Monday, February 25, 2019

Getting the Most From Your Verbs

Verbs are fun. Verbs do things - that's literally their purpose in the world. Every complete sentence requires at least one, and there are a lot to choose from. That alone should tell you their importance. But all the excitement that comes from verbs doesn't stop there. Not only can we choose from the verb grab-bag, we can modify them with adverbs. That's where the fun begins.

A quick reminder about adverbs. The most common adverbs end with -ly, so we can talk loudly, softly, forcefully, angrily, etc., and they all do the job of enhancing the simple act of talking. Adverbs give life and energy to our writing, and we often use them without prompting.

But we can do more with them, and sometimes we do more when we leave them out.

In Ben Blatt's fascinating statistical study of the great authors' works, he noticed that works generally considered classics had smaller amounts of simple adverbs (those ending in "-ly.") According to this analysis, Hemingway used only 80 simple adverbs for every 10,000 words of text (that may sound small, but that's still over 500 in a standard book). Does this mean they are not important? Or are there other ways to get more from our verbs?

Let's take a simple idea and play it out a few ways to see what our verb does with its modifier:

  • I was running quickly so I could beat the approaching storm.
  • To beat the approaching storm, I ran quickly.
  • To beat the approaching storm, I ran like the devil was two steps behind me.

The first sentence is clumsy. It is in the passive voice, as if the person was explaining the situation. The modifier, quickly, is the most exciting part of a sentence where the verb is "was." This would be a good sentence for dialogue, but as we know, dialogue is often brutal with its grammar. (see the post, "Dirty Words (Even Worse Than Swearing)."

The second sentence is perfectly fine. It explains the situation, and the simple adverb modifies the verb. It works, but it's kind of boring. When most people run, they're usually moving quicker than when they don't run, so what did we gain from the adverb? If it doesn't add to the sentence, why use it? We should also consider whether or not more can be extracted from this sentence. Right now it works, but can it gain more mileage?

The third sentence forgoes the adverb for a figure of speech, using a simile to enhance the verb. Not only do we modify the verb without using an adverb, we bring something new to the table. With a simile describing the devil two steps behind, this also affects mood by offering a sense of urgency, perhaps even fear. Paranormal thrillers would benefit from a simile like that because it contributes to the genre. A lighthearted comedy, however, might feel a little off-balance with such a simile, and would sound better with my favorite, "I ran like a runaway beer truck." Lighter and more entertaining, in line with the genre. And no adverbs are used.

There is nothing wrong with adverbs. They are opportunities to enhance the sentence, but are far from mandatory. If we are running, "quickly" adds nothing but "clumsily" gives dimension. And if a figure of speech would serve the same function but enhance the mood or speak to the genre, perhaps the adverb can take a rest.

One last note: The most important takeaway from this post should be to try out new ways of saying things. Experiment with techniques. Allow yourself to write new things. Succeed. Fail. Try again. Develop the things you like. Before long, you will know exactly when you need an adverb or when a simile would fit better. And almost certainly, you will write something better than running like a runaway beer truck.


Friday, February 22, 2019

Broad Writing, Precision Storytelling, and Waldo

I will be brief with this entry. I usually throw in a lot of personal discussion in these posts, either to highlight specific parts of a broad topic, or sometimes to show how I realized these things as a writer. Often I offer plenty of personal anecdotes to humanize part of our writing process that might not intuitively make sense. And, of course, more times than not, I say more than is necessary just to throw a wide enough net to capture as many readers as possible. I admit guilt to all of these things, and through it all, I regret nothing.

Writers can learn a lot from him
You might be thinking, "You promised to be brief. That wasn't brief at all." That is my point - I made a simple seven-word promise at the beginning, and broke it by the end of the paragraph. This is one of the sins of writing stories - starting off with one message then going off the rails, unable to return.

If I made a different promise at the beginning, such as, "By the end of this post, you will think of me differently," then I'd better live up to it. That's more than a promise, that's a commitment, and one to which a writer has to be held accountable. I might take a long way to get there, and your perspective might change in one of many unexpected ways, but my writing will be judged on whether you arrive at the conclusion I promised. Otherwise, you will not remember by name in a positive way, and your expectations will fade.

A writer's obligation is to get the reader from A to B, without question. If we can't make this promise, we should reconsider what we are writing. And if we believe we can do it, we need to get them to the exact center of B. A dead-center Bull's-eye. Our precision cannot be questioned.

