Monday, October 28, 2013

Rule 4: For Whom Do You Write?

     An interesting controversy has brewed in my brain recently. I've come to wonder if my purpose in writing should be for others, or more for my own enjoyment, with others' appreciation as a welcome side effect. At present, my conclusion is that I shouldn't try to write for others.

     "What?" you cry. "And what about all that stuff right up there in your very own banner? You talk up there about touching, helping, blessing people with what you've written. Now you're saying you don't think you should write for other people. What kind of hypocritical hack are you?"

     One who would like to explain. I don't think that my main focus should be on doing those things that I hope my writings will do. That is, I do hope that I can have an effect on others through what I write, but I don't think my main focus should be doing so. If I spend all my time trying to write what others will enjoy, I'll get stressed over whether or not I'm actually doing so. That will suck all my enjoyment out of the process, which will in turn damage my writing. It appears that I can't do my best work until I write what I enjoy; in essence, for myself.

     There's also a hesitation that comes to me when I say this. Isn't that a little self-centered? Arrogant? All those things you really don't want to be and others don't want you to be either? I hope not, and I don't really think so.

     It might actually help me be rid of those things. I would become arrogant if I thought I was producing something so wonderful that every human being could benefit from it. I'd be self-centered if I considered my powerful sermons something that everyone needs.

     In addition, I've seen what can happen when you try to force teachings, into stories, particularly. There have been two separate occasions where I experienced a fantasy novel with very apparent messages. I didn't disagree with them, for the most part, but it annoyed me how obvious it was. It was like they were trying to make their own Narnia or Middle-earth. I know, because I've been there. For a long time my book in progress has been a Narnia/Middle-earth look-alike trying not to be a Narnia/Middle-earth look-alike.

     The key, in sci-fi/fantasy writing in particular, and in all writing generally, is not to write to affect others. Write to affect yourself. If you're into speculative fiction, write to explore the places and situations your imagination dreams up. If you're in the more mainstream realm, write to understand what life is like. If you write nonfiction, write to explain the ideas you have. Is it selfish? Maybe. But at least it's selfish with the possibility of positive side effects, as opposed to altruism with little chance of reaching its end goal.

     No, I'm not writing for others, exactly. If what I do write could help someone else, that would be absolutely incredible. The paradox is that I can't really accomplish that goal until I stop trying. Only then is the pressure off, the ideas free flowing, and I'm free to create as I was meant to.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Rule 3: Love what you do

     Maybe this should have been Rule 1. Then again, Rule 2 provides a nice backdrop for this one. In light of writing's (and any other work's) innate difficulty, you should enjoy doing it. Otherwise, what's the point?

     This message has been going around since I don't know when. Maybe the end of the Industrial Revolution. It has become the theme of countless Disney movies, not to mention Disney's competition, and other movies that have nothing to do with Disney. But for some reason, it's treated as an unusual thing. A great thing, yes, but a rare one. And why is this?

     I have been very blessed not to know pressures that swerved me from my final goal. I was pretty young when I first settled firmly on the goal to write. And I mainly kept it to myself. No one was really there to discourage me. Others, I know, haven't received such grace. But why should that sway us from doing that which we love, which we often feel we were born to do? I have a guess. As I've said before, It's hard.

     Nothing is as discouraging as difficulty. Not that I know of. I was discouraged when I wrote Rule 2, as you may have noticed. I imagine the biggest obstacle to folks' doing what they really want to do is difficulty. In my case, I found my aspiration to write back when I didn't know how difficult things would be. That was good, because if I knew then that I would still be rewriting my first book for five + years, I think I would have thrown in the towel and given drawing another chance. I've begun to realize the dangers and difficulties of this trade now, even as I am more in love with it than ever. I think that's the key.

     Disregard all the obstacles, because they mean nothing. If you have been given a heart's desire, then it's your job to pursue it. And if you really love this goal of yours, you'll be willing to endure the difficulties of it. You'll want to do it to the best of your ability, so you'll work at it harder than ever before.

