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.

Monday, May 11, 2020

"I Want To Be A Writer, But..."

Look over the title of this post and think of three ways to finish the sentence. I am sure everyone who wants to be a writer can provide five or ten reasons. Even people who have started their journey and who are developing their process can still throw in a few reasons. Being a writer is not easy, and within this is a lot of room for self-doubt, hesitancy, and plenty of excuses to stop trying to be a writer. However, I can also show that none of them are true.

Mary Kubica, author and
time-management guru
Full disclosure: When I first ventured into writing, I had a lot of self-doubt. My motivation was unquestionable, as I mentioned in my first post, "Starting Off As A Writer," but my doubts were legion. My three ways to finish that sentence at the time would've been "... I didn't have the skills," "...there wasn't enough time," and "...I'm probably not as good as real writers." These were all perfect answers for the time. Funny story: I proved them all wrong.

First and foremost, let me say this as a constant reminder to everyone who wants to be a writer: Once you start writing, you're a writer. When you dedicate yourself to telling stories with the written word and communicating things to the world, you're a writer. The qualifications are not too high - you need to start writing, and keep on writing. Not too tough. Now, does this make you the awesome, world-changing writer you wish to be? Nope, but it's a start. It's the journey of a thousand miles starting with the first step, and most of the steps involve just writing.

To be honest, most doubts we have come from the simple fact that we look at simple truths and think they will never change. When I started writing, the facts on the ground were that I did not have the best writing skills for creative narratives, my job occupied most of my time, and I was not as good as most writers. My doubts were validated in that very moment. However, I made the conscious decision that those were not permanent situations, and that my world could change if I so chose. I could work on my skills. I could read more and see just how those real writers made their magic. I could go to workshops and ask questions, and if I was so dedicated, I could make time. And if you think you just can't make time, let me tell you about Mary Kubica.

Mary Kubica is a local author who does a lot of speaking about how she first pursued her goal of writing a novel. If you think you are short of spare time, she started writing when she had just become a new mother. (Note: Babies require a lot of time and attention.) However, she had a story in mind that she wanted to write. She decided to write it, and worked out a plan. The baby woke up around 5:30 every morning, so she would wake up at 5:00 and start typing until her little one woke up. Little half-hour bursts of activity created her first novel, "The Good Girl," which got published, got rave reviews, led to a few publishing contracts, five more books, and eventually a Netflix deal. One-half-hour at a time led to all that. Even a new mother had the time once she decided to become a writer.

Simply put, there are only two reasons you can't be a writer - you can't read or you never learned to write - and the fact that you are reading this post voids those excuses. Any other reason is merely a doubt that can be dispelled by the simple task of writing. So start writing, and whenever you think something might get in your way... keep on writing.

Friday, May 8, 2020

Amazing Stories - Maybe Too Amazing

I have a friend who has lived the kind of life that allows him to tell the most amazing stories. He will tell us about the times he's driven up to the city, met some amazing people and they've gone on all these drunken escapades into all those hidden places in Chicago. There's been sex and drugs and gunplay, A-list celebrities and pretty high living, and my rarely-sober friend is always willing to relay those stories to everyone around. We have never had the good fortune to go on one of his adventures, but we love the stories.

In case you haven't figured it out, my friend lies a lot.

No, I can't prove that my drunken friend didn't do tequila shots with Jennifer Aniston and John Malkovich at an afterparty on Rush Street. I have no evidence to counter that he found out the top floor of the old Fulton Market Cold Storage building used to double as a rave room where Vince Vaughn and Jon Cryer hung out when they came to town. However, I hear the story, look at my friend, and come to the inescapable conclusion: "No way, no how."

This is the thing about stories: As writers, we can create whatever we want, and tell whatever tale we wish to spin. However, if we don't do it in a manner that convinces our audience that we are genuine, then we lose our readers. They don't embrace the narrative - even if it's true.

I've said this before and it's worth repeating. Just because something happened doesn't mean it is automatically believed. Non-fiction isn't a stamp of approval, particularly if the story centers around the stupidity of others. In an excellent piece by my friend and colleague, Victoria Marklew, entitled, "This Lousy Pandemic Script," she succinctly demonstrates how reality can fail to pass the smell test when it comes to a believable narrative. Sometimes, the truth has so many forehead-slapping, face-palming moments that if we didn't watch it unfold right in front of us, we would never have believed it could happen, much less did happen. When it is written as a story, readers quickly dismiss it.

