All writers have a process that allows them to create. However, the art of "Writing" is often mistaken for that "Process." Hopefully this blog explains the difference, and inspires people to develop their crafts, become writers, or just keep on writing.

Friday, September 24, 2021

Where Does It All End?

As some of my regular readers may know, I spend a fair amount of time on writer boards, scrolling through the posts and collecting different inquiries. Now and then, a particular topic will get some traction or a lot of people will post similar questions, so I make a note of that for further use. Of late, one particular question has been popping up: "How do I end my story?" So let's explore a little into this not-so-simple question.

First off - Wow, there is a lot to unpack in that six-word nugget. I think the best approach would be to offer a general answer, then expand on how we rarely write an ending on its own. To cover the first part, our ending should be a concluding moment where we acknowledge how the main character has changed from the beginning, what they have gained/lost from their journey, and also tie up any loose ends that might be on the reader's mind.

Now, about writing the actual ending. If we, as writers, wait until we have told our story then decide to write the ending, we are missing a very important part. There is this natural assumption among some writers that a story is just built in one continuous direction that will inevitably reach its destination and land in a nice, tidy manner. This is analogous to building a bridge just by extending a road over a valley and targeting the other side as the eventual end. Nice thought, but that's not how bridges are made. 

To divert into bridge-building a little, the road across the valley is literally the last part that is built. First there is a blueprint laying out the plans - this would be the writer's outline. Then the superstructure is put into place - the writer develops ideas about the characters, the events, the plot arcs and different steps that guide the story. This is the boring part of the writer's journey - figuring out all these steps, but it is just as critical as the joists and supports holding up the bridge. Most drivers only see the road just as most readers only see the story, but what lies underneath is integral to that journey being sound.

When people ask these questions on the various writer's boards, I scroll through the comments section and see what is recommended. Most people who take the constructive route go with what I said in the second paragraph of this post, but not many look at what needs to be done to get there. And in reading works where the end was sort of put together on an ad hoc basis rather than developed and considered from the beginning, it feels quick, hasty, occasionally abrupt and often incomplete. 

So, to get back to the original question, I offer the following advice. I ask the writer to think about the character's journey - all its twists, turns, and setbacks - and decide where they want that character to land. What lesson should they have learned? How have they changed? Then look at the story and see if the narrative has taken them on a journey that leads to that point. Usually, if someone doesn't know how to end the story, they don't know the intricacies of the story itself. Therefore the best advice is to know where that story is going before you create it, and if you are already into the story, examine where the journey has gone and where you are happy concluding it. At that point, the end is as natural as placing in the road after the rest of the bridge is finished.

Next stop: How to start the story.

Monday, September 20, 2021

The Journey of A Thousand Shovel Scoops

The picture below might look like a pile of mulch, but I see a book. That huge organic mound has a lot more in common with my next book than you might think. (Granted, both are where trees end up, but that's not the point.) Before you make any comments about my next novel being a huge heap of biomass, let me explain in a way that might assist you as a writer. (Then proceed with the jokes.)

Sadly, there was an old elm tree in my yard that finally died this spring and had to be taken down. It was one of the tallest trees on the block, but death converted it from this huge, shady landmark into a hazard threatening the houses around it. The tree crew came in with chainsaws and cranes, and tore it down, taking the larger parts and leaving the four-foot high pile of ground-up elm tree you see here. This is where the comparison starts.

Now, the original plan was for me to take that mulch and, shovel-scoop by shovel-scoop, fill in the neglected bedding around the front and sides of my house. It's the perfect use of mulch, it's great upper-body exercise, what could be so wrong with this plan?

Did I mention the pile was four feet high? And twelve feet across?

This is where the metaphor kicks in. I have an outline for my next novel. It will be big. Real big. And when I think about it, I see four-hundred sheets of blank paper just waiting to be filled. I see this immense pile of writing that needs to be done, not to mention the editing, the rewrites, and the fact that I will be reading this manuscript several times and burning through a large number of red pens trying to get this completed. As a writer, this is my huge pile of mulch.

There are plenty of ways to stall and figure out different ways to avoid jumping headfirst into the mulch pile. I can assess the best way to transfer the mulch to the different bedding areas. I can get all the tools out (a shovel. That's really it.) I can calculate the total square footage I will be moving (just over 249 square feet for those who are interested.) And none of this gets me closer to finishing the job.

However, as I learned from writing, the easiest way to approach a huge task is to do it by minor steps. Write the opening sentence. Figure out how to grab the reader. Don't write the whole book at once - just create the one part you can focus on. Set a goal for the day - write an interesting event in a chapter, or commit to finishing a conversation. Develop those little tasks, and chip away at the pile of mulch.

So I filled the bedding by the main window. Scoop by scoop, I moved the mulch. The pile looked the same size after that - perhaps even somehow grew larger - but it was no longer my focus. I cleared space, piled in the remains of the old elm tree, and moved closer to the side of the house. I made slow, steady progress, and didn't even care about the size of the mulch pile. 

Writing has that same simplistic beauty - never about the task, always about the act of creation. We make little pieces, they form into parts, which create sections, and before we know it - we have a work we can be proud of. We are not buried in the breadth of the task because we are constantly making something we will be proud of. It works every time.

And by the way - if anyone needs some mulch, let me know. Seriously - there's still a lot of it left.

Friday, September 10, 2021

Printers Row Lit Fest 2021

I know this might be last minute and everything, but given this week's schedule and the recent holiday weekend and all, better late than never. For us writers and for creatives in general, sometimes it is difficult to see the broader arc of our life as a writer. We sit there and scribble or type some words, filling a page and perhaps creating a finished piece of work, but where does it go from there? Do we just create another thing, then another, and so on and so on? Just lather, rinse, repeat? Or is there something more?

Well, for those of us who want to be reminded of what lies out there in the big world of writers, I recommend going to to the 2021 Printers Row LitFest here in Chicago. It's just south of the heart of the city, and it brings together all kinds of writers and creatives, with local and national (and yes, some international) representation, for a weekend of seminars, readings, panel events and so forth. After last year's event was cancelled (thank you, COVID), the return of LitFest is a welcome treat for us creative types.

Now, as a writer, this kind of event is priceless. However, I will first mention how important this is for the reader in me. As a consumer of the written word, this event is like a walking, talking library. An interactive bookstore. The exhibitors include many local authors and writing groups who are great resources for aspiring writers to talk to and get advice from. Media groups and podcasters are in attendance for the enjoyment of the attendees, and plenty of little groups have raffles and giveaways. Any reader who goes there should come away with at least a few goodies, and hopefully will buy a few books that would otherwise remain hidden in the depths of the internet.

Now as far as writers are concerned, this is where it's at. The speakers alone are worth the price of entry (it's free, but you get the point). As a writer, nothing inspires me more than hearing someone else tell their story about how they were once that person moving from word to word, losing track of what existed beyond that next project. I can look at them and see a part of myself in their story, and I guarantee I always return from these events with a renewed urge to write. My creative batteries are definitely charged after one day at LitFest, and sometimes we all need a little extra boost.

Oh - there are a few publishers there too. If your goal is to get published, these are the people you want to talk to and find out just what the market is looking for, the operations of a local publishing company, and just maybe the chance to pull someone aside and get some inside information from. I checked the exhibitor's list (different from the speaker's list) and there are some good local shops there.

