Tuesday, August 31, 2010

What Does School Do?

In my previous post, I mentioned the ad copy I found in a restaurant and how good of an example it was.  It occurred to me that there really is no need to go to school for this kind of thing.  Writing surrounds you, everywhere you go, everything you do.  There is great writing and there is awful writing, both of which you can learn tremendous amounts from.  What does school do?

Then I realized I wasn't being fair.  I've already had the luxury of going through school.  It's easy to have my abilities and forget what it was like to not have them, and to forget how I got them.  The reality is that school taught me a great deal of writing ability, just not in the way we usually think of.

So much of academia is memorization and recitation.  It is no measure of knowledge, merely of how good at being a parrot you are.  In the field of writing and rhetoric, there are volumes of terminology and theory that can be studied and memorized.  If you memorized all of them, that may be useful, but it is also something you can do without spending tens of thousands of dollars on education.

What education should be is teaching you how to open your eyes and be aware of everything around you.  All of us pass by thousands of words every day, even when you aren't trying.  But how many of us pay attention to them, study them, learn from them?  How many of us can identify really good or really bad copy?  How many of us can specify what makes it so good or bad?

We need to learn how to learn.  Gaining an awareness and an ability to understand and specify is all we really need.  After that, it's just a matter of going out, noticing the examples that are all around us, and learning as much as you can from them.

Of course, this could also be learned without formal education.  It's just that it may be worth the price of formal education.

Monday, August 30, 2010

How Much Difference One Word Makes

I was at a buffet for lunch and read the slip of paper that my receipt was stapled to.  On it, there were a number of customer rights.  One of them was that we have the right to eat as much as we want, but please bring a clean plate up each time.  Another was that kids have the right to make whatever combinations of food they want, but please have an adult accompany anyone 10 and under.

When I finished reading it all, I was struck at how truly terrific the writing was.  Aside from being worded well and reading smoothly, it told customers the rules of the buffet, but did so in a warm, inviting way.  From the examples I gave, we know that customers need to get new plates every time they get more food and we know that children 10 and under need supervision to get food, but we don't feel bad about it.

We aren't being given a list of rules.  We're being given a list of rights.  We're being told how much freedom we have, and boy there is a lot of it.  They simply ask a small favor along with those freedoms.  As a customer, all I can think is, Sure.  It's the least I could do when looking at all the freedom I have.

An extremely useful technique is to present rules as anything but rules.  Goals, expectations, favors, trade-offs, all these are terms to elicit a desired action in people.  These are all positive ones, too - far more positive than rules or requirements, which are negative and restrictive.

It can amaze me how much difference a single word can make.  If somebody asked you to write a list of rules, you would create something very different than what you would make if you were asked to write a list of goals. Similarly, the two lists would likely be interpreted very differently by readers, even if the lists covered the exact same things.

It can be frustrating when people are fussy with their words.  If you have somebody editing your work and making tons of tiny word changes, you may be tempted to tell them that what you had was good enough.  Well, maybe they are good enough, but maybe they could also be much better.  If you are the editor in this scenario, you may be ready to give up picking nits with these word changes, but if you are already willing to do it, you know that the difference is a noticeable one and worth the effort.  And if you are writing without an editor to do this, you should be as fussy with your word choice as possible.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

On Throwaway Writing

There are a number of reasons I never pursued journalism.  One of those reasons is that it is throwaway writing.  You read a headline and you've got 75% of the story.  You read the first sentence or two and you have the rest of it.  News articles are about what is current when they're written.  As soon as time passes, it's old news and nobody cares.  Often, more information becomes available, which makes an article even less significant.

Throwaway writing exists in all fields of writing, though.  Those writing exercises that we're encouraged to do, which we do, maybe half-assed, and then never look at again - those are throwaway writing.  You do them for the experience of writing them, not for the content that is produced.

I considered my blog to be throwaway writing because it is an exercise.  I write it off the top of my head, do no post-editing, and move on to the next one when the next day comes.

But every now and then, I search through my archives, usually looking for a specific one.  And in doing so, I end up reading a number of my entries.  The funny thing is that I like them.  They could certainly be better, but the hearts of them are good.  Sometimes I am actually amazed by what I read.  This is not throwaway writing.

So what's the difference between a news article and one of my blog entries?  Really, it's the subject material.  Most things that are reported on are insignificant in the grand scheme of things.  As more things continue to happen, a news story becomes a grain of sand on the beach.  But with my blog, I am talking about universal subjects (in theory, at least).  I am discussing timeless subjects, trying to do so in a way that people of all kinds of backgrounds and life paths can understand.

