Monday, December 31, 2012

I Don't Like Childish Adults

There are so many stories whose plots involve irrational adults. They think they can convince people to love them. They think that the world has to exist the way they want and that if it doesn't conform, then they will bend the world in their shape.

I don't care about childish characters. They're just obnoxious to me. All of their problems could be solved by growing up and acting like an adult. That does not make for a compelling story.

Maybe it's unrealistic for my stories to be full of rational, reasonable characters. Maybe they are the minority. But as far as I'm concerned, they're the only kinds of characters worth writing about.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Plot Holes

I think that plot holes are a critical failure for any story. People who find plot holes are not nit picking; they are finding a major problem which makes the story fall apart. But before I go on, I must explain what a plot hole is to me.

Things that are unlikely are not plot holes. There are lots of unlikely things that happen every day. Similarly, just because a character didn't take perfect advantage of a situation does not constitute a plot hole. Just think about how many times you have realized that you could have handled a situation far better.

A plot hole is when something impossible happens. Shooting a gun and having it circumnavigate the earth and hit you in the back is impossible (if you are in the real world). Having a character's leg be injured in a heroic fight so badly that he has to hobble down a hallway, but then having him successfully leap 30 feet over a chasm is impossible. Establishing a world where magical flight is possible, and then forcing characters to walk everywhere and struggle to get over a tall fence is impossible.

One can have bad storytelling without plot holes. One can arguably have very compelling storytelling even with plot holes. But if you as a reader demand reality or at least consistency, then a plot hole is a mark of highest shame.

I have heard the argument made that plot holes are impossible to avoid entirely. And I understand that the more complex a story gets, the harder it is to avoid inconsistencies. I also understand that when you have a deadline and limited resources, it puts a greater strain on the author. But I disagree that it's impossible. I think that it should be one of the goals of storytellers.

You must entertain. You ought to educate. And you're a lot more likely to entertain us if you avoid plot holes.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Words Have Inherent Trust

I still struggle with having my characters lie. I can have them do it, but it always confuses my readers. For so long, I thought it was a failing in my skills (and I still think it is to some degree), but I realized why it is such a struggle in the first place. Words have inherent trust.

I'm not sure why, but I find that we always believe characters in stories. They always have a certain wholesomeness, where they always speak from the heart and it is always true. In fact, the only way we can ever seem to accept a character telling a lie is when they explicitly say they are going to lie, or if they use the most ridiculous, cartoonish motions and inflections that nobody would ever use in real life if they were actually trying to deceive someone.

My favorite example of this is in the movie The Dark Knight, where The Joker tells the story of how he got his scars. When we hear it, it sounds perfectly reasonable, so we assume he is being sincere. Later in the movie, he tells the story of how he got his scars, and it is a completely different story. Nothing is the same at all in it. The audience often scratches its head at the incongruence. They usually figure out that he's lying, but the question they ask is, "which story was the lie?" The point being, they still think that one of them is the truth. The idea that they're both lies doesn't seem to cross many people's minds.

Ultimately, the problem I have is that I am trying to overcome a very human assumption. I still think it can be done without resorting to cheap gimmicks, but I wonder how much of the burden is on my skill and how much of it is hoping that my audience will figure out that inconsistencies are the result of characters lying and not of being a bad author.

Friday, December 28, 2012

The Subtle Spectrum

Some statuses are black and white. You're either a president or you're not. You either own a car or you don't. You're either a virgin or you're not. But more often than not, your status exists in a spectrum (and some people could argue even the examples I gave are such).

One of the stories I really enjoy are ones where a person is on the path toward "mastery" of some kind. Often it is some kind of competitive or performance skill, and they spend their life pushing to become greater than all others, to be the best, since one cannot be a master if others are better than them.

There are a number of good endings to such stories. It could be realizing that mastery of any art is meaningless without friends/love. It could be realizing that mastery is about doing the best you can, even if you are not the best on earth. It could be finding out that at a certain level, people reach an equality where success is determined by luck more than anything else.

I like these stories because they hit on a very important aspect of life. We are always trying or wanting to do better. Our common assumption in life is that we click over into things like mastery, the same way that, once you know something or you have seen something, it is permanent. You now have the experience and knowledge and you are fundamentally changed. But the reality is that most endeavors are not skills, but sets of skills. And the skills we learn can be done at varying levels of quality.

We are constantly moving about a subtle spectrum, one which we have no idea how far out it extends, so we know only how far we have come, but never how far we have left to go.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Muted vs. Deafened

If you walk outside on a snowy night, and there are no sounds around, would you describe it as muted or deafened?

Well, what do they mean? One who is mute cannot produce sound. One who is deaf cannot hear sound. The simple answer is that you should describe it as mute because there is no particular sounds being heard, and the person is capable of hearing.

