Thursday, January 31, 2013

Lying Is A Defense Mechanism

Humans naturally prefer the truth. Look at our children and see. All they ever do is learn stuff and tell you what they've learned. They will tell people exactly what they believe and say anything they notice to a person, regardless of who they are.

So when do children start lying? When it can get them out of trouble. If they can use their words and deception to avoid a punishment, they'll do it. And once it works the first time, it won't stop happening.

Avoiding punishment is really the beginning if it, too. Because any time a person feels uncomfortable, they can lie to change things and feel safer.

Everybody lies for a reason. If you probe deep enough, it always stems from some form if fear. If you have a character that lies, ask yourself what it is they're afraid of, and how lying helps them feel in control of it.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Jokes Should Fit Within Their Premise

It's often said that comedy is about the unexpected. That's pretty accurate, too. But it's not really the whole story. Because unexpected things can result in a lot of feelings: happiness, shock, horror, depression, confusion.

Comedy has rules that make it funny, much like every genre has it's own rules. And of those rules is that the punchlines of jokes should fit within their premises.

For example, if somebody asks your favorite hero, expecting a response like Superman, but you say "turkey, cheese and lettuce with no onions." That is a solid joke. Your response technically answers the question because it was vaguely asked and open to interpretation. If, however, you said "wool argyle sweaters," it would be equally unexpected, but not funny whatsoever. The difference is that the latter has nothing to do with the premise, so it just leaves us confused.

Certainly there is something to be said for random comedy. It's a genre that does have it's uses and merits, but it is a specialty to pull off. By and large, if you want to make people laugh, make your joke make sense, even if it's a twisted path to get there.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Money Speaks

Society has reached a strange point at the moment. There are so many people in the world who are creating things and offering them to the world, and the only possible way to survive is to be seen by a massive number of people. But at the same time, we are living in a time where nobody believes they should pay what something costs. We live in a world of constant sales and coupons and special deals. And that's only when we actually have to buy something because we can't find it for free online. (God help the fat cats when we find a way to download food and shelter.)

The point is, everybody wants money, and nobody wants to spend it. Money is simultaneously incredibly precious and nearly worthless. But in a practical sense, money is the most condensed support you can give.

Everybody wants you to be their friend or their fan on social media. They want you to spread the word so that thousands or millions of people will see them. But the reason they want to be seen is so they can make money, which will allow them to continue doing what it is they do (whether it be write stories, draw pictures, or make pizzas).

If you really support the creator, though, then spend money on them. Buy an author's book instead of finding it for free. Take pride in paying full price instead of looking for a coupon. Sure, word of mouth helps, but money helps more. And yes, I understand that times can be tough, and we can't always afford to spend money on the ones we support. You needn't feel guilty if you don't have a lot to spend. But if you are being miserly, yet still feel proud of having supported an artist, think again - you have basically given them the equivalent of a back-handed compliment.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Training People

In psychological terms, conditioning is a fascinating thing to study. Most people are familiar with the story of Pavlov's dog, who was trained to salivate at the ring of a bell, because Pavlov would always ring a bell before feeding it, thus associating the bell ring with food.

Conditioning can be done to humans as well. This is largely how we train our children, usually by rewarding good behavior and punishing bad. But in a more subtle, we are exerting a certain conditioning force among all people.

Humans are creatures of habit. Whatever it is we do, we tend to do repeatedly. But within humanity, individuals are limitless in their individual tendencies. So whenever we act a certain way, people expect us to continue acting that way. A person who is not taking things seriously will rarely, if ever, take things seriously.

Because this assumption goes in all directions, we are training people to treat us a certain way while they are training us how to treat them. The things we choose to say and do, the way we react to others, every one of those things shapes our view of others and their view of us. With every new experience and reaction, we learn what is acceptable and what is not, and gain a fuller and clearer understanding of that person.

There is so much fertile ground for character depth and stories to tell in this area. You can explore how relationships change as they grow deeper. You can explore how people may find themselves drawn to similar people because they have been preconditioned to like them. You can write about people who are so erratic that nobody knows how to treat them due to their lack of consistency.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Casting Pearls Before Swine

The phrase "casting pearls before swine" came up in conversation today. Today, it struck how ridiculous the very concept is, or rather, how ridiculous it shows us to be.

