Friday, November 30, 2012

Creativity Is An Innate Human Desire

I was having a conversation with a friend recently about why capitalism is a horrible and wretched system. Invariably, when capitalism is discussed, the proposed alternative is communism (please note the lower case "c"). And when communism is brought up,the capitalism supporters will say that communism doesn't work because humans are lazy. They say that only a few people will actually do work and everybody else will leech off of them.

This is 100% false.

Humans are not lazy by nature. Since the dawn of man, we have been constantly working. We develop new tools, new technologies. We discovered more and more about the world and how it works. And all the way through, we have been creating. On top of utilitarian discoveries, we have been telling stories. Before WORDS existed, we were telling stories!

Capitalism makes people lazy. It is a system that tells people they must be making money. Anything we do that is not earning money is by definition worthless (and is actually costing us money). It warps our minds. It makes us think that we are better off doing nothing than doing something badly. Capitalism also makes us hostile against one another. Because everything we do must provide value to us, then everybody trying to do the same thing is competition.

The point of this post is not meant to be on economics (even though this post is largely concerned with an economic system). The point is to talk about human nature. Humans are not lazy; their innate desire is to create and to explore. Sociological experiments consistently show this to be true. You can see it in children.They are always moving, always talking, always searching. The only things they ever care about are learning new things, and then telling other people about the things they learned. The only thing that makes them stop is us. Adults tell children to shut up. They tell them to remember stuff they don't care about and to stop thinking about the things they do. They tell us that the only thing we should be concerned about are getting jobs and making money. And the only people humanity has ever cared about are the ones who didn't do that.

When you ever find the weight of the world on your shoulders, know that it isn't your fault. Remember that the desires you have are what makes you a person, and fulfilling those desires are what you have to do to make you happy. The mind always knows the difference between what you want to do, and what you think other people want/expect you to do. Be aware of the difference, and do the thing that will satisfy your innate human desire.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

What Words Are You Conscious Of?

A writer friend once asked me a question about the words I use. I can't remember the exact wording anymore, but it made me think about which words I use too much. For me, that means, what words am I conscious of using? It's a weird question, but I like it.

Some words we use hundreds of times a day without thinking about it. Probably 90% of the words you'll ever read in my posts you don't really think about. They have a meaning, and you think about the meaning they have, but not about the word itself. When do you start noticing words?

For me, I only notice words when they either break the rhythm of a line, are not in my lexicon, or are used too much. The last one is most interesting, because there are exceptions to it. The more common a word is, the more you can use it without flaw. Personal pronouns you almost never have to worry about. The same is true for conjunctions and other grammar words (as opposed to content words). But the less common a word is, the more conscious we become of the word when used regularly.

There is one word that I use too much, and it is "start". My prose, especially my first drafts, are thoroughly littered with people who "started to" do something. Nobody does any actions; they just start them. You would think that my stories involve a bunch of people who try to do things and are constantly interrupted (since the only time you should say that a character started to do something is if they didn't finish it). And yet, despite knowing this, I do it constantly. While the average high school or college writer spends most of their revision time removing passive tense, I spend most of it removing "starts".

The only other word I'm conscious of is "I". Although I can use "I" all the time and it is unlikely that anyone will notice it, I don't like starting paragraphs with it. Granted, I do it a lot. Almost every post in Cheff Salad has at least one paragraph that starts with "I", mostly because it's me talking in first person about what I think, so there's no reason to mince words. But if every paragraph starts with "I", it makes me uncomfortable, like I need to find some variation.

One of the interesting side-effects to the question, "what words are you conscious of", is that you see that words are not simply words. We become very aware of the difference between grammar words and content words, and beyond that, some kind of value that every word has which represents how much space there must be before we are comfortable seeing it again. But even more, we also see that words exist not on their own, but in a context that affects this value.

I am endlessly in love with words, language, and communication. This question is a doorway to more deeply explore and understand these things. I am very grateful to have pondered it over the years, and I hope other authors ponder it too, and find their own answers from the process.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Merchant Hero

I love games that allow the player to develop their character. Some excellent recent examples are the games Dishonored and Skyrim. Dishonored basically makes you an assassin, and you get to grow your character, choosing whether you want to be stealthy or plain sight, and whether you want to be lethal or non-lethal. Skyrim has you being the hero of legend, but gives you a wide array of skills you can specialize in.

Both are excellent games and I would recommend them both readily, but I find Dishonored's character development superior. The game is perfectly balanced. Of the 4 basic combinations you can be (or any mix of them), every single choice is 100% viable. The game never forces you to kill, nor does it ever demand you hide in the shadows.

