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Inspiration By Free Association

11 Sep
Isaac Asimov Quote

Isaac Asimov Quote (Photo credit: Psychology Pictures)

Isaac Asimov is widely regarded as one of the fathers of science fiction, and as one of the better writers in recent history. He was also one of the most prolific authors every. He wrote hundreds upon hundreds of short stories, dozens of novels… I could go on. A lot, basically. One of his most recognized accomplishments was without a doubt the Foundation series. If you haven’t read that, then A, what have you been doing all your life, and B, go read it now. Seriously. Right now.
Besides being a generally brilliant author and fount of creativity, Asimov also had a useful tool which he used often. Inspiration by free association. He once said that he would open a book in two or three places, choose a few words and random, and build a plot based on those words.
There’s method to Asimov’s madness. Being stuck usually means that you have absolutely no idea where to start, but the actual starting point is not necessarily important in itself. So free association can often get you kick-started in a direction you would never have thought of.
Next time you want to write something but haven’t the faintest clue where to begin, try Asimov’s trick. Open a book and choose some words. Inspiration by free association. It even rhymes – what more can you ask for?

Making Use of Bonus Days Off

2 Sep

Happy Labor Day (to everyone in the US)! The last “official” day of summer, I guess. Back where I come from (there was a song in there, somewhere) today is the last that beaches and pools are open and all of the lifeguards get to go back to their normal lives. Me, I get a long weekend and an extra day off to do whatever I want.

What do you do when you get the magical bonus of a long weekend? Lounge around? Entertain family? What are you doing with your extra days off? The holidays are coming (Halloween is coming! I can’t wait!)

Why not make part of your bonus days off a little more productive. I’m not saying bury yourself in writing. That may or may not be the most productive use of your time. Many holidays have festivals and events that go along with them. This weekend, for example, was the Disneyland Half Marathon. Now, I didn’t get in on THOSE festivities, but I’m sure there are many other places to get into trouble if I look hard enough.

If you are going to be out and around on extra day off, why not try to catch some interesting conversation bits that you might not catch any other time? Grab details on settings that might be fleeting and elusive. Don’t forget, you may have your phone with you and you can send yourself a text message or you can use apps on a smart phone. Capture details that you might be able to use later.  Snap a few pictures that might not be what you would ordinarily take wherever you are, something that might bring  back the setting or might just be interesting.  At the mall?  Grab a shot of the food court or an interesting store.  See a few interesting people (I live in a place where three town are renown for being Weird, Unusual and “between a rock and a weird place”, there are always interesting people).  Homeless guy?  Panhandler that  has a unique angle (juggling maybe or break dancing).  Capture it.  File it away (organize your digital files so you can easily retrieve things).

You may not need the information now, but you never know when it might come in handy. You may, one day, need to put one of your characters in a family picnic or a beach party, you may want to set a backdrop to something.

Make use of whatever time you have and whatever place you may find yourself. If you can’t use it now, squirrel it away somewhere. You may, one day, be glad for the little details you ferreted out when you were enjoying your down time!

Bone Up On Your Humerus Writing

29 Aug

One of the hardest parts of writing is knowing how to “write funny”. Unless you’re writing scientific articles for a medical journal, you’ve probably tried writing in a humorous manner in the past. If you have, you know how hard it can be. Writing material that’s funny is much harder than just being funny in conversation. One of the reasons for that fact is the way humor is conveyed – when you’re speaking, you can make expressions, use voices that lend effect to your jokes, or pause at appropriate times. When you’re writing, you can’t do any of that. Your reader will read it at the pace he wants, in the way he wants, in whatever voice he hears in his head – so being funny in writing is no easy thing.
However, there is one huge caveat – the basic rules of humor stay the same. What people find funny, at a very basic level, is still the unexpected. In addition, people are amused by things they can relate to. Keep these facts in mind, and try to write accordingly – the humor in writing is less about making the right faces at the right times, and more about knowing how to address your reader in a way he can relate to.
Finally, and most importantly, the number one rule of being funny always holds true – be yourself. Your jokes should be things you find funny, not funny things you’ve heard others say. For example, my sense of humor is very word-oriented. I love puns and wordplay, taking a word and using an alternate meaning for it to change the structure of a sentence. I could talk about two people having a fruit drink, when they notice that the juice is nearly done. Thinking quickly, one of them quickly snatches his cup and fills it to the brim, beating him to the punch. So when I write, that’s my brand of “writing funny”.

