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.
Monday, September 30, 2019
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. It 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.
Friday, September 27, 2019
Horror Writing Follow-Up post I talked about the two-sentence horror story. Look at the post for specifics, but we're going to use that form to look at other genres and how we can distill our ideas by using the two-sentence idea to find the center of the story.
Let's make this simple. All the upcoming two-sentence genre stories will have the same first line:
"The fire reduced their house to rubble, all their possessions now smoldering cinders..."By taking this simple premise, we can write a second line that places the story in about any genre. All we need to know are the main features of the genre and how it translates.
The thriller genre is very popular, and demands a sense of urgency as early as possible. The main character should feel threatened and hunted, emotionally if not physically, at every possible turn. Where is the tension? Everywhere. Everything. It should border on paranoia, except that paranoia is an irrational fear, while the character's fear should feel very real indeed. The second line required to make this a thriller would be like...
"All that remained was Tom, the information he knew, and an arsonist who would not stop until they were destroyed."No magic twist, no surprise. A direct approach to tell the reader this was not an accident, this is important, and this is definitely not over. It sets the standard for excitement pretty high, and ramps it up from there.
The mystery genre is a little different than horror, but it's an important turn. It might seem obvious, but the unknown factor should be created in one shape or another, Horror is about discomfort, mystery is about intrigue. The movement of the second sentence has to establish this.
"These happened more often now, and he knew another fire was inevitable."What? The mystery line should always create that word in the reader's mind. The "What..." can be followed by "...do they mean?" or "...just happened?" but the event needs to provoke the reader to move forward.
Think of any genre and try to extract what direction a story must travel. Start from that position in the first sentence and let the genre take over. Quick examples for other genres:
"They had to rebuild from nothing, but they would do this together."
"This was the death knell of the home his great-grandfather built after the Civil War, wanting to rebuild a small part of a country he had helped destroy."
"Stage one complete."
If you can't boil a story down to two sentences, you might have more than one story on your hand.
Monday, September 23, 2019
haiku. These are 17-syllable poems - no more, no less (usually). There's plenty of information about this form on the internet, but here's the takeaway I offer writers. Haiku teaches about writing in its most simplistic form. It is a discipline, expressing thoughts and emotions with elegant twists with a minimum of words. When people learn this kind of focused writing, they go straight for the values they want to discuss, forgoing all other points to hit that one point. It's an art, and a valuable lesson for writing any genre. Ernest Hemingway said his best story was six words: "For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn." Not even enough for a haiku, but it still tells a story.
How does this relate to horror? For several years there has been an internet fad called "Two-sentence horror stories." (enjoy the link, apologies for the grammar - it's the internet, after all) This is as simple as it sounds - write a horror story using no more than two sentences. Some of these sound more like intros to horror stories, but they use the same technique. The writer targets the moment, creates fear through insecurity, etc., and twists things toward the unknown.
(Note: The CW network recently released a series called Two Sentence Horror Stories [pictured above], with each episode a twenty-minute horror story based on one example from the title. Watch it on Netflix if you want, but turning a two-sentence story into a twenty-minute episode is hardly an art form. Writers should think about taking episodes and turning them into sentences.)
Let's look at one of these quick little stories and see just what is there:
"I texted a stranger by accident. But when they texted me back, they used my full name."The first sentence is simple. It establishes an innocent, even relatable premise that offers no immediate threat. It is calm and unsuspecting. The second sentence, in turn, destroys those structures. The innocence of the moment - gone. Relatability turns into fear. The threat emerges as an imposition on one of our personal needs - privacy. The stranger is now an invasive presence. This creates the fear necessary for horror, with precision and brevity. (and a little rewriting could make it into a haiku.)
- Author unknown
As writers, when we get the inspiration for a story - any story - we need to understand it from a very basic, very simple level. Whether it's a character sketch, a novel, an essay or a poem, we should be able to express its purpose in one concise sentence. Furthermore, we should be able to create interest in that story in fifty words. If we can't do that, we either need to work on our technique or find the real story.
Practice brevity, then let feelings rise from words into the reader.
(that's another haiku)
Friday, September 20, 2019
Misery, there is a fair share of violence, but the horror comes from the disturbingly unstable tormentor, Annie Wilkes, and the physical and emotional struggles of our broken protagonist, Paul Sheldon. The horror comes from his increasingly desperate situation. The violence just enhances the subject matter.