Now, this bar of believability is easier to see through the eyes of fiction. If I am writing about the rise of a zombie apocalypse, the characters should be at least a little surprised and have some disbelief as to the events unfolding before them. The reader likely understands that this is a zombie book so there is some suspension of disbelief, but they still need to see the characters as people who are being introduced to something they are not expecting.

In this regard, non-fiction is a harder sell because there is no suspension of disbelief - the factual world around us is baked into the story. When my drunken friend tells his stories, he incorporates reality to make them amazing, though this often goes beyond our acceptance that he, a 300-pound drunk with a tenth-grade-education and half his teeth, could so smoothly fall in with any social scene he desired. At that point, we smile, nod, laugh among ourselves and know he's on another one of his wild flights of fancy.

This is an art, and it takes practice to sell the most bizarre situations and get the reader to believe what you are presenting. By now you believe my drunken friend is basically just a loudmouth who lives in these drunken delusions. You'd be right. However, you'd also believe that he exists. You'd be wrong. He's just a fiction of my mind that we are all too willing to believe exists because he represents something we've all kind of experienced at one time or another. He's the fiction we all assume is real. Non-existent characters like him are the real amazing stories.

Monday, May 4, 2020

The Ugly Side of Self-Publication

Judging by the emails and Facebook IMs I received regarding my last post about the road to getting published, I scared a lot of people into opting for the self-publication route. The thought of all the work, struggle, and rejection that comes with finding an agent, much less a publisher, definitely gives the do-it-yourself route some appeal. Well, now let me offer the pros and cons of being your own publisher, and we will see if that scares you back in the other direction or convinces you that you're ready to take it on yourself.

Self-publishing obviously has its appeal - no agent taking 15% of your royalties, no fighting with a publisher asking you to consider some changes to make it more marketable, no annoying editors sending you a relentless number of revisions. Just your word going onto the shelves, and you claim the royalties. Nice and tidy - but a little too tidy, as I shall point out.

The important part to remember about self-publishing is the word "self." You do everything yourself, or pay for someone to do it for you. Even before your first copy is available, you do the editing yourself. You do the layout yourself. Cover design - yourself. All the technical requirements for creating the files that make the book - yep, that's done by yourself as well. Sometimes it's easy to outsource these, which is fine, but they need to be done and they cannot be taken lightly.

I'm offering a special paragraph here to emphasize the importance of having your work edited. This is different than editing your work - you need an editor. And before you answer - no, an editor is not your dear Aunt Pearl who is so glad you are writing, or a long-time friend who is good at finding mistakes. An editor is someone who is not emotionally invested in your process and can tell you the things you might not want to hear. If characters are flat, if pacing is uneven, if plot lines wander around, an editor should tell you these things. Self-publishing means there is no gatekeeper to tell you if something needs work, so literally anything can go into print. If you self-publish, you want to make sure that your words and ideas are presented in a way that stands above all the books out there where the author said, "My work be good 'nuff, and ain't nobody telling what need ta be done." They're wrong. Don't join them.

Just as a side-note, the most common route for self-publishing is Amazon's KDP. It is a full-service suite for publishing where you can buy features that are normally outsourced, or if you prefer, you can publish for free without their premium services. More importantly, any book published through KDP is examined by other retailers, who may list the book in their catalog as well.

So, let's say you finally get into print. Excellent. Now what? Well, self-publishing also means that you wear a bunch of other hats, and the weirdest one you will wear is public relations - you are your own PR agent, making sure the world knows about your new book. This is a job in itself, and if you want to sell copies to people other than your Aunt Pearl, you need to promote yourself long before your book is published.

Self-promotion is more than just an Instagram post that you've published a book. Social media is very important, but it's not the only route. You should be on several social media sites talking about your upcoming publication and asking about how to promote your work. You should be looking into ways to get buzz stirring - local libraries are great routes for writer forums, and you will want to make sure you find out about whether you can have a presentation as a local author and sell some autographed books. (Yes, you should have a stock of books you are willing to sell at a moment's notice. Consider them the biggest business cards you can carry.) A publisher would normally help you with these things. Self-publishing means you do all this yourself.

