Archive for June, 2009

I have a confession…

June 29, 2009

I have a confession to make.  When I was growing up, I used to take things apart just to see how they worked.  This included things like watches, radios, televisions, and it didn’t stop there.  When I used to watch magic shows, how magic tricks worked would regularly distract me, and I find this behavior is still continuing today.  Every time I get a dvd of movie, I have to watch all the special features and behind the scenes footage.

People used to tell me I was ruining the illusion, and taking all the fun out of it, but to me it enhances the experience.  This experience teaches me two things; one is the amount of hard work that goes into making a movie, and two, the people who do the work of making movies are just people.  What everyone sees at the theater is the finished product, representing months of hard work, millions of dollars, and hundreds of jobs.

These behind the scenes moments have taught me a lot about the creative process itself.  When you see a movie, read a book, or admire a painting, you generally only see the finished product.  You never really see all the mistakes that had to be corrected, rewritten, repainted, or redone in anyway.  Earnest Hemingway rewrote the ending to farewell to arms 39 times.  An interviewer, curious about this asked, “What was the problem with it?”  He responded, “Getting the words right.”

Whenever we create something, we have a very clear idea of what it should look like, but what no one sees is the amount of hard work it takes to make that idea a reality. They know the process exists, but if they enjoy the work, they don’t want to think about it.  In their mind it ruins the emotional sensations they experience.

Creative people are just like every one else.  We make mistakes, we have both good and bad days, if we didn’t we wouldn’t be human.  Too many people put certain artists on a pedestal, idolizing them and thinking of them as incapable of imperfections.  The truth is, no one is better, or worse than anyone else.  One of the only traits that makes one person more newsworthy than another is the way they advertise themselves.

Other than that, these people are just as human as all the rest of us.

Just because I like to analyze the way to make movies, or write books does not mean I don’t enjoy reading or watching movies.  Knowing the process just helps me appreciate the finished product more.

Challenge:  Don’t be worried about ruining your appreciation of the arts by learning the process.  Use the information to learn how you can create something that someone else can appreciate.

Enjoy,
Allen

Journalists work hard to bring you the news.

June 26, 2009

Not since the death of Elvis Presley has the world talked so much about the sudden death of a music star, until last night.  Unless you live under a rock you already know that Michael Jackson died last night after going into full cardiac arrest.  It was truly a sad day for millions of his fans around the world.

The thing that struck me about this wasn’t his sudden death, or even the amount of talk generated by the incident.  I was struck by the speed that the news spread.  At the time of Elvis’s death, it took over half an hour before people started getting the news.  Thanks to the internet, word started spreading within two minutes.

Like I had mentioned in a previous blog, digital conversion or not, the day of television is quickly dying.  People can start getting the news almost the very moment it happens thanks to the internet.  What does this say about the future of journalism?

Journalist will now have to work harder and quicker to get people the news, or everyone else will out scoop them.  When that happens their career will be out the window.  I once had a political cartoon hanging on my desk of three vultures circling over a person crawling through a dessert with torn clothes.  On the vultures was written “media”, and on the man was written “Joe Public”.   While the depiction was less than flattering, the truth is a journalist has to be ready to report on a story in a moment’s notice.  If they don’t their career will be over.

While some journalists may be cold-hearted vultures, most are writers who just want to make sure you have all the facts.  They want you to know both sides of the story before you pass judgement.  It’s far better to live in the light of knowledge than to live in the darkness of ignorance.

You should know what’s going on in the world, and that way make informed decisions.  With the internet, they will now be able to reach a record number of people in record time.

Challenge:  If you find any article or news story useful, or informative, leave a comment, showing appreciation for the writer, they worked hard to get it to you in a timely manner.

Enjoy,
Allen

Come on, Give it a chance.

June 25, 2009

A funny thing happened a couple of years ago that I just have to share.  My wife is the type of person who won’t try something unless she likes the name.  I always tell her she’s missing out on a lot of good things, but she remains unconvinced.  At this particular time a seafood restaurant opened up across the street and she wanted to order something.

