Saturday, April 30, 2011

Taming The Structure

In a conversation tonight, I was talking about style and how it is affected by the experiences around us (such as being forced to write in a particular style of writing). What I noticed, though, was that my friend still sounded excellent. The tone of voice, her rhythm and timing, they were still the ones I have always known as hers. When I mentioned this to her, she said, "The poetry within me will never leave. It's taming the structure that I have trouble with."

And that is why I keep people like her in my life. Anybody who can so perfectly and eloquently explain the heart of a writer is worth holding onto.

Communication is natural. We do practice it. We do think about it (especially in writing). It does grow and is affected by our experiences. But despite all of that, it still comes from us naturally. Some amount of our writing is a stream of words. Nobody I have ever seen carefully and precisely selects individual words from thin air, nor from a word bank. They let loose a deluge of language, then tidy up the loose ends.

And no matter how much you are affected by outside sources, your sound, your voice, your style, they will always be there. They are always in you. If you ever get out of practice or ever get into different habits, your words may not flow as smoothly or as confidently, but you can always tame that structure and reclaim your composure.

There is truth to the saying that if you don't use it, you lose it. But fear not, for nothing is lost forever.

Friday, April 29, 2011

If Things Were Different, They Might Not Be The Same

A year ago, I told you that if things were different, then they wouldn't be the same. It's still true, but there is more to the story than that. Often times, the point of our stories is that outcomes are independent of the circumstances going into them, or that all possible circumstances lead to the same outcome.

Stories dealing with fate generally use this idea. No matter how many do-overs a person gets, no matter what they try to avoid their fate, it will always lead to the foretold outcome. If you want to be particularly twisted, you go the Oedipus route and make it such that every action a character takes to avoid their fate are what actually makes it occur.

Sometimes, though, it's far less ironic. Sometimes, when we play the what-if game too much, we lose track of relationships. "How might my life be different if I never went to college" is a very different question from "How might my life be different if I never had that sandwich" (assuming it was an inconsequential sandwich).

Also, not everything is related. If you chose to become a mathematician because of an amazing teacher you had in high school, then it doesn't matter whether you played hockey or basketball as an extracurricular activity; you would still have taken the same math class.

If things were different, they might not be the same. The what-if game is great to play. It's still a fantastic way to come up with potential ideas. Just know that not every change will have a significant impact. That's why you want to find the choices that give the most bang for your buck.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Keep On Learning

There are a lot of different ways that you can learn. Some people learn by doing, drawing the best lessons from personal experience. Some people learn by teaching, understanding their craft by having to break it down into the smallest parts and explain how everything works. Some people learn by research, whether it be reading or discussion or interview, the easiest way to gain knowledge being absorbing straight knowledge itself.

You may choose to do one or another or any combination thereof (or you might choose something totally different). The important thing is that you keep on learning.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Weather Is Always There

In every story that takes place, there is weather. The weather is not often mentioned though; the authors, in those cases, must have assumed it was the default weather conditions. As funny as it sounds, there actually is a default weather.

If nobody tells us what the weather is like, we will assume it is a mild, spring day. The sky is blue with a handful of perfect puffy white clouds in it, the kinds that one may stare at and look for shapes in for hours on end. The temperature is such that you want break a sweat while walking around, but you won't get cold if you just sit around.

Default weather is pretty luxurious. It's the kind of weather that only actually happens 2-4 times per year. And, depending on the lay of the land in your stories, it may not be that common there, either. The weather is oft-ignored, but omnipresent.

Next time you're telling a story, consider the weather conditions. How are they affecting the people? What would the story be like if it was happening 6 months later?

Monday, April 25, 2011

It Depends On The Time Of Day

I've really been into the song What You Know by Two Door Cinema Club. So, as always happens when I get into a song, I listen to it all day. I had an interesting experience with this one today.

I was listening to the song in the early morning before work and grooving on it. Singing along, moving to the beat, just thoroughly into it. When work started, I put the music away, but was still thinking about it. During my lunch break, I pulled out my headphones and put the song on again. This time, it wasn't so grand, just a bunch of meh - not bad by any means, but not as special. They day progressed, I finished work, I went home, and as night came, I was on my computer writing. Then I realized I was in the mood to hear What You Know again. I put it on and it's right back to the way it originally was: the most moving and lovely piece of music.

