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We Believe

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We believe many things

But we don’t believe in each other

 

We tell our kids they shouldn’t kill themselves

But support a world that tells them they’re worthless, stupid, helpless

 

We decry gun violence

But the biggest box-office successes all have people being shot

 

We love charity

But legislate it out of existence

 

We hate cops breaking the law

But tune in every week to police dramas where the bad boy cop breaks all the rules

 

We detest criminals

But do nothing to help those people before they become one

 

We love the idea of peace and harmony

But mock anyone who practices religion

 

We love the wild outdoors

But sacrifice our fellowmen to preserve it

 

We enjoy the stars, the animals, and the earth

Then do nothing to protect them

 

We condemn drug abuse

But we break down and destroy each other, so they have no other escape

 

We hate excess and extravagance

But tune in every day and give them our time and our adoration

 

We hate it when people won’t listen to us

But cry and lash out when someone proves us wrong

 

We can’t stand when people are fake

But flock to campaign rallies and politicians

 

We hate it when animals are abused and tortured

But cheer when we see people in the same situation

 

We have no patience when someone else isn’t as educated

But become offended when they try to teach us something new

 

We profess we don’t care about material things

Then protest when someone else has more than us

 

We boast that we don’t care what people think of us

Then post that opinion online and share and filter all day long

 

We flee the devastation of our homelands

But vote for the same policies when we get somewhere new

 

We believe we are garbage, useless, and boring

Then get offended when someone tells us we are

 

We protest that we are oppressed

Then celebrate when it happens to someone else

 

We complain about the reruns and remakes

But cry and tweet when something new is bad, boring, or offensive

 

We can’t stand those who believe in creationism

But don’t do anything about creating our own communities

 

We can’t stand those who believe in evolution

But refuse to evolve the bonds between each other

 

We paint those of other races as violent, prejudiced, or savage

Then act savagely when someone says the same about ours

 

We claim diversity is our strength

But mock any who think, act, or dress any different

 

We assign motive to our neighbors

Then require an hour to explain our own position

 

We believe we are intelligent enough to design the internet

but others are not smart enough to determine what is true or false on it

 

We believe mankind can steer itself to better, humane futures

But deny others the liberty to steer their own lives

 

We believe mankind is good

Then assume another’s motivation is evil

 

We believe mankind is naturally base

Then exhaust every option to excuse our own behavior

 

We believe that going to church is a commandment from God

Then easily forget that those laws apply outside the chapel

 

We believe many things

But we don’t believe in each other

Q&A With Aaron, February 2019

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All answers can be found on my Quora here.

Q: How can a fiction writer balance between contrived actions and natural unfolding?

A: The answer to this is simple (but hard in the execution):

It’s all in the writing.

We understand that fiction must be more believable than real life in order to be believable at all, so I understand the problem of making a more interesting “contrived action” believable when it wouldn’t otherwise happen, or it’s likelihood is…well… unlikely.

But improbable things happen all the time. The only thing that defines what’s “contrived” or “natural” in your book (or short story, poem, whatever you’re writing) is how you’ve written your characters, how you defined your world, and how the universe you created is being presented to the reader.

My recommendation to balance contrived actions and natural unfolding is to begin with your characters. Do you have well thought-out characters that are living, breathing people? You can test this by imagining hypothetical situations in which you can place your characters, and seeing how they would react. If you’re still not sure how they would react, then you still have some work to do on their development.

A reader will feel an action is contrived when it is unnatural to the character (not in their natural behavior) or “uncharacteristic” of them, or the world they inhabit.

A good writer will be able to present even the most fantastic of actions or events in such a way that the reader will pass through it un-phased.

If you know you’re building toward a big climax, or an important scene that you feel might come off as contrived, you must begin the preparations many chapters in advance. Lay breadcrumbs of your characters’ though process, habits, and personality so when you finally get to the big moment, both you and your reader go, “of course!”

 

Q: I am able to write very convincingly and confidently. However I am poor at doing the same when speaking, especially on the spot — how can I improve?

A: Practice. Practice. Practice.

How did you get so good at writing convincingly and confidently? I doubt you just sat down one day and realized you were a pro. I’m guessing it probably took years and years of practice and making mistakes, the same is true for public speaking.

The reason why it’s much harder to do with public speaking is because you can’t print out your performance and analyze it like you can a manuscript. Sure, you can record your voice, or make a video, but we are naturally averse to listening to ourselves, and we can’t objectively critique our voice or performance. Also, the “little things” in a performance, the pathos, the feelings, are lost in a recording.