This is an important realization of horror - the protagonist is in a place, position, or circumstance where they do not want to be or do not understand, and the more severe the disconnect, the better the story. If a person wants to be in Chicago but is in New York, well, that's something, but not much. However, if that person had a past trauma in New York, the story gets somewhere. If the circumstances involving that trauma come back to visit that character, it gets closer still. If they might have to relive that trauma, this evokes fear, which is the root of horror.
But does horror demand things like trauma to be effective? Yes and no. Horror does not demand a walk into the dark side of the world, but it does require a strong sense of fear, particularly fear of the unknown. This unknown should be something that the reader can at least accept, if not intimately understand, and it should be something that draws out an emotional response. Many people don't know their neighbors and don't care, so they might not immediately react to a story about the creepy guy next door. However, people can relate to strange sounds in the night and odd events that can't be explained through everyday events. This draws the reader's interest, and they read on. Then the character discovers things that suggest something very bad, and they realize they now live next to someone they do not want to be next to. Now they are in the situation they do not want, and horror can grow from this.
Horror often relies on suffering, torture and violence because these are clearly situations people do not want to be involved with. However, the true horror may come from how a person fails to handle the situation, or even tries to escape it, only to make it worse. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus demonstrates very nicely how Dr. Frankenstein creates his own tragedy by creating his monster then abandoning it in disgust, only to set off events that make his life quite horrifying. Here, the horrible situation is not about creating life, but about trying to escape a situation he was responsible for.
At its core, horror is about a character witnessing or becoming a participant in something they cannot understand, or better yet, fear. If the character is helpless to redirect that world, then the horror can come from the tragedies they are forced to see but not prevent. If they are an active participant, they have to face increasing discomfort with their actions, and the reader must feel this. Horror is about discomfort if nothing else, and as the character goes through it, every word needs to make the reader share that experience. The violence doesn't even have to be there if the reader is already on edge.
Monday, September 16, 2019
Then I thought about how much I wrote. Little stories, character sketches, poems, stuff like that - how many words did I usually produce? Well, not two-thousand word a day, which would be required to meet that goal, but maybe that wasn't ridiculous. If someone suggested I set out to walk three-hundred miles in a month, it might sound ridiculous, but how many was I already walking every day? Suddenly, it's not as alarming.
To be honest, I am not trying to sell anyone on officially entering the various online NaNoWriMo contests online. Hundreds of thousands of writers enter and participate, which is great, but it's not mandatory. What I believe in is the broad idea that setting a big goal like that is a great way to complete that first novel. Setting word requirements for a day or a week and keeping personal accountability are the first steps to reaching that big goal.
Ever have a friend who sets out to run a marathon? I do. She set that as a one-year goal and stated it out loud so she would have to answer to us. Then she started her runs - a few miles here and there, with regularity, with some friends. A 5K here and there, then a 10K, stretching it out bit by bit. She became a runner, we held her accountable, and she ran that marathon. Now she does the triathlon thing, and that statement she made so long ago doesn't seem impossible - it seemed inevitable.
If you choose to do something like NaNoWriMo, or just write a novel in a one-month burst of energy, I applaud you. I can only offer these bits of advice that might make your run more manageable:
- Be a writer, not an editor
Everyone has that natural compulsion to rewrite sentences and reshape conversations to get them just right. Stop it! For now, just write. It's a first draft, and it's only a first draft if you complete it. Save the editing hat for another day.
- When you finish, it will need work
Writing a story from stem to stern is an evolving process where you will learn about the character, have ideas, incorporate details, and so forth. By the time you type the last word, you will need to reshape the rest of the work to incorporate your discoveries.
- Reward yourself
When you finish your first draft, give yourself a whole lot of credit. You will have done what most people never accomplish. Brag about it. It's not perfect, but it's better than all the books that your friends never wrote. Celebrate the win, then start fixing it.
And if you want a little inspiration, read Julie Murphy's Side Effects May Vary. It's a great story about a dying teenager tying up the loose ends of her young life, then managing the consequences when she discovers she's going to live. It's a fun read, and I hope it becomes a movie. And it was a NaNoWriMo project.
Friday, September 13, 2019
Indeed, we all know that 9/11 was eighteen years ago, so the natural draw is to write in the past tense. After all, it's a story about what happened. This has its advantages - it allows the writer to incorporate present-tense observations on events that happened long ago, and it can compare experience to reaction. Writing a story in the past tense can present a thoughtful observation of any event, and allows the writer to insert questions such as whether they now know that an action was a mistake, how they have grown since, and so forth.
