Saturday, July 31, 2010

Lying To Prove a Point

Lying is bad, right?  Well, I'm not sure.  Sometimes an idea is best explained by using it in a narrative.  But if you have not experienced such an illuminating situation, you have no such narrative to tell.  So your only option is to lie.

If you want to explain why a child shouldn't go with strangers, you may need to tell a story that never happened.  It highlights all of your concerns annd explains the dangers even though these things have not happened in frnt of you.

But lying to prove a point has its limits.  Suppose you are trying to convince somebody to make a prudent investment or to avoid a frivolity.  In this case, lying will hurt your goals.  If you give fake numbers or fake ratios, you have merely spouted useless drivel.  Certain subjects, like math and logic, cannot be BSed well.  To use a logical point with irrational support defeats the purpose of doing them in the first place.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Forgetting Ideas

Ideas come to us, sometimes when we don't even realize it.  But when we do realize we have an idea, it is a true wonder.  It is amazing that we have created such a thing.  It is a little miracle.  But if we do not cement that idea somehow, we will forget it;; that little miracle is extinguished.

Forgetting an idea is a tragedy.  Nobody knows where one random idea may take you.  Forgetting that idea is taking away the possibility that anything could come of it.

Recording your thoughts is like hiding a present that you leave for you to find later.  You record your ideas when you do not have the time or energy to work on them.  If you put them all in one spot, or if you leave them in several spots, you can come back to them later, when you've long-forgotten what you had written in the first place, and be amazed at what you find.

Some of them may trigger memories.  Some may seem completely alien to you.  But know that they are all yours.  They are wondrous gifts that you have left for yourself.  They are ideas, put into cryogenic slumber, waiting indefinitely for whenever you would choose to revive them.

Don't let yourself forget ideas, even the dumb ones.  They're all tragedies.  Save your miracles for however long you can.  Some ideas ripen or mature.  Some never lose their freshness.  Some may go out of style, but later return.  They're all good.  Treat them as such.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Divorcing Art From Artist

Who is your favorite writer?  Why is that person your favorite?  Is it the way they tell a story?  Is it plot, characterization, scene building?  Is it the larger ideas presented in their work?    Does it have anything to do with the author's personality?

How many authors have you personally met?  For all the ones you have met, how did it affect your view on their work?  Did nice people feel like better writers?  Did you even want to read something a jerk wrote?  How come you pass a different judgment on writers you know than on writers you don't know?

Is it fair to do such a thing?  If so, why?  If not, why do we still do it?  Does anything other than the work itself matter to the audience?  Would you like your work to be judged as a reflection of yourself or would you rather have it judged on its own merits?  Whichever your answer, will you treat others as you would like to be treated?

P.S. Did you like how every sentence in this post was a question?

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Can You Say It Drunk?

I believe that writing is a representation of speech.  I read at speech's pace because I say each word as I read it.  But even if you are a speed reader, you record them as speech.  Each word matters.  And the order and melody of the strings of words (also known as phrases) still register, even if you are a speed demon.  As such, if your words are cumbersome, they will trip up, slow down, and turn off your readers.

I had an experience earlier today that illuminated a good test for writing.  My mom has a temporary handicap parking permit and we are making light of the situation (better than taking it too seriously).  As such, my parents refer to her as a crip.  When we drive somewhere, we look for "crip parking".  This really bothered me, though.  Not because it's terribly politically incorrect (that's the best part about it).  It was just a mouthful to try to say.  I fiddled around with it and figured out that the /p/ at the end of 'crip' was making it difficult to say another word after it.  It also made it sound harsh (which is probably why it's so effective as a gang name).

I always liked using 'cripple' instead of 'crip'.  She needs "cripple parking", where we hang up our "cripple tags" and sit in "cripple chairs".  Although it adds an extra syllable, it softens the word significantly, making it easier to say the whole phrase and making it more silly and aloof, which is what we are shooting for in the first place.

Along with that realization came the other one: the best writing can be said with the least required control; you should be able to say it while you're drunk.  It reminded me of a comedian who had a joke that Budweiser is the most popular to say because it is easiest to order while drunk; it's just "Bud".

I don't officially recommend drinking, especially if you are underage, but the idea is sound.  Either get drunk, pretend to be drunk, or find some other way to be lazy, and say out loud what you have written.  If you can say it while not in perfect, precise control of your mouth and tongue, you have some pleasant writing right there.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Except For When It's Not

Writing is always fun, except for when it's not.  Laughter is the best medicine, except for when it's not.  Absolutes always have this format.  It's another way of saying that there are no absolutes.

I came up with that little phrase as a joke.  Every now and then it gets a laugh.  But really, it's a way to see the world around us.  Life is always great, except for when it's not.  No matter how wonderful things may be, sometimes they will suck. What are you going to do about it?

What will you do when writing isn't fun?  What will you do when your ideas are stale?  What will you do when your storytelling falters?

As usual, these are questions with no universal answers.  Look inside yourself for them.  What would you do?  Try harder?  Take a break?  Seek help?  Give up completely?