What you need to do is get at least one or two other people, or even a large group if you have the opportunity, and just speak. The key to getting better, however, is to ask for critiques. Do this in two ways:

  1. Ask the people listening beforehand to listen for things that you can do better. What mistakes do you make regularly? What words trip you up? Do you have a nervous tick you repeat over and over again? While small things like that may not seem big to you, they can really stop an audience from listening to your message, instead of focusing on how you’re presenting.
  2. Ask those listening to tell you what your strength is. This doesn’t mean to get them to compliment everything you did well, it means to find your strength. Are you good at telling stories? Do you have impressive inflection? Do you channel emotion into your speaking? Whatever your strength seems to be, focus on that, make it the core of your speaking, then once you’re comfortable with that, branch into other areas.

For example: my nervous tick is putting my hands in my pockets, I didn’t notice it myself, but once someone pointed it out to me, I notice it each time I do it now and immediately stop. I find something else for my hands to do. On the other hand, I was told I’m very good at drawing an audience into somber or serious stories, that I use whispering very effectively. When they told me that, I used it more and more, and focused on it until it came naturally in my preparations.

If you can do these basic things, it should be just like improving any other talent or skill and can prepare any public address quickly, and speak confidently when put on the spot. It’s really no different.

 

Q: How does a good writer keep himself/herself from regurgitating the same ideas every time he/she writes?

A: There are lots of tips and tricks, hacks, and “one thing great writers do” in order to get great inspiration every time they sit down to write. But if you’re going to get any help with your problem (regurgitating the same ideas) you’ll need to realize something first:

No writer has ever avoided reusing old ideas. Go read the comments by C.S. Lewis, Ernest Hemingway, Neil Gaiman, or any other author. They all have complained about writer’s block, reusing old ideas, or hating what they write. No author has sat down and had a bolt of pure inspiration every single time.

Anybody who says they have is lying.

I like to imagine Homer (in my opinion, the greatest author of all time) banging his head against a column because he didn’t have any good ideas for weeks.

But there is a simple solution that works, every time, and for everyone: write more.

Think about writing like using a pump or a hose after it has sat around unused for days, weeks, or even months. When you turn it on for the first time in a long time, there will be dirt, debris, air, and even living things that come spurting out, followed by dirty, warm water, which is finally followed by the cool clean water.

The longer you go without writing, the more the same ideas circulate in your head, you muse over a great line you wrote, or the event you’re trying to resolve. All the authors in the world got over this by sitting down, pumping out those old ideas, and kept writing until the new, cool, clean ideas finally appear on the page.

The longer you write, and the more frequently you write, the less time there will be for the dirty “build-up” to fill your mind. Instead, you will be a clean, fresh-flowing pump of ideas (not always good, but at least new).

 

The Power of Pressure

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On Sunday, January 20, 2019, at around midnight, I submitted a short story of mine to the Chicago Tribune short story contest.

Today, I was going through a folder I take with me to work, and found a note, scribbled in the margin of a page I had ripped out and forgotten. The note simply said, “Do the short story contest.” With a thick underline beneath it. The note was written about a month before the deadline at the end of January.

The story I submitted had been floating around in my head for months. It began as absent-minded notes and scribbles in a notebook I take with me to church and on vacation. It was a fun story that I enjoyed thinking about when times got boring, and with so many other projects I had to think about, I was comfortable leaving this one in the margins of my imagination until I had finished the other ones.

I didn’t expect it would be done any time soon, let alone this month.

When I heard about the contest toward the end of December, the story that immediately popped into my head was this one. It came so clear and felt like such a “duh” moment that I didn’t question it. Whereas I spent months on my other manuscripts fussing and bothering about plot holes, dialogue, and chapter length. This store seemed to just pour out of me and onto the page. And when it was finished, I knew it was finished. It felt complete.

That was the power of pressure.

Granted, the pressure was mainly of my own creation, since nobody knew I was submitting to this contest besides myself, and my wife.

But it was this pressure that forced me to write when I felt like doing anything else.

What would happen if I missed the deadline? Nothing. I would wake up and go to work like I usually do. But my laser-focus on completing this short story would disappear. When I say “nothing” would happen, I mean exactly that. The story would not get finished. It would stay nothing, pushed to the bottom of the priority list until years from now.

Having “nothing” to show for all my hard work was a scary thought.

In life, there are no grace periods for the important things, there are no extended due dates. You either get it right, or you don’t.

If I missed this entry deadline, that’s it, I can’t win and I can’t lose, I’m simply there, doing nothing.

If I screw up my daughter’s childhood years, there’s no extension to try and get it right. She either grows up right, or ends up a mess.

If I wake up one day when I’m thirty and realize I’m not who or where I want to be, I can’t ask for a little more time to get it right, or try again. I have to work with what I’ve done so far and make the best of it. Even if it’s nothing.

