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, December 24, 2021

One Last Little Christmas Post...

For this short little post - the last one of 2021 - I think about the togetherness of family, going to church, exchanging gifts, gaining weight and appreciating what we have. Well, this year has been a tough one to appreciate. On that note, how can we use the tools we have as writers to reclaim some of this most important of holidays?

Christmas is still plagued by all that COVID entails, and no matter what anyone says, it will be different... again. I just know that of the few things I can control, one is my decision to also be a writer during this time. 

One of the skills we pick up as writers is the ability to process our thoughts and feelings in a way so that they come out on paper. We channel a lot of things into the world when we write, and by doing this, we can create some very special things.

A quick consideration for making Christmas particularly special during these days of COVID. For the people who you were hoping to see this year but can't, write something for them. Write a quick description of your favorite memory about you and that person. Write them a fun little holiday poem. Just write them an email personally telling them why you will miss seeing them this year. Use your abilities and tools as a writer to communicate those feelings in a very simple manner.

This may sound cheesy, but trust yourself as a writer. Trust that what you say will have meaning and feeling. And believe that when you do this, you will move the person in the way a gift should.

My favorite story for the season is How the Grinch Stole Christmas! With this, my main takeaway is that while the Grinch stole all of the trappings of the holiday, he only belatedly learned that the part he couldn't steal was the thing he never understood - Christmas involves a spirit, an attitude, that can't be taken away from us. Not by the Grinch, or by a virus, or anyone. And you can retain that spirit with something as simple as your writing.

So on that note, Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and I will see you with my next post, which will be Monday, January 3th, 2022, so Happy New Year as well. 

Monday, December 13, 2021

Why Be a Writer?

For this blog's first post I went with the bluntly obvious. It was titled, "Starting off as a writer" and it primarily discussed what motivated me to begin writing seriously. I put a lot of thought into that piece before even writing the first word, because such a subject can go in many wild directions. Very few of us have just one reason for writing (I have several others besides what that post explained), and some of us have more motives than we know. So on that note, I decided it would be helpful to expand on those other things as a way of reminded us just why we engage in this mad pursuit.

Sometimes it is tough to write. Even when we have the story in our head, there can be a lot of mental or psychological obstacles preventing us from committing those stories into words. Our eyes are transfixed on the computer screen, hands at the keyboard, but our thoughts drag us away from things. We will think, "I wonder if it's windy outside. I should check," or "If I don't play PC Solitaire, who will organize those decks of cards?" When this happens, I turn my thoughts toward what first drew me into the joy and madness of writing.

While it is true that I began taking creative writing seriously in my thirties, it was not where that journey started. In fact, the origins date back to before I could even write. My parents said that even when I was just a few years old, I would find some innocuous item like our dog's chew-toy, give it a name, and start telling stories about its adventures. (Full disclosure: It was just a chew-toy. The sum total of its life's adventures was getting chewed on by our dog.) Some part of my mind wanted to create, to build a world beyond what was there. Was it psychological escapism? A coping mechanism for managing the troubled world I lived in? Who knows/cares? Even before I knew what storytelling was, I wanted to do it.

This may come as a surprise, but I did take creative writing in high school. To be honest, I was horrible at the course. As Fran Lebowitz once said, "The first time I hated writing is when I had to do it." Now, in this class, my urge to write was still there, but this was a course about structure and how to presents things and blah, blah, blah. I just wanted to drag these stories out and make them as perfect as possible. I didn't have the patience to learn about things at that time, and it worked against me. I could've gained a lot from that class, but instead I had to learn those lessons slowly over the next two decades. My bad, and my apologies to Ms. Lester for wasting her time.

What I did learn as a broad-stroke life lesson was that my storytelling was not some urge or impulse, it was a need. Extracting whatever roamed around my mind and committing it to paper somehow fed something I didn't fully understand for many years. It took a life-altering event to wake me up to that idea, but thankfully I had time afterward to act upon it.

So, sometimes when I look at that screen and I can't seem to get things into gear, I ask myself that simple question, "Why Be a Writer?" Even before I have the answer, I start typing the thoughts flashing through my mind. It reminds me in no uncertain terms that it has become a part of me, and I should no longer think about being a writer, because I am a writer.

