Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Thoughts on Technology

Technology feels like a great trouble when it comes to telling stories.  The more technology advances, the harder it becomes to tell timeless stories.  If Romeo and Juliet could have texted each other, their story would have ended quite differently.  But to write a modern day Romeo and Juliet, the audience would berate it for its stupidity (why didn't they just text each other?).

Some stories, though, have used the same conventions with different technologies for decades.  In cop shows, any detective can get any message by picking up their cell phone.  Fifteen years ago, cops could get any message by getting a page on their beepers.  Thirty years ago, cops could get any message by having another officer find them and announce that there is a message.

Science fiction must have the hardest times.  Hard science (being very descriptive on how technology works) tends to look goofy when our real knowledge increases (radiation doesn't give superpowers; give up).  Technology ends up being futuristic versions of modern technology, so we have very old science fiction that uses supercomputers that still use magnetic tape.  Heck, we still have science fiction with things like floppy disks or CDs.  Nobody in the future will be using either of those.  We just haven't progressed far enough for it to be laughable yet.

Fantasy seems diametrically opposed to technology, but it also has magic, which is just the softest science out there.  Worlds like the one of Harry Potter amuse me because they don't have technology, but have magical equivalents to every piece of tech we could want.  And so I ask myself, why the heck not just buy a laptop and email each other instead of sending owls to one another?  of course, there is some reason for it (something about electricity not working in magical realms), but really, it's just any excuse to not have redundancy or show that magic is largely useless once technology has reached a certain level.

I find myself usually wanting to write in a throwback time.  Something along the lines of the feudal or manorial system.  People can farm and build homes out of stone and wood, but no gun powder, no electricity, no fossil fuels.  I like these worlds because anything that has to be done has to be done by people.  There's no automation and no telecommuting (at least not with any kind of speed).  It also prevents me from having to deal with frustrating questions like "why didn't they just text each other?"

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Failed Experiments

I started humming randomly and came up with a four-bar melody I liked (a bar is roughly equivalent to one line of lyrics).  I hummed it a few times, then started putting words to it.  It ended up sounding like a song that would totally fit in a musical.  But I had no idea ow to expand it.  The story started with the first line and ended with the last.  Anything else would be filler.  Well, what if the song only was four bars?

Musicals are always kind of odd because they often have these extended numbers that detract from the story.  When the point of a song is that the bad guy is telling the hero that good will never win, it doesn't really take 5 minutes and a half dozen backup dancers.  All it takes is four bars.

So, what if I made a musical that only had four-bar songs?  The melodies would all be unique, and lyrics couldn't be recycled.  There could be 40 songs in the show, maybe 80.  It would certainly be an interesting experiment.  But would it work?

I think it is not guaranteed to fail, but it would be a stretch.  In a musical, there is expected to be a certain amount of extended glitz and glam.  A four-bar song doesn't allow the audience to get into the spirit.  Instead, it comes off sounding like all the characters in the story just have a strange penchant of singing their thoughts or opinions.  It's hardly something people can rock out to, so there is a large amount of people who wouldn't go for it by its very nature.  And musical theatre only has so many fans in the first place, so splitting them into smaller groups is pretty sparse in numbers.

But does this mean I shouldn't do it?  I don't know.  On the one hand, it would certainly save me a lot of time and energy on a project I didn't intend on following through.  If I already believe it will fail, it is almost guaranteed to do so.  However, there is so much that could be gained from it.  On top of the fact that it would be practice in writing, which is always good, it also would give me a chance to understand the mechanics of what I am trying to do better.  Even if it ended up being a lousy product, I would know exactly why it was lousy.  I would be able to take that knowledge and apply it to all situations similar to it in the future (not to mention the fact that I would be able to identify similar situations far more easily).  These are skills and abilities that may actually be worth the trouble.

It's ok if you have an experiment and it fails.  You may not use the product, but you will always use the knowledge.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Applied Rhetoric

I think rhetoric is pretty cool stuff.  It is the heart of all communication.  I enjoy reading and talking about rhetoric, but that is never enough.  Rhetoric is always philosophical and theoretical.  I never see enough people actually applying their rhetoric.

The irony is that rhetoric is all around us.  It's communication, and how often are we ever not communicating?  The only question is how well we are doing it.

I think of rhetoric as the art of taking a scene, thought, feeling, or belief that is in your head, and transferring it to another person's head with the least amount of signal decay possible.  In that case, you can test yourself in everything you do.

When you tell a story to your friend, how well does your friend get what you said?  How many questions need to be answered or reanswered?  When you're at work, can you explain something to your boss in a way that is not angering or would do anything else to make or a negative workspace?  If you re a salesman, can you communicate that the item you sell really is worth the money and that they would be better off having it?

Talking shop is great, but talk is cheap.  If you think you have a firm grasp on how to communicate effectively, then start doing it.  The only way to know if your theory is worth a damn is to apply it.  Then you know for sure.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

In Too Deep

How come the group of kids never seem to run out of the haunted mansion?  How come the person in an unwinnable fight still fights on to the bitter end?  How come the person in a destructive and abusive relationship never leaves it?  There are a lot of possible reasons (and as writers, we should consider them all), but one of them is that these people are in too deep.

This is one of those points of surreality.  I read a story and I see people making stupid mistake after stupid mistake.  Why don't you just say screw it, leave this whole scene, and start again somewhere else?  The irony is that these kinds of things really do happen in real life.  Sometimes we don't even know why we do it.  We can't identify that we're in too deep, we just know that it would be easier to keep going than to cut and run.