The only seafood my wife touches is haddock, or pollack, and she’s been known to enjoy trout, but she won’t go for anything with shells, or tentacles.  The meal she ordered consisted of two haddock fillets, steak fries, and coleslaw.  My order was a calamari sandwich, and steak fries.

After picking up the order, we sat down to enjoy the meal when she stopped me and said, “Ooh, that smells good, can I try a piece?”

I cut off a small piece and handed it to her.  She took a small bite, and savored the taste for a moment, “That is good, what is it?”

Just as she put the rest in her mouth, I said, “It’s squid.”  She didn’t pick up the napkin to spit it into.  It took less time to hit the floor, than go into her mouth.  I was laughing so much that my sandwich had time to get cold.  She has never tried anything else without finding out what it was first.

Without ever giving them a chance, my wife will never watch black and white movies, or westerns, or even listen to classical music.  No matter what, there’s just no talking her into it.  I’ve always thought of myself as someone who would give most things a chance, especially books and movies.  It turns out I was wrong.

The new idea for my youtube channel of book reviews brought up a memory of the only book I never gave a chance.  The book “The Catcher in the Rye” was on my required reading list in high school, but because of my views on foul language, and certain subjects, I told my teacher that I refused to read it.  Since my reading levels were way beyond the high school level, she told me to read whatever I wanted as long as I wrote a report on it.

I never thought I was being unfair, but I was.  When you judge something strictly on someone’s opinion, that’s being unfair to not only the book, but to the writer, the publisher, and to all the other people who had a hand in its creation.

Just like my wife being convinced that squid tasted bad without ever having the pleasure of tasting it herself, I had allowed others to sway my judgement on a book that I had never opened.

When it comes to food and entertainment, tastes vary from person to person.  This is not to say that the other person isn’t a reliable and trustworthy friend, or that they are trying to steer you wrong.  They have their opinions, and they may be good opinions, but unless you give it a try, you never know.  Some of your experiences will be good, and some will be bad.

If you’re worried about wasting money on a bad book, there are ways to preview the book online, as well as buying used for only a couple of dollars.  Book stores, and libraries are available to preview books.  While this may seem obvious, the point is you don’t have to spend an arm and a leg to give a book a chance.  Preview it, then buy it if it seems worthy.

Don’t judge a book before you open the cover.  If you at least give it a try you might be pleasantly surprised, and if not, you can always use it to hold up the bad corner of the couch.  Even the bad books can teach you something.  Give it a shot, what have you got to lose.

Challenge: Find a book at the library that you refused to read because of public opinion, and try reading it.  You might be surprised.

Enjoy,
Allen

Book reviews on youtube

June 22, 2009

As I reflect over the past failures of my youtube channel, ‘APB148’ the words of Polonius to his son Laertes hit me like a slice of lemon wrapped around a large gold brick.  “This above all, to thine own self be true.”

The problem with my channel, I realized, was I was trying too hard to be like the other, more successful, youtubers.  When I started my channel, I had the idea that it would be a decent channel, family safe that would inform, as well as entertain.  The only part of that I accomplished was the family safe part.  Last night I reached a decision on how to proceed in the future.

My channel is going to do book reviews on the books that most schools have on their reading lists.  This will include classics, as well as contemporary.  My format is simple; I will start by either reading the first five sentences, or reenacting a scene.  Then I will do the review, which will include the technical aspects of the book, and how well it ends.  Then I will give my recommendation on whether it’s a good read or not.

I do not believe in banning books, but there are certain books that don’t belong on required reading lists, like “The Catcher in the Rye”.

Here’s my challenge for you, I would like to know what books you think I should review.  It would help me know the way to start.

Enjoy,
Allen

Please leave a comment below

Just the facts ma’am

June 19, 2009

When I was a senior in high school I took a class on journalism.  The first thing the teacher said was, “Good morning class.”  The second thing he said was, “True journalists report the facts.  The who, what, when, where, why, and how.”  Journalists are supposed to be unbiased, so why are so many newspapers slanted towards one point of view?

