All writers have a process that allows them to create. However, the art of "Writing" is often mistaken for that "Process." Hopefully this blog explains the difference, and inspires people to develop their crafts, become writers, or just keep on writing.

Friday, December 30, 2022

Writing Resolutions for 2023

I can proudly say that I have been through all of life's main stages in celebrating the arrival of the New Year: Desperately trying to stay up until 12 pm, finally being able to reach the big moment at midnight, celebrating the New Year's arrival without being sober, wondering if I need to stay up until 12 pm, and then just deciding to go to sleep. I haven't done these phases in any particular order and I have backtracked several times, but that's the point - discovering what options you are capable of, then deciding which one is appropriate. As long as several options are available to me, I can do whatever I want.

However, there's another tradition that goes a little differently - New Year's resolutions. Some people make them like they are issuing formal press releases, others quietly consider a few necessary life changes, and some people like me make promises to myself about what I want to differently. Of course, none of these methods have any formal accountability and are even joked about as being readily broken before Valentine's Day, so most people don't take much stock in them. However, I do, and in that regard, I am offering up my resolutions as a writer and why I think they are reasonable goals that anyone can (and should) try.

  1. I want to write more. No surprise here - every writer should have this on their list of things to push forward. The exception here is that I will not promise to write the Great American Novel in 2023 or even start that project. All I want to do is know that I create more. The effects of that will naturally spill down.
  2. Whenever I read something, I will write something. I want to try and create more, and nothing should be more inspiring than first taking in some words and ideas. Therefore, any time I read something more than a recipe for kung pao chicken, I will take that energy and put it through the creativity mill. This should, of course, also help me with the first resolution as well.
  3. Lastly, I want to get more people reading and critiquing my work. Whether it involves joining another workshop, finding a couple more people willing to give me input, or including writing segments within my blog posts, I want more feedback. This shouldn't be too difficult, and could take many forms, but it's up to me to find the proper methods or venues. And yes, if this means I find a way to start up my pre-COVID writing workshop, then so be it. 

These are simple things and I hope you can pick one or two to include on your list of writing resolutions. You are the only person who will be able to hold you accountable, so choose wisely, then start writing.

Lastly, I will be taking the New Year's weekend and following Monday off, so my next post will be Friday, January 6th, 2023. Happy New Year to all, and may the coming year be something worth writing about.

Friday, December 23, 2022

The Writing Prompt Result!

As promised, I took on the challenge presented in my last post. For those who prefer a quick recap rather than reading the entirety of my last entry, it was a simple writing exercise: To write about a holiday memory, focusing on the most minute, intimate detail possible. The idea was to keep away from the broad thoughts about the holidays that can easily overwhelm the spirit of the piece, and hone in on one specific point in order to comb out all the other things and tell one precise story. And, on that note:

Five Letters

I can't tell you if I was five or six years old at the time. For that matter, most of the details from that particular Christmas morning are just a haze of collective holiday experience. All of the usual features were in play, but the one thing that stuck in my memory was the label on the first gift I opened. As I held the festively wrapped box in my hands, I read the label. It said, simply, "To: James. From: Santa." This was no different than the labels on most of my other gifts, and the same thing from past Christmases. However, this time, something connected. At that point, I saw the handwriting (disregarding the fact that it had an uncanny resemblance to my mother's very exacting cursive), and realized that somewhere, at some point, Santa Claus had taken a little time during his schedule to write his name next to mine. He wanted me to know that he, Santa Claus himself, personally chose this gift for me. 

It was a moment of connection for me that was hard to explain with my childish mind. I had only met the big guy a few times, and it's not like we talked a lot. I just told him about things I wanted and how I was kind of a good kid, and somehow, he remembered all that and acted upon it. And, not only did he act upon it, but he personally signed it. Santa. He autographed it himself, to let me know it was from him. He wasn't here to see my expression or anything, but he left his mark and now I saw it. And for the first time, I think I made the connection that for whatever gifts I received and the joy I felt, someone was on the other end of that gift, enjoying the act of giving it to me. That changed Christmas for me in some way, and though it took a while for it to really become part of my persona, I think on that day, seeing that name and knowing I was on someone else's mind on that day, I grew up just a little.

There you have it - a focus piece, discussing the sum of the holidays (as I feel about them) from the perspective of the name on the gift label. Such a piece leaves out almost every aspect of my life save for that one point, yet I would wager it describes a part of me more intimately than any other narrative might accomplish. I hope this exercise inspires you to do the same.

Holiday obligations must be attended to, and those will go well beyond December 25th. My next post will be on December 30th, assuming the Christmas celebrating doesn't go horribly wrong. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Monday, December 19, 2022

A Holiday Writing Prompt

Like most families in my area when I was a child, Christmas was a pretty big thing. We got off of school for a couple of weeks, a good snow came down, the fat guy left us a bunch of presents - the usual events. I could write about any of those memories and tell an enjoyable little story  about the holidays. However, I decided that's not what a good writing exercise is about. An exercise should really try and bring out something along with building those writing muscles.

I did think about suggesting an exercise where the objective is to write about the least holiday-like thing about this holiday season. Perhaps something about the rampant consumerism during a time that's supposed to be about giving and such. There's probably a story about a bad holiday memory floating around somewhere, but let's face it - where's the fun in that? A holiday writing exercise should not be all Grinchy. It needs to stir up the feelings we hold close and dear to our hearts. If you decide to write about your worst Christmas experience, that's your right to do so. I had something different in mind.

As I said earlier, I have plenty of good Christmas memories from my distant childhood, and any one of them could become a story. However, I decided that the more interesting exercise would be to intensify the focus. Instead of writing about that one Christmas where you got the great gift, or when some holiday magic just happened to make everything special, I thought a great exercise would be to write about one item, one moment, one detail from way back when and let it be the center of all my feelings and discussion. The more isolated and detailed, the better. 

What does that all mean? Well, simply put, I know plenty of people who have a real connection to the ritual of setting up the Christmas tree on whatever night happens to be the right one. That might make a good story, but try looking for the emotion in hanging up one particular ornament, or putting the angel/star/light on the top of the tree. Capture one instance, and write about everything that the moment meant. Think of the first moment you connected with the importance of the Hanukkah candles, or felt something special about the holidays. Isolate one moment - an important, valuable holiday event, then write about it. It can be receiving a card from a relative and being moved by the words, or just staring at a candy cane in front of the gingerbread house and feeling something more than wanting to eat it. Try applying that kind of focus - the pleasure of the simple moment - into your writing, and see what happens.

Full disclosure: This is a nice way to write poems. I promised that I wouldn't push poetry on the unwilling, but I am just mentioning that good poems are often meditations upon one shining moment.

On that note, I will leave you to your holiday merriment. I just hope that you give a try at creating something that you find both special and meaningful. I will be doing this exercise and the fruits of my labor will be my Friday post. See you then.