So, in short, I hope that all you writing folks give yourself a little time to go to LitFest and inspire yourself to take another step as a writer. At the very least, give yourself a chance to walk among other writers and realize you are with your peers. Make some contacts and feel the world again. Then go home and do some awesome writing.

(Side note: for  those who might have been expecting a post related to 9/11, I recommend you read an earlier post, The Story I Never Wanted to Write. Sometimes posts are a little too painful to create, so instead I offer a link.)

 

Friday, August 27, 2021

Writing and Resistance

"I don't want to get out of bed!" echoed throughout our house on plenty of mornings when I was a child. Sure, I enjoyed school - even loved it at times - but going there was an issue. After all, getting to school meant first getting out of a warm bed and entering cold reality. The Midwest winters made sure that once I left those toasty blankets, I would never be warm for the rest of the day. Whether it was walking to school through slushy snow, waiting on a bus stop with a slashing wind euphemistically referred to as, "brisk," or dashing to a friend's place to wait for their car to warm up so I could get a ride, there was nothing fun about this. No, I did not want to get out of bed.

As we can readily see, the cold weather wasn't the actual issue - it was just the initial point of resistance between me and school, but it was enough to make the entire task seem nigh impossible from the perspective of a warm bed. This is the core of many problems when we are having trouble writing. We are not distraught by the long-term goal, but rather some step in between that makes the rest of everything seem impossible. It's easier to stay in bed than to push our way through to write the Great American Novel.

I didn't learn this little lesson until well after my school years, but it became a valuable tool for my future endeavors. When we write, we need to be in the moment, focusing on our storytelling and creating that special world of words. However, to get past a lot of the short-term obstacles, we also need to keep an eye on that long-term goal - the final product; our story, poem, essay, or what have you. Looking at the moment while tracking the big picture can leave one cross-eyed, so which one do we choose?

The only clean answer I can offer is a simple one: We focus on the one that gets us writing. We do what we need to do to get out of bed, touch our feet to the cold floor, and start the journey. If that means focusing strictly on the next moment of washing up for school and not worrying about the weather until we go outside, then that's fine. If instead it is easier to think about walking into that heated school and sitting down in that first class of the day, that works too. The point is, we need to turn away from all the things that keep us hiding under the blankets: thoughts of the snow, the wind, our frozen toes. We need to find our focal point, and go after it.

In my better moments of writing, I am able to think of the long game - the final product - while focusing on the scene I am creating. However, those moments are few and far between. Usually I have to put my head down and just obsess about the next dialogue exchange, the next description, the next word that needs to be typed. However, that's okay. The point is, I am typing. I am creating. I am not hiding under my blankets while my father yells, "Get out of bed!" which only forces me into deeper hiding. 

When you find yourself overwhelmed by whatever the world is throwing at you (and I think we can all agree that the world has been doing quite a bit of that lately), look for that one point that will allow you to move forward. Either the big picture or just the next word, do something to get closer to that point, and you will be making progress. This counts for life, by the way, and not just writing. However, since this is a writing blog, consider this my writing advice. It boils down to a simple task:

"Get out of bed!"

 

Monday, August 16, 2021

Danger: Toxic Material

Have you ever had one of those days where everything weighs on your mood, and in turn your heavy mood weighs on everything? You wake up late, get a flat tire, can't find a seat on the train. All those bad events infect you. Eventually, you become your bad mood. You start to snap at people, you carry a nasty scowl on your face, and indeed your toxic attitude starts to invade the space of other people. Ever had one of those days?

They are great opportunities for exploring your writing.

Over the past few days I have been one of those toxic tornadoes, a gale-force storm of bad attitude. As a human being, I am not a lot of fun to be around during this time, but I am something to see when it comes to being a writer. This is one of those times when I will set aside some of my lighter projects and start to channel that darkness into words. No specific project gets to claim this terrible mood; it's more of a situation I apply to whatever I feel would be the best outlet. No little haiku writing for this stuff. I turn it into short stories and disturbing character sketches.

And when the mood passes, I file them away and get on with my life.

As we pursue our craft of writing, we have to be careful about maintaining tone and mood in our larger pieces. Unless we complete a project in one sitting, we are prone to several sessions of trying to write with a similar tone. Needless to say, writing some light-hearted story can be a little difficult when our mood does not match the material. Especially with the more toxic moods, they tend to spill over and mess up our other projects. The stronger the mood, the more difficult it is to keep out of our writing. That light-hearted story may not suddenly take a dark turn because of a bad writing session, but the mood can shift. The sunny, happy-go-lucky flow will grow cold.

The worst part is that for writers such as us, we won't necessarily see this at first. Other readers will notice it long before we do. On more than one occasion, I have had a writing workshop basically turn on me because the latest installment of an ongoing young adult novel suddenly seemed to go off the rails. The mood went dark, the attitude shifted toward the cynical. Big surprise - all my critics noticed this shift, yet none of them knew I had been having a real bad week. I kept it hidden, but it came out in my writing.

But this is why it can be a good thing. When your mood might not fit the piece you are working on, step aside and work on something more befitting your attitude. If you are very thorny and on-edge, write a few character sketches that are angry and hostile. Stretch your writing muscles with something that helps you channel the mood. Eventually it will become reflexive to the point where you can create a very toxic piece of writing without being in a toxic mood.

Give it a shot the next time anything creeps into your mind that would get in the way of your usual process. Put it to work and see what happens. And even drop me a toxic comment discussing the results. I can take it - my bad mood has passed.

 

Friday, August 13, 2021

Writing and Special Moments

For those of you who have not checked the calendar today, it is Friday the 13th. For some people, the only part of this day they are concerned about is the fact that it is the day before the weekend. For others, this is a day full of superstition, bizarre traditions, and a trigger for those with paraskevidekatriaphobia [fear of Friday the 13th]. No matter what side of the divide you might reside, the important part is that this day stands out in the minds of people. And when something stands out, that should be a writer's cue to seize the moment.

In any piece of writing, the magic happens when some part of the story stands out and the reader takes special notice. It could be the mood of the story, the tone, a unique perspective, or the sudden twist at the end. Maybe it works for the better, maybe the reader doesn't agree with it - that doesn't matter. The point is that it stands out. Just like Friday the 13th, whether or not you believe in its superstition isn't important. It stands apart from all the other days, and we all take notice of it.

When we write, we need to think about what will stand out in the piece we are creating. This goes for everything from the simplest haiku to our full manuscript - it needs to touch upon something that stands out beyond the simple idea of writing stuff. The part that stands out does not need to dominate the page or be the focal point of the piece. However, there should be that one part that anyone who reads it can talk to another reader and say, "What did you think of this idea?" and they will know exactly what the reference is about.

So, enough with the build-up - how do we make this happen? The first part is actually simple: just write whatever piece you want to create. Write it, understand it, and really think about what you are trying to say with those words. In the first draft, there is no need to add that magical part; it's just about understanding what you are creating.

Once you have created something, ask yourself, "What would make this special?" The more you write, the more you will be able to answer this question without pause. However, when you first jump into this idea, you might need to reflect upon it and consider what you really want it to do. Maybe you want the description to set the mood. Maybe you want the character to be truly memorable. Perhaps a catch phrase or gesture that will become that character's signature move. It could be as simple as really nailing that twist at the end to where your readers will bring it up time and time again. Focus on that idea until you know exactly what you want the special part to be.

