Life — Writing Mode

Over a month ago I had plans for what I was going to do over the summer. With no school or job, I have pretty much free 24/7. So, I decided to utilize it to implement Stage Three of the “Productive Me®”. After Stage One and Two (overhauling my work space and my physical appearance), Stage Three was to be a full, set in stone schedule I would adhere to day by day. It included set times in which I would be eating as well as specific break times in between a six hour writing session. I had everything planned.

And I had the self discipline to adhere to it exactly one day.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t frustrated with myself, but I’m not surprised. The heat always makes it difficult to be productive, and while I don’t want to diffuse the blame from my own lack of willpower, I really do feel like I could be doing more than what I am if I were in a different situation.

I’m not trying to make excuses and say “Woe is me, I would be great if only…”, but rather I think the way I’m forcing it isn’t right. That isn’t to say I’ve learned what does work, because I wouldn’t be having any issue of I did, but I’m still missing something.

I think about this a lot. I go to bed and wake up later than I’d like. I’m a morning person, but I rarely have any mornings because I don’t go to bed before 2 am. I’d go to bed sooner, only my room is loud and that path isn’t likely to bear fruitful results.

If I had the means, I would move. I’d find an apartment or condo in northern California or Oregon where the heat isn’t so oppressive, and just existing isn’t quite as expensive as it is here. Somewhere where things aren’t so busy.

Am I lazy? I would argue against that. So much of my thought process is driven by my desire and need for independence. Every time I need help in anything it weighs down on my soul, and so I strive to be the best at anything I do.

So when I can’t find the strength to sit down and write, even when I know I’ll feel great when I’m done, I’m at an impasse. I sit there staring at the blank screen for over an hour. Maybe a few paragraphs, but “Writing Mode” never comes. That elusive trance where the minutes float away as I’m lost in thought writing. I can’t force it, no matter how hard I try. But I know the conditions when it comes the easiest. And those conditions aren’t easily accessible at the moment.

It’s times like this that I wonder. Is this a writer’s problem? Or a human problem? Perhaps it’s something unique to creators, but I can’t help but feel like every day that I let slip without writing a substantial amount of fiction is a failure. What am I worth if I can’t even muster up the willpower to sit down and stare at a computer?

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.

Story — My Superpower

“If you could have any superpower, what would it be?” We’re asked this question often enough to merit a prepared response. The same sort of preparation that goes with “What would you do with a million dollars?” or “What’s your favorite color?”

I’m not one for open ended questions like that. I tell people my favorite color is blue. But sometimes, it’s green. It depends on the shade and the context. I like forest green, but if we’re painting the walls or the cars with it, I’d rather use something more plain. There are pros and cons to everything. I love different movies for opposing reasons. I can’t compare the two because there are too many factors to consider.

But when I’m asked what my preferred superpower is, I smile to myself. I smile because the thing I would choose is something I already have. It isn’t unique. There aren’t any superheroes featured on the front cover of any comic books for this ability. It isn’t anything as ‘Flashy’ as super speed or as ‘Mystical’ as shape-shifting.

In fact nearly everyone I know has it. It’s the ability to write.

Writing is so much more than putting words on a page. It’s magic. Crafting worlds and creating living, breathing people with full lives and histories. It’s also telepathy. I can craft any world, and person, and any idea, and implant it from my brain to yours. This telepathy transcends all physical boundaries. Even time.

Think about it. Every word you have ever read was written in the past. It may not be as dramatic as Shakespeare or Plato speaking to their readers hundreds or even thousands of years in the future. If we think of time as distance, everything lines up. Very few things have survived the journey of thousands of years past, but what little we do have allows us to see what life was like back then, almost as if we’re looking back on another world through a telescope.

It’s also incredibly complex. Minute differences lead to drastic changes in the message. If you consider all of the paganistic rituals (mostly in the fiction I’ve read or watched, probably,) then everything has to be absolutely perfect. If you draw a circle with that chalk, you better make sure that that circle is flawless because if it isn’t, you’re not going to summon that genie or demon.

