Monday, March 30, 2020

Writing In the Age of Quarantine

To be honest, this post comes as a surprise even to me. One of the ongoing themes I present in this blog is to keep on writing. Make some time to write every day. Try writing something different. Challenge yourself as a writer. I end my correspondences with fellow writers with, "Keep on writing" (and this blog site). In short, I emphasize writing.

Well, things change.

The past few weeks in the world have been... different. A lot of people I know have been furloughed, laid off, or are on work-from-home situations that give them a lot of extra time to write. Unfortunately, it becomes too much time. Way too much. Imagine a simple diary:


  • Day 1: Feeling creative, starting that big project
  • Day 2: Wrote 2,000 words toward my manuscript! Loving this extra time!
  • Day 3: Got more writing in. Fingers kinda sore, but the creativity flows.
...

  • Day 12: Does this ever end? I see words wherever I look.
  • Day 13: I think I am writing myself in circles. This is getting maddening.
  • Day 14: I must press forward. Writing is all I can do now.

...

  • Day 25: All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work...

...

  • Day 41: My 1,600-page manifesto is complete. I will now start a new society...


Too much of anything can be unhealthy, even writing. Make sure to mix things up. There are plenty of ways to be a writer, and plenty of exercises can shape the different facets of your craft. Instead of pouring all your efforts into one thing, break it into different routines. This is what I do just to keep myself on my toes:

First day: Focus on main project
Second day: Main project, also but read something of a similar genre
Third day: Main project
Fourth day: Try writing something totally new -- poems, song lyrics, two-sentence stories, etc.
Fifth day: Editing day
...and repeat.

Let me explain what Editing day is, because it does not explain itself. When I need a break but still wish to be creative, I take some time to review an old piece. My job is not to see what needs correcting, but rather I examine it to see what I might do differently now, and see how my writing style has changed. The main reason I do this is to remind myself of both my progress as a writer and the brilliance that has always existed. It may sound vain or egotistical, but we all need to charge our batteries with reminders about how far we've come.

And lastly, on a more serious note, I hope everyone reading this takes special care of themselves and those close to them during this time. As hard as these days may be, there will come a point where we will look back on this and marvel at the strength and courage that got us through. Let's focus on that point, and do our best to help others see it as well.

And keep on writing.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Writers Never Die - They Just Stop Revising

My last post discussed a piece of poetry I dug up from decades ago. Here's a question for non-writers - do you own one piece of paper from thirty years ago with your writing on it? (More than a signature, please) Probably not. Now a question for the writers - how many revisions do you have of your last work? I can safely respond to your answer with, "Wow, that's a lot but I'm not surprised." It's more than just sentimentality - the written word carries meaning for those who value it.

Remembering Bughouse Square and the author who captured it
The point is, our written words do amazing things for us, and eventually for those who read them. My little poem from thirty years ago brought me back to that little room, #3004, in the prison-styled dorms of my freshman year. Another piece I wrote during a disability stint transported me to a sick bed, reliving the moment I decided I needed to write more. (For more detail, see my post, Starting Off As A Writer) Again, that piece of writing was almost twenty years old, but those words capture life.

This has all come back to me as I began the arduous task of helping my friend Linda work through organizing her late husband's things. Newton, her husband of fifteen years, was also my writing mentor and helped me get to where I am now, so this was not a labor as much as a service to his memory. I posted his passing here, and spent a while writing through my grieving process. Now, with my social life severely curtailed thanks to... well, you've seen the news - I was able to help Linda with the process of dealing with her husband and my mentor's effects.

And just like that, Newton came back to life.

The first step we took on was clearing out all of the drafts of his since-published books. I guarantee that for every page of final copy a writer produces, there are five pages of edits surrounding the desk. Newton had several books published, so you can imagine all the recycling bins we filled. However, picking up one page not only brought his story into the open, but also brought his mindset into the light. Notes on character dialogue and word usage reminded me how he would labor about things like a Mississippi accent or just when bad grammar made more of an impression than editorial perfection. I found his last draft of his novel, Bughouse Square, which I edited, and there were my notes scribbled across the pages. Next to most of the edits, Newton placed a simple check mark. It meant he accepted my change and incorporated it. He overrode a few of them, but that is a writer's prerogative.

