Monday, May 28, 2018

Writing Aside -- Edith Jones Ivie

I am setting aside our journey through writing and the process for one post so I can discuss the importance of the writing workshop. More to the point, I want to acknowledge the writing family that exists within those workshops.

It was five years ago this month that a friend of mine invited me to the writing workshop she attended and enjoyed. I was familiar with the workshop process and had been nervously fidgeting about with the idea of getting my manuscript, The Book of Cain, published. It felt like a good idea, so I went.

As workshops go, it was very inviting. A good workshop should be a community of writers who provide constructive input and nourishment for the creative process, but this was more. This felt like a family -- the good kind. The supportive kind. The family you like to be around. And the matriarch of this family was Edith Jones Ivie.

Edith was a kind soul, gentle in voice but incredibly wise in her advice. With multiple degrees, decades as a teacher, and years of travel and experience as her resources, she put them to positive use. Her advice always struck a chord, her questions always making me think more about my subject. My writing grew from her input. But there was something even more that moved me.

Aside from all of her education credentials, Edith was also a published author. A couple of years before I started attending, WinePress Publishers printed her first book, Through the Eyes of Joanna. This book, a work of Christian historical fiction, was meticulously researched to carry forth the story of Joanna beyond the Book of Luke. She spent several years doing all the prep work to make her story come to life, which was an incredible task in itself.

And one more thing: She started all of this when she was eighty. Eighty.

If I ever had doubts in my mind about if I could be a writer, if it was too late in my development to shift gears and write, if being 45 meant I missed my chance, Edith eliminated all doubt merely with her existence. She had started a new chapter in her life when most people consider the last chapter.

During my time in the writing workshop (which I still attend to this day), Edith helped me in many ways, even going out of her way to give my manuscript a personal read-through and critique. I am sure she helped many people in this way, since that's what families do, but I was forever thankful. When The Book of Cain was published, I placed her and the workshop in the acknowledgements, though her contribution to me as a writer goes well beyond what words can say.

Edith passed away Friday morning, quietly and peacefully. Her death was unexpected, but the sadness of such a sudden loss is mixed with so many other things. I know the many students she educated will carry that knowledge forth and make the world a better place. Her words in print will always exist for generations to learn from. Her advice to me will show in everything I write from this point forth. And our family of writers is better for having her to head up those meetings.

A family is never the same after losing someone so important, but it is always better for having known them.

Thank you for everything, Edith Jones Ivie.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Getting the Right (Write) Perspective

So now we are writing, we are writing regularly, and we are thinking about why we are writing. Now comes another fun part – thinking about how we are writing. This is a particularly broad topic, so let’s start with one simple facet: Point of view.

In some ways this is very easy to understand, but it can be very difficult to apply. At its core, it is about how the story is being told. Is the main character the narrator (first-person), or is it explained by some voice to the side that usually sounds like Morgan Freeman (third-person)? And if the narrator is the main character, is the story being told as it happens (present) or explained after the fact?

This may sound like some simple decision-making, but it spreads a much broader shadow. Let’s start with how these offer different tones to any story. Right now I am typing this entry on the 2:53 train into Chicago. Let’s translate this to narrative form:

  • First-person present: “I am typing this blog entry from my window seat on the 2:53 train to Chicago.”
  • Third-person present: “Jim types his blog entry from his window seat on the 2:53 train to Chicago, his train stop quickly approaching though he shows no sign of leaving his keyboard.”

Seriously, the only difference is pronouns and verbs, but clearly more information can be offered when someone sees more than just the main character’s perspective. Moving the narration to the past, additional pieces can be included:
  • First-person past: “I typed this blog entry from my window seat on the 2:53 train to Chicago. I was so into the writing that I missed my stop.”
  • Third-person past: “Jim typed his blog entry from his window seat on the 2:53 train to Chicago, so engrossed in his words that he failed to get off at his stop.”

In first-person present, the reader lives through the character, knows only what the character knows, and reads the world from their senses. It is all about the character writing the entry on the train – the part about missing the stop cannot be introduced until the character notices it. Sometimes this can take away the suspense of an event, but the surprise of new information gives the reader a jolt. Third-person present, however, allows the writer to throw in little hints of pending events – the approaching train stop. The reader will not be as deep into the character’s head, but the trade-off is the added suspense of how the character deals with the upcoming event. When we write from a perspective, this is one of the trade-offs we should consider.

