Creepiness

Creepiness is a science.

Well, it’s a word that describes a feeling to be evoked.  Evoking that feeling is a science.  Some people might be born with this instinctively, inspiring it in everything and everyone he or she (usually he) encounters.  Others have to work for it, but once they can grow a mustache, he or she (again, usually he) has it down pat.

Feeling that a person, object, or place is creepy… well, it’s not something we generally seek in real life, but it’s something we actively seek in fiction.  And while some people manage to do this naturally and successfully in fiction, we mere mortals might need a bit more work to get there.

A fair amount of creepiness is generated by simple word choice, it must be said.  Just like using specific colors in a picture, you can adjust your text for a creepier punch by choosing different words to say what you want to say.  Warm and moist might paint a different picture than humid, for instance.

Similarly, choosing the details you include in your word picture could change the feel of the scene.  Describing the sensory details— and using sensory words to convey those details, rather than more cognitive verbage— could make things more visceral.  Of course, you already know all this.  These are fairly standard techniques for writing horror or just good, vivid storytelling.

A little while ago, however, I started to realize part of creepiness that doesn’t involve word choice or sensory details— in other words, the macro element of the creepy, rather than the micro.  While pretty much any scene can become creepy, it isn’t only a product of micro-editing it into submission.

Let’s look at what makes something creepy.  It’s a term we like to throw around about people in scraggly mustaches and cocked heads, or houses with broken windows and a fence that’s falling down.  Both are curious when you notice them in broad daylight, and they don’t notice you back.  But in a narrow hallway, or encased in shadow, you pick up your pace. (more…)

Teacher or Performer?

Here’s a fun fact: there’s a difference between teaching and performing.

I love doing both.  I love helping other people learn stuff that I enjoyed learning.  I also love showing off what I’ve taught myself.  But sometimes, when I’ve learned something really useful and go to teach someone else, it turns into me showing off and them learning nothing.

Because I’m a performer more than I am a teacher.

When I talk to people, it turns into a speech.  When I show someone something, I have to do it perfectly.  I always feel like I have to nail the result, even though learning is a constant struggle.

To a point, teachers are performers.  They have to know what they’re doing.  They have to be able to do everything they’re trying to teach, so that they can lead by example.  Along with that, they have to put a skill into understandable words, break it down into achievable steps, and guide others through the same journey they just completed.  It’s even more complicated than just performing.

But teachers don’t have to be perfect.

The best way to learn is to teach yourself.  A good teacher won’t guide you step-by-step to every conclusion you make— they’ll help you think in a way that allows you to figure out many different things.  It doesn’t matter, then, if the teacher knows every answer or not.  As long as the teacher can point you in the right direction, you can figure it out yourself.

To a point, performers are teachers.  If you watch someone perform successfully time and time again, you can eventually reverse-engineer their method and figure out how to replicate it.  It takes a while.  It isn’t as easy as letting them teach you.  But sometimes, people can’t teach, or just don’t.  So you figure it out yourself. (more…)

Further Songs

Howdy!  A couple nights ago my sisters and I got together to write a song.  I told them it would take less than twenty minutes, but we took about five times that.  Nevertheless, we emerged from the darkness with a song which, out of the two I’ve written, might be my favorite musically.  You know that cool thing they do in musicals where everyone’s singing a different tune at the exact same time?  Yeah, we kinda did that.

Anyway, that’s me.  You can listen to the song at the end of the post.

A lot of things have come together for this project in crazy ways.  A friend gave us a pretty high-quality microphone several years ago, which we had never used until now.  Only a couple days after I wrote my first song, a graduating senior gave me— completely free— a used computer.  Immediately I set up Audacity (a sound-editing program) and LMMS (a program similar to GarageBand, but for Windows, meant for actually creating music).  Even better, one of my brother’s old guitar pedals connects to a computer and can record to it fairly easily.

In short, I can record anything I can play, and I haven’t spent any money on it.  I’d call that a blessing. (more…)

Your Setting

Surround yourself with things that make you want to write.

This is a lesson I’m learning more and more.  As you learn more about the world, you begin to find a million things that lead you in all directions.  Watching a foreign film makes you want to learn French.  Reading about adventure makes you want to travel the world.  Meeting a champion juggler makes you never want to juggle ever, and that’s that.  All these are great.  If you’re like me, you know that most things are within reach, and with a little work you can achieve them.  Learning French, traveling the world, never juggling— all worthwhile goals.

But do you remember the moment you decided you wanted to write?

If you’re a different kind of artist, or your career lies elsewhere, substitute your dream whenever I say the word “write”.  This applies to anything.

