Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Learning and Life

This evening while I was trying to figure out what the heck I was going to write about, I wasted an hour or so playing Age of Mythology (Gold Edition!). There is something about building up an economy for the express purpose of wiping your opponent from the map that is very soothing to my nerves, shattered by dealing with problems all day long. But I deliberately keep it at the moderately hard level because I actually want to win. For once. By the end of a long day, I need something to give me a boost of confidence. It's nice to think you can do something right, even if it's just creating monsters and killing off your opponent.

Anyway, the game gets my brain going. Or gives me confidence to tackle more problematic tasks like writing. I've often wondered how I come across in these blogs—I mean—how do I have the nerve to set myself up as if I know anything? One of the more disheartening aspects of getting older is that you actually begin to realize how little you really do know. All the confidence and assurance of your youth is gradually beaten out of you over the years until you realize how big and complex the world is and how very little impact you have on it. And how very little you truly know. Because there are vast mountains of knowledge out there. You can skim the cliff tops and you can explore a few of them, but for every mountain you scale, five more thrust their way up out of the earth's mantle. The higher you get, the more mountains you see. And that's good because one way to stay young is to keep on learning.

And that's what my blogs are really, truly about. They are not about me trying to give anyone else advice. They aren't about me trying to act like I know something. I know very little. In fact, I'm fairly shocked when anyone thinks I know anything. I know a little about a lot of things. I know a little more about a few things. But I don't know a lot about anything—at least not to the level I would like.

One of the things I have learned is that if I, personally, want to explore a new subject, whether it be writing, gardening or how ACLs get applied in Windows 2003 Server, what I have to do is pretend to teach it. Of course it's really better if I actually do teach it because people ask questions and force you to think. The prospect of questions will force you to learn more out of self-defense and the desire to avoid looking like a total idiot.

This blog is my way of teaching—me. If others benefit, well, goody for them. I actually hope people ask questions because that forces me to explore more, research, and find the best answers. Which is another opportunity for me to learn more. So, yes. It's all about me.

If you want to learn how to become a writer, then my advice to you is to write. And try to teach someone else how to write. And write about writing. The process of organizing your thoughts on various aspects of writing, e.g. structure, plotting, characterization, vocabulary, etc, will force you to learn it. Pick out examples from other books to show someone (even if you're just showing yourself).

I recently went through some of my favorite books and made copies of the pages where the authors introduce a character. I wanted to explore precisely how one character (the point of view character) describes another character to introduce the second character to the reader. How the descriptions stay in the voice and point of view of the POV character. How the POV character subtly inserts his or her opinions and prejudices into their descriptions and manages to convey the emotional climate of the scene through small inflections in the description. To me, the best descriptions are actually thinly disguised opinions by the POV character. The description is as revealing of the POV character as it is of the subject of the description. Double duty.

In fact, it is my conclusion that the best descriptions are not descriptions at all but internal dialog where the POV character is expressing an opinion about another character or subject. That's why some descriptions are dry-as-dust and skippable: because the author just wrote a technically accurate description without expressing any opinion about it. Scenery, whether it be a landscape, building, or character, is only interesting in the manner in which it brings out some emotion, feeling, or opinion in the person describing it. We really don't care if the room was 10' x 12' square with blue walls. We are interested, however, if the POV character observes a 10'x12' square room with blue walls and feels those walls closing in on him, suffocating him under depressing pall of sterile, pale blue.

So I blog to learn. Anything else is just gravy.

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