Monday, May 31, 2010

Looking the Part

On the one hand, our stories teach us some fucked up morals. On the other hand, they show us how we truly feel when we're not being scrutinized.


When you're being interviewed, what do you say about beauty? Everyone is beautiful. Everyone is beautiful in their own way. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Beauty is in the heart.

Now what do our stories tell us about beauty? All maidens are fair. All white knights have rugged good looks and a chiseled physique. All wicked people (stepmothers, sisters, queens) are physically ugly, having straggly hair and warts and moles and wrinkles.

So what's the deal? It's ok to call people ugly if they're also ugly on the inside? If it's the inside that counts, why do we even bother describing people's outsides?

A lot of our classic stories have screwed up lessons. The Ugly Duckling. What's the moral of the story? If people call you ugly, make damn sure that you end up gorgeous when you grow up just to show them up? That's an episode of Maury Povich. I hardly consider that something to aspire to.

But still, does this not speak volumes about us? Our stories reveal the things we are not even able to put in words. We like attractive people and we hate uggos. We can even define beautiful people as those with light, perfect skin, long hair (generally blond). Ugly people are pretty much the opposite.

I know that the standard argument is that, no matter how much we depict real life in our writing, we are still making art. And art isn't exactly real. A person's external characteristics are a shorthand explanation of their inner qualities (unless you are telling a story whose specific point is that we shouldn't judge people based on their looks). In that case, you simply make your character look the part. Heck, if you let your external appearances define their inner qualities, you can save a lot of time by not describing those inner qualities. You can even justify it by saying that you are showing instead of telling.

I still think it's a fucked up lesson.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

People Like Losing Control

People like losing control. Who are the people we resonate with in our stories? The berserkers, the lunatics, the people holding onto their sanity by a single thread (and we love it when that thread finally snaps). Look in real life. How many people drink alcohol, smoke substances, or put other foreign chemicals into their body to lose control?

But why do we like to lose control? Maybe it's because it lowers our obligations. If great power requires great responsibility, then giving up your power also releases you of your responsibilities. Right? I mean, when people are so sick of the things they have to do with their life (work, pay bills, feed their children), they crawl into a bottle and wallow in nothingness.

Of course, in stories, people who lose control are able to do more than they normally would. They can use their full strength. They can say exactly what they want to say. They can do what they have always been too afraid to do. People become strong and free when they lose control. It's no wonder we resonate with them.

The argument could be made, though, that we never truly lose our obligations. Even if you are too drunk to go to work, you still have to do it; you simply fail to meet those obligations. And like I've said before, if an argument can be made, make it. Go and explore the consequences of losing control, positive and negative.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Which Names Do We Avoid?

With a title like this, it would be obvious to talk about not naming your characters Hitler or Jesus or Britney Spears because of the definite emotional connection that people have with those names, especially if you are not trying to write an allegory. However, I am actually talking about the names of people in your lives.

What's your best friend's name? Now imagine writing a story whose protagonist had that name? How would your friend feel to see his or her name used in your story? Maybe honored. Maybe not. If the main character was very different from your friend, there might be more reason to not be excited.

Even worse, imagine using a character who had your name. Try getting anybody to believe that it wasn't a self-serving author avatar story.

You could try to tell your friends that a name is just a name and not based on them, but you may not be able to have them really believe you. But if you simply avoid using the names of people in your life, where do you draw the line? Family? Friends? Friends of friends? Family of friends of friends? People who send you random fan mail or hate mail?

I feel like, if you don't draw a line, you will run out of names you will be allowed to use. But since there is no good logic for where that line gets drawn, I say it is better to do the opposite and claim that all bets are off.

As a personal example, when I wrote this entry, I was really hesitant to name the guy Pete because it is my dad's name. But, aside from the fact that I don't think he reads this blog, I just couldn't let that hold me back. The character was named Pete. There is more than one Pete in the real world, so it is not unreasonable to have one in a fictional world.

Of course, I have said in the past that we need to write our stories and ignore other people's reactions. It may not be popular to write about unwholesome people, but you can't let other people's hangups from preventing story you feel you should write. And similarly, people may not be enthused to see their name appear in your work, but if you are simply choosing it because of the sound (as opposed to a symbolic meaning), then you shouldn't fear the stares and questioning looks of others for doing so.

Write your story. Name characters what they should be named. The only one I would consider avoiding is my own. But if I give somebody a different last name, I would still be fine to give them my first.

There Are Almost No Absolutes

People tend to have a lot of problems when they talk about absolutes. "There are no absolutes" is an absolute (not to mention contradictory) phrase. It is also used very often without realizing how moronic it is.

I would love to tell you that there are no absolutes in writing. Every time I say that you shouldn't use profanity, I also say that profanity has its uses. When I say that you should avoid extended descriptions of scenery, I also say that you need to set a scene so the audience knows where the story takes place. And when I say that you should find your own style and stick with it, I also say that you should mix things up to prevent stagnation.

But not everything is shades of gray. There are absolutes in writing. It must entertain. Writing that doesn't entertain is just chicken scratch on paper. Writing must produce a reaction in readers. It doesn't matter if it's vitriolic hate or magnanimous joy. If the reader is indifferent, it isn't writing; it's just noise.

Be careful when you use absolutes. They have a tendency to bite you in the butt, mostly because they're never true.

People Watching

People talk about "people watching" all the time, but usually as no more than watching people. But there is so much more to it. Looking does nothing without thinking. When you watch people, what are you looking at? What do you see?

What are the patterns you see? Do people keep wearing the same outfits, saying the same phrases, bringing up the same subjects, using the same objects? Why is this the case? What makes these outfits/phrases/subjects/objects so awesome that everybody deals with them?

Do you see the patterns being broken? How so? Why do you suppose that happened? What does this say about the patterns you thought you knew? If one pattern is broken, what other patterns could be broken?

