Wednesday, September 29, 2010

People Can't Be Happy

One thing that has been frustrating me with stories is the public's desire for unhappiness. Nobody wants something simple, straightforward, and nice.

If you make a story where everything works out in the end, there will be a general disappointment.  People will say that it's unrealistic and boring.  You need to make things that are dark and depressing.

But if every story you see is dark and depressing, you will start thinking that every story has to be dark and depressing and that reality is dark and depressing and that there is no good or happiness outside of children's fiction.

So it seems that people can't be happy, or maybe that they don't want to be.  As a writer, I feel this struggle because I simultaneously want to write dark stories and I want to write happy stories.  But when I write the dark stories, I feel like I am adding to the problem, and when I write happy stories, I feel like I am writing something that nobody wants or cares about.

Ultimately, though, some people would rather complain more than do anything else.  There are people who like happy stories and there are people who understand that a dark story does not mean that real life is as bleak as fiction.  Haters are going to hate and writers are going to write.  Let's all just do our own thing.

Names Are Shorthand For Descriptions

Anything that has a name can be described in a much more elaborate manner.  A pen is a tool used to apply ink to a medium.  A mirror is an object that reflects light, so as to show what is in front of it.

Although these descriptions are accurate, and could be used by themselves, they're pretty cumbersome.  To save time, space, and words, we give these concepts names.  Now, we can wrap those things up into a neat little package.

If, in your writing, you find yourself using a descriptive phrase several times, make up a name for it.  Fantasy and science fiction writers do it all the time (some, perhaps, to the extreme), and it makes things much easier to handle for the writer and the reader.

Don't be afraid to make up a name, either.  You can try to be clever by having it be related to what you are describing or you can pull it completely out of thin air just so it sounds good.  As long as you are clear and consistent, the audience will generally go with it.

One last thought on the matter: I've been talking about names for objects in this post.  Well, people have names, too.  And the names that people have function exactly the same.  Names, for both real people and fictional characters, are a shorthand for everything that those people are.  Their looks, heritage, family, actions, interests, absolutely everything about them is described by their name.

Apart Of A Part

Most people know of common sets of confusing words: 'Affect' and 'effect', 'there' 'their' and 'they're', 'to' 'too' and 'two', 'Mary' 'merry' and 'marry'.  But there is one pair that I never hear mentioned and see regularly misused: 'apart' and 'a part'.

What makes 'apart' and 'a part' so troubling is that there is no spelling difference between the two; the only difference is a space.  And what makes it even worse is that they basically mean their opposite.

To be a part of something means to be within a group, a piece of the whole.  To be apart of something means to be separated from it.

For those who care why this is the case, it's because a- is a prefix meaning without (like in asexual), but 'a' is a word indicating a singular thing.  Although the words appear to be very similar, the constructs that make them have nothing to do with each other.

With any luck, if you were unaware of this issue, you now are.  And the next time you want to use one of those words, you will know to use the correct version.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Freedom Requires Fundamentals

In any art form, students are encouraged to find a freedom from constraint.  They should do "what feels right".  Writing is no exception.  And while it is true, it is also misleading.  Freedom requires fundamentals.

Who steps onto a dance floor with no training and doesn't look foolish?  Nobody.  We don't magically know what looks right or what looks good, let alone how to actually do them.  No matter how much talent or creativity a person has, it will be of no use if that person doesn't know the basics of the field.

Writing needs fundamentals in all of its levels.  Standard grammar and vocabulary are the biggest ones on a technical level.  The five paragraph essay is the fundamental for logic and ordered progression.

Can you make up words?  Of course you can.  All words were made up by somebody at some point.  However, it is advised not to do that until you have a very thorough understanding of your language, how it works, and what it's able to do.  You can similarly break free from the classic format if you can still maintain the principals and the core that makes it what it is.

