Saturday, September 25, 2010

Your Lazy Brain

Your brain has its own nefarious purposes. It likes to waste time doing dumb things. I should know; mine spent all weekend in front of the computer managing nothing but the muscles it takes to kill Germany in Civilization.

For most people, their brain is attached to them; they don't seem to leave home without it. This is unfortunate because most people's brains don't have that person's best interests at heart. No, these crafty brains settle into a comfortable non-thinking state that keeps the population from doing several things, one of which is critical thinking.

Now, if you're anything like me, you're outraged by your brain's enslavement of your body. “I'm not going to stand for this,” you might be saying. Don't say it too loud: Brains hear everything.

But William!” you begin, “how will I ever escape the tyranny of my own lazy brain?”

Fortunately there are many things you can do to keep your brain under your thumb (metaphorically). You see, brains aren't nefarious by themselves; they're kind of like dogs; they're really quite friendly as long as you feed them, but as soon as they start starving, BAM! You're eaten. The problem these days is that people have gotten into the habit of not feeding their brains (and in some cases their bodies too.) You see, while America has continued to get fatter and more rotten (myself included), their brains have followed that exact diet (myself included again).

Fortunately, because you and I are both writers, our brains are already miles ahead! You've always known you were more cunning and sly than everyone else, and that's exactly why. But lets not rest on our laurels!

If you're starting to wonder if I'm ever going to get to the writing tip, you're almost in luck. You see, there are several things writers can do to keep their brains full and happy (but nevertheless ungrateful): Writing (of course.) But not just any old writing.

In fact, some writing might actually make your brain unhealthy after writing it.

Particularly I find that finding new and exciting ways to approach a story, or ways to combine things into one, are quite fun. New words are fun to make up. Although I'll probably never use them, I find myself specifically identifying interesting words or even phrases as names or titles for some yet-uncreated character for a future story. For instance, when I was waiting (and waiting and waiting) for my car to get smogged, I got to watch a documentary on the Blue Angels (looped literally three times). I learned that there is such a job as Flight Surgeon for these Angels, and even more interesting, it has nothing to do with medicine. This got me thinking, “what other conventional words could be used in unconventional titles?” I came up with a few like Water Conductor and Thought Soldier. My brains likes me when I do these things, mostly because it's less of a brain exercise and more of an imagination lap (in the sense of physical exercise), and I've already written a blog about this.

Now, people would have you believe that the best way to keep your brain active is to do daily arithmetic and reading. While some of these people have this thing called science on their side, I like to think that there are ways to stretch your mind without having to invest in a Nintendo DS or have an education.

What I'm getting at is critical thinking. My favorite way to improve my critical thinking is by reading really horrible stories. Where can you find such stories? Everywhere, including Hollywood. Even terrible movies and television shows can help you start thinking about the who and why of a character or situation. This kind of critique has become uncommon in the minds of most people, which is why so many people's opinions usually boil down to “liked it” or “hated it.” It's not that they're dumb, it's just that they're out of the habit of really thinking about why things are good (or terrible).

Yes it's terrible, but why, exactly?

To really improve, you need to learn how to take a story apart and examine its parts. Just like how a good mechanic would know how to take apart a faulty engine to find and fix the problem, a writer should know how to examine the parts of a story that have fallen flat, or sometimes more importantly, where the story succeeded. This is why there are some stories that were good overall, but upon rereading it, you discover lots of nagging little things that diminish the story. Or conversely, a story which has excellent parts but is overall quite poor.

Here's where I'd like to say, “I once wrote terrible stories, but once I learned what to avoid, I never wrote a bad thing again!” But I'd be lying. Every writer occasionally writes something that turns out weak; even the highly-paid professionals. The key to good writing isn't learning to never make mistakes, but learning how to recognize and repair mistakes once you've made them.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

More Like a Brain Hurricane

Every story has to start somewhere. Maybe you've had the idea for your story all your life. Maybe you've lived long enough to see your idea thought up by someone else and put into a Hollywood motion picture.