Find out those answers.  When you reach those exceptions to the rules, you will be glad you prepared.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Product vs. Process

Why do you write?  Is it that you love the product you create?  Is it that you love the process of writing?  There is no right answer here.  These are deeply personal questions and can only be answered by looking within.

I can see myself taking either side of the argument, so the answer is "both".  I think it's impossible to be solely one or the other.  So it's more about how much of each you feel.

This isn't really meant to prove anything or guide you.  It's just about learning about yourself.  I suppose that if you cared about the act of writing vastly more than you care about the finished product, you would be better off as a hobbyist.  But other than that, it doesn't prove much.

Still, I think it is a good piece of information to have.  It will keep you realistic.

Make Room For Micro Projects

Most writers started off writing little pieces.  They're easier to manage and faster to finish, so they're perfect for a novice.  As we get deeper into writing, we tend to work on larger projects.  Even if we stayed within a small format like the short story, we try to write a collection of them instead of a random one-shot deal.

But those small, random, one-shot stories are wonderful.  And when you are working on a large picture with your writing, taking a break by doing a quick little micro project is a breath of fresh air.  It's like a painter who does a random sketch on a napkin every now and then while working on a mural.

Sometimes, when we work on one thing for a long period of time, we get deep into the groove with it and never want to stop until it's done.  Other times, if we try to do that, we get burned out and have a drastic drop in productivity, not to mention quality.  If the latter happens to you, take a break.  Do a micro project.  Do a sketch, enjoy the process, and move on.

It doesn't have to do anything or be anything.  It's just a break from monotony, a refilling of your stamina.  It is a way to remind you of what you like to do and why you like to do it.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

A Fate Worse Than Death

A friend and fellow writer wrote a post in her blog.  In it, she said, "With all this craft talk of tensions and stakes, what stakes are greater than life and death?"  And I can't really answer that question.

Death is powerful.  Death is ultimate.  And outside of comic books, death is final.  It is The End, even moreso than the last sentence in a story.  Greater stakes than this, that is hard to imagine.

The irony, though, is that death is kind of played out.  It is easy to comprehend, even though it is still difficult to process when it is somebody you care about.  Death is considered cheap to many, especially literary critics. But I find that to be its own irony, since death scenes are often top contenders in the most powerful scenes in a work.

So, with the power of death established (despite the literary critics), we return to the question: What stakes are greater than life and death?  I still can't really answer it, because I am not completely sure.  But imagine there has to be.  For one thing, anything is possible.  For another, we specifically have the phrase, "a fate worse than death."  That kind of phrase doesn't exist if there wasn't something for it to refer to.

I know that traditionally the phrase referred to rape.  I can imagine that being worse than death.  It is a violation of the body and a mental scar.  I can also think of variations that involve continuing to live in some form of anguish.  Being crippled, whether by old age or accident, yet having a perfectly sharp mind could be a living hell.  Conversely, living with a mind that you know you do not have full control of could be awful.  I understand that H. P. Lovecraft wrote stories about people who, upon discovering truths of the universe that were beyond human comprehension, often went mad from it.  This again could be a fate worse than death.

Still, though, I'm not sure if I buy it.  Both death and non-death can be done very well and both can be done very poorly.  I don't feel confident saying that death is the highest of stakes, nor that it is not the highest of stakes.

I will say, though, that death, as well as some of the other top contenders mentioned, are quite serious.  If you want to tackle them, treat them seriously. 

Friday, July 23, 2010

You Never Know What Will Stick

Hand a piece of writing to a dozen different people.  Ask them what part stuck out the most to them.  I am sure you will get at least ten different responses.

Reading is an amazing experience.  Being the audience of any kind of storytelling is.  Sometimes one part of a whole work just stands out as truly spectacular.  It resonates with you.  It could be a particularly moving situation or a perfect piece of dialogue or a beautiful juxtaposition.  For whatever reason, it becomes a pinnacle scene within the work.

But that scene is different for every person.  Audience members come in with their own preferences and biases.  They have their own baggage and lives and as such different parts of a work will resonate with them.

On top of that, people change what they are thinking periodically.  The pinnacle scene for a given person may change from one reading to the next.

In short, you never know what will stick.  That's why you have to put as much out there, and as much good stuff as possible, in your writing.  You shouldn't try to stuff your work in the hopes that you will end up having something for everyone, but you should try to make as much good stuff as you can.  That's how you make something for everyone.  And for some people, nothing you make will ever stick.  And that's ok.  Just make sure that nothing they say about you sticks, either.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Hold On To The Good Memories

We all have good times and bad times.  They can span weeks or months, or these rises and falls can happen several times within a day.  Regardless of their frequency, the low times suck.

When we are in a slump it fills us with self-doubt.  It makes us wonder if we were ever any good or if we should even keep on trying.  Those low times can easily become an unending downward spiral.

But remember that there are the other times.  There are the times when everything works out right, where you are absolutely certain that you are doing what you were meant to do and things will turn out just fine.

