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, May 13, 2022

Do You Believe...?

Be honest - when you think of Friday the 13th (such as it is today), do you think of bad luck? Do you get a little extra superstitious on this particular date? When something bad happens, is your first impulse to blame it on the calendar? A surprising number of people have some kind of discomfort with this date - triskaidekaphobia in medical parlance - and many can support their fear with sound examples of unexplainable, bad things that happened on this very date. Does this validate all the things about Friday the 13th? Not really. Yet somehow, it persists.

What ingrains this date into many people's minds is that it is demonstrated to be bad through examples, then future bad events are tied to that date as well. It would probably not surprise anyone that there is no scientific evidence suggesting there are more accidents, natural disasters, or other other tragedies on this data than any other, and yet here we are. No - people believe what is suggested and shown, even if the example is an exception rather than the rule.

You might be thinking, "What does this have to do with writing?" Fair question. The answer is simple - writing (at least in fiction) is about making the reader believe in things that never happened. If I create a story of a small family growing up in Kansas during the Vietnam era, the reader needs to feel this is genuine, even though such a family never existed. This comes with a lot of work, but more to the point, it often has to appeal to the reader's feelings and emotions, sometimes at the expense of reality.

To be honest, I do not have many memories of the Vietnam era and I know very little about Kansas, having been there only once for about two hours when my flight to Chicago needed to take an emergency landing. This does not give me a lot of information to work with regarding Kansas, but I do know the basics so I can start my fiction from there. The capital is Topeka, so if I say they live on a farm 80 miles outside of Topeka, it sounds real and the reader buys in. It's a vague location so my lie can't be disproven and I don't even need to do much research for this.

Now comes the tough part. I have no idea how people from Kansas talk, whether their Midwestern habits have a cultural drift one way or the other, whether they prefer Pepsi or Coke, or a million other little things. Now, if I am selling this novel primarily to the good three-million people in the Kansas market, I better nail these facts. However, to a broader market of 330 million in the US, these details don't necessarily need to be accurate, they just need to feel accurate. They need to be reinforced, constantly brought up, and driven home by my narrative.

Let's say the family lives by a river. Well, typically, people do not think of Kansas as having rivers (it has plenty, but they are actually creeks feeding into lakes). My job as a writer is to either convince a bunch of readers there's a river in the middle of Kansas, or turn the river into some no-name creek I made up and sell the reader on that. And if the plot absolutely requires a big river, well, it looks like my little Midwest family is moving out of Kansas unless I can really get people to believe in the great Kansas River.

Getting readers to believe in something gets easier as your writing skills, and when you are at the top of your game you can get them to suspend their belief just long enough to accept the Kansas River. However, it's easier to set things up with a series of lies that are believable enough to accept, and fit in with the reader's presumptions, no matter how false they may be.

Monday, May 9, 2022

Writing Exercise: Barebones Storytelling

I've done a lot of chatting the past few weeks about description and minimal word use. While economizing our word use is a good lesson to learn on its own, it can also feed into other parts of our process. With that being said, I'd like to explain a writing exercise that helps us stretch out and prepare for writing projects. It's called Barebones Writing, and it's an inside-to-outside way of building a story. And not surprisingly, the first steps require a minimum amount of words.

In a sense, this is like outlining, and at its core, the first step resembles an outline in a lot of ways. The only difference is that we work through our steps and our stages through our narrative process rather than a cold, bullet-and-line structure. We don't paint paintings by first establishing a frame, but by sketching out the image, and building from there. So on that note, let's begin.

The four steps of a basic story are simple: A goal is recognized, a goal is pursued, a goal is achieved or lost, the journey is acknowledged. (The last step, sometimes referred to as a denoument, is minimal and sometimes even left out if achieving the goal satisfies the mission). In Barebones Writing, we start by writing a quick paragraph discussing our character's engagement with each stage. This paragraph doesn't have to make it into the final copy, it just has to relate to it.

Let's start with an easy example: Our character, Tom, is 17. Tom wants a college degree (stage 1). Tom applies to college, is accepted somewhere, attends courses, pursues a major, and spends a lot of money in the process (stage 2). Tom finally graduates (stage 3) and now prepares for the business word (stage 4). That is a story in three sentences, and our first job is is to take on each sentence and do a write-up. Our first sentence could be written out as:

"Nobody in Tom's family had ever gone to college, so he wasn't sure why he wanted to. He had been raised by people in a variety of trades that made good livings, but he wanted more. His father had been a carpenter since Tom was born, and seventeen years later, Tom's father was still a carpenter. It was an amazing talent, but Tom wanted to progress. He wanted to shape the world, not a piece of wood. For lack of a more tactful word, he wanted to evolve. This is how he started off his college application essays, and this is what he told himself every day while he waited for an acceptance letter."

Will any of this make it into the final copy? Who knows? If the final project is to be a book, then very doubtful. if this is a short story, it could very well be the opening. The point is, it creates a narrative outline with little side-points, and can be expanded upon in a number of directions. The next three steps or stages of our story should be expanded into a paragraph in a similar fashion, to create the bones of the story. This prepares us to start expanding different sections with dialogue, transitional scenes, challenges, roadblocks, side characters, and in general fleshing out the bones with some really chewy story arcs. But the first part is the difficult one - building the bones of the story. 

Give it a try without any personal restrictions and see what develops. Once you have those four paragraphs, ask yourself what would start making these events come to life. Start looking for a jumping point, and just keep writing.

Friday, May 6, 2022

Scarcity in A Time of Need

Maybe the title was a little overdramatic, but that phrase has been rolling around in my head for a while, and I think I figured out why. In a recent post, The Economics of Description, I talked about whether it was important to describe everything and anything in a scene. After all, our readers have a right to visualize what the author is talking about. The real question is how much the description contributes to the story or its surrounding mood.

This is where I think about scarcity in the time of need. Writing does need description in order to have depth and dimension, but how much do we want to offer? Authors of the Romantic Era would deluge their readers with full, rich descriptions of every detail in the room. I often joke that in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables, he took time to describe every gable. This might be a stylistic choice for any particular author, but in my humble opinion, the decision should come down to one question: At what point in the description have I done enough to get the message across? Any description after the point is made is just a waste of words. As for me, I prefer keeping descriptions scarce and limited, but effective.

Consider the following description:

"His eyelids fluttered from too many sleepless nights, his bloodshot eyes struggling to show any sign of life as he tried to look across the desk. Exhaustion melted his face, the bags under his eyes hanging low and as lifeless as his pale white cheeks that sagged like an old hound's jowls, further exhausting an otherwise weary expression. Each breath rasped long and heavy, trying to push some life back into a tired body that yearned for one moment's rest."

At what point did you get the impression that the man in this description was tired? At any point did you feel that this state of being tired was overdone? Were you ever thinking, "Okay, he's real tired, get on with it"? The answer is different for every writer, and the answer could change depending on the part of the story that contained this passage. A long description can help by heightening a tense moment, sustaining the reader's anxiety a little longer, or it could completely wreck things by defusing an action sequence. Unless there is a specific reason why this discussion of a tired face should go on, limiting the description and getting back to the story is probably of greater benefit.

I will, as always, offer the reminder that description also sets a mood, so if this description were to come early on in the story and was an establishing scene, well, go with it. However, always ask yourself if you have gone too far with your descriptive sentences and paragraphs. If at any point you question whether you've overdone it, you probably have. It does not mean that the writing is bad - lots of great writing falls to the editor's pen simply because there's too much of it. Just remember that efficiency of description is just as important, and needs to be worked on just as much.

Monday, May 2, 2022

"Journal"-ism - the Reason for Journaling

In my last post, I made an reference to journaling. In this particular case, the journaling was keeping a diary of my medical situation, and it kind of evolved from there. However, you will hear from a lot of writers that at one point or another they kept some form of writing journal - a formal notebook for poems, a diary, or just some loose pages that would accumulate over time. These all count in that they are devices that the writer used on a fairly regular basis. And they all build us up as writers, whether we know it or not.