It's not fair. The song didn't change, but I did. How do you trust your opinions when they vary based on the time of day (and all the other factors involved)?

The simple answer is that you can't. You have to be aware that you are not a steady rock in an ever-changing sea. Frankly, you're the ever-changing sea. But at least, when you know that, you can know to take your opinions with a grain of salt. If you don't like something the first time, wait a while and try it again.

This applies to everything - stories you read, stories you write, your wordings, your words, concepts or relations you find interesting, absolutely everything. Just because you like something once doesn't mean you'll like it forever, and just because you don't like something right away doesn't mean you never will like it. Maybe it will take a few years to change your mind, or maybe it depends on the time of day.

Dancing Is Cool

Have you ever gotten the urge to just start dancing? Maybe you have a cool song stuck in your head, or it's playing through your headphones, or you just feel the spirit moving you. How often do you do it? I basically never see people just randomly break out into dance.

I don't really blame them, though. Dancing looks silly. People are moving their bodies, almost as though they are trying to say something, but there is no message. It's just strange flagellations. To dance spontaneously would be to warrant the stares and ridicule of all onlookers and passers-by.

However, everybody loves dancing. They love doing it themselves and they love watching it happen - it just needs to be under the right circumstances. Dancing is ok when multiple people are doing it at the same time. No dancing looks silly when a group of people are all doing the same dance moves. And when dancing is choreographed, practiced, and then performed, it is stunning, awe-inspiring, and makes people wish they could do it themselves.

It's strange the way a single activity is embarrassing in one scenario and mesmerizing in another. I think writing is no different. When you look at yourself as an insignificant nothing, writing is a process by which you expose yourself for all others to judge and criticize you. Well, that's actually true. The difference is, when you lack self-confidence, you assume everybody judges you negatively and criticizes you harshly. But when you do have confidence, you don't care what other people have to say.

When people say they love your work, smile and say thank you. When people try to make you feel bad, smile and tell them "haters gonna hate."

Sunday, April 24, 2011

I Know It's Been Done

I am endlessly fascinated with the mentally unstable. I am obsessed with what goes on in people's tortured minds.  What interests me most are the people who hide it - the people who can go by, pass for normal, but be completely torn apart by their own mind's thoughts.

I want to write a story with the following scene: The main character (we'll call him Dan) is sitting in a coffeehouse, holding a cup of tea, staring off into nothing. He says nothing, but his mind wanders to dark realms. He looks at the glass window, wonders how thick it was, how much force it would take to crack it, if he could punch it hard enough to shatter it, if it was shatterproof glass, what would happen if his fist went through, but only punched a hole through the glass, thus making it impossible to get his arm out without getting his wrist slashed by the glass surrounding his arm, if he would lose enough blood that he would die from it, who would come to his funeral, how long it would take for the people he knew to find out he had died if they didn't live nearby, and how sad they would be if they only found it out long enough after the fact and so many hundred miles away from him. Dan's train of thought gets interrupted by a friend who runs into him. The friend is enthused at the chance meeting and asks Dan how he's doing. Dan looks up, thinks for a second, and says, "Same as usual."

The thing is, I know this kind of scene is not new. Heck, I remember a variation of this being done on an episode of South Park. But that really doesn't matter to me. I know it's been done, but I still want to do it. I want to write this scene. I want my characters to experience these scenarios.  I want to have them deal with these problems and see how they do handle them.

It doesn't matter if a particular scene or any other part of a story has been done before. What matters is how it's done. If you can make a good world, make compelling characters, create scenes that move people mentally or emotionally, then you are doing good writing. I can say for certain that if something has been done a million times before, but yours is a great version of it, nobody will care how many times it's been done.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

'Ever' vs. 'Yet'

I like the difference between the words 'ever' and 'yet'. They both are used to indicate a span of time, and are often used interchangeably, but do have a nuance of difference that is worth noting.

The "best thing ever" is the absolute greatest thing made. This includes the time before it existed, the present moment, and all future moments.  'Ever' is kind of a big deal.

The "best thing yet" is the absolute greatest thing that has been made.  This includes the time before its existence, as well as everything that currently exists. The main difference is that it allows for something even better to come along in the future.

