Monday, November 29, 2010

Don't Get Lost In Thought

A lot of the writing I do is without a pen or a keyboard; it's done in my head.  The problem with that is the risk that it never gets out of my head.  I may get distracted by other people or other things I have to do. But sometimes I just nod off while planning these things out.

Though I've never thought of myself as a daydreamer, there are times when it is very easy to get lost in the fantasy worlds we create.  All of a sudden, I find myself far down the path, but have no memory of how I got there.

I don't know that there's anything that can be done about this.  The best advice is to work on willpower or to create some tricks to be able to type those daydreams as they come to you.  Of course, it may become boring, being the stenographer of events instead of a more active participant, but at least this way you'll have something to show for it.

You also leave yourself a little present.  You may not even remember half the things you just daydreamed about.  That's when that written record is pretty handy (when it makes sense).

I'm not saying you shouldn't daydream.  It's a great thing, especially when you want to start understanding or exploring your characters and settings.  Just don't get lost in thought.

Not All Music is Headphone Music

I listen to music with headphones on.  It's usually through my computer or a music player.  Sometimes, though, I will either have music running while I'm doing chores or I'll listen to the radio while I'm driving.  That's when I realize that the music sounds significantly different.

With headphones, I hear everything.  There are a lot of little sounds, effects, tracks in a song that work with the others to make it what it is.  Through speakers, the finer ones disappear.  The other sounds usually drown it out.

Not surprisingly, I prefer listening to music through headphones.  However, I have found that not all music is headphone music.  Sometimes a song will alternate quickly between right side and left side or have one some sounds go only through the right and other sounds only through the left.  Those kinds of things are fine through speakers, but through headphones, they give me a headache.

I have found that writing works in a similar way.  Some set-ups work better than others.  A good, spooky story is amazing at night with all the curtains drawn and a dim light.  A dry, factual book works better in the middle of the day while I'm waiting (like being a passenger or on a lunch break).

It's nothing that you can really help as a writer.  It's up to readers to determine how and in what ways they read your work.  However, much as you may imagine who your readers will be, you could also imagine how they will read it.  With that in mind, write in a way that will work well with the setting your work will be read in.

No Euphemisms

We like our euphemisms.  Whether it be nicknames, slang terms, or descriptions, it seems like people have trouble calling things by their names.

There are times when it's useful.  Sometimes we use shorthand just to express ourselves quickly.  When speed is of the essence and everybody knows the subject at hand, there's nothing wrong with that.

The issue I have is when I see it used because of fear or squeamishness.  When people refer to an ex-girlfriend as "my ex" or "that bitch" (the latter technically being a dysphemism) instead of her name, it means that she holds power over them.  The speaker cannot bear to use her actual name.  To use a literary example, nobody in the world of Harry Potter dared to use Voldemort's name, instead calling him "He who shall not be named".

People who are embarrassed about something will also try to avoid using a direct name.  If you see a small child who wants a cookie, but is afraid of being admonished by her parents for wanting one, she may point to a cookie jar and say "can I have what's in there" instead. And how many ways do people talk about genitals without actually saying penis or vagina?

These are the kinds of euphemisms that frustrate me.  People want to talk about a subject, but do not have the courage to do so.  But rather than mustering up the courage, they try to hide behind softer words.  If you want to talk about a subject, talk about it.  Don't be afraid of it.  And if you are afraid, act like you aren't.  If nothing else, it will make for better writing.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Make Things Balanced

My friends have exposed me to a lot of fun games that I'd never played before.  Games like Small World, Settlers of Catan, and Chrononauts are great ways to spend an evening with good people.  One of the things that I always remark on is how balanced the games are.  There is a combination of random luck and strategy involved in playing, getting an early lead does not allow somebody to breeze through the rest of the game, and no single component overpowers any other part of it.

It occurs to me that this is a good lesson for more than just making board or card games.  This is good advice for writing, too.  What fun is a character who can't die?  How boring is a character who never fails?  How boring is a character who always fails?  It is the not knowing what to expect that makes things exciting.  Giving characters that same kind of balance, not having any one of them be markedly and assuredly better than another, makes for the most interesting stories.