The world we live in is designed to distract us, to draw our attention from what we want to do, what we should do, and focus it on what someone else is doing, or wants us to do. (Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, depending on who we’re being distracted by, or from.) But the problem is that a majority of those drawing our attention today prefer us to sit in front of our screens for hours instead of anything else. They don’t care what you’re missing, or who you’re becoming, because as long as you sit there, they make money. There are thousands and thousands of articles and blogs about this online, so I always feel as if I beat the dead horse to a pulp when I bring this up.

I saw a quote this morning, actually, that said: “Life is too short to waste time debating politics in online forums.”

I fall into the same trap.

That’s why it felt so unexpectedly refreshing to have the pressure to have me create something for myself, by myself, and of myself. It made me ignore the distractions and sit down for myself, not somebody else.

I sat on my chair.

At my table.

Typed on my computer.

Using the power I pay for.

To write a story from my ideas.

That would fulfill my goals, and make me a better person.

Not somebody else’s goals.

It makes me sick sometimes that I work all day long, to pay for all these things, just to use them in the late hours of the night to become an expert on someone else’s opinion on why such-and-such film was snubbed at the last awards ceremony.

The pressure to focus on my own life, my own goals, beat out the pressure to glide through life.

Nothing written here is revelatory. Everybody knows, or has at least heard, of setting goals for yourself, rewarding yourself, etc. etc. etc.

Anybody who has worked a day in their life knows what having a deadline is like.

But the more I write, and the more stories I submit to contests and to publications, the more ideas pop into my head, and I can’t help but wonder:

“How many of these ideas will I carry with me into the grave? When the deadline for sharing these with the world has passed, what will I have been able to accomplish with them?”

That thought terrifies me, and it scares me enough to forget the distractions and do something about it.

 

Letter to a Friend

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As I’ve mentioned in the past, I’ve taken up calligraphy as a very minor pastime.

I say minor. I’m not doing it to show off. Obviously.

I can’t remember what got me into it initially, probably a boring afternoon when I was looking for something to do… next thing you know I have a pile of books, a pack of calligraphy pens next to me, an open inkwell, and an inclined table specifically used for calligraphy (imagine those old tables you see in medieval movies with monks writing painstakingly slow manuscripts of scripture. Same thing essentially)

I admit I have slowed down recently, only breaking out the ink and nibs every once in a while for a special occasion. But I enjoy it no less than when I initially began.

This is one of my earlier attempts (probably about a year and a half ago) of a birthday card for a friend. I had spent so much time on making sure the name was right that I ran out of time on the actual letter, which is why it looks like the rest was written with normal pen in a rush… which it was.

I use heavy parchment paper when I practice, and you can see the true color in the first photo after it has been folded and sealed with hot wax and a “W” for Webber.


My normal penmanship has improved since this time, since it is terrible form to have calligraphy and bad handwriting on the same page! So don’t look at anything else besides the name itself.

The only thing I like about it, now that I look back, is the “N” at the beginning. The other letters are all out of proportion, and much to thick for the height at which I made them. But, hey, what can you expect for a first try at a letter for someone I don’t even talk to anymore?

Calligraphy Progress 4/23/18

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Every few months I copy the text of a passage or a quote I like into the calligraphy hand I’m practicing at the time.

And since at the moment I’m practicing traditional gothic calligraphy, that’s what I use.

I find that I can’t just sit down and write down a dozen As then a dozen Bs, without getting distracted and doing other things. Very early on in my practicing I discovered that if I sit down for two hours or so, spending the first while getting my station set up, then a half hour getting warmed up, another half hour practicing, then the remaining time actually working on some kind of product on finer, heavier, paper that isn’t lined, then I tend to focus more on each stroke and movement because this is something I put on my practice wall until I replace it with something better.

I believe this works for two reasons:

1. When I hang it up, it forces me to compare it with an older work I completed earlier, seeing where I was too quick, or where I improved. I notice the things that are hard to see when you don’t hold it up to something older.

2. Working to produce a quote I like on paper that is expensive means I force myself to take my time and be careful. When I hammer out fifteen Gs on college-ruled paper, I ted to get more sloppy and less interested, and even discouraged. I know I can do the letters, so when I mess up I get even more frustrated. But when I am halfway through a passage on paper that costs more than usual, I am motivated to not mess up. I focus more on my posture, my arm movement, so that all the work I have done so far is not ruined.

Obviously it’s not a masterpiece, ever, I’m not to that point yet. I see letters grouped too close, or the tails or the stems extending too far, or the lines of the words floating up or down toward the ends of the page. But that’s what it is, practice. And the next time I try a new passage, I’ll remember my mistakes and I’ll improve.

Here is the latest example, taken from a quote of Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey, one of my favorite books, and (in my opinion) the greatest work of literature ever written.

First, a capital F.

You can tell I got too hasty in the ornamentation, as the line is not straight. But the letter itself is pretty good I think.