But in thinking about the question, I find it interesting that both words encompass the idea of no sound, but for totally different reasons. It's one of those examples of a single symptom resulting from one of several possible causes.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Understand The Words You Speak

There is a reason that people teach classes in public speaking; there is much to learn about it. People all too often think that, since we speak every day, it is going to be easy to give a public performance - all you have to do is read the words on the page and say them out loud.

The reality is that the words on the page are a map. It may show you how to get from beginning to end, but it doesn't tell you how to do it. Words are written with intent, with meaning, with emotion. If you do not add those to your voice, then you have robbed those words of their soul.

If you are going to do a reading, study and practice. Understand what it is the author truly wishes to express, or at least the way they resonate within you. Even if you are the author of those words, you still need to practice how to deliver them with the same conviction that you wrote them.

It always surprises me to hear authors be poor performers, especially of their own work. I know I'm not perfect, and I know that they are not really the same skill set, but they are both so relevant and useful that they should be practiced and done well.

Don't Be Timid

People love to sing, but they're always afraid to sing out. They're self-conscious and want to sing at a volume that only they can hear. You can get away with this while singing, but not in everything.

Even within music, you can't play most instruments if you're timid. Anything that needs air like a trumpet or a clarinet requires power. If you try to do it timidly, you will make no sound at all.

What makes this a wonderful thing is that the only way to play is to do it confidently. I think the same should be applied to all endeavors.

Don't be timid. If you are going to do something, put in a sincere effort. If you go in half-cocked, you may feel safer, but you won't get the same result.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Try Again Later

One of my friends told me that he kept a piece of advice that Elton John once said very close to his heart. If you try to work on something and you can't get it in 15 minutes, then put it away and try again later.

The idea is that we create better work when we have that natural inspiration. It's not that we can't make something good if we struggle through it, but that is a rarity. More often than not, when you force your work, you come up with inferior products.

In reality, we don't always have that luxury. Sometimes we have deadlines and they have to be met. And in all likelihood, if you see some really crappy advertisement or spelling errors in documents, it was likely because some poor sap had a deadline and it was crunch time.

If you have the time for your creative work, then take the time. If you want to make something great, you have to work on it, but not all work is equally useful. Give yourself a shot every day. Give yourself that 15 minutes to try, but if it's just not coming, then accept it and make up the time the next day.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Ultimate Power Is Physical

There are so many ways that we think we hold power over people. Certainly, we can influence others through many means, like logical argument, guilt, threats of retribution, and we can consider these to be ways of holding power over people. But not all of these powers are equal. In fact, one power truly trumps them all.

Ultimate power is physical. The only thing that can truly stop you from doing what you want is somebody stronger than you physically stopping you from doing it, or somebody using technology that can physically dominate you. Think about anything that you might want to do. Who is going to stop you?

If you work in an office, your boss might think he's in charge, that he can tell you what to do and you have to do it. But I have seen plenty of disgruntled employees do whatever they damn well please and their bosses did nothing to stop them. In fact, terrible employees often stay in companies because the management is afraid that firing them would cause them to...wait for it...use physical force against them.

Cause trouble in society and it's not the senators who take you down; it's the cops.Those big strong people with handcuffs and mace and stun guns and real guns. Those are the people who stop us from doing whatever we want.

Every jackass looking for trouble always says, "what are you going to do about it" and the only answer that calms them down is violence.

The reality of the world is that might truly does make right. We only have order because the collective might of a society tends to be greater than that of any individual troublemaker.

I think this is what leads to a certain staleness in writing (or at least a cynicism). You either get physically harmed or you don't. Most consequences aside from violence are based on the victim accepting these consequences as a problem. So when you want to explain that your characters are facing a legitimate threat, it is a threat of violence.

Similarly, that is why everything is life and death in action movies and the fiction of teenagers. It is permanent, irreversible, and total. But when everybody always has violent antagonists and results are always death, it gets boring. So we have to make these non-physical threats that have non-violent resolutions, but the whole thing is a hoax, because all too often, they are making a needlessly complex plan to solve a problem that isn't an issue with a method that is inefficient (if not downright ineffective).

Still, I suppose we must do what we can to keep our audiences entertained. And if they are bored,we failed. It just becomes difficult, knowing that we are losing a sense of realism to be entertaining.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Sum Of Your Personae

I had a conversation with a writing friend, and we ended up reminiscing about the past. There was a point when she was so enigmatic to me. I couldn't figure out what she was thinking, how she operated, and it killed me because I always felt like I was so close, and then had a curveball thrown at me.

Nowadays, I don't care as much. She's my friend and my colleague. I've seen her on good days and on bad days, and the same for her seeing me. More importantly, I've come to understand that it doesn't matter who somebody might be or who they "really" are. The person I'm talking with is one facet of a greater whole. And the greater whole is the collection of those facets.

We are the sum of our personae. There is no "true self". There is all the forms we can be, stored in a single body. And whichever one comes out can be more or less random.

