Saturday, December 31, 2011

Clear Your Head

People often make bad decisions when they are in a bad mood. They are overwhelmed by their emotions and their thoughts. They are so convinced that what they want to say is something that needs to be said. So they work themselves up and say how they really feel.

There's a couple problems with that. The first is that it isn't how they "really feel". They're just saying how they feel at the moment. The second problem is that the next day, they don't feel that way anymore, but what they said (or wrote) is still dangling out there, lingering in the minds of those who heard (or read) it.

When you communicate, your name is attached. Sure, people may use pseudonyms, but it can always be traced back to you. Be careful what you write. You may feel one way now, but you may change your mind later. However, once damage has been done, it's not so easy to recover.

Clear your head. Do something to calm down. Go for a run. Take a shower. Solve a puzzle. When you are not worked up and you are feeling more rational. Look at what you wanted to write, then see if you still think it's a good idea.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Style vs. Gimmick

I hate the repetitive. (And since most people would write that sentence five times in a row for a cheap laugh, I'm going to not do that and keep on going.)

When you read enough and you pay attention to what you're reading, you find how similar it all is. You start seeing the same stories, the same jokes, the same styles. For me, it gets irritating.

I hate essayists. They are the most gimmicky writers I regularly come across. Nearly every essay I read follows the exact same format:
  • Some mundane scene from my life was occurring.
  • My mind started wandering to some abstract subject.
  • I elaborate on that abstract subject, working it into a principle or lesson that can be applied to many aspects of life.
  • I return to that mundane scene and apply the lesson I just learned from my abstract thoughts.
  • Everything ties together and there is a touching, usually heartwarming scene to cap it off.
But the arguer in me then asks the question: What's the difference between a gimmick and a style? How come it is laudable to have an identifiable style of writing, but shameful to rely on a gimmick in writing?

This is not an easy question to answer. I do not quite have concrete answers yet. But it is a subject I don't want to wait to cover. To me, a style is the collection of principles used to string words together. It is about the melody, rhythm, and weight of words. It is about the kind of words that are chosen and how many of them are in a sentence. (The way I use parentheses, the way I group sentences into paragraphs, and the way I always make lists of three things are all part of my style.)

A gimmick, on the other hand, is a specific trick. It's something that always seems to work, and so it is reused. That format for writing essays is a great example. It is a compelling way to tell a story and teach a lesson. It starts with action, with a concrete scene. It gives people a way to emotionally connect. It wanders into the abstract, but by then, the audience is already into it and it is natural. After a journey through the abstract, we return to the concrete so that we remember where we came from, had a safe landing, plus we get to see that our trip was fruitful because we see that same scene in a new light.

The problem is that, once you are aware of that format, the veil falls and you recognize it as nothing roe than a gimmick. It is a canned trick which can be opened and used at any time.

I admit, there are only so many ways to write an essay. I'm sure that mine repeat the same styles over and over again (at 1000+, it's basically a guarantee). But I try to keep things varied. Sometimes I dive into the abstract and stay there. Sometimes I just tell a story and tack a lesson on at the end. Mostly, I'm doing it so that I don't get bored writing these things.

Ultimately, writing will always be about entertainment first. Gimmicks are effective when used lightly. They got famous for a reason: they work. But there is an illusion in writing. And if you show the same illusion over and over again, people are going to figure out how it works. Then the illusion is broken and you are suddenly boring (and you also ruined it for anyone else who ever wanted to use it).

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Half vs.Twain

I really don't like it when people use the word "half". It is used improperly so often that I now assume that people are using it incorrectly.

"Half" is a very specific term. It means that a whole is split into two equal parts. If the two pieces are not equal, then the object was not split in half; it was split in twain (or in two).

This is more often a colloquial issue than a written one. I find that when people are vocally telling a story, they are more likely to say that they ripped or cut something in half, even if it is inaccurate.

This is one of the things that makes me love the English language, but frustrates me in its use. It is wonderful to have a distinction between half and twain. But if they are used interchangeably, then the distinction is lost. English becomes simpler, but requires more words to express an idea (which thus adds a kind of difficulty).

As always, I ask that you be exact with your words. Choose words that say what you mean. The most effective communication is the one that requires no guessing or inferring to understand what is meant. That should always be your top priority.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Dark Matters

Quite often, the subjects I write about here are the ones on my mind as I sit down to write my post. I kind of like it that way; it really proves that we always have one new thing we can talk about every day. But the key word there is "new".

If I ever cover a concept multiple times, I am approaching it from new angles and with new perspectives. I do not write about the same subject over and over again. But that doesn't mean that I don't have the same thoughts over and over again.

During the shower I took just before writing this post, I came up with three well-formed ideas to write on. When I sat down, they were all gone. After some thinking, I remembered one of them (my knack for holding onto critical phrases is improving, but leaves much to be desired).

If I wrote about "forgetting ideas" every time I sat down and realized that I had forgotten the idea I was planning to write about, that would be a good chunk of my posts. Along with that, I would become stale and annoying rather quickly.

But the point remains: it happens to me. It happens often. It is usually on my mind. Despite that, I rarely talk about it. As a writer, I communicate things that matter. That largely means that you don't repeat yourself. You only bring up old matters when you have something significant to add to them.

Because of that, so many thoughts are like dark matter: they exist and they affect us and the things around us, but light does not get shined upon them. This is a tricky aspect to tackle when you write. It is important to understand what is going on in people's heads. If they act and we don't know why, we can't relate. Then we will be confused and will reject that character. But if we keep getting the same descriptions and the same thoughts, we will get bored and angry and again will reject the character.

The best advice I have is to develop with a theme. A neat freak who only ever freaks out about things "being dirty" is boring. But imagine how many different ways that person's sense of order can be shattered. Talk about the specifics. Come up with creative ways to make things chaotic. Now you will be able to cover the same thoughts and issues, but keep them new and interesting.

It occurs to me that this advice is the same as the one I mentioned with my blog posts: approach it from a new angle. Bring new light to the subject. As long as it's truly different, it remains worthwhile.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Thoughts At The Book Stores

I was in a Barnes & Noble recently. I was looking at a book that seemed interesting, then figured I would go online and buy it for significantly less money. Then I felt a little bad. I couldn't help but think about how I'm the reason that stores like this are closing down.

Then I saw the section labeled Paranormal Romance. And sure enough, the shelves were stocked with an assortment of girl-on-vampire and other stories that were painfully and tragically ripped off of Twilight. And at that point, I started thinking that maybe these stores deserved to close down.

They're businesses. They need to make money. But that means they need to cater to the people. If they offer crap, don't buy it. You are part of "the people".

Be wary, though. The world will be shaped by your actions, not your desires. If you do not buy from local stores, then you are actively making the world a place without book stores. But if book stores are now offering Paranormal Romance, it may not be such a bad thing.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Don't Let Setbacks Spiral

I have not had much motivation to write these posts lately. It pretty much corresponds to when my hard drive crashed. Without going into too much detail, my primary hard drive was wiped out and my back-up hard drive crashed, so I kind of lost everything.

Fortunately, my very old files (things from college and before) were saved on an external hard drive, and I had coincidentally emailed basically all of my story ideas and drafts not terribly long ago, so not all is lost here.

Not everything is as it was, though. First of all, one of the documents I do not have anymore is my list of blog post ideas. I know there were a lot of things I wanted to do with them, and they are all gone. Sure, there is always more I can say. And sure, I am used to ideas coming and going just because I didn't write them down in the first place. But this is psychological. And the psychological damage has been done.

When I get ready to write a post, my habit is to open up the idea list, and now I don't have one. It makes me depressed. It makes me uninspired. It makes me want to go on vacation until I'm not uninspired.

But that is literally the worst thing I could do. When you have a setback, it is exactly that. It sets you back. It does not permanently destroy you. So don't act like it does. If one bad thing happens to you, don't let it become a downward spiral of depression. Chill out, take a deep breath, maybe a hot shower, and write one thing.

It doesn't have to be the best thing ever. It doesn't even have to be great. It just has to be written. It's the only surefire way to end the cycle.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Seething Bile

Sometimes I love the explanations I come up with. I had used 'vitriolic' in a sentence and was asked what that meant. I said, "If 'seething' and 'bile' had a child, it would be 'vitriolic'."  (I would have called this post "Vitriol", but I used that one like 2 years ago.)

I think that one of the reasons my vocabulary is so rich is that I think of words as combinations of other words. It's like a thesaurus, but with a twist. If I need to express a feeling, but I don't have the exact word I need, I can think of the components, mix them together, and they become the word that encompasses all those qualities.

Of course, you need to learn these words in the first place, and nothing is better than exposure. Even if it's something as crazy as thumbing through a dictionary or using those online flashcards, it is worthwhile. "Seething bile" is an excellent phrase; it totally is worthy on its own merit. But if you are writing something that has a certain rhythm and the phrase doesn't fit well, "vitriol" might fit better.

