or not. The narrator does not need to be involved to make this story interesting.

The effectiveness of writing comes from every aspect of it. The way you tell a story has a significant effect on how people react to it. An incredibly mundane story can be made interesting if it is told in an exciting way. However, if you start off by using images and scenes that are naturally exciting and gripping, you have a lot more leeway in your delivery. Of course, if you have incredible images and impeccable delivery, that's how you blow an audience out of the water.

Be Intrigued, Not Offended

There are a handful of things that I really hate in life. One of them is the sound of chickadees squawking in the morning (especially when I am trying to fall asleep after a late night). They have always sounded like a rusty seesaw going back and forth. And there is rarely just one. It is a legion of rusty seesaws with no voices accompanying them. It's like a kiddie park filled with ghosts.

I had a conversation once which ended up talking about birdsong. So I mentioned that I like a lot of different songs and I think it's cool how they are all different, but I absolutely hate chickadees. The person I said this to was quite offended by that. She simply loved chickadees. This is a perfect example of why I don't tell people how I feel.

When I talk with people, I always feel like I'm on eggshells until I know how they feel about a subject. I don't mind it though. I'm a cautious guy in general. What truly surprises more is that people can be offended by somebody who has a different opinion. Sure, it can be surprising. It may even blow your mind. But why should it offend you?

I think it's pretty useless to get offended in general. It's especially useless to get offended if you're a writer. Writer's need to learn as much as they can. If you find somebody who steadfastly disagrees with something you believe, you should be intrigued, not offended. You should want to know how it's possible, what the rationale is, what validity there is in this extremely different viewpoint.

If you only get offended by people whose thoughts are not yours, you will end up being a very limited writer.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Find The Right Way To Tell Your Story

I periodically get asked, "What kind of things do you like to write about?" The answer has changed over the years. Right now, my answer is "I like to write the stories that other people don't."

This usually means that I am playing with tropes. I see the same thing happen over and over again and I just have to do something different. The problem with this is that I come up with a lot of ideas that would make terrible stories.

Have you ever noticed that every person with superpowers eventually uses them, either for good or evil, no matter how reluctant they are? How come nobody has the willpower to stand by their convictions and just live a normal life as a normal person, ignoring their powers completely?

Oh yeah. Because it's BORING. Who cares about a story where a guy can do cool stuff and never does? Nobody. Real life is already filled with lots of people who never do anything interesting. Reading about such a person is not entertaining (making it fail at the cardinal rule of writing).

A lot of my ideas in that vein end up going nowhere because they have nowhere to go. Another idea was about the life of a one-shot background character. Consider a movie or comic book where the hero falls out of the sky, lands right next to some random person who we've never seen before and never see ever again, then cracks a joke or steals a kiss and runs off. We always follow the hero, but I want to know more about the other person. What was her life like before all of that happened? What was it like afterward? What if nothing else interesting ever happened to her?

Well, that sounds like yet another wonderfully boring story. However, after enough time, I realized that there was a way to tell this story. I turned it into a memoir, where the woman is older and looking back on her life. She talks about how her life was nothing spectacular growing up, that she had this one experience which was truly amazing, and how the rest of her life never compared to that moment, which made her cynical and misanthropic. By writing it this way, I could tell the story I want, but glaze over the boring parts, making it short, but to the point.

I don't think I would go so far as to say that every idea could make for a good story, but I will say that just because an idea doesn't seem workable doesn't mean it's impossible. Play around with it some. And when you don't feel like playing with it anymore, leave it alone and let it stew around in your head. It may just come to you out of nowhere.

Check Everyone's Plans

Suppose you come up with this really cool character. He's got a great backstory, sweet costume, and amazing abilities. Now all you have to do is give this character something to do. Enter the villain.

You create the villain in response to the hero. The villain has some plan, usually complete with twists and turns. It's all well and good to move the story, but sometimes logic doesn't come along for the ride.

