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, July 29, 2022

Writing and the Tough Times

Around this time every year, a lot of my friends get very busy with the task of creation. They become very industrious, putting together plans, preparing their suitcases, and checking off these huge lists in the run-up to... convention season! Indeed, there are a lot of great conventions that start around this time and last until the first days of fall, and the excitement for the convention-goers is palpable. However, for me, a guy who also loves conventions, this time brings about a certain amount of sadness. A part of my writing process, therefore, turns to working with these feelings and turning them into written words.

Writing often requires our feelings as part of the process. Not just the simple feelings either. We grow as writers when we start exploring not just the emotions within a story, but all the feelings that get stirred up as we write those simple stories. And often times we learn some truths we never expected, or even some things we never really wanted to face. That is a writer’s growing pain, and it is priceless in developing that talent.

Fortunately, I have been blessed with many friends, plenty of whom are into the convention scene. I have spent decades surrounded by scholars, artists, gurus, advisers, reluctant heroes, dirty angels, jokers, liars and thieves – how could I not write about them? So I do (more often than they know). I wrote several stories about one particular friend I met back in 8th grade who was absolutely destined for the convention scene. He was quite a character and we had epic adventures. And when I wrote the stories about him, well… the stories kind of fell flat.

What was wrong? My stories were honest and entertaining discussions about things we did that landed somewhere between hilarious stunts and Class C felonies, pranks we pulled, and just stupid times hanging out together. But when I reviewed those stories with other people, the most common critique was, “not exploring the character enough.” Tough review for writing about a long-time friend.

As much as I tried to explore the character, the truth was that I was actually not writing parts. I realized I hadn't faced certain truths about the situation. There was one story I needed to write about the time we started putting together plans to go to the biggest convention in the Midwest at the time - GenCon! This was the dream of every creative-type in the region, and we decided one year when I was in college that we would go that summer. This would be an epic journey indeed.

Once I realized this, I sat down and wrote about how my plans to go to GenCon fell through when this good friend died.

Believe me, that story wasn’t the greatest thing I ever wrote, but it was easily the most honest. I faced up to the grief I carried, the guilt, the unspoken apologies and unresolved issues. I wrote a simple story about his passing, and it hurt. Horribly. And as I faced those truths, I knew just who I needed to write about. I had been holding back on writing in-depth about my friend to avoid reminding myself that he was gone. With those in mind, the rewrites were very easy, and provided some valuable healing.

As GenCon approaches every year, I still think about my departed friend. I tell myself, "This year I might just make the trip" and then I don't. There's still some pain there, and it probably will never totally heal. However, I can write about it, process it, and by using all those secret writing tools, make something good come from convention season.

Monday, July 25, 2022

Details About Details

As some people may know, I am an avid cyclist. I don't go for speed - my bicycle is older than a number of my readers - but rather distance riding. Out where I live there are plenty of cycling paths and country roads to explore, and I can log a lot of miles riding through the vast expanses of nowhere. A fifty-mile ride can give me hours of time to think about stories, writing, the frustrations of the day, or just let my mind release from the mental tethers and meditate on the path before me. The one thing that I have trouble with, however, is explaining this experience in writing.

The biggest problem I have is trying to explain a ride out in the country both in a way that the reader can connect with and in a way that is actually interesting. Everyone knows what cornfields look like, but who wants to hear about every row of corn I pass on a forty-mile ride? Honestly, not even I want to hear about that, and I'm the one enjoying it.

The real catch in trying to explain to my friends and colleagues about my ride is more than describing local agricultural trends, flora, and fauna. What makes the story interesting is when I target one particular detail about the ride, and expand on all the nuances of just that part. The more refined that detail becomes, the more it can be an opportunity to really draw them into the story.

Let's look at the last ride I took - a thirty-mile round-trip country-road tour that took me to the neighboring state. Now, there was nothing unusual about this particular ride - I had done it a few times already this season. What I wanted to do, however, was see if I could do it while only bringing one little bottle of water for hydration. Definitely an interesting test, and also the hook for the storytelling. At that point, the story becomes a challenge about thirst. The heat, the sweat, they become indicators of my fatigue. The wind blowing against me cools me off but forces me to push harder against the gusts, wearing me down that much faster. Every time I finish a leg of the ride, I consider how much water I have left and how many miles I still have to conquer. Passing over a creek makes me think of my thirst and how refreshing one gulp could be, just like the salty sweat running down my face and onto my lips. 

