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.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Let's Write A Book...

It seems every day of the year now has too many anniversaries and commemorations to keep track of. Today, for example, covers the spectrum from the anniversary of the beginning of the Revolutionary War to National Garlic Day, and there are many other points in between that I could recognize as well. However, I am using this day as a prequel to another big event that is actually relevant to this blog, and that is World Book Day. This Friday, April 23rd, is the recognition of the book (apologies to my UK and Irish friends who celebrate this in March), and I thought I would offer a little prompt in my Monday post as to build some momentum to Friday's celebration.

On that note, I am going to recommend that, in recognition of World Book Day, everyone write a book. Sounds daunting? Indeed. However, I am not suggesting we do it all at once, or even try to cram it in between now and Friday. Rather, I am just trying to move people to write some of the basic infrastructure needed to build out the framework for the book. Without these, you won't write much of anything worth talking about, so let's just go step by step.

In as few words as possible, what is the theme of your book? Nothing elaborate here, just trying to set the foundation for this work. It can be something as simple as "redemption" or "reconciling with the past." (The only simple answer that is unacceptable is "growth" because every character should grow in some manner during their story, so that is kind of assumed.) "Taking on adversity" or even a detailed one such as "my battle against cancer" will be fine - just as long as it covers something that will be found on every page and that every character will somehow contribute to or detract from.

Who is your main character and what is their connection to the theme? No need for much here, just finding the lead character and reminding us why they are so important in relation to the theme. If the theme is redemption, why is this character so deeply tied to this pursuit? Are they damned? Beyond hope? What makes their battle greater than the usual struggle for redemption? A book about a battle against cancer should have a character heavily invested in living (and showing the reader how it's more than a story of trying not to die). 

What will be the character's long-term obstacles? This, in short, is where we start finding out about the story's antagonists and the conflict potential. Antagonists don't always have to be people sent to oppose our hero, they just need to be points of passive or active resistance. Per our earlier example, cancer itself is a long-term antagonist, but other obstructions can be financial ones, or even fighting our own limitations. The important part about the obstacles is that they should also relate to the theme, and not just be random things that get in the way. A bad guy is fun, but a bad guy who has a long-time connection to the main character is far more entertaining.

That's the basic infrastructure for a book, and while it isn't a lot of words, developing something where those three points are very much woven together creates a very strong foundation. Also, notice how I did not include a discussion of genre at this stage. At its core, a story is not about genre, so let's not worry about that. The root discussion should be one of theme, characters, and conflict potential. Just spend the next few days putting those together and thinking about their interactions.

Then, come World Book Day on Friday, we'll sit down and write a book.

Friday, April 16, 2021

Are You A Productive Writer?

I ran across a very interesting query on one of the many writing boards I follow, and it got me thinking. A relatively new writer asked a simple question: "How much do I need to write every day? Some days I write a lot but it's not good so I don't feel productive." I wanted to jump on an easy answer or a quick little quip, but my mind drifted toward that one word - productive. As a writer, that's a tough one to grasp, so I started trying to define it through my previous life. 

Back in my days as an economist, there were certain parts of my job that I hated. I mean I genuinely loathed them, and I made no secret about it. The biggest one was filing. I would let stacks of reports, briefings, summaries, etc., pile up on my desk that I would much rather sift through time and time again than file away in their proper place. (Yes, my desk was a rather cluttered place.)

Now, it wasn't that I didn't see the purpose of filing them away - on paper, it made perfect sense. Filing things away makes them easier to access if and when I need them, my desk wouldn't be as cluttered, and my boss wouldn't give me the stink-eye when he saw the riot of paper in my inbox. So why, you might ask, did I not file things away?

Simply put: It did not feel productive.

I am sure you can already see how this is going to come together, but I will go through the process anyway. The reason I detested filing was simple: it felt like a poor use of my skills. I wanted to build models of statistical genius, synthesize new formulas and extract amazing observations that only my beautiful mind could create. Anyone can file - my real purpose in life was something well beyond that, and to use anything less than the best of my talents was, well, unproductive.

But was it? How often did I waste that precious time searching through my papers for one little footnote or formula? How many hours a year were thrown away as I sorted through my notes, looking for something that could've easily been put in that simple manila folder in my left-hand file drawer? Now that is unproductive. That was a waste of my precious talent and time. It took me a while to realize this, but I will admit, I was hooked on the idea that to be productive, the payback had to be immediate.

As a writer, we like that immediate payoff to our writing. We want every short story to be the best one yet, we want every chapter of our novel to be a real enriching page-turner, even the simplest poem or haiku must take someone's breath away. We want... no, we need that reward, mostly because it drives us to go one step better next time. But there is a pretty good reward that we often overlook when we write - skill-building.

