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, April 30, 2021

Writing vs. the Weather

Anyone who knows me knows that I enjoy the warmer seasons - the warmer the better. Perhaps it's just my dislike of winter, maybe I was a salamander in a previous life - I don't know for sure. All I know with any certainty is that when I look at all the sunshine outside, I can honestly say that the last thing I want to do is write. I want to play in the grass, run around in the backyard and enjoy the rites of warm weather. Not very helpful for a writer's work habits.

Everyone has these distractions in their life, and it doesn't have to be the weather. Sure, everyone has those childhood memories of being trapped in school trying to learn something while our minds wandered outside to the beautiful weather with its blue skies and open spaces. We forced our way through this distraction somehow, but usually it was because we did not have a choice. It was school - a mandatory sentence of hard time that had to be served regardless of the weather. But now, as writers, we have options and alternatives. It's very easy to set aside our writing and take a walk, go cycling, or just sit under a tree and breathe in the springtime. This is where we test our resolve as to just how serious we are with our writing.

No, this is not going to be a post about depriving ourselves of the opportunity to enjoy some nice weather in the name of writing. I am a firm believer in the outdoors, but I believe we need to find a way to merge our wants with our needs in order to effectively enjoy either. Choosing one over the other often creates a little tension inside us, which doesn't pay off in the long run. Rather, the compromise route is the one worth pursuing.

Here's my example. This weekend is supposed to be absolutely beautiful weather: mid-80s, just a few clouds, a breeze not quite strong enough to be called wind - just perfect for spending an afternoon on my bicycle. I also know I have several thousand words I should commit to paper. There's no deadline on the words, but a storm is rolling in Sunday night that will officially end the nice run of weather. The choice I therefore face is whether it's worth it to go cycling for an afternoon and try to do my writing once I'm back, or forgo the nice weather under the assumption that more will show up soon, and just get my writing done.

My compromise goes something like this: Saturday I will go cycling for a few hours. During that time I will do all the non-typing things I have to do with the story I am working on. I will go over the dialogue in my head, I will actually sound out the lines and the voices, getting the wording just right. I will take all the sensory joy of the day around me and turn that inward, using it to fuel my urge to write. I will be outside, but I will get excited about the writing I will soon be engaging in. If I do this properly, I reverse the roles that I might otherwise experience. Instead of being the student looking longingly at the beautiful day outside, I will become the person outside, but I will be anxiously awaiting the moment when I can get back inside and start writing again. I will renew my commitment to writing, but not deprive myself of the other things I enjoy.

And now I need to go outside and charge my batteries for tomorrow - I have a lot of writing to do, and that bicycle won't ride itself. 

Monday, April 26, 2021

Youth and Poetry

It's about time I addressed an obvious issue. I have heard on more than one occasion the same question. "It's almost the end of National Poetry Month, so why haven't you done one post on poetry?" Fair question. As many people know (and to the displeasure of others), I do the occasional post on how writing poetry can benefit writers no matter what their usual genre might be. These poetry posts have a cult following (cult = only a few members, though very passionate about the subject), and those few will not be let down. However, I like to think there's something in this post for the non-poets as well. And on that note...

The main reason I held back on a poetry post for National Poetry Month has to do with timing. Last week, I had the honor of being a judge at the regional school district's poetry slam - twenty student in the 15- to 18-year-old range from seven different schools - and I wanted to report on just what came of this wonderful experience. And for those who think that teenagers are not emotionally developed enough to truly do justice to poetry, well, please read on.

First and foremost, a proper poetry slam includes offering the emotion and language of poetry, so intricate and detailed, along with the power of presentation, which can range from sobering to forceful. The secret is to not turn it into monologue - just yelling at a Zoom feed or explaining why life sucks - but to create, through rhythm and verse, something that moves the audience emotionally, spiritually, and perhaps even physically. I was not let down.

I was amazed at how these students of the art were able to really dig deep inside themselves and hit upon some very deep, personal issues - racial division, peer pressure, gender fluidity conflict, self-doubt, personal tragedy, sexual conflict, self image issues, and so many more. Any one of these subjects could emotionally overwhelm the unprepared, but these poets took such volatile emotions and so elegantly turned them into moving works. 

Some might say that teenagers are overflowing with frustration and confusion so how difficult can it be to pour an issue onto the page? Normally, I would respond with a reminder about what it's like to be that age and how confronting such things head-on is a task unto itself. However, these students took on struggles that adults often don't want to face, so I will not compare them with people of "that age." They challenged their fears and presented their emotions in a raw, visceral manner that created a very intimate portrait of who they are. Any good poetry needs to have that quality, and some of these students created such works before even getting a driver's license.

