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, September 29, 2023

Oh, the Words You Will Write...

My most recent manuscript tipped the scales at just over 100,000 words - lengthy by some accounts, but worthwhile according to the reviews. I keep this number in my back pocket for when people ask me, "How many words does a novel have to have?" I smile and tell them the rule of thumb is a minimum of 50,000 words, but it's usually a lot more than that. Hearing that they have to type 50,000 words just to have a novel can be exhausting for some people, and their sighs are heartbreaking. However, if they are willing to take on that task, I support them, cheer them on, and tell them to just write the story and ignore the word count. That last part is very intentional, because it will come in handy later.

Now, if they follow my instructions and just work on creating the story, a fun thing happens. The writer loses track of their word count and gets into the process of creation. They don't let this little number distract them and they focus more on characters, plot development, background, side arcs, all that stuff people say about description, and so forth. In short, they write the story they wanted to create. Then, after all is said and done, they look at that little number and see how huge it really is and what an accomplishment they have achieved. It's a genuinely proud moment.

Then the fun begins.

I have had writers come up to me, beaming that they finally finished the draft of their first full-length novel, and yes, it was, say, 60,000 words. This is a proud moment indeed and I acknowledge this feat. Then I follow up with, "Just 60,000 more to go." This usually confuses them (as it should), which is when I discuss just what it means to do that first rewrite. They are usually too excited and/or confused to appreciate just what the rewrite process means, but it's a big one. And kind of fun.

Once I finish a big project like a manuscript, I step away from it for a bit, just to cool down. I can't have everything fresh in my mind otherwise that is the part that will reread the manuscript, and I need a fresh brain to see the work as a reader, not as the author. I then read my work again, trying to think about how any and every sentence fits into the story, where the characters belong and whether or not I need them. I think about the plot as a whole, and ask myself whether this makes sense as a reader, not a writer. I start thinking about what I would want as a reader to guide me along the path, what would really surprise me, what would push me along. Hopefully, in doing this I will realize that large parts of the story don't do this as well as they could, and the rewrites begin. And there will be many.

At this point, word count no longer matters, because large chunks of story are going to be created or eliminated, with even more being added and rewritten several times. Scenes, plot arcs, and characters will vanish or be added, the world will change under our hero's feet, and it might even change between third- and first-person. However, the rule of thumb that I use is that for every first draft, 10% of it will be deleted outright, 20% is okay as is, 30% will be altered several times and 40% will be complete rewrites, followed by another 10% of changes so that all the previous changes agree with each other. For our friend with the 60,000-word novel, over 40,000 of those words are going to participate in some kind of change. 

For those who did the math, the first draft plus the revisions equals about 100,000 words - the length of my last manuscript. This is where I remind the new writer that the length really doesn't matter, as long as the story is engaging for the reader. They're the one who matters, and if they are satisfied, and you are satisfied with your creation, then everyone wins.

And then you're ready to type your next work - in my case, one that is about 94,000 words prior to the revision process.             

Monday, September 25, 2023

The Voice In Your Words

Starting from seventh grade, when school changed from home rooms to separate teachers and classes, I would say I have had at least 100 teachers, instructors, professors and TAs during my academic career. And with the exceptions of the coaches teaching gym class, I would wager that my grade in that class showed a firm correlation with the teacher's ability to draw in the students' interest. Now, keeping in mind that this was decades ago in a sub-par school district, and teachers had far fewer tools and resources to work with. Their main tool was literally their presentation. They won people over with, in so many words, their academic voice.

Some people might hop in and say, "Well, a teacher who knows the material does better," or, "Is it fair to hold it against someone if they don't have a booming voice projecting across the room?" These statements miss the point. Knowledge and volume are something, but people are more drawn to the teacher's personal excitement. Once students are caught up in their teacher's passion, they start learning. When my US History teacher taught us about the war in the Pacific during World War 2, he sat on the edge of his desk, drew in a breath, and in a solemn tone spent five minutes telling us about the taking of Okinawa - which he participated in. He had us. The rest of the class was mesmerizing because he had captured us with his seriousness, tone, and credentials as a Marine. Now, his service had nothing to do with teaching us about the United States' disputes with Japan during the 1930s, but once he had us as an audience, the teaching part became easier.

