Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Exchanging Bad Habits

Many stories revolve around the idea of redemption. Characters have some bad habit and they break themselves of the addiction. In real life, though people often end up exchanging one bad habit for another. 

A classic example is people who quit smoking, but end up gaining weight because they start overeating. This happened because the addiction was more than the nicotine of the cigarettes. It was the oral fixation. It was having something to hold on to, to raise to the mouth and wrap their lips around. Without the cigarettes, food is a common substitute to fulfill these unconscious desires. 

What makes this interesting to me is the idea that bad habits are actually deeper than we think. The addictions we have come from a deeper need we are trying to satisfy. Stopping the bad habit doesn't fix the problem; it just creates a vacuum for some other bad habit to fill. 

This makes for more interesting redemption stories, as well as making for good character development. People feel like they meet a character at their true core when they see the root of their unhappiness that has led to a self-destructive life. And it all starts from seeing them exchanging bad habits and realizing there is something deeper at at there. 


I like to use the word "arguably" when I make statements. More specifically, it's when I make statements that I know people would argue with me about. 

The word really means that the statement can be argued to be true (which also means that it could be argued to be false). I personally like to use it for two situations. One is to prevent an argument from starting by acknowledging that the statement is controversial. The other is to set up an argument for why the statement could be true. 

It's a handy tool to prevent a situation from getting out of hand. It also sounds pretty good and somehow makes statements sound classier or more intelligent. If you don't use it, try it out. It might suit you nicely. 

Monday, July 29, 2013

What Won't You Do?

Arguably, the most important thing to know about a character is what they won't do. Anything not on the list is entirely reasonable, and anything on the list is exceedingly unlikely. 

Stories often involve people and their limits. What are their personal rules? What are their morals? How did they come up? Why do they keep them? How has that line affected their lives?

The thing to remember with these rules, though, is that they can be broken. Sometimes a story will show how the most extreme circumstances can cause a person to go over the edge. These do have to be quite extraordinary though. Otherwise it is a cheap twist that more looks to break a character than to grow it. 

Adjusting To New Circumstances

If there's one thing that humans are great at, it's adjusting to new circumstances. And if there's one thing that humans are terrible at, it's adjusting to new circumstances instantly. 

People always need time to adjust to new things. Our brains are hard wired to find comfort in patterns, so when our very consistent patterns change, our brains tend to freak out. 

Often, people feel like they aren't themselves during these periods of transition. We lose sense of reality during these shifts and sometimes change as drastically as our circumstances. 

Stories generally follow people during these times of their lives. They are incredibly exciting simply due to the nature of the events going on, plus there is an added bonus that we are learning about characters at the same time that they are learning about themselves. 

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Absolutes Tend Not To Exist

A long time ago, a friend of mine made a compelling case to me that altruism cannot exist in our world. The short version is that, since altruism is the idea of doing good things without the desire for reward, but all good things come with either a specified reward, fame, or even just the feeling of self-satisfaction you get for doing anonymous deeds, then nobody really does good without expecting a reward.

I have admittedly argued both sides, that altruism can exist or that it can't, but I prefer to believe that it is impossible. Altruism is like the embodiment of pure good, so if that can't exist, then pure evil can't exist, either.

The other reason I think altruism isn't possible is that, in my experiences, absolutes tend not to exist. The biggest jerk still has some redeeming qualities. The biggest saint has some skeletons in their closet. It's the nature of life, especially in humanity, that absolutes are truly found in any situation.

This may complicate those 1-dimensional fairy tales we have grown up to know and love, but it also allows for more interesting stories by exploring the depths of those complications. And that is what makes life more interesting and worth writing about, to me.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Going vs. Coming

Do we go home or do we come home? Which is the proper word to use? In this case, it feels like a distinction that's been lost. 

A simple way to think about them is when they are given as commands. When somebody tells you to go home, then you are being told to leave that person. When you're told to come home, the person is telling you to join them. 

It's easy to lose track of these terms because they are so similar. They both involve leaving the area you are and traveling to another.

