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, March 20, 2023

Spring Returns! (It's About Time)

By the time most people read this post, it will officially be Spring, 2023. Now, plenty of people have different rules of thumb for when their personal spring really starts. Meteorological spring starts on March 1st. For sports fans, spring starts with the first spring training baseball game, or for others, the onset of March Madness. Maybe it's seeing the first robin of the year. Does it really matter? Well, for me, yes. I find all those things to be great precursors for spring, which officially arrives for me with the event now commonly called, "Chicago-henge."

Much like the infamous Stonehenge, downtown Chicago was designed a long time ago as an arrangement of a bunch of large, vertical slabs of stone in alignment with the cardinal directions. The NSEW directional map of the city made it easy to get from here to there (except for Lower Wacker Drive, which still baffles scientists), but this grid also provided a celestial calendar of sorts. At the beginning of spring and fall, the Sun rises and sets precisely at the end of the streets of downtown Chicago, without fail. Some believe this allowed city-dwellers a rare chance to see an actual sunset, and was therefore considered an amazing feat of urban planning. Others call it a curse from the gods because that meant they would have to drive home staring into a setting Sun. Whatever the case, it is an impressive event, and marks the beginning of a new season.

When I see the phenomenon known as Chicago-henge, my thoughts drift toward the opportunity to start something new. As the city enters a new season, it becomes the chance to take that bold step forward into whatever unknown realm interests you. I know that in six months, the Sun will shift back, place itself between the buildings again, and that particular window will again be closed, so I had best make the most of it. But as a writer, what does this mean and how can I take advantage of it?

Now, ancient Chicagoans used this time between mid-March and mid-September to mark the period in the city where baseball games had meaning, but for a writer, it's different. This is the time to plan out that big project, to explore that big idea, to join a workshop or develop a writing habit. This new season is your season to step into some new writing grooves and give yourself six months to see how it goes. Six months. That's not asking for much in the larger scope of things. And when the Sun comes back to mark the beginning of fall, you can reassess whether you want to try something new, or if you've caught ahold of something that just might be pretty special.

As for me, I am going to put together the structure for my next novel. I will do the outlining, the character-building, the world creation, and get things rolling. A lot of this won't involve writing in the narrative sense, but I am using this window to see what I can make of this opportunity. My other novel will be coming out in a month or two as well, but for now, the focus is what to do now that spring is here. And that's my commitment.

For those out there who aren't sure what to commit to, just make it something you want to do but always wondered whether or not you could. This isn't about succeeding or failing, it's about trying. Give yourself six months to try, and once Chicago-henge arrived, take inventory of what you've done.

And of course, there's always those six months around winter as well.

Friday, March 17, 2023

St. Patrick and A Lot of Stories

Since I have lived in the Chicagoland area my entire life and have Irish ancestors that came right through Ellis Island on their way here, I am legally obliged to mention St. Patrick's Day in this post. After all, on March 17th, Chicago becomes Little Ireland for a day (or a three-day weekend this time), everyone wears something green even if their Irish roots are barely evident, and not only does everyone serve green beer, but they even dye the Chicago River green. This is a real event out here, and the city won't let you forget about St. Patrick and all the great things he did like driving the snakes out of Ireland.

Well, he didn't actually do that. And green wasn't exactly his thing (until you get into the shamrock story). And there's a bunch of other stuff that gets confusing. But don't let any of those things get in the way of drinking your weight in green beer tonight (and the rivers of green vomit filling the streets later tonight). And definitely don't let it get in the way of writing about St. Patrick's Day traditions.

In a post I did a while back, "The Tigers of Africa," I discussed how sometimes facts can get in the way of a good story, and we need to hold ourselves accountable to sticking to the truths on the ground - like how there are no tigers in Africa, for example. However, in recognition of St. Patrick's Day, I thought it might be worth mentioning that sometimes it's not about the factual accuracy of any particular event, but rather what we choose to believe about it, or what people believed at the time.

I'm not going to pick on old St. Pat - he did plenty of things worth note. The only downside is that over 1,500 years, very poor documentation left a lot of wiggle room about what really went down and how much substance underlies the story. For example: most people grudgingly accept that St. Patrick didn't actually drive the snakes out of Ireland - glaciers did. Now, whether the snake story is more a metaphor about driving away pagan beliefs, a supporting anecdote relating to other fabulous stories about his adventures in Ireland, or just creating a fable about why there are no snakes in Ireland is inconsequential. The bottom line is that people still discuss it, and when we write about it, we can throw that little bit in as common folklore. It doesn't have to be supported, strengthened, or even true - it just has to be believed. Now, if you write about this actual chasing of the snakes happening, you might be held to a higher standard. However, most people hear the factoid, connect it to St. Patrick, and move on. And that's okay.

Now, if you've ever been to Ireland, outside the cities it's very green and lush. Granted, most countries in the northern temperate zone are, but Ireland is very much so. So much so that people think it's the national color. Well, not so much, though all the people wearing green might lead you to believe so. That whole bit goes back to Gaelic traditions, the beautiful countryside, and the aforementioned shamrock. But the only important part you need to write about is that people associate one with the other - then move on. The fact that Ireland's official colors are green and blue and two-thirds of the Irish flag isn't green isn't important. What people believe is the part that makes for convincing writing.

Facts are something you have to contend with when you write, but keep in mind that writing about people and their beliefs can often steer wide of the truth, and that's okay. Maybe your character happens to know a lot about St. Patrick - that's fine, use it to enlighten your readers. If your character only believes the old south-side stories and thinks St. Pat was the first leprechaun, well, go with that for fun. Just remember how often facts can interfere with a good story, and as a writer, it's up to you to make sure the story wins out in the end.

Monday, March 13, 2023

Writing and March Madness!

