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.