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, December 29, 2023

Writing and the Rabbit Hole

In this sweet spot between Christmas and New Year's Day, all my main activities reach a kind of lull, providing an opportunity to dive back into some things that I have neglected for a while (like since the last post-Christmas lull). Unfortunately, while this is a nice diversion from the real world, sometimes I dive in a little too aggressively, finding myself quickly heading into the deep end of one of my winter hobbies like genealogy or home repair. One moment I am packing up the Christmas tree, the next I am rebuilding the shelves in the utility room or digging through the archives surrounding Whitley County in the 1800s. Sure, it's fun, but it becomes a distraction and even a problem if I get so carried away that I can't just jump back into my life once January 2nd comes along.

In case you haven't guessed, this is a big issue with writing sometimes, and it can catch us when we least expect it. We get this urge to write about a crime in a small town, and before we know it we are digging through forensic files, trying to find out if clothing dye can conceal blood stains. (Side note: never look at a writer's Google history. Nothing good comes from doing that.) It's at this point that we realize we are no longer doing our writing, but we have wandered into something entirely different that is actually interfering with what we wanted to do - write about a crime in a small town.

This happens a lot - too often, in all fairness. And I see it on a lot of writing forums, where someone is hung up on their writing because they are not sure whether a cop in 1940s Vermont would say, "It's cool," and they can't verify or refute it. Do you see what's happening here? They are letting themselves get dragged away from what they want to do by getting hung up on some other detail that really isn't too important. That's when the rabbit hole opens up, and it's easy to fall into - especially when your mind is fairly distracted.

What drags me into the hole is when I get more time than motivation to do something. Do I want to clean out the utility room? Rarely, if ever. However, if I tell myself I have to do this, my unmotivated self will derail things by turning all my attention to that crappy shelf unit against the wall. If I don't watch myself, four hours later the utility room is twice the mess because I took everything off the crappy shelves and am trying to rebuild them with everything I have available. Needless to say, my utility room suffers when I clean it.

To avoid doing this when I am trying hard to write a piece I am no longer interested in - especially in those cases - I make two statements to myself that I have to keep. Statement #1: During the next two hours, I do not have to write this piece. Statement #2: During the next two hours, I will either write or do nothing - there is no other option. This relieves me from the obligation of writing, yet still makes sure that if I exert any energy, it will be toward writing. If things get tough, I just stop writing and sit there for two, three, five minutes doing nothing. The rabbit hole of researching dialogue might call to me, but I do nothing. Eventually, the writing starts again. And yes, I used to do this during my time doing economic research for a big, fancy company. Sit there at my desk, stare at a screen, and not write a report. It might've been weird for my coworkers if they watched me do this, but no problem; if they were watching me, apparently they needed the distraction.

So don't be afraid to go on an obsessive writing binge now and then. Just make sure you're staying on track and not slipping away from the thing you want to do - write.

And on that note, I am taking New Year's Day off, so my next post will be January 5th, 2024. Happy New Year!           

Friday, December 22, 2023

Another Holiday Writing Prompt

For most families in my area when I was a child, Christmas was a pretty big thing. No school for a couple of weeks, enough snow to start some trouble, presents from the big guy. Pretty much the usual story. I could write about any of those memories and tell an enjoyable little story about the holidays. However, I decided that's not what a good writing exercise is about. An exercise should really try and bring out something along with building those writing muscles.

I did think about suggesting an exercise where the objective is to write about the least holiday-like thing about this holiday season. Perhaps something about the rampant consumerism during a time that's supposed to be about giving and such. There's probably a story about a bad holiday memory floating around somewhere, but let's face it - where's the fun in that? A holiday writing exercise should not be all Grinchy. It needs to stir up the feelings we hold close and dear to our hearts. If you decide to write about your worst Christmas experience, that's your right to do so. I had something different in mind.

As I said earlier, I have plenty of good Christmas memories from my distant childhood, and any one of them could become a story. However, I decided that the more interesting exercise would be to intensify the focus. Instead of writing about that one Christmas with that one great gift, or when some holiday magic just happened to make everything special, I thought a worthy exercise would be to write about one item, one moment, one detail from way back when and let it be the center of all my feelings and discussion. The more isolated and detailed, the better. 

What does that all mean? Well, simply put, I know plenty of people who have a real connection to the ritual of setting up the Christmas tree on whatever night happens to be the right one. That might make a good story, but try looking for the emotion in hanging up one particular ornament, or putting the angel/star/light on the top of the tree. Capture one instance, and write about everything that the moment meant. Think of the first moment you connected with the importance of the Hanukkah candles, or felt something special about the holidays. Isolate one moment - an important, valuable holiday event, then write about it. It can be receiving a card from a relative and being moved by the words, or just staring at a candy cane in front of the gingerbread house and feeling something more than wanting to eat it. Try applying that kind of focus - the pleasure of the simple moment - into your writing, and see what happens.

Full disclosure: This is a nice way to write poems. Not that I am stealthily pushing poetry on the unwilling. I am just mentioning that good poems are often meditations upon one shining moment.

On that note, I will leave you to your holiday merriment. I hope that you give a try at creating something that you find both special and meaningful. I will be doing this exercise during the holidays. This also means that my next post will be on December 29th. Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 18, 2023

Here Come the Holidays

I did a double-take when I checked the calendar today. Seriously - it's the 18th. Of December! I think someone should've informed me about this earlier, because this was not supposed to happen so quickly. One day I'm out riding my bicycle, enjoying the endless Midwestern summer, and then *BAM!* December 18th. And, of course, with it comes all the holiday things, including all the holiday promises I make but rarely keep, all the holiday weight I put on but rarely lose, and all of the parties I go to, events I attend, and things & stuff in general that often take me away from things that I want to do, like write. So this year, I decided to (kind of) fix this.

Well, first things first. I have nothing wrong with any of the holidays this season. Be it Hanukah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, Tet, or any holiday between now and the end of January, I am all for them. I enjoy the spirit of them and the celebration that ensues, and I always try to do something on New Year's Eve (though my friends are oft reluctant to stay up that late). I just think that as a writer, I should find a way to incorporate writing habits and practices into my routines. So, on that note...

The attached tweet made me think about a very important part of being a writer, which is that the best writers do not exist in isolation. They are part of a continuous give-and-take with other people at different stages of their journey. We all can learn from one another, and hopefully, we all pay it forward by offering our advice to one another. Sometimes we do this deliberately, other times people just pick up little habits by example. I, of course, am a very deliberate person - just in case you didn't figure that out from my five years maintaining a writing blog - but there is more than that. A part of helping people become better writers isn't just talking about what you do and how people can do what you do. It's participating in their journey as well as yours.