Whenever we write anything, we build our skills. We improve every time we commit a word to paper and use our tools to make the next word better, every time we dedicate ourselves to creating, we become that much more. Often, we don't see the rewards from these little advances, but rest assured they are there, and they pay off whenever we take on the big project and that one chapter turns out to be a real page-turner or that poem brings a tear to someone's eye. When we do our filing, the rest of the work becomes easier down the road, and the same goes for writing. 

My answer to that person with the simple question? "The fact that you write makes you productive. How much you write is up to you, and how you feel is your challenge alone. But, rest assured, every time you commit to the task of creating, you are making yourself a better writer somehow, even if it doesn't feel like it now."

I stick by those words.     

Friday, April 9, 2021

When Bad Things Happen to Good Writers

For those who were looking forward to one of my lengthy discussions about what to look for in an adjective or a rant about how too many people use the passive voice, today is not your day. I know how I insist that writing is always possible, but there are exceptions even to that rule. In this case, my health has put a few constraints on my ability to focus and put together an impassioned plea for better dialogue or even a piece on writing the best haiku. 

I will, however, offer a few notes on what to do if this situation befalls you. A number of my writer friends have chronic health issues: migraines that make it impossible to even look at a bright screen, vertigo that can make any prolonged action difficult, severe depression that holds them fast to their bed - the list goes on. Throughout these issues, there is one lingering frustration throughout the entire episode - they genuinely want to do some writing, but they are confronting limitations that are difficult to overcome. I have my version as well, so here's what I do.

First, I give myself permission to not push myself to create against the wants of my health. I write it off to creative force majeure - events beyond my control make an obligation impossible to satisfy. As long as I am honest with myself and admit that being creative would come at a price to my wellbeing that I should not pay, this is okay. It absolves me of guilt, and I can tend to my more immediate needs.

Second, I consider my actual needs. You might have noticed I refer to the urge to create a lot in this piece rather than specifically writing, and there's a reason. Writers are creative types, and the urge to write stems from the same source for them as it does for musicians, artists, and so on: the urge to create. Sometimes when I know I am in no shape to write but feel the need to create, I go through alternate sources. I have my guitar and piano to tinker with (what I create with those is hardly music, but it allows me to bring something new to life). I have my sketchpad as well for simple doodling, and a bunch of colored pencils. None of them qualify as writer tools, but they address my urge to create without wearing me down in the way that writing does. 

Lastly, if my capacity to create is still too limited to do any of those things, I try to enjoy the creations of others. Listening to music at low volume. reading (if possible), or the simple pleasure of skimming through a book with lots of pictures (I am finding particular enjoyment in the book, Dictator Style, a lovely pictorial of the lifestyles of some of the world's most famous dictators). If I can't create something, I at least let my mind roam through what others have created. 

On that note, I am going to retire to a safe place and tend to the obligations of my health. I am sure I will somehow answer my need to create, and soon enough I will get back to my writing. Until then, enjoy!

Monday, April 5, 2021

The Flavor of Dialogue

After a good workshop meeting Thursday, I started thinking about some of the fundamental rules of creative writing. Even though it's storytelling, we are told to show, not tell. We are reminded to be active and engaged. Don't use what we don't need. If it doesn't move the story, cut it out. The list goes on. Then I think about how often a good violation of these rules adds dimension to the story. Descriptive writing might tell more than show, but it can establish mood. Varying the activity of writing is a great tool for changing story speed. And how many stories have a character who is strictly for comic relief but adds so much to the story's environment? All violations, all important to do.

The one area where we should really think about these things is dialogue. This is an inescapable part of creative writing, so all the more that we talk about it. Furthermore, let's focus on one part of our writing toolkit in particular - word choice. Often we rely on using adverbs to describe how people talk - excitedly, angrily, with a tone of uncertainty, etc. - but this is only part of the game. We can also complement spoken words with an internal dialogue, creating a conversation within a conversation. However, this post will refer to the exacting point of the words within the quotes.

In a post I wrote a few years ago - Breaking the Rules With Dialogue - I hit upon some common tools we can use for giving dialogue some personality. One of the more important ones was using the words that we traditionally edit out of proper speech. How many friends of yours insert, "well," "like," and "y'know" into sentences without shame? Worse yet, they drop sentences akin to, "Well - it's like... well, y'know, complicated and stuff." Writing rules would tell us to change that sentence into, "It's complicated," and save a pile of words. But be honest - the second sentence is efficient, functional, and so very boring. The first sentence is a mess but it fleshes out the person saying it, so it serves a purpose as an improper sentence.

