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, October 27, 2023

A Few Thoughts About Reality

Most of my writing is fairly contemporary, as in it happens in a world I live in or have lived in. Maybe the years are different, but in general, it's all about known quantities: There are no fire-breathing dragons, warp drives aren't a thing, witchcraft is ritual rather than magic, etc. This is the world I know and love, and that's why I write about it. I have dabbled in sci-fi, and I do have a fiction-fantasy series that needs extensive work, but in general my writing dwells here on Earth. That being said, what are the rules for writing about life on Earth?

The first thing one must concern themselves about is writing about real things in a fictitious manner. If I was to write about the town where I grew up, for example, I could run into a bunch of problems if my stories - even as fiction - associated the town name with bad events or disreputable people (and they would). However, that rule changes when a location becomes more publicly recognized. Technically, I was born in Chicago, and that is a different situation for writing as it is well storied and has a broad spectrum of association, versus my little hometown of [redacted]. 

This is where things get nasty. If I want to write a fictitious work about things and events that happened during my childhood, I have to fictionalize it to a reasonable degree while still keeping it within the realm of the plausible. For example, close to where I live is a famously haunted woods (if you believe in haunted things), and there are many stories surrounding everyone's favorite forest preserve, [redacted]. As a writer, I can find a way to tell that story, but it needs to be sterilized just enough to establish a reasonable degree of doubt as to whether or not that was my point of reference. With the stories, names would need to be changed, street locations altered, and perhaps even the outcome of the story tweaked a little as to not borrow too much from reality.

Now, certain things we can take for granted when writing fictionalized versions of true stories - the whole no dragons, no warp drives thing is still in play. The environment can still have the same feeling and convey whatever sense of mood is necessary, but exacting details are best washed out. Anyone who reads any of Stephen King's work and knows their way around Maine can get a feel for the locations that inspired a particular story. However, King created a fictionalized version of Maine to set his stories. Don't go looking for Castle Rock - you'll never find it.

In general, the rule for fictionalizing a true story boils down to what you might see in a Law & Order episode: Some things might click into a particular story or event, but things like personal reputations and identities cannot be pinned down specifically. And if that means making up a little town of Lake Grove, Illinois to tell the stories that happened in [redacted], then that's a little bit of reality you can make up on your own. No dragons, though.         

Monday, October 23, 2023

(More) Rules of Writing

Last week, I offered a few of my big, important rules of writing. I led with those because they are the ones I tend to talk about the most and reinforce in workshops and writing groups. They covered the range from grammar to structure to editing, but they were far from the only rules I swear by. This set is simpler to work with but no less important. The only real difference about these is that I use them less often just because the opportunity does not present itself as often. And on that note...

Use description to make something important. Everyone has hair, skin, eyes, and so forth, and technically we can talk about all those things when we describe a character. However, our energies should be directed toward giving the reader something to hook on to. While the color of hair et al is worth mentioning once, the hook is that scar over their lip, that limp in their walk, or the slight East Coast accent. It doesn't have to be an exceptional thing, it can be as simple as particularly blue eyes or a slightly crooked smile. The important part is that thing that would stand out. If you were looking for that character in a coffee shop, and you only knew one detail about their appearance, what would that be to let you find them? That is where your descriptive energies should go.

Edit with purpose. It's an easy trap to fall into - thinking that "editing" a manuscript is just reading it for mistakes, errors, weak writing, or some other failing. You can edit that way, but you mostly gather the low-hanging fruit and miss the real important stuff. "Editing with purpose" is going through your work with a mission, and everything you read should target that one objective. Simple missions can be, "Does this contribute to the plot development?" "Is this character necessary?" or "Does this reinforce the particular mood?" It's easy to read a scene and enjoy a joke you wrote, but overlook the fact that the joke is in the wrong place or might even be a distraction. Editing with a mission tells you when you are on target, or when you might be wandering off-subject.

At some point, trim the fat. As we learn our craft, we get used to trimming off the excess. However, sometimes it helps us to deliberately do a pass through our document and target specific, often unnecessary, words. How many times do we use "that" when we don't need it? What about the entire problem with the passive voice? How about those evil time-killers like "almost," kind of," "sort of," and so forth - the cheap terms that take the strength from our writing? Just do a Find/Replace search with Microsoft Word and do a count for how many of those little monsters are in there, then see if they're necessary. (Spoiler: Most of them aren't.)