English: I can't vandalize... ...but I have go...

English: I can’t vandalize… …but I have got a sense of humor! Upper Bilson Street, Cinderford. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Give it a little thought. Decide what kind of humor you would write best and see how you can fit it in. Write in whatever way best suits your nature, and make your nature your friend. Your nature-ally, as it were.


26 Aug

If you’ve read the title, then you already know what this is going to be about. If you didn’t read the title and you’re already reading the post itself – which you are – then that’s pretty flattering. You clicked on the link without seeing what it was about, and that shows trust. In any case, all that remains is for me to explain what this is about.
So, bear with me. A few days ago, I bought a ukulele. For those of you who don’t know, a ukulele is a small musical instrument which basically looks like a small guitar. I have never plucked a string or strummed a ukulele chord in my life, so I started at absolute zero with my new instrument.
I’ve played a few different instruments in the past – recorder, piano, saxophone, and I know how to play those moderately well. So now, with my new ukulele, I was once more at a stage I’ve been at several times in my life. A stage I’ve visited with every new instrument. It’s a sort of stage where you’re holding the instrument, fiddling around with how it works, awkwardly playing a few halting notes… In short, being basically pretty terrible. This can be the most frustrating feeling in the world. You can play other instruments, and you can play those well, so you know that if you work hard you’ll figure this one out as well, but for now you’re stuck.
This feeling, however frustrating, really makes you appreciate how good you at anything other than what you’re trying to do. 
Now here’s where writing comes in. Finally.
You see, today I realized something, while I was sitting there and mangling my fingers into a Bbm tab. I realized how much I should appreciate whatever skill I have at writing. I don’t really think about it often, but at some point I must have been as clueless at that as I am today at ukulele. Learning how to write better is always positive and awesome, but we should also appreciate how far we’ve come.
So this is what ukulele taught me. If you’re good at writing – and my guess is that you’re pretty amazing – take a second to appreciate the life-skill which you have at your fingertips. If you’re not yet a master wordsmith, then think of all the things you do know how to do, and realize that you can conquer this too.

1926 US advertisement. "Play a Sincere In...

1926 US advertisement. “Play a Sincere Instrument and Popularity Love and Romance will be Yours” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Beware of Rules: Passive Verbs By Zombies

24 Aug

Let me start by saying that I am very sorry for being in the land of the lost. We went to South East Asia on an adventure and it never occurred to me that “the rainy season” would impact contact with the outside world to such an extent. Add to that… the rainy season means I got sever fungal infections and other interesting things that knocked me to the sidelines when we got home. Now… I’m human again.

Yesterday, I saw a picture on Facebook. It was captioned something like… you can tell when you are using passive voice in verbs if you can put By Zombies at the end of the sentence and it makes sense.

I guess I can agree with this in premise. For example…

I was eaten by zombies
I am being eaten by zombies
My dog was stepped on by zombies

These, the rule holds true.
However, like any self respecting grammar rule, it has its gotcha.

Holy cow, did you see that? She just ran by zombies.

This one is an active verb *ran* yet the sentence makes perfectly good sense and is grammatically correct as written.

I remember when the vowels were
A E I O U and sometimes Y and W too
And I before E Except after C… then they added… or when sounded like “ay” as in neighbor and weigh.

having handy dandy ways to remember things like that are great. And they get me out of some iffy grammar situations. But you still have to double check. I know that I am often accused (lovingly I hope) by friends of being a grammar nazi, but I had an awesome teacher in 9th grade that I truly liked (I was only one of a few who did). Miss Stuck was an English teacher. She taught me grammar, how to expand my vocabulary, and that The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as a gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath.

Grammar isn’t always easy. And heaven knows English is among the worst (especially US English) but it’s something you CAN have fun with if you want. Just be careful how “by” is being used if you chose to decide if the the sentence was written by zombies, or if the logic of the sentence went right by zombies!