But lets say you're sitting at the computer (or writing desk, if you're old fashioned) staring at a blank screen (or paper). You've got nothing in your head that can make a good story (or in my case, a good blog) and you're frustrated.

Fortunately for me, I like to plan ahead. Whenever I have an idea that I think might be worth writing about, I find the nearest scrap of paper and scrawl it down. I also have a more permanent method of idea storage in a word document on my computer. The ideas can be as vague as a phrase like, “you are truly a painter with words,” or something
as intricate as a two-page breakdown detailing the seven different ways the world might end, and why, and how this would change things. If you don't have a magical word document of ideas for yourself, I suggest you start one immediately. If you don't have a computer, I recommend getting one of those cheap black and white notebooks from the dollar store and keeping it somewhere secret; somewhere safe.

Coming up with story ideas is always fun, even if all you have to work with is something basic like a phrase. For this next example, I want you read each phrase and briefly imagine a few vague story ideas relating them. Don't read them all at once or your imagination won't be able to keep up. Pay attention to the capitalization: Does it make it a proper name? A title? A business? A location?

One-Way Mirror
The man who cheated at everything
Miss Pelt
The Carnival Canal
Lucky starts

If your imagination is functioning with any kind of efficiency, hopefully it was able to picture a few things that you weren't thinking about before reading this blog.
Don't feel discouraged if you can't come up with any interesting-sounding words or phrases on your own. In fact, it means you'll have to use a different means of coming up with stories: What If.
Yes, I'm taking this idea from Steven King, but it's a pretty good method.

"You stole my method? That'll be $5,000, please."

Essentially, any basic idea for a story can be broken down to a What If question.

What if your Dad was with the bad guys?
What if you could climb into your own dreams?
What if reality was just part of a computer construct?

If you were paying attention, you'll notice that I just gave the basic ideas for Star Wars, Inception and the Matrix. Of course, there's more to those movies than those basic ideas, but you can understand (perhaps) where the ideas began.

Interestingly, you can do the same backward trace with crappy movies to see how uncreative the people behind it were.

What if two stoner guys can't find their car? (Dude Where's My Car)
What if some teenagers have a bunch of sex? (A whole bunch of movies, but I'm thinking American Pie)

And boy, people can usually tell if the movie is gonna be garbage (see above) or something good. Even movies like SAW (which I haven't seen, but I kinda feel like I have), are at least a little more original than their slashy-violent counterparts.
What if a crazy murderer kills a bunch of people? (Friday the 13th, Nightmare of Elm Street, Scream)
What if a murderer traps people in situations where they either have to maim themselves, maim/kill someone else, or die? (SAWs I, II, III, IV and V.)

Now that you understand how you can trace a big, finished idea back to its root, you should also be able to see how you can begin an idea with the same kind of seed.

Ideas can come from anywhere. For instance, to enable cheats in Grand Theft Auto 4, you have to dial specific phone numbers on your cell phone. After you do, cars, motorcycles, boats, or helicopters literally appear in front of you, even if the appearance is detrimental to the traffic you're standing in. I thought, "What if someone really could dial a special phone number and get anything he wants?"

Essentially he's cheating on his own life. When you cheat in the game (depending on the cheat,) it will limit your ability to earn certain achievements, and it lists you as a “cheater” in the menus. Mild drawbacks to be sure, but they're enough to make sure you never save your game after cheating. Since there are drawbacks to cheating, there would have to be some kind of penalty in the story, too. At this point, I break down further question-options and list any similarities to something that already exists in pop culture, or further details that interest me.

What if he goes blind after 100 “cheats?” It means he'd be very sparing with his cheats, if he used them at all. (Or he'd just stop on cheat #99.)
What if someone dies whenever he cheats? (Seems kinda like the movie The Box)
What if the things he gets from cheating just vanish after a certain amount of time like Leprechaun gold? Imagine having your helicopter vanish into thin air while you're a mile in the air!

I had another What If idea after watching huge amounts of Star Trek; I've always thought that the transporters in the show seemed problematic. Sure, in the future anything's possible, but I'm not certain that they're safe.

