razieltwelve

Because writing should be fun

My Face Hurts…

I wouldn’t say that I’m accident prone although I have had my fair share of them over the years. That said, I have suffered through some fairly humorous incidents.

Yesterday was another one.

I was opening my bedroom door and walking out of it in a hurry when something went wrong. The plan was to swing the door open, step out of it, and then rush out into the corridor. What actually happened was I stepped first, swung open the door (which rebounded off my foot), and then ran straight into the edge of the door.

Whack.

Cue instant agony.

At first I was worried I’d cracked my eye socket or given myself a black eye since it hurt a lot more than being kicked or punched in the head (something I’ve had happen to me before). Luckily, however, after poking around at my face and looking at in the mirror, it seems that I managed to avoid doing any serious damage. My glasses also managed to avoid getting broken. It seems that paying extra for the titanium frames was worth it…

It kind of makes me laugh, now that it doesn’t hurt much anymore. I almost got killed by a door.

And it’s not even the first time.

I once ran right into a doorknob. Until you’ve done it, you have no idea how pointy a metal doorknob feels. It was like getting stabbed in the chest by the end of a baseball bat.

Gah.

I’ve also been hit on the head by the edge of a metal door while at university. One of my colleagues was responsible, and they were worried they’d given me a concussion because they really threw the door open (I was standing on the other side of it). Luckily, I was okay.

Hmm…

It seems like I have a problem with doors.

When To Step Back

One of the toughest things to do in writing is to honestly evaluate your own work. Writing can be such an intensely personal endeavour that it can be difficult to adopt a relatively objective and balanced perspective of your own work. But the ability to accurately assess your own work is critical. It is what allows you to take on advice from others, and it is what allows you to know when to go with the suggestions of others and when to hold firm.

One of the best ways to get a more objective view of your own writing is to step back. Stepping back means putting some time and emotional distance between you and something you’ve written. Here are some tips that can help you with stepping back:

  • Don’t begin revising something immediately after you’ve finished it. After you’ve just finished something, it can be very easy to look at it with either an over or under critical eye. Taking a day, or even a few days, before coming back to it can help you look at it more objectively.
  • Remember that you are not your work. No matter how much time, effort, and emotion you’ve put into writing something, always remember that you are more than what you’ve written. A writer can be who you are, but something you’ve written does not define you. Even fantastic writers can write poorly. Criticism of something you’ve written isn’t criticism of you as a person or individual.
  • Don’t forget that writing is an iterative process. It is extremely rare to get something completely right the first time. Finding things to fix should be viewed as a positive: you’re getting one step closer to writing something really great.
  • Try to read reviews and criticism when you’re feeling calm, and don’t be afraid to take a break. Reviews and criticism can really hurt, so try to approach them when you’re feeling calm. If it gets too much, then you can always come back later when you’re feeling calmer.
  • Remember the things you’ve done well and the things you’ve done poorly. It is incredibly easy to get overwhelmed by the things you’ve done poorly and which need fixing. But take the time to remember the things you’ve done well. Remembering the things you’ve done well will make it easer to make the necessary changes without getting frustrated or overly worried.
  • Revise your work in sections. Revising something long or complex can be a very draining process. It can be tempting to try to do the whole thing in one sitting, but that can lead to you getting tired, both physically and mentally, which is not going to help. Break things down into manageable pieces and make changes in increments.
  • Develop a routine for assessing you work. Having a routine, a set process by which you evaluate your work, can help take the emotion and subjectivity out of it. Developing a highly practiced routine will also make the process quicker and more familiar. In my case, I always start by assessing if the story works on a more general level before working my way to the specifics like punctuation and grammar.

Keeping a level head and looking at your own work objectively is important. No writer will improve without being able to honestly assess what they’ve written. Honesty and objectivity can be difficult to maintain, but they will lead to success in the long run.

If you want to read more about my thoughts on writing, you can find those here.

I also write original fiction, which you can find here.

Don’t Be Afraid To Use A Thesaurus Or A Dictionary

When I was young, I was told by certain people that relying on a dictionary or a thesaurus was a sign of weakness. Particular contempt was heaped upon the thesaurus. It was, I was told, a crutch, something that an intelligent person should not have to consult.

Over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that such views are, to put it bluntly, mostly crap.

In my opinion, the best way to improve your vocabulary is to read widely and often. It doesn’t matter if it’s fantasy novels or economics magazines. Reading more will almost certainly improve your grasp of the English language.