But is this always the right way to tell a story?
As I sat there, looking at a very blank screen, I thought about what I really wanted to communicate. I didn't just want to tell people about my experience. That didn't feel right. No, I wanted people to understand my experience. I wanted them to experience things with me. I wanted the reader to be with me on that day, living through those events. To me, the story had to be told in the present tense.
Telling a story in the present tense is an effective way to grab the reader, but it's tricky. It has to fully engage the reader in the moment, recreating that day, that hour, that point of time. Even if the reader knows the broad strokes of what will occur, the present tense makes them experience it through a character entirely unaware of what will happen.
This is tricky because the writer has to avoid offering reflective asides or thoughts that occurred over time. The world of the present tense has to remain present, and one step outside of that moment dispels the illusion. One sentence of, "Looking back, I would've done..." turns everything back into a story rather than a moment the reader experiences through the writing. The story has to be pure and true to that moment in the past, told as it is experienced.
So, how do we choose whether to go for the past or present when telling the story? In this regard, it's personal choice. My decision comes from how I want the reader to respond. If the story is a funny anecdote or an amusing story from my very adventurous college days, do I need the audience to be gripped with every wild idea or stupid decision I made? Probably not. It's easier to show those things in the past tense, which allows me to offer comments about just how stupid I was and how dangerous those acts were. But if I want to drag them into the moment and live it with me, then I go with the present moment.
In the end, my 9/11 story was a personal walk-through of that one day's events and how I managed them. Maybe someday I'll write a story about how that one day affected the next eighteen years of my life, but for now I have faced the experience head-on, in the present tense. It was not easy, but it was worth it.
Monday, September 9, 2019
However, for eighteen years, there's one story I haven't even tried to write.
Maybe you figured it out by the timeline I laid out for this, or more likely by the picture included in this blog, but the story I don't want to write involves September 11, 2001. That one morning, that simple blue-skied Tuesday still remains unsettled in my writer's mind. I have written about many personal experiences of pain and suffering, the loss of loved ones, the mistakes I've made and the scars they've left. That one moment, however, remains unapproachable.
Perhaps this story is so tough to write because it's so public. Every part of the world saw the same pictures, heard the same reports, watched the same footage in disbelief. Maybe this is something I don't write about because it doesn't feel like my intimate memory, but the world's memory. Why would my moment in that tragedy be worth reading? People lost friends and loved ones that morning. Entire companies were wiped out in one explosion, hundreds of first-responders lost when the buildings collapsed, families destroyed, dreams vanquished by the thousands - why would the testimonial of one balding economist in Chicago shuffling into his corner office at eight in the morning be worth reading about compared to the human tragedies all around?
The other part is the emotional experience. Writing isn't just relaying events and relative details; that's journalism. The art of the narrative is to see an exciting moment and tell people why their heart beat faster. As I saw hundreds of plane passengers instantly turned into casualties like some nightmarish magic trick, rebroadcasts showing it over and over, my heart sank. To write that story is to see those passengers killed again and again. However, when it happens in my mind, I also experience the screams no survivors ever heard. I see panicked faces nobody saw from the street.
A story touches readers when it relays humanity. That terrible morning was as public as can be, but billions of people each had their unique experience. Think of your moment that day. Did you cry, or were you too stunned? Did you comfort others, or were you shaking too much? When did the reality sink in? Did it ever? Who was the first person you hugged, and held, just to let them know they weren't alone and that their humanity was valuable? How long was it before you screamed in rage? What did the hate feel like? Did your darker angels demand eye-for-an-eye revenge? Did your heart harden for just a moment? How human did you feel that day?
This is the story people want to read. This is the story that connects people. The human experience is what binds us during tragedy, and it doesn't matter whether you're an economist in Chicago, a street performer in downtown New York or a businessman in Windhoek, Namibia - your humanity responded to that moment, and billions of people would hear your story and know a part of them lived in your experience.
As a fellow human, I can say my eyes teared up just writing this blog post - I expected nothing less. However, as I writer, I can now say that, finally, I am going to put my story of that day to the page. When we write, we grow. And I offer you that same challenge - take some time and write something about your human experience. I guarantee you, it will be worth it.