Of course, this is not new advice by any means, just new words.  The classic way to describe boring, predictable, overpowered characters is Mary Sue.  And really, the advice here is all the same advice you see when reading how to avoid making Mary Sues (and why they are a bad thing in the first place).

Still, sometimes new words are all we need to spice up old advice.  How balanced are the people in your works?

Thursday, November 25, 2010

You Don't Need School To Learn Examples

I don't regret the fact that I went to college.  I did a ton of growing up, met some wonderful people, and learned a great deal about writing.  However, in terms of sheer learning, school is only so useful.  There are examples all around you.  It's impossible to go a day without seeing words.  Somebody wrote those words.

I learned how much difference one word makes by looking at writing in a restaurant.  I watch commercials and read posters.  People are communicating constantly, now more than ever.  Heck, you're reading this right now (and as of this writing, it is not in a textbook).  Examples are all around you.  What's good?  What's bad?  What is effective in educating?  What is effective in persuading?

What school does offer, though, are tools.  It taught me how to see the examples all around me, how to evaluate them, how to put into words what they do and how they do it, and how to go about internalizing those abilities for my own uses.

School is by no means useless.  I do not want that to be the message.  I simply want to remind people that once you know how to teach yourself, the material can be found everywhere.

Some Candles Are Bigger Than Others

There is a saying that "the candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long."  Well, yeah, that's true.  But if we look at the analogy, we can see that there are more than just those two qualities involved. How big are the candles?  If a candle burns twice as bright, but is also twice as big, then it will burn the same amount of time.

To apply this extended analogy to people, it still holds true.  Sure, everybody burns out eventually, but some people can do more than you and do it for longer. How is that possible?  Well, they must be a bigger candle than you.

Frustrating though it may be, we're not all made equally.  That doesn't mean you shouldn't try if you aren't the absolute best of the best. It just means you do the best you can by giving your all.  Choose the amount of energy you wish to exert and know that you will burn out faster by burning brighter, and that it has nothing to do with how bright or for how long other people burn.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Compelled By The Zeitgeist

I was lunch with a woman.  At one point, she asked if I wanted another drink and I said no.  When she got up to refill her cup, I decided that I did want a refill, too, so I got up and said, "I lied.  I do want another drink."  When she heard this, she corrected me, saying that I changed my mind; I didn't lie.

This sparked a conversation about culture.  Our culture (American) is a truly bizarre one.  We are so well-trained to think that we're perfect that we cannot admit that we would change our minds.  If our initial decision is always right.  We would rather admit to being actively deceptive than admit to being wrong.

This made me realize exactly how much we do lie, and how acceptable it is to us.  And sometimes we lie for no good reason.  We lie because we're scared that we might not fit in.  We lie because it makes us look cool.  We lie because we can.

I say "we" because I am no exception.  I hate lying, but it is a difficult thing to resist.  It feels as though I am compelled by the zeitgeist to lie. Even though it disgusts me to deceive people, our culture says it is better to create this alternate reality where I did normal things than to admit to being different.

It makes me wonder: What are the people of different cultures compelled by the zeitgeist to do?  Are there people who despise alcohol, but have a glass with every meal simply because people can't imagine not doing it?  Are there cultures where physical conflict is the only guaranteed way to settle disputes and people who would love to be pacifists still trade blows because it is easier and safer than any other means?

It seems we always put our characters in our culture or ones very similar to it.  It's understandable, I admit.  You know it very well and the audience instantly understands.  But there are limitless possibilities when it comes to social mores, folkways, and laws.  Start playing the What If game and coming up with some insane cultures.  Then make some characters who don't like that culture, but are still compelled to take part in it.

No matter how different those people will seem to you, they will still be very human.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Size Is Relative

I was talking with one of my coworkers, playfully insulting him.  I said at one point that it is just so much fun demeaning him. Then he told me that I shouldn't use such big words around him.

This really surprised me.  I never thought of "demeaning" as a big word.  It was a pretty standard word.  Everybody knew what it meant and never thought much about it.

But here I was, being told that it was a big word.  All I could figure was that he wasn't a writer and just didn't care too much about language or learning words.  Maybe it was a big word because it was still rare to him.

