Friday, February 28, 2020

Finding Focus and Holding Focus

Last Wednesday, I was fortunate enough to get the poet and artist Terry Foote to speak at my writing workshop at the Park Forest Public Library. He discussed his process and the journey he took in finally getting his book, Picturesque Poetry, out of his brain and onto the shelves. I don't want to give away the entire story, but one of the important takeaways was about focus. A writer's focus is a special thing, and it inspired me to write this piece.

For the beginning writer, focus is a very tricky idea. Anyone who wants to write a story will tell you that they have everything in mind - the characters are real, the developments vivid, the plot arc crystal-clear. This is a great start, but is it enough? In our mind, we can imagine the expression on Christ's face in The Last Supper, but as we know, there are twelve other people at the table. Their positions and interactions are just as important to the painting. After all, this grand mural isn't just called Christ's Face. Like any meal with thirteen people, there are multiple conversations, groupings, and several areas of character interplay. Our sharp focus on one person actually does not do justice to the greater work.

Part of our journey is about finding our focus. We need to not just see the trees but understand the forest as well. We need to discover all the different aspects of the broader picture, and start developing that as well, while remaining true to those trees we see so clearly. If this doesn't sound so easy, well, it isn't. That's the point. For a writer, the forest is the mood, atmosphere, underlying themes, and continuing messages surrounding the trees that are those main characters. Without all that support, those trees are just a couple of pieces of wood in an open plain.

A common problem writers often encounter in this regard is knowing where a story goes but not knowing how to get there. This is where they need to hold their focus on the characters but include their journey in that view. If the writer does not know where to take those characters, then the problem is pretty simple - they've lost focus on the bigger picture. It's easy to get lost in the forest if you only look at the trees.

Now, the other part of this journey is more often seen once the first is completed and outside eyes explore the work. Everyone's a critic, and plenty of comments will challenge your idea of the story you wanted to tell. The criticism will come in many waves, with things like, "I like more dialogue," "I was hoping for more action," or "This needs some wise-cracking sidekick like that guy we met the other week." Maybe there's a grain of truth in these comments. Maybe a few more conversations would spruce up the characters. Would a car chase help? A little humor? These can be valid, but this is your work. Your piece. At this point, the bigger question is, "Would this still be true to what I want to produce?"

If you are writing to make money, be prepared for big rewrites to make the story more marketable, more reader-friendly, more commercial. However, if you want to tell a story that conveys some part of your inner self to the world, Hold onto it tight. Constructive criticisms might help, but ask yourself each time, "Does this change compromise the story I want to tell?" You might have a realization that there is more than you thought, and that's fine. But through it all, hold your focus tightly. It's your story; own it.

And on a final note, Terry Foote will be speaking at the Park Forest Public Library on April 9th, at 7:00 p.m., presenting his art and poetry and speaking about his journey as a writer.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Meaning and Perspective

Today is never an easy day for me. It's a little easier every year, but it's never easy. On this day, a number of years ago, I unexpectedly lost my father. Without going into too many details, his last forty hours on this side of life were full of emotional turbulence. He was not conscious for the bulk of it, but for those around him, it was a difficult ride full of twists and sudden turns. The one thing that comes back to me every time, though, is a simple set of lyrics, and in hindsight, I learned a lot about meaning and perspective from that forty-hour stretch.

I got the call early Saturday morning that my father was in the hospital. Not many details, just the typical, "You better get over there fast" call. Well, getting over there fast was a two-hour drive, which had all the nervousness of sitting in place combined with the risks of driving a car 65 miles per hour down a toll road while fraught with anxiety. Frankly, everyone along I-90 is lucky they survived my commute.

My father back in 2007, carrying around
my head for good luck.
Which brings me to the lyrics. The song, "Shadow of the Day" by Linkin Park was all the rage on the Top 40 stations, so it got air time constantly. During my drive of anxiety, the last thing I was concerned about was finding the right music, so I left it where it was - a Top 40 station. This means that during my two-hour drive, I heard that song at least once and often twice. Through that time, one particular stanza stands out:
And the shadow of the day
Will embrace the world in gray
And the sun will set for you
Now, does this stanza mean something to you? Maybe it has deep meaning, or maybe it has enough movement for you to understand what it is getting at. However, as my mood changed during my driving, those lyrics changed.

My first trip to the hospital was mired in anxiety and the threat of loss, so these lyrics offered the threat of loss, of death. For two hours I asked myself whether my father was already dead; had his sun set? Well, he was still alive. Eight hours of surgery and all kinds of procedures, but this stubborn Army veteran made it. He would be touch and go for a few days, but he had survived something that should've killed him before he hit the operating table.

