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, September 27, 2021

How Do We Start A Story?

Grammatically speaking, we start a story by typing. To start is to begin the process of creation, and for any writer's process, the act of starting the story begins when we start committing words to what will become the final product. We might do a lot of writing prior to this: taking notes, creating outlines, writing character sketches and so forth, but this is all a part of is - the writing part. However, there is a more important thing to be addressed - the "where" rather than the "how." Where do we start the story? This one's not so easy.

Think of a typical party, gathering with some friends, acquaintances, and so forth. Someone is bound to tell a story or two, and how do they do it? The simplest way is just to find where things get interesting, and start talking. Whether it's their personal story or something they heard about, or even an extended joke, it starts when the critical information rolls in. "I was golfing with a couple of clients yesterday..." Immediately we know this involves golf and clients, and at least one of those should be key to the story's progression. "When I was eight, the weirdest thing happened..." Our radar goes up for the weird childhood story. "So, a priest, a minister, and a rabbit walk into a bar..." The action will start off at a bar, and we will want to know why those two fellows are with a rabbit (did you think that was a typo for "rabbi"? Shame...).

For longer works, we need to find this same element. Consider a life story, focusing on the theme of, say, growing up. The best place to start might be at the first of many events that shook us from our youthful innocence and introduced us to the big, bad world. Whether it's an internal realization, an external change like a divorce or loss of a loved one, that's where the story gets rolling. 

Sometimes - particularly in autobiographies - the author takes the liberty of drawing out life before things started changing, just to give a frame of reference. This is allowable if the purpose of the novel is to explain about the author's life and its many facets. People reading that book want to consume information as well as read a story, so the author creates a setting. Ditto with historical works of both fiction and non-fiction - the world needs to be created, drawn out and explained a little to set a solid framework for the story. Just keep in mind that these genres get away with this because they are also informative. If someone is looking for a story, start with the story.

I feel obliged to offer one popular exception to this that is very popular in literature. For some stories, the first chapter does not start at the beginning, but rather when the world is at its most chaotic. When all seems lost, when our hero is at their lowest point, make the first chapter about that moment - a "how did I get here?" feeling. The next chapter then goes back to when the story started, but now the reader has a taste of where things are going, and the pages turn that much faster. This has been popularized in numerous biopics of late, and with good reason - it's an excellent tool to grab the audience's attention.

However, you choose to begin the narrative, though, I will bring it all back to my first sentence. We truly start a story by typing - by placing one words after another in the long act of creation. When it comes to working your way along the road of being a writer, there's nothing wrong with that.

Friday, September 24, 2021

Where Does It All End?

As some of my regular readers may know, I spend a fair amount of time on writer boards, scrolling through the posts and collecting different inquiries. Now and then, a particular topic will get some traction or a lot of people will post similar questions, so I make a note of that for further use. Of late, one particular question has been popping up: "How do I end my story?" So let's explore a little into this not-so-simple question.

First off - Wow, there is a lot to unpack in that six-word nugget. I think the best approach would be to offer a general answer, then expand on how we rarely write an ending on its own. To cover the first part, our ending should be a concluding moment where we acknowledge how the main character has changed from the beginning, what they have gained/lost from their journey, and also tie up any loose ends that might be on the reader's mind.

Now, about writing the actual ending. If we, as writers, wait until we have told our story then decide to write the ending, we are missing a very important part. There is this natural assumption among some writers that a story is just built in one continuous direction that will inevitably reach its destination and land in a nice, tidy manner. This is analogous to building a bridge just by extending a road over a valley and targeting the other side as the eventual end. Nice thought, but that's not how bridges are made. 

To divert into bridge-building a little, the road across the valley is literally the last part that is built. First there is a blueprint laying out the plans - this would be the writer's outline. Then the superstructure is put into place - the writer develops ideas about the characters, the events, the plot arcs and different steps that guide the story. This is the boring part of the writer's journey - figuring out all these steps, but it is just as critical as the joists and supports holding up the bridge. Most drivers only see the road just as most readers only see the story, but what lies underneath is integral to that journey being sound.

When people ask these questions on the various writer's boards, I scroll through the comments section and see what is recommended. Most people who take the constructive route go with what I said in the second paragraph of this post, but not many look at what needs to be done to get there. And in reading works where the end was sort of put together on an ad hoc basis rather than developed and considered from the beginning, it feels quick, hasty, occasionally abrupt and often incomplete. 

So, to get back to the original question, I offer the following advice. I ask the writer to think about the character's journey - all its twists, turns, and setbacks - and decide where they want that character to land. What lesson should they have learned? How have they changed? Then look at the story and see if the narrative has taken them on a journey that leads to that point. Usually, if someone doesn't know how to end the story, they don't know the intricacies of the story itself. Therefore the best advice is to know where that story is going before you create it, and if you are already into the story, examine where the journey has gone and where you are happy concluding it. At that point, the end is as natural as placing in the road after the rest of the bridge is finished.

Next stop: How to start the story.