Now, present versus past. First-person past is a personal favorite of mine and easier for some to use, because it is the natural voice of a storyteller. I can talk about that time I was writing my entry on the train and missed my stop, add my commentary, joke about how I ended up in the Van Buren switch yard or whatever I feel. It is still an insightful perspective, but when the narrator is telling their own story, it is important to remind the reader what part is narration after-the-fact and what part is happening to the character at that time.

Lastly, there’s third-person past. This is also a commonly used form of story-telling because the narrator carries all the control. This is often used with broad, sweeping tales with many characters and incidents, where the story is driven by a chain of events rather than personal reactions. As this view is broadened out, it can become omnipotent – all information is provided to the reader, all perspectives are reliable and on full display. However, as that suggests, we no longer dwell within the mind of one particular character. We lose that intimate perspective, the internal dialogue. We trade away depth for breadth, and shed insight for information.

While a sweeping epic might be best portrayed in third-person past, a story of the reluctant hero may benefit from knowing that character very intimately. Surprises and jolts come easier from the first-person, but suspense and tension are easier to build from the third-person. And ultimately, we have to make the decision of how much our character personally goes through versus how much gets explained through narration. (Seriously, if this gets to be a podcast, I am hiring Morgan Freeman)

On that note, one additional factor needs to be considered before we know exactly how we are going to write our story, and it’s the narrator. Our narration acts as the reader’s guide through the story, a navigator who shows us the route we will take through the story. However, like an out-of-date GPS finder, this can lead the reader down some bad roads. And sometimes, that’s exactly what we want that voice to do.

But that’s for the next post. For now, I need to get off the train. I am not missing my stop a second time.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Time Out – Writer’s Block

We’ve all been there. It’s a rite of passage. That point where the words don’t show up. Maybe we have no idea how to even start our project, perhaps it’s at a point where our mind has no idea how to continue to the next idea, or sometimes we just don’t feel the words anymore. The creative process stumbles to a halt, and writers such as ourselves can no longer do the one task we need to do – write.

Everyone has their special way to get rid of writer’s block, like a cure for the hiccups. And like those cures, they usually only work for the person who made it up. I have my own tricks as well, and they likely only work for me so I won’t offer them as some sage advice. What I will offer, though, are some common themes on what might cause writer’s block, and some exercises to get past them.

First, writer’s block is not the same as not being able to write another word after four hours of typing. That’s called mental exhaustion. Take a break. Go for a walk. Crush some candy. You’ve earned it after that much work. No, mental exhaustion is a different creature, and should be handled in a different manner.

Here are some common writer’s block situations:

“I can’t write anything because I don’t even know how to start this.”

If we don’t know how to start our project, the problem could be that we don’t understand exactly what we are writing. Maybe we want to write a story but only have an idea. We might know the events but have no plot, or have a plot without events. At that point, it is worth taking a little time to figure out the first few questions about the project. Why are you writing it? What is it about? What should the reader gain from reading this? Hopefully, this develops an understanding of the situation and informs about just how it should start.

“I’m not sure what this character would do next.”

I love this one because it invites an opportunity. In writing, well-developed characters have lives, personalities, perspectives and attitudes. We might not write about that character’s favorite ice cream, but as a writer we could deduce from their attitude and style what that flavor would be. If we are not sure what that character would do next, we need to learn more about that character.

I learned this technique called “Walking in their Skin” to help solve this issue. To do this, write a separate piece about that character as they do a simple, menial task. Walking to the store. Eating a meal. Sitting in the park. Try to think about that character’s little observations. Thought processes. What would draw their eye or distract their attention. To know what a character does, we first have to know about that character from the inside. Once we know that, we know their favorite ice cream flavor, and we know what they will do next.

"I don't know the right way to say what happens."

Yes you do. This can often be a case of thinking so much about how to say something that we forget why that something is important. We can get lost in those thoughts to where we are not being a writer. When we write, we don't have to say things the right way. We just have to say them; we can perfect them later. If we give ourselves permission to get through it now, we can fix it once we know what we really want to say. If that's too difficult to do at that moment, we might want to consider if our problem is one of the earlier ones in disguise.