If you are trying to be realistic with your writing, it is not a bad thing to have a character like this.  But for the sake of the reader, explain it.  Subtlety is nice.  We don't need it announced that the person is in too deep, but to find a way to show it or have it come up that alternate possibilities exist but are refused would make it more believable and more powerful.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Reactions Are Based On Expectations

Sometimes, I do not get the reaction I expected out of people.  Whether I tell a joke or state a fact or have them read my stories, people just aren't on the same wavelength.  It always comes across as strange, but it occurred to me only today why it happened. People had expectations and got something radically different.

When I tell a joke, but people think I'm being serious, the punchline becomes a horrifying story. If I tell a sincere story that somebody thinks will be funny, they will keep waiting for the punchline and be disappointed when nothing funny is said. 

Imagine two people who are close friends.  The first one says something surprisingly mean to the second.  What the proper reaction?  In a sitcom, it would be laughter.  In a drama, it would be shock and awe.  In real life, it would be either sadness, or anger.

Just as important as telling a powerful story is setting your audience up to receive it.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Real Life Is Often Like Fiction

Real life is different from fiction.  Duh.  In real life, people don't have super powers.  Giant monsters never attack large cities.  Nobody drives up to you in a Ferrari and offers it to you with no strings attached.  Nobody spends a night in a haunted mansion on the condition that they get a million dollars if they stay there the whole time.  But if you look at the smaller details, life is pretty similar to fiction.

Doesn't it seem like the less likely a situation is to occur, the more likely it is to happen?  I swear, the one time you don't look both ways before crossing the street is the one time a car is speeding by and the driver isn't paying attention.  Every time I hear a couple having a conversation, one of them says a line straight out of a sitcom and the entire rest of the conversation follows the script.

Maybe it's because we are always looking for patterns, trying to make connections.  Maybe it is because art imitates life.  For whatever the reason, the next time you have to make a decision, ask yourself, "if I was in a fictional story right now, what would happen?"  See how often you're right.

Sometimes Fiction Is Better

When I'm out and about I see people and I wonder what is going on in their lives.  I see one person sitting in a coffee shop.  She just sits there.  Doesn't read a magazine or newspaper.  Doesn't order a drink or food.  Doesn't pull out a phone or a music player.  What is she doing?

Is she homeless?  She's nicely dressed, so that's pretty impossible.  Well, maybe not.  There was a comedian who talked about how somebody thought he was homeless, despite being nicely dressed.  "What if he thought this was my first day of homelessness?"  This woman could be homeless on her first day.  There's nothing to do, nowhere to go, but there's air conditioning and nice music.  I wonder how long she can stay there before a worker asks her to buy something or get out.

Maybe she's stalking somebody.  Following somebody around all day is too obvious, but if she knows her target's daily activities, she can wait for him to walk by, then casually leave and follow him a little further undetected.  Maybe it's not a he.  Maybe she's stalking a roommate or a coworker who wronged her.

An hour later, a man walks into the coffee house and the woman stands up to greet him.  It was her boyfriend.  She came here when she was done at her work and waited for him to be done with his work so they could have a meal together.  She didn't call him because she knew it would be a while and she didn't order anything because she didn't want to spoil her appetite.  No idea why she didn't read anything or entertain herself by doing anything but stare out the window, but I doubt it would be any exciting.

Sometimes fiction is better.  Real life is boring and making stuff up is exciting.

Real life can give you some good ideas for fiction, though.  Next time you hear somebody on the phone, try to make up he craziest story for what the person on the other line is saying.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Audience Hasn't Read It Yet

I occasionally see people who never finish long works.  They have a certain burnout with it, but it's more of a boredom.  They have become so intimate with the story that they know it inside and out.  They know every part of it and it isn't exciting anymore.  It is so obvious how things go that writing it down would be an exercise in tedium and nothing else.  There is one key thing that these people have forgotten.

The audience hasn't read your story yet.  It's obvious to you because you've wrapped your mind around it day in and day out.  You decide everything that happens.  But you can't forget that there have been hundreds of choices.  Your characters could have done countless things at countless times throughout your story, each of which could have had a significant impact on the story.   And until the audience reads the things you wrote, they cannot know which one you have chosen, so it will always be interested.

This is not a license to be lazy, though.  Stereotypes and cliches are still boring.  Sure, we can't know what will happen until it happens, but we can still make predictions and be disappointed when things end up exactly as we foresaw.  Do things that are uncommon.  Just remember that the craziest choices will seem boring if you are always making them, but they are still crazy, especially to everyone else.

We Speak in Unique Languages

Have you ever been hanging out with your friend, when somebody else comes up and starts talking to your friend?  Does your friend sound different when he or she talks?  It's like they aren't talking the same language.  Well, they kind of aren't.

All people speak to each other with a unique language.  Yes, even you.  You probably don't realize that you do it unless you are actively trying to sound a certain way.  The way you talk to your best friend is different than the way you talk to your parents or a police officer or your boss.  But the way you talk to your best friend will also be different from the way you talk to your other best friend.

The cool thing about these languages is that they tell you everything you can know about the relationship of the people speaking it.  The subjects people talk about, the words that they use, the level of antagonism used (and whether it is friendly or legitimate), all explain how close the people speaking are and what kind of friends they are.  And don't forget to consider the things they don't talk about it can be just as telling.

How does your language change as you go from person to person?  Can you measure it?  Does yours actually never change?  Are you sure?  How do your characters sound?  Are they realistic in this sense, or do they talk to everybody as though they're the same person?

