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, June 28, 2019
Stories have a wide variety of options for that big payoff, but they all center around change. In the simplest of stories, we read about someone who has an experience that changes their world. A common, effective story is someone writing about their pet. The pet shows up and changes them. They fall in love with it, they are amazed with all the cute things it does, or just how it becomes a part of their life. The payoff is seeing how that person is changed by the pet. The greater the change during the story, the greater the payoff. With the pet story, well, when that pet dies, the change is that much stronger. It's not a happy event, but it's a powerful shift and a bigger payoff.
In short stories, we usually focus on one facet of the character's story, and how the world changes in that one regard. The two most common story drivers are the world changing the character, and the character changing the world. These can actually be the same event, just written from one perspective or the other. Take the pet example - the story about how a pet changes someone's life is "world changes person," while the other version can focus on the person deciding to adopt a pet. Same story, different perspective, but they both require change in the payoff.
As stories grow in size, the payoff can become more elaborate, the journey far more intricate. We expand from that simple focus and turn it into an adventure. We still demand a payoff at the end, but we can now venture into plenty of new frontiers on our way to that moment. This also provides the opportunity to move the story further away from the expected payoff, so when everything comes back to that moment, the change is greater, the payoff that much bigger.
In my little story about dinner, it could be expanded to show how the preparation wasn't going well, threatening the entire meal situation. The vegetables are kind of weak. Every time I turn my head, the cat is going after the chicken. What is that floating in my olive oil? As I prepare my Szechwan sauce, I can't find the... nope. Problems and obstacles are getting in the way at every turn, and I am tempted to just call it all off and grab the take-out menu. World affects character format, adventure leads away from payoff, so when it all comes together and I am enjoying my dinner, the reader is pleased.
Same story, but character affects world, could have me in my kitchen, years ago, with a goal in mind: homemade Szechwan chicken. My skills are minimal, my talent in the kitchen limited to instant oatmeal. Mistakes are abundant, along with plenty of wok fires and singed eyebrows. The goal seems farther away after every disaster, the will weakening. But then I find a copy of Cooking Basics For Dummies, and everything changes. I realize my mistakes and find the inspiration I need. I grow as a cook, I reach my goal, and the reader gets the payoff.
The payoff is always up to the writer, and it can be happy, sad, surprising, informative, or just plain old honesty, but it has to be there. At that point, the reader tucks that story into their memory and saves it for later. Without it, the story just fades.
And as for the payoff of this post, the secret ingredient to my Szechwan Chicken is... oops, that's my word count.
Monday, June 24, 2019
While characters should fall on one side or the other, perhaps their roles are more important not because of how they move the journey, but how the journey moves them. If they are deliberately disengaged from the story and its changes, we can call them Witnesses. These characters relay information, connect plot points, and provide transition, but they stand apart from the journey. They can contribute to the Good or Bad side, but they are more detached than anything else. In contrast, we have the Victim. These are the characters who are changed by the story. Being a Victim doesn't mean they have to be killed off, it just means that as opposed to the Witness, who acts upon the story, the Victim is someone who the story acts upon. Indeed, what happens to the Victims should motivate the Good and Bad characters to further their ends. Witnesses and Victims both need to offer change to the main characters, but their contribution will come from a different direction, depending on their camp.
This gives us a character wheel of reference. Any individual at any point in the book can be placed on this wheel. The minor characters might be fairly close to the center - not too Good, not too Bad, or the story only acts upon them a little bit, versus what we see on the protagonist. If the writer has a problem taking the character off of a particular page and placing them on the wheel, well, maybe they need to understand the character better.
Maybe you've noticed I specified the wheel represents the character at any one point in time. Well, that's where "The Turn" comes into play.
In good stories, the characters grow and change, their journey influencing them in countless ways. Who they start off as should be quite different from who they are at the end. The character on page one might sit on the exact place on the wheel as the character on the last page, but in between, that point should move. That's where we put in "The Turn."
When a major event comes up in our story, we should imagine that the wheel, with our character firmly planted, suddenly rotates. The position turns around, and the character is moved from Good to Victim, or from Witness to Bad. A larger rotation could move the character from Good to Bad, going through Victim along the way. The go from Victim to Witness by passing through the Good route. This represents the kind of change readers respond to, because the change forces the reader to recategorize the character.
