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, September 23, 2022

Picking A Fight

No matter who we are, no matter what we read, every story demands a good fight. Everything from the simplest character sketch to the longest series benefits from a fight, and perhaps several. Fights are as old as the written word itself and have found their way into literature in most every culture.

To be clear, my reference is not to the standard fight – punching, kicking, body slams, bloody knuckles and broken noses. The simplest understanding of a fight is conflict between two forces. This exists in most anything worth reading. The most primal example is the conflict we all understand – good versus evil. Classic literature is full of examples where this struggle pulls at the heart of the story.

However, the conflicting forces do not have to be such black-and-white opposites. An easy example is when many characters fight to control one item. The different sides may each have their own motives, but it is up to the reader to pick a side. This is best portrayed when the one item represents power, and the more powerful the better. Anything that can put characters into motion is a great way to get the conflict going.

Of course, blurring the lines between right and wrong makes the conflict more interesting. What about the conflict that arises when the pursuit of justice runs afoul of the rule of law? Authors of private-eye novels have never missed a paycheck following this formula, and neither has anyone who wrote legal thrillers, even though they approach this disconnect from opposite sides. And as for those books that show both sides, well, that’s some good reading.

And why should it have to be two or more characters doing the fighting? One character can be faced with a situation that challenges them deeply, making them doubt everything they believed. Internal conflict is very fertile ground for writing, as most every reader has experienced this intimately. The struggle between holding on to one’s values versus selling out for a big pile of cash? Taking the easy road or risking a new route? Sparing someone’s feelings or telling them a difficult truth? A character fighting to make this decision is still a fight.

When it comes to personal conflict, my personal favorite is when the character confronts an undeniable fact conflicting with their deepest beliefs. Someone finds out they’re adopted. An atheist faces God. A scientist discovers the Earth is flat. A rational person finds out professional wrestling is not fake. Such a mind-blowing, core-shaking, fact-erasing revelation forces the character to rediscover the world, to suddenly live in uncertainty.

This change doesn’t have to be destructive. The Harry Potter franchise is based on a child discovering a life he never knew existed. The young adult fantasy genre dating back to the 19th century is deeply rooted in the discovery of a new world and grand adventures. This is still conflict, but our main character is more than willing to embrace it (even though trouble comes later).

The most important part of conflict in writing, however, is that it shows us something about the character. Think about real life: We go about our daily routine, getting the same morning coffee, the same commute to work, the same job, the same route home, etc. This routine barely reveals anything except for whether the character puts cream in their coffee. Once change is introduced – the coffee store is closed, their car won’t start, their job changes – then conflict has been introduced and we see how that character responds. Twenty years of the same work routine is often far less interesting than the one day where everything went wrong.

So when you think about that big story, think less about the grand success the character will achieve and more about the battles they will have to endure, because that's going to be the meat of the story.

Monday, September 19, 2022

News Flash: It's Hard Being A Writer

One of my favorite sources of inspiration (and procrastination) is the endless treasure trove that is online writer support groups. It feels like social media was invented to give writers a place to get together and vent about the myriad problems they face every day, and then kitten videos. When I check out these pages, I detect several themes, and they can be broken into two categories: Those who haven't done a lot of serious writing and think it's easy, and those who have done a lot of writing and realize there's a lot to learn. Here's some samples of what I often see on these pages - try to figure out which category they belong in:

  • I want to write a book. How do I start?
  • What is the best way to make a best-seller?
  • Should I include a prologue or try and feed the background info throughout the narrative?
  • My MC (main character) is in a moral quandary that I can't resolve. Help!
  • How do I know when my story is done? I am at 750,000 words now - do I have a book?

Hopefully, some of these questions seem obviously naïve while others seem to focus on the little details of writing technique. (And as to the last question - 750,000 words? You do not have a book, you have a problem.) I put this all out there to make a few simple points: When you start writing, technically you are a writer, and that's great. But what that also means is that you have set yourself on a journey of learning, of constant growth, occasional setbacks, and hopefully realization. Once you become a writer, you step onto the bottom rung of an endless ladder upward, and you have to travel, step by step, toward the great unknown.

The first "story" I wrote - the thing that made me that novice writer - was an amazing accomplishment. I had never put so many words to paper at one time. Yes, it was an assignment in high school, but in fact I did tell a story through the written word. It was a major accomplishment for me, and I knew doors would open for me once I handed in that masterpiece.

I got a C- on it.

Looking at that piece of work now, and it was a "piece of work" to speak euphemistically, I can see what a tragedy of writing it was. At the time, I let that C- beat me down, and I put my creative dreams to the side for a while. I did not see that I had taken that first step, and if I had been open to learning more, I could've advanced my skills far earlier than when I decided to embrace the journey of a thousand stories. If I had accepted that being a writer was hard and I had a lot to learn, it would've made learning so much easier. But, better late than never.

So, any time you feel that writing is becoming an overwhelming endeavor, just remind yourself how it is supposed to be exactly that, and the learning is all supposed to be part of the game. And then keep writing, because it's the only way to be a writer.

Monday, September 12, 2022

The Value of a Few Words

Even during my days in the financial world, a part of my mind tuned in to just how intricate the writing process was. It was rumored that former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan would write his speeches while in the bathtub, and it took him twenty minutes of intense consideration before he came up with the phrase, "irrational exuberance." ("Irrational exuberance" became the buzz phrase for the late 1990s, and became synonymous with the tech boom/bust that followed.) Now, the whole "twenty minutes of thought" could just be the market version of gossip and story-telling, but I sensed that Greenspan had quite the writer's mind.

Now, some people would argue with this next point, but I believe there is no such thing as a throw-away word in writing. Every word we use, be it in narrative, dialogue, or whatever, often serves more than one purpose. In fact, we should make sure that at any given opportunity, the words we use do as much heavy lifting as possible. If we find ourselves just using words to fill the space between our points, then the reader will surely feel that the writing is just empty calories.

Let's look at Greenspan's quote (my apologies for the economics talk - there will be no quiz) and see just how he used his words:

"We can see (less uncertainty) in the inverse relationship exhibited by price/earnings ratios and the rate of inflation in the past. But how do we know when irrational exuberance has unduly escalated asset values...?"

Now remember, this is just a guy sitting in the bathtub, preparing his comments for an interview. Look at how the first sentence is filled with a bunch of financial market talk about ratios and inflation and such. Not really interesting for the average person, and nor should it be. This sentence is clinical and dry, and it lulls its target audience into a sense of familiarity, while those outside its focus might very well change the channel. The entire thing sounds analytical, even brutally scientific, as if presented by a research committee that rarely got out in public or dealt with social settings. But that's what makes it great - it's all a set-up for that next part.

The next sentence starts off as a question, which draws the target audience in immediately. From their familiar position, they are now challenged to rethink all they had grown comfortable with, and the first unfamiliar phrase in that question is "irrational exuberance." It is placed after a string of tiny set-up words, and it hits hard. All the market talk that comes afterward is now captured by those two words, and it quickly becomes a reference point for all future discussion on the subject.

This is part of the sculpture of writing, the verbal poetry that comes with what we create. There were plenty of ways to discuss the wild markets of the times, and plenty of articles were written about it. However, the phrase that pays was two words that took twenty minutes to write while soaking in the tub, and they now define that era. 

The next time you decide to just plow through something and throw around a bunch of words without giving them much thought, maybe think twice. Remind yourself that you could be on the verge of writing the perfect phrase, to be remembered for decades to come. Give yourself a moment to think if those words can do more. Consider if you can put more punch into what you are trying to say. Maybe draw yourself a bath.

