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, January 14, 2022

Writing Tools: The Gauge

Gauge: noun, (gāj), Any instrument for ascertaining or regulating the level, state, dimensions or forms of things

The most common writing tool for me is the writer's gauge. Before I commit one word to my keyboard, I whip out this bad boy and determine just where things are going to go. Sometimes people jump into the writing process without first using their gauge, and that's okay. It's also a great way to set yourself up for a lot of rewrites, but that's another story. For now, let's think about what this fine little tool can do for us as writers.

Let's say I have an idea. I don't know the story yet, maybe I don't even have a clean grasp of how I want to present it. Perhaps it's just a scene in my head and I want to flesh it out somehow. Let's say it's a memory of talking with my mother in our family room when I was four. At this point, I bring out the gauge and let it do its thing.

The best thing the gauge can do is help me figure out what I have and what I want to turn it into. I use this fine tool by measuring out the details not just of this isolated, distant memory, but why a part of me suddenly wants to commit this to the page. I proceed to assess the different dimensions and measure everything about this one kernel of an idea:

  • Why is this moment important?
  • Is this about the memory or the situation?
  • What stands out in this memory? Scenery? Context? Feelings?
  • What do I want to tell the reader?
  • How should the reader feel at the end?

At the very least, measuring out these parts should give me an idea of where I should start. Gauging these different metrics should help me focus my story into something more than just recalling a memory. By the time I answer those questions, I should have a narrative in mind. 

Once I go through that list, here's what I have: That little chat when I was four was important because it's the earliest surviving memory I have of interacting with my mother. This is an interesting situation because my mother first got me curious about writing, even at such a young age. The feelings of that moment are bittersweet, because now that I am a writer, my mother is in a condition where she can no longer appreciate the things I write. This makes me want to tell the reader to savor those little, seemingly meaningless moments in the family room, because someday that is all you will have left of that person. Hopefully, the reader will feel motivated to be a little more open to the world after reading my piece. Now I have something to work on, and what set it up was my powerful writing tool - the writer's gauge.

Now I just need to write the damn thing, and dig deeper into the toolbox...       

Monday, January 10, 2022

Writing Tools

The other night I had a bizarre dream. For reasons unknown, in this dream I went back to my old apartment by Ukrainian Village. I still had the keys to the building, so I opened the gate, walked right in, went up to the apartment, and took a bath. The tenants there did not really complain, though they didn't say much of anything. I did notice how they had changed around the apartment and moved the windows to different places, but it didn't seem like something worth mentioning. After all, they had moved the bathroom as well, so who was I to point out these things?

Now, as a writer, my obligation is to turn things like weird dreams or ideas into stories - or perhaps take several different things and merge them into one story. However, there is always the question of how I should take the simple concept of the dream in the last paragraph and turn it into something genuinely interesting for a broad audience. At the very least, I need to flesh it out and make it something more than a paragraph.

This is where we dig out the old writer's toolbox and bring out the little things we need to turn this into a story. The first tool is simple - a gauge that determines what kind of story we want to tell. If I want to tell this simply as a story about a dream I had, I need to measure out what the reader should take away from it other than the belief that I have weird dreams from time to time. However, I could tell the story in first person, creating a weird reality that keeps the reader guessing until the very end and the big reveal that it was all a dream. That requires some tweaking and moving around of structure, but it's an option. Or I could write it as an interpretive piece, analyzing each section with the goal being to reveal to the reader just how my brain works. Whatever I choose, I need to use this gauge to know just what I want to write, otherwise I am doomed to create something that probably doesn't have much impact.

Now that I am creating the piece, I should get a few mental rulers and compasses out of the toolbox. These aren't too troublesome when we use them properly. These are the tools that make sure our path goes in the right direction with the proper pacing. If I am describing a dream, what parts do I want to focus on? Is the bath the important part? The location of the apartment? The tenants? The fact that they had somehow moved around not only the bathroom but the windows as well? How much interest do they have to the reader and how important are they to my storytelling? If this is a story from the first person, casual mention about people moving windows around can be a dead giveaway that this was a dream, so maybe that gets downplayed or moved to just before the big reveal.

