Aug 13, 2015

All the Writing Advice in the World Will Turn You into the Worst Writer in the World

Once when I was six I dreamed my mother wanted to eat me. She could feel her mind slipping and said, "It's awful, but I can't help myself. I'm going to have to eat you."

Everybody else succumbed to the same lunacy that struck my dream-mother. The living blush of their cheeks turned blue and their words became grunts and snarls.

The Three Incomparable Wise Men Lecture the Unruly Giant on Matters of Virtue
by John Magnet Bell

Fast-forward to this very morning. I dreamed of aliens announcing themselves to humanity by putting on a light show all over the night sky. I was alone with an old man out in a field. He was crying. I was telling him to bury his sins in a hole. I looked up and noticed there were too many stars. All the stars moved at once and formed a series of glimmering, interlocking vesicae piscis, not unlike that pattern people call "Flower of Life."

via Charles Gilchrist

Then the pattern ebbed away in a shower of golden fairy dust. And we knew in our hearts that the aliens were good. That they were our siblings in Mind. Suddenly I was flying over house and field holding my dead father's hand. He was alive again.

Santideva once wrote in the Bodhicaryavatara, "Nothing new will be said here, nor have I any skill in composition. Therefore I do not imagine that I can benefit others. I have done this to perfume my own mind."

James Altucher once wrote, "Deliver poetry and value with every word. Else, be quiet."

These two statements seem contradictory.

Yamamoto Tsunetomo wrote, "For the most part, we admire our own opinions and become fond of arguing."

So I won't offer to guide you. Won't tell you how, why, or what to write. Not today, at least.

But there are two Mothers in writing. The one that separates and devours and the one that nourishes and reunites. The first Mother lives by "do not," and the second lives by "do what you will." The first one bans and threatens and proscribes. The second one opens doors.

You will find people telling you not to use adverbs. Others will tell you not to use adjectives. Many say, "use strong verbs." What have the parts of speech done to deserve banishment? Or special recommendation, for that matter?

You will find people who read only their contemporaries. This is not a bad thing in itself. You will find people who claim to be writers but openly declare their aversion for writing that is more than a hundred years old. The fault does not lie with the works that they can't read.

March of Progress
by John Magnet Bell

It is good and human to seek advice. It is also human, but not always good, to provide guidance, especially when you are one hundred and one percent sure of yourself. I mean this only in regard to writing, which is not an exact science. You can solve a quadratic equation and demonstrate the correctness of your work. You can predict the behavior of a gas under pressure. You can build a piston engine if you follow the principles that govern the building of piston engines.

Writing is an art. Like painting and acting. Not a science. Not a business. An art. Whoever advises you on writing to sell is teaching you business practices. There is nothing wrong with this, but let's not pretend it's something else. Let's not pretend it's art. Let's not pretend it's about becoming a "better writer." Good writing sells right now. Art sells forever and its worth multiplies until it becomes the patrimony of all people for all time. Until it can't be sold anymore.

Pliny wrote that a shoemaker approached the painter Apelles of Kos and told him that he, Apelles, had painted a sandal wrong. Apelles corrected that defect in his painting. The shoemaker then began to point out all sorts of flaws in the picture, at which point Apelles told the shoemaker, "Ne supra crepidam sutor iudicaret," a shoemaker should not judge above the sandal. And out of this episode welled forth William Hazlitt's word, ultracrepidarian, which my spellchecker refuses to admit is a real word.

An ultracrepidarian — from the Latin saying, Sutor, ne ultra crepidam — likes to give opinions on matters beyond their expertise. I see many ultracrepidarians out there.  Sometimes I ultracrepidate myself.

Other times I look up at the sky and my brothers and sisters draw the vesica piscis with fire and I fly over house and field —

Jun 19, 2015

But I Just Want to Write About my Pet Rock: Here's the Missing Ingredient in Your Story

Do you know what contrast is? If somebody asked you point blank, would you have a ready answer?

Now ask yourself: Do I know what contrast is for?

Tilikum Crossing Flooded with Light
by John Magnet Bell
view it on an awesome t-shirt || view it on a cool tote bag

We think we know these things. Your intuition tells you when contrast is missing, but it doesn't always tell you how to fix it. Before we start looking for answers to the questions above, though, let's posit a workable definition of the noun "contrast." defines contrast variously as "a striking exhibition of unlikeness" and "opposition or juxtaposition of different forms, lines, or colors in a work of art to intensify each element's properties and produce a more dynamic expressiveness."

Merriam-Webster suggests "to be different especially in a way that is very obvious."

While the Free Dictionary offers "distinction or emphasis of difference by comparison of opposite or dissimilar things, qualities, etc."

