Monday, December 23, 2019

Writing Resolutions

It may be a little early to talk about New Year's resolutions, but since this will be my last post until 2020, this is my last chance to talk about writing and the new year. What's the point in making those big resolutions in mid-January, when everyone else is already breaking their own? This post will be things to think about as the next year gives us a chance to turn up our game.

I'm not a firm believer in hard-and-fast, ironclad resolutions. In my experience, they become obligations rather than representations of our desires, and if we break them, they become wellsprings of guilt. Rather, I like to think about a set of goals, and lay out some milestones for the year. I also set up a few different degrees of accomplishment as well, so I can put some wins under my belt as I go for the bigger tasks.

The simplest way to build this out, in my experience, is to have three tiers of goals: to do something new, to make something a habit, and to make progress to a larger goal. Not surprisingly, doing something new is very achievable once we set out to do it, and it gives momentum toward the other tasks. Of course, as a writer, we can tailor these to how we want to progress.

Do something new. As writers, there is always something new to do. The real question is whether we are willing to try. I often offer beginning writers the goal of writing a poem. You can guess the responses: "I'm not a poet," "I don't know how to do that," "That's not the kind of writing I like." These are grown people trying to avoid writing with the reasoning of a six-year-old who doesn't want to try broccoli, and all I'm doing is recommending one bite. Being a writer is about exploring things and trying out the unfamiliar, so write one poem just to say you did, and it's a win. Write a seventeen-syllable haiku that nobody has to see, and you've grown.

Make something a habit. As intelligent beings, we learn a lot through repetition. All those annoying math problems and spelling tests in grade school taught us the basics, and that's true for anything else we do constantly. If we can accept that not all our attempts will be perfect, that we will not ace all our spelling tests, and that our mistakes are more educational than our successes, than doing something over and over is always beneficial. I always recommend writing every day to keep a good habit, but maybe just journaling thoughts on a regular basis is an accomplishment. Before bed every night, write down three ideas for a book (that you are not obliged to write). Three times a week, take ten minutes to describe where you are with just one of the senses. Get into one of these habits, and good things happen.

Make progress to a larger goal. I think one of every person's greatest sins is to think too big. This is different than thinking big - thinking big is deciding to write a book. Thinking too big is deciding to write a book then sitting down and trying to write the whole thing. Some people can do the latter; most will quickly be disappointed. If your goal as a writer is to write a book, then great - so prepare for it and take it piece by piece. Think about the characters. Write up an outline of the story. List the problems that will be encountered, the obstacles to be overcome. Read a good blog about laying out story arcs. Set a goal of writing the first chapter and feeling good about it. When you do that, setting another goal will be that much easier, and you'll already have a win under your belt.

In the coming year, it's surprisingly easy to become a better writer, and it doesn't take some magical resolutions to do so. Just remind yourself where you want to go and always move in that direction. Fast or slow, you'll get there.

So I wish you all a Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, a Happy New Year, and as I tell the many people I work with on the beautiful art of the written word, "Keep on writing."

Friday, December 20, 2019

Good Faults and Interesting Flaws

I'm not perfect - I own that. I have my share of quirks, and not those kind of quirks that actually make me more interesting. No - these are the annoying quirks. I smoked for years and make sure everyone knows exactly when I stopped (April 20, 2002) and how I feel about it. I correct people's grammar during casual conversation. I break the mood during conversations. And I go on and on and on about the qualities of aromatic gin when all the person asked was, "Would you like a drink?" When it comes to annoying habits, I filled my plate.

However, people still like me (at least enough to say that.)

In literature, characters that really stick should seem like people in every way possible, which includes faults. If a character is without flaw, it can still be interesting, but only as a side note, a supporting character. Think of the people you know on the fringes of your life who are nice, helpful, and so forth, but there's something about them that keeps them at the fringes. It's not something bad, it's just that there's nothing particularly interesting. These people in your life are likely fine people, but without knowing more about them, there's no reason to explore further.

Now, just salting a character with quirks and annoying habits for the sake of making them imperfect is one way to do it, but these bad traits also present an opportunity to build upon the story itself, on the internal conflict, and challenges the character must face on their journey. Some can be pretty obvious, others can be ongoing issues. When we find out early in the movie that Indiana Jones hates snakes, we just know that he will be encountering more snakes before long. However, other subtle touches can keep a slow burn to a story's tension.

Let's look at my personal list above and see how they could play out. The whole smoking thing can play in the immediate way, like dealing with people who smoke all the time, but it can be a deeper point. If we learn that the character started smoking as a form of self-medication to deal with terrible anxiety and stopping was a very important step in recovery, then every time anxiety grows, we can tap that string and show how our character is feeling tested, pushed toward his old habits. We know the importance of not smoking but the reader will feel the building urge to pick up a cigarette. Probably not something to base a story on, but definitely enough to support the tension.

Grammar-correcting and mood-killing are also not good subjects for a plot to pivot around, but they can become obstacles to overcome. If part of our character's journey is to rise up the corporate ladder, how helpful is it when he tells his boss, "Actually, if you want to be grammatically correct, say the program is doing well, not good." The reader sees that the character can be his own obstacle, and his pursuit need to be personal revelation before he can ever conquer the larger task. As for someone going on and on and on about the qualities of aromatic gin, maybe that's just a detail that informs the reader about the character's flair for detail, but it can also contribute to the other issues about killing the mood or correcting other people.

A good character doesn't need to be damaged to be interesting. However, characters become far more familiar to the reader when they see common traits for better and for worse. And when those traits can also make a story more rich and intricate, maybe a few imperfections are just what a perfect story needs.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Writing Smart Characters

Smart characters fill the literary world. We start with the adventures of those wonderfully brilliant Bobbsey Twins, then Encyclopedia Brown, the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, and eventually we follow Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. We watch these characters show off their genius as they figure out problems and eventually solve mysteries, often in ways that amaze the reader. We read in wonder as these characters do what they do so well. As we become writers, we want to create characters just as brilliant. However, some beginning writers come to an immediate roadblock - how do they write a character who is smarter than they are?

Intelligence is very difficult to portray on its own - particularly in fiction - if the character is smarter than the writer. Many other traits are easy to portray in their extremes. Amazing strength was not a requirement to write about Superman, just as the author was not required to be faster than a locomotive, etc. However, intellect is very difficult to portray with a sense of balance. Without delicacy, the character can sound awkward, fake, or worse yet, just plain unlikable.

The trick begins with the realization that intelligent people don't need to act intelligent or tell people how smart they are - it usually broadcasts the wrong message. If someone tells you they're really smart, they have an IQ of 150, they got straight A's throughout college, does that sound like intelligence or bragging? A character broadcasting those things actually tells the reader more about their ego than their intelligence, so sidestep the obvious.

A good step is presentation. In literature, we learn about a character's smarts more through their actions. Sherlock Holmes was notorious for doing odd things, then offering an explanation for his behavior that offered insight into how his brain worked. The reader now understands that he operates differently, and the difference produces results. If a person says they prefer eating quinoa to peanuts, then explains the comparative benefits of the nutritional composition of quinoa, we now know that his mind churns through a lot of information - perhaps too much - with even the simpler things in life. (And the reader doesn't even need to know what quinoa is.)

While mannerisms bring out the uniqueness of the character, environment can play a role. What are some simple things in that character's life that show how they work? Think of just an average person working a simple job and living in a studio apartment, but that little place has shelves filled with books. Not like a hoarder; these books are kept in order, categorized, most have dog-eared pages, and some shelves have books exclusively in French, Latin, or languages the average person does not recognize. You know virtually nothing about this character - not even the gender - but the books now suggest depth and dimension.

The biggest reveal of a character's intelligence, of course, is problem-solving, which is why the detective genre is a natural fit for the clever character. However, all the writer has to do is come up with a problem, a solution, and a clever way to uncover the details that lead to that conclusion. The writer just needs to understand that one situation, then let the character show off the brilliant way they find out all of the twists and turns.

Writing a genius character doesn't require a genius. However, once a character looks like a well thought out genius, the writer looks like one too.