Then write it into your work.

That last step sounds pretty easy, but that's because the heavy lifting is the step before that. Obsessing over just how to make something stand out can be a brutal, even overwhelming task, but once you figure it out, the writing will just happen. It's surprisingly easy at that point.

The whole point is that the stories and poems we remember have that magical element that comes with Friday the 13th. They stand out because one particular point is truly memorable. And hopefully, it doesn't bring a bunch of bad luck.

 

Monday, August 9, 2021

Short Stories - Like Really Short

In one of the writing workshops I attend, we had quite the challenge: Write a short story of no more than 200 words. This task comes involves a whole laundry list of obligations - no long descriptions, mood-setting has to be efficient, dialogue must be high-impact, no purple prose, etc. However, the most important part was that it had to be a story. It is easy to write a character in 200 words, but a story is something more. A story covers an event, a development, and preferably some kind of attention-grabbing shift. That's where it gets tricky. That's where the fun begins.

Hemingway is famously (though questionably) given credit for a short story that was six words long: "For sale: baby shoes. Never worn." Whether or not he wrote it, it presents the most stripped-down version of a story. It introduces a situation, then shifts our expectations with the presentation or assumption of an event. This is the haiku of short stories - very much to the point and with virtually no excess. I would never hold anyone to meeting this standard of storytelling - rather, I think 200 words is a good goal to aim for. The secret is making sure it's a story.

In keeping with the spirit of Hemingway or whoever wrote the baby shoes story, I will offer a few story frameworks presented along the theme of the minimalist ideation. However, so it does not appear that I am copying this method, I will present them in the form of five-word story ideas. These do not have the elegance or complexity of our example story, but the point should still be there.

"I arrived; I left changed.": This is the transformative story, the foundation for most stories. Our character enters a situation with a set of expectations, and is shown or arrives at a different outcome. These stories are attractive because they appeal to what we have all (hopefully) experienced at some point - life prompts us to change our mind and grow. Technically, the character doesn't have to accept the change, but the story hooks around a revealing experience that engages the reader. It can be a complex, philosophical revelation or it can be trying Coke instead of Pepsi - the point is the development of the event.

"That wasn't what I expected.": Ever watch the series The Twilight Zone? (If not, please do - it's on Netflix) Plenty of their stories hinge around creating an awkward environment that plays against our sense of what we believe to be normal, then reveals itself to be quite different. A simple story could be of a person approaching the gallows as the crowd prepares for an execution. The person contemplates death and the bigger questions of existence while walking up the steps, perhaps engaging the reader in the questions around capital punishment, then we find out at the end that the person is the executioner, not the condemned person. The unexpected turn is the payoff for the whole story, and it can be as brief or as long as the writer wishes.

"It could happen to you.": The simplest story has an approachable, familiar texture, and the ones that seem to have traction with us are the very simple, intimate events that the reader quickly relates to. Remembering a first kiss, a death in the family, that one embarrassing moment in school, and so on. These stories can fit in with the other ideas, but the simple retelling of a fundamentally basic story can win over readers simply because they can relate.

If you are feeling in the mood, try writing a simple, 200-word story based on these ideas. Edit and trim the fat where necessary, but see what happens. More importantly, see what ideas come to mind in creating a simple story. 

But don't take the idea about the executioner - that one's mine.  

 

Friday, July 30, 2021

Hitting A Landmark - And Some News!

For a few years now, I have posted fairly regularly about developing the writing process and improving the skills that make us writers. To mark this very special 300th post on this site, I would like to spend a little time discussing a subject tangential to writing that is also very important. In this case, I want to talk about me. More specifically, me as a writer, and what this blog has created and will generate.

I started this blog because the writer's journey fascinated me - and not just my own never-ending adventure, but everyone's story as they pursue that next stage in their writing career. I decided this was important enough to document and write about, exploring it as a way of not only sharing my experiences but also developing my own skills as part of my ongoing process. You'd be surprised how much I have grown merely from writing this blog. (Look at some of the first posts - you'd be amazed.)

So this got me thinking. Here I am, with three-hundred entries discussing my writing, my process, and definitely my life, wondering if there is something greater to this. Then I recalled something often attributed to Carol Burnett. She said that you don't need to sit down with the mission of writing a book. You just need to sit down every day and write one page. After a year, you will have the book. Reflecting upon those words, it dawned upon me - I have been putting together my twice-a-week posts, 600-800 words apiece, since 2018, and now I have the makings of a book. A how-to guide on becoming a writer. It happened, and I didn't even notice it was happening. I just wrote a page then another page and another, and it happened.

Therefore, I am now beginning the process of taking the creme de la creme of these posts and weaving them together into a book of how to become a writer. No title yet, but I will of course keep all my loyal followers posted. This will be quite the elaborate undertaking, and there will be substantial editing to do since print copies don't go well with hyperlinks and the graphics I use might not convert very well. However, it will be happening, and this is where you, my loyal readers, come in handy.

I am very interested in knowing which subjects/aspects appealed to you the most or least, and what posts, if any, resonated with you as a writer or as a person. Obviously, only the best of my 300 posts are going in, and I need some outside input as to what the BEST POSTS actually are. 

So, I openly invite you to comment on this blog comment section, or an IM via the Facebook site, on what appeals to you about this blog and its content. Any kind of contact is okay, but comments are preferred as they invite discussion. Also, share this post if possible as to drum up as much interest as possible and get the most feedback for the eventual book on how to become a writer.

Thank you in advance for your feedback, nd I look forward to sharing another 300 posts with all of you and many more. (And if you have an idea for the book title, throw it in. I am genuinely stuck on that part.)

 

Monday, July 26, 2021

Being the Critic

Yes, this post is long overdue. I've spent a lot of time talking about what we should and shouldn't look for, and ways to approach criticism. Well, now it's time for us writers to step up and figure out what we need to do if we want to critique properly. It's not as easy as one might think, but it gets easier with practice.

A quick disclaimer: If you do not consider yourself a great writer, this hardly excludes you from critiquing someone's work. Sometimes it actually helps. The important part is that you address what the writer wants and needs, and keep to the point. 

Incidentally, that note just gave away what we all should recognize as the first step of being a critic for someone: Ask them what they want. Do they want ideas and story notes, or are they looking for how you, as a reader, respond to the events? If someone says, "Read this and tell me what you think," then your job as a critic is very simple - just follow orders. You probably won't even need a pen; just read and respond. The important part, however, is that you should get a sense of direction from the writer, and target your thoughts around that point. If they want a broad overview, then ignore the grammar and spelling errors. If they are looking for character development, key in on their growth arcs and not the world-building around it. Be the critic the writer asks for, and better yet, make them ask for a critic.

Also worth noting is during your analysis, feel free to take off your writer's hat. Unless the request is, "How would you write something like this?" you are pretty much free and clear of being a writer for a while. The best input you can provide is usually as a consumer of the written word, and you don't have to be a writer to provide that information. Set aside how you would create the story, and be there for the other person. Think about how they are creating something and whether or not it works for you, the reader, but set aside your own ego.

