Friday, December 28, 2018

Finding Inspiration

One of the most important parts of a writer's physical toolkit is that thing that helps inspire them. This can be anything -- a coffee mug, a poster, or that thing in your office that always catches your eye and draws your thoughts, even if just for a moment. We need something like this because it reminds us about who we are as writers, and that we turn on some part of our brain now and then and really make things happen. It doesn't have to have meaning to anyone else but us, because it is our inspiration, and ours alone.

Mine is a stack of Post-It notes.

To most people, a simple office supply like that is nothing more than a thing we swipe from the supply cabinet at work (and I think that's where I got mine). However, like any inspiring item, its value is the attachment we place on it. There is nothing magic about these Post-It notes other than what I use them for, so when I see them, I become a writer.

We all have our tough periods for writing. I am recovering from a bad cold, so my writing is not at its strongest. However, this has been a benefit for my Post-It notes, and here's why. My little yellow stack of notes stays by my bed, a pen always close by. Whenever I wake up with some lingering idea from a weird dream still floating around, I write it on a Post-It note. Needless to say, the past few days of cold medicine and a mild fever has brought some weird ideas to mind. And whenever I wake from that fever dream with some random thought still echoing in my skull, I jot it down.

Is this magic? Does this capture the purest essence of the most brilliant of my many brilliant ideas? Not even close. However, it does grab something my mind had been processing so much that it leapt to the conscious side of awareness. Was it meaningful? Well, here are my last seven entries over the past month -- you tell me:

  • Toys have souls
  • 19th century penny-ante poker
  • That place in Chicago where runaway trains hide
  • Going back to grade school
  • My pet fire
  • I have to eat everything
  • Fireflies by Montrose Harbor
Anything? Are there any real gems there? Maybe they each say a little about me, or the things that go through my mind while under the influence of cold medicine. They might mean nothing to another writer. However, each one of those notes brings back that dream in vivid detail, along with all the feelings, emotions and weird ideations. And with that suite of emotional detail, I could write something about any one of those.

Will I? We will see. I am still on the mend, and trying to edit a manuscript ahead of a hard deadline. However, I do like the thought of writing about a pet fire, and there's a story about the souls of toys for sure. I would wager they all have stories in them, if I choose to write them.

The most important part, however, is that when I look at that stack of Post-It notes, I know there is a bunch of inspiration waiting there. It is not because the ideas are so good, but because that stack reminds me that I am a writer, and I can spin those into something worth reading.

(The next thing here worth reading will be on January 5th, 2019, as I slowly recover from New Year's Eve.)

Friday, December 21, 2018

Christmas and the Gift of Modifiers

As we enter the holiday season, I want to wish you all a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

More to the point, I want to explain as a writer why I want your Christmas to be Merry and your Holidays to be Happy, as my words suggest.

Merry and Happy are modifiers; in this instance, adjectives that modify a noun. We use them all the time and usually fall back on the safe ones. If I wish you all a Regal Christmas and a Ravenous Holidays, the modifiers might distract you even though I still wish you these things. Even something like a Joyous Christmas might not sound right, because recipients have very specific expectations -- Christmases shall be known as being Merry and/or White, and any other modifier stands out. Bing Crosby literally demanded it by singing, "And may all your Christmases be white." All of them. Every one. No exceptions. 

Well, sorry, Bing. Writers have that obligation to mix it up. Any written material will be filled with traditional modifiers -- blue skies and dark eyes, stormy nights and scary frights; all the lingua franca of writers. However, a writer really helps their craft when they can bring out modifiers that change the mood and bring a novel idea to the sentence. 

There is a fun little exercise to work on modifiers, based on the old-fashioned party game, The Minister's Cat. Fortunately, a writer can do these without needing a party. It's a pretty simple thing, and with a lot of practice, it develops the writer's ability to break away from expectations and create memorable sentences.

It goes like this: Take a simple sentence describing a person or a behavior, and leave the descriptor blank.
  • I am a _____ driver. (the modifier is an adjective)
  • I drive very _____. (the modifier is an adverb)

Now think of the easy adjectives -- good, careful, fast, bad, experienced, etc. -- and get those out of your system. Do the same for the easy driving adverbs -- well, carefully, quickly, poorly, etc.

Now start throwing different adjectives in, particularly ones better used for things like food, sports, hobbies, art, etc. -- the further from driving, the better. Think about the ways that you describe your soup or a painting could describe your driving. Could you be a zesty driver? Fast and memorable, always capturing the attention of everyone around you? Could you drive very poetically? Each move and technique well-thought out and scripted with a rhythm-and-flow that not everyone can understand or appreciate?


(Personally, my driving is salty and I drive inquisitively. Does that tell you about my driving or about me? Would you want to be the car behind me or the one in front of me?)

As you learn to flex your adjectives and adverbs, they do more than add to the description, they tell a story. If an artist character begins describing his moods not with emotions but with colors and shading, we see how that character acknowledges the world. Someone replete with loving, affectionate descriptors -- even as negative ones -- creates a very empathetic world about them. Think of a character who who describes friendships, relationships, and love with calculated, mathematical terms. You might know more about that person from those odd descriptions than by their simple actions.

Do this exercise periodically, assigning weird words to simple tasks and see what they become. .The more you do this, the easier it will become, and the more open you become with using your whole palette of words to bring out the details in your characters and writing.

But for next few days, enjoy your holidays. Have a Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and enjoy the love and friendship of those around you (you can write about them later).



(I will also be enjoying a few things myself, so there will not be a post on December 24th. The next scheduled post will be on the 28th, as I prepare for New Year's Eve.)

Monday, December 17, 2018

Memoirs – Remembering Time, Place, and Family

As diverse as everyone’s life story is, they all share one thing in common: They all happened in the past. How long ago the story was will differ, but this is a common thread. It might seem like a painfully obvious statement, but the purpose is to remind the writer that the past is not the present, and the difference between the two is the basis for a good memoir.

I went out the other night with some friends, and one of them put five bucks in the digital jukebox (Note: not too long ago, jukeboxes were not digital, and only had vinyl.) When my friend came back he said he put on some Lady Gaga, but wanted to hear her “old stuff.” Only at that moment did I realize that my present mind just accepts Lady Gaga as a musician, but once upon a time she was a new artist. Her “new stuff” was now her “old stuff.” That made me realize just how much things can change in a mere ten years.

The purpose of this note is never forget to bring your readers into the past. When we write about the lives of our parents, grandparents, etc., we are sharing a life that many people might not understand these days. If I was to write about my father’s life, I would talk about the three-bedroom house where my father spent his teen years and my grandmother spent most of her later years. People these days have a concept of a three-bedroom house, but this story would have to dismiss all of those modern-day preconceptions and establish the past reality.

My father was five when the Forties started. As a writer, it is my responsibility to bring out the details of that era. When two of my father’s brothers went off to serve in the Pacific, the household changed in a way we might not relate to these days. My grandmother hung a two-star banner in the window, just like other houses on that street. Conversely, my father had the excitement of finally having his own bedroom. When everyone came back from the service, not only did seven people live in that three-bedroom house (with only one bathroom), but they often had relatives and guests sleeping in the living area due to the post-War housing shortage. The back room was filled with laundry from the neighbors because the extra money helped my grandparents pay the bills and eventually pave the driveway in 1947. (Though they never did get that second bathroom.) And at night, everyone would gather for an evening by the radio in the parlor, or one of my great-uncles would come over and tell stories. Those are stories that take place in the Forties, and can hold the interest of the 21st-century audience.

