Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Writing Tools

We need the right tools for the right job. Anyone who has tried to tighten a screw into hard wood using only a screwdriver understands the difference that a drill can make. As writers, we need to consider which tools will help us the most with our craft and have them at the ready.

A dictionary may seem like a superfluous item to some, but this basic tool offers us the true meanings of words. To misuse a word can ruin an entire sentence. Also, as we come across a new word (I find most of my new words through reading), we can evaluate its meaning precisely, rather than rely on contextual clues.

When I first heard of using a thesaurus as a child in school, I was hoping I was about to access some previously unseen beast. I was disappointed to find out that it was another thick reference book that seemed just as boring as a dictionary. As a writer, however, I find the thesaurus to be invaluable. Now, if I’m in a rut of using the same word again and again, I can look up some synonyms through the use of my trusty thesaurus. Don’t skimp on obtaining a good thesaurus, even if you have a high vocabulary. You may find that your mind is locked around a certain word and refuses to think of a substitute. Unleash the thesaurus!

A final tool candidate that some may oppose is a stylebook. In our days of creative arts, the rules of grammar and punctuation seem like shackles at times, yet they are the rules that bind us to English rather than Your-glish. I realize that even among the grammatical guides, there are discrepancies, and depending on the edition, there are further discrepancies. Even with all the disparity, it’s wise to reference something as an absolute for the sake of consistency. My personal choice is the Chicago Manual of Style, but I wouldn’t defend it to my death; it’s just what I use.

Take inventory of your tools. There are others beyond these three, but if you don’t have access to all of these, shop around to see which versions might interest you. Head into a bookstore and try a few out on the spot. Once you’ve purchased your favorite reference books, keep them in a handy location, like next to your computer. Your spouse probably doesn’t want them in a pile in the corner of the bedroom.

This article is part of the Top Five Writing Improvement Articles:
1. Writing To Your Strengths Or Weaknesses – Should you write to your strengths or weaknesses? The answer varies depending on what you’re trying to accomplish.
2. Writing Tools – As writers, we need to consider which tools will help us the most with our craft and have them at the ready.
3. The Callous Editor – To edit our own works well, we must divorce emotions from the process and make hard choices.
4. Writing Exercises – When thoughts seem locked up tight, try some exercises to get the sludge moving again.
5. The Jab – We need good openings to our stories, and this article shares some advice and an example from my own writing.

Thursday, January 25, 2007


After many weeks of waiting with great anticipation, we have at long last purchased a Wii, thanks in no small part to the efforts of my wife, who often searched for one and at last ended up at the right place and the right time. Not only do we have the system itself, but we’ve also got four Remotes (or Wiimotes), two Nunchucks and an assortment of games.

Of all the games that we own for the system, my favorite is The Legend of Zelda: The Twilight Princess. I enjoy the simple puzzles of the game, like figuring out how to open doors or where to find certain items, but there’s also the game-play aspect. With Zelda, you are swinging your arm to wield Link’s sword, yet the movements of the character are accomplished through the familiar turns of a small, thumb joystick on the Nunchuck controller. I don’t know if I would rank this Zelda as the best ever (though the technical achievements of this game are the most advanced) because I can still recall the days when I played the original Zelda on NES and The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past on Super NES. Both of those games were remarkable in their days, and I can’t just knock them out of contention because their graphics are less or because they’re flat, 2-D games.

The myriad of uses for the Wii controllers becomes apparent with Wario Ware: Smooth Moves. This is a game of utterly ridiculous mini-games, such as shredding a cell phone, helping Granny put her false teeth in or washing a cow. The entertainment is just as much in laughing at the overall silliness of each mini-game as it is in successfully completing it.

Another feature of the Wii is that it allows users to create cartoonish characters in their own likeness (called Miis). Users can then play as their Mii in some of the games, such as Wii Sports. This is taking “Enter your name” to the next level.

The Wii is the most innovative game system to date. When connected to the Internet, it allows for downloads of much older Nintendo games (though at the moment there are only a few titles available), displays weather forecasts and allows you to share your Miis with other Wii owners (you can even have parades of all the Miis that have come into your system). For those on the fence about getting a Wii, I highly recommend it as a fun video game system, regardless of whether or not you have any skills at playing video games. If you can move your arms, you can play the games. Some games might be too challenging for newer gamers, so use your own discretion.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Learning To Use A Rapier

Recently, I’ve taken an interest in learning to fight with a rapier. It’s more than a mere interest, I suppose, since I’m actually devoting time to it. While I don’t have a personal instructor, I am following along with a DVD series titled “La Verdadera Destreza,” subtitled “The True Art and Skill of Spanish Swordsmanship.”