It's a great example of high-level writing. Stuff like "awkward phrases" may not matter to some people, but they affect the audience. Having synonyms in your pocket, even for phrases that are not terribly common, is always a good thing. You may be able to make an effective sentence significantly more potent by having it slide off the tongue right when you want it to. Getting everything to line up perfect is not easy. (Sometimes it seems impossible.) But the more ways you can say something, the more ways you can rearrange words, the more tools you have in your chest, the more likely it will be easier for you.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Make Your Narration Match Your Dialogue

I find it amusing when we struggle so hard to maintain standard written English in our prose, but then our characters break all the rules. You either end up having a cast of characters all speaking very formally, or you have dialogue that is so vastly different from narration that it is jolting.

I thought of a character who was a bit touched in the head and didn't quite grasp the language vehemently expressing, "I am not a children!" I found it pretty funny, but part of me also recognized how badly it would irritate people to see such a sentence glaring at them.

I think, though, that of the narration of the story was familiar or colloquial, the statement would be less jarring. You could use proper spelling and punctuation and grammar, but if you wrote in a more laid back, less "proper" form, you could easily believe that a character would say such an odd-sounding phrase and not pay it too much mind (though not ignore it, either).

It is important to have the voice of your narration blend well with your characters. This is usually not an issue since they are both going to use your voice. But since you should be challenged to have characters that sound unique or at least be different from each other, then you should also challenge yourself to narrate well enough to fit.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

What Physics Is To Math

"Physics is to math what sex is to masturbation." -Richard Feynman

I love that quote. It's funny; it's cheeky; and it's true. Even more, when I first heard it, it made me think.

Math is a beautiful subject when you're in the right mindset. Mathematics is where you learn how and why things work. It exists in empirical purity. Math sees numbers as a seamless fluid where two totally different-looking things can be seen as exactly the same, merely rearranged.

The problem with math is that the knowledge itself is useless. Mathematics is ethereal. It is only of value when it is used in the real world. That is where physics comes in. Physics is the application of math. It's where all the imperfect things come into play and we have to deal with them, but if you have a sufficient knowledge in math, your physics will be far easier.

I bring this up because I was thinking about rhetoric. It is a wonderful subject, but very difficult to explain. I have usually described it as "writing theory". Rhetoric is the subject you study to understand how and why writing (really, communication of any form) works.

Tonight, I realized that this is the exact same relationship as math and physics. And it made me excited. Writing is also a truly beautiful thing. Learning the theory behind it is incredibly useful, and is incredibly difficult to learn (partly because of the lack of great teachers in the subject). But no matter how much you learn about the theory of writing, it is useless if you do not apply it to the real world. Make something that will affect people.

If you don't apply theory to practice, then the only thing you have to offer is teaching other people unpracticed theory.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

On Experiences

I was thinking about a time when an old friend came to visit me recently. He was passing through Buffalo on business and we hung out over night. We both like house music, so we went out to a club. They had live DJs playing and it was a total blast. I could write an excessively long chapter in a memoir based on that experience at the club, and we spent all of four hours there.

Four hours. That's it. But in those four hours, so much happened, all at once or one after another, that it was more experiences than the vast majority of my ho-hum life before or after it. This is an experience that I will remember for a long time and will draw from.

This actually leads into another observation (actually, one I made quite some time before). Some people sound like they have incredible lives, rife with action, hilarity, drama, etc. Thy have seemingly unending stories that make you wonder what the hell you've been doing that you are not as interesting. But, those stories are not unending. The stories do finish and the number of them is finite. And, if you listen to somebody long enough, you start to see that their life is just a collection of experiences, not unlike your own.

As I said, I draw from my experiences. As I also said, I could write a memoir chapter just in detailing the events of a single night. Imagine what could be done by infusing the essence of this experience into my writing. What stories could I tell? What characters could I create? (I don't expect you to know the answer because you weren't there, but I do invite you to hypothesize.)

So what are your experiences? How much can you say about a single experience if you tried, and how much real-world time did it take to actually experience it? How can you use these experiences to influence or inspire your writing without directly writing down your experiences?

Monday, December 19, 2011

Grand Works

There are a lot of smart people out there. More people are clever and come up with funny or truly impressive things than you might think. But so much of what we see is bite-sized. It's one amazing video or song or picture. One great joke.

I feel like, even if you do something amazing enough to be noticed, how do you do something amazing enough to gain followers? Small things can gain some notoriety. You can get a nice spike of attention (the proverbial 15 minutes of fame), but it always dies down.

The only answer I have so far is to create grand works. Make a large-scale project. Make something that keeps on going. It should be approachable, something you can show to the public, something you can offer in bite-sized chunks, but which are part of a greater whole, and which you need to keep coming back to get more of.

Coincidentally, Cheff Salad does this to a degree. Every post stands on its own, but reading through the blog is a serious feat, and you always know that there will be another one to read come tomorrow.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Shit Happens

There is no denying the fact: Shit happens. It just does. If you're lucky, it doesn't happen too terribly often. If you're unlucky, everybody will try to find some way to make it seem like a good thing.

The reality is that shit is shitty. (Yes, yes, I know, I'm the most eloquent linguist known in all the cosmos.) Sometimes terrible things happen. If we are strong, we pick ourselves up; we repair what is damaged and replace what has been lost. If we are weak, we give up; we either lie in the ruins or we leave those pieces on the ground and slink away without them.

What people define as "shit" is all relative. It can be something as trivial as dropping a candy bar on the ground, or as serious as losing the function of your limbs. The point is not to think of it as a pissing contest. There are no winners in tragedy. The point is to understand how it functions, how it affects people, how it affects you, and how you can affect others because of it.

Innate Abilities

I have an innate ability. (I actually have quite a few, but I'm focusing on one in particular.) I can change the way I see any person. And I do not mean this in an underwhelming manner. I mean that, no matter how I feel about a person or how I would naturally react to them, I can rewire my default programming. This means that I don't have to pretend to treat somebody a certain way; I will legitimately treat them in a way that I choose.

It still sounds like a stupid power, but when you have to deal with people regularly and in close quarters, it is invaluable. Instead of seeing somebody as an obnoxious tool, for example, I can rewrite him into a misunderstood victim of poor upbringing (which is way more palatable than somebody choosing to be a jerk).

Here's the thing though. It's not an innate ability. It's a trained ability. I simply happen to have trained it over a decade ago and don't think about it much.

For me, if I realize that I can't stand or can't handle somebody, the process starts up and in 1-3 days, I suddenly see them in a different light. But the reality is that I am putting forth a great deal of unconscious effort and that it has taken me a long time to be able to do that. I forget that reality because it has been so long since I had to work that hard at it, that I don't think about it anymore.

Nobody is born knowing how to walk. Nobody is born knowing how to do math. I know there is much to be said about Nature vs. Nurture, but I steadfastly believe that all of our abilities are learned and practiced; they are not innate.

Writing is hard. It takes a vast amount of knowledge about a wide array of subjects. If you have started learning some of those things while you were young (e.g. spelling/grammar, vocabulary, melody, rhythm), you are at a tremendous advantage. But even if you are at the worst disadvantage possible, you are still able to write and you are still able to write well. You will have to want it very badly in order to do what is needed to catch up, but you will be better for it. If you're lucky, you may never forget how much effort you spent to gain those abilities.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

On Time

I came across this Einstein quote recently: “When you are courting a nice girl an hour seems like a second. When you sit on a red-hot cinder a second seems like an hour. That's relativity.”

Time is a strange thing to me. It is fluid. It is constantly flowing, and yet it feels so inconsistent. I always wake up within 2 minutes of my alarm, no matter what time I set my alarm for, no matter how long I have been sleeping. No matter what, my brain knows when I told it to wake up, even without the aid of any time piece.

If I set a microwave for any period of time, I always come back in under 5 seconds before it goes off. It's the same deal, just working on a smaller scale, and while conscious.

On my 30-minute lunch break, I somehow don't even get started writing on the blog until it is two-thirds over. I still have no idea where all that time went. I expected another 20 minutes to pass while writing this post, and yet somehow it's been only 6 minutes and I am nearly finished. (Yet, tomorrow, the same amount of words may take me four times longer to write.)

Time is a strange thing to me. And yet, perhaps because I am so aware of it, I have grasped some amount of control over it. When it matters, I take it into my hands. When it doesn't matter, I let it take over. It seems a fair balance and, though it can be disorienting at times, it is a method of operation which has treated me well.

Ease Of Creation

Due to severe technical difficulties, I am writing this post on my phone. I do appreciate having a keyboard. Heck, I appreciate having a phone that I can update my blog on. But it is nowhere near as easy as my keyboard.

Creativity is a pretty fast thing. Once you get started, the mind races and the body has to keep up. If it takes you too long to record your thoughts, you either will lose much of them by falling behind, or you won't even start in the first place.

Different people have different preferences. Some handwrite; some type; some speak. Within those three, there are different ways of doing each. Find the way that gives you the greatest ease of creation.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Danger of Utilitarianism

I wanted to follow up on yesterday's post about utilitarianism. It is a good method and I find it to be an effective one, but I must warn that it comes with a risk.

You are always asking yourself, "what purpose does this serve?" Well, that's not an easy question sometimes. You start asking that question enough times and you begin to wonder what purpose writing serves (or why "entertaining/educating other people" matters). Then you start asking why anything matters. Then you start asking why life matters.

