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, September 18, 2023

Shining Light on Censorship

Frankly, I am still kind of rattled. As I mentioned in my last post, someone angry about the book selection of our local libraries called in a series of bomb scares. Now, it's not the bomb scares that bother me - they were hoaxes and amounted to nothing - but rather the insistence of a few people to decide what many people should read. I am the kind of person who believes in challenging thoughts and ideas, and not hiding controversy under a blanket of ignorance. So, when someone wants to go to extremes to bury someone's art, I take it upon myself to push back against such injustices.

Conveniently enough, next week is Banned Books Week, in which libraries and book stores are prompted to fight censorship by showcasing books that some people have wanted to ban in recent history (recent, in some cases, means yesterday). Well, let me be the first one to jump in the pool in this case. Below are the 20 most banned/challenged books in the US as of 2019, according to the American Library Association. You will notice that some are surprisingly innocent-sounding books, some are classics, and some are definite must-reads, but they definitely cover a lot of social territory. Sure, there are controversial titles here, but let there be no doubt that none of these should be banned.

  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
  • Captain Underpants (series) by Dav Pilkey
  • Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher
  • Looking for Alaska by John Green
  • George by Alex Gino
  • And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell
  • Drama by Raina Telgemeier
  • Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James
  • Internet Girls (series) by Lauren Myracle
  • The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
  • The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
  • Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  • I Am Jazz by Jazz Jennings and Jessica Herthel
  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • Bone (series) by Jeff Smith
  • The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
  • Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan
  • A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo by Jill Twiss
  • Sex is a Funny Word by Cory Silverberg

If these titles are unfamiliar to you, that's fine. Hopefully, that gives you a little incentive to look them up on GoodReads or on Wikipedia. Maybe one of them has a particular appeal to you, or maybe you want to check one off your To-do list. Whatever the case may be, let this be the motivation to pick up a copy of, say, To Kill A Mockingbird, and read it over the weekend. In doing so, let those people who want to take these titles away that they cannot deny what has been created, and that their intolerance is no match for the power of the written word.           

Friday, September 15, 2023

The Controversy of the Written Word

I am not sure how many of my readers have heard about this, but several libraries in my region received bomb threats or some kind of scare just yesterday - apparently all of them connected but ultimately false. This particular false alarm hit particularly close to home for me because one of the threats was directed at a library where I attend a workshop. More importantly, it threatened to interrupt an Open Mic night being held at the coffee shop in that very library. This made it personal. While Open Mic night went on as planned, I felt a need to use my platform and say a few things about things like bomb threats and what they represent.

(And I promise, this all comes back to writing.)

Apparently, initial reports suggest that whoever the knuckleheads were who sent in these bomb threats, their big grudge was about certain libraries having certain books on their shelves. And unless you've been hiding under a rock in Madagascar for the last few years, you will know that such grudges are not uncommon. It seems that for some reason, more people are getting mad about what's in libraries, in print, or just generally available for the public to consume. Whether the offensive subject is about race, gender, profanity, mysticism or religion, or just content in general, there are people who think it's best if you don't see it. And these people have openly volunteered to make your decisions for you by protesting libraries, getting lawmakers all riled up, or in some cases, phoning in bomb threats.

Now, people who defend such actions usually avoid using the term, "book banning" (possibly because it sounds like the next step, "book burning"), and prefer to say that some content shouldn't be publicly available where certain sensitive groups might read it and become monsters or something (it's a little vague on how a book about, say, penguins can transform someone into a social deviant). However, when fringe groups raise their voices against what other people shouldn't read, it has another effect - perhaps intended. Sometimes, writers start to think, "I want to write a certain story, but will it rock the boat? Is it going too far? Should I write such a story?"

At that point, my advice is, "Write it! Write it now! Write it in bold-face letters!" When fringes of society start making the mainstream question what we should create, our inner author should want to create things that much more edgy and controversial, if only because they push the social dialogue through the written word. Our writing, our creating, serves more of a purpose than telling a story. We communicate ideas, reveal secrets, and yes, shine a bright light on some things people wish to leave in the shadows. It could be said that in times like these, we have a responsibility to fight back against the bomb-scare crowd with our own weapons - our words, our stories, our messages.

Serendipitously, the week of September 24-30 is Banned Books Week. During this week, a number of libraries hold events where they showcase various works that different groups wanted to hide from the public at some point or another. On behalf of every library and every author out there, I invite you to go to your local library and check out a few of these banned books. See just what some people are trying to keep you from thinking about. Then go back home and write something bold and controversial. Contribute to the discussion, or start your own. And don't let anything stop you.

Not even a stupid bomb scare.            

Monday, September 11, 2023

Tough Writing

I am often quite insistent that writers should write the things that are not easy to put into words; that they commit to the act of confrontation in order to push beyond the pain and fear in order to find a place of truth. That is the reason I am reposting this particular piece from a few years ago - to emphasize that while writing is not very easy at all, and neither is confrontation, the reward is worth the battle. So, on this September 11th anniversary, I discuss exactly that process.

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A number of posts on this blog are quite emphatic about the importance of writing even when it's difficult. Putting words to the page helps us grow as people as well as writers, so we should always be challenging ourselves in that regard. I also spend plenty of time reminding people that resistance is a good thing because it is a sign we are not just doing the same boring stuff over and over. When we write, we grow, so when we grow, we write. In general, this is good advice.

However, for many years, there's one story I hadn't even tried to write.

Any event in our life is potentially the source for a story. If it's just a random moment, there's no guarantee the story will be particularly interesting. We spend about one-third of our lives sleeping, so those moments are boring based only on the facts on the ground. Rather, we choose the moments that stand out, and build out a particular theme from that occasion. As we grow as writers, that story comes from a deeper, more intense place, where the actions and descriptions are set to an emotional rhythm. The story grows in intensity. That's the part I worry about.

Maybe you figured it out by the timeline I laid out for this, or more likely by the picture included in this blog, but the story I don't want to write involves September 11, 2001. That one morning, that simple blue-skied Tuesday still remains unsettled in my writer's mind. I have written about many personal experiences of pain and suffering, the loss of loved ones, the mistakes I've made and the scars they've left. That one moment, however, remains unapproachable.

Perhaps this story is so tough to write because it's so public. Every part of the world saw the same pictures, heard the same reports, watched the same footage in disbelief. Maybe this is something I don't write about because it doesn't feel like my intimate memory, but the world's memory. Why would my moment in that tragedy be worth reading? People lost friends and loved ones that morning. Entire companies were wiped out in one explosion, hundreds of first-responders lost when the buildings collapsed, families destroyed, dreams vanquished by the thousands - why would the testimonial of one balding economist in Chicago shuffling into his corner office at eight in the morning be worth reading about compared to the human tragedies all around?

The other part is the emotional experience. Writing isn't just relaying events and relative details; that's journalism. The art of the narrative is to see an exciting moment and tell people why their heart beat faster. As I saw hundreds of plane passengers instantly turned into casualties like some nightmarish magic trick, rebroadcasts showing it over and over, my heart sank. To write that story is to see those passengers killed again and again. However, when it happens in my mind, I also experience the screams no survivors ever heard. I see panicked faces nobody saw from the street.

A story touches readers when it relays humanity. That terrible morning was as public as can be, but billions of people each had their unique experience. Think of your moment that day. Did you cry, or were you too stunned? Did you comfort others, or were you shaking too much? When did the reality sink in? Did it ever? Who was the first person you hugged, and held, just to let them know they weren't alone and that their humanity was valuable? How long was it before you screamed in rage? What did the hate feel like? Did your darker angels demand eye-for-an-eye revenge? Did your heart harden for just a moment? How human did you feel that day?