On that note, I implore you to put aside any personal judgmental considerations. If you are an atheist and the main character is religious, do your best to separate yourself from criticizing that character for not agreeing with you. It's a character - get over it. Unless the writer wants to know how a story matches your religious, political, or social beliefs, you would be best to just set those aside and critique the writing on its own merits. If it helps, say, "I can't say I agree with the character's beliefs..." but then get to a discussion of actual content.

And on a last note, it always helps to be constructive. "This character was one-dimensional," is a legitimate criticism but not very helpful. Rather, a constructive approach would be, "This character needs more opportunity to have depth and substance." If you feel there are specific opportunities to do this, point them out, but don't become the writer. A good critique should be a guidepost to a better story.

Personally, I also find that being a critic is a great cure for writer's block. If I ever get stuck and have no idea what to write, I just read other peoples' works with a critical eye. At some point my mind either says, "I could do that better," and I try writing something better, or I see a technique and say, "That's cool - let me try writing like that."

It's not difficult once you get used to it. Kind of like writing a blog, and you'd be surprised how that evolves from simple commentary to something much greater (my explanation comes this Friday).    


Monday, July 19, 2021

The Critics We Don't Need

In my last post, I went on - perhaps too much - about how we can benefit from getting our work critiqued. More to the point, I discussed how to approach a potential critic in a way that gets you the feedback you need to grow and improve your work. In short, we need to ask what we are looking for in terms of feedback so the process can go quickly and efficiently. This time, I am going to offer the flipside of this discussion, and offer a few gentle warnings about the criticism that usually won't help us.

Don't get me wrong - most every form of criticism has some valuable seed of knowledge buried within it. As I often say, if someone's critique is, "This sucks," my first job is to ask how it could suck less - that's where I find a little space to possibly grow. If the person can't give an answer other than that, I note it and move on. Usually there's more discussion than that, but the point is there can be a good takeaway from most everything. The important part is to determine whether it is worth your time and effort to interrogate the critic to find that elusive seed.

Here are some of the critic situations that I have found to be the least helpful to my growth as a writer. There are many types out there, but these in particular tend to show up on my radar the most often. This is not to say that they don't have anything to contribute, but often it is not worth my time:

"Let me tell you about a story I wrote." This, to me, is a troubling beginning to any critique because the critic immediately takes the subject away from its main point - my work. These can be a long walk across a lot of territory just to get across a simple point, and often they do not demonstrate how to fix my writing. I have on a few occasions noted the critic's full explanation, and realized everything between "Let me tell you," and "so my point is" could be omitted entirely while making the same point. (by the way - if you are that kind of critic, the best way to fix this habit is to offer your advice in terms of your subject's story, not your own.)

"Your point is wrong." Ohhh, I hate this one. This kind of critique often comes up with essays, but it can happen whenever a character has a particular perspective or frame of mind that the critic disagrees with. Let's be political and say your character believes in socialism. A criticism of, "Socialism is bad" is not helpful at all to a writer. In fact, it demonstrates that the critic is not separating the writing from the content, and that they might not be the right person to review this work. A good critic can read something and judge the presentation even if they do not believe in the character's motives. Read American Psycho to understand that you don't have to agree with the main character to appreciate the writing.

Let me write this for you. Sometimes people can't help themselves, and I have been guilty of this as well. Someone writes a humorous piece but you feel they've missed a lot of opportunities for levity. The last thing they need is for you to throw some punchlines at them or recommend a funny scenario. A proper critique would be along the lines of recommending they expand on the humor, find more opportunities, and really experiment with the possibilities until it feels right. If they are happy with the humor the way it is, then so be it. A good critic offers advice knowing it might not be taken. A good writer listens to what people say even though they may never use it.

I am sure you can think of other kinds of feedback that just doesn't help in the slightest. When you hear it, you know it. The only advice I can offer in this case is that when you do hear useless advice, just make sure you are not the one talking.

Friday, July 16, 2021

Everyone's A Critic - Find the One You Need

When I first started writing, I never realized just how many people could have very elaborate opinions about anything I created. I would offer a little poem or short story to someone to get some feedback, and their response would be longer than my piece of work. It was quite the revelation, but as I soon discovered, not a lot of it was helpful. 

First, you will have to accept that not everyone is good at constructive feedback. A lot of people will offer you their opinion, which is a start, but a lot of those opinions end there - a simple, "it was okay" is only helpful if they can explain what the turn-ons and turn-offs were, how they felt as they turned the page, and so on. Otherwise, it's a nice appetizer, but hardly the sustenance we need as writers.

And of course there are the people who will offer you a very deep, engaged discussion on how they would've written it. Of course this can be informative, but the fact of the matter is that you are the writer and they should not be taking the opportunity to pour out their ideas onto your work. To those critics, I often say, "Thanks anyway."

The point I am getting at is simple: When you want some kind of feedback on a piece, it is best to start by knowing just what kind of feedback you are looking for, then seeking it. This pursuit can fall into a lot of different categories, so I will flesh out a few of the broader concepts then let you find the kind of critique you need for a piece.

(Note: a critic is different than an editor. Look at my post, The Editor Checklist, for information on that subject.)

What's wrong with my story? When we write something that just doesn't feel like it works (whatever that may be), we need to find someone who is willing to read, process, and tell you if the story thread is continuous and sensible, if the twists work, and how it fits as a whole. The critic who will tell you whether or not they like it isn't very helpful in this case because you, the writer, are feeling off about it. Maybe you are just off the mark or overly critical, but in this case you need a critic who is willing to discuss any and all shortcomings. A tough one to find indeed.

Does this story work? Have you ever written a heart-wrenching short story then wondered if it will move anyone other than you? Do you question whether your horror story will scare anyone other than yourself? This is where you simply need a gut reaction from your reader. Their critique should be as simple as, "That made me sad," "That was a creepy story," or "Meh." After that, you can have a little Q&A to dig into the details, but that point is up to you. This critic serves merely as an external opinion, which can be valuable if the writer has been looking at the same story for too long.

What's right with my story? This may sound like a weird question to ask a critic, but it can be important for us as writers. Sometimes, writing can bog us down to where we are doubting our every word, and we just need a little lift. Getting someone to read our piece and give us some positive (not constructive) feedback can be uplifting and energizing. As long as the critic understands what you are looking for ahead of time, this can be a very beneficial endeavor.

There are a few other types I will discuss later, but think about these three categories before you seek input from an outside source. Figure out which serves you best, then track them down and get a few good words from them. It will pay off in the long-run. 

 

Monday, July 5, 2021

So You Want To Be A Writer?

"I want to be a writer but I don't know how to start."

I see this a lot on writing pages - people are ready to jump in and write the Great American Novel, but they just don't know how to take that bold first step. It's not easy - the mere thought of writing a 70,000-word novel can be overwhelming, especially if such a thing is about twenty times larger than anything you've ever written previously. So, how does one start?

Glad you asked.

I am going to offer three pieces of advice on how to get started, and I am going to do them in sort of a reverse order. Instead of offering advice in the order from beginner to intermediate to advanced, I am going to switch it up and start with my pro advice first, then work backward. If you find yourself not ready for the first piece, read forward to the next one, and then to the last one. Somewhere along this line, there is the perfect spot for you to start your journey as a writer.

