Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Write Until You Drop

The more exertion an activity uses, the faster you run out of gas. I can sustain a full sprint not very long, but I can walk forever. Actually, I can't walk forever, but it seems like it.

I remember my last long walk. I was stuck on a plot point and said that I would not go home until I figured it out. That ended up taking quite a bit of time and quite a bit of walking. After I figured out the plot point, I then had to walk home. And with the thinking work over, I ended up analyzing everything going on.

What I noticed was that when I started walking, I had a pace faster than most people, and by the end, I was basically staggering. Though I never stopped walking, the quality of my walk did degrade. I didn't end up walking until I dropped. If it wasn't a life-or-death situation, I don't know if I could push myself to actually walk that much just to see me do it.

That thought leads me to writing, which although it is far less physically taxing, it takes a lot of mental energy. I wonder if it is possible to write until you drop. Could you just keep writing, not letting yourself stop, until your body (or maybe your mind) runs out of fuel and just stops running? I honestly don't know, but it would be an interesting experiment.


I wholly believe in being succinct. I don't like wasting words and I hate repeating myself. That said, I am not opposed to reinforcing my ideas.

Sometimes there is no single word to express how significant something is. If I am explaining the lynchpin of a plan, 'important', 'crucial', even 'dire' does not express the degree to which its success is necessary and its failure will be catastrophic. I would have to show the tension in the voice, the sweat on the brow, and dedicate a few sentences explaining just how important this part is.

It would be fast and efficient to just say that it's "critical" and move on, but that will not create the proper feeling or understanding for the audience. And succinctness is not about containing information: it's about expressing information.

Say exactly what you need to make your audience feel what you want. If you need to reinforce an idea to reach that level, then you are still being succinct. You are doing it in the best way possible.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

On Passion

I find 'passion' to be an interesting word and concept. People talk about relationships as passionate, or feeling passion for a lover, but their words ring hollow to me. I don't know what they mean by 'passion', and I wonder if they really understand it.

As I approach any subject, I have to start with a definition. So I look at the things people describe as passionate, the things they say they are passionate about (other than a relationship or lover), and then I ask myself what I would say I'm passionate about.

People can be passionate about subjects from the sciences to sports, and with specificity as broad as "history" and as narrow as "16th century Japanese blades". Passion means knowing as much as they can about the subject, seeking to learn more if possible, talking about it, and sometimes centering their life around it.

I would call myself passionate about words and language, and about storytelling. I want to say that I have a passion for social sciences, human behavior, and philosophy or psychology, but I don't think it is passion; I think it is just a strong interest in them.

Passion is a kind of dedication. People who are passionate about something dedicate themselves to it - their time, their energy, their lives. Passion is more than just a regular dedication, though; it's a joyful dedication. We are passionate about things that make us happy. We don't just talk about our passions, we feel energized by talking about them. We smile and perk up and become exuberant. That which we are passionate about completes us as people.

This is my definition. It fits the way I use the word and mostly it fits how I observe other people using the word. With this definition, I can better understand how people describe a relationship as passionate. I can see passion being a truly powerful force, and not something to throw around lightly.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Craftsmen vs. Businessmen

From my notes: If your goal in any endeavor is money first, then you are not a craftsman; you are a businessman. I don't care for businessmen.

What I mean by that is that your intent in writing really matters. People who write because they want to create or express ideas write for the sake of writing. They are craftsmen in the art of writing and storytelling. People who treat writing as a means to an end (e.g. "I want to be really famous, so I'll write a story about a hot issue to gain notoriety.") are businessmen. Their goal is money and writing just happens to be the method they chose to make it.

I do not have a problem with making money from writing. I have no problem with writers pursuing writing for it to be a full-time career. What I do have a problem with is people who treat writing as a chore to get through in order to get what they really want.

Writing should be its own enjoyment. If you aren't liking it, then you should be doing something else.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Impossible Opponents

I have been playing the computer game Diablo III for quite a while now. I find it an excellent video game on several levels, but there is one quality in particular I want to discuss: impossible opponents.

To give a quick explanation of the gameplay and mechanics involved, you are a classic armed-to-the-teeth hero, going through randomly generated levels, slaying randomly generated demons, all to restore peace to the world. You have your classic health meter, and when your life hits zero, you die. If you die, you can resurrect from the last checkpoint on the level you reached. When you beat the game, you unlock the next difficulty, where you can continue to gain experience and acquire even stronger equipment, all while fighting stronger versions of the enemies.

