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, November 19, 2021

Characters are People Too

Think of the last time a friend or close acquaintance of yours surprised you - not like jumped out and said, "Boo!" but did something that made you think, "I did not see that coming." Whether they bought you dinner for no reason or went on a tirade about Estonia, think of that moment and how you processed that. How did you add that to your mental file of everything you knew about that person? More importantly, think about what changed about your overall opinion about them.

This is what people do - they surprise us from time to time. We learn about them. We add information and get a better feel for who they are, but sometimes we reshape our thoughts. More to the point, we accept that the person is more than what we once believed, and we grow a little as well.

In writing, however, it is too easy to forget this little fact, and we write about characters where we don't have all the information. In fact, often we go in with very little actual knowledge of the character other than how it fits into the narrative. This is okay - when we start writing, we start learning and the character grows. However, sometimes when we get stuck in our writing and don't know what our character needs to do or how they will resolve a situation, it's because we don't know that character well enough to find the answer. The character hasn't surprised us yet.

When I get hung up on a character's motivations or natural response to a situation, I give myself an opportunity to understand them a little better. I start "asking" the character questions, and really thinking about the answers and how they fit into their overall story. The questions don't have to relate to the story; in fact they can be innocuous questions you would ask any person. But when you do this, really think about the answers and why those answers fit in. If you get stuck, ask your character these questions, and also ask why those were the answer:

  • What is their favorite color?
  • What is the favorite moment from their childhood?
  • Who would they have voted for?
  • Who is their favorite celebrity?
  • What would they want on a pizza?
  • What is their first thought when they wake up?
  • Do they give to charity?

Yes, these are simple questions, but often we don't think about these things when we are focused on the story arc. As we ask them and justify the answers, we start filling in the blank areas and understanding the whole of the character a lot more. We also start thinking about the character not just as a tool for pushing the story, but as an actual person. And the more real they are, the more we are able to get past our hang-ups about what a character might do and instead start writing again.

Of course, there are a wealth of questions we can ask our character. The secret is to understand them on other levels, and start putting together the little pieces. This added dimension will make the storytelling more natural and give it a smoother flow. And yes, occasionally the characters might surprise you now and then.          

Monday, November 15, 2021

Being Stuck and Getting Unstuck

Everyone thinks that being a writer mostly involves the act of creation - you know, writing. This is a fair assumption, since that's kind of the name of the role. However, so much involves something other than writing. Editing, for example, is a difficult process that is definitely part of the job but not very exciting. Then there is reading, re-reading, thinking about your process, doing exercises to help develop your skills, and so forth. However, the one part of being a writer that people don't associate with writing is a fun one: Being stuck. This is an important phase, but one that we too easily get hung up on.

How many of us have been writing something - short story, essay, novel, whatever - and thought, "How do I get from here to the next step?" It might be something as simple as getting a character from one place to another, or resolving a crisis, or even starting a crisis. Any step where the story advances is a potential place to get stuck. Sometimes we can even get stuck finding the right word or phrase for a description, or just the right piece of dialogue. These things happen; they are part of the game. However, as we might discover, they can be very dangerous.

I have seen countless posts on writing chat boards with desperate cries for help. "I am stuck! I don't know how to get my MC (main character) to take the next step! What do I do?" Or, "My MC is trapped and I don't know how to get them out!" These people insist they are unable to write anymore until they resolve the situation. Well, this isn't a good, clean way to write properly. However, it works just fine when it comes to getting unstuck. 

The goal of any remedy is simple - to let you start writing again. Whatever the problem is, if you start writing again you have overcome it. Here's the most simple one: the [instant solution]. If you are writing an argument and you want the MC to say something that defuses the tension between them and the supporting character but don't know how to do it, the instant solution is simple:

Supporting character says, "How dare you!"
MC answers [says something to defuse situation]
Supporting character smiles. "Okay, I understand."

