Friday, August 31, 2012

The Fair Dick

I was thinking about a kind of character I see from time to time. This person is a Loki-type trickster, going around and causing mischief for their own amusement. This character basically exists to inconvenience other people's lives (and laugh about it). In modern terms, this person is a dick. But what makes this character different from regular dicks is their submission to fairness.

The fair dick is a troublemaker first and foremost. But despite the lunacy of their ideas, there is a certain sense they see in their pranks. And if you can appeal to their logic, they may be hoist by their own petard.

For example, a dick might eat a cookie that was sitting out and, if somebody gets upset because it was their cookie, the dick would say "you snooze, you lose." However, if the dick is a fair one, then when the same thing happens with the roles reversed, they would be told "you snooze, you lose" and accept that they opened the flood gate in the mean time.

I like the fair dick because it's a good way to create controversy, but it tends to avoid the unending cycle of retribution that usually comes from it. A fair dick accepts that they're being a dick and knows that sooner or later, they will be the recipient of equal levels of dickishness.

They can just as easily be allies, enemies, or neutral whackjobs. Truly, it is a diverse and compelling character.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Roleplaying Characters

In a sense, whenever you are making characters, you are roleplaying. You have to choose what they say and do. Although they are distinct from you, you must get in their head and become them in order to manipulate them.

So what is the best way to roleplay your characters? I've found two ways that work nicely.

The first is pretty much what everybody does. Put yourself in the character's shoes and act as you imagine they would act under given circumstances. Characters grow the way you expect them to, and circumstances tend to form around ho the character approaches them.

The second method is to force your character down a path and find a way to believably explain it. For example, if you have a character who is a pacifist, you can force that character to become a violent warrior, but you need to figure out what could happen to this person that would change them so fundamentally and so thoroughly. It would require some mental power to figure out and plan. Though the simple answer is to make a whole lot of small changes over a long enough period of time.

I find both methods perfectly valid. It's nice to switch between them because the first method focuses on the character, making it the one unbending element of the universe. The second method makes the universe the one unbending thing, shaping the people inside of it, rather than the people shaping the universe.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

You Must Approach Art

A friend of mine sent me a picture. It was a portrait of a fictional character. Now, my friend sends me pictures quite often. I look at them. I appreciate them, and I move on. But this particular picture was different for me.

For one thing, it was exceptionally well-drawn. The quality was so good that I took more time to appreciate the picture. And during this period, I noticed the character's face. As I studied it, it first looked simply angry to me. But then I looked again and saw frustration. After that, I saw a sort of bitter sadness in it. Every time I looked, I kept seeing a different emotion.

Part of this experience was the lack of context. I don't know what is actually going on in the scene, nor do I know the background leading up to it. I had to guess at everything based on what I saw, but there were multiple possibilities that all seemed equally likely.

This picture was a great piece of art. I say this not because of the quality (although that is certainly part of it), but because of this whole experience it created. It challenged me to study, examine, and really think, all from a single portrait.

However, the art didn't reach out and force me to think. I thought because I approached the art. I didn't walk by it. I sat down and looked deeper. And in doing so, I found that there was something deeper in it.

I do not believe that all art is equal. Some pieces simply are better than others. But unless you approach a piece of art and look for the deeper substance, you will not see it.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

A Collection of Rooms

I am having a dialogue with a fellow writer. We are discussing the difficulties of revising good writing, lamenting at how, when the words themselves have a seamless flow, it is a chore to cut up sections and sentences and try to stitch them back together. We also acknowledged that it is difficult for us to use other people's suggestions for writing. At this point, I came up with the following:

To use an analogy, if somebody is looking at your blueprints for a house and they hand you a schematic and say that you should put a bay window on the east wall, that bay window may be nice in a different house, but it would look gaudy in yours. But you keep thinking of a bay window, and maybe you two weeks later design your own bay window that looks lovely and perfectly fits into your original blueprint. Or maybe you decide that there is no way to make an attractive bay window, but it got you thinking about an addition to the east side wall and you put in a sun room. But no matter what you do or where the ideas came from, it was your work, because it is your blueprint and your creation, and that is the only way to make a whole house and not just a collection of rooms.

I am perfectly happy to revise writing in general. I am perfectly happy to have information in digestible sections. But there needs to be cohesion throughout the piece. The sections need to have a parallel structure. They need to have a common voice. They need to all be using the same style guide. If every section stands alone, but they fail to stand together, then it's like trying to build a house by slapping individual rooms together. (And in case you didn't know, it doesn't work that way, and if you tried it, you would find it hideous.)

I personally find the only way to do it is to have one author using their one voice to actually write the words. Other people may have input. They may even have an equal share of what gets put into the writing. But when each person writes their own sections and they slap it together, or if one person edits by cutting sentences and inserting their own, it makes an inferior document. (At the very least, after such an editing process, one writer should then revise the edits to give it one cohesive voice/sound.)