Then you find yourself in a vortex of depression (or any other number of mental problems). It will take some tremendous force to snap you out of it, and there is a chance you may be scarred from the experience permanently.

If you are a utilitarian or are thinking about trying it on for size, try to approach it as a methodology and not an ideology. Solve a problem as a utilitarian, but don't approach life as one.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011


I was trying to think about what to write tonight. As usual, so many ideas that come to me are gone. I have bits and pieces of them. I know the gist of the idea I had, but they were only bits and pieces.

At that point, I gained a new idea to write about: If you have an incomplete idea, you are not better off than having no idea. Incomplete ideas cannot stand on their own, and you never reclaim the idea you once had in its original form.

But in articulating that idea, I realized that not everybody would agree with me. It was my personal belief, my way of doing things that makes me say that half an idea is worthless. I am a utilitarian. Function is everything to me. Grasping at a half-formed idea is a waste of my time. I either need to come up with an idea that I can work with or I need to pull one out of my list.

And, this post is proof positive of the effectiveness of utilitarianism. My original idea had something to do with the fact that I tried to start an argument but failed because everybody agreed with me. I still have no idea what the point of that was or how I intended on having it relate to writing. But by not worrying about it, letting it go, and looking for new thoughts to write on, I found something that worked.

At the end of the day, I had a task that needed to be completed. Because of utilitarianism, I did that.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

I Haven't Done That Yet?

I have a list of ideas for blog posts which I often refer to. Some of them are so old that I literally have no clue when they were entered. Somehow or another, something else keeps coming up. Maybe I got a more pressing idea, or maybe I just didn't feel like writing on that subject.

Sometimes, though, I see an idea in my list and I swear I've doe it before. But if its on my list, then it means I haven't. So I go through my archives and look through them for key words or phrases, and nothing turns up.

It is an odd feeling, being so sure that I have done something that I haven't. It must mean that I have thought about it so much, but put it off so often that I lost track of reality.

I am happy to have all of my blog posts recorded and very easily searchable. But still, it's scary how unreliable the mind is. If it isn't recorded externally, you should never be too confident that you have or haven't done something.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Return To The Moment

Ideas come to us when we are in a moment. You're busy doing one thing, your mind wanders, and suddenly you realize you're having a great idea. The one downside is that as soon as you realize that, you have left the moment. Now you're in your on head.

Usually, one of two things happens: you return to the moment but forge the idea, or you focus on the idea and lose the moment. There is a way around this, though.

Write your idea down. Yes, it is that same advice once again, but for a new reason. Keep your pen and paper on you. When the idea strikes, write it down, however many words it needs. The beauty is that you retain the idea, but because you know you have just saved it for later, it allows you to let go of the idea and return to the moment. Truly, it is the best of both worlds.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Accept the Insane

There is an amusing internet meme going around, based on the video game The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Every town has its own set of guards, but there is a fairly small pool of voices and canned statements that they make whenever you approach them. As such, they are often repeated.

One of the comments is, "I used to be an adventurer like you, then I took an arrow in the knee." As I played this game myself, I just sort of saw it as a flaw, or at least a limitation. There are only so many things you're going to have them say, so I guess it's better to keep those short in order to have an expansive world like it does.

But other people saw it a different way. They took it at face value. They realized that, according to what they were told, basically every single guard in the entire country of Skyrim used to be an adventurer, but took an arrow in the knee and had to give it up. This makes for a hilarious (or horrifying) world to be playing in.

Writers do not always catch their mistakes. Sometimes editors don't catch them either. And sometimes what one person might call a mistake, others might simply call an oversight or just not looking to deeply into something. In any case, it makes for an insane world. When you come across such insanity as a reader, it puts you in a unique position to decide how you will handle it.

I recommend you accept the insanity. Play along with it, even if you know it's not the case. It really does make for a more amusing time.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Legitimate Cliches

So, I got told "it's not you; it's me" today, and it was hilarious. And no, I'm not being sarcastic, I thought it was so funny I nearly laughed out loud. What made it so great was that it struck me on two levels.

The immediate reaction to it is: who the hell still uses that cliche anymore? But what made it extra ticklish was that the person who told me didn't even realize they had done it. In fact, the exact words were, "There is nothing in your control that prevented US... my situation did." Sure, you could argue the semantic differences, but the sentiment is the same.

After it stopped being so funny to me, I tried to answer my own question: who still uses that? And the answer (at least in this case) is that it is people who are not using it as a cliche. The wording was unique (or at least not standard). I knew that the sentiment was sincere. It was a cliche, but it was a legitimate cliche.

As writers, we are taught to avoid all the cliches. Avoid all the stereotypes. Avoid all the common imagery and phrases to go with it. It is a good idea, especially to budding creative minds. It forces them to create. Not only will they make new descriptions, but they will explore new concepts.

However, stereotypes exist for a reason, and phrases become cliche for the same reason: more often than not, they're true. The problem is that the words used to express the ideas become stale. That is why it is so crucial to learn how to say the same thing in a different way. It will allow you to talk about those powerful human subjects without sounding like every single other person who talks about powerful human subjects. And that is a power worth its weight in gold (assuming you ignore the fact that this power is intangible).

Friday, December 9, 2011


I don't think I have ever written the word "windowsill" in my life before a week ago (and barring this post, haven't written it since). Odd that I have used the word so many times, but never written it, and don't really recall reading it. Even odder was trying to spell it.

I had an idea of where to begin: "window". I was quite confident that I could spell that part of it. "Sill", though, was a bit tougher. Judging from the sound of it, I figured it was spelled in the same manner as "bill", "dill", "fill", "gill", "hill", "ill", "kill", "mill", "nill", "pill", "quill", "till", and "will". What I did not know was whether it was a single word or a two-word phrase. And if it was a single word, would there be two L's or one?

I had three reasonable guesses: "window sill", "windowsill", and "windowsil". At this point, I said screw it and typed it into Google. I found that both "window sill" and "windowsill" had plenty of hits. Dictionaries also had both variants listed, but it did seem that resources leaned toward "windowsill" as the primary form. As such, that is the one I used.

The point of this story is that there are a lot of words out there. There are a lot of words out there that you know and probably have never written or read. Just because you don't know how to spell them immediately does not mean you should avoid the word (it doesn't mean you should spell it incorrectly or trust spellcheck to catch it, either.) Use your understanding of the language to deduce what it should or could be. If that fails, go to the internet. It is a trusty tool. Just remember that, much like any tool, it will not be very helpful if you do not know how to use it properly.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Relatable Or Facinating, But Not Disgusting

I don't want to be disgusted. Somethings are totally disgusting, and I freely admit that, but in principle, that is a reaction I should not experience.

Everything should be either relatable or fascinating. I either need to view an experience as "ah yes, I know exactly what that feels like" or "wow, that is so strange that I cannot imagine how one could feel like that (but I want t find out)."

When you're disgusted, you are rejecting what you see. You deem it as something so terrible that you do not wish to taint yourself by being in its presence or in any way acknowledging it.

This is not conducive to being a good writer. Frankly, it's not conducive to being a good person. But let's stick with writing for now.

Writing is about exploration. It's about learning something, maybe learning a lot of somethings. It will involve handling stuff that's unpleasant.It goes with the territory. Create a mental barrier and dive in.

I do not in any way support abusive relationships. They're abominable. But they are so bizarre to me that I cannot help but seek an understanding of it. How can a person be so warped as to think that their relationship is healthy or that their abuser loves them? I don't know, but I really want to.

You may get weird looks from people when you tell them that you are studying an ugly thing (and people may not be happy if you write about them), but writing is not about making people happy at the cost of not learning.

Remember that you are not the subject you study. Remember that something fascinates you because you don't understand it, not because you want to embody it. Remember that if everything is relatable or fascinating, you will always be surrounded with good material to write about.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Only Regret It A Little

At 2 AM, I had a wheat bagel, covered it in off-brand Nutella, and topped it with home-made apple sauce. It was as delicious as it sounds. But, why the hell did I make this fairly big snack at so late at night? Aren't I going to bed soon? Isn't that a terrible idea?

Well, kinda, yeah. But I know two things about myself. One is that I take longer to get things done than I expect. The other is that it is way more unpleasant to go to bed on an empty stomach than a full one.

Now that it's some hours later, I can feel that my belly is full. Would I have been happier having made something lighter? Probably. Do I regret my choice? Only a little. It was a delicious thing that I created for the first time and I thoroughly enjoyed consuming it.

In our stories, we often paint things as either black or white. Doing bad things causes great regret. Doing good things causes great joy. But the interesting things are gray. What happens when somebody does something that is not good, but really isn't that bad? What the proper reaction to have? What judgement should we as the audience pass on said character?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

New Document

I was thinking about surveys. Specifically, I was thinking about how a great number of people I know are going to have to take them soon and where they are going to come from. There is no such thing as a default survey. There is a default survey format, but the questions are always going to be unique to the subject being discussed. That means it is probably going to be me who has to make those surveys.

At that point, I started thinking about how many documents I've made. Some have been trivial and some have been important, but all have been new. And I'm just one person. Imagine how many people are making new documents every single day.

