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.

Your Voice

People really like song lyrics. That's not a problem to me, but it is annoying that people do not like attributing quoted materials. In short, people constantly use song lyrics but don't say anything to indicate that it isn't their words.

Sometimes it isn't too difficult to tell that something is lyrics. There is either weird line breaks or punctuation, or really obvious rhyming. Even still, that doesn't eliminate the possibility that somebody wrote some poetry and put it up for the world to see.

Even though none of my friends have ever posted original poetry on Facebook or as an away message, I would have no trouble telling whether or not it was theirs. And that is because of their voice.

People speak in a particular way. The longer you are around somebody, the more familiar you become with that. The more familiar other people become with you, too.

To a degree, you can't give other people your lines. They don't have your voice. You may be similar and be able to get by, but eventually it gets realized.

The best editors will do one of two things. They will either be able to approximate your voice as perfectly as possible so that the replacements they give you sound like your lines, or they will give you ideas and sparks that allow you to revise your work with your own voice.

Your voice will likely change over time. New influences like people and other writers will be a major cause. You will also sometimes change just because you got bored of doing the same old thing or because some new thing you came up with struck your fancy.

Still, when you have forgotten the words of those outside influences and you are not using some particular technique or turn of phrase, then you will hear your true voice. It is how you sound when you believe that you don't sound like you have been influenced by anybody.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Everything You Write Is A Story

I often use the word "story" when referring to one's writing. Admittedly, I often think of one's writing as a traditional fictional prose narrative, but in a sense, everything you write is a story.

Standard fiction and creative nonfiction are functionally the same. These are stories. But really, all nonfiction is a story of sorts. A biography has to be compelling; it is more than a collection of facts. Anything short of a scientific report should be a compelling story (why else would anybody read it?). And, even within scientific reports, you are still telling a story. There is an introduction where we learn players and setting and struggles. There is a journey. There is a moment of truth, and there is a conclusion. The Scientific Method is the same as the storytelling method.

Keep this in mind when you write, no matter what you write: You are telling a story. You need to be interesting. You need to lead people from sentence to sentence, thought to thought. You probably have a point to make and that's fine. Make your point, but don't make it a chore.

Yes, every genre will have its own nuances, but the principles remain the same. Good storytelling is good storytelling. So, if you are writing something, tell a good story.

Monday, October 24, 2011


I've heard it said that stories seek closure. On its face, it makes sense. A story involves a protagonist with a problem who makes a decision, thus ending the problem. Whatever the result may be (positive or negative, foreseen or unforeseen), the choice has been made and the matter is closed.

I take issue with this. Nothing is ever closed. Nothing goes away forever. No part of your past stops affecting you.

Every couple of years, I will randomly get a thought in my head. I will think of myself from elementary school. It may be something I did or saw or thought. And after that, I will feel off for the rest of the day. I was a completely different person back then in every respect. It boggles my mind that those memories are of me. But they are.

Throughout my life, I have had opportunities come and go. I have made my choices and there is no way to go back and do it again. The matter may be closed, but that does not mean there is closure.

Thoughts linger. Feelings do, too. Once there is no more action we can take, we are forced to sit with those lingering thoughts and feelings and deal with them.

And that is where interesting stories come from.

Stories about the choices people make can be quite compelling. They can be wonderful escapist fantasy. In real life, though, that is not always the case. More often than not, we find ourselves having to live with the decisions we've made. It is not always pleasant and there is not a whole lot we can do about it, but everybody finds their own way to cope.

To me, that is where interesting stories come from: The ever-gripping pull of reality. People respond to humanity. And what is more human than a person dealing with the results of their choices?

I do not like the idea that there is no such thing as closure. It is a grim and dark belief. But, it is what I believe (at least as of writing this). If nothing else, I can use it to aid my craft.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

A Song For Every Feeling

I heard Gavin DeGraw's song "Not Over You" on the radio. Like always happens with songs, it's the music that hits me first. The banging piano pushes the beat forward. It gives energy. Gavin's voice is clear and adds a flowing melody. I can hear emotion in his voice and it adds humanity to it all.

Eventually, I pay attention to the lyrics. "If you ask me how I'm doing / I would say I'm doing just fine / I would lie and say that you're not on my mind / But I go out and I sit down at a table set for two / And finally I'm forced to face the truth / No matter what I say I'm not over you."

