All writers have a process that allows them to create. However, the art of "Writing" is often mistaken for that "Process." Hopefully this blog explains the difference, and inspires people to develop their crafts, become writers, or just keep on writing.
Friday, May 31, 2019
I always liked the philosophy of those people breaking boulders in a quarry. The healthy approach was simple: "Making big ones into little ones" is much easier than "crushing an endless supply of limestone." They wouldn't crush the whole quarry, but instead just take one big rocks, break it into smaller rocks, and once they were small enough, bring on the next rock.
A novel is the same kind of creature. Try to write it in one sitting, and you either have a real gift, or you are hoping for failure. Instead, Just examine the little pieces that are required to making your story. Introduce the character. What is the challenge? What event sets the story into motion? What obstacles present themselves? How is each one overcome? How does it affect the character's journey? Each step is its own little writing assignment. Each section is obviously vital to the overall story, but they can be handled individually. They are the single branches, the individual boulders. Take them on one at a time, bring them to life, then move forward.
Usually it's easiest to start at the beginning, but not mandatory. My personal process is to go through the basic steps that set the stage, and create those sections first. This gives the character some flesh and bones, and they grow from there. And as I learn about the character, I am better informed about which sections I want to create next.
In an earlier post, The Opening Act: Setting the Stage, I explain the the basics of the three-act structure of most novels. This also offers the main questions that the writer needs to address to get the reader engaged. These should be easy sections to write, but if they are surprisingly difficult, then start thinking about how well you understand the story you are presenting.
The worst time I have ever experienced while writing a manuscript was simple. I thought I had everything prepared: I knew the character, the purpose, the adventure, everything was in place. However, my writing got stuck at around page 100. I still had 50,000 words to go and I couldn't get the story to move. Why? Well, when I thought about the different pieces, I realized I didn't really understand the transition that would bring the character to the second act. The story was fine, but until I understood that one little piece, it would never be completed in a satisfying way.
I now have a stack of firewood ready to go, along with some other branches I pruned for other reasons. It was a big task, and piece by piece, I got it done. And incidentally, I now tell people that my second novel, which I am now shopping around, is over 400 pages (98,000 words). They say, "How did you write all that?"
Now I just refer them to this blog.
Monday, May 27, 2019
One man arrived in the Pacific for his first action, which was night patrol on a recently-captured island. He stayed close to a friend of his who he grew up with - they enlisted and trained together. The patrol - about 40 soldiers - went into the jungle on a sweep. After a bit, one sniper shot rang out and his friend sunk to the ground. They returned fire, shredding the canopy with weapon fire. They had no idea if they even hit the sniper, but this man knew his friend was dead where he lay. His eyes were still open.
Another story was from a man assigned to a six-man detachment sent out on a landing craft to a small island. The water was choppy, so the man decided to swim the last 100 yards. Others in the detachment jumped in, but they could not handle the water as easily. The man reached the shallows only to realize that the other men were struggling. He swam back to try and rescue them, and got one man to shore. The other three drowned.
Someone serving in Vietnam was the last man onto an APC driving out of camp. Last on meant first out, which could be a scary thought if the APC headed into combat, but that was the price of being last. A mile out, the vehicle was hit by a rocket, immersing it in flames. The blast threw him out, and because he was the last one on, he was the only one who escaped. Everyone else died in that APC.
They say nobody can understand the soldier's experience until they've worn his boots, carried his pack, and walked into battle not knowing if they would walk out. I agree, but I would add to that. For those soldiers that survive, they carry an extra burden. They carry stories. They now remember everyone who did not make it out of that battle. They carry those memories, and the weight, I imagine, is at times unbearable.
We hear soldiers' stories and think about what those people went through. However, Memorial Day is not for those soldiers. It is for everyone who never came home. That man on night patrol. Those men drowning in the Pacific. Everyone else in that APC. For those soldiers, we realize their stories were not allowed to be finished. They were in the middle of their story, and it was cut short by a sniper's bullet, deep water, or an explosion.
Memorial Day is about the stories not finished, the pages left empty, because someone put service to country before themselves. When we listen to veterans talking about what they endured, keep an ear out for how they talk about those who did not come home. Those stories are carried by the survivors, and we owe it to those who died to let them live in those memories and complete their story.