Way back in high school, my first English teacher, Ms. Lester, insisted that all her students keep a notebook journal, and hand it in every Friday with at least three pages of writing. Three pages! Every week! When I was first handed this task, my fourteen-year-old self was aghast at the though of doing that much writing on a regular basis as an assignment, and for a reason that seemed too simple to be real. Our teacher said she wanted us to write all the time. Ugh! I thought that's what I did with all my other classes - writing down math problems, writing down historical details, writing chemistry formulas. And now I was to write just... stuff? Three pages of whatever I wanted? When would it end?

Of course, our teacher didn't want to reveal all her secrets at once, but it would've helped me to know that once I got into the habit of regularly writing in a journal, not only would it become easier but it would help me develop my thoughts and my ability to convert things in my brain to words on the paper. At the time, I didn't fully understand that as I wrote, I thought about things. As I thought, I processed ideas. As those ideas became more elaborate, I needed some good tools to properly express them, and that's what this process was all about.

A simple statement - from our first written words, we are writers. However, most of us start out with simple sentences. "I like my cat," "Today was a good day," "I am looking forward to vacation," and so forth. These are informative but not particularly enlightening. However, as we write about how we like our cat, we acknowledge that this is a complex feeling and start expanding on it. "I like my cat because he stays with me even when everyone else is mad at me." At this point, some thoughts are starting to couple together, and we get used to things like explanation and expansion. And, as we read these, we start asking ourselves questions about just why a situation is that way. Then our writing starts growing on its own.

One other reason that journaling is great that Ms. Lester would never dare tell us is that it is private. Needless to say, the journal I kept in school wasn't very private because my teacher read it every weekend, so certain things would never be put on that page. However, I did recognize that I could communicate deeper thoughts in my writing that I would dare not tell my goofball friends, my family, my girlfriend, or even my cat. Once I was journaling for my sake and not for my teacher's assignment, I realized I could put some intense thoughts on that page and it was totally safe. And as those intense thoughts came out, I processed them, picked them apart, and really explored their meaning. This is a mandatory part of being a writer - the ability to ask yourself scary questions and feel comfortable with whatever truth leaps into your mind.

Journaling isn't that difficult of a habit and I recommend it to all writers as a regular practice. I recommend just getting a little loose leaf notebook and just start filling the pages. And don't worry - Ms. Lester will never see what you write.

Friday, April 29, 2022

Making Bad Things Work For You

As most people know, I have epilepsy. Fortunately it is not severe, and it has been under control for several years with the right blend of medications and avoidance techniques. That being said, there are still a host of side effects like dizziness, tremors, and headaches that I have to manage, several things I need to avoid, and the ever-present fear that at any given moment, that control might break and I could have another seizure. It's a manageable life, but it takes a physical toll, as well as a mental one. Life indeed gave me lemons in this case.

I also know several people with other chronic conditions of varying magnitude, from diabetes to depression to addiction, and they all fight their battles on a day-to-day basis. In time, we all learn that while every day is a victory, there is no actual conquering of our enemy. The victory we celebrate when we go to bed only means we live to fight again tomorrow, with no promise that it will be successful. If that sounds exhausting, it is. If it sounds hopeless, it can definitely feel that way at times. And let's face it - in one way or another, we all have these daily battles, and sometimes we throw up our hands and ask what we can do about them.

Here's my suggestion: Write about them.

Sounds like a cheap answer, doesn't it? Maybe something used as an excuse to fit this in a writing blog. I will tell you otherwise. Writing is more than a tool of creation, it is a tool of understanding, of processing our circumstances and gaining a deeper knowledge of a situation. In that regard, as we start to see more dimension to our chronic condition, we start to understand it on a deeper level, and it becomes less sinister. We start to see it for what it is versus what we fear it is.

When I was first diagnosed with epilepsy, my neurologist recommended I keep a diary of my seizures so we could better understand what we were up against. I did, and it seemed useless at first. My heart wasn't in it. Entries would look like, "January 8, 7:40 am: Seizure in hallway. Fell, hit doorknob. Lump on my head." Pretty basic, right? Clinical and boring. But like any writing, once I explored it, it revealed things to me. The more I tried to describe them versus just saying what happened, the more I understood. "Seizure started at the office. Right side went numb, like limbs detached from my mind. Couldn't speak; every word just a drooling grunt. Tried to get up, lost my balance immediately and fell out of my chair. Head hit doorknob." It might not seem like it, but inside I now felt like I had some control over the narrative. And of course, as I tried to write about something as confusing and abstract as the feeling of my brain malfunctioning, I gained a few new writing tools. Eventually, I moved my seizure discussions into personal character sketches and write-ups.

This is a great tool for coping with a lot of conditions. Many people I know who fight depression keep or have kept a journal to document the war of moods within themselves, and I have seen the writing process help people battling alcoholism and drug addiction by bringing their deeper problems into the light. I do not preach writing as a cure-all by any means, but rather as a very helpful instrument for working with very difficult situations. And if it's any help, you will soon discover just how many famous writers built up their writing chops by processing their innermost demons.         

Monday, April 25, 2022

The Economics of Description

As someone born and raised in and around Chicago, I have a certain connection to the big city and all it has to offer. Thanks to my decades of living and working in the Loop, I feel I can very passionately describe it in any and all of my Chicago-based stories. Whether it's talking about the windy canyons that serve as streets, the river view, or that definitive skyline, I can offer a few paragraphs about it at will.

Truth of the matter, however, is that I don't do that in most of my stories - especially the Chicago-based ones. Why I often pass it over is not out of some irony or negligence or literary spite, but rather for a simple reason - the city isn't that important as far as the story is concerned. As much as I love writing about all things Chicago, sometimes it's better to save those words and descriptions for the things that actually move the story along.

This all goes toward being economical with our words. This might not seem like an obvious thing to do, especially since beginning writers are constantly told about the importance of description, filling in the scene and using words to make things come to life. However, beginners are taught to use description in order to learn how to use that tool - when to use that tool comes later, followed by learning if they should use it at all.

Take, for example, the face of your main character. Besides describing the basic driver's license features - eye and hair color - there are details like mouth shape, nose size, ears, hair style, freckles, birthmarks, scars, etc. The list is quite huge, and we could easily do a long-winded paragraph just describing the finer points of our main character's appearance. Some of that writing might actually be quite beautiful as well. However, when we do this, it becomes an info-dump - a large amount of information that breaks the reader away from the narrative. Also, we are likely offering more information than is necessary. Does the story depend on the reader knowing the size of the character's ears or how the bridge of their nose bends? Probably not. Maybe the reader just needs to know that our handsome, fair-haired lead has a disarming smile and blue eyes that could never project anger. We give that to the reader, they fill in the blanks, and the story goes on.

Now, there can be a good reason to use a lot of description, and this is where the economics of the matter comes in. One might want to write a paragraph describing, say, downtown Chicago if it contributes to the mood surrounding the story. If our character is a Midwestern hayseed who just moved to Chicago, then dedicating a paragraph to describing the size and scope of the city through this farm boy's eyes becomes a wise investment in words. Describing the city's grandeur compared with the character's expectations creates a very strong, lasting presence in the story. In this regard, it's not an info-dump because both the setting and mood are stronger for its presence.

Ultimately, descriptions are most effective when used to target important story points and make them stand out. Whether it's highlighting a freckle on a character's nose or some of the tallest buildings in the world, the purpose should always be to draw the reader's attention to that particular detail. Anything else is just showing off - even when it's something worth showing off, such as Chicago.

