Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Each One, Reach One

I came across a marvelous phrase: "Each one, reach one." It can be used in a number of ways, and the context I heard it in was recruiting new members into an organization. In this case, the call was for each one member to reach one new person to join. 

What made me marvel at it was how incredibly effective that strategy is, and simultaneously how easy it seems. Think about a stereotypical pyramid scheme. In it, you start off by selling products on your own, but are encouraged to get six people to sell things on your behalf. In my experience, getting six friends to do anything consistently is impossible. One would be into it, two might stick around for a couple months, two would give up after a week, and one would never show up. But what is important here is that one was really into it. So now I as one person have reached one person.

The other part of this is the power of exponential growth. Even with having each member of your group reach one new person, you are doubling your membership each time. After not many iterations, this process reaches incredible amounts of people. If you started off as just yourself, then after 10 iterations, you would have over a thousand members. And after another 10 iterations, you would have over a million. 

Your ability to reach people is phenomenal, especially when the people you reach then reach out to more people. 

Monday, December 30, 2013

Other People's Words Sound Alien Coming Out Of You

The way you communicate sounds unmistakably like you. Your authorial style combines your vocabulary, your speech patterns, and all of your little idiosyncrasies, to make a fairly unique "voice". This is why the things you say sound like you said them. This is also why people instantly know when you're using somebody else's words. 

To anybody who is even slightly familiar with your voice, other people's words sound alien coming out of you. They don't match your rhythm, your melody, or any of the other identifiers of your voice. This can be a real problem when you incorporate other people's words wholesale. Your text ends up sounding like a patchwork of voice. 

If you are going to use another person's ideas, do not also use their words. Break down to a conceptual level what they're saying, and then explain that concept in your own words. When you do that, it becomes a lot easier to blend it in with the rest of your writing. It may sound a little strange if the subject matter is noticeably uncommon, but it will at least sound like your thoughts if you can say them in your voice. 

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Comedy Requires Logic

If you said, "I'm going to have a bowl of cereal," and my response was, "just like a serial killer," then my joke was horrible and not funny. 

If you said, "I'm going to destroy this bowl of cereal," then I could say, "that would make you a cereal killer," and it would be a valid joke. (It still wouldn't be funny, but that's because it is the lamest pun of all time; please never use that joke.)

The point I'm getting at here is that comedy requires logic. A punchline requires a setup. The joke is based on having a premise which is true, but unexpected. 

If somebody doesn't laugh at the next joke you make, it could be that they didn't get it, or it could be that there wasn't anything to actually get. Make sure your jokes make sense. 

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Us vs. Them

In my previous post, I talked about the value of stories where people worked together toward a common goal. Unfortunately, all too often, these stories end up as "us vs. them". 

When you have nations battling nations, rebels fighting the government, even humans repelling aliens, the message is that we aren't all equal. It says that some people are fine to work with, but only because we are trying to defeat those who are different from us. It may promote teamwork, but not unity. 

Shared Struggle

It has been said that there are three kinds of stories: Man vs. Man; Man vs. God (or Nature); and Man vs. Himself. All three of these have one thing in common: a singular protagonist. While many fine stories are about one person, not all of them are, and it would do well to consider them. 

When you read a story about an individual, you relate to that character. You feel that person's struggle. You want them to get what they desire as much as they do. But in doing so, it isolates you from humanity. 

Compare that to a story where several people all have a common goal. They operate under a shared struggle, which unites and bonds them. As a reader, these stories promote unity, teamwork, and compassion. They make the readers want to see groups of people win, not just an individual. 

There is so much that already isolates us from one another. Stories that are about Us instead of Man show humanity in its best light, and inspires it in others. 

Friday, December 27, 2013

People Are Lazy When They Don't Care

I have never met a truly lazy person. I've met plenty of people who don't want to do boring things, but none of them were lazy.

Lazy people don't want to expend energy; they don't want to do anything. But whenever people are bored, it means they want to be doing something else. It could be reading a book, watching a movie, playing video games, or throwing a frisbee around. Regardless of what it is, if the opportunity to do something fun or exciting came up, people would take it. 

People are lazy when they don't care. If you tell somebody they have to sweep the floor or make their bed or write an essay about what they did on summer vacation, of course they will be slow and lethargic. Of course they will resist it and find a way to get out of it. Looking for a loophole to get out of a task is a more engaging activity than the task itself. 

If you want people to do something, make them care. That is why it is so critical to grab your readers' attention as soon as possible. You want them to turn the page, to think about your words and share them with others. So, don't be boring; in return, your readers won't be lazy. 

Don't Write The Way You Speak

The most common writing advice I hear (at least as far as style goes) is to "write the way you speak. The idea is that, by doing so, your language will be more natural and sound less stiff or stilted. As of now, I have to disagree with this advice. 

Written and spoken language are fundamentally different. They use different organs to receive (eyes and ears) and are processed in the brain differently. Because of this, they use different sentence structures and follow different grammatical rules.

Despite both being contemporary English, writing and speech are different languages. If you try to use one to do the other, it will probably come off poorly.

Learn the differences between writing and speaking. Sometimes the best way to do it is by watching speeches and reading articles. You can absorb a lot of style by just surrounding yourself with it. Once you've done that, you will readily notice when somebody does it wrong. 

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

"I Want" Indicates "I Can't"

People want things that will make them feel good. We want food and sleep and companionship and all those things that make life bearable (if not downright survivable). When we find ourselves somehow unhappy, we want whatever it is that will satisfy us, and then we go and get it. 

If I'm feeling lonely and I want companionship, I call my friends and converse with them. There's no reason to announce that I want to talk with them; I just do it. 

The only time people say "I want" is when they can't get it. If I say "I want to talk with my friends", that indicates that for some reason I can't. It could be for any number of reasons, such as not having a working phone or being occupied by other obligations, or from imagined hangups like thinking that those friends are busy. Regardless of whether or not others find the reason valid, in the speaker's mind, it is not possible. 

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Right Thing For The Wrong Reason

What matters more: what we do, or why we do it?

Most people I know will tell me that our actions matter most. For example, donating money to an orphanage is good. Donating money to an orphanage because it will give you good publicity after getting caught in a scandal is kind of shady. Still though, the orphans got money that they needed; does it matter that it only happened because some rich person got caught doing something wrong?

On a similar note, people sometimes make the best decision they can, but their reason for doing it is completely wrong. For example, if a guy has a fight with his girlfriend, and decides to wait for her to come crawling back to him, then he made the right choice in leaving her alone until the situation cooled down, but it was for the entirely wrong reason of trying to win the fight.

If somebody is doing the right thing for the wrong reason, what do you do about it? Do you tell them that they're wrong? Doing so might convince them to stop doing the right thing. Do you let them continue on, being correct, but ignorant? It all comes down to that first question: what matters more?

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Messianic Ideal

I find it interesting that whenever we say that somebody was the best person in the world, we always describe them in similar ways. This person liked everybody; you could be a stranger having your first meeting and would be treated like a dear friend. This person would do whatever possible to help people, even giving you their last meal if you were hungry. They didn't want anything more from the world than what they already had. They were happiest when giving to others, and they always inspired people to be the absolute best that they could be.

Whenever I hear descriptions like this, I always have the same thought: it sounds like they're describing Jesus.

I think that our culture has this messianic ideal deeply lodged into our unconscious minds. There is a "perfect person", and that person has all of these qualities.

I challenge you to explore the idea of a perfect person. What qualities do you think that person should have? How would they react in the kinds of situations you find people in?

The Idea vs. The Reality

The idea of Batman is really cool. He's a billionaire playboy who is also the greatest detective, ninja, and martial artist. He is a normal human who uses wits and technology to fight superhuman villains to protect the citizens of the city he loves.

The reality of Batman is kind of awful, though. This one man takes it upon his own to try to stop all the crimes in his city, and spends incomprehensible sums of money to do so, instead of spending those millions of dollars on programs that would actually prevent poverty and mitigate the factors that cause the crime in the first place.

Admittedly, Batman is a far more compelling story, having a masked vigilante solving riddles and beating up bad guys. It's great escapism. But if you really think about it, it is a situation where the idea is way cooler than the reality.

When creating your stories, try to analyze them through a similar lens. Do the characters' actions really make sense?

Saturday, December 21, 2013

It Goes Without Saying

"It goes without saying" is a pretty silly phrase. If something goes without saying, then you don't need to announce it. It's like, this is a phrase that exists, but should never be uttered. 

On a similar note, I always find it amusing when somebody says "our next speaker needs no introduction", and then proceeds to spend five minutes introducing the next speaker. Again, if something isn't necessary, then don't do it. 

