Friday, May 31, 2013

A World Without Oil

Quick history lesson: When Earth was very, very, very, very young, its atmosphere was mostly full of carbon dioxide.  The massive oceans were full of single-cell life. Those organisms used photosynthesis, where they would take the sun's energy and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and made food for itself. Because both of those were in massive abundance, these organism multiplied colossally. They greatly thinned out the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, ran out of food, then died and sank to the bottom of the seas, congealing into a black goop. We know this goop as crude oil. (For the record, just because they are called fossil fuels, that does not mean that they came from dinosaurs.)

Humanity has made incredible progress in technology over its relatively short time on earth, but it has incomprehensibly exploded in the last 100 or so years. This is due entirely on the discovery of crude oil. It is a substance which provides incomprehensible amount of stored energy. And this is literally hundreds of millions of years worth of stored energy.  What is insane is that we will have burned through hundreds of millions of years of stored energy in about 2 centuries.

If you imagine a fictional world, it is almost impossible to have one without cars and plastics and all sorts of products that come from or run on oil. If you do try to make a fictional world without oil, it always sounds like you're making a medieval fantasy.

As an exercise, I really do enjoy trying to envision a world that didn't have oil. t forces you to think about what is available and how much. It forces you to think about sustainability. It really allows you to understand why things changed very slowly before oil was discovered. Everything is different in a world without oil, down to core principles and philosophies.

I challenge you to try imagining a world where crude oil never existed. How advanced could we ultimately get? How long might it take humans to reach that level? How close could we come to a world like ours today?

Thursday, May 30, 2013

You Aren't Your Past Self

Have you ever seen a situation that was really screwed up, but due to the circumstances, it was hilarious? Like imagine your friend dropping a wedding cake in the middle of saying that he wasn't going to drop it. Hilarious, but wrong. 

In these situations, everybody thinks it's funny except your friend that experienced it. And invariably, one person says "it's only funny because it didn't happen to me" and another person will say "this is the kind of thing you will look back on and laugh at."

When paired together, they make a curious thought. Maybe, the reason that a negative experience is only funny when a lot of time has passed is that you are a different person by then. In that case, you would be looking at your past self the way you would look at a stranger. And when enough new experiences have come your way, your past self will truly be as estranged and ignorant as a general stranger and deserves to be treated as such. 

This, of course, flies in the face of "common sense", but that is of little consequence. What matters is managing the idea that we are actually not the same people were, and how drastically it can change people's views. 

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Lose Yourself To Dance

One of the songs on the new Daft Punk album is called "Lose Yourself to Dance" and that line is repeated several times through the song. As I hear it and ponder the phrase, I realize that there are two distinct interpretations one could have. 

The first idea is like "lose yourself to the dance". It's like this command that people dance so much and so thoroughly that they lose their sense of self and instead move to the will of the music. Admittedly, this is the idea that I think is intended. 

The other thought, though, is like "lose yourself in order to dance". It's more of a prerequisite - you may not dance until you lose yourself. I kind of like this concept because it speaks to all the nervous wallflowers out there who don't feel comfortable letting loose (or the people who think they need to get drunk to be able to dance).

I often think about how amazing it is that a slight change in one word can totally change the interpretation of a sentence, but this is a whole new level. This doesn't even need different words to do that. 

I think the concept of "lose yourself to dance" is interesting, both because it has these different interpretations and because the ideas of those interpretations are compelling to explore. There is much fertile material to play with (and it's a pretty sweet song, too), so have fun. 

Monday, May 27, 2013

Understanding Ideas With Their Opposites

A friend of mine posed the thought that one cannot understand something without experiencing its opposite. We cannot know good without bad, happy without sad, sweet without bitter, warm without cold, etc. I immediately shot down the idea.

We can understand what sweet things are without knowing what bitterness is. Sweet things taste awesome and make us happy. We know what happiness is. It is a feeling of ecstatic joy. I said that the idea was ancient bunk.

About a week later, after having mulled it over in my head, I returned to the subject, with a fuller understanding and better words:

Things that are rare are special. It is inherent to the human psyche (I think). When you live in high altitudes, mountains are not special. That's just how the background looks. But when you see a beach and the ocean, it blows your mind. The same thing is true when the person living on the coast sees the mountains in real life.

If a person grows up in a life of privilege, eating the finest food and wearing the finest clothes, they certainly enjoy them because they are nice. But they cannot appreciate how much better they are than scraps and rags because they have never had to wear low quality clothes or eat poor people food.