Saying 'ever' is often hyperbolic, exaggeration, or at least overestimation. Saying 'yet' is still powerful, but more realistic. It should come as no surprise that I prefer to use 'yet' in situations that warrant it. However, when I have a situation where I can legitimately use the word 'ever', I relish it.

Try writing some sentences that can use 'ever' and 'yet'. Try swapping one for the other and seeing how it affects the tone or connotation now tat you are thinking about the difference between the two.

If you are looking at the greatest car yet, what might make it even better?

Friday, April 22, 2011

I'm Dying of Everything

I was just reading on article on Office Nut Cases & How To Cope and I had a realization: I am every one of those nut cases. Well, maybe not all of them, but I can see myself exhibiting the qualities that most of those characters have. If I was a weaker person, I would believe that I was the worst of the worst because I wasn't one of the horrid 13 but all of them.

Fortunately, I'm not a weaker person. I realize that the very fact that I can see so many different qualities in me makes me balanced.  Sure, sometimes I want to avoid trouble, but sometimes I take it head on. Sometimes I crack a joke, and sometimes I'm dead serious. Sometimes I'll pull a double shift to get work done and sometimes I'm out as soon as the bell rings.

If you show a couple symptoms from one character, then you aren't that character.  If you show one or two symptoms from a dozen characters, then you are none of them. A similar effect occurs when people spend too much time on WebMD. They start diagnosing themselves, thinking that one or two symptoms equals a definite illness. Less than an hour later, they are shouting out, "I'm dying of everything!"

If you think you have everything, you probably have Three Stooges Syndrome, thus making you indestructible.

The thing to realize is that the office nut cases are characters. They're two-dimensional people that only seem human. A person is three-dimensional. They may have tendencies toward certain thoughts or actions, but under the right circumstances they can be completely different than their tendencies.

Some stories warrant characters. Fantasy and children's stories do great with heroes and villains and the like. Other stories, though, really focus on very realistic people put in very nonstandard situations. In that case, finding a way to show the full range of a person's thoughts and actions will show you how deep, and how real, they really are.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

'Til vs. Till

If you have used the word 'till', you have probably used it incorrectly. Till is something you do to soil. It's a verb. It is not a synonym for the words 'until'.

The word you're looking for is 'til. You know it is the right word because 'until' only has one l in it, and so does 'til.  In fact, 'til is just 'until' without the 'un-' in the front. In fact, that's why there is an apostrophe in 'til; apostrophes indicate that letters have been removed.

I don't often talk about spelling or grammar things on Cheff Salad. I largely do not care for such debatable subjects, especially when I could take either side of the debate. But this is one of the subjects that I do feel strongly about. I find 'til to be one of the more beautiful parts of our language. It is totally logical and easy to use.  It largely exists because we said it so much that we wanted a way to write it, which we made. But for as easy and simple as the word is, people don't understand it, which is why they use a completely different word that seems right, but couldn't be more wrong.

If you are a writer, then words are all you've got. Make sure you're using the right words.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Irony = "Despite"

Irony is a tricky subject. We find it difficult to explain and harder to define. We understand it well enough to point out when a situation is ironic, but are hard-pressed to find words for it.

Well, today is your lucky day, because I can define irony in a single word: Despite.

Irony is when something happens, even though it shouldn't have. That is the same situation that we use the word 'despite'.

I didn't have a pen, despite the fact that I sell pens for a living.  That's ironic.
My house is filthy, despite the fact that I clean houses for a living.  Again, ironic.
My friend committed suicide, despite being a professional grief counselor.  Still ironic; also terribly sad.

You could also define irony with the word 'although' by flipping the sentence order.

Although I sell pens for a living, I didn't have a pen.  Ironic, that is.
Although I clean houses for a living, my house is filthy.  Ironic, again.

I'm skipping the third one because it doesn't need to be twisted around. It's twisted enough, already.

Anyway, irony. It's not that scary or complicated after all. It's just a fancy-sounding word that can be defined with a simple-sounding word. Go forth and spread the word.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


In yesterday's post, I ended up talking about trust. As the storyteller, you are the leader of the story. You are tacitly promising to your audience that they will receive a reward for following you from the beginning to the end of your story. The reward is either the sum of experiences or a great twist at the end or some great thought to ponder and consider beyond the story and into life.