After some very difficult judging, we managed to find one winner among many. I will not use that old line that everyone is a winner - they all know they did something amazing - but rather, I will offer this much. I left with a new respect for the art. I proceeded to check out the highlights from the most recent Louder Than A Bomb finals (an annual teen poetry slam in Chicago) and earned a deep respect from what these poets create.

And, like any adventurous writer, I might just have to give this a try...        

Friday, April 23, 2021

World Book Day!

Today is World Book Day! On that note, how is that book going?

For my regular readers, you will recall that Monday's post challenged everyone to commemorate World Book Day by writing a book. Yes, that sounds like a big endeavor, but taken piece by piece it's far less intimidating. The last post set up the foundation for writing a book - developing the plot structure and the things that are, as they say, visible from 30,000 feet. Now we are going to go in a little closer and see how we want the story to move along. We're still not writing it - that comes later. We are just exploring the steps necessary to make the task of writing as easy as possible.

Now that we have the theme and main character(s) established and we know what the journey is going to be, we need to add some motion to this. Let's ask ourselves - what sets that character's story into motion? First and foremost, is the catalyst for the story external or internal? If this story is about the character's battle against cancer, that one is external - cancer rears its ugly head and the character is forced to confront it. Other stories centered around, say, a journey of discovering one's heritage, may be kicked off by the character finding an old diary or receiving a letter (external) then making the choice to follow up on the information and kick off the mission (internal). As the author, we need to know this ahead of time to better move our character along. 

Now, no mission worth writing about is without its issues, so our next step is to ask what makes this mission such a challenge? As they step out and take on this mission, the reader should be thinking, "Wow, how are they going to accomplish this?" If it's a battle against cancer, that story should focus on every obstacle and setback, every tough diagnosis, every source of inspiration that failed to come through. The challenge needs to be very real and very daunting, with attention placed on the difficulties the character faces. With this focus, the character's progress becomes even more engaging, and the reader asks again and again, "How are they going to make it through?" 

Of course, the other story - the internally motivated one - should have internal setbacks and resistance. When a character goes on the internally driven mission, the greatest obstacle can be self-doubt. The journey of self-discovery can and should be unsettling, and reminding the reader that this journey threatens everything the character has known or believed can always come from the character's own doubts. Think about any situation in your own life where your beliefs changed underneath your feet, then place that anxiety into the story.

There is no real limit as to how many setbacks one character has to overcome in order to complete their mission, but the writer should have a pre-defined set of roadblocks in mind when they start writing the story. Others may appear organically as the story is created, but a few distinct landmarks are necessary so the author has direction in their story-writing.

And now that you have all of that foundation established and know the direction, the next step is much easier - start writing that book!

Monday, April 19, 2021

Let's Write A Book...

It seems every day of the year now has too many anniversaries and commemorations to keep track of. Today, for example, covers the spectrum from the anniversary of the beginning of the Revolutionary War to National Garlic Day, and there are many other points in between that I could recognize as well. However, I am using this day as a prequel to another big event that is actually relevant to this blog, and that is World Book Day. This Friday, April 23rd, is the recognition of the book (apologies to my UK and Irish friends who celebrate this in March), and I thought I would offer a little prompt in my Monday post as to build some momentum to Friday's celebration.

On that note, I am going to recommend that, in recognition of World Book Day, everyone write a book. Sounds daunting? Indeed. However, I am not suggesting we do it all at once, or even try to cram it in between now and Friday. Rather, I am just trying to move people to write some of the basic infrastructure needed to build out the framework for the book. Without these, you won't write much of anything worth talking about, so let's just go step by step.

In as few words as possible, what is the theme of your book? Nothing elaborate here, just trying to set the foundation for this work. It can be something as simple as "redemption" or "reconciling with the past." (The only simple answer that is unacceptable is "growth" because every character should grow in some manner during their story, so that is kind of assumed.) "Taking on adversity" or even a detailed one such as "my battle against cancer" will be fine - just as long as it covers something that will be found on every page and that every character will somehow contribute to or detract from.

Who is your main character and what is their connection to the theme? No need for much here, just finding the lead character and reminding us why they are so important in relation to the theme. If the theme is redemption, why is this character so deeply tied to this pursuit? Are they damned? Beyond hope? What makes their battle greater than the usual struggle for redemption? A book about a battle against cancer should have a character heavily invested in living (and showing the reader how it's more than a story of trying not to die). 

