Writing and "The Process"

All writers have a process that allows them to create. However, the art of "Writing" is often mistaken for that "Process." Hopefully this blog explains the difference, and inspires people to develop their crafts, become writers, or just keep on writing.

Friday, September 23, 2022

Picking A Fight

No matter who we are, no matter what we read, every story demands a good fight. Everything from the simplest character sketch to the longest series benefits from a fight, and perhaps several. Fights are as old as the written word itself and have found their way into literature in most every culture.

To be clear, my reference is not to the standard fight – punching, kicking, body slams, bloody knuckles and broken noses. The simplest understanding of a fight is conflict between two forces. This exists in most anything worth reading. The most primal example is the conflict we all understand – good versus evil. Classic literature is full of examples where this struggle pulls at the heart of the story.

However, the conflicting forces do not have to be such black-and-white opposites. An easy example is when many characters fight to control one item. The different sides may each have their own motives, but it is up to the reader to pick a side. This is best portrayed when the one item represents power, and the more powerful the better. Anything that can put characters into motion is a great way to get the conflict going.

Of course, blurring the lines between right and wrong makes the conflict more interesting. What about the conflict that arises when the pursuit of justice runs afoul of the rule of law? Authors of private-eye novels have never missed a paycheck following this formula, and neither has anyone who wrote legal thrillers, even though they approach this disconnect from opposite sides. And as for those books that show both sides, well, that’s some good reading.

And why should it have to be two or more characters doing the fighting? One character can be faced with a situation that challenges them deeply, making them doubt everything they believed. Internal conflict is very fertile ground for writing, as most every reader has experienced this intimately. The struggle between holding on to one’s values versus selling out for a big pile of cash? Taking the easy road or risking a new route? Sparing someone’s feelings or telling them a difficult truth? A character fighting to make this decision is still a fight.

When it comes to personal conflict, my personal favorite is when the character confronts an undeniable fact conflicting with their deepest beliefs. Someone finds out they’re adopted. An atheist faces God. A scientist discovers the Earth is flat. A rational person finds out professional wrestling is not fake. Such a mind-blowing, core-shaking, fact-erasing revelation forces the character to rediscover the world, to suddenly live in uncertainty.

This change doesn’t have to be destructive. The Harry Potter franchise is based on a child discovering a life he never knew existed. The young adult fantasy genre dating back to the 19th century is deeply rooted in the discovery of a new world and grand adventures. This is still conflict, but our main character is more than willing to embrace it (even though trouble comes later).

The most important part of conflict in writing, however, is that it shows us something about the character. Think about real life: We go about our daily routine, getting the same morning coffee, the same commute to work, the same job, the same route home, etc. This routine barely reveals anything except for whether the character puts cream in their coffee. Once change is introduced – the coffee store is closed, their car won’t start, their job changes – then conflict has been introduced and we see how that character responds. Twenty years of the same work routine is often far less interesting than the one day where everything went wrong.

So when you think about that big story, think less about the grand success the character will achieve and more about the battles they will have to endure, because that's going to be the meat of the story.

Monday, September 19, 2022

News Flash: It's Hard Being A Writer

One of my favorite sources of inspiration (and procrastination) is the endless treasure trove that is online writer support groups. It feels like social media was invented to give writers a place to get together and vent about the myriad problems they face every day, and then kitten videos. When I check out these pages, I detect several themes, and they can be broken into two categories: Those who haven't done a lot of serious writing and think it's easy, and those who have done a lot of writing and realize there's a lot to learn. Here's some samples of what I often see on these pages - try to figure out which category they belong in:

  • I want to write a book. How do I start?
  • What is the best way to make a best-seller?
  • Should I include a prologue or try and feed the background info throughout the narrative?
  • My MC (main character) is in a moral quandary that I can't resolve. Help!
  • How do I know when my story is done? I am at 750,000 words now - do I have a book?

