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, February 26, 2021

Writing The Perfect Scene

Like all good writers, we should have at least one book that we just love from cover to cover. The adventure, the drama, its insightful narratives or consistently great dialogue that just sticks in our brain. We can honestly say that we adore that book, and use it as a model for how we would like our works to turn out. Even if we just write character sketches or short stories, they should all try to achieve that level of greatness.

However, what if we just love one chapter? How about one excerpt? What if, within the covers of a 400-page book, we are truly drawn only to one little scene that for some reason resonates with us? The rest of the book might be okay, or perhaps even boring, but something about that one particular scene is worth bookmarking and reading over and over again. Is this weird? Unusual? Or is it an opportunity?

Yeah, it's an opportunity.

Several years ago, I read a short story named "Gruesome Charlie." While such a story might seem to be ripe with all things gross and disturbing, the one scene that stuck with me was simple: A beetle crawling along the deck of a boat, pushed back by water crashing in from the rough seas yet every time resuming its mission to reach its destination by the bridge. Did it matter that the seawater splashing across the deck was awash with the blood of the title character? Did the horrifying events a few pages earlier even matter? Not really - the story was pretty good in its own right, but the one scene my brain goes back to was that one little beetle.

I am sure we've all experienced this with movies at least once - the one scene that you will watch every time in an otherwise mediocre film. Writing is no different, and if we want to be better writers, we should take a moment to really dissect the scene and find out just what lies underneath to make it so great. It may sound a little forensic for a writer, but the first step to writing memorable scenes is deciding what makes them so memorable.

To analyze our beetle scene, first I looked at context. The beetle wasn't a running character in the story, but it was a moment of calm determination against wave after wave of indifference. It carried a symbolic weight to it that gave a little old beetle prominence. This makes me think about the importance of symbolism, and turning a bug into something every reader can relate to.

Then I thought about the calm and peace of that one scene, that one moment. The story had been a hectic ride, retelling the true story of a crewmate's brutal death on the deck of a ship and exploring the chaos of that person's life. With this turn, the beetle moment contrasts that tone and brings a pleasant moment. Serene even, despite the crewmate's blood still washing past the beetle. If I plan on being a good writer, I need to remember that contrast is important - making peace stand out by surrounding it with chaos, turning action into focus.

If you think of that one scene that you can't get out of your head, dig through it for all the juicy details, and ask yourself what you can do to add those things to your writing repertoire. As you develop that tool, you will get closer to that moment when people are talking about your work and saying, "You know what scene I really loved?"

Monday, February 22, 2021

The Difference Between Poetry and Lyrics

I don't know anyone who doesn't have at least some appreciation for music. And within my writer circles, I don't know anyone who doesn't have their favorite musicians. Of course, the personal reasoning behind a particular artist being the favorite can vary wildly, from musical genre preference to their variety of styles to simply the way that musician makes the writer feel. However, it doesn't take much digging to find that most writers have a group of musicians that they like for their lyrics. No surprise here, but lyrics are harder to write than we might think.

I hope someone gets the reference...
Lyric composition is a special category of writing that also qualifies as a close cousin of poetry (no, this is not another poetry post). While the message is the same as any story or poem, good lyrics follow a very distinct meter and pattern, usually with a fairly tight rhyme scheme. The reason is that it creates a distinct pattern that instills the song's beat into the listener, and they are able to see what is coming. 

Here's the first lines from Bob Dylan's lyrical masterwork, Subterranean Homesick Blues. Read it aloud and feel how the measure builds as you go through the lines (the above link also can play the song, if that's your thing):

Johnny's in the basement
Mixing up the medicine
I'm on the pavement
Thinking 'bout the government

Now, as cryptic as these lyrics might be, the meter and measure of this piece is so precise that it serves as instructions on how to read through the rest of the song. You don't even need the musical accompaniment to understand how the song should go. As you read subsequent stanzas, that rhythm stays with you throughout the entire piece - even building to where you might be singing just like Mr. Dylan himself.

The other difference between lyrics and writing is that lyrics can, and often do, abuse grammar in order to fit to the measure. Formal poetry is a discipline of making grammatically clean sentences within a meter and rhyme scheme. Write them as lyrics, and maybe you throw in a few extra words or useless prepositions to fill in the beat. Redundancies and flabby grammar take over, maybe because you need to end the line with something that rhymes with "-in."

With lyrics, this is okay.