In a writing group I recently attended, someone discussed possibly writing their first novel. They had the stories, they had the personal connection, and they definitely had the passion and skill to write these things. They were ready to hit the keyboard. But that is the broad section of writing. It is definitely fun and very exciting (at first), but it can be dangerous. When we write, there are obstacles much greater than just trying to write our story. The biggest problem is that we often write ten stories while trying to write one. Or we write the first third of three books in one manuscript instead of writing one story to completion. Our writing becomes broad and expansive, but so much so that we lose precision.

The advice I gave that writer, and that I give to all writers ready to take that step, is pretty straightforward: First, they should write the whole theme and spirit of the work they want to complete in one sentence. Then they should write the main plot arc in one separate sentence. Those two sentences should be clean and precise, though they will likely never go into the book. They will serve as the goalposts for the story from that point forward. Whenever the author adds more to their story or inserts subplots, new characters, etc, they need to make sure the story still goes between those goalposts. They can write as much as they want then, as long as they go between them. They are the promises the author makes to themselves at the beginning, and they must be answerable to them.

I think the best way to relate to this is from one of my favorite book series, Where's Waldo? (work with me here). The promise is right there in the title - the pursuit and location of our bespectacled friend, Waldo (Wally in international versions). Now, every page gives us an exciting array of varied locations and activities, all quite complex with little subplots littered throughout. We can take enjoyment in all the little activities on the beach, at the park, in the shopping mall, but in the end, we always land back at that promise, knowing Waldo is there and that we can find him.

As writers, we can create the most elaborate tapestry imaginable. We can describe the most amazing worlds and create the most intricate plot lines. We are powerful in that regard, but we are still accountable. No matter how vast that world is, if we entitle our masterpiece, "Where's Waldo," our reader has an expectation that the question will be answered. Without that, we have not created anything but a waste of time.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Embracing the Negative

I have been having some good back-and-forth with some fellow writers about character creation. Our battlefield is a simple one: I say that to write a character well, you first need to know who that character is and what they are all about. They counter with a warning: Just because you know a character doesn't mean you can write a character. How so? Allow me to explain.

In a previous post (Character Building), I demonstrated how I needed to know my main qualities before taking the next step of writing stories about myself with depth and texture. I needed an inventory of those things that stand out about me - a gin-drinking, pool-shooting ex-smoker who is a passionate Cubs fan and gets anxiety tremors in his right hand. That inventory allows me to write about me in full. But is that enough.

My contrarian friends made an interesting point: Taking a deep personal inventory allows me to write about me; that's a given. Therefore, knowing any character's details allows the writer to flesh out the character even more. However, the real challenge comes when the character has important traits that are the opposite of what the writer believes. There's the challenge - can a writer produce an authentic character who showcases the attributes that the author does not agree with.

I started thinking about that. It's easy to write about me, but could I make the anti-me just as interesting? Could I write them with the same depth? Most importantly, could I do it without sounding disingenuous? My friends were right - there is a challenge in doing that.

Once we venture beyond writing about ourselves, we start creating people who are hopefully not just clones of our belief system. If I want other characters to be believable individuals, they can't all drink gin. Some might be sober and tobacco-free. Some are more socially graceful, or even extreme extroverts. Some may not understand nor care for things like shooting eight-ball or other activities.

Some might even like the White Sox...

Now, these might seem like simple changes in the character, but they are not so easy. Try taking your five most deeply-held beliefs, then writing about a character who carried the absolute opposite traits. Make them stand out as much as your personal qualities would shine through. There should be nothing inherently wrong with this character's story - they just have the opposite beliefs as you. Write five pages about this character, then read over the narrative. See if you believe it.

Often when we write such things, we insert our opposing traits as flaws or sources of comedy. A character who does not carry our beliefs is inherently not to our liking, so the narrative becomes a place for criticism. However, a good writer withdraws themselves from this, and tries to make that character stand out on their own merits.

At the end of the day, we are writers, and we write about people. All shapes, sizes, colors and brands. As we develop our skills, we learn to invest ourselves into them as our own creations and appreciate them like our own offspring. We become amazed at the complex beings they become, and even as we try to influence them, we know that they are our unique creations, and we will be proud of them no matter what they turn into.

Even if they become Sox fans.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Dialogue - Talking the Talk

One of the critical parts of a character's definition is communicated through how they speak. No matter how much physical description you offer and how much stage managing you describe, the most descriptive part comes from dialogue. No matter where the characters are or what they are doing, chances are that they are talking, and those words are telling the reader about them. Therefore, to show your character, show them through their words.

Grammatically perfect, completely unreadable
There are simple techniques to do this, but they have to be handled with care. The most obvious one is through dialect. Whether it's a country drawl, an exaggerated annunciation, or that Boston habit of never pronouncing the letter 'r,' that simple tag not only reveals something about the character, but reinforces it with every word. If someone goes dancin' instead of dancing, that tag follows the character in the mind of the reader.