Scared yet? Don't be. Anything worth doing is worth putting forward the effort. If you're a little nervous, great - that means you're taking it seriously. Look into it as an option. It might be a great way to get the ball rolling and stir up some buzz for future publications. And believe me, nothing quite matches the feeling of holding a book and seeing your name on the cover. It is the validation that nothing else can ever match.

Aunt Pearl will be proud.

Friday, May 1, 2020

What A Publisher Can Offer (And What They Shouldn't Offer)

At some point, writers dream of publication. Maybe it's not the first dream and it certainly should not be the last, but the idea of getting your words printed, bound, stamped and sold to the public is a pretty amazing idea. This mean that not only would the public be reading your words, but they would willingly pay for the privilege. Libraries will dedicate space on their shelves for your words, people will hear about you giving a talk about writing and note the date, and fans who see you will *gasp* ask for you to sign their copy. Then are just some of the many joys of being a published author.

Now, how do you get there?

There are two main routes - conventional publishing and self-publishing, and this post will talk about the first one (Monday's post will start the self-publishing adventure). This is where you sign a contract with a publisher, they publish your book, and you take in a percentage of the proceeds. Simple? Kind of. Getting to that contract is the difficult part. Really difficult.

You can attempt to contact publishers directly, but I have never seen it work. Most people solicit a literary agent to work that angle. The agent is someone who has usually been in publishing for a while, specializes in certain genres, and knows the right contacts to reach out to when pitching a new book, anthology, collection of poetry, or what have you. And for 15% of your eventual royalties, they will provide this service for you.

(Side note: A trustworthy agent works off of future earnings, and the same goes for a publisher. If an agent or publisher asks for a stack of money up front, walk away. Cash up front puts the writer on the hook for the job the agent or publisher should be doing, when the reward should be from sales - the back end of the deal. Cash up front is usually a red flag.)

Now, soliciting an agent is not an easy task. There are thousands of agents but literally millions of writers potentially selling to all of them. An agent will pick and choose a select group of writers to represent, and it's not that many. Writers try to win that agent's attention through what is called a query letter.

The query letter is a 200-to-250-word audition. It follows a standard format, but within it you write about what you want to publish, its genre, points of appeal, target audience, and what makes you so cool. In this, you sell yourself and your work, and hope someone bites. This can be brutal. This is walking into a crowded singles' bar with one pickup line and going table to table, pitching that line. There will be rejections, snubs, and non-responses, but if you try and try and try, you will get someone to dance with you. So with something this brutal, you want to have the thickest skin, the best line, and enough knowledge on who to ask first. Dedicate a lot of time to the query letter, and Google around for query letter advice -- there are hundreds of sources to choose from.

Once the letter is done, it's time to try and snag an agent. The online Directory of Literary Agents (DLA) is my first stop. Sign up here (it's free) and you can sort through the listings to see who works with your genre, accepts unpublished writers, and email submissions. Each agent lists what a query letter to them should and shouldn't contain, and submission guidelines (if any). Follow these directions like gospel! You are competing with hundreds or thousands of emails every month, and the agent is just looking for a reason to delete those queries from unpublished writers who think they're good enough to ignore the rules.

Lastly, get yourself a copy of Writer's Market 2020. A new one comes out every fall, and there are also books for sub-categories. My fave is Novel & Short Story Writer's Market 2020, but they are there for most every genre. Not only do the Writer's Market books have agent listings, they are full of articles on perfect query letters, writing and publishing tips, inspiring examples, and author testimonials. Use the Writer's Market and the DLA to find out about the industry then chase down the perfect agent. And yes, you will need to chase dozens of agents, if not more, before you get a bite. So go for it. Run after that agent to take you down the path to publication. (And if they want money up front, run the other way.)


Monday, April 27, 2020

Promoting Before Publishing

I recently started a dialogue with an up-and-coming writer/poet, and we began talking about the publishing process. The main part of this conversation was self-publishing versus working through a publisher. I will be addressing the pros and cons of those choices in the next few posts. This time around, I want to discuss what they both have in common and what every writer who wants to publish should be aware about: self-promotion.