Whatever the case, it was a sobering reminder that everything is relative.  The words you choose you may think are safe, but if you're using effective language, chances are you're going to use words that somebody will find think are too advanced (and others will think are pedantic).

There's nothing you can do about this, though.  You can't determine what words people do and don't know, nor how they feel about those words.  All you can do is write the way that feels natural, and let it attract the people who like it.

I Want A Story

For as tolerant and accepting as I am of music as a whole, some of it just doesn't do anything for me.  And the worst offenders are songs where the singer talks about how great he or she is.  Like, that's the whole song.  I'm awesome; I'm rich; I'm attractive; I'm smooth.  Well, I'm bored.

I want a story.  Don't tell me how great you are; show it to me. Tell me about things that have happened, what you did, and let me decide how great you are (or are not).  This shameless self-promotion gets so old because it all sounds the same.  Nothing interesting ever happens in it.

That's part of why I want a story. So many things can happen in stories.  Really, anything can happen in a story.  I wish I could see every medium used as a way to tell stories.  That way, things would always stay interesting.

I would warn people, though, that for as easy as it is to make any medium be able to tell a story, it is just as easy to make any medium sling self-serving schlock.  Actions will always speak the loudest.  If you absolutely must tell people how great you are, at least give them something that would compel them to agree with you.

Be Spectacularly Wrong

If I said that sharks had flippers, you might call me stupid.  Sharks have fins, not flippers.  But what if I said that sharks had propellers?  You'd either think I had mental problems, or you would chuckle.

Subtlety in writing is tricky.  If people aren't familiar with you or your style, it is very easy for subtle humor to be taken as straightforward, inaccurate statements.To avoid that confusion, the easy way is to be spectacularly wrong.

Don't go halfway; be absurd.  If you want your character to sound dumb, make him ask if zebras are those horses with the horns.  Have an inept chef make a fruit pie with whole fruits in them (as in cores and stems and rinds).

Sarcasm is the worst of them all.  When a character says, "sure, I'd love go to the movies with you", there is no way of telling if that is sincere or sarcastic (again, unless you are very in tune with the character).  To make us sure that she is being sarcastic, have her say, "Sure, I'd love to go to the movies with you. After that, we could try cyanide burgers or a refreshing dip in the shark tank."  Is it ridiculous? Most definitely.  Is the intent thoroughly clear?  Most definitely.

Even when our stories are meant to be realistic, it is larger than life.  Don't be afraid of it.  Embrace it.  Say some ridiculous things.  If you're going to be wrong, be spectacularly wrong.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Let Things Process

Sometimes we have big days.  Lots of things happen, all out of the ordinary.  Revelatory realizations occur.  You couldn't capture it all if you wanted to.  Fortunately, you don't have to.

Our brains are never not working.  Every single thing you see, hear, think about, or experience in any other way, the brain will process.  You don't need to do anything about it; it's automatic.

So let things process.  Sure, actively thinking or writing things down may speed up the process, or it may make you more aware of what realizations you come to, but no matter what, you will figure out what happened and where you want to go from there.

If you simply must write about what's on your mind (which is not a bad habit to be in), then pick one subject and focus on it.  Toss all your other thoughts onto the back burner and let your brain do what it will.  Flip flopping between a million different thoughts doesn't help you get through any one of them any faster.

Writing down your thoughts helps you process them, so process one thought to its end, then move on.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

And Then I'm Typing

An interesting phenomenon occurs while I write.  I sit and stare at my screen, thinking about what I want to say.  I compose in my head.  And then I'm typing.

This doesn't sound particularly interesting by its own right, so let me explain.  I do not finish a thought, decide that it is what I would like, then begin writing it.  I am staring into nothingness, start nodding off, wake up, and see myself typing.  My thoughts are on the page, as I had composed them in my head, but had no memory of putting my fingers to the keys.  I just see myself typing the thoughts as they come to my head and accept that it is happening.  (No reason to ask a bunch of questions about something that's helping me out.)

I think it happens because I write while being thoroughly exhausted.  I may start the writing process, nod off a bit, then forget that I had started at all.  And really, once I start writing, continuing to write is very easy.  Since one thought naturally progresses from another, and since I tend to come up with ideas in my head faster than I can put the words down, I can have a pretty continuous flow of writing even when I'm not really paying attention.