Monday, September 20, 2021

The Journey of A Thousand Shovel Scoops

The picture below might look like a pile of mulch, but I see a book. That huge organic mound has a lot more in common with my next book than you might think. (Granted, both are where trees end up, but that's not the point.) Before you make any comments about my next novel being a huge heap of biomass, let me explain in a way that might assist you as a writer. (Then proceed with the jokes.)

Sadly, there was an old elm tree in my yard that finally died this spring and had to be taken down. It was one of the tallest trees on the block, but death converted it from this huge, shady landmark into a hazard threatening the houses around it. The tree crew came in with chainsaws and cranes, and tore it down, taking the larger parts and leaving the four-foot high pile of ground-up elm tree you see here. This is where the comparison starts.

Now, the original plan was for me to take that mulch and, shovel-scoop by shovel-scoop, fill in the neglected bedding around the front and sides of my house. It's the perfect use of mulch, it's great upper-body exercise, what could be so wrong with this plan?

Did I mention the pile was four feet high? And twelve feet across?

This is where the metaphor kicks in. I have an outline for my next novel. It will be big. Real big. And when I think about it, I see four-hundred sheets of blank paper just waiting to be filled. I see this immense pile of writing that needs to be done, not to mention the editing, the rewrites, and the fact that I will be reading this manuscript several times and burning through a large number of red pens trying to get this completed. As a writer, this is my huge pile of mulch.

There are plenty of ways to stall and figure out different ways to avoid jumping headfirst into the mulch pile. I can assess the best way to transfer the mulch to the different bedding areas. I can get all the tools out (a shovel. That's really it.) I can calculate the total square footage I will be moving (just over 249 square feet for those who are interested.) And none of this gets me closer to finishing the job.

However, as I learned from writing, the easiest way to approach a huge task is to do it by minor steps. Write the opening sentence. Figure out how to grab the reader. Don't write the whole book at once - just create the one part you can focus on. Set a goal for the day - write an interesting event in a chapter, or commit to finishing a conversation. Develop those little tasks, and chip away at the pile of mulch.

So I filled the bedding by the main window. Scoop by scoop, I moved the mulch. The pile looked the same size after that - perhaps even somehow grew larger - but it was no longer my focus. I cleared space, piled in the remains of the old elm tree, and moved closer to the side of the house. I made slow, steady progress, and didn't even care about the size of the mulch pile. 

Writing has that same simplistic beauty - never about the task, always about the act of creation. We make little pieces, they form into parts, which create sections, and before we know it - we have a work we can be proud of. We are not buried in the breadth of the task because we are constantly making something we will be proud of. It works every time.

And by the way - if anyone needs some mulch, let me know. Seriously - there's still a lot of it left.

Friday, September 10, 2021

Printers Row Lit Fest 2021

I know this might be last minute and everything, but given this week's schedule and the recent holiday weekend and all, better late than never. For us writers and for creatives in general, sometimes it is difficult to see the broader arc of our life as a writer. We sit there and scribble or type some words, filling a page and perhaps creating a finished piece of work, but where does it go from there? Do we just create another thing, then another, and so on and so on? Just lather, rinse, repeat? Or is there something more?

Well, for those of us who want to be reminded of what lies out there in the big world of writers, I recommend going to to the 2021 Printers Row LitFest here in Chicago. It's just south of the heart of the city, and it brings together all kinds of writers and creatives, with local and national (and yes, some international) representation, for a weekend of seminars, readings, panel events and so forth. After last year's event was cancelled (thank you, COVID), the return of LitFest is a welcome treat for us creative types.

Now, as a writer, this kind of event is priceless. However, I will first mention how important this is for the reader in me. As a consumer of the written word, this event is like a walking, talking library. An interactive bookstore. The exhibitors include many local authors and writing groups who are great resources for aspiring writers to talk to and get advice from. Media groups and podcasters are in attendance for the enjoyment of the attendees, and plenty of little groups have raffles and giveaways. Any reader who goes there should come away with at least a few goodies, and hopefully will buy a few books that would otherwise remain hidden in the depths of the internet.

Now as far as writers are concerned, this is where it's at. The speakers alone are worth the price of entry (it's free, but you get the point). As a writer, nothing inspires me more than hearing someone else tell their story about how they were once that person moving from word to word, losing track of what existed beyond that next project. I can look at them and see a part of myself in their story, and I guarantee I always return from these events with a renewed urge to write. My creative batteries are definitely charged after one day at LitFest, and sometimes we all need a little extra boost.

Oh - there are a few publishers there too. If your goal is to get published, these are the people you want to talk to and find out just what the market is looking for, the operations of a local publishing company, and just maybe the chance to pull someone aside and get some inside information from. I checked the exhibitor's list (different from the speaker's list) and there are some good local shops there.

So, in short, I hope that all you writing folks give yourself a little time to go to LitFest and inspire yourself to take another step as a writer. At the very least, give yourself a chance to walk among other writers and realize you are with your peers. Make some contacts and feel the world again. Then go home and do some awesome writing.

(Side note: for  those who might have been expecting a post related to 9/11, I recommend you read an earlier post, The Story I Never Wanted to Write. Sometimes posts are a little too painful to create, so instead I offer a link.)