Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Why Adverbs are Generally Bad (but Sometimes Good)

Adverbs to writers are like salt to cooks.  If you put in too little, it will come out bland, but if you put in too much, it will be overbearing.

You’ve probably gotten the idea that adverb use is bad, evil or a little like a fungus growing between your toes.  This seems to be an often noted lesson for writers.  But the fact is, adverbs don’t kill stories.  People kill stories.

One might say, if adverbs can make my story look bad, I’d rather just leave them out entirely.  But that’s like saying, too much salt can make the food too salty, so I’d rather just leave out the salt.  It is a useful tool that can actually help your product, if only you use it correctly.

So why are adverbs bad?  Well, there are several occasions which brought up the whole problem in the first place.

The number one reason for this is what they call Swifties.  I think it’s named after a writer named Swift who used them a lot.
A Swifty, for those who don’t know, is a dialogue tag modifier.  E.g. “Put that down,” John said angrily.  You are essentially telling your readers what you should be showing them.  So basically, this is the same deal as the show/tell thing.  Some occasions demand telling, but most do not.  A reason for using a Swifty can be this:  If your speaker’s words would make it hard for a reader to figure out what would be obvious if he was hearing it.  E.g. “I hate you,” he said happily.  However, a Swifty should be a last resort.  Try to restructure the words or set the mood so that the happily will be apparent without you saying it.

Another occurrence is the use of weak verbs along with adverbs.  For example, John walked quickly to the scene of the crime.  By replacing ‘walked quickly’ with ‘hurried’, you say exactly the same thing, only with fewer words.  Never say something in two words if you can say it in one.  Weak verbs that need to be modified are sort of like passive voice.  It’s easy to lose clarity, focus and interest by using them too much.  There is a place for them, but if you can help it, don’t put them in.

Adverbs can add clarity to a sentence that would otherwise be difficult to understand, but people often over explain.  Readers are, in general, smarter than one thinks and can usually fill in the gaps.  When you are certain that it needs to be there, you can joyfully put it in.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Four Basic Writing Stances : Fool

The Fool.  Source

The Fool (or Alber in German) is a deceptively open stance.  You lower the blade, almost touching the floor with its tip, and step back with your one foot.  You create the illusion that you are open for attack while you can actually counterattack very efficiently.

With a twist of the hilt, the blade can be brought up to parry, leaving you in a good position to attack.  Also, the speed with which you can lift the blade will often be underestimated.

In writing, the Fool is a combination of the Plough and the Ox.  You start off without any outline, but when you figure out your characters and see how things play out, you switch to outlining for the middle (which is often a very difficult place for an Ox to be in).  But before you get to the end, you switch back to writing without an outline.  Therefore, your outline will be everything except the beginning and the end.
The Fool essentially maximises efforts by outlining the part that is hard for the Ox stance and winging the parts that often cause the biggest problems for the Plough stance.  By doing this, the Fool gets the advantages of both stances.  The story will be well structured and flow naturally, if you do things right.

However, along with the advantages, the Fool also gets the disadvantages.  The stance tries to cast away the places where the stances most often fail, but it cannot eliminate all the problems.  By winging the beginning, it is possible to set the whole course of the story into a chaotic mess.  The beginning gives you the direction, and if you don’t know what’s happening, you will shape the whole story (even with its structured middle) into the wrong thing that might not really get anywhere.  Also, the large part in the middle might stagnate and become an article instead of a story.

For people who like both the Ox and the Plough stances, the Fool is a good alternative.  It may seem to be a very chaotic method, but it efficiently balances out positives and negatives.  If you do it right, you can create a story with a wonderful flow and natural characters, without losing tautness and clarity.  If you don’t do it right, you will have a big mess on your hands.

Friday, August 26, 2011

The World of 1s and 0s

There’s an old joke that goes like this:  There are 10 kinds of people in the world; those who understand binary and those who don’t.
Well, you don’t have to be one of the latter anymore, because today, I’ll show you how it works.

First up, the smallest unit in computer memory is a bit.  Eight bits make up one byte.  A thousand bytes make up a kilobyte.  And so on and so forth.

