Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Benefits of Being a Writer


Every job has its perks, like free food, a nice view, or the opportunity to drive nice cars.  Being a writer is generally a lonely and hard job, but there are numerous benefits that are often overlooked.  Here are some of them:

1) Staring out the window is part of the job description.
There might be some people who would object to this, but it’s true in the strictest sense.

2) If you zone out during a conversation, you have a valid excuse.
“Are you listening to me?”
“Oh, uh, sorry, I was working.”

3) You’re a good liar.
Maybe not always a benefit, but studies have shown that creative people lie more often and much better.

4) Verbal battles are easily won.
You have a bigger vocabulary and a way with words.  Who can really beat you?  You’re basically bringing a bazooka to a twig fight in most cases.
“That’s story’s about as likely as Twinkie-trees blowing with the artic wind in Kentucky.”

5) If there’s someone you don’t like, you can make him a redshirt in your story.
There are actual legal repercussions for basing characters on people though, so make it recognisable only to you.

6) If the real world gets too much, you can just think up another one.
Hamlet said, “To be, or not to be.”  But he forgot to add, “or to be somewhere else”.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Quotation of the Week

Every week, I’ll put up a quotation related to writing or creation and tell you a little bit about the person who said it.  I’ll try to vary the speakers as much as possible.

"I blame myself for not often enough seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary. Somewhere in his journals, Dostoyevsky remarks that a writer can begin anywhere, at the most commonplace thing, scratch around in it long enough, pry and dig away long enough, and lo!, soon he will hit upon the marvellous." - Saul Bellow

Bellow, a Canadian-born Jewish American, was awarded the Pulitzer, Nobel Prize for Literature and the National Medal of Arts for his literature.  His best-known works include Henderson the Rain King, Seize the Day, and Ravelstein.  He often quoted and referenced to Marcel Proust and Henry James in his work.

Friday, February 24, 2012

The If Sentence


If you have done any programming whatsoever, you should have the basic knowledge of the if sentence, possibly the single most important command that a computer possesses.  If you don’t know it, fear not, for I am here to enlighten you.

First, some theory.  The basis of AI is essentially if sentences (okay, it’s not nearly that simple, but it’s an important building block).  If this situation happens, react in this manner.  Therefore, knowing the if sentence will enable basic AI.

The basic syntax for an if sentence is : if <the condition> = <the result> then <command>

Now, an example.  Say you’re writing in Quick Basic (the only language I know deeply).  You are told to write a program in which a name and password is checked, a basic version would be this (everything after //s is comments by me and would not be read by the program):

Print “Please input your name and then your password:” //this puts the text in the quotes on the screen
input name$  //This is simply a command that prompts the user to type something and then records the letters in the variable name$
input password$ //same as above
if name$ = “Jake” and password$ = “ender” then print “You gave the correct name and password!”  // this checks whether the variable name$ contains the text “Jake” and if at the same time password$ contains “ender”.  When both these are true, the command print “…” is performed.

And that’s that!

There are more advanced things like “else” and nested ifs, but that’s for later.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

3 Ways to Harness Your Power as a Writer

As a writer, you have a power that few other people have.  You are a controller of minds and emotion.  Here are three ways in which you can harness that power:
Copyright Nintendo.  Source

Make your readers cry
Livia Blackburne did an awesome post about this a while back.  In short, you need familiarity with the character for whom is to be cried.  You’ll be hard-pressed to get readers to cry on page one.  First, the reader must learn to care for the character and then to make them cry.  Check out the post for details.

A way to harness this is by changing the chronological order of your story.  Don’t start with the death of a loved one.  Start after the death and reveal bits of information until you crescendo with the big emotional death scene.  (Better yet, read Livia’s post)

Make your readers miss appointments
Donald Maass says that the thing that keeps people turning the pages is tension.  That’s what makes them forget to walk the dog and miss appointments.  As horrible as that sounds, that’s exactly what you want to happen.

A way to harness the tension is by posing knowledge gaps.  The gap drives people crazy if they care about the subject.  So reel them in and then leave them hanging to keep them turning the pages.  Don’t let them have all the answers until they get to “The End”.

