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, January 28, 2022

Everyone's Story

If there is one regret I have as a writer, it is that I didn't spend enough time listening to other peoples' stories when I had the chance. Don't get me wrong - I love a good story, and when someone sits back to spin a yarn, I am the first one to grab a drink and settle in. However, the sad part about some stories is that they have a shelf-life that is far too short. If we don't recognize that some stories will only last as long as the storyteller, we end up losing a great opportunity to learn from them and spread them forward.

Due to several unrelated factors, I never really got to know most of my grandparents. Two passed away before I was born, and a third died when I was three. This left me with one grandparent to handle all the responsibilities of what four grandparents would usually do. She passed away when I was eleven, so before I was even a teenager, I had run out of sources for tapping into the ancient past known as the early 20th century. So many questions never to be answered but always be wondered about.

However, there was one older man I knew - we will call him George - who did provide me with some insights into a world I was interested in knowing about, and boy, did he have some stories. His stories transported me to another time and place. George grew up in Europe, so every story was from this distant land I could barely comprehend, with events so amazing it was hard to believe we shared the same planet. I am thankful for having the chance to listen to his stories, whether they were happy, sad, or otherwise. 

George had indeed lived a life. He left home when he was fourteen - can any of us even imagine doing such a thing? He went across Europe, often with just the clothes on his back, making do in whatever way he could. He had one story about stealing a truck so he could make his way west that truly fascinated me. Yes - he was technically a truck thief, but I found it in myself to forgive him. I was amazed at all the things that he did as a teenager, and how he made his way to London (at this point I assume the stolen truck stayed in mainland Europe) and eventually the United States. And he never saw his family again.

These stories on their own would be enough to fascinate anyone and inspire the average writer to get to work creating something worthwhile. However, George's stories were the kind that needed to be spread. In case you haven't figured it out, George grew up in Europe, more specifically eastern Europe, during the 1930s, and he saw the atrocities that followed firsthand. When he left home, it was because he was packed onto a train car with his family. He escaped the train car, but the rest of his family did not. The truck he stole to head west was his escape from Nazi-controlled territory, so I forgave him for stealing it. Him fleeing Europe and eventually arriving in the US is something most generations can't even comprehend, making these stories that much more important.

Now, not everyone will have stories with such drama. However, everyone will have their stories from the pivotal moments of our history. I know the family stories passed down over generations involving the Spanish Flu outbreak, The Great Depression, World War Two, Korea, Viet Nam, the Civil Rights Movement, and so on. In turn, I will have stories about the landmark events in my lifetime to hand down to subsequent generations. Future generations will hopefully listen to my stories and better understand what it was like "back in my days," but first and foremost, it is up to me to make sure those stories are passed along. Being a writer is exactly the way to guarantee that.

Monday, January 24, 2022

Writing Tools: Sandpaper and Files

Congratulations! If you are at this stage of your writing, you used all the big tools and completed your haiku/story/novel, are now ready for the final touches. With this draft, the heavy lifting is over, and you can get out the writing tools of finesse: Sandpaper and Files (not Word files, but the actual hand files). A few warnings about these. First, do not use these before you are ready, as doing so can be a dramatic waste of time. Second, wear goggles, because you can get stuff in your eyes and they'll water up with tears.

The second rule is just a flippant way of pointing out how putting the final touches on your work can be a very emotional experience; the first rule is what counts. When you are ready for crafting and sculpting the details of your piece, first put everything else away. Promise yourself you are done with them for this piece. Give yourself license to be done with the big stuff and get down to the special stuff. This is committing yourself to your completed work, and is not as easy as it seems.

Too often, I have seen writers get hung up on that eternal question, "How do I know when it's done?" It's not like a cake in the oven, where that little browning on the edges tells you it's time. Rather, you have to tell yourself, "This is where I want it to be," and you go with it. This often starts with asking yourself, "Does this piece say what I want it to say?" "Are my ideas fully communicated?" and "Do I feel comfortable with the outcome?" Being able to answer all those questions in the affirmative means putting away the heavy gear and focusing on making each part smooth and fancy, with every description and metaphor shaped just so.