Literally speaking, if you were to give a bunch of pearls to pigs, they wouldn't care. Since the only thing pigs do is eat, sleep, poop, and mate, and since pearls don't help pigs in any of those endeavors, giving pearls to them would be completely worthless.

The point of the phrase is that if you give something incredibly valuable to somebody who does not appreciate it, then you have wasted the item, as well as your effort. What finally struck me today, though, was that pearls are worthless.

Pearls do nothing. They are shiny. That's it. We have based our cultures and our entire economic systems on shiny things. Pearls are merely one example of things that are shiny (and with most shiny things, relatively uncommon). So the very premise of the saying is based on us assuming that a shiny pebble has any value whatsoever.

Not to knock people who like shiny things (even though I just did) - there may not be any use-value in them, but there is something to be said for objects that make us feel good or comforted to own and be near. For swine, though, pearls do not hold that value. In his light, though, the saying is really about values dissonance.

Everybody holds different things in different regards. Some people matter more to you than others. Some objects are worth more to you than others think. Our beliefs are incredibly personal, and anything that is based in entirely in opinion is relative to the individual. It is as true from person to person as it is for humans to swine.

Casting pearls before swine really means that not everybody cares about the things you care about. No need to feel angry, spiteful, or bitter (nor should you feel superior); just remember to keep your pearls to yourself and enjoy them because they make you happy. And realize that a big meal of food scraps are pearls that the swine will not cast before you.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Pets And People

It's often said that pets and their owners look alike, which can be true, but I suspect is more coincidental. It is also said that pets and their owners have matching personalities, and that may have a little more value in considering.

Why does a person have a pet? There is no one answer to that. You could say it is companionship, but even then, what kind of companionship? Dogs tend to be active and playful. Cats tend to be independent. Birds can be active, but remain in a confined space. Reptiles can be played with, but usually more as a toy than as a friend. Fish are largely decoration that moves.

What kind of pet does a person choose? Well, that depend on what they're looking for. An active person may want an active pet, like a dog. They may also want an independent animal that doesn't mind an active owner being out all the time. A person might choose a snake because they can relate to the desire to just spend all day resting on a warm rock, while another may choose the snake because it has to be fed so rarely that they don't need a pet sitter.

I don't like to think that a pet is a window into a person's soul or a reflection of that person as a whole. I do like to think that it is another aspect you can use to study a person and gain a better understanding of them.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Don't Trust Salesmen

This post coincidentally ties in with last night's. In a sense, the opposite of an honest day's work is being a salesman. Not to say that the entirety of the sales profession is dirty or crooked, but it is incredibly full of seedy people and shady tactics.

The number one rule to remember is that salesmen make their money from you. And traditionally, the more money you spend, the more they make. Too many salesmen will sell you everything they have simply because you are willing to buy it. They are ruled entirely by self-interest and greed.

That said, not all salesmen are like that. I know this because I have dealt with such good eggs before, and I have been such a salesman myself. Some people truly believe in what they have to offer and simply provide good and services to people who want them. These salesmen care about what is best for their customers and have no desire to sell anything that isn't in their best interest.

So when I say "don't trust salesmen", I really mean don't trust them at first. It is very important to know which kind of salesman you're dealing with before you trust what they say as truth or what they suggest as beneficial advice.

What I like about this dichotomy of salesmen is the uncertainty of it all. I mean, if somebody is a professional deceiver, can they ever truly earn one's trust? Is there anything they can do that is a sign of faith, which cannot also be seen as a trick to persuade you? That is up to the individual. Different people may have different methods that they trust, and some people honestly believe that the entire world is out to screw them over. There is plenty to explore in this matter, and it goes well beyond sales and salesmen.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

An Honest Day's Work

Usually, when people talk about doing "an honest day's work", that just sounded like a euphemism for unpleasant manual labor. It sounded like the kind of thing that people without ambition say to justify their lot in life. But as I have gained my experiences and studied at the world around me, I find myself reexamining the phrase.