You have the freedom to do whatever you want.  You just have to know how to do it.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Every Body Is A Human Being

We often take other people for granted.  Every store you go into has clerks and cashiers.  Every restaurant has cooks and wait staff (and a line to be seated).  The roads have traffic and the sidewalks have passersby.  You may come across a hundred people a day and be completely unaware of them.

Most of the people we see are nameless, faceless bodies.  They are mere things that aid or hinder your desires.  And if you see these people in such a way, it will be true for you (perception is reality).  But the full truth is that every one of those bodies is a human being.  They have faces and names, and everything else that you have.

What are your hopes and dreams?  Who do you care about in life?  What are your interests and hobbies?  Every question you can think of can be asked of these people and can be answered by them.  They are just as real as you or me, even if you only see them for a few minutes (or a few seconds) and never again.

This concept particularly bugs me in story telling.  Aside from protagonists (and sometimes antagonists), characters are these nondescript faceless bodies.  Their only relevance is whatever small part of the story they contribute.  People passing through an area may hear a rumor or get directions from a character and keep on moving.  That person had an entire life and has more of it to live and it will never be seen or known to anyone because it's boring compared to the rest of the action.

Maybe this is a great example of life.  We cannot be omniscient.  We will choose to see and follow certain things and to ignore others.  Still, even if that is unavoidable, we can at least treat our faceless characters like the human beings they are.  Deaths matter.  So do great things.  Large positives or negatives have rippling effects.  They may not affect the protagonists, but if nothing else, they will affect the world around them.  People generally don't die or face a great upheaval to their world completely unnoticed.

Friday, September 24, 2010

No Expectations

A lot of times, people don't want to write because they are afraid they will make something they will regret.  But there's a funny little trick about regret (or any other form of disappointment): you can only be disappointed if you have expectations.

If you expect to make something brilliant and perfect, you will always fall short.  If you expect to write something terrible, you will always meet or exceed those expectations, but then you are never shooting for the stars.  The trick is to expect neither the best nor the worst; expect nothing at all.

Start writing with no expectations.  Just keep going, without a care in the world.  When you finish, you will have something you can judge as worth pursuing or not.  This is another one of those cases where the hardest thing to do is to start writing, so finding any means to put pencil to paper will help you instantly.  This is also another case of learning to separate yourself emotionally from your writing.  If every single idea you had became a crusade for you to see through to the very end, you will get not a lot done (and you will probably put a lot of effort into a so-so story that could have been put into a much better one).

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Your Imagination Is The Limit

The beauty of writing is that you can do anything.  The only limit is your imagination.  That is a real limit, though.  If you can't imagine something, you have no way to write about it.

I often wonder what the world would be like if humans had 12 fingers instead of 10.  If they did, our counting system would be base 12 instead of base ten, which means we could very easily divide things by 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, and 12.  With our numbers, we only have 1, 2, 5, and 10.  Maybe humanity as a whole would be incredibly smarter because math would be so exceptionally easier.  Maybe we would have all kinds technology and scientific advances hundreds of years before they happened on our 10-fingered world.  But I have no idea.

I can't imagine how different the world would be with such a seemingly significant change.  And for that very reason, I could never write a story about 12-fingered people.

"But Kevin," I hear you saying, "couldn't you just make it up as you go?  Isn't that what your imagination is for?"

Well, you're right, [your name].  But there is a catch to that.  If you only consider skin-deep differences, you have a skin-deep world.  Think about science fiction where an alternate planet or universe has one simple change, yet the only difference between the to world as somebody's facial hair and their favorite sandwich meat.  It's garbage storytelling, for one thing.  For another, it's unrealistic as to how different a world would be with even the smallest difference present.  Presenting it as identical to our with only a cosmetic difference is so cheap, but there is no way you could calculate all the things, big and small, that would have occurred since the dawn of man.

If I try to imagine something that cannot be imagined, I will make terrible writing.  And that is something that should be avoided at all costs.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

People Care About What They Are

In my last post, I mentioned that people view themselves in terms of what they care about.  People who have made dancing the entirety of their lives consider themselves dancers (and much more intensely than people who like to flail around at parties and clubs).  Part of this identity is a passion; if somebody insults your love, it feels like they are insulting you.

