Monday, January 31, 2011

The List Of Things

We like lists.  We have them for doing chores like shopping or accomplishing tasks throughout a day.  We also have them to collect and organize things.  Sometimes we rank things with lists.

I don't keep a lot of lists, but I like to pretend as though I do.  When somebody tells me about vicious and deadly the komodo dragon is, I will say, "Petting a komodo dragon is on my list of things to not do."  When somebody says something endearing or amusing, I will tell them that "the list of things I like includes you."

I say it to be cute. It's a way to say a common thought in an uncommon way. (Hey, all of my previous teachers, look at me avoiding cliches.  That must be more beautiful than a sunrise.)  But there is actually benefit to this.  Making lists is a great way to organize thoughts, or come up with new ones.

Make lists.  Pull out some paper and actually write a list of things you like.  Write a list of things to not do.  If it was an exhaustive list, it would fill entire libraries.  There would be very generic things (avoid bears), and very specific things (don't spit in a bear's face in July after eating a very garlicky sandwich).  You will either get a good laugh, learn something about yourself, come up with a story idea, or some combination of the three.

New AND Exciting

What's the best way to break up the monotony?  Do something different, duh.  Find a new thing and spend some time.

The problem with that advice is that new things can still be boring.  I could go and watch a new movie, but still be thoroughly bored.  A movie may be new, but most likely, it is using the same characters, same relationships, same fake dangers and insignificant problems blown out of proportion.

Things need to be new and exciting.  If you don't care about it, don't waste your time on it.  Writers ought to read, but if a book is drivel, then toss it.  Sure, there is value in a bad book, but only if you care to learn from it.  If you don't care, you won't get anything from it.

When it's time for something new, do something new.  Just make it something worth your time.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Take The Best Negative You Can

When you take photographs with a film camera, you take a negative image.  When you print a photograph, you use that negative to make a positive print on photo paper.  When you work in the darkroom, you learn that there is a lot that goes into the process of making a photograph.  In fact, there are so many factors involved that, if you are not using an automated machine, it is impossible to make two prints from the same negative be exactly the same.

The nice thing is that it allows you to make a lot of choices.  You can change the sharpness, the contrast, you can modify sections of it to become lighter or darker.  Although it is all from the same image, you can make a series of photographs that look quite different from each other.

Having talked with film photographers, I have heard said, "my goal is to take the best negative I can."  The idea is that, if you start with the highest quality image, it will take the least amount of work to create high quality prints.  More importantly, it will also give you the most leeway to modify without lowering the quality of the image.

Writing works the same way.  Stories come from ideas.  Ideas come from observation.  If you are very well-aware of a subject and become well-researched on it, you will be able to make the highest quality story.  You will also be able to make your story go in any direction you want without degrading its quality.

When you are out in the world, pay attention.  A lot goes on in our periphery.  Give them more than a cursory glance and see what you glean from it.  How much better does your writing get when you're working with the best negative you can get?

Friday, January 28, 2011

A Good Blog Post Is A Good Essay

An essay is exploratory. It starts with an idea, handles it, studies it, and looks for a meaning to come from it. Although we usually think of an essay as simply writing down an idea we know and supporting or defending it, that is merely a side-effect of planning and drafting.

Think about the writing prompts you get.  Whether it be simple ones like, "Which month is your favorite and why",  or complex ones like, "How does the main character's relationship with his father affect his relationship with his son", they require equal amounts of thinking.

You can easily brush it off and write something plain and banal, or you can seriously ponder these questions, self-reflect, and discover the answer.  In the latter case, your essay is more discovering your findings than it is being a sterile collection of simple answers.

What is a blog?  It's a person's thoughts, recorded.  Some may be simple observations ("I like it when it rains."), and some may be deeper introspections ("I like it when it rains because. . .").  And a good blog post is a good essay.  You will be doing all the same thinking and exploring you would.  The only real difference is that we assume one to be written on paper and the other written on the infinite canvas.

If you want to write, but aren't sure of what, or if you are lacking the confidence to put it on paper, start a blog.  There is less pressure (despite it being on the internet, we feel like nobody is watching), and more freedom.  You can make a post be a paragraph or a page (or more if you're feeling adventurous).  And the writing you do for a blog is plain ol' writing.  If you can do a blog, you can do any form of writing.  Use it as a first step.  Then proceed from there.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Be Sincere And Heartfelt

One of my former classmates has started a blog, and I have started reading it.  There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that this woman is a writer.  She is doing little more than presenting her thoughts, feelings, and experiences, but they are engaging, entertaining, and provoking.

