Monday, October 19, 2020

A Writer's Note About Editing

 I recently had the opportunity to be a beta reader for a novel that I expect will be published next year. As a beta reader for this particular task, my job is to read the manuscript and address a list of questions submitted by the author. Did the events flow naturally? Were the following characters believable or necessary? Did that big twist in chapter 12 catch you off-guard? And so on. I will tell you that my job as a beta reader has many good parts and gives me wonderful opportunities to think and grow as a writer while examining other works. However, there is one very difficult part: I can’t be an editor.

As an author, this is torture.

While the main duty of any writer is to write, there are plenty of separate tasks that come with it, and some are more difficult than others. One of the big tasks is to be an editor – to make a written work better. The editor hat is a very important one to wear, as it carries many responsibilities under its brim. However, as important as it is, there comes a time when we need to take off that hat for the sake of our writing.

I have discussed the importance of editing before, so I will just briefly go over some of the points authors need to consider when they are editing. The process of editing starts from the big-sky view of the work, making sure it is readable and presented in a structure and manner that a reader can easily digest. It then narrows in to the next stage, where characters, plot, and motive are studied to make sure things flow organically. Then the magnifying glass comes out and we hit the last stage, checking spelling, grammar, punctuation, and other things that enter the realm of proofreading. As a writer, we should eventually become fluent in all these processes, but more to the point, we should know when we need to turn them off and just write.

In this regard, I am pretty bad, and I advise people to not follow that part of my process when they create their first drafts. My first drafts have perfect spelling, the semicolons are placed with precision, and my use of the subjunctive is near flawless. This may sound helpful, but the first draft should just be about creating a story, and that’s what I try to tell people. First, write down the story, then spell it right on a third or fourth pass. No publisher will, or ever should, read a first draft, so don’t worry about what it looks like. A lot of time can be wasted in a first draft making sure the commas are just right when the entire paragraph will probably be rewritten anyway.

This is where beta reading can be difficult for a writer such as myself. Beta reading should be an approach from the second pass – a study of what the story is presenting, how the characters develop, the progression of the plot, tension, conflict, suspense, and so on. Again – the spelling doesn’t matter. The Oxford comma is not important. Subject/verb agreement can be set aside. This second pass is really where a critical reader earns their paycheck, because this will make or break the story. A natural proofreader such as myself is not very useful here unless I can put away that hat and just be an engaged reader.

As National Writing month approaches (more on that in the next post), I think it’s important to think about how we can improve our processes and make sure when we are writing we are not editing. We can write new content while we edit, but when we are trying to create something, we set aside our editing hat and just be writers for the moment. It’s a lot to ask of someone, but it will pay handsome dividends, especially during National Writing month. 

(And yes, I will try to fix my own process as well.)

Friday, October 16, 2020

Author's Note: Public Relations

On October 24th, the Book Market in Crest Hill is hosting a book signing, and I will be selling and signing copies of my novel, The Book of Cain, along with a few anthologies I have contributed to. These are always enjoyable events, and I definitely like getting a chance to meet readers and talk about what their interest are and so forth. Signing autographs is also cool, but it’s so much more interesting to speak with my fellow humans.

When I do these book signings, I get the usual set of questions: What do I like to write? Which authors do I follow? What got me started as a writer? All of these are good questions and I have answered many of them somewhere during the history of this blog. However, one question that came up at a recent signing caught me off-guard, and I decided it was worth writing about. It was a simple question, but it had a lot of gravity in it:

“Are book signings really necessary?”

The answer, in short, is yes. But this brings up a bigger subject: Public Relations (PR). I know a lot of people who toiled for years to create the perfect novel, and only after it was finished did they start thinking about how they were going to promote it. This is a common mistake – and also a rite of passage – and writers have to realize that not only do they need to work on PR with the same kind of passion as writing, but unless they sign with a publicist, PR is largely their own responsibility.

(Note: This is only important to the writer who wants to get published and build up a career as a writer. For those people who just want to work on their process and develop their skills, PR does not have to be too high on their list.)