My most valuable skills involve persuading people. Making sales, writing grants, negotiation, arbitration, advertising, all of it is variations on changing people's minds. I'm proud of my skills, and I do my best to use them for good, but they come at a price - the mental taxation of knowing that you are bending people's minds against their will. (Not that I think I have magical powers of suggestion, but I am still using my will against others.)

So what is an honest day's work? Now, it sounds like being productive without having to influence people. It's doing work that needs to get done and not worrying about anything else. It's doing things that benefit people without having to pull the wool over their eyes. And that is definitely something to be proud of.

I can see a character who enjoyed doing an honest day's work because it was simple and wholesome. I also can see a different character who did an honest day's work because they were no good at influencing people. These would be two very different characters, the latter of whom could be at a severe disadvantage to resisting people with a forked or silver tongue.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

What Will You Change Your Plans For?

Some people are ruled by their schedules, and others tend to play things by ear, but we all make plans. No matter how far in advance or on such short notice, we at some point will commit to an activity and in some sense plan for it to happen.

But in basically any situation, there is something that could come up that would make you change your plans. Emergencies are usually an easy answer; finding out somebody you care about is injured or ill is a sure fire way to send you running to them, no matter what you were doing.

It doesn't have to be an emergency, though. Maybe a friend offers to go to a movie with you and that sounds more appealing than playing online chess at home, so you change your plans. Maybe you got inspired for a story idea so you scrap your plans to have dinner with your coworkers to go put that idea on paper.

What will you change your plans for? That's a question as important to your characters as to yourself. It allows you to prioritize things, which is a window to understanding what you truly want and care about in life.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Homonyms Are Tricky

The ultimate trip-up for readers is homonyms. Those are words that are spelled the same, but have different meanings (and can also be pronounced differently). You throw a word at the audience like "bear" or "shower" and you can leave the reader super confused.

Usually, all we have to go on is context to make any sense of things. You read the sentence, the one before it, the one after it, and you understand what is meant. The nice thing about homonyms is that they tend to have noticeably different meanings.

The problem here is not always that the audience never figures out what's going on. The problem is that they had to take the time to figure it out. Your train of thought got completely derailed and your music came to a crashing halt. Everything you are working to create falls apart when the audience gets confused and has to figure out what you mean.

I'm not saying to never use homonyms. But when a spelling of a word has one very commonly used definition and you are using the uncommon one, you have to know what's going to happen, and you need to compensate for it.

More people use "shower" to talk about bathing, so if you want it to refer to one who shows, then build up to it. Use the word "show" and talk about people who show things. Maybe put the right sound in people's heads by pairing it with a rhyming word like "grower" so they will assume "shower" also has the long o sound.

Whatever technique you use, know that you can affect your audience, at least most of them, to read things in a desired way. Make use of that skill you have to make it happen.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Right Choice Can Go Wrong

We can never truly know what the future holds. Pattern recognition like statistics can tell us what is likely to happen, but it is never guaranteed. So as part of that, we can also never know how people will react to a given situation, either.

The point of this is simple: you can do the right thing and still have bad things happen as a result. Reporting a crime to the police is a good thing. If it just so happens that you reported a crime that a police officer was part of, then it was a bad thing.

I hate it when characters make incredibly moronic decisions in a story. And what bothers me the most is when an entire story is predicated on characters being stupid. Some people say that if characters always did the smart thing, there would be no drama, but I say that they can make the right or smart choices all day long, but that doesn't mean it can't turn around and bite then in the butt. All the same shock and intrigue can be created without one stupid decision being made.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

There Are Never "Two Kinds Of People"

I love dichotomies. Separating things into groups gives a semblance of order in our chaotic world, and having only two categories makes things extremely simple to organize. The only downside to this is that I cannot think of a single dichotomy that isn't false.

Some of the simplest things on earth are not black and white, including the idea of things being only black or white. There are countless other colors that things can be, as are their shades within that spectrum. Things like race, nationality, gender, even things like being alive are not always one or the other. Certainly, with strict enough definitions, you could definitively sort things, but your sorting is only definitive if everybody agrees to your definitions (hence the whole Terri Schiavo debacle way back, and countless other debacles before and since).

The spectrum of possibilities makes it incredibly difficult to talk in absolutes. And in fact, any character that talks in absolutes is pretty much guaranteed to be evil, mentally unstable, and wrong. It makes it really hard to write simple stories, but maybe that's ok. Maybe it's worth it to explore the spectrum of possibilities in any category.