Probably the thing I enjoy the most about discussing writing with other people is not the teaching part, but the motivating part. When another writer takes a risk and makes a leap toward growth, I love pushing them toward that step and helping them find the value in the risks they take. Even if the experiment is a catastrophic failure, I help them fail upward, toward a better product. This is part of what Gaiman talked about when he discussed helping each other. Helping is not just teaching, but supporting and guiding people in a positive manner. And this is something that any of us can do. Even if we feel like we're not the best person to help, we can show people their own strengths and help them build themselves into better writers. And if we learn something from the process, well, so be it.

This is something I plan on doing throughout the holidays - reminding people what makes them good and important. Whether it's about their writing or just about them in general, when we bring people forward it comes at no expense to our own growth. In fact, we might grow a little as well. Remember that machine that broke while measuring the Grinch's heart growing? Something like that.

So for now, I suggest spreading the holiday spirit by helping motivate those around you, particularly the writers. And, of course, if you want to get them something, I recommend the latest anthology from the New Lenox Writers' Group, A World of Change, now available on Amazon. Anthologies are always fun, and I have a few stories in there as well. Happy Holidays!         

Friday, December 15, 2023

Taking Yourself Out of Writing

One fun thing about writing workshops is the holiday party (assuming the group has one). They can be wide and varied, and sometimes if they are held away from the usual meeting venue, they can go well beyond the world of writing. For one of my groups, we rented a room at a nice restaurant because there were a lot of us, ate our body weight in pizza and enjoyed one another's company. Basically, what any good holiday party should accomplish. However, in my case, it became something more.

I had a seat at what some people called, "The Poetry Table." This was not assigned seating or any planned positioning, it's just one of the features of the people seated there. And to be fair, the people at that table were far more accomplished at poetry than yours truly, but I digress. The conversation went in a lot of directions, from growing up to family traits to various felons and undesirables in our family tree to hypothetical life questions and different views of the world at large. Nothing got too deep and we kept current events out of the discussion. However, an interesting idea emerged, and I kept thinking about it long after I was driving home, drinking Pepto-Bismol like a dessert cocktail.

The discussion was about ego - how we place ourselves into anything we create, and how that can interfere with what we might truly want to do. Think about this: If you were to write about the most embarrassing moment in your life, what would it be? Now, if you found out (prior to writing this piece) that you would be presenting it to a group of your fellow writers, or close friends, or family members, how would this change your writing? What would change about your writing if you knew you would be tied to it, versus just writing something for the sake of writing it?

We learn a lot about ourselves from the stories we create. However, there's a greater opportunity if we sit down and write something, knowing full well nobody is ever going to see it. We can write about something horribly embarrassing, even shameful, if we free ourselves from having ourselves identified with the story. One therapy treatment is to write a letter to someone, expressing every bit of anger, frustration, hatred, and dark emotion you might hold toward that person, then burning the letter. Not even your therapist has to read it - you just create something to pour the words out of yourself and onto the page, then embrace the growth from the experience and let the words fade away. This is called writing without ego - taking yourself out of the writing equation and just creating.

It may sound like it's a technical detail that's too abstract to make a difference, but we all can hold ourselves back when we know our writing will be identified with us in some manner. Even with writing fiction, the stories we create will bear our thumbprint, and there is this instinctive need to react to that connection. Writing without ego is to write without restrictions and really let the creative process take over without any chains. It may sound weird, but it is surprisingly freeing.

If you ever get the desire (and seriously - give it a try), try writing something - a paragraph, a poem, a character sketch or essay, knowing nobody will ever see the content. Plan ahead of time to burn the pages, delete the file, bump off any witnesses, and eliminate the work from existence. Then, sit down and write something daringly personal, and see where it goes. See where your mind goes when you are no longer in charge of the trip.

And seriously - don't forget to destroy it afterward. If you've written something very personal, you probably should wipe it out.       

Monday, December 11, 2023

Sometimes A Verb Is Just A Verb

For all of the talk I do about the broad process of writing and creativity, a few people have noted that I sure do go on a lot about grammar and punctuation. I will confess that I do take a side in the war on adverbs, I have a strong opinion on the Oxford Comma, and don't get me started about descriptions. And yes, when it comes to verbs - particularly passive versus active - most people know I plant my flag on the active verb camp. However, I do try to remind people that before they read a thesaurus and discover a whole bunch of synonyms to replace the verb in, "he said," take a pause. Sometimes, a verb doesn't need to be anything fancy.

Elmore Leonard famously put amongst his 10 Rules for Good Writing, "Never use a verb other than 'said' to carry dialogue." (He also was strongly against using adverbs to modify "said," but that's another discussion.) Whether you agree with this or not is up to you. His point was to keep things simple and to the point. When a person is talking, they say things. Let them say them and get on with the story. Personally, I allow myself a little freedom in this vein. When my characters yell at each other, or whisper secrets, or stutter or are hesitant, I let the reader know this if it's relevant to the story. If they are whispering things to each other so nobody hears them, and, in fact, nobody hears them, it's really not that important. However, if someone yells across a room that his girlfriend's pregnant and she didn't want anyone to know yet, then yelling reminds the reader that literally everyone heard it. The verb choice does have a role, but don't let the search for the perfect one get you bogged down.

Another thing I go on about is not using the word "was" (the passive voice) in sentences where an active verb would also work. This is the example I cite:

  • "As he was walking home..." (passive)
  • "As he walked home..." (active)

Active is the better choice a lot of times because it is the more engaging voice. Usually we talk in the passive voice, which makes it a little difficult to adjust our writing to the active voice. However, we don't need to do this all the time. Here's some simple sentences: "It was a pleasant day, just like any other." "The door was red with old bronze hinges." "He was the last member of his family line." Can you think of a way to make these sentences more engaging? Possibly, but why? They are descriptions - let them describe the thing and move on. Now, if the object is doing something, that's an opportunity to be active. "The red door was swinging wildly in the wind, straining its old bronze hinges." In that case, change "was swinging" to "swung" and you're active. Otherwise, let the pleasant day, the red door, and the guy with the family line issues just go about their business.

Lastly, a little repetition is okay throughout your work. Like using, "said," people will also walk and run, they will sleep, chew, sneeze, and so forth. If it's a basic activity, just let it happen. Don't feel a person running down the street has to bolt down the sidewalk, dart into an alley, streak along its narrow pavement, and dash into a causeway. Instead, just run down the sidewalk, into the alley along its narrow pavement and into a causeway. It's to the point, so let the verb make the point.

And to go back to Elmore Leonard, just make sure it feels natural. His other rule aside from the 10 linked above is, "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it."             

Monday, December 4, 2023

Looks Mean Something

Just this one time, let's step back from the deep process of writing, and explore a few other ideas. In particular, the impression you want to cast upon your readers. Most of the time, this starts with the opening line of your short story, essay, or other work. However, sometimes the potential reader will have made up their mind well ahead of time that your work isn't worth their time - without even reading a word.