If we look at our lifelong dancer, imagine a stranger talking about how dancing is a stupid waste of energy and only freaks and losers care about it, and that the most pathetic of those losers actually pursue it in life.  I bet our dancer is going to be pretty offended, maybe even furious.

This is the kind of thing we have probably all seen in real life.  You may have been the one who said something offensive or you may have been the one who was offended.  In either case, we can easily see how a difference in priorities can lead to great tension.

But what about the opposite kind of person?  What about the kind of person who likes several things, but is passionate about none of them?  In that case, none of them become a defining interest.  This person is a whole lot harder to offend because there is nothing to insult that the person would care about.  If this person likes to dance, but would be just as happy spending his afternoon playing baseball or reading a book, making fun of dance is no big deal.

Look at the characters in your story.  Who are they?  What are they?  What are they passionate about?  What would they get in your face about if you insulted it?  These are questions that will help you understand them.  With it, you can see what their buttons are and how to press them.  You can ignore them completely or you can use it as a point of contention, which is always good for drama.

And, as usual, whatever you apply to characters, apply those same lessons to yourself.  What are your passions?  What is your identity?  How would you handle it if somebody spoke ill of your passions or interests?

Monday, September 20, 2010

People Are What They Choose To Be

It's pretty difficult to describe a person.  We are complex individuals, full of thoughts and feelings, hopes and dreams, carrying the emotional baggage of their own history, which gets another day heavier every day.  There is too much to cover to give a full picture of a person, so we tend to describe the key descriptors of a person.

But what are the key descriptors of a person?  Is it their heritage?  Their job?  Their schooling?  Their taste in music?  Their marital status?  They might all be useful.  They might also be useless.  What is key depends on the individual.

People like to label themselves.  They may have one label or they may have a hundred.  If you live, breathe, eat, and sleep dancing, then you are a dancer, pure and simple.  If you love dancing, but you also love playing football, watching action movies, and doing stand-up comedy, then those are the ways you'll describe yourself and it is mostly how people will know you.

The catch to this, though, is that people will look at you based on what they think matters.  If you have a job that pays the bills and you don't care much about it, it will not be part of what you are.  But if your friend really cares about his job and considers it a key fact, then he will describe you based on your job.

Ultimately, you will always be the combination of things you identify your life by.  And you will always be seen as the combination of things that others identify their lives by.  This can make for some interesting relationships to toy with.

Find a combination of people who could not be more different from one another, then put them in a room together.  Have them try to explain who they are and what they enjoy in life.  Then, when the dismissing attitudes arrive (because they are so different from each other), have them explain why those things matter and why they are so defining to those characters.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Not Bad, Just Different

We humans have certain innate instincts.  We really like to label things.  We also need to describe things as good or bad.  This isn't the worst thing in the world; it's gotten us to where we are today.  However, it does raise certain complications.

On more than one occasion, I will have a friend show me a poem or a story and to ask me to read it.  The work in question is completely different from what I had expected, and I am not entirely sure what to say.  My friend assumes that I think it is bad.  In truth, it is by no means bad; it is simply different, which is exactly what I tell my friend.  Of course, most people do not readily believe that something can be neither good nor bad, so the argument continues back and forth for some time.

The fact of the matter, though, is that  it's ok to be different.  It's even encouraged.  Understand that whether something is different or not has no bearing on its quality, and proceed from there (just remember that something can be both different and a piece of crap if you're a bad writer).

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Who Would Die For Whom

A common situation in storytelling is for one character to give up his or her life to save another.  When done right, it's a powerful scene - the final act of a selfless hero.  The only issue I have with it is how common it is.

There are a few varieties of the heroic sacrifice, all of which are pretty common.  There's the non-death version, where the hero was committed, but ends up not dying.  There is also the refusal, where the person being saved does not want to be saved at the cost of the hero's life.  And there is also the reversal, where the hero ends up being saved by the person who was going to be killed anyway.

