Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Three Gifts for Writers Reviewed

A few days ago, I decided to look up gifts for writers, inspired by an author-themed candle a friend posted on my Facebook wall.

What I found? All kinds of books on writing—apparently everyone and their unemployed nephew can tell you methods and strategies for how to be a better writer. Lots of T-shirts with writerly slogans like, “Be careful, or I’ll put you in my novel” or “Keep Calm and Write On.” (Is there any niche group that this British cultural juggernaut cannot fit into its mold? I don’t think so. They’re everywhere.)

And I also found these three gifts. Take a look. Put them on a gift list for a writer in your life. Or, in some cases, maybe not.

As you can see from this picture, I actually own this one. And I’m really, nerdily happy about it.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Graduation and the Dead Letter File

In my desk at home, there is a file labeled, “Unsent Letters.”

Near the end of my senior year of high school, I started a list of people who I wanted to thank. I wrote brief notes about how they had impacted me, some of them without even knowing it. Most weren’t fully written out, but all of them were sincere.

There are no envelopes in the file.

I never sent them. I’m not even sure I ever intended to send them. It was a portrait of me, a helpful exercise to see who I was going into college, and what had made me that way.

Some of the compliments found life in comments in people’s graduation cards or in their open house guest book or with actual words to the person’s face. There weren’t very many of those. Sometimes it’s hard for me to tell people what I admire about them.

To me, “unsent letters” has the same sad ring as “if only.” It sounds too much like regret. It’s the progression from “I could have sent them” to “I would have sent them if….” And, of course, there’s always the quiet, nagging wonder, thinking about those dead letters, if “I should have sent them.”

How will other people know what they mean to us unless we tell them?

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

How to Write Humor

Ask any writer about how to write humor, and the first thing they’ll tell you is that there is no process. There are no rules, no steps you can follow.

Oh yeah? Well, one of the nonexistent rules for writing humor is to do the unexpected. So here are some steps you can follow. I expect a large group of writing experts to send me hate mail now. The rest of you can enjoy.

1. Eavesdrop.
Find funny people. Write down what they say, then figure out why it’s funny. You can do this with friends, of course. But the danger there is that some people are just funny because you know them and share a lot of inside jokes. If a stranger says something you find hilarious, it must be pretty universally funny, because you have no context for it.

One of my favorite eavesdropped conversations took place between two twenty-something guys in the Arts and Crafts section of Walmart. Guy 1: Dude, did you really try to *glue* the button back on? Guy 2 (very defensive): Hey, I don’t sew, okay?

There is, of course, a line for acceptability for when research becomes just being creepy. Check out this quiz to make sure you’re not crossing it.

2. Think like a sixth grader.
This one is for creating funny dialogue in scripts or stories. At my school, the sixth graders always did a musical at the end of the year. There was one role that every single kid wanted to get.

No, it wasn’t the lead. It was the funny character. What kid doesn’t want to get to deliver the punchlines and have the entire school laugh at his jokes? It’s pretty much the definition of cool.

Whenever I write a play or a funny story, I try to picture all of my characters as sixth graders who want that chance to make everyone laugh. Every character can be funny (even accidentally) if you work at it long enough. Spread out the jokes so there’s not just one goofball who gets to have all the fun. This can lighten up tense scenes, make your villain more relatable, and keep certain parts of the story from being crammed with all the humor.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Workout Spirituality

I have a very set routine when I go to the gym, followed in roughly the same form since first semester freshman year. Go twice a week. Walk into the building. Get on elliptical. Set resistance for 6, because it’s the number of evil. Work out for exactly 30 minutes. Wipe down machine. Get water. Leave.

If you couldn’t tell from my tone, I absolutely hate working out. I can come up with very creative new ways of complaining about it, ranging from my theory that the gym steals people’s souls and uses them to power the campus, to naming different pieces of equipment after different Disney villains, depending on their perceived level of torture.

I get no detectable levels of endorphins from working out. I’m not trying to lose weight. And I’m very vocal about the fact that no one should run unless they are running from something (like a bear or axe murderer) or running toward something (like the goal at the end of a treasure hunt).

So, many people ask me, “Why do you even work out, then?”

To which I usually sigh dramatically and give some noble reply like, “Because it’s good for me. I suppose we should be forced to suffer every now and then.”

But I’ve figured out the real answer. The real reason I work out even though I hate it is very simple: pride.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Why I Suddenly Love Valentine's Day

Spoiler 1: If you’re a friend or relative who clicked on this hoping that I discovered a secret admirer who sent me a dozen roses this morning…I didn’t. Sorry to disappoint.

