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.

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.

Learning! — Different Story Ideas

As a writer, I’m constantly looking for new ideas and new ways to implement things into stories I may be working on or looking to tell in the future. Whenever I have a cool idea I don’t want to forget, I write it down (otherwise I will forget it. Don’t believe your brain if it tells you otherwise.) But when I’m writing these down, I have to consider the fact that there are several different kinds of ideas.

Simply put, some ideas are larger than others. Now before you say “Yeah, obviously”, let me explain exactly what that means. Let me give you a few different ideas to show you what I mean. One of the current ideas rolling in my brain right now is a time-based magic with a society knitted closely around it. They deal with sands, and hourglasses, calendars, day and moon cycles are very important to them. This is a big idea. It’s a major focus of the entire society, so whatever book or story they are in will have this as the main thing the audience will be looking at. I also have the idea of different colors of sands yielding different effects. This is a smaller idea. I can’t easily base a whole book around the idea of different sands holding different powers. It can be a large plot point, sure, but it’s not enough to be the main focus of the story.

But I recently had another idea of a character or race/religion/whatever of people with their entire arm always bandaged because society believes it is cursed. (This isn’t necessarily in the same universe, but it can be.) This has the potential of being both a large or small idea. If the main character of a book is one of these people, it’s probably a major plot point. Maybe they are trying to dispel the curse, for example. But if it is a more minor character (even an important one), it doesn’t need to be tied to the main plot at all.

You’ll also get weird ideas. Like “everybody in this story talks in rhyme except for the protagonist” which I think is a hilarious premise for a story. This can’t be spun into a book, though. This idea is a gimmick, and you can’t stretch gimmicks out that far. This idea would best be suited for a short story (or maybe a chapter of some sort of adventure novel).

There is a point to this, I promise. Whenever I’m looking at the plot arcs in my stories, I have to look at my ideas and think about how big they really are. Generally, this means thinking about how large scale the consequences of this idea is going to be. Having an entire society based around time is undeniably going to be large-scale since an entire people is involved. Different color sands could be large scale and impact lots of people depending on how available certain kinds of sands are, or what different effects they have. For ideas like that I can also think about their relationship with the economy. Even the bandaged people are relevant to that point. Are they shunned by society? Where do they live if they are? What is the ratio of bandaged to normal people? Things like this are critical to the story because the story you are telling will be very different if there are only bandaged people versus them being a minority in a group of more ‘normal’ citizens.

So if you have an idea you like but aren’t sure how to implement it, think about how big the idea really is. Generally it can be hard to fit two huge ideas into the same story, but smaller ideas can often find their place neatly around one large idea.

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.

Life — Criticism

One thing that I’ve noticed lately is that society has very specific (although unstated) rules as to how things are judged. These rules seem arbitrary, and could admittedly derive as a direct result of my experience, but my understanding tells me otherwise.

When somebody performs, through singing, acting, or playing music, their actions are to be met with unquestionable praise. Now, the amount of resulting praise is obviously quite variable, but even if somebody doesn’t like an orchestral performance, an audience is only allowed to give one vote, so the only opinion you’re expected to provide is the same one as the rest of the audience, really. If I go to a play or a choir show, society doesn’t demand that I tell everybody that I loved the show, but typically I’m expected to say it was at least “Really good!”

If there are bad things that I typically didn’t like, and I’m talking to somebody about it (especially one of the people that performed), most often the blame will be put on somebody. One person didn’t learn their lines, or one group of people didn’t prepare for that specific part. In this circumstance, the problems are always referred to in the third person, because you’ll never be allowed to tell a specific person what they did wrong in a performance.

This is a little aggravating for two reasons. As an instructor that works in a high school theatre program, I’m sort of expected to go to school plays. Any time I talk about a specific play afterwards I feel obligated to point out how amazing it was and specific things that I like about it. Now, I know why this is–small talk is usually very positive, and when it’s negative there is an “antagonist” in that conversation, even if the bad guy is mathematics in general.