Friday, December 16, 2022

Gifts From and For Writers

Yes, Christmas is fast approaching, and with it, more blog posts about how writers can take advantage of the holiday season. I promise, there will only be one or two more of these (and maybe one poetry post), but I hope they inspire ideas that will last well into the New Year (or at least last longer than your New Year’s resolutions).

Back in the old days, it was a tradition on one side of our family to commemorate special occasions such as Christmas, birthdays, graduations, etc. with the gift of books. Usually, these books would be inscribed with a nice message and perhaps the date and occasion for the book exchange. In turn, the recipient would take a little time to read this book, and the two people could then discuss it and bond over it. And, of course, the book became a family heirloom.

I recently inherited some of the family books, and I can’t help but feeling somehow connected to the family members who exchanged these. I’ve never met any of these people – these were books exchanged between great-grand-relatives and their nieces and nephews back in the 19th century. However, to look at a collection of Dickens or Longfellow and see my great-grand-uncle’s name and greeting inside along with his best Christmas wishes brings me a little closer. And then, of course, I feel the urge to read these books; to take in the exact words my ancestors did from the very books they once held. It is truly a legacy worth holding on to.

This, of course, gets me thinking about the gifts I give to family members. Usually, to those who appreciate reading, I give them a copy of any works where I have been published. This allows me to (along with the shameless self-promotion) share a piece of myself with those close to me, develop a bond with them of shared words, and give them something that can be handed down the family tree so someday, someone will see the byline and inscription of great-grand-uncle James, and connect with me across the arc of time.

All this leads to a simple idea: Give people books for a little stocking stuffer. It doesn’t even have to be your work, it just has to be something that you can relate to and think they would be interested in. Sharing the gift of words gives the two of you a chance to connect. Maybe they read it, maybe they don’t. The point is that a nice book and a meaningful inscription can turn a simple book into a family heirloom. And, hopefully, it makes for a happy holiday as well. 

Monday, December 12, 2022

Another Thing About "That Time of the Year"

Indeed, it is that time of the year again. In this particular case, however, I am referring to the end of the year when my annual gym membership comes due. Yes, along with the usual shopping, family gatherings, and trying to remember who was naughty and nice, I also re-up my gym membership for another year. It's annoying and poorly timed, but it gives me a chance to remind myself just what that membership is all about.

I'll be honest - I could go to the gym more than I usually do. It's just one mile from my house, so I really don't have an excuse for not going every day. However, that would be a little obsessive, and I do have a life, so a daily trip to the gym is not in the cards. On the flipside, I am not one of those people who has a membership that they never use but constantly renew as part of some wishful thinking that this will be the year they start going (you know who you are). Rather, I go with the better bet, which is two to three times a week, planning what I need and what I will do, all in the name of self-improvement.

Maybe you already see how this applies to writing, maybe not. The main takeaway of this is that like the gym, writing is something I could do whenever I wanted to, as much as I could, or as little as I cared to do - just like using my gym membership. Going to the gym, like writing, is all a process of self-investment. Nothing obliges us to write every day, or even once a week, month, or year, but ultimately we gain returns in proportion to the effort we put into it. If I spent an hour at the gym every day for the next year, vigorously exercising, I would no doubt be much better off than my usual routine. The same goes for writing, it's just more difficult to identify when you are really breaking through as a writer. 

So when that time of year comes along, both for the gym membership and for a personal inventory of my writing situation, I take a moment to determine what I want to get out of the next year in terms of this whole self-investment idea. I recognize rather quickly what I want out of the gym membership, so as long as that agrees with my life plan, it requires very little thought. Then, for my writing situation, I ask myself what I want to invest in the next year as a writer. Are there goals I want to reach, or some other achievement? Do I want to prep myself for NaNoWriMo? Is it time to publish my next book? Is it time to write another book? The personal inventory required in assessing my writing situation is far more complex than just paying for another year's gym membership, and the accountability is far more difficult as well.

When you do any of the things you do during this time of the year, give yourself a moment to assess what you want to do with your writing as well. Take a little time and look at your writing goals, and decide where you want to go with it. Consider that the gift to your inner writer - a one-year membership in dedicating yourself to writing. Then just go out there and meet that goal. 

Believe me, it's easier than going to the gym every other day.

Friday, December 9, 2022

Growing the Inner Writer

One of my favorite ways of thinking about my own journey as a writer is to think about those whom I met along the way. I've been lucky enough to meet a wealth of people who were destined to become writers. Unfortunately, it is also fair to say that a lot of them will never become good writers. While these people write consistently, try new things, and have the discipline to pursue the goal of being a writer through good times and bad, they are not willing to do the one thing required to be a good writer: They are not willing to get better.

This may sound like a bunch of wordplay and technicality, so let me expand a little. I started out as the best unpublished author around. I had written many things, and each one gave me an inner warmth from that sense of creating a perfect story. I had received compliments and so forth, so how could I not be great? Maybe I wasn't the best, but dammit, I was good.

That lovely fantasy came to a painful end when I attended my first workshop. Once I presented my first piece, these other writers had the nerve to tell me that - brace yourselves - it was not perfect. Worse yet, we were not talking about typos or missing a semicolon - this was some structurally flawed stuff. I used the passive voice. I shifted points of view. Characters did not have depth and dimension. For all intents and purposes, the review gave me a sense that I was NOT a good writer.

For beginning writers, this is where it all counts; the rubber hits the road at this very moment. At this point, a writer can get defensive, panic, insist that everyone else is wrong or doesn't get it, or any other excuse to save them from reassessing a situation, or they can become a better writer.

As difficult as criticism is, it's priceless because it informs us about what readers see, versus when the writer creates, and the reader is just as important as anyone else. As a beginning writer, we need to have an open mind, and take in as much as possible when it comes to criticism - as long as it is constructive. Most workshop members want to help each other become better, so it helps to listen.

The only caveat I offer is a simple reminder: When your mind is open, people try to pour a lot of crap into it. By this I mean it pays to make sure you don't just change your style to obey another writer. While most criticism is constructive, some of it is less helpful than others. Be careful of criticisms that have the following traits:

  • The soapbox critique - "I would've written it differently"
  • The empty critic - "I didn't like it"
  • The reverse discussion - "If I were you, I would've..."

The one thing that all constructive criticism has in common is that it is a discussion of styles, rules, and structures, not opinions. If someone doesn't like your work, that's their opinion. If someone can show how the structure can be shaped to make a better point, that's constructive. People can even start off with, "I felt...," but as long as it leads to a lesson, then you can build upon that. With that, you get better. Inevitably, this leads to being a good writer.

I can't say I am a great writer at this point. However, I say with all humility that by giving myself the opportunity to learn from my many mistakes, I am a better writer than I ever have been, and that's saying something.