What I realize, though, is that it is this simplicity that gives her work power.  I am sure that she considers the things she writes and does some amount of editing or revising, but by and large, she is speaking her mind.  Her thoughts go on paper (well, digital paper), and there they stay.  And what better way to present passion and power than by presenting it raw to your readers?

Be sincere and heartfelt.  You will guarantee yourself to not be phony, which makes your words a breath of fresh air.  This doesn't mean your work will be pure gold straight from your mouth, but it does mean you have a great place to work from.

Writing is still an art, and it still needs to be crafted, but when you speak honestly, that honesty will ring through whatever words you end up with.  And that's some damn good writing.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Proper Grammar Is A Courtesy

People hate having their grammar corrected. And when you do correct somebody's grammar, the #1 response is, "I don't care what's right. You understood what I was saying."  And, you know what?  It's true.  I do understand what people are saying, or trying to say.  I can figure out typos, missing punctuation, incorrect word usage, and all the countless errors I come across in written language.  But I shouldn't have to.

Standard written English is a level playing field.  It is a common language that people of all dialects and classes can understand.  The more we see it, the deeper it is ingrained into our minds.  We can read and understand very quickly because we have guidelines that streamline the process.  When we deviate from the standards, it slows down and complicates the process.

The more errors there are in your writing, the longer it takes me to recognize an error, figure out what caused the error, what the likely intention was, and processing that information.  One missed keystroke here and there can make for a bumpy ride.  But several mistakes in each sentence will turn that ride into a crawl.

When you use proper grammar, you are being courteous to your readers.  You are saving them time and trouble from having to figure out what you meant to say, because you actually said what you meant.  On top of that, you are also helping yourself by making people happier and more willing to read your work, because of how simple the process is.  There's really no reason not to do it (except for being lazy).

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A Dab Will Do You

Ideally, we could spend hours a day, every day, writing.  We could pore over our ideas, dedicating a large percentage of our mental energy toward perfecting every detail, both in large and small scales.  Realistically,  the world is not very ideal.

Life has a nasty habit of getting in the way of us doing what we'd like.  Hours get lost, sucked away toward all of our other obligations.  We just can't get as much writing done as we ought to.  But, we can still get some done.

Write something.  Make it three paragraphs if that's all you can manage.  A dab will do you.  Consider it symbolic if you'd like.  It is an offering to say that you care, that even though you are not getting as much done as you'd like, you are still putting forth an effort because you care.

If you can muster up the energy to at least create a symbol of your dedication, it just might be enough to get you one more paragraph than you thought you were going to do.  And that's a slippery slope toward getting all the writing done that you wanted to do in the first place.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Worth It For The Story

A perfect life sounds pretty sweet.  Everything goes your way and there's smooth sailing from beginning to end.  I guess it would be nice to experience, but what do you have to talk about?  Sometimes it is nice to have a less-than-perfect experience just for the experience.

Sometimes it's worth it for the story.  It's great to be able to either commiserate with or one up people.  A lousy experience can be a source of comedy.  It could also be a means by which you can connect with other people, having a common experience.

It's pretty difficult to have a perfect life, so it's not exactly like we would choose to have lousy experiences, but when they do happen, consider that it may not be the worst thing in the world, and that in the future, it may be of benefit to have had.  Maybe it was worth it for the story.

The Difference Is Values

Not all arguments are equal.  If you are arguing how magnets work, it is clear-cut.  There is one correct answer.  If you start arguing something like whether or not slavery is a good thing, it becomes less simple.

Slavery is a terrible thing.  Humans are born free, with free will, and they should never be forced to do anything they do not wish to do.

Slavery is a wonderful thing.  It is a long-standing tradition of humanity and it has yielded truly spectacular results.  The greatest wonders of the world were created on the backs of slaves. Therefore, slavery is a collective effort (one of the great traits of humanity) that creates long-standing greatness.

