500 Words-a-Day

Happy Sunday, one and all!

I have been enjoying my weekly spots here on the Art of Writing, and I hope that you have too. I seem to be bouncing back and forth between stories and thought pieces, and I enjoy the variety, so I believe I will keep that pattern going. Which mandates that this week’s post should be a thought piece.

Imagine if you will the author scratching his head like a species of undercaffeinated ape and trying to pin down what exactly he’s been thinking about lately.

The first thing that springs to mind is that the word count of the book I’m writing is now sitting prettily at just over 20,000 words. Here’s a gif which sums up my feelings about that.

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I am very pleased to have reached the 20K word mark, but I am not pleased at all with how long it took me. Having written the first 11,000 words in a single month, back in April, the next 9,000 were a slow crawl. I had a long stretch of stagnation, self-doubt, procrastination, and outright slothfulness, which delayed my progress immeasurably. Perhaps it was just that England’s having an unwelcomely humid summer, but the image occurred to me of myself as an explorer sitting in my camp, knowing that the 20,000 word goalpost was hiding somewhere in the nearby jungle, eluding me. Instead of pressing out into the jungle every day and hacking a little further through the trees, as I did in April, I often just ended up sitting in my camp and…doing something that jungle explorers do in their camps which could pass as a metaphor for playing video games in my bedroom.

I also ended up reading a lot of books, which did eventually help to drag me out of stagnation and get me over the 20,000 word hurdle. No matter what you’re writing, I can recommend reading as a cure-all for your writer’s block. A lot of writers read voraciously anyway and won’t need this advice, but there may be others like me who have always been faintly intimidated by the fact that they don’t have the same obsession for reading that they observe in their peers. If any of those writers are reading this, I urge them to pick up a book which is relevant to what they’re writing. I’m writing about colonialism in a fantasy setting, and for research purposes I bought myself several weighty academic tomes concerning the history of European colonialism in South Asia. I can’t say that the content is always deeply riveting, but there are curds hidden among the whey, and history is replete with isolated incidents and longer sequences of events that can be readily adapted into entertaining fiction.

More importantly though, I feel like reading widely and robustly has the ability to completely recharge my writing ability. Once I am filled to the brim with insights that I have gained from my reading, I feel ready to discharge those insights onto the page as quickly as possible. But even that can still have its challenges. Even when I am extremely motivated to write, it remains all too easy to rest on my laurels – to think “I’ll write after dinner”, or “I’ll write after I’ve exercised”, or “I had a rough day, I can give myself a night off”, and eventually allow myself to feel justified going to bed without having written anything. And I think the secret to avoiding that trap really is just to get up in my metaphorical camp every morning, pick up my metaphorical machete, and then step out into the metaphorical jungle and start hacking away, slowly and methodically, at the trees. I might not find the elusive beast I’m searching for, but I will at least cut a little further into the jungle every day.

Personally I do my best to write 500 words every evening, but you can figure out the right word count for you. It may not seem like a particularly revolutionary piece of advice, but I think that when you’re writing the first draft of a book, the important thing is to write, or read, a little every day.

Write Well, everyone!

Lessons from the death of Deadpool: Consistency and Politics

My friend let me borrow the last four or five comics for Deadpool. For those unaware, a few months ago, Deadpool was sent to the great beyond.

I started at Deadpool #40, “The Magic of Gracking.” The style looked like it was done in crayons to be family friendly. The fictional oil company Exxon Roxxon paid Deadpool a lot of money to support their fracking gracking attempts, and they said everything was okay. Over the rest of the issue, they bang over your head that gracking is bad and evil, Roxxon is evil, and Sarah Silverman even shows up with super powers to tell Deadpool and the reader how evil they are.

Deadpool then goes on to help people in an undeveloped country survive against Roxxon’s attempts to kill them all. Deadpool sides with the poor people, free of charge, because he’s a nice guy.

