Saturday, August 27, 2011

If Math was Taught Like Art

The class is algebra. The students are divided into two groups. There are those who aspire to be mathematicians and those who took it because it seemed fun.

The professor will walk in. He will be a man who wanted to teach and is, or he will be a guy who wanted to do math and isn't. One will be an excellent teacher who knows nothing or an excellent mathematician who can't teach.

He will strut to front of the class and tell them what mistakes they are going to make on their assignments. This announcement can range from extremely accurate, "You will forget to carry the one," to very arbitrary, "You should never use a pen." The more arbitrary, the more the students will proceed to hear about for the rest of the course. “She wasn’t wrong for trying to use a completely different equation, but that she did it in ink.” In a different class (if she ever does try to take algebra again) the teacher will tell her that it is important she does the opposite. "Use a pen. I want to see when you did something wrong."

The lessons will be based around previous teaching methods. Exercises, lecturing, techniques, and homework will be identical to the professor’s styles. The work will not be based around how the teacher himself actually does math, but how a person who is bad at math should do it. He will often say, “The professionals never use this technique, but you need to learn the rules before you break them.”

The techniques will have great benefits, but only in certain circumstances. Due to overexposure and irrational force, the students will brace against the "absolute" lesson and never use it. When Susie is bad at multiplication, using paper clips as a visual suddenly makes it clear. When Jimmy is slowed down by having to use paper clips for every problem, he decides the teacher doesn't know what he's talking about.

That belief will be furthered when the teacher continues the busy work taught to him. Games and exercises meant to make the situation more fun will be played without thought as to actually how it will help the students now. The procedures have merit, we can directly understand how they intend to benefit us, but they are often taught more because they’re easy for the teacher to occupy attention with than that they're useful.

On the homework itself, the teacher will hand it back with the solutions written on it. He may go so far as to find where the equation turned sour and say, “This should be this.” She makes the changes, but won't be able to do it herself the next problem. If the student’s lucky, the teacher will try to not just hand her the answer, he will try to lead her there. But even in that case, more often than not, she will spend her time trying to figure out what he wants as he asks her, “What did you do here?” rather than trying to figure out to fix the mistake.

And, of course, the teacher has no answer key, so he’s sitting there trying to solve the equations in his head as he helps her. He realizes that if she catches him not knowing the answer, she may dismiss him as an expert, so he must pretend to know exactly what he’s doing as he goes.

The main way he attempts to grade homework is by giving it to the other students. He believes this will demonstrate their mistakes if they can see it in others. They will get together in a group and talk about what everyone did wrong, but, of course, most of them have no idea.

The people who are there who want to do math for the rest of their lives are too busy trying to prove they should be there and they do know what they’re doing to really look attempt for problem solving, on their own or others. Like the professor, they don’t want to be caught in a mistake.

The students who came in for fun want it to be fun and don’t want to have hostility. They will stick to the safe route of what the teacher told them, so they’ll often just repeat back what he’s said a million times: “Is that a pen?”

The organization structure of the class causes minimum teaching efficiency. Because algebra is the math class that non-majors and majors have to take, the students find themselves with varying levels of interest and knowledge.

More often than not, it can be the only math class offered. In freelance classes outside of the university, such as an opportunity at a library or a paid tutor or an independent class offered at a community college, the student finds herself retaking the same algebra class over and over again, despite having gone to many different places.

Because it has this mix, the class becomes geared towards the common denominator. It teaches the basics (addition) for the entirety of the course. For those who are trying to get better at math, this proves frustrating. Those who wanted to have fun, didn't, and they flee.

Because of this constant repeating of "beginner courses," class searches become less about the subject matter and more about the quality of the teacher.

The best math teachers are the ones who care. If they are more interested in math itself more than teaching, no matter if they are great at it or not, they are more likely to end up hurting their protégés in the end.

A bitter teacher can ruin a student. He will tell her that she will never use math in the future. He will tell her that she will not get anywhere with it. He may even “lovingly” inform her that she is so terrible at it that she should go into another field. He is, of course, telling her this for her own good. So she "doesn't waste her time."

If a student is younger than average, some people may go as far to say, “You shouldn’t try to do algebra yet. Wait until you’re older.”

The outside world does not consider the best mathematicians the ones who went to school for it. Having a degree in mathematics doesn’t mean the student is any better than the man who’s been practicing since he was three. There is a reason why most aspiring mathematicians don’t bother going to school.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

10 Ways to be Taken More Seriously

Everyone is a writer. Furthermore, everyone knows that everyone is a writer. Therefore, when you tell someone that that’s what you do, the expression is always the same: polite, apathetic, and to a certain extent, a little judgmental.