Testing Lines

Everybody draws lines in the sand about what they will and won't do. It goes without saying that different people have different limits that they set for themselves. For example, one person might think that polygamy is perfectly natural, but another may find it a repugnant perversion.

What makes this interesting is that most subjects have a variable threshold. A classic example is that stealing is wrong, but stealing to feed your starving family is acceptable.

I love to test the lines of people. I ask them if they would do a particular action (like picking a fight with a chimpanzee), then I ask them more questions until they change their answer. (Would you fight a chp for a million dollars? What about ten thousand? What if the chimp picks a fight with you?)

When you test a person's lines, you may discovers the angles through which you can manipulate them, and that can be critical to moving the plot along. 

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Conflict Between Desecrating And Fetishizing

So now that I have talked about both desecrating and fetishizing, it's time to finally elaborate on the conflict between them.

If you believe, and I mean truly believe, that an item is lucky or otherwise magical, then it kind of is. Your mind looks at the world in a way that allows your belief to be true. When you have your good luck charm, everything seems to go your way; even "bad" events seem to have a silver lining. Therefore, your charm works; your life is better when you have it.

When somebody tells you that you're stupid for believing in luck, and especially when they tell you that your good luck charm is a powerless bauble, it is an attack not just on you, but on your entire reality.

The conflict between desecrating and fetishizing is the conflict of subjective truths. Cold, hard facts are pretty hard to argue with (not that it stops people from doing so frequently), but most of life deals with all that mushy gray stuff that is neither black nor white.

The entirety of human history is shaped by people having different beliefs. And the conflicts within our collective history (from as large as world wars to as small as two people passive-aggressively harrassing each other) arose from people who didn't fetishize the same things in the same ways.

The power of a fetish can be great enough to unite the most diverse of people across the world. Consequently, the more powerful a fetish is, the more powerful the outlash will be if that fetish is desecrated.


In my previous post, I mentioned the conflict between desecrating and fetishizing, but since I only wrote about desecration, now I need to talk about fetishizing.

First of all, why did I choose the word "fetishizing"? The opposite of 'desecrate' is actually 'consecrate', so why didn't I use that? Partly, I like 'fetishizing' better. It catches more eyes, it's more secular, and it often makes people think about sex, so it let's me grab people's attention better.

A fetish is an item that a person believes has some sort of supernatural power. If you have a pair of lucky underpants, they don't actually do anything to increase your chances for good fortune, but you believe they do. That's what makes it a fetish. (Compare this to a sexual fetish, where people look at something average and yet find it incredibly sexually thrilling; it's basically the same thing, which is why they use the same word to describe it.)

To fetishize something is to believe that it has supernatural powers. (Contrast that with 'consecrate', which implies that the item actually does become sacred after a ritual.) People fetishize more things than they probably realize. Even the idea of 'sentimental value' is a kind of fetishizing; an object is special because it was given to you by a specific person or because you had it when an important event happened to you. And with that in mind, consider what happens when people desecrate those items by just mindlessly handling them or making fun of them.

Explore the ways that people fetishize the items, the people, and the activities of their lives. Also explore how people react when any of those things are taken off their pedestal.

Monday, December 16, 2013


"Desecration" is an interesting word. Generally it just means to vandalize or destroy. But literally speaking, it means to make a holy thing unsacred. This is where the interest comes in. You can't desecrate something that isn't holy. Rocks and sticks are already profane, so there is nothing you can do to them that will shock or offend people. And at its heart, that's all that desecration actually is: offending somebody by not treating something the way they want it treated.

You can learn a great deal about a person's interests and values by seeing what they consider desecration. If making fun of sports upsets somebody, then that person probably considers sports to be too important to deride.

Keep in mind that you can like something without consecrating it. For example, it is perfectly fine to love sports tremendously, but still be able to acknowledge how crazy it is to have multi-billion dollar industries based on groups of people throwing balls to one another.

The conflict between fetishizing and desecrating can be fertile ground to explore. What makes something sacred, and why does it so deeply upset us when other people don't see things the same way?

Sunday, December 15, 2013

"The Boy Who Cried Wolf" Is Stupid

The story of the boy who cried wolf teaches a valuable lesson: those who consistently lie will lose their credibility. The problem is that it's kind of a stupid story. 

Think about it. Your village raises sheep and wolves are a real risk. If your watch out lied about seeing wolves, he should have been beaten and scolded for doing so. If they gave him a second chance and the boy lied again, he should have been fired. The boy shouldn't have even been given a third chance, but since they did, then there was no reason to ignore the boy's cries. These sheep were the village's livelihood; they should have ran out to check on every alarm. 

Every way that you examine the story, it is riddled with plot holes. I understand that it's a story for children, and that children generally don't pick apart the plot of these stories, but I just feel like there should be better stories to teach us that lying is bad. 

Too Much vs. Too Often

I want people to understand the difference between "too much" and "too often". So consider a man who drinks every night.

If he only has two or three drinks, then he is not drinking too much (assuming that "too much" is defined as getting sick). You may think he drinks too often, but he does not drink too much. 

If he only drinks on the weekend, but he gets blackout drunk every time, then he drinks too much. 

And of course, if he has ten drinks every night, then he drinks too much and too often. 

I know this is some really "no duh" kind of stuff here, but most people use "too much" for any kind of excess. When you realize that you have all of these little varieties with which to describe things, you will find that you can significantly drop the ambiguity in your writing, which increases your clarity, and makes you a more effective writer. 

Friday, December 13, 2013

Comedy Is About Pain

Traditionally, I have always said that comedy is about the unexpected. When you create a situation where the audience expects one thing and something noticeably different happens, the response is usually to laugh. I had a great conversation with a friend recently, who brought an interesting new view of comedy.

Comedy is about pain. If you look at any joke, there is an understood pain that comes with it. The classic joke, "Take my wife...please" is funny because people understand the pain that is caused by the speaker's relationship. Basically all of Rodney Dangerfield's comedy is based on the pain of him having no respect. When somebody makes a joke about how Jay Leno is awful, the pain is having to actually listen to him tell jokes.

If people don't laugh at your comedy, it could be for a number of reasons. But if people specifically "don't get it", it usually means that they don't understand the pain in the joke. To use a previous example, if I make a joke like, "I would rather be waterboarded with cat pee than listen to Jay Leno try to do comedy", it isn't funny if you've never actually seen The Tonight Show. He's just some guy, it's just some name. If the audience doesn't share or at least understand the pain, then there is no comedy.

Go out and listen to jokes through this lens. Every time you see comedy, look for the pain. Sometimes it's really subtle. But when you can see the pain, you can see how comedy has a much deeper level than simply being about the unexpected.

Time Jumps Suck

One of the dumbest, most obnoxious storytelling techniques is the time jump. That is when you are shown a scene, usually of a very tense situation or the aftermath of an event, and then immediately get taken backward in time to show you the events that led up to that scene.

Time jumps suck because they don't add anything. They have no context and aren't announced, so the audience is jarred and disoriented, which is compounded when the story immediately jumps backward in time. After it's all said and done, nothing happened. Nothing is changed, and there is no difference in the audience experience for having seen it.

This technique is the equivalent of reading the 15th page of a chapter and then going back to start it from the first page. At best, it is confusing and pointless. At worst, it ruins the surprise that comes from building up the story.

In fact, I actually read a book that literally did this for every chapter. It was some lousy piece of science/espionage pulp fiction, and every single chapter started with a scene from the middle of the chapter, then jumped back and plodded along. I eventually just stopped reading the first few pages. I wish I could remember the name, because it is quite possibly the worst book I've ever read.

Don't use time jumps. It is a storytelling technique that needs to die.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Rhetorical Questions

Why do we ask rhetorical questions? We ask them to frame an idea. The point of a rhetorical question is to make you ask me that question so that I can answer it.

Consider the first sentence in this post. When you read it, my goal is for you to say, "I don't know...why do we ask rhetorical questions?" Then you keep reading and find the answer. I have planted the question in your head to garner your interest and focus your thought.

People often say that "rhetorical questions aren't supposed to be answered." In fact, that's not quite true. A rhetorical question is supposed to be answered by the person who asked it. If I ask a question and I don't have an answer to it, it's not really a rhetorical question; it's just a regular question. It may be a pointed question or a relevant question, but if you aren't using it to frame your ideas, then it just doesn't count.

It's easy to tell people not to put questions in their essays. And maybe for the very beginning of writers (like elementary school) that's ok. But it is far more valuable to allow people to ask questions in their essays, so long as they actually understand how they are supposed to function.

An Essay In Many Parts

On Cheff Salad, when I have a larger idea that I want to write about, I usually end up breaking it into multiple posts. The idea is that, people would rather read three 5-paragraph posts than one 15-paragraph post. This also allows me to have each post focus on one idea, which gives me ample space to describe it clearly.