Because I find this to be a truth, I apply both to taking advice and giving it. Although I do rewrite other people's sentences from time to time, I am for more likely to just offer suggestions for replacements to writers, partly to force them to think and keep improving (and not rely as much on editors to fix issues), and partly to make sure that they retain their voice throughout their writing.

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Cost Of Knowledge

Many people scoff when they hear that "ignorance is bliss." While the phrase is not perfect, it is quite accurate quite often. I can't enjoy most movies. At least, I can't get into them the way others can.

I know who a top tier main character is, and that means they are never going to be in any danger. I know who the expendable main characters are, and that they will likely die a heroic death. The bad guys are obviously bad. The good guys always win, even if it is sometimes a bittersweet victory. I don't spend the entire movie predicting what will happen next, but I can pinpoint every time a character said or did something that will be relevant later in the movie (basically any and all exposition).

I can still appreciate a well-crafted story. I still enjoy good execution of a story idea. Some elements are just worthy, even if you did see them coming. I respect the creators doing a good job with a traditional story.

The only real problem is that there isn't much surprise in these stories. There isn't much to think about. I see them less as works of art and more as the way a carpenter looks at a table. It may be fancy or pretty or have nice decorations within it, but I know what the structure is, how it functions, and most of the variants. A skilled carpenter is unlikely to go into a furniture shop and be surprised by what he sees.

That is the cost of knowledge. Some people may say that it gives you a new and different appreciation for the art and the skills involved in it. I don't disagree. But I will also say that it comes at the cost of losing your naivete. It comes at the cost of being wowed by the basics. It comes at the cost of needing incredibly higher quality to be as amazed as the uneducated are by the average.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

That Character Got Out Of Hand

It amazes me how fragile the human psyche can be. Some people have everything going fine for them and they're perfectly happy, but when things stop going their way, they can go ballistic. All of a sudden, the character who you thought was going to be the rational, leader in shimmering armor, takes a massive turn to the dark side and becomes a bloodlusting lunatic.

For the purposes of storytelling, I don't necessarily recommend randomly turning a person's world upside-down, but if you are experimenting with how your characters would react, throw the dice. Let fate affect the course of actions, and have your characters deal with it.

Luck may be on their side, and it may not. Although good storytelling can come from developing a good plan and seeing it through, it is certainly an exciting ride for the author to scramble to have your character deal with failed attempts and reacting to getting thoroughly beaten up in a fight he easily should have won.

If nothing else, the results could be remarkable.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Ambivalence Is Tolerance

I find tolerance to be an interesting subject. My stories often involve two conflicting beliefs or two sides at war due to intolerance toward the other. It's a pretty easy way to create conflict by focusing on differences. But tolerance is not always as easy as intolerance.

Talking about intolerance is simple enough. Focus on differences and make it a point of strife. But you can't really make a story about tolerance, because the whole point of being tolerant is that it doesn't provoke strife.

And if people are truly tolerant of an issue, then they must be ambivalent. Nobody cares what color the sky is. Nobody cares if they see other people smile or laugh. Nobody cares if somebody is left-handed (at least not anymore). If you can find something that nobody cares about, you have true tolerance of it. Otherwise you have people pretending to be tolerant.

But to weave that into a story requires some amount of skill. You have to make the effort to have two dudes in a relationship or people with different religions or skin tones all treating each other as equals, but you also have to make the effort to have it be casual and not feel forced. In a sense, you basically have to show it, but have nobody talk about or in any way care about it.

Still, I find ambivalence to be the best teacher. Going out of your way to talk about an issue being positive sill makes things an issue. Stop caring. Stop fighting. And just treat it the way you treat oxygen in the air: a fact of life so utterly common that you don't even realize it is something anybody thinks about.

Friday, August 24, 2012

3-5 Years Experience

I remember how excited I was the first time I realized I had the coveted "3-5 years experience" that every single job opening ever written requires. It was an amazing experience because I realized why it was so valuable. It wasn't merely something to check off of the list; during those years, I acquired experience and skill in everything else required of my job. I not only know what needs to get done, but I know how to do it.

Before I had those years of experience, I had my knowledge of English, a basic understanding of the art of persuasion, and some common sense. And as great as common sense is, a job requires specialized sense. If I am told to go and create a proposal or a formal statement, and they expect a certain quality of content, I may end up staring at a blank screen and not knowing how to start. Now, I know what the form and format is and I know how to get started and it's just second nature to me. And that is the value.

Of course, the flaw of 3-5 years experience is that you are assuming the experience is relevant. As I said before, a job requires specialized sense. Just because I know how to construct a proposal doesn't mean I know how to create a proposal for every company. Along with 3-5 years experience comes certain habits developed from the companies that gave that experience.

I think Human Resources would be wise to drop that wording from job requirements. Any truly intelligent company would understand the value of molding a person into a specialized component, specifically trained to excel at their company's work. It will take time and energy to do that, but it can be totally worth it.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Measuring Success With Clients

There are two ways to measure success with clients:
1. How successful they become due to the work you've done.
2. How happy they are with the work you've done.