Give yourself a timeout. When you create something - especially a larger work - it's important to reward yourself for finishing that ever-important first draft. The best reward you can give yourself is a little time where you don't look at any of it. Put it on a shelf for a while. Some people just need a week, others take a month off. The important part, however, is to let yourself get out of the deep immersion into the story so you can read it with an open mind and a fresh set of eyes. Another benefit, of course, is to just have the full realization of what you've accomplished, which is no small thing. Once the rush is over, you're ready for the hard work.

At some point, it's as finished as it's going to be. When my father painted, he would occasionally get obsessed with some particular aspect of his work to the point where he would get stuck in a loop of reworking and redesigning. However, at some point, he decided the work was finished, he coated it with lacquer, and it was sealed forever. Your writing should be the same way. It will never be perfect. There will always be a stupid error, an opportunity to flesh out characters just a little more, or one more plot twist to add. However, continually changing things is the road to madness, so at some point you have to put the brush down and say, "I'm done." Then take pride in that moment - again, you've earned it.                

Friday, October 20, 2023

(My) Rules of Writing

Noted author Elmore Leonard is known for a lot of stories, but most workshop attendees get to know him for his "10 Rules for Good Writing," which can be found anywhere on the internet. Now, some people follow them religiously, others take issue with one or two, and there are even those who are totally against them. I personally agree with most of them, though perhaps for different reasons. When he says, "Never open a book with weather," some people interpret this as never open with cheap drama like a storm, rain, etc., while others say it's more about finding something more direct to open with. I personally believe that a good opening should contain some actual element of the main story arc, and unless a main character is, in fact, a storm front, leave it out. That's just me.

Elmore Leonard
And yes, that's what I am going with - these are some of my rules for writing. You can accept them, challenge them, resist them, or ignore them. The point is that this is the ground where I stand, and to know me as a writer is to know this stuff. So, here are a few important ones:

The only purpose of a first draft is to get the story from your brain to the page. Writers often set unrealistic expectations on their writing, especially when first creating something. One of those expectations is to think there's gold in every word you write from the moment you type/write/create it. Wrong! Your first draft will be a maze of half-baked ideas, shallow characters and transparent motives, mixing about as smoothly as rocks in a blender. Accept this and process the idea, write those horrible words, because it's the only way you can get to the editing stage, where the magic really happens.

You won't know your opening line until you write your final line. Another part of that first-draft process is discovering just what your characters and plot are all about. During that creation process, things can and often will change, so let them. Evolution is fun to watch, so let it happen and don't get too hung up on an individual sentence. Once you see how it all plays out and the underlying journey this story takes, that is the moment you will know how your story should start.

If an adverb doesn't bring anything new to the sentence, lose it. I preach this a lot, and I will say it again: Be careful with your adverbs. There's no need to say someone runs quickly, yells loudly, punches hard, etc. Those are givens, and those kinds of adverbs can be quickly disposed of (like the word "quickly" that I just used). If someone runs clumsily, yells drunkenly, or punches wildly, those words bring something new to the table, so they can stay. And on that note...

A good simile is worth a thousand adverbs. Similes and metaphors are great tools for giving voice and feel to your writing, and a good one makes a scene memorable. With our verbs above, if someone runs like a runaway beer truck, yells like a squealing goat, or punches like he just ran into a spider web, the scene sticks with the reader because they attach the verb and the character to an idea. And the more we use similes, the more our creative mind puts odd things together, and this comes through in our writing. 

The last act of finishing your work is the spellchecker - and not a moment before that. Seriously, anyone who has created a large project knows that the repeated edits that go into it make spell-checking entirely useless, because most words will be rewritten anyway. Often, we spell-check just to avoid writing but still feel productive, but it isn't. And if that doesn't convince you, then I should let you know one writer's secret: Every time a writer uses a spellchecker unnecessarily, somewhere a puppy dies. It's true. So don't. 

My next post will have a few more rules for you, but think about these first. Agree with them, challenge them, or reject them - it's up to you. (But I am serious about the puppy thing)        

Monday, October 16, 2023

Knowing Your Volcano

You know that feeling when you are sitting on the edge of the volcano, looking into the fiery hellscape beneath? Remember how it felt when pulses of heat would hit you in waves, filling you with that sense of nature's power along with an ashy fullness that singed your hair and made you cough? Your eyes would dry out instantly, then start watering from the invisible soot and sulfur pushing you back, demanding you retreat from its awe and power. As you sat there, taking in the dry heat and recognizing you sat just above instant death, remember how you felt both terrified yet somehow at peace with the greatest forces our planet could show you - like looking into the eye of the Earth itself?

Oh - you haven't been on the edge of a volcano's crater?