Friday, September 9, 2022

Stories and an Old Crow

Welcome back! The past week has been a busy one for me, so I am glad to be writing about it. Over the past week, I have participated in a family reunion, a funeral, and a birthday, and they all remind me about one thing: the importance of stories. These events were about the gathering, retelling, and losing of stories, and yes that is the right order for this situation. Allow me to explain.


First off, there's the family reunion. Every year since 1974 (with one COVID-related exception), my paternal grandparents and their many, many descendants gathered at the same place at around the same time to enjoy the bonds of family, friendship, and Midwestern comfort food (think of any dish with potatoes, pasta, and/or cheese). And during all this food and fun, we have the unofficial ritual of gathering together our stories and sharing them with each other. Maybe someone discovered some new bit of family trivia and now wants to share it with everyone. Perhaps an old family relic reminded someone about a particular time with an aunt or uncle and we want to add it to the family lore. It could be just a simple story of a family member who is also a writer completing a 106-mile cycling trip a few weeks ago. Whatever the case, these stories are the mortar that holds the family close, which makes it all the more important that these stories are gathered regularly and shared amongst those we care about.

Unfortunately, this reunion had a shadow hanging over it, which was the recent death of a dear cousin of mine. This cousin - who we will call Crow because that was his nickname - lived a full life, though he died well before all his stories were told. This brings us to the next part of stories - the retelling. If there is one thing that got our family through the loss of old Crow, it was retelling our favorite stories about him, for better or worse. There's the one about how Crow and my father would playfully wrestle around enough to get all of my father's nephews to join in on a rumble to take Crow down. How about that one with Crow hot-rodding that old Studebaker and going through so many clutches that his father rigged it to lose its massive acceleration - and not tell Crow for the next forty years? And who can forget the other cars and motorcycles that came through Crow's garage and were the most important thing to him next to his wife and family? Retelling these stories brought Crow back to life, even if just for a bit, and helped us through our grief. And yes, we will be retelling these stories again next year.

The last part I want to talk about is part of why I became a writer - losing stories. I hate losing stories, but if we don't commit them to memory, to pen and paper, or to Word, they can vanish and never return. My mother turned 84 last week, which is ordinarily a day for celebration. However, she is in the late stages of dementia, and no longer interacts with the world much less tells stories. Her birthday was a far more somber event, and though we could share stories to remind us of who she was, it has become very evident that many stories will no longer be recovered. As I went through a box of her old things, I found several mementos from trips she might have taken or gifts she might have received, but I have no context for them. She kept our family Bible, which has old correspondences between our long-deceased relatives preserved between its pages, but I can only guess about their importance to her. Without being shared, these are stories lost to the ages, and in some ways I mourn their passing.

The takeaway from the past week is a simple one: stories are everywhere, and it's up to us to collect them. Whether it's someone's wartime experiences or just how a cousin gets a nickname like Crow, they make up a part of who we are, and we honor them when we write them down for others to enjoy. That's what being a writer is all about.

Monday, September 5, 2022

A Time Out for Labor Day

Even writers are allowed a little time off. Since today is Labor Day, and also my mother's birthday, there will not be a post of substance today. There will, however, be the reminder to spend a little time listening and people-watching today so you can be a better writer tomorrow.

The next post will be on Friday, September 9, 2022. Enjoy your day off.

Monday, August 29, 2022

Old Writing and Old Writers

While going through the process of cleaning out the junk drawer in my office (admit it – somewhere in your house there is a junk drawer. I have one in my office and one in the kitchen), I found an old flash drive. How old? This was from way back in the days when you would go out and buy your own little drive, as opposed to now when you get them as complimentary gifts for getting a magazine subscription or a full tank of gas. This was from the days when capacity was measures in megabytes, not gigabytes (and now terabytes). What I’m saying is that it was old. More to the point, it held a trove of old stories and essays.

This can be a terrifying experience – uncovering old writing and reading through the copy, knowing every mistake of your youth is there to remind you of how horrible you could be. However, I have mentioned in the past that sometimes this can be a very beneficial experience. Looking at your old work and recognizing all the mistakes is a great reminder of how much you have grown as a writer (and perhaps as a person depending on the subject). As personally embarrassing as it might be to see such simple mistakes repeated over and over and over, knowing now that these are mistakes means you’ve bettered yourself in some fashion. And this is where the big point of today’s post comes in.

Wherever we are on our journey of writing, we all have something in common: We seek to be better than we were. We look to improve ourselves in some way, shape, or form. Everyone progresses in a different manner and at a different rate, but we all can improve on our craft, and that’s a noble mission. There is never any shame in the steps we take to be better than we once were – it is the foundation of human development. As long as we don’t somehow harm people along the way, such progress is always a virtue.

So, back to the little flash drive. The most interesting thing that I found on this drive was that it carried a bunch of works from an old writing workshop I attended, mostly the writing of other people. While I did lose touch with a couple of the writers and two have since passed away, I still knew most of them and almost all of them still wrote on a regular basis. This old writing was, at times, embarrassing, but it gave me a personal joy to see how far along these writers had grown. A few of them have had short stories and essays published in anthologies, several went on to write novels, and a couple of them were even published. And, in all fairness, there were other writers who should’ve been published but they didn’t take that big step… not yet, anyway.

The workshop all this writing came from is no longer active; it was a victim of library cutbacks and the eventual passing of its founder. However, members did move on and try to start up their own writing groups, spreading the art of writing to other areas. Some libraries gladly sponsored such activities, others were (for reasons unknown) hesitant to host such a group. And wherever these groups caught hold, I know at least one person that grew into a full and complete writer.

So, in short, this little flash drive reminded me about the value both of workshops and of the importance of regular writing. And, needless to say, in combination, they help perpetuate a virtuous cycle of creating writers that maybe, someday, start their own groups and bring the art of the written word to the next few generations.

BTW – the rest of the drawer never got cleaned out. After my discovery, I realized it serves its purpose just fine.

 

Friday, August 26, 2022

Back to School!

I am sure that my perspective has changed now that I am an adult many years displaced from my days as a student, but some of the most emotionally turbulent days of my youth were those last few days before school started. Obviously, a part of me was an angst-ridden child, full of woe, lamenting how I wasted my summer on things like sports and fun and friends rather than some intangible joy that would be forever lost. However, there was also a secret inner joy that I would go back to school and get to learn things. I was that child who read books during the summer, so school reinforced that part of me. 

The one difficult part every year, however, was that brief period where I had to dust off the learning part of my brain and prepare for new concepts, new ideas, and new subjects that I didn't necessarily know or care about. That part seemed to fall dormant during the summer, as my entertainment was doing things I already knew provided me with joy. I had fun, but I didn't necessarily grow. School was about growth, and frankly, that was a little intimidating.

Now that I am an adult, I have to ask myself, "What have I done that has allowed me to grow as a person?" Too often we get into our comfort zones and we cruise from there. An endless summer of doing what we love and never worrying about the end of summer and the return to growth. It sounds like it's fun, but think about it. How long can one live with only the same interests and hobbies they had when they left school? I know several people who I went to school with who still talk fondly of those days because high school was "the best time ever." That makes me sad, because it means the past 30-odd years have basically been downhill from there. Maybe not a tragic fall from some grand heights, but I would feel horrible if my life peaked in my teens or even twenties. Even at this age, I like to think there's still more to come.

To the writers out there, most of whom are wondering where this drawn-out discussion of my youth is going, I offer this: Pick up a book totally out of your familiarity/comfort zone, and read it in September. If you are a fiction devotee, grab an autobiography. Do you like high fantasy? Grab a book about unlocking the structure of DNA (The Double Helix by Watson and What Mad Pursuit by Crick make for a nice complementary pair of good reads on the subject). Go outside your zone like a child walking into their new classroom and getting handed a new textbook. Explore something new and intriguing. Swim in new waters. Reclaim that one part of school that made it interesting.