Every bit contains just one of two possibilities, a 1 or a 0.  On or off, if you will.  (You’ll notice that on power switches, the “on” side has a little line—this is actually a 1)

One byte, aka 8 bits, can be one of 255 possibilities.  Every bit in an 8-bit byte contains a yes/no answer for a different number.  Binary works in multiples of 2.  Every bit represents 2 to the power of a different number.  These numbers, from right to left, are 0 to 7.  Thus, the far right number represents 1 (aka 2 to the power of 0) and the far left represents 128 (aka 2 to the power of 7).

Say we have this binary number:  01001101.  To work out what number it is, you add all the bits’ values together.  In this case, 0 + 64 (2 to the power of 6) + 0 + 0 + 8 (2 to the power of 3) + 4 (2 to the power of 2) + 0 + 1 (2 to the power of 0) = 77.

Normally, when writing binary, you can leave out any leading zeros, since they do not alter the value.  The computer doesn’t do that, but humans often do, when writing them down.  Ergo, 10 would be 00000010, aka 2.

Congratulations, now you are part of the people who understand binary (hopefully).

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Behind a Closed Door

Every idea is a secret to begin with, even if it only lasts for a few milliseconds.  How long should it stay that way if it’s a story idea?  At what point is your story ready for public eyes (or ears)?

On the one hand, sharing your story too soon will probably hamper it quite a bit.  You’ll be taking on outside influence instead of writing the story.  I think Stephen King mentioned that you should always have a closed door period where no one else sees your writing.

However, sometimes I like to share the base idea of my story in order to see if it will work.  Many times, I think that the idea is amazing until I say it out loud to someone.  Then it sounds full of holes etc.  Therefore, it might not be such a bad idea to share the story early, but it’s important that you don’t share too much.

But nowadays, I don’t show any work to anyone until it’s done.  Sometimes—very rarely—I might ask an opinion on a small piece of story that needs some explanation.  But I think the more I write, the more confident I get in judging my own writing.  I sometimes write down my base idea instead of telling it to someone and can get pretty much the same effect from it that way.

So, how soon is too soon?  After the first draft?  After the second (if you have one)?  After revisions?  After publication?

Personally, (well, at this point anyway, but I’m prone to changing my opinion) I like to wait until I am completely satisfied with the story (or at least, can’t figure out what’s wrong).  If all my revisions and edits are done (in my closed door period) and I’m happy with the result, I’ll give it to someone to read, who will then rip my pretty story apart and leave me to piece it back together (only in a better order this time).

When do you ask for opinions during the writing process?  Do you ever?

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Four Basic Writing Stances : Plough

The Plough.  Source

The plough (or Pflug in German) protects very well and allows any attack.  This is achieved by holding the hilt of the sword near your middle, next to your hip bone.  The sword point should be aimed at the chest or neck of your opponent.

While the plough allows any attack, they will be inherently weaker from the lower point (except maybe a straight thrust).  This position is very defensive and leaves most attack points closed or easily closable.  Ergo, it is hard to find an opening when someone is in the plough stance.

In writing, the plough is just as defensive.  You outline your story far before you begin.  You might even go as far as outlining each scene in great detail.  You prepare plot events beforehand and see how it plays out before you start writing.

This stance allows for a lot of stability and defence.  You will know exactly what will happen next and how everything will end up.  You’ll also save some time by having much less revisions and/or rewrites to do than say, the ox.  Your character will end up as you intended, the story will be bound together more strongly and it will feel more like a whole.  Your story will be very clear.

However, by outlining your story, you could be forcing your characters into plot events before you really know who they are.  Therefore, your characters might seem less real and might even make unrealistic decisions (if you didn’t think it out properly).  Also, since you decided everything beforehand, the events may seem to happen mechanically.

If you push the outlining too far, your story could end up sounding like a newspaper article rather than a story.  However, if you do it right, the plough stance gives your story focus and keeps it going in the right direction.  As long as you keep your characters in mind when plotting, your story will have clarity and move deliberately from one point to the next.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Uncovering Your Fossil

Stephen King says in his book, On Writing, that stories are fossils that must be uncovered.  For a more detailed explanation, buy his book (no, seriously, you should) but for now, just know that it means that the story is pre-existing and you are just revealing it (and finding it yourself).