The problem exists that even though most people consider themselves a creative sort, very few people actually do it, and even fewer do it well. So when someone says he writes, people lob him along with every other wannabe in the world.

Getting the career choice to be taken seriously is hard. People see the artist as a lazy person with an ego and a get-rich-quick scheme. Whether you are a painter, a musician, a writer, or an actor, unless you have a resume that drops down to the floor and spirals across the room, they don’t take you seriously. The problem with this is, of course, you’re not actually considered for projects, the work you do create is judged more harshly, your proposals to other people in your field are immediately thrown out, and, last, "you don’t know what you’re talking about," no matter how good or experienced you actually are.

Here are ten important ways for amateurs to start being considered “a serious artist.”

1) All Projects are Important

We’ve been taught by the educational system to weigh the amount of work with the amount of reward. An assignment based on participation points will have less effort than one graded for actual quality. A good number of students put in the minimal exertion for the highest reward. A great way to prioritize, but not in your field.

Artists build their own reputations. Every piece of work that someone creates for another, whether paid or not, “important “ or not, should be up to his own standards. He should be proud of it. It doesn’t matter if he’s writing a script for Stephen Spielberg, a community theatre, or his friend Tiffany’s Youtube video, he should always try to make it good. And, even more importantly, he has to finish what he started.

Many people are victim to this mentality.

Tiffany wants Roger to write a web show for her. He agrees. He procrastinates—it’s not that important, there’s no deadline, and she’s probably not going to even go through with it. Tiffany will probably never be a great director, so Roger has nothing to worry about. Except—

Tiffany bitches to everyone how unreliable he is, the students are convinced, and the teachers hear about it and become convinced too. If he’s done this more than once, even two times, it becomes solidified.

Every time he applies to put on a production in the school, he gets denied. They know he won’t follow through with it.

One day someone calls the college for a reference. The teachers admit that he’s flaky.

He doesn’t get into the graduate school.

A ridiculous story? Well, it’s a true one. I know hundreds of stories like these all about people in different fields, ruining many different things.

An artist has the right to say no to any project for any reason. If he believes it’s going to be bad, or not good for his reputation, that’s perfectly acceptable for him to say no. The issue is that once he says yes, his reputation is now on the line. When he starts picking and choosing what is important, people read into that as another artist who only cares about becoming rich and famous. He can’t do what is “beneath” him. He doesn’t take pride in his work, which means he doesn’t like his work, which means he’s only in it for superficial reasons.

Even if an author thinks he knows just how much pull a project has, he can never be certain. People talk, reputation grows. Habits start to form. Every time someone screws over a work because it doesn’t matter, he makes it okay to do it the next time. Each time he half asses his project, the more his reputation grows, and he risks screwing himself over in the long run.. You never know who is going to have influence over whom.

If you want to be considered a writer over the pack of people who also consider themselves as such, you have to develop a better reputation than them. No one starts with the good jobs, we all have to shovel through slop to get there. It’s the people who have constant quality pieces that are have a reputation for getting it done that get the good jobs.

2) Get a professional email address

A professional email can do wonders for someone. When sending out scripts, short stories, or novels, handing out business cards, or asking for a reference, a “serious” email indicates someone who has been doing this for a long time. Cutielover26 just doesn’t seem to have quite the ring to it as johnsmith. Unique, personalized emails indicate youth. They are generally something that you got when you were 13 and never changed, which means you’re probably still in your twenties. There are arguments over this, but I believe strongly in the factors of ageism, and most people won’t take you seriously if they think you're immature.

For this reason, your college email, if you have one, isn’t the best option either. It may cause for belief that you are a professor, but they’ll probably realize you are a student, and either way, you want to be viewed as a professional writer.

Have your name in it. This is a great way to start ingraining it into people’s memories. The more you use your name, the more they’re likely to remember it. Even if you’re never going to see these people again, it’s always best to start the subliminal advertising.

Gmail is one of the better ones to have, just for the reason that their emails don’t get eaten as spam as often. They’re more reliable. Things like nouns and numbers in the title also start the risk of your address being labeled as spam, so keep it as simple as possible.