These additive words - often referred to as "flavoring" words - can become character builders, but as long as they are used in the proper amount. Like salt in a recipe, the right amount brings out the flavor, but too much overwhelms it. Not every character should flavor every sentence with "well" or else the voices just mix together again. However, if one character begins every thoughtful sentence with, "Well," then they are established, and in the chaos of larger conversations, the reader is further reminded just who that character is. 

Quick list of my favorite flavoring words/phrases: well, kinda, sorta, basically, uhhh..., "in a way", like, hmmm, and ending any statement with "isn't it?" These are yours to have - free of charge. And yes, they are all spelled the way I intended. Dialogue is about jargon as well.

One other thing I just want to touch upon is the dialogue tool of punctuation. Hyphens, ellipses, and commas establish a rhythm to anyone's spoken word, and the reader should be in on this. Too much can ruin it, but a thoughtful ellipsis (...) in the middle of a discussion suggests thoughtfulness, while a bunch of commas might imply indecisiveness. We are taught to apply the rules of punctuation with our dialogue - now we need to learn when to break them for effect.

Of course, never let this get in the way of the actual writing. Cleaning up dialogue is important, but save it for the second draft. Write the story first so you know just which characters need what. And then, like, y'know... change things.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Four Simple Things Everyone Can Create

There's a little saying that comes to mind now and then, and lately it's been crashing around my brain for no apparent reason. Therefore, I have decided the best way to calm it down is to give the saying a little attention, put the spotlight on it, and hopefully, the world between my ears settles down after that.

"Everyone has within them a painting, a poem, a story, and a song, each truly telling the world about them."

Now some people quickly jump in and say, "A story? I've got tons of stories!" Great, but that's not the point. The emphasis on this saying should focus on everyone. Creative types have already proven their ability to create - the hook is that even those people who do not think themselves creative still have at least one of each of these lurking in their brain. Even the most button-down, uptight, belt-and-suspenders person can create a poem that reveals them. Someone as dry and bland as unbuttered toast has a song waiting to be sung. And, as a former economic analyst, I can attest that even the most analytical, left-brained corporate wonk has these things too. They just require prompting and practice to get them out.

Now, some of my readers are already having doubts - I can hear the skepticism; it's palpable even as I type. I believe that's fear talking rather than the desire to do something new. Most of us who have never painted will naturally imagine our first creation being some hideous, first-grader fingerpainting-gone-wrong nightmare and think, "I knew I couldn't do this!" That's the fear talking. Our first painting, poem, story or song is bound to be this second-hand Frankenstein's monster of creation, but that is hardly the end of the journey. That's the first step to something that can even surprise yourself.

I can also hear the doubts among some of my deeply creative followers. "I told you I'm a writer, but I can't do poems!" "I don't know music, I'm not that kind of artist!" "Painting? I wouldn't even know where to start. I just do words." There are plenty more of those that creative types are willing to produce, all in the name of defending their turf in the creative space while staying away from the scary shadowlands of unexplored territory.

To all these people I offer this strategically worded response. "Blah, blah, blah, whatever. Just try it."

Here's a little secret that might push everyone to at least take a stab at trying these four simple things. While I am a writer, and my occasional poem is public information, I also have a sketchbook that I don't show many people. Within its pages are faces, still-life drawings, and things that are not presentable to the critical public light. I have that painting in there, I just haven't made it yet.

I also have my guitar and piano, both of which I have not mastered or even developed any skill with, but sometimes I take a few strums or run a few scales just to set that part of my brain in motion. I am sure the person delivering my Amazon stuff has occasionally heard my practicing through the door and quickly walked away, but that's okay. I am just looking for my song.

I do not expect to have an exhibit at the Art Institute any time soon, and The Billboard Top 100 does not need to worry about misspelling my name. That's not the point. I poke those places in my brain to wake up different sources of creativity and see what shows up. And I know that if I keep on doing it, something will click and the creative in me will be the better for it.

Friday, March 26, 2021

In Remembrance of Writing Lost

People think writers are all about creating stories, fantasies, and all the trappings - new characters, places, things, ideas, and adventures. They're mostly right; writers create a lot. However, part of the writing process is also about knowing when something you've created is a little too "not right." Something doesn't fit, or the word count needs to come down - whatever the problem, some of those well-crafted words are about to vanish. This is a surprisingly tough part of the process.

I chose this topic to write about because this week I discovered that a technical glitch meant several of my blog posts were deleted. Destroyed. Blow'd up. Reduced to mere bits and bytes with no chance of recovery. I can't honestly say which posts they were or what the subject thread was for the different posts. All I know is that they are gone, and I felt a tangible sense of loss.