If you are editing documents, creating new ones, or doing anything creative for somebody else, how do you judge your success? I ask this question because of "clients from hell". These are the people who hire you for your skills and know-how, and then bully and berate you into making a product which they think is great. Clients from hell are those people who not only have terrible taste and ideas, but also think their terrible ideas are brilliant. (And for that matter, the website of the same name is a repository of these stories from the graphic design industry.)

Consider this situation for a moment. You are a writer, and you get hired to create a document, let's say a number of brochures for advertising a company. Any sane person would think that their job is to increase numbers, whether it be foot traffic, selling goods and services, or any other metric. As such, your goal is to create the most attractive and compelling brochures possible. But before you even turn in your first draft, some executive gets in contact with you and starts telling you everything they want in and on the brochure. Suddenly, it becomes a muddy, disorganized piece of trash that looks like it was made by a high school freshman.

So, what do you do here? Do you put your foot down and tell your client that their ideas are terrible and if they want them done, they can do it themselves? Or do you tell them nothing and do what they are paying you to do? Well, to answer the question, you first have to figure out what you are really trying to do here.

If you are embarrassed by the quality of the work they want you to make, then it is because you care more about your craft than your clients. If you simply do what you are told, then it is because you want your clients to be happy.

Both are potentially valid. I tend to lean more toward the first measurement, since I hate feeling embarrassed by having my name attached to work I am not proud of. But by the same token, I could very much enjoy having my clients be professional references that give me glowing recommendations for being a treat to work with.

On one hand, I could think my clients are idiots with awful taste (and considering I'm the experienced professional, I'm probably right), but on the other hand, they could simply have a different taste or a vision that I just can't see, and I could be the idiot for not seeing it. (Of course, read some of the stories from Clients From Hell and you probably would find this idea less than likely.)

Still, if you are working for somebody else, be able to say which measure it is that you use, and understand how it will affect your interactions in the business wold.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


I find relapse to be an interesting subject in writing. Often, people see it as a failure to do good things. People relapse into drug abuse or delinquency, for example. But I see relapse more as two versions of one's self fighting for control over the body.

People really relapse into old habits. Old habits are usually bad ones because they are the only ones worth bothering to change. But an old habit could be a way of talking like, using certain words or phrases. An old habit could be a positive one like reading the daily news that you let slip by. Admittedly, "relapse" has such a negative connotation that it is rarely ever that it is applied to picking up good habits we once had.

Still, habits we have are part of a whole state of being. The person we used to be had the old habit and the person we are now has different habits. When old habits creep up again, the whole mindset tends to come with it, and in that, the struggle between the two selves plays in. This could be explored in several ways: the outside looking in (a friend watching it happen), the inside looking in (the person exploring this all happening), the inside looking out (the person not realizing it, but experiencing the world in the different ways). It could also be done in several genres, like in a very realistic way, or in a science fiction/horror setting where the two selves are more literally fighting for control of the body.

"Relapse" is a general term, but within that generality, it provides much fodder for creativity. Try exploring it and seeing if you can find an interesting story there. If not, research the subject a bit and try again.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Always Have Fresh Eyes Looking

You can only read something for the first time once. Once you've done it, you've been forever changed. More than anything else, it means you can't read that piece the same way ever again. This can be a difficult challenge when revising your work.

You always need a fresh set of eyes looking at your work. Every time you have a new draft and you think it might be good enough to be a final draft, you need somebody new to read it. Your editor can be the best editor on earth, but if they've seen it and they've worked on it with you, they know it. They know what it used to look like. They know what it is you are trying to do, and it will bias their reading. (If you ever tell a reader that "What I was trying to do is X, does that come across", then that well has been contaminated.)

The general public will probably read any given piece of writing once at most. Your first impression is absolutely critical. They won' be studying it and mulling it over and working with it. They will suck it down, and either absorb it or spit it out. Your editors and readers are no longer the general public. Their views and thoughts as supporters can be beneficial, but their value for a first impression is zero after they've read it once. Keep that in mind, and have a short list of good readers.

Remember that you only need a fresh eyes if you think you have a final draft. If you're still on the drawing board, a good editor will still work just fine, no matter how many times they've seen it.

Monday, August 20, 2012


I think 'serendipity' is a lovely word (as are its variants, like 'serendipitous'). It rolls off the tongue and it has a wonderful meaning: "The occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way."

'Serendipity', to me, always has a feel of being a happy coincidence or just noticeably good luck. It's not about hitting a jackpot or succeeding in a one-in-a-million chance; it's about finding out that things went better than expected.

One of the other reasons I love the word so much is that nobody uses it (even I hardly use it). It remains relatively rare, yet relatively well-known, which means that when you do use it, you get the extra impact from a reader seeing that word and being reminded of its existence (and as always, bonus points when you use it in a particularly poignant sentence).

Sunday, August 19, 2012

It's Not About What Happened

Storytelling is an odd thing. On its surface, it is the art of telling people things that happened. And sometimes things that happened are really exciting. But somehow, whenever I hear a story that is merely information that retells an event, I find it dry and boring (which is probably why I hate journalism). In fact, the most compelling stories can be about exciting or mundane events, because the thrill is not in the events themselves, but how the character or storyteller interprets those events.