Periodically, you will encounter elite enemies. They are like normal enemies, but they will glow blue or gold, and will have special abilities on top of their normal attacks. In every subsequent difficulty level, the enemies gain additional abilities. So where on the Normal level, an enemy might have a shielding ability or a mortar-launching ability, in the next difficulty level (Nightmare), they will have two abilities, so they could have both. And on the fourth and final difficulty level (Inferno) they have 4 randomly generated abilities, on top of already being tough as nails for naturally being the hardest difficulty level.

Here is where it gets interesting, because some of these enemies are completely impossible to defeat. What's that? Impossible to defeat? Like they can't take damage? No, imaginary person, they can take damage, but you can't deal out enough of it before they kill you. And if you resurrect, then they will regain all of their health. When enemies can make themselves temporarily invincible, open up craters of lava under your feet, freeze you in place, and set up laser turrets all around you, you will be spending most of your time trying to survive, with barely an opportunity to actually launch an attack against them.

This aspect of the game can be aggravating beyond belief, but I actually support it. It does something that games basically never do. In nearly every game, you must be able to beat your opponents. They are there for you to wreck up. Often, you can't even progress without killing every living thing. Occasionally, a game may throw an invincible enemy at you, but they are truly invincible. Your weapons literally do zero damage to them. Your escape is scripted and demanded.

But here, you are tempted with the opportunity to kill these impossible opponents. They are mortal. They can take damage. Everything about them, especially including all your previous experience with video games, tells you that you should stand your ground and crush them, but when you are the corpse ten times out of ten, you start to accept that maybe your belief that they even can be felled is flawed. This is when you realize that although the opponents are impossible, the mission is not. If you can run fast enough and far enough away, such that they simply can't keep up with you, you can progress with the level, losing the battle, but possibly winning the war.

Diablo III does an amazing job in the beginning making you feel like the hero of legend, and in the end making you feel extremely mortal. And that mortality is what is rare and what is exciting.

If you are making a video game, then the lesson is right there. And if you are writing a story, the lesson is not far off.

A hero dropping thugs can be satisfying until it gets boring. A hero fighting an opponent who cannot even be harmed is shocking (especially if the hero just finished wiping out a fleet of thugs), but ultimately just railroads the story. A hero fighting an opponent that can be defeated, but is just too much better in some way or another is gripping. You feel the hero struggle. You see progress and get hopeful, but the progress is just not enough to succeed. Seeing that real chance for victory and having it dashed makes you feel the loss the way that the hero does. Having the fear of impending death (or whatever loss is at stake), and having the hero realize that the only way to survive is to run, and the only way to win is to not engage in the fight is a rare emotion for a hero, but a very human one, which we might all be able to relate to. And when you can make that kind of connection with your audience, you have reached an impressive level of storytelling.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Nothing Need Be Said

Sometimes, you aren't trying to learn a new lesson or understand a new technique. Sometimes, you're just doing what you already know how to do, and what you have already done in the past.

In those cases, nothing need be said. Just keep writing.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Internal Conflict Is More Compelling

It's classically said that there are only three stories: man versus god, man versus man, and man versus himself. And since all stories are classically about conflicts, we can look at the first two examples as stories external conflicts and the last one as stories about internal conflicts.

Personally, I find internal conflict is more compelling. External conflicts can be grand and powerful. Two mighty forces clashing against each other, emotions flaring, and you've got the makings of a blockbuster movie. But the stories are generally simpler. Two forces clash, one of which will be stronger than the other, and that's the one that survives.

But when dealing with internal conflict, the two forces exist in a single mind. This undermines the classic confidence of heroes, the valiant efforts they make. These stories are about a person who is confused and torn, who is simply trying to figure out what they really want. They are not people who simply have to defeat an opponent to get what they want. They are people who want things that are impossible, and have to find a way to deal with it. And that is the height of drama, of truly compelling storytelling, to me.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Get Energy From Fellow Writers

Writing is a peculiar craft to me, because it is generally done alone, and writers usually ignore the opinions and notes on how to change their ideas, all of which flies in the face of humanity's social nature. Ultimately, I do believe that we can be better writers by spending time with other writers.

Talk about your craft. Discuss your ideas. Share your energy. I have gotten more motivation just fro hearing my friends talk about their own projects and their own progress than any other trick or technique.

