Sunday, October 31, 2010

Turn It On Like A Switch

How much self-control do you have?  Do you wear your heart on your sleeve, or do you have the ability to hold in your thoughts and feelings?  I think most people are pretty good at keeping things in.  Writers seem especially so.  We wear masks to fit whatever situation we're in.

Somebody is having a bad day, you become kind and caring, trying to get them to feel better.  Somebody else is having a great day, you feel great and celebrate it with them.  Sometimes you can do one right after another.  With texting and instant messengers, you can do both at the same time.

How is it that we can console one person and tell goofy jokes with another person at the same time?  It's like we can flip a switch in our head and change between our personalities.  I think it's weird, but it's also pretty cool.  We should make use of this ability more often.

Add the writer's mask to your switches.  Flip the one that makes you a great and inspired writer who can do no wrong.  If you can switch between all the rest of your personalities, this one shouldn't be any more difficult.

Give it a shot.  Let me know what happens.

If You Don't Know How To Do It, Teach Someone Else

Do you ever find yourself staring at the blank page asking yourself, "how do I make this character compelling" or "how do I make this subject interesting to somebody other than me?"  It's easy to lose hours, or even days, doing just that.  What I find funny, though, is how easily we can answer that question when somebody else asks it.

If I asked you how to make a character compelling, I bet you would have an answer.  They might be stock answers, but if they are true for you, then they're still good.  Somehow, when you are not the one asking the question, you magically have the answer to it.  You can solve everyone's problems but your own.  Fortunately, there is a way around it.

Pretend that somebody else is asking you.  Heck, pretend that one of your characters breaks the fourth wall to ask you how to be compelling.  If not,just imagine yourself in a classroom, in front of a group of students, and one of them asks you the question you are pondering.  You don't have the ability to blow it off and you can't keep them waiting.

Start answering the question.  You may stammer or stumble over your words or trip on your tongue, but you can start working on that answer.

Put yourself on the spot.  Make yourself uncomfortable. You will find anything possible to get out of that feeling.  And if the way out is answering some puzzling question, then you have fixed two problems: being uncomfortable and knowing the answer to your question.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Redundancy As Clarification

While I was writing about redundancy yesterday, I realized that it serves even more purposes.  Redundancy can be used for clarification.

I like to use big words.  I also like obscure words.  But I hate not being understood.  So when I use a word I don't think people will understand, I repeat what I said in simpler words.

"She was seething when she found out, just furious beyond comprehension."  I don't need the second half of that sentence.  All I did was define 'seething'.  But do you know what 'seething' meant?  How many people do you think do?  It's not a very obscure word, but it is hardly common.

Now, the editor in me is making an argument.  If you are just going to define the word you wanted to use, why not just drop the word and use the definition in its place?  I have to admit that this is a valid point.  I could easily argue that words that people don't understand should simply be avoided to save time, energy, and confusion.  However, I do have an equally valid counterargument: screw them!

I like the words I choose.  If people don't understand them, they can look them up.  I am saving them that trouble by giving them a definition in the text.  And on top of that, I use words that sound good.  If you don't know what 'seething' meant, you will know it in the sentences where I use the word.

This is another exception to the redundancy rule. By repeating yourself for clarity, you are making your prose stronger, not weaker, by having more people follow you without needing to stop.  This can also be combined with Redundancy As Exclamation to reinforce how important that one large word is (which is probably why you used it in the first place).

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Redundancy As Exclamation

We are taught that redundancy is a bad thing.  Well, it certainly can be.  Saying the same thing over and over again can get old pretty quickly.  But sometimes redundancy has its uses.  For example, it can be used as an exclamation.

"This is the same exact meal I got the last seven days."  The word "exact" is redundant; it could be dropped and the sentence would not be changed.  If the meals were different, then the speaker didn't get the same meals, only similar meals.

But that word does affect the sentence.  There is a noticeable difference between "This is the same meal I got the last seven days" and "This is the same exact meal I got the last seven days."  The latter sentence, with that redundant word in it, has a stronger emphasis.  It is obvious that the speaker really cares about this fact and is stressing that the meals were not merely similar.

This one word, in fact, adds a tremendous amount of detail.  It may be unnecessary from the standpoint of grammar, but it is crucial in explaining the thoughts and feelings of the speaker.

In this case, there are no redundancies; removing that one word assuredly changes the sentence.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

"Balanced" Does Not Mean "Neutral"

Think about a classic balance scale, like the one Lady Liberty holds.  When both sides are parallel to the ground, they are balanced.  This is generally how we think of balance: everything sitting still and equally portioned out.  But there is a completely different way to be balanced.