Friday, December 10, 2021

Writing Structure (and how to avoid it)

One thing I enjoy about writing that doesn't involve me actually writing is helping people progress along their journey. This can be something as simple as a critique of their work, suggesting a few good reads for examples of technique, or just talking about our individual processes. One thing I commonly do is offer constructive answers to the many questions from writers just starting out, and every now and then I notice a theme in the inquiries that come my way. The latest trend seems to be how much to write, so I think that's worth dedicating a little time to discussing.

How many words should a short story be? How many pages make a good chapter? Will 50,000 words make a 300-page book? How long does a story have to be? I come across these questions a lot, along with similar inquiries regarding word count, pages, chapter size, etc. These are fair questions, but they approach the situation from the wrong direction. They look at writing from the direction of structure, but that is only half of the situation.

The basic length of a work is defined by its word count. Not pages, not chapters - word count. And while there is no hard-and-fast, universally accepted standard, the categories break down kind of like this:

  • Short story: up to 20,000 words
  • Novella: 20,000-50,000 words
  • Novel: 50,000+ words
  • Too much: 250,000+ words

This is the structure part of writing. If you want to write the Great American Novel, it better be at least 50,000 words. The number and length of chapters is inconsequential. The important part is that when you set out to write something, those categories will tell you what you have written. If you finish the Great American Novel and realize it's only 40,000 words, you might have to accept the award for the Great American Novella instead.

Here's where we walk away from structure and embrace the writing side. When it comes to the length of a chapter, story, or whatever, the proper measure is what the words accomplish, not the space they take. Word count goes out the window, and we instead focus on how we want to pace our storytelling. This is now about rhythm, and that's an individual quality.

How long should a short story be? Long enough to present a situation, evolve it, and conclude it. This can be a few paragraphs, a couple of pages, or even a few sections of a longer piece. The point is that the length is determined by the storytelling. A chapter should present a segment of a longer piece, offer the reader information and story progression, and have an organic handoff to the next section. If this takes 100 words, then so be it. If it's 10,000 words, that's okay as well. The story dictates the size.

And lastly, 50,000 words can make a 300-page book if the font is a large enough point size, but it will look weird. Instead, set the target of telling a full and complete story, and let the words count and pages just fall into place. In the end, nobody will care about your word count but you.

Monday, December 6, 2021

Growing as a Writer

I am proud to say I know a lot of writers. And by that I mean WOW! I know a LOT of writers. They come in all shapes and sizes, with all kind of techniques, specialties, favorite genres, etc. Most importantly, they all have different levels of mastery. Some are great fiction writers, others are beautiful essayists, some are very insightful poets, and many are on their way to becoming those things. So on that note, here are a few little hints on how they advanced on that journey.

First, criticism. This is not as simple as it may sound. Of course, every writer needs to hear when they do things wrong – structural errors, telling instead of showing, and other common slips. And, of course, anyone who wishes to grow should be open to such critiques. (Note: “Open” does not mean accepting them without question, it just means not getting defensive) But a crucial part of this process is where the writer seeks out criticism, preferably as specific as possible.

Too many times, an aspiring writer will present me or a workshop with a story and say, “So, what do you think?” It’s good that they are workshopping their pieces and seeking outside input, but the real opportunity comes when they ask for something specific. “Did this piece hold your interest?” “Was it funny?” “How is the grammar and structure?” “Was it readable?” These questions target a specific subject that the reader/critic can approach and that the writer can build from.

As we develop as writers, we can make these questions even more detailed, and really start working on our tools of the craft. “Was my description consistent with the mood?” “Did you connect with the main character?” And my favorite – “Did you see the twist at the end coming?” These precision questions can trigger a lot of discussion with the readers and extract a lot of information, all of which allows us as writers to grow. 

Second, experimentation. We grow as we step outside our boundaries. In this regard, I always suggest writing a poem, an essay, a character sketch, or whatever is not typical for your styling. Play with ideas, have a few colossal failures, get some criticism, and grow. Writing one poem will not necessarily set you on course to be the next Poet Laureate, but flexing another set of writing muscles will never do you harm.

Lastly, I always recommend journaling. However you approach this is up to you – keep a diary, make notes about your life, write down random ideas as they pop into your head. The purpose of this is to take whatever is churning through your gray matter and turn it into words. The mere process of recording events in written form is valuable. As we start tying the emotions that came with those events to the words, our writing gains depth. Eventually, we start weaving ideas into these write-ups, and our journaling is now a regular writer’s workout, and with any workout, naturally, we grow.

