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Using childhood memories to combat writer’s block

23 Sep

The podcast Grammar Girl had a good episode 292 about overcoming writer’s block, written by Roy Peter Clark, who teaches at the Poynter Institute. Especially "Lower your standards, raise them later," seems to apply to me. I get bogged down by how awesome my story is going to be. It paralysis the creative output, paraphrased from Mignon Fogarty narrating in the podcast.

First of all let me apologize for not posting for so long. I was preoccupied with personal fitness, which had gone down to an all-time low. Getting back into shape (which I’m still busy with) took all my attention, but now I’ve dialed down the intensity a bit, I have energy (and time) to resume writing.

Now about lowering your standards at the beginning. This very post you’re reading started with a few sentences written with a ballpoint pen on a piece of paper. Then I didn’t use a fancy text editor, but just what came with the OS (TextEdit on Mac OS X).

To help me with the formatting a bit, I used Marked by Brett Terpstra. It accepts markdown, as suggested by John Gruber of Daring Fireball. It also accepts an "improved" version of markdown, called multimarkdown, as developed and maintained by Fletcher Penney. Both methods use plain text files without special formatting (like RTF). The text and the formatting of the text are both readable, in characters you type on a keyboard, not by selecting text and applying style to it, as you would do in a word processor. Special tools exist to translate these plain text files into publishable formats, like HTML. You only need to write one source file to have multiple publication formats.

But never mind that, though. Use whatever tools work best for you. The point I wanted to make is that I used the simplest of tools, as lo-fi as possible, to lower my expectations and simply write instead of worrying about how it looks.

As useful simple and unpretentious tools may be for the writer, he or she still has to walk the walk. The basics of writing haven’t really changed in the last few hundred years. You need to come up with an idea that makes you want to work hard at something that (hopefully) will grab the reader’s attention.

Now as a writer you can only entice a reader to keep on reading. So how about that? How do you even begin to work on that part of the writing process? How do you get people to read what you write, especially if those people don’t know you personally?

Well, as an experiment, I went over some of my fondest childhood memories related to reading books. My reasoning was that if I can capture this feeling of fondness, use it for writing, surely some of it will be picked up by the reader. Maybe he or she will think: "Wow, this is good stuff! I need to read more of this!" If that’s the case: yay!

As a kid, I really enjoyed reading C.S. Lewis’ Narnia, "The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe" (in Dutch translation), which my mother lent from the local library when I had the flu and high fever (41 C, 106 F). I could only read a few pages at a time before I feel asleep from exhaustion, tears to my eyes. I’m not sure if those tears were from exhaustion (fever) or excitement (story). I guess a bit of both. It made the pain in my bones feel somewhat bearable and gave me something positive to think about when I was awake.

Sometimes your imagination can be sparked by something else than a book. I have fond memories of watching tropical fish in a fish tank. The sight made me imagine another world from my own, completely alien, but real. Real to me at least, at that moment. I can’t remember the specifics, though, because I didn’t write them down.

I think it is this mindset of a young child wondering about the world you should be after, not indulging into some kind of nostalgia. There’s nothing wrong with the latter, other than it isn’t very productive for writing. You want the feeling, the mindset, not the accompanying train of thoughts of how things were better when you were young.

You want a sense of wondering, of seeing something for the first time, and wanting to explore it with a sense of discovery. In this mindset you could write the stars in the Heavens, if you wanted, and convey your deepest, most inner feelings to your readers (as you should).

Most likely, though, your very first draft will not accomplish the latter. You need to craft your story first before you can do that. However, if you don’t capture the description of your initial feelings, when things are still fresh in your mind and haven’t been tested and prodded by the story-writing process, you can never blossom as a storyteller. You need to be always on the ready. There’s no such thing as a part-time creative. It’s a full-time commitment, because new ideas can come to you at any moment and you need to capture them, then and there.

With the above in mind, I think one should use this child-like mindset for a first draft only, to get the rough emotions on paper, in words (and in the case of comics, in words and pictures). It’s the longing for something awesome, for something new and exciting, that you want to put in the reader’s mind. I didn’t do that with my childhood fish tank experience, but, as an adult and aspiring writer now, I should apply discipline to my craft if I want to be more than just another hack who only does first drafts.