If you choose to try writing lyrics, your attention quickly shifts to meter and measure, followed by trying to express your message in a clear and concise way. The real masters of lyrical expression accomplish both of these feats, but the first one will always take priority. Just ask Bob Dylan.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Storytelling and the Pączki

I am putting together this piece just prior to the beginning of Lent, when all of the fasting and personal sacrifice begins in the run-up to Easter. Now, I am not a practicing Catholic, nor do I adhere to strict religious fasting doctrines, so do not think this will be a piece about this holiday season. Rather, this will be a discussion of my most favorite part of the pre-Lent season - the pączki - and how it helped my writing.

The pączki (mispronounced as "poonch-ski" by most non-Polish Chicagoans) is more popular in Chicago and other parts of the Midwest as a pre-Lent tradition thanks to the significant Polish population. On the Tuesday before Lent, plenty of people buy, distribute, and subsequently eat these heavy, fruit-filled pastries with all the vigor of someone about to give up fun foods for the next six weeks. They are like filled donuts, but heavier and with a lot of freedoms regarding carbs and calories. We Chicagoans, particularly the ones with a Polish heritage, love them as one of the great seasonal treats. I had eight this year. I regret nothing.

Now, honestly, this might seem like an odd topic for a writer's blog. It is, but regular readers know that I often take long walks on my way to the point, and I always get there. My point here is that when I write about the beloved pączki, I should incorporate more than just the fun facts about it. I need to express my passion for the topic, my deep appreciation for the underlying story behind this lovely pastry, and at the very least, write whatever I am going to write with the subject in mind.

When we write, our words are more than just explanations. They are the conduit between what we feel and what other people will read. If the reader doesn't feel my obsessive love for this pastry, I have failed. If the reader walks away thinking I will need to hit the gym after eating so many pączki, well, they're right, but they are at least creating deductions from my words and my feelings.

So how do we do this as writers? Well, first, we need to immerse ourselves in what we wish to write about. If we want to write about a day in the park, it might not hurt to go to the park first, or recall previous walks, or dig up fond memories of days past that prime the mind for writing about the subject. Should we wish to write a scary story, might it help to put ourselves into that mindset? Watch Halloween (the original) or read a quick ghost story? When we get our mood wrapped around what we want to write, it influences our writing in ways we can't fully appreciate, but our readers sure will.

In preparation for this piece, I got my pączki fix on, picked out a graphic among a wide variety of tasty pics, and thought for a minute about the history of this pastry. These came about as a way of using up all the last things that would not keep through the Lenten fasting season, so they got cooked up and feasted upon in those last few days before Ash Wednesday. Obviously, worrying about food spoiling during Lent is not a big issue nowadays, but the tradition still carries through, and every year around this time the sales begin and I can once again revel in my delight regarding these treats. And if I did my job right, you all felt that in my writing, and maybe learned a thing or two as well. Who knows? 

Now off to the gym - at 400 calories apiece, I have a lot of treadmill time ahead of me.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Get Down With OPP (Other People's Poetry)

"Oh no, another post about writing poetry! Run!" I can actually prophesize that cry going out from all those readers who enjoy this blog but refuse to do poetry. That's okay - this is not another attempt to convert the heathens into poets. This is, however, a reminder of how poetry can provide us with another tool in our writing toolbox, and we can gain this sometimes by merely exploring what other people have already created.

I mentioned in a past post that I was currently on a dystopia kick, in part thanks to the recent release of Cyberpunk 2077. (No, this post isn't about dystopia or Cyberpunk either.) Well, of all the places, it turns out that some poetry was offered within the Cyberpunk universe, and it struck up my own curiosity enough to go and read the original works. At first I was just curious to find out if there was some hidden meaning behind bringing up that particular poem at that particular cyber-moment, but I read them and something clicked. Why? Honestly, I do not know, but I found out it did by reading it first. 

Maybe it's just me, but one particular verse stood out - and it was not the verse cited in Cyberpunk 2077, though the rhythm is basically the same. I read it, and something in my inner writer moved:

And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair —
(They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”)
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin —
(They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”)
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
- Excerpt, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, T. S. Eliot

Now, maybe you got nothing out of this. Maybe you see a particular line and think how I might relate to a middle-aged character with thinning hair. Maybe that sort of music of the meter sounded like singing in your mind. Or maybe something in the back of your head says, "I don't know what it is, but I kinda like it." No matter - all those responses and any other are valid. The point is, by consuming this poetry, our writing mind starts to think in different ways and appreciate different ways of communicating.