What I find most amazing is that our characters are basically the fragmentation of our whole selves. Each one is some form of our thoughts and beliefs, not always cleanly cut (but that's what makes it more interesting).

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Value Of Knowledge

I have been finding a lot of thoughts on the subject of college and education. Or to be more accurate, I have been receptive to those thoughts lately. I feel conflicted because I have found two compelling pieces that say very different things on the matter, and I agree with both of them.

The first one is an article about hipsters on food stamps. This article covers a number of subjects, one of the major ones being that the education system in America is broken. We treat college like it is a prerequisite for life. We think that anybody without a degree is too stupid to do anything more complicated than work a cash register. And we say that people with degrees are guaranteed to make more money.

I'm not cold or cynical enough to say that college serves no benefit. I grew into an adult there and I learned a lot there. The problem is that it didn't magically give me a job, nor did it magically make me awesome at the jobs I have gotten since then. Unless you are taking college courses in how to do a very specific job well, college will never come close to on-the-job training.

The other thing is a TED Talk by John Green. In it, he talks about learning communities. One of the most powerful lines to me was when he said that the things he has learned has affected him literally every day of his life. Maybe not every single fact, nor the textbook manner in which they are taught, but the ideas and knowledge kept being used. For him, the seeking and sharing of knowledge make life better and worth living.

As I think about these two, I realize that they are not diametrically opposed. The first article takes issue with colleges in specific. The author has a problem with the business of it. The talk says that knowledge is awesome and worthwhile and that it doesn't matter if your learning community is at a college or your job or on the internet watching educational videos.

I think this is why I can agree with both videos. They both say things that are right, but do not contradict each other. I think college has very little value to the self-motivated and the unmotivated people among us. But knowledge is truly priceless. It makes us happier and healthier; it makes the world better for everyone.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Any Simple Scene Could Be Awful

Sometimes when I see stories, certain scenes don't feel real to me. They come off as an unnecessary extension to reach a proper page length or runtime. And in some sense, I will always feel that way because I know it happens. But I have been more forgiving of it lately because It represents life.

Sometimes we just have bad luck. Things don't go as we planned and we have to expend time and energy to get back to where we were.

In some sense, these scenes can show the humanity of the characters. It means they aren't perfect, but they're still impressive enough to be worth telling stories about, which you see when they handle their bad luck.

To put it another way, suppose you see a scene where a character is being sneaky to avoid detection, and knocks over a lamp. If you ever find yourself asking what would happen if he was more careful or succeeded in catching it, then you'd have a simple scene where he sneaks and avoids detection.

Similarly, any simple scene could be worse. You see a character walk down a hall and have nothing horrible happen? That character should thank their lucky stars. Countless atrocities could have occurred. That's the amazing thing about the unknown, unforetold future: anything is possible.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Whatever Makes You Happy

I was talking with a stranger today about fashion. It is without a doubt that what I choose to wear is not the norm, but I don't care. I wear the clothes that I think look good on me. When I see myself in the mirror, I feel like I look good, and that makes me feel good.

I told the stranger as much. My outfit does not need to impress anybody but myself. When I am happy, I have no problems. And if I have problems, then I need to figure out how to be happy again.

The same goes for your writing (and basically any other endeavor in life). Do whatever makes you happy. If you feel like you should be writing a novel, but all you feel like writing is slash fic, then write slash fic. It will make you happy.

That said, if you do the thing that you think will make you happy, but you find yourself displeased or unfulfilled, then obviously you need to be doing something else.

Eventually, if you get more broad or more specific, you will find what you need to do to make yourself happy. If you can then actually do that, then you've won.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Red Herring vs. Chekhov's Gun

There are two contradictory thoughts in storytelling: the red herring and Chekhov's gun. The original red herring was literal; it was a pungent fish that was used to overpower the scent of prey and send hunting dogs down the wrong paths. Chekhov's gun was a reference to a quote that if you mention that there is a gun over the mantle in the first act of your play, then it must be fired by the end of the third act.

Red herrings exist solely to throw us off. They purposely make us think something is wrong to maintain the surprise when it is revealed (or to make it a surprise). Chekhov's gun is the exact opposite, saying that anything that is explicitly mentioned must be used.

So which one is correct? This has been a difficult question for me to answer. My guy reaction is Chekhov. I have been all about succinctness as long as I can remember, so I should agree with the sentiment that says you should use everything you mention.

And yet, the problem with being succinct is that you become predictable. I hate seeing stories where I know what the ending will be because they showed everything important in the beginning. The whole story is then just watching everything happen and being unsurprised. At least with red herrings, the audience will get some amount of surprise, since they won't be sure which things are critical.

After some thinking, I realized that Chekhov was right all along. The red herring may be surprising, but it's a cheap trick, like a jump scare. It exists only to cover up bad writing. And along with that, you can be succinct as long as you are a good enough writer to make it work.

