Sunday, May 22, 2011

Creating Problems

Yesterday my family went hiking here in Arizona where we're on vacation and I talked with my dad along the way. He was telling me about the story of Dune because I had never read it and from there we talked about the desert and I asked him to help me brainstorm ideas for a story set in the desert. He started generating ideas and before long had sketched out an entire story. When I was younger he'd do the same thing but I asked him this time how he came up with it. He said he was a problem solver so he was just solving problems.

It's interesting to think of stories from the standpoint of problems. It's what we're supposed to do, and we give it different names: conflict, drama, tension. How does it work? Well, in this blog I'll talk about one way.

Character vs. Plot

Obviously you have to have both characters and plot in order to write a story. But which comes first? I don't think there's a one-size-fits-all answer to that question but I do know what works for me. Plot. Characters are people you find who are willing to do the things your plot requires. So the question I always find myself with is, how do I create a good plot? This is where the act of creating problems comes in.

Create a Problem you Want to Solve

When I was a younger writer, I would just create “cool” characters that I liked and then launch into some sort of story about them. This didn't work, (and resulted in many abandoned stories), because what happened was, as I wrote I created problems for my characters that I didn't like. I lost interest because my characters were caught up in things I didn't really care about.

How do you know what kind of problems you'd like to write about? It's actually pretty simple. And, for example, I can think of many problems I do not like to write about because of my failed attempts to work on them. A simple way to brainstorm for problems you might enjoy writing about is to think about your favorite stories, books, or films. I thought of a Studio Ghibli film (an animated film) that I love called Castle in the Sky. The central problem is that Sheeta, the main character, has something that everyone else in the film wants: the government, the pirates, and Muska, the government agent who has his own agenda.

We talk about the Knight's Quest of olden days, and what problem did a quest present? An evil dragon who stole a maiden. The knight went out into the wilderness, battled enemy knights, had to hunt for food when he ran out, and finally battled the dragon.

Obviously there are much different problems as well, though. For example, I love the author John Green, and he writes contemporary young adult fiction. So in the book Paper Towns, the problem the main character faces is that he is in love with an idealized version of a girl—a girl who doesn't really give him the time of day. He wants to interact with this beautiful creature he has imagined, but the real girl doesn't really pay attention to him.

So there's the problem of the main character having something that everyone else wants and the main character wanting something from someone who won't give it to them. I like those two especially, but obviously there are others. I was thinking about The Dark Knight, which I like quite a bit, and in that you have two superhuman characters who want opposite things (the Joker wants society to crumble, Batman is focused on making sure society doesn't crumble). That one is difficult because the stakes have to be raised constantly, neither side really making progress until the end.

Anyway, just some thoughts about using problem brainstorming for story planning. It's a very small slice of planning, I will admit, but sometimes the part you don't notice at first can be very helpful.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Before Writing Checklist

So I'm at the library right now. It's nice to have a change of scenery. I've written more today, here, than I have at home in a long, long time. Which is good. It's all part of making goals for the summer. I'm constantly trying to re-motivate myself, as you well know, and I think I'm finally figuring out some effective ways to do that. For now, at least :P

A new idea I've had is the “Before Writing Checklist.” The concept is that you use the checklist to give yourself some concrete steps leading up to the actual words on page. If you're like me, you find it difficult to just sit down and produce. This checklist is designed to help with that.

Two things to keep in mind. First, this is my version, so you might want to tweek it a bit. And second, it's heavily inspired by Mystery and Manners, a collection of essays written by Flannery O'Connor, specifically the one on fiction. :P


Step 1: Turn off your wireless internet, or simply remove the bookmarks bar (in chrome, ctrl + shift + B will remove it and the same will put it back), to stop internet surfing distractions.

Step 2: Write at least one hundred words in a blank document on any topic to warm up. Sample ideas: Describe what you see around you. Steam of conscious about any emotions or thoughts. Random musings about your characters.

Step 3: Review the fundamentals (you may have different fundamentals, I find these helpful and they are drawn from the essay by Flannery O'Connor).

A) “Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn yourself getting dusty, then you shouldn't try fiction. It's not a grand enough job for you.”

B) Characters are abstract, but the details of their behavior and personality make them concrete.

C) “Aspire to anagogical vision: the kind of vision that is able to see different levels of reality in one image or situation.” Create a concrete plot, concrete settings, and concrete character details.

Step 4: Review yesterday's work and perform minor edits. Get a sense of where you are in the story.

Step 5: Use a notebook as a tool. Make a list of plot, setting, and character (in that order), and fill out what you're doing in the next scene that needs to be written.

Step 6: Write.

Step 7: Take a break, but make sure that your break is not distracting. A break should be restful, but also accomplish something. Try another activity or chore that you were putting off, or work on a blog (that's what I'm doing right now!) Then go back to steps 3-5, if necessary.