This is the story people want to read. This is the story that connects people. The human experience is what binds us during tragedy, and it doesn't matter whether you're an economist in Chicago, a street performer in downtown New York or a businessman in Windhoek, Namibia - your humanity responded to that moment, and billions of people would hear your story and know a part of them lived in your experience.

As a fellow human, I can say my eyes teared up just writing this blog post - I expected nothing less. However, as I writer, I can now say that, finally, I am going to put my story of that day to the page. When we write, we grow. And I offer you that same challenge - take some time and write something about your human experience. I guarantee you, it will be worth it. 

Friday, September 8, 2023

Description: Accuracy versus Intimacy

The subject of today's post came to me during a recent writer's group, which is surprising because I was already feeling a little under the weather. However, one writer's piece really caught me, as did the discussion that followed. The particular part that hit me was the description of a lawn-sized garden, sprawling and vast, with all of its intricacies and sensory details in full bloom. The discussion that followed was about how much description is enough, how precise one has to be, and how can one do justice to what they are trying to describe - either a real place or some dreamed-up garden of the mind.

In dealing with such a subject, my thoughts immediately went to my father's art studio in the basement of the house where I grew up. It was a cluttered space, illuminated by one southern-facing window, and filled with a combination of art supplies and family antiques all keeping him company as he worked. The air had an ever-present haze of pipe smoke, thick enough to turn the sunlight into distinct shafts of light coming in through that dusty window as his pipe smoldered while he leaned over his drafting easel.

Now come the questions: How accurate was that description? Was it as complete as it should be? Do I need to offer more in the name of keeping the integrity of the scene? To be honest, there was plenty more in that room - it was an art studio, replete with odds and ends everywhere. Along with his drafting easel he usually had a painting easel there as well with a half-finished canvas, a palette of oil paints sitting to the side, and this little transistor television sitting in the corner to keep him company. Are those details necessary, along with the description I left? They're all accurate, but are they necessary?

Honestly, it's hard to say. Depending on what purpose this description serves, I might just want to stick with the environmental descriptors - cluttered, smoky air, sun pouring through one window - to give it that cramped, claustrophobic feeling. However, if I wanted the description to highlight the artist he was, I should focus on the easels, the paints, the antiques and his works in progress. Either one is accurate though both would be wildly incomplete. The point, however, is that a thorough description does not always serve us best when we are trying to capture a moment or a scene. The accuracy of what we describe is always important in keeping something by the books, but that doesn't mean we have to include it.

The other part from the writer's group that stuck with me is that the image I describe will always be interpreted differently by my readers. Each person will put a different spin on that studio. Some will place the easels in the sunlight, some in the shadows. The walls will be different, the floor tiles, the whole room is subject to the reader's interpretation and imagination, so in fact I can never do that studio justice. My only responsibility is to bring out the aspects that complement the scene or the story. I can't do more than that without actually detracting from the whole.

And for those who worry about not doing justice to a past memory, take comfort in one thing: Your memory of that place is subjective as well. Memory is very subjective, often twisted around by our own assumptions and washed over by time. I remember several paintings that came out of that studio, but I can't tell you exactly where things were when they were painted. I know the different antiques he kept there, but they could've been placed anywhere. Honestly, memory has its limits, and that's okay. That's when we let our feelings take over, and write about the parts stuck not in our minds but somewhere in our hearts.

So this is why I go to workshops - there is always a reminder about how our processes work and different ways we can hone our craft. Plus, a description of a garden triggered some nice memories from my childhood, so that's not too bad either.          

Friday, September 1, 2023

It's That Time of Year...

With such an ominous title, a lot of people would be quick to fill in their own answers: It's meteorological autumn, it's football season (college or pro), it's time to go back to school... the list goes on. For me, however, it is story season. Or, as it is more formally known, our annual family reunion. On this weekend, all of the descendants of my grandfather who are still alive and were able to get paroled gather together for some good old-fashioned quality extended family time. And oh what a time it is.

What makes it such a memorable time of year? Well, it could be the pounds and pounds of Midwestern comfort food (basically any recipe with at least two of the following: potatoes, noodles/macaroni, cheese, heavy cream, eggs). It also could be all of us grown-ups regressing along with our cousins to the chaotic troublemakers we were (this is why I once had to drive the 100 miles home with "Just Marry'd" (sic) soaped across my car). And it could have something to do with seeing those family members who I otherwise only get to spy on through social media. But to be totally honest, I go there for the stories.

This particular branch of my family has lived in the same area for over a century, and most of the landmarks of that life are still in place. You can visit the house where my great-grandfather lived and died, where my grandfather was born, the places where he and his siblings got into trouble, and so on. (Yes, there's an old court ledger in the Albion courthouse that displays my great-uncle's name, what he was charged with, and the $7 fine he had to pay). Their lives are still very much a part of the landscape, and yes, their headstones adorn more than a few cemeteries out that way.

In this regard, our reunion is a chance to mill through these stories, adding a few new ones, sorting out the details of our own stories, and trying to cobble together the pieces of those stories fading into the distant past. My creative mind loves this part, because like any good storyteller, I want to tease out as many details as possible to have a whole story to work with. I want to gather the lore and the documentation about my uncle who lied about his age and joined the service in 1942 at the age of 13, got kicked out, then joined a different branch at 15. I want to hear about my grandfather (who I never met) and discover all the different sides of him from his nieces and nephews. And speaking of nephews, I also want to hear why my father often referred to my cousins as those "sticky nephews" of his. Sticky? There has to be a story there.

Often, when we live in the moment, we forget to collect this information and build together a good framework for the people around us. We forget that those people are compilations of their own stories, each of which makes up an important piece of their life. We enjoy our family's company when we are sharing some cheesy potato and pasta casserole, but we lose track of those times when our cousin stole a car on a dare, or first learned to make a smoking pipe out of an apple. And then one day, those stories are gone, and it's a hard fight to get them back. 

So this weekend, I will be collecting stories, sharing my stories, filling in a few historical blanks, and eating my body weight in starch and dairy fat. I hope you find a good way to celebrate Labor Day weekend as well, but more importantly, I hope you claim some stories from the experience.

Also, in light of Monday being a national holiday and all, I will not be posting that day. My next post will be Friday, September 8th. Happy Labor Day.           

Friday, August 25, 2023

The Journey of 100,000 Words...

Every now and then I like to write a little piece about just how terrifying it can be to write something big and impressive, and offer some advice on just what you will encounter on that journey. Of course, every adventure has its own unique set of challenges, so let's not worry about those. Let's worry about the ones that I see on chat pages and Q&A sites about writing all the time, because more than a few people have these kinds of setbacks. And you know what? They're not that troublesome once you realize everyone hits these obstacles.

How do I start?
Sometimes this is merely fear of a white page, and sometimes it's not knowing just how to kick off this long journey. To this end, I will say something controversial. The author Elmore Leonard made one of his writing rules, "Never start off talking about the weather." Well, if it gets you typing, start off with your character coming in from a storm. It's a violation of Leonard's rule, but it get you going. You are more than welcome to change it later (and you likely will do that several times), but for now, it puts you into writing the story.

I have a bunch of scenes I want to write, but how do I fill in the spaces in between them? This is sometimes referred to as the Tentpole problem - the tentpoles are the key events that hold up the story, but the story can't just weigh down the space in between the poles. For these moments, I refer to the periods during wartime between the major battles. This time is best utilized by implementing the three R's of warfare - recover, reorganize, reload. After a major scene, you can have the characters recognize what happened, consider whether it changed their pursuit, then prepare to move forward. This allows the space between the tentpoles to still borrow from the excitement of the main scenes, but also carry the reader along without weighing down the story. And I will mention this again - you can always rewrite it.

