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, March 28, 2022

Indiana Jones and Storytelling

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 25, 2022

When Is It Too Much?

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 21, 2022

Rehabbing our Writing

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

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

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

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

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

They can always get better.

Friday, March 18, 2022

Crowd-Splitting Subjects

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

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

However, that's not mandatory.

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 14, 2022

Venturing Into the Unknown

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 11, 2022

Trigger Warning

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 7, 2022

Workshop Warnings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Friday, March 4, 2022

What's In A Word?

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

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

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

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

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