Don't feel bad. Most people haven't had the experience, and considering the danger, maybe that's a good thing. However, some mere technicality such as never having experienced something shouldn't stop you from sharing the experience with your readers. It's not just a writer's gift when they can put their reader next to them on the crater rim, but it's their responsibility to do so if the writing demands it.

Now, what really might get in the way of writing such an experience is not actually having it, and that's where the magic of writing takes over. In all honesty, you don't need to have been there to write about it. The writer's responsibility is to use words to convey the feelings that need to be realized. If the writer wants the whole volcano's edge experience to be terrifying, then convey whatever details you know about volcanos in the most fearful manner possible. If it's excitement that the reader needs to feel, then make sure every description is filled with adrenalin and energy. There are a lot of ways to frame the scene, and they should be direct appeals to the feeling the writer wants to communicate.

Of course, it has become obvious that the least important thing in the scene is the actual experience of being there. Whatever the truth of it is, that's not the important part; the feeling is. Now, if your writing piece is about a vulcanologist (volcano scientist) doing their work, you might want to explore some of those details of the profession. However, most of the time you can get away with using your imagination.

It may sound like cheating to use your imagination rather than researching volcano craters, and you are more than welcome to check all the YouTube videos you can find and go as deep into the subject as you wish. However, most readers will enjoy an emotional adventure into the crater more than they will appreciate your research, so give them something to remember - even if it's not from personal experience.

And, to clarify, I don't think I've ever been within sight of an active volcano, much less in the crater. If my readers want it, I will go there, but only in my words.        

Friday, October 13, 2023

What's "Head-Hopping"?

Every career field, every profession has its jargon and those special words that become catch phrases or little inside jokes shared just by people in that specific business niche. During my days in economics, we had all kinds of terms - "Heisenberg uncertainty (the economics version)," "squishy data," and my personal favorite, "granularity." Just bringing out those terms awakens fond memories of my days in finance. And now during my writer's days, I get terms like, "white-room syndrome" and "there's no there there." However, my favorite is, "head-hopping," and I think it's worth discussing.

Sadly, it's not as interesting as it sounds. Head-hopping is when the point of view (PoV) shifts around from character to character without staying in one place very long. Some call this the omniscient perspective - where the reader is allowed to see all the information - but often it's just the result of sloppy writing. If one is deliberately offering the omniscient PoV, then go with it. However, most stories are written from just a few perspectives, and there's a reason for that.

Think about the following piece:

They saw the creature lying motionless on the leaves and assumed it was dead. Tom said it was a bat. Laura poked it with a stick, thinking it was a bird. Phil shook his head, believing it to be a flying squirrel that didn't make it.

We have our basic components - three people finding a dead thing and wondering what it was. However, we don't really attach with any one character or their thoughts. We don't take sides, because the writer has just offered information but no individual perspective. As a writer, they can load the dice by offering one person's PoV and allowing the others to offer input to challenge the situation, leaving the reader to decide. Here's the same piece:

They saw the creature lying motionless on the leaves and assumed it was dead. It's a bat, Tom thought.

Laura poked it with a stick. "It's a bird."

Phil shook his head. Nope. "This flying squirrel just didn't make it."

This piece is now from Tom's PoV. We see the thought in his head, while the other perspectives are only offered as open dialogue - things Tom would hear. As readers, we now take this situation on as Tom, and engage by thinking about whether he is right or wrong. And when readers engage with a piece, they have a better appreciation for it. When a writer starts head-hopping, they do not offer the reader a chance to engage from any one perspective, and interest is more difficult to hold onto.

Omniscient PoV is much easier to write and we see a lot of it on TV and in movies thanks to the visual medium and various scene-hopping techniques. Storytelling through writing, however, is much more intimate, and therefore requires more detailed, nuanced approaches. This does not mean you are restricted to one character exclusively; you just need to break into a new section or chapter when you introduce a new perspective. The important part is to not pass up a chance for the reader to connect with the story through one character's eyes. It's the secret to engagement.

And for those who were wondering, Tom was wrong. It was a flying squirrel.             

Monday, October 9, 2023

The Best Kind of Feedback

When I started my journey into writing, I made some smart moves and some big mistakes. In some cases the smart moves led to big mistakes, and big mistakes always led to smarter moves later. However, the one thing I constantly remind myself about is just what I need for feedback. Not what I want, but what I need. This is not as easy as it might sound, and furthermore, it's never one consistent answer.

The first extended piece I ever wrote (like 20,000 words) was my big, daring leap into the unknown. For all that I had hoped it to be, I had every fear that it was a miserable failure. I finally decided to get some feedback about the piece, so I handed it to a then-colleague who enjoyed fiction-fantasy (the genre I wrote at the time), and asked her to read it. Since we shared an office, it was a big ask, but I respected her opinion on many things and knew she would be very straight-forward with her feedback. She read it during lunch at her desk, and when I interrupted her reading for a work matter, she gave me the best feedback I could ever ask for.