Friday, April 22, 2022

World-Building and Info-Dumping

Today is Earth Day. However, I will not be going on about environmental writing techniques or how to save the planet with the written word. (Please recycle your old drafts). Rather, I thought it best to talk about just what it takes for a writer to build a world, and how to offer it to the reader without creating too many unnecessary words.

When we set out into the world of fiction with a mind to create a new world for our reader - be it alternative history, sword-and-sorcery fantasy, sci-fi, dystopian future, or whatever - we have a lot of work to do. As the writer, we need to have this world virtually at our fingertips, along with all its little details. What's the currency? Forms of government? How many moons are there? A variety of intelligent species? Technological development? It's a big world out there, and it all depends on what the author wants.

That being said, the author can limit this work by first understanding the story being presented. If this is about a scientific research team landing on an uncharted planet and checking it out for intelligent life, the writer can focus on the immediate aspects of how that plot develops. The environment, possible flora and fauna, any intelligent or hostile species - etc. Politics and economics might not be important, even if they exist. Rather, the focus is on the world surrounding the main characters and what their journey will uncover. If the plan is to have them discover a hidden race of highly intelligent, wealthy politicians, then prepare that. However, don't do what you don't need to do. You will understand the world better, but it will not benefit your story.

Furthermore, as you roll out this world, bring it out through the eyes and ears of the characters rather than a long, dramatic explanation of everything. In the case of a hi-tech, futuristic wonderland, it's fun to tell the reader about how the flying car has been around for a hundred years and that food is in pill form, but the reader does not hook in to the story. Rather, having a character fly into the nearest fly-thru restaurant, order his burger and fries and be given two pills accomplishes this but it engages the reader. This is the "show, don't tell" part of writing, and it engages the reader by forming a world around actions.

In fact, a lot of stories that show and don't tell have very rich, drawn-out backgrounds that we rarely get to hear about. This is the problem and the temptation with world-building - we make a whole planet with an expansive history, and want the reader to know everything we did. Therefore, we tell them - usually at the expense of the plot. This is the dreaded "info dump" - breaking away from the narrative to pour out a lot about a character's background, the past hundred years of a planet's history, its elaborate and fragile ecosystem, or whatever. Info-dumping usually feels like the hero's journey has pulled over at a rest stop to enjoy an infomercial about the writer's creativity. The reader is there for the hero, not the writer's ego. This is avoided when the author inserts those necessary details into character conversations and observations, or small descriptions placed in high-value areas where the reader will take note of something and register it for later.

Unfortunately, a lot of the work in world-building never makes it to the written page. It does, however, come off to the reader as a well thought-out world with depth and connection, which is the real end-game of creating your own special world. As a writer - just like as a person - your main job is to take care of the world you create, in order to ensure that others enjoy it as much as you do.

Okay - that was also a bit of Earth Day advice.

Friday, April 15, 2022

Keeping Things Simple

At least here in the US, April 15th is usually associated with that wonderful frustration known as Tax Day. While many people no longer go through the physical act of writing all the numbers onto the tax forms, they usually don't commit to any other type of writing either. So, on this day, I am going to talk about taking a writing cheat day - doing some writing that is just for the pleasure of creating, without being challenging or exploring the deep recesses of one's soul. Nope, today we take a break from the heavy stuff, and reach into the bag of easy writing. And yes, there's actually a good reason for this, and yes, it has something to do with the cat in the picture.

One thing I know happens to me a lot and also to a number of other people is when life gets busy or hectic, it's difficult to just sit down and write. Even when there's time to write, a distracted mind is not a writer's friend. It's hard to create something meaningful when the taxes are due, the bills need paying, and that checkbook won't balance itself. In these cases, we should go for the easy win. The slam dunk writing assignment. The slump-buster that just gets us back into a good writing headspace.

The easiest one is to write something about your favorite pet, living or dead, or for that matter, any pet you wish to write about. My former cat, Meca (above), is an easy enough target. I could write about how she used to sit in front of my keyboard when I left it alone too long, or how she constantly got her head stuck in red Solo cups. I could talk about how she came into my life, how she died, or a million other little stories. They're easy to produce, simple enough to communicate, and everyone likes a pet story.

Not a pet owner? How about a story from your childhood? Everyone has a favorite teacher, a favorite location, some place that stands out - something. Writing down a simple childhood memory and fleshing out the details is always a good writing exercise and it's something that everyone can connect to. Even for those people who had very rough childhoods, hopefully it only takes a little digging through the rocky, coarse, hardscrabble terrain of our past to find that one flower of a memory poking up through the cracks. Those can even be the best stories simply because they stand out from the rest.

The childhood memory thing not latching on? Then write someone else's story. Do some people-watching, look at the faces around you, and make up their life for a bit. And yes - in the era of COVID, sometimes when I just want to see random faces, I turn on the TV, switch to a random, muted channel, and explore the people I see. News or reality shows can help when they show more candid, relatable people rather than people with proper lighting and heavy make-up, but the choice is yours. Make up a story about their ear piercing or their tattoo, what drove them to that hairstyle, or whatever aspect leaps out at you. It's an easy win for getting some writing done.

There are plenty of quick life hacks for getting in some writing when things are way too stressful or complicated for writing the perfect scene or poem. Rather, the secret is finding a safe haven in simplicity, and writing something that gets you out of the chaos for a little bit. Just write a little something now, and do your taxes later.

Monday, April 11, 2022

Trigger Warning

Trigger, verb: To spark a response, especially a negative emotional response.

If you haven’t seen this word in a while, well, congratulations, you are one of the few. Thanks to social media, this little word has wheedled its way into the contemporary lexicon. Now, anything that evokes emotion or brings about any response other than a tepid “meh” gets its own little warning. As for people who have a pronounced response to anything, they are mocked for being “triggered.” Apparently, in social media we are not supposed to have strong feelings about anything unless we are the ones starting the discussion. Anyone who responds is the triggered one.

However, is being triggered such a bad thing?

As a human being, I am blessed with access to a wealth of emotions, some of which are stronger than others. Keeping them under control has its benefits, but there’s a special power in harnessing all the energy from a particularly strong emotive response and directing it in a creative direction. Whether it’s writing, art, music, or an impassioned speech, when such a creation is fueled by emotion, it gains strength. With emotions supercharging our creations, they become strong and mighty. They move people.

Yet for some reason, we often get scolded if something sets those feelings in motion. People laugh and say, “Boy, you got triggered” as if that’s a bad thing. If some guy tells an offensive joke and I spend the next thirty seconds telling him exactly why that joke offended me, the current climate suggests I am the bad guy for being “triggered.” 

Let me tell you a secret that will get you far: Being triggered is good. It’s healthy. It means you are in touch with those very human emotions and you are willing to turn them into actions. Of course, keeping them under control is kind of necessary, but the important part is bringing them out and letting them guide your response. If my response to the guy and his offensive joke is to beat him senseless in a flurry of rage, well, I need to reconsider my life choices. However, if I take that offense and turn it into a full, rich palette of counterpoint and social commentary to craft a response that utterly shames the guy, then I have done society a service. He might respond with, “Boy, you got triggered,” but that’s okay. We have already acknowledged the limited value of this guy’s opinion, and observers will have to acknowledge the strength of our counterpoint. A great service is done.

What does this all mean for the writer in us? Simple. The next time something elicits a strong feeling within you – anything, really – write down your most vigorous response. As they say, put the rage on the page. Go freestyle for a while, flowing with whatever emotion pops up. Write or type or draw or whatever until you feel it is out of your system or you are utterly exhausted. Then, after taking a break from whatever you created, go back and engage with it again, this time putting some finesse in your creation, polishing it up and smoothing the rough edges. This second step is crucial, because it teaches you how to better create your next piece. Eventually, your strong responses become sharper, more controlled and concise. Your writing transforms from merely a tool into a beautiful, weaponized instrument of persuasion, alive with emotion and dangerous to any who dare oppose you.

