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, April 28, 2023

Writing For the Reaction

I started off this month with a post, "What Really Infuriates Me Is Something Worth Writing About," which discussed writing about those things that really get you riled up. In short, the subjects that push you toward the emotional edge are the ones you should really put on paper. They may not be the easiest ones to write about, and there might be a part of you that doesn't want to confront those subjects. However, reactivity means something is important to you, and to grow as a writer, you are obliged to push those limits.

Well, reactivity is a two-way street, and today I thought I would discuss the kind of feedback that should motivate you the most. In my years of writing, I have received just about every kind of comment possible. The responses I've found the most important, though, aren't necessarily the shining, happy, all-is-right-with-the-world comments. In fact, here are a few that I really treasure:

  • "I found this story incredibly unsettling."
  • "That was absolutely sick."
  • "This story came from a very dark, twisted mind."

Now that's some bold feedback, and some might consider it insulting. As a matter of fact, it would be hard to call a comparison to a dark, twisted mind anything but a slam. However, I wear these as badges of honor. These little nuggets are important to me not because they are so demeaning, but because they are so strong.

Look at the modifiers used in those comments: "incredibly," "absolutely," and "very dark." These words, while all tied to negative adjectives, are big, strong words. The commentator didn't just say, "That was sick." Nope - they put in "absolutely" to show just how sick it was. It was almost as if they were yelling at me, punishing me for what I wrote. But here's the beauty of it - they were reacting to my writing, reacting quite loudly. If a story isn't written well, the response will be equally as boring. Big, long, strong responses mean that you, as a writer, hit a nerve, and that's exactly what writing is supposed to do.

Now, in the name of full disclosure, the stories that received these comments were intended to be on the darker side of disturbed. If my intention was to be light and humorous with my story and I received those responses, well, I might want to rethink everything because I clearly missed the target. But the fact that I wrote dark and struck the perfect chords with the readers means I accomplished what I set out to do.

The takeaway here is to look for the subtext of feedback and don't get buried in the details. If someone reads your piece and gives a lot of feedback regarding the content - positive or negative - it means they felt invested enough to offer you notes. If the story failed to engage with them, the notes might just be about grammar, typing, and all the boring stuff. Emotive responses mean you got the reader going, and as a writer, that's exactly what you are supposed to do.     

Monday, April 24, 2023

A Little More About Writing, Re-Writing, Editing, and Drafts

Last week, I did a little piece called, "Writing is Awesome! Rewriting, however..." that got a bit of a pushback. No angry hate -mail or anything, but some people discussed their process on writing. Apparently, some people frequently go through the routine of doing some writing, then some editing, then some rewriting then back to some writing and so forth until the entire work is completed. This creates the feeling that when the writing is finally completed, most of the rewriting is already done as well.

I won't say that way it wrong - nothing is wrong if it genuinely works for you - but I will offer a few notes on some potential pitfalls of choosing that process.

The first one that comes to mind is how a story is often an evolving thing that can constantly change even as we create it. We send our characters jumping through their little hoops and enduring all these different trials, and we see them grow as the story progresses. Sometimes (and this is a wonderful thing to behold), we see them change in ways we never expected, and we want to respect this by building upon this as we write. However, if we try to edit and rewrite all along the way, we can interfere with this growth and even stifle its progress simply because we lose the momentum we had gained while writing about this wonderful transformation. 

The other thing that rumbles through my mind is from me own personal experience in putting together a manuscript. It's not a hard and fast rule, but it's simple in its execution: "You don't know the first line of the story until you've written the last line of the story." Only once you create the entire work do you truly know what you have made, and only then do you have enough information to shape the rest of the chapters into something that does that story justice.

I think about one great idea I had for a novel, and I was doing all the work and creating all the supporting characters and such, trying to create a fully fleshed-out world. Something, however, wasn't right. I wrote and rewrote, edited, polished and perfected the pieces I had, but it wasn't coming together. Why? Ultimately, it was because I was still at war with myself about the ending. Without knowing that closing note, I didn't have enough information to shape all the other pieces together so they would lead naturally to that final point. Once I put that last piece in place, I saw how so many other pieces needed to change, and I dove head-first into the rewriting process. I did, however, have to accept that a lot of the rewrites and polishing I had already done was for nothing since they all had to be rewritten anyway.

Lastly, a reminder that editing is not rewriting. Editing is a spell-check pass, running Grammarly, or doing continuity checks. Editing is a rote, mechanical process that shouldn't be done until you have all your pieces in place and everything where you think it should be. Then and only then should you get an editor on the scene to make sure everything you've put into place flows in a properly spelled, grammatically correct, organic manner.

Again, if there's a process that works for you above all others, I would be remiss to call it wrong. However, if you are looking to build that process, I would suggest starting from a simple perspective: You are a writer. Your job is to write. Do the writing first, and once it has all been written, then your job is to rewrite it with an eye toward perfecting it. Wash, rinse, repeat. Give it a try, if only to find out how well it works for you.    

