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, December 21, 2020

One Last Little Christmas Note

I decided that for this short little post - the last one of 2020 - I would write a little something about Christmas. Normally, Christmas is not thought of as a writing time of year. Rather, it is about the togetherness of family, going to church, exchanging gifts, gaining weight and appreciating what we have. Well, things have changed this year, and not for the better. So how can we use the tools we have as writers to reclaim some of this most important of holidays?

I don't care how good a writer someone may be - they can still spread a virus around if they aren't careful, so the ugly facts on the ground still apply for 2020. I won't be going in public more than I absolutely have to, which means no church and no family on Christmas Day or the days surrounding it for that matter. I will celebrate in my own personal ways, but it will be different. The important part is my decision to also be a writer during this time. 

One of the skills we pick up as writers is the ability to process our thoughts and feelings in a way so that they come out on paper. We channel a lot of things into the world when we write, and by doing this, we can create some very special things.

A quick consideration for making Christmas particularly special during these days of COVID. For the people who you were hoping to see this year but can't, write something for them. Write a quick description of your favorite memory about you and that person. Write them a fun little holiday poem. Just write them an email personally telling them why you will miss seeing them this year. Use your abilities and tools as a writer to communicate those feelings in a very simple manner.

This may sound cheesy, but trust yourself as a writer. Trust that what you say will have meaning and feeling. And believe that when you do this, you will move the person in the way a gift should.

This definitely will not feel the same as it does in other years, but let's face it - nothing feels the same these days. The point is that it's not doing something to recover what things used to be like, but to try and live in the spirit of what things are meant to be about.

My favorite story for the season is How the Grinch Stole Christmas! With this, my main takeaway is that while the Grinch stole all of the trappings of the holiday, he only belatedly learned that the part he couldn't steal was the thing he never understood - Christmas involves a spirit, an attitude, that can't be taken away from us. Not by the Grinch, or by a virus, or anyone. And you can retain that spirit with something as simple as your writing.

So on that note, Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and I will see you with my next post, which will be Monday, January 4th, 2021, so Happy New Years as well.

Friday, December 18, 2020

Other People's Stories

I can't say this one enough but I need to say it now and then - the most important part of being a writer is writing. Now and then, I add to this that this next most important part is reading. Writers learn plenty from nourishing themselves with other styles and techniques, approaches, openings and wrap-ups. I don't know a writer who isn't well-read, and there's a good reason for that.

Now I would like to add a third qualifier to important things a writer will do, and that is listening. Particularly, listening to other stories. You may think this is the same as reading stories, but you'd be mistaken. We learn about structure and layout from the written stories, but other people teach us about voice and presentation, about mood and presence. These elements are crucial to any good written story, but we learn about them from storytelling.

The storyteller on my father's side of our family was Uncle Thurman. Having grown up in the Great Depression and fought his way through the Pacific during World War Two, he had a wealth of stories to tell, not to mention everything that happened after he came home in 1945 and established the rest of his life. The more relatable stories came from his career, family, friends, and just the daily routine from the place he called home, and he told each one with a devotion to making it come to life. He was regularly requested to tell the story about trying to get an extra egg out of the chicken, and he never failed to please.

One side note - a part of Thurman's ability to tell stories came from his passion for the old radio shows of the Forties and Fifties. They presented each story without the benefit of pictures or even hand gestures and facial expressions, so they had to create a world simply with the voice. He followed them religiously, and they became an important tool in his ability to tell a story better than anyone else.

It was about fifteen years ago that he started talking about his experiences during the war, and crafting them as stories rather than a few details of where he was and when he was there. Maybe there was a reason for this that I will never know, but as a storyteller he needed to express these parts of him after a long silence. I listened. I learned - about him and about how to reveal a world that most people could never understand. Needless to say, these stories had a different mood than the one with the chicken, but as a storyteller, he could recreate his tour through the Philippines to where we could feel the fear in the air.

Uncle Thurman died yesterday at the age of 95 from COVID-19. The man survived a world war, but this was just too much. Fortunately, he told us his life (or at least the parts he would admit to) and those stories will remain just as much of a legacy as his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren who sat around him, listening attentively.

I was just a nephew, but I listened too. Maybe some days I will write down his stories, but more than likely I will just use his techniques to tell the stories with the kind of passion he did. Except for the one with the chicken. That one's just tough to explain.

Monday, November 30, 2020

Leftover Writing Notes

Welcome back from the Thanksgiving break. This is usually the time when we all sit back, live off of leftovers for a few days, and really think seriously about exercising some more (and usually don't). Now, this year things are different. For a lot of people, there are not leftovers and no need to work off all that gravy weight. For some people (including myself), Thanksgiving was nothing more than a quiet day at home. But that doesn't mean there isn't something to feed off of later. I'm talking about finding stories within the events of Thanksgiving.

I always offer a disclaimer about brewing up a story from a day such as Thanksgiving, and this is no different. For any particular holiday, I emphasize the following:

  • The holiday is not the story
  • There are many stories within the holiday

Now you may want to jump up and scream, "Aha! You said you just had a quiet day at home! How can there be a story if you didn't do the holiday stuff?" Well, sit down and let me explain. 

First, as I said in the disclaimer, the holiday is not the story. Writing about what I did and didn't do over the course of last Thursday is not a story, it's a news article (and not front-page material). And to be perfectly clear, I did watch a couple of one-sided football games, which constitutes a Thanksgiving event in my book, and I did eat food. Instead of a nine-course meal, I made a reasonable amount of stir-fry Mongolian beef. So, no, the holiday is not the story. However, I hope that through a few of those strategically placed details, you see where the stories within the holiday may lie.

The news article style of story-writing is rather dry and doesn't actually make for interesting reading because it merely explains what happened. I ate lunch. I watched the game. I wrote. I watched another game. I cooked dinner. Yes, that's a story that tells about my day, and it is as dry as overcooked turkey. Rather, stories come when the writer isolates on one event and explains why that was worth focusing on. 

Look at the Mongolian beef I made for my personal Thanksgiving feast. As odd as that detail seems, that can be a story in itself. The explanation of that choice of a meal - the why in all this - becomes the story. I could write about the one year I was stuck in the city for Thanksgiving without any location to go to. I thought it would be a very sad day, so I went to the only place that was open - Blue Willow on Damen and Chicago (now closed) - and just ordered Mongolian beef. 

During the preparation, I had my own personal realization that the people at Blue Willow were working during this holiday and not complaining about it. To them, their thanks was recognized in a different way, and they did not need to specifically recognize it on the fourth Thursday of November. They prepared my food with a smile, handed me the bag, and wished me a Happy Thanksgiving. I went home, enjoyed my food, and thought over just what the holiday meant to different people.

So, as you reflect upon whatever your holiday involved, know that there are a lot of stories to be written about this recent Thanksgiving. Pandemic aside, there is likely a rich harvest of events to be written about, and the holiday is merely the setting - one of the little details while you explain why it was worth writing about.

Monday, November 23, 2020

A Writer's Thanks

Let's address the obvious - Thanksgiving is going to be very different for a lot of people this year. Unfortunately, I am one of them, and I will not be enjoying the usual open-door affair of family, friends, and anyone else who arrives in time for the marathon of food. The world has changed this year and sometimes traditions have to be put on pause, for better or worse.

That being said, this has given me some time for reflection. Thanksgiving is, traditionally, the national eating holiday in this country, but honestly that's not what it is supposed to be about. Rather than eating our body weight in turkey and pie, it should focus on being able to be thankful for whatever it is that has brought us from the last holiday to this one. In that regard, a lot of food is not required to take a moment to think about what we are thankful for, and since this blog is about writing, I thought I would reflect on what that means to me as a writer.

First and foremost, I am thankful for all the weird things in the world that inspire me to write about them. From odd stories on the news to weird dreams to the black squirrel in my front yard who I swear watches my every move, they all provide inspiration for me to put my fingers to the keys and create something original. A writer has a hard life without those moments, so for them I give thanks.