I had a discussion earlier today with a fellow writer who had recently been to a local book fair. He spoke with a number of the authors and sampled several works, including those by independent publishing houses and those who self-published. What he discovered was that any number of authors - some of who were really good writers - had printed works that were visually unreadable. Whether it was a cover that looked like an old encyclopedia, flagrant spelling and grammatical errors (like in a chapter heading), a layout not quite at par with your old high-school newspaper, or just awkward presentation, some of these things were unsellable. The reader might very well be missing a very engaging story, but that first impression is everything.

Sad but true, a lot of book sales are made or lost with that first glance. Does the cover capture their attention? If yes, the potential reader might pick it up and flip through it as if that will somehow reveal the book's quality. They'll probably turn to the blurb on the back, and if it doesn't look interesting, they might skip that and it goes back on the shelf. The poor little blurb is the reader's first chance to explore the actual writing, and it gets ignored because the font is small and boring. 

Go to any book store (if you can find one) and peruse the New Releases section. A lot of those books will have the same cover style - a full-sized picture, the title front-and-center in bold, Avant Garde letters, then the author's name and some little comment about the book's genre or whatever. This is a tested-and-true cover style to capture the eye, but unfortunately when it is used by every major publishing house, it very much gets lost within the many other releases. The one that stands out will be the one that breaks away from tradition but still has an intrinsic appeal. They're tough to find these days, but they make the sales.

Now, if you haven't quite gotten to the point of writing your own novel, here's the takeaway you can apply to your own writing. In whatever you write, put your thumbprint on those words as quickly as possible. Let the reader know your style upfront; in the first sentence if possible. Make that first line your selling point for the rest of the work. With short stories, that's where the convincing begins, so draw them right there and then. More importantly, make this your habit, and it will carry through into the rest of your life. You will engage people with your stories from the first words, your toasts will immediately draw everyone's attention, and you will write some awesome thank you notes this way. And then, when you are finally published, you will instinctively want that first published work to be your selling point.

(And if you could thank me in the dedication, that would be great.)         

Friday, December 1, 2023

Where Does the Story Begin?

During the Monday night writer's workshop I regularly attend, we were given a simple writer's prompt of which we had eight minutes to finish. The prompt: Start writing from these three words, "Our story begins..." Something clicked in my mind, and I started typing (Yes, I am the guy who types instead of writes). Eight minutes later, we put down our pens (and keyboards), then read what we did. Everyone did surprisingly well, really exploring the prompt's potential. After I read mine, the writer next to me leaned over and said, "I think you just wrote Friday's blog post." Turns out, she made an excellent point. And on that note, here's what I wrote:

Our story begins… at the end, where every story should. 

This is something weird to tell a writer, but I tell every beginning writer and novelist-to-be that their story begins at the end.

Why? Very simple. People go into the process of writing a story because they have something bouncing around their brain that they want to get out. I know I sure did. And when they finally take that big step, when they commit to writing the Great American Novel, well, that’s where the rubber hits the road. Or so they think.

Actually, I tell them it’s a very important part of the journey, but it’s not the journey. The writing of that story is more like sitting over a fold-out road map (I’ll oldsplain what that is later), looking at different routes, circling truck stops on the way, and figuring out just how to get there. 

People look at me confused. “But… But… I’m writing. How can I not yet be at the beginning if I’m already writing?”

I say, “Yes, you’re writing. And in that, you are discovering a lot of things. Most importantly, you are trying to find out where the story begins. And when you reach the end, you will know where.”

Indeed, writing a story is technically, chronologically, how the story starts. It’s the act of conception, the first thing to illuminate the writer’s mind and take then from event to event, from chapter to chapter, from act one to act two to act three and the dramatic finish. However, this entire process of creation is all about discovery. It is the mixing of ingredients, the brewing of the potion. It is more important than anything else, but it’s not where the story starts.

Let me offer you this: When you write your first novel – and I hope you do, and that many more follow – I want you to savor the act of creation but not get seduced by it, because a greater love is on its way. The story truly starts the moment you’ve finished that first draft. That’s when the magic happens.


Monday, November 27, 2023

Shifting Gears

“It was the best of suburban afternoons, every feature crafted to set the ideal stage for youthful memories. The weather was idyllic, the air peaceful and calm. The horizon, clear and cloudless, was blemished only by a column of black smoke rising from where Mark had just driven his motorcycle into the side of a van, killing him instantly.”

For those who might be too young to understand the title’s reference, there was once a time when driving a car or motorcycle required the driver to manually change which transmission gear was engaged with the engine, thus changing the car’s relative speed and acceleration. Low gears let you take off like a shot but your top speed was limited, while high gear had poor acceleration but you could really go fast over the long haul.

As drivers, we barely notice when our car gears shift, and frankly, we just let the engine do its thing. We only really start paying attention when our car feels a little sluggish or weird, and we’re not sure why. A lot of times, it has something to do with that transmission and those pesky gears. Either they’re not shifting smoothly and we feel the car jerk around, or they’re not shifting when they should, and our car feels sluggish. In short, the driver only feels it when it’s bad. A mechanic, however, is sensitive to that stuff, and can tell you exactly what’s wrong. 

Now that I’ve done that piece of old-splaining, let me get into why I did it. The same goes with writers and pacing. They know how to work with it, and they know what’s good and what’s bad. Think about that piece at the beginning. It moves along, slow and steady, a pace potentially pleasant, consistent, and quite possibly boring. It moves along smoothly, then the last half of the last sentence shifts everything. The peace and serenity is broken, the calm afternoon of our memories now dark and tense. This is a jarring move, a deliberate shift in the mood that grabs the reader’s attention. It’s not the happiest shift, but it draws the interest. The reader remembers very little about that passage, but remembers when it shifted into another gear.

The shift is not exclusive to mood. Shifting to shorter, more concise sentences can pick up the pace of a narrative. Shifting the adjectives from bright and cheerful to dark and sinister will weigh on the environment. Even the simplest thing such as an easy, predictable rhythm can become powerful when the most important part breaks that expectation.

This is a great tool for playing with the reader’s feelings from the inside, toying with the pacing without actually changing the stories. You can get a bunch of additional effort out of your writing when you shift gears the right way. And you don’t need some old guy to explain to you how a transmission works to do so.


Friday, November 17, 2023

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Verbs

In every workshop I have facilitated, participated in, or observed, at some point there is talk about verb use. This is fine – verbs are part of every complete sentence, so why not open up that discussion? The catch, however, comes with the different ways we use and misuse verbs, the ones that sound cool (but aren’t), and the simple verbs that can distance a reader.

Let’s set some groundwork with the last entry – the annoying simple verb. The simplest verb around is, in its infinitive form, “to be.” We are used to seeing this one used in the easiest sentences: I am cold. She is twenty-three. They are still alive. We were there. I was young back then. And so on. This whole am/is/are/were/was group falls under different versions of “to be.” In the examples, those are fine because they describe a situation. Instead of saying “I am cold,” you can say, “I feel cold” and get the same effect. Now here’s where those simple verbs take the fun out of things.