But here’s where my frustration with this lies. By virtue of what is happening, everything that’s happening is positive. Now, I won’t pretend that many blood, sweat, and tears are shed for virtually every performance that you go see (most of those things not positive), but the result of such effort is. But when it comes to something that is obviously more subjective, such as writing, drawing, painting, or anything that involves art, games, etc., negativity becomes a far more common and acceptable result. It’s okay to criticize somebody’s creative work because feedback is important and they should always try to improve. So after spending hours upon hours on end making this thing, you still risk harsh criticism, whereas with something like a performance, it isn’t okay to say bad things about it.

Now, I’m not saying the life of an actor is so much easier than the life of an author or anything ludicrous like that. In fact, my personal experience as a writer directly contradicts what I’ve heard being a writer is like, because I’ve gotten very, very few “bad reviews”.

My sole point is that, living in Southern California, ‘The Land of Famous Wannabes’, certain professions are more disheartening than others purely because of societal norms. I’m not arguing that things should be changed, mind you. I’m not advocating for positivity to be stripped from every day customs–there’s a very good reason it’s there. What I am saying is that honest, constructive feedback should be more available to everyone. All parties I’ve mentioned here could benefit from that, since performers could better understand where they can improve and creators can have a more consistent base of encouragement.

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.

Learning! — What Every Character Needs

Back in December I talked about how I make characters. The simple explanation is that, like with everything, I start with an idea I like, and build from there. I keep expanding until the thing that I have is fully fleshed out. The idea is the important thing.

But I’ve realized that with characters, it’s still only half the picture. It isn’t enough to have a good idea and arbitrarily add things that make sense, because we’re using this character in a story, not in real life. Now, when I say “using it in a story”, I mean any story. This character can be from a game, a novel, or even be your Dungeons & Dragons character. One thing that aspiring writers don’t realize is that even in stories that resemble real life, stories are not real life, but I’ll cover this some other time.

So, you have that ‘idea’ which is the basis for this character, but you don’t know what “expanding until it’s fleshed out” means. No, you don’t have to make a family tree or figure out what their childhood was like (although if you want to, by all means). There are two things that every character in every facet of storytelling needs in order to feel believable and “real”: flaws and goals. They need to have very clear personality traits that are undesirable, and hopes for the future.

That’s it. It’s important to note here, that just because a character has flaws and goals does not immediately make them believable, just that a character without one or both is incredibly difficult for anyone to relate to. (This is also a tool some writers use to make characters less ‘real’. A god or extremely powerful figure in a story may be presented without flaws, for instance.)

Whenever I make a character important enough to be given a name or focus in a story, I give them flaws and goals. In order to determine what they should be, it’s important to think about what medium this character is presented in, and how they will be presented to an audience (even if that audience is your D&D group).

For example, the goals of a ‘Villain’ should be very clear and defined. In fact, that may even be the first thing you want to start out with, because the ‘Hero’ will often have to take action and make decisions based on what the Villain is doing. The flaw(s) of the Villain may be the way the Hero manages to steal victory from the jaws of defeat. On the flip side, the goal of the Hero could be to simply “stop the Villain”, or it could be something more indirect, like “serve the greater good”, or “make things return to the way they were”. These are cliche responses, of course, so for a character as integral to the story as the protagonist, you may want to think of something more interesting, but it’s a start.

The flaws for the Hero are generally what makes victory so hard to attain. Frodo is not exactly the best man for the job of ‘Ringbearer’ (in some respects), which makes braving Mordor such an ordeal. If the same job was given to Gandalf (who has minimal flaws, if any), it would have been a different story. The story of how a wizard flew some eagles to a mountain and then dropped the ring in with no issues. Nobody wants to read that story.

Just as everyone has flaws and goals, so to should characters. Even unattainable goals are still goals, and even simple flaws like ‘selfish’ or ‘rude’ work. Just keep in mind that the more important the character (to a story or game), the more in-depth and descriptive these flaws and goals should be.