And though I had slain a thousand foes less one,
The thousandth knife found my liver;
The thousandth enemy said to me,
'Now you shall die,
Now none shall know.'
And the fool, looking down, believed this,
Not seeing, above his shoulders, the naked stars,
Each one remembering.
--John M. Ford, The Final Reflection

The Asylum Director

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"The only thing I was fit for was to be a writer, and this rested solely on my suspicion that I would never be fit for real work, and that writing didn't require any." - Russel Baker

Monday, September 10, 2007

The Mad Scribe's Musings On "The Art"

Note: Most of what I'm about to write down ought to be common knowledge to all writers. In fact, I'm sure everything I'm about to mention has been written about already writers who understood the art better than I did. However, seeing as how I'm stretched for workable ideas on what to write here without it feeling like pointless spam later on, I guess it wouldn't hurt to put my own spin on things.

Disclaimer: Some of this advice may or may not make sense to you. Some of this advice may or may not apply to you. Heed these words at your own creative risk. You have been forewarned.

1. Writers should write what they know, but understand how to wrap what they know around what they don't know.

In other words, learn how to associate the key concepts of one thing to the key concepts of another. My ex-girlfriend, a wise-but-batshit-insane woman, once told me that "Everything in life can be compared to war." After much deliberation on her words, I have come to realize that she's absolutely right on that. Being a student of military history and tactics, she often compared situations and events in her life (including her love life) to war and military strategy. This helped her cope with her problems better, giving her an angle that she could work in without having to go unprepared into an area of expertise she knew little of.

Basically, she figured out that by using something she understood (war) to explain something she didn't understand (love) to herself, she could get a better idea of how to deal with it. The same principle applies when you're writing. If you can't do the research or you can't get the materials you need first-hand, then you may be better off wrapping something you know around that unknown factor in your writing. For example, if you're trying to write about a critical point in a romantic relationship, rather than force yourself to write about emotions you have little grasp of, you can take something you know and use it as a metaphor. The last time I did this, I used blackjack and it worked fine.

2. Details. Manage them.

It is integral for a writer to know the details of what he's writing, even if most of it doesn't get anywhere near whatever it is he happens to be writing at the time. Understanding the little things helps you understand the big picture, and all that. You don't have to stick all those details in, as a good narrative can stand even without the level of background detail that Tolkien gave Middle-Earth. However, if you don't give the piece enough of a background, then it will lack a spine and the construct that is written will fail to stand up to any level of scrutiny. To put this metaphorically, you should know how to see the trees, but also be able to see the forest too. For most people, they can only see either the forest or the individual trees. You'll have to train yourself to see both, but still be able to tell them apart when you need to.

While this one applies more to fiction, it can also be adapted to writing non-fiction. In both areas, you're basically writing about something that your readers are likely to be unfamiliar with. They may have some idea, but their knowledge is likely far, far removed from being in-depth. As such, you have to know how to strike a balance with what you include. Give them enough details for them to understand what's going on and what already went on. However, don't give them so much that your flow of ideas is regularly interrupted by you showing off your encyclopedic knowledge of what might be a minor tangent of what's going on.

3. A little psychology and sociology goes a long, long way.

Understand how the human mind works, and how human minds work when gathered together. It's amazing what insights you can get if you just sit back and observe a few things. This, in turn, can help your writing, as you have a better grasp of what would make your readers (or characters) tick. It also helps show the differences between individual thought and group thought, as the two are painfully different things. Having a decent grasp of how the two work, as well as how they correlate with one another, is a useful thing to have. Works great with characterization in fiction, but can also be useful when constructing something that's designed to sell a product in a subtle way. Psycholinguistics, and all that, mates.

While the one previous to this was better suited for fiction, I think this one is more applicable to non-fiction. Or at least advertising copy. The point of advertising copy (and, on a tangent, what I'm getting paid to write by my current job) is to sell something. Since you're not speaking to the customers directly, you can't hammer down any resistance like you would if you were talking to them. Instead, the best way to sell a product (or cajole a person into clicking a link) is a little subtle manipulation. Make the article an interesting piece, but make sure you leave out enough to make them want to check out your link as a potential resource. The whole "sense of urgency" strategy of sales works too, but you'd need to better understand your target audience if you're writing. Basically, if you know what buttons to press, then your job is a lot easier.

This can apply to writing fiction as well, particularly if you're trying to grab as big an audience as you can. A little sociology can help in marketing the book and getting it off the shelves. However, you'll need a touch of psychology to get people to read the book and, if there are sequels planned, eat those up too. The right words in the right places, folks.

4. Creativity is like Mother Nature. You can drop a suggestion or two, but ultimately, she follows her own course. Best to just sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride.

Seriously. If you get writer's block, don't panic. Stay calm, meditate, avoid getting too caught up in the problem. Think of writing as being similar to The Force, from Star Wars. Rather than shove the ideas from mind to paper, let the ideas flow. Let the ideas and your own creativity guide you, rather than forcing your mind to be creative. If nothing comes to mind, take a moment or two to relax for a bit and let the thoughts simmer a little. When your mind truly refuses to cooperate, don't force it to bend to your will and leave the notion aside for another day. Work on something else, if you have to.

