Deliberate Practice Writing Drill: Shading Emotion in Sentences

I said before that I had several Deliberate Practice Drills to share. Well, actually, I’m always coming up with more, so could theoretically post these forever. Here’s one I used the other day, trying to increase control and precision in the emotional content of my sentences:

1) Write a very short, very rudimentary Core Sentence, like, “He was happy,” or even, “She ran.” Subject-Verb or Subject-Verb-Object is best.
2) Write at least ten variations of this Core Sentence. Each variation must contain the Subject, Verb, and (if there is one) Object of the Core Sentence. Remember, the goal of this exercise is EMOTIONAL content.

A) Focus on conveying emotion, especially changes in emotion and subtle shifts in tone. Remember, a story is an emotional journey.
B) Try to keep adjectives and -ly adverb use low. I don’t believe in purging them all, rather I suggest you treat them as your most precious jewels. Save them. Be spare with them. Overusing them just makes your writing gaudy, just as a necklace of huge diamonds, sapphires, and pearls jammed together without though would be gaudy. Rather, string them onto the line of the sentence — really, onto the line of the paragraph — only when they really make it shine.

Example exercise:

Core Sentence: “He was happy.”

  • He thought he was happy.
  • Then, one day, there came a moment where he thought he was happy.
  • For a moment, he thought he was happy.
  • Before the influenza took her, he thought he was happy.
  • Even while she was dead, she wondered if he was happy.
  • She wondered if he was really happy.
  • Was he happy? She wondered.
  • Sure, he was happy.
  • She was happy about being dead, and he was happy for her.
  • She seemed happy, and he told himself he was happy about it.
  • He was happy until night came.
  • He was happy until night came because with the night came the darkness, and with the darkness came the loneliness, and with the loneliness came the rusted, serrated edge of his soul scraping at his heart.
  • Etc.

The goal of this exercise is to drive yourself further and further toward precision, either by subtly changing the emotional tone and meaning of the sentence (ex – “He thought he was happy.”, which contains doubt, regret, perhaps a hint of willful self-delusion), or by expanding on the core sentence (the last example above).

And this is just a simple, passive sentence.

A final tip:
Don’t hold back on these sentences. Turn off your inner editor. What I mean by that is don’t be shy about trying something new, whether subtle, bold, or bombastic. Learning is about failing, and this is where you fail, safely. I’m not sure if the last example above, about the night, is good or absolutely horrible, and I’ll be honest — it doesn’t matter. I wrote it, I pushed myself in a new direction, and that will eventually make me a stronger writer. Also, my sentences are repetitive, some of them tiny or negligibly different from the ones before. That’s natural, especially at the beginning, when you are warming up, but even that is useful — sometimes a subtle, almost invisible shift in tone is exactly what you need.

More to come!

On: Seeing a Field For the First Time

When you look at a field, what do you see? Do you see “green” or “grass” or even just “field”? If so, you’re not really looking.

I am looking at one now, and I see at least five to ten different shades of green, at least 3 different shades of tan and brown, and everything bit of grass, living or dead, at a different length. Even grasses of the same species look unique. They clump together, run in strips or curves, and the leave huge open spaces. Fate and randomness has textured like the rind of an orange.

This field was once a building, a vast warehouse, and the foundation of it is still there underneath, and there are tiny bits of rubble just beyond sight, The bulldozers scraped the whole surface clean once, long ago, and so the field always looks like it has been plowed for crops and then overgrown even though it has never been plowed before.

But what really amazes me are the bushes. You don’t even see them when you look at this place at first — you look and you see “field” and that’s all, and all the bushes disappear from your eyes because you see a category, a shape, an abstract object instead of the thing itself. It is cruel and heartless dominance of the abstract over the real.