When you put these related posts together, they end up forming one more-or-less cohesive essay. And in this format of daily posting, I enjoy writing an essay in many parts.

When I started thinking about it, I realized that you could even look at the entirety of Cheff Salad as an essay in many parts. The focus of this blog is writing, and the understanding of elements that make writing and storytelling more effective (often referring to human nature). In that sense, all of my posts create one megalithic essay (though they are admittedly largely out of order) on writing/storytelling/life/humanity.

Monday, December 9, 2013

The Cobbler's Children Have No Shoes

There’s an old saying: “The cobbler’s children have no shoes.”  (For those who don’t know, a cobbler is a shoe maker.) The idea of the saying is that a cobbler spends so much time making shoes for his customers that he has no time to make shoes for his own children.

Now that I and my writer friends are out of college and have jobs (some of us even have those coveted “real jobs”), I see how this phrase lives on. When people spend all day expending energy at their job, it can be difficult to muster the additional mental energy to then do writing. Similarly, if your day job is writing, it’s all too easy to tell yourself “I’ve written all day; I need to do something else.” And then you become a writer that doesn’t do any personal writing.

I know it’s easier said than done, but if you love writing, then make the time to write. If you lack energy at the end of the day, then try writing in the morning before work. If you’re a night writer, then jolt yourself with some caffeine to give you that buzz to push on. And if you really think you’re burned out from writing all day, then try writing one creative sentence and just see if it is fun enough to want to write a second one.

Professional writers should also be able to do personal writing. Don’t let the cobbler’s children have no shoes. (Or in this case, don’t let the writer’s children be illiterate.)

The Perfect Name

Many years ago, I discovered how to create the perfect name for a business, story/series, anything other than a person: Your name should be a phrase that is well-known, but not often said.

Consider the store Best Buy. The name is perfect. (The store sucks, but the name is perfect.) “Best buy” is a very common phrase. When you are comparing items while shopping, one of them is the best buy. However, unless you are comparing items, and speaking to somebody while you do it, you will probably not say the phrase. Because of that, every time the saying does come up, it makes you think of the store.

Now think about the television show King of the Hill. Another perfect name. A well-known, common phrase, one that I do use, but again, I use it very rarely. However, it is almost impossible to use the phrase ‘king of the hill’ without everybody thinking of the TV show.

The perfect name gets stuck in people’s heads. It becomes part of the common parlance, but never gets too invasive. If you tried to name a song “Good Morning”, people wouldn’t think of your song; they would just reflexively use the phrase. But if you named a song “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, it’s a lot more likely to get people to sing along.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Occurring On A Daily Basis

It seems like every event you can think of has a statistic that tells you how often it happens. And more often than not, it happens every single day. Somebody being born, somebody dying, car crashes, alcohol poisoning, somebody losing their home. Some things end up being surprising to find that they happen so often.

The one thing to keep in mind is that there are seven billion people on earth. With such a massive population, it should be expected that even unlikely events occur on a daily basis. 

With that said, the smaller the population you're looking at, the more surprising it becomes. If something like getting struck by lightning starts happening on a daily basis, and it takes place amongst a group of twenty people, now you've got a mystery on your hands (perhaps one you can turn into a compling story by trying to solve).

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Percentages Can Be Misleading

Percent can be a handy tool. The word literally means "for hundred", and that's exactly how it's used. It's a ratio that says how often something will happen out of every hundred times, or how many things have a certain quality out of every hundred people. I'm not going to belabor defining percents because they're ubiquitous; it's hard to not know how they work.

What's easy to forget, though, is how misleading percentages can be. If I went to Yankee Stadium and told the crowd that ten percent of them wouldn't make it home tonight, people would be reasonably confident that they would be in the 90 percent that would be fine. If I went there and said that 5,000 people weren't going to make it home, that would cause a lot more panic. Five thousand is so many people that it seems a lot more likely that you would be picked. But in reality, it's the exact same situation.

Percentages can make big numbers look small. They can also make small numbers look really big. If you go from having two dollars to have four dollars, you just increased your money by 100%. Better yet, you now have 200% of what you started with. Those are mighty large percentages, but they represent a measly quantity.

Being accurate isn't always enough when it come to numbers (much like with words). You need to find the method that not only conveys correct information, but also expresses the intended understanding of what those numbers mean.

Hate As A Cure For Love

When I mentioned the idea of falling out of love, I was mostly talking about it happening naturally. Over time, and through the right circumstances, people can lose that magic feeling, and the person who was once the object of their affection becomes just another person. With that said, those circumstances can also be induced.

I mentioned in my previous post that the hardest part of falling out of love is releasing the desire to be with the other, and that even hatred maintains the obsession and desire for the other. However, hatred can also be used as a tool to overcome that very obsession.

Where love is a mindset that finds every endearing aspect of a person, hate focuses on every revolting aspect. If you makes a conscious effort to focus on all the parts of a person that are repugnant and frustrating, then the mind over time forgets the good parts and only remembers the bad. From that stage, it takes one more mental leap to say that it is better to ignore or forget a person than continue to waste energy on hating them. And after that belief has been internalized, you have successfully induced falling out of love.

I find the phenomenon amazing because of how frail it shows the human mind to be. We are so malleable, so open to the power of suggestion that we can even manipulate our own minds. This also shows the mechanical aspects of the human mind. That is, despite every person and every relationship being unique, certain patterns hold true for the majority of us. Although the exact words used may vary from person to person, it's like the same code works on all of us.

Friday, December 6, 2013

The Terror Of Peace

For so many stories, the main characters have one goal: peace. There is some conflict or struggle, whether internal or external, and they must face this conflict and find a resolution. But what happens once the conflict is resolved?

It's nice to wrap stories up with and ending akin to "they lived happily ever after", but that's not really how things work. In real life, there is no happily ever after. There is always another story. People have new experiences, new thoughts, and new struggles (both internal and external). 

Peace, then, is not a destination, but a rest stop. It is the room to breathe and decompress between adventures. And while that may generally be a pleasant thing, there is a certain terror in peace. 

You know that something is going to happen to you. You don't know what it is, and you don't know when it will happen, but you know it's coming sooner or later, and the sooner you prepare for it, the less it can catch you off guard. 

But now your time of peace is anything but peaceful. It has become a quiet anxiety, always prepared, but not knowing what. Always vigilant, but kept in the dark.

Explore the terror of peace, and the madness it instills in the human mind. Compare it with normal tribulations and see which one ends up being more nerve-wracking. 

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Falling Out Of Love

There are countless stories about people falling in love. Veritable strangers happen to cross paths, and all the right connections are made and experiences are shared to cause them to see how perfect they are for each other and how much they want to spend the rest of their lives together. Of course, many of these stories also have characters whose love didn't last forever. Lovers fight and argue. They can grow to detest and despise one another. But the most common theme I have found in such stories of ex-lovers is the sentence, "I still love him/her." It's basically impossible for two people who fall in love to actually stop loving each other. Except that it's not true. People fall out of love on a daily basis. Ironically, they usually don't notice it. Love is all about desire. When you hate somebody to the point that you always think about how you want to make their life miserable, you're still obsessed; you still feel desire toward that person. It may be a negative feeling, but you can't stop wanting to be in that person's life. Falling out of love is about releasing that desire. And people go through it in a number of ways. Often, people simply find a new object of desire. It could be a new girlfriend/boyfriend. It could be a new hobby, or investing more time in current activities. It could simply be a change in thought process; the same way you can one day just stop being interested in a food you used to love, you can just stop being interested in a person you were once obsessed about. I find falling out of love an interesting experience to explore, because it is a bizarre blend of finality and not. In a certain sense, a love story is over when the people stop being in love (at least when they mutually are). And yet, nobody died or moved away or otherwise made it so they would never see each other again, so the story of these two people's lives isn't over.

Dogs Are Confusing

I find dogs to be a curious subject. They are simultaneously beloved and besmirched. Dogs are "man's best friend". We name them King (Rex) and Faithful (Fido). They aren't even our pets so much as they are our companions. And yet, to associate a person to a dog is a high level insult. Calling somebody a dog ("all men are dogs"), a cur, a bitch (female dog), or any other term for dogs is deeply insulting. So what is it about dogs? Why do people love them and hate them? How they be both the height of perfection and the most vile of beasts?

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Threshold Of Solicitation

I seem to have recently reached a new level of notoriety with Cheff Salad. People randomly email telling me about some article I should share with all my readers. Of course, I don't respond to emails written by robots (sorry if that makes me racist), but I appreciate this spam in some amount. 

As far as I can tell, not everybody who owns a blog gets these emails. There is a certain threshold of readership before spammers start pinging you. In a sense, this is a badge of honor. It says you are big enough to be noticed. 

