Tag Archives: learning

New Writing Exercise: TV Episode Breakdown

This is a fairly common exercise, but if you haven’t run into it before, here you go:

1) Pick a TV Show you like, or at least that you are interested in learning about
2) Play an episode in a medium where you can pause it
3) take notes on the high level what-happens and the emotions that occur; if there are commercial breaks, mark these, as they are often act breaks.
4) When the show is done, go back through your notes and see if you can identify patterns, structure, and what was good about the episode

Be warned, this can be very enlightening. Too much so.

I did this to an episode of Bleach once, and now all the combat-escalation based Anime are easy to predict.

Looking without looking, seeing without seeing

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 where their teeth dragged 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 HERE.

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.

Deliberate Practice Writing Drill: Practicing Compressed Description

Deliberate Practice is the path to mastery: breaking down an art, sport, or craft into individual skills and training each of those skills independently.

Continuing on my Deliberate Practice Drills for Fiction Writing series, I present a drill designed to help focus descriptive powers.

Set a five minute timer (or if you’re really fast, two minutes). Look around, pick and object, describe it:

  1. Capture the look of it as fast as you can
  2. If you have to, instead of describing the whole object, focus on one detail
  3. Stories are emotional journeys; every object in fiction should have some emotional impact on the reader, so try to realize some emotional truth, shade the description with an emotive tone, or even personify the object.
  4. Keep it short, one sentence to one paragraph, and definitely no more than three paragraphs even for the most complex scene.
  5. Repeat this at least 3-5 times in one session.

Tips

  • This is not about writing a story. You do not need characters, setting, pr any sort of plot… Unless you WANT them 😉 Be true to the paragraph. Don’t hold yourself back.
  • If you get done in time, feel free to go back and tweak it a little. Play with the words. But move on when the timer goes off.
  • It doesn’t have to be good. This is about practice, about learning. About developing skill. My example below I am torn about: Is it good? I don’t know. It is as good as I can get it within the confines of the time limit, but that is all.

Example

He sits at his desk and stares hopelessly at the mousepad. The mousepad is him. Worn, faded, bulging in the middle. He remembers it once bore a Picasso sketch of a bull charging, but every trace of it is gone, worn away by time and stress like the man’s hair.

Advanced Tip

Instead of just doing objects, try doing the whole room or a person.

More to come!

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.

Tips:
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!

The Path to Mastery: Deliberate Practice in Fiction Writing

If you know me, you probably know how many hobbies I have, how many things I am trying to not just be good at, but MASTER: seven different styles of Kung Fu, Fiction Writing, several different languages, sword fighting, being a good parent, etc.

Despite apparently being spread thin, I am damn good at all of them: I’ve got 28 medals in Kung Fu from various national and international tournaments, I’m an excellent sword fighter, I’ve got published short stories and am >this< close to having a major agent for my novel. What I have not mastered, I am slowly mastering.

And how do I do it? A little something called DELIBERATE PRACTICE.

Deliberate Practice was first discussed in Malcom Gladwell’s book, Outliers: The Story of Success. If you’ve ever heard the “10,000 hours rule”, that mastery comes with 10,000 hours of practice it comes from this book. But people get that wrong all the time — it’s not 10,000 hours of practice. It’s 10,000 hours of DELIBERATE PRACTICE.

If you read “Outliers”, and I have, he talks at length about the difference between just practice and Deliberate Practice, and even theorizes that Professional Athletes are actually “geniuses”, geniuses at physical activity because of their constant Deliberate Practice, and that our culture could have geniuses in science or arts or writing or whatever just as easily, but, since we don’t monetarily incentivize those activities the way we do sports with multimillion dollar contracts, and since there are no training regimens designed for them, geniuses occur in mental fields much less often than in physical ones.

“So,” I hear you say, “If I want to be writing geniuses we need to do some Deliberate Practice, right?” Wrong. You need to do A LOT of deliberate practice.

“Fine,” you say, “I’ll write. A lot. And read. A lot. Problem solved.”

Wrong again. But don’t be discouraged, this is a common misunderstanding, made by people who are invested in the deliberate practice movement. An example:

Author Justine Musk has a very cogent article defining Deliberate Practice, here. It’s a really good summary. I recommend it. BUT… She then goes on to post her recommendations for Deliberate Practice, here… And they are pretty much what you came up with alone.