Both of these points are correct.  Both of the people truly believe the things they say.  The difference is values.  The first person believes that the most valuable thing is for a person be able to choose their fate.  The second person believes that the most valuable thing is the results of work.

It's nice to think that all problems can be solved, that all differences can be settled.  But when the differences are in values, that just isn't always possible.  Sometimes the best hope is to agree to disagree, but we're not all capable of doing that, either.

The one nice thing about it is that you can get a hell of a story by trying to get people to express their values and convince other people that those values are valuable.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Communication And Empathy

Storytelling requires communication.  Good storytelling requires good communication.  Good communication allows the audience to think and feel the things you want them to. Communication, though, requires an understanding of your audience, and that requires empathy.

Empathy is being able to feel and understand the thoughts and emotions of others.  When you can sense that somebody is confused while you are talking, it will allow you to know to simplify your terminology and use some analogies to explain what you have covered in simpler means.

I love talking about technology (like computers) with people.  Sometimes, though, I realize that they have no idea what RAM is or what more of it will allow them to do.  To a person who knows and understands computers, it is knowledge so painfully well-known that it is incomprehensible that it would need to be defined.  But for me, I understand that all knowledge had to be gained, and that it can be explained to those who have not yet gained it, regardless of their age (there's plenty of shit I don't know, so who am I to judge).

I assumed that this was something that everybody could do.  Now I feel like I was wrong.  The skill of communication is special and relatively rare.  It is not, however, something you have to be born with.  Communication is a skill; it can be learned.

I know that I have learned a great deal about communication.  I was not born with a silver spoon in my mouth.  It came from study, practice, and experience.  But every job I have had has been seriously helped by my ability to effectively communicate with a large breadth of people.

This makes me think about my college years.  The idea of the Professional Writing program at SUNY Cortland was: Whatever you do in life, you will have to write.  So learn how to write well, ya dummy.  (I may have modified the exact words over time.)

I have come to realize that writing is simply one form of communicating.  And although writing does have its own unique qualities, when we talk about writing, we are really talking about communicating (which includes other means, like talking).  Learn how to communicate well (and training yourself to empathize will help you do that even better), and the world will be your oyster.

Friday, January 21, 2011

On Juxtaposition

I used to hate the word 'juxtaposition'.  It always sounded like a highfalutin way of saying 'positioning'.  Over time, though, I came to understand that there is a difference.

Juxtaposition is the positioning of things relative to each other.  In visual arts, it can easily be seen in comparison and contrast.  A classic example would be showing two pictures - one of a starving child and another of an obese one.  The juxtaposition shows the vast extremes the human form can take.  It can show the vast extremes in socioeconomic levels as well.

When we tell stories, we are also using juxtaposition.  When tragedy happens, the world becomes tragic.  It always rains at a funeral.  Sad music plays when you randomly turn on the radio after a breakup.  Once you get fired from your job, your car also breaks down and a bird craps on you.

The neat thing is that, no matter what you do, you are creating a juxtaposition.  The standard technique is to build a scene of similar themes, but if you make contrasting themes (or try to avoid it by being realistic), you are still creating an image.

When a man comes home to find out that his wife left him and took their son with her, it would be really awful to turn on the TV and see a commercial for the local day care center, filled with smiling faces and excited voiceovers.  However, the juxtaposition could make for a very powerful scene, emphasizing the significance of the loss.

More likely, though, in the above situation, it would be a car commercial.  It would have nothing to do with the man's situation and the mood would not reflect the tone you have created.  The juxtaposition of the commercial with the scene would only show that the man's life is insignificant and that the world will carry on, no matter what happens to him.

Writing, no matter how realistic it appears, is not real.  It is an artistic expression with the intent of either creating a particular thought, or to compel people to create their own thoughts.  You, as a writer, are charged with making that happen.  Juxtaposition is one of your countless tools.

Thursday, January 20, 2011


We can accumulate a great deal when we write.  This is an awesome thing.  Usually, though, we lose track of our organization over time.  When things get hectic, or when you have documents that don't really have a place just yet, they sort of get tossed in a pile to be dealt with later.  Then we forget to deal with it.

Eventually, "later" will come.  Go through your old files.  Reorganize them.  Give those uncategorizeable pieces new categories.  See if a new organization system would make it easier to find things.