You can surprise people without red herrings you can have everything you mention be used, and you can retain surprise by having them used in unexpected ways. Maybe that gun doesn't get used to kill the evil brother, but to protect him from a burglar, hoping that the act of kindness would redeem him or show that the blood was thicker than water.

So, if you think your story is predictable, ask somebody to read it and say if they could guess what happened. If they could, and you're thinking about tricking them with false leads, ask yourself if that would actually make your story better.

Remember a predictable story isn't bad if it is told well. And a story is only surprising if it makes sense. Red herrings are the first step toward head-scratching and plot holes.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Life Finds A Way, Continued

When I finished writing my previous post, I realized that I had made a point that was more specific tan I intended, so I want to add on to that.

People born with some sort of disability certainly do not know what they are missing out on. I mean, a person born with no arms can see that the world wasn't built for them, but they live a very different life than a person who was born with arms and subsequently lost them.

This was the whole point of Hank Green's "new normal" (which I also neglected to link to last time). After the initial shock of having your life suddenly and irrevocably changed, and that can take a very long time, eventually the mind copes. It rewires itself and gets accustomed to the new way it has to function to keep going.

If a person lives long enough, no matter what they have gone through, they will eventually stop noticing that things are different. Or they will think about it less. Or they will be perturbed by it less. It may be a shock to other people, but the character has gotten over it.

That is the other sense that life finds a way. One's memories or emotions may be a little different, depending on whether they never had something or they lost something they once had, but with enough time, they get used to it. So when you are in their head, realize that not every waking moment is spent thinking about their disabilities or disfigurements. And really, few waking moments are.

Life Finds A Way

Something I find so remarkable about life is that there are so many hindrances people have to over one in life, and we regularly do overcome them. We can see this in animals, and in humans.

A cat can be born without front paws, and it will learn how to move around on its hind legs. A person born without arms will learn how to get around without them, too. And whatever other problems we have, be they allergies, chronic disease, or mental illness, we deal with it and we move on.

To quote a line from Jurassic Park, "life finds a way." But to quote John Green, you find a "new normal". And I think these two thoughts make for an interesting lens. It really seems that we are designed to survive, which is why I love organic life. But part of that survival is not feeling like we are trying that hard.

Whatever we do is normal. Our own lives are so normal that we don't even take the time to think about it. For a man to explain what being a man is like, you can't even do it without knowing what being anything else is like. It's as odd as being asked what having skin or red blood cells is like.

The same is said for a person born without arms. They may be able to explain what they can't do, or what is difficult to them, but they don't feel like they're missing arms. They just are what they are.

When you examine a character and put their thoughts into text, realize that they don't know any other way to live. They have no idea what any other way to be is. They may feel different or like an outsider, but they are still themselves.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

We Are Constantly Bombarded By Knowledge

There is a saying: "When the disciple is ready, the master will appear." The logical part of my brain thought it was crap for a very long time. I imagined it as meaning that a person will "level up" in terms of mental capacity and, at that moment, a wizened old man will show up. I understand now that I had misunderstood the premise all along.

We are constantly bombarded by knowledge. If you have ever heard people discussing neutrinos, these harmless particles that are traveling through everyone and everything all the time, then you can imagine knowledge working very similarly.

Every person you meet has something to say. If a person is old enough to know how to talk, they have knowledge to share. Most of it we tune out because it's meaningless to us. People either tell you stuff you already know or tell you stuff that's wrong. And every now and then, you're talking with somebody, and they start telling you stuff, and it actually makes sense. You start listening to them, thinking about their words, their ideas, and what they really mean, and it turns out they mean a lot. Your life changes that day. You have changed that day. And from here on out, that person's knowledge is now your knowledge.

If you had seen that person on any day before that one, his words would have just been stupid or wrong. He was still there, but you as a person weren't ready for what he had to say. Your mind was not ready to receive and appreciate this knowledge. But it was always there.

This is not me telling you to do anything or change who you are. All I want to do is present a way of thinking about the world, and the people, around you. Consider the possibility that knowledge surrounds you, permeating every crevice of the world. Think about yourself not as the same person from day to day, but as constantly changing as a flowing river. If you do this, you may realize that, indeed, when you are ready, the master will appear and teach you.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Importance Of Discussing Pizza

Tonight is not so much about writing, but about communication. The brain is a remarkable supercomputer. It is constantly thinking about dozens of things at once, even stuff you aren't even aware of. This is wonderful when you're trying to remember the name of a restaurant you stopped at on vacation three years ago. It's awful when you can't stop thinking about the first person that broke your heart.

When the mind starts obsessing on the negative, it seems impossible to get over it. Whether you try to watch a movie or read or take a walk, you can't stop from thinking about it. The problem is that whatever you try to do, your mind still can think about it. In fact, the best way I've found to get over it is to overload your mind so much that all your primary power goes to it and you don't have anything left to think about unpleasant things.