I think another reason is that we end up using both words when talking about ourselves. For example, a person might say, "I'm going to go and come home." This is two thoughts. The "go" means leaving the area and the "come" means returning to a known place. 

Knowing the distinction between these two gives you another tool to use. It also makes you look smarter to those who know the difference. 

On Home

Many authors have written about the subject and idea of home. While I don't know that I will add anything new to the subject, I will put my voice into the conversation nonetheless.

Home is a very powerful concept. It is generally the place where one can relax and find respite. It is where they feel safe and secure. It is where all of the masks come off and the true self can come out.

There are many ideas for what and where home is, though. Some believe that it is the place where you were born. Some think it is where you grew up (which is not always the same). Others believe it is wherever you are living. Some think it is where you want to live.

We have sayings like "home is where the heart is", which lends itself to the idea of that place of joy and relaxation. But we also say "you can't go home again", which makes us think of home as a place of childhood innocence (so once you've lost your childhood or your innocence, you cannot return).

Home is usually a fixed location, but stories of wanderers and rogues often describe them as being homeless (because they don't own property that they live in), but also having the world as their home.

One's idea of home also depends on how we think of it. When home is a fixed location, when it is where you live, then home is not necessarily happy. When home is wherever you find joy, then it could fluctuate where it is.  When home is connected to a person, then it is wherever that person happens to be.

Again, there are countless voices already speaking of home, and so very many thoughts about what it even is. I encourage you to consider it yourself. Explore your own thoughts, find the answer that works for you, and add your voice to the conversation. Also, consider how the characters you create think about home and how it affects them.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Letters Suck At Representing Sound

I love the English language. I do. I am usually the first one to tout its power and success. However, it is far from perfect. It has a number of issues, and anybody who ignores or denies English's problems is delusional.

What I really hate is when people say that English is easier to read than Chinese because the letters tell you how to pronounce words. No they don't. Not consistently. 

There are 26 letters in the alphabet. Many letters, if not all, have multiple pronunciations. Some letters have the same pronunciation. Some letters when placed together completely make a new sound. Some letters change pronunciation even when another letter is put in the word not even next to each other.

Sometimes two words with different spelling are pronounced exactly the same. Sometimes words can be spelled the same and pronounced differently. 

Simply put, letters suck at representing sound. The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is much better at handling sounds with characters, but we don't use it (and it also isn't perfect).

The only way to know how a word is pronounced is to be told how. Once you know enough rules of letters and diphthongs and such, you can sound out many words, but there will always be more that aren't spoken the way it looks and you will need to be taught how it's said. 

Always remember that spoken language came first. Written language is an approximation, and it will always be an approximation of spoken language. 

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Writing Accents

Accents are a funny thing. Everybody has one, but nobody thinks they have one. Everybody sounds normal to themselves. And yet, when we hear somebody who comes from a different area, the difference in their speech is instantly noticeable. Authors often show off these accents in their writing to give characters more life.

When you have a Russian accent, for example, certain vowels are pronounced differently. A great way to do that is to write the word "it" as "eet". By doing this, we see that the spelling is not actually a real word, and in the context of a sentence, we understand what word is trying to be spoken. Because most people have heard a Russian accent (even if a fake one), they can hear in their mind the accent being spoken.

The trick with writing accents is to give it a light touch. Do it for one or two words. Do it in a way that doesn't confuse the reader (like using "eet" instead of "eat"). You only need to create the idea in the reader's head, and then it perpetuates itself. Once they know what ethnicity a character is and what their accent sounds like, they will use it when they read it. If you overdo an accent, it just gets confusing and slows down your story. Unless the point is that a character's accent is impenetrable, avoid it. And if a character's accent is too thick to understand, it's still better to just say that after you've established it.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Breaking Cycles

My last post on cycles (for now) is about breaking them. With feedback loops, we see that sometimes cycles can break themselves (or the world around them). But cycles can be broken by many other methods.

Part of why I think sustainable cycles are so beautiful is that they are delicate. To have a set-up where the end perfectly meets with the beginning is not easy. It is quite uncommon in general. And, in fact, most outside forces to the system will throw the cycle off.

