Showing posts with label art of writing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label art of writing. Show all posts

Great Artists Steal

Thomas Hennessey says:
I've always figured the best way to be a good writer is to be a great reader first. Is the same true of game design? Have you come across a game that made you think, woah that's cool, I gotta use that somehow.

I think that's absolutely true, of game design, of writing, of any kind of art.

Because you have to know what's out there. More than anything else, people enjoy novelty. You can't be novel if you don't know what others have already done.

(I guess if you're not selling anything -- you're just making "art for art's sake" -- this is less important. But personally, I don't even understand what the heck "art's sake" is. I make art because I want people to enjoy it (and if they pay me on top of that, enabling me to make more art, well awesome).)

Because consuming and copying art is how you learn to be a better artist. This sounds contradictory to the first, but it's a secret I learned much later than I wish I had: IT IS OKAY TO COPY GREAT ART.

Because this is how you learn. Because there's nothing truly original anyway. And because what makes something original is not that you thought of something nobody's ever thought of before (you didn't), but it's how you execute that idea with your own personal spin and style.

(Note that it's not okay to copy great art exactly and then claim it's your own. That's plagiarism. That's not what I'm talking about.)

I'm talking about copying things you love, figuring out how they work, mixing them with other things and with your own style to create something that's new, something that's yours. It's a secret because we are told that copying others is not creative, but the truth is that -- unless you're ridiculously lucky -- you can't make something good if you don't know what good is.

(To answer the last question, I have most certainly seen things in games that make me want to include them. All the time, in fact. Here's a recent example.)


Have a question? Ask me anything.

The Secret to Being Talented

Let me chat up my brother for a bit. The guy plays piano, bass, and guitar at a professional level. The San Diego Union Tribune once described his singing: "like if Jack Johnson weren't so dang annoying." He makes art and sells it for actual money. He does graphic design, marketing, and was a founding member of San Diego's art collective, Sezio.

Also, he's a college-educated engineer and (thanks to Iraq) a war veteran. So yeah, talented.

For years, I was in awe of what he could do. I'm still, always extremely impressed by what he does, but I'm no longer in awe.

I know how he did it.

I remember the first time Andrew picked up Dad's classical guitar and had trouble banging out the theme to Spyhunter. I remember that, even though I sucked at piano, I was ahead of him in our lessons. I remember doodling at an equal level on the church bulletin during sermons.

When we were kids, he was no better at these things than I was, and I wasn't very good at them.

He surpassed me because he didn't quit. While I was working out how to program a text adventure, he was working out my dad's old banjo or ukelele. When I beat Fool's Errand, he was recording songs on the keyboard. When I was ten pages into my crappy Lord of the Rings knock-off, he was filling his tenth sketchbook.

Whenever he came across a challenge, he faced it again and again until he beat it. THAT is the secret to being talented.

It's possible that some people start off with a little more ability than others. I don't know. I've never seen proof. Andrew is the most talented guy I know, and when I think about where he started, I realize I had started in the exact same place.

This isn't to belittle Andrew's accomplishments at all. The opposite, actually. I would much rather someone praise all the work behind what I did than tell me I was given a gift nobody else was.

It's also to encourage you. Is there something you wish you were better at? You can do it. It's freaking hard work, but you can do it. (Can you succeed professionally at it? Well, that's not really up to you. I bet you've never heard of my brother's band).

Instead, focus on what you can control. Choose what you want to excel at, and work at it everyday. Even when it gets hard. Especially when it gets hard. Until one day someone looks at what you're doing and says, "Hey, you're really talented!"

Then you can tell them your secret.

How to Use

TV Tropes is a fantastic site, collecting every story trope humanity has ever done, along with examples. If you've got a spare month or two (not a typo), I highly recommend heading over there. If you've never been, let me give you some tips on how to use the site.

1) Let it depress you. Start with some trope you're writing, say air pirates. Follow the links to all the interesting, related tropes--especially ones you thought were original--like cool-looking airships or the villain's airborne fortress that threatens to rain cannonballs on the goodguys. Come to the realization that there is NOTHING original in your story AT ALL. Quit writing.