So much of the past, I have never known how to handle people who are upset. Every thing I could think might be helpful, I was afraid would make things worse. Some people want to talk about it, but talking about it makes them more unhappy. Some people may need a physical connection, and others absolutely don't want to be touched. So I would often find myself standing there dumbfounded, having no idea what to do, and knowing that it also was probably not the right thing to do either.

Once I figured out that people can't be upset if they are sufficiently engaged, I realized that a silly conversation about something thoroughly unimportant is the safest way to get somebody's mind off their troubles until they feel less sore.

Being a fat guy, my first thought is usually of food. So when people are upset, I start talking about pizza. It's something that pretty much everybody has eaten, has a preference of toppings, and probably has stories they remember that involve it. Once I can get somebody talking their favorite pizza topping, the door is open. It's simple and harmless, and if they get confused as to why I would bring the up, I can say play it off as a joke or a passing thought ("I'm a fat guy, I'm thinking about pizza five out of every six seconds"). And once we talk about pizza toppings, I can make it sillier. What's the weirdest topping you've ever had? What if they made a candy bar pizza? Oh man, have you ever had dessert pizza? It's actually super amazing. What if instead of using regular cheese, they used cream cheese, and put cherries on top?

Silliness always leads to a smile eventually, and then a good chuckle. If you can crack their unhappiness, you'll be fine, and so will they.

Admittedly, you can also do this with something more tailored to the individual. Maybe you can ask them a question about football or microbiology or whatever they're into. If they can start getting into a discussion and you can push them into a really serious one, you'll get them past their problems too.

The importance of discussing pizza is in knowing how the mind operates, and how you can take advantage of it. This seems to be the running theme of the last few weeks, and that's fine. Let the point be driven home. If you can understand yourself, you can understand others. When you can understand others, you can far more effectively influence them. From there, it is up to you what you influence them to do. Will you help them, or will you help yourself? If you're not sure, think about it over a slice of pizza.

Friday, December 14, 2012

You Should Sound Smarter In Writing

Speech is ephemeral. As soon as it is said, it's gone. When we talk, we usually have to shoot from the hip. We say what comes to mind as it comes, and when we're on a roll, we seem to speak faster than we can think of what to say next.

Writing is a planned act. Though we do it faster than ever these days, there is always a delay between you creating the message and the recipient getting it. And in that time, you have the chance to think about what you're saying. You can see your words, and you can choose to revise it or throw it out.

As such, you should sound smarter in writing. You have the time. You can check your spelling. You can check your grammar. You can check yourself before you wreck yourself.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Last Three People I Read

I've heard it said that at any given time, an author is an amalgamation of the last three authors they read. We pick up on people's mannerisms, word choice, speech patterns, all that stuff. I can attest to this phenomenon because I've experienced it.

Ironically, the last three people who have done that to me were not people I read, but people I listened to. They are Noah "Spoony" Antwiler, John Green, and Hank Green. Each of them have profoundly affected what I've written in some way.

Spoony has really honed my analytical skills lately. He is primarily a critic of movies and video games, and he is the best one I have come across. He puts on no airs as being an expert, nor is he a character. He sits on his couch or chair and talks to the camera. But what he says is spectacular. No matter what he's talking about, he can find the good and the bad. He can point out when his bias is showing, and he backs up every single point he makes. Even when he gives his opinions, they have weight. If I do find myself disagreeing with his reviews, I still have to acknowledge all the points he makes as valid.

John Green, who is an accomplished author, among other things, has a wonderful presentation style. He speaks honestly, but has a child-like silliness to it. He is aloof and goofy, but always sincerely speaks from his heart. Ironically, it takes effort to speak naturally, but it is effort well spent. The audience feels at ease and wants to open up because you are opening up to them.

Hank Green, being John's brother, is remarkably similar, but Hank uses different qualities. Hank is more energetic; he speaks faster and moves his body more frenetically. He's usually more serious when he talks - his silliness coming from his naturally energized state. What makes Hank endearing is that although he is talking about nerdy stuff, he makes it exciting. He finds ways to spice up the concepts he's talking about, even making stories about people doing research sound fun and exciting.

Admittedly, I have not mastered the qualities that I have talked about them doing. And honestly, I don't think I ever will. Certainly, nobody will ever say that I sound like John Green. But, the point is not that I am imitating them, but that I am being affected by them. Somebody who reads me and knows I've been listening to a lot of John Green may see the influence it has brought.

The other thing I will say is that, contrary to the way the advice is worded, I don't think it is a permanent deal. I only take on the mannerisms of people I immerse myself in. I have spent hours upon hours upon hours listening to all three of these people. That's why they have influenced me at all. But once I am not immersed in their words, those words lose the grasp on me. I still have my own natural style/voice, and it is what I always revert to when nothing else is influencing me.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

I Hate It When You're Right

I am amazed at the number of times I have heard the phrase "I hate it when you're right" in my relatively short life. For one thing, it means that I am right that many times. Not only that I'm right, but that people will acknowledge that I'm right, even when they don't want to.