Monday, June 21, 2010

What We Leave Behind

Anybody familiar with classical music will know that a great many pieces, and lovely ones at that, were found years or even decades after their composer's death.  The composer, for whatever reason, did not like the piece and stuffed it in a drawer, where it was lost and forgotten.  I wonder what it would be like for me.

I have a lot of stuff written on my computer.  I have snippets of conversation and pages of ideas.  I have some fully-written works that I have not submitted for publication.  If I died and somebody went through my files, what would they think?

This is, of course, a question that we cannot know the answer to, but it doesn't stop me from wondering.  Nothing is gone forever, at least, not without seriously putting effort into it.  This is neither a good nor bad thing, though.  It's simply a fact.  If nothing else, it is something that makes me want to not delete the things I write, even if I don't plan on sharing them.  I leave them as a gift for the future.  It is what I will leave behind.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Ideas of Grandeur

I like the TV show 'Futurama'.  One of the episodes involves all of the characters being issued three hundred dollars and using it in different ways.  The incredibly poor Doctor Zoidberg thinks he is now a rich big shot and goes out to live like a rich person.  However, he scoffs at precious gems ("I ask for rich guy stuff and you hand me shiny pebbles?!"), foie gras and caviar ("Goose liver?  Fish eggs?  Where's the goose?!  Where's the fish?!"), and even a priceless silken mural ("It's not even scratch and sniff?").  It amazes me how different our ideas of great things can be.

If two people were given a thousand dollars to spend on one meal, one person may buy the rarest, most highly lauded food.  Another person may buy a couple thousand $0.39 cheeseburgers from McDonald's.  Both would be very happy with their choices and revolted by the choices of their counterparts.  I suppose it's a matter of taste.  People with different upbringings will have different ideas of grandeur.

Who are your characters?  What do they want?  And I don't mean what prize are they after.  What do they want out of life?  What drives them to desire it?  What kind of culture did they grow up in?  Is it better to have a lot of things of low quality or a few things of exceptional quality?  What would make them feel truly great?  What are they doing to achieve it (or why are they avoiding it)?

And don't forget to ask those questions about yourself.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Myriad Myriads

The largest influence on my love of language, words, and sounds was my father.  He has a very similar love of them.  He is always playing with words and phrases.  Ironically, he also hates how people use (or misuse) the language.  He hates it when people say "The reason is because" (the reason is that).  He hates it when people use 'loan' as a verb (it should be 'lend').  And he hates it when people say, "A myriad of. . .".

'Myriad' is an adjective, not a noun.  Except that it isn't.  One day, I actually looked it up.  "Usage: Recent criticism of the use of myriad as a noun, both in the plural form myriads and in the phrase a myriad of, seems to reflect a mistaken belief that the word was originally and is still properly only an adjective. As the entries here show, however, the noun is in fact the older form, dating to the 16th century. The noun myriad has appeared in the works of such writers as Milton (plural myriads) and Thoreau (a myriad of), and it continues to occur frequently in reputable English. There is no reason to avoid it."

Anybody so dogmatic as to believe that a word can only be used in the way that it always has must accept that 'myriad' is a noun.  Anybody who understands and accepts that language is alive and everchanging may use it in any form that they like.

This was a pretty important thing for me.  It showed a number of important realizations.  For one, most supposedly educated people aren't.  They don't know anything but the rules they've been told; they've never questioned them or researched their veracity.  The other thing is that none of it matters.  The fact that 'myriad' as a noun is older (and thus more correct?) has no effect on its present usage.  Even if 'myriad' is supposed to be used as a verb, it wouldn't mater.  That's simply an evolution. It's nothing to be feared; instead we should accept and embrace it.

Find a rule you know very well about proper English usage.  Now break it.  Break it a lot. Have myriad myriads of broken rules.  Get other people to start saying them and they'll be real.

An Example Of An Interesting Idea

I often tell people that a good story is an interesting one.  They make people think.  What makes people think are subjects we are intimately familiar with, but explained in a different way.  I would like to give a terrific example I heard the other day.

I was listening to a speech being given by a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War.  He led a group of soldiers there.  One day, they were ambushed and sustained heavy fire.  He was shot several times and all of his men were killed or wounded.  He found himself in a field hospital.  At one point, the loss of all of his men struck him and he checked out.  Two nurses had stayed with him the entire time, even after their shifts were over, until he regained his mind.  He was informed, some time later, that the women were gay.  It was said in a hateful manner, but the speaker felt no hate.  These women were always there with him and helped him get better.  They were wonderful people, regardless of what they did in their private lives.

He went on to say how ridiculous that was.  He said, "It's ironic that I was being given medals for killing people and they were being shunned for healing."  When I heard that, I had to grab my pencil and paper and write it down as fast as I could.  That was a truly amazing thought.

This is by no means an original thought, but it is one that is easily forgotten.  We glorify the badass.  People who kill and cause destruction are awesome.  We cheer for them (assuming they're destroying the right things).  We even cheer for the bad guy if he is cool enough.  So who has time to think about all the people that tend to the ones wounded by the badass?

It also makes us wonder how we should define heroism.  The speaker said that "In a time when all of my friends were lying to get out of Vietnam, these women were lying about themselves to get in."  What's worthy of getting a medal, killing others or healing our own?  And in all of this, how does sexuality matter in any regard?  Since the speaker had no idea what the sexuality of the nurses was, then obviously it didn't affect the way he was treated.