Skyrim, ironically, gives me far more choices, but upsets me with their implementation. This game is an open world and you can choose to do in it basically whatever you want. As you use the various skills at your disposal, they increase in power and allow you to unlock special perks within them. You can thoroughly specialize in about three particular skills out of 15.

In theory, all of these skills should be a way to approach life. You could focus in using melee weapons, in archery, in armors, blocking, several distinct schools of magic, smithing, alchemy, enchanting, and speechcraft. All wonderful walks of life, right?

Well, the problem here is that only a handful of them really let you beat the game. Despite all the choices and freedoms you have, the game is about killing monsters and bandits and dragons. If you aren't doing that, you can't beat the game. And I understand where they're coming from, but I have a problem with its execution.

Obviously weapon skills help you kill better. Armor let's you last longer. All the magic schools pretty much do the same. Even smithing and enchanting allow your gear to be noticeably improved (even though they, too, cannot allow you to win the game). But Speechcraft is worthless. The only thing it does is help you get better prices for buying and selling (which don't matter, since you spend must of the game flush with gold), and periodically persuading people in conversations (which also don't matter since there are at least three ways to do the same thing without Speechcraft.

Most importantly, I find it a shame that we have very few stories about merchant heroes. Slaying dragons is awesome. Banishing dragons is great. Nobody cares about the guy who politely convinced the dragon that the country to the south was a way nicer place to live. Nobody cares about the guy who ended a goblin siege by tossing treasure at them and then convincing them it was cursed.

We do have stories about heroes with cunning minds, sharp tongues, and honeyed words, but they are much rarer. People are impressed by action, by violence and often murder. Maybe it's because a contract is only as strong as the people who agree to follow it, or because might can always crush a piece of paper. Physical dominance has a finality that other forms do not have.

Still, I wish people would tell more stories of a person who showed the feasibility of a merchant hero. I think it is a story severely lacking in this day and age.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

How We Remember Our Past

If somebody asked me what my life was like five years ago, my immediate response would be, "what the hell was I doing five years ago?" I would then proceed to close my eyes, look up (which is a weird thing to do with my eyes closed), stroke my beard, and try to figure it out.

Five years ago was 2007, and since it is late November, I would be approaching the end of my first semester as a Junior in college. I don't remember all the specifics of my life at the time, but I was getting very deep into my Professional Writing classes. I was also getting very deep into my capoeira classes outside of school. I was living in Higgins Hall on the second floor, which was the same floor as the suite my friends lived in. I remember many late nights on my laptop, chatting with a number of friends, helping them get through personal problems, which means that at that point in my life, I had gone through one of the major revelations and personal developments at college and realized that one of the things I most enjoy in life is helping people feel better and work toward making their world a better place (which subsequently makes my life equally better).

I don't particularly care about my life five years ago. That was just an example. The point I really want to make is that humans do not think about their past the way computers would. The mind remembers bits and pieces. Every chunk of information may have bits that remind us of other chunks of information (like how the year indicated my year in college, which indicated the room I was in, which reminded me of activities in that room, which informed me of my mental state at the time), which ultimately gives us a fairly full picture of ourselves.

Humans also have the wonderful technology to give us memory aids. This could include photographs, journal entries, mementos/keepsakes which remind us of past experiences that were previously forgotten.

This imperfect, relative memory system is an intriguing one to explore. We have seen it used in stories where people with amnesia slowly reclaim their identity, and similarly used with dementia patients. But there is more that it can be used for. Consider a person simply reliving their youth, going to old schools or hangouts, visiting former teachers or other important adults. A person making such a trip would have a number of key places to go and people to see, but each new location would remind them of new places they had forgotten about, or stories that made these places more important than they originally thought.

This could also be used interestingly for a detective mystery. Sometimes just seeing evidence doesn't immediately spark an idea. Sometimes you have to be in the right place to trigger the brain to make a connection. (e.g. When you actually slip on a patch of ice, you realize that the body tends to fall in a particular way to avoid danger, so if the victim didn't fall that way, she must have been dead or unconscious.)

The one downside to the Digital Age is that it is easier to lose sight of how humanity works. Without going too deeply down that rabbit hole, I will conclude by saying that everyone can benefit by looking in themselves and trying to become aware of how they work, physically, mentally, emotionally, etc. And as a writer, use that knowledge, not only on yourself, but on all the other people you create.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Hoplessly Positive Are Hopeless

Some people are hopelessly positive. It sounds like the least significant problem somebody could have, and maybe it is, but it can still be an annoyance to have to deal with. We are trained from a young age that every problem has a solution, and that brains always beat brawn, so a plan is always the clear winner (despite the fact that the best-laid plans are oft to go awry).

