Monday, November 30, 2020

Leftover Writing Notes

Welcome back from the Thanksgiving break. This is usually the time when we all sit back, live off of leftovers for a few days, and really think seriously about exercising some more (and usually don't). Now, this year things are different. For a lot of people, there are not leftovers and no need to work off all that gravy weight. For some people (including myself), Thanksgiving was nothing more than a quiet day at home. But that doesn't mean there isn't something to feed off of later. I'm talking about finding stories within the events of Thanksgiving.

I always offer a disclaimer about brewing up a story from a day such as Thanksgiving, and this is no different. For any particular holiday, I emphasize the following:

  • The holiday is not the story
  • There are many stories within the holiday

Now you may want to jump up and scream, "Aha! You said you just had a quiet day at home! How can there be a story if you didn't do the holiday stuff?" Well, sit down and let me explain. 

First, as I said in the disclaimer, the holiday is not the story. Writing about what I did and didn't do over the course of last Thursday is not a story, it's a news article (and not front-page material). And to be perfectly clear, I did watch a couple of one-sided football games, which constitutes a Thanksgiving event in my book, and I did eat food. Instead of a nine-course meal, I made a reasonable amount of stir-fry Mongolian beef. So, no, the holiday is not the story. However, I hope that through a few of those strategically placed details, you see where the stories within the holiday may lie.

The news article style of story-writing is rather dry and doesn't actually make for interesting reading because it merely explains what happened. I ate lunch. I watched the game. I wrote. I watched another game. I cooked dinner. Yes, that's a story that tells about my day, and it is as dry as overcooked turkey. Rather, stories come when the writer isolates on one event and explains why that was worth focusing on. 

Look at the Mongolian beef I made for my personal Thanksgiving feast. As odd as that detail seems, that can be a story in itself. The explanation of that choice of a meal - the why in all this - becomes the story. I could write about the one year I was stuck in the city for Thanksgiving without any location to go to. I thought it would be a very sad day, so I went to the only place that was open - Blue Willow on Damen and Chicago (now closed) - and just ordered Mongolian beef. 

During the preparation, I had my own personal realization that the people at Blue Willow were working during this holiday and not complaining about it. To them, their thanks was recognized in a different way, and they did not need to specifically recognize it on the fourth Thursday of November. They prepared my food with a smile, handed me the bag, and wished me a Happy Thanksgiving. I went home, enjoyed my food, and thought over just what the holiday meant to different people.

So, as you reflect upon whatever your holiday involved, know that there are a lot of stories to be written about this recent Thanksgiving. Pandemic aside, there is likely a rich harvest of events to be written about, and the holiday is merely the setting - one of the little details while you explain why it was worth writing about.

Monday, November 23, 2020

A Writer's Thanks

Let's address the obvious - Thanksgiving is going to be very different for a lot of people this year. Unfortunately, I am one of them, and I will not be enjoying the usual open-door affair of family, friends, and anyone else who arrives in time for the marathon of food. The world has changed this year and sometimes traditions have to be put on pause, for better or worse.

That being said, this has given me some time for reflection. Thanksgiving is, traditionally, the national eating holiday in this country, but honestly that's not what it is supposed to be about. Rather than eating our body weight in turkey and pie, it should focus on being able to be thankful for whatever it is that has brought us from the last holiday to this one. In that regard, a lot of food is not required to take a moment to think about what we are thankful for, and since this blog is about writing, I thought I would reflect on what that means to me as a writer.

First and foremost, I am thankful for all the weird things in the world that inspire me to write about them. From odd stories on the news to weird dreams to the black squirrel in my front yard who I swear watches my every move, they all provide inspiration for me to put my fingers to the keys and create something original. A writer has a hard life without those moments, so for them I give thanks.

Along that note, I want to give a particular amount of thanks to dreams themselves. Not just the random compilation of thoughts flying through our sleeping minds at night, but also the dreams we have that keep us looking toward tomorrow. A writer's dreams include winning a writing contest, the next published piece, or just that moment of reading a review of their own work and validating the idea that they are a writer. Those dreams are the ones that keep us plugging away at the keyboard, creating piece after piece, hoping that we will hit that magical chord that lights up the hearts and minds of readers and sets off a wave of inspiration throughout our fan base and beyond. Thanks for dreams.

