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.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Four Simple Things Everyone Can Create

There's a little saying that comes to mind now and then, and lately it's been crashing around my brain for no apparent reason. Therefore, I have decided the best way to calm it down is to give the saying a little attention, put the spotlight on it, and hopefully, the world between my ears settles down after that.

"Everyone has within them a painting, a poem, a story, and a song, each truly telling the world about them."

Now some people quickly jump in and say, "A story? I've got tons of stories!" Great, but that's not the point. The emphasis on this saying should focus on everyone. Creative types have already proven their ability to create - the hook is that even those people who do not think themselves creative still have at least one of each of these lurking in their brain. Even the most button-down, uptight, belt-and-suspenders person can create a poem that reveals them. Someone as dry and bland as unbuttered toast has a song waiting to be sung. And, as a former economic analyst, I can attest that even the most analytical, left-brained corporate wonk has these things too. They just require prompting and practice to get them out.

Now, some of my readers are already having doubts - I can hear the skepticism; it's palpable even as I type. I believe that's fear talking rather than the desire to do something new. Most of us who have never painted will naturally imagine our first creation being some hideous, first-grader fingerpainting-gone-wrong nightmare and think, "I knew I couldn't do this!" That's the fear talking. Our first painting, poem, story or song is bound to be this second-hand Frankenstein's monster of creation, but that is hardly the end of the journey. That's the first step to something that can even surprise yourself.

I can also hear the doubts among some of my deeply creative followers. "I told you I'm a writer, but I can't do poems!" "I don't know music, I'm not that kind of artist!" "Painting? I wouldn't even know where to start. I just do words." There are plenty more of those that creative types are willing to produce, all in the name of defending their turf in the creative space while staying away from the scary shadowlands of unexplored territory.

To all these people I offer this strategically worded response. "Blah, blah, blah, whatever. Just try it."

Here's a little secret that might push everyone to at least take a stab at trying these four simple things. While I am a writer, and my occasional poem is public information, I also have a sketchbook that I don't show many people. Within its pages are faces, still-life drawings, and things that are not presentable to the critical public light. I have that painting in there, I just haven't made it yet.

I also have my guitar and piano, both of which I have not mastered or even developed any skill with, but sometimes I take a few strums or run a few scales just to set that part of my brain in motion. I am sure the person delivering my Amazon stuff has occasionally heard my practicing through the door and quickly walked away, but that's okay. I am just looking for my song.

I do not expect to have an exhibit at the Art Institute any time soon, and The Billboard Top 100 does not need to worry about misspelling my name. That's not the point. I poke those places in my brain to wake up different sources of creativity and see what shows up. And I know that if I keep on doing it, something will click and the creative in me will be the better for it.

Friday, March 26, 2021

In Remembrance of Writing Lost

People think writers are all about creating stories, fantasies, and all the trappings - new characters, places, things, ideas, and adventures. They're mostly right; writers create a lot. However, part of the writing process is also about knowing when something you've created is a little too "not right." Something doesn't fit, or the word count needs to come down - whatever the problem, some of those well-crafted words are about to vanish. This is a surprisingly tough part of the process.

I chose this topic to write about because this week I discovered that a technical glitch meant several of my blog posts were deleted. Destroyed. Blow'd up. Reduced to mere bits and bytes with no chance of recovery. I can't honestly say which posts they were or what the subject thread was for the different posts. All I know is that they are gone, and I felt a tangible sense of loss.

Furthermore, this is not the first time I have had to mourn what is technically no more than the loss of words. In The Book of Cain, a couple of characters were deleted entirely because they didn't drive the story. This wasn't their fault. They did nothing wrong. They were building tenants living their little grammatically correct lives, trying to move things along, then suddenly the editing pen came out and *poof!* they vanished. No funeral, no service. My readers never knew the characters existed. What a sad way to go, and yet it happens all the time.

One of the ugliest tasks writers have is the job of destroying what we create - maybe a person, a scene, a world, whatever, sometimes it has to go. It's difficult, and plenty of my fellow writers have a very difficult time justifying the elimination of their creations, even when they are a glaring problem. If you ever read something where one character just doesn't serve any purpose whatsoever, chances are it is there because the writer just could not force themselves to eliminate them. In some cases, I can't blame them, but to be a better writer you have to occasionally cut things out. Here's my advice on how to do it.