Now that the background has been set for a story about my father, there is one element that needs to be incorporated, and it’s the most difficult of them all: Family. I could write a bunch of stories about my grandmother, but the only ones I knew firsthand were from the Seventies. My grandfather had long since passed away, so I never knew my grandmother as someone’s wife. Grandma was just a saintly woman in her seventies, very different from the one raising five boys during the Depression and doing the neighbors' laundry for extra money. It becomes my responsibility to try and bring out who she was back then, and present her to the world not as my grandmother, but as a mother, wife, sister, and all those things that I never saw.

And lastly, the most difficult part is writing about family members as complete characters. To be honest, this isn’t always necessary – we can write about the many heroic deeds of our ancestors without pointing out the embarrassing details that go with them. However, I personally connect the closest to characters who have flaws and shortcomings, doubts and fears, or bad habits that they just can’t seem to shake. Reading stories of those before us and their perfect lives can make us feel somehow inferior. Stories about those same heroes that include their problems and the adversities they overcame make them inspirational.

I have plenty of people in my life (that shall remain nameless) who gain my admiration not for what they did but for what they overcame. I recently celebrated the thirty-fifth birthday of a friend who was not supposed to live past twenty – there is a story of heroism. Another friend of mine overcame the worst set of problems – bad luck and bad choices – to finally get their life on track, and their story moves me to be like them. And yes, for those friends who were ultimately defeated by their obstacles, there is still inspiration in how they took on a challenge they could never win.

Those are lives worth writing about, even if just for those stories.







Friday, December 14, 2018

Nobody’s Life Fits In Three-Hundred Pages

A lot of my fellow writers carry at least one project that involves documenting someone’s life – their parents, grandparents, a special friend or maybe their own. A part of that adventure involves discovering all the facts and details, and also all the stories and hearsay about that person. That alone is a lot of fun, and a worthy adventure. Then the writer in them steps in to put all of this stuff into narrative form; telling these things as stories. Whenever someone takes on this huge task, I support them 100%. However, I also remind them about the difference between those crucial things that turn the process into a journey, and the other parts that don't need to go in.

Documenting someone’s life is the first step to writing someone’s story, but it is not an end in itself. More importantly, a lot of any person’s life does not need to be documented on its own because its most important part is being a descriptor for other sections. Think about all the time you’ve spent sleeping, quietly enjoying a meal, reading the newspaper (back when there were newspapers) or watching something mindless on Netflix. These moments would never make it into any memoir on their own, and if they did, they would only be there to support some part of the real story. “I tried to enjoy my dinner while bingeing on episodes of The Office, but my thoughts always returned to that one night in 1986…”

Anyone who knows me, knows that during the winter, my bad knee gets stiff and I drag one leg a little. That’s how I am, no apologies. What any author of my life story must decide is whether or not it is important to tell all the stories behind that habit: blowing out my knee playing football, the lack of proper care that allowed the injury to become a chronic problem, and how I am now fifty and what little cartilage I have left in my bad knee is just for decoration. Is all that important? Or would it be easier to just point out the dragging step as I walk and mention how it was the lingering effects from a cheap tackle back in school? The decision about how to write that will define the shape of the story.

Next, life isn’t just one story, so don’t try to put everything into one story. Rather, look at one critical turning point in that life, and start writing about everything that led up to that point. If someone’s greatest moment in life is their fiftieth wedding anniversary, then the stories about their first job, the neighbor’s oak tree getting hit by lightning, or that time they saw a dog in the alley eat a rat are not important. All that matters are the stories that contribute to that one magical day – stories that build up to it, strengthen it, or even threaten it. That’s the real story. Save the thing about a rat-eating dog for another discussion.

(The rat-eating dog was kind of true -- I couldn’t tell if the rat was eaten by a dog or just by a much-larger rat.)

Now, going back to the fiftieth-anniversary story, the choice of stories leading up to that point determines what the whole thing is about. If the supporting stories are all about the adversities that couple faced on their way to that day, that’s one thing. A different route would be with all the stories about why that marriage was so strong. How about all the stories of humor and mirth that made those fifty years just fly by? Stories about the family they made, the lives they led – these all create a different environment for the memoir about that fiftieth anniversary.

There is more to it than just the story choice. There is creating the place and setting, which will be discussed in the next post.

(and to a certain couple – happy Fiftieth and may the next fifty be even better!)

Monday, December 10, 2018

The Reality About Historical Fiction

I know many people who write historical fiction, exploring every era from the Bronze Age to the Dotcom era (yes, that is now part of history.) And within that category, a debate usually emerges about when it changes from writing for a genre to historical fiction. If I had an answer, there would no longer be a debate. However, I can offer some guidelines on knowing which is which.

The real sum of the discussion comes to how much reality we want in the story, and how much we want to educate our readers. These two can easily be merged together, but when they run into conflict, it becomes the author’s choice as to which side wins out.

First and foremost, the author needs to have a fairly sound idea of any historical anchors that will be included in the story. If this historical discussion is about fictional characters traveling west after the Civil War, then the only mandatory historical anchors will be environmental – horses, covered wagons, different makes of rifles and so forth. These become interesting research pieces, but do not have to drive the story more than the characters. Most everything else can just be a fa├žade of the western trails – Piedmont Ridge, the Wild Northern Plains, Remington Junction can all be landmarks even though none of them likely existed. That’s okay – our characters didn’t really exist either, so they would be right at home. The only environmental anchors that bind our fictional characters are those of history. If the characters settle down in the state of Arizona, well, Arizona wasn’t a state until 1912, so it’s safer to call it the Arizona Territory or do some research on names other than state.

The amount of reality we pour on our fictitious characters is now up to us. If our west-wandering characters go through a real town that has particular relevance to the author, there’s nothing wrong with making that place as real as possible. Including details, descriptions and even pictures of the town is perfectly allowable. The only real warning is to remember that the story is about characters. Before spending five pages describing Cheyenne in 1882, consider whether so much description would break the pace of the action. Maybe two pages is fine, or perhaps five pages spread throughout the chapter. Good historical writing should not feel like a history lesson, it should feel like a fully fleshed-out story that just happens to be in a particular point in time.

Now, if your purpose is to bring the reader fully into that era, you can introduce historical figures. At this point, your responsibility is to try and write them as sincerely as possible, which requires all that much more research. If you write about an encounter with Samuel Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain), it will be to everyone’s benefit that you have some understanding of the character and not just introduce someone spewing out quotes from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Conversely, you can introduce a very esteemed but nameless author that you imply to be Mark Twain but never say so, thus letting you off the hook.

On the one end of historical fiction, I would offer Caleb Carr’s The Alienist as a very good example. The very name offers an introduction into its historical point – an alienist was the original title for a psychiatrist before the whole Freudian movement caught hold. Carr depicts New York in the late 19th century in all its gritty glory and brilliant disgust. It is very evident that he researched the works of sociologist Jacob Riis and others to recreate the tenement districts through the city, filled with fictitious characters who all fit that reality. The few historical anchors are worked in very well (including an appearance by Riis himself), but our fictitious protagonists and villain would never be found in a history book. New York City comes to life, though very little reality is ever involved.