Writing is powerful like that. Sitting among those literally thousands of sheets of paper, a part of him was there as well. This may sound sad, but it wasn't. This was a chance to remember the writer I knew, the master chess player, and the storyteller extraordinaire, all while setting aside his last days where his health and mind collapsed. And as writers, we have the give of placing ourselves in those pages, so others may relive our existence now and then, and connect with us long after we've written the last word.

I also extracted Newton's last work, finished but unpublished - Circle of Evil - and in tribute I will publish it posthumously this year for him and his wife, Linda. And for just a little bit longer, Newton will live again. He just can't override my edits this time.

Monday, March 23, 2020

That Poetry Moment

I always preface poetry posts by saying that I am not a poet; at least I don't consider myself one. I have written poems, and some say that is enough to earn the title. However, poetry requires a special touch, the element that separates drawings from art, singing from a vocalist, and activity from an athlete. This post will discuss just what that touch is, and how to nurture it along. Even if your goal is not to be a poet, it is applicable to any creative process.

A little backstory: I always liked to write, but as little more than a hobby. My calling, my passion was (and still is) for numbers. The straight-line predictability and sturdiness of an equation always intrigued me. No matter what my mood was, 2x+4y=9 would always solve to the same, simplistic line. In a chaotic world, that was comforting. However, that did very little when it came to the part of me that needed to resolve those emotional entanglements known as my life.

And now to college - the most tumultuous time of my life. I had packed my entire existence into the backseat of my car and went to college with no home to return to if I failed. Make or break time. My major would either be statistics or operations research (I eventually went for both), but I still had those electives. I took a communications course discussing the great plays, and read Ibsen, Strindberg, Miller and so forth, all while trying to tell myself this would somehow help me be a better statistician, actuary, or economist. A hard sell indeed.

One night, after a fun time reading Death of A Salesman while drinking gin and listening to disc 1 of Pink Floyd's The Wall, that moment found me. With my stress at full boil, a little alcohol buzz pushing away my inhibitions, and still very much in the rhythm of the song, Nobody's Home, I scribbled down a poem. It wasn't beautiful, it wasn't lightning in a bottle. However, it was the first poem I had written that was not an assignment. I wrote it because it needed to come out and I was just enough into a place where that could happen. So it happened.

The other day I came across that very sheet of paper in my college files. As I read it, I half-expected to do that thing where a writer reads an old work and says, "Pfeh! Why did I think this was good?" Nope. Not this time. True, it wasn't perfect. However, it captured the poetry moment. It took that frame of emotional tension and poured those feelings onto the page. Unrefined, without any doctoring or rationalization, these words spoke straight to my turbulent time in that dorm room.

That poem was the poetry moment.

When we write, we often take an idea and play it out with our many writing tools and creative influences. The difficult part can be maintaining that inspiration throughout. With poetry, we can focus on that one feeling and make it dominate the page. This, however, requires that feeling to enter our mind, fill our heart (or whatever) to the point of overflowing, and then spill across the page, unfiltered, unpasteurized, no added sugars or preservatives.

Emotions are powerful and at times terrifying and dangerous. We shy away from them more than we care to admit. However, if we, as writers, can muster up the courage to confront them and capture them in the safe housing of a sheet of paper, we will feel that poetry moment.

And when it comes to gaining courage, of course, I recommend gin.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Show, Don't Tell (But Sometimes Tell)

One of the first exercises we are taught as writers is the art of description. We write about some simple noun like, for example, an orange blob, and describe it with all five senses as well as emotive responses This exercise is tedious but it gets us used to thinking in terms of description, so if a future orange blob makes some annoying sound, we are ready to write it down. More to the point, this leads us to our next step as writers - the infamous "Show, don't tell."

Describing the simple can be very difficult
In short, this is the art of describing the interplay of object and setting, not just the subject itself. If I were to tell you about the orange blob, I can still be fancy about it. For example: "the orange blob sat on the table, the jiggly, amorphous form looking no more interesting than a Jello mould dessert at a picnic that nobody touched. It sat quietly, unassumingly, not making one sound or radiating any aroma to attract attention. The orange blob liked it that way." Not too bad, but it is strictly the tell side. The most interesting part comes from relating it to the Jello mould example, but technically that isn't part of the story. However, that part is interesting because it shows us something.