Let's fish out some keywords, shall we?


So, with those keywords in mind, let us say that contrast is the expression of ideas (forms or content) that are unlike one another and may be opposed or juxtaposed with different emphases in order to create a perceptual dynamic.

Take a look at the picture below.

Hard to make out anything, right? I deliberately fudged the color and shape contrast.

This is in fact one of my photographic collages, Mr. Glitch, 4: Broken Hopes.

By using color accents within a limited palette, I draw your attention to specific parts of the picture. I do the same with values of light and dark. By making that apple larger than any apple could ever be, I create a contrast in your mind between the possible and the absurd. Contrast, be it about shape or color, creates dynamics.

Yeah, OK, I hear you ask, but how does any of this apply to writing?

Well, Have you ever watched the movie Serpico, starring Al Pacino? Right from the start, Serpico wants to be a good cop, wants to be on the up and up. He faces opposition and resistance all the time. Even his girlfriend wants him to get with the program. Nobody wants to be his partner because he won't take bribes. He won't participate in protection rackets. He won't bend just because everybody else has. That's a strong contrast right there: Somebody who steps into a world of shit because "This is how we do things" is just not good enough, and keeps running into the fragile excuses that the corrupt make for themselves.[1]

Contrast in Serpico is achieved through character.  Serpico is emphatically not like the people around him. He is more driven, more persistent, more demanding of himself and others.

A still from Serpico.

Or, take Game of Thrones (the TV show; I can't discuss the books, as I haven't read them). I begin to feel that there are basically two categories of human being in GoT — thugs and victims, exploiters and the exploited, consummate liars and gullible people[2]. Nothing in the middle. It's not the most subtle gradation and all but the most prominent characters become something of a blur. Then you have your super-thugs, which aren't even human: White Walkers with their zombie army, plus a rampaging dragon. It makes for poor watching after a while.

Still from Game of Thrones: White Walker portrayed by Ross Mullan. Via interview on The Verge.

Yet Game of Thrones does have contrasting features, otherwise people would just stop watching. It achieves this, among other things, through color schemes. Up north, by the Wall, the color scheme is almost black and white. The Wildlings dress in practically colorless animal furs. The men of the Watch wear black, black and more black. Rare concessions to color include people's hair and the sickly blue of omnipresent snow, echoed by the abyssal eyes of the White Walkers. Down in King's Landing, devotees of the Faith Militant signal their asceticism by dressing all alike in crude robes of black wool, in stark contrast to the red and gold, the silk and velvet and the floral chasings of court dress. And then, you know, there's the somewhat unfortunate case of the white, ash-blonde Daenerys leading, "saving" and "emancipating" her legions of black/brown people.

However, a story cannot live on visuals alone.

So how can you tell that contrast is lacking in your writing?

ψ If all your characters move, think and talk alike, you don't have separate characters.

ψ When you can't define your characters' motivations (seriously, everybody wants something) they will just schlep along, unchanging and uninteresting. They will exit the stage as they entered: aimlessly. Considering the psychology of a character, if the end and the beginning are interchangeable, then that character is not protagonist material. Supporting cast, maybe. And even then...

ψ When each place in the setting looks the same as every other place, and does nothing but provide your characters with locales to stand in or move through, you don't have separate locations. It's all one big, monochrome blot.

ψ If chapter two doesn't add change and relevance, you don't have contrast. Just continuity. You don't have emphasis, what you have is repetition.

[1] Also the basic narrative premise for Lieutenant Jim Gordon in Batman: Year One. To a lesser degree in Batman Begins.
[2] In case you're wondering, to me both Daenerys and Brienne of Tarth lie closer to thug than victim on the thug-victim spectrum. Nobody is an exemplar of moral conduct in Game of Thrones, and that's one of the show's failings — its worldview is not wide enough to shunt cynicism aside for a couple of minutes. The constant message in GoT is that 99% of human beings want nothing but power over their fellows, and those foolish enough to want something else must adapt or die. You'd think someone in that endless cast of characters would develop beyond refined hypocrisy, for crying out loud. 

Jun 12, 2015

Snippets from the Sketchbook, 1 - Can Your Average Lizard Grow a Beard?

Ideas are like fish. If you want to catch little fish, you can stay in the shallow water. - David Lynch

If you have been following this blog for a while -- or follow me on Google Plus or Twitter -- you know that I create visual art.

However, I don't usually share anything from my sketchbooks. Today, that changes. You see, the more I deepen my interest in the visual arts, the more parallels I find between drafting a story and sketching.

They're both about play. About fun. About creating characters and worlds.

Characters like Spider Sheep.

