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).

Friday, April 10, 2020

"I had so much to drink last night..."

No, this is neither me bragging nor confessing to a binge night. This is the example of a creative prompt, which differs somewhat from a writing prompt.  As I have mentioned before, particularly in my post, A Writing Prompt For All Ages, writing prompts help us capture moments. In that regard, creative prompts move us to explore creative direction. There are a few common ways to go, each with some benefits. Here's a few examples and what they can provide.

"...that I don't remember most of the night."

The continuation. When we hear about drinking too much, the natural path is to go with what is familiar. Drinking leads to a variety of things, and finishing our prompt this way seems only natural. On a scale of 1 to 10 on the creative meter, this isn't too high at all. However, it prompts further writing about a blackout evening.

"...that my body was one olive away from legally being a martini."

Humor. This is one of the more challenging directions to go, because while most people are funny in their own way, humor in itself does not flow naturally. Furthermore, humor is hit-or-miss, which means one good punch line might be the result of ten so-so attempts and another dozen total flops. Working the humor muscle is a very valuable exercise because we often only use it when we are sure it will perform. As we strengthen that ability, we become more willing to try it out before something like continuation.

"...that I ended up in the hospital."

Through a prompt darkly. Most drinking stories are offered with a tone of lighthearted embarrassment or silliness. If you hear a bunch of dark drinking stories, you're probably in an AA meeting. From the amusing perspective, there might be nothing overtly funny about waking up the next morning in a dumpster, but it brings a smile. Therefore, it's all the more effective when those lighthearted expectations are turned sideways, and a tale becomes a dangerous life lesson. However, sense the mood in the room - this kind of route can stomp out the levity of a bachelor party.

And now a couple of creative prompt don'ts:

"...and yet I woke up without any effect."

Negation. Just like in improv, negation is the death of creativity. If the prompt wants to work on the drinking point, don't erase it, but build upon it. Creativity is found by addressing any question with "yes" (or the variants, "yes, and..." and "yes, but..."). Taking a premise and saying "No" is just bad style.

"...that I was still tipsy the next morning when we robbed the bank."

Redirect. This isn't a drinking story anymore, is it? Now, some argue that this method can be very forced in the creative department. Any prompt can be pushed into the bank-robbing story, but this takes away the natural interest of the original subject - drinking. Finding the flow of the moment is just as important as the direction.

If you want to play with this prompt, go ahead. I would mostly advise writing several things that explore many directions, and seeing what creative muscles get exercised. And maybe have a drink or two...

Monday, April 6, 2020

The Memory Trigger

My last post, The Writing Medium, explored how different ways of writing stirred up different moods and feelings depending, in part, on the tactile sensation of how we write. I ended that post with a teaser comment about typewriters and how that is another subject. Indeed, I hope this discussion shows just how we, as writers, connect to our medium on more than one level.

That beautiful memory-maker
The first time I got to use a typewriter on a regular basis is when I was eight. It was an ink-and-ribbon Royal typewriter, which would be one-hundred years old now (and sits prominently on my bureau). It was a cold, cranky piece of metal that I loved. As and eight-year-old, I had no need for a typewriter, but it fascinated me so I would roll in some paper and just type things. Not productive things like my spelling homework - just words, notes; anything I wanted to. To me, there was a power in pressing down on this antique lever, hearing the squeak of every joint as the great invention popped a specific mark onto my paper. A simple performance in the mechanical symphony - I was hooked. However, all dreams end. Eventually, the ribbon broke, I got older, and the typewriter became a footnote in my life. But the mechanics still fascinated me.

Roll forward to typing class in ninth grade. My life outside of school was a turbulent mess - family dysfunction, an exceptional amount of teenage angst, and so on. However, this was also the dawn of the home computer age, and I knew to excel in that, one needed to know how to type. So I took an elective typing course. It was not on a computer keyboard, but a heavyweight IBM electric. You know the type - bulky, rounded blocks of Detroit steel with a loud, squeaky cooling fan taken from a 747, all with that motor's constant hum and that spinning ball with every character waiting to whip around and tap into the paper. For those fifty minutes in typing class, I could try and escape my life and drown myself in the joys of typing. I typed faster and with more accuracy, and by the end of the course I didn't want to leave. However, I had to leave, and the whirlwind of my life waited outside that classroom. Whenever I type on those old typewriters, I feel like I am on a small, safe island, but I know the tide is rising and I have to start swimming soon enough. I have that feeling to this day.