In a year from now, or five or fifty, these posts will be just as relevant as they are now.  That's the exact opposite of throwaway writing.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Open-Ended Questions

We ask questions to learn.  It's always a good idea, no matter what you're doing in life.  Knowledge is power.  But not all questions are equal.  Some of them give you more information than others.

Your standard yes/no question is good.  It's direct, to the point, and gives you exactly what you asked for.  It also gives you nothing else.  Say you meet a man and you ask if he's an artist.  He says, "no."  Now what?  Are you going to go through a list of jobs to figure out what he does or where he works?

Obviously not.  You're going to ask an open-ended question. Perhaps, "What do you do for a living?"  Now you get the answer you're looking for, which a yes/no question would be more hard-pressed to get.

It is by no means a new thing to be told to ask open-ended questions.  However, it is still a good thing to remember.  Our habit is to ask yes-or-no questions.  It's easier and safer.  But it is also longer.

Apply this to all of your life.  When you talk to people, learn as much as you can this way.  When you are dissecting a story, do the same.  Don't ask if it works or not.  Don't ask if it's good or if you like it.  Ask what works.  Ask why they work.  Do the same thing when dissecting your own writing, too.  Before you write, ask these questions to learn about your characters and their world.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Talk When You Have Something To Say

I've always been shy.  I never talked to anyone, nor did I speak up much.  I pretty much only talked if I was asked a direct question.  But that's not all the case with me anymore.  I talk all the time.  I start conversations and lead them and sometimes I totally take them over.  When did this change happen and why?

Well, the reason I was always quiet was that I was afraid.  I didn't know what people wanted to hear, what they cared about, or what they thought was interesting.  All I knew was that nothing I could say was worthwhile and that not talking would be a pretty good way of avoiding saying something stupid.

So I listened.  I listened to everybody.  And the more I listened, the more I learned.  I absorbed all of this stuff and I started processing it.  Some of it started making sense.  But some of it didn't make sense.  And when it didn't make sense, I asked them questions.  I found that there was a way to ask questions without being called stupid.  All I had to do was call myself stupid.  Then people were happy to explain it to help me out.

But even then, I wasn't talking.  I was just taking it all in.  I was nothing more than an audience.  Everybody had something to say.  They talked about their experiences and were giving advice based on those experiences.  I didn't say anything because I had nothing to say.  I didn't have many experiences.  And of the ones I did have, none of them were things that people didn't already know.

As I continued to live my life, I started gaining experiences.  I continued to listen to people, but I also started doing my own things.  I also continued to observe and to figure things out.  Eventually, I realized that I knew things that other people did not.  I was able to share things that were of benefit to others.  As it turns out, I had a great deal of things that were worth sharing.

In reality, maybe not everything I tell people is gold.  Some people may thoroughly not care about what I have to say, but that doesn't matter to me.  I believe that what I have to say matters.  That is why I say it.

If you are having trouble with your writing, whether it be creating or sharing, ask yourself why.  Is it because you don't think you have anything worth sharing?  If so, go and find something.  Get some experiences that you would like to share.  Or, if you like your fiction, make up something that you would find interesting.  And if you don't want to or can't go out on adventures, look inward.  What do you know?  What do you do every day and never question?  Why do you do it?  Why do you never question it?  Even if it's as simple as eating breakfast.  Go and share it.  Write about it.  Tell us, the world.

Everybody has something to say.  Even when I didn't talk, I had things to say.  I simply needed a good prodding to actually say it.  Consider this your prodding.  Write something.  Tell me something.  Even if you think I know it.  Even if you think I don't care.  Go and do it.  Then go and tell everybody else.  That's how it's done.  It's how we all do it.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Doing Your Dailies

The advice always given to writers is to write every day.  Not only that, but make it the same time every day.  Make it be one of your required activities like eating breakfast, brushing your teeth, and putting n pants (and yes, I am aware that there are people who do none of those things on a daily basis, but you get the idea).

It's good advice.  Even I give it out.  But I do want to be honest about it.  That doesn't make it easy.  Some days will be a breeze, but others will be a chore.  This is not unlike your other daily activities.  But, also like them, you need to do it every day, even when you have no desire to.

It's always easier to stop and give up.  And once you do, it also becomes easier to never start again.  If you skip one day, why not two or three or fourteen or fifty thousand?