The next time you feel that unhappiness coming in, remember that awesome day where you were brimming with confidence and self-esteem.  Know that it is this depression that is the illusion and that it will pass.  It will pass faster because you know that you are doing the right thing.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Profane Creators

I heard somebody either giving a speech or a prayer and he mentioned the Divine Creator.  We always talk about divine creators. Why don't we ever talk about profane creators? Shortly after that, I realized that it is all of us who are profane creators.  We are mere mortals, explicitly not divine.  Any creations we make are profane.

Shortly after that, I realized that I can't honestly tell what the difference between a divine creation and a profane one is.  If divine creations are things that God makes, then the simple definition is life.  Making life is divine.  But are the practices of writers that different?  We create something where there was nothing.  We create worlds and universes.  We create people.  These people have thoughts and memories.  They take actions.  They develop their own personalities and follow their own paths.

The only difference is that life as we know it is flesh and blood, living in the same world as our own.  But I don't think it's any different.  God is ethereal, but we are not.  We are 'lesser beings' compared to an almighty one.  Writers create beings who exist in a realm that is not our own.  Their lives exist on paper.  They are lesser beings compared to humans, but they are just as alive.

We may be divine creators.  We may be profane creators.  In either case, we are creators.  And that's pretty damn special.  Go out and create something.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Ideas Need External Stimuli

We think of writers as these people creating worlds from their minds while isolating themselves from the world around them.  Sometimes it is true, but it is an overgeneralization.  Writing is a private endeavor with a public persona.  But there's more to it than that.  Ideas do not come from nowhere.  Nothing exists in a vaccuum.

Ideas need external stimuli.  Something needs to get our minds out of their normal routine.  Even if a writer has a warped mind, the thoughts that mind has are normal to it.  We need something outside of ourselves that we can warp.

In the party I was at yesterday, somebody was talking about a movie.  He described the premise as, "Three friends in school make a bet as to who would be the biggest success in life."  My instant reaction was, people always bet on who will be most successful.  What if there was a story where three friends made a bet to see who would be the biggest failure in life?

I then grabbed a sheet of paper and a pen and started writing these ideas.  What would happen?  What would make for the biggest loser in life?  One of them might die, but I am sure there are fates worse than death.  The list I made reads: "Death, Junkie, Jail, Dealer, Retail."  There is a great deal of work to be done before this idea becomes anything more, but when it is ready to grow, I will be able to grow it.

Later on that night, we were talking about apartments and kitchens with my friend.  She was saying how her old apartment had lousy cupboards, but lots of counter space.  I then grabbed that paper and pen again and I wrote: "Counter Space. Not in a kitchen; like negative space/reverse space/bizarro space."  This is an even weaker idea.  I just had these images in my had every time I heard the phrase 'counter space' and knew that something was begging to come out.  So I now have it saved for when the time is right.

I think these ideas are amazing and I am so excited for the time when these ideas become whole, finished stories.  But I am very aware that they didn't come from nowhere.  They came from me going out and being around people, doing something with my life instead of isolating myself from the world.

If you find yourself struggling to come up with ideas you like, get out of your head and into the physical world.  Apply that warped mind to reality and make a brilliant surreality.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Being With Like-Minded Individuals

One of my good friends went to Israel for grad school.  She came back this weekend and hosted a barbecue for friends and family to come to.  There were plenty of people when I got there, but some more did trickle in.  I sat at a table with my friend, some mutual friends, and a few new faces.  We sat at that table talking for hours.  It was amazing.

We started talking lightheartedly.  Talking about our lives and experiences, cracking lots of jokes and laughing all around.  As the evening progressed and the sun set, the conversation got more serious.  We started talking about medical care, mental disease, effective public schooling, and managed to blend them all together.

The experience amazed me in so many ways.  The tone always matched the mood; nobody joked in serious discussion and nobody took the jokes too seriously.  The intelligence level was equal; we all understood what was going on and anything that needed clarifying was explained intelligibly.  And the conversation ended up being a subject that we were all interested in and all had something to say on the matter.  It was so beautiful.

No matter how much you tried, you could never get that kind of thing happening if you aren't with the right kind of people.  It is unique to being with like-minded people.  Now, being like-minded doesn't mean having the same beliefs and opinions.  It means being on a similar wavelength, having similar knowledges and understandings, being able to communicate on the same level.

People who are not like-minded are not bad, nor are they inferior, just different.  You can have a good time and enjoy their company, but there is something special about the like-minded.  It is invigorating, energizing, inspiring.  If you don't do it often, try it out and see what it does for you.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

On Randomness

I am just not sure to what extent randomness is acceptable in story telling.  People need patterns and connections.  They need to know why.  Everything has to have a reason.

Random things are acceptable when they serve a purpose.  If the hero meets some random dude in a city who ends up being a retired warrior that joins the quest, that's just fine.  Good luck, fate, inexplicable attraction of warriors.  For whatever reason, it is fine.

Random things with no purpose are perplexing.  If some dude starts a conversation about biscuits with the hero which has no relevance whatsoever to anything past, present, or future in the story, we scratch our heads asking what the point was.