You may now think I’m harping on it too much, like a religious zealot and you may be right. I can get carried away a bit by new insights. I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir here for you more experienced writers. Experienced as a writer, a fiction writer, I am not. So this hopefully explains why I’m stating the obvious, to some of you at least.

I suppose in the second, third, etc. draft you start to use your skill as a writer, reorganizing events. You want to take the reader by the hand and gently lead them through your world, using a plot, a sequence of events, to tell them what this world is about. You, the writer, are not in that picture, not for them and not even for yourself. It should be all about the experience, the experience you had and want to share to others.

After all, isn’t that what fictional storytelling is all about, sharing sublime experiences?

Keep writing!

Writing assignment # 2

29 May

Here is my second writing assignment, for this week (May 30 – June 3, 2011). It was not hard to come up with. If I would have a problem, I could always refer to Writing Excuses, an excellent podcast for creative writers, which is only 15 minutes long, because we have no more time, and they aren’t that smart (in their own words). I could also scour the web for a writing assignment someone else wrote, although this takes a lot of time (as scouring usually does).

Written Pages 2011 05 29 23 23 51

I wonder if you have good resources for writing assignments. If you do, please writing about it in the comments.

P.S. I you don’t know what “Takei lovers are”, watch this video by George Takei, of Star Trek fame, with the title: George Takei vs. Tennessee’s “Don’t Say Gay” Bill. I thinks it’s both funny and very serious.

Weekly writing assignment

29 May

The idea was to have a writing assignment, so I could write every day, well, work on storytelling every day. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, but I did write several days of past week.

Here’s the assignment, handwritten on my iPad.


I wrote three versions. Version 1 I had already put on my blog, so I’ll put versions 2 and 3 in this post.

Version 2

Hank was fed up with always being the underdog. He knew Jim was stronger and Peter smarter, but still he wanted to win this round. When Jim did his snatching trick and was ready to pass the ball, Hank simply stayed very close to Peter. So he got the ball. But how was he supposed to reach the top of the hill? He passed the ball back to Jim.

“What’s up,” asked Peter. “I don’t like this game,” answered Hank, “I always play second fiddle.” Hank sat down and Peter joined him. Jim walked toward them and said: “This is no fun.” “No it isn’t. What do we do now,” asked Peter. “Let’s tell a story,” Hank said in excitement.

A dragon slayer was called in to save a princess, held captive by a ferocious dragon. When he met with the king, he saw a wizard already present. They would both try to save the princess, and whoever succeeded, got to marry her.

The dragon slayer attacked head on. He rushed towards the dragon, but couldn’t defeat it. “Keep the dragon busy and I will put a sleeping spell on it,” shouted the wizard from outside the dragon’s lair. “If he falls asleep he’ll block the passage and we’ll never get the princess out,” shouted the slayer back. “Well, then grab the princess, fight the dragon for as long as you can while I do my chanting,” shouted the wizard over the sound of the roaring dragon, which was clearly ready to strike the final blow and kill his opponent. “Alright,” the slayer shouted. He grabbed the girl and pushed her outside the cave.

“So long, suckers,” shouted Hank, while he held the princess-ball firmly in his hands.

He stood on top of the hill.

Version 3

A storm was brewing. “Shouldn’t we be going home,” Hank asked. “We’ll do fine,” said Peter, trying to reassure his friend. “Yeah, let’s play,” shouted Jim. They threw the ball in the air and… it didn’t return. It seemed like it had vanished.

“Where is the ball,” asked Jim, looking at Peter. “How would I know,” said Peter, “I’m as baffled as you are.” Hank shivered and said: “I don’t like this. Let’s go home.” “Not until I have my ball back,” said Peter. “What he said,” said Jim, “and I want to win this time. We stay!”

They heard a loud sharp noise, getting louder and sharper. They jumped away from where they stood. Suddenly there was a crash and mud sprayed on their faces. Something had fallen out of the sky and it surely wasn’t their ball.

There was a golden egg, with its pointed side clearly visible. When they slowly walked towards it, it started to crack. “What the…,” said Jim, but before he could end his sentence, the egg had cracked open and out crawled a pink animal. It looked like a …

“Dragon,” shouted Hank in excitement, “a baby dragon.” The dragon turned red in its face, then purple and started to make choking noises. “I go watched this on top of the hill, safe from that, that monster!”