So, a person whose first relationship is with a kind soul will still be able to appreciate the good relationship, but somebody who has had several horrible relationships before finding a nice person will appreciate it significantly more.

I Prefer Parentheses (Personally)

I think one of the more interesting parts of language (both written and spoken), is seeing how scattered one's thoughts are. People have a tendency to throw a lot of information at us and it tends to come in all jumbled. First drafts, especially, show us the thoughts as they come into the author's head, and these thoughts are sorted in a few different possible ways.

Some people use hyphens or dashes. These present a natural break in the thought - ideas can be inserted without worrying too much about mechanical grammar/syntax - and the original idea can be continued unimpeded.

Most people use parenthetical commas. It is the smoothest way to introduce information, a little mark to begin and to end a separate thought, and is best used when the inserted thoughts are more supplemental to the original thought.

Lastly, there are actual parentheses. They work the same way as parenthetical commas, but they use a different symbol (a bolder, more powerful one to me). Parentheses really make things stick out, more than dashes and commas.

In general, I prefer parentheses. They are the natural way that I add distinct thoughts and I find them clean and efficient. However, it should be noted that I actually use all three forms that I've mentioned. Each one has a different feel, and thus, a different function for communication. Understanding how these symbols have slightly different effects on the way a reader interprets your sentences will give you more tools at your disposable and a finer palette with which to tell your stories.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Value Of Rings

Rings are strange things to me. They don't really do anything. They just sit on your finger. When I was a kid, it really bothered me why people wore rings because they had no use. 

The first thing that really changed my view was hearing one of the oldest uses for them: transporting wealth. Imagine that you lived in a time before paper money or bank notes. If you wanted to pick and move from one town to another, how would you transfer all of your money there? It would be really heavy to fill a trunk with copper pieces, and so would it attract a lot of unwanted attention. 

What people would do is purchase a fancy ring with a big gemstone in it and in exchange you give everything you weren't going to take with you. When they reach their new town, they can then sell that ring for the money they might need in this new place. 

So rings didn't have to do anything; their value is being a very condensed form of wealth. It is in their portability and simplicity that we can see its value. 

With that in mind, I thought to the wedding ring, or more so the engagement ring. These things are expensive. And some people feel like the more expensive it is, the more it means. Originally, they were a form of payment or dowry. The giver of the ring showed how much he cared for and valued the woman by offering this attractive and valuable ring to her. As times change, some people care about the exchange rate of the ring, but others care more about the story of it (did it belong to somebody important? was it purchased together on a special day?)

In all cases, one simple thing becomes clear about rings: the value of rings is based on what it represent, not what it does. And being able to walk around with an item of great value wrapped around your finger at all times is admittedly pretty awesome. 

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Normal vs. Special

I've heard it said that people spend their childhood wishing they were normal and their adulthood wishing they were special. This isn't always completely correct though. Sometimes the opposite happens. Sometimes the change in either direction never occurs. What really matters here is the principle behind it.

People who are special feel isolated. They cannot connect with others because they don't have a common ground or a common means of communication. Feeling alone is counter to the social needs of humanity.

The problem is that people who are normal feel boring. We generally prize rarity. The more common something is, the less valuable it becomes. So if you are perfectly normal, you are basically worthless. You are in interchangeable cog in the mechanism of life.

What makes this the worst is that these two feelings are diametrically opposed. Being normal makes you not special. Being special makes you not normal. Ultimately, one must realize where in the spectrum they lie, where they want to be, and must find happiness where they end up.

File this one under "just as true for authors as it is for their characters".

Friday, May 24, 2013

On Smizmars

In the tv show Futurama, one of the alien races has a radically different biology - when they feel strong feelings of love, their skin becomes receptive to genetic material, which allows them to become pregnant.

Along with this unique biology comes a unique social structure. The aliens can potentially become pregnant by anyone when they are receptive. However, what matters to them is the person who inspired the feelings of love in the first place. That person is called a "smizmar".

This becomes a fascinating construct to me. It puts emotions on a far higher level than genetics. It understands that not everything works out as it should, but that social evolution can smooth out the mistakes of physical evolution. 

This concept that the person who inspires the feelings of love is the real parent and partner is novel enough to try exploring. What would you discover? Would it stop episodes of Jerry Springer from being made, or would the whole system fall apart due to human jealousy?