I will say that you can use "people watching" as an excuse to stare into space and let your mind wander (it's more like counting sheep to reach a meditative state), but unless you are already prone to getting ideas by staring into space, staring into space in front of strangers probably won't be of much help to you.

I think the lesson here is that nothing is as easy as it is depicted. Nobody sits down and writes a perfect novel. Nobody submits their work to publishers and gets accepted every time. Nobody watches people and gets brilliant ideas beamed into them. Everything requires work and effort for it to be useful.

Their Fate is Sealed

I think one of the strangest sites is a person who is reading a book and is legitimately worried about what happens to a character in the story. For what reason is there to be afraid? I say this not because they are fictional, but because their fate is sealed.

I have no problems with bonding with fictional characters. We connect to the story, to the situation. Sometimes we imprint ourselves in the story and sometimes we simply sympathize with the situations presented. In either case, if you really like a character, it is understandable to want good things to happen to them.

However, there reaches a point in a story's life where it is no longer changed. When the story is being written, it is malleable. That stays all the way until the book is published for the world to see. At that point, it belongs to the ages. No amount of wishing or oping or trying is going to affect what happens to the characters in a story. It has become an account of facts.

If you have bonded with characters, it is understandable that you would be sad when tragedy befalls them. But to be worried for their well-being is ridiculous. When you are reading a finished work, there is no point in worrying about a character. Their fate is sealed. Just because you don't know what will happen doesn't mean it hasn't already been decided. The future is unchangeable (which is deliciously ironic if a story's message is about fighting fate), so all you can do is discover what has already been decided.

Great Job! Now Do It Again.

I found a pretty cool story today. It's called Captain Estar Goes to Heaven. After I finished reading it, I decided to look at the comments that other people had left. All of them contained praise in one form or another, but there was another thing I couldn't help but notice: everybody couldn't wait for the next story to come out.

Nobody explicitly said anything like "I will treasure this story forever." And though I'm sure there are people who do treasure the story, far more people were excited at the idea of what would happen next. And that bothered me.

I know that the intent is to be positive. Those comments are meant to be encouraging; they tell the author that whatever they choose to write, they will already have the support of the fans. However, whenever I read them, they sound like an insatiable beast clamoring for "More!"

And, realistically, people do seem to be insatiable beasts. We are massive consumers. We always have books we want to read, movies we want to see (both queued up for streamlining), and disposable one-shot entertainment like the news, which is regularly updated, but forgotten as easily as it's read.

Of course, if you start viewing your own life as a means of creating disposable, forgotten entertainment, nothing good will come of it. Look at those "looking forward to the next one" comments as a positive. See them as a sign that the people already love your work and wish for you to create more so they can dedicate a shelf of their personal library to you. Even if it's a lie, it will certainly give you the energy and desire to continue being a writer (and if you're a writer, it's a pretty good desire to have).

Monday, May 24, 2010

Leading Questions

It goes without saying that the English language is incredibly complicated. Though this can make things much more difficult, it does allow us to do some cool, subtle things. For example, we can subtly influence perceptions with a slight change in words. One such example is using leading questions.

If you ask somebody, "are you excited", it is a yes or no question. When you ask that, people will consider the two options thoroughly. However, if you instead ask, "how excited are you", this changes the frame of reference. Although the person could still respond with "not at all", that is only one option of several; when you ask a leading question, you give more positive options.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Argument Could Be Made

Would you consider the music of Lady Gaga to be a good base for a philosophical belief system? Considering the people who read this blog regularly, I would expect at least a handful of them to say "Totally!!!" In general, though, I have not found a lot of people who would say yes. However, the argument could be made that she's a fantastic example of inner peace in the face of danger.

Consider the song Just Dance. In it, the speaker (let's assume it's Ms. Gaga herself) cites a number of disconcerting facts she is realizing. The very first one being "I've had a little bit too much." Everybody has different definitions of what a little bit too much, but she elaborates on how inebriated she is with an inner monologue: "Can't find my drink or man./Where are my keys, I lost my phone./What's going on on the floor?/I love this record baby, but I can't see straight anymore./Keep it cool what's the name of this club?" She also has a couple more realizations: "Wish I could shut my playboy mouth./How'd I turn my shirt inside out?"

However, despite being faced with all of these questions and with knowing she is not in control of her situation, she has no doubts. She knows exactly what to do. "I can't remember but it's alright./Just dance. Gonna be okay./Just dance. Spin that record babe." How is this not the perfect example of peace? The world is not predictable. We cannot always keep control of our surroundings; we can't always keep control of ourselves. However, we can be confident in the fact that things will turn out well. We can just dance, which will let us relax, get rid of all the energy we have building up, and get through whatever is going on.

Now, you may think that everything I just wrote is crap. I won't blame you; I'm pretty amazing at BSing. However, whether you agree or disagree (or simply don't care), the important thing to realize is that the argument could be made.

Why is that important? Because writers are arguers. Writers create a set of circumstances and argue that they could happen and how they would result. Writers argue that seemingly unrelated things are similar (like comparing an animal farm to the Soviet Union). Writers argue that often-ignored or consistently mocked subjects are actually interesting and worth knowing about.

The most interesting writing covers things we have never thought about or puts a new spin on a subject we do not think much of. That's why you have to make those arguments. If you agree with everything you hear or look at the world only in the conventional way, it becomes impossible to make truly inspiring writing. No matter how ludicrous it might be, if the argument could be made, make it.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

It's Different When You Know Them

Think about your hero. Some person whom you respect and admire greatly for the things they've done. Now imagine getting to meet your hero in person. How excited are you? What would you say? Would you gush about how much you like them and how great they are? It's ok to say yes; it's probably the truth.