As a kid, I read a lot of Brian Jacques books, and I’ve posted before about how much they mean to me.  Through reading and imagining, I began to dream about writing my own stories.  For the past four years, that’s what I’ve been doing, and I love it.  I love daydreaming about it and pushing toward that goal.

The path has its ups and downs, though, like anything.  You start off shot from a cannon, propelled by your amazing inspiration and genuine love for what you’re doing.  Then, of course, comes the letdown when you actually realize you’ve got a long way ahead of you.  But you pick yourself up and keep moving, and you enjoy the work for a while.  Then you poke your head up and look around, and start comparing yourself to other people, and you wonder what you’re actually doing. (more…)

An Aside

My writing self is pretty insufferable right now.

Let’s imagine the conversation between the two of us: my conscious self, studying for classes, having fun, but all the time wishing he could motivate himself to write instead of procrastinating all day— and my writing self, who is doing nothing.

***

Conscious: Bro, get off Facebook and start writing.

Writer: But have you seen this puppy video?

Conscious: It doesn’t matter.  I want to finish this current novel by the end of this month.

Writer: Puppies.

Conscious: What’s going on?  You used to be so powerful.  You used to motivate me to get all my stuff done so we could write for eight hours, then publish a blog post, then write some more.  What happened to us?

[Hello plays softly in the background]

Writer: I don’t know, man.  It’s just…  We’ve drifted away from each other and I’m not sure we can ever get back.

Conscious: Don’t say that.  We’ll make it work. (more…)

On Choices

Great people see potential in a certain light.  Schools, specifically undergraduate schools, consider potential quite differently.

Over a year ago, I visited a bunch of colleges that I didn’t choose to attend.  As liberal arts schools, they sold themselves in a very specific way, a way that appealed especially to me.  They knew what they were doing.  They advertised well, they made people feel at home, and they made every prospective student feel the same way: good.  Everyone leaving the school after a visit felt as though they could really, truly, have fun and learn at that school.  But mostly, have fun.

For me, this feeling came in the form of the ‘undecided’ option.  One school— small of campus and creaky of stairway, with free food and a stone library— offered two full years without having to pick a major.  Through freshman and sophomore years, the student needed to do nothing but pay their bills and take random classes, until junior year when they would have to pick a major or, for those who really couldn’t decide, make up a major of their own.  All this because they were creaky of stairway.

Over the past four years, I have seen piece after piece of advice— essay after essay, talk after talk— encouraging people to pursue their passions and pursue them now.  If you want to be a writer, write.  If you want to be a cartoonist, cartoon.  Before you can become anything, you have to do it first.  This struck a chord with me as well.  (In fact, I’m sure I’ve turned around and given the same advice here on the blog.)  If you work hard enough at something, you can succeed at it.  This was the message all these successful people would give.

Funny, isn’t it?  I’m not trying to say that people running colleges are not successful people, nor invested in the success of their students.  But why is the approach so different?  One group says you don’t have to decide what you want to do— just play in the sandbox as long as you want, then figure out a general direction.  The other group says if you know what you want to do, you have to do it— there isn’t time for the sandbox. (more…)

How to Learn

Listening is not active.

Maybe you’re a good listener.  Maybe you take the time to sit down next to someone and really hear what they’re telling you.  That’s active, because that’s a conversation.  It may be largely one-sided, but it’s still a conversation and you’re still contributing, whether by body language or word whiskers (mms and aahs).  If you needed to, you could jump in and state your side, then go back to listening.  That’s active.

At times, however, we’re all bad listeners.  The TV is on and you’re hearing it, but you’re looking at the little news ticker on the bottom of the screen for lottery numbers rather than listening to the news.  Or you were having a conversation with someone, until they hijacked it for their own complaints, and now you’re just nodding along to make them think you’re a good listener.  That’s not active.

Here’s the thing: listening itself is not active.  It’s what you do alongside listening that makes it active.  Maybe you’re taking notes as a teacher is talking.  Maybe you’re trying to understand things from another person’s perspective, and interjecting into the conversation once or twice to clarify, or give your own experiences.  Jumping rope while listening is not active listening, despite both being active and listening.  If you’re taking what you hear and making something out of it, you’re actively listening. (more…)

Sprint, Battle, Party

NaNoWriMo Week One is nearly complete.  You might be behind (like me), on track (as I have been in the past), or zooming ahead (as I often have been in the past).  No matter where you are in the fleet, your goal is the same: to get as many words in as quick a time as possible.  Now, you could order robotic hands that type faster than you can think— those are sometimes fun.  You could grab another person and have them type at the same time, theoretically doubling your output (but producing two separate novels).  Or, you could participate in a word war.