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Thinly Veiled Biography

When I was in college, it was often difficult to read and review my classmates' fiction writing. The biggest problem I had was that it wasn't really fiction. They were writing about themselves and their lives, as they were living it right at that point of time, and they were giving different names to the characters.

I know that when the former runner writes a story about a woman who shattered her knee in the steeplechase, that this is a thinly veiled biography. It became more awkward to me once I noticed this, because I would read the work of my classmates who I didn't know too well, and I suddenly got a huge dose of their life story.

Back then, I really took pride in writing fiction that had nothing to do with my life. I felt like it proved me a better writer or a more creative person for being able to leave my life and my writing separate (and honestly, part of me still feels that way).

Now that I have more experience and knowledge, I know that there is nothing inherently wrong or bad about thinly veiled biographies. For some people, it's an easy way to start a creative work. For others, it's a way to explore their own lives and feelings in a safe environment, and that is wonderful.

If you are writing a thinly-veiled biography and you intend to share it with others, that is totally fine, too. There is one catch, though: it still has to be done well. Even if a story is based on yourself, it is still a story. It needs to be entertaining. It ought to provoke thoughts or feelings in your audience. And when your audience is more than you, you need to be conscious of that.

As a final thought, thinly veiled biographies are a double-edged sword of sorts. On the one hand, if people know that you are writing about yourself, it can create an instant connection with your characters. They know who is who in real life, and you don't have to go into as much depth for people to understand. On the other hand, any time you diverge from real life or talk about something that people don't know, they may just assume that it is all true, which could be disastrous. Keep in mind, on both hands, though, that this is only true for your readers that actually know you. Anyone who doesn't know my life story doesn't know fiction from biography anyway.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

20 Seconds Of Courage

Change always happens in an instant. What takes a long time is getting ready for a change (or getting used to a change). Ultimately, though, change is when things are different, and on the simplest level, as soon as things are not the same, change has occurred.

I like to think of people making a conscious decision to make changes in life (as opposed to having changes thrust upon them), and I like to think that when people decide to make a change, they do it with complete confidence that it is the right thing to do.

In reality, most people are not confident when they make a change. Change is scary. It's unpredictable. Things might happen as you planned, or they might end up completely different, or nothing may actually change at all. We simply don't know.

More often than not, change is done when people have 20 seconds of courage. That is how long it takes to have the thought to make a decision, to question if it is the thing to do, to convince yourself to do it regardless, and to pull the trigger. With 20 seconds of courage, a great many things can happen; entire lives can change forever.

Explore a character whose decisions are not completely confident, but instead summons 20 seconds of courage. How do they feel about it? Was it enjoyable or miserable? Do they want to do it again? How do they deal with the results from the decision?

People Are Lazy When They Don't Care

I was having an argument with a friend of mine about why people suck so hard. My argument was that people simply don't care about you. I said that whenever you try to reach out to other people, they hear your words and all they think about is themselves and their lives and their experiences, so all they end up doing is acknowledging that your life sucks or talking about themselves.

My friend argued that most people do care, but are incredibly lazy. Her example is that on Facebook, it is made so exceptionally easy to wish somebody a happy birthday (and you don't even have to actually remember when it is), that they are willing to put in the most minimal effort to be kind.

We reached an impasse at that point. We both had correct examples, so neither of us was wrong. Later on, much after the argument was over, I realized that we were both right; the truth was in the middle. People are lazy and they don't care. More than that, though, people are lazy when they don't care.

I think back to my times in college, and I have seen people fervently studying certain subjects and desperately avoiding others. In this quest for knowledge, the same person might be active in one and lazy in another. The decider, then, is interest. The subjects they want to learn about, they do. The subjects that bore them, they ignore.

This is actually a very important principle to understand about people. Passion determines energy and enthusiasm. The surest way to know how much somebody is willing to do is to see how badly they want to accomplish it (or how badly they want to avoid the consequences of failure, which I think is what drives most college students these days).

Monday, May 20, 2013


What people consider possible or impossible is not always correct. But, we must also accept that certain things are impossible. 

For example, no matter how charming or charismatic you are, you cannot convince a door that it's not a door. This is simply impossible. 

However, if somebody tells you that you can't write a story about a given subject or with a particular hook, then tell them "just watch me."

Most problems can be solved. Most questions have answers. It is not always easy to see, especially if it is just sprung on you. 

