Tuesday, July 26, 2011

You Are Not Original

I am going to tell you something as a writer that you won't like. You are not a unique, special snowflake. Or, at the very least, your writing isn't. Especially fiction writing. Maybe if you are reviewing a movie or book and you happen to be the first one, maybe you can think about claiming to be unique, but your critiques are probably ideas that have been thought before, about different books, movies or what have you.

There is no such thing as an original idea.

Now, doesn't that make you feel a teeniest bit better? I mean, really, this blog most is mostly for my fiction writing companions, but it can also be true for non fiction writers. However, I'm going to focus largely on fiction writing for this. Because that's when this becomes a pet peeve of mine.

Haven't you ever read those posts by various people that are upset that [insert author here] didn't give credit to their inspiration? That they really aren't that original?

Personally, I get tired of it.

Humans have been telling stories since, well, since they could communicate with each other. Stories have been woven by man and woman alike for millennium. The idea that it is even possible to come up with an entirely new and unique story seems a bit ridiculous to me. I know someone that continuously tries to prove me wrong on this point, and every time he fails.

And I don't understand why people get upset by this fact. In fact, I consider it a relief whenever I am writing and I tell myself 'You don't have to try to create something so unique and so different that it's shocking. All you have to do is make is believable: make it real.'

Making it Real

Now, when I say making it real is more important that making it original, what I mean is that the issue with writing is not the originality of the idea or of the story, but how it connects with the readers. Famous playwright William Shakespeare was by no means the first person to write about star crossed lovers (ever read Tristan and Isolde?), but he did so in a way that connected with the readers and the play goers and there he found success.

So how can you better connect with your readers? With people. People that seem real, and believable. Whether or not they feel that they can connect with the main character is not the immediate issue, because people will find what they like in the characters for themselves. But if the character seems like a real person, then they'll want to read more about them, about their life. High action works well for movies, where you can enjoy the special effects and action for action's sake, but in writing, especially in a world where there are many people who would prefer to watch TV than curl up with a good book, it's the characters that make people want to read the story.

Don't misunderstand, however, the plot and the action is also very important, as no matter how wonderful your character is, without a direction for the story, it can read more like a psychological study than a well thought novel. I think the book Plot vs. Character illustrates this the best, and helps explain why you need to balance the plot and the character development in your story.

So stop worrying about being the most original writer that ever existed.

And focus more on being a better writer.

Friday, July 22, 2011

How Important is Grammar?

When you were in school, in all of your English classes, grammar was heavily enforced. You would lose points if you used the wrong tense, punctuation, and other such small grammatical errors, and I was never very good at following directions. I could write grammatically very well, but I didn't like to, and I've come to realize in the years since I left school that small grammatical errors aren't as important as your high school English teacher would lead you to believe.

Now, don't take that as an excuse to throw those rules to the wind and write sentences in a jumbled, convoluted manner. That's not what I mean. What I mean is that when it comes to grammar, how particular you are depends on two things: your audience and the type of writing you're doing. Fiction writing, whether in first or third person, has a tendency to ignore grammar at times in favor of a certain style, and the tendency works quite well for some authors. An academic paper, however, would not allow someone the same leniency in grammatical errors as, say, a blog post. Each type of writing you might do has different leniency due to how formal or informal it is meant to be.

This is largely because for more casual writing, such as blogs, the writer wants to connect to the reader on a more intimate basis, and people often relate better to others who have their own little quirks than those who have perfect writing. For example, my odd grammatical quirk is putting a 'u' in certain words, such as 'favourite' and 'colour'. In American English, this is incorrect, but without fail I do this in almost everything I write. Part of the reason for this is because my Grandmother is very British and I've picked it up a bit. Often times, genre of writing and audience are tied together. Not many children are going to read college papers, so you needn't worry about making it accessible to them.