It seems to me that people who would do a heroic sacrifice are so close that either one would do it for the other.  This leads me to the question: What if two such people were put into a situation where one of them was going to die, but either one could do a reversal?  For example, if Bob was going to die, Alice could take Bob's place and die instead, but before it happened, Bob took Alice's place.  This cycle could go on indefinitely.

This scenario doesn't seem particularly compelling by its own right.  The ticking clock disappears and the emotional draw of a noble, impulsive decision disappears.  But it does have two qualities going for it.  The first is that it creates a different situation, where people have to rationally talk about death and actually measure the value of each other's lives, which does create an emotional draw all its own.  The second quality is that it is hardly ever done, which means it hasn't had a chance to become stale.

Try to make one of these scenes.  Create two characters (or more) who care for each other enough to lay down their own lives.  Then force them to decide who will die for whom.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Fear Is Psychological

I was watching a commercial for some horror movie and thinking about why they're so lousy.  I know that there are a number of reasons, which have been previously discussed, but there was more to it.  At that moment, the commercial flashed some monster coming out of the dark.  That's when I realized the problem: horror does too much showing.

People think that fear is about scary things: actual monsters and gruesome violence.  But that's not the case.  Fear is psychological; it's about the unknown.  When people go to the zoo, they can see killer predators and they do not run in fear.  Seeing them isn't scary.  However, walk into the woods at night with no light.  It is pitch black and you can't even see your hand in front of your face.  That is scary.  It's scary specifically because you have no idea if a man-eating predator is right next to you.

A good horror story is one which presents alternate explanations to things we don't know.  What's making that sound?  Why do people have certain tics?  It can also be about entire realms we are unaware of, like the person who can see ghosts or demons all around them and the havoc they cause.

Horror doesn't need special effects.  It needs a degree in psychology.

Connotation is King

One of the first lessons we learn about language is connotation and denotation.  Denotation is what a word actually means, often described as the "dictionary definition".  Connotation, then, is what the word implies.  It's an interesting structure and an interesting lesson: words mean more than their meanings.

Frugal, thrifty, cheap, and miserly all have the same denotation: one who does not spend much money.  But they have different connotations.  Being frugal and thrifty are laudable qualities, whereas being cheap or miserly are things to be ashamed of.

This is all well and good for the first decade or so, but eventually something clicks: If words are distinguished by their connotations, how can they be considered in any way the same? If synonyms cannot be used interchangeably, then they are not really synonyms, are they?  Connotation determines usage far more than denotation could ever hope.

Connotation is king.  A word's meaning is determined by what people think it means.  This is nothing new, of course.  It's a fundamental law of language.  However, it is one to keep in mind next time you are thumbing through your thesaurus.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Elitist Words

We've got a whole lot of words in our language.  English actually has more words in it than any other language.  I saw recently that we have over 554,000 words (which is five times more than Shakespeare had to work with).  But how many do we use?  The average person probably uses fewer than 30,000 different words in their lifetime, less than a tenth of the total number of words.  This makes me wonder what we do with the other hundreds of thousands of words out there.

Granted, a number of them will end up being industry terms of some sort.  The medical field alone will have tons of words that nobody else would ever use.  The same could be said for engineering, computer programming, and deep sea diving.  But there are more words than that.

How often do we use "pique" or "wont" or "obfuscate" or "adroit"?  Most people would say never.  Most people wouldn't think those are real words.  I don't blame them, though.  They aren't needed.

English is a language of synonyms.  "Obfuscate" certainly has its own particular meaning, but one could easily replace it with "hide", "cover up", or "shroud".  "Obfuscate" is an elitist word.  It is used to sound smart or classy, but all it does is confuse people by using a word people are largely unfamiliar with, which is a sign of poor communication.