Along that note, I want to give a particular amount of thanks to dreams themselves. Not just the random compilation of thoughts flying through our sleeping minds at night, but also the dreams we have that keep us looking toward tomorrow. A writer's dreams include winning a writing contest, the next published piece, or just that moment of reading a review of their own work and validating the idea that they are a writer. Those dreams are the ones that keep us plugging away at the keyboard, creating piece after piece, hoping that we will hit that magical chord that lights up the hearts and minds of readers and sets off a wave of inspiration throughout our fan base and beyond. Thanks for dreams.

And, of course, none of a writer's goals would be achievable without readers, and there are a few batches of them. First, the beta readers - the foot soldiers of written media. These poor souls read work with the critical eye, providing priceless feedback for writers who need the outside eye. Their job is to be brutally honest and convincingly frank in their responses, which often goes without due appreciation. Then there are editors, showing us the road to clean copy with a map of red ink. They are often underappreciated because of the errors they show us, though they are often our biggest fans. This also goes to all the people with whom we attend workshops, collaborate, and even inspire in our own way. Thanks.

This brings me to my final group. Thanks to readers of this blog, both loyal regulars and periodic consumers of my writing notes. Having an audience indeed inspires me to write even more and continue on my mission to perfect my craft. You are very much appreciated.

(Also to my loyal readers - the next post will be Monday, November 30th, since I will be taking a post-Thanksgiving timeout like everyone else.)

Friday, November 20, 2020

Insights and Hot Dogs

When I was 27, I quietly prepared for a big milestone in my life. It was something that everyone my age would experience, but as far as I know, nobody celebrated or even recognized. I started putting the festivities into gear by acknowledging this moment to my friends who were slightly older, then warned younger friends that their big day was coming as well. I drummed up a fair amount of excitement about this - in a time when social media was nonexistent - and had a lot of fun when my big day finally arrived. What was the occasion?

I turned 10,000 days old.

Now, I would wager that most readers never made a fuss about such a day or even realized it happened. Most everyone who I talked to at the time had absolutely no idea that day had arrived. However, once they realized it, well, the moment changed them and they embraced it like a 50th birthday or some other great landmark in the otherwise boring stretch of life known as the late 20s. It was new, novel, interesting, and even though it had always been there, the revelation of such a fact opened their eyes to a new way of seeing the world. And they definitely knew a lot more about me once I brought this to their attention.

This whole story was to highlight one simple point - character insights. Every good writer knows their character inside and out and can portray them in any number of events. However, a fully fleshed-out character is not necessarily an interesting character, unless the reader sees what makes them tick. More importantly, a hero or a villain becomes interesting when the reader can see the world from their eyes. One very good way to portray this is through character insight.

A writer can get a lot of mileage simply showing a character's interests through a series of actions. If the hero does not like ketchup on his hot dog (and what true American does?), the writer can insert scenes where the hero avoids the ketchup bottle at the hot dog stand, or scowls at someone who slathers their dog in the stuff. That definitely shows a point of view and defines one of our hero's traits. However, does it go deep into the psyche and expose what motivates such behavior? All it tells us is that this person is against ketchup. We can do more.

The writer obviously knows that the hero does not like ketchup on a dog, but the reader latches on when they find out why the hero is so anti-ketchup. Maybe he offers a quick statement about how he is a Chicago traditionalist who learned from a young age to never use ketchup. Perhaps he has a refined palate and prefers the blended taste of celery salt, mustard, relish and peppers without it all getting washed over with tomato paste and sugar. Better yet - maybe he never really questioned why, but simply followed the herd. This could actually open the door for character growth, which attracts the reader's interest as well.

We could offer a bunch of reasons for our character's choices, but the importance is finding a way to include those details in the greater narrative. Once the reader understands why our characters do what they do, they engage with them on a new level and follow them more closely. And for those of you who are regular readers, the best thing an author can do is engage their reader. Offering insights into the character's motives is a top-notch way to do this.

And incidentally, in two years I turn 20,000 days old - in case you want to start the celebrating early...

Friday, November 13, 2020

NaNoWriMo Midpoint Motivation

We are closing out the second week in November, and for those participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), this is where the going gets tough. We have made it past the excitement of stepping headfirst into our new story, we have established our main character and the conflict they will face, and they are off on their journey. We probably have 20-30,000 words typed up, and a pretty good idea of where the story will conclude. The problem is, we have this long gap between our current location and where we want to be. This area is called Act Two, and it's a tough one.

Have you ever taken a long road trip, preferably with a bunch of people? Driving eight hours to a very exciting destination? Think about the first hour - getting away from the familiar territory, heading into the great unknown. There's a lot of road ahead but you don't care; it's all about the excitement of the adventure ahead. Every mile takes you away from what you know and into something new and great. How can it be any better than that?

Once we are on the road for three hours, the excitement kind of dies down. There are more new things, but the adrenaline rush has died down. We don't have the tingle of getting away, but there is no sign of the destination. This is the part of the road trip where there better be a few singalongs in the car, some snacks, and perhaps a mix tape or two to keep the ride engaging. Otherwise, the drive becomes boring and time slows down to a crawl.

In fact, this is where the writer finds their version of car games and mix tapes. These come in the form of additional supporting characters, surprise turns and twists, or even some internal conflict where the main character questions whether the hero's journey is really what they want to do. The last one is the easiest to do, but they all have a place in the story.

Whenever writing gets a little cumbersome and the story isn't progressing, the moment of self-doubt is a great mechanism to insert into the story just to remind yourself about what the story is really about. (You can delete it later if you don't like it.) Think of your own personal moments where you thought about ending your journey or turning around - stopping your NaNoWriMo project being a prime example. Examine the doubts you have, the reasons you offer that would allow you to stop. Think about those feelings, and insert them into your main character's head. How do those thoughts translate to your hero's journey? Can they just turn around? Is it impossible to stop but they find it difficult to carry on? Start writing about that in a captured moment, and see what that character thinks.

As an aside, sometimes it might be difficult to write about the doubts your character might have. If this is the case, you might want to take a little time to try and understand your character and think from their point of view. After all, they are your character, so you know them better than anyone else. If you take a little time just thinking as they do, you can hopefully find where their weaknesses and vulnerabilities are, and what might make them resist going forward. And if there is nothing that would stop your character from moving forward, then maybe the conflict should be external - the roadblock on the way to the goal.

Ultimately, the choice is yours, but there is opportunity here. The moment you take to put doubt in the minds of those in the story creates a tension the reader will be able to feel and appreciate. Furthermore, it will make the writing go by that much faster, and before you know it, your road trip is just flying by.

Keep on writing!

Monday, November 9, 2020

The Rules of Creativity (Trust Me)

 Please don't all jump on me at once. I made a few posts about creativity and rules a few weeks ago, and it seems that everyone thinks there shouldn't be creative rules. Of course I see their point, but the subject is not so easy. And yes, I understand that people might think that because many of my posts are about the rules and regulations of writing, that I am some rules monster who insists everything follow a fixed pattern. Give me a few paragraphs, and I can convince you that even the most creative writers held to rules.

Once upon a time, painting was all about representation of the world around us. Artistic expression had distinct boundaries, namely the real world, and that going outside those limits was either the sign of flawed skills or an attempt to insult someone by altering their perceived image. Slowly, however, reality gave way to different schools of creative expression, and before you know it we had Romanticism, Expressionism, Cubism, Neo-Realism, and countless other schools of art. This may seem like a wild array of creativity, and it was, but they were still guided by a set of rules. The rules, however, were more conceptual. Picasso's many works may look entirely bizarre when compared to the real world, but they fit beautifully into the school of Cubism, and so forth.

Now how does this appeal to writing? Well, let's look at points of view first. We can narrate a story from first-person, third-person, third-person omnipotent, fly-on-the-wall, and so on, and each comes with its strengths and weaknesses. Now, some people have approached me (when I had my editor cap on) and asked, "Well, what if I use a variety of those methods in my story, depending on what I want that part to say?" Interesting choice - and creative at that. But let's look at the rules.