How many words should my story be? I always like to say it should be no more than one story long, but sometimes people need a little more guidance. A novel can be as short as 50-60,000 words; anything shorter is usually considered a novella. I don't aim for a word count in my stories or chapters, I look to tell the story I want to express through a series of scenes that each have their own message. If it makes you more comfortable, set a word count for each piece. However, the most important part should be pacing above all else. Forcing exciting chapters to end prematurely or extending simple bridge chapters will destroy the reader's experience. As you write more and more, you will get a feel for the proper length of your piece. (Pro tip: If your manuscript is above 200,000 words, you probably need to trim it down.)

I don't know how to end this. Yes, this happens, and it usually happens because the story you set out to write changed along the way. At this point you need to think about your story in two sentences - the conflict you main character is facing and what they should experience at the conclusion. Once you write down those two sentences, your objective is to make sure that last sentence is satisfied. Then, at that point, see if the first sentence is still part of your story. Welcome to the rewriting phase.

There are dozens of common pitfalls and obstacles on the writer's journey. The only advice I can give that will cover them all is that you don't let any of them stop you from writing down something. Anything. Anything you write, you can rewrite, just never lose the momentum. Keep on writing, one word at a time, to the very end.          

Friday, August 18, 2023

A Golf Lesson About Being A Writer

Do not be alarmed, this is not a posting about golf. I know that can scare some people off, so, rest assured, the actual mechanics of the game of golf will not be discussed. Rather, I wanted to reflect on a lesson I learned very recently, and it all kind of spins around the subject of golf. This will involve a little history about me, but I promise no golf games will be discussed. Seriously. None.

As I am writing this, top golfers are playing in the 2023 BMW Championship at Olympia Fields Country Club just a few miles north of where I live. The entire village of Olympia Fields (which is surprisingly small) is currently overridden by fans, fame, glitz, glamour, and professional golf. It's actually quite a big event for this far south suburb of Chicago, and it brings up a lot of memories for me.

When I was a kid, everyone knew the Olympia Fields Country Club was this fancy place hidden in a secluded nook off of Western Avenue, walled in with its tree-lined course hidden from peering eyes and troublemakers such as yours truly. Since most of us had only heard about it through hearsay, it became a magical thing full of wonder and possibility. My brothers were fortunate enough to have friends who got them jobs as caddies there, lugging the clubs of members who tipped incredibly well but never getting to enjoy the country club itself. The stories they would tell of this wonderful Shangri-La of the south suburbs were amazing, and I always wondered if professional golf would ever arrive at this special place. On occasion, in my late teens, I had a chance to drive into the neighborhood surrounding the country club to help my boss (who was a member). That felt like the closest I would ever get to such an amazing location.

Fast-forward to a couple years ago. Professional golf had finally arrived at Olympia Fields, and somehow it seemed like no big surprise. Also that year I attended a memorial service for a friend of mine, and the Celebration of Life was held at one of his favorite places - Olympia Fields Country Club. I drove up, gave my name at the gate, was let through, and I found myself in that place I only dreamed about as a kid. And for some reason, it felt very natural to walk through there in my suit and tie, admiring the facilities, looking across the lush greens. My inner child was in utter disbelief that I finally made it past the gate, but present-day me found out it was a very nice fit to be there.

Okay -- no golf. But where's the writing lesson? It's pretty simple. The most daunting thing I ever faced as a writer was the mere thought of writing something big and important, 70,000+ perfect words all lined up in such a way that people would choose to read every one of them. How could I dare dream something like that? Such a fantasy was just that, a daydream by an economist who had no place thinking he could be anything else. Such a world belonged to writers, not people like me. Nevertheless, I put some words down, wrote a few stories, then a few more, and decided to see where it would all go. Before I knew it, I was a writer with a couple of books published and a third in the works. And having taken that journey, it now seems like the most natural thing I ever did.

To the aspiring writers out there, keep on writing. Write your stories, make your mistakes, develop your craft, and realize that if you keep on pursuing it, you will end up walking down the hallways reserved for writers, and you will belong there.   



Monday, August 14, 2023

Beta-reading and Beta-readers

I was a little surprised from the IMs I received after last week's post about the things I learned from the publication process. The real surprise was how they mostly focused on beta-readers. In particular, there seems to be an idea that a beta-reader is just a person who reads your work prior to publication, like a beta-tester does with apps before they go live. Well, that's true at its core, but there's so much more to it. Yes, beta-readers get to it first, but their responsibilities are extensive. So, here are some notes of what you should expect from beta-readers, and what you should provide if you are a beta-reader.

First, a beta-reader should approach the task as detached from the author and the work as possible. Having your mother or brother or cousin read your work comes with a lot of emotional baggage and potential for interference. An ideal beta-reader should be able to separate themselves enough to give cold, hard, responses. If you are worried that your reader might be too close to the subject, choose someone else. If you are not good at separating yourself from your friend who wants you to read their work, recommend someone else.

Now, a good beta-reader should read critically, but there are two kinds of criticism they can offer. The first kind is obvious - factual and structural problems. Consistency issues, point-of-view problems, grammar, spelling, etc. If a problem is easily quantified, it should be called out and stated as fact, such as, "You spell Cheryl's name Sheryl in some spots," "The movie you referred to did not come out until two years after the time of the story," "You use the word beta- six times in your first paragraph." These are the simple corrections a beta-reader offers, and easily the easiest category.

The situation gets complex when you go to the other kind of criticism - subjective notes. These are the areas where you have to bring out your opinions as a reader, but keep them packaged so they are constructive and can lead the writer to improve things. The comment, "This chapter was boring" is informative, but there's not much meat on the bone. Rather, pointing out how the chapter did not maintain the same pacing as the other chapters and therefore threw off the pacing offers something for the author to think about. Even better, explain what "boring" actually was. Did the chapter lack tension? Did it not move the story forward? Was it too wordy? In a book full of car chases, did this just amount to an idle conversation? Those comments are workable, even if they are just opinions. 

Of course, beta-readers should be careful about whether their opinion is helping. "This ghost story really isn't my genre" does not help. "I wasn't drawn into the ghost story" might help more, or maybe not. Just remember - if the comment isn't something the writer can take as an actionable point, then why do they need to hear it?

Lastly, a good beta-reader should be able to discuss different points with the author, and the author should be able to ask questions to find out just what would make things work better. It is not the author's job to answer every point, but consider every point. If the beta-reader says they don't understand a relationship or progression, the author's best move is not to explain it but to find the reader's disconnect and think about ways to fix it.

Hopefully this gets a few thoughts rolling. I always love the feedback, and hope to get more as time goes along. And, of course, I will do my best to learn from it.           

Friday, August 11, 2023

Publication Sidenotes

As my regular readers now know (and most everyone else, since I won't shut up about it), my second novel, Small-Town Monster, was finally published (also available on Amazon). It's been a big production to finally get it wrapped up, but now that it's all finalized, I have had a little time to sit back and take in the lessons from the entire process from the idea phase to finalizing my copy. In doing so, I think it's only fair that I share a few of those insights in the name of allaying the frustrations of other writers walking the same path.

Your first draft will be horrible. Accept this fact now and you can go a long way in creating something good. The first draft will have unnecessary characters, irrelevant dialogue, a whole school of red herrings, contradictions, and monstrous plot holes. The characters' actions will be choppy and inconsistent, the pacing will be erratic, and sometimes things just happen out of nowhere. All these things are fine in a first draft, because that first spin at writing the story is simply to write it from stem to stern. Create the story, then worry about all those things I listed. It's so much easier that way.

The first edit of that draft will be painful. All those errors I listed will come out in full view, along with spelling, grammar, passive voice, etc. It will at times be embarrassing to look at, and a feeling of shame is perfectly natural. However, all that red ink serves a purpose - to guide you to the final draft. Let it do its thing and you do your thing - be a writer.