Monday, December 5, 2022

A Note About Importance

During all the clean-up I referred to in my last post, I thought about a very big milestone in my life. Quite recently, I turned 20,000 days old. Yes, that's right - the big 20K. Odd thing, though. I didn't receive any cards, any congratulations, no flowers were sent to me and no big announcement in the local paper. It takes a little over 27 years to accumulate 10,000 days of existence, and I just did it twice - why was there no celebration?

Well, as it turns out, it seems that I am the only one who really cares about this. Given my mathematical background and penchant for numerological trivia, it is only natural that this particular milestone was important to me. However, nobody else had that same interest. Now, when I mention to my friends that their big 20K is coming up, they say things like, "Hey, that's kind of cool," or "I didn't realize that. Thanks!" However, in all likelihood, without my notification, their 20K would've come and gone without the slightest mention. Kind of sad to a numbers guy like me.

So, what is the importance of all this? Well, simply put, when we decide to write something, our biggest motivation is that it is a subject or topic that is important to us. Whether it is important to the rest of the world is not our immediate concern. First and foremost, we need to care about it enough to throw ourselves into the project with all of the passion it deserves. It needs to be something we want to write about and something where we feel a need to take the subject matter and create a piece of writing from that idea. 

Some people will naturally come up with the response, "Why write about it if nobody else cares about it?" Worrying about our audience response is an interesting exercise, but it's detrimental to our process. Just like the 20K celebration, there is the presumption that nobody cares about it because nobody talks about it. However, as I demonstrated, sometimes when something is brought to a person's attention, they see it for the interesting subject matter that it is. Yes, they could've lived a fine life never knowing about it, but learning that bit of trivia actually enriches them for a little bit. We can never know if this is going to happen with a piece we write, but it definitely won't happen if we never create that piece in the first place.

My current work in search of publication is about the legacy of an unsolved crime in a small, Midwestern town. Do people want to read about this? Maybe, maybe not. What I do know is that I wanted to write it, so I went off and made a 98,000-word novel out of it. I also know that I would've done myself a grave injustice if I didn't write it because I wasn't sure about audience response. I wanted to do it, so I did. If there is anything to be learned from today's post, let it be that fact.

And on a closing note, a shameless bit of self-promotion. I have two short stories that were just published in an anthology entitled, "Travel and Adventure," and the book is available on Amazon for $8.99 + shipping/handling. I also designed the cover art, but that's neither here nor there. I hope you get a chance to read and enjoy my works, plus the writings of a dozen other local authors.

Friday, December 2, 2022

Writing Lost & Found

It is officially December, and one of my favorite traditions for this month is cleaning up all the little bits of this and that I have accumulated over the past year. During my days in the financial world, this usually meant ordering a recycling dumpster up to my office and hashing through several drawers worth of files to determine what was important enough to save for another year. Now life is a little easier. No dumpster in my office, no internal documents requiring shredding, just me, my cats, and a bunch of notes to sort through. So on that note, I will put out some of the ideas over the past 11 months that are worth mentioning but never became full comments.

  • Within the privacy of your own writing world, do weird stuff. See if a different font inspires you. Try a genre you have never touched or possibly never liked. If you are a typist such as me, write something with a pencil and paper, or a pen, or even a crayon. In part this gets us out of our comfort zone, and it allows us to play with ideas. If they never work out, nothing is lost except for a little time. If something is gained, you grow as a writer. It's Pascal's wager, but with writing. So be weird, and see what happens.
  • If you have an idea about something you want to put on the page, don't ask "Why?" Ask, "Why not?" Usually, the most resistance we feel as writers comes from inside, not outside. There are rarely outside forces making us stop writing, but our own little doubts and demons are always willing to challenge us and try to keep us away from doing things. As the saying goes, the biggest failure is not from something we attempted to do, but something we never tried to do. So put things on the page if only to learn from your failures.
  • Read. Read everything. Read anything. Read outside your interests. At the very least, try and read something on a regular basis, just to let other ideas fly through your mind. See how other people put their words together and admire just how they do it. Or, for that matter, criticize what they do. The important part is to take on a regular injection of new ideas.
  • Clear the clutter. This is something I mentally do on a regular basis just to get the distractions out of the way. Have you ever tried to write something but you can't help thinking about whether you've cleaned out the cats' litter box or if the mail has come yet? Not easy. Take a few moments now and then to sweep away the little things so you can focus on the task at hand.
  • Write a poem. I know, I say this way too much. However, it has its purpose in that trying to communicate an idea while following a rhyme and rhythm structure takes incredible focus. The more you write little poems, the more you strengthen your capacity to focus on one thought, one mood, one theme. 
The one last note that I will close with is to remember that being a writer isn't always about writing. It's often about challenging the world. It's about thinking; asking yourself what makes a sunset particularly beautiful or why certain shades of blue make you happy. There's a next level to everything, and writers try to discover this so they can include it in their stories. Think about these things when you are not writing, then let them come to life the next time you sit down and create things.

And on that note, I am going to clear the rest of the clutter from my office. And I might just rethink that dumpster idea this year.

Monday, November 28, 2022

An Old-Fashioned Lesson in Showing vs. Telling

During my long stretches of carbohydrate-induced immobility thanks to the Thanksgiving feasting, I got to do things that required very little energy - napping, watching football, napping, calling friends and family, napping, and listening to the radio. It's that last point I want to focus on, because there are some delicious tidbits to be taken from such an antiquated medium. After all, when radio brought storytelling into the homes of the masses, it did so not just with the art and technique of the story-teller, but with the tricks used by a story-shower. As writers, we can learn from this.

Just so you know, I used the word radio deliberately to not confuse it with more complex stereo systems, high-quality reception and feel-like-you're-there sound definition. Back during the Golden Age of Radio, broadcasters knew that their audiences were gathered around a one-speaker receiver, struggling to hear their shows if reception was bad, listening over background noise and digging in their heels to listen to The Shadow. No high-end receivers, no noise-cancelling headphones - broadcasters had one shot to get the message across, so radio developed techniques that played on grabbing the audience's attention. The biggest one was showing a story - quite the stunt over a medium of sound.

How does a radio program show the story? In the exact way a writer should - by demonstrating the actions around them rather than narrating them. Often (though not always), radio shows were done in the first person, with only occasional the occasional voice-over to switch between scenes. There was often no narration, which forced the show writers to describe things through the characters' experiences, usually by interacting with those things in the scene that were important. Murder-mysteries would turn their eye for detail onto the key pieces of evidence, and spare the listeners the descriptions of the rooms, the property, etc. The listener became drawn to the main elements in the same way the main characters were, and captured by the mood of the moment.