Each point of view is used to give us a particular feel at the expense of something else. First-person puts us in someone's head but their narration excludes other perspectives so we have to trust our narrator's perception. Third-person is the same but we are a witness to a story rather than fully engaged. Omnipotent means we have a complete set of information at the expense of tension. If we bounce between these, we gain a lot but we lose a lot as well. So the creative writer will think about when they can use each to their advantage.

Referring back to Picasso, his Blue Period was not inspired by an abundance of blue paint, but rather a somber expression of depression and loss. Most of the people he painting were, in reality, flesh-colored people, but he used a blue palette to draw out the moodiness of his subjects. The expense was that the people could not be identified in real life, but that was okay - the paintings were about a feeling, not a person. In that regard, he followed the rules of creativity - breaking one rule to emphasize the point made by another rule.

Plenty of novels shift perspectives and go between different characters - it's expected practice in broader epics these days. However, this is done in order to bring out some particular point or concept, and it is used very carefully so that what is lost be the shift does not detract from the storytelling. This creative rule structure, when done with an exacting purpose and meaning, provides for some fascinating results.

Don't believe me? Look at Picasso's works...

Friday, November 6, 2020

Connecting Setting into Conflict

Earlier, I talked about some of the points about developing characters and the many details that make them feel real. From family life to musical stylings to weird little idiosyncrasies such as a fear of sock puppets, a character is constructed with these touches as his framework. Today's post is going to guide us toward what choices can really deliver some effect, and how we get to this through setting and conflict.

First and foremost, let's look at setting. This is the environment where the story is going to happen, and when we start writing, we should have a pretty narrow, concise view of where it is. Saying, "Oh, this happens in present-day USA" is not very helpful other than offering a timeframe. Urban, suburban, or rural? Northern or southern? East coast, west coast, or in between? We need to find an ideological spot, if not a real spot - I can say it happens in the inner city and not pinpoint it to the Back of the Yards area of Chicago, or the the little fictional town of Billington in the American Heartland will do without reference to a specific state. The setting centers the reader, which is the important part for them. For the writer, it should be a secret way of helping establish the character. 

In my upcoming book, Small-Town Monster, the setting is in fact, the small town of Billington. Why? Well, as the title suggests, it has to be in a small town. However, this setting works well for a character who is resistant to change, has a life centered around his family and the same people for decades, and lives by established patterns from a well-defined history in one never-changing place. These character traits would be more difficult to fit in a fast-paced urban setting (though the challenge of that character in a changing environment would make for some interesting drama), so I found an environment where the character could thrive.

Now that we've established setting, let's move to conflict and ask ourselves what kind of conflict would give this character the biggest headache. The immediate thought is change. Someone who is resistant to change and lives a very regulated live would be impacted the most by change, so we make change a part of the conflict.

However, is change narrow enough? Kind of a broad brush to paint with - more like a big roller - so let's narrow it down and spread it around. First, there's a specific change in life. The main character loses his father. That change can work on several levels. A person loses their father, things start changing all around. Also, we add that this impacts his family-centered nature, so more of his life is uprooted. Now there's tension. Our poor character really has a problem.

Is this enough to be an entire book? Well, we need the plot hook, and it needs to incorporate the setting - the little town of Billington - and we need the character conflict, which is the loss of a parent. The only thing left to add is the call to adventure that moves our hero along. When our hero finds out his father kept a secret hidden for decades that could change what people thought about him and the entire town, now the story takes off. The reader wants to know more about the secret, the character has to put together his new life, and events start piling up, each one raising the stakes in this little town.

That's why setting and and conflict are so important.

Monday, November 2, 2020

Building Character (Writing Comes Later)

 When I come up with the idea for a novel, I need to have a few components put together before I know it's really something worth exploring. First and foremost, I need a problem to be overcome. Second, I need to have a setting that appeals to this particular problem and creates a challenging environment. Third, I need a character whose particular traits will not make this an easy adventure. These first two items - problem and setting - are very straightforward. The exploration of a character, however, is worth a little more discussion, because the character will be the one chugging through the entire manuscript, interacting with the setting and trying to solve the problem at hand. So let's see what this character is all about.

For those authors who keep extensive notes on their stories, a fair amount of time is dedicated to character development. Reading through the collection of sketches and details, we can discover things about a character. We will find out that the character's favorite color is Parrish blue. He isn't crazy about Italian food unless there's seafood involved. His sister died while he was in college and it still hurts to talk about it. We will find all these details, yet there's also a good chance that we will never see these details in the final story. Better yet, they will be eluded to but never mentioned, giving the character a sense of intrigue.

The point I am getting at is that to write a good, interesting, and relatable character, we need to know that character inside and out, otherwise they come off as flat and one-dimensional. Maybe we don't keep an extensive file on them, but we should know some basics. What's the family structure? Happy childhood? What makes the character happy? Mad? Annoyed? Scared? As a writer gets to know that the protagonist came from a happy home but has a weird fear of sock puppets, they get more comfortable in fleshing this character onto the page, and the family life and the sock puppet thing never has to be mentioned. By creating these little details, the writer creates someone they can relate to personally. Someone they know, or would like to know. 

Think of a simple scene. The main character gets together after work with some colleagues and they go to a bar for drinks. Everyone orders a beer but our main character, who orders an iced tea. As a reader, this stands out and we take notice. Why tea? Why break from what everyone else is doing? Does this need to be explained in the narrative? If the writer wants to, sure, but the scene can go on with the coworkers blowing off some steam and talking about whatever, the plot can progress, and our main character's motives don't have to be mentioned. The writer, however, should know why the character made this choice. Maybe he's a recovering alcoholic. Maybe he never drives even with the slightest buzz. Perhaps he knows that after one beer he will say whatever is on his mind and offend half of his coworkers. It doesn't have to be revealed, it just has to exist in the writer's mind and linger in the reader's mind.

Of course, it is the writer's choice whether or not to have something like that be a big reveal later on. If the character doesn't like beer, that's not much of a reveal, but if there is some big secret, it should hopefully also contribute to the plot and the tensions existing in the character's journey to overcome his problems.

This may sound like a difficult idea to grasp, but in subsequent posts I will demonstrate just how this technique, combined with our other requirements, will make for good storytelling.

Friday, October 30, 2020

When Do I Get An Editor?

 I actually see this question quite a lot - someone writing their short story/novella/manuscript is just about finished, and they start thinking about the next step. It's natural to get that feeling to call an editor once those last words are typed and finalized, but that might be a little hasty. I offer this little checklist to go over before getting an editor, and some of the steps should start before the work is even finished.

Workshopping. Whether it's a book, a screenplay, a comedy routine, or whatever creative medium we choose, there is always a benefit in trying out the material on a sample audience. Sometimes this means getting a few beta readers to go over the work, but it should start even before that. I prefer writing workshops for this part of the process, but it works with any readers who are willing to be critical and constructive in their analysis. For a short story, run the first few introductory paragraphs past your trial audience. For a book, see if the opening chapter grabs their attention. This can (and should) be done before the whole story is finished, and the feedback can help you tune up your writing for the next step.

Drafting. Once you finish your work, you have completed the first draft. Pro tip: No editor wants to do a hard edit on a first draft. This should be the phase where you get a few people to give it a read to see if they like the story, if they enjoy the characters, etc., but you don't call an editor. More to the point, some people suggest stepping away from the work for a few days or weeks to provide some intellectual distance. Let the preconceived ideas of what you have written wash away, then reread it with a fresh, critical eye. This usually reveals all too quickly why editors hate first drafts, and should show you a bunch of things that need reshaping.

Rewrites. A 70,000-word novel might seen like a big accomplishment, but only the author should know about the 100,000 words that it started off with, the 40,000 words that got changed, the 20,000 words that were added, then the 50,000 words that were ultimately deleted. This is the rewrite process, and you never want to bring in an editor before you have gone through this step. Why have an editor correct sentences and paragraphs you will delete anyway? No - your first few run-throughs are yours alone, changing scenes, characters, and plot arcs all in the name of hammering out a pretty sound story.