It is not always pleasant to get that daily writing done, but it is always worth it.  On days when you aren't brimming with your love for writing, write anyway.  Do it because you know you still love it and you don't want to give it up.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Argue With Me

I often say things definitely in this blog.  Sometimes I do it because I am very strong in my convictions.  Sometimes I do it just to sound like I'm strong in my convictions.  I would rather write something that becomes a point of controversy because of speaking too strongly than something that becomes a chore or a bore because it tries to make everyone happy.

On occasion, I say things that even I would argue with.  That's fine, though.  I like to argue (as long as we are talking about the same kind of arguing).  If you disagree with me, argue with me.  Leave a comment and let me know that I'm wrong and exactly why.  If it's good enough, I may just argue back.

Having said all this, I wonder if other authors have been doing this all along.  I have read some essays that were pretty stupid.  They held beliefs and gave suggestions that were so foolish as to make me deface the pages they were on in frustration.  I'll tell you, though, they sure did get discussed a lot more than the ones I agreed with and passed on.

Maybe it's true that any publicity is good publicity.

Don't Go Looking For Problems

The biggest problem I have with editing is becoming overzealous.  As I've said about editing my own, "When I'm in editing mode, I want to edit. If I go through a page and have no changes to make, I feel like I'm missing something."  This also happens when editing the works of others.

If I was a beginning editor or looking at the work of a beginning writer, it might be acceptable.  But in general, it causes more problems than it solves.  Sometimes there isn't a problem.  Sometimes you find something that could be changed, but that doesn't mean it should be changed, let alone that it needs to be changed.

The usual advice is to use a light touch.  Don't be picky.  Find the biggest errors, fix those, and don't worry yourself about the little things.  It's not bad advice, but I would put it in a different way.

Don't go looking for problems.  Read the writing like you were a generic audience member.  Every time something makes you stumble or read twice, that's a problem to fix.  If it's smooth from top to bottom, then you've got a great start.

It may be a good idea to do a second reading that is more nit picky, but remember that you have already read it and it's smooth, so you don't have to worry about anything other than the meaning of the content and the mechanics like spelling and punctuation.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Easier To Be Cogent

I'm a pretty goofy, random person.  Talk with me during the day and you'll see me cracking jokes and saying silly stuff out of nowhere.  It's a good time.  You'll never know what I'm going to say (and honestly, neither do I), and there is always something to say because of it.

But when you catch me at night, things are much different.  In fact, they're nearly opposite.  I don't have much to say.  I don't start conversations, and nothing is random. I think it's because I'm so tired by night.  I can't be random because it takes way too much energy to create something from completely nothing.  I only have the energy to make thoughts that immediately follow previous thoughts (which is what normal conversation is).  When I get even more tired, I lose the ability to even start conversations; I can only respond to them.

It's a strange realization that it's easier to be cogent.  A logical conversation takes way less energy to hold.

But it's not entirely fair to say that its easier to be cogent.  It simply takes less energy.  If I am brimming with energy, it will be easier to be random.  I will want to burn all that energy as much as I can and do it by coming up with randomness.  If I am that overloaded with energy, I can hold a cogent conversation, but it will be a serious chore because I will want to do anything but stay on topic.

I'm not sure if it is like this for other people.  I feel like it's the opposite.  Traditionally, people who are well-rested will easily have straightforward conversations and the sleep-deprived will be loopy and goofy.

How does it work for you?  How does the time of day or the level of energy you have affect your mood or your writing?  How can you make that work for you?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

It Depends On How You See It

I was listening to the Snow Patrol song Chasing Cars.  There is a lyric in there: "Just know that these things will never change for us at all."  I still have no idea if this is supposed to be a beautiful thing or a depressing thing.

What are these things that will never change?  Is he saying that he loves the person no matter what?  Or is he saying that there are differences that will make a relationship impossible, no matter how badly they both want it?

I guess it depends on how you see it.  There just isn't enough context to know for sure.

In a similar situation, I know a woman who has a tattoo that reads, "Rain don't last forever."  I assume this is a positive tattoo.  Rain represents sadness and other unpleasant times.  This tattoo probably means that bad times eventually end, no matter how bad they may seem while occurring.  However, I have a nunmber of friends who thoroughly love the rain.  When drops start falling, they have an uncontrollable desire to run outside and gallivant while being poured on.  If the woman with the tattoo had this opinion, then the message could be that the good times are guaranteed to end, no matter how great they may be.