There's no wrong way to come up with ideas. And if there's one thing we need, all of us writers, bloggers, draftsmen, photographers and jewelers, I would call that thing sanctuary: a place where we can brainstorm until the heart and the page overflow.

A place where wrong ideas are right. A place of quiet openness where the strangest notions become clear and necessary. David Lynch compares this kind of brainstorming to fishing in deep, deep waters.

Larry, the Hipster Lizard

Doodling is like a duck call to the unconscious, where all those precious figments sit in Tumtum trees grooming their feathers (or fins?), waiting for a chance to break through the looking glass and serve you. Our job as artists is to bring wonder into the world. To make possible the things that shouldn't be. When Fritz Leiber introduced his tall and proud barbarian, Fafhrd, he let readers know that Fafhrd lived in a world where furry snakes existed -- yes, furry snakes. The cold north was so cold that snakes grew fur. We all know that's silly, but does it matter? No. Let us enjoy the silliness. Let us take silliness seriously.

Sketchbooks and text files are my fishing grounds. They are my orchard and labyrinth. I can invite you in, show you my flowers made of glass and smoke, my seven-legged frogs... and if you part from my company with more ideas, so much the better.

Steven, the Mackerel

And finally, will your average lizard grow a beard? Yes, one day it will. But to do so, it needs to cross the threshold of imagination.

Bearded dragon via

Post-scriptum: I came up with Spider Sheep, Larry and Steven in the space of an hour or less, just happily doodling away with a calligraphy pen. Love the line thickness variation you can get with those.

Jun 10, 2015

Five Things You Need to Know About Writing a Novel

There are five things you need to know before you start writing a novel. If you don't know these five things, you will probably crash and burn.

Forgive the hyperbole. I know you're not an airplane. Or a boat. The worst thing that can happen is, you won't finish what you started.
So, here are five things you really need to know.

Sunset at Bom Jesus do Monte, Portugal
by John Magnet Bell
view larger on Tumblr

1. Much like design, writing a novel is 1% inspiration and 99% iteration. 

Think of the text as a block of stone and of yourself as a sculptor. Except you have to create the block of stone before you can chisel away and "reveal the statue hidden within it."

You have one advantage over sculptors, though — if you make a mistake, you can create more "stone" to work with.

Here's a tip: Go watch some drawing/painting videos and tutorials on YouTube. Notice how artists begin with rough shapes and define the final composition step by step, never worrying about 'getting it right' all the time. They know they can go back and erase things or correct shapes at any time. You have the same freedom.

Let me point you to a couple of my favorites --

Mural Joe: How to Paint Water on a Beach

Design Cinema, Episode 41: Alien Spaceships 

2. You will love and hate what you've written. 

This is normal. You see the scaffolding around your words, the reader doesn't. You look at your characters and you see puppets on strings, but a reader will come to your puppet show and forget about the strings.

You can always find things to improve and polish, but the reader enters your work through the front door, not the catacombs of your mind, and will not dwell on every imperfection, or every mistake you think you made. I promise.

3. Write the kind of book you would like to read. 

Passion and persistence fuel the best tales ever written. If you write for the market instead of writing for yourself, you're doing it wrong. First, because the market changes on you like a werewolf made of rainbows. Second, because writing to sell is the province of copywriters.

You can be professional, unique, original, and come up with a salable manuscript at the same time: these things aren't mutually exclusive.

Ravens, Clouded Sky
Big Pink in downtown Portland, OR. View larger on Tumblr.

4. World-building is more useful in games than in books.

The nature of games cannot allow the game world to stay undefined. A game world needs boundaries and the player needs to know where to go and what to do.

You will not, I repeat, will not be able to present the entirety of your fantasy world in a single novel. And what's more, readers don't want that. They want to see a story unfold and root for the characters as they peel away mysteries and look for solutions.

The world of a novel is allowed to remain porous and vague. Yes, it is useful to know the geography of the world you created, its proverbs and foods and religions, but allow yourself a modest number of unknowns. Come up with enough information to tell the story and let some questions go without answers.

Dark Chocolate, Cherries and Neon
by John Magnet Bell
looks good on a t-shirt

5. When in doubt, add adventure.

Let's say we have a protagonist called Sam.

Sam goes to a Bell Witch concert and takes a liking to the bassist. So far, that's unremarkable. But... maybe he's taken, so Sam has to deal with her conscience and decide what kind of woman she wants to be. Would she steal someone's boyfriend?

Sam is researching her genealogy and finds out her great-grandmother was an expert archer and her great-grandfather conducted séances in the family home. Interesting, but how does any of this affect Sam's life? Give Sam a problem she can't walk away from. Maybe the ghosts of her grandparents take up residence in her apartment and demand that Sam uncover a big family secret — they won't go away until she does. When Sam crashes at a friend's apartment for a bit of relief, the ghosts follow her there and keep her awake all night. They even torment Sam's friend. Or her grandfather takes over her boyfriend's body and needs to be cast out.