Friday, May 24, 2019
"At my darkest moment, at my lowest point, I looked up and saw..."
Now write the story.
The most common reason I have heard for when someone tried a writing prompt is, "This one interested me, so I tried it." They usually end up with something that makes them happy, and that's fine. Any time a writer writes, it's a good thing. If a prompt inspires you, then by all means, write. But it can do more than that.
I have often compared developing writing skills with exercising. It's easy to exercise when you're all full of energy, you'll be going with some friends, and everything's going your way. No mystery there. But then there are days when we are tired. Sore. Not in the mood. "I don't want to," becomes the easy answer. On days like that, there is even more value in getting up and exercising, because it drives you against the resistance, fighting the urge to not go. You go to work out not because you want to, but because you know there's value in doing it.
Writing prompts are the same way. Imagine taking on one writing prompt a week, every week. You don't get to choose, it just shows up in your inbox. If you like it, great. If it's tough, well, you still are committed to doing it. What happens then? What does the difficult challenge do to you?
The difficult task always gives the opportunity for the greater reward. When we do the thing we don't want to, we give ourselves a chance of discovering something new. Maybe about our writing style, maybe about how we want to present a story. We examine those unexplored areas, with the chance of finding something new. The is not always the result. Sometimes we don't have that remarkable insight, and walk away with the modest accomplishment of finishing what we promised we'd finished. Not much, but at least we didn't fail.
We grow as writers when we explore the unknown, when we leave our comfort zone. If we do writing prompts now and then because we think we can do them, well, that's the call of the familiar. That's a chance to do that thing we know we do well, and hopefully get better at it. All fine and good, but things start to move when we go outside that area. Not doing what we do well, but trying what we might not be able to accomplish.
If you ever decide to use writing prompts, I can only advise to go all in. Find a page of writing prompts, and just go down the list, doing one a week, every week, regardless of whether you think you can or can't. I recommend this list of ideas to get things going, and here's a good Pinterest site with ideas that you can just tick through. But whatever the case may be, give yourself a chance to charge into these, not because they're easy but because they're difficult, and see what happens to you as a writer.
Monday, May 20, 2019
|Photo by Jens Schommer|
A good workshop needs a facilitator willing to be just as open and sharing as the members, and Newton was exactly that. From that first session, I learned he had been an editor for Encyclopedia Britannica, he was a national chess master who had published books on the great players and taught chess at local schools, and despite having lived throughout the country and serving overseas, he had never totally shaken his native Mississippi accent.
When a workshop provides a safe place for the sharing of ideas and constructive criticisms, the writers will flourish, and many did. Writers from that group (including myself) went on to publish poems, short stories, and books, and they all credited Newton as a force behind their work. Indeed, my first novel included him in the acknowledgements as well. But I am fortunate to say that I got to know Newton beyond just being one of his disciples.
From the books he published on chess, I learned the nuances of the Spanish Opening used by his good friend and international chess grandmaster, Arthur Bisguier (who I called "Art," and shared a couch with during my visits). From Newton’s tutelage, I learned to use the subjunctive voice (If I were to explain it, it would take up its own commentary, but this parenthetical clause actually demonstrates it). I learned the million-word rule (for another commentary), the importance of reading obscure books such as Winesburg, Ohio, and a good portion of the Gilbert & Sullivan song list (not for writing, but good to know).
But more importantly, Newton gave me the confidence to take my writing further, and I did. All workshops should provide members the inspiration to write and the courage to grow. I don’t think any group can tell a member when they will become a writer – that is up to the person. But this workshop made it possible for me. How do I know this for sure? Well, the greatest compliment Newton ever gave me was when he handed me the draft of his first fiction novel, Bughouse Square, and asked me to be his editor. I can think of no higher honor.
After Newton retired from the head of the South Suburban Writers Workshop, we continued an informal group at his house, hosted by him and his wife and fellow writer, Linda. We would drink scotch (not mandatory), enjoy some cake (unavoidably good), and bond over the written word. I’ve lost count of how many manuscripts we went through, but we set the groundwork for many future book clubs.
It has been twelve years since the first time I bravely walked in to that library conference room. I am now the head of Newton’s writing group in Park Forest, sitting in his chair and wondering how to fill such a space. I attend other workshops as well, because there is always something to be learned when sitting with fellow writers, but I take every lesson back to Park Forest. I think of the long road that brought me from one end of the conference room table to the other, and how Newton was a guide for the whole trip. The thing that gives me the most pause for thought, however, is what I can do to earn this role I now hold.
