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! — 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.

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.

Review — Minecraft

You’ve probably heard of Minecraft. It’s one of the most famous games of this generation for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that it’s so user friendly. Virtually anyone can sit down and enjoy it with no prior knowledge. Even if you don’t know how to make a pickaxe or build a house, you can still run around and have fun exploring. Heck, a five year old can enjoy this game.

Another huge reason why this game is so popular is because there’s so many ways to play it that it simultaneously fills the need of several different gaming communities. If you want to play a game for the creative, building purposes, great! Build whatever your heart desires. If you want to join a server of warring factions, that’s cool, just be careful that the people you’re playing with aren’t jerks. If you want to role-play, Minecraft is great for that! There’s several servers with full cities and stories that people have constructed from scratch. If you’re an aspiring game designer that wants to explore the fundamentals of texturing or adding mods to videogames, what better foundation than a game that is literally a giant three dimensional grid of blocks?

This game is huge because it is what I would call the “gateway drug” to the gaming community. There’s so many diverse cultures and variants in this game that its impact on the entire gaming world is incalculable. Are there better games that allow you to beat other people up in real time? Of course, this game wasn’t designed with a “player vs. player” concept in mind. Are there better games that let you role-play with people around you? Sure. I wouldn’t play Minecraft for the role-play because I personally can’t immerse myself in such a physically blocky world.

This game isn’t “the best” at really anything. Any specific part of the game is done better in some other game. But the majesty in this game is the fact that it weaves together so many things at once that it can please anyone. Of course it will have flaws, and they will all depend on the way that you’re playing it. For example, there’s no “instruction manual” for all the things you can and can’t do, you pretty much have to use a wiki if you want to know how to make X block or how to acquire Y item. If you want to build massive cities, it’s going to take an incredible amount of time. Even large scale stuff is often built one block at a time because using modded commands that allow you to conjure basic shapes or shift specific blocks around can only help so much. As with pretty much any online game you play, the community of people you play it with can be terrible and mean, but that too can vary, depending on how you choose to play the game.

Since this game performs really well for every audience, and the game itself is so easy to access even if you only have a laptop (or, heck, a smartphone), that its no wonder its so popular. what’s more, the game is constantly being updated and there’s so much to explore, that playing it once every several months will guarantee it being a very different experience from the last time you played.

Learning! — Writing Different Narrating Styles

I’ve never liked when people told me I need to find a “narrative voice” in my writing. It seems weird when people say “Oh, you write like H.G. Wells! Or “Your prose is as dramatic as Poe!” because I can’t take that information and use it constructively. I’m not going to pretend that “writing like [X Famous Author]” isn’t valid–all writers certainly develop somewhat unique prose–just that this comparison can’t really help the writer in any way. I wouldn’t even know how to take such a phrase. Is it a compliment? What if I don’t like that author? I prefer more solid points on which to base my writing, because emulating people in anything isn’t really ever a good thing (unless it’s acting, of course).

All that being said, every genre is going to have a ‘feel’ to it, and that’s what an author should be aiming for, not a specific author. This means its important to recognize what this ‘feel’ really means, and why its important. Now, this subject is pretty open, because there’s so much to narrative prose, grammar, and form, that I wouldn’t even know where to start, so let’s just talk about the narration.

I’ll give a few examples in my own work, and for my purposes I’ll assume you know what the different perspectives are. “Change in the Winds” is written from a third person limited perspective. The narrator follows behind the protagonist so closely that it only ever sees what he sees, and even occasionally points out what he perceives, but it doesn’t employ any direct thoughts. Generally, when writing in my universe of Nacre Then I want the reader to feel like they’re glimpsing into a world where a lot is going on. I’ll pluck in details about the surroundings, but not how my character feels about them. This will inevitably make you feel somewhat distant from the protagonist. This is also fine, because I also wanted the reader to feel like he had a past, something that’s easier established if you only give hints as to what the character’s experiences are rather than having them tell you what they’re feeling.