But trust has to be earned. It also has to be maintained. One may give you the benefit of the doubt because you are offering a story and they do not know you. They are not taking a huge risk, just the investment of their time. But if you do not give them a rewarding story, you have lost their trust. They will not want to hear any more of what you've got.

As I said yesterday, when I lead somebody down a path that promises to be sincere, but ends up being a joke, I am taking advantage of that trust for the sake of humor. One might ask why people will continue to talk to me if I continue to violate their trust. There are two answers to that.

The first answer is that my jokes are their own reward. Although they come under false pretenses, my jokes are funny. People tend to grumble or groan, but they do love a good bit of wit.

The second answer is that I continue to earn my trust back. For every time that I sound serious and end up making a joke, I have a dozen times where I sound serious and actually am. I will have long, in-depth conversations about all sorts of subjects. A good conversation makes one quickly forget that a silly little pun may be around the corner at any moment. If I only ever cracked jokes, people would come to expect it and they would be lame. But by making them an accent within conversations, they keep people on their toes and keep them light-hearted when they start to get heavy.

So, the last two days simply put: You want to make your readers follow your lead when you tell your story, but beyond the benefit of the doubt, you have to earn and maintain their trust by giving them rewarding stories.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Follow The Leader

I love telling jokes to my friends.  Well, they aren't so much jokes as they are groan-inducing puns.  But a good, awful pun loses all of its effect if the other person knows it's coming.  So it is very important that I throw them off-track.

I do have a formula of sorts.  When having a conversation with somebody, they say something which triggers my mind to come up with a pun.  Then I work backwards to come up with a premise that would warrant the pun as a punchline, and then I come up with an excuse to set up the premise.

For example, I was talking with a friend about war and peace (not the book) and my friend was saying how the absolute iconic imagery of the two at odds were the hippies putting the flowers in the barrels of the guns of military soldiers.  I agreed that it was definitely an iconic image, but it had become mangled because of how popular it was.  For example, you start wondering what would happen if you fired the gun.  Would it launch the flowers?  What if you put in several flowers so that it made a tighter seal?  It would be pretty cool though, if it did work.  I would start my own business where I would put bouquets in guns and fire them at people in a spectacular and beautiful fashion (a great fusion of war and peace).  I would call my business: Pistils at Dawn.

That was a lot of effort for that joke.  I had guns and flowers given to me, and I realized that 'pistil' was the pun to fuse them.  I had a common phrase, 'pistols at dawn', which could be used as the crucible for the fusion.  But I had to shift the subject several times over in order to reach the point that I had all the ingredients put together.

The beauty, though, is that it sounds more or less like a standard conversation, or at least a standard conversation with me.  So by the time I have lulled them into this false sense of security, I can smack them upside the head with my ridiculous pun.

It comes down to following the leader.  If I start a story that compels you, you will follow me.  You will trust that I am taking you down a path to an interesting revelation.  In the case of my puns, I am taking advantage of that trust for the sake of humor.  Whether one likes or appreciates that, the important point is that, as a good storyteller, you can gain that trust and instill that focus from your audience.  Getting that in the first place is key.

More on that tomorrow.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

You Can't Read People

People can be predictable.  If you spend enough time observing a person, their actions, and their reactions to certain stimuli, you can notice the patterns and be able to predict future reactions to similar stimuli.  But no matter what, you will never be able to read people.

Reading is different.  Reading implies an absolute knowledge, the way you can read a script or biography or a story and you know for 100% fact what is going on in a person's head.  That's an ability that nobody has.

We can only go on what we observe, which are actions and words.  Actions can show us how a person may be feeling, but they are not crystal clear.  They also do not show us every little sliver and flash of thought that pops in and out of our heads without actually coming to surface.  Words, similarly, are limited by what a person chooses to share about their own thoughts.  They also assume that people are not lying about their thoughts and feelings when speaking about them, which is not always a good idea.

What goes on in the minds of others will always be a mystery.  It is frustrating to know that there is this vast quantity of information you will never know, but it does also make it so much fun to make your own characters and finally be able to read them like a book.  And if not fun, at least it is pretty satisfying.