Make your readers think
A good book, like a good movie, stays in your mind for a long time after you’ve finished it.  You’ll know what I mean if you can remember the thrum in your head as thoughts about the book or movie was flying around in your brain.  No matter how insignificant the thoughts may seem, they grabbed you and that means that the writer did something right.

Things that are relevant to you are always noted first and remembered best, so the way to make your readers think is by making use of universal themes.  Emotion is always a winner.  E.g. Brothers reunited after a long struggle, or on the other side of the spectrum, the horror that isolation makes a person do.  Also, leaving the reader with a question will make use of the knowledge gap and leave them thinking, e.g. should there be limits to where science goes?, or does that madness lurk in everyone’s mind?

Strangely enough, making people degenerate socially, cry and endlessly obsess does not put you in their bad books, but rather entices them more.  Why is that?  That’s another topic entirely.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Quotation of the Week

Every week, I’ll put up a quotation related to writing or creation and tell you a little bit about the person who said it.  I’ll try to vary the speakers as much as possible.

"There are no dull subjects. There are only dull writers." - H.L. Mencken

Mencken, born and deceased in Baltimore, Maryland, was a German American writer, journalist, critic and scholar.  He is regarded as one of the most influential writers of the 20th century, earning him the nickname “Sage of Baltimore”.  Mencken was also the man behind the bathtub hoax, in which a fictitious history of the bathtub was printed in New York Evening Mail in 1917. 

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Trolley Problem

Copyright Nintendo
There is a school of thought called ethics, which deals in moral standards and such of human beings.  Within this basis, there is a thought experiment called the Trolley Problem.  Herewith the experiment from Wikipedia:

Suppose that a judge or magistrate is faced with rioters demanding that a culprit be found for a certain crime and threatening otherwise to take their own bloody revenge on a particular section of the community. The real culprit being unknown, the judge sees himself as able to prevent the bloodshed only by framing some innocent person and having him executed. Beside this example is placed another in which a pilot whose aeroplane is about to crash is deciding whether to steer from a more to a less inhabited area. To make the parallel as close as possible it may rather be supposed that he is the driver of a runaway tram which he can only steer from one narrow track on to another; five men are working on one track and one man on the other; anyone on the track he enters is bound to be killed. In the case of the riots the mob have five hostages, so that in both the exchange is supposed to be one man's life for the lives of five.

There are a few variations (ranging from pushing a villain in front of the trolley to stop it and having the one person be your own mother), but they are all based off this one.

What makes this so interesting is that it is a dilemma in total.  There is no right answer.  Either you kill one person or you kill five people.  Regardless, you kill someone.

So the question is, do you choose the lesser of two evils, or do you stand back and watch it happen.  Someone said once, all that is needed for the world to end up in chaos (or evil, or something of the sort) is for good men to stand by and do nothing.

There is a movie called Unthinkable that deals with another dilemma called the ticking time bomb.  In the thought experiment, a hypothetic terrorist has planted a bomb which will kill thousands of people and he has been captured.  The question is, can he be tortured so that thousands of lives can be spared?  I.e. can you commit evil to prevent greater evil?

In the movie,


the specialist interrogator eventually calls in the terrorist’s small children and threatens to torture them in order to get the location of the bomb.  In the end, the FBI agent calls the torture off, even though the possibility of a last bomb is probable.  Thus, she chooses to avoid committing an evil to prevent a greater evil.


In this moral dilemma, what would you do?  No matter how many times I think about it, I don’t know how to solve the trolley problem, because I can’t sacrifice the one person.  What is the right answer?  Is there one?

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

When Want to Becomes Have to

Copyright Square-Enix.  Source

Pressure makes diamonds, or so the saying goes.  But here is an interesting fact: pressure also leads to declining performance.

Let me give you a scenario which is applicable to me and might be applicable to you.  Let’s say I have no job and rent that needs to be paid.  I have no skills (other than writing fiction) and/or contacts and can get no job.  I decide that I can sell short stories for a living.  What happens to my stories?  They never get written or they are crap.  What happens to my motivation?  It declines steadily until I dread the return to the empty screen.

Writing is supposed to be fun.  Not all the time, but it should at least have the capacity to excite you from time to time.  If this is not the case, one of two things is happening.

