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, December 24, 2021

One Last Little Christmas Post...

For this short little post - the last one of 2021 - I think about the togetherness of family, going to church, exchanging gifts, gaining weight and appreciating what we have. Well, this year has been a tough one to appreciate. On that note, how can we use the tools we have as writers to reclaim some of this most important of holidays?

Christmas is still plagued by all that COVID entails, and no matter what anyone says, it will be different... again. I just know that of the few things I can control, one is my decision to also be a writer during this time. 

One of the skills we pick up as writers is the ability to process our thoughts and feelings in a way so that they come out on paper. We channel a lot of things into the world when we write, and by doing this, we can create some very special things.

A quick consideration for making Christmas particularly special during these days of COVID. For the people who you were hoping to see this year but can't, write something for them. Write a quick description of your favorite memory about you and that person. Write them a fun little holiday poem. Just write them an email personally telling them why you will miss seeing them this year. Use your abilities and tools as a writer to communicate those feelings in a very simple manner.

This may sound cheesy, but trust yourself as a writer. Trust that what you say will have meaning and feeling. And believe that when you do this, you will move the person in the way a gift should.

My favorite story for the season is How the Grinch Stole Christmas! With this, my main takeaway is that while the Grinch stole all of the trappings of the holiday, he only belatedly learned that the part he couldn't steal was the thing he never understood - Christmas involves a spirit, an attitude, that can't be taken away from us. Not by the Grinch, or by a virus, or anyone. And you can retain that spirit with something as simple as your writing.

So on that note, Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and I will see you with my next post, which will be Monday, January 3th, 2022, so Happy New Year as well. 

Monday, December 13, 2021

Why Be a Writer?

For this blog's first post I went with the bluntly obvious. It was titled, "Starting off as a writer" and it primarily discussed what motivated me to begin writing seriously. I put a lot of thought into that piece before even writing the first word, because such a subject can go in many wild directions. Very few of us have just one reason for writing (I have several others besides what that post explained), and some of us have more motives than we know. So on that note, I decided it would be helpful to expand on those other things as a way of reminded us just why we engage in this mad pursuit.

Sometimes it is tough to write. Even when we have the story in our head, there can be a lot of mental or psychological obstacles preventing us from committing those stories into words. Our eyes are transfixed on the computer screen, hands at the keyboard, but our thoughts drag us away from things. We will think, "I wonder if it's windy outside. I should check," or "If I don't play PC Solitaire, who will organize those decks of cards?" When this happens, I turn my thoughts toward what first drew me into the joy and madness of writing.

While it is true that I began taking creative writing seriously in my thirties, it was not where that journey started. In fact, the origins date back to before I could even write. My parents said that even when I was just a few years old, I would find some innocuous item like our dog's chew-toy, give it a name, and start telling stories about its adventures. (Full disclosure: It was just a chew-toy. The sum total of its life's adventures was getting chewed on by our dog.) Some part of my mind wanted to create, to build a world beyond what was there. Was it psychological escapism? A coping mechanism for managing the troubled world I lived in? Who knows/cares? Even before I knew what storytelling was, I wanted to do it.

This may come as a surprise, but I did take creative writing in high school. To be honest, I was horrible at the course. As Fran Lebowitz once said, "The first time I hated writing is when I had to do it." Now, in this class, my urge to write was still there, but this was a course about structure and how to presents things and blah, blah, blah. I just wanted to drag these stories out and make them as perfect as possible. I didn't have the patience to learn about things at that time, and it worked against me. I could've gained a lot from that class, but instead I had to learn those lessons slowly over the next two decades. My bad, and my apologies to Ms. Lester for wasting her time.

What I did learn as a broad-stroke life lesson was that my storytelling was not some urge or impulse, it was a need. Extracting whatever roamed around my mind and committing it to paper somehow fed something I didn't fully understand for many years. It took a life-altering event to wake me up to that idea, but thankfully I had time afterward to act upon it.

So, sometimes when I look at that screen and I can't seem to get things into gear, I ask myself that simple question, "Why Be a Writer?" Even before I have the answer, I start typing the thoughts flashing through my mind. It reminds me in no uncertain terms that it has become a part of me, and I should no longer think about being a writer, because I am a writer.

Friday, December 10, 2021

Writing Structure (and how to avoid it)

One thing I enjoy about writing that doesn't involve me actually writing is helping people progress along their journey. This can be something as simple as a critique of their work, suggesting a few good reads for examples of technique, or just talking about our individual processes. One thing I commonly do is offer constructive answers to the many questions from writers just starting out, and every now and then I notice a theme in the inquiries that come my way. The latest trend seems to be how much to write, so I think that's worth dedicating a little time to discussing.

How many words should a short story be? How many pages make a good chapter? Will 50,000 words make a 300-page book? How long does a story have to be? I come across these questions a lot, along with similar inquiries regarding word count, pages, chapter size, etc. These are fair questions, but they approach the situation from the wrong direction. They look at writing from the direction of structure, but that is only half of the situation.

The basic length of a work is defined by its word count. Not pages, not chapters - word count. And while there is no hard-and-fast, universally accepted standard, the categories break down kind of like this:

  • Short story: up to 20,000 words
  • Novella: 20,000-50,000 words
  • Novel: 50,000+ words
  • Too much: 250,000+ words

This is the structure part of writing. If you want to write the Great American Novel, it better be at least 50,000 words. The number and length of chapters is inconsequential. The important part is that when you set out to write something, those categories will tell you what you have written. If you finish the Great American Novel and realize it's only 40,000 words, you might have to accept the award for the Great American Novella instead.