Never run a spellcheck before the final draft. Why check the spelling on pages you are probably going to rewrite anyway? If you are tired of Word calling you out on the alternative name usage you chose, just add it to the dictionary and move on. You have bigger fish to fry.

Warning: Not every character will survive. It's tough to realize that a character you thought was a fun addition to the story is little more than a speed bump to the pacing, and they have to go. Erasing characters happens, and do not be afraid - they don't take it personally. Every character we delete merely goes back into our brain and waits for a story where they can flourish. Their loss is for the greater good of the story, so do not feel bad. Let the axe fall and move on.

Beta-readers are really trying to help you. If you use beta-readers or workshop different stories (which I strongly recommend), you will get feedback such as, "I didn't understand this character's motive" or "How does this affect things?" At this point, it is not your job to explain the motive or the effect to the reader, but to ask what would resolve that problem. Most problems are when the reader does not understand what the writer is trying to communicate, and it is in the best interest of the writer to find out why that message isn't coming through. If you can, engage the reader's questions and offer suggestions to them to see what would resolve the situation. This is called progress, and seriously, you will benefit from it.

Finish the damn thing! There will always be more work to do, always another read-through to take. At some point, however, you need to tell yourself, "This is where I feel good about it. Maybe not 100% great, but I feel this is the message I want to send." Then do a spell-check and get ready for the manuscript-shopping/publication process. There will be little errors in it - nobody's perfect. However, you have created your story and put your top effort into it. Be proud of this moment.

My goal in offering these points is simple: Writing a story is more than just writing, but all these other points build up to the price-tag on a quality product. They are frustrating, aggravating, and often quite disheartening, but they lead up to that moment when you can hold your own book in your hand as see your name on the cover. Believe me, the effort is worth it.       

Monday, August 7, 2023

Writing Life Into Your Life

Almost all my 50-odd years of life have been pretty boring. There were moments of excitement, horror, joy, humor, and even suspense and intrigue. However, most of the hours of my life would register as "uninteresting" at best. After you write off the truly boring time - the one-third of those hours where I was sleeping, those many hours in school taking notes, countless hours staring at the television, and so forth, the remaining time is still not very exciting. Horsing around with my friends was fun but was any of it worth a story? All that time at work - interesting, but was it enough? On its own, probably not. And this goes for most everyone. Even you.

Now, this seems to run contrary to the fact that plenty of people have written very interesting autobiographies or had their life stories published with a bunch of very gripping, compelling stories making their lives seem epic. So how can this be - if lives are so boring, how do we know if we drew the lucky straw to have a life worth writing about? Well, the answer is very simple, and doesn't even require a major lifestyle change.

What makes our stories very interesting is usually not the story itself, but what the story represents, and how we write that into the narrative. For example, I mentioned that my time in school was largely taking notes, studying, etc. - the usual school stuff. That, in itself, is very common, very boring, and not worth a story without putting a little life into it. I don't have to make things up, no need for lying. I just need to add a little element of conflict and things take off.

Conflict does not mean my story about school has to be about a fight or an argument. All it has to be is describing a situation where what I had and what I wanted were not aligned, and I am stuck in the middle of it. The best example most people can relate to is their teen years. That awkward place where we are growing up but not yet an adult, changing but not understanding, wanting to be more than we are but not ready to take it all on. Let's put a drop of this into the story, and watch it change.

I mentioned the student taking notes in class. Boring! But what if we write about how that note-taking student wants to put all this knowledge to use but can't at the age of 15. Think of the frustration of the high-school student learning all these skills but having nowhere to apply them. They learn about the world but they can't see anything because they're stuck in the south suburbs of Chicago. All the talk about going to college and being a success is blocked by the fact that nobody really escapes the little town that is all they've known. Now the story gets going. Now the story has some life. Every action is seen as either another obstacle in the way of becoming an adult, or another trial on the road to maturity. The life journey is the interesting part, with a focus on how everything relates to that one goal of being something more than they knew possible.

Now, some people lead some genuinely action-packed lives, but I am doubting any of them read this blog. For those who do, your life is well worth writing about, and will draw a lot of readers if you remember to weave in the idea that this was more than just living, this was a struggle to grow, to evolve, to become something more. That's the story everyone wants to read.     

Friday, August 4, 2023

Beyond Right and Wrong

The most important component for any story is tension - the feeling surrounding any potential loss or failure. As more and more is at stake, the more the tension builds. And, of course, what activates tension more than conflict? When two or more sides collide, there's always the potential for losses. All the classics have this incorporated into their words - a story where something is at stake, from a relationship to someone's life to the fate of the world. Let's face it: Readers eat that stuff up.

Now, the reader usually approaches this high-stakes game from one side or the other, but we usually assume that they hold the moral high ground and are supporting the right cause. They are protecting their family, they are defending their home and country, they are saving the innocent. This kind of clear-cut situation frees up the reader from worrying about whether or not the person is doing the right thing - what kind of person wouldn't defend their family, country, or the innocent? - and lets the reader worry about how the main character is going to do this.

However, just for fun, what if we muddy the waters a little? Do we still root for the main character if the family they are protecting is a violent organized crime family? What about a family of terrorists? How do we feel about a main character fighting for his country, which just happens to be Hitler's Germany? What if the only way to defend the innocent is to unleash a terrible weapon upon other people, some of whom are just as innocent? (Yes, I recently saw Oppenheimer) Now things get rolling. Now the tension rises. Why? Not only do we have the greater conflict - trying to do what needs to be done - but we have an internal conflict of whether the character should take on this task, and also whether or not these characters can spare themselves from possibly doing the wrong thing entirely; that is, if we even understand what the wrong thing is.

This is where simple conflict becomes writing in shades of gray (no, not that shades of gray) and offering the reader more than a story, but asking them a question. These are stories where we have to think first not about what is actually right or wrong, but the validity of both sides of the argument. When both sides have a good point, or when both sides have moral flaws, the reader is not only taking in the story, but hopefully they are thinking about just what they might do. The reader has engaged not only with the story but with the ideas. And, as I have said countless times, when the writer gets the reader to engage with the words, it's always a win.

This isn't as difficult as it may seem. There are plenty of topics that feed into the shades of gray, and they are still effective: vigilante justice, social obligations, personal freedoms, cultural conflict - that's just a sampling from a pretty huge list. As an exercise, I suggest taking any subject where the answer isn't so simple, and just writing a story about a person thinking about both sides of the argument. It doesn't have to be a story, just let the character explore the different ideas at hand. If you do this for a bit, a story will come to mind about whatever tricky situation you choose. And if you write it in shades of gray, you can draw in the reader.        

Monday, July 31, 2023

Writing Under the Influence

Personally, I believe there are some laws that shouldn't have to be laws because one would think they are just common sense. For example, not drinking then driving. It seems like a good idea to not operate 2,500 pounds of steel when you're a little wobbly just standing up. However, not many people follow common sense in this case, therefore there are laws. Well, I would like to propose a common-sense rule about writing that might seem obvious but we occasionally need to be reminded about. Nothing as serious as the DUI situation above, but definitely worth stating.

First and foremost, I am not against writing while intoxicated. One of my early posts, "Write Drunk, Edit Sober" actually suggests a form of this. However, I am a results-driven person, so should point out that the idea behind that post was to write freely and openly, uninhibited by all those restrictions we impose on ourselves. Whether you actually drink before you write is up to you. I indulge periodically before I write, if only to loosen up, but that's personal preference. And as long as I can still type, an adult beverage is not a problem.

That kind of "Under the Influence," however, is not what I am referring to.