Talking with other writers is great in general but especially if you don't know what to do or if you feel generally lost or lethargic, get energy from fellow writers. Even without them trying to help you, they will be of tremendous help.

Everyone Else Is Imperfect, Too

I am always amazed by the insane beliefs people construct about others. I hear people say things like, "I said that I didn't like Chinese food once, but then he asked if I wanted an egg roll. So he must be trying to piss me off." What scares me most is that people believe these things. It doesn't even occur to them that maybe mentioning something once won't stick, or that maybe they just forgot.

I see people say that they started blogs and they would post links about it in one place or another, but it hasn't helped their traffic. Well, some people need reminders or nudges. I know I'm guilty of checking a link to a blog, reading some, and then moving on.  But when I see links to that one blog multiple times and keep finding good stuff, I am more likely to choose to come back on my own. If you assume that I simply hated it or didn't care, then you will be missing out by not being more persistent.

This is a behavior that affects us as writers, but can also affect characters.Though I generally don't like stories about people who make assumptions about each other, I can accept it as being a representation of reality. I have heard real people tell stories about wanting to lean in for that kiss, but feeling like they didn't get the right signs and chickening out. Somehow they assumed that the other person knew exactly what they wanted and was actively not putting out any signs, never even considering that maybe the other person was just as nervous and also waiting.

I think that the most compelling stories are not about people who are perfect, nor do I think it is about people who make assumptions and then act upon them with confidence. I think the best stories are of imperfect people who try their best despite the problems beyond their control, and who can at least understand that everybody else is imperfect, too.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

An Interesting Time In My Life

I think that if you could interview protagonists, they would probably describe the events of their stories as "an interesting time in my life." That is, of course, why those stories were made in the first place - they were interesting. Nobody cares about the boring times of people's lives.

"Interesting" also conveniently covers so many possible things. It could be about overcoming adversity, about gaining a new view of the world, about acquiring new skills, about putting those skills to use.

I find it amusing, though, that when people ever say they're at an interesting time in their lives, they are the people I want to spend the least time around. Internal struggle, that major conflict of ideas that rattles the mind and oozes out the body, makes people irritable, whiny, and all-around boring. Their lives may be fodder for an interesting story (usually not, though), but it is the kind of thing that is way funner to read about than to experience.

More Than The Twist

I recently read Subnormality's #200 comic. Please take the time to read this story before continuing, because this post will have spoilers, and you may not have a damn clue what I'm talking about without the context.

This is an amazing short story. This young man is searching for anomalies, making discoveries and progress, dedicating four years to it, with the plan to dedicate his life to discovering these anomalies, only to fall victim to one in the end. All those years, all that energy and research, just blinked out of existence.

I felt a sort of dread as I was approaching the big reveal; I was so certain that this was going to be the twist, and it was.

In a sense, this story did something I would normally disapprove of: I was able to guess the twist before it happened. (Admittedly, it wasn't until right before, and I wasn't 100% certain it would happen, but I bet many people would have guessed it from the premise, especially if they were really trying to figure it out.) But in a different sense, that didn't matter at all because there was so much more than the twist to this story.

I left this story thinking about stuff, reflecting on the questions the characters posed.
"Are you the same person you were yesterday?"
Are anomalies common in nature? Did they exist before structure?
Why has nobody else been studying this? And in retrospect, does nature abhor letting people be aware of its inconsistencies?

This is the point of the story, thinking about these questions, pondering their worth or their potential truth, and what it would mean if we could find them to be true. The twist is merely an event that happened that was as critical to the story as all the other events.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Complex Mechanisms

I was thinking about all the things that I enjoy, because they seem so unrelated. I like words and sentences, mathematics (especially manipulation of numbers), chemical reactions, physics, social constructs. I probably did so well in school because most of the subjects have interesting parts to them.

But as I listed off all these subjects, I realized that they did have something in common. All of them are complex mechanisms. They have many parts to them, all of which can move in concert, and all of which are affected by everything else that is at play in the system.

What I enjoy is understanding such systems, first by learning about each part, then learning about how they interact, and eventually seeing how the entire systems works as a whole. There is a beautiful serenity in seeing everything work together, all as they should.

These are the stories I also find most appealing. I don't want merely protagonist vs. antagonist, or good vs. evil. I want a complex mechanism. I want several fronts of people, each with different desires and motivations, all having to interact with each other, and having unexpected things occur because of the sheer complexity of it all.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Being Good At Terrible Things

I find it interesting to see a character who is good at terrible things: lying or manipulating people, shooting ability to kill or maim at will, infiltrating areas undetected, compromising computer systems.