Suppose the villain leaves a cryptic note in the hero's room, which the hero has to decode and then follow the directions. When the hero follows through, he finds himself face-to-face with the villain, who gives a long, diabolical speech.

If the villain had access to the hero's room, why didn't he just skip all of that circuitous nonsense and just give his speech there?

When you have a bunch of characters in a story, each of them has their own motives and their own plans to achieve them. Check everyone's plans and make sure that they make sense.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

If Things Were Different, Then They Wouldn’t Be The Same

We ask ourselves a lot of what-if questions in life. What if I got that job? What if she didn't get pregnant? What if I left the house 20 seconds later and wasn't hit by that car? These are the things in life that plague us, especially when they're tragic (or extremely fortunate and you feel guilty).

When I find myself or somebody else asking these questions, I pull out my handy saying: "If things were different, then they wouldn’t be the same." That's ultimately what these thoughts always lead to. Whether you subscribe to fate or chaos theory or the butterfly effect, if things were different, then they wouldn't be the same.

The point of the saying is that there is nothing we can do. The past has already happened and it can't be changed. No matter how much you talk about what might have been, it has no effect on the present moment. So quit it and start doing something productive.

In writing, we ask ourselves the same kind of questions. But now it actually matters. The past may be written, but until it's published, it can be rewritten all you want. Ask these questions, think about the scenarios, peer down the roads that each one of them leads. Pick the one that you like the best and make that be the reality.

If you don't like what you have, then change it. Remember, if things were different, then they wouldn't be the same.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

If You Love It, Let It Go

I firmly believe that if you get an intriguing idea, you should record it. Carry paper with you or have some electronic paper. If you don't, that great idea will fly away. Unfortunately, it is not always possible to write something down. If you are driving, writing can be pretty tricky. Similarly, if I'm half asleep in bed and just don't feel like getting up to write it down, I'll let it go.

I do try to remember them, but I'm sure I won't by the time I'm next available. However, I make an agreement with my ideas. If they leave and never come back, they couldn't have been all that great. If, for whatever reason, I do remember them again, I will definitely write it down and work on it. Admittedly, it doesn't happen very often. But it does happen often enough.

If you love your ideas, let them go. If they return to you, it was meant to be.

Monday, April 12, 2010

20 Minutes. GO!

My friend sent me an IM tonight. In conversation she told me that she was submitting a short story to a writing contest for NPR. I asked her if she thought I should submit something and she said sure. The catch was that the deadline for submission was 11:59 PM. And it was 11:39.

The only rules for the contest was that it had to be 600 words or less and use any form of the following words at least once: plant, fly, trick, button. I had no idea what to write and didn't have time to browse the other submissions.

It felt impossible. I wanted to just give up. Everything I thought of felt contrived and stupid. I told my friend that, but she kept encouraging me to keep at it. I threw my inhibitions to the wind and continued on my ridiculous premise.

Not only did I manage to write this story and submit it to them, but I did it with a good 6 minutes to spare. I felt incredibly proud of myself for accomplishing a supposedly impossible task. What's even better, I ended up not hating what I wrote (even though I'm sure it has no chance of winning) and my friend thought it was great and deserved to win.

I guess we'll see what happens. All I know is that you can do this stuff if you feel that you have to. Give yourselff 20 minutes and no excuses. Now go!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Thoughts On Fear

I find it ridiculous that there is a genre of writing called horror. That's because I find it ridiculous that a person can be scared by reading a book or watching a movie. Fear is the response when faced with danger and a piece of writing can't hurt you.

Movies are the worst because they use the same tricks in absolutely every movie. I guarantee you that every time the camera zooms in on a character's face, it will get quiet, then a loud sound will happen and the monster will be breathing down that character's neck. Two or three times, they will try to trick you by making you think it's going to happen, but either nobody shows up or it is one of the friends. At least one of the characters will be the biggest asshole in the world. If it's a woman, she's a bitch and a slut. If it's a dude, he's an intolerant bully. That character will be the first one to die.