Friday, April 15, 2011

You Are A Tool

I was listening to a talk given by the writer Elizabeth Gilbert.  It was about genius, what it means, what it used to mean, and how we can use those definitions to our advantage.

In talking about the history, she had mentioned that ancient societies used to believe that, when an artist of any kind (writer, singer, dancer, etc.) did an exceptionally spectacular work or performance, it was the influence of mystical creatures - daemons, geniuses, or gods.

As a writer, you are a vessel for creativity.  You channel these spirits and when they deem you worthy of telling their story, you do so.

Ms. Gilbert believes that there is value in this idea because it allows you not to worry about success or about failure.  You put in your effort because that's your job, and when you mix that with your faith, a story will generally come to you.  It removes the ego, which removes the worry.  It is not about how good are you, what will your next masterpiece be, or if you are past your prime.  It is merely about doing your part and hoping that the spirits will do theirs.

And never has it been more clear that you are a tool.  It may be in the best possible way, but it still makes you a drone.  Although it is your body and your mind doing the physical work, all the great creations are not yours, which means it could just as easily be anybody else's.

I'm not sure how I feel about that.  There is a freedom there; I'm not in competition or trying to prove my worth because I am worthy when I am inspired, which happens far more often as I write more.  But along with that freedom is the lack of specialness.  I am merely a body for the real writers to use. I might as well be taking dictation.  What the heck kind of life is there in being an average Joe who periodically gets taken over?  I would far rather be responsible for my skills and abilities.

Whatever belief you choose for yourself and your creativity, the important thing is that it makes you happy.  It would also be useful if it made you write.  Because if your beliefs only harm your desires, they're pretty crappy beliefs.

12 Lines

I was listening to a song that I liked, when I got the urge to go look up the lyrics to it.  Big mistake.  I once again discovered that this great song had a mere 12 lines of unique lyrics.  Instantly, this grand piece seemed a great deal smaller to me.  Listening to it wasn't the same, either. It seemed shorter and less impressive.

Still, I shouldn't be so critical. Music is a combination of factors.  You have your rhythm, your melody, your instrumentation, your modulation, and countless other aspects.  Lyrics are merely one component of the whole.  I should only expect so much out of 12 lines.

Wait a minute.  That's crap.  12 lines is plenty.  Some of my best work has only been 12 lines long.  I've made people cry with 12 lines.  A great writer can pack a novel's worth of power into 12 lines.

So, step right up and test your strength.  I will give you 12 blank lines.  You fill them with words and cause an emotional response.  Anybody can be a winner.  If you win, I'll send you a wicked sweet prize.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Tomorrow's Another Work Day

Yesterday marked the 800th post on Cheff Salad.  I don't usually do anything special for landmark posts.  Usually I forget to.  I always notice when I am coming up to a nice round number, but when the day arrives, I just want to get some particular post up (or it is one in a series of posts because of making up from missing previous days).  But yesterday, it was the only thing I really had on my mind and I found it fitting.

Today, I looked at that post, and I looked at the nice round 800 on my home screen, and I was pretty satisfied.

And now I'm writing post number 801.  Not a nice round number, and with a ways to go until the next one

I was satisfied, but not satisfied enough to stop writing.

Don't ignore your accomplishments.  Many people will not reach the things that you have.  Every achievement is something to be proud of.  But don't rest on your laurels, either.  Tomorrow's another work day.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Make The Time

People like to say that they will find time to do things. It's like time is lose change that you can pull out of your pockets or dig between couch cushions to uncover. Time doesn't work that way. Time is finite. There are 24 hours in every day, and some of them are accounted for.

I have lately been making a point to say that I will make time for something instead of saying that I will find time for it. Because the reality is that anything you want to do badly enough, you will make the time for.

If you are not making the time to write, then no matter how much you say you care about it, you don't care about it enough.

Monday, April 11, 2011

A Useful Definition

I was perusing, my go-to website for words, when I saw an article that caught my eyes.  "How well would you do on the ACT?: Thousands of students who took the ACT placement test this weekend had to know these words. Do you?"  So of course I took a look.

The word list was not terribly impressive to me.  The majority of them are words I would hope the majority of people know.  Like, even if people didn't use the word 'covert', I would hope they at least knew what it meant.  I could understand people not knowing 'languid', only because it is not terribly common (though it is one of those words whose meaning is how it sounds).