Think of any situation where you could say "there are two kinds of people". Now go and write a story about a person who is neither of those kinds of people (or a person who is both).

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Not Every Role Model Has To Be Positive

I feel like we are in a strange position where we feel like every minority character has to be a positive role model. Women characters have to be smarter, stronger, or faster than men. Black characters have to be well educated and in a prestigious job. In fact, the only acceptable negative characters are white guys.

Now, I do not have a problem with positive role models. They are fine and I'm glad they are normal. What I don't like is that they have become expected.

Not every role model has to be positive. There can be hysterical women or Asians who are bad at math. Just don't make every character one or the other. If you feel like you are not able to present a particular character because it isn't a good role model, then your hands are just as bound as when we were required to make them negative stereotypes.

People can exist in any part of the spectrum of character qualities. Present whichever ones you want, and don't feel bad for whatever people may say because of it, as long as you are fair and accurate.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Beards And Laziness

There is a saying amongst the internet: Beards turn laziness into awesomeness. As a beard owner, I certainly appreciate a sentiment that considers my choice awesome, though I started to think about the concept of laziness and how accurate it is.

Why is it that I can sit around, do nothing, and grow a sweet beard, but I can't sit around doing nothing and grow a novel?Why does laziness only reward me with facial hair growth?

Then I realized, beards are not the product of laziness; they are a product of constant metabolism. My body is burning fuel for energy every minute of every day, and one of the things it produces is facial hair. And with that realization, I found a proper analogy for writing.

Writing is like growing a beard. You have to spend energy constantly, and over a long period of time, to produce something truly awesome. Maybe not every minute of every day, but daily writing of some length is a good help.

Also like a beard, you have to properly maintain it to be awesome. An unkempt beard is ratty and smelly. A stack of unrevised writing also stinks. You can continuously grow your body of work, but pare it down from time to time. Throw out the stuff that's no good and revise the rest into a completed, polished product. That's what's really awesome.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Your Approach Changes Your View

I have seen the movie Jurassic Park twice recently, each time with a different friend. I found it very strange that the first time I watched it, I loved every minute of it, and the second time around, I was griping the entire time. I realize that the main difference between the two experiences was what I was focusing on.

The first time through, I was watching the movie for the first time in years. My friend and I were remarking at how excellent the graphics were, how well they held up over time, how superb the animatronics and puppetry was. We saw all the small details that were thrown in and easily missed as children, along with the great acting (not to mention some of John Williams' best musical composition). At the end of the movie, we agreed that it was vindicated nostalgia.

The second time through, I was paying attention to the stories and the characters, and this is where the problem is. The characters are not deep; they're two-dimensional at best. The whole movie makes the claim that "life finds a way" and that we never had any real control over the dinosaurs, when in fact, every single thing that Ian Malcolm says is completely wrong. By the end of the second viewing, I was so bothered that I couldn't understand why I so enthusiastically enjoyed it last time.

I now understand that your approach changes your view. What are you paying attention to when you read or watch? What matters to you? If it's done well, the story is good in your eyes. But what else was going on? What other qualities could you judge the story by?

My favorite critics/reviewers are the ones who can approach a story from as many angles as they can think of. They give a very full and balanced account of what to expect, and they acknowledge what is good and what is bad. They have their own opinions, of course, but they review so thoroughly that I can make my own opinions based on what they said. The worst critics are the ones that only talk about one aspect of a story and harp on it all the way through. It is such a limited scope that I don't learn about the story, only that one aspect of it.

Try to approach a story from multiple directions at once.  It is not always the easiest thing to do. And sometimes it requires multiple readings/viewings to do that, but you will appreciate the story in a richer way when you do.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

We Are Always Underdogs To Our Ideals

Continuing from my previous post, I find hero worship to be a strange behavior. We seem to care exclusively for the underdog. We love a person with a compelling backstory and an unquenchable desire to be the best. We love seeing them face all the hurdles and pass them just barely. We cheer the loudest when they finally meet the top dog and take that position for themselves. But then what happens?