A very wise woman once told me that when you need to cut someone out of your life, use a knife and not a cheese grater. Assuming she didn't want me to stab people, I think the meaning was to just cut swiftly and cleanly, without hesitation or unnecessary effort. Don't try to pare back a useless character or redundant scene, hoping the smaller version will somehow work. When something needs to go, just get rid of it.

Did that sound cold? Well, it is, but there can be compassion as well. For the characters I have loved yet deleted, I have kept their Word files in different directories, tucked away for another day (they're not dead, they're sleeping). I understand that these characters are not a fit for the current work, but there might be other works for them. I have my little index of unused characters, an Island of Misfit Toys, and they all live and hang out there. And, indeed, a few of them have been called up for future works.

Lastly, the most important thing for a writer is always creation. Sometimes it might feel that if we create ten ideas but only use three, then we've only created three things. Nope - we created ten things that we learned from, and three of them can be built upon. That's a lot of growth in that creation, and even though those things may never make the final cut, our growth as a writer will be evident.

So to all the characters who met the red pen - rest in peace until we use you again.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Notes About Creativity

Call it an educated guess, but to the outside world, us creative types must look like magicians. We can take something simple like paint or charcoal and capture emotions with them. By merely touching the keys of a keyboard or a piano, we create - seemingly out of thin air - these compositions that can move something deep inside our being. To the unknowing, this is more than just making something, this must be sorcery. And yet, here we are, plucking the strings of a guitar or singing words in a certain way and things just happen. Magic indeed!

Well, to creatives and non-creatives alike, let me reveal another little secret: It's exhausting.

The thing about creativity that often gets overlooked is that its magical properties come at a price. Writing a story or a song is indeed a joy, just like any labor of love, but often we overlook the labor part. It can be very intensive work, and while I have never seen a author break a sweat while writing their manuscript, under the surface they are flexing all their intellectual and inspirational muscles full-time. The work that goes into music, poetry, painting, and so forth is the deep current flowing under still waters, and it comes at a price. People might not see how mentally sore the creative type is after finishing their masterpiece, but it's there, and it can be depleting.

Sometimes, to charge my creative batteries, I watch other people engage in their own creative processes. I'll click on a stream and watch someone play music for a while (this is much better to do live, but, well, COVID). Some streamers paint, others sing, some just engage in elaborate discussions about life, the universe, and everything. This is all very enjoyable, but I make sure to take a timeout to appreciate how this person is working when they do what they do, and that it comes at a price. 

There's a saying that if your job is something you enjoy, you will never work a day in your life. I offer a counterpoint that if you do what you enjoy as work, sometimes you will have to do what you enjoy when you are too tired to do it, which takes the enjoyment away very quickly. Ask any writer who does freelance assignments about that constant level of enjoyment, and they will likely tell you that sometimes writing can be particularly draining because it's an assignment, not a joy. 

My point in all this ultimately rolls back to a matter of appreciation. To the non-creatives, it can be so valuable to just tell a musician or a writer how a song or a story moved you, or how mystical it seems for them to create, with such simple ingredients, a complex piece of work. Recognition is like emotional nourishment, and sometimes the simplest words of admiration can be a full meal to those who created the piece.

To the creatives out there, well, obviously, the same thing goes about appreciation. However, the more important point is to occasionally give yourself a chance to breathe in the miracle that is your talent. You possess a strange alchemy that allows you to turn everyday words, sounds and colors into gold - embrace this. And sometimes, embracing this means giving yourself a chance to just say, "I'm tired. I need to charge my batteries. I will create something tomorrow but for today, I will just watch others be beautiful." As a creative-type, you've earned it.

And to the streaming community out there and the energy you pour into your work, understand that it is appreciated. You may not hear it that often, but it's still true.

Friday, March 19, 2021

Description Through Dialogue

Going back to my school days, I remember first noticing when my friends would answer a call then suddenly get… The Voice. They would pick up the phone, give a hearty, “Yo, whassup,” and then The Voice would kick in. This was before caller ID, so they answered the phone very casually. However, once they heard their new girlfriend on the other end, their voice would change by an octave into a cuddly, happy, non-threatening, “Hi, Boopie…” thing. Once I heard my friend shift into The Voice, I knew exactly who it was and that I would not be talking to my friend for a long time – “Boopie” was clearly the priority. All my friends – the tough ones, the kindly ones, even I had this voice, and even if we refused to admit we heard it in ourselves, everyone else picked it up like a dog whistle to a box of love-struck puppies.