There are two issues I have with this. First, when you do something specifically to make a political point, more often than not, it sucks. It lacks any substance aside from the propaganda, and this was 100% that. The final two comics were pretty great, as Roxxon was swept aside and became inconsequential, but before then I felt like I was in a room from 1984, being force fed information.

Let me expound. When we do art to tell the truth of the world, we are recreating the world, and through that people will glean truth. When we know the truth, form it into a baseball bat (compared to planting a seed and watching the tree grow), and proceed to club people over the head, there is no room for truth to be gleaned. There is no room for a person to grow and develop though the story, learning about themselves alongside the author. There is only room for propaganda. I’m sure they really got all the people against fracking on their side. All the green folk were out in troves, “Go Deadpool!” But I wonder how many of them read Deadpool in the first place.

Second, and actually far more important to me, they sullied Deadpool. I have to be honest, I might read a couple comics a year about him. I was informed he reached a zen-pool stage, when the comic book characters became opposites of themselves (which tells me Deadpool died in that moment). The reason Deadpool was unique, and why I liked him, is he was self-aware. He knew he was a comic book character meant to entertain, that it was all a joke, and that he was bound by shackles of ink. How do you make a true sociopath all of a sudden care about the puppets surrounding him?

I remember the zombie comic when there were kids he looked after. He barely flinched when they turned into zombies. They’re not real. He slaughtered the Marvel universe and classic literary characters to cut the strings, so he could die and no longer be stuck in that comic book. He didn’t feel bad for killing a dozen Spider-Men, because they were not real. Yet every time a Peter Parker dies, a puppy is kicked and small children learn truths reserved for adulthood, like Santa’s not real.

Suddenly in issue #40, a kid with cancer tells Deadpool the gracking is killing people, and Deadpool turns on Roxxon and their money. The Deadpool I knew and loved would say, “Kid, you don’t have cancer. You’re just here to seduce me from all this cash. Wanna swim in it later with me?” All of the people he ends up saving, in a story line which felt more inconsequential than usual for DP, weren’t real, and he knows it. And in his final moments, he should not be thinking about the protection of these poor sods who are inked in to draw appeal. He should be thinking, “FREEDOM!” He is the metaphysical Ultron, desiring no more strings, and he was given an out, finally, by his cruel overlords.

I know I wasn’t a die hard Deadpool fan. Maybe that’s why I don’t get it. But from the comics I read, from the character’s mentality and his ability to realize he’s a comic book character, I don’t get why he would ever care about the people in the comic, even if he reached a zen state. The only thing which would maybe change is his ability to enjoy it, instead of trying to gank himself.

For your own writing, watch out for the trap of becoming too political. There are always two sides. Sometimes a dozen. Even if you want to prove your point, use the art first and the truth will come through. Also, just keep your characters consistent. The readers shouldn’t look at what’s happening and think, “Body snatchers!” Yes there are moments that can redefine us, but how do you reach a turning point to shrug off knowing for a fact everyone around you is nothing but ink, fed dialogue by some greater being?

Write well, respect the art, stay consistent, guys!

Note: there is no picture, because it would have to be of Deadpool. To respect his wishes of not being utilized for the entertainment of others, I did not include such a picture. Deadpool had me type this at gunpoint.

Sunday Picture Post

Well, as you all know, we like to take Sundays off here at the Art of Writing. Personally, I will be doing some work, going to church, and then cleaning the apartment some, working out, and reading Etienne Gilson’s Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages and The Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas (though I’ve already read parts of the latter). I can’t speak for the other authors, but I’m sure that they all have equally robust Sunday plans. I did dig through the bowels of the google search engine to find you this though:

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Sunday Picture Post

Life is strange sometimes. People seem to take turns being up and being down. Have you ever noticed that? When you’re down it seems like you’re friends are doing great, but when you’re great your friends are mopey and depressed? Here’s what I think: life happens. Nobody gets everything the way they want it, and most of us have a list of complaints a mile long. Things that we wish we didn’t have to deal with, things that other people don’t have to deal with, things that are big, things that are small, heck sometimes things that are just confused. I know I have mine, but most of the time – if I’m really honest with myself – most of the things on that list aren’t really a big deal in any way, and a lot of people have to deal with them. So, look at the bright side. This doesn’t mean that we ignore the bad things, or pretend that everything’s wonderful… that’s just stupid. It does mean that we look are intentional about looking for the good things, and we don’t let the bad things bother us as much. It means that we don’t wish for Mr. Wonderbelly’s life because it must be so much better to have a six-pack, or wish for Mr. Moneybag’s life because it must be better to be rich. It means that we are either satisfied with who we are and what we have, or that we are willing to do what it takes to change those things that we’re not satisfied with. I’ll be honest, I don’t remember where I read this, but a good way to think about life: we choose the things we’re willing to deal with. You want to look great? Then you have to deal with a regimented diet, exercise, beauty products, etc, etc, etc. You want to make money? Be prepared to work sixteen hours a day. You want a family? Be prepared to sacrifice a lot of your time and money… and probably you’re hair (at least if you’re a guy). We all choose the hardships that we’re willing to go through in order to get what we really want. So, rejoice in the life you have :). It’s a gift from God and it’s worth it. Anyway, here’s your picture:

This piece is by Matteo Bassini. You can find more of his work here.
This piece is by Matteo Bassini. You can find more of his work here.

Plot Challenge of the Week

So, I’m well into my reading for the semester already (and it hasn’t even started yet). I’ve already finished Peter Kreeft’s Summa of the Summa and Jean Porter’s Divine and Natural Law, and most of R.E.O. White’s Christian Ethics. I’ve done a bunch of reading in several different books about the history of Christian Ethics, and I’m in the middle of David Well’s Above All Earthly Pow’rs, which is excellent. That being said, I have a lot of reading yet to go. So, I’m looking forward to the semester, and I think that I’m starting it off in a generally better position than last semester, but it’s still going to be a ton of work. Anyway, I have a plot challenge for you today. I’m going to give you a picture and I want you to develop a part of your world based on what you see. It should be a setting that is believable in your world, and that has potential for stories in it. Here’s you’re picture:

This piece was done by Phuoc Quan, whose other work can be found here.
This piece was done by Phuoc Quan, whose other work can be found here.

Parody in Practice: “How the Scrinch Spent Thanksgiving”

My first post for this blog was about parody. I explained how parodies, even though they’re by nature lighthearted and somewhat silly, can still be well-done stories with at least some serious meaning. Today, I’m revisiting the subject because I recently worked on a parody. About a year ago during the post-Thanksgiving/pre-Christmas holiday season, I wrote a narrative poem that was nothing less than a blatant rip-off of Dr. Seuss‘s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” and this year, I converted that poem into a quirky, tongue-in-cheek, animated short film. To get some context for this post, if you want to read what I originally wrote about parody, you can find that here, and if you want to watch the humorous and heartwarming video that is “How the Scrinch Spent Thanksgiving,” you can do so here. (The video is probably more fun.)5

I’ll try to run through a bit of what I did with the narrative aspects of the video and how that applies to parodies overall. Maybe it’ll help you make cheesy but lovable holiday stories of your own, or at least to expand your writing horizons in some useful way.

Parodies play around with common tropes and conventions of fiction.

The point of parody and satire is usually to exaggerate and poke fun at things from existing fiction, whether it focuses on one individual work or author, or an entire genre or style. Obviously, my video of “The Scrinch” takes many of its cues from “The Grinch.” But it also borrows a few elements from A Christmas Carol, Elf, and just about every Lifetime movie in the history of Christmas in which a disgruntled, jaded, or heartless adult gradually comes to learn the true meaning of the holidays. Heck, if you take out the Christmas part and merely focus on a grumpy older person being softened up a bit by an enthusiastic child, then you could also add Despicable Me, Up, and even more Lifetime movies to the list of that trope’s appearances.

