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, 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.