Word war, word sprint, word fiesta— they’re all the same thing.  You and anyone else participating make a pact, a pact to rid the world of procrastination, and fight to the death the war of words.  Or party the heck out of it, if you’re doing a word fiesta.  Your choice, bro.

Write as many words as you can in fifteen minutes.  Try not to stop until the time is up.  Force your brain to work overtime as your fingers speed over the keys, thinking barely faster than you can type.  You might not know what the next sentence will be, but you’ll run with it.  This is the essence of a word sprint.

Compete against others.  Compete against yourself.  Set records for how many words you can write in fifteen minutes.  Discover your word-per-minute rate and try to make it faster.  Compare your final count with others and feel that sense of pride that comes with winning, or the sense of despair and desolation that comes with second place.  Decide to do better.  Take a break, and start again.  This is the essence of a word war.

Write crazy plot twists and strange dialogue, because you can’t think of anything else to do!  Often, these spur-of-the-moment ideas and terrible thoughts bring about big changes to your story.  The plot twist nobody expected— it’s more of a surprise if you never expected it either.  Waltz through the story with a blindfold on, stepping in unimaginable kinds of goop and splattering it onto the page.  This is the essence of a word fiesta.

No matter which type of activity you choose, they all have the same basis: write as much as you can in fifteen minutes.  Where do you find companions with which to sprint, battle, or party?  That’s the easy part.  You can battle while someone else parties.  You can party while they sprint.  All it takes is someone to say Go and Stop, and a place to communicate in real-time.

Ta-da, the word war chatroom, which has existed since basically forever.  We started it three years ago for just this purpose.  Since then, it’s gone through some changes and seen some people come and go, but its purpose is the same.  Come in and write in company. (more…)

Writers are the Best Speakers

When I was a little sprout, I joined a homeschool public speaking group.  I went every week, did all the assignments, and did my best to speak in public, as the class seemed to demand.  This was about three years before I began writing seriously, and while I had noodled around with fiction a couple times, it had never gone anywhere for me.  I was much more of a reader than a writer.

It showed.  I wrote essays and read them in class, calling it public speaking.  I wanted to be funny, but the speeches turned out boring.  I wanted to be enthusiastic, but the script never sounded as good as it did when I read it over.  I wasn’t a bad speaker, all in all, and I learned through the class, but I certainly wasn’t a good speaker.

Fast forward to this year, approximately five years later.  I’ve written seven novels.  This post is my 665th on this blog.  Whether fiction or nonfiction, I write a lot.  I’m sure you’ve realized that.  This year, I also took a public speaking class, because I’m interested in becoming competent in that area.  I can write for an audience, but I also want to speak to an audience— having that skill is important to me.  So I took the class.

I quickly discovered I was much better than I had been five years ago.  I’m certainly not perfect, but speaking comes almost naturally these days.  Stories flow easily.  When I write a speech, I can hear myself speaking it.  It doesn’t feel the same as something I’d publish here, or hand in as an essay.  Writing, I’ve found, doesn’t just help your writing.  It doesn’t just help your reading.  It helps everything you do that involves words. (more…)

Writing as a Performance Art

Lately I’ve been fascinated by the concept of oral storytelling.

About a month or two ago, a friend sent me a link to some spoken word poetry.  It was fantastic.  The words themselves were beautiful, but the passion and skill of the performers made it better.  Around the same time, I listened to Neil Gaiman’s Worldbuilders readings of Jabberwocky and Green Eggs and Ham.  Anyone can read those stories, but he took it out of monotonous rhythm and made it interesting.  Plus, the accent.  Then I started on epic poetry.

If you’re at a party and they start passing around the Homer, just say no.

Last week, I found myself with the smudgy draft of a short epic poem, at nearly midnight.  It’s the short story equivalent of a real epic poem, and considering the inherent structure I’ve dissected and essayed upon since then, it’s doesn’t quite fall into all the parameters of epic poetry— but it has the basics.  I wrote a short poem in unrhymed blank verse, set in my current storyworld, about a mythic hero’s last sacrifice.  No, it doesn’t invoke the Muse.  No, it doesn’t begin in medias res.  Unfortunately, I skimped on both allegory and epic simile, because I haven’t created enough of this world to be that academic, and I still had a bit of a purple prose filter on.  But still, I consider it epic.

Probably the biggest reason is this: it’s written to be performed. (more…)