One, you don’t like writing.  Two, you’re putting too much pressure on yourself.  Pressure you can’t handle.

If your next day’s meal depends on how good your story is, it is likely that it’ll break away some of the allure of writing.  This is a hard subject to accurately determine, since each person’s level of stress-handling is different, but the fact remains.  If you have to, you have less inclination to want to.

When you do this for a living, how do you counterbalance that problem?  You drop the importance scale a bit.  Stephen King says that if getting your kid to baseball practice is just as important as finishing your draft, there’s a lot less pressure.  Make sure you find time to write, but don’t make it so important that you can’t fit anything else in.

You need a bit of pressure and challenge (say, a wordcount for the week), but when I want to becomes I have to, there is a problem you should look at.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Quotation of the Week

Every week, I’ll put up a quotation related to writing or creation and tell you a little bit about the person who said it.  I’ll try to vary the speakers as much as possible.

"We do not write in order to be understood; we write in order to understand." C. Day-Lewis

Cecil Day-Lewis (aka Nicholas Blake when he wrote mysteries) was an Irish poet.  He wrote 22 novels under his pen name and published more than nine poetry collections.  His children include an actor, Daniel Day-Lewis, and a television chef, Tamasin Day-Lewis.  Another of his children, Sean Day-Lewis, wrote his autobiography, C. Day-Lewis: An English Literary Life.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Reading Frames

Herewith a small excerpt from The Book Thief’s The Standover Man.

All my life,
I’ve been scared of
of men standing over me.

If all went as planned, you did not spot anything strange.  Now, read it out loud.  You’ll immediately spot the error.  (There is a chance you’ll just see it from the start, but eh, you get the drift.)


This is a method that works extremely well.  The mind works in wondrous ways when reading, if you haven’t noticed already.  A while back, I made a post about the speed of reading which included three ways in which the human mind reads.  I think the whole language method is applicable here.  Or maybe it is something else entirely.

Back in the day when I programmed in QBasic, the animated sprites I made for my games consisted out of maybe three frames.  For argument’s sake, let’s say it was a guy swinging a sword.  The animation frames would go a little something like this : |  /  _   (First a vertical line, then a diagonal and then a flat one, each representing a different position of the sword.)
When show all three after each other, I get an animation that looks like the swinging of a sword, even though the eye works at a lot more than 3 (maybe six) frames a second.  As you (should) know, the mind fills in the blanks and makes it a smooth transition.

I think the same works with reading too.  When the mind sees two “of”s after each other, it realises the typo and presents you with the correct sentence instead of the one with the error.  But when you read aloud, you read each word separately (Phonics or Holistic word recognition) and then you spot the mistake.

So in conclusion, when you finish the final draft of your story, read it out loud to catch all the errors.

Side Note : Somewhere today I read aloud.  The sentence was “one at a time” but I somehow changed it to “one by one”.  The two have a similar meaning, so maybe it was my mind that replaced the slightly harder to say sentence with the easier synonym…

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

What Your Handwriting Says About You

Graphology is a pseudoscience with a few avid followers and a few avid rejecters, in which handwriting is analysed to determine personality.  Thus far, it is not considered to be a valid source of personality profiling.  Though I’m not sure of its validity, graphology looked interesting, so I looked up the basics.

Hemingway's handwriting.  Source

The amount of pressure applied while writing apparently indicates the emotional energy of the writer.  The more pressure is applied, the more vitality and mental endurance they have.  Ergo, they can put a lot of energy into tasks without completely draining themselves and are mostly successful.  On the other side of the range, someone who applies little pressure doesn’t have so much energy and tends to avoid emotionally draining events.

The slant of the writer’s letters indicates the response to emotion.  If the letters slant right (/), the writer reacts strongly to emotion, i.e. heart rules mind.  If the letters are vertical (|), the writer does not react to emotion easily, i.e. mind rules heart.  If the letters slant left (\) the writer shows no emotions.

Base Line
If sentences slant upwards as they proceed (this only works on unlined paper), it could mean a generally upbeat or optimistic nature of the writer, while a downwards slant could mean a generally down or pessimistic outlook.  Very straight lines could mean that the writer is overly disciplined or tense.