Ah yes, mood. We all know the standard bag of tricks used in TV and movies to create an intense mood, and most of them are visual. Well, those tools didn't help on the radio, so these shows appealed to sound. However, it wasn't just sound effects (which were often ingenious and masterful in their creation), but music and vocal inflections that created their own environment. Writers need to focus on this kind of sensory appeal - not just describing, say, a foggy night on the wharf, but creating the call of a distant foghorn, the sound of waves lapping against the pylons of the dock. Writing a moody scene should be immersive, so much so that it surrounds the reader to where they are no longer reading a book on their couch, but feeling the chill of the damp air rolling in from the bay. 

When you write about a scene, go beyond the visual. Get into those other senses that don't get a lot of attention in the movies but move you as a person. Close your eyes, think about the various elements that move you, and put those into your writing. Have the characters feel those feelings, sense those experiences, and relate their responses. Show us exactly how the scene moves them and how the mood affects them.

And maybe, if you get the time, listen to some old-time radio shows and experience how it was done when visuals were not an option.

Monday, November 21, 2022

Thankful Writing

Given all the preparation the Thanksgiving holiday requires, all the logistics, meal-arranging, guest inviting and house visiting, I am going to keep things short and sweet so everyone can get on with the art of surviving the first of the main cold-month holidays. This won't be about being thankful, but more about giving thanks. And by giving thanks, I mean in that way only a writer can - by putting together a quick little piece of writing.

In my humble opinion, the thing writers never take full advantage of is how their ability to create scenes and emotions out of mere words can be used in everyday life. Writing a story or a poem is indeed an art form, but think about how interesting it is when that art form is translated into something everyone can appreciate without having to crack open a book or take time out to read your blog. That's when all that writing stuff pays off.

The best way I can think of when it comes to using writing in everyday life - and especially during the holidays - is the simple act of a toast. Everyone's gathered around the table, serving up another helping of something or the other, chatting about this and that, then someone clinks a glass, gets everyone's attention, and announces they would like to make a toast. As far as writers go, this is the perfect situation: a happy audience, perhaps some already with a few adult beverages in them, a festive mood, and nobody ready to leave. This is like the best open mic night you could ask for.

At this point, you make a toast and win the crowd over with your beautiful words and heartfelt sentiments, making it sound as impromptu as possible. Everyone is moved, and nobody knows you've been preparing those words for the better part of a week, sweating over just the right thing to say. As a writer, you are allowed to cheat like this. You can spend hours writing up an awesome toast, practicing, rehearsing, and getting everything just perfect, then dropping the thanks on the dinner crowd with a casual air of genuine feeling. It'll make the holiday dinner truly memorable.

Yes, this is kind of like weaponizing the talent of writing, but it is using it for good and not evil. As writers, we should look for opportunities to use our skills to interject beauty and emotion into the everyday world, and lift up those around us. Of course, if you wish to use your skills for evil, I can't stop you, but this is the holiday season where I try to be a little better than I usually am. Save the evil for January.

I will be in a gravy-induced coma this coming Friday, so my next post will be on November 28th. Happy Thanksgiving, and I hope you write a wonderful toast.

Friday, November 18, 2022

Holidays and Storytellers

I did a lot of thinking about this piece, wondering if it needed to be said or if I just needed to write it. Needless to say, here it is, so I hope you gain something from it. This is about the importance of not just the stories we write, but the stories we tell, the stories we share, and the stories we are a part of that future generations will share. And, indeed, that is where the holiday angle comes in.

Thanks to the relentless march of time, I am now a member of the oldest living generation on my father's side of the family. Pre-COVID, I had aunts and uncles who would tell stories about the many past generations of our family and all the weird little secrets and rumors. Which member of our family was thought to be a warlock? Did any relatives do jail time? Which of our grand-uncles fought in the Civil War? Each question had a story as the answer, and we would listen to the rumors surrounding our great-grand uncle, "Devil Dan," or the incident that put a grand-uncle in the Crowbar Hotel for a while, or the battles our many relatives who served in the Union army fought in. I appreciated every one of those stories as a family member. As a writer, I knew it would someday be my job to pass them along. Now, with my aunts and uncles no longer able to share those stories, that day has arrived.

This is where the holidays get involved. Hopefully, you all are back to having some kind of family gathering and a house filled with more relatives than once thought possible. I also hope that you have an older generation who shows up, has some food, settles into the softest chair, and tells stories of the good ol' days, because those stories are your stories to absorb and pass along. And, if I dare be so bold, it might be worth the time and effort to write down a few of those while they're still fresh in your memory. Or even better, put on your writer's cap and discuss those stories with the people who know them firsthand, thinking about just how you would tell this story. 

It may seem boring when Uncle George goes on about what it was like growing up as a Baby Boomer, but that is your opportunity. Think about how different that world was to our current life. Ask about things like not having highways, or what a party line was, or their favorite TV show as a kid. Go digging for details about the first polio vaccine, or hearing the Beatles. Find all of those little details, those golden nuggets of memories that sit at the core of who your relatives are. Does it sound like you're interviewing Uncle George instead of talking with him? Maybe. But the beauty of this is that you will discover stories you never knew existed, which will hopefully lead to more questions, more information, and more stories. And who knows - maybe Uncle George suddenly isn't that boring anymore.

I look forward to the holidays for this exact reason - the opportunity to share the wealth of knowledge that has poured down from past generations. And as for my mother's side of the family, there are still stories to be handed down to me, so I listen, I ask questions, and I get as involved as possible because I know that soon, I will be in charge of handing down those stories.

Needless to say, I write about them as well. And I hope you do the same.

Monday, November 14, 2022

The Deep Dive

I won't get into my various motivations for choosing this as today's topic. Let's just say that I have my reasons and hopefully you can benefit from the product of this choice. I thought I would talk about the two directions an emotional writing piece can go, and their benefits. And, while any type of emotional writing will unquestionably provide some form of catharsis for the author, there is a specific style can can truly foster growth as both a writer and a person -- the deep dive.

One of my better short stories involves the passing of my grandmother. I was eleven and she was the only grandparent I really got to know, so this was a particularly heavy loss. The story covers the standout points from when we first found out about her passing to the misty, overcast day of her funeral. It meant a lot for me to write about that time in my life, and processing it benefitted me in several ways. And, of course, any story about the loss of a loved one should pull at the reader's heartstrings, which it did, so it was a win for me. Thank you, Grandma Cleo.

However, a similar story about my father's sudden passing received far more emotional feedback from other readers, and I also felt some form of internal growth. I realized the biggest difference was that the story about my father's passing took a different approach. While my grandmother story covered the events and feelings over a period of four days, the story about my father was all set in one instance, one moment, that explored this loss. The story didn't cover a stretch of time but instead took one point and relentlessly explored it from stem to stern. It was a deep dive into that little crumb of time, and it worked amazingly well according to the reviews. Thank you, Dad.