In our writing, we rely on a lot of unspoken, unwritten, but commonly understood things.  Rain is sad.  Sun is happy.  Breezes are calming.  Asians are good at math.  As writers, we sometimes have to choose playing to type (funerals in stories always occur in the rain), playing against type (like a princess having to save a prince locked in a tower), or consciously trying to ignore type (a knight in shining armor who doesn't have to rescue anybody).  But be careful with it.  Sometimes you have unforeseen consequences.

If you have somebody who says the rain don't last forever, is that a good thing or a bad thing?  It depends on how you see it (and how she sees it, too).

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Do What's Inappropriate

Rect- means 'right'.  Rectangles are made of right angles.  Rectitude is rightness.  The rectum is the right...um....

Do What's Appropriate

I sometimes find writers that have an internal conflict when they write: Their character is saying or doing something that the writer personally loathes.  One of the top issues has got to be speaking mannerisms.  A major sign of terrible writing is when all characters sound exactly the same. Yet, some writers just can't help it.

"I hate using 'cuz' or 'gonna'."  "We have rules of grammar.  They have to be followed."  "I just like the way it sounds; it sounds good to me."  These are the kinds of things that such writers say.  Sometimes it's used as an excuse or a justification.  Sometimes it is an honest belief.  But in either case, it's pretty boring.

You have to do what's appropriate.  If rules need to be broken to make a better story, do it.  If you have to leave what you are comfortable with, don't be afraid.  Just do it.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Do Something Stupid

All too often, we are terrified of writing something terrible.  We spend so much energy on figuring out if our ideas are stupid or boring and modifying ones that just aren't good enough.  We never seem to know what's right, but we always know when something's wrong.

Screw it.  Go do something stupid.  Write a predictable story.  Write a stale story with flat characters.  Write a story with a narration so thoroughly confusing that even you have to read it a few times to figure out what's going on.

Why not?  What are you afraid of?  Write some trash.  Don't feel compelled to share it with the world, but get it out of your system.  Realize that you won't die from doing it.  Realize that even when you specifically try to write trash, your voice will always be in there, and you will probably come up with a few things you enjoyed.  Everything you do is infused with you.

Writing is not a planned obstacle course.  Success does not happen by avoiding failure.  Making a wrong step doesn't make everything fall apart.  It's a lot more confusing and indescribable than that.  So don't worry.  Just do something, even if it's stupid.  It's way better than doing nothing.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

As Long As It Needs To Be

Sometimes I feel like I am cheating when I write my posts.  I end up writing three paragraphs, maybe nine sentences in total (and my sentences are only so long).  I am still in that mindset of writing needing to be several pages long, or at least five paragraphs.

But one of the things I remind myself of is that not everything needs to be the length of a doctoral thesis.  Sometimes I don't have a major point to make.  Sometimes it's just a simple fact.

In times like those, mincing words would only dilute my point and bore my readers.  I know it has always been my style to be succinct.  It has not yet failed me, so I should have no reason to stop doing it any time soon.

When you write, understand what you are trying to say and how many words it needs.  Your writing should only be as long as it needs to be.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Order From Insanity

Sometimes things just don't make sense.  It could be a simple error, like a sign that tells you to "Ask About Are Free Art Classes".  It could that you simply misunderstood something that would otherwise be normal.  Maybe you thought that "Insanity" was a restaurant and I was telling you to order something from it.

Whatever the case, when things don't compute, it is totally insane.  There are a few options to handle it, though.  The first is to accept it as insanity and move on.  The second is to figure out what was intended, solving the puzzle.  The third is to pretend that it already makes perfect sense and just play it straight.

Give it a shot.  Write a short story called "Order From Insanity" about a person who goes to a new restaurant with an odd name and all the goings-on within the establishment.  All those crazy, zany ideas that people come up with and you wonder how they do it, this is one of the ways it is done.

Why Spelling Matters

I saw a sign that read, "Ask About Are Free Art Classes".  I laughed at the error.  Then I saw another sign with the same error and I was disappointed.  Then I saw a dozen more of those signs and I was angry.  This was no accident.  Somebody just had no idea that they were using a completely wrong word.

For me, this is exactly why spelling matters.  These words sound identical when spoken, but are spelled completely differently.  They also have completely different meanings.  Proper spelling allows from screwups like this to occur.

Now, the common counterargument is "yeah, but you knew what they meant."  And yes, I did.  However, I'm good at figuring stuff out.  Not everybody may have understood it.  By spelling correctly, you are giving everybody equal footing.

Spelling is like a road map to pronunciation;  at least, it should be.  But we have so many inconsistent and conflicting rules of spelling in English that it can still be a bear to handle.  Nobody would know how to spell or pronounce 'psychology' without a lot of understanding of those rules.