And, of course, none of a writer's goals would be achievable without readers, and there are a few batches of them. First, the beta readers - the foot soldiers of written media. These poor souls read work with the critical eye, providing priceless feedback for writers who need the outside eye. Their job is to be brutally honest and convincingly frank in their responses, which often goes without due appreciation. Then there are editors, showing us the road to clean copy with a map of red ink. They are often underappreciated because of the errors they show us, though they are often our biggest fans. This also goes to all the people with whom we attend workshops, collaborate, and even inspire in our own way. Thanks.

This brings me to my final group. Thanks to readers of this blog, both loyal regulars and periodic consumers of my writing notes. Having an audience indeed inspires me to write even more and continue on my mission to perfect my craft. You are very much appreciated.

(Also to my loyal readers - the next post will be Monday, November 30th, since I will be taking a post-Thanksgiving timeout like everyone else.)

Friday, November 20, 2020

Insights and Hot Dogs

When I was 27, I quietly prepared for a big milestone in my life. It was something that everyone my age would experience, but as far as I know, nobody celebrated or even recognized. I started putting the festivities into gear by acknowledging this moment to my friends who were slightly older, then warned younger friends that their big day was coming as well. I drummed up a fair amount of excitement about this - in a time when social media was nonexistent - and had a lot of fun when my big day finally arrived. What was the occasion?

I turned 10,000 days old.

Now, I would wager that most readers never made a fuss about such a day or even realized it happened. Most everyone who I talked to at the time had absolutely no idea that day had arrived. However, once they realized it, well, the moment changed them and they embraced it like a 50th birthday or some other great landmark in the otherwise boring stretch of life known as the late 20s. It was new, novel, interesting, and even though it had always been there, the revelation of such a fact opened their eyes to a new way of seeing the world. And they definitely knew a lot more about me once I brought this to their attention.

This whole story was to highlight one simple point - character insights. Every good writer knows their character inside and out and can portray them in any number of events. However, a fully fleshed-out character is not necessarily an interesting character, unless the reader sees what makes them tick. More importantly, a hero or a villain becomes interesting when the reader can see the world from their eyes. One very good way to portray this is through character insight.

A writer can get a lot of mileage simply showing a character's interests through a series of actions. If the hero does not like ketchup on his hot dog (and what true American does?), the writer can insert scenes where the hero avoids the ketchup bottle at the hot dog stand, or scowls at someone who slathers their dog in the stuff. That definitely shows a point of view and defines one of our hero's traits. However, does it go deep into the psyche and expose what motivates such behavior? All it tells us is that this person is against ketchup. We can do more.

The writer obviously knows that the hero does not like ketchup on a dog, but the reader latches on when they find out why the hero is so anti-ketchup. Maybe he offers a quick statement about how he is a Chicago traditionalist who learned from a young age to never use ketchup. Perhaps he has a refined palate and prefers the blended taste of celery salt, mustard, relish and peppers without it all getting washed over with tomato paste and sugar. Better yet - maybe he never really questioned why, but simply followed the herd. This could actually open the door for character growth, which attracts the reader's interest as well.

We could offer a bunch of reasons for our character's choices, but the importance is finding a way to include those details in the greater narrative. Once the reader understands why our characters do what they do, they engage with them on a new level and follow them more closely. And for those of you who are regular readers, the best thing an author can do is engage their reader. Offering insights into the character's motives is a top-notch way to do this.

And incidentally, in two years I turn 20,000 days old - in case you want to start the celebrating early...

Friday, November 13, 2020

NaNoWriMo Midpoint Motivation

We are closing out the second week in November, and for those participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), this is where the going gets tough. We have made it past the excitement of stepping headfirst into our new story, we have established our main character and the conflict they will face, and they are off on their journey. We probably have 20-30,000 words typed up, and a pretty good idea of where the story will conclude. The problem is, we have this long gap between our current location and where we want to be. This area is called Act Two, and it's a tough one.

Have you ever taken a long road trip, preferably with a bunch of people? Driving eight hours to a very exciting destination? Think about the first hour - getting away from the familiar territory, heading into the great unknown. There's a lot of road ahead but you don't care; it's all about the excitement of the adventure ahead. Every mile takes you away from what you know and into something new and great. How can it be any better than that?

Once we are on the road for three hours, the excitement kind of dies down. There are more new things, but the adrenaline rush has died down. We don't have the tingle of getting away, but there is no sign of the destination. This is the part of the road trip where there better be a few singalongs in the car, some snacks, and perhaps a mix tape or two to keep the ride engaging. Otherwise, the drive becomes boring and time slows down to a crawl.

In fact, this is where the writer finds their version of car games and mix tapes. These come in the form of additional supporting characters, surprise turns and twists, or even some internal conflict where the main character questions whether the hero's journey is really what they want to do. The last one is the easiest to do, but they all have a place in the story.