While Jim walked away, Peter said to Hank: “I think it has to burp. You hold it and I pat it on it back.” So they did. The baby dragon burped, but not just a burp, but a small flame, like a cigarette lighter. It spread its wings and flew to Jim. As Jim was trying to catch it, it had turned into a ball.

Jim stood on top of the hill.

Now you can ask yourself why put this rough writing on your blog? Well, I do have a problem with keeping to a schedule. I should have gone to the dentist more than a year ago, but for some reason I keep finding excuses not to go. So I need something to trick my mind (for the dentist, put it on my calendar to make an appointment, with an alert 30 minutes before).

We keep finding excuses, so we need a way to hack around our mind’s limitations (the lizard brain hates changes and prefers a status quo). There are other reasons why it’s hard for me personally, but I won’t get into that, because it’s personal.

Once I’ve written the next assignment on my little iPad, I’ll create a new blog post. This will be later today, or early tomorrow, depending on how creative I feel. Point is that I have Monday through Friday to do something with storytelling, and for now use the weekends to somewhat recover.

I curious, what ways have you found around procrastination, other than what I’m doing (blogging about it)? Feel free to tell me about it in the comments, so we can learn more about strategies to keep going, despite lack of motivation.

King of the Hill 1

23 May

After yesterday’s assignment to write (on) a story every day, I wrote this little flash fiction. It isn’t high literature, but I think it is somewhat entertaining. There’s a hero, a sidekick and a villain. So to speak, of course, because Jim, Hank and Peter are best friends.

Here it is. Afterwards I tell some more about the process.

The three boys stared at the top of a small hill. “Let’s play King of the Hill here,” said Jim. “Are you sure it’s safe,” stammered Hank. “We’ll do fine. Nothing to fear,” said Peter trying to calm Hank down. “You sissy,” Jim said, “Let’s just see who reaches the top first!” Peter suggested they use the ball he took with him. “How are we going to use your ball,” Hank asked. “Simple,” answered Peter, “if you have the ball you stay put and pass the ball to someone else.” “Whatever,” said Jim impatiently, “Let’s play ball!” “But how do we start,” asked Hank. “Good question,” said Peter, “I suppose we throw it in the air and let fate decide.”

And so they did. Jim leaped high up in the air and snatched the ball. “Not fair,” cried Hank. “Don’t be such a crybaby. Start walking,” Jim shouted. Hank ran straight to the top, but Peter was smarter and stayed at the bottom. And indeed, Jim passed the ball to him. While Hank came running down in disappointment, he almost dropped the ball after it was thrown in his direction.

“Clever, clever,” said Jim, “you’re trying to confuse us.” Peter just ignored him. While Hank wasn’t sure what to do next, he heard the others shout in excitement: “Give it to me, give it to me!” Since Peter had been so nice to him, Hank threw the ball to Peter, who immediately passed it to Jim. “Finally,” Jim shouted in relief, “Don’t think I’ll give to you, silly doofus!” Jim launched the ball behind him, where Peter received it with a big smile.

He stood on top of the hill.

I based this story largely on conversations I can’t help but overhearing between playing children near the flat where I live. Kids are loud when they play together.

I decided to do the setup through conversation, since I had just listened to an episode of the “Writing Excuses” podcast, Writing Excuses 5.38: Dialog with John Scalzi and to Mur Lafferty’s excellent podcast “I Should Be Writing,” episode 202 – Being Smart/Howard Andrew Jones Interview. John Scalzi offered some solid insight on how to approach dialogue and Andrew offered some good writing tips, which he had learned through bitter experience. One of those tips was that before you write a scene, decide what each character is supposed to do (to accomplish) before you start writing. This way you know where to go, even if you get bogged down by storytelling tangents. And boy, if you’re creative, you go on quite some tangents.

Enough about that. I had some problems too.

The problem to tackle first was how to keep it entertaining. I decided to approach it as a sporting match, a game, which makes sense, since king of the hill is a game to begin with. There had to be cunning, but also logic and clarity, and it shouldn’t be too involved, because I wanted to use only a short time to do the writing.

