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.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Some Light Holiday Reading

As writers, we have made an unofficial commitment to the written word and its power. Whether we know it or not, everything we create contributes in some way to us becoming better writers and giving our words more persuasiveness. This is a wonderful talent but also a responsibility, and one that we should use with care.

In recognizing just how much power the written word has, I offer this written piece that we should all become familiar with. Every year we celebrate what it did, but sometimes it helps for us to actually sit down and read the words. We need to see what people created not just with the force of their wills and the depth of their beliefs, but with the talent of the written word.

I will be taking off Friday, so I leave you with this fine piece of writing that has lasted through the ages. Read it, soak in its meaning, and look toward the day when your writing might move the world.

* * *

IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.

He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.

He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.

He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.

He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.

He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.

He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.

He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:

For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:

For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:

For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:

For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:

For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences

For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:

For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:

For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.

He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

Button Gwinnett, Lyman Hall, George Walton, William Hooper, Joseph Hewes, John Penn, Edward Rutledge, Thomas Heyward, Jr., Thomas Lynch, Jr., Arthur Middleton, John Hancock, Samuel Chase, William Paca, Thomas Stone, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, George Wythe, Richard Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Harrison, Thomas Nelson, Jr., Francis Lightfoot Lee, Carter Braxton, Robert Morris, Benjamin Rush, Benjamin Franklin, John Morton, George Clymer, James Smith, George Taylor, James Wilson, George Ross, Caesar Rodney, George Read, Thomas McKean, William Floyd, Philip Livingston, Francis Lewis, Lewis Morris, Richard Stockton, John Witherspoon, Francis Hopkinson, John Hart, Abraham Clark, Josiah Bartlett, William Whipple, Samuel Adams, John Adams, Robert Treat Paine, Elbridge Gerry, Stephen Hopkins, William Ellery, Roger Sherman, Samuel Huntington, William Williams, Oliver Wolcott, Matthew Thornton

Friday, June 26, 2020

Revisiting How We Stage Our Writing

I've been doing a lot of discussion about the details of writing an active sentence, but in a way this talk has violated a basic rule for writers - I should show you, not tell you, the problem and the solution. So on that note I am offering a revisit to a very popular article I presented two years ago that showed the simple way a sentence can work. It also reminds me of the words of Ravina Thakkar, who passed away last year at an all-too-young age of twenty. I hope she inspires you as well!

* * *

I have been sick the past week, so this gave me a great opportunity to do some editing. More importantly, it was a chance to look at some of my writing not as a writer, but as an editor. During the past week on the couch, I edited a 118,000-word manuscript, and it ended up at about 98,000 words. Characters were eliminated, a couple of scenes were consolidated, but most of the 20,000 words I eliminated had more to do with stage management.

As writers, we are not only in charge of creating a world but also making it very real to our readers. In my mind, I can see the characters going about their activities, and I translate that all to the page to share this with the reader. This goes for describing the setting, visualizing the characters, and walking the reader through their actions. But once I do that, I then have to ask myself, "How much of that was necessary?"

The other day I was listening to the author Ravina Thakkar (The Adventure of A Lifetime) talk about her experiences with an editor. She offered a great insight that I think we can all learn from. She said, "I wrote a five-page description of a classroom, and then realized everyone already knew what a classroom looked like." This is a very concise way of pointing out that even the best writing might not be necessary. She didn't say her description was bad. Indeed, it might've been incredible. The question was what did it bring to the narrative? If it didn't contribute much, or give the reader something to work with, then it is worth taking up space?

I did a separate post about using description properly and for effect. This post is about how we stage-manage the characters, and what is and isn't necessary with their actions and mannerisms. These can also be very concise, very detailed, and often very unnecessary. And since there are more actions in a story than descriptions, there are more opportunities to tighten up our writing.

Let's take an example from the manuscript I edited from the comfort of my couch:

"Richie went into his bar, walked to the back room, opened his office door, moved to his desk and sat down."