Regarding drama and adventure, the best piece of advice I ever read comes from James N. Frey. The things readers hate in their lives, like stress, heartbreak, danger, conflict, he says, those are the things they will love in your book.

See you soon.

May 25, 2015

How to Become a Better Writer in Less than 500 Words

You've probably read these two words in more than one place: "Write more." People like to tout them as the secret to becoming a better writer.

They're not wrong, but... Quantity alone is not enough. You can teach a horse to sit on a piano keyboard, but you won't get Chopin out of that. So, besides quantity, what else do you need to improve your writing?

1. A point of view.

You care about certain things, while others don't matter at all. By definition, a creative writer is someone with things to say, even if those things aren't apparent to the writer.

Take Robert E. Howard's Conan, for example. Howard systematically pits Conan against foes that lack his vitality and straightforwardness — sorcerers that have forfeit their humanity, aristocrats that wield deceit instead of a sword, or brutes that lack Conan's faculty for reasoning, such as giant snakes and albino apes.

Through Conan, Howard expressed a longing for heroism and enchantment in his day and age, and a desire for confrontation with transmundane forces. To affirm the human he contrasted it with the non-human. Howard did not preach, he told stories that conveyed his personal values. Regardless of how you feel about those values now, Howard had points to make. So had George Eliot when she wrote Silas Marner; Margaret Atwood with The Handmaid's Tale; the same applies to The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin.

Take a look at your life and figure out what matters to you. What you can't live without. The lines you will not cross. If it's love, write about finding and losing love. Maybe it is justice? Write about it.

Set Your Heart Free
by Christian Schloe

2. Voice and style.

Style. You will never be able to write like someone you admire, but copying as a learning strategy just works. It's like learning to draw or play an instrument! By copying, you learn forms and structures. You learn rules and how to break them.

Now, here's where quantity helps: The more you write, the more you learn what works for you and what doesn't. You develop style by reading and incorporating lessons from your favorite authors. Wait, what am I saying? Even authors you don't like have things to teach you.

Voice. Voice is developed by writing with sincerity. That means being true to yourself and what you want to say. It means you will not try to make your writing pretty and you won't let ornaments become more important than the story you want to tell.

To wrap things up, a Portuguese proverb: Ninguém nasce ensinado. "Nobody is born a learned person." Congratulate yourself for learning. Enjoy your progress.


May 22, 2015

Why Isn’t the Plural of Asparagus “Asparagi”? And 5 Other Questions for the Modern Man, Woman, Child and Robot

1. Why Isn’t the Plural of Asparagus “asparagi”? 

Focus in the plural is foci. For nucleus, you have nuclei. But asparagus? Oh noooo, the word asparagus must diverge. It must taint the language with the plebeian form "asparaguses." Ach. To my chagrin, I learned that asparagus has replaced the Old English word sparagi. But how? Only gods and philologists know.

2. Why platypuses?

The scientific name for the platypus is Ornithorhynchus anatinus. It means — are you ready for this? — duck-like bird snout. People also call the platypus by its full name, "duck-billed platypus," as opposed to the shovel-billed platypus, the colander-billed platypus, or the donkey-powered-helicopter-billed platypus.

3. Why did they call Vivaldi "The Red Priest"?

Venice suffered an earthquake on the day Vivaldi was born. That very day, Vivaldi's mother decided he would take holy orders. He became a priest at age 25, and earned the nickname "Il Prete Rosso" (the red priest) thanks to the color of his hair.

You can listen to a creative interpretation of Vivaldi's "Summer" right here.

Birdhouse Revisited
by Laura Graves

4.  Why, why, why do we need a new Poltergeist?

The original film was not perfect, not a masterpiece, and it boasts more than a handful of unintelligent scenes. But does this story need to be told more poorly, with more impressive special effects taking the place of character development? I'm thinking back to the Evil Dead remake, which makes the original look like an Orson Welles.

Hollywood doesn't just underestimate you, however. It also thinks that movies need to be dumbed down for foreign audiences — a bizarre notion, because human brains are equally capable anywhere on Earth; we're a single species, Homo sapiens sapiens. Besides, Europe alone has directors like Peter Greenaway, Pedro Almodovar, Wim Wenders, Marc Rothemund... All of whom make sophisticated movies for demanding audiences.

5. If I glue an alligator to a bear, do I get a beargator?

No. You get two dead animals.

