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, June 28, 2021

"How much do I need for a story?"

I am surprised how often this question comes up in writing chat groups. People say they have a work that is so-many-thousands of words, and they want to know if it counts as a story. In some way, I understand what they are asking, but in other ways, I think they are missing the greater question. Let's clarify the first part a little, then dive into the second part.

There are a lot of classifications for story sizes and categories, but here is a general breakdown (and not a hard-and-fast rule):

Less than 10,000 words: Short story
10,000-50,000 words: Novella
More than 50,000 words: Novel
(greater than 300,000 words: Too long)

This is really little more than just definition, and doesn't matter until you are talking to a potential publisher and they have their own standard of so many words for a publication. Numerous short story publishers have different standards for what they will consider. Hemingway famously boasted of writing a story six words long. And yes, I know of someone who wrote a "modest" novel that was over 300,000 words (it has not yet been published). However, don't let the definition take you away from the task of writing a story. That is a different thing altogether.

When we write a story, we generally have an idea of a character or characters, the journey they go on, the obstacles they face, how the mission is completed, and what life is like afterwards. These are the ingredients for a story - not the length of the work. In this regard, our obligation as writers is to make sure we make all those steps as complete and satisfying as possible to our reader, and give them a full experience of what might be an otherwise simple journey.

When a lot of writers first start out, they want to write the complete story of the hero's journey. They introduce the main character, lay out the problem, send them on the mission, it gets completed, and we're done. That, technically, is the complete story. However, it is quite boring. It is not engaging. Part of the mission of telling the hero's story is storytelling - making that person full and real. Before the hero runs off on their mission, the reader needs to know about them. Their habits, their interests; the things that connect the hero to the life of the reader. Rushing to the mission is one thing, but if the hero gets a cup of coffee with too much cream, the reader connects with this point and relates to their situation through that cup of coffee. It's extra words, but it benefits the story.

A lot of words in a story come from the conversations, the descriptions, the narrative that shapes the world around the hero. When those words are used in a way that helps the reader, the story gets better. It becomes a longer work, but the reward is even greater.

The main takeaway is to not be concerned about the length of the story. Focus on your engagement with the reader, how you want your words to affect them, and the journey you wish to take them on. If you want to share a quick little event with a sharp twist at the end, write it and call it a short story. If you want to transport your reader to a different place and time, focus on the description and world-building, and let the novel create itself.

And if it is in excess of 300,000 words, get some outside input. It's too long.


Monday, June 21, 2021

Killing Off Your Characters

"If a character isn't moving the story, it's okay to just kill them off. Unless it's an autobiography."

Over the past few months, I have seen this subject come up more and more: What are the rules for killing off characters? Authors seem to be conflicted about this, and rightfully so, but the question kind of misses the real mark. The question we really need to ask is whether or not the character deserves to live in the first place.

I'll actually offer this disclaimer before any discussion about living or dying. Some writers get attached to their characters to the point where they are reluctant to kill off the nice ones, and that's a good sign. It means the character is real, is substantial and has dimension. If it's easy to kill off the main character's best friend, the real question should be whether or not that friend really had any substance. If a character is important to the story and the plot arc, they need to be drawn out well enough to carry that load. Otherwise, you are not doing justice for your readers.

Anyway - living or dying. The real lines we need to draw in deciding whether or not we should kill off a character boil down to these. First, does killing off the character advance the plot? Does it move the story along in a meaningful way, or does it just add another body on the pile? Like anything we write into a story, the loss of a character should have a ripple effect that carries on for pages. If we are just killing them off for shock effect, well, that's nice for a moment but it's kind of a cheat. At the very least, let the death of the character build up the motives and meanings of other characters.

Second, is death the only option? Let's face it - life is quite expendable in the fiction genre, and people die all over the place. Therefore, we should consider whether death is the right way for that character to impact the plot. If a character dies in a car accident, well, that settles their arc. However, what if they are badly injured instead? Would that option allow the character to continue to influence the story in a valuable way? What if they disappear under odd circumstances? Their absence now becomes the important part - the lingering question about being alive or dead. Non-dead characters have a lot more versatility than one who ends up south of the grass. 