The common factor among all these little things is that we find ways to see the world, our thoughts, our feelings, through the written word, and try to distill them into something that has power and emotion. It’s a long journey, and occasionally we backslide, but if we want to march forward on our journey as a writer, these are the things that help us grow. Plus, we write a lot of stuff in the meantime, and nothing’s wrong with that.


Friday, December 3, 2021

Writing Reflections

"Great writers stamp the world with their minds..."

- Michael Pollan

As we stumble into December, perhaps having finished our NaNoWriMo challenge or just having finished off the last of our Thanksgiving leftovers and what was left of our dignity, we head into the holiday season full-force. This, for me, is a time of reflection, both on the world around me and the world inside me. For all my loyal readers, I will mostly discuss the world inside me. Particularly, I will discuss my thoughts on being a writer, and how it relates to the quote above.

Now, I do not know if Michael Pollan spent hours upon hours sweating over getting those eight words just so perfectly aligned to portray what he intended, or if it was merely something that had been on his mind as a convenient transition from one discussion to the next. What matters is that when I read it, the words stuck. I put a special bookmark on that page just so I could easily reference the quote when I next needed it. That's a part of what writing is about to me - putting together words, phrases, ideas, stories, and so forth in such a way that someone out there will read it, take pause, read it again, and say to themselves, "Wow."

Now, I should be so lucky that something I write ends up getting immortalized in society's lexicon of great sayings, or even an entry on My purpose for writing is, in part, to turn all those ideas in my mind into words that other people might find meaning in. Maybe they'll agree, maybe not - I don't know. However, there is something amazing about typing up some words for nobody in particular, and later on, some stranger sees those words, thinks them over, and pauses for a moment of reflection. It is a form of connection that we can only appreciate on an abstract level, all while realizing that moment may never be realized.

When we first start on our journey of writing, we might have that dream of writing the perfect phrase, sentence, or explanation. However, in the beginning, this is unlikely to happen immediately as we are still learning our basics. That being said, beginners will still have those wonderful moments when they put down a few words, look at them, and think, "Whoa... that's brilliant." Maybe it's not the ultimate achievement, but it cues the beginner to realize they are on the right track.

Of course, the more and more we write, the more those moments happen. At first we might turn a phrase brilliantly, then we pop out a brilliant metaphor, or put together a great description, and they happen more and more often. Over time, we get to that point where our creation process is growing without us knowing it. This is what leads us toward becoming that great writer who stamps the world with their minds.

The only thing I put out there is a warning - this doesn't happen immediately, and you might only feel it long after you have been creating quality work. This is fine. Your only job is to continue writing, push yourself to do more, and trust that every word you type builds you as a writer. In time, the world will be affected.

Friday, November 19, 2021

Characters are People Too

Think of the last time a friend or close acquaintance of yours surprised you - not like jumped out and said, "Boo!" but did something that made you think, "I did not see that coming." Whether they bought you dinner for no reason or went on a tirade about Estonia, think of that moment and how you processed that. How did you add that to your mental file of everything you knew about that person? More importantly, think about what changed about your overall opinion about them.

This is what people do - they surprise us from time to time. We learn about them. We add information and get a better feel for who they are, but sometimes we reshape our thoughts. More to the point, we accept that the person is more than what we once believed, and we grow a little as well.

In writing, however, it is too easy to forget this little fact, and we write about characters where we don't have all the information. In fact, often we go in with very little actual knowledge of the character other than how it fits into the narrative. This is okay - when we start writing, we start learning and the character grows. However, sometimes when we get stuck in our writing and don't know what our character needs to do or how they will resolve a situation, it's because we don't know that character well enough to find the answer. The character hasn't surprised us yet.

When I get hung up on a character's motivations or natural response to a situation, I give myself an opportunity to understand them a little better. I start "asking" the character questions, and really thinking about the answers and how they fit into their overall story. The questions don't have to relate to the story; in fact they can be innocuous questions you would ask any person. But when you do this, really think about the answers and why those answers fit in. If you get stuck, ask your character these questions, and also ask why those were the answer:

  • What is their favorite color?
  • What is the favorite moment from their childhood?
  • Who would they have voted for?
  • Who is their favorite celebrity?
  • What would they want on a pizza?
  • What is their first thought when they wake up?
  • Do they give to charity?