6. What's a good, non-dairy source of calcium?

Raw kale, garlic and arugula (rocket). The word kale, by the way, comes from Old English cāwel via Latin caulis.

May 16, 2015

Do You Know What 'H' Is For? Also, Heavy Metal Oven Mitt Hwants YOU to Have a Hwonderful Hweekend

Do you drop your aitches habitually? Or do you emphasize them in words like What, Who, Where and When?

So this week I decided to reread Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights and the word heights got me to think about the letter H. Why is H important?* Why should you care? But before we delve into the whys and wherefores, a quote from the book.

'The more the worms writhe, the more I yearn to crush out their entrails! It is a moral teething; and I grind with greater energy in proportion to the increase of pain.'

H is the unacknowledged legislator of the alphabet. It imparts authority, lends weight to vowels, makes 'anti-hero' sound great. Just imagine! Heathcliff without H would be named Eatcliff. What kind of teeth does it take to grind a cliff?

A girl with heterochromia iridum adopts a heterochromic dog. They meet a photographer and together
they create this wonderful image.

The word heterochromia owes a lot to the letter H.

Photo © Sergei Sarakhanov

Look at the letter H: It puts one in mind of two pillars connected by a bridge. H is the great connector. You try writing a novel without the letter H. What am I saying, a whole novel? Try a paragraph. Without it, you might as well forget about the hardest-working member of the English lexicon: the. And while the phonetic transcription might be [ðə], us common mortals that use the Roman alphabet would lose our way without H. We could do without a couple of vowels for a bit, but H? In your dreams.

This post was suggested to me by my good friend, Heavy Metal Oven Mitt.

Heavy Metal Oven Mitt
by John Magnet Bell


Heavy Metal Oven Mitt would now like you to enjoy a bunch of great things on the Hinternets.

[Further Reading]
Heducate Hyourself, part 1: The letter H on Hwikipedia

Learn of its Semitic origins, marvel at its hundred names in a dozen languages.

Heducate Hyourself, part 2: Folkscanomy, a collection of vintage science book covers

The much-beloved Internet Archive has gone through a redesign - it now looks bigger and bolder and fills your screen more confidently. Go and delight yourself with this Pinterest-like presentation of book cover design spanning the last few decades.

Heducate Hyourself, part 3: Heavy Metal Picks by Heavy Metal Oven Mitt

* Without H, we wouldn't have W.H. Auden, only a W. Auden. Admittedly less authorial and inspiring. Harold Pinter would be known as Arold Pinter. (Uuuuuugh.) And the word superhero would become unpronounceable.

Strawberry Lime Avalon
by John Magnet Bell

Inkscape / Photoshop

I designed a pair of leggings based on Strawberry Lime Avalon.
Click here to see my other legging designs

May 8, 2015

Three Book Mashups the World Is Dying to Read

If you learned you had six hours to live because the Earth was about to get hit by a giant space octopus riding a comet twice as big as the one that wiped out the dinosaurs, what would you do with your six hours?

Let me tell you. You'd find the nearest spaceship, stock it to the rafters with ramen noodles and Two Buck Chuck (because you're thrifty) and make for the nearest planet. Mars.

Yet it takes a while to get to Mars. About six months, last time I checked. (I didn't check.) Here's something you could do to pass the time: Write novels that would entertain the native people of Mars. Now, you have to remember you may be the last living representative of the human race and all its cultural legacy, so you may find yourself obliged — noblesse oblige — to write books that summarize six thousand years of literary tradition.

One hopes you feel up to the task.

Don Davis

And — AND — because I do not begrudge you getting to the spaceship first, and kicking me off the ladder when I tried to climb into the cabin with you, condemning me and my hamster to certain death, I have a few suggestions for the sort of book you could write during your long, lonely, tedious, excruciatingly boring, sanity-crushing journey to Mars. Because I wish you well though I write this at the outset of my state of defunct-ness.

Suggestion #1.  
The Great Gatsby Fight Club*

OK, so The Great Gatsby told the story of a guy in the 1920s who lied to other people and Fight Club is about a totally different guy in the 1990s who lies to himself. It's all about lies and what others expect from us. About what is good and proper. Both lead characters have alter egos, I guess — for Gatsby it's his past self, for the guy in Fight Club it is Brad Pitt.

The Plot: In the 1920s, this Gatsby dude starts a secret club where spoiled rich kids beat the crap out of each other for his amusement. He pines for this Daisy girl like mad, doesn't realize he's been balling her since forever. When he treats Daisy like crap, she dumps him for an imaginary friend, so Gats goes ballistic and starts Project Mayhem in which the scions of California's richest families lay waste to suburban America thereby giving rise to the Great Depression, which was this morning when everybody woke up and all the Zoloft was gone.