     I'm not saying to be completely drastic, to quit your job and become whatever you want to be. I am saying that you should find what you love, and do it, in whatever way seems best to you. Unless I'm mistaken, there will be difficulty in that somehow.

     I'll admit that this is easy for me to say. I haven't been thrown out into the world to sink or swim yet. What I do know is that things are hard. But that's exactly the point. Sure, our dreams are hard to attain. But that's why we love them: because they're worth it.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Rule 2: Writing is HARD

     That's not news, is it?

     I've spoken of this before. There comes that horrible feeling in the middle of the day when I haven't really written anything, and I feel like the whole day has been wasted. And despite all that I'm tempted to give up and just read.


     That's still going on. Here's me, sitting here, trying to produce something publishable. Don't know that it's going too well.

     This is maybe not so much a rule as an observation. Writing is work, and that work is hard. I don't care who you are. You can't seriously look at me and say that you've never had trouble writing. If you haven't you probably aren't working hard enough, not taking it seriously.

     It's the same as all work, really. I'm lazy and ready to find any excuse I can to step away from the workplace and go relax. I imagine that others probably have not sunken to my degree of sloth, but I do know that there's an element to human nature that doesn't like to work.

     I can't offer much other advice than what I've said already: Keep doing it. Keep going. Keep working. Despise the distractions and put to death the protests. Fight to work harder. Don't worry. Victory will be yours, with hard work, effort, and not a little time. Your mountain will fall.

     I think I hear the sound of one falling now.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Knight

     Geoffrey Knight and his good friend Thomas mounted the hill with some difficulty. Down in the valley before them lay a vast, horrific network of cliffs and canyons and tunnels. And somewhere in that labyrinth was a dragon and his frightened prisoner.

     "There it is, Thomas," Geoffrey said. "Somewhere in there the dragon is holding the king's daughter captive."

     "Indeed," Thomas's unusually high, nasally voice and his stubby height made him a very comical figure standing next to the taller and more rugged Geoffrey. "It's your last chance to turn back."

     "I can't do that, Thomas," Geoffrey said with determination. He looked down at the pile of armor he and Thomas had dragged to the top of the hill. He couldn't tell which piece went where on his body. "Can you help me put this on?"

     Thomas sighed and helped his friend climb into the lustrous metallic garb. "You know," he said. "You really don't have to go through with this. Just think about it reasonably."

     Ho boy. Thomas had lectured Geoffrey like this five times on the journey thus far. It was likely that he would do it several more times before everything was finished.

     "I've heard this princess is astonishingly beautiful," Thomas was saying. "I understand. But what's the point of throwing your life away for that? That's why we have painters make portraits. You could look at her all you want in the castle gallery. Of course, it might still be hard, you being a peasant and all, but it would be better than risking your life!"

     "It's not that," Geoffrey said, trying to stand still so Thomas could strap on the armor.

     "OK, so the reward," his friend went on. "You can make money doing any number of other things. Feed someone's cattle, or the pigs, or chickens, or something. Why, you could even raise chickens and sell them at the market. I hear it's not that hard."

     "I don't want the money, Thomas." It wouldn't do any good arguing with him. Thomas would keep going on and on about how dangerous the mission was. Geoffrey would go ahead and do it anyway. It just had to be that way.

     And Thomas would probably come along, regardless.

     "Fame, then? All you need for that is to tell your landlord that you quit, and run away and join a band of wandering troubadours. You'll be the talk of the kingdom for at least a week!"

     "I'm going to do this, Thomas. You can't stop me."

     "More's the pity." Thomas strapped Geoffrey's sword belt on tightly. "But you won't get me to go any farther. I don't want to be fried to a crisp and served up for dragon's tea time."

     "Well, that's really a shame," Geoffrey said, picking up a bag of food and starting down the hill. "I was going to give you half the reward money."