In short, get triggered. Get excited or revved up about something. Get mad, get annoyed, get angry. Just make sure you take control of it and focus it toward a constructive purpose. Use your emotions instead of letting them use you, and you’ll always benefit in the long-run.

And maybe ease up on social media a little.

Friday, April 8, 2022

There's No Story Without Characters

I read this a lot on writing boards and writer chat areas. Authors go with something like, "If I have a real good story idea (which I do), then how important are things like characters?" or "I'm not the greatest at writing characters - how do I get around this?" The writer in me dies a little when I see questions like this, and I try to answer them as politely as possible. However, it boils down to a very simple position - characters are the story. They deliver it, they play it out, they carry the weight. There's no way to "get around" the character situation.

They say good characters can make up for a weak story, but weak characters will absolutely bury a good story. They are right, and with very few exceptions. So usually, I recommend to these people that they do some character-building exercises. I know that "character-building" is also a euphemism for a struggle, and for writers this is no different. However, this needs to be the kind of exercise a writer does regularly to develop the tools necessary for quality story-telling.

Just like how an artist will often do several sketches of their subject before they paint the portrait, writers should write out a few narratives of their characters to better understand them; to get a feel for how they feel and respond. For every manuscript file I have, I have several smaller write-ups of the main characters. Simple descriptive paragraphs about how they walk and talk, their quirks, their phobias. Little character sketches about them enjoying a hobby or preparing a meal. Even small short stories putting the character through some odd encounter to see how they respond. If I write these, I know the character better for doing so. If I have trouble with these, maybe I need to know my character better.

A trick that I use these days was actually inspired by social media. You know those occasional questionnaires people circulate asking about your favorite food, favorite color, social security number, etc.? Well, instead of filling it out on your own and getting your identity stolen, fill one out for your character. Try to understand the little things about them - the things that mostly float around inside their head but are rarely discussed. Knowing these things starts teaching you about personal motivations and drives, and allows you to build around the things you already know. A character with a lot of past trauma might have it come out in odd ways, and once you know those ways, you can give your character that much more depth.

Lastly, I try to write a sketch of that character encountering something that challenges their beliefs. If they don't believe in ghosts, then write about them seeing something ghostly and how they process this information. In life, we learn a lot about people in moments of crisis - writing is the same way. We give that character a moment of internal conflict and see what happens. In doing this, the character grows, and we understand them better.

Hopefully, this offers a little help in the character-building process. My secondary intention is to reply to people's character inquiries with a link to this post, but this is mostly another way for us to build out our collection of writing tools, and no longer worry about whether our story is good enough to survive weak characters.

Monday, April 4, 2022

Whose Story Should We Tell?

I see this a lot in writing workshops. Someone comes in and sets out the long-term goal of writing their memoirs or some autobiographical work. Personally, I always support this, because it gives the writer a chance to examine their life and explore the long and winding path they've traveled. The importance of their journey relative to others isn't even a concern. What matters is that they are setting out to write about the world they have seen. That is also when the tough part begins.

Let's take parents, for example. Everyone will want to talk about their parents if either or both of those people played a role in their life. However, this immediately brings up some questions: how do you describe their lives, and what do you present to the reader? This might sound easy to do, but it requires some choices to be made that will affect just how the story goes.

On paper, I had some pretty standard-issue parents. Despite different educations and backgrounds, their paths crossed in 1960 working at the same place in Chicago. They got married, had kids, changed jobs, bought a house in the suburbs, and divorced in the 1970s - pretty much the American Story. Their families were scattered about, they had parents who were my grandparents, and all these other relatives who were my aunts, uncles, and cousins. This is a lot of information relevant to my life, but very few details I have offered really participate in the story that is my life. Describing these parts is like describing the colors in a painting - it is part of the whole work, but we need to see how they are used to understand what the artist wants to present.

Instead of dumping all the information on you about the shape and size of my family, let's see how I perceived them and how their presence (or absence) affected me. After all, an autobiography should be a very personal experience, and what is more personal than viewing all those family details from the eyes of the person who lived it.

Example: I did have the standard family set-up on paper. However, three of my grandparents had passed away by the time I was four, and my remaining grandmother was in her 70s and not very active in my life. If the reader wants to learn about me, they need to learn about how this influenced my vision of the world, so I need to offer that. I saw the world as a place where grandparents were old, rare, and distant. Because of this, it was a treat to see a grandparent, but also kind of sad because those visits only lasted maybe for the weekend, a few times a year. It was also difficult for me to understand how I somehow had friends with living great-grandparents, and three or four living grandparents, some much younger than seemed possible. At this point, what I am telling you is my story, not the story of my existence.

Documenting the details of one's existence is not very difficult, and is definitely a way to pass information on to future generations. However, this is different than telling your story - what you saw, what you experienced, and what you felt. Your story can be amazing, adventurous, and even scary at times, simply because it is how you saw the world at a particular time. 

More importantly, it is the story that nobody else can write other than you. The world from your eyes and your mind is something nobody else has experienced, and it's the best story you can write.

   

 

Friday, April 1, 2022

Humor... Seriously

No April Fool's Day prank here. No clever little lead-on that takes you a long way down a winding road on some fruitless snipe hunt in the name of being funny. On this boondoggle of a holiday, I thought it best to talk about the very difficult techniques underlying humor in writing. This is something that goes beyond just being funny, but the serious art of constructing entertainment for the reader.

First, let's be clear. There are no snipes. Furthermore, humor in writing is more than just telling a joke through narrative. Yes, that can be funny, but in the long-run, that's just storytelling. Most people can tell a joke, but few people know how to create a joke. Listen to interviews with any comedian and they will talk about treating their jokes just like any other art media - they create it, play with it, change things around, try out a few different things, workshop pieces, and really put in the hours required to shape a story into a joke. It's work, and it requires tools. Fortunately, you can learn them through practice.

Humor dwells around the unexpected. In writing, the laugh comes from building a reader's expectation of what the character is going to do, then reveal that the character's intentions lead to a completely different direction. This is not lying, but creating an environment that uses every detail to move the reader one way. This is simple misdirection. It still has to hold the character to everything they said and did, but the differing conclusion creates the humor.

Think of a piece taking place in a church basement. An AA meeting, an air of brutal honesty and thoughtful introspection on the face of every contemplative, sober member sitting on their squeaky folding chair. Our main character opens up for their share, talks about a life of poverty and drinking, then says, "You know, at the time I went through all that, I would sometimes think everyone else had screwed me over, and it was all their fault for making me the drunk that I was. But after several meetings here, and a lot of soul-searching, I've come to a simple conclusion. I was right - it's their fault, not mine." Dark humor, yes, but something that should elicit a groan from the reader because everything led them down one road only to find the character came to the wrong conclusion.

Other, more simple forms of humor come from techniques such as misunderstandings and exaggerations, which are also different plays on misdirection. The infamous, "Who's on First?" sketch by Abbott and Costello is a study in misunderstanding and misdirection, only the misdirection happens at the beginning and the two characters, in their failure to communicate the same idea, go in opposite directions. Hilarity ensues.

Exaggeration is something more difficult to write because it involves a character taking a simple situation and taking it entirely out of proportion. This is misdirection of magnitude, and has its own playfulness. Take, for example, a guy at home, getting ready to go to bed after having watched Scream. He gets a quick text from his girlfriend: "Come over. I need you." The reader might think this is just a booty call, but the character, having just watched a slasher film, is in a different mindset entirely. Every step he takes toward that mindset is an exaggeration of his one miscalculation, and it should build to a hilarious crescendo with the police rushing into his girlfriend's apartment only to find her wearing only a frilly teddy and a look of abject confusion. Misdirection, exaggeration, escalation, entertainment.