What if whenever someone used the transporter, they died? Their atoms reconstruct on the other side, but the person as we knew them is dead. The person on the other side is such an exact clone that they don't even realize they died, at least not until they try to go through again. There would be no way to test this kind of thing. Everyone enlisted in Starfleet could have been killed long ago, replaced by unwitting clones of themselves, sans souls.

"This planet is so nice, I could have died and gone to heaven!"

Now, I'm not too anxious to write any kind of Star Trek fan fiction, but I thought the idea was interesting, and now I can't stop thinking about it whenever I watch someone get beamed up.

Now that you'd gotten to spend a few minutes with me during my creative process, hopefully you'll be more creative.

(Please don't sue me, Mr. King!)

Monday, September 13, 2010

Guest Writing and Romance

Due to a combination of factors, I've failed to make time to update. However, my amazing
sister (sometimes known as Netraptor) has kindly volunteered to write something for today. She is addressing an issue that I've yet to mention: Romance.
Thank you, Kess!

One genre that young writers tend to try writing, and usually suck at, is romance.
Every movie and book and story these days has some kind of romance in it, whether it's boy meets girl or girl falls for vampire. Swashbuckling movies like Pirates of the Caribbean or Lord of the Rings had romantic entanglements among the characters.
But new writers sit down with their posse of new characters, and eventually, couples will form. This can be a little troubling if you've never been in an actual romantic relationship and have no idea what it's like. And yet you've set up two characters to fall for each other. You need to write it. How do you go about it?

It's not as hard as you think. Just take a good hard look at your characters' personalities. If your characters are as developed as they should be by this point, they will have quirky personalities. Is the guy shy and introverted? Is the girl a social butterfly? If they are friends, just start constructing scenarios.
And make them funny. Real-life romance is fraught with peril and pain, and yet is hugely entertaining for onlookers. The guy embarrasses himself trying to ask her on a date. She misinterprets what he's asking and thinks he's mad at her. He locks himself in his room in anguish, and she can't understand why he's acting so weird.
Keep your characters in character, and think through all the awkward, silly things they might do as they get interested in each other. It helps if they have known each other for a while, or been friends, because you have an established relationship to work with.
I'll say it again: keep your characters in character. Young writers tend to hiccup on the characterization when it comes to romance. Their characters' personalities disappear and they become the writer just acting out whatever they want to happen.

Like George Lucas did that one time.

But your characters are not necessarily you. They are different people. They don't think the same way you do or react the same way. If you have already spent story space establishing this, don't throw all that away! Sit down and figure out how they would react to things given their personality, not yours.

The first romance I ever tried to write was a problem-fractured relationship between two characters who liked each other, but fought constantly.

At that time I had never been in a romantic relationship, but I studied them in books. Particularly the relationship between the main characters in the first couple of
Mitford books by Jan Karon. Their romance was so very real. No fluff, no nonsense, just the clash of personalities and loads of misunderstandings, often with painful or hilarious results. I made careful note of how it was written, then set out to write the courtship of my two characters.

I still think fondly of those two characters and the nightmare I put them through. Awful stuff to live, but wonderfully entertaining to read, everything from near-death experiences to way too many engagement rings.
But you don't have to hook up all your characters. If you are writing a one-shot story, it's enough to have them be friends, and imply at the end that they will probably get married later on.

Examples of good relationships and bad relationships are all around us. Everybody has friends who are dating, or breaking up, or some stage between the two. If you have had dating experiences, plug some of that emotion into your characters. Let your characters act real, because when you write honestly, your reader will know. And they will identify with your characters.

As soon as you have a reader empathizing with your characters, you have them hooked.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The 3D People and Their Magical 2D World

If you're half as nerdy as me, you might have tried to write stories that take place inside your favorite video games. If you're really nerdy then the games in question are probably really obscure, and if that's the case then this probably isn't the blog for you.