But don't let fear or panic cause you to run away. All that lays that way is mediocrity at best. Have determination. Of you want it badly enough, make it happen. Don't run away scared.  Don't make excuses. Just keep working at it. You will find an or determine it's actually impossible. But until you can prove its impossible, you simply need more determination. 

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Observes Can Still Be Doers

Every now and then, I come across a writer who says "I'm an observer." This sentence is also uttered by wallflowers and other woefully shy people. But ultimately, for whatever you claim it, it's bunk. 

Everybody is an observer to some degree we all see the world around us, learn about new people and things, and record that information in some form or another. 

But even if you consider yourself a very careful or deep observer, it still is no excuse not to have your own life experiences. 

Remember that it can be ok to observe yourself. Just make sure you still observe the whole picture and not just the limited scope of your own personal perspective. 

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Romance Is Relative

There are certain symbols and gifts and phrases that are standard use for describing romance. In general, there's nothing wrong with them. They make for widely known, simple ways to describe this universal feeling. 

The problem with them is that they are boring. Everybody may like flowers and chocolate, but if everybody expresses romance the same way, why bother talking about the same thing over and over again?

The other issue is that, as it turns out, not everybody likes flowers and chocolate. I am amazed at the number of women I have met who detest flowers and chocolate as gifts, some specifically because it is so cliched and uninspired. 

When putting your characters in romantic situations, realize that not everybody finds the same things romantic. So what do your characters specifically like? What things or activities are special or have a poignant meaning to them? What could a love interest do that would truly show an understanding and fondness for that character?

If you can answer those questions, you will be ready for some sweet, steamy romance. 

Friday, May 17, 2013

Let Life Distract You

I almost forgot to write my post tonight because I was so distracted by loving life. It happened to pop in my head, which is why it is getting done, but if I had missed it, that would have been ok. 

If I miss a night, I'll make it up, so it all evens out. But more importantly, it meant that I was doing something. I was having experiences. I was thinking thoughts. I was gaining new stories to write about. 

Let life distract you. Especially if you feel stuck. When you have a writer's block, distractions and time will erode it away. 

That said, writers are stereotypically aloof or easily distracted, and sometimes you do need that bit of discipline to keep yourself moving forward.

Not all distractions are equal. Let useful distractions happen without guilt, and avoid the unproductive ones as best as you can. 

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Compartmentalized Lives

Imagine a political activist. This character starts and leads rallies of people demanding change from those with the power to do it. This character must be very strong and very passionate about activism. But ultimately, he must care about more than just that. 

What does he do when the rally ends? Who does he go home to? Who does he drink with? Is he in love? Does he play music? Does he watch Japanese horror movies?

The sign of a one-dimensional (a.k.a. bad/boring) character is that they only do, think about, and talk about one thing. What makes a character interesting is being multifaceted. People have many interests, many desires. In any given day, they could be doing several different activities. 

Remember to make multifaceted characters. It makes for more believable and more approachable people. It also may inspire on connections you may be able to make. Like, I'd a guy sells insurance for a living, but he loves knitting, how might those things blend together in his life?

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Take Care Of Your Tools

I hate sharing office space with people. I hate it for a lot of reasons, but one major one is that nobody takes care of their supplies. Nobody puts on pen caps or unclicks them. They also put them in up side down, which makes the ink run away from the tip. People put pencils away tip down, which ruins the point. They don't empty pencil sharpeners, and then complain that they don't work right anymore.

For anyone who thinks I'm being prissy about this, let me put it this way. A coworker was cleaning out her space and found 4 very old pens.  Of them, 3 had no cap, and 1 had a cap. The ones with no cap were completely dead, but the one with the cap was still usable. The point is that if you take care of your tools, they last longer and they remain at the height of their effectiveness longer.

As frustrating as it is when amateurs think they need professional tools, it is significantly more frustrating when people have high quality tools, and then treat them like crap. No, you should not expect that any tool will last forever, but get as much longevity as you can from what you have. That's the whole point of getting nice things, and they come with the responsibility of taking care of them.

The Value Of Tools

Whatever interest you have, there will be tools necessary to do it. Whether it be woodworking, painting, cooking, or writing, there are a wide array of tools available, ranging from very basic, to very luxurious. There will be student models and professional models, which will have great differences in qualities.

There are three very important lessons to learn when it comes to tools:
1. Professional quality tools allow you to do your craft more easily and with higher quality.
2. Professional quality tools are not needed to do professional quality work.
3. Professional quality tools will not make up for amateur ability.