I will say, though, that I like "obfuscate".  I like a lot of elitist words.  They make me happy.  They not only express the meaning that I want, but they also say it with just the right sound and rhythm.  Sure, there are plenty of alternatives to those words, ones that everybody would already know, but sometimes they just don't fit.  I also try to meet people half way by using words that sound like what they mean, as well as using them in a context that is understandable without needing to look it up.  I also use them sparingly and I only use them when they sound best, not to sound smart.

As a writer, your job is to communicate.  Being understood is a top priority.  So using words that people understand will be imperative.  Using big words simply to sound educated has the opposite effect.  However, sometimes a big word is the perfect word in a situation.  If that's the case, don't be afraid to use it.  If people really want to understand it, there are enough ways to look up any word in an instant.  If you are willing to meet your readers halfway, they should be willing to meet you halfway, too.

I Told You That Story To Tell You This One

I am a story teller. I do it because I can best explain my ideas with examples that use compelling characters and situations.  However, not everything can be explained in a single story.  Sometimes a story needs to be told simply to lay down the groundwork.

Suppose I wanted to explain to a friend that first impressions are not everything and that anything is possible.  I would tell him that George made out with Silvia in the back room.  The problem is that this means nothing.  My friend doesn't know who George or Silvia are, nor which back room I mean, nor what it has to do with anything.

So before that story, I have to tell the story of who they are, the fiery hatred they developed when they first met, and all of the instances that furthered the anger between them.  Then I have to tell the story of when George said one nice thing and Silvia was stunned by it.  I have to tell the story of the first full day when there was no fighting between the two of them.  Only then can I tell the story of finding them making out in the back room at work.

This kind of thing happens all the time.  There is a certain linear progression we need in order for the later part of a story to have any meaning.  It's like giving a punchline without a set-up.  And in either case, it is an example of bad story telling.

Put yourself in the shoes of anybody else.  If you didn't already know everything about your story, would the words you used make sense?  Would they convey what you are wanting to express?  If you have trouble with it, try an organizer or planner of some sort so you can look at it and think about it outside of your head.

Having a clear, comprehensible story is worth all the effort it takes to make, no matter how many stories you have to tell in order to tell the one you want.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Plan For The Best, Then Troubleshoot

I still feel awkward when it comes to the planning stages of writing.  I know that I need to do planning before I start writing a draft, but I also know that a lot of it will either be thrown out or thoroughly changed.  The odds that my prewriting planning end up lasting the long haul are pretty low.  But I think it's all I can do.

Part of me wants to not even bother with planning because I know that so little of it will make it through to the end of a story.  But whenever I do skip my planning, things go worse.  I feel lost and without direction.

So since planning is necessary, I try to plan out my story perfectly and just follow that plan for the end.  The problems with this method are that it is boring as hell writing out a story I already have completely outlined, and that the quality of them is just not quite as high as pieces where I change things as I go along.

The best method I have come up with is to plan for the best, then troubleshoot when you have to.  Do the best darn prewriting work you can, but don't be afraid to start writing.  When you are in the middle of it, change things if they become problems.  You would still be wise to have an external editor, but it would have the best combination of planning and seat-of-your-pants changes as you write.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Things Can Always Change

I find it odd that some authors end up feeling trapped by their stories.  What I mean is that while writing a story, events are set in motion and are unstoppable.  It feels both very common and completely impossible.

Things can always change. If your characters feel like they only have one choice, remember that every situation has at least two options: do nothing, or do anything.  Whichever one of those the character thinks they have to do, make them do the other one.

If you as an author feel like the wheels are already set in motion and that you're stuck with the story unfolding predictably, surprise yourself by making something unrelated happen and demand attention.

Again, things can always change.  Just realize that much and you will never be trapped.

Pick Your Poison

Everybody seems to enjoy some thing that will slowly kill them.  The classic ones are smoking and drinking.  The next classic one is eating junk food. Some people actually work themselves too hard or stretch themselves too thin.  Whatever the specific, it generally ends up working the same way.