I decided to use psychology as the strategy for the game. Jim wants to win by force and doesn’t think highly of Hank. Peter takes advantage of that and the situation, to get on Jim’s nerves. Effectively, Peter makes use of mistakes made by the other two.

The second problem to deal with was a language barrier. I imagine myself speaking English pretty well, but in reality I have little incentive to improve my English, not surrounded by English speakers and having to use English daily. Sometimes I only know a word in my native language (Dutch). Google Translate for iPhone and iPod Touch to the rescue. The iPhone app (2x on the iPad) even offers alternatives to the translation given. It also has a speech interface, which doesn’t always work.

It meant I had to work around my limitations by keeping the language more simple than a native speaker or even English-as-a-second-language (ESL) speaker probably would do. The reason I do my writing in English is because it’s the language of the Internet. I guess I should use what little vocabulary I have to the best of my ability. I’m sure I’ll get better at it over the years.

The text was written and edited in iA Writer on the iPad, which uses Dropbox syncing to store text documents. Since my iMac has Dropbox as well, I could easily drop the text into this blog post.

Thanks for reading and until next time. If you have any tips, tricks or other advice, feel free to add it as a comment. You can also tell me how awesome you think I am. Nothing wrong with stroking my ego and give it a boost. Hahaha!

Writing assignments

22 May


Here is a writing assignment I gave myself. It’s written in the iPad app Note Taker HD, by Software Garden Inc., the software company of Dan Bricklin. It is a deep application, which hides its complexity until you need it and has lots of help to make it easy to get to understand the functionality. I think it’s excellent for brain dumping, because you have as few constraints as possible. It requires that you have a somewhat legible handwriting, though. It doesn’t do handwriting recognition (which doesn’t really work all too well anyway).

About the writing assignment. Just like you should draw every day, as a cartoonist, you should write stories every day, or write on a story every day. I’m going to try and replicate the daily sketches in writing, by writing short stories of around 300 words. I’m not sure if I can write a flash fiction story every day, but I guess I can work on it every day, so I have a finished story by the end of the week.

I don’t think I’ll be doing the actual writing in Note Taker HD. For that I have a much better app, called iA Writer, by Information Architects, Inc. It has some good functionality for writing.

Story analysis of He-Man, Day Of The Machines

27 Jan

Here’s the work flow I used to analyze the story of the He-Man episode “Day of the Machines” (Season 2, episode 3).

I first watched the entire video and wrote down what I observed as important events. Sometimes I had to go back to put in events I forgot to mention. I left out as many embellishment as possible, and tried to stick to events that were related to story.

Next I wrote synopses for each part, trying to leave out information that wasn’t absolutely necessary.

I used that to describe the plot in even less words, and write a synopsis on that as well.

I used the latter synopsis to formulate the general story idea (logline or one-liner), stripped of all identity, just the story information, things that make it sound interesting and exciting.

A planet’s trusted main engineer risks his reputation over an essential experiment that an evil alien warlord is determined to secretly sabotage.

The theme of the story was easy to find. It is said at the end by the good guys: “If you do your best, you can never fail.”

The characters weren’t too hard as well. Basically, there is Man-at-Arms as the story lead character, He-Man as his friend and companion, Teela as the mentor, and Skeletor as the scheming evil-doer. The story arc is about Man-at-Arms learning that you can only do your best, and never reach perfection. The rest of the characters are pretty much static.

The conflict was easy to distill as well, it involves Man-at-Arms putting his reputation at risk in pursuit of perfection, and Skeletor trying to take advantage of it.

The point of view is, as usual, omniscient limited, which means it is told in the third person, who doesn’t know everything.

The setting is pretty straightforward too. Planet Eternia, in a world where magic, technology, feudalism and barbarian rites are intermixed. The story start in a happy mood, and returns to that state after the story arc is done.

What follows is what I did with the plot, including the logline as I see it.

—– (first and second round)

Part 1

Man-at-Arms fails at an RC experiment and just want to forget about it. His friends convince him to continue, and he will give it one last try. If he fails, he will resign from his job.

Meanwhile Skeletor has spied on the conversation, and decides to use trickery to make sure the next RC experiment fails and Man-at-Arm has to quit. He plants a miniature monster in the palace computer, so it can wreak havoc on the palace and Man-at-Arms will get the blame.