So, now enjoy your April Fool's Day, be safe, and there's no such thing as a snipe.

Monday, March 28, 2022

Indiana Jones and Storytelling

When Raiders of the Lost Ark came out (spoilers ahead), I made a special point to see it on the big screen. I had heard all about this high-adventure spectacle with its immersive action. And, of course, people said it was a great movie that moved at a rollicking pace but still managed to tell a great story. So there I was, in the privacy of a crowded movie theater, soaking in this grand story of the race to find the Ark of the Covenant. And yes, there was humor, action, betrayal, romance, and a worldwide adventure. The movie fan in me thought it was great. The story fan in me was kind of let down.

Now, there is a very distinct gap between a movie fan and a story fan. A movie fan has an appreciation for how a story is told through sight and sound along with all of the techniques used to spin a yarn about an archaeologist on an epic quest. A story fan, however, cannot be swept away by the scenery, John Williams' music, or the mostly impressive special effects. Rather, sometimes those things get in the way, or are used to make up for a story that can be weak, thinly motivated, or ultimately unsatisfying.

Here's a little test for any adventure story: Ask yourself, "What happens if the hero never gets involved?" In an epic adventure, the results should be quite dire. In Lord of the Rings, evil would've overtaken Middle-Earth - which is bad. The Prydain Chronicles - same thing, evil would win if our hero never answered the call to adventure. This seems very important to any thrilling tale, because so much is at stake. Our hero is motivated because the fate of the world is in their hands. So, when they finally do succeed, the reader shares in the success of a mission accomplished.

Raiders of the Lost Ark failed this test, and that's where I, as a storyteller, was let down.

If Indiana Jones had stayed at his university and never went to see Marion and set out on this adventure, what would've happened? The Nazis would've retrieved the relic required to find the Ark, dug it out taken it somewhere, and the apparitions would've poured out and wiped out all the bad people around it because - big surprise - holy spirits hate Nazis. Jones was incidental at best. The actual role Jones took was one of risking others. He brought the one necessary relic to the one place it was needed, thus helping the Nazis find the Ark in the first place. Think about that - is this really a wise move? Furthermore, is the ending really a satisfying one if you exclude the famous visuals of all the bad guys melting or blowing up? As a story, it's kind of weak.

I bring this up to offer a simple challenge to any adventure story. At the end of the tale, ask yourself how the world was changed by your character's involvement. Were innocent people spared? Was disaster averted? Did the journey have a satisfying payoff that otherwise wasn't possible? Even if the sole difference is that the hero realizes something about themselves, this can be valuable. Just remember that as a writer you need this realization, because your story can't fall back on special effects.

Friday, March 25, 2022

When Is It Too Much?

I will keep this post brief, for reasons that will hopefully explain themselves. I like to think I keep up with things these days. I thought I knew all the texting shorthand and what all that OMG, BRB, WTF, SMH, STFU and so on all meant (and apparently, F is rarely a good word). Then I got hit with one that actually says a lot about our world today as well as reminding me about an important part of writing. It's kind of long - five characters - but packs a wallop. It's TL;DR and this is something a writer never wants to see.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with this, it means "Too Long; Didn't Read." It is at once elegant in that it courteously includes the semicolon, while also telling us, "This is too much for my impulse-driven, immediate-feedback-wanting, short-term twitching mind." It is kind of rude that there's convenient shorthand for saying, "I can't handle that many of your words right now," but it should remind us as writers that we do have a responsibility to do our task of writing with a certain efficiency, even if we get paid by the word.

In the simplest way, we as writers need to grab our reader's attention and hold onto them until we are done. Since we only have words to do this, we better get to work. We have certain liberties - if the reader is picking up our 400-page novel, we have a few pages to draw them into our world and convince them to read another page, another chapter, and eventually give them an experience satisfying enough to persuade them to read another of our novels. If we write short stories, we have to grab them faster. That first paragraph, that first sentence needs to be a winner. Readers locked in from that first sentence will be more willing to read a longer piece than those who do not have an initial attraction.

Of course, readers also have expectations, and those better be met within a certain number of pages or words. In the world of blogging and commenting, words should be at a premium. Informative or inspirational blog posts should keep in the area of 750-1000 words - more than that goes beyond the purpose of motivation. Persuasive essays can be longer, and as these become more researched and use more elaborate arguments, they become downright huge. However, they still need to preserve the reader's interest with strong writing. Persuasive but dry papers might serve a purpose, but they lose their effectiveness as they get bigger.

When you write stories, you hopefully won't get hit with the TL;DR tag because your audience is people interested in the literary adventure. However, your obligation is still the same: To make sure they don't feel think your story is "too long" as they are reading. Those 300 pages should just fly by in no time. Kind of like this post, because I have hit my limit and I promised to keep this brief so nobody gives me that tag.

Monday, March 21, 2022

Rehabbing our Writing

In every neighborhood there's at least one of these houses - often more. You know the house I'm talking about. Among rows and rows of nice homes, there's that one residence that's seen some real hard times. It always stands out, and not in a good way. Worst case scenario, it has a front door sealed and bolted with a double-padlock, boarded-up windows already vandalized, broken eaves, fallen gutters, a host of overgrowth terrorizing a neglected lawn, and every other sign of neglect available. You know that house? So do I. And as I passed it today on one of my walks, boy was I surprised.

The massive dumpster outside had been there for a few weeks and brimmed with every piece of wreckage imaginable. From scrapped drywall to discarded carpet, everything once inside the house was now inside the dumpster, and a work crew now diligently worked on the last of the house's facing, interior paint, roofing and siding. I am not sure how much of the original house was left, but this shattered piece of real estate that ghosts would be reluctant to haunt was now on the verge of being a cute little starter home. I stopped to talk to the crew and they let me see the interior, which was redone in every possible way. I was amazed, though I recognized the floor plan itself was still very much the same, save for a sunroom added in the the back. I left feeling better for the house, the street, and property values in general.

Now, this got me thinking about writing, as most things do, and about what it would take to rehab one of my older stories. After I went home, I looked through my "stories" folder on my PC, sorted the files by the date they had last been saved, and opened up the oldest story available. After a minute of reading, I realized this was the run-down house of the neighborhood of my writing career. Before I decided to revise it, I tempted fate and opened up another story. An absolute wreck - worthy of being condemned. With a little trepidation, I opened up a few more files, hoping against hope for something impressive. Instead, I realized I was the slum lord of bad stories. They were everywhere I looked.

However, this is where the walk through the rehabbed house gave me hope. From my days restoring apartment buildings back in the 1990s, I could see what had been done to this house - what had been replaced, what had been restored, and why each choice was made. And after decades of writing, I could look at a disaster of a piece and think, "I can see where the passive voice is weighing down the narrative. This is where the author is telling, not showing. These point-of-view shifts are taking away from the reader's perspective." After that, it's just a matter of putting in the work to take a real crappy story, apply the tools we've developed, and make it into something worth being proud of. 

Sometimes, revising a real old story can be an excellent exercise in that we get to actively go through our story-creating tools and apply them one-by-one, making a bad thing better. Probably the most difficult part of this task is realizing that at one point we originally wrote that first draft and thought, "Damn, this is pretty good!"

They can always get better.

Friday, March 18, 2022

Crowd-Splitting Subjects

It is official - NCAA March Madness has begun! And, if you are anything like me, over the past thirty hours you have watched your brackets fall apart in record time. (Kentucky, how could you fail me?) For a lot of people, March Madness is precisely that - a crazed few days where college basketball rules people's minds and occupies far more brain space than usual. The average fan's mental bandwidth is full of scores, upcoming games, what they need to happen in the next games, and a reminder of where Gonzaga really is. However, that's not true for everyone.

