Learning! — Beginners are Unoriginal

A big problem that beginning writers (and other content creators) have is that they struggle with the concept of being original. Obviously, it’s really hard to come up with things that are original. There are so many things out there it almost goes without saying that anything you try will have been done before.

But what many aspiring writers don’t realize is that this doesn’t really matter. One of my first blog posts was about how originality is a myth, but really the core concept of being unique boils down to three things.

The first is that the single most important thing for a writer to do is to read and write. It doesn’t matter much what you read and write, in fact. You could spend your days reading magazines and writing a blog (self burn) and it still counts for author brownie points. They may not teach you as much as reading and writing novels, but practice is practice. Don’t waste your time not writing because you’re worried about the words not being poetic or unique. That’s not what matters.

In fact, this leads me to my second point, and that is that originality is far from unattainable. The only thing that isn’t original, in fact, is straight up plagiarism. If I told you to sit down and spend the next few weeks writing The Lord of the Rings from memory, filling in all the gaps with plausible plot points, it would end up being pretty different. I’d bet that if you changed all the names, the only thing that would bear much resemblance to Lord of the Rings would be the plot structure . Certainly the words wouldn’t be the same. Tolkien is practically old enough to be considered literature, for crying out loud. All things considered, I’d wager an experienced writer that took me up on this bet would be able to publish if those gaps they guessed at were compelling enough. (This activity would probably be an excruciatingly painful and unfulfilling exercise, though. Would not recommend.)

My third point is that it is perfectly acceptable for an aspiring writer to be intentionally unoriginal. Fanfictions are good writing practice, because the story structure is all yours. It’s a good crutch because you don’t have to invent new characters, but it still teaches you a lot. At the same time, writing a story about a group of kids that discover a new world will teach you about pacing and description regardless of how much you base its characters or events off Narnia. I would actually consider this sort of thing a great idea if you want to hone a specific skill. If you want to know how to put sentences and paragraphs together before you start stitching personalities into characters, fanfiction is a great place to start. If you like to build characters, don’t be ashamed of copying the plot-line of your favorite book.

Here’s the takeaway, really. This goes for everything, not just originality.

An aspiring writer can do no wrong as long as they are both reading and writing.

Learning! — Common Grammar Mistakes

Lately I’ve been reading Stephen King’s On Writing, and while I haven’t really learned anything about the craft, he did answer some of the ‘why’ you shouldn’t do some things. Stuff that I had known was bad, but couldn’t really explain what was bad about it. I’ll reiterate some of the things he said, using my own examples, but really the best way to learn the things in that book is to read it. Even in a half memoir-half advice book, he still has a great sense of humor.

He describes the writer as needing a toolbox when they get to work. They need all kinds of things, first and foremost are a vocabulary and grammar. He emphasizes that having a big vocabulary isn’t necessary for a writing career, but it would naturally improve with time as one reads and writes more. He gives lots of examples from famous novels with large vocabulary and a small vocabulary.

What he does not explain, is that there is also something that certain words do to prose. An obvious example is that when your narrator speaks formally using large words, it implies that they are more educated or even above the action of the story (proverbially), especially if the narrator is not actually a character in the story. By contrast, somebody who uses small words can often come across as slow, but it also sends a message that they are simple. ‘Simple’ isn’t necessarily a bad thing to be. You can have a wise old grandmother that knows a lot yet speaks only in one or two syllable words. There’s quite a bit of implication that goes with words, but don’t let a limited vocabulary keep you from writing. That’s a point that he really hammers down on.

As far as grammar goes, he points out that a lot of people shy away from that word because of what they think it means. It means knowing what all the parts of a sentence are called, being able to identify what is past perfect tense and what instances it is and is not okay to use such a tense. But really, a writer doesn’t need to be equipped with that sort of knowledge. The idea that you need to know what a prepositional phrase is before you can even use it in a sentence really gets under my skin (see what I did there?)

There are two things that Stephen King makes clear when talking about grammar. These are two rules that every aspiring writer hears a lot, but On Writing is the first time I’ve read why these rules are a thing.

