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 24, 2021

Where Does It All End?

As some of my regular readers may know, I spend a fair amount of time on writer boards, scrolling through the posts and collecting different inquiries. Now and then, a particular topic will get some traction or a lot of people will post similar questions, so I make a note of that for further use. Of late, one particular question has been popping up: "How do I end my story?" So let's explore a little into this not-so-simple question.

First off - Wow, there is a lot to unpack in that six-word nugget. I think the best approach would be to offer a general answer, then expand on how we rarely write an ending on its own. To cover the first part, our ending should be a concluding moment where we acknowledge how the main character has changed from the beginning, what they have gained/lost from their journey, and also tie up any loose ends that might be on the reader's mind.

Now, about writing the actual ending. If we, as writers, wait until we have told our story then decide to write the ending, we are missing a very important part. There is this natural assumption among some writers that a story is just built in one continuous direction that will inevitably reach its destination and land in a nice, tidy manner. This is analogous to building a bridge just by extending a road over a valley and targeting the other side as the eventual end. Nice thought, but that's not how bridges are made. 

To divert into bridge-building a little, the road across the valley is literally the last part that is built. First there is a blueprint laying out the plans - this would be the writer's outline. Then the superstructure is put into place - the writer develops ideas about the characters, the events, the plot arcs and different steps that guide the story. This is the boring part of the writer's journey - figuring out all these steps, but it is just as critical as the joists and supports holding up the bridge. Most drivers only see the road just as most readers only see the story, but what lies underneath is integral to that journey being sound.

When people ask these questions on the various writer's boards, I scroll through the comments section and see what is recommended. Most people who take the constructive route go with what I said in the second paragraph of this post, but not many look at what needs to be done to get there. And in reading works where the end was sort of put together on an ad hoc basis rather than developed and considered from the beginning, it feels quick, hasty, occasionally abrupt and often incomplete. 

So, to get back to the original question, I offer the following advice. I ask the writer to think about the character's journey - all its twists, turns, and setbacks - and decide where they want that character to land. What lesson should they have learned? How have they changed? Then look at the story and see if the narrative has taken them on a journey that leads to that point. Usually, if someone doesn't know how to end the story, they don't know the intricacies of the story itself. Therefore the best advice is to know where that story is going before you create it, and if you are already into the story, examine where the journey has gone and where you are happy concluding it. At that point, the end is as natural as placing in the road after the rest of the bridge is finished.

Next stop: How to start the story.

Monday, September 20, 2021

The Journey of A Thousand Shovel Scoops

The picture below might look like a pile of mulch, but I see a book. That huge organic mound has a lot more in common with my next book than you might think. (Granted, both are where trees end up, but that's not the point.) Before you make any comments about my next novel being a huge heap of biomass, let me explain in a way that might assist you as a writer. (Then proceed with the jokes.)

Sadly, there was an old elm tree in my yard that finally died this spring and had to be taken down. It was one of the tallest trees on the block, but death converted it from this huge, shady landmark into a hazard threatening the houses around it. The tree crew came in with chainsaws and cranes, and tore it down, taking the larger parts and leaving the four-foot high pile of ground-up elm tree you see here. This is where the comparison starts.

Now, the original plan was for me to take that mulch and, shovel-scoop by shovel-scoop, fill in the neglected bedding around the front and sides of my house. It's the perfect use of mulch, it's great upper-body exercise, what could be so wrong with this plan?

Did I mention the pile was four feet high? And twelve feet across?

This is where the metaphor kicks in. I have an outline for my next novel. It will be big. Real big. And when I think about it, I see four-hundred sheets of blank paper just waiting to be filled. I see this immense pile of writing that needs to be done, not to mention the editing, the rewrites, and the fact that I will be reading this manuscript several times and burning through a large number of red pens trying to get this completed. As a writer, this is my huge pile of mulch.

There are plenty of ways to stall and figure out different ways to avoid jumping headfirst into the mulch pile. I can assess the best way to transfer the mulch to the different bedding areas. I can get all the tools out (a shovel. That's really it.) I can calculate the total square footage I will be moving (just over 249 square feet for those who are interested.) And none of this gets me closer to finishing the job.

However, as I learned from writing, the easiest way to approach a huge task is to do it by minor steps. Write the opening sentence. Figure out how to grab the reader. Don't write the whole book at once - just create the one part you can focus on. Set a goal for the day - write an interesting event in a chapter, or commit to finishing a conversation. Develop those little tasks, and chip away at the pile of mulch.