When the underdog becomes the top dog, we lose interest. We stop caring about them and excitedly search for the next underdog who can dethrone the person we once cheered on.

In a world of people, where the top dog is a fellow person, this pattern can repeat for as long as humans exist. However, when you consider that the "ideal" hero exists only in the aether, then the top dog is intangible.

This presents an interesting concept. All humans are underdogs, no matter how high up they go. Regardless of their achievements, the ideal hero would have done better, would have achieved more, wouldn't have worried or complained about it. In this mental state, all humans are laudable, no matter how much they achieve, as long as they are trying.

I really like this view. It can be a difficult mental state to always think that you aren't good enough, but it can also be an inspirational one, having the sense of purpose in life that accompanies the belief that there is always something to do.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Ideal Hero Is Impossible

Heroes are a strange subject. They seem so simple at first, but the deeper we consider them, the more impossible they become.

For one thing, heroes are always good. If they aren't doing exactly what you think they should be, then they aren't heroic. They also must do everything at a level beyond reach, and have no negative qualities about them.

This sounds pretty extreme, but that is the ideal hero right there. Look at the people who we like to call heroes. They are heroic as long as we ignore or are unaware of their flaws. When a picture of an Olympic champion smoking marijuana is discovered, that person ceases to be a hero and just becomes some disgraceful drug user. When homerun champions get accused of steroid use, they become a disgrace to the entire sport. When Lance Armstrong finally admitted to doping, he was just a cheater and a liar.

The problem with heroes is that they're just humans. Sure, some humans are "better" than others, but nobody is perfect. And part of the reason that a person can't be perfect is that perfection is impossible. Too much of life is gray areas and comes down to opinion (hence the difficulty with the concept of goodness).

If there is a truly ideal hero, then it exists only in the aether. Humans may strive to embody that ideal, but they can never achieve it, unless they become equally aethereal.

Monday, January 14, 2013

What's Normal To Aliens

When it comes to culture, we tend to think of things as us and them. What we're used to is normal and everything else is weird. This leads to a classic culture clash story, where an alien of some sort (whether from another town or another planet) does what is normal to them, but comes off as strange to us. Of course the two people learn about each other and grow up into better people as a result.  It may be vanilla, but I still like it.

There is an interesting variant to the alien story - the alien who is also weird to fellow aliens. This makes the story not so vanilla, though it can still have that classic ending. Since the point is to understand that just because people may act different than we're used to, they are still people, then it doesn't matter what the rest of the alien culture thinks is normal, either.

Other variants, though, could include the outcast alien making us assume that all aliens are particularly unacceptable, but when the two cultures clash, it turns out that they are remarkably similar, so although the outcast is still a weirdo, the cultures can join in their commonality.

For another possible variant, you could also go the West Side Story route, having the two cultures absolutely at war with each other, but having the outcasts come together in secret. They remain strange to their respective homes, but they are perfect for each other.

The sense of otherness is a marvelous concept to play with. We sometimes feel it amongst our own people. We sometimes feel it about ourselves (like we aren't who we think we are at a given time). We especially feel it in markedly different cultures.  And when we are on the other side of the table, we don't realize how we can make outsiders feel even more unwelcome than they already are experiencing.

Still, there are so many ways that you can manipulate it, so many stories that can be made from it. Definitely it is a feeling to draw from for inspiration.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Vanilla Is A Flavor

Everybody gives me crap whenever I eat vanilla ice cream. Somehow, because there are dozens, if not hundreds, of ice cream flavors in existence, ordering vanilla is tantamount to saying "I don't like ice cream, nor do I want to be out getting it with you." In reality, though, vanilla is a flavor, and it is a delicious one at that. Vanilla is a classic and ubiquitous flavor because it is elegant in its simple perfection. And just because it is simple in no way means that it is plain.

I sometimes find myself having the same kind of issue with writing. Somehow a simple story, like a three-act play, is considered boring and stupid. Where is the action and intrigue? Where is the twist that makes it different?

Well, when people are talking about a simple story I'm writing, the wist is that it's my take on it. It's my characters, my setting, my voice. The conflict and resolution may be predictable, but the journey may not be.

The irony, though, is that when it's a story that I didn't write, I find myself making the same arguments against it. Somehow, when I am the audience to a simple story, it always feels cheap and derivative. But when I am writing one, it is my unique expression of a classic tale.