Stories that are about a cycle (as opposed to stories that merely contain cycles) generally go one of two ways: either the cycle is absolute fate and continues on no matter how much people struggle, or the cycle is a strong, but delicate process, which can and is disrupted by strong, willful people. There are other options, like two different cycles being placed in the same system and seeing them battle each other or merging to form a new supercycle.

Explore ways in which cycles can be broken and ways in which cycles can endure such attempts. The answers to these will depend on the specifics, especially what the cycles are in particular.

Feedback Loops

Until now, I've been talking about sustainable cycles. Cycles can be unsustainable, too. This usually happens due to a positive or negative feedback loop. In short, a feedback loop is where the amount at the end of the process is not the same than the amount at the beginning, so when the process is repeated, the results continue to be different.

Positive feedback loops end up with more than what they started with. The best example is putting a microphone in front of its own amplifier. Whatever goes into the microphone is made louder through the amplifier, which then feeds into the microphone, and gets amplified even louder than before. This cycle can repeat over and over again, getting louder and higher in pitch, until eventually, the speakers explode. There is a maximum capacity the system can handle, beyond which it catastrophically fails.

Negative feedback loops are the opposite, giving you continually less each time. A gross example of this would be survival experts who say to drink your own urine in emergency situations to recover lost water. While this is viable, your body does use the water it takes in for metabolic processes, so there is less water in your urine each time you release it. The end result of all negative feedback loops is that you run out of your power source and the process stops. Though this sounds less interesting than the catastrophic failure of an amplifier blowing out, what makes it interesting is seeing how people react to it, and to see what other forces take over while the negative feedback loop is weakening.

Sustainable Cycles Aren't Always Good

Continuing on the thought of cycles, I had a bit of a revelation recently: sustainable cycles aren't always good. Like most revelations, it seems pretty obvious when you hear it, but it is kind of a big deal. 'Sustainability' is such a positive buzz word. It is just drenched with goodness and sunshine. But being sustainable isn't always positive.

Consider a person who abuses alcohol. He could spend months in a drunken stupor, decide to quit drinking and get back on track, then give up due to the stress and return to the binge drinking. This is a dangerous, sad, and generally negative cycle. At best, you could consider this a neutral process, since it involves an upward and downward process, but I would argue that it is more destructive than anything else, which makes it negative.

In a certain sense, all sustainable cycles are neutral, because everything needs to balance out in order to recreate itself. However, I think that sustainable cycles have net positive, negative, or neutral results. Sustainable cycles aren't always good, but they aren't always bad or neutral either.

On Cycles

I really enjoy stories that are cyclical in nature. I like it when a society works in such a way that the next generation has the same life as the current generation. I like it when time travelers end up creating the situation that they traveled through time to deal with. I like it when the good guy defeats the bad guy, then slowly gets corrupted, becomes the new bad guy, and eventually gets defeated by the new good guy.

I love cycles because I find them beautiful. I think the most awe-inspiring device imaginable is one whose end creates its beginning, or at least one whose end creates the next beginning. Aside from being a sign of exquisite craftsmanship, I also love that cycles tend to be perpetual. The sustainable aspect of repeating circumstances creates this sense of infinity, which makes me feel zen.

My stories almost always involve cycles of some sort. They are so interesting to me (not to mention exciting and enjoyable) that I constantly wish to explore them.

I invite you to explore cycles yourself. They can exist in many different shapes and sizes, all of which add a different flavor to your stories.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Appreciate vs. Enjoy

I was talking with a friend about the TV show Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! My friend hated it; he despised every minute of watching it. I, on the other had, found it pretty funny.

I had said that part of why I like it is that I understood that the show was a parody of public access television. It was cheap looking and poor in quality, with awkward cuts and creepy sketches/acting. In fact, I find it more interesting as a creepy/horror series with some psychedelic aspects to add to the surreal atmosphere.

My friend told me that, although it is an interesting approach to the show, he still didn't like it.

