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, June 30, 2023

Smoky Times and Writing

For those who haven't been watching the news lately (or live outside the Midwest), the big story has been all about smoke from the Canadian forest fires pouring down into the Great Lakes region, and for the last week, into my neighborhood. It was quite a mess, but it's also one of those things that not everyone can relate to or connect with if they haven't been through some kind of similar experience. That being said, this made me think about a particular aspect of writing - communicating the strange, bizarre, and unusual to the unknowing reader.

Now, sometimes the easiest way to communicate a situation is through data. If it was hot and muggy outside, I could say it was 87 degrees out with 80% humidity. That gets the point across, but the reader is more likely to acknowledge those facts rather than feel the situation. In the case of the past few smoke-filled days, I could tell you about the Air Quality Index level, but does that really tell you how bad things were? What would a 221 AQI mean to you? Maybe you know where that rates, maybe not. However, it sure doesn't help the reader feel what it means.

When we are writing about the strange and unusual, we need to get our readers to feel the experience on a deeper level. Usually, the first step in doing that is for us to try and feel what's going on. I took a walk in the smoky, 221 AQI weather (just to my car) and tried to feel what made it so bizarre. I opened my senses to it, I challenged myself to sense what was different. Within a minute, my mouth had an odd taste to it and a thin, slimy coating of ash particulate. My breathing wasn't labored, but a deep breath carried a certain weight to it, a heaviness I was not familiar with. The smell of the smoke was barely noticeable, but in a way that was the point. The air didn't reek of burnt creosote, but it smelled different. Scorched. Contaminated. It didn't feel like the air I knew.

Maybe the most bizarre part was how everything looked. People hear about these bad air alerts and expect to see rivers of smoke pouring through the streets, but it's not so obvious. In some ways it looks like an overcast day, perhaps with a little fog in the air, but it's different. The Sun isn't diving in and out of the clouds because it's just a veil of smoke - the Sun is a reddish ball obscured behind the ash. And with a little examination, the so-called foggy appearance looks more like having dust coating your glasses. The world looks tarnished and translucent. Fog has a grey, sobering feel to it, but this kind of smoke places a sepia tone on everything, interfering with the air itself. It feels different. It feels alien.

Once we experience something as close to the strange and unusual as we can, it's up to us as writers to pull out the most unusual parts of it and give those to the readers. Condense it enough so it doesn't become a long, drawn-out discussion; just give them enough to feel the grit in their mouths as the sepia-toned world passes around them in the overcast haze of foul-tasting smoke. Bring out the parts that make the world suddenly strange and different, and you will have done your job as a writer.

And one last takeaway from this. As a non-writing writer's exercise, try to spend a minute or two every day just taking in an experience in sensory detail. Feel your fingertips' sensations as they peel an orange. Watch a cloud drift across the sky, folding and churning in its own weird way. Take a moment to feel what breathing is like when you pay attention to your lungs. This kind of sensory awareness might seem very passive, but it's a great step in feeding your inner writer, which will turn these experiences into gold on the page.

And seriously - be careful in this smog. It's really bad.          

Monday, June 26, 2023

Who Has Time to Write?

I know a lot of writers. Part-time and full-time writers, people just starting their journey and others well along their way down the endless path of learning. Many of these people have careers, families, outside interests, and entire lives outside of their writing. And yet, they also write. I am fortunate enough to have flexible hours so I can move around my writing time, but for those who can't, somehow they still write stuff. Good stuff. Stuff that's far better than what the word "stuff" implies. So let's talk about how they do this.

I'll start this discussion with my favorite subject - me. I had the time-consuming job, the hobbies, the outside interests, and so forth. My job also followed me around a lot, so it could eat up time in many ways. Top that with health issues, and one would not be faulted in asking when did I have time to write? The truth is, I didn't have time to write. For every minute of my 24-hour day, I was doing something. Working, sleeping, eating, watching TV - it was all booked by something. However, when I came to the realization that I wanted to write - that I needed to write - I started shuffling the schedule around. I thought about my priorities and moved them, and put some things on the back burner. In short, I decided that writing was important enough to me to make time for it.

Now, I hear a lot of people say, "But my life is really busy." That's fair, but I respond with the story of best-selling author Mary Kubica. She also wanted to write, but she had the greatest responsibility of all - a newborn baby. The only thing more demanding than a newborn child is newborn twins (or triplets, etc.). However, she wanted to write, so she made the time. Her child would wake up regularly at about 6 a.m., so she set her alarm clock to wake up at 5:30 a.m., when she would roll out of bed and write until her child woke up. One-half hour of writing every day with no exceptions (other than the baby). One half-hour less sleep for her was the price worth paying to write, and she did. Her first book, The Good Girl, was written by this process. She now has eight books under her belt (along with another child).

