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, May 31, 2021

For Memorial Day

Just a short post today. I know this breaks with my tradition of not posting on federal holidays, but I also have a tradition on this day that I decided to merge into this blog just this once. On this particular day, I wanted to show how simplicity and elegance can create something well beyond the sum of its words.

Yes, technically this is a poetry post, but I will let the words carry the weight of the message. I just make sure this is placed again into the world, and people have the opportunity to read these simple words that have become synonymous with Memorial Day and all that it means. This poem came from the first World War, and was written by a man more known as a writer of medical textbooks than poetry. However, these words, written after the loss of a friend, gave this man immortality. That's how powerful a poem can be, even one written by a doctor.

I hope everyone recognizes Memorial Day in the way it was intended.

In Flanders Fields


In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

    That mark our place; and in the sky

    The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

    Loved and were loved, and now we lie,

        In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

    The torch; be yours to hold it high.

    If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

        In Flanders fields.

Monday, May 24, 2021

Dialogue - A Follow-Up

Last Friday's post was a discussion on the pros and cons of using different forms of dialogue, the benefits of internal versus external, and an aside to when narrating voice can take over for the spoken word. Definitely a lot to discuss, and maybe 800 words was not quite enough to get out all of the sordid details about dialogue's pros and cons. I thought it was a good start and a way to open up a conversation about the whens and hows of using quotes and narrative.

Then the IMs came in.

Nothing horrible, nothing toxic, but nevertheless some important points were brought up. I thought I would cover a few in particular just to highlight how things can be done in a few different ways, each with its own effect, or in some cases, with little effect whatsoever.

Let's say our character is working on some big, elaborate plan, and someone asks that character if they are sure it will work. Simple enough, so let's look at two possible responses, both in the first person:

  • I tell him everything seems to be in place and I can't think of what could possibly go wrong.
  • I tell him, "Everything seems to be in place and I can't think of what could possibly go wrong."

These are the same sentences, with the exception being the punctuation and capitalization. However, there is a difference here, and while it might seem inconsequential, it's still worth pointing out. The first sentence is just a part of the thought process, and it would easily flow along with narrative discussion, perhaps even getting lost in it. The second sentence, however, breaks from the narrative flow by taking the reader into a moment of discussion, perhaps even preparing them for a run of dialogue about what might be at risk in this situation. In this case, the quote is actually a prompt for further conversation, and there had better be one, otherwise the reader loses the nice, steady narrative flow and has to reset that rhythm at the expense of a nice, continuous pace.

There's also another trick that can go on here, depending on how the situation in our hypothetical situation is playing out. Our first line is part of the narration so it does not necessarily stand out on its own merits. However, what if we want that observation to stand above everything else? What if something will go wrong a few pages from now, but we want to highlight our character's confidence that everything is accounted for. In this case, interrupting the narrative to offer a specific, word-for-word, detailed observation tells our reader that this one line is very important and speaks specifically to that character's mindset. It stands out, even though it is just one quote without a surrounding conversation. When it's played right, our reader sees that last part of the quote, "...what could possibly go wrong" and decides that this will be referred to just as something goes horribly wrong.

So, is there a hard-and-fast rule about how to do these things? Not a chance. These things are more style than rule, working for effect rather than following a specific mandate. In other words, feel free to play around with different ways, and see what happens. And don't take the IMs personally. They mean well.

Friday, May 21, 2021

Dialogue - Pros and Cons

In my last few writing workshops, we got into discussions about dialogue. Not just the details about punctuation, structure, and all those details, but rather what its place can be in a story. There are obvious places for conversation, so we can step around that. Instead, the interesting part comes when we look at what dialogue and external conversation can bring to a story, and what it can take away.

First and foremost, I want to state the obvious about dialogue - it is a presentation of a conversation that occurs during the course of a story. Actual dialogue is in quotes, meaning it is the exact wording spoken and exchanged between the characters. This might seem a little too obvious, but it actually is very important to our subject here. In this regard, dialogue serves as a transcript of a conversation, but it allows the characters to do those things that characters do - particularly exaggerate, lie, manipulate words, talk in circles... the list goes on.