That said, the dictionary and thesaurus are both still quite useful.

Once your vocabulary reaches a certain size, it is often possible to identify the meaning of an unfamiliar word using only context. However, if you can’t tell what a word means, then looking it up in the dictionary will definitely help. The dictionary definition also provides a much more precise and nuanced answer when the context a word is used in leaves some degree of ambiguity as to its exact meaning. I often keep find myself opening an extra window in my web browser, just in case I need to look a word up, and my vocabulary isn’t exactly small. It never hurts to add another word, or to get a better grasp of a word you’re already familiar with.

The thesaurus is handy because although the number of words in English is enormous, the actual number of commonly used words is substantially smaller. Talk to anyone on the street and ask them another word that means big. Here are a few of the answers that you’re likely to get:

  • Huge
  • Large
  • Massive

But here are a few others that would appear in a thesaurus that you are unlikely to encounter in everyday use:

  • Humongous
  • Gargantuan
  • Titanic

Again, reading widely is likely to help your vocabulary, but using a thesaurus allows you to target specific words. That’s not to say you should simply switch words out when you’re writing by using a thesaurus. Words with similar meanings do have nuances to them that makes simply swapping them out dangerous. Instead, use the thesaurus to get familiar with new words by anchoring them to words you’re already familiar with.

A thesaurus can also come in handy because many older words no longer appear commonly in modern fiction and non-fiction. One of my favourite writers of all time is H. P. Lovecraft, and I picked up a whole slew of new words when I first started reading him, words that I looked up in the dictionary and thesaurus to help get a better idea of. Here are a few of my favourites:

  • Eldritch
  • Vigintillion
  • Krotala
  • Domdaniel

If you love learning new words, then there’s no reason not to use a dictionary or thesaurus if the need arises. And given that you can now access these online for free, there’s even less reason not to do so.

If you want to read more about my thoughts on writing, you can find those here.

I also write original fiction, which you can find here.

Dialogue Versus Actual Speech

Dialogue is one of the most important parts of writing good fiction. Good dialogue not only fleshes out the characters but also the world they live in. Consider something like a period romance novel. Exactly how people speak creates a lot of the atmosphere and allows the reader to identify what period the story is set in.

But dialogue is not always the same as actual speech. The next time you talk to someone, listen very closely to what they say. Apart from the words that actually convey what they want to say, there will usually be some amount of hedging and some idiosyncratic verbal tics.

Very, very few people speak perfectly in casual conversation. More often than not, the actual guts of a conversation are interspersed with varying levels of “um” and “ah” and “uh” because we don’t generally plan out what we want to say, right down to the last word. We also tend to have our little idiosyncrasies, little verbal tics that we use when we’re thinking or trying to buy time. Some people use phrases like “but, anyway” and “you know”, but there are a host of other phrases that people employ to fill out gaps in their speech.

Dialogue in fiction rarely reflects real speech. Characters do not stutter and stumble over their words anywhere near as often as they would in real life. There is a good reason for this. It can be absolutely excruciating to read through actual speech (try reading a completely accurate transcript of an interview, one that doesn’t cut out all the little verbal tics and hedging – it’s agonising). Furthermore, space is at a premium in a story. The longer something is, the harder it can be for it to hold a reader’s attention. Making dialogue exactly like actual speech distracts readers from what is being said and from what the dialogue says about the characters.

However, there are times when making dialogue more realistic can help. If everyone speaks cleanly (i.e., without breaks and stuttering), then characters who do not speak cleanly stand out. Someone can be made to appear very nervous by the simple act of actually having them use “um” and “uh” when they talk. Likewise, more realistic speech can also be used to convey shock.

At the same time, however, it is important for dialogue to be realistic in other ways. Take vocabulary. If a six-year-old starts talking like a physics professor without a very good reason, then their dialogue is going to come across as strange and jarring. It is also critical to take into consideration how long each passage of dialogue is. Conversation tends to be a two-way street. It would be odd if one character spent pages and pages talking without letting anyone else speak unless they were telling a story or something similar. Likewise, a real conversation has a certain flow to it, a give and take, which is also present in well-written dialogue (see e.g., humorous fiction, which tends to rely on this quite heavily).

Dialogue is an important part of writing fiction and although it is similar to actual speech in many ways, it is not always the same.

If you want to read more about my thoughts on writing, you can find those here.