Now think about your closest friends. It's not that special to get to see them. You may talk with them about their endeavors, or you may talk about life or the weather. And if you think they're being stupid, you have no problems with calling them stupid.

What if your friends were super famous? What if they write a series of national best-selling books? You would certainly be happy for them. You may greatly respect their work and think it is of exceptional quality. You could be their biggest fan. But you will never be a fan in the general sense. You're their friend. You know them. And it's different when you know them. No matter how famous your friends get (assuming they don't become self-absorbed flakes), they are still your friends and you still treat them the way you always did.

I don't think there's really anything that needs to be done about this. It's just an observation. I suppose it's healthy to remember that everybody is a human being, and far more complex than the one thing they may be known for.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Story Behind The Story

Sometimes I read somebody's writing and all I can say is "Interesting." As I've said previously, that usually means that I want more. Usually, I want to know the story behind the story.

What made you write this? How much is based on real life? How much is based on your life? What concepts are you trying to portray? What was the germinal idea?

I think these questions can be much more interesting than the writing itself. They cut through the veil of the writing and get straight to the heart of the matter: the ideas.

The nice thing about the story behind the story is that it grounds and prepares me for the story. It fills in the blanks and points out the important scenes, objects, and relationships. It allows me to appreciate the story the way the author intended it to be.

And of course, there are people who want none of that. Some people believe that a story belongs to the people and the author is but one person who has one interpretation of it. To hear what the author thinks their story is about is to taint your perception of it.

I can take either side of the issue because they both have some truth to it. The author does have a unique quality in that he or she actually wrote the piece and knows exactly what the author intended. Of course, that is not to say that there aren't larger possibilities that the author didn't even realize was in the writing.

Regardless of what you choose to do as a reader, you should realize as an author that every story you write has a story behind it. You might do well to write down that story first. Those questions at the top of this post are a good starting point. They will make you aware of your intentions and, as you progress on your writing, they will remind you why you are writing it in the first place.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Accepting vs. Questioning

I often find myself arguing. Usually, I'm arguing with myself. My mind partitions itself into two consciousnesses who fervently debate whatever issue arises. The following is such an argument. For the sake of convenience, I have arbitrarily named the two parties Neil and Diemon.

NOTE: This conversation has been considerably edited to remove the excessive and gratuitous use of profanity. It makes for a less heated-sounding debate, but also a less unpleasant piece of reading material.

Neil has pondered about some remarkable phenomenon and rhetorically asked why it is the way it is.
D: It's just the way of the universe.

N: You know what? I am so sick of you saying that. No matter what I wonder about, you say it's the way of the universe. Of course it's the way of the universe. There is nothing on this earth that isn't the way of the universe. In fact, there is nothing in this universe that isn't the way of the universe. If it was, then it wouldn't be in the universe.

D: I say it because it's the truth. You spend all your time wondering how and why things work, but what would you do about? You can't break the laws of the universe.

N: Water only moves from high places to low places. Rivers flow downhill. We see it all the time. You can't make water rise. That's an immutable law except for the fact that it isn't. We can make water rise. That's how the lock systems for canals function. And do you know why? It's because we also happen to know that water will fill the space of its container. If you simply see water flowing downward and accept it as fact, you never go anywhere or do anything. You become technologically stunted, stuck forever in the dark ages. Do you enjoy your computer and your music player and your delicious but incredibly affordable food products? All those things happened because people looked at the world around them, wondered why things were the way they are, and then found out why. They didn't look at a rock and say, "Some things are made of rock." They said, "What is rock made of? If I break a boulder into a stone, into a rock, into a pebble, into a particle or dust, what is that particle made of? And what is that stuff made of?" Doctors knew that chewing on willow bark relieved pain. But that wasn't enough. They wanted to know what part of the bark did it, how it worked and why. And you know what? They found out. They then found out how to create it, how to create an even better version of it that didn't upset your stomach, and now you have aspirin, a hundred doses in a bottle for a dollar. That's what people do with knowledge. They don't break the universe, but they do find what it's capable of. With knowledge comes understanding and realizations, which allow us change the world around us for the better.

D: That's all well and good, but what do you do when you find things that can't be answered? What do you do when you find things that can't be changed? When a person gets dumped and feels completely betrayed, rejected, is utterly wounded and bound to become scarred, what do you do then? There are no magic words to make it all better. There is no magic pill that takes the pain away (drugs just delay it). No matter how much you know about how and why these things happen, only time heals those wounds.

N: Just like a real cut on the body, healing is a slow process that has no instant fix. However, also like a real cut, these situations can be made better with knowledge. You can comfort and console a person to ease the pain. You can get the person to think about a completely different subject so that time may pass more quickly and when they remember the pain, it has lessened. You can prevent the person from making rash decisions that would worsen their situation. You can get them to spill their guts so they are not bottling it all in. Knowledge in physiology, sociology, and psychology, even rudimentary knowledge, can make a significant difference. No, some things cannot be instantly cured, but if you accept the world as it is, never question it, and never try to find out how the inner workings work, you have nothing more than a superficial view of anything.

At this point, the argument trails off, as nothing more can be said. Neil and Diemon have both made their points. Neither one can convince the other. So they agree that they are at an impasse and move on to other things.

I shared this dialogue for two reasons. The first is that I believe a writer should be able to do this. You should be able to see both sides of an issue. You should be able to argue for either side. You should be able to argue against either side, too. This will ensure that you can do more than simply write stories where you spout your beliefs using your characters as an avatar for yourself. It will allow you to create people who aren't you.

The second reason is that, in this case, I think that Neil has won the argument. Both of these people are me. And I do have a strong tendency to simply say "that's just the way things are; there's nothing you can do about it." However, that's a cop out. I do believe that you should always be questioning. You should always want to know more and more. Widen your field of knowledge and increase your depth of knowledge for each of those fields. You may not change the world, but maybe you will. You have no idea what will happen in your life with that knowledge, but you will never find out if you don't get it in the first place.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The L-Word

No, it's not lesbians. It's that even more taboo subject: 'Love'. *shudder*

'Love' is an almost unusable word. It is simultaneously overpowered, stale, and ambiguous.