This is the stripped-down version of a simple sentence -- descriptions taken out to get to the point. On the positive side, this does walk us through the entire route Richie takes in going to his office at the bar. It tells us the bar is his, that the office is in the back room, and he has a desk there. We walk his route, we arrive with him at his desk. There is nothing wrong with this sentence.

However, there is very little right with this sentence.

First, the structure. It's a chain of four- and five-word subject-verb-prepositional-phrase statements that reads without any interest. It has a monotonous pace. If we mix up the wording just a little at the beginning, the pacing becomes more interesting. "Richie entered his bar and went directly to the back room..." Now the pacing has changed, and it does not have the drum beat of a boring sentence. That doesn't save us any words, but it makes for a better sentence.

As far as word count goes, Richie takes twenty-one words to get to his office, but how many are necessary? When he enters his office, is it necessary to use two phrases to say he goes to his desk and sits down? Can't he just go sit at his desk? Do we need to talk about him opening the door? If it is important to the plot that the door is closed or open, then yes. Otherwise, most people understand how an office door works and it can be left out. If we know where his office is, do we need to mention that he goes through the back room to get there?  Maybe we can strip it down to taking Richie from A to B:

"Richie went to his bar and settled into his office."

That sentence is half the length and moves the reader along with the same effect. This kind of stage management usually clutters our first drafts, but is easy to filter out once we look at it again and decide how much is really necessary.

On a final note, that sentence can actually say a lot more if the writer draws attention to it. Look at what happens when our example is preceded by some verbal stage-setting:

"The routine never changed. Richie went into his bar, walked to the back room, opened his office door, moved to his desk and sat down."

By pointing out the monotony, the boring sentence structure now helps describe the scene.

This is all part of the joy of editing, but as our writing improves, we start catching these things as we write them.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Important Writing Rules (For Me)

I enjoyed the emails I received in response to the last post. A lot to work with, and a number of passionate discussions. However, the most interesting response was a defense of the quote I used that started with, “It was a dark and stormy night…” Some people enjoyed that opening sentence because it really dedicated itself to establishing the mood in that particular sentence. By reinforcing the stormy London street, the reader feels the moment. I appreciate that sentiment, but maybe I should offer some rules for good writing and show how they disagree with this piece.

Every author has some basic rules for writing. By the time you consider yourself a writer and can admit it in public, you should be able to explain five rules you follow for writing. Here are some of mine (with appreciation to Elmore Leonard), so you can see how they go against that first sentence:

  1. Start with the main character
  2. Know when to use passive voice (rarely) and when to be active (mostly)
  3. Dialogue needs to sound better out loud than on the page
  4. Avoid redundancy
  5. Wishy-washy words like “seemed,” “kind of,” “except,” and “almost” weaken the storytelling
  6. If something isn’t important to the story, don’t spend time with it
  7. Appeal to emotions; let the reader fill in the physical details
  8. Loose ends equal sloppy writing

-- Emphasis added for rules violated by that first sentence.

Let’s see how that sentence violates the rules, starting with rule 1. We can quickly see that in that opening sentence, the main character is not the storm, and it is not London. Having read the chapter, it is an injustice to start with a storm that is nothing more than filler to create a mood that is abandoned. Elmore Leonard’s first rule was “Never open a book with weather.” Nothing is more common or mundane to the human experience, so unless the weather is so freakishly out of place that the main character notices it, just cut it out.

For those who are not as familiar with rule 2, the passive voice stands out when the verb is “was” or some variant. Instead of saying “It was a dark and stormy night,” (passive), talk about the rain slashing through the streets, the wind howling, and so forth. The verb needs to grab the reader, not repeat the obvious. The sentence does use some good active verbs, but starting so passively is not how an author should introduce the story to the reader.

Redundancy. Think about a dark and stormy night. How many nights aren’t dark? Nights are dark, so why even talk about the darkness? Unless this was an unusually bright night, don’t mention it (this is also an appeal to the rule about not discussing things that aren’t important.)

