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, May 29, 2023

Memorial Day Tribute

As has become the tradition here, today's post will not be about writing, technique, and all things prose. Today is Memorial Day, reserved for those lost to war. So for them, I ask you to read this piece of poetry and appreciate what it says for those who never returned.

In Flanders Fields

by John McCrae

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

    That mark our place; and in the sky

    The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

    Loved and were loved, and now we lie,

        In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

    The torch; be yours to hold it high.

    If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

        In Flanders fields. 

Friday, May 26, 2023

Read Some Bad Writing

As the saying goes, "All writers should be readers." In short, it means all writers should be consuming the written word in its many different forms, examining different styles, and constantly being surprised by just what is being created in the writing community. I took on this task and read some old essays as a mission to examine style and writing. It turns out, they weren't written very well at all. Sometimes the subject dragged, the verbs were weak, the style inconsistent. At times this was a real painful process to read these pieces. I made it through them, and spent some time processing all the horror of this mediocre writing.

The worst part, of course, was that these were things I wrote twenty years ago.

Yes, I knew it would not be pretty. After all, I like to think I have learned a thing or two about writing over the past few decades, and I would be able to notice the change. The weird part, however, was that some of these pieces had been published works. Editors looked over these and gave them the thumbs-up. Now I look at them and cringe, thinking, "Why did I use that cliché?" or "I can think of five better ways to say that - why did I use that one?" The pieces were perfectly acceptable then, but now I desperately want to rewrite them, throw them into the time machine, and get the new copy printed instead. And once that technology is invented, I will do it.

So, the question has probably come up in your mind: "Why put yourself through such abuse?" Well, besides the fact that I am, deep inside, a glutton for punishment, I do believe there's a lot to learn from what we used to write and how we have changed. When I started writing regularly in my profession, I assure you it was a mess. It stunk on ice and I was made very aware of this. However, this provided me the opportunity to learn from these mistakes, to hopefully not make them as much, and discover just how I replaced those mistakes with something better. Not the best, but an improvement.

And that's the real important part - improvement. Part of being a writer is to constantly battle some level of self-doubt while you are studying your craft and developing your technique. Impostor Syndrome is alive and well in the writing community, and we should use every trick in the book to fight off these feelings. My favorite trick is to look how far I have come as a writer. Occasionally, I will even take one of those old essays and rewrite every word just to prove to myself that I now have the tools to do better, and I have done just that. I prove to myself I am better than I used to be.

One last tip: Give credit where credit is due. When we start writing, it's often a struggle to get things just right. However, every now and then we crank out some perfect metaphor and think, "Damn, that was good." Then, twenty years later, we read it and think, "Damn, that's still good." Sometimes our writing doesn't age well, but when it does, give yourself credit for it. After all, the more you write, the more times you will write something great.     

Monday, May 15, 2023

Different Kinds of the Same Story

It is with a heavy heart that I announce my lawn mower died. I had prepped myself to mow the lawn before the rain came in, but when I brought out the mower, she wouldn’t start. I tried everything, including the last-resort overhaul, but there was no get-up-and-go left. After twenty years, she had mowed her last blade of grass. I made my peace with the situation, put her back together, and left her at the end of the driveway before leaving to buy a new mower. When I returned an hour later, someone had picked her up and taken her to a better place. Life went on.

When I bring all this up, it’s not to drum up sympathy for the lost of my lawn appliance. I am using this story as a foundation piece for discussing how different approaches can push stories in different directions. Obviously, the intro paragraph is the skeleton for taking a simple loss and turning it into a dramatic, emotional story. But what if I want something more action-packed? How about funny? Farcical? All these things are possible if we make certain choices about how to present the facts and what details need to be discussed or buried.

Let’s look at action. Action writing is all about tension. It’s about all the obstacles rising to prevent a goal from being achieved, and the active role of the main character in overcoming those setbacks. In a lawn-mower action story, the goal of mowing the lawn is important, but there needs to be more obstacles. What threatens the goal of a mown lawn? Well, more emphasis on the incoming rain would be a start – that’s definitely going to ruin the party. I could also add about how the village code enforcement trucks were driving around, looking for overgrown lawns to write up. Mix those together with the actions required to achieve the goal – trying time and again to start the engine, quickly taking it apart all while spying around for the village trucks, and turning again and again toward those gray clouds looming larger on the horizon. That tension builds an action story every time.