Their treatment in stories is usually being convinced that their abilities can be put to good use (thus teaching us that all skills are tools which are neither intrinsically good or bad) to stop the bad guys, or being kidnapped and forced to use those skills for another's gain (which generally ends with that person using their skills to outsmart the kidnapper and either escape or get the hero to arrive).

I am disappointed in how few was this concept is used. Maybe that's because if you're good at terrible things, you can just choose to not do them and continue living the rest of your life (which would be even more boring). But there has got to be something between them.

Temptation is an interesting angle. What if they feel awful for using those skills, but also really enjoy it? There is potential there, but you need to go deeper. Why do they like using their abilities? How did they get to be so good at what they do? What is at the heart of the internal conflict?

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Judge Things By Their Goals

Nobody takes black and white photos for evidence at a crime scene. Crime scene photography needs to be accurate. It needs to record as much information as possible. In the present day, black and white photography serves no purpose beside an artistic one. When you look at black and white photos, you should judge them on what they are trying to do, which is capture the real world in a surreal way. It plays with light and shadows. It shows you common things in novel ways. To judge black and white photography in its ability to accurately express the real world would have it fail miserably in every attempt.

This is true about everything in life, writing included. If somebody hands me a piece of writing and asks if it's good, then I have to know what it's supposed to be good at. Otherwise, I can only assume that they want to know if it's good at entertaining me, which is usually a worthless statistic.

It's easier said than done, I admit. Removing your own taste and approaching a piece of writing by any other standards does not come naturally to most people. And I will say that you can never truly remove your own taste; if writing could be approached that mechanically, people wouldn't need your opinion in the first place (nor would the world need writers at all). That said, if a romance novel takes place in space, it is still a romance novel and criticism should not include complaints that it isn't more of a sci-fi adventure story.

Judge things by their goals. Something is good when it is good at what it tries to be.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

I Like When Nobody Is Wrong

I love stories about ideological differences. They are always compelling to me because all of the sides passionately fight for their beliefs (and not merely fighting against somebody else's). It is also the kind of story I enjoy writing the most. (Comedies of errors can take the back seat every day of the week.)

Unfortunately, it is not a subject that is easily done well. Too often we have Good vs. Evil. Stories about a person who wants to rule the world are stupid. The power may be great, but the responsibility of running a government is awful. And as I said above, stories about an antagonist who has a particular desire and a protagonist whose desire is to "stop the bad guy" without any real motivation other than maintaining the status quo are the fodder for literary mockery.

In a good story, nobody is wrong. People may disagree; they may come to blows. But they both hold beliefs and provide arguments against the others'. If you read these stories and don't really know how to feel because they both made compelling cases, then you know the writer did a great job.


I believe that many experiences in life are underwhelming. The shock is how not shocking it all is. I believe there is a way to express that in writing, and it is the hardest endeavor to take on.

I have tried so long to express anticlimax in my stories, but it always comes across as anticlimactic. I know there are ways to make disappointment work; that's all about creating strong hopes and great expectations, and dashing them at the worst possible time. And I know that one can also create a sense of loss even when the "loss" was simply not gaining what the character expected; that's all about exploring the depression the character feels from not becoming what they expected to become.

Still though, I always want to capture life. And life usually isn't that crushing. Very few people sink into depression because they didn't become astronauts. As they grew up, their goals and deals changed gradually. And that gradual change, along with people's incredible ability to accept and grow accustomed to their surroundings is what makes life underwhelming.

The question I have then, is if anticlimactic stories are compelling. And if the answer is that they can be, but only if you tell the story in a particular way, then the question is if the story itself is compelling or if it is the storytelling technique.

If there comes a day that I do get the answers, I shall revisit the subject.  If you have some answers of your own, please let me know.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Deathbed: The Bed That Eats

Tonight, I watched Deathbed: The Bed That Eats. I watched it solely because my friend and I absolutely love Patton Oswalt's bit on this movie. I finally decided to download it and tnight we watched it together.

Predictably, this was an awful movie. Like, it is as terrible as you think. Laughably bad acting, terrible camera shots, and a ridiculous plot that makes basically no sense. But with all that said, it did do a couple of interesting things.