Yes, these are simple questions, but often we don't think about these things when we are focused on the story arc. As we ask them and justify the answers, we start filling in the blank areas and understanding the whole of the character a lot more. We also start thinking about the character not just as a tool for pushing the story, but as an actual person. And the more real they are, the more we are able to get past our hang-ups about what a character might do and instead start writing again.

Of course, there are a wealth of questions we can ask our character. The secret is to understand them on other levels, and start putting together the little pieces. This added dimension will make the storytelling more natural and give it a smoother flow. And yes, occasionally the characters might surprise you now and then.          

Monday, November 15, 2021

Being Stuck and Getting Unstuck

Everyone thinks that being a writer mostly involves the act of creation - you know, writing. This is a fair assumption, since that's kind of the name of the role. However, so much involves something other than writing. Editing, for example, is a difficult process that is definitely part of the job but not very exciting. Then there is reading, re-reading, thinking about your process, doing exercises to help develop your skills, and so forth. However, the one part of being a writer that people don't associate with writing is a fun one: Being stuck. This is an important phase, but one that we too easily get hung up on.

How many of us have been writing something - short story, essay, novel, whatever - and thought, "How do I get from here to the next step?" It might be something as simple as getting a character from one place to another, or resolving a crisis, or even starting a crisis. Any step where the story advances is a potential place to get stuck. Sometimes we can even get stuck finding the right word or phrase for a description, or just the right piece of dialogue. These things happen; they are part of the game. However, as we might discover, they can be very dangerous.

I have seen countless posts on writing chat boards with desperate cries for help. "I am stuck! I don't know how to get my MC (main character) to take the next step! What do I do?" Or, "My MC is trapped and I don't know how to get them out!" These people insist they are unable to write anymore until they resolve the situation. Well, this isn't a good, clean way to write properly. However, it works just fine when it comes to getting unstuck. 

The goal of any remedy is simple - to let you start writing again. Whatever the problem is, if you start writing again you have overcome it. Here's the most simple one: the [instant solution]. If you are writing an argument and you want the MC to say something that defuses the tension between them and the supporting character but don't know how to do it, the instant solution is simple:

Supporting character says, "How dare you!"
MC answers [says something to defuse situation]
Supporting character smiles. "Okay, I understand."

Cheap? Definitely. Complete? Hardly. Does it get you back to writing? Absolutely. That's the important part - getting yourself back to the act of creation. As you continue writing, you give yourself time to better understand the situation and just what the best response would be. My first drafts have areas where [offers explanation] is abundant. I know I can get back to them whenever I want, and they should all be gone by the final draft, but in the meantime, I am writing.

And as one note - If you are truly stuck on writing about what a character would do, ask yourself if you really understand the character. Sometimes the problem isn't having the right words, but knowing the character well enough. But that will be a discussion for Friday's post.

Until then, [add humorous ending].

Friday, November 12, 2021

The Best Time For Writing

Before you read any further, I should dispel any preconceived notion that there is one perfect time for everyone to write. There is no magical witching hour where the words fit together better than any other time, and no special planetary alignment that makes your metaphors spring to life. If you were hoping for that, you will be sadly disappointed. However, we can develop the best time for our own writing process, and after reinforcing it for a while, it does have an effect on our writing which can seem, at times, magical.

Now, about the whole "time for writing" thing. I have come across a number of boards where new writers want to know how to find time to write. After all, they are busy people, they have lives other than writing (and apparently writer chat boards), and finding enough spare time to do something like writing is difficult for them. They fill their days with a lot of activity, then want to find extra time for writing. It's an admirable goal, but it's actually the problem.

I usually respond in a very polite manner that you don't find time to write, you make time to write. Splitting hairs? Not really. Anything we want to pursue we should be willing to prioritize above something else that we do. Admittedly, we have to place top priority on things like our job, our family, etc. However, if we really want to be a writer as well, we need to push around some things and make that special half-hour or so a day when we can commit to the keyboard or notebook and write. 

Usually at this point I make reference to best-selling author Mary Kubica. (I often refer to her because we had a humorous meeting during a book signing, but that's another story.) Anyway, she wrote her first novel while taking care of her newborn. That's worth repeating: while taking care of her newborn! She had a story she wanted to write, and a newborn who was clearly her top priority. So how did she write anything, much less her first novel, The Good Girl? She made time. She really wanted to write the story, so she would wake up a half-hour earlier than usual every morning and write until the newborn child woke up, then be a parent. Difficult? Obviously. However, she wanted it that much, and the success of her career since then is testimony to the importance of making time.