The answer to this is easy.  The writers themselves report the facts, and tell it like it may be.  The job of interpretation rests solely on the editors.  They are the people who decide what stays, or goes.  I bear no malice towards editors, and have the utmost respect for the amount of work they do.  The only problem I have is their use of the newspapers as a vehicle to push their personal, or political, agenda.

Those who have read my past blogs know I don’t go in for rants, and this blog is no exception.  I said all that to say this.  If you use the newspapers, or even the internet, for researching an article or essay, don’t take it for granted that you are getting 100 percent accurate information.

When those are the only sources you use, you are taking the easy road, and unintentionally helping to spread someone else’s agenda.  If you are looking to report the truth, and you want the readers to decide for themselves the interpretation, you are going to have to dig a little deeper.

Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that you read an article about the condition of the economy.  Some say it’s getting better this year, and others say it’s going to take a few years.  There is obvious confusion to who’s right, but if you write an article on the economy and your only source is one paper, you will only have one side of the argument.  Your article will not have all the facts that make it true.

A little extra research can truly go a long way.  When you are taking notes for your article, don’t forget to verify the facts.  If you have to, call the experts in the field.  With the economy, check with the Federal Reserve Bank, The New York Stock Exchange, anyone who might know what’s really going on.

Do a little background research.  I once heard someone say that everything that happens today has a starting point, you just have to be willing to follow the trail backwards.  This is something many history writers, and biographers, do.  They start from the way things are now, and work their way back.

Unless you are writing an article for a daily newspaper, or a weekly tabloid, you have time to get your facts straight.  Don’t be afraid of taking one to two weeks to gather the correct information.  No one ever said writing was easy.

Gather more than you need.  Remember, the more information you gather, the more accurate your article will become.  Another advantage to this is you may have enough information for a series of articles, or even better, a book.

When writing to inform, don’t take any source for granted, and don’t be afraid to dig deep in research.  A well written article, that has been properly researched, will allow the readers to get all the facts.  From this they can reach educated conclusions, and you will be considered a good source of information.

Challenge:  Take any newspaper article that can be argued, and do a little research to discover something new.

Enjoy,
Allen

Simple questions

June 17, 2009

Remember when you graduated from high school, how you were going to breeze through college because you already knew everything, and your parents didn’t know nearly enough.  Then you went to college, and you were embarrassed if you didn’t know the answer to something.  Now, however, you’re older, and you realize you don’t know everything, but that doesn’t always stop you from being embarrassed by asking “stupid” questions.

Before I go any further, I would like to reclassify that phrase.  The only stupid questions are the ones that never get asked.  What most people think of as a stupid question is actually a simple question.  The other day one of my neighbors came down with her computer to ask me how to send an e-mail.  Most of us on the computer have been using the Internet for a long time.  To us sending an e-mail is just something we do.  It’s not something we think about any more, and it’s hard to imagine that there are people who don’t.

This neighbor is 65, and hasn’t had much experience with computers, so I helped her.  I’ve been getting e-mails since so she can practice.  Do I consider her stupid or illiterate?  Not at all, in fact I consider her very intelligent.  She knows thing that I never will.  She travels around the world, and reads all the time.  She just never had a need to e-mail anyone until now.

It was the same thing with my mom, and my wife.  I’ve taught them things, usually with the computer, and I’ve had to ask them questions.  There is never any reason to feel embarrassed by your question, the important thing to remember is that you will, at times, need answers and someone else will have them.  Don’t be afraid to ask.

Challenge:  Never look at someone’s question as stupid, you never know when you might have a simple question of your own.

Enjoy,
Allen

Rainy day blues

June 15, 2009

Johnny saunters into the room, his shoulders sagging, and his eyes fixed on the floor, “Mom, I’m bored.”

His mother looks up from what she was working on, “Clean your room.”

“I did that already.”

Not thinking much about it, she pulled out the next thing that popped into her head.  “Go outside and play.”

Johnny looked at her, puzzled, “but it’s raining!”

Is this scene something you’re familiar with?  Do you struggle with finding something to keep your kids busy that will also teach them something of value?  Before they lose half their young life to the TV, or video games, teach them how to value time, while helping them to express their creativity.  A great way to do this is to start a rainy day project jar.