I am a writer, both in digital and analog formats, so my tools include pen/pencil, paper/notebooks, word processors, and keyboards/input devices (so don't think that because you write on your computer, you are not using tools). I may not consider myself a connoisseur of these things, but I have tested out a number of them.

I have found my favorite pens, and I have found my favorite notebooks. For me, the best pen is one that writes in a thick, solid line, doesn't thin out as I write, and doesn't spill so much ink out that it smears or bleeds through. For notebooks, I need one that is small enough to fit in my pocket without bugging me, but still be able to open wide enough to comfortably write on, and be durable enough to be jostled around constantly and not fall apart. For full size notebooks, it needs to also be very durable, and it needs to be able to open up flat so I can leave it open and write from edge to edge on the page. I've tried a lot of pens and a lot of notebooks out over the years, and when I'm using my favorites, it is an absolute joy to write.

I really hate cheap Bic pens. Nothing against the Bic company specifically, but they are kind of iconic as the cheap ball point pen that doesn't really write well. Similarly, Mead spiral notebooks are simply not meant to last. I have never been able to fill up a full spiral notebook because they wear out and fall apart well before I ever get that far. However, I have used many spiral notebooks and cheap pens in my life. I don't need my high quality tools to write down my words. The most basic tools work fine so long as they work at all.

Most importantly, I'm a good writer. The quality of the lines used to make my letters does not affect the quality of the words they make. If I am a terrible writer, there is no amount of equipment that would make me a better writer. On a similar note, my handwriting is atrocious. It is legible, which makes it better than many, but nobody looks at it and says "that's really nice-looking." No matter how fine of writing implements I use, they will not make my handwriting pretty.

Very often, I see beginners, who are looking up to the professionals in any given field, and the first thing they ask is which equipment they should buy. Usually, they simply want to use whatever their idol uses. But in reality, they need to develop their skills. Use basic tools, both for being cheaper and usually simpler, and learn the basics with them. When you reach the point that you are aware of the limitations of your basic tools, you will be ready to step up.

Simply put: Tools do matter, but you matter more.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Literature Examines Philosophy

When I posted my previous blog, I told people, "This is why we need to study literature." I agree with it, but it got me thinking. Ultimately, literature examines philosophy.

Philosophy, for the record, is a belief or collection of beliefs that determine how things ought to work (at least, that's what I mean when I say it).

Simple stories, like fairy tales, examine philosophy. In general, they say that greedy people are punished and selfless people are rewarded. They say that intelligence is more valuable than strength. They say that lying is bad and honesty is good.

Complex stories are ones that do not have clearly defined goods and bads. They explore not what is definitely good, but what an individual thinks is good. And this is where literature comes in. It is a tool that we have to look at fictional stories and see the different morals that people can have, and then exploring ourselves and seeing which of those beliefs resonates with us.

If you see a character and you think he's just the most reprehensible guy ever, it's a clear sign that you disagree with his beliefs. But does it mean that they're wrong? Ask other people how they feel about the character. You might find somebody who sympathizes with him. And from here, your horizons have the chance to open up. You can see that the world is a more complicated place, full of uncertainty, and that just because you have one view of the world does not make it the only view of the world.

That's not always an easy lesson to learn, but that is precisely why we must study literature: so we can learn that lesson sooner.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Life Through A Literary Lens

So, I previously have said that for us to see something as literature, there needs to be layers. There is a connection between related ideas or experiences or items. What one character thinks about pets and what another character thinks about pets are conflicting thoughts, beliefs, philosophies, and those same deeper principles reveal themselves in different ways.

From here, you have the beginning of a literary lens: a way to view stories so that you can see and explore the deeper layers.

Once you have that literary lens and you've developed it a bit, start looking around yourself. In real life, the same kinds of things happen. Different people hold different beliefs and philosophies, which affect what they think, say, and do. Where are the common themes for you to explore?

Do your friends or family have pets? Why do they have them? Companionship? Protection? Entertainment? To feel like a parent without the full responsibility of raising a child?

How does a person's view of the role or purpose of a pet affect what pets they have and how they are treated? Does it affect other parts of their lives, like how they treat friends or coworkers? In what areas of their lives is this belief not kept, and why is that?

The literary lens can be used for any subject, like smoking or fashion or love. Just because we do it for characters in stories does not mean it cannot also be used for life. (It's just usually not as clean and purposeful).