Still, it is a freaky experience, to basically wake up in the middle of an activity.  But despite that, I kind of want it to happen more.  I want to see what I make when I lose those inhibitions and just write what's in my head.  Could be gold in those mountains.

First I lose consciousness, and then I'm typing.  And now I'm famous.  Seems a logical progression to me.  One more step to go.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Too Busy Being Awesome To Be Spectacular

My friend is in grad school and is buried up to her ears in work.  I get to talk with her on average once a week (usually three times in a week, and then two weeks not hearing from her).  She leaves the school at 12:30 AM, only to return around 6:30 AM.

I am truly amazed by her.  She does enough work to keep three people busy, gets it all done, and can still crack a good joke about the whole thing.  But it is sad that I so rarely get to see her.  So in conversation, I told her, "You're too busy being awesome to be spectacular."  She laughed and agreed, and I smiled because she understood what I meant.

Those were very deliberate words.  'Awesome' and 'spectacular' are used as generic synonyms for 'very good'.  And in colloquial English, they are.  But technically (or classically), they had their own unique meanings.

Something that is awesome puts people in a state of awe.  It means that they are amazed, shocked, and speechless.  Something that is spectacular has the quality of being a spectacle.  And a spectacle is something that is seen. (Spectators spectate spectacles.)

So what I told my friend is that she is too busy amazing and impressing me (and countless others) to become particularly well-seen.  I simply used two terms with very positive connotations to describe her situation.  I got to play with multiple layers of meaning at the same time.

This is one of the things I love about language.  Because I know so much about it, I can use it in a far more powerful means.  The drawback is that only other people with that knowledge can appreciate it.  Otherwise it sounds like I told my friend that she's too busy being very good to be very good, which makes no sense.  But she did understand it and she did appreciate it, and we both smiled and laughed to know that we had this semi-secret language between us.

If you want something like that, go and study language.  Read the dictionary.  Learn that every word comes from somewhere, and that a word's meaning can be discovered by breaking it down, once you learn those root words and stems.  It really is fun.  And there are plenty of people out there who can and will appreciate it.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Still Life

Doesn't it seem like every artist draws or paints a picture of a bowl of fruit?  What's the deal with that?

Turns out, it's called still life.  And since it has a name, you know it's a real thing.

Still life is actually a pretty cool concept.  For one thing, you are creating what you see, which takes away the need to try to create from nothingness.  For another thing, it becomes a universal, uniform exercise.  The point is not to come up with the most amazing subject or concept, but merely to work on raw technique and style.  When everybody is painting fruit, the question becomes, how are you painting the fruit?

I really want to have a writing equivalent to still life.  And since I'm not aware of any off hand, I am unilaterally deciding to make the subject be shoes.

Look at a pair of shoes.  Stare at it, ponder it.  Then create it. Describe and express those shoes with your words.  This is not about making shoes a prop in a story (much like how a still life is about the bowl of fruit and not simply involving one).  Just describe those shoes sitting there, wherever "there" might be.  I don't care if they're on your feet or in front of you or hanging from some power lines.  Just paint that picture with your words.

Still life is all about technique and ability (and honing them) by having identical subjects.  Go and do that with your writing.  It's just an exercise to help you out.

Let me know how it goes.

We Had To Write Crap

It frustrates me, reading the writing of people in certain age groups. It all sounds the same to me.  They all write about themselves or author analogs talking about their lives and their feelings, rarely actually doing anything within the story.  It is a struggle for me to read those stories all the way through anymore.

Of course, I'm no exception.  I'm sure I've written my fair share of crappy writing.  But that makes me all the more curious: how is it that everybody has written that same junk?  Is it possible we had to write that crap?

I can't say for certain, but it would make sense.  We all have pretty similar thoughts and feelings; it makes sense we would want to get them out on paper.  And if we are also just starting out in writing, then we wouldn't really know what is good and bad.  It is possible that we wrote this garbage because it was part of the process of figuring out what is good.