Friday, December 13, 2019

The Superstitious Writer

When I walk along the sidewalk with someone, I have a compulsion to walk on the side closest to the street. If I talk about an upcoming event and fear I might have put a jinx on it, I knock on wood. When I find a penny, I pick it up because I believe that all the day I will have good luck. And don't even get me started about my quirks before football games. Whether these are superstitious behaviors or just weird but innocent mannerisms is not important. We all have them, and writers are no exception. The question, again, is whether they are superstitions or just weird things.

Superstitions are generally considered irrational actions we do as a response to some outside event. The important word is irrational - with no explainable purpose. In my list above, are those irrational? Well, walking close to the street is actually a habit of good manners - a polite person walks closest to the street to shield the other person from anything kicked up by passing vehicles. If one knows that, it's just courtesy; if not, it's irrational. Knocking on wood? Well, that's just a weird compulsion, so we can call that superstition. Picking up a penny is just good financial management, but the day's-worth of good luck slides toward a little bit cuckoo. It's all perspective.

So, what about writers? Here's a few common things I see in writers, and where they fall on the rational spectrum.
"If I don't have my writing pen and special pad, I can't write." 
Well, nothing stops a person from writing with just any pen and paper, or typing, or whatever, so that looks like superstition. However, there is some sanity to it. As I've mentioned before, developing writing skills is best done through habit. I often discuss the rituals I have for writing - my laptop, my gin and tonic, and so forth. Having these things puts me in a writing mind, and makes it easier to create. Fortunately, I can write without gin and such, but given the choice, my familiar things trigger my writer's brain. Some people do let the items control their actions, and that's where the line is drawn.
"Once I start something, I have to finish it before I can do anything else."
I get a little scared hearing this one, and I hear it far more often than I'd like. Sometimes this is just a habit to block out a project and take it to the end, but what happens when that person decides to write that 90,000-word novel? That drive is healthy, but if they get bogged down in a spot, a timeout can be very valuable. And, of course, sometimes our projects die on the page and we just have to let them go, or at least shelve them for a while. Maybe this is more of an obsession than a superstition, but it can be a setback.
"If I read my work before I complete it, I have to stop everything and edit it."
I am actually a fan of this superstition. Sometimes we get bogged down in our writing, and reading it feels like a good idea. Maybe it works for some people, but I believe that a writer's job, first and foremost, is to write. Getting lost in the editing part, perfecting past chapters before the rest of the chapters are written, these are all little traps that keep us from the process of writing. There will be a time to edit, change, and rewrite, but I am a firm believer in not looking back until I reach my desired point, then switching into an editor (with my editor glasses and scotch on the rocks) and playing out that role.

As writers, we will develop a lot of quirks and habits as part of our craft. Whether they are superstitions or just odd behaviors doesn't matter. The only part we need to consider is whether that habit helps or hurts our growth. The rest is academic.

Now I have to sign off. Preparing all the props and rituals for this weekend's Bears-Packers game is a two-day task.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Goals For Beginning Writers

Last week, I wrote about the one-million-word theory, and how it takes a lot of writing to really hone the craft of the written word. I received a few IMs about how that seemed like a pretty huge goal to establish, and that most beginning writers can't even conceive of the day when they write their one-millionth word. It seems almost abstract for someone who is struggling to get their first work together to see that day when the word odometer rolls over to one-million. Is such a milestone even achievable?

Not with that attitude.

I will concede that the person just jumping into writing should probably not have such a huge task as their first goal. To start off with that as the next landmark asks too much of a person - any person. One of my friends made a commitment to prepare herself over the following year to run a marathon. Indeed, she did it. And yet, one-million words would take five times as long at a minimum. Fewer pulled hamstrings, but plenty of other obstacles can get in the way. So, with writing, maybe it's better to break things down into smaller goals that build toward that larger achievement.

When I wrote my first short story, it was five pages and about 1,200 words. Looking back, it was crap. However, it was my crap, and I was proud of it. It was the most I had ever written in one run, and this was an important accomplishment. I knew I could tell a story, and I could do it again if I wanted to. So I did. And I did it again. And again. And again...

Once I hit that milestone of writing a short story, the next goal was to stretch myself, and that's where I fell short for a while. I was not yet committed to being a writer, so I just kind of settled for writing 1,000-2,000-word stories and calling that a win. The stories got better, but my growth as a writer plateaued. I didn't press myself. I wouldn't be a writer if I didn't go further.

When I finally took that step forward, I set out to write a bigger story. I think it qualified as a novella, but that's not the point. I expanded my range, and wrote a fifty-page story. Once I did that, I felt that rush again. I accomplished something greater than before. At that point, I wanted to grow as a writer. An entire book was inevitable. Maybe two. Maybe more. I saw a list of goals in front of me, and I built on the momentum I had gained from this latest accomplishment.

With that, I now offer a list of smaller, bite-sized goals to check off as you pursue the ultimate goal of becoming a writer. Start ticking through this list, and see how the completion of each task makes you want to take on another one:

  • Write a character sketch - just describe a person, their details, and how they see the world
  • Write about that character in a situation - shopping, golfing, dealing with their friends or in-laws
  • Make a short story with that character - present them with a situation, have them address it, and how they respond to the results
  • Do those same three steps with a totally different character
  • Write a short story about those two characters meeting
  • Write a bigger story about those two people joining in pursuit of a common goal, then fighting to achieve their personal goals
  • Write about those characters being forced into a difficult situation, and how they would address it 
  • Give these character a road trip through the country of your choice

In case you haven't figured it out, this set of exercises provides any writer the opportunity to explore the little things about characters that flesh out any story. The interaction of character and situation is a mandatory element of any story, and these should provide ample practice in developing this. And once they are all complete, there should be a few new ideas forming in a story you really want to write.

(Oh - and at some point, join a local writing workshop. Feedback is priceless.)


Friday, December 6, 2019

Being A Better Writer

Through the various workshops I attend, I have met a lot of people who can become good writers. Unfortunately, it is also fair to say that most of them will never become good writers. Usually, it has nothing to do with effort. These people write consistently, try new things, and have the discipline to pursue the goal of being a writer through good times and bad. Yet, they are not willing to do the one thing required to be a good writer, and that is, they are not willing to get better.

This may sound like a bunch of wordplay and technicality, so let me expand a little. When I started out as a writer, I proclaimed myself as the best unpublished author around. I had written many things, and each one gave me an inner warmth from that sense of creating a perfect story. I had received compliments and so forth, so how could I not be a good writer? Maybe I wasn't the best, but dammit, I was good.

That lovely fantasy came to a painful end when I attended my first workshop. It didn't have anything to do with the other writers - they were very good in their own right, but that did not diminish my writing. Rather, once I presented my first piece, these people had the nerve to tell me that - brace yourselves - it was not perfect. And I am not talking about typos or missing a semicolon - this was some structurally flawed stuff. I used the passive voice. I shifted points of view. Characters did not have depth and dimension. For all intents and purposes, the review gave me a sense that I was NOT a good writer.

For beginning writers, this is where it all counts; the rubber hits the road at this very moment. At this point, a writer can get defensive, panic, insist that everyone else is wrong or doesn't get it, or any other excuse to save them from reassessing a situation, or they can become a better writer.

As difficult as criticism is, it's priceless because it informs us about what readers see, versus when the writer creates, and the reader is just as important as anyone else. As a beginning writer, we need to have an open mind, and take in as much as possible when it comes to criticism - as long as it is constructive. Most workshop members want to help each other become better, so it helps to listen.

The only caveat I offer is a simple reminder: When your mind is open, people try to pour a lot of crap into it. By this I mean it pays to make sure you don't just change your style to obey another writer. While most criticism is constructive, some of it is less helpful than others. Be careful of criticisms that have the following traits:

  • The soapbox critique - "I would've written it differently"
  • The empty critic - "I didn't like it"
  • The reverse discussion - "If I were you, I would've..."

The one thing that all constructive criticism has in common is that it is a discussion of styles, rules, and structures, not opinions. If someone doesn't like your work, that's their opinion. If someone can show how the structure can be shaped to make a better point, that's constructive. People can even start off with, "I felt...," but as long as it leads to a lesson, then you can build upon that. With that, you get better. Inevitably, this leads to being a good writer.