Cut out the fat. I don't remember the author, but some famous writer said that the difference between a good book and a great book is that the great one is shorter. The general meaning of this is that a writer should dedicate one read-through to cutting out unnecessary words, sentences, descriptions, and even sections. This may sound brutal, and it is, but it forces the writer to really consider what is important to the story and what was just a fun scene to write. It might be difficult to eliminate beautiful but meaningless descriptions, but it creates a greater focus on the storyline and a more intense experience for the reader. 

Are we ready to hire an editor now? Not quite yet. We have one more step to take - what do we want from the editor? An editor will gladly do a spellcheck and a grammar screening while fixing all our semicolons, but is this all we want? This is our opportunity to have an outside person tell us if our drafting and rewrites paid off. All the questions that came up in the workshops - were they addressed? Did we create the intensity we had hoped for with our brutal cuts? We need to decide if that editor is going to provide us with any feedback, or just polish the work we are already confident in. We need to have a very firm idea of what we need from those outside eyes.

That's when we get an editor.

Monday, October 26, 2020

Writing When Nature Gets In the Way

Fifty-thousand words. That's the minimum requirement for next month's NaNoWriMo competition, and not coincidentally the amount of words necessary for something to be considered a novel. Broken down to daily terms, this means writing about 1,700 words a day, every day, in November (including Thanksgiving). That's quite the challenge, but very doable. In fact, many people have gone on to publish books written in this manner. Many more have completed the writing marathon and grown as writers. But as we are learning here in the Midwest, writing in November is not as easy as it seems.

The end of October is when the days really start getting noticeably shorter. Furthermore, the weather gets colder, the skies stay gray for days on end, more rain, less sun, and the urge to just curl up in a comforter for the next five months. Nature calls for us to hibernate, which is not conducive to writing. NaNoWriMo was established in November in part to take advantage of the bad weather, but that doesn't make it any easier for those of us who want to curl up and go to sleep. So what does a writer do?

Well, as any long-time follower of this blog will know, a part of writing is adapting to situations by creating regular, dependable habits that motivate us to write. I always mention that gin and tonic is a drink that accompanies my writing mode, and scotch on the rocks is there for editing time. This may sound weird (and signal a borderline alcoholic), but it conditions my mind to think as a writer or an editor, and push me toward that goal even when the day might not motivate me. The mere smell of scotch makes me subconsciously want to reach for a red pen. The taste of lime (which is mandatory in a gin and tonic) wakes up creative parts of my brain. These signals are conditioned responses, and they help me move forward when sometimes I need a little boost.

Now, for those people who do not want to explore substance abuse as a part of NaNoWriMo, it might be safer to think about things that associate with comfort and security against the dismal weather of late October and November. If this weather triggers the primal urge to hibernate, perhaps it would help to do some writing wrapped in your favorite comforter, or layered up and cozy on a couch by the fire. This turns elements associated with the bleak days in the Midwest into cues to start writing. After a few writing sessions within the security of your blankets or whatever, the association changes from the need to sleep to the urge to create. 

Of course, there are other senses you can appeal to. As I mentioned, my personal favorite is the sense of smell. Whether it's the aroma of my favorite adult beverage or just the slight hint of airborne dust and ozone when I fire up my laptop, it sets off all the chemical impulses necessary to turn my brain toward the creative side. For NaNoWriMo, I know some people who incorporate pumpkin spice into their coffee, etc., as part of their writing process in order to associate the season with writing. Say what you will about pumpkin spice, but if it can be used as a motivator for writing, I say bring it on!

I hope that you readers try the NaNoWriMo challenge, either formally or otherwise, in order to stretch your writing muscles. If not, at the very least I hope you use November as an opportunity to develop your habits and condition yourself to write more regularly, all while developing the capacity to get through those times when the short, cold days are leaving you uninspired and the weather has you thinking about a nap rather than some writing. I say this because if you think November can be kind of blah, well, you really won't like winter.

Friday, October 23, 2020

NaNoWriMo - Let the Writing Begin!

Over the past twenty years, November has become the unofficial National Writing Month thanks entirely to the event called NaNoWriMo - National Novel Writing Month. For those unfamiliar with this, it is not how to write a novel in thirty days, but it is a great way to challenge one's self to write regularly, consistently, and toward a goal. A number of NaNoWriMo manuscripts have become books, but many more have not. However, all of them have taught the writer something about their own process and just what they need to work on.


To offer a little more detail, the NaNoWriMo competition is a challenge to write a story of at least 50,000 words over the course of November - the length required to qualify as a novel. The rules and regulations for this event are on the NaNoWriMo website, but it is just as easy to start writing and hold yourself accountable for all those words over the course of November. Working through the website offers encouragement, tips and tricks for self-motivation, and a community of people going through similar trials. However, any writer's workshop or like-minded group of future authors will do in a fix. The important part during the event is to always be writing, and the key beforehand is to prepare yourself for what you are getting into.

As far as preparations go, this part of October is the ideal time to get ready to write the big story, and it doesn't take a lot to do this. Official NaNoWriMo rules say no writing any part of the narrative before November 1, but the writer can take notes, map plot arcs, and sketch character profiles beforehand. This is the important part, because we can use the tools discussed in different posts on this blog to set the stage for our story. Once those are defined, the writing part becomes that much easier.

Let's ask ourselves a few simple questions about our story before we decide to write it. Here's a simple one: What is the story about? This can be one sentence, broadly drawn and open to interpretation. A boy growing up in rural Kansas and learning the hard truths of life. Boom! Step completed. That's all we need to do - set the stage. This tells us our main character, our setting, and the challenges that lie ahead.

Now we drill a little deeper and ask for more details. What is the conflict facing the character? What event sets them on the hero's journey? Is their journey forced upon them or do they choose to go on? Let's look at our boy in Kansas. If he is challenged by the threat that his parents have come upon hard times and might have to pack up and move to Topeka, that's an external challenge. However, if his friends are starting to move to other towns and our hero decides to expand his horizons and see more of the world to keep them close, that's an internal decision. In either case, we see how this creates conflict - change in the boy's life forces him to make a choice, and deal with the repercussions of that choice.

As these ideas come together in your head, the big step is to consider what obstacles might be in the way for our hero. With our boy from Kansas, does he have controlling parents who would prefer he never left their side, or perhaps they rely on him for emotional support? Is he scared of the world outside his hometown, perhaps due to bad experiences that left scars on him that he needs to overcome? Depending on his age, a simple obstacle to leaving town might be his need to get a car (or a bike), which can be an adventure in itself. Real heroes have to overcome things, so think of some things that would hinder our hero.

I'll offer one last hint, and that is regarding the ending. It is best to have one in mind, but give yourself the latitude to change it as the end of the story approaches. As we write our hero's journey, we will also discover things we may not have felt or noticed in the beginning, and it could change how the story should wrap up. Don't hold yourself to one ending if it starts to feel like the wrong ending. Sometimes we realize the main character does have to die in the end, or they do not get the girl and live happily ever after. This is okay, especially for a first draft. Allow it to happen - you can rewrite it after the story is finished.

Now get ready to do some writing!

Monday, October 19, 2020

A Writer's Note About Editing

 I recently had the opportunity to be a beta reader for a novel that I expect will be published next year. As a beta reader for this particular task, my job is to read the manuscript and address a list of questions submitted by the author. Did the events flow naturally? Were the following characters believable or necessary? Did that big twist in chapter 12 catch you off-guard? And so on. I will tell you that my job as a beta reader has many good parts and gives me wonderful opportunities to think and grow as a writer while examining other works. However, there is one very difficult part: I can’t be an editor.

As an author, this is torture.

While the main duty of any writer is to write, there are plenty of separate tasks that come with it, and some are more difficult than others. One of the big tasks is to be an editor – to make a written work better. The editor hat is a very important one to wear, as it carries many responsibilities under its brim. However, as important as it is, there comes a time when we need to take off that hat for the sake of our writing.

