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, August 25, 2023

The Journey of 100,000 Words...

Every now and then I like to write a little piece about just how terrifying it can be to write something big and impressive, and offer some advice on just what you will encounter on that journey. Of course, every adventure has its own unique set of challenges, so let's not worry about those. Let's worry about the ones that I see on chat pages and Q&A sites about writing all the time, because more than a few people have these kinds of setbacks. And you know what? They're not that troublesome once you realize everyone hits these obstacles.

How do I start?
Sometimes this is merely fear of a white page, and sometimes it's not knowing just how to kick off this long journey. To this end, I will say something controversial. The author Elmore Leonard made one of his writing rules, "Never start off talking about the weather." Well, if it gets you typing, start off with your character coming in from a storm. It's a violation of Leonard's rule, but it get you going. You are more than welcome to change it later (and you likely will do that several times), but for now, it puts you into writing the story.

I have a bunch of scenes I want to write, but how do I fill in the spaces in between them? This is sometimes referred to as the Tentpole problem - the tentpoles are the key events that hold up the story, but the story can't just weigh down the space in between the poles. For these moments, I refer to the periods during wartime between the major battles. This time is best utilized by implementing the three R's of warfare - recover, reorganize, reload. After a major scene, you can have the characters recognize what happened, consider whether it changed their pursuit, then prepare to move forward. This allows the space between the tentpoles to still borrow from the excitement of the main scenes, but also carry the reader along without weighing down the story. And I will mention this again - you can always rewrite it.

How many words should my story be? I always like to say it should be no more than one story long, but sometimes people need a little more guidance. A novel can be as short as 50-60,000 words; anything shorter is usually considered a novella. I don't aim for a word count in my stories or chapters, I look to tell the story I want to express through a series of scenes that each have their own message. If it makes you more comfortable, set a word count for each piece. However, the most important part should be pacing above all else. Forcing exciting chapters to end prematurely or extending simple bridge chapters will destroy the reader's experience. As you write more and more, you will get a feel for the proper length of your piece. (Pro tip: If your manuscript is above 200,000 words, you probably need to trim it down.)

I don't know how to end this. Yes, this happens, and it usually happens because the story you set out to write changed along the way. At this point you need to think about your story in two sentences - the conflict you main character is facing and what they should experience at the conclusion. Once you write down those two sentences, your objective is to make sure that last sentence is satisfied. Then, at that point, see if the first sentence is still part of your story. Welcome to the rewriting phase.

There are dozens of common pitfalls and obstacles on the writer's journey. The only advice I can give that will cover them all is that you don't let any of them stop you from writing down something. Anything. Anything you write, you can rewrite, just never lose the momentum. Keep on writing, one word at a time, to the very end.          

Friday, August 18, 2023

A Golf Lesson About Being A Writer

Do not be alarmed, this is not a posting about golf. I know that can scare some people off, so, rest assured, the actual mechanics of the game of golf will not be discussed. Rather, I wanted to reflect on a lesson I learned very recently, and it all kind of spins around the subject of golf. This will involve a little history about me, but I promise no golf games will be discussed. Seriously. None.

As I am writing this, top golfers are playing in the 2023 BMW Championship at Olympia Fields Country Club just a few miles north of where I live. The entire village of Olympia Fields (which is surprisingly small) is currently overridden by fans, fame, glitz, glamour, and professional golf. It's actually quite a big event for this far south suburb of Chicago, and it brings up a lot of memories for me.

When I was a kid, everyone knew the Olympia Fields Country Club was this fancy place hidden in a secluded nook off of Western Avenue, walled in with its tree-lined course hidden from peering eyes and troublemakers such as yours truly. Since most of us had only heard about it through hearsay, it became a magical thing full of wonder and possibility. My brothers were fortunate enough to have friends who got them jobs as caddies there, lugging the clubs of members who tipped incredibly well but never getting to enjoy the country club itself. The stories they would tell of this wonderful Shangri-La of the south suburbs were amazing, and I always wondered if professional golf would ever arrive at this special place. On occasion, in my late teens, I had a chance to drive into the neighborhood surrounding the country club to help my boss (who was a member). That felt like the closest I would ever get to such an amazing location.