The speech turned a conventional idea (the badass) on its head.  It discussed a very well-known concept, but represented it in a different light.  Instead of nodding my head in acknowledgment (of course medals are given to those who kill a lot of enemies), I was forced to ponder why that is the convention and what would happen if things were different.  That is an interesting idea.  Now go find one of your own.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Don't Get Lost in Facts

There are more facts than there are things in the universe.  In terms of writing, there are more facts than there are interesting things to write about.  A really great way to drag your story to a halt is to put in too many facts.

Suppose two characters get into a fist fight.  Does it matter exactly which hits landed and which ones missed?  Unless a specific injury becomes a significant detail later on (like a black eye which everybody makes note of), it isn't needed.  All we need to know is that the two people got into a fight, both got hurt, but one of them was the clear loser.

Be conservative.  Only mention necessary facts.  If Bob asks Alice how her mother is, we may assume they're friends.  We may assume any number of things.  How many of you saw that and assumed they were cousins (thus Bob is asking about his aunt)?  This is the kind of situation where you should mention their relationship.

Be careful, though.  Most writers will say that the worst thing we can do is tell the audience things instead of showing them those things.  If we are giving noticeable exposition, it gets distracting.  Make your facts sound natural.  Weave them into your narration.

Look at these sentences: "Alice and Bob are cousins.  Bob ran into Alice outside of a new deli."  Now compare them with, "Bob saw his cousin Alice on the street."  Both of these have the critical information that Bob and Alice are cousins, but the second one is smoother in how it tells us that.  It gives us a pertinent piece of information, but it does so very nonchalantly, like we should already know that.  It also drops the unimportant information of where exactly they met.

Facts are wonderful things.  They tell us the things we need to know.  Just don't go overboard.  We don't need to know every fact, just the ones we need to know.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Style Preference

I am pretty proud of the fact that I have identified my writing style and am a fan of my own work.  However, I have found an interesting coincidence.  The style I enjoy writing is the same style I enjoy reading.  Anything that reminds me of my own style is much more compelling to me.  Anything noticeably different from my style is repelling.

This isn't for any other reason but personal preference.  I care about the action of a story and its characters.  Scenery, excessive internal thoughts, or anything else that halts the action frustrates me.  I want to know what happens next.  There is something to be said for building suspension, but there is also a line between that and waxing tangential.

I doubt it's a steadfast rule that writers will prefer a style very much like their own and not care for others.  But if you write stories that you would enjoy reading, it seems pretty inevitable.

Whatever you end up preferring, remember to go out and read works of that style.  It will inspire you, not to mention being an enjoyable experience.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Hiatus Dilemma

Anything that you do every day will eventually get boring.  Even the things you love doing will start to feel like a chore (and may actually be one).  So you are faced with a dilemma: Do I keep doing it or do I take a hiatus?

At first glance, the answer seems easy.  If you are burned out, take a break.  But how long should it be?  One day?  Two?  A week?  Until you feel inspired to do it again?  As it turns out, not doing something is way easier than doing something.  And the longer you go without doing something, the harder it is to start back up again.

This is why there is the advice to work through the burn out  By keeping ourselves regularly working, we will push ourselves through any roadblocks and will have the faster recovery time from burnout because we will never have to fight the urge to stay inactive.

The flip side to this is that vacations actually are very refreshing.  A hiatus can give you time to recharge your batteries and restore your desire to do that thing that you love.  The best thing to do is to learn about yourself.  Find out how your mind and body function and choose the method that yields the best result in you.

Monday, June 14, 2010

A Blessing And A Curse

Every positive comes with a negative.  Every blessing is a curse.  Imagine being able to hear your favorite song of all time playing in your head constantly.  You can no longer enjoy silence.  Suppose you qualify your wish so that you can turn it on and off whenever you like.  You will lose the special feeling of having it randomly play and feeling special.  This does not mean that it wouldn't be awesome to have your favorite song of all time play anywhere you want on command.  All it means is that it comes at a price

My friends often struggle to come up with ideas for things to write about.  I do not.  I have ideas popping into my head all the time.  I see actions that don't take place, hear the thoughts of characters, consider scenarios that never happened on worlds that don't exist.  If I ever find myself stuck, it is not because I am out of ideas; I am simply figuring out how to turn my ideas into writing.

If my friends truly feel a writer's block, I will sympathize and empathize, but I will never understand it.  I don't pity them, though.  They simply are what they are.  They also are not pitiful because their problem is so easily overcome.  It is just a matter of willpower and relaxation.  I do not pity myself for having ideas coming to me, either.  Considering how awful writer's block can be, I consider myself blessed.  But every blessing is a curse.

Sometimes it's annoying.  It gets hard to focus on reality when surreality keeps seeping in.  The amazing worlds and fascinating people are wonderful and wondrous.  The disturbing people in disgusting worlds are horrible and horrifying.  And there's no way to keep them out.  No matter how much I try, they keep coming back.

Again, pity is not involved here, not for either person.  It is simply a fact of life.  The things you pine for may be the same things that others lament having.  The things that frustrate you may be another person's dream.  But there's no way to exchange who you are with somebody else, so learn to deal with what you have, accept it, and make the most of it.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Do What You're Doing

I watched Lewis Black's new comedy special tonight.  At one point, he is talking about how stupid Twitter is.  He continued on, talking about how everybody seems to be posting every single thing they are doing.  That is when he said, "If you're describing what you're doing, then you aren't doing it."

This is exactly the problem I have with a lot of people.  I don't mind the technologies or the websites.  I don't mind texting and twittering and anything else by their own rights.  But when you stop taking part in something to say announce that you're doing something, you are contradicting yourself.  Announce what you will do or what you have done, but not what you are doing, because all you're doing is making a post.