Now that my second novel, "Small-Town Monster," is finally finished and on the shelves (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Foyles), I am working on a slightly lighter work with fewer dark edges to it. It requires a lot of reworking and tweaking so I will be spending a lot of time deep in the manuscript. This, however, is where I want to remind myself to be careful. Now, by being careful, I don't mean that I shouldn't be uninhibited in my writing. This is definitely a work where I need to be all-in and totally immersed in what I am doing. There is a difference, though, between "writing drunk" versus "under the influence." That difference is kind of critical, and it's best to gauge which one is guiding us when we write.

Here's the simplest example: I had a great idea for a very amusing story about a child trying to understand his parents' world. It was very much voiced from a child's perspective, and I really wanted to play with the character's voice and such to bring out the fun of the moment. So I wrote it, polished it, then workshopped it for opinions. It was an unmitigated disaster. There was nothing wrong with the writing itself, but the voice, the tone, the humor, they all missed the mark entirely. This wasn't just a driver going outside the lines, this was flipping the car into a ditch. It was an epic fail, and it didn't take me long to figure out why.

At that time, I was delving into my past to sort out a lot of personal issues. Needless to say, this was not an easy process to do emotionally, and as it turned out, those emotions promptly carried through to my writing - and not in a good way. Emotional turbulence, it turns out, can get in the way of child-like innocence and humor. In this case, I was under the influence of all these feelings, and ended up steering my story right into a tree.

One thing I do nowadays is do a quick little inventory check to see if something in my world might interfere with my writing mood. If my beloved Cubs are in a slump (which happens more than I would like it to), I try to avoid typing optimistic stories. If I feel that inner family turbulence, it might not be the best time to write a children's story. However, this can work for me as well. The best stories I ever wrote about my parents were when I was immersed in the emotional space of having lost them. The stories weren't very happy, but they were effective. I recognized being under the influence of their presence, and I turned into the skid and let that power up my writing. It worked very well, thank you very much.

Emotions do wonderful things for writers, and shouldn't be ignored. However, they should be checked and examined, just so you make sure that what you feel and what you write blend into something great. Otherwise, your writing might leave you with a bad hangover.           

Friday, July 21, 2023

Postcard From the Front Line (of writing)

It finally happened. After a lot of struggles, my second book, Small-Town Monster, is officially published. It's about 100,000 words long, and filled with a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. It's also filled with a lot of rewrites, edits, deleted characters, and removed secondary plots that you will never see. (Maybe in some future reprint, but not now) So, to commemorate this personal triumph, I thought I would share some of the roadblocks and setbacks that showed up along the way, and demonstrate how none of these should hold us back from writing.

The first challenge - 100,000 words. Given my font choice, leading, page size, etc., it's 370 pages, which seems like an eternity away from looking at the laptop screen and seeing six words: "Small-Town Monster by James Pressler." Filling up the screen with words is tough enough, but 370 pages? Never gonna happen! However, I say this time and time again, nobody has ever written a book in one sitting - not even Anne Rice despite all the internet rumors. Your job as a writer is to write, so start writing. The word count will take care of itself; that's none of your business. You tell the story, word by word, for as long as it takes.

Fear of the rewrite. If you think putting 100,000 of your favorite words together is a daunting task, imagine completing it then being told, "Okay - now do it again, but better." It's like thinking you had just run a marathon, then the person at the ribbon says, "Get ready for the next lap." I make sure that when I finish my first draft, the first thing I do is give myself all the credit in the world for having finished such an accomplishment. Writing anything to completion is no easy task, so give yourself credit. And then put it down for a bit. Bask in your glory, and give your story some time to ferment, both on the shelf and in your head. A few weeks should be fine - just enough time for you to enjoy everything and then start thinking, "Wait, what if..." At that point, you'll want to do your first rewrite. You will dive into it, merrily plowing into your pile of words, knowing you can improve on something that a few weeks ago seemed perfect.

When is it done? Yeah, rewrites are fun once you get into them, but do you ever reach a point where you say, "Perfect! I cannot improve upon this," and prepare for publishing? Nope. There's always a reason to give it just one more go-through, find just one more beta reader. I have found that there has to be a point where I say, "I feel good about this, and it feels clean. Maybe not perfect, but what is?" Then, after one last spell-check, I save the file as "final copy" and prepare for publishing. BTW - I also prepare for someone who will inevitably say, "Hey, did you mean to use 'affect' versus 'effect' on page 106?" And so it goes.

Could I have done better? There will be a lingering remorse post-publication, worrying about whether it was okay to kill off Steve in Chapter 10 instead of Chapter 8, or whether a certain joke worked as well as it could've, and so on. This is where I go to my advice in fear of the rewrite. Give yourself credit for your accomplishment. Don't worry about whether the joke landed or flopped - it's better than the joke you didn't write. Whether Steve dies in Chapter 8 or Chapter 10 isn't important - he's a character that you created, brought forward, then killed off. Steve is thankful to just be a part of your story. Save your second-guessing for several novels later, when you can refer to your earlier works and personal choices that you learned from. For now, just enjoy the moment and don't worry about Steve - he's fine. (dead, but fine.)

There's a lot more to think about and fears to confront, but you will never discover them if you don't start on the journey. Stare down the blank page, start writing your story, and go through each painful step because it leads you to a wonderful place. It leads you to publication.

On that note, I would recommend buying Small-Town Monster on Amazon mostly because I get a better royalty, but it's also available at Barnes & Noble and Foyles for you UK readers. And for those of you who prefer digital copies, those will be coming out soon. I just haven't figure out how to autograph them.        

Friday, July 14, 2023

Know What You Write

This week was marked by a fun little phenomenon called tornadoes. Wednesday, seven or more tornadoes decided to pay the suburbs an unannounced visit. Fortunately, nobody was killed, the damage was contained, and for most people, life returned to normal. For those people who had property damage, lost trees, etc., things will return to normal sooner rather than later. It was rather unusual that these particular tornadoes were visible from Chicago, and the bad weather that followed did roll through the city. But for the most part this is another tornado season in the Midwest.

Being a lifelong Chicagoland resident, I know tornado season well enough to be able to sort people's responses into three stereotypes: There's the news-watcher, who will fixate on the weather reports interrupting regularly scheduled programming, examining every image from Doppler radar and every nugget of information offered by the meteorologists, regardless of whether the tornado activity is ten miles away or 100 miles away. Then there are those who want to see Nature's bad attitude up close, so they will go outside in the high winds, scan the clouds for any activity, and even drive toward the places where activity has been sited. (These people also get killed now and then) And, of course, there's the last group; people who are very passive about the tornado alarms. They know what to do, when to do it, and what to worry about and what is just hype. They don't rush outside but they don't care about the news, they just live their life. Basically, they are just going to go about their existence until cattle actually blow by their front window, or until that freight-train sound gets too loud to ignore.

Why am I telling you all this? Basically, these are my Tornado Alley credentials. I have been through a few tornado close-calls, a few derechos (look it up), and other weather-related events, so I have the experience base to write about a run-in with bad weather. My job, as a writer, is to make sure that I provide front-line details and intimate descriptions that communicate to my reading audience the reality of a tornado experience. However, this is an active process. I can't just tell the reader, "Believe me, I know what I'm talking about," even though I do. I have to think about all the little details that I have experienced, and pour those onto the page in a way that they do the convincing for me. My job, at this point, is to surround the reader with my experiences, and bring them into that space.

Now, since not everyone has experienced a tornado firsthand, their job as a writer is two-fold: get details and information from those who have been through it, and appeal to the emotional side of an experience in a way anyone could understand. You don't need to have had this experience to know fear is a factor, perhaps tinged with a morbid excitement. And like any disaster, looking at the aftermath in person comes with a certain amount of horror and awe, mixed in with the guilty feeling from looking at a destroyed house and thinking, "I'm glad that's not me." (Yes, people think that.) 

