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.