And, like all school experiences, there will be homework as well. I call upon you to write something new and outside your realm. Normally I would suggest a poem to all those non-poets out there, but it can be anything. Write down a childhood memory as seen through your adult eyes. Write an opinion piece about one side or the other of this whole student-loan debate. Write an extended thank-you note to literally any teacher who changed your life (living or dead). Reclaim whatever shred of joy you found from school, and bring it back to life if only for one day.

And no chewing gum in class!

Monday, August 22, 2022

Those Are the Breaks

Equipment malfunction - it happens in every profession. Maybe that one tool needed for the job breaks, the bulldozer to clear the site is unavailable, or there simply isn't enough manpower available to get things started. A writer will understand this from the moment their pencil breaks or their laptop crashes to the Blue Screen of Death. Sometimes we are all fired up and ready to do our thing, but powers beyond our control have said, "Not today, buddy."

I think we can all agree that this sucks. I went through this very experience today when I got up early and prepared myself for a very entertaining day, only to discover that the one thing I needed to do the job was not working. The manufacturer said they would scout down a replacement, so there was a chance they could have a new one by Wednesday. Maybe. Until then, well, I just had to improvise, which in this case was not an option. This genuinely sucks.

However, at least in the case of writers and other creatives, this presents an opportunity. Since we have all this creative fuel ready to be put to use, let's find a way to use it. For the writer in me, whenever I have come up with the idea for a story but I am unable to write it (this often happens when I go bicycling out along the rural roads), I dictate the story. Not to my iPhone or any recorder, but I start creating the story aloud. I work on the voices, the inflections. I talk myself through the dialogue, I process everything that the story will say, and create an oral version of the story. This may or may not be entertaining to the cows in the pastures I ride past, but hey, everyone's a critic.

Now, if the same thing happens but I am instead on the 5:02 train, maybe it's not the place for my formal recitation of this new story. That doesn't mean that I have to stop. I just need to go through the story in my head. While I sit there, motionless and staring out into nowhere, I let my mind put together all the pieces in their many different forms. I try out phrases that I like, I repeat things in my head and commit them to memory. In that little train car seat in a shroud of silence, my mind churns away on the next great story.

What does this all mean to the average writer of creative type? In its simplest terms, never let creative energy go to waste. Always be willing to flex a different muscle or take something a new direction simply for the sake of progress. Writing may be a very straight-forward process, but committing words to paper is just the endgame. The real energy is burned up between the ears, and there are plenty of ways to do that. It you can't write, then say the words. Recite them. Sing them if it helps. Find their order and place, and crystallize the ideas as much as you can so that when your hands finally touch a keyboard, it will all just fall into place.

And the next time you are driving through the country and you pass a singing cyclist, feel free to say hello.

Friday, August 12, 2022

Winning versus Completing

I recently completed a pretty grueling personal challenge - a 100-mile cycling trip. Anyone who knows me knows I am an avid cyclist, but going that far into the Illinois heartland presents several obstacles. Furthermore, I do not have the advantage of reckless youth to fall back on anymore. In short, this was a considerable challenge for me personally, and completing it was more than just an accomplishment - it checked off a very important box on my long mental list of things I want to do before I am too old to do them.

In all fairness, I have several friends who have completed this task on several occasions, with better ride times than me and with less physical exhaustion. They casually call it, "doing a century" and accomplish it periodically over the years. For some people, this would diminish the personal goal of completing such a long ride. However, I have learned that people around me are not the bar I need to measure myself against, for I will always fall short in one way or another. The important part is that I completed it. Period. If they do a century every year, I wish them well and applaud their effort. For me, I am just proud to have made it across the line.

In writing groups, I often think this is the problem beginning writers face: They want to write something great, but how will they ever match up to the Faulkners, Grishams, or Hemingways of writing? It's pretty intimidating to go to a writing group in the back of a library and learn about the rules of writing and literature while literally being surrounded by the words and works of some of the best writers ever. This is where beginning writers let themselves get tripped up by those who are better than them, and they have trouble progressing. They focus on being the best (a fairly high goal) versus being a writer.

I know several people who have run marathons (my knees will not allow me to achieve such a goal). Of all the people I know who ran the Chicago or the Boston marathon, I do not know one who went in expecting to win it. They fastened on their number, lined up, and put all that training to work trying to finish the 26.2-mile run without dying. Their goal was merely to complete the race, perhaps with some mental time they wished to beat, but with no fantasies about winning the race. 

When new writers come into a workshop completely intimidated by the mere thought of writing the Great American Novel, I try to ground them to something more immediate and achievable. I start with the little push - write a poem or a short story. Complete it to where they are satisfied, then read it to the group. This gives them the victory of completing a task versus trying to win the game of writing, and completion is so very satisfying. I make sure they attach their name to it and own it as the accomplishment it is. Plenty of people have written poems or stories, and now that person is one of them. It's a victory, and it helps push them forward.

Will they ever write a whole novel? That's up to them. The lesson they learn is that by setting their own goals and targets for advancement, they learn the joy of growing and embrace the sense of accomplishment. They finish their own marathon, they do their century, and nobody can ever take that from them.

Monday, August 8, 2022

Spoiler: Godot Never Shows Up

I know a lot of people who have great stories within them, just waiting to be put to paper. Fascinating, complex adventures, some of which are even true, and all of which are worthy of their own novel. Some of these stories even exist in the minds of people who have written plenty of other things, and these special tales wait for the right opportunity to bring a particularly grand story to life. All it takes is that little something and they know they will write it up.

And so they wait. And nothing gets created.

Everyone has a good reason for not writing that one big story. Maybe it's waiting for inspiration. Sometimes there's one little blank that needs to be filled in. Perhaps it will all come out once the writer figures out that one magical opening line. Whatever the case may be, these become the Waiting for Godot reasons we make up that allow us to commit to writing the ultimate story while never actually writing the story. We can talk our big game about how we will be the one to create the Great American Novel and never be called out. But where's the fun in that?

If we really want to write that one great story, we need to find some way to push ourselves past that one great excuse, because that excuse will, by its very creation, never go away. That inspiration will never kick in, that blank will never be filled, and that perfect opening line will forever elude us. We have to cast all of that stuff aside and find a way to write our story without those things, and trust that when we have reached the right point, the things we need will finally show up.

The method I prefer for getting the story onto the page is having an accountability guide. This isn't anything elaborate or intricate, but it allows you to talk all you want about your story while actually making headway with it. This is easier to do if you regularly attend a writing workshop or some form of writing group, but it can just as easily be done with a spouse, a relative, or your drinking buddies - anyone who have have a certain amount of respect for.

The task is simple: Assign someone as your accountability guide, and make them a simple weekly promise. You don't have to tell this person your whole story, but you have to promise them that in one week, you will have the first chapter done. Or the first 1,000 words, the first page, whatever. Their job is equally simple: Your guide will ask to see your work at that time, and they will shame you if you don't have at least something to offer. This forces you to do something every week under fear of breaking a promise to your guide and feeling the shame of doing so. You would be amazed at how well this works.

Think of back in school when you didn't do your homework one day, and had to face up to the teacher giving you that look and asking what happened. The guilt, personal tension, and energy preparing for that dreaded moment probably took more effort than it would to have just lived up to your promise. Once you realize this, writing becomes easier, in part because there's a consequence for not doing what you said you would.

Now go out there and write something.

Monday, August 1, 2022

What's In A Name?