Here's where we walk away from structure and embrace the writing side. When it comes to the length of a chapter, story, or whatever, the proper measure is what the words accomplish, not the space they take. Word count goes out the window, and we instead focus on how we want to pace our storytelling. This is now about rhythm, and that's an individual quality.

How long should a short story be? Long enough to present a situation, evolve it, and conclude it. This can be a few paragraphs, a couple of pages, or even a few sections of a longer piece. The point is that the length is determined by the storytelling. A chapter should present a segment of a longer piece, offer the reader information and story progression, and have an organic handoff to the next section. If this takes 100 words, then so be it. If it's 10,000 words, that's okay as well. The story dictates the size.

And lastly, 50,000 words can make a 300-page book if the font is a large enough point size, but it will look weird. Instead, set the target of telling a full and complete story, and let the words count and pages just fall into place. In the end, nobody will care about your word count but you.

Monday, December 6, 2021

Growing as a Writer

I am proud to say I know a lot of writers. And by that I mean WOW! I know a LOT of writers. They come in all shapes and sizes, with all kind of techniques, specialties, favorite genres, etc. Most importantly, they all have different levels of mastery. Some are great fiction writers, others are beautiful essayists, some are very insightful poets, and many are on their way to becoming those things. So on that note, here are a few little hints on how they advanced on that journey.

First, criticism. This is not as simple as it may sound. Of course, every writer needs to hear when they do things wrong – structural errors, telling instead of showing, and other common slips. And, of course, anyone who wishes to grow should be open to such critiques. (Note: “Open” does not mean accepting them without question, it just means not getting defensive) But a crucial part of this process is where the writer seeks out criticism, preferably as specific as possible.

Too many times, an aspiring writer will present me or a workshop with a story and say, “So, what do you think?” It’s good that they are workshopping their pieces and seeking outside input, but the real opportunity comes when they ask for something specific. “Did this piece hold your interest?” “Was it funny?” “How is the grammar and structure?” “Was it readable?” These questions target a specific subject that the reader/critic can approach and that the writer can build from.

As we develop as writers, we can make these questions even more detailed, and really start working on our tools of the craft. “Was my description consistent with the mood?” “Did you connect with the main character?” And my favorite – “Did you see the twist at the end coming?” These precision questions can trigger a lot of discussion with the readers and extract a lot of information, all of which allows us as writers to grow. 

Second, experimentation. We grow as we step outside our boundaries. In this regard, I always suggest writing a poem, an essay, a character sketch, or whatever is not typical for your styling. Play with ideas, have a few colossal failures, get some criticism, and grow. Writing one poem will not necessarily set you on course to be the next Poet Laureate, but flexing another set of writing muscles will never do you harm.

Lastly, I always recommend journaling. However you approach this is up to you – keep a diary, make notes about your life, write down random ideas as they pop into your head. The purpose of this is to take whatever is churning through your gray matter and turn it into words. The mere process of recording events in written form is valuable. As we start tying the emotions that came with those events to the words, our writing gains depth. Eventually, we start weaving ideas into these write-ups, and our journaling is now a regular writer’s workout, and with any workout, naturally, we grow.

The common factor among all these little things is that we find ways to see the world, our thoughts, our feelings, through the written word, and try to distill them into something that has power and emotion. It’s a long journey, and occasionally we backslide, but if we want to march forward on our journey as a writer, these are the things that help us grow. Plus, we write a lot of stuff in the meantime, and nothing’s wrong with that.


Friday, December 3, 2021

Writing Reflections

"Great writers stamp the world with their minds..."

- Michael Pollan

As we stumble into December, perhaps having finished our NaNoWriMo challenge or just having finished off the last of our Thanksgiving leftovers and what was left of our dignity, we head into the holiday season full-force. This, for me, is a time of reflection, both on the world around me and the world inside me. For all my loyal readers, I will mostly discuss the world inside me. Particularly, I will discuss my thoughts on being a writer, and how it relates to the quote above.

Now, I do not know if Michael Pollan spent hours upon hours sweating over getting those eight words just so perfectly aligned to portray what he intended, or if it was merely something that had been on his mind as a convenient transition from one discussion to the next. What matters is that when I read it, the words stuck. I put a special bookmark on that page just so I could easily reference the quote when I next needed it. That's a part of what writing is about to me - putting together words, phrases, ideas, stories, and so forth in such a way that someone out there will read it, take pause, read it again, and say to themselves, "Wow."

Now, I should be so lucky that something I write ends up getting immortalized in society's lexicon of great sayings, or even an entry on My purpose for writing is, in part, to turn all those ideas in my mind into words that other people might find meaning in. Maybe they'll agree, maybe not - I don't know. However, there is something amazing about typing up some words for nobody in particular, and later on, some stranger sees those words, thinks them over, and pauses for a moment of reflection. It is a form of connection that we can only appreciate on an abstract level, all while realizing that moment may never be realized.

When we first start on our journey of writing, we might have that dream of writing the perfect phrase, sentence, or explanation. However, in the beginning, this is unlikely to happen immediately as we are still learning our basics. That being said, beginners will still have those wonderful moments when they put down a few words, look at them, and think, "Whoa... that's brilliant." Maybe it's not the ultimate achievement, but it cues the beginner to realize they are on the right track.

Of course, the more and more we write, the more those moments happen. At first we might turn a phrase brilliantly, then we pop out a brilliant metaphor, or put together a great description, and they happen more and more often. Over time, we get to that point where our creation process is growing without us knowing it. This is what leads us toward becoming that great writer who stamps the world with their minds.

The only thing I put out there is a warning - this doesn't happen immediately, and you might only feel it long after you have been creating quality work. This is fine. Your only job is to continue writing, push yourself to do more, and trust that every word you type builds you as a writer. In time, the world will be affected.