The problem with hopelessly positive people is that they're hopeless. Unless they live in a world where faith can overcome fate (and there are certainly a great number of stories that take place in such a world), then such a person would one day get completely crushed. There is such a thing as insurmountable odds. There is such a thing as a no-win situation. If everything is against you, it doesn't matter how plucky you are. You either run or get flattened.

I think this is the reason that I have issues with most stories aimed at children. They all tell us that a good attitude can solve any and all problems, and that as long as you believe hard enough, you will always make it through any difficulties you come across. These are lessons that warp people's minds and make reality a torturous punishment to enter as an adult. (Imagine how you would feel on the day you find out that everything you had ever been taught is a straight-up lie, and that it's far, far worse than you expected.)

Pragmatic, practical, realistic characters are the ones we should idolize. They are people we can reasonably expect to be as adults with enough effort. They may not be super-powered, but they are attainable. Having a hero that you could eventually become as great as should be inspiring. And that's what children's stories should do.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Apply Analogies Meaningfully

Analogies are awesome tools. They are a means to explain concepts with established knowledge. For example, if I am explaining statistics to somebody, I might use dice. A standard six-sided die should land on all of its sides equally. If we threw it 60 times, each number should come up about 10 times. And the more we throw it, the more those results would smooth out.

But the world isn't perfect. You might do the test and find that the number three shows up noticeably more than all the other numbers. This is a sign that something funny is going on. Most likely, the die is not evenly weighted, which makes one side more likely to land than others. This is called a loaded die.

Once we understand about loaded dice, then they, too can be used as analogies. They are ways to understand fairness. The world is a random place, like rolling dice. No matter what your experiences are or what your predictions are, you can never be entirely certain what you are going to get. But the nice thing about randomness is that it tends to balance out. Bad things happen, but good things happen, too. However, if bad things happen noticeably more than good things, then it is like the dice that represent life are loaded.

The downside to using analogies is that sometimes the similarity between two things only goes so far. Suppose somebody says that the dice of life are loaded against her. If you wanted to be positive you could say something like, "If the dice keep giving you the same result, you just need to play a different game where that's a good result." It's a lovely thought if you are literally dealing with loaded dice. The problem is, how the heck does that apply to real life?  There might be a feasible answer depending on the context, but more likely than not, the analogy has broken down and the advice just doesn't make sense.

Beware of bad analogies. They can be a great tool, or they can be the bane of your arguments. Make sure that you are checking every step of the way that your analogy still parallels your actual subject.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Make All Characters Matter

I just watched the movie The Late Quartet. It's the story of a string quartet who, after 25 straight years of playing, finally have to deal with a whole lot of changes. It was a solid film. As with any story, I had some problems with it. One of them was an ancillary character who existed basically to ruin one of the characters' life.

**Spoiler Warning**

In one scene early on, the 2nd Violin player is jogging in the park with his jogging buddy (who is an abnormally attractive woman) and they're talking music. At one point, the guy explains that 2nd violin is an important part because it is what connects and blends the other three sounds and parts together. The woman then ignores everything he said and says that he should play first violin (all while stretching and bending over in front of him).

The violin player then brings up the subject of playing 1st Violin sometimes, which brings lots of hostility up and he has a fight with his wife (who plays viola in the quartet). In his anger, he sleeps with the jogging buddy and his wife finds out. This results in more than half of the problems that happen in this story.

But here's the thing: that jogging buddy never shows up for the rest of the movie. All she does is poison his mind and ruin his marriage. If she wasn't there everyone's life would be unequivocally better.

I really hate that. I hate useless characters. Or maybe I should call them utility characters. They only exist to make the story do what you want. Sure, you could argue that life can be random like that, but it just reeks of convenience here.

Make all of your characters matter. If somebody is significant in the plot, they should be critical. The world or story should be completely different without them. If taking out a character either makes everything better, makes everything worse, or brings the story to a complete halt, then that character doesn't matter enough, but should.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Sometimes The Problem Is You

Sometimes the world is against you. People's schedules don't line up with yours. People misunderstand what you say. Things break down at the most inconvenient times.

Sometimes the problem is you. Maybe your schedule isn't open because you put priority to unimportant things. Maybe people misunderstand you because you are failing to properly communicate what you mean. Maybe things break down because you aren't taking proper care of them (or maybe any time would be an inconvenient time for something to break down and you are too self-absorbed to realize that).