I also write original fiction, which you can find here.

A Comment On How I Review Things

When I review a piece of media (e.g., a book or a film), I tend to approach it from two different angles:

  • From an audience-oriented view
  • From an author-oriented view

The audience-oriented part of the review should focus on whether or not the media under review provides the audience with a worthwhile experience. Depending on what the audience is looking for, this might mean that the media makes them laugh, think, or even cry.

When looking at media from the point of view of the audience, I think it is important to consider the characteristics of the target audience as well. For example, if a film is clearly aimed at children, it makes little sense to unduly criticise it for not appealing to adults. Likewise, it would be odd to mark an action movie down for not having enough romance.

That’s not to say that a piece of media cannot be judged against media aimed at a different audience. Although there are aspects of media that are subjective, there are also aspects that are much closer to objective. In films, this might include things like special effects, soundtrack, and cinematography. In books this might involve the quality of the prose (from a technical standpoint), the coherence of the plot, and the pacing.

It is because of the more objective factors that intense study of a particular form of media often results in the identification of several classics that are regarded as being superior. Consider fantasy and science fiction. Despite the enormous variation between writers, there are still several that are widely considered legends in the field (e.g., Tolkien).

In summary, the aim of the audience-oriented portion of any review that I write is designed to answer several questions:

  • What did I like/dislike about the piece of media?
  • Who would/wouldn’t enjoy the piece of media?

The author-oriented portion of any review that I write is aimed at providing the author with constructive feedback. In other words, what worked and why did it work? And what didn’t work and why didn’t it work?

The goal of this feedback is to help the author improve. Sometimes, this is relatively straightforward. For example, if a writer has very poor punctuation and spelling, then the solution is obvious: they should improve their punctuation and spelling. However, there are times when it is more complicated. For instance, if a video game has major flaws in key elements of its gameplay, simply stating that the gameplay is broken does not help. I need to identify exactly which elements are broken and then offer suggestions as to how they might be fixed.

Author-oriented feedback can be very complicated, especially if the flaws in the piece of media are in the less objective areas. Take humour. Even if I find something incredibly funny, there is no telling if someone else will find it funny too. Likewise, I might not find something humorous at all and say exactly that to the writer, only to find that everyone else finds what they’ve written hilarious. Similar situations can occur in film. There is no perfect way to depict combat on screen. The filmmaker may have a good reason to adopt more stylised combat, but I might want to make an argument that more realistic combat would be more compelling. But what one person finds compelling may be different from someone else. My feedback is likely to involve some subjectivity on my part.

As a final set of remarks, I want to say a few words about how reviews are written, particularly acerbic reviews. A cutting wit can be very entertaining. Indeed, tearing into a particularly poor piece of media can result in a review that is much more entertaining than the media itself. As a result, I may not always find it particularly tasteful for an audience-oriented review to rip into something, but I can at least understand why that happens. If the goal is to warn the audience away from something particularly bad, then a truly cutting review works well enough. The audience is forewarned and thus forearmed. They are also entertained.

However, when a review is author-oriented, then I feel that things change somewhat. It is true that makers of media require the ability to accept criticism. But if the goal is to help the author improve, simply heaping scorn and criticism upon them is unlikely to succeed. To be fair, there are authors for whom that works very well (and some may need a firmer hand than others). But the vast majority will simply bear the review as best they can before scuttling off to lick their wounds, more concerned with the cruelty of the review than with its message. Again, one could say that such authors simply need to develop a thicker skin, but the question could also be turned the other way: was the reviewer more interested in forcing the author to develop a thicker skin or did they actually want to help the author improve?

Reviewing is not easy, especially when the goal is to help the author. And there are certainly authors that are oversensitive, for whom even the merest whiff of criticism is enough to induce an apoplectic rage. Such authors truly do need to develop thicker skin, lest they find themselves breaking in a manner not unlike Humpty Dumpty. Nevertheless, I do believe that maintaining a certain level of civility is much more likely to produce results.

In closing, I think it is important to consider what you are trying to do when your review something. A review can vary quite a lot depending on whom you are trying to help: the audience or the author. The latter wishes to improve whilst the former wishes to know if they are likely to enjoy themselves.

If you want to read more about my thoughts on writing, you can find those here.

I also write original fiction, which you can find here.