Now, the whole public relations game is not as difficult as it sounds in its first stages. The most important part about the PR game is just meeting other writers – networking with anyone any everyone who is interested in writing – and you can do this before you’ve finished a manuscript. Most local libraries have writing groups or workshops that take all comers, and many have programs for local writers. Community centers often have similar programs, along with local bookstores and coffee shops. Once you start looking through community sources, you will be surprised at how many resources are available for networking.

As your network grows, you will start hearing about chances to present smaller works – character sketches, poems, short stories – in a public forum. Take these chances. This takes you from being just someone in a writers’ group to that person who did that great piece the other day, and it is a huge boost to your confidence. As people start seeing you as a writer, you start seeing yourself as a writer as well. More importantly, you can reference those works you’ve presented as good examples of your work. In short, people start connecting you with your writing. At that point, when you eventually say you have a book coming out, your built-in audience is ready to snap it up and recommend it to others as well.

It should not be surprising when I say this takes a long time, but that’s the important part – since it takes a while, it’s important to do this while you are working on your process, voice, and style. The people you meet and the feedback you can get from them will help you grow as a writer, and your network will become just as important to your development as any study group or workshop.

Now, for those of you who are thinking this is a lot of work, well, it is. As regular readers will know, public speaking is not my favorite thing, and I am not a social butterfly when it comes to building a network. However, I do it because it is part of the hard work that comes with a career as a published author. It is uncomfortable at times, nerve-wracking, and even makes my hands shake (which does not help when I am signing books). And through all that, I know it builds my network a little bit more each time. If you don’t believe me, come to the Book Market in Crest Hill between 2-4 pm on October 24th and see just how I manage it.

And we can talk about writing too, if you want.

Friday, September 11, 2020

Writing and the Unwilling Hero

 As the last post was a discussion about heroes (yes, I took Labor Day off), I thought it would be appropriate to make today a special discussion about a certain kind of hero writers can explore – the unwilling hero. My last entry hinted that a hero is often a reluctant role, where the main character doesn’t always jump to the call to adventure, and only takes it step by step, not racing along the path to heroism. Today we talk about those who would hear the call to adventure and curl up under their blankets. Adventure of this order is not their thing – until the blankets get pulled away.

Today in particular, I think about a clear blue sky nineteen years ago, a beautiful morning full of promise and not the slightest hint of what was about to happen. Did anyone going to work that morning thinking that particular September 11th would be etched into history? Doubtful. Rather, disaster came to them whether they were prepared or not. Many people changed from just employees going through another Tuesday at work to someone evacuating their office, applying first aid to someone they’ve never even met, perhaps even pulling someone out of harm’s way at the last moment. They became heroes without even knowing it.

The unwilling hero is not, by their nature, a selfish character. The unwilling hero is someone who is minding their own business when the call to adventure is forced upon them. As the saying goes, some heroes march off to war, others are drafted – but both are heroes nevertheless. This is a more dramatic version of the hero’s journey, as it pushes them onto an adventure they do not want to take. In this regard, there should be internal conflict as well as whatever external forces move them along. There should be the “I want to go home” urge fighting with them, the impulse for flight rather than fight. 

The journey of the unwilling hero becomes two stories – the external conflict forcing them along and the growth of the hero into someone who can accept what has happened. These are unusual heroes in that their growth is, at first, not instinctive. They are not the noble first responders running toward trouble while others run away – they are very much among the crowd running away. It is an outside force that trips them up, sends them into harm’s way. As they try to escape, they discover the path toward heroism. They can choose to run away, but in true hero form, they take that one step toward a new direction. 

The most difficult part of writing the unwilling hero is eventually giving the protagonist a reasonable choice. The hero’s journey is a path, not a railroad track, and at some point, they have to make the decision to answer that call and take the step they may never have dreamed possible early in the story. People drafted into the military are forced along this railroad path for a while, but eventually they get that choice to hide or fight, to take cover or risk everything for their buddies, and they find their moment of heroism. This is what makes this hero type such a satisfying character to read – their growth arc is clear and distinct, and its completion resonates with the reader.