Second, a capital L. Again, the letter itself is solid, and the ornamentation is good this time. However the flourishes to the left I didn’t begin pulling with the full contact of the nib, so it looks broken and shabby.

Finally, the full quote I used to practice:

“Yea and if some god shall wreck me in the wine-dark deep, even so will I endure… For already have I suffered full much, and much have I toiiled in perils of waves and war. Let those be added to the tale of those.” Odyssey

 

Our Greatness

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“I don’t have time for this, Rick”
            “Of course you do. You, of all people, have time. You just don’t know how to use it.” Ricky said, pulling out a chair from the small table and sitting down to stare at Braddock.
            “I’ve already spent more time here than I wanted to, I need to go.” Braddock turned to leave half-heartedly before Rick chimed in.
            “You can fill you whole life with things to do. But if they aren’t the best things, if they aren’t important, then why do them? And if you don’t know why you do something, there’s no point in doing anything at all, and you’ll end up lost when you’re finished.”
            Braddock paused. Then said, half to himself, half to Rick, without turning,
            “I know what I’m doing, Rick, and I know why I’m doing it”
            Rick pushed the chair back slowly and stood up to look out the window, placing a hand softly on the windowsill.
            “Ah, but do you? You might know what actions you will take, but do you know what will happen as a result of your actions? What I mean to say is: what are you really doing to the symphony that is the universe?” He turned again to look at Braddock more seriously. “I know what notes you are meant to play, but what happens when you tear the sheet music of the musicians next to you? What are you doing then, really? Can you predict how the rest of the piece will play out?”
            “Obviously I’ll be making the galaxy a better place. Ridding it of the filth and evil that I’m called to destroy.”
            “How so?”
            Braddock lifted his arms and pressed against the frame of the door, the muscles in his neck and shoulders bulging with frustration.
            “It doesn’t matter, as long as they’re gone nobody will care how.”
            At this, Rick’s voice rose in intensity, something that Braddock rarely saw. It was obvious this discussion meant almost as much to Rick as Rick thought it should to Marcos.
            “You’re right, in part, Marcus. Few will know how you did it, and even fewer will care. But many will weep or rejoice based solely on the decisions you make.”
            “You can’t be serious. There are millions, if not billions, of people: citizens, populi, criminals, and more uncounted beyond our borders who live the most vile, depraved, dishonorable, disgusting lives. You cannot say that the unholy, unnatural things those people do have no effect…”
            “No.” Rick’s interruption was soft-spoken, but firm. “No I don’t. Every choice made on and in-between every planet in the great expanse of the universe holds sway on its direction and its beauty. But small men lead small lives, and small lives are like a raindrop in the ocean. Nobody sees it, nobody cares, and their effect is negligible. Others, Marcus, live great lives; they were chosen to do great things. Others make themselves great from the dust of nothingness. Great men, Marcus, make decisions that have unfathomable consequences. Great men, Marcus, make great decisions. You chose to live a life of greatness, you cannot choose the size of the consequences.” Rick pointed at Braddock’s chest. “You know in your heart you are destined for greatness, the only question that remains is: will your greatness be a reason to rejoice, or a cause of mourning and suffering?”
            Braddock paused, staring at the finger pointed at him. Clearly thinking about those last words. “I don’t…” He stopped. He took a long breath as he started to realize the meaning of what was being said. “I mean, it doesn’t really matter…”
            “Because it’s your job?” Ricky interrupted. “You’re a soldier, so you’re not paid to think or feel? Only make decisions based on fact and instinct, right?”
            Suddenly, emotions erupted from somewhere deep in Braddock, something from a past forgotten by everybody but him. “Thousands of brave men and women have died because their commander was too worried about what might be instead of what is!” Braddock’s face grew more serious and his eyes glistened. “That ship out there might be a merchant trader, but the fact is that it’s on an intercept course and not responding to transmissions. It might have damaged communications systems and want repairs, but it will destroy our ship if it’s anything else and isn’t stopped.”
            His voice was heavy with emotion, it was obvious this story was not hypothetical.
            “Tucker, Swinehouse, Big Jim, they might be helping people, they might be good people cast in a bad light, they mighthave the best intentions. But the fact isthat they are criminals, the fact isthat I have sworn to uphold the law until my last dying breath, and the fact is that I am the only one capable and willing to bring them to justice!”
            He took a breath. “And so I must do so.”
            Silence filled the room for what must have been several seconds, but it felt like hours. Each man chewing over his next words.
            Rick was the first to break the silence. “So the ends justify the means?”
            “That’s not what I said.”
            “It’s what you meant, though.”
            Braddock let out a sigh. “What would you suggest I do then, Rick? Ignore my conscience?”
            “No, Marcus.” Rick said, sounding exhausted. “I feel that you’ve heard nothing of what I’m trying to tell you.” He paused. “Perhaps I started in the wrong place, let me start again. Please Marcus, Follow me.” Rick turned around, walked to the opposite side of where Marcus stood and opened the big wooden door. Bright sunlight poured into the room accompanied by the hot, dry air of Delphine. Without looking at Marcus, Rick walked out and stood in the sun. Marcus knew he had no choice but to follow.