Lastly, the writer's sandpaper comes out. No matter what we write, the sandpaper is is our willingness to make things go smoothly, to fix certain parts and make sure nothing is coarse or takes the reader out of a nice, gentle adventure through the story. It sounds easy, but sometimes when we adjust one piece, other pieces can feel different and we have to balance things out. The final product should have an even flow to it, at least as much as we intend to bring to the reader.

I only make note of these tools because my next few posts will go into more detail about how these tools work and how mastering them can make us better writers. More to come...         

Friday, January 7, 2022

Workshop Pitfalls

I talk a lot about the advantages of writing workshops, sharing your work with others and getting creative feedback. Of course, the flipside to this that is equally beneficial is reading other peoples' works, thinking about constructive improvements, and providing feedback. These two parts of the workshop routine will help us grow as writers without question. However, there are times we will encounter problems, and some in particular are great opportunities to really up our game.

Just like how writers have specific genres that they prefer to write, and readers tend to lean toward particular subjects or styles, we all have our preferences. Given the choice, we will read and write things we are comfortable with, and that goes for critiquing pieces in a workshop. If your favorite subject is horror and someone brings a horror story to the workshop, well, it's going to be a good day, isn't it? You will have a lot to say and a lot to contribute. However, this has a dark side, and it's when people bring a piece that you have utterly no interest in, or worse, are opposed to.  This is where we need to up our workshop game.

Essays can be flashpoints for any workshop, especially if the person is defending a point that you do not support. This will often tempt us to critique the person's position rather than the writing, which takes us away from the purpose of the workshop - strengthening our writing. I would occasionally put on my economist hat and write an essay explaining how some theory functioned in society or the downside of certain policies - you know, boring economics stuff. I would try to make the writing relatable and interesting (not an easy task), and take it to the workshop to find ways to get readers to connect to the material. This is where things got ugly.

Quite often, the critiques I received were along the lines of, "I don't think that's right," "My candidate says this isn't true," or "I believe something else." While these critics clearly have different viewpoints, their failure was in offering opinions about the subject while not critiquing the writing. This is an easy trap to fall into and difficult to escape. If someone writes an essay supporting communism, our first impulse might be to immediately argue against communism. This is debating, not critiquing, and it doesn't help anyone improve. Worse yet, if the two people in that workshop begin debating their sides, nobody in the workshop benefits as a writer.

The way to get around this little problem is to tell ourselves, "I disagree with this. Now let's focus on the writing." It might feel very unnatural to try to find a way to improve the writing of an essay you don't agree with, and that's fine. The secret is to think of yourself as a writer and nothing more (well, maybe an editor as well). Focus on the principles of structure, of establishing a setting, a position, etc. When you find yourself drifting toward that mindset of, "Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!" then double down and focus on the words and sentences. The best thing you can do for that writer is helping them write stronger pieces. After the workshop, feel free to give them a PoliSci 101 lecture. But while you are in that workshop, make people better writers.


Monday, January 3, 2022

Will This Be THE Year?

Welcome back and a happy 2022 to all those who chose to return. To kick off this year, I thought it would be best to get into some of the things we need to do as writers (and as people) to make this THE year. I am not talking about making this a really good year - ever since 2019, we all have reconsidered just what qualifies as good. No, this could be the year where we get something done. Something big. Some thing that, as a writer, we can really hang our hat on.

Now, this is not a resolution thing. I am not a fan of resolutions, as it seems arbitrary to change one's life because the calendar flipped over. No, this is thinking about what we really want to accomplish as writers, and how we can take steps toward that goal. We don't even need to reach that goal by the end of the year, we just need to make progress toward it. Whether it's a big goal like writing the Great American Novel or just getting our butt into gear and writing more, this is a good time to think about what steps we need to take toward that end.