Wishy-washy words take away from the author’s voice. If I describe a wall as being blue, except where it was red, I am waffling in my narrative. My descriptive voice should be solid, which means describing that same wall as a patchwork of blue and red, or blue broken with red blocks – whatever unifies the narrative and holds the discussion. In that regard, I would never say it rained, except when it didn’t.

Speaking about the rain, why is the rain even important? It might establish a mood in the beginning, but the rain is mentioned exactly once in the rest of the chapter. The first sentence offers a huge description of the London weather, but proceeds to discuss London more than the weather throughout the balance of the chapter. Again – if something isn’t important; if it doesn’t offer a challenge or contribution to the character or the plot, why is it even worth discussing?

Now, these are in fact just my rules. Everyone needs to develop their own rules and their own style, and they may not agree with mine. However, what makes a rule good is that a writer can justify exactly why that rule fits their style and how it contributes to their storytelling. As your skills develop, these rules will come naturally, until you reach the point that you can mail me your rules and show how they work better than mine. At that point, you are a writer in your own right.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Good Writing and Hate Mail

I've written a number of posts about efficient writing - making sure that each sentence, each word stays to the point and doesn't wander from the purpose of that particular piece. If you are describing a scene, include the important elements and leave out the parts that won't contribute to the story. When a character appears in a scene, don't labor on the details of the size of their ears, their thin eyebrows, or the pointiness of their chin if these things aren't integral to the story. I have made efforts to emphasize writing parts that offer meaning and value.

Then the hate mail started.

"Hate mail" might be a little too harsh a term, but the emails were rather severe. I received a lot of choice criticism from writers who loved to paint a picture with their words, and how they admired Elizabethan-era authors who lavished descriptions upon their readers that created worlds unto themselves. For me to suggest an economy of writing to create a mood was, well, stingy. These writers insisted on letting things flow.

My response:

-- First, many authors in the 19th century were paid by the word, so they piled them on. They went after those extra words like shrimp at a salad bar, grabbing as many as they could. In this regard, excess was merely excess.
-- More importantly, the actual wordsmiths of the era used every word to heighten the mood, not just paint a picture. Merely creating a scene with long, drawn-out or extravagant sentences full of description but devoid of function in the story is considered purple prose, a notable taboo in writing. If each word contributes to a greater theme, it's valuable literary nourishment for the reader. If it just builds up the sentence then fades away, it is little more than empty calories.

Consider this famous opening sentence:
"It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness."
This sentence is evocative of a number of things, mostly a stormy London night. However, it uses a lot of extra words to basically say what was covered in the first seven words. Every word after the semicolon just reinforces what we already know, without contributing to some larger theme. And considering this is the opening of a novel, it is particularly weak because the only part of the story we know is location - London. A lot of words, very little sustenance.

If you write horror, make sure that every descriptive word contributes to that creepy mood that should envelop your story. For romance, love should be like an intoxicant filling the scenes. Gritty thrillers should have tension in every sentence possible. If your words satisfy that demand, use as many as you want. If not, why use them at all?

Monday, June 15, 2020

The Problem With Summer Writing

It's already starting; I can feel it. Even though summer doesn't officially start for another week, the turning of the weather and the sun-filled days are setting off flurries of activity. Even with the restrictions on what is available for us to do, over the past week alone I have still done my gardening, mowed the lawn, cut down a few trees, taken some long walks, logged over 100 miles of bicycling, and caught up on some long-overdue spring cleaning in my house - all after putting on the screens so the air can flow through every room.

As a writer, this is horrible.

Don't get me wrong - I am a huge fan of summer. I love warm weather, the outdoors, and all the things that go on while winter is on the other side of the planet. And since I truly hate winter, I have all the more reason to enjoy the rites of summer while the opportunity is here. This is the Chicago area, so I have about five months of reliably good weather every year, and I want to take advantage of every bit. As a writer, that creates a problem.