Another problem that comes with the sandpaper and files is temptation. For some writers I know, they create the first chapter of their novel and they want to sculpt it to perfection. They want to put in all the detail work and sand off all the coarse edges so they will know that the first chapter is, in fact, completed. That's how they feel their process should work. I won't say that's a terrible idea (although I believe it is very much a terrible idea), but I will point out that the other tools I have discussed in past posts can wreck all that detailed work with one swing.

Think of that ideal first chapter - introducing your protagonist and a group of friends. There's an engaging conversation, a big event, and the call to action begins! Great first chapter - off and running. You shape and finesse every bit of dialogue, hone every detail and sculpt every image with the intensity of Michelangelo. Then you go on to chapter two. Well done. However, there's every possibility that by chapter seven, you realize one of the characters in that first chapter is dead weight, another character should be female, and certain plot details need to be introduced. This forces you to make a tough choice: undo a bunch of that polished work or stick with what you have at the expense of a better story. The choice is obvious from this perspective, but when you are deep into your writing process and heavily invested in your labor, the choice is not so obvious.

Putting together any piece of writing is indeed a daunting task, and the time and effort required is often more than one expects. However, going in with the right tools makes it a lot easier, and knowing how and when to use them really moves the job along.           

Friday, January 21, 2022

Writing Tools: The Saw

At our core, writers like us want to create. Whether it's a simple haiku, an epic novel, or anything in between, we want to take our jumble of random thoughts and countless Post-It notes and turn them into a coherent piece of writing that clearly expresses our truths. Given this urge to create, it feels wrong to bring out our next writing tool, but here it is: The Saw.

Let's be honest. While a saw is a tool, it's hard to think of it as something that creates. Writers can think negatively of something like a saw, and they wouldn't be wrong. It is a crude tool. It destroys. The implications of using a saw are rarely beneficial. And of course, there were a whole series of Saw movies where things did not go well for the characters to say the least. But that doesn't mean it shouldn't have a place in the writer's toolbox.

The difficulty of seeing this as beneficial comes from the creative writer. Everything a writer creates is personal. It is a product of their own process, and therefore has value. However, those individual creations might not fit together very well without a little trimming. A house frame is a wonderfully designed assemblage of 2-by-4s, but not all of them stayed the same length as they were when they came from the lumber yard. The scrap pile at a construction site is a thing to behold, and the same goes for reviewing a story - a lot of things need to get trimmed, or in some cases, cut out entirely.

I have not met a writer yet who didn't have reservations about deleting a character from a novel, or removing a great description from a story. Again, these are the writer's personal creations, and it's tough to put an end to them. However, part of the process is making sure that everything is just right, and a part of that is making changes when it's just not working.

Take something like the great description I mentioned. What could possibly be wrong with that? A really nice description of a car might make the writer feel like they've accomplished something special, which they have. However, if that description of the car is in the middle of a chase scene, it can kill the mood. Chase scenes are action - nobody cares about fine lines or shining chrome. At this point, the saw should come out. Maybe the piece gets taken out entirely, or introduced at another point. Just don't let ego keep something that's going to ruin the larger product.

The same goes for characters. Sometimes a character might be very fleshed out and understood by the writer, but their placement comes as a total distraction to the larger story. Some call this the Jar Jar Binks Effect, but that's for another time. The point is that we need to decide if the saw should be used to cut out the character's qualities that don't fit, or the story arcs that don't match, or just eliminate the character altogether. This is tough for a writer to do, but if the larger story demands it, then it is best to cut in order to cure.

Once we are through this, we get out our final tools, and Monday I will explain what they are. 