Fast-forward to a couple years ago. Professional golf had finally arrived at Olympia Fields, and somehow it seemed like no big surprise. Also that year I attended a memorial service for a friend of mine, and the Celebration of Life was held at one of his favorite places - Olympia Fields Country Club. I drove up, gave my name at the gate, was let through, and I found myself in that place I only dreamed about as a kid. And for some reason, it felt very natural to walk through there in my suit and tie, admiring the facilities, looking across the lush greens. My inner child was in utter disbelief that I finally made it past the gate, but present-day me found out it was a very nice fit to be there.

Okay -- no golf. But where's the writing lesson? It's pretty simple. The most daunting thing I ever faced as a writer was the mere thought of writing something big and important, 70,000+ perfect words all lined up in such a way that people would choose to read every one of them. How could I dare dream something like that? Such a fantasy was just that, a daydream by an economist who had no place thinking he could be anything else. Such a world belonged to writers, not people like me. Nevertheless, I put some words down, wrote a few stories, then a few more, and decided to see where it would all go. Before I knew it, I was a writer with a couple of books published and a third in the works. And having taken that journey, it now seems like the most natural thing I ever did.

To the aspiring writers out there, keep on writing. Write your stories, make your mistakes, develop your craft, and realize that if you keep on pursuing it, you will end up walking down the hallways reserved for writers, and you will belong there.   

Monday, August 14, 2023

Beta-reading and Beta-readers

I was a little surprised from the IMs I received after last week's post about the things I learned from the publication process. The real surprise was how they mostly focused on beta-readers. In particular, there seems to be an idea that a beta-reader is just a person who reads your work prior to publication, like a beta-tester does with apps before they go live. Well, that's true at its core, but there's so much more to it. Yes, beta-readers get to it first, but their responsibilities are extensive. So, here are some notes of what you should expect from beta-readers, and what you should provide if you are a beta-reader.

First, a beta-reader should approach the task as detached from the author and the work as possible. Having your mother or brother or cousin read your work comes with a lot of emotional baggage and potential for interference. An ideal beta-reader should be able to separate themselves enough to give cold, hard, responses. If you are worried that your reader might be too close to the subject, choose someone else. If you are not good at separating yourself from your friend who wants you to read their work, recommend someone else.

Now, a good beta-reader should read critically, but there are two kinds of criticism they can offer. The first kind is obvious - factual and structural problems. Consistency issues, point-of-view problems, grammar, spelling, etc. If a problem is easily quantified, it should be called out and stated as fact, such as, "You spell Cheryl's name Sheryl in some spots," "The movie you referred to did not come out until two years after the time of the story," "You use the word beta- six times in your first paragraph." These are the simple corrections a beta-reader offers, and easily the easiest category.

The situation gets complex when you go to the other kind of criticism - subjective notes. These are the areas where you have to bring out your opinions as a reader, but keep them packaged so they are constructive and can lead the writer to improve things. The comment, "This chapter was boring" is informative, but there's not much meat on the bone. Rather, pointing out how the chapter did not maintain the same pacing as the other chapters and therefore threw off the pacing offers something for the author to think about. Even better, explain what "boring" actually was. Did the chapter lack tension? Did it not move the story forward? Was it too wordy? In a book full of car chases, did this just amount to an idle conversation? Those comments are workable, even if they are just opinions. 

Of course, beta-readers should be careful about whether their opinion is helping. "This ghost story really isn't my genre" does not help. "I wasn't drawn into the ghost story" might help more, or maybe not. Just remember - if the comment isn't something the writer can take as an actionable point, then why do they need to hear it?

Lastly, a good beta-reader should be able to discuss different points with the author, and the author should be able to ask questions to find out just what would make things work better. It is not the author's job to answer every point, but consider every point. If the beta-reader says they don't understand a relationship or progression, the author's best move is not to explain it but to find the reader's disconnect and think about ways to fix it.