For one thing, I have to mention the gratuitous nudity. I will not deny for a moment that it was pure fanservice and every woman except maybe one appears nude in this film. That said, there are certain aspects of it that I did find commendable. In the first seen when the horny couple starts having sex on the bed, clothes start coming off. Does it further the plot? Not really. But is it realistic? Yeah. That's what starts to happen when horny couples search desperately for a bed in an abandoned house and find one. Later on in the movie, when another woman changes into her pajamas to sleep for the night, she naturally didn't have her clothes on while she was changing them. Again, it was not really necessary, but the sheer fact that it happened and nobody really cared (it was not a sexualized scene - it was quite matter-of-fact [probably due mostly to the terrible acting]) made it more palatable to me.

For another, I'm impressed that the movie went against the classic horror trope of killing off the black character first. In fact, although she does end up dying, she is the strongest, most resilient character in the whole movie. And it wasn't in any tacky way. When Deathbed tried to eat her, she not only struggled and fought, but she escaped the bed. She crawled with nonfunctioning legs up stairs to try to escape the cellar she was in. I strongly support this movie from 1977 for depicting this character in such a way.

Thirdly, this movie largely passes the Bechdel Test. Most of the characters are women. They have numerous conversations, most of which do not involve men in general or any man in specific. Despite all its flaws, I am again impressed that this movie has women in a number of lights, some of which being positive, and none of whom are merely the objects of men.

All things considered, I by no means recommend this movie. It is so boring it put my friend to sleep. I survived mostly from being amped on caffeine from dinner and making stupid jokes throughout the film.

That said, it is quite surprising that I sat down and watched a stereotypically awful, dated horror B-movie (my friend called it a C-movie) and actually noticed some impressively redeeming values in it. It really makes me appreciate that there is a difference between a terrible story and a story with literally no redeeming values.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

You Can't Pirate An Experience

People worry about piracy a good deal, and I can understand it to some degree. If somebody builds tables, we know that table has a value and we will pay for it. So if I create stories, they should have value and people should pay for it.

The problem is that although our society tells us that everything we create has value, it also tells us that whatever value something is listed as, it has significantly less. (Many people will not buy a product if it is not on sale.) So, people will buy a table, but they think it is only worth what the materials cost. And since a digital book has no materials and can be copied indefinitely, it should be free.

I am totally ok with that. I do not mind giving away my stories. I want them to be heard and read. I want people to not feel like they are gambling on my stories or that they might have wasted money if they don't like what I have to say. If a million people liked my stories and none of them paidto read it, I would be ok with that. It would mean that I am popular and have a sizable following.

When you have a fanbase, they will still give you money. They may pay to get something personalized from you. They may buy your merchandise. Their web traffic will give you ad revenue. And they will pay to see you live.

We cannot stop piracy, but we can make it obsolete. If you change your business model and have people pay for experiences or tangible objects, things that they can't pirate, then everybody wins.

Friday, July 13, 2012

I Can't Compartmentalize Well

When I am in a good mood, I love everybody. Not, like, everybody in the world, mind you, but all the people I like, I love at that moment. When I'm in a crabby mood, everybody can eat me. They all get the cold shoulder or a grouchy response. I don't like that this is the case, but I have trouble doing much about it.  I can't compartmentalize my emotions well.

This issue can bleed into my writing, too. If one character is in a particular mood (excited, enraged, lethargic, philosophical), the other characters always seem to be matching that energy. Maybe it's a god thing, because it keeps a certain feeling I am trying to create, but it feels fake or forced because of how rare people really do match each other's energy levels (and it gets more unlikely the more people are involved).

I have made some progress over the years. At least I am cognizant of when a character feels an emotion strongly. From there, I can make myself think about what is inducing it and realize that if other characters are not similarly motivated, then they shouldn't be feeling that same emotion at the same level. And if I can get that far, then I can think about what my other characters should be feeling based on everything going on in their lives, and then I should be golden.

It's a lot of work, but it's progress. Still, the more I work on it, the less I have to actively try and the more natural it will be. And that is always the key to good writing (to good anything), so do it I shall.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

I Didn't Realize I Was Thinking

When I am trying to brainstorm, I usually do a relatively mindless activity like simple puzzles or doodling on paper. The idea is that it will allow me to tap into that trance-like state where my mind wanders and discovers new ideas or connections.

The problem with it is that sometimes it just doesn't work, and other times it works too well. If I am in that trance-like state, it means that I am relaxing the grip on my consciousness and getting lost in my own head. And by that very virtue, I'm not paying attention.