The other side of this, however, would be something like Erik Larson’s The Devil In the White City (I’m from Chicago, so I have to mention this). This book is often considered historical non-fiction because it anchors itself on the underlying reality of its main characters, who conveniently have substantial documentation about their lives. The novelistic approach of this story – narratives knitting together individual events into one continuous story – relies more on the presentation of facts with presumptions to fill in the gaps. There is plenty of room for creativity, but very little for improvisation or telling the story that you want to tell (if it differs from the real story).

(I should also note that Larson’s more recent book, Dead Wake, telling the events around the sinking of the RMS Lusitania, is just as riveting for those who don’t want to read about Chicago and the nefarious H. H. Holmes.)

The most common form of historical fiction is when we write about our long-lost ancestors. True, they really existed, but unless their lives were as well documented as most national celebrities, any stories about them will have to be anecdotal or mostly built on assumption. While this makes the story fiction, it can still be very much anchored in reality. At this point, it is up to the author to find the best way to do justice to their family. And when it comes to the author’s personal story, well, that gets into writing memoirs. That will be the next post.

Friday, December 7, 2018

External Versus Internal

Drama, action, and narrative can each be sorted into two categories: external and internal. Most readers overlook this simple fact, but to be fair, readers do not care about which group is used, as long as the story keeps moving. As writers we always need to consider these touches, because they each make different contributions.

Let’s look at a simple thriller: A plane crash-lands high in the mountains, and the survivors have to find a way to make it back to civilization. We see this one done quite often, from the short story, Ghost Walkers (later turned into the movie, The Grey), to the true-to-life novel, Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors (also made into a movie.) This is simple survival, but the tension and dramatic build come from two completely different areas.


In external drama, the problems come from forces beyond the control of the main characters: brutally cold weather, the thin air of high altitudes, or a pack of wolves stalking our characters. Everything actively threatens our characters, from running for their lives to trying to traverse the unyielding frozen tundra that seems to challenge them at every step. This technique has its pros and cons:

  • It builds suspense, as the characters are surrounded by danger
  • Reader becomes sympathetic to this trapped situation
  • Characters lose depth because they appear reactive, not proactive (at least in the beginning)

Internal drama, such as in Alive, plays off of tension rather than the suspenseful build from the threat of the unknown. No packs of wolves pursue our survivors, and the brutal conditions are manageable, if not comfortable. Rather, the internal drama is the inevitable question of survival, and how far our heroes are willing to go to that end. There is an ever-looming threat around these people, but the threat is when they might have to make some horrible decisions about survival. Here, the up- and down-sides are very different:

  • Tension builds as the characters weigh the terrible decisions
  • The reader knows something must be done, but does not know when the choice will be made
  • Internal action is driven by narrative, which is far more difficult to write than a scene about running from a pack of wolves

Now, these two stories are strong examples of their respective camps, and perform well because they each do a good job working within their self-imposed boundaries. They also mostly avoid giving in to the pitfalls of their genre – when an external drama gets weak, it is easy to throw in an unexpected event like an avalanche; for an internal drama, a three-page narrative about why a character is so conflicted about facing a particular decision. Stories can be very successful just living in one camp or the other.

However, blending the two approaches and balancing them accordingly can be very engrossing. In keeping with our plane-crash survivor theme, I suggest Lord of the Flies. This classic blends together these two dramatic approaches, creating a well-balanced combination that offers the best criteria of each while countering their weaknesses. Of course, writing with this kind of balance takes that much more work and incredible patience to get things just right. If you are not sure whether it is worth it, let's just say that more people have heard of Lord of the Flies than Ghost Walkers or Alive.

When a writer approaches a story, one question that should always sit in the back of their minds is, “How should this conflict be played out?” When the writer asks themselves that simple question, they should consider the pros and cons of each one, and decide which contributes the most to the story. After that, it’s just a matter of writing.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Seeing the Internal Character

Several posts on this blog have talked about the intricacies of character development. However, nothing is more difficult than the first step - figuring out who that character is. Not just name, rank, and number, but who they are relative to the story. This can be difficult, so I thought I would offer an exercise in figuring out how to bring out the important parts of a character.

The character is you.

Before you get alarmed, I will use myself as an example to show how this exercise works and what there is to gain. It's fairly simple, and of course, when you do the exercise, you don't need to publish, print or save one written word. Just try this out and see how it feels.

I start with a simple narrative beginning: "I looked in the mirror and tried to recognize the man in the reflection." (Side note: Never describe your character in a first-person narrative by looking in a mirror. It is a worn-out cliche.) At this point in the exercise, I start writing about the various features in the mirror: The blue eyes, the receding hairline, that little scar on my cheek that is only visible if someone knows where to look. I rattle off a whole list of those things, just exploring odd details and seeing what they say. The way the bridge of my nose tells everyone I once hit a steering wheel with it, the way my eyebrows hop about when I laugh, that one tooth that doesn't match the rest. I lay out every trait possible.

Now here's the fun part. Make up some story arc. Anything. You are preparing to go to work. Heading out on a first date. Meeting a son you never knew you had. Heading to Uzbekistan for international intrigue. Preparing to rob a bank. Give your character a very specific purpose (that you are not legally obliged to follow through with).

Once you have that, compare all those things you described about yourself with the mission you are heading to. Think about whether those qualities about yourself are relevant to the thing you are doing. Is the quality you described totally relevant? Totally irrelevant? Or is it a possibility, a quality that can be described in a way that fits the situation? Does the hairline make a difference for that trip to Uzbekistan? Would that barely noticeable scar matter on a first date - or does it make you very self-conscious when you are trying to relax and enjoy yourself?

The important part of this exercise is actually two-fold. First, a critical part of this is to ask ourselves if something is worth mentioning. We all have different hair, eyes, ears, skin, teeth and so on, but we don't need to discuss them in the narrative if they offer nothing to the story. Unless my story pivots around my receding hairline, does it matter whether I describe it or not? Does the bent bridge of my nose motivate characters or press along the narrative? If it doesn't, maybe it is not worth mentioning.

The bigger part about this is a little more intricate. Let's say that the whole nose thing doesn't factor into the plot. That's fine, but we can actually use it to bring out other internal points. If this story is about going on a first date, the broken-nose issue can be used as a springboard for bringing out the character's insecurities about going on this date. The nose itself doesn't matter, but it becomes a device for showing the character's internal traits that don't show up in the mirror. The receding hairline won't push the plot, but its influence on the character can shift his actions. Maybe it makes the character wear a hat, or try to comb his remaining hair in a way to conceal everything. To really emphasize the point, the character can consider the horrors of a comb-over as a last-ditch way of hiding the sin of his hair.

Exercises like these are how we drag out not just the external traits but the internal dynamics of the character. This way, we understand not just how they look, but how they react and feel. The character gains depth and we can write them as complete people that the reader can relate to. If the reader never finds out about the eye color, well that's fine. But if that whole nose thing is used properly, the reader will not just know about the character's insecurities, but they will wonder about just how it was broken. And at that point, they are invested in your character.