This is not uncommon - I've noticed it in my fellow writers. They love writing, and they have favorite times of the year, but very few find enjoyment in merging the two. Some (such as myself) find that the best time to write is when they can't participate in the other activities they like. This creates a natural contradiction in that we have things that we like that we can't do together, so we have to place one over the other, like choosing which child is better or which niece we love the most (I'm not revealing that answer ever.)

Often, when we do this, our writing suffers, because it becomes that task we do rather than that private joy we indulge in. Think of how you might have loved schoolwork but when you had to sit in class and see the beautiful weather outside, a part of you just couldn't concentrate. That doesn't end once you grow up.

I only know two solutions for this problem. The first is to enjoy the season, but once you have reveled in the heat or cold, come inside and pour those fresh emotions on the page. Before you've even settled down and changed back to your indoor clothes, start scribbling something down that expresses the joys you've just experienced. When you start reliving your most positive experiences through your most favorite habits and hobbies, they feed into each other. You get excited about going outside so you do it, but after a while you start getting excited about the thoughts and ideas you can write about once you return.

The other idea is to force yourself to do both, with the least-interesting one coming first. This is the "if you don't eat your meat, you can't have any pudding" way of getting it done, but trust me, it's only for a little bit. Before too long, you do both of then gladly, as you have overcome the resistance of one or the other.

And of course, if none of this works for you, start a blog with a bunch of loyal readers. That worked well for me.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Reality Has Its Limits

Reality – as it turns out, I am a big fan. I like most everything about the real world, and that’s why I include it in my writing – even in fiction. As I mentioned in my last posts, reality is an important ingredient in fiction because it tethers the wildest stories to something the reader can relate to. However, there is always such a thing as too much reality.

I promised in my last post that this one will be zombie-free, so I will keep my word. That being said, let’s take on the most fictitious world we can think of. Be it post-apocalyptic, the far future, or a world of swords and sorcery, there needs to be an underlying foundation the reader can latch on to. The further the fiction goes from the world we are in now, the more important it is to establish a lifeline to the known world. If cannibalism is prevalent and accepted in the post-apocalyptic world, the reader is going to need something in the main character to connect with or they will put down that story real fast.

Now that we’ve established what the writer needs to bring to the table, we also need to discuss what they need to know about the world and what they need to offer about the world. This is a little more complex, but they all contribute to a genuinely compelling story that readers will appreciate even if they don’t normally read that genre.

Let’s take a look at the original Star Trek series – travel back to the 1960s before all those terms they made up were part of the English lexicon. This was a world only truly known to Gene Roddenberry: a place where people of all races and colors were equals on the Enterprise, where different species served the same captain, and all the animosities of the Cold War world had dissolved into the harmony of the Federation. That’s a lot of world to offer, but how much did Roddenberry the storyteller know versus the amount he told?

The magic of Roddenberry’s storytelling was offering the parts of the world that explained the themes and environments he felt were most important. His idea of a unified Earth was critical to providing a different and positive view of the future, but the show did not labor on just how Earth reached that point. Roddenberry knew all the steps, but all the viewers needed to know is that humanity had finally reached global peace and was now exploring space without the hostility so prevalent in the real world. Was the Federation’s electoral system important? The shift in the global economy? Honestly, the viewer never cared as long as the story was compelling.

One of the biggest mistakes writers make is losing the balance between how much world they create versus how much they offer. For plenty of creative types, the idea of making a whole world around a fictitious world is an adventure in itself, and well worth taking on. J. R. R. Tolkien created the Land of Middle Earth replete with so much history even he couldn’t keep track of it, but it was definitely his passion. However, that passion comes with an overwhelming urge to offer every detail as part of the storytelling. At that point, the problems start.

As complex and beautiful as the newly-created world might be, a writer’s objective is still to tell a story and not explain a world. The job is to move a character along the path of adventure, building the tension as the risks grow, the challenges become more difficult, and the objective finally comes into reach. With all that storytelling, a discussion of the king’s succession or the courting habits of elves might get in the way of the actual adventure. (Okay, the king thing was kind of important in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but that’s another story.)