To a lot of people, the idea of self-promotion doesn't fit very well. A lot of people aren't used to selling their work as a product, and it's even more uncomfortable when they are just starting out as a writer and have to sell others on something they are still developing. I had a great time flaunting my economics credentials when I was in that business because I had a track record of accomplishments to back up those claims. Once I became a writer, well, none of the economics mattered. I was just another person wanting to be published. That, to me, became a very difficult sell because my confidence didn't transfer over.

So how do we build up that confidence to promote ourselves? The first and easiest step to take is to say, "I'm a writer." If you join a writing workshop or writing club, don't introduce yourself as, "I'm trying to see if I can start to write something that might..." Just walk right into it. "I'm a writer working on..." It might feel weird, and that's fine. Just remember, once you commit to writing, you're a writer. Whether you're the best or not doesn't matter. You just need to remind yourself of this fact, and reinforce it when talking to others. It gets more comfortable the more you do it.

Next stop is to engage with people and groups who are going along the same route. Networking is not only a way to pick up ideas and tricks of the trade, but it is the best way to know that you are not alone with this journey. Find out about how others promote themselves, describe themselves, learn about the craft, and so forth. The more you walk among the writers, the more you feel like a writer.

A promotional discussion in the 21st century isn't complete without a social media side. Having a writing page in addition to your Facebook or Instagram account is brilliantly cheap and gives you an outlet to be a writer first and foremost. My Facebook page, Writing and "the Process" was a launching point for my blog, but now people often chime in wanting to talk to a writer about their journey. The followers grow, the interest rises, the promotion continues. And having a blog about writing helps too...

Whether you want to self-publish or go through more conventional routes, your success in the public arena will come from how much you believe that you are exactly what you are supposed to be. It's truly empowering to take it as your own personal mission, and there is a feeling that hits you once you have accepted it.

When I would be writing on the train during my work commute, people sitting across from me would often ask if I was working on something. I would say, "Oh, this is just some writing. I'm an economist, but..." It was safe and harmless, and did nothing to help me feel like the person I wanted to be. Then one day I mustered up the courage to answer, "I'm a writer. This is my manuscript."

The feeling is something I will never forget.

Friday, April 24, 2020

That Important First Line

Think about your favorite opening movie scene. Visualize it in your mind. Mine has to be the original Star Wars movie - After the prologue sweeps by, we see this spacecraft being fired upon by another ship. A Star Destroyer, as it turns out. And it is huge. Freaking huge. It passes across the camera view and just keeps on flooding the screen. It's monolithic. The view is just overwhelming. If that doesn't get someone riled up about watching a space-opera-style movie, what else could?

In a book, the first line should have nothing to do with that.

The reason I use the movie parallel is because is it common to envision the opening part of any story in a visual manner, then translate it into words. This is a reasonable approach - after all, that's how storytelling works. We think of a story, create a visual about it, then translate it onto the page with all the description, texture, and moodiness to fill in the rest.

Writing, however, is a bit different. Or should I say, writing a story is different than the storytelling part in some ways, and those differences are crucial. Going back to our Star Wars opening, let's pull in the mood of that moment, and invest some time with another sense - sound. We start with the prologue scrolling by to a big John Williams orchestral composition - a huge build-up there. What happens? The prologue fades and the music shifts to one little flute (I think it's a flute) playing over a scene of the vastness of space. That's a huge mood shift, and the viewer feels it.

Of course, Princess Leia's little craft enters the scene without much fanfare, followed by the Star Destroyer that is just sound and fury everywhere. Never mind the visual, the deep bass vibrations told you this monstrous, hulking ship was bad news. It overwhelmed the music from Leia's craft, and established everything you could imagine about what was awaiting the poor little ship as it got captured.

And all that without a word spoken.

Opening lines have to carry this kind of effect. The great opening lines don't just communicate the scene, they establish the mood. That first line often does not describe an opening scene, but sets the emotional stage for the story to come. A great opening line might not even have anything to to with fleshing out the visuals at all. It just needs to grab the reader's interest and invest them enough to move things forward. If it plants a question in their mind, then all the better.