At this point, I understood an important distinction in storytelling. There is a major difference between appreciating something and enjoying it.

Appreciation is like respect. You acknowledge the effort that goes into making something out of nothing. You recognize different ways in which a story can probe the mind or inspire thought within.

Enjoying something, though, is a little different. Enjoyment is more like happiness. A story you enjoy makes you happy (or at least gives you a reaction you desire).

The thing with appreciation is that it is mental/intellectual, but enjoyment is guttural. No matter how much you can appreciate something, it is still possible to not enjoy it. However, enjoying something usually requires some amount of appreciation.

These two concepts are deeply related and quite similar, but they are still very different things. Find which things you appreciate and which ones you enjoy. You might be able to find the patterns and understand how they are for you. Self-discovery almost invariably leads to better writing.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

You Are What You Believe

When I was very young, I remember being taught the lesson that I should make fun of myself before other people can do it because I've already acknowledged whatever they were going to make fun of, thus taking the wind out of their sails. I tried it out because nothing else I'd tried to stop people from bullying me was working, and it must have had enough success (though not 100%) to keep doing.

For most of my years in college, I tried to be many people's friend. And I wanted to understand how people work, why they thought the way they did, and why they chose the actions they did. This allowed me to get very close with people and build some strong connections. It also allowed me to reach out and try to help people when they were in pain. 

One phenomenon which I encountered a great deal was people telling me that they were terrible people. It was incredibly confusing to me because the people who were saying it were people I liked. They were people I had respect for and enjoyed being around. At the time, the only thing I could think to tell them was that they were wrong; they were perfectly fine people. 

What made this phenomenon extra shocking was that people strongly argued with me that they were terrible. They had many reasons, cited examples, even claimed to have witnesses. They put forth tremendous amounts of energy to assure me that they sucked.

The most surprising part, though, was that they convinced me. For one reason or another, even if it was simply attrition, they turned me around and got me to agree that they were awful. 

Over time, I phased out contact with them. I gave them less of my energy and time and interest until at last they were gone. It wasn't a vindictive thing per se. It's just that I didn't want to be friends with terrible people. 

Suddenly, the advice I got all those years ago was wrong. Self-deprecation is dangerous. It may stave off bullies, but it may just backfire and turn people away. 
The true lesson here is that you are what you believe you are. 

If you believe you aren't "a writer", then you aren't. If you think you're a bad writer, then you will end up either being boring or annoying. But if you believe that you are doing better and that it's a good endeavor to pursue, then you will be always improving and happy for it. 

Not just you, but everyone will believe what you believe. This is good since, as a writer, your job is to convince people that what you are saying is real and valuable. However, this sword cuts both ways. Keep telling yourself that you suck, and people will believe that, too. 

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Pay Your Dues And Grab Your Own Victory

I just got a job offer to do grant writing for the Allentown Symphony Association. This job was achieved 100% on my own merits. My resume, writing samples, and interview got me this job.

I say this not to brag, but to inspire. I sort of fell into my job working in the non-profit sector doing administrative work after graduation. It was not at all what I expected to be doing with my degree, and I kinda hated it for a while, sticking around mostly out of desperation. But since I was there, I made the most of what I could. I paid attention when my boss talked about grant writing, I listened and practiced. I learned from old ones in the file cabinet. I was able to do that work under supervision, and because of it managed to develop an incredibly wonderful skill.

Because of being there so long, I now have the coveted 3-5 years experience. I'm trained in a highly desirable skill. I basically paid my dues, and am now working my way up. On top of the job offer, I am also setting up some freelance grant writing/corporate sponsorship gigs as well.

My point here is to always be paying attention. Always let yourself learn. Always try to push yourself into new  and valuable positions. And never be afraid or ashamed to market yourself. Great things can happen when you set yourself up for victory.

The Sword Of Damocles

I've always enjoyed the idea of the Sword of Damocles. It comes from a Greek legend about King Dionysius II of Syracuse. Damocles told the king that he was very fortunate and wished to change places and have the power.  The king agreed, but had a sword suspended over his throne by a single horse hair. Damocles quickly recanted his desire, since he was far too terrified of the sword falling and killing him to enjoy the luxuries.