3) Get a website

This is hard, but important. One of the best ways for people to see you as a writer or artist is for you to have an official website. When they see your short story and they type in your name online and a site pops up, it means “you’re professional,” and “you’ve been doing this for a while.” A website is a great way to advertise, put up some of your work, get attention, and have people “take you seriously.” It means that this isn’t just a passing phase or an idea that you consider from time to time.

Of course, the better looking the website, the better its affect.

You can make your own, have someone else design it for you, or even just have one off of a free site. Most college students have an idea on how to do it, so if you don't want to fork over the money for a professional, you could give the kid on your block a couple of bucks. It may not be that good, but it's cheaper. I would suggest making your own. This takes some effort, you need to learn html and have some visual talent, but it is cheap and can be easily changed from time to time.

Having some sort of online material that establishes who you are. There is something to be said when they can type in your name and have an official website pop up.

4) Lie as little as possible

I’d say don’t lie at all, but sometimes that’s not even the best policy. Most of the time, however, it is.

Nothing breeds hostility like a liar. When someone has on their resume that they can speak French, and they obviously can’t, it’s insulting. When an actor comes in late and says it was “a family emergency,” you are madder than if they had just told you the truth. When a writer tells you, “it’s supposed to mean whatever you want it mean,” you want to slap them.

Lying is indicative of insecurity as well as disrespect. An actor doesn’t say the real reason she was late because she doesn’t think the director would understand. Or she felt guilty because she was sitting there playing W.O.W. ten minutes longer than she should have been. It is a declaration that either she knew she did something wrong, or she thinks the director isn’t empathetic. When it comes to your career, getting caught in a lie is one of the worst things you can do for yourself. Why? Because it means that you're not "taking them seriously."

Most people are not as good of liars as they think they are. And even those who are fantastic at stretching the truth can’t keep it up for long. The fact of the matter is most Americans are more likely to assume that someone is lying when they’re not then that they’re telling the truth when they’re not. Essentially, if a person being lied to is on the fence of believing you, they probably won’t.

People don’t say anything when they believe you’re lying because, number one, they can’t prove it, and, number two, they don’t want to get into a fight. But, over the course of time, liars grow more and more evident and those around them grow more resentful. You might not have to face immediate consequences.

Plus, if you are putting yourself into situations where you need to lie, or situations you feel you need to lie, you're doing something wrong.

5) Hold yourself to higher standards

I had a teacher once say, “Do just as much work as your director is.”

He was the professor of a directing class, telling a bunch of actors to not worry that they’re director was probably going to fail his project.

He doesn’t believe this.

The man was simply trying to spite the student who wasn’t taking his work seriously.

The thing is, your director isn’t going to remember the crappy job he did, he’s going to remember the crappy job you did. When reference time comes up, he’s not going to say, “Well, John never learned his lines, but that’s only because I kept canceling my rehearsals.” He’s going to say, “He was a lazy ass.”

The amount of work put in is not about the amount of work others put in. If your script is the only thing that shines in a plague of actors who don’t know what “cheat out” means and a set that’s falling down, that’s fine. Yes, you may get a bad review and it won’t be your fault, but the other way would only be that you got a bad review and it would be your fault.

Edit past what your editor expects. Write better books than what’s being published now. In any situation, you want to do better than the average. It doesn't matter that no one else is sending their submissions in without typos, that might be the one thing that puts you ahead of the curve. The best way to be considered a writer is by writing well, no matter what horrible projects you find yourself in.

6) Don’t trash your work

It’s like someone taking a bite of a candy bar and going, “Oh gross,” then, “Try it.”

No. Thank you.

The reason why we artists have a tendency to preempt our work with an acknowledgment that it’s not our best is because it puts us off the hook. If it’s terrible, it’s okay. Because we know it’s terrible, right?

Unfortunately, not only does is not do any benefit, and it hurts your evaluation.

People will believe you. Unless it’s the best damn candy bar in the entire world, they’re probably going to agree. We’re very easily swayed by our biases, especially ones placed before we’re actually exposed. Especially by the one who created the candy bar in the first place.

Trashing your work is indicative of insecurity which always suggests inexperience. If you think it’s really bad, just don’t say anything. Let them decide. When they tell you how awful it is, just shrug and say, “The character of Julie came out with a totally different attitude then intended,” or whatever specific critique of yourself that you have. Or, again, don't say anything. If they're telling you right to your face it's terrible, they're probably being jerks anyway.

7) Don’t look willing to compromise

Imperative word being “look.”

This is contradictory to what one might believe. Nothing’s more annoying than an artistic diva demanding that no, the word, “can” should not be changed to “will.”