I have discussed the importance of editing before, so I will just briefly go over some of the points authors need to consider when they are editing. The process of editing starts from the big-sky view of the work, making sure it is readable and presented in a structure and manner that a reader can easily digest. It then narrows in to the next stage, where characters, plot, and motive are studied to make sure things flow organically. Then the magnifying glass comes out and we hit the last stage, checking spelling, grammar, punctuation, and other things that enter the realm of proofreading. As a writer, we should eventually become fluent in all these processes, but more to the point, we should know when we need to turn them off and just write.

In this regard, I am pretty bad, and I advise people to not follow that part of my process when they create their first drafts. My first drafts have perfect spelling, the semicolons are placed with precision, and my use of the subjunctive is near flawless. This may sound helpful, but the first draft should just be about creating a story, and that’s what I try to tell people. First, write down the story, then spell it right on a third or fourth pass. No publisher will, or ever should, read a first draft, so don’t worry about what it looks like. A lot of time can be wasted in a first draft making sure the commas are just right when the entire paragraph will probably be rewritten anyway.

This is where beta reading can be difficult for a writer such as myself. Beta reading should be an approach from the second pass – a study of what the story is presenting, how the characters develop, the progression of the plot, tension, conflict, suspense, and so on. Again – the spelling doesn’t matter. The Oxford comma is not important. Subject/verb agreement can be set aside. This second pass is really where a critical reader earns their paycheck, because this will make or break the story. A natural proofreader such as myself is not very useful here unless I can put away that hat and just be an engaged reader.

As National Writing month approaches (more on that in the next post), I think it’s important to think about how we can improve our processes and make sure when we are writing we are not editing. We can write new content while we edit, but when we are trying to create something, we set aside our editing hat and just be writers for the moment. It’s a lot to ask of someone, but it will pay handsome dividends, especially during National Writing month. 

(And yes, I will try to fix my own process as well.)


Friday, October 16, 2020

Author's Note: Public Relations

On October 24th, the Book Market in Crest Hill is hosting a book signing, and I will be selling and signing copies of my novel, The Book of Cain, along with a few anthologies I have contributed to. These are always enjoyable events, and I definitely like getting a chance to meet readers and talk about what their interest are and so forth. Signing autographs is also cool, but it’s so much more interesting to speak with my fellow humans.

When I do these book signings, I get the usual set of questions: What do I like to write? Which authors do I follow? What got me started as a writer? All of these are good questions and I have answered many of them somewhere during the history of this blog. However, one question that came up at a recent signing caught me off-guard, and I decided it was worth writing about. It was a simple question, but it had a lot of gravity in it:

“Are book signings really necessary?”

The answer, in short, is yes. But this brings up a bigger subject: Public Relations (PR). I know a lot of people who toiled for years to create the perfect novel, and only after it was finished did they start thinking about how they were going to promote it. This is a common mistake – and also a rite of passage – and writers have to realize that not only do they need to work on PR with the same kind of passion as writing, but unless they sign with a publicist, PR is largely their own responsibility.

(Note: This is only important to the writer who wants to get published and build up a career as a writer. For those people who just want to work on their process and develop their skills, PR does not have to be too high on their list.)

Now, the whole public relations game is not as difficult as it sounds in its first stages. The most important part about the PR game is just meeting other writers – networking with anyone any everyone who is interested in writing – and you can do this before you’ve finished a manuscript. Most local libraries have writing groups or workshops that take all comers, and many have programs for local writers. Community centers often have similar programs, along with local bookstores and coffee shops. Once you start looking through community sources, you will be surprised at how many resources are available for networking.

As your network grows, you will start hearing about chances to present smaller works – character sketches, poems, short stories – in a public forum. Take these chances. This takes you from being just someone in a writers’ group to that person who did that great piece the other day, and it is a huge boost to your confidence. As people start seeing you as a writer, you start seeing yourself as a writer as well. More importantly, you can reference those works you’ve presented as good examples of your work. In short, people start connecting you with your writing. At that point, when you eventually say you have a book coming out, your built-in audience is ready to snap it up and recommend it to others as well.

It should not be surprising when I say this takes a long time, but that’s the important part – since it takes a while, it’s important to do this while you are working on your process, voice, and style. The people you meet and the feedback you can get from them will help you grow as a writer, and your network will become just as important to your development as any study group or workshop.

Now, for those of you who are thinking this is a lot of work, well, it is. As regular readers will know, public speaking is not my favorite thing, and I am not a social butterfly when it comes to building a network. However, I do it because it is part of the hard work that comes with a career as a published author. It is uncomfortable at times, nerve-wracking, and even makes my hands shake (which does not help when I am signing books). And through all that, I know it builds my network a little bit more each time. If you don’t believe me, come to the Book Market in Crest Hill between 2-4 pm on October 24th and see just how I manage it.

And we can talk about writing too, if you want.

Friday, September 11, 2020

Writing and the Unwilling Hero

 As the last post was a discussion about heroes (yes, I took Labor Day off), I thought it would be appropriate to make today a special discussion about a certain kind of hero writers can explore – the unwilling hero. My last entry hinted that a hero is often a reluctant role, where the main character doesn’t always jump to the call to adventure, and only takes it step by step, not racing along the path to heroism. Today we talk about those who would hear the call to adventure and curl up under their blankets. Adventure of this order is not their thing – until the blankets get pulled away.

Today in particular, I think about a clear blue sky nineteen years ago, a beautiful morning full of promise and not the slightest hint of what was about to happen. Did anyone going to work that morning thinking that particular September 11th would be etched into history? Doubtful. Rather, disaster came to them whether they were prepared or not. Many people changed from just employees going through another Tuesday at work to someone evacuating their office, applying first aid to someone they’ve never even met, perhaps even pulling someone out of harm’s way at the last moment. They became heroes without even knowing it.

The unwilling hero is not, by their nature, a selfish character. The unwilling hero is someone who is minding their own business when the call to adventure is forced upon them. As the saying goes, some heroes march off to war, others are drafted – but both are heroes nevertheless. This is a more dramatic version of the hero’s journey, as it pushes them onto an adventure they do not want to take. In this regard, there should be internal conflict as well as whatever external forces move them along. There should be the “I want to go home” urge fighting with them, the impulse for flight rather than fight. 

The journey of the unwilling hero becomes two stories – the external conflict forcing them along and the growth of the hero into someone who can accept what has happened. These are unusual heroes in that their growth is, at first, not instinctive. They are not the noble first responders running toward trouble while others run away – they are very much among the crowd running away. It is an outside force that trips them up, sends them into harm’s way. As they try to escape, they discover the path toward heroism. They can choose to run away, but in true hero form, they take that one step toward a new direction. 

The most difficult part of writing the unwilling hero is eventually giving the protagonist a reasonable choice. The hero’s journey is a path, not a railroad track, and at some point, they have to make the decision to answer that call and take the step they may never have dreamed possible early in the story. People drafted into the military are forced along this railroad path for a while, but eventually they get that choice to hide or fight, to take cover or risk everything for their buddies, and they find their moment of heroism. This is what makes this hero type such a satisfying character to read – their growth arc is clear and distinct, and its completion resonates with the reader.

Today we remember not just all those who died nineteen years ago, but also those who became heroes and changed of the world for the better – often losing their life in the process. As people, we should never forget these heroes. As writers, we should commemorate them with our words.


Friday, September 4, 2020

How To Write A Hero

When I was a kid, I would get together with my friends and play Cops and Robbers, or Army, or some other Us and Them game, and guess what? Everyone wanted to be the good guy. Being the villain sucked.  We all love heroes. That’s just how people roll – we are drawn to people who take on the big challenge, defying insurmountable odds in pursuit of some goal that we can all agree is the best alternative. Look at the popularity of comic books (not to mention the staggering success of all the Marvel movies) and its easy to see how the love of heroes knows no bounds.

Writing a hero is easy – the tough part is creating a hero.

Heroes all start somewhere – this is often referred to as “the origin story” – where the person rises to the occasion they are presented. This is critical to the story because the reader should be able to relate to the character before they become a hero. This way, the reader associates themselves with this average character, then as the story takes that person on the hero’s journey, the reader takes that journey as well. In a way, the reader feels as if they are able to grow in much the same way. The more the reader connects to that character before the journey begins, the more they will enjoy the adventure.