No wonder this song is so popular. How many people have been in this situation? It must be one of those universal truths, or something like that.

Randomly, Beyonce's song "Best Thing I Never Had" pops into my head. It strikes me that this song is the exact opposite of Gavin's. Beyonce "dodged a bullet" because her man "blew it". She could not be more enthused or excited to be out of her relationship.

This juxtaposition makes me wonder if stories (whether they be prose, poetry, lyrics, or other) really do hit on universal experiences, or if there are simply so many stories that every subject has been covered.

I can't think of any outcome of a break-up that doesn't have a song written about it. Really, every emotion from birth to death, love to hate, joy to sorrow, all have songs written about them. Sometimes I wonder if there really are universal truths, or if there is just a song for every feeling.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

What Are You Looking For?

People ask questions. That's what we do. I ask questions to myself. I ask questions to others. I have questions asked to me.

On its face, we ask a question because we are searching for an answer. Makes sense, doesn't it? That's what we learn in school. That's what we learn by observing as a youngster. But in actual experience, we find that isn't always the case.

Have you ever been asked a question and, when you answer, the other person is upset? The asker may be angry or may disagree or argue with you. This person didn't want an answer; they wanted a confirmation. They already knew what they wanted to believe, and they simply needed to hear an outside person say the same thing (but they couldn't tell you that because you had to agree with them without knowing that you were agreeing with them).

There are so many things one might look for when asking a question. It could be information (what day is it?), confirmation (this was a good story, right?), deception (do you think I can't tell you're lying when you do that?). And with rhetorical questions, they may not be looking for something from you, but wish to instill thought within you.

Writing is about questions. Life is about questions. There is so very much out there and questions are how we find things. But before you ask somebody a question, ask yourself: What am I looking for? (And before you answer somebody else's question, ask them: What are you looking for?)

Friday, October 21, 2011

You Need New Arguments

I like arguing. I'm good at it. The process of arguing comes so naturally to me that I will argue both sides of a debate with myself for fun. Actually, it's because I can't stand letting one side win an argument if I know there's holes in it.

Arguing is all well and good, but if the subject never changes, the arguments never change either, and the whole thing gets stale. I understand that writers generally have an all-encompassing central idea that infiltrates their stories, but you have to try to break beyond that.

Talk to other people. What are their thoughts? What are their beliefs? Don't be afraid to mix it up, either. Talk to somebody who really bothers you. Let them get under your skin. Get into a real argument. Seriously debate them.

You may not win (and that's fine). No matter what, though, you have got some new arguments to deal with. And, if you want to seriously get out of your comfort zone, try playing the believing game and finding how this totally wrong person was kinda right.

If you can keep your arguments fresh, you will keep your writing fresh. And that is something that is always worth doing.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Is It Worth It For 5%?

I was thinking about something Trey Parker (of South Park fame) said. In regards to him making an episode of South Park in 6 days as opposed to several weeks or months, he said that if he had several more weeks, he might be able to make an episode 5% better, but that it wasn't worth it. It is an insignificant increase compared to the cost of time.

In Trey's case, I think he's right. He can keep working on the next one. Obsession ends up halting the whole process. But Trey's case is not everybody's.

If I am writing a short story for a contest, I get no extra credit for submitting early. If I knock out a first draft in 2 weeks, but the deadline is 4 weeks from when I start, then hell, why should I not revise it three times? I may only get 5% better, but it makes me that much closer to success, and it really comes at no cost to me.

What situation are you in with your writing? Is it worth it to revise it one more time? Six more times? Is it worth it for 5%? If so, go for it. If not, do your best and move on to the next project.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

You Are Not An Audience Member Of Your Own Writing

Unsurprisingly, I am compelled to completely contradict what I wrote yesterday. As I said before, being the author of your own work, you are in a unique position. Because of that, you can never truly be an audience member of your own writing.

You know too much. You know about the characters, the settings, the process, the possibilities. And more significantly, you aren't guessing. You know things to be true. You don't wonder what a character may have been thinking or why they did some action or what that mysterious thing was - you know for a fact the answer to those questions. And that removes the mystery or the intrigue.