However, our spellings do act as symbols.  Once you recognize the symbol, we know the word and the meaning.  That's why we don't have to sound out words anymore: we know them all.  Once you start deviating from that standard, you largely serve in confusing people who have no idea what you're talking about (at least until your new spellings become symbols themselves, lol).

Monday, August 16, 2010

There Is A Limit Of What You Can Do

I was editing a 30-page paper that needed about 30 hours to do properly.  I've been running on 4 hours a sleep per night for the last few weeks (which is not enough for me).  At 3:30 AM, I had only gotten to page 15 on my first lookthrough.  I said that it was good enough, saved my work, and went to sleep.  If it was a life-or-death situation, I probably could have forced myself to finish that editing, or at least get through all the pages once.  But maybe not.

All I know for sure is that I could not have squeezed 30 hours of work into a single evening.  I couldn't squeeze 30 hours of work into a full day.  I can do a lot.  So can you.  When something simply has to be done and we pull out all the stops, we can achieve truly remarkable things.

However, no matter how much you can actually do when push comes to shove, there is a limit.  That limit is when the body and/or mind completely fails due to stress and exhaustion.  It's hard to conceive of how much you have to do to reach that limit, but know that it is there.  The more things you do, the more you will know what your limit is.  If you actually meet that limit, take a long break and try as hard as you can to never have to reach that limit again.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

There Are No Perfect First Drafts

I am still proud of the letter from the editor that I wrote for my college literary magazine.  I hadn't read it in a year or more, so when I was transcribing it into the blog last night, I actually found myself being impressed with some of the lines I had written.  I know that it is not perfect (because there were lines I wanted to rewrite), but it is a very polished piece.

Although I was inspired to write what I did.  The first draft was almost nothing like the final version.  The ideas were there.  The introductory story was there, but it was way too heavy.  Too much description and exposition.  I couldn't get to the point because I was getting so bogged down with the details (mainly about trying to describe a perfect day without being long-winded).

It took a lot of editing.  A lot of active thinking and tinkering to make that piece into something I enjoyed and respected.  I may have been inspired for an idea and a format, but when it comes to the nuts and bolts, it only comes from hard work.  There are no perfect first drafts, no matter what anybody says (even me).

Friday, August 13, 2010

A Letter From The Editor

Talking about my experiences as an Editor-in-Chief yesterday, I started thinking about the work I did at my college magazine, Transition.  It almost never got made.  For whatever reasons, I was frustrated enough at the department that I was willing to let it die.  But thanks to my Co Editor-in-Chief, we decided to go forward with it.  There were a number of hurdles to deal with, as would be expected.

One of the hurdles in production was the letter from the editor.  This was one of the traditions of the magazine.  It was a message, written by the Editor-in-Chief, put on the very first page of the magazine.  I was never impressed with letters of the past (either that or I didn't read them), and I really didn't want another boring speech that sounded like all the others.  So, my plan was to not have one

As I worked on the magazine, I felt bad about not putting in the effort to do a letter.  I started to want to, but when I sat down to write, I had absolutely nothing.  And if I didn't have anything nice to say, I shouldn't say anything at all (oh my god, my parents were right!!!).

One day, I was taking a walk, thinking the random thoughts I was, and the idea had come to me.  I knew exactly what I wanted to write.  I got to a computer and I wrote a letter of the editor I was proud of.  In fact, I was so proud of what I had written that I care more about it than I did about all the other pieces I had published in the magazine.

And to share with you, here is the letter in question:

A Letter From the Editor

In terms of weather, we get about four perfect days a year. In the late fall and early spring, there are two days where it is perfectly winter. It’s cold, but not excessively so. When you put on your favorite coat, you warm right up.

In early spring and late summer, we get two more perfect days. It’s warm outside. You take a moment to stand still and let the sun hit your face. The sun’s rays reenergize you. Just as you feel like the sun is getting too hot, a light breeze picks up and cools you down.

The rest of the time is imperfect, if not downright miserable. In the worst of summer, it’s too hot outside, even when you’re wearing nothing more than a t-shirt, shorts, and sandals. In the dead of winter, even your thickest coat can’t protect you from the dry, piercing wind.

During my spring break, which didn’t even happen in spring, I found myself cursing the outdoors. Why wasn’t the weather just right already? How long until one of those perfect days gets here? I’m so sick of the transition between the seasons.