Despair… Thy Names Is Spurs

I seriously don’t know what to make of the team at the moment. This game against the Clippers was a big one. We could have moved from the 7th seed all the way up to the 5th seed. Instead, we had the lead and, as usual, blew it in the third quarter. At one point the Spurs were up nine. Seriously…

What was troubling to me was Leonard’s play. The problem has always been that of the four best players on the team (Duncan, Parker, Ginobili, and Leonard), we need at least three playing pretty well. Parker and especially Duncan played well today. Manu was… interesting. He had some good plays, but he had some really, really frustrating plays too (e.g., the bit near the end where I swear he had an open lay up and then decided to pass… which became a turn over). But Leonard was well below his usual standards.

It’s like the team can’t get all of its cylinders to fire. I just don’t know what to think. When we play well, we look almost invincible, but we play well so rarely. I still think that we’ll be okay if we can just sneak into the play offs. I doubt there’s a team that wants to face the Spurs in the first round. But now we threw away a game we should have won (if only we didn’t perpetually play badly during third quarters this season) and have to go up against Golden State on the second night of a back-to-back, which is pretty much a scheduled loss unless Kerr decides that maybe he doesn’t want to play Curry and Thompson (unlikely).

Gah.

I just…

Just…

Gah.

The way things are going I fully expect Australia to lose at the Cricket World Cup now. I already miss last season’s Spurs. And I really miss the Australian cricket team with Gilly and the others.

The Sound…

I was up late one night thanks to another bout of insomnia when I heard the most peculiar sound at my window. It was the sound of something scraping back and forth across the window, and it happened every now and then. At first, I ignored it, but it continued to happen just often enough to make it impossible to ignore.

I got up to check what was making the sound. There is a tree in front of my window, but none of the leaves or branches were touching the window. I thought it might be the wind since it was quite windy. But even with the wind, nothing was touching the window.

Resolving to ignore it and do something productive, I tried to work. But I kept hearing the sound. I went to the window again and stared out into the darkness. There was nothing there, nothing at all.

It was only as my frustration reached a high point and I was about to go outside that I noticed something on the corner of the window. It was a snail. Somehow, a snail had gotten onto my window. The sound I’d been hearing was the sound of the snail dragging itself over the glass.

Going outside, I plucked the snail off my window and put it down on the ground. Problem solved.

Or so I thought.

I’d no sooner gone back inside than I heard the hideous warbling of a bush turkey.

Damn it.

Video Games As A Form Of Self-Expression

Imagine that you’re playing a fighting game for the very first time. You’re not very familiar with it at all although you have seen a few people play it before. How do you choose which character to play? I suspect that most people would simply choose whichever character seemed the most interesting.

But what makes one character more interesting than the others? The answer is likely to vary from person to person. Some people might pick a character based solely on appearance while others might gravitate toward a character that requires a particular style of play. One of the most important things for a fighting game to do is to provide a sufficiently diverse selection of characters and gameplay, thereby ensuring that as many people as possible find something about the game interesting.

Consider a series like Street Fighter. Some of its characters excel at controlling distance, relying on projectiles and other moves to maintain the space between characters (e.g., Guile). Other characters excel at close range and will attempt to close the distance between characters whenever possible (e.g., Zangief).

One of the reasons that Street Fighter has had such enduring appeal is that it offers a wide variety of characters and playing styles. If someone enjoys doing long, elaborate combos that require skilful execution, there is a character for that (Evil Ryu). Likewise, if someone prefers a character with less strenuous execution requirements, well, there’s a character for that too (e.g., Cammy).

Offering players the chance to choose a character and play style that matches their preferences will make a game much more enjoyable. Imagine that you’re someone who likes to play defence, but you discover that the game you’re playing has no character that can play defensively. You’re going to be disappointed. You may even become frustrated if you’re forced to play a character and style that you don’t like. Assuming that a game is reasonably well balanced, people will generally pick the character and playing style that best suits their personal preferences.

This idea – that games can be a form of self-expression – extends beyond fighting games. It can be applied to strategy games as well. In Starcraft 2, there are three different races, each of which features different mechanics and strategies. This variation is not only intended to produce exciting gameplay but also to give people the chance to choose how they play the game – to express themselves.

Terran, for example, can be played in a highly aggressive fashion, relying primarily on bio units to attack multiple places on the map while applying constant pressure. However, Terran can also be played in a much slower, more deliberate, and defensive fashion by relying on mechanical units, which offer much greater cost efficiency and power at the expense of mobility and the ability to pressure the opponent in the early game.