However, if your writing is targeting teenagers, then you don't need to worry about grammar as much as you would if your target audience was Professors. The more strictly you stick to grammar, the more educated you are assuming your audience is. While not entirely true in practice, that tends to be the thought. So if you're writing a blog post designed to attract teenagers, you can ignore grammar and use 'OMG' and 'LOL' and other internet short hand without it being too odd, but it would be inappropriate in a resume (something my friend, who is in HR, has told me has happened before).

Which brings me to the biggest point of all. Grammar is not as important as how understandable you are. Your grammar can be immaculate, but if you are targeting the wrong crowd with your writing and they don't understand you, there is little point. Grammar is, after all, a set of rules to make people more easily understood.

Whether you bend the rules or not, that's the most important part of grammar: how well are you understood? Can the reader understand what you are trying to get across to them?

Monday, July 18, 2011

Pushing Through It.

I love writing. I've considered myself a writer since elementary school, and it hasn't been until I've gotten older and started writing professionally that I've realized what that really means. I love writing, but it's more than a hobby. It's a job, and a sometimes I hate my job. It happens to everyone. Writing and other creative jobs have this problem: you'll be trying to create and you can't get anything out on paper or on the keyboard. No matter what you try, whether you changed environment, grabbed a cup of coffee, read other people's articles; nothing works. It's like pulling teeth to get a single word out. Then the phrase 'putting your nose to the grindstone' comes to mind and it is the perfect phrase.

I have days I don't want to write anything substantive. I only want to write fluff or fan-fiction; fun writing that won't do any good, that won't pay any money. Some days I let the impulse take over, but after about an hour, I turn my attention back to what I need to do. And I write. I write even though I don't know what I'm writing, or I'm not an expert in the topic, or even if I feel like I'm writing pure and utter garbage.

That's what editing is for. If you have the luxury of a day or two extra, write the article, even if you think it sounds absolutely ridiculous and even if you know it's going to be full of mistakes. Put it aside for a day, maybe two, and come back to it. Read it over as if it isn't your own and see what needs editing. Then fix it.

You may have to do this a few times before the article or blog post comes out how you intend for it, but after a while you'll get used to pushing through it. You'll find that it comes more easily the next time you get that feeling. You'll be able to push through even though you may hate yourself.

It took me awhile to learn this, and I still have a hard time practicing it when it comes to fiction writing, as inspiration is far more vital to fiction writing than it is to nonfiction writing. I still force myself to pump out writing that I may not be proud of, putting it off to the side until I can edit it and make it into something I'm proud of.

Because I am a writer, and despite that I may hate it some days, writing is my job, and like any job, you do it even when you're not feeling it.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Writing Environment

Some people believe that if you're a good writer, you'll be able to write anywhere. Someone gives you an idea and you can write beautiful prose in mere minutes. While this is true for some people, for a lot of people, if given an idea and expected to write something in short time frame, they will end up with something half-hearted, below standards and very likely in need of revision, but writing is just as much about dealing with those below standard writings you have as much as it is about producing something excellent.

So don't get discouraged when something isn't up to your standards. It happens, and sometimes it's as much up to your mood as it is about the environment you're trying to write in. There are a lot of articles out on the Internet about keeping a 'writing space' that is separate from everything else and is 'sacred', I'm a bit wary of this idea. I've never had a space dedicated to writing. I don't lock myself into my room and refuse to speak with anybody. I've read these articles, I've tried it. I have a nice, creatively decorated yet simple desk that's secluded in my room with a comfortable chair and good feng shui. And covered with 'stuff' unrelated to writing.

I usually curl up on my couch, or snag some time at a coffeehouse, and sit myself down wherever I feel comfortable. That, I suppose, is part of the idea of the 'writing space' that is often overlooked in favor of lack of distraction. My belief is that a good place to write would be similar to a good place to meditate. Where the distractions might pass you by, you may glance at them, perhaps even stare for a moment, but then you shrug and turn yourself back to writing. Maybe this belief and my lack of a writing space comes from my history with meditation. Sitting stiffly in a chair, in a set location with no distractions seems too confined for me. Too forced. I'm not the kind of person who can sit still for very long. I never have been, so why would I want to try and force myself simply so I can do what started as a distraction during class?