Now that I am older, that voice is a little more subtle. However, the important part as far as this blog is concerned is knowing how to communicate this one-octave shift through writing. Of course, one way is to do exactly what I just did in the last paragraph and throw a bunch of descriptors at it. That works well enough, but as a writer, it always helps out if we have a few extra tools. First, let’s dissect what makes The Voice really change.

I could be smoking cigars with my friends, playing poker and talking trash one night, totally awash in testosterone, and yet turn on a dime when Boopie calls. The biggest part that changes is my mannerism and how it’s portrayed before and just after I take the call. People have physical cues that appear, depending on the voice they are responding to. The responses can be subtle or overt, depending on the magnitude, but it is up to the writer to hand those over. 

Think of a work situation. Your colleague across the aisle is doing their thing when the phone rings and they grab it without thinking to look at the ID. If it’s the department VP, how does your coworker respond? Do they sit up in their chair? Adjust their jacket? Do they go through a little primping to look more professional even though the VP can’t actually see them? Well, if you see them suddenly put on the professional pose, you can infer that it’s a superior. Of course, if it’s their spouse calling, watch your colleague relax their shoulders, perhaps exhale deeply in relief, even close their eyes and faintly smile (or the opposite if it’s not the best marriage around). Describe the body language and you fill in the picture without even touching the dialogue.

Of course, the dialogue itself is important. Consider a situation where our friend, Tom, receives a call and it’s someone who is pitching an otherwise-terrible idea. Think about how Tom’s response would differ depending on who he is talking to. I offer the following examples:

Tom said to his friend, “Dude, that’s like an eight on the dumbass idea scale.”

Tom said to his mother, “Are you really sure about this idea?”

Tom said to his colleague, “I think you might want to circle back and get some more input on this idea.”

Tom said to his boss, “Well, sir, that is… an idea, sir.” (We kind of lose respect for Tom here.)

These little tweaks to mannerisms, word choice, and a variety of other factors do a lot of heavy lifting for a writer. They elaborate on the character, the relationship with the other party, the character’s social management techniques, and much more, all to the reader’s benefit. Do a little people-watching, and you will pick up these cues quickly – and it doesn’t have to be with something as overt as The Voice, which I proudly still carry around.

Monday, March 15, 2021

The Editor Checklist

My life this past week has been filled with a bunch of drama regarding the subject of editors: What makes a good editor? Are there warning signs that an editor might not be what they advertise? Is an editor really necessary? And of course, horror stories about bad editors. I tell you, this was fate just begging me to do a piece on what you should get from an editor, with perhaps a couple of notes on what should constitute a warning sign.

Here are a few things you really need from an editor:

  • Brutal but constructive honesty. This is a tough line to walk, but it's important. Any editor should be able to determine the difference between something they just don't like versus something that just doesn't work. The difference between "I didn't like that" and "this needs work" is an editor's prime duty, and should be followed up with broad-brush recommendations on how to repair it - but not plot guidance.
  • Distance from the project. The best editors are not co-authors, not contributors, and definitely not people with a close personal tie. There are always exceptions to these rules, but in general, anyone who fits into these categories is putting the editorial process at risk.
  • Open for discussion. I emphasize discussion in this - not debate or pointing out who is right and who is wrong. When the editor says, "I didn't see how the events in one chapter led to events later on," the editor should be open to discussing what seemed to be missing or what would fill in the gaps. This is NOT an invitation for the author to explain why, in fact, the events tied together, but rather a chance to say, "Okay, I intended for these to tie together, so how would you get to that point?" A good editor will throw out ideas (none of which are binding), and the conclusion should be an author with some thoughts about where to go from there.
  • Connection to the subject. This is different from distance from the project in that the editor should have an interest in the broad subject being discussed, and hopefully experience in reading/critiquing the genre. Just as a fiction editor might not be the best fit for a how-to book, an editor specializing in westerns might not be a great fit for a sci-fi novel. This is not a hard-and-fast rule - a strong editor can work outside their specialty, but the editing pool may not be very deep for some writers and there are only a few people to choose from.