And that's it :-) Discussion is open! What do you think? Have you ever tried a checklist?

Monday, April 25, 2011


My family is driving on the Ohio turnpike back towards home. There's sun peeking through the clouds now and again, cool air on my face, and I'm listening to a mixture of acoustic, singer-songwriter music laden with the kind of guitar where you hear wood and steal in every strum. I haven't written a blog in quite awhile. I'm stymied on my novel, but I did write a short story about zombies the other day, it was exceedingly fun but did nothing for the guilt of neglecting my opus.

It can be difficult to sustain a longer work. Plot wise, I have material, but I'm about as motivated as a limp balloon. It's odd because I find I am more interested in writing than ever. For example recently I've been reading Mystery and Manners, a book that has a collection of essays by Flannery O'Connor, and in the essay on fiction there's a lovely examination of detail (I've talked about detail before, as you know—I'm kind of in love with it) and just looking out the window makes me itch to write.

But I don't itch to write my novel.

On the one hand, this is beyond puzzling. As I said, I have the material. But the entire thing seems lifeless. I can take my observations about detail and try to apply them, along with my enthusiasm in that sphere, to my novel, but it feels forced, becomes difficult to sustain, and generally leaves me wishing I could be writing something else.

Ian Broome, over at the wonderful Write For Your Life blog, recently wrote a post about motivation, the little bugger, which I found quite interesting. He talks about finding a reader, if you can, which reminded me that this novel began with a co-creater, a person who was the ultimate reader of the material. I had thrown in a lot of twists and turns, so that there was much to discover for her from the original conception. But, for some reason, (possibly my misguided plan to “surprise” her with “completing” the work—yeah right), I stopped showing her the novel. This week she is on spring break, so I am going to print out all 32,000 words of it and give it to her to read.

I was going to say, I think part of the reason its also been difficult is the re-writing. I'm rather far from my original conception of it now. In the beginning it was a part of me, now it feels cut off. Sometimes I just think I'm not good at novel-writing, but the real issue is probably that I take too long in the beginning when the idea is fresh so I'm not able to sustain the writing later. As a short story writer, I often like to finish a story in one sitting, if I can. I don't really like to look back and edit. I care more about producing something and showing it to someone that pouring over it and finding ever way of making it better. Novels are troublesome because they can't be written in one sitting and passed over to a family member or friend.

When I'm stuck in the middle of a project and I'm experiencing all the guilt and frustration, another strong emotion I feel is doubt. Can I even call myself a writer if I can't finish this project? Do I even want to call myself a writer if its that difficult? A writer is someone who writes, yes. But that someone also has to see the world in such a way that, when they write about it, it forms compelling documentaries and stories, not simple essays or dead descriptions. It's that half of me that is always alive—the half that sees, hears, and feels an endless amount of material. I get into trouble when it comes time to process those experiences.

Word pictures are great and all, except they're like being given a handful of crackers when what you really want is a steaming plate of pasta. You know what would be great? Taking that inspiration and feeling I get from the world and unleashing it on my novel.

The internet cultivates a shorter attention span, as does video games. These give us an immediate way to connect and interact with material. When it comes to sit down and write, I don't want to have to reengage with the story—I want the story to engage with me.

Maybe I should give up the internet for a week like some people do. The problem is, I use the internet to connect and interact with people, to create, to find inspiration, as well as to find entertainment. Additionally, I would probably find other things to do with my time. I've always loved NaNoWriMo because it inspired me so greatly.

So, I am going to show my story to my friend, and see what she says. I hope she can inspire and motivate me to kick it back into gear.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Building Characters, Building Meaning

I'm not sure when my writing blog became a platform for philosophy, but here I am yet again with a few thoughts in that realm. This blog comes to you in three parts (as John Green would say): Part 1, General Writing Update. Part 2, Thoughts on Groups of Characters as related to Skins, and Part 3, The Less Obvious Downfalls of an Obsession with Hedonism.

Heady stuff ;)

Part 1: In Which Mack the Writer is, Once Again, Writing.

Recently I told someone that I will always come back to writing, even though I sometimes get completely and thoroughly frustrated with it, because I am the kind of person obsessed with figuring out the root causes of things. I'm very analytical and when I am obsessed, it takes a long time for me to let go (unless I've decided to let go, in which I usually can). Certain things I have been obessed with other than writing include friendship, both specific relationships as well as the topic as a whole, and various ideas and theories, which I usually work out quite quickly (compared to friendship and writing).

So, what have I been doing with my writing, then? Well, I have discovered that when it comes to outlines, I must have one when noveling, but when writing short stories, having an outline kills the actual writing process. So it's a funny distinction, but there you have it. I've been outlining my novel with great success and moving forward once again. Stop and start, stop and start. Eventually I'll get the hang of this.

Part 2: In Which Skins Works Best When There's an Obvious Villain

It's no secret I like Skins. A better question might be why I like it, and, if you were to ask me that question, I'm not completely positive I would be able to give you an answer that satisfied you. To say “I just do,” seems to be cheating, right? Perhaps it doesn't matter too greatly, but sufice to say I think that it is interesting both as an examination of modern hedonsitc kids let loose to explore their desires (both base desires as well as desires for meaning and greatness and friendship), and it's also a dang fine story in terms of realistic portrayal. Writing is so difficult because it is fiction. It's not real. I think everything we do as writer's is about erasing that sentence “it's not real,” and erasing and erasing until the line is so blurred that another person can experience it as if it was, indeed, real.

At its best, Skins does this very effectively. The how, of course, is harder to explain, but I think it has something to do with organically taking the mundane and finding the extraordinary within it. For example, when you read a fantasy story, there are literally fairies in the backyard, or unicorns in the forest. In Skins, the mundane is obvious: waking up in your bedroom, going to school, ignoring your parents. The extraordinary has to do with the relationships.

In much ametur writing, the dialogue is generally the part that stinks most, cliche or just plain bad description aside. The trouble often is that the writer isn't giving the characters a conversation, he or she is putting words in the character's mouth. A forced conversation between two characters might go “Hello, how are you?” “Good, I was just putting the kettle on.” “How nice, how has your great uncle been?” “Oh, he's still in the hospital, but it's looking better.”

Objectively there's nothing wrong with that (that's one problem about writing, often the problems with things occur because a writer has combined them improperly, or is using a tool that they don't yet understand). The question is, why do we care? Or, more importantly, why do these characters care? Why are they talking about this? Why are they talking about this in this way? Why isn't one character angry, for example? Just some of the many questions that can be asked to explore ways of adding depth.

So how does Skins do relationships? Skins doesn't just do relationships. Skins does interesting individuals, which leads to interesting relationships. Now, it might be easy to assume that good characters are easy to create. Just give them some unique traits and there you have it. Not so much. I'm not going to go into every facet of creating good characters, but personally I think that an extremely important part of character creation is asking yourself, what would this character do? It's the difference between thinking “How does my mom act?” and “I want my mom to act this way.” Too often, we want our characters to act a certain way so that's how we write them.

This is where the heading for part 2 comes in: the villain. The best thing about Skins villains is that they're not villains in the traditional sense. What do I mean by this? Okay, so there's about eight kids in a Skins cast. In the first season, you had several different “types” of characters. First you had the smart, manipulative character. He was the villain, because he caused lots of problems, but he wasn't specifically acting with villainous intent. He was simply using his intelligence and manipulative skill to create situations in order to entertain himself. In other words, using his power for evil :P Anyway, beyond him you had those people immediately concerned with him (his girlfriend and best friend), then other friends who occasionally were directly concerned with his friends. It's like a pebble thrown into a pond—one character is the pebble, but the others, the ripples, are all connected to that pebble, one way or another.

This works really well. The possibilities for dramatic conflict almost create themselves because everyone is so connected to the villain (who's not a traditional villain). Season 5, which I've been watching as you know (and which just finished on Thursday), did not have a specific villain. The funny thing was that one of the characters was masquerading as a villain in the first episode, but that person has not exhibited any true villainous intentions. Rather, they were rejecting the main character on grounds she was different, therefore casting them in a cliche bully-villain role. Instead of a villain, the main conflict this season has come from intense triangles. Generally love triangles, but also friendship triangles. This is interesting because it's essentially a case of “pick your villain.” You, the viewer, get to decide who you think is the least likeable based on their actions in the pursuit of their goal, whatever that may be.

So yeah. Haha that was a lot. I think those are my thoughts on that.

Part 3: In Which Mack Might have Run Out of Steam, or, a Look at Meaning

I think most people understand the problems with hedonism. Well, the people who aren't hedonists, that is :P But I think the interesting thing is that, even if you are not a hedonist, there are elements of hedonism that strongly appeal to people. We are very geared towards immediate satisfaction, yet we are generally told to structure our lives around long-term satisfaction. I guess hedonists reject this and just go for the moment, using whatever means necessary to find that satisfaction, happiness, pleasure, or whatever it may be.

Most of us deal with the balance between desire for short-term pleasure and devoting work towards long-term satisfaction quite regularly, allowing procrastination to win sometimes and conentration win other times.

I guess it comes into play because I was thinking about all of things I would *like* to do but really can't, and how for a long, long time I will be doing things that I might like but that ultimately, will not be what I *want.* These things that I want to do are not bad things. Some of them involve travel, or designing or even just decorating a home I could live in, having a pet again, having my own car, going on a train ride, living in a big city, being exposed to many asthetic experiences that creatively inspire me, etc.