While perusing the list, I noticed that one of the words is 'haughty'.  It's a nice word.  For me, it's one of those ones that I can use in a sentence and I can use to describe something that is haughty, but I can't always give it a succinct definition.

Later on in the list, I see the word 'cavalier'.  The very first definition for the word: Haughty.

I was taken aback.  Who has the gall to give you a vocabulary word which people apparently need to study for, and then give another vocabulary word whose definition is the first word?  What a haughty action!

Defining words is not always easy.  Sometimes we understand a word so well that finding the words to describe it is more difficult than knowing how to use it.  Still, defining words is how you explain and teach them to the uninitiated.  If you are going to do so, though, add the extra effort to come up with a useful definition.  No point defining an unknown word with another unknown word.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Internalized Voices

Some time ago, I was having a conversation with my writing soulmate and she was telling me about an assignment she had. She was to create a conversation with four great writers speaking about a given subject, having herself act as moderator. The biggest catch was that, although she had written books by the authors in question, absolutely no quoting was allowed. It had to be 100% original.

I thought this was a brilliant assignment. The greatest way to show that you truly understand a subject is when you can put it in your own words. If you can write as though you are a different person and explain that person's thoughts without ever directly quoting them, then you most assuredly understand it.

What makes this assignment even better is the stylistic challenge.  We spend so much of our energy trying to develop our own style.  What's my voice?  How is it distinguished from others? How do I learn from others without directly copying them?  But now, you have to take it a step beyond that; you have to create somebody else's voice while not directly copying their actual voice. Sounds impossible just writing down.

My friend, being the spectacular writer that she is, kicked that assignment's ass (which means I have proof that it isn't actually impossible) and she is a stronger writer because of it.  She has internalized the voices of great writers. She has taken their thoughts and their styles and she has made them her own.  They now are a handful of the tools and blueprints that she keeps in her writing toolbox (which is probably a toolshed by now), to be used at her discretion.

When you have internalized the voices you have come across, much as my friend has, you will not only gain the same powers that she has, you will gain the same respect I have for her in that regard (and that's something you should want).

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Gerunds Are Cool

This post is just to talk about gerunds.  I think that gerunds are cool.  A gerund is when you use a verb that ends in -ing as a noun. Every time you talk about "my writing", you are using a gerund.

Something about gerunds just strike me the right way.  On the one hand, I find them funny.  They have a silly-sounding name and a silly concept - it's a verb, but we're going to make it be a noun.  On the other hand, I find them deep and awe-some; although the word represents an action, we take a step back and realize that the action itself can be treated as a cohesive thing, which a gerund simultaneously represents.

I don't go out of my way to use gerunds.  I generally don't go out of my way to teach somebody what they actually are unless they really want to know.  We all know how to use gerunds; it's just part of learning the language.  We just don't usually know that it's a thing or that it has a name.

You, though, do.  You are now aware of one of your tools.  You can simplify a phrase by referring to one's "partying skills" instead of a clunkier line like "the skills one uses to have a great time at parties".  More often than not, a gerund is a great way to clean up a heavy sentence.  And if your sentences are all of a healthy weight, then it's a nice way to add some spice to your language by throwing it in for a change.

Friday, April 8, 2011

An Open Letter To Andrea Carter

I received an email today. The subject line read, "Cheff Salad". The letter read as follows:

Hi Kevin,

I just posted an article on my blog entitled “Healthy Doesn’t Have to be Boring: 15 Innovative Salad Ideas” at [redacted] . Anyway I figured I’d bring it to your attention in case you thought it interesting enough to drop a quick mention on your site about it as I’m trying to increase readership of my blog.

Either way, hope you have a good week.


Andrea Carter

To Ms. Carter:
I carefully considered your request, and denied it.  You see, I don't think my readers really give a crap about your recipes.  My blog, despite its name, has nothing to do with foodstuffs.  It's about writing and life.  If you had paid even the most minute of attention, you would have noticed that.

Then again, it's pretty obvious that you didn't pay much attention.  I have no idea why you are so attracted to my 18 followers, the majority of whom do not actually visit with any regularity.  Way to shoot for the stars there, Andy.