I like the heavy rapier because there’s more to it than a foil or epee used in fencing. It’s a sword with a flat blade around three feet long, and there’s a finesse in using it that isn’t found with a broadsword. The flat part of the blade stays parallel to the ground as you use it. An instructor told me this was so that you could more easily shove it between a man’s ribs. I’d like to think that there’s more of an appreciation in being slain by a rapier than by a broadsword. With what little I know at this point, if I were dealt a fatal wound by my enemy’s rapier, I might utter, “Well, that was very skillful, Bill.” Bill wouldn’t get that kind of a comment from me if he came charging up like a barbarian, wielding a two-handed Claymore, and swooped my head clean off.

Below is a picture of my practice rapier. The end is deliberately blunted since it is only used for practice. I certainly don’t want to injure a sparring partner.

According to the video series, there are several ways to hold the rapier, and my preferred method is to split my index and middle fingers over the cross bar, curl my index finger beneath and rest my thumb on the flat part of the blade. This seems the most natural to me, but I may be an outcast for taking such a grip. Again, I am a beginner, not an expert.

One thing that becomes apparent after a short time is that my muscles are not naturally developed to hold a rapier. The muscle that runs along the top of my forearm seems the most distraught whenever I practice. I’m getting more and more used to the weight, especially as I supplement my sword training with weight lifting exercises that specifically target that muscle group. Eventually, I hope it feels very natural to pick up the blade and use it.

It will probably take me quite some time before I am able to spar for any length of time, especially if I was actually competing against my sparring partner. I don’t know that I ever want to take it that serious, but for now I’m having a lot of fun. I just hope Bill isn’t practicing, too.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

World Building Part 3

After identifying your world’s origin and building its physical structure, it’s time to think about life. What kind of life exists in your world? Leave out the dominating species for now. They’ll come into play later.

Given the physical state of the world, peer at each climate and identify what organisms inhabit it. If it’s water, think about the fish or other aquatic animals that swim or lurk about. For land, imagine the plants, animals and insects interacting with one another.

I strongly advise against recreating every living thing on Earth in a new way. If your world is close enough to ours that it supports very similar species of plants, animals and insects, why do you want to teach your readers a course on biology based around this new set of creatures? Stick with the same animals we have in our world and maybe add a couple more just for fun. I can remember the names of a few new critters, but if you pelt me with a grocery list of animals that one of your characters discovers, I won’t remember any of them. One exception (and even then it’s best to limit how many species are introduced) is if you don’t want the reader to think of Earth in the least way.

Perhaps microorganisms also play a role in your world, and if so, have fun creating all of that. I know very little in the field of biology, especially microbiology, so I have little to contribute on the subject. If microorganisms aren’t essential in your story (or stories), however, I wouldn’t give them a second thought.

How much you want to identify predators, prey and the interaction of all life forms is up to you. It’s simply a matter of plausibility. The excuse of, “But it’s fantasy!” only goes so far. There has to be some give and take with your readers. If you don’t explain how 200,000 lions live on an island without any other visible sources of food, your story might come across as weak. At least give us a clue about those lions because that’s going to bother some of us. Having a character stumble across empty cans of tuna on the island would at least present a different dilemma.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

World Building Part 2

Now that your world’s origin has been determined, the next logical item to consider is the landscape. This is a global-level plan for the world and its existence. Think of extreme gardening.

It’s time to make some maps! Maybe it isn’t necessary to draw the fine points of every square mile on the planet, but take some time to daydream about the view from a plane (or dragon). Consider the world’s origin as you design it.

One other point I will add before you break out the crayons is that it should be determined how fantastical the world is. Streams running through clouds or lakes of honey can work, but only if everything else matches as well. If your fantasy world has a structure that we might associate with our own planet, it becomes more difficult to break the laws of physics without coming across as silly or ignorant. Invite the reader to laugh with you, not at you.

If the world has any similarities to Earth, it might be a good idea to make an area that resembles where you specifically live. You’ll know a lot about the climate, wildlife and vegetation from first-hand experience. It might also help you to avoid creating oddities like rivers without sources. Of course, if everything is identical to your stomping grounds, some reader will snicker and say, “That crazy elf lives in Iowa.”

Think of the resources available to different areas in your world. This will help determine where civilizations or fantastical creatures may live. Are there some lands that are uninhabitable? If so, why?

Remember that this is all clay; it’s malleable. If things don’t seem right, tear up that map and start over. The purpose of building the world is to give it depth, but if some of the details interfere with telling a story, change those details.