Driving home that night, the song comes on again, and now I am thinking about mortality. At some point, my father will die, but now I had time to embrace that idea, to get used to that eventual future. The lyrics meant something new because I was in a new place.

After an unsettled sleep, I again drove the two hours to see how he was doing. Again, the song comes on, and my more collected self thinks about the stages of life, and how as each new stage starts, an old stage fades to gray. My father would likely never be quite the same man again. For a man in his mid-70s, recovery would be a struggle that might take the cheer from his face. He would enter old age now, and need some attention. Life was changing, and the sun had set on the previous era.

About a half-hour after I arrived, his heart rate crashed and he died. After settling what to do and making the first arrangements for the funeral, I drove home. That damn song came on. I knew exactly what it meant. It was death. Finality. It was over.

As a writer, I think about that moment a lot. When I write a piece, the words change depending on the mood I create in the narrative. The same description can become many things depending on whether it's upbeat, somber, or whatever. It's like sarcasm - it survives on content, and dies without mood. When you incorporate mood, look at how the words are influenced. It can be a very powerful tool in a writer's kit.

My thanks to Linkin Park for the song, and to Dad for those extra forty hours - I'll remember them forever.


Friday, February 21, 2020

The Powerful Process of Simply Writing

Sometimes, dedication comes at a cost. To help promote books, writing, and literacy, I support my local library by holding a seat on the Board of Trustees. However, occasionally this creates a schedule conflict, and the Board comes first. So, the other day, my Library Board responsibilities meant I missed the opportunity to participate in a fifteen-minute flash-fiction session at a different library. For anyone who wants to discover things about their writing process, I highly recommend these.

They are very simple events. People get out their paper and pencil (or pen), are given a writing prompt, and for the next fifteen minutes, they write the first story that enters their head. Usually this is a narrative exercise, because it forces more creativity, but different groups do it different ways. Some allow people to use their laptops (I prefer to physically write for reasons I will explain later), other groups offer the prompts in advance. The point is, for the next quarter-hour, it's all about the writing.

The results of these endeavors can be wild and varied, and most of the creations are awkward little creations. Sometimes someone really knocks it out of the park, and often someone creates the kernel of a future story. To me, those parts aren't as important as the process part. We often discover a lot about ourselves when we enter into a process that frees us of self-consciousness and lets us focus on that one thing we want to do - write.

This is a bit of a giveaway about my age, but I learned proper typing technique in 1980 on an IBM Selectric in General Business in junior high. Before that, it was all about paper and pencil, learning print and cursive, and constantly stretching out my aching hand after every page of writing. My father found an old electric typewriter and gave it to me in high school for homework. Eventually, I learned typing on a keyboard, but writing was still my hardwired experience. Long before I learned that ASDFGHJKL; was the home row, my hands were writing down ideas, thoughts, love notes to girlfriends, ideas in my journal, and yes, poems and stories.

Writing in my mot natural form involves paper and pen. Now, I fully admit that I wrote my first novel on a laptop, and all subsequent manuscripts are courtesy of Microsoft Word. However, there is still a labor to that flow at times. I will be typing a narrative and that annoying red line will appear where I spelled something wrong. Now I'm thinking about that, and it breaks my pace. Other 21st-century interruptions hit as well, and I have to break my process to become the tech support guy. For a writer, it's annoying to not be writing.

This is why I enjoy flash-fiction sessions. For those fifteen minutes, technology, formatting, and all the technological invasions drift away, and I am that sixth-grader with the crude penmanship, writing that note to my secret crush (and we will leave her name out of this). I am relieved of all distractions and now let the feeling of that pencil in my fingertips wash away everything but my connection to the written word. I am more of a writer in that moment because I am no longer anything else. No tech support, no thoughts about keeping my fingers on the home row. I am just a writer, and for that time, I reconnect with exactly who I want to be in that moment.

Maybe flash fiction isn't your thing. Maybe you are younger than me (like the majority of people in the USA), and you connect better through a keyboard. The point is, every now and then, distill your process and spend some time writing with the purest process you can get; free of distractions, obligations, or preconceived notions of what you want to write. Wash away everything else, and give yourself that bit of time to remind yourself what it feels like to just be a writer.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Our Very Own Story

Today is a special day for me; a day that every person gets to acknowledge in their own time if they feel so inclined. No, I am not referring to Presidents' Day. Rather, it is my birthday. I have completed another lap around the Sun, and this is something that only 0.274% of all people can say today. With such a unique event occurring, how does one write about this? How does this special event become a story?