I like to think that's the case.  Writing that crap is the same as a beginning artist drawing stick figures with very squiggly lines.  It's like a beginning chef making scrambled eggs with nothing in them.

It helps me get through the day, knowing that it is a beginning phase for beginning writers.  It also serves as advice for beginning writers:  You are going to write a lot of crap.  There's no avoiding it.  You kind of have to do it in order to get to the good ones.  Just power through them and give it your all.  The harder you work, the less crap you will have to write.

Creation By Analogy

Think about the story of Chicken Little.  What if you took that story, but made the characters humans instead of animals, and made the fear be about meteors destroying the earth instead of the sky falling?  Well, you'd have what would feel like a completely different story, and yet it would be exactly the same.

There is a classic argument that, if you dig deep enough, there are only 3 stories: man versus god, man versus man, and man versus himself.  Even if you don't agree, it is unarguable that there is not a great deal of overlap in stories.  Use that overlap to your advantage.

Start creating stories by analogy.  Write the story Baby's Day Out, but the baby is a senile old man.  Write Rocky, but he's a chef instead of a boxer (this might make the scene where he's punching the beef carcass hilarious or disturbing).  Try writing Die Hard in an office building.

When you can't come up with anything on your own, be a great artist and steal.  Retell a classic story with new specifics.  Nobody will probably know.  You may diversify. You may not.  That's up to you.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Anagrams Are Fun

In my previous post, I came up with a story idea based on an anagram I made of the phrase, "anagrams are fun".  As I promised there, today will have even more.  I worked on making these anagrams, then I just made up the story descriptions off the top of my head.

Manage Fur: Saran
This could be a story about a person who has the idea cover his pets in Saran wrap to keep them from shedding.  He makes a business out of it, wrapping up animals.  When angry protesters wrap him up in his own method, he spends a day trapped in it, finally understanding what they were going through.

It could also be a collection of hilarious ads based on unintended uses for household items.

Ra, A Gun Fears Man:
This is a pivotal piece of dialogue, between the Egyptian god Ra and the Sphinx, discussing humanity. Ra makes the claim that humans sow the seeds of their own destruction, showing that humans created guns, and now their very invention strikes fear in their own hearts.  The Sphinx protests, saying that, were a gun able to do so, it would fear man.  Guns are tools, incapable of making their own choices.  They are picked up by anybody who chooses to and they do whatever they are made to do.  Man is always in control.  Regardless of the tool, people will always fear other people.

These are example of my own.  Now I have two challenges for you:

1.  Make up some story ideas for the following anagrams:
A Mean Surf; A Gran
A Nun Gears A Farm
Arrange Fans, Maus

2.  Make up your own anagrams for "anagrams are fun", post them here, and then do story ideas for the ones you make up.

Are you up to the challenge?

Friday, November 12, 2010

Ranger Fu As A Man

Gina Fu is a woman in her late thirties.  She works as a park ranger in a local forest.  Though she does enjoy her job, she is frustrated by the lack of respect she gets.  Tour groups, hikers, and campers all seem to ignore her, even her direct commands (stuff like not littering or not leaving open flames going through the night).  What really struck her was how much derision she received simply for being a woman.  So she decided to dress in drag.  She acted like a man, was convincing in looks and sound, and instantly commanded much more respect for it.  Gina was both surprised and a little disgusted by it, but she was also fascinated by it.  She kept it up, continuing to live her life as a man, until the line between who she was and who she pretended to be got too blurry to distinguish.

I'm just screwing with you.  "Ranger Fu As A Man" is an anagram of "Anagrams Are Fun".

I do enjoy anagrams.  They used to seem the most impossible task in the world.  How do you look at a phrase and come up with a whole new sentence?  It seems like something only a computer can do.  But really, it's not that bad.

Start with the word or phrase in question.  Pull out letters from the original to make a new word, then repeat the process with the remaining letters.  Just keep making one word at a time until you've used all your letters.  Then you take the new words you have and try to make sense of them.

If you are looking for ideas, try some anagrams.  I literally looked at the phrase "anagrams are fun" and got the story idea you just read.  It took 5-10 minutes. It's almost like creating something from nothing.  If nothing else, it will get you seriously thinking about words and letters, which is a great way to get warmed up for writing.