In the simplest version, think of what turns a good person bad or a bad person good. When the wheel turns, a character going between Good and Bad goes through either the Witness role or the Victim role. A criminal loses someone they love and turns their life around is the Victim route, while the Bad person seeing the error of their ways would be the Witness route. The writer needs to know which route the character takes so the reader knows how they changed.
Think of the standard vigilante origin story: person becomes quiet crime fighter. Depending on where this person starts and ends on the wheel, the reader will be informed in a different manner. Take a character as someone who is mugged, then takes matters in the own hands. If their subsequent actions work against the main story or the protagonist's values, they move from Victim to Bad, but promoting the protagonist would move them to Good instead. And yes, they could move all the way around to Witness, informing the protagonist but detaching themselves from influencing the outcome.
The wheel is a nice instrument to track how a character changes, and keep the writer on their toes. Furthermore, as the writer tracks the character's development around the wheel, they know how to enhance the reader's experience and engage them in the story.
Friday, June 21, 2019
Then there are the worlds that don’t grab the reader. Often, it’s not the world’s fault.
When I write about my life in the 1980s, it’s easy to fall upon the stereotypes of the decade – big hair, fashion do’s and don’ts, etc. These are the low-hanging fruit of writing, and while they will help the reader walk into the world, more is needed or the writing feels superficial.
Part of drawing a reader into a world is drawing them out of their current state of mind, and sometimes this is best accomplished through simple differences. For example, these days, we will hear about a food recall on social media or the local news the moment it happens. The internet rushes the information to us from several directions, and we can’t help but hear about it. However, back in the late 1980s, the Food and Drug Administration would send out bulletins listing various things that were being recalled due to possible contamination, potential allergic reactions, and so forth. These were very important reports, but they were sent out in the US mail – not even by fax – sent on two-day delivery, assuming there wasn’t a weekend or holiday in there. Often, these reports only arrived after the products had been placed on the shelves and sold. A story that discussed this period needs to focus on things like the importance of the mail, the time lag of even vital information, and how people thought these new fax machines would be able to speed up these processes and bring forth a new era of spreading the word. And as for the internet? This is Wikipedia's “modem” entry to show just how slow they were in the mid-80s (2,400bps).
This leads us to the other part of bringing the reader in – keeping the other worlds out. This may sound simple, but it plays on a bunch of things that we often take for granted. Simple, commonplace terms and words can pull the reader out of the book without them even noticing it.
Imagine looking at a tree in the distance (or, if you want, actually look at a tree in the distance). Think about how far away it is. Think about how you would describe that distance. One-hundred feet? One-hundred yards? Half a mile? We have plenty of terms to use, but how many of them bind us to this world?
Now, using that same tree, how would an eight-year-old describe the distance? Would they use feet, yards, or miles, or would it be, “Wa-a-a-a-y over there!” A Marine sniper might know the exact distance down to the foot, while a city guy might describe it in terms of blocks. Other people might say it’s a couple stones throw from here, or a little walk away. Two fields of hiking. These terms can keep the reader in the writer’s special world, while concrete terms such as feet, yards, miles, etc., pull the reader back into our present-day moment.
This, of course, takes us right into genre. The further a genre is from our known reality, the more it has to create that world and walk away from the familiarity of 21st-century Earth. In fiction-fantasy, a dragon should never be two-hundred yards away unless this fantasy world decided to use something as boring as yards for measure. In futuristic sci-fi, talk about the internet sounds technological, but it doesn’t appeal to the wild possibilities of the future. In futuristic writing, I would rather read about the OmniMatrix than the internet, and I don’t even know what the OmniMatrix is. Truly futuristic writing should sound kind of like magic, in that us 21st-century humans can barely grasp what is happening.
Every now and then, do a self-edit on things you say and do, and compare them to your life twenty years ago. Look at the differences and see feel how those subtleties can change the whole feel of a story. I am writing this on my laptop right now. Ten years ago, my wireless connection would be a fancy, slow, expensive add-on. Twenty years ago, the battery and docking port (look it up) for my laptop would be bigger than the computer itself. Thirty years ago, a laptop was where you placed your book when you read on the couch. All in thirty years. Make sure that perspective informs your writing.