The point here is not to insult you or to say you should assume that all problems in your life are of your own making. Some things truly are out of your control. The point is to acknowledge that you are part of the equation. You are part of life. If a problem keeps occurring, no matter how you change the circumstances, then maybe the problem is you.

As usual, this applies to people in general and to writers in specific, as well as their characters.

Creativity In Monotony

In my previous post, I talked about how my mind needs a certain amount of complexity to be satiated and find peace. What I find interesting, too, is that when I am doing something really mundane or boring, I suddenly become incredibly creative.

Maybe it's my mind trying to find any excuse to stop working. Maybe it's trying to find something to entertain itself while painlessly bored.

Whatever it actually is, I am happy to be aware of it. I know how to unblock my mind. I just need to do something mindless like walking or cleaning or folding letters/stuffing envelopes. It's never a guarantee to work, especially if I do it to try to fix a specific block (sometimes the mind really does just need time to process). But it's a great tool. The better I know myself, the better I can do what I want to get done.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Peace In Chaos

My mind operates too fast. Call it a symptom of the digital age, or anything else. Regardless of why, I feel like, at any given moment, my mind has tendrils probing in several directions at once. The older I get, the harder it is to concentrate. I can hardly write a paragraph in a notebook without feeling a compulsion to check for messages from people or look up a word or check what song is playing.

This isn't always a bad thing. Frankly, there usually is so much input coming my way that I would have a mental breakdown at work if I wasn't able to juggle several projects and drop any given assignment if a new one had a higher priority, while being able to jump right back into the previous projects. (And I nearly have had a mental breakdown once or twice by desperately trying to get one task done and having constant interruptions. Focus is the worst quality to have, it seems.)

Still, so much stimulus does wear on the psyche. When I get home from a long day, all I want is peace. And yet, I do not want quiet. My brain still wants to think about a half dozen things at once; it just can't handle a half dozen things all demanding attention.

So I turn on my computer, put on my music player, and listen to dubstep, heavy metal, or classical music. I seek music that is incredibly complex. I need a pulsing, driving rhythm. I want melody, counter-melody, harmony, each of which being played across several instruments at varying octaves. I want intricate, precise notes played atop a constant drone or moving bass line.

I find peace in the most chaotic music. My brain can listen to everything going on, pay attention to different parts at different times, and sit back and enjoy the complexity as a whole. None of it demands my attention, but a single piece of music can occupy all of my tendrils (which is the closest thing to focus as I'm going to get).

I think some people just thrive in chaos. A classic example is the warrior who only feels alive in the midst of battle. Compare that to the wizard who uses magic to control dozens of objects simultaneously. I think it does not even matter what their profession or hobby is. Anything can be peaceful when a person can lose themselves in their activities.

I also think that nobody is purely one or the other. Some things people prefer to do with focus and other things people prefer to do with distractions (or doing parallel with other activities). It's a sliding scale, and that's what makes life exciting. And, as usual, anything that makes life exciting, can make your writing exciting.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

No Other Option Than To Write

I spent most of today outside of the house. It was not my expectation, but it's how things worked out. I was planning to stay in, get some writing done, and clean up some more, but plans changed. Fortunately, I had my notebook and my pencil with me.

I was able to spend several hours writing and finishing the first draft of an overdue story. It was actually really nice being stuck out of the house. I basically had no other option than to write.

It's kind of deplorable how readily my mind wants to do anything other than the task at hand, and it is sad that the only way I can get myself to focus on writing uninterrupted is to isolate myself from the world. But there is one amazing thing this shows: writing is the most versatile activity you can do.

If you have pen and paper, you can write anywhere. You don't need electricity. Don't need Internet. Don't need other people. As long as you can see enough, you can write. If you can't do anything else, you can still probably write.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Clear Space, Clear Mind

I spent this weekend cleaning. I was finally fed up with the accumulated trash from months, if not years ago. So, full of energy, I sorted papers, recycled the trash, cleaned off my desk, my dresser, and even got down and scrubbed the floor.

I still have more to do, but I already feel tremendous. I have space. I can do things I couldn't before, and I feel less cramped. Along with the cleanliness, I feel both a calm serenity, and an eager productive energy.

If you are feeling frazzled or pressed or otherwise mentally blocked, try cleaning. Try reorganizing. Try doing something you keep meaning to do and not getting around to. It might be exactly the fix you need.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Superposition Of Emotion

For those who don't know, the Schröedinger's Cat thought experiment is used to explain that, at the quantum level (i.e. very, very tiny), particles exist in multiple forms at the same time, but that the act of observing those particles collapses them into a single form.