Monday, January 17, 2022

Writing Tools: Drafting the Story

The past couple of posts have discussed with growing detail the tools of storytelling - last week focused on the gauge we need to measure just what the story will be about and how it will operate. This week is no different.  Now that we know what we plan on writing, it's time to start laying out a blueprint for the story, and any good blueprint requires a proper set of drafting tools. Ours are not as elaborate as the ones engineers use, but the purpose is the same: To lay out the framework for our story.

The last post discussed the whats and whys of our story as we took a vague idea and figured out just what we wanted it to be. Now we get to the difficult questions, the ones that sometimes we have to experiment with, try out a few angles, and see if the pieces fit together. Also, some of our answers might influence other questions.

Once we know what we want to write, think of the following:

  • Who is telling the story? You? Someone else? A specific person? Are they a witness or a participant?
  • Past tense or present (or a blend of both)? First-person or third-person voice? Factual story, pure fiction, or a fictitious telling of an actual story? 
  • Are they the protagonist? Antagonist?
  • Do they convey the desired message through success or failure? 
  • Is the ending conclusive or open for interpretation?

The first two bullets are about structure - creating a sturdy framework for a good story, that should fit the tone. It's difficult (but not impossible) to tell a story that involves a character's deep thought and introspection in the present tense, and insights are more challenging from the third-person. Personal stories can be turned into fiction, but that doesn't work the other way around. Also, old stories told in present tense may require an age-appropriate voice.

These are the natural offshoots of what we gauged in the previous post. We first need to know what we want to say before we try to say it. As this story structure takes shape, we draw in the details and make the more intricate choices that bring out our writing. Like a skilled architect deciding between designs, we consider which one meets our needs. First-person storytelling is more intimate but isolated within one character's mind, whereas third-person opens things up at the cost of emotional privacy. First-person testimonials limit our suspense but offer truths, while fiction opens possibilities but can compromise believability. 

The last three bullets are where the fun begins; the story emerges. This is where we consider the good and evil, the weight of what we want to tell the reader and how we want them to feel afterward. This doesn't have to be a heavy decision - sometimes we have already answered these. If we decided that the story would discuss our experiences being a bully as a teenager, and how something so wrong felt so right in that moment, then those questions have answered themselves. Our only obligation is to make sure that the message we want to leave the reader with matches the pieces we are putting in place.

At this point, we start to build... uhh... write our story. That comes with its own set of tools, and I'll gladly discuss them in Friday's post. All I ask is that beforehand, you bring your safety goggles.

Friday, January 14, 2022

Writing Tools: The Gauge

Gauge: noun, (gāj), Any instrument for ascertaining or regulating the level, state, dimensions or forms of things

The most common writing tool for me is the writer's gauge. Before I commit one word to my keyboard, I whip out this bad boy and determine just where things are going to go. Sometimes people jump into the writing process without first using their gauge, and that's okay. It's also a great way to set yourself up for a lot of rewrites, but that's another story. For now, let's think about what this fine little tool can do for us as writers.

Let's say I have an idea. I don't know the story yet, maybe I don't even have a clean grasp of how I want to present it. Perhaps it's just a scene in my head and I want to flesh it out somehow. Let's say it's a memory of talking with my mother in our family room when I was four. At this point, I bring out the gauge and let it do its thing.

The best thing the gauge can do is help me figure out what I have and what I want to turn it into. I use this fine tool by measuring out the details not just of this isolated, distant memory, but why a part of me suddenly wants to commit this to the page. I proceed to assess the different dimensions and measure everything about this one kernel of an idea:

  • Why is this moment important?
  • Is this about the memory or the situation?
  • What stands out in this memory? Scenery? Context? Feelings?
  • What do I want to tell the reader?
  • How should the reader feel at the end?

At the very least, measuring out these parts should give me an idea of where I should start. Gauging these different metrics should help me focus my story into something more than just recalling a memory. By the time I answer those questions, I should have a narrative in mind. 