The good thing about writer's block is that it is a rite of passage. It will happen. When it does, it gives you the opportunity to find a cure for your personal case. You can learn a technique that gets you through it, which makes you that much more of a writer. You can even offer it as advice to other people when they are bogged down in words as well.

And when you are at a total loss? Well, those candies won't crush themselves.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Simple and To the Point

In a previous post, Caring About Our Stories, I mentioned how we need to ask ourselves “Why am I writing this?” As we develop the mechanics of the Process, we need to ask a more refined part of this question: “What is the purpose of this?”

With anything we write, that question should apply to every part. For any essay, screenplay, novel, or short story, we should be able to ask that question about something as broad as the entire work itself, or as narrow as a particular word we choose. The answer doesn’t have to be perfect, brilliant, or even insightful, but if the answer isn’t obvious, we need to ask ourselves if that part is necessary.

In my post, And So Begins the Process, I offered the example of my working manuscript called Easier than the Truth. In that post I demonstrated how to take a one-line idea and turn it into the bones of a story. Now we can follow through with that technique and apply our question of purpose to make sure this story focuses on what is necessary and leaves out what isn’t.

There’s the story in front of me, and I ask, “What is the purpose of this story?” This should be a very simple, concise answer, at least in the author’s mind. For this novel, it is, “To show how someone broke away from a life of denial and faced the harsh realities of their life.” One sentence; simple and to-the-point. As we start asking this about smaller and smaller pieces, the answers might be a little more elaborate, but they are just as important.

Now we narrow the focus from the story to a particular section. In Chapter 12, our protagonist, Tom, is driving to work early, with his friend, Phil, trying to catch some sleep in the passenger seat. “What is the purpose of this chapter?” This is where Tom explains his plan to bring together his out-of-control life. Simple and to-the-point, but we can still narrow this question further.

The next question would be, “What is the purpose of Phil in the scene?” Phil is skeptical of Tom’s plan and doesn’t think it’s a good idea. “What is the purpose of Phil trying to sleep instead of being wide awake?” It allows Phil to be dismissive rather than confrontational, thus allowing Tom’s plan to continue (plus Phil was up late). Again, it is… simple and to-the-point.

This can continue down to the individual words, but we won’t take it that far in this particular example. The point is that when we ask the right questions about our writing, the answers make our writing better. Then we can tell elaborate stories and explain complex ideas, yet our writing will be strong because it is simple and to-the-point.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Write Drunk, Edit Sober

To follow up on the last post, this one now proceeds into the nuts and bolts of the Process – the mechanics of writing. This is a little more complex and elaborate, so it serves everyone best to discuss individual pieces of it across a few posts to develop all that this stage holds. And the simplest part is the mechanics of being a writer.

Being a writer is, at its core, writing. What this means is when you are writing, you shouldn’t worry about anything else but putting one word after another. Don’t think about whether a particular sentence should be in the subjunctive. Don’t contemplate what adverb sounds just right. Don’t sweat how to spell the word “occurrence.” And definitely don’t go back and forth about how much to put in or take out for the description of a scene. These are all important, but not for the mechanics of writing. They are mechanical processes that come later. For now, just write.

Ernest Hemingway supposedly once said, “Write drunk, edit sober.” The takeaway from this is hopefully not to develop a drinking problem, but to write without reservations, restrictions, or inhibitions. And a part of that is to not write like an editor, thinking about all the parts of grammar and so on. It is about placing words down and telling a story. It is going free-verse, letting everything spill onto the page. This is not as easy as it might sound, but it is very important to the Process.

A part of this is about giving your inner writer a few liberties. When you are writing, tell yourself that these words can be changed; that errors can be corrected. Understand that there will be slip-ups, problems, and missteps. The first draft is never perfect, nor should it be, because the story grows even as you tell it. All of these problems will come out as you write, but they are not the concern of the writer. The editor needs to worry about that, and while you are writing, that editor in you shouldn’t even be in the same room.

Editing is a separate part of the process, and should be done with an entirely different temperament. As drunk as the writer should be, that’s how sober the editor should be. Editing is simple, pragmatic, and to-the-point. The only thing that changes in editing is whether you are editing closely (grammar, verb conjugation, whether or not to put in that last comma, etc.), or editing for broad content (does this piece serve a purpose, do the events flow naturally, is there continuity for the reader, and so forth). Then there is the edit run where we ask the questions we avoided as a writer – Is this the right adverb? Do the words match the way the character speaks? Is this sentence effective? This part of editing will be discussed at a later point, but for now the takeaway is that at no time should the editor and the writer share the same space.