Hopefully, some of these questions seem obviously naïve while others seem to focus on the little details of writing technique. (And as to the last question - 750,000 words? You do not have a book, you have a problem.) I put this all out there to make a few simple points: When you start writing, technically you are a writer, and that's great. But what that also means is that you have set yourself on a journey of learning, of constant growth, occasional setbacks, and hopefully realization. Once you become a writer, you step onto the bottom rung of an endless ladder upward, and you have to travel, step by step, toward the great unknown.

The first "story" I wrote - the thing that made me that novice writer - was an amazing accomplishment. I had never put so many words to paper at one time. Yes, it was an assignment in high school, but in fact I did tell a story through the written word. It was a major accomplishment for me, and I knew doors would open for me once I handed in that masterpiece.

I got a C- on it.

Looking at that piece of work now, and it was a "piece of work" to speak euphemistically, I can see what a tragedy of writing it was. At the time, I let that C- beat me down, and I put my creative dreams to the side for a while. I did not see that I had taken that first step, and if I had been open to learning more, I could've advanced my skills far earlier than when I decided to embrace the journey of a thousand stories. If I had accepted that being a writer was hard and I had a lot to learn, it would've made learning so much easier. But, better late than never.

So, any time you feel that writing is becoming an overwhelming endeavor, just remind yourself how it is supposed to be exactly that, and the learning is all supposed to be part of the game. And then keep writing, because it's the only way to be a writer.

Monday, September 12, 2022

The Value of a Few Words

Even during my days in the financial world, a part of my mind tuned in to just how intricate the writing process was. It was rumored that former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan would write his speeches while in the bathtub, and it took him twenty minutes of intense consideration before he came up with the phrase, "irrational exuberance." ("Irrational exuberance" became the buzz phrase for the late 1990s, and became synonymous with the tech boom/bust that followed.) Now, the whole "twenty minutes of thought" could just be the market version of gossip and story-telling, but I sensed that Greenspan had quite the writer's mind.

Now, some people would argue with this next point, but I believe there is no such thing as a throw-away word in writing. Every word we use, be it in narrative, dialogue, or whatever, often serves more than one purpose. In fact, we should make sure that at any given opportunity, the words we use do as much heavy lifting as possible. If we find ourselves just using words to fill the space between our points, then the reader will surely feel that the writing is just empty calories.

Let's look at Greenspan's quote (my apologies for the economics talk - there will be no quiz) and see just how he used his words:

"We can see (less uncertainty) in the inverse relationship exhibited by price/earnings ratios and the rate of inflation in the past. But how do we know when irrational exuberance has unduly escalated asset values...?"

Now remember, this is just a guy sitting in the bathtub, preparing his comments for an interview. Look at how the first sentence is filled with a bunch of financial market talk about ratios and inflation and such. Not really interesting for the average person, and nor should it be. This sentence is clinical and dry, and it lulls its target audience into a sense of familiarity, while those outside its focus might very well change the channel. The entire thing sounds analytical, even brutally scientific, as if presented by a research committee that rarely got out in public or dealt with social settings. But that's what makes it great - it's all a set-up for that next part.

The next sentence starts off as a question, which draws the target audience in immediately. From their familiar position, they are now challenged to rethink all they had grown comfortable with, and the first unfamiliar phrase in that question is "irrational exuberance." It is placed after a string of tiny set-up words, and it hits hard. All the market talk that comes afterward is now captured by those two words, and it quickly becomes a reference point for all future discussion on the subject.

This is part of the sculpture of writing, the verbal poetry that comes with what we create. There were plenty of ways to discuss the wild markets of the times, and plenty of articles were written about it. However, the phrase that pays was two words that took twenty minutes to write while soaking in the tub, and they now define that era. 

The next time you decide to just plow through something and throw around a bunch of words without giving them much thought, maybe think twice. Remind yourself that you could be on the verge of writing the perfect phrase, to be remembered for decades to come. Give yourself a moment to think if those words can do more. Consider if you can put more punch into what you are trying to say. Maybe draw yourself a bath.

Friday, September 9, 2022

Stories and an Old Crow

Welcome back! The past week has been a busy one for me, so I am glad to be writing about it. Over the past week, I have participated in a family reunion, a funeral, and a birthday, and they all remind me about one thing: the importance of stories. These events were about the gathering, retelling, and losing of stories, and yes that is the right order for this situation. Allow me to explain.