Here’s a quick grammar review: In the sentence, “As I was walking home, I had an idea,” what is the verb? “Walking” seems obvious, but in fact it is, “was.” This is called The Passive Voice – when we use am/is/are/were as the verb instead of something active. This sentence quickly becomes more engaging by simply changing it to, “As I walked home, I had an idea.” The verb is now, “walked” and the reader is walking with the character. It may sound surprising, but switching to active voice versus passive voice can bring a reader closer to the action. Descriptions – I am cold, etc. – do not get a huge boost, but sentences describing an event or occurrence draw the reader in.

Now for the cool verbs that can take the fun out of things. Often, when we write dialogue, we can find ourselves using “said” quite a lot. The “he said/she said/they said/we said” routine gets old. However, throwing in different verbs to mix it up can often be more of a distracted. If your character is talking, having them extoll, demand, counter, rebuke, or emphasize can move the mood around unnecessarily. If people are talking, sometimes let them just “say” things, letting the dialogue run the scene. The same goes for simple things like walking, running, or other simple actions. There’s the temptation to traipse around, gallop, trot, sprint, stroll, or any number of ways to walk. However, it might surprise you to know that most people just walk (or run), and that’s fine. Unless the way your character goes from one place to another is important, don’t crack open the thesaurus and drop some big words. The meaning should come from their drives and motivations. 

Lastly, a note on misusing verbs. If you want to use a bold verb, keep in mind what it means, what it might imply, and how the reader might be distracted. I have seen too many people mix up extort and exhort, implicit and implicate, and so on. There’s no shame in having a dedicated tab to in the background just so you get the right word in there. As for the package that comes with a word, run, prance, gallop, and trot each suggest a style of running, and are not always interchangeable. And yes, some words have a very distinct meaning but carry a lot of subtext. Example: If something’s growth is held back, that can be referred to as “retarded growth.” The meaning is correct, but don’t think for one second that some readers won’t be distracted by the word usage. Even though no malice is intended, such casual use of a loaded word can derail a reader’s interest. I am not saying you shouldn’t use certain words. I only suggest that some words have consequences, and you should use them at your own risk.

Ultimately, your verb choices will carry a lot of weight with your stories. Using them effectively will pay off every time, but this requires some heavy lifting on your part. Choose wisely.


Friday, November 10, 2023

Recharging the Batteries

Today's post will be a little shorter than usual, and most of the reason why will be explained in the post. You see, every now and then, writers need to do something other than writing to hone their skills. Just like how chefs need to go to new restaurants and how directors need to see new films, writers need to get out there too. And while a good way for writers to learn is for them to read other writers' works, another way is to actually meet other writers and talk with them face-to-face.

As it happens, one of the local libraries decided to put on an Author's Fair, in part for that very reason - to get writers together and have them talk about writing and stuff. Also, since it's a two-day affair, there would also be time for any published writers to sell their books, meet up with readers, and talk about whatever writers want to talk about. In sum, it's two days of writers getting out there with other writers and doing writer things, along with a generous helping of civilians walking in to find out just what it takes for them to be a writer.

So, indeed, that's where I have been all day. I sat in the audience, asked questions, met people, and went back and forth about our processes, our structures, and our writing. I also sat on a panel discussing traditional publishing versus self-publishing, and got some quality mic time. And, of course, I got the opportunity to hopefully inspire some people to become writers, to pursue publication, and perhaps even hit up my blog now and then.

This means I have been busy all day, without a huge amount of time to write today's post. Furthermore, the library is hosting a Writer's Open Mic night, and I just have to go there and drop some verse for the good of my fellow writers. If you ever get the chance to attend one of those, do it. And when you hear these people doing their thing, for better or worse, remember that they all worked their way to the mic over time, and at one point were just audience members doubting they could do such a thing. It's a great way to learn that nothing is impossible. (That will also be the theme of the piece I am reading - no spoilers)

If I can offer one takeaway from all these words, it's this: Every now and then, get out there and walk amongst the other creatives. Chat about things you've written, things you've read, and things you might just be thinking about creating. Meet people and hear their stories. Listen to people and get to know them. It really can't hurt, and in many ways, it might just charge up your creative energies. Do you need a little boost? A touch of inspiration? Go to a book fair, and Author's Day, a poetry slam, whatever, and take it all in. Breathe it in like a refreshing spring breeze and let it move you. Where it moves you doesn't matter, just as long as it's toward a creative result. The rest is up to you.

Now I have to run. This story isn't going to read itself.     

Monday, November 6, 2023

Taking Advantage of the Basics

Let's start with a very simple statement: Stories thrive on tension and conflict. The more there is, the more the reader pays attention. People like to get involved with stories where even when they know the good guy wins in the end, they can't see the path to get to that place, and they don't know what it will cost our hero to get there. Tension and conflict both create questions in the reader's mind, and they seek answers to them by reading further. So it only makes sense that, as writers, we should install these elements wherever possible.

Now, as a disclaimer, tension doesn't mean everything has to be life-or-death decisions and conflict isn't always fistfights and car chases. Tension can be as simple as the character preparing to ask someone on a date but not knowing if they'll say yes, or worrying about how they performed on an important test. Tension is about the battle with the unknowns, and struggling with the possible outcomes. Conflict is more straightforward; a battle between two interests that go in opposite directions. The character wants to join the military but their parents want them to go to college. The forces in conflict are very much known, but they can't reconcile with each other. Life-or-death situations and car chases are also allowed, but they can be brewed up from the simplest of ingredients.

And on that note, the basic ingredients to any story serve as the best way to create tension and conflict from the get-go. The three Ps of stories - plot, people (characters), and places (setting) - are required parts of any narrative, and if we tweak these around, we can stir things up from square one. Of course, other sources should come along throughout the story, but if we kick things off quickly, we take in the reader early on and they don't put down the story until it's done.

Now, each of the three Ps on their own are not very exciting, though we should always consider how to make them interesting. With the characters, they should have separate interests and drives, and not always be on the same page. Honestly, characters that all think alike are boring. When they have different political, social, or professional perspectives, those can create conflict, and the writer should take the opportunity to have these differences run into each other. Places is a little more difficult since they tend to stay in place, but different kinds of places can evoke different moods and responses, which will be important later. Consider the environment of rural Kansas versus New York City. Both are places where people live, and each actually contains a Manhattan, but that's where the similarities end. And of course, plot - what the story is about. This should have some kind of problem built into it - a story about a young man from Manhattan, Kansas adapting to life in New York City while searching for his birth parents. The unknowns abound.