The beauty of the literary lens is that it can not only allow us to understand other people better, but it allows us to understand ourselves. How do we feel about any of those subjects? How are we affected by our beliefs? Where else does it come up in our lives. We can understand ourselves by studying those around us.

All you have to do is point that literary lens at life, and at yourself.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Literature Is About Layers

Not every story is regarded as literature. If you hear a story about that time I almost got a speeding ticket, but the cop pulled over the cat next to me instead, it is at best a good story. It has a set-up, delivers an expectation, and then throws in a twist. It is a classic narrative, but nobody would consider it literature (not even if it was written down).

When I think about literature, there is a common theme they all share: Some subject or element will affect all of the characters, and it will affect them differently. 

One element might be smoking. So a story may not be about cigarettes in any way, but some characters might be smoking. One might do it for the nicotine rush. One might do it to look cool. One might do it to die faster. One might reject smoking because of just not caring enough to start. 

In literature, smoking can be a way to examine characters. They all do it in some fashion and it speaks to who they are and what they think about life. Smoking isn't just something people do, it is a tool to peel away the layers of the characters in literature. 

This same principle can be applied to anything, from sports to nihilistic philosophers to gumballs. 

Ultimately, literature is about layers. Just remember that it isn't about being pretentious. It's not about being flowery. You ALWAYS need to tell a good story. But literature needs more. It needs things to be connected on a deep level. It needs to have meaning, as well as being entertaining. If you can pull it off, then your story will be worthy of the title of literature. 

Describe Yellow To A Blind Person

I work at the front desk of a music school, and I was chatting with one of the students who was waiting for his lesson. He was describing one of his homework assignments. It was to describe the color yellow to a blind person.

I was instantly disgusted. On top of being incredibly stupid (on the order of trying to explain quantum mechanics to a turtle), it was offensive to think that a color can be explained to people who have never seen.

As if it wasn't already dumb enough, the assignment goes out of its way to say that you can't use objects that are yellow already like the sun or a school bus. 

That said, there is one interesting from this assignment: it allows us to study how our culture values the color. Ask yourself what yellow feels like , how it smells or tastes like. These are questions which tell you about your culture, but they do not actually describe the color itself. They are based on knowing the color already. 

At the end of the day, this is a concept (describing a color) which is worth some merit, but to give as a reason "to teach the blind" is to sully the exercise with contempt. 

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Jack Of All Trades

The jack of all trades is a so much more common phrase than "bardic knowledge", that nobody thinks the two are different. Even I sometimes struggle to keep the two straight. 

A jack of all trades knows a little about a lot of subjects, but their specific knowledge is how to do stuff. Carpentry, metal working, mining,lock picking, cooking, playing music, a jack of all trades might be able to do all of those things. 

Of course, the jack of all trades is master of none. They may be able to do much, but they simply aren't the best at any of them. 

Historically speaking, a jack is a real thing. They were also known as knaves. The term meant a boy or male servant, but was eventually broadened over time to be more synonymous with a peasant or a rogue. Therefore, if you were a guy who wandered from town to town, picking up odd jobs, and learning how to do this and that to get by, then you were a jack of all trades. 

The jack of all trades is similarly useful in stories to the bard, though they are more likely to be the main protagonist than the bard is.

This is a fun character to work with. You never know what they might be able to do, so it's exciting. The two major things to make sure is that these characters can't do literally anything (nobody has really done it all), and that they aren't the best at what they do (because that would just be unfair). Remember that everybody fails sometimes. It is that risk of failure that makes success exciting.

The jack of all trades has an increased chance of being able to help in a situation, but less likely to succeed at it. They still balance out, so it's ok, but it keeps you interested in what works and what doesn't, which keeps you turning the pages. 

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Bardic Knowledge

Have you ever met those people that always seem to know a little bit about every subject you ever bring up? They're not necessarily super geniuses about it, but they could hold down a basic conversation on anything from particle physics to wood working to pop music stars. Even the most obscure subjects, like medieval European romance literature, they know one or two famous authors' names. 

This is what we call bardic knowledge, and that is one of my favorite phrases. It comes from the old days, when bards were a thing. They were traveling minstrels, singing songs of great heroes and epic adventures.

As a bard, traveling from town to town, they talked with everybody who would listen. But they also heard what others had to say. Bards were charismatic characters and can coax others to tell much. As a result, they knew who was important in every town. They understood politics on both a large and small scale. The same is true for mercantilism and religion and science and anything else that was worth remembering. 