What will be the character's long-term obstacles? This, in short, is where we start finding out about the story's antagonists and the conflict potential. Antagonists don't always have to be people sent to oppose our hero, they just need to be points of passive or active resistance. Per our earlier example, cancer itself is a long-term antagonist, but other obstructions can be financial ones, or even fighting our own limitations. The important part about the obstacles is that they should also relate to the theme, and not just be random things that get in the way. A bad guy is fun, but a bad guy who has a long-time connection to the main character is far more entertaining.

That's the basic infrastructure for a book, and while it isn't a lot of words, developing something where those three points are very much woven together creates a very strong foundation. Also, notice how I did not include a discussion of genre at this stage. At its core, a story is not about genre, so let's not worry about that. The root discussion should be one of theme, characters, and conflict potential. Just spend the next few days putting those together and thinking about their interactions.

Then, come World Book Day on Friday, we'll sit down and write a book.

Friday, April 16, 2021

Are You A Productive Writer?

I ran across a very interesting query on one of the many writing boards I follow, and it got me thinking. A relatively new writer asked a simple question: "How much do I need to write every day? Some days I write a lot but it's not good so I don't feel productive." I wanted to jump on an easy answer or a quick little quip, but my mind drifted toward that one word - productive. As a writer, that's a tough one to grasp, so I started trying to define it through my previous life. 

Back in my days as an economist, there were certain parts of my job that I hated. I mean I genuinely loathed them, and I made no secret about it. The biggest one was filing. I would let stacks of reports, briefings, summaries, etc., pile up on my desk that I would much rather sift through time and time again than file away in their proper place. (Yes, my desk was a rather cluttered place.)

Now, it wasn't that I didn't see the purpose of filing them away - on paper, it made perfect sense. Filing things away makes them easier to access if and when I need them, my desk wouldn't be as cluttered, and my boss wouldn't give me the stink-eye when he saw the riot of paper in my inbox. So why, you might ask, did I not file things away?

Simply put: It did not feel productive.

I am sure you can already see how this is going to come together, but I will go through the process anyway. The reason I detested filing was simple: it felt like a poor use of my skills. I wanted to build models of statistical genius, synthesize new formulas and extract amazing observations that only my beautiful mind could create. Anyone can file - my real purpose in life was something well beyond that, and to use anything less than the best of my talents was, well, unproductive.

But was it? How often did I waste that precious time searching through my papers for one little footnote or formula? How many hours a year were thrown away as I sorted through my notes, looking for something that could've easily been put in that simple manila folder in my left-hand file drawer? Now that is unproductive. That was a waste of my precious talent and time. It took me a while to realize this, but I will admit, I was hooked on the idea that to be productive, the payback had to be immediate.

As a writer, we like that immediate payoff to our writing. We want every short story to be the best one yet, we want every chapter of our novel to be a real enriching page-turner, even the simplest poem or haiku must take someone's breath away. We want... no, we need that reward, mostly because it drives us to go one step better next time. But there is a pretty good reward that we often overlook when we write - skill-building.

Whenever we write anything, we build our skills. We improve every time we commit a word to paper and use our tools to make the next word better, every time we dedicate ourselves to creating, we become that much more. Often, we don't see the rewards from these little advances, but rest assured they are there, and they pay off whenever we take on the big project and that one chapter turns out to be a real page-turner or that poem brings a tear to someone's eye. When we do our filing, the rest of the work becomes easier down the road, and the same goes for writing. 

My answer to that person with the simple question? "The fact that you write makes you productive. How much you write is up to you, and how you feel is your challenge alone. But, rest assured, every time you commit to the task of creating, you are making yourself a better writer somehow, even if it doesn't feel like it now."

I stick by those words.     

Friday, April 9, 2021

When Bad Things Happen to Good Writers

For those who were looking forward to one of my lengthy discussions about what to look for in an adjective or a rant about how too many people use the passive voice, today is not your day. I know how I insist that writing is always possible, but there are exceptions even to that rule. In this case, my health has put a few constraints on my ability to focus and put together an impassioned plea for better dialogue or even a piece on writing the best haiku. 

I will, however, offer a few notes on what to do if this situation befalls you. A number of my writer friends have chronic health issues: migraines that make it impossible to even look at a bright screen, vertigo that can make any prolonged action difficult, severe depression that holds them fast to their bed - the list goes on. Throughout these issues, there is one lingering frustration throughout the entire episode - they genuinely want to do some writing, but they are confronting limitations that are difficult to overcome. I have my version as well, so here's what I do.

