books

the elements of style

After having heard many recommendations, I finally purchased and read Strunk and White’s book, The Elements of Style.

If you write at all, in any capacity, this is a must-read.

Not only is it incredibly short, clever, and to the point, it also has some insightful thoughts on writing itself—some of which impacted me greatly.

Sure, it’s not the final word on proper writing and even I disagreed with some of the points (this from a rather agreeable guy), but it’s a great overview of the essentials. I expect I’ll return to it often.

Allow me to share just a few excerpts that I found striking:


“Writing, to be effective, must follow closely the thoughts of the writer, but not necessarily in the order in which those thoughts occur. … The first principle of composition, therefore, is to force or determine the shape of what is to come and pursue that shape. … The more clearly the writer perceives the shape, the better are the chances of success.”

 

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”

“All writers, by the way they use the language, reveal something of their spirits, their habits, their capacities, and their biases. This is inevitable as well as enjoyable. All writing is communication; creative writing is communication through revelation—it is Self escaping into the open. No writer long remains incognito.”

“Writing is, for most, laborious and slow. The mind travels faster than the pen; consequently, writing becomes a question of learning to make occasional wing shots, bringing down the bird of thought as it flashes by.”

“A careful and honest writer does not need to worry about style. As you become proficient in the use of language, your style will emerge, because you yourself will emerge, and when this happens you will find it incredibly easy to break through the barriers that separate you from other minds, other hearts—which is, of course, the purpose of writing, as well as its principal reward. Fortunately, the act of composition, or creation, disciplines the mind; writing is one way to go about thinking, and the practice and habit of writing not only drain the mind but supply it, too.” 

unexpected

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This is the first of a two-part series, both of which are excerpts from my upcoming book, The Endless Creative.

There are two common aspects of creativity I’d like you to keep your eyes peeled for, especially when looking for inspiration. When you do, you’ll notice they show up all the time, like flies at a picnic.

  1. Creativity is unexpected (yet understandable)

  2. Creativity combines (the unrelated)

Let’s start with the first: creativity is unexpected. If you’ve seen the sci-fi show, Firefly, you may remember this line from one of the early episodes, “Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal!” 

It’s an unusual line and comes during an unusual scene (the titular spaceship’s pilot is playing with toy dinosaurs on the dashboard). It’s comically melodramatic and a great character moment. I believe its memorability comes from a truth it contains—something we inherently understand about storytelling and creativity—the need for the unexpected, yet understandable.

How often have you heard of a movie receiving criticism for being too predictable? There is something about predictability we can’t stand—it’s uninteresting, unexciting, unimpressive, and unfulfilling.

The predictable is dull.

When we were young, the world was fresh and new, everything was a surprise. But as we age and experience more, we become harder to impress, especially in this age of information over-saturation. We’re hard to impress because we already know it all and have seen it all. 

Predictability is not a bad thing—we’d be in big trouble if mathematic equations didn’t yield predictable results. Without predictability, we’d never get a grasp on how the world works. 

The problem with predictable is that it fails to grab our attention, to make our brains think in different ways. Besides, it’s not all the entertaining. 

The unpredictable, however, leads to discovery and learning. We love stories with unexpected elements like plot-twists and surprise endings because we didn’t see them coming—they challenge our expectations. While we might not like our expectations to be wrong in real life, it can be very rewarding in someone else’s story.

But there is a balance. It can’t only be unexpected, it still has to make sense. Just as we complain about movies being too predictable, we’ll also complain when we leave the theater scratching our heads, often due to an ending unwarranted by the rest of the movie. In a way, we feel cheated or tricked.

Granted, there is more to it than all that—there are other things to consider, like the viewer’s expectations going in, the films intended audience, and whether it’s supposed to be an absurdist film. But, on the surface, a good story should surprise the audience with an outcome that also makes sense—one the narrative naturally leads to with foreshadowing and the repetition of theme.

They say every story has already been told, or that there are really only a few types of stories (something like five to seven). Despite that, new and interesting stories are coming out all the time, some with massive success. Some element of the familiar is necessary, otherwise the story will be unrelatable, but there is always an opportunity to add something fresh and surprising to the mix.

Keep this in mind while you’re on the lookout for creative examples. When you discover something that surprises you and also resonates with you, take note of it.

You can find the second of this two-parter here:

Combined

Death Cloud

In case you haven't noticed, I like to share other creative projects from time to time, usually ones completed by friends of mine.

This week, I present the super ominous, super cool Death Cloud. It's a novel by my buddy RJ Batla from his Senturians of Terraunum fantasy series.

He's trying something new this time and running a Kickstarter campaign. Naturally, I've backed it.

If you're interested, you can check it out right here!

 

And hey, if you've got some cool creative project you're ready to share with the world, let me know about it. You never know, I might just check it out and post something.

madness

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Not long ago, I finished listening to an audiobook of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (thanks to LibriVox). I quite enjoyed it on a number of levels. 

Here’s my cheeky little synopsis:

A lovely tale about a writing group that gets together to solve a mystery and take down a vampire.

Just before listening to Drac, I’d finished Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. They are two very different stories written in two very different styles. Now, I can appreciate Frank for its novelty (pun, pun, pun!) as well as its place as a forerunner for the horror genre, but I don’t know if I could say I enjoyed it. Make no missed stake (get it?), I’m still glad I gave it a listen, but I think it’s now very dated, while Drac still holds up as an excellent work of prose.

That said, the purpose of this post is not an untimely book review.

As you might expect, both books include a good dose of madness. That’s pretty standard for horror stories. In Frank, the protagonist, Victor Frankenstein himself, suffers through quite a lot of (very drawn out) mental instability. In Drac, nearly all the main characters question their sanity, but only Renfield, a patient in Seward’s asylum, has truly lost his marbles (and not the fun way, as in the movie Hook).

There’s one line from Dracula (the book not the vampire) on the subject that really stood out to me:

Stop; that way madness lies!

In context, it comes from a scene where things have taken a turn for the worst and the heroes are tempted to dwell on regret. They’ve made some costly mistakes and also missed picking up some very big clues. I believe the line is also a reference to Shakespeare's King Lear, who himself went quite mad.

So, what’s the point?

Dwelling on our past decisions and mistakes only leads to one inevitable destination: madness.

Have you gone far down that path yourself? I know I’ve tread those steps. I’ve sauntered up the very doors of the Mansion of Madness itself (also a title of a great board game, so I hear). Therein lies a bottomless pit where your thoughts spin over and over in crazy, tumbling circles, on and on without end.

It is the endless mantra, if only, if only, if only, drilling into your skull. 

It is a deadly poison wrought from a most vile brew: a concoction for insanity.

I bid thee, turn thine steps from that avenue of shadows, the one called Regret. Heed my words, learn from my own bitter woes, that trail will lead you nowhere good. Turn back, turn back, before it be too late!

---

Oh, ahem, sorry about that. What were we talking about then? Ah, yes, keep your creativity moving forward and let the past be the past (or Rafiki will hit you on the head with a stick and knock some sense into you).

Well, that was interesting. Now, what should I read next … some Poe or Lovecraft perhaps? Hmm, I think a bit of lighter fare may do me good. Until then, adieu, and keep the garlic and the holy symbols ever at the ready, lest the sharp fangs of regret sink into your so tender flesh!

cough

Apologies, I simply don’t know what has gotten into me lately. Oh, the sun, how it burns! Someone pass the aloe vera please.