Suggestion #2. 
The Star Wars Communist Manifesto**

Star Wars is this thing in space where lots of spaceships go kablooey. People fight with swords that require batteries to function properly, and have strange arguments about the use of force.

The Communist Manifesto was written by two beardy dudes and it proposes that all of us should be equal and have no bosses because we're the proletariat or the working class. And we're also supposed to be in this thing called a classy war which is when you wear a suit and tie and throw fancy wine at people, I guess, and the person with the cleanest outfit at the end wins the Internet.

The Plot: Red Vader wants to bring a common language to the galaxy, enforce uniform legal frameworks for everything from maritime law to private zoos and traveling circuses, organize taxation, provide utilities to the populace, provide for universal primary schooling and a galaxy-wide academic curriculum (none of that mystical, obscurantist Jedi crap) yet somehow, SOMEHOW, none of this is acceptable to the Rebellion.

But why? All that Vader asks in return for his generosity is a little cult of personality. Is that too much? What's wrong with sensible limitations on freedom of speech and a command economy, anyway?

So the great benefactor has to face opposition from his own children, who've been brainwashed by Obi Trump Kenobi, and protect the Red Star (a big fat honking warship on the Atlantic) against waves of attacks from robber baron fleets, broadcast signal intrusions and Rebel air raids.

Bonus points if you can come up with a dieselpunk setting for this.

Suggestion #3. 
The Lord of the Rings Had a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

The Lord of the Rings is mostly a travelogue but it includes some bonus content about an ancient spirit getting all pissy with the corporeal beings that run around his planet making funny noises and not looking in his general direction or acknowledging his authority. Also, the ancient spirit has huge daddy issues because his daddy made pretty corporeal beings and all of the ancient spirit's toys are ugly, so he gets real jelly and tries to break everybody's stuff. There's stuff about rings but only one of them matters, though it doesn't seem to do much.

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day is about Alexander, whose day doesn't go very well. He doesn't get a prize from his cereal box, his teacher refuses to admit that he drew an awesome invisible castle because she doesn't get modern art, and it sucks when they get you the wrong sneakers.

The Plot: Little Sauron Alexander*** goes to a school where all the kids make fun of him because he's a disembodied spirit who cannot exist outside his tiny armor. Undressing for the shower after gym is invariably the low point of any school day. If puffs of smoke could blush, little Sauron certainly would! He doesn't like being the only dark overlord in school; nobody respects his authority.

At mace practice he tries to hit his third best friend but bludgeons his best friend instead. The poor boy goes flying off the schoolyard! Fortunately, a passing eagle catches the boy midflight and brings him back. Only a broken jaw and a couple of ribs out of place — nothing too concerning. Everyone has a laugh at Sauron's expense. Oh, Sauron, you are so clumsy! Oh, Sauron, how will you conquer Middle Earth when you can't even master a simple mace? Then Sauron's best friend punches him in the shoulder and refuses to speak to him for the rest of the day.

After school a fancy magic ring at the ring shop catches Sauron Alexander's eye. He walks into the store and inquires about the price, nearly fainting when the sales associate says "one billion and forty-seven million dollars."
"That's insane!" Sauron cries. "My allowance is two dollars a week. It'll take me thousands of years to save up for that ring!"
"Well, you might just have to," says the sales associate.
Off goes little Sauron without the magic ring.

Coming home, he finds out that mother made ghost beans for dinner. Ghost beans suck! When Sauron grows up he will NOT accept any ghosts in his army. Especially not glowy green ones. The beans go BOO at Sauron, but he ignores their feeble groans and shoves them into the slit in his helmet. Where they go after that, nobody knows. Sauron asks to be excused and runs to the bathroom so he can brush his teeth and get rid of that bean taste... Except in the bathroom he remembers that he doesn't have any teeth. Damn. Damn it all to Mordor.

What an awful day. If only Sauron could move to New Zealand! His mother Galadriel explains that people have bad days everywhere, even in New Zealand. Maybe tomorrow will be even worse.

This is what New Zealand looks like now. Photo by Phillip Capper.

*This mashup probably contains a few factual errors. I only read a couple of pages of The Great Gatsby, got bored, watched part of a movie adaptation with Mira Sorvino, got bored of that, and I never read Fight Club either, although it does feature a great opening line. I did watch the movie twice. I do think Mira Sorvino played a character named Daisy in the Gatsby movie but I'm not sure.
**I have a rather foggy notion of what's in The Communist Manifesto. I do believe Marx wrote it in Hastings though, which is a nice seaside town in southern England. "Nice seaside town in southern England." Welp. "Nice" is just one of those words, isn't it? You don't really know what it means. At any rate, I'm sure Hastings was a nicer place in the 19th century than, say, Stalingrad during the famous siege.
***Wow, that sounds badass. If I ever get a turtle I'm going to call it Sauron Alexander.