This is not to say that you even have to appreciate a work just because it's done by someone famous or respected. Cyberpunk 2077 also made reference to William Butler Yeats' Sailing to Byzantium, which is considered a profound reflection on the subject of aging (most people would know it for the line, "That is no country for old men.") In fairness, it went over my head. It just didn't do it for me. And yet, I think I was better off for having read it, even if just as a writer.

So, this was not a post about writing poetry. However, if you are inspired to read a few verses of other people's work, go ahead. And if that makes you scribble down a few lines of your own, well, Eliot and Yeats would be pleased.

Friday, February 12, 2021

Why We Did Book Reports

Remember way back in grade school when we first did book reports? It was probably our first foray into essay-style writing, all based on what we had just read. Our first ones were probably not masterworks by and sense. "This book is about a lady. She has a horse. She loves the horse. They ride around the country..." Yadda, yadda yadda. We basically take a work, process it through the mind of a ten-year-old, and retell it in about one-hundred words. Nice work. Trust me - it's important that we take this step.

Later on, our book reports become more elaborate affairs. As our mind becomes more complex, we pick up on themes, styles - even writing techniques. We talk about the story, but we start expanding on ideas underpinning the story. In junior high I did a report on Lord of the Flies that actually did more than rehash kids surviving on an island but explored the devolution into tribalism - it was a big step forward. (I think it got an A. Maybe.)

As adults, we probably read more book reports than we write, but our reflections on them become explorations of what ideas the book explores. How it discusses them is not as important as what it discusses. Just like a good movie review, it should tell a lot about themes and concepts but be very thin on actual blow-by-blow details. The actual story is for the reader to consume. The review tells that reader whether it will be anything more than just a superficial romp in the park.

Do you see where this is going yet?

When we sit down to write some masterwork, we should already be able to write our book reports on it. Not just the simple ten-year-old version, but we should have our junior-high version and our adult book review versions as well. This may sound odd, but it's true - each of these has a place in our writing, and if we can't write them before we write the book, we probably aren't ready to write the book.

In business, these three concepts are usually discussed as: The Elevator Pitch, The Proposal Pitch, and The Presentation. They are the same as the ten-year-old, the junior-high-school and the adult reviews - the first one says what happens, the second one expands to ideas, then finally themes. But in business or in writing (and always in the business of writing), they are all necessary for the person to know before anything is done. 

If you are working on a major project and find yourself hung up on some part, put these ideas to work. First, write your quick run of the story - one-hundred words to tell the adventure. If you can't package that briefly and succinctly, you are having problems. Second, go to junior high and write about what the idea of the story should be; what will engage the reader besides basic actions, character and dialogue. No more than 250 words should do it. Then write your book review, exploring in about one-thousand words the major interactions, concepts and conflicts, and what should drive someone to pick that book over all others. 

If you can't write these, well, that's probably the problem - you don't fully understand the story. If you can write these - and actually do write all three of these - then I guarantee you will resolve what is holding you back. 

Of course, if it also inspires you to read Lord of the Flies again, well, that might help too. 

Monday, February 8, 2021

Poor Writing and the Super Bowl

For all of you non-Super Bowl fans out there, I will share with you a not-so-well-kept secret: This year's Super Bowl was not so super. It had a lot of good elements to it, and the preparation was all in place, but I think it was one of the matchups that ended with a shrug rather than a cheer. The past two weeks were a big run-up to an international spectacle that can best be described as, "meh." For all of those actual football fans, tell me I'm wrong.

Now for all of the writers (and non-football fans) out there, the game translated into an example of poor writing.

Do not be alarmed - I am not going to go into analyst mode. But if we break down the whole Super Bowl situation in terms of how a story is supposed to go, we can learn something about storytelling in the process. This will not dwell in the world of football, so if you don't know what a nickel defense is, you're safe here.

Let's look at some positive writing elements for the game:

  • Clear contrast of the opposing forces. This was a matchup of the young upstart versus the crafty veteran, the next generation versus the old guard. These kind of matchups let the reader choose a side, taking one team versus the other, then letting two forces collide in an epic matchup.
  • Subplots. More than just being about these two players, team sports have a lot of players, each with their own stories to follow. Aside from the main arc of the two opposing stars, there are plenty of individuals to root for on their own merits.
  • An underdog. Everyone loves an underdog, especially when they are written as someone who is not guaranteed to pull it off in the end. Rocky, The Bad News Bears - classic underdogs who ultimately lost but we loved them simply for the act of never giving up.