If I ever get dragged to a horror movie, I just play a game with myself. It's called Called It. Throughout the movie, I constantly predict what's going to happen next. And if I'm right, I say "called it." If I'm with other people who think the movie is stupid and sucks, we can have a good time with it. If not, I just say it in my head. It's the only way to make the experience tolerable.

Despite all of this, I wish I could be scared. I know I used to be. I remember being a small child watching The X-Files and it freaked me the hell out. Granted, this was the first few seasons when it was all about being scary and not so much about massive conspiracies that didn't make sense or go anywhere. It was about random strange events going on. And one of the scariest things is that they kept being real. What made them scary to me is that they were realistic. That was a show about things that went bump in the night and it gave answers of what they were that weren't impossible.

Now, as an adult, if I were to watch it, I'm sure I would be far too jaded and cynical and rational to be scared by it, but that principle of possibility is there. I recently read World War Z by Max Brooks and that book freaked me out. Even though it was fiction, it was not impossible. What we called zombies was caused by a virus and transmitted as such. Weird, mysterious stuff happens all the time and diseases can do all kinds of horrible stuff. Granted, we haven't found anything that killed the body and reanimated it, but it's not impossible. It's far more realistic than the brain-eating zombies that were raised from the dead with magic.

As I read that book, some of the stories really had me worried. It made me wonder, what would I do in a zombie outbreak? Would I be able to survive? Would I be able to save my friends and family? Could I kill somebody I knew if they got infected, or myself if it happened to me? These are very real questions that it made me really ponder. Also, in the story, the infection started in China. By the time America got hit, would it be too late for me?

These are scary thoughts because they are real. They could reasonably happen in real life. That is the only way that horror can ever work. And let's face it, the news media have that genre covered.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Explain It to A Child

I've heard it said that if you can't explain something to a small child (or to your grandmother), then you don't truly understand it. You may know it well enough to use it and work with it, but it is not a full knowledge.

This is, of course, a subjective test, but a good benchmark. If you can break something down into its smallest, most basic parts, can explain them in a simple and straightforward manner, starting from the principal concepts and moving forward into their larger purposes, then you definitely understand what you're talking about. If you get flustered or frustrated or honestly don't know how or why something works, then you are lacking in your knowledge.

Don't think that you absolutely need to have a complete and thorough understanding of a subject in order to talk about it or do it, but do realize what you are and aren't aware of. If you have trouble, maybe it can be solved by looking deeper and breaking it down into smaller parts.

You will have the most control in what you do and will be able to do the most fine-tuning with it. Breaking writing down into the Levels of Writing that I did was a first step toward explaining the sheer complexity and vastness of writing. They could certainly be made even simpler, but I'll save that for when I have to actually explain it to a child.

Put It in Your Own Words

I believe that you cannot truly understand something until you can put it into your own words. If all you know is the standard definition of something, it could be completely useless. If you understand what the definition means, it will be more useful, but you may not understand why it works. In order to explain something in your own words, you need to know how and why it works.

For example let's take the word 'whom' and when to use it instead of 'who'. The standard definition is that 'whom' takes the place of the object of a sentence. That's great. I understand exactly what that means. But do you? Not many people know or remember the vocabulary of English linguistics.

When teachers explain how to use 'whom', they usually say that you use it when it happens after the verb. That's a pretty good explanation, except that it isn't always the case. In the sentence, "To whom are you speaking?", 'whom' comes before the verb. Of course, that's because it is a mangled version of "You are speaking to whom?", in which case it does come after the verb.

In a sentence, the subject does the action and an object receives the action. That definition is also confusing, since some verbs do not seem receivable. In the sentence "I drive cars", it is hard to think of cars as receiving driving. Cars drive. If anything, we receive the driving that cars do. So let me put it in my own words. The subject does the action. The object isn't doing the action. In "I drive cars", everybody can see that I am driving. And since I am the subject, 'cars' must be the object.