It's that most glorious time of year that a surprisingly large number of people say they don't care about - March Madness. College basketball turns into a free-for-all of 63 games over a few action-packed weekends, full of teams from colleges we rarely hear about during the other eleven months of the year. And every office holds its bracket pools (despite rules against them) and comes together rooting for some unknown team to beat another one so one employee can take everyone else's money (I've won twice). But there is something we writers can learn from this.

For those who have never done the March Madness thing, it's simple: Two teams play, one loses and is out while the other goes on to the next game to play someone who won their last game. It's simple competitive elimination - best team in that game wins. And over the course of 63 games, the process of elimination leaves the "best team." In short, a wild, diverse, bunch of teams from all across the country is narrowed down to the best.

Now, this is a process I go through not just every March, but every time I start to work on a writing project. I think we all have a big pile of ideas flying around our brain, every one potentially a story. I have a small ledger's-worth of ideas for poems, stories, sketches, and other fine written works. Plenty of ideas just waiting to happen, but which one do I write about? Sometimes, we have such a logjam of ideas that we end up failing to create anything. I hope you can see where this is going.

When I am in this situation (which is just as much a curse as Writer's Block), I just turn it into my own form of March Madness. I write down the ideas that even remotely feel like I could do something with, and then I just pair them off. Then, one by one, I ask a simple question with each pair. "Which one moves me more?" The winner goes on, the loser waits for the next time I am stuck. And so it goes, me checking through each pairing and matching up the winners then knocking them out until one remains. Then, that one by definition is the one I can write about.

Now, in a way, this is not winning in the spirit of March Madness. This is actually a process of forcing myself to make decisions. When I have so many ideas that I can't write about just one, usually the problem is that I can't focus enough to write on just one thing. By breaking things down and ruling out different ideas, I am making little decisions and building myself up for something more decisive. Ultimately, the result isn't the important part. The fact of the matter is that all the ideas are workable; the problem is just me not choosing one. And through this process of deciding, I end up able to focus, to choose, and to write.

Now, I do enjoy March Madness and my brackets, but it's not everyone's thing. As I prepare myself for major disappointment, I know that the underlying process has a lot more functionality than just a basketball thing. It's a writing tool too, and that's what really counts. (That, and actually winning the office pool)

Friday, March 10, 2023

The Value of Your Writing

One little holdover I carry from my days in international economics is that I collect foreign money. To me, there's something fun about going through a collection of coins and notes from literally all over the world, and having them all in one convenient binder. In one place my Portuguese escudo will be next to my Italian lira and my Greek drachma, all under the watchful eye of my German marks and Spanish peseta. And of course, people often ask me about the real value of all this currency. My answer (at least in the cases mentioned above) is always the same: "Nothing." And yet, while it has no value as currency, to me it is worth a lot more.

All the currencies mentioned above were physically replaced in the market by the euro in 2002, rendering old notes useless because banks would no longer acknowledge them as a common means of trade. However, I don't collect them for the value. Rather, a part of me engages with the spirit of what they once were, and what they represent. I can look at my 50-rand note from South Africa (which still has value) and remember the first time I traveled overseas and traded in my dollars for this odd money from another hemisphere. I can look at my currencies from around Asia and think about how much of the world I never thought I would see when I was a child, and now here I am,  in New Delhi, holding a 100-rupee note (which still has value). What's the value? Not that much. What's the worth? Priceless.

Writing and the works we create have this same duality of existence. If you write a story about a particular adversity you've overcome, what is its value? Unless it won you a prize in a writing contest or convinced someone to give you a writing job, then probably nothing. However, never let that deter you, because writing such a story probably means the world to you personally, and that's a worth we need to recognize. It's also something we should feel ready to capitalize on in our own way.

Recently, I wrote a story about processing grief. That part alone has value to me, so if I had stopped there it still would've been a wise investment of my time, since the writing brought about some catharsis for me. However, I took it a step further. I decided to share the piece with a writing workshop to get some feedback on the shape and style, and any tips on how I could strengthen this ultimately fictitious story involving a very real process of managing grief. The advice poured in, the discussion was productive, and that could've been the end of it - mission accomplished. However, after the workshop, someone pulled me aside and thanked me for sharing this piece, as it helped them think about the grief in their life and how their coping mechanisms had been functioning. At that point, my piece of minimal value and infinite personal worth just paid off the best return possible.

I can't say every piece I write will change lives - the story about the first time I got super-drunk will, at best, turn people off of mixing Amaretto and beer (yes, I did that). However, I don't write for some big return in value. I write because the creation, the process, and the dividends of churning through my brain to create stories from mere keystrokes is worth more than even I can truly understand. And whenever you write something, think about what it is worth to you first and foremost. Its value to other people can't really be measured (like my old one-million Turkish lira note), so just write things that are worth something to you. Those will be priceless.

Monday, March 6, 2023

Following the Flow

About a lifetime ago, Chicago was buried under by a mammoth snowstorm which would go down in history as the Blizzard of '67. This was in the days before satellite imaging and hi-tech weather-tracking technology, so there was very little warning on just how bad this storm would be. Nowadays, we can see storms brewing days before they hit us, and we can track them in real-time. The technology is so advanced that I knew a week ahead of time about the storm coming into my area prepared to dump over a foot of snow on my house by Friday night. Well, three sad inches of snow later, one thing was clear: as much as we can see weather patterns, knowing where they will go is another story.

I bring this up to discuss a very interesting thing that occurs when we write. We can decide we want to write a particular story with a specific theme and a definitive purpose, but halfway through we feel something isn't quite right, and our writing is like walking into a strong headwind. Maybe we can identify just what is going wrong, maybe not. Whichever the case may be, the story has gone off-track and we are not sure why. It makes no sense - we are writing the story, so we should have full command over where it ends up, right?

Right. Just like we have command over which way the weather goes.