In the end, it’s all about balance, and it’s something we should always keep in mind. We need to know how much is necessary to tell the story, how much more will give the reader a world they can connect to, and how much the writer just needs to know in order to guide the characters along.

And if a few zombies walk in, I’d appreciate it.

Monday, June 8, 2020

Survivor Perspective

I'll admit it. I love the zombie genre. I enjoy the serious stuff, the campy B-movies, the remakes, the dark comedies - all of them. If there's a movie where most of the cast is undead, that'll be me in the front row, popcorn on my lap, ready to watch the carnage. Whether they walk, run, or shamble, the zombies make for a fascinating genre. Fortunately for you, this post will not be about zombies, but what makes this such a good genre - Survivor Perspective.

We all know the common story - someone wakes up to find the dead rising up to eat the living, and mayhem ensues. Now, the thinking part of me would say, "Not happening. Can't happen. It defies every principle of biology, physics, and so forth. Rotting flesh would just fall apart. They couldn't even walk, much less eat someone. Not believable." That thinking part of me is consoled with plausible deniability - the argument that says, "This is a zombie story - go with it." But there's a greater draw for me to watch the mayhem unfold, and that's how the story is played out.

Imagine for a moment that you wake up to see the dead chasing your neighbors around. Whether you believe such a thing could happen is no longer an issue. Even if you believe it was impossible, it's happening, and you have to address the more immediate issue of the flesh-eating zombies shambling through your neighborhood. If you stand on the porch and say, "You zombies can't exist. You defy every principle of biology, physics..." you will quickly be eaten and your story is over. Instead, you save the confusion for later, grab a baseball bat, jump into your car, and drive somewhere safe - but where is that? And so the adventure begins.

This is the Survivor Perspective, a great structure for thrillers. The main character is placed into immediate danger and does not know why, and has to seek safety by whatever means necessary. Is it a plausible threat? We do no know, but it's definitely a real threat whether or not we believe it's possible. Do we know what brought the dead to life? No time for that - we have to run clear of the immediate threats.

Think about the classic movie, Night of the Living Dead. Do we know what brought the dead back to feast on the living? There are sci-fi hints on the radio, but the main characters are more worried about the new adversaries. Do we ever learn about what created them? Nope. We do learn that if someone dies, they don't stay dead for long, but our characters spend their time trying to assess a situation that is very real but makes no sense and comes with very little information.

When we write the Survivor Perspective, we offer the reader a chance to wonder about what is really happening, but give them very little time to experiment on just how to prove everything. The character reels from moment to moment, the reader shares the confusion, and maybe we learn as the adventure continues. However, the immediate source of suspense and tension is not finding out what happened, but surviving a situation that completely alters the main character's version of reality.

The next post will be zombie-free, but will offer more on the destruction of reality as a source of character tension. (Okay, there might be a few zombies...)

Friday, June 5, 2020

Unbelievable Reality

As a writer, nothing informs my stories more than reality. Even though I dwell in a world of fiction, those stories are distilled with a world of information from the here and now. In a weird way, this is what makes fiction believable - it's like adding actual fruit juices to an artificial drink in order to give it that natural taste. We use the real world as a secret ingredient.

Just don't use too much.

Let's say I want to write a thriller about a person living in a world in crisis. Obviously, the first thing I would need is a crisis, and this is where I could use the real world to inform what I am creating. However, if I decide to write this thriller by including the major themes of an economy in deep recession, racial tensions exploding onto the streets, a pandemic, and a subplot of rumored murder hornets on the west coast, well, I just used way too much of the secret ingredient. Ironically, this means I would have a work so informed by reality that nobody would accept it as fiction.