As such, you use 'whom' instead of 'who' when it takes the place of a noun that isn't doing the action.

I admit that this definition isn't tight or clean. Then again, if you wanted a tight, clean definition, you should stick with the standard one. Its succinct efficiency is why it is the standard. The one great quality of my definition is that I know what it means, how it works, and why. And I am better because of it.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Let Them Say What They'll Say

Sometimes the greatest impediment to writing something is what others might think of you. If you write about some unpleasant or taboo subject, people will think that you have some fetish for it. They will also believe that everything you write is either a fantasy you wish would come true or something you've already done. And how embarrassing that would be.

Screw them. Not everything is autobiographical. Not everything is author fantasy. Sometimes you just want to tell a story that happens to be unpleasant. And even if you are interested in a subject that isn't proper at a dinner party, don't let that stop you. For one thing, more people are interested in the things you like than you would think. For another, writing isn't a dinner party.

For example, I am fascinated with Battered Person Syndrome and the battered woman defense. It is completely illogical to me. I can't imagine why a person would be in an abusive relationship in the first place, let alone stay with that person, or seek comfort from their abuser. Everything about it goes against everything I know and believe in. However, for as illogical as it seems, there are so many examples of it, so many studies done, and such an identifiable pattern with identifiable symptoms that there is something about it that must make sense to the victims and that I simply am not looking at it in the right way.

If I were to write a story (or several stories) involving an abusive relationship and focusing on the battered person, people might think many things. They might think that I've experienced it or seen it in my own family. They might also think that I could be an abuser or support it. In both cases, those people would be dead wrong. I'm just writing a story. The subject is an interest to me, but not because of personal experience.

However, I shouldn't let that stop me from writing such a story. I can't stop people from thinking whatever thoughts pop into their heads and I wouldn't dare try. I can, though, correct the if they ask me about it and ignore them if they refuse to listen. I'm going to write stories about things that interest me. Let them say what they'll say.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Writing Out of Joy

The pained writer is certainly a cliché, but it’s also somewhat of a myth. While they certainly exist, they do not represent all the writers out there. Many writers write for the joy of writing.

When we write, we get to create and express. We can affect other people, make them feel things, make them think about things. Writing is a truly wonderful and joyous activity, not something to feel ashamed of or cursed by.

So put that joy and wonder into your writing. There is plenty of destruction and sadness in real life; why not write about something that we wish was real? Write about curious kids who learn about the world around them. Write about a lost animal who finds a new home. Write about how easy it is to look at a bad situation in a more positive light. Write about people who solve their problems instead of whining about them, crying woe is me.

Which stories are the ones that inspire people? Which stories do we remember fondly from our past and return to several times? Is it the stories where people are miserable and everybody dies in the end? I doubt it. It's usually happy, joyous, wondrous, whimsical stories about adventures with wonderful people.

Try writing such a story. Reconnecting with those roots of writing can remind you of the joy that brought you into the field in the first place.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Writing Out of Pain

I remember hearing somebody saying that the years in a writer's life where they are happy and enjoying themselves are wasted years. Writing comes from pain. Whenever you are not in pain, you are not thinking of anything to write about.

There is truth in this sentiment. Writing is a form of catharsis. By expressing your pains, you no longer are keeping them inside. As it turns out, these kinds of stories can also be quite enjoyable for others as entertainment, thus they serve both as personal healing and pleasure for others.

If you have no misery, you have nothing to express. You can try to make it up, but unless you have practiced telling two lies and a truth, fake stories will ring hollow.

All stories are at least partially autobiographical. Since you are the writer, everything is filtered through you. Every character has a piece of your mind and personality. Every plot is something that you think about. Actions are things you would do, things you wish you could do, or things you are too afraid to do, but they are all things you are thinking about. Therefore, if you have no pain to draw from, you have nothing to write about. And since pain and conflict are a requirement of writing, they are a requirement for writers.