Friday, November 30, 2018

The Serious Business of Writing Humor


People have their own preferences, but in my opinion there is nothing more difficult than writing humor. The act of writing a joke is brutal and uncompromising, and requires a high volume of failure before even one laugh is available. For something that is supposed to be entertaining, writing humor is no joke.

And if writing jokes is difficult, it is even worse to read other people’s works or see their performances and watch it come off so effortless, so easy. Great humor flows very naturally, but the work put into it is enormous. There are obvious exceptions – a rare few great comedians and authors were born with a very natural rhythm that made their very existence amusing. However, if you are not Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams, it might help to exercise those skills needed to write humor.

First and foremost, humor is about the unexpected; that turn of a phrase or event that breaks from the pattern in an amusing direction. We all basically understand this premise, but when we write, we follow a structured path. We move along story arcs, plot development, and the flow of the narrative. Humor is the opposite of this, so sometimes we need to deliberately stretch our mind in a different way and force ourselves to move outside of the expected path.

Here are some simple exercises that are worth trying to move outside the familiar. The first is a simple one – proverbs. Find a list of familiar proverbs – a Google search of “list of proverbs” should do just fine. Pick out the most familiar ones, the ones you know the best, and make a list out of them. Then, for each one, rewrite the meaningful part into something different, preferably into something having nothing to do with the original. Then do this again and again and again – ten times if you can. An example is, “A man without vices is a man without virtues.” (paraphrased from Abraham Lincoln). This can now be rewritten as, “A man without vices… “
… is not a man
… did not do it right
… always wants to borrow my vice
… does not work for the government
… should never plan the bachelor party
And so on…

They won’t all be winners – that’s not the purpose. The purpose is to stretch beyond expectations and write an original ending. Doing this exercise will be a strain at first – like any good workout – but eventually they develop the muscles needed to step beyond the expected.

Another part of humor is taking it far enough to be funny. When people first experiment with new styles, techniques, and so forth, it is often by dipping a toe in the waters of the new adventure, and pressing slowly into this new area. Humor is about diving into the deepest part and exploring everything available before deciding whether shallow waters might be better.

Most great humorists – whether they are authors, comedians, writers or performers – usually have several common traits: They have formal experience in improv, acting, communications; practiced their craft regularly; observed the world from different angles; and looked for alternative connections no matter how bizarre. This gives them the ability to not only create a humorous story or anecdote, but to create ten of them on the fly and give you the best one. It all looks effortless, but there is a lot of work in making it look easy.

Here’s one more simple exercise: Finish the sentence. Take any comparative statement and finish it with an original closer. This exercise in one-liners was what my father always referred to this as The Dozens, where two people would go back and forth with something like, “Your mother’s so fat…” then closing it with original lines such as “… the other mothers in the neighborhood orbit around her.” Last one to drop a good line wins. This seems simple but again, it requires practice, patience, and an open mind. Try these, but go somewhere other than the “Your mother” genre – that one’s overdone. Take on serious ones, weird ones, personal ones and mean ones, and just make as many answers as you can. Here’s some starters:
We grew up so poor…
My little brother was so ugly…
Our neighborhood was so dangerous…

With practice, this becomes easier, and with practice, this definitely improves your writing.

And as a final note, give yourself permission to write bad stuff. You’ll write a few bombs, and that’s okay. All those great jokes, sketches, and one-liners were the best of the best. The rest of the list had more than its share of losers, and that’s how the writer knew which ones were the best.

Monday, November 26, 2018

The Basics of Style


For any famous author, their writing style is clear and distinct, and can be carried through many voices. Stephen King is most commonly associated with horror, but his story collection in Skeleton Key shows many different techniques, and the surprising fast-paced, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon creates horror through the eyes of innocence. Horror is one of the most impressive styles to write in, and it probably sells the most screenplays.

And it’s probably not what you should write.

I never tell someone to not try writing in a particular style, but rather I tell them to try everything. Try horror, romance, thrillers, philosophical narrative, and anything else they want to commit to words. This might show the aspiring writer a thing or two about genres, but it will get the person writing enough to find their own voice, and voice informs style.

My father was an artist; his style best described as neo-classical romanticism. When he was a student, he would study Renaissance Era masters and try to be the next Raphael (The Italian artist, not the Ninja Turtle). He would also hound his teachers to offer critiques that could make him more like those great painters. And they refused to grant his wish.

Finally, one of his professors must've just had enough, because he offered a very simple critique. According to my father, the professor said, "You want me to compare your work to Michelangelo? Da Vinci? Then you're horrible. You will never be one of them, nor should you. You don't have the talent to be a Raphael. You do have the talent to be an excellent Pressler, which Raphael never could be. So be that."

What my father took away from that is his real talent and his natural skills were far better suited for something other than becoming another Renaissance painter. However, by studying the great artists, he developed a set of tools that allowed him to work on his personal style once he found it. That personal style served him well for the rest of his career.

When we write, we are strengthening our toolkit. When we stretch out our comfort zone and decide to try writing poetry, free-verse, or whatever, we are adding new tools to our kit. When we combine these two talents, we learn not only how to do things in a different way, but also what we like, what moves us, and what affects other readers.

If your goal is to write a particular way, then by all means try everything you can to develop that specific set of skills. However, never be afraid to go outside that range and find new ways to express yourself. Whether it works or not is not the point. It is a chance to find something new and become a better you, so that when you really latch on to something that works, you have a full set of tools to build something excellent.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Criticism – Our Best Enemy


“It’s better than half the crap I’ve read.”
– The first critique I ever received

When we first realize how much we like writing, we become literary juggernauts. We are unstoppable in our ability to generate poems, prose, and narrative. Our ability feels limitless, our capacity to create is as endless as our desire to keep on writing.

We usually float back to Earth about two seconds after we receive our first critical appraisal, and we land with a hard thud. It’s hard to stand up after that first critique.

If we want to continue to be writers, this is where we have to stand up, dust ourselves off, put an icepack on our bruised ego, and try again. Our impulses might tell us that the best way to avoid another critical beating is to stop creating stuff to be critiqued. Perfectly natural, but not very helpful if we want to refine our craft. Rather, we need to find a way to not get beaten so badly next time. We need to learn from our mistakes, and apply those lessons to our next piece.

I can hear the response now – “Learn from our mistakes? That’s your big piece of advice? I’m not a six-year-old watching the Care Bears – I need something I can use as a grown-up!” My response is always a reminder that grown-ups are the least-likely to learn from their mistakes because they are more likely to think they know it all. That little fallacy prevents people from really developing anything other than a sizeable ego.

When we are incredibly interested in doing something, part of our passion should be directed toward trying things out then figuring out whether or not they worked. We should be very open to what others have to say, because at the end of the day, the one thing everyone else has in common that you don’t is that they are seeing your work strictly as a reader. They are your audience, so anything they say has the potential to move you forward in your writing career – if you let it.

One thing I always try to promote in my writing workshops is discussion. When someone reads a piece, I want to make sure people offer input that the writer can take in and possibly build from. The most important thing that can be offered is what message they “got” from the piece. If a listener says, “I didn’t get it,” then that’s a pretty important review. It doesn’t mean the written piece was bad or wrong, but rather it is the opportunity for the writer and the audience to engage in a discussion. Maybe the message wasn’t communicated clearly, or maybe the style just wasn’t something the audience would get into. Perhaps nothing really jumped off the page – it wasn’t wrong, but nothing was really great about it either. With some good discussion, all parties involved can take away a little something that builds on their work.