Before a particle is observed, it is said to be in a superposition, where it is simultaneously in several forms. I think this concept is an intriguing one, and I feel like it applies beyond the realm of quantum physics.

Music is a powerful force for humans. When a song you're listening to matches your mood, it enhances the whole experience. But music also has the power to change our moods. If you wake up in the morning and are still exhausted, speed metal can get you totally invigorated for the day. And if you're down in the dumps, a bright, snappy pop song might make you perk up.

Sometimes I have no idea what mood I'm actually in. I'm definitely feeling something (I'm not numb), but I just don't know what emotion it is. So when I sit down and turn on my music player, it just so happens that whatever mood the song that played was, that also is the mood I realized I was feeling.

What I suspect is really going on is that I am somehow in a superposition of emotion, simultaneously feeling several emotions all at once. But the act of listening to a particular song collapsed my feelings into a single emotion.

I know that's not exactly how superpositions really work, but it kind of feels like that's what I'm experiencing. And if nothing else, it gives me ideas to play with, whole new realms of possibilities to explore. And that is a super position to be in.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

On Inhibitions

Inhibitions are interesting. We usually think of them as bad. They cause problems. Inhibitions make us not do things we think of, and we often have far more regrets over things we didn't do than things we did do that ended up bad.

So many people seem to enjoy chemicals that suppress our inhibitions, most notably alcohol. People are their "true selves" when drunk. They're more honest. They do the things they want without a care in the world.

But how many people say the world is a better place when everybody is drunk? Some people become rowdy. Some become violent. Others become cripplingly depressed. Society does not function well when people are uninhibited.

So what do inhibitions do for us? Well, we know they prevent us from doing things we think of. And a lot of ideas we come up with are incredibly stupid. People think to put their hand in fire, to jump down onto train tracks. People's minds tell them how easily they could murder somebody and get away with it (no clue how accurate it is, but the brain tells us we could so easily do it). All of these are pretty awesome ideas to avoid doing.

Inhibition is a pretty cool tool. It allows our minds to be creative and to explore realms of possibility, but to not make those thoughts a reality. Inhibition prevents harm. The problem is that we do not always know when something will be harmful. Sometimes inhibition prevents us from having experiences, from gaining knowledge. And at that point you have to out-think your own brain. You have to learn when its impulses are valid and when they are bogus. If you can master that, you should be sitting pretty.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Every Tool Has A Price

There are three main ways that I write things: pencil and paper in my notebook, typing on my computer, and typing on my phone. Each of them are tools to record the written word. None of them are good or bad inherently. They are tools, and each one has pros and cons.

Paper is an amazing medium to write on. We really have perfected it as far as I can tell. Handwriting is a process unlike any kind of typing, and paper is a medium that no digital format can ever really reproduce. Drawing characters, as opposed to pressing keys for them, is different, has a different effect on the brain and the body. Sometimes, I really feel like it stimulates thought more than any other means.

The costs of paper are many. It is fragile. It is not easily transferred to other formats. And it is painfully slow relative to typing. It takes hours to write by hand what I could type on a computer in minutes.

Typing on my computer is awesome. It is, without a doubt, the fastest way to create. The other nice thing about it is that as long as it is connected to the internet, I can be listening to music and doing quick bits of research as I write. It also has countless ways to transfer what I've written to other computers, and it's incredibly legible.

The downside of my computer is its portability. Although it's a laptop, it is a bulky one. It is designed for power, not mobility. So I really only use my computer when I am at it. And ideas do not always come so conveniently-timed.

My cell phone is actually in between the computer and the notebook. My phone has all the internet access, the ease of transferring written materials to other devices (like through emails), and the mobility so that I can write whenever and wherever.

The cost of the cellphone is that it is not particularly quick to write on (though probably faster than handwriting). It also is not the most pleasant experience. I am used to handwriting, and I am used to standard keyboard typing. I admit that I am getting the hang of typing on my phone's keyboard (thank you autocorrect for saving me tons of time and frustration), but I would still find it the least pleasant of the three writing styles.

Different tools have different purposes. I don't think any tool is going to be perfect in all situations, because situations themselves can be so wildly different. So acquire good tools, understand how best to use them, and know which one to pull out at a given time.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Everybody Has An Excuse

I've heard it said that nobody thinks they're a villain. I could argue against that to some degree (there are always exceptions - some people do believe it's fun to do bad things), but in general, I've found it to be correct. The point of the saying is to debunk the classic fairytale stories we are used to.