- Just start writing. This is not a very easy step, but it gets the momentum going. Make yourself a promise that anything you write can be rewritten, and that none of your words are perfect at this point. Everything is a work in progress, so for now you are just committing to the process of creating. Start at the chronological beginning of the story and have your character look at where they are now. Open with, "Sam looked around the room, spending a moment to take everything in." Then describe the room, then have Sam do something. Not the most engaging beginning, but you promised yourself you can rewrite that if necessary. You have set things in motion. You have officially started your journey.

Not ready for that yet? Try this:

- Read some stories as a writer. Normally when we read, we do so as a reader enjoying someone's story. However, when we read as a writer, we study the beginning. "What is important about the opening line?" "How is the description important to the scene?" "How does the writer present the important elements of the story?" Try reading something you are already familiar with, but as a writer. Look at the pieces of the story and how they come together. Think about the story you want to write, and how its individual pieces should fit. Look at how the writer moves their story forward and imagine how your story could follow a similar path. Once you read a couple of stories as a writer, you will be ready for that step of "Just start writing."

No? Still not feeling it? Sounds like you need this as a first step:

- Tell yourself the story you want to write. Yes, tell yourself the story the way someone would tell you a story at a bar or around a campfire. If you are not ready to write and you do not see how your story fits into how other stories play out, you probably need to get a better feel for the story you want to tell. Why is it important? What makes it stand out? What gives it that special appeal? Tell yourself the story as if a stranger it explaining it to you, and start filling in all the pieces. Even play the role of someone asking, "Why did that character take that step?" or "How did they know that would happen?" This will allow you to fully understand your story. Once you know that part, then read a few stories as a writer to match your steps to theirs, and you will be ready for writing.

And here's the big step everyone needs to realize:

- There's no reason why you can't do this. If you are reading this, it means you are literate and want to do this task. The only thing holding you back is your own doubts. Discover those doubts, fight with them, overcome them, then march through the steps. I guarantee you will end up with the story you want.

(no promises about what the editors will say)



Friday, July 2, 2021

Some Words Worth Reading

This is not exactly my usual post. Rather, it is a reminder of just what words can do when we put them to a good and proper use. Sometimes it is easy to forget just how much strength the written word has when we think about it strictly in the confines of our novels and poems. However, words make a difference. They move people, they shape minds, and in some cases, they form nations.

Below is something worth reading once a year, just to remember what things are all about. The text does not translate perfectly, it sounds kind of antiquated, and to say the least it is not exactly politically correct. However, these words made a difference. They changed the world. Let's take a moment to read them, then remember just what power words can have.


In Congress, July 4, 1776

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America, When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.--Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.

He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.

He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.

He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.

He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.

He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.

He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.

He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:

For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:

For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:

For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:

For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:

For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences

For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:

For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:

For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.

He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor. 

Monday, June 28, 2021

"How much do I need for a story?"

I am surprised how often this question comes up in writing chat groups. People say they have a work that is so-many-thousands of words, and they want to know if it counts as a story. In some way, I understand what they are asking, but in other ways, I think they are missing the greater question. Let's clarify the first part a little, then dive into the second part.

There are a lot of classifications for story sizes and categories, but here is a general breakdown (and not a hard-and-fast rule):

Less than 10,000 words: Short story
10,000-50,000 words: Novella
More than 50,000 words: Novel
(greater than 300,000 words: Too long)

This is really little more than just definition, and doesn't matter until you are talking to a potential publisher and they have their own standard of so many words for a publication. Numerous short story publishers have different standards for what they will consider. Hemingway famously boasted of writing a story six words long. And yes, I know of someone who wrote a "modest" novel that was over 300,000 words (it has not yet been published). However, don't let the definition take you away from the task of writing a story. That is a different thing altogether.

When we write a story, we generally have an idea of a character or characters, the journey they go on, the obstacles they face, how the mission is completed, and what life is like afterwards. These are the ingredients for a story - not the length of the work. In this regard, our obligation as writers is to make sure we make all those steps as complete and satisfying as possible to our reader, and give them a full experience of what might be an otherwise simple journey.

When a lot of writers first start out, they want to write the complete story of the hero's journey. They introduce the main character, lay out the problem, send them on the mission, it gets completed, and we're done. That, technically, is the complete story. However, it is quite boring. It is not engaging. Part of the mission of telling the hero's story is storytelling - making that person full and real. Before the hero runs off on their mission, the reader needs to know about them. Their habits, their interests; the things that connect the hero to the life of the reader. Rushing to the mission is one thing, but if the hero gets a cup of coffee with too much cream, the reader connects with this point and relates to their situation through that cup of coffee. It's extra words, but it benefits the story.

A lot of words in a story come from the conversations, the descriptions, the narrative that shapes the world around the hero. When those words are used in a way that helps the reader, the story gets better. It becomes a longer work, but the reward is even greater.

The main takeaway is to not be concerned about the length of the story. Focus on your engagement with the reader, how you want your words to affect them, and the journey you wish to take them on. If you want to share a quick little event with a sharp twist at the end, write it and call it a short story. If you want to transport your reader to a different place and time, focus on the description and world-building, and let the novel create itself.

And if it is in excess of 300,000 words, get some outside input. It's too long.

 

Monday, June 21, 2021

Killing Off Your Characters

"If a character isn't moving the story, it's okay to just kill them off. Unless it's an autobiography."

Over the past few months, I have seen this subject come up more and more: What are the rules for killing off characters? Authors seem to be conflicted about this, and rightfully so, but the question kind of misses the real mark. The question we really need to ask is whether or not the character deserves to live in the first place.

I'll actually offer this disclaimer before any discussion about living or dying. Some writers get attached to their characters to the point where they are reluctant to kill off the nice ones, and that's a good sign. It means the character is real, is substantial and has dimension. If it's easy to kill off the main character's best friend, the real question should be whether or not that friend really had any substance. If a character is important to the story and the plot arc, they need to be drawn out well enough to carry that load. Otherwise, you are not doing justice for your readers.

Anyway - living or dying. The real lines we need to draw in deciding whether or not we should kill off a character boil down to these. First, does killing off the character advance the plot? Does it move the story along in a meaningful way, or does it just add another body on the pile? Like anything we write into a story, the loss of a character should have a ripple effect that carries on for pages. If we are just killing them off for shock effect, well, that's nice for a moment but it's kind of a cheat. At the very least, let the death of the character build up the motives and meanings of other characters.

Second, is death the only option? Let's face it - life is quite expendable in the fiction genre, and people die all over the place. Therefore, we should consider whether death is the right way for that character to impact the plot. If a character dies in a car accident, well, that settles their arc. However, what if they are badly injured instead? Would that option allow the character to continue to influence the story in a valuable way? What if they disappear under odd circumstances? Their absence now becomes the important part - the lingering question about being alive or dead. Non-dead characters have a lot more versatility than one who ends up south of the grass. 

Here's a big question. Should the character even be alive? Have you ever read a story or saw a movie and just knew some supporting character was just filling a dead person's shoes? Inevitably they'd get bumped off, and the only questions were when and where. As writers, we need to make sure these characters are few and far between, or that their unfortunate demise has a real big payoff in plot progress. They better reveal a big secret, make a bold sacrifice, or offer something surprising that the reader never sees coming. Otherwise, they become a distraction to the reader and a drag on the story's momentum.