     "Ha!" Thomas called after him, "Don't think you can get me with that old trick! I know how to practice what I preach! You can't--" He paused, and watched Geoffrey go. After a second's thought, he sped down the hill after him.

     His breastplate was on backwards.


     They found the dragon's cave without much difficulty. It stood forbiddingly over them as they climbed up into it. As they entered, Thomas began to mutter his lecture again. At the sound of it, Geoffrey smiled in spite of himself.

     "Do you think we should challenge the dragon?" he asked Thomas.

     "Better ways to be famous," his friend was saying as he eyed the fearful darkness before them. "Like chickens, you know? You could sell them to troubadours or something."

     "Right," Geoffrey agreed. "Best to go with stealth."

     They hadn't gone far when they were confronted by the sound of a woman's weeping. They both advanced cautiously. A little further on, they came upon a small fire. Nearby sat a young woman in a once fine but now ragged dress. She held her face in her hands and was crying loudly.

     Geoffrey cleared his throat awkwardly. "Um, excuse me? Princess Penelope I presume?"

     The girl looked up in surprise, taking in Geoffrey and Thomas at a glance. Next moment she had thrown herself at Geoffrey and wrapped her arms tightly around his midsection. "Finally!" she cried. "You're finally here! You've rescued me! Thankyouthankyouthankyou!"

     "Uh, you're welcome...?" Geoffrey looked to his friend in embarrassment. Thomas just shrugged and glanced about nervously. They both hoped that after a moment, the princess would let go and they'd all leave. But still she hung on, clutching his waist ever tighter.

     "Uh, look," Geoffrey said, trying to extricate himself from her grasp, "I know you're happy to get out of here and everything, but we can't really get going until you release me."

     "Oh! Right!" In an instant she had let go of him and was standing upright. "What are you waiting for? Come on, let's go. Hurry up!"

     She didn't have to tell them twice. But still Geoffrey couldn't help but feel a little curious. "Where's the dragon?" He asked as they started toward the exit.

     "What?!?" she practically screeched. "You mean to tell me you haven't slain it yet?"

     "No..." Geoffrey felt embarrassed again. "We were hoping to avoid a direct confrontation."

     Princess Penelope looked incredulous. "Really? You didn't slay the dragon first? What kind of knight are you?"

     "A volunteer one," Thomas said.

     "This is not the time," Geoffrey said to Thomas, trying to move them both toward the mouth of the cave.

     But now the subject would not go away. "What are you talking about?" Penelope asked, her tone betraying a rising suspicion, and even anger.

     Thomas seemed proud to tell her, "This good fellow here dropped everything when he heard that you'd been captured, rented some armor and a sword, and brought me to help, so he could come down here and rescue you. I'm his best friend, by the way, and I was with him from the very beginning."

     Geoffrey rolled his eyes and said, "Of course. But we need to get out of here."

     "You rented your armor?" Penelope asked him. "You don't have any of your own?"

     "Well," Thomas admitted good-naturedly. "He's not exactly a real knight. We're both from the lower class, if you know what I mean."

     "YOU'RE A PEASANT?!!?!?!!?!"

     Thomas and Geoffrey both fell over. The princess began whining and sobbing and near-screaming while Thomas tried to help Geoffrey stand back up.

     "I CAN'T BELIEVE IT!" Penelope was crying, "I can't be rescued by a peasant! I'll be ruined! My father will probably want to give me in marriage to you or something! And then I--I can't bear to say it--I'll be a peasant too!" She collapsed into an uncontrollable fit of hysterics.

     Meanwhile, Thomas lifted Geoffrey to his feet. "You know," Geoffrey whispered to him, "That reward is looking better all the time."

     At that moment, there appeared, looming out of the shadows, the large reptilian face of a dragon. Its eyes were the yellow and red of extreme age, and its skin was pale and dry, cracked like thousand-year-old parchment. Its jaws hung open and its tongue lolled out on one side of its mouth. It drooled.