As long as our goal is writing-related, one of the things we should aim for is engaging with other writers, preferably on a regular basis. I am a strong advocate of attending local writing workshops, as it places us into a network of like-minded people who probably have their own goals as well. Some of the larger, two- and three-day workshops held in Iowa and so forth are good as well, but they provide a different type of energy. Local groups ideally provide steady, constant reinforcement that you are a writer and you are progressing toward your next milestone. This will keep you going through the tough times when writing feels like a job rather than a joy.

And while we are on the subject of "local," might I suggest local book stores? Yes, they still exist if you look for them, and they provide an excellent source of engagement with people who appreciate the written word. For me, there is something very moving about being surrounded by the written word, a wealth of stories wherever I look. To be a part of the grand legacy of the written story is sometimes enough to get me rushing to my keyboard. And, of course, buying a book helps too.

If the written word inspires you that way, you should get to know the people and events at your local library. In these days of online living, the library is a lost treasure. Other than a variety of social programs for public consumption, a trip to the library is a way to see the written word in action. Children's reading programs, people going through the available periodicals, and of course, all those books. How could this not inspire a person to move toward their goal? (Incidentally, my best library experience was seeing an absolute stranger pull my book off the shelf, skim the cover and the back, then go to the desk and check it out.)

Whatever your goal is to make 2022 THE year for you as a writer, make sure you give yourself every advantage possible. A big part of that will be doing whatever it takes to remind yourself that you are a writer, your journey is one worth taking, and the goal is achievable if you truly want it.

Happy New Year!        

Friday, December 24, 2021

One Last Little Christmas Post...

For this short little post - the last one of 2021 - I think about the togetherness of family, going to church, exchanging gifts, gaining weight and appreciating what we have. Well, this year has been a tough one to appreciate. On that note, how can we use the tools we have as writers to reclaim some of this most important of holidays?

Christmas is still plagued by all that COVID entails, and no matter what anyone says, it will be different... again. I just know that of the few things I can control, one is my decision to also be a writer during this time. 

One of the skills we pick up as writers is the ability to process our thoughts and feelings in a way so that they come out on paper. We channel a lot of things into the world when we write, and by doing this, we can create some very special things.

A quick consideration for making Christmas particularly special during these days of COVID. For the people who you were hoping to see this year but can't, write something for them. Write a quick description of your favorite memory about you and that person. Write them a fun little holiday poem. Just write them an email personally telling them why you will miss seeing them this year. Use your abilities and tools as a writer to communicate those feelings in a very simple manner.

This may sound cheesy, but trust yourself as a writer. Trust that what you say will have meaning and feeling. And believe that when you do this, you will move the person in the way a gift should.

My favorite story for the season is How the Grinch Stole Christmas! With this, my main takeaway is that while the Grinch stole all of the trappings of the holiday, he only belatedly learned that the part he couldn't steal was the thing he never understood - Christmas involves a spirit, an attitude, that can't be taken away from us. Not by the Grinch, or by a virus, or anyone. And you can retain that spirit with something as simple as your writing.

So on that note, Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and I will see you with my next post, which will be Monday, January 3th, 2022, so Happy New Year as well. 

Monday, December 13, 2021

Why Be a Writer?

For this blog's first post I went with the bluntly obvious. It was titled, "Starting off as a writer" and it primarily discussed what motivated me to begin writing seriously. I put a lot of thought into that piece before even writing the first word, because such a subject can go in many wild directions. Very few of us have just one reason for writing (I have several others besides what that post explained), and some of us have more motives than we know. So on that note, I decided it would be helpful to expand on those other things as a way of reminded us just why we engage in this mad pursuit.

Sometimes it is tough to write. Even when we have the story in our head, there can be a lot of mental or psychological obstacles preventing us from committing those stories into words. Our eyes are transfixed on the computer screen, hands at the keyboard, but our thoughts drag us away from things. We will think, "I wonder if it's windy outside. I should check," or "If I don't play PC Solitaire, who will organize those decks of cards?" When this happens, I turn my thoughts toward what first drew me into the joy and madness of writing.