The Two Brothers

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Once upon a time
there were two brothers
one was rich, he had many things
and ate and drank well
all his days
The other was poor, he had no gold
he worked hard and had no time
for luxury

The rich brother spent his days
in the company of strange women,
his nights with mischievous men.
He scorned his neighbors,
and ignored his lessors.
He abused his friendships
and honored not his word.

Then one day the rich man indulged too much
and he died

Many people came to his funeral
many words were spoken
but no tears were shed
After, his friends left quickly
and never looked back

Only the brother remained
left behind to ponder his loss
And then to ponder his gain
For he had inherited his dead brother’s wealth

The dead brother, meanwhile,
awoke in the Void
Surrounded by a darkness so thick
he thought it would crush him
into nothing

He heard nothing
and everything
at the same time.
The void was silent
He was alone

For miles and miles,
for eons and years,
he was alone.
Yet he heard a sound,
a constant humming,
coming from within
or all around
The whimpering,
wailing,
and crying of tormented souls,
his soul,
or all souls
he did not know

Not the wailing of those in pain
but the weeping of those now realizing
the permanence of their isolation
their loss

In time,
or in no time at all
his feet touched on solid ground
His mind awoke
his senses roused
his panic began

He cried to the gods for deliverance
He knew not their names
never had he cared
He cried and he pleaded
But the sound disappeared
and no one heard
and nobody one came

The he thought of his brother
He who now had his wealth
He who would surely fall
victim to the same vices as his elder

He must be spared
He must be saved
He must be warned

Louder again he raised his voice
Harder again he struggled against the black
to save his brother
he prayed for intervention

Then the darkness parted
his eyes could finally see
the shadows moved away
and a figure took shape

A man,
long blonde hair flowing form his head
unimpeded by the dark
moved effortlessly
slowly
towards him

A robe draped his arms and shoulders
The hilt of a sword rose behind his ear
the leather holster fastened across his chest
A darker belt sat firm around his waist

“I have heard your cries.”
he said in a whisper
“I am here to answer,
what do you desire?”

The brother
eager for a ray of hope
forwent his curiosity
and begged

“My brother is surely in peril,
for I shewed him no love
in the land of the living
and left him my vices.
He will surly fall
he will soon fail.
Please send me back to warn him
of the fruits of my life.”

“As you wish it to be, so let it be done.”
Was the reply with a smile and a wink
and the stranger turned away

The darkness enveloped the man
he passed out of consciousness
he could see nothing
only shadows
then shadows of shadows
then shadows of things
shapes
outlines
colors:
his home

People passed by
unaware of the new visitor
they laughed, they drank
vices were indulged
curiosities satisfied
hungers sated
days passed in the blink of an eye

His brother was found
away in a room,
face-down in the covers
compromised and shameful

“Brother” he called
a woman to the side stirred
“Brother” again, no motion

He reached to awaken him
his hand passing through the flesh
like etherial wisps, his fingers felt no touch
In a panic he called, “Brother, why do you not hear me!”

The naked man started
he turned in a panic
his eyes passed around the room, searching
confusion wrote itself on his face
he saw no man

“See, brother.” The rich man implored. “Here am I.”
The other squinted his eyes to a line
Following the voice to its source
“Methinks I have been made to partake of too much drink.
For I do behold mine elder brother before me!”

His chance for redemption was here
there was no time to waste
“Younger brother, take heed of my words
for I come with a warning of despair and grief.
Where I find myself now, you will surely be bound,
an eternity of suffering and endless torment is your only reward!”

His brother looked back
no words left his lips.
“Younger brother, I implore, abandon these ways.”
His hand waved the room
“These will not come with you, they will not be your joy.
My fate is sealed, but your life can be saved.
Forsake these vices
give unto the poor
treat the downtrodden as your own.
Or misery awaits you.”

Silence followed his voice like a fox
His younger brother thought, and then
a laugh

A loud laugh
a mocking laugh

“Ho here! My elder brother returned from the dead
to haunt my steps!”
His mockery echoed in and out of the etherial plane
“Behold how he comes in my hour of joy to mar our rejoicing!”
He bellowed to a crowd of furniture

“Even in death he cannot leave me be
to enjoy his passing.”
An evil laugh escaped his lips.
“Oh brother, my brother,
in life you cared not for me.
You kept your riches,
your concubines,
your pleasures,
to yourself.
You did not know your younger brother.
Nor cared for him in need.”