The first is to never use passive voice. If you don’t know what that is, the short answer is when the subject of the sentence is letting what ever verb is happening happen rather than making things happen (like in active voice). “The door was closed” is passive, but “Jeremy shut the door” is active. Why make the subject of the sentence the door when you could make it about Jeremy? A door isn’t important. It’s a door. You’re not going to hurt its feelings by excluding it as a character from your story.

To Stephen King, passive voice makes the author seem timid or nervous. Using passive voice makes the writing feel a bit more authoritative. “There’s no questioning what happened to the door now!” the novice thinks. But that makes it no less weak. In the first sentence, we have no way of knowing whether ‘closed’ is simply the state of being that the door is in, or if somebody closed it. You could amend this by saying “The door was closed by Jeremy“, but why in the world would you willingly construct a sentence like that? This is a story where things are happening, your narrator should feel more like a commentator at a sports arena than David Attenborough describing the behavioral patterns of a frustrated Jeremy.

The second rule is to avoid adverbs. These are words that end in -ly. You could say “Jeremy shut the door angrily“, and it works. It really does. But a lot of people would argue that adding the word ‘angrily’ takes away the impact of the sentence. Why? You shouldn’t need to tell us how he shut the door. The context of the rest of the sentence and the paragraphs prior should tell us what mood Jeremy is in, leaving the reader to conclude for themselves how he shut the door.

Stephen King says that the use of adverbs expresses not a lazy writer, but an insecure one. One scared of being misunderstood. In good writing, the addition of adverbs would be redundant. Pretty much any time you would use an adverb, a writer should look back at what came before and think “Do I give the impression of ‘angrily’ in this context?”

If the answer is yes, don’t use the adverb. It’s a word that doesn’t add anything to the story, and your story shouldn’t have any useless words! If the answer is no, then you need to work on your subtext. Put ‘angrily’ in the paragraphs without using the word ‘angrily’. Make Jeremy express anger through his words or actions. Use different words! “Jeremy stormed into his room and slammed the door.” There, now we can be sure that the reader needs no help understanding what kind of mood Jeremy is in.

This is a sliver of the things Stephen King points out in his book On Writing, and I’d highly recommend it. I believe the audiobook is also read by the writer himself, which is pretty neat.

Learning! — Background Music

It goes without saying that lots of music that is attached to TV shows, movies, or video games is often meant to supplement the visual aspect to whatever media we are presented with in our daily lives. If we’re watching a movie, the things that we’re hearing occupy roughly half of our attention (if we are to base that entirely off of the common five senses), and we obviously won’t want to be hearing dialogue or clothes shuffling the whole time, so music plays a critical role in a lot of what we see and do.

Of course, it isn’t as simple as throwing in your favorite rap album to a sitcom, because music plays with our emotions and subconscious a lot–meaning any thing we’re watching would have to also have music that helps us get into the mood we’re meant to be feeling at that given moment. A sad song to help us feel sad when a character experiences the same emotion. An intense battle hymn to accompany the climax to our favorite action movie. Whatever will help bring out the emotion that scene is meant to give us.

With video games, soundtracks often do their best to supply a bold theme, as well. Many good soundtracks are capable of evoking the feeling of the game just by listening to that music. An action game will typically have much higher tempo music than a story driven game simply by virtue of how it is meant to be played. Journey, a short and extremely simple yet abstract game, focuses entirely on exploration and the beautiful landscapes and art style. It has lots of slow, drawn out melodies played by violins and soft woodwinds. As far as I can recall, there is very little percussion throughout the entire soundtrack (timpani, usually, which itself adds a soft beat of its own). This makes the audience relax as they view for the game for what it really is. Journey is not a game to be won, but a story to experience.

Contrast this with my favorite game ever, Dragon Quest VIII, and you’ve got the blaring brass in the overture that screams “buckle your pants, we’re going on an adventure!” You’ve got cymbals slamming and drums pounding. Basically, the common elements of this soundtrack involve all the instruments one would associate with a classic Arthurian knight’s tale. Everything is loud and big, but not fast. This game has plenty of action, but really it’s about the world and seeing loads of different monsters and places. Lots of the music in this game is very “open”, with ascending notes that give the impression that a door is opening into a different world. It has plenty of strings, but here the strings play a harmony, for often it’s the brass that gets the forefront in these pieces.