We all get the chance to kill off characters, and let's face it - some of them are better off dead. However, as in the real world, our only job is to make sure that while they were alive, their existence had purpose.

 

Monday, June 14, 2021

Preemptive Writing

It may come as no surprise, but I write a number of my posts in advance. Sometimes I can be in the middle of an ordinary day when an idea strikes, and I set aside the nonimportant things and write about my particular inspiration. Granted, sometimes my posts seem a little dated if I write about a current event but the post doesn't go up until Friday, and holiday writing can always run into timing issues. However, for the most part I think we can all understand this style of cause-effect writing. We get inspired, therefore we write. 

Now I am going to suggest an exercise that is just the opposite. 

Often, when we write based on inspiration we produce things we feel good about, or at least acknowledge that they came from a good place. The downside is that if we go through a dry spell where nothing is inspiring us, we end up not writing. We don't flex our creative muscles, our sources of inspiration feel further away, and it spirals ever-downward. This is a tough trap to escape from, so sometimes it is best to avoid the trap altogether and use our writing as a way to find our inspiration. By flipping it around, we can find a way to fuel our own interests.

I have often brought up this point but it's worth mentioning again. During my life in economics, I followed a pretty standard schedule. Part of that schedule was catching the 7:02 a.m. train into the city in the morning, and taking the 5:02 p.m. train back. This train ride lasted about 45 minutes, and I always got a seat, therefore, it gave me time to write if I felt so inclined. At times I would not feel inspired, so I would nap or read or catch up on work, and that's where the problem started. No inspiration meant no writing, which sent me into that spiral.

Then I thought, "What if I take those 45-minute spans and write, no matter what? No matter how unmotivated I am, I still push my fingers along the keys and create something - anything. I don't even need to save my work if I don't want to. I just write, and work toward the inspiration. Could this work?"

Long story short, it worked.

After a couple of months of doing this, I kind of conditioned myself. I would be at work, doing my thing, but in the back of my mind I knew my writing time was coming up. My creative mind went on a conditioned countdown, and little ideas started bubbling to life. Even on the least inspiring days, the knowledge that I had some writing time coming up triggered sparks of inspiration. 

It may sound a little odd that I am suggesting we teach ourselves to be inspired, but that's basically the case here. Don't get me wrong - if inspiration finds us, we should take advantage of it as quickly as possible. However, let's not overlook how we can get ahead of that part of the process and fuel our own inspiration. Once we can do that, the writing comes so much easier.

Friday, June 11, 2021

Writing the Perfect Story and Other Myths

As someone once said, "Not everything goes the way we planned, and that's okay." Last week I posted about finding unusual sparks of inspiration in the weirdest of places, and taking advantage of those moments to write things like awesome poems (no, this is not another poetry entry.) Well, today is a follow-up on that piece, and as you might have guessed, sometimes things did not go as planned.

For all the inspiration I gained from an exhausting stretch of cycling, for some reason I did not end up with the perfect poem. Somewhere between having that "A-ha!" moment on my Schwinn and sitting at my keyboard, something changed to where I found it very difficult to take that bit of creativity crashing around in my skull and put it into words. All of the structural parts were there - purpose, meaning, theme, message, all well defined and clearly understood. Yet for some reason, nothing happened when I hit the final stage of actually writing the thing. 

After a little bit of soul-searching, I came to a few conclusions. First, I did not need to do yet another fifty-mile bicycling trip through the sticky Midwest heat to recapture what I had found. Second, my inspiration was not an illusion, it was very much real and would come to fruition sooner or later. Most importantly, I realized what had me all hung up. After such a moment of awakening, I set myself up for a profound adventure that would lead to an awesome creation. I led myself to believe that I was about to create the definitive poem of my existence, the one that would not just speak to me but would serve as a looking glass through which all readers could see me. This would be a truly amazing work; the magnum opus of my writing career.

With that kind of pressure, how could anyone write anything?

I concluded that I had raised my expectations so high that I could never reach them. I was now set on writing the perfect piece of poetry, when in fact deep down I know I am not there yet. Somewhere inside there are a few good pieces of work, perhaps even great given time, but perfection in just not in the cards right now. Once I accepted that, it became easier to write what I wanted to, because I knew it would not be perfect... and that's okay.

This happens a lot in the writers' groups I attend. People want to write that epic tale, that wonderful novel. They know their story is the one they need to create, but they set their bar so high that they know they'll never clear it, and it prevents them from even trying. They assume their limits will restrict them from ever reaching the point they want to achieve, and they never even start to write their perfect story.

Now that I accept that I am just as guilty of this crime as anyone else, I can offer this advice. Write a first draft, and tell yourself it will be ugly in the beginning. It will be clumsy and awkward and off-balance, like a toddler stumbling around the living room, but that's okay. You start by creating the toddler, then revising it and reviewing it so it can walk properly, then run, then do amazing things that you perhaps never expected. Just don't get yourself hung up on your inability to create perfection. Focus on your desire to create, and let the rest come together in time.

Because that's okay as well.

 

Monday, June 7, 2021

The Spark of... Joy?

Last year I wrote a piece about finding the inspiration for writing, and I made reference to Marie Condo's idea of asking if something sparked joy. I received some good feedback on that piece, and also on just what can spark joy. (Side note: I wrote the piece on 4/20, and a few people felt that sparking joy could mean something entirely different on that date. I do not judge.) However, I got to thinking about how the spark of joy is a great way to rekindle our burning creativity, but it is far from the only way.

I guess the important part, as far as writing is concerned, is that I looked at Marie Condo's discussion of something sparking joy and accepted the word "spark" as a verb - the action of the sentence. Something that brings us joy can spark that creative urge, and away we go. However, it is fair to say that a spark can be a noun as well. That's when my brain really started churning and I started thinking about whether spark was more important as a verb or a noun. Then I started questioning whether the joy part was even important.

I have come to the decision that joy isn't a critical ingredient - it's all about the spark.

Over the past week, I have had a poem crashing about my mind, just looking for a way to take final shape. I have sought the inspiration to push it onto the written page, but the "joy" hasn't been there to ignite that fire. Pieces of it come together, evolve, fall apart, morph into other poems, and so forth, but so far the result has not been a cohesive poem. I clearly did not have that element that sparked the right joy to complete the piece.

Then, the other day, during a bicycling trip through the Midwest on a particularly hot afternoon, as I fought the wind and my own fatigue, the poem began to take shape. Was this my moment of joy? Hardly - my forearms were shaking and certain muscle groups were pressing their limits as sweat ran into my eyes. However, this is the magic of the moment. The spark was not one of joy but one of personal strain. Fatigue. Weariness. As exhaustion crept through my body, I found what that poem needed. The poem itself was not a joyous piece - it was dark and introspective, a personal dissection of parts of me I did not enjoy exploring. In my moment of weakness, I saw how those pieces now came together, and my creative side was suddenly energized. I knew how the poem worked, I knew its voice and I could do it justice. And no joy was harmed in the process of putting together the verses.

What's my point? Sometimes, the spark of inspiration is not going to come from a happy place, and we shouldn't just assume that the face we need to see is a smiling one. We need to look for our spark in the darkness, through the fog of our despair, in those places we dare not explore. If our inspirational spark happens to come from joy, then all the better. However, it's not the only place the spark can exist, and finding it in those remote hiding places can reveal things we never even knew we were looking for.