The real fertile area for tension and conflict, however, comes from where the Ps intersect - when the people and places don't get along, or the character's mission (plot) is obstructed by their location or other people. When our young man from Kansas shows up in New York, every clash of ideals should be brought to the fore. The reader should feel like this was a bad idea for our character and he will be eaten alive. They should be asking themselves if this mission to find his birth parents is really worth it, especially once he meets the kind of people that totally clash with him. Even the struggle to try and work through the bureaucracy of big-city government should feel like a battle. All these clashing interests and environments should be leaving the reader without a moment's peace and wondering just how the main character will survive it all.

Now, the actual story can be whatever the writer wants, and should have its own home brew of conflict and tension. However, find the clashing interests that are there from the first word, that hit the reader quickly, and bring them out as soon as possible. That will set the stage for some exciting storytelling, and create a sense of urgency for the entire story. And that's what the reader wants.            

Friday, November 3, 2023

For Those Sitting Out on NaNoWriMo

It's November, which to writers means everyone will be talking about NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). First will be the talk about how exciting it is, then about how tough it is, then about the thing that happened that brought our writing to a screeching halt. At the end of the month, only a small percentage of those who took on this challenge will have a completed first draft. However, most every participant will have gained a lot of other things. It's those other things that I want to talk about, instead of NaNoWriMo, and how you can gain them without actually writing a novel this month.

The first thing we gain from finishing this month-long challenge is the sense of accomplishing the utterly unthinkable: writing a novel. Just like running a marathon, for most people it's not about their time but actually completing the race. Someone who has finished a marathon automatically gets a bunch of bragging rights just for having finished it. Obviously, if you don't participate, you can't get the accolades for finishing, but that doesn't mean you can't set out some goal and push yourself to achieve it. I've never ran a marathon nor do I expect I will ever willingly do so. However, I did set out to do a long-distance bicycle trip, and last year I finally accomplished it. Not a marathon, but I took pride in the accomplishment. So, this month, set some writing goal - create something outside your comfort zone, write a poem, do some FanFic - something that requires you to step up your game. Then do it, and give yourself credit for having completed the task.

Now, one big benefit people gain from NaNoWriMo that they might not realize is the gift of habit. When you force yourself to write for an hour every day for a month, it starts developing into a routine. At first it might just be something done at the end of the day to get in those 2,000 words before going to sleep. However, after a week of repeating that task, that end-of-day routine becomes more familiar. The mind starts looking forward to it. The mental energies perk up as that time approaches. It becomes a comfortable writing zone, and it is conducive to more writing. Eventually, the writer has developed a full set of writing habits that will help kick things in gear long after November has passed. If you use November as an opportunity to write something - anything - every day at about the same time and in the same place, and do it for a month, the habit will form. Familiarity will settle in, and it becomes easier to write. If you write something at the same time every day for the entire month, you have just developed a writing habit that will serve you well.

Of course, those lucky people who end up with a completed first draft have 60,000+ words of work to be proud of. (They haven't hit the terrifying December Edit-A-Thon, but that's not the point.) Having a body of work to look at, to behold, is like having that medal you get at the end of a marathon. To the non-novel writer, if you write every day - even if it's not the same story - you will end the month with a body of work. You will have accomplished something that you can admire, brag about, edit (if you so choose), and it can never be taken away. Even if it's just a journal filled with writing, keep it somewhere special, because that is your education as a writer in those pages. Be proud; you deserve it.

In short, if you don't think you have a novel in you quite yet, don't feel bad about taking a pass on NaNoWriMo. Have patience with those who will not stop talking about it, and console those who had to give up. However, if you want to still benefit from this month of writing, then try writing something every day. You will be surprised what happens when you dedicate yourself to an activity for an entire month.       

Friday, October 27, 2023

A Few Thoughts About Reality

Most of my writing is fairly contemporary, as in it happens in a world I live in or have lived in. Maybe the years are different, but in general, it's all about known quantities: There are no fire-breathing dragons, warp drives aren't a thing, witchcraft is ritual rather than magic, etc. This is the world I know and love, and that's why I write about it. I have dabbled in sci-fi, and I do have a fiction-fantasy series that needs extensive work, but in general my writing dwells here on Earth. That being said, what are the rules for writing about life on Earth?

The first thing one must concern themselves about is writing about real things in a fictitious manner. If I was to write about the town where I grew up, for example, I could run into a bunch of problems if my stories - even as fiction - associated the town name with bad events or disreputable people (and they would). However, that rule changes when a location becomes more publicly recognized. Technically, I was born in Chicago, and that is a different situation for writing as it is well storied and has a broad spectrum of association, versus my little hometown of [redacted]. 

This is where things get nasty. If I want to write a fictitious work about things and events that happened during my childhood, I have to fictionalize it to a reasonable degree while still keeping it within the realm of the plausible. For example, close to where I live is a famously haunted woods (if you believe in haunted things), and there are many stories surrounding everyone's favorite forest preserve, [redacted]. As a writer, I can find a way to tell that story, but it needs to be sterilized just enough to establish a reasonable degree of doubt as to whether or not that was my point of reference. With the stories, names would need to be changed, street locations altered, and perhaps even the outcome of the story tweaked a little as to not borrow too much from reality.

Now, certain things we can take for granted when writing fictionalized versions of true stories - the whole no dragons, no warp drives thing is still in play. The environment can still have the same feeling and convey whatever sense of mood is necessary, but exacting details are best washed out. Anyone who reads any of Stephen King's work and knows their way around Maine can get a feel for the locations that inspired a particular story. However, King created a fictionalized version of Maine to set his stories. Don't go looking for Castle Rock - you'll never find it.

In general, the rule for fictionalizing a true story boils down to what you might see in a Law & Order episode: Some things might click into a particular story or event, but things like personal reputations and identities cannot be pinned down specifically. And if that means making up a little town of Lake Grove, Illinois to tell the stories that happened in [redacted], then that's a little bit of reality you can make up on your own. No dragons, though.         

Monday, October 23, 2023

(More) Rules of Writing

Last week, I offered a few of my big, important rules of writing. I led with those because they are the ones I tend to talk about the most and reinforce in workshops and writing groups. They covered the range from grammar to structure to editing, but they were far from the only rules I swear by. This set is simpler to work with but no less important. The only real difference about these is that I use them less often just because the opportunity does not present itself as often. And on that note...

Use description to make something important. Everyone has hair, skin, eyes, and so forth, and technically we can talk about all those things when we describe a character. However, our energies should be directed toward giving the reader something to hook on to. While the color of hair et al is worth mentioning once, the hook is that scar over their lip, that limp in their walk, or the slight East Coast accent. It doesn't have to be an exceptional thing, it can be as simple as particularly blue eyes or a slightly crooked smile. The important part is that thing that would stand out. If you were looking for that character in a coffee shop, and you only knew one detail about their appearance, what would that be to let you find them? That is where your descriptive energies should go.