With music that isn’t meant to be actively listened to, there are two super important things that are necessary to help subliminally tell the audience what mood they should be in. Those things are tempo and instruments. The tempo translates directly to how fast you want your audience’s heart to be racing. With Journey, there isn’t a whole lot that will scare you. You might as well be reading a book on a quiet rainy evening. With Dragon Quest VIII, the tempo is often quick, but it gives the impression of a brisk walk down the country side or playing tag with some friends. With something more horror or action based, you want their heart to be pounding, as in “Oh no this demon is going to get me if I don’t run faster” sort of pace. If you set the tempo at that pace, your job is already halfway done.

The next time you’re binging Netflix or simply out at the movies, try to listen to the film score. Pick out the instruments being used. Think about how different that song would be if it was an electric guitar, or xylophone, or tuba playing that melody. It would feel out of place, sure, but chances are that sort of switch would work just fine in a different movie with a different theme.

Learning! — The Elements of a Scene

I’ve been thinking about my own writing, and actually trying to objectively look at why some of my scenes are stronger than others. Now, there are a million and one reasons why a scene might be weak, but I’ve found a trend recently that explains why some scenes simply need more work to make acceptable.

I hear a lot about how “a scene should always do at least two things”, but really, it’s hard to quantify that because what does and doesn’t count as a ‘thing’ a scene does? All scenes should generally move the plot forward somehow, so that’s one thing, if you’ll allow it to be.

Without dedicating a whole lot of time to this, there are only a few things scenes can really do: teach readers, establish important bits, move characters, and answer questions. Anything and everything boils down to those four things, but those are some pretty broad things, so lets unpack them.

Teaching readers is simple. Fantasy authors need to teach their readers about the world. But all authors need to teach their audience about what’s going on. Magic systems need to be explained, sci-fi technology needs to be explained, etc. Scenes like this tend to happen less and less as a novel progresses, obviously. We shouldn’t need to teach the reader anything after a certain point.

Establishing important bits is a bit harder to explain. This is where we get character background, the history of the world, the reasons for the conflict, things like that. This is anything that isn’t instructional. If a character has anger management issues, I’m not going to teach you what that is. I’m going to establish what it means to that character and perhaps why they got to that point.

When I say a scene should move characters, I mean this both literally and figuratively. Naturally, characters will move as the story progresses. They’ll go to new places and meet new people, etc. But this also refers to character growth and character arcs. If characters don’t move in any specific scene, you should probably ask yourself if that scene is important (and it might be!), because without moving characters you risk slowing down the plot.

Lastly, answering questions. Yes, this does include “What is behind the secret door”, but it’s way more than that. Really, the big question here is ‘Does the POV character get what they want in this scene?’ Now, you could argue that every scene should always have an objective for the character, but I think that’s a restrictive way to think about it. Going from one place to another could require a scene, but they’re not usually achieving anything by doing that: it’s just necessity. No. What I’m talking about here is “Protagonist X runs to the castle to save the princess! Does he achieve this?” That is the question of the scene. The answer could very well be ‘No’, but there should be an answer in this context. If that question isn’t answered, then why are you showing us him going to the castle gate as it’s own scene? Why is that important? Well, if you’re not answering a big question, it has to include one of the other scene necessities. Maybe it’s to establish that the moat is just one big trampoline, and you’re including that scene to foreshadow how they characters escape in the next scene.

So, yes. All scenes should have at least two of those four elements. But let me give some warning. Teaching readers is often way less important than newer writers tend to think. In Chapter One, you don’t have to explain how the magic system of this universe works. You just have to establish the POV character and, likely, move them to the next chapter by establishing a conflict and answering how they accomplish this. This is how everything begins, from The Hobbit to Steelheart to Big Hero 6 to Rogue: One. The list here is endless, really, because all of those things need to happen in order to get an audience to be interested.