Cheap? Definitely. Complete? Hardly. Does it get you back to writing? Absolutely. That's the important part - getting yourself back to the act of creation. As you continue writing, you give yourself time to better understand the situation and just what the best response would be. My first drafts have areas where [offers explanation] is abundant. I know I can get back to them whenever I want, and they should all be gone by the final draft, but in the meantime, I am writing.

And as one note - If you are truly stuck on writing about what a character would do, ask yourself if you really understand the character. Sometimes the problem isn't having the right words, but knowing the character well enough. But that will be a discussion for Friday's post.

Until then, [add humorous ending].

Friday, November 12, 2021

The Best Time For Writing

Before you read any further, I should dispel any preconceived notion that there is one perfect time for everyone to write. There is no magical witching hour where the words fit together better than any other time, and no special planetary alignment that makes your metaphors spring to life. If you were hoping for that, you will be sadly disappointed. However, we can develop the best time for our own writing process, and after reinforcing it for a while, it does have an effect on our writing which can seem, at times, magical.

Now, about the whole "time for writing" thing. I have come across a number of boards where new writers want to know how to find time to write. After all, they are busy people, they have lives other than writing (and apparently writer chat boards), and finding enough spare time to do something like writing is difficult for them. They fill their days with a lot of activity, then want to find extra time for writing. It's an admirable goal, but it's actually the problem.

I usually respond in a very polite manner that you don't find time to write, you make time to write. Splitting hairs? Not really. Anything we want to pursue we should be willing to prioritize above something else that we do. Admittedly, we have to place top priority on things like our job, our family, etc. However, if we really want to be a writer as well, we need to push around some things and make that special half-hour or so a day when we can commit to the keyboard or notebook and write. 

Usually at this point I make reference to best-selling author Mary Kubica. (I often refer to her because we had a humorous meeting during a book signing, but that's another story.) Anyway, she wrote her first novel while taking care of her newborn. That's worth repeating: while taking care of her newborn! She had a story she wanted to write, and a newborn who was clearly her top priority. So how did she write anything, much less her first novel, The Good Girl? She made time. She really wanted to write the story, so she would wake up a half-hour earlier than usual every morning and write until the newborn child woke up, then be a parent. Difficult? Obviously. However, she wanted it that much, and the success of her career since then is testimony to the importance of making time.

The other thing I did promise with this post is about how time can affect your writing. The most interesting thing that happens when you start writing at a regular time (and possibly in the same place) is that you start to condition yourself. When writing time comes around and you settle in for that period of creation, your mind starts preparing itself for the process. The more you do regular writing at a fixed time, the more your mind thinks, "Ah - time to do the writing thing" and the creative juices start flowing. Eventually, you are like Pavlov's dog, anticipating the opportunity to be creative and mentally preparing before you've even started.

It might sound crass to suggest we are trainable like dogs, but our mind very much trains itself through repetition. And if we do this, we do, in fact, create a sort of witching hour where our creativity will peak, our metaphors will spring to life, and the things we create will feel, in fact, magical. 

Friday, November 5, 2021

What Color is Your Car?

Description. As writers, this is something we all need to practice because it is such an important tool. Every object has a size, shape and color (or lack thereof), and plenty of them also have smells or odors, flavors, textures, they make sounds, they move in certain ways, and so on. Look at any object and consider that you could write a paragraph just describing the details of that object. Then, you could write another paragraph writing about why those details are important, or the context behind a particular aspect. However, part of the art of writing is knowing when all this information is worth writing about in the first place.

The way this is often referred to in writers' workshops is with a simple phrase: "Sometimes, the car is blue." While we could spend our time describing a car, sometimes all that effort does not provide a big return for the story, so we can just call the car blue and be done with it. Set aside all the flowery synonyms, all the cornflower blue, sapphire, sky blue, dark navy, and so forth. If this particular car passes by at breakneck speed and is gone from the scene, how much does the color really matter? If it is the slow-moving car in front of our main character during a traffic jam, how important is the description? For that matter, do we even need to offer a description at all?

