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.

Life — “Hand versus Eye”

Recently I’ve been bogged down with the fact that I’ve been watching and reading so many masterpieces, it’s been hard to think about how I could possibly compare. Now, I realize that every artist experiences this, so I know it’ll wash off in time, I just hope it goes sooner than later. Watching the film adaptation of Count of Monte Cristo and (unconsciously) comparing Lisa Stenton to the Dresden Files has left me seeing how far I really have to go before I can ever be on any comparable level. I’m making a deliberate effort to steer away from a Dresden Files vibe, but everything I make distinctly different feels like a downgrade rather than a different artistic choice. Maybe this means I’m turning at the wrong junctions.

Through all of this,the concept of “Hand versus Eye” comes to mind. Yesterday, my brothers and I were talking about the inevitable difference between what your hand can create and what they eyes can perceive. I can draw, but I can’t come close to the level of detail Michelangelo could achieve. I can write, but I can’t forge a work of art others in my craft can. If my hand was slightly better than my eye’s ability to perceive greatness, I would never have to deal with this discrepancy.

This all derives from the mind’s drive to compare and find patterns. We like frames of reference, and sometimes all of the easily accessible frames of reference are all way better than you. I imagine learning to pitch a baseball is tough because you want to be in the Major League, so you have to think about how you just can’t throw a 90mph fastball yet. You don’t want to compare yourself to the rest of your team, who is on the same level as you, because they aren’t people you aspire to be.

I could easily browse websites full of awful writing to boost my morale. I know how much better I am than any high-schooler trying their hand at writing their first fanfiction. That was me once upon a time, after all, and I can see how far I’ve come.

And in the end, that’s all that should really matter. “The only person you should compare yourself to is you. Your mission is to become better today than you were yesterday.” A quote whose only credit I could find is to John Maxwell. This is a much safer comparison, really. You can’t compare yourself to people you aren’t. If they’re in the field you want to break into, you may be inclined to think that the comparison is one of pure volume of skill alone, but it isn’t. You’re comparing the volumes of two different liquids, with different densities and properties and everything. There is no fair comparison there.

You’re only going to get disheartened if you keep letting your eye see things way above your hand’s level. Don’t let yourself dwell on who you aren’t. Just look back and make sure you’re happy that you aren’t who you used to be. If you’re an artist, just draw something better today. It doesn’t have to be “Starry Night”, or “The Last Supper”. As long as you can see improvement from the day before, and the month before that, and so on, then you’re on the right track.

Life — Having What it Takes (390)

I’ve been writing since I was around twelve. I had this idea in my head about two friends that were so powerful they could fight an entire army on their own. One was a wizard, the other was a ‘dragon keeper’. I even had a bit of a plot twist set up where it would be revealed that they were literally the same person with different fates and lives, somehow. No, I didn’t figure out how that was supposed to work, but it was an idea I had.

I have been writing more and more in those seven plus years since, but before I started this blog early 2016 you could have read everything I had ever written in two sittings (one, if you spent the day doing it). Nowadays I have a substantial amount of output (several novels worth, if you count my blog in that tally), and I’ve finally gotten into the habit of writing even when I don’t want to. Not to mention the fact that I’m starting to be able to enjoy certain aspects of writing.

But if you had asked me the probability of me becoming a “published novelist” only five months ago, I would have said “at best, fifty percent” (this being an almost direct quote from one of my blog posts). Why? Well, a lot of reasons. Writing is hard, even when it’s fun. It has never been something I do in my spare time, and even now I don’t consider writing time “free” time. Instead, I would liken it to going to the gym with the hopes of being a bodybuilder one day. You don’t get in shape without putting in the work, and it’s the same thing here.

But if you asked me today the chances of me making a living off of my writing one day, I would say over ninety-five percent. Because a few things have finally clicked.

When I was first starting out, I read Jim Butcher’s LiveJournal that he did for aspiring writers. In his parting words, he said something that never really resonated until this moment in my career.

If you stay the course and break in, you are going to acquire a ton of absolutely necessary skills. You have to learn to motivate yourself to write even when you don’t feel like it: Discipline. You’re going to have to learn the ropes of the business, and how to work with an editor: Professionalism. You’re going to face what might be years of adversity, facing a monumentally difficult task and you’re going to overcome it: Confidence. You’re going to do it with very little active support, and when you look back at this time in the future, you’re going to know that it was something YOU did all by yourself: Strength.

My brain understood that an author’s path is a hard one, and most walk it alone. But now my heart finally gets what that even means. In the Writing Excuses podcast, Brandon Sanderson mentioned that his editor commented on how young he was for an author. He was twenty-six. For me, that’s another seven years.

