Saturday, March 17, 2007


Last week, I picked up a new certification from Microsoft by passing the second and final exam required. The certification is MCTS (Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist): .NET Framework 2.0 Web Applications. It’s a lengthy title, but it’s also very straight-forward about what the certification covers.

The “computer programmer by day” side of my life focuses on web development primarily. This certification is one that I’ve been studying and working towards for the past six or seven months. I can’t express the relief and joy I felt at the moment I saw the screen display my passing score.

Writing time became certification study time on weeknights. It was a difficult decision, but ultimately my responsibilities towards my programming career take precedence. With the certification in hand, this frees me up much more at night to resume writing projects that had shifted to weekend only projects.

Most published writers have day jobs, and sometimes it can be frustrating to push aside the writing that we love in order to meet the demands of our first careers. I’m posting this update not so much as a brag but to encourage writers that it’s okay to sometimes minimize writing for the right reason. Just be sure that there is a right reason.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Third Person Narration: Friend or Foe?

I struggle more with third person narration than first person. Third person disguises itself as a simpler style (at least it did to me), removing the limits found in first person and allowing the writer to keep the narrator’s voice neutral. There is, of course, a danger in oversimplifying anything with writing, and I drifted inadvertently into a minefield.

Omniscience. This is an awesome power for the narrator, but I’ve found that it can easily wreck a story. Unfiltered character thoughts can flood a page and kill suspense. When I used this poorly, I left nothing to the reader’s imagination. My narrator told them everything, to the point that there was no reason to continue listening. A better strategy for me was to limit the text to one character’s thoughts, at least within each scene. The narration then picks up some of the attributes of the character, giving life to what might otherwise lack personality.

Besides revealing the nuances of all my characters, my third person narrator had a terrible habit of showing too many details. A room became cluttered with so much junk that the story became an inventory list. It was like I was writing a play, and I needed to give direction to the stage crew. My solution for this was to be subtler, to show only what needed to be shown and to reveal bits and pieces as the story unfolds.

A final problem (among many) with my narrator was that he was simply too busy. Sentences contained too many adjectives and adverbs. Minute actions became paragraphs. He needed to be succinct in order to tell the story effectively. I will always prefer to err on the side of too many words than not enough, but my narrator is not nearly as verbose as he once was. The old adage is true: some things are better left unsaid.

The narrator should work for you, not against you. Don’t let him or her become a loquacious monster of infinite knowledge. Write yourself detailed notes if you must, but limit third person narration to the story and its purpose. This is, after all, your story.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Naruto: An Example of Good Writing

Last year, I began watching Naruto. Shonen Jump’s Naruto series is an anime cartoon and manga (essentially graphic novels or comic books). I’m not someone who watches much anime, but this show has quickly become my favorite, edging out Veronica Mars by a small margin.

The show mostly focuses on the life of Naruto, a young ninja who grew up as an orphan. Not only did he feel the rejection from not knowing his parents, but he was also cursed in his infancy to hold the spirit of the Nine-tailed Fox, a powerful entity that nearly destroyed their entire village. Naruto seeks the respect of those in his village and desires to grow through the ninja ranks in order to one day become Kage, the leader of the village and most powerful ninja.
Naruto (the series) does several things very well that impress me as a writer (and draw me back each week). The characters are strongly developed. Each one is quite unique, and they also change over time. Often as background stories unfold, I change my opinion on certain characters, proving that the flashback sequences not only integrate into the storyline, but they also impact character development.

The fight sequences are another indication of brilliance. Aside from the fact that the good guys don’t always win, the fights include a great variance of techniques that keep the viewer guessing as to the outcome. The ninja go beyond real-world combat and employ special jitsus based around the fantastical power of Chakra. As the spars draw out, the ninja employ various strategies with their jitsus, adding intelligence to what would otherwise be chaotic.

I really enjoy the progression of the series. It continues to build momentum, and as Naruto gains experience, the plot around him becomes much more serious. The writers have the ability to continue escalating the plot without artificially inflating it. The episodes flow quite well.

A final point that kept me interested early on is that the writers established my trust. With any kind of detailed fantasy storyline, there are going to be items that a reader/viewer cannot grasp. The writers of Naruto realize this and bring in dialogue to assure us that all we be explained later. For example, one character may begin using a new type of jitsu that causes all sorts of strange things to happen. Usually, a lesser character will say, “What’s that? What’s he doing?” This vocalization of my thoughts through another character lets me know to be patient. And the writers have never failed to explain a critical point, sometimes recapping certain items (probably for newer viewers).

For anyone who may be skeptical about a show like Naruto, I will say that it’s difficult to watch one episode and understand anything that’s happening. It’s better to watch a few episodes or, better still, to watch the first season.

If you are a writer, consider watching the show (or reading the manga) as an example of good writing. This show isn’t popular by accident.