If somebody tells you a story recounting how he got a new suit, it's not particularly enticing. But if he tells you about how his job paid for him to get a new suit because the one he was wearing, his favorite suit at the time, got damaged at work, and that the respect he felt from his superiors made him feel like he was finally certain that this was the place he wanted to work for the rest of his life, you might find that a lot more entertaining.

You can't tell a story without covering the events that happened (at least not a good story), but remember that it is not the focus of your story. The focus should be on how those events affect the characters (or how the philosophies being discussed fail to affect the characters).

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Show Parallel Concepts

Consider the following story:

Roger is a terribly average adult. Has a job, has some friends, and when he's alone, he watches TV until he goes to bed. After a particularly exhausting day at work, he has dinner at his favorite restaurant. During the course of his meal, he gets seated next to an extremely obnoxious couple. They smell of stale weed and are talking about their recent bowel movements. Roger asks to sit elsewhere, but is told they won't move him. He decides to suck it up and orders a chicken sandwich and a bowl of clam chowder. After a half hour wait, they bring him a chicken salad sandwich and a bowl of gravy. Roger gives up and walks out on the restaurant. He never wants to eat there again.

When he gets home, Roger turns on the TV and sees three cooking shows on three different channels. Food is the last thing he wants to think about, so he shuts it down and calls up his friends. It turns out that everybody has plans this night and nobody can hang out with him or even have a chat. Roger ends up sitting alone, seriously upset that none of his friends could even take a few minutes to listen to him vent. He never wants to talk to them again.

A week later, and Roger has neither eaten at the restaurant, nor talked to his friends. He happens to be walking by the restaurant and the manager sees him. The manager recognizes Roger as a regular and says that he wants to thank him by giving him a meal of his choosing on the house. Roger takes the time to consider if he really wants to give the restaurant another shot. He sees the sincerity in the manager's face and decides that he doesn't want to be rude in the face of such kindness. He has a meal and it is fantastic. Despite whatever fluke the last experience was, this one was wonderful; it reminded him why he was a regular there in the first place.

During that meal, Roger's phone rings. One of his friends is calling. He thinks that maybe his friends deserve the same chance he gave the restaurant.

Parallel concepts strengthen stories tremendously. In this simple one, we see how the idea of giving something you like a second chance, no matter how upset you may get with it, can result in good things. If this was a story about a guy who had a bad restaurant experience but tried again, we would probably not care. And if this was a guy who got upset at his friends, and then got over, again it would be lame. But in this format, it is more than just these events; the story is about the principle. It is about recognizing how these two seemingly unrelated things (friends and restaurants) have commonality in the experiences with them. This can inspire readers to think about what else it can apply to, and times when they have felt similarly and acted on those feelings.

In my creative process, I usually start with one story. And I usually start with thinking of cool stuff that happens. But what makes my stories better is finding what the principles involved are and what the lesson is, and seeing what other things can be going on in the area or in the characters' lives, and tie that in. Give it a shot yourself and see what you find. What connections are there that one may not normally see?

Friday, August 17, 2012

Your Intended Audience Affects Your Content

Who are you writing for? It's one of those questions that everybody is going to ask you. For one thing, your target demographic will affect how one would market your writing. But before that, your intended audience will affect what it is you write, and how you write it.

A book intended for 1st graders is not going to have overly complex words or sentence structures. It also isn't going to be about drug abuse or murder. Nor will characters speak in a snarky or sarcastic tone. All of that stuff would be way over the head of the people such a story would be intended for.

I look at a show like Futurama and I see examples of both what to do and what not to do (or perhaps a shift in intended audience). In the original run of the show, it was very clever. Not only did they draw amusing comparisons between the future and our present day, but they had subtle jokes that you had to pay attention to catch. The best examples were silent visual comedy.

One example was a sign outside of a prison that read "Commander Riker's Island", a wonderful Star Trek reference, blended in with a well-known prison, and it was just there. Nobody said it out loud or made reference to it in the episode. It was just there for the careful observer to appreciate.

Another example came from an episode where Bender was breaking into a cigar shop at night to steal a $10,000 cigar. He drops down from the ceiling and sees the cigar in a glass display case, so he pulls out a suction cup and a diamond the size of a large dog's head, and uses the diamond to cut a hole in the glass. When he stows the cigar, he throws the diamond into the trash and leaves. Again, nobody needed to explain the joke or talk about it. It was just there and the people who were clever enough to realize what just happened got to enjoy that treat.

After the show was canceled and resurrected, everything was different. The show got dumber. All the characters seemed to get louder. They loved to announce what was going on. It was almost as though the writers all decided that they weren't going to bother writing a joke unless everybody knew that they had made one and that they all definitely got the joke. And in doing so, the show lost all of the charm and humor it once had (and that's not even considering the plots).

As I said earlier, this could be either a case of the writers not considering who their audience is, or it could be a case of the show changing who its intended audience is. I can't say for sure which it is, but in either case, I know that the older episodes are still excellent and the new ones are garbage (at least to me).

