Writing experiment

I’ve been running a little writing experiment these past months. What I found may be especially useful for those with little to no free time.

I don’t know about other people, but I have noticed that one of the most effective ways to stifle one’s creative flow is, quite simply, to go to sleep. I may have spent a couple hours before bedtime all absorbed as I worked on something and then said to myself that I’d continue the next day. Then I wake up the next day and… I forget all about it, as if the person who woke up that morning was a different one or sleeping triggered some sort of memory wipe. I guess the deep-rooted rituals and habits of daily life overwrite whatever thing your excited self from 8 hours ago thought was critical. More than once it took me days to remember that I still had something half-done lingering there in the computer. But by then the excitement had pretty much vanished and I had little to no interest in going back to it.

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Tell me, don’t show me your characters’ emotions.

I have written other posts criticizing common bits of advice given to writers, and I have in fact hinted that I believe the emperor to all of them is naked, so here it is: Show, don’t tell. What is it good for? Not much really.

There are also some elephant-in-the-room-sized clues hinting that all this Show, Don’t Tell thing may be, at best, platitudes, and at worst, nonsense. First of all, the entire history of human literature. Pretty much everything written before the last 100 years was 90% Telling, with Showing sparkled here and there to enhance or highlight certain key passages.

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To fictional characters and minions: please, stop charging to your deaths.

You know you are reading fantasy because everybody is a suicidal lemming with no self-preservation instinct. In fact, you know you are reading modern fantasy because everybody (especially the bad guys) cares about his survival as much as the random pin-headed monsters that populate video games: “Oh, look, here’s that guy who has killed hundreds of [insert enemy] like me. Let’s attack him! I’m sure this time will be different!”

Knowing that the writer of a story is drawing most of his (probably unconscious) inspiration from movies or video games —worse, that he is not aware of that and believes he writes “realistically”— has been for a long time my #1 source of reading wrath and frustration. And there’s hardly a better place to see that in action than when characters are trying to murder each other, and since I’m talking about fantasy & adventure stories here, that seems to happen quite a lot.

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Psychology of writing: word accessibility

You can pick out a skilled painter or draftsman because they keep their eyes on the canvas or paper without having to constantly check every line they draw by comparing it to the model or original image, or having to look up, again and again, pictures of what they have to draw on google images. They trust their instincts and skill, and their lines are precise, and they have developed the necessary muscle memory that allows them to be skillful artists.

All the arts have that, a combination of skill, knowledge, and automatism that baffles the uninitiated. It’s mostly years of experience and practice. Well, I said all the arts, except writing apparently. There doesn’t seem to be a writing equivalent for that process of learning the fundamentals that other arts have, like painting has color, tone, and values, while draftsmanship is mostly line, shadow, and perspective.

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November 18 post: Increase your writing output through meticulous timekeeping, precise reinforcements, and pure HATE

I mentioned in the previous post that writing is a very peculiar behavior, with a great chasm between its execution and hypothetical reward. That makes it hard to reinforce, to keep it consistent, comparable to similar activities with equally deferred rewards, like strength sports.

I thought I was being original when I wrote that but reading the papers I had ready for today’s post I noticed I was probably just paraphrasing one of them. It’s from a 1977 paper [1], which includes an introduction and discussion by a psychologist, but the core of the paper is the novelist Irving Wallace explaining his charts and timekeeping methods he used to become a professional writer.

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November 16 post: writer-based prose vs. reader-based prose.

I was sure I had already published this post, but I had not. I “remembered” this post when I read The Pulp Archivist linking to my previous posts on writing. He says:

Given that writing has such a separation between the speaker and the audience, it is no surprise that many writers forget about the audience altogether. Many literary novelties are written for the speaker’s sake–such as three codas to a story written in the three persons of point of view–and not for the effect on the audience. The faults tackled in these blogs all boil down to writers forgetting about the audience and focusing on the flash of writing

My answer was “ah, yes, that’s like that thing about the writer vs. reader-based post I had… uh, did I actually wrote that or just thought a lot about it?” Well, apparently, the later. So let’s redress that…

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November 12 post: the participial phrase (-ing verbs) pandemic.

This post has been in my draft folder for a long time. It’s one of the most common issues I see in texts I read or proofread, and it’s also the one that more easily sets me off. I’m talking about the overuse of participial phrases or, as you probably know them, -ing verbs. They are everywhere, and although they can be used correctly, they usually aren’t.

This is the pattern, and once I mention it, you’ll probably recognize it: “Character A did X, Y-ing something else,” or “Protagonist said, twirling his mustache.” The participial phrase is the entire, well, phrase, “twirling his mustache,” not just the word twirling. Grammatically, they usually work as an adjective, modifying a noun or pronoun (like the subject.) I was surprised when I discovered that because I had intuitively thought they worked as adverbs, saying how something was done (How did he say it? Twisting his mustache) but in fact, they modify a noun, here, “Protagonist.” Basically, it’s like saying “The Protagonist, he-who-is-twisting-his-mustache, said.”

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