2) Let it encourage you. After you've quit writing for a few years, realize that nobody ELSE is original either. That makes unoriginality okay (within reason). The goal in fiction is not originality, but to take what's been done and make it fresh and interesting again. To make it YOURS.

3) Let it inform you. Now that the tropes are no longer soul-crushing, find your favorite trope to see how it has been handled before, how it's been subverted, and how famous the examples are so you know what you can get away with. Come up with subversions of your own, or mix it with other tropes in new and interesting ways.

4) Let it inspire you. Stuck for ideas? How about the origin story of a Judge-Dredd-style adventure hero and his possibly-insane sidekick facing an evil tribal circus in the African jungle. If that doesn't work, just hit the TV Tropes Story Idea Generator one more time until you find something you DO like! And if it sounds too lame or familiar, just add ninjas (or samurai or pirates or mecha or whythehecknot all of them). Because it's AWESOME.

Are any of you even still reading this, or did I lose you like 15 links ago?

Choosing What to Write Next

Usually, the way I choose the next story -- assuming I have more than one idea -- is just to write the one I like the most. But after two failed query rounds, and my hopes resting all too precariously on an upcoming third, I'm taking more care with what I invest my writing time in. In my friend Ricardo's words, I'm leveling up.

I have two criteria now for what I write next:
  1. It has to be something people want to read.
  2. It has to be something I want to write.
Not that I (or anyone, really) knows what the public wants. Mostly the first criteria helps me look critically at my concepts. Is it a strong premise I can explain in a sentence? Has it been done before? If it has, do I have a unique enough twist on it to keep it interesting? (Or was it done so obscurely that I can do it again without anyone noticing?)

The second criteria is more about theme. Usually I just jump into a story because I think the plot or the world is cool; only when I get to the end do I realize the story's supposed to mean something too. I've been a Professional Aspiring Writer* long enough to know that I'll enjoy most any speculative premise, but I can't be passionate about every theme.

So now I'm thinking not just what are the themes of my story ideas, but what themes am I interested in writing? Like I had this idea of a kid born perfect in a Gattaca-style world where people are obsessed with genetic perfection, but he resents the pressure and attention people put on him. I like the idea a lot, and the theme of trying to be yourself is common enough I think I could write it. But the idea of writing a popular kid, when popularity is something I've never really "struggled" with, makes me wonder if it's really my story to tell. Especially when I've got other characters in my head whose struggles I have shared.

That doesn't mean I won't write it (I really like the idea), but it's one of the negative points I'm going to weigh when I decide what to write next. Although maybe I should finish these current projects first...

What about you? How do you decide what to write next?

* Feel free to borrow that term.

That Deeper Meaning Nonsense

When people admire art,* they often want to know what the artist meant by it. I get that. I do it myself. But honestly I don't really like "explaining" my art.

* I'm including books in this.

Part of it is plain old fear. If I have to explain it, it means I didn't do a good job of it, right? Or what if I explain it, and they don't like the deeper meaning of it, and therefore don't like the work? Orson Scott Card's Homecoming Saga is really thought-provoking science fiction, for example, but I know people who stop liking it when they find out it's patterned on the Book of Mormon.

Should that matter? Should the author's interpretation of what they wrote affect MY interpretation?

Shortly after it was published, someone wrote a review of my story "Pawn's Gambit". He really liked it (and I was bouncing for a few days after reading it), but here's what he got out of it:
We come to understand the true meaning of family, of love, of sacrifice. We have all had our differences with the ones we love, but even when we dislike our family we still do whatever it takes.
When I read that, I was all ==> O_o.

I mean, I see how he got that out of the story, but I can't say that's what I was trying to say. I can't say I was trying to say anything, really. It was just a fun adventure.

Does that invalidate his opinion? This is what the story meant to him. And like I said, he's not pulling it out of thin air. There IS family, love, and sacrifice in the story. There IS a father trying to rescue his daughter, even though his daughter wants nothing to do with him.

And who says I didn't mean all that, at least subconsciously? Fatherhood is something that's very dear to my heart, and a common theme in many of my favorite movies. So if it comes out in what I write -- even when I don't intend it -- I'm not surprised.

So what matters more? The author's intention, or what the reader brings into the text? Have you ever changed your opinion of a story because you found out the author didn't mean at all what you thought?