What it all boils down to is how much do you want to be a writer? It is an intimidating thought to start doing the writing thing seriously, and "I just don't have the time" is a nicely packaged excuse to keep yourself from taking that step. However, we can convince ourselves we don't have the time for a lot of things, and people usually do that. Usually, it has nothing to do with available time, but fear of actually doing it. Taking that big step is a different story, and it requires some effort and dedication.

Oh - as for me (which we knew we would go back to), I found my spare time during my train commute. As a regular train commuter, I had plenty of people to sit with and talk to, but I decided that I would use commuting time as writing time. Just me, my laptop, and my stories. Sometimes, friends would show up and I'd spend the ride with them, but usually, I would write. The time was there, so I made it work for me. And that's how I wrote my first book, and now my second book.

Just six more to go, Mary...     

Friday, June 23, 2023

Writing Outside of Yourself

Here are a few simple facts about me: I am a currently single, straight, 50-something-year-old male, never married, once engaged, no kids (that I know of), who is currently a writer and had a brutally long, enjoyable career in the financial world, mostly as an economist. Now, some of you might read this and actually learn something about me, while others knew all these details all too well, and a few people might even know the backstory. However, that's not why I am mentioning any of this. I am not showing off either. I am actually demonstrating how narrow my world view is, and how it can impact me as a writer.

Let's start at the beginning of the list: currently single. How does this impact me as a writer? Well, it does give me a perspective of the trials and tribulations, the battles won and lost, and the social warfare that is the dating scene out there. In this regard, I have some immediate experience, and can write about it with authority. However, that also means that if I want to write about a character who is in a longstanding relationship, I have to step out of my single shoes and into another mindset altogether. I have to become a different version of me, back when I had that relationship, and see the world from that perspective. In short, I need to take on another character based on something other than current experience. 

And what about those other qualifiers? Straight, 50-something, male - all of those can restrict my experience base, forcing me to explore another world that I might know absolutely nothing about. How do I write about a 60-year-old married lesbian? I might have the perfect story for her to star in, but if I don't have the experience base, I am not going to do that character justice. It's even quite possible that my story could end up being offensive, which is not what I usually want.

As a writer, one of the keys that unlocks our deeper skills is the ability to empathize. Personally, I think empathy is a lost art these days, but that's all the more reason to discuss it. Empathy is trying to experience someone's life through their eyes, from inside their skin, processing the world through their experiences. It is very difficult to do, but we need to develop this if we want our characters to stand out as individuals and not just varied clones of ourselves. And usually, the best way to find this connection is through reading stories told from other perspectives.

An all-too-common problem is when men write female characters. The two easiest mistakes are first, to fail to make any meaningful representation of the female perspective, and secondly, to present the character in the way a man thinks a woman should be. When you read narratives where authors make these mistakes, you will likely cringe uncontrollably. Careless male authors will create bombshell females who are sexually aggressive and talk about their breasts a lot. These kinds of male authors have not read very many female authors and therefore have not yet discovered that women have their own depth, perspective, and plenty of other things to talk about besides breasts.

And for those who want a quick cheat code to step around reading a bunch of books, if you write something outside of your familiarity zone, get someone in that demographic to read your stuff and give you open feedback on how that character came off. It might be a tough reality check, but if you then engage in discussion with that person, you might become a better writer. And you definitely might develop some of that empathy we were talking about.

As for me, I and going back to writing about a middle-aged author who saves the world through his blog. That is something I know about.         

Friday, June 16, 2023

Sometimes, Don't Do Your Research

Before I get into the meat of this subject, a few details about me. For my career, I spent parts of three decades working in research. A part of my college major is research. Indeed, I truly love the research process - the investigation, the fact-finding, the cross-referencing, the analysis. Oh, the analysis - when it gets down to really digging into the nitty-gritty of a subject matter, I am the first one to start and the last one to leave. And, having said all that, there's a time when research will ruin your writing.

Don't get me wrong - if you are into non-fiction, research is kind of mandatory. And yes, some aspects of fiction benefit from a certain amount of investigation into some weird subjects: Is there such a thing as a .45 derringer? (yes) Can someone be allergic to spaghetti? (definitely) Were there photos before 1850? (yes - Daguerreotypes) The list goes on. However, there comes a point where we must draw a line, and that's when we venture into the world of fiction-fantasy.