In a parody like “The Scrinch,” I wanted to incorporate that trope somewhat, but I also wanted to subvert it so as to avoid too much sappiness and mushy feelings. That’s why, instead of the Scrinch’s heart growing three sizes, I made it his stomach. I mean, let’s be honest–which one of those is really more likely to grow around the holiday season?

Parodies are funny.

This may seem obvious, but parodies are usually supposed to be fun and funny. People don’t really expect them to be brilliant, profound, original works of classic, sophisticated literature, so the reader and the author both have some leeway to let loose and have fun a bit. And they can use at least a few different types of humor. Parodies inherently rely on referential humor, which isn’t all that original, but at least it works; audiences like it when you can say, “Hey, I’m making fun of this thing you know about,” or even just, “Hey, I’m giving a slight nod to this thing you know about.”61

But parodies also have a lot of room for odd juxtaposition, for combining something funny with something that is usually serious. For example, “The Scrinch” uses somewhat elevated language, or at least a strict pattern of rhyme. When someone is reading rhyming poetry in a formal tone, the listener doesn’t expect jokes to come at them; they expect something warm and fuzzy about the holidays, or something old-fashioned from Dr. Seuss’s time, or maybe even Shakespeare’s. But instead, in “The Scrinch,” they get modernized and familiar terms like “ramen,” “Doctor Who,” and “Breaking Bad.” They also get quirky, uncommon words like “isthmus” to rhyme with “Christmas.” And, let’s face it, “isthmus” is a funny word no matter how you spin it.

If you have any skill or interest in the art or animation field, and you’re able to add visuals to your story like I did, then go for it! Silly, simple visuals can serve to increase the humor of a parody. That’s totally the only reason I went with MS Paint and Windows Movie Maker for this project, and it’s not at all because I have no skill with or access to any actual moviemaking technology whatsoever.

Parodies can still have some meaning and significance.

Just because parodies are fun, lighthearted, and cheesy doesn’t mean that they’re completely devoid of significance, or that you can just throw random elements together to make them work. No, parodies still have to adhere to certain conventions of genre and storytelling (even if they do so in an exaggerated way), and they still have to be well-made for their intended purpose. In many cases, satire and humor can be used to deliver a serious or relevant message, subtly criticizing or pointing out the flaws in a work, a genre, or even perhaps a real-life social institution.

I don’t claim that “The Scrinch” contains much subtle, profound social commentary on the nuances of real life. But it does contain a message about breaking out of your own priorities and appreciating family, friends, and fellowship during the holidays. Yes, it’s sappy and unoriginal, but it’s still a true and important message. As I mentioned earlier, I tried not to make that the main focus or spend too much time on super-serious sentiment, but hey, it’s in there somewhere.

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Also, the Scrinch here seems to be a disgruntled, introverted twentysomething bachelor grad student, in a story that, coincidentally, was also written by a disgruntled, introverted twentysomething bachelor grad student. If I didn’t know better, then I might even suggest that the story contains perhaps the slightest hint of an autobiographical quality about the real life situations of its author. Good thing I know better, right?

Overall, parodies such as “The Scrinch” are a fun and enjoyable way to tell a story, but they, like any story, can still contain some depth and meaning as well. If you’re not sure what to write about this holiday season, try a parody (whether Christmas-y or not) and be sure, first and foremost, to have fun with it. (Then, maybe, if the mood strikes you, you can make a video of it and become the next YouTube sensation, but hey, one step at a time.)

Merry Christmas and happy writing, everyone.