While feedback is important in building a writer’s skills, there are some do’s and don’ts for critiquing:

  • Moderation. Taking criticism is like getting a tattoo; sometimes it’s easier to do a bit at a time so we don’t pass out from the pain. Give each lesson a chance to set in before going further
  • Be constructive. Offering criticism should be on a positive note. Saying, “This scene was boring,” doesn’t help as much as “this scene needs stronger verbs,” or “the pacing of the action was often broken by description or long dialogue.” And if you receive a criticism of the former kind, ask for some elaboration, or discuss it further so you can find out how to make it better
  • Re-explaining rarely helps. A common response to “I didn’t get it” is the writer explaining the scene to that person, hoping that they will “get it.” That doesn’t help, unless that writer plans on going door-to-door, explaining that scene again to every reader. Rather, a writer can learn the most by saying, “Well, this is what I was going for: [brief summary] What was missing?” This starts the discussion mentioned earlier but in a positive direction.
  • Opinions are not always criticisms. Here are some opinions: “That character is mean.” “The mood is pretty dark.” “Everything is hyper-sexualized.” There is nothing wrong with offering opinions such as these; they are the reader’s perspective. The problem starts when the recipient of these opinions did not intend to write about a mean person in a dark, sexy world, and takes them as criticisms. This can either degenerate into a useless argument with the writer insisting it’s a light-hearted young adult romance and the reader shaking their head in denial, or it can open the door for some questions: What elements felt dark? What actions were mean? How would you turn down the sexual volume?


Last and most important, most criticisms are advisory in nature. Grammar and spelling aren’t criticisms, they’re corrections. All other matters should be at least thought about before being dismissed. If one person in a group doesn’t like a particular style but the rest do, maybe that’s okay. If not everyone agrees about an appropriate level of profanity, well, that happens. But as we take our beatings from critique after critique, we should first ask of any comment, “What can I learn from this?” Everything in that answer makes us a better writer, and in the end, that’s all that counts.

Monday, November 19, 2018

The Simple Story of Ultimate Conflict


I have been in a bit of a comic-book mood since the passing of Stan Lee, but this has its benefits for my inner writer. A common theme within the comic genre is the big conflict – a major battle between titanic powers – Superman versus Doomsday, for example (I know Stan Lee had nothing to do with Superman). Such a battle royale is an external conflict that might not apply to all stories – or any story where Superman does not exist. However, such a massive collision of power can always be found on the internal battlefield, and can be even more dramatic since the battle within the character can rage on for a long time.

Fighting is conflict, but not all conflict is fighting
Internal conflict should play some role in any extended narrative, as it provides depth and complexity to the main character. This might be a secondary issue to the main plot in, say, a thriller novel, but its existence should complement the external story. Where things get tense, however, is when the primary conflict is internal, with the external conflict secondary to that arc. It’s a lot easier to walk away from a fistfight than from the battle inside one’s own mind.

An internal battle can start from a simple external event that starts digging up all the moral issues and questions in the hero’s mind, and even forces the hero to rethink their own personal code. Let’s go through an example with our favorite hypothetical character, Tom:

Tom finds out that his coworker and lifelong friend, Phil, has been skimming a little money off the books at the large company they work for. Under normal circumstances, this is a fairly simple dilemma with a few obvious routes to choose from. Tom could report him to management, he could stay silent to protect Phil, or take the compromise route and tell Phil to stop before it gets out of hand. Simple enough, right?

Now let’s turn it into real internal conflict.

Internal conflict comes out the best when external situations run against the principles of the main character. The example above is merely an external dilemma to be reconciled. However, once we show Tom’s principles, the conflict emerges. Let’s say that Tom is passionately loyal to those around him, and the two things he is most loyal to are his friends and the company he works for. Now that loyalty is challenged, as choosing one side means betraying the other. Now the problem is not about Tom making a decision, but Tom wrestling with the internal forces that prevent one side from winning the day.

Of course there’s the compromise to the situation – talking to Phil about defusing the situation. If this is a simple escape, we can turn it into more problems, thus turning up the tension. Phil can explain that he is in debt to some very bad people, and he needs to clear the debt or those people will go after him and his family. Now Tom is forced into a different situation. Can he help his friend out of the situation before the company finds out? Or can he at least cover Phil’s track for a while until everything is paid off? And how does this make Tom feel to betray the company to which he is so loyal and devoted?

Now let’s turn it up more. The company sees the figures do not add up, and the auditors start looking into things. Furthermore, Tom is one of those auditors. Now there is the slow burn of the external conflict in a suspenseful build, but Tom’s internal conflict is magnified because he could be implicated in this as well. Now we have a tug-of-war between his friendship, his company loyalty, and saving his own bacon.

The external story could survive well on its own, using the internal conflict as a secondary arc. However, using the internal issues as the major focus brings Tom out as a complete character. When we pay more attention to Tom and how this problem tears at him, haunts his dreams, aggravates his ulcer and hurts all his other relationships, we develop a closeness to him that does not develop when the attention is on the external issues.

Every story needs conflict, and the stronger stories use both external and internal sources to push along the narrative. The point to consider as you develop the story is where the real fun leaps out, and how to work with it. Superman versus Doomsday was an easy choice for external conflict. However, most other stories carry a rich adventure within the mind.


Friday, November 16, 2018

What Stan Lee Taught Me About Writing


Within minutes of the announcement that Stan Lee, co-creator of the Marvel Universe and its countless heroes, passed away at the age of 95, my Facebook feed flooded over with tributes and comments about people’s favorite characters, plot lines, and so forth. Many people left a simple “Excelsior!” because it was Stan Lee’s personal catch phrase. As for me, I started thinking about what made Mr. Lee such a stand-out in the comic universe. In my opinion, it was not the creativity or the illustrations. It was the writing.

Stan Lee, co-creator of the Marvel Universe
For those who have little interest in the world of superheroes, trust me that there is still valuable information within this post. And as for those Marvel fanatics, I am sure you will agree with parts of this as well. What made the Marvel Universe so fascinating was where superheroes were not about the “super” part, but rather the “hero” part.

When superheroes first appeared, the fascination was with their exceptional qualities – in the comics and on radio, the attention was on Superman’s many powers, The Shadow’s ability to cloud men’s minds, or whatever their particular ability was. They were super – that’s what counted. And yes, that was an amazing and fascinating attraction on its own. But then someone changed the focus – Stan Lee wrote about who these people were, not about what their powers were.

When we write any story, we need the usual components – a hero, the call to action, the adventure, the challenges and obstacles, the culmination of all this conflict, and the resolving conclusion. Superheroes originally made this all external adventure – outside forces pulled all of these levers, and our hero went straight toward the challenge. It was all fine and good, but at the end, the conclusion was that the bad guy was defeated, safety was restored, and all was right with the world. Very tidy, very neat, and kind of boring.