As a fan of the Marvel Universe (both cinematic and print versions), I enjoy the mayhem and carnage along with the storytelling, but I accept that most of the mayhem is unrealistic, and usually impossible according to physics as we know it. Setting aside the whole superpowers thing, is it worth asking whether the Hulk could pick up a Cadillac by the bumper and pound a villain with it? In fairness, the Cadillac's bumper would just tear right off thanks to the weight of the rest of the car. However, that simple fact would get in the way of the action, so we don't study into the load-bearing factors behind the Cadillac's frame and suspension. We just let Hulk smash.

As writers, our main responsibility is to hold ourselves accountable for the fiction we create, make sure it is consistent, and ultimately make it believable. I have encountered a number of people who write genre fiction but get hung up on how mermaids reproduce, how dragons fly, whether unicorns shed tears, and so on. Since mermaids, dragons, and unicorns are established creatures of lore, these writers feel obligated to be accurate in their unicorn love story or whatever they choose to create. The part they are missing, and that we should instead embrace, is that these things are, in fact, fantasy.

Fantasy is a genre that gives a lot of liberty to writers and allows creativity to flow virtually unchecked. Sure, certain rules have to be obeyed if they are called upon - a human at the bottom of a harbor will drown. However, if a mermaid saves him with a kiss that lets him breathe water, we don't need to explain how or why, or fact-check to see if that's something mermaids can even do. We just need the reader to understand that's the world we are writing about, and let the actions sell the rest. (And no, I have no idea whether mermaids can actually save drowning humans. I saw it in a movie once, so I assumed.)

In the realm of fantasy fiction, the main point is to convince the readers how your version of the world works. If your vampires sparkle, your werewolves are polite gentlemen, or your orcs are just misunderstood, it's your job to sell that reality. Whether it's a part of someone else's lore is irrelevant. It's your lore now; make it believable.

I will not be doing a post for June 19th in recognition of Juneteenth, so my next post will be on June 23rd.        

Friday, June 9, 2023

How Long Is the Writer's Journey?

As most regular readers know, I am an avid bicyclist. I have cycled through different towns, counties, and states, covering more miles in one year than some people cycle in a lifetime. My 106-mile ride last year from Danville to Cook County was described as "epic" (well, by me anyway).   Every time I get on the old bicycle, there's the potential for something wonderful to happen. And sure enough, as I got on my bike today, I said to myself, "How much of the world should we cover today?" 

I ripped off a quick ten miles. It took less than an hour.

Ten miles? Hardly epic, you might say, and you'd be right. I could've done twenty, or fifty, or whatever, but today I rode ten miles through the great wide open for the simple reason that a part of me needed to ride ten miles. I didn't have the burning urge to ride through three counties or go to another state. Ten miles was what I needed so it's exactly what I did. I regret nothing.

A writer should feel the same way. Some people carry this belief that each piece of work needs to be better than the last one. What you do tomorrow must be more profound than today's piece. Once you write a novella, you can never go back to short stories. Once you have your first novel completed, your next novel (no more short stories) must one-up what you've created. Your expectations should rise higher and higher, constantly reaching for the stars. 

They tried that with the Tower of Babel. Spoiler: It didn't end well.

As a writer walks their endless journey, constantly learning, growing, and creating, each step doesn't have to be bigger than the last. The only obligation of the next step is that it has to be forward. When I wrote my soon-to-be-released second novel, Small-Town Monster, I felt pressured to outdo my previous book. Something like that can feed into personal anxieties and all those other demons waiting in the writer's mind to shut things down, but that pressure is an illusion. The only goal is to create. By creating my second novel, I made something unique and meaningful to me, and that's an accomplishment in itself, non matter how much I'd written prior to that.

Now, to be fair, anything we write should be the beneficiary of everything we've learned beforehand. All of our mistakes and slip-ups in our previous works should feed into making this latest creation that much better. Sometimes we accomplish this, other times not so much. However, we continue moving forward, and that is the important part of a writer's journey.

So, how long is a writer's journey? It's as long as my bicycling trips - I set the length and time, and try to get the most out of it that I can. I grow a little, I feel better for having done it, and I am ready for the next one.

(Unless it's raining. Writers do better in the rain than cyclists.)   