Let's compare this to the alternative - explaining the character's motives and position through their thoughts and observations. This is far more flexible in that the character is free to explore whatever aspect of the situation they want to involve themselves with, but the constraint is that this is the special territory of their mind. All the games we play with other people during arguments fade away when a person is strictly thinking about a situation. This is their world and they remain as honest as possible to themselves as the author permits.

Now, this does allow us, as writers, to decide what we want to show the reader about our character. If the character is, say, guilty of a crime but the reader doesn't know this, the internal observations will differ significantly from what they say. External dialogue will likely be full of lies and redirections to hide their guilt, but internal dialogue takes a different shape entirely. Internally, the person might think they did nothing wrong, that they were justified in their action, or that their mind is the only place where they can acknowledge what they did. Within the mind there are few secrets, while the external dialogue can be total redirection. Of course, mixing the two can create its own fun, as the reader can see what the character thinks but also understand how the character presents themselves to others.

One exception to this is when the writer uses the technique known as the Unreliable Narrator. In a very popular post I did a few years ago, "Obi-Wan Kenobi – You Suck!" I describe how the Unreliable Narrator allows the writer to lead the reader along a false trail all while adhering to the set of rules stated above. It requires the writer to walk a tight narrative line and recognize just what the boundaries are, but the result (as cited in the case of Obi-Wan Kenobi) can have a big payoff.

Dialogue all boils down to a simple discussion of what story you want to tell the reader. Some dialogue can always help the pacing of a story rather than having it be just a big pile of thoughts, and often too much dialogue can turn into monologue that has to be very crisp and exciting for it to work. The main question you need to ask yourself as an author is what you want to present to the reader. The mind of the reader comes through internally, but personality can be conveyed in many ways through external dialogue.

After that, it's all your call. Don't be afraid to try both ways, and see what happens.


Monday, May 17, 2021

The Untold Story of Autobiographies

I know a lot of people who have wanted to sit down and write their autobiography. They wanted their story to be told, to be known, perhaps with the purpose of letting them live long after their bodies were gone. The reason doesn't matter in the first few steps. Rather, this is a discussion about what we should consider when we take on the task of documenting our life. (Incidentally, this matter has a lot of personal flex to it - these rules are not hard and fast by any stretch.)

The first consideration is what part of your story you wish to tell. Yes, I said "part." Our stories are huge affairs, starting from that date on our birth certificate up until the here-and-now, and it would really make the story move if the focus centered on a specific point or theme. If you want the reader to understand, say, your lifelong connection with food that led you to become a chef, well, a lot of your stories don't move that point along. The stories more likely to take in the reader with likely involve you, food, and how those actions and interactions shaped your life. This doesn't mean the other stories aren't good, it just means they aren't quite right for this particular autobiography.

In choosing a starting point, it's worth noting that your particular theme or point can be as simple as "a life of hardship" or "my family" and you have something to work with. If you are writing this particular autobiography so future generations can understand that aspect of you, then its fine. Further books can be about specific eras in your life, detailed information about relationships, career notes - whatever. Just stay focused within that particular line of thinking.

Some subjects may not seem as important as others when it comes to telling that story, but it's your call. Many of the men in my family's history served and fought in a number of wars. You would think this would be some great stuff to write down and share with future generations. For the most part, none of them did, nor did any of them want other people to. One particular relative put it in the simplest of terms: He wanted future generations to think of him as a father, a grandfather, a great-grandfather, and on down the line as a man who started a family that he was more proud of than anything else in his life. He didn't want to be remembered as a soldier. As much as some people wanted to collect and share his heroics, in the end those stories mostly died with him. The story he wanted was the one important to him, and they live on through his sizeable family.

My friend, Lenny Kapocius, did end up writing about his adventures during World War Two in "To Manus and Back," so it was my job as his editor to remind him to make sure every episode tied back to his time in the Navy. He has some great stories about growing up during the Great Depression, working through the Blizzard of '67, and some of the great souls he's encountered in his many years of life, but for the most part, those stories are going into other books. He still writes every day and is in the process of publishing another book, and that part of his life will live on.