Learning! — How Stars Are Classified

So, there’s a lot of different kinds of stars out there. We have our normal Sun, but then we hear about the stars that are thousands of times larger, the white ones that are smaller, and the blue-ish ones that are really hot. You may not know this, but hundreds of thousands of stars have been cataloged and classified, and when we graphed them, we found this crazy pattern.

It’s called the HR diagram, and from all the data we’ve gathered, the vast majority of the stars fit on one cohesive line when you graph them based on surface temperature and brightness. Today I’m just going to talk about this one picture and explain it so that you understand what it means and how cool it is.

The simple explanation is this: Bright, hot stars are at the top left, and dim, cool stars are on the bottom right. (You can see our own sun in the middle with its yellow buddies.) You see, since pretty much every star functions the same way and holds the same fundamental properties, they show similar results. The diagonal lines going through the diagram describe the size of the star. “1 Solar Radius” means its the size of the sun. “10 Solar Radii” means it’s radius is ten times larger than our sun, and so on.

So this interesting pattern we see here is that most stars are (relatively speaking) pretty similar in size. But why are the brighter and hotter ones larger than their red, small counterparts? Well, it has to do with the amount of energy it emits, but there’s more.

Let me hit you with this equation:

 

What does it mean? Well, it’s simple, really. “Stellar lifetime is proportional to the mass over the luminosity of the star.” In other words, “fuel over the rate in which it is burned”. This equations mean that bright, massive stars burn out extremely quickly compared to red dwarfs, and it’s why there are so few examples in the HR diagram above: there is only one blue giant for every ten thousand stars you look at. It’s just because they die out within a few hundred million years.

But if you look at the other side of the spectrum, the dim stars are extremely efficient at burning their fuel. In fact, as far as we know, not a single red dwarf star has ever died. They are so efficient it takes trillions of years for them to burn out, and that amount of time simply hasn’t passed yet. Our own star, by comparison, is five billion years old, and is scheduled for a permanent departure in the next five billion years.

So, given a star’s luminosity and temperature (which we can discover through parallax and spectroscopic measurements, respectively, being an entire can of worms I won’t get into today), we can tell pretty much everything about a star: how large it is, what it’s mass is, how long it’s lifetime is, and based on the stars around it we can also guess how old it is, since nebulas tend to form stars in clusters.

So in the HR diagram, that nice, even line of stars is called “the Main Sequence”. Pretty much every star you know about will fir somewhere on that line. And as for the outliers, that’ll have to wait for another time.

Learning! — Three Pronged Characters

Listening to the Writing Excuses podcast the other day, I came across a piece of advice that I found very interesting, and that is the idea of the “Three Pronged Character Attributes“. The concept is very simple, and that is the fact that each character in every book, especially important ones, should have varying levels of three huge characteristics. These characteristics are Competence, Proactivity, and Sympathy. Pretty much every character you come across in any book or movie are going to have distinct levels of each of those things, but lets go over what each of them really means, referring to these attributes as being scales that every character has certain values in.

Competence is probably the easiest to grasp: How capable is this character when it comes to dealing with the issues they are facing. It could be any issue, really. Whether it’s defending the realm against a horde of evil murder-robots, talking a friend out of making a terrible decision, or telling convincing lies to the people around them. Gandalf, for example, is extremely capable. His capabilities, in fact, are literally beyond our understanding (partly because they’re never really mentioned). On the other hand, characters like Frodo and Bilbo are not as competent. Where Gandalf has maximum competence, Frodo and Bilbo have very little by comparison. They don’t have zero, because they do accomplish things they set out to do, and get to where they need to go, but nothing is easy because their tasks are in sleeping, drinking, and being merry (although Merry is probably the best at that last one). Their skills certainly aren’t related to fighting Sauron and outrunning the Dark Riders.

