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, July 31, 2023

Writing Under the Influence

Personally, I believe there are some laws that shouldn't have to be laws because one would think they are just common sense. For example, not drinking then driving. It seems like a good idea to not operate 2,500 pounds of steel when you're a little wobbly just standing up. However, not many people follow common sense in this case, therefore there are laws. Well, I would like to propose a common-sense rule about writing that might seem obvious but we occasionally need to be reminded about. Nothing as serious as the DUI situation above, but definitely worth stating.

First and foremost, I am not against writing while intoxicated. One of my early posts, "Write Drunk, Edit Sober" actually suggests a form of this. However, I am a results-driven person, so should point out that the idea behind that post was to write freely and openly, uninhibited by all those restrictions we impose on ourselves. Whether you actually drink before you write is up to you. I indulge periodically before I write, if only to loosen up, but that's personal preference. And as long as I can still type, an adult beverage is not a problem.

That kind of "Under the Influence," however, is not what I am referring to.

Now that my second novel, "Small-Town Monster," is finally finished and on the shelves (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Foyles), I am working on a slightly lighter work with fewer dark edges to it. It requires a lot of reworking and tweaking so I will be spending a lot of time deep in the manuscript. This, however, is where I want to remind myself to be careful. Now, by being careful, I don't mean that I shouldn't be uninhibited in my writing. This is definitely a work where I need to be all-in and totally immersed in what I am doing. There is a difference, though, between "writing drunk" versus "under the influence." That difference is kind of critical, and it's best to gauge which one is guiding us when we write.

Here's the simplest example: I had a great idea for a very amusing story about a child trying to understand his parents' world. It was very much voiced from a child's perspective, and I really wanted to play with the character's voice and such to bring out the fun of the moment. So I wrote it, polished it, then workshopped it for opinions. It was an unmitigated disaster. There was nothing wrong with the writing itself, but the voice, the tone, the humor, they all missed the mark entirely. This wasn't just a driver going outside the lines, this was flipping the car into a ditch. It was an epic fail, and it didn't take me long to figure out why.

At that time, I was delving into my past to sort out a lot of personal issues. Needless to say, this was not an easy process to do emotionally, and as it turned out, those emotions promptly carried through to my writing - and not in a good way. Emotional turbulence, it turns out, can get in the way of child-like innocence and humor. In this case, I was under the influence of all these feelings, and ended up steering my story right into a tree.

One thing I do nowadays is do a quick little inventory check to see if something in my world might interfere with my writing mood. If my beloved Cubs are in a slump (which happens more than I would like it to), I try to avoid typing optimistic stories. If I feel that inner family turbulence, it might not be the best time to write a children's story. However, this can work for me as well. The best stories I ever wrote about my parents were when I was immersed in the emotional space of having lost them. The stories weren't very happy, but they were effective. I recognized being under the influence of their presence, and I turned into the skid and let that power up my writing. It worked very well, thank you very much.

Emotions do wonderful things for writers, and shouldn't be ignored. However, they should be checked and examined, just so you make sure that what you feel and what you write blend into something great. Otherwise, your writing might leave you with a bad hangover.           

Friday, July 21, 2023

Postcard From the Front Line (of writing)

It finally happened. After a lot of struggles, my second book, Small-Town Monster, is officially published. It's about 100,000 words long, and filled with a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. It's also filled with a lot of rewrites, edits, deleted characters, and removed secondary plots that you will never see. (Maybe in some future reprint, but not now) So, to commemorate this personal triumph, I thought I would share some of the roadblocks and setbacks that showed up along the way, and demonstrate how none of these should hold us back from writing.

The first challenge - 100,000 words. Given my font choice, leading, page size, etc., it's 370 pages, which seems like an eternity away from looking at the laptop screen and seeing six words: "Small-Town Monster by James Pressler." Filling up the screen with words is tough enough, but 370 pages? Never gonna happen! However, I say this time and time again, nobody has ever written a book in one sitting - not even Anne Rice despite all the internet rumors. Your job as a writer is to write, so start writing. The word count will take care of itself; that's none of your business. You tell the story, word by word, for as long as it takes.

Fear of the rewrite. If you think putting 100,000 of your favorite words together is a daunting task, imagine completing it then being told, "Okay - now do it again, but better." It's like thinking you had just run a marathon, then the person at the ribbon says, "Get ready for the next lap." I make sure that when I finish my first draft, the first thing I do is give myself all the credit in the world for having finished such an accomplishment. Writing anything to completion is no easy task, so give yourself credit. And then put it down for a bit. Bask in your glory, and give your story some time to ferment, both on the shelf and in your head. A few weeks should be fine - just enough time for you to enjoy everything and then start thinking, "Wait, what if..." At that point, you'll want to do your first rewrite. You will dive into it, merrily plowing into your pile of words, knowing you can improve on something that a few weeks ago seemed perfect.