The other thing I did promise with this post is about how time can affect your writing. The most interesting thing that happens when you start writing at a regular time (and possibly in the same place) is that you start to condition yourself. When writing time comes around and you settle in for that period of creation, your mind starts preparing itself for the process. The more you do regular writing at a fixed time, the more your mind thinks, "Ah - time to do the writing thing" and the creative juices start flowing. Eventually, you are like Pavlov's dog, anticipating the opportunity to be creative and mentally preparing before you've even started.

It might sound crass to suggest we are trainable like dogs, but our mind very much trains itself through repetition. And if we do this, we do, in fact, create a sort of witching hour where our creativity will peak, our metaphors will spring to life, and the things we create will feel, in fact, magical. 

Friday, November 5, 2021

What Color is Your Car?

Description. As writers, this is something we all need to practice because it is such an important tool. Every object has a size, shape and color (or lack thereof), and plenty of them also have smells or odors, flavors, textures, they make sounds, they move in certain ways, and so on. Look at any object and consider that you could write a paragraph just describing the details of that object. Then, you could write another paragraph writing about why those details are important, or the context behind a particular aspect. However, part of the art of writing is knowing when all this information is worth writing about in the first place.

The way this is often referred to in writers' workshops is with a simple phrase: "Sometimes, the car is blue." While we could spend our time describing a car, sometimes all that effort does not provide a big return for the story, so we can just call the car blue and be done with it. Set aside all the flowery synonyms, all the cornflower blue, sapphire, sky blue, dark navy, and so forth. If this particular car passes by at breakneck speed and is gone from the scene, how much does the color really matter? If it is the slow-moving car in front of our main character during a traffic jam, how important is the description? For that matter, do we even need to offer a description at all?

The most important use of description is to draw the focus of the reader in on one particular part of the world. It is the written version of zooming in, and giving the reader a more intimate experience. This also contributes to the mood and feeling of a scene, making the world very real, very tactile. Describing, say, a crowded kitchen fills in the image but also creates the mood of a chaotic, non-stop, whirlwind of activity going on within this one room. In that regard, it's very necessary. However, in other cases, it's not even relevant.

One question we can ask ourselves when deciding how much attention to offer in describing a person, item, or scene is how much it adds to the overall experience. In our crowded kitchen scene above, does it help to describe all the different foods being hurried around, or do we get the same effect if we focus on the chef, scrambling between the stove and the prep counter, dodging his assistants and impatient waiters, trying to make up for the time he lost because someone spilled broth all over the chicken he had been preparing? If we describe the entire kitchen, the reader sees the chaos. However, if we describe that one chef struggling through everything rather than the whole kitchen, the tighter focus means the reader becomes part of the chaos.

The most important question we need to ask ourselves with description is, "What do I want to achieve with this?" Sometimes it serves the reader to create a mood, sometimes it gives the reader a point to focus on, and sometimes, good description creates dimension to an otherwise flat scene.

And sometimes, the car is blue.         

Monday, November 1, 2021

NaNoWriMo Begins!

To some people, November 1st is known primarily for being All Saints' Day. For others, it marks the official beginning of Christmas decorations season. However, for writers, this is the kick-off to the very challenging month of NaNoWriMo, and we respond to it in the same way runners respond to the starter's pistol at the beginning of a marathon - a combination of excitement, energy, and low-level panic as we start into our month-long marathon. So let's run with this example and start our marathon of writing - even if we are not planning to write a novel just yet.

For those who don't know, NaNoWriMo is National Novel-Writing Month. The goal of this month is quite daunting - write a first-draft of a novel over the course of November. For a number of us who are still finishing off our leftover Halloween candy and preparing for the colder months of autumn, maybe we are not ready to just crank out that novel. That's fair - but no sense in letting this special month go to waste. We can still work out our writing muscles and get something accomplished.

The most important thing writers have to do during NaNoWriMo is to keep on writing. Just as a marathon runner refuses to stop, every day the writer needs to get a couple-thousand words onto the page without fail - maybe more if they are up to it, but at least something every day. For those of us who are not running a marathon, we can at least try something from this: We can dedicate ourselves to writing something every day.