Today we remember not just all those who died nineteen years ago, but also those who became heroes and changed of the world for the better – often losing their life in the process. As people, we should never forget these heroes. As writers, we should commemorate them with our words.

Friday, September 4, 2020

How To Write A Hero

When I was a kid, I would get together with my friends and play Cops and Robbers, or Army, or some other Us and Them game, and guess what? Everyone wanted to be the good guy. Being the villain sucked.  We all love heroes. That’s just how people roll – we are drawn to people who take on the big challenge, defying insurmountable odds in pursuit of some goal that we can all agree is the best alternative. Look at the popularity of comic books (not to mention the staggering success of all the Marvel movies) and its easy to see how the love of heroes knows no bounds.

Writing a hero is easy – the tough part is creating a hero.

Heroes all start somewhere – this is often referred to as “the origin story” – where the person rises to the occasion they are presented. This is critical to the story because the reader should be able to relate to the character before they become a hero. This way, the reader associates themselves with this average character, then as the story takes that person on the hero’s journey, the reader takes that journey as well. In a way, the reader feels as if they are able to grow in much the same way. The more the reader connects to that character before the journey begins, the more they will enjoy the adventure.

It’s easy to think that everyone wants to be a hero, but there are challenges that show up immediately. So let’s look at some of the things that the average character should have to experience to make them connect with the reader. These may not seem obvious, but once we discuss them a little, we see why they are important elements in our character’s growth.

Change. As much as we might think our life is boring or non-heroic, the familiarity is comforting. People are creatures of routine, and readers can relate to that. So what happens if the character living his simple life is suddenly prompted to go to Kuala Lumpur (often referred to as the "Call to Action")? Well, after they look it up on Wikipedia, they might be hesitant to just up and travel across the globe. It’s a different world entirely, unfamiliar in every regard. This is when the character chooses to break away from the ordinary and take on a new experience – possibly very reluctantly – in the name of adventure. This is when the hero starts forming.

Resistance. Whenever we face a challenge, it’s easy to avoid it through simple excuses. We resist change naturally. In the Kuala Lumpur example, would the first response be, “Well, who would water my plants?” “I really should stay close to home,” or “Could I just go to Cleveland instead?” This reluctance is felt by most everyone, and overcoming this resistance is another thing that makes a hero. 

That first step. Think of the first time you took a bold step into the unknown – going to a new school, taking a new job, asking someone on a date. Maybe those moments seem fairly mundane in hindsight, but when we explore the moment as it happened, we can find the moments that made us brave – even if we did not realize it in the first place. Showing the reader those little elements – the tension, the nervousness, the tightness in our chest as we tried to look relaxed and in the moment – and the reader will feel those moments in themselves. They will engage with the character that much more; they will find parts of themselves in that character, and they will turn the pages trying to discover more common points.

There is no one defined path to becoming the hero. Our character may very well become the hero the reader wants yet still feel he is not the person he should be. The person they ultimately become may not be the person they set out to be. Sometimes, the truest sign of a hero is realizing all of his faults and deciding to be a better person. There are a lot of ways for the hero to exist, but the origin story should always carry the same elements. Then we can write a story with a character the reader is attached to – let the adventure begin!

Monday, August 24, 2020

Little Big Words

 Ever read Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep? Classic hard-boiled detective genre from the 1930s. A good read, but not necessarily for everyone. However, that’s not the point. If you were given a choice, would you read a book called The Big Sleep, or a book called The Sleep? Let’s face it – you would read The Big Sleep for one reason alone – it’s bigger. The promise is in the label. This is something we need to consider when we write.

When we create our worlds and all the elements, it’s obviously important to make it feel detailed, practical, graspable – it needs to be a real world. However, with the art of writing, the world needs to draw the reader toward the little details that move the plot. In a movie, this might be done with a trick of lighting to showcase a particular item. In video games, special items stand out or shimmer against the scenery. In writing, it is not as easy, so we do it with little words. Little words that carry big weight.

