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.

Monday, February 28, 2022

Reading Context

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 25, 2022

Writing About Anything

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 14, 2022

More About Writing and the Super Bowl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 11, 2022

Brevity and Abraham Lincoln

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sorry it wasn't very brief.

Monday, February 7, 2022

Don't Worry About the Opening Sentence

I am in a bit of a writing slump. I am not blocked by any means; I am awash with stories and poems and the like. I have a bunch of writing prompts I am ready to jump on, a few I want to turn into longer pieces, and some ideas that are just floating around my mind like fertile little dandelion seeds drifting in the breeze. No, my problem is one that I periodically have to face down, and to do so, I have to get past the simple task of starting the story.

I've mentioned more than a few times that I spent a career in the financial world, and needless to say, that life came with a bundle of stories. After having read a number of authors' works on their experiences with big banks ("Liar's Poker" by Michael Lewis is a must-read), I decided to start writing down my experiences. These stories would hardly be as insightful as those of Mr. Lewis, and the events in my little fiefdom did not have as big an impact on the global financial world as his did, but these stories were worth writing down and preserving for a while. But how?

My hang-up is that damn opening sentence. When I want to write about, say, the approach of the 1997 Asian financial crisis or the inflating and bursting of the NASDAQ market bubble, I know these are big, important stories and deserve big, important opening sentences. Anything that brought recession to a billion people or wiped out trillions of dollars of wealth needs to start off big, right? Right? Who am I to do that?

There should be a twelve-step program for writers that helps them remain grounded and not get consumed by the breadth of the task ahead. And one of those steps, which I have mentioned in previous posts, is to not worry about any one sentence, phrase, or word before you finish the story. This counts for opening sentences as well. There's no sense in letting your creative process get all backed up while you worry about how to start the story. Write the first sentence, let yourself understand that you can change it at any time, breathe, then write the rest of the story. Accept the fact that you won't truly know the opening sentence until you have written the last sentence.

There is a time for fretting over the details, and pondering over just the right words. Former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan once said that he would sometimes spend twenty minutes pondering over exactly what word to use for a particular sentence. Whether you were a fan of his or not, that is an impressive commitment to detail. Also, I would wager that he had already written his first draft before he dove into the task of creating phrases like "irrational exuberance" (which, supposedly, took him fifteen minutes to decide upon). 

So, simply put, I am now writing again after putting in a first sentence that I know will just be a placeholder for something much better, and I will get to it when I get to it. Meanwhile, I have a story to write, and that process of creation is far more exciting than pondering over one little sentence.

Friday, February 4, 2022

Gold-Medal Writing

Yes, there's an Olympics theme to this post to commemorate the start of the Winter Olympics. Don't worry, I won't get into the details of proper bobsled technique or the finesse required to perform a triple Lutz. No, this is about our pursuit of being the best writer around, and just what it takes to win it all.

Everyone who pursues writing beyond that of just a hobby wants to be the best. They don't just want to write a poem, they want to compose lines of such elegance that complete strangers are moved to tears by its depth and beauty. It's not about writing a novel, it's about writing the Great American Novel that future college courses will study, parsing through every line and drawing out the intricate nuances woven into every phrase. Nobody who does well sets out to write crap. They will write a lot of crap at first, but it gets better as they perform that alchemy that turns bad writing into gold.

And that's the important part here - the pursuit of being a better writer. Our Olympic athletes started at a very young age and rigorously trained for most of their lives to compete in the Olympics. Even as they won gold medal after gold medal, they still trained to be just a little bit better. They go through the constant process of conditioning themselves in every way to physically transform themselves into what they ultimately want to be - the best.

Now, as writers, we are fortunate. We don't have to start off at six years old swimming lap after lap at five in the morning in order to be good. We don't constantly risk our bodies to step it up one more notch (if your body is at risk from writing, you're doing it wrong). However, a good writer has something in common with these athletes other than continually trying to improve. They incorporate what they want to achieve into their everyday lives.

Most top-notch athletes have a few things in common other than a lot of practice. They watch their diets. They exercise even in the off-season. They get enough sleep, they limit their vices (though this is a gray area with some athletes), and they incorporate a lot of good habits into their lifestyles (again, sometimes a gray area). This is something we can do as writers that will feed back into the way we approach our work.

The best way I know to train my writer's brain is to people-watch. When I have idle time, I pick a random person and think about how I would describe them in narrative. What trait would I showcase to the reader? How would I spell out that person's mood, their presence, how that person made me feel when they spoke? When I am eating dinner, how would I describe my pizza without using taste? What sounds make good descriptors for food? I can do a lot of writing exercises without even writing. It may sound odd, but incorporating these little things into my lifestyle quietly conditions my writing muscles, and once I start working on a piece, I do so with that much more skill.

If we set out to live the writing life, and do things that help our creative minds flourish, invariably our writing will improve. Will we become Olympic-class writers? Who is to say? Just as long as we keep on improving our craft, we have a shot at the gold. (and a Pulitzer Prize in fiction kind of looks like a tarnished gold medal, so there's that.)