“Indeed, your passing is the greatest of favors!”
He pointed.
“Look upon my riches,
my wealth.
How I revel in your gifts!”
A finger pierced his ghostly breast.
“How jealousy must brew within your heart!
That you cannot rest in peace.
But return to plague me with tales of the Void!”

“Nay, brother, do not speak.
But listen.
I will not cease in my merrymaking.
You did not share with me in life,
I will not depart from it now in your death.
Feign not concern for me,
he who begged at your table in vain!”

“Begone, now, phantom.
If indeed your gifts are rewarded with chains,
then in chains I will tell you of their purchase!
Begone, and vex me no more.”

Darkness again surrounded the man
he passed out of consciousness
he could see nothing
only shadows
then shadows of shadows
only darkness
only silence
nothing

His cries for succor went unheeded
His brother did not return
his world was gone
his brother
him home

Then laughter
again
a cold laugh
a biting laugh

The blonde man appeared before him
a wicked smile bared his teeth

The man cried
“Oh lord of the Void,
Why have you brought me back?
My deed was not finished.
My brother not saved
Why return me to this place?”

“Thou fool!”
A thunderous reply
“Your brother was lost
the moment he entered your world.
Forsaken by his brother,
now given the life he envied.
Not a thousand specter visitations
would alter his path.”

Another laugh had no echo
“But now
he has been warned of his fate
no doubt remains in his head.
The Void awaits,
mouth gaping wide.
And to continue in your ways
against such knowledge,
yea, his fate will be far worse than yours.

“Indeed, thanks to you,
his elder brother,
he will envy your position in eternity
and curse your name forever.”

“You who delayed your compassion
and prolonged your revelry.
And left the time of your concern
until the hour was the latest.
And doomed your brother
to the darkest of pits.”

The blonde man faded
the twilight disappeared
no sensation followed
no light
no sound
no warmth
only the Void.

What makes a good writer?

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“Many books require no thought from those who read them. And for a very simple reason: they required no such effort from those who wrote them”

-Charles Caleb Colton

Where I have the wonderful opportunity to work, I hear and see a lot of conversation regarding “good writing”.

I’m also positive that we have all had the experience of clicking and reading an article we see online only to make it a couple paragraphs and either:

1. Have no idea what we just read, or what the article was trying to say.

2. Have such a difficult time wanting to continue to the end that we don’t finish reading at all, or simply skip to last paragraph to see if there is anything important we missed.

As we all know, there are three sides to every story: your side, my side, and the truth. And I can’t remember a time when this has been more true than today. With such polarizing political, ethical, and moral parties vying for attention, all three versions of any story are resembling each other less and less. So reading both sides of what happened during a particular event is even more important, which is what got me thinking about “good writing” in the first place. All “sides” of any argument today are guilty of both “good” and bad writing. I’ve read articles and stories and opinions posted online from both sides of the aisle that really grab me and almost force me to read to the end. Not because I necessary care about the issue, or agree with the author’s point of view, but because the flow and feel of the piece really makes me want to continue.

On the other hand I have also read my fair share of articles that compel me to zone out, or leave, and sometimes persuade me side with their opposition. Is it because their positions, facts, data, or ideas are wrong? No. (Well… sometimes, but that’s a different argument) But rather its the way the writing makes me feel as I read.

I want to be clear. I understand that most of what we read (and see, and hear, and even say) today is blatantly skewed to illicit a specific response from the target audience. **Insert Marketing 101 reference here**  And I think that most of us are intelligent enough to recognize this device when we see it. What I mean is the reaction I have to the actual writing, the words, the flow, the connection with the writer.

Anybody can write “Today an orphanage burned down in upstate New York, the firefighters were too busy putting out the fire that the couldn’t rescue a dog and her five puppies from drowning in a river outside of town.” And make you feel sad. In fact, how often do we do that with news sites? (the search engine Bing does this a lot) We look just at the headline: “Orphanage burned, puppies drown” and feel sad, then move on.

But what will actually get you to read the rest of the article (if there is one, and not just the usual paragraph-and-a-half synopsis of the sad afternoon)? What will make you actually care about what is being said? What will inspire you to action? It’s good writing that will do that.

We have graduated from self-help books to self-help Youtube tutorials, or quick-fix Quora articles written by someone who tries to hawk their get-rich-quick book at us. Yahoo Answers is a minefield of questionable advice. Is this bad? Not at all, but we do have to be careful (especially if we’re getting cooking tips from Youtube comments!), but nowhere have I seen this behavior more prevalent than online writing.

One reason this is true, I believe, is because online writing is so accessible. You can’t just decide one afternoon to bake a three-layer cake, or create a survivalist herbal garden in your living room. But finding a how-to guides on how to write effectively and throwing up a “how to solve world hunger” article takes all of five minutes. I don’t know about you, but it is obvious to me when someone has just left the “how to write good and how to do other things good too” school.