What I really want to talk about here is symbolism and/or theme.  I think every person that went through high school got a plateful of it with every English class.  All the important stories seem to have symbolism and have some kind of great message to deliver.

One of the reasons that I’ve avoided a lot of classics is because of this.  I don’t like symbolism, I like story.  Symbolism is for smart people who take the time to study the book for months until they understand the underlying reason for every word the author put there.  Or so I thought.

I like King’s theory.  He says that symbolism, just like the rest, is in the fossil that is your story.  You just have to uncover it.  In other words, after you wrote the first draft, you’re likely to see a theme if you read it.  Things might stand out to you as symbolism.  If you like it, you can expand on those symbols and remove others.

What I’m trying to say is that I don’t want to sit and plot my story around the whims of some kind of symbol that I want to convey.  I want to tell a story.

So instead, I will uncover the fossil and see if there are any symbols to be found.  If so, I might refine them to focus my story a bit.  If not, that’s fine too.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

How Falling Leads to Flying

There is a point in the learning of a skill that smart people call a plateau.  This is when your skill levels out and you don’t seem to get any better.  This is true with every skill you have ever and will ever learn (including cartwheeling, tightrope walking and cleaning under your nails).  Once you reach the plateau, you become competent with it and able to do it without much trouble.

This is a good thing in many cases.  It allows you to put something on autopilot so that you can concentrate on something else.  However, this also stops you from overcoming mediocrity and achieving excellence.

To break this plateau, you’re going to have to put in some effort.  One way is to practice deliberately.  Say you want to be a better cook.  By constantly making food to improve your skill will not help you overcome your plateau.  What you have to do is focus on specific things that need improving.  Say, your heat control.  You must have a goal that you are trying to reach, a specific point you’re trying to improve, rather than just mindlessly repeating the same activity.

Also, you have to take risks.  If you’re trying to practice for your mission of paddling across the English Channel with a canoe, doing it in your swimming pool won’t help your efforts much.  If you’re doing what you can already do (very well) you’re just wasting your time.  Don’t fear the failure that inherently comes with risk.  You might get an odd tasting lasagne every now and then, but it is completely worth it.

You can often get by using only mediocre skills and even make money off it.  But if you want to reach excellence, you have to better the small stuff.  To find a solution, you must first identify the problem.  Practising what you’re good at won’t make you better.

Here is a list of problem areas of mine in my writing that I think could use some deliberate practice:

Dialogue – It works and it delivers the speech, but it is often sounds like a bad advertisement.
Description – It works and lets the reader know what certain things look like, but it often reads like a workshop manual.
Characters – They follow events and make decisions, but they are often weakly motivated or just plain uninteresting.
Events – They pull the plot forward, but I mostly rush past them, making them seem like news headlines.

While I might occasionally end up with a character that fights a bad guy to rescue his family, get money to save his farm, take revenge for the death of his brother and do a good deed to redeem his soul all in one, the experience will teach me something and hopefully drive to towards excellence (instead of alcohol).

What are some of the problem areas in your writing?  Are you working to improving them?

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Four Basic Writing Stances : Ox

The Ox.  Source

The ox stance (or Ochs in German) provides adequate defence while providing a direct threat.  The hilt is held next to and above the head, pointing downward at the opponent’s neck or face.

Because of this, it is not the most stable of stances, but it does allow for a quick attack by means of a straight thrust (which is automatically aimed at one of the opponent’s weakest spots—the face or neck.

When using this stance in writing, you head directly in, not stopping for outlining.  This is a very aggressive stance and you play it by going directly for the throat per se, getting to know your characters and developing the story from there.

This stance offers you a great opportunity to get a nice flow and get in touch with the events in the story.  Each event is spawned by the last, so each comes spontaneously.  If you do it right, your characters will feel more natural because there is little opportunity to “force” them to do things by means of plot. 