Plot Challenge of the Week

So, yesterday I started into Carl F.H. Henry’s Christian Personal Ethics, which is a 600 page book with big pages, small print, and thin margins… …it’s going to take me a while. I started into John Rist’s Plato’s Moral Realism as well today, which is going to go much more quickly. However, at the moment I have only six books (including these two) left to read this semester (Yay!), and then I get to start into my Christmas reading… (yay…). Heh, seriously though, thus far I’m loving Henry. He’s an interesting and very well studied writer. Anyway, I have a plot challenge for you today. I’m going to give you a picture and I want you to develop a part of your world based on what you see. It should be a setting that is believable in your world, and that has potential for stories in it. Here’s you’re picture:

This is a great piece of fan art by Peter Lee (at least according to the signature). I found it here, but if anyone knows of Lee or if he has a website I'd love to credit him for it.
This is a great piece of fan art by Peter Lee (at least according to the signature). I found it here, but if anyone knows of Lee or if he has a website I’d love to credit him for it.

Writing Worldview Well

Here’s a question that every serious writer should wrestle with at some point: How do you write worldview well? How should you incorporate a message about what you believe into your writing? Or should you at all? Since our contemporary culture values authenticity while still striving to say something meaningful, there’s a lot of talk these days about how to convey important ideas without being preachy, over-the-top, or too in-your-face.

Personally, I’m most familiar with this discussion in the context of the evangelical Christian subculture that I’m part of. While still holding their theological and moral beliefs in high esteem, many younger Christians are shying away from art and fiction that is specifically labeled as “Christian” art, on the basis that it tends to be inauthentic, un-subtle, and overly didactic, and that many secular writers or artists put forth content that is just as “Christian” while being less overt about it.

Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

A class I’m taking this semester, focused on the relationship between Christianity and the arts, wrestles with this same issue of whether fiction should be labeled as “Christian.” Writings from many influential Christian thinkers, including Jacques Maritain, Flannery O’Connor, and Francis Schaeffer seem to uphold the idea that has become the consensus among many thinking Christians today: namely, that fiction and art don’t need to be overtly Christian, and writers shouldn’t try to write Christian fiction, but rather that writers (of any worldview) will automatically and naturally write their worldviews into any honest work they produce.

Overall, I tend to agree with this approach. I realize that much (though I wouldn’t say all) of today’s Christian art and fiction suffers from being too clean-cut and preachy without being authentic and aesthetically good. I also believe that almost any work of art is, to some extent, a reflection of the author’s worldview; what you believe and value will come through in what you say and write, whether you intend it or not. But if that’s the case, then I don’t think it always necessarily follows that writers should just let this happen “automatically” or “naturally” as if it was merely an unconscious impulse. Maybe this works well for some writers, but as I’ve touched on in my last few posts, I’m the type who needs to think and plan in advance and be conscious of the messages I’m sending. And, if our worldview is going to come forth one way or the other, then I see no reason why we shouldn’t be intentional about it and try to make it come through in the best way possible.

That being said, here are some principles I’ve tried to use for consciously conveying a worldview in my writing without being too obvious about it.

  • Show a variety of worldviews. One crime that Christian fiction is often accused of is making the world too nice and neat so as not to offend readers. Ie., almost everyone in the story seems Christian. Beliefs and lifestyles that fall outside of a respectable churchgoing attitude are either covered up so that Christian readers don’t have to see any offensive content, or they’re vilified so that it’s painfully obvious what the writer thinks of worldviews outside of his own.
    • But that clear dichotomy of worldviews is a good example of what not to do, no matter what perspective you’re writing from. If you want to write honestly and authentically, then be respectable and fair-minded to beliefs and value systems outside of your own. Feature characters from a number of backgrounds and worldviews, even (or especially) if they disagree with each other, and treat them as real people rather than just stereotypical cardboard cutouts. This will help show that you as the author acknowledge the realistic complexity of the world and the beliefs that are out there. Then, if your own worldview does happen to show up among this diverse group, it won’t be as obvious to the reader and it won’t feel as much like you’re bashing them over the head with it.
  • Give your heroes flaws. This goes hand-in-hand with the last point. When you do have characters who espouse
    Image from Walking Dead #84. Art by Charlie Adlard. Taken from Flickr Creative Commons.
    Image from Walking Dead #84. Art by Charlie Adlard. Taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

