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, October 28, 2022

Inspiration and the Holidays

Like most people, I consider "the holiday season" to start with Halloween and cover the last two months of the year. This also means that the run-up to the holiday season includes Halloween decorations along with the seasonal rituals of leaves changing color and of the weather turning crappy. All of this is meant to put people in a holiday mood, but perhaps I am more of a bear than a human this year, because all I feel is a strong desire to hibernate. The downside of this is that, like most hibernating animals, they get very little writing done.

Some people have recommended that the best way to get into the mood of holiday season is to go out and take a walk. Enjoy the changing colors, feel the brisk air and breathe in nature's latest change. Well, if a lot of people suggest this, it must have some value, right? So I took my walks, saw more than my fair share of colorful foliage, admired the growing number of festive gourds covering porches and window sills, and just tried to experience all the usual components of the holiday season. One week and 65 miles of walking later, all I had to show from it were achy knees, burrs covering the legs of my jeans and a bruise on my shoulder from falling against a log when a couple of prancing deer startled me as I walked up a hill. So much for holiday spirit.

Just like the seasons, it can be difficult to get inspiration sometimes, and often I find that other people's advice is not very helpful. It's not their fault - what they recommend is what works for them and likely works very well. However, it just doesn't fit all sizes, and sometimes we can't expect some advice straight off the rack to fit us perfectly. The holiday season is very much that way with me, and I need my specific rites and rituals to get that holiday feeling going. Ditto for writing - sometimes the creativity, the spirit, the whatever just isn't there, and I need to look inside myself to figure out what can get it going.

In the case of creativity, I always fall back on the inspiring familiarity of ritual to get myself going. Indeed, having certain routines when I write provides more that just the comfort of habit, it attaches itself to the creative process. When I sit in a seat where I've traditionally written things, when I enjoy a cocktail I typically drink while writing, or even when I read myself a little poem that reminds me of the genius of written words, they all tie in with creative function, and can actually over time become igniters for the creative spark when I am just not in the mood.

My toolkit for writing is full of these triggers, and they work nicely for me. So, by examining some of my routines for the holiday season, I looked for triggers that I traditionally associate with that holiday feeling. And, lo and behold, I finally found that thing that gets me back in the mood for the last two months of the year.

The McRib.

Before you judge me, let me just say that everyone has their weird food preferences around the holidays, and mine is processed, reshaped, pork-like sandwiches with barbeque sauce. I won't eat one in place of Thanksgiving turkey, but enjoying a McRib (for a limited time only) gives me an association that triggers my other seasonal cues. And on that note, I had a McRib and felt the seasonal sensations return. And I no longer felt like a bear ready to hibernate (though most people do feel that way after a McRib) but instead like a man ready to enjoy the close-out of the year. It was the trigger I needed. Now I just need a trigger to get me to the gym a little more often, because I am going to need it.

Note: Because Halloween is on a Monday next week and the ghosts will be a-ghosting and the goblins will be a-goblining, I will join the fun and not put up a post. My next post will be Friday, November 4th. Enjoy the holiday season!

Friday, October 21, 2022

What Is A Novel? A Paragraph and A Sentence

One of my quiet pleasures when it comes to writer workshops is getting the chance to interact with other writers and give them some tidbit of information that puts their process in motion. Everyone needs that boost now and then - I certainly know I need the periodic shot in the literary arm - and when I can be the one administering the shot, well, it's a great feeling. I had that opportunity the other day, and it reminded me of a simple technique that keeps me on track when I write larger pieces.

The person who I spoke with wanted to write her story, and it is quite a story. A full, rich background, many obstacles to overcome, the ever-present question of whether her goals will be achieved, and those lingering doubts about whether or not she was going in the right direction. Definitely a lot to unpack here, but she felt up to the task. And after about one-hundred pages, she was at that point of asking, "Am I going the right way with all this?"

That's an important question to ask, and not just after the first hundred pages. It helps us to do periodic check-ins with our story to see where we are, and most importantly, to make sure we are still writing the same story. Sometimes we get onto such writing streaks that we put together scene after scene, event after event, and it all seems to flow naturally. Then we catch our breath and realize we have wandered away from the story we originally wanted to tell. Oops. In all the excitement we ended up getting lost.