And that’s when it hit me. Transition. The vast majority of our time is spent in transition. We’re going from one place to another, one job to another, one spouse to another, one perfect day to another. We usually think of time in transition as time spent waiting to live. When that time is only 10 minutes a day to drive from home to work, it’s no big deal. But when you consider that we only get 4 days a year where we aren’t in transition, that can be a problem.

We are always moving; that’s part of being alive. Even when we finally reach our destination, we start moving to another place.

In the end, we will be remembered for what we did while we were waiting for the next perfect day. What will you do to pass the time?


Kevin Bahler

Thursday, August 12, 2010

On Being An Editor-in-Chief

I have worked on literary magazines for a number of years.  Two of those years, I was an editor-in-chief.  One was my senior year of high school; the other was senior year of college.  Though it doesn't sound like a lot of experience (and in the grand scheme of things, it isn't), my experiences have given me much to think about.

Absolute Power Is Awesome
Although the literary magazines were democratic in choosing most things, especially which submissions were accepted, I got final say over ties or disputes.  In college, where I had far more ties or disputes (and fewer people to dispute with), plus I had a much more refined taste, there was a definite joy in being able to pick what I wanted.

The Final Result Speaks Volumes About You
In a magazine where all members of editorial staff have a fair say, are not influenced by others, and there is no debate after voting, the final result speaks to the editors as a whole.  But if the editors are divided or are lazy and the decision making is left in your hands, you will end up with a product that reflects your ideas of quality.  This is not a bad thing per se.  It is simply a fact of the matter.

Take On What You Can Handle
I did a lot for my magazines.  For both of them, I set up all the infrastructure for reading and voting anonymously.  I did some amount of advertising.  I laid out the entire magazine to make it ready for the printer.  For my college magazine, I also had to do several rounds of voting, had to make a digital version of the magazine to send out, and had to actually help out at the printer.  This was time-consuming and exhausting, but I had the time and the energy to expend on them.  I did not try to make my own cover, nor did I try to get fliers and announcements all across the world to advertise, nor did I stuff the magazine with my own work to make sure it was big, but also good.  I would be terrible at all of those things, so I didn't do it.  I had other people make the covers, spread the word, and write quality pieces.  And really, the magazines would not have been what they were without them.

Get People You Trust
There is a lot of work in putting together a magazine.  No matter how much work one person does, it just needs more than one person.  It doesn't need fifty people, though.  Maybe just three.  Despite the number of people on staff at the magazine, it came down to three people who really made it happen: me and my two closest companions.  In college, it was me, my co-editor-in-chief (one of my writing soulmates), and our secretary/treasurer, who took over as editor-in-chief after I left.  Both were classmates and people I trusted (as well as writers I respected).  I am glad I trusted them, and that they were trustworthy.

Be Proud Of What You Did
I have copies of both magazines I was editor-in-chief of.  I am proud of both of them.  I am most proud of my college magazine because of how much I put into it.  But the reason I put so much into it was that I needed to be proud of it.  For god's sake, it has my name on it.  It says that I was THE top person on this project.  Every aspect of it got my seal of approval.  I refused to put my name on anything that I considered inferior, and since I was not particularly impressed by many of the previous iterations of the magazine, it was all the more important to me.  So I did take the reigns for a lot of it.  But I don't regret it, not even a little.  I am so proud of what I accomplished.  I am proud of the work I did, in laying out pages, in the pieces I had accepted, of the letter from the editor I wrote, and of the submissions of my peers that also were accepted.  Every time I see my magazine, I stand taller and smile bigger.  If you don't feel that way as an editor-in-chief looking at your work, make changes.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Stale Words

I like the way I speak.  I use words in a relatively uncommon way, but I don't use any highfalutin words that most people would have to look up (like highfalutin).  However, I do worry that my writing style, despite being out of the ordinary, will become stale.

A clever turn of phrase or a particular wording can be very gripping, but the same style over and over again is tiring.  If I don't change it up every so often, why would anyone put up with the same sound all the time?

Then I start turning the tables and thinking about myself as a reader.  My favorite writers always have the same voice.  And I love them for it.  It makes me smile knowing I can get their sound sharing their thoughts.  I may grow accustomed to it, but I do not grow bored of it.  At least, not as long as the content stays interesting.

So now I don't worry about my words getting stale.  And that means that you shouldn't either.  Your words are your tools.  You want them to be unwavering and reliable.  Just keep your ideas fresh.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Unnecessary Facts

I have struggled greatly with the idea of unnecessary facts.  In writing, there is a certain expectation that absolutely everything is needed.  Every sentence, every word serves a pertinent function.  Anything mentioned, no matter how casually, will be a critical component of future events.  My writing style has always been this way, sparse, even Spartan.  But I'm not sure if I agree with it.