It's often asked, if a tree falls and nobody's there to hear it, does it make a sound? Meditation aside, the same is true for anything we describe - if nobody is there to see the orange blob, why are we writing about it? Indeed, once we have someone experience the blob - even if it's the blob itself - then we allow for interaction, and we can create the imagery through the blob's participation in the world.

Let's pretend that blob is an orange Jello mould dessert on a table, and it is thinking about its situation. We can describe it through the blob's participation. "He knew he looked tasty but he wanted to go home intact without strangers having picked and poked at him, pulling out the sliced fruit within. As the hungry dessert seeker approached, he stood perfectly still, not one jiggle in his perfect orange form. He resisted his natural Jello urge to shimmer and shine, instead being as inconspicuous as possible. His faint Jello aroma would be easily overwhelmed by the banana creme pie on his left. Victory came when the person seeking dessert cut away a huge chunk of pie. It looked painful, but it wasn't him."

In that bit, we now know why the orange blob is there, what it's thinking, and our description engages the world he is in. That scene could exist without the description though it would be weaker, and the description would be boring without the scene around it.

Now, I promised sometimes it is better to tell. After you learn all about show, don't tell, you learn when to break the rules. Sometimes, we can use simple, even boring descriptions to create a scene that, without saying it, engages the reader on a different level. Here's a simple description. "With Brahms playing on the stereo, Laura laid still on the couch, a slight smile on her face. The table next to her was cleared of everything save for an almost-empty mug of coffee, a picture of her boyfriend, and an empty bottle of sleeping pills propping up a simple note."

The scene is quiet, peaceful, perhaps boring at first. It is not interactive, the interplay nonexistent. However, the items on the table, while truly nondescript, move the reader to put together a story that is being told by their presence, and hopefully call 9-1-1. This trick works when the reader is engaged with the story and participating in its activity. A peaceful scene becomes a jarring splash of cold reality.

Most of the time, interplay is priceless for the perfect description. However, don't be afraid to let some dramatic moments do some heavy lifting as well.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Different Ways to Tell the Same Story

Spoiler Alert: This post uses details from the classic story, "Of Mice and Men" by John Steinbeck. If this is on your reading list, put this post aside, read the book (it's only 200 pages) then come back. 
Traditionally, a story in the conventional three-act structure brings our characters into the world, takes them on an adventure, brings them to a culminating moment, and they end up changed, for better or worse. Nothing wrong with this structure at all - it's very effective, and it brings the reader along a life path that is very familiar and comfortable. Our own existence is much the same - a linear movement from A to B to C and so on down the line. However, the nonlinear method - telling a story outside the order of events - has some advantages.

Of Mice and Men gives us the story of George and Lennie, two field workers going from job to job out in California during the Great Depression. This state of existence creates a solid base for their development, offering no biases for the reader and letting the story fill in the character. We learn that George is pretty smart, and that Lennie is a hulking man with mental impediments and control issues. As the story unfolds, we get little reveals that Lennie needs a caretaker in George. More importantly, we see in an escalating series of confrontations, particularly with their angry, annoying boss, Curley, that trouble is never far away. Confrontations with Lennie end with people getting hurt, and the second-act tension ramps up to the point where Lennie goes too far and kills Curley's wife. In one of Steinbeck's most tragic and memorable moments, George takes Lennie to a peaceful place, talks to him calmly, and shoots him dead.

From a writer's view, this is a textbook escalation story, with a build-up that not only ramps up the tension between the different character groups, but also acknowledges George's personal conflict about how to take care of Lennie. However, what if some of this information is revealed ahead of time - before it occurs in the chronological order of the story? With that technique, we create a new rhythm to this classic tale - for better or worse.

A common technique is to begin a story with a dramatic event somewhere well into act two. At one point, Curley attacks Lennie, and gets his hand broken by Lennie's immense strength. If we bring out this point first - the reader's first experience is a fight between Curley and Lennie - that impression starts off the story with an emphasis on Lennie's capacity for physical violence. He is not the gentle giant who we later learn has no impulse control, but rather a man willing and able to break someone's hand. Definitely a different note to start with, and it affects all the subsequent notes.