Newton passed away yesterday, quietly in his sleep. His death was not unexpected, but that is far from a comforting thought in the greater picture. After Linda called me, my first thought was how I should honor his memory, and what he meant to me. I could still use the Spanish Opening when I play chess, and there’s nothing wrong with cranking out a little Gilbert & Sullivan now and then. But for all that he offered me as a writer, how could I express its importance? I could write something, but was that enough? It was too obvious, too simple. He deserved more.
In my final calculus, I decided that it all came down to the workshop. If there was any way to remember James “Newton” Berry, it would be recognizing what he brought to the workshop and its many attendees. To honor Newton, I will spend my meetings living up to the standards he set, offering the kind of advice that turned people into writers, and motivating them to pursue the route that so many people feared. I can never be the man Newton was, but I can help make others into the writers they can be, because that’s what he did for me.
So that’s what I gained from my first writing workshop.
Friday, May 17, 2019
However, our establishing scene is probably very vivid in our mind. Someone's man cave in the basement can be alive with descriptive potential. Even the words, "man cave" evoke images of neon beer signs, a television of unholy width, a wet bar, dartboards, and La-Z-Boy recliners everywhere. These rooms are fun to describe, and using a flair for detail can eliminate any trace of White Room Syndrome. However, the danger is falling for the opposite trap - The Crowded Page.
A Crowded Page is a trap of ego. When we want to write about our man cave, we can enjoy going deep into our descriptions. We flood the reader with neon glows and heavy shadows, the pool table, ash trays, humidors, movie posters, wood paneling, that smell of smoke and stale beer, the shag carpeting, and so forth. The list can go on for pages - and on a Crowded Page, it does. The writer has so much fun writing about the scenery that the story fades into the background. It is showing off the ability to describe without moving things along, and possibly without adding value. Think about the first mention of the term, "man cave." In most people's minds, that evokes a particular image - a default setting. If the man cave in the writing is no different than that, then those two words do the same amount of work as three paragraphs of describing what is already imagined.
Two exceptions exist to the Crowded Page. First, engaging description is fine if it contributes to mood or setting. If this man cave is described in a voice that describes loneliness, overcompensation, or a desperate need to entertain, then pages of description add value to the story. Those words go beyond description - they speak to character, to emotional setting, even to possible foreshadowing. When the purpose goes beyond stage-setting, it's fine. The other exception is when something stands apart from the usual. If the man cave in question is actually very elegant, decorated with antique French furnishings and a 19th century fainting couch, the artwork all prints from the Era of Romanticism, then this is important because it rewrites expectations. Each detail that goes against convention stands out, and attracts the reader. The man cave now sounds like a place where the man in question is French King Louis XIV. Readers will remember that.
Lastly, description and details hold a very special place in targeting a specific emotional response. If the man cave has framed movie posters on the walls, that speaks to the setting, it develops the overall scene. But if those posters are specifically detailed as themed around Humphrey Bogart movie - The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen - that specificity brings out a sense of nostalgia, antiquity, and adventure. Switch one poster to Casablanca, and there's a romantic element. And if those are the only specific details in the room, the mood they create will define the man cave.
Lastly, here's a special use of detail - using it in poetry. While poetry is very emotional and telling, details can do amazing things. I will close with one of my favorite poems. It is a nice naturalist piece, but I find it so effective from how it isolates little details that make nature dominate the scene. Enjoy.
Monday, May 13, 2019
If we wrote Hitchcock's example above in narrative form, we would pretty much offer it in chronological order, but we would need to retain an outsider's perspective, or at least switch from one to another. If we stay in the perspective of the bomber, we know everything and the tension vanishes, so we need to switch to the perspective of someone at the table. Now the information disconnect is complete. The reader knows the bomb is there, but the character does not.
This is a common route in the crime mystery genre. We take the role of the protagonist investigating a series of break-ins, assaults, murders, whatever - and see how this person operates. But at some parts of the story, the point of view changes to the criminal. We don't need to reveal their identity, but we start showing the reader parts of their motivation, history, pattern. We can even show the reader what the criminal's ultimate goal is, and how it might actually involve the investigator. Then, when we go back to our protagonist, we study their actions closer. Each time the writer switches perspective, they bring out something new in the story. More than a new crime, a new victim - new information. We build and build until its time to bring the two stories crashing together - maybe when the the criminal follows our protagonist home, sees where they live, sees the spouse and the children... and takes notes. The reader now has too much information to put down the book.
