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, July 19, 2024

Act Two: The Big Arrow

After my recent post discussing how to create a story by thinking about the ending first, I started thinking about the other pieces of a story and how we write those. In particular, my brain started to wrap around the concept of the middle of the story. For brevity's sake, I will refer to it simply as Act Two, but different techniques assign different names and purposes for it, which can get very confusing. The important part is that we think about just why Act Two can often be the most difficult part to write.

I know many writers who have kicked off a story guns-a-blazin', building up the world around them, offering a full, rich character, jumping into the inciting event, and sending the hero off on their journey. Amazing! How could this fail? Well, that's the thing - the reason I bring these up is that these stories usually stall after that point. The writer hits a "what now" moment, and the creation stops. In a novel, that wall hits at 70-100 pages (for me at least). It takes a special kind of push to go into the Act Two part, and it requires a deeper analysis of The Big Arrow.

I know, I know... what's The Big Arrow. Well, think of a simple question or dilemma. The next step we usually take is to solve it. We move from A to B because that's the best way to resolve a situation - one step to the next. Question --> answer. Problem --> solution. Conflict --> resolution. And what lies between those situations? The Big Arrow that we just assume happens on its own, though it is actually quite elaborate and deep (even though my font choice suggests otherwise).

The Big Arrow is something we need to tease apart, similar to a solved math problem. we see 25*12 = 300 and move on with our existence. However, Act Two is all in that equal sign; it's everything we do during that step. For Seinfeld fans, it's the "yadda, yadda, yadda" of storytelling: We can get from the beginning to the end quick enough, but it's obvious that something went on in there that we don't know about.

In terms of The Big Arrow for Act Two, it's the range where the character encounters obstacles, learns more about reaching their goal, and potentially has some kind of spiritual growth. In action stories, this is where our hero starts finding the simple henchmen of the criminal mastermind he hopes to defeat in Act Three, and one-by-one takes them out, all while working his way up the ladder to the villain's lieutenants, right-hand men, and eventually the boss himself. In a romance, this is where our protagonist develops more elaborate feelings for someone, challenges themselves to become more worthy, and perhaps prove themselves to be better than someone else vying for the same person's affections. In any case, the critical points are personal growth, facing obstacles, overcoming challenges, and if possible, raising the stakes. Is our action hero up against the clock, with a bomb set to destroy downtown Denver if he fails? Will our romantic lead be able to prove themselves before their beloved runs off to romantic Bratislava with someone else? Building tension should always be a part of Act Two (and yes, I paralleled Denver and Bratislava - deal with it.)

The only danger about Act Two is that the challenges and victories can become a kind of, "wash, rinse, repeat" cycle, technically never ending if the challenges just keep on coming. The trials of the hero should always bring them closer to victory, and measurably so, or the reader starts getting bored and the writing turns from a tense build-up of events to BOSH writing (BOSH - Bunch Of Stuff Happens). It short, The Big Arrow needs to hit its target - Act Three. And we should know all about that target from the moment we finish Act One - which will be next week's post.   

      

Monday, July 15, 2024

The Third Act

Most of the writers I know start writing their works by starting at the beginning and working their way through, page by page, in the order the story will be told. Even if the story jumps around different times and places, they write page 1 before they write page 2, then go on to page 3, 4, 5, and so forth. I have never met anyone who writes the ending first then tries to fill in everything that led to that point. However, putting together the concept for a story can actually work best if we mentally start from the end and try to figure out how we got there. This is called The Third Act story.

To simplify things, a lot of stories are written in three-act structure. The first act introduces our characters, an immediate conflict, and an inciting incident that kicks the story into motion. The second act is the adventure of the character facing and overcoming obstacles that prevent them from achieving their goals, all while raising the stakes of this adventure. This all ends in a big crescendo when the character reaches the make-or-break point. Then they fall right into Act Three - the confrontation, realization, and growth of the character when their goal is reached. This is the culmination of every word preceding it. This is the reason we read through all the rest of the pages - for the big payoff in Act Three. And it better be worth it.

Well, if Act Three is so important, maybe when we think about a story, we start not by thinking about the characters, the opening line, the introduction of conflict, etc., but let's think about what the reader should experience in that last act. What message do you want to tell the reader? What is the takeaway feeling? Do you want them to close the book and think about how any struggle is worth it for a just cause? How the ends justify the means (or don't)? How the pursuit of freedom is a neverending journey? Well, whatever that message is, start with that. Figure out that last page (in your head) then work backwards to figure out Act Three.