Now the negatives (an abridged list, considering all the shortcomings of the game):

  • Tunnel vision is death for a writer. When there are several stories to manage and subplots to pursue, too tight a focus on your main character makes those other characters vanish. Our Super Bowl announcers kept our eyes trained on our two heroes, and didn't let up. After a while, we got tired of hearing about them,. As readers, we would lose interest.
  • No back and forth. In good writing, the tempo should change and vary throughout the entire piece. Some parts should make you cheer for your favorite character while others make you worry about their outcome. We should never go with the same pace for too long, or it gets boring - like that game did.
  • The ending became apparent way too early. Any story should leave you guessing until the end, or if the big reveal comes early, there should still be obstacles on how the character will succeed in this goal. I had friends texting me about boring stuff by the third quarter. If your readers are thinking about other things three-quarters of the way through your story, you gave away too much, too early.

Maybe next year will work out better; we never know. The only thing I took away from the game (since none of my betting squares won) is that I could've written a better one. Any writer could. Any maybe I'll try that just to get some belated satisfaction from yesterday's game.  

Friday, February 5, 2021

The Tigers of Africa

"Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night; 
What immortal hand or eye, 
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?"

- The Tyger, William Blake.

As animals go, tigers are right up there with lions in evocative power. The thought of tigers brings up images of the jungles and savannahs of Africa, or lions hunting from the inky shadows. Huge, menacing beasts, hearing the roar of a lion through the night air means big trouble. In the thick of the Congolese jungles, if you see a tiger's stripes through the trees, you know you are already its prey and your moments are numbered. Perhaps there are no greater threats in the animal kingdom, nor should there be. 

This makes for very gripping, very engaging writing. Sadly, none of it is very accurate.

We start at the top, and recognize that despite what William Blake told us, tigers prefer jungles. Also, despite what my words said, while tigers do hunt within jungles, there are no tigers in Africa, especially the Congolese jungles. If you see a tiger's stripes in those jungles, the poor guy is clearly lost after escaping from the Kinshasa Zoo and needs help getting back (or a bus ticket back to Asia).

What's my point? Am I here to prove my knowledge about larger felines or the flora and fauna of Africa? Is this a overdue critique of the late William Blake? Have I snapped and now have to be hypercritical about everything around me? 

Quite the opposite. The excerpt and my little intro paragraph are examples of how writing can evoke emotions despite the annoying contradiction of facts. As writers, we need to keep this in mind.

If you read it in its entirety, Blake's The Tyger is not really about tigers in the literal sense. To criticize the poem for not keeping true to the behavioral ecology is about the same as focusing on the Mona Lisa's lack of eyebrows - kind of missing the larger picture. Instead, we can appreciate the author's wordplay, the evocation of the more primal nature of the world, and that of man in particular. (Read the poem, and its counterpart, The Lamb.)

The point underlying all of this is that while writing should dwell within the realm of the accurate and real, we should not let it overwhelm our natural urge to express feelings and emotions. We can talk about the tigers of Africa to a certain degree - an emotional degree - and allow them to exist in that regard. Just as long as we do not make Africa the lynchpin of the story, they can exist wherever they want, facts be damned.

And look it up - there are no tigers in Africa (outside the zoo).

Monday, February 1, 2021

Creativity and Shoveling Snow

In case you didn't hear, a snowstorm rampaged through the Great Lakes region this weekend. While the foot of snow dumped on my house and others was nothing compared to what the east coast is bracing for, it was still enough for me to be quite annoyed. And, of course, by annoyed I mean having every routine in my weekend disrupted while I shoveled out the space around my car, cleared my front walk and removed plow snow from the curb every few hours. Shovel, rest, repeat. Most of my other routines - including writing - had to be put on hold, save for food and sleep. However, I still wanted to get some writing in.

The answer came naturally - I got in my writing while I slept.

No, this post is not about some odd condition that allows people to write essays while they sleep (although in college it seemed a lot of students had such an affliction). This is more about using our creative tools whenever and wherever possible, and putting them to work even when we have little or no control over them. In this case, I am referring to the creative process where we put together the bones a story before we flesh it out in writing.

I will not say that I am the most creative person. I have my moments, as do we all, but usually I just have the typical ideas that wouldn't blow anyone's mind. When I write, I think about these ideas, dig out the emotions underneath them, start finding a few words to bring them to life, then place them on the page. It's an elaborate, complex, and oftentimes boring-to-watch process, but it works. But if you notice, a lot of that process requires nothing more than brain power, and we use a lot of that when we sleep.