Balance can be considered to be when positive and negative forces cancel each other out, leaving no effect.  Imagine having something that weighs 5 pounds on the left side of the scale for a day, then putting it on the right side for another day.  The scale has been balanced in a certain light.  It was up to the left for one day and up to the right for one day.  Although the scale was never level, it has been on both sides for the same amount of time.  That is a kind of balance.

Abstract examples are only so helpful, though.  Let's use people.  I post an entry here every day.  Well, not exactly.  I didn't post one yesterday.  But I'm posting two of them tonight.  If I skipped 5 days in a row, then on the sixth day, I would write six entries.  So although I am not steady, I do balance out.

If somebody never did anything good or evil, they would be balanced.  The net number is zero.  This person would also be completely neutral.  If somebody sometimes did nice things for people, but didn't do bad things, he would be considered good.  The net charge is positive.  If somebody would sometimes help out random strangers and other times assault them, this person would be balanced.  They would not be neutral at all because they have extreme highs and extreme lows, but they balance out.

Balance is important to me.  No matter what, things have to add up right. My writing time and quality has to balance out.  My characters may or may not be balanced, but they need to both be able to act unbalanced and to know how to handle the imbalanced.

Really, just remember that being fair and even does not mean being boring; it just means being fair.

Diarrhea of the Mouth

I first heard the phrase in high school.  It was one of the funniest things I had ever heard.  It is a massive, unstoppable, uncontrollable deluge of crap spewing forth in the form of speech.  It's a pretty good way to describe how most high school students speak.  But I have recently found that there is more to it and that it's not always negative.

Sometimes random words or phrases pop into my head.  I don't control it and I don't usually want to (except for choosing to say them out loud or not).  They are a completely unexpected addition to my day.  In fact, it feels like spontaneous creation to me.

I've been in the market for both a new computer and a new cell phone.  For both of them, the ease of writing is a significant factor to me.  Keyboards are just as important as sheer functionality.  But when I am sitting in front of a demo model, I have no idea what to do with it.  I know I need to type something, but what?  There's nothing I need to type, nothing I've been wanting to type.  I need to move my fingers, but they need to be doing something real.  Mashing buttons tells you nothing about the ease and comfort of typing.

This is where diarrhea of the mouth is awesome.  I just hit a button, then hit another one, then another.  Those buttons are turning into a word, which leads directly into more words, becoming a sentence, and then a paragraph.  It may make no sense, or it may be brilliant.  All I know is that it gets my fingers using a keyboard.

An example of me doing just what I described:
Every time there is a man walking by a biscuit factory, there is a dozen biscuits being bought by the end of the thirtieth day.  In some situations, seven stacks simply set silly expectations.

I don't think that was particularly good.  It wasn't funny or clever or dramatic.  It was just a bunch of drivel.  But this time, I ended up creating some alliteration.  This makes me want to do more alliteration, which is pretty much always fun (though challenging).

In this case, my diarrhea of the mouth has spawned a desire to write more and given me some ideas of things to create.  This is the best part of that spontaneous creation: sometimes it creates pure gold.  Even if it made bronze or silver, it's still a winner.

Give it a shot. Spit out the first thing that pops into your mind and keep on going.  I want to see what you've got.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Concepts vs. People

I very rarely write stories about people.  There are enough of them out there.  And as interesting as people can be, they don't hold my interest as much as concepts.

Some quick definitions: A story about people covers an individual or small collection of people and their inner thoughts and feelings and how they affect their lives.  A story about concepts is more about the world and society that people live in.

What if a nuclear holocaust resulted in two sets of people: those who live in a safe underground city, and those who are survivors of the attack on the surface?  What problems would each one have?  How do they both survive? What would happen if they discovered each other?  Those are the questions I come up with to write a story about a concept.  The people in them are incidental, mere tools with which to show my concept.

What if a person was so fascinated by solving puzzles that he learned how to pick locks just for the challenge?  What if he started picking house locks and did it while people were sleeping in them just for the extra challenge? What kind of personality would compel a person to act like that?  With that personality, what else would they be compelled to do?  Those are the questions asked of a story about a person.

Both of these are valid (and mine).  The difference between the two ends up being minimal.  Both need people in them.  People always drive a story.  It is simply a matter of how much we end up caring about the people and how much we end up caring about the world they're in.  But that decision isn't always up to us.  The readers decide to focus on the foreground or the background.  And since the foreground is people, it is easier to care about them.