(For more opening line suggestions, I also recommend an earlier post, "The First Words are the Hardest.")

I don't own any of the books that came out based on the Star Wars movies. I would be curious to see the opening lines, and see if they come close to the drama of that one scene. Somehow, I doubt it. My opening line would be something like, "Princess Leia had no way to escape this time; but she had a plan that the entire rebel cause depended on." No talk about the ships or space, but a quick jump that describes everything we need to know about the setting.

Want a fun writing prompt? Write the narrative opening lines for your favorite movies, and see what comes up.

Monday, April 20, 2020

When Writing Loses Its Joy

I have been very fortunate of late. Not just in terms of health and friends, but as a writer as well. Over the past month, I have had the opportunity to edit and review several books, each with its own unique style and wildly varied content. To a writer, few things can provide more creative nourishment than poring over other peoples' words and discussing what they are bringing to life. It's very satisfying to engage with the creative process from all these different angles. It's also exciting, it's engaging, it pays well, and it is definitely a helpful diversion from current events.

And it can absolutely crush the creative process.

Thank you, Marie Kondo
When I say that engaging in other peoples' works is creative nourishment, I meant it. Outside thoughts and ideas are the vitamins and nutrients for any writer. However, eat too much healthy food and you still get sick. Too much nourishment means some is wasted or turns into fat. (Fun fact: Too much Vitamin A will kill you.) And in this regard, I have kind of overdone it with the creative engagement. We all do this sometimes - we treat our passion like a Thanksgiving dinner, piling up all the words and ideas we can find in a feast of literary consumption, then an hour later we are lying on the couch, groaning away at even the thought even even hearing a poem. We refuse to read anything else, and regret the day we took up writing.

We all do this now and then - this is not my first time gorging until I burst - and in a way it can be healthy. The only question is, how do we get out of these ruts when we have overindulged and can't face another word? I have two manuscripts I am writing, and even the thought of jumping back into one of those is exhausting. I am still contracted for another manuscript to edit and design for publication, so how do I address my own needs as a writer? How do I get back to the writing I love to do when the outside world has taken the joy away from what I love?

Organizational guru Marie Kondo made herself a pretty nice media career by asking one little question: "Does it spark joy?" Now, she believes in removing clutter by asking if a particular item "sparks joy" within you. This obviously has boundaries - my electric bill has never sparked joy with me, but throwing it away only creates more problems. Furthermore, overindulgence takes away that sense of joy, so we are kinda stuck.

Rather, we have to ask ourselves a simple question: "What inspired me to write?" Not just an author or a book, but what idea started such a fire that we had to not just consume, but create? As I have mentioned many times before, I needed to tell stories of my life, of experiences, of ideas and concepts, analogies and parables brewing inside that needed to come out. And, in knowing that, I find what "sparks joy" in me as a writer.

Now, that may sound like I am just saying to start writing when you don't feel like writing. Nope - life isn't so easy. I approach that joy-sparking idea from other directions. I tell stories with my friends. I hit up an open mic night. Without writing, I find those things that still appeal to that spark, and I feed that spark until it gets a little brighter, more noticeable, more intense, and eventually feeds my creative beast. At that point, I don't get the urge to write.

At that point, I have to write.

Friday, April 17, 2020

The Sensory Secondary

Most everyone I know is familiar with that big red ball. Definitely everyone I went to school with knows it. We have, at some time, kicked that ball, thrown it at our friends, dodged it as it whizzed by, caught it, or, as was often my case, felt it bounce off my body and leave a white-hot sting for a few seconds. (Back then I bruised like a peach, so there were other marks too). And anyone in the same room as that ball knows its distinctive bouncing sound with that rubbery reverb that never quite dies down like the ringing in your ears after someone beans you. The mere sight of that image now can evoke that sound and even that decades-old stinging sensation like a school version of PTSD.

That image evokes sound and feeling not because those feelings are unique but because their association is universal (or at least nationally common). Maybe this is lost on my Australian friends, but for those USA folk, the image is a pizza with everything, something for all the senses. Spending a little time discovering some of these common things is priceless when it comes to writing descriptive similes that really bring in the senses.