The reorganization has a double use.  It makes you see your old stuff again.  You will find things you forgot you ever wrote.  You'll find things you love and things you will hate (and they will all be your work).  But in either case, they will serve to remind you who you used to be and who you have become, both as a writer and a person.

So go and clean out your files.  When you're done with that, go write so much stuff that your files fall into organizational disarray again.

People Grow Up

Remember the kids you knew in middle school?  The weird ones, the stuck up ones, the quiet ones, the bratty ones.  Well, 10 years later, you will find out that they're different people.

Don't get me wrong; the person who was quiet is probably still quiet.  The prissy kid is still probably a little prissy.  The difference is that they're muted versions of their old selves.  They're less extreme.  They have seen more of the real world and learned from their life experiences.

People grow up.  And when they do, they calm down.  I wonder if that is why so many stories involve young people.  They're coursing with so much energy that they could do superhuman feats.  The world is such a dynamic, over-the-top, black and white place. It certainly makes for interesting stories, but there are so many other stories that they leave out.

Talking with one of my friends, I realized that she and I used to be the kinds of people that never got along.  In all likelihood, if we knew each other back then, we would have hated each other.  It still blows my mind that I am friends with somebody I would have never been friends with in middle school.  And all we had to do was both grow up.

There is fodder for stories, here.  Some stories could be about the changes that people have gone through, which they only realize by looking back.  Other stories could be about people who become friends, despite everything saying they never should be, and discovering why their particular relationship worked.

Get writing.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Talk To Yourself

The best conversations I have are usually with myself.  I learn and understand tremendous amounts by taking both sides of an argument and discussing it.  I'm usually fair and civil, but if I start taking cheap shots on one side, the other side swiftly retaliates.  By the end of the conversation, I either know which side is the winner or I understand why neither side can truly win.

There is a stigma associated with talking to yourself.  It makes you look like a crazy person, somebody who hears voices.  Well, in a sense, we all hear voices.  The thoughts that pop into your head or creep up on you, that make you wonder about things, those are voices.  You may not hear them through your ears, but we all recognize them.

The difference between going back and forth with thoughts in your head and doing so by verbalizing them is negligible.  People will notice you either way.  It will look strange.  The only difference is that I've found verbalizing to be more productive.

When I hear my thoughts spoken, it is more like somebody else is speaking them.  This makes it easier to consider them and argue with them.  If the thoughts are all in my head, they swish and swirl around and I end up going in circles.  When I make it a dialogue, it forces a natural progression that demands progress.  And really, it's hard to argue with progress.

If you've never done it, give it a shot.  If you feel nervous or embarrassed, just relax.  When you start thinking, let those thoughts travel to your mouth.  Let your body unwind and you will start speaking (or at least mumbling).  You never know what you may learn from it.

Destroying Infinity

The blank canvas is one of infinite possibility.  Once you mark it, you have destroyed infinity.

It is very hard to make that first step in writing.  When the page is blank, it is in a state of perfection.  Once you put down that first word, you increase the chance of imperfection.  In fact, the very first word could be one that leads you down the path of a truly lousy story.  It is understandable that we would be hesitant to destroy such potential for perfection.

There are a few ways to cope with that.  One of them is to start doodling on your page.  If you draw airplanes and angry snowmen all around, then fill the gaps with your words, it won't feel like such an atrocity if you end up not caring for those words.  Basically, it's hard to desecrate something that has already been desecrated.

Another is to realize that your first draft is not your final draft.  No matter how hard you try, you will always need to revise and edit your work.  In short, by knowing it is an inevitability that what you write will be imperfect, it takes away the worry.  And although that sounds bittersweet, the fact that you also know you can fix all of your mistakes until you do make something wonderful makes up for that.

The greatest thing, though, is realizing that you are creating something greater than a blank page.  The page only has infinite potential.  When we write on that page, we limit that potential; the next thing we write has to follow from what we have written previously.  But no matter what we create, we are bringing something tangible from the abstract world and displaying it for the world to see.

The infinite possibilities of a blank canvas are wonderful and beautiful in their own way.  But they are by no means difficult to come buy; you could buy a hundred of them for a dollar.  The wonder and beauty you create by destroying that infinity far outweighs the mere potential it promises.