Tomorrow:  Even more anagrams based on "anagrams are fun".  Can you guess which ones I'll choose?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

You Can't Write The Way You Talk

Probably the best advice for style is to write the way you talk.  The problem is that you can't.  Or, rather, you shouldn't. No matter how much we want written words to sound like speech, they are fundamentally different.

Certain techniques of speech simply do not work in print.  In speech, you are making things up as you go along, so when you forget to add a subject, or suddenly realize you changed tracks without saying anything about it, you can tack that subject in, as though it was always supposed to be there.  In speech, you can make a slip-up, say a wrong word, say something kind of dumb, and you have to either correct yourself or hope nobody realizes it.

Certain techniques of writing do not work in speech.  Writing can use tools like hyphenations and dashes, foot notes and headers.  We can write in a more visual manner.  This is great, seeing as how reading requires looking at it.  But, this does add to the difficulty.

There are several techniques that do cross over from writing to speech and back again; that's why the advice is there in the first place.  However, there are no hard and fast rules.  It is up to your gut and your eyes and ears to know when to write like you talk, when to talk like you write, and whento leave the two separate.

You can do it.  So, go and do it now.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Are You A Consumer Or A Creator?

We are all consumers.  We read other people's stories, watch their movies, play their games.  We are the audience to countless things.  Some people like it just fine, but for others, it simply isn't good enough.

For as long as I've been a consumer, I have also been a creator.  I loved telling stories, making them up.  I loved playing the what-if game.  I loved taking a core idea and putting a new skin on it.  Watching TV was great - I did a lot of it - but I always wanted to make my own.

Some people are completely content being a consumer.  They are happy with receiving all of those ideas and being entertained by them.  I truly do understand these people.  In my unhappier times, I have tried to be a consumer only.  But it never stuck.  I had this feeling that I just couldn't shake.  I simply needed to create.

A classic question asked of writers is why they went into writing.  A classic answer is "I had to."  That's basically what my post amounts to.  I write because I have to; I can't keep it inside.  I need to get it out on paper.  But now you have a slightly better explanation.  It is an internal itch that I know I have, that not everybody on earth seems to have, and that only creating can scratch.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Fresh Starts

I've had a lot of fresh starts recently.  My most recent job is unlike any other I've previously had.  My one computer had to get wiped clean because of a virus, then I got a new one to set up.  And now I've gotten a new phone that I am playing with.

Every time I start fresh, I'm amazed by exactly how much work it is and how exhausting it is to restore things to how I'm used to.  I had a lot of settings and preferences.  I put in a good chunk of time tinkering and making things just the way I like.  And some of those changes were little additions here and there that really added up.

With my computers, I twice had to put on all the programs that I downloaded, arrange all the files I had saved, find and save all my bookmarked websites, set all of my passwords, and do all kinds of things.  My phone required setting backgrounds and ringers and alarms and the like.  And new jobs require meeting new people and learning new protocols.

The appreciation I have for settling into a groove is much greater when I find myself out of that groove.  When I write, I have a set of circumstances I like.  I am alone.  I have no distractions.  I have music playing through headphones as background noise.  It is also usually night time with no lights on except the glow of my computer.  Otherwise, it will be daytime in a coffee shop and I'll be writing in my spiral notebooks.

When I try to write in any other circumstances, it is a colossal failure.  I'm out of my groove and nothing works.  I spend all my time and energy trying to restore my current situation to my groove.

Despite the above, I still recommend a fresh start on occasion.  It shakes things up, gets you out of your rut, and makes you think.  Realize how set you have become, how much you enjoy certain set-ups, and what it's like to go without them.  You can also realize which things you do, not because they are beneficial, but because they are comfortable.

Can you identify what you like to do?  What is your ideal set-up for writing?  When you can answer that, go and do the opposite.  Try to write in the most unideal situations.  Then see what you come up with.  I'd certainly like to see it.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Take The Advice That Works

Working a job in sales has really reminded me what it's like to be a beginner.  Sure, I may have some talents.  The fact that I'm a good communicator and skilled in persuasive language certainly is a strong help, but there is still a great deal of specific things to learn.  On top of learning all the products and services that are offered, I need to learn the benefits that people do not think about and why it is worth paying for the conveniences.