The difference between the broad story and the deep dive is like the approach taken by a reporter versus that taken by a therapist. A reporter brings out the facts through a set of questions: Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How. A therapist, however, hears those facts and says (pardon the cliché), "And how did that make you feel?" The deep dive takes that one moment and explores it through the vector of emotions, and can drag up the deeper common elements of a particular event. This makes a story more than one that pulls at the heartstrings; it engages both the heart and mind at once, bringing the reader fully into the moment. The reader is no longer a sympathetic witness to events, now they have settled into the shoes of the author and made an empathic bond to the events. They are experiencing the story much closer now than just reading the facts that the reporter would discuss.

And, of course, the other part of the deep dive is that it challenges the writer to dig into the spots that might be sore or sensitive. As scary as it might feel, the writer can press on as far as they dare. The journey will be tough, and I will admit I shed a few tears while writing that piece, but I definitely came out the other side a better person, and definitely a better writer.

Writing the deep dive isn't always necessary, but it remains an ever-present challenge if you are willing. It's a daring way to approach a subject, but it always produces good returns. 

Friday, November 11, 2022

For Veteran's Day

For those who are interested, today's post will touch upon Veteran's Day. For those who are worried about it, yes, poetry is involved. Hopefully, you will read on, and hopefully you will appreciate both Veteran's Day and poetry a little more by the end of this post.

The poem I will offer as an example is, "In Flanders Field" by John McCrae. It was written in 1915 after the second battle of Ypres, supposedly after the death of the poet's friend. It quickly became synonymous with World War One and Veteran's Day, and even though this holiday is meant to recognize all veterans, living and deceased, this poem became intrinsically tied with today due to its birth in the War To End All Wars, despite it being specifically a requiem for the fallen soldiers.

In Flanders Fields - by John McCrae

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
    That mark our place; and in the sky
    The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
    Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
        In Flanders fields. 
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
    The torch; be yours to hold it high.
    If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
        In Flanders fields.

This haunting poem is very simple in its construction, yet pulls some clever tricks out to make it memorable. The first five-line stanza uses a rhyme scheme of AABBA - the first, second, and fifth lines rhyme with each other, and the third and fourth lines pair up as well - much like a limerick. This sets a pace that the reader mentally notes. Then in the second stanza, the rhyme scheme is again used, but it is abruptly cut short - like a soldier's life - closing instead with, "In Flanders fields" to mark the end of the stanza and the life. The third stanza goes back to the AABBA scheme and lets it complete itself, suggesting life goes on, but still closes with the Flanders field line, to remind us that those soldiers are still there and will be forevermore. This use of pattern (and breaking of pattern) moves the reader even though they do not know it.

The other part to note is the three stanzas are structured in a manner that gets across a strong point: Setting, impact, message. The first stanza describes the burial site during wartime in five lines, and the reader gets all the established information. Then the impact - soldiers experiencing human things, relatable feelings, all cut short by war. Then there's the message - to carry forth and honor those who fell in the field by never forgetting their loss. If the impact part is strong, the message section works very well because the reader has been set up for it.

This three-part structure of setting, impact, message doesn't have to be used just in poems. This is the foundation for short stories, essays, and most any parable meant to communicate valuable information to future generations. The persuasive argument will always establish the frame of context, show cause and effect, then connect the concluding message to it, whether in three stanzas, three paragraphs, or three chapters. And it works every time.

So on that note, I hope this helps you recognize the power that can come from poetry, and maybe you can recognize how messages can be delivered in high-impact ways. And speaking of recognition, go out and recognize a veteran's efforts today. It's the least we can do.

Monday, November 7, 2022

The Simplest Thing to Write

With election season in full swing, I look around the political environment and quietly compare it to the days of our Founding Fathers. Back then, the politicians stood out because of their capacity to think, to communicate thoughts effectively, and quite often to write down their beliefs in very eloquent essays and briefs. Such a person would be referred to as a Man of Letters - though nowadays it's more politically correct to call such a person an intellectual. Sadly, that same term is also used to shame someone by suggesting they're smarter than everyone. Watch the political ads - being an intellectual is not a big selling point.

However, the point of all of this is that these People of Letters didn't focus on writing stories or novels. They wrote the most simple things - their beliefs - and supported those beliefs with ideas and reason. Nothing fancy, nothing spectacular, just people saying, "I believe the following statement. The reasons I believe it are as follows, and here is what makes those reasons valid." As these people wrote essay after essay, they developed a very special set of writing skills focusing on the art of persuasion. This made them, for better or worse, some of the most influential people around.

Where are the people of letters, the intellectuals these days? Sadly, they are a dying breed. There are still journalists who produce excellent books discussing the state of world affairs, developments in the realms of politics, society, and so on, but they are a niche market. Most people stick to reading novels, and most authors inhabit the world of writing those novels. Maybe the occasional autobiography comes out, but they are often more storytelling than a persuasive essay. Indeed, the persuasive essay, as simple as it is, is becoming a lost art for the mainstream.

For this reason, I am recommending an exercise simply called, "Write about a belief." Start with a simple statement about, say, an incident that happened where your belief was challenged. Then just start writing about your belief, how you would defend that belief, and what points support how you feel. You can address opposing opinions if you feel like it, but it's hardly a requirement. The only obligation you have as a writer (or person of letters) is to be honest to yourself with what you say, and communicate things as precisely as you can.

Is this going to help you write The Great American Novel? Well, you'd be surprised. The more essays you write and the more you develop being persuasive in making your points, the stronger and more convincing your stories, characters, and plots become. Your creative mind starts to focus on the importance of different features, the significance of detail, and the ever-important believability. In short, your creative mind benefits from the intellectual side, and the result is inevitably better writing.

Hopefully this gives a little food for thought. So, hopefully, after you vote, take advantage of that high you might get from civic responsibility and write something about why you did what you did, and why it's the right thing for you to do. Or, at the very least, go vote.

Friday, November 4, 2022

A Modest Writing Proposal

Now that Halloween is over and the Holiday Season is in full swing, most writers are ready to head into the most important time of the year - NaNoWriMo. Yes, NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) starts in November and is known for the many writing challenges that accompany it. Obviously, the biggest challenge is to write the first draft of a novel in one month - a bold endeavor indeed. However, many other writing challenges are available for those who just don't have the time, patience, or fortitude (yet) to write that novel. That's what I want to talk about in this piece.

As I have mentioned many times before, the only requirement for being a writer is to write things out of self-interest. Once you write a poem, a story, a character sketch simply because you want to and not because you have to, then *poof* you're a writer, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. The adventure has begun, and it's up to you to see how far you can go with it. And the best way to do that is to take on challenges.