It all comes down to our voice and not our skill. Which is something online writers miss when they think they’ve ‘made it’ as a writer, or a political blogger. It doesn’t have to do with grammar or the size of the author’s vocabulary, necessarily. What most “bad” writers I’ve seen online all have in common is that they’ve all abandoned their own voice and instead are trying to imitate the self-help guide they found. Good writers pour their heart into their work, and as a result we can connect with them. Bad writers fret over the best word choice, sentence composition, the balance of compound and simple sentences, even how the article “looks” online. Do all these things help? Of course, but I’ve noticed they are more often used to compensate for the fact the author has no voice of their own. They’ have become one of the many, a clone of the guru.

I could be an expert in a certain topic, yet I will enjoy reading an article in a journal, magazine, or newspaper about that topic because the author has made the familiar, unfamiliar. By exploring a familiar topic from a new angle, with a new voice, with new colors, they make the article engaging and exciting. ‘Bad’ writers make the unfamiliar familiar by finding interesting topics, hard questions, or hot-button issues, instead of writing that about which they are passionate, and so they lose their voice.

I’m more than sure we have all heard the common complaints from those who fancy themselves “learned” or an “expert on literature” from time to time. For me, the most often complaints came when Harry Potter was introduced.

“JK Rowling is a terrible author. Have you even read her books?”

“She writes at a 4th-grade reading level!”

“So much of her work is copied form other authors, or blatantly plagiarized from myth, she’s so unoriginal!”

(The same complaints can be attributed to so many other authors, directors, poets, etc. But I pick this one because I feel more people can relate)

And yet she’s successful, she’s a millionaire. They made movies of her books, and so on. People buy multiple copies of the same book because they love it so much. Why?

Surely it can’t be because of her extensive vocabulary? Is it because of her experience in simile, exposition, prose, or sentence structure? It must be because of all the subtext, the intricately woven sub-plots?

I don’t think so. (Correct me if I’m wrong)

It’s because she has a voice. She put her dreams on paper and leads us by the hand into a world so lovingly created that we can’t help but care for it, and wish we were a part of it. She made the familiar (witchcraft) unfamiliar in so many different ways.

This ties back to the quote at the top of this post: I think we check out of so many articles online because we can tell, intuitively, that they are almost copy-pasted from somewhere else, it doesn’t engage our mind, and more importantly, our heart. On the other hand, others will draw us in and refuse to let us go because the author toiled and fretted over how to make the piece theirs.

Don’t feel bad when someone criticized the books you like to read, or the articles you find entertaining or engaging. They are good for a reason, and that reason is not something you can quantify or measure. You relate to it, you invest in it. Don’t judge the quality of an article, or a book, based on the skill of the author’s writing, a few quotes I’ve found that help highlight this point:

“A multitude of words is no proof of a prudent mind.”

-Thales

“The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words where one will do.”

-Thomas Jefferson

“A designer knows he has achieved perfection, not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away”

-Antoine de Saint-Exupery
If you’re reading an article that takes three paragraphs, and 4-syllable words to describe something simple, you’ve found an egotistical writer who just found a new how-to guide. On the other hand, if you find yourself five pages in when you only wanted to read the title an move on, you’ve found a good writer. One that says what they think, and not what they think others want to hear. They draw you into their world, and don’t try to force themselves into yours.

Watching The Stars

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A long time ago in not-so-distant lands
When the only things tweeting were birds
It was far more common to have calloused hands
And everyfolk paid mind of their words

Those who would journey to find something new
Would often look to the skies
To guide them and help them to not go askew
For the stars in the heavens never tell lies

They’d see something bigger, and greater, than them
To lighten the path far ahead
If they would only trust first, and not condemn
They’d wind up some place far happier instead

Back then a bad hair day was never a thing
And a perfect pie nary a care
No pictures to post, or comments that sting
Or the day-to-day issues of “perfection” laid bare

They looked up, and around, got lost and got found
And not just in filters and hip sizes
They were part of a whole, something glorious-bound
Not alone in a race of beauty without prizes

But today we look down, at a small little screen
Always, day in, and day out
We share the places we are, though hardly have seen
And everyone knows what we’re thinking about

When a hair has gone awry, we put it back in it’s place
For ours is the face we see the most
We stare at the floor, our palms; not the stars out in space
And worry all day about a stranger’s post

Where can you hope to go, when you stare at yourself?
When the stars do not guide you?
Posting pictures of books, just to put them back on the shelf
And nothing greater than yourself anywhere in view?