The moral at its simplest is that when you are under constant fear, you cannot truly enjoy any luxury.  It's a fairly simple concept on face value, but it is so much deeper when you apply it more deeply. Kings and other rulers are constantly in danger. At any given moment, something can make the people restless or furious. Something could make the whole system come crumbling down. Jobs with more responsibilities tend to have greater compensation because the risks are significantly higher for screwing up.

There is also the idea of the Sword representing a looming threat. When people know that the Sword of Damocles is teetering above them, they know that their demise is imminent unless something changes. Anybody who doesn't make things change will eventually feel their downfall.

As a literary technique, it is an amazing tool of suspense. We set up very early on that a catastrophic event will happen. The entirety of the story is waiting for it to happen.

The sword of Damocles can do so much, say so much, mean so much. It is a marvelous metaphor, and it's fun to say. It is wins all around. I invite you to experiment with it.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Playing Catch-Up

I am a bit overwhelmed because of how much I have to do. I took a 5-day vacation in which I separated myself from the world. I then spent the next two days recovering from my vacation. 

Suffice it to say, there is a whole lot I have to catch up on, and Cheff Salad is fairly high on the list. I don't think in all my years doing this that I have ever gotten so many days behind. 

The struggle in playing catch-up is that feeling that I have to make everything back to normal overnight. That is what gets me overwhelmed, especially when there are so many things I'm behind on. 

The one thing that is helping me to get over that fear and to break past this writer's block is by reminding myself that I can take my time to catch up. Instead of doing six blog posts in one day, I can do maybe two blog posts a day for three days, or something like that.

Catching up only requires doing more than usual. Any surplus energy will eventually get you caught up to where you should be. Stressing out over it only serves to burn your energy uselessly. It makes it harder to catch up. 

So do what you can and don't feel bad. Push yourself to do one more thing than usual before putting the pen down, and know that you will be fine before too long. 

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Freedom, Finally

My letter ban finally been dissolved. I am allowed to use all twenty-six letters of the alphabet again. For those of you who were wondering, I wasn't allowed to use the letter F. Hopefully, I actually succeeded in doing it. (A lot of posts were written half unconscious, so I may have slipped here and there.)

This has been an absolutely fascinating experience. Although the letter was chosen randomly, F is one of the best choices to try writing without. It is surprisingly less common than I expected, yet still common enough to be a real thorn in my side. 

What I loved most about this challenge was finding out that I could succeed in it. Any phrase that has an F in it has a synonym or an alternate way to word it such that I can say exactly what I want without being particularly encumbered. 

That said, it still was a challenge. Not being able to say "if" and "of" was a real frustration. Yes, there are ways to get around them, but they always felt strange or awkward. And that was a big thing for me - I felt awkward wording things the way I did. In avoiding F's, I had to write not in my standard voice. I don't know if other people caught it, but I certainly felt not right writing certain sentences. 

I am happy that this lasted for a month, though, because it wasn't until the last week or so that I truly got in the groove. I was used to avoiding the common mistakes. I knew the alternate phrases that avoided F and still sounded good. I didn't reach a point where I instinctively avoided them, but I ran across them far less frequently and I circumvented them quickly.

The one thing that consistently messed with me was how many words have an F-sound but don't use an F. Anything with a 'ph', for example. But also, the phrase "have to" uses an F-sound. The reason it bothered me so much is that I speak everything I write as I write it.  It's usually not vocalized, but I mouth it and do it under my breath. At the very least, I think it in my mind as I type it. I was able to prevent myself from using F by having a mental red flag pop up every time I felt my lips making the sound, but that ended up giving a lot of false positives.

Ultimately, I am very glad to have had this experience. It was an amazing ride and I would truly recommend it as a challenge/exercise to any writing student. I learned a lot, gained insight on myself and my abilities, and have a fun story to tell. I was a little concerned that, when the experiment ended, I would be stuck in that mode, but I can tell by this post that I'll be just fine in that regard.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Everyday vs. Every Day

One common grammar mistake which is almost never mentioned is using the wrong "everyday". Whether you write it as one word or two completely changes the meaning. 