Friday, April 21, 2023

Writing is Awesome! Rewriting, however...

I am 55 years old and during that time I have only found a couple of sensations better that the feeling I get when I complete a writing project. And, of course, the larger the project, the bigger the feeling. It's very hard to describe if you haven't felt it before, but it goes along with that rush you might get from reaching the peak of the mountain, finishing a long race, or getting a degree. However, it's better since it is very much unique to you - it is a mountain you created before deciding to climb it, a one-person race you dedicated yourself to finishing. Once you accomplish it, it can never be taken from you. That's pretty intense.

However, like any arduous task, the euphoria soon fades and the real world comes back. You have to climb down that mountain now. Your runner's high fades from the great race and now you have to wind down or risk those terrible cramps. You hang up your diploma and set out to find a real job. You've had your moment, but that's about it. Now you have to face the ugliness of the world around you, and with writers, that's rewriting. It's the long process of examining just what you accomplished, and kind of tearing it apart.

Kind of sucks, doesn't it?

The bad part of this rewrite phase is that you have to go back and see all your little mistakes, each one taking a little piece of your victory away. That euphoria is long gone by now, and the rewriting process can be brutal. And in fairness, it should be brutal. This is your opportunity to learn from your mistakes, strengthen those skills that gave you that win in the first place, and prepare for bigger and better things. 

Most football players sit down the day after the game and review the tapes. Whether they won or lost, they look over their plays, teasing out when went wrong and what went right. The good players take notes, studying their every move and looking for that thing that can make them that much better. Writers should absolutely do the same thing. Fortunately, there are fewer injuries in writing than in football.

I just went through the process of rewriting a 107,000-word manuscript. Now, I didn't retype every word, but indeed I read every word, sometimes two or three times. It was brutal, but here are my survival tips for making it through the rewriting process:

  • See every change as a chance to improve. Apply some lesson you learned to your manuscript and just watch it flourish, then remind yourself that you are the one who is really impressive.
  • Everyone's going to make mistakes, so let yourself make mistakes. There's no sin in mistakes, just in not fixing them.
  • Most importantly, when you really turned a phrase around really well, or totally nailed a description, or just put something together that makes you feel confident about your work, recognize it - preferably out loud. Say, "Damn, that was a perfect metaphor" or "That joke landed perfectly." Give yourself the victory. They may be few and far between, but the more you notice and acknowledge them, the more they just tend to show up.

In short, rewriting is a pain. It is the muscle cramp after the race, the exhaustion after the run. It sucks, but it's part of the game. And if we use it to add to our skills, we are the better for it. So congratulations on the big accomplishment - now prepare for the pains of real growth.         

Friday, April 14, 2023

Whatever Gets Your Heart Beating

I know that sometimes I talk too much about things like April being National Poetry Month or National Novel Writing Month or stuff like that. However, there's one special time I don't talk about that much that deserves its time in the spotlight, and that's Bicycling Season. So this time I am going to talk about what I, as a writer, get out of bicycling season and how it relates to writing.

First and foremost, bicycling is something that can be done year-round if you get into indoor cycling, but there's a big difference between being in the gym and staring at whatever is in front of you versus being out in the sun, wind, and elements. And now that the weather is warming up and the roads are clear, I am switching into the real, outdoor bicycling mode, and everything that comes with it. And when I first start doing real cycling trips, the thing I check the most is heart rate (as pictured).

Exercise, like writing, is something that you might not want to jump into all at once. With both disciplines, it is often easier to start off with the basics and build on those, then add on from that point. When it comes to cycling, I start off the season by rebuilding my endurance, then gradually start doing longer and long rides once my endurance is there. And I can track my progress through heart rate. It starts with getting the heartrate soaring, if only for a half-hour or so. After a few weeks, the half-hour sprints become easier, the heartrate does not have to go as high, and the endurance starts building into longer and longer rides. My first rides of the cycling season had my heartrate go above 150 beats per minute for extended times, but by the time I am ready for longer rides, my rate will be down to 125-130 bpm and I can cycle for hours (and my doctor will stop worrying about me).

Now, about that writing thing. The same formula works for the beginning writer who wants to really explore their skills. Start with sitting down and writing for 15 minutes straight (typing if you want). Write about something, anything, continuously for the entire time. Don't pause and think about where you think it might go, or consider a rewrite - just write for that time. If you do this in a group, you will probably hear some groans and straining sighs from other people after about ten minutes, and that's fine -  that's the endurance building up. 

If this sounds tough, well, it is. So the best way to get into the habit of doing these writing sprints, start with a subject you are passionate about -- something that gets your heart beating. If you like cars, write about a particular car and how you feel about it. If you are into animals, pick your favorite one and explore your interest in that beast. And if you like bicycling, as some people do, well just write about that. Slowly but surely, you will get into the habit of writing. And the endurance will build up as well.

Eventually, the 15-minute sprint will feel easy, and you'll be ready to longer writing exercises. Those don't have to be dashes, and you can sit and think about those things because you are working toward a longer piece. You will be ready for the heat of writing season, and you will feel it.