Edit with purpose. It's an easy trap to fall into - thinking that "editing" a manuscript is just reading it for mistakes, errors, weak writing, or some other failing. You can edit that way, but you mostly gather the low-hanging fruit and miss the real important stuff. "Editing with purpose" is going through your work with a mission, and everything you read should target that one objective. Simple missions can be, "Does this contribute to the plot development?" "Is this character necessary?" or "Does this reinforce the particular mood?" It's easy to read a scene and enjoy a joke you wrote, but overlook the fact that the joke is in the wrong place or might even be a distraction. Editing with a mission tells you when you are on target, or when you might be wandering off-subject.

At some point, trim the fat. As we learn our craft, we get used to trimming off the excess. However, sometimes it helps us to deliberately do a pass through our document and target specific, often unnecessary, words. How many times do we use "that" when we don't need it? What about the entire problem with the passive voice? How about those evil time-killers like "almost," kind of," "sort of," and so forth - the cheap terms that take the strength from our writing? Just do a Find/Replace search with Microsoft Word and do a count for how many of those little monsters are in there, then see if they're necessary. (Spoiler: Most of them aren't.)

Give yourself a timeout. When you create something - especially a larger work - it's important to reward yourself for finishing that ever-important first draft. The best reward you can give yourself is a little time where you don't look at any of it. Put it on a shelf for a while. Some people just need a week, others take a month off. The important part, however, is to let yourself get out of the deep immersion into the story so you can read it with an open mind and a fresh set of eyes. Another benefit, of course, is to just have the full realization of what you've accomplished, which is no small thing. Once the rush is over, you're ready for the hard work.

At some point, it's as finished as it's going to be. When my father painted, he would occasionally get obsessed with some particular aspect of his work to the point where he would get stuck in a loop of reworking and redesigning. However, at some point, he decided the work was finished, he coated it with lacquer, and it was sealed forever. Your writing should be the same way. It will never be perfect. There will always be a stupid error, an opportunity to flesh out characters just a little more, or one more plot twist to add. However, continually changing things is the road to madness, so at some point you have to put the brush down and say, "I'm done." Then take pride in that moment - again, you've earned it.                

Friday, October 20, 2023

(My) Rules of Writing

Noted author Elmore Leonard is known for a lot of stories, but most workshop attendees get to know him for his "10 Rules for Good Writing," which can be found anywhere on the internet. Now, some people follow them religiously, others take issue with one or two, and there are even those who are totally against them. I personally agree with most of them, though perhaps for different reasons. When he says, "Never open a book with weather," some people interpret this as never open with cheap drama like a storm, rain, etc., while others say it's more about finding something more direct to open with. I personally believe that a good opening should contain some actual element of the main story arc, and unless a main character is, in fact, a storm front, leave it out. That's just me.

Elmore Leonard
And yes, that's what I am going with - these are some of my rules for writing. You can accept them, challenge them, resist them, or ignore them. The point is that this is the ground where I stand, and to know me as a writer is to know this stuff. So, here are a few important ones:

The only purpose of a first draft is to get the story from your brain to the page. Writers often set unrealistic expectations on their writing, especially when first creating something. One of those expectations is to think there's gold in every word you write from the moment you type/write/create it. Wrong! Your first draft will be a maze of half-baked ideas, shallow characters and transparent motives, mixing about as smoothly as rocks in a blender. Accept this and process the idea, write those horrible words, because it's the only way you can get to the editing stage, where the magic really happens.

You won't know your opening line until you write your final line. Another part of that first-draft process is discovering just what your characters and plot are all about. During that creation process, things can and often will change, so let them. Evolution is fun to watch, so let it happen and don't get too hung up on an individual sentence. Once you see how it all plays out and the underlying journey this story takes, that is the moment you will know how your story should start.

If an adverb doesn't bring anything new to the sentence, lose it. I preach this a lot, and I will say it again: Be careful with your adverbs. There's no need to say someone runs quickly, yells loudly, punches hard, etc. Those are givens, and those kinds of adverbs can be quickly disposed of (like the word "quickly" that I just used). If someone runs clumsily, yells drunkenly, or punches wildly, those words bring something new to the table, so they can stay. And on that note...

A good simile is worth a thousand adverbs. Similes and metaphors are great tools for giving voice and feel to your writing, and a good one makes a scene memorable. With our verbs above, if someone runs like a runaway beer truck, yells like a squealing goat, or punches like he just ran into a spider web, the scene sticks with the reader because they attach the verb and the character to an idea. And the more we use similes, the more our creative mind puts odd things together, and this comes through in our writing. 

The last act of finishing your work is the spellchecker - and not a moment before that. Seriously, anyone who has created a large project knows that the repeated edits that go into it make spell-checking entirely useless, because most words will be rewritten anyway. Often, we spell-check just to avoid writing but still feel productive, but it isn't. And if that doesn't convince you, then I should let you know one writer's secret: Every time a writer uses a spellchecker unnecessarily, somewhere a puppy dies. It's true. So don't. 

My next post will have a few more rules for you, but think about these first. Agree with them, challenge them, or reject them - it's up to you. (But I am serious about the puppy thing)        

Monday, October 16, 2023

Knowing Your Volcano

You know that feeling when you are sitting on the edge of the volcano, looking into the fiery hellscape beneath? Remember how it felt when pulses of heat would hit you in waves, filling you with that sense of nature's power along with an ashy fullness that singed your hair and made you cough? Your eyes would dry out instantly, then start watering from the invisible soot and sulfur pushing you back, demanding you retreat from its awe and power. As you sat there, taking in the dry heat and recognizing you sat just above instant death, remember how you felt both terrified yet somehow at peace with the greatest forces our planet could show you - like looking into the eye of the Earth itself?

Oh - you haven't been on the edge of a volcano's crater?

Don't feel bad. Most people haven't had the experience, and considering the danger, maybe that's a good thing. However, some mere technicality such as never having experienced something shouldn't stop you from sharing the experience with your readers. It's not just a writer's gift when they can put their reader next to them on the crater rim, but it's their responsibility to do so if the writing demands it.

Now, what really might get in the way of writing such an experience is not actually having it, and that's where the magic of writing takes over. In all honesty, you don't need to have been there to write about it. The writer's responsibility is to use words to convey the feelings that need to be realized. If the writer wants the whole volcano's edge experience to be terrifying, then convey whatever details you know about volcanos in the most fearful manner possible. If it's excitement that the reader needs to feel, then make sure every description is filled with adrenalin and energy. There are a lot of ways to frame the scene, and they should be direct appeals to the feeling the writer wants to communicate.

Of course, it has become obvious that the least important thing in the scene is the actual experience of being there. Whatever the truth of it is, that's not the important part; the feeling is. Now, if your writing piece is about a vulcanologist (volcano scientist) doing their work, you might want to explore some of those details of the profession. However, most of the time you can get away with using your imagination.