The remedy I use for this is fairly simple, and I usually don't wait until I am half-way in to apply it. When I set out to take on a project, I summarize my idea for the work into one paragraph. Just one - if I need more than a paragraph, I probably don't fully understand the project at hand. Then I create one sentence that describes the underlying theme of the work. It can be a long sentence, but go for short and succinct if possible. Now, take that paragraph and that sentence, print them out, and put them in plain view of whatever workspace you use - the most confrontational place you can find. 

These two source will be your True North. When you write any scene, shape any dialogue or move the plot along, ask yourself how it applies to that paragraph, and make sure it follows the spirit of the sentence. Let your guides be the one paragraph and one sentence, and don't write things that wander away from them.

That's the catch. When you write a scene and ask, "How does this fit into the paragraph?" be honest with yourself. Don't try to square-peg it into place. If it doesn't fit or you really have to bend your ideas to make it fit, maybe it shouldn't be there. Maybe it needs rewriting. Or maybe you've wandered off-track and need to find your way back to the story.

One paragraph, one sentence. Those are all you need to guide you along your story's path. They rest, as they say, is just writing.

Friday, October 14, 2022

Positive Obsession

One of my secret pleasures (or maybe not so secret) is trivia, particularly trivia contests. Naturally, I am a big fan of Jeopardy, I dominated in the days of Trivial Pursuit, and I have a pretty good record at team trivia challenges. Well, the other night I had a chance to go to a Halloween-themed Horror Movie Trivia Slam at a local bar. I didn't have a chance to round up a team, but I figured it was a subject with which I had some knowledge, so I took it on solo.

I now know what the Slam part means in Trivia Slam. I got slammed hard.

It was all in good fun, so I am not complaining. Fun people, good atmosphere, and home-brewed adult beverages all make for a good night regardless of the outcome. However, the depth with which these trivia questions went reminded me about just how intense any subject matter can get when we decide we're going to dive headfirst into it. More to the point, exploring the depths of any subject, while possibly sounding a little obsessive (it is), is a part of any writer's character (because they are).

I mentioned  in my last post, Common Traits of Nobel Prize Winners, that one notable quality of their works was depth, and that has a lot of variables to it. Depth can be driven by investigative curiosity, by a natural urge to know all the facts, or a drive to consume information about a subject. Whichever the case may be, the end result is a full and comprehensive knowledge not just of the subject matter, but the ability to make connections between different pieces of information by having a deep understanding of the content. Example from the other night: Who played the pharmacist in the movie, Thinner? Anyone who knows about Stephen King movies knows that whenever possible he plays a minor role somewhere in the movie adaptation of his works, so the answer was... Stephen King. Knowing the nature of the situation allows for deductions about the world you are obsessing over.

Why is this important for a writer? For a writer to create a convincing story, they have to know the details of their subject matter. Whatever they discuss should feel as familiar as their own heartbeat, and they should be able to answer any relevant question about their story's subject. In short, their obsession should result in a comprehensive study of the character. They will know the most remote factoids, like the name of the theme music to Halloween was "The Night He Came Home." That takes some real trivia power.

Now, does all of this need to be poured into the story you create? Hardly. The important part is that by knowing these things, the writing will naturally come out with a full, rich feel, and the characters will act and react in a very appropriate manner. The reader won't be left questioning why someone did something at a particular time, because the answer has been written into the character already. If the writer knows the character well enough, the reader will discover everything they need to know. Just like when we hear the quote, "It was always you, Helen," we immediately make the reference to the movie classic, Candyman. (Yes, this was a tough Trivia Slam.)

When done properly, obsession is a good thing. It allows us to have full, complete characters who seem multidimensional because the writer in fact knows them inside and out. Any good writer should not be afraid to explore a subject in detail and really dive into everything that makes the story move. The ideal way to think about it is to imagine if there was a Trivia Slam about your writing. If you know it well enough, you will win the Slam, and not end up like the trivia roadkill I became.