That being said, I have had several teachers who were, indeed, masters of their subjects - even carrying doctorates in chemistry and biology - yet bored me senseless. They didn't talk about their field work, they didn't put their passion into the lectures. They talked. They explained. They would offer the boring DNA lecture that interested nobody. However, their TAs talked wide-eyed about touching extracted DNA and feeling like they were holding life's codebook, and everyone felt that moment with them. Lectures were, at times, grudging requirements, but those TAs made molecular biology fascinating with their passion.

(For the sake of brevity, I will not discuss the broad spectrum of voices in my statistics classes. However, if boredom could be weaponized, I know some professors who had plenty of ammunition.)

With writing, we might have a fascinating story with deep, rich characters, but the first thing the readers will pick up is that voice. Without some spark, the rest of the piece is an uphill battle. Here's a simple exercise to promote that voice. Whenever you write a scene, some dialogue, even a description that really clicks; that really lights up your mind, go to the beginning of your work and see if that first paragraph or sentence has that same feeling. Go to some place in your work that feels weak and put all that positive writing energy into touching it up. When you write a sentence you know to be great, take that moment of magic and start spreading it around. Energized, impassioned writing is infectious, so there's no reason for you to hold back on it. And definitely make sure that your opening section gets as much of that energy as possible.

Oh - and maybe give a shout-out to the teachers in your life. If you think writing is tough, imagine what it's like to teach writing. Or history. Or biology. Or statistics...             

Monday, September 18, 2023

Shining Light on Censorship

Frankly, I am still kind of rattled. As I mentioned in my last post, someone angry about the book selection of our local libraries called in a series of bomb scares. Now, it's not the bomb scares that bother me - they were hoaxes and amounted to nothing - but rather the insistence of a few people to decide what many people should read. I am the kind of person who believes in challenging thoughts and ideas, and not hiding controversy under a blanket of ignorance. So, when someone wants to go to extremes to bury someone's art, I take it upon myself to push back against such injustices.

Conveniently enough, next week is Banned Books Week, in which libraries and book stores are prompted to fight censorship by showcasing books that some people have wanted to ban in recent history (recent, in some cases, means yesterday). Well, let me be the first one to jump in the pool in this case. Below are the 20 most banned/challenged books in the US as of 2019, according to the American Library Association. You will notice that some are surprisingly innocent-sounding books, some are classics, and some are definite must-reads, but they definitely cover a lot of social territory. Sure, there are controversial titles here, but let there be no doubt that none of these should be banned.

  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
  • Captain Underpants (series) by Dav Pilkey
  • Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher
  • Looking for Alaska by John Green
  • George by Alex Gino
  • And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell
  • Drama by Raina Telgemeier
  • Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James
  • Internet Girls (series) by Lauren Myracle
  • The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
  • The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
  • Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  • I Am Jazz by Jazz Jennings and Jessica Herthel
  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • Bone (series) by Jeff Smith
  • The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
  • Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan
  • A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo by Jill Twiss
  • Sex is a Funny Word by Cory Silverberg

If these titles are unfamiliar to you, that's fine. Hopefully, that gives you a little incentive to look them up on GoodReads or on Wikipedia. Maybe one of them has a particular appeal to you, or maybe you want to check one off your To-do list. Whatever the case may be, let this be the motivation to pick up a copy of, say, To Kill A Mockingbird, and read it over the weekend. In doing so, let those people who want to take these titles away that they cannot deny what has been created, and that their intolerance is no match for the power of the written word.           