Regardless of the focus you chose, you will need both people and a place for them to be.  Make them both interesting.  No matter how cool your fantasy world may be, if it is inhabited by stiff, poorly-speaking clones of each other (in that they all speak and act the same exact ways), nobody will care about it.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Be As Elaborate As The Story Demands

Although you should be as elaborate as you are allowed, that is only half of the equation.  If you are only allowed a brief moment to tell your story, you must fit your story to that requirement.  But what if you have no time constraints?  What do you do when it's all up to you?

Be as elaborate as the story demands.  Some stories are easy to tell.  "I saw a raccoon for the first time today; it was cool."

Other stories take more time and effort.  Some have a lot of backstory.  Sometimes you have to tell one story just for another story to even make sense.

Fortunately, however much depth your story needs, you can give it when you have this kind of freedom.

No matter how much freedom you have to tell a story, the story itself gives you a natural demand.  I find that to be a comfort.  I'm not in a shapeless void; I am filling in the natural shape already in place to make my story be the best it can be.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Be As Elaborate As You Are Allowed

Tell me about your day.  Will you use one sentence or five pages to do it?  You can certainly choose to do it either way.  You could go into incredible depths, giving a full background of each factor that went into each scene within your day.  Or, you could gloss over all the details and simply describe the largest actions that happened to you.  But why should you choose to do one or the other?

Sometimes you need to tell a story in 40 seconds.  You have to cover who, what, where, when, and why (yes, the five W's still matter, even if you're out of grade school).  This leaves no room for anything but the simplest of facts.

Other times, though, you have the luxury of embellishment.  You are in no rush and can thus go into all the detail you want.  You can cover all the bases, but you can also cover all the bases on top of each base.

When you are too rushed with your stories, you can tell the facts quickly,  but it becomes harder for people to care because they are spending all of their energy just trying to absorb what you are having to say,  Having no restraints whatsoever, though, leads to unfocused thoughts that lead from telling a story to going into a bunch of random tangents,

Ideally, you would never be rushed, but also would not ramble with your stories.  Unfortunately, the world is rarely ideal.  You have to make due with whatever constraints you have.  The only thing you can do about that is deal with it.  Learn to be quick on your feet and handle what people want.

Those few times when you do have that ideal situation, be as elaborate as your story allows.  That, though, is something I will tell you about tomorrow.

Friday, October 22, 2010

You Aren't There Yet

Have you ever said something like, "I'm never going to act the way my parents do"?  Or maybe, "I would never treat a person in such a manner"?  Well, it's quite possible that when you say those things, you are right.  However, it is also quite possible that you are dead wrong.

With the age difference between you and your parents, it makes sense that you never want to act the way you see them.  But when you're 30 or so years older, have that many more life experiences and develop so many habits because of them, you may find yourself acting exactly like them.

I most often find that the men who say that they would never cheat on a woman are the ones who rarely have one to begin with.  If you put those men in a situation where they were actively being pursued by women, their standards would instantly increase and/or they would discover that they are only as loyal as their options.

So what does this have to do with writing?  There's a lot of advice out there for writers.  A lot of it is good advice.  That won't stop you from ignoring it, though.  You may even laugh at how foolish it is.  And, after enough time passes, you may come to realize it's the best advice out there.

It's good to be confident in who you are; without it, you would be lost.  However, you can save yourself the embarrassment of putting your foot in your mouth by realizing that you who you are is temporary.  It's possible that wherever you're going, you just aren't there yet.

Look back on your life.  Have you found yourself doing something you said you'd never do?  What changed?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Call A Sheep A Sheep

I love language and I appreciate a fine linguistic flourish, but everything has its limits.  I am greatly bothered by people who simply cannot say exactly what they mean.

This is why I cannot stand old poetry.  I feel like it is an entire genre marked by inexact language.  People will do anything but call a sheep a sheep.  Instead they'll call it an "animal covered in wool".  But that's not good enough, so they turn that into a "four-legged creature covered in wool".  That becomes "four-legged creature draped in wool", which becomes "four-legged grass grazer draped in wool", which becomes "four-legged grass grazer draped in linens, soft like the clouds."

Wouldn't it be easier to just call it a sheep?  It's less work for the author to come up with this convoluted description and it's way less work for the readers who wouldn't have to decode it.

But even in normal conversation this happens.  Some people will ask, "Do you have any plans for Halloween?"  Others will ask, "What is on your itinerary for All Hallows Eve?"  They're both correct, but the latter one is far more removed from contemporary English.