So I filled the bedding by the main window. Scoop by scoop, I moved the mulch. The pile looked the same size after that - perhaps even somehow grew larger - but it was no longer my focus. I cleared space, piled in the remains of the old elm tree, and moved closer to the side of the house. I made slow, steady progress, and didn't even care about the size of the mulch pile. 

Writing has that same simplistic beauty - never about the task, always about the act of creation. We make little pieces, they form into parts, which create sections, and before we know it - we have a work we can be proud of. We are not buried in the breadth of the task because we are constantly making something we will be proud of. It works every time.

And by the way - if anyone needs some mulch, let me know. Seriously - there's still a lot of it left.

Friday, September 10, 2021

Printers Row Lit Fest 2021

I know this might be last minute and everything, but given this week's schedule and the recent holiday weekend and all, better late than never. For us writers and for creatives in general, sometimes it is difficult to see the broader arc of our life as a writer. We sit there and scribble or type some words, filling a page and perhaps creating a finished piece of work, but where does it go from there? Do we just create another thing, then another, and so on and so on? Just lather, rinse, repeat? Or is there something more?

Well, for those of us who want to be reminded of what lies out there in the big world of writers, I recommend going to to the 2021 Printers Row LitFest here in Chicago. It's just south of the heart of the city, and it brings together all kinds of writers and creatives, with local and national (and yes, some international) representation, for a weekend of seminars, readings, panel events and so forth. After last year's event was cancelled (thank you, COVID), the return of LitFest is a welcome treat for us creative types.

Now, as a writer, this kind of event is priceless. However, I will first mention how important this is for the reader in me. As a consumer of the written word, this event is like a walking, talking library. An interactive bookstore. The exhibitors include many local authors and writing groups who are great resources for aspiring writers to talk to and get advice from. Media groups and podcasters are in attendance for the enjoyment of the attendees, and plenty of little groups have raffles and giveaways. Any reader who goes there should come away with at least a few goodies, and hopefully will buy a few books that would otherwise remain hidden in the depths of the internet.

Now as far as writers are concerned, this is where it's at. The speakers alone are worth the price of entry (it's free, but you get the point). As a writer, nothing inspires me more than hearing someone else tell their story about how they were once that person moving from word to word, losing track of what existed beyond that next project. I can look at them and see a part of myself in their story, and I guarantee I always return from these events with a renewed urge to write. My creative batteries are definitely charged after one day at LitFest, and sometimes we all need a little extra boost.

Oh - there are a few publishers there too. If your goal is to get published, these are the people you want to talk to and find out just what the market is looking for, the operations of a local publishing company, and just maybe the chance to pull someone aside and get some inside information from. I checked the exhibitor's list (different from the speaker's list) and there are some good local shops there.

So, in short, I hope that all you writing folks give yourself a little time to go to LitFest and inspire yourself to take another step as a writer. At the very least, give yourself a chance to walk among other writers and realize you are with your peers. Make some contacts and feel the world again. Then go home and do some awesome writing.

(Side note: for  those who might have been expecting a post related to 9/11, I recommend you read an earlier post, The Story I Never Wanted to Write. Sometimes posts are a little too painful to create, so instead I offer a link.)


Friday, August 27, 2021

Writing and Resistance

"I don't want to get out of bed!" echoed throughout our house on plenty of mornings when I was a child. Sure, I enjoyed school - even loved it at times - but going there was an issue. After all, getting to school meant first getting out of a warm bed and entering cold reality. The Midwest winters made sure that once I left those toasty blankets, I would never be warm for the rest of the day. Whether it was walking to school through slushy snow, waiting on a bus stop with a slashing wind euphemistically referred to as, "brisk," or dashing to a friend's place to wait for their car to warm up so I could get a ride, there was nothing fun about this. No, I did not want to get out of bed.

As we can readily see, the cold weather wasn't the actual issue - it was just the initial point of resistance between me and school, but it was enough to make the entire task seem nigh impossible from the perspective of a warm bed. This is the core of many problems when we are having trouble writing. We are not distraught by the long-term goal, but rather some step in between that makes the rest of everything seem impossible. It's easier to stay in bed than to push our way through to write the Great American Novel.

I didn't learn this little lesson until well after my school years, but it became a valuable tool for my future endeavors. When we write, we need to be in the moment, focusing on our storytelling and creating that special world of words. However, to get past a lot of the short-term obstacles, we also need to keep an eye on that long-term goal - the final product; our story, poem, essay, or what have you. Looking at the moment while tracking the big picture can leave one cross-eyed, so which one do we choose?