And random things with unfortunate circumstances are bullshit.  There is no reason for the hero to twist his ankle while walking around town.  All it did was hurt him, weaken him, and slow down his journey.  It's even worse when his best friend dies from an unrelated house fire.

People are fickle.  They hate randomness and they hate predictability.  But if you aren't random, you're predictable.  What's a writer to do?

Saturday, July 17, 2010

You Can Only Do It Once

Sometimes you come up with a truly clever joke.  It is really funny and everybody agrees.  Wonderful.  Tell that joke and get all the laughs you will from it.  And afterward, you can never do that joke again.

I don't mean to say that you can only tell a specific joke.  What I mean is that you can only tell that kind of joke once.  If you do a similar joke in the same vein, it rings hollow.

Back when I read the comics in the newspaper, one of the comics I read was Curtis.  Curtis is definitely a comic that has gone on for way too long.  I'm pretty sure it said everything it had to say a decade ago.  It seems to constantly reuse the same gags.  Dad hates Curtis's music, Curtis's crush will never reciprocate, and Curtis's younger brother will always be an annoying pest who often gets him in trouble.

I still remember when I realized I was done with that strip forever.  There was a comic where Curtis and his brother are walking down the street and Curtis opens the door to some building.  The brother is surprised because it was something extremely uncharacteristic for Curtis to care about (maybe a faith healing center).  Then Curtis explains that the store is a front.  They sell CDs of all the artists that parents never want their kids to listen to.  When the adults find out that the store is a front, they gather together and burn it down, then the store moves and puts up a new front.  The last-panel joke was basically that the CD had some shocking name.  It's not very funny to begin with.  So one day, I opened the paper, read Curtis, and it was that comic.  Again.  The only difference was the name of the front and the name of the CD.  It infuriated me.  I kept saying, "I've read this before."  It was such a BS cop out.  That joke is funny once (and it wasn't even funny once).  Doing it more than once is just beating a horse that died on its first time out of the stable.

I like the comic strip xkcd.  Part of the comic is that the characters are all stick figures.  One of my favorite strips is this one where he unveils "some new character art I'm working on!"  And you know what?  Randall Munroe has never used that joke again.  It is so easy to do, too.  Every time you do it, give them some feature, maybe a hat or some accessory.  But he hasn't done it.  And I am certain that one of the main factors is that he knows that doing it again would not be funny and would also take away from the power of the original.

Something special will stick out.  Something bland will blend in.  If you make something special, let it stay special.  Don't make it bland by making a bunch of copies of it (plenty of other people will already be willing to do that).

Friday, July 16, 2010

One Person's Joke Is Another Person's Philosophical Quandary

The best humor is the stuff that we are all familiar with, but rarely consider.  A prime candidate for humor is the fact that our society is completely accepting of violence in almost every form, but is thoroughly aghast at even the hint of sexuality.

A comedian can make this observation, give a few examples, get a few laughs, and move on.  And there's no problem with that.  Comedians are there to make people laugh and that's all people want from comedians.

But sometimes there is more than a good laugh.  Sometimes the point that a comedian may bring up is a serious one.  Sometimes it confounds the mind and demands attention.  The joke has become a philosophical quandary.

When we write, we have two options to take.  We can be comedians or philosophers.  Arguably, comedians are philosophers, but what I mean is that you can choose to take any situation and play it off lightly or take it seriously.

The choice is always yours.  It comes down to whether you want to look at an idea in depth or if you want to mention it as part of a larger whole.

And when the audience reads what you write, regardless of which choice you take, they could very easily have the opposite reaction.  A joke may be taken seriously and a serious piece may be joked about.  Of course, in that situation, all you can do is roll with the punches.  If you have gotten a person to think because of your writing, you are doing a good job.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Follow The Path Until It Changes

Young people look forward to the future.  Old people look back on the past.  Young people are unsure of what they should do.  Old people wish they had known what they should have done.  Young and old are relative, though.  People in their teens don't have much to look back on.  People in their 80s may not have much to look forward to.  But the people in between can do both.

The cool thing about the young is that they can be completely engrossed in a plan.  They can have their set plan on a career or life plan start working on it right away.  But the funny thing is, those plans often change.  Some fall through and require a brand new plan.  Some evolve into different plans over time.  Some plans are abandoned when new, better ones present themselves.

Imagine you start writing a story that was going to be an action movie.  You had a basic plot as a vehicle for the action, but you ended up creating an interesting relationship and beating the bad guy in the first section.  Well, maybe this isn't meant to be an action movie.  Maybe it's supposed to be a romantic movie.  Follow that relationship and see how it ends up.

Your romantic movie may be superb.  But you know what?  You never would have written that story if you didn't try to make an action movie in the first place.

When we look back on life, we see how things have changed.  This acts as a hindrance.  "I tried to biologist, but I ended up as a proofreader."  It makes you wonder how you can proceed with life knowing that your plans will probably not come to fruition.  But the thing is, you will never do anything or go anywhere if you don't try to in the first place.