For writers, I think this goes double.  There is a certain image of writers that some people have that we all just sit outside of society, looking in.  We are observers, but it is not always literal.  We still do things.  We take part in activities.  In fact, it is this living of life, this doing of things that gives us the fuel to write.

If you're going to do something, then do it.  Lose yourself in it.  Announce it to the world or write down your thoughts after you've done it.  You'll probably remember it long enough to write it down later.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Five Paragraph Essay Is Awesome

In this blog entry, I want to explain why the five paragraph essay is awesome.  Basically, it is the clearest method of conveying an idea.  It also teaches people how to use basic logic, which is a skill that everybody will need.

First things first, the five paragraph essay is clear and concise.  Since everybody knows the format of it, people can find exactly what they're looking for when they read it.  Nobody needs to mince words or try to get excessively artistic with it.  You write your point and you support your point.  It is so basic in every aspect, which is not a bad thing.

The five paragraph essay teaches people logic in its most basic form: Everything has a reason.  In order to write these essays, people must realize that everything has a reason, even opinions, and that any claim that is worth making can be supported.  This is the foundation of every science, as well as philosophy, and just about every other life pursuit out there makes use of it.  This is something we can all use.

In anything we do in life, the five paragraph essay can help us.  Somebody wants your opinion.  It could be on how they should invest their money, which job they should take, or what color they should paint their bedroom.  In any case, you first give your opinion.  If they are hesitant to agree or want to know how you came to your decision, then you explain one point and elaborate on it.  Then you give another point and elaborate and give a third point and elaborate on it.  And then to make sure that they don't get bogged down in the details, you remind them what your opinion is and a snippet on why you are right.

The five paragraph essay is awesome.  It's simple to understand and teaches you a wonderful skill.  Whether major or insignificant in scale, serious or silly, the five paragraph essay can help you be persuasive to other people and understand subjects in a deeper, more meaningful way.  You may think that most of the stuff you learned at school is useless.  The five paragraph essay is not one of those things.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Don't Say Everything You Think

Writing is often considered a very organic process.  Much of it is written by the seat of the author's pants.  They're just writing down things as they come to mind.  It is good advice in general, but you don't always want to say everything you think.

This advice comes in two flavors: the rambling and the inappropriate.  In plain English, the longer you say everything that pops into your head, the higher the chance you will either talk about unrelated things or talk about inappropriate things.

For an example of the first kind, consider most casual conversations you have with a friend.  You start by talking about the weather.  It was so nice today, which is good because it rained furiously last night.  It reminded you of this movie you saw where people chased tornadoes.  You saw that movie with your ex, who was such a sleazeball.  How can anybody cheat on you three times in a week, with three different people?  It sounds like something you'd see in an episode of Jerry Springer.  That show is such white trash, but at least its better than shows like Maury.  All they do is parade single mothers who claim six different guys are their babies' fathers, and then it turns out none of them were.  But it's even more messed up when they have their freak show.  it's just hey, look at some gross-looking people and talk about how rough their life is for an hour.  Wait a minute, weren't we talking about the weather just a second ago?

The other version of this is about saying inappropriate things.  But I don't mean double entendre or off-color jokes.  At least, not necessarily.  When people are being serious, it is inappropriate to make jokes.  If your friend is saying that his mother had an accident and has lost hearing in both ears, it is very inappropriate to say, "at least you won't have any more annoying phone calls from her."  However, if your friend is joking around and saying that he's got hos in every area code, it is inappropriate to calculate exactly ho many hos he has.

Personally, I find both versions to be an issue.  As I write, I have my internal filter on.  The more serious a story is, the easier it is to make jokes, and the more my mind is screaming to throw in a "that's what she said."  And the more jokes I throw back and forth, the more I want to explore and elaborate the premises of the jokes, turning them into serious stories instead of simple jokes.  Every time I get those urges, I have to refrain.  Sometimes it is a matter of just saying a joke out loud or exploring a premise in my head, but not writing it down.

I don't hate the fact that these things happen.  I like that I can do comedy and drama.  I like that I can write organically.  It's just that I also know that writing needs a certain amount of structure to be effective.  Since I can filter out the rambling and the inappropriate things, they aren't that big of a concern to me.  Somehow, everything works with everything else.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Talk to People

A lot of the writers I know are shy to some degree.  Some are extremely introverted to the point that if we didn't have class together, I never would have found out that they wrote.  Some are friendly and like to talk, but just don't like to talk about themselves or their writing.  This can be a major hindrance that you would never realize.

There is a saying that it's not what you know, but who you know that matters most.  There is truth to that.  Sure, with the internet as it is, there is far more possibility for the self-determined loner to get around, but life could be  lot easier if you had somebody help you do what you are trying to do.  And one thing I have found is that you never know who you already know.

Talk to people.  Talk about yourself.  Talk about your writing.  You may end up talking to somebody in the business.  You may be talking to somebody with friends who can hook you up.  You may be talking to somebody who has a lot of experience from learning things the hard way (and can give you a laundry list of things to do and to avoid).  Only good things can come from a nice chat, so go and do it.

Human After All

Sometimes I find myself putting professional artists on a pedestal.  I try to avoid it, but I can't help remarking on how bizarre it is.  Artists, whether they be painters, musicians, writers, or any other kind, have an abnormal job.  They look at life, interpret it in their own way, and represent it in a way that others can experience.