Personally, I don't plan on writing an autobiography. There are too many stories that would not be able to make the cut, and I am, first and foremost, someone who enjoys sharing those stories in whatever form I feel hits the spot. Maybe I'll change my mind later, or my legions of adoring fans will draft me into putting together something - I don't know. For now, though, I will offer advice about that eventual autobiography, and that is to write stories around the idea and see what forms. If there's a book in there, then great. Chances are, there are several books of different themes just waiting to happen, so do a little work toward that end and see what happens. That act will tell people more about you than you'll ever know. 


Friday, May 14, 2021

Spoken vs. Written Dialogue

Now that the COVID restrictions are easing and a sense of normalcy is creeping back into the world, I feel it is time to remind writers about that fine art of people-watching, or in this particular discussion, people-listening. This innocent little exercise is something that helps us learn not just about writing dialogue, but how to avoid some of the differences between a spoken conversation and a written conversation.

Admittedly, it does sound a little weird and perhaps even stalkerish, but there is real value to be gained from listening to other peoples' conversations. In these particular cases, the content is not the important part. Rather, the pivot turns on how natural conversation is usually a grammatical nightmare on a word-for-word basis, and how it has to be translated to be effective written dialogue.

A great source of this is courtroom testimony, which is transcribed as it was spoken - warts and all. You can read the testimony of a very intelligent person and realize that when they talk, they backtrack on their sentences, they throw in awkward pauses in the weirdest places, they often correct themselves half of the time then fill the balance of the sentence with other errors, and so on. When we read their spoken words, the people do not come off as intelligent. This becomes a problem when we set out to write something that is supposed to sound natural and real.

Bottom line: Natural speech becomes unnaturally bad written dialogue.

This being said, there is something to gain from paying attention to how people talk. First, while they may have all of the little shortcomings mentioned above, these can be opportunities to express something on the written page. People may speak in half-sentences that periodically backtrack on themselves when they self-correct, and we can omit those from our writing. However, the moment we include some little self-interruption, we signal to the reader a degree of uncertainty or doubt. We drop that natural note in there once and it immediately tells the reader a world of information. If we include it all the time, the reader just gets annoyed.

Pauses are something we always use with the spoken word, but will utterly destroy the flow of written dialogue. Rather, we can drop a few commas in to give a rhythm to the speaker's pacing and the reader gets a feel for the motion of the dialogue without getting held up. If an actual pause is required, a ellipsis (...) does a lot of heavy lifting, but should be used sparingly. Again, we want to make sure that the flow of the conversation is fairly smooth, and that the occasional ellipsis is used sparingly so it has a dramatic impact. 

Of course, there are all those words and phrases, people use in conversation that are taboo in clean writing: like, well, kind of, you know, basically, and so on. Key in to a conversation and feel for how often these words are used. It's not pretty, and they should largely be kept out of natural dialogue. However, dropping one or two of them into a particular character's pattern gives their dialogue dimension, and they stand out. In conversation sections, readers immediately recognize who is talking because of how often she uses the term, "like, y'know," and they engage a little deeper.

And on that note, I am off to do some writing, preferably in a fairly public place. After all, those strangers need someone to listen in on them - it might as well be me.


Monday, May 10, 2021

Walking, Jogging, or Running?

The other day I was talking with a friend about exercise, with the discussion circling around the pros and cons of walking versus running. As someone with pretty bad knees, I am naturally biased toward walking, and preferably on a shock-absorbent treadmill. That being said, we talked about how the preference of one method versus the other usually depended on what the person wanted to get out of that particular exercise. Running is better cardio but doesn't last as long, while a walk can be for hours on end and build up stamina, though the calorie burn is not exactly the same. Of course, at some point my thoughts drifted to writing.