Word choice is another little thing that makes characters rise to the top. My New York friend came to the Midwest many years ago, but still refers to little corner stores as bodegas. Nobody in Chicago uses that term unless they were once East Coast pedestrians - we just call them corner stores - so that word reshapes the character. A cruller (a simple, braided pastry) takes different shapes and forms depending on where in the country you live, and can also be called a crulla, an Old Fashioned, or just another kind of doughnut (or donut, if you say it that way). And in Chicago, you better know what makes it different from a Pączki.

I have discussed in previous posts the importance of dialogue feeling genuine (Breaking the Rules With Dialogue), but now I need to emphasize that there are limits. When we pick up on a particular twang of someone's voice, it's always fun to try and capture it in our words; to spell everything out and really understand how it all sounds. Find some dialogue from someone with a real think Boston accent, and write down their words phonetically. Depending on the sentence, it might not even look like English, and yet it's taken from the most American part of the USA.

In a way, that's the problem.

Sometimes, the spoken word is best left spoken. In a recent writing workshop, a fellow writer discussed a story he read that included dialogue from dockworkers in Louisiana in the late 18th century (apologies if I didn't get the reference right). The dialogue was reportedly authentic, but that's not the important part. The most telling part is that, according to the reader, it was unreadable. The language, no matter how accurate for the time and place, was such a distraction that it ruined the story. And when accuracy destroys the actual storytelling, concessions must be made.

Now maybe a Louisiana twist from a couple-hundred years ago is too high a bar to compare, so let's wind it back a bit. A while ago, I wrote a character sketch where the protagonist had a fast, lazy manner of speaking. To make this dialogue consistent, I applied two simple rules: First, the -ing suffix would be replaced with -in' (like the dancin' example above). Second, I would use lazy dialogue words (ain't, gonna, wanna) instead of the proper versions. Two simple rules, applied consistently, and based on the way that voice sounded in my head. Simple and consistent.

The dialogue was such a distraction that my beta readers threw it back in my face (metaphorically, but still).

At some point, we need to find that happy medium. We need to make the dialogue stand out and give the characters their tags, but not be so heavy-handed that our writing needs subtitles. This is best achieved with a second pair of eyes. Get someone - anyone - to read the material, and see if they discuss the dialogue. If they don't, ask. Give the chance for a character to sound distinct, but still be understood.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Character Building

Now that theme month is over, I want to shift gears a little. Obviously, themes are important, but they really go nowhere unless the story has some interesting characters. A story lacking characters with a sense of texture and depth are doomed to fail, as the reader will want the story to be carried by people with dimension and substance. In short, the story has to be carried by people that are just as real as the world around them (and the themes surrounding them).

A "real" character is not as easy to write as one might think. Plenty of writers have presented a story at the workshop, then defended the story by saying, "But this person really existed. This story really happened." Whether or not the story or the character is real does not matter. What matters is that the reader feels that they know that character - real or otherwise. Most of my favorite literary characters never actually existed, but they were written so well that they lived in my mind. Of course, if the character is real but is not backed by a great narrative and those little details, they don't leap off the page. They fade into the background.

To offer an example, I will use myself and reveal what makes me real. My go-to drink is gin and tonic (expect when I am editing; then it's scotch and soda on the rocks). I haven't had a cigarette in 16 years and I still get urges. When I get anxious, I get tremors in my right hand. I made enough money shooting pool in college to pay for all my textbooks, and the happiest day of my life was a cold November night in Cleveland when the Chubs won the World Series.

Now that you know these things, am I more real? Likely, that is a no. You probably know me better, but does it give me depth as a character? Not yet. While I have listed a series of qualities and quirks, they do not give me texture until I incorporate them into a narrative. A bunch of traits are lifeless. Putting them into motion makes the character jump off the page, because all those details are now moving parts within the greater story. They become elements people think about, even if they are not keys to the story. The story may not pivot on whether or not I am drinking my gin and tonic, but if you read about me and my drink, you connect with me on another level. And if my drink gets spilled a little because my right hand is shaking, you immediately think about my anxieties. Now you are invested in the character, whether you like it or not.

Here's a simple writing exercise to try when you have some spare time. Pick a character - literary or from the movies, real or fictitious - and write about one particular trait that doesn't seem important to that character's main story. If you pick Dr. Charles Xavier, the wheelchair-bound leader of the X-Men, maybe write about his sex life, or making his mansion more handicapped-friendly. If you choose Billy Pilgrim from Slaughterhouse Five, maybe explore the troubles of a tall, skinny kid growing up in New York during the Depression. Did he go through a lot of shoes? Does he mind walking barefoot because of this? Explore the little things about these defined characters, and witness how your understanding of them expands.