What I realize, then, is that I always need to experience an argument from both sides. Somewhere between it, I will find the truth.  Just because I am giving my version of a classic story does not mean other people have to care, or even that they should. There still needs to be something unique to the story, something special that does make it stand out as a worthy derivative. That said, there is such a thing as a worthy derivative, so if a story has been done before, that doesn't mean I can't do it again; I just need to find something different within it.

Similarly, vanilla ice cream is perfectly fine, but only if it's good vanilla ice cream. If is cheap and flavorless, then it's better off avoided.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Value Of Monsters

Humans seem predisposed to talking about monsters. Every culture has them and every new generation within that culture is taught about them. Monsters seem as fundamental to human culture as making shelter and cooking food. But why?

Monsters make us afraid of the dark, and anything else unknown and unfamiliar to us. Monsters allow us to treat living things as completely alien and unrelatable to us. Though some of those skills may have been useful in our very early development as a species, by and large, the idea of monsters allows us to act like worse people.

Yet, there actually is a certain value in monster legends. What makes something a monster is usually a completely indiscriminate desire to cause death, injury, or any other sort of destruction. And because monsters are indiscriminate, then all humans are equally at risk of a monster's wrath.

The value of monsters is that they are the unifiers of humanity. They are the common enemy that we all share, which allows us to put aside our differences and work together to save our collective butts. In a twisted sense, humans are at their best when they are being hunted down like prey.

Friday, January 11, 2013

I'm Stealing That

I think the greatest compliment I can receive is when I share a joke or story and somebody says "I'm stealing that." It means that what I created is so excellent that they cannot keep it to themselves and are compelled to show it to others.

I find this behavior interesting partly because it makes me think of the old saying, "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery." And it is flattering to know that I've made something so good that people will spend their energy reproducing my work instead of making their own.

That goes along with the other curiosity, which is that all of modern culture is based on sharing people's work. Social networking in all its forms largely is used to share people's creative work. It's as though "I'm stealing that" is the defining phrase of the generation.

Part of me is excited to know how vast the network of distribution is. And part of me is saddened that many people would rather share than create themselves.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Surprise vs. Tension

When writing a story, I'm never sure if I want to go for a first-person or third-person narrator. They have different abilities, which affect how you can tell your story. Ultimately, it comes down to either surprising your reader or building tension within them.

First-person narration is great, and I actually tend to prefer it, because you follow one person around. The story becomes the story of the narrator. They don't know everything, and the audience only sees what the character sees. But there is more going on, and when a surprise is revealed to the character, it is equally surprising to the reader.

Third-person narration is generally omniscient. It is like a camera that follows anything important going on, periodically switching to see what other people are doing in a given period of time. And with the narrator knowing everything, the reader feels omniscient, too. While this ruins surprise, it creates tension. If the motives and plans of characters are components within a machine, then the reader gets to see everything setting up and feels concern for the protagonist because they know what fate is about to befall him/her.

As for which one to use for a story, the real answer, as always, is that it depends on what story you are trying to tell. Is it about one person, or is it about the machine as a whole? Are you wanting to create surprise or tension? If you have the answers to those questions, then you will know which narration to use.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Synthesis vs. Distillation

I find that truly excellent stories tend to come in one of two forms: synthesis or distillation.

Synthesis is the melding of several ideast into a single story. My favorite example is a friend of mine who wrote a novella that incorporated characters and concepts from Don Quixote and Batman, and applied them to an original story that took place in the modern day.

Distillation is the separation of the core of a story from all of the fluff found within it. Many children's stories, especially those by Dr. Seuss, tell you a story, but they get to the point, and that point is a principle that affects a large amount of the world around us. Any time that you reference a folk tale in order to explain an idea, you are mentioning a great work of distillation.

I tend to be better at distilling than synthesizing. Although I marvel at a well synthesized story, I either don't have the training or the mindset to purposefully mash up ideas and make them also work out and stand on their own.

Whichever you lean toward, try them out. And don't forget to try out the other one, too. Stories don't have to be synthesis or distillation to be great, but it certainly wouldn't hurt.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Eyes Are Cameras And Cameras Are Eyes

Your eyes are the tool through which your brain sees the world around it. They take in images and record what they see. If you can see a person's naked eyes, then they can see yours.