Just like those storms rolling in from the Great Plains states, we only know so much about them. We know what they are doing and the direction they should go, but that certainty has a pretty large range of error. With weather, we might not consider the rush of damp Gulf air rushing up from the south. In the case of writing, that unknown factor could be something our subconscious really wants to write about, but hasn't made obvious on the conscious level. This happens more than we think when we write, and can work to our advantage if we keep an eye out for it.

When I was writing my first novel, The Book of Cain, I was about halfway through the process of creating the whole story arc and such, and something wasn't right. It wasn't *clicking* for lack of a better term. The characters were there, the story moved along, but somehow, somewhere, the story arc tripped, stumbled, and came to a halt. Not the best feeling when the goal is to write a masterful piece of literature.

Kind of blocked, I had a few chats with different people, trying to figure out why I couldn't get the story where I wanted it to go. People offered me advice about how to get it back on track, but nothing fell into place. And then, tragedy entered my life, and with that sudden loss came a realization: The story I wanted to write wasn't the story in my heart. I had a much bigger, much deeper story brewing inside me, and a part of me was trying to tell that story but the rest of me was pushing the original tale that no longer felt sensible. In my grief, I realized the story I really wanted to write was there all along, but it wasn't the story I thought I wanted to write. I shelved a lot of my first draft, then set to writing the real story. That went really well.

When things aren't going right, step back from your work and ask yourself what you really want to write. Not what you want this story to do, but try to get in touch with what you are feeling. When a story feels like it's heading in the wrong direction, it might just be that you are not acknowledging where your inner writer wants the story to go. If you let yourself drift along with those feelings rather than your initial idea, you might just find a better story altogether.

Friday, March 3, 2023

Writing and What You Love

We always hear those usual clich├ęs about writing: "Write what you know," "Write what you love," "Write what you feel," and so forth. This is good advice, but a little too simplified for my liking. I am always skeptical about advice that can make a good bumper sticker, so I like to explore it a little. In a previous post, "Write What You Know? Really?" I took on that first saying and expanded upon where I think it really had value. Now let's look at the second quote (which will also include the third one - how convenient).

People often say, "Write what you love." Well, there are actually a lot of things to unpack in those four words, so let's see what is there through a simple example: Me. Anyone who knows me knows I love baseball. Players heading into training camp is the first day of spring in my book, and summer lasts from Opening Day until the playoffs. I watched baseball, I listened to it when we didn't have a television, I played it, I read about it, I studied it. Indeed, I loved it and still do to this very day. So, this should be something I should write about. Right?

What comes to mind when I say, "I am going to write about baseball." That's what I'm supposed to do, right? Write about what I love - baseball. Well, the problem with truly loving something (or someone) is that you love most everything about it. I love pitching strategies from batter to batter. An around-the-horn double play is one of the most exciting plays you'll see in any given game. Despite the steroids scandal, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa saved baseball in 1998. And don't even get me started about the designated hitter rule - if you bring it up, I hope you packed a lunch because it'll be a while. 

If you haven't figured it out, that's a lot to write about. Furthermore, none of it actually goes together. Writing all of that would just be dumping a bunch on info into a big word salad on the page. Frankly, that doesn't make you a better writer. What does help your process is drilling into one of the examples, and discussing it with passion and intensity. Don't discuss everything about baseball, but rather write about a particular aspect through the filter of love. Be passionate but focused, and remain on target throughout the piece.

If I wanted to discuss my love of the sport, I would take one of the subjects I mentioned - let's say the double-play - and let my intensity follow through. I would mention how in a short five seconds from the moment the bat hits the ball, the ball will travel over ninety feet to the third baseman, who then has to spin and throw it another seventy-eighty feet to second base where another infielder meets it while simultaneously tagging second base, catches the ball, switches it to his hand and throws it another ninety feet to first base before the batter tags the bag. I would explore this bang-bang play and all the action it contains, probably in 3-5 paragraphs, exploring details with passion and interest. I would let the writing broadcast my love of the subject. That is how we write what we love.

So, the next time you decide to write about something you love, give it a tight focus and then pour your heart into it. And hopefully, make it about baseball.

Friday, February 24, 2023

Good Habits

This has been a particularly busy week for me. According to my FitBit, since Sunday I have put in about 125,000 steps, which equates to approximately sixty miles of walking. I think it's quite obvious that I didn't give up distance-walking for Lent. Now, when I mention these big numbers, a lot of people give me that look that lands somewhere between "What possible reason could you have to do that to yourself?" and "Are you freaking nuts?" They make a good point. However, I make a better point. 

During this particular week (and during one week every month) I do a lot of walking as part of work that I do, in part, to stay fit. At my age, this kind of thing is important, but it's something worth looking into at any age. The scary part, however, is when I put all the numbers together and show it to people who normally don't do what I do but still want to stay in shape. It looks scary to them - all those steps, all those miles - and it can be intimidating. Truth be told, it's easier than it looks once you get into the habit.

And yes, that's where this is all leading - getting into the habit. The magical thing about developing a positive habit is that it can make the amazing appear normal. Take writing as an example. When I was in college, writing a five-page paper felt like a task, and it was. Why? I didn't ordinarily write that much. I was a statistics major - that's supposed to be a free pass from all that writing. Well, the joke was on me - I chose the only math-based major that required a twenty-page undergraduate thesis - but that's another story. The problem was, I had five- and ten-page papers showing up now and then, which could be 2,000 words or more! Indeed, it was a struggle.

However, as life went on, I started developing a taste for writing. Professionally I wrote a lot of reports, which developed certain writer's muscles. Then came professional commentaries, which could have creative flavor. After that came writing presentations, speeches, and so on. Before I knew it, I could read a headline at 9:30 a.m. and snap out a 900-word commentary about that topic before lunch. Words just poured out of me, because writing was just as much a habit as anything else. One month, I took inventory of all the things I had written and realized I had created just over 37,000 words of polished, edited commentary and research. That's basically half a novel (granted, a boring novel, but that's not the point). Looking at the numbers that way, I couldn't believe there was a time I worried about a 1,000-word paper.