I do wish you all the best.  Maybe one of the other bloggers you spammed while hitting the Next Blog button was more responsive to your solicitation.  When you do make it big, remember that I totally acknowledged your existence and chose to not redact your blog title.  Although I did it so my readers would know exactly why I was deriding you, it did allow them to actually google your name and blog, so it's not entirely impossible that you scored some major readers right there.

To my faithful and loyal readers:
This is what your teachers meant when they said that you have to know your audience.  Whether you are selling your ideas to one person or a million people, you have to know them.  No matter how many people you want to read your stuff, you can't just say that the target audience is everybody.  No matter how general or how generally acceptable your content is, it does have some kind of focus.  Know your focus and market yourself based on that focus.  It's the best way to be seen by the right people.

It's also a great way to not get made fun of.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011


I've been using the word 'proponent' recently.  I have described myself as a proponent of some idea or another.  At one point, I wondered how I would describe the word if I was asked what it meant.

"Well," I said to myself, "a pro-ponent is the opposite of an o-pponent."  Then I was silent.

I never realized that connection before.  I always thought of a proponent as a supporter, as one who agreed with some idea or action.  It wasn't until those words spilled out of my mouth that I realized that an opponent is the enemy of the proponent.

And it was not until writing this post at this very moment that I realized all of the other connections in the different word forms.

A proponent proposes.  An opponent opposes.  I always thought think of proposing as bringing up a new idea and suggesting it, and opposing is fighting against something.  But never had I thought of them as a word pair the way I think of 'up' and 'down' or 'in' and 'out'.

A proponent proposes a proposition.  An opponent opposes with an opposition. Again, this is a set of word pairs which are not often thought of as word pairs.

The reason I bring this up is that I am giving you a tool. You now have a new set of words that you can juxtapose in a way to add a poignant layering to your writing.

Ramble-On Sentences

Tonight I will be doing one of my rare talking-about-proper-grammar blog posts.  It seems that a lot of people don't quite know what a run-on sentence actually is.  A run-on sentence is an actual grammatical error where you have two independent clauses in a single sentence.  In simple terms, it means you have two sentences crammed into one (or you have two sentences worth of words, but one sentence worth of punctuation).

Most people seem to think that a run-on sentence is simply a sentence that is very long.  Sadly, that's not right.  You can string as many dependent clauses onto a sentence as you like and it will still be grammatically correct.

More often than not, writing suffers from what I call ramble-on sentences.  It's what happens when a sentence is extremely cumbersome to read and impossible to say easily, but it's not a run-on sentence.  It's not incorrect writing, but it is bad writing.

Of course,that doesn't mean you can't use an extended sentence effectively; it just means you have to really know what you're doing, and that you still can't do it very often.

Barbecue Beans And Blueberry Beer

This is kind of a weird title, so bear with me.  I had dinner with a friend tonight.  We had, among other things, barbecue wings and blueberry beer.  I said it out loud and reminisced about the tastiness (they were seriously scrumptious).  Then I decided that I liked how many B's were in it.  I decided that I needed more, so I replaced wings with beans, which are also a commonly barbecued foodstuff.  And now we're at the title.

So, what's the point of this title?  Well, there really isn't much of one.  I said the phrase, and started writing the post.  That really is the point, though: making sense of the senseless.

I could write a simple story about barbecue beans and blueberry beer - a quaint little slice of life about two friends having a quirky evening after going some time without seeing each other.  I could turn it into a song about some awesome party where that's what everybody was consuming.  I could write a poem about a psychedelic experience where everything was topsy turvy and nothing tasted like what it should be.

This phrase is an inspiration, or at least a stimulus to respond to.  Something so strange and out of the ordinary demands a response.  And something so strange and out of the ordinary with no context whatsoever needs to be figured out before it can be responded to. But since there is no actual answer, all responses are equally valid.

I am giving you barbecue beans and blueberry beer.  Now give me some writing.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Stitch Your Fragments

Writing sometimes comes as a free-flowing stream of connected thought.  I often am merely speaking through my fingertips, recording the words I would be saying if it were a spoken conversation.  And sometimes there are long pauses between thoughts.  Those breaks allow for shifts in mindset, which affects the writing.