Often when we write, we are mission-driven. I am writing right now because I want to have this blog entry done by Monday. Other times I sit down and want to complete the latest chapter in my manuscript, or perhaps flesh out some ideas for a future story, or maybe - just maybe - I just want to write for the sake of creating. Whatever the case may be, I think it's important to examine these things in terms of what we gain from each task so we understand the benefits and tradeoffs of each one. 

I usually compare writing for writing's sake as the equivalent of going for a walk. We never have to go for a walk; we do it because we want to get some fresh air, stretch out a little, see new things or just be outside for a while. Yes, it's good exercise since it builds up our endurance and we can go on longer and longer walks, but the benefits are only witnessed slowly, with us getting healthier without noticing it. When we write for the enjoyment of writing, we might never create anything amazing, but we exercise those writer parts that, with regular stretching and motion, become stronger over time.

On the other side of the pendulum's swing there are flash-fiction writing exercises. You sit with paper and pen or keyboard in front of you, someone says, "Your first line is 'I saw the weirdest thing today...', and START!" and you write for the next fifteen minutes nonstop. This is the hard run - yes, a hard run. You are forcing yourself to write even when you are not sure what to write about, how to present it, or whether time will allow. When this is done as a group writing exercise, people are literally grunting in exasperation by the last few minutes. The definitive cardio of the writing world, this will show you how you can sometimes exceed those self-imposed limits you tie around yourself, and once the time is up, you will take a deep breath and say, "Wow, I freaking did that!" (And you might cramp up a little.)

Ultimately, I think the important part of writing is to find that middle ground that you are comfortable with - the jogging pace. We set out to complete a writing task, block out a reasonable amount of time, and just start. Whether it is completing a short story, filling out a chapter, or getting a poem just right, we promise ourselves we will go the distance and we live up to our word. The more jogging we do as writers, the more we expand ourselves and our capacity to perform. Occasionally we are tested because we are not inspired, stuck on a chapter, or just not feeling in that writing place, but as we get used to flex our writer's jogging muscles, we find that the act itself helps put us into the right mindset, and away we go.

As a writer, I always recommend two things. First, find your own pace. Combine a few sprints with a few walks, but see where your pendulum finally levels off and work from there. Second, don't be afraid to push yourself a little further - that's where the growth is. You'll discover more about yourself when you go past your expectations, so give it a shot.

Oh - as always, don't forget to stretch first.

Friday, May 7, 2021

The Written Character Sketch

I'll be honest - times have been tough. Not just as a writer, or as a pandemic person, but just as a human being in general. I think days like these bring about a personal need to relate to and connect with other humans, and just to feel like we are not alone in this crazy world. Of course, there are a lot of obstacles blocking our route to personal connection, and when these are too much to overcome, I pull out my favorite writing tool in an effort to tie myself closer to the human condition: The character sketch.

For a lot of writers, a character sketch is not a product that stands on its own, like an essay or a short story, but rather a means to an end. Often, an author will write up a few character sketches about people in their book so they can understand them better and get a good feel for their identity, but the work itself rarely sees the published page. However, I find it to be a very enjoyable exercise in exploring the world I already know and getting a better feel for just what I am a part of. 

Here's how it works. Take a character and describe them (from their own perspective) walking into a room. Let's not worry about what kind of room they are walking into or why, but focus on what the character usually does when they enter a room. Are they nervous? Awkward? If they see people, do they look for friendly faces or try to fade into the background? Do they seek attention or avoid it? A lot of simple questions to explore, and each answer can then be built upon with further questions. Why are they nervous? Do they not enjoy social situations? Have they always been edgy around strangers or did a recent trauma change them? Does anxiety build up inside? Are they already entertaining thoughts about leaving the room, or are they trying to overcome that urge? Maybe this is a social opportunity that they want to take - why? Have they been alone for a while and miss the company of others? What drives them to this point?