It may sound like cheating to use your imagination rather than researching volcano craters, and you are more than welcome to check all the YouTube videos you can find and go as deep into the subject as you wish. However, most readers will enjoy an emotional adventure into the crater more than they will appreciate your research, so give them something to remember - even if it's not from personal experience.

And, to clarify, I don't think I've ever been within sight of an active volcano, much less in the crater. If my readers want it, I will go there, but only in my words.        

Friday, October 13, 2023

What's "Head-Hopping"?

Every career field, every profession has its jargon and those special words that become catch phrases or little inside jokes shared just by people in that specific business niche. During my days in economics, we had all kinds of terms - "Heisenberg uncertainty (the economics version)," "squishy data," and my personal favorite, "granularity." Just bringing out those terms awakens fond memories of my days in finance. And now during my writer's days, I get terms like, "white-room syndrome" and "there's no there there." However, my favorite is, "head-hopping," and I think it's worth discussing.

Sadly, it's not as interesting as it sounds. Head-hopping is when the point of view (PoV) shifts around from character to character without staying in one place very long. Some call this the omniscient perspective - where the reader is allowed to see all the information - but often it's just the result of sloppy writing. If one is deliberately offering the omniscient PoV, then go with it. However, most stories are written from just a few perspectives, and there's a reason for that.

Think about the following piece:

They saw the creature lying motionless on the leaves and assumed it was dead. Tom said it was a bat. Laura poked it with a stick, thinking it was a bird. Phil shook his head, believing it to be a flying squirrel that didn't make it.

We have our basic components - three people finding a dead thing and wondering what it was. However, we don't really attach with any one character or their thoughts. We don't take sides, because the writer has just offered information but no individual perspective. As a writer, they can load the dice by offering one person's PoV and allowing the others to offer input to challenge the situation, leaving the reader to decide. Here's the same piece:

They saw the creature lying motionless on the leaves and assumed it was dead. It's a bat, Tom thought.

Laura poked it with a stick. "It's a bird."

Phil shook his head. Nope. "This flying squirrel just didn't make it."

This piece is now from Tom's PoV. We see the thought in his head, while the other perspectives are only offered as open dialogue - things Tom would hear. As readers, we now take this situation on as Tom, and engage by thinking about whether he is right or wrong. And when readers engage with a piece, they have a better appreciation for it. When a writer starts head-hopping, they do not offer the reader a chance to engage from any one perspective, and interest is more difficult to hold onto.

Omniscient PoV is much easier to write and we see a lot of it on TV and in movies thanks to the visual medium and various scene-hopping techniques. Storytelling through writing, however, is much more intimate, and therefore requires more detailed, nuanced approaches. This does not mean you are restricted to one character exclusively; you just need to break into a new section or chapter when you introduce a new perspective. The important part is to not pass up a chance for the reader to connect with the story through one character's eyes. It's the secret to engagement.

And for those who were wondering, Tom was wrong. It was a flying squirrel.             

Monday, October 9, 2023

The Best Kind of Feedback

When I started my journey into writing, I made some smart moves and some big mistakes. In some cases the smart moves led to big mistakes, and big mistakes always led to smarter moves later. However, the one thing I constantly remind myself about is just what I need for feedback. Not what I want, but what I need. This is not as easy as it might sound, and furthermore, it's never one consistent answer.

The first extended piece I ever wrote (like 20,000 words) was my big, daring leap into the unknown. For all that I had hoped it to be, I had every fear that it was a miserable failure. I finally decided to get some feedback about the piece, so I handed it to a then-colleague who enjoyed fiction-fantasy (the genre I wrote at the time), and asked her to read it. Since we shared an office, it was a big ask, but I respected her opinion on many things and knew she would be very straight-forward with her feedback. She read it during lunch at her desk, and when I interrupted her reading for a work matter, she gave me the best feedback I could ever ask for.

She said, "Shush!" and waved me away from her desk.

Now, there was a lot of technical critique I would later receive - abusing the passive voice, a clunky, boring beginning, etc. - but the best feedback I received was the simple fact that she was into the story enough to not want to be disturbed. All of the mistakes I had made and stylistic errors I had used - and there were many - could be fixed. What I took from that "shush" was that something in there was worth reading. At that time, that was the feedback I needed.

As I continued writing and joined various writing groups, people gave me all kinds of feedback for my works. However, I began to notice that some of it wasn't very beneficial, and some was actually useless. I would write a piece about some traumatizing childhood event, and people would point out how it reminded them of their own childhood event, or they would say how they would have written about a different event, or preferred a happier ending. This kind of feedback confused me at the time, but as I continued, I realized some people don't want to give you feedback, they want to tell you about their reaction. This can be helpful for a bit - if you write a funny piece and they tell you they laughed, well, score a point for you. However, some feedback is little more than other people discussing how they would've written the piece. Don't take this for more than face value - people talking about something they read. Take what you wish from it and move on.

And on the flipside of the discussion, here is the best kind of feedback you can offer. After you read a piece, discuss the piece in the form of an interview. "Did you intend for the main character to come off as a good or bad person?" "Do you want the reader to think this really happened?" "Do you feel the story could go deeper into the subject?" Get the author to think about their process, what they wrote, and anything they might want to play with. Some authors just want reaction, and that's fine. However, if they are looking to improve their piece, get them to think more about it from the reader's perspective, and dig into the words. That's when they'll start to grow as writers.

It's been twenty years since my colleague and now friend shushed me away, and the feedback I need is different. Now I benefit from presenting questions to workshop participants before I start reading. "Let me know if this engages you," "Tell me what stands out about the main character," "Tell me what you took away from this character's journey." This guides the readers to think about whatever subject you want to target, and with any luck, they will offer feedback. And hopefully, it will be as helpful as it was for me to get shushed.       

Friday, October 6, 2023

Presentation and the Point

There is one thing that kind of feels like cheating when I type up these posts. Because I have a designated space, an established theme, and so on, I have the liberty of starting an entry about my day, something I thought about, how tired I am, and so forth. I can wind my way toward the main subject at a leisurely pace because everyone reading this post knows I will get there at some point. That is a nice style of conversational writing, but not a good lesson to teach writers.

When someone picks up a short story, an essay, or some other random piece of work, they most likely will not know what it's about. Hopefully the title tells them something about what the piece holds for them, but often they are walking in blind. This is where we need to quickly establish the presentation of the story. Is it meant to entertain, enlighten, offend, inform, or all of the above? Is it adventure, horror, light-hearted fare, suspense, or something else? We need to start off with something that gives the reader a frame of reference, and let it build from there.

This doesn't have to be an obvious set-up, but something should be there to start narrowing down the possibilities. Consider this opener: "Officer Harper dropped onto the couch and sighed in exhaustion. The woman's body in the kitchen could wait until he had his morning coffee." From the get-go, we now have a story involving crime, a law-enforcement perspective, and a very somber mood overall. The presentation is complete, and the reader immediately makes the call about whether they will read further. The writer's job is to decide how they want the reader to approach the story. And yes, a good writer can do this as a way of throwing in a curveball later on (like Officer Harper encounters the ghost of the dead woman in the kitchen), but that's for another post.