One of the editor’s responsibilities, however, is making sure that everything that the writer creates aligns with the purpose of that essay, chapter, novel, etc. This is the structuring part of writing, which is another valuable part of writing mechanics and the process in general.

And it will be the subject of the next post.

Friday, May 11, 2018

And So Begins the Process

So now we are writing, hopefully on a regular basis. We know this is something we want to do, something we enjoy, and something that offers us that certain thrill of creation. Sometimes, we even dare to call ourselves “writers.” How can this get better?

“The Process” is how.

Teacher and award-winning author Barbara Gregorich told me her three categories for developing the writing process: Psychological, Organizational, and Mechanical. In case you haven’t figured it out, the Psychological part comes early on when we start exploring our writing and discovering who we are as a writer. The past several posts quietly set the psychological table (though it is far from over). In some ways, the development of the Psychological part of the process never stops.

The focus for this post is about Organizational, and that word may be a little misleading. The important part of this step is knowing what you want to write well enough to accomplish the task, which includes understanding when your idea has changed into something else. It sounds simple, but the application is the tricky part.

Let’s say you want to write a coming-of-age story set in the Midwest. Easy enough, yes? Well, let’s organize this. Let’s ask some questions that will narrow down the idea to something very precise and targeted.

When does the story take place? Not just the year, but is it told as a narrated flashback or as it happened? As a series of short stories at various times? Is it historical?

How is the story told? Is the narrator telling their story or someone else’s story? Is it in first-person or third-person? Is the narrator biased or unreliable? Is the reader supposed to know this? Is it told in past-tense or present-tense (so very important)?

Why is the story being told? As the writer, you know this one already, but what should the reader take away from this? Is there a lesson to be learned? Should the reader be inspired by the main character’s journey, impressed by their sacrifice, horrified by their actions? Stories that have a bunch of events happen but never offer the reader a reason why are referred to as BOSH – Bunch Of “Stuff” Happens (pick any s-word for Stuff). They’re fun to write and interesting to read but they miss a chance to be so much more.

What are the elements for the story? Theme and mood can really liven up a story, and knowing it beforehand can infuse every word. Is there a sense of dread? Urgency? Is our coming-of-age character facing problems they can’t escape or don’t want to face? Does it feel like their world is falling apart? Changing when they need consistency?

Also, what is the voice of the piece? Light-hearted, comical, horrifying, dreadful, aloof, serious, darkly humorous? This also ties together if your writing is for a target audience. Coming-of-age stories that appeal to the young adult crowd might not work with a serious voice, while children’s books usually avoid dark humor (but not always). When the voice of the piece can work with the theme and mood, they harmonize into very effective writing.

Taking our idea of a coming-of-age story in the Midwest and pushing it through these questions is how we apply the Organization part of the process. After running the idea through that mill, I ended up with a twenty-something guy in Chicago in the 1990s, trying to hold together the ideal life as it starts spinning out of control. It’s in the third-person, voiced from our protagonist’s point-of-view, using flashbacks to fill in his backstory. While written with a soft humor and sophomoric mood, the underlying message is about escaping a life of denial and facing up to the world’s harsh realities. And yes, this is now a working manuscript: Easier than the Truth.

That is how this part of our process saves us a lot of rewrites and a bunch of grief. At that point, we are ready to write. More importantly, we are ready to know what we are writing, and we know when it’s changing into something else.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Caring About our Stories

There’s a special part of my writing process that I don’t know how to define, I just know it’s there. I call it “the challenge phase,” and it can come up at any time. It usually takes the form of an innocent little question that can stop my typing in mid-sentence. 

“Why am I writing this?”

At that point, the answer doesn’t really matter. If it takes me more than a few seconds to feel what the answer is, I stop typing and shelve that work for a while. Sometimes forever.

It may sound like an arbitrary decision, but there is one valuable reason why I do that – I care about what I write. This doesn’t mean I must be obsessed about this particular piece, or that it reflects some deep part of my soul. It means that whatever I am writing still moves me, and I want to see where it goes. If I lose track of that sensation; if I no longer know why I am fleshing out these thoughts, I have to ask myself if I’ve lost track of that, or if I actually care about it.