Whatever ideas you have, go with them.  Follow the path until it changes.  Maybe it will never change and you'll follow that path until you die.  But if it does change, then it changed.  But remember that it only happened because you followed your dreams in the first place.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Study Yourself

Us writers love to study the world around us.  People are a favorite subject of many.  Why do people say the things they do, wear the clothes they do?  Why do they decorate their homes the way they do?  Why do they eat certain foods, use certain modes of transportation, befriend certain people?  These are all great questions to learn and understand.

How many of those questions can you answer about yourself?  Do you understand you?  If so, what have you learned from it?  If not, how come?

Writers tend to have great deductive powers.  Even if they are not consciously doing so, they are unconsciously figuring out the way things work and why.  Not using those powers on yourself seems a waste.  Learn who you are, what you do, why you do it.

Writers are always encouraged to do this, but usually in smaller scale.  What kind of writing do you like?  What style do you resonate with?  What subjects interest you?  All I am saying to do is to widen the scale.

While you are in the middle of some activity, try to take a step back from yourself and analyze the situation as though it was a different person you were observing.  Ask yourself what you are doing and why.  Think about it until you get to a sheet of paper, then write down the answers you come up with.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Somebody Else Will

There is a commercial for some cell phone on TV.  It opens with some guy being inaugurated as president of the United States.  Then it flashes backward in time, seeing him graduate, then being a child, then being in his mother, then his future mother as a woman on a train (and a man buying a ticket on his phone to be able to sit next to the woman on a train).

The idea this commercial works on is that the future depends on small, seemingly insignificant things that happen in life.  If that man didn't get on that train, the entire series of events that would lead to their child being conceived and becoming the president of the country would never have happened.  Well, that's technically true.  But it doesn't work the way the commercial would have you believe.

Suppose the man in the train station didn't have this phone and had no other way of getting on.  Would America not have its future president?  Of course it would.  It would just be some other guy.  There was nothing magical about that child in the commercial.  He was by no means destined to become president.  If he didn't do it, somebody else will.

I find this to be an interesting concept to work with.  How do you choose a  random person to do something special?  They will want to feel like they were specially chosen or destined to do what they do.  You will want to make them special, too.  And sometimes that's an ok thing to do.  But life is more random than that.  Whether life becomes exciting or boring may be a choice or it may be up to the grace of God.

Try writing two stories.  Write one where a protagonist has rises up to fulfill a position.  Then write one where the protagonist doesn't.

Monday, July 12, 2010

What Do You Do Now?

People tend to be focused.  Even if easily distracted, they have goals they wish to accomplish.  Some people want things.  Some want power or respect.  Some want companionship.  Whatever it may be, it will eventually be reached.  Then what will you do?

Characters, especially classic (a.k.a. flat) characters, tend to have one goal: save the world.  It comes in a few flavors like stop the bad guy and recover the artifact.  But what does that hero do once the world is saved?  Do they sit at home, drink lemonade, and ramble mindlessly to anyone who would listen about that one time, when they saved the world?

People are the same way.  Suppose you wrote the best story ever.  Now what?  Do you keep it to yourself and read it when you like?  Do you share it with others?  Do you try to get it published?  Do you do a small vanity print that you give to your friends and family?

Goals are dangerous like that.  Once you accomplish the goal, you feel like it is the end.  And maybe it is the end of a specific goal, but it is not the end of your goals as a whole.  When you finish one goal, pt yourself on the back and move on to the next one.  If you don't know what the next goal is, then figure it out.  If you want to be efficient about it, figure out what your next goal is before completing the one you're on.

Why Do You Do It?

Writers are always asked why they chose to write and they always have the same stock answer.  Writers write because they are compelled to do so.  There is a burning desire to create and to share.  I don't doubt that this is true for some, but I am not sure if it is true for everyone.

Sit down and turn your analytical mind on yourself.  Why do you really write?  Is it an inexplicable desire?  Is it really inexplicable?  Could it be a sense of validation?  Could it be a special, intimately personal escapism?  Could it be that you have nothing better to do?  Could it be the validation you seek from having such a lofty title applied to you?

Do you want to be published?  If so, how come?  Is it because you so badly wish to share it with the world?  Is it because you want validation from being actively desired by the people and a large company?  Is it because you want money?  Is it because you simply feel like you have to get published because that's just what writers do?

There are no wrong answers here, nor are there shameful ones.  Honesty matters the most here.  Understand why you do the things you do.  Make sure they make sense.  If there is something that you feel like you should be doing but you don't care about it, then don't do it.  Society does not define who you are or what you do, even if it's a society filled entirely of writers.

Either It Happened Or It Didn't

We humans care so much about things that almost happened.  I almost got in a car crash.  I almost knocked over the stack of dishes.  I almost got caught.  These thoughts sometimes haunt us.  We talk about "what might have been."  But ultimately, either it happened or it didn't.

In writing, this is less the case.  If you read a story where a lot of time is spent describing a situation from which nothing significant occurs, you would be upset by it.  Why did the writer waste all that time on a nonevent?  What purpose was there to it?  What entertainment was there to it?