Monday, October 10, 2022

Common Traits of Nobel Prize Winners

Some of you may have caught this on the news, but I am here to share it publicly. The 2022 Nobel Prize in Literature was announced, and for yet another year, it wasn't me. With no disrespect for the winner, Annie Ernaux, I was hoping I would win this year as an underdog. In fairness, I was not even nominated, but that would've made for an even better underdog story. And if Bob Dylan can win it, there's hope for me as well. 

That all being said, I thought it might be beneficial for all future writers and Nobel Prize winners to offer a little discussion of some of the common qualities exhibited in the works of Nobel laureates. After all, they won it all one year, so they clearly know what they are doing. This doesn't mean we have to emulate their work or even study everything they've written. We just have to consider some of the qualities they exhibited with such mastery and ask ourselves if these are traits we can improve in our own works. Let's take a look at a few of these qualities and see just how we can use them.

Observation. Most any writer is obliged to communicate a view of the world to their reader that resonates in a way no other writing can. Before someone can write such an astounding message, they first have to be keenly aware of the world around them, particularly those things that relate to just what they want to discuss. If a person wants to write about feminism, or racism, or class division, they need to really examine the world around them to see just how pervasive the subject is. It is an easy out to talk about class division simply because one was raised in poverty. It's a good start, but the writer should really see just how this subject influences the world they haven't seen as well. The world's a pretty big place - never assume you know it all. The observant writer looks for opportunities to explore the unknown and leaves themselves open to new ideas - even ideas that contradict what they might believe. This can open doors to more developed, immersive writing.

Originality. This one's tough, but if we use the first tool of observation enough, we start making connections that other people haven't made yet. When we start seeing more of the world, ideas should start popping about in our mind. New experiences lead to new thoughts, and a good writer will take these wild, original ideas and start putting them to paper. It doesn't matter if the ideas are genuinely original and new to the world, they just have to be new to the writer willing to explore them. The first time I had the opportunity to go to a foreign country and see other cultures living within their familiar environment, my mind exploded with questions and thoughts about what this implied for other parts of my life, and I started writing about those things. Looking back, none of those new ideas were different than what plenty of people had asked plenty of times before. However, they were new to me, and as I explored them, I grew as a writer (and as a person).

Depth. Let's think about some of the subjects I mentioned in the observation section - we will focus on class division in particular. Now, this is a pretty big topic to explore, and the mind can go wild just expanding on all the different aspects of it - generational differences, racial biases, inter-class conflict, us versus them, wealth redistribution, poverty and moral hazard, etc. We would do ourselves a favor in understanding something about all these ideas. However, our Nobel laureates have the knack for sharpening their focus on a particular aspect and drilling into it, asking the deeper questions and investigating the answers. They become masters of a viewpoint within that particular subject, and when they write about it, they bring those insights to a reader who cannot help but be pulled in by their intensity. It's a lot to ask a beginning writer to become obsessive about a particular subject, but the best takeaway is to really get into a subject and don't be afraid to dig beneath the surface and see what lies underneath.

Of course, there are plenty of other traits these laureates share - passion, voice, precision of thought, and so forth. However, these three are ones that any writer can build upon. And on that note, I am going to get back to my writing. After all, it's the only way I can make the 2023 nominee list.

Friday, October 7, 2022

Proofreading and Editing: Two Different Worlds

Honestly, I've lost count of how many stories, plays, anthologies and novels I have edited. It wouldn't be a huge number - I know I have edited exactly one play - but it would be a good one. Furthermore, I would define editing these works as something far more than just giving something a look and making my proofreading marks. Editing is a far more intense process, and something every writer should learn as a secondary talent - even if only to understand what other people go through.

Editing is often thought of as checking to see if anything is wrong. This would be the equivalent of saying a mechanic's job is to make sure the car starts. If the car doesn't start, the mechanic has more work to do, but if the engine fires up and you can drive the car out of the garage, his work is done. Right? Not even close. An editor who just finds glaring errors is a proofreader.