In the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown, I sat on a panel at the DePaul College of Finance, trying to explain the crisis to graduate students. A number of us professionals spent two hours hashing out the details of this economic disaster in all its brutal complexity. Very exciting and very educational, but if you weren’t a financial professional, it was likely incredibly boring.

At the reception afterward, a few students cornered me for a personal post-meeting grilling. I was still shaking off the last of my public-speaking anxiety, and despite the gin and tonic, I still carried a little edginess (See previous post, “Staring it Down,” to understand speaking anxiety). One of the students called me on it.

“Have you spoken to a lot of classes about the recession?” she asked.

“Sure,” I answered after a deep breath. “But only five or six this year (it was September).”

The number clearly impressed her. “If you’ve done it so much, why do you seem nervous about it?”

Fair question, but I knew the real reason I was nervous wasn’t entirely about public speaking. I was discussing something I really cared about; explaining the minutiae of a subject that had dominated my career for the past few years. I knew the subject from stem to stern, but I still thought about it, processing the events and poring over the details, new theories coming to mind for consideration. The worst of the crisis had passed, and yet I was nervous about presenting something I knew.

“I’m nervous about these talks because I still take them seriously,” I answered with an assuring nod. “If I no longer cared about this, I’d give you all the details and you’d sense that it didn’t matter to me anymore. And you probably wouldn’t care about it either.”

And that truth really stands out when we write. Our emotions come out in the words we write, and as we grow as writers those come across even stronger. If we are connected to that story, those words rise from the page. If not, they fade away and the reader loses interest as well.

So when I ask that question, “Why am I writing this?” it is a way of finding out if I still care about the story. And that answer can make my writing pop, or it can tell me that maybe it's not happening.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Staring It Down

In my last post, I talked about the fear of criticism and the hesitancy we all have about taking that painful step. I got some feedback in my writing group that made me want to do this supporting post about doing things outside of the so-called comfort zone.

Strong, vibrant, leap-off-the-page writing is often the result of two disciplines: A well-practiced ability to tell the important parts of the story, and an uncomfortable habit of exploring the unknown. The former discipline comes from entering the cycle of writing and feedback. The latter is far more difficult, because it is far more uncomfortable. It is exploring the things we wouldn’t normally pursue; entering a room when some unknown part of us screams, “Get away!”

Guess which one I will discuss?

I was raised to trust my instincts and follow common sense. There were simple rules: If it feels wrong, it’s probably wrong; If you’re scared of something, there’s a reason for it; Always wear clean underwear (the last one has nothing to do with writing but is good advice). I can’t say I always followed these rules growing up – during a rebellious period of my life known as “the Eighties,” life was more about breaking rules than following them.

However, part of growing up and exploring the world meant figuring out if these rules always applied. It felt wrong to use my father’s power tools when I was eight, but was it taboo once I turned twenty-eight? I had never found any reason for my strange childhood fear of certain cartoon characters and sock puppets; was this no longer an issue? Plenty of my fears now felt groundless. However, this did not mean they didn’t feel real. Horribly real.

One of the simplest fears I carried was public speaking. I hated it. I had built up volumes of bad experiences with it throughout grammar school and even into high school. When I hit college, the thought of speaking in class would devolve me into that awkward, undersized fourteen-year-old sophomore trying to read a paper to a class of very judgmental students. Sweaty palms and everything. A disaster waiting to speak.

But I also knew my eventual career would require some degree of public speaking. Meetings, management presentations, clients – it would find me somehow. It was the inevitable problem with growing up, and my choice was to get over it before I started my career or let it ruin my career. So I got the class registration catalog out, knocked down a few shots, and registered for courses that required presentations. I was scared, but I acknowledged the reason and I went in anyway. And despite my fears, I passed them and I learned a few things too.

Once I started writing, I realized how important that step was as part of the writing process. As adults, often it’s easier to pretend we have no interest in something than to say it makes us uncomfortable. We turn our fears into a status quo – we no longer care to open the doors we are scared of. However, this cheats us of growth, of realization, of the chance to really make a discovery that enriches our writing. If we feel uncomfortable about exploring a subject, that’s natural, but it can also be a signal to ourselves that there is something to learn from doing it. It’s that point where we might want to think about what might really lie beyond that door.