It’s easy to think that everyone wants to be a hero, but there are challenges that show up immediately. So let’s look at some of the things that the average character should have to experience to make them connect with the reader. These may not seem obvious, but once we discuss them a little, we see why they are important elements in our character’s growth.

Change. As much as we might think our life is boring or non-heroic, the familiarity is comforting. People are creatures of routine, and readers can relate to that. So what happens if the character living his simple life is suddenly prompted to go to Kuala Lumpur (often referred to as the "Call to Action")? Well, after they look it up on Wikipedia, they might be hesitant to just up and travel across the globe. It’s a different world entirely, unfamiliar in every regard. This is when the character chooses to break away from the ordinary and take on a new experience – possibly very reluctantly – in the name of adventure. This is when the hero starts forming.

Resistance. Whenever we face a challenge, it’s easy to avoid it through simple excuses. We resist change naturally. In the Kuala Lumpur example, would the first response be, “Well, who would water my plants?” “I really should stay close to home,” or “Could I just go to Cleveland instead?” This reluctance is felt by most everyone, and overcoming this resistance is another thing that makes a hero. 

That first step. Think of the first time you took a bold step into the unknown – going to a new school, taking a new job, asking someone on a date. Maybe those moments seem fairly mundane in hindsight, but when we explore the moment as it happened, we can find the moments that made us brave – even if we did not realize it in the first place. Showing the reader those little elements – the tension, the nervousness, the tightness in our chest as we tried to look relaxed and in the moment – and the reader will feel those moments in themselves. They will engage with the character that much more; they will find parts of themselves in that character, and they will turn the pages trying to discover more common points.

There is no one defined path to becoming the hero. Our character may very well become the hero the reader wants yet still feel he is not the person he should be. The person they ultimately become may not be the person they set out to be. Sometimes, the truest sign of a hero is realizing all of his faults and deciding to be a better person. There are a lot of ways for the hero to exist, but the origin story should always carry the same elements. Then we can write a story with a character the reader is attached to – let the adventure begin!


Monday, August 24, 2020

Little Big Words

 Ever read Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep? Classic hard-boiled detective genre from the 1930s. A good read, but not necessarily for everyone. However, that’s not the point. If you were given a choice, would you read a book called The Big Sleep, or a book called The Sleep? Let’s face it – you would read The Big Sleep for one reason alone – it’s bigger. The promise is in the label. This is something we need to consider when we write.

When we create our worlds and all the elements, it’s obviously important to make it feel detailed, practical, graspable – it needs to be a real world. However, with the art of writing, the world needs to draw the reader toward the little details that move the plot. In a movie, this might be done with a trick of lighting to showcase a particular item. In video games, special items stand out or shimmer against the scenery. In writing, it is not as easy, so we do it with little words. Little words that carry big weight.

Like The Big Sleep, the draw is created by "Big." It creates questions in the mind: What makes that sleep so big? Can sleep be big or small? Is it a reference to something else? (it is) Indeed, the unusual description sets off the entire meaning. It helps that it’s in the title, but that’s not the point.

Let’s take a look at a random character, not from any particular book. She is a brunette, wearing sunglasses, a big blue sun hat, a blouse to match, and jeans, sitting outside Starbucks enjoying her morning coffee. This description is a basic write-up, but it packages up a couple of things within this sentence. 

First, all of this simplicity is disrupted by a big blue sun hat. We don’t know details about whether the jeans are acid-wash or dark denim, the sunglasses are mirrored, or really anything about the hair style, but there’s that hat. Also, the blouse goes with it, so the writer has in turn tied importance to this. I would wager that in your personal image of this scene, the sun is now out, and you have a very vivid image of this woman. We created this image with a few strategically placed descriptors, not worrying about the color of the jeans, the kind of coffee, or whether she’s even wearing shoes.

Using this kind of description can be controversial. It is considered minimalist, and often is alluded to as white-room writing, where a scene feels blank without descriptors. However, there is a difference between minimal and precision. Minimal is barely any description. Precision, as mentioned earlier, is focusing on the one element that drives the story. If our coffee-drinking lady above suddenly loses her hat in the breeze, and it rolls along the street, between the morning commuters, the reader can better feel the situation and the author can play on that connection. The big sunhat can fly past the charcoal- and grey-suited commuters, who only see a flash of blue rushing along the sidewalk, heading for a stagnant puddle in the alley. The reader now cares about the hat and its perilous situation because they identify it in their mind, they connect with it as a part of the story, and care more about it than the woman, her coffee, or her ambiguous shoe situation.

The beauty of this writing style is that its distinct focus guides along the reader without them knowing it. They follow the story from the leads they've been given, and they tend to not worry about the trappings around them when they are not necessary. They just want to know if the big blue hat went into the puddle, and the resolution of the hat's fate is a satisfying conclusion to the story, even if description is lacking.

(Don't worry - the hat is fine.)

The next post will add another element to the art of description - mood. Our big blue sun hat is not safe yet...

Monday, August 17, 2020

More About Writer's Block... or Whatever it is

The debate about the existence of writer’s block may go on forever – and I know some people who will eternally defend their side of the argument. Some say it doesn’t exist, while other people insist it’s as real as anything they’ve written. The answer, however, doesn’t matter when… whatever it is takes over. As far as I am concerned, all that is important is the moment when I want to write and no words come forth. When my urge to create is stifled by… whatever it is, that’s when I need help. That’s when I need the cure.

In a past article, I mentioned how… whatever it is can come from being hung up about writing – either nothing to write, too much in your head, or the uncertainty of whether or not something is worth writing. That article focused on how the intimacies and internal processes of writing can get us hung up. This article is about the externalities that get in our way. Apparently, the world does stuff other than contribute to a writer’s life, and often it tries to take away from our capacity to create.

Take me for example. I have been particularly industrious lately, focusing a lot of energy into a bunch of projects. Between putting in several miles of walking every day along with other exercise and a wildly varied schedule, I am achy, a little sore, and honestly, exhausted. When I get home I feel the tightness in my back a little more, and it’s easier to think about wrapping up my last few responsibilities then taking a nap. It doesn’t seem like there’s time for writing, and my mind isn’t exactly in a creative place. It’s focused on recovery. Writing is not on my mind. It’s just not the right time – or so I think.

Actually, this is a good time for writing, just not in the usual manner. As I look at my screen right now, I get myself to write not by forgetting about my aches and pains, but by writing about them. In my mind, I think of the red serpent that is one of my neck muscles, slithering up my spine and biting on that nerve that sets off that tingling numbness in my fingertips. I envision the ropy knots in my back and the scraping bones that are my knees, and write about how they look in my mind. My wobbly body and sore muscles become my studies, not that I will write an epic tale or a grand story of recovery. I just use them to get my fingers typing and the writing process flowing. My case of… whatever it is fades.

As all of this pain becomes my writing, it can also prove therapeutic. Putting on some liniment for the evening is a wonderful feeling to write about. The mentholated chill soothing my neck could be a wonderful poem, but as I describe the sensation, it also helps me recognize the pain fading away. As I write about things, I notice them more intensely, and feel myself loosen up. As I stretch my legs, I become more tuned in to the tension flowing out. I actually start to feel better.

Does this sound kind of holistic? Possibly. However, as writers, when we write about something, we engage with it. We concentrate on it. Our mind explores the subject, discovering the details that others might never engage in, and we don’t think about the problem of… whatever it is.

Think about when a writer people-watches, studying the faces and behaviors around them. The slightest details come into full focus, how someone constantly touches their chin or says, “Well,” all the time, or how they rub their fingertips when they think. When a writer applies this technique to their own self, things become more vivid. And then we write about it.

I’ll admit it – I am still achy. There’s only so much magic that can come from typing, and I will need to use some proven ways to get rid of my soreness. However, despite an exhausting day, I wrote my commentary and felt good about what I have created. As a writer, that’s another technique I use to get past the… whatever it is.