Now, I advocate daily writing as a way of developing good, consistent, healthy writing habits that train the mind to get creative. Spending twenty minutes a day at the same time and same place, committed to writing something, becomes a great habit for any writer, so let's use NaNoWriMo as an excuse to reinforce this. Dedicate yourself to at least twenty minutes of writing every day, rain or shine, without fail, for the next week. It doesn't have to be the same story or poem, it doesn't have to even be the same kind of writing. Just promise yourself to do it, and force yourself to get those twenty minutes in. Preferably in the same place and at the same time every day, but as long as you do it, you are still running the race.

Of course, if you want to write more than this every day, go ahead. However, a part of this exercise is also to find our limits. Sometimes we might want to write for an entire evening or sit down on a Saturday afternoon and write for hours. It feels great, but we sometimes expend all our creative juices at once, leaving us creatively exhausted the next day and more interested in a cheat day of no writing. In this manner, we treat this week like a marathon - not blazing the first miles real fast and exhausting ourselves, but rather finding a good stride to go with for the long haul. If we feel the need to write a lot one day, make sure to save a little creation for the next day so you can continue on this journey.

Since I am hardly a marathon runner and would rather focus on leftover Halloween candy, my marathon this month will be on the keyboard. However, this month's posts will be check-ins to help everyone press along with the month-long sport of NaNoWriMo, and meet you all at the finish line.

Monday, October 25, 2021

The Internal Story

The drive from a particular little town in Indiana to my particular little town in Illinois takes almost precisely two hours (assuming speed limits are obeyed). On one of these drives back to my little town, traffic was particularly bad so the drive was considerably longer. It took so long, in fact, that the Top 40 radio station I usually listen to started replaying the big hits it had played not too long ago. This means I got to hear Linkin Park's Shadow of the Day twice during my extended drive home. When I finally got home, I took off my jacket, sat down on the couch, and cried.

Now, this little bit is a first-person story told with the view of third-person perspective. It is a story I told about an event I experienced and now retell. All the events are factual, and while I omitted certain details like town names and the specific radio station as personal choices, the events and timeline all match reality. It was a very emotional experience, and will stay with me for the rest of my years. 

It is, however, not much of a story. 

Why is this not much of a story? Well, it's my story, but telling it from an outside perspective means the story is communicated without the very personal touch - in effect, my story without me in it. The emotions I felt were all internal at that time, so the outsider might not understand what was going on. From the outside, this is a factual retelling about a long, lonely drive while listening to a Top 40 station that ended in tears. That, however, is not where the storytelling is. The story is internal, and needs a first-person perspective to mean something more.

For those who do not know, Shadow of the Day is a great, though very sobering song about all things coming to an end. If I had included those lyrics, maybe the story gets a little more compelling, but it still lacks any personal reactivity. However, if I use the lyrics as a tool to play off the internal processes, then I can generate a whole array of feelings and emotions. In fact, the internal part becomes very reactive at that point - even creating its own mood.

Probably the most important part of the internal storytelling that would change this story would be my internal setting. That drive was the return trip from my father's funeral. He had died quite unexpectedly, and my coping mechanisms were having trouble processing such a life-altering event. Now, none of that exists in the story, but the inclusion of how I made that lonely drive along a crowded highway, my only company those very depressing lyrics, does more than fill in the gaps that ended with me in tears. It takes the reader on a journey through my mind, and they experience what I experience. That's the importance of the internal perspective when telling the true story.

The point here is simple. Just because an event happened does not mean the story begins and ends with it. The real story is an exposition of how events move us, change us, and shape the world around us. The fact that we drove for hours on the highway is not as good a story as how we react to the journey.

Friday, October 22, 2021

Writing in Times of Sorrow

Unfortunately, October has not been a great month for me. Despite a few good times, this month had some deaths as well, and in turn a few funerals and a lot of grieving. How we process this grief is different for everyone, but I don't think it's a secret that one of my emotional tools is to start writing about what bothers me. In the case of loss, this can be a powerful way to go through tough times. However, sometimes reality doesn't comply with what we want to express.

I think it's fair to say that October can be quite the grim month. A look outside my office window right now shows pewter skies threatening rain all day, people turning up their collars against the cold, damp wind, and leaves blowing about without much spectacle. In other words, October. It's the kind of somber day that makes us want to stay inside, heat up some tea, and enjoy the comfort of a warm blanket. It's not the day we want to have a funeral.

However, such was not the case the other day. The sun was out and the sky was clear, no wind to bother anyone or chill in the air. The temperature was in the low 80s as I pulled into the funeral home parking lot. This day - unusual for October - was picture-perfect for something special and happy. A picnic. A first date. A trip to the zoo. Anything but a funeral service.