Here's a big question. Should the character even be alive? Have you ever read a story or saw a movie and just knew some supporting character was just filling a dead person's shoes? Inevitably they'd get bumped off, and the only questions were when and where. As writers, we need to make sure these characters are few and far between, or that their unfortunate demise has a real big payoff in plot progress. They better reveal a big secret, make a bold sacrifice, or offer something surprising that the reader never sees coming. Otherwise, they become a distraction to the reader and a drag on the story's momentum.

We all get the chance to kill off characters, and let's face it - some of them are better off dead. However, as in the real world, our only job is to make sure that while they were alive, their existence had purpose.


Monday, June 14, 2021

Preemptive Writing

It may come as no surprise, but I write a number of my posts in advance. Sometimes I can be in the middle of an ordinary day when an idea strikes, and I set aside the nonimportant things and write about my particular inspiration. Granted, sometimes my posts seem a little dated if I write about a current event but the post doesn't go up until Friday, and holiday writing can always run into timing issues. However, for the most part I think we can all understand this style of cause-effect writing. We get inspired, therefore we write. 

Now I am going to suggest an exercise that is just the opposite. 

Often, when we write based on inspiration we produce things we feel good about, or at least acknowledge that they came from a good place. The downside is that if we go through a dry spell where nothing is inspiring us, we end up not writing. We don't flex our creative muscles, our sources of inspiration feel further away, and it spirals ever-downward. This is a tough trap to escape from, so sometimes it is best to avoid the trap altogether and use our writing as a way to find our inspiration. By flipping it around, we can find a way to fuel our own interests.

I have often brought up this point but it's worth mentioning again. During my life in economics, I followed a pretty standard schedule. Part of that schedule was catching the 7:02 a.m. train into the city in the morning, and taking the 5:02 p.m. train back. This train ride lasted about 45 minutes, and I always got a seat, therefore, it gave me time to write if I felt so inclined. At times I would not feel inspired, so I would nap or read or catch up on work, and that's where the problem started. No inspiration meant no writing, which sent me into that spiral.

Then I thought, "What if I take those 45-minute spans and write, no matter what? No matter how unmotivated I am, I still push my fingers along the keys and create something - anything. I don't even need to save my work if I don't want to. I just write, and work toward the inspiration. Could this work?"

Long story short, it worked.

After a couple of months of doing this, I kind of conditioned myself. I would be at work, doing my thing, but in the back of my mind I knew my writing time was coming up. My creative mind went on a conditioned countdown, and little ideas started bubbling to life. Even on the least inspiring days, the knowledge that I had some writing time coming up triggered sparks of inspiration. 

It may sound a little odd that I am suggesting we teach ourselves to be inspired, but that's basically the case here. Don't get me wrong - if inspiration finds us, we should take advantage of it as quickly as possible. However, let's not overlook how we can get ahead of that part of the process and fuel our own inspiration. Once we can do that, the writing comes so much easier.

Friday, June 11, 2021

Writing the Perfect Story and Other Myths

As someone once said, "Not everything goes the way we planned, and that's okay." Last week I posted about finding unusual sparks of inspiration in the weirdest of places, and taking advantage of those moments to write things like awesome poems (no, this is not another poetry entry.) Well, today is a follow-up on that piece, and as you might have guessed, sometimes things did not go as planned.

For all the inspiration I gained from an exhausting stretch of cycling, for some reason I did not end up with the perfect poem. Somewhere between having that "A-ha!" moment on my Schwinn and sitting at my keyboard, something changed to where I found it very difficult to take that bit of creativity crashing around in my skull and put it into words. All of the structural parts were there - purpose, meaning, theme, message, all well defined and clearly understood. Yet for some reason, nothing happened when I hit the final stage of actually writing the thing. 