Creation Through Connection

Raw creation can be difficult.  Of all the endless possibilities of things to write about or subjects to consider, how do you choose one?  You get paralyzed with options, and end up staring at the blank page, never choosing anything.

The best way to create is to limit your options.  This is not a new thing for me to say (though I haven't specifically brought it up in a while), but I have a new way to help you do it.

Pick three random things.  If you have trouble doing it, ask somebody to do it for you.  Once you have your list, find a way to make a story involving them.  How you do it is up to you.  There is no wrong way.  Once an idea is sparked, follow through with it.

I know I am not the first person to give this advice, but if you haven't done it yet, then let this be the post to push you into it.  I have created things I know I would never have thought of, were it not for my friends giving me a list to build from.

In fact, if you need some ideas of your own, I will give you the most recent one I used:
A red wagon.
A rootbeer-flavored lollipop.
A 5-year-old brat.

Have at it.

Finish Unfinished Projects

Too many writers are "serial starters".  They begin a project, never finish it, let it stagnate, and then decide to start another project.  This is definitely a bad habit and one we should grow out of.  We usually think the way to fix it is to move on and finish your next project.  But how about going back and finishing your old ones?

An unfinished story is like a loose end, begging to be tied up.  Moving on to another project, whether or not you finish it, still leaves a project unfinished in your records.  Completing your existing story can allow you to move on totally because you will have nothing to look back on.

You may be thinking that you don't like those old stories, so what's the point?  The point is that if you have trouble finishing, the best practice is to finish.  So go and do that.  Nobody says you have to get those old stories perfect and published.  You just need to get them finished.  If you can do that, you will always be ready for your next project and you will always be able to give it your full attention because nothing else will be there to ask of it (at least as far as your writing projects goes).

Friday, January 14, 2011

Can Utopias Be Appreciated?

A utopia is a lofty idea.  A perfect, peaceful society may be beyond the capabilities for humanity.  But I can't help but feel that, even if it was possible, it wouldn't be appreciated at all.

Much like how beauty is only special when the world is largely not beautiful, perfection can only be appreciated when we understand imperfection.  On top of that, we humans seem a restless sort.  We can't stand perfection.  We need controversy and problems.

Every story that involves utopias involves destroying them.  They also involve finding out that there's actually some horrible, hidden secret about them (thus making every single utopian society a dystopia).  Well enough cannot be left alone.  Utopias are not good.  There is something in our brains that cannot accept them.

Then again, that may be because perfection is boring.  Nobody wants to read a novel about a city where nothing bad happens and the sun always shines.  We need conflict for it to be interesting.

All I wonder is, are utopian societies boring in literature only, or are they also boring in real life?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

All Beauty Is Tragic

Laurie and Paula are madly in love with each other. Ever since they found each other, their lives have grown more complete by having each other. When Laurie found out that Paula used to be Paul, she didn't care.  All that mattered to her was the mind, the heart, soul that she fell in love with. And although Laurie knows that she could save so much trouble from others by not associating with Paula, she would never think to do such a thing.  Laurie will be with her soulmate until the end of time.

I think the above is a beautiful scene.  The sentiment of true love can warm the coldest of hearts.  And yet, it makes me sad.  The reason this scene is so beautiful is that it is so rare.  All too often, we choose to have the life that is easier for ourselves, even if it harms others.  All too often, we shun the one who is different, even if it means we cannot be with the one who completes us.

And I wonder, isn't all beauty tragic?  The things that are beautiful are the things that are special. We don't find paper beautiful because we see it every day.  Things are beautiful in part because they are rare.  And that is sad.

Beauty is a contrast item.  It can only exist in a world where most things are not beautiful.  The greater the beauty, the less common it is.  If we lived in a utopia, nobody would appreciate it.

Since beauty is about juxtaposition, consider the backdrops in your writing.  Sadness in the heart of joy; joy in the presence of sadness.  Love rebelling against hate.  When good fortune occurs in the presence of poor fortune, it's wonderful.  When good fortune occurs in the presence of more good fortune, it's very so what.  Contrast makes writing interesting.  It also makes life poignant.

This Was Written For Me

I wrote an article for a newsletter and submitted it to the editor.  When I asked what she thought of it, she said, "I thought this was written for me!"  I chuckled and said that I have that effect on people.  But what was so amusing was that the article was actually written for me.