Friday, September 6, 2019
Have you ever taken a philosophy course? Usually, those courses left me with more questions than answers. Ever ask a philosophy grad student a question? Pack a lunch, because that answer is going to be a long one, and it might not even be an answer in the end. However, there is value in this. Not getting an answer is rather disappointing, but exploring the problem that underlies the question in the first place sometimes provides its own adventure.
Still with me?
Let's apply this to fiction. In philosophy, larger questions are discussed in order to inform, along with a lot of hypothetical situations where there is no one right answer, but each decision presents another set of issues. Consider the simple question of whether it is right to steal a loaf of bread to feed a starving family. This becomes a moral debate about laws of man versus what is right on a human level. Well, Victor Hugo incorporated that into Les Misérables as a play on morality (along with many other themes), and Jean Valjean became a symbol for the injustices of the world (19th-century France).
Now, Hugo took a side in Les Misérables, but that's not always necessary in philosophical fiction. The point in this style of writing is to explore the outcome of a particular action, for better or worse, and the complications that ensue. We take the basic structure of a story and turn it sideways. The inciting event and call to action might be an event where the character makes a choice and then deals with the consequences, for better or worse. Perhaps there was no right answer, just the least-wrong answer. The character made a decision and now has to live with the consequences.
Philosopher Philippa Foot developed a situation famously known as The Trolley Problem. A passenger is on a runaway trolley car that will hit and kill five people on the track ahead. The passenger, however, can pull a lever, which switches the car onto another track where only one person will be killed. There will be death, but if the person acts, they can save five people but their choice kills one person. Maybe this is a simple choice, but how does that person go on afterward?
From that horrible event, we now have character conflict - internal for sure, but plenty to go around. Obviously, this person needs to reconcile themselves with having killed someone. Even if others were saved, the funeral is still a sad one. Also, does our character now think that sometimes it's okay to trade one life to save many others? Is the value of the individual somehow diminished in his mind? Maybe this character was a counselor helping people sort out their issues, but now they seem meaningless in comparison to saving more people. Perhaps things take a dark turn, and our character realizes that pulling the lever on the trolley, killing one person to save five, could be repeated by killing organ donors. Those organs could save more lives - just like that lever - so murder was justified.
Philosophical fiction doesn't need to be some characters just talking about ideas that make people fall asleep. It is the exploration of a situation or idea, examining the different perspectives and showing how the character changes and grows. In that regard, it's just like storytelling, except the conflict comes from ideas and the ambiguous idea that there is some universally accepted "right thing to do." These stories often leave the reader thinking about the story long after they've put down the book, which is the greatest compliment for philosophical fiction.
You can wake up now.
Monday, September 2, 2019
|M.C. Escher, "Relativity"
Consider some of the ink drawings of M.C. Escher. We all know the distorted stairways, the eternal water flows, the constant visual illusions. When we view a print (that everyone had in their college dorm when I went to school), we look at it in one of two ways. We observe it as a whole, seeing stairs and people and things and stuff, and recognizing that it does not all come together in a sensible manner. Interesting from a distance, yes. The other way is to look into the picture, examine one particular stairway and how it violates the reality of everything around it. It looks perfect until its perspective inverts to where it's actually upside-down, and the illusion amazes us. Writing a story about the weird and unusual works better with the second method of looking at things.
When we take that second approach of looking at Escher's works and apply it to our writing, it should be in that same manner. We start from a place of sensibility - the stairway, or waking up in a familiar room. The reader walks with us, identifying with the sensibilities we describe. It starts off without the distortion, the weirdness that the writer knows is coming. The reader is being led in a confusing direction, and is none the wiser. Maybe there's the hint of something not quite right, but nothing that sets off alarms.
At some point, the weirdness creeps in. Something about the details doesn't add up. The flaws are not yet obvious, but something seems off-center. This should peak the reader's interest, draw them to read forward. Maybe the reader suspects something's wrong, maybe they have developed their own theory. The point is that the reader is engaging with the story. The writer may have led them down a path, but the reader is now running ahead for the next big turn.
The build-up to the big reveal can take as long as the writer wants as long as it is a gradual build, sustained with a constant pace that builds the reader's anticipation. With this bit-by-bit structure, the reader will accept more and more uncertainty and confusion because they anticipate the big payoff. And, of course, the payoff has to be worth the build-up.
The point is, a weird story doesn't have to be as bizarre as a hallucinatory spell. It just needs to be different than what's expected, and written so the reader is led away from the familiar to a place of uncertainty. It works every time.