Villains are such one-dimensional caricatures that you can't take them seriously. They may be strong and willing to use their strength to harm people, but they aren't believable as people. Nobody spends their life studying black magic for the heck of it. Nobody decides they are going to rule the world with an iron fist because it would be fun.

Whatever a person chooses to do, that choice is justified in their mind. Everybody has an excuse. It may be thin, flimsy, even contradictory to other held beliefs. But they all think they're doing the right thing (or the wrong thing for the right reasons).

This goes directly with the idea of motivation. There is always a reason why people do any given thing. Something pushed them into that decision. So when you are looking at your "bad guy" characters, figure out what their motivation is, and why they think the things they do are right. Similarly, examine your protagonist and think about ways that he or she may be seen as the villain.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Job Titles Are Stupid

I think it's ridiculous that people find job titles impressive. I have met a lot of people with the same job titles that have had wildly different jobs. I have met people with remarkably different titles that all do the same work.

Job titles don't tell you how high up the latter you are, how much responsibility you have, what your specific duties are. Honestly, it doesn't actually say much of anything.

And yet, we have these preconceived notions of what they mean. Directors tell everybody what to do. Managers tell the peons what to do. Any position called "associate" or "assistant" is thankless grunt work, but they mean you're approaching the top when used as adjectives (such as Associate Vice President).

Giving a character a job title is a quick and cheap way to give them a particular status. If you story actually involves their job in any significant way (as opposed to showing it as generic office work), then what's really going to matter is what your character does. The one good thing about the meaninglessness of job titles is that you can have a character do whatever you want at work and almost any job title can cover it.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Nothing Is Infinite

I like the idea of infinity. It's a fascinating concept to me — something that goes on forever, never stopping, never running out of power. Of course, the first thing to understand about infinity is that it is only a concept. Nothing in this universe is truly infinite.

Some resources are in incredible quantity. They might be so abundant that you can't go through them all in your lifetime. But eventually, they will run out.

Systems don't last forever. At least, they don't without very careful planning and/or an intricate balance in place. Infinity is interesting to toy with in fiction, in the realms of fantasy, but if you are wanting to go for realism, then consider the world you are working in, what is being consumed, how quickly it's going, how quickly it gets replenished, and when it will be gone forever at that rate.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Write To Understand Your Ideas

All too often, we get these awesome ideas that swirl around our heads. Bits and pieces of it flash around and they're all brilliant. The problem is that whenever we try to make it real, it doesn't seem to work out. It's like there's something you missed or two parts of it can't work at the same time.

Ideas are great, but people are rarely given fully-formed plans in an instant. They may have an idea, but there's no way of knowing if it's any good without exploring it.

That is why writing is so amazing. It's the best way to understand your ideas. Getting all those points on paper, connecting the points, making a plan, and seeing right away what problems exist.

I really believe that you can't know if your ideas are any good until you write them down. It's not a flawless or foolproof technique, but it's way more reliable in weeding out ill-conceived concepts and creating good plans.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Beware Unproductive Production

I have a looming deadline and have not producing as much as I want. Today I finally got a strong surge of productive energy, so I pulled out my notebook and pencil, and then proceeded to write several pages on a project that I have on the back burner while I try to meet my various deadlines.

I was in this awkward position where I was finally creating after days of stagnation, and yet it was the most unproductive production possible (short of starting a new project). Today, I decided that any production was worth more than trying to produce for my primary deadline and getting nothing.

I'm telling myself that it was a net gain, since I forwarded one project noticeably, and I did end up working on my deadline project. But I still feel like it was a wash because I am under the illusion of production but still am procrastinating.

Consider this one of my failings (or at least one of the things I am working on as a writer). Simply put, if you have the willpower to sit down and write anything, then you have the willpower to work on the project that is most pressing.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Why Worry?

I want to share a joke I learned from my dad.

Why worry?
You're either healthy or you're sick. If you're healthy, you have nothing to worry about.
If you're sick, you either get better, or you die. If you get better, there's nothing to worry about.
If you die, you either go to heaven or you go to hell. If you go to heaven, you have nothing to worry about.
If you go to hell, you're going to be too busy shaking hands with all your friends. So why worry?

Sometimes we make situations too complex in our minds. And admittedly, life really can be quite complicated, but not all of the nuances necessarily matter. Sometimes, if you're sick, you either get better or you die.