We treat love almost exactly the way we treat profanity. Many of us bandy it about in speech. Some of us put it on a pedestal, treating it with the utmost regard. And we do not put it in writing. A novel-length story can probably handle three instances of 'love'. No matter how often we may say it ourselves, seeing it in print (and not in metawriting like this post) gives off a strong feeling that cannot be ignored.

Also like profanity, many of us are largely unimpressed with the word. It's said so often and it's even more acceptable to use in public. We can love everything, but when everything is either loved or hated, it makes for some incredibly boring prose. I love this song, this outfit, this hamburger, my wife, my dog. And this leads into the third problem.

There may be no word more ambiguous and subjective in its meaning than 'love'. I've heard the saying, "If you ask a hundred people for their definition of love, you would get a hundred different answers." Give it a shot. First of all, try to define love. Can you find an all-encompassing definition? Is there more than one kind of love? Do you love your child the same way you love Chinese food? And if you can define love, ask your friends for their definitions of love. See how well they sync up.

Of course, there are no absolutes. You can totally use 'love' if you want. Do it just right and it can make for a wonderful scene. But realize that it can be a total crapshoot in how it's received.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


I feel bad when somebody shows me their writing and my first response is "interesting." I feel bad because I know how much I hate it when people describe my work like that. My gut reaction is that "interesting" doesn't mean anything. It's a filler word for when people can't think of anything to say.

In full disclosure, sometimes it's true. "Interesting" can mean you hate it, you don't care about it, or you have no idea what's going on. However, sometimes it can be said sincerely. And if you sincerely call something interesting, it is not meaningless.

When I say “interesting”, it means I want more. It means, quite literally, that you have my interest. But now I want you to seal the deal. Interesting is the first step towards amazing, outstanding, mesmerizing, and all those other things you’d like to be called. Interesting is not bad; it’s certainly a step in the right direction. Just keep it up.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Writing Exercise: 20 Hot Messes

I was talking with one of my friends and she described something as a "hot mess". I've heard the phrase before, but I never thought about what it meant. In fact, I have no idea what it means. It's such a random, ambiguous phrase, I could probably come up with twenty different ideas of what a hot mess could be. Perfect.

I kind of love random, ambiguous phrases. About half the story ideas I come up with originated with me messing around with an ambiguous phrase. I always find them wonderful toys for creativity.

So here is your assignment (and mine as well): Create twenty different flash fictions, each one based on a different concept of the phrase "hot mess".

If you aren't sure what I mean by different concepts, consider the flowing images: a pile of fresh puke on the floor; two people in bed after having sex; a woman completely frazzled by all of the stressors in her life; three weeks worth of dirty laundry strewn about a room. I could easily see each of these scenes described as a hot mess. However, none of them have anything to do with each other.

The point of this writing exercise is to create (which is pretty much the point of all writing exercises). Play with words, think of their possibilities. Consider both literal and figurative meanings. Think about how many different ways we can use a given word or phrase. And most importantly, draw ideas and inspirations from the humdrum minutia of life, but not by merely imitating and copying it. Be aware of great ideas, as they are all around you. And remember to make use of them, too.

This is off the top of my head, but here is my first flash fiction for this exercise:
Hot Mess
Liam lay in bed. The sheets were soaked from his sweat. The covers were ripped off of the bed and piled on top of his feet; if they were on his body, he would get too hot, but if his feet were exposed, they would freeze. His stomach tightened and gurgled. Liam couldn't tell if it needed food or not. He hadn't eaten for three days, but everything he tried to consume was rejected. He was tired, but restless. The only time he left his bed was to use the bathroom, but he had neither the strength nor the fortitude to do anything but lie down. His only option was to ride this wave until it died. . . or he did.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

There Is No "Right" Story

When I talked about logic shifts, I feel like I gave an unintended impression. I made it sound like there is a right story, that if you change what you had originally intended, the story would become wrong. This is not exactly the case.

Stories can end up going in nearly infinite directions. Many of them are perfectly viable. As a writer, you simply need to decide on one of them. The one you choose need not be the best one or the right one. Just make it a good one.

The reason you would want to prevent logic shift is that you have already made a good choice and want to stick with it. Sticking with a good choice is always a good idea. But if you either don't know what you want or don't mind exploring other options, don't feel trapped. In fact, even if you do know what you want, you shouldn't feel like it is your only option. Until your writing is printed and published, it can be changed.

If you write a story and you think it could be better, give it a shot. If you write a story and you like it just the way it is, keep it. The important point is that you don't keep looking for the right story. Just make a right choice.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

A Little Love For The Villain

Every story has a villain. Stories need villains. Without a villain, there is nothing for the hero to fight. Then it's a story about people living their lives with nothing of particular note happening. However, people have this nasty habit of villainizing the villains.

Certainly the bad guy is bad, but how much should they be hated? For as much as you love a hero, you need to show a similar love to the villain, for the hero would not be a hero if they had no villain to fight.

Without Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker would be some bum on a desert planet. Without Judas, Christianity would be missing a massive chunk of its core beliefs. Without criminals, Superman is a freak of nature living on a farm.

Of course we shouldn't be proud of evil deeds in real life, nor should we support people doing them in order to elevate normal folks to the point of herodom. But we aren't talking about real life. We're talking about stories. And in stories, villains exist almost exclusively for the hero to have something to do.

Next time you want to talk about how awful some character is and how satisfying it was to see them get trashed by the hero, think about how wonderful it was that the character gave the hero such an opportunity to shine.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Heroic Sacrifice: Yea or Nay?