Now, if we start the story by first showing George taking Lennie back to their camping area, gun in pocket, ready to put an end to his companion, but do not go as far as pulling the trigger before going to how their story began, this creates suspense. We know that moment is coming, but will he do what we think he will? When we then see them as friends and George as a loyal caretaker, we think about that moment ahead and wonder how could we go from a friendly moment to imminent tragedy. In a story like Steinbeck's we do not need such an artificial build, as the story carries a very natural sense of drama. However, some stories that dramatically shift between the beginning and the end can benefit from the reordering.

The little reveals of information can do amazing things to a story. The next post will be not about order but about when to drop the elements that create a specific mood.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Blurring the Lines Between Good and Bad

Picture in your mind a villain. Not a specific one - let Boris Karloff and Alan Rickman rest. In your mind, make up the image of someone truly villainous. Male or female, human or otherwise - the only prerequisite is that they will be the antagonist to a story. Now once you have that together, focus on the stand-out traits and figure out a way to describe them in the story. Find some words that get the point across in a way that pleases you, and really puts that bad person on the page. (There's a purpose to this.)

Since this is a villain, it would not be surprising if all the descriptors had some kind of evil connotation or sinister overtone. Were the colors dark and shadowy, or perhaps blood-red? The definition of their face - strong, defined lines; angular features and distinct contrasts? Are there scars or facial hair? Perhaps a deformity or misshapen features that call to the reader for their unusual presentation. These are all perfectly acceptable villain features - nothing wrong here. However, what happens when we sort through those? Certain features are more typical of villains, but some are more appropriate for strong characters - good or bad.

The old Dick Tracy comics (and particularly the movies in the 1930s and 1940s) became a classic display of good versus evil as portrayed through character description. The good guys might not have been pretty, but they were presented with clear, distinct lines and consistent elements. They became the norm for the standards presented in Dick Tracy's world. It might be physically impossible to live with a jaw as well-cornered as Tracy's, but that squared jaw represented a very attractive trait and helped define him as a great guy.

The bad guys, however, were all different. They were deformed, misfit creations that didn't blend into the world but rather stood out as aberrations. They were scarred, misshapen entities capable of doing anything that society rejected because their appearance was against all social norms. They were the prototypical definition of the enemy, in every sense.

So far, nothing new here. However, what happens when we take a few traits of bad guys and give them to our hero? What if the villain has some heroic traits or pleasant features? Now we have gone beyond pulp comics and ventured into the realm of complex storytelling. A hero with a pronounced facial scar not only suggests a rich backstory, but the symbol also implies internal conflict and perhaps tragedy. Our hero wears the mark usually saved for villains, and perhaps this symbolizes a darker nature, or a weakness for doing the wrong thing. Maybe the hero is at risk of succumbing to darker influences, and that temptation will test them later in the story. It's not just a deformity at that point - it's a signal to the reader about a lot under the surface.

Oh, and pity the reader that tries to hate a villain with redeeming traits. A beautiful villain might not be so bad, but what if that antagonist also takes care of their sick mother? What if they have a moral code to follow? If our villain carries traits that aren't so villain-y, the reader becomes conflicted as well. The reader has to weigh the situation, and make tough choices. If the reader is doing that, I guarantee the reader is fully invested in your story.

The next time you draw the lines for your protagonist and antagonist, try smudging things a little. That wouldn't fly in Dick Tracy comics, but in narratives, it makes characters stand out.


Monday, March 9, 2020

One Writer, Different Voices

I've had the wonderful experience of a friend telling me, "I met (a certain actor) last week... and he is nothing like the characters he plays!" Of course, I was happy for my friend and that celebrity coup. However, a part of my brain had to stop and catch its breath. I thought, "You do know that (a certain actor) is actually an entirely different entity that the characters he plays, yes? The characters are written, while (a certain actor) exists entirely on his own, and often makes his own decisions on his words, mannerisms, wardrobe, and life choices." But then I thought how easy it is for us to blend together the art and the artist, as unfair as that may be.