     At the sight of the creature, the princess fell into yet another tantrum. "AIEE!!!" she screamed. "The dragon! Kill it, slay it, destroy it. For goodness' sakes, kill it!"

     These commands were lost on Geoffrey. As soon as the creature showed its face, he scooped up the princess in his arms and ran toward the cave's exit, Thomas close behind him. Just as they reached safety, Geoffrey set Penelope down on a rock and left Thomas to look after her. He charged back into the cave to face the dragon head on.

     Thomas was about to go in after him, when there was a loud yell, a thundering quake in the earth, and a great ball of fire leapt from the mouth of the cave.

     Geoffrey! Was he really...? There was no way he could have survived that, was there? Thomas drew off his cap and held it over his heart. He had been a good man. One of the best men that he knew. As good a peasant as ever there was, that was for sure. Thomas sniffed as a tear formed in his eye.

     He was suddenly, painfully aware of the princess sitting on the rock nearby. Her wailing had not ceased. She was still there crying and bemoaning the facts that 1) she had been captured by a dragon, 2) she was soon to be eaten by the dragon, 3) that a peasant had come to rescue her, and 4) she had actually been touched by said peasant.

     Thomas felt a burning anger come over him, hotter than the dragon's flames. "What in the world are you crying about?!" He exploded, "Don't you know what just happened? My friend Geoffrey just died trying to save your pathetic hide! Does that mean anything to you? Maybe he wasn't a real knight, but he was a better man than all those real knights put together. He knew what kind of spoiled rotten brat you are and he still risked his life to keep you safe. Do you understand what that means? No, it does not mean you're really special. It means he was!"

     He was foiled in his rant as Penelope, who had been watching him pitifully, finally fainted dead away. He was about to go and shake her awake, when there came a tap at his shoulder. "Excuse me, Thomas?"

     He turned to see Geoffrey standing there, his face streaked with soot, his dirty helmet in his hands.

     "You're alive!" Thomas threw his arms around his friend and hugged him warmly. "But how? What became of the dragon?"

     "He's dead," Geoffrey said with an odd grin. "I went back in there to kill him, but when I got in, he was already hacking and wheezing like nobody's business. He was coughing these little fireballs, so I took cover, just as he let loose that gigantic breath of flame. After a couple of minutes I went to investigate, and he was dead. Of old age, I guess."

     "Wowee. That's amazing. I'm glad you're back, though." Thomas looked to the fainted princess. "Now, what shall we do with her?"

     Geoffrey shrugged, then took a step forward and regarded her kindly. He sighed, then handed his helmet to Thomas and picked her up gently.

     "We'll take her back to the kingdom where she belongs," he said. "Come on, let's get going."

     He started down the path, back through the labyrinth of cliffs and tunnels. Thomas halted where he was, watching him go. He shook his head in amazement at his friend's character. Then a smile forced itself over his face, and he set out after him.

     His breastplate was still on backward.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Rule 1

     Rule number one: Write a mistake first.

     This may not be news to you. You may be sitting there going, "Well, DUH!" Or you may be stuck trying to discern what exactly I mean by such an odd statement.

     One of the greatest pillars of success is the ability, and even the willingness to make mistakes. I only know because someone told me. I'm terrified of making mistakes, what's worse, making them publicly. But that's the only way to go.

     This is somewhat related to what I was saying last week in "Plowing Through." To do anything well, you're probably going to have to do it badly first. Unless you're Perseus or Anakin Skywalker or something. Just so long as your mistakes are in an upward trend, you're making progress.

     By making mistakes, and even more horribly, making them publicly, you can begin to learn what works and what doesn't. That's why I'm going to publish this thing after only having written it once, and not having gone back and rewritten several times as I usually do. It's scary for me. But it's good. It will probably be helpful. I hope, anyway.

     Unless you're Isaac Asimov, you probably can't get away with your first draft of anything. I know I can't, and as you can probably see.