Bards are explicitly not experts. Except for their skills in talking and singing, they generally have only cursory exposure to things. This bardic knowledge was usually quite enough, though to get out of a sticky situation when one arises (knowing what berries aren't poisonous, which politician's name to drop, which ingredients can be mixed to make a healing salve). 

These people more often are supporting characters; they have something to pull out of their hat to save the day, but they are so aloof that they are going on the adventure for laughs and experiences to sing about. Still, they are fun to have around, and a great way to introduce random knowledge or facts. 

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Major Charlie Shea - The Archetype

Major Charlie Shea, as I described yesterday, is an interesting character with all his quirks and foibles. But what I was most interested by was the archetype that he represents.

Major Charlie is a bystander. In a world with heroes seeking adventure, he was a peasant that paid no mind.

He is the kind of character that stories aren't written about.

To spend pages talking about Major Charlie would waste a reader's time. He has nothing to do with the actual story. The closest he comes is running into the main characters by happenstance, and not even realizing they are main characters.

And yet, there is still something compelling about him. Maybe it's because he is just a bystander. His view on the world and its events is far different. It's normal. It's realistic. It's human. And although the audience may see the bystander archetype as simple-minded or foolish or ignorant, we are more likely to end up in that position than any other.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Major Charlie Shea - The Character

In one of the role playing games I ran, one of my friends made a character named Major Charlie Shea. He was a middle-aged man, pretty simple, and pretty humble. He had been diagnosed with cancer, but was at the stage of acceptance. For him, he knew he didn't have much time left, but he was about to start treatment and he wanted to learn what he could about the human body; it gave him comfort.

Major Charlie was an interesting to character to work with. In a sense, he was a reluctant hero. He didn't act foolhardy and wasn't unnecessarily brave. If things didn't involve him, he didn't stick his nose in it. In my friend's words, "Major Charlie wasn't going to find the story. The story had to find Major Charlie."

Now, I was telling a horror game that involved cults and eldritch abominations and a very motley crew trying to stop them. In the end of the story, the cultists were stopped, and every single player died.

Actually, everybody died except for Major Charlie. And that's because he wasn't present for the final showdown. He was walking to his house. Major Charlie was such a reluctant hero that he never answered the call to action. Nothing for him was serious enough for him to notice or care. And since he wasn't looking for trouble, he didn't find any.

I kind of liked Major Charlie. He amused me in the sense that he was the only rational person in the lot, and he just so happened to be the only person who lived through the game.

I hope I get to see more of him in the future.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Star-Crossed Lovers

Romeo & Juliet is not my favorite story. I find it not the most compelling romance, with not the most compelling characters, but it does have one strong aspect that I appreciate: It introduced me to the phrase "star-crossed lovers".

I vehemently despise stories where characters struggle with problems of their own making. For example, when a woman is afraid that her husband is cheating on her, and rather than just talk to him, she follows him for one afternoon, and makes a bunch of half-assed assumptions based on her observations. And then rather than confront him or simply leave him, she decides to have an affair with his best friend. And then she finds out that her assumptions were wrong, and has to deal with the guilt and misery which she brought upon herself by acting like a child.

The idea of star-crossed lovers comes from astrology. If your star sign and another person's signs are in alignment, you will get along well, and if they are not in alignment, then you will not get along. With Romeo and Juliet, their signs are crossed, which means that they are in alignment (hence their passionate love), but something is interfering with it working out properly (namely, their respective families).

Now, arguably, Romeo & Juliet does have a certain amount of tragedy that comes from miscommunication or a lack of confidence, but by and large, the greatest obstacles to their romance were everything outside of the two lovers.

In this respect, it is an incredibly compelling story. It addresses one of the harshest realities imaginable: even if you do everything right, even if you are a good person and doing the best possible thing, you can still get thoroughly screwed over.

That is a concept which can be viewed in many lenses. We can ask a number of questions about it, like "Are you sure that's true?" "Why should we even bother trying?" "What do we do after we get screwed over?" "Who exactly is screwing us?"

To ask those questions through our stories, we may find ourselves coming up with quite different answers to all of those questions. We may also find deeper questions to ask, as well.

Ultimately, though, these are the more important stories to tell. They are the ones we need to contemplate and address. Because if fate simultaneously sets us up and knocks us down, the human mind cannot and will not accept that. But if fate has nothing to do with these circumstances, then there ought to be a way to overcome those obstacles. Is there always a way, though?