Rather, the secret to flavoring our fiction with reality is to distill the elements of reality that resonate the most with the reader, and pouring in those flavors. As an economist, I could pour thousands of words into the ins and outs of a country in recession, but people don't want to hear that (trust me). Rather, what counts is showing the effects - that unsettling tension at a bar as people nurse their beer and talk about how they're looking for work or had to grab a job at half the pay just to keep up with the bills. For sale signs throughout the neighborhood, mixed with garage sales and moving vans. People paying for a handful of groceries with change dug out from the couch. That's a recession people can relate to.

Now, if I wanted to do the pandemic story, well, this is far more touchy of a subject. After all, everyone feels the impact of current events right now, and everyone has a story. Is it even possible to offer a new spin that won't sound like a rehashing of what we've all been going through these past few terrible months? That's the catch about this special flavor - finding something original that will stand out and give the reader a touch of insight. Telling people about a terrible disease is easy; showing them how it impacts everyone's world is far more difficult, but also far more rewarding.

I will also offer this much as a note: we need to think very hard about how much background we want to offer while telling our story. Look at our murder hornet example. There could be several reasons they emerged: Evolution had one too many, some horrible experiment gone awry, possibly some Godzilla scenario - there are endless possibilities. The question really is this: Does it matter to the story? If I wake up in the morning to see a murder hornet has landed on my arm, am I thinking about its origin story? My concern is very immediate - survival, the main component of a thriller. This is called Survivor Perspective, and is very common and effective in thrillers and post-apocalyptic genre. What happened is often unknown and not important, because the characters' concerns are far more immediate (more about this Monday).

In short, when writing fiction, be careful how much reality you include. All you need to do is check the news to realize that if today's reality was a fiction story, you wouldn't believe it.

Friday, May 29, 2020

“I Have A Great Idea…”

We've all heard that line before; some of us have probably said it: "I have a great idea for a story. All I need to do is write it." When people say this, they make it sound like one last step needs to be done - the writing. However, I cannot think of a larger gap between a statement and the intended goal. The process of writing a story goes well beyond just doing it, though I say that reluctantly. Turning the idea into a story is a monumental task, but taken step by step there is no reason why it can't be done. On that note, let's look at some key steps:

Main character(s). This step is more than just knowing who is doing the storytelling. We need to know the person underneath all of the description and understand why it's best to have them telling the story. If we want to write a good old-fashioned tale of ghosts and the supernatural, the storyteller should be more than just a guy who bought an old house and gets scared by the ghosts. Does our main character even believe in ghosts? Are they an agnostic/atheist dismissing all things supernatural? Did they recently suffer a tragic loss and feel some kind of spiritual void because of it? We need to know why this person is the right one for telling this story. Otherwise, the reader loses interest and the writer struggles to maintain personal investment.

Motivation. Stories move along a path of events, and during each one, the characters have to respond in ways that tell the reader who they are. If the reader ever finds themselves asking, "Why did he do that?" or "Why did she go there?" there had better be a sensible reason revealed to them soon or they won't understand the character, and also the story. The reason can be as simple as, "He did that because a friend dared him to and he never turns down a dare," or, "She went there because she had been hired to do it." There always need to be a reason behind actions, and preferably something other than, "Because if they didn't, the story wouldn't get to act two."

Side note: There are a lot of stories where instead of the character choosing their adventure, events happen to the character and they are forced to react. This takes away the need to explain the character's justification in the events, but the reader still needs to know why the character made their particular choices. In Roderick Thorp's Nothing Lasts Forever, Joe Leland is in a building when the occupants are captured and held hostage by terrorists. Joe has never met the terrorists, he is not involved with their international involvements, he was only there to see his daughter. The action happens to him but his responses still have to be justified. Joe is a retired cop with a strong sense of right and wrong, plus his daughter is now a hostage, so he takes it upon himself to resolve the situation. Once the reader knows that, they understand the character's investment.