Monday, April 10, 2023

Character Development

I have mentioned in many different posts that I am lucky enough to be surrounded with a wide variety of friends who cover the full range of any number of spectra. A part of why I appreciate this is of course because I have many people with whom I can consult, share time, learn from, and teach. However, as a writer there is an added perk: Having a lot of friends is like owning a personal grab-bag of characters who can be thrown into any story at a moment's notice.

Now, don't get me wrong - I am not the guy who writes a story and decides, "Who should be the main character? Hmmm... Lisa, it's your turn." If I am writing a story inspired by a particular Lisa I knew and decide to write the story about her, well, so be it. However, when writing fiction, we often prefer characters that fit the situation better than any one real person can. This is when we reach into the grab-bag. Just not for people - for qualities that make our character fit the story.

There's a story I am working on right now about an atheist - let's call him Frank - who comes face-to-face with an angel. Now, I have friends who are atheists and friends who are very confrontational, but are any of them a real good fit for Frank in this story? Not even close. At this point, I start picking through the different qualities and characteristics of all the people I know or have met, and start scavenging the pieces I need. Like a scrap man in a junkyard, I grab this and that, pulling off little parts and fixtures that I know would fit perfectly into my vision of Frank and leaving the rest out. I know a stubborn insurance agent who can bench press 280. Let's take the stubbornness and leave the shredded physique behind. The atheism I can grab from a writer friend of mine, but leave behind the sense of humor. 

In this case of our friend Frank, I also need to consider what qualities would make Frank interesting. I know plenty of people who would deny a truth staring them in the face - is that what I want in my story? Or do I want a story where Frank sees something he can neither believe nor deny, then chooses to change his mind? Depending on how I want that story to go determines what other parts I grab from the bag. I might want to pick the temperament of one friend who would just as soon punch a statue in the face for looking at him wrong to provide active conflict. Maybe my Buddhist friend would be a good example for a more peaceful resistance. Whichever route I choose, I make sure to bring out the qualities that would create the ideal amount of conflict and tension before rising to the conclusion.

Now, the fun part of making characters this way is that if/when your friends read the story, they might recognize or identify with little pieces here and there, and say, "You know, this Frank guy kinda seems like Ramon in a certain way." If they say that, and you did borrow qualities from Ramon, then it's a sign that you did a fine job translating the person's particular trait to the page.

Of course, you have every right to create your own characters from the whole cloth of your mind, and that's fine. Just remember that you have a whole Rogue's Gallery of character traits to tap into already, and nothing's wrong with a little scavenging now and then. 

Monday, April 3, 2023

What Really Infuriates Me Is Something Worth Writing About

Even though this is the first official post of National Poetry Month, I will not make heavy poetry references. Technically, I prompted everyone to start doing the poetry month celebration in my last post, It's That Time of Year! that got everything rolling. This time I am going to head a little different direction, but if it leads back to poetry, well, then so be it.

This time around, I am talking about one of the most primal feelings: Anger. At some point in our lives, and probably more so recently, we have all been in touch with some kind of anger, or one of its cousin - rage, fury, and so on. Often we are told that these are dangerous emotions and will lead to no good, and there's definitely some truth to that. However, today I decided that rage, fury, anger, and that whole tribe has a place in our writing (even poetry), and that at times, we should embrace these darker feelings. With certain qualifiers, of course.

Before getting too alarmed about this, let's keep in mind that writing, like any other creative process, is an emotional adventure. When we write, we explore our emotions and convert them into thoughts, words, and stories. We usually explore the emotions that are easy to manage and process. The nice feelings - happiness, joy, love - are easy to turn into writing because we love immersing ourselves in those emotions. However, as we head along the emotional spectrum toward the darker shades, we might hesitate to explore those hues. They are scary. They are dangerous. Wrapping ourselves up in rage might not be the healthiest choice. However, we can do it, and often, we should do it. Just do it with certain precautions.

Someone once talked about love as something that fills you and drains you simultaneously. That's some heavy stuff that I totally agree with. However, when we deal with anger, rage, etc., we don't necessarily want to be dominated by that feeling. Rather, we do our best writing when we visit that emotion through memories of when we experienced it, and become an intimate observer to the episode. The closer we get, the more we can be driven by the sensation, but we should keep ourselves from total immersion, from being filled and emptied by the sensation and left only knowing that feeling. 

When I need to get in touch with some anger, I have a few memories to tap into, but I recall them in third-person, placing myself as a fly on the wall, witnessing a particular episode where my anger boiled over. I think about the moment but try to observe the way I responded, the actions I took, the way I expressed myself, and let those bits of information fill my writing without me entering the moment entirely. 

There are plenty of emotions and memories we don't like touching - even the most in-depth writers have some moments in their past that feel as dangerous as the third rail as far as we're concerned. Those, however, will also have the greatest influence on our writing if we can, even for just a moment, get close to the feelings attached to those memories. It's a daring endeavor, but if it helps the writing process, it can even become a cathartic way of processing our own personal darkness.