Apr 24, 2015

6 Best Ways to Stop Being a Platypus

1. Don’t be a platypus.

2. Be some other animal, like a pink fairy armadillo.

3. Buy a one-way ticket to planet Platypus; over there, nobody thinks of themselves as platypuses. Only as people. You will by definition cease to be a platypus.

4. Try Species Conversion Surgery. Ex-platypuses make pretty good ducks.

5. Become wood. Easier said than done, I know, but once you become wood, you will no longer be a platypus.

6. Decide whether you are a duck or a beaver. Stick with your decision.

Math by Tensographics
on society6


They are venomous.
They wear tuxedos when you are not looking.
They travel at the speed of light when they sneeze. Usually in a circle. A very small circle. If ever you see a fast blurry circle in a pond, it may be a sneezing platypus.


The platypus went to the sun and said,
I want to swim, but you have dried up all the water.
The sun said, go and complain to the moon.

The platypus went to the moon and said,
I want to swim, but the sun has dried up all the water.
The moon said, go and complain to the sun.

The platypus went to his people and said,
The sun and the moon don't care about our plight.
So they rose up against the moon and the sun.

From the sun they squeezed
all the orange juice they could
and from the moon they wrung
all the gasoline they could.

They built a spaceship from the bones of the sun
and made furniture for it, from the bones of the moon.
They traveled twenty percent of an Eon
and came to this place we call Earth.

Apr 10, 2015

My Name is Mitt, Heavy Metal Oven Mitt. And I Am a Life Coach

Heavy Metal Oven Mitt
by John Magnet Bell
I want you to imagine sticking your hand, your beloved little hand, in an oven at nine billion Fahrenheit (250 Celsius or so) without protection of any kind, and pulling out a roasted bird carcass that you will deposit, say, on the kitchen table.

Wonderful. Now look at your hand and allow yourself to scream in horror for a couple of minutes at the soot-black chips that used to be your nails, and other unexpected marvels like the golden welts on the back of your hand. Which is the hand, which is the turkey?

Have you screamed to your heart’s content?

Awesome! Now, BEFORE you go and do something crazy like expose your uncooked flesh to searing temperatures, that’s where I come in.* My name is Mitt. Heavy Metal Oven Mitt. And I am a life coach.

Ever since I was poured into a mold and then united with my other half — which is to say, ever since the we became a me — I’ve felt this inclination to help people not get burned. In the kitchen, for sure. But also in life. So I’ve got a few pointers to share with you that only my experience as an oven mitt could provide. These will help you in your career, your love life and your spiritual path. Are you ready for enlightenment? Here we go.

Apr 6, 2015

How to Write a Damn Good Book Without Any Words, Especially those Filthy Adverbs

Do you want to write a book that will appeal to a mass audience (100+ people) and make you very rich? Follow the recommendations below. 

We can agree that adverbs are horrible. There should be a concentration camp for adverbs. Adverbs ruin writing. Adjectives ruin writing. The ingredients of writing ruin writing. We must cleanse our writing of adverbs and adjectives, and avoid using nouns or articles. We must be spare.

Readers do not want lots of language in your writing. They want to read your books and blog posts to amuse themselves. Adverbs, adjectives and nouns make it difficult for your readers to amuse themselves. Readers don’t want to look up words in dictionaries.

You should avoid adverbs of manner, place, time, inclusion, exclusion, and others. Because adverbs are horrible.

Another thing you should avoid: colors. There are seven real colors. The rest are imaginary and will confuse your readers. Print out a picture of a rainbow and label the colors on it. Include those colors in your writing. Exclude other colors.

Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Blue, and Blue.

Do not modify or qualify colors. Colors have no permissible attributes. Red is red. Everyone knows red. No need to compare a thing to another thing just to convey that it is red. It’s unnecessary to say “her lips were red like cherries.” What a waste of the reader's time!

Write “Her lips were red.”

But verbs can get in the way of a perfect sentence, too. So cut more words out of it: “Her lips – red.”

Keep cutting. “Lips – red.”


See? If you write few words, you can write big books. Just think of things to not say and write them down. Get rid of 95%. Write more words and shed another 95%. Repeat this process until you are ready to punch a black bear in the eye with your elbow. The goal is to reach 400,000 words with zero adverbs or fewer, few adjectives (more than 10 is bad) and many, many action verbs.