Life is stressful.  No matter how strong we are mentally, stress will eventually get the better of us if we let it go.  So we all come up with stress relievers.  They're generally chemicals we're putting into our bodies (nicotine, alcohol, THC, endorphins) which make us feel better.  We relax, drop some of the stress, and are able to handle whatever else comes up in the mean time.  The only drawback is all of the negative side effects.  In short, the things we're doing to handle the stress of life are also causing harm to our body.

I find that writing has acted as both stressor and stress reliever.  A deadline or a frustration with quality turns this into a stressful, loveless project.  However, there are also times where working on a story is all I want to do because of how much joy it brings me.

The funny thing about writing as a stress reliever is that it is still a poison of sorts.  For one thing, I always stay up way later into the night when I am reading, so I am never getting enough sleep.  For another thing, when I am writing all the time, I give up any time I could have spent doing anything else.  In that case, it is not a physical poison, but one that slowly kills my social life.

Still, I would think that there are far worse ways to kill yourself slowly.  At least when you are writing, you are being productive, actually creating something for your effort.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Look Back And Smile

No matter what, it is always good to look back at your writing.  Some people read their old writing and they say it sucks, which makes them think their current writing must also suck.  Other people read their old writing, really enjoy it, and think that they could never write something as good.  While I understand where they come from, I will say that these are twisted views.

If you look back on your writing and hate it, it shows that you have grown.  It means that you have learned to a finer degree what good quality is, how to identify it, and how to improve it.  You are a better writer than you were.

If you look back on your writing and love it, it means that you have already been good for some time.  You know that there is skill and ability inside of you because you are looking right at it, so all you have to do is let it out again.

You can always look back and smile, no matter what you see.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Coincidence Or Not

Suppose you randomly think about an old friend you haven't talked with for some time.  You look her up and say hi.  She responds back and you have a chat.  She is totally excited to talk with you and you share old stories while getting caught up on all the time that's passed.  Then you find out that not all is happy with your friend.

She has actually been having some problems, emotional, spiritual, and family.  She has been in a low point and has been feeling very alone.  You continue to chat, share some personal stories, tell some jokes, and give some advice.

By the end of the chat, she is feeling much better and much stronger.  Now I ask you, was it a coincidence?  Did you just so happen to think about your friend and decide to act on those thoughts, on top of her actually being available to talk and sincerely needing it?  Or was there something else involved?  Were there other forces at work, pulling on strings to make this happen?

The argument can easily be made either way.  On the one hand, all one needs is a little faith or superstition to believe that higher powers were at play.  On the other hand, there have probably been several times where it would have been beneficial to have talked with her and you didn't, so maybe this was nothing more than a coincidence.

I take a slightly different stance from either of those two. I say: who cares?  Whether it's a coincidence or not, it's still great.  You still got to talk to your friend.  You still got to make her feel better.  Regardless of the who, how, or why, this thing happened, and it was a great thing.

Writers are so very focused on meanings as well as causes.  Nothing happens by sheer coincidence.  There is always a reason, whether it be destiny or it be the direct result of a previous action.  Pure, random coincidence is like a sign of bad writing.  However, I would still reiterate my previous belief.

Who cares?  Writing too often focuses on why things happened.  Don't worry whether or not something is a coincidence, only worry that it happened.  Let the readers debate why.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Get A Little Crazy

Writing needs a certain shock factor. It doesn't have to be disgusting or sexual to be shocking, merely unexpected. If you aren't doing it already, then get a little crazy with your writing.

Small businesses always have the best ads because they are free to let their writers get crazy. They don't have millions of dollars riding on every little decision, so they can do something out of the box that might fail. In general, that freedom ends up producing awesome results.

I wish I was an ad writer for a business that restored antiques. I would make up a mascot for them who would be an old timey boxer from the 1930s named Dishrag Pete. His catchphrase would be "Come to Antique Restorations. I'll clean your clock!"