First, we should discuss what does and doesn't make this day special, because as I have discussed at length, a story comes from finding something that stands out from the ordinary. Even though less than 0.3% of the world shares this birthday, that still adds up to over 20.5 million people. Suddenly it doesn't seem as special when more people share your birthday than live in the state of New York. No, the date itself is not the story.

Of course, the exact day I was born might be more interesting. The top songs were Love is Blue and The Mighty Quinn - not much help there. I was born during the 1968 Winter Olympics. Maybe if my parents cared about the men's Slalom competition held that day in Grenoble, France, there would be a story, but they were not that into winter sports. Living in Chicago was enough of a winter sport for them. They also did not concern themselves with basketball, which means that the opening of the Basketball Hall of Fame that day meant nothing. No real story there.

In these cases, we can look for a story by finding something that happened in the world on that day that people react to, and tightening the focus to how that event that everyone knew influenced the very intimate event of someone's birth. My brother's first birthday coincided with the assassination of JFK - that quickly became a story that people can connect with since they knew the larger event, and could now connect the smaller event of a birthday party to that fateful moment in Houston.

Connecting the big with the small is a nice perspective story, as it can bring a stranger into the moment through a related event. However, the smaller event connected to another smaller event can provide a more personal connection that gives a story the feeling of a secret that the reader is being told. That brother of mine with the birthday during JFK's assassination - well, when my brother was born, my father could not be in attendance because he was with his family, saying farewell to his own father, who died three hours before my brother was born. My brother was named after my grandfather for that reason. Chances are, you've never met my grandfather or my brother. However, the story would be about coincidence and loss, and those events can connect a reader to the content, even without the actual event being experienced.

Where is the story for my birthday? Well, it's hard for me to know since I was very young at the time. However, I do know that I was born a little after nine in the morning, and by noon my father had been checked into the hospital for a health emergency (as you can tell, my father had a lot of bad experiences when his children came into the world). I know that I did not have a name for three days because my mother wanted some input from my father, but he was heavily sedated even as my mother was being checked out of the hospital. Eventually, she decided to name me after her father, although I think growing up with my first name, Baby Boy Pressler, would've been okay as well.

When we have our birthdays, they are days to celebrate ourselves. We rejoice with that 0.3% of the world, get our free drink at the bar, and let our friends sing to us. And if we decide to tell that story about us, we find the thing that people can connect to that is unique to us. There might be 20 million people who share that birthday, but finding that story that speaks to our moment is the best story we can write.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Love Stories

It's Valentine's Day - how could today's post be about anything other than love stories? We all know them, we've read a few whether we admit it or not, and there is an entire sub-industry within the writing community that thrives on love and romance. This seems like it would be the most natural thing to write about. Not all of us have experiences adventure, thrilling tales of derring-do, or epic fantasy, but love - it's everywhere. How can this be difficult to write about?

It's not difficult to write about. Writing it well, however, is a challenge.

Love stories are different than other genres in one very important way. Horror stories are full of horror, hopefully from the first sentence. Thrillers have the main character at constant risk. Science fiction creates an entire fantasy world to fill the pages. Those genres go cover to cover with the subject matter. Love stories, however, are different. In this genre, love is the destination, not the environment.

Before I go any further, there are a number of stories about two people in love and their relationship grows throughout the narrative. However, a story requires obstacles and challenge, and in these continuing relationship stories, the tension comes from that connection being challenged or threatened, and the reader hoping the two can find each other again. These are still love stories, but perhaps they should be called threatened-love stories.

Now, looking at the mainstream of this genre, maybe it would be too wordy to call these "falling-in-love" stories, but that's where the story lies. Two people meet, there's some kind of connection but there are hurdles to be overcome, challenges to be faced, and usually at least one of the characters is already in a relationship. This is where the bulk of the story is; this drives the narrative.

The part that makes the real love stories stand out is that our main characters experience love as the story develops, but it is not fully recognized, acknowledged, and made real for hundreds of pages. A good writer will give the characters moments together where the chemistry shows, perhaps even showing how each character feels but never communicates to the other. He is drawn to her, she is drawn to him, but they just can't bring themselves to tell each other. This is a very tense experience for the reader, who should want them to finally get together because they can see both sides of the situation, but things get increasingly hopeless as the world seems to be against them. They love each other, but they don't know the other loves them. "Incomplete love story" is also too wordy.