Everybody will develop their own style when it comes to selling, so everybody will have their own tips and tricks.  When talking about sales with other salesmen, we all share our techniques, what works and what doesn't. There is a lot of advice out there.

Some of the things that people say make a lot of sense.  Other stuff doesn't seem helpful.  I don't like to use scare tactics or be overly aggressive to make a sale.  I can't flash adorable puppy dog eyes to warm over somebody's heart (because I don't have them to flash).  When advice does work for me, I take it.  I integrate it and make it one of my own techniques.

And this is exactly the same for writing.

There are these two opposite thoughts in writing: learn all the rules until I'm good, and fuck the world - I'll do my own thing and make you like it.  What you should be doing is neither of those things, or possibly both.  Listen to all the advice you can.  Think about all of them.  Then take the advice that works.  Really, you should take the advice that works for you.  That is the stuff that will make you a better, stronger writer.  You may be able to do plenty without any advice, but listening to what else is out there saves a lot of time in not having to reinvent the wheel.  So take it all in, keep the stuff that resonates, and make something grand.

Sunday, November 7, 2010


I was sitting in a restaurant by a window.  I saw a group of a dozen people walking down the sidewalk.  They were all wearing a black out, the exact same outfit. Now, it turns out that I recognized their outfits and realized they were Amish, but I will not soon forget the fear I had to see a dozen black-clad people walking in a tight formation and a steady pace down the sidewalk right in front of me.

I can't help but remark at how disturbing identical uniforms are.  We see them in movies and other stories enough and think nothing of them.  They are generic pawns.  But to see them in real life is creepy.  It's individuals, stripped of their individuality.

But when you are somebody in a uniform, it is not that at all.  It becomes individuals in character or individuals playing dress-up.  It's like, despite all dressing the same, they are their own people.  Although some people do have a sense of camaraderie, others are linked by nothing more than their clothes.

Uniforms are an interesting tool to play with.  It is certainly easier to do in a visual medium, but not impossible.  In prose, you either gloss over them or focus on their differences.  Still, though, that is one of the angles to explore: the differences within the uniforms (and people wearing them).  Other angles may include individuality within the uniform, power of the uniform, weakness of the uniform, uniform versus uniform, uniform versus non-uniform, and so on.

A lot can be done just by playing with any one of those.  Now go out and do it.

You Always Have Something To Say

Starting this blog, I was never out of things to talk about.  And, almost 650 posts later, I am still not out.  Some days are a bigger struggle than other, but they keep getting posted.  It has led me to a conclusion I suspected when I first started.

You always have something to say.  This blog is focused on writing (at least to the degree that I can stay focused) and even still I always have something to say.  If you wanted to talk about anything you wanted, you could easily do it every day for the rest of your life.

So, what's stopping you?  Share a thought.  Maybe take one of the deeper ones and elaborate on it.  Take the idea and tell us what made you think about it.  Try making up another situation where that could take place and somebody else would have that same thought.  Bam.  You just wrote out a nice story right there.

And maybe you never want to elaborate on or develop your thoughts into full stories.  Fine.  Do something else you enjoy.  But you can always write and you always have something to write about. So go do it.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

What Changed?

When things don't change, nothing changes.  I know, big no duh.  But it is important to consider.  Cycles are continuous.  They don't change until something affects them.

If you had the same breakfast every day for a month, why would you have a different one?  There's no reason to.  The only reason to change your breakfast would be for something to knock you out of that cycle.

Any time that things are different than they were, something changed.   The important question is: What changed?  Did you get bored?  Did you get a better opportunity?  Did you run out of resources? Something effected this change; find out what.

This applies to both your characters and yourself.  For your characters, realize that all conflict comes from a source.  If you can identify the source of those problems, you can understand what motivates them and how you they can be understood and/or manipulated.

For yourself, keep it as a check of homeostasis.  Are things different for you?  Are you sleeping the same, eating the same, thinking the same thoughts?  If not, what changed?  Is it an ok thing, or is it a bad thing?  If it is bad, what can you do to affect your surroundings to make things more as they should be?