Friday, July 24, 2020

Writing Workshop Contributions

Before diving into the third and possibly final piece about workshops, I would again like to remind people that these are, in fact, my personal takes on the process behind workshops, dredged up from my own experience base. Some messages people have thrown my way on FaceBook and via email have been quite enlightening, and have offered the opportunity for me to learn and grow from them. Other comments, well... maybe it is safest to say that those comments remind me of why it is important to be civil these days.

Now that we have gone over what a workshop should and shouldn't have in order to help a writer grow, this last discussion point is what you should bring to any workshop. This one can be particularly difficult at first, especially considering how exposed and vulnerable we may (and should) feel going in. It's very easy to insist that the first time we attend a new group, we sit back and try to get used to the flow of the other writers before diving into the main current. This has its merits, but this makes it easy to stay away from actually getting involved. Rather, I recommend the following, to be applied with as much or as little zeal necessary to feel comfortable.

Participate. Sometimes, just offering the slightest engagement with another writer can be an amazing relief. Just for a second, put yourself in the shoes of the other writer who contributes a piece, reads it, then the moderator asks for reviews and... silence. That silence is deadly. Seriously, writers die in that void of response. But if one person opens up with a simple statement such as, "I enjoyed the line about..." or "You described the character well..." then things can open up. Even if it's not a compliment, such as, "I was distracted between the mixed use of past and present tense," it gets things rolling. As long as your comment targets some aspect of the writing, you become engaged with the writer, and by that, with the group.

Be positive, constructive, or inquisitive. While past posts have discussed how other workshops can help and what doesn't help, becoming the embodiment of those features is another story. We will hear pieces that are poorly written, presented by people we do not get along with, or about subjects that set us off. This is where it gets difficult, but it is our job - duty, even - to push forward with something that can lift up our fellow writer. And if we can't bring ourselves to do this (which does happen), we can at least pose a question about some feature that stood out for better or worse. "Did you intend for this to be happy or tragic?" "Is this fiction or based on a true story?" "How do you want readers to respond to this piece?" Hopefully, the inquisitive approach can at least get some discussion flowing, and maybe reveal some aspect that helps you as a writer.

Wear their shoes. The rule to remember for all workshops and life in general is to take a moment and consider what it would be like to be on the other side of what you are about to do. If a political piece is setting you off, think about being a person who is about to be attacked for their beliefs when all they wanted to do was write. Worse yet, think about being another person in the workshop who wants to read a children's story but has to wait while two people start fighting about politics. It's rarely fun and it's never fair, so do you best to consider just how you would feel.

Hopefully, in the next few months more workshops will open up again and writers will start to gather in whatever capacity possible. And as they do, we should remember that they all carry a set of desires common among all writers - to create, to improve, and to be heard. In any workshop we should respect those desires in others, and also be respected in similar fashion. If we can find and apply those traits in a workshop, I guarantee it will be a positive experience.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Writer Workshop Warnings

Last week, I discussed some of the features that should be part of any writer's workshop. In short, they should be places where the writer can be open with their work and receive input that helps them build their craft. There are plenty of other aspects for good workshops, and many blogs post their own top ten lists (or fifteen or twenty or whatever). Individuals ultimately have to find those qualities that help them grow, and pursue those groups and writers. However, the flip-side of this is the idea of bad traits of writer workshops, and this is a far more complex discussion.

The difficult part about workshops with bad qualities is that the workshop can be good, but too often a negative trait becomes an undercurrent of an otherwise positive experience. In the cases where bad habits dominate, it's easy to just walk away. More often than not, however, it becomes a task like pulling weeds from the garden before they strangle the growth out of the other plants. Sometimes it's easiest to treat these negative elements as isolated situations, but other times we need to check and see if they are isolated, or if they quietly infiltrate the underpinnings of the group itself.

These are just my notes, and subject to criticism and counterargument. I would even offer you to take the opportunity and mention a few other qualities in the comments section, so everyone (including myself) can learn from them.

There is no I in workshop. Let me offer an example to explain this point. A few years ago, I brought a piece to review about the passing of my father. He had died several years earlier, so this was a reflective piece rather than something processing immediate grief. Anyway, I read the piece, then let the critiques come in. The first person mentioned how it reminded them of when their mother passed away. The next person talked about losing their brother. A few other people talked about recent losses, and everyone had a heartfelt conversation. In the end, however, nobody had actually talked about my writing, and I was offered nothing to improve my piece, which is kind of what I was going for.

Don't get me wrong - if someone's piece evokes personal memories, that's a sign of good writing. However, the focus should remain on that person's writing, and not wander toward group therapy. Personal reflections are fine, as long as the feedback ultimately discusses the work at hand. And every group may have a little drift toward the personal now and then, but the important part is that the group does not live in that area of self-interest. Otherwise, this is not a workshop, it is a group of people who would rather tell their story than critique yours. 

Opinion has its limits. This one is tricky, so hold on. In these days of partisan politics and strong personal opinions, one of the most difficult things to do is to critique a work based on its own merits rather than whether we agree with it. This can be daunting when someone writes a political or philosophical piece that goes against everything we believe in. We get this uncontrollable urge - triggered, as the kids say these days - to point out how an opinion is wrong, and invariably arguments start. Sometimes they don't stop.

If a workshop tends to go after content rather than writing, be careful. Having opinions is fine, and they should be safe in a writer's workshop. If the group is about Philosophy or PoliSci 101, that's different. Writing should be the emphasis regardless of subject, and groups that drift away from that with regularity might not be the most productive.

The next post will be about things you can bring to a workshop that can cure some of these pitfalls.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Signs of A Good Writing Workshop

Prior to all the changes from this year's COVID crisis, I was a regular attendee of several writing workshops, as well as the facilitator of my own. This may sound like overkill, but on average, it worked out to spending a couple of nights a week dedicating myself to what I love. Honestly, is that too much time to spend improving one's self? Maybe, maybe not. Fortunately, my schedule allowed for it and my will to improve drove me to this length to achieve such an end. I think this gives me enough experience to share why workshops are so important to developing ourselves as writers, and to offer what I find valuable enough to dedicate two nights a week to doing.

First, let's be clear. Not all workshops are great. Some may even be grating. I have been to bad ones, and I have no compunction about dropping them from my routine. This is not a judgment based on what they said about my writing but about how they went about the business of helping writers grow, and I stick by it. For the groups I still go to, I promise that these groups uphold a set of standards that allows writers of all kinds to flourish. Here are some of the important ones:

A safe place: More power to the writer who can be open about their feelings and place them on a page to be shared with acquaintances and yes, even strangers. Ask anyone who has attended group therapy or an AA meeting, and they will explain to you that their openness is directly connected to a feeling that they are protected from attack and more importantly from judgment. This kind of environment is conducive to the young writer exploring feelings with more depth and touching upon sensitive truths that are the hallmarks of quality storytelling. If the members of a workshop do not give you that sense that you can reveal yourself as a writer, maybe another group might be better.

This is not to say that there won't be criticism. The difference is that judgment is an external proclamation of right or wrong, while criticism is (at the best of times) the expression of a differing but equal opinion. A good, safe workshop should be one that despises judgment but values criticism. Consider the difference between someone saying, "That was wrong," (judgment) versus "I didn't connect with it" (opinion). Except when it comes to rules of grammar and punctuation, writing is never wrong. People, however, can express disagreement and even why they did not connect. As long as that opinion is not held above the writer, and the discussion is constructive, the result is better writing (and possibly a more astute reader as well).

A place of growth: A workshop is a place of building and rebuilding, and the literary workshop is no different. The mindset of the group should always be one of, "What can I gain from this session?" and/or "What can I offer to those looking for help?" Being positive is always beneficial, but that doesn't mean complimenting a train wreck. Rather, there is always benefit in offering a few notes on story structure, description, character consistency, etc., to help flesh out weaknesses. I talk (sometimes too much) about the art of description, sometimes as a way to note how someone needs more in their writing. This way they not only think about making their writing better, but being a better writer. In this, there is growth.

Now, in these days of COVID, writing workshops are fewer and those that are still active have gone virtual.  They still carry the same rules as above, but some of their weaknesses have shown up as well. Monday I will discuss some of the things to avoid when participating in a workshop, and some of the workshops to avoid.