Honing Your Ideas

12 Aug

Great ideas don’t come often. They say inspiration can strike like lightning out of a clear blue sky, and it can. But, like lightning, it very rarely does. But when inspiration does


The Thinking Man sculpture at Musée Rodin in Paris

The Thinking Man sculpture at Musée Rodin in Paris (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


 hit you, utilize it to its fullest potential.
One of the easiest ways to waste a really good idea is to start too soon. Say you’re reading a book about cell damage, and you suddenly have an amazing idea – you could write about a scientist who uses cell damage as a weapon to become a villain. Or something of the sort. Without thinking too much, you turn on your computer and start writing. Within five minutes, you’re stuck and confused, fifteen lines in and already written into a corner. Frustrated and annoyed, you turn off the computer and never think of the idea again.
This kind of scenario happens to me personally all the time, and it’s always for the same reason. Not thinking things through.
There’s a sort of idea in every person’s head that the best writing happens without thinking, by just letting words happen on a page until a masterpiece rolls luxuriously out of the printer. But in my experience, the opposite is almost always true. The longer I let an idea wallow in my brain before trying to write it, the better it will generally be. Just thinking about an idea for a while allows you to develop it, to let it simmer gently before bringing it to a boil.
Think of great ideas. Think about great ideas. Let great ideas form and coalesce into a finished form. Then, and only then, set your great ideas free.


Finishing Touches

11 Aug

Albert Einstein once said that true genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. Words cannot describe how true that quote is for writers. No, wait. Actually, words can

Manuscript [73.13.8]: Pencil Sketch by Albert ...

Manuscript [73.13.8]: Pencil Sketch by Albert Einstein Illustrating Light Contraction (Princeton, NJ, 1934) (Photo credit: MagnesMuseum)

 describe how true is. In that case, the following words will.

If you’re a writer, I know one fact about you – you have about two hundred unfinished projects, ideas which you were really excited about when you first thought of them, but lost your enthusiasm after approximately three paragraphs. A short story which has a protagonist, a title and two sentences, or a play which has an in-depth analysis for the characters and nothing else. Every writer has these, but here’s the important bit – unfinished projects divide into two subcategories.

The first is ideas which you thought were good, but didn’t stand up to the selection process of actually getting written. You thought they were good at first, but realized after five minutes that they weren’t going anywhere but southward. And so you shelved them. Or drawered them, I guess. Whatever. The point is, not every idea is a winner, and it’s not good to waste time on projects that won’t ever pan out. And that’s fine.

However, there’s the second kind of unfinished projects, and these are very different. These are projects which you started, but forgot where you were going with them, or just ran out of steam. The hardest part of a writing is not starting. It’s not even getting past writer’s block. No, the hardest part is picking up a half-finished idea and continuing it. It’s isn’t easy, but if you want your writing to go places, it has to be done.

So I’m sure you have a few half-baked cakes in your writing oven. Open your shelf, or your drawer – well, your computer, probably – and dust a couple off. Give them a second look. See what looks as if it has potential, and give it another try.

Revise Like a Hero

30 Jul

By a show of hands, who here writes first, second and final drafts? Somebody? Anybody?

Ok, this is the internet, a show of hands isn’t going to work. But the fact still remains – very few people write more than one draft. The final one. And that’s not good. Like, at all.
This point about writing several drafts came home to me pretty recently. I usually write shorter pieces – essays, short stories, articles. All short stuff. When you’re doing that, you automatically revise as you write, and it’s short enough that you can easily give it a quick once-over when you’re done. And that’s the reason most writers get used to writing without first and second drafts.
The problems really start when you write long pieces, like a novel, because yo just write without looking back. I finished a writing a novel called “Card Theory” a while back. I was confident, I enjoyed the writing. And when I read it, I hated it. I don’t know if any of you have had that experience, but it’s a terrible feeling. After months of writing, when you think you have a finished book, and it turns out that the sentences are unpolished, the plot twists are shaky and the characters are shallow.

The reason for all this is simple. In a word, revision. You just need to make a little mental switch – books don’t come out perfect the first time. When you finish writing the first version, don’t expect it to be a finished product. Every really good book you’ve read has been revised and annotated and edited and revised again.