Here's a simple challenge: For one month, write something every day. It doesn't have to be a story, it can be a poem, a description of your cat sleeping under the sewing machine, or just a discussion of a dream. The real mission here is to do something regularly, even if it is just a quick haiku:

Writing this haiku
Satisfies today's task for
my daily challenge

There. Done. Simple as that (let's pretend I wrote that on a different day than this post). This exercise, if done for an entire month, helps develop writing as a habit and not an exception, and flexes the creative muscles. I often relate regular writing to regular exercise. The first time you walk a couple of miles on the treadmill it will be exhausting, but if you do it for a month you will notice a difference. You might even want to add an extra mile on your walking sessions. The point is, you will have made it through the awkward adjustment part, and have entered the growth phase.

Here's an exercise I enjoy for NaNoWriMo month. Every week, I try writing something I would never have taken on before. I'd write about an ancient memory as seen through my adult eyes. Look at the world through my parents' perspective and write their viewpoints. Recently, I wrote about my personal recollections from having a seizure when I was twenty - a very scary event that forced me to really stretch my writing muscles. That's the purpose of these kinds of exercises - not to build endurance, but to expand perspective and add to our our creative toolbox. None of this has to be good, interesting, or worthy of sharing - it just has to be done. And if it helps you as a writer, why not do it?

And, as a much simpler exercise for those times when you just can't write, explore the rest of the creative world. Read a new book. Go to an art gallery or a museum. Search Google Images for Renoir paintings, and just admire them. Sometimes, when we just can't be creative, we can still participate in the creative world, and that's something as well.

Happy NaNoWriMo month, and keep on writing, or at least keep on creating.

Friday, October 28, 2022

Inspiration and the Holidays

Like most people, I consider "the holiday season" to start with Halloween and cover the last two months of the year. This also means that the run-up to the holiday season includes Halloween decorations along with the seasonal rituals of leaves changing color and of the weather turning crappy. All of this is meant to put people in a holiday mood, but perhaps I am more of a bear than a human this year, because all I feel is a strong desire to hibernate. The downside of this is that, like most hibernating animals, they get very little writing done.

Some people have recommended that the best way to get into the mood of holiday season is to go out and take a walk. Enjoy the changing colors, feel the brisk air and breathe in nature's latest change. Well, if a lot of people suggest this, it must have some value, right? So I took my walks, saw more than my fair share of colorful foliage, admired the growing number of festive gourds covering porches and window sills, and just tried to experience all the usual components of the holiday season. One week and 65 miles of walking later, all I had to show from it were achy knees, burrs covering the legs of my jeans and a bruise on my shoulder from falling against a log when a couple of prancing deer startled me as I walked up a hill. So much for holiday spirit.

Just like the seasons, it can be difficult to get inspiration sometimes, and often I find that other people's advice is not very helpful. It's not their fault - what they recommend is what works for them and likely works very well. However, it just doesn't fit all sizes, and sometimes we can't expect some advice straight off the rack to fit us perfectly. The holiday season is very much that way with me, and I need my specific rites and rituals to get that holiday feeling going. Ditto for writing - sometimes the creativity, the spirit, the whatever just isn't there, and I need to look inside myself to figure out what can get it going.

In the case of creativity, I always fall back on the inspiring familiarity of ritual to get myself going. Indeed, having certain routines when I write provides more that just the comfort of habit, it attaches itself to the creative process. When I sit in a seat where I've traditionally written things, when I enjoy a cocktail I typically drink while writing, or even when I read myself a little poem that reminds me of the genius of written words, they all tie in with creative function, and can actually over time become igniters for the creative spark when I am just not in the mood.

My toolkit for writing is full of these triggers, and they work nicely for me. So, by examining some of my routines for the holiday season, I looked for triggers that I traditionally associate with that holiday feeling. And, lo and behold, I finally found that thing that gets me back in the mood for the last two months of the year.

The McRib.

Before you judge me, let me just say that everyone has their weird food preferences around the holidays, and mine is processed, reshaped, pork-like sandwiches with barbeque sauce. I won't eat one in place of Thanksgiving turkey, but enjoying a McRib (for a limited time only) gives me an association that triggers my other seasonal cues. And on that note, I had a McRib and felt the seasonal sensations return. And I no longer felt like a bear ready to hibernate (though most people do feel that way after a McRib) but instead like a man ready to enjoy the close-out of the year. It was the trigger I needed. Now I just need a trigger to get me to the gym a little more often, because I am going to need it.

Note: Because Halloween is on a Monday next week and the ghosts will be a-ghosting and the goblins will be a-goblining, I will join the fun and not put up a post. My next post will be Friday, November 4th. Enjoy the holiday season!

Friday, October 21, 2022

What Is A Novel? A Paragraph and A Sentence

One of my quiet pleasures when it comes to writer workshops is getting the chance to interact with other writers and give them some tidbit of information that puts their process in motion. Everyone needs that boost now and then - I certainly know I need the periodic shot in the literary arm - and when I can be the one administering the shot, well, it's a great feeling. I had that opportunity the other day, and it reminded me of a simple technique that keeps me on track when I write larger pieces.

The person who I spoke with wanted to write her story, and it is quite a story. A full, rich background, many obstacles to overcome, the ever-present question of whether her goals will be achieved, and those lingering doubts about whether or not she was going in the right direction. Definitely a lot to unpack here, but she felt up to the task. And after about one-hundred pages, she was at that point of asking, "Am I going the right way with all this?"

That's an important question to ask, and not just after the first hundred pages. It helps us to do periodic check-ins with our story to see where we are, and most importantly, to make sure we are still writing the same story. Sometimes we get onto such writing streaks that we put together scene after scene, event after event, and it all seems to flow naturally. Then we catch our breath and realize we have wandered away from the story we originally wanted to tell. Oops. In all the excitement we ended up getting lost.

The remedy I use for this is fairly simple, and I usually don't wait until I am half-way in to apply it. When I set out to take on a project, I summarize my idea for the work into one paragraph. Just one - if I need more than a paragraph, I probably don't fully understand the project at hand. Then I create one sentence that describes the underlying theme of the work. It can be a long sentence, but go for short and succinct if possible. Now, take that paragraph and that sentence, print them out, and put them in plain view of whatever workspace you use - the most confrontational place you can find. 

These two source will be your True North. When you write any scene, shape any dialogue or move the plot along, ask yourself how it applies to that paragraph, and make sure it follows the spirit of the sentence. Let your guides be the one paragraph and one sentence, and don't write things that wander away from them.

That's the catch. When you write a scene and ask, "How does this fit into the paragraph?" be honest with yourself. Don't try to square-peg it into place. If it doesn't fit or you really have to bend your ideas to make it fit, maybe it shouldn't be there. Maybe it needs rewriting. Or maybe you've wandered off-track and need to find your way back to the story.

One paragraph, one sentence. Those are all you need to guide you along your story's path. They rest, as they say, is just writing.