Funny stories are different. While conflict and tension are required, the vibe should be lighter, looking at the amusing contradictions in play. An amusing story would light of all these factors conspiring to prevent me from that one hour of joy I have mowing the lawn. I decide to mow the lawn, then see the weather is going to turn. I push forward anyway, now the mower won’t start. Wait – I can rebuild these things! Nope, it turns out I can’t in this case. 

And of course, farcical can go anywhere, as long as it is somewhere different from the realistic. In cases such as this, the lawn mower could be personified, making its last plea for death after its years of honorable service. Maybe it’s had enough, and refuses to cut another blade of grass under my tyranny. Maybe it’s the gods working their magic to make sure their grand plan works, but that requires my lawn to remain overgrown for one more day. In any case, the last thing that should be emphasized is the practical. Let the madness or the creative spirits run free, all swirling around the foundation of something simple and reasonable.

Whatever the case may be, the new mower is in its place and ready for hopefully twenty years of service. And as for the old mower, no matter what its fate was after getting picked up at the edge of the street, it will live on in stories.

Friday, May 12, 2023

Those Big Firsts

I am pretty sure none of this can be held against me anymore, so here it goes. The first time I drove a car on public streets was when I was 12, in a 1977 powder-blue Ford Maverick. Also, I quietly and inappropriately got into a Driver's Ed course when I was 14. I worked at a bar when I was 16, which included running spotlight for the exotic dancer shows, and my first real alcoholic drink (a Long Island Iced Tea) was at that same bar at that same age. I reached a lot of big "firsts" in my life well before I should've, and for the most part, I regret nothing.

Okay - no regret might be a strong comparison. I will say, however, that these moments still stand out for me all these decades later, and at least with that part, I have no shame. To prove that, I did what every writer should do to help develop their skills: Write about those experiences with the full disclosure and depth-of-detail worthy of a best-selling tell-all autobiography. Put them to the page like a confession.

However, I would up the stakes by one more notch, just because it will bring out even more richness and depth. For every big "first" in your life that you are willing to write about, write it twice. Do a draft of that event in the way you would discuss it now to your children, your nieces and nephews, your younger cousins. Write it down with all the wit and wisdom that you've accumulated over the years, and this might even include a few regrets or passive apologies. This draft needs to be introspective, thinking about back then from the place you are at now. I would accept that it was probably not a good idea to teach me how to drive a 3-speed before my feet could really hit the pedals, and taking Driver's Ed too early did not help either. As for working at the bar at such a young age, well, that's a lot to unpack. I do, however, apologize to everyone who saw me throw up.

The next draft is likely the difficult one. The next draft should be very present-tense. Write as that 12-year-old behind the wheel, the 14-year-old in Driver's Ed, the 16-year-old at the bar, shining the spotlight on the exotic dancers. Reconnect with that mindset, with that language, the thoughts, excitement, and even tensions and anxieties coursing through your younger self. At least for the writing of this draft, detach yourself from the present and relive that youthful moment in whatever way possible - the more, the better.

You might be asking yourself, "Why am I doing this again?" Well, first and foremost, it gets you writing. What it also does is helps transfer your thoughts and perspective into other positions, other characters, with each one being relatable but very much different. After you have done this exercise, compare the two drafts and feel for what is different between them (hint: it should be a lot) and how the characters stand apart from each other. If this doesn't happen, try again. At least in my case, I like to think that the person I am in my fifties is different from the person I was in my teens (and I mean more than just the notable lack of hair). 

Placing ourselves in situations different from where we are now is a good way to stretch out our writing muscles, and makes for a great way to gain some personal introspection as well. And the truly fascinating part of this exercise is that everyone has those experiences to explore. It's just a matter of going back into that mindset.       

Friday, May 5, 2023

Writing and The Big Payoff

This, my friends, is what it's all about. For all the time a writer spends creating and destroying, editing and rewriting, doubting and questioning their every word, this is the payoff. All of the countless hours staring at a blank page, typing half a sentence then deleting it for the nth time, and wondering whether it's really in you all pay off at this very moment. The suffering and aggravation doesn't matter, because at long-last, your work is finished. Edited, re-edited, proofed, updated, and all that other noise is done, and now... voila! A printed copy sits in your hands.