The best way I can explain it is this; people respect those who know what they’re doing. When someone comes up and makes an offer with a self damaging contingency, they make it look like there's something wrong with the offer.

If a man selling you his car and immediately says, “You only have to pay me half,” it looks sketchy. Either he’s desperate, or he’s ripping you off. It’s the same thing in the art world.

Deals like, “If you publish my book, I will give you exclusivity,” or “Here’s my novel, Dragons R Us—but you can change the title if you like,” or “If we do your set design we’d want to buy white paint and a clock, but if we do my set design, we’d want pink,” give the man in power the idea that you are, again, insecure and, again, inexperienced.

Furthermore, not only will their opinion of your expertise in the area be diminished, they are more likely to say no. It’s a strange psychological action: people tend to take the path of least resistance, which means if you’re sounding like you’re expecting them to say no, it makes them feel like not only is it okay to say no, but that they should.

Once upon a time two students were trying to do their senior theses in the theatre department. One wrote a script about a musical with vampires. The other wanted to do Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Who did they say no to?

The woman who made her script, a short fluffy one-act whose music included stolen songs from the eighties was accepted.

The man who wanted to do the famous four person cast was rejected. He was also rejected nine more times for nine other plays.


The woman was a firecracker who was going to flip a bitch when they said no. The man was an appeaser who wouldn’t get involved in a conflict if someone tried to light his car on fire.

Don’t sell yourself too short. When bargains are needed for you to prove yourself, let them bring it up. If they say the problem is that they can’t pay you as much then offer for less, if that’s fine with you. Wait until there’s reason to make compromises before you jump in offering them left and right.

8) Respect others

You want to be taken seriously, take others seriously. Just by entering into the art world you’ve agreed to be a competitor among thousands of people. You’re constantly surrounded by hostility and the hopes that you fall flat on your face.

Most of this aggression, however, is a defensive mechanism: “I’ll hate you before you hate me.”

Just by choosing to assume that someone who says they are a writer is, in fact a writer, can open up a pathway of respect that will fall back to you. If they feel that you are taking them seriously, they’re less likely to wait for you to make a mistake. Starting up a pattern of expectations can aid situations by leading them in a direction you want to go.

Even if this new writer hasn’t ever even picked up a pen, by taking the stance that you really believe he can do it, he’ll see you in a better light.

Thus we fall back into the insecurity void. Disrespect comes from tension brought by uncertainty. Hoping this stranger is terrible at what he does makes you feel better. It makes you different. He’s not going to seriously try to follow this path, which is what’s going to get you ahead in life. "This is not how others see you."

Exuding confidence in your fellow man leads people to believe that you are just confident. When they believe you are confident, they admire you more.

9) Be open to every opportunity.

I said before that it is perfectly acceptable to not take on certain projects. This doesn’t mean that this should be your default stance. If you want people to believe that you are committed to writing, then you should agree to write things. You should write a lot. You should write for fun as well as for whatever silly project your friends are doing. "Selling out" is not an act of creating something you wouldn't have if someone didn't pay you. "Selling out" is where you create something against your morals.

In the book, The Secret, a self-help that tells people how to find happiness, it says that if you think about what you want every day, it will come to you.

My mother’s friend believed this. She decided she wanted a truck. She thought about it all the time, like the book said. She printed out a picture of it. She looked up online the kind she wanted. She knew what color, she knew what style, she knew everything about it.

One day, she was driving down the street, and there was a truck for sale.

A man’s wife was having a baby and he needed money.

It was the same truck, it was the same color, it was cheaper than it should have been. She bought it immediately. It has confirmed her belief in The Secret tenfold.

I don’t believe The Secret is magic. I believe that we have millions of opportunities pass us by every day, and all that The Secret does is help you to recognize them.

If she hadn’t decided what she wanted, if she hadn’t believed that she would get it, if she hadn’t looked up exactly and found exactly her needs, she would have driven right by the truck and never thought about it.

And even if she had gotten out of the car and looked at it, she’d probably think, “Oh, I don’t have the money right now,” or “I don’t need this.” She would have made some excuse because she didn’t really know if she wanted it.

Don’t let opportunities pass you by. When you see a contest that you think you should enter, do it. Don’t allow yourself to procrastinate or scare yourself out of it. You never know what's going to push you through the door. The ability to recognize opportunities is one of the foremost leaders to success.

10) Work hard

The best way to be taken seriously is to do it. Nothing says serious artist like a huge ass resume.