Cameras are basically the same thing, only they are mechanical instead of organic, and they record onto a medium other than brains. When people encounter cameras, they know that somebody is watching them, much as they know that when they see people's eyes.

If a person wants to communicate, they will always seek eyes. You can tell if a person is talking to you just by seeing who they are looking at. When a person looks into a camera, they are talking to whoever might be watching.

In general, when people look directly into a camera, it is disconcerting. This is because the camera is your eye. Watching through a camera, like in television or movies, is voyeuristic. People are acting normally, and you sit on the sidelines, watching. You do not consider yourself part of it, but then you realize that you are right there and they are looking at you.

On the other side of that, it is also disconcerting to see a person talking to nobody. A person whose gaze reaches neither eyes nor cameras, but still talks, seems to be communicating with an invisible person. We wonder what we are missing, or what the speaker must be missing, for this to be happening.

The target of one's gaze is important. It communicates volumes of information without a single word needed. It does not matter whether it is to eyes or to cameras; they are equally valid. But each one has its own unspoken understandings, and breaking those concepts comes with their own consequences.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Sarcasm Sucks

The older I get, the less willing I am to put up with sarcasm. I find it an ineffective rhetorical tool, only used by those too angry or too fearful to tell the truth.

In writing, sarcasm is completely inexcusable. Sarcasm is expressed through pitch and inflection. There is no way to denote it in writing (though some people try to use "sarcasm markers" which never takes off), and announcing when characters say things sarcastically, it takes out the sting.

Even in speech, sarcasm always makes you sound like a prick. It's constantly used when people are unhappy and they claim they are having a good time because things are not the way they want. This is also known as passive-aggressive whining, which is not a great way to convince people of things.

Sarcasm also gets wrapped up with 'irony', mostly in the hands of hipsters. But in reality, the "ironic sarcasm" that defines hipsters is also known as cowardice. People who never speak the truth more often than not are afraid of it. They are afraid to expose their real thoughts because they could be insulted based on something they actually care about. And that fear is far sadder than any insult could be.

So, speak the truth. Speak simply when possible and explain enough that the people understand your points. If you feel a need to use sarcasm, look inside and ask yourself why. Would sarcasm make your communication more effective? If the answer is no, don't do it. If you think the answer is yes, then get a second opinion.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Leave History To The Future

Sometimes I feel like we are living in a golden age. Technology marches forward, easing the burden of human life for so many. The ability to create and distribute is more freely available. We live in a global community, which not very long ago, seemed ridiculous and impossible.

And sometimes I feel like we live in a dark age. People have power that they cannot control, and the ease of life that technology brings also creates unemployment, overpopulation, and health problems. We also have much intolerance, and government's trying to enforce and justify their prejudices.

So, do we live in a golden age or a dark age? I don't know. Frankly, it's impossible to know. I constantly hear it said that people do not realize that they are in a golden age until it has ended. And I have heard it said that dark ages are never really that dark, since the sun still rises every day. In fact, I have even heard the argument made that the golden age of the Renaissance wasn't even a golden age at all.

When I look at the world around me, I find categories to be truly worthless. Whether our age is golden or dark, or something in between, the facts remain the facts. Your attitude and outlook might change, but aside from that, nothing changes. The only people who could determine what age we are in will be members of the future - people who never existed right now and can only explain this time right now relative to the times that came before and after it (the latter half we in the present have no idea about).

We must leave history to the future. Right now is the present. Make use of that time and pay no mind to what future historians might say about it.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Words Are An Instrument

When I talk about sentence patterns and word choice, I can only ever describe them in musical terms. Maybe it's because of my musical background, but I really believe that you cannot separate music from words. Language itself is so intrinsically musical, and words are an instrument.

Think about the standard band. The instruments listed are usually Drums, Bass, Guitar, and Vocals. When people sing along to a song, they will treat the melody of the lyrics the same way they treat a melody on a guitar solo. In a very literal sense, words are treated like an instrument.