I want to stress that it is not necessarily a bad thing to ask that second question.  It can be amusing or charming or quaint.  How it is received depends on the listener.  However, no matter how it is taken, it takes extra time and energy to process the words because they are not standard.  And that is the real problem to me.

I consider it a pitfall in writing to not be able to be direct and clear.  Use no uncertain terms and people will know exactly what you mean (there will be no room to be uncertain).  And again, everything has its limits.  If you never have any kind of flourishes, you will come across as mechanical, which can be boring to read.  Striking that balance is key.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Love People For What They Chose

It bothers me that the rules for love and hate are so different.  As I just explained, hate has to be rational.  If you called somebody ugly because their eyes were green or their skin was dark, you would be the jerk.  But those are exactly the criteria we use for judging beauty.

How does a man traditionally express his love to a woman?  By telling her how beautiful she is.  And why is a woman beautiful?  Because her eyes sparkle and her hair is luscious and her face is soft and elegant.

I know that I am by no means the first person to say that we should love people for the things they choose to do, but I am still compelled to do so.  It still feels like an oddity that people would like each other and completely ignore the irrational.

In real life, I have met too many people who say things like, "I only want to date an Italian" or "I can't date somebody who is younger than me" or "I only want somebody who is taller than me."  But we don't always criticize them for saying such things.  Instead we relate to their desires and talk about how the heart wants what it wants.

We rationalize superficial aspects of love by studying how physicality and other things actually are an important factor in attraction.  Well, if that's true, then why is irrational love ok and irrational hate is awful?  Are love and hate not opposites?  Does love have special rules that make it ok to be shallow about?  Or does hate simply have a stricter scope of acceptability?

Whatever the case is, I find that writing becomes more difficult because of it.  In visual storytelling, characters need to be attractive in order for any kind of love to be understandable to the audience.  In prose stories, it matters less because the reader imagines the looks of the characters as much as they can.  Even still, we are so mired in the idea that physically beautiful means good person and physically ugly means bad person (wicked witches are ugly bitches), that we embellish or idealize our protagonists anyway.

All I want is some parity.  Either we get to hate people based on things they didn't choose, or we can only love people for the things they did choose.

Hate People For What They Chose

I don't think that hate is necessarily a bad thing.  Sure, it's not the most productive thing in the world, but it's certainly understandable.  Hate is the response to something that completely goes against your world view.  However, not everything is deserving of hate.

There is no reason to hate people because of their skin color or their home land.  They didn't choose where they came from.

Hate people for what they chose.  Somebody chose to cut you off in traffic.  Somebody chose to make fun of your outfit.  Somebody chose to steal your sunglasses.  Some things may be more trivial than others, but they are equally valid for earning one's ire.

The difference in hating something valid or invalid is how others perceive you.  When you hate somebody that wronged you, people will support you and cheer you on to make right what is wrong.  When you hate somebody who has a different religion than you, you look like a vile, prejudiced bigot.

Most characters are compelled by some kind of hate.  If you want people to sympathize with your characters, make that hate a rational kind.  If you want them to despise a character, give that character an irrational hatred.

And if you want to give yourself a challenge, try to make a sympathetic bigot and an asshole victim.

Monday, October 18, 2010

I Write In Order To Feel

I'm a human being; I'm full of thoughts and feelings.  However, I don't let them out very often.  I keep my thoughts and feelings to myself, choosing to sit in repose.  This doesn't mean I have rejected emotion, though.  It is quite the opposite.

I yearn to feel those feelings that everybody else has.  I just can't access them very easily.  Too many things follow the same patterns.  A Hollywood comedy is stale and unsurprising.  The same could be said of their action movies and love stories (and I've complained about horror movies enough as it is).  These things do not affect me because all I do is predict what's going to happen next.

This is why I write.  The stories I choose to write are different to me.  They are interesting and exciting.  Most of the time, I have no idea what's going to happen next.  Even when I do know the future, it is still a powerful thing to get there.

I finished writing the second story in my Grosso the Oso series.  It is the most depressing story I have ever written.  It is also the most difficult story I have ever written.  Every other sentence, I was staring into space, lost in my own mind, like I was trying to find any way to not continue down this path leading to heartache and pain.  Still, my desire to finish the story was greater and I pushed myself through it, finally getting my first draft finished.

As frustrating and scary as the experience of writing the story was, it also made me happy and excited.  A story I came up with instilled so much feeling that I could barely control it.  I can only imagine how much it will affect other people hen they read it.