The most important use of description is to draw the focus of the reader in on one particular part of the world. It is the written version of zooming in, and giving the reader a more intimate experience. This also contributes to the mood and feeling of a scene, making the world very real, very tactile. Describing, say, a crowded kitchen fills in the image but also creates the mood of a chaotic, non-stop, whirlwind of activity going on within this one room. In that regard, it's very necessary. However, in other cases, it's not even relevant.

One question we can ask ourselves when deciding how much attention to offer in describing a person, item, or scene is how much it adds to the overall experience. In our crowded kitchen scene above, does it help to describe all the different foods being hurried around, or do we get the same effect if we focus on the chef, scrambling between the stove and the prep counter, dodging his assistants and impatient waiters, trying to make up for the time he lost because someone spilled broth all over the chicken he had been preparing? If we describe the entire kitchen, the reader sees the chaos. However, if we describe that one chef struggling through everything rather than the whole kitchen, the tighter focus means the reader becomes part of the chaos.

The most important question we need to ask ourselves with description is, "What do I want to achieve with this?" Sometimes it serves the reader to create a mood, sometimes it gives the reader a point to focus on, and sometimes, good description creates dimension to an otherwise flat scene.

And sometimes, the car is blue.         

Monday, November 1, 2021

NaNoWriMo Begins!

To some people, November 1st is known primarily for being All Saints' Day. For others, it marks the official beginning of Christmas decorations season. However, for writers, this is the kick-off to the very challenging month of NaNoWriMo, and we respond to it in the same way runners respond to the starter's pistol at the beginning of a marathon - a combination of excitement, energy, and low-level panic as we start into our month-long marathon. So let's run with this example and start our marathon of writing - even if we are not planning to write a novel just yet.

For those who don't know, NaNoWriMo is National Novel-Writing Month. The goal of this month is quite daunting - write a first-draft of a novel over the course of November. For a number of us who are still finishing off our leftover Halloween candy and preparing for the colder months of autumn, maybe we are not ready to just crank out that novel. That's fair - but no sense in letting this special month go to waste. We can still work out our writing muscles and get something accomplished.

The most important thing writers have to do during NaNoWriMo is to keep on writing. Just as a marathon runner refuses to stop, every day the writer needs to get a couple-thousand words onto the page without fail - maybe more if they are up to it, but at least something every day. For those of us who are not running a marathon, we can at least try something from this: We can dedicate ourselves to writing something every day.

Now, I advocate daily writing as a way of developing good, consistent, healthy writing habits that train the mind to get creative. Spending twenty minutes a day at the same time and same place, committed to writing something, becomes a great habit for any writer, so let's use NaNoWriMo as an excuse to reinforce this. Dedicate yourself to at least twenty minutes of writing every day, rain or shine, without fail, for the next week. It doesn't have to be the same story or poem, it doesn't have to even be the same kind of writing. Just promise yourself to do it, and force yourself to get those twenty minutes in. Preferably in the same place and at the same time every day, but as long as you do it, you are still running the race.

Of course, if you want to write more than this every day, go ahead. However, a part of this exercise is also to find our limits. Sometimes we might want to write for an entire evening or sit down on a Saturday afternoon and write for hours. It feels great, but we sometimes expend all our creative juices at once, leaving us creatively exhausted the next day and more interested in a cheat day of no writing. In this manner, we treat this week like a marathon - not blazing the first miles real fast and exhausting ourselves, but rather finding a good stride to go with for the long haul. If we feel the need to write a lot one day, make sure to save a little creation for the next day so you can continue on this journey.

Since I am hardly a marathon runner and would rather focus on leftover Halloween candy, my marathon this month will be on the keyboard. However, this month's posts will be check-ins to help everyone press along with the month-long sport of NaNoWriMo, and meet you all at the finish line.