You can never read something for the first time. You always know what's going to happen at the end. You may be able to enjoy the journey (provided you can get over knowing the future), but you will never enjoy it the way any other person enjoys it.

It's a little sad and a little frustrating, but is also a fact. You simply cannot judge your own writing the way an outsider can. Make sure that you have somebody who isn't you read your work. You can miss some big things if you don't.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

You Are An Audience Member Of Your Own Writing

Being the author of your own work, you are in a unique position. You have created this work. You are intimately familiar with how it was made, what it could have been, what it used to be, and all the details that didn't make it onto the page. However, once your work is finalized, it exists outside of you. And in that sense, you are no different than any other audience member.

Although you made your story, you should read it the way you would read anybody else's story. Similarly, it should be as satisfying as anybody else's story (rather, you should demand the same quality and be equally as critical of your writing as others').

Especially when enough time has passed, reading your own story almost feels like reading somebody else's story, anyway. This ends up being a handy skill for your writing process, too. When you are not sure where you want to go, or when you are revising your work, just take a step away from it and ask yourself, what would I want to read? Since you are an audience member of your own writing, the answer you get is valuable reader input.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Don't Repeat For Clarity

I have found that some people, when they are trying very hard to make a point, will repeat something they've said. I don't necessarily have a problem with this, but I do take issue with why they do it: they say that they are repeating what they said to be clear.

There is no situation in which repeating yourself would make you clearer. If what you said didn't make sense the first time, there is no reason to think that saying it a second time will suddenly make things understandable.

If you are having a problem with clarity, use different words. If necessary, use different emphases. But whatever you do, don't say the same thing over again.

Now, I do want to make something clear. There is a time and a place for repetition - and that is for emphasis. When you repeat a sentence throughout a speech or essay, it is like you continue to hammer a point home; you show that everything you say is relevant to the point you are repeating. When you repeat just the beginning word or phrase in continuous sentences, then you are similarly emphasizing that the particular idea in those repetitions is important, that it is something that should be paid attention to more than usual. That is when repetition will be effective.

Even when you are doing it right, be careful with your repetition. The English language really hates repeating things in general. Although there are certain situations where it is accepted and effective, doing it too often will turn the audience against you.

Guarantees vs. Promises

It is not easy to tell the difference between a promise and a guarantee. In fact, when I looked up their definitions, they still sounded exactly the same. In theory, that should have been the end of it, but they don't mean the same thing to me.

As I see it, a guarantee is 100% certain. When you make a guarantee, there is no possible way that any other outcome will occur (perhaps aside from things completely out of your control like the world blowing up). A promise is the same thing in theory, but at a personal level. When you promise, you are assuring that you will do something (or will not do something).

Because of the personal nature of promises, it allows for the contingency that you will not hold up your end of things. In short, a promise can be broken.

I generally don't guarantee anything. There are too many factors in the world to be so confident. I do make promises, though. I can have very good intentions (or very cruel ones) when I promise something, but I acknowledge the fact that people can change and nothing is ever-sure. As such, a promise encapsulates that sincere belief, while understanding that such a belief may not always be held.

This is a fine line which can easily be missed or ignored in writing. It can make things complicated to have a person who is trying to make a particular outcome happen, but is also preparing for his own failure (or changing his mind in the middle of things). Such people are living simultaneously in two different universes, and straddle them both until the paths divide.

Consider characters you want to work with. What things could they guarantee? What things would they promise? These are the kinds of questions you have to ask yourself in order to know them well enough.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Different Rules For Different Tools

In college, when I took my first writing workshop class, my professor told us that a writing workshop is where everybody reads your writing, tells you what to do, ten you ignore them and do what you want. This is something I have talked about before. I still think about this advice, especially when I actually show my writing to other people for advice.

I still can get attached to my writing, so it really helps to remember not to take it personally when they scrutinize my work, and to know that I can ignore anything they say I don't agree with. If somebody starts saying something that gets my blood boiling, I release that anger in a giant ball of "I don't give a crap because your opinion means nothing to me" (which I politely keep to myself).

However. . .