On more than one occasion, a newcomer to my workshop will hear one of my pieces and later, say, "Your writing is different than you." Sometimes, that's a compliment; other times not. I look at it from the point of view that if I can write in a voice or style other than what I consider my natural way, then that's a good thing. The only real question should be whether that's how I want things to come out.

Being able to create pieces in different styles and with different voices is a healthy writing goal - this allows the writer the liberty of deciding the best way to deliver any message they want with the story, and convey it effectively. These should be like second languages or voice impersonations, where the creator of the piece vanishes and that alternate approach dominates the scene. We see that all the time in movies, particularly when (a certain actor) steps outside their usual good-guy role to portray someone who is morally dubious or downright bad. We should pursue the same thing as writers.

Consider a story centered around something very solemn - a funeral, perhaps. The character has to deliver a eulogy for a loved one, but has a lot of pent-up frustrations that need to be expressed. An emotionally volatile subject, easy to turn into something with real impact. It would be easy to write this in a very sobering, tough-life voice, making everything as dreary as possible and filling it with one frustrating revelation after another, but how can we change the product while retaining the story? What does another voice sound like?

Ever get to sit through a bad wedding toast? I mean really bad - like the drunken uncle making rude jokes and offering comments about the newlyweds so cringeworthy that you want to hide under the table? Where you actually feel embarrassed for the bride and groom? Where later, people still talk about the speech like a support group for Post-Traumatic Toast Syndrome? Gather that experience, collect the voice of that experience and bring it to our eulogy story.

We take all the mood of our happy wedding reception and move it to the eulogy. The funeral doesn't have to become a happy affair, but instead of attention turned toward tears and handkerchiefs, descriptions focus more on everyone wearing their nicest attire to send off the deceased in the respectable manner they deserved. Then here comes the speaker to give his eulogy, mourners anticipating the fond memories to be shared that will lift their spirits and bring closure to the moment. Then the eulogy begins with all the errors and gaffes of that same drunken uncle, and all those moods shift. The voice and mood of the story is not that of a funeral, it's of the wedding, and the effect, while distressing, gives a different result.

I always give consideration to the voice I want to use for a story before I even put a word to the page. And like any good writer, I give myself the liberty to change it afterward; after all, sometimes we all have those moments when we know something would work better; when (a certain actor) just isn't right for the part as written. Fortunately, we have the liberty to rewrite the thing as we wish, and we don't have to recast the scene.

(Samuel L. Jackson. Just saying...)

Friday, March 6, 2020

Workshop Warnings

Since I do the whole writing workshop circuit around my neighborhood, I get to see a lot of different ways a group can help its writers. Some provide a close and supportive community, others establish specialized groups to help with particular aspects of the process, and there are even those that take on a collaborative feel, with very active and integrated participation. Every writer needs to find what serves then best, and some writers (such as myself) gain benefit from more than one group. Today, however, I would like to bring out a few warnings about the bad habits that occur in some groups, and what might not benefit you in your pursuit of this noble craft.

Let's say I write a story and take it to a group. This story is about a person contemplating the meaning of life while having dinner in a Chicago restaurant, enjoying a well-done steak with heavy ketchup. As a writer, I am trying to find a way to walk through his thoughts about life with a symbolic connection to his meal, so I take it to the workshop. This will be our setup for spotting some of the situations that might give us pause.

Some people might jump on the obvious stand-out of the story: a well-done steak? With ketchup? In Chicago? Well, that does kind of leap off the page, but is it worth critiquing? Honestly, I do not know one Chicagoan who wants their steak cooked longer than medium-rare, and none of them dare have ketchup on it. However, that is not a criticism - that's an observation that has nothing to do with the writing. Now, if the writer wants this person to come off as the average Chicagoan, a criticism might be that Chicagoans usually don't put ketchup on steaks (or hot dogs). However, there is nothing wrong with that in general - it's a writer's choice, and perhaps a good one if the objective is to get the reader's attention.