Really, it’s like Plato and Aristotle had it all backward, that the abstract, perfect world of “forms” is not a thing beyond or behind reality, but an instinctive creation of the mind, a simplification that the brain resorts to in order to be able to process all of the data and sort it and organize it in a useful way. The “shadows on the wall of a cave” are not the physical world at all, but the cognitive system of grouping, classification, and ordering that our mind uses to construct meaning.

Reality is always complex, textured, nuanced, with layers of history right there, visible under the surface, between the bushes and the blades of grass, but the mind cannot handle all of this information at once. It is too much. It is not useful, not relevant to survival or thriving, and it is discarded. And that is the way it should be. Usually. But sometimes you need to turn that filter off, and you need to see what is actually in front of your eyes. In detail.

Because sometimes the “perfect form” is not enough.
Because sometimes you need the truth, with all its various shades.
Because… sometimes… the world is beautiful.

“Master of the Five Magics” and Me: A Peaen on Being a Rouded Individual

Once upon a time I was a twenty-year old in College and I read a book called “Master of the Five Magics” by Lyndon Hardy, and it was good. In it, young apprentice Alodar travels across his world, learning each of the five magics there, but consistently being defeated by his enemies. He doesn’t give up, though, and eventually overcomes adversity…

Fast forward to today, and here is me, S. Boyd Taylor, struggling to learn Mandarin, dedicating myself to 8 different martial arts — Baguazhang (Liang and Cheng Styles), Xingyiquan (Hebei Style), and Taijiquan (Chen, Wu, Wu-Hao, Yang and Sun Styles) — and doing my best to master the art of writing fiction. I am trying to be the Master of 10 Magics, and that doesn’t even count Spanish or any of the other languages that I want to learn.

This, I believe, is a noble pursuit: the pursuit of a better, more rounded self. Admittedly, I still need to learn music, but I have at least made a passable attempt at learning guitar, and one day I shall return to it.

There is a serious problem with this path, however. I am spread very thinly. I have very little time for each individual endeavor, and many skills that must be maintained or the fade quickly. And I also have a day job. And money problems. And, most importantly, I have a family, and I treasure every moment with them.

Arguably, it will take a long, long time to become a master at any of these skills, but my answer to this is that I have been doing several of them a very long time. I have been writing and alayzing fiction since I was 11. The internal martial arts I have been doing since 2005 (however, with a 3 year hiaitus — I am really in “getting my skills back” mode here). Chinese, of course, is new. And, accordingly, it is getting a lot of attention —  Pimsleur every day on the commute, Rosetta Stone in the morning.

But there is anther, more insidious problem with all of these hobbies: Opportunity Cost. I could focus on one of them (presumably writing) and become absolutely as good as I can be at it, more fully developed, more fully skilled. And from there, if I get lucky, I could possibly, one day, in a perfect world, in a dream, make enough money not to need the day job.

I am deeply conflicted about this. I really love my martial arts, and this drive to learn languages is almost an illness. But, though I really do like my job a lot and love my boss, and I am reading the Michael Palin Diaries: The Python Years, and it is amazing how much brilliant work he cranked out by the age of 35.

I am 38 now. And what have I done?

This troubles me greatly, in a very fundamental way. How can I achieve my dreams if I do not focus more tightly, more intently? But can I really be satified if I leave my other dreams behind?

This Learning Life: The Ming Dynasty of China

One of my passions is learning — languages, history, strange esoteric subjects, how to clip bicycle pedals in, it doesn’t matter — everything is fair game. Since learning new things and random research tend to take up a significant part of my life, I’m starting up a new feature on the site: This Learning Life.

Because to me, life is all about learning. Staying interested. Making unexpected connections.

So what did I learn today?

I learned about the Ming Dynasty in China.

Now, I’d known OF this dynasty for quite some time — I mean, who has never heard of a Ming vase — but, man, I really knew nothing.

If you already know something about China’s imperial dynasties, just in general, there’s much the same — the Confucian Scholars/Literati/Aristocracy (the Shr class) run the bureaucracy of government, the Eunuchs run most of the stuff in the court (and, later in the dynasty, when things start to get corrupt, the Eunuch lead the way in decadence and corruption, as normal). This is the great cycle of Chinese Imperial Dynasties, the “circle of life”, as it were, and it still holds true for the Ming.