And quickly, a few things to note:

  • If your editor is not catching grammar errors, there's trouble. Nobody's a perfect writer, and we all mix up the group of "there," "their," and "they're" periodically. An editor should cover you on this base, and should offer broad comments if necessary about excessive use of the passive voice, point-of-view shift, present/past tense mix-ups. If they miss these, they are not earning their paycheck. And on that note...
  • Pay your editor. This may sound odd, and who wants to pass up a chance to get an editing pass for free? Well, with the free deal, often you get what you pay for. More importantly, when there is an exchange of money for services rendered (preferably upon completion and not in advance), the editor carries a moral obligation to hit the deadline, impress the client, and earn every penny. Beta readers are different - that can be a fun opportunity to read something and offer feedback. However, once they put that editor hat on, some kind of financial arrangement helps seal the deal.

Now that I have defended editors, I hope I didn't scare anyone off. They are an important part of the process, even though they are not always a part that the writer gets to appreciate.

Friday, March 12, 2021

Fresh Fruit Theory

Writers get inspiration from many sources. One of the sources I use to stir up the idea pot is social media - particularly the different groups dedicated to writers and creative writing. I am a proud member of many groups where they discuss everything from becoming a writer to building skills to actual publishing, and it is always interesting to see just what kind of ideas flow through these groups. Granted, sometimes I lurk more than I contribute, but that's another discussion.

Anyway, one of the common themes flowing through these groups is the idea for an innovative, new, appealing story based on... life during COVID. After a year's worth of pandemic, some people are now writing the next bestseller based on life experiences or a hypothetical story incorporating the COVID world. For all of them, regardless of how they approach their COVID story, I offer some friendly advice as a writer.

I offer Fresh Fruit Theory.

Invariably, the world is going to be deluged with COVID stories, novels, and plot themes for the next few years. I even published a short story based on that very subject. The plots will be wildly varied in their approaches, but they will ultimately fall into two categories: Those that leave a lasting impression and those that vanish without much notice. The ones that last might not be well-written stories, and might very well have their flaws, but they have a durable quality to them. The others that fade away are, in fact, fresh fruit.

It might sound odd to compare something as tasty and nourishing as fruit to something as negative as a story with no value, but bear with me. We have all had that experience of buying, say, the perfect bunch of bananas, then watching half of them turn brown at home because we didn't eat them fast enough. The pears we bought looked great in the store, but after three days at home they've turned for the worst. As they say, today's fresh fruit was green yesterday and will be spoiled tomorrow. Stories can be just the same if we are not careful.

For a story to last longer than that bunch of bananas or bag of pears, it needs something about it that resonates beyond the simple boundaries of the subject. A story about COVID needs to discuss something more than the virus - a statement about the human condition, a warning about social responsibility, something that future generations will read and take in on a personal level. Otherwise, well, prepare for something that has a limited shelf life.

It's also worth noting that with the lag time of the writing cycle, if you have a great idea about a Life-During-COVID story and start writing it now, you will be halfway done when other COVID stories start coming out. To stand out, yours will already need to have that extra flavor, or else it will get lost in the wave of pandemic stories rushing toward the printing presses.

If novels like Fahrenheit 451 or 1984 stayed within their subject (topics that really resonated at the time), they would not have survived for generations to come, and perished like so much fresh fruit. Rather, they told us about ourselves as well, and those books stayed on the shelves for a while (I still have my copies).

And now, for some reason, I have the urge to start writing, and to make a smoothie before the last bananas spoil.

Monday, March 8, 2021

The (W)rite of Spring

On days like these, I can hear my father's voice echoing through my memory. "Get outside!" he would declare. "You spent months cooped up in the house crying about the bad weather. It's nice out, go outside and enjoy it!" In his defense, I think sometimes he just wanted a little silence in the house so he could work, and would've marched me out into a lightning storm to achieve that peace. However, he was usually on point - on the first seventy-degree day, why on Earth would I want to stay inside?

The answer was usually baseball. Growing up in the Chicago area, baseball on TV was a daytime ritual, and I had been deprived of my beloved sport for the entire winter and then some. Now my beloved sport was back, and until more of my friends escaped from their houses so we could play a game on our own, I had to get my baseball fix on television - usually in the room right next to my father's studio.