At that point, you can become the critic, and you can offer the constructive comments that made you get better.

Monday, December 2, 2019

One-Million-Word Theory

Today, everyone is taking the post-Thanksgiving glutton's walk of shame back to work, the gym, or the scale. We discovered that eating two pounds of dark meat is more than enough (not that I ate two pounds of dark meat), and now we are paying the price. In this spirit, I wanted to write about one of my favorite topics - excess. Particularly, when is excessive writing a good thing?

"Excessive" might be a troubling word to use in the wake of Thanksgiving, but I use it because right now it's important. In our minds we know that eating an entire pumpkin pie for dessert would be excessive (and rude to the guests), but is that always true? I think eating an entire pumpkin pie over the course of two weeks is reasonable. Same pie, different time frame. The same goes with writing. Sitting down and writing a book before you get up again is an excessive expectation. Yet sometimes, when we want to write, we get that urge to jump into it, to eat the whole pie at once, and end up sick after four slices (not that I ate four slices Thursday). If we pace ourselves, we can, in fact, eat the whole thing.

My mentor, Newton Berry, talked about the one-million-word theory of writing. He said that a writer doesn't find their voice until they've written one-million words of poetry, narrative, or whatever. At the time, I hadn't finished my first manuscript of anything, so how could I even consider such a task? Even with such a reward at the end, writing a million words seemed impossible. That's like saying I can have my pie after I eat the yams. All the yams. Every visible yam on a table spread for fourteen people. Is that even worth trying? (not that I tried to eat all the yams)

But before we look at the task of writing one-million words, let's think about it in component pieces. The blog has 170 entries, each 1,000-1,200 words tops. If we shoot low, that's 170,000 words written from a blog I post twice a week. That's not even two hours of writing a week over the past eighteen months. It's not a million, but it's a lot for two hours a week.

Now let's look at journaling. I believe every writer should keep a writing journal and contribute daily, just because it's a good writing habit. Once you are into it, journaling is like snacking during the Bears game while the turkey cooks. You sit there, watch the game, eat some chips and cashews, back to the game, another handful of snack between plays, and before you know it, someone's shouting, "Who ate all the damn cashews, it's not even halftime!" (not that I ate two pounds of chips and cashews.) The word count of journaling counts toward that million words, and at 200 words a page, my eight seventy-page journals (double-sided) pages count for a quick 220,000 words.

Then there are my projects. I get an idea, write a few character sketches, do a few descriptions, and just sandbox different ideas. This is important in the sense that salad is important to any major meal. It isn't the main course, but it establishes the groundwork for the evening. Everyone can make a salad, everyone can write a bunch of things that never go anywhere. I inventoried my docs and have over 300 things that never became anything. They count too, and loosely estimating 700 words per thing, let's throw in 210,000 words to our total. That's a lot of salad. (I never fill up on salad.)

How's that million words looking now? Closer? It's 600,000 words closer without doing much, but doing it consistently. Was I ready for my book? Well - big surprise - I wrote three books - an actual trilogy - before I found something worth publishing. Was the writing terrible? No. Was the story weak? No. They were good, just not great. I plan on rewriting them soon enough, but that's a luxury we earn after we go through the task of writing them the first time, and learning our voice. This is like a dinner wine - we need to go through a lot of wine before we know what works for us. (I may have had too much wine at Thanksgiving.)

One-million words is not very much at all. If we consider the 10,000 hours ideal (the theory by Malcolm Gladwell, not the song by Justin Bieber), that's how long it takes to master a skill. That's five years of full-time work. Is writing any different? If you do it enough, and with dedication, you master it. After that, you are free to lie back, feeling full, sated, and ready for a nap on the couch.

Monday, November 25, 2019

A Writer's Thanksgiving

This Writer’s List of Thanks

Like many people, I take a little time off this Thursday to gather with family, feed myself into a stupor, and give thanks for things in my life that sometimes go overlooked. Though this is a longstanding tradition, in some ways it is very new. I am still trying to get used to the ideal amount of eating at the Thanksgiving table, but I imagine I will be very much coming off a calorie high on Friday. (I also will not be posting Friday – we all need some time to recover.) So, to kick off the holiday season, I am dedicating this post to those things which I am thankful for as a writer.

I am truly thankful for not working on Friday. As a writer, this might seem like an unnecessary mention, but it really means something. During my decades in the financial sector, the Friday after Thanksgiving was very much a work day. Sure; plenty of people would take a vacation day, but our department still needed someone there to take calls and stare at the open field of empty offices and cubicles. I’d step in every time, saving a vacation day for later and making a lonely trip to the city. After twenty years of working on the quietest Friday of the year, I moved to writing and no longer have to face that. For that I am thankful.

There must also be a quick mention for a simple joy – this is more from the editor’s side. I am thankful for weird words that always give people pause, particularly common words with odd singular forms. Most people forget that data is plural; the singular is datum. And while we all know what confetti is, the singular (one piece of paper thrown in celebration) can be either confetto or confettus. Try celebrating someone’s good news with one little confetto-worth of excitement. (There is some argument whether one spaghetti noodle is a spaghettus, but that’s for another discussion.)

On a more serious note, I am thankful for the family support I have received when I turned toward writing. When someone says, “I am going to be a writer,” they are usually met with a passive, “That’s nice,” response, as if the announcement is about a new hobby, like jogging. So imagine when someone says they have decided to go professional with their jogging. That response can vary wildly, but it’s rarely supportive. However, my friends and family backed me one-hundred percent. How about that for something to be thankful for?

Getting back to the family part, as a writer I am quite thankful for having relatives with such exaggerated traits and qualities that they just inspire creativity. Every writer will hopefully sit down for Thursday dinner with a Rogue’s Gallery of family members, each worthy of at least a short story if not the inspiration for a series of off-beat comedies. Writing about them is a personal decision. Having them around is constant inspiration, and for that I am thankful.

And I must close with one last thanks for those who inspired me in my journey but sadly passed away this year. This has been a rough twelve months with far more funerals than weddings, but this brings out the magic of writing. The art of the written word is a way of immortalizing parts of people’s lives. They remain everlasting in the words we shape into stories we share. For all of those in my life who have crossed the river, they still exist in my writing. That is my way of showing just how thankful I am for having known them.

To all my readers, Happy Thanksgiving. The next post will be the Monday after Thanksgiving, assuming I have recovered.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Editing Like A Writer

In case everyone has not figured it out already, I've been doing a lot of editing for a lot of different projects lately. Therefore, most of my posts have been the observations about how editing relates to the writing process. Recently, a couple of readers wanted to know how much of my writing skills factor in to my editing side, and whether it's better to be an editor who writes or a writer who edits.

Challenge accepted.

First, the two skills feed off of each other, so doing one makes you better at the other. However, if I had to choose one, I would choose being a writer who edits. Why? When someone is a writer who edits, they can think like a writer when they go over someone else's copy, and this allows the person to contribute all those things that are editorially correct but weak when it comes to writing. Allow me to offer an example:
"Tom looked past the highway to the east, where the Braidwood Nuclear Generating Station filled the horizon. Any driver cruising down Interstate 57 might overlook the two cooling towers rising above the treeline like so much gray Tupperware. Once Tom had pulled over and stood outside his car, the facility came into full view. All he could do is stare at the 2,000-megawatt nuclear power station filling the view, making the housing development next to it seem irrelevant."
This is a description that is, from an editor's perspective, grammatically clean. It offers a description that offers insight and would likely have value to the reader. Most editors would sign off on this. However, a writer would want a little more.

What is more? Well, this kind of description tells us nothing other than what is, and this subject is fertile ground to expand on different facets of the character. This description of the Braidwood station could also describe Tom, which offers the reader more than just an image. It fills in character.

Is Tom technically minded? Does he look at such a place in awe of the technology, and how the engineers who made such a monstrous place could tell him the reactor's weight to the ounce? Is he fascinated by the power generated there? Does the thought of 2,000 megawatts impress him? Does it scare him? Does he think it's crazy to have a housing development right next to a nuclear facility? Does he care? We could learn a lot about Tom just with a few tweaks. Let's take the last sentence and just change the last clause:
"All he could do is stare at the 2,000-megawatt nuclear power station filling the view, making the housing development next to it seem like matchsticks ready to burn."
Those last few words now give us a mood. The reader engages immediately - is this foreshadowing some disaster? Is Tom that scared of nuclear power? How will this affect him?