The only clean answer I can offer is a simple one: We focus on the one that gets us writing. We do what we need to do to get out of bed, touch our feet to the cold floor, and start the journey. If that means focusing strictly on the next moment of washing up for school and not worrying about the weather until we go outside, then that's fine. If instead it is easier to think about walking into that heated school and sitting down in that first class of the day, that works too. The point is, we need to turn away from all the things that keep us hiding under the blankets: thoughts of the snow, the wind, our frozen toes. We need to find our focal point, and go after it.

In my better moments of writing, I am able to think of the long game - the final product - while focusing on the scene I am creating. However, those moments are few and far between. Usually I have to put my head down and just obsess about the next dialogue exchange, the next description, the next word that needs to be typed. However, that's okay. The point is, I am typing. I am creating. I am not hiding under my blankets while my father yells, "Get out of bed!" which only forces me into deeper hiding. 

When you find yourself overwhelmed by whatever the world is throwing at you (and I think we can all agree that the world has been doing quite a bit of that lately), look for that one point that will allow you to move forward. Either the big picture or just the next word, do something to get closer to that point, and you will be making progress. This counts for life, by the way, and not just writing. However, since this is a writing blog, consider this my writing advice. It boils down to a simple task:

"Get out of bed!"


Monday, August 16, 2021

Danger: Toxic Material

Have you ever had one of those days where everything weighs on your mood, and in turn your heavy mood weighs on everything? You wake up late, get a flat tire, can't find a seat on the train. All those bad events infect you. Eventually, you become your bad mood. You start to snap at people, you carry a nasty scowl on your face, and indeed your toxic attitude starts to invade the space of other people. Ever had one of those days?

They are great opportunities for exploring your writing.

Over the past few days I have been one of those toxic tornadoes, a gale-force storm of bad attitude. As a human being, I am not a lot of fun to be around during this time, but I am something to see when it comes to being a writer. This is one of those times when I will set aside some of my lighter projects and start to channel that darkness into words. No specific project gets to claim this terrible mood; it's more of a situation I apply to whatever I feel would be the best outlet. No little haiku writing for this stuff. I turn it into short stories and disturbing character sketches.

And when the mood passes, I file them away and get on with my life.

As we pursue our craft of writing, we have to be careful about maintaining tone and mood in our larger pieces. Unless we complete a project in one sitting, we are prone to several sessions of trying to write with a similar tone. Needless to say, writing some light-hearted story can be a little difficult when our mood does not match the material. Especially with the more toxic moods, they tend to spill over and mess up our other projects. The stronger the mood, the more difficult it is to keep out of our writing. That light-hearted story may not suddenly take a dark turn because of a bad writing session, but the mood can shift. The sunny, happy-go-lucky flow will grow cold.

The worst part is that for writers such as us, we won't necessarily see this at first. Other readers will notice it long before we do. On more than one occasion, I have had a writing workshop basically turn on me because the latest installment of an ongoing young adult novel suddenly seemed to go off the rails. The mood went dark, the attitude shifted toward the cynical. Big surprise - all my critics noticed this shift, yet none of them knew I had been having a real bad week. I kept it hidden, but it came out in my writing.

But this is why it can be a good thing. When your mood might not fit the piece you are working on, step aside and work on something more befitting your attitude. If you are very thorny and on-edge, write a few character sketches that are angry and hostile. Stretch your writing muscles with something that helps you channel the mood. Eventually it will become reflexive to the point where you can create a very toxic piece of writing without being in a toxic mood.

Give it a shot the next time anything creeps into your mind that would get in the way of your usual process. Put it to work and see what happens. And even drop me a toxic comment discussing the results. I can take it - my bad mood has passed.


Friday, August 13, 2021

Writing and Special Moments

For those of you who have not checked the calendar today, it is Friday the 13th. For some people, the only part of this day they are concerned about is the fact that it is the day before the weekend. For others, this is a day full of superstition, bizarre traditions, and a trigger for those with paraskevidekatriaphobia [fear of Friday the 13th]. No matter what side of the divide you might reside, the important part is that this day stands out in the minds of people. And when something stands out, that should be a writer's cue to seize the moment.

In any piece of writing, the magic happens when some part of the story stands out and the reader takes special notice. It could be the mood of the story, the tone, a unique perspective, or the sudden twist at the end. Maybe it works for the better, maybe the reader doesn't agree with it - that doesn't matter. The point is that it stands out. Just like Friday the 13th, whether or not you believe in its superstition isn't important. It stands apart from all the other days, and we all take notice of it.