Stories should have mystery in them, even if they are not mystery stories.  The audience should always be left guessing up until the very end.  It adds to the excitement an intrigue.  If every piece of information is necessary, then the audience knows what to look for, pay attention to, and keep in the back of their minds.  The mystery is gone.  Then all that's left is to go through the motions.

But when I try to add unnecessary information, I can't stop that voice from yelling at me in my head.  That's not necessary, so take it out. You're just wasting time and trying the reader's patience.  I am trying to work on both, butt I'm not sure which side will win.

What about you?  Do you like to give too much or too little information?  Whichever it is, do the opposite.  Do whatever you're not comfortable with.  Then tell me how you liked it.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Embrace Change

So many things are different than they once were. Sure, the same people keep being born, but things do change around us.  Fashions, languages, social norms, all change gradually, usually from one generation to the next.  The question is if you will embrace those changes.

If you don't, you become an old dog who can't learn new tricks or an old fogey who is stuck in their ways.  I suppose you could do it if it makes you happy, but it makes for less-accessible writing.  We used to be sitting at the precipice of a major change in our written language.  I would say that we have now tipped over the edge and are gaining momentum.

Whatever is changing around you, embrace it.  People are putting captions on pictures of cats.  They are using symbols to represent emotions.  And of course they have countless words and phrases that would never be allowed in a doctoral thesis.  But these are not bad, only different.

The times, they are a changin'.  When it was your generation changing things, you embraced it (regardless of which generation you are from).  Don't stop embracing that change just because you got familiar with the changes you created.

Graphical Representation

Nobody says boo when we use numerals to represent numbers instead of spelling them out.  Actually, some people do say boo.  There are several rules about when numerals are acceptable.  Why is that?  If it's good sometimes, why not all the time?  If some numbers can be represented graphically, why not all of them?

Smilies are awesome. :)    But it's so stupid how old people hate them and make you feel bad for using them.  :(

I never use smilies, at least not in my prose.  But I do not disapprove of them.  I do not disapprove of the use of bold, italic, or underlined text either.  All of this stuff is good.  It's a graphical representation of speech.  And that's all writing is at its core anyway, so why should we allow some and ban others?

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Same People Keep Being Born

There can be a lot of concern in writers when you market a book for a generation other than yours.  You know that things are different and you may not be able to accurately portray the world as they understand it.  But I have found this to be less of an issue.

The same people keep being born.  Generation after generation, nothing changes but lingo, technology, and fashions (and even those tend to cycle).  The same kinds of people stop being there.  Macho guys, macho girls, spoiled princesses, late bloomers, old souls, genuine sweethearts, and so on.

Think of all the people you knew at any given time in your life.  If you meet the people who are at that point in their lives, they will be so similar to the people you were around.  If you end up talking with kids in high school, they will all know the same kinds of people that you knew when you were in high school yourself.

So don't worry about being relatable.  Be real.  Be yourself and talk about people how they actually are.  Anybody who has been through what you have been through, even if it was 30 years difference, will have the same kinds of stories to do.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Don't Make The Same Mistakes

Mistakes are simply unavoidable.  We are imperfect beings.  As frustrating as it can be to know that you have made a mistake, it is important to let it go and move beyond it.

What makes mistakes even more annoying is making more than one of them.  We feel stupid or incompetent when it happens.  We feel like we can't do anything right because we keep making mistakes.

But mistakes are not necessarily bad.  Sometimes they're just training tools.  Every mistake is a chance to learn.  It is a first-hand example of what can go wrong.  Learn from it why it happened, how to prevent it, and how to solve it if it is unpreventable.

It's ok to make more than one mistake.  Make as many mistakes as you need.  Just don't keep making the same mistake.  Doing so would mean that you have not learned your lesson.

This is universal advice, which means it happens to apply to writing.  Whether it be an unbelievable character backgrounds, stiff dialogue, or using a word incorrectly, these things happen.  We learn by doing.  It's totally ok.  Just remember to fix those mistakes in the first place.  That way you can progress in your art.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

More On Divorcing Art from Artist

The relationship between art and artist is confusing.  On the one hand, the art came directly from the artist and as such it is made entirely of things from within the artist.  On the other hand, artists absorb everything around them and are perfectly capable of writing about things, people, actions, and beliefs that the artist may not personally support.