But the Ming have a lot of new innovations going for them — a lot of new mechanisms of state that help hold things together — and that’s one reason that the Middle Ming (the middle period of the dynasty) is considered one of the golden ages of China.

So what’s so cool? Infrastructure. Post roads to be precise. What? Hold, on let me explain.

You see, the first Ming Emperor, Zhu Yuanzhang, also called the Hongwu (“vastly martial”) Emperor, also called Taizu (“Great Ancestor”) of Ming, was paranoid and more than a little bit crazy. When one of his Shr class advisers started to get a little too powerful, he would automatically assume a plot to overthrow the dynasty and purge:
– The adviser himself
– The adviser’s immediate family
– The adviser’s entire family unto the 9th degree (this happens a lot in China — I’ve hard a rumor there is a dedicated verb for exterminating a family unto the 9th degree of relation)
– Anyone the adviser was known to have talked to or write letters to.

For the first adviser purged, Hu Weiyong, the Hongwu Emperor killed roughly oh, say, 10,000-15,000 people. Now that, my friends is some serious killing. By the time the first Ming Emperor had died of old age, he’d killed roughly 100,000 Chinese in these purges. Nice guy, right?

Well, being paranoid, Hongwu wanted to control everything. He abolished the position of Chancellor, for instance, and took all the powers on himself. But to control everything, my friends, you must KNOW everything as well. So Hongwu had the post road system developed.

A network of postal roads, garrisoned with soldiers, with rest stops for postal couriers and fresh horses at evenly spaced intervals was put in so that information could flow from all over China right to Hongwu’s door. And it was fast too, 15 days, I believe, to the farthest reaches, but don’t quote me on that, I can’t find the citation for that (yes, I’ll warn you when I might be blowing smoke — nice, isn’t it?). Now remember, this was before telephones, the internet, before cars even — 15 days over those huge distances is FAST. A few previous empires, like the Zhou, had collapsed because they hadn’t been able to solve the communication problem and had doled out authority to local strongmen whose kids, after a few generations, came to challenge the throne. So just on this point, this is a major step forward — Hongwu can send and receive information rapidly at vast distances, and this means he can rule outlying regions as if he is right there.

But that’s the SMALLEST part of why this is cool. To understand the next part, lets do a little bit of roleplaying:

Imagine you’re a Chinese Merchant. You keep getting robbed on the main roads to everywhere because, well, there are bandits. But hey, that postal road has troops on a regular basis, guarding the imperial post offices… You put one and one together and what do you decide to do?

You start using the postal roads, of course! And trade moves swiftly through them, and safely, and robbery goes WAY down. Awesome! Now you can grow your business.

Now… Imagine that you’re a peasant whose tired of farming, and you see all these merchants on this postal road, and they are always hot and thirsty and starving after a long day’s march… So you come up with the idea to open an inn there, and offer beds and food. And you get rich!

Well, this happened all over. The economy went wild due to the secure infrastructure — it added more roads, better roads, and improved safety, so trade flourished and the population increased from roughly 100 million at the beginning of the Ming to 300 million at the end, and a large proportion of those people had better lifestyles.

Why does this matter to you?

Well, think about it — cities do this all the time: they broaden the major roads, make new highways, and repave roads to make trade travel easier. They (should) staff a good police force to keep crime down (yeah, we see how well that works in Dallas!)

In a high-demand area:
New Infrastructure + Security = Growth

Next time that local bond comes up talking about broadening a highway or It applies to us as much as the Ming!

…Now if we could just get rid of the private tolls on the tollways — I strongly believe this is just a way for the friends of politicians to get rich. Now how did the Ming Dynasty fall again? Corruption?

You can find a timeline of the Ming Dynasty here.