Proactivity relates to how much a character will act without any incentive. Again, Gandalf is very high on this scale because he’s always trying to fight the darkness, even before Sauron’s huge plans are set in motion. He has a distinct goal and is always trying his best. And here, too, Bilbo and Frodo score low. They are all but forced out of the Shire because they are out of options. Bilbo gets more points here because he seeks adventure rather than being forced to flee, but he still has to be coaxed by Gandalf and the dwarves quite a bit. A character with low proactivity will generally react to what the antagonist is doing rather than taking the initiative on their own. Superheroes are generally good examples of not being proactive in their respective stories, even when their competence is high.

Sympathy is a little weird. You would probably be inclined to think of how sympathetic the character is to things going on in the story, but that’s not what this means. Instead, this slider is about how sympathetic we the reader is to their problems and their personality. This is where Gandalf has none because he is impossible to identify with. Characters that score high on this scale are generally pretty relatable. Finally we see Bilbo and Frodo score high, because they are thrown into this world they don’t understand. The reader and the hobbits are learning about the world pretty much simultaneously, so it’s easy to identify with their struggles. Frodo doesn’t want to go off in this war, he just recognizes he’s the only one that can do it. He takes this responsibility by necessity, not because he wants to, and that is something a common reader can identify with.

I’ll reiterate here that pretty much every character you experience is going to have clear places on each of these scales. It’s important to note that you may be inclined to put a character somewhere on one scale when they belong elsewhere, and having somebody be “zero” or “full” on any one of these scales is pretty rare. Dr. Strange, for example (at least in the movie) has very little competence or sympathy at the beginning of the movie, because his expertise isn’t where he needs it to be and he’s both arrogant and rich. He is very proactive, which leads him to be able to fill those other scales as the movie progresses.

So when you’re thinking about the main character in your book or story, think about where they fit on these scales, and how their character arc changes their place on them as the story progresses.

Learning! — Sparks of Motivation (375)

Recently I’ve taken to writing a flash fiction piece every Wednesday (in addition to the projects I’m actively working on), and the stories that I’ve written have been based on specific writing prompts from Reddit. I had a quick little chat with somebody there about how any prompt can lead to an original story. For example, consider this prompt: “An unlikely and unqualified hero is given an immensely powerful artifact and is told he is the savior of the world before being forcibly whisked away to adventure”.

Now, besides the fact that this is a generalized plot structure, this can describe a great many famous book series in the fantasy genre. The Lord of the Rings and The Sword of Truth, to name a couple. Does that mean these stories are similar? Not in the slightest. It works the same way with any writing prompt: any two people writing from the same foundation will inevitably write very different stories. The only time you’re really at risk of not being original is when a writer actively writes a story to evoke another specific story.

So when I’m browsing Reddit, looking for a writing prompt, the last thing on my mind is whether or not I can write a unique story. For anyone that wants to write but doesn’t, the first thing they have to learn is that the most important thing is to always make sure that whatever you’re planning on writing is an idea you’re excited about.

For any aspiring writer, starting off small writing short stories based on prompts is a great idea. You may have this awesome book series in your head waiting to get written, but don’t let it be the only thing on your mind. If I had to actually quantify the number of projects I have, whether ongoing or ones that need more thought before I can get started on them, I would have well over a dozen. Does it stress me out? Nope. Because at any point in time, I’m always writing whatever is most exciting to me, even if it isn’t as developed as some other ideas I have.

When I look for my weekly writing prompt, the only thing that I’m really looking for is something that sparks my interest. I read the prompts, and if I immediately get an idea for a scene, or a line of dialogue, or a story theme, I’m good to go. Could I pick any prompt and write a story based on it? Sure. But that spark of interest is what’s important. It doesn’t matter if nobody reads this story, or if you don’t like it. All that matters is that you’re motivated enough to get the story written in that moment, and the best way to ensure that is to look for that spark.

I’m not going to lie. Sometimes that spark never comes. Maybe I’m just not in the mood to write. Maybe the prompts I’m looking at really aren’t interesting. Maybe I’m just tired. You can’t force inspiration, regardless of how hard you try. And a harsh truth is that established authors are expected to write even without that spark. If you plan to ‘get there’ one day, you’ll need to be able to work without relying on working at your best.

But somebody that just wants to write doesn’t have to worry about that. The spark will come, so just be patient and don’t stress out.