Category Archives: Tips
Whether I’m writing or working on other things, sometimes taking a quick break to go off and do… something… can be a great way to clear your head of whatever details you’re currently tackling. It allows you to take a step back and approach the same task with a fresh mind. Obviously this isn’t something you want to do while you’re “in the zone”, but rather when you feel your “mental stamina”, if you will, becoming a little depleted.
Here are some of the things I tend to do:
- Play a quick game of free cell
- Go outside to play with the dogs
- Do a bit of stretching (I should do that one more, methinks)
- Scramble and solve my Rubik’s cube
- Check the TV schedule and program my recorder if I want to catch something specific
- Take a look through the online news
- Go get a drink of water
On the other hand, these are the things I try to avoid when I want to make progress (because they could lead to spending a whole lot more time on stuff I shouldn’t be doing right then):
- Turn on the TV “just to see what’s on”
- Log in to my favourite game (Guild Wars 2) to see if any guildmates are on
- Pick up a book (that one’s really hard to resist)
- Watch stuff on youtube (it’s never “just one”!)
- Sit anywhere where the cats like to claim your lap
How about you, fellow writers (or other creative types)? What works well for you, what do you try to avoid? Please let me know in the comments!
It’s been a long weekend here with Monday being a holiday, and I’ve had some time to indulge in one of my
time-wasting fun hobbies, playing Guild Wars 2 (don’t worry, the post is writing-related… I’ll get to that). The guild I’m in is small, but we have our fun, including a spreadsheet shared on Google Docs in which we document all our hilarious (mis-)adventures and references to some gaming-related things we feel everyone in the guild should be aware of.
For those who don’t know the reference, “Leeroy Jenkins!” became an infamous battle cry by a character of the same name in another MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online) game, World of Warcraft (which I don’t play but like most people I’ve heard of it). Apparently, his guild was meticulously planning their strategy and setting up their forces out of range of where the one of the harder boss fights in the game would begin when he simply charged into range of the boss, kicking off the battle, and yelling “Leeeeeerooooy Jenkins!” His guild attempted to come to his aid, but all the careful planning was out the window and he got everyone killed.
So what’s the point of my post, and how does it relate to writing, I hear you ask? Well, here it is:
The next time you write a story, I challenge you to introduce a character into it (not the main character, but a side-kick maybe, or the “bad guy”) who adds an element of chaos and unpredictability. The extent of chaos added is up to you, and will of course depend on the genre. But having a “wild character” who doesn’t always act the way someone with more common sense would expect can be both fun and a nice way to direct the action in an unexpected direction (of course it shouldn’t be abused as a deus ex machina plot device, but you get the idea; use within reason). Make sure that character’s motivation is a good fit – is he (I tend to think it would be a “he”, though a “she” could work just as well) deeply troubled, or does he have a twisted sense of humour, or perhaps a social or mental disability? – and plant some seeds for it early on. He could be anything from a “troll” to a “sassy mischief-maker”, from a “compulsive impulsive” to a “common-sensically-challenged dolt”, or from someone who thrives on beating long odds to a plain “tool” – and have fun with it.
Some characters that come to mind in some of my favourite stories who are unpredictable to some extent are the Fool from Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy, and Auri from Patrick Rothfuss’ The Kingkiller Chronicle trilogy. Both were very positive characters; a negative example was The Joker from The Dark Knight (brilliantly portrayed by the late Heath Ledger), whose absolute lack of fear and lack of respect for anything arguably made the story much more interesting.
What are your favourite “Leeroy Jenkinses”? Have you ever created characters who cause chaos? Do you think it could be a good idea or is it something you’d rather stay away from?
Previously, on Amos M. Carpenter
In one of my very first posts, back in early March, I wrote about 10 common mistakes writers shouldn’t make. Spotting mistakes is one of my gifts – or curses; hard to say which at any given moment – and I’ll go over some I notice in writing of all types, from Internet scribbling to serious books.
To recap those from the last post, the five easy ones were:
- Don’t add apostrophes to make plurals
- Homonyms: “its” vs “it’s”, “their” vs “there” vs “they’re”, “your” vs “you’re”
- Using “alot” a lot
- I before E, except after C… how hard can it be?