When is it done? Yeah, rewrites are fun once you get into them, but do you ever reach a point where you say, "Perfect! I cannot improve upon this," and prepare for publishing? Nope. There's always a reason to give it just one more go-through, find just one more beta reader. I have found that there has to be a point where I say, "I feel good about this, and it feels clean. Maybe not perfect, but what is?" Then, after one last spell-check, I save the file as "final copy" and prepare for publishing. BTW - I also prepare for someone who will inevitably say, "Hey, did you mean to use 'affect' versus 'effect' on page 106?" And so it goes.

Could I have done better? There will be a lingering remorse post-publication, worrying about whether it was okay to kill off Steve in Chapter 10 instead of Chapter 8, or whether a certain joke worked as well as it could've, and so on. This is where I go to my advice in fear of the rewrite. Give yourself credit for your accomplishment. Don't worry about whether the joke landed or flopped - it's better than the joke you didn't write. Whether Steve dies in Chapter 8 or Chapter 10 isn't important - he's a character that you created, brought forward, then killed off. Steve is thankful to just be a part of your story. Save your second-guessing for several novels later, when you can refer to your earlier works and personal choices that you learned from. For now, just enjoy the moment and don't worry about Steve - he's fine. (dead, but fine.)

There's a lot more to think about and fears to confront, but you will never discover them if you don't start on the journey. Stare down the blank page, start writing your story, and go through each painful step because it leads you to a wonderful place. It leads you to publication.

On that note, I would recommend buying Small-Town Monster on Amazon mostly because I get a better royalty, but it's also available at Barnes & Noble and Foyles for you UK readers. And for those of you who prefer digital copies, those will be coming out soon. I just haven't figure out how to autograph them.        

Friday, July 14, 2023

Know What You Write

This week was marked by a fun little phenomenon called tornadoes. Wednesday, seven or more tornadoes decided to pay the suburbs an unannounced visit. Fortunately, nobody was killed, the damage was contained, and for most people, life returned to normal. For those people who had property damage, lost trees, etc., things will return to normal sooner rather than later. It was rather unusual that these particular tornadoes were visible from Chicago, and the bad weather that followed did roll through the city. But for the most part this is another tornado season in the Midwest.

Being a lifelong Chicagoland resident, I know tornado season well enough to be able to sort people's responses into three stereotypes: There's the news-watcher, who will fixate on the weather reports interrupting regularly scheduled programming, examining every image from Doppler radar and every nugget of information offered by the meteorologists, regardless of whether the tornado activity is ten miles away or 100 miles away. Then there are those who want to see Nature's bad attitude up close, so they will go outside in the high winds, scan the clouds for any activity, and even drive toward the places where activity has been sited. (These people also get killed now and then) And, of course, there's the last group; people who are very passive about the tornado alarms. They know what to do, when to do it, and what to worry about and what is just hype. They don't rush outside but they don't care about the news, they just live their life. Basically, they are just going to go about their existence until cattle actually blow by their front window, or until that freight-train sound gets too loud to ignore.

Why am I telling you all this? Basically, these are my Tornado Alley credentials. I have been through a few tornado close-calls, a few derechos (look it up), and other weather-related events, so I have the experience base to write about a run-in with bad weather. My job, as a writer, is to make sure that I provide front-line details and intimate descriptions that communicate to my reading audience the reality of a tornado experience. However, this is an active process. I can't just tell the reader, "Believe me, I know what I'm talking about," even though I do. I have to think about all the little details that I have experienced, and pour those onto the page in a way that they do the convincing for me. My job, at this point, is to surround the reader with my experiences, and bring them into that space.

Now, since not everyone has experienced a tornado firsthand, their job as a writer is two-fold: get details and information from those who have been through it, and appeal to the emotional side of an experience in a way anyone could understand. You don't need to have had this experience to know fear is a factor, perhaps tinged with a morbid excitement. And like any disaster, looking at the aftermath in person comes with a certain amount of horror and awe, mixed in with the guilty feeling from looking at a destroyed house and thinking, "I'm glad that's not me." (Yes, people think that.) 

In short, making experiences believable helps if you've been through it yourself, but we can't always count on that, so write about the parts you can relate to, and get information from other sources to help fill in the blanks. Making things real sometimes requires more effort than you might realize, but it all pays off when your writing puts someone through an experience in exactly the way you imagined.       

Monday, July 10, 2023

Point of View - Holding the Scene

One thing writers will hear a lot about but rarely discuss is Point of View (PoV). We are most familiar with this when we write first-person PoV. In that style, everything comes from our frame of existence, all discussion being our own thoughts, actions, and experiences. However, there are a few other perspective we can write from, and I would like to focus on one in particular - third-person character PoV. We see this used a lot in larger, sweeping epics where there is more than one main character, and it can be very effective. However, it is not as easy as just writing about someone else.