First, I give myself permission to not push myself to create against the wants of my health. I write it off to creative force majeure - events beyond my control make an obligation impossible to satisfy. As long as I am honest with myself and admit that being creative would come at a price to my wellbeing that I should not pay, this is okay. It absolves me of guilt, and I can tend to my more immediate needs.

Second, I consider my actual needs. You might have noticed I refer to the urge to create a lot in this piece rather than specifically writing, and there's a reason. Writers are creative types, and the urge to write stems from the same source for them as it does for musicians, artists, and so on: the urge to create. Sometimes when I know I am in no shape to write but feel the need to create, I go through alternate sources. I have my guitar and piano to tinker with (what I create with those is hardly music, but it allows me to bring something new to life). I have my sketchpad as well for simple doodling, and a bunch of colored pencils. None of them qualify as writer tools, but they address my urge to create without wearing me down in the way that writing does. 

Lastly, if my capacity to create is still too limited to do any of those things, I try to enjoy the creations of others. Listening to music at low volume. reading (if possible), or the simple pleasure of skimming through a book with lots of pictures (I am finding particular enjoyment in the book, Dictator Style, a lovely pictorial of the lifestyles of some of the world's most famous dictators). If I can't create something, I at least let my mind roam through what others have created. 

On that note, I am going to retire to a safe place and tend to the obligations of my health. I am sure I will somehow answer my need to create, and soon enough I will get back to my writing. Until then, enjoy!

Monday, April 5, 2021

The Flavor of Dialogue

After a good workshop meeting Thursday, I started thinking about some of the fundamental rules of creative writing. Even though it's storytelling, we are told to show, not tell. We are reminded to be active and engaged. Don't use what we don't need. If it doesn't move the story, cut it out. The list goes on. Then I think about how often a good violation of these rules adds dimension to the story. Descriptive writing might tell more than show, but it can establish mood. Varying the activity of writing is a great tool for changing story speed. And how many stories have a character who is strictly for comic relief but adds so much to the story's environment? All violations, all important to do.

The one area where we should really think about these things is dialogue. This is an inescapable part of creative writing, so all the more that we talk about it. Furthermore, let's focus on one part of our writing toolkit in particular - word choice. Often we rely on using adverbs to describe how people talk - excitedly, angrily, with a tone of uncertainty, etc. - but this is only part of the game. We can also complement spoken words with an internal dialogue, creating a conversation within a conversation. However, this post will refer to the exacting point of the words within the quotes.

In a post I wrote a few years ago - Breaking the Rules With Dialogue - I hit upon some common tools we can use for giving dialogue some personality. One of the more important ones was using the words that we traditionally edit out of proper speech. How many friends of yours insert, "well," "like," and "y'know" into sentences without shame? Worse yet, they drop sentences akin to, "Well - it's like... well, y'know, complicated and stuff." Writing rules would tell us to change that sentence into, "It's complicated," and save a pile of words. But be honest - the second sentence is efficient, functional, and so very boring. The first sentence is a mess but it fleshes out the person saying it, so it serves a purpose as an improper sentence.

These additive words - often referred to as "flavoring" words - can become character builders, but as long as they are used in the proper amount. Like salt in a recipe, the right amount brings out the flavor, but too much overwhelms it. Not every character should flavor every sentence with "well" or else the voices just mix together again. However, if one character begins every thoughtful sentence with, "Well," then they are established, and in the chaos of larger conversations, the reader is further reminded just who that character is. 

Quick list of my favorite flavoring words/phrases: well, kinda, sorta, basically, uhhh..., "in a way", like, hmmm, and ending any statement with "isn't it?" These are yours to have - free of charge. And yes, they are all spelled the way I intended. Dialogue is about jargon as well.

One other thing I just want to touch upon is the dialogue tool of punctuation. Hyphens, ellipses, and commas establish a rhythm to anyone's spoken word, and the reader should be in on this. Too much can ruin it, but a thoughtful ellipsis (...) in the middle of a discussion suggests thoughtfulness, while a bunch of commas might imply indecisiveness. We are taught to apply the rules of punctuation with our dialogue - now we need to learn when to break them for effect.

Of course, never let this get in the way of the actual writing. Cleaning up dialogue is important, but save it for the second draft. Write the story first so you know just which characters need what. And then, like, y'know... change things.