Monday, July 13, 2020

Writing A Story Instead of A World

I took a little personal inventory this morning to prove a simple point. As I woke up, I noted how many things in my routine were different now that I lived in the COVID world. It was kind of depressing - I noted three things of substance that had changed before I had even made lunch, and that's not to mention all the little details that come with it. The news is thick with updates, while the sports page has almost vanished. Catching up with old friends now means finding out if they're safe and how stupid people might affect their lives. And of course, the ever-present mental note to have a nice clean mask next to the car keys so I always leave with both.

This is the world we live in and there's no denying it. However, how would we write about this world and make it believable? Would we include everything, creating a full and complete world that may seem totally alien to the reader, or do we just try and salt in the necessary details in order to remind our reader that they are not in Kansas anymore?  This is a very difficult balancing act to write about a new reality based on a bizarre version of where we once lived, so let's take it piece by piece.

In the P. D. James novel, The Children of Men, he writes a story where in the near future, people are no longer capable of having children. This fascinating concept immediately spawns a lot of ideas about how life would change - what happens to schools and teachers? How does depopulation affect the economy? What are the social impacts on a world that no longer has the joy of children or hope for the future? The mind reels with possibilities, and the book could've spent hundreds of pages just exploring those ideas. However, then it wouldn't be a book, it would be a pretty boring exploration of an alternate world without much story to go on.

Rather, James focuses on one character and one story line, isolating the fascinating alternate world to the senses of one man - Theo - and his struggles with life. His line of thinking becomes the reality, and all the different aspects of this new world become just details that fill in the life around him. James narrows the field of view and doesn't tell the story about the world. He tells Theo's story within the world.

Now let's look at my little COVID world. If I wrote a story about my day, I could spend all the time talking about the news, the phone calls I made that became wellness checkups on all those getting ill around us, and the regular "where's my mask" update. However, there's no story there. That's a person wandering through life. In the end, the story would still be a day where I needed to make a trip to a store to get a few pieces for my bicycle, and all the preparations I needed to go through and work around just to get the part that allowed me to go and ride away from people so I didn't have to wear my mask and for an hour I could feel like I was again in a normal world.

When we write about new and fascinating worlds, whether they be fantasy, sci-fi, dystopia or wherever, we need to remind ourselves that the world is not the story and shouldn't overwhelm the simple fact that a story is what the reader should be tied into. The adventure of our character through whatever world we create should be the focus, no matter how incredible the world may be. Readers will follow characters, and the world fills in the amazing sights and sounds around them.

Friday, July 10, 2020

Beyond Vanilla Words

Back in my days as an economist, my writing habits were - to put it simply - economical. Whatever we wrote would serve many purposes. Our policy was that any work should be used at least three times. A market piece would become an editorial or a commentary, and later feed into a report. A report to satisfy the regulators would also go to our counterparty managers, then to our subcustodian network people. As boring as this sounds, it meant getting as much mileage out of our work as possible. We should do that with the way we write as well.

Let's look at a simple sentence starting off a story: "I entered a dark room." The information going forward is basic: There's a room, it is dark, and I am now in it. A pretty vanilla sentence - not even French vanilla. Enough information to move forward, but there's not a lot of flavor in this ice cream, is there? The words don't have the power to carry forth any more interest than just what is there. They lack the oomph factor, so to speak, that makes writing stand out. Little tweaks can give it some oomph.

We'll start with the verb - "entered." Very vanilla. Just a plain old verb getting us into the room, and maybe that's enough. However, can we get more work out of it. First, is there information to be added that can help express the mood? Action stories might prefer something more aggressive such as "leapt," "ran," or "burst" to get the blood flowing, or "crept," "sneaked," or "eased" to build tension.

To be fair, "entered" might still be the verb of choice and that's not bad because it explains the action. We should then consider whether to use an adverb (which modifies the verb) to inform about the character's motives or intention. By entering the room eagerly, cautiously, or hesitantly, the description gives us a hint about the character's approach to this dark room. By adding one word, we create a whole new dimension, and "I bravely entered the dark room" tells us not just about the action but perhaps the person, and possibly about the room as well.

Oh yeah - the room. It's dark. Another very vanilla word that might just be enough to do the job, but let's explore, shall we? Dark is a common adjective (describing the noun), so we could do the same tricks we did with the adverbs. However, metaphors and simile might also be used, and again, maybe to go beyond just showing how dark the room is.

"I entered a room dark as a crypt." Well now we've shifted the mood by incorporating ideas of tombs and crypts, and a little intensity sneaks in. Keep in mind that this may ruin a fast-paced action piece - remember our adjectives? "I leapt into a room dark as a crypt" throws some mixed mood around, while "I cautiously sneaked into a room dark as a crypt" really tightens the focus to the mood. And don't forget to hone in on the character if possible. "I cautiously sneaked in a room as dark as my heart." Holy crap, that tells us something about the character that changes our opinion about him and what he might be doing sneaking around that dark room.

This kind of writing is economical in that not a lot of words are used, but we really escape from that vanilla range. Some call it economical, but I prefer high-powered because that's what the story becomes as your writing gains this quality. And hopefully, you will be writing more than reports for some executive VP - but it works with those too.

Monday, July 6, 2020

How Verbs Make or Break the Story

I have a friend whose every life event becomes a story. She can go to the store and come back with a ten-minute tale just about the produce section. These sweeping yarns have all the hype and energy you would want from a good edge-of-your-seat thriller, but the problem is that there isn't really any story underneath. For all the talk, the story ends with the purchase of two pounds of broccoli and little else, which is about as much of a letdown as, well, two pounds of broccoli.

This kind of oversell is not uncommon, especially with my friend (fortunately, she does not read this blog, so she'll never know.) As storytellers, it is our responsibility to provide the kind of story we are trying to sell, and not make it more than it is. This is called excessive drama, and I think we can all agree that these days we could all use a little less drama in our lives.

Don't get me wrong - I could tell a story about the time I got two pounds of broccoli that would be quite amusing and you would enjoy those ten minutes. However, it would carry the voice, tone, and mood that matched what the story had to offer, and not try to oversell with a bunch of unnecessary dramatics. Within the realm of storytelling, nothing can do a greater injustice to our story than the wrong verbs.

As a refresher, a verb relates to action - what is happening in the sentence. The most boring verb around is the verb "to be," which is most often used with terms like "I am walking," "They are walking," "You were walking" and so on. The people are all walking, but the verb is am/are/were (all forms of "to be"). This is like saying that people existed - boring already. Use of this is called the passive voice, and is a big no-no in writing. There are plenty of articles explaining the details, so I will let Google explain that while I explain a little about mood verbs.

So let's say my story starts with me going to the store. I won't say "I was walking to the store" because that "was" makes it boring. I can instead say, "I walked to the store." However, let's think if "walked" is even necessary. This provides information. I didn't drive, or cycle, or run - I walked. At this point I should ask myself whether my form of transportation to the store important? If I walked, then bought thirty pounds of stuff and had to lug them back two miles in those crappy plastic bags, walking is important. Maybe as I shop, I think about carrying stuff back. However, if my transportation isn't important, why burden the reader with excessive information?

"I went to the store." Ta-da! I am at the store without concerning the reader about unnecessary stuff. I can save the important verbs for the parts of the story that matter. In fact, if I use the interesting verbs exclusively for the dramatic parts of the story, the reader subconsciously collects this information and focuses on the most important elements. They become engaged with the story, and, as I have said many times in this space, engaging the reader is the most important responsibility of any writer.

Being overdramatic is the flip-side of verb use. "I put on my walking shoes and rushed to the store," would pack on the details, information, and active verbs, but if none of that is important to the story, it creates a false sense of urgency - drama - that ultimately disappoints the reader. They become burdened with every little point and the story - no matter how interesting it may be - gets lost in the writing.

Try examining a story that really draws you in, and see how the verb use works. You might be surprised to see just how cleverly they are used. And someday when I write the broccoli story, you will realize just how funny it was.