Pronoun usage can often be lax.  When I talk about writers, for example, I can easily shift between saying "they" and "we".  In referring to a hypothetical person, I can switch between "I", "you", and "he/she/one".  If I write a few sentences, then stop to think about what I am going to say next (or if I get distracted by something else entirely), I can easily switch from one pronoun to another and not realize it.  The same mistake easily happens with tense.

Beyond technical errors, there are stylistic issues that can occur.  There is a certain rhythm and flow that goes with writing.  It's the musical aspect which makes it pleasant to the ears and easy to consume.  When your thoughts get separated and disjointed, though, the sound of your writing will be affected similarly.  This is why we need to edit.

Editing is the process by which we stitch together the separate pieces of writing that make an entire thought.  When we edit, we do the technical stuff like making sure that our pronouns and tenses agree with each other, but we also make sure that it all sounds good and feels right.  We make a whole, solid, contiguous piece of writing - not a collection of scraps.  And that's why you need to do it.

More Than Asking Questions

Writers are often seen as questioners.  Writers see the world and ask why.  They ask "what if".  They make up their own worlds and then ask questions about it.  Writers are also seen as the great motivators and changers of society.  Without asking those questions, the world would not have progressed anywhere near the way that it has.  But more is needed than that.

We do not make progress by asking questions.  We make progress by trying to answer questions.

Writers change society because they ask the questions and then try to answer them.  "What if" is merely an opening door.  The rest of the story is an answer to that question, the results being there for everyone to see.

Writing is about answering questions.  They don't always need to be the deepest, most significant questions that plague the human mind; they can be perfectly trivial.  But if you aren't answering a question of some sort, then you aren't providing anything of use.  You're creating noise.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

A Victim Of Addiction

I was reading the comic Surviving The World.  I stopped on this one, which says, "It could always be worse - you could be addicted to sauteed panda."  I've heard this sentiment before, the idea of the horror that would come from being addicted to a particularly bizarre substance.

At its face, it is comedy.  You can imagine the zany antics involved in trying to procure this totally unusual thing.  In fact, Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner cartoons are based on this very premise.  One crazy trick after another, just to get one fix.

But deeper, it is deeply disturbing.  What happens when somebody does get a fix?  Are they happy?  How long does it last?  If it's something highly illegal like sauteed panda, how long can they keep at it without getting caught?  If they do get caught, what would it be like in prison, going so very, very long without it?

Addiction is a scary thing.  We tend to think of it with chemical drugs (alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, etc.), but people can be addicted to anything.  And what makes addiction so fascinating is that otherwise fine people can become trapped by it.  The desire, the compulsion to have that drug forces people to do things they would never do.  And when they are ripped away from that drug, they go through unfathomable anguish for it.

I am interested by characters who are compelled by forces outside of themselves.  Addiction is most definitely one of those forces.  What can you write, using such a character?

Friday, April 1, 2011

Take Both Sides

I watched the episode of South Park that talked about Mormonism today.  I've seen it before and enjoyed it.  The entire episode is a bashing of the beliefs of the Mormons.  They show that the story of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon is the most ridiculous fraud ever and only a complete fool could believe it.

This time, though, the ending really struck me.  In it, when all of this frustration comes to a head and is released, the Mormon kid basically says that the story of Joseph Smith may be crazy, and he may have even been a fraud, but the religion teaches beneficial lessons and has made his family a good and loving one, and that is what really matters.

I thought about the creators of the show today.  It is very easy to watch the first 20 minutes of  that episode and think they are mercilessly insulting the Mormons.  But to watch the whole thing, you would think that it was the story of how great the Mormons actually are, not only for being great people, but for dealing with massive intolerance and taking it in stride.

Which side on the Mormonism issue did they take?  Both.  It's an impressive feat right there.  It's also spectacular writing.  I think the best writing does not tell you what to believe; it simply shows you a world and some people and leaves you to figure out what's good and bad, what's right and wrong, what's good and evil.

The next best thing to do in your writing is to take both sides of an issue and defend them equally.  Confuse the hell out of your audience by making an argument, then arguing against it.  Support your argument, then support its opposite.

The world is full of gray.  The truth lies between the absolutes.  Only by taking both sides will you be able to find it.