In high school, my father brought home an old Smith-Corona cartridge typewriter from work (I still do not know if his work place knew about this). He wanted me to do my homework on it, and it was the best gift ever. It was lighter and more portable, an elite machine that quietly hummed, the keys just nudging their mark onto paper. It was a machine that worked with me, accepted me, and was light enough for me to carry into any room of the house. I would usually type in the same room as my father so he knew just how much I appreciated it. I think sometimes he would've preferred peace and quiet, but instead he embraced the happiness of his child. I think that's the last good memory I had from the days of living with my father, and the sound of those portable typewriters brings me back to that pleasant moment in time.

I could go on about every different computer I worked with, the different keyboards, their sounds, feelings, or how they help me recapture moments. The important part, however, is that sensory cues are like time machines for the reader. A vivid description of a sound such as the margin bell on a typewriter will transport the reader to a special place. The mere mention of the smell of ribbon ink can send the reader to their own private moment. Not every detail needs to be examined - I offered nothing about the color or smell of my past typewriters, but I included the part that meant something special. And in that, the description does what it is meant to do - bring the reader into the moment.

Friday, April 3, 2020

The Writing Medium

I wanted to call this post "Writing Media," but too many pitfalls came to mind. I feared some people would think it is about writing for the media - not the point. Others might think it is about one way of writing - it is about many, and "Media" is plural, not singular (I know people who think media is singular and to them, the plural is somehow always medias - smh). And of course, the word "Media" sets off a lot of alarms with people and directs the wrong keyword searches to my page. Let's bypass all those.

When I talk about The Writing Medium, I mean the physical way we create our stories, poems, and so forth. I'll put this into three common categories - writing longhand (old school), typing (high school), or AI dictation (new school). I use all these methods at some point or another, and also discuss them in my workshop. Writers of all stripes generally carry similar feelings and relationships with these media, so let's take a look.

Written word. Whether pen or pencil, eraser or scratch-out, any and everyone who writes their words longhand appreciates a very intimate, detailed relationship with their piece. Writing is extremely tactile, magnitudes more so than typing - an endless staccato of uniformly smooth keystrokes. Our pen or pencil has its own texture, it presses against our fingertips as we feel the paper flow unevenly underneath the tip. Each sound and stroke is unique, from the swoosh of crossing the t to that pop when we dot the i. Whenever you feel jammed up and unable to write/type/dictate that perfect sentence, put a good old #2 pencil in your hand and roll the coarse wood across your fingers. The Pavlovian trigger will have you writing in no time.

Typing. This is a different experience, and depending on our career and our stage in life, typing can be very efficient but terribly sterilizing to the writing process. Think about a lucky personal accessory - that hat you wear on third dates or those shoes that make you feel like the boss of the room. If you wore that hat or those shoes every day, would they feel lucky every time, or would their magical luck wash away? When we type, we type emails, memos, reports, blah blah blah... so many boring things in life get poured onto a keyboard that the sensation loses its flair. I shift this by using my laptop keyboard for creative stuff, then attach a USB keyboard with a different feel for the boring stuff. Weird? Absolutely. However, the patter of fingers across the laptop keyboard like kitten feet makes me a writer again, while that clunky attached keyboard puts my mind into the simple frame of catching up on correspondence.

AI dictation. Finally, artificial intelligence has reached a point where we can dictate our stories and fill a word processor page virtually in real time. No more keyboard - I can write as fast as I can talk. What could go wrong?

Literally everything.

Let's just put it this way - the way we talk is not the way we write. We speak in the passive voice, we say "uh" and "y'know" too many times. Our spoken words are clumsy and untrained. Learn to craft your speaking voice into your narrative voice before entering the world of dictation, or you will spend more time rewriting your dictated book that you ever would've just by writing it.

And don't get me started on typewriters. Those just bring back bad high-school memories (which I will discuss in my next post).