"Everyday" is an adjective. It describes something (usually a situation). Something that is everyday is common. It's so common as to be unremarkable. It is an everyday mistake. 

"Every day" is a periodicity. It describes how regularly something happens. People make this mistake every day. 

Quick example:
I eat lunch every day. 
My turkey sandwich is an everyday lunch. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Everyone Has Parents

It's easy to think about a story's hero. The bastard who wants to rule the world. The badass who saves the day. The supporting characters. The ancillary characters. They are all important in making the events in your story happen. And they all have parents. 

It's strange to think about adults as babies. To see them crying and sleeping and pooping their diapers. But we all were. We all have an origin and they generally involve having parents that conceive and raise us. 

This may never be relevant in your stories, but think about your characters growing up. Protagonists and antagonists alike, they all had this origin. At the very least, it may give you a deeper perspective with respect to who they are and how they are more than a two-dimensional beat-the-villain-and-save-the-day hero. 

Necessary Luxuries

Almost anything can be considered a luxury. Really, whatever is above the bare minimum to live is a luxury to some degree. But there is a certain level we consider modest living, and everything above that is a luxury.

In reality, though, some things are more important than others. People who only use a computer to browse websites and shop have no need to buy a $3000 machine. People whose career is 3D animation should get such a computer. They will be using it every day and will be more productive with the better tool. It may be a luxury in one sense, but it is a necessary luxury. 

Some luxuries are almost universally necessary. We sleep every day and it is our main way to recover and recharge; a great mattress is imperative. The same is true about shoes. We have to wear them and support our body weight. They should not hurt us. People who wear glasses should get great glasses. They are more critical than almost anything else in your day, even your shoes - don't cheap out on them. 

The thing to remind you hear is that nice does not always mean expensive. It means getting a good match. I tried out a $10,000 bed once. It was not nearly as pleasant as the $2,000 bed. My $1.50 pen is nicer than many $90 pens I've used. 

As a writer, you will theoretically be doing enough writing to warrant a necessary luxury. Get notebooks you like, pens and pencils you like, computer programs you like, keyboards you enjoy. There is no point cheaping out and then dealing with something that is not as enjoyable, let alone something that upsets you every single time you use it.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Pyrrhic Victories

Superman is a pretty terrible person. Every week, some jerk is at it again, trying to steal priceless gems or hack the stock market or something generally evil. So Superman rushes in and saves the day. Sounds cool, right? Well on that level, it is. But invariably, there is an extended battle where Superman and the villain take turns tossing each other through buildings and chucking cars at each other. How many people die in these duels? How much property damage accrues? Is it possible that the gems weren't worth as much as the devastation the town experienced?

This is known as a Pyrrhic victory. It's a situation in which, although you won the battle, it came with such heavy casualties that it was more like a loss. It's an interesting concept with a cool name (gotta love those ancient Greek kings). We are so used to happy endings where everything gets wrapped up in a neat little package. And we are so used to sad endings where everything crumbles away. But bittersweet endings are a unique taste.

Standing up to a bully might be worth it to get him to quit picking on you.  Unless the bully breaks your elbow or knocks out your teeth in the process. Then maybe it wasn't really worth it. But some would argue that it was. Pyrrhic victories can be tricky. They are victories, but they are also atrocities. Their value is up to opinion.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Slowing Perceived Time

Time is weird. Sometimes three seconds is an instant, and other times, it's an eternity. In movies, that can be done pretty easily making scenes actually take longer. In writing, you can do a similar thing. 

When somebody is asked a question, the answer could be simple enough, but there is a tension between the ask and the answer. To keep that tension going, don't answer the question right away. What is the person thinking? What can they hear? What do they smell? How hard is their heart beating? Describing any of these potential questions, and more, sustains that tension. 