I just made that up and thought it was pretty amusing. I wonder how many people saw it coming, too. That's the shock factor I am talking about. It's something that isn't revolting, but is notably strange. It makes you think twice in order to process what you've just seen.

Get a little crazy with your writing. Make something up that is understandable, but completely unexpected. If you want a push, start with two children who sneak into the back room of an ice cream store. We all know what they might expect to find (ice cream, dead bodies, a magical universe). But what's the least expected thing they could find there? What's the silliest or craziest thing they could find?

Finding The Overlooked

I was talking with a friend the other day. She was remarking how there seemed to be a Facebook group for everything. She had the idea to find a noun or noun phrase that didn't have a group. I decided to join her, though we ended up taking very different paths.

My friend tried to think of things that were so crazy and out of the norm that nobody else would have thought of it. It didn't work. Nothing she tried, no matter how unusual or disturbing, didn't already exist as a Facebook page.

I tried the opposite approach. I tried to think of things that are so common that everybody would overlook them, thus not thinking to make a page for them, either. I also failed. It seems like anything that exists just so happens to be somebody's passion in life and they love it enough to make a fan page for it.

However, despite our collective failures, I still think it is a good exercise. Try to think about things that you never think about. Make a list.

Write five things so thoroughly bizarre that they would never cross your mind unless you were specifically trying to think of it. Then write five things that you come across every single day, but never pay attention to.

My List:
1. Juggling rhinoceros
2. Cowboy on stilts on a unicycle
3. Parachute pants
4. Maracas
5. Stamens

1. Floors
2. Zippers
3. Trees
4. Bananas
5. Pens

Monday, September 6, 2010

Broader Scope, Same Core

When I started this blog, I had a fairly limited view of what I was doing. Although I was writing about my craft, I was very focused on my main interest, which was comics. In particular, I often wrote about comic strips.

As I continued, I realized that the advice that I gave about comic strips worked just as well with long-form comics like graphic novels. So I widened my subject area and started talking about comics as a whole.

Time progressed and I realized that as I talked about comics, the advice I was giving was actually pretty good for writing in general, so I widened my scope again.

The last step in the process (so far) was to see that the advice given about writing is largely good for life. So now I often find myself talking about life and then tying it in to writing as an example.

Sometimes I feel like I am cheating, like I have lost my purpose by widening my scope. But I know this is not the case. I am still talking about writing and still giving advice to writers. The fact that the advice may be useful to non-writers does not diminish what I am doing here. Although I have a broader scope, I still have the same core.

You Are A Subject

As writers, we often look around ourselves and see subjects to write about. People in particular are interesting. We see them all the time, sometimes doing the same thing over and over, and we speculate on what may be happening in their lives. But we should remember that we are no different ourselves. We, too, are the subjects that other people write about.

Consider a story about a man who comes into the same restaurant every day, sits in the same booth, gets the same meal, never talks to anybody, then leaves when he's done. I may not be an exciting story, but it is a character study. It's certainly a good subject to use as writing warm-ups.

This is a nameless, impersonal being, more of an object than a person. Except, it isn't. That's me. It's what I do during my lunch break at my day job. The thought struck me that I have become a fixture of sorts and that if I was to describe it, it would sound just like the kind of character study I would do.

We are all subjects to others. This is neither a good thing nor a bad thing. It just means that there are two things to consider. First, every nameless being that you come across in life is a human with thoughts and feelings, living a life that you are seeing a small glimpse of. Second, although you are very intimate with your own life and goings on, you may be nothing more than a nameless being to others, so try not to feel too self-important when you're out there.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

On Tradition

Tradition is a strange thing to me. It's got this weird cultish feeling to it. Things are the way they are because they've always been that way. It's the height of ignorance and foolishness. But there's more than one way to look at it.

I remember asking a teacher about traditional versus contemporary songs and what the difference was between them. He told me that the only difference was that traditional songs were ones that we kept on singing and new songs are ones we have only started to sing. In this case, tradition is just a fancy way of saying something's old.