Like The Big Sleep, the draw is created by "Big." It creates questions in the mind: What makes that sleep so big? Can sleep be big or small? Is it a reference to something else? (it is) Indeed, the unusual description sets off the entire meaning. It helps that it’s in the title, but that’s not the point.

Let’s take a look at a random character, not from any particular book. She is a brunette, wearing sunglasses, a big blue sun hat, a blouse to match, and jeans, sitting outside Starbucks enjoying her morning coffee. This description is a basic write-up, but it packages up a couple of things within this sentence. 

First, all of this simplicity is disrupted by a big blue sun hat. We don’t know details about whether the jeans are acid-wash or dark denim, the sunglasses are mirrored, or really anything about the hair style, but there’s that hat. Also, the blouse goes with it, so the writer has in turn tied importance to this. I would wager that in your personal image of this scene, the sun is now out, and you have a very vivid image of this woman. We created this image with a few strategically placed descriptors, not worrying about the color of the jeans, the kind of coffee, or whether she’s even wearing shoes.

Using this kind of description can be controversial. It is considered minimalist, and often is alluded to as white-room writing, where a scene feels blank without descriptors. However, there is a difference between minimal and precision. Minimal is barely any description. Precision, as mentioned earlier, is focusing on the one element that drives the story. If our coffee-drinking lady above suddenly loses her hat in the breeze, and it rolls along the street, between the morning commuters, the reader can better feel the situation and the author can play on that connection. The big sunhat can fly past the charcoal- and grey-suited commuters, who only see a flash of blue rushing along the sidewalk, heading for a stagnant puddle in the alley. The reader now cares about the hat and its perilous situation because they identify it in their mind, they connect with it as a part of the story, and care more about it than the woman, her coffee, or her ambiguous shoe situation.

The beauty of this writing style is that its distinct focus guides along the reader without them knowing it. They follow the story from the leads they've been given, and they tend to not worry about the trappings around them when they are not necessary. They just want to know if the big blue hat went into the puddle, and the resolution of the hat's fate is a satisfying conclusion to the story, even if description is lacking.

(Don't worry - the hat is fine.)

The next post will add another element to the art of description - mood. Our big blue sun hat is not safe yet...

Monday, August 17, 2020

More About Writer's Block... or Whatever it is

The debate about the existence of writer’s block may go on forever – and I know some people who will eternally defend their side of the argument. Some say it doesn’t exist, while other people insist it’s as real as anything they’ve written. The answer, however, doesn’t matter when… whatever it is takes over. As far as I am concerned, all that is important is the moment when I want to write and no words come forth. When my urge to create is stifled by… whatever it is, that’s when I need help. That’s when I need the cure.

In a past article, I mentioned how… whatever it is can come from being hung up about writing – either nothing to write, too much in your head, or the uncertainty of whether or not something is worth writing. That article focused on how the intimacies and internal processes of writing can get us hung up. This article is about the externalities that get in our way. Apparently, the world does stuff other than contribute to a writer’s life, and often it tries to take away from our capacity to create.

Take me for example. I have been particularly industrious lately, focusing a lot of energy into a bunch of projects. Between putting in several miles of walking every day along with other exercise and a wildly varied schedule, I am achy, a little sore, and honestly, exhausted. When I get home I feel the tightness in my back a little more, and it’s easier to think about wrapping up my last few responsibilities then taking a nap. It doesn’t seem like there’s time for writing, and my mind isn’t exactly in a creative place. It’s focused on recovery. Writing is not on my mind. It’s just not the right time – or so I think.

Actually, this is a good time for writing, just not in the usual manner. As I look at my screen right now, I get myself to write not by forgetting about my aches and pains, but by writing about them. In my mind, I think of the red serpent that is one of my neck muscles, slithering up my spine and biting on that nerve that sets off that tingling numbness in my fingertips. I envision the ropy knots in my back and the scraping bones that are my knees, and write about how they look in my mind. My wobbly body and sore muscles become my studies, not that I will write an epic tale or a grand story of recovery. I just use them to get my fingers typing and the writing process flowing. My case of… whatever it is fades.