In short, making experiences believable helps if you've been through it yourself, but we can't always count on that, so write about the parts you can relate to, and get information from other sources to help fill in the blanks. Making things real sometimes requires more effort than you might realize, but it all pays off when your writing puts someone through an experience in exactly the way you imagined.       

Monday, July 10, 2023

Point of View - Holding the Scene

One thing writers will hear a lot about but rarely discuss is Point of View (PoV). We are most familiar with this when we write first-person PoV. In that style, everything comes from our frame of existence, all discussion being our own thoughts, actions, and experiences. However, there are a few other perspective we can write from, and I would like to focus on one in particular - third-person character PoV. We see this used a lot in larger, sweeping epics where there is more than one main character, and it can be very effective. However, it is not as easy as just writing about someone else.

Let's take the following writing piece involving two characters - Paul and Abraham. This is just a little snippet of their interaction in an office:

Paul thought long and hard before coming to his decision. "I just can't do what you ask," he told Abraham while shaking his head. Paul stood up and walked out of the office, shutting the door behind him. Abraham remained at his desk, his heart filling with regret about what he now had to do.

A simple scene, four little sentences and not a lot of moving parts. We get an interaction, one character reacting to a situation, then another character left to consider the consequences of that action. Very straight-forward writing, and all in the third-person perspective. Not a lot to work with, one might think. However, let me ask one simple question.

Whose perspective is this story from?

In simple third-person perspective, we take the story from one person's perspective - Paul or Abraham in this case. However, in this paragraph, no matter who is in charge of the perspective, we have a PoV violation - we betray the third-person rule. How? Well, if this is all from Abraham's perspective, we can't talk about how "Paul thought long and hard" because Abraham would have no way of knowing what's going on in Paul's mind. Conversely, if this is Paul's perspective, he would have no idea what Abraham did or felt after Paul left the office. In either case, the scene slips out of the character's perspective.

Now, there are versions of third-person writing that allow this. Third-person omniscient allows the reader to see and know everything, and there's fly-on-the-wall style, where the reader is just witness to everything but not in anyone's head - often referred to as TV show writing. These have their advantages, but third-person character writing gives the reader an opportunity to engage the story from one perspective, and ride along from that view. It's effective in that well-done third-person PoV places the reader in a very specific place in the story. However, violating the boundaries demanded by that style dispels the illusion cast upon the reader, and cheats them of an experience.

The secret to writing from one character's perspective is for the writer to "see" the story from whichever character holds focus, and engage the other elements from one specific mindset. This is often done only by practice, frequent mistakes and constant corrections, and another reader always helps. But it's an effective tool to master, and well worth the effort.        

Monday, July 3, 2023

The Deluge and the Drought

Boy, did the skies ever open up yesterday. Here in the Midwest, we got a whole bunch of rain on Sunday. Some areas around Chicago topped off their rain gauges at over eight inches yesterday. To offer a little perspective, for the entire month of June, the Chicagoland area got about 2.2 inches of rain. Needless to say, all this precipitation, while very much needed, was a lot to handle. Streets and underpasses flooded, sewers overflowed, and thanks to some construction in front of my house, for a while I was the proud owner of a moat. So, to recap: a lot of rain.

During this time, I got some writing in. Actually, I got a lot of writing in. A whole bunch of it. Probably more than I should've, but I definitely needed to get it out of my system. For some of us, creativity is very similar to Midwest weather patterns: not entirely predictable, prone to wild swings, and often full of long dry spells. That's where I had been for a while, so when the weather trapped me inside on a Sunday, I tapped into that creativity and dumped a bunch of it onto the page. It was helpful, but sometimes I fear that after a big storm of creativity, the dry spell will return. And when it comes, I try to push myself to stay creative, even when I am not writing.

During my June writing drought, I won't say I had writer's block or anything. I had some mental fatigue, a little physical exhaustion, and a few late nights. What I didn't have, though, was an outpouring of creativity, so I diverted myself to other opportunities. I edited a few stories I was working on. I reviewed a past writing piece that I think would make a nice one-act play. I put the final touches on my novel that will be finalized this week. I stayed within the realm of creative action even though I didn't actually create anything new. Then, when the opportunity hit me on Sunday, I created all kinds of things.

There is, fundamentally, one problem with this strategy. Sometimes, the most difficult thing to do is start a piece. If, during the deluge of creativity, I write a few pieces to completion, I can call them jobs well done, but during the ensuing drought it is that much more difficult to try and create. That is what I face now - a few finished works, but I am not sure if I have the creative strength to start a new piece. I might just edit and revise what I wrote, but I am back in a creativity drought. Not a smart move on my behalf.

What I try to do during periods like this (and what I should've done Sunday) is create the skeleton for several things while I had the energy. By getting them started, I would've conquered the most difficult part, thus making it easier for me to continue working on it when maybe my energy isn't as high. I would have projects just waiting for me to return to them, which could ride me through the next creativity drought.

Here's the takeaway from all this creativity- and weather-related rambling: It takes a big push to set something in motion, so when you have the energy, take it upon yourself to write the first page of that big project. Get it off the ground and give yourself something to work with. The rest will come naturally in time, but that first bit is the most difficult to create. So if you find yourself in a creativity drought, thinking about some project on a rainy Sunday afternoon, write the first chapter. Write the first page; write the opening line. Get it started, and give yourself an opportunity to keep on writing long after the weather's changed.        

Friday, June 30, 2023

Smoky Times and Writing

For those who haven't been watching the news lately (or live outside the Midwest), the big story has been all about smoke from the Canadian forest fires pouring down into the Great Lakes region, and for the last week, into my neighborhood. It was quite a mess, but it's also one of those things that not everyone can relate to or connect with if they haven't been through some kind of similar experience. That being said, this made me think about a particular aspect of writing - communicating the strange, bizarre, and unusual to the unknowing reader.

Now, sometimes the easiest way to communicate a situation is through data. If it was hot and muggy outside, I could say it was 87 degrees out with 80% humidity. That gets the point across, but the reader is more likely to acknowledge those facts rather than feel the situation. In the case of the past few smoke-filled days, I could tell you about the Air Quality Index level, but does that really tell you how bad things were? What would a 221 AQI mean to you? Maybe you know where that rates, maybe not. However, it sure doesn't help the reader feel what it means.

When we are writing about the strange and unusual, we need to get our readers to feel the experience on a deeper level. Usually, the first step in doing that is for us to try and feel what's going on. I took a walk in the smoky, 221 AQI weather (just to my car) and tried to feel what made it so bizarre. I opened my senses to it, I challenged myself to sense what was different. Within a minute, my mouth had an odd taste to it and a thin, slimy coating of ash particulate. My breathing wasn't labored, but a deep breath carried a certain weight to it, a heaviness I was not familiar with. The smell of the smoke was barely noticeable, but in a way that was the point. The air didn't reek of burnt creosote, but it smelled different. Scorched. Contaminated. It didn't feel like the air I knew.

Maybe the most bizarre part was how everything looked. People hear about these bad air alerts and expect to see rivers of smoke pouring through the streets, but it's not so obvious. In some ways it looks like an overcast day, perhaps with a little fog in the air, but it's different. The Sun isn't diving in and out of the clouds because it's just a veil of smoke - the Sun is a reddish ball obscured behind the ash. And with a little examination, the so-called foggy appearance looks more like having dust coating your glasses. The world looks tarnished and translucent. Fog has a grey, sobering feel to it, but this kind of smoke places a sepia tone on everything, interfering with the air itself. It feels different. It feels alien.