The only way to get a resume is by doing the work. Doing good work can get you more work. Trying can help you in ways that you couldn’t imagine.

If you really want it, you have to show it. So many other people in the world are fighting for that same thing you want. The main aspect that they falter on is putting in the effort.

When people see you working hard, when they hear about the journals your short stories are in, when your friends laughed at that youtube video that you wrote, despite the terrible acting and a camera that blurs randomly, they start to respect you as someone more than a person with a foolish dream. If you do more work than them, if you put in the effort, it will show.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Accepting Rejection

Yesterday, I went to auditions for the play Dracula to assist the director in handing out sides, taking resumes, and doing other stage managerly things I was not getting paid for. I sat behind the table and watched as the actors got up and read their lines, danced about like monkeys, and nervously tried to appear pleasant and professional. When it was over, the director turned to me and the other assistant and began to discuss whom he was going to choose. He asked me if I agreed with his favorites. I laughed and said, “No.”

The actress who I thought did best he waved away with a “puh,” and said, “Absolutely not. I was going to call back the whole group except for her.” I’m not positive about his reasoning, but I can see two. The more logical, her energy and characteristics were indicative of the wrong time period, she wasn’t playing “Victorian.” Or, the more likely, she had short hair and a nose ring. I'd like to point out this was changeable, but the director was going based on his gut, not his head.

Plus, she couldn’t make it to the auditions tomorrow when the callbacks were. I assume this was a factor because, as I found over the course of the night that every time he said, “This does not mean you’re not going to get a part,” he meant, “You’re not going to get a part.” So when he added this to her when she told him she had work tomorrow and couldn’t make the suddenly sprung callbacks, I translated accordingly.

He also continuously told us assistants, “You probably see Lucy with blonde hair, but I’m not married to that.”

Me thinks thou doth protest too much.

His casting choices were obvious. He favored the two men from Equity (the actor’s union) and SAG, the Screen Actors Guild, and the older man whom he had acted with many times before. His “absolutely”s hung around them, despite his friend coming in late, sitting down, cold reading in a monotone, and getting up and leaving. One equity member was the costume designer, and he had been terrible. The other I didn’t even remember. The only girl who he had "really liked" had gushed about his last performance in 1776. She had been good, but he loved her, and I think it was apparent why.

And there was one more thing that affected his answers. Ageism. Anyone who’s under the age of 30 and is trying to be taken seriously knows this can factor in. I’ve never been treated like an idiot because I was a woman, but I have because I was young.

The director clearly had Youth Envy. He is an old man, probably around 70, whose insecurities leads him to try and prove how much he knows about everything. When we were driving him home, he made a point to sing along with every single musical song, announcing their titles as they went, trying to establish that he was, in fact, an expert. To a bunch of theatre people.

I’m met a lot of these men, these older gentlemen with (perceived) failed careers still committed to their art despite being forced to become teachers or community theatre directors. A good number of them hate their students or any burgeoning actor who is under the age of 25. Like the cliché of the 30 year old ballet dancer, she looks to the young girls as the enemy: the people who will be taking her parts because she is just getting too old. They have the doors opening for them and hers are closing. Thus, she starts to subconsciously attempt to prevent them from pushing forward.

The director last night would not cast young. As I heard him speak, I realized his plans oriented around only looking at the men who were over forty. For Van Helsing, this made sense. He was a lawyer and a teacher, a learned gentleman, and someone who was clearly experienced in the world. But for Dracula and Reinfield, it didn’t. Reinfield was the narrator, an insane side character in the book who becomes the henchman of the vampire count. His age was nonspecific. Dracula’s age changed. Sometimes he was ancient, and looked it. Others, he was a handsome youth. It is easier to make someone older than it is to make someone younger.

He wouldn’t even look at the actors who were below thirty.

At the end of the night, when the other assistant and I were driving home from dropping the director off, he looked to me and said, “What kind of wazoo casting is that?”

Both of us found the “puh” girl to be the best cold read of the night. Neither of us were impressed by his friends. The assistant and I were more congruent on our choices than the old director’s. We didn’t get it.

My point is this: The girl we found as having the highest “quality” of work didn’t even get a callback. This is not uncommon.