Now this adventure in writing gets us moving toward the point - the crescendo of the story where the important parts fit together. While this is standard story-writing process, we can use our presentation to start planting seeds to what the point actually is. Following from the opening lines to our hypothetical story, if our point is to unveil the woman's killer at the end, this is fine; that could be a good story. However, the presentation of this as a crime-solving story with a little mystery offers different opportunities. For example, the dead woman in the kitchen has no name. Should we give her a name in the opening? Or, what if her name was actually... Mrs. Harper, the cop's wife! Depending on when we reveal that can change the entire movement of the story. Or what if Officer Harper is actually the killer? Our opening sentences now create a very disturbing impression of him once his crime is revealed.

They say you don't know the first line of your story until you've written the last line. Whether they are right or not isn't my concern. I just know that depending on how you want the story to end, you should start setting that up at the very beginning, and slowly, steadily, set up the reader throughout the piece. Which means you probably should get to the point faster than I do in these blog posts. My apologies.                 

Friday, September 29, 2023

Oh, the Words You Will Write...

My most recent manuscript tipped the scales at just over 100,000 words - lengthy by some accounts, but worthwhile according to the reviews. I keep this number in my back pocket for when people ask me, "How many words does a novel have to have?" I smile and tell them the rule of thumb is a minimum of 50,000 words, but it's usually a lot more than that. Hearing that they have to type 50,000 words just to have a novel can be exhausting for some people, and their sighs are heartbreaking. However, if they are willing to take on that task, I support them, cheer them on, and tell them to just write the story and ignore the word count. That last part is very intentional, because it will come in handy later.

Now, if they follow my instructions and just work on creating the story, a fun thing happens. The writer loses track of their word count and gets into the process of creation. They don't let this little number distract them and they focus more on characters, plot development, background, side arcs, all that stuff people say about description, and so forth. In short, they write the story they wanted to create. Then, after all is said and done, they look at that little number and see how huge it really is and what an accomplishment they have achieved. It's a genuinely proud moment.

Then the fun begins.

I have had writers come up to me, beaming that they finally finished the draft of their first full-length novel, and yes, it was, say, 60,000 words. This is a proud moment indeed and I acknowledge this feat. Then I follow up with, "Just 60,000 more to go." This usually confuses them (as it should), which is when I discuss just what it means to do that first rewrite. They are usually too excited and/or confused to appreciate just what the rewrite process means, but it's a big one. And kind of fun.

Once I finish a big project like a manuscript, I step away from it for a bit, just to cool down. I can't have everything fresh in my mind otherwise that is the part that will reread the manuscript, and I need a fresh brain to see the work as a reader, not as the author. I then read my work again, trying to think about how any and every sentence fits into the story, where the characters belong and whether or not I need them. I think about the plot as a whole, and ask myself whether this makes sense as a reader, not a writer. I start thinking about what I would want as a reader to guide me along the path, what would really surprise me, what would push me along. Hopefully, in doing this I will realize that large parts of the story don't do this as well as they could, and the rewrites begin. And there will be many.

At this point, word count no longer matters, because large chunks of story are going to be created or eliminated, with even more being added and rewritten several times. Scenes, plot arcs, and characters will vanish or be added, the world will change under our hero's feet, and it might even change between third- and first-person. However, the rule of thumb that I use is that for every first draft, 10% of it will be deleted outright, 20% is okay as is, 30% will be altered several times and 40% will be complete rewrites, followed by another 10% of changes so that all the previous changes agree with each other. For our friend with the 60,000-word novel, over 40,000 of those words are going to participate in some kind of change. 

For those who did the math, the first draft plus the revisions equals about 100,000 words - the length of my last manuscript. This is where I remind the new writer that the length really doesn't matter, as long as the story is engaging for the reader. They're the one who matters, and if they are satisfied, and you are satisfied with your creation, then everyone wins.

And then you're ready to type your next work - in my case, one that is about 94,000 words prior to the revision process.             

Monday, September 25, 2023

The Voice In Your Words

Starting from seventh grade, when school changed from home rooms to separate teachers and classes, I would say I have had at least 100 teachers, instructors, professors and TAs during my academic career. And with the exceptions of the coaches teaching gym class, I would wager that my grade in that class showed a firm correlation with the teacher's ability to draw in the students' interest. Now, keeping in mind that this was decades ago in a sub-par school district, and teachers had far fewer tools and resources to work with. Their main tool was literally their presentation. They won people over with, in so many words, their academic voice.

Some people might hop in and say, "Well, a teacher who knows the material does better," or, "Is it fair to hold it against someone if they don't have a booming voice projecting across the room?" These statements miss the point. Knowledge and volume are something, but people are more drawn to the teacher's personal excitement. Once students are caught up in their teacher's passion, they start learning. When my US History teacher taught us about the war in the Pacific during World War 2, he sat on the edge of his desk, drew in a breath, and in a solemn tone spent five minutes telling us about the taking of Okinawa - which he participated in. He had us. The rest of the class was mesmerizing because he had captured us with his seriousness, tone, and credentials as a Marine. Now, his service had nothing to do with teaching us about the United States' disputes with Japan during the 1930s, but once he had us as an audience, the teaching part became easier.

That being said, I have had several teachers who were, indeed, masters of their subjects - even carrying doctorates in chemistry and biology - yet bored me senseless. They didn't talk about their field work, they didn't put their passion into the lectures. They talked. They explained. They would offer the boring DNA lecture that interested nobody. However, their TAs talked wide-eyed about touching extracted DNA and feeling like they were holding life's codebook, and everyone felt that moment with them. Lectures were, at times, grudging requirements, but those TAs made molecular biology fascinating with their passion.

(For the sake of brevity, I will not discuss the broad spectrum of voices in my statistics classes. However, if boredom could be weaponized, I know some professors who had plenty of ammunition.)

With writing, we might have a fascinating story with deep, rich characters, but the first thing the readers will pick up is that voice. Without some spark, the rest of the piece is an uphill battle. Here's a simple exercise to promote that voice. Whenever you write a scene, some dialogue, even a description that really clicks; that really lights up your mind, go to the beginning of your work and see if that first paragraph or sentence has that same feeling. Go to some place in your work that feels weak and put all that positive writing energy into touching it up. When you write a sentence you know to be great, take that moment of magic and start spreading it around. Energized, impassioned writing is infectious, so there's no reason for you to hold back on it. And definitely make sure that your opening section gets as much of that energy as possible.

Oh - and maybe give a shout-out to the teachers in your life. If you think writing is tough, imagine what it's like to teach writing. Or history. Or biology. Or statistics...             

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.