And really, feeling is half of why I write.  If I can make people feel something when they read my work, I have succeeded.  And if I can make myself feel, I am confident that it will make others feel, too.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Through The Lens of Life

I have changed the subtitle of my blog.  Although it is technically the first update to it, there has been far more to it.

Originally, I had no subtitle.  It was simply Cheff Salad.  I didn't want anything more than that because I wanted my posts to matter most and not be categorized.

But the fact of the matter is that this blog does have a purpose.  From its very inception, it has been about writing.  Every post is about writing in some way, so I wanted to add a subtitle that would explain that much.  However, I had found that so much of what applies to writing applies elsewhere.  So although I wanted to say, "A blog about writing", I decided to make it, "A blog about writing, and sometimes about life."

And really, that has been the subtitle until just now.  But I have wanted to change it much earlier.  Not long ago, I went through a phase where I felt like I was spending more time talking about the world and people and all my random thoughts than I was talking about writing.  It felt like I would tack on writing as a justification to having made a nonwriting post (mostly because that's what I was doing).  I truly wanted to change it to "A blog about life, and sometimes about writing."  I never did, though.  Part of it was that I didn't want to betray the heart and purpose of the blog by making writing be secondary.

So I went for months continuing on, feeling like I was not being honest, but not wanting to advertise the truth.  And today I realized a new truth.  I am writing about writing, and I wish to continue to write about writing, but the vast majority of it will come from experiences in the real world.  Really, that's what writing is mostly about, the real world.  Even writing about a magical land is going to reflect ways that we see the real world (or how we wish we could see it).

All of the advice I can ever hope to give will be seen through the lens of life.  Abstract knowledge and concepts are useless and unhelpful.  Even my recent grammar lesson used actual examples from real speech to show what I meant.  And sometimes the lessons I have are harder to place my hands on.  They are more so a way of seeing the world, which may only indirectly affect how and what you write about.  But even still, they are lessons of a sort, getting you to think and ponder, and hopefully write something on the subject (even when not directly told to).

Life is my lens to see writing clearer, much as writing is my lens for life.

Questions, Statements, and Punctuation

Today is a grammar lesson.  Let's start with the obvious.

Sentences are either statements, questions, or exclamations.  For the purposes of this post, I only care about statements and questions.  Statements end with periods and questions with question marks.  A statement is a fact or opinion.  A question actively asks for information.  Now that the obvious is over, let's proceed.

In polite society, we are trained to be anything but direct.  We think it is rude or antagonizing, so we beat around the bush, hoping that the other person will volunteer information.  This leads to openers like, "I'd like to know. . ." or "I was wondering. . .".  While there is nothing wrong with speaking like that, you should know that it can change the classification of your sentence.

"I'd like to know your name" is a statement.  You are declaring your desire.  You are not actively asking for the person's name.  That means that it must end with a period.

However, you cannot assume that these openers are always statements.  "I'd like to know, what is your name?"  This is a direct question, thus needing a question mark.  That opener is simply explaining why the speaker is asking the question.

It is best to never blindly punctuate.  Sure, you know the basics, and ambiguous sentences are certainly a rarity, but that's no excuse.  If you don't actually stop to think about what you're doing, what you're saying, and all those other little nitty gritty parts of writing, how can you ever actually know what you're doing?

Friday, October 15, 2010

Judging Authors

It is common to judge authors by the works they create.  It isn't very fair, though.  Sure, writing is an extension of the author and it can offer a window into their inner workings.  However, you can't really judge a house by looking through a single window.

At the very least, you would need to read everything that somebody has written to get any kind of idea of what that person is really like.  But even still it would be inaccurate because it would simply be a judgement based on the things that the author chose to share in writing.

I personally am across the spectrum in subject material.  I enjoy writing classic hero stories, sci fi and fantasy, slice of life, comedy, horror, children's books, essays, and so on.  Now, if you looked at the sheer range of genre, style, format, and intellectual level of ll of those things as whole, you might get a feel of the fact that I'm crazy.  But if you only ever read my children's books, you would have an image in your head of an author who is very different from me.

As a reader, I try to ignore the author.  A story should stand on its own.  I shouldn't have to think about the author while reading it.  I don't care what they enjoy for breakfast, how they keep their notes, or what their family is like.  It's completely inconsequential.

Of course, when my mind wanders, I can't help but wonder those things.  And when I do, I always end up disappointed.  Authors are never the people I imagine.  That's part of why I try to ignore them.  I also keep reminding myself that one cannot judge an author as a person by the writings they create.  Hopefully you can do the same.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

What Color Are They?