When I first explored writing The Book of Cain, I knew I needed to know Cain beyond what was written in Genesis 3. I thought about who he was and what he went through. He had no idea what death was until he killed his brother. Did he understand the shame of lying? And when he was cast out, did he know what needed to be done to be forgiven? Was it possible? These questions were never really addressed in Genesis, and many things were left for interpretation. And within that interpretation came the idea for making Cain who he was in my book.

If this sounds like a tough exercise, well, it is. However, the most difficult part comes not from writing the piece, but from understanding the character. The more you understand the character, the easier it is to write about their average day. And once you can write the character easily and naturally, the reader will feel it as well.

Friday, February 8, 2019

“Should I Write This?”

At least once a month, someone in one of my writing workshops will have an idea, but question whether they should write a story, an essay, a character sketch. Naturally, most workshop members will try and motivate that person to write it, reminding them that they are a good writer and they can make the story work. Usually the person explains why the story might be difficult to create, and perhaps there is some catharsis from just discussing the subject. However, there is something much more powerful at work here – the writer is having a realization they might not be aware of.

When a writer questions whether they should write something, they are usually not questioning their own writing skills. At that point, they are realizing just how powerful a tool writing can be. The writer is experiencing the little bit of reality that is generated by the written word, and how it can create a world greater than the one around us.

In my opinion, this is an opportunity not just to write a story, but to channel some very powerful feelings into words. And by doing that, the writer will realize the power is not in the words, but in the writer.

When my father passed away, it was very unexpected. I like to think that we had reconciled all of our differences by the time he died, but of course, that is never truly known until death ends the discussion. After the doctor pronounced him dead, I had a chance to sit with his body in the ICU and make my final peace. That moment carried an emotional gravity I had never experienced before. For all the loved ones I had lost in my forty years, this was the biggest one by far. After a twenty-minute chat with him (very one-sided), I said my farewell and left. The mourning process began, and life went on.

Years later, I thought about writing up that moment, but I had my doubts. I asked a group I was in whether I should write it out. I received the same responses most others give: “You can do this,” “It will be worth it,” “You will write a nice tribute piece.” All good points, but none of them convinced me. Then, while driving home, the real answer hit me so hard I had to pull over on Kedzie Avenue and catch my breath.

Writing about that moment had nothing to do with whether or not it was good enough, or if it did service to my father’s memory or honored that moment. No – the real challenge was that by writing it, I was not only reliving that moment, but my words were filling in all the things that I couldn’t face during that quiet moment in the ICU. By writing it, I would be back in that moment, exploring every detail that had been hidden by the shock of a sudden loss. By writing it, I would surround myself with the grief of the moment and all the other realizations that hit me between the moment he died and when I put my fingers to the keyboard. It would be far more intense than that moment making my piece.

And by writing it down, I would be reliving it by choice.

That is how powerful writing is. We create these beautiful monsters that are far stronger than just a bunch of words. Our pages have more than text, they have life and feeling, they drag us into them and transport us to fantastic, horrible, tragically wonderful places. And once we realize just how powerful this ability is, it can be terrifying. More importantly, we realize that as writers we can either contain this power, or unleash it across the page. That’s when we realize the power is not in the words, but in ourselves.

I did sit down and write that piece. On a twelve-hour flight from New Delhi to Chicago, I got out my laptop and just poured my heart onto the page. I cried, I trembled, I even laughed a little. I definitely made the people around me uncomfortable (Bless the flight attendant for bringing me an extra pillow and a complimentary gin and tonic). And for the first time, I felt just how powerful writing could be. The piece wasn’t a masterpiece; it wasn’t even great. Eventually I used a modified version for a work in progress. But I realized what I was capable of.

So whenever someone wonders if they should write a piece or not, I tell them, “You are on the verge of a very special discovery that will hit you the moment you finish that piece, so you better start soon.”

In other words – write it.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Why Workshops Work

I am fortunate to know a few good writers. However, I know many more writers who think they are good but have never put that to the test. Many of them only hold the title of “good writer” because they do not let others critique their work. This is not surprising – in a contest with only one person, they always get the gold. Unfortunately, their evolution as a writer is very slow, and most of their works – no matter how good – will forever go unread.

This is why workshops are so important. Whether it’s one of the nationally advertised writing conferences for the veteran author or a writing workshop at the local library, it is an excellent tool to improve your writing (and we all can use some improvement). More than that, it provides us with a community of people going through exactly what we are going through, and reminds us that in our journey of words, we are not alone.