Do you have any unfinished pieces lying around, which you wrote and then didn’t like? Try to pick them up again. Revise them, slap them into shape, and turn them into the masterpieces they deserve to be.

"Writing", 22 November 2008

“Writing”, 22 November 2008 (Photo credit: ed_needs_a_bicycle)

Creative Constriction

24 Jul

Whether you’re writing poetry, a novel or a short story, one of the hardest parts of the writing process is channeling your thoughts into actual, concrete written material. In order to do that, here’s a trick you can use. It’s a little counter intuitive, but bear with me – the trick is to limit yourself. Impose a rule that you have to follow while you’re writing, like avoiding a subject or describing something without using visual descriptions.
Here’s an example. In the following poem, an existential-themed piece, I limited myself to rhyming only with the word ‘existential’. Limiting your options can force you to think out of the box and in original ways, and that’s always a good thing when you’re writing creatively. Here’s the poem-

All my life, in all my thoughts, just one thing burns essential
A question posed, unanswered still, am I consequential?
My mind can’t grasp the scale, perhaps that’s providential
Just one among billions, what is my real potential?

Each and every person believes they can be influential
If they only try to do their best they’ll realize their potential
But do I know if that is true, is thinking that prudential?
Maybe thinking that you matter is just hubris quintessential

So I think of this a lot, and my thoughts are existential
And I’d really wish to know if I’m inconsequential
It’s not that I am asking for a treatment preferential
But is it too much to ask just to think that I am special?

Let us try to break this down, in a subject that’s tangential
Being heard on the internet, where the info is torrential
On the web you’re just a node, just some numbers differential
No one cares what you say, your ID is confidential

Among all of the billions, who on earth are residential
I know perhaps a thousand, so I guess I’m nonessential
I don’t presume for a minute that I’ll be presidential
There are very few of those, and I don’t have the credential

So at last I do not know, whether I am special
And I know I’m not in charge, we are all deferential
But mattering’s not about power, or toward who you’re reverential
Your worth depends on you, if your belief is exponential

So that’s the poem. Now try it out yourself. Decide on a random imposition that you have to work with, and write an essay or short story with it – have fun, and

restraining ordered

restraining ordered (Photo credit: mcfcrandall)

good luck!

Writing Naturally

22 Jul

You know those times when you really get into the zone and just write for hours, and it just flows? When you don’t even think about it and you just produce paragraphs? It doesn’t come often to most people, but when you do manage to get into that state, it’s the best feeling in the world.
Each person is different, of course, and what works for one does not necessarily work for anyone else, but sometimes getting into the zone can be nothing more than a matter of putting together the right circumstances. I just had one those amazing “in the zone” writing sessions, so I’ll try to recreate the experience.
I’ve found myself writing in the strangest places and times, so when someone said they were driving to the beach this morning, I picked up my computer and got in the car. The weather’s pretty hot, so the beach was crowded. My friend went to the beach, and I went in search of a quiet place to work. There’s a wave-breaker surrounding the coast of the beach where I was at, so I walked along that. The wave-breaker consists of a few hundred two-ton cement blocks in weird, intertwining shapes, with a lighthouse at the very end of the pier. That’s where I sat. I climbed down the cement blocks, and found myself a comfortable position.
The sea was running a little high, so the waves sprayed a fine mist with each crash. Once in a while the water got all the way up to where I was sitting. The sun was baking down, and I was encased in a salty, briny sea-smell. You wouldn’t think that any writing could get done in a place like that. But it was perfect. I ended up sitting in that exact position for about five hours. In one sitting, I wrote three chapter of a book and an article. It was an amazing feeling.

Flagler Beach

Flagler Beach (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sometimes, getting out your comfort zone can be the best thing to give your muse a little nudge. If you move out of your box, it can help you think out of the box. And it can also help you learn a little more about what helps you write. I know for a fact that I’ll be heading out to write in nature a little more often, just because I felt how awesome it was. So give it a try. Write in a place you’ve never written before. In a forest, at the beach, at the top of a mountain. Go somewhere else to write, and watch your writing go somewhere it’s never gone before.

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