We should not assume that every character is an author insertion, especially the protagonist.  Characters can be completely unrelated to the author.  But they don't have to be.  A character can be very similar to the author.  They could even have identical life stories.  But as soon as anything happens that didn't happen in real life, the book is fiction, not autobiography, and the character needs to be understood as not the author.

Of course, this doesn't make it any easier for readers.  We love patterns and puzzles to solve.  If we notice that many parts of a character's life are identical to the author's, then we ill assume that all the parts are real.

Don't feel like you have to choose between completely unrelated characters and literal autobiography.  Characters can be as similar or different to you as you like.  Of course, if you do make a very similar character, unerstand that you are bringing these assumptions upon yourself.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Devils Never Cry

When we have a bad guy in our stories, we have to make sure to show that he's bad.  Some bad guys become devils.  We always see them plotting and planning and entering a violent, blinding rage.  That guy is a total jerk and we can all agree.

But is that who the person really is, or is it simply what we are shown?  People have hopes and dreams.  Sometimes they go too far or lose their focus, but they tend to be brought back to reality eventually.  People can only handle so many stresses in their lives.  After a breaking point, they have a breakdown.  People cry.  And nothing makes somebody look more human or more pitiful than true, uncontrollable tears.

To make somebody a devil, simply hide their humanity.  To make a devil human, show it.

Writing Exercise:

Write a story from two different perspectives.  In the first story, a particular character is shown to be a complete, unlovable jerk.  In the second, that character is shown to be an understandable and relateable figure.  Have certain actions and scenes universal and present in both, but show how the context between the two of them changes ow the audience relates to that person.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Do The Opposite Of What You Do

Right now I am working as the registrar of a summer music camp.  I have met several people who I am enjoying thoroughly.  I have also gotten to better know many people who I am enjoying thoroughly. I was all prepared to write about how writers need to go out and meet all kinds of new people, but then I realized that this is only partially true.

If you are a naturally outgoing person and meet new people all the time, that advice is meaningless.  If you are always on the move, you should try sitting still for a while, staying in one place and just writing continuously.  This lead to more realizations.

If you evenly spend your time between meeting people and being by yourself, you should try being extreme in one or the other.  Really, whatever you would do normally, you should do the opposite.

Variety is the spice of life.  Writers need as much experience as they can get.  First-hand is even better.  Ruts are comfortable, but rob you of variety.  Get out of them and do something different. (Or do something different by crawling into one, depending on your situation).

Monday, August 2, 2010

Not To Inform, But To Affirm

I have a tendency to be short with people, especially when I am asked to repeat myself or if I am being given information that I am already aware of.  It's a fault, I admit, though I do try to get better about it.  One of the things that helps me is realizing ways that it can be a good thing.

When I am told something, I always make the assumption that the other person is telling me something they believe I don't know (unless explicitly noted).  This just isn't always the case.  Sometimes people are saying things not to inform, but to affirm.

When your husband or wife says "I love you", it isn't because they thought you didn't know.  It's because they are affirming that love, making it no longer an unspoken understanding.  Also, when it comes to things that can change (like love, looks, life status), affirming is nice.  It makes us sure that things are as they were (assuming you believe that status quo is a good thing).

My writing is also affected by my shortness.  I assume that every line of every paragraph needs to further the plot.  People who repeat themselves are worsening their own stories.  And although here is a limit of how much repetition is ok, the occasional reminder is nice.  Affirm that things are as they were (or at least as they should be) and that we haven't glossed over anything important.

However Many Words It Takes

I love the English language.  I really do.  There is so much it can do and there is so much it contains (because one of the things it can do is contain just about anything).  We have words that can describe pretty much any feeling or action.

'Awesome' is an awesome word, but some things are not quite awesome.  Some of them are spectacular.  Some are magnanimous.  Some are brilliant.  And some are rad.  Whatever shade of whatever you need, English has you covered.

But sometimes our brains can't do it.  Sometimes we just can't think of that word we want.  It's like, we know what we are trying to say and we know there is a word for it, but we simply cannot produce it.  What do we do?

Well, you can stop, get frustrated, exclaim that you are frustrated because you can't think of the word you want, and then either pause the conversation until you either find the word or let it die.  Or, you could try to use more than just one word.

Crack open a dictionary.  Every word can be defined with more than one word.  (A thesaurus, in theory, shows that every word can be described with one word, but that's a story for another time.)  If you know what you are trying to say, but cannot say it in a single word, then use however many words it takes.

You may not be able to impress people by using 'magnanimous', but you can still explain yourself with "a bright and shining greatness" and still sound pretty eloquent, too.