Monday, June 17, 2019
I had the privilege of sitting down with a book group that my novel, The Book of Cain, writing, and the creative process. This also gave me the opportunity to get some insights as to what appeals to devoted readers, and what turned them away from a book. Maybe not so surprisingly, writing style featured prominently. Here are some of the takeaways from these avid readers.
Genre should be up front. Every writer has a bunch of friends who they know would love The Dunwich Horror, and also a bunch of friends who would hate The Dunwich Horror. Needless to say, it falls under the horror genre, and that will draw or push away readers. There is nothing wrong with scaring away a demographic who does not enjoy a genre – it’s helpful, and it also attracts those who enjoy the genre. However, the biggest mistake is selling a horror story under another more popular genre in the hopes of drawing in a different crowd. It can bring in a few new readers, but it usually creates far more disappointed readers, and trust me, there is no harsher and more vocal critics than disappointed readers.
Style needs to be unique, not perfect. You know those people who will wear a sweater vest, a boater hat and carry a walking stick, and people are just drawn to them? It’s more than just their brave and perhaps outrageous sense of fashion; it’s the fact that they stand out. Is it impressive? You be the judge. But people take notice. People ask the man in the boater hat, “Hey, what’s with the hat?” At that point, a conversation has started and the mission is complete. Writing style is the same way. Writing doesn’t have to be the perfect suit-and-tie look. Anyone and everyone can do that – and they often do. No, writing style is how to create something unique; a voice that people remember. I have talked at length about Lester Lusker, the main character from Bughouse Square, and how that Mississippi drawl as thick as grits and syrup fills every page. It’s an editor’s nightmare, and it sticks in the reader’s mind. It’s amazingly, consistently imperfect, and it stands out for that reason.
Connectivity. Those first pages should communicate something that makes the reader think. If it’s about the loss of a friend or family member, the writing needs to make that chord resonate. Action/adventure – same thing, but more difficult. The reader needs to see some aspect of themselves in that person, or something that they want to be. Allan Quatermain might have lived in a fantasy version of 19th century Africa, but this roguish hero connects to people in 21st century Chicago. If that character does not connect with the reader on some level in those first few pages, the reader won’t have much reason to continue.
One member of the group pointed out the feature that grabbed him every time: In the first few paragraphs, the narrative should place a question in his head. Even a simple thing such as wondering how the character got into such an awkward situation, it drives the reader forward, seeking an answer. Does that question have to be the big question of the entire book? No, it just has to draw them into a meaningful part of the story, and take them into the adventure.
One last thing that can’t be emphasized enough: The first three-hundred pages of perfect writing can be ruined by the last ten pages of bad writing. In short, the conclusion has to be a sensible conclusion to every plot twist, every character development, every noun and verb. Of course, if there is a surprising twist at the end, that’s perfectly fine. However, it should be an “OMG!” moment, and not a “WTF!” moment. If it turns out the main character is the bad guy, that reveal needs to come with enough evidence already presented to make the reader connect the dots in a new way. A well-written story will turn those dramatic twists into parts where the reader will turn back a few pages and realize the clues were hidden in plain sight. Anything that seems overly rushed or hurried will disappoint readers (and viewers, in the case of Game of Thrones). The big points, no matter how dramatic, have to be earned by the previous pages, or all the readers who read your book will be reluctant to read your next book.
Friday, June 14, 2019
For me, I keep no secrets in discussing my process. I first started writing regularly during my fifty-minute train commute to and from work. This brought its little bag of sensory cues that became ingrained in me over the years. Sitting in a cushioned but not-too-soft chair. Laptop on my lap. Noise around me, not too loud, like boring small talk or the rumble of the train. I no longer take that train, but when I want to write, recreating those sensory cues draw me into a writing mindset immediately.
And while my mind is on that train, here's another habit it created - time. I write best early in the morning or late in the afternoon. If my mind has just woke up, it is ready to be creative thanks to those mornings going to work. And after a day of being in a very serious, analytical place, following the straight lines and uncompromising rules of the hard sciences, creativity becomes an escape. Those are the mental cues that bring my mind around to being that writer.