At this point, the story is more than a ride, this is a challenge, and every detail I discuss should appeal to that one theme: Thirst. Are the cornfields important? Not really, unless they wave with the breezes that cool me down and give me a little more life for the next mile. Everything makes the reader relate to me rationing out that bottle of water. That's where it's interesting, and that's where the story lives or dies.

The next time you want to tell a story about something that might seem a little mundane, look for the detail that can be the pivot for the whole story, and swing everything around that. Give an obsessive focus on everything that appeals to that one facet, and watch the story come to life. Even something as boring as cycling.

Monday, July 18, 2022

Old Writing vs. Good Writing

I received a quite unexpected blast from the past recently. It was brought to my attention that the newspaper I worked for (now defunct) back in the early 1990s just had all its back issues placed in public archives, available for anyone to peruse as long as they have access to this internet thing. This newspaper gig was in the days before I even considered working in economics - I was the production director, of all things - so it was a different life back then. Furthermore, this meant that my work - design, writing some articles, etc. - was now all on public display.

That part kind of horrified me.

Me, circa 1992
It isn't just that pictures of me back in my 20s were published (was I ever so young?), but every mistake I ever made that went to print is now out there for the world to see. Somewhere in a Johannesburg internet café, a total stranger can flip through those pages and say, "Hah! That idiot spelled February wrong!" My humiliation is now a globalized thing. Yes, it's an entire career ago, and I haven't even worked in the newspaper industry since Clinton was president, but that's not the point. The point is, the shame of my youth is now out there in digital black and white.

Now this shouldn't be too upsetting to most of you, and I am sure the rest of you will survive. Even I will make it through this, mostly because it gives me a chance to bring up something that all writers should do - review my old work. I spent five years doing production work, designing issue after issue of that damn weekly paper, and with it I made a bunch of mistakes. However, I can hold my head proud in that each of those mistakes taught me something that made the next issue that much better, and that sometimes, I actually produced some quality work.

Our old writing should have the same effect on us. We should be able to pick up something we wrote way back when - last month, last year, whenever - and see where we could've made it better. Furthermore, we should be able to see some part where we think, "That's a nice little turn of a phrase." In short, just because our old writing is not as good as what we do now, it doesn't mean it wasn't good. Considering what part of the writer's journey we were on at that particular time, we always deserve some credit for every step we take toward that goal of improving our craft. Even the worst writing is good if only for the reason that we took the step of creation and brought something into existence. It might never win a Pulitzer, but most things don't. They just serve as solid reminders that we pursued the goal of improvement, and hopefully we still do.

So, as for the newspaper, it is now a part of the internet, there for everyone to read, enjoy, mock, or whatever. I can look at the issue where I misspelled February if I wish - no harm - or wonder how I ever thought a particular design would ever work out. Or I can look at everything I learned from those years in the trenches, and take on a certain sense of pride. (And I can also look at the layout awards we received from the Associated Collegiate Press. That helps too.)

Friday, July 15, 2022

Creative Familiarity

The other day I went to one of my favorite restaurants for people-watching and stirring my creativity. I hadn't been there since COVID forced its closure, so I had a certain excitement when I discovered it finally reopened. I decided I would go there for dinner, see how many faces I recognized, and start being creative about the many other souls wandering around there. Satisfaction for both my physical and creative hunger.

Unfortunately, when I arrived, the biggest thing I noticed was how many things had changed, and not for the better. Not only was the menu different, but the whole layout of the place had been swapped around. My usual seat was no longer in its usual place, most of the areas with clear sight lines of the crowd were swapped out, and the salad bar was gone. It was a different place entirely. And, of course, the menu changed entirely. This was no longer the place I remembered. All of my usual things were no longer their usual self.

Now, the first question that might come to mind is, "How does any of this affect the writer's task of people-watching and being creative?" Well, in all fairness, it doesn't. There were still people with faces whom I could watch, and the environment was very conducive to creativity. The part that disrupted me is that it was no longer my place for creativity. It was new, and I wanted familiar. I wanted to sit in my booth with a full view of everyone, enjoy my coffee and a salad as big as my head, and let my mind roam about the endless stories that flooded such a place. But no - I sat with barely a view of anyone, eating a house salad fit for a small rabbit on a diet, wondering where my experience went.