However, you give up stability.  The story you write could easily sway around aimlessly until you just give up (or worse, end it right there and declare it a novel).  Also, it leaves a lot of room for not knowing what to write (which often leads to said aimlessness as mentioned above).

The ox is a powerful stance if you know what you’re doing.  As long as you revise at the end, you shouldn’t have any glaring plot holes or forgotten events and you will be rewarded with characters that feel natural and a plot that flows smoothly.  

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Human Nervous System: Is it a Bear or a Tree Stump?

The feeling of dread in your stomach.  The sweaty hands.  What does it mean and why does it happen?

The human body has two systems that regulate a whole lot of important things.  They are the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.

The sympathetic nervous system is in charge of preparing your body for stress and maximum efficiency.  Say for example, you walk in a forest and suddenly a bear jumps out in front of you.  Your pupils dilate and your heart rate increases, along with your blood pressure.  Also, your lungs expand and blood is diverted from your skin and digestive organs to the brain and skeletal muscles.  All this is in order to prepare you for either the fight or flight reaction.

The parasympathetic nervous system calms you down again.  When the bear in the forest turns out to be a tree stump, you relax and your parasympathetic nervous system kicks in.  Your pupils limit the amount of light coming in and your heart rate and blood pressure returns to normal.  Your muscles relax and the blood flow is returned to its previous setup.

These two systems basically work together to ensure that your body is regulated optimally so that you are ready for whatever you are facing, whether it be a bear or a tree stump.

To ensure that you remain safe, the sympathetic nervous system kicks in even before you’re sure of what you’re facing, just in case.  You see a dark shape looming in front of you and your mind automatically calls down a memory of what a bear might look like and your sympathetic nervous system reacts accordingly, so that you might be ready.

The downside in all this is that the body often overreacts, specifically in this age, where the most danger one faces is cutting one’s hand on paper.  Even though we live in relatively safe environments (in contrast to our ancestors) our bodies still react as though we’re in constant danger.

Because of this, every new thing we face, be it a tree stump or a publishing deal, will send our bodies into overdrive, preparing to fight for survival.  This pushes many people to stay in their safe environments, never trying anything new.  They trust their bodies to tell them what is dangerous, while the sympathetic nervous system is still living in the Stone Age, unable to see when we’re not in danger.

While your body can prepare you for danger, it can also lead you into a life of no growth.  Think before you listen to your sympathetic nervous system.  Don’t just run.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Screaming "Made you look!" to readers

The synopsis on the back of your book or in the middle of your query letter is the gateway to getting readers.  You must grab their attention and then hope your story doesn’t let go.  Advertisers have much the same dilemma.  What grabs attention?  What causes people to skim over certain parts?  Here are the determinants of attention.

There are external determinants and internal determinants.  Let’s start with the external.

The stronger the stimuli, the more attention it attracts.  Louder, brighter.

When converted to writing, I think that would translate to more dramatic.  The more intense your dramatic events, the more attention it will attract.

The bigger the stimuli, the better.  Bigger things, like advertisement boards, attracts attention better than tiny flyers pasted on walls.

What this could mean for us, I can only guess.  Perhaps the bigger your climax or inciting incident, the more attention it will demand.

Closer stimuli will be more prone to catching out attention.

The fact of the matter is, no matter how good the synopsis is, if no one picks it up, no one will read it.  Your synopsis should begin with a bang, be interesting enough that the reader will not just throw it away.  Even the title can affect how far away your synopsis will be.

Movement in the field of vision, as well as unexpected and odd stimuli catches our attention very easily.

This one is easy.  New and exciting things will grab attention like nothing else.  Original ideas etc.

Repetition of stimuli can establish an idea quite well, but there is always the danger of habituation (getting used to it and thus not noticing it any more).

Repeating important points (maybe something like symbolism) can often drive home an idea or the theme, but you must have something original to counter balance the habituation.  A tricky situation, but perhaps worth it if you rely heavily on symbolism in your story.

In general, complex stimuli are more interesting, but it is entirely dependent on the person on the receiving end.  Every person finds different amounts of complexity attention-grabbing.

Don’t make your plot seem too complex or too simple, except if you know your audience will respond to a specific one.