This is a technique I use when my mind wants to write but I am too busy, tired, achy, sore or worn out from shoveling too much snow to write. I simply put some paper or my laptop by my bed and go to sleep. When I sleep, I dream. When I dream, the creative craziness is uncontrollable, and there's no reason to tame it. I let my mind wander around wherever it wants to go, see whatever, do whatever, and run its course while my body rests.

When I wake up, I give myself a simple mission - start writing what I remember. Not just the images, but the emotions, the sensations - I apply all those steps of my process to the story still lingering in my memory. If I dreamed about a rabbit that talked like my fifth-grade teacher, I type up my conversation with the rabbit. I use adverbs and adjectives that solidify this dreamscape, and don't worry about the story's sensibility. I capture the strongest scenes in my head and churn them onto the page, all from the comfort of a warm bed.

I have often been surprised on what a creative release this can be, particularly when my mind needs that type of freedom but my schedule is simply unable to comply. In this moment, I no longer feel my aching back or sore muscles. I merely experience the freedom of writing

And it feels good. Better than shoveling snow, anyway.

Friday, January 29, 2021

Poking the Painful Places

I wish I knew who coined the phrase that is the title of this post, but unfortunately I have only hit dead ends in the search for a source. That all being said, I thought it would be worth it to briefly discuss just what this means to me as a writer, and how it has develops my process.

One of the posts I got a lot of personal feedback from (and someone in fact commented using the phrase I am now using as a title) was an early piece called, "Yes, it hurts." This post was a discussion about writing about the loss of a good friend, and how it helped me grow as a writer. Now, some people also told me that they were not in a space where they could face up to writing about their personal traumas. For those people, and for writers in general, there is a way around this.

For those who say they're not ready to write about the tragedies in their life, that's okay. The experience can be exhausting, and dig up a lot of unexpected things. I was glad that I wrote that piece about my friend in a secluded place, because I cried nonstop as I processed the feelings through my words. What I did learn after that experience is that sometimes, projecting those feelings through an alter-ego can take some of the sting out of the feelings.

On that note, let me introduce you to Tom.

Tom - aka Tomas Jurick - is the character who represents my alter ego. Not surprisingly, he is about my size, has the same issues with his weight and his hair, and goes through the highs and lows and life with the usual amount of errors and missteps. The biggest difference is that the major tragedies in his life are presented with full frontal detail, not obscured by that waxy patina we tend to put on memories. When an event in his life occurs, it is viewed from the moment it happened, and not through the hazy, emotionally sterilized fog from a man in his early fifties.

Now, as a writer, I feel sorry for Tom because when I write a story to process a difficult time in my life, I know poor Tom will take the beating. It's Tom who buried his friends, lost his parents, had relationship after relationship blow up in his face, and so on. He's also make one stupid mistake after another, has a long scroll of bad decisions in his life, and plenty of stories about things that seemed like a good idea at the time but turned out to be embarrassing fails. However, I also know Tom is willing to take it because he's just an alter ego, and he will gladly take the beatings that somehow I am not willing to face myself.

As a technique, maintaining an alter ego is a good tool when we use our writing to process grief and trauma. The only caveat I would offer is that sometimes we develop a dependency on the alter ego as a way of avoiding making an experience very personal and therefore intimate. However, I believe it serves a great purpose in developing our skills, and is always worth a try.

And if anyone knows who coined the title of this piece, I would really love to know. So would Tom.

Monday, January 25, 2021

Owning Your Dialogue

"Preem chrome, choom!"

I am sure that line makes little sense to you, and that's fine. A little grammatical forensics might tell you that by its position and the punctuation, "choom" is probably some kind of nickname, but otherwise, you are probably in the dark about the rest of it. That's okay for now - the writer should know this going in, and quuickly own it. What the reader should get out of such a line is that the world they are stepping into is significantly different than what they are used to, and that they should open themselves up to a new world. As a writer, it is your responsibility to give them that world. 

This sci-fi world courtesy of CyberPunk 2077
The line is some jargon from CyberPunk 2077, and translates as complimenting a friend's cybernetic equipment. In the sci-fi literature surrounding this world, words like preem, choom, scop, corpo and klep are commonplace, though initially make no sense to the reader. They do, however, serve as excellent tools into creating the technological dystopia of the future. The real secret is understanding how to incorporate such words into a story where the reader is very much in the year 2021. 

The first part is context. Remember back in school when we were taught a word and given a sentence that offered a good framework to understand it? Example: Excoriate: "He stood in front of the corporation's headquarters, loudly excoriating the evils of their economic tyranny." This tells us first and foremost that excoriate is what you do to regarding evil things. Furthermore, you do it verbally. We might not know its exact definition, but we know enough to relate it to what we do know, like denounce or trash-talk. Close enough to get the meaning of the sentence.