It is stunning and beautiful to think of all of these new documents. It may be less beautiful when you think about how much of them are crap or utter nonsense, but ignore that for a moment and ponder the sheer quantity and scope of new documents being made.

Every single new document is a creation: something that exists now, which previously did not. It is an addition to the world. To be a part of that is a wonderful feeling. And no matter how big or small it may be, every time you open a new document, you are part of that, too.

Monday, December 5, 2011


The concept of monsters is fascinating to me. Monsters are creatures of pure evil who exist only to cause harm, destruction, and chaos.

Even wild animals would sooner be called beasts. Beasts, no matter how savage, can be soothed. They can be understood. They have feelings and struggle to survive. People may not like beasts, but at least if you leave them alone, they tend to leave you alone.

Monsters, though, have no emotions. The only ones they may feel are hate, spite, and malice. They are governed only by their desire to ruin things. They kill not to survive, but merely to end life. They attack things not because they feel threatened, but because a target to attack was noticed.

When you look at the way that the word 'monster' is used, you will see that it is for things which have no humanity and warrant no empathy or compassion. They are black holes, soulless demons.

Monsters exist in fairy tales because that is about the only place they can survive. Anywhere else, some one or something may seem monstrous (and some people may truly deserve that title), but they always maintain some shred of humanity. Things are alive. They struggle to survive. They have feelings and desires. These are characteristics that we should not ignore (otherwise you may be accused of being monstrous).

Of course, since writing is always about challenging authority, I would love to see somebody tell the story of a true, living monster.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Creativity With Ambiguity

As a rule, I hate ambiguity. I find it to be the representation of a flaw in the author's knowledge of his or her subject. Ambiguous language leads to confusion in audience members, and even when used purposefully like in a comedy of errors, it simply comes off as cheap and hackneyed.

Many rules, though, do get broken (especially when talking about what you can and can't do in writing). I have written recently about how annoying it is that the word "last" has two very common and very different meanings, which can make for very ambiguous and confusing sentences. However, it can also be used creatively and artistically.

In the Ben Folds song Annie Waits, part of the chorus goes, "Annie Waits for the last time / Just the same as the last time." This is a song about a woman who is consistently stood up by men, loses faith in it all, but keeps on going for the same kind of man, and thus getting the same results. I find those lyrics to be particularly poignant; they reinforce that the same thing keeps happening by using the same word, as well as what that word means. It is extremely creative and I applaud it.

Of course, if everybody used that turn of phrase, it would lose its efficacy, but since Ben Folds did it first (or at least most profoundly to me), it is amazing to me. It is proof positive that just because ambiguity (or ambiguous words) is bad in general does not mean that they cannot be used creatively.

Part of good writing is being able to find those loopholes, those creative ways to break the rules and be lauded for it.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

"Guess The Joke"

I hate sitcoms. I hate all of them with extreme prejudice. It is based on a very heavy formula which has remained unchanged in its core throughout time. It is a set of characters who act relatively normal and then have periodic bouts of being completely out of character.

Whenever I watch sitcoms, I play a game called "Guess the Joke". It is a game I created when I was a child and realized that even when watching an episode of any sitcom for the first time, I had nigh psychic powers in predicting when a joke was going to happen and what the joke would be.

Of course, I'm not psychic; I'm just observant. It's all formula. Characters act in a particular manner like any average Joe would. But then Somebody uses a word that's uncommon. They say a phrase that is out of the ordinary. Somebody responds to a stressful situation by saying something unnecessarily mean or somebody responds unreasonably harshly to a comment that was obviously not intended to be offensive (that is the basis of a similar game called Guess the Fight).

I've watched a great many sitcoms. I've watched them from different decades and about different subjects. But they all end up the same. I can forgive the fact that episodes are very often interchangeable. It's comedy, not drama. "At the end of the episode, everything's always right back to normal." But even within their format, there is a general lack of creativity, and that is what makes me so frustrated with them.

Structure is great. It allows for creativity within confines. The ultimate example of such is Dinosaur Comics. The same six panels for every single comic, and yet continuously new and interesting and funny. Sitcoms are the opposite. They are confines without creativity. They are the same tired premises and jokes day after day. It is a concept which should have potential, but consistently fails.

Writing is a serial act, so in a sense, you are always creating serial works (though they may have completely different characters, settings, premises, etc). Make sure that you keep doing something new. If you can recognize that you've used a certain trick or angle before, then it is definitely time to move on.

By the way. Guess the Joke is rather unofficial; there are no strict rules, but if you want to play along, the gist of it is that you announce in what the punchline of any joke is in the brief pause before the character says the joke. You get some points for correctly predicting when the joke is (e.g. if another line is said that isn't a punchline, you get no points) and then if they use the same joke or a close-enough variant, you get additional points. There is no way to win this game because you have to watch a sitcom to play and every time you are correct in predicting, you are driven further mad by reinforcing how pathetic and stale sitcom writing is. (I suppose you could turn it into a drinking game, but on behalf of your livers, I beg you not to.)

Friday, December 2, 2011

Mad Scientist

I think the Mad Scientist character is a fascinating one to study. Characters are people and, as such, are driven by some motivation to do what they do. There are two flavors of mad scientist we tend to see.

The first kind is the world-domination mad scientist. These are the people who create crazy inventions to either become rich or dominate the world. I find these characters comical at best and tragically brainless at worst. If you could create such amazing technology, you could obviously sell aspects of it to legally become rich. And if you wanted to take over the world, you're no better than a dog chasing a car. What would you do if you ever caught it?

The second kind of mad scientist is the knowledge-at-all-costs kind. Now these are your terrifying characters. Science is a pursuit of knowledge and understanding, but there are certain things we don't do because of our morals and such. The mad scientist cares not for the morals of man, but only about the pursuit and acquisition of knowledge.

The latter mad scientists are also scary because they are almost relatable. Knowledge is awesome. Understanding things is cool. And the next mind-blowing invention will never exist if we don't find out what is possible. We also know that a lot of things that society gets all uptight about can often be really stupid. And yet, mad scientists tend to cross the line that even we think is too far, but they don't have any regret or remorse because they don't think they went too far.

I sometimes catch myself wondering if I could have become a mad scientist under different circumstances. If that's not the most chilling thought, I don't know what is. (And if your story provoked that thought/chill, then you are a good writer.)

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Ambiguity vs. Mystery

There's a whole lot of information that just isn't known in a story. And when I am reading a person's story, I am always asking for that information. "What's the deal with his parents?" "Who did start the fire?" "What could have possibly instilled an irrational fear of cotton candy?"

I ask those questions within the first few chapters of a story and part of me is upset that I don't know right away. But nowadays I bite my tongue because I know that all those answers are coming. I will not talk about a story until I have read it through once. Stories involve a certain amount of mystery and the satisfaction comes later on when the mystery is solved.

Sometimes, though, the mystery is with the author. For example, I sometimes write a story and just can't decide what I want to be the truth. What history do I want my character to have? What exactly is her relationship to the other main character? Well, if I don't know, I leave it up in the air. I leave it for the readers to ponder and argue over.

But that is not mystery. That's just ambiguity. And I believe that ambiguity is a bad thing in writing. I find it to be a sign of weak and inferiorly constructed worlds.

When the audience doesn't know something, it's mystery. When the author doesn't know something, it's ambiguity.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Give Yourself Homework

Writing is a voluntary act. That's a great thing in general, doing something because you enjoy doing it. And yet, people seem to have a real issue with doing things voluntarily. We're so used to being forced to do things that anything that isn't a requirement keeps getting put off.

If that is your problem, then your fix is simple. Make writing an assignment. Give yourself homework.

Every time I go out to relax or have fun, I come up with several things I want to write about. If I go to a concert, all the free space on the program is filled with my notes.

But notes alone don't cut it. I've been writing notes for quite a while and I guarantee that plenty have gone unused. The difference between then and now is that now I have to cross them off my list. My to-do list stays in sight until I get to finish it and throw it out (and that achievement is really nice and worth the effort of completing).

And throughout it all, I have this blog. Cheff Salad is my homework. Or rather, it's my excuse. This is why I write regardless of my mood. This is why I take the time to write down my thoughts. This is why I do something with those thoughts. It started with somebody else pushing me into it, but it has been my self-enforced homework for years now.

And it is because of that homework that I am still a writer.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Leap Sideways

Suppose you are going to leap over a puddle of water and you are not quite sure you can make it. What you are certain of is that you need to get as much distance as you possibly can.

So, how do you do it? You get a bit of a running start (not more than a few steps), make sure your stronger foot steps down at the close edge of the puddle, and then leap forward across the puddle. But you don't continue to face forward. You turn your hips as you extend mid-leap; this pushes your body and your front foot ever so much further forward. You also throw your arms out to gain a little more momentum and a little wider stretch.

Although you think you're leaping forward, you're actually leaping sideways. And to an outside observer, you look pretty damn goofy. That's not how people leap in the movies. In movies, they look super cool and always stick their landings.

Well, this isn't the movies. This is real life. And in real life, success is way more important than looking good (or looking how other people think is good).