One of the proudest moments in my early adult life was when I saw my name in the newspaper. Some people get this by less-than-honorable means, like being mentioned in the story, "Intoxicated man fights raccoon for sandwich," but my mention was more dignified. The company I worked for had opened a new laboratory, and I, as a company spokesman, offered some important information about this venture, which was in conjunction with a college. There it was, printed in that sooty newspaper ink - my name, my role as spokesman, and my words about the company. And I was just 21 years old.

Now, bragging aside, there is something kind of magical about seeing our name in print, especially when someone else prints it. In a certain way, it's an out-of-body experience. We suddenly exist beyond our own self, and the world is now forced to recognize us. We are no longer just a construct of our own ego, but a part of us has now crept into the life of everyone who read those words. Even the man who fought the raccoon is a little more real once his name is in the paper - whether he finally got the sandwich back or not. And there's power in this, especially as we become writers.

When we become writers, we earn the honor of our byline and this should never be taken lightly. To see, in print, the words, "by James Pressler" gives immediate ownership to the story, essay, opinion piece or whatever. There is now a direct connection to whatever words come next, because they rest of the world now knows that those words are ours. They make up a part of us, and we publicly acknowledge this. That's a pretty strong statement.

Have I not convinced you yet? Consider this: Social media is full of people who make bold statements, defiant proclamations, and in many cases outright lies, all hiding behind anonymous titles or pseudonyms such as GanjaMaster420. These people know the power that exists when it comes to assigning a thought to a person, and they look to dodge this responsibility. Furthermore, it becomes so much easier for them to flex about whatever they want if they do not have to take the burden of ownership. GanjaMaster420 sure says a lot of things, but never has to worry about everything that comes with it.

Why do I go on about something as simple as a byline? Well, mostly this is my justification for using it as a reminder. With every document I work on, every story I create or poem I write, I have my name attached to it for everyone to see - including myself. It is the ever-present reminder that these thoughts, opinions, characters, events, or whatever are mine, and that they are worthy to be associated with me, and I am good enough to create things for public consumption. It is both a gift to myself and a reminder of what I owe the reader, and they are amazing things to behold.

Of course, sometimes things go a little sideways. In my first news article, they spelled my name wrong. Oh well.

Friday, July 29, 2022

Writing and the Tough Times

Around this time every year, a lot of my friends get very busy with the task of creation. They become very industrious, putting together plans, preparing their suitcases, and checking off these huge lists in the run-up to... convention season! Indeed, there are a lot of great conventions that start around this time and last until the first days of fall, and the excitement for the convention-goers is palpable. However, for me, a guy who also loves conventions, this time brings about a certain amount of sadness. A part of my writing process, therefore, turns to working with these feelings and turning them into written words.

Writing often requires our feelings as part of the process. Not just the simple feelings either. We grow as writers when we start exploring not just the emotions within a story, but all the feelings that get stirred up as we write those simple stories. And often times we learn some truths we never expected, or even some things we never really wanted to face. That is a writer’s growing pain, and it is priceless in developing that talent.

Fortunately, I have been blessed with many friends, plenty of whom are into the convention scene. I have spent decades surrounded by scholars, artists, gurus, advisers, reluctant heroes, dirty angels, jokers, liars and thieves – how could I not write about them? So I do (more often than they know). I wrote several stories about one particular friend I met back in 8th grade who was absolutely destined for the convention scene. He was quite a character and we had epic adventures. And when I wrote the stories about him, well… the stories kind of fell flat.

What was wrong? My stories were honest and entertaining discussions about things we did that landed somewhere between hilarious stunts and Class C felonies, pranks we pulled, and just stupid times hanging out together. But when I reviewed those stories with other people, the most common critique was, “not exploring the character enough.” Tough review for writing about a long-time friend.

As much as I tried to explore the character, the truth was that I was actually not writing parts. I realized I hadn't faced certain truths about the situation. There was one story I needed to write about the time we started putting together plans to go to the biggest convention in the Midwest at the time - GenCon! This was the dream of every creative-type in the region, and we decided one year when I was in college that we would go that summer. This would be an epic journey indeed.

Once I realized this, I sat down and wrote about how my plans to go to GenCon fell through when this good friend died.

Believe me, that story wasn’t the greatest thing I ever wrote, but it was easily the most honest. I faced up to the grief I carried, the guilt, the unspoken apologies and unresolved issues. I wrote a simple story about his passing, and it hurt. Horribly. And as I faced those truths, I knew just who I needed to write about. I had been holding back on writing in-depth about my friend to avoid reminding myself that he was gone. With those in mind, the rewrites were very easy, and provided some valuable healing.

As GenCon approaches every year, I still think about my departed friend. I tell myself, "This year I might just make the trip" and then I don't. There's still some pain there, and it probably will never totally heal. However, I can write about it, process it, and by using all those secret writing tools, make something good come from convention season.

Monday, July 25, 2022

Details About Details

As some people may know, I am an avid cyclist. I don't go for speed - my bicycle is older than a number of my readers - but rather distance riding. Out where I live there are plenty of cycling paths and country roads to explore, and I can log a lot of miles riding through the vast expanses of nowhere. A fifty-mile ride can give me hours of time to think about stories, writing, the frustrations of the day, or just let my mind release from the mental tethers and meditate on the path before me. The one thing that I have trouble with, however, is explaining this experience in writing.

The biggest problem I have is trying to explain a ride out in the country both in a way that the reader can connect with and in a way that is actually interesting. Everyone knows what cornfields look like, but who wants to hear about every row of corn I pass on a forty-mile ride? Honestly, not even I want to hear about that, and I'm the one enjoying it.

The real catch in trying to explain to my friends and colleagues about my ride is more than describing local agricultural trends, flora, and fauna. What makes the story interesting is when I target one particular detail about the ride, and expand on all the nuances of just that part. The more refined that detail becomes, the more it can be an opportunity to really draw them into the story.

Let's look at the last ride I took - a thirty-mile round-trip country-road tour that took me to the neighboring state. Now, there was nothing unusual about this particular ride - I had done it a few times already this season. What I wanted to do, however, was see if I could do it while only bringing one little bottle of water for hydration. Definitely an interesting test, and also the hook for the storytelling. At that point, the story becomes a challenge about thirst. The heat, the sweat, they become indicators of my fatigue. The wind blowing against me cools me off but forces me to push harder against the gusts, wearing me down that much faster. Every time I finish a leg of the ride, I consider how much water I have left and how many miles I still have to conquer. Passing over a creek makes me think of my thirst and how refreshing one gulp could be, just like the salty sweat running down my face and onto my lips. 

At this point, the story is more than a ride, this is a challenge, and every detail I discuss should appeal to that one theme: Thirst. Are the cornfields important? Not really, unless they wave with the breezes that cool me down and give me a little more life for the next mile. Everything makes the reader relate to me rationing out that bottle of water. That's where it's interesting, and that's where the story lives or dies.

The next time you want to tell a story about something that might seem a little mundane, look for the detail that can be the pivot for the whole story, and swing everything around that. Give an obsessive focus on everything that appeals to that one facet, and watch the story come to life. Even something as boring as cycling.

Monday, July 18, 2022

Old Writing vs. Good Writing

I received a quite unexpected blast from the past recently. It was brought to my attention that the newspaper I worked for (now defunct) back in the early 1990s just had all its back issues placed in public archives, available for anyone to peruse as long as they have access to this internet thing. This newspaper gig was in the days before I even considered working in economics - I was the production director, of all things - so it was a different life back then. Furthermore, this meant that my work - design, writing some articles, etc. - was now all on public display.

That part kind of horrified me.

