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, May 30, 2022

Memorial Day

Today's post will not be about writing, technique, and all things prose. Today is Memorial Day, reserved for those lost to war. So for them, I ask you to read this piece of poetry and appreciate what it says for those who never returned.

In Flanders Fields

by John McCrae

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

    That mark our place; and in the sky

    The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

    Loved and were loved, and now we lie,

        In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

    The torch; be yours to hold it high.

    If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

        In Flanders fields.

Friday, May 27, 2022

Appreciating the Simpler Things

Nature's poetry

is as simple as spring rain

nourishing the grass.

- My simple haiku

Over the past week or so, a few things have weighed on my ability to write. First, my wellbeing has been sub-par. Second, the weather has been sub-par, and third, I have been working outside where bad weather makes it difficult for me to regain my otherwise top-notch health. Most every facet of my life has been hit, which includes my ability to be creative and write narratives, essays, or even simple writing exercises. A pretty bad week indeed.

However, as I often say in this space, there is usually a way to shift things about if you give it a little time. Maybe not enough to turn a vicious cycle into a virtuous cycle, but at the very least there are ways to stop the descent.

Take, for example, the near-continuous blend of clouds, rain, and humidity that have shrouded the Midwest. Not a lot to work with, right? Guess again. Think of how many different ways we can describe the endless stretch of grey skies, each one coming with its own emotional weight. They can be darkening at the edge of the horizon, promising a coming storm, or sporadically pierced with rays of sun struggling to reach the ground. My favorite is "pewter skies" because it evokes a very distinct color in the reader's mind, and spreads it across the imagination like a metal lid across the sky. Those are just thoughts about simple cloud cover.

As for the rain - well, that's just a grab-bag full of possibilities. Just like how some cultures have many words from snow, the writer should have a wealth of little gems to describe what can otherwise be nothing more than a spring rain. Rain is more than water falling from the sky. It has density, size, ferocity, and a bunch of other little qualities that we can fold into the discussion. And, of course, rain can be good, bad, or neutral. Just because the heavy, wet air makes me cough terribly doesn't mean it's bad for everyone, and perhaps that is where I start off my writing.

The point I am laboring to make is simple: When we want to write, anything can be a subject. When we need to write, it's often best to target the simplest of things and find their complexity, their dimension. Expand on one little thing and make it stand out, and you will have done more than most people who just look outside and simply see the rain.

Friday, May 20, 2022

Writing and the Rules

I have been thinking a lot about rules lately (which has nothing to do with all the new stop signs put up in my neighborhood for absolutely no reason). In writing, there are a lot of rules to learn, but as opposed to the rules of the road, we learn these writing rules so we know the most effective ways to break them. By writing within the rules then occasionally going around them, our words become that much more effective. With driving, we just get tickets.

Now, that being said, there are some rules that are pretty hard and fast, and you shouldn't try and figure out ways to write around them. The rules are there for a reason, and people end up learning the hard way just why these rules have served well for so long. So to save everyone some time, I thought this time I would mention some of these rules. Take as you will, and go from there.

- Keep a consistent Point of View (PoV) in each section: The purpose of having a specific PoV in each section or scene is to give the reader a firm setting from which to view the story. Whether it is from the inside of the main character's head, an outside observer, or an omniscient perspective, this grounds the reader. If the reader enters a conversation or an action scene from one perspective, and things start to shift around, the reader loses their footing within the story and can even misunderstand what is being presented, depending on who they believe is receiving it. This doesn't mean that different perspectives can't be offered from time to time. The important part is that these be offered in separate sections, giving the reader time to readjust things and prepare for a new PoV. Mixing this up in the same section is grounds for dismissal.

- Separate the narration from the character interplay: In stories that aren't one person's retelling of an event, narration is the paintbrush we use to fill in the world around the characters. As far as the characters go, they fill in space as they see fit. It's okay for the characters to offer their own view of the world, but the narration should not step in for what characters should be discussing or perceiving. Narration is its own art form, and can create a very rich world on its own, but if it fuses with the characters, something gets lost.

- Beware of adverb addiction: We are always told to use active verbs and engaging action. One way to enhance that is through adverbs, but this can be a cheap fix. "He quickly ran down the stairs" is an example. "Quickly" is used to enhance running, but seriously, what other way is there to run? Quickly, briskly, and their speedy cousins are unnecessary because they say what the verb run is saying. Now running haphazardly, clumsily, drunkenly, or carelessly adds something to the discussion that the verb alone does not adjust. Before you go overboard with your adverbs, ask if they are even necessary.

And lastly, on a personal note, there is no conceivable reason to use parentheses within quotes. Quotes capture the spoken word, while parenthetic phrases represent words not spoken. Every time someone writes, "I am most certain of (though I cannot guarantee) my conclusion," an editor cries. Just stop it.

There are plenty of other ones to point out, but you can get a lot of mileage out of this. And many others can be negotiated with - as opposed to all the new stop signs around my house.

Friday, May 13, 2022

Do You Believe...?