Quality doesn’t get you there. It’s not what leads someone to pick up the book. You can’t go into a store and look for the best book; you won’t recognize it until you’ve read it. You go by reputation (Actor’s Equity Member) and head off to the bestsellers list, or the novel your friend recommended. You go by subject matter (the blonde hair) and look in the romance aisle. You look at the covers (the ages) and you grab it and hope it will be good. You can look at the back (the cold read) and glimpse the first couple of pages, but, in the end, you won’t be sure of the quality until you’ve finished it.

This is the same for agents, this is the same for judges. Look at the bad books that have gotten published and you’ll see severe similarities. They have a nice concept or they fit into a nice fad.

Or they were one of the few books that didn’t fit into a fad. I once heard about a contest judge who was reading through over 1,000 short stories. There she found a ridiculous number of them contained the same image: The leading male character, for whatever reason, was carrying around or reading, or just talked about, an obscure Russian writer. They weren’t similar enough to be copied, the moment wasn’t important to be some sort of weird trick. As she kept reading, she started to toss these pompous stories in a pile. Not a single one was even considered as a finalist.

Were they bad? Cliché? The reality was that it was just a freak occurrence. Maybe there was something in the air that caused a large number of people to think that was a good idea, but in reality, there was no way they could have known that that would be the issue. Had the same story gone to another contest, it may have won something, but because of the luck of the draw, they found themselves losing.

Stephan King’s Carrie, the book that made him big, got rejected over 30 times. Chicken Soup for the Soul over a hundred. Harry Potter couldn’t get published in England, which is why Scholastic Scholar makes it now. Seinfield’s pilot almost got the whole series pulled before it started, and Twilight got over 15 different rejection letters before someone liked it enough to try it. And get this, one of the main reasons the vampire novel even got made was because the new agent hadn’t realized that 130,000 words is a lot.

Some of these books you may consider terrible. Some you may consider great. The point is that vast rejection isn’t something that should make you give up. Many times things get thrown out for stupid, inane, obscure, or timing reasons, and they get thrown out over and over again. It doesn’t meant that it’s bad.

It also doesn’t mean that it’s good. It means it got rejected, end of story.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Cutting: A Writer's Process

The story’s too long. You’ve decided this, your teacher’s decided this, your editor’s decided this, the margin’s decided this. For whatever reason, it can’t stay at the length it is now. Now you must take the scissors to it.

The question begins, where to start?

"YOU CAN..."

How to cut a work is determined by the desired effect. If it is, in fact, “too long,” being that the regulations of a contest demand a smaller number of words, or the margins of the newspaper column won’t fit, or the novel is so damn huge a publisher won’t touch it, then the easiest first step is to just

Cut the Excess Words.

Very simply, make the sentences all as short as possible. Remove any word that doesn’t change the meaning of the phrase.

For example, take my sentence above:

Make sentences as short as possible. Remove unnecessary words.

By just cutting most of the “slack” and changing one expression, I brought my word count down from 21 to 9.

This makes it smaller without needing to cut parts of the story. Often, the work can be made into 1/3 the size without changing its contents at all. If deleting moments was a painful thought, now it isn't a problem.

A lot of advice says to do this anyway—whenever an author’s writing anything. I disagree. If everyone cut to the bare minimum without a deliberate purpose in mind, writing styles would grow homogenized. I saw only cut excess words when trying to fix a problem. Often the writer put them there for a reason: My first sentence sounds different than the second. The shorter version reads more sharply, and on the edge of a little more hostility. Changing the tiny details can alter the entire intention.

There are many reasons that shorter sentences can be better than long but the main reason for the absolute fixation is this: The past generation wrote longer. It’s a pendulum thing. When most people are trying to be poetic and long winded, then succinct is preferred. When they’re sweet and to the point, alliteration is preferred. We’re all about variation. Writing advice is all hypothetical. They assume you have the problem the majority has, and makes rules accordingly.

There are several situations in which considering cutting out excess words can better a work:

1. If the sentence is confusing.
2. If he needs a smaller word count.
3. If he’s trying to instill hostility, faster pacing, or a more tense moment.
4. If the description is boring.

Essentially, it is a great tool for fixing certain issues. It is not something to base a style around. Especially considering how much sentence length affects mood.


If the length of the work is affected by pacing or story, and not the literal length, consider Stephan King’s definition of a second draft: The first draft minus 10%.

Deleting the “Musings”

Stephan King has the slowest pacing of today’s great writers. Not much actual action happens in a lot of his books. Yet, he manages to draw the audience in throughout long durations of action dry spells. How does he do this? You tell me, because I have no flippin' clue.