Whenever writing gets a little cumbersome and the story isn't progressing, the moment of self-doubt is a great mechanism to insert into the story just to remind yourself about what the story is really about. (You can delete it later if you don't like it.) Think of your own personal moments where you thought about ending your journey or turning around - stopping your NaNoWriMo project being a prime example. Examine the doubts you have, the reasons you offer that would allow you to stop. Think about those feelings, and insert them into your main character's head. How do those thoughts translate to your hero's journey? Can they just turn around? Is it impossible to stop but they find it difficult to carry on? Start writing about that in a captured moment, and see what that character thinks.

As an aside, sometimes it might be difficult to write about the doubts your character might have. If this is the case, you might want to take a little time to try and understand your character and think from their point of view. After all, they are your character, so you know them better than anyone else. If you take a little time just thinking as they do, you can hopefully find where their weaknesses and vulnerabilities are, and what might make them resist going forward. And if there is nothing that would stop your character from moving forward, then maybe the conflict should be external - the roadblock on the way to the goal.

Ultimately, the choice is yours, but there is opportunity here. The moment you take to put doubt in the minds of those in the story creates a tension the reader will be able to feel and appreciate. Furthermore, it will make the writing go by that much faster, and before you know it, your road trip is just flying by.

Keep on writing!

Monday, November 9, 2020

The Rules of Creativity (Trust Me)

 Please don't all jump on me at once. I made a few posts about creativity and rules a few weeks ago, and it seems that everyone thinks there shouldn't be creative rules. Of course I see their point, but the subject is not so easy. And yes, I understand that people might think that because many of my posts are about the rules and regulations of writing, that I am some rules monster who insists everything follow a fixed pattern. Give me a few paragraphs, and I can convince you that even the most creative writers held to rules.

Once upon a time, painting was all about representation of the world around us. Artistic expression had distinct boundaries, namely the real world, and that going outside those limits was either the sign of flawed skills or an attempt to insult someone by altering their perceived image. Slowly, however, reality gave way to different schools of creative expression, and before you know it we had Romanticism, Expressionism, Cubism, Neo-Realism, and countless other schools of art. This may seem like a wild array of creativity, and it was, but they were still guided by a set of rules. The rules, however, were more conceptual. Picasso's many works may look entirely bizarre when compared to the real world, but they fit beautifully into the school of Cubism, and so forth.

Now how does this appeal to writing? Well, let's look at points of view first. We can narrate a story from first-person, third-person, third-person omnipotent, fly-on-the-wall, and so on, and each comes with its strengths and weaknesses. Now, some people have approached me (when I had my editor cap on) and asked, "Well, what if I use a variety of those methods in my story, depending on what I want that part to say?" Interesting choice - and creative at that. But let's look at the rules.

Each point of view is used to give us a particular feel at the expense of something else. First-person puts us in someone's head but their narration excludes other perspectives so we have to trust our narrator's perception. Third-person is the same but we are a witness to a story rather than fully engaged. Omnipotent means we have a complete set of information at the expense of tension. If we bounce between these, we gain a lot but we lose a lot as well. So the creative writer will think about when they can use each to their advantage.

Referring back to Picasso, his Blue Period was not inspired by an abundance of blue paint, but rather a somber expression of depression and loss. Most of the people he painting were, in reality, flesh-colored people, but he used a blue palette to draw out the moodiness of his subjects. The expense was that the people could not be identified in real life, but that was okay - the paintings were about a feeling, not a person. In that regard, he followed the rules of creativity - breaking one rule to emphasize the point made by another rule.

Plenty of novels shift perspectives and go between different characters - it's expected practice in broader epics these days. However, this is done in order to bring out some particular point or concept, and it is used very carefully so that what is lost be the shift does not detract from the storytelling. This creative rule structure, when done with an exacting purpose and meaning, provides for some fascinating results.

Don't believe me? Look at Picasso's works...

Friday, November 6, 2020

Connecting Setting into Conflict

Earlier, I talked about some of the points about developing characters and the many details that make them feel real. From family life to musical stylings to weird little idiosyncrasies such as a fear of sock puppets, a character is constructed with these touches as his framework. Today's post is going to guide us toward what choices can really deliver some effect, and how we get to this through setting and conflict.