An editor will rarely offer such a note. A writer who edits is far more likely to call out that spot as an opportunity, and offer a chance to make the writing that much better.

Asked and answered.

Monday, November 18, 2019

"I'd Rather Have A Good Editor Than Good Editing"

My first job out of college put me under the tutelage of several people, but none were as stern as Dr. Robert G. Dederick. A Harvard-educated economist who spent time as Undersecretary of Commerce in the Reagan administration, he established the bar for no-nonsense economics. He was a straight-lined, standards-and-regulations, belt-and-suspenders man, and I had the privilege of answering to his demands.

Dr. Robert G. Dederick, my favorite Harvard economist
This man had rules I could not comprehend. Maybe it was because I was fresh out of college, but his set and defined ways were beyond my understanding. It wasn't about comprehending the little things, like how he would eat a banana with a fork and knife, but his way of writing, explaining, and supporting his points. He threw in commas wherever and whenever possible ("Use one, boy, we're not running out any time soon,") and maintained a structure that was as strict and regular as the drum in a Sousa march. As it turns out, this kind of person was exactly what I needed to figure out the world I had entered.

Did I really need this? Yes, indeed. While Dr. Dederick (who was also known as Bob and as Dr. D outside the conference room) was pretty rigid with the way things needed to be done, he was not like other people who taught by a My-way-or-the-highway method. Bob's way of working with me, which was infused throughout the department, was not about telling me what was wrong. Bob took the important step of telling me why I was wrong.

This is not just about how writers learn their trade; this is about how everyone learns. In my world of economics, there were two sets of rules: the hard-and-fast guidelines set by the science, and the schools of thought that used cause and effect to arrive at a particular conclusion. The former was a matter of rote memorization, like multiplication tables, but the latter could only be learned by the exchange of ideas.

I have worked with editors who were proficient and following the rules of spelling, punctuation, and grammar, which is fine, but their skill stopped there. If they felt a metaphor didn't work, they would write, "metaphor doesn't work" and move on. Could they explain? Was it awkward? Did it not fit the mood? Too complex? Forced? These editors are fine at the nuts and bolts, but the amount that can be learned from them is limited.

A good editor, like a good teacher, should be someone who offers advice. Whether they lean back in their chair, like Bob would, and offer a story from the late 1970s on how the Federal Reserve dropped the ball, or pull up a chair and offer a five-minute discussion on their opinion of why they feel something doesn't work, in the end, it should be a learning experience. The interaction should end with you feeling you are wiser for having been involved. People learn mechanics over time, but the lessons learned from a good editor should be special moments.

Today, Bob turns 90. In fairness, he passed away a few years ago, but I use the present tense because he is still very much present in my writing. There are at least three parts of this post that have his influence, and a number of the commas are dedicated to him. He wasn't an editor, but he shaped my life. And hopefully, you get someone in your life who teaches you enough about writing or economics or whatever to where you write something dedicated to them, and see them in every sentence.

Friday, November 15, 2019

A Writing Prompt For All Ages

I always profess to have a pretty good memory. Don't get me wrong - I have wasted my fair share of time turning my house upside looking for where I left my car keys and cellphone (which are usually already in my jacket). However, when it comes to certain events, my long-term memory is pretty strong. I have memories dating back to when I was four, including relative context. As I get older, I start wondering why those memories stuck. That's when the writer in me comes out.

In my opinion, memories stick to us for a reason, and the best way to discover that reason is to write about them. Someone in one of my writing workshops wrote about conversations she would have as a child with her mother. She remembers the conversations well, which is even more striking since she was five years old, these conversations happened in the late 1940s, and her mother had recently passed away.

Yes - passed away. She remembers that her coping mechanism for losing her mother at the age of four was to think about her, visualize her, and talk with her. These conversations were very valuable, and she remembers them to this day. Now, skeptics might argue that there's no way to prove that the conversations were remembered verbatim or if there was some license taken over the decades. However, that's kind of the point. We start remembering the important parts - the context, the message, the purpose - and we see just why this memory stuck.

The earliest memory I have that contains value and information was sitting with my mother as she relaxed on the couch and wrote a news story on her ever-present yellow legal pad. She was a reporter at that time, and also a full-time parent, so quite often those two tasks would be combined. She would write her story, I would sit next to her and watch, and she would finish a paragraph and we would read it together. (I was literate at a very early age, and learned cursive by reading my mother's news stories.) No matter what the deadline was or how wrapped up she was in the reporting process, she would let me curl up next to her, lean in and watch her write, then read her story back to her, including talking through the big words. Even during the District 201-U teacher's strike, she let me read her story as she wrote it.

Maybe this is a little too on-point for why I remember this. Now that I write regularly. it's easy to see why such a memory stands out from all the other things I did when I was four. I don't remember what I got for my birthday or for Christmas, the status of my parents' marriage, or much of anything my brothers did, mostly because those memories aren't important (no offense to my brothers, parents, or Santa.) But I remember plenty of those moments learning to read from my mother's perfect cursive.

So where's the writing prompt? Simple. Write about the earliest memory you have. Explore it. Find every sight, sound and texture possible, and connect it to your life today. Search for why that one stood out while so many others fell by the wayside. It can be the simplest memory or a series of events, but explore it to see why it stuck for all those years.

Maybe yours has a simple connection like mine, but hopefully this simple prompt is also an exercise in discovery.

Monday, November 11, 2019

A Writing Lesson From A Veteran

I am fortunate to know several veterans who have served on fronts in the Middle East, Vietnam, Korea, and in World War Two. They come from all walks of life, people from all corners of our country brought to the same place to serve our country. Some saw combat, some were wounded, others never fired their weapon, but they all came back with stories. They had experiences that few could comprehend, and people who didn't served could never fathom. These are stories that everyone needs to hear.

"In Flanders Field"
Now, when people hear the words veteran and stories, it's easy to think about the war stories - a chopper pilot coming under fire in Vietnam, a unit fighting through an ambush, and all the other things that civilians see in the movies. While such stories are important, someone doesn't need to be one of the men raising the flag at Iwo Jima to have an important story. Rather, everything veterans went through, including training, bad meals, going overseas for the first time, and all those quiet moments of contemplation in a foreign land, are important stories because they describe a world few people know.

In almost every writing workshop I participate in, there's at least one veteran who wants to write their story. In one particular group, a gentleman arrived with this exact intention - to tell his story. We will call him Lenny. He had served our country proudly, but when he came home he went about the business of working, getting married, raising a family and so forth. His life had plenty of stories just from his work and hobbies, but now he wanted to revisit his time in the service. He sat down with our group, explained what he wanted to do, and before too long, he was writing about different episodes of his time in the service.

These weren't front-line stories by any stretch, but they fascinated everyone. One day he's a young man growing up on the south side of Chicago, then he's training for Navy service on the west coast, then he's thousands of miles away in equatorial heat, moving tons of high-grade explosives. These were insights into a world nobody else in the group had ever even considered, much less experienced, and we loved his stories.

What was also fascinating about this was watching Lenny grow as a writer. His writing wasn't perfect, but as he wrote, he got better. He got in touch with the heart of the stories, he developed a voice that was very much his own. When he showed up that one Wednesday evening, he admitted he did not have any real experience with writing stories. However, he dedicated himself to the process and told his stories, and in time, Lenny became a writer.

Incidentally, I left out one detail that might be the most important part of the story. When Lenny showed up for that first meeting and set out his goal, he was ninety years old. A World War Two veteran who served in the Pacific, he decided to start writing when he was ninety.

For those who say they are too old to become a writer, they need to meet Lenny.

This year, Lenny (whose actual name is Sylvester Kapocius) had his first book, "To Manus and Back," published, telling many (but nowhere near all) of his stories from his time with the Lion Four unit, loading ships from a base on Manus Island. As the editor of the book, I had the opportunity to learn a lot from his experiences. However, what I also learned is how one person's dedication can make anything happen.