Artists are always looked at as different from "normal" people.  Artists are quiet and brooding.  They stay in their tiny worlds and ruminate.  They would rather watch than do.  And although there are artists like this, it does not define all of them.  Artists will do same things that regular people do because - and this is the important part - they're regular people, too.  They feel, see, and think about, all the same stuff we do.  The only difference is that they express it in an artistic manner.  Despite that, they are human after all.

Remembering that we're all human is good for two big reasons.  The first is that you won't look like an idiot if you ever meet them face to face.  No matter how much you love and respect a person's work, they're still a person; try not to gush too much.  The other thing is that, if all the greatest artists out there are just humans, and you're just a human, that means you can just as well be one of those artists, too.  So just keep at it.  Maybe one day you'll be one of those people that I have to remind myself is still human.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Temporary Selves, Permanent Decisions

Yesterday's post on our "true selves" didn't go quite as planned.  I wanted to talk about the decisions that people make in their different mindsets, but it ended up simply being about the mindsets by themselves.  That's ok, though.  It has set the foundation for the post that I wanted to do.  And now I'm going to do it.

People don't have a "true self".  They are constantly changing from mindset to mindset throughout a given day, each one of these selves being equally true.  Our true selves are temporary selves.  However, the decisions we make are permanent.  Even if your current mindset only lasts for 10 minutes, you may make a decision that forever affects your future.

This is not a new concept.  We often talk about a particular breed of these: the "moment of weakness."  When you are just so hungry that you ignore your better judgment and eat that fattening candy bar.  When you are so tired that you say screw it and don't show up to work.  When you are so pissed off that you beat the crap out of some drunk guy and send him to the hospital.  These are all times when our current mindset is not our default, not the one we usually identify with.  In that case, we often feel like we are not responsible for our decisions. "I wasn't myself."

Of course, this doesn't just apply to negative things.  If you're in an exceptionally ecstatic mood, you may be far more willing to be giving and helpful to others.  When we are self-aware of this mindset, we tend to say things like, "If I wasn't in such a good mood right now, I would never do this."

It's a scary thought to me how much a thought you may only hold for a few minutes may cause you to say something that would have a major impact on you.  Imagine that you were in a grouchy mood because your pen ran out of ink and every other pen you try is dried up (admittedly stupid to angry about, but these things do happen).  Now imagine that a person you have a crush on decides at that very moment to come to you and start chatting.  You might lash out at his person through no fault of their own; you simply are in no mood for idle chatter.  The person might consider you the biggest jerk and not want anything to do with you.

That situation kind of sounds like the beginning of a sitcom episode.  The rest of the story would be you trying to convince your crush that you are actually a nice person and they caught you at a bad time.  However, if the person who saw you in your anger was your boss or somebody evaluating you, this could be a much bigger problem (though still sitcom-worthy).

Since this kind of thing happens in sitcoms, there is proof that it already is a part of storytelling (which means it probably dates back to ancient Greece).  However, when it happens to sitcom characters, we tend to ask ourselves how they could be so dumb and short-sighted. Of course, we conveniently forget how often we do short-sighted stuff like that ourselves.

If your characters are the kind that do go through different mindsets, then they can experience this kind of thing.  Whether positive or negative, decisions they make at one point may have repercussions long down the road, even beyond the point where they are in the mindset that they made the decision in.  If you want to do this, do it with pride.  You have realistic characters going through realistic experiences.  You may get some flak from readers because they hold characters to a different standard, but don't worry about them.  Readers don't know what they want.  That's why you're the writer.  So go and write what's right.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Our True, Though Temporary, Selves

People often talk about "who they are" or being their "true selves".  Frankly, that's a crock.  People don't have true selves.  We are a collection of randomly fluctuating thoughts and feelings.  In a single day, a person may wake up grouchy, mellow out into calmness, rise into happiness, explode into rage, plummet into despondence, and finally becoming numb.  Your state of mind may be completely different during each of those phases, but they are all equally you.

The closest a person can come to having a "true self" is having a dominant mindset.  If you are a grouchy dude for the majority of the waking day, then you're just a grouchy dude.  Any time you show any feeling or perform any action that is not what a grouchy dude would do, you are somebody different, or at least, that's how you'll be treated.

Some people's dominant mindset is a total bummer.  You know those people, right?  They're down in the dumps, only focus on the bad things, and nothing can convince them otherwise.  These people are usually aware of their mindset and are often unhappy with it, but they feel stuck in it because it dominates their mind.  These people don't feel that they are their true selves just because they feel that way most of the time.  Their true selves are happy, well-adjusted people who don't have negative thoughts.

Regardless of the specifics, people's mindsets are temporary.  However we are feeling, that feeling will change.

This can be a point of contention with writing.  Audiences simultaneously want realistic and understandable characters.  Those qualities can often be mutually exclusive.  Realistic characters are bizarre.  Sometimes people just switch moods.  There's no rhyme or reason to it.  Sometimes there are reasons, but they are so complex and numerous that it would be a daunting chore to explain it in a story.  And if the character isn't consciously aware of the reasons why and is narrating the story, it would be seriously jarring for readers.  Conversely, characters who are simpler and easier to understand feel fake.  The hero with no goal but defeating the villain is one dimensional.  The good-natured hero with a troubled past is more fleshed out, but still two-dimensional at best.

So what are we to do?  The simple answer is compromise.  One thing we can do is find middle ground between the person who never changes their mindset and the person who changes it eight times a day.  The other thing we can do is try to find an explanation for every change of mindset that a character goes through.