The article was about honesty and how, no matter how difficult and scary it can be, being completely upfront and honest will always lead toward true happiness.  It was something that I have come to realize from examining my own life and the lives of people around me.  It was just as much a self-affirmation as it was advice to the masses.

But I think that's how I am sure that it's a good piece of writing.  Good writing is universal (or as close to it as one can get).  It speaks to common life experiences, but does not do it in a vague or hollow way.  When somebody reads your writing and thinks that it was written for them, you know you've got something.  And when you think about it, it was written for them.

Monday, January 10, 2011

No-Win Situations

We are often plagued by the dilemma of what we ought to do versus what we want to do.  It paralyzes us.  The things we want to do would make us feel good, but also make us feel guilty.  The things we ought to do are unpleasant, but leave us guilt-free.

Although it can be such a difficult situation to be in, deciding which path to choose, the simple answer is to do what allows you to sleep at night.  If guilt will really bother you, then do what you ought to do so you feel better.

Life usually is that simple.  Suck it up and do what's right.  Life is so much easier that way.

Life is usually that simple, but it isn't always.  Sometimes doing the right thing can have some adverse effects.  Imagine the parent who gives up his food so that his child can eat.  It's a noble gesture.  It's what he ought to do.  But how often can he do it?

These are the people I'm interested in - the ones who, even when they do the right thing, are being harmed.  They are in a situation where both sides screw them over.  Being selfish is painful and being selfless is painful.  They are trapped and there is no good way to deal with it.  The best they can do is accept their fate and deal with it.

Sometimes there are no perfect answers, no simple fixes in life.  Sometimes you can only grin and bear it.  I am interested in these people as my subjects because they are my audience.  We have all been trapped and we have all somehow managed to live through it.  We don't always solve our problems, but we manage to outlive them.

People like this are not superhuman.  They are simply human.  And humans are compelling.  They're also interesting.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Thoughts On Dictation

I think that dictation is actually a pretty cool thing.  At its best, it combines two people into one, which splits the task of composing/writing into smaller and more manageable tasks.

When you give dictation, you are working purely in your mind.  The thoughts you have swim around.  The good ones come out of your mouth.  They then appear on a page/screen.  When you give dictation, you do not have to worry about hitting the keys or correcting errors or formatting as you go.

When you take dictation, you become an intelligent machine.  You are able to take in not only words, but pauses and stresses and all other sorts of audio cues and turning it into text.  You use free time between thoughts to correct errors and format upon document completion.  You are still using your mind, but you are using it in a much different capacity, simply creating words without worrying about creating ideas.

I have been on both sides and actually enjoy them both.  If you haven't done it before, give it a shot.  One generally does not have much need for dictation, but it may be a fun activity to do with other writers.  You will definitely learn how to type faster, speak slower and clearer, and much better understand the connection between spoken words and written words.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Focus On The Biggest Picture First

What is your story about?  Is it about four kids who go on an adventure together, or is it about the contents of a boy's room?  Most likely, your story isn't about either of those things.  But, if your story is about four kids who go on an adventure together, then you really shouldn't worry too much about the contents of one of those kids' rooms.

It is easy to get bogged down in details.  Some particular thing holds your focus and you spend lots of time on that one thing, and it may be good, but it may also be completely irrelevant.  I've mentioned plenty of times that stories will easily be rewritten, or at least heavily edited as it goes through the creation process.

Focus on the biggest picture first. Once you have an idea of the grand scheme of things, work on the next layer down.  Maybe you would consider character qualities and relationships.  After that, go to ancillary characters and scenes that connect the main points.  It will not be for a while that you are looking at what color wallpaper somebody has, or the words you will be using to describe that color.

Again, what is your story about?  If you can answer that, then start working on the real point of the story.  If you don't know what your story is about, what kind of story do you think you have?

Friday, January 7, 2011

Extraneous Information

I often hear writers say that there reaches a point when the story writes itself. The idea being that once all of the groundwork has been laid, the events that follow are natural and logical, based on the circumstances.  It may mean smooth sailing for the writer.  It also means a boring journey for the reader.

This is a point I often struggle with because I am a concise writer.  I want to get to the point and move on.  For essays and short stories, it's wonderful. For trying to keep the reader guessing or maintaining suspense, it's lousy. This is where extraneous information comes in.