But from his declaration that all second drafts should be shorter, I recognized the connection between my own belief that a good portion of the first draft (probably about 10%) is what I call “stalling.”

Often times, the writer isn’t positive of every aspect. A good amount of the story is him figuring out what’s going to happen next, or playing around. He knows that Johnny has to get from the village to the Mountain of the Apes, but doesn’t know what should happen as he’s traveling. Or he realizes that this is the point Lucy wants to admit her feelings, but isn’t sure how to bring it out in conversation. He turns to the Stream of Consciousness.

For those of you who don’t know, Stream of Conscious writing is, basically, where the author just writes. He doesn't think about it. He allows his subconscious to lead the plot. He doesn’t plan, he doesn’t self-edit, he just does.

The Stream of Consciousness, however, tends to ramble. It explores and finds itself, going all over the place before it figures out the direction it wants to go in. It’s a fantastic way of finding “the point.”

When deleting for content, looking for the moments in which the author started to ramble is the best way to cut parts that aren’t actually story oriented. Understanding that there are three descriptions as to “how the Magic Medallion works” makes the author realize he felt he wasn’t clear the first two times. He kept describing it until he was satisfied the audience got it. So, he now cuts the first two parts.

Deleting the author’s muses, or his explorations, rid the story of the parts that don’t move the plot forward. Looking for these moments of “stalling” is a good way to give a fresh look at the situation when the author is having problems understanding his own point.


Last but not least is the hardest but easiest method:

Want to Delete It

The technique is simple. Read through the story many, many times. Do lots and lots of edits. Eventually, the editor will get to a part in which he says, “Oh my God, I have to read that again?”

By that point, he’ll want to delete it. Then he won’t have to read it again. "I don't need to edit something that's not in the story." If he possibly can remove it, then he will. If there is important information in there, he’ll recognize that and labor through it, or maybe try to change it so it doesn’t bore him so.

This is the easiest way to find the appropriate parts to delete, but it takes the most effort, because it demands more time and actually doing the work of reading the crap.


In the end, the hardest part of cutting is the mentality that “I did all that work for nothing.” Feeling as though the author wasted his time writing all of those pages and then, they’re just gone, demoralizes him some.

Some of the ways that a writer can prevent feeling dejected when erasing what took him so long to write can be 1) Keeping it—Adding the cuts to another file makes the author feel it’s still there, he can always get it back. 2) Still rewarding himself for writing it—Still counting the pages deleted as effort included. “It may be a 300 page story now, but I still wrote 500.” 3) Understanding that often portions of “unnecessary” scenes is just the same as brainstorming, and led the story along. Or 4) Choosing not to be attached. Decision is one of the most powerful tools we have, and the simple act of admitting that you want to cut it down can take out a lot of the heartbreak.

Friday, August 5, 2011

5 Parts of a Story That Will Induce Writer’s Block

If I pre-plan a novel, I can recognize immediately which parts are going to be the hardest for me to get through. Often, when someone tells me a story they have in mind, I know the exact points they’re going to get hung up.

Finishing a novel is almost as hard as starting it; there are several points where an author is bound to get stuck. Here’s five places in which most writer's begin to lose interest in their own work.

1. After the Premise is Over

The “Premise” is the idea that makes the book "unique". It is like the plot, but doesn’t actually have any plot elements to it. There’s no conflict or super objective involved. It’s the most interesting part of the story, but doesn’t drive it forward.

For example, Harry Potter’s premise is that a little boy finds himself to be a wizard and then goes to wizarding school. It has the world, it has the character, it has the main interest, but if you notice, it doesn’t indicate where the story is going to go. "The plot" is the conflict, oriented around the defeat of Voldemort.

What happens is, and I still do this every time I come up with an idea, the author owns some idea and writes about it for pages and pages. It’s a slick slope, and he’s loving it, encountering no problems, having fun, speeding right through… And then it stops. Just abruptly. The inspiration's done. He doesn’t know where to go. This is because he doesn't yet know what his conflict is.

This is the perfect place to input the inciting incident. By this point, the author should have a general idea of what the character's main goal is, i.e. what’s going to be solved by the end of the book. If he isn’t sure yet, then he completely loses his momentum.

2. The Character’s Floating

This usually happens in the middle or right after The Premise for some. The character doesn’t want anything. He doesn't know where he's headed. He's indecisive.