The only way to really bring up these subjects is to specifically write about them.  A character whose mind is wrapped around a close call.  People who who have the most improbable things happen to them and stand around asking what are the odds.  A person who finds out the bus he missed getting on was destroyed by a suicide bomber and can't help but feel that it would have been him, but for the grace of God.

If you wanted to experiment with your writing, then try to prove me wrong.  Write a story that deals with what almost happened.  Write a story where it the shades of gray between did and didn't happen are significant.  I am sure those stories are out there.  Go and bring them to life.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Let Losers Win

I take great issue with the perennial loser.  This is the character that, no matter what, will never win anything ever.  He (and it's always a he) is often portrayed as having a heart of gold or being a likable guy or having some other redeeming quality that makes it ok for him to fail miserably at everything and never seem to get bothered by it.  But no person has these qualities.  Anybody who fails at everything they try either gives up trying or kills themselves (though, theoretically, they would fail at that, too).

Losers have to win.  They don't even have to do it all the time.  The character JD from 'Scrubs' is a total loser, but even they let him win every now and then.  Sometimes he beat the Janitor at one of his antagonistic mind games.  He on occasion gets laid or has a girlfriend.  These are important.  They shake up the status quo.  They let the audience know that anything is possible.  They also make the character human, which allows us to grow more strongly attached.

I think the absolute best example of a great cat and mouse relationship is from the TV show 'Invader Zim'.  Amazingly, it beat out Tom and Jerry, which is an actual cat and mouse pair.  The basic premise of the show is that Zim is an alien who was sent to infiltrate Earth, learn everything about humans, then conquer their world.  Zim's antagonist is a boy named Dib, who is the only person that realizes Zim is an alien and tries almost constantly to prove it and thwart Zim's plans.

Now, this is a serial cartoon, so obviously Zim is never going to conquer the world.  That part is unavoidable.  However, the show does not run the same premise in every episode.  It is not simply about Zim creating a plan and Dib stopping it.  Sometimes that is the case, but sometimes Dib hatches a plan to expose Zim.  Sometimes things happen involving completely different characters that have nothing to do with taking over the earth.  In any given episode, you could never guess what the end result would be.  Zim could hatch a plan and fail.  He might succeed.  Dib could hatch a plan and fail or succeed.  Some set of events may force them to work together, but even still they will try to harm each other in some way.  The scope and severity of actions is always fluctuating, as is their results.

If you have a character who you think is funny because he fails, think harder.  The very description is 1-dimensional.  The character will be the same.  Let life be more random.  Let fortune smile in some unpredictable way.  Let losers win, even if it's only so often.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

What Are The Odds?

In my last post, I ended up talking about a concept, but didn't directly speak to its writing application.  Since the goal of this blog is to discuss writing (often pulling examples from real life), I want to rectify that.

A lot of things happen to us that ended up being insignificant.  A baseball went whizzing right in front of your face.  You dropped a knife while peeling an apple.  You fell backwards out of your chair.  In all of those situations, a difference of an inch could have permanently changed the rest of your life.  You could be in a coma, missing a toe, or be dead.  But instead, it was kind of a nonevent.

When something like that does happen to you, you ask yourself, what are the odds?  What are the odds that something horrible happened to you?  Well, the odds that a small ball and your head happened to be in the same path at the same time?  Pretty low.  But these things seem to happen a lot.  And the more often these situations occur, the more chances there are for a catastrophe to result.

In a story, long shots are often met with a scoff.  In fiction, odds are meaningless.  The less likely something is to occur, the surer you can be that it will.  If something has a 50/50 chance, the result will always be the one with the more interesting result.

Close calls and long shots are both tricky in story telling.  If you do either of them too much, they become stale (and it doesn't take a lot).  If the main character has Hero Immunity, no close call will ever be impressive, nor will a long shot.

Try writing an open-ended story.  When you have a situation with surprising odds, pick the one you want to write.  Then flip a coin.  If it's tails, do the opposite.  Allow the story to fly wildly out of control.  That's life.  It is a series of events, each one based on the results of the previous ones, but the outcome never being guaranteed.  Allow something wonderful to happen.  Allow something horrible to happen.  Allow events to become nonevents.  Then show it to somebody.  They may just say, "there, but for the grace of god, go I."

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

But for the Grace of God

For the longest time, I never understood it when people said, "there but for the grace of God go we" or any of its variants.  I didn't understand what it meant; I didn't even really understand what people were saying.  One day, I sat down and put my mind to this saying so I could finally understand it.

The first step, of course, was looking it up online.  I check the Wikipedia page and see, " 'There, but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford.' The words were uttered by Bradford while imprisoned in the Tower of London, when he saw a criminal on his way to execution."  Somehow, this didn't solve it, so I kept on pondering.

The first breakthrough came when I realized what the commas were doing.  They made a parenthetical phrase.  To remove it, we get the equivalent of, "There goes me," an odd thing to say when looking at somebody who isn't you.  But at least it makes sense.  Sometimes you see somebody who is going through something that you have gone through.  You feel a connection with that person.  They remind you of yourself.  When you look at them, you feel like you are looking at yourself.