And what's the point here? The point is what I just said above: success is more important than looking good. Most writers have some particular way of doing things when they create. Some people find it very mystical and others simply have developed habits or preferences. But the common folk probably would see it as a weird or goofy way to do things. Don't worry about that. Worry about writing successfully. Because once you create something amazing, nobody will care how you looked while you made it.

Monday, November 28, 2011


Periodically, I need everybody to shut up and leave me alone.

Don't get me wrong. I do like the people in my life. They are very dear to me. But I'm introverted; I relax, calm down, and process stress through solitude.

I like to help people and I am happy that people come to me with their problems. But sometimes I have my own problems that I'm dealing with. And when everybody I know is having a bad day at the same time that I'm having a bad day, I need everybody to shut up and leave me alone.

This is a delicate endeavor, though. When you push people away, you run the risk that they don't come back (which is magnified when either party is in a stressed state). And if you push away somebody you like, you may find that it is even worse to be without them than it is to deal with them being overbearing.

I treat writing the same way that I treat people. Writing is a daily activity to me; it gets regular attention. However, some days i really just don't want to do it. On those days, I go to bed and don't even write a post. But I never want writing to be gone forever. That is why I always return and make up for the loss.

That is also why, on the days that I am so upset with writing that I contemplate ending this blog, I take extra special effort to write a post. I know that if I entertain that thought and push away writing, there is a chance it won't come back (or that it will take way longer than I want to wait for it to return).

If you love to write, then write. If you need to take a day or two off just for a break, that's ok. But if you're in a bad mood and you're overwhelmed, don't let those stresses make you choose a bad decision.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Last Time

I really hate the word "last". I still use it every day, but that doesn't make it less of a frustrating word. "Last" means both "final" and "previous". How is that not the most confusing (and therefore obnoxious) word?

Certainly, context clues tend to illuminate which meaning we intend, but the ambiguity still exists. In certain situations, it is not clear which definition is used, and can cause all sorts of head-scratching.

A reason to use "last" is that it is more common. Not that "previous" or "final" are uncommon words, but "last" is more colloquial. So I'm not saying to avoid the word, but to be very aware of how it might be interpreted.

If you're not careful, you may do something stupid like give your blog post a title that sounds as if you are ending it.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Side Quests

I was reading an article about Skyrim, a video game which allows the player to go anywhere they can reach in an open environment. The story of the game involves a main line of quests, where the player goes to different places and fetches items or kills bad guys. But along the way, you can talk to strangers, listen in on conversations, or just explore random caves or ruins and discover the journal of a long-dead explorer or bandit, any of which might start a quest aside from the main questline (a sidequest, if you will).

The article in full:
You know what I found odd while playing Skyrim? (Hold on) While playing, I would find myself starting a quest and ending with having more than what I began with. This excites me as I become more and more busy within the world of Tamirel. Now I thought to myself, "Heck, I have the main mission, brb peoplez," and went off to beat the game. Then I beat the game. Then I felt as if I did not feel like playing anymore. It's like the feeling of doing stuff before beating the game felt better than say...beating them after completing the main mission.

Nobody has that feeling too?

I've been thinking about this article the last several days, mostly because it's true. I am playing Skyrim and really do want to see the main story play through, but I keep putting it off, and I know that this is why. If I beat the main story, I am certain I'm going to end up being the big badass savior of the world for it. And once you reach that title, why am I going to go through the ranks of all the organizations, getting pushed around like some punk who doesn't know jack? Don't they know who I am?! (Of course not; they're just lines of computer code.)

But there's more to it, and I figured it out tonight. It goes along with what I said up above. And it actually comes down to storytelling. Games like this involve a certain amount of role-playing (hence being classified as an RPG, or role-playing game). You have to get into the story not just of the events around you, but of your character, too.

Prose stories involve sidequests of a sort. Something holds up the main characters from doing the main thing they have set out to do. But this is not done to be a waste of time or to fill blank pages. Side quests show the audience who these characters are. We learn what they might do and how they think. The characters themselves also grow by gaining experience and earning trust (or infamy) of the others.

I know that, when I am playing Skyrim, I will get around to saving he world after I have become the leader of all the groups, bought all the houses, helped all the citizens, and plundered all the gold and trinkets.

I will save the world when I care about the world. Or maybe, when I own a significant chunk of it. That's why we have side quests and not post quests.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Below Me

As a writer, you need to have pride. As a professional writer, it becomes even more crucial. Don't take "anything you can get". Have some standards. Have some self respect. Know that if you let people abuse you, they will continue to do so.

If you stand up for yourself, one of two things will happen. Either you will be hired at rates and with respect that you deserve, or they will try to find some other spineless writer to take advantage of. In the latter case, their work will probably be sub-par, which is what gives you the edge.

The beauty, though, is that, if every writer would simply say when some deal was below them, we wouldn't have this problem in the first place.

Next time somebody throws a lousy offer your way, stand up proud and strong and shout out, "Below me!"

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Story You Write Today

Ideas come and go. That's just the way things are. We try to combat that. We write those ideas down. We save their essence for us to return to later, when we have the time to handle them. But when that time does arrive, the idea isn't there.

That's why we have our notes though. We read them and it brings the idea back to us. But the idea isn't the same. You don't remember what you were going to say. You knew you had some good lines. You had a whole thought progression you wanted to take. But they aren't there anymore. You have words on paper. Now what?

Now what?! Now you write your story! It sucks you lost the spark. Having that feeling of inspiration along with that major motivation is awesome. But sometimes it just isn't there. Tough luck. You still have to write.

Here's the thing though. The story you were going to write a week ago is gone. You can't reclaim it. All you have is the story you write today. Do not try to reclaim those lost lines. They're lost. Make up new ones. You will. You always have something worth saying.

You may end up saying the same thing with different words. You may end up saying something completely different. I know I've done both of those things.

Writing is very much about the thoughts that come to you while you are putting down words. It may change from day to day, or even hour to hour. Maybe if you started writing at 9:00 instead of 10:00, you would have come up with a completely different story. There's no way to know for sure. But it doesn't matter. Write what you write. If you don't like it, change it. If you want to give it a second shot, do so. Writing is a serial act, so there's always a next time.

Writing Is A Serial Act

All of my advice is geared toward long-term writing. I always talk about what to try for your next project, your next idea, your next session. There's a reason for that: All writing is long-term writing.

Writing is a serial act. You do it some, then you do it some more. You finish one thing and you start another. Once you stop writing, you're not a writer, so the whole thing is predicated on their being a next thing.

If you prefer long narratives like novels, then you are mostly working on your next session. There are a lot more of them. If you prefer the poem or the short story, then you are more apt to be thinking about what to do for your next project.

However you do it, there's always more writing to do. You make more words. You change words you've already made. You try new ways of doing so. That's what it's about sometimes - just trying out a new way of doing it and seeing how you like it.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Retired Grammar Nazi

I used to be a pretty hardcore grammar nazi. I would correct people's spelling, syntax, and punctuation on the internet. I did it because it really did annoy me when I saw these mistakes that I knew were wrong. As I grew up, I realized that I saw "mistakes" that I "knew" were "wrong".

When I learned of linguistics, that languages are alive, that there is no strict continuity of the language between any two generations, then I knew that I didn't have a leg to stand on. People may not be using standard written English, but they were using a form of English (as long as it was mutually intelligible).

So, I retired. I hung up my hat and armband and changed my title to Word Nerd. Because that's what I am now. I am an enthusiast of words and languages. I am interested in grammar and structure. I love the malleability of English and enjoy playing with it the way I once enjoyed playing with Silly Putty. I have no desire to harangue others with "corrections".

I have no desire to, but some people still warrant my ire. People who are wrong are the main group. If you ever tell any person that "effect" is always a noun, and I am within earshot, I will correct you. If you fight with me, I will destroy you.

Language is fun. It has nearly limitless possibilities. But I wholeheartedly advise gaining a thorough grasp of the standard language. That will allow you to play with it and not break it. It will also allow you to avoid putting your foot deep in your mouth when you have an argument with a retired grammar nazi.

Monday, November 21, 2011

One In The Chamber

The best way to have energy for your next writing session is to finish your current writing session with an idea ready to go. That next scene, that next conversation, that next blog post. Sometimes I sit down and get ready to write and I am totally confident because I know that I need only glance at my notes and I will be able to fire away.

This isn't always easy to plan. Sometimes you have a writing session where you wrote everything out in your mind. That's ok; it means you got a lot of work done. But think about it as a fantastic tool to take on big projects.

It can be daunting knowing you have so many things to work on. But don't think about it in that way. Think of it as a bunch of small projects. Write each of those down. Work on one small project for each writing session. Every time you finish, you will have another one ready to go for the next day.

You may also spontaneously get an idea for something to write as soon as you sit down. That's fine. Go and work on this new, fresh, exciting idea. Know that you still have another writing project in the chamber for the day after that.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

It's About The Skeleton

Once again, I am going to contradict the post I just made. The flesh of a story is important for all the reasons I mentioned yesterday, but it is not something to rely on. When you rely on the same skeleton over and over again, only changing the specifics of the story for each iteration, you become tired and pigeonholed.

Stories that blow you away have remarkable actions. They are surprising things that were unexpected. They are decisions that are difficult to come do and have repercussions that are felt throughout people's lives.

