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, June 24, 2022

About the Background (Story)

There's this thing that happens in some stories called "White Room Syndrome," when the writing is focused on the character interplay and the setting simply vanishes. Now, that might seem like a pretty intense conversation or interaction, but usually it ends up being a little boring and lackluster. We need to remember that a part of what readers do is create this world in their heads, so we need to throw them a little background information to fill in the setting. Otherwise, It becomes minimalist theater which, as too many people may know, can become very boring and lackluster.

Now, this piece isn't about making sure your characters have things to interact with; that's pretty much been said. Rather, it is the importance of your characters having background as well, or at least you knowing about those driving forces in your character's history that push them to do what they do. Characters without backgrounds become similar to that white room, except the room is their personality. And, frankly, I think we all can recall times we've met someone or dated someone who doesn't really have any background context to them. Chances are, we weren't positively influenced by the experience.

By the way, there is a difference between knowing the character's background and having them discuss their background. Again, I am sure we have met people who lack personal boundaries and tell stories about their life in response to anything - that can be kind of grating, or perhaps informative, or something in between. We don't have to make our characters that outward to incorporate their background - sometimes the best characters keep very quiet about their past but the reader can tell it affects the character. At this point, the unknown draws the reader in, the urge to discover is activated, and the pages start turning. However, the writer better know why this is happening.

Think of a character who shows up at a bar to meet some friends. When they order drinks, he says, "Just water." This kind of unusual action immediately creates some interest because it's out-of-place, but at some point there needs to be a pay-off. The writer needs to know why well ahead of time. Standard reason: the character's an alcoholic. Or maybe that's what the writer wants you to think, but actually the character never drinks when he's about to get into a fight, and he knows one's coming. Maybe his experience with these friends often means he will be designated driver by proxy. Maybe he's on a cleanse. A million reasons why - the writer gets the luxury of teasing the reader, drawing interest, and playing the game page by page.

I always write a lot of backstory into my characters, and most of it never makes it directly into the final product. However, it moves the character to act in certain ways, and the reader picks up on that. In that regard, the characters actions are organic enough that they feel real and precipitated by something, and steers the character away from "White Room Syndrome."

Monday, June 20, 2022

Empathy for the Devil

First off - yes, I know the Rolling Stones song is called, "Sympathy for the Devil." My little play on this goes back to last week. As you may recall, last Friday's post, "Writing and Empathy" was all about getting richer, deeper characters by understanding and appreciating what it would be like to be them. I also made a quick reference that this would work for antagonists as well, so this bit shows how we can make our bad guys stand out not by doing bad things but by writing them with empathy. And what better way is there to do this than by showing it through the baddest of the bad guys himself - the Devil?

That's right - lets look at the Devil. Satan. Lucifer. Old Scratch. the Prince of Darkness. Whatever name you prefer, he is absolutely the worst. The world of literature and song is chock full of stories involving the Devil, whether he is wreaking havoc upon mankind or going on down to Georgia, he is a bad dude. We know the deal - telling lies, wielding fire, stealing souls, all the usual tricks. However, in most of these stories, old Mephistopheles comes off as rather flat. He might dress well, but he's actually just a one-trick pony, and writing should do better than that. With a little empathy, we can flesh out our diabolical character, and make him stand out from the crowd of literary evil.

First off, we can offer some empathy through answering the basic journalistic questions that should always be asked: Who, what, where, when and why. We already know the who, what, where and when of our bad guy, so the real big one is why, and this is when it gets interesting. Why does the Devil come for peoples' souls? Well, the old routine says, "That's what he does." This is a cop-out, and we should go deeper. We should give the reader an idea of why this particular soul, this particular moment, is so important. Maybe even consider some background.

While there are many back stories about the Devil, they all center around him loving God unconditionally, but being cast out of Heaven because he could not accept God's eternal love for Man. Since that point, the Devil has tried to reclaim his seal at God's right hand by proving time and again how he was in fact better than Man, how Man was weak, fragile, corruptible, and ultimately unworthy of such love. Some stories argue that the Devil would gladly wipe out mankind so that God would have no other choice but to admit the Devil was right. All in the name of love. 