Let's take the following writing piece involving two characters - Paul and Abraham. This is just a little snippet of their interaction in an office:

Paul thought long and hard before coming to his decision. "I just can't do what you ask," he told Abraham while shaking his head. Paul stood up and walked out of the office, shutting the door behind him. Abraham remained at his desk, his heart filling with regret about what he now had to do.

A simple scene, four little sentences and not a lot of moving parts. We get an interaction, one character reacting to a situation, then another character left to consider the consequences of that action. Very straight-forward writing, and all in the third-person perspective. Not a lot to work with, one might think. However, let me ask one simple question.

Whose perspective is this story from?

In simple third-person perspective, we take the story from one person's perspective - Paul or Abraham in this case. However, in this paragraph, no matter who is in charge of the perspective, we have a PoV violation - we betray the third-person rule. How? Well, if this is all from Abraham's perspective, we can't talk about how "Paul thought long and hard" because Abraham would have no way of knowing what's going on in Paul's mind. Conversely, if this is Paul's perspective, he would have no idea what Abraham did or felt after Paul left the office. In either case, the scene slips out of the character's perspective.

Now, there are versions of third-person writing that allow this. Third-person omniscient allows the reader to see and know everything, and there's fly-on-the-wall style, where the reader is just witness to everything but not in anyone's head - often referred to as TV show writing. These have their advantages, but third-person character writing gives the reader an opportunity to engage the story from one perspective, and ride along from that view. It's effective in that well-done third-person PoV places the reader in a very specific place in the story. However, violating the boundaries demanded by that style dispels the illusion cast upon the reader, and cheats them of an experience.

The secret to writing from one character's perspective is for the writer to "see" the story from whichever character holds focus, and engage the other elements from one specific mindset. This is often done only by practice, frequent mistakes and constant corrections, and another reader always helps. But it's an effective tool to master, and well worth the effort.        

Monday, July 3, 2023

The Deluge and the Drought

Boy, did the skies ever open up yesterday. Here in the Midwest, we got a whole bunch of rain on Sunday. Some areas around Chicago topped off their rain gauges at over eight inches yesterday. To offer a little perspective, for the entire month of June, the Chicagoland area got about 2.2 inches of rain. Needless to say, all this precipitation, while very much needed, was a lot to handle. Streets and underpasses flooded, sewers overflowed, and thanks to some construction in front of my house, for a while I was the proud owner of a moat. So, to recap: a lot of rain.

During this time, I got some writing in. Actually, I got a lot of writing in. A whole bunch of it. Probably more than I should've, but I definitely needed to get it out of my system. For some of us, creativity is very similar to Midwest weather patterns: not entirely predictable, prone to wild swings, and often full of long dry spells. That's where I had been for a while, so when the weather trapped me inside on a Sunday, I tapped into that creativity and dumped a bunch of it onto the page. It was helpful, but sometimes I fear that after a big storm of creativity, the dry spell will return. And when it comes, I try to push myself to stay creative, even when I am not writing.

During my June writing drought, I won't say I had writer's block or anything. I had some mental fatigue, a little physical exhaustion, and a few late nights. What I didn't have, though, was an outpouring of creativity, so I diverted myself to other opportunities. I edited a few stories I was working on. I reviewed a past writing piece that I think would make a nice one-act play. I put the final touches on my novel that will be finalized this week. I stayed within the realm of creative action even though I didn't actually create anything new. Then, when the opportunity hit me on Sunday, I created all kinds of things.

There is, fundamentally, one problem with this strategy. Sometimes, the most difficult thing to do is start a piece. If, during the deluge of creativity, I write a few pieces to completion, I can call them jobs well done, but during the ensuing drought it is that much more difficult to try and create. That is what I face now - a few finished works, but I am not sure if I have the creative strength to start a new piece. I might just edit and revise what I wrote, but I am back in a creativity drought. Not a smart move on my behalf.

What I try to do during periods like this (and what I should've done Sunday) is create the skeleton for several things while I had the energy. By getting them started, I would've conquered the most difficult part, thus making it easier for me to continue working on it when maybe my energy isn't as high. I would have projects just waiting for me to return to them, which could ride me through the next creativity drought.

Here's the takeaway from all this creativity- and weather-related rambling: It takes a big push to set something in motion, so when you have the energy, take it upon yourself to write the first page of that big project. Get it off the ground and give yourself something to work with. The rest will come naturally in time, but that first bit is the most difficult to create. So if you find yourself in a creativity drought, thinking about some project on a rainy Sunday afternoon, write the first chapter. Write the first page; write the opening line. Get it started, and give yourself an opportunity to keep on writing long after the weather's changed.