But this demonstrates a real problem that I have with people. We hate being wrong. It's shameful. Our value as people is measured in how often the things we say or believe are correct.

Admittedly, this could be an awesome thing. Being a person who puts more value in facts than nearly anything else, I can get behind measuring how accurate people are. But the system as we have it is broken.

When something you think is shown to be incorrect, it should be just as great as being told you were right, because you now know something for sure that you didn't before. You are now a richer human being.

Avoid The Expected

I hate the fact that the only time people use the word "relish" as a verb, it is only ever to make a pun based on the food item. I hate that the rare time that anybody actually does use it sincerely, somebody else will make that pun instead. And I hate that the exact same thing is true with "serial" and "cereal".

What bothers me the most about it is that they're painfully common. Because people make the joke at every opportunity, it is always expected. And if it's expected, it's not funny.

I want to call attention to my wording. Specifically, I am calling things "expected" and not "obvious". That's because obvious things can be unexpected.

For one thing, whether or not something is obvious is relative. People can make jokes that they thought were particularly inspired that I assumed they were going to make.

For another thing, if you never make a joke that people think is obvious, then they expect you to never make that joke. So the time that you finally do bust it out, you will be avoiding the expected, and being amusing at the same time.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Do The Best You Can

More often than not, I find that life follows the adage, "There's never time to do it right, but there's always time to do it over." I've always hated being in such a situation - where I'm forced to do something within a such a short time limit that I can only complete it by cutting corners.

I have always been of the mindset that I should create the best possible version of something. If I'm going to put effort into anything, I should make it the best quality I can. I have no expectation of perfection; I will simply do the best I can.

This is what makes Cheff Salad such an interesting experiment to me. It's the complete opposite of that. I have to write a post every day, which prevents me from polishing my posts. I think that what allows me to be ok with that is that I'm doing the best I can and moving on. If somebody doesn't like a post, then they can come back the next day and try again with a new one.

If I ever made a Cheff Salad book, containing a number of post-like essays that I thought are most important, then I would take my time with that. I would make sure I didn't have any typos. I would write and rewrite and revise and edit my essays until I was happy with them. But that's because I wouldn't have that deadline, and I would have the luxury of taking the time to make it that good.

Ultimately, you have to find a balance between doing it right and doing it fast. Perfection is unattainable, but the more time and effort you put into your projects, the better they will become. However, you need to actually finish your project at some point. That's why the best way to go is to do the best you can. Circumstances always vary from person to person, and from project to project. The maximum level of quality you can produce will always change based on those circumstances. But whatever that maximum quality is, try for it. You will literally be doing the best that you can. And nobody should ever ask for more.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Authors Are 5th Dimensional (Or More)

If you think of three-dimensional space as where we live in, and the fourth dimension as the flow of time from beginning to end, then we can think of the fifth dimension as every alternate path we could have taken in life. What if we went left I stead of right? Neve talked to that guy? Left for school two minutes later? Well, there are alternate dimensions where you made those choices. And a fifth dimensional being would be able to see all of them at once.

And in a sense, that is what authors are. You create a story, and your characters go from beginning to end, and they make decisions that affect their outcomes. And as the audience, we don't know what's going to happen. We guess at things that might happen, but to us, there only is one path, the one that happens, and it is set in stone.

As the author, though, you are the creator of the universe. And more than that, you are the creator of the multiverse. The path that characters choose is one of nearly infinite possibilities. And at every single junction where they made a decision (or abstained from making one), you know of every other choice they could have made, and what the results would have been.

Some authors find this situation paralyzing, because they really think there is a right path. But others find it heartening because they see that there is no wrong choice, just one path that happened to be traveled.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

We Have An Innate Desire To Create

The most remarkable thing about people is their innate desire to create. Every person I know wants to do something. They want to have a lasting effect. They want to change the world and be remembered for it.

For some, it is writing. Others may paint or raw or sculpt. Some may make clothing. Some may cook. And some people have children. And, of course, some people do several of these.

I'm not sure what it is that does it. I don't think it's a societal thing. No matter where people are, they wan to make things. It must be a biological hardwiring in people. There is something incredibly satisfying in knowing that you made something.

So every time you feel like you should be doing something, you should. Whatever crazy thing it is, you know you have to do it, and you won't be satisfied until you do. So go do it and be happy. Know that you are being human when you do it.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Paper and Digital Writing

I sometimes feel like the last generation of handwriters. I mean, obviously kids are still using it in school, but they don't seem to prefer it. If they could do everything digital, they would. And in all fairness, I would really describe myself as a half-breed. I grew up with a computer at home and in the classroom (but before Google). I am incredibly well-versed in computer use and do usually prefer it, but not always.