In many of our epic stories, we have heroes. Invariably, one of them will make a heroic sacrifice. Some classic examples are leaping on a grenade to protect others from the blast, leaping in front of a bullet to take the shot instead of somebody else, or pushing somebody out of the way of a speeding truck, but getting hit by it as a result.

Generally, this is seen as noble in the highest degree. That's why we call it heroic. I think that many people would say that they would be willing to sacrifice themselves to save others, even if it is only a few particularly close people.

But there is an opposing belief which is also quite compelling. If you sacrificed yourself to save one person, that certainly is good, but how many people could you have helped had you lived out your natural life? If you helped one person a week for 60 years, that's over 3000 people.

The idea of not doing everything you can to save somebody in need is revolting, but in a cold, purely numbers sense, doing so may allow you to do more good and help more people.

As an example, I would look at Spider-Man. I know he's fictional, but consider how many people he's saved in his lifetime. If he sacrificed himself to save one person early on, countless more would have perished in the future. Fortunately, because Spider-Man is fictional, he never really has to make a choice. He gets to find a way to save everybody and live.

In a more serious example, what about Jesus? Suppose Jesus was 15 and he saw a fellow man about to be executed for a crime. What if Jesus offered to save the man by taking his place? The one man would be saved, but Jesus would not have been able to do all of the other amazing things he did for the 19 years he would have lived after that. But, on the other hand, what would we think of Jesus if he didn't offer himself to save this poor soul?

Like I said earlier, both of these ideals are very compelling. I really can't see either one as being wrong, but I don't think they can coexist either. So what are we to do?

In writing, we can claim it comes down to the character. Is the character zealous or impulsive? They would sacrifice themselves. Is a character calculating and long-term thinking? They would let the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

But characters are an extension of ourselves. Sure, they take on a life of their own, but they're based on us. How do you feel about the heroic sacrifice? Would you do it? Can you see it either way, or do you believe that only one way is right?

Find a scenario with the heroic sacrifice option. Then write two stories: one where it's done and one where it isn't. See how different they end up. This can help you see the reasons for and against each way. If nothing else, it can serve as an example of how divergent stories can be from one major shift.

Believe The Compliments

If you haven't "hit it big" yet, compliments may be pretty rare. If you show your writing to everybody you know, you will probably get a lot of "it's nice" and "it was well-written" and whatever other fluff people offer. These are not hidden insults; they're just a polite way of saying they either don't care or don't have any outstanding opinions on what they have read. However, every now and then, you may get a sincere, heartfelt compliment. Hold on to those for dear life.

If you get a real compliment, remember that it is real. It says that, not only was somebody affected by your writing,but they were compelled to share that fact with you. You may not ever know how some people feel about your work or how many people you have had an impact on, but if somebody compliments you, you know that there are at least some people out there.

Everybody has low points and dark moments in their lives. Anybody who has tried to create has had doubts about it. The notably strong may be able to push themselves through it all on their own, but for the majority of us, we need something to help us get through those times. The irony with that is that when you are in a state of self-doubt, you probably won't believe anybody who says something nice about your writing.

That's why you need to hold on to those compliments. Remember that people have already complimented you. They've done it unsolicited and they were completely honest to you. So believe those compliments. Even if they were lies, believe them. Those compliments will not only help you get through the rough times, they will also help you avoid falling into those pits of despair in the first place.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Freedom of Failure

There are certain situations where you can be completely sure that whatever you choose is wrong.

Consider classic Looney Tunes. An anvil is falling off a cliff and Wile E. Coyote is directly underneath. He takes a large step to the right to get out of the way. Then the anvil falls on top of him. Mr. Coyote is in the same situation the next day, but stays in place. The anvil falls on topo of him. The next day, yet another anvil falls, so he gets in a car and drives a hundred miles away. Then the anvil falls on top of him.

Obviously, it's a cartoon, so one doesn't generally think to learn life lessons from it. But it can be truer than we think. We often find ourselves in no-win situations. For men, the most classic is when the girlfriend or wife asks how he feels about something (e.g. do I talk too much, do you think she's prettier than me). No matter what answer the man gives, a fight will result.

So what do we do when we know we can't win? There are a lot of responses. Most people try as hard as they can to find the magical right answer, because we are trained to believe that any situation can be won. When these people fail, they get either depressed or angered because they feel like they have failed. Other people, though, realize they are in a no-win situation and refuse to even try. Many a stand-up comedian has told the story where they are asked if their wife talks too much and responds with, "Why don't we just skip that fight and go straight to not talking for a week?"

What would you do if you knew that whatever you chose was wrong?

Break it down. Since we already know that the result will be the same no matter what, we have to think of other aspects. What is the easiest? What is the funnest? What is the quickest?

Go back to the falling anvil example. If it was happening to you, standing still is the easiest and the quickest. Traveling around the world would certainly delay the outcome, but be more enjoyable. Driving to the hospital and registering at the emergency room would make the treatment go a lot faster.

There is a freedom that comes from a guaranteed failure. You don't have to try to be right. You can choose the funniest, most ridiculous responses. You can do something that makes you happy. If you are usually stressed out about trying to do whatever is just right, this will be a glorious vacation.

And when you are stressing in your writing about finding what is just right, apply this idea. Some may call it cynical to assume that whatever you choose will be wrong, but it may just be the best thing possible. It frees you to do something enjoyable. It lets you relax. And if all it takes is the promise of failure to put you in that state, then do it.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Story Overviews

When I get an idea for a story, I usually write what I call an overview. Usually, an overview is a few sentences which explain the basic premise of the story (something you'd see on the back of the book or on a dust jacket). When I talk about writing an overview, it is quite different.

For me, a story overview is halfway between an outline and a first draft. I write out the whole story from beginning to end. Some parts I gloss over (making them more of key points, like an outline), and other parts I do very in depth (like a first draft). The reason for the nonparallel structure is that some parts are clearer than others and I am writing down what I see.