Me, circa 1992
It isn't just that pictures of me back in my 20s were published (was I ever so young?), but every mistake I ever made that went to print is now out there for the world to see. Somewhere in a Johannesburg internet café, a total stranger can flip through those pages and say, "Hah! That idiot spelled February wrong!" My humiliation is now a globalized thing. Yes, it's an entire career ago, and I haven't even worked in the newspaper industry since Clinton was president, but that's not the point. The point is, the shame of my youth is now out there in digital black and white.

Now this shouldn't be too upsetting to most of you, and I am sure the rest of you will survive. Even I will make it through this, mostly because it gives me a chance to bring up something that all writers should do - review my old work. I spent five years doing production work, designing issue after issue of that damn weekly paper, and with it I made a bunch of mistakes. However, I can hold my head proud in that each of those mistakes taught me something that made the next issue that much better, and that sometimes, I actually produced some quality work.

Our old writing should have the same effect on us. We should be able to pick up something we wrote way back when - last month, last year, whenever - and see where we could've made it better. Furthermore, we should be able to see some part where we think, "That's a nice little turn of a phrase." In short, just because our old writing is not as good as what we do now, it doesn't mean it wasn't good. Considering what part of the writer's journey we were on at that particular time, we always deserve some credit for every step we take toward that goal of improving our craft. Even the worst writing is good if only for the reason that we took the step of creation and brought something into existence. It might never win a Pulitzer, but most things don't. They just serve as solid reminders that we pursued the goal of improvement, and hopefully we still do.

So, as for the newspaper, it is now a part of the internet, there for everyone to read, enjoy, mock, or whatever. I can look at the issue where I misspelled February if I wish - no harm - or wonder how I ever thought a particular design would ever work out. Or I can look at everything I learned from those years in the trenches, and take on a certain sense of pride. (And I can also look at the layout awards we received from the Associated Collegiate Press. That helps too.)

Friday, July 15, 2022

Creative Familiarity

The other day I went to one of my favorite restaurants for people-watching and stirring my creativity. I hadn't been there since COVID forced its closure, so I had a certain excitement when I discovered it finally reopened. I decided I would go there for dinner, see how many faces I recognized, and start being creative about the many other souls wandering around there. Satisfaction for both my physical and creative hunger.

Unfortunately, when I arrived, the biggest thing I noticed was how many things had changed, and not for the better. Not only was the menu different, but the whole layout of the place had been swapped around. My usual seat was no longer in its usual place, most of the areas with clear sight lines of the crowd were swapped out, and the salad bar was gone. It was a different place entirely. And, of course, the menu changed entirely. This was no longer the place I remembered. All of my usual things were no longer their usual self.

Now, the first question that might come to mind is, "How does any of this affect the writer's task of people-watching and being creative?" Well, in all fairness, it doesn't. There were still people with faces whom I could watch, and the environment was very conducive to creativity. The part that disrupted me is that it was no longer my place for creativity. It was new, and I wanted familiar. I wanted to sit in my booth with a full view of everyone, enjoy my coffee and a salad as big as my head, and let my mind roam about the endless stories that flooded such a place. But no - I sat with barely a view of anyone, eating a house salad fit for a small rabbit on a diet, wondering where my experience went.

It was only after a day of processing this that I discovered I was in a common creativity rut known as familiar newness. Creativity is fed by new experiences, so we explore the world and see it from different angles and through new perspectives. However, even this can fall into a rut. When we discover something new, we get excited and explore it as much as we can. That becomes a trap, because long after it is new to our experiences, we treat it as a new thing and try to claim all these perspectives from something that rapidly becomes all too familiar. We feed our creativity empty calories, and don't get the nourishment we truly need.

Truth be told, the restaurant was perfectly fine. The changes they made actually created a new experience for me to undertake, but I was so wrapped up in familiarity that I failed to see that this was something that could stimulate creativity if I had been open to it. I wasn't, so I missed my chance, and just sat there and complained that the familiarity I subconsciously wanted was gone.

The takeaway from this adventure is to invite change as an opportunity to reawaken your creativity. As a writer, you create new worlds all the time, so be excited when the world around you creates something new for you. If your favorite restaurant changes the menu, see it as a moment to try a new special and have a new experience. Just find out about the size of the salad ahead of time.

Monday, July 11, 2022

Playful Writing

I gave a lot of thought about whether I would write this piece. It was not a question of whether I could, but whether or not it would be able to adequately express the complexities involved in playful writing. After all, a blog is, by its very nature, a straight-forward presentation of words, thoughts, and discussion communicated through a fairly simplistic word processor. Playful writing often goes outside those boundaries, and I would have few tools available to demonstrate just how this works. Well, I decided to give it a try. Good luck to me.

Playful writing is when we go outside the boundaries of written lines of text in order to express additional feelings or contribute a mood beyond what the words say. An overly simplified example of this is when we use italics or all caps to accent a word and give it additional meaning. Consider these sentences:

  • "Well, Tom said he would be here at exactly seven."
  • "Well, Tom said he would be here at EXACTLY seven."

Both lines communicates a basic idea. The second one, however, makes the verb "said" stand out as a dubious point, and we can almost hear the character yelling, "EXACTLY" in our head. This is the first step in playful writing - going beyond just words to do our communicating.

To truly step into the realm of playful writing, we need to slowly lose track of the boundaries we confine ourselves to on a word processor and see how our new shapes and form change the meaning. What happens if when we write a paragraph, each line has narrower margins than the last, causing the words to eventually form a point at the end? Does this bring emphasis to that last word, or does all the extra white space consume the ideas? What if each word skips down one line but retains its horizontal place on the page, creating a visual staircase? Does this add to the reader's experience, expressing a sense of movement or descent? What if the lines didn't just march left-to-right on the page, but followed some imaginary, curving line? What do these nuances create other than a headache for the writer trying to create them?

We often see this technique used in more visually engaging poetry, from kids books all the way to the works of e e cummings (shown above) and all points in between. This form takes the reader out of the standard reading routine of taking in words, processing words, then taking in more words, and introduces imagery as its own separate language. This is a little more difficult to do in novels, but let's not forget some of the effect we get from something as simple as all caps or italics, or the controversial "?!" (often called the "interrobang," used to express a very loud question, it is actually not a standard writing convention). 

Just remember that there are a lot of ways to express emotions and moods that break away from just using our words. Maybe it shouldn't be tried in a term paper, but when you are in the mood to try something new, there are plenty of ways to play around with these things we call words.

Friday, July 8, 2022

"How Much Should I Write?"

It may sound like an odd question, but I hear this a lot. A number of writers, particularly those just getting into the craft, want some guidelines for how long a story should be, or a chapter, or a poem. This is understandable for those starting off - it's tough to jump into something new, and getting a little structure into your brain first might make things easier. However, for some things, the structure isn't actually available in the formal sense, so from that point we have to improv.

So, like with any good bit of improv, let's learn a few basics. First, don't worry about how many pages something should be, worry about the word count. Pages can vary depending on the font, point size, margins, etc., but words are words. My first manuscript was over 400 pages, but that was in 12-pt Courier with double-spaced lines. That means nothing when it gets converted to a book or whatever. Focus on word count, and let the rest just happen.

Second, there are a few rules of thumb to work with. Someone asked if their novel can be 30,000 words long. Well, a story can be that long, but usually that qualifies as a novella. Novels start at about 40-50,000 words and go from there. However, this is incidental to the larger concern - how long do you want your story to be? How much story do you want to tell? Don't let a word count constrain what you want to say. Say something, tell a story, and then see how  big it is afterward.