Once I go through that list, here's what I have: That little chat when I was four was important because it's the earliest surviving memory I have of interacting with my mother. This is an interesting situation because my mother first got me curious about writing, even at such a young age. The feelings of that moment are bittersweet, because now that I am a writer, my mother is in a condition where she can no longer appreciate the things I write. This makes me want to tell the reader to savor those little, seemingly meaningless moments in the family room, because someday that is all you will have left of that person. Hopefully, the reader will feel motivated to be a little more open to the world after reading my piece. Now I have something to work on, and what set it up was my powerful writing tool - the writer's gauge.

Now I just need to write the damn thing, and dig deeper into the toolbox...       

Monday, January 10, 2022

Writing Tools

The other night I had a bizarre dream. For reasons unknown, in this dream I went back to my old apartment by Ukrainian Village. I still had the keys to the building, so I opened the gate, walked right in, went up to the apartment, and took a bath. The tenants there did not really complain, though they didn't say much of anything. I did notice how they had changed around the apartment and moved the windows to different places, but it didn't seem like something worth mentioning. After all, they had moved the bathroom as well, so who was I to point out these things?

Now, as a writer, my obligation is to turn things like weird dreams or ideas into stories - or perhaps take several different things and merge them into one story. However, there is always the question of how I should take the simple concept of the dream in the last paragraph and turn it into something genuinely interesting for a broad audience. At the very least, I need to flesh it out and make it something more than a paragraph.

This is where we dig out the old writer's toolbox and bring out the little things we need to turn this into a story. The first tool is simple - a gauge that determines what kind of story we want to tell. If I want to tell this simply as a story about a dream I had, I need to measure out what the reader should take away from it other than the belief that I have weird dreams from time to time. However, I could tell the story in first person, creating a weird reality that keeps the reader guessing until the very end and the big reveal that it was all a dream. That requires some tweaking and moving around of structure, but it's an option. Or I could write it as an interpretive piece, analyzing each section with the goal being to reveal to the reader just how my brain works. Whatever I choose, I need to use this gauge to know just what I want to write, otherwise I am doomed to create something that probably doesn't have much impact.

Now that I am creating the piece, I should get a few mental rulers and compasses out of the toolbox. These aren't too troublesome when we use them properly. These are the tools that make sure our path goes in the right direction with the proper pacing. If I am describing a dream, what parts do I want to focus on? Is the bath the important part? The location of the apartment? The tenants? The fact that they had somehow moved around not only the bathroom but the windows as well? How much interest do they have to the reader and how important are they to my storytelling? If this is a story from the first person, casual mention about people moving windows around can be a dead giveaway that this was a dream, so maybe that gets downplayed or moved to just before the big reveal.

Lastly, the writer's sandpaper comes out. No matter what we write, the sandpaper is is our willingness to make things go smoothly, to fix certain parts and make sure nothing is coarse or takes the reader out of a nice, gentle adventure through the story. It sounds easy, but sometimes when we adjust one piece, other pieces can feel different and we have to balance things out. The final product should have an even flow to it, at least as much as we intend to bring to the reader.

I only make note of these tools because my next few posts will go into more detail about how these tools work and how mastering them can make us better writers. More to come...         

Friday, January 7, 2022

Workshop Pitfalls

I talk a lot about the advantages of writing workshops, sharing your work with others and getting creative feedback. Of course, the flipside to this that is equally beneficial is reading other peoples' works, thinking about constructive improvements, and providing feedback. These two parts of the workshop routine will help us grow as writers without question. However, there are times we will encounter problems, and some in particular are great opportunities to really up our game.

Just like how writers have specific genres that they prefer to write, and readers tend to lean toward particular subjects or styles, we all have our preferences. Given the choice, we will read and write things we are comfortable with, and that goes for critiquing pieces in a workshop. If your favorite subject is horror and someone brings a horror story to the workshop, well, it's going to be a good day, isn't it? You will have a lot to say and a lot to contribute. However, this has a dark side, and it's when people bring a piece that you have utterly no interest in, or worse, are opposed to.  This is where we need to up our workshop game.