My opening line in this piece means very little on its own, so it is important to weave meaning and context all around it. This makes the grammatical forensics a little easier - particularly if this is early in the writing and the reader isn't quite sold yet. This is not always easy to do, and it is often best done gradually. If there is a lot of world to take in, a traditional route is to throw a jargon-heavy line out to set the stage for the reader, offer some context, then gradually drip-feed more dialogue throughout the work. Let's look at our first line and see how context might flesh it out for the reader.

"Preem chrome, choom!" I said excitedly to my best friend, examining the silver sheen on his brand-new, top-of-the-line cybernetic arm. "Really preem!"

Now we have a better understanding about the words - preem is a complimentary modifier, chrome is about something metallic like a cybernetic arm, and choom is likely a friend. A lot to take in, but when the context is tied to it, it becomes part of the reader's vocabulary as well.

I have referred to A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess as an excellent example of creating a world through dialogue. If you read the last chapter first, before understanding the different terms, it is all but illegible. If you walk in with an open mind and prepare for an adventure, well, you are treated to a full, rich, alternate world.

It's worth trying, choom.

Friday, January 22, 2021

Sensory Crossover Style

Maybe you've noticed it over the past several months, maybe not. One of the most underappreciated of the ordinal senses - taste - is getting its due in pop culture. No, people aren't inventing words to describe just how oregano tastes; that one will remain a discussion for the ages. Instead, this underappreciated sense is getting placed into the everyday discussion of general moods, actions, and behaviors. This sensory crossover is also a good writing technique?

I first started hearing it about a year ago, when a person I know was acting particularly desperate and promptly got described as "thirsty" (Long story). It was a cute way to describe them, and I let it go. Then I noticed tastes started showing up. A person in a particularly toxic mood becomes "salty" ("bitter" and "sour" have long been used, so the shift to salty is all the more interesting). When extra drama is added to a situation, it is "spicy" and if that situation is particularly complex and multifaceted, it has a "savory" dimension. Yes, the sense of taste is finally getting its due.

Now, instead of using this piece to brag about the virtues of taste (and this has no connection in any way to my previous post about the McRib), I would rather incorporate this into the method of splashing one particular sense all over a description, even when it does not directly refer to that sense. 

This is called sensory crossover - a technique that has the advantage of engaging the reader on more than one level. When we write about making, say, a homemade jambalaya, the immediate sensory triggers are taste and smell. If that jambalaya does not make the reader think about something savory, it needs a rewrite. However, what if we just gave a little space for the spices, and focused on the color palette? Even better, what if we targeted the feel and texture of that first bite? It's easy enough to get people to taste the pepper and paprika in food. However, once they understand the vegetables crumbling on their tongue and feel the rice in their teeth, it becomes a new and engaging experience.

This trick works for writers, but it's more commonly used by acting coaches and creatives learning their craft. Take a basic experience - going for a walk, eating a hamburger, etc. - and observe it from one particular sense perspective. For taking a walk, it can be easy enough to describe how everything looks during the walk, so pursue a different sensation. Become very aware of how it feels, not just externally, but the sensation of your feet in your shoes, maybe a soreness in your knees or a little endorphin rush. As you breathe in the winter air, does it feel as if it's draining the heat or does it energize you? Taste might be a difficult sense to focus on during your walk, but see if you can do it. Or become aware of the smells around you. The different sounds everywhere. 

As your mind explores these different angles, the writer in you will be nourished in a way you might not have appreciated before. If so, you can offer this to your readers, and they will engage with the descriptions in a new and complex way. 

And if you can, try using this exercise while enjoying a delicious McRib sandwich (sorry).

Friday, January 15, 2021

Immersive Writing and the McRib

Alas, while the New Year brings us all hope and the promise of new beginnings, it also means a fond farewell to some things we have come to enjoy. Of course, I am talking about the end of the limited availability of the McRib sandwich at McDonald's. This acquired taste, this blue-collar delicacy is, as the ads say, "for a limited time only," and that time is up. We get our last sandwich, say a fond farewell as we eat it, then wash all the sauce off our face and neck, apologize to our arteries, and refuse to wonder what we actually ate. Yes, that season is over.