If you haven’t started one yet, now would be a good time.  Sit down with the kids, and give each one a jar. On ten 3×5 cards have them write down creative projects they can do while it’s raining outside.   The only rule is that the projects should be able to be done in one day.

The reason each kid gets a jar is that people express themselves differently.  This could be a great way to show them that their own method of expression is just as important as anyone else’s, and it makes it more interesting for them. Just because one kid enjoys painting, doesn’t mean the others will.

Once they have the projects in the jar, whenever they use the phrase, “I’m bored.” You can have them take a project out and start working on it.  If they’re doing projects they enjoy, eventually they will come up with projects without the jar, and they won’t have such a hard time expressing themselves creatively.

Challenge:  The project jar isn’t just for kids.  If you have the problem of getting bored on rainy days start a project jar for yourself.  You might just find yourself looking forward to rainy days.

Enjoy,
Allen

The ethics of characterization

June 9, 2009

In 1986, I learned a valuable lesson on character development I will never forget, and obviously never do it again.  I was working at Burger King and having a conversation with a co-worker about writing a soap opera about the restaurant.  We were laughing at some of the ideas we came up with when I thought how about a murder mystery?  Two days later I had the first page of “Would you like fries with that?”

I promised that I would put up one page per week for everyone to see.  The first week, everyone wanted to know who stuck the victim in the fry vat.  By the end of the second week everyone was still enjoying it, but the characters seemed vaguely familiar.  By the third week, everyone had figured out that they were the characters in the story, and I changed nothing, except their names.  I didn’t portray them in any libelous way; I just wrote what was.  The funny thing was, the only person who didn’t see any resemblance was the person in the vat.

After hearing their complaints and suggestions, I decided to stop, it was just for fun.  Of course after I stopped, everyone wanted to find out what happened next.

As writers, a lot of the characters we use are loosely based on real people.  We add some traits, take some away, and we even mix them.  As the Burger King incident taught me, you must never use a person as is when you write fiction.  This is not to say that you can’t use them at all, just pick and choose what your character will need.

The question I was left with was “how do I use the people I know, the people I read about, or see on TV and movies, without copying them exactly?”

I read a book on characterization that held my answer.  It said, take a bunch of 3×5 cards and on each one, write one character trait.  When you finish writing all the traits of one person, you will categorize them into three groups: Physical, personality, and quirks/habits.

In the physical you will of course have things like hair, eyes, scars, deformities, anything that makes up the physical appearance.

Under personality, you have things like uptight, stressed, calm, cheerful, whatever makes up their natural disposition.

Quirks/habits are things like biting the nails, sucking on lollipops when nervous, not talking when they’re angry.  This category is for anything that makes a person truly unique.

Once you have finished this, you can file them. Then you go out and get traits from elsewhere.  The gathering of traits is ongoing, and you have millions of sources.  These days you have a computer to do the filing for you, but you still need to carry a notepad to record what you see, then you can transfer it later.

Once you have these traits written down, and filed, you will have an endless supply of traits to create your character. And the best part is you will never run the risk of copying someone who might be offended by what you write.

Challenge:  Today’s challenge is a writing prompt.  Take a trait from each of the categories, and write a description of a character with all three traits.

Enjoy,
Allen

The attack of the killer stereotypes

June 5, 2009

I love the phrase “A place for everything and everything in its place.”  No where does this apply more than choosing characters for your story.  In most of the stories we write we choose characters that we identify with ourselves, but in some cases we have to choose a character that we don’t know.  When we find ourselves in this situation it’s very easy to fall into the trap of creating stereotypes.  Don’t get me wrong, there is a place for them; usually in spoofs and standup comedy, but in most forms of genre fiction they have no place.

A stereotype is a generalized statement or classification of any group of people based on one or more character traits.  Good examples of this include, all teenagers smoke pot and are obsessed with sex only; all Mexicans are lazy; all executives are power hungry, money obsessed people who would rather pay someone to tie their shoes than do it themselves.  You get the idea.  There are people like this that do exist, but on the whole these statements are completely untrue.