So let's put the parenthetical phrase back in. "There goes me, but for the grace of God."  I am that person, except for God's gift. In other words, I would be going through what that person is going through if it was not for some minute difference.

I was pretty happy when I finally figured it out.  I hate it when I hear an expression and I know how to use it, but I have no idea what it really means, so there's one less such phrase.

But I also found this discovery surprising.  This expression describes a thought that has been wrapping around my mind lately.  How many times have we almost been in a car crash, almost fallen from a tall place, almost had something poke your eye out?  How many times have you almost died or been permanently disabled?  Even the most cautious person has a handful of them.

The idea that any of us live long enough to do much of anything is pretty astounding.  That doesn't make it any less tragic when somebody does go through a significant negative life event, but allow it to let you reflect that there, but for the grace of God, go you.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Cyborg Style

There are two main ways to organize ones thoughts.  One is the organic style and the other is the mechanical style.  Both have their benefits and drawbacks.

The organic style works the way speech usually does.  One thought leads into another, which leads into yet another.  Organic styles feel the most natural to read.  However, they can easily be distracted.  If you start writing an essay about frozen waffles and then you talked about finding a cockroach in a waffle box, which then led you to talking about if cockroaches could really survive nuclear fallout or not, then people may enjoy the ride, but they will have no idea what's going on.

The mechanical style is the one we used in school.  The five-paragraph essay is usually in a mechanical style.  You use an organizer to collect your thoughts and you present them in a logical manner.  People will always understand what you are trying to say, but the writing often ends up being stiff or stilted.

I prefer a mix of the two, which I call the cyborg style (what else should I call the fusion of organics and mechanics).  Both the organic flow and the mechanical logic and structure are key.  Personally, I want to say that the mechanical aspects are more crucial, but I know that they are equally important.

The cyborg style is not perfect, though.  Like the other two, it does have drawbacks.  Cyborg style is not a pure style; it is  hybrid.  Therefore, its organic flow can feel stifled by sticking only to the subject at hand.  Similarly, its mechanical structure will feel less solid because of the seamless transitions from point to point.

Try them all out.  Start with a basic premise.  "If you could combine the attributes of existing animals to make a superanimal, what would you choose?"  Write this essay three times.  Each time, use a different organizational style.  At least one of them will be a challenge to do well. Don't back down from it.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Tossing the Seed

Story ideas come to me in a scene that flashes before my eyes.  It can be an action, a dialogue, a relationship, or just a still scene.  This is the seed which plants itself and grows into a full story as I let it turn around in my head and work with it.

When a story is fully developed, that seed may not be particularly important.  Some scenes can be crowning moments, but most are just scenes.  The importance of a story is its entirety.  Sometimes, though, that seed is not important at all. In that case, you are better off removing it.

This is definitely a bizarre feeling.  The story wouldn't even exist were it not for this seed, but you are tossing it away like it's nothing.  But this is not something done recklessly.  This is done because it needs to be done.  We all know that stories evolve as they are developed, so it stands to reason that the germinal idea could be one of the ones that changes.

Remember that you do not owe the germinal idea a spot in the story.  You owe your story to be the best it can be.  If you need to toss the seed in order to do so, then do it.  It isn't necessarily eay, but if it's the right thing to do, then do it.

Hug Dealers

I wanted to go through the process of how one little spark can grow into a full concept.

There is a classic piece of propaganda, "Hugs are better than drugs."  It's pretty laughable and ineffective.  It's also pretty ironic how many people are way more uncomfortable with physical contact than with drug use.  The standard reaction is to ignore or ridicule it.  But let's take it seriously for a second.  In fact, let's take it super seriously.  If hugs are better than drugs, then whatever exists currently with relation to drugs would also exist when it came to hugs.

We would have hug dealers.  But it wouldn't stop there.  We would have hug users.  People would die from hug overdose (maybe they got the life squeezed out of them?). We would have hug rehab, where people would go through hug withdrawal and try not to have a hug relapse.

In dark corners, people would pay money to their local hug dealers just to get one more fix, to cure the pains of the day.  They are never too much at peace though, since they are always looking over their shoulders, afraid of being caught.  People waste their entire lives just to get their next hug.  They rob, steal, kill, hustle, just to get the money for their next fix.

This is becoming an increasingly ridiculous story, but one that has potential.  Create a whole world of these hideous hugs.  Tell the stories of the people that have to live these lives, users and dealers.  Tell the stories of the people who have to put up with these, like victims and police enforcers.

Also, since hugging is physical contact, but is being sold and sought by others, this could be seen as a world paralleling prostitution just as well as it does drugs.  In any case, it becomes the kind of thing that people eventually ask, how the heck did you come up with that idea?  The answer is that it was one random observation and one random thought from it that branched out and became its own.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Find Something New

Sometimes it gets stale.  Everything.  Life.  You do the same routine.  You visit the same haunts.  Your mind keeps thinking the same thoughts.  If this is you, find something new and do it fast.