When it comes to writing a novel (my latest is a trim 98,000 words) or any major work, don't look at the big picture all at once and how many words you need to generate or you are setting yourself up to fail. First, develop the habit of writing, of creating things on a regular basis, and letting your skills build up. Then start writing whatever project you want to do. Just don't think of it as a big thing. Think of it as that thing you want to create, and let the numbers takes care of themselves. After you put that last word in place, then it's time to look back and think about just how much you created and how amazing you have become.

And, of course, once you tell your friends, you can sit back and enjoy their baffled expressions that seem to say, "Are you freaking nuts?"

Monday, February 20, 2023

Remember Book Reports?

Remember doing book reports in grade school? It was probably our first foray into essay-style writing, all based on what we had just read. Our first ones probably amounted to, "This book is about a lady. She has a horse. She loves the horse. They ride around the country..." Yadda, yadda yadda. We basically take a work, process it through our ten-year-old mind, and retell it in about one-hundred words. The teacher smiles and we get graded mostly on our spelling and penmanship (back when writing was a thing). As it turns out, knowing a story from this ten-year-old perspective helps (trust me; I'll get to it).

Later on, our book reports become more elaborate affairs. Our mind becomes more complex and we pick up on themes and styles. We expand on ideas underpinning the story. In junior high I did a report on Lord of the Flies that actually went beyond rehashing a story about kids surviving on an island. I explored the devolution into tribalism. This was a big step forward for me. (Maybe I got an A, maybe not.) This is more than a report, it's an exploration.

As adults, we primarily read book reports in the form of reviews, but we look for the ideas the book explores. How it discusses them is not as important as what it discusses. We tune in on themes and concepts and gloss over actual blow-by-blow details. The actual story is for the reader to consume. The review tells that reader whether it will be anything more than just a superficial romp in the park. Creating a full review requires a deep understanding of the work because it transmits that information to interested readers.

Do you see where this is going yet?

When we sit down to create our novel, we should already be able to write our book reports on it. Not just the simple ten-year-old perspective, but the junior-high exploration and our adult book review versions as well. This may sound odd, but it's true - each of these has a place in our writing, and if we can't write them before we write the book, we probably aren't ready to write the book.

In business, these three concepts are usually discussed as: The Elevator Pitch, The Proposal Pitch, and The Presentation. However, I like my version of the ten-year-old perspective, the junior-high exploration, and the adult book reviews. The first one says what happens, the second one expands into ideas, then finally themes and messages are discussed. And whether in business or in writing (and always in the business of writing), they are all necessary to know before anything is done. 

If you are working on a major project and find yourself hung up on some part, put these ideas to work. First, write your ten-year-old perspective of the story - one-hundred words to tell the adventure. If you can't package that briefly and succinctly, you are having problems. Second, go to junior high and write your exploration of the story; what will engage the reader besides basic actions, character and dialogue. No more than 250 words should do it. Then write your book review, explaining in about one-thousand words the major interactions, concepts and conflicts, and what should drive someone to pick that book over all others. 

If you can't write these, well, that's probably the problem - you don't fully understand the story. If you can write these - and actually do write all three of these - then I guarantee you will resolve what is holding you back. 

Of course, if it also inspires you to read Lord of the Flies again, well, that might help too.  

Friday, February 17, 2023

Birthdays and Stories

Yes, I admit it: Today is my birthday. Check off another lap around the Sun for me, along with a year's worth of fun and adventures. And also, this birthday makes me think of past birthdays and their various adventures. Did I ever tell the story about the birthday I spent on crutches? What about my 30th birthday? Or how about when I turned 21 but was on heavy medication and the doctor told me absolutely no alcohol whatsoever... and then I had half a beer because, well, 21? Those are all some great stories.

I am not going to tell you all those stories right now, mostly for one good reason: while all those stories are great, they wander around everywhere like a litter of kittens getting out of their box, and that kind of ruins good storytelling. Sure, a box full of wandering kittens is adorable, but it gets out of control quick and loses all focus. This is the curse of storytelling, and a trap that it is easy to fall into.

What am I saying? Simply put, every writer has an urge to not just tell a story, but to tell all their stories. They want to do a lot of things all at once, and try to talk about how wild their birthdays get by making reference to every crazy event that ever happened. At that point, the kittens have all escaped and it's anyone's guess where the adventure will end. All the stories will likely be amusing and serve a purpose in some way, but there's a better way to do it.

If I was to describe how dramatic my birthday time can get, I would sharped the focus to one specific story and stick with that. I can bring up other points from other occasions, but I would need to check myself real quick to make sure my writing didn't wander away from that one target. If I want to reference that time I got pulled over for doing 80 in a 55 and used the birthday excuse to get off with a warning, I need to make sure that my reference is brief, that it specifically hinges to the main point, and that I go right back to that primary story arc, which should be stronger now that I added that extra reference. If it doesn't satisfy those criteria, I might want to consider whether I really want to add that into my main story or just write another story strictly about that event.

Needless to say, this applies to more than just birthdays. I have encountered plenty of writers who want to write "the story of their life." My response to them is usually along the lines of, "Excellent. Now remember, your life has more than one story. It has thousands. Which one do you want to write about?" When they give me that baffled look, then I go into the discussion of telling one story well, or telling a few stories that center along a theme. One of my most rewarding experiences was helping someone write the story of their life, because the main goal was sharpening their focus to writing about their experiences in World War Two. There were still a lot of stories to tell, but keeping them all around that particular part of his life and tuning into those moments made for a much more telling story.

So, as I head off into another year of fun and adventure, I make the following birthday wish: I wish upon an everyone a year worth remembering, and worth telling others about - preferably with a smile on their face.