Throw the audience for a loop.  Tell them stuff that isn't actually relevant, but sounds like it might be.  When a murderer is on the loose, have the neighbor show up because she was feeling friendly.  Is she creating an alibi?  Is she looking for her next victim?  Is she simply a lonely woman looking to kill an afternoon?  We won't know until the next thing happens.  But you do know.  You know she has no purpose but to throw us off the trail of the real killer, who we met in the first chapter.

If the only person you mentioned aside from the main characters was the gardener, the gardener would be mighty suspicious.  But by throwing in four ancillary characters, it looks like you are just building mood and ensemble.  It allows you to hide the real points in plain sight.  Then when you reveal it, we all get so surprised to find out, so annoyed that we didn't figure it out, but also satisfied because of that.

When you use extra information to keep the audience interested, you are not using more words than you need.  So you can still be concise and confusing.  Give it a shot.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

I Get It!

It is no surprise that I love wordplay. I find it to be some of the funniest stuff out there. A good pun can make you laugh, no matter how bad a mood you're in. What I have discovered, though, is the greatest form of comedy ever: unrecognized wordplay.

Sometimes in normal conversation, the words people choose end up being funny. But people are often aware of it. They'll either say “pardon the pun” or “no pun intended”, thus sucking all of the fun out of it. And the rest of people really ham it up.

But every now and then, somebody says something hilarious and is completely unaware of it. I had a conversation with a friend who informed that there was “a wide berth of information on pregnancy.”

My only response to that was very loudly shouting, “I GET IT!” Then proceeding with the conversation as normal.

This is the funniest thing on earth to me. It breaks people from their train of thought, forces them to disengage, think about what they said, and realize what happened. I love it because I have basically told a pun, but I wasn't the one who said it, so I can't be blamed for it.

It is not every day that this opportunity presents itself, but it does happen pretty frequently. Keep your ears perked. You can totally catch somebody with an “I get it” by week's end. The look on somebody's face when they realize that you told a groaner, but it was actually them who told the groaner, is totally worth it.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Few Truly Spew

When I was a younger writer, a common bit of advice I got was to just run through your first draft without worrying about editing.  Crafting the story, as well as crafting the words, comes in subsequent drafts.

I disagreed with that advice.  I would always say that I edited as I wrote my first draft, which saved me from having to write subsequent drafts.  I thought I was special.

For one thing, I was wrong.  No matter how hard you work on your first draft, it will always be a first draft, and will need a ton of work, often including a complete rewrite.  You end up saving a great deal of time by just plowing through that first draft to uncover the story, then doing it again to develop the story.

For another thing, I have come to realize that I wasn't special.  Every person I have talked with on this subject tells me the same thing.  They edit as they write.  They don't just spew words without thinking about them or fixing little mistakes as they arise.

Few truly spew.  Writing is a careful thing.  The people who wish to put effort in their writing will be doing so from the beginning.

I don't think it is a bad thing to be careful.  Although the idea of just spitting out words and not looking back until you reach the end is interesting, there is a part of me that needs to fix the spelling, needs to work on wording, wants to get a scene feeling right.  I have learned to let go.  I have learned that some things you can leave for later, especially if you know you are just going to scrap the words and rewrite it later.  And I think that's really the crucial part of the first draft process, anyway,

Monday, January 3, 2011

Can You Make Fun Of Bad Grammar?

As I mentioned yesterday, I can't laugh at bad grammar anymore.  It's not funny because it is so commonplace.  It would be like laughing at the sight of snow in Buffalo. If you want to see awful spelling, log in to Facebook.  One of your friends probably is a butcher of language.

However, I would also suggest you look at Failbook.  This is a collection of humorous status messages and the like found on Facebook.  It is hyperconcentrated levels of stupid.  However, there is also just as much wit and humor to it all.

This entry, which is the first one on the front page as of this writing, I find pretty darn funny.  It takes a boring, melodramatic sentiment, and thoroughly deflates it by ridiculing spelling.

Now, I want to say that I am not laughing at the bad grammar found in the original post.  What I am laughing at is the person who made fun of it.  That is funny.  It actually breathes life into the mundane scenario of poor writing.