Internal determinants
Every person is more likely to notice something that is personally relevant to him or her.  Let’s say you are learning a new language.  Suddenly, you’ll be seeing more of that language in random adverts and magazines.  Not because there was a sudden influx, but because you now see the information as relevant and therefore your mind fixes your attention on it.

It is important to know your audience and what they find interesting.  Use those points to attract attention.

To find readers (or customers) you have to grab them from the get-go.  The same can perhaps be said of the hook, but a synopsis, especially if a publisher or agent is reading it, is a very important part of your toolkit to getting attention.  Use it.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Four Basic Writing Stances : Introduction

The four basic stances.  Source

At the heart of swordsmanship lie stances.  Every stance allows you to both deliver attacks and block them.  While I presume that each swordsman had his own preference, all stances are interchangeable and dynamic, allowing the swordsman to switch between them as the situation demanded it.

As writers, we too have stances.  The way in which we take on a manuscript.  Start immediately or plot first, etc.  Everyone has their own opinion, and judging by the difference in advice from bestseller to bestseller, not one is the “correct” solution.  Every writer has a preference in their writing stance, just as swordsmen have a preference in their sword stance.

While no one is correct, each has its own strengths and weaknesses, and it would do well to know each of them.  Trying out every way also helps you find the stance that works best for you.  I’ve dabbled with almost all of them, and I’m still trying to find my preference.  Of course, every situation calls for another approach, so when I write short stories, I employ a different stance than when I write a novel.

In the following four weeks, I’ll look at one stance of German longsword stances and attempt to compare them to writer stances.

Friday, August 5, 2011

"I work better alone," says your subconscious

To be a writer, you have to read.  Some people suggest reading outside your genre, others suggest reading only your genre.  I say, read what you want.

Why do writers have to read?  To check out the competition?  To set goals of what they wish their work to look like one day?  Not exactly.  I’m pretty sure that there is some disagreement on this, but the general consensus is that you read in order to see what other people did that worked and what other people did that did not.

I’ve heard people say that they read books as writers, i.e. differently than other people.  They look for things the author used and ways in which the words are stacked up to deliver an impact.  I’ve never understood this.  I read because I like stories.  That’s it.  I can’t bring myself to read a 100k words simply to learn a lesson from the author.  I’m aware that it isn’t as simple as that, but I can’t specifically look for writerly messages hidden inside the words.  That way, reading a book becomes work and I read to not work.  If reading became work, I’d never read anything.  Ergo, reading should be fun.

Am I losing valuable information?  Am I being a lazy bum for not wanting to put a little effort into improving my craft?  I don’t think so.

You see, I trust my subconscious.  I trust that my subconscious will do all the work for me.

When I was in high school, I avoided studying for English Language.  Why?  Because the grammar rules confused me to no end.  There were little bits of information that made no sense to me.  In fact, if I were to write a test where the questions were along the lines of ‘Identify the conjugated verb in the above sentence’ and more complicated ones, I’d be lucky to get 50.  Instead, I read.

Every word I read gets meticulously spun around in my subconscious and recorded somewhere (you’d have to ask Livia if you want to know where; possibly the limbic system).  I could spell and construct sentences with the best of them.  Why?  Because my mind had recorded all the grammatically correct sentences that I’d read.  Therefore, if a new sentence is compared to the recorded ones, it can tell me if something is wrong.  ‘The apples is in the basket’ just sounds wrong, because my subconscious has been conditioned into recognising correct grammar.

My point in all this is the following:  I read without studying, but I can still learn new things from it.  My subconscious will record the information and let me know when something is amiss.

If you are consciously looking for things instead of reading, you might even be hampering your subconscious from doing what it’s supposed to do (much in the same way I avoided thinking too much about the grammar rules).  Let your subconscious do its job.