The five that were slightly trickier:
- Careful with your tenses
- Singular “is” vs plural “are”
- Who thinks of whom
- The postfix -ward vs -wards
- Using “if” vs “whether”
Continuing on from last time, I thought I’d blog about 10 more mistakes that have caught my eye.
Five (arguably) easy ones
Like “definitely”, this is one of those words an incredible number of people just do not know how to spell. It’s not “seperete”, or “sepret”, or “separete”. If you can’t remember it any other way, think of the word “karate” when you write it.
2. Space before punctuation
I believe that some people who also speak (and read/write) French get confused on this one (because in French, you use a space before punctuation). Or they just don’t know any better. In English, there is no space before punctuation like commas, full-stops, exclamation marks, or question marks. (“No space for you!”) Of course there’s one space after them, though. With en- and em-dashes, it can be different, depending on which style guide you’re following, as some prefer to use spaces both before and after them.
3. Couple OF
Dropping the preposition “of” after using “couple” is becoming more popular. However, I’d always recommend adding the “of”, as dropping it is mostly due to writers following in the footsteps of sloppy speakers. In spoken language, of often gets abbreviated to o’, so we go from “a couple of apples” to “a couple o’apples” to “a coupl’a apples” to “a couple apples”. It’s the same with “a cup of tea” becoming “a cuppa tea” – but would you ever say “a cup tea”, dropping the “of” completely?
I recently noticed how much this annoyed me when I read Patrick Rothfuss’ otherwise wonderful books (as I mentioned in this post). He’s one of those people (or perhaps it’s his editor?) who don’t believe “couple” needs a preposition, and many times while reading his story, it jarred me enough that it broke my immersion. (He’s still one of my favourite authors. I’m a forgiving sort of person. At least when someone tells such great stories.)
4. Then vs than
This one should be very simple – use then when referring to time, use than when comparing – but many people still get it wrong. First comes one thing, then something else. Jack is taller than Jill. Simple.
5. Have isn’t of
When “have” gets abbreviated, as in “I could have” becoming the contraction “I could’ve”, it sounds like, but isn’t “I could of”. I suppose people who get this wrong just write things the way they hear it, but pausing just a second to think about it should make it obvious that the two are not interchangeable. I could of, would of, should of used could have, would have, should have.
Five more, slightly trickier
Ok, I’m sure you knew all of the above, so here are some that are just a tad more advanced.
6. Is “alright” all right?
Many careful English users would consider the shortened form, “alright”, to be less acceptable than “all right”, especially in formal writing. Some would even consider it to be an invalid word, but it can be found in some writing, mainly in the US, so perhaps it will become more acceptable in time. For now, I’d recommend sticking with “all right”.
7. Further vs farther
You’ll know this one if you’ve seen Finding Forrester. It’s easiest to remember if you keep in mind that “far” relates to (measurable) distance, as does “farther”. On the other hand, “further” is used when denoting an abstract amount of something. So it’s “set them farther apart”, but “of no further value”.
It gets tricky when the dividing line between the two isn’t immediately obvious, as in “to go one step further/farther” – you have to ask yourself whether it is a physical step (i.e. “farther”), or a metaphorical step (“further”).
8. Capitalisation of formal titles
Obviously, certain things are always capitalised (capitalized, if you prefer – in Australia, we use the “s” form, I believe both are used in the UK and the US prefers “z”), such as days of the week, languages, or countries. But what about formal titles, “honourifics”, like General, or Professor, or Queen? Are they capitalised or not? Well, it depends on how you use them. If the word is used to refer to a particular person holding that title, it should be capitalised. If it is used to refer to a group of them, or to the title itself, leave it in lowercase (with the obvious exception of being the first word in a sentence).
Thus, it would be “Professor Smith”, or even “there’s the Professor” (despite the name not being used, it’s a particular professor), but “he’s a professor at my university”, or “the professors have arrived”.
If you invent a title for your story, you should treat it the same way.
9. Full-stops (periods) after abbreviations
When do you place a full-stop after an abbreviation? Why do you sometimes see it written as “Mr.”, and sometimes as “Mr”?