Sometimes I catch myself in the middle of it all and have the bizarre experience of realizing that I didn't realize I was thinking.

I think it is an unavoidable experience if you are trying to be creative. The one nice thing, though, is that when you are exploring like that, you may come across a lot of bland ideas, but when you find one that is truly great, it will be so amazing that it snaps you out of the trance and lets you take it with.

Surpassing Your Teachers

Following on my previous post, I sometimes really hate that I have to unlearn bad lessons I was taught by my teachers because it means I was taught wrong. But sometimes I'm happy because it means I know even better than my teachers did.

Our teachers look to us like demigods. Their knowledge and experience is beyond comprehension by the time we meet them. Over a period of time, they impart a great deal of the knowledge to us and give us the experience of training. No matter what, though, we always see them as our superiors.

But they are human. They are fallible. Sometimes they make mistakes. Sometimes they are repeating bad information that their teachers imparted.

If you have been taught well, you will one day discover the things your teachers taught you that were wrong. It will be a strange experience, knowing that you have surpassed your teacher (at least in this regard), but it is an important step in moving away from being a student and moving into being a professional.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Very Happy

Again, I feel compelled to talk about why educators are wrong when they try to teach writing. Tonight, it is because they tell you not to use the phrase "very happy". Short version: If you are ever told to never do something in writing, that person is probably wrong.

The idea of the lesson is good: There are so many synonyms that can express that feeling: joyful, ecstatic, pleased, etc. To say you were "very happy" takes two of the most common (and therefore bland) words to make a common (and therefore boring) phrase. People are better off with larger vocabularies, and exercising them will allow us to understand and appreciate the differences between our synonyms.

The problem is that by telling students that it is bad to say "very" or "happy" does not add to our vocabulary; it removes two words we could have used. Words are tools. Sometimes you aren't ecstatic or joyful, nor are you merely pleased. Sometimes, you are very happy and there is no better way to describe that feeling. So use the best phrase, and do it knowing that it is the best phrase to use.

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Socratic Method Works

A few weeks ago, I was having a conversation with my mom. She had to teach a person with special needs about basic house care and did not know how to explain it in a way that they could appreciate. In listening to everything she had to say and playing around with it all, I came up with an idea.

The person with special needs plays the guitar and is very good at it. He knows how to take care of his instruments at every level. So I tell my mom to start out by asking the question, "How do you know when it's time to change a guitar string?" From there, he was certain to know the answer and be happy to share it. (Everybody loves talking about their passion.) With that established, you can ask what else is like that. If guitar strings of a useful life before they get replaced, does a kitchen sponge? If so, then how do we know that it's time?

My mom's concern was that if he has trouble retaining new things, especially rules, that they would never get through to him. And what I told her was that he wasn't learning anything new in the first place. All we were doing was expanding the realm of where his existing knowledge applied. If he can maintain a musical instrument, he can maintain a house (or at least understand when things need to be repaired, even if he couldn't do them himself). She wouldn't have to tell him what to do because all she would do is ask him questions, and let him explain things/teach her.

The next day, I got a very excited phone call from my mom. Things worked better than either of us expected. She got about three steps into my hypothetical conversation by the time he had the realization of how guitar maintenance applies to house maintenance. (And it was a big ah-ha moment, which is a good sign that it was real and will stick.)

I have no hands-on work with special needs people, but I'm pretty good at explaining things to people (which is why I'm an awesome technical writer). And in all my experiences, the Socratic method has worked better than any other approach. I have heard of it working to teach 3rd graders how binary math works on a hot June day, and I have now heard of it working to teach a person with special needs how to be aware of house maintenance.

As a communicator, I cannot recommend highly enough to study the Socratic method. Try to read some Socratic dialogues to see how they work as a conversation. Try to use it on yourself; you may find that you know a whole lot more than you realize, but you just never thought about it.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Difficult For The Impatient

"When you are courting a nice girl an hour seems like a second. When you sit on a red-hot cinder a second seems like an hour. That's relativity." - Albert Einstein

The more impatient I am, the more awful it is. Wanting a project to be done because you're sick of working on it doesn't make it get finished any faster. You may push yourself to work a little longer and work a little harder, but it will be excruciating every step of the way.