The thing about March Madness is, it's not for everyone. For some people, they will ask if their alma mater is playing, and once you say, "No, Wesleyan isn't in this year," they tune out. Of course, other people care even less, and get a little frustrated as to why their favorite shows are preempted by a college basketball game. Basically, this is a love it/hate it time of the year, and a very difficult one to write about. In fact most subject with the potential to split the room become very delicate matters for a writer, and sometimes they decide to avoid them altogether.

However, that's not mandatory.

With some writing, of course, you have to take a stand on one side or the other. Choose your position and defend it. If I wanted to make this piece about college basketball, I guarantee you at least six colleges, three critical match-ups, and my pick to win it all would be in the first three paragraphs. And I would also lose a fair amount of my readership for that post. The other side is to totally ignore the rites of March, but that would not do justice to me, as I do use a lot of brain cells in the unproductive task of trying to mentally influence the games I watch. So, ideally, the best strategy is to try and find something to discuss, and give it a little Madness flavoring. 

If you are writing a story with a controversial subject, you immediately have a decision to make, and that's how you want to address the audience, because you will quickly split the room, as it were. If you are doing a piece about gun rights, you need to acknowledge to yourself that there are a lot of readers on both sides of the issue just ready to dump off your piece at the first sign that your opinion leans against them. That's their right, and as a writer you have to accept that. However, it doesn't mean you have to water down your writing. You just need to think about what you want your message to be and how you want it to hit home.

Let's say you want to write a story about a gun owner who accidentally shoots a family member. Think about which audience you want to be affected the most. Do you want it to be a story reminding gun owners that they are within their rights but they need to be careful? Is it a story reinforcing the idea of gun restriction? How you answer these questions will begin to shape the characters, the tone of the piece, and ultimately the conclusion. You can then start the story with a broad appeal, hook your audience with good writing, and lead them along with a compelling story until the dramatic ending and your message. At that point, you don't need to worry about who you offended, because they've read the piece and nothing will change that.

Just remember, as a writer, your job is to write. Tell a story in the best way you can, with enough skill to give your audience something to remember. If you do it right, even people who don't agree with your point will admit, "It was pretty well written." They might not read it again, but they'll remember it, and at that point your work is done.

Now, back to March Madness and what's left of my brackets.

Monday, March 14, 2022

Venturing Into the Unknown

In the world of fiction writing, there's nothing more exciting than taking a character on an adventure through a world of mystery and imagination. However, sometimes we want that world to be our world, and while the character might be fictitious, we want the world to be familiar. At this point, parts of reality creep in on our storytelling, and we should keep this part pretty accurate. Now we need more than just a creative mind - we need information.

I was fortunate enough to have worked in the financial industry during the run-up to the housing boom/bust and the Great Recession (It wasn't my fault). For me, writing a story within that world would not be very difficult. However, for this little exercise, let's pretend that you are writing a story about a guy working in a bank at that same time. And just in case, let's also pretend you didn't have a career's-worth of experience in that industry to fall back on. How do you write a story about a person during this time and in this environment and make it sound authentic? I offer three simple things to remember before tackling this pursuit:

Get researching. During the past decade or so, there have been tons of books written about the housing crisis and the subsequent collapse, as well as a few good movies (and, of course, movies based on those books). One quick trip to the local library or a few minutes with Google should be able to hook you into a few good sources for background information and context. I am sure there is even a "The Great Recession for Dummies" out there, though I've never checked. The point is, get yourself enough information to at least establish a working knowledge for your character. You don't need to become an expert, but at the very least you need to clear up any unknowns you might recognize before you start writing.

Get help. A lot of people have their own war stories from the Great Recession, and plenty of people are willing to share them. This is one of the few good uses of social media - finding different pages and gathering different experiences. If you have a rough idea of what your character's particular role should be within the banking community, target stories that focus on this. There is absolutely no shame in saying, "I'm writing about the housing crisis and want to know what a good role would be for a character who caused some of the problem then tried to fix it - help!" Plenty of people will be glad to offer ideas - just take a pause to make sure the responses are coming from experience rather than political bias or just plain anger. 

Get vague. Needless to say, the underlying financial mechanisms that set off the financial-market crisis are pretty complex. You might not understand them, and your reader might not either. This is where you need to take inventory and decide how detailed the story should be. In these cases, less is more - step around the nitty-gritty of the situation and emphasize how this person is engaging with the story. If the character gave out a lot of mortgages to people with bad credit records and troubled finances, the reader doesn't need to know just how bad the credit scores were, what rates were charges, the terms of the mortgage, etc. They just need to know that this character was bad news. Now, if the character was a mortgage trader, this is a little more complex and might require a little jargon thrown in. And if the character worked with default spreads, swaps and leveraged trades, your ability to be vague is limited indeed.

Working with the details can be a tricky task, and sometimes it's better to work with the character's motives, attitude, and approach to the situation. Ultimately, it is our job to show a character as a good/bad person. If we can do this without detailed demonstration, then all the better. However, a little legwork into the subject matter can parley into a lot of information.      

Friday, March 11, 2022

Trigger Warning

I woke up the other day to the sound of car tires going through slush. Not water, not snow, but the very distinct sound of slush. It resonated within me, making me think about wet shoes and cold feet, about pools thick and gray forming around the sewer grates, about dirty splashes over every car and pedestrian. I was safe in my bedroom, but that one familiar sound brought back a payload of sensory awareness. Was I alone in this? I doubt it. Maybe people who have spent a lifetime in the southern part of the country are not as programmed as I am, but they have their own sounds that set them off.

Sensory triggers are a special tool within the category of description that allow us to do a lot of heavy verbal lifting with just one sentence. The easiest ones are, of course, visual, but those can always border on clichés. Triggering a sense of innocence through the image of a child with a balloon has been done to death, even to the point where it's counterproductive. Rather, appealing to the other senses with more personal, intimate experiences can set off a bunch of feelings without the reader even knowing it.

Sticking with the wintry theme, let's talk about taste. It can be easy enough to put someone in a holiday state of mind by talking about a juicy turkey or holiday ham, but the trick really works when we try and bundle several feelings together. Like any properly raised child of the Midwest, the winter comfort lunch was a grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup. Say what you will about hot dogs and apple pie, soup and a sandwich is America. Now, toasted up and served on a little placemat, this is not just a recollection of lunch on a winter's day, but of warmth and security from the elements outside. And what happens when you describe how a character yearns for that soup/sandwich combo - you instantly describe a desire for those comforts from long ago.

I've heard that smell is the strongest memory trigger. I don't know if it's backed by science, but the association is definitely there. The smell of my mother's perfume or my father's pipe tobacco of choice will open a floodgate of memories, but those descriptors aren't much help to a reader who didn't live in my house. Rather, aromas and odors have to evoke more universal feelings, and not in the cliché way often used by describing a woman's perfume. Fresh-mown grass will take people back, just like the smell of clothes just out of the dryer or an old gym bag. Everyone knows new-car smell, and has a memory to go with it. 

The secret to these triggers is not just using all the senses, but dragging memories out of the reader with very specific, exotic examples. You definitely get more mileage out of a description when you put those poetic details in it. And to do this, you need to mine your own experiences to figure out just what gets a response. Give yourself a chance to write down some of your most vivid memories, and start fishing around for the sensory cues that really fill in the moment. When you expand on those details, you will start feeling more of the scene. The more you feel, the more you get involved. And the more you are involved, the more your readers will appreciate those little sensory triggers.        

Monday, March 7, 2022

Workshop Warnings

As any of my regular readers know, I love writing workshops. I haunt a number of them throughout the suburbs, recommend them to my fellow writers, and even facilitated one in the pre-COVID era. Most of my growth as a writer can be attributed to either what I learned in those writing workshops, or from my mentors, who I met at those gatherings. However, not all things are created equal, and I have had my fair share of bad experiences. That’s what today’s post is about.