When you watch a body-swap story like Freaky Friday, it isn't interesting; it's just another iteration. You can make one very child-friendly or another one very "adult" or one very violent and gory. But no matter what, it's the same story, and that makes it not terribly interesting.

A story like Inception, on the other hand, is brilliant. Of course it borrows concepts and ideas from predecessors, but the skeleton of the story was original. It was not terribly predictable. It had twists and turns and it was exciting because of that. The characterization was certainly part of the whole experience, but it was the actions and the layers that made the story.

The flesh of a story is important, but not if it comes at the expense of an interesting concept.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

It's About The Flesh

I wrote yesterday's post, unsurprisingly, because I recently had that experience - while having a random conversation at dinner, I heard a phrase that created an entire story in my head.

The phrase was "Piano in Alabama", which totally sounds like the name of a story for kids in middle school or high school to read. The story would open with a homeless man who is trying to sleep in the lobby of a ritzy hotel. The manager is going to kick him out, but the homeless man, sitting at the decorative piano, starts playing incredible music. The manager is blown away, and lets him stay the night, eventually leading to a job as a lobby piano player. Over time, we would learn about this man through his conversations with others in between playing piano, and he would rise in fame and popularity until he reaches his happy ending.

I think this could be an incredible story. But if I simply said that it was a story about a homeless guy who gets a job and does well, it sounds like a tired formula.

What I have right now is the skeleton of the story. I have the basic framework, the destinations and many stops along the way. What I do not have is the flesh. And that's what really matters.

This guy is homeless. Fine. But how did he get there? What was his childhood like? His family? When did he start living on the streets? What are his dreams? How did he learn to play piano so well? What kind of piano playing is he doing?

Those are the important questions to ask. The answers are going to create the specifics and the uniqueness to the story. Those are going to be what people remember and think about. They are going to be what makes the story excellent or piss poor.

Skeletons are important, but really it's about the flesh. Make sure that yours is enticing.

Friday, November 18, 2011

I Still Think About It

I have a mind like a steel trap: rusty and hard to open.

All kidding aside, memory is pretty lousy. I tend to remember inconsequential crap and never remember those gems of ideas. I have literally been on this website and gotten an amazing idea for a post and, by the time I pressed the New Post button and the page loaded, I lost the idea.

Every now and then, though, I actually retain an idea. Some stroke of genius comes to me and I can see the entire story presented to me. More miraculous though is that, the next day, I still have that story idea in my head, even though I didn't write it down.

Days go by and still I think of this story. It is a tenacious puppy, begging to get some fresh air. Of course, who am I to say no?

It is both a relief and an impetus when this happens. It relieves me that I do not have to grasp at straws for ideas, as is it also nice to know that it is not like holding sand, where it constantly slips away no matter how tightly I grip. It also means I have this drive to write. It is nudging me and saying, "Come on." It wants to see the light of day even more than I do.

If this happens to you, rejoice. But more importantly, do something about it!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Your Story Is A Chapter

Endings are always tricky things to me. It's so easy to have a premise and follow what actions happen naturally, but when does it end? In a sense, it doesn't. Unless you kill off all your characters or make the world end, they keep going on (and if you kill off your characters, other people's stories go on).

So how do you find an ending? What feels right? The simple answer is that it happens after the primary conflict has been resolved. But you don't finish the story at "And the bad guy was killed." Characters have to process what happened. They have to come down from the rush a bit.

Generally, I see stories end when characters have reclaimed their lives, gotten things back on track, and take their first steps into the next chapter of their lives.

And that's the key right there: it's a chapter in their lives. Stuff happened before and stuff happens afterward. Even if your story followed the life from birth to death of your character, then the same principle applies (the next chapter is other people's lives).

This idea is similar to when I talked about how a story's universe is bigger than any story told within it. A person's life is bigger and more complicated than the portion of it we see in your story.

As a writer, you have to know what happened before and after. This is common advice, but it never stops being crucial. If you don't know what happened to your character in the chapters preceding your story, then your story will be screwed up.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Making Fun vs. Finding Fun

I find that most people have a belief that good times reside in some random location. Once they find this location, they will be enjoying themselves instantly. These people don't say that this is their belief, but it's how they act.

I admit that sometimes it does seem like you go to the right place and just being there makes you feel better, but that's a rarity.

In reality, fun isn't something you find. Fun is something you make. You can go out or you can stay in. You can be with others or you can be alone. You choose which mood you're in. You decide that you're going to be hung up on some thing which keeps you being unhappy, or you decide to release all your cares and live in the moment.

I know many people who say that they write because writing makes them happy, and yet they are never capable of writing when they're upset. So writing makes them happy when they're already happy. That's silly.

If you enjoy writing in any way, it will make you happy. You have to choose to let it make you happy. You have to agree that you are going to start writing and create a world and lose yourself in this world and without even realizing it, you will become happier because of it.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Open For Interpretation

Since tonight is a double post, I want to stay on a single subject. Specifically, the last subject. My previous post was about how sometimes you can take one story and derive several lessons from it. This post is about a similar, but vastly different subject: interpretation.

Interpretation is what you think the lesson is. It's how you specifically react to a story. "The Giving Tree", for example, can be seen as a story whose lesson is that a true friend will give anything and everything because they want you to be happy. But it can also be seen as a perfect model of an abusive relationship where one person takes and takes and never appreciates the gifts, yet always asks for more, and the other side is so blinded or deluded that they will even allow themselves to be killed for the abuser.

With interpretation though, everybody is looking at the same thing. In "The Giving Tree", everybody read the same parts, saw the same actions and results. They see the relationship, but they have different beliefs on what that relationship is.

In the story I used in the previous post, the lessons came from different aspects of the story. One of them was about the quality of friendships increasing with fewer numbers. Another was about the difficulties in changing your identity.

Creating a story that is open for interpretation is not difficult. Usually, it simply requires less-than-thorough description. Show characters doing things, but don't have anybody expressly say why. Then it is for the readers to guess or assume why.

I have mixed feelings about such stories. Sometimes it can lead to incredible misunderstandings (which would be poor communication). Sometimes, though, it can lead to very interesting discussion points. It can lead to philosophy and questions. And if you are doing that, then maybe you are doing something worthwhile.

So Many Points

I told a story to my friend today. The short version is that, over the last several years, I have found myself keeping far fewer friends, and that although I felt bad about even being willing to turn people away, it has been a positive evolution because the friendships I do maintain are deeper and more meaningful.

So, what was the point of my story? That depends on who I'm telling it to and why. Today, I told it because my friend keeps too many lousy people in his life. My friend stretches himself too thin, so the point of my story is that everyone would be better off, himself included, if he would trim the fat and grow deeper relationships with fewer friends (including spending more time to grow those relationships).

I told the exact same story a couple days ago to a different friend. She was having an existential crisis because she could not cope with the idea that she is not the person she used to be. For her, the point of the story was that such crises are natural. People change. It comes with growing older. And usually, we are also growing up. I, too, am noticeably different from the person I once knew myself as, but I have come to realize that I am a better, happier, richer person for it.

This is, as it turns out, my most favorite kind of story: one with so many points. I enjoy a good fable which slaps you in the face with its sole lesson, but I much more prefer a story where there are several points. I love that I can draw upon one example to explain several concepts.

Writing such a story requires multiple things happening. It requires different fronts, different characters, simultaneous experiences. It usually requires the different aspects interacting and weaving together. Writing with so many points is dense writing. And dense writing is the best way to be succinct. (And if you know me at all, you know I think that's the best.)

Sunday, November 13, 2011


Objectification is used too narrowly these days. It is used exclusively with "women" in talking about how they are treated as a means for having sex. But there is so much more to it.

Objectification is presenting anything as an object. Consider how often a story has a protagonist meet a character who embodies their fear or their courage. These are objectifications. The same thing happens with the angel and devil sitting on a person's shoulder (objectifying morals and desires). When the Wizard of Oz gave the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion their gifts, those were also objectifications.

Even in terms of humanity, objectifying is more than sexual. When you think about how many people it would take to fill a swimming pool, you are objectifying them. They are no longer unique individuals, but blank slates whose sheer purpose is to be a tool to be counted and measured, but not examined.

"Evil corporations" are considered evil because they objectify us. They do not think of humans as people, but merely as numbers. How many people have to die before you recall your dangerous product? That is a question that is actually considered and answered by the "evil ones". (Of course, they lose court cases because the human victims tell their human stories to juries, who are sympathetic.)

Any time you think of a person in general, as a statistic or a number - any time that you think of a human being, but are not considering their life and feelings and experiences, you are objectifying that person. It is not an evil thing in itself (nor is it good in nature); it is why you objectify them and what you justify through your objectification that makes it good or evil.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

What's In A Name

When I am having a conversation with somebody, I do not need to use their name. They know who they are and they know I am talking to them. Still, I will use a person's name at times.

There are two primary reasons I use the name of the person I am talking to. The first is for punctuation. It catches their attention. If they are drifting or otherwise not at full attention, using their name snaps them into focus. I am talking to them. I'm not speaking metaphorically or theoretically. I am using their name so they know that I really am directing it at them.

