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, 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.