It doesn't matter whether you buy into this story - make up your own backstory if you want. The point is that when we write about the Devil, we know where he is coming from and what motivates his action. By looking at his side of the story - by showing empathy - our Devil can have more dimension and depth. Of course, by no means does this mean you have to like him or give him the benefit of the doubt. He's the freaking Devil! But by connecting to what drives him, you answer the most important question about characters - Why? - and your story can be about the big follow-up to that - How?

Now that I have riled up more than a few people, I am going to sit back for a while and schedule some time to reply to the inevitable hate mail. However, I hope that, at its core, we realize that even antagonists come off better with that empathic perspective, and that filling in the blanks can also deepen the story. Even with the Devil.

Friday, June 17, 2022

Writing and Empathy

I know I promised that my next few posts would just be bubbling with content from the recent conference I went to, and it might seem that I am diverging from that commitment. However, your trust means a lot, so I have every intention of connecting the conference stuff to today's post. Like a lot of stories, sometimes you need to hang in there for the payoff.

In my writing group yesterday, one author wrote an incredibly touching, tear-in-the-eye piece called, Loss. As the title suggests, it was a piece reflecting on a recent loss in the author's life. However, to better process this tragedy, it is written in the perspective of someone else rather than the author. This character is the spouse of the recently departed, and it explores how they see the world and everything through the lens of grief. It was a very touching piece, and the secret (or one of the secrets) was the fact that it overflowed with - you guessed it - empathy. 

Simply put, empathy is the effort to feel something from someone else's perspective. Not actually replacing that person's role, but walking in their shoes as it were, and seeing the world through their eyes and with their heart. When emotional situations emerge, a natural response is for us to internalize and relate it to ourselves. Being able to empathize, however, gives a new meaning to the situation we experience, and an insight we may have never had if we remained in our own shoes. This author, connecting to this loss through another character instead of through their own experience, gives added dimension to an already-intense situation. 

So, how does the conference get involved in all this? Well, probably the best panel we had was one on character development. Often, supporting characters can come off as flat or as merely means to an end because we keep them in the frame of their purpose regarding the main character. In particular, this is the curse of antagonists, who often seem like one-dimensional obstacles rather than actual people with motives and intentions. This conference section offered up a simple cure to avoid this trap - empathy.

The best cure for the flat character is one I have mentioned in this post before. I call it walking in their skin. If I have a supporting character that doesn't seem very deep or filled-in, I start up a new document and start writing character sketches from that character's perspective. Simple things at first - that character goes to the store. How does their mind operate with that task? Do they march straight through or look around for a while? Do they interact with others? Is this a comfortable experience or an annoying chore? I look at the world from their eyes, and see how things mind look different. I keep on doing these sketches until I know that character from the inside, then I go back to my main story. At that point, their scenes can't help but to improve.

Particularly for emotionally charged situations, try writing about it from the perspective of another person - a spouse, like the author in my group did, a parent, a child, a pet - anyone who has a separate view than yours. As you see the world differently, you see more of it, and it will show in your writing. And, of course, your readers will pick up on it whether they realize it or not.

Monday, June 13, 2022

Old Dogs and New Tricks

As promised, I have returned from this two-day writer's conference just overflowing with renewed energy and excitement about writing. And of course, I fully intend on pouring all that into my next few postings. Having said that, I do want to make sure that I don't flood everyone with too much information in the first two posts, spend all that energy too quickly, and not have anything to tide me over for the summer. So I thought it best to approach this from the so-called 30,000-feet view, and focus in over the next few weeks.

The excitement about workshops is that they are concentrated, intense, and intent on getting writers into a better frame of mind about a particular aspect of their craft. This is actually a pretty important part of the discussion, so I want to talk about the different kind of workshops out there, what to expect, and what everyone can get from any conference. Yes everyone. Even old guys like me.

This particular conference was about getting published, and this covers a lot of real estate, mostly from making your writing top-notch stuff to soliciting for agents/publishers to marketing your work and yourself. I have been running in this circle for a while, but I have indeed found that there were things I still needed to know, and things I needed to fix. For the people in this stage of their writing journey, these conferences do a few good things. First, they put you in touch with people in the business - editors, agents, and publishers who can become part of your network. And you get a chance to have absolute strangers see your work and offer feedback - brutal, honest, this-is-what-you-need-for-the-big-leagues feedback. Utterly priceless. Lastly, you get to share the common bond of the writer struggling to make it big. Misery loves company, especially when they can write about it later.