It’s the same thing with words. Not only are the specific keystrokes important, but the size is, as well. A missing line and a ‘T’ becomes an ‘l’. If your circle isn’t full, your ‘o’ might become an ‘e’. InCreaSing the SiZe Of SOme letterS ChangeS even slightly makes everything look wrong, even though the way the letters are shaped isn’t affected.

And then, when one chooses to be a writer, one must look deeper. Simple word accuracy is no longer enough. You have to find the right words in the perfect context and, when necessary, apply the appropriate typeface. You have to carefully structure your sentences to convey proper pacing. Otherwise, they’re abrupt. Sporadic. Scatterbrained, even.

One must learn all these things to master the art. It may not be a superpower to some, but with practice, one can transcend time and space itself.

Life — Chapter One. Again.

One thing about my writing career that has always frustrated me, and that I cannot seem to train myself out of, is the fact that I get bored. It has happened every time I try to write one continuous story, usually around the ten-thousand word mark. When I was actually trying to write a novel I would press on after that, but often when it hit that point it became a chore, something that writing should never be. “Only write what you love” is advice I get a lot. So I adhere to it.

It’s ended up creating this sort of bizarre paradox in my writing. My passion is worldbuilding. I love grabbing huge ideas and making societies out of them. “What would a culture of people with no eyes be like?” or “How could a people scared of the nighttime survive, and how would it shape their lives?” I end up with original cultures, nations, and religions in crazy fantasy settings. But those details are never fleshed out onto the page because I never get that far.

If it’s one thing I do, it’s write great Chapter One’s. I’m constantly writing short stories that sound like they are the first chapter in a novel. It’s because they are. But I don’t want to keep writing because I don’t want to stop liking that character and their story. Sometimes, I won’t even know what comes next.

This has been my plight. I know I can write great hooks. It’s all I do, for one thing, so I get a lot of practice in, but I don’t want to be a short story author. I want to be a novelist. In short stories, I can only tease at the societies and the worlds I’ve created. I never have time to flesh them out.

One of the big reasons why all of this is a big problem for me is because I’m actually really bad at both character and plot development. At least, I think I am. Plot is especially hard for me, because trying to piece one together has never felt good to me. It always feels fake, and I don’t know exactly why it seems so artificial. I’m better with characters, but I feel like I only have a few dozen, and the only thing that changes is their name as I put them in different settings.

I’ve tried outlining. I’ve made character sheets and framing the plot structure chapter by chapter. But taking any meaningful time to do that saps the enjoyment from the story, so when I do try to write a novel, most of the time I wing it, with the only preparation being a few loose ideas I have in my head. This is often called “discovery writing” in the community, but this also feels wrong to me. I have such a technical and organized mind. I like to plan. Except when it comes to writing.

None of it makes sense, so I stick to what I know. “Chapter One”.

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 — June Update

With the onset of June comes the official beginning of summer. That means school is out (not just for me,) and the real fun begins. For me, though, summer is terrible. It’s too hot in Southern California, and once it starts to hit 90°, it doesn’t go back down until October. I, for one, can’t function well in the heat. It makes me lethargic and unmotivated, which means it’s the most difficult time of the year for me, but I’m still going to try to be productive. So, in typical monthly update order: blog, writing plans, video games, reading/listening, school, and other things.

I have a few minor changes to the blog planned for the future. The biggest of which is the new rule which I’ve already employed, and that is the “I can post fiction in lieu of a typical blog post any time I want”. It’s been getting more and more difficult for me to come up with real Learning! posts, and sometimes, writing fiction is just easier. The second change is simply a consequence of my other plans, which I’ll talk about more in a bit, and that is the fact that since I’m going to be writing a lot more, blog posts will be written further and further ahead of schedule, which might render the first change meaningless. Only time will tell.

So, writing plans. Phase Three begins officially on Tuesday. As you may recall from May’s update, I’ve been working on a few personal transformations to better prepare myself for more writing. Phase One was a revamped work space, Phase Two was a wardrobe change, and Phase Three is a daily schedule, in which I force myself to start writing full time. This plan will be set in place very soon, and if all goes well, I’ll be writing for about 24-30 hours a week. I’ve never written that much on a regular basis, but hopefully it will give me the time to not only write blog posts in more favorable hours of the day, but also allow me to give proper attention to all the things I’m currently working on. Right now my immediate project are the Spear Gate stories I’ve been writing over the past few weeks. I may or may not put a halt on that soon, but I so want to refocus my efforts on Rise of the Riftguard, as well as Lisa Stenton and the Spark universe. With dedicated hours to work for writing, perhaps I can actually work on all of them at once.