Spoiler 2: If you are angry and bitter about Valentine’s Day and would prefer to be miserable, wear black, and throw rocks at anyone passing by who is holding hands with someone of the opposite gender, you might want to skip this particular post. Come back later when I’m directing my sarcasm at dating people instead of single ones.

What’s that you say? I can’t be sarcastic about singles if I am one?

Really, people. This is America. And the last defenders of freedom of speech will be gun owners and satire writers (and possibly also conspiracy theorists). I maintain that I can mock a group that I am a part of without being a hypocrite. Which leads to….

Spoiler 3: When making fun of single people, I am also making fun of myself. So I’m not entirely a jerk. Please keep that in mind when sending me angry letters.

Single people typically dislike Valentine’s Day. You may have noticed this. Also, the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, what goes up must come down, and vanilla Frosties are not worthy of that title, since everyone knows that only chocolate Frosties are legitimate.

Despite the fact that I'm not currently in a relationship, I love Valentine’s Day. Not because I get warm and fuzzy feelings when I see couples gazing into each other’s eyes. I’m not much of a hopeless romantic.

But I am a ninja.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

7 Writing Cliches to Avoid

Everyone knows you’re not supposed to include clichés in writing. Unfortunately, a lot of people do. This is how certain scenes, lines of dialogue, and techniques become clichés in the first place. The following is a public service announcement, telling you what’s already been done so you can do something more original.

Don’t be ashamed if you recognize some of these in your writing—I’ve written a few myself.

But also don’t say, “Well, mine will be different. Mine is necessary.” It’s probably not. Think of something new and creative.

1. Starting with an alarm clock.
            There are all sorts of ways to start a chapter or a story. Don’t choose this one. In fact, unless something extremely interesting happens to your protagonist the second he wakes up, you’re probably starting too early anyway. Begin in the middle of the action.
            If the alarm clock blows up, is actually an alien robot in disguise, or isn’t there because the protagonist wakes up in a room he’s never seen before, then you can start with an alarm clock. But only then.

2. Having a character pass a mirror so you can describe what he/she looks like.
            The “mirror technique” can be extended to include any description that sounds awkward to readers, from, “she combed her fingers through her light brown, slightly wavy hair,” to “he stared at her with his piercing blue-green eyes.” These kinds of descriptions sound like the author is frantically trying to tell the reader something. Real description should blend in, and probably won’t come all at once the first time we meet a character.
            Some safe ways of doing physical description that feel more natural: comparing the character to a family member and describing similarities or differences, showing the character thinking about what he doesn’t like about his appearance, mentioning only a few unusual features that characterize that person, having someone make fun of or compliment the character’s appearance, and anything else that involves some other relevant action or dialogue.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Why I Love Charlie Brown

“Lunchtime is among the worst times of the day,” Charlie Brown decides, eating alone and commenting on the paint job of his bench. This is after he thinks through the rest of his day and finds several other times that are equally terrible.

That’s the way it goes with poor Charlie Brown. You know that he’s never going to kick the football and his kite will always crash and his baseball team will always lose.

Oddly enough, that’s why we love him. Because he’s such a blockhead, such a loser.

There are times—actually, a good many times—when I am a blockhead and a loser, when I feel like I’m eating a lonely peanut butter sandwich and feeling around in my pocket for a nickel to get some life advice from the local sidewalk psychiatrist who will probably show me all of my faults and tell me to get over it.

We all seem to love Charlie Brown, probably because we all have Charlie Brown moments.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Making Damsels in Distress Less Distressing

I am female. That means, in theory, that I can say whatever I want about my own gender and get away with it. At least, more so than any male writer.

That said, please read this post with the assumption that I am not a terrible person, or taking a position on either extreme of male-female relationship spectrum. In other words, no memes could be made satirizing my view. No one can accuse me of hating/persecuting/undervaluing either gender. I am not particularly bigoted or culturally repressed or feminist or anti-feminist or anything like that.

I make this disclaimer because this post is about how to make a damsel-in-distress-type character work. This is not the only kind of female character you can ever have, not by a long shot. But it is an archetype, and probably the reason people have such strong reactions to it is because it has been done so badly.

So let’s fix that, shall we?

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Two Questions of Motivation

I’ve mentioned before that I love the question “why?” as a writer. It allows you to make your characters more realistic, because you understand the choices they make and the thought processes that got them there.

So, as an author, I’ve found two questions that will help you understand what motivates your character. These two questions are also useful for understanding whole societies: why certain people fit in and others don’t, what the unspoken rules are, how characters can manipulate large groups of people to get what they want.

But, on a more personal level, I often ask these questions of myself, because I like to understand why I do the things that I do. Tends to cut down on the stupid choices, at least a little bit. So, when I speak of “you,” you can also read it as “your character,” and vice versa.