Writing a book is like baking corn bread. You do not need adverbs or adjectives or even nouns to bake corn bread. It follows that you do not need adverbs, adjectives or nouns to write a book. Adverbs, adjectives and nouns are evil. They were invented by intellectual slackers to ruin your fun and your meals. Imagine that you’re making corn bread and you don’t have any all-purpose flour. Now imagine that you lack the other ingredients: eggs, shortening, corn meal, cooking oil, sugar and salt. I don’t see a problem there. You can make corn bread. It won’t taste or look like corn bread, but it will be corn bread. I promise.

You need to write for people who don’t read. People who don’t read do not like adjectives, adverbs, similes, analogies, hyperbatons or zeugmas. They dislike language, so they go to the movies. They do not read, but they like to pretend that they read and so they buy books. You should write for these people, as there are a lot of them. It’s easy to do so. Make them feel that they are watching a movie, not reading a book. Movies are better than books. If you can jam a soundtrack into your book — and I don’t care what methods you use for that, if that’s what you’re going to do — then do so, because people who hate language respond to music. I’ve heard it said that music is a universal language, but if that were true, I could persuade my local slaughterhouse to sell me a pig carcass for a song. That hasn't happened, So music can’t be a language.

Now, a few words about action sequences.

Put many action sequences in your book and much romance. Mix the action and the romance. Forget all about description. People can imagine your setting, just get out of their way. Don’t describe things. You’ll have to use adverbs, adjectives and nouns. Keep a tight grip on your keyboard. REIN IT IN. You want to stir up emotions in your audience, not bore them to death with language.

So you should write movies, not books. Movies do not need adverbs, adjectives or nouns. They don’t need large quantities of language. Movies are superior.

There is none.

Apr 3, 2015

When should you use “phenomenon” or “phenomena”? PSA

Did you know there are words in English borrowed from completely ridiculous languages that nobody speaks anymore, like Classical Greek and Latin?

Yeah. There are.

Phenomenon, which comes down to us from Late Latin via Ancient Greek, means an observable fact; an observable aspect of some given thing (like a donkey in a hamster wheel*), or a wondrous person or thing, like a donkey in a hamster wheel**.


On account of their venerable descent, such words throw people for a loop when it comes time to use them well. The plural for phenomenon is phenomena, much like bacteria is the plural for bacterium, or datum means one data point, and the word “data” itself means a set of… of “datums.”***

So, for example, Brad Pitt is a phenomenon. Singular.

This goat is also a phenomenon. Singular.


Taken as a pair (or a group), Brad Pitt and the goat constitute a set of phenomena.

But if you splice them together, creating a single entity, you’re back to one phenomenon.


One goat or one Brad Pitt — each one is a phenomenon.
A bunch of goats is a set of phenomena.

There are several goats to be observed.

A group of Brad Pitts would be a phenomenon (an observable -- and astounding -- fact) but all these Brad Pitts together in one place would be phenomena, because we’re talking several instances of the phenomenon called Brad Pitt.

[Post-Scriptum: A List of Other Phenomena]

Grandfather clocks
April Ludgate
* I found the donkey’s picture above when I googled ‘donkey-powered helicopter’ the other day. Heed me now and be preserved from the kind of madness that would make you tattoo the words “gnothi seauton” on your forehead: You don’t want to know what other things I found.
** I know it's not a hamster wheel. It's a warp core. A medieval donkey-powered warp core.
*** Don’t you go off into the Internet spewing “datums” left and right, now. In general, do not spew. It’s bad form.

Apr 2, 2015

Start Your Novel Returns, Because Blogging is Just Too Damn Good

What do you call a journey of self-discovery when you end up turning around and you find yourself where you began?

I call it a resounding success.*

Three or four months ago, depending on how you count, I decided I wasn’t going to blog anymore. You know what? Blogging is wonderful. You meet interesting people in droves, and yes, there are droves of interesting people out there — nay, dare I say it? Veritable shish-kebobs of brimming parking lots of wonderful, marvelous people out there!

So I changed my mind. Blogging is great. I want to keep blogging, so Start Your Novel will go on. It won’t be your grandmother’s Start Your Novel, because she never read it, but it will be pretty much — a blog.

There will be a publishing schedule. I will keep it a secret so you don’t have to worry about when my next blog post is coming out. However I DO HEREBY PROMISE that you’ll have plenty of fun blog posts to read every week.

See, these Etruscan gentlemen are overjoyed.

Let’s get this donkey-powered helicopter on the road and no, that's not even a shadow of an April Fools’ joke because from my POV it’s already April 2.

Welcome to the future!**

* Or a trip to the fridge.
** I hope all of the above made sense somehow.

Pac Ninja, Pixelated Terror of the Night
by John Magnet Bell