Who are you writing for? Consider that question carefully. It may end up guiding you more than any other consideration.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Wait, What?

I have been dealing with computer-related problems for over a week now. It has been across several computers, but the worst was when it happened to my personal computer. I am well-versed in computers and computer repair, and yet, every step I had taken to fix it dug me deeper and deeper into the grave.

I reached the point where I had lost all hope of restoring my system or recovering any of my files. I was at the point where I was trying to find a workaround to get enough access to my computer to wipe it out and start over from scratch (which ended up being a day-long ordeal on its own).

Somehow, the disc I put in to wipe out the computer also failed to work properly, but in doing so, it caused my computer to flip out and debug everything that went wrong, and my computer booted up like nothing bad had happened to it in the first place.

I was left sort of staring blankly, poking at it, slack-jawed in disbelief. It was a moment of "wait, what?" Everything just fixed itself so perfectly that I can't believe it just happened. In fact, if I was reading a piece of fiction where this kind of thing happened, I would say that the ending was also unbelievable. It would be a deus ex machina that sounds like the author just ran out of ideas or had a deadline and couldn't think of a better ending.

Sometimes life is unrealistic. Things come to an end and are not always elegant or smooth. Sometimes the pacing is all out of whack and there is an obscenely long build up and then everything all happens and resolves in minutes or seconds. And sometimes the ending itself is laughably contrived, despite the fact that it was all real.

Sometimes I believe that we should avoid trying to replicate the parts of reality that make for bad stories. If you just experienced something that left you saying, "wait, what", then your audience will be left thinking the same thing. In those cases, you have to be a better creator of stories than reality.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Stories Come From Origins

A story is usually about some amazing thing that happens. It's about people having to make difficult decisions and having to act based on those decisions. But stories are not just about stuff that happened; they are also about why that all matters.

Who are these people? Why would I care about them? What makes them relatable or redeemable? To answer these questions, we must look to their origins. Who were these people before we met them on page 1?

Look at a story like Watchmen. The vast majority of this story takes place in the past. We learn not only about who the characters were and what led them to be who they are in the present, but we learned about their predecessors and how they paved the way for the main characters to even exist in the capacities that they did.

I have found in my own creative process that I may come up with an interesting premise for a scene or a character, but once I ask myself where the story is, I look at my character's origins and that is where I find my story.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Good Children's Stories

Maurice Sendak famously railed against children's books. He found them to be contrived and stupid. When I heard him say these things, he was already preaching to the choir. I learned this lesson when I was young and found it to be true more and more.

A good children's story is as entertaining to the adult reading it as it is to the child hearing it. A children's story that is plain or derivative will not be entertaining, and just isn't that good. Of course, a child might enjoy hearing it, but children tend to like being read to in general. You could read Stephen Hawking to them and they could be enthralled.

The rules of storytelling apply to children's stories as much as any other: build a sense of place, make relatable characters and make us care about them. Entertain us first, and try to educate. Anyone who ever thinks that writing a children's story is easy or is a cop out either has no clue about the efforts that go into good storytelling, or has never read a good one.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Moment Of Weakness

The moment of weakness can be the most pivotal point in our characters' lives. It is that place of despair, of hopelessness. It is when they question the most core principles they have always held. It is the moment when they need something new to grasp onto, even if it is something they would never have done before.

People may decide they need to stop being so impatient. They may decide they need to stop biding their time. They may think that maybe taking that first drink isn't that big a deal. They may decide that maybe their ex wasn't that big of a bitch after all.

Sometimes, people come up with these decisions on their own, but often it is with the help of another that they come to these conclusions. People who are exceptionally skilled at manipulating people are well aware of the value of a moment of weakness. Sometimes they are aware when the opportunity presents itself, so they take advantage of a person they find in a moment of weakness. But the most haunting stories are when the manipulator orchestrates the events that cause the character to reach that level of hopelessness, all in order to take advantage of them.

Of course, as the writer, it may take a good deal of mental energy to orchestrate the plan yourself and to have it all make sense, but if you can pull it off, then congratulations.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Nonexhaustive Lists

"Et cetera", or rather, "etc." is essentially a symbol which means "this is a nonexhaustive list." The list of examples should provide enough information to explain what you are talking about, but you are explicitly saying that there are more things than the ones you mentioned.

In the grand scheme of things, people rarely make exhaustive lists. For one thing, we usually can't say with confidence that we listed everything, and for another thing, it's usually unnecessary and annoying to do so. (Imagine if you asked somebody what music they liked and then they went off on a three-day rant like Bubba talking about shrimp in Forrest Gump.)

That said, you do not always need to use "etc." at the end of a non-exhaustive list. It has gained a negative reputation around certain circles. If every list you make ends in "etc.", some people will think that you use it whenever you run out of ideas, or when you can't think of a third example.

More importantly, if you say that a list "includes" the examples you then list, it is understood that it's nonexhaustive. Similarly, if you preface a list with "for example", you get the same effect. In fact, the only time people will think that a list is exhaustive is if you specifically use wording that sounds like you are listing every example.