Things that may only take seconds can seem to take a long time when you sustain the tension. And when you do the, you create that phenomenon we have experienced ourselves. And that is a great technique to master. 

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Sympathetic Vibrations

In music, there is a thing called sympathetic vibrations (it exists outside music, too, but that's where I usually hear it). An example is that a tightened drum will play at a certain pitch, and when you strike a piano at the same pitch, it makes the drum rattle. That rattling is called a sympathetic vibration; things resonate when on the same wavelength.

Sympathetic vibrations are an interesting concept to consider. They seem to imply that everything on the same wavelength resonates with each other. When you take it to a more abstract level, you can see it apply to people.

When we see characters who are so like ourselves, we have an instant connection with them. They're us, but not quite us. Their actions are either things we have done, or things we've wanted to do.

This instant bond is a special one. It either happens or it doesn't. You can't really make it happen. You simply have to know that it can happen, and that when you come across a kindred spirit, you will resonate with each other.

As true with people as with characters and with stories.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

With Au Jus Sauce

Quite possibly the dumbest thing you can hear in a restaurant is a server saying that a sandwich comes "with au jus sauce". The problem here is that "au jus" literally means "with juice". So, to say that something comes "with au jus sauce" means that it comes "with with juice sauce", which is quite possibly one of the least appetizing things you can hear to describe a sandwich.

The major issue here is ignorance. People hear the term over and over again, but the only have a vague idea what it actually means. So eventually, somebody uses it incorrectly, but as long as an authority claims it, and it sounds kinda right, everyone goes along with it. And then you have "with with juice sauce".

I recognize that language is about communication. I know that as long as everybody knows what you're talking about, you're not really doing it wrong. But still, at least try out this exercise: when you try to use any word, try to explain what it means. Any word you can't explain, look it up in a dictionary. The same with words and phrases in other languages, too.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Spelling Out The Plot

I saw the World War Z movie with my mom. Without making this post into a movie review, I want to mention one thing it did. Movies in general have the awesome power to achieve the most classic advice: "show, don't tell". World War Z had a several great scenes where they did just that; something important happened, but you only knew it was important because you were paying attention to what had been said and done and shown earlier.

What annoyed me to no end was that as soon as they showed, they had an immediate scene where they told. Nothing was subtle. Nothing was cerebral. You simply do not need to see the movie twice because there is nothing new to pick up on a second viewing. Anything you didn't catch right away would be explained again very clearly in the next two minutes.

Is spelling out the plot like that a bad thing? Most people would say yes. It dumbs down the story, wastes time, and disrupts the pacing. But people who say that tend to be high brow critics. Summer blockbusters aren't high brow art, though. It isn't meant to be philosophical change lives. It's meant to entertain you, which you pay money to experience.

A movie that can't be understood by its intended audience is a bad movie. So when your intended audience isn't high brow art critics, maybe it isn't such a bad thing to spell out the plot.

This really goes to show how important it is to know which people you want reading or watching your story. It can deeply change how you tell that story. And to authors that don't like changing how they tell their stories, know that your style will attract some and turn others away. It is simply human nature.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Suspense Is Personal Torture

The idea behind suspense is that the audience is given an incomplete picture and is promised that they will be rewarded with the whole thing just by sticking around to the end. Suspense is exciting in its anticipation. You know you're getting a present. All you have to do is wait.

So we have to ask the question: why do people like suspense? There are pretty much two answers here. One is that people enjoy the intensity while waiting to discover the reveal. The other is that people enjoy the release when the big reveal occurs; at last, the picture is complete and all is right with the world.

Both answers are equally valid, but both are equally troubling, too. Those who like the intensity still need the release, and those who like the release need the tension to power it. So no matter which part a person enjoys, they need both parts to truly enjoy suspense.

What is strange to me is that people who enjoy suspense (both in general and as a genre), live in their own purgatory. They want story elements withheld, on purpose, just to agonize over when they will be revealed. No matter how good it may be, either the intensity or the release, it still sounds like a drug to me (and a bit like masochism, too).