As all of this pain becomes my writing, it can also prove therapeutic. Putting on some liniment for the evening is a wonderful feeling to write about. The mentholated chill soothing my neck could be a wonderful poem, but as I describe the sensation, it also helps me recognize the pain fading away. As I write about things, I notice them more intensely, and feel myself loosen up. As I stretch my legs, I become more tuned in to the tension flowing out. I actually start to feel better.

Does this sound kind of holistic? Possibly. However, as writers, when we write about something, we engage with it. We concentrate on it. Our mind explores the subject, discovering the details that others might never engage in, and we don’t think about the problem of… whatever it is.

Think about when a writer people-watches, studying the faces and behaviors around them. The slightest details come into full focus, how someone constantly touches their chin or says, “Well,” all the time, or how they rub their fingertips when they think. When a writer applies this technique to their own self, things become more vivid. And then we write about it.

I’ll admit it – I am still achy. There’s only so much magic that can come from typing, and I will need to use some proven ways to get rid of my soreness. However, despite an exhausting day, I wrote my commentary and felt good about what I have created. As a writer, that’s another technique I use to get past the… whatever it is.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Writing Workshop Contributions

Before diving into the third and possibly final piece about workshops, I would again like to remind people that these are, in fact, my personal takes on the process behind workshops, dredged up from my own experience base. Some messages people have thrown my way on FaceBook and via email have been quite enlightening, and have offered the opportunity for me to learn and grow from them. Other comments, well... maybe it is safest to say that those comments remind me of why it is important to be civil these days.

Now that we have gone over what a workshop should and shouldn't have in order to help a writer grow, this last discussion point is what you should bring to any workshop. This one can be particularly difficult at first, especially considering how exposed and vulnerable we may (and should) feel going in. It's very easy to insist that the first time we attend a new group, we sit back and try to get used to the flow of the other writers before diving into the main current. This has its merits, but this makes it easy to stay away from actually getting involved. Rather, I recommend the following, to be applied with as much or as little zeal necessary to feel comfortable.

Participate. Sometimes, just offering the slightest engagement with another writer can be an amazing relief. Just for a second, put yourself in the shoes of the other writer who contributes a piece, reads it, then the moderator asks for reviews and... silence. That silence is deadly. Seriously, writers die in that void of response. But if one person opens up with a simple statement such as, "I enjoyed the line about..." or "You described the character well..." then things can open up. Even if it's not a compliment, such as, "I was distracted between the mixed use of past and present tense," it gets things rolling. As long as your comment targets some aspect of the writing, you become engaged with the writer, and by that, with the group.

Be positive, constructive, or inquisitive. While past posts have discussed how other workshops can help and what doesn't help, becoming the embodiment of those features is another story. We will hear pieces that are poorly written, presented by people we do not get along with, or about subjects that set us off. This is where it gets difficult, but it is our job - duty, even - to push forward with something that can lift up our fellow writer. And if we can't bring ourselves to do this (which does happen), we can at least pose a question about some feature that stood out for better or worse. "Did you intend for this to be happy or tragic?" "Is this fiction or based on a true story?" "How do you want readers to respond to this piece?" Hopefully, the inquisitive approach can at least get some discussion flowing, and maybe reveal some aspect that helps you as a writer.

Wear their shoes. The rule to remember for all workshops and life in general is to take a moment and consider what it would be like to be on the other side of what you are about to do. If a political piece is setting you off, think about being a person who is about to be attacked for their beliefs when all they wanted to do was write. Worse yet, think about being another person in the workshop who wants to read a children's story but has to wait while two people start fighting about politics. It's rarely fun and it's never fair, so do you best to consider just how you would feel.

Hopefully, in the next few months more workshops will open up again and writers will start to gather in whatever capacity possible. And as they do, we should remember that they all carry a set of desires common among all writers - to create, to improve, and to be heard. In any workshop we should respect those desires in others, and also be respected in similar fashion. If we can find and apply those traits in a workshop, I guarantee it will be a positive experience.