Thank a veteran for their service today. And listen to their stories - they are more priceless than you know.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Why Are You A Writer?

There's been a lot of discussion here lately about the how-to's of being a writer. Well, let's set those aside for a moment and take this from a slightly different angle. So you want to be a writer? Well, I just waved my internet wand and - poof! - you're a writer! You now have all the rights and privileges bestowed on writers, you know the secret handshake, and you get the writer's discount at McDonald's. Now what?

The real hook to being a writer is not asking how you become one, but why you want to.

A guidance counselor once gave me this nugget of advice: "Give me three reasons you want to pursue that career. If you can't give at least three reasons, it won't bring any satisfaction." (Full disclosure: This is what led me to a career in economic analytics, not writing. That was a full and satisfying career, so I applied the same test when I decided to write.) Anyway, I discovered that sometimes, we want to do something or become something, but we never look at why  we want to pursue that craziness. So let's explore some answers people have given me.

"Well, I like to write." Excellent, but not a full answer. I hear that and it sounds like an unfinished sentence. I like to write... what? Any answer works, but something more is necessary. Even if you like to write about everything, explore a little more in-depth and discover what gets those words flowing. What is the highest high for your writing interest? Targeting a very specific part of writing that gets everything really going is critical to being a writer.

"I enjoy turning my feelings into words." This is one of my favorite answers to hear because it captures the magic of writing. Think about this for a moment - everything in the creative writing genre incorporates this technique of expressing very elaborate, abstract emotions using only a limited world of words. This is like magic, but it also places a lot of demands on a person. Writing is actually more than just feelings distilled to the page, so any writer who uses this as their answer should be prepared to explore the world beyond personal expression.

"I have a story to tell." This is my least-favorite answer to hear, but not for a bad reason. First, everyone has a story to tell. Everyone has hundreds of stories to tell. Some are better than others, but the main takeaway is that writing is only one of many ways to do this. If your prime purpose is to let everyone know about something that happened to you that will change their lives, that's not a healthy reason to pursue life as a writer. it might be easier to find someone who will write your story, and share an author credit on this life-changing book. However, if your idea is to share your many stories and ideas with the world as a way to entertain and communicate, maybe that's a more compelling reason.

"I've always wanted to write a book." Please stop. We all think about that big step, but it's a goal, not an interest. I've always wanted my name to be an answer to a Trivial Pursuit question, but that's hardly something I can pursue directly. That requires many other little steps that are nothing like the goal I want to achieve, and if I can't find interest in those little steps, I will never make it to the bookshelf.

The secret to the question of "Why...?" is exploring where your real interests lie. It is about focus and insight, about examining yourself and dissecting the question down to the little bits and pieces. Somewhere inside this deep bit of self-examination is the true answer of why you want to be a writer. It might surprise you when you see it, but when you rise up and can hold that one truth, then being a writer is surprisingly easy because you know exactly what goal to pursue.


Monday, November 4, 2019

How A Writer Earns Their Stripes

The last post was a wordy answer to the question I often receive at writing workshops: "How do I become a writer?" There are a lot of things that move people toward writing, but the act of 'being a writer' takes that extra push. It takes focus, habits, and no shortage of humility. But once we start incorporating those into our daily routine, does that just make us writers? Do we suddenly qualify as members of the writing community? Is there an initiation where we learn the secret handshake? At what point are we allowed to call ourselves writers?

I will offer this as my response. If we write, and in our mind we have dedicated ourselves to this end, then we qualify as an official writer. Maybe our rank isn't that high - in the US Army, we would be recruits without even a patch sewn to our uniform. But even Private No-Stripes is still a member of the army and can refer to themselves as such. We are probably looking for more than that when we write, so how do we earn our stripes as writers?

Like most things, we only really become that thing we want to be when we start acting like it. Like Private No-Stripes, we need to develop not just the habits, but the mindset to really move up in the world and not feel like a recruit. We need to focus, and write regularly, and act out those habits until we no longer think about them. Once we fall into the habit of writing as a way of managing our ideas, we become a writer. As we think about how to present an idea as a story or an essay, that writer in us grows. As our writer kit fills with tricks and tools and we use them more and more, we establish ourselves as official writers. We earn that first stripe, and nobody can question that we are writers.

More than likely, we will question it for a while, but that's a different hurdle to conquer.

I often mention the pen and stack of Post-It notes by my bed. This is a writing habit I developed years ago, and it was pivotal in the creation of my first published story. In the middle of the night, my mind starts throwing around ideas for no particular reason. We all get that restless mind thing now and then, but with me, it happens to the point where I decided to grab the weird ideas and write them on Post-It notes. It helped me sleep, but also provided fertile ideas for the writer in me. The pad will be tucked full of writing prompts, some of which are even readable.

These might sound weird, but here are a few:

  • Why are some colors allowed to be first names? (Scarlet, Violet...)
  • Does evolution know when to stop?
  • The deepest fear of the monster under my bed
  • My God-parents meet my Devil-parents
  • My cats learn to count
  • The suburbs of Heaven

Do any of those make sense? It doesn't matter. Somewhere in my mind, a group of tired synapses brought out some weird ideas, and get triggered when I read the note. As a person trying to sleep, I'm not concerned about writing. However, the once I am awake, writer in me sees a chance to explore. I saved them for writing prompts on those days when I want to write but don't have any ideas really jumping at me.

Does doing this make me a writer? Well, not on its own. However, acting upon it gets me closer. As I mentioned before, one of those little notes became my first published story, "The World's Biggest Snowball Fight." (a polished draft can be read at this site).

I like to think that such commitment was what gave me my first stripe.

Friday, November 1, 2019

So You Want to Be A Writer?

I get a lot of inspiration for these posts from the different writing workshops I attend. Questions come up from all kinds of writers, from those just getting their feet wet to those who have already been published. The process of writing is one of constant growth, so there are always questions to be asked, subjects to be discussed, and so on. However, after reviewing through my many posts, I realized I have stepped around one simple question: "How do I become a writer?"

This is a pretty simple question, but in my opinion, it's a deceptive simplicity. When any writer is asked this, there is the instinctive answer to start writing. That's true, but it's the easy way out. Rather, when I hear that question, I think about what the person is really asking. There is something more going on, and a satisfying answer will address that issue rather than the simple approach. So let's start there.

Whoever asks this question is likely fully capable of putting words to paper. When someone walks into my workshop, sits down, and asks that question, I go beyond those simple words. With a little exploration, the meaning of the question comes out. They are really asking, "How can I do what you all do? How can I become that person?" Those are questions I can work with. So let's offer a few simple steps on achieving that.

First, focus on one idea. Plenty of people want to write their personal story - but that's not just one story, so writing it seems impossible. Narrow down the life story to one message, one idea. Everyone has a life worth writing about, but explore it from one concept that defines the story you want to tell. My life story might be interesting, but spilling my guts out about everything that happened over the past 51 years would be confusing. Focusing on the stories that brought me from an economist's desk to writing fiction; that's more interesting.

Second, set aside all those hang-ups about not being that great. Nobody starts their writing career by being a great writer. Everyone launches their life of writing somewhere between horrible and tolerable. Even those with natural gifts still make simple mistakes, screw up the grammar, let stories wander, and all the other things that humans do. Accept the fact that your first works will need serious repair. You will fail. You will stumble and fall. You will feel genuinely dejected at times. These are all parts of being a writer.

Also, give yourself credit. Writing is not easy. It is brutal at times. The writer's development comes with plenty of growing pains, and plenty of scars from mistakes and missteps. All those cuts and scrapes, the skinned knees and bloodied lips, the constant bruises we acquire all teach us something. All that pain can be difficult to endure, so definitely give yourself credit for taking the beating that comes with growth.

Lastly, explore. If you want to write about your favorite memory, challenge yourself to explore what made it so special. Look for that deeper meaning. Examine it from all sides, and put the discoveries into your writing. This might not change the story you write, but it develops a habit of exploring the subject. As writers, our stories grow as we grow, and their details come forth as we develop that sense of exploration.

This is the long answer to, "How do I become a writer?" There's no easy answer; just many little answers. It's a neverending journey, so there is no one conclusive answer. This post merely offers advice, and there are my keys to starting that adventure.