There’s a point in film, about an hour in, when it occurs to members of the audience to look at their phones and see how close it is to being done. Essentially what has happened is the character's lost objective. Either he started out with one and it changed (he wanted to be the greatest soldier for Lord Archtype, but then realized the man was evil and he couldn’t possibly) or he’s been led around by events until then and hasn’t needed to make a choice yet. The character doesn’t know where he’s going or where he wants to go, and neither does the author. The man in the story is just existing, waiting for something to happen to him.

The creator than has to force a path on him. She cannot be dependent on the character’s actions to push the events forward, which—believe it or not—they usually do, but has to contrive some happenstance to set the putsch in motion. She, in a weird way, has to convince the character to do what she wants. Hard to do, the author finds herself stuck.

3. The Climax

Whether it’s getting to Lord Archtype’s bedchambers or the actual battle that ensues, the whole portion of the climax is the most important and one of the hardest parts to write. Having all the elements connect, making it poignant, having it quick but not too quick, keeping up the doubt as to outcome for as long as possible, it takes a certain finesse that indecision cannot work with.

I once wrote a 100,000 word novel in one month—except for the last fifteen pages. Six weeks past until I eventually finished it, and it was the most painful portion to trudge through that I’ve ever worked on. I wrote half of another book before I could force myself to get back to it.

Stalling just before the “big bang” is common, though the reasons vary. Mine is a very simple problem—I don’t know what the story was trying to say, and I wasn’t sure what the conflict actually was.

Sounds like the story had no story, when you don't understand the specifics. The real issue was I just couldn’t be decisive about it. Choosing “the moral” can really benefit the author in times of lethargy and blockage. Knowing that the good guys won due to “drive” or “love” or “money” can indicate exactly how the story should end. If the point of a Sci-fi war flick is that war is won by those who plan better, then clearly, the resolution should be one by strategy.

The movie Captain America was an example how a sickly young man could overcome his differences by being braver and more honorable than others, when he chose to die in the space ship to save millions, it made sense.

Of course, even if you do understand that you’re trying to say, “Look how smart this guy is,” you then have to be smart yourself, which may be the reason you can’t think of what to write.

4. “Battle”

This is a better way of saying, “The parts you don’t care about.” See, if I started with that, the immediate impression would be that if you don't care, you should keep it out. But when I say “you” I don’t mean the hypothetical person, I mean, the author’s personal self.

I am not interested in action sequences. I tune them out and wait for the hero to win like I assume he would. I have no idea how he did it and if anything important happened in the meanwhile, I will not have seen it. But, fight scenes, especially in certain genres, are usually important. I write fantasy and about adventurers, so it’d make sense that I do encounter the problem every once in a while.

I will then proceed to work on every other story I have going until I can force myself through it days, weeks, or months later.

This is an issue for everyone at some point in their career. A writer who is terrible at characters will eventually have to write emotion based scenes. The author who finds romance idiotic may want to have his hero actually get the girl in the end, and people who find pain incredibly painful will still need some sort of conflict. There will be a time when a creator has to work on a part that’s hard for him. It will take longest and be the greatest writer’s block inducer he can deal with. It will also be the greatest indicator of exactly what he likes and hates in entertainment.

5. From Part A to Part B

The writer wants Harry and Jimmy to get into a fight. As of right now, they’re on great terms, as the author wants it, and by the end of the dinner they need to hate each other’s guts. The creator knows what she wants to happen, and she may even know exactly what she wants them to fight about, but she doesn’t know how to get them there. She wants to show the gradual growth, but getting from point A to point B is hard. She get’s writer’s block, and she quits. This could be any scene in which something important has just happened, and now we need to move onto the next plot point, but obviously they can’t go right after one another, or the pacing will be really weird.

This is very similar to the Floating Character problem. In the end, it is best solved by understanding the character’s objectives—knowing Harry wants to become a writer and make him go on a tangent about his ideas for his story could put Jimmy in a bad enough mood for him to snap. Or finding other information in the story that also needs to be said and adding it; you wanted to talk about how Jimmy is actually an orphan who was raised in the circus, it could make Harry feel bad enough to be snippy. Or you could start writing backwards. Going from the point in which Harry leaps up and threatens to attack Jimmy, and then saying what was said before that and before that and before that could give it a natural look into how the conversation got to where it was, especially if it doesn’t matter where they started off as long as they end angry.

If an artist has a lot of half finished works then he should look at the reasons he stopped where he did. The vast majority of the time will be due to him encountering the same issue each time. Maybe one of the same here, may its something unique. If he can think of a reason why he can't get passed a certain point, then that's the best thing for him to focus on.