First and foremost, let's look at setting. This is the environment where the story is going to happen, and when we start writing, we should have a pretty narrow, concise view of where it is. Saying, "Oh, this happens in present-day USA" is not very helpful other than offering a timeframe. Urban, suburban, or rural? Northern or southern? East coast, west coast, or in between? We need to find an ideological spot, if not a real spot - I can say it happens in the inner city and not pinpoint it to the Back of the Yards area of Chicago, or the the little fictional town of Billington in the American Heartland will do without reference to a specific state. The setting centers the reader, which is the important part for them. For the writer, it should be a secret way of helping establish the character. 

In my upcoming book, Small-Town Monster, the setting is in fact, the small town of Billington. Why? Well, as the title suggests, it has to be in a small town. However, this setting works well for a character who is resistant to change, has a life centered around his family and the same people for decades, and lives by established patterns from a well-defined history in one never-changing place. These character traits would be more difficult to fit in a fast-paced urban setting (though the challenge of that character in a changing environment would make for some interesting drama), so I found an environment where the character could thrive.

Now that we've established setting, let's move to conflict and ask ourselves what kind of conflict would give this character the biggest headache. The immediate thought is change. Someone who is resistant to change and lives a very regulated live would be impacted the most by change, so we make change a part of the conflict.

However, is change narrow enough? Kind of a broad brush to paint with - more like a big roller - so let's narrow it down and spread it around. First, there's a specific change in life. The main character loses his father. That change can work on several levels. A person loses their father, things start changing all around. Also, we add that this impacts his family-centered nature, so more of his life is uprooted. Now there's tension. Our poor character really has a problem.

Is this enough to be an entire book? Well, we need the plot hook, and it needs to incorporate the setting - the little town of Billington - and we need the character conflict, which is the loss of a parent. The only thing left to add is the call to adventure that moves our hero along. When our hero finds out his father kept a secret hidden for decades that could change what people thought about him and the entire town, now the story takes off. The reader wants to know more about the secret, the character has to put together his new life, and events start piling up, each one raising the stakes in this little town.

That's why setting and and conflict are so important.

Monday, November 2, 2020

Building Character (Writing Comes Later)

 When I come up with the idea for a novel, I need to have a few components put together before I know it's really something worth exploring. First and foremost, I need a problem to be overcome. Second, I need to have a setting that appeals to this particular problem and creates a challenging environment. Third, I need a character whose particular traits will not make this an easy adventure. These first two items - problem and setting - are very straightforward. The exploration of a character, however, is worth a little more discussion, because the character will be the one chugging through the entire manuscript, interacting with the setting and trying to solve the problem at hand. So let's see what this character is all about.

For those authors who keep extensive notes on their stories, a fair amount of time is dedicated to character development. Reading through the collection of sketches and details, we can discover things about a character. We will find out that the character's favorite color is Parrish blue. He isn't crazy about Italian food unless there's seafood involved. His sister died while he was in college and it still hurts to talk about it. We will find all these details, yet there's also a good chance that we will never see these details in the final story. Better yet, they will be eluded to but never mentioned, giving the character a sense of intrigue.

The point I am getting at is that to write a good, interesting, and relatable character, we need to know that character inside and out, otherwise they come off as flat and one-dimensional. Maybe we don't keep an extensive file on them, but we should know some basics. What's the family structure? Happy childhood? What makes the character happy? Mad? Annoyed? Scared? As a writer gets to know that the protagonist came from a happy home but has a weird fear of sock puppets, they get more comfortable in fleshing this character onto the page, and the family life and the sock puppet thing never has to be mentioned. By creating these little details, the writer creates someone they can relate to personally. Someone they know, or would like to know. 

Think of a simple scene. The main character gets together after work with some colleagues and they go to a bar for drinks. Everyone orders a beer but our main character, who orders an iced tea. As a reader, this stands out and we take notice. Why tea? Why break from what everyone else is doing? Does this need to be explained in the narrative? If the writer wants to, sure, but the scene can go on with the coworkers blowing off some steam and talking about whatever, the plot can progress, and our main character's motives don't have to be mentioned. The writer, however, should know why the character made this choice. Maybe he's a recovering alcoholic. Maybe he never drives even with the slightest buzz. Perhaps he knows that after one beer he will say whatever is on his mind and offend half of his coworkers. It doesn't have to be revealed, it just has to exist in the writer's mind and linger in the reader's mind.

Of course, it is the writer's choice whether or not to have something like that be a big reveal later on. If the character doesn't like beer, that's not much of a reveal, but if there is some big secret, it should hopefully also contribute to the plot and the tensions existing in the character's journey to overcome his problems.

This may sound like a difficult idea to grasp, but in subsequent posts I will demonstrate just how this technique, combined with our other requirements, will make for good storytelling.