I have been asked how long a chapter should be. I try to not sound like a smartass when I say that a chapter should be exactly one chapter long and no more. Some authors go with three or four immense chapters, some go with many smaller chapters, and plenty of people blend the two. The rule I usually follow is that a proper chapter should relate to the reader one particular phase of the story, beginning and ending at natural pauses in the story, and telling a part that can be described in one sentence - usually that is the chapter title. Now, chapter titles have kind of fallen out of fashion lately, and that's fine. However, as a writer, you should still feel like saying, "This chapter is where are hero set out on his mission and hits the first obstacle," or, "This chapter introduces the characters who will bring about the dramatic plot twist later." Nice, packaged assessments of what that should do. The length will determine itself.

As you write, you will find a natural rhythm to where you do your best work and how many words you need to communicate an idea. For me, short stories are in the 1,000-2,000 word range, though more complex ideas have hit 7,500 words. In my novels, chapters hit the 2,500-3000 word level because I feel that keeps the story moving along and lets the reader catch their breath now and then (though I often close with a teaser so they want to read just one more chapter before they go to bed). And my haiku poems are about 8-10 words, but those follow some other rules.

So, to answer the question, "How much should I write?" I would say to write exactly the amount you need to get the message out. If it's a short story, that's fine. If it expands to a novel, so be it. Let the story be your guide rather than some arbitrary number.

Friday, July 1, 2022

Breaking the Writing Logjam

It's a terrible feeling - and yes, it happens to us all at one point or another. We know the story we want to write. We know the characters. We know the means and motivations, we know the subplots and how they weave into the main arc. We know the twists and turns - we know everything we need to know and then some. Fully armed with every literary weapon at our disposal, we sit down to write our story. And then...

And then...

And then...

For reasons we can't even explain, that first scene, those opening lines are nowhere to be found. We want to start the story but the story doesn't want to start. Maybe we've had a busy day and we're kind of tired, or there's a lot of things on our mind, but that first spark of inspiration isn't igniting what should be a bonfire of literary creation. We stare at the blank page, all ready to pour every word onto it, but we get hung up on that first line. Why?

First, let me put a little daylight between this condition and writer's block. That tragic situation known as writer's block is similar, but it's usually when our creativity just isn't flowing and the words aren't happening whatsoever. The condition I am referring to is more of a logjam of creativity - so much ready to pour out that it seems to choke on its own enthusiasm. A creative destruction, if you will. Fortunately, there's a remedy for this as well. 

Sometimes when we get logjammed, it's not for lack of creativity but rather due to high expectations. At times of peak creativity, we also create this belief that our creation must be its most awesome as well. The myth is that when we create in volume we also create quality proportionate to it. This is a high bar to clear, and frankly, it shouldn't be the expectation for any first draft. When I get hit by this, I deliberately start the piece with just any opening line or situation I want - here are some classic clichés people often use to start a story:

  • Tom woke up to the smell of smoke. (the 'wake up' intro)
  • The phone buzzed and Tom checked the caller ID. (the 'interruption' intro)
  • It was a dark and stormy night. (The classic 'weather report' intro)

Why do I start with these if I call them cliché? Because they get me to start creating. When I type that beginning, I give myself a mental Post-It note that this will need something better, but not now. No sense in worrying about the opening line of a first draft, because it won't be the last draft. The point is I get moving and gain some inertia. My creativity starts to break through, I make my way to the first conversation, an inciting event, the call to action, and I am off and running. Problem solved, creativity flowing just fine.

In short, don't hold your first draft to some high standard or you will never be able to complete a project. There will come a time for refining everything, including that horrible first line, but now is not that time. Just start writing, and then keep on writing. The creativity will take care of the rest.

In recognition of Independence Day, I will not have a post on July 4th. So if I did the math properly, my next post will be on July 8th. Happy Independence Day!

Monday, June 27, 2022

Starting the Whole Writer Thing

I've been doing a lot of writing and a lot of thinking lately, and I decided that today it might be nice to not talk about the big concepts surrounding manuscripts and novels and such. Instead, let's zoom in on a very simple question I hear a lot: How do I become a writer? While the simple answer is, "Start writing," I want to get into some of the things that prompt people to ask this question, then branch out and find some answers that can put people on the right path.

Looking back over the many years to the point where I asked that question, I was fortunate. As I mentioned in my first-ever post on this blog, my pursuit to be a writer was driven by a need to tell stories. Not just my stories, not just funny or scary stories, but to share all the thoughts and ideas crashing around my brain. I started writing regularly before I asked the question of how I should do this. So, perhaps the more important question to ask is not how you should become a writer, but why you want to write. (Hint: If it's for the money, you might want to rethink your strategy.)

There are a lot of reasons why you want to become a writer. For some - such as myself - it satisfies an urge to communicate and share. For others, it is an inward exploration that exposed a deeper reality or meaning of life. Some people like the idea of taking the world around them, then compacting it into words on a page in such a way that when someone else reads it, that world pops back to life like some secret encrypted message. And, of course, there is always that urge to build worlds of fantasy, to create alternate realities and never-before-imagined people and conversations, to explore the boundless worlds of the imagination. But let's face it - if you don't know what your reason why is, your feet are kind of stuck in the mud. Answer that question first.

Once you have the why, the how should be pretty straightforward: Start writing. By writing, I don't mean jump into creating your first novel, though you are welcome to try. I mean start turning your thoughts and ideas into words on a page. Go through the frustrations of trying to describe the clouds along the western horizon at sunset, or why a kitten's mewling sounds impatient. Start creating pages full of first attempts and little ideas, of little poems (yes, poems) and descriptions of a flower. Write about your first kiss or your first funeral, and drag the emotions of that moment onto the page, kicking and screaming. Write about what your senses can't perceive but your heart can't deny. Make a thousand mistakes on your way to writing that first little description that makes you pause and say, "Damn, that's good."

And no, it does not count if you've done all of that in your head and just need to put it on paper. Just like how a painting is often different than the image we see in our head, we need to translate our ideas into those individual words in that special order that gives them meaning and life, and it takes practice and effort. A lot of it. And as you do that, and your many worlds become sketches and poems and stories, you will see how writing is just as much art as anything you ever put effort into doing.

And then you are a writer.

Friday, June 24, 2022

About the Background (Story)

There's this thing that happens in some stories called "White Room Syndrome," when the writing is focused on the character interplay and the setting simply vanishes. Now, that might seem like a pretty intense conversation or interaction, but usually it ends up being a little boring and lackluster. We need to remember that a part of what readers do is create this world in their heads, so we need to throw them a little background information to fill in the setting. Otherwise, It becomes minimalist theater which, as too many people may know, can become very boring and lackluster.

Now, this piece isn't about making sure your characters have things to interact with; that's pretty much been said. Rather, it is the importance of your characters having background as well, or at least you knowing about those driving forces in your character's history that push them to do what they do. Characters without backgrounds become similar to that white room, except the room is their personality. And, frankly, I think we all can recall times we've met someone or dated someone who doesn't really have any background context to them. Chances are, we weren't positively influenced by the experience.

By the way, there is a difference between knowing the character's background and having them discuss their background. Again, I am sure we have met people who lack personal boundaries and tell stories about their life in response to anything - that can be kind of grating, or perhaps informative, or something in between. We don't have to make our characters that outward to incorporate their background - sometimes the best characters keep very quiet about their past but the reader can tell it affects the character. At this point, the unknown draws the reader in, the urge to discover is activated, and the pages start turning. However, the writer better know why this is happening.

Think of a character who shows up at a bar to meet some friends. When they order drinks, he says, "Just water." This kind of unusual action immediately creates some interest because it's out-of-place, but at some point there needs to be a pay-off. The writer needs to know why well ahead of time. Standard reason: the character's an alcoholic. Or maybe that's what the writer wants you to think, but actually the character never drinks when he's about to get into a fight, and he knows one's coming. Maybe his experience with these friends often means he will be designated driver by proxy. Maybe he's on a cleanse. A million reasons why - the writer gets the luxury of teasing the reader, drawing interest, and playing the game page by page.