The theshold of solicitation has many levels, though. You can tell when you have reached a new level of popularity when you find a new level of advertisers approaching you.

Monday, December 2, 2013

On Regime Change

What I find interesting about regime change is how often it doesn’t really change anything. Think about a corporation where the CEO gets ousted and a new person fills the role. The new CEO decides to “shake things up” and implements a new logo, new tagline, new advertisements, and a redesign of their store locations. How much has really changed on a functional level? The advertising department came up with new ads and maybe have different criteria for “good”, but the same people have the jobs and they’re doing the same work. The same goes for the design department, the manufacturing department, the shipping department, and the retail locations. Things may look shaken up from the outside, but nothing actually changed. I think the same thing is generally the case for political regimes. A king is killed and replaced by a new king. So what? There are still taxes. There are still knights/sheriffs/military. People have the same houses and do the same labor. Just because some different face starts getting stamped on coins doesn’t mean that anything is different for the people at the bottom of the ladder. The further you are from the actual change, the less it actually affects you or your operations.

Authors Are Their Words

I had mentioned in my previous post that I do not like to rewrite passages when editing other people’s works. I think that when I take away somebody else’s words and substitute my own, I have robbed that author of his or her voice, and that passage stops being something they wrote. At its core, this comes from my belief that authors are their words. Millions of people have the same thoughts and ideas every day. What makes my writing different from your writing isn’t necessarily what I say, but it is how I say it. My words are my voice, my outlook, my literary soul. No matter how detached or thick-skinned I can be when somebody edits my work, when they remove my words and put theirs in, it always comes across as “what you said is just wrong; I need to do this for you.” When I edit, I try not to ever rewrite; I will only give revisions. However, if something will need to be rewritten, I will tell the author to do it. I will point out which passages aren’t working, explain to them why it doesn’t work, and give suggestions on how to improve it. But I won’t give them my words. At the end of the day, if they didn’t write it, then it’s not their work.

Revise vs. Rewrite

When I’m editing a written work and I come across a passage that just strikes me as odd, I know it needs to be fixed. From there, the question is how to do it. Generally speaking, editing will come down to revising or rewriting. As a rule, I prefer to revise as much as possible. This is doubly true when I’m editing somebody else’s work. As far as I’m concerned, the original author already said what they’re trying to say. If I remove their words and start putting in my own, then I might as well take their name off as the author, too. Revising, for me, is the process of maintaining the integrity of the original words, but streamlining the flow and clarifying the actions/arguments. Revision would be turning the sentence, “I finally got around to checking out on Tuesday that one Thai restaurant that Jimmy told me about at the party last week” into, “On Tuesday, I checked out that Thai restaurant Jimmy told me about at the party last week.” Rewriting is the process of basically deleting a passage and making a whole new sentence. This is a more extreme kind of editing that I will save for basically unsalvageable writing. I will also rewrite a passage if what it is trying to say is unimportant or doesn’t follow the logical thought. I would rewrite the sentence, “I finally got around to checking out on Tuesday that one Thai restaurant that Jimmy told me about at the party last week” to, “I ate at the Thai restaurant my friend told me about and had the best pad thai ever.” The point of rewriting this way is to refocus the sentence away from the history and toward the experience of the meal. Revising and rewriting are both great tools. Know what they do and which one is best for the situation you’re in.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Less Rice, Fewer Grains

"Less" and "fewer" seem to be one of the more difficult word pairs to get right. I don't blame people for having trouble with it; it handles certain concepts in English that do not come up often and are also not always easy to explain. In fact, I am certain that the primary reason for the troubles in remembering when to use each word is that people explain things so technically that it makes most people's brains shut off before the lesson sinks in. 

So let me give you a handy trick that might help you remember it for the long haul:

"Less rice means fewer grains."  

Wednesday, November 27, 2013


I was listening to videos of British people discussing various subjects. In one video, I heard somebody use the word "guyed". By the context, I could to that to be guyed is to be insulted or mocked. But it was such a terribly odd word to me. In fact, I don't know if I had ever heard it before.

When I pondered on it, the root word was "guy". I happen to know that the word guy comes from Guy Fawkes, a character from history who is often mocked and burned in effigy (which is why a generic, faceless dude is a "guy"). So clearly, as a verb, it makes sense that guying someone is mocking them. Still though, why had I never heard it before?

Simply put? Probably because I'm American. Guy Fawkes means absolutely nothing to the average American. He had no part in our history in any direct manner. We don't know what Guy Fawkes Day is, nor do we know when it is or why it matters (unless you are a particular fan of V for Vendetta). As such, this somewhat colloquial term never entered our language.

It is a remarkable thing how people who speak the same language can end up really speaking quite different languages, just by growing up in different locations. The differences in vocabulary and speech patterns, though, are an excellent way to identify and add specialness to your characters. It's not always easy, but it is a powerful tool when writing.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Studying Ideas Of Evil

When discussing good and evil, it’s easy to dismiss them as “just words” or “the same actions from different perspectives”. It’s easy to not explore them because moral relativism says that good and evil are dependent upon your personal beliefs. And technically speaking, that is true. However, it is important to explore these concepts. For example, I recently heard this said:

“Evil is the use of force to get what you want. The second you decide that coercion is ok, that’s evil.”

This struck me when I heard it. To make people do what something they do not want to do in order to get something you want sounds resoundingly evil. Amongst humanity, collective well-being seems to always be the most virtuous and noble principle. Anything that is selfish, by which I mean harming the collective well-being for personal gain, is almost invariably evil.

One could argue that "the use of force to get what you want" is the same thing as "might makes right", and that it is a perfectly valid morality. However, one could also argue against it, saying that the only people who believe such things are those who benefit from it.

But the point here is that the arguments could be made on both sides. And this is precisely why they should be explored.

Frog On A Hot Plate

It is relatively well known these days that if you put a frog in a pot of water and set that on a hot plate, you can very slowly increase the temperature and never alert the frog, thus it will boil alive without ever realizing it. 

It is less well known that this story is bullshit. The people who talk about scientists proving it to be true neglect to mention that the results are hundreds of years old, or that they involved very specific circumstances. By and large, frogs don't sit still for you. 

However, nobody really cares about boiling frogs (at least not in this manner). The point of the story is analogy. People more easily ignore changes when they happen in small increments. The mind has time to adapt to new circumstances and forgets that things were ever different when the next minor change occurs. 

So here is the question, and it is one I don't yet have an answer for: if people have a metaphor which is commonly known and regularly used to explain a standard human phenomenon, does it matter if the metaphor is based on a complete lie? 

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Trivial Pursuits

Everybody is on a quest in life. Some people are on several quests. And in short, those quests are for personal satisfaction. The whole purpose of doing stuff is to make ourselves feel good. However, since different people are satisfied by different things, everyone's quest is unique. 

Some people seem to spend their lives doing the dumbest things. They may look at birds all day, identifying and classifying them, and then going home and reading journals about other people who watched birds. Other people may spend all day reading and reading, soaking up knowledge from countless walks of life, but doing nothing with that knowledge. 

It is frustrating to see people following trivial pursuits. But what is truly difficult is getting out of your head and seeing that no pursuit is trivial if it makes you happy. 

As a writer, challenge yourself to make those activities interesting. If somebody wants to learn all about Egyptian mythology, how do you make it interesting? How do you make the audience care about seeing a main character learn about a subject that "doesn't matter"? If you can answer that question, then you can write about anything.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Resources Must Be Used To Be Useful

If you have a car, but you never drive it, you are living the exact same life as one where you don't have a car at all. This idea applies to food you don't eat and money you don't spend. 

Resources are only useful if you use them. 

With that said, I want to be clear about something here. If you own a hammer, you don't have to use the hammer once a day to justify having it. You may not even need it as much as once a year. The one thing that does matter is that, when a situation can be remedied by one of your resources, you choose to use it. 

I think that's part of the reason that stories tend to only tell you things that matter; resources that don't aid in the story detract from the story. 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Can vs. May

Can vs. May

‘Can’ and ‘May’ are often used interchangeably, but they do have different flavors of meaning worth recognizing.

Generally speaking, ‘can’ means having the ability to do something, and ‘may’ means having the permission to do something. “You can drive this car” means that you are able to operate the vehicle. “You may drive this car” means that you have the blessing to do so.

However, what makes this whole thing a massive clusterfuck is that each of the words individually have multiple meanings.

‘Can’ often is used to mean having permission. Any normal person who says “You can drive my car” is clearly granting permission; it is a universally understood speech pattern, which makes it grammatically correct. Similarly, any normal person who asks, “Can I borrow your car” is clearly asking for permission; the only people who say “I don’t know, can you” are assholes.