Man-at-Arms says he will resign if he fails at his next RC computer experiment. Skeletor having overheard this, makes an electronic demon and beams it in the palace computer, so it will wreak havoc and Man-at-Arms will get the blame.

Part 2

The mini-monster has taken over the RC computer, and while Man-at-Arms and his friends are doing another RC test, they get ambushed by machines controlled by the mini-monster. He-Man appears and saves his friends.

They decide to take a look at the computer, to see what’s wrong, however the door is closed. After He-Man breaks it open and enters the computer room, he gets attacked by the machine, put there to defend the mini-monster.

They retreat and decide to do two things. Man-at-Arms will disable the power, so the RC computer becomes powerless, and Teela will visit Skeletor on Battlecat to find out if he is somehow sabotaging.

Man-at-Arms shrinks himself so he can slip by the defences and enter the computer.

Meanwhile Teela has arrived at Skeletor’s place and He-Man is battling the machines gone crazy. After He-Man is done, he goes looking for Man-at-Arms.

Teela slips into Skeletor’s command center and hears one of Skeletor’s goons tell the plan. She quickly leaves unnoticed to tell the others what she has learned.

Man-at-Arms finds the mini-monster, but gets captured by it.
Teela is back at the palace and tells He-Man about Skeletor’s plan to use an electric demon inside the computer to control the palace machines. They need Man-at-Arms for a shrinking ray, but he is nowhere to be found. He-Man decides to go to the Sorceress for help.

The Sorceress turns He-Man small and delivers him as a falcon at the computer, which he enters.


When the palace machines act hostile, Man-at-Arms, Teela and He-Man decide to do something about it. Man-at-Arms shrinks himself to a small size, enters the computer, but gets capture by the demon. Teela goes spying on Skeletor and finds out his evil plan. He-Man tries to fight the machines to avoid any damage.

When Teela tells He-Man of Skeletor’s plan, he let’s himself shrink by the Scorceress and enters the computer.

Part 3

Inside the computer He-Man tries to find Man-at-Arms and to defeat the electric demon.

After He-Man has freed Man-at-Arms, they go to the demon. He-Man battles it, but it gets away through the wires.

Then it dawns on Man-at-Arms what the demon’s weakness is, and how they capture it. After they’ve done so they send it back to Skeletor, so he can enjoy it presence, and doesn’t use it again.

Using the shrinking ray in reverse, He-Man and Man-at-Arms have returned to normal size. Teela argues that Man-at-Arms wasn’t to blame for the malfunctioning RC computer, and that Skeletor made use of Man-at-Arms discouragement. Man-at-Arms acknowledges his temporary weakness, and that next time he shouldn’t give up so easily, because things aren’t perfect. Teela argues that Man-at-Arms did his best, and that that’s all what can be expected from someone.

The group concludes that if you do your best, you can never be a failure.


Inside the computer He-Man frees Man-at-Arms and together they capture the demon. They send it to Skeletor’s computer, so Skeletor will never use it again.

The group concludes that Man-at-Arms wasn’t to blame after all, because he did his best. They say that if you do your best, you can never be a failure.

—– (third round)

Part 1


Man-at-Arms does some RC experiment, which fails miserably. He says he will resign if he fails at his next RC computer experiment, because it has to be perfect; there is no room for error.


Skeletor having overheard this, makes an electronic demon and beams it in the palace computer, so it will wreak havoc and Man-at-Arms will get the blame.

[Point of no return, action begins]

Part 2

Rising Action

When the palace machines act hostile, Man-at-Arms, Teela and He-Man decide to do something about it. Man-at-Arms shrinks himself to a small size, enters the computer, but gets capture by the demon. Teela goes spying on Skeletor and finds out his evil plan. He-Man tries to fight the machines to avoid any damage.

When Teela tells He-Man of Skeletor’s plan, he let’s himself shrink by the Scorceress and enters the computer.

[Point of no return, problem has to be solved]

Part 3


Inside the computer He-Man frees Man-at-Arms and together they capture the demon.

Falling Action

They send it to Skeletor’s computer, so Skeletor will never use it again.


The group concludes that Man-at-Arms wasn’t to blame after all, because he did his best. They say that if you do your best, you can never be a failure.