On a more personal level, I have found my classmates always wrote stories based on the pains of their own life. They also mentioned that they could never think of anything to write about. If they didn't have any pain, they wouldn't have written anything in their years at college. And of course, there's me. I hate writing anything that even remotely resembles me or my life. However, it is when I think about the things that pain, disturb, and trouble me that so many ideas come from.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Two Lies and a Truth

There's an ice breaking game from college I remember. You say three things about yourself. Two of them are lies and one is true. Then everybody guesses which one is real. The natural clowns would usually say one quick truth and then make up some wacky stuff. They'd say something like, "I like to eat pizza. I defeated mutant space bats on three separate occasions. And I'm a Nigerian Prince who wants to give you 12 million dollars." Everybody has a good chuckle and moves on.

Some of the crafty people pick a wacky thing that's true and then make up a mundane lie to trick people. "I once got bitten by an Andean Condor in the zoo. I like to eat salmon. My favorite pizza topping is pepperoni." In that case, the truth is about the condor.

But the truly great liars say three things that are all mundane or are all incredible. "I almost drowned in a kiddie pool at 7. I am three months older than my niece. My current girlfriend used to babysit me." The only way to figure out which is the truth is how I say those things. Truths usually come quicker because we already know them, but lies are made up on the spot. Of course, if somebody is good at lying, the two lies will be really quick and then a good enough truth will have to be thought up. In this case, if two are really similar and one sticks out, you know which is which.

So what's the point in all of this? Well, a good writer is a good liar. Effective stories are realistic, tangible, and grab us, so having the skills to make invented worlds as full and real as the actual world is a useful ability. The other reason is that storytelling is storytelling, regardless of veracity. One of my writing professors called creative nonfiction "the fourth genre", the other three being creative fiction, poetry, and essay. And while it makes sense to say that in order to open the eyes of students, I can't help but feel that creative fiction and creative nonfiction are the same thing; the only difference being the fact that one of them actually happened. Telling a good story doesn't require truth.

So, I think that a great writing exercise can come from the ice breaking game. Write three stories. Make two of them fiction and one of them nonfiction. Try to make them identical in style. Afterward, show them to your friends. See if they can guess which one really happened to you. If they can’t it means you either have good writing skills or stupid friends.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Writing Good Prequels

I have written about sequels in the past. A couple of times, actually. I've said that sequels are an art that nobody seems to teach. I still think it's true. It is rare that a sequel compares to the original. But still, good sequels do exist. What is far rarer, though, is a good prequel.

Prequels themselves are rare. Stories are generally told when things matter. In stories that are either epically long or amount to "a crazy couple of days", there is nothing for a prequel to do. Epic adventures start at the beginning of the hero's journey and crazy adventures come from bizarre circumstances that turn an ordinary life extraordinary.

A prequel only matters in a full world with a rich history. People think that a character with a shady or mysterious background make for a good prequel, but if the world around them isn't interesting, there's no story, just a biography. Mysterious figures can act as a good vehicle for a prequel, since they existed in both stories, but there needs to be more.

The same rules for sequels apply for prequels. And the cardinal rule is that it should be able to stand on its own. If you assume that everybody has read the first story, you are cutting out a large chunk of potential readers. The next rule is that it needs to have a story. The fact that we know what these characters do in the future is incidental. If you focus your story on your characters and making references to the original story, you haven't given the audience anything.

A great example of a terrible prequel is Star Wars, episodes 1-3. When I see them, I feel like it's all flash and no substance. We already know that the empire is going to be formed, the Jedi council will be obliterated, and that Anakin has some kids and becomes Darth Vader. However, those are the main plot points of all three movies. It is a slow build to show where the characters came from and what specifically happened to create the universe as we know it (in episode 4). However, the movies focus on these points and introducing characters we've already met in the original trilogy. So when the empire is formed, it isn't surprising. We already knew that was going to happen.