Be honest - when you think of Friday the 13th (such as it is today), do you think of bad luck? Do you get a little extra superstitious on this particular date? When something bad happens, is your first impulse to blame it on the calendar? A surprising number of people have some kind of discomfort with this date - triskaidekaphobia in medical parlance - and many can support their fear with sound examples of unexplainable, bad things that happened on this very date. Does this validate all the things about Friday the 13th? Not really. Yet somehow, it persists.

What ingrains this date into many people's minds is that it is demonstrated to be bad through examples, then future bad events are tied to that date as well. It would probably not surprise anyone that there is no scientific evidence suggesting there are more accidents, natural disasters, or other other tragedies on this data than any other, and yet here we are. No - people believe what is suggested and shown, even if the example is an exception rather than the rule.

You might be thinking, "What does this have to do with writing?" Fair question. The answer is simple - writing (at least in fiction) is about making the reader believe in things that never happened. If I create a story of a small family growing up in Kansas during the Vietnam era, the reader needs to feel this is genuine, even though such a family never existed. This comes with a lot of work, but more to the point, it often has to appeal to the reader's feelings and emotions, sometimes at the expense of reality.

To be honest, I do not have many memories of the Vietnam era and I know very little about Kansas, having been there only once for about two hours when my flight to Chicago needed to take an emergency landing. This does not give me a lot of information to work with regarding Kansas, but I do know the basics so I can start my fiction from there. The capital is Topeka, so if I say they live on a farm 80 miles outside of Topeka, it sounds real and the reader buys in. It's a vague location so my lie can't be disproven and I don't even need to do much research for this.

Now comes the tough part. I have no idea how people from Kansas talk, whether their Midwestern habits have a cultural drift one way or the other, whether they prefer Pepsi or Coke, or a million other little things. Now, if I am selling this novel primarily to the good three-million people in the Kansas market, I better nail these facts. However, to a broader market of 330 million in the US, these details don't necessarily need to be accurate, they just need to feel accurate. They need to be reinforced, constantly brought up, and driven home by my narrative.

Let's say the family lives by a river. Well, typically, people do not think of Kansas as having rivers (it has plenty, but they are actually creeks feeding into lakes). My job as a writer is to either convince a bunch of readers there's a river in the middle of Kansas, or turn the river into some no-name creek I made up and sell the reader on that. And if the plot absolutely requires a big river, well, it looks like my little Midwest family is moving out of Kansas unless I can really get people to believe in the great Kansas River.

Getting readers to believe in something gets easier as your writing skills, and when you are at the top of your game you can get them to suspend their belief just long enough to accept the Kansas River. However, it's easier to set things up with a series of lies that are believable enough to accept, and fit in with the reader's presumptions, no matter how false they may be.

Monday, May 9, 2022

Writing Exercise: Barebones Storytelling

I've done a lot of chatting the past few weeks about description and minimal word use. While economizing our word use is a good lesson to learn on its own, it can also feed into other parts of our process. With that being said, I'd like to explain a writing exercise that helps us stretch out and prepare for writing projects. It's called Barebones Writing, and it's an inside-to-outside way of building a story. And not surprisingly, the first steps require a minimum amount of words.

In a sense, this is like outlining, and at its core, the first step resembles an outline in a lot of ways. The only difference is that we work through our steps and our stages through our narrative process rather than a cold, bullet-and-line structure. We don't paint paintings by first establishing a frame, but by sketching out the image, and building from there. So on that note, let's begin.

The four steps of a basic story are simple: A goal is recognized, a goal is pursued, a goal is achieved or lost, the journey is acknowledged. (The last step, sometimes referred to as a denoument, is minimal and sometimes even left out if achieving the goal satisfies the mission). In Barebones Writing, we start by writing a quick paragraph discussing our character's engagement with each stage. This paragraph doesn't have to make it into the final copy, it just has to relate to it.

Let's start with an easy example: Our character, Tom, is 17. Tom wants a college degree (stage 1). Tom applies to college, is accepted somewhere, attends courses, pursues a major, and spends a lot of money in the process (stage 2). Tom finally graduates (stage 3) and now prepares for the business word (stage 4). That is a story in three sentences, and our first job is is to take on each sentence and do a write-up. Our first sentence could be written out as:

"Nobody in Tom's family had ever gone to college, so he wasn't sure why he wanted to. He had been raised by people in a variety of trades that made good livings, but he wanted more. His father had been a carpenter since Tom was born, and seventeen years later, Tom's father was still a carpenter. It was an amazing talent, but Tom wanted to progress. He wanted to shape the world, not a piece of wood. For lack of a more tactful word, he wanted to evolve. This is how he started off his college application essays, and this is what he told himself every day while he waited for an acceptance letter."

Will any of this make it into the final copy? Who knows? If the final project is to be a book, then very doubtful. if this is a short story, it could very well be the opening. The point is, it creates a narrative outline with little side-points, and can be expanded upon in a number of directions. The next three steps or stages of our story should be expanded into a paragraph in a similar fashion, to create the bones of the story. This prepares us to start expanding different sections with dialogue, transitional scenes, challenges, roadblocks, side characters, and in general fleshing out the bones with some really chewy story arcs. But the first part is the difficult one - building the bones of the story. 