Now, to preface this, these experiences are not necessarily common, and perhaps may not be problematic in your particular situation. This is strictly a discussion of my negative experiences and the common themes I’ve noticed.

“Write my story instead”: A part of any workshop is sharing works and receiving constructive critiques on that writing. Just because a critique is constructive, however, does not mean it is necessarily helpful. One warning that a person or workshop might not be a good fit is when the critiques suggest changing the story or redoing it more to their liking. Let’s say I submit a scary story about being alone in a haunted house and there’s a twist at the end. Good critiques would be, “Incorporate some thematic elements that increase the tension,” “More internal dialogue might show us the character’s fears and anxieties,” and “Give more description of the house with plenty of moodiness.” These are good because they point out an issue and offer a suggestion for a remedy. Troublesome critiques might be, “Put in another character to get some dialogue in there,” “There should be some violence,” or, “Have you considered the following ending instead?” These kinds of criticisms ignore the basic rule of workshopping: This is your story; their job is to help you refine your writing tools so you can make it better. If they throw ideas around that are against what you want in the story, they are trying to make it their story. There’s no need for those groups.

Hive mind: I’ve encountered this one a few times, and it never ceases to amaze me. A good writing group is usually several people who, while possibly very familiar with each other, have different opinions and styles, and they all bring something unique to the table. Sometimes they even debate between different approaches. This is a good workshop, because it is a bubbling cauldron of ideas. The hive, however, is the opposite. This is a group of like-minded people with a narrow, often unyielding approach to writing. New ideas and creative approaches are chased off the moment they hit the page. If the hive is all about first-person storytelling, a third-person story is quickly dismissed or criticized in an unconstructive manner. These groups are often toxic, and unfortunately can dissuade a new writer from pursuing their interest. If you get a sense that a particular workshop is of one mind or style, it might be in your best interest to walk away.

Disengagement: This one is troublesome, as it might be part of the workshop or just of individual members, so I would like to describe it by putting you into the shoes of a workshop member. Someone brings in a piece to discuss that you have utterly no interest in – say, a story about journalism in Vienna at the turn of the 20th century (no offense to my Austrian friends). There might be a natural impulse to tune out then offer flat, broad commentary. Shame on you. Even when the subject matter does not interest you, the writer needs your help, which should be all the motivation you need to pay attention. If you don’t like fiction/fantasy and someone brings in a sword & sorcery story, they truly need your input as an outside reader. People who love swords & sorcery will have a natural bias for the subject; the outside reader is the one who can best see if things are truly interesting, if the characters actually stand out, or if the world is worth reading about. Even if the piece is offensive in some way, it is your job to be constructive for the writer, even if you preface it by saying, “My beliefs are totally opposed to this piece. That being said…” A workshop needs to be there for the writers, and that really counts when the subject isn’t an automatic crowd-pleaser.

(Just as a side-note, there’s a difference between tuning out and not being drawn in by the piece. If something is written poorly, it might not draw in the reader, and this should be commented on in a constructive manner. Prejudging, however, or letting a personal disinterest in the subject matter turn you away from the piece, is a disservice to both the writer and the workshop.)

There are other workshop warnings I could offer, and the list gets even larger now that online video workshops are prevalent. (Thanks to the camera and simple intuition, people can tell when someone is typing/web-surfing instead of paying attention.) For now, however, these broad warnings should serve as a road map to getting into a good workshop and starting to build those writing tools.

 

Friday, March 4, 2022

What's In A Word?

The picture with this post is one of my favorites. It's not just the color of the twilight sky, or the beaten-up condition of the sign that gives it sort of a folksy look, but how the actual misspelled word is so formal and proper, as if it belongs there with the errant letter A somehow having a sense of purpose. It reminds me of Stephen King's Pet Sematary, where the spelling error in his novel title is done to create a childish whimsy concealing a dark secret. However, such is not the case with this sign - it's just a screw-up, courtesy of the good people in the Steger Public Works Department or whoever manages the road signs in that town.

The other reason I like that picture is because it reminds me of how a specific word can create an entire mood or feeling that we don't quite understand until the word is changed. We have all seen an abundance of cemetery entrance signs in our lives. What if the sign said, "Graveyard Entrance"? A cemetery and a graveyard are basically the same thing, but they definitely evoke different feelings. For me, a cemetery is a reference to a place of headstones, mausoleums, and dedications to those now gone - it's all about what is above the grass. A graveyard, however, reminds me about what's below the grass. It has a natural chill to it, a feeling of damp soil and misty fields of grass being interrupted by holes violating the calm. They are the same thing, but they evoke different feelings.

How about the word, "slaughterhouse"? Just hearing that word evokes images of blood. Say what you will about slaughterhouses, but the word really paints its own picture regardless of context. However, a common synonym for that word is "abattoir." Some of you may have never heard of this word - I had to look it up when I first came across it - but it is a synonym often used that totally washes away the stigma that comes with "slaughterhouse." Usually, abattoir is used to refer to the broad operation or industry of animal processing, while a slaughterhouse is much more specific. However, each one has a purpose. Would Kurt Vonnegut's most famous novel be as popular if it was called Abattoir Five? I kind of doubt it.

The whole point of this is that one can, and should, fuss over words like this. Not only is it good to have a pocket full of synonyms to avoid repeating the same word five times in a paragraph, but it is another tool in sculpting a mood. A walk through a cemetery isn't as scary as a walk through a graveyard. Ghosts haunting a house are not as fearsome as poltergeists, and definitely not as classy as specters, though they're basically interchangeable (with a certain degree of latitude).

I always approach word choice as a second-draft operation. In the first draft, I get the ideas down and get to know what kind of mood I want to create for a certain story. Once I know the mood for a specific scene, then I start toying with word use, and ramping up the richness of the scene. Word play is a great way to do this. Just make sure you spell them correctly.       

Monday, February 28, 2022

Reading Context

I guess I should've seen this coming. My last post involving writing exercises involved using the following prompt: "She decides to use dynamic programming..." That actually prompted a few people to write some special things - in particular, IMs to me asking how on Earth they could possibly write about something that involved "dynamic programming." Well, that's a fair question, but the answer is all about context, not the intricacies of dynamic programming. 

Let me offer you a little piece of writing about an event in my life to emphasize context:

"I curled up on the couch with my laptop and too much coffee, ready for the monstrous task of creating a spreadsheet to manufacture a brute force proof of Benford's Law. Half an hour into my project, I was happily typing away, all the columns established and all the formulas in place, when a prompt appeared asking about installing the latest Windows updates. Because I was caught up in the flow of my work, I wasn't exactly paying attention to random prompts, and I clicked for it to update. Only after that fateful click did I realize that I hadn't saved my work, the formulas weren't checked, and Windows was now hijacking my laptop, effectively settling in on my couch to do updates until my coffee got cold. I am sure the neighbors heard my frustrated scream."

Now, what exactly is Benford's Law? The answer in this situation is, "Who cares?" (It is actually interesting. Check here if you are curious.) The important part is extracting evidence from the context to set the stage for the writing piece. From the writing excerpt, we understand that proving it is a monstrous task, the proof requires a sizeable spreadsheet, and the task is labor-intensive. Just like the "dynamic programming" reference in the prompt (This is dynamic programming), the only thing we need to know is that the woman in the prompt chooses this particular tool for whatever reason. Maybe she is better at it than the rest of the people she works with. Maybe she firmly believes it's the right way to go. Maybe the whole gist of the story is that it was the wrong way to go but she refuses to acknowledge it. We don't need to know what it is, we just need to know how it affects the main character. 