First off, there's the family reunion. Every year since 1974 (with one COVID-related exception), my paternal grandparents and their many, many descendants gathered at the same place at around the same time to enjoy the bonds of family, friendship, and Midwestern comfort food (think of any dish with potatoes, pasta, and/or cheese). And during all this food and fun, we have the unofficial ritual of gathering together our stories and sharing them with each other. Maybe someone discovered some new bit of family trivia and now wants to share it with everyone. Perhaps an old family relic reminded someone about a particular time with an aunt or uncle and we want to add it to the family lore. It could be just a simple story of a family member who is also a writer completing a 106-mile cycling trip a few weeks ago. Whatever the case, these stories are the mortar that holds the family close, which makes it all the more important that these stories are gathered regularly and shared amongst those we care about.

Unfortunately, this reunion had a shadow hanging over it, which was the recent death of a dear cousin of mine. This cousin - who we will call Crow because that was his nickname - lived a full life, though he died well before all his stories were told. This brings us to the next part of stories - the retelling. If there is one thing that got our family through the loss of old Crow, it was retelling our favorite stories about him, for better or worse. There's the one about how Crow and my father would playfully wrestle around enough to get all of my father's nephews to join in on a rumble to take Crow down. How about that one with Crow hot-rodding that old Studebaker and going through so many clutches that his father rigged it to lose its massive acceleration - and not tell Crow for the next forty years? And who can forget the other cars and motorcycles that came through Crow's garage and were the most important thing to him next to his wife and family? Retelling these stories brought Crow back to life, even if just for a bit, and helped us through our grief. And yes, we will be retelling these stories again next year.

The last part I want to talk about is part of why I became a writer - losing stories. I hate losing stories, but if we don't commit them to memory, to pen and paper, or to Word, they can vanish and never return. My mother turned 84 last week, which is ordinarily a day for celebration. However, she is in the late stages of dementia, and no longer interacts with the world much less tells stories. Her birthday was a far more somber event, and though we could share stories to remind us of who she was, it has become very evident that many stories will no longer be recovered. As I went through a box of her old things, I found several mementos from trips she might have taken or gifts she might have received, but I have no context for them. She kept our family Bible, which has old correspondences between our long-deceased relatives preserved between its pages, but I can only guess about their importance to her. Without being shared, these are stories lost to the ages, and in some ways I mourn their passing.

The takeaway from the past week is a simple one: stories are everywhere, and it's up to us to collect them. Whether it's someone's wartime experiences or just how a cousin gets a nickname like Crow, they make up a part of who we are, and we honor them when we write them down for others to enjoy. That's what being a writer is all about.

Monday, September 5, 2022

A Time Out for Labor Day

Even writers are allowed a little time off. Since today is Labor Day, and also my mother's birthday, there will not be a post of substance today. There will, however, be the reminder to spend a little time listening and people-watching today so you can be a better writer tomorrow.

The next post will be on Friday, September 9, 2022. Enjoy your day off.

Monday, August 29, 2022

Old Writing and Old Writers

While going through the process of cleaning out the junk drawer in my office (admit it – somewhere in your house there is a junk drawer. I have one in my office and one in the kitchen), I found an old flash drive. How old? This was from way back in the days when you would go out and buy your own little drive, as opposed to now when you get them as complimentary gifts for getting a magazine subscription or a full tank of gas. This was from the days when capacity was measures in megabytes, not gigabytes (and now terabytes). What I’m saying is that it was old. More to the point, it held a trove of old stories and essays.

This can be a terrifying experience – uncovering old writing and reading through the copy, knowing every mistake of your youth is there to remind you of how horrible you could be. However, I have mentioned in the past that sometimes this can be a very beneficial experience. Looking at your old work and recognizing all the mistakes is a great reminder of how much you have grown as a writer (and perhaps as a person depending on the subject). As personally embarrassing as it might be to see such simple mistakes repeated over and over and over, knowing now that these are mistakes means you’ve bettered yourself in some fashion. And this is where the big point of today’s post comes in.