That advice is not entirely universal. Writing workshops are basically a collection of strangers. You are going to have a mishmash of personalities and ideas which will give you a spectrum of opinions. Now, I have editors. More than that, they are trusted editors. They are writing soulmates. These are people who operate on the exact same mental frequency as me. They have the same thoughts about the same parts. They are people who will point out every single part of a story that I didn't feel comfortable with, even when I don't give them the slightest clue where those spots might be or what opinions I have of the strength of my writing.

I do not ignore my editors. They're smarter than me (they are certainly more perceptive). If they start giving advice that I would normally ignore, I shut my mouth and listen. I pay attention to every thought, every suggestion, and I consider them very carefully. If I even remotely agree with them, I will take their advice whole. If I thoroughly disagree with them, I will take a whole day to consider their advice from every angle to see if I'm missing something that they're catching.

I will never blindly listen to people's advice. I need to agree with it. But when I have people I trust as much as I trust my editors, I am working on an established base of them having my best interests at heart because it is their natural state as well as mine.

The point of all this is simple. A workshop is a tool. You run your draft through it and it produces a better next draft. An editor is like a one-man workshop. It functions very similarly, but it is not the same tool.

You need different rules for different tools. Understand that one way of doing things may work well for a particular situation, but that is no guarantee it will work for any other situation, no matter how similar.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Beauty Is Pain

I do a lot of persuasive writing for my job. It may be writing grant proposals, final reports, appeals, or thank you letters. All of them are very carefully written. Even our form letters go through multiple drafts before we print out the batch of them (actually, they are most important since hundreds of people will be seeing them [we also update our form letters every year, because they should not stagnate, plus information changes]).

Working with my boss is the most amazing process. She has over 50 years of experience in the field and is a wealth of knowledge. When I first started working with her, I was mostly taking dictation, but as I did so, she was explaining why she used the words she did. She often stopped to think about what she wanted to say, how she wanted to say it. It was so weird to me when we had a form letter, then we totally changed the format of the form letter. It was like, how come it was good enough last year, and now it's not? More importantly, who cares? Who really reads these things that carefully? Foundations probably get so many application that they're scanning through them anyway. Why fuss so much about it?

Now, I totally understand it. People are affected by words. People are unwittingly affected by words. People who quickly scan through text are still affected by the specific words you use.

And how do I know this to be true? Because today I thought about how my heart sinks when somebody says something juuust right. I thought about how attracted I am to people with good vocabularies who know how to use them. And when I realized how very much I am swayed by saying something in one particular way, I understood that all of the struggle and difficulty of wording document juuust right is completely worth it.

Beauty is pain. I kind of hate that saying in general, but it kind of works here. If you want the most effective writing possible, you will have to pay for it. Pay with your physical energy, mental energy, and your time.

Although these blog posts are first drafts, I do edit them as I write. This post I was careful with in my wording, especially in the beginning. It takes more time and energy, but damn it, it is worth everything I put into it to make these products which make me happy.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Write It Up

People often come to me with story ideas they have. I kinda love this. Sometimes hearing a story idea is the best part of the whole experience; it is full of energy, hope, and potential (and they bring it to me). The problem, though, is that sometimes hearing a story idea is the best part of the whole experience.

When people come to me, they generally want one of two things: blind support, or critical feedback. I'm pretty decent at reading people, but nowadays I always ask them upfront which one they're looking for. The irony is that it doesn't really matter which they say; they're going to get the same response.

If I like your idea, I'm going to tell you to write it up. You've got a great start with good ideas and it is simply the next step toward the final draft.

If I don't like your idea, I'm still going to tell you to write it up. There is no point in crushing somebody's dreams, or even just their energy, because I don't like something or I don't see the quality. I do not represent humanity. I don't even represent my demographic. I am just me. If you want to know how Kevin Bahler feels, I can tell you (my apologies to the one or two other Kevin Bahler's out there). Otherwise, I'm just one man's opinion.

Still, I have a certain obligation. People are coming to me. They trust me enough to share their ideas and to ask for my feedback. If I don't like something, I will tell them so (with a nice sugar coating). In addition, I will make suggestions to things that might make the story more compelling.

As I said earlier, though, the best part about the story idea phase is the potential in it. The story is yet unwritten. That means it can become literally anything. Authors grow and develop, as do their stories. So much creation happens while writing that first draft. I need to encourage and support people in sitting down and writing that first draft, in maintaining that creative spark and letting the story blossom. Once it has been put to paper and is a fully-written draft, then the story can be truly judged. Until then, there's nothing you can do but write it up.