Another route to take is to offer information out of sequence - the "alinear" storytelling often used in memoirs and stories from a consistent, first-person perspective. The story introduces our protagonist in a dark room, holding a gun, standing over a body. Not much information about the victim - just name, looks, and a few gunshot wounds, but no what, when, or why. The next chapter then takes place one day earlier, and our protagonist is having lunch with the soon-to-be victim. What?! Now that the reader knows this extra information in advance, they want to know how the story fills in the blanks between A to B. Did our protagonist shoot the victim? Find the victim like that? Set up the victim? Did our protagonist pick up the lunch check and say, "You get it next time," and now he's out $11? People will read it through.
The most difficult one to write is when the perspective is all from the main character, without any alinear jumps. As we walk in their shoes and look from their eyes, the information would seem to match perfectly between reader and character. That is when we create the disconnect between what the character sees and how the character interprets it. Interpretation is very individualized, and if the writer plans it carefully, they can write a character who is very believable, yet totally unaware of what the reader can plainly see.
Let's take our practice character, Tom, and put him through the wringer to show this. He is an industrious man in his late 20s and involved in a happy relationship. His girlfriend has started working a lot of late evenings lately, so Tom uses this time to get some extra work done at home. His girlfriend also talks quite glowingly about her new manager, who is supposedly a nice guy, so Tom is glad she is happy at work. And now she has to do a working weekend out-of-town now and then -- cell phone off -- so Tom uses this time to catch up with his friends back home. A very nice situation to work with in a story. The information, however, is left to interpretation:
Tom: I have a pretty good life.
Reader: She's clearly cheating on you!
Again, this is difficult to write. Drop too few hints and the reveal doesn't seen to fit. Too many details and Tom seems too naive to be believable. But the reader takes a different approach than the character, and starts looking for areas where the character is missing the cues. Maybe the reader is right, maybe not, but the reader has now engaged in the story. They live in the character's mind, but they now want to discover how this all plays out.
And that's what the writer is supposed to create.
Friday, May 10, 2019
- Straight dialogue
Tom's boss peered over his cubicle. "How's your day going?"
"Fine, thanks," Tom said with a smile.
- With internalized discussion
Tom's boss peered over his cubicle. "How's your day going?"
It was already a mess. No sleep last night, an upset stomach, he accidentally put on mismatched socks, his statistical models insisted the answer to anything was always 7.3, he needed two more hours to finish a task due in an hour, and now his boss wanted to make small talk.
"Fine, thanks," Tom said with a smile.
Not only does the narrative fill in a lot about Tom's day, but it also shows his personal editing process. The contrast displays his busy day as well as his willingness to bury that stuff away instead of discuss it. This expansion shifts gears from the first example, which is exactly what an observer would experience.
This works when we are discussing the dialogue from our main character's point of view. However, how do we do this with characters outside that perspective. In the above example, how do we show the boss and his internal editing process? From Tom's perspective, we can't do it outright. We can only offer a version of it, most often one that in this case would be interpreted through Tom. However, we can also offer cues within the dialogue and description, then allow the main character to interpret it their way, which might not be what the reader thinks.
What if Tom's boss doesn't just pop up, but approaches slowly, fidgeting with his coffee mug as his eyes look everywhere but at Tom. Even though he says, "How's your day going?" the reader now senses that the boss is doing his own self-editing, and something is lurking under the surface. Then, as Tom thinks about his bad day, the reader realizes he is not picking up on his boss's visual cues. A miscommunication is developing, and the reader gets drawn in. Both parties are hiding something, but now the boss might have something that will change Tom's situation. Trouble is a-brewing.
As a writer, we should think about some basic components before we lay it out: What is the purpose of the conversation, what thoughts and ideas need to be communicated, what are the characters supposed to walk away with, and most importantly, what is the reader supposed to discover that the characters might not realize? The last one is easily the most important, as it will add to the tension of the story, and will be discussed in the next post.