Still, I know that some people enjoy the torture. So let them have what they like. As long as they enjoy your suspense, it means you must be doing something right.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Do Old Things In New Ways

I shaved in the shower today. It may not seem like a big deal, and in reality, it largely wasn't. But consider this: I normally shave over the sink. I've shaved over the sink since high school. I used to have in the shower back in high school, but that was pre-beard and pre-balding. That was also a decade ago. 

I have been thinking about trying a shave in the shower recently, and at last, I did it tonight. It was a little strange; many minor things I never think about had changed, like not having a mirror and not using the faucet to rinse the razor. Still, it was an interesting experience and I don't regret it. 

I realize, when thinking about it, that I do the same with writing. I need variety. I need to write in changing locations at changing hours and durations. It prevents mental stagnation. 

Some people do best with a rigid regiment. I do best when I do common things in new ways. As always, try both sides out and pick what works best. It's an individual thing. 

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

There Is No Right Path

Years and years ago, I was very upset with where I was. I thought I chose the wrong college, met the wrong people, that I was not going down the path I was supposed to. But I was stuck on this path, so I had to press on.

Over time, I noticed that I had grown up a lot. I'd become more personable, more social, had great conversations with cool people, and became vastly better at writing. And with that understanding, I started to think I had been on the right path all along.

But there came a day when I looked back at my college experience and I realized that, no matter where I had gone or what I had chosen to pursue, I would have grown up, met cool people, and become amazing at the study I chose.

In reality, there was no "right path". There was only the path I chose and all the paths I might have chosen.

This sometimes paralyzes me when I'm writing. Just like me, my characters could do absolutely anything. How do I choose what they actually do? Is it what they "should" do? What would that even be? I really don't know and I can't write another word (which is totally one way to understand writer's block).

Much like my own experiences, I have to trust that there is no "right" path, not even with my characters, not even in the story I am making up on purpose. Sometimes I simply have to throw them down a path and see what happens. Paths that make me cringe I do over. Paths that make me proud I keep. The one nice thing about prose as opposed to the real world is that I get as many do-overs as I need.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Jumping To Conclusions

I was having a good laugh today by talking about the '60s Batman movie. In it, Batman ends up with the weakest reasons imaginable in determining which villains are at work. He determines the Riddler because by piecing together all the other clues, he says that it seems like a puzzle to solve, so the Riddler must be involved.

Truly, this scene is so ridiculous that the only response is laughter. There is no evidence. There is no motive. There is nothing that remotely comes close to a good reason to suspect the Riddler. Even though Batman is right, he has no right to make the claim. He jumped to the conclusion.

Jumping to conclusions is exactly what it sounds like. People have a puzzle/problem to solve and they skip the evidence part and just jump to a conclusion. They have nothing but a hunch to go on at best. They might as well be using a random number generator.

The shocking thing is how common it is to storytelling. The surest sign that you have a horrendous mystery writer is that characters jump to conclusions and are right (or, at least, usually right). It means the author painted themselves into a corner and didn't know how to get out. It means that, rather than solving a mystery, they just gave a premise and then broke through it.

Don't let characters jump to conclusions. Smart characters are observant and keen. They put clues together, but the clues have to be there to see. Give us some clues to play with and let the character be smart enough to solve it. Otherwise it's a cheap thrill at best and terrible writing at worst.

Don't Reject Knowledge

When I was younger, I reached a point where I thought I knew everything. (I hear it is pretty common amongst children and teens, actually.) Every time people told me something, I already knew it. And when they said things that I didn't agree with, they were wrong.

It was a long time, probably about a decade, until my eyes started opening up again. I spent so many years in my own head. Nobody else mattered, especially when they didn't agree with me. In a sense, my growth is stunted because I wasn't learning over all that time.

I understand now that we must learn as much as we possibly can. Learn all the absolute truths you can. Then learn relative truths. Then learn opinions. Learn as many opinions as you can, and all the worldviews that create those opinions.

Don't reject knowledge. Knowledge IS power. The more you collect, the better you will be at anything and everything you ever do.