If, for example, I have a hero who is breaking into a fortress covertly so she could assassinate the head of the evil organization, the specifics of her route and techniques may not be of importance, so I would simply say that she breaks into the fortress, ending in the office of the head of the evil organization. However, the dialogue that occurs between the two of them may be very clear to me. In that case, I may write out the actual conversation in whole. If it isn't important, I would just say that they argued.

I like the overview, which is why I use it all the time. It is a great tool for discovering my story. I find all of the key points, discover relevant actions and consequences, and I get a solid skeleton to build on. During this process, I also get to fill in the parts that are already clear to me. This can also aid in creating the rest of the skeleton. If I end up writing a specific action or interchange between characters, this can help me figure out what I want them to do in the future. Small details can end up making very significant outcomes and a story overview allows me to put them in, neither ignoring them nor requiring them prematurely.

I may have no idea what color house a character lives in, but if I knew that the bathroom is next to the kitchen, it goes in my overview immediately. The color of the house gets added if it ends up mattering.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Read Your Notes

I have talked a lot about writing notes to help you remember things. This is a great tool, but there is one crucial point to remember: if you don't read your notes, they won't help you.

I know this sounds incredibly obvious, but I think that it is worth mentioning. I write notes all the time and I frequently don't read them.

When I was in high school, I used to write notes on my hand. I managed to go entire days not looking at the message on my hand, only seeing it when I noticed the ink rubbing off as I took a shower before bed.

I decided to move from writing on my hand to using a folded up sheet of paper that I would keep in my pocket. Every time I reached into my pocket, I was reminded that the paper and my notes were in there. The problem was that I would never unfold the paper unless I was writing down a new note. I knew that I had notes there, so my brain never told me to read them.

In college, I made to do lists, some on paper and some on a Word document. Both failed pretty significantly. At one point, I got an iPod Touch and used the notes function to replace the folded up paper, but still I frequently forget what I have in there.

Even now, my list of ideas for future blog posts has a general idea, then an extended description of it, but I often only read the main idea and ignore the rest. When I write a first draft or story overview, I will keep notes at the bottom or top of the document (or in the margins if on paper) for key points or reminding me what happens next if I am taking a break for the night. Very often I still ignore these points.

It can be very frustrating. For one thing, I can spend hours wracking my mind to try to think of what I was wanting to do, not realizing that I left a note to remind me of exactly what I wanted to do next. For another thing, I may come up with an idea that sounds really cool, but halfway through writing it, I find my original note which is very different and then I have to decide which version of the story to pursue (potentially scrapping a lot of promising work). And of course, sometimes I come up with a truly brilliant, amazing idea, and then I go through my notes and find out I already came up with that idea weeks earlier.

So I repeat, read your notes. Writing them isn't good enough. It can help, but it only goes so far. Don't feel confident in knowing that they're written down already, read them. Read them regularly. If you cannot say in specific words what your notes say, then you don't know or remember them. That means you should go read your notes again.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Logic Shifts

Contrary to what I said yesterday, logic does not always stay. Logic shifts. A logical mind is always logical, but a situation may have more than one logical conclusion.

Consider this scene: The protagonist (let's call her Sarah) bound to a chair, with an antagonist (let's call him Pete) pointing a gun to her head.

The first logical conclusion is that Sarah would covertly free her hands, then kick Pete between the legs and escape. Another logical conclusion would have Sarah seduce Pete, who frees her, allowing her to knock him out and escape.

Both of these are very common and on any given day, with the given scene, I might come up with either answer as a gut reaction. In this case, it doesn't make a huge difference because Pete is incapacitated and Sarah escapes. But there comes a problem with the logical progression (going from A to B to C ). Each time the logic changes, the natural logic that takes me to the next step shifts.

For example, suppose my original idea was for Sarah to kick Pete in the balls and runs away. She has to escape from where she is being held, where other people will be trying to stop her, forcing her to keep it covert. However, if my logic shifts and Sarah seduces Pete, she might take him hostage instead of incapacitating him. Now she can escape from where she was being held, but she couldn't do it in hiding. Instead, she will have to threaten all the guards and possibly use Pete as a human shield.

Sometimes these logic shifts are not what characters do but when they do them. Timing can be critical in stories. Romeo and Juliet is all about timing. The difference between life and death was how quickly the messenger reached his destination.

If you want to avoid these shifts, you need to write down more than a simple sentence. You need to create a logic lattice. Write down every significant point. Everything you write down becomes a point of structure, preventing your logic from shifting too far between these points.

If I made a logic lattice for my above example, it would read something like: Sarah is tied to a chair, seduces Pete, knocks him out. She ties Pete up so he can't call for help and she escapes through the duct work.

It's a lot more in depth than "Sarah is tied to a chair", but it also prevents the story from deviating too far from where I intend it to go.

A logic lattice may be a loose collection of points. I may be working on a story where, five months after the opening scene, I want to make sure that the protagonist gets in a car crash where the passenger side of the car is crumpled because he turned too quickly and slipped on glare ice. It seems an odd point to make. Without context, there is no reason to know why it matters, but that's not what a lattice is for; it's simply a useful reminder. If I spend most of my time working on the beginning of my story, it will be all too easy to forget that scene. But if I keep that one note there, I will make sure that I don't lose it and that my story will go exactly where I want it to.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Logic Stays

I tend to have an organic thinking process. One thought naturally leads to another thought. It doesn't always make sense why one makes me think of the other, but it is consistent. There is a logic to the progression, which makes remembering it far easier.