I do like lists. I find them to be great ways to explain a concept in a short amount of space. Because I can see the connections between objects and I can understand what an author is explaining quickly by reading a short list of examples. Because I like them so much, and specifically because I use them so much, I always need to be sure that I don't overuse them. One of the nice things about "etc." is that it sticks out easily enough and it's a simple way to count how many lists I've used.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Subtle Test

One of the cool things about people is discovering things about them. What are their interests? What are their hobbies and passions? Ironically, one of the lamest questions you could ask another person is what their interests are. For whatever reason, the significant majority of people never have an answer. It always feels like people are afraid to share the things they actually like to do, either for fear of being judged for liking them, or just for not liking cooler stuff.

I like to think I'm better than that, but I'm sure I still fall victim to that fear from time to time. I've actually come up with a little game to work around that fear. Basically, since every subject has its own terminology and phrases in it, I can use one of them and see what kid of reaction it gets. If somebody smiles or acknowledges that they get the reference, I can go on down that road. If I get no response, I try another subject.

I was talking to one of my friends recently about martial arts, speed, and toughness. He was saying how he can take a hit from somebody, but he is usually fast enough that an opponent would not get time to land a strike. So I responded, "He would only hit you if he rolled for initiative and got the jump on you."

To a random person, this may be an innocent enough phrase. Like, I expect anybody can look at my sentence and understand what I'm getting at. For anyone who has ever played Dungeons & Dragons, they know exactly what this means. My friend then said, "And he would need a natural 20." This is another D&D phrase, one which everybody who has ever played even once knows.

This was a really fun example of the subtle test for me. Nether of us ever said Dungeons and Dragons. We didn't go into it before or after that exchange, but we both have that understanding now. Without ever having to just ask "do you know about D&D" I got the answer to the question. Neither of us had to be blunt or obvious; neither of us had to go out on a limb. But one person used the code word (the one hidden in plain sight) and the other person responded in kind.

Aside from being a neat trick for getting through social interactions, it is also a cool writing and communication technique. You can be accepted into many social circles by knowing the terminology and phrases of a given subject. It's a great way to infiltrate (then you yourself are kind of hiding in plain sight). That same technique also works really well in fiction, when one person either needs to do some infiltration of their own, or simply as a form of credential when they have nothing else to prove they belong to some group. It is kind of like a secret handshake, but a lot more subtle.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Pre-editing Questions

Before I start any editing job, no matter if it is for a random client, a friend, my boss, or even my own mother, I will not read a single word until I have that person answer the following five questions. Doing otherwise would be worthless (barring extenuating circumstances).

1. Who is supposed to read this material? (General public, news reporters, foundations, parents, executives, etc.)

2. What kind of feeling are you trying to portray? (This is usually answered by the first question. Is it supposed to be colloquial, business casual, business formal, academic, scientific, super excited child happiness, etc.)

3. How in-depth do you want me to get? (Do you want me to proofread for mechanics, grammar and punctuation? Do you want me to change words? Rewrite whole sentences? Do you want me to use my discretion to delete and rewrite however I see fit? Usually, I do not make massive changes, but I like to know how far I can go without stepping on toes.)

4. In what form do you want my response? (This tends to depend on the answer to #3. I can give you a clean document with all of my changes; I can give you a document with all of my changes and thoughts recorded; I can simply write comments on the document saying what changes I would make or recommend.)

5. What else do I need know or be aware of while I edit this?

As I said above, if I don't know the answers to these questions, I can't edit a document. "Editing" is not a single thing. Editing is a process by which we search and improve. But what we are searching for and how we can improve a document depends entirely on what that document is trying to do.

Most people are not aware of this. They tend to have an idea of what editing is and assume that I am going to do exactly that. Many toes get stepped on when assumptions are made (and if you are not asking these questions, then assumptions are being made on both sides), so save yourself a lot of trouble and find out exactly what you are expected to do before embarking on an editing project.

It's Important To You

Some things you write because they are important to you. Some things are important to others (or generically to "everybody"), and those are the ones you should share. They'll have the best return on investment.

I wrote Understand All The Connections mostly because it was a significant realization I had that day. While I am happy it was written and I hope it affected the people who did read it, I didn't go around telling everybody that they had to read that post.

Versatility, on the other hand, I did shove in people's faces. I told everybody about it because I thought it was an excellent piece of writing with an important point that all writers could benefit from being aware of. And although it came from a conversation I had that day, its value to others was why I shared it.

It's totally fine to write both things. Just be aware of which ones you should advertise more than the other. Feel free to make your personal writing public, but tell everybody about the stuff that will get them coming to you in the first place, and will make them curious to read the rest.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Understand All The Connections

How would you explain writing to somebody?

Three years ago, I chose to explain it by tiers of complexity, starting with sounds, and continuing up through words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and many others, finally ending on philosophy.