This means your next step is to figure out what kind of good conflict needs be be resolved in order to express that message. Is it the messenger crossing a war-torn land to deliver information that could end the fighting, and finally overcoming his last obstacles and delivering the goods with his last breath of life? Is it the weaker person finally standing up to his nemesis in a defiant show of courage? Maybe it's as simple as someone having a mind-altering moment of realization. Whatever it is, we try and think about that part next. Get something strong that we can visualize in our head. Then we take it one step further.

What were the factors that the character had to overcome and how is this person different from when the reader first met them. The Act Three character should have a level of growth from when we first introduce them - what do we want the reader to realize? A newfound maturity? A realization about themselves or the world around them? Act Three needs to show a character who has grown, so we need to frame in our mind what this final product is - for better or worse.

At this point, we know how the story is going to end, so the only thing left is for us the start writing page 1, setting up the character, the setting, etc., and finding the path that leads them from that page to Act Three. At that point, the process becomes so much easier. It takes a little practice, but thinking about The Third Act makes the first two acts write themselves.           

Friday, July 12, 2024

Sometimes It's "Don't Show, Kind of Tell"

While most of my readers know me from writing workshops or some other orbit of writers, a few readers also know me through my social media feed (primarily FaceBook, the platform formerly known as Twitter, etc. - feel free to drop a friend request). And those who know me through FaceBook are aware that I went through a very stressful adventure this week - a very life-in-the-balance situation (not my life, but still). There are a number of takeaways I got from this, including some I can use as a writer, but the life experience was so stirring I have to share.

One of my friends lives a few towns over and I visit her periodically. She is "along in her years" as she might say as a good lady of the south, and has lived on her own since her husband passed away five years ago. We have nice visits - sitting back, drinking scotch and talking about writing and the world at large. However, as someone of her years would attest, she was not doing as well as she'd like to lately. A few more doctor's appointments, a few extra prescriptions, more aches and pains, and so on. We'd talk about them, she'd just say she was being fussy, and life went on.

Then our local heat wave came to visit. Not as hot as some of the ones I've experienced here, but thick with humidity so the air had a weight to it. Now, my friend had air conditioning and no fear of using it, so I felt a little better that she would be okay. However, friends being the people we check in on just because we want to, I gave her a call.

No answer. No answering machine pick-up.

Okay, that was unusual. As a woman who was along in her years, technology was no longer her friend and on several occasions I had helped her work with the phone, her computer, her refrigerator, and basically anything that used electricity. I knew the answering machine was a little prone to problems, but this didn't seem right. Maybe she was visiting her friend, where their dogs would play together. Maybe she was getting her hair done. Maybe. Or maybe not.

I went to her house unannounced, and the concern rose. There was a package on the porch. Unusual. I knocked on the door - no answer. I didn't hear the A/C rumbling away. There was some mail in the mailbox, but not a lot. I knocked again - nothing. One of her cats hopped up in the window amidst the blinds, but that was it.

Now, here's the writing lesson here. Hopefully, you are interested in how this story ends. More to the point, you might be as worried as I was at the time. Why? Because I have only told you pieces of the story. I have focused on the absence of things, on the silence that makes us worry. Sometimes we show our characters and communicate a scene to the reader, and it is full and rich yet somehow lacking in any kind of suspense. By only offering pieces on information, by selecting specific pieces of the puzzle that elude to an image but don't reveal it, we draw our reader in and they start drawing their own conclusions as they read on, hoping for the happy ending. Does this work? Well, when I posted this situation on FaceBook asking for advice, I got over 140 responses - the most I ever received outside of my birthday.

Now if this had been a tragic story, I wouldn't have exploited my friend to make a point. It did turn out that my friend had a medical emergency and was in the hospital, but it happened before I even called. My friend is recovering nicely and doing well, and might finally take my advice and keep her cane by her side at all times. However, my adventure to her house during the heat wave provided an opportunity to present how sometimes it's all about not showing the whole story, but teasing the reader with just enough information to make them want more. And as for my friend (who requested her name be left out), well, she's a writer as well, so I am sure she appreciates how this came out.

And as a side lesson - always remember your cane!       

Monday, July 8, 2024

One True Sentence

Yes, I often get hung up on writing stories. Not the writer's block kind of hung up, but rather trying to think about how I want to present a story, lay out the idea, create a mood, all that stuff. I get lost in all the technicalities and lessons and rules, and lose track of my process. It's easy to do - sometimes, if I'm not careful, it's inevitable. Invariably, what I end up is pretty scattershot - it misses the point, it lacks the feelings, it tells rather than shows, all those usual mistakes than I should've long since outgrown. And I know it will happen again.