A more dangerous area within writing groups is when it comes to interpretation. Not everyone in a writing group is going to see things the same. Some might see the contemplation of life while eating a steak as symbolic of how in the end we all get swallowed up by things, others might see how one life can offer sustenance to another, and so on. When a group offers what each reader sees in a story, it can show the writer which parts worked and what might've fallen short, and maybe draw out some insights they didn't see themselves. However, group members should discuss this not as whether they are right or wrong. If they do, it does not help the writer. Only the writer knows the truth in their words, and only they can feel who got it and who didn't. Now, if nobody in the group says they saw what the writer intended, maybe the writer did fail to hit the right notes. However, it is not the group's responsibility to tell the writer who is wrong. That's not a workshop - it's a judgment chamber.

Here's a couple of personal notes as well on some critiques that do not help me whatsoever. Let's say I read my man-with-his-thoughts-and-his-steak story to the group. Person A wants the steak place to be more like Morton's, because that's how they envision steak houses. Person B wants an emphasis on side orders, the completeness of the meal, and whether it's balanced. Person C is a vegetarian, so he didn't care for it. These aren't critics who want to help you grow. These are people who want to write your story in their words or integrate themselves into your works. This happens more often than some writers are comfortable with, and should be taken with a grain of salt.

The critiques that help me grow as a writer make me think about my process, my creation, and how I can better myself. A good critic will ask me questions about pieces and what my intended result was. Workshops should involve a good amount of back and forth, with each person's comment not being a judgment as much as one of many equal perspectives that make up a reading audience. If you can find a group like that, hold on to it closely.

And seriously, if you cook a steak any further than medium-rare, is it even a steak anymore?

Monday, March 2, 2020

The Secret Uses of Description

Yes, using a picture of my kittens to draw a few readers is utterly shameless. It is a draw from the non-writer crowd and totally exploits my cats, who get none of the proceeds from my posts. However, little Dinkum and Hinkum here have a purpose other than being cute, and it is all about what writers can do with description.

Dinkum (left) and Hinkum
My real inspiration for this piece comes from the John le Carré quote that referred to a cat. "'The cat sat on the mat' is not a story," he famously said in the first part of his often-mentioned line, referring to how there was nothing particularly telling about that line. After all, cats sit on things. Mats are often sat on, particularly by cats. It's a very blah sentence. Now, we can spice it up a little with some description, but this is not just the simple task of filling in the scene. Our description must not only contribute to the scene, but make it into something more.

Now back to Dinkum and Hinkum. If one of them was the referred-to cat on the mat, what are some descriptions we could use to fill in the previous sentence? We could use simple words like cute, adorable, and such, and they would count as contributors. However, what did we actually add to the story? "The cute cat sat on the mat" doesn't really offer anything new. Most cats are cute, so the reader is pricing that into the sentence. Cute and adorable are descriptive, but they don't say anything that's already assumed. As the saying goes, "Dog bites man" is not news. "Man bites dog" is news.

We could advance the description to their colors. In a story, I would need to point out that Dinkum is gray and white while Hinkum has the more distinct black-and-white markings. Now, the gray-and-white cat sat on the mat tells us which one. That's a little more information and definitely an improvement upon cute or adorable, but not by much. The sentence has more words and some more information, but it does not offer us anything outside the realm of the original sentence.

Did I mention that these little darlings are rescues? They were abandoned when they were two weeks old and I needed to dropper-feed them several times a day for almost a month. Why is that important? Look what happens when I turn that into a descriptor. "The rescued cat sat on the mat." That one word now turns the sentence into something that interests the reader. The description hasn't just filled in the blanks, but offered a new set of blanks that the readers wants to find out about. Our previous descriptors gave us image but little substance. "Rescued" offers little in terms of image, but makes it a story.

When we use description, we can use it to not just fill in, but build onto the story. Cats can be cute or adorable, but describing them as being rescued, feral, zombies, and so forth adds not just to the sentence but the story. Same with the verb. Sat is simple, but sat patiently implies the cat is waiting for something in the next sentence, eagerly gives some urgency, and so forth. As for the mat, if we describe it as the dog's mat, we sense impending conflict. One descriptor creates a lot of story.

The full John le CarrĂ© quote was, “The cat sat on the mat is not a story. The cat sat on the other cat’s mat is a story.” He emphasized the addition of the descriptor to mat rather than cat, which counts as well. However, I chose to emphasize describing the cat so I could show the picture of my kittens. Aren't they adorable?