Like a man in a desert, you walk in a round
Propelled by those you like
Ignoring the “nays” with your head in the ground
Forming your own private, egotistical, reich

It’s no wonder to me, we have all lost our way
Chasing an unattainable goal
Believing we’ve always been right, ’til they days of our grey
And over those we disagree, we inevitably roll

It’s no wonder to me, we have all lost our way
When we are the greatest there is
When we’re guided by pride; forget why we kneel to pray
And say “This is my world, not his.”

It’s no wonder to me, we have all lost our way
And we no longer look to the stars
Just like it’s no wonder, when we will all have to pay
For feigning outrage online, while ignoring these brothers of ours

Making Snowballs

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Growing up I had a unique fascination with the relationship that existed between the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War. If ever I had a term paper due, or a historical project to research, the Cold War was usually on the top of the list of candidate topics.
It wasn’t because I liked the Soviet Union, or what it stood for (let me be clear on this point), but the dynamic between the two most powerful nations in the history of the world, fascinated me. Naturally the order, the organization, the sheer work-ethic that existed within the Soviet government and military (at the expense of the rest of the people) was, in a way, beautiful. In the same way that a pitch-black illustration is beautiful when contrasted against it’s pure-white background. (Read into that what you will).
I won’t go into too much detail here, but I found it very helpful to view the world and events of today through the lens of those that lived through that time, and analyze the politics of today with that in the back of my mind. Especially during college, when in my political classes a majority of the students thought, spoke, and wrote alike. Everyone was trying so hard to be “progressive” or different in some way that they all just sounded stupid when they repeated each other like parrots for hours. Oftentimes I would kick the bees’ nest on purpose just to see what would happen (voicing opinions I knew would get a rise out of the group-think that often is today’s college classroom, but that is a topic for another post). But one topic that fascinated me was the idea of deterrence. I wrote a number of papers on the subject that I felt confident in debating any of my classmates on the nature and virtues of the topic during my studies.
The following unfinished (and edited for the purposes of the blog) excerpt from Annals of an Empire employs this idea of deterrence. Though taken out of context, and employed in the book in the wrong way, (I won’t elaborate on this point), I feel as though these few paragraphs do a good job summarizing deterrence in an elegant way, and I’m particularly proud of it.
“Have you ever made a snowball, sir?”
            “Once, I believe, on the moon of Lasyr.”
            “Why did you make it?”
            “I was teasing my fiancé at the time; I threw it at her.”
            “I see, and when you raised your arm to throw it, did she flinch?”
            “Yes, she ran.”
            “Now imagine, sir, if you had instead dropped the ball after raising your arm and then proceeded to make another, would she have reacted the same way to the second?”
            “I would assume not, she would think I would drop it again.”
            “Precisely, you did not make the ball in lieu of the intention of throwing it. You fully meant to throw it, and that is why you made it. Such it is with great nations. They do not create these weapons without the intention of using them, for the first moment another calls their bluff and they do not make full on their threats and their destructive capabilities, the next time a nation encroaches on their liberties, they will be that much more disinclined to believe any threats made by the invaded nation. They may hope the moment does not come in which they must use them. They may pray, deliberate, talk, and make concessions with the expectation that there is yet another road besides destruction. But in the end, they have made the weapons because they know there is a possibility they might be required to employ them, and they fully intend to use them should that moment come. And they expect them to work as designed.”
            He took a breath. “However, so many nations have created such means of death and destruction in the past without the intent of using them, and their enemies knew it, or eventually were made privy to such information. History has proven this fact quite frequently. By trying to avert disaster, they unwittingly engineered a nightmare. The trick is, then, convincing your enemy that your weapons, and your power, are real, functional, and you quite intent on making use of their capabilities. What better way to accomplish that than to actually use them?”
            He looked at him dead in the eye, without blinking; a cold hard stare. “Anything short of that invites the enemy to test your threats, to see for themselves if your power is real or imagined, truthful or exaggerated. By playing nice, and seeking the good of all, you invite your enemy to a game of chicken in which millions of lives are on the line. Are you willing to gamble with their lives, the lives of their families, neighbors, friends, grocers, mailmen, plumbers, and everything they have because you refuse to make good on a threat you made against a hostile, evil, barbarous nation that plans to test your threats by murdering every single one of them? Are you willing to risk a waking hell for all of us because you fear to make the tough decision? If so, the game is lost already. The enemy is on the move, and you fully intended to turn away from conflict at the very beginning. The lives of those people on the frontier are as good as forfeit if you believe more talking will divert the foe.”
            He calmly turned and walked to pick his coat from the rack, and retrieved his hat. “The villain isn’t always the one who pulls the trigger, sometimes it is he who stands idly by as he watches innocent people burn to death and says: ‘It isn’t my fault.’”

            The thin man was silent, staring back at him. “You made your snowball, sir, I suggest you throw it.”