This is when I fall back on Hemingway. True, this was an author who could at times be very succinct, and at other times wander all over the page. Everyone seems to have a very distinct opinion about him, and you can usually tell which of Hemingway's works a person has read by their feelings about him as a writer. Well, be that as it may, I often set those opinions aside and dig into the individual quotes. Often I take them very much out of context, using them for my own personal ends rather than his intentions - whatever those may have been. And in this regard, I often return to the idea of "One True Sentence."

This phrase comes from Hemingway's posthumous memoir, A Moveable Feast, which in itself is shrouded in controversy due to many factors. Besides the many edits, rewrites, and so forth prior to its publication, it's hard to tell where the original words land. However, those things are not important relative to my purpose (as I said, I often take things out of context for situational purposes). In this regard, I look at one particular tip he supposedly offered himself as a starting writer in 1920s Paris:

Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know. 

I like to think these are his actual words, the young writer telling himself in no uncertain terms that he does not have to be afraid of failure because he knows of his past successes, and all he has to do is be true to himself. Armed with this quote, I approach my writing from a new trajectory. Whenever I have to write something, I get away from all the rules, all the noise, everything that is getting in my way, and I ask myself in no uncertain terms, "What is this writing about?"

At that point, the only thing I need to write is that one true sentence. It doesn't matter what the elements of the story are, who it's for, or what the characters are about. It can be a story about an agoraphobic werewolf, a vampire trying to style their hair, or aliens arriving on Earth just in time for New Year's Eve celebrations - it doesn't matter. At its core, a story has a very simple meaning, a very personal message. If I focus on that one question - "What is this writing about?" - and answer it in the most simplistic way possible, then the rest is just words surrounding that answer.

Now, Hemingway scholars might find this overly simplistic, or that I am missing the greater point of this quote. That's fine. Like most products of the creative process, it can mean many things to many people. This is the takeaway I need for that one moment in time. In short, once you focus on the truth of the situation, then you are writing in exactly the manner meant to be. The rest is just words.    

Friday, June 28, 2024

Words in the Fog

Yes, I am going to start off another post whining about my health. I have been recovering from pneumonia and I think I am just about there. The only part that is lingering a little too long is... the fog. Maybe you've heard of brain fog - it being one of the extreme symptoms of long COVID where a person can barely put thoughts together. For most people, the fog is not as crippling. However, it does make ideas and concepts more difficult to grasp and process. And being that I am in the fog these days, I know of what I speak.

Fortunately, I have gotten into this place a few times and in doing so, learned how to manage when my brain's vision is very restricted. It's tough to do, but it can be a very beneficial writing exercise even when you are not trapped in the pea-soup struggles of limited mental capacity. In fact, it can help with a lot of things - meditation comes to mind - where it is all about living in a small world, not a big one.

Think about being in the worst fog you've known - in a weather sense for now. The kind that triggers all kinds of fears because most of the world you've known is shadowy and obscure. The stuff you wouldn't want to drive in - or worse yet, that you have to drive in but can barely see the road. What is your strategy for moving through it? What is your plan?

The simplest move is to set your sight on the nearest thing in your field of vision - a streetlight, the road, a tree. You take that one item and train yourself on it. You approach it, bring it closer, try to identify the slightest detail about it. You think you see a tree nearby. Take a step closer and inventory the details. Would you call it tall or broad? Skinny or leafy? Alive or dead? Bring yourself closer to it, trying to answer whatever detail you can see. Get it to the point where you can answer those questions, then ask more? Does it have bark? Broken branches? Could you climb it? (Disclaimer: Don't climb trees in the fog.) Focus all of your attention on the simple, the mundane, and understand the tree piece by piece.

Whether you are in a mental fog or a writer's fog, the exercise is to just take on one piece of the world. I have written myself out of the fog simply by writing a narrative about the feel of the keys of my keyboard as I type those very words. I focus on their give, their resistance, the slight texture of each key (except for the smooth A, S, D, and W - if you know, you know.) I explore one simple element, bringing my whole world down to that level. And from there, I create.

Now, does anyone care about a narrative piece about someone typing on a cold winter's morning, and getting a three-paragraph description of how the keyboard feels? I am thinking no. However, I do know that when I created that piece years ago during a similar illness, it helped me concentrate. It helped me focus. It helped me write. Ultimately, I was able to create something when my mind needed to create anything. And this piece you have just read might not be perfect, but it was written through a pretty bad fog by simply bringing my attention to a very specific part of my process. The rest, as they say, is just letters.      