It’s almost surreal: if you read her practice recommenations and then you read the description of Deliberate Practice in “Outliers,” or even the definition she herself provides, her exercises don’t match up with the book. Why? Because here is the key piece of information she’s forgetting:

Engaging in Deliberate Practice is BASICALLY THE SAME THING as doing a drill in sports.

In sports, the smaller the drill, the more focused it is on ONE TINY PIECE of the mastery puzzle, the more effective it is when repeated. People training to be pro tennis stars spend hours and hours perfecting the JUMP on the serve. Not the swing, just the jump. They train the swing SEPARATELY and alone. They also spend hours and hours practicing their back hand at the net. Just the back hand. Quarterbacks in American football practice their snap, practice then throwing the ball through a tire, practice dodging linebackers. Hockey players practice puck handling skills, physical agility skills, shooting accuracy drills, and even a skill as small as getting back onto their feet as soon as they fall down on the ice (they fall down a lot!).

This is what Musk has missed — breaking the craft of writing (or, if you will, the “sport” of writing”) down into its tiniest components, so that each component can be consciously mastered and then folded back into the primary skillset.

You’re probably thinking: “Okay. That makes sense. But how do I do it? How do I apply Deliberate Practice to fiction writing?”

You design and complete drills. A lot. A whole hell of a lot. Repetition repetition repetition. And then you write stories, and you try to bring what you have learned to bear.

“But what drills? How do I design them? I’m confused!”

Don’t worry. I’ve got your back. I have a lot of drills I already use that have worked for me, and I’ll share them. For each one, try it every other day for a week, and if you don’t like it, if you’re not learning anything or feeling mentally stronger, dump it and move on.

“But you mentioned designing my own drills too. That sounds scary!”

It’s not. Once you’ve got your feet under you, once you’ve been drilling and writing for a while, and you know what YOUR writing weaknesses are, think about what sort of drills you can do to make yourself stronger. Then try it, and share!

Other Deliberate Practice posts:

Finding Your Voice in Writing (or How to Develop 2 or 3 Voices of Your Own)

“…and remember to believe in magic or I’ll kill you!” – The Magic Bunny

One thing I’ve seen endless posts on is “Finding Your Voice”, as if there is a magical voice that is yours — and one day you’ll just run into your voice and BOOM you’ll be a real writer with a real style.

First I need to be clear here. I’m not sure if this is a revolutionary view, but it is certainly MY view and I haven’t seen it anywhere else:

I do NOT believe that if you keep writing you’ll just accidentally run into “Your Voice” and then you’re done and the quest is over. In fact, I don’t believe that a writer has a single voice at all. No, indeed, I believe a writer has as many voices as he/she decides to DEVELOP, and each of those voices will be unique to the writer. 

You see, VOICE is a TOOL. Each voice is slightly different, sure, and each one has different strengths. That’s why having multiple voices at hand is extremely useful — each voice can be employed in a different story or even in a different chapter in the same novel in order to heighten certain effects.

Voices can be short. Brutal. Rhythmic. Human skin stretched tight on drums.

Other voices twist and writhe about and keep diving into different holes until you can’t see where they’re going in the dark tunnels of mind and then in one heartbeat they leap out at you and grab you like you’re a rabbit and shake you once, twice, thrice and leave you bleeding and twitching in the mud.

They can be anything you want. Quick, sassy, velvety, violent, whatever.

But all voices have two elements in common:
1) They are composed of words
2) In order to use one, you have to DEVELOP it first

There’s that word again. Develop. Why do I keep saying “develop” when everyone else says “find”? Well, first let’s discuss how most writers develop a voice.


We are all, to some extent, built in with a certain voice and a certain style. It is an amalgam of what we have read and enjoyed, mashed together with whatever you remember from English classes, plastered over with yours or someone else’s opinions on Grammar (Strunk and White, anyone?). The problem is this style we start out with (usually anyway) just isn’t good. Go back and look at your last failed short story, or — if you’re established now and none of your stories fail — go back and look at one of your early short stories from high school or junior high. See those stilted lines. Why are they stilted? What’s going on? Why does that high-school/college/whatever prose seem impossible to disentangle even though you’ve rewritten entire BOOKs now?