For those wondering what the McRib is doing as the lede to a writing post, it is a great example of a subject ripe for the art of immersive writing. While not everyone enjoys the McRib, plenty of people have never eaten one, and many ponder what it actually is, it has plenty of sensory and emotional triggers. Taste and smell, sight, even the word McRib is enough to spark an opinion about its merits. This is when we incorporate immersive writing.

Now, the art of immersive writing is fairly self-explanatory. It is relaying an experience in a way that coats the reader with the sensation of whatever happened. If someone is using this to describe a hike on a winter's day, the reader should feel a compulsion to grab a blanket or put on a sweater. Immersive writing about a headache should make the reader a little dizzy, and writing about the McRib should make the reader want to wash their face and rethink their diet.

To clarify, immersive writing is not simply bombarding the reader with details. Detailed description is not entirely necessary, in fact, because details focus mostly on one sense - visual. The picture with this post surely triggers some response, but sight is just of the five ordinal senses, and there are plenty of other sensations to appeal to besides what the eyes behold.

It's even worth mentioning that taste is not a sense that needs to be the dominant focus of an immersive McRib essay. Besides the flavor of a McRib being difficult to describe in a unique manner, the true appeal (to those in the pro-McRib camp) comes from sensory overlays such as texture, spice, and the slight sweat on the upper lip. These can be put in a positive or negative light, or just as points of fact - the important part is that they are done constantly and with continuing emphasis. 

The other part that comes with the immersive writing technique is just to double-dip the writing in cues that relate to those feelings. The writing should be dripping with descriptors and modifiers, slathered thick with metaphors and similes that relate to the subject, never leaving the reader too far away from a connection to the hickory barbeque sauce or pressed, shaped, mystery meat that is the McRib.

This also applies for the anti-McRib writing as well. If this sandwich isn't your thing, spin those words accordingly. People might not agree with you, but good immersive writing at the very least convinces the reader about your passion on the subject.

And on that note, I am going to have one last McRib sandwich, say a fond farewell, and then head to the gym and start the New Year by working those McRib calories - there are a lot of them to be burned off. I regret nothing.

Monday, January 11, 2021

What Am I Writing?

 In a previous post, Caring About Our Stories, I mentioned how we need to ask ourselves “Why am I writing this?” As we develop the mechanics of the Process, we need to ask a more refined part of this question: “What is the purpose of this?”

With anything we write, that question should apply to every part. For any essay, screenplay, novel, or short story, we should be able to ask that question about something as broad as the entire work itself, or as narrow as a particular word we choose. The answer doesn’t have to be perfect, brilliant, or even insightful, but if the answer isn’t obvious, we need to ask ourselves if that part is necessary.

In an earlier post, And So Begins the Process, I offered the example of my working manuscript called Easier than the Truth. In that post I demonstrated how to take a one-line idea and turn it into the bones of a story. Now we can follow through with that technique and apply our question of purpose to make sure this story focuses on what is necessary and leaves out what isn’t.

There’s the story in front of me, and I ask, “What is the purpose of this story?” This should be a very simple, concise answer, at least in the author’s mind. For this novel, it is, “To show how someone broke away from a life of denial and faced the harsh realities of their life.” One sentence; simple and to-the-point. As we start asking this about smaller and smaller pieces, the answers might be a little more elaborate, but they are just as important.

Now we narrow the focus from the story to a particular section. In Chapter 12, our protagonist, Tom, is driving to work early, with his friend, Phil, who is trying to catch some sleep in the passenger seat. “What is the purpose of this chapter?” This is where Tom explains his plan to bring together his out-of-control life. Simple and to-the-point, but we can still narrow this question further.

The next question would be, “What is the purpose of Phil in the scene?” Phil is skeptical of Tom’s plan and doesn’t think it’s a good idea. “What is the purpose of Phil trying to sleep instead of being wide awake?” It allows Phil to be dismissive rather than confrontational, thus allowing Tom’s plan to continue (plus Phil was up late). Again, it is… simple and to-the-point.

This can continue down to the individual words, but we won’t take it that far in this particular example. The point is that when we ask the right questions about our writing, the answers make our writing better. Then we can tell elaborate stories and explain complex ideas, yet our writing will be strong because it is simple and to-the-point.

Friday, January 8, 2021

Depression - Writing Through the Haze

With New Year's Day in the rear view mirror and everyone returning to an ordinary life (current events notwithstanding), as writers we need to resume our usual schedules. However, this is not very easy, given that returning to life means going back to winter weather, social isolation, and often credit-card bills from our holiday excesses. Given all this, it's not easy to just pick up the pen and go back to work. For some of us, it's even more difficult.