Use Contractions

There's a reason we have contractions in language. They're easier to say and make for smoother communication. Although formal writing frowns on it, I still believe that more often than not, it's a good idea to use them.

One interesting thing I've found, though, is how often I don't use them when I'm writing. And I have figured out why I miss them, too. Although I write the way I talk, it is a slower process. During that process, I usually go one word at a time. So no matter how fast my fingers may be moving or my brain may be processing, it is still doing one word followed by one more word, and so on.

Because of that, contractions are often overlooked. In order to use them, I would have to be thinking multiple words ahead of what I'm writing, which I'm largely not doing. Sometimes, I do have a whole thought in my head, so I can use contractions. And sometimes a particular wording is awkward that it breaks my focus and I make the change immediately.

Usually, a cursory proofreading will catch all of the spots where a contraction would smooth out a sentence (though I don't proofread my posts, which is why you probably have come across more than a couple here.

One final note, though. Contractions are usually a good idea, not always. Sometimes I choose to separate two words because it sounds better that way. Sometimes I do it to add emphasis to one of those words. In this post, there are some contractions I chose not to use because it felt right.

Tell me if you think I was wrong to do it.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Writing Is Lonely

I watched documentary on the making of South Park that was aired on Sunday. It was fantastic. There was a very short scene where Trey Parker was talking about the part of the process where he is actually writing the script. In that part, he talks about how lonely and kind of sad it is.

The creative process is a wonderful group activity (provided you have a good group with a good group dynamic). You can bounce ideas off of each other and generate a truly amazing collective work. However, that is all pre-planning. That's conceptual stuff. When it comes to putting the words on paper, that is a one-man job.

You simply don't need two or three people all sharing a keyboard. And trying to collectively type will either be exceedingly time-consuming or exceedingly infuriating (imagine bouncing ideas for every single sentence).

So, it is one person in front of a notebook or a keyboard. And in that moment, you are alone. To extroverted people, this is murder. The same is true for the easily bored. Even I find myself constantly switching between my Word document and my web browser when I am starting up. It's not until I get really into a writing session that I stop juggling different activities, just to avoid that feeling of isolation. (Once I get the ball rolling, I get immersed in my world and don't feel so alone.)

It's no surprise that writers tend to be introverts. They're the people who want to spend time being alone. If that's you, then you've got no problem. Enjoy yourself, but do try the group dynamic to see what it's like. If loneliness does get under your skin, then either bite the bullet and tough it out, or find a way to ease into a session. Whatever your case may be, if you let that isolation become an unscalable wall, you will not be going very far.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Choose Your Words Carefully

Our mouth tends to work faster than our brains. Our fingers do the same. We communicate, then we realize that we said something that we shouldn't have.

In instant communication like speech and text messaging, you will be largely screwed when that happens. Fortunately, writing is planned, so you can choose your words carefully.

Of course, you still have to have enough thought to actually do that, to read your words as though you were an outsider and think about how it might be interpreted. (You might also get a good editor who can do that for you.)

It truly amazes me how much difference it makes, saying something in one way or another. It is the power of words. Be careful with that power. It is very easy to harm yourself with it.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Tell Things To Your Audience

Too much emphasis is placed on being subtle with writing. I agree that subtlety is good. I agree that we should not be heavy-handed with explanation or overbearing with narration. But the excessive emphasis leads writers to have the opposite problem: they don't give enough information to the audience.

I myself am a prime example. Whenever I write a first draft, my editors all agree that I haven't written enough. Scenes feel glossed over. Characters are confusing or not understandable. All the problems I have come down to me not explaining enough with my words.

Sure, I can try to hide behind the "I'm being succinct" excuse, but it is just that: hiding and making excuses. And you will not grow and will not create your best work if you do those things.

I need to suck it up and accept that I am not explaining enough. I think that I am leaving things for the audience to ponder and decide on, but that is not what I am ending up with. I am ending up with a lack of crucial information that would explain why things are happening as they are.