Monday, June 5, 2023

The Limits of Description

My last post, "In Defense of Adverbs,"  discussed the use (and abuse) of adverbs, those nasty words that help push along verbs. A few people sent me a few messages, and some writing groups had their own opinions. However, one thing was clear - descriptive things such as adverbs raise writers' blood pressures. So, on that note, let's move on to adjectives.

Adjectives describe a person, place, thing, or idea - so there are a whole lot of them. In that old typing line, "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog," three adjectives show up, yet no adverbs. Any simple object has a lot of words that can describe it. The fox in the example is quick and brown, but it can also be furry, small, smelly, loud, inquisitive, feral, and a bunch of other things. And yes, they are all interesting. The real question is how do we use them properly and effectively. 

Now, in the case of our quick brown fox, we have quick and brown. They are both used in the sentence because it's a typing sentence and it needs some letters, but in narrative writing, are they really necessary? A writer's thought process should consider what needs to be described, what is assumed, and what isn't really important. Just looking at these two words, I would personally kick one to the curb.

As I mentioned in the adverb piece, we don't need to add descriptions to verbs that merely say what the verb implies - there's no need to say that someone runs fast, because running is presumed to be fast. The same argument can be made for the color of the fox. Foxes are generally brown, so unless there's an important reason to remind people what color the fox is, it can be dumped. Now, the quick part can be kept, particularly because the speed of the fox is relevant to it jumping over the aforementioned lazy dog. Quick stays, brown goes.

The importance of adjectives when it comes to writing is bringing out the details that contribute something to the story that isn't otherwise assumed. The basic tree is leafy, green, tall and majestic, but none of these things have to be mentioned because everyone's stock memory of a tree fills in the information just fine. Now, a bonsai tree is different, but it still has some assumptions. Leafy and green, yes. Tall and majestic, no. What we assume about whatever kind of tree we discuss can be left behind. 

The best reason to use an adjective is to bring something new and fresh to the person, place, or thing being described. Revisiting our quick brown fox, we add a lot more to the description if we describe the things the reader can't see or assume. That quaint little typing line changes quickly if we replace our fox adjectives with "feral" or "rabid." That's a new story entirely, mostly because those adjectives add a dimension to the sentence that otherwise doesn't exist. And that is the most important part of any descriptor you use, or for that matter, any word you use.            

Friday, June 2, 2023

In Defense of Adverbs

There are a lot of ways to get a group of writers arguing. Discuss the works of Hunter S. Thompson. Debate the appropriate age to start teaching poetry techniques. And, of course, discussing whether the book or the movie was better regarding just about anything is bound to mix it up a little. But if you really want the words to fly and the blood pressure to rise, discuss adverbs.

So simple, right? An adverb - a word that modifies a verb. We use them all the time, but with effective writing, it suddenly becomes a point of contention. There is the camp that scorns any kind of adverb - the verb should do the heavy lifting, and the rest of the narrative should fill in the blanks. Then there are those who treat the modifier just like an adjective or any other descriptor - it is used to enhance the reader's experience, full stop. Of course, I have to post my opinion on this as well.

At some point or another, I have been in both camps, and they make good points. However, over the years I have found my own territory, and I try to stay within those boundaries. Everyone does wander outside their own space and I am guilty of that as well, but often this is a case of falling into old habits rather than trying new things. In the end, my beliefs stay the same, and here's what they are regarding this grand controversy.

Think about a person running down the street. We all have our own image of this, and chances are they're very similar. Now, if we write this scene, a natural adverb comes to mind to describe how the person is running: quickly (or any synonym). If we use this, it enhances the description of our person running down the street. They are now quickly running down the street. More descriptive, right?

Or is it?

Go back to that image of the running person. Was there any question in your mind that the person ran quickly? Does the typical running person go at any other pace than quickly? This is where adverbs show their weakness, by modifying a verb but not really adding anything to the discussion. A person running quickly is basically the same as a person running, and we can ignore the adverb. "Quickly" is a precious waste of time and it weighs down the narrative with false energy.

Now, that being said, there are other adverbs that bring something extra to the table. Is the person running haphazardly? Clumsily? Half-heartedly? Those adverbs all bring a new dimension to the discussion, because they are not a part of the standard person-running-down-the-street image. Those adverbs do some lifting on their own, creating something new as they modify the verb.

The takeaway? If you insist on using adverbs, make sure they aren't just repeating or recycling the verb's action. A good adverb enhances the action without repeating the action. If your adverb doesn't follow that policy, it can probably be dropped.

Now, discuss amongst yourselves.