There are many kinds of stereotypes, and if you let them have their way, you will have to face the consequences.  The use of this character type will limit your story to what you can write.  You will develop a reputation as a shallow writer, and everything you write in the future, whether it’s good or not, will be regarded as “Hack writing”, that is, until you get your reputation back.  It may take a couple of pieces but you can get it back.

How do you avoid the stereotype trap?  One trap many writers fall into is trying to fit the character to the plot or the genre.  A story should be first about the characters, and how they respond to a situation, and this will create the rest of the story.  I’ve heard a lot of writers say, “let the character write the story.”  If you do it the other way around, it will be impossible to avoid stereotypes.

Another trap was created by society, but that doesn’t mean you have to listen.  This trap is the politically correct movement.  When you try to create characters that are politically correct, you will be left with nothing but a sniveling coward of a character.  You will limit what they say or do just because of who you might offend.  What you are left with is a stereotype for a character, and a giant cliché for a story.  Remember, you can’t please everyone, so why try.

This next trap was hidden in a movie I saw.  Actually, it was obvious, but it tried to cover it up with humor and a cute story, and to many people it succeeded.  This trap is trying to place an entire gender into two categories.  The movie was “Shallow Hal”, and the stereotype was all young, slender, pretty girls were grotesque ugly people on the inside, and all fat ugly girls, on the outside were, ultra beautiful on the inside.  This is a kind of reverse stereotype, and yes the movie was funny, but that doesn’t make the stereotype anymore real.

There are many kinds of stereotypes, in fact there are several books written about the subject.  The point is, if you want characters that people can believe in, and characters that can write their own stories, avoid the stereotype, and develop the characters the right way.

Challenge: If you want a good book of writing exercises that help with proper character development try “The Writer’s Idea Book”.

Enjoy,
Allen

Keep the readers guessing

June 1, 2009

The one thing that sets writing apart from the rest of the arts is that the finished product has three parts, a beginning, middle, and an end.  It is probably the most versatile of the arts, and is one of the most universal ways of communicating.  Writing includes scripts, fiction, nonfiction, music, poetry, letter writing; anywhere something is written down.

English teachers have told me that when you write, you will know the end when you answer all the questions, and tie up loose ends.  This may be fine when you’re writing an essay on the effects of global markets on the weather, but it isn’t always true with fiction writing.

When you write, you play a game with readers.  Like nonfiction, readers want to know what happens next.  You start by introducing a character’s dream, that for whatever reason they can’t achieve at the moment.  If done properly, you will make the reader care about the character, and whether or not he/she succeeds.  During the course of the story you will introduce other questions that readers want to find the answers to.  By the end of the story, if you answer all the questions the readers will be satisfied, but there will be nothing to look forward to.

If you want to give your reader something to look forward to, like a sequel, or trying to come up with a continuation on their own, leaving an unanswered question may be in order.

There are two ways you can do this.  Either you can leave a minor, but important, question unanswered at the end of the book, or you can introduce a whole new question at the end of the book.  By either one of these methods, you get the readers asking “now what?”

Two of my favorite movies, “Sleepless in Seattle” and “You’ve got Mail”, introduced the question at the end of the movie.  Through both movies you ask yourself, “Do they ever overcome their obstacles and differences to get together and get what they both need?”  Then just when they realize they were meant to be together, the story ends.  This is when I ask “now what?”  There is no sequel so I’m left to complete the story in my own mind, and therefore the story continues beyond the story.

TV writers tend to have an underlining question throughout an entire series.  My favorite series, “Charmed” left the same questions for each of the sisters through the entire eight seasons, then answered them on the very last episode.  This had the effect of making me want to continue watching until the last.

These are examples from a video perspective, but I’ve seen short story, and novel writers use the same exact techniques. In the end, I believe you should leave a little mystery to your stories, instead of giving the readers all the answers.  This will, if done correctly, do more than make your reader a disinterested bystander.  It will make them an active participant in your stories by getting them to ask “now what?” and get them using their imagination to answer the question on their own.

Challenge:  When writing a story, try to throw in a little mystery.  You, and the reader, will enjoy the game.

Enjoy,
Allen