‘May’ becomes more problematic because its secondary meaning is that an action is uncertain. “I may drive my car” means that there is a chance that I will drive my car, but there is also a chance that I won’t.

What is most amazing here is that we as English speakers pretty much always understand which meaning of which word is intended solely by the context in which it is said. However, some situations do allow for ambiguity, and some people thrive on using ambiguity or dual meanings to screw with others, so these words can be problematic in use.

Again, although people know how to use these words latently, it is valuable to know the differences and understand the subtle implications of using one word versus another.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Being A Liberal Grammarian

Following from my previous post, I am very liberal in terms of grammar. As a liberal grammarian, my mantra is, "If I understand you, it's good English." This is pretty easy to say, but it is quite difficult for most people to actually stand by.

Every generation speaks their language at least a little differently from their parents. Their parents tell them that they're butchering the language, but the children respond by saying that their parents are old and stuck in the past. And, as usual, those children grow up and they continuously speak their version of the language. And when these now-adults raise their own dhildren, the cycle will repeat itself. 

The point here is that people hold onto their language more securely than most any tangible objects. And I am no exception. I understand the English language to be a certain way. If people start using it in different, new ways, it feels like they're butchering my language. 

This is where the true test of a liberal grammarian comes in. When people use English different than what you're used to, what will your response be? Will you call them stupid or ignorant? Will you say nothing? Will you tell them it's cool or interesting?

It can be difficult to let some things go, but you must. You must accept that language is alive, that it is always changing, and that it will eventually change into a form that you personally don't like. But if you can accept those things and keep going on with your day, then you, too, could be a liberal grammarian. 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Why I Don't Like Style Guides

I have a lot of problems with style guides. The first is that grammar is not rigid or inflexible. Grammar has been in a constant state of change since its very inception. Every single generation has changed the grammar of its language, and no matter how hard the generation in power struggled to stop their language from changing, it has. Not even the printing press or the myriad style guides that have been written through the ages have kept language from evolving. The idea that language should be caged destroys the very fundamental purpose of language.

Language is about communication and expression. The ultimate reality, and really the only rule of language is that the words I say need to make you understand the things that I’m thinking. If you understand me, then my language is correct. The only grammar that matters is the grammar that aids in the understanding of language. Keep in mind here that I know a LOT of grammar. I soaked that stuff in like a sponge when I was young and I haven’t forgotten it. I know and enjoy a lot of the standard conventions of English grammar. For example, I think that Oxford commas are absolutely critical and the idea that they are optional is shameful and wrong; they are often essential to aid in communication. However, some conventional grammar rules are stupid as hell. Not ending sentences with prepositions is moronic bullshit. The same for not being allowed to use “hopefully” to mean “with hope”. When everybody knows what I mean, then my language is correct.

Beyond that, though, language is too complex to fit in a book. If you tried to create a rule for every single solitary possible event that could arise in English, your guide would be so unwieldy as to be useless. And if you did know how to navigate the guide and managed to learn all of those rules, you would be the only one that knows them. And once again, who cares about imaginary rules that only you follow? If it isolates you from the rest of language speakers, then it hinders communication.

Ultimately, though, what bothers me most about style guides is that they are STYLE guides. They aren’t telling you that something is right or wrong; they’re telling you how to write specifically in a certain way. Once again, I find these to often be a hindrance to communication. (Hey look, I just noticed that I split an infinitive. It did not in any way whatsoever impede my ability to communicate.)

Normal Is Relative

Normalcy ses to be a major human struggle, at least in this day and age. There is so much variety in how things can be, that it becomes harder and harder to identify what normal really is. 

Often, normal refers to the people in power. It's normal to act the way high society does. Like, on a national level, the way that CEOs and politicians dress and speak is normal. Everything that deviates abnormal. 

Normal can also be whatever the majority of people do. If you are in a heavily Cuban area, speaking Spanish is normal. If you're in Montana, Spanish is abnormal. (This could also be due to the fact that the majority of a people collectively are in power, therefore the first principe still holds true.)

Normalcy is always a good subject to explore. When we are young, we desperately struggle to be normal. And as soon as we grow up, we wish to be anything other than normal.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Agents of Chaos

One of my favorite phrases is "agent of chaos". It's a cool concept and it sounds totally awesome. 

Chaos is like a force of nature. It is disorder and discord. Amongst humans, with our desire for reason and harmony, chaos is about the most disturbing force. 

All atrocities are "senseless". They "boggle the mind". That is because they are chaotic, and thus defy logic or reason. And when people commit such atrocities, they are acting as agents of chaos. They have disrupted society and shattered the semblance of order that people had in their minds. 

The thing that makes chaos both terrifying and fascinating is that it has no desires. It isn't trying to gain power or create political change. It doesn't want wealth or fame. Chaos simply acts. It does whatever it feels based on whatever whim enters its mind. Chaos is kind of the epitome of being a colossal dick.

Just Because You Can

There's this weird trope in stories that I come across often enough to remember. It's when a character finds themselves in a position where they can make some very significant action and they tell themselves that because they have the opportunity to make this decision, that they meant to do it all along.

This trope kind of makes sense in storytelling. Stories love to have legends and prophecies, gods and fates, and all manner of ways of saying exactly that a character was meant to do something and basically had no choice. 

The problem is that a lot of stories don't have devices of fate, and in those cases, this trope is unwarranted. Just because you can do something doesn't mean you were meant to do it all along. But it does mean that you can do it. 

Stories with fate are about characters struggling with accepting that they have been chosen to be special. Stories without fate are about characters struggling with the decision of what kind of person they are going to choose to be. 

Both of these are valid and potentially interesting story themes. They are simply effective for different reasons. 

Friday, November 15, 2013

Go For It

My number one piece of advice that I give to people is "Go for it." It's not the right advice for every situation, but it's the right advice for most. I say this because most people ask my advice by saying, "I'm thinking about trying <blank>." Unless you're thinking about drinking bleach or punching pregnant women, just go for it. (Side note: if you are thinking about punching pregnant women, try drinking bleach instead.)

Seriously though, people don't plan on doing incredibly stupid or dangerous things. And they aren't even going to do it full bore; they're thinking about trying it. It's the most innocuous activity imaginable. 

When people ask for that advice, they want confirmation. They want you to tell them that you haven't missed something terribly important that would make their idea disastrously awful. And all they need is am all clear to remove their trepidations. 

Next time you're thinking about trying something, don't worry about asking permission. You have my permission: go for it. 

Because I Can

One of the biggest questions people ask is "why?" The other question words also matter, but they're much easier to determine. More importantly, no matter how much we learn about something that happened, we have this insatiable desire to know why it happened. And, the more we know, the greater our desire to know why. 

The why's often involve the human element. When a person chooses to do something (or to not do something), there has to be a reason for it. Some thought must have occurred and determined that it was all right.

The desire to know 'why' is the desire to understand how the human mind works. But sometimes we find out that the answer is unsatisfying. Sometimes a person's answer to 'why' is, "Because I can."

Yeah. Not every action has a grand plan. Some of them are completely whimsical. They are done just to do them, just to see the result, just to kill boredom. They are the most frustrating people to encounter, as they are truly unknowable. They also can be terribly frustrating characters to write for, and for the same reason. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Discussion vs. Argument vs. Fight

It's really difficult to talk about ideas with a lot of people. Differing opinions escalate into full-blown blood feuds way too quickly. I think there is a certain amount of human nature at the root of things, but I also think a portion of it comes from ignorance.

People do not understand the difference between a discussion, an argument, and a fight. You can see this by how often the words are used interchangeably. In actuality, they are very different things, and the more people that know the difference, the better. 

A discussion is when people all talk about a single subject, either trying to understand it better or solve a problem. Discussions are non-biased. Everybody works toward the same goal, so if one person "wins", everybody wins. 

An argument is when you make a claim and provide evidence to support it. You can argue for something or argue against it; in either case, you make a claim and support it. To argue with somebody is to have differing claims on a given subject. To describe arguing in one sentence, say "I disagree." Arguing should be civil. Just because you disagree with somebody doesn't mean that everything they say is wrong. It also doesn't mean that your beliefs are completely right.

"You are wrong and I am right. Now we're in a full-blown fight." Fighting is where too much discourse ends up. The reason is understandable. We get very emotionally invested in our ideas. They make sense of the world in a way that has proven itself consistent. Ideas very easily become beliefs, and that is when they get dangerous. Beliefs become a part of our personal identity. If you believe something, then it is true. If it wasn't true, you wouldn't believe it. So now, when somebody disagrees with your idea, it feels like a personal attack against you.