For example, in chapter 2 of my story Average Ninja, the titular character tries to rob a prostitute, who ends up being an enemy ninja who was planning on killing Average Ninja. Before the prostitute knocks on the door, Average Ninja's partner arrives at the motel so they could discuss their plan of attack. Since the prostitute is a warrior, the three of them have a fight, ending with the enemy ninja tied up and the the other two discussing her fate.

This is a lot to keep in, but all I need is one sentence to remember all of this: "AN waiting in his motel room."

If you're waiting in your motel, you'll be sitting at the foot of the bed, waiting for the knock on the door. You get bored, which makes you turn on the TV. You see commercials for food, which makes you hungry. Since you're in a cheap motel, you don't have money to spend on food, so you need money another way. Seedy motels often have lots of nearby prostitutes, who make lots of money, but nobody cares about them, so they are a great target to rob. You call a prostitute in, but nothing is ever as easy as it should be, so the prostitute is actually trying to kill you. Also, since nothing goes as planned, your friend arrives before the prostitute, which makes the situation more ridiculous and awkward. And since the fight will then be two-on-one, the team of two is going to win, but this makes the question of what to do with the loser.

The beauty of a logical process is that an entire series o events can be stored in six words. If the only things you have to write on are post it notes or gum wrappers, you can't fit it all down. But as long as you can get that seed that naturally grows, you have all you need.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Write on What You Have

I work at a local art school in the office. One day, I was taking a break where the kids were. I chatted with one of them and he asked if he could write some poetry. I said sure and went to find some paper. The first paper I found was a stack of fliers for an event from 2004. They were also pink. But they were perfectly blank on the back side, so I grabbed a few sheets and brought them back.

As expected, the kid looked at me like I was crazy. Pink paper with stuff already on it, what was I thinking? So I told the kid exactly what I was thinking. "Hey, real writers write on what they have. There's no magical writing paper; you need a blank surface and something to write with, which you have."

Before the kid could respond, one of the teachers spoke up. "That's right. I use whatever I have. And if I don't have any paper, I'll write on my hand."

The boy stopped protesting and instead accepted the paper. I felt pretty proud of myself right there. I was also happy that I wasn't alone there.

And although I said what I did to placate a boy who was incredulous to use pink paper, I really did mean what I said. Writers write on what they have. If you don't have your notebook or your folded up piece of paper or your digital memo pad, grab a scrap of paper somewhere. There is still a lot of paper all over the place that you can write on. And if there is absolutely no paper to be found,k then write on your skin. Just remember to look at it and transfer it to a more permanent format before your next shower.

Thoughts on Locations

I read a story, one scene taking place in the Syracuse, NY bus station. Now, I have actually been in the Syracuse bus station. I have been there dozens of times, in fact. I've eaten at the Subway there, smelled the coffee from the Dunkin' Donuts. I've stared at the arcade consoles and pinball machine, which is next to the men's room. I've looked up at the TVs running CNN on mute with subtitles and I've seen the monitors showing arrivals and departures, wondering how accurate those times actually are.

Any story taking place in that location need only give the most simple of detail and I will see it in perfect clarity.

If I read a story that took place in a random bus station in Nebraska, the same details would be nearly meaningless to me. I wouldn't see with any kind of clarity the way I would in the Syracuse station. My mind would create a structure that would have all the things that the text mentioned, but it would be a guess at best.

And of course, for anybody who has never been to the Syracuse station, they would have the same experience as me and the generic Nebraskan station.

My initial reaction to this realization is that we are in an unfixable bind. On the one hand, somebody who has not been to the place you describe will need much more detail to see so sharply the picture. On the other hand, people who have been there would grow bored from such excessive detail.

I sat and pondered this for a moment before the realization came to me: the clarity doesn't matter. If, in the story, the character kills time by playing in the small arcade, you don't need to see the alcove; you don't need to know what the games are; you don't need to know what color the floor tiles are. Neither the knowledge nor the ignorance of those facts adds or detracts from the story.

A reader who has actually been in a described location may have a special understanding of a story, but the rest of the readers should not feel left out. Details that matter should be in the text and details that don't matter should be dropped. If your story comes across as an inside joke or a "you had to be there", that is a problem of the author, not the reader.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Repeating Words

English is a confusing enough language just to use for communication. But when it comes to using the language artfully, the problems are compounded. The main problem for me is that we are given contradictory advice.

Look at the case of repeating words. Traditionally, we are told that it is bad to use a word more than once every 3-5 sentences (roughly once per paragraph). Grammar words (e.g. the, an, or) are excused, but content words are not.

You would receive a very low grade in a class if you turned in an essay with this paragraph: "My pet is a dog. My dog is named Hutch and Hutch is a good dog. Hutch is an English bulldog. In the summer, my dog and I play Frisbee in the park with other dogs. Hutch enjoys the dog park."

Granted, that paragraph is awful for a number of reasons, but I am very sure that the teacher would make a comment about how often the word "dog" is used. You would be told to find synonyms for "dog" or to rewrite sentences so you wouldn't need to say "dog" so much.

This is the nature of English. Because we have so many ways to say the same thing, both from synonyms and euphemisms, it is very unattractive to hear a word repeated. However, another writing teacher will give you the exact opposite advice (and sometimes it's the same writing teacher).

According to them, powerful writing often employs parallel structure, which means you repeat a word, phrase, or sentence structure to add significance and make very clear that what you are saying matters.

Suppose you turn in the following paragraph: "My dog is an English bulldog named Hutch. My dog is fun and friendly. My dog plays Frisbee in the park. My dog is better than all other dogs." Given to the wrong teacher, you might be told that your writing style rivals a third grader's in intellectual level and artistic merit. But given to the right teacher, you may be told that your parallel structure not only shows the passion you have for your dog, but rivals the beauty of an anaphora poem.