I find writing is difficult for the impatient. (I mostly found out by being really impatient and getting frustrated). Some stuff simply has a timer on it. I can't explain it, but it's like certain ideas just will not be unveiled to you until you just sit at a road block for days. (Actually, I can explain it. Your mind is actively trying to come up with a good idea, but it's not telling you that until it has an answer for you.)

Life has gotten much easier and much happier when I started gaining patience. It mostly came from finding other things to do. If I can't work on one story, I'll work on a different project. If I get burned out on writing, I'll doodle or chat with a friend or take a walk. I can't recall the last time I only had one thing I wanted to do in a given moment. So if I get stuck on one, why get too bothered? Just do something else.

It is a lot easier said than done. I don't expect impatient people to magically will themselves into being patient, or simply in not getting frustrated by road blocks. But knowing that there is always an alternate route makes it feel like you are not getting stopped, but just taking the scenic route.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Scratch That Section

So there I was, writing my story, working through the struggles, and finally hitting a brick wall. I had no idea how to proceed and was grasping at straws for thoughts. Finally, I came to the realization: the whole scene is based off of a lousy idea. I can't rewrite the scene to fix this; I had to scratch that whole section.

I felt pretty miserable about it. I felt like I wasted the effort, but then I got over myself and remembered that I needed to go through this bad idea to find a better one. I didn't like cutting off a whole section of work I'd done, but it's way better than trying to incorporate a bad idea into my story because of laziness.

There is a balance needed to cut out a section of your story.  On the one hand, you need to know that an action that severe is needed. On the other hand, you need to remember that it is just one section of a whole work, and that the rest of it is fine.

Friday, July 6, 2012

A Difference Of Opinion

I like it when somebody has a difference of opinion with me (sometimes). It can lead to many an interesting conversation.

More often than not, when somebody's opinion on a subject is different than mine, there are only a few different reasons why. The first is that there is a misunderstanding on one of our parts. A simple explanation of each other's beliefs clears that right up. The second is that our opinions are basically approaching the same concept from different angles. And the third is that the subject we are talking about is so large that both of our opinions are right, just in different areas.

Within writing, it is wise to remind yourself how vast the subject is. It is a world unto itself. If somebody has a different opinion than you, it's probably no big deal. If you want to understand somebody with a difference of opinion, ask them about it. You might find yourself learning something useful. Just remember that "difference of opinion" does not mean "wrong".

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Passive Voice

I tend to have a view of the passive voice opposite of most writers. I get offended and angry when I hear people say "avoid the passive voice." That makes it sound like it is an abomination of language, and too many people avoid it without having any reason why they should.

You know what that's called?  Prejudice. And I'm pretty sure that prejudice is a bad thing.

The reality is that the passive voice is a tool, just like any other one you have. It has a purpose and if you use it for its intended purpose, it will work just fine. The problem is when you use it improperly.

Consider these sentences:
The dog bit Brian.
Brian was bitten by the dog.

The first is active; the second is passive. They convey the same information but have subtle differences.

In English, we generally focus on the first noun we hear in a sentence. Because of that, the active sentence focuses on the subject and the passive sentence focuses on the object.

Unfortunately, examples of active and passive voice tend to suck because there is no context.  The active voice in this example makes sense when you are telling a story about the dog. If you are telling a story about Brian, then passive may fit better. "Did Esmeralda tell you? Brian was bitten by the dog." (I challenge anybody to tell me the passive voice is in any way weak here.)

The other use of the passive voice is if you don't have an object. "Brian was bitten." We have no idea who or what bit him, but we know he was bitten. Admittedly, you can also say "Something bit Brian" and take care of that problem, but that is a second use of it.

I have really found recently how significantly weaker the passive voice is in many situations. I have heard it used poorly a lot and I can feel how ineffective it is. What surprised me was that, if I didn't know what the problem was immediately, I would change the sentence to active because it sounded better, and then afterward I would realize that it was the only change I made.

The real problem, though, is that people use passive voice because they are writing by the seat of their pants. They type down words as they come to them, but sometimes that means they pick an important subject, and realize afterward that it is the object of a sentence, so they twist words around with the passive voice so they can keep moving forward. Using it for convenience like that is not what passive voice is intended for.

Know your tools. Know what they do, when to use them, and how not to use them. I would wager that there is nothing in writing that is always off limits, so you should always search for the answers of when you should use something.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Actively Strengthen Your Core

I wanted to write a post about how happy I am that my job teaches me how to be a better writer. Because I have to be very careful with my words, and I learn how to say just the right things to keep my message balanced and clear. And that is training my skills in communication itself.