After a little bit of soul-searching, I came to a few conclusions. First, I did not need to do yet another fifty-mile bicycling trip through the sticky Midwest heat to recapture what I had found. Second, my inspiration was not an illusion, it was very much real and would come to fruition sooner or later. Most importantly, I realized what had me all hung up. After such a moment of awakening, I set myself up for a profound adventure that would lead to an awesome creation. I led myself to believe that I was about to create the definitive poem of my existence, the one that would not just speak to me but would serve as a looking glass through which all readers could see me. This would be a truly amazing work; the magnum opus of my writing career.

With that kind of pressure, how could anyone write anything?

I concluded that I had raised my expectations so high that I could never reach them. I was now set on writing the perfect piece of poetry, when in fact deep down I know I am not there yet. Somewhere inside there are a few good pieces of work, perhaps even great given time, but perfection in just not in the cards right now. Once I accepted that, it became easier to write what I wanted to, because I knew it would not be perfect... and that's okay.

This happens a lot in the writers' groups I attend. People want to write that epic tale, that wonderful novel. They know their story is the one they need to create, but they set their bar so high that they know they'll never clear it, and it prevents them from even trying. They assume their limits will restrict them from ever reaching the point they want to achieve, and they never even start to write their perfect story.

Now that I accept that I am just as guilty of this crime as anyone else, I can offer this advice. Write a first draft, and tell yourself it will be ugly in the beginning. It will be clumsy and awkward and off-balance, like a toddler stumbling around the living room, but that's okay. You start by creating the toddler, then revising it and reviewing it so it can walk properly, then run, then do amazing things that you perhaps never expected. Just don't get yourself hung up on your inability to create perfection. Focus on your desire to create, and let the rest come together in time.

Because that's okay as well.


Monday, June 7, 2021

The Spark of... Joy?

Last year I wrote a piece about finding the inspiration for writing, and I made reference to Marie Condo's idea of asking if something sparked joy. I received some good feedback on that piece, and also on just what can spark joy. (Side note: I wrote the piece on 4/20, and a few people felt that sparking joy could mean something entirely different on that date. I do not judge.) However, I got to thinking about how the spark of joy is a great way to rekindle our burning creativity, but it is far from the only way.

I guess the important part, as far as writing is concerned, is that I looked at Marie Condo's discussion of something sparking joy and accepted the word "spark" as a verb - the action of the sentence. Something that brings us joy can spark that creative urge, and away we go. However, it is fair to say that a spark can be a noun as well. That's when my brain really started churning and I started thinking about whether spark was more important as a verb or a noun. Then I started questioning whether the joy part was even important.

I have come to the decision that joy isn't a critical ingredient - it's all about the spark.

Over the past week, I have had a poem crashing about my mind, just looking for a way to take final shape. I have sought the inspiration to push it onto the written page, but the "joy" hasn't been there to ignite that fire. Pieces of it come together, evolve, fall apart, morph into other poems, and so forth, but so far the result has not been a cohesive poem. I clearly did not have that element that sparked the right joy to complete the piece.

Then, the other day, during a bicycling trip through the Midwest on a particularly hot afternoon, as I fought the wind and my own fatigue, the poem began to take shape. Was this my moment of joy? Hardly - my forearms were shaking and certain muscle groups were pressing their limits as sweat ran into my eyes. However, this is the magic of the moment. The spark was not one of joy but one of personal strain. Fatigue. Weariness. As exhaustion crept through my body, I found what that poem needed. The poem itself was not a joyous piece - it was dark and introspective, a personal dissection of parts of me I did not enjoy exploring. In my moment of weakness, I saw how those pieces now came together, and my creative side was suddenly energized. I knew how the poem worked, I knew its voice and I could do it justice. And no joy was harmed in the process of putting together the verses.

What's my point? Sometimes, the spark of inspiration is not going to come from a happy place, and we shouldn't just assume that the face we need to see is a smiling one. We need to look for our spark in the darkness, through the fog of our despair, in those places we dare not explore. If our inspirational spark happens to come from joy, then all the better. However, it's not the only place the spark can exist, and finding it in those remote hiding places can reveal things we never even knew we were looking for.

And incidentally, bicycling and other outdoor adventures are great ways to get out of your head and just focus on the world around you. I'm not saying they are for everyone, but if you go on a hike and it inspires a poem, I'd love to hear it.