So it's environment that is more important to me (and I suspect many other writers) than getting away from distraction, and environment is something you can control. Whatever your necessary environment needs to be is something almost personal. If you've ever seen NCIS, Special Agent Timothy McGee (also known as author Thom E. Gemcity), you'll see an example of a writing environment rather than a writing space. He prefers to use an old fashioned type writer and listen to jazz. He sets an environment for himself, and it just happens to tend to be in the same place (a typewriter is a bit heavy and bulky to carry around, after all).

A lot of people prefer coffeehouses because they are often have a good environment for writing. I discussed this in my other post called Why Writing and Coffee Go Together and it holds true for any space. If you can find a comfortable, creatively nurturing environment, you can write. Whether it's inside your house, outside your house, or anywhere you happen to find inspiration, figuring out the best environment for your writing is helpful, and sometimes it's different depending on what you're writing. Sometimes you have to be listening to classical music, sometimes you might need some heavy metal music to get your fingers flying across the keyboard.

So take a closer look at your sacred writing space if you don't think it's working for you and ask yourself: Is it comfortable, or stiff? Does it nurture your creative spirit, or merely covered with other's creativity? Is it a good writing environment for you?

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Writer's Block and a Cup of Coffee.

So I've found that everyone has their proven methods for curing writer's block. Many of them sound great, but the one thing I've realized is that no one can tell you what will work to cure your writer's block. Writer's block is a personal problem with personal reasons and the solutions are usually personal.

For example, the common "write a train-of-thought' journal doesn't work for me, and a lot of common writing practices only distract me. However, I've come to realize that this isn't so much an issue of not being able to put words on paper, but for me, it's a matter of motivation and distraction. Writing practices are tools for procrastination.

So instead I go to the nearest coffeehouse and grab a cup of coffee. Why? It's a good enough distraction that I feel refreshed, and the caffeine gives me an adrenaline rush that gets my brain moving. I can't just sit and watch TV with a cup of coffee. I have to do something with my hands, so it's easy to reach for my laptop (or a pen and paper) and write.

It may not be the best writing, and it doesn't always work as intended, but a cup of coffee is my (temporary) cure to writer's block. Part of why I like the expensive drink so much.

How can this help you?

Instead of trying to address your writer's block with futile writing practices and hoping something works, my best advice is to figure out why you have writer's block. This can be harder than trying to do train of thought writing, but it's more effective in the long run. Once you can figure out what causes your writer's block, you find it easier to cure it each time it comes up.

To help you figure it out, I'll tell you some of the common reasons that writers get blocked:
  • Motivation: This is my biggest problem. I have always had trouble finding motivation for anything that does not result in instant gratification. Taking the time to do something that will pay off later is too much trouble. Too much anguished artist in me, waiting for my muse to strike me. A good solution to this is to make your own muse or to force you to have no other option but to write.
  • Stress: Life can be stressful, and with too much on your mind, your writing can be blocked by your emotions. Depression, anxiety and other mood disorders count under stress. If you believe that it is caused by a mood disorder, I would recommend talking to a therapist to see if medication or therapy might help you. A good solution for stress is getting your emotions out, such as daily journaling or meditation.
  • Fear: Fear is a big problem for many people, and often times contributes to other problems. Fear of putting yourself out there, of being rejected. This one is actually quite common and contributes to both Stress and Motivation. This is the hardest one to cure, as it is rooted in self-esteem and that is a difficult problem to solve. My best suggestion is to find a supportive writing group, or a friend, someone who will help build up your writing self esteem.
So next time you have writer's block, take the time to figure out why before you start trying every suggestion that's thrown at you. It will help you more than you think.