And incidentally, bicycling and other outdoor adventures are great ways to get out of your head and just focus on the world around you. I'm not saying they are for everyone, but if you go on a hike and it inspires a poem, I'd love to hear it.

Monday, May 31, 2021

For Memorial Day

Just a short post today. I know this breaks with my tradition of not posting on federal holidays, but I also have a tradition on this day that I decided to merge into this blog just this once. On this particular day, I wanted to show how simplicity and elegance can create something well beyond the sum of its words.

Yes, technically this is a poetry post, but I will let the words carry the weight of the message. I just make sure this is placed again into the world, and people have the opportunity to read these simple words that have become synonymous with Memorial Day and all that it means. This poem came from the first World War, and was written by a man more known as a writer of medical textbooks than poetry. However, these words, written after the loss of a friend, gave this man immortality. That's how powerful a poem can be, even one written by a doctor.

I hope everyone recognizes Memorial Day in the way it was intended.


In Flanders Fields

BY JOHN MCCRAE


In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

    That mark our place; and in the sky

    The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.


We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

    Loved and were loved, and now we lie,

        In Flanders fields.


Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

    The torch; be yours to hold it high.

    If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

        In Flanders fields.

Monday, May 24, 2021

Dialogue - A Follow-Up

Last Friday's post was a discussion on the pros and cons of using different forms of dialogue, the benefits of internal versus external, and an aside to when narrating voice can take over for the spoken word. Definitely a lot to discuss, and maybe 800 words was not quite enough to get out all of the sordid details about dialogue's pros and cons. I thought it was a good start and a way to open up a conversation about the whens and hows of using quotes and narrative.

Then the IMs came in.

Nothing horrible, nothing toxic, but nevertheless some important points were brought up. I thought I would cover a few in particular just to highlight how things can be done in a few different ways, each with its own effect, or in some cases, with little effect whatsoever.

Let's say our character is working on some big, elaborate plan, and someone asks that character if they are sure it will work. Simple enough, so let's look at two possible responses, both in the first person:

  • I tell him everything seems to be in place and I can't think of what could possibly go wrong.
  • I tell him, "Everything seems to be in place and I can't think of what could possibly go wrong."

These are the same sentences, with the exception being the punctuation and capitalization. However, there is a difference here, and while it might seem inconsequential, it's still worth pointing out. The first sentence is just a part of the thought process, and it would easily flow along with narrative discussion, perhaps even getting lost in it. The second sentence, however, breaks from the narrative flow by taking the reader into a moment of discussion, perhaps even preparing them for a run of dialogue about what might be at risk in this situation. In this case, the quote is actually a prompt for further conversation, and there had better be one, otherwise the reader loses the nice, steady narrative flow and has to reset that rhythm at the expense of a nice, continuous pace.

There's also another trick that can go on here, depending on how the situation in our hypothetical situation is playing out. Our first line is part of the narration so it does not necessarily stand out on its own merits. However, what if we want that observation to stand above everything else? What if something will go wrong a few pages from now, but we want to highlight our character's confidence that everything is accounted for. In this case, interrupting the narrative to offer a specific, word-for-word, detailed observation tells our reader that this one line is very important and speaks specifically to that character's mindset. It stands out, even though it is just one quote without a surrounding conversation. When it's played right, our reader sees that last part of the quote, "...what could possibly go wrong" and decides that this will be referred to just as something goes horribly wrong.

So, is there a hard-and-fast rule about how to do these things? Not a chance. These things are more style than rule, working for effect rather than following a specific mandate. In other words, feel free to play around with different ways, and see what happens. And don't take the IMs personally. They mean well.

Friday, May 21, 2021

Dialogue - Pros and Cons

In my last few writing workshops, we got into discussions about dialogue. Not just the details about punctuation, structure, and all those details, but rather what its place can be in a story. There are obvious places for conversation, so we can step around that. Instead, the interesting part comes when we look at what dialogue and external conversation can bring to a story, and what it can take away.

First and foremost, I want to state the obvious about dialogue - it is a presentation of a conversation that occurs during the course of a story. Actual dialogue is in quotes, meaning it is the exact wording spoken and exchanged between the characters. This might seem a little too obvious, but it actually is very important to our subject here. In this regard, dialogue serves as a transcript of a conversation, but it allows the characters to do those things that characters do - particularly exaggerate, lie, manipulate words, talk in circles... the list goes on.

Let's compare this to the alternative - explaining the character's motives and position through their thoughts and observations. This is far more flexible in that the character is free to explore whatever aspect of the situation they want to involve themselves with, but the constraint is that this is the special territory of their mind. All the games we play with other people during arguments fade away when a person is strictly thinking about a situation. This is their world and they remain as honest as possible to themselves as the author permits.

Now, this does allow us, as writers, to decide what we want to show the reader about our character. If the character is, say, guilty of a crime but the reader doesn't know this, the internal observations will differ significantly from what they say. External dialogue will likely be full of lies and redirections to hide their guilt, but internal dialogue takes a different shape entirely. Internally, the person might think they did nothing wrong, that they were justified in their action, or that their mind is the only place where they can acknowledge what they did. Within the mind there are few secrets, while the external dialogue can be total redirection. Of course, mixing the two can create its own fun, as the reader can see what the character thinks but also understand how the character presents themselves to others.

One exception to this is when the writer uses the technique known as the Unreliable Narrator. In a very popular post I did a few years ago, "Obi-Wan Kenobi – You Suck!" I describe how the Unreliable Narrator allows the writer to lead the reader along a false trail all while adhering to the set of rules stated above. It requires the writer to walk a tight narrative line and recognize just what the boundaries are, but the result (as cited in the case of Obi-Wan Kenobi) can have a big payoff.

Dialogue all boils down to a simple discussion of what story you want to tell the reader. Some dialogue can always help the pacing of a story rather than having it be just a big pile of thoughts, and often too much dialogue can turn into monologue that has to be very crisp and exciting for it to work. The main question you need to ask yourself as an author is what you want to present to the reader. The mind of the reader comes through internally, but personality can be conveyed in many ways through external dialogue.

After that, it's all your call. Don't be afraid to try both ways, and see what happens.


 

Monday, May 17, 2021

The Untold Story of Autobiographies

I know a lot of people who have wanted to sit down and write their autobiography. They wanted their story to be told, to be known, perhaps with the purpose of letting them live long after their bodies were gone. The reason doesn't matter in the first few steps. Rather, this is a discussion about what we should consider when we take on the task of documenting our life. (Incidentally, this matter has a lot of personal flex to it - these rules are not hard and fast by any stretch.)

The first consideration is what part of your story you wish to tell. Yes, I said "part." Our stories are huge affairs, starting from that date on our birth certificate up until the here-and-now, and it would really make the story move if the focus centered on a specific point or theme. If you want the reader to understand, say, your lifelong connection with food that led you to become a chef, well, a lot of your stories don't move that point along. The stories more likely to take in the reader with likely involve you, food, and how those actions and interactions shaped your life. This doesn't mean the other stories aren't good, it just means they aren't quite right for this particular autobiography.

