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, April 29, 2022

Making Bad Things Work For You

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

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

Here's my suggestion: Write about them.

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

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

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

Monday, April 25, 2022

The Economics of Description

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 22, 2022

World-Building and Info-Dumping

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 15, 2022

Keeping Things Simple

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 11, 2022

Trigger Warning

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

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

However, is being triggered such a bad thing?

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

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

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

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

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

And maybe ease up on social media a little.

Friday, April 8, 2022

There's No Story Without Characters

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 4, 2022

Whose Story Should We Tell?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Friday, April 1, 2022

Humor... Seriously

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

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

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

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

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

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

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