In writing, you should describe the things that matter.  If the color of your characters' skin doesn't matter, then it won't come up.  And yet, this seems an odd thing not to know.  In a movie or graphic novel, it is an issue that must be addressed, even if it doesn't matter.  But in text, it can be ignored.

I largely don't care about race.  Though there are interesting parts to it, I have found that the aspects that are most intriguing have been well-covered.  I find it far more interesting to look at people as people and cultures as a whole, ignoring whatever physical characteristics may coincide with them.  As such, I rarely mention the color of my characters' skin.

I'm not sure i this is a good thing or a bad thing.  On the one hand, it allows the reader to make that character look the way they want (in their minds).  On the other hand, it does show that my writing is lacking in its concreteness.  I suppose the only way I will know for sure is when my readers let me know how they feel about it themselves.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Without Within

The opposite of 'in' is 'out'.  But 'without' is not the opposite of 'within'.  This is one of those things that really bothers me about English.  I'm all for making up words.  I think it's wonderful that we invented the word 'burgle' to describe what a burglar does.  But it's difficult to make up words when the word I want to make up already exists (and doesn't mean what I think it should mean).

There isn't too much else to say on the matter.  Just beware that sometimes a word doesn't mean what you think it might mean, and to be sure that a word you make up isn't already a real word.  Aside from that, happy wordsmithing.

Writing Technique: Tense Shift Burn

"Did I ever tell you about Karen?" Michael asked.

"Karen is your wife, right?" said Rob.

"Karen was my wife."

This right here is an example of what I call tense shift burn.  In short, a sentence is said, then it is repeated, with a verb shifted in tense, thus changing the understanding of the situation.  Generally, when it appears as dialogue, it feels like the person who was corrected totally got burned.

I like this technique.  I find it both subtle and clever.  In a story, it shows how thoroughly different the scene we imagine is when a single word is changed.  And it isn't even changed into a new word, merely a different tense.  The difference between "she is my wife" and "she was my wife" can be the difference between night and day.

However, like any technique, a light touch is the most powerful way to apply it.  The surest way to make it boring and lame is to use it too much.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Two Galaxies Cannot Be At War

There are plenty of stories involving war.  War can exist in several forms: nation against nation, brother against brother, family against family, race against race.  However, no matter the variation, there is a limit.  The lands involved cannot be too big.

Suppose two cities are at war.  One city sends its army into the other city, then kills everyone it sees.  They can systematically enter every building and check them for people.

If two nations are at war, it can work similarly, though it would take longer for armies to systematically conquer each city as they make their way to the capital.  But it can be more difficult to be so thorough.  Imagine invading a country like America.  It is so massive that it is nearly impossible to get everybody.  There are countless places that people could hide in, both in a given city and out in the middle of nowhere.  It would take decades to even check all the land for people in hiding.

How much larger can we get?  Can two planets be at war?  Maybe.  Maybe if there were weapons at work that could destroy areas the size of large cities.  But at that point, the human factor is pretty inconsequential.  When millions of people can be taken out in a single shot, they become nothing more than a statistic.

Two galaxies cannot be at war.  This is a definite extreme.  The sheer size of a galaxy is incomprehensible.  Humans are no better than a speck of dirt in that scope.  In order for humans to matter whatsoever, the galaxies in question would have to be relegated to an area not much larger than a small country, which would negate the reality of galactic warfare.

Stories are always about people.  Whatever is going on, people are involved (or something anthropomorphic).  If you cover too large of an area, it can never be about people becuse you will be too zoomed out to see them.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

One Day At A Time

I am now over 600 posts on this blog.  I could never sit down and write that much on any subject, no matter how broad.  And yet, here it is, for all the world to see.  How does it get done?

The simple answer is that I do it one day at a time.  My posts are usually about whatever is on my mind from the day's experiences.  They're as short as three paragraphs and often hover around that.

Three paragraphs at a rate of three sentences per paragraph makes for nine sentences on any subject once per day.  That is so incredibly not difficult.

If you are in a spot where you are afraid to write, maybe you could try a blog or a notebook.  Just write a post a day.  It doesn't have to be epic or particularly researched or anything like that.  Just take it one day at a time.  That's how anything worth doing gets done.

Accept Them As Real

I think it is weird how much I don't care about the characters in most people's stories.  They just seem inhuman to me somehow.  I wonder if it is because of the writing or something else.

Well, I always seem to care about my character in my stories.  But I know I don't write that much better than everybody else, so what is the issue?