Thursday, November 4, 2010


I had a personally profound experience a while ago, one which I am still thinking about.  I was sitting around, thinking about the word 'crux'.  It's such an odd word; it holds much power in its meaning, but sounds so very odd to our ears.

The only time we use it is in the phrase "the crux of the argument", which is the single thing that holds the entire structure together.  Without a crux, everything falls apart.

I started playing around with the forms that 'crux' could take.  I came up with its adjectival form: cruxial.  That is when all of the gears started turning in my head.  I thought about my studies of linguistics, about how language changes and the specific ways that English has evolved.

'Cruxial' is not a word, even though it should be.  So what would it have become?  X's become softer, becoming S's of some sort.  It would become 'crusial'.  Or maybe. . .crucial!  Of course!  'Crux' becomes 'crucial'.  It all makes sense.  If something is crucial, then it is absolutely necessary.  If a crucial thing is missing, then the entire structure it was built on falls apart.

Although I do find language evolution interesting, I also find it frustrating.  We are so disconnected from our language's roots that we have no idea that crux and crucial are two forms of the exact same word.  Sure, I know how to use both of the words in sentences.  I know how to define both of those words, but still was totally unaware of their relationship.

Though it bothers me that I have to sit down to think about words just to understand them, I am glad that I do sit down and think about words.  I love discovering these connections that are right in front of us that we never realize for the longest time.

What have you discovered recently?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

If Nobody Was Around, How Would You Solve Your Problem?

I am a firm believer in asking questions.  There is no point wasting time and energy on a problem that can be easily solved by somebody else's experience or expertise.  Sometimes, though, there are no other people.  What do you do then?

As helpful as other people are, you can't become dependent upon them.  When all you have is yourself, will you wallow in self-pity or solve your own problems?

Take the rational approach.  What is your problem?  Is it finding the right words?  Is it conveying a particular idea or image?  Is it determining the format through which to tell the story?

Once you do that, come up with a bunch of answers.  Come up with good ones and bad ones.  When you have bad ones, explain why they are bad and what is specifically wrong with them.  When you have good ones, explain why they are good.  Play with these ideas until the right answer appears.  You may figure it out like solving a puzzle or it may dawn on you like it taps you on the shoulder and says hi.

You can solve your problems.  You're smart enough to do it.  Other people may help you solve them faster, but you can always rely on yourself.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

What's In A Name

How come Harry Potter was named Harry Potter and not Victor Steele?  Would you believe that somebody named Victor Steele lives under a stair case, gets abused by his caretakers, and is both feared and despised by countless others?  Of course not.

We treat different names differently.  Victor Steele is one of the most powerful names that is a real name.  Victor means winner and Steele is a well-know, quite strong metal (just with an extra e at the end).  It is a name of an extraordinary hero, somebody who was born to lead and was doing so since he could walk.

Harry Potter is a meek, mild name.  Harry is a nickname and Potter reminds us either of sculptures or plants, neither of which being particularly masculine in our culture.  However, it is not something silly or sad.  It is much stronger than Willy Loman (low man).  Harry Potter is the kind of name that could be powerful.  It could grow strong, even if it is not automatically strong.  It has just enough give to go from one side to the other.

What's in a name matters.  A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but few people would want to smell them if they were called pricky fart buds.  It is a subtle, but significant aspect of writing that is just as important to a character as their clothes, word choice, and views of people in general.

Pay attention to names.  Make them useful.  You don't need to give them hidden meanings.  Just give them the right sound and power for what you want your characters to be.

Better At, Not Better Than

I love my writing peers.  We get along well.  We are the right combination of serious and jocular.  We have a lot of similarities in our abilities and styles, but we certainly have our differences.  We have different subtleties, strengths.

None of them are better than me.  I am better than none of them, either.  Some are better at sarcasm.  Some are better at snark. Some are better at slice of life.  I am better at puns.

No matter how our strengths and specialties are split, we are all better at something.  Even if another person is better at several more things, they are not better than you, simply better at different things.

Sometimes you may feel the opposite.  When you hit a rough spot and you look to your peers, it may seem that they are better than you.  Trust me that they feel the exact same way about you.