Monday, February 13, 2023

A Special Kind of Description

It's been driven home in every writing class - description is the cornerstone of storytelling. We do exercises describing in intimate detail the various aspects of a tree, a dog, a postcard. We write about people's faces and hands, the sounds of their voices. We practice exploring just how each sense can be used. These are all valuable exercises and well worth the effort. However, one thing that often gets overlooked is discussing things as they relate to each other. This is a technique that we can really get some mileage out of without too much effort. 

Let me offer you a simple room. Within it there is a bed, a small table, a chair, and a bookshelf filled with books. That is a barebones description of the room, but definitely enough to work with. What I have described can give the reader an idea of what exists within the room, and maybe some readers will start putting together a narrative of how those items are placed. Would it help to describe the furniture in more detail? Possibly. It would definitely give a stronger visual of the room. However, describing the relationship of all these things can bring the entire room together.

First, what do I mean by the relationship between these items? Well, if I described a long table with straps hanging off the sides and bloodstains smearing the surface, with a small cart full of knives and saws next to it, the reader doesn't need to go too far in realizing how these items relate to each other. However, if the scene isn't a personal slaughterhouse, the reader might need a little prompting. And when items are mundane, the writer can describe them in a manner that prompts the reader to see the relationship. 

Now, back to our room with the bed and stuff. All the details in the world can still miss the relationship. However, simple cues can create something that fills in the room. A few examples should show how things can work.

"One side of the small room was dedicated exclusively to a bed, separate from everything else as if defining its own space. The other side of the room was packed with his bookshelf, a small reading table, and a chair between them, all nested around each other like a reading nook set aside from the sleeping area in the otherwise small room."

I have not added any physical description to our items, but our space now has character. The purpose and function of this space is a little more fleshed out, and the reader gets a feeling for this room. Before this positioning, it's just a room. Afterward, it has the feeling of a New York studio apartment (people who have lived in NY City know what this means). 

Description is more than just the senses. It's the mood, it's the feeling, it's the placement of everything the reader needs to know about. If you want to create a word picture, that's one route to go. However, don't for get that the senses aren't the only thing a writer can appeal to when creating a scene.


Friday, February 10, 2023

Writing and Politics

I'm putting this right up front where everyone can see it: This post isn't about my political views. This blog is not the place for those and frankly they have very little to do with my writing process anyway. This has to do with the very sticky problem of writing stories where politics might somehow seep into the cracks or, in some cases, flood into the entire story. This can be difficult for some writers to work with, and even more troubling to do in a way that doesn't scare off half your audience. However, it can be done, and sometimes it should be done.

First, let's step around the obvious things. If you are writing a story using politics to support or oppose a particular point of view, then just swing for the fences and don't worry about who might get offended. When Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle over a century ago, he intended it to be a stirring, provocative rallying point for socialism, but he missed the mark. He stated a political case, but his best writing was actually about the sins of the meat industry. Anyone who read this in school remembers the horrors of turn-of-the-century meat production, but most people forget about its politics. So if you write about a political point of view, make sure your focus always returns to that part of the stage.

If you are not writing about politics, it's always worth remembering what traits of your character may cause the reader to make certain assumptions that could drag politics into your story whether you like it or not. If you demonstrate that your character is pro-life, anti-gun, supports limited government or wants a better healthcare system, you risk dragging a pile of baggage into the game. This might work out fine for your story; the important part is to remember where the reader may travel despite your direction. If, say, the character is not right-leaning but makes a pro-life statement, consider whether you can guide the reader back to the story with some simple narrative cues. If the character says, "I'm not trying to get all political, I just feel this particular way about this subject," then it can isolate the situation and not let it influence the reader's assumptions about the character.

Of course, another way to address this is to steer around delicate subjects entirely if they are not crucial to the plot. Maybe you've noticed this in TV shows, but often when things like salaries, house prices, or large sums of money are discussed among middle-class characters, the actual number is never stated. This prevents different demographics from developing different opinions about the situation, and instead the audience responds to the character's reaction rather than the number itself. The same can be done with a character's political positions - casually stepping around them. If your character is a middle manager at a big bank, does their opinion on climate change or the gender discussion even matter to the story? These points can be discussed without the character landing in a particular camp, and often this is done intentionally so the author doesn't lose a big swathe of their audience. It becomes an unknown that people discuss in book clubs, but never something that is driven home in the text.

The most important part of writing and politics, however, is never let controversy stop you from writing about something. Ultimately, if political views are going to be a part of your story, write about them with the same passion you would give to any other thing you felt strongly about. If you want to frame it in a way that draws the most readers, then fine. If you feel the need to remind people that you as a writer are different than your characters, go ahead. Whatever makes you feel comfortable. Just don't let the noise of the political debate stop you from writing something you feel strongly about. You're a writer. Your job is to write. So set aside the noise of the mob and write it.

Monday, February 6, 2023

In Need of Recharging

Don't let it be said that I don't practice what I preach. In last Friday's post, Write What You Know? Really?, I discussed writing about feelings we are familiar with and letting the story wind around the emotions involved. Well, that is indeed what I have been doing lately. In particular, I have been writing about something I have really been in touch with - grief. An intense subject that's hardly guaranteed to put a smile on everyone's face, but that has been where my writing has taken me recently. It may come as no surprise, but exploring this subject has been an exhausting experience.

If we really get into a project that excites us, that inspires us, there is a temptation to just go all in and write about it until exhaustion overcomes us. That kind of experience is well worth it, but whether it is writing, working out, or just experiencing an excited state of being, it always comes at a price. As a bicyclist, I once set out to do a ride of 106 miles. I love cycling, it invigorates me, and a good ride just makes me want to ride more. However, once I finally got back from this epic ride, not only was I tired, but it was hard to get back on a bike for a few days. Physically, I was fine. However, my mind needed a cooldown; a chance to recharge after all that riding. The same goes for writers after a huge fit of creativity.