People need to know that they can have thoughts or ideas and care about them, but still be able to talk about them impersonally. Being passionate about something is fine, but there's no need to be rude. If you truly believe that your ideas are correct, then they will stand up to all scrutiny. So let people poke and prod and ask questions. If you can rationally explain why you are right, then be happy that you know the truth and that others learned. But if somebody has valid points when arguing against your beliefs, then be able to accept it and modify your beliefs. Again, in a discussion, when one person wins, everybody wins.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Eliminate The Unsalvageable

I am a real salvager when it comes to editing. I keep as much of a person's words and ideas as I can while editing. I think it comes from not wanting to alienate others or cram my words down their throat. It is also partly because I usually edit for people that have an idea of what they want their story to be like and don't want it to stray to far from that.  

I happen to be a great salvager, but that can be its own downfall. Sometimes, while editing a document, I will realize that what I want to add or change doesn't work. I'll spend minutes looking and toying and changing and rechanging sentences, both in order and construction, and I will grudgingly accept that the sentences can't be salvaged. 

At that point, I have to accept that and start to build a whole new sentence to make the passage work right. But the real lesson here is that it's not easy to let go. Even when it's not your writing, it can feel strange cutting away others' words. But if a passage is best served by not salvaging what's there, then eliminate that which is unsalvageable for the sake of making the best product. 

Stupid Stories About Smart People

I am really irritated by stupid stories about smart people. Shows like Frasier and Big Bang Theory are perfect examples (and it should come as no surprise that they are standard sitcoms). These shows portray characters whose single most prominent feature being their expansive intelligence, yet every episode has them doing something so monumentally stupid that I wonder how anybody can believe that these characters aren't mentally challenged. 

There are a lot of reasons for things like this happening, but I tend to blame stupid writers. It's not easy to make a character who is smarter than you, so purportedly smart people can make dumb decisions simply because the author didn't think things through.

What irritates me the most about these kinds of shows is how popular they become. People love to see smart characters being nerds, especially with the current popularity of geek chic. But it also seems like they love seeing nerds screwing up, like it's a catharsis to see "superior" people being even dumber than the viewer is. It comforts us to see that intelligence is just a facade. The problem is that it is a false stereotype. Smart people are smart. They are humans, and fallible, but by and large, they aren't stupid and they don't do the same stupid things week after week without learning. 

I recognize that stories need drama, and that if somebody was smart enough to avoid trouble, then they would be more boring. Still, I don't think it's a valid excuse. If you're afraid a smart character would solve problems too easily, then don't write smart characters. 

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Admit Mistakes Or Incorporate Them

If you're writing a story, you're probably going to screw something up at some point. You may describe a character incorrectly, or have the wrong person speak a line, or place somebody somewhere that they couldn't be. 

If a reader catches an inconsistency and calls you on it, you have two options. One is to admit that you made a mistake and change the errors. The other option is to find a way to incorporate those mistakes into your story. 

Suppose that Sharon said something that Cathy was supposed to say. How did Sharon know to say it? Might she be more involved than others know?
What if Michael showed up in a scene at the mall when he was supposed to be at work across town? Why might this be? What happened?

Answering these questions might take your story in a whole new direction that adds excitement and intrigue. It could also take your story in a whole new direction that you don't want it to go in. Either way is fine. That's why you have the choice to admit your mistakes or incorporate them. 

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Power Of Reputation

If your favorite author puts out a new book, you're probably going to buy it. After all, it's your favorite author. More importantly, it is very likely to be a pleasure to read. That author has done work in the past and it was good enough to become your favorite. This author has a tremendous reputation. 

It is amazing how much reputations affect us. If something is supposed to be good, we are far more likely to try it out. If something is bad, we will likely avoid it so much, based solely on reputation, that you would never have the opportunity to find out for yourself. 

In terms of people's reputations, it can be a scary thing. A reputation is like a filter through which others see us. When somebody has a reputation for being a liar, you may never believe what they have to say. If their reputation is for being genuine and helpful, you may never realize that they're robbing you blind. 

Reputation can be a handy tool. It is a way for people to learn from the experiences of others. The problem is that not all people have the same taste, so reputations are never 100% true for us individually. 

Friday, November 8, 2013

Don't Shoot The Messenger

Any concept that has its own saying is deeply rooted in our collective psyche. Take, for example, "don't shoot the messenger." The meaning is that when somebody tells us bad news, we should not lash out at or punish that person. So why is it such a common saying?

The short answer is: because it needs to be. Even at a cursory examination, it is common to hate the person who gives us bad news. Our default wiring says that they are responsible for our unhappiness. They ruined our mood and should be punished for it.

The problem, of course, is that it is irrational. Learning information may make you unhappy, but the person informing you didn't make it happen. He simply stated facts that you didn't want to hear. 

What's screwed up, though, is that, in a certain light, the irrational thought almost makes sense. Technically speaking, that person was responsible for making you unhappy. If they never told you, you would still be blissfully happy. Granted, it is the bliss of ignorance, but bliss nonetheless. 

What most people don't realize, though, is how much people don't want to be the messenger. People wrack themselves with guilt when they tell others bad news. When we say something that pisses off others, we feel bad. We feel responsible for their unhappiness. 

"Don't shoot the messenger" is a saying that wonderfully captures the irrationality of the human mind. But what it shows us about ourselves is so much deeper than the one example we tend to think of.  

Thursday, November 7, 2013

You Know 104 Letters

I find it amusing when people talk about how hard it would be to learn Greek or Russian just because of their alphabets. Their argument is that English has 26 letters and that it would be so much work to learn even more letters. The problem with their argument (at least one of the problems), is that English doesn't have 26 letters; it has 104. 

After you get all of the "you're so wrong" out of your system, hear me out. Lower case and capital letters are completely distinct. Even though they are considered the same letter, take the same name, and make the sound, the fact remains that they are totally different letters.

It may not be easy to see this, but the capital and lower case "A" look nothing alike. There is no reason to think that they have the same sound and meaning. There are some exceptions, like "O" and "X", because they are just different sizes of the same shape, but we do recognize them as unique characters. The capital and lower case versions are different sizes and are used in different ways. They are still distinct. 

So that's 52 letters you know. So how come I said 104? That's because all of those letters get doubled with cursive. 

I know that script handwriting is fallen out of favor (and to be candid, I'm perfectly fine with that), but I believe people can still read it for the most part, even if they don't write it. And that is how you know 104 letters. 

So, if you ever find yourself concerned or hesitant or making excuses to not learn a new alphabet, remind yourself that you already know 4 of them, so what's the harm in learning one more?

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

People Hate Change

It probably doesn’t need to be said, but people hate change. However, it becomes an interesting fact in light of how very quickly humans adapt to their surroundings. No matter what their situation is, it becomes normal to them, and normal is a great comfort. 

When somebody’s normal is taken away from them, they become uneasy, unhappy. They can become depressed or highly agitated. And yet, regardless of how things have changed from their normal, as long as it is consistent, it becomes a new normal, and the person will get used to this situation.

People are so strange in the way they get so incredibly upset when things change, and yet they have no idea how quickly they get used to that change and forget that it was ever different from what they were used to. This also highlights another curiosity of the human condition: memory retention. But I will save that for another time.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Indomitable Spirit

People love stories about a character with an indomitable spirit. Such examples are the little girl who never stops believing that everybody has goodness inside, the young man who faces all obstacles in order to achieve his goals, the brother who looks over his sister regardless of the personal cost, and the wife who holds together her family while waiting for her husband to return from his voyages.

Like most story tropes, though, people like this because it is uncommon in reality. The idea of the indomitable spirit flies in the face of the human condition. What people are the most skilled at is adapting. No matter how fantastic or how repugnant a person’s situation is, it will quickly become normal to them. It is the greatest survival mechanism we have – what doesn’t kill us becomes our norm.

And yet, we love stories where people don’t adapt. We are amazed by characters who never let bad situations bring them down. We are encouraged when characters filled with hope refuse to let themselves get deflated, and we are vindicated when those characters see the things they hoped for become real.  

Stories often do not show us how life really is, but show us how we wish life was. Struggle and stress still exist, but we handle them well. And people who stay strong long enough are rewarded. It is a lovely ideal, no matter how rare it is, and one that may be worth perpetuating, no matter how unlikely it is. After all, maybe some day it will become a reality.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Bad vs. Amateur Writing

I'm pretty quick to label something as "bad writing". And generally, any writing that fails to get me to think or feel a certain way is bad because it didn't do what it was supposed to have done. However, I realize that some writing does fail in its purpose, but it's not because it's bad per se; the real issue is that it's amateur writing. 

Amateurs lack experience and training. They could very well have good ideas for stories, but not know how to execute them. This can lead to stories that have choppy or clunky narration, stiff dialogue, or excessive description. All of these things affect the reader's experience, and they do lessen the quality of the story, but that doesn't make the story itself bad. 