New things are amazing.  They stimulate you in a way that no other thing happens.  It is a true adventure.  You have no idea what will happen next and all you want to do is keep moving forward to find out.  I consider myself very picky, so finding something new that is engrossing is a rare treat.

I recently had this experience with a new comic find: Seven Extraordinary Things.  It is a semi-autobiographical account of a person growing up, mostly about his time at art school.  I found it through an ad on another comic, started reading, and just couldn't stop.  Not only was it beautiful, but it was just that kind of story that I couldn't stop reading.

That is the kind of experience that we need.  Some people need it all the time.  Some people need it every now and then.  But we all need to experience new things regularly.  The invigoration and inspiration it gives us is incomparable.

And really, you don't need it to be a book or comic. It could be a movie, a song, even a video game.  Anything that thoroughly engages you will do this kind of thing for you.  So break from your habits, even if only for a little bit, and experience something new.  You probably won't regret it.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Being Aware

People who are aware of cycles are the ones who destroy them.  This thought popped into my head earlier.  It's always the characters who are aware of the doomsday prophecy that are able to prevent it.  Those who are aware of an infinite loop in time that break the cycle.  Any time things always have been a certain way, or something is destined to change things forever, it is always somebody cognizant of this that changes it.

There are some exceptions to this.  You could specifically subvert it by writing a story of The Fool who blindly changes the fate of the world without ever realizing it.  But this is largely a subversion, something done because the opposite is so prevalent.

I suppose it makes sense that this is the way.  We like to be aware.  Stories are more powerful when the heroes know what they are doing and we are rooting for them to succeed.  A story where things change by sheer happenstance will have trouble gripping an audience.  It turns into just a bunch of stuff that happened.

What I think is interesting is how often being aware is implicitly good.  The more we know, the better off we are.  If we didn't know what was going on, we would never be able to stop the evil or save the world.  But there is also an implicit danger.  Sometimes things are fine the way they are.  If nothing has changed in hundreds of years, maybe that's because it works.  There are cautionary tales about the danger of knowledge.  One of them is in Genesis.  Humans were kicked out of Eden because of gaining knowledge.

Of course, the tale of Adam and Eve could also speak to the sheer power of curiosity.  Humans just have this burning desire to know stuff (at least, some of us do).  Even when we know something is dangerous, we still have to do it so we can see or experience it for ourselves.

Whether knowledge is good or bad in your eyes, it is a factor.  People will act very differently in a situation based on how much they are aware of at the time.  If you are the writer, you are aware of pretty much everything, but that doesn't mean your characters do.  When they are faced with a decision, ask yourself, what are they aware of, and how would they act based on what they know?

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Pictures of Bugs On Flowers

At the art school where I work, we have photography classes.  The photography teacher is a pretty laid back guy, but there are some rules one had best not break.  Topping that list is: No pictures of bugs on flowers.

Why is it so terrible to take pictures of flowers?  I was walking down the street today and saw a lovely bunch of flowers I would have loved to take a of.  But that is the problem right there.  I am taking that picture because seeing it made me feel good.  I am taking a picture as a record, to remind me of something I saw earlier and how it made me feel when I saw it.  To show it to others is meaningless.

Flowers are pretty, but they are extremely common.  As a form of art, they have little to say.  Whatever power they have, it is marginalized by the sheer quantity of pictures of flowers out there.  Everybody thinks they're special.

But if flowers are dull, a picture of a flower with a bug in it must be extraordinary.  Nope.  Again, everybody seems to have this thought.  Sadly, there are a lot of flowers and a lot of bugs, so seeing a bug on a flower isn't that exceptional.  If you compare it to the number of times you see flowers without bugs, or the number of bugs you see not on flowers, then yes, it is quite special, but again, it has little to say, especially considering how many times it has already been said.

This translates perfectly with writing.  Writing a story about a rough breakup, facing a fear, or dealing with death all sound like great subjects to write about.  They are inherently powerful and universally understandable.  But the problem with them is their very universality.  People have already experienced these things.  Countless others have already written about these things.  Artistically, philosophically, there is little left to be said on the subject.

This is not to say that nobody will like it.  Inherently powerful subjects always garner a certain amount of fans.  Even if it is not new, it still has some power.  But if you are trying to impress somebody who is a little more jaded, it will become much harder.  I find myself like this as a critic.  Every story I read from college students was the same damn story.  When I visited my professor and sat in on one of his classes, I read the writing of some of his students and could not read it through for the simple fact that I had already read that story dozens of times already in one form or another.

When I talk about writing for yourself versus writing for others, this is a perfect example.  Whether you are writing about the death of a family member, or taking a picture of a bug on a flower, it is significant to you; it affects you because it reminds you of something you have personally lived through.  But it means little to others.  They do not have that personal connection.  And if all your story has is a personal connection, then it is writing for yourself.  Writing for others may have a personal connection to you, but it has more to it than that.

Take pictures of flowers when you know they mean something to you.  Take a picture of a flower with a bug on it when it blows you away.  But realize that there is a reason why it may not get the praise you think it deserves (and it isn't personal).  Somethings should be shared and some should be kept in the private collection.  That's all there is to it.