Hopefully this gets a few thoughts rolling. I always love the feedback, and hope to get more as time goes along. And, of course, I will do my best to learn from it.           

Friday, August 11, 2023

Publication Sidenotes

As my regular readers now know (and most everyone else, since I won't shut up about it), my second novel, Small-Town Monster, was finally published (also available on Amazon). It's been a big production to finally get it wrapped up, but now that it's all finalized, I have had a little time to sit back and take in the lessons from the entire process from the idea phase to finalizing my copy. In doing so, I think it's only fair that I share a few of those insights in the name of allaying the frustrations of other writers walking the same path.

Your first draft will be horrible. Accept this fact now and you can go a long way in creating something good. The first draft will have unnecessary characters, irrelevant dialogue, a whole school of red herrings, contradictions, and monstrous plot holes. The characters' actions will be choppy and inconsistent, the pacing will be erratic, and sometimes things just happen out of nowhere. All these things are fine in a first draft, because that first spin at writing the story is simply to write it from stem to stern. Create the story, then worry about all those things I listed. It's so much easier that way.

The first edit of that draft will be painful. All those errors I listed will come out in full view, along with spelling, grammar, passive voice, etc. It will at times be embarrassing to look at, and a feeling of shame is perfectly natural. However, all that red ink serves a purpose - to guide you to the final draft. Let it do its thing and you do your thing - be a writer.

Never run a spellcheck before the final draft. Why check the spelling on pages you are probably going to rewrite anyway? If you are tired of Word calling you out on the alternative name usage you chose, just add it to the dictionary and move on. You have bigger fish to fry.

Warning: Not every character will survive. It's tough to realize that a character you thought was a fun addition to the story is little more than a speed bump to the pacing, and they have to go. Erasing characters happens, and do not be afraid - they don't take it personally. Every character we delete merely goes back into our brain and waits for a story where they can flourish. Their loss is for the greater good of the story, so do not feel bad. Let the axe fall and move on.

Beta-readers are really trying to help you. If you use beta-readers or workshop different stories (which I strongly recommend), you will get feedback such as, "I didn't understand this character's motive" or "How does this affect things?" At this point, it is not your job to explain the motive or the effect to the reader, but to ask what would resolve that problem. Most problems are when the reader does not understand what the writer is trying to communicate, and it is in the best interest of the writer to find out why that message isn't coming through. If you can, engage the reader's questions and offer suggestions to them to see what would resolve the situation. This is called progress, and seriously, you will benefit from it.

Finish the damn thing! There will always be more work to do, always another read-through to take. At some point, however, you need to tell yourself, "This is where I feel good about it. Maybe not 100% great, but I feel this is the message I want to send." Then do a spell-check and get ready for the manuscript-shopping/publication process. There will be little errors in it - nobody's perfect. However, you have created your story and put your top effort into it. Be proud of this moment.

My goal in offering these points is simple: Writing a story is more than just writing, but all these other points build up to the price-tag on a quality product. They are frustrating, aggravating, and often quite disheartening, but they lead up to that moment when you can hold your own book in your hand as see your name on the cover. Believe me, the effort is worth it.       

Monday, August 7, 2023

Writing Life Into Your Life

Almost all my 50-odd years of life have been pretty boring. There were moments of excitement, horror, joy, humor, and even suspense and intrigue. However, most of the hours of my life would register as "uninteresting" at best. After you write off the truly boring time - the one-third of those hours where I was sleeping, those many hours in school taking notes, countless hours staring at the television, and so forth, the remaining time is still not very exciting. Horsing around with my friends was fun but was any of it worth a story? All that time at work - interesting, but was it enough? On its own, probably not. And this goes for most everyone. Even you.

Now, this seems to run contrary to the fact that plenty of people have written very interesting autobiographies or had their life stories published with a bunch of very gripping, compelling stories making their lives seem epic. So how can this be - if lives are so boring, how do we know if we drew the lucky straw to have a life worth writing about? Well, the answer is very simple, and doesn't even require a major lifestyle change.