It seems like a fine line, but I think it is a tangible one.  The fact that one thing makes me laugh and the other doesn't seems proof positive that they are different things. 

Can You Laugh At Bad Grammar?

Plenty of people did not pay attention in English/Language Arts classes.  Most people are not thoroughly fluent in the rules of standard written English.  Everybody, no matter how knowledgeable or careful they are, will misspell words, use a rule incorrectly, or otherwise have bad grammar.

A lot of people I know laugh at bad grammar.  I don't.  It's not funny to me.  It's commonplace.  Typing "rabbi" instead of "rabbit" may make for a humorous image, but the typo on its own is not enough to make me laugh out loud.

Now, I will say that I used to laugh at it.  I used to think it was some of the funniest stuff around.  But having spent as much time on the internet as I have, not to mention as much time editing other people's work as I have, it just isn't exciting anymore.  Either I've moved beyond it or I've gone numb to it.  Whichever it may be, I know that I'm not going back, and I'm ok with that.  There are funnier things out there than typos.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Catching Up

There are around two dozen websites that I regularly keep up to date on.  They are all bookmarked in my web browser.  Four months ago, when my old computer got a virus and I had to wipe it clean, I lost all of my bookmarks with it and never got around to putting them all back.  Not much after that, when I got my new computer to replace the old one, the same thing happened.

I suppose it says something that I could go so long without getting the updates, but as time went by, I wanted them more and more.  This week, I have made the effort to bookmark all my old websites and catch up on all the updates I missed.  Now I am finally caught up.

It's always such a surprise, how different things are between reading a little bit at a time, or a great deal in one sitting.  In comedy, a good joke a day can often make you smirk.  But 150 of them in 3 hours can overwhelm you with laughter.

I can't decide which I like more.  Having a new thing to enjoy every day makes the day brighter.  Waiting for a whole lot of content, which I then consume at once makes for an amazing experience.  I'm just not sure if it's worth the wait.

In either case, you have your options and they both work.  With the internet, you can choose how much you give and how often.  What feels right to you?

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Provoke Thoughts

Sometimes I get an idea and I lose it before I can write it down.  I often make the mistake of thinking that it will simply come back to me.  It randomly came to me once, so it should come back again, I rationalize.  But that's not how it actually works.

Thoughts are not random.  They all have a stimulus.  Something you did or saw sparked a thought that triggered several more, which led to your idea.  Even if you weren't struggling to come up with the idea, something sprang that idea into existence.

If you want an idea, you cannot sit around and wait for it to come.  I've learned that the hard way - it just doesn't happen.  You have to do something.  Do something thought-provoking; that's how you provoke thoughts!  Whether it's hanging with people, talking, walking around by yourself, or roller-blading, whatever gets those wheels turning is the best way to get ideas.

Although a lot of things seem to just sorta happen, they all take effort.  Put some effort into your endeavors and you will get some results.

Sobering Thoughts

My family doesn't drink.  The few times I've ever seen them consume alcohol, it was a drink, not enough to get affected by the alcohol.  I'm not really an exception, either.  I drink alcohol maybe half a dozen times a year (and I never had any until I was well into my college years).  Drunkenness is just not something I grew up with.  I never saw it; I never learned to recognize it.  I still have trouble realizing when somebody is under the influence.

Tonight I saw it, though.  I saw a person who was drunk, but not belligerent or obnoxious.  I noticed the little things: a tiny stumble, plopping into furniture, the slightest slur, the head hanging down.  Things I might not even notice, or otherwise mistake for exhaustion.

My first thought, upon this realization, was that I always thought I was so slick, so able to hide when I was drunk from other people, but I obviously can't.  No matter how hard you try, when you're incapacitated, you're incapacitated.

My second thought was how sobering a realization that was (and my third thought was how unbelievably ironic that was, considering the subject matter).  I'm not above the rules.  I'm just not.  I'm a human being, so whatever affects people as a whole, affects me in particular.

Sobering thoughts are like that.  They pull you out of that delirium of invincibility or self-exception.  They make you realize that you're just like everybody else.  I guess that's why they call them sobering.

I also think they're pretty amazing.  When you have a sobering thought, it's because you've realized that something applies to you.  That's always a good sign.  It means you're paying attention.  It also means you realize that you can learn and grow.  Definitely a quality that writers should have.