Amateurs need to know what the next step is (or be informed that there even is a next step). Amateur writing is what I consider to be a step in the right direction, but not the end of the journey. 

Bad writing, on the other hand, is a step in the wrong direction. It's when characters are inconsistent and plot holes abound. It's not that dialogue is clunky, but that it simply doesn't make sense. If a protagonist is afraid that a group of spies is tracking his every move and listening in on every word he says, it would be moronic for him to have a conversation with a stranger and explain all of that; he should be assuming that this person is also a spy and not to be trusted.

I like working with amateurs. In general, they want to be good writers and will soak up whatever knowledge they can. Bad writers, though, tend to be stuck in their ways and totally incorrigible; it's kind of what makes them bad writers. 

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Chess Piece Storytelling

I came across a fascinating phrase recently: chess piece storytelling. It is what happens when a story consists of "This character goes here; that character goes there." In essence, it reads like a game of chess, where it only shows where the pieces moved and what they did. 

This is a classic example of amateur writing. It is all description and no emotion. It lacks humanity and empathy. 

I want to emphasize that this is not bad writing; it is amateur. The difference here is that chess piece storytelling is a good first step. It is like building the skeleton of your story. It gives you the structure from which you can build more refined ideas on top of it. An amateur simply needs to know that there are more steps to go to make it complete. 

I might even go so far as to recommend amateur writers give it a shot. Write a chess piece story, and when it's done, use it as an outline to then write a more exciting and fuller version for your next draft. 

Comfort Zones

It's easy to tell somebody to break out of their comfort zones. It is massively more difficult to actually do it. Discomfort is an amazingly powerful force. 

I sometimes think that people are more scared of discomfort than they are of actual pain. Nobody talks about how much something might actually hurt; they talk about how awkward it could be. 

Still though, we need to do new things and have new experiences. They open our eyes and expand our minds. And if the biggest obstacle to actually doing those things is our own personal discomfort, then we have to do what we can to break out of out comfort zones to make it happen. 

Raw Humanity

I watched a performance of Frankenstein put on by the British Ntional Theatre company. It was a literally amazing experience. The show had quite a bit of spectacle with the scenery and lighting, but what was most outstanding was the acting.

Frankenstein is a harsh story. It is filled with sorrow and anger, and characters often lash out at one another. The experience of seeing it as a stage show brought a new life to it. The actors let loose their characters' rage, and it was visceral. 

I can't help but feel that theatre is unique in this quality. Movies are so dolled up that actors never really let go; everything is calculated and edited just right. A play, though, is severely stripped down. You don't have the background music or the panning shots or extreme close ups. And by removing all of that veneer, you can tap into that raw humanity that we rarely see let out.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Universe Experiencing Itself

I've heard it said that "you are the universe experiencing itself." It was always an interesting thing to hear, but it took quite a while before it finally sank in. When I finally 'got it', it was an amazing realization.

As an individual, we are intimately familiar with ourselves. We hear all of our thoughts and know all of our secrets. But more importantly, we cannot hear anybody else. We are deaf to the rest of humanity, which makes us feel separate and isolated from the universe.

The universe, though, is quite literally everything. Every atom is part of the universe, as are all the things that make up atoms, and all the things that atoms make up. I am as much a part of the universe as a squirrel or a flower or a comet (and so are you). In this context, we are quite literally the universe experiencing itself.

Even in a more simplistic sense, people have a habit of considering themselves separate from the world around them. They work for a company, but they are not part of the dynamic system that is the company. They live in a city, but the city exists whether or not they live there.

Oddly enough, despite how hardwired people are to create communities, humans seem to struggle to see themselves as a crucial component to the make-up of the communities they live in.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

You Can't Feel Loved If You Hate Yourself

A common trope I see in stories is a person who hates themselves and really believes that they're worthless, and somehow a dreamy hunk/babe tells them all the right things and everything turns around and is great forever. For the record, this trope annoys the crap out. 

People who really hate themselves have crossed into depression. And as I've said before, depression is an all-consuming negativity. Believing that you are unworthy of happiness is a serious issue, and no single conversation will magically make it go away.

You can't feel loved if you hate yourself. Characters need to have significant experiences and major revelations before they can truly accept another person's love. Otherwise, the all-encompassing negativity of their depression would convince them that nobody else really likes them. And that is the ultimate question: how do you convince a negative person that they do deserve love?

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

How Would You Spend Your Money?

A simple way to get an idea for a character's motivation is to ask them what they want. This is a question that gets to the core of them as people. If they can tell you what they want out of life, you can keep moving them toward that goal. 

One downside to this question is that a lot of people say "money". Too many characters, especially antagonists, have the desire to acquire money, but that isn't really an answer. Money is a means to an end. If a character wants a lot of money, then ask them, "what would you spend it on?" If they can answer that, then you have their real core. 

Fiction Affects Reality

I think one of the most amazing things is that stories about people who never existed doing things that never happened  actually affects what real people really do. 

There's something special about fiction in that regard. It shows the supreme power of human creation. The things we make change real life. It's easy to understand that when looking at tools or furniture or major inventions like the printing press. But imagine cartoons like Looney Tunes. They changed the world in a massive way, too. 

And beyond that, you don't need to change the world to affect lives. You could write a poem or a short story that one person ever reads, but it will affect that person. Maybe it won't even cause a permanent change, but it will have some effect. They may have a new thought, or understand an old one in a new way, or it may reinforce what they already know. They may use a new word or say something uncommon to them. 

Characters that only exist as ideas in our own heads can change us as much as flesh and blood human beings, sometimes even more. It is an incredible power to be able to wield. Use it responsibly. 

Monday, October 28, 2013

Method Writing

In Method Acting, actors create a powerful bond between themselves and the characters they play. In doing so, the actor can be lost within the character. The same can happen with writers and their characters. 

It can be a powerful and intense experience writing characters. You spend a great deal of time inside people's heads during the most pivotal times in their lives. To spend so much time and energy creating them and making their lives and adventures, it can be easy to lose yourself in those characters. 

It may not necessarily be a bad thing as far as writing goes. It's certainly a sign of a thorough understanding of your characters. Just make sure that when you put your pen down, you can return to being yourself. 

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Everything Can Be Positive Or Negative

In my last post, I talked about how depression is a mental state where everything is seen negatively. This sheds light on a larger concept. Everything can be positive or negative. And, more accurately, everything can be looked at positively or negatively. 

This means that happiness is an outlook. It's how we choose to see the world. And it explains how we have sayings like "every cloud has a silver lining." How you choose to see the world affects how it is. 

Explore the differences that occur when people have the same experiences, but approach them with different outlooks. 

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Power Of Depression

Depression is an all-consuming negativity. This is not something to say lightly. It's more than being sad. And it's more than being negative. People in a bad mood can be turned around. Sad people can be made happy. People feeling negative can be shown positivity. But depression is a whole other entity. 

Turning negativity around can be as simple as getting somebody to laugh at a stupid joke or reminding them of all the happiness in their lives. But when somebody is depressed, they are immovable. Your jokes aren't funny to them. Their happy memories are illusory and fleeting. Reminding them of good times only makes then harp further on bad times. 

Depression is some seriously scary shit. It is a mental block, or perhaps a filter, and it is certainly not how the mind should operate. And because of all of this, it is something that should be explored, both from a person experiencing it, and from an outsider looking in and seeing it happen to somebody else. 

Thursday, October 24, 2013

People Are Timeless

In about 6,000 years of recorded history, humans have never stopped acting like humans. We have the same emotions, the same desires, even the same thoughts and plans. People still feel joy and sorrow, love and hate. We still seek shelter from the elements, food and water for sustenance, companionship and understanding from others. Some people still seek power and wealth. People are still willing to put themselves before others and sacrifice whatever and whoever they can to get what they want. 

When you write a story about people, you have written a timeless story. Since people never stop acting the way they do, then a story from 20 years ago reads the same as one written today. 

What makes a story dated is technology. It keeps growing and changing, and thus changing how people interact with themselves and the world around them. Romeo & Juliet would not have had any problems if they both had cell phones. But because technology has reached the point where people can communicate instantly from thousands of miles away, the miscommunication angle can't really be justified any more.

The struggle of Romeo & Juliet, though, is timeless. It is true in modern times. It was true for West Side Story. And it was true in Ancient Greece with Pyramus and Thisbe (which the story was a modern retelling of). 

This is the value of stories about people. They never get old. They simply become more classic. 

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Know Better Things

I was commiserating with a friend recently about all of the really lousy writing I have come across in my days. One of the things I mentioned was that every amateur writer loves to write thinly veiled autobiography. That's when somebody writes fiction, but the characters are living out the life of the author. 