Stories need to be compelling. People need to be satisfied when they read them, not confused. Pondering comes after finishing a satisfying story. We think about what we read, what we experienced (vicariously), what we might have chosen to do if we had the choice, how we might live with the decisions that were made.

But, never forget that such thoughts and entertainment will not happen if you do not give enough concrete information for the audience to grab onto. If your tendency is to write too little, try too right too much. Most likely, you will end up writing just enough.

Nuances Are Hard

Continuing from the previous post, extreme characters are much easier to make. The one downside to them is that, because they are simple, you can only make simple stories with them.

A more realistic person is very nuanced. They can be completely conflicted, hold contradictory beliefs, be involved in completely unrelated activities and groups. It makes things significantly more difficult to create and really get your head around, but generally, you get a much more powerful and gripping story out of it.

Although I do try to go along for the ride when reading a story, I cannot help but make predictions on what happens next. Simple characters have significantly fewer options in a given situation that would be justifiable. Nuanced characters have more. As such, they are much harder to predict, and thus provide a bigger punch when they reach that critical point.

When you are ready, work on characters like these. You can borrow ideas from real people, but I recommend avoiding building a character on an existing person. They tend to feel like hollow facsimiles.

You're creative. Create your own nuanced person.

Extremes Are Easy

The advice when planning out your characters is to know them thoroughly. Know them better than the audience does. Know things about them that may not even appear in your story, but are part of their character (which would affect how and why they do the things they do).

This is good advice, but not always easy. People are complicated and it takes a lot of mental energy to build one from scratch.

Sometimes the simplest way to go is to make your characters extreme. Extremes are easy. Somebody who is all good all the time will be pretty predictable. Same thing for people who are always lazy or permanently trouble making.

If you are wanting to start getting into serious planning for your writing - where characters are from, how they got where they are, how they would react to situations - start by working on extreme characters. You can still make them interesting, even if they are somewhat predictable.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Muster Up The Courage

It's a funny situation to be in, when you really want to do something, but you are held back. All too often, you are held back by yourself. You are full of fear and doubt and hesitation, so you have to muster up the courage to step forward and do what you want.

The irony to me is that courage is seen as this great, valorous quality, but ultimately, it is simply removing your inhibitions. If you are thinking about writing a novel, you may not do it because you fear the work, fear you might fail to finish, fear you may be embarrassed when others hear about it, fear that it sucks. But beneath all of that, you want to write that novel!

Courage, in this case, is ignoring those fears and pushing forward. You may do so because you are more confident than fearful. You may do so because you lied to yourself and said that you weren't afraid. Whyever you did it, you overcame your inhibitions.

If courage is simply overcoming your inhibitions, it is no wonder that alcohol is known as "liquid courage".

However you choose to do it, realize that your fear is a cover-up. Whatever it is you think you're debating, you know what the answer is. Muster up the courage and do it.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Not All Subjects Fit Your Style

I am succinct. I like to make every sentence matter, every word matter. I am short and to the point. If I ever repeat myself, it is for emphasis, not for ambiance. As it turns out, not all subjects fit that writing style.

I wrote a story which involved a gory battle that ended in a tragic death. This is not something you gloss over. It is not something you casually describe. It is a scene which needs to be embellished.

Because it is not my style to embellish scenes, it is a bit unnatural to do so. However, that is no excuse to avoid it. My story lives beyond me. I owe it to my creation to make it the best that it can be. If that means going beyond my comfort zone, so be it.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011


Hope is a step below confidence. It is the feeling one has where they do not expect their desired outcome to happen, but they still sincerely wish that it does. When people hope, they imagine the outcome; they plan for the outcome; but they are not confident of it.

In general, people hope when they have nothing else. Otherwise, they would be devoting their energy to some brilliant plan of action to get what they want, instead of waiting for the future to happen and finding out if it was favorable.

But because of that, hope is the single most emotionally powerful thing one can do. When you see characters hope, they are desperate. They are in a bad place and sorely need the best possible thing to happen. They may not always get the best possible result, but when something positive does happen, then the audience is overwhelmed by it. Similarly, when a character hopes and gets nothing good from it, it makes that sting even worse.