When we write, we need to think about what will stand out in the piece we are creating. This goes for everything from the simplest haiku to our full manuscript - it needs to touch upon something that stands out beyond the simple idea of writing stuff. The part that stands out does not need to dominate the page or be the focal point of the piece. However, there should be that one part that anyone who reads it can talk to another reader and say, "What did you think of this idea?" and they will know exactly what the reference is about.

So, enough with the build-up - how do we make this happen? The first part is actually simple: just write whatever piece you want to create. Write it, understand it, and really think about what you are trying to say with those words. In the first draft, there is no need to add that magical part; it's just about understanding what you are creating.

Once you have created something, ask yourself, "What would make this special?" The more you write, the more you will be able to answer this question without pause. However, when you first jump into this idea, you might need to reflect upon it and consider what you really want it to do. Maybe you want the description to set the mood. Maybe you want the character to be truly memorable. Perhaps a catch phrase or gesture that will become that character's signature move. It could be as simple as really nailing that twist at the end to where your readers will bring it up time and time again. Focus on that idea until you know exactly what you want the special part to be.

Then write it into your work.

That last step sounds pretty easy, but that's because the heavy lifting is the step before that. Obsessing over just how to make something stand out can be a brutal, even overwhelming task, but once you figure it out, the writing will just happen. It's surprisingly easy at that point.

The whole point is that the stories and poems we remember have that magical element that comes with Friday the 13th. They stand out because one particular point is truly memorable. And hopefully, it doesn't bring a bunch of bad luck.


Monday, August 9, 2021

Short Stories - Like Really Short

In one of the writing workshops I attend, we had quite the challenge: Write a short story of no more than 200 words. This task comes involves a whole laundry list of obligations - no long descriptions, mood-setting has to be efficient, dialogue must be high-impact, no purple prose, etc. However, the most important part was that it had to be a story. It is easy to write a character in 200 words, but a story is something more. A story covers an event, a development, and preferably some kind of attention-grabbing shift. That's where it gets tricky. That's where the fun begins.

Hemingway is famously (though questionably) given credit for a short story that was six words long: "For sale: baby shoes. Never worn." Whether or not he wrote it, it presents the most stripped-down version of a story. It introduces a situation, then shifts our expectations with the presentation or assumption of an event. This is the haiku of short stories - very much to the point and with virtually no excess. I would never hold anyone to meeting this standard of storytelling - rather, I think 200 words is a good goal to aim for. The secret is making sure it's a story.

In keeping with the spirit of Hemingway or whoever wrote the baby shoes story, I will offer a few story frameworks presented along the theme of the minimalist ideation. However, so it does not appear that I am copying this method, I will present them in the form of five-word story ideas. These do not have the elegance or complexity of our example story, but the point should still be there.

"I arrived; I left changed.": This is the transformative story, the foundation for most stories. Our character enters a situation with a set of expectations, and is shown or arrives at a different outcome. These stories are attractive because they appeal to what we have all (hopefully) experienced at some point - life prompts us to change our mind and grow. Technically, the character doesn't have to accept the change, but the story hooks around a revealing experience that engages the reader. It can be a complex, philosophical revelation or it can be trying Coke instead of Pepsi - the point is the development of the event.

"That wasn't what I expected.": Ever watch the series The Twilight Zone? (If not, please do - it's on Netflix) Plenty of their stories hinge around creating an awkward environment that plays against our sense of what we believe to be normal, then reveals itself to be quite different. A simple story could be of a person approaching the gallows as the crowd prepares for an execution. The person contemplates death and the bigger questions of existence while walking up the steps, perhaps engaging the reader in the questions around capital punishment, then we find out at the end that the person is the executioner, not the condemned person. The unexpected turn is the payoff for the whole story, and it can be as brief or as long as the writer wishes.

"It could happen to you.": The simplest story has an approachable, familiar texture, and the ones that seem to have traction with us are the very simple, intimate events that the reader quickly relates to. Remembering a first kiss, a death in the family, that one embarrassing moment in school, and so on. These stories can fit in with the other ideas, but the simple retelling of a fundamentally basic story can win over readers simply because they can relate.

If you are feeling in the mood, try writing a simple, 200-word story based on these ideas. Edit and trim the fat where necessary, but see what happens. More importantly, see what ideas come to mind in creating a simple story. 

But don't take the idea about the executioner - that one's mine.