How does one use the tools of writing to process such a mismatched moment of time? Is there a proper way to churn through the sadness, grief, and feeling of loss without somehow losing the other very real qualities of the moment? Can we retain the feel of a very beautiful day and still express the clawing sense of loss?

Sometimes, writing these things down as cold, honest facts allows us to face the reality of our conflicted feelings - that is often what makes writing difficult. When we write about the splendid October day, we get in touch with our sense of guilt that we would rather be outside than in a funeral home, saying our final farewell to a loved one. That might sound selfish and cold, but if it is true then it is helpful to us as writers. When we face the painfully honest truth, we grow. It's not comfortable, but nothing worth having is easy.

When I wrote about the recent funeral, everything was about discomfort. The warm weather made it uncomfortable to be outside in a suit and tie. The people smoking outside the funeral home looked desperate to escape the sadness on the other side of the doors. Everyone had that nervous politeness and awkward smile hiding their grief. People sat in quiet contemplation while their hand tapped nervously against their leg to release the anxiety. And when everyone went to the graveside service, they all dipped their heads away from the bright sunlight, as if guilty to recognize a nice day. 

I don't know if I will ever show anyone my writing about that day, and I have another funeral coming next week so there will definitely be more to come. However, I do know that by writing it down, I sorted out some of the more difficult feelings from that day. Furthermore, by going through that process, I grew a little as a writer. Maybe that's the only good thing I can take away from that day, but for now, it'll do.

Friday, October 8, 2021

The Joy of Writing Backwards

I hope nobody is thinking, "Writing a story is tough enough; why would I want to try and write it backwards?" And yet by the end of this, I hope you have an answer to this supposedly rhetorical question. In fact, some things are best written backwards. I am sure some authors would never admit to doing it, and others would just lump this in with the greater concept of revisions, but indeed it is done more often than one might think.

We all know the standard story structure - hero starts some kind of physical or emotional journey, overcomes obstacles, changes along the way then hopefully accomplishes goal. Easy stuff. We should know these components before we even start writing. That's the part we don't necessarily have to write with the backwards technique. However, we can start picking parts of this from end to beginning and discover what we will need to make this a full, rich, and entertaining journey.

Let's look at the end of this journey explained above. "Accomplishes goal." While we should already know what this is, we can do a little discovery by writing a draft of this scene first and exploring just what the important parts will be. In a standard whodunit, this is where the killer is unmasked. Well, what elements are required to conclude who the criminal is? As we write this concluding scene, we start noting all the parts that we need to reveal - other characters' alibis, connecting motives, ruling out different suspects, and how our crafty hero gathered this information. By writing this scene, we show ourselves all the ingredients we need to put together, and we can start thinking about what order they go in.

Oh - let's not forget the part of the story called, "changes along the way." When we write that big final scene, we establish the final version of the character. This gives us a chance to ask ourselves just what changed. Did they discover a friend was an enemy, that they had been living a lie? We start making notes about these changes, because they all have to be incorporated into the story - as we write the previous scenes.

With our backwards technique, we can then start to write the supporting scenes - the discoveries, the conversations, all the parts where some element is revealed. At this point, it's a checklist of all the elements we have noted from the two sections we've already written. We build them scene by scene, filling out all of the important parts then ultimately creating a story.

Which leaves us with the introduction. At this point it's very easy, because we have already explored the hero's journey. We get to start off the story as we wish, already knowing what this character should be in the beginning. We have taken the hero at the end, stripped away all of the growth and revelation, and left us with the person ready to go on an adventure.

This may sounds fairly complicated and possibly convoluted, and it is a difficult process. However, most writers unknowingly use this technique when they edit their work. They look at the ending, examine what they've said, then try and see if everything written prior to that leads up to that point. Then they go back through their text and check off everything point-by-point, which often requires a few big re-writes.

I would never recommend this to anyone who wants to start off by writing the Great American Novel, but try it with a short story. Write the concluding 200 words, think about what needs to be said for them to be powerful, then write the previous 200 word batches and so on until you reach the beginning. See what happens - it might just surprise you.


Monday, October 4, 2021

Writing Aside - Robert P. Brown

If you will indulge me, I would like to discuss the pros and cons of the writing workshop. While I consider workshops integral to really finding one's writing voice and developing one's skills, this is not to say that there isn't the occasional downside. The upsides are legion - exposure to different styles and skills, being able to think critically about your own work and others, and the input you receive from other members. The writing family that exists within those workshops is a benefit in its own right.