I can take that to mean I’ve got a long way to go before I actually sell anything, or I can look at it optimistically. Sanderson was considered young for a published author when he made it. That means that even if I need another seven years of writing practice before I publish, I won’t have lost any time in the professional field. They’ll say I’m young now, and they’ll say I’m young then. (To clarify, this is because a lot of authors looking to publish are retiring people. Comparatively few people start their working class career as aspiring writers.)

I’ve learned so much with this blog and now my writing group in this past year alone, that I’m finally starting to really see how daunting a task becoming a writer really is.

If I get a job offer elsewhere. If I start making a living off of something that isn’t writing, I’m not going to stop. It’s my firm belief that nothing at this point can stop it from happening anymore. The train has left the station, and I don’t know where the next stop is, but I can’t well get off now.

I’m a writer. I’ve made up my mind to walk this path. There’s no turning back now.


As a side note, Jim Butcher’s advice is really inspiring, and they’re words I live by at this point. I found a hard time only quoting one chunk earlier because I kept wanting to expand it more and more, so I decided to leave the whole post below. There’s also a link to the LiveJournal itself, if you’re so inclined to read it that way instead. Continue reading “Life — Having What it Takes (390)”

Life — One Big Driving Metaphor

I’m going to sound like a narcissistic jerk today, but in doing so I want to illuminate something about me that, in my admittedly little experience, seems to be almost nonexistent in the entire human race. Now, when I say this I’m not going to imply that I’m better than everyone else here. There are plenty of people whom I am perfectly aware I will never be able to play in the same league with, let alone meet on the same playing field.

But as far as I know, there are one of two things that make me “different” from most other people, and that is my intuitive grasp of virtually everything I take on. Either I am naturally skilled at picking things up more easily than other people, or other people simply haven’t realized their full potential. Perhaps it is a combination of both here. Now, if you had asked a younger me, I would have said I was simply gifted with innate knowledge and leave it at that. But recently, I’m inclined to believe that everyone is more capable than they realize.

Here’s what I mean. Let’s say I’m talking to somebody who claims to be incredibly bad at math. They barely scrap by with ‘D’s in their classes and are happy with that. Whenever I explain a mathematical concept to them, they leave that conversation with understanding. It may take me a while and a few different approaches to teach them what they aren’t understanding, but it isn’t as though they are incapable of learning. In fact, often it’s that it simply wasn’t explained to them in a way that ‘clicked’.

I’m not saying “everything is way easier than people make it seem”. (And even if that was my point, I certainly wouldn’t put it so pretentiously.) Rather, a lot of people don’t try because they don’t believe in themselves.

It’s here that I’m going to bring up what I’m coming to call the “driving metaphor”. When you learn to drive, you learn to multitask. A good driver must pay attention to the road (and cars) in front of them, as well as around their immediate area, they have to watch their mirrors, watch their speed, and be mindful of the gas and brake pedals and how much leverage each is given. Most drivers can also have full conversations and do other things while they do all these things, as well. All of these things become subconscious. At a certain level of experience, you no longer have to think about watching your mirrors or your speed, etc. If you asked a driver, “Hey, what are you paying attention to right now?” they might include a list of all those things, but before you asked that question, they wouldn’t have put any consideration into their actions.

This metaphor basically describes exactly how I live my life. It’s all through intuition, but if asked, I could tell you the exact reasoning for my actions. I can’t tell you how I wrote ‘X Masterpiece’ (though I wouldn’t call any of my works masterpieces), but I could describe to you all of the reasons I wrote each paragraph and line of dialogue even if those reasons weren’t consciously going through my head as I wrote them.

The fact is, many of the Learning! posts I’ve done in the past have been loose topics I wanted to talk about with no plan on what I’d be writing. Often, I don’t even realize “Hey, this is how I develop characters!” until I’m actually talking about how I develop characters. A lot of the wisdom that comes out of my mouth is knowledge I didn’t consciously know I had. When I’m teaching people and they ask questions, I come up with a valid answer on the spot rather than say “I don’t know”.

It may sound like just spouting out the first thing that comes to my mind isn’t knowledge, and in a way you’d be right. But really the things I’m surfacing is stuff I already know, but simply had not the mind to speak. Imagine if I asked you how you form specific letters with your mouth. You don’t think about lightly biting your lower lip to make the “F” sound, but if I asked you how to make that sound, you could explain it to me.