I started to think about why it was such a common occurrence, and I posited that it was based on the common advice of "write what you know." And what a person knows most intimately is themselves.

My friend brilliantly retorted, "know better things."

I really loved that comment. It made me laugh. But more importantly, it is a great corollary. Not everybody cares about what you know. To grow as a writer, you should task yourself not only with improving your ability to communicate, but also with increasing the range and depth of subjects you can write about. 

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

You Don't Choose Your Own Name

One of the things I find terribly interesting is names. People can sometimes strongly judge others by their names. And in literature, a character's name is almost as important to their identity as the things they actually say and do. But in real life, we don't choose our own name (at least not at birth), so it seems strange how attached to it we become.

A frustration I tend to have is when I want to name a character, I simply want a name that sounds good, and yet, it seems that everybody demands that every character have a kind of symbolism to their name, that it identify who the character is. And I admit, it is weird to think of a badass action hero named Enid or Eugine, but, much the same way that we define ourselves by the name that somebody else chose for us, if you make a badass character who happens to be named Enid, she will still be thought of as a badass because of what she does, not what her name is.

I think what matters more than anything else is that the names you choose be pronounceable, and that they fit the setting your story is in. Beyond that, focus on who your character is more than what they're called. Eventually, it will be just right.

Letters Don't Always Start With Their Sound

I absolutely and thoroughly hate it when people say the phrase "an historic". And I hate it for two reasons. One, it's wrong. And two, people only ever say it because they think it is proper English, which makes them extra wrong, and more stupid than the people they think they are correcting.

Now, let's start from the beginning. When do you use the article "a" and when do you use "an". If you're in elementary school, you were probably taught that "a" goes in front of words that start with consonants, and "an" goes in front of words that start with vowels. Now, this is almost true, but not entirely. However, I want to take a moment to point out the glaring problem that "H" is a consonant, which already makes the phrase "an historic" wrong at the elementary level.

The correct answer to "a" vs. "an" is that it doesn't matter what letter a word starts with: it matters what sound a word starts with. Most words that start with vowels have vowel sounds. "Apple" starts with "aaaa", which is why we say "an apple". And most words that start with consonants have consonant sounds, which is why we say "a flower".

Consider the letter F for a moment. The letter F is a consonant, but when you pronounce the letter, it starts with a vowel sound. That's why we would say a sentence like "I have an F." It's because, vocally, the letter is pronounced like 'eff'.

So to return to the original phrase, why do people say "an historic"? The reason is that the phrase originated in Britain. And, in Britain, the letter H is not pronounced when it begins a word. In fact, that is the reason that "herb" is pronounced like 'urb', and is why we say the phrase "an herb" (because the word starts with a vowel sound). However, most people do not speak with such accents when saying "historic". And if the word starts with a consonant sound, the proper article to use is "a".

This might be one of those minor grammar rules out there, but I felt the need to bring it up because it is one of those obscure artifacts that keeps rearing its head just enough to be worth explaining. It is also valuable because it can really open your eyes to think of words not in terms of the letter we use to spell them, but the kinds of sounds we use. And I think it is really trippy to have consonants that begin with vowel sounds when pronouncing its name, but that they don't have that vowel sound if the letter is part of a word.

Monday, October 21, 2013

We Judge Based On Assumptions

The human mind seems hard-wired to judge others. It's not something we consciously do; it happens, whether we like it or not. First impressions are made in less than a second of meeting somebody. We even judge people before we ever meet them (also known as 'prejudice'). And it can be very difficult to change our judgements. But what is truly screwed up is not how quickly we judge people, but how we judge them.

We judge people by whatever we have from them. We often judge people based on their clothes and physical appearance. When we hear their voice, we judge them on it, as well as the words they say. We judge people based on their careers, even when we have no idea what their job actually entails, or how good they are on it.

And don't think that all judgements are bad. Somebody who looks attractive is judged to be positive or good. Somebody who works at a law firm is respected, whereas somebody working at a grocery store is looked down upon.

What is interesting about authors is that we are often judged as people by our text. If you are using your words to entertain, it could be great. Same thing if you are trying to change the world. But the funny thing is that some people can be amazing writers, but terrible human beings. The example people love to use is Orson Scott Card, who is lauded for writing Ender's Game, among many other works, and yet is vehemently against gay rights.

The funny thing, though, is that our opinions of people do change, and it is often when we find new information that shatters the assumptions we had of them. An author that makes you laugh, we assume, is the kind of person that is always happy and fun. But when you find out that they have violent anger problems, then we assume the author is basically always unhappy, but somehow uses the fun writing either as an escape, or as a lie. But if you actually meet the author and have a great time with a level-headed person, then we change our mind again and assume that the author is generally happy, with occasional bouts of anger.

No matter how deep we dig, no matter how much we uncover, we always judge based on assumptions. It is as true for authors as for our characters. And with regard to our characters, keep this in mind when you present them to people.

A good twist can be made by presenting a character in a certain light, and then exposing the reader to the bigger picture. A simple presentation creates assumptions of them, and when you find out that the character is more complex, it is a real shock. The reason that this is such a marvelous technique is that you never betray your character, so you create a legitimate surprise without any backlash.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Hollow vs. Dense

It may seem painfully obvious what the difference between hollow and dense is, but in the context of storytelling, it is worth having a reminder. 

The best way to visualize hollowness is a tube. A tube my look thick and heavy from the outside, but all of its material is at the surface.

By contrast, of you took that hollow tube and crushed it into a ball that had no air in it, you would have a significantly smaller object, but it would be far more dense. 

A pitfall that writers too often fall into is mistaking word count with quality or depth. If you wrote a 300 page book, and I skip over the equivalent of 50 pages due to wasted words and paragraphs, then you have a hollow story. And hollow stories are weak stories. 

With that said, dense stories do not waste words, but they also don't leave any important ones out. If, in trying to condense your story, you cut out so much that your audience misses your message, the. You still end up with a hollow story, just in a different manner. 

Friday, October 18, 2013

Shyamalan Syndrome

M. Night Shyamalan sucks. He is a terrible writer that does not deserve the career he's had. There are so many reasons to tear his movies apart, but there is one thing in particular for me: the writing.

Admittedly, the writing alone has a whole host of problems, but there is one thing in particular I have to focus on. Every single movie I have seen of his has a glaring flaw in the story. They have interesting premises, but the stories end up having horrible execution. 

Unbreakable is a movie where, ostensibly, superheroes exist and are unaware of it, and the one person who believed it massacred thousands of people for years just to try to find one. 

Signs is a movie about a man who lost his faith coming to learn that his tragedies were signs to show him how to save the world, literally. The problem is that these aliens are so stupid that they invaded a planet where two thirds of the surface is covered in a substance that melts them, and it also periodically falls down from the sky itself. 

The Happening is a movie that puts forth the idea that the world is conscious and rejects humanity by trying to purge it. The problem is that this entire movie was a collection of hypotheses with no facts whatsoever. It was a movie so devoid of sense that the characters spent their time trying to outrun the wind, and somehow succeeding.

I can only call this phenomenon Shyamalan Syndrome. It is the affliction where you get a decent idea, and then every time you have to fill in a blank or answer a question, you literally use the first thing that pops into your head without any thought to how it would fit with everything else. 

What compounds this issue is that, somehow, it seems like there is no editing going on. There are no continuity checks. There is no common sense checking. The final result looks like a weak first draft to me. 

Make sure this doesn't happen to you. Get people to read your drafts. Make sure that when you fill in gaps, you don't betray your existing canon, and don't lack any form of common sense, either. 

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Confidence vs. Overconfidence

Confidence is incredibly attractive to me. I love being around people who are comfortable with themselves, outgoing, and not afraid. Those people give me energy. People who are fearful and apologetic, in contrast, drain my energy. 

But I realized today that confidence is tricky. Because there is a line where confidence stops being attractive and instead becomes repugnant. I've been thinking about it all night, and I've realized what the difference is. 

It's humility. Confident people accept their imperfections. We all make mistakes, but a confident person moves forward, neither dwelling on them, nor denying them. Overconfident people lack that humility. In all of their interactions, they would have you believe they are perfect. Not only do they do everything better than everyone else, but they also are incapable of making mistakes. 

Overconfidence is simply repulsive to me. It is either a willing lie or a complete delusion. In either case, if they clearly show no signs of humility, I don't want to associate with them. 

Remember this in all aspects of life, including your writing. Never be afraid or ashamed of your love for writing. Be proud of this endeavor and strive to reach the level that will make you happiest. As you improve, be proud of the accomplishments you have made. But, always be aware of your flaws, too. Don't ignore or deny mistakes you've made. Overconfidence will keep you at the level of mediocre writer for as long as you believe the delusion that you are without flaw and beyond improvement.