Why? Because the style/voice in that piece is in conflict with itself. It wants to be the way you talk and think. It wants to be the way Hemingway talks and thinks. And don’t forget your Composition teacher or your favorite SF writer or Strunk and White either. It’s a vast CACOPHANY of OTHER voices, all struggling to be heard. All drowning each other out.

Why does it take people 1, 3, 10, or even 15 trunk novels to finally find a winning voice? Because it’s a lot of work to overcome those voices, especially when you don’t know that you’re trying to write like other people and follow all these built-in rules. Struggling blindly like this, it’s amazing anyone develops one voice much less two or three or more. No wonder it feels more like you “find” your vioce than a conscious decision to “develop one”.

Sure this process works. Eventually. If you don’t give up. Plenty of writers have gone through the process and ended up writing well or even dazzlingly. The problem is, this is the hard way of doing it. “Writing Like Other People” is exactly the process of DEVELOPING voice, yes, but you can speed the process up.

Let me show you how.

Say you really like Cormac McCarthy. You’d like to write a bit more like him, adopt a few of his flourishes. Good on you, he’s a great writer. A Pulitzer and a National Book Award are hard to argue with.

But how do you do it?

Step 1) This is the obvious step. You’ll need to READ him.

Sadly, this is where most writers’ plans on developing a voice END. You read “The Road”, “Blood Meridian”, and “All the Pretty Horses”, and think “Well, I hope that rubbed off.” But strangely, it doesn’t seem to work. So maybe you read again and again (pleasant but not strictly necessary). This is similar to brute-forcing your way into a password-protected computer. Hard, brutal, and it may eventually work, but it will take time.

Step 2) Define WHAT YOU LIKE about him.

In this step you are defining to yourself EXACTLY what you like about the author. This equates almost precisely with WHAT YOU WANT TO LEARN from the author.

Me, I like the lack of commas and apostrophes and quotation marks. To me, the streamlined prose falls straight into my brain faster and with less effort without all the noise. You may HATE this, though. If you do, don’t put it on your list. Me, I also like his use of “and” to connect long lists of very simple sentences in All the Pretty Horse. I love his vast vistas that yank directly at your soul in Blood Meridian. I like his short, terse, chopped up prose in The Road. I like his images that burn like fire in your mind.

Your list might be COMPLETELY DIFFERENT than mine. That’s okay. We might like him for different reasons, but that’s why you do this:

So you can figure out what you need to focus on.

Step 3) Figure out HOW your author does the things you like.

This is the hard part. Sometimes you have to call in friends or relatives or even other writers to look at a passage and help you noodle HOW or WHY this unexpected sentence works or how he crafts this particular list of images. Where are the roots of them? How does he marry the words syntactically?

Like I said, this can be pretty hard, but all you need is one to three bullet points to keep in mind about any stylistic element.

Step 4) Write an inspired piece. Preferably three. And then try it on a novel or a novella to let it really sink in. (This is, like step 1, is something that many writers do, but without steps 2 and 3 it usually falls apart or reverts to your previous voice.)

Sounds simple, right? I’ve been reading McCarthy, so I should write a Western. Actually — no. I don’t recommend that at all. I actually recommend taking elements from TWO DIFFERENT WRITERS and doing your best to mash them up. That way you don’t get too trapped in one author’s vein. That way YOU can take the elements and make them YOURS.

An example, my short story “Teddy Bears and Tea Parties” ( http://www.amazon.com/Teddy-Bears-Tea-Parties-Horror-ebook/dp/B005H5AI5U ) was my second attempt at mixing McCarthy’s style from The Road with Paul Jessup’s blend of surrealism and postmodernism. It sold to ChiZine. I did three stories in this vein, each in a different setting and working on different elements of voice and theme, and of them #1 sucks and is trunked and #3 is still making the rounds and seems to get me more personalized rejections and “please-submit-again”s than any other story. Still, it may never get published. But that’s okay. All three of these were experiments, and I learned staggering amounts from each of them.

Step 5) Do it again if you want to. There is always something to learn out there. Melville’s ability to send shuddering meaning into even the whizz and smoke of a rope. Chabon’s ability to express the entire history of a tenement building that has nothing to do with the plot and still keep you hooked.

After all, these are your saws and your lathes. Keep them sharp!

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.