In choosing a starting point, it's worth noting that your particular theme or point can be as simple as "a life of hardship" or "my family" and you have something to work with. If you are writing this particular autobiography so future generations can understand that aspect of you, then its fine. Further books can be about specific eras in your life, detailed information about relationships, career notes - whatever. Just stay focused within that particular line of thinking.

Some subjects may not seem as important as others when it comes to telling that story, but it's your call. Many of the men in my family's history served and fought in a number of wars. You would think this would be some great stuff to write down and share with future generations. For the most part, none of them did, nor did any of them want other people to. One particular relative put it in the simplest of terms: He wanted future generations to think of him as a father, a grandfather, a great-grandfather, and on down the line as a man who started a family that he was more proud of than anything else in his life. He didn't want to be remembered as a soldier. As much as some people wanted to collect and share his heroics, in the end those stories mostly died with him. The story he wanted was the one important to him, and they live on through his sizeable family.

My friend, Lenny Kapocius, did end up writing about his adventures during World War Two in "To Manus and Back," so it was my job as his editor to remind him to make sure every episode tied back to his time in the Navy. He has some great stories about growing up during the Great Depression, working through the Blizzard of '67, and some of the great souls he's encountered in his many years of life, but for the most part, those stories are going into other books. He still writes every day and is in the process of publishing another book, and that part of his life will live on.

Personally, I don't plan on writing an autobiography. There are too many stories that would not be able to make the cut, and I am, first and foremost, someone who enjoys sharing those stories in whatever form I feel hits the spot. Maybe I'll change my mind later, or my legions of adoring fans will draft me into putting together something - I don't know. For now, though, I will offer advice about that eventual autobiography, and that is to write stories around the idea and see what forms. If there's a book in there, then great. Chances are, there are several books of different themes just waiting to happen, so do a little work toward that end and see what happens. That act will tell people more about you than you'll ever know. 


 


Friday, May 14, 2021

Spoken vs. Written Dialogue

Now that the COVID restrictions are easing and a sense of normalcy is creeping back into the world, I feel it is time to remind writers about that fine art of people-watching, or in this particular discussion, people-listening. This innocent little exercise is something that helps us learn not just about writing dialogue, but how to avoid some of the differences between a spoken conversation and a written conversation.

Admittedly, it does sound a little weird and perhaps even stalkerish, but there is real value to be gained from listening to other peoples' conversations. In these particular cases, the content is not the important part. Rather, the pivot turns on how natural conversation is usually a grammatical nightmare on a word-for-word basis, and how it has to be translated to be effective written dialogue.

A great source of this is courtroom testimony, which is transcribed as it was spoken - warts and all. You can read the testimony of a very intelligent person and realize that when they talk, they backtrack on their sentences, they throw in awkward pauses in the weirdest places, they often correct themselves half of the time then fill the balance of the sentence with other errors, and so on. When we read their spoken words, the people do not come off as intelligent. This becomes a problem when we set out to write something that is supposed to sound natural and real.

Bottom line: Natural speech becomes unnaturally bad written dialogue.

This being said, there is something to gain from paying attention to how people talk. First, while they may have all of the little shortcomings mentioned above, these can be opportunities to express something on the written page. People may speak in half-sentences that periodically backtrack on themselves when they self-correct, and we can omit those from our writing. However, the moment we include some little self-interruption, we signal to the reader a degree of uncertainty or doubt. We drop that natural note in there once and it immediately tells the reader a world of information. If we include it all the time, the reader just gets annoyed.

Pauses are something we always use with the spoken word, but will utterly destroy the flow of written dialogue. Rather, we can drop a few commas in to give a rhythm to the speaker's pacing and the reader gets a feel for the motion of the dialogue without getting held up. If an actual pause is required, a ellipsis (...) does a lot of heavy lifting, but should be used sparingly. Again, we want to make sure that the flow of the conversation is fairly smooth, and that the occasional ellipsis is used sparingly so it has a dramatic impact. 

Of course, there are all those words and phrases, people use in conversation that are taboo in clean writing: like, well, kind of, you know, basically, and so on. Key in to a conversation and feel for how often these words are used. It's not pretty, and they should largely be kept out of natural dialogue. However, dropping one or two of them into a particular character's pattern gives their dialogue dimension, and they stand out. In conversation sections, readers immediately recognize who is talking because of how often she uses the term, "like, y'know," and they engage a little deeper.

And on that note, I am off to do some writing, preferably in a fairly public place. After all, those strangers need someone to listen in on them - it might as well be me.

 

Monday, May 10, 2021

Walking, Jogging, or Running?

The other day I was talking with a friend about exercise, with the discussion circling around the pros and cons of walking versus running. As someone with pretty bad knees, I am naturally biased toward walking, and preferably on a shock-absorbent treadmill. That being said, we talked about how the preference of one method versus the other usually depended on what the person wanted to get out of that particular exercise. Running is better cardio but doesn't last as long, while a walk can be for hours on end and build up stamina, though the calorie burn is not exactly the same. Of course, at some point my thoughts drifted to writing.

Often when we write, we are mission-driven. I am writing right now because I want to have this blog entry done by Monday. Other times I sit down and want to complete the latest chapter in my manuscript, or perhaps flesh out some ideas for a future story, or maybe - just maybe - I just want to write for the sake of creating. Whatever the case may be, I think it's important to examine these things in terms of what we gain from each task so we understand the benefits and tradeoffs of each one. 

I usually compare writing for writing's sake as the equivalent of going for a walk. We never have to go for a walk; we do it because we want to get some fresh air, stretch out a little, see new things or just be outside for a while. Yes, it's good exercise since it builds up our endurance and we can go on longer and longer walks, but the benefits are only witnessed slowly, with us getting healthier without noticing it. When we write for the enjoyment of writing, we might never create anything amazing, but we exercise those writer parts that, with regular stretching and motion, become stronger over time.

On the other side of the pendulum's swing there are flash-fiction writing exercises. You sit with paper and pen or keyboard in front of you, someone says, "Your first line is 'I saw the weirdest thing today...', and START!" and you write for the next fifteen minutes nonstop. This is the hard run - yes, a hard run. You are forcing yourself to write even when you are not sure what to write about, how to present it, or whether time will allow. When this is done as a group writing exercise, people are literally grunting in exasperation by the last few minutes. The definitive cardio of the writing world, this will show you how you can sometimes exceed those self-imposed limits you tie around yourself, and once the time is up, you will take a deep breath and say, "Wow, I freaking did that!" (And you might cramp up a little.)

Ultimately, I think the important part of writing is to find that middle ground that you are comfortable with - the jogging pace. We set out to complete a writing task, block out a reasonable amount of time, and just start. Whether it is completing a short story, filling out a chapter, or getting a poem just right, we promise ourselves we will go the distance and we live up to our word. The more jogging we do as writers, the more we expand ourselves and our capacity to perform. Occasionally we are tested because we are not inspired, stuck on a chapter, or just not feeling in that writing place, but as we get used to flex our writer's jogging muscles, we find that the act itself helps put us into the right mindset, and away we go.

As a writer, I always recommend two things. First, find your own pace. Combine a few sprints with a few walks, but see where your pendulum finally levels off and work from there. Second, don't be afraid to push yourself a little further - that's where the growth is. You'll discover more about yourself when you go past your expectations, so give it a shot.

Oh - as always, don't forget to stretch first.