It is interesting to note that most of the periods in which complaints became common in Starcraft 2 (e.g., the Brood Lord/Infestor era at the end of Wings of Liberty and the Four Gate Era at the start of Wings of Liberty) occurred as a result of both imbalance (i.e., one race being superior to the others) and a lack of diversity in the meta-game (i.e., a meta-game in which only a small set of strategies are considered viable). People got sick of playing the game the same way, over and over. Even the people who were winning got sick of it because they were only able to play in one way.

But nowhere is the ability for games to serve as a mode of self-expression clearer than in the increasing trend toward customisation in RPGs. More games now allow players to customise almost everything: from the abilities their characters have to the appearance, gender, and even affiliation that their characters have. People still enjoy games in which there is a set storyline and cast of characters, but they also enjoy games in which they can express themselves, choosing not only how their characters looks but also how their character acts (see e.g., Mass Effect, Dragon Age, etc.).

It is only natural for people to express themselves. This happens in writing, in art, and even in sport, so it should not be surprising that people also enjoy expressing themselves when they play video games. Giving people the opportunity to express themselves is one way that a game can help catch and maintain the interest of its audience.

The Meaning Of A Book

I haven’t been posting as much as I usually do and that’s something I’ll talk about a bit later, but I want to take some time here to relate an interesting anecdote. I grew up around books. In fact, as a child. I can’t actually remember a time when I couldn’t read or didn’t have a book close at hand.

Recently, I was speaking with my father about how his life was growing up. My father did not grow up especially well off, and his parents were not well educated. But he was a smart guy, and he liked to read. The only problem was that books were expensive, and whenever his family did get a book, he and his sibling has to share it (he had ten siblings).

Growing up, and even into high school and university, books were a luxury for him. When we moved to Australia, one of the things that he loved the most was being able to get a library card and then walking into a library to choose from thousands of books to borrow. He finally had a chance to read all the books that he wanted. Instead of reading just one or two books from the authors he liked, he could read all the books of a particular author.

These are the authors that my father introduced me to (as a kid, I read anything I could get my hands on):

  • Tom Clancy
  • Colin Forbes
  • John Grisham
  • Robert Ludlum

Much of what I know about military history and strategy I also picked up from things my father talked about. He was a marine before he moved to Australia, and he spent a lot of time telling me about the ethos and history that the marines prized.

Growing up, I didn’t think of books as something special. It was normal to have them around, and it never occurred to me that books were something to treasure. But maybe the reason that books were always around was because to my father and my mother, books were special, something to be treasured.

Lettuce Is Evil

As I mentioned in my previous post, I am not good at identifying fruits and vegetables. Today, I had to buy some things to make dinner. Amongst those things were lettuce, tomatoes, and carrots.

I thought to myself that surely this couldn’t be too hard. All three were on my list of things that I was fairly sure I could identify. It is, after all, hard to confuse a carrot with anything else, and tomatoes are fairly unique in their appearance too.

Of course, it wasn’t going to be that easy.

I went to the supermarket on my way home, and I swiftly acquired the tomatoes and carrots that I needed. Then I went to get the lettuce, and that’s when things began to go wrong.

The problem is that the recipe for dinner calls for lettuce. However, it doesn’t say what kind of lettuce, and there are different kinds of lettuce that all look fairly similar.

Confronted with this problem, I turned all of my considerable intellect to determining what the best kind of lettuce for the recipe was… and came up with nothing. So, swallowing my pride, I got on the phone. After a brief discussion, I finally knew which kind of lettuce to buy.

But wait… it didn’t seem to be there. Cue another phone call which resulted in reassurance that the kind of lettuce I needed really was there and that if I kept looking I would find it.

Ten minutes later, I finally found the correct kind of lettuce. It was a good thing too since I’d begun to have vision of wandering the fruit and vegetable section until I died of old age and my bones became part of the supermarket’s decor.

I was tempted to hold it up like a trophy but refrained because of all the school children around that would probably be terrified by that kind of behaviour. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but wonder why the lettuce I needed wasn’t next to all the other kinds of lettuce. To me, it makes no sense to have five different kinds of lettuce next to each other and then one other kind on the opposite side of the fruit and vegetable section. I can only conclude that the supermarket people are out to get me.

But I digress.

In the end, I procured the things I needed to make dinner.

Go me.

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