Oh - and start writing.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Finding the Good in Bad Grammar

I am sure you've experienced something similar to this. You and some friends get together, say to go bowling. You get a few strikes, pick up a couple of spares, and close the game with a solid 148 - far better than usual. You are happy, and say, "It always a nice night when I bowl good."

At this point, a friend butts in with, "You didn't bowl good, you bowled well."

"Huh?"

"The proper way to say it is that you bowled well." This uptight friend continues, "A bowler is good. Bowling goes well."

"Whatever," you say, reminding yourself to no longer invite that friend for nights out.

Now, that obnoxious friend - who, in your head, might look a lot like me - is technically correct. He knows the grammar rules and the different situations for using good and well, and probably has good intentions in offering the correction. And as most people know, nobody likes that guy when he does that. They quietly hate him. He is the friend known as "The Grammar Nazi," and a buzzkill. Is this hypocrisy?

Maybe. The most important part, however, is that this is an opportunity for the writer in us to learn a few things. If we know the good/well distinction, or when to use "you and I" versus "you and me," that's just great. We can learn not by spreading the good word of grammar to the uncaring, but by listening to how often people violate these rules in conversation and nobody cares.

In the real world, people do not always speak with clean, eloquent, rounded structure. People use double-negatives, they split infinitives and leave participles dangling. Even when using proper English, there is a lot of room for error. After than, well, there's slang. Dialect. Euphemisms. Awkward phrases. At the end of the day, it seems like there are more ways to screw up a conversation than get it right.

That's where the lesson comes in. Consider all the great ways where bad grammar makes a conversation natural. People will say, "When I bowl good, you and me make a nice team," and everyone understands it. The Grammar Nazi friend might be very uncomfortable, but that's his problem.

While this is a guide for dialogue, it also applies to narrative voice - first-person in particular. A narrator who uses sinful, improper terms such as, "supposably," or "I could care less," connects with the reader due to their imperfection.

As a writer, let a few slip-ups offer some flexibility to the voice. Let the conversation be the kind you would hear at the bowling alley. Preferably, on one of those nights when that grammar friend was not invited.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Miscommunication and Dyscommunication

During a recent writing workshop, we had an interesting discussion about the difference in conversational English over the years - centuries, actually. Some commonplace words back then have fallen out of use, some did not even exist back then, and certain historical events created sayings that now define the language. The gap between, say, 19th- and the 21st-century conversation is pretty noticeable, but our language has evolved in many ways, and not recognizing them can make writing pretty hard to read. In the worst cases, it can actually send the wrong message.

One way that words have changed is through social media. In our rapid-fire online environment, it seems that words can transform as fast as the spread of one viral meme. It used to be that a catch-phrase would need to catch on when lightning struck from a commercial during the Super Bowl. Now, lightning strikes everywhere; the pages of Facebook transmitting new phrases and sayings that load context into simple phrases. Plenty of people hear, "One does not simply..." or "What if I told you..." and their mind goes to a meme reference. The reader now thinks something other than what the writer intended - miscommunication.

I always have to tip my hat to another form of writing that can be a problem - jargon. We know it when we hear it, but often we don't know it when we use it. The main definition of jargon is a terminology unique to a particular subject, but when the reader is not able to gather the meaning through context, jargon falls to the alternate definition, "Language that is incomprehensible or unintelligible."

Without getting partisan, let's just think about the current political environment. People staunchly within the camp of their preferred party circulate words that are standard English but carry a very loaded meaning to people within that camp. The words liberal and conservative have very simple meanings in our language, but along the partisan spectrum they can be toxic words said with a snarl and a cocked eyebrow, or with chest-puffing pride. As writers, we don't need to pour our own politics into our characters if we don't want to. However, we at least have to recognize that certain words can redirect our readers if we are not careful. If we want to put a political voice into our writing, then we can garnish our writing with all the political jargon we wish. If that's not our desire, well, maybe saying "a conservative approach" is better written as "a reserved approach," or "a liberal use" becomes "a generous use."

Now for the subject of dyscommunication. In case you did not know, the word, "dyscommunication" is not a recognized word in our language. However, it transmits a meaning in that its structure communicates a message through the simple prefix of "dys," as in, "dysfunctional." This word doesn't talk about when we fail to communicate a message, but when we communicates a different, or perhaps opposing message. This can be a question of context, of framing a sentence just so, and putting the inflection in just the right or wrong place.

We've all heard the story of the husband and wife preparing to go out for the evening, and the wife asks, "Does this dress make me look fat?"

The guy answers, "That dress doesn't make you look fat."

A simple story. However, it would help the writer to add some context to prevent the wrong message from being picked up by the reader. He could get up, approach her, say the line while admiring her. The message is reinforced, assuming that's what he meant. But what if he meant, "That dress doesn't make you look fat" (implication: you look fat with or without it) or "That dress doesn't make you look fat" (implication: you look like you are hiding your fat.) Adding a little emphasis or context prevent dyscommunication.

Next stop: using poor language use to effect.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Writing - Panic and Focus

A friend of mind had a job where she regularly helped people get through panic attacks. When the person would start boiling over, she would go through a routine proven to cool down people at their worst. She would get the person to look at her, then in a kind, patient voice, she would ask the person to name five things they could see. Then name four things they could hear, then three things they could feel, then two things they could smell, and finally one thing they could taste. By the end of this, the panic attack had dissipated and the person was calm. There is something for writers to learn here, other than how to control a panic attack.

First and foremost, this is about focus. During a panic attack, sensory input is overwhelming. Every sense wrestles for dominance, every sight and sound taking on a presence of its own. In writing, this is when the author tries to explain everything in one big flurry of words: a character's wardrobe and hairstyle, their car, their personality, where they live - you get the point. Readers will lose track of all these little details flying around, and few things actually stick. Chaotic explanations and descriptions are the literary version of a panic attack, and the best remedy is similar.

The most important part of remedying a panic attack is focus - cutting off the massive sensory input and turning attention to a limited number of obvious points. Our sense of sight is an obvious approach, so turning the mind toward a few items limits the flood of chaos. In writing, we don't need to describe every stitch of clothing if we can offer one visual cue that creates the whole image - a department head's business suit and tie as clean and crisp as the company he works for, or everything a person wears looking like its made out of hemp. One description, one focus, and our writing is less chaotic.

The next part of control is the narrowing element. Each step in bringing down a panic attack is narrowing that focus; five items becomes four, then three, and so on. When we first write about something, we can offer a broader description, but each time it returns, we narrow that focus toward the crucial elements. As we continue to discuss the department head in the paragraph above, we focus on the starched edges of his hard collar or the retentively tight Windsor knot of his tie. Those define the person, and even the mention of that cue describes the entire person. And, if a later scene points out a wrinkle in that suit or a crease in that shirt, well, it sets off alarms with the reader. That one mention, with proper focus, dominates an entire scene.

There is also another note about focus that the panic-attack example might not reveal so obviously. As we go through the sensory roll call, we go from the very obvious world of sight and sound to the more intimate, internal world of subjectivity and perception. In short, the focus goes from external to internal. As the world becomes more intimate, the writer brings the reader into the world, beyond the red, green, and blue and into the senses that trigger emotions and memories. At this point, the reader is translating the words directly into how they understand the world. They are bonding in a way that engages them with the writing. For the writer - mission accomplished.

I know plenty of people who write amazing descriptions. Most of the time, two people will walk away from those pieces with a different idea of what they just read, but they will have the same emotional experience. This is good writing. This control of the reader's perception through focused description is an amazing thing, just like seeing someone bring a panic attack under control, and the end result is often an amazing sense of connection afterward.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Writing When You Don't Want to Write

Life can be brutal. Disappointment can come at any time, rejection awaits us around every corner, and tragedy can intrude with the simplicity of a text. Even when we step around those big pitfalls, plenty of little things await us: an unexpected expense, a headache or upset stomach, a friend letting you down. All of these can sap the energy from us, leaving our charge meter deep in the red. At times like this, how can we possibly sit down, get ourselves into that writer mindset, and create something?