Monday, June 24, 2024

Writing Cheat Codes

Admittedly, I am still not back to 100% health. As noted in my previous post, I have been trying to bounce back from some walking pneumonia, and it takes a lot of energy to do things. Even though I might look like my "bounce" is fine, in fact, those things are still a struggle. After my writing workshop on Saturday, it took an great amount of energy to just get home and take a two-hour nap. It was truly exhausting! So, needless to say, my writing volume has taken a hit.

As also noted last week, I decided to do some reading to feed my creativity. However, it came to me that I could fall back on a few writing tricks that usually help me produce good, emotionally gripping pieces of work without totally expending myself. These are what I call the cheat codes of writing - the little tricks you can do to create a moving piece without much effort. Now, like most cheat codes, other experienced people can tell right away when you are using these, and they might call you out. However, if your objective is just to get some writing in and really flex your creative and emotional muscles, cheat codes work just fine.

The first cheat code is to write about your earliest good experience with a parent, grandparent, favorite aunt, or other loving family member. Write it from your perspective as a child, or reflect upon it as an adult - whichever the case, it should be a story written from the perspective of love and innocence. I always talk my childhood experience of sitting with my mother, watching her write articles for the newspaper, and plenty of times I sat beside my father's easel and watched him paint. Writing such memories from the perspective of an innocent child will move the reader because they are simple observations from a loving child. The story doesn't have to be more than that and it will still move the reader. More importantly, it will remind your inner writer that you still got it.

This next one's easy: pet stories. Everyone likes a story about a child and their first pet. Regardless of whether the pet was a cat, dog, horse, chicken, or fish, writing about that connection between a person and an animal is a natural draw. Something very primal, very simple, is brought out with those stories, and every reader has some kind of understanding of that connection - even if they hadn't felt it themselves. My father insisted he did not like pets, and we had a bunch of them. And yes, he loved every one of them despite his complaints (there's a great story about me catching him dancing a Kentucky two-step with our cat, but that's for another time). Writing a pet story gets a lot of mileage.

This one's not as easy from a personal perspective, but it's an easy win for a quality story: Death. Write about that moment you realized what death was. It could be as simple as when your family had to put down your dog, or when an uncomfortable first-grade teacher gathered everyone in class together to tell them that one of their friends wouldn't be there anymore. If it's close to the heart, all the better. Those moments have a universal connectivity with most every reader, so writing it will garner a response every time.

And if you want to really hit the trifecta (and you have the right ingredients), write that story about the day your first, most beloved pet died. The Dead Pets story is the master cheat code. Write that story. If you shed a few of your own tears while creating it, every reader will do the same.

For my next trick, I am going to take a two-hour nap in preparation for my next writing workshop tonight. Maybe some day I will write about it...      

Monday, June 17, 2024

Instead of Writing, How About Reading?

For those of you who keep up with my posts and caught Friday's bit about overworking, let me just say a few things. First, I stick by my words. Sometimes it is better to get some reading in to satisfy our need for creative exploration. Second, the things I wrote during that period of overload were not my best works. You will not be seeing them. With any luck, nobody will. Third - and this is the most important of them all - when you overload yourself, make sure you don't get sick.

A famous ancient philosopher once said, "Check yourself before you wreck yourself." Unfortunately, I did not do that as much as I should've. Belatedly, I did "check" myself in the sense of finally going to a doctor, who has a pretty good feeling that had already "wrecked" myself to some degree. Nothing permanent, nothing crippling, but nothing good or worthy of an origin story. To make a long story short, it was 97 degrees out here and I was in the doctor's office, watching her set up my prescriptions for treatment of walking pneumonia.

On the bright side, I can walk around, which is helpful. On the downside, it (and most every other activity) quickly exhausts me. Even typing up this post is a bit of an ordeal. However, I have decided to take the other part of my own advice and do the reading thing. I will still be going to my writing workshops if I can muster up the energy, and if I get inspired, I will write things. However, my primary goal will be to read things - particularly, things I have already read that really got my brain thinking in a different way.

And on that note, I will offer my Big List of Things to Read, a.k.a. - Reading in the Time of Pneumonia. Take them or leave them - these are what I will be going through:

Non-fiction:

  • Liar's Poker, The Big Short, Boomerang (The mortgage crisis in three books), Michael Lewis
  • Natural Obsessions, Natalie Angier
  • Money Makes the World Go Round, Barbara Garson

Fiction: 

  • Skeleton Crew, Stephen King
  • Night Watch, Terry Pratchett
  • Thieves' World, assorted authors

I hope to be back Friday with some actual advice on writing. For now, I have to go and pick up a big pile of pills. Stay healthy and keep on writing.