I don't prefer handwriting. It takes a long time to get thoughts out, makes my arm and wrist sore after a while, and takes up a lot more space to keep it all (not to mention paper seems a lot more brittle). On a computer, I can store everything I've ever created, put down my thoughts about as fast as I can come up with them (sometimes faster), and can go a lot longer before I feel physically weary. Also, editing is a heck of a lot easier.

However, paper does have its own unique benefits. The physical act of writing letters makes me remember things better. It helps me come up with ideas in a seemingly different way. I can sometimes find information faster flipping through pages than doing a search function (because I know where on a page I wrote something).

The point of this post, though, is not Paper vs. Digital. The point is that the value is in paper and digital. I like to take a notebook and get some writing down, but it doesn't stay on paper exclusively. Eventually, I have to type it up. And this actually leads to an experience unique to the combination of these forms.

Paper is where I write my rough draft, but when I type it into my computer, I edit as I do so. It's not major editing, usually. Mostly, if a line doesn't read smoothly, I revise it. And if some scene feels lacking or needs explanation (or if during the rough draft, I have a note to add a new scene), I can add it in during this time. By the end, I have a draft that has already had its first revision and is cleaner than the original.

If I hadn't written the paper version first, then my rough draft would be the first things that came to mind. Admittedly, I would be revising that draft several times anyway, but the beauty is that in order to have the draft ready to show to others, I have to revise it at least once. And I really like that about this system, especially since I find that I revise differently when reading from paper than from a screen.

This kind of ties in with an earlier post in that, "If you know how your mind works, you can take advantage of it." The mind just processes handwriting and typing differently. It processes paper and screens differently. Too many people argue about paper and digital as though they are in competition. They aren't. They do different things. And if you can learn and understand what they do for you, then you can take advantage of both of them.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Vestigial Words

I enjoy the rich history of English, and vast lexicon that it has from the wide range of languages it's borrowed from and the hundreds of years it has had to grow and evolve. But with evolution, we retain traces of our origins. In fact, we have vestigial words, much the same that we have vestigial structures in our own bodies. There are some words that only exist in old phrases that we have retained, even though the word is long dead. The funny thing (and by funny, I mean really annoying) is that most people don't know about the history of the word, so when they use the phrase, they often use it wrong.

For example, we have the phrase "champing at the bit". I don't know if I've ever heard somebody actually say the phrase correctly. Everybody says "chomping". It makes sense to some degree, since that's actually a word in use. In fact, champing and chomping are nearly the same thing. The problem is that chomping at the bit isn't a phrase. (Hell, even fewer people know what the phrase literally means.)

Another vestigial word is "jack". Yes, it's a word spoken almost every day, and it's usually used correctly, but not in the phrase "jack-of-all-trades". Notice that "jack" is not capitalized. That's because it's not a name; it's a title (or at least a description). Think about a deck of cards - the third face card is the jack, not Jack. Although we usually use the phrase correctly, we live in the age of political correctness, so some dumbass decided that a woman who knows a little bit about a lot of things is a Jane-of-all-trades, and now we have a problem.

I think vestigial words are pretty interesting, mostly in that they are a link to the past. I also find it curious that a word can fall out of usage, but a phrase that uses it will remain. I don't usually mind their use, either. But if you find a word or phrase where "I don't know how to define it, but I know how to use it in a sentence", then look it up. You can find out more about your language and it will mean more to you when reading and writing it.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Make Small, Satisfying Bits

I was talking with a friend and lamenting about how not fun the creative process can be. We basically came to the conclusion that the most annoying part of the process is when we are having to put forth effort. I know it's laughably stupid, but it has a certain logic.

What's actually satisfying? For me, it's having a finished product I can be proud of. It's having something work right. It's even building the mechanism, knowing how it will work when completed.

What's aggravating? Building that plan, especially from scratch.Trying to scrape together randomly floating ideas and make them concrete, weave them to work with each other, and to do so seamlessly. That is a tremendous amount of work, and more often than not, when you finally do figure out the basic plan, you spend just as much time patching holes or ripping out pieces and making new ones.

So from there, the conclusion is that the best part of a creative task is having the finished product, and building it from a solid plan.

But this is where you ask yourself what a finished product is. Most people would say, "well, duh, it's the book." And, they would be right. But you could also say it's the outline. Or it's the chapter. Or the paragraph. Or the elevator pitch. Or the closing line. Or the opening scene. Or creating the pivotal twist. And all of those would be right.

If you know how your mind works, you can take advantage of it. I break down projects into small, satisfying bits. I can't honestly believe that writing one word is real progress, but if I wrote a good chapter, or even a good page, it's progress I can be proud of. It's enough to keep me heartened and wanting to do more. If I can keep reaching the next checkpoint, it doesn't matter if there's a thousand of them, I'll reach the finish line.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Middle Of The Spectrum

The stories we tell are about amazing things that happened. Some of them are fantastic and some of them are miserable, but they're always exciting enough to want to share. But not every experience is at one end of the spectrum. It's possible to have an experience that was bad, but not a trainwreck.