Friday, September 15, 2023

The Controversy of the Written Word

I am not sure how many of my readers have heard about this, but several libraries in my region received bomb threats or some kind of scare just yesterday - apparently all of them connected but ultimately false. This particular false alarm hit particularly close to home for me because one of the threats was directed at a library where I attend a workshop. More importantly, it threatened to interrupt an Open Mic night being held at the coffee shop in that very library. This made it personal. While Open Mic night went on as planned, I felt a need to use my platform and say a few things about things like bomb threats and what they represent.

(And I promise, this all comes back to writing.)

Apparently, initial reports suggest that whoever the knuckleheads were who sent in these bomb threats, their big grudge was about certain libraries having certain books on their shelves. And unless you've been hiding under a rock in Madagascar for the last few years, you will know that such grudges are not uncommon. It seems that for some reason, more people are getting mad about what's in libraries, in print, or just generally available for the public to consume. Whether the offensive subject is about race, gender, profanity, mysticism or religion, or just content in general, there are people who think it's best if you don't see it. And these people have openly volunteered to make your decisions for you by protesting libraries, getting lawmakers all riled up, or in some cases, phoning in bomb threats.

Now, people who defend such actions usually avoid using the term, "book banning" (possibly because it sounds like the next step, "book burning"), and prefer to say that some content shouldn't be publicly available where certain sensitive groups might read it and become monsters or something (it's a little vague on how a book about, say, penguins can transform someone into a social deviant). However, when fringe groups raise their voices against what other people shouldn't read, it has another effect - perhaps intended. Sometimes, writers start to think, "I want to write a certain story, but will it rock the boat? Is it going too far? Should I write such a story?"

At that point, my advice is, "Write it! Write it now! Write it in bold-face letters!" When fringes of society start making the mainstream question what we should create, our inner author should want to create things that much more edgy and controversial, if only because they push the social dialogue through the written word. Our writing, our creating, serves more of a purpose than telling a story. We communicate ideas, reveal secrets, and yes, shine a bright light on some things people wish to leave in the shadows. It could be said that in times like these, we have a responsibility to fight back against the bomb-scare crowd with our own weapons - our words, our stories, our messages.

Serendipitously, the week of September 24-30 is Banned Books Week. During this week, a number of libraries hold events where they showcase various works that different groups wanted to hide from the public at some point or another. On behalf of every library and every author out there, I invite you to go to your local library and check out a few of these banned books. See just what some people are trying to keep you from thinking about. Then go back home and write something bold and controversial. Contribute to the discussion, or start your own. And don't let anything stop you.

Not even a stupid bomb scare.            

Monday, September 11, 2023

Tough Writing

I am often quite insistent that writers should write the things that are not easy to put into words; that they commit to the act of confrontation in order to push beyond the pain and fear in order to find a place of truth. That is the reason I am reposting this particular piece from a few years ago - to emphasize that while writing is not very easy at all, and neither is confrontation, the reward is worth the battle. So, on this September 11th anniversary, I discuss exactly that process.


A number of posts on this blog are quite emphatic about the importance of writing even when it's difficult. Putting words to the page helps us grow as people as well as writers, so we should always be challenging ourselves in that regard. I also spend plenty of time reminding people that resistance is a good thing because it is a sign we are not just doing the same boring stuff over and over. When we write, we grow, so when we grow, we write. In general, this is good advice.

However, for many years, there's one story I hadn't even tried to write.

Any event in our life is potentially the source for a story. If it's just a random moment, there's no guarantee the story will be particularly interesting. We spend about one-third of our lives sleeping, so those moments are boring based only on the facts on the ground. Rather, we choose the moments that stand out, and build out a particular theme from that occasion. As we grow as writers, that story comes from a deeper, more intense place, where the actions and descriptions are set to an emotional rhythm. The story grows in intensity. That's the part I worry about.

Maybe you figured it out by the timeline I laid out for this, or more likely by the picture included in this blog, but the story I don't want to write involves September 11, 2001. That one morning, that simple blue-skied Tuesday still remains unsettled in my writer's mind. I have written about many personal experiences of pain and suffering, the loss of loved ones, the mistakes I've made and the scars they've left. That one moment, however, remains unapproachable.