Going back to my original point, I don’t think a lot of people live life this way. They live in a cloud of self doubt and self loathing that I have never in my life experienced. It’s one way I consider myself one of the luckiest people, but that’s a can of worms I’m not going to talk about today. In conclusion: you may make good actions based on unconscious knowledge or feelings like I do, or you may not. But either way, we’re all capable of greatness. You’re not bad at anything. You may not enjoy it, or your brain may not learn the way it’s being forced to, but I believe any one known thing can be taught to a majority of the population. You could be taught rocket science. It may take a few years, and it could be frustrating, but all it takes is a means of transferring that information into your brain. It isn’t as though your brain is unable to store that knowledge.

Disclaimer: Again, this could be totally wrong. For all I know I’m no different from every other person on the planet, in which case I must be a narcissistic jerk. This is just an unfounded theory I’ve been thinking about lately.

Life — Appearances

For me, one of the more frustrating things in life is that it is impossible to know what you mean to other people. You can’t know what they think of you, what they like about you, or anything related towards you. You can ask them, of course, but any info you get that relates somebody’s opinion about you to you will be at best second-hand information. You can’t get in their head and know what they think.

This is frustrating for me because I like learning things. Everything, really. I like learning what we don’t know, too. So it’s always annoying to me when I encounter something that is impossible to learn. That said, appearances are very important. Whether or not we notice it, people make judgments and actions around us based on what we look like and who we appear to be, both physically and socially.

This is one of the reasons I changed my sense of fashion. I used to wear a t-shirt and hoodie every day, and that served my purposes just find. Clothes were just something that was necessary. I barely even looked at the shirt I grabbed before putting it on in the morning.

Then, I started taking myself seriously as a writer. I didn’t like the casual shirt and hoodie combo that says “nerd” to everyone. I’m okay with people thinking of me as a nerd, sure, but I don’t want that to be anyone’s first impression of me. So I got a coat, and now I wear it with a collared shirt every day. As far as a typical “dress code” is concerned, I went from casual wear to what I would say is midway between business casual and business professional (if I wore a tie it’d be business professional).

So, I have no idea how my change in appearance has affected the people around me, both strangers and friends. I can guess that I look more professional to people, as that is the point, but on an individual level I can’t tell.

On a more social (rather than purely physical) level, I also want to present myself professionally. When I’m talking to other people, I always follow the same rule: Present yourself in a strong, positive, but not arrogant light. For example, I tell people I run a blog, that I’m a writer, and that I teach high school kids. The image these facts present to people won’t be quite accurate, because many will make assumptions that are not true. For example. when I say I teach high school kids, one may assume that I’m a literal high school teacher, which I am not. At best, I’m a “guest teacher”, but I don’t have a teaching credential or anything that would qualify me as a formal instructor. Am I lying to people? No. Am I intentionally misleading them? Sort of. I didn’t say any word that could be considered untrue, but the picture those facts paint is one of a more “professional and successful” me than the real me is. I don’t see this as a bad thing at all.

When you’re trying to get into virtually any field, presenting yourself as a better person than you really are serves multiple purposes. The first and most obvious one is that in order to get people to give you what you want, you need to convince them that you don’t need it. If quality assurance is what I’m looking for, I’m not going to buy from a little girl’s lemonade stand when I can buy it from a store. I wouldn’t want to take the chance that I might not enjoy it as much. It’s the same thing with everything. People won’t want to hire applicants that are unsure of what they’re doing: they want potential employees that are experienced and carry themselves well.

Another reason why putting on a professional persona helps is that in a way, it helps you become that person. If people treat you as a successful person, they will be more positive and encouraging, and thus your job will get easier. It’s a lot easier to play the part of a professional that knows what you’re doing when people treat you that way.

You may be reading this and think I’m trying to tell you to lie to people and tell them you’re better than you really are. Absolutely not. Lying will never get you anywhere you want to be (unless you’re really, really good).

All I’m saying is that when you are given the opportunity to talk about you (in an interview, with a friend, even non-verbally like through clothing,) don’t be upfront with your flaws. If people ask about them, that’s different. When people ask me about my writing, I tell them I’m not published. I’m not ashamed of it, but it’s not something I tell people right away, because then their view goes from “author” to “wannabe”, which is detrimental to my career. People will look at you in a different light if your shortcomings are less apparent, so make them dig for it if they have to.

You don’t have to change yourself all at once, either. Even if you just go from wearing t-shirts to button-up shirts like I did, it still has a significant impact. And even if it doesn’t stick long term, it doesn’t hurt to try.