    your worldview, who would be the “good guys” from your perspective, make sure they’re not flat, distant, and flawless paragons of virtue. No, they should be real characters as well, with at least a few bad habits to balance out their good ones and make the reader realize that they have problems and struggles just like the rest of us do. As mentioned above, Flannery O’Connor‘s work demonstrates this principle excellently; while she was a Catholic and openly admitted to writing from that viewpoint, she wrote moral flaws and philosophical blindspots into all of her characters and their worldviews, Christian and atheist alike. In fact, as harshly as she criticized the hypocrisy in Southern Christian culture, the Christian characters in her works sometimes seem even more flawed than the non-Christian ones. I once quoted O’Connor in a review I wrote of the Walking Dead comic books, emphasizing how writer Robert Kirkman also portrays both good and bad traits in all his characters, from prisoners to priests. The point here is to avoid making characters of your worldview completely good while everyone else is bad. Make sure your heroes, villains, and everyone in between are real and complex, because this will also help you be honest about the world and the state of humanity.

  • Use a character as your “voice” in the story. While it is important to be fair-minded and honest to various worldviews in your writing, that doesn’t mean you have to completely hide what you believe or what you want to convey to the reader. You can have one character who acts as your voice, your ideal, and who lives out a principle you want to get across. Of course, it may take some thinking on the reader’s part to figure out which character (if any) this is and what you as the author are actually saying, but that’s a good thing; if your writing doesn’t require thinking from the reader, then you’re probably being too obvious.
    • I tried to follow this principle in the superhero story I wrote. I have an ensemble cast of about seven protagonists, ranging from idealistic do-gooders to vengeful vigilantes to selfish or detached metahumans. But in the midst of this flawed and diverse cast of characters is one who I intended as the voice of my worldview: a heroic symbol of hope called the White Knight, embodying my beliefs and values of heroism just as Superman and Captain America are the moral standards of their own respective universes. Admittedly, having one character act as a paragon does somewhat seem to contradict the necessity of flawed characters, and the White Knight was the one character in this story who I tried not to give too many flaws to. But, with one idealistic character in the midst of several realistically flawed ones, I think it works for my purposes. The reader can see a diversity of worldviews, attitudes, and lifestyles in my characters, even in my team of “good guys,” but they can also see the type of character and behavior that I esteem above all the rest.

Have you ever been frustrated by heavyhanded worldviews in your own reading or writing? Do you have any tips for how to include your values in a good and effective way? Sound off below!

Story Challenge of the Week

I hope that all of you are having a wonderful week. If you haven’t been watching The Strain, I suggest that you get caught up (I know it’s available on Comcasts Xfinity) and start watching it. Thus far I thoroughly love the show! Anyway, you’re here for a story challenge. So, in case you haven’t done this challenge before, I’m going to post a picture. Your job is to write a story about what is happening in said picture. Feel free to flesh it out some, to add things to the picture (you’ll probably have to with this one), but make sure that your story is actually about the picture that I post. For example, if I post a picture of a dart competition in a bar, don’t write a story about slavers selling mermaids. If I post a picture of a sorcerer casting a spell at the top of his tower, don’t write a story about a fist-fighter competing in the ring. So, no that you’ve got a good concept of what your doing, here’s your picture. Remember, if your going to post a story here, keep it under 500 words. If you want to post a longer story on your own blog, feel free to post a link to it here.

This comes from Dave Melvin. It's an excellent piece and you should check out his page for more.
This comes from Dave Melvin. It’s an excellent piece and you should check out his page for more.

Sunday Picture Post

Welcome to Sunday, everyone! I hope that you’ve all had a wonderful weekend. As of today I have only 40 pages of my reading left, and then my paper. Yay! Anyway, as you all know we take Sundays off here at the art of writing. However, I went and found you a little something to fill the day. I think that it might be suitably odd:

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