While it is true that I began taking creative writing seriously in my thirties, it was not where that journey started. In fact, the origins date back to before I could even write. My parents said that even when I was just a few years old, I would find some innocuous item like our dog's chew-toy, give it a name, and start telling stories about its adventures. (Full disclosure: It was just a chew-toy. The sum total of its life's adventures was getting chewed on by our dog.) Some part of my mind wanted to create, to build a world beyond what was there. Was it psychological escapism? A coping mechanism for managing the troubled world I lived in? Who knows/cares? Even before I knew what storytelling was, I wanted to do it.

This may come as a surprise, but I did take creative writing in high school. To be honest, I was horrible at the course. As Fran Lebowitz once said, "The first time I hated writing is when I had to do it." Now, in this class, my urge to write was still there, but this was a course about structure and how to presents things and blah, blah, blah. I just wanted to drag these stories out and make them as perfect as possible. I didn't have the patience to learn about things at that time, and it worked against me. I could've gained a lot from that class, but instead I had to learn those lessons slowly over the next two decades. My bad, and my apologies to Ms. Lester for wasting her time.

What I did learn as a broad-stroke life lesson was that my storytelling was not some urge or impulse, it was a need. Extracting whatever roamed around my mind and committing it to paper somehow fed something I didn't fully understand for many years. It took a life-altering event to wake me up to that idea, but thankfully I had time afterward to act upon it.

So, sometimes when I look at that screen and I can't seem to get things into gear, I ask myself that simple question, "Why Be a Writer?" Even before I have the answer, I start typing the thoughts flashing through my mind. It reminds me in no uncertain terms that it has become a part of me, and I should no longer think about being a writer, because I am a writer.

Friday, December 10, 2021

Writing Structure (and how to avoid it)

One thing I enjoy about writing that doesn't involve me actually writing is helping people progress along their journey. This can be something as simple as a critique of their work, suggesting a few good reads for examples of technique, or just talking about our individual processes. One thing I commonly do is offer constructive answers to the many questions from writers just starting out, and every now and then I notice a theme in the inquiries that come my way. The latest trend seems to be how much to write, so I think that's worth dedicating a little time to discussing.

How many words should a short story be? How many pages make a good chapter? Will 50,000 words make a 300-page book? How long does a story have to be? I come across these questions a lot, along with similar inquiries regarding word count, pages, chapter size, etc. These are fair questions, but they approach the situation from the wrong direction. They look at writing from the direction of structure, but that is only half of the situation.

The basic length of a work is defined by its word count. Not pages, not chapters - word count. And while there is no hard-and-fast, universally accepted standard, the categories break down kind of like this:

  • Short story: up to 20,000 words
  • Novella: 20,000-50,000 words
  • Novel: 50,000+ words
  • Too much: 250,000+ words

This is the structure part of writing. If you want to write the Great American Novel, it better be at least 50,000 words. The number and length of chapters is inconsequential. The important part is that when you set out to write something, those categories will tell you what you have written. If you finish the Great American Novel and realize it's only 40,000 words, you might have to accept the award for the Great American Novella instead.

Here's where we walk away from structure and embrace the writing side. When it comes to the length of a chapter, story, or whatever, the proper measure is what the words accomplish, not the space they take. Word count goes out the window, and we instead focus on how we want to pace our storytelling. This is now about rhythm, and that's an individual quality.

How long should a short story be? Long enough to present a situation, evolve it, and conclude it. This can be a few paragraphs, a couple of pages, or even a few sections of a longer piece. The point is that the length is determined by the storytelling. A chapter should present a segment of a longer piece, offer the reader information and story progression, and have an organic handoff to the next section. If this takes 100 words, then so be it. If it's 10,000 words, that's okay as well. The story dictates the size.

And lastly, 50,000 words can make a 300-page book if the font is a large enough point size, but it will look weird. Instead, set the target of telling a full and complete story, and let the words count and pages just fall into place. In the end, nobody will care about your word count but you.