Friday, October 14, 2022

Positive Obsession

One of my secret pleasures (or maybe not so secret) is trivia, particularly trivia contests. Naturally, I am a big fan of Jeopardy, I dominated in the days of Trivial Pursuit, and I have a pretty good record at team trivia challenges. Well, the other night I had a chance to go to a Halloween-themed Horror Movie Trivia Slam at a local bar. I didn't have a chance to round up a team, but I figured it was a subject with which I had some knowledge, so I took it on solo.

I now know what the Slam part means in Trivia Slam. I got slammed hard.

It was all in good fun, so I am not complaining. Fun people, good atmosphere, and home-brewed adult beverages all make for a good night regardless of the outcome. However, the depth with which these trivia questions went reminded me about just how intense any subject matter can get when we decide we're going to dive headfirst into it. More to the point, exploring the depths of any subject, while possibly sounding a little obsessive (it is), is a part of any writer's character (because they are).

I mentioned  in my last post, Common Traits of Nobel Prize Winners, that one notable quality of their works was depth, and that has a lot of variables to it. Depth can be driven by investigative curiosity, by a natural urge to know all the facts, or a drive to consume information about a subject. Whichever the case may be, the end result is a full and comprehensive knowledge not just of the subject matter, but the ability to make connections between different pieces of information by having a deep understanding of the content. Example from the other night: Who played the pharmacist in the movie, Thinner? Anyone who knows about Stephen King movies knows that whenever possible he plays a minor role somewhere in the movie adaptation of his works, so the answer was... Stephen King. Knowing the nature of the situation allows for deductions about the world you are obsessing over.

Why is this important for a writer? For a writer to create a convincing story, they have to know the details of their subject matter. Whatever they discuss should feel as familiar as their own heartbeat, and they should be able to answer any relevant question about their story's subject. In short, their obsession should result in a comprehensive study of the character. They will know the most remote factoids, like the name of the theme music to Halloween was "The Night He Came Home." That takes some real trivia power.

Now, does all of this need to be poured into the story you create? Hardly. The important part is that by knowing these things, the writing will naturally come out with a full, rich feel, and the characters will act and react in a very appropriate manner. The reader won't be left questioning why someone did something at a particular time, because the answer has been written into the character already. If the writer knows the character well enough, the reader will discover everything they need to know. Just like when we hear the quote, "It was always you, Helen," we immediately make the reference to the movie classic, Candyman. (Yes, this was a tough Trivia Slam.)

When done properly, obsession is a good thing. It allows us to have full, complete characters who seem multidimensional because the writer in fact knows them inside and out. Any good writer should not be afraid to explore a subject in detail and really dive into everything that makes the story move. The ideal way to think about it is to imagine if there was a Trivia Slam about your writing. If you know it well enough, you will win the Slam, and not end up like the trivia roadkill I became.

Monday, October 10, 2022

Common Traits of Nobel Prize Winners

Some of you may have caught this on the news, but I am here to share it publicly. The 2022 Nobel Prize in Literature was announced, and for yet another year, it wasn't me. With no disrespect for the winner, Annie Ernaux, I was hoping I would win this year as an underdog. In fairness, I was not even nominated, but that would've made for an even better underdog story. And if Bob Dylan can win it, there's hope for me as well. 

That all being said, I thought it might be beneficial for all future writers and Nobel Prize winners to offer a little discussion of some of the common qualities exhibited in the works of Nobel laureates. After all, they won it all one year, so they clearly know what they are doing. This doesn't mean we have to emulate their work or even study everything they've written. We just have to consider some of the qualities they exhibited with such mastery and ask ourselves if these are traits we can improve in our own works. Let's take a look at a few of these qualities and see just how we can use them.

Observation. Most any writer is obliged to communicate a view of the world to their reader that resonates in a way no other writing can. Before someone can write such an astounding message, they first have to be keenly aware of the world around them, particularly those things that relate to just what they want to discuss. If a person wants to write about feminism, or racism, or class division, they need to really examine the world around them to see just how pervasive the subject is. It is an easy out to talk about class division simply because one was raised in poverty. It's a good start, but the writer should really see just how this subject influences the world they haven't seen as well. The world's a pretty big place - never assume you know it all. The observant writer looks for opportunities to explore the unknown and leaves themselves open to new ideas - even ideas that contradict what they might believe. This can open doors to more developed, immersive writing.

Originality. This one's tough, but if we use the first tool of observation enough, we start making connections that other people haven't made yet. When we start seeing more of the world, ideas should start popping about in our mind. New experiences lead to new thoughts, and a good writer will take these wild, original ideas and start putting them to paper. It doesn't matter if the ideas are genuinely original and new to the world, they just have to be new to the writer willing to explore them. The first time I had the opportunity to go to a foreign country and see other cultures living within their familiar environment, my mind exploded with questions and thoughts about what this implied for other parts of my life, and I started writing about those things. Looking back, none of those new ideas were different than what plenty of people had asked plenty of times before. However, they were new to me, and as I explored them, I grew as a writer (and as a person).

Depth. Let's think about some of the subjects I mentioned in the observation section - we will focus on class division in particular. Now, this is a pretty big topic to explore, and the mind can go wild just expanding on all the different aspects of it - generational differences, racial biases, inter-class conflict, us versus them, wealth redistribution, poverty and moral hazard, etc. We would do ourselves a favor in understanding something about all these ideas. However, our Nobel laureates have the knack for sharpening their focus on a particular aspect and drilling into it, asking the deeper questions and investigating the answers. They become masters of a viewpoint within that particular subject, and when they write about it, they bring those insights to a reader who cannot help but be pulled in by their intensity. It's a lot to ask a beginning writer to become obsessive about a particular subject, but the best takeaway is to really get into a subject and don't be afraid to dig beneath the surface and see what lies underneath.

Of course, there are plenty of other traits these laureates share - passion, voice, precision of thought, and so forth. However, these three are ones that any writer can build upon. And on that note, I am going to get back to my writing. After all, it's the only way I can make the 2023 nominee list.

Friday, October 7, 2022

Proofreading and Editing: Two Different Worlds

Honestly, I've lost count of how many stories, plays, anthologies and novels I have edited. It wouldn't be a huge number - I know I have edited exactly one play - but it would be a good one. Furthermore, I would define editing these works as something far more than just giving something a look and making my proofreading marks. Editing is a far more intense process, and something every writer should learn as a secondary talent - even if only to understand what other people go through.

Editing is often thought of as checking to see if anything is wrong. This would be the equivalent of saying a mechanic's job is to make sure the car starts. If the car doesn't start, the mechanic has more work to do, but if the engine fires up and you can drive the car out of the garage, his work is done. Right? Not even close. An editor who just finds glaring errors is a proofreader.