Stan Lee changed that focus. He said that when he thought about a superhero, he did not think about how these special powers would be put to use, but how a person would go about their life and use these powers. Some would resist using their gift, some would be corrupted by the sudden power they gained over others, and the rare few would take that difficult journey of balancing power with responsibility. These would become the core heroes of the Marvel Universe – not because of their powers, but because of their humanity and vulnerability when confronted with such a challenge.

The first thing that drew me to these heroes was that very premise. Peter Parker (aka Spider-Man) gained his power by accident, but as a teenager he did not understand what responsibility came with them. I could relate to that not because I also could shoot webs and had spider senses, but because I also felt that conflict between my desires and my responsibilities. Peter failed that test and in a twist of fate, his Uncle Ben was killed. Peter now had to live with this, and held himself accountable for his actions from that point forward. That is a human story. That point of conflict can carry its own in a non-superhero story, and is not the exclusive property of the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.

One of Stan Lee’s most popular themes within the Marvel Universe was a simple one: “With great power comes great responsibility.” In the comics, this was demonstrated by the superheroes who followed that code and the villains who broke it. However, it was expressed through their humanity, not in their powers, and in this regard, there are plenty of examples of this in literature. Heroes face the internal conflict of binding themselves to the responsibility, villains (and anti-heroes) take the power to its furthest lengths.

I like to think that Stan Lee’s genius was not in making a world of superheroes, but in creating a world of relatable humans who just happened to have some powers. Whether or not you can buy in to Dr. Bruce Banner occasionally turning into a huge green rage monster is not as important as understanding how Dr. Banner lived with shaping his existence around controlling his inner demon (or inner Hulk in this case). These are, at their core, human stories. Internal conflict, flawed heroes and thoughtful villains, no easy answers and often regrettable conclusions – all parts of the human situation, and the key components of good storytelling. And Stan Lee showed me how those can make any story, genre, or character an interesting read.

Excelsior!

Monday, November 12, 2018

Editing - Advice on the Details

As we've reviewed each step of the editing process, we've narrowed the focus. The broad edit examined the story arc and made sure all the parts fit. The deep edit looked at the parts and made sure that they contribute to the story, and that every step has a purpose. Now we are ready to get down to the detailed edit, where we examine punctuation, grammatical details, spelling, and all of that nitpicking stuff. My advice for this step is controversial, but I swear by it.

Don't.

Before a bunch of editors throw their red pens at me, allow me to present my defense. For anyone who has written a piece with this whole process in mind, let's look at this experience. This means the author has written it, rewritten it, reviewed it, and probably reread it a time or two. Then they promptly did a broad edit on the entire work, and then a deep edit. This means going through the writing at least five times and likely more. By the time a writer has been through a work that many times, they are no longer reading the words and seeing the punctuation - they are skimming it as their mind recalls the story. It has become so familiar that the details fly by, the mistakes now unnoticed.

For the writing workshop I run, I am relentless with the editing pen. I will review everyone's copy and mark up all the commas, spelling points, etc., making sure no subject-verb disagreement goes unpunished. And I can guarantee that the writers could no longer see those little things because their focus had been on the written piece - and rightly so. When they are the writer, the best role I can take is as their teacher, editor, and adviser. Conversely, when I am the writer, that detailed edit is best offered by someone else, because I have looked at my work way too much to be an effective editor.

Let technology help whenever possible. Most every word processor has a spellchecker, so let it do the heavy lifting there. More importantly, they often have grammar checkers. This is not as simple as a spellchecker, and a grammar checker can often be wrong. However, they give you a chance to look at a sentence in isolation and examine whether it uses the passive voice, it contains the wrong usage of their/they're/there, or whatever. Easily half of the stupid mistakes can be tracked down through simple, mindless technology, so use it before you drag someone else into your process.

Finding an outside editor is not an easy task, and should be approached with an open mind. If it is someone close to you, establish ground rules about what you are looking for. More importantly, keep an open mind and try to not factor in the existing relationship. Tell them you want advice on grammar, punctuation, etc., and keep an open mind. None of their corrections are mandatory, but whatever they notice should be approached with an open mind. After all, they are a fresh-eyed reader of your work, so if they think a sentence is clumsy, that is what any reader might think. Don't try to explain it to them unless you plan on explaining the sentence to everyone who reads it. Rather, consider whether a little reshaping delivers the message better. This is what their role provides, so take advantage of it.

If you hire an editor, all the better. Lay out what you want from the editor, set a price, and go through the situation beforehand, then let them do their thing. However, be prepared for a brutal review. At this step, you will feel that your story will only need a few commas or maybe a semicolon. The truth will likely be very harsh, and that's just fine. If a manuscript comes back soaked in red ink, think of each correction as a chance to learn something. Critique is brutal, but often critical to growth.

When I first started writing professionally, I kept a stack of my edited copy next to my computer, with all the red ink facing up so I always saw it. The pile grew over the years, this huge stack of shame; a permanent record of every mistake I typed. But whenever I needed a little affirmation, I would look through the stack. The papers on the bottom were thick with corrections, but as I flipped through the pages, the corrections became fewer and further apart. The simple mistakes no longer appeared, the complex problems did not show up as much. This pile of errors was now evidence not of my problems, but of my education as an editor.

As you progress as a writer, your talents as an editor will evolve naturally. You will develop a habit regarding the Oxford comma, your use of the passive voice will fade, and your writing will become tighter and more efficient. But to reach that point, the most important part is not constantly editing. First and foremost, you need to be a writer. You need to write, review, and rewrite. Don't worry about where the comma goes, that will come in time. Be a writer, and let an editor help you with the rest.


Friday, November 9, 2018

Editing – The Next Step


The previous post was about editing in the big-picture sense – story flow, making sure the messages are delivered, and so forth. When that is finished, we have a great story structure – this places us ahead of the game compared to a lot of other writers. Now we need to tighten our focus into the individual sections – chapters, scenes, etc. – and make sure they serve their purposes.

We will call this the deeper edit. We still do not care about grammar and punctuation at this point – there will be too much rewriting to wonder about using the Oxford comma. The deeper edit takes the idea from the broad edit examining story arc and messages, and scales it down to chapters, sections, or whatever you prefer to call them.

At this point, it pays off to think about what each section means. No matter what we write, the following elements should exist – establishing element, purpose, progression, and continuation. In other words, the reader needs come away from this knowing where the narrative is taking place, what happens, how this moves the plot forward, and where it’s going. These should all be clearly stated in any outline, and when we edit these sections, we need to make sure these are addressed. Also, if anything else fills that section, we need to either make sure it serves a purpose, is followed up, or is edited out.

Let’s take a simple idea for a chapter: Our hero goes to a party with his friends in the suburbs so he can clear his head and forget about the problems from the last chapter. Simple, to the point. When we do the deeper edit, our first responsibility is making sure all those points are addressed. We put the character at the party – easy enough. Which friends join him? Which ones have dialogue? Do their words contribute to the plot? Do they create a problem for our hero, perhaps reminding him of what he’s trying to forget? Does the hero’s actions match the behavior of someone trying to forget about his problems?