     Of course, along with making mistakes, you also have to be willing to correct them. I wonder if I'm going to have to come back later and update this entry because I found some glaring error in the midst of it. Maybe I will. It's likely.

     What I'm trying to do here is get over my fear of being wrong. It's a hideous creature that lives to some extent in all of our closets. And we all need to take up arms against it, if we're ever going to succeed in our pursuits. And let me tell you, it's a hard battle. It will not be easy for me to release this half-baked piece of work like a flock of ungainly pigeons.

     There's something of a conflict here. Here I am telling you not to fear doing something wrong, in a document that is supposed to be wrong. Yeah, uh, I didn't think about that...

     All I can really say is that I clearly didn't think things through quite enough. But in a sense, that's good, since it fits well with the theme of the whole entry. And if it's a bad idea, then it was a bad idea. But I'll probably only know after I try it.

     So in closing, I have these two words of advice, mainly for myself, but hopefully you'll find some use for them: One, Don't be afraid to make mistakes, in anything. Two, When you do make mistakes, admit it, apologize (even if it's only to yourself), and fix it.

     I, um, I guess that's it. Thanks.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Intro to Writing Rules

     I'm probably the last person who should be talking about writing. I have nigh unto zip in the way of credentials. It sounds pretty arrogant of me to draw up a list of rules that writers should use to improve their writing, when I myself am struggling around trying to improve my writing. I don't want that to be the case, but it could be.

     I hope rather that my motive is that I really love exploring this whole world of writing that has opened before me, so much so that I want to share my discoveries with others. I'm learning each technique even as I write about it. I like to think about it more like I'm exploring this incredible world along with you, my readers. I'm discovering new things even as you discover new things. In a sense, we're in this together.

     Also, I've been learning that writing is not all that different from most other "regular" jobs, or even from life. Sometimes it gets really hard. I get tired after doing it for a long time. Sometimes I wonder what the point is. Sometimes I just don't want to do it because my brain feels like a smashed pear. I just want to put my laptop away and watch TV. So I don't think writing is all that different from most other occupations.

     My hope is that these rules will be useful whether you're a writer or just a reader. No doubt there will be some that are more exclusive to the writer's field, and some that are more general. My goal is to help however I can by sharing my thoughts and observations.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Plowing Through

     Have you ever had one of those days where you felt like you couldn't get anything significant done no matter how hard you tried? I think I'm having one of those days right now. I've been working on the drafts of this entry for the whole day and it's not going anywhere fast. That dreaded phantom known as writer's block is looming its eerie head over my keyboard.

     I can't say I have any particularly deep insight into what to do when this kind of thing strikes. I haven't been afflicted with it very much. That's probably a sign I'm not working hard enough. All I can say is what I've been trying to do. Keep going.

     That's the typical, used up, trite, bland, hackneyed, cliché, boring, stale, worn out, same old, same old answer. I know. But I don't know of any better method. It certainly hasn't helped to sit out on the back patio and meditate. A quick break is helpful, sure. But before and after that break there have to be periods of significant struggle toward the goal. Plow through the valley, and eventually you'll make it to another hill.

     All last week, I was struggling to produce a remotely acceptable draft of a short story. I likened doing so to pulling down a great white mountain (the blank page) and replacing it with a vast black valley. By days 3-5, I could barely get my pickaxe swinging in the right direction. But I kept chipping away at the rocks as best I could, hoping for that moment when I would get a big breakthrough and half the mountain would just fall. It happened, but not until after two days of trying to work and feeling useless and hopeless.

     What am I trying to say here? Stick with it. I know it's tough. You don't have to tell me twice. I believe you. But, if you really want to succeed, to achieve your goals in whatever field you experience difficulty in, you need to keep going. Yes, it's hard. But that's what makes it worthwhile.

     So my word of encouragement for you is that I know to some extent how you feel, and that if you keep plowing through, you will succeed. The mountain will fall if you keep on swinging.