—– (fourth round)

Plot Synopsis

Man-at-Arms wants to be perfect at a computer experiment, but fails. Skeletor wants him to fail utterly and plants a demon in the palace computer.

While battling the machines, Man-at-Arms gets trapped inside the computer, and Teela finds out about Skeletor’s plan and tells it to He-Man, who goes into the computer as well.

Man-at-Arms and He-Man battle the demon, defeat it and send it back to Skeletor’s computer. Man-at-Arms has learned that he can only do his best, not be perfect.

—– (fifth round)


A planet’s trusted main engineer risks his reputation over an essential experiment that an evil alien warlord is determined to sabotage.

Art explained in a book

29 May

I always wondered what art exactly was and how art and commerce are related. That was, until I read the book “On the Origin of Stories” by Brian Boyd.

Mr. Boyd builds on the accomplishments of evolutionary biology, and his title refers to the book by Charles Darwin “On the Origin of Species.” On the Origin of Stories is not as Earth shattering as the book by Darwin, but it offers a science-based framework of thought for literary critics, as opposed to the somewhat dogmatic approach of Theory.

I will not do a book review, because others have done a better job at that than I ever could. However, I would like to point out that Boyd’s book has taught me new concepts about art.

Published art (which I refer to as “art” in the remainder of this post) is all about getting attention from the artist’s point of view, and giving attention from the audience point of view. Since time is limited, the amount of attention we can give is limited. This means that artworks that attract more attention will receive a higher status, and by attribution, the artist will share in this status.

I make this distinction, because the creator of an artwork is not necessary the performer. In fact, an artwork may be created by several individuals, as is the case with Hollywood movies. The “performance” of such a movie (read: screening) does not require the creators to be physically present, even if they could be. By being mentioned in the credits, the contributing artists share in the possible success of the movie by attribution (in case you were wondering why credits exist in the first place).

Since people can only spend so much of their free time on paying attention to art, there will be a natural struggle for the most attention, based on people’s preferences (on what they like). This, of course, is a set-up for an evolutionary struggle among works of art (as it were, “survival of the fittest”), where the prevailing “taste du jour” will attract the most attention, while those who don’t will remain largely unknown and receive a lower status.

However, like evolution, in times of rapid change, established works may become less popular, while relatively unknown works, though with a loyal following, might rise in the ranks (get more public attention, hence a higher status). Since artists are constantly creating new works of art, a higher status of one of their older works will raise the status of both the current work and the artists themselves. We all know this phenomena of the unknown artist being discovered by the public.

Mind you, it is not that the discovered artist has somehow forced the discovery by a sudden change in style (if that’s even possible, because a major change in personal style takes a long time), but rather that the changed circumstances have made the art appealing to a larger public. It seems that audience preferences can change faster than personal artist styles. This means rather than trying to chase what is popular now, the artist better develop their own styles to perfection, so in case they are discovered, the artist can follow up with new works of art.

Now I’m repeating something I posted on my Google Buzz account.

Art is about personal preference, appeal. Artists try to get attention from an audience, and get rewarded with a higher status by that audience. In fact, audience attention is equal to status. This means it predates economics, perhaps even humans.

So, basically, art can exist without money. Even people who don’t use money (e.g. toddlers) appreciate art and artists. I think this means the main motivator for art should be appeal. Money is just a derivative of that appeal (as a token of appreciation).

Once money becomes the main drive behind art, as always is the case with commercial entities, its appeal can’t but deteriorate. Art appeal is about novelty, surprise, invention, something which gives meaning beyond the boundaries of the particular work and becomes the center of attention in people’s lives.

This is why, in my opinion, artistic endeavors and business concerns should be strictly separated if an artist wants to become —and remain— successful. The business side should merely exist to serve artists, to provide them with a source of income. Art should never be about making money.

While art by committee isn’t necessarily bad, it often devolves into that because the focus shifts from attracting attention towards maintaining the size of an audience. And the latter doesn’t appeal to many people, I’m afraid.

While I’m still digesting the content of “On the Origin of Stories”, I can already see some of the benefits of having read this book. I highly recommend reading it, especially if you struggle with some of the same questions I did: “What is art, and why should I care?”