Apparently, these things can differ depending on the mood of the person as well, so for an accurate analysis, a series of writings over a period of time is required.

There are other things like spacing and size, but for now, this is it.  What does your handwriting say about you?  (And is it even remotely accurate?)

For more info on this, go here.  It is also the source for my post. 

Monday, February 6, 2012

Quotation of the Week

Every week, I’ll put up a quotation related to writing or creation and tell you a little bit about the person who said it.  I’ll try to vary the speakers as much as possible.

"A poet is someone who stands outside in the rain hoping to be struck by lightening." - James Dickey

Dickey was an American poet that was born in 1923 and passed away in 1997.  He was a teacher for a while, then went to the Air Force for two years.  Later, he went into advertising, notably working for Coca-Cola and Lays Potato chips.  He published his first poetry book, Into the Stone and Other Poems, in 1960.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Us vs Them

Copyright Masaya. Source

Grouping occurs when similarities or differences are noted.

One study showed that people are more likely to go sit next to someone with the same haircolour as them if they come into a room full of people looking for a seat.

The human nervous system works by appraising things and then deciding if they are a threat or not (or at least, one theory suggests that).  When looking at something, you automatically categorise it as either the same as you or different.  First, human or not human.  If human, then it is categorised as either the same or different.  If you look at survival way back when, people different from you will probably be out to kill you, since they will likely be part of a different tribe.

There was a study done where a class of children were treated differently according to their eye colour.  The blue eyes were often rewarded while the rest were treated worse.  The children were under 10 years.  Very soon, the kids with the different coloured eyes formed a group and those with the blue eyes grouped and already formed a strong Us vs Them mindset.

Even children as young as that form groups according to circumstances.  There is a natural tendency to treat people who differ from you differently.  Ergo, the birth of racism.

In the end, there are two main things that can happen within a community if two different cultures are mixed together.  Either the minority will be consumed and converted by the majority, or the two cultures will essentially segregate and deal mainly with their own kind (okay, three, the two cultures can combine and form a new culture, which is probably the best solution).

How many times are you grouping every day?  How many times do you classify someone as part of “Us” or a part of “Them” without realising it?

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Too Much Time

Copyright Namco.  Source

If you’re a writer and you don’t have a big sum of money in your bank account from a lotto win or sell enough books to cover the bills, chances are that you have to work for a living (or raise kids, which is, from what I’ve heard, more work than work).

Probably, if you fit into the above category, you’ve wished more than once that you had more time to write (rather than squeezing in some writing time before you go to bed or on your way to work).  As someone who’s had that, let me tell you, it’s not as wondrous as it may seem.

Before I go on with that, let me ask you this.  What would you say is the most important habit of a creative?

The answer of many (and a common agreement, I think) is solitude.  The ability to seclude yourself and use that time to reach into yourself and pull something out.  Being alone makes you think.  Maybe another important aspect is that you should be doing nothing.  A writer once said that you should spend four hours every day either writing or doing nothing (writhing on the floor counts as that, apparently).  You need time to think.

I’m sure you’ve all noticed that grieving people often like doing things in order to stop thinking about things.  You, as a creative, need to do the opposite.

Now, to my other point.  I spent around a year trying to find a job while studying part time.  The idea was to write during this gap of time.  I did.  Write, I mean.  But it was hard.  I struggled to find good ideas and spent hours pacing.  At the end of the day, I would have maybe 1500 words.  Which is not bad, but in my mind, because I’ve spent an alleged 8+ hours on it, it was pretty bad.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a professional writer who spends all day writing (except maybe John Creasy).  They use a part of the day (say, morning ‘till noon) to write, and the rest to answer mail, play with the kids and/or read.

When you have too much solitude, the silence becomes deafening, and you can’t hear a thing the world/your muse/your imagination is trying to tell you.

Ever since I’ve gotten a job, I’ve been pretty busy, between that and studying (and maintaining my three weekly blog posts), I haven’t had much time to write.  But ideas flow more freely and everything seems better to me.

When your mind is spinning with ideas and experiences, your solitude has meaning.  If I can make an allegory, weekends don’t have the same yay-factor when you don’t have to go to work or school during the five weekdays.

Maybe it’s just me, but I think it makes sense.