Here's a simple sentence: "Marby plimped Durnby's frissure." Does this make sense to you? My spell-checker says it shouldn't, and it's right. These aren't actual English words, but we can pick up things from how they are used. I don't know what a Marby is, but the next word is written like a past-tense verb ending in -ed, so Marby is likely a noun, and a noun that committed an action - the verb "plimp." Now, what was plimped? Was it Durnby? Well Durnby is capitalized, so it's likely a proper noun, but the apostrophe suggests Durnby wasn't plimped, but rather something possessed by Durnby. You guessed it - the frissure! Now, we still don't know the exact actions that occurred, but we know that Durnby possessed a frissure, and Marby plimped it. With one nonsensical sentence, we can still extract some context. (A tip of the cap to the movie, "One Eight Seven.")

Now let's get back to some writing prompts. Here's a great one: "Marby plimped Durnby's frissure."

Friday, February 25, 2022

Writing About Anything

Someone once said that you know you are a great writer when you can write about anything. I respectfully disagree. Indeed, a great writer can in fact write about anything, but that's not what puts them among the greats. Instead, I would argue that writing about anything makes you a writer, and the more you practice writing about things you are unfamiliar with, the better you get. Eventually, you will achieve greatness. I sure hope I do someday.

Now, all of my regular readers know that I enjoy writing exercises as a way to stretch my literary muscles. The most common exercises are simple writing sprints - just write about anything for ten minutes, nonstop. Don't worry about plot development or description - just pour your mind onto the page and let the words do all the heavy lifting. These help us get into the proper headspace for writing the more creative stuff. I recommend doing these now and then just to keep the mind limber.

The real exercises, though, come when someone throws a topic, subject, or phrase at us and says, "Start writing!" We get hit out of nowhere with this fresh, new idea, and we just have to get to work. These are particularly helpful when we decide to create something fresh and new, and not just rehash something we thought about or jotted down years ago and now just redo again in order to complete the exercise. No - we need a fresh look, new ideas, and an approach where we want to grow as writers. After that, we just create.

And on that note, here's a simple writing exercise. Grab a book - literally any book; the more remote the better - open it at random, plunk your finger down on the page, find the first sentence that comes after your finger, and use the first part of that sentence as a prompt. Keep in mind you do not need to write about the specific characters that might be referenced, or keep within the theme of the story you are given. Just excerpt that one little clause, and start writing whatever hits your brain. I will offer three examples from books scattered about my office right now:

  • "She decides to use dynamic programming..."
  • "So they divided the land between them..."
  • "It only takes a few drinks..."

There. Three simple prompts pulled randomly from three books (A textbook, the Bible, and my own novel - I think you can guess which matches with the quotes.) Now, is it important to know what dynamic programming is? Whose land we are talking about? What drinks are being discussed? Nope. Sometimes it's even better to start writing from the vantage point of ignorance just to get the creative juices flowing. If we don't know the context, we are not restricted by it. And at that point, we are free to create our own narrative.

One last note: When we write from a random prompt, don't expect to create a work of art. Maybe you will, but chances are you won't. Rather, give yourself license to create something ugly and weird and completely new that you can claim as your own. Use it as proof that you can write about anything, and you'll be on your way to being a great writer.     

Monday, February 14, 2022

More About Writing and the Super Bowl

Despite this being February 14th, this is not a post about Valentine's Day. Over the past couple of years I have posted something connecting the previous Super Bowl to being a better writer, and I fully intend to maintain that streak. It is just an unfortunate coincidence that my post-Super Bowl entry just happens to coincide with the holiday. I promise I will make it up to you. But for now - let's see what we can learn as writers thanks to the Super Bowl.

This lesson doesn't require any knowledge of football, so everyone can enjoy it. While I will be taking advantage of having watched every Super Bowl since the mid-1990s, the actual football part does not matter. The important takeaway here is originality, or the lack thereof, and how it can really take the air out of a story.

This year's Super Bowl was a great game, preceded by several other great games in the previous weekends, and a lot of people were excited to see something new and different for a matchup this year. A lot of the players had never been to the Super Bowl before, the quarterbacks were new to going to the big show - it was all fresh and new. The one thing that wasn't all that fresh and new, and became quite evident as the game went on, was the announcing. It became problematic, and this should be a good reminder for all of up writers.

My friends and I used to put together lists of announcer catch-phrases in sort of a game of cliché bingo, waiting for the announcers to say:

  • "Both teams came here to win!"
  • "It all comes down to one game."
  • "They can't make a mistake here..."

And so on. To the announcers' credit, they are usually good at mixing it up a little, but sometimes they just dive into that old bag of used lines a few too many times, and it takes the excitement out of the game. We don't need to be told, "The atmosphere here is electric!" because we have no reason to presume otherwise. So when we are told this anyway, we lose a little interest in the announcers every time.   

As writers, when we put together a 10,000-word story, sometimes it's easy to fall back on some standard phrases for our descriptions. "The howling wind...", "He barked the orders...", "It hit him like a ton of bricks..." Yes, these have a place, but that place should usually be in the trash can. Sure, wind howls, orders are barked, and having a metaphoric ton of bricks fall on someone is pretty strong. As we type this we might not feel how worn-out it sounds, but after a while, the reader feels it, and chances are they get tired of it.

Whenever you feel like just putting in some standard phrase so you can move on, make a little note about it for future editing. Remind yourself that you could probably do better, and come back to it after you complete the first draft. Maybe you will come up with something new, maybe not. However, as you try, your skills become sharper, and you have less of a need to fall back on, "It's win or go home."     

Friday, February 11, 2022

Brevity and Abraham Lincoln

Anyone here know of the most revered  Edward Everett? He was quite the man in the 19th century - pastor, teacher, politician, diplomat, public speaker, and a much acclaimed man of letters. He made many public-speaking tours, spoke very eloquently, and had a great passion for his topics. And *wow* could he belt out a speech. His most renowned speech was a two-hour oration that topped off at over 13,600 words. Can you name it? Kudos if you can, because his grand speech was outshined by the next speaker, who gave a quick, two-minute speech of less than 200 words that every American has heard of.

The great Edward Everett's masterwork came just before President Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. Guess who got more space in the history books?

Now, there is much debate over the exact wording, meaning, and intent of Lincoln's quick little dedicatory remarks, which is all the more telling because his comments were incredibly brief and succinct. The Gettysburg Address (which originally was what Everett's speech was referred by) showed precise writing, keeping a constant focus upon one theme, a humbling mood, and a clear, singular message summed up at the end in no uncertain terms. Let the scholars fight over just how particular sentences intended to say and what referential sources meant. This was a fine example of brevity, and we can learn from it.

Let's look at the introduction. The first paragraph was one sentence ("Four score and seven years ago...") that established the background for the remarks. Sure, he could've said "87 years ago..." and saved a few words, but saving words is not what brevity is about. Brevity is using the right words to communicate as much information, mood, and setting as possible. It would be easy for Lincoln to expand on the concepts brought forth in that one sentence, but instead he let words do the heavy lifting.

His second paragraph was the dedication part of his speech - establishing the world they now lived in and recognizing those who had died for that cause. The important part here was to not get swept up in the temptation to passionately expand upon things such as sacrifice, loss, and dying for one's country. He saved that part for the last paragraph, allowing his dedication part to be very sharp and to the point. In reference to the dedication, he simply said, "It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this." It did what needed to be done, and saved the important part for the next, and last paragraph.

Lincoln made the third paragraph the challenge of his speech - the emotional call to arms. By not spreading too much sentiment throughout the previous parts, emotion in just this paragraph was that much more powerful. Everything from the introduction and the dedication built up to this message about sacrifice, the challenge that faced the country, and the task before everyone to ensure that this new nation "shall not perish from the earth." Damn, nice work.

With tomorrow being Lincoln's birthday, I wanted to recognize it somehow - but as a writer. And I think this is the best way to learn about writing and drop a little history as well.

Sorry it wasn't very brief.