Is this the only way to explain it?  Of course not.  I could have started by talking about grammar, how each word is a part of speech, how sentences are constructed by grammar, how there are infinite possible sentences, and how we choose which ones we use based on how well they explain what we want, and how doing so can also affect people emotionally.

I also could have started with the mechanical aspects of physically writing, how letters and numbers are just pictures we have given meaning to, how words and phrases are extensions of these principles, and how writing is like a picture that tells a story not by showing it visually, but by making use of the shared understanding of these rows and rows little pictures.

I could apply the same concept to teaching math.  How do you explain it to somebody?  We traditionally start with addition, then subtraction (which is reversing addition), then multiplication, then division. But why that order?  Why don't we learn addition, and then multiplication, since that is just a faster way of adding? For that matter, why do we even start with abstract numbers? Why do we not teach math by shapes and how they are related to each other without using numbers at all?

Two years ago, I said, "I believe that you cannot truly understand something until you can put it into your own words." I do agree with this still. That is a vital step in understanding any subject or concept. But I know now that there is more to that.

If you truly wish t understand a subject, then understand all the connections within your subject. Nothing is a strict linear progression. Whether it is writing, fighting, math, or music, every aspect within them is interrelated with the other aspects. And in order to explain it all, you understand that there is no easy way to do it thoroughly. There are countless paths you can take, countless ways to describe how everything is connected, and you get how it all works together.

Be careful when you think about a subject you know that well. It is possible to get trapped in an endless loop of connections. The one great part, though, is if you can take a step back and see the complex mechanism as a single entity; it is a sight to behold.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Vindicated Nostalgia

Nostalgia is a funny thing. It makes everything from your past awesome. It usually does that by taking advantage of your youthful ignorance, and by outright lying to you. It is so common to go revisit something you were nostalgic about and found out that it was actually pretty lousy.

A book that will forever be on my bookshelf is Raptor Red. It is a book of tremendous significance to me. I read it as a small child, back when I was completely enamored with dinosaurs. To me, it was a story about dinosaurs and I loved it. I really enjoyed the story, seeing the titular character going through extreme hardships from the beginning all the way through, but having a pretty sweet ending.

I remember reading it a second time and still loving it, being able to appreciate it more than I had the first time. But I also remember reading it as a teenager and being incredibly unimpressed by it. Somehow, the more refined my tastes as a writer and storyteller became, the more aggravating the book became to me. I will never get rid of my copy of it, but I will also probably never read it again, either.

On the other side of this, there is Jurassic Park (the movie). I watched this as a small child and absolutely loved it. (I'm sure it was due in no small part to me still being completely enamored with dinosaurs.) I watched it with a friend a few months ago and was blown away. That movie is actually still amazing. Despite its age, it holds up excellently. I enjoyed the entirety of that movie. Granted, I was also talking about it with my friend while it played, but we did actually shut up and listen to most of it.

Jurassic Park is vindicated nostalgia. It is the rare case when something was excellent when you were younger, but even though it spoke to your unrefined palette, it actually had tremendous substance.

I would love to have my works end up being called vindicated nostalgia to people in the future. And so long as I always try to create something which is both entertaining and substantive, I think it will not be something to be concerned about.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Politics Always Matter

In giving advice to a friend on starting a new blog, I told him to be wary of what he posts. If he uses his real name, then all the world can find him easily. He may be speaking the truth, even if it is just his opinions, but if the person interviewing him for his next job happens to disagree with those opinions, then there goes that job offer.

In considering what I wanted to write about tonight, I had to remind myself of the same things. I decided that what was on my mind would be better saved for a later point in my life. It's not that I am afraid to talk about it, or maybe not that it is even that controversial, but I don't know who reads any given article on any given day, nor can I predict it, so I will hold off on putting it out in the world until it can't affect me.

Politics always matter. There is no situation where you can say and do anything you want with no repercussions. Be mindful of the reactions your words and actions can provoke. Consider more than one or two steps ahead if you can.

That said, we generally need to stick out. There are too many people and if you want anybody to care about you, you need to be noticeable, remarkable; you need to stand out above the others. That is when you need to tell politics to buzz off. That is when you need to stand firm, say what you have to say, and accept what comes of it.  Some doors may close, and others may open.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Stories About Bad People

I was originally going to write about children's stories. I think it's messed up how most of the ones in America are all sweet and saccharine, and everything turns out great in the end. I also think it's messed up how we commonly deride classic German fairy tales, for example, because most of them have really awful endings.

But I realized that the key here is not about American versus European, nor is it about children's stories in particular. The real issue is the focus of the story, the quality of the protagonist. Our stories tend to be about good, earnest people who overcome adversity. Their stories tend to be about selfish assholes who end up in a nightmare of their own making.

Our stories also have those bad people in them, but they tend to be antagonists who fall to the wayside, becoming unwashed onlookers when the lovely protagonist reaches the pinnacle.

What I find interesting, though, is that there is such a difference in reception between having a bad person be an antagonist and having them be a protagonist. I'm sure it has to do with our natural tendency to put ourselves in the place of the protagonist. When your story focuses on a good person, then we think of ourselves as that good person and that if we keep being good, we will have similar success. But when your story focuses on a bad person, and awful things happen to them specifically because they were bad, we will make sure not to make the same mistakes (but we also do not assume that we will reach greatness and be lavishly rewarded just because we aren't bad).