It might sound like writers are just two-legged versions of Pavlov's dog, and that's kind of true. When we dedicate ourselves to being writers, the first step is already waiting - dedication. We need to move ourselves toward that goal, force ourselves to act even on days where we don't have the energy. That's where we use little sensory cues to put ourselves in the mood to be that person we want to be?
Think about this. Where are you when you are writing at your best? The exact geography isn't important - it's the surrounding details that are worth noting. Upright or lying down? Public or private? Noisy or quiet? Music? Nature? Familiar spaces or exotic locations? I know a few people who live the cliche of sitting in Starbucks, day after day, drinking their French roast and writing the Great American Novel. Look at the writing environment the have created. Maybe it's not too original, but it works for them - public, socially noisy, a distinct sensory quality, and a caffeine buzz. As they repeat this time and again, those cues become ingrained in their pattern. Eventually, a strong coffee triggers that writing mind. Sitting in a public area sparks creativity. Hearing the alt-jazz playing in every Starbucks in the country puts them in the mood to create. It all gets the mind riled up.
The one thing to also consider as you develop your writing habits - what sparks your creative side? What are you doing when great ideas come to mind? This should inform you about the kind of things you should bring to your little group of habits you nurture as you write. My creative space is in my car - I can run dialogue, talk about ideas, and think aloud about just how weird things can be (Yes, I'm that guy in the car next to you, windows closed, mouthing off about absolutely nothing you understand). Once I realized that, I decided that if I was having trouble writing, I would grab my laptop and drive to a place that had my writing elements. The driving creativity would start, and by the time I hit the destination, I am ready to roll.
And yes, sometimes that destination is just going back to my house. Especially if I want a little gin while I write.
Monday, June 10, 2019
This painting gives us simple images: five people, a dog, and some type of gaming on the pool table. However, the gestures, the positioning, even the wardrobe of the characters suggests a story taking place. When we look at this, particularly after finding out it is called The Bet, our mind starts exploring the elements. Are these people settling a wager? Is this some very elaborate game of chance? Does the winner get the dog, or is the dog just another part of this parlor trick? Something is happening here, and the viewer seeks an explanation. The images: people, a dog, games of chance. The meaning: so many possibilities.
When we offer description in our narrative, we can present a series of facts and that satisfies the reader's need to know what is being offered. However, that is called survival writing - writing something to satisfy a need, but missing what the reader really wants - they want to be drawn in to that moment. Consider the following sentence:
"He wore beaten sneakers, fading jeans, a black t-shirt, and a charcoal FitBit."If the writer seeks to meet the minimum requirement to describe the person's wardrobe, then mission accomplished. However, more description doesn't need to be describing exactly how faded the jeans are, or what makes the sneakers look beaten. More description means bringing in elements that make those details interact; that make them tell a story. How about...
"His worn-out appearance went from head to toe. Shoes beaten into submission, jeans no longer a resilient blue, a t-shirt just tired black cloth. Even his hi-tech FitBit was charcoal, punctuating a fashion sense that was as exciting as a long yawn."
"Everything he wore looked like a deliberate choice, a clever strategy to draw the eye. The beaten sneakers looked just the right amount of beaten, the jeans with the perfect amount of fade - not too dark, not too worn. The simple black t-shirt is a statement people want to repeat, the matching FitBit telling people a story they wanted to be a part of."Same person. Same attire. Different appeal to the reader, because the images now contribute to mood and concept. We see the person in the basic description, but we get a feel for the people in the last two descriptions.
Before jumping into description, ask yourself what this can explain or offer the reader. If there's nothing more that the description can offer other than an image, consider whether it's even necessary.
Friday, June 7, 2019
(Editor's note: I never was even a shot, much less a hot-shot; I did not work with investments; despite my lack of hair I neither owned nor used a wig; and trust me - economics is not the place for hand-over-fist money.)
We hear these sayings all the time, so much so that they feel very natural in conversation. However, our day-to-day conversation is far different than writing. In writing, our mind examines sayings and phrases much more, and the weak ones become distractions. (George Carlin's NSFW discussion of Expressions and Sayings is a nice example of what our mind will do with cliches), Rather, our writing should still sound natural but use word choices that stimulate the mind rather than numb it.