Perhaps this story is so tough to write because it's so public. Every part of the world saw the same pictures, heard the same reports, watched the same footage in disbelief. Maybe this is something I don't write about because it doesn't feel like my intimate memory, but the world's memory. Why would my moment in that tragedy be worth reading? People lost friends and loved ones that morning. Entire companies were wiped out in one explosion, hundreds of first-responders lost when the buildings collapsed, families destroyed, dreams vanquished by the thousands - why would the testimonial of one balding economist in Chicago shuffling into his corner office at eight in the morning be worth reading about compared to the human tragedies all around?

The other part is the emotional experience. Writing isn't just relaying events and relative details; that's journalism. The art of the narrative is to see an exciting moment and tell people why their heart beat faster. As I saw hundreds of plane passengers instantly turned into casualties like some nightmarish magic trick, rebroadcasts showing it over and over, my heart sank. To write that story is to see those passengers killed again and again. However, when it happens in my mind, I also experience the screams no survivors ever heard. I see panicked faces nobody saw from the street.

A story touches readers when it relays humanity. That terrible morning was as public as can be, but billions of people each had their unique experience. Think of your moment that day. Did you cry, or were you too stunned? Did you comfort others, or were you shaking too much? When did the reality sink in? Did it ever? Who was the first person you hugged, and held, just to let them know they weren't alone and that their humanity was valuable? How long was it before you screamed in rage? What did the hate feel like? Did your darker angels demand eye-for-an-eye revenge? Did your heart harden for just a moment? How human did you feel that day?

This is the story people want to read. This is the story that connects people. The human experience is what binds us during tragedy, and it doesn't matter whether you're an economist in Chicago, a street performer in downtown New York or a businessman in Windhoek, Namibia - your humanity responded to that moment, and billions of people would hear your story and know a part of them lived in your experience.

As a fellow human, I can say my eyes teared up just writing this blog post - I expected nothing less. However, as I writer, I can now say that, finally, I am going to put my story of that day to the page. When we write, we grow. And I offer you that same challenge - take some time and write something about your human experience. I guarantee you, it will be worth it. 

Friday, September 8, 2023

Description: Accuracy versus Intimacy

The subject of today's post came to me during a recent writer's group, which is surprising because I was already feeling a little under the weather. However, one writer's piece really caught me, as did the discussion that followed. The particular part that hit me was the description of a lawn-sized garden, sprawling and vast, with all of its intricacies and sensory details in full bloom. The discussion that followed was about how much description is enough, how precise one has to be, and how can one do justice to what they are trying to describe - either a real place or some dreamed-up garden of the mind.

In dealing with such a subject, my thoughts immediately went to my father's art studio in the basement of the house where I grew up. It was a cluttered space, illuminated by one southern-facing window, and filled with a combination of art supplies and family antiques all keeping him company as he worked. The air had an ever-present haze of pipe smoke, thick enough to turn the sunlight into distinct shafts of light coming in through that dusty window as his pipe smoldered while he leaned over his drafting easel.

Now come the questions: How accurate was that description? Was it as complete as it should be? Do I need to offer more in the name of keeping the integrity of the scene? To be honest, there was plenty more in that room - it was an art studio, replete with odds and ends everywhere. Along with his drafting easel he usually had a painting easel there as well with a half-finished canvas, a palette of oil paints sitting to the side, and this little transistor television sitting in the corner to keep him company. Are those details necessary, along with the description I left? They're all accurate, but are they necessary?

Honestly, it's hard to say. Depending on what purpose this description serves, I might just want to stick with the environmental descriptors - cluttered, smoky air, sun pouring through one window - to give it that cramped, claustrophobic feeling. However, if I wanted the description to highlight the artist he was, I should focus on the easels, the paints, the antiques and his works in progress. Either one is accurate though both would be wildly incomplete. The point, however, is that a thorough description does not always serve us best when we are trying to capture a moment or a scene. The accuracy of what we describe is always important in keeping something by the books, but that doesn't mean we have to include it.