I'm not talking about old video games like Pitfall or Pac Man (cough), but rather more recent games (circa 1990 at least). At first glance, a video game with a good story or good universe can be quite appealing to write about. If you remember games like Decent, Commander Keen, King's Quest, Space Quest and Cosmic Cosmo, then you're old enough to appreciate the tender deliciousness of games that helped stimulate the imagination of my childish mind.

Ur, childish because I was a child when those games came out. Literally childish.

You have to remember that most of those old games didn't have much in the way of story except maybe a screen or two of poorly-written narrative set in some grainy 16-bit font.

Even if I could have read the story, which I couldn't, I would have found a rather thin excuse to have the player collect the Red Key Card or kill snails or defeat Mordak. Well, King's Quest actually had a pretty good story. There was actually a pretty good reason to defeat Mordak.


As a young player of these games, I was interested in making the characters from the games have additional adventures. I wasn't trying to make an expanded universe or add impressive self-inserts of myself; I guess I just wanted new levels. I could kind of reach that goal via writing. It always turned out awful, but thad whad Id ecpect frm a chlid hoo culdn't spelle very well.

Fast forward to Christmas 2004 when my family finally got DSL and I got a new game for Christmas called World of Warcraft. You know where this is going.

Long story short, I played the heck out of the game, and eventually tried my hand at writing inside the universe. It's not the worst thing in the world; I'm definitely not the first person to try this kind of thing. After all, Warcraft has enough story to fill several hundred books and enough fans to fill a convention center.

Like at Blizzcon.

For anyone who has tried to write a story inside the universe created by a video game, there are a few things to know:

  1. The designers make gameplay decisions based on how fun they are, not on how accurate they are to real life.

  2. The world is sized to make it fast to walk from place to place, not to make it as big as a real planet.

  3. Everything is streamlined.

For a person trying to write a story inside the game, they're going to encounter these weird hurdles in their storytelling process. If I were just starting out writing a story, lets say it's in Warcraft and I set it in Stormwind, I'm not picturing a real city when I write; I'm picturing the city from the game, which is laughably small compared to a real city. There's no infrastructure. There's no economy; heck, there aren't even people living there.

Now let me just clarify: I don't want people saying, “you just like getting bogged down in the minute details of stupid crap like this, William! It's not relevant to the story!”

I'm not trying to say that you're supposed to add all of the boring things that I've just mentioned, but when you're picturing Stormwind, again, you're picturing the one in the game. If you want to write a more authentic story, you have to imagine a real medieval city, though one that contains magic and stuff. Lets make an illustration.

Lets say that I'm writing a story that's taking place inside a universe that I'm making up. It's completely my own. When I tell you that there's a huge city in the story called Whirlgate, the capital of the Highland nation of Men. It's built on top of a mountain and its buildings scatter down the cliffs, which have been quarried. As they descend the mountain, the buildings become smaller and smaller; the downtown area near the top gives way to residential hovels made of white stone toward the bottom. To keep the wind down, there is a massive twenty foot wall surrounding the entire city. It zigzags up and down the cliff in a strange, random-looking layout.

If your imagination is working properly (and if my writing isn't garbage), then hopefully you pictured something that might exist in the real world. Maybe it looked a little bit like something from Lord of the Rings, but still, it was real. When I say Stormwind you're going to be picturing that location in the game. Static. Polygonal. Video game. This is why I always prefer to make something up from scratch instead of fanficking myself into the corner.

To complicate matters, if your audience is also familiar with the game, they're going to picture the video game version of the city, no matter how flowery and descriptive your language is. This kind of thing happened to me when I read Howl's Moving Castle after seeing the animated feature; I couldn't NOT see the characters as Japanese animation in my head.

Though the movie is still fantastic.

I guess the point of all this is that I don't recommend writing stories inside games. I'm not saying to never do it; you might find you're quite good at it and that I'm full of hot air. If anything, it'll be a helpful learning experience that you can put toward your further writing successes.

(Also, since I didn't have anything Wednesday, I'm posting Friday's blog a few hours early as a sort of "please forgive me" bonus!)