The key here is to never stop writing. Not thinking, but writing. Never let the creativity die down simply because you don't need to write at that particular moment. To keep your writing skills and your creativity sharp, you need to constantly hone them, sharpen then. It's kind of like fighting with a lightsaber: you're never going to get good enough if you don't practice with a live opponent, spar with an experienced master, and constantly acclimate your body and mind to how you want to use the weapon. The same concepts apply to writing. You can't really master writing if you stop writing in your head just because you don't have to write for that particular time. Keep your creative juices flowing, even if most of your ideas will never make it past your head. That way, the few that do get to be written down on paper will be products of a sharp, skilled creative mind.

5. Every scar a step closer to enlightenment, every cut a badge of honor, every cry a fragment of perfection.

Never accept the limits and borders that your culture, upbringing, and environment have set upon you when you write. Writing has always been about pushing limits, pushing buttons, and pushing boundaries. Never let your own limitations be the limitations of the characters you write or the scenarios you create. Just because you're happy and optimistic doesn't mean that everything you write has to have a happy and optimistic tone. Sure, it's easier to do, but it hardly forces you to exercise your ability to think and get into someone else's frame of mind. Continue to expand your boundaries and push new visions forward.

As a writer, you are part of a global community, a global breed of artists. As an artist, you have to have just that touch of madness, that sense of recklessness and spite for the status quo that you have to represent, to a degree. Artists have to be able to look outside the status quo, to envision things that most people could not. Or would not. Even if what you're writing is hardly something you'd want your name associated with, you have to keep poking.

6. A writer ought to be, by his very nature, a perpetual student of life, the universe, and everything.

Personally, I think every writer should continually expand his horizons, learn more things, and embrace new ways of looking at old ideas. There really is no such thing as an original concept in this world anymore, so sometimes, you have no other choice but to take the old and try to make it shiny and new. However, most people who do have a tendency to fail miserably. Writers should always try to expand what they are capable of writing, and not merely be content with wrapping the known around the unknown. Writing is a discipline that, like Jeet Kune Do, should not be made static. Instead, it should embrace the flow of new ideas, reinterpretations of old material, and the evolution of archaic systems and genres.

A writer, if you ask me, is both a student and an observer. You have to observe the world, take note of the minutiae and watch the drama unfold from as objective a view as your mind can afford you. At the same time, you have to take notes and study the phenomena of the world, society, and the human being sitting next to you. Anything and everything can be taken to have an ulterior meaning, a deeper significance. It is up to the individual mind to put their own personal spin on it. There are more than two sides to every proper story, and for every angle on a topic, there are a thousand ways to spin it around. Just don't force yourself to find those spins. Let them find you.

7. Bounce ideas around.

There is one place you can go that can provide you with a million and one ideas at no cost, if you can train yourself to separate the mindless rabble from the golden opportunities. Other people.

Listen to other people. Minimize your participation in other people's conversations. Rather than talk, listen. Take in everything and sort through their statements later with your mind. Chances are, you'll pick up an idea or two that you can work with immediately and a few others you might want to put away for use at a later date. The fact is, people have a tendency to just talk and talk and talk, with little to no regard on what ideas they might be spewing out. As a writer, one of my greatest tricks is to listen to other people, assimilate the ideas that I could, and put the rest under consideration for future use. What you can't make sense of now might be something you embrace after a few more life experiences. Listen to the people, hear what they have to say, and learn how to make use of it.

The inspiration for the next great novel could just come from the mouth of the beer-guzzling idiot sitting next to you, or from the mouth of that kid who looks like he's planning how to steal your car. You never know.

8. Writers are like organized serial killers, in that we tend to have personal rituals we need to perform before we can truly start working.

As a writer, I tend to be very, very superstitious with my writing. I always clean the inboxes of my multitude of e-mail addresses first, then check out Deviantart and Akibakko for new pictures to add to my collection, then check other people's blogs before I start writing for the day. This is because this is my quirk, my ritual. For others, it involves plugging in headphones and dancing along to some obscure RnB track that I'm not fond of. For others, it is checking out the online version of a local newspaper. It all varies from person to person, but every writer has a quirk, a ritual they have to perform. It really shouldn't matter and, in theory, even without it, we can write. However, we choose not to.

The fact is, writers can sometimes be a very ritualistic lot. What worked once for us, we tend to believe will work for us constantly. It helps us write, if only because it serves as a psychological comfort zone for us. It's kind of like a security blanket that you need to fall asleep, even if you don't need it to stay asleep. We have rituals we need to perform before the creative part of us allows the rest of the mind to catch up. I suppose, in many ways, we don't really need that, but we endure our rituals anyway.

That's it for today, folks. No more, because no more have come to me. What, you expected a flat 10? Please. Anyway, I've done my work for the day, and I've done this not-quite-as-pointless-as-the-rest blog post, so I can safely say that I need to get back to writing Chapter 22 of Darkness & Stars. Bye for now, ladies and gits.

Now, permit me to leave you with this happy picture...

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