In one sense, the worst story is the one that's tame. Never having anything interesting happen makes it a long series of events that have no meaning.

In another sense, these stories can demonstrate a certain despair in life. They play off of our expectations of adventure, and show us how plain life ends up being. Of course, that only works when you're doing it on purpose (or by extreme luck), but the point stands that stories in the middle of the spectrum are not always useless. They just tend to have fewer uses.

That's probably why I like those stories, though. They don't have many uses, which often makes them underused, and yet they still can hold power, which makes me want to tell them.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Spend An Hour A Day

I will always remind people that "you are only a writer on days you write." What I don't always mention is that you don't have to spend all day doing it. You are still a writer if you spend an hour a day writing.

In fact, I give this advice to anybody that really wants to do something. It could be drawing, photography, astronomy, differential equations, knitting - anything. Spend an hour a day working on it. I prefer doing it an hour before going to sleep. Some people prefer doing it the first hour after waking up. Whatever time during the day you choose, section off one hour and just go for it.

The other part of that to remember is that projects usually require work in many parts. Being a writer is more than just putting words on paper. We have to come up with an idea. We have to make our characters, our settings, research facts we don't know but need, and we have to plan out where things will be going (and also acknowledge that they may go elsewhere, but that a starting point is important).

The hour a day you spend writing may not have much in the way of words put down, but it will have effort invested (which admittedly may fly in the face of "only on days that you write"). Thinking about things, exploring ideas, building layers, sketching out scenes, all of these count, even if you aren't always adding to your draft, you're doing work.

An hour a day adds up a lot faster than you think. You'll be amazed at what you can do by putting in that effort.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Change The Spectators' Minds

I've been arguing with people on the internet since the 90s. Sadly, this doesn't make me an old man. It means that I was a petulant brat back when I started. I was picking fights with trolls and idiots, probably acting like both of them more often than not.

Through my teens, I was fighting to win. I really thought I could argue somebody into submission. If I could refute every claim a person made, they would eventually run out and realize they were wrong. I can count on one hand the number of times that worked.

As I grew older, I calmed down. Arguing with strangers became boring (and aggravating and depressing). It was an exercise in futility. There was a constant stream of new people saying the same dumb things, and there I was making the same arguments day after day, seeing no change.

I stopped arguing with people because the reality eventually hit me that I can't change the minds of the willfully ignorant. People who will ignore facts in order to maintain their position are completely incorrigible.

I didn't drop out of the internet, nor did I leave the message boards I hung out in. I just stopped posting so much, choosing instead to read. During this time, I saw that discussion continued on, arguments still took place, and plenty of others were ready to take up the mantle on either side.

What was interesting was that during this time, I found many arguments affecting my thoughts. People on sides I would normally oppose had interesting things to say and they made me question some of my long-held beliefs. And there was the revelation.

The internet is a public forum. There are people talking, other people talking back, and countless more only listening. People arguing with each other may not change their opponents' minds, but they can greatly influence the onlookers.

We all have beliefs. Some of them are very precious to us. If we truly believe them, then we must be willing to defend them and to educate people who would denounce those beliefs. Argue with them, and do it in a public forum, whether it be a live debate or a stream of letters to the editor in a newspaper, and do it because you know that other people are listening. They are undecided people, or at least those who could be convinced opposite of their leanings. They are the people you must reach before somebody else reaches them first.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Be Responsible For Knowledge

I saw recently a person remarking that he had only just learned that Alaska was not an island. The general response to that was "I don't want to live on this planet anymore", as though they were so ashamed of this person's ignorance that they didn't want to even be part of humanity anymore.

I hate those people. They are worse to me than the ignorant; they're elitist. Note that they aren't elite. They just think they are.

Face facts - nobody is born knowing everything. People are born knowing basically nothing. Knowledge takes a long time to acquire, and is even harder to gain when surrounded by misinformation (like basically every photo with a sentimental caption that gets spread on Facebook) and people who think the stuff they know is obvious or self-evident.

Look at a map. Alaska is always detached and placed off the coast of California. If every map you ever see shows Alaska like that, it would be perfectly sensible to think it was an island. The truly deplorable thing is that this person was not properly educated sooner. But that does not make him the problem; it makes him the victim.

If you have a problem with the level of intelligence in the world, then be responsible for knowledge. Go out there and educate people. You don't have to have a classroom or make it your career. You just need to spread truth and facts whenever you can and wherever you go.

As writers, you do not have to write textbooks. Any story can be educational. This is why you do research. Rather than making guesses or assumptions about a given subject, look up the facts. Not only do you make a more convincing story by being accurate, you also make every person who reads it a little smarter, for having acquired more knowledge (or reinforcing facts they had heard before).

Be like Randall Munroe of xkcd: