Random Recommendation Time!

Hi all,

Just in time for winter breaks that might lend themselves to some leisure time, I thought I’d recommend a time-suck that is both entertaining and enlightening!

The media critic videos of Chez Apocalypse offer a myriad of fascinating discussions about pop culture–movies, TV shows, and books. I started with “Folding Ideas,” a series of really interesting critical analyses, and found my way to the joys of “Stuff You Like” and “Nostalgia Chick,” which offer a more personal review-style look at various works of media.

The videos range in length and style, and there’s no need to watch them in any sort of order. My recommendation is to find a video about something you’ve seen or are interested in, and give it a try! If you’re like me, you’ll quickly find yourself addicted.

Enjoying media as shallow entertainment is important, and I certainly indulge. But examining it in depth, questioning its choices and construction, and learning how to experience media in a more three-dimensional way can be a powerful tool for any creator–and for consumers as well. And in this age of the internet, access to interesting analysis of pop culture has never been more attainable.

So enjoy! :)

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Keeping a Development Journal

A lot of writing advice suggests keeping some kind of journal. I’ve always romanticized the idea of keeping a diary… and never been able to stick with it for more than a day. And while I do keep a small notebook around me for strikes of inspiration, I don’t often need it.

But I do keep what I call a “development journal,” a collection of notes as I work on a project or just on writing in general.

In the past, I’ve always kept a series of messy documents, with unfortunately bland names like “Story Notes [Date]” which is horribly unhelpful when it comes time to go back for them. For the last couple months, I’ve kept all my notes in a single long document, just adding to it each day. It helps that I’ve more or less been circling a single idea, but even when I’m considering other things, I still keep it in this same document. So instead of “notes” I’ve got a “journal.”

What sort of stuff goes into this journal? Well, it’s generally a loose collection of bullet points—about me, about writing, and about stories. It might be an idea for a character, or suggestions for possible plot events, or thoughts on genre. Early sketches of an outline that are quickly abandoned or retouched. Proposed theories on my own writing process and how I might improve it.

My current journal, kept since mid-August, is nearly 50,000 words. In my more narcissistic moments, I imagine being a famous writer whose journal is pored over by scholars or writers-to-be (what I would give to see a detailed process journal for J.K. Rowling!). But in reality it’s a chaotic clash of nothing, useful and interesting only to me, just an excellent way to keep track of my meandering thoughts and process. All of my notes, my random flashes of inspiration, my doubts and hopes—all in one place.

I’ve always kind of shrugged at the advice to keep a journal (or tried for a day and failed). But focusing less on me, and more on writing, has finally taught me the wisdom of such advice. And so I’m passing it on. :)

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What We Think About When We Think About Writing

In my personal opinion, writing is more of a mental game than any other art.

For some art forms, the craft is in the skill of the delivery as much as if not more than the actual content. For others, it is more of a mix, but one can practice the skills of delivery without having to think too much about the content. In writing, the only skill of delivery is typing or penmanship, both of which are fairly rote and simple skills, and neither of which (perhaps with the exception of calligraphy) can be taken as skills of their own apart from content.

I know there are those who disagree with me, who believe that writing should be routinely practiced and polished like any other art form. To a certain extent, I get that. Writing every day, studying the craft of sentences and words, can improve the shape and style of the delivery.

But there’s really no easy way to practice the content—the story and characters, the plot and pacing—without having to master the mental game.

Fanfiction is actually incredibly useful for this purpose, because you don’t have to invent the characters and if you write in line with canon, you can “piggyback” off of the events and plot and setting already there. Then you can just work on dialogue and style and maybe pacing. That’s not to say that fanfiction can’t be exceedingly artful or difficult in its own right; merely that its pre-established elements as well as its instant emotional connections for both writer and reader make it a safe and fun training ground.

However, at some point if you are so inclined, you have to invent a story and characters for yourself—long or short, literary or commercial, plot or character-driven—and that’s when it’s all about the mental game. No matter how good you are with sentences or typing, you have to think your way to a story…

And ultimately this whole post is my argument when people question how “laying around listening to music” can somehow be writing. Because you can sit and type, and you can learn vocabulary and grammar, and you can be a good writer—but if you can’t think of a story, you can’t write anything. And for me personally, I have to have a lot more than the initial idea in mind before I have a story.

For me, thinking is writing.

As my dad would say, “I thought I smelled something burning.”

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What You Like to Read

Common writing advice states that you should, “write the book you’d like to read.” I think that’s lovely, true advice. But it’s not always as easy to follow as it sounds.

The parts of the mind which engage in reading can be very different from the parts of the mind that engage in writing or creating. When we receive a story as a reader or viewer, we are passive, accepting, curious or surprised, admiring or entertained. When we create a story from within ourselves, we must be active, questioning, deliberate. We cannot just sit back and let a story entertain us—we must go out and chase it down, force it to dance, coax it when it won’t.

A story that we enjoy reading finds us; a story we enjoy writing, or would enjoy reading once written, is something we have to go out and find ourselves. These two different processes can produce wildly varied results in story types—meaning, basically, that a story you would love to read may not be a story you would love to write, and vice versa.

I generally divide my influences into three categories (and here I limit myself to books, since I think TV/movie influences can sometimes lead you astray): books that I love and reread over and over even if no one else in the world likes them; books that I like and enjoy but am maybe a bit swayed by hype or success into letting them influence me more; and books that I admire and respect and that knock me over with their brilliance but I could never write anything like them—and if I’m honest with myself, I don’t want to.

That last category may just be me—while I admire literary novels, the types that get named on “Best of the Year” by critics (and there are a few that I really love), I have to admit that I much prefer a cheesy romance novel or an adventurous urban fantasy. So I may read a literary novel and respect its beauty and skill, or I may read about a literary novel and be a bit envious of the critics’ praise, but when I let that influence my writing too much I end up with a project that I wouldn’t necessarily enjoy reading as much as other things. I’ve gotten better, over time, about being able to stop myself and say: “Do I want to write that, or do I think that’s what other people want to read?” When it’s more the latter than the former, I have to grit my teeth and push past that feeling, even if what I want to write is a bit less shiny.

Because stuff like the first category tends to… embarrass me a little, which holds me back when I’m trying to free myself to find the story. I shouldn’t be embarrassed, but society as a whole and some of the fandom circles I lurk around throw a whole lot of shame at some of the things I… love as a reader. I’ve talked about my cognitive dissonance over romance and feminism before, a lot, because I think it’s a prominent part of my process and psychology. I’m not going to go on about it here, other than to say that I’m not even sure I could write the kind of books that I, if I’m honest with myself, love to read the most.

So if we eliminate the books that I would like to have written but may not love to read, and we for the moment put aside the books I love to read but may not be able to write, what’s left?

What I end up with is… well, I’m not fully sure yet. A whole lot of trial and error. Something sounds interesting or fun to write, and then I question why, and if it passes that trial as something I’m writing for me and actually want to write, then I give it a try. It might still fail eventually. I’m trying to get better about letting the writing do the deciding rather than just the thinking, but I’m not there yet.

Thinking about what you like to read is a good start, but when you realize that you can read all sorts of different things that don’t speak to you as a creator, that’s when that advice gets less and less useful. I think it’s better, for me, as a measurement of the negative than the positive—if I for sure wouldn’t read this, then that idea is probably not ‘me’ talking.

So where, within all the stuff I like to read, is what I like to write…? I don’t know. I guess the only thing I can do is keep writing and finding what I like.

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When in Doubt, Cats

I’m really struggling to come up with a blog post today, since I’m kind of in limbo on a lot of things… so rather than force some half-baked crap on anyone, I’m just going to post a picture of my cat, in a summary of my feeling today–like I’m almost there, but also failing completely. (In his case, his effort at stealth is just a bit off the mark…)

Kozmo 10-1-14

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The Evolution of the Body Image Issue

For whatever reason, somewhere along the line, humans started getting really, really concerned about how they look. Maybe it’s because we have a far more evolved mating system than other animals; maybe it’s because we have a far more evolved system of neuroses to care about things—I don’t know if the peacock maintains a neurotic concern about their coloring being bright enough to attract peahens. Maybe it’s because media and technology started being able to show us the most good-looking humans from around the world, not just the prettiest people in the village.

Whatever the case, somewhere along the way, we started caring a lot about how we look, when it’s really one of the least important things about ourselves and our bodies. It has no effect on intelligence or kindness (at least, biologically; socially may be another matter). It has no effect on the ability to survive and reproduce (again, biologically). And, for the most part, the way we look has no effect on the ability to walk, talk, digest, breathe, and think (I’ll get into the health vs. appearance thing in a bit).

This doesn’t have to be a gendered issue, although it inevitably is, because it’s a simple truth that women are bombarded with an overwhelming amount of images of women who look a certain way—particularly which women are praised for their looks, who all tend to fall into similar patterns of body type and facial features. Men have a far wider array of other men to look at and look up to, from actors to politicians to athletes, whose looks are rarely commented on in the negative, even if certain types or features are more commonly praised. No matter how you look at it, society is more likely to look past a man’s appearance to value what’s underneath than they are for a woman, even if there are exceptions on both sides.

But regardless of gender, if we don’t fit the model of, well, models, we end up feeling bad. And this bad feeling is the crux of the “body image issue.”

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Multiple Version-itis

Sometimes, one of the most difficult things about wanting to write is deciding what to write. This decision is usually difficult for one of two reasons: having nothing to decide from, and having too much to decide from. Those who fall in the middle, who move from one perfect project growing in isolation to the next… well, what are you even doing here, you don’t need any help, go be good at stuff.

The former problem, trying to decide between nothing and nothing, is the more well-known form of writer’s block. Possible cures suggest prompts, long walks, music, fanfiction, and ultimately just doing whatever you can to throw some pile of words at the page.

The latter problem, having too many different things you could write, is a curse disguised as a blessing. Those suffering from the former can’t even see how the latter problem is even a problem… but it can stop you cold and leave you staring at the blank page just as thoroughly. Possible cures include pro/con lists, stepping away and seeing which ones come back to you, long walks (which are good for a lot of things), and somehow finding the discipline to see one idea through and then the next and so on.

As I’ve said before on this blog, I suffer from the latter. I see its potential as a blessing, believe me, so I’m not trying to take any martyr spotlight from the true writer’s block sufferers. But my mind can hop between a dozen different ideas in the span of a song, and want to write all of them, none of them, and only parts of them all at once.

My strategy, though it’s only been truly successful once, is to just keep trying to develop ideas little bits at a time, hopping between them as necessary. I’ll build the details of one, only to start seeing the virtues of another so I’ll work on that for a while, until it becomes clear again why I liked the first. My one success was based on the puzzle pieces finally clicking and that one idea just worked.

But it’s a success I’m having trouble duplicating, and for a specific reason that’s a subset of the problem above—multiple version-itis.

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