Now, other workshops cover different areas, and these are just as priceless. Lots of local writing workshops will often focus on the art of writing - how to create a story, the art of fleshing out characters and getting readers interested, polishing your work, and so on. These can cover a broad range of writers - from people who want to become a writer to writers who need someone to look at their work and sometimes just people who want to digest what other people are creating and thinking about. Sometimes these groups can be intimidating to the beginner, so it is always worth it to see if the group targets beginning authors or wants people to have experience. In either case, there is always something to gain.

The workshop I moderated in the pre-COVID era was one that motivated people to start writing. Whether these are people who used to write but fell out of the habit, want to write their story but don't know how, or just simply want to try something new, these should be open, constructive forums where people help each other move forward as writers. And I have been fortunate to witness several people enter such groups as curious beginners and grow into published authors. No matter how many times it's happened, it is wonderful to behold.

So, in short, if you want to get your inner writer some exercise, look around locally for writing groups and workshops, and see what meets your needs. At the very least, you will meet some new people with common interests, and there's a good chance you can learn something new. I know this old dog did just that.

Friday, June 10, 2022

Self-Investment

As I mentioned in my last post, I am in fact writing this post during the lunch break of a Writer's Workshop, so it will be brief but hopefully influential. There have only been a couple of sessions so far, but the vibe I am getting from the facilitators is that there are two kinds of writers: The ones who see writing as an ongoing process toward some greater purpose, and everyone else.

The part that stands out about the first group is they recognize that writing is, first and foremost, a personal mission that one must pursue on their own. Chances are, we all started off doing our own writing as school assignments before we decided to write our own essays and stories. However, at some point, some part of our mind said, "Hey, I like this, and I don't need Ms. Lester telling me what to write or how many pages it will be - I can do this whenever I want!" At some point, this moved from just a creative exercise into something more, and it began feeding into itself, turning someone who loves writing into a full-fledged writer.

Whatever the catalyst may have been, this starts a process that writers all understand on some level: Writing is an exercise in self-investment. You will reap dividends in line with how much effort you put into it. If you just write occasionally, you will progress at a slow, steady rate. However, the more you write, the more time you dedicate to creating and improving your work, the more you will be able to accomplish. So simple, yet so often overlooked. On that note, here are three tips to help motivate you to get better returns from self-investment.

  • The more you read, the more you write. Give yourself a chance to read different things, explore different subjects, and consume all kinds of pose and poetry. This doesn't necessarily improve your writing skills immediately, but it will push you toward trying to create things similar to what you've read.
  • The more you write, the more you write. This seems obvious, but it's more than just a statement. As you find yourself getting into the habit of writing regularly, your mind starts processing things differently and you see the world in a narrative form. I have writer friends who have committed themselves to this to the point where an idea will come to mind and they have to jot something down as soon as possible because their creative mind now demands it. Literally demands it. That is a truly dedicated writer, and they got this way by turning writing into a lifestyle.
  • Writing is a habit, not a goal. When someone sets out to write a book, it's an admirable task. However, the best books don't come from someone who said, "I want to write a book; what should it be about?" but rather, "I want to explore this story idea and see what comes of it." In the latter case, the goal is an ongoing process that just happens to create a novel as part of it. Life continues on after that, and more ideas come to life, but the product is often a result, not the objective.

Speaking of which, I need to quickly publish this and get back to the conference. And I guarantee you that come Monday, my mind and blog will be bubbling with ideas as a result of everything I hear today and tomorrow. And I can also assure you that in the midst of all this inspiration, I will also do a little writing.

Monday, June 6, 2022

Stories and Conclusions

Sometimes I get this question and it usually lingers with me long after I've answered it: "I'm not sure how to end the story." This question is not as easy as it may seem, because it's one that touches on philosophical themes. Does any story really end? Isn't the end of one story just the beginning of another? And, of course, is this work something that you plan on continuing? But all that aside, it's worth taking a look at how we wrap up a piece of writing.

First and foremost, we need to go back to something we should've been thinking about when we created this piece: "What do I want to say?" Our stories need some purpose and some reason for us to create them - a statement to be said, an idea to be discussed, or maybe the whole piece is a very long answer to a simple question. The point is that we need to think about this initial motive in order to know where to wrap things up.