I'm not saying that a prequel should ignore those points. In fact, tipping your hat to the original story adds an extra pleasure to people who know what you're doing. But they can't be the driving force. A prequel is still a story. Treat it as such. Give it characters who we learn about, settings we can feel, and a story that grips us. The only difference between a prequel and an original is that the prequel has subtext.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Avoid "Started" and "Began"

This is not something I come across in a lot of writing. In fact, this is more so a personal issue that I struggle with. Still, it is worthwhile to learn from anybody's mistake if it applies to you.

When I write actions in my stories, I use the same phrases over and over again. It's always "He began to walk away" and "She started to explain herself" and "I began to think about". There are a number of problems with this. First of all, it's repetitive, which is boring. Second, they're largely meaningless words. Third, they weaken the power of the verb they modify.

"Started" and "began" are not technically weasel words, but they are poisonous. They take away a lot of potential power and have no benefit. And the worst part of it all is that using them always feels like the right thing to do at the time.

I write actions as I see them happening in my head. If a person is standing, then walks away, the most natural thing to say is that "he started walking away." And, in reality, this is not always a bad thing. The main problem is that starting implies an ending. If "he started walking away", then I expect the sentence to continue with something like, "but he was stopped before he reached the door." Again, though, this is a natural and acceptable thing, but only in small doses.

Starting and beginning is akin to the laughing and smiling problem characters in bad writing seem to have. Characters can always do little things and then stop doing them. Every action has a beginning and an ending. It doesn't need to be announced or specified that they have started an action. Just say that they did it; it will be understood. It will also be more powerful.

Stop Laughing and Smiling

I like dialogue. Maybe it's because I'm a child of television and films, but conversation really does it for me. Dialogue in prose is a little trickier. Too much of it turns a book into a script. There needs to be action to break it up. However, action needs to be meaningful.

I haven't read a lot in general, but I have read a great deal of terrible writing. And if there is one thing all bad writing has in common, it is a lot of laughing and smiling (and not from the reader). Every conversation is exactly the same:

"Blah blah blah," Dude 1 said.
Dude 2 laughed. "Blah blah blah."

One can add some variety by adding a mundane activity after laughing or smiling, but that's pretty much it. And though this doesn't seem like such a terrible exchange, the problem is that it doesn't end. Dude 2's comment causes Dude 1 to smile and speak more, which in turn causes Dude 2 to turn his laugh into a smile and say another line which will have a similar effect on Dude 1. I've read pieces of writing that must have had at least six lines of dialogue in which somebody smiled and/or laughed (because sometimes they did both at the same time). It doesn't sound like a lot, but try it out. Look for some exceptionally poor writers (wherever fan fiction is written, you will find such writers) and read it for yourself. Three is a lot. Heck, two is a lot. And now, because it is such a peeve, one line of it is too much.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Stop Calling It Porn!

I am really offended by 'porn'. And I don't mean videos, pictures, or any other medium depicting sexuality or sex. That's fine. I'm offended by people calling everything some sort of porn.

The movie 2012 was called disaster porn. The Food Network is called food porn. Anything with luscious landscapes is called scenery porn. Any particularly gory movie is gorn (gore + porn).

Pornography doesn't mean that something is extreme. It means that something sexual (and usually explicit) is going on. It originally meant writing about harlots. And although I understand and accept that words change definition over time, this one really bugs me. It comes off as cheap and ineloquent to say the least. I also don't want it to be another stale synonym of "very". I never want to hear somebody say something like "my Swiss army knife is pornographically useful." It creates some very disturbing images.

When I hear it, disaster porn is an orgy in the twin towers on 9/11. Food porn involves cucumbers in the. . .well, you can guess. And I don't even want to get into what gorn would be.

This isn't so much about creating as it is about critiquing. Still, critique is integral to writing. Being able to be as specific and exact as possible when you critique some one is pornographically useful. (nope, it still feels wrong)