And for those having trouble bridging the chasm between the great idea and finishing the story, here's a simple trick. Concentrate on writing an awesome opening line. Something great. That one big line that gets the reader rolling. Think of the scene that supports it, and write a winner. Then write the next paragraph, just to see what it looks like. At his point, if you have a great opening line and a paragraph to support the scene, you are already on that long journey of writing that story that started off as merely a great idea.

Friday, May 22, 2020

The Stories That Were Never Told

I offer this post as my Memorial Day tribute. There will not be a post on Memorial Day, because my attention will be on those who gave their lives in service to this country and never got the chance to tell the story.

War stories are a fascinating genre in literature, particularly because they are from the survivor's perspective. Like any honest recollection of history, the story comes from those who lived through the horrors and came home. They can talk about those who didn't make it home, but in the end it is a survivor telling their story, and offering their perspective on those who were killed.

In Saving Private Ryan, (spoiler alert) we see the D-Day invasion in harrowing detail from the perspective of Tom Hanks' character. His landing craft takes heavy fire the moment the door opens, and he has to bail out over the side. He swims to shore, fights his way through the hell that was the beach, and makes it through the day. Everyone talks about that scene - it is truly the stuff of great stories.

Now let's go back to the landing craft. As the gunfire hits it, plenty of soldiers are killed instantly. Some go over the side only to be killed by enemy fire in the water, others drown, and some reach the beach only to die from a variety of other nightmarish fates. How often do we think about their stories? They had full and complete lives until that final moment, but do we look at everything that led them to that final moment? Perhaps that's what makes the movie so compelling - we see some of those lives in full, even though they end in the tragedy that is war.

As writers, we need to acknowledge that every person has a story. Some receive more focus, such as Tom Hanks' character, but every character in that movie had a story of value. In some ways, the story of the man who died in the landing craft is especially valuable, because his heroism ended a few minutes into the movie. It's easy to write them off as side characters, but each one of those men had live and experiences that were unique and irreplaceable. They all had family and friends, they all went through boot camp, they experienced things we will never know because before they could tell that story, they died on the beaches of Normandy.

It is a genuine art to examine a life for its story when the obvious part isn't apparent. When we write, we need to look for the hero in the man who died on the landing craft. His death is just as tragic as any other, his heroism just as much as anyone who rushed that beach, but his humanity is what makes the story come alive again.

And on that note, our final responsibility as writers telling about other people is to bring them to life one more time, telling their story and breathing some air back into the world that ended so tragically. That is a heavy responsibility for a writer to bear, but nothing compared to what those men endured and ultimately died for. As writers, we owe them that much.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Placing Yourself In Your Story

In my last post, I closed out with a brief mention about including yourself in your own stories, but I want to give this subject a little more air time. Including yourself may seem like an automatic part of the process of telling your own story. However, that's a very easy trap to fall into. Just because it's our story doesn't mean we automatically place ourselves into it. In fact, there is a tendency to detach our personal experiences from those stories, and that will really hurt your story.

Years ago, a fellow writer wrote the story about how he lost his leg above the knee after a motorcycle accident. Clearly, such a traumatic, life-altering experience is fertile ground for a very moving story. After I read the story, I knew all about the accident, compression injuries, phantom pain, and the special rehab that accompanies such a procedure. What I didn't know was anything about how he felt about such a catastrophic experience.

As a reader who has only known life with two legs, my thoughts naturally drift toward myself - what would my response be if I lost a leg? Would I resist the process? Would I be happy my life was saved, or would I grieve for the loss of a limb? How does it feel as a person to hear terms like "skin flap" and know that's a reference to what used to by my limb? A clinical exploration of losing a leg does have its place as a story, but when it is our story, we have something very special to offer - our personal view. No writer can replace that, but every writer can gain something from hearing about the personal depth of that experience.

After some discussion, the writer acknowledged that a lot of those emotions were still very raw and unprocessed, and that the story was his first exploration into all those feelings. That confession was the most personal thing that had come from that story, and even a statement such as that makes the story all the more meaningful. The acknowledgement of pain is the first step toward recovery, and that is possibly why it is the most difficult step. I do not know if he ever took the next step (no pun intended), but his growth as a writer started once he decided to put his emotional experience into the story.