Sure - an editor's first job is to make sure a piece is readable. However, this requires a whole checklist of steps and not just a turn of the grammatical key to get it running. An editor makes sure there's no blue smoke billowing from the exhaust (or any other place), that there's no rattling noises, that the performance is within expectations, and that everything works the way it's supposed to. If you do not get this from your editor, they might not be an editor.

Some parts of basic editing are handled by your word processor. A basic spelling/grammar check is available on most packages, and they can do some of the heavy lifting for you. Learn the details of your grammar checker and it can sniff out taboo things like passive voice, homonym errors, and nonsensical (but grammatically clean) sentences. After that, it gets a little more customized and complicated.

The most important part of an editor's job, however, is answering to the writer's demands, and that's up to you. Do you want someone telling you where twenty-word sentences could be pruned down to ten words? It does make your work more efficient, but not all editors do that. Do you want your period piece fact-checked? How important is continuity? Should dialogue be grammatically correct, or should it be structurally broken - like human speech often is? Most importantly, how much of your editor's opinion do you want regarding the content? 

If there comes a point where you either want to hire an editor for your work or be an editor yourself, prepare yourself. Each situation will be different and each work will demand its own priorities. Each assignment usually is best served by a sit-down between editor and writer, where they figure out what is needed versus what is offered, and whether there is common ground that satisfies the writer. And yes, this is a little more of a discussion than just telling your mechanic, "I just want it to run real well." 

And on that note, I am going to prep for another editing assignment. And by prep, I mean have the first meeting. Preferably over lunch.

Monday, October 3, 2022

Context and Kumiho

The other day I sat down to watch what turned out to be a very interesting movie (dealing with Asian themes of the supernatural - this is important). I won't offer a full review or anything - that's for someone else's blog - but I will discuss one scene that both popped out as an eye-catcher and yet somehow threw off the whole rhythm of the movie. In this scene, a woman, haunted by her past, hears sounds in the yard one night and goes out to investigate. In the light of the moon she sees a fox, and the fox has nine tails. Alarmed, she goes back inside, having recognized the fox from an old article of clothing from her past. Then the story goes on.

Now, I don't know how many tails are on the foxes in your area, but I am guessing the average is somewhere around one. This was a very special fox and required some special effects to create, and if you know where this is going, you could read into all the supernatural implications present with the nine-tailed fox. However, this story brings forth this stand-out creature, shows it to the audience, then lets it go away without discussion or implication other than the connection to the image on some old clothing. Most viewers will understand the fox-clothing thing and move on, but indeed this was a missed opportunity to really engage the audience.

In the context of the movie, this weird little fox was a Korean kumiho (known as huli jing in China, kitsune in Japan). They represent many things in Korean mythology, but primarily they exist as the embodiment of a tormented soul. With this fact being introduced, the connection between the supernatural, a character haunted by their past, and the appearance of a kumiho in her yard should be crystal clear, and it all builds into something very dramatic. However, leaving out the one fact of what the fox represented not only reduces the drama of the scene, but leaves the reader a little confused about what the nine-tailed fox cameo was all about. This, in short, is a failure of context.

Sometimes, people decide to have such elements in their story and introduce them by a character doing a five-minute info dump about tormented spirits and kumiho. This all but showcases to the reader that this thing will pop up later. This can be distracting because it can break the story's pacing very quickly and reduce the impact of what was supposed to be a surprise appearance by the fox. However, something has to be done to introduce this foreign element, otherwise it comes, goes, and the reader is left saying, "Huh?"

The introduction is best done through context - offering comments and subtext about restless spirits and cultural norms that build a framework around the reader without stating the obvious. By creating a mood where spirits embodied as animals feel possible, it guides the reader without holding their hand. This way, when the big scene arrives, the reader puts together the pieces and immediately identifies the kumiho, even if they don't know it by name. The reader is engaged at that point, and the writer has gained their interest for the balance of the story.

Context is a very important part of any story that brings the reader into unfamiliar territory, as it establishes some groundwork without getting in the way of the narrative. Every writer needs to remember this, and make sure that its used at any point where a critical step needs to be taken. Without context, those steps can be missed, leaving the reader detached from the story from that point forward. One thing that's scarier than a kumiho is a disappointed reader. 

Friday, September 30, 2022

The New Style of Writing (for better or worse)

"I don't care what anyone says, those people are all TYRANTS!!!!!"

During my many adventures in editing, I have come across sentences such as the one above many times. Now, there's nothing wrong with it grammatically, and other than being a broad and perhaps offensive generalization, it communicates an idea just fine. Stylistically, however, it breaks a lot of the old rules, but is that necessarily wrong? Maybe it is, maybe not, but it is a good example of what writing is trending toward these days.

A bit of background: Back in the days before desktop publishing was commonplace, there were few options a typewriter could offer for emphasizing a part of a sentence. You could underline something, put a word in all caps, and multiple exclamation points were obviously possible. Bold and italicized letters required special effort to do, and were usually frowned upon in publications. (Needless to say, the word emoji didn't even exist as we know it now.) Authors had to be very selective in using special emphasis in their style, since it came at a cost. However, with the onset of desktop publishing, everything changed.

What used to be a typesetter's nightmare became commonplace. Bold and italics became as simple as Ctrl+b and Ctrl+i, respectively, and we could write visual emphasis everywhere and anywhere. However, just because we could doesn't necessarily mean we should. To look into this, let's go back to the sentence above.

The part of "those people" has that italicized word, which suggests the word is drawn out and implies subtext. Usually, a writer would try to create a scene where the subtext was implied through the character's behavior and mannerisms - show, don't tell. However, now we can do the telling by showing a word in italics. This is becoming more of the norm these days, but be careful. When we use italics to emphasize subtext, we miss the opportunity to fill in the character's personality through their actions. Italics can be a quick remedy that loses some long-term gains, so use them carefully.

"...those people are all TYRANTS!!!!!" Okay, here's where we get into a less obvious area. We all know the exclamation point and what it's supposed to do. When we see that, we imagine something being yelled. Fair enough. How much does that idea change when there are five exclamation points? Is it five times louder? When a word is put into all caps, is it yet louder still? Are the bold-faced words all markedly loud in their own right, with the sentence increasing in volume to an ear-splitting tirade made by a foaming-at-the-mouth, out-of-control, purple-in-the-face monster of a human? Maybe so, but highly doubtful. Unfortunately, this form of visual yelling is becoming more commonplace in amateur writing, and even creeping toward the mainstream, like it or not.

Using visual text cues is no longer a sin in the writing world - that's how things have evolved. However, they are still not a replacement for some quality description of someone screaming at the top of their lungs, pounding the table as they rant about those tyrants. If you want to emphasize a good scream, choose all caps OR bold type OR multiple exclamation points (yes, I yelled those OR parts), but always give a try at the writing part. Making a sentence look impressive is nothing compared to writing an impressive sentence.

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.