The other reason I do it has nothing whatsoever to do with communication. Sometimes I really just like using a person's name. It sounds good to me. It feels good to say. It may not add to the conversation at all, but it makes me feel good.

As a writer, you have an obligation to your audience. You must communicate. You must intrigue. You ought to provoke thoughts. But, as a human being, you have to enjoy yourself. And there is no reason not to write things that also make you feel good. I always say that you should not ever add anything to your writing that lowers its quality. But there is no reason to leave something out if it doesn't hurt your writing and makes you happy.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Your Vocabulary And Your Voice

When reading other pieces of writing, I will sometimes have to look up a word. It may be that I have never seen the word before in my life, but it may also be that I simply don't know exactly what a word means and I want an exact definition.
I don't think my vocabulary is particularly great, but I bet that I use words from time to time that other people can't readily define.

Actually, I should clarify that. My vocabulary is tremendous in the sense of words I know. When it comes to words I use, it ain't so grand. I tend not to like needlessly complex words and most of my thoughts can be expressed in the basic ones that everybody knows.

There is use in distinguishing between your vocabulary and your voice. Your voice includes only part of your vocabulary.

In reading my friend's novel, I came across the word "wanly". I know the word. I have come across it. But I never use it. It doesn't strike me sweetly, nor do I find it particularly descriptive, so I personally let it go.

This is no slight to my friend though. Her voice is different. For her, it is a word worth using. When I read it, I had no problems with it. I simply would not choose to use it.

And it goes both ways. I'm sure that the word "cessation" does not appear in her prose very often, but I used it five days ago.

Young writers often struggle with "finding their voice." (And by "young", I mean in terms of writing experience.) Truly, don't worry about it. Your voice is a natural thing. It is what you choose to do unconsciously. You already have a voice. You will simply discover that one day when you realize yours is different from others.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Trash Bad Ideas

I very often write about whatever thoughts are on my mind. I write my draft, often doing only minor editing as I write, then post it without even giving it a once over (hence spelling errors and such). Despite all of this, I do have some semblance of quality control.

Tonight, I had an idea while I was out, so I wrote it down with my pen and paper (hence why they always come with me when I leave the house). But as I wrote my idea down, the arguments began. I took the other side and questioned all of the statements and assertions I put down.

Now, arguing with myself is standard operating procedure. If I don't fight my argument, I don't know that it's right. Tonight, I poked so many holes in my idea that I crossed the whole thing out. Underneath it, I wrote, "Trash bad ideas: I do have some quality control." And that is why I wrote this post tonight.

A thought: Bad ideas are not worthless. Were it not for the experience I had with the bad idea, I would not have had the good idea for today's post.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Lie Like A Fly With A Booger In Its Eye

In a very old episode of The Simpsons, there is a scene at the school where a girl says, "You lie like a fly with a booger in its eye!" It's funny. It's also kind of catchy. In fact, it's so catchy that I still remember it to this day.

I said it in a conversation today, at which point I noticed something I never considered before: 'lie', 'fly', and 'eye' all rhyme, but all use different letters to make the rhyming sound.

This is a perfect example of whether you want your writing read or heard. When you speak it, it rhymes and is catchy and amusing. When you read it, it comes off weird and gross (not to mention nonsensical).

Sometimes I have a turn of phrase or a good dialogue, but I realize that it is only funny when spoken (if you come up with as many puns as I do, it's a fairly common occurrence). It's not pleasant, but when I'm in that situation, I simply have to let it go. There is no way to force it without lowering the quality of your writing.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

I Changed My Subhead Again

Below "Cheff Salad" it currently reads, "Education and encouragement, in writing and in life." (I say this not because I think you didn't read it, but for those reading the archives in the future and my subhead being changed once again.)

On one hand, I could say that my focus keeps changing, so I change continue to change my subhead to reflect that.

On the other hand, I could say that my focus has not changed, but I am finding more accurate words to describe what it is.

On a third hand, I could say that I got bored or sick of my then subhead and decided to change it to something more palatable.

But, I don't have that many hands, so I'm going to assume it's a little bit from all of them.

I would go on to explain it, but I would like to think that it speaks for itself. If I'm wrong, let me know and I'll go ahead and explain it.

Monday, November 7, 2011

I Don't Know What You'll Get

I'm a pretty calm and collected dude, but I'm also fairly unstable. Let's be real: everybody is fairly unstable; this is not rare or surprising. Common though it may be, it is a good fact to be aware of.

When I wake up, I have no idea what mood I'm going to be in (well, I'm always grumpy in the morning, but after I really wake up). When I have a conversation with somebody, I don't know if I'm going to be very serious or if I'll be a total smartass (or if I'll be completely indifferent).

When I get an idea for a story, I don't know if it's going to be a comedy or a drama. I find that out when I'm writing it.

I sometimes entertain the idea of doing improv (comedy, poetry, or anything else). I generally dismiss it, though, because I know I'm not stable. If I go to a comedy club and improv a totally dramatic scene, people won't be too happy.

However, I really do find this to be a potentially beneficial quality. It means I'm diverse. I have a wide range. I won't be pigeon-holed. And even if I do tend to have my own predictable style, it is harder to predict which one of my styles I'm going to use.

I find it very important to keep things different and changing. In that sense, it's kind of nice that even my own reactions are a surprise to me. I am also aware, though, that I must be careful what situations I put myself in. And when I am in a situation where only one kind of response is acceptable, I use all my effort to hold back all of the unacceptable responses that come to mind.

Writing, though, is freedom. You just let it all come out. Make sense of it later. I don't know what you'll get. You don't know what you'll get, either. But no matter what, when you are putting words together, you will end up with something.

Sunday, November 6, 2011


When I'm ending a conversation with somebody, more often than not, I'll say "Peace." It's my favorite way to say goodbye.

"Peace" is a commonly known and accepted farewell. Because of that, it is readily received. But that is only half of the story.

Like so many other words and phrases, people usually don't think about them. They all have meanings, though. And "peace" isn't too difficult to figure out.

I really wish peace upon people. We all have struggles, difficulties, stresses. I would like for people to be able to handle those stresses and let go of their frustrations. I want people to be at peace, even if only momentarily.

Although I say it casually, I take care to say it when somebody is obviously on the frazzled side. If somebody comes to me and they're in a great mood, I don't need to wish peace upon them (though I still might).

People may not think about my intentions, but they can still be affected by them. Just hearing or reading the word "peace" may reach them subconsciously. It may spark them to start thinking about the word, thinking about the concept, realizing that it may be something they want.

And maybe nothing will happen. I don't know. Nothing is guaranteed, especially when it comes to humans and subtlety.

Still, this is why word choice matters. The difference between 'goodbye', 'farewell', 'peace', 'later', 'see you later', 'see ya later', 'catch ya later' and all the other phrases we have just for this one instance of human interaction (or cessation thereof) are minute, but still exist. Those are the fine points of your writing. They are the finishing touches (even though you may do it in your first draft or at the very end of your final polishing stage).

They are how you build atmosphere without looking like you're trying to build atmosphere (an incredibly handy skill for the succinct writer). You may do this with conscious effort or you may do it naturally. In either case, be aware of it.


Saturday, November 5, 2011

Genuine Human Response

I am reading a friend's unpublished novel. I have been deplorably slow in reading through a scant 200 pages. One day, I told my friend this and explained why. Part of it is that the unplanned parts of life got in the way, but more of it was that the book wasn't my cup of tea. Not a genre I cared for, etc.

Although I was told that I didn't have to keep reading, I knew I was going to. First of all, I said I was. Second, I like to read my friends' writings - the opportunity is not so frequent and I want to see what they have to say. Third, I have learned from experience with other friends' writings that I could totally have a story pegged wrong and get blown away if I kept reading. And I had to know if that would happen.

Tonight, I continued reading, and I got blown away.

One of the things that bothered me was that the cast was high school students and listening to high school problems is so ridiculous. But as I read one of those ridiculous situations, the paragraph that followed was the protagonist's reaction. And that reaction was powerful.

To an outsider looking in, relationships and all related drama sound like melodrama. But to the person experiencing it, it is their entire world. My friend expertly captured that. She used just the right words that caught my attention and made me feel. She described the reaction like a real human would react, like I myself would probably react. I had to keep going.

As I continued reading, real drama happened. Things got serious. They got exciting. I literally only stopped reading because it was 3 AM and I couldn't keep my eyes open.

Some of this was the author's doing. She made some crazy stuff happen that shook things up. But what was most compelling was the characters. They were real. I couldn't stop myself from thinking about how well people's thoughts and actions were like my own or like people I knew.

I speak often of our characters and the effort that we should put in to convey their reality. I sometimes forget what it is like to be a reader experiencing that (I read too much nonfiction nowadays, so prose fiction is special).

No matter how silly a situation may seem to you, the people in it see it as quite serious. As such, they have a genuine human reaction to it. That's what makes a story powerful.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Don't Reveal Your Secrets

I can sense the irony immediately reading the title of this post and realizing that this is a blog on writing, where I am purposefully revealing all of my secrets. Let me explain.

I was talking with a friend tonight and bantering. I made some comment to which my friend said, "That was funny!" Meanwhile, I was just dumbfounded. I didn't tell a joke. I simply made a comment like I would in any normal situation.