In case the message hasn't come across, this is the difficult part of writing our own story - pulling out feelings from the deepest part of our guts. This is a call to explore things we might not want to face, and put them out on the page, exposing them to the pure daylight of reality. Therapists sometimes have clients do this, and it's painful. For a writer to do it on their own is even more so, but there's a purpose for this.

At my old hangout in Ukrainian Village, I overheard one guy telling another about how he was going to write a letter to the Chicago Police Department about the cop who gave him a DUI after an accident that left him in a wheelchair. My curious, people-watching self settled in to listen to this man rant about a cop doing his job. If only I had popcorn.

It turns out that the guy in the wheelchair wanted to write a commendation for the police officer. After some severe soul-searching, he understood that the officer was doing his job, and that DUI after the accident finally got him to attend AA, clean up his act, and take responsibility for his actions. Letting him off the hook would've cheated him of the opportunity to get sober. I knew nothing about the accident itself, whose fault it was, his other injuries, or his recovery process, but his discussion was the most honest, insightful thing I had heard all day.

I sure hope he wrote more than just that letter.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Storytelling vs. Reporting

Here's something that happened to me the other day - for brevity's sake, I will offer the abridged version. I got into my car to go run some errands. After my last errand, my wheels skidded and I slid into a crowded intersection, having a near-accident with two other cars. Fortunately nobody was hurt and there was no damage, so all parties went home. Once I got home, I did some thinking about what could've happened if I had made one different choice on that drive.

That's the simple version of the story, but it's barely a story. Why?

Obviously, the lack of details is a clear problem, but believe it or not, that is not the biggest problem. The biggest problem is that it communicates the events of my drive but offers nothing in terms of meaning, message, importance, or relevance to my life. It is a story, but the lack of substance makes it little more than just reporting the events of a day. A story earns its stripes when it tells more than a series of events. And there are a few ways to do that.

First, we can convey the importance with details - not filling in every blank, but exclusively offering details on the part of the story we want to stand out. If the point of the story is to emphasize that I was almost in an accident, do the details of my errands make a difference? Probably not. Maybe if the incident happened just outside my last stop, I can throw that in, but otherwise, details about stopping at the pharmacy, the gas station, and the hardware store are irrelevant.

This may seem obvious, but is it? What details should be included if the purpose of the story is discussing how one difference in my route would've meant no near-accident at all? At that point, the errands are the important part, because changing that route would change where I was for the incident. In fact, sliding through an intersection now loses importance because the purpose of the story becomes a discussion about choices and outcomes, not a near-accident.

And since we are referring to this near-accident all the time, let's focus a little on how to tell this story. A near-accident goes by another term - "not an accident" - and there's not much interest in a story about going on a drive where we don't get in an accident. Every drive I have taken this year ended up without an accident, so this is nothing special. Therefore, if our purpose is to tell a story about not getting into an accident, for this to be an interesting story, we might need to tell it a little differently.

Note that "tell it a little differently" does not mean lying or changing any events. It simply means reorganizing story to capture the audience's attention. We know the order of events, but if we start telling the story with, "As my car skidded into the crowded intersection, I thought I was a dead man," then I can go back to the beginning with the reader eagerly awaiting that moment. I should still choose what details are relevant and what I want to convey, but by changing the order of how the story is told, this near-accident is actually interesting.

Lastly, and most importantly, I need to include myself in this story. I need to offer more than the events and the details - that isn't a narrative story, it's a news report. If I don't include my feelings, fears, thoughts on that moment and how my hands shook even after I got home, I have not offered anything more than a spectator's view of an event. To be a story, we need to include that main character of ourselves and all the emotional substance that comes with. Otherwise, all we are doing is warning people about the dangers of the intersection of Steger Road and Western Avenue, even though there wasn't an accident there.