It was only after a day of processing this that I discovered I was in a common creativity rut known as familiar newness. Creativity is fed by new experiences, so we explore the world and see it from different angles and through new perspectives. However, even this can fall into a rut. When we discover something new, we get excited and explore it as much as we can. That becomes a trap, because long after it is new to our experiences, we treat it as a new thing and try to claim all these perspectives from something that rapidly becomes all too familiar. We feed our creativity empty calories, and don't get the nourishment we truly need.

Truth be told, the restaurant was perfectly fine. The changes they made actually created a new experience for me to undertake, but I was so wrapped up in familiarity that I failed to see that this was something that could stimulate creativity if I had been open to it. I wasn't, so I missed my chance, and just sat there and complained that the familiarity I subconsciously wanted was gone.

The takeaway from this adventure is to invite change as an opportunity to reawaken your creativity. As a writer, you create new worlds all the time, so be excited when the world around you creates something new for you. If your favorite restaurant changes the menu, see it as a moment to try a new special and have a new experience. Just find out about the size of the salad ahead of time.

Monday, July 11, 2022

Playful Writing

I gave a lot of thought about whether I would write this piece. It was not a question of whether I could, but whether or not it would be able to adequately express the complexities involved in playful writing. After all, a blog is, by its very nature, a straight-forward presentation of words, thoughts, and discussion communicated through a fairly simplistic word processor. Playful writing often goes outside those boundaries, and I would have few tools available to demonstrate just how this works. Well, I decided to give it a try. Good luck to me.

Playful writing is when we go outside the boundaries of written lines of text in order to express additional feelings or contribute a mood beyond what the words say. An overly simplified example of this is when we use italics or all caps to accent a word and give it additional meaning. Consider these sentences:

  • "Well, Tom said he would be here at exactly seven."
  • "Well, Tom said he would be here at EXACTLY seven."

Both lines communicates a basic idea. The second one, however, makes the verb "said" stand out as a dubious point, and we can almost hear the character yelling, "EXACTLY" in our head. This is the first step in playful writing - going beyond just words to do our communicating.

To truly step into the realm of playful writing, we need to slowly lose track of the boundaries we confine ourselves to on a word processor and see how our new shapes and form change the meaning. What happens if when we write a paragraph, each line has narrower margins than the last, causing the words to eventually form a point at the end? Does this bring emphasis to that last word, or does all the extra white space consume the ideas? What if each word skips down one line but retains its horizontal place on the page, creating a visual staircase? Does this add to the reader's experience, expressing a sense of movement or descent? What if the lines didn't just march left-to-right on the page, but followed some imaginary, curving line? What do these nuances create other than a headache for the writer trying to create them?

We often see this technique used in more visually engaging poetry, from kids books all the way to the works of e e cummings (shown above) and all points in between. This form takes the reader out of the standard reading routine of taking in words, processing words, then taking in more words, and introduces imagery as its own separate language. This is a little more difficult to do in novels, but let's not forget some of the effect we get from something as simple as all caps or italics, or the controversial "?!" (often called the "interrobang," used to express a very loud question, it is actually not a standard writing convention). 

Just remember that there are a lot of ways to express emotions and moods that break away from just using our words. Maybe it shouldn't be tried in a term paper, but when you are in the mood to try something new, there are plenty of ways to play around with these things we call words.

Friday, July 8, 2022

"How Much Should I Write?"

It may sound like an odd question, but I hear this a lot. A number of writers, particularly those just getting into the craft, want some guidelines for how long a story should be, or a chapter, or a poem. This is understandable for those starting off - it's tough to jump into something new, and getting a little structure into your brain first might make things easier. However, for some things, the structure isn't actually available in the formal sense, so from that point we have to improv.

So, like with any good bit of improv, let's learn a few basics. First, don't worry about how many pages something should be, worry about the word count. Pages can vary depending on the font, point size, margins, etc., but words are words. My first manuscript was over 400 pages, but that was in 12-pt Courier with double-spaced lines. That means nothing when it gets converted to a book or whatever. Focus on word count, and let the rest just happen.