We love our dichotomies. A story about a good person must also have a bad person, since you can only be one or the other. But making a story on a bad person tends to change the dichotomy. The other group becomes not-bad-people. And in this vision, where everybody who isn't bad is simply 'not bad' without having to be gloriously good, I think we may find a more realistic (and to me, a more interesting) story.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

What Is Beyond Their Control?

When characters have problems, there are two kinds of problems they can have: those within their control, and those beyond it.

When a person really hates their coworker, it is within their control. They can take actions to handle their situation, like having a calm talk with them or having an arbiter work out and acceptable resolution to their grievances.

When a person has dementia, it is beyond their control. They are prisoners of their mind.

I understand that so many stories tend to follow problems within one's control. The story becomes about the character's desire and strength to go and take care of their problems.  I also understand that some very compelling stories are made about problems beyond one's control. They either require the protagonist to find an indirect way to solve the problem, which is exciting to the planner in us, or the story forces the audience, as well as the protagonist, to simply accept that they have a problem in their life and to do the best they can to deal with it.

That said, it is very easy for people in a bad mood to see every problem as insurmountable, but sometimes we just need to think of a new way of planning, or a new way to understand what they are dealing with to realize that their problem is within their control.

As you set up your characters' problems, can you identify what is beyond their control?

Friday, August 3, 2012


As a writer, you have two parts to the process: research, where you are acquiring information from others, and explanation, where you present all the bits and pieces into a cohesive, thorough report for others to more easily absorb. Each one needs to be discussed separately, but they will both rely on the most important requirement for any professional writer: Versatility.

As a researcher, you need to be able to absorb information in as many forms as possible. You need to be able to speak with the elite and the layperson, the trust fund child and the hoodrat. And most importantly, you need to be able to reach them, to integrate with them. I can infiltrate just about any stratum of society, which I know because I've done it (I've hung out with burnouts, trash collectors, entrepreneurs, and rap stars). I can do this because I can approximate their mannerisms. I can pick up on those buzz words, those relevant subjects; I can imitate their physical mannerisms, too. Between that and knowing how to prod just right, find the right questions to ask and how to say it in just the right way to make the process natural, people don't seem to question or really have a problem with me. I will admit now that this is a skill which is natural to me because I have over a decade of practice, but I also bet that most people who would pursue writing and have enough social skills to get a real job doing it are probably pretty good at it, too.

As a presenter, you need to know what to present and how to present it. This is largely decided by who your audience is and why they are listening to you in the first place. Consider any given subject, such as an inner-city dance school. How would they advertise themselves? Well, that depends on who they're advertising to. If they are talking to a children's advocacy group, they should mention their kids classes and how great it is to have children learning and having fun all together. If they are talking to former students, they should mention how much they have done over the years, and how they plan to continue into the future. If they are asking a foundation for a grant, they may want to talk about how they fill an important need for the arts in the inner city and how they are benefiting the underserved minority population.

Communication is perhaps the most nuanced thing I have ever studied. Of course, anything that I have studied deeply I have found to be incredibly nuanced, but communication is the trickiest one of all, probably because not only are there rules and principles, but they change depending on who you are and they change every time you talk to a different person. It is rare that you get to communicate the same way twice.

Thus, the number one skill that every writer needs is versatility. And they need it for every aspect of writing.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Getting Lost In Planning

I often think that the planning stages are the best part of any creative endeavor. That is where you yourself are exploring this world and the people in it, discovering the lives they have lived and witnessing the decisions they make.

Of course, the irony is that we are always the masters of the universe, and we do always retain some amount of power over what happens. So in a similar sense, the planning stages are where you are setting up all the dominoes, and even though you haven't knocked one over yet, you are just imagining and feeling what it will be like to see them all topple in sequence. Yet, the act of watching things go exactly as you planned is a short period of time.

So much more, I relish devising the plan itself. It's where you figure out what would be awesome and how you can upgrade something from being really cool to being totally epic.

It is so easy to get lost in the planning of your story. Anybody who writes for escapism and has a decent imagination can escape very easily without writing a single word. But if you are writing because you want to share your ideas (or even just your fantasies) with anybody else, it would help to record what you come up with.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Research What You Can't Experience

The more thorough your research on any subject is, the better you will be able to write about it. Certainly, if you are writing nonfiction, you have to know all about your subject material. But imagine you have a fictional character who happens to have a learning disability. Can you portray that character accurately?

If you wanted to learn what it was like to eat apples cooked in various fashions across the world, it's not too hard to go and find some recipes and try them out. Experience is the best way to understand so many things. But if you don't have a learning disability, you simply can't experience that. That's when you need to do research.

Read about these things, interview people first-hand. Get as much raw information as possible, and find out how to get people to talk about the things you really need to understand.  The more of it all that you have, the better you will be able to write about that subject.