And, of course, there are the stories where the two people do find each other, but the world keeps pulling them apart. Whether it is a socially forbidden love like Romeo and Juliet, or any other set of circumstances that keeps a couple from being a couple, now the reader is with the characters in hoping they overcome the world's obstacles and are together happily ever after. Same level of tension, but as opposed to the previous example, the reader participates in the characters' adventure.

If you want to write a love story, don't think about the love part. Think first about what separates, what divides, and what resists. Think about the tensions, the complications, the troubles in the world that keep us from happiness. Think about the story, and make the characters do everything to overcome them in the name of love, because that's what people want to read about - doing everything to end up happily ever after..

But for now, go enjoy your Valentine's Day, then write about it Monday.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Writing Humorous Stories, Not Just Funny Ideas

Everyone knows that one funny person - someone who is the go-to for a good laugh, an entertaining story, or just that look on life that makes you smile. Writers can learn a lot from these people - delivery. presentation, and just how people make the simple story entertaining. However, writers can also learn that there is a big difference between the funny person, the funny story, and funny writing, and in particular how they are not always interchangeable.

I was invited to participate in a comedy slam this week, and I decided to jump in. It isn't stand-up per se, just amusing storytelling and wit. To prepare for this, I started thinking about some particularly amusing thing that happened and how I could do a funny five-minute set about it.

You guessed it - things got weird at that point. I realized there were a lot of funny, weird events that happened, but they weren't funny stories - just events. When I watched a pigeon fight a squirrel for a bread heel, only to see another pigeon steal it behind their backs, that was funny. Was it a story? Not really. I literally told the event in one sentence - a story takes much more. Watching two people walking down the street walk right into each other because they were both texting? Funny, and kind of a social statement, but where's the story?

One of the biggest mistakes beginning writers make is confusing an idea for a story, and humor is the same way. In that regard, urban wildlife fighting over scraps or Millennials walking into each other is funny, but not humorous.  Humorous takes something a little stronger.

Let's recall what makes a story: a character, an event, personal confrontation, and change. Someone encounters something that does not fit their way of living, thinking, or doing, and that interactions brings about some kind of result. When we work with humor, we take this story component and distort the framework. We stretch, bend, and contort, in hopes of exaggerating the aspects that will entertain our audience.

Of course, the immediate go-to is to make everything bigger, stronger, louder, and more absurd. This gonzo style of humor has its place, but it is far easier to fail at this than succeed. Rather, we write humorous pieces when we exaggerate one particular aspect of a story and expand on everything that this aspect touches. We allow one part to inflate itself beyond its reality, and let the distortions be the entertainment.

Have you ever been a passenger in the car of a terrible driver? Maybe they're not terrible, but their driving makes you uncomfortable? (Anyone who taught a teenager to drive immediately qualifies) This is fertile ground to point out every mistake that driver made in extremis and emphasize the reactions accordingly. Do they take a turn too fast? Describe the screeching of the two tires that remained on the road as you are thrown to the side, clutching onto your seat belt for dear life as the driver rips through that left-turn lane. Do they stop too hard? Then every stop is like a Heimlich in the gut as you jerk forward, your forehead so perilously close to the dashboard as the car jerks to a halt at the stoplight.

Those examples have no jokes, but the exaggeration brings the discussion beyond its reality, and hopefully entertains the crowd as well. As for me, I'll be trying that at the Black Road branch of the Joliet Library coffee shop, Thursday, during the comedy slam that starts around 6 p.m.

And undoubtedly, that experience - for better or worse - will make for some humorous writing.


Friday, February 7, 2020

The Hidden Story

A lot of my posts in the past two months have been about finding and uncovering stories rather than writing stories. Be warned - this is no different. However, this is more about a special kind of story. There's often a story that is right in front of our face, hiding in plain sight. These stories exist in a way that we don't fully appreciate until we are offered one little fact that changes our perspective. At that point, all we can see is the new story.

I have a print of an old map by Ortelius, a 16th-century cartographer, hanging in my living room. As a map it holds no value - it's one of those where Asia is way too small, Australia is merged into Antarctica. the Americas are horribly distorted, and some parts are just missing. Use this for navigating purposes at your own risk. Rather, I have it because it looks cool hanging by my wine rack and serves as a nice conversation starter. I also have it because it has a hidden story, and I let people study it for a while to try and spot it. They never do, but it's right there.

Sometimes the hidden story is very subtle. Look at the websites with strange photo positioning and you see how there might be someone looking through a window in the background, or a reflection in a mirror that ruins the scene. Those are details that are deeply hidden, but once you see them you can't unsee them. Those become interesting stories to write, and learning that technique is an art form.