Monday, May 6, 2019
Here's a simple example. In this piece, my friend says something patently stupid. Just think of the most mind-staggeringly stupid thing you've heard someone say - my friend just said that. As a writer, I want to show the reader that the main character feels that his friend is an idiot for saying this. Dialogue is one route to do this, but let's explore the options:
- How could he think that? My friend is clearly an idiot. (narrative approach)
- He's an idiot. (internal dialogue)
- Jim realized his friend was an idiot. (aside)
- "Dude, you're an idiot," I said matter-of-factly. (dialogue)
The last example, the dialogue route, is the one that is usually used, and with it, you get what you pay for. The idea is expressed, with a little description thrown in for fun. It can even support the character by showing a straight-forward response to the situation. But the other approaches offer their own pros and cons.
Narrative approach - as described - retains the narrator's voice and approach. This maintains the story's rhythm and pacing, and can help break large blocks of back-and-forth talking. With this, we remain as the storyteller without getting buried in conversation. However, if the dialogue is brisk and rapid-fire, a break into narration can ruin that pacing with one sentence. Narrative serves the reader best when it offers an insight that is not going to otherwise show up in the spoken word.
Internal dialogue is a tricky tool for the writer, but an effective one when used properly. The best route to take internal dialogue is to demonstrate a turbulence within the character. Doubts, emotional challenges, or differences of opinion within the character's mind can really shine when turned into internal arguing. A common route is to offer the internal voice as the character's moral barometer or other driver that does not always get expressed in the character's actions. The important part of internal dialogue is that it needs to bring something that stands out consistently and contributes to the art of storytelling.
Asides are often used in the third-person, when a personal observation is made from a narrator outside the story. When Shakespeare used such moments, the story would pause and the actor would speak directly to the audience, providing them with some subtext. An aside should stand out from simple narration, as if another voice took over altogether. If you are writing a story and want to interject an aside, read it aloud. Go through the story, then read the aside in a different voice. If it feels like a valuable interjection, you are doing it right.
Of course, this is just one technique to discuss how to say things. The next post will be about whether or not to say things, and how to use the silence for effect.
Friday, May 3, 2019
- Great Ideas
- Brilliant Execution
It isn't just writers who want this - it's everyone. However, writers are on a very personal adventure, so these issues seem all the more important. In particular, it's easy to back away when those things are not in abundance. But these expectations are unrealistic, if not impossible. The list of What Writers Want is better phrased as Unreasonable Demands For A Project We Are Scared To Do. Allow me to explain.
Time. I have heard people say they would write more, but life gets in the way of writing. First, life isn't going away. More to the point, life is a series of priorities, and how we arrange those reflects the things we really want to do. Is our Great American Novel more important than watching NCIS? Is writing worth getting up one-half hour earlier or staying up one-half hour later to get a little writing every day? During my days as an economist, friends would tell me they wanted to save more, but at the end of the month there was nothing left to save. My response was always, "Then save at the beginning of the month. You'll be surprised." If you want to write, then make it a priority. You'll be surprised.
Great Ideas. I personally have three great ideas for novels, each on a Post-It note in my office. If I put them next to Post-It notes with all my bad ideas, I would never find them in the sticky sea of yellow paper. I go through a lot of ideas when I write, and a lot of them fall flat. That's okay - I tried them out and they didn't work. Great ideas - for a character, dialogue, descriptions, whatever - only show themselves once you try them out. Rarely does a good idea announce itself as such from square one, so don't expect to have a brilliant idea and know it immediately. Have ideas, try them out, and see where they go. And if they work, put them on a Post-It note by your desk.
Brilliant Execution. If you are lucky enough to have the Time for turning the Great Idea into a poem, novel, or whatever, I can all but guarantee that it will not be easy. I have had projects that have just poured themselves on the page, the words coming together faster than I could type. And you know what -- they still needed work. A lot of work. Editing, rewriting, wholesale changes. Clean copy in a first draft is the rarest of rarities, so don't expect it to happen. Challenge it. Think about it. Question how it could be even more perfect.
As writers, we know What Writers Want. Hopefully, we realize that they aren't achievable. It's actually much more simple - we will call this What Writers Need:
- Willingness to Fail
They do not sound as impressive or glorious, and won't make a great meme. However, they are a reasonable set of expectations that will get you to write the Great American Novel.