Wherever we are on our journey of writing, we all have something in common: We seek to be better than we were. We look to improve ourselves in some way, shape, or form. Everyone progresses in a different manner and at a different rate, but we all can improve on our craft, and that’s a noble mission. There is never any shame in the steps we take to be better than we once were – it is the foundation of human development. As long as we don’t somehow harm people along the way, such progress is always a virtue.

So, back to the little flash drive. The most interesting thing that I found on this drive was that it carried a bunch of works from an old writing workshop I attended, mostly the writing of other people. While I did lose touch with a couple of the writers and two have since passed away, I still knew most of them and almost all of them still wrote on a regular basis. This old writing was, at times, embarrassing, but it gave me a personal joy to see how far along these writers had grown. A few of them have had short stories and essays published in anthologies, several went on to write novels, and a couple of them were even published. And, in all fairness, there were other writers who should’ve been published but they didn’t take that big step… not yet, anyway.

The workshop all this writing came from is no longer active; it was a victim of library cutbacks and the eventual passing of its founder. However, members did move on and try to start up their own writing groups, spreading the art of writing to other areas. Some libraries gladly sponsored such activities, others were (for reasons unknown) hesitant to host such a group. And wherever these groups caught hold, I know at least one person that grew into a full and complete writer.

So, in short, this little flash drive reminded me about the value both of workshops and of the importance of regular writing. And, needless to say, in combination, they help perpetuate a virtuous cycle of creating writers that maybe, someday, start their own groups and bring the art of the written word to the next few generations.

BTW – the rest of the drawer never got cleaned out. After my discovery, I realized it serves its purpose just fine.


Friday, August 26, 2022

Back to School!

I am sure that my perspective has changed now that I am an adult many years displaced from my days as a student, but some of the most emotionally turbulent days of my youth were those last few days before school started. Obviously, a part of me was an angst-ridden child, full of woe, lamenting how I wasted my summer on things like sports and fun and friends rather than some intangible joy that would be forever lost. However, there was also a secret inner joy that I would go back to school and get to learn things. I was that child who read books during the summer, so school reinforced that part of me. 

The one difficult part every year, however, was that brief period where I had to dust off the learning part of my brain and prepare for new concepts, new ideas, and new subjects that I didn't necessarily know or care about. That part seemed to fall dormant during the summer, as my entertainment was doing things I already knew provided me with joy. I had fun, but I didn't necessarily grow. School was about growth, and frankly, that was a little intimidating.

Now that I am an adult, I have to ask myself, "What have I done that has allowed me to grow as a person?" Too often we get into our comfort zones and we cruise from there. An endless summer of doing what we love and never worrying about the end of summer and the return to growth. It sounds like it's fun, but think about it. How long can one live with only the same interests and hobbies they had when they left school? I know several people who I went to school with who still talk fondly of those days because high school was "the best time ever." That makes me sad, because it means the past 30-odd years have basically been downhill from there. Maybe not a tragic fall from some grand heights, but I would feel horrible if my life peaked in my teens or even twenties. Even at this age, I like to think there's still more to come.

To the writers out there, most of whom are wondering where this drawn-out discussion of my youth is going, I offer this: Pick up a book totally out of your familiarity/comfort zone, and read it in September. If you are a fiction devotee, grab an autobiography. Do you like high fantasy? Grab a book about unlocking the structure of DNA (The Double Helix by Watson and What Mad Pursuit by Crick make for a nice complementary pair of good reads on the subject). Go outside your zone like a child walking into their new classroom and getting handed a new textbook. Explore something new and intriguing. Swim in new waters. Reclaim that one part of school that made it interesting.

And, like all school experiences, there will be homework as well. I call upon you to write something new and outside your realm. Normally I would suggest a poem to all those non-poets out there, but it can be anything. Write down a childhood memory as seen through your adult eyes. Write an opinion piece about one side or the other of this whole student-loan debate. Write an extended thank-you note to literally any teacher who changed your life (living or dead). Reclaim whatever shred of joy you found from school, and bring it back to life if only for one day.

And no chewing gum in class!