Give it a try without any personal restrictions and see what develops. Once you have those four paragraphs, ask yourself what would start making these events come to life. Start looking for a jumping point, and just keep writing.

Friday, May 6, 2022

Scarcity in A Time of Need

Maybe the title was a little overdramatic, but that phrase has been rolling around in my head for a while, and I think I figured out why. In a recent post, The Economics of Description, I talked about whether it was important to describe everything and anything in a scene. After all, our readers have a right to visualize what the author is talking about. The real question is how much the description contributes to the story or its surrounding mood.

This is where I think about scarcity in the time of need. Writing does need description in order to have depth and dimension, but how much do we want to offer? Authors of the Romantic Era would deluge their readers with full, rich descriptions of every detail in the room. I often joke that in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables, he took time to describe every gable. This might be a stylistic choice for any particular author, but in my humble opinion, the decision should come down to one question: At what point in the description have I done enough to get the message across? Any description after the point is made is just a waste of words. As for me, I prefer keeping descriptions scarce and limited, but effective.

Consider the following description:

"His eyelids fluttered from too many sleepless nights, his bloodshot eyes struggling to show any sign of life as he tried to look across the desk. Exhaustion melted his face, the bags under his eyes hanging low and as lifeless as his pale white cheeks that sagged like an old hound's jowls, further exhausting an otherwise weary expression. Each breath rasped long and heavy, trying to push some life back into a tired body that yearned for one moment's rest."

At what point did you get the impression that the man in this description was tired? At any point did you feel that this state of being tired was overdone? Were you ever thinking, "Okay, he's real tired, get on with it"? The answer is different for every writer, and the answer could change depending on the part of the story that contained this passage. A long description can help by heightening a tense moment, sustaining the reader's anxiety a little longer, or it could completely wreck things by defusing an action sequence. Unless there is a specific reason why this discussion of a tired face should go on, limiting the description and getting back to the story is probably of greater benefit.

I will, as always, offer the reminder that description also sets a mood, so if this description were to come early on in the story and was an establishing scene, well, go with it. However, always ask yourself if you have gone too far with your descriptive sentences and paragraphs. If at any point you question whether you've overdone it, you probably have. It does not mean that the writing is bad - lots of great writing falls to the editor's pen simply because there's too much of it. Just remember that efficiency of description is just as important, and needs to be worked on just as much.

Monday, May 2, 2022

"Journal"-ism - the Reason for Journaling

In my last post, I made an reference to journaling. In this particular case, the journaling was keeping a diary of my medical situation, and it kind of evolved from there. However, you will hear from a lot of writers that at one point or another they kept some form of writing journal - a formal notebook for poems, a diary, or just some loose pages that would accumulate over time. These all count in that they are devices that the writer used on a fairly regular basis. And they all build us up as writers, whether we know it or not.

Way back in high school, my first English teacher, Ms. Lester, insisted that all her students keep a notebook journal, and hand it in every Friday with at least three pages of writing. Three pages! Every week! When I was first handed this task, my fourteen-year-old self was aghast at the though of doing that much writing on a regular basis as an assignment, and for a reason that seemed too simple to be real. Our teacher said she wanted us to write all the time. Ugh! I thought that's what I did with all my other classes - writing down math problems, writing down historical details, writing chemistry formulas. And now I was to write just... stuff? Three pages of whatever I wanted? When would it end?

Of course, our teacher didn't want to reveal all her secrets at once, but it would've helped me to know that once I got into the habit of regularly writing in a journal, not only would it become easier but it would help me develop my thoughts and my ability to convert things in my brain to words on the paper. At the time, I didn't fully understand that as I wrote, I thought about things. As I thought, I processed ideas. As those ideas became more elaborate, I needed some good tools to properly express them, and that's what this process was all about.

A simple statement - from our first written words, we are writers. However, most of us start out with simple sentences. "I like my cat," "Today was a good day," "I am looking forward to vacation," and so forth. These are informative but not particularly enlightening. However, as we write about how we like our cat, we acknowledge that this is a complex feeling and start expanding on it. "I like my cat because he stays with me even when everyone else is mad at me." At this point, some thoughts are starting to couple together, and we get used to things like explanation and expansion. And, as we read these, we start asking ourselves questions about just why a situation is that way. Then our writing starts growing on its own.

One other reason that journaling is great that Ms. Lester would never dare tell us is that it is private. Needless to say, the journal I kept in school wasn't very private because my teacher read it every weekend, so certain things would never be put on that page. However, I did recognize that I could communicate deeper thoughts in my writing that I would dare not tell my goofball friends, my family, my girlfriend, or even my cat. Once I was journaling for my sake and not for my teacher's assignment, I realized I could put some intense thoughts on that page and it was totally safe. And as those intense thoughts came out, I processed them, picked them apart, and really explored their meaning. This is a mandatory part of being a writer - the ability to ask yourself scary questions and feel comfortable with whatever truth leaps into your mind.

Journaling isn't that difficult of a habit and I recommend it to all writers as a regular practice. I recommend just getting a little loose leaf notebook and just start filling the pages. And don't worry - Ms. Lester will never see what you write.