It's easy to reject tradition, but that can be just as foolish. Things that last are usually good, or at least beneficial. Things should be evaluated periodically to make sure that they're still useful, if not optimal. The only thing that can determine whether or not something is of use is not whether o not it is traditional, but whether or not it does what it should.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Contradictions Are Compelling

Us human beings are pretty rational folk. We like things that make sense and the things that don't make sense bother us. Us writers, we thrive on stuff that doesn't make sense.

Contradictions are compelling. For one thing, they exist in real life, so we know they can be possible. For another, they make no sense at a glance, which makes us want to know how it can be possible.

For example, I had the idea of a vegetarian butcher. This is a person who is a butcher, and a fantastic one at that. She can cut the best slice of meat you'll ever find, but she refuses to eat any herself. On its face, a total contradiction. Why would somebody be a vegetarian, but work as a butcher?

There are a ton of possibilities. Maybe she is a vegetarian for health reasons, avoiding meat because of risks for salmonella and mad cow disease. But if that was true, why would she be ok with selling it to others? Maybe instead, she is a vegetarian for religious reasons, but somehow her religion only forbids consuming animals, but not butchering them. Maybe, she is a butcher because she is the best damned butcher around and she makes a good living doing so, even though it sickens her and twists her stomach every day she goes in.

Whatever the reasoning ends up being, the presentation of a vegetarian butcher is something so strange that a morbid curiosity will have people want to find out how and why.

Try coming up with your own rationale for a vegetarian butcher. If not, come up with your own contradiction. Then write a page showing this person's life, the contradiction they have to deal with, and how it is that they deal with it.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Fate Can Be Meaningless

I believe in a sort of fate. I believe that everything that happens is a direct result of what happened before it, which is itself a result of something that happened even further back in time. If you take this all the way back, once the universe was created everything was set into motion. We can't stop it because whether we try to stop it or embrace it, we are equally bound to choose so.

However, this does not involve any kind of planning. Nobody is making specific things happen. You may have been destined to be born, but that doesn't mean you were born for a reason. You simply happened to be the particular combination of genes that grew and didn't die and was raised in a particular area and time. Call it dumb luck that you are exactly who you ended up being (even though you couldn't escape becoming it).

Traditionally, any stories dealing with fate imply a purpose. Somebody becomes The Chosen One because they have the purest heart or maybe because they needed to realize their self-worth. But that is not the only way to treat the subject.

A story that mentions fate could try tackling the idea that the world is predestined, but not crafted. Characters would have to struggle not against fate, but against their own ideas of self-importance, eventually finding ways to cope with it, however they may be.

Actually, the more I talk about it, the more I like that idea. Give it a shot. Write a section of that story. Try covering a moment of revelation, where a character either begins to understand the gravity of fate, or one where a character comes to terms with it. If you like it, then carry on with it.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Cheap Thrills Are Cheap

Action movies are boring to me.  Sure, they're a visual marvel, but they're painfully predictable.  The most insulting thing to me is putting a protagonist in near-death experiences.  It's the protagonist; they're immortal.

People still do it because it's supposed to be thrilling and exciting.  Well, if we insert ourselves into a story and live vicariously through the protagonist, it may actually be exciting.  The rush of a fast-paced sequence that brushes with death, but still laughs in its face would totally make a normal person feel alive.  But as a storytelling technique, it's worthless.

Heroes don't die.  There are certainly exceptions, but by and large, this is the case.  It's especially true for anything that hits the main stream.  And once you are aware of this fact, no amount of peril is concerning.  When it comes down to life or death, life wins.

This is why we should focus on character development. It is so important for stories to be about characters and their journeys and growth because they can never be in true danger. When protagonists fall off of cliffs, you know that something will save them, so it really is a pointless scene. When a guy has a nasty fight with his wife, goes to a bar to blow off steam, and a woman starts hitting on him, that is a scene whose outcome you cannot guarantee.