Listen to people speaking a foreign language that you don't know. You will not know the words, but you will still hear the music. There is a cadence, a rhythm, a sort of melodic structure. That's what makes monotone people upsetting to our ears; they are inherently unmusical

When you listen to a language that you do understand, you still hear all of those musical parts; you simply ignore them because you are focused on the meaning of the words being spoken, and also because the music is part of what the words are saying.

All of this is why I always tell people to speak their words. It can be during the writing process, or during review or revision. Just make sure that you hear what they sound like; it will be the strongest indicator to how they will be received by your audience.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Introductory Stories Aren't Necessary

I am so bored of essays that all use the same format. The author is wistfully watching a scene or recounting a personal experience, and their mind wanders, probing at some concept or philosophy. The essay suddenly becomes completely abstract, having my nothing whatsoever to do with the opening story, and reveals itself solely to be about the concept being explored. Once the author makes their point, they return to the intro story and conclude by viewing that scene or experience in the new light they just shed.

Now don't get me wrong here. That is a great format. It's completely legitimate and generally effective. The problem I have is not the technique, but its extreme overuse. It is so commonplace that any effect on me is diluted to the point of worthlessness.

I can't stress enough that introductory stories aren't necessary. They may be the course of events that caused you to think about the subject at hand, but that doesn't make it the most effective rhetorical device. In fact, I feel that I would rather have the point of the essay be made right away and then use the story as an example.

If nothing else, if you are going to write a lot, vary your style. And if you are going to write a little, try something that you haven't seen too often (or at all).

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Your Actions Affect Your Mindset

I have followed cars down the road for several reasons in my life. I've followed a car because I didn't know how to get somewhere and the other car did. I've followed a car because we were both heading to a place that we both knew how to get to. I've followed a car because it was damaged and I needed to be there in case it broke down.

Every one of those circumstances involves the same basic premise - me following a car in my car - but each action is different enough that it completely changes my mindset while driving. When I don't know how to get to my destination, my mind is focused on the tail lights of the leader; I do everything in my power to make sure nothing comes between me and the other car, but that I stay at a safe distance in case of emergency.

When the other driver and I both know how to get to the destination, I kind of cruise. I don't mind if another car cuts in between us. I don't care if we're not in the same lane. I don't even care if we get side-by-side or if I pull ahead. I keep my eyes on the other car, but it is an afterthought more than my primary concern.

When I'm following the injured car, the destination it is similar to when I don't know the final destination, but a little different. Here, I am definitely keeping a safe distance because the chance of something going wrong is significantly higher. I also am making sure that if it does break down, I will not be flying by it on the road, either - maintaining a matching speed and distance is the key there.

No matter what a person is doing, it is affecting their thoughts. Everything they are thinking about, paying attention to, even the things they are letting themselves ignore, all get changed based on what specifically they are trying to do.

When you are examining a character and describing their thought processes, try to get into that level of detail. Sure, you can say that a character was following a car and keeping track of it, but you can go deeper. Even with the same number of words you use, you can say more specific things that express their mindset as they do the action.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

More Than Your Voice Gets Influenced

It is often said that a writer sounds like an amalgam of the last three authors they've read, and I mostly agree with that. But more than your voice gets influenced.

Authors have specific worldviews they express. They choose to write about certain subjects, and they carry with them personal opinions and biases toward those subjects.

When you surround yourself with enough of an author to be influenced by them, your worldview and opinions will be shaped by that author, too. It is likely to be temporary, like the amount it changes your natural voice, but it could start opening your eyes to new possibilities and reshape how you see the world around you and what you want from it.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Your Attitude Matters

It truly amazes me how much our outlook affects the situations we find ourselves in. If you read a story expecting to hate it, you probably will. But if you read a story and keep looking for the good parts, you'll find them (as well as letting go of the bad parts).

The same goes for everything, including your own writing. If you think you are writing something terrible, other people are likely to agree. In fact, whenever I write a single sentence I think isn't very good, my editor always picks it out.

However, when you write with confidence, it will infuse with your words. You will ultimately make a superior product.

The one catch is to recognize the difference between confidence and delusion. Ignoring the criticisms of others is a sure way to get stuck in ruts and reinforce bad habits. Always be earnest and consider every criticism; if they're right, you will be able to recognize their points and accept them.