Sure - an editor's first job is to make sure a piece is readable. However, this requires a whole checklist of steps and not just a turn of the grammatical key to get it running. An editor makes sure there's no blue smoke billowing from the exhaust (or any other place), that there's no rattling noises, that the performance is within expectations, and that everything works the way it's supposed to. If you do not get this from your editor, they might not be an editor.

Some parts of basic editing are handled by your word processor. A basic spelling/grammar check is available on most packages, and they can do some of the heavy lifting for you. Learn the details of your grammar checker and it can sniff out taboo things like passive voice, homonym errors, and nonsensical (but grammatically clean) sentences. After that, it gets a little more customized and complicated.

The most important part of an editor's job, however, is answering to the writer's demands, and that's up to you. Do you want someone telling you where twenty-word sentences could be pruned down to ten words? It does make your work more efficient, but not all editors do that. Do you want your period piece fact-checked? How important is continuity? Should dialogue be grammatically correct, or should it be structurally broken - like human speech often is? Most importantly, how much of your editor's opinion do you want regarding the content? 

If there comes a point where you either want to hire an editor for your work or be an editor yourself, prepare yourself. Each situation will be different and each work will demand its own priorities. Each assignment usually is best served by a sit-down between editor and writer, where they figure out what is needed versus what is offered, and whether there is common ground that satisfies the writer. And yes, this is a little more of a discussion than just telling your mechanic, "I just want it to run real well." 

And on that note, I am going to prep for another editing assignment. And by prep, I mean have the first meeting. Preferably over lunch.

Monday, October 3, 2022

Context and Kumiho

The other day I sat down to watch what turned out to be a very interesting movie (dealing with Asian themes of the supernatural - this is important). I won't offer a full review or anything - that's for someone else's blog - but I will discuss one scene that both popped out as an eye-catcher and yet somehow threw off the whole rhythm of the movie. In this scene, a woman, haunted by her past, hears sounds in the yard one night and goes out to investigate. In the light of the moon she sees a fox, and the fox has nine tails. Alarmed, she goes back inside, having recognized the fox from an old article of clothing from her past. Then the story goes on.

Now, I don't know how many tails are on the foxes in your area, but I am guessing the average is somewhere around one. This was a very special fox and required some special effects to create, and if you know where this is going, you could read into all the supernatural implications present with the nine-tailed fox. However, this story brings forth this stand-out creature, shows it to the audience, then lets it go away without discussion or implication other than the connection to the image on some old clothing. Most viewers will understand the fox-clothing thing and move on, but indeed this was a missed opportunity to really engage the audience.

In the context of the movie, this weird little fox was a Korean kumiho (known as huli jing in China, kitsune in Japan). They represent many things in Korean mythology, but primarily they exist as the embodiment of a tormented soul. With this fact being introduced, the connection between the supernatural, a character haunted by their past, and the appearance of a kumiho in her yard should be crystal clear, and it all builds into something very dramatic. However, leaving out the one fact of what the fox represented not only reduces the drama of the scene, but leaves the reader a little confused about what the nine-tailed fox cameo was all about. This, in short, is a failure of context.

Sometimes, people decide to have such elements in their story and introduce them by a character doing a five-minute info dump about tormented spirits and kumiho. This all but showcases to the reader that this thing will pop up later. This can be distracting because it can break the story's pacing very quickly and reduce the impact of what was supposed to be a surprise appearance by the fox. However, something has to be done to introduce this foreign element, otherwise it comes, goes, and the reader is left saying, "Huh?"

The introduction is best done through context - offering comments and subtext about restless spirits and cultural norms that build a framework around the reader without stating the obvious. By creating a mood where spirits embodied as animals feel possible, it guides the reader without holding their hand. This way, when the big scene arrives, the reader puts together the pieces and immediately identifies the kumiho, even if they don't know it by name. The reader is engaged at that point, and the writer has gained their interest for the balance of the story.

Context is a very important part of any story that brings the reader into unfamiliar territory, as it establishes some groundwork without getting in the way of the narrative. Every writer needs to remember this, and make sure that its used at any point where a critical step needs to be taken. Without context, those steps can be missed, leaving the reader detached from the story from that point forward. One thing that's scarier than a kumiho is a disappointed reader.