Once we experience something as close to the strange and unusual as we can, it's up to us as writers to pull out the most unusual parts of it and give those to the readers. Condense it enough so it doesn't become a long, drawn-out discussion; just give them enough to feel the grit in their mouths as the sepia-toned world passes around them in the overcast haze of foul-tasting smoke. Bring out the parts that make the world suddenly strange and different, and you will have done your job as a writer.

And one last takeaway from this. As a non-writing writer's exercise, try to spend a minute or two every day just taking in an experience in sensory detail. Feel your fingertips' sensations as they peel an orange. Watch a cloud drift across the sky, folding and churning in its own weird way. Take a moment to feel what breathing is like when you pay attention to your lungs. This kind of sensory awareness might seem very passive, but it's a great step in feeding your inner writer, which will turn these experiences into gold on the page.

And seriously - be careful in this smog. It's really bad.          

Monday, June 26, 2023

Who Has Time to Write?

I know a lot of writers. Part-time and full-time writers, people just starting their journey and others well along their way down the endless path of learning. Many of these people have careers, families, outside interests, and entire lives outside of their writing. And yet, they also write. I am fortunate enough to have flexible hours so I can move around my writing time, but for those who can't, somehow they still write stuff. Good stuff. Stuff that's far better than what the word "stuff" implies. So let's talk about how they do this.

I'll start this discussion with my favorite subject - me. I had the time-consuming job, the hobbies, the outside interests, and so forth. My job also followed me around a lot, so it could eat up time in many ways. Top that with health issues, and one would not be faulted in asking when did I have time to write? The truth is, I didn't have time to write. For every minute of my 24-hour day, I was doing something. Working, sleeping, eating, watching TV - it was all booked by something. However, when I came to the realization that I wanted to write - that I needed to write - I started shuffling the schedule around. I thought about my priorities and moved them, and put some things on the back burner. In short, I decided that writing was important enough to me to make time for it.

Now, I hear a lot of people say, "But my life is really busy." That's fair, but I respond with the story of best-selling author Mary Kubica. She also wanted to write, but she had the greatest responsibility of all - a newborn baby. The only thing more demanding than a newborn child is newborn twins (or triplets, etc.). However, she wanted to write, so she made the time. Her child would wake up regularly at about 6 a.m., so she set her alarm clock to wake up at 5:30 a.m., when she would roll out of bed and write until her child woke up. One-half hour of writing every day with no exceptions (other than the baby). One half-hour less sleep for her was the price worth paying to write, and she did. Her first book, The Good Girl, was written by this process. She now has eight books under her belt (along with another child).

What it all boils down to is how much do you want to be a writer? It is an intimidating thought to start doing the writing thing seriously, and "I just don't have the time" is a nicely packaged excuse to keep yourself from taking that step. However, we can convince ourselves we don't have the time for a lot of things, and people usually do that. Usually, it has nothing to do with available time, but fear of actually doing it. Taking that big step is a different story, and it requires some effort and dedication.

Oh - as for me (which we knew we would go back to), I found my spare time during my train commute. As a regular train commuter, I had plenty of people to sit with and talk to, but I decided that I would use commuting time as writing time. Just me, my laptop, and my stories. Sometimes, friends would show up and I'd spend the ride with them, but usually, I would write. The time was there, so I made it work for me. And that's how I wrote my first book, and now my second book.

Just six more to go, Mary...     

Friday, June 23, 2023

Writing Outside of Yourself

Here are a few simple facts about me: I am a currently single, straight, 50-something-year-old male, never married, once engaged, no kids (that I know of), who is currently a writer and had a brutally long, enjoyable career in the financial world, mostly as an economist. Now, some of you might read this and actually learn something about me, while others knew all these details all too well, and a few people might even know the backstory. However, that's not why I am mentioning any of this. I am not showing off either. I am actually demonstrating how narrow my world view is, and how it can impact me as a writer.

Let's start at the beginning of the list: currently single. How does this impact me as a writer? Well, it does give me a perspective of the trials and tribulations, the battles won and lost, and the social warfare that is the dating scene out there. In this regard, I have some immediate experience, and can write about it with authority. However, that also means that if I want to write about a character who is in a longstanding relationship, I have to step out of my single shoes and into another mindset altogether. I have to become a different version of me, back when I had that relationship, and see the world from that perspective. In short, I need to take on another character based on something other than current experience. 

And what about those other qualifiers? Straight, 50-something, male - all of those can restrict my experience base, forcing me to explore another world that I might know absolutely nothing about. How do I write about a 60-year-old married lesbian? I might have the perfect story for her to star in, but if I don't have the experience base, I am not going to do that character justice. It's even quite possible that my story could end up being offensive, which is not what I usually want.

As a writer, one of the keys that unlocks our deeper skills is the ability to empathize. Personally, I think empathy is a lost art these days, but that's all the more reason to discuss it. Empathy is trying to experience someone's life through their eyes, from inside their skin, processing the world through their experiences. It is very difficult to do, but we need to develop this if we want our characters to stand out as individuals and not just varied clones of ourselves. And usually, the best way to find this connection is through reading stories told from other perspectives.

An all-too-common problem is when men write female characters. The two easiest mistakes are first, to fail to make any meaningful representation of the female perspective, and secondly, to present the character in the way a man thinks a woman should be. When you read narratives where authors make these mistakes, you will likely cringe uncontrollably. Careless male authors will create bombshell females who are sexually aggressive and talk about their breasts a lot. These kinds of male authors have not read very many female authors and therefore have not yet discovered that women have their own depth, perspective, and plenty of other things to talk about besides breasts.

And for those who want a quick cheat code to step around reading a bunch of books, if you write something outside of your familiarity zone, get someone in that demographic to read your stuff and give you open feedback on how that character came off. It might be a tough reality check, but if you then engage in discussion with that person, you might become a better writer. And you definitely might develop some of that empathy we were talking about.

As for me, I and going back to writing about a middle-aged author who saves the world through his blog. That is something I know about.         

Friday, June 16, 2023

Sometimes, Don't Do Your Research

Before I get into the meat of this subject, a few details about me. For my career, I spent parts of three decades working in research. A part of my college major is research. Indeed, I truly love the research process - the investigation, the fact-finding, the cross-referencing, the analysis. Oh, the analysis - when it gets down to really digging into the nitty-gritty of a subject matter, I am the first one to start and the last one to leave. And, having said all that, there's a time when research will ruin your writing.

Don't get me wrong - if you are into non-fiction, research is kind of mandatory. And yes, some aspects of fiction benefit from a certain amount of investigation into some weird subjects: Is there such a thing as a .45 derringer? (yes) Can someone be allergic to spaghetti? (definitely) Were there photos before 1850? (yes - Daguerreotypes) The list goes on. However, there comes a point where we must draw a line, and that's when we venture into the world of fiction-fantasy.

As a fan of the Marvel Universe (both cinematic and print versions), I enjoy the mayhem and carnage along with the storytelling, but I accept that most of the mayhem is unrealistic, and usually impossible according to physics as we know it. Setting aside the whole superpowers thing, is it worth asking whether the Hulk could pick up a Cadillac by the bumper and pound a villain with it? In fairness, the Cadillac's bumper would just tear right off thanks to the weight of the rest of the car. However, that simple fact would get in the way of the action, so we don't study into the load-bearing factors behind the Cadillac's frame and suspension. We just let Hulk smash.

As writers, our main responsibility is to hold ourselves accountable for the fiction we create, make sure it is consistent, and ultimately make it believable. I have encountered a number of people who write genre fiction but get hung up on how mermaids reproduce, how dragons fly, whether unicorns shed tears, and so on. Since mermaids, dragons, and unicorns are established creatures of lore, these writers feel obligated to be accurate in their unicorn love story or whatever they choose to create. The part they are missing, and that we should instead embrace, is that these things are, in fact, fantasy.