Maybe we shouldn't. Sometimes we get hit by too much, and the best place is underneath a pile of blankets. Oddly, the first step of writing when we don't want to write is acknowledging this is an option. Sometimes it is easier to tell ourselves, "I don't have to write. I should, but I don't have to." When the world is hanging awkwardly from our shoulders, and our battery charge is in the single digits, it actually helps to think of something not as mandatory, but as optional. That way, when we choose to do that thing, we control the situation rather than let it control us. We still feel depleted, but the weight on our back is not compounded by another burden.

The next parts are actually planned long in advance. When we decide that despite our depleted feeling we will write something, looking at that blank page can be just as daunting as our decision to write in the first place. This is where our process practice comes into place. I have mentioned too many times that we need our writing place - that place where we always write, where everything is familiar and in place, where all our needs as a writer are met. When we are barely functioning, falling into this place and these habits has a magical effect. We no longer expend energy becoming a writer in our head - all of those rituals and habits relieve us of the effort. Our mind responds to those things like a dog hearing the dinner bell. It's not a magical cure, but it is a deep, cleansing breath that puts us into that place in our head where we can write. We don't have to write, but we should, and now it's becoming easier.

Another important part of this is the promise. This might sound a little hokey, but give it a try because there's nothing to lose. As we sit in our writing place, ready to create, make a promise to yourself that your only goal is to write. You are not obliged to create the outline for The Great American Novel, you don't have to create a brilliant character sketch or the perfect haiku. Your only agreement with that promise is to write. To create. To make something; anything. When it's done, you don't need to keep it. Delete the file, burn the paper, store it in a desk drawer with all the other things you promised to create when you weren't feeling like creating. Living up to your own process is a nice feeling, and it gives a certain sense of satisfaction if nothing else.

If possible, the one last thing to do is tap into what has drained you. It doesn't have to be a event-by-event recap of everything that brought you down. It can be a character feeling the same way; a poem about exhaustion, or a playful sketch about the life of a battery charger as it saves iPhone after iPhone, all while its wire casing frays at the connector, as they are so prone to do. This is the oldest bit of advice about writing what you know, and when you tap into it, the exhaustion can be a little more manageable.

As you all have likely guessed, I had a terrible day just before writing this. A painful letdown, an emotional betrayal, all the high drama one might expect that brings a person to a low point. Of course, it all occurred shortly before my allotted time for putting together my post. The blankets were warm, I was tired, my cats were already showing me the proper way to sleep - everything in place for me to hide from the world.

Instead, I wrote this. Now I have a little more energy, and I can face the day.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Good Critique Technique

I've talked a lot about editing lately, and received a few questions about just how to be an editor. In particular, some people have questioned how they can be a good editor if they are not very good at writing in the first place. This is a very important discussion, so I thought it'd be worth exploring a little. In particular, I want to offer the difference between being an editor, being a writer, and being a critic - a good critic.

We all have that image in our heads of an editor - that intense, critical look in their eyes. An anxious, almost desperate urge to leap in and mark up our beautiful copy. And, of course, that annoying aura of someone who knows all the rules and focuses on everything wrong with whatever is in front of them. That's the stereotypical editor, and all writers frame that person as the villain. To be honest, if our editor is that kind of person, maybe they are just a villain.

Each writer needs a special kind of editor to address their particular needs. The kind of editor someone needs for a manuscript is often different than what people need in a workshop, so before we decide what kind of editor we can or can't be, we need to decide what our writing audience needs. Some need editors, others need critics, and some just need help. Addressing that last need is the most important in a workshop, and it doesn't take an old-school, hard-core editor to fill that role.

In workshops, people are trying to become writers, so the most important part is helping them write what they want to say. Anyone reviewing the work of a person trying to figure out how to tell a story should be the editor from the 30,000-foot view - someone who looks at the big picture: Is the story clearly written? Is the structure solid, or can it be improved? Are there distractions? What is the conclusion? If the spelling, punctuation, and grammar are horrible, the high-level edit might note to run a spell-check, but that's not the point right now. It's all about structure, flow, and storytelling. People who want to become writers don't need to know the proper application of the subjunctive or how to spell occurrence; they need to get things together and communicate ideas.

As a writer starts developing the craft, the best editor will be someone who can be a critic. (Note: "Critic" can be a good thing if it is constructive.) In this case, the critical editor will come down from the 30,000-foot view, zooming in much closer, approaching works while considering things like structuring paragraphs or style techniques. Any critique from this level will be full of comments and questions, pointing out where techniques work, where they don't, and ideas about getting it back on track. The critical editor should offer recommendations for any problem they highlight, and promote the writer's personal growth. These are the most important editors for the writers in a workshop who want to shift their writing game into high gear.

Conversely, the least-helpful editors in a workshop are the deep, intense, close-view critics who spend their time parsing every comma and semicolon, picking every nit they can find. These editors are mandatory for anyone who wants to create a polished copy ready for publication or contest submission. However, this intensity is not a good fit in a workshop, or at least not when that style of editing is the top priority. It took me a while to put away that style of editing at workshops and focus on style, structure, and helping writers grow.

Yes, I still mark spelling errors and fix punctuation at workshops. However, the part I focus on now, and what everyone can participate in, comes from talking about the broader picture, and what we notice not as editors, but as readers. You don't need to be a great writer to have an opinion as a reader. Your opinion in that regard is what will make you an important contributor to any writing workshop.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Editing and Workshops

I've made no secret on this blog that I am involved in several writing workshops. I am the facilitator for one at my local library, and I am a member of several others throughout the area. This takes up about eight nights a month for me, plus odd little events on the side, which is not a huge commitment in the larger perspective. However, I frequently get asked the same question: "Why do you need to go to so many workshops? Do you have that much writing to work on, or do you just need that much help?"

Fair questions, but they miss the real point. First, the most important part of a writing workshop is to put one's self into a community of writers at various stages of developing their process. Surrounding yourself with people on the same journey builds a natural momentum - it is like a peloton in cycling, where cyclists group together along the road and, in turn, reduce drag, save energy, and make the long ride a little easier.

To actually address their questions, I take them on in a very matter-of-fact way. The first part, "Why so many?" gets the peloton response. The second part is far more important, so I approach it piece-by-piece. Firstly, I do not write so much that I need eight nights a month to review all that I have created - I should be so prolific. Workshops are not strictly to review our own work. That's an important function, but not the only one, which leads to the second part about needing that much help.

Do I need that much help? Yes. Yes I do. Every writer always needs help, and from several directions. However, a workshop provides a special kind of help - it provides other examples of writing, and writers trying to turn thoughts into stories. This is a special kind of help, because it gives us the opportunity to be an editor and a writer at the same time.

At many workshops, someone will present a piece, read it aloud, and the members offer critiques through either formal review, comments, written markups, or some combination of methods. This allows us to focus on editing from the larger perspective. Maybe the writer wants us to fix the punctuation, maybe they are looking for tips on structure. We become a consumer of the information and an analyst of its little pieces. In doing that, we benefit from dissecting and exploring writing, which helps as I discussed in a previous post, "Learning From Editing."

However, workshops often have times where a writer contributes a piece and explains what they are trying to accomplish and the struggles they have in achieving that. At this point, the peloton forms and everyone helps improve the piece. We do this by being editors and writers, by thinking how we would approach the challenge, how we would write this, and how their writing fares in accomplishing this. We explain our process as a writer, and offer ideas to the person. It becomes a brainstorming session, but everyone benefits from the exercise.

So do I recommend workshops? Yes I do. Why? Because as writers, we benefit on several levels from working with other people riding along our path, and we are reminded that we are never alone in developing our process.


Monday, October 7, 2019

My Old-Fashioned Personal Editor

The past few posts have been about the editing process - both understanding what you can learn from your mistakes, and the importance of editing other people's works. Both of these contribute to your skills as a writer, but there is another facet to this that I wanted to give special attention to. Past posts have discussed the importance of developing habits around being a writer - writing on a regular schedule, having a space where you are just a writer, and so on. This time, I will talk about the importance of having an editor who knows your style and you can trust implicitly.

