the tamago report

Eggs benedictated

Month: June, 2012

What the Avengers can teach us about writing

by MDY

There’s more to writing than sound and fury. Through others’ stories, we can learn to captain our words more effectively, whether they be spears of stark prose or banners of poetic verse. We can see the difference between hulking blobs of text and phrases of hawk-eye precision. And we can make sure our writing’s a little less Thor-rible than before. Here’s what today’s superheroes can teach us about super-writing:

1. Have a plan, then don’t stick with it.

Why do the Avengers win? Because they’re chaotic. Sure, there’s a big tactical plan to first get them together, then send them out in highly-coordinated mechanical-reptile-squashing formation…but it falls apart almost immediately. That isn’t to say plans don’t help: Captain America’s tactics get all the team playing to their strengths in their big battle, and Jarvis’ recommendations give Iron Man the basis to plot out his various successful gambits including the Earth-saving manoeuvre at the very end. But they’re not set in stone, and they adapt quickly to whatever happens. Notice that Loki and his minions always have extremely “smart” plans – which get beaten by improvisation every time.

Lesson: Writing is like fighting. You can have all your strategy and tactics in place, but then some idiot throws a hand grenade into your war-room before you’ve even sent out orders – like a curve-ball essay question, or a press release due five minutes ago. Train yourself to write fast, and think faster. Don’t get too attached to your ideas, and be dispassionate enough to toss them off the Asgardian cliffs if better ones come along. That way, you can adapt your structure and content to meet, beat and even take advantage of unexpected change in demands or requirements.

2. Work together, write alone.

It’s not just Tony Stark who doesn’t play well with others. When Thor stops for hammer-time, everyone else gets out of the way. Captain America always gets distracted by emotional baggage of teamwork. And Hulk smash. Even Black Widow and Hawkeye are notorious lone-wolf operators who hate others – even superheroes – getting in their way. Having all these highly skilled loners collaborate is like realising Joss Wheedon also wrote the script for Alien: Resurrection: painful at first, but not too bad after a while. Yet what makes the Avengers so effective is that even when they work together, they leave their fellows alone to do what they do best: kicking ass and taking names.

Lesson: Writing is not a collaborative activity. Ever. It may be beneficial to canvass feedback from a group, or brainstorm ideas, or discuss key messages and requirements. But ultimately, the words on the page can only belong to one person – and that person needs to focus on getting them just right. Save the “team-player” speeches for the locker room and the “constructive feedback” or social chatter for after (not during) the creative process. When you’re writing, isolate and concentrate. Your words will reap the benefit immediately.

3. It’s not just what you do.

Gotta save the world. But gotta look good doing it. We love the Avengers not because they do amazing things, but because they do them with style. Captain America’s all about calm and precision, like when he just sticks his shield out and totally schools Thor in the forest. Thor, for his part, brings the damage with slick effects and a wisecrack or two. The Hulk smashes. Iron Man is a billionaire genius playboy philanthropist. Even Loki has that sexy cape and accent and magic tricks of his. These aren’t just world-savers, they’re cool world-savers. I bet there’s a whole new generation of 10-year-olds who can’t wait to grow up and be just as cool with their flying armour suits and invincible armour and weather control. Who knows – maybe they’ll be the ones making these superpowers a reality.

Lesson: It’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it. Never overlook flow and tone of voice when you write. Say your words back to yourself, aloud if need be. Practise in different styles (fictive prose, reportage, iambic tetrameters) until you can use them all with some proficiency. Read as much as you possibly can, as long as you live. Work until your writing is clear, precise and eloquent – and then make it even more so. And like those 10-year-old future superheroes, don’t underestimate what you can do if you aim for galaxies far, far away.

(credits to Squall95)

In brief: Be flexible. Write alone. Never give up.

How not to make mistakes

by MDY

I screwed up this week. Made a mistake which, had it been allowed to, would’ve cost a lot of people dearly. Honest admission and good advice minimised the damage, but the screw-up itself still hurt. The feeling was like a worm in the gut, a worm with tiny metal jaws slowly gnawing its way through your stomach lining and up towards your quavering, juicy heart. If I’d been a superhero, I might have been able to reach into my vital organs and pinch the worm out with my forefinger and thumb with a stoic look upon my marble-cut features. But I’m not a superhero; I make mistakes and write about them.

We all make mistakes, and we all address them with varying degrees of success. Here’s what I’ve learnt from my and others’ experience:

  • Don’t just act on autopilot.
  • Keep things in perspective.
  • Spell-check is not always your friend.
  • Stay calm. Perspective helps (see above).
  • Ask people more experienced than you for advice. Take it.
  • Caffeine is not ever your friend.
  • Don’t do. Think. Then do. Then think. etc, etc
  • All that glitters is not gold, so don’t assume it is.
  • Winning oratory doesn’t translate well to email.
  • Tempus argentumque fugiunt.
  • “What are your choices when someone puts a gun to your head? You take the gun, or pull out a bigger one. Or you call their bluff. Or you do any one of a hundred and forty six other things.”
  • It’s not the end of the world until it’s the end of the world.

This is obviously not a comprehensive guide, but if you’ve messed up recently, or are afraid you have/will, hope it helps.

What are you working on? Choosing the right writing implements

by MDY

We all have our favourites. Mark Twain swore by his Conklin Crescent, and Orwell’s Remington Portable became almost as iconic as the man himself. The tools we use shape the words we write in more ways than one. While you shouldn’t get too attached to any one writing implement, chances are that some will appeal to your thought processes and style more than others. This isn’t a logical sort of thing: it’s visceral, instinctive, like that sharp cessation of breath which happens when you spy something or someone beautiful across the street.

Sometimes when I’m writing, I forget to exhale. This is not a particularly salubrious state of affairs, but it means I’m solely and utterly invested in my words to the exclusion of anything else. Certain writing implements elicit this state more than others. Manual tools (pens and pencils) fit my mental flow far more naturally than mechanical ones, probably because I was brought up writing by hand and didn’t start to properly word-process until the age of 15 or so. The actual make or feel of my pens doesn’t really matter, but I do prefer:

  • Black ink, not blue
  • Ballpoint (I insist on this, since fountains and roller-balls tend to smudge or bleed through the page)
  • Reasonably light
  • Weighted more towards the tip than the back (probably because I tend to spin my pen while thinking)
  • Large or refillable ink supply

I mostly write with cheap pens from hotels or corporate events; I do have a few Parkers and other “fine” implements which I use but I’m more attached to the look and feel of ink rather than the pen’s actual build. Nowadays, I do a lot of word-processing, but it’s more like a second language: all I require is that the keyboard is a physical one (my fingers are too ungainly to do the sprightly fandango required of a touch-screen) and that it can keep up with the speed of my typing.

Think about what implement you enjoy using the most to write. If you already feel discombobulated by having to use something uncomfortable, chances are your writing will suffer for it. For example, I never use tablets for extended writing because my fingers are clumsy like a high school crush. The keitai shousetsu owes its existence solely to the dexterity and small size of Japanese thumbs. The best way to figure out what works for you is try writing with many different implements, which also breaks that precious sentiment of needing “optimal writing conditions” to get your work done. When you find yourself gasping for air after a passage, you’ll know you’ve found your weapon.

In brief: Don’t get too precious about your writing implements, but find what suits your style and stick with it as much as possible. Brand names matter less than feel. Trust your instincts.