As far as I can tell, the characters I create are real people, simply stuck in an alternate reality.  With other stories, the characters end up being figurines acting out actions as the author commands it.  I believe that is the key difference, that I accept my characters as real.

I can't imagine anybody can care about a character unless they accept them as real.  As to whose obligation that is, I feel mixed.  No matter how good a story is, if you are a cynical jerk, you will never get into the story.  But if the story isn't good at all, nobody will be willing to truly believe in them.

Much like everything else in writing and life, it's a balancing act.  There is no right or wrong, only scales.  Find your own point of balance between them.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Sporks Suck

Eating utensils are so cumbersome.  Who could possibly have the wherewithal to manage a spoon and a fork?  Thank goodness somebody invented the almighty spork.  By having a spoon with slits at the end to function as tines, we now have the ultimate in silverware convenience.

Unfortunately, the spork is actually a colossal failure in mechanics and design.  By having holes at the end of the spoon, liquids will slip right out, leaving only the smallest amount able to drink.  And by having tines that are so short and stubby, it is impossible to pick up anything substantial.

So what does this have to do with anything, let alone writing?  A spork tries to be everything at once, but in doing so, fails at all of them.  Writing (as well as most things in life), end up being the same way.  The qualities that make for a superb horror story make for a horrible romance novel.  If you try to make a piece of writing pull double duty, it will generally be sub par at both things it attempts.

Focus yourself.  Pick one goal and go attain it.  Afterwards, start up on a second goal.  Don't try to do it all at once.  When you do, you end up with a spork.  And for all practical purposes, sporks suck.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Two-Second Jokes

In an episode of the sketch comedy show Robot Chicken, there is a scene of two old men sitting on a bench.  One turns to the other and says, "we'll be dead soon" in a very matter-of-fact tone.  That is the entire sketch.  I think it is hilarious.  It may be one of the best sketches they've done.  It is a perfect example of a two-second joke.

A two-second joke comes in, hits you, and goes away.  A single-panel comic that only has one line of text in it is usually a two-second joke.  For example, imagine a scene with a kid in school looking at his A+ paper in shock.  He is shouting out, "I'm so bad at failing!"

It is not easy to make a good two-second joke.  The example in the above paragraph took me about 10 minutes to come up with.  However, I think it is worth the effort.  If you are wanting to do comedy, two-second jokes are a great place to start.  They're easy to digest and pack a serious punch.

The basic idea is having a scene that has certain automatic assumptions made about it, then accompanying it with something totally not in line with that scene.  Nobody expects somebody to be angry about getting a good grade in school.  If somebody was shocked by getting an A+, it is expected to be a joyous surprise.  By adding a sentence explaining that the student was trying to fail, you shatter the expectations of the scene.  On top of that, you add an irony by having the student fail at failing.

There is definitely an art to making a good two-second joke, but it is energy worth spending.  Attention spans are getting shorter and shorter, so get your audience while they're still looking at you.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010


Writing is about conflict.  It can be internal conflict, dealing with opposing ideas inside one's own head.  It can be external conflict, taking place as arguments between people, war between countries (or planets), and anything in between.  In story telling, arguments between people are particularly powerful because they are so human.

Arguments can be difficult, though.  They either end very quickly or not at all.  If somebody is arguing just to make an argument, they can easily be dissuaded by explaining your beliefs and why they are best.  But if somebody is arguing because they believe with all of their heart and soul that you are wrong, there is no amount of words that can convince them otherwise.

In real life, you may want to argue back and forth, over and over again, depending on how stubborn you are.  In writing, though, arguments get old very quickly.  The more sentences you have saying the same things over and over again, the longer you are holding off the action of the story, which will kill your momentum.

In writing, I like to apply the same rule that I apply in real life.  If one person is arguing against an idea and the other person is trying to convince that naysayer, they get three attempts.  Try to make the case and show why it's right, but if the opponent keeps saying no and gives you nothing else to work with, then just say OK.

'OK' is a really great way to end an argument because it infuriates arguers.  You have not conceded your point, but you have refused to continue arguing.  It's kind of like agreeing to disagree, but not both sides have agreed to it. And in writing, it ends those unpleasant arguments before they take over countless pages in your stories.

Actions speak louder than words.  If somebody truly disagrees with you, they won't change their mind until they have personally experienced something that shows that they're wrong.  So rather than mincing words, just say OK and move on to some action.

Why Is It A Dream Job?