In British English (similarly for AUS/NZ/SA as far as I’m aware), the deciding factor is whether the abbreviation begins and ends with the same letters as the full word or phrase. Since “Mr” does meet this criterion (mister), there is no full-stop: Mr Jones. “Prof.”, however, does not begin with “p” and end with “r” (professor), so it gets a full-stop: Prof. Jones.
In US English, I believe the full-stop is always used. Just something to be aware of when you read and write.
10. Ellipses at the end of sentences
The ellipses I’m talking (well, writing) about are the ones in creative writing that indicate the speaker trailing off, or leaving something unsaid, as opposed to those that indicate an omission in a quote.
This is one that depends on which styleguide you follow. Some argue that an ellipsis (dot dot dot) at the end of a sentence finishes that sentence, while others consider it a part of the sentence and add a fourth dot to end the sentence, just as if the ellipsis had been any other word….
Personally, I add the fourth dot, even in informal writing (e.g. in blog comments), but I think the main thing is to pick a convention and stick with it consistently.
There you go, I hope some of these common mistakes have refreshed your memory of what to look out for, or perhaps even taught you something new.
Which errors do you frequently commit, or spot? Which ones really annoy you when you see them in written form? Or do you think sticklers for detail (like me) should just stop with the nitpicky posts already? Please let me know in the comments!
U is for Understanding Poetry. Does that phrase ring a bell for you, somewhere in the dark recesses of your mind where you stash your movie knowledge? If not, maybe this excerpt will jog your memory:
To fully understand poetry, we must first be fluent with its meter, rhyme, and figures of speech, then ask two questions: (1) How artfully have the objectives of the poem been rendered; and (2) how important is that objective? Question one rates the poem’s perfection; question two rates its importance; and once these questions have been answered, determining the poem’s greatness becomes a relatively simple matter. If the poem’s score for perfection is plotted on the horizontal of the graph and its importance is plotted on the vertical, then calculating the total area of the poem yields the measure of its greatness. A sonnet by Byron might score high on the vertical but only average on the horizontal. A Shakespearean sonnet, on the other hand, would score high both horizontally and vertically, yielding a massive total area, thereby revealing the poem to be truly great.
Are we there yet? Yes, it’s from one of my favourite films, Dead Poets Society (although I keep wanting to add an apostrophe at the end of “Poets”… grrr). It’s the section from the fictitious poetry textbook by “Dr J Evans Pritchard, Ph. D.”, which Keating (played wonderfully by Robin Williams) gets the students to read before demanding they rip it out of their books. His comment about trying to shoe-horn something as ethereally beautiful as poetry into a mathematical formula?
Excrement! That’s what I think of Mr. J. Evans Pritchard! We’re not laying pipe! We’re talking about poetry. How can you describe poetry like American Bandstand? “I like Byron, I give him a 42 but I can’t dance to it!”
Now the section they rip out was in fact taken from a poetry textbook still used in the U.S., from chapter 15 of Laurence Perrine’s Sound and Sense: An Introduction to Poetry. In Perrine’s defense, it’s not as bad (when read in context) as the film makes it sound, but the point remains that trying to apply an objective formula to something that’s typically very subjective is not going to work in many cases, as much as some people would like it to be that easy.
Keating goes on to make his point (and I’ll get to mine soon, promise!):
We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, “O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?” Answer: that you are here – that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?
Great, but what does this have to do with writing, you ask? Well, the next time you need to introduce an interesting character in your story, consider introducing her by exposing her to something she absolutely disagrees with, and have her handle the situation in a manner as extreme as befits the situation.
When we show what a character likes, it reveals a little about them, and may invoke sympathy in some readers who have similar preferences. Showing how a character reacts when confronted with something they detest, however – now that will really let the reader know what they are about. After shocking the reader (or viewer, in the case of this film) with the unexpected reaction of a teacher asking his students to rip out pages from a book, and displaying what he is really passionate about, whether we agree with the action or not, the reader cannot help but be left with an impression that here we have someone not afraid to stand up for what he believes in.
To what will your character react in an extreme or unexpected way? What will your verse in life be? Let me know in the comments.
Here’s a video of this part of the film in case you’d like to relive it – enjoy!