All I could say was, "Of course it was. I wasn't trying to be funny."

Flash forward two hours and I'm standing in the shower thinking, why did I admit that?! I could have just kept my mouth shut and looked brilliant.

That's when I thought about the saying that "a magician never reveals his secrets." And I felt like the kind of guy who does a trick and immediately shouts out, "Here's how I did it!"

Sometimes the audience just needs the experience. They don't need to know what's going on behind the scenes. Sometimes you get really excited about all of the inner workings. If you made them, you are very proud of them. And you want to share that pride by telling people. But not everybody will have the same appreciation.

Keep a little mystery involved. Let people wonder about you. Make it be a special thing when you reveal some unknown fact about your stories or your process. It makes you look better and it can make your work more enjoyable.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Double Posts, Single Subject

My rule here is one post per day. If I miss a day, no matter what the reason, I post two on the second day (or three on the third day if I miss two in a row). The point is that it evens out.

Although I hate to miss an update, some things are beyond my control. There is a bright side to it, though. I can make a double update on a single subject. Recently, I did a double post on voice. One was about your writer's voice, and the other was about your spoken voice.

They easily could stand alone, and I could have written them one day apart like usual, but since I had them and since I was going to do two posts, it seemed like a good idea to put them together. That way you could read these different facets of a subject at the same time.

Maybe not every cloud has a silver lining, but you can often make positive outcomes from negative situations. It also means there is never an excuse to stop writing, nor is there an excuse to feel bad about missing your update. Just means you have to keep it up.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Preconceived Notions

I call myself a scientist. I care about facts more than anything else. Without facts, the world is a horrifying mass of confusion. And the only way to acquire facts is though research, experimentation, and analyzing results. Generally, this process is known as the scientific method

I have been taught the scientific method throughout my schooling. It is always described the same way and it always bothers the crap out of me. The first step is always "Make a hypothesis." Hypotheses are stupid and worthless. In fact, they're worse than that; they're detrimental.

'Hypothesis' is a fancy term for 'preconceived notion' (which, admittedly, is also a fairly fancy term). In short, you walk into an experiment expecting a certain result. But when you do that, you start to see things in a way that supports your hypothesis. Basically, if you want to see a certain outcome bad enough, you will find that outcome.

Much writing is experimental. The point of an experiment is to find answers, so begin it by asking questions. What would happen if these two different people were in close quarters for an extended period of time? What would happen if a person with particular personality traits was placed in an unfamiliar setting?

You may have some thoughts come to you of possible results. These are preconceived notions. But they are thoughts, not assertions. Let them be and do your writing to find out what actually happens. Then you will be a proud scientist and probably a decent writer.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

I'm Not Talking About You

I wax philosophical. It's what I do. I will start talking in generalities because some particular concept is on my mind.

Now, regardless of what may have stimulated those thoughts, once I'm talking in generalities, I am not talking about you.

The point of generalities is that they can apply to countless people and situations. They are designed to make people think, to look around them and to look within.

What I may be saying could directly apply to you. It could make you feel very strongly that I am hinting or nudging. Ultimately, though, that's not the case. It isn't my style.

In a sense, you should think like generalities are aimed toward you (because you sould think about how they apply to you and your life), but act like they are not. You get all of the benefit with none of the pain.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Cheffing It Up A Thousand Times Over

This is post #1000 here at Cheff Salad. I truly had no intention of making a big deal of it, but then I did. I changed my mind because I was saying to myself that I was cheffing it up in cheff-field and calling my friend Franklyn Deleneau Cheffington.

For me, "cheff" is a nonsense word. It's fun to say. It sounds good. But it has zero meaning. I use it to fill space. I use it to say something when there is nothing to say. When I use it as a verb (e.g. cheffing it up), I am using it to mean that not much is going on.

That understanding is exactly why I named this blog Cheff Salad. I didn't have a better name. It had no significance and I couldn't publish an untitled blog. This was an experiment at best and a homework assignment at worst. The title was contemptuous.

Still, once I made it, I had no desire to change it. I kinda liked it. It kinda made me laugh (it still does). It was not pretentious nor was it lackadaisical. It was a title that was weird and off, much like the person who wrote it.

As time went on, the name became standard to me. The word stuck in my head and escaped my mouth more often. It was no longer a joke or a mocking. It was simply a thing that existed. That's pretty much where it stands now.

Maybe one day it will become an institution. Somebody will create a silly image of a "cheff salad" and I'll make it my logo and I'll go out and make sure that everybody reads my words (no doubt with the help of my loyal followers). But until that time, I will keep on writing and keep on letting those who find it enjoy it.

I started this blog for myself. I continue to update it for myself. I share it on the internet for everybody else. I do hope that people read it. I hope that they think and that they learn. I hope they are motivated. If I never wrote anything other than these posts, but they caused other people to create wonderful things, I would die a truly happy man.

I don't really have a specific end to this post because it is not an ending. It is merely a milestone. I will continue to write, continue to update, continue to encourage you. All you have to do is continue to read.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

How Easily Can You Enter A Story?

I hate to get into a series partway through (be it book, television, movie, video game, etc.). I always feel like I am going to miss out on major, important parts of the story. Invariably, though, I do start a series in the middle. What's interesting, though, is that I usually don't have that much trouble with it.

I can figure out who characters are, their relationships, their goals, their problems. It requires a bit of work at first, but once it's in place, it's not much different than if you had started it at the beginning.

Part of being able to do that is the understanding that there are certain requirements in a story (characters, setting, plot) and that if you can fill in those blanks, you're good to go. This functions just like in medias res, but it's not on purpose.

As an audience member, you sometimes get put into this situation, even if you don't intend to (think about every conversation you've walked into in the middle of). Rather than ask a million questions to try to orient yourself, just go with it and figure out as you go along.

As a writer, make sure that your story can be entered from any point. This generally doesn't require conscious effort as long as your story is focused and everything ties together at the end. But, if things do start getting convoluted, or if you keep changing perspectives, it is good to find ways to reorient your readers by slipping in references to what happened earlier so as to explain why people are doing what they're doing now.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Fashion vs. Function

It seemed a common saying amongst the pretty and popular: "Fashion over function." I hate that saying. I'm a utilitarian. I wear cargo pants because I need all those pockets for my stuff.

In retaliation, I have always said I believe in "Function over fashion." It's true. But people often misunderstand it.

It is not "function instead of fashion." It simply means that I choose utility first. If I can also look good while I do things, that's even better. Just because I want to carry a lot of things in pockets doesn't mean I have to look like a dork. I will, however, choose to look like a dork if it is the best way of satisfying my needs.

I have taken a similar stance on writing. Your stories need to be, first and foremost, effective. You need to be able to convey your thoughts such that your readers will understand them. If people have no idea what's going on, they can't care. After you are coherent, then you can be pretty. You can work on your phrasing, your word choice, all of that stuff that heightens the experience.

Part of the whole writing a quick first draft is that you will be constructing your functionality. Make your characters, your plot, your actions and interactions. You will be able to tell your story so that everybody knows what happens. Your subsequent drafts will be making those words fashionable.

If you put a dress and makeup on a pig, it's still a pig. If you put tattered rags on a gorgeous human, it will be a fashion trend. So try to make your stories interesting and compelling at their core. Then you can dress it up any way you please.

Pen AND Paper

For quite a while now, I have been carrying a pen with me wherever I go, but I never took any paper. Yes, I was aware that it was silly, but I somehow thought that I could get a piece of paper wherever I was. In fact, it is so not true that it is easier to find a pen than the paper to write on.

Tonight, I brought paper with me. I wrote down two tasks to accomplish (one of them being a reminder to do two updates today) and I came up with three ideas to write about (one of them being this blog post).

A pen is useless without paper (and ink in it and a surface to write on). A laptop is useless without power (and a writing program and functional parts). The real lesson is to realize that, for as simple as writing is, it still requires a number of parts, and without having them all, you simply can't do it.

Don't bring a pen with you if you don't have paper to write on. You don't need anything fancy, just functional.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Your Voice vs. "Your Voice"

One of the things I find incredibly odd is how thoroughly different a person's writing voice is from their spoken voice. And I mean that on two levels.

First off, written and spoken communication is similar, but always different. Writing is planned. No matter how quickly you write and how quickly you hit the send button, you have the chance to pick your words, a chance to edit your words. Most importantly, you get all the time you want to think about how you will respond before you even begin writing.

When you speak, you are on the spot. Silence is a major no-no. You don't get to edit cleanly. You may be able to edit by doing strikethroughs, but then everybody still sees your false starts. You have to say whatever is at the top of your head and the tip of your tongue and deal with the consequences.

The second level of this is that we assume that writers sound a certain way aurally or we simply never consider what they sound like in person. To see a writer and hear them talk can completely blow your mind. Somehow, their voice never matches what you thought it would be.

In both of these cases, there is really not a whole lot you can do about it. Just understand from both sides of the table (as audience member and as writer) that it will probably happen and roll with it.

Of course, in the case of written versus spoken communication, I highly recommend practicing both. Public speaking is an incredibly handy skill.