The other part from the writer's group that stuck with me is that the image I describe will always be interpreted differently by my readers. Each person will put a different spin on that studio. Some will place the easels in the sunlight, some in the shadows. The walls will be different, the floor tiles, the whole room is subject to the reader's interpretation and imagination, so in fact I can never do that studio justice. My only responsibility is to bring out the aspects that complement the scene or the story. I can't do more than that without actually detracting from the whole.

And for those who worry about not doing justice to a past memory, take comfort in one thing: Your memory of that place is subjective as well. Memory is very subjective, often twisted around by our own assumptions and washed over by time. I remember several paintings that came out of that studio, but I can't tell you exactly where things were when they were painted. I know the different antiques he kept there, but they could've been placed anywhere. Honestly, memory has its limits, and that's okay. That's when we let our feelings take over, and write about the parts stuck not in our minds but somewhere in our hearts.

So this is why I go to workshops - there is always a reminder about how our processes work and different ways we can hone our craft. Plus, a description of a garden triggered some nice memories from my childhood, so that's not too bad either.          

Friday, September 1, 2023

It's That Time of Year...

With such an ominous title, a lot of people would be quick to fill in their own answers: It's meteorological autumn, it's football season (college or pro), it's time to go back to school... the list goes on. For me, however, it is story season. Or, as it is more formally known, our annual family reunion. On this weekend, all of the descendants of my grandfather who are still alive and were able to get paroled gather together for some good old-fashioned quality extended family time. And oh what a time it is.

What makes it such a memorable time of year? Well, it could be the pounds and pounds of Midwestern comfort food (basically any recipe with at least two of the following: potatoes, noodles/macaroni, cheese, heavy cream, eggs). It also could be all of us grown-ups regressing along with our cousins to the chaotic troublemakers we were (this is why I once had to drive the 100 miles home with "Just Marry'd" (sic) soaped across my car). And it could have something to do with seeing those family members who I otherwise only get to spy on through social media. But to be totally honest, I go there for the stories.

This particular branch of my family has lived in the same area for over a century, and most of the landmarks of that life are still in place. You can visit the house where my great-grandfather lived and died, where my grandfather was born, the places where he and his siblings got into trouble, and so on. (Yes, there's an old court ledger in the Albion courthouse that displays my great-uncle's name, what he was charged with, and the $7 fine he had to pay). Their lives are still very much a part of the landscape, and yes, their headstones adorn more than a few cemeteries out that way.

In this regard, our reunion is a chance to mill through these stories, adding a few new ones, sorting out the details of our own stories, and trying to cobble together the pieces of those stories fading into the distant past. My creative mind loves this part, because like any good storyteller, I want to tease out as many details as possible to have a whole story to work with. I want to gather the lore and the documentation about my uncle who lied about his age and joined the service in 1942 at the age of 13, got kicked out, then joined a different branch at 15. I want to hear about my grandfather (who I never met) and discover all the different sides of him from his nieces and nephews. And speaking of nephews, I also want to hear why my father often referred to my cousins as those "sticky nephews" of his. Sticky? There has to be a story there.

Often, when we live in the moment, we forget to collect this information and build together a good framework for the people around us. We forget that those people are compilations of their own stories, each of which makes up an important piece of their life. We enjoy our family's company when we are sharing some cheesy potato and pasta casserole, but we lose track of those times when our cousin stole a car on a dare, or first learned to make a smoking pipe out of an apple. And then one day, those stories are gone, and it's a hard fight to get them back. 

So this weekend, I will be collecting stories, sharing my stories, filling in a few historical blanks, and eating my body weight in starch and dairy fat. I hope you find a good way to celebrate Labor Day weekend as well, but more importantly, I hope you claim some stories from the experience.

Also, in light of Monday being a national holiday and all, I will not be posting that day. My next post will be Friday, September 8th. Happy Labor Day.