Let's say you've just sat down and written a lengthy amount of work - more than you ever have before in one sitting - and you only stopped out of sheer exhaustion. Mentally, you've just had an extreme workout, a 106-mile bicycle trip of the mind, which might even be more exhausting for you. To avoid that post-exercise burnout, you need to recharge your batteries a little. However, this doesn't mean you have to retreat from your process entirely. You just need a separate process to help you wind down and take in energy without losing your sense of excitement.

After my cycling trip, once I brought in my Schwinn and traded my sweat-soaked clothes for some more relaxing gear, I didn't dive on the couch and take a two-hour nap. I wanted to, but I didn't. I did a physical cooldown: Stretching, twisting about, taking deep breaths and drinking some water as my heartbeat slowed and my muscles relaxed. I helped my body go into recovery mode, making it more receptive to building itself back up. The next day I wasn't sore at all, my knees felt fine and my back was straight. If only I had done something like that for my mind.

As a writer, once you step back from a heavy amount of creating, go through a cooldown that lets your mind gradually shift from the intense process it has been enduring. Give yourself a chance to read something - preferably something light and fluffy rather than an intense head-scratching piece of prose. Let your mind take in the peace and serenity of what written words can create, and let yourself feel just what they can do. Slowly wind back from being the writer who just created something huge and wonderful, and give yourself a chance to enjoy something else only tangential to writing. Give yourself a mental cooldown, and your writing batteries will charge right up again.

As for me, I have been very careful to take breaks from writing about grief just so I don't burn out emotionally or dive too deep into an intense subject. I give myself cooldowns so that I can return to writing again sooner and approach it with more vigor and energy. My batteries charge up faster, and I feel I still have something to give. And I don't end up with the mental burnout like my cycling trip (and my calves hurt less).

Friday, February 3, 2023

Write What You Know? Really?

During the earlier part of my writing career, I wrote three novels based on my life and times in Chicago. I was taking that good bit of advice: "Write what you know," and my life was in fact something I knew. I expanded on those stories, creating fictitious characters to conceal the identities of those who really didn't deserve to have their most embarrassing moments published by me, and even making up a bunch of wild plots barely related to my actual life. It was all in good fun and taught me a lot about writing, but was I really following that advice of, "Write what you know"?

In the literal sense, yes. I wrote about rehabbing the building on Huron Street off Damen Avenue. I wrote about my failed relationships. I wrote about the incident in the alley by my building. In the most immediate manner, I was writing about my personal experiences, and this is where a lot of writers start. People who choose to write their memoirs retell stories of their own life, and that's just fine. However, there's more to it. Or at least, there can be more if you want to go further.

Think about this. How much about space travel did Arthur C. Clarke know when he wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey? How much apocalypse experience did Stephen King have when he wrote The Stand? When H. G. Wells wrote The Time Machine, I am guessing his experience with time travel was limited, to say the least. However, these are fine novels somehow created without using the advice about writing what they know. Every bit of sci-fi, high fantasy, and alternative history fiction was created without using that advice, right? Well, they actually did follow that advice; just not in the conventional way.

Thinking about 2001, this is not a book about space travel. Spaceships were involved, but Clarke was writing about different themes: The Cold War, concerns about technological advancements, and artificial intelligence. Clarke was well versed in these subjects and discussed them often, and eventually synthesized what he knew with other ideas and previous stories to create this masterwork. He wrote about subjects he knew, not events.

Of course, The Stand follows a similar approach. Stephen King had written just four books and experienced zero world-ending diseases when he wrote this epic novel. What he did know, however, is how to get in touch with fear, with horror. He knew what scared him, and what scared everyone. He got in touch with the things that kept him awake at night, and wrote about those. The apocalypse was just an incidental part of telling a story touching upon very real subjects.

When we write about what we know, we need to think about just what that means. The first step can be writing about events. However, more readers will connect with the author that writes about feelings, fears, and themes they can relate to. That's something we all know.

Monday, January 30, 2023

Those Creative Types...

I often talk about how first and foremost, writers should write. This seems like an obvious thing to do, yet sometimes I feel obliged to remind people about it. When a writer is bogged down in a project, what's the best remedy? Write something else. Writer's block? Write literally anything. Not feeling your best about something you've just written? Write the exact thing again, approaching it with every doubt you have. That's what I mean about writing - it should be the go-to tool in your toolbox.

Kurt Vonnegut
Now, this also applies toward any real craft. A carpenter should build things. A musician should create music. An economist should... probably try something else. The point is that we should do what we truly love, and practice it as often as we can. More to the point, we should always pursue those things that lead us toward improving ourselves as writers, as people, as whatever we decide we want to be. And that's what leads me to talk about a special type of person: the Creative Type.

First and foremost, a writer is a member of the Creative Type. The only catch is that someone who sticks strictly to their writing is missing a chance to improve themselves in different ways that will eventually feed back into their writing skills. When a writer embraces their membership into the family of people who make up the Creative Type, they consciously decide to adventure into the creative world and find out what's in there. From that point they just take everything in, becoming hoarders of experiences and anecdotes, and this all becomes fodder for their future writing. It's quite amazing once you get into the habit.

The author Kurt Vonnegut was no stranger to exploring the wild world of the Creative Type. In a letter he penned to the high-school students of a Ms. Lockwood, he offered some advice on just how and why this should be done:

Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what's inside you, to make your soul grow.

Seriously! I mean starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives. Draw a funny or nice picture of Ms. Lockwood, and give it to her. Dance home after school, and sing in the shower and on and on. Make a face in your mashed potatoes. Pretend you're Count Dracula.

Here's an assignment for tonight, and I hope Ms. Lockwood will flunk you if you don't do it: Write a six line poem, about anything, but rhymed. No fair tennis without a net. Make it as good as you possibly can. But don't tell anybody what you're doing. Don't show it or recite it to anybody, not even your girlfriend or parents or whatever, or Ms. Lockwood. OK?