Unfortunately, that idea is kind of bunk. You do what you train to do, which means that my job trains me to be better at doing the writing I do at my job.

However, I am a better communicator, and I see it in my verbal and written communication outside of work. The reason for it is that I am actively learning. Every time I learn a new skill or technique in my job writing, I am pulling out the principle that makes it work. I am understanding how it relates to writing in general and communication as a whole. It is my specific effort that makes me a better writer. (I know this, too, because I spent more time than I care to admit thinking I was just fine and not growing at all as a writer or communicator.)

Exposure is a wonderful thing. Being surrounded by good writing and good writers is a way to have a great experience and just be a sponge for information. But it only takes you so far. Eventually, you need to take part in your own growth. There are lessons to learn everywhere, even at a buffet. But if you do not actively strengthen your core, then your writing will be limited to the training you happen to absorb.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Don't Waste Your Reveals

One of the best parts of a story is the reveal. It is that shocking moment where you find out that what you have been led to believe has been wrong all along. The truth comes out and you realize that either all those strange discrepancies make perfect sense in this new light, or that this new truth fits just as perfectly as the assumptions we initially had made.

A good reveal can elicit just about any emotion we can feel, and an excellent reveal can make that emotion very intense. But what determines the power or quality of a reveal?

To me, the power of a reveal comes from how strongly you have been building up the emotions of the reader. How much do they like your character? How much is your character feeling? When your character has their heart and soul devoted to something, a big reveal can break their entire world view. Devastating reveals shatter their hope. Uplifting reveals reforge hope. If nobody cares what's going on, then a reveal is just another boring fact.

The quality of a reveal comes down to how big a surprise it is. When the shady guy who joins your team and seems to know everything, but not enough to keep you out of danger, is revealed to be working for the bad guy, it may be a twist, but it was so obvious from the start that nobody was actually surprised by it, so it still produced no emotional reaction (except for contempt - that'd be a common response). Of course, don't try to do the opposite and make the reveal come out of nowhere. There need to be clues; it needs to make sense. It just needs to come out of left field.

When building a reveal, keep these things in mind. You need emotional investment, and you need a true surprise.

Once you have done all those things, don't waste them. If you have successfully pulled the wool over your audience's eyes, don't just immediately go and spill the beans. Let it build up. Drop some hints. Keep them guessing. Do some small reveals which surprise the audience, but make the full reveal an even bigger shocker (the whole "this was crazy before, but it just got insane" thing).

Monday, July 2, 2012

Don't Stifle The Pursuit Of Knowledge

I never want to be the person responsible for making a child stop caring about learning. Children are he most amazing sponges of information I have ever come across. All they do is observe and absorb. Listen to a small child talk. All they say is facts. They recite what they have learned with the an excitement like they discovered the secrets of the universe.

You know when they stop caring about learning? When other people tell them to. When parents get frustrated from a barrage of questions or statements and they tell their children to just stop. When they don't know an answer to a question and would rather tell their kids that a question is stupid rather than admit that they don't know the answer. It's when their peers mock them for knowing things that they don't or simply because they're assholes.

It happens to most of us, probably to all of us. It is awful when the most exciting thing to you is having learned something and wanting to share it with others, and being turned away or put down.

I swear that I will never stifle a child's desire to learn, to teach, or to appreciate knowing things. But there is no reason to limit it to children. I swear I will never do that to anyone.

If I ever betray that oath, then everything I have said for the last three years, and for every day until that happens, is a lie.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

A Dedicated Life Of Knowledge

I used to feel so contemptuous toward people who suck at writing (admittedly, I still do from time to time). I would always feel like, writing isn't that hard, nor is grammar or spelling. How can you not know that 'descend' has a 'c' in it because it is the de- form of 'ascend' (as though that makes any logical sense whatsoever)?

Ironically, the reason I thought that was that I did not respect or appreciate what I have done with my own life: I have dedicated it to the written word, to communication, to storytelling, to etymology and linguistics. It is my interest, my passion, my joy. And I have gotten the most joy by absorbing as much information as I can about it.

If a person has not dedicated their lives to this knowledge, then I do not expect them to have as much as me. And if that is the case, then I have no reason to be angry at them or treat them as lesser beings; they have simply allocated their time and energy to different pursuits (which is why I expect to be treated like a human being when I am talking about subjects where I am the ignorant one).