A character who simplifies to this degree can cut through a lot of bullshit. A character who does it all the time will end up creating a whole host of bullshit of their very own.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Emotional Outbursts Have Relative Power

Some characters are just brimming with energy. They can range from comical mania to severe emotional dysfunction. You expect these characters to have regular emotional outbursts and act rashly. The world is larger than life to these people.

Other characters are masters of self-control. They don't like losing their cool, so they do everything they can to negate stress. They may avoid problems, try to solve them, or ask particularly annoying people to please stop doing what's bothering them.

Ultimately, both kinds of characters can end up exploding. The manic do it as a matter of habit. It may be loud or crazed, and it can even be adorable. The reserved do it only in desperate situations. The more control they have, the more shocking and powerful it becomes to see such a person break down.

Emotional outbursts have relative power. The more a character does them, the less they mean. As the author, the same holds true for how often you use them. You may think you have a character who is very emotionally reserved, but if he breaks down into tears in every chapter of your story, then no audience member will see him as anything other than a fragile dandy. If you want those tears to have meaning, keep them back.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Read The Speed Of Action

I think people read too quickly. I know that I do. I tend to read at whatever speed I'm feeling, which sometimes means that I speed through parts because I'm looking for the action.

Ideally, we should read at the speed of the action. When exciting times are going on, reading quickly heightens the thrills. But if the author is creating a scene and setting a mood, you need to slow down. Take in what they're saying and let the world grow around you.

That said, there is such a thing as too much description. Some authors don't know when to pick up the pace and get on with the story (and of course that point is an opinion that changes based on the reader). But in general, if you're feeling impatient, the problem may be that you're being impatient.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Science Is A Method

I get so tired of people exclaiming "science!" as though it was a tangible thing. Science is not lab coats, test tubes, telescopes, and all of that stuff. It is exactly that: stuff. At best, they are tools of the trades. But even still, science is not chemistry and biology and astrophysics.

Science is a method.

Science is an approach to understanding things. It is something most people do every single day without acknowledging it. When we hear a sound and find out what it is, that's science. To do otherwise would be to assume that the sound is a particular thing, but never find out for sure.

Consider a slightly more complex issue: your laptop isn't turning on. You press the power button, but nothing happens. There could be several possible explanations. You notice the power indicator light is off, but it's plugged in, so there must be a problem with the electricity (and the battery might also be dead). You check the connections to the computer and to the adapter to see if they came loose, but they are solidly connected. So you check the power strip to see that it also has a good connection, which it does. You look at the other things plugged into the power strip and notice they're all off; none of them are getting power. You plug the power strip into a different outlet and everything is suddenly working again. Now you know that your laptop was not turning on because one of your wall outlets has blown out (or so it appears).

There's nothing terribly fancy about this. Nothing that just happened needed a laboratory or a master's degree. But still, it was science. No matter how big or small, how simple or complex,no matter what tools are needed, science is an approach to life, nothing more.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Build Your Sandbox

So last night, I told you that there are two legitimate ways to tell your story - either leading the protagonist down a linear path, or giving them a sandbox to explore. It is up to your discretion which you choose. That said, whichever path you take, make sure you set it up.

If you are giving your character a sandbox, build that sandbox. If they are in a city, make a map (or steal one from the internet as a starter). Where do people live? Where does work get done? Where's city hall? Police? Hospital? Utilities? Who works in the various places? What're their stories?

I don't think you honestly need to go out and write 200 character bios in order to write your story. 20 might be decent, though. Characters can't know what to do or where to explore if the author doesn't even know what's there to be found.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Linear vs. Open Storytelling

There are two ways to tell a story: give people a linear story where the end of each segment points in the direction of the next, or  give people an open world and let them explore until they piece things together. The very nature of the written word seems to demand the linear style, but I would argue you could do either. The difference is the nature of the character.

Imagine the stories where the protagonist enters a dangerous place, like sneaking into enemy territory, or even walking around town when their face is on wanted posters or shown on the evening news. They can't wander around. They can't strike up conversations with strangers. Whoever they may find that they can trust, that's about it. They have to hope that every new piece of information they get will uncover some key factor that will open up the next step.

Now imagine a story where the protagonist is doing everything in their home town. They know all the important people, all the usual places. They can go back and forth, checking in on the same places over and over again as necessary.

It may seem like a written story is linear because everything is preordained, but I think that's an illusion. The character was working within a sandbox; you the audience merely saw what the character chose to do with their time in it. That is different from a character who always seems to have only one option and the only real question is whether they succeed at the next part or not.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Electronic And Classical Music

I grew up listening to classical music, not by choice. It's what my parents listened to exclusively. So every car ride anywhere, it was classical music. By and large, I did not care for it. It was dull and boring to me.

