The Opus

Category : writing

Write my music? When do I get time to write my music?
—Mr. Holland

If you’ve never watched Mr. Holland’s Opus (it’s practically required watching for former band geeks like myself), Mr. Holland is a composer. Or, rather, a composer who takes a music teacher job so he can actually support his family. And only teachers understand the whirlwind of being a teacher—grading papers; working after hours; aiding students who need the extra help. And in this whirlwind, Mr. Holland’s opus lies abandoned on his piano. He stares at it mournfully, plunking out some notes before crashing for the night.

When do we have time to write our opuses?

I started reading Jennifer Egan’s The Keep and our main character, Danny, is caught up in his whirlwind: life is New York. His cousin, Howie, invites him to the middle-of-nowhere Europe to work at an abandoned castle (I’m not far enough into the book to understand this), and Danny brings a satellite dish to stay connected. Meanwhile, Howie is going on a rampage about how media has corrupted us and people don’t create anymore because we don’t have to; other people create and we blindly follow.

Writing is hard, whether it’s words or music or whatever you’ve been planning to compose. And it’s only made more difficult by this whirlwind, by life. We go to work. We take work home, we updates our blogs, we catch up with friends. We stay up at night playing games, or watching movies, or being wrapped up other forms of entertainment that other people have created for us. Next thing you know it’s one o’clock in the morning and that Word document for your novel is still blank.

Howie, even though he’s probably scaring Danny in his triage, has the right idea. Not that I suggest we ditch our homelands and buy medieval castles, but we need to slow down. Do you have to spend two hours at night playing facebook games? Or watching The Princess Diaries for the third time that week? (Guilty as charged.)

But as composers, research is important. We have to keep up with what’s new, read the latest books, check up on some blogs. But we spend so much time on other people’s work that we ignore our own. Maybe we do need a cabin in the woods with no WiFi.

Occasionally when I’m be away from home, and don’t bother checking my blogs, I return and don’t see the point in going back into the social sphere. Because my mind is finally clear, and it feels like I have no obligations. We must clear our minds, and only then will we find the motivation and the time to create. Take a day, or a week, or even a month and disconnect. Yes, you have to work and take care of your basic necessities. But do you need to read your favorite blog the moment it’s updated? Or answer a text message the second it’s received? It will still be there when you come back.

Creation is a part of our identity. I feel empty when I’m not writing. Even this long-winded blog entry has sparked something in my brain, and I want to get back to outlining my long-overdue novel. Entertainment is great, but don’t forget about your own work. Don’t neglect your opus.

Writing Tips 101

Category : writing

Per the norm, I’ve spent a lot of time digging through words this November (thank you, NaNoWriMo). And everywhere you turn, someone has some grand advice on how to write. They’re all these well thought-out articles, outlining 100-odd tips and tricks on “how to be a good writer” that you’re expected to trudge through (ironic, since that time could be better spent writing). So I’m offering my own advice. Ready?

1. Read.
2. Write.

That’s it.

You’ll notice I put “read” first. This is important. You can read all the “how to” guides you want, but you won’t learn anything unless you’re a reader yourself. What’s out there? What do you like; what works? An aspiring writer who can’t make the time to read is going to be a crap writer. Consider it doing your research. You wouldn’t write a research paper without research, right?

Besides, reading is a lot of fun. Take my word for it.

The best writing advice anyone can offer is start writing. I don’t care what it is. Update a blog, write fanfiction, write angst-ridden poetry that you’d never show your parents out of sheer embarrassment. Point is, if you don’t start writing, you’re never going to be a writer.

And most importantly? Do it every day. I know it’s hard, and it’s intimidating, but we don’t care about those things. If you don’t write, you won’t improve, and then you’ll never publish your Great American Novel (or whatever country you reside in).

So stop wasting time on my blog already and get started.

Defending Fanfiction

Category : writing

Most of the criticism behind Fifty Shades of Grey is, “Are you kidding me? This started out as Twilight fanfiction.” And I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve said that myself. But honestly, it’s giving fanfic a bad rep.

The real question is: Is fanfiction proper writing?

I’ve composed three different answers to that question, and I didn’t like any of them. Fanfiction is writing, yes, in a literal sense. You write a plot, develop the characters, and make it sound good. It’s been said that fanfic shouldn’t be judged by the same standard as novel writing, but I don’t agree with that at all.

Fans are scary, and if you compose something creatively in a fandom they will nitpick. Book critics are bad; I won’t deny that. But how much can they really say about about a world you’ve made up yourself? If a fanfiction writer gets the smallest detail wrong, everyone knows. He’ll be judged, and he’ll lose respect as a fanfic writer. You have to know your material, and know it well.

I suppose it’s time for me to admit—I know all this because I write fanfiction myself. I consider it “practice,” in a sense. The world already exists, and I have characters to work with, so all I have to do is write a compelling story. You have to intricately understand a world that someone else created in order to make your supplemental tale believable.

But would I go as far to publish my fanfiction? Absolutely not. Even if I were to change names and places, I’m still profiting on an idea based on someone else’s work. And I’m not okay with that. Fanfiction is fine to stay within the fandom, and it’s a good way to get that writer brain working and experiment with your style. But when it comes to novels, it’s better if you develop your own material.

Worst Sentence Contest

Category : writing

Believe it or not, it’s fairly difficult to write a really bad sentence. Most writing falls in between “really good” and “really awful,” but for the Lyttle Lytton contest, participants are challenged to write the worst first sentence for a novel. The winner of 2011?

The red hot sun rose in the cold blue sky.