Now take the same room and the same character, and describe what another person would see. Would they see a nervous person or an outgoing one? Is the character obviously tense, wringing their hands and shifting their eyes, or do they look relaxed? Of course, this is also an opportunity to describe the flesh and bones of the character, but this only really helps if they feed into the substance of who they are. If our character is well-groomed and attractive but looks uncomfortable and on edge, well, that's worth noting. We do this step to show the internal contrasts a character might have that would be important to show the reader. Furthermore, as an author we get a feel for this character's strengths and weaknesses. We explore how every step looks, how every move can be interpreted. It becomes a study into that character's existence. At this point we should start discovering some features about them that are worth showcasing.

At this point in the character sketch, we start writing about a simple interaction, and I mean simple with a capital S. Something like sitting in a chair becomes a study. Why that chair in particular - is it the closest? The furthest away from the crowd? Their favorite chair? Do they pull out the chair or move into it? Do they flop themselves down or politely take a seat? Good posture? Is it a relief to take their weight off? Do they exhale in relaxation, spread out on the chair and lean back, or do they remain rigid and bolt-upright? Is this what they usually do? Why or why not? 

The best part of this exercise is not to write some gripping story - The Person and the Chair will not sell many copies - but rather to take a deep plunge into that character and analyze them from the inside out. If a writer is not sure about some particular aspect about that character, like how they would respond in an emergency, the sketch can be written as the character suddenly dropped into such a situation. The only rule is that the writer needs to focus everything on that character's thoughts, actions, and the interplay between the two. It's not a story, it's a character sketch. The only mission is to explore that individual.

I write tons of these, both to understand my different characters, and sometimes to examine interesting people I know. I have done character sketches of most of my friends (and I hope they never find those files), and plenty of people who I have seen but never met. Whether any of it is accurate isn't the point. It's all done in the name of exploring the character and giving them depth on the page that will someday pay off for the reader.

Monday, May 3, 2021

The Writer's Promise

I do not mean to dash anyone's hopes right at the beginning of this post, but I am offering a preemptive apology for the length and content of what I am writing. It's not that this will be offensive or derogatory, but it might not meet the high expectations held by my loyal readers. In fact, some may already be groaning in anticipation of what I am about to talk about. (Don't worry - it's not about poetry.) I am actually going to talk about something I do to keep myself active and engaged - it's called the Writer's Promise.

More and more these days I have been seeing people talking about how difficult it has been to write. I am not sure if it's for reasons of the extended quarantine or prolonged stretches of writing, but it seems like a certain fatigue might be setting in. People have their individual reasons - for that I am sure - but when it happens to a lot of writers, the best thing I can offer is what I do when writing gets a little difficult.

In short, when it gets tough to push myself into typing/writing/creating, I force myself to do so by making the Writer's Promise. You might have seen different versions of this used for other tasks or occupations, but in case this is new to you, here it is. Whenever I have an obligation to write but intense trouble in getting myself started, I make myself a simple two-step promise. In short, it is:

  1. I do not have to write
  2. I will not do anything else until I have written

Simple? Yes, though it might seem too much so. The important part of this Promise depends on the individual's ability to keep this self-commitment, even though nobody else will hold them accountable. If the writer can't keep their own word, then the rest doesn't really matter. However, keeping this promise forces the writer to confront their situation and not let go of it until it is resolved.

That's the tough part.

When I am having trouble and make this promise, here's what it looks like: I am sitting in my chair, staring at the screen, ignoring my MANY distractions as I repeat to myself, "It's writing or nothing." No reading, no Netflix, no napping, no anything else. Just me, the keyboard, and my personal insistence that I keep my promise and commit to what I have set out to do. I do not allow myself to give in, to say, "Well, I tried and that didn't work, so I give up," and I don't allow some distraction like the laundry to suddenly become of the utmost importance. I sit there and keep my promise as long as I have to.

Believe it or not, it works. Furthermore, it also gives some positive reinforcement since I now recognize that I have kept my word and met my obligation to write.

Now, of course we have to tell our selves that what we create might not be perfect, and we might not win the Pulitzer for that particular piece. However, we continue to press ourselves along the road of being a writer, and there's nothing wrong with that.

So that is what I apologized for in advance. I hope you can accept this.