I always write a lot of backstory into my characters, and most of it never makes it directly into the final product. However, it moves the character to act in certain ways, and the reader picks up on that. In that regard, the characters actions are organic enough that they feel real and precipitated by something, and steers the character away from "White Room Syndrome."

Monday, June 20, 2022

Empathy for the Devil

First off - yes, I know the Rolling Stones song is called, "Sympathy for the Devil." My little play on this goes back to last week. As you may recall, last Friday's post, "Writing and Empathy" was all about getting richer, deeper characters by understanding and appreciating what it would be like to be them. I also made a quick reference that this would work for antagonists as well, so this bit shows how we can make our bad guys stand out not by doing bad things but by writing them with empathy. And what better way is there to do this than by showing it through the baddest of the bad guys himself - the Devil?

That's right - lets look at the Devil. Satan. Lucifer. Old Scratch. the Prince of Darkness. Whatever name you prefer, he is absolutely the worst. The world of literature and song is chock full of stories involving the Devil, whether he is wreaking havoc upon mankind or going on down to Georgia, he is a bad dude. We know the deal - telling lies, wielding fire, stealing souls, all the usual tricks. However, in most of these stories, old Mephistopheles comes off as rather flat. He might dress well, but he's actually just a one-trick pony, and writing should do better than that. With a little empathy, we can flesh out our diabolical character, and make him stand out from the crowd of literary evil.

First off, we can offer some empathy through answering the basic journalistic questions that should always be asked: Who, what, where, when and why. We already know the who, what, where and when of our bad guy, so the real big one is why, and this is when it gets interesting. Why does the Devil come for peoples' souls? Well, the old routine says, "That's what he does." This is a cop-out, and we should go deeper. We should give the reader an idea of why this particular soul, this particular moment, is so important. Maybe even consider some background.

While there are many back stories about the Devil, they all center around him loving God unconditionally, but being cast out of Heaven because he could not accept God's eternal love for Man. Since that point, the Devil has tried to reclaim his seal at God's right hand by proving time and again how he was in fact better than Man, how Man was weak, fragile, corruptible, and ultimately unworthy of such love. Some stories argue that the Devil would gladly wipe out mankind so that God would have no other choice but to admit the Devil was right. All in the name of love. 

It doesn't matter whether you buy into this story - make up your own backstory if you want. The point is that when we write about the Devil, we know where he is coming from and what motivates his action. By looking at his side of the story - by showing empathy - our Devil can have more dimension and depth. Of course, by no means does this mean you have to like him or give him the benefit of the doubt. He's the freaking Devil! But by connecting to what drives him, you answer the most important question about characters - Why? - and your story can be about the big follow-up to that - How?

Now that I have riled up more than a few people, I am going to sit back for a while and schedule some time to reply to the inevitable hate mail. However, I hope that, at its core, we realize that even antagonists come off better with that empathic perspective, and that filling in the blanks can also deepen the story. Even with the Devil.

Friday, June 17, 2022

Writing and Empathy

I know I promised that my next few posts would just be bubbling with content from the recent conference I went to, and it might seem that I am diverging from that commitment. However, your trust means a lot, so I have every intention of connecting the conference stuff to today's post. Like a lot of stories, sometimes you need to hang in there for the payoff.

In my writing group yesterday, one author wrote an incredibly touching, tear-in-the-eye piece called, Loss. As the title suggests, it was a piece reflecting on a recent loss in the author's life. However, to better process this tragedy, it is written in the perspective of someone else rather than the author. This character is the spouse of the recently departed, and it explores how they see the world and everything through the lens of grief. It was a very touching piece, and the secret (or one of the secrets) was the fact that it overflowed with - you guessed it - empathy. 

Simply put, empathy is the effort to feel something from someone else's perspective. Not actually replacing that person's role, but walking in their shoes as it were, and seeing the world through their eyes and with their heart. When emotional situations emerge, a natural response is for us to internalize and relate it to ourselves. Being able to empathize, however, gives a new meaning to the situation we experience, and an insight we may have never had if we remained in our own shoes. This author, connecting to this loss through another character instead of through their own experience, gives added dimension to an already-intense situation. 

So, how does the conference get involved in all this? Well, probably the best panel we had was one on character development. Often, supporting characters can come off as flat or as merely means to an end because we keep them in the frame of their purpose regarding the main character. In particular, this is the curse of antagonists, who often seem like one-dimensional obstacles rather than actual people with motives and intentions. This conference section offered up a simple cure to avoid this trap - empathy.

The best cure for the flat character is one I have mentioned in this post before. I call it walking in their skin. If I have a supporting character that doesn't seem very deep or filled-in, I start up a new document and start writing character sketches from that character's perspective. Simple things at first - that character goes to the store. How does their mind operate with that task? Do they march straight through or look around for a while? Do they interact with others? Is this a comfortable experience or an annoying chore? I look at the world from their eyes, and see how things mind look different. I keep on doing these sketches until I know that character from the inside, then I go back to my main story. At that point, their scenes can't help but to improve.

Particularly for emotionally charged situations, try writing about it from the perspective of another person - a spouse, like the author in my group did, a parent, a child, a pet - anyone who has a separate view than yours. As you see the world differently, you see more of it, and it will show in your writing. And, of course, your readers will pick up on it whether they realize it or not.

Monday, June 13, 2022

Old Dogs and New Tricks

As promised, I have returned from this two-day writer's conference just overflowing with renewed energy and excitement about writing. And of course, I fully intend on pouring all that into my next few postings. Having said that, I do want to make sure that I don't flood everyone with too much information in the first two posts, spend all that energy too quickly, and not have anything to tide me over for the summer. So I thought it best to approach this from the so-called 30,000-feet view, and focus in over the next few weeks.

The excitement about workshops is that they are concentrated, intense, and intent on getting writers into a better frame of mind about a particular aspect of their craft. This is actually a pretty important part of the discussion, so I want to talk about the different kind of workshops out there, what to expect, and what everyone can get from any conference. Yes everyone. Even old guys like me.

This particular conference was about getting published, and this covers a lot of real estate, mostly from making your writing top-notch stuff to soliciting for agents/publishers to marketing your work and yourself. I have been running in this circle for a while, but I have indeed found that there were things I still needed to know, and things I needed to fix. For the people in this stage of their writing journey, these conferences do a few good things. First, they put you in touch with people in the business - editors, agents, and publishers who can become part of your network. And you get a chance to have absolute strangers see your work and offer feedback - brutal, honest, this-is-what-you-need-for-the-big-leagues feedback. Utterly priceless. Lastly, you get to share the common bond of the writer struggling to make it big. Misery loves company, especially when they can write about it later.

Now, other workshops cover different areas, and these are just as priceless. Lots of local writing workshops will often focus on the art of writing - how to create a story, the art of fleshing out characters and getting readers interested, polishing your work, and so on. These can cover a broad range of writers - from people who want to become a writer to writers who need someone to look at their work and sometimes just people who want to digest what other people are creating and thinking about. Sometimes these groups can be intimidating to the beginner, so it is always worth it to see if the group targets beginning authors or wants people to have experience. In either case, there is always something to gain.

The workshop I moderated in the pre-COVID era was one that motivated people to start writing. Whether these are people who used to write but fell out of the habit, want to write their story but don't know how, or just simply want to try something new, these should be open, constructive forums where people help each other move forward as writers. And I have been fortunate to witness several people enter such groups as curious beginners and grow into published authors. No matter how many times it's happened, it is wonderful to behold.