Not only does it have an unnecessary number of adjectives, they’re not even good. And “red hot” doesn’t even refer to the color—it’s the temperature. Well, duh.

Some of my favorites from last year include:

This is the story of how one woman overcame breast cancer by never ever losing faith in herself.

Yawn.

He, from a physical stature, was short.

Overexplanation and irrelevant!

“Caw! Caw!” went the birds as the massacres happened (the birds represent sadness).

Sadness. Got it.

Think you can write the worst first sentence? Go enter the contest! Or you can just read through the previous winners and chuckle silently at your desk (not that I’m doing that right now, or anything). As much as I complain about my own writing, I don’t feel I’m good enough to write a truly horrible sentence. Figure out the logic with that one.

My Lost Profession

Category : writing

We’re going to take a break talking about other people’s writing, and focus on my own for a moment.

Truth is, I’m a pretty poor excuse for a writer. I read an insane number of books not only for the entertainment value, but also as research. I’m still trying to discover my voice and determine where I fit into this whole “writing” thing.

Whenever I get around to writing something substantial, it will more than likely be YA. I love the genre, and my mind may be perpetually stuck as a 15-year-old. And very briefly recently, I thought that maybe I could do some kind of sci-fi thing.

I was intimidated by this for a moment, until I realized I already did that.

All right, it was 1995 and, in retrospect, it’s really awful. But the fact still stands that I did, in fact, do it. It was a time travel piece, and a bunch of kids went into the future. And because my 12-year-old self has no shame, she’s going to share an excerpt from chapter 28 of The Time Machine. (No, I didn’t realize at the time that this title was already taken.)

I followed Ryan downstairs. When we got to Uncle Matt’s room, I quickly saw what was in the closet. It was something covered in a big, black cloth.
“Let’s take it out and see what it is,” Ryan suggested.
“Okay,” I agreed. We went into the closet and heaved the thing to the center of the room.
“What do you think it is?” Ryan wondered.
“Beats me,” I said. Ryan shrugged.
“I’ll slash the cloth with my knife!” Ryan said, waving his pocket knife in front of him.
“No you won’t,” I said, “put that silly thing away. We’ll take the cover off with our hands.” Ryan groaned as we yanked off the black cloth. We all stared at what we saw. It was a big, silver machine with ‘time machine’ posted above it.

Well. That’s enough of that. Apparently this Ryan character has an obsession with knives (don’t remember that at all) and their uncle has a time machine in his closet.

Fine, it was a little rusty.

I hope this is needless to say, but I’ve improved a bit since then. But you can’t deny the imagination of a child. The whole concept was brilliant, if I do say so myself, and I wouldn’t be able to replicate it now even it I tried.

So will I do anything with my own writing again? Maybe. Despite my inability to write anything at the moment, I still identify myself with the profession. Maybe one day that will kick me into gear and I’ll actually do something.

Imagination of a Child

Category : writing

When I took a drawing class, the instructor told us to ignore everything we know and simply draw what we see. This is actually rather difficult. When children are asked to do this, they draw exactly what they see—no additions, no subtractions. They’ll draw each individual feather in a bird’s wing, literally drawing what’s in front of them. As adults, we make substitutions. We draw a little V in the sky, because that’s what we’ve come to see as a bird in flight.

Writing is much of the same thing. Ever ask a child to tell you a story? You could sit for hours with the amount of detail he puts into it. He’ll tell you exactly what his character was wearing and every detail he sees walking down the street. An adult will simply say, “he went to the store.” How dull.

As adults, true artists and writers still hold a bit of this childlike imagination. They have to, in order to fulfill their potential. Luckily, this imagination isn’t only for those who can create—we also need viewers, readers, and people to love the creations.

While there are good and bad writers, there are also good and bad readers. And I’m not talking literary theory and symbolism and all that stuff you learn in school (I hate that stuff, to be honest). A good reader has a small bit of that childlike imagination within them. You have to be able to view literature as a child does, with an open mind and a new set of eyes with every book you devour. Reading has to feel like an adventure. “Adventure” itself is a childish word to use, but isn’t that the point? So few adults get excited about books to the extent that a child does. What adult do you know that reads under the blanket with a flashlight? It’s seldom that I hear of an adult lacking sleep because he simply had to finish that book last night.

Reading keeps us young. It’s not enough to read words on a page—we have to find out inner 8-year-old and be excited about it, to allow our imaginations to run wild with the words the authors gave to us. Take everything literally. Don’t assume you know what’s going to happen next. Push aside everything you’re expecting and wait for it eagerly. Anticipate the surprise, and get excited to the point that you simply must finish this chapter before going to bed.

If nothing else, it’ll keep you young.

Site of Unfinished Novels

Category : writing

This website is unusually intriguing: My Unfinished Novels.

It’s exactly what you think—people share their unfinished novels. Some explain why they’re unfinished, whether it’s due to lack of time or life circumstances.

The more I skim through its pages, the sadder it makes me feel. Here are all these people with some brilliant ideas, but leave their novels abandoned. That the only place they feel these novels belong is a website for the incomplete.

But all writers do it. I do, at least. In fact, there are very few things I’ve actually finished, and I could create an entire website myself just for unfinished works. Maybe sometimes we write things with no actual intention of finishing it. I have many page-long documents of single scenes—things I simply had to write—with no intention of doing anything with it. But that’s nothing compared to the novels submitted at this site. We’re talking 200 pages of words left to gather dust. And they all have the same reasons—major life changes, lack of interest, et cetera.

Read through some of them sometimes, even if just the summaries. It’s so intriguing to me for people to work on something like this and let it go. It’s sort of like a novel graveyard, except they never had a chance to live.