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Non-Philosophical Narrators

I find it strange when a protagonist is an awkward, shy kid who stumbles over their words, yet when they narrate, they are unerringly eloquent and deeply philosophical. It's like characters aren't allowed to narrate their own story unless they're constantly reflecting.

Now, I perfectly well understand that these kinds of people do exist. I know that some people are uncomfortable talking around others, but are constantly looking around, taking it all in, and thinking deep questions. I also know that these people easily find themselves becoming authors, so they write what they know (themselves). But I'm also pretty certain that other kinds of people exist, too.

The impulsive kinds of people exist. The shallow thinkers exist. I've met plenty of people who either exclusively live in the moment or simply don't have enough brain cells to get particularly existential.

I want some non-philosophical narrators. I want to read a story where the main character stares into space and nothing happens, where he does drugs and says that it was awesome or messed up, but doesn't paint a vivid picture when describing it. I want a narrator who tells you all the stuff that happens, but isn't searching for meaning or connecting dots, just living and narrating.

It could end up being terrible. But I still think it would be worth trying, if nothing else, simply because it's different.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Increasing Piles Of Digital Files

I still believe in using paper and electronic media in writing. Paper allows me to feel my nascent ideas and develop them organically. Digital allows me to write down my ideas as quickly as they come to my mind.

Both of them have detractions, too. Aside from the fact that paper and computer can't do what the other succeeds at, they also have frustrations.

Paper takes up space. The more you write down, the more physical space you need to store it all. This problem, though, is not exclusive to paper.

Digital files take up space. Granted, in these days, you don't usually have to worry about running out of space, but you do need to be organized. If you use documents the way you use scraps of paper, writing down notes or ideas as they come to you, and saving them for another time, you will be overrun with them.

My computer and my phone are being filled with increasing piles of digital files. When it gets to be too much, I consolidate the similar ideas and give each collection a home. I can breathe deeper and sleep better once the clutter is taken care of, and this is just as true of electronic formats as it is for physical ones.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Long Form Stories

Following from my previous post on short form stories, the long form story is basically the exact opposite. They are stories which make you care about the characters and locations involved.

Despite having a preference for writing short form stories, I appreciate the long form. When I read a good novel, I feel like I'm there. I'm not analyzing motives and symbols and such; I'm sitting around with the characters, watching everything happen. I share their plans and run with them in fields. I may not know who they are inside and out, but I know they are real people.

When you've spent 133 pages getting to know and meet and coming to really love a character, you want to weep when they die. You feel the same sadness at their funeral as the characters do, and you wish as much as they do that it didn't happen.

Long form stories also allow you to create lore. With so much time and so many experiences that happen, the readers can get a feel for how large an area the whole story takes place in, how many players are really involved, and how everything that happens can affect everything else.

The deepness you can achieve in getting to know characters and the places they live in allows a richness in long form stories that you simply cannot achieve in 5 pages. Ultimately, it is up to you to decide which style is more useful for conveying to the audience what you are wanting to say.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Short Form Stories

I finally have been able to put into words the difference between short form and long form stories. To start with definitions, I will call a short-form story anything that is five pages or less. Of course, there are the usual exceptions (e.g. what about 6- or 7-page stories?), but use five pages as a benchmark.

Now, short stories tend to work great for comedy. We see comic strips, sketch comedy, 30-minute sitcoms as opposed to 60-minute dramas. Short form just lends itself to humor, but why?

The kinds of comedy in short stories are situational. It's based on the premise created at the beginning. A short story about a translator for a courthouse who mistranslates what people say is funny, regardless of who these people are. Again, the situation is comical; the premise is comical.

Short form stories do not need to be funny, though. You could have a very tragic story about a man going to his son's funeral. You could have the whole story not even go into depth about who these people are or what happened. The story will be tragic because the situation is tragic.

From here, the pattern emerges. Short form stories are stories about a premise, not a person. Characters will be involved, but we do not probe their psyche, nor study their life story. Because of the limited space we have, we must jump straight into the story and trust that people will relate to it because the experience is relatable.

I want to be clear that this is not a judgement of short form stories. I actually love short stories and more often than not, it's what I write. I like situations. When I read them, I like filling in the gaps based on context clues and letting my imagination try to answer the rest of my questions. I love jumping into the experience and just riding that wave.

However, it is simply a different experience from long form storytelling. If you find yourself with an idea for a story and not being sure how long it should be, ask yourself if the story is about the character or the situation. Then you will have the beginning of your answer.