Apr 22, 2016

Obituary for an Adverb

Men called it Athwart. Once it walked proudly as a warrior among warriors, an adverb among adverbs. But it came to serve a purpose so obscure, so clad in ninefold darkness, that in modern times you could not find that purpose without a 1,500-watt metal halide lamp.

Nobody knew what it did anymore when, around 1915, Athwart retreated to the Orkneys to live among the seals. Or Svalbard, perhaps.

It came from Old Norse stock, with the mighty Thverr for a grandsire, and never lost that cold edge you need to sail the treacherous seas and suffer the chill Atlantic fogs. When red the blood coursed in Athwart's veins it bred with nouns and prepositions. Thus the seaworthy vocable, the broad-shouldered if ungainly word, athwartships, came into this world.

Athwart. Child of a time when blades spoke more often than tongues and only the stars traveled the sky-roads. Explorers fade from memory and so fade their particular yearnings. No dragons populate the edges of this Earth. The dragons have flown to outer space.

Maybe Athwart will come back from a long winter sleep and bring with it a host of forgotten words when the bold and the hungry find themselves on the first ship bound for an alien, life-giving star.

Ettore Aldo del Vigo

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."

Dictionary.reference.com 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