When any writer commits to writing something, there is an initial intimidation factor. Whether it's a poem, a short story, a novel or whatever, it requires first getting past that initial thought of, "I have a title... where are the rest of those words going to come from?" The larger the project, the more daunting the feeling. In the case of a novel, it can hit at several different times. Even as you are typing it you can accidentally see the word count and think, "I'm exhausted - how can this only be 9,244 words so far?" Then a quick bit of math tells you that as exhausted as you might feel, you need 40,756 more words for it to even count as a novel. You aren't even a fifth of the way there. Trust me - it's all worth it.

When I finish a particular project, I give myself a moment to take in the breadth of what I have done. At the very moment I finished my first novel, The Book of Cain, I said aloud, "I did it." Nobody was around, but it didn't matter. I had written a 72,000-word novel, which was hard to fathom given how some people never write that many words in their life. Damnit, I would acknowledge that moment of completion. And then when I held the first copy in my hands and saw my author line, I took another moment to recognize this was another milestone worth commemorating. And yes, the day I saw someone - a total stranger - see my book in the local author display at the public library and decide to check it out, I made a special point to savor that moment as well.

This all leads to this moment, when I received the proof copies for my latest novel, Small-Town Monster. It should be on the shelves soon, but for now, I am looking at the cover (mock-up above), flipping through the pages, smelling the ink, and taking a moment of appreciation. I don't know whether this book will win contests or awards, but right now that is not the point. It is the completion of a very long, very difficult journey, and I am commemorating it. I am taking it in, and trying to place proper weight on just what I have accomplished.

As for all other writers out there, make sure you reward yourself for any milestone you clear. For every story you write, poem you create, or even the workshops you join, appreciate those moments. If other people are involved, show gratitude for their contributions. But definitely do something for yourself that acknowledged how you are cementing yourself into that role of "writer." Come the day when you receive the proof copy of your first printed work, it will be all that much more worth it.     

Monday, May 1, 2023

A Simple Writing Exercise

It's a recurring problem with a lot of writers, and with myself in particular, when writing comes out feeling flat or unexplored. The writing has all of its structure there - A leads to B leads to C, all of the pieces are in place, but somehow, for some reason, it just doesn't pop. Something is not there, and we can't quite figure out what is missing. When I get into those ruts, which is more often than I'd care to admit, I take on one simple exercise.

This one's fairly simple, and can work for most people. Sit down in front of a blank page and write out your most recent dream. Not one that you had a while ago and still remember - that one will not work for this exercise. No, take your most recent dream, whether early in the morning or a bizarre daydream, and commit it to words. Go through it step by step, scene by scene if possible, mapping it out in all its weird glory. And if you can, write it in the kind of voice you would use if you were explaining this dream to someone else. Try and turn it into storytelling, if possible.

What makes this a good exercise? Here's the gist of it. A dream is, quite often, a messy narrative with a lot of inexplicable reality blended into it. Some of it might be wild and outrageous, some of it might be strongly symbolic - it's hard to know what's really in there until you start putting it to the page. And as you do that, a part of you will want to make some sense out of this outlandish set of thoughts and events - especially if you try to write it as a narrative. Your mind will start exploring these weird details and odd symbols, and hopefully wake up your natural creativity. 

At this point in writing your dream, you might notice that you are making connections between events you remember and pieces of your actual life. Some might be obvious, others more cryptic, but your writing is starting to try to place dimension and depth into this nonsensical story. In short, the wild collision of neurons firing throughout your brain is being translated - properly or not - into something more real and tangible; something that comes through clearly as a story. At this point, you might be including in your narrative some interpretations of different images and events. This is when your dream starts to take on a life of its own. In short, it takes on the characteristics of something that is not very flat at all.

Often, the missing link in "flat" writing is when the writer is not engaging with any real depth in their writing. They are writing a conversation but it's just explaining the plot and killing time rather than exploring the characters and revealing their pieces. Flat writing is very detached from the writer's deeper feelings, and the reader will pick up on this. To give it some shape, the writer needs to engage with the material on some level, and let themselves feel it on a deeper level. Exploring a dream is a good way to get things moving - it is taking a story our brain told us and digging for meaning and connection that will make it stand out.

Disclaimer: Like all exercises, the final product is quite likely not going to be your best writing. It doesn't have to be. It just has to be the product of doing the exercise and getting your creative workout in. However, if you do get some great short story out of this exercise, dropping me a comment wouldn't be the worst idea.