Don't think that having a personal editor is some fancy thing only done by professional writers - it is very simple and incredibly beneficial. More importantly, everyone has access to this resource if they are so inclined. It just requires dedication to taking the steps necessary to have that person who can edit your work.

My editor is from the old school of writing. He is cranky and stubborn, very detail-oriented, and insists on editing printed copy - none of that edit-on-the-screen technique. He puts on a pair of Ben-Franklin-style reading glasses, sits in the corner with a red pen, drinks his scotch and goes through the copy to devastating effect. This is not my style - when I write, I have my laptop out, my gin and tonic nearby, maybe some music on in the background, and I am in a very relaxed mindset. That's my writing place. It's the exact opposite of my editor.

Getting along with my editor isn't really necessary. His job and place in the world is to edit. Find corrections and mark them. Look for problems with continuity, plot movement, etc. I create, he corrects. It's a very workmanlike relationship. It works well, since he knows my style and knows that sometimes when I use repetition, it is deliberately for effect. He will also tell me when that effect does not work. Our years of collaboration have brought us to a comfortable understanding of what works and what doesn't.

In case you haven't figured it out, my personal editor... is me. At least for my smaller pieces, I do most of my own editing. The point of this discussion is to highlight what I do to edit my work. The most important thing I do is I stop being a writer. I put things aside that bring out my creativity, and I get into my analytical mode. Gin changes to scotch, laptop changes to printed copy, and so forth. I sit in my editing nook and put the red pen to work.

Does this sound like a technicality? Not really. Just as being a writer means creating habits and patterns that help you create, editing is the same thing. The patterns are different, but if they are consistent, they develop into their own mindset. More importantly, different patterns help you detach from one role and take on the other one. (Ask my co-workers about the Ben Franklin reading glasses. My favorite pair dates back to the 19th century and when I edited copy, there they were on the bridge of my nose.)

The other reason this helps our process is because when we write and create, we bond ourselves to those words. That creative mindset can read the copy and think about all the characters, mood, etc., but at that point, the mind no longer sees words and punctuation; it is just reviewing ideas. An editor has to forgo all of the passion and love poured into the words and focus on details. A writer might see a beautiful description of a sun set. The editor has to find the split infinitives and point out that it is not spelled "sun set."

As you develop your process, think about the different roles you play. Define them, own them, and make them unique to your character. And if you don't like scotch, I understand. Gin will do.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Learning From Editing

My last post dealt with the joys of learning from our mistakes (or at least the joy I get from them). We are walking, talking, error machines who can't help but make all kinds of mistakes. Yet, as we improve, we still benefit from recognizing our imperfections, and how we can still be a little better. Our writing will get better, and yet unless it is perfect, we will forever add to its style and beauty through learning from our mistakes.

Now we are going to discuss something far more educational than our mistakes - other people's mistakes. It may sound a little cruel to enjoy other people's mistakes, but hear me out. I offer that there is a lot to gain from what other people do, and it's not just learning from their errors; it's learning from their process.

Author Barbara Gregorich, whose Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel is a must-read for aspiring writers, said that editing the writing of other people benefited her more than editing her own work ever did. The big gain was that when we read our own work, we are just going over the same path, mowing the same lawn over and over. However, when we explore someone else's work, it isn't just sifting through a bunch of words we typed up. We are on a different path, mowing a different lawn, learning an entirely new terrain and all its details.

When I read a book, I enjoy it in the same way anyone else would. However, the writer in me is thinking about techniques, style, and how a particular turn of a phrase worked so well. Sometimes I will go through a short story then ask myself why a particular character stuck to me even though it was just a thousand words long? I will read it again, picking it apart for some technique that author used. Did they describe their characters with adjectives or with actions? Did the dialogue get to the point? Were the descriptions interactive, so the character became a part of everything around them? At this point, I am no longer reading. I am analyzing, dissecting. My inner writer has taken the wheel, and wants to become better by solving this riddle.

The same thing happens when we edit other people's writing, but even more so. Now the writer in us isn't wondering how a particular style worked, but asking ourselves if it worked. It's no longer an analytical process, it's a critical process. Does this character stick with me? Do those descriptions work? Are those linguistic devices paying off or do they bore me? And, of course, if they don't work, can they be salvaged? With our own works, we never get to explore these issues in the editing process. With the writing of others, it is our job to do a forensic overhaul on everything. In doing this, we learn.

Needless to say, I get a few people every week who inform me that I had a spelling error or grammatical slip-up in a past post (my editor is far from perfect). When I get these messages, I go in, correct the copy, and nobody is the wiser. However, I make a little mental note that those people are reading my work as more than just a consumer of words, but also a critical eye. Are they analyzing how I turn a phrase or lay out the structure? I don't know. However, they are looking closely. They are reading at a deeper level.

Hopefully, this means they are becoming a better writer in the process.

Monday, September 30, 2019

The Process of Writing

I've done a lot of talk about writing lately, so this time I would like to go a little bit into the process; in particular, the part of the process where we see how far we have come in our writing journey. This is surprisingly difficult if we don't give ourselves the opportunity, and beneficial if we take that moment to sit back and take in all that we've done.

My first job after college was in the economic research department of a large Chicago bank. While there were plenty of wildly varied tasks to take on, the most difficult one to me was research writing (possibly the exact opposite of creative writing). It had technique and structure, a systematic layout of points and principles, and the financial side had a distinct lingo that had to be in there to let other people know you were one of them. All my writing in college had barely prepared me for this, so there would be a learning curve to climb. A big, steep, El Capitan-like climb.

The first part of learning technique was being able to take a punch. My boss reviewed the draft of my first research piece, and sent it back with more red-ink corrections than actual toner. It was dejecting, but I did not quit on the spot in humiliation. Rather, I remembered that every red mark, every strike-through, omission and rewrite was a step to learning my technique. I made the corrections, thought about the errors, and moved forward. Also, that draft became the bottom layer of what I would call "the Stack of Shame." It was my reminder to do better, but it turned out to be so much more important.

Sure enough, the next report got hammered as well. And the next, and the next, and the next (do you see a trend?) So many corrections, so many opportunities. Sometimes I would type up a particularly large report and bring it to my boss with a red pen attached to the copy so she had a backup after the first pen ran out of ink. I would try and learn from every edit, and the Stack of Shame would grow, reminding me that I still need to improve. It was difficult.

I took pride in my writing, as anyone should, so it was difficult to get anything back with red ink on it. If I used a comma that should've been a semicolon, that correction in red stood out from the rest of the page. For an up-and-coming economist, it was frustrating to make mistakes that would be remedied by a basic high-school education. The Stack grew, and my patience waned. Maybe it would just be a matter of time until my boss told me, "Maybe research writing just isn't your thing."

If my boss was preparing to toss me in the dumpster, she didn't show it. She gave me more assignments, more writing, more responsibilities that involved me putting words to the page. Maybe she accepted all the copy she would have to proof as a fair trade-off, or maybe they were secretly interviewing for a replacement who would work for the salary I made. Whatever the case, I tried to be better, and the red marks continued.

At my one-year anniversary at the job, I picked up my Stack of Shame. It was two inches high - hundreds of pages of copy. If felt particularly heavy - maybe all the red ink gave it a few extra pounds, or it was the guilt of having so many mistakes in the same place. I looked at that first work, then flipped through the pages, enjoying the breeze from pages of failure.

That when I noticed the red ink. Yes, there were corrections, but as I flipped through, I saw the quantity diminish, the size of the rewrites reduced from sentences to clauses to words. I saw my writing... improve. Yes, the errors I made were still errors, but my critical mind focused on those slips rather than the paragraphs of clean writing. I wasn't perfect, but as I looked back, I had the opportunity to see the gains I made. I reread that first report and was shocked to see that I recognized the errors immediately and knew the remedy. My fixation on errors made me lose track of the fact that my writing was, at times, pretty damn good.

Long story short, part of your process should be occasionally looking back at what you've done. Read your old stuff, and appreciate how far you've come. Even old stuff will have good parts, but hopefully you will see how a paragraph can be rearranged, a description can be tuned up, or how you could've avoided the passive voice.In time you will see how you've grown.

So, an important part of your writing process is to realize that you are a writer, and becoming a better one every time you put words to paper.