Tear it up into teeny-weeny pieces, and discard them into widely separated trash recepticals [sic]. You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem. You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what's inside you, and you have made your soul grow. [emphasis added]

I highlight the very last part because that's the best part - anything and everything you do in the name of being a Creative Type will inspire growth within, and that will never be reversed. For that reason alone, this adventure is worth it. 

Friday, January 27, 2023

Why We Stop Writing

Recently, I have not been writing as much as I would like to. The easy explanation for this would be to chalk it up to too much work, too little sunlight, a few too many aches and pains, and not quite enough inspiration. However, the easy route is not always the best one, and this happens to be the situation right now. I am actually hung up because of a different beast this time, and as a writer, it is always better to understand what moves us than just assume something and go from there. This is also true when we don't move at all.

Every writer hits a rut, and there are many kinds of them. Sometimes we don't know what to write, we can't get our thoughts together, the idea of writing gets a little too overwhelming, and so on. When we understand which kind of rut we are in, we can pursue a more direct remedy and get ourselves back into a good writing space.

In my case, all of the reasons I discussed - work, bad weather, etc. - were true. However, when I sat and thought about it for a bit, none of those were holding me back from writing. Each one of them was easy enough to overcome, but there was something else I was not facing. Something that made me want to turn away from the keyboard and go to whatever other diversion was available. When we are in a rut, we need to ask ourselves, "What is really going on?" This should not be an easy question to answer, and we should challenge what we just want to jump out and say. Usually, the deeper truth does not want to come out. We need to poke it, prod it, or lure it out with treats. (I use the same process when my cats hide under the bed)

What's been bothering me of late, and what I have discovered from creeping around a lot of author chat boards, is that every writer needs feedback, and without it, that creative drive can become malnourished. As solitary as the writing process is, it often comes from both a need to create and a need to be heard. Sometimes one need dominates the other and we can just go with that for a while. When an idea is brewing in my mind, writing it down is almost instinctive, but often that other need comes up and we want to have our story heard. We need feedback; we need response and something to feed that other part. When we are driven to write by that need, the loneliness of writing can very much work against us. And, considering this wintry world of isolation, that need can often go unsatisfied.

If you find yourself bogged down and unable to write, give yourself a moment. Ask yourself what is going on, and feel around for an answer. There are plenty of them out there and they are all perfectly natural. However, remember that writing is very much a social process at times, and we often need to do more than just create on our own. And, if your answer turns out to be a need to be heard, well, seek one of those chat groups and get some feedback. It can actually be quite satisfying.

Monday, January 16, 2023

Speechwriting

I was considering taking today off from posting in recognition of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but instead I decided that there was something to offer from a brief post discussing speeches. "Speeches?" you might ask. Indeed, speeches. Some of the most memorable quotes in history were from speeches and yes, they were often from pieces written well in advance with painstaking care and forethought. And as with any speech, the way it is written will determine the impact it has on its audience and on generations to come.

Speechwriting and oratory have become lost arts in these days of soundbites and memes, which is what makes them secret weapons in writing effectively and persuasively. People have forgotten how a well-written speech can bring people to their feet, rising to action. Sweating over one concise, thought-out message can pay off in ways some people no longer realize. The Gettysburg Address - less than 200 words - is one of the most quotable speeches of the 19th century, while most people forgot about the two-hour-long oratory given by another speaker at the same commencement. Lincoln's words moved people. Good speeches do that.

Now, today we will (or should) all hear the famous line from Dr. King's "I Have A Dream" speech. That moving quote, however, was so effective in part because it was part of a very rousing speech. This is what good speechwriting is really about - emphasizing a theme, building upon it, shoring it up through examples and metaphor, applying it to the entire audience, and then packaging everything discussed into one profound message. A good speech should be built like a pyramid - a broad, solid base that narrows as it grows, becoming more firm and grounded as it rises, all approaching one point that will feel inevitable in its conclusion.

Let me offer this. As I said, we all know that soundbite from Dr. King's speech. However, read the words preceding the famous part, and look at how everything builds up to what we all remember. Examine the structure and see why it is such a great example of building to a  point:

"I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our Northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends. So even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal..."

This section starts from a deep, dark place; one of true despair. It emphasizes that point, encompassing the audience in that misery so that they are all of one mind. Then, with one transition, it lifts them all with the message of hope. This is speechwriting at its best. And if you learn this technique as a writer, your message will carry farther and influence your audience more than mere words could ever do.

Friday, January 13, 2023

The Non-Sensory Approach

I'll admit it - I have been going on a bit about description lately. And, let's face it - this is an important element of anyone's writing technique. Description puts the reader there, and without it, things kind of get lost fast. Good, descriptive writing provides more than just a description of the setting; it provides an anchor for all the story elements and lets them evolve more organically. So, yes, I think the subject deserves a few posts now and then. However, this time I thought it would be interesting to explore what kind of description we can use.

Often, description is an immediate appeal to the five basic senses (there are actually many more than five senses, but for now let's stick with sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch). These sensory cues bring a person very much into the scene because it recreates exactly what the reader would sense at that moment. This is what we learn when we first start writing, and it's a great foundation piece. However, the five senses is just a starting point, and they actually are not the only starting point we can work a description from.

Let me offer you a link to a post I wrote over four years ago. The first three paragraphs of this particular entry, entitled "The Emotional Description," described the house where I grew up. The rest of the post is about the inclusion or omission of details depending on whether or not they were important to the purpose of the piece. In that entry, I wrote three paragraphs and didn't use one sensory element to describe the house or property. Rather, I used emotive anchors and packaged feelings to create the scene. This served the same purpose - the put the reader there, but the reader is there in a much different way. They are not seeing what I see but rather envisioning what I feel. Those five senses are not the appeal - the main draw is how the writer is interacting with the setting.

Sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch are all great descriptors and they have their place, but a writer does themselves a great service when they practice descriptions outside of those boundaries. As we get in touch with describing elements of a story with emotional elements, we secretly remind ourselves what makes a particular element so important to the story. In describing my childhood home in emotional terms, it places me, as a writer, deeper within that emotional pool, and my reactions will naturally reflect that immersion.

A great writing exercise for those who like a challenge and occasionally need a prompt is actually very simple. Sit down with your writing stuff, and describe the first thing that catches your attention. Notice how I didn't say, "catches your eye" - there's a reason. Your attention responds to things more than sight - it is called by a different force, and is usually a good subject for writing about. Of course, the key to this exercise is to not write a descriptive blueprint of whatever you choose, but rather discuss how you respond to different elements. Write about the subject in a way where the reader will feel your reactivity. 

The more you do this exercise, the easier it will be to bringing the reader into the scene and connecting them in the way you are feeling. That is a great form of engaged writing, and a tool definitely worth keeping in your writing bag.

Monday, January 9, 2023

Writers As Readers

For all the writers out there, I offer you this simple question: "What are you currently reading?" Hopefully this simple question has a very simple answer for you, and you peel it off without a second thought. I only ask that you answer something other than, "I am proofreading my own work," "I am in the middle of several books right now," or "I don't actually have time to read other things because I am writing so much." These aren't answers as much as excuses, and I will tell you why.

"I am proofreading my own work." I am sure you are. However, the importance of reading things is to read other styles and techniques. Consuming words other than your own is important in that you challenge yourself to see things through different lenses, and study how different writers approach situations that you might someday try out. Reading your own work has its place, but it is never an appropriate substitute from what you can gain from taking in other authors' words. Even if what you read doesn't have anything to offer you, at least you can look back and say, "Wow, I've learned a lot of things as a writer" because you know all the author's tricks. That's something.

"I am in the middle of several books right now." Also quite possibly true. However, if this is how you are willing to answer that question, it is similar to saying, "I am not really dedicated to one specific thing." Everyone has (or should have) a few books that they are progressing through, but when asked that question, a serious reader will have one specific work come to mind. As for myself, I am reading Flint Dille's The Gamesmaster: Almost Famous in the Geek '80s. This is after finishing How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan. I also have Dead Wake with a bookmark, A Mother's Reckoning is on my things-to-read shelf, and Lee & Andrew Child's Better Off Dead is there as well. However, I know which work is influencing me right now, so that's the one with which I answer.

"I don't actually have time to read other things because I am writing so much." Any writer should be so lucky. Now, during certain times like NaNoWriMo or during bursts of inspiration, an author might be overcome with just waves of words that demand to be committed to paper, and have little time for anything else. However, this is more often the exception than the rule. Sometimes it does feel easier to write until the point of exhaustion, then step back and do nothing. If I may be so bold, that feeling of writing exhaustion is an excellent time to read for a bit, simply because it lets the creating part of the brain rest while the consuming part gets its own workout. Having a book that you can read in twenty-minute bursts, perhaps before you go to sleep, is a great way to keep the reading habit going, even if you are writing to the point of collapse. It can actually be refreshing.

Reading is such an important part of the writing process - this cannot be overstated. If anything, reading something should be able to offer a grain of inspiration that someday, somewhere, an aspiring writer might be reading your book, looking for something to push them to that next level. Until that day, some daily word consumption will benefit you as a writer, and it might just expand that brain of yours.

So in closing, I ask you: What are you currently reading?

Friday, January 6, 2023

The Word for 2023: Detail

Happy New Year, and may 2023 be a year of good health for you. I know it didn't start out that way for me - I woke up New Year's Eve with a pretty nasty cold (not COVID) - but I have the rest of the year to be healthy.

On a more interesting note, once I recovered from my cold, I decided to go visit my mother. The facility that takes care of her had been on COVID quarantine for a while, so now that the quarantine was lifted enough for visitors and my cold had subsided, a visit felt appropriate. I still bundled up, wore my mask, and took all precautions necessary just in case something was still communicable or one last cold virus in me wanted to make a run for it. When I got to the residences and came to sign in, I was basically a mound of things to protect me either from the cold outside or the threat of contagion. The funny part - once I got to the desk, the staff knew exactly who I was. How did they pull this off before I even gave my name?

My eyes. They recognized me immediately because I have my mother's eyes, and those baby blues were basically the only recognizable part of me sticking out beneath the protective masks and winter wear. Nothing else mattered - that one detail gave me away immediately.

This brings me to an important writing element that can often be overlooked: the art of detail. Beginning writers are often told to describe everything, and that's a good technique to learn. However, we learn that technique in order to parse through all the little things and find that one stand-out thing that makes our character rise above the crowd. There are a bunch of ways to describe me and all kinds of details to bring out: That shuffle in my step when my knees have put on too many miles in a day, the Irish freckles scattered about my face, or my ever-receding hairline and balding scalp that suggests a once-proud head of hair one resided there. All those things describe some aspect of me, and in different stories they would be the important detail. However, in this particular story, the one call-out is the eyes. I share some other features with my mother, but if you saw me and her together, and we both looked at you, the only detail that would matter to you would be those piercing blue eyes. 

In many stories, the main character's eye color is not even mentioned. The same goes for hair, facial features, and even skin color in cases where these details are not relevant to the story. The real art of description comes in taking one aspect, one feature of the character, and showcasing it in a way that sticks with the reader. With good writing, the reader will latch on to one detail and build the character around that, making it a fully fleshed-out entity in their own mind. Once that happens, the reader is part of the story. They are invested. They keep on reading.

Keep this in mind when you want a character to have a particular draw. Showcase their thick, lustrous hair, the rich, full color of their skin, or whatever you want to use to attract the reader. Just remember that when it comes to blue eyes, I got that covered.