The downside is, of course, losing a member of that family. 

Robert Patrick Brown joined our group in 2015, bringing to it an inspiring attitude and a lifetime's worth of stories that he wanted to commit to paper. It's not like he had never written before - his works had been published in newsletters and other periodicals - but he wanted to up his game, so to speak. Furthermore, he wanted to pursue the biggest goal of all - writing the story of his life. 

I think it's worth noting that when he showed up at our workshop with the aspiration of turning his life into a novel, he was seventy-seven years old. And after he read a few of his stories, including life with the Chicago Police Department, his huge family, and indulging in his favorite hobbies, it became apparent that he might need more than one book to tell everyone about who he was.

The part that came through, however, without the need for a manuscript, was that Robert was just as much a teacher as a writer. His work as a teacher's aide was more than evident in his mannerisms, and how he would both engage in critiquing everyone's work but do so in a constructive manner that made people feel like they had genuinely learned something that would benefit them as a writer, and indeed as a person. He never had a negative word for anyone (even if they really deserved it), and raised spirits for everyone around.

That's the difficult part about the writing family - losing members to the ravages of time. Robert's health took a bad turn during (but unrelated to) the COVID epidemic, and it weighed on his every function. In his final days he struggled to complete most tasks, but with the help of his wife, Rita, he did complete a few short stories that will be published posthumously in the group's upcoming anthology, Lost & Found. Indeed, these stories remind us that with the written word, we can live on long after our mortal coil takes its last breath.

A writing group develops a closeness that is akin to family, but they are, like so many other social groups, the family we choose. In that way, the family is better for having embraced them by choice, even when we lose such a valuable member.

Rest in peace.

Monday, September 27, 2021

How Do We Start A Story?

Grammatically speaking, we start a story by typing. To start is to begin the process of creation, and for any writer's process, the act of starting the story begins when we start committing words to what will become the final product. We might do a lot of writing prior to this: taking notes, creating outlines, writing character sketches and so forth, but this is all a part of is - the writing part. However, there is a more important thing to be addressed - the "where" rather than the "how." Where do we start the story? This one's not so easy.

Think of a typical party, gathering with some friends, acquaintances, and so forth. Someone is bound to tell a story or two, and how do they do it? The simplest way is just to find where things get interesting, and start talking. Whether it's their personal story or something they heard about, or even an extended joke, it starts when the critical information rolls in. "I was golfing with a couple of clients yesterday..." Immediately we know this involves golf and clients, and at least one of those should be key to the story's progression. "When I was eight, the weirdest thing happened..." Our radar goes up for the weird childhood story. "So, a priest, a minister, and a rabbit walk into a bar..." The action will start off at a bar, and we will want to know why those two fellows are with a rabbit (did you think that was a typo for "rabbi"? Shame...).

For longer works, we need to find this same element. Consider a life story, focusing on the theme of, say, growing up. The best place to start might be at the first of many events that shook us from our youthful innocence and introduced us to the big, bad world. Whether it's an internal realization, an external change like a divorce or loss of a loved one, that's where the story gets rolling. 

Sometimes - particularly in autobiographies - the author takes the liberty of drawing out life before things started changing, just to give a frame of reference. This is allowable if the purpose of the novel is to explain about the author's life and its many facets. People reading that book want to consume information as well as read a story, so the author creates a setting. Ditto with historical works of both fiction and non-fiction - the world needs to be created, drawn out and explained a little to set a solid framework for the story. Just keep in mind that these genres get away with this because they are also informative. If someone is looking for a story, start with the story.

I feel obliged to offer one popular exception to this that is very popular in literature. For some stories, the first chapter does not start at the beginning, but rather when the world is at its most chaotic. When all seems lost, when our hero is at their lowest point, make the first chapter about that moment - a "how did I get here?" feeling. The next chapter then goes back to when the story started, but now the reader has a taste of where things are going, and the pages turn that much faster. This has been popularized in numerous biopics of late, and with good reason - it's an excellent tool to grab the audience's attention.

However, you choose to begin the narrative, though, I will bring it all back to my first sentence. We truly start a story by typing - by placing one words after another in the long act of creation. When it comes to working your way along the road of being a writer, there's nothing wrong with that.

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.