Of course, if you want to be brave, you can refuse the compromise.  Make a character that is realistic.  Make a character who jumps from mood to mood, elation to despair, calmness to blinding violent rage.  Don't explain it any more than the character is aware of.  Maybe the audience will go for it.  If these mood swings really are as ubiquitous as they seem, maybe more people will relate to them than one would think.  Then again, people also seem to hold characters to different standards than we hold ourselves, so who knows.

There's only one way to find out for sure.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

A Private Endeavor With A Public Persona

As the public we always see the public side of writing.  Here's a finished book.  This was what got me started on the subject.  Here are my ideas.  Here is how I expressed them.  We have public readings and interviews and book signings.  Being a writer sure is a sweet gig.  You know, except for all that writing you have to do.

The public aspect of being a writer is just one face of it.  It's a persona.  The actual writing, though, is intensely private.  You may talk with people about what you're writing.  You may even have some people help you with your writing along the way.  But ultimately, you're the one putting the words down.  If you're in a crowded room and you're writing, you are alone.

These things are neither good.  They're just part of the deal.  However, it is going to be helpful to have both of these qualities (being able to be both private and public).  If you are so antsy or flighty or just want to be around other people so much that you can't sit down long enough to string a couple sentences together, then you'll never be able to write anything more than a couple of sentences.  If you are never around other people and never talk about yourself or your work, how can you expect anybody to ever find your work or read it?

Writing is a private endeavor with a public persona.  If you want to be a writer, I hope you are able to handle that.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Throw It Out; Write It Again

One of the worst things a young writer can think is that they write a story once.  They're supposed to sit down, crank out the story in one sitting, and then it's done.  Sure, they may edit as they write, but once you're at the end, it's The End.  Accompanying the problem is thinking that you are writing the final draft and that any prep work is a waste of time and energy (after all, we always end up making up our stuff as we go along).  I know this is terrible because I did it myself.

Fortunately, I have since come to my senses and realized that writing without preparing is garbage.  If it is the first time you wrote something, it is a first draft by definition.  And if you've done no preparing, then you only really have a rough idea of what you are trying to do, making it a rough draft, too.  At this point, I write a given story over and over again.  Each time I finish a draft, I throw it out and write the next one.

The prep work I do is usually taking a sheet of paper and writing down as many thoughts as I have that are inspiring the story,  The first version of a story is an outline.  It is the organizing of my thoughts into a linear progression.  This outline also covers the key points of the story.  It is the skeleton.

Now that I know the absolute basics, I throw out the outline and write an overview.  As I've said before, an overview is halfway between an outline and a first draft.  This is where I start discovering more of the characters involved and who they are.  I discover their preferences, mannerisms, goals, motives, and all that other stuff.  I also figure out the nuances of the plot.  I may know that I have Point A and Point B, but here is where I figure out what happens to get people from A to B.

After an overview, I write my first draft.  At this point, I pretty much know the entirety of the story.  What I don't know are all the excruciating details.  I haven't written out the conversations verbatim.  I haven't drawn diagrams of buildings or decided what furniture and other accoutrement are there to see and interact with.  The first draft is where I am writing the story as a story (instead of mere ideas about a story).  I am also practicing my pacing and tone here.

When I finish a first draft, I know my story.  I've already written it and played with it, so now I want to make it beautiful.  My first draft usually has so many things that I want to change that it becomes easier to just do a complete overhaul.  This is where the second draft comes in.  Once again, I throw out my old version and do it again.  The nice thing about the second version is that there will be a stronger continuity to it.  Though a long story probably won't be drafted in one sitting, it will sound more like a cohesive unit than if I had torn out chunks of my first draft and filled them with rewritten material.

With the second draft done, there comes leeway.  Ideally, this draft will be so solid that it doesn't need to be thrown out.  However, I could write another draft if I decide that enough needs to be changed.  Depending on the specifics of the piece of writing, I will draft until I am happy enough with it that I move on to editing.

The editing process is where I finally stop throwing out what I have.  It is where only minor tweaks need to be made, often cosmetic ones for clearer and easier reading.  With those done, I will have a final draft.  Huzzah!

The reason I wrote this out is to illustrate how much writing goes into a piece of writing.  Every step has a purpose.  Every step is crucial.  None of them can be avoided and nobody can do all of those things in one draft, let alone one sitting.  Now, like I said, I used to be that petulant youth.  So I also know that there is no way to convince them that they're wrong.  People like that need to experience these failures and realizations for themselves.  However, it is important to make them aware of these things.  I had teachers who told me I was being stupid by trying to do everything in one draft.  I rejected them, but I also had the seeds of realization planted.  When everything I wrote was lousy, I realized that my teachers were right.  If not for them, I would have thought I just wasn't that good (or worse, not have realized that what I was doing was lousy).

You may not want to literally throw out your writing.  That's fine.  Save your drafts.  Sometimes they're good for nostalgia.  On occasion, they're good for reference.  Just make sure you don't have it side-by-side with the current draft you are writing.  There will be too much temptation to directly copy, which defeats the purpose of writing new drafts.

Friday, June 4, 2010

A Useful Measurement

People are so obsessed with length.

When I give somebody a writing assignment, the first question is always "how long does it have to be?" If I tell somebody I wrote a book, "How many pages is it?" You'd think they care more about the feat of finishing the writing more than what was actually written.

I know this is a bad habit brought on by academia, where length can be just as important as content. Still, it bothers me. Aside from the fact that it belittles the important of content, I am greatly bothered because there are no useful measurements.