Think about a book series or some show you've streamed that you've invested a lot of time in, and the conclusion left you with a sense of satisfaction. What feelings resonate with you the most? Was it the sense that the characters had grown and developed in a way very much in line with the story, and that you were a participant in it? Was there a satisfying sense of accomplishment at the end? Perhaps a strong message was made about life or morality and that really stuck with you. These are the things we need to think about when we ask ourselves how we plan on ending a story.

Now think about a similar story where the ending fell flat. (Game of Thrones comes to mind, plus a few Netflix series, but I won't go into specifics.) Think about the parts that made you say, "We were building up to that?", "What about all these other story arcs?" or my favorite, "So... that's it?" Each of those questions should prompt you as a writer to recognize how you would've created a more satisfying ending in the broadest sense - not whether a particular character lives or dies, but, say, whether or not the message from their story was clear and complete, and all the factors leading up to that were brought to a satisfying point. 

Once you can look at those good and bad examples, look back at your own story and ask, "What do I want to say?" and "What will the reader want to take away from this?" Sometimes, a character's happiness is destroyed, but if that was the inevitable result of their actions and there was a clear track leading to that point, such an ending can be satisfying. Sad, but satisfying. However, a happy ending for someone who clearly never earned nor deserved it can be one of the more disappointing endings around.

Conclusions are difficult, and they should be worth the deep investment in time and thought that the reader has placed into reading your story. This obliges you to take a good amount of time to answer that simple question, "How do I end this?"

Friday's post will likely be small if it exists at all, since I will be attending a big writing workshop. My apologies, but rest assured, it will provide ample fodder for the next few commentaries. So until then, just keep on writing.

Friday, June 3, 2022

Big Energy

We all know the scene. You're at the concert, waiting for it to begin. The anticipation is building, your gut tightening as you wait for those opening chords. Then, the house lights dim, the stage lights burst on, and the headliner comes out with that big, "Hello, Chicago!" You and 20,000 other fans cheer wildly and the concert begins. You are enthralled for the rest of the night.

Now, if you have experienced this, you know the feeling is simply amazing (and it applies in cities other than Chicago). It is a grand, unifying experience that is just hard to replicate in the real world. However, there's something that happens under the radar that connects you and the performer on another level. In a little part of your mind, that performer up on the stage has just said hello to you. That's right, you there in the 25th row, far right side of the stage. A part of your mind activates a personal connection and stirs up some extra energy because that performer said hello to you, as opposed to a general hello to all the good people of Chicago. And as the concert goes on and the performers talk to (not with) the crowd, that personal energy builds. And it feels good.

This little trick - this "Hello, Chicago," - doesn't just work in music. It works in any medium where the artist wants to build that energy by creating a bond with the audience, be it a bunch of fans, people at an art showing, or just one single reader. In this case, the artist happens to know the city they are performing in, and uses that to establish a common ground - to connect the wires and start transmitting the energy. A writer can and should use this same technique, and has more than one way to do it.

In the case of the concert, there's a natural draw. I likely shelled out $200 for that ticket, so I am already a receptive audience. If I am a reader who likes historical narrative, ships, and World War One, I will naturally be drawn to books like Dead Wake by Erik Larson, and the writer doesn't have to try too hard to make the sale. However, Mr. Larson would be wise to make sure to build that energy. His words should reach out to me to communicate the historical relevance, make me feel the water, and understand the tension of the war.

The best way an author can build that energy (in historical narratives or fiction) is to appeal to those aspects most important to the story. Offer the saltiness of the ocean water, the feel of being on an ocean liner in 1914, every element that speaks to the subject matter should be crafted to be a very personal experience.

In personal stories, this is all the more important. We can tell a story about a journey across the ocean and describe in vivid detail every sunset, whale sighting and angry wave, but we can do more. We can make the personal connection - offer up our feelings about that sunset. Our personal awe and splendor of seeing a whale, or our nausea from the rolling waters. When we talk about these in a common language our reader can understand, we are connecting with them and building up that energy. We are giving them that, "Hello, Chicago!" and they bind themselves to our story.

Building that energy is strictly up to the writer, but it is self-investment. The more it's done, the more it draws in the reader. And, similar to shouting out to the crowd, it also works in places other than Chicago.