I am older now, and my father isn't yelling at me to get outside - not in person, anyway. However, in the past years, I have changed my habits and certain ways have evolved. Of course, baseball turned into a night-time sport in Chicago, work replaced free time, and my interests shifted to include things other than my beloved sport. However, some things never change, and every spring I feel that awakening that tells me some things are returning, and I should gather myself together, get outside, and do something new.

Now that I wear a writing hat along with my economics hat, the writer in me feels that stirring as well. Not the urge to start writing - I keep that going throughout the year - but the need to start something fresh and new. My past few posts have been about poetry because that's been one of those recent awakening things, but that is nothing new. My mind starts circling around something that I think all writers should explore:

What should I try?

Several years ago, I tried blending my economics life with my writer's life, and the results were... mixed (the manuscript made it to eighty pages). Another time I warmed to the idea of converting one of my character sketches to a one-act play (still in the works, hopefully to be performed once performance theater emerges in the post-COVID world). One time, I decided I would start a writing blog. And of course, sometimes this awakening meant looking over past works, choosing one that had some potential, and performing an all-out rewrite. 

Warning: Reviewing old writing can be a painful experience, even embarrassing at times, and should be approached with both caution and humility.

Now, not all my big tasks have paid off, but I did not expect them all to bear fruit. The bottom line is each one of them helped me stretch my boundaries as a writer, and for that I regret nothing. 

So now that spring is creeping in yet again and the air outside is approaching room temperature, I am again thinking about what adventure to take on. It's still a work in progress, but a part of it is deciding to share this rite with my writing community and challenge them to do the same. Try something new. Expand those boundaries. Or, to quote a very wise man, "Get outside!"

Friday, March 5, 2021

Writing in A New (Old) Way

If you are reading this on the weekend it was posted, chances are that you don't know that March 5th is the beginning of the National Day of Unplugging. This was established as the one time a year people should try to disconnect from the grid, break away from news media, social media, and all other media, and exist in a more present, aware state of mind. A nice idea - I hope it catches on, but I suspect it won't gain too much traction. There is, however, something to be taken away from it.

Now, this does relate to writing in a roundabout way. While this may not apply to the youngest generation of my regular readers, I hope everyone finds a way to find relevance. When I started writing in school, it was with a big Husky brand pencil, thicker than my little fingers. Eventually, I advance to a standard #2 pencil, then a pen, then a mechanical pencil. The first typewriter I used (at home) was a manual, but by eighth grade I was using an electric typewriter. Then came the built-in, industrial-sized computer keyboards, the detachable plug-in keyboards, then wireless, then laptops, and finally tablet keypads. Oh how the world has evolved over such a short time. 

This post is not meant to be a celebration of technology. This is merely a reminder of the journey, and what happens when we reclaim some part of the past. Every now and then - especially if I have writer's block - I grab a notepad and pencil and just start jotting down how it feels to go so retro so quickly. I have discovered that a part of my mind from grade school wakes up from the touch of fingertip to shaved wood. The tactile memory comes back in a way I can only describe through writing - my emotions process differently, and I take in the world from a new, but actually old, perspective. In some ways, I am that kid in junior high with a #2 pencil, a whole bunch of ideas and no fear about whether they're good or bad.

Believe it or not, the same is also true for something as simple as a keyboard - perhaps even more so. My regular readers know that I started doing creative writing on a regular basis with my laptop. When I write this piece, however, it is usually on my office PC with an entirely different keyboard and monitor setup. Well, guess what? Whenever I pull out my laptop, my creative mind wakes up and I feel inspired to do things like poetry or short stories. Put that heavier, USB-connected keyboard in front of me, and I narrow into a different mindset. My entire economics career was with that kind of keyboard, so I become very analytical, very sharp-minded (and sometimes less creative than I prefer).

So, for National Day of Unplugging, I would recommend this - though you do not have to do it on this or any day in particular. As a writing experiment, try writing with a separate media - either writing by hand (pen or pencil - your call), writing in a different room, or maybe dusting off an old typewriter and just banging on the keys for a while. And as you do this, see where your mind goes: what memories are dragged out, what feelings emerge, and so on. 

And, of course, if there's ever a day you can go entirely off the grid, let me know how it goes. Preferably by e-mail.