These areas can be very tricky to edit, particularly if we really enjoy writing about the characters. We can spend too much time writing about a conversation and forgetting to show how it contributes to the character and plot. It might be completely in character for the hero to get into a passionate hour-long debate about Astroturf, and the dialogue could be very engaging and entertaining. However, will that ten-page discussion move the plot along, or feel like a commercial break from the story? Are the actual points of debate important? Maybe it would be just as satisfying to write, “Tom sipped his gin and tonic, and relaxed by falling deep into a debate with Matt and John about the pros and cons of Astroturf, no longer thinking about his problems.”

This is where the deeper edit is important – it distills the words into the most important parts of the story, and burns off the excess. The author clears away a lot of things that are likely still very thoughtful elements but offer no development, and the story is that much stronger. The reader finds themselves taking in a lot of information but never getting bogged down in a discussion that the author loved to write but didn’t move things along.

There are exceptions to this part of editing, of course. Obviously, if a major plot twist in Chapter 25 hinges on Astroturf, then that conversation needs to be in there to set the stage. But more importantly, sometimes we include at least some of that conversation if it serves a secondary role, such as mood or character development. If Tom debates with Matt and John, this provides an opportunity to develop those characters, and show some aspect of them that might help explain their actions later in the story. Perhaps Matt and John provide comic relief, helping show how Tom escapes his problems by talking with two very entertaining people.

Lastly, we need to address continuation. In short, this stage of the deeper edit makes sure the reader wants to head to the next section with an interest in what happens next. It examines what the reader is being taken and whether it seems like a natural transition. If Tom felt successful in forgetting about his problems, then this should be communicated in a way where the reader at least thinks they know where it’s going. If Tom failed, the reader should be asking themselves what the hero is going to do to complete this task. Whatever part of the hero’s journey is taking place, the reader should somehow be prompted to keep on reading.

If you do outline your writing, this part of the editing process should be fairly simple. However, do not be afraid to change the outline based on something you see in the writing. If you see the seeds of a subplot, consider whether it can fit in the outline and could benefit the story. If a character really livens up the scene, think about their role in the story and whether they could have a greater stake in it. And most importantly, if a character or element does not quite fit right, feel free to write them out. Nothing personal, just let them know this wasn’t a good fit, and maybe you’ll put them in another story.

Once this is done, it’s ready for the last step – the intensive, grammar- punctuation-structure edit we’ve been putting off for so long. And my advice on that might surprise you.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Editing - How to Learn From Your Writing

As much as us writers like to create, there comes a time when we have to review our work not as writers, but as editors. We have to look at our work with a critical eye, studying our beautiful words for the disasters living between the lines. This can be troubling and even painful, but like most tough tasks, it is a great way to polish your writing skills.

For those who are worried, this will not be about punctuation, grammar, and a vigorous debate about the Oxford comma. Rather, this will be a simple discussion about how to incorporate editing into your process, and how to establish your priorities. If you are particularly passionate about the grammar side, there is a time and a place. However, when you write any story, your first focus should be on the story itself, not whether there should be a semicolon.

There are a few schools of thought about how to edit your work, so I will start with my personal process. First and foremost, I never do my editing in the place where I do my writing. Sound weird? Maybe superstitious? It might. However, just as it helps to have a regular time and place to do your writing, there should be a pattern for when you put on your editor hat, and they should be different. The theory behind this is that when you get into a routine for your editing, your mind switches into editor mode rather than writing mode, and you can think critically rather than creatively. It becomes easier to look over your own work and fix it rather than create more of it.

My creative space is seated in front of my laptop, usually within a social environment like a Starbucks (I know it's a stereotype, but it works). This stirs up my creativity; it helps me create my world, my dialogue, my characters. However, when I become an editor, everything changes. I do not edit on my laptop, but rather on printed copy with a pen. I am usually seated in a quiet place, preferably with scotch on the rocks (time and place permitting). I developed this habit over the years, and once I get into that environment, I become an editor. When the laptop comes out, my creative side jumps up like Pavlov's dog hearing a bell.

And here's why it is important.

The biggest part of editing our own work has nothing to do with commas and grammar, or the proper spelling of "occurrence." Anyone can do the grammar part. As the author, your first edit has to be with the big-picture issues. Does your story develop properly? Are the character's actions a reasonable response to events? Do characters have independent voices and distinct personalities? Is the pacing appropriate for that stage of the story? Most importantly, are the messages you wish to convey explained effectively? These are things that you know better than anyone else, so it is your biggest responsibility to address these issues.

Many people suggest that the best way to approach this is to step away from your finished work for a while - a few weeks to a couple of months for a full manuscript - and perhaps have someone else read it, preferably someone who can be open and critical. Having a family member such as a parent read it is nice, but unless your goal is to have your manuscript pinned up on the refrigerator, you might want to find someone who you trust can be critical. Let them read it, and tell them to throw every question that comes to mind at you. And listen. Workshop the piece if possible, and take in as much feedback as possible.

Not all feedback is valuable, but all feedback should at least be considered. If someone says they didn't understand a particular relation, look at that part and see if it needs to be clarified. If some feedback says that a particular character was not likable, think about whether that character needs to be more likable or maybe they are just fine being their annoying self. Be open to every comment at least to some degree. If the first comment is, "This sucks," then at least consider whether or not it needs to suck less. In short, be open to everything but know that you don't have to accept anything.

This big-scale edit might require a lot of rewriting, moving sections around, deleting conversations and narratives, or whole sections of your beautiful words. This is fine - they served their purpose and their sacrifice is for the good of the manuscript. The larger story will benefit from this, as the broad arcs of the story will be sharpened, refined, and carry the reader along.

And once you get that done, you are ready for the next stage of editing - which is still not the grammar part.


Friday, November 2, 2018

Writer’s Block Revisited


Some people deny the existence of writer’s block. My guess is that those people have never experienced that feeling of looking at an endless expanse of nothing and being intimidated at the thought of filling it. Those people have missed out on that experience of having something to express but not knowing what the first word should be. Maybe they are the lucky souls who have clean creative plumbing, words flowing without obstruction from brain to fingers.

They are lucky, but they miss the opportunity to grow by breaking out of the paralysis.

My experience with writer’s block is nothing special. I have my moments, and they are tough to get through. However, the Block is kind of like a cold – some people never catch them, a cold is very annoying for those who do, and they are different for everyone. Over the years, I have broken them down into some simple categories, and I figure out which cold I have before I ever try to cure it. The listing is simple:

  • I have nothing to write!
  • I have so much stuff to write!
  • Should I write that?

Just as I would never treat a head cold the same as one in my chest, these each have their own approaches and symptoms. Only the writer can know for sure which one is the current affliction, but that is half the cure. The other half is doing something about it. I’ll go through my personal cures, and you can see if any of them ring a bell.

“I have nothing to write!”

This is the most common of all the writing colds for me, so I have done a lot of thinking about this. Often, the thinking was a way of avoiding writing, but it delivered some results in the end. Usually, the conclusion is that I am not in a very aware, sensory place. I am not reactive to the world around me, so nothing really stands out. I might have plenty to write, but my feelings are not in touch with the words.