You can’t learn everything from your subconscious, but there are a lot of things you can.  Read what you want, and read for fun.  Let your subconscious do the writer reading for you and enjoy the ride.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

How I Save my Hand from Certain Doom and Still Get Benefits

I’m not a strong writer.  As in with a pencil/pen.  If I write a single page, my hand hurts so much that I have to stop.  Therefore, I type my drafts on a computer.  If I were to write it longhand, my hand would probably explode and leave its spattered remains over my manuscript.  By typing, I’m saving my hand, finishing faster, and I’ll be able to read what I wrote.  But what do I lose by leaving the paper behind?

It is interesting to note the difference between typing and writing longhand.  Livia made a post about it once.  By writing longhand, you’ll probably get a more coherent structure from the get-go, while typing allows you to change while typing, so you’re not as bothered to get everything right immediately.

But that’s not all.  Writing longhand has a way of helping you remember important bits.  Typing does not have the same effect (or at least not as strongly).  Read more here.

Having more of the important parts swimming in your brain is a good thing, for writing is essentially a vast number of connecting ideas.  We combine previous memories and information to get ideas.

When I’m planning or plotting, I sit on the floor and write ideas down on paper (Okay, sometimes I sit at a table).  Just having the idea in my head does not have the same effect.  Maybe it has something to do with having a visual representation, I don’t know.  All I do know is that it’s easier to connect and create ideas when I write them down.  Having written a previous idea helps spur on the new one.

It could be something to do with the neurobiology.  Livia has (on more than one occasion, I think) spoken of how reading about a particular action or sense activates the same parts of the brain that would activate if you were actually doing or sensing that.  With this in mind, writing about an event that happens in your story will, in much the same way as reading it, allow you to experience that same event, per se.  With that knowledge, you have a better chance of following up with the next event.  Perhaps the reason why pantsers (as opposed to plotters) write better in their way.  The story reveals itself to you as you write it, for you are, in your mind, a part of it.

In the same way, when I plot, I like to play out the scene in my head if I struggle to figure out what should happen next.

Writing things down have a multitude of positive effects, but specifically for me, it helps me remember ideas and cultivate new ones.

I don’t write my manuscript longhand, but I plan my story with a pencil and paper.  Only when I’m done figuring out the story do I turn to the computer to record it.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Finding the Human

I liked the idea of having a series' post on Mondays, but since my story crafting is over, I'll have to think of a new thing to do. Meanwhile, here is a filler.


When I first started writing, my characters were very flat and unnatural.  I quickly learned that they needed to be human, i.e. weaknesses etc.

However, with that came a stream of characters that share a common problem with (too many) characters in fiction I’ve seen.  A single flaw.

I made characters with good intentions and strong senses of justice.  They were pseudo invincible and quite frankly, close to perfect.  But I inserted a single flaw to make them human.  I inserted a little event into his past and there he was, now afraid of the dark.

Mood made a post where he (unrelatedly) used an example of Indiana Jones being afraid of snakes, and that (when regarded in isolation from the rest of the story) served as a perfect example.  Just to make him more human and less invincible.  Using it as an obstacle later on, when he is trapped with a thousand snakes causes me to overlook this.

Misha Gericke’s post about clich├ęs mentioned a jock that secretly plays piano.  Again, a fine example.  Using a little quirk to try and MAKE a character more human.

As with physical quirks (such as the twirling of hair when nervous), you can easily centre so much attention on the quirk/flaw that you define your character by it.

Humans are insanely complicated, so by simplifying them to a personality quirk, you’re essentially dehumanising them.

Every decision we make is a vast series of neurons firing in our brains.  We take in the information around us, compare it to the information we have already stored and then we choose.  Thus, every decision is a gateway to finding the human in your character.  Instead of relying on a fear of snakes, Indiana Jones is made human by the decisions he makes.  At one point, he chooses (after some coercion) to leave behind a treasure in order to get out alive.  It speaks a lot about who is, without relying on quirks.

I recently read Wilbur Smith’s River God, and the protagonist, Taita, is a genius of many measures.  He is a good person and loyal to his master and friends.  However, he is constantly lying and hiding the truth from those same people in order to help them or someone else.  He often runs from problems and avoids conflict.  All these things make him a remarkable person, but nonetheless human.

Humans are central in most stories.  Characters can’t be made human by flaws.  Bad decisions make characters human.  Quirks and flaws are only extras.