My free time lately has been entirely consumed by Heroes of the Storm. I’ve been playing it more and more since I got back into it (in January, I believe), and at this point I’ve been playing it exclusively. I’ve jumped back into more competitive play, as well, and right now I’m working on climbing the Platinum ranks with the (false) hopes of hitting Diamond before the season ends.

As I’ve been doing this, I’ve been listening to Critical Role again. One of my brothers got into it recently, so I’ve started from the beginning so I can follow along. At this point, there are over a hundred episodes, and with each episode being over three hours long (on average) that’s, well, three hundred hours to catch up. If I spent five hours every day listening, it would still take me a month to be brought up to speed (and I already know I can’t devote that much time to it, so there’s that). But it’s great to finally go back to listening to real things, as I’ve spent the last two months spending video game time with music, which isn’t as efficient as I could be.

My semester has been over for a while now, but I’ve still been going into a local high school each week to teach improv. Monday, however, will be my last day for the school year. It’s always awesome to watch the kids grow more comfortable on stage and with themselves. I learned a lot about improv and teaching in general through my year with them, and next year I plan on actually helping them on a more personal level as well. I didn’t even try to learn all of their names this year, but I only teach about a total of fifty kids, so it’s more doable than I had originally thought.

Lastly, in a few days, a few friends from improv are graduating high school. They were freshmen when I met them, so it feels like a piece of me is leaving the high school for the last time. It’s unreasonable, because the last class I shared school grounds with will really be next year’s senior class, but still. The original improv team is flying the nest, and some of us are going very far away for a long time. It’s bittersweet, but I’m happy for them all.

Life — Writing Several Projects

Lately I’ve been tackling lots of separate unrelated writing ideas, and it’s left me a little overwhelmed with the things I want to be doing. With the onset of summer, I’ve wanted to challenge myself by setting blocks of writing time throughout a work day, like many professional authors have. It’ll be the first time I’ll have a time goal rather than a word goal, so it’s a little daunting, but it does beg the question, what should I be writing?

Regardless of the things going on around me, I’ve basically always had the philosophy of working on the most exciting project at any given point in time, within reason. (If something new sounds cool, I at least hold off until I’m finished with what my current project is.) But lately, I’ve been getting so many good ideas that I’m a bit overwhelmed on where to begin. There’s the newest world-scale project I’ve been working on from recent weeks, that I’ve tentatively titled the ‘Spear Gate System’. But I’ve also had the premise for a new book involving a chess game of gods that I’ve been interested in writing. I would have started it already if it hadn’t been for the Spear Gate idea. Still, I have older ideas that I haven’t finished. Rise of the Riftguard is still a long way from being even close to a finished first draft, and I never got around to starting the new Spark story I had been thinking about. And recently I started a new short series documenting the history of Nacre Then: The Writings of Toreshide.

This leaves five projects, and this doesn’t even bring up the fact that I’m still going to be writing at least five hundred words per day on the blog. The smallest of these projects I could finish in a day, sure, but I can’t focus on all of them at once. It is a nice problem to have, though. Years ago I would have been astounded at all the things the current me is trying to juggle. And I think setting a time to write will help with this a lot. I can be writing the ‘Chess of Gods’ book one hour, and then for a small half hour break I can kick back and write some more Toreshide pieces. On one hand, this will allow time to refresh my own head space, but since I’m still just speculating, it could completely burn me out.

And this still doesn’t even address the elephant that’s always been in the room: getting bored. My single largest shortcoming as a writer is that I still get bored with my ideas way too quickly. The one and only time I wrote a full-scale novel was about five years ago at this point, and I’ve pretty much stuck to short fiction ever since. It isn’t terrible, of course, but I want to be able to consistently write novels. Most of my short stories are really the Chapter One to a book that will never be written.

I think I’m doing fine. My philosophy of only writing what interests me has carried this far, but part of me wonders whether its keeping me from really developing the ability to commit to a longer work.