In this short post, I will discuss something that affects a lot of writers, and that plenty of creatives experience. It's not writer's block, but something similar that can suspend the process of our work. It shows up a lot in this time of the year, but for some of us it exists during all seasons. It can be worse than writer's block, and for an unseen problem it is all too visible to those afflicted.

Despite my generally happy demeanor, there is a darkness that follows me around constantly. It's not the usual sadness that comes with life's bad news, but but an ever-present cloud hovering about me. On a good day, I can ignore the mist and go about my business without too much difficulty. On other days, the darkness settles around me, immersing me in an obscuring fog that makes it difficult to even function. By function, that means more that just doing my writing, it means being able to get up and do anything. Given this, how can someone accomplish all their writing goals and meet their year's resolutions?

One thing I have learned over the years is to try and make my problems real, or at least recognizable. It's an old meditation trick to try and envision those things we cannot see, and by doing so, we can claim some control over them. This is where I bring out my writer's toolkit, and apply my creative skills to try and contain the beast.

A problem like depression does not have shape or form, so our first task is to try and feel what its physical traits would be. In my situation, my feelings envision depression as a dark cloud, a purple haze (and not the cool kind in Jimi Hendrix's psychedelic love song) that, at its worst, can blind my vision entirely. It is not like a wispy, feathery cloud but rather thick and solid, clumped like a heavy storm cloud on the horizon, the kind that makes you go inside and close your windows just in case. 

Now, what does it sound like? Feel like? If I were to think about it, it is not like a storm cloud, thunder growling from within. Rather, it smothers all sound, dampening any and all voices from the outside. It's cold and damp, as chilling as wet clothes. It covers every inch of my body, draining my energy and leaving me seeking the warm refuge of my blankets.

These little techniques are far from a cure - my purple cloud still hovers about me, shrouding me like a wet blanket. But sometimes, when I try to make it real and tangible, it can be a little bit easier to manage, and maybe, just maybe, I am able to write past the problems.

Monday, January 4, 2021

A New Year and Accountability

Now that we are getting back to our post-New Year's Day routines, some of us may have to acknowledge a few resolutions we made or wanted to make. I often talk about some promises we can make to ourselves as writers to push ourselves further down the road that is writing. Nothing big, nothing fancy, but hopefully doable. And as 2021 approached, plenty of people made a lot of other promises about what they would do and who they would become this year. However, we know that a lot of these situations are like going to the gym in January to lose some weight - a nice promise that doesn't make it to February.

No surprise that people don't always follow through - going to the gym is not easy, otherwise we would've already been doing it. Furthermore, it's all the more daunting if we do it alone, and this is the same for writers. In my workshops, we've discussed the value of writing groups and how they inspire each other. Along with inspiration, writing groups can help hold each other accountable for their actions. At the gym, we only answer to a scale or a treadmill. In a workshop, the dynamic can motivate us to do that much more.

When it comes to setting objectives for the year, some people will make them, others won't. For those who set some goals, only a few will achieve them. They usually have some people constantly prodding them to continue toward that goal. This isn't nagging (well, sometimes...). This is saying, "How has that outline been going?" "Any progress on your story?" or "You haven't brought in a chapter lately; are you having trouble?" These questions might seem annoying, but they remind us that we are not alone in this process. As writers, we might work alone, but when we have others checking in on us, we feel that we are part of something greater, and that we march with others.

An accountability system might seem like a lot of work, but it can be the most passive process to begin with. I had a friend who, to keep up with her promise to write down her dreams, placed a pen on her alarm clock, right over the snooze button, before going to bed. As weird as it may sound, she did this so she would literally place a pen in her hand every morning, and this forced her to either write or break the promise by putting down the pen. More often than not, this pen gesture made her accountable for her action, so she wrote something about her dream.

If that sounds too abstract, think about accountability through obligation. Sometimes, a way to make ourselves accountable is to turn our writing promise into a requirement for something we like to do. I've made no secret about my love of gin (right now it's a craft blend called Botanist), so obligation accountability would mean that before I pour a glass, I must write a haiku, or have a chapter outlined, or whatever. When I control my actions, I force myself to either keep my word or feel the guilt of having my gin without writing my haiku. Again, this method conditions us to take that extra effort.

There are a lot of ways we can push ourselves to make some good habits as writers, and whether it's by stick or carrot, as long as it gets results, it's worth it.

And here's a pro tip: It's not too late to make a resolution. If you want to commit yourself to a task, just find a way to help yourself reach the goal. Then just go out and do it.