I wrote a story overview that was 16 pages long. This was single-spaced with indented paragraphs. When I made it double-spaced for legibility, it was 32 pages. It was the same document, all the same words and everything, but to say that I used 32 pages just to give an overview of a story sounds way more impressive than 16. Similarly, I wrote a book that is 25 pages long. It also has an average of 22 words per page. The standard page has 250 words on it, making my 25-page book seem even less impressive.

Page length is a bad measure, but word count seems promising, right? I keep measuring pages in terms of words, after all. There are two main problems with measuring a work in number of words. The first is that words come in a variety of length. The other is that words can have vast differences in descriptive meaning. Every time I describe something as "immaculate" instead of "clean", I am writing more, but being counted the same. However, if I use "immaculate" of "really really clean", then I am using fewer words, but using much stronger and vivid ones.

Try all of the measures available. Characters, words, sentences, pages, chapters. No matter what you choose, you will find that it can be very misleading. I will say, though, that if you use all of them simultaneously, you can get a decent idea of the composition of a piece of writing.

However, I must reiterate my original belief that length itself is a stupid thing to measure. It is the meaning of what you say, the effectiveness of its rhetoric that matters far more than anything else. If you can make an interesting point or describe a fascinating concept in ten sentences, do it and don't waste your time trying to expand it into twenty pages.

If you want to know how long a piece of writing should be, here is the best advice possible: Write it until it's done.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Don't Be An Elitist Asshole

Don't you hate people with terrible taste? Like, who ever thought that Britney Spears was a good singer in the first place? In fact, everything that gets played on the radio is worthless trash. It's all crap and the only good music is that sweet underground stuff that nobody knows about.

As soon as you start calling something trash because it’s popular and talking about how the masses have no taste or sense of quality, you’re an elitist asshole. Even if you thoroughly believe it, you still are. If 90% of the people think one thing is good and you don't, maybe you’re the one with the screwed up sensibilities.

The common argument is that the masses are uneducated. The elitists understand their subject on a deeper, more intimate level, therefore they appreciate it more than the commoners and thus they have the right to declare what is good and what is trash.

But isn’t art subjective? What makes your preferences more valid than theirs? Just because you enjoy something on a different level or for different reasons doesn’t make you better, just different.

We are all entitled to our opinions, especially on the arts. Nobody should demean you for your preferences, and neither should you do that to others. If you truly can't accept other people's tastes, at least keep it to yourself. You may be an elitist, but at least you won't be an ass.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Unfortunate Implications

Sometimes we have a noble lesson that we wish to share with people. We may tie it into a story or we may just turn it into a saying and hope it catches on. This is a wonderful thing. But if you're going to do it, think it through. Sometimes even the most quotable quotes have unfortunate implications.

Consider the saying famously attributed to Abraham Lincoln: "It is better to be silent and thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt."

On its face, it's a good lesson. If you don't know what you're talking about, don't try to sound like you do; you'll end up with your foot in your mouth and everybody knowing it.

But is this really that great a policy? If you re silent and everybody thinks you're a fool, should you really remain silent? People already think you're a fool, so they'll treat you like a fool (not to mention what they would say behind your back). What if you admitted to being a fool? Is it not impossible that somebody may want to educate you?

Arguably, I'm taking this saying out of context and applying it in ways that it was not intended. Arguably, I'm examining the ways that a person might interpret the saying's meaning. In the latter case, I find this lovely nugget of wisdom to be pretty terrible, even if unintentionally.

The point is that you should make sure to not make the same mistake. Before you share some brilliant thought, play around with it. Try to apply it to unconventional situations. Find out if it sounds disturbing when put into the wrong context. Avoid those unfortunate implications.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Why Spelling Matters

One of the rallying cries of students rejecting their English classes is "spelling doesn't matter." It's a pretty divisive issue; people tend to feel strongly on one side or the other. Though I do believe spelling matters, I can understand both sides of the issue.

Spelling is the bane of the English language. Since English absorbs words from just about every language, it has the spelling rules from just about every language. What's worse is that English is over 1100 years old, meaning that it has not only been absorbing new languages for over a millennium, but it has also had ample time to evolve itself. However, as the pronunciation of the spoken language has evolved, the spelling has not. This is of course due to prescriptivist grammarians (also known nowadays as Grammar Nazis).

'Conscientious' has no business being spelled the way it is. It should be kahnshe-enchuss. I am proud that we get our fast food at the "drive thru" and it is open during the "late nite" and that we can guzzle it down with a "lite beer". In fact, according to the spellchecker in Firefox, all of those phrases are acceptable and do not appear as typos.

However, even if our spelling is ridiculous and rarely allows us to figure out how to pronounce a word we've never seen before, it does serve a useful purpose. When you spell things properly, people will know exactly what you mean every time. When you start using the wrong spellings, you can have some unfortunate implications.

My favorite example is this: "Eminem is my favorite raper."

Oops? I sure hope that was a typo.

It also allows us to distinguish our homophones. 'Weight' and 'wait' sound identical, but have different meanings. By giving them different spellings, they distinguish the intended meaning. Consider the word 'fit'. It can be an adjective meaning in good health. It can be a verb meaning to make an object occupy a particular space. 'Fly' can be an insect, a zipper, or something that jets do. Imagine if each meaning had a different spelling that distinguished their meanings. It would be wonderful. And even though we don't have that for every homonym, we can at least enjoy the ones we do have.

I'm ok with spelling changing. I'm totally fine with it evolving to match its present pronunciation (instead of reflecting its etymology). However, whatever the spelling of a word ends up becoming, spell it consistently so we have any idea what you're talking about.