What makes our stories very interesting is usually not the story itself, but what the story represents, and how we write that into the narrative. For example, I mentioned that my time in school was largely taking notes, studying, etc. - the usual school stuff. That, in itself, is very common, very boring, and not worth a story without putting a little life into it. I don't have to make things up, no need for lying. I just need to add a little element of conflict and things take off.

Conflict does not mean my story about school has to be about a fight or an argument. All it has to be is describing a situation where what I had and what I wanted were not aligned, and I am stuck in the middle of it. The best example most people can relate to is their teen years. That awkward place where we are growing up but not yet an adult, changing but not understanding, wanting to be more than we are but not ready to take it all on. Let's put a drop of this into the story, and watch it change.

I mentioned the student taking notes in class. Boring! But what if we write about how that note-taking student wants to put all this knowledge to use but can't at the age of 15. Think of the frustration of the high-school student learning all these skills but having nowhere to apply them. They learn about the world but they can't see anything because they're stuck in the south suburbs of Chicago. All the talk about going to college and being a success is blocked by the fact that nobody really escapes the little town that is all they've known. Now the story gets going. Now the story has some life. Every action is seen as either another obstacle in the way of becoming an adult, or another trial on the road to maturity. The life journey is the interesting part, with a focus on how everything relates to that one goal of being something more than they knew possible.

Now, some people lead some genuinely action-packed lives, but I am doubting any of them read this blog. For those who do, your life is well worth writing about, and will draw a lot of readers if you remember to weave in the idea that this was more than just living, this was a struggle to grow, to evolve, to become something more. That's the story everyone wants to read.     

Friday, August 4, 2023

Beyond Right and Wrong

The most important component for any story is tension - the feeling surrounding any potential loss or failure. As more and more is at stake, the more the tension builds. And, of course, what activates tension more than conflict? When two or more sides collide, there's always the potential for losses. All the classics have this incorporated into their words - a story where something is at stake, from a relationship to someone's life to the fate of the world. Let's face it: Readers eat that stuff up.

Now, the reader usually approaches this high-stakes game from one side or the other, but we usually assume that they hold the moral high ground and are supporting the right cause. They are protecting their family, they are defending their home and country, they are saving the innocent. This kind of clear-cut situation frees up the reader from worrying about whether or not the person is doing the right thing - what kind of person wouldn't defend their family, country, or the innocent? - and lets the reader worry about how the main character is going to do this.

However, just for fun, what if we muddy the waters a little? Do we still root for the main character if the family they are protecting is a violent organized crime family? What about a family of terrorists? How do we feel about a main character fighting for his country, which just happens to be Hitler's Germany? What if the only way to defend the innocent is to unleash a terrible weapon upon other people, some of whom are just as innocent? (Yes, I recently saw Oppenheimer) Now things get rolling. Now the tension rises. Why? Not only do we have the greater conflict - trying to do what needs to be done - but we have an internal conflict of whether the character should take on this task, and also whether or not these characters can spare themselves from possibly doing the wrong thing entirely; that is, if we even understand what the wrong thing is.

This is where simple conflict becomes writing in shades of gray (no, not that shades of gray) and offering the reader more than a story, but asking them a question. These are stories where we have to think first not about what is actually right or wrong, but the validity of both sides of the argument. When both sides have a good point, or when both sides have moral flaws, the reader is not only taking in the story, but hopefully they are thinking about just what they might do. The reader has engaged not only with the story but with the ideas. And, as I have said countless times, when the writer gets the reader to engage with the words, it's always a win.

This isn't as difficult as it may seem. There are plenty of topics that feed into the shades of gray, and they are still effective: vigilante justice, social obligations, personal freedoms, cultural conflict - that's just a sampling from a pretty huge list. As an exercise, I suggest taking any subject where the answer isn't so simple, and just writing a story about a person thinking about both sides of the argument. It doesn't have to be a story, just let the character explore the different ideas at hand. If you do this for a bit, a story will come to mind about whatever tricky situation you choose. And if you write it in shades of gray, you can draw in the reader.