Essays can be flashpoints for any workshop, especially if the person is defending a point that you do not support. This will often tempt us to critique the person's position rather than the writing, which takes us away from the purpose of the workshop - strengthening our writing. I would occasionally put on my economist hat and write an essay explaining how some theory functioned in society or the downside of certain policies - you know, boring economics stuff. I would try to make the writing relatable and interesting (not an easy task), and take it to the workshop to find ways to get readers to connect to the material. This is where things got ugly.

Quite often, the critiques I received were along the lines of, "I don't think that's right," "My candidate says this isn't true," or "I believe something else." While these critics clearly have different viewpoints, their failure was in offering opinions about the subject while not critiquing the writing. This is an easy trap to fall into and difficult to escape. If someone writes an essay supporting communism, our first impulse might be to immediately argue against communism. This is debating, not critiquing, and it doesn't help anyone improve. Worse yet, if the two people in that workshop begin debating their sides, nobody in the workshop benefits as a writer.

The way to get around this little problem is to tell ourselves, "I disagree with this. Now let's focus on the writing." It might feel very unnatural to try to find a way to improve the writing of an essay you don't agree with, and that's fine. The secret is to think of yourself as a writer and nothing more (well, maybe an editor as well). Focus on the principles of structure, of establishing a setting, a position, etc. When you find yourself drifting toward that mindset of, "Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!" then double down and focus on the words and sentences. The best thing you can do for that writer is helping them write stronger pieces. After the workshop, feel free to give them a PoliSci 101 lecture. But while you are in that workshop, make people better writers.


Monday, January 3, 2022

Will This Be THE Year?

Welcome back and a happy 2022 to all those who chose to return. To kick off this year, I thought it would be best to get into some of the things we need to do as writers (and as people) to make this THE year. I am not talking about making this a really good year - ever since 2019, we all have reconsidered just what qualifies as good. No, this could be the year where we get something done. Something big. Some thing that, as a writer, we can really hang our hat on.

Now, this is not a resolution thing. I am not a fan of resolutions, as it seems arbitrary to change one's life because the calendar flipped over. No, this is thinking about what we really want to accomplish as writers, and how we can take steps toward that goal. We don't even need to reach that goal by the end of the year, we just need to make progress toward it. Whether it's a big goal like writing the Great American Novel or just getting our butt into gear and writing more, this is a good time to think about what steps we need to take toward that end.

As long as our goal is writing-related, one of the things we should aim for is engaging with other writers, preferably on a regular basis. I am a strong advocate of attending local writing workshops, as it places us into a network of like-minded people who probably have their own goals as well. Some of the larger, two- and three-day workshops held in Iowa and so forth are good as well, but they provide a different type of energy. Local groups ideally provide steady, constant reinforcement that you are a writer and you are progressing toward your next milestone. This will keep you going through the tough times when writing feels like a job rather than a joy.

And while we are on the subject of "local," might I suggest local book stores? Yes, they still exist if you look for them, and they provide an excellent source of engagement with people who appreciate the written word. For me, there is something very moving about being surrounded by the written word, a wealth of stories wherever I look. To be a part of the grand legacy of the written story is sometimes enough to get me rushing to my keyboard. And, of course, buying a book helps too.

If the written word inspires you that way, you should get to know the people and events at your local library. In these days of online living, the library is a lost treasure. Other than a variety of social programs for public consumption, a trip to the library is a way to see the written word in action. Children's reading programs, people going through the available periodicals, and of course, all those books. How could this not inspire a person to move toward their goal? (Incidentally, my best library experience was seeing an absolute stranger pull my book off the shelf, skim the cover and the back, then go to the desk and check it out.)

Whatever your goal is to make 2022 THE year for you as a writer, make sure you give yourself every advantage possible. A big part of that will be doing whatever it takes to remind yourself that you are a writer, your journey is one worth taking, and the goal is achievable if you truly want it.

Happy New Year!