She said, "Shush!" and waved me away from her desk.

Now, there was a lot of technical critique I would later receive - abusing the passive voice, a clunky, boring beginning, etc. - but the best feedback I received was the simple fact that she was into the story enough to not want to be disturbed. All of the mistakes I had made and stylistic errors I had used - and there were many - could be fixed. What I took from that "shush" was that something in there was worth reading. At that time, that was the feedback I needed.

As I continued writing and joined various writing groups, people gave me all kinds of feedback for my works. However, I began to notice that some of it wasn't very beneficial, and some was actually useless. I would write a piece about some traumatizing childhood event, and people would point out how it reminded them of their own childhood event, or they would say how they would have written about a different event, or preferred a happier ending. This kind of feedback confused me at the time, but as I continued, I realized some people don't want to give you feedback, they want to tell you about their reaction. This can be helpful for a bit - if you write a funny piece and they tell you they laughed, well, score a point for you. However, some feedback is little more than other people discussing how they would've written the piece. Don't take this for more than face value - people talking about something they read. Take what you wish from it and move on.

And on the flipside of the discussion, here is the best kind of feedback you can offer. After you read a piece, discuss the piece in the form of an interview. "Did you intend for the main character to come off as a good or bad person?" "Do you want the reader to think this really happened?" "Do you feel the story could go deeper into the subject?" Get the author to think about their process, what they wrote, and anything they might want to play with. Some authors just want reaction, and that's fine. However, if they are looking to improve their piece, get them to think more about it from the reader's perspective, and dig into the words. That's when they'll start to grow as writers.

It's been twenty years since my colleague and now friend shushed me away, and the feedback I need is different. Now I benefit from presenting questions to workshop participants before I start reading. "Let me know if this engages you," "Tell me what stands out about the main character," "Tell me what you took away from this character's journey." This guides the readers to think about whatever subject you want to target, and with any luck, they will offer feedback. And hopefully, it will be as helpful as it was for me to get shushed.       

Friday, October 6, 2023

Presentation and the Point

There is one thing that kind of feels like cheating when I type up these posts. Because I have a designated space, an established theme, and so on, I have the liberty of starting an entry about my day, something I thought about, how tired I am, and so forth. I can wind my way toward the main subject at a leisurely pace because everyone reading this post knows I will get there at some point. That is a nice style of conversational writing, but not a good lesson to teach writers.

When someone picks up a short story, an essay, or some other random piece of work, they most likely will not know what it's about. Hopefully the title tells them something about what the piece holds for them, but often they are walking in blind. This is where we need to quickly establish the presentation of the story. Is it meant to entertain, enlighten, offend, inform, or all of the above? Is it adventure, horror, light-hearted fare, suspense, or something else? We need to start off with something that gives the reader a frame of reference, and let it build from there.

This doesn't have to be an obvious set-up, but something should be there to start narrowing down the possibilities. Consider this opener: "Officer Harper dropped onto the couch and sighed in exhaustion. The woman's body in the kitchen could wait until he had his morning coffee." From the get-go, we now have a story involving crime, a law-enforcement perspective, and a very somber mood overall. The presentation is complete, and the reader immediately makes the call about whether they will read further. The writer's job is to decide how they want the reader to approach the story. And yes, a good writer can do this as a way of throwing in a curveball later on (like Officer Harper encounters the ghost of the dead woman in the kitchen), but that's for another post.

Now this adventure in writing gets us moving toward the point - the crescendo of the story where the important parts fit together. While this is standard story-writing process, we can use our presentation to start planting seeds to what the point actually is. Following from the opening lines to our hypothetical story, if our point is to unveil the woman's killer at the end, this is fine; that could be a good story. However, the presentation of this as a crime-solving story with a little mystery offers different opportunities. For example, the dead woman in the kitchen has no name. Should we give her a name in the opening? Or, what if her name was actually... Mrs. Harper, the cop's wife! Depending on when we reveal that can change the entire movement of the story. Or what if Officer Harper is actually the killer? Our opening sentences now create a very disturbing impression of him once his crime is revealed.

They say you don't know the first line of your story until you've written the last line. Whether they are right or not isn't my concern. I just know that depending on how you want the story to end, you should start setting that up at the very beginning, and slowly, steadily, set up the reader throughout the piece. Which means you probably should get to the point faster than I do in these blog posts. My apologies.