My cure is therefore to get really involved in the simplest of items. If I am at my desk, I focus on my pen. A coffee mug. A scar on my hand. I stare at it. I drown out the world around it. I tune my mind into the item and approach it from a sensory point of view. What does the coffee mug feel like? Smooth? Cold? Does the bottom have that ring of scratched ceramic? Is there a logo painted on it? Does the logo rise from the surface of the mug? I try to describe each sensation with a word. Two words. Five words. A complete sentence. A simile. Switch to another sense and do the same thing – what does the mug sound like when I tap the edge? The handle? As I do this, I tune myself into that reactive place until something stands out. I might write a poem about the mug, or a quick sketch about the mug and its thoughts. Something. Anything. But suddenly, I am writing again.

“I have so much stuff to write!”

Yes, this happens too. An embarrassment of creative riches, yet nothing makes it to the page. For me, this cold is the opposite of the previous ailment – at this point I am so aware that everything gets the creative juices flowing, but this forms a logjam of ideas. Everyone rushes to the front of the line, so nobody gets to be first.

Some people insist that they need to just choose an idea and start writing. Maybe that will work, but for me it only addresses the symptoms and not the sickness. When I am that creatively charged, I personally believe that there is some part of my creative self looking to come out. I explore my mind for the most challenging activity running through my brain, something that contains as much creative risk as possible or perhaps something I have feared doing. Poetry. A confessional essay. A narrative about one of the many dark secrets or untamed demons from my past. I force the biggest task to the front of the line and put that energy to work. Sometimes the results amaze me, sometimes not. But at that point, I’m writing.

“Should I write that?”

The answer to this question is obvious – yes, I should. But when I find myself asking this question, it usually has nothing to do with the subject. At this point, it’s about my writing. For whatever reason, I don’t feel my writing can match up with the subject at hand. More importantly, it doesn’t matter whether this is true or not. Now it is about trying to address those doubts.

At this point, I usually switch from a producer to a consumer of creativity. I read something simple or take Netflix for a spin. The catch is, for whatever I do, I think about how I would approach it. For that simple bit of reading, how would I have written it? What elements of style did I like? What did I disagree with? Could I have improved it, and if not, how could it improve my writing? As far as Netflix goes, I think about how I would write out a particular scene, how I would explain the visual media and create a page that conveys all the important elements on the monitor. These exercises are not intended to build my confidence as much as erase my doubts. I can see myself as a writer again, with a set of skills and with room to grow. At that point, I can write without being self-conscious, and give myself the liberty of exploring the written word again.

I know plenty of other versions of writer’s block – perfection obsession, burn-out, distracted writing, and so on – each with their own little set of symptoms. These will be explored in due time, but for now, the important part is to understand that people get these from time to time, and in plenty of cases they are like a cold – they just need to run their course. But sometimes we can go right after them, and even cure ourselves.

And this is for those people who never catch the Block: I know you, I hate you, and I will write about you.

Monday, October 29, 2018

It's Your World -- Now Share It


Whether you write fiction or stay in reality, you are in charge of the world. The entire freaking world. That’s a lot of responsibility, and even more demanding when you realize you have to bring that world to life for the reader. Then you realize that everything from the sky to the ground and all points in between can only be created with words. That’s a pretty big grocery list.

Before you panic, keep something in mind. The biggest mistake you could make is to create an entire world before you know what part is important. This goes for fiction and non-fiction alike. If your story is about a child growing up in the Midwest during the Seventies, you first need to know what is important and what can be left behind. Will the Vietnam War play a role? Sino-US relations? Nuclear power? Disco? These were all actual Seventies things, but if they do not fold into the narrative or at least give the world some real texture, there’s no need to remind the readers about them (especially disco).

Let’s take a deeper look into non-fiction world-building. The first danger is that when we write true-to-life stories, we already know the world around us, which makes it easier to leave it out of the writing. However, this is the world we need to bring to life for the reader. The reader needs to walk those streets with the characters, to invest themselves in this story, especially because it’s non-fiction. A true story better feel true-to-life, or it misses the point.

There are plenty of details I could offer about where I grew up. I had a Jones family on either side of my house. The rolling easement by our house was perfect for playing football, save for the railroad spikes lying around from when a spur track ran through there. Most every house had a fence save for ours and the house up the hill behind ours, which made the two properties into one long sledding run – save for one brutal phone pole right in the middle. High-voltage power lines crossed over the field across the street, their dull electrical hum like droning bees. Everyone insisted the lines were not a health hazard, but the dandelions in those fields constantly fused into mutated seven-headed abominations. Ah, childhood.

Those pieces of information created a nice feel for the area, but at this point, are any of them important to the story? Should I focus on the sledding? Not important for a summer story. Is the power-line situation worth anything? Well, probably not, unless I mention how the Jones family’s chickens constantly laid eggs with soft, rubbery shells. There’s a lot of information about this neighborhood, but most of it is distraction. I would rather stick to the details that fill in the story.

It’s also important to note that in a longer narrative, any detail that comes into play will bring with them an expectation of importance. The author Anton Chekov had a simple rule: If there is a gun over the fireplace in the first act, the gun gets fired by the third act. This applies to most any detail. If I talk about the easement space ripe for football, the reader will expect football. Otherwise, the reader feels like something was left out of the story. They feel disappointed.

Now, in the world of fiction, the further away your world is from reality, the more you have to infuse your narrative with that new world. Not just the parts critical to the plot, but the parts that keep the world unique and original, and that justify this different reality. As opposed to reality writing, the new world is entirely unfamiliar to the reader, so elements can have purpose even without being crucial to the plot.

A common failure of futuristic science fiction is when the author focuses on some element important to the story – space travel, for example – but does not offer anything sci-fi into everyday life. The reader will not be drawn to the world as a great new experience. In the future, fashions, hobbies, and even the simplest of things should at least have an exotic feel to them. Think of futuristic movies where a character orders a drink… and it’s blue. Blue! Is it important to the plot? No. Does the blue represent some critical change in the character? Not likely. The blue drink, however, reminds us that this is a different world where many things are possible, and the simplest thing can be blue. In this regard, our fictional world needs its fair share of blue drinks.

My preferred method of world-building in fiction-fantasy is to start shaping out the world as I write the story, then challenge myself to understand how it ties together. If the story is in a sword-and-sorcery world, but it involves a child on a farm who meets a magical creature in the woods, I should focus on the immediate issues: the creature, the woods, the magic around that meeting. At this point, I am not worried about whether they live under a merciless king, a dragon threatens their land, or the forces of darkness are preparing to wage the final battle of good versus evil. I think about the farms, the woods, and the creature.

As the world grows and the adventure expands, those other issues might come into play. However, I can still sprinkle my little world with fantasy elements to keep the reader invested in the fantasy. Maybe the farm grows a hearty corn used in making the breads preferred by dwarves rather than humans. Or maybe they grow tangleberries – a tasty fruit but the vines are very difficult to navigate. Does the child have a horse? Maybe just a pony? Perhaps the family is poor and can only afford to get a pet snark for the kids to ride (snarks do not eat a lot but they are very slow and smell like spoiled stumpfish). Life on the farm now has a fantasy element even if it’s not big and flashy – it’s different, and the reader pays attention.

For any story, world-building is a crucial part. Setting the stage – especially in genre-specific stories – provides the reader with the chance to walk through the character’s world, to invest their time and interest in the environment, and get a feel for it beyond the words. They will know that world. They will understand that world.

If it’s done particularly well, the reader might even wish they had a pet snark.