In my Lisa Stenton stories, I write very differently. This is in first person, and with a more contemporary writing style. She has a sense of humor, but doesn’t let on that she knows more than she really does. This story works better in first person because she has no idea what’s going on, and it’s much easier to make the reader feel this confusion if the protagonist is the one narrating it. I also do far less description of the surroundings because this isn’t as important. You don’t care about the house she lives in, because it’s just a suburban, unimpressive house. Why would I bother describing it? It’s not why you’re reading the story. You’re reading it because of the mystery of what’s going on, as well as Lisa’s reactions to the mystery, so that’s what I focus on, using the majority of the narration to let Lisa voice her thoughts and actions, and using the dialogue to help her voice her confusion (as the case often is) to the other characters.

Every narration style is going to have pros and cons, but honestly the most important thing is to write whatever makes the writer most comfortable. If I was scared to write something in first person, it wouldn’t have stopped me from writing Lisa Stenton stories. It would change the way they read drastically, however, even if everything happened the same way. The reader wouldn’t feel as connected to Lisa, but if I wrote it in third person omniscient, perhaps I could sprinkle in some dramatic irony by explaining to the reader what’s happening while leaving Lisa in the dark. The story would still work, it just wouldn’t be the same story exactly.

To me, the way I pick a narrative style is pure intuition. I don’t plan it at all, but I can look back and explain why I made the decision to write that way. I can say the third novelette to The Aftermath of the Rupture will be in first person, because it will be far more centralized around the main character and that’s simply the way I’ve always envisioned writing a story for this character. Also, that title is starting to lose favor, because the focus of the novelettes is starting to shift as I write them. No alternative title just yet, but I am working on it.

Me –Being a Dungeon Master

(This week’s audio recording: “Fortune’s Fool“, is one I wrote back in April. I’m really happy with the way it turned out, and I hope to revisit the story someday.)

 

I haven’t talked about Dungeons and Dragons in some time. I’ve learned quite a bit about the game since I’ve brought it up last, but admittedly, the most important things I’ve learned about running a proper campaign is about myself and what I’ve been doing wrong! I’m not upset, though. Progress has to come from somewhere, after all, and knowing where to improve is the best place to start.

When I planned out this campaign, I started with the big stuff. Who’s the overarching bad guy, what is the party going to have to do to stop him, that sort of thing. I set up this huge story, and when the first session began, all I had was big reveals. This meant I had to force both of my parties (they’re running the same campaign) onto a quest with no information. No motivation, just “I need your help, thanks bye!” Obviously this wasn’t ideal, so while big reveals are cool, you need a solid foundation with which to base them on.

For me, this means preparing the sessions more thoroughly. I thought “Hey, I have a lot of experience with improv, I don’t need to prepare dungeons or characters off the bat!” so I didn’t. It was here that I’ve learned something about improv: since it’s all about justification (and not about trying to be funny), often one will take the easiest route. I can make up new characters and buildings all day, but just because I can bring things up on the fly and have it make sense doesn’t mean it’s interesting. That’s where the preparation needs to come in.

Specifically, I need to prepare two things. Primarily, I need to develop the characters I introduce more. I need them to have motivations and personalities that are distinct from each other rather than have them all be furniture for this grander story I’m trying to tell. Now, if you’re anything like me, you hate outlining characters. I’ve tried doing that for novels, and man it just ruins what enjoyment I can get from writing. So for this instance I’m going to try to establish “what this character wants” as a solid goal for virtually everyone I introduce. Goals are important. Everyone has them. Furthermore, having several dozen character names to pull from a hat whenever somebody is introduced isn’t enough. I’ll also need a slew of personality traits and distinct characteristics to help make each person different.

The second thing I need to prepare is the locales. When I set my players off to the grand quest of magical vagueness, they were tasked with getting information with no leads. With large locations, there needs to be large landmarks. Interesting or large buildings and structures that stand out that make a place more memorable and provide a convenient place to start (or return, as the case may be).

Those are the big things I need to work on. The part that I’ve done right from the beginning (and simply need to improve upon) is the theme of the campaign. For the entirety of the issues the party has come across, I’ve tried to force them to operate in moral gray areas. When forcing people to choose between two bad decisions, a dungeon master can have a lot of fun toying with the consequences of what occurs. It forces your party to think when it isn’t simply “go to the cave and kill the evil dragon”. The whole fun of Dungeons and Dragons is the choice and openness in every action you take. When you give your party a clear goal, it gets boring. So don’t make it boring!