However, our world does not work in such a way that I can sit back just have all of these things, one after another. Most of these things I can get in time, yes. The point is that if I want to have them *right now,* then I am going to be disapointed. There's always going to be something you want that you can't immediately have. There's always going to be something you want that's *almost* in reach, but that you can't have. So what's to be done? A shift in focus. Instead of constantly thinking about immediate wants, you can spend your time defining a purpose. Instead of a life spent constantly chasing, you can spend a life building.

What is the meaning of life? It's the cliche question. There's actually a nice book on it by Viktor Frankl on this very topic of having purpose. The excellent thing about life is that you get to making your meaning. You get to decide what ideals are important to you (instead of what material objects appeal to you) and basically spend your time exploring them and growing with them.

Just a few thoughts.

Thursday, March 10, 2011


“Poetry should surprise by a fine excess and not by singularity -it should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance.”
-John Keats

Growing up is a strange thing. There is at once the tension between child and parents about the direction the child is going, and on the other hand, the child's emerging vision of themselves as completely removed from the world they have so far dwelt in.

What is it all about, anyway? Perhaps naively, I feel many things are unnecessary. I am going to college, but not because I think it's necessary to success in life because you need a degree etc etc. I'm going because the experience will make me a better person. Yes it will probably help me get a job, and that's included, but it's not the only thing.

Money is so central to things, of course. It's the main problem with being young. There are too many unrealistic impulses--to travel, to live by the sea, to eat expensive food and wear expensive clothes. The thing is, I actually don't care about money at all. It's my parents who are always worried about college debt and things like that. Again, I am not alluding to irresponsibility or carelessness when it comes to money, I am simply illustrating my reflection upon the meaning of money in the world and how counterintuitive it feels. I feel like so much of life just happens, and money is involved but rarely does it matter as immensely as everyone goes on about it. I mean, yes. Okay. If you're horribly in debt, that's going to drastically affect your lifestyle because you'll have to slave away in order to pay it back. But mainly, life is about people. Just saying.

I haven't been writing as much as I like because I am so externally focused on what other people think of me (my writing included) that I get paralyzed. I do it for my own enjoyment only when I feel inspired, because I have an inkling the result will be somewhat interesting because of that state. This writing insecurity has been with me awhile. Taking pains to rid myself of it. Will update later. Sorry for the unusual blog.

Monday, February 28, 2011

“A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” -Thomas Mann

New post coming soon on character.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Skins, duex.

So as you probably gathered from my last blog, I watch Skins. Series 5 has been quite interesting so far, even just to study in terms of storytelling--like the points I made in the last blog. My favorite character hands down is Franky, and I’d like to talk about her and some other, general observations.

I did a google search or something and came across this LGBT website where they were essentially talking about Franky’s androgyny and the fact that she is genderqueer, but there were also some very interesting reflections about skins as a whole.

Skins characters aren’t the impossibly clear-skinned, perfectly-haired, ingeniously-dressed, stick-thin, perfect-jawed plastics on 90210 — they look more like people we know. (Except Effy. Nobody knows anyone who looks like Effy.)

More importantly, the kids in Skins are usually fucked, alienated and often quite sad, though occasionally gifted with transcendent moments of reckless, often drug/sex-induced happiness.

But we don’t want to be the kids on Skins. Why would we pattern our behavior after a group of kids who — in addition to sporting an alarmingly high mortality rate — overdose, go to jail, get beaten up, fail out of school, get sick, get institutionalized, wreck cars, become homeless, get robbed, get hit by cars/paralyzed and repeatedly screw up relationships, friendships and families?

Viewers want to be like the characters on 90210 or Gossip Girl; they want those shimmery, easy lives of effortless beauty and impossible, free-floating wealth where dysfunction is always more foreplay than disaster. Viewers envy Gossip Girls’s consequence-free world of framed college degrees and dark, sexy furniture.

We want to be Kelly Taylor or Blair Waldorf.

But we’re already Emily Fitch.

We’re already Franky Fitzgerald.

It’s just that nobody cared enough to talk about us before now.

I just love this idea. I think it has so many applications for storytelling. I have often thought about the problems of writing about characters like these because I felt as though I needed to have a moral moment or something where they realized how messed up they were. But here’s the thing--I think they know. They just… don’t care. Their way of coping with being boring and plain and unextraordinary is a hedonistic dive into whatever makes them feel the most numb.

If you try and superimpose morality on characters like that you’re doing them a disservice. The thing is, everyone has a moral code. It’s always different, but we always have them. If the writer is trying to change the character’s behavior and the course of their lives by having a moment of morality, that’s actually almost doing the character a disservice. There’s nothing wrong with a character who lives recklessly.

This seems very fertile to me, and very interesting as well. I shall be exploring it in my own work very, very soon.