Of course, cliches have their place. If you are writing about the economist who has to deal with a bunch of people who have no clue what he does for a living, the cliche is the best tool around. Packaged phrases, as I mentioned, " don't have anything informative to offer," so if that's what needs to be communicated, then use them.
This now leads us to jargon. If cliches had a cousin that actually did something with its life, that cousin would be jargon. The two are very much the same - commonly-used phrases that show up everywhere - but jargon has the special quality of communicating very detailed information; even information beyond what the words actually mean.
My colleagues in economics had jargon showing up in everyday conversation. If we had extra money, we would say we were "long on cash" (a reference to financial positions). Using our savings to pay for something became, "drawing down some funds" (investment lingo). We would throw around terms like arrears, servicing schedules. and structural positions without any regard for those around us who might not know that part of the English language. To economists, these terms are common, but that is their value. That is why they are jargon.
While cliches provide no information, jargon provides information beyond the words. If someone asks to borrow five dollars and I say, "Sure, I'm long on cash this week," that describes more than my financial situation. As the reader goes over that, the mind examines it, explores it, investigating the context to understand the meaning. The words tell the reader about my financial mind and my ingrained feel for the financial world, and that pours out into everyday conversation. Jargon fills in a lot of character detail by showing the reader where their mind is. In that regard, jargon is priceless. (Google "corporate jargon" and check out the 150,000+ hits on it).
Think of our political environment these days (I will keep this non-partisan). Every politician likely has been given a nickname by a rival, and each party has derogatory names for the competition. Whenever a person uses one of those names, they secretly communicate just what side of the argument they favor without actually saying it. Jargon becomes a secret handshake, a subtle acknowledgement of affiliation that pours information onto the page without using three paragraphs to do it.
Whenever you write a character, incorporating jargon is the quickest route to making that character multi-dimensional (ask around and do some investigating if you don't know some phrases). Familiar words and terms put real meat on the character. Cliches, however, will flatten out the character's depth.
You can bet on that.
Monday, June 3, 2019
So now that we've decided to give purpose to our supporting cast, let's look at some of the different roles they can play:
- Voice of reason: As our hero goes forward, are they on the right direction? Are they acting on emotion rather than practicality? Do dangerous forces exist, such as revenge or greed? The Voice of Reason character can provide a centering force when things are getting out of control. This is best shown through a hero's trusted friend, mentor, or someone whose words carry weight, and might make the hero think twice.
- Devil's Advocate: This is similar to the Voice of Reason, but instead of being a steadying force, the character represents any drive that would work against the hero - impulsiveness, anger, a corrupt sense of justice. This challenges our hero to assess every motive, and even doubt themselves. These characters allow the main character to reach critical points of realization, which allow growth and progress. And of course, backsliding or making the wrong choice is always allowed.
- The Road Not Taken: Part of any hero's journey is to go forth into unfamiliar territory and experience things that invariably change them forever. The character of The Road Not Taken is a reminder of what the hero is leaving behind - for better or worse. If the hero is taking risks, then this character shows security and stability. A hero investigating the past would be confronted by someone representing the acceptance of the status quo. The Road Not Taken should be inviting in some ways, offering both the advantages of the old life along with the downsides. At the hero's lowest point, that character should be very inviting, and leave the hero conflicted - or perhaps aware of why his journey is that much more important.
- The Possible Future: As our hero goes on their journey, is there someone who represents the ideal outcome? Is there someone they idolize? Someone who personifies what they expect at the end of the rainbow? The Possible Future character is very important, particularly because this can represent what the hero thinks the outcome should be when they start, but not what the hero discovers. This allows us to show how the hero grows throughout the novel, and how learning about themselves changes how they see what is important. Often, The Possible Future is no longer desired by the end of the novel because it only seemed good before the character learned about the world and about themselves.
- The Greek Chorus: This is a catch-all for characters who will reflect pieces of the hero. The hero can respond to them, which allows the reader to see potential internal conflicts that are not fully recognized. If our hero has trouble with relationships, there can be a Greek Chorus character who just destroys any relationship they enter. How our hero responds to this character says everything about the hero, and shows the reader the conflict within the main character.
There are plenty of archetypes that can also be used to show a particular facet of the story. Any character who enters the story, however, should provide a chance to advance the story and to move along the hero's journey. If they don't move things along, what's their real purpose?