Consider a story about three people talking. Simple, right? Well, a reader assumes that three people talking means they are talking to each other, which is called a conversation. However, if we play with the little cues that suggest a conversation, we can manipulate the scene so that it is actually two people having a conversation, while the third person is a ghost, or a shared memory they have, or a stranger talking to himself. We hide that fact at first but never lie about it - we just leave out anything that would imply two-way discussion with the person not involved. Then, when we reveal that fact, the reader notices that this has been right in front of them all along.

The thing about my map is that a little knowledge of history is involved. Not everyone is fluent in the details of the Age of Discovery, so it's hardly their fault that this detail is overlooked. However, once that key piece of information is introduced, their world changes. A good story does that as well.

Think of the classic whodunit where the guy and his friend head out to solve a crime. In this, the big reveal is that the guy's friend is actually the criminal who has been trying to foil the investigation without giving himself away. The writer not only has to map out the main story, but create a hidden story on how the criminal quietly plans things, creates red herrings, and misleads his friend. This creates a second story which is not written until the big reveal and then is explained. At that point, the reader can never read that story again the same way, and looks at it with this new knowledge. The world of that story changes.

The hidden story is a technique that demands intense attention to detail, not only to hide things in plain sight but keep the reader focused so intensely on the main story that they do not put together the hidden story until it is revealed to them.

Oh -- the map? Ortelius did this weird thing where he mapped out Antarctica and a number of coastal details. However, according to the accepted history of civilization, the land mass known as Antarctica was not seen by human eyes until the 19th century. It has been a subject of theory and conjecture, but never seen, yet this person had enough information to put it on a map.

And so we no longer think about the map, but the squiggly lines at the bottom that represent something that nobody knew about.

Monday, February 3, 2020

This Is Not About the Super Bowl

Believe it or not, it is a fact that not everyone cares about the Super Bowl. Yes, it might be the most-watched annual event in the world, but let's be honest - not everyone cares. Most of the world doesn't concern itself with American football, and within the United States, the game showcases only two of the 32 teams in the NFL. Ultimately, two fan bases have a vested interest, while the rest of the viewers are either concerned about how the score affects their office pool, how good the halftime show will be, the cool commercials, or whether the food at the Super Bowl party will be worth the effort.

So how do we find the story within this spectacle that people will want to read?

First, let's be clear: Writing a story about the Super Bowl does not mean writing about the chain of key events throughout the game. I have said this before and I'll say it again - that is called a news story, not a creative story. Yes, it explains the game and establishes a scene, but it does not create a story as much as re-creates a story. As writers, we can do so much more.

Second, there are a lot of potential stories to write about, but a writer's obligation is to find a particular story and explore that thread. The biggest mistake we make as writers is to try and do everything. We look at the game and see two young quarterbacks trying to win it all. We also see the struggles each team has gone through, how they performed in the playoffs, the effects of San Francisco and Kansas City both playing the biggest game of the year in Miami, and so on. There is the clash of cultures, the classic offense-versus-defense discussion, and who the real stars will be.

All of this does not make a story.

A story worth reading finds one point - a character, a situation, a specific aspect of the whirlwind that is the Super Bowl - and hones in on it. Usually, such a story can be boiled down to a one-word theme: friendship, rivalry, unity, etc. Then it needs some point of conflict, either between characters, between someone and their ideals, or merely one person fearing their team will lose. The theme brings in the reader, the conflict gets them reading, and the continuing tension keeps them reading to resolution. And, as you may have figured, none of these stories require an actual knowledge about football. Here are some simple ones:

  • A man goes with his girlfriend to a Super Bowl party, and while she is very excited because her team is playing, he feels awkward because he doesn't really care about football, but wants to fit in with her friends
  • Someone is with his friends, all rooting for their team, but he realizes that if their team loses, he wins $500 in the office pool
  • Two fans of opposite teams bond during the game, but it is tested in the end when one fan is ultimately confronted with his team losing

Those stories all involve the Super Bowl, all have the one-word identifier (conformity, challenge, friendship or rivalry depending on the ending), and ultimately require virtually no knowledge of football. They become stories anyone can appreciate because the stories are about human interests.

Of course, the in-game stories are just as interesting when they focus on one player, one aspect of strategy, or some particular detail. The importance is that the story targets one point and explores it in a way readers can relate to. However, I find it easier to write about the commercials during the game. The Groundhog Day commercial - awesome!