Furthermore, this is not the first time I have had to mourn what is technically no more than the loss of words. In The Book of Cain, a couple of characters were deleted entirely because they didn't drive the story. This wasn't their fault. They did nothing wrong. They were building tenants living their little grammatically correct lives, trying to move things along, then suddenly the editing pen came out and *poof!* they vanished. No funeral, no service. My readers never knew the characters existed. What a sad way to go, and yet it happens all the time.

One of the ugliest tasks writers have is the job of destroying what we create - maybe a person, a scene, a world, whatever, sometimes it has to go. It's difficult, and plenty of my fellow writers have a very difficult time justifying the elimination of their creations, even when they are a glaring problem. If you ever read something where one character just doesn't serve any purpose whatsoever, chances are it is there because the writer just could not force themselves to eliminate them. In some cases, I can't blame them, but to be a better writer you have to occasionally cut things out. Here's my advice on how to do it.

A very wise woman once told me that when you need to cut someone out of your life, use a knife and not a cheese grater. Assuming she didn't want me to stab people, I think the meaning was to just cut swiftly and cleanly, without hesitation or unnecessary effort. Don't try to pare back a useless character or redundant scene, hoping the smaller version will somehow work. When something needs to go, just get rid of it.

Did that sound cold? Well, it is, but there can be compassion as well. For the characters I have loved yet deleted, I have kept their Word files in different directories, tucked away for another day (they're not dead, they're sleeping). I understand that these characters are not a fit for the current work, but there might be other works for them. I have my little index of unused characters, an Island of Misfit Toys, and they all live and hang out there. And, indeed, a few of them have been called up for future works.

Lastly, the most important thing for a writer is always creation. Sometimes it might feel that if we create ten ideas but only use three, then we've only created three things. Nope - we created ten things that we learned from, and three of them can be built upon. That's a lot of growth in that creation, and even though those things may never make the final cut, our growth as a writer will be evident.

So to all the characters who met the red pen - rest in peace until we use you again.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Notes About Creativity

Call it an educated guess, but to the outside world, us creative types must look like magicians. We can take something simple like paint or charcoal and capture emotions with them. By merely touching the keys of a keyboard or a piano, we create - seemingly out of thin air - these compositions that can move something deep inside our being. To the unknowing, this is more than just making something, this must be sorcery. And yet, here we are, plucking the strings of a guitar or singing words in a certain way and things just happen. Magic indeed!

Well, to creatives and non-creatives alike, let me reveal another little secret: It's exhausting.

The thing about creativity that often gets overlooked is that its magical properties come at a price. Writing a story or a song is indeed a joy, just like any labor of love, but often we overlook the labor part. It can be very intensive work, and while I have never seen a author break a sweat while writing their manuscript, under the surface they are flexing all their intellectual and inspirational muscles full-time. The work that goes into music, poetry, painting, and so forth is the deep current flowing under still waters, and it comes at a price. People might not see how mentally sore the creative type is after finishing their masterpiece, but it's there, and it can be depleting.

Sometimes, to charge my creative batteries, I watch other people engage in their own creative processes. I'll click on a stream and watch someone play music for a while (this is much better to do live, but, well, COVID). Some streamers paint, others sing, some just engage in elaborate discussions about life, the universe, and everything. This is all very enjoyable, but I make sure to take a timeout to appreciate how this person is working when they do what they do, and that it comes at a price. 

There's a saying that if your job is something you enjoy, you will never work a day in your life. I offer a counterpoint that if you do what you enjoy as work, sometimes you will have to do what you enjoy when you are too tired to do it, which takes the enjoyment away very quickly. Ask any writer who does freelance assignments about that constant level of enjoyment, and they will likely tell you that sometimes writing can be particularly draining because it's an assignment, not a joy. 

My point in all this ultimately rolls back to a matter of appreciation. To the non-creatives, it can be so valuable to just tell a musician or a writer how a song or a story moved you, or how mystical it seems for them to create, with such simple ingredients, a complex piece of work. Recognition is like emotional nourishment, and sometimes the simplest words of admiration can be a full meal to those who created the piece.

To the creatives out there, well, obviously, the same thing goes about appreciation. However, the more important point is to occasionally give yourself a chance to breathe in the miracle that is your talent. You possess a strange alchemy that allows you to turn everyday words, sounds and colors into gold - embrace this. And sometimes, embracing this means giving yourself a chance to just say, "I'm tired. I need to charge my batteries. I will create something tomorrow but for today, I will just watch others be beautiful." As a creative-type, you've earned it.

And to the streaming community out there and the energy you pour into your work, understand that it is appreciated. You may not hear it that often, but it's still true.