A lot of people see writing as a dream job.  Heck, a lot of full-time writers see writing as a dream job.  I sure think writing is a dream job.  And if you think writing is a ream job, too, I want to ask you why.

All too often, I hear the sentiment that writing is easy.  And because of that, it is a dream job because it is simple, makes a lot of money, and makes you famous, all at once.  You just sit down, whip out a story, and rake it in.

Well, that's entirely false.  First and foremost, writing isn't easy.  If you've read my previous two posts, you would know that by now.  On top of that, the writers who make a ton of money and become famous are a particularly small percent of all the writers out there.

However, writing still is a dream job to me, just for a different reason.  In writing, you can create your own worlds and your own people.  You can experiment with any ideas you have, finding the results of putting certain types of people in a given situation.  You can tell all the stories you think should be told and have other people read them and reflect upon them.  You get to do the things you love doing and make a living because of it.

Pros Make It Look Easy

This is somewhat of a continuation of my previous post. It seems all too common that people see a professional and say that the profession is so easy.  Look at dancers, singers, actors, and writers.  Don't all of those things seem so ridiculously easy to do?

How many of them can you do well?  How many of those activities can you do at all?  Have you ever sat down to try them?  If so, has anybody other than yourself said that you did well?

Professionals make their job look good because they are fantastic.  They have put in their hard work.  They have completely internalized their abilities and the techniques with which to use them.  They are still working, but it's something they have done so often that it is completely a part of their bodies.

Nothing is as easy as it looks, especially if you have no knowledge or training it.  That said, it could be made much easier by actually studying and practicing whatever it is that you think is so good.  Trust me, writing is not easy, especially if you have any kind of standards.

Good Work Is Hard Work

All the things that people are proud of required a lot of work to do.  No matter how you slice it, if you want to do good work, you will have to do a lot of hard work for it.

Writing is hard work.  There are no perfect first drafts.  I have agonized over writing single sentences.  I have agonized over finding the right words.  And of course, there is the sheer work of forcing yourself to work on writing without doing anything else.

Sometimes, though, good work can seem effortless.  I can edit very quickly and very easily.  When somebody hands me a document to edit, I can fix technical errors and stylistic issues as I am going through it.  And yes, in large part, editing is very easy to me.  But the catch to that is that I put in my hard work previously.  I have read a great deal, studied the language intently for years, studied the patterns and "rules", which most people will agree is no simple task.

Whether you put in your effort early on or you do it as you work, it's going to happen if you want to make something worth making.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Death Is Always Justified

It bothers me that death is always justified in our mainstream stories.  Horror stories are the worst.  The people who died always are morally corrupt.  Take one of the seven deadly sins and you'll have a character who deserves to die (and surely will).

Are good, wholesome characters exempt from death?  Of course not.  However, it is never meaningless.  Good people often volunteer to die.  They perform the heroic sacrifice to save countless others (or one very special person).  If they are simply killed, that death enrages the protagonist, giving the fuel and drive necessary to defeat the antagonist.  Otherwise, the person gains some power because of dying (like haunting or other ghostly skills), which ends up being a net gain for the good guys.

And while I am saying that not everything should be black and white, I would say that the same holds true for characters.  It's not simply perfectly good people and scum of the earth in stories.  Sometimes a character is good enough, but chooses to do one nasty thing.  Sometimes that one nasty thing is all you need to bring about the curse.

Maybe us humans need justification.  Maybe we simply cannot handle meaningless death (or anything else for that matter).  Whatever it is, know that going with the flow will make you predictable and going against it will make you largely unliked.

Friday, October 1, 2010

We're All Nerds

People who are so very knowledgeable about the sciences are often called nerds and derided for it.  But the irony is that the people doing the deriding are equally nerds.  A nerd is a person who knows a great deal about something.  And in that sense, everybody is a nerd.

The stereotypical jock is a sports nerd.  Every fact about all the players in all the teams in all the leagues throughout time is stored in these people's heads, not to mention the facts about countless individual games.  When they aren't watching sports, they're watching shows about sports or they're talking to other people about sports.  To any person who doesn't care about sports, these people are turbo nerds.

Whatever interest people have, they will grow a deep knowledge about it, which will be ridiculed to anybody who doesn't care about that subject.  Heck, even people with a wide knowledge are nerds.  Suppose you had a basic, introductory knowledge on 100 different subjects.  You are still a nerd; you have a great deal of knowledge, just divied up.

Accept that you're a nerd and embrace it.  Use that as your inspiration or motivation.  If people are supposed to write about what they know, use your great knowledge to get you started.