Fantasy is a genre that gives a lot of liberty to writers and allows creativity to flow virtually unchecked. Sure, certain rules have to be obeyed if they are called upon - a human at the bottom of a harbor will drown. However, if a mermaid saves him with a kiss that lets him breathe water, we don't need to explain how or why, or fact-check to see if that's something mermaids can even do. We just need the reader to understand that's the world we are writing about, and let the actions sell the rest. (And no, I have no idea whether mermaids can actually save drowning humans. I saw it in a movie once, so I assumed.)

In the realm of fantasy fiction, the main point is to convince the readers how your version of the world works. If your vampires sparkle, your werewolves are polite gentlemen, or your orcs are just misunderstood, it's your job to sell that reality. Whether it's a part of someone else's lore is irrelevant. It's your lore now; make it believable.

I will not be doing a post for June 19th in recognition of Juneteenth, so my next post will be on June 23rd.        

Friday, June 9, 2023

How Long Is the Writer's Journey?

As most regular readers know, I am an avid bicyclist. I have cycled through different towns, counties, and states, covering more miles in one year than some people cycle in a lifetime. My 106-mile ride last year from Danville to Cook County was described as "epic" (well, by me anyway).   Every time I get on the old bicycle, there's the potential for something wonderful to happen. And sure enough, as I got on my bike today, I said to myself, "How much of the world should we cover today?" 

I ripped off a quick ten miles. It took less than an hour.

Ten miles? Hardly epic, you might say, and you'd be right. I could've done twenty, or fifty, or whatever, but today I rode ten miles through the great wide open for the simple reason that a part of me needed to ride ten miles. I didn't have the burning urge to ride through three counties or go to another state. Ten miles was what I needed so it's exactly what I did. I regret nothing.

A writer should feel the same way. Some people carry this belief that each piece of work needs to be better than the last one. What you do tomorrow must be more profound than today's piece. Once you write a novella, you can never go back to short stories. Once you have your first novel completed, your next novel (no more short stories) must one-up what you've created. Your expectations should rise higher and higher, constantly reaching for the stars. 

They tried that with the Tower of Babel. Spoiler: It didn't end well.

As a writer walks their endless journey, constantly learning, growing, and creating, each step doesn't have to be bigger than the last. The only obligation of the next step is that it has to be forward. When I wrote my soon-to-be-released second novel, Small-Town Monster, I felt pressured to outdo my previous book. Something like that can feed into personal anxieties and all those other demons waiting in the writer's mind to shut things down, but that pressure is an illusion. The only goal is to create. By creating my second novel, I made something unique and meaningful to me, and that's an accomplishment in itself, non matter how much I'd written prior to that.

Now, to be fair, anything we write should be the beneficiary of everything we've learned beforehand. All of our mistakes and slip-ups in our previous works should feed into making this latest creation that much better. Sometimes we accomplish this, other times not so much. However, we continue moving forward, and that is the important part of a writer's journey.

So, how long is a writer's journey? It's as long as my bicycling trips - I set the length and time, and try to get the most out of it that I can. I grow a little, I feel better for having done it, and I am ready for the next one.

(Unless it's raining. Writers do better in the rain than cyclists.)   

Monday, June 5, 2023

The Limits of Description

My last post, "In Defense of Adverbs,"  discussed the use (and abuse) of adverbs, those nasty words that help push along verbs. A few people sent me a few messages, and some writing groups had their own opinions. However, one thing was clear - descriptive things such as adverbs raise writers' blood pressures. So, on that note, let's move on to adjectives.

Adjectives describe a person, place, thing, or idea - so there are a whole lot of them. In that old typing line, "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog," three adjectives show up, yet no adverbs. Any simple object has a lot of words that can describe it. The fox in the example is quick and brown, but it can also be furry, small, smelly, loud, inquisitive, feral, and a bunch of other things. And yes, they are all interesting. The real question is how do we use them properly and effectively. 

Now, in the case of our quick brown fox, we have quick and brown. They are both used in the sentence because it's a typing sentence and it needs some letters, but in narrative writing, are they really necessary? A writer's thought process should consider what needs to be described, what is assumed, and what isn't really important. Just looking at these two words, I would personally kick one to the curb.

As I mentioned in the adverb piece, we don't need to add descriptions to verbs that merely say what the verb implies - there's no need to say that someone runs fast, because running is presumed to be fast. The same argument can be made for the color of the fox. Foxes are generally brown, so unless there's an important reason to remind people what color the fox is, it can be dumped. Now, the quick part can be kept, particularly because the speed of the fox is relevant to it jumping over the aforementioned lazy dog. Quick stays, brown goes.

The importance of adjectives when it comes to writing is bringing out the details that contribute something to the story that isn't otherwise assumed. The basic tree is leafy, green, tall and majestic, but none of these things have to be mentioned because everyone's stock memory of a tree fills in the information just fine. Now, a bonsai tree is different, but it still has some assumptions. Leafy and green, yes. Tall and majestic, no. What we assume about whatever kind of tree we discuss can be left behind. 

The best reason to use an adjective is to bring something new and fresh to the person, place, or thing being described. Revisiting our quick brown fox, we add a lot more to the description if we describe the things the reader can't see or assume. That quaint little typing line changes quickly if we replace our fox adjectives with "feral" or "rabid." That's a new story entirely, mostly because those adjectives add a dimension to the sentence that otherwise doesn't exist. And that is the most important part of any descriptor you use, or for that matter, any word you use.            

Friday, June 2, 2023

In Defense of Adverbs

There are a lot of ways to get a group of writers arguing. Discuss the works of Hunter S. Thompson. Debate the appropriate age to start teaching poetry techniques. And, of course, discussing whether the book or the movie was better regarding just about anything is bound to mix it up a little. But if you really want the words to fly and the blood pressure to rise, discuss adverbs.

So simple, right? An adverb - a word that modifies a verb. We use them all the time, but with effective writing, it suddenly becomes a point of contention. There is the camp that scorns any kind of adverb - the verb should do the heavy lifting, and the rest of the narrative should fill in the blanks. Then there are those who treat the modifier just like an adjective or any other descriptor - it is used to enhance the reader's experience, full stop. Of course, I have to post my opinion on this as well.

At some point or another, I have been in both camps, and they make good points. However, over the years I have found my own territory, and I try to stay within those boundaries. Everyone does wander outside their own space and I am guilty of that as well, but often this is a case of falling into old habits rather than trying new things. In the end, my beliefs stay the same, and here's what they are regarding this grand controversy.

Think about a person running down the street. We all have our own image of this, and chances are they're very similar. Now, if we write this scene, a natural adverb comes to mind to describe how the person is running: quickly (or any synonym). If we use this, it enhances the description of our person running down the street. They are now quickly running down the street. More descriptive, right?

Or is it?

Go back to that image of the running person. Was there any question in your mind that the person ran quickly? Does the typical running person go at any other pace than quickly? This is where adverbs show their weakness, by modifying a verb but not really adding anything to the discussion. A person running quickly is basically the same as a person running, and we can ignore the adverb. "Quickly" is a precious waste of time and it weighs down the narrative with false energy.

Now, that being said, there are other adverbs that bring something extra to the table. Is the person running haphazardly? Clumsily? Half-heartedly? Those adverbs all bring a new dimension to the discussion, because they are not a part of the standard person-running-down-the-street image. Those adverbs do some lifting on their own, creating something new as they modify the verb.

The takeaway? If you insist on using adverbs, make sure they aren't just repeating or recycling the verb's action. A good adverb enhances the action without repeating the action. If your adverb doesn't follow that policy, it can probably be dropped.

Now, discuss amongst yourselves.