Monday, December 23, 2019

Writing Resolutions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 20, 2019

Good Faults and Interesting Flaws

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 16, 2019

Writing Smart Characters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 13, 2019

The Superstitious Writer

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 9, 2019

Goals For Beginning Writers

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

Not with that attitude.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Friday, December 6, 2019

Being A Better Writer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 2, 2019

One-Million-Word Theory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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