Be wary when using hope in your writing. A little bit can go a long way. Doing too much of it makes the characters powerless and thus useless. Making it negative can be a total bummer. Making it excessively positive feels like a deus ex machina. And, as with all techniques, if you don't use it very often, it doesn't get the chance to become predictable or stale.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Don't Look For Problems

This is a subject I wrote about last year (using almost the exact same title, actually), but it is one I am compelled to revisit. Right now, I am on both sides of the reviewing table. I am having my two editors reading my latest work, which I will be sending out soon. I also am reading two different people's works.

The most important thing that needs to be done before anybody reads anything for anybody else is to find out what the author wants from it. For example, one friend is mostly just sharing her work. She welcomes any comments, but is not particularly looking for any specific feedback. My other friend is in a similar spot, but is looking for specific feedback. How are things working? How are the dynamics between characters? What questions are raised as you read this?

The story I sent out is certainly my style, but it is not my subject (I'm being a good writer and experimenting outside my comfort zone). Because of that, I am asking for feedback that is somewhere between specific and general. I do want to know how the overall feel of the piece works, but I have an idea of what my editors will think (mostly that it's good, but a little hokey). So what I need more than the general is specific feedback on what is working well and what is not. I need to be told what is dragging the story down and given thoughts on how to change it. I am not worrying about proofing whatsoever. I'm largely not concerned with sentence-level problems because I am not far enough along for that to be a worthwhile concern.

Three different authors are having their writing looked at and want three different things done in their reviews. However, even if you are reading something from somebody who wants you to be super picky, the advice remains the same: don't look for problems. Read the story naturally. Real problems will be readily seen. If you want to go through it slowly, with a fine-toothed comb, go ahead. But if you jump in specifically looking for problems, you will end up with a bunch of false positives. You will make a lot of changes that don't make the piece better, just different. And that is bad editing.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

You Have To Make Sense

 It is a shame that writing represents reality, but very rarely actually is reality. Sure, there is plenty of nonfiction. I bet there is even plenty of nonfiction that doesn't make up any details. But even then, we have a filter. Extraneous crap gets left out in editing. But so much of life is extraneous crap.

I can't have a conversation without tangents. My mind is working too hard at too many subjects to stay too focused on any one of them. When somebody makes a statement (including myself), my brain makes some kind of connection, and then is compelled to share that connected thought. And if I ever showed that kind of thing in writing, it would be awful.

Sure, there are types of writing where one's thoughts just sort of get spewed out. There's stream of consciousness, for one. But even in stream of consciousness, there is a flow (probably why they call it a stream). It may be a little jumbled or may have some gaps that need filling, but there is a sense to it.

If you showed the mind working like it really does, jumping from subject to subject with no introduction or explanation, sometimes not even having a single thing whatsoever to do with the previous subject, you would be accused of terrible writing (and rightly so).

Writing is all about communication. Words without sense are just gibberish. And gibberish is the antithesis of communication.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Sometimes Writing Isn't Like That

If there is one thing I really want to do with Cheff Salad, it is to show reality. I do not lie here. I do not exaggerate in order to manipulate (only as creative license). I only speak my mind, whatever my mind is saying when I hit New Post.

Sometimes, I write about this amazingly intellectual world, this very personal process. It is not uncommon for writers to talk about working with words like they are building blocks or some material they can arrange and rearrange and stitch together. And sometimes writing is totally like that.

And sometimes, writing isn't like that at all. Sometimes writing is not about the words for me at all. I may just be trying to get a story, work on a concept or philosophy. Hell, sometimes I am just trying to figure out what happens next.

Sure, everything comes down to words. Writing doesn't exist without words (writing without words is drawing). But, the words themselves are not always the concern. There are microscopic and macroscopic aspects of writing. The microscopic can be very cool. It is truly awesome to be able to tinker and smooth and polish, to pick one words out of hundreds of thousands of words that produces the exact effect that you want. But that is not the entirety of writing.

I know that this post could be 2-3 paragraphs shorter. I have said the same thing over and over and over again. I am doing this to hammer down the point. And, to connect it with my introduction, I want to say that I will sometimes post very contradictory things here. There is a reason for that, and since I don't lie here, the reason is that writing is a large world and one of very, very opposite-seeming things which are simultaneously true.

Watch out and try not to get too stuck in your ways. Somebody with an opposite belief may be equally as correct as you.