I never got more than a taste of any contemporary music, which was way more appealing to me. Modern music had obvious melody, things you could sing. It also had lyrics that people could sing. Classical music was nothing more than a semi-random assortment of sound. No instrument ever had a melody. It was always jumping back and forth. To hear any instrument's part alone was like looking at a single girder and some bolts and trying to envision an office building.

As soon as I got to college, I had almost immediate access to modern music, thanks in large part to my friends exposing me to their various music libraries. From there, I found my way into electronic music, and as the years passed, I got deeper into electronic dance music, house, drum and bass, dubstep and all that jazz.

Recently, I decided to listen to the classical music station, and I was really shocked. Everything I love about electronic music I could find in classical music. And the extra irony is that it is actually all the things I originally hated about it. Basically, I had to go through an evolution from simple melodic tunes, to similar tunes with electronic influence, to pure electronic tunes, at which point I gained the appreciation for the high-level goings-on of this music.

That said, not all classical music is equally great, just like all other forms of music. And it also helps listening to music of a certain period that resonates with me (the Romantic period, like Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, and Beethoven all do that kind of sound more than Baroque or Classical period music). Still, I was amazed that I could gain an appreciation for music I once couldn't stand by listening to music that most classical musicians can't stand.

This easily translates to the written word, both as a reader, and a writer. Stories have more in common than they have different. You may find as you grow up that you have gained an appreciation for a form of writing you once hated. Partly it comes from new understanding; partly it comes from evolving tastes.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

When It Rains, It Pours

I find myself suddenly loaded with projects. I am doing a collaborative work with a fellow writer. I am poring over horror mythos in creating an adventure for several friends. I'm keeping up with Cheff Salad, and I am trying to fit my fantasy story where time permits.

I am reminded of the saying: when it rains, it pours. It feels like I just went from doing minimal amounts of writing to being flooded with it. But I don't feel bad. I'm a little overwhelmed, but I'm not concerned. Between college and my jobs after that, I am fine with time management and I can juggle several projects. This is more than I was doing, but not more than I've ever done.

It is weird how things tend to stack up quickly. But that can be a good thing. A writer who isn't writing isn't really being a writer. So this principle means that whenever you want to write, you can be engulfed in it. You can write as much as you want, forever. And that's awesome.

Friday, November 2, 2012

On Double Spacing

I don't care for double spacing in general. I find it a needless and annoying aesthetic. The only time I used it was when my teachers demanded it.

From a mechanical perspective, I find the amount of space between lines distracting. By its definition, double spaced lines are so far apart that you could fit an entire line of text between them and it would still be legible. My eyes get lost going from line to line, because it feels like I'm jumping to a new paragraph after every line break.

From an environmental perspective, it is literally a waste of space. If you are writing something of any substantive length, you will be going through excessive amounts of paper to print it out, which irritates me more than it probably should (I truly hate paper waste.)

Similarly, what I dislike the most about double spacing is the mentality of people who prefer it. All too often, people are so concerned about page numbers. It's this whole dick-measuring contest where the higher your page count, the better you are. People talk about how much they love double spacing because it instantly blows up their page count, which makes them feel more accomplished, despite having done literally nothing to add more.

The only value in double spacing is for editing. It's nice to have that space to write notes between lines, rather than shoving them all in margins. And that alone is enough for me to say that it's not completely useless. I just don't like it outside of that single function.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

A Good Excuse To Write

I'm not a huge fan of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). I appreciate what it does in encouraging people to not worry about anything other than getting their ideas written down and banging it out in a relatively short time. And I definitely support anybody who uses it. What I don't care for is how people tend to think of November as a writing month, and then not thinking of any other month as a writing month.

Meeting deadlines and completing projects is awesome. It is a crucial skill for a writer. But another skill is writing every day. I've never really been interested in NaNoWriMo because I already am writing, so it seems silly to dedicate a month to something I do every day.

That said, I do enjoy a good excuse to write. I was planning a collaborative project with a fellow writer friend, and since November was right around the corner, it made sense to use NaNoWriMo as a framework for our project. Each of us will work on our respective parts through November, and when we have reached our limit, we will trade off to read and edit each other's work, so that we will end up with a finished and polished piece.

If we had come up with the idea in March, we would not have waited half a year to do it now, but things lined up well, so we are taking advantage of the existing structure to focus and motivate us. And, I suppose, that is what NaNoWriMo does best: give you a good excuse to write.