There is another problem that needs to be considered. On the one hand, it is true that repeating words is noticeable and grating. On the other hand, using too many synonyms can be confusing. Suppose I start talking about a nation's "beliefs and social practices", then in the following sentence, make reference to them as "cultural mores". If you don't understand that I am using them synonymously (which can be tricky if they aren't technically synonyms), it just makes the writing harder to follow. So what are we to do?

Ultimately, I think you need to decide for yourself when to repeat words. Say your passages out loud and figure out when it sounds awkward. Gain experience reading and hearing. Learn from good examples and bad examples. Find out how to do it naturally because, ultimately, that's the most important quality to your writing.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Power of A Single Sentence

Sometimes we get the feeling that, in order to properly express a thought, we need to go in depth to show it. If you want to make sure that the audience knows that a character has a mustache, you have to devote at least a paragraph explaining the qualities of his facial hair. I find this to be the opposite of what is needed.

When I read, sometimes a single sentence can be extremely powerful. If a given fact is important, it simply needs to be stated; its importance will either be immediately obvious or will become obvious when the other important facts are stated.

There are times where I am reading and I want to go back and reread a passage to make sure I got it right. Usually, it becomes very difficult to find the passage I'm looking for because it is so small. The scene that I recall so vividly was only a three-line paragraph. I reread it in the blink of an eye.

I'm not sure if this quality is specific to me or if it is more universal. I consider myself a slow and careful reader, but I think that writing should cater to careful readers. That's why writers should use shorter sentences and not dwell on points, instead keeping the action moving forward. It's also why you should never underestimate the power of a single sentence.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Potential Senses

We have all learned (I hope) that we have five senses: seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting, and smelling. We all understand the world around us through these senses. It's easy to think nothing of them, but I think they're the most fascinating part of life.

Our senses interpret things that exist. Sight senses light. Hearing senses vibrations in the air. Feeling, tasting, and smelling interpret physical objects in different ways. Seeing is so thoroughly integral to us that we can't imagine not being able to see. When we think of the blind, we like to think that their sense of feeling and hearing work together to create a 3D map equal to sight; that's how we treat Daredevil. But that simply isn't the case.

What got me interested in senses is the pit viper. Pit vipers have an organ that can sense heat. This was a fact I heard a number of times and simply accepted it as a random fact. But then I thought about it. They have a sense that doesn't exist in humans. They have a sense that we cannot experience. They can get information on a subject which we cannot.

This leads me to wonder, what else is possible? Our senses tell us about things that exist around us. What things are around us that we don't sense? What is possible? What about a sense of barometric pressure? It seems laughable, but is it any more laughable than sensing heat? It would be a very useful sense to know when a storm was brewing instead of us needing to observe and create almanacs and barometers. Sharks can sense electromagnetic radiation emitted from other creatures. It would be great to have that sense to avoid being snuck up on. On the subject of radiation, imagine having a built-in Geiger counter so that we would avoid radioactive locations.

This is something that probably only has use to science fiction. It would be cool to have aliens, either humanoid or not, that had different senses and understood the world in different ways. Similarly, cybernetic implants can add senses to the human body, assuming the brain could handle it. You could literally have that Geiger counter built in.

If you wanted to deconstruct fantasy and explain the magical world, this could be an interesting example of how certain beings know things that we cannot.

I will admit that it is very difficult to try to imagine new senses. The five senses are so core to our very being that thinking outside of them is a difficult task. I think a good start would be looking at our technology. Anything that exists that measures could be turned into a sense.

This leads to some very different and intriguing creatures. Think about all the potential senses out there. You may find something worth writing about.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Power of Not Knowing

You ever see some woman who you talk with every now and then and she seems really cool? She’s interesting, unexpected, unpredictable. You want to learn as much as you can about this person because she’s so fascinating. Be careful what you wish for. Once you figure a person out, the intrigue is generally gone. Then that woman becomes just another predictable person.

The same can be true for your characters. If you put too much out on the table, it can lose power. We shout meet a character who we learn about through the course of the story, understanding this person through a combination of actions and exposition. If you lay it all out from the start, it reads more like a character bio than part of a narrative.

This is true of any part of a story, actually. Characters, settings, whether a set of circumstances was coincidence or fate or a brilliant plan. Leave some mysteries. Leave questions that people will desperately want answered. And do give the people answers, but not all of them.

The human imagination is very powerful. If you leave certain things unexplained, the audience will try to fill in the blanks. This can create a unique experience, making your story a personal one for every reader.

However, this can easily be used as a crutch. If you are a bad or lazy writer, you may not answer questions and claim it is to create a unique experience or to affect people with the power of not knowing. But if you're doing that, you know you're a bad writer and that it's your crutch. Don’t confuse leaving parts out for intrigue with leaving crucial information out because you’re lazy and you will be just fine with this technique.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Detached Ability

Some people can be really funny when they apply themselves. They can sit down, think about a joke or concept and work on it to craft comedy. Some people get in a funny mood. They tell a funny joke which helps them to make another one and the momentum just keeps going. I have detached comedy. Even when I am tired or cranky or sad, my brain just comes up with jokes.

Between me watching Comedy Central stand-up since I was a small child, and my dad making the corniest jokes possible, I am so completely immersed in comedy that my mind thinks in jokes. I don’t have to be in joke mode. Frankly, I can’t turn joke mode off. It ends up being a blessing and a curse, especially if you are in a very serious situation like a wedding, funeral, or a big fight.

But this kind of thing doesn't happen with just making jokes. This applies to any ability. It works for my proofreading skills, too. If I am walking around and I see a poster or flier, I cannot help but find every typo in it. It is another detached skill. I can't turn it off. And it, too, is both a blessing and a curse.

Still, I think that detached skill is a good thing. It's like breathing; because you do it automatically, you never have to remember to do it (though you can always switch from automatic to manual when you want to). Keep practicing your skills and thinking about them. Immerse yourself in your skills and they will eventually become a detached ability. They can make certain parts of life much easier.