Life — Taking Risks

When you’re trying something that has a clear “success or failure” outcome, it can be hard to judge whether or not riskier tactics are worth taking. Whether the circumstance is primarily social, academic, or professional, you have to think about a number of factors in order to come to a reasonable conclusion on taking a risk to achieve the successful outcome. So when I think about the problem, I look directly at all the factors first.

The piece I consider first is: What happens when I fail? If there is a cost failure makes me pay, is that cost financial, one of wasted time, or something else? If I try to make a new friend and fail, that could cost a bit of “in-that-moment” self esteem, but that’s about it. If I apply for a job and fail, the cost is largely time I could have spent elsewhere. Neither scenario are likely to cost any actual money.

The second piece: what is the risk I’m considering taking? Does it improve my chances of success? Does it increase the cost of failure? If I’m romantically attracted to a friend, there is an inherent risk with voicing those feelings. Does it improve my chances of achieving what I want in that relationship? Undoubtedly. Not telling somebody how I feel isn’t going to magically lead anywhere I want it to go. It does increase the cost of failure, however. If it goes horribly wrong, at worst I could lose a friend. I risk embarrassing myself. Things like that. If I’m applying for a job, I could take a big risk at ensuring I am a memorable candidate. You want to stand out in a crowd in this sort of circumstance, after all. The risk here is: does making me stand out (and perhaps doing something unconventional) make me look better or worse?

The last piece is: What happens when I don’t take that risk? Can I still succeed? If I’m romantically interested in that friend, not taking the risk is a virtually guaranteed “failure”. In a scenario like this, taking the risk is the only viable option. In these cases, preparing for the worst and hoping for the best is usually the best policy. If I’m applying for a job, though, I can still succeed and get the job without taking a risk by making myself stand out. This doesn’t mean that the risk isn’t worth taking, however. You have to judge how likely success is in both cases, and what the cost of failure is in both cases. If it’s something simple like a job interview, the cost of failure will be the same whether or not you take the risk. Therefore, all you have to think about is: Does taking this risk really increase my chances of getting this job?

As I’m applying for scholarships right now, this is the sort of thought process that’s been going through my mind. I have a very clear cost of failure: mostly the loss of time (and money if I factor in the success of potentially winning these scholarships). But since being brave and doing something weird is guaranteed to make me stand out, I’m going to take a huge risk.

Life — Doing What You Love (340)

A lot of people will tell you that you should learn what you love doing and then find a way to make an income from it. “If your job is something you love doing, you’ll never work a day in your life.” But at the same time, I’ve also heard advice that you shouldn’t make your passion your job, because soon you won’t enjoy it anymore. If you love writing, making it your profession would supposedly kill the enjoyment you get from it.

I think there’s merit to both arguments. There are certainly situations in which making what was a hobby a job could run the potential of making that thing less enjoyable. If woodcarving is your release, and how you relax after a long day, getting commissions and suddenly having to stress over completing the project in time may not be the best course of action.

But taking all of that into consideration, I think a lot of life is about learning not only about the world around you, but about yourself. You can’t make a blanket statement and say that a hobby can’t turn into a job without positive results. It clearly works for a lot of people. The question then becomes: Is doing your passion professionally good idea for you?

In general, I think its best to give it a shot. The ideal thing here is to work a job that you enjoy, and one of the easiest and simplest ways to accomplish that is by getting a job where you do what you love. If you find that the added wait of making this hobby a profession adds too much stress to enjoy something, you can always stop. Just quit the job. If you like woodcarving but don’t like the time constraints commissions may add, you can always go back to having woodcarving be just a hobby.

In the end, this process will have the guaranteed effect of making you learn about yourself. Maybe you found that getting money from woodcarving was pretty dang cool, but it was specifically the time constraints and the stress that occurred because of it that you didn’t like. In that case, you can step back and re-calibrate what you want to be doing. Maybe instead of offering commissions, you can simply sell things online when you’re done with them. That way you can still have fun doing it, work at your own pace, and get money.

I’m a firm believer that any hobby can be worked into a job. If one does enough exploring and self-discovery, the capability of finding a job one enjoys is always out there, even if its not a job you expected to enjoy. For example, I didn’t expect to enjoy writing in this blog. It was purely a means to force me to write more often. by a happy coincidence, I also enjoy writing on the various topics on a weekly basis, in addition to the fiction.

So, don’t let anyone’s advice on what you should be studying in school, or what jobs you should and should not apply for scare you. The process of self-discovery is always working on the sidelines, so no matter what you end up doing, you’ll end up closer to what you really should be doing with your life.