So, in short, if you want to get your inner writer some exercise, look around locally for writing groups and workshops, and see what meets your needs. At the very least, you will meet some new people with common interests, and there's a good chance you can learn something new. I know this old dog did just that.

Friday, June 10, 2022

Self-Investment

As I mentioned in my last post, I am in fact writing this post during the lunch break of a Writer's Workshop, so it will be brief but hopefully influential. There have only been a couple of sessions so far, but the vibe I am getting from the facilitators is that there are two kinds of writers: The ones who see writing as an ongoing process toward some greater purpose, and everyone else.

The part that stands out about the first group is they recognize that writing is, first and foremost, a personal mission that one must pursue on their own. Chances are, we all started off doing our own writing as school assignments before we decided to write our own essays and stories. However, at some point, some part of our mind said, "Hey, I like this, and I don't need Ms. Lester telling me what to write or how many pages it will be - I can do this whenever I want!" At some point, this moved from just a creative exercise into something more, and it began feeding into itself, turning someone who loves writing into a full-fledged writer.

Whatever the catalyst may have been, this starts a process that writers all understand on some level: Writing is an exercise in self-investment. You will reap dividends in line with how much effort you put into it. If you just write occasionally, you will progress at a slow, steady rate. However, the more you write, the more time you dedicate to creating and improving your work, the more you will be able to accomplish. So simple, yet so often overlooked. On that note, here are three tips to help motivate you to get better returns from self-investment.

  • The more you read, the more you write. Give yourself a chance to read different things, explore different subjects, and consume all kinds of pose and poetry. This doesn't necessarily improve your writing skills immediately, but it will push you toward trying to create things similar to what you've read.
  • The more you write, the more you write. This seems obvious, but it's more than just a statement. As you find yourself getting into the habit of writing regularly, your mind starts processing things differently and you see the world in a narrative form. I have writer friends who have committed themselves to this to the point where an idea will come to mind and they have to jot something down as soon as possible because their creative mind now demands it. Literally demands it. That is a truly dedicated writer, and they got this way by turning writing into a lifestyle.
  • Writing is a habit, not a goal. When someone sets out to write a book, it's an admirable task. However, the best books don't come from someone who said, "I want to write a book; what should it be about?" but rather, "I want to explore this story idea and see what comes of it." In the latter case, the goal is an ongoing process that just happens to create a novel as part of it. Life continues on after that, and more ideas come to life, but the product is often a result, not the objective.

Speaking of which, I need to quickly publish this and get back to the conference. And I guarantee you that come Monday, my mind and blog will be bubbling with ideas as a result of everything I hear today and tomorrow. And I can also assure you that in the midst of all this inspiration, I will also do a little writing.

Monday, June 6, 2022

Stories and Conclusions

Sometimes I get this question and it usually lingers with me long after I've answered it: "I'm not sure how to end the story." This question is not as easy as it may seem, because it's one that touches on philosophical themes. Does any story really end? Isn't the end of one story just the beginning of another? And, of course, is this work something that you plan on continuing? But all that aside, it's worth taking a look at how we wrap up a piece of writing.

First and foremost, we need to go back to something we should've been thinking about when we created this piece: "What do I want to say?" Our stories need some purpose and some reason for us to create them - a statement to be said, an idea to be discussed, or maybe the whole piece is a very long answer to a simple question. The point is that we need to think about this initial motive in order to know where to wrap things up.

Think about a book series or some show you've streamed that you've invested a lot of time in, and the conclusion left you with a sense of satisfaction. What feelings resonate with you the most? Was it the sense that the characters had grown and developed in a way very much in line with the story, and that you were a participant in it? Was there a satisfying sense of accomplishment at the end? Perhaps a strong message was made about life or morality and that really stuck with you. These are the things we need to think about when we ask ourselves how we plan on ending a story.

Now think about a similar story where the ending fell flat. (Game of Thrones comes to mind, plus a few Netflix series, but I won't go into specifics.) Think about the parts that made you say, "We were building up to that?", "What about all these other story arcs?" or my favorite, "So... that's it?" Each of those questions should prompt you as a writer to recognize how you would've created a more satisfying ending in the broadest sense - not whether a particular character lives or dies, but, say, whether or not the message from their story was clear and complete, and all the factors leading up to that were brought to a satisfying point. 

Once you can look at those good and bad examples, look back at your own story and ask, "What do I want to say?" and "What will the reader want to take away from this?" Sometimes, a character's happiness is destroyed, but if that was the inevitable result of their actions and there was a clear track leading to that point, such an ending can be satisfying. Sad, but satisfying. However, a happy ending for someone who clearly never earned nor deserved it can be one of the more disappointing endings around.

Conclusions are difficult, and they should be worth the deep investment in time and thought that the reader has placed into reading your story. This obliges you to take a good amount of time to answer that simple question, "How do I end this?"

Friday's post will likely be small if it exists at all, since I will be attending a big writing workshop. My apologies, but rest assured, it will provide ample fodder for the next few commentaries. So until then, just keep on writing.

Friday, June 3, 2022

Big Energy

We all know the scene. You're at the concert, waiting for it to begin. The anticipation is building, your gut tightening as you wait for those opening chords. Then, the house lights dim, the stage lights burst on, and the headliner comes out with that big, "Hello, Chicago!" You and 20,000 other fans cheer wildly and the concert begins. You are enthralled for the rest of the night.

Now, if you have experienced this, you know the feeling is simply amazing (and it applies in cities other than Chicago). It is a grand, unifying experience that is just hard to replicate in the real world. However, there's something that happens under the radar that connects you and the performer on another level. In a little part of your mind, that performer up on the stage has just said hello to you. That's right, you there in the 25th row, far right side of the stage. A part of your mind activates a personal connection and stirs up some extra energy because that performer said hello to you, as opposed to a general hello to all the good people of Chicago. And as the concert goes on and the performers talk to (not with) the crowd, that personal energy builds. And it feels good.

This little trick - this "Hello, Chicago," - doesn't just work in music. It works in any medium where the artist wants to build that energy by creating a bond with the audience, be it a bunch of fans, people at an art showing, or just one single reader. In this case, the artist happens to know the city they are performing in, and uses that to establish a common ground - to connect the wires and start transmitting the energy. A writer can and should use this same technique, and has more than one way to do it.

In the case of the concert, there's a natural draw. I likely shelled out $200 for that ticket, so I am already a receptive audience. If I am a reader who likes historical narrative, ships, and World War One, I will naturally be drawn to books like Dead Wake by Erik Larson, and the writer doesn't have to try too hard to make the sale. However, Mr. Larson would be wise to make sure to build that energy. His words should reach out to me to communicate the historical relevance, make me feel the water, and understand the tension of the war.

The best way an author can build that energy (in historical narratives or fiction) is to appeal to those aspects most important to the story. Offer the saltiness of the ocean water, the feel of being on an ocean liner in 1914, every element that speaks to the subject matter should be crafted to be a very personal experience.

In personal stories, this is all the more important. We can tell a story about a journey across the ocean and describe in vivid detail every sunset, whale sighting and angry wave, but we can do more. We can make the personal connection - offer up our feelings about that sunset. Our personal awe and splendor of seeing a whale, or our nausea from the rolling waters. When we talk about these in a common language our reader can understand, we are connecting with them and building up that energy. We are giving them that, "Hello, Chicago!" and they bind themselves to our story.

Building that energy is strictly up to the writer, but it is self-investment. The more it's done, the more it draws in the reader. And, similar to shouting out to the crowd, it also works in places other than Chicago.