What about the sound of ice cubes tinkling around a chilled glass? That summertime cannonball splash from a kid jumping into a pool? Tires sliding across wet pavement on a dark, empty road? These sound descriptions are clear and distinct, and create a great mental visual for the reader, but did you notice something else? Each sound incorporated a seemingly meaningless but actually important secondary sensory cue. The sound of ice cubes doesn't change much if the glass is chilled or not, but that added sense of touch solidifies our understanding of the sound. Now we can see the frost on the glass or the condensation dripping down the side, even when the attention is on the sound. Does a jump in the pool sound different in summer? Do tires skid louder at night? No - but the sound stands out more.

Let's use that jump-into-the-pool one some more, and start exploring. It can be a splash if we want, or it can be that great ker-plunk sound of the kid cannonballing into the water, followed by the water clapping together behind the child. If I describe that splash with a little bit of variation in the action, the sound changes. Depending on how we close the sentence, the start of the sentences changes shape. Listen to all these different sounds that happen even though all the sentences start the same:

"I heard a splash in the water, like...

  • ...a diver piercing through the surface."
  • ...a bowling ball dropped in a fish tank."
  • ...a mob informant's bound body hitting the Chicago River."


Each sentence starts the reader from the same place, then a simile changes the scene and brings other concepts into the image, all while engaging the reader. It's just a sound, right? Not anymore. The senses blend with the imagination, and your description gains a new dimension. It takes on a new quality. It gains life.

Look back at that dodge ball. My guess - you're thinking about its sound again. That's what vivid description does.

Monday, April 13, 2020

The Creative Rut of Isolation

Before college, one of my best days at work was the first day working with our company's marketing research database of 9,000 entries stored on dBase IV. I had a dedicated desk! A computer exclusively for my use and a personal chair! One of my worst days at work, however, was the fiftieth day working with our company's marketing research database kept on the new dBase IV. My desk was still my desk, my computer was still my computer, my chair was still my chair... and the database was now 19,000 entries and growing. My big change would be hitting 20,000 entries... then 21,000... 22,000... 23,000...

For an assistant in marketing, this sounds like a rut. It was. Most occupations have their own version of them, and no matter how exotic they sound, there's someone doing that task right now who is just shaking their head and wondering how much of their life that task will consume. A task once exciting now feels dreary and uninspired. Later, during my life as an economist, my excitement would wane and I would have days of thinking, "Oh boy, another assessment of the foreign debt of OPEC countries..." or "Great, write another article about the strains on the Chinese economy..." Sounds great, right? Not always. Such a thought once considered exciting made me want to fall asleep at my desk (not that I did that).

At some point, our enthusiasm wanes, if only for a bit, and this is particularly true with writers. We take on more ennui than usual. Our passion for the written word fails us. We don't see it as a gift or a challenge to reach new creative heights, but a chore or a burden. The way I heard it described (and applied to the above) is, "Some days our descriptions end with exclamation points; other times the end with ellipses..."

Nowadays, with a number of my fellow writers sequestered away from their jobs, classes, families, etc., their creative candle is burning low. They took this opportunity to write, sketch, or otherwise create, but in the broader sense the midday lull has hit like a caffeine crash, only there's no taking a nap under the desk for a few weeks to ride it out (not that I ever did that).

I do not want to call this Writer's Block. I consider that a different monster altogether, and one that some people insist does not exist. No, this is that time where repetition and limited options wears one out the where they want to sit in that nook between the filing cabinet and their desk just outside of the view of the senior economist and nap (not that I did that oddly specific task either).

On these creatively draining days/weeks, I found the total reroute would help. I would set aside my commentary on China and do something with spreadsheets, or data modeling. Damn the words, let's do the number thing! These days, I set aside the pen and - yes - watch a show on Netflix. I binge the hell out of things, but only to a point. What point? Glad you asked.

At some point in my mindless binge of a show I have seen tons of times, I will catch myself thinking, "Ahh, by having that character tell the story in flashback rather than showing the experience, the story gives us the character's present state of mind in relation to the event." At that point, I realize my creative mind wants a seat at the table again. I need to create good things. The typing must commence, because I have an idea!

And just like that, the exclamation points are back in my life. I hope they never leave yours, but if they do, give yourself permission to head another direction, and take the occasional nap in the economic research library closet (not that I did that).