Second, there are a few rules of thumb to work with. Someone asked if their novel can be 30,000 words long. Well, a story can be that long, but usually that qualifies as a novella. Novels start at about 40-50,000 words and go from there. However, this is incidental to the larger concern - how long do you want your story to be? How much story do you want to tell? Don't let a word count constrain what you want to say. Say something, tell a story, and then see how  big it is afterward.

I have been asked how long a chapter should be. I try to not sound like a smartass when I say that a chapter should be exactly one chapter long and no more. Some authors go with three or four immense chapters, some go with many smaller chapters, and plenty of people blend the two. The rule I usually follow is that a proper chapter should relate to the reader one particular phase of the story, beginning and ending at natural pauses in the story, and telling a part that can be described in one sentence - usually that is the chapter title. Now, chapter titles have kind of fallen out of fashion lately, and that's fine. However, as a writer, you should still feel like saying, "This chapter is where are hero set out on his mission and hits the first obstacle," or, "This chapter introduces the characters who will bring about the dramatic plot twist later." Nice, packaged assessments of what that should do. The length will determine itself.

As you write, you will find a natural rhythm to where you do your best work and how many words you need to communicate an idea. For me, short stories are in the 1,000-2,000 word range, though more complex ideas have hit 7,500 words. In my novels, chapters hit the 2,500-3000 word level because I feel that keeps the story moving along and lets the reader catch their breath now and then (though I often close with a teaser so they want to read just one more chapter before they go to bed). And my haiku poems are about 8-10 words, but those follow some other rules.

So, to answer the question, "How much should I write?" I would say to write exactly the amount you need to get the message out. If it's a short story, that's fine. If it expands to a novel, so be it. Let the story be your guide rather than some arbitrary number.

Friday, July 1, 2022

Breaking the Writing Logjam

It's a terrible feeling - and yes, it happens to us all at one point or another. We know the story we want to write. We know the characters. We know the means and motivations, we know the subplots and how they weave into the main arc. We know the twists and turns - we know everything we need to know and then some. Fully armed with every literary weapon at our disposal, we sit down to write our story. And then...

And then...

And then...

For reasons we can't even explain, that first scene, those opening lines are nowhere to be found. We want to start the story but the story doesn't want to start. Maybe we've had a busy day and we're kind of tired, or there's a lot of things on our mind, but that first spark of inspiration isn't igniting what should be a bonfire of literary creation. We stare at the blank page, all ready to pour every word onto it, but we get hung up on that first line. Why?

First, let me put a little daylight between this condition and writer's block. That tragic situation known as writer's block is similar, but it's usually when our creativity just isn't flowing and the words aren't happening whatsoever. The condition I am referring to is more of a logjam of creativity - so much ready to pour out that it seems to choke on its own enthusiasm. A creative destruction, if you will. Fortunately, there's a remedy for this as well. 

Sometimes when we get logjammed, it's not for lack of creativity but rather due to high expectations. At times of peak creativity, we also create this belief that our creation must be its most awesome as well. The myth is that when we create in volume we also create quality proportionate to it. This is a high bar to clear, and frankly, it shouldn't be the expectation for any first draft. When I get hit by this, I deliberately start the piece with just any opening line or situation I want - here are some classic clichés people often use to start a story:

  • Tom woke up to the smell of smoke. (the 'wake up' intro)
  • The phone buzzed and Tom checked the caller ID. (the 'interruption' intro)
  • It was a dark and stormy night. (The classic 'weather report' intro)

Why do I start with these if I call them cliché? Because they get me to start creating. When I type that beginning, I give myself a mental Post-It note that this will need something better, but not now. No sense in worrying about the opening line of a first draft, because it won't be the last draft. The point is I get moving and gain some inertia. My creativity starts to break through, I make my way to the first conversation, an inciting event, the call to action, and I am off and running. Problem solved, creativity flowing just fine.

In short, don't hold your first draft to some high standard or you will never be able to complete a project. There will come a time for refining everything, including that horrible first line, but now is not that time. Just start writing, and then keep on writing. The creativity will take care of the rest.

In recognition of Independence Day, I will not have a post on July 4th. So if I did the math properly, my next post will be on July 8th. Happy Independence Day!