In the workshop I have facilitated for the past few years, I have encountered writers of every skill level, and they all share the same qualities. They all want feedback. They all want to polish their style. They all want to become the writer they wish they were. And most importantly, they all are willing to take on that vulnerability that comes with pouring words onto a page.

Let’s examine that last point first, because it’s the most important. The most difficult part about creative writing – fiction or non-fiction – is that it requires vulnerability. The writer has to put those words out without hesitation, without concern about what might happen when mere ideas turn into ink (or toner). It takes some effort to get past the anxieties that come with honest, unrestrained writing. However, that effort goes to a new level when the writer has to share those words with other people, particularly people who have no emotional investment in that writer’s fate. It was a big step for me writing my first novella. The bigger step was having someone other than my parents read it. And then at a workshop – well, what could be more stressful than that?

And that’s the beauty of the writing workshop. A properly facilitated workshop becomes a place where writers can not only be vulnerable, but where they can feel comfortable with that degree of vulnerability, and put that back into their writing. Once a writer begins to open up, their ability to create grows by leaps and bounds.

Every good writer I know has been through the workshop process. They started off as people who wanted to be creative and had a lot to say, but needed to break through their personal discomfort of fearing the written word. When they did, I have witnessed people start discussing their deepest feelings. Timid people now wrote about lives of addiction, abuse, violence and heartbreak; and not just their life stories. They could turn their feelings into characters and plots, they took a mood and made it a complete narrative. They broke through their personal resistance and opened up a whole world of writing.

If there’s anything you should want from a workshop, it is gaining the kind of courage that allows you to write about the things you don’t want to share. Whether you write about those things is up to you; the courage is the important part.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Emotional Capture – Put the Rage to the Page

We get some real good snowstorms in the Chicago area – windy ones sweeping in off the Great Plains leaving waist-high drifts across the roads, heavy storms coming down from Canada and setting off bursts of Lake Effect snow over the city, and soggy monsters sweeping out of Minnesota and hitting us like a wet snowball. All of us Chicago natives grow used to this, but we know that somehow, in some way, at least one part of the storm will leave us furious.

And as a writer, it is my job to turn it into words.

It might not seem like a new idea to write about things that bother you. I am sure that shortly after language was developed, the first civilized people would write, “That Grosh took my tools! He is such a hunter-gatherer! I bet his mother was a Neanderthal.” Those words likely did not settle the situation, and Grosh never gave back the tools, but the author took a big step that day – he turned his emotions into words.

What does that have to do with our more advanced writing? We discover things when we write from a very emotional place. When we put the rage to the page, we give up our restraint and expand our range. We venture toward places that normally we would hesitate to approach. Our emotions can take us in directions we normally turn away from, while keeping us safe in the constraints of our words.

A while ago, a deer jumped in front of my car on a country road. I can’t tell you the deer’s motivation, what it went through in that moment passing before my headlights, or what it thought after bouncing off my car then hippity-hopping away with a few pieces of my headlight in its haunch. But as I looked at the damage it caused, I knew that deer just cost me my deductible. That rage was mine alone, so I put it to work for me.

Did I write a scathing essay about the out-of-control wildlife around my town? A toxic poem about the high cost of car repairs? A narrative about a handsome, courageous driver who gets pushed too far by the local deer population and carries out his gruesome revenge? None of the above. I just started writing about the things we control in life and the things we only think we control. It wasn’t a masterpiece. It wasn’t a brilliant stream-of-consciousness discussion of life’s mysteries. However, it opened up a few insights to me about my writing structure and how I build out ideas. It reminded me that when I explore a topic, I often go inward until I find one detail that can anchor the most important parts, then I drag out the meaning from there.

Maybe with some restructuring, rewriting, and some deep polish, I might make it into an essay. Is that necessary? No. I’ve already learned something from the emotional exploration and that’s a win on its own. If I choose to explore it further, there might be something more to gain. Or maybe I can read it later and be reminded of my state of mind when I was wound up in the emotions of the deer incident. The important part is that I channeled emotions into creativity, and by capturing that moment with words, I can go back to it and awaken that feeling again for anything else I write.

And as for the whole Chicago snowstorm thing, well, we had a doozy the other day. After a lot of shoveling, I cleared my driveway enough to free my car. As I was backing out of my driveway, the plow came by, blade deep into the snow. I stopped just before the curb, leaving the plow to literally throw three feet of freshly churned snow/salt onto my car. Three days after getting my car back from the body shop, and it’s buried by plow snow when I am rushing to catch a train.

Boy, did I have some things to write about.