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, November 27, 2023

Shifting Gears

“It was the best of suburban afternoons, every feature crafted to set the ideal stage for youthful memories. The weather was idyllic, the air peaceful and calm. The horizon, clear and cloudless, was blemished only by a column of black smoke rising from where Mark had just driven his motorcycle into the side of a van, killing him instantly.”

For those who might be too young to understand the title’s reference, there was once a time when driving a car or motorcycle required the driver to manually change which transmission gear was engaged with the engine, thus changing the car’s relative speed and acceleration. Low gears let you take off like a shot but your top speed was limited, while high gear had poor acceleration but you could really go fast over the long haul.

As drivers, we barely notice when our car gears shift, and frankly, we just let the engine do its thing. We only really start paying attention when our car feels a little sluggish or weird, and we’re not sure why. A lot of times, it has something to do with that transmission and those pesky gears. Either they’re not shifting smoothly and we feel the car jerk around, or they’re not shifting when they should, and our car feels sluggish. In short, the driver only feels it when it’s bad. A mechanic, however, is sensitive to that stuff, and can tell you exactly what’s wrong. 

Now that I’ve done that piece of old-splaining, let me get into why I did it. The same goes with writers and pacing. They know how to work with it, and they know what’s good and what’s bad. Think about that piece at the beginning. It moves along, slow and steady, a pace potentially pleasant, consistent, and quite possibly boring. It moves along smoothly, then the last half of the last sentence shifts everything. The peace and serenity is broken, the calm afternoon of our memories now dark and tense. This is a jarring move, a deliberate shift in the mood that grabs the reader’s attention. It’s not the happiest shift, but it draws the interest. The reader remembers very little about that passage, but remembers when it shifted into another gear.

The shift is not exclusive to mood. Shifting to shorter, more concise sentences can pick up the pace of a narrative. Shifting the adjectives from bright and cheerful to dark and sinister will weigh on the environment. Even the simplest thing such as an easy, predictable rhythm can become powerful when the most important part breaks that expectation.

This is a great tool for playing with the reader’s feelings from the inside, toying with the pacing without actually changing the stories. You can get a bunch of additional effort out of your writing when you shift gears the right way. And you don’t need some old guy to explain to you how a transmission works to do so.


Friday, November 17, 2023

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Verbs

In every workshop I have facilitated, participated in, or observed, at some point there is talk about verb use. This is fine – verbs are part of every complete sentence, so why not open up that discussion? The catch, however, comes with the different ways we use and misuse verbs, the ones that sound cool (but aren’t), and the simple verbs that can distance a reader.

Let’s set some groundwork with the last entry – the annoying simple verb. The simplest verb around is, in its infinitive form, “to be.” We are used to seeing this one used in the easiest sentences: I am cold. She is twenty-three. They are still alive. We were there. I was young back then. And so on. This whole am/is/are/were/was group falls under different versions of “to be.” In the examples, those are fine because they describe a situation. Instead of saying “I am cold,” you can say, “I feel cold” and get the same effect. Now here’s where those simple verbs take the fun out of things.

Here’s a quick grammar review: In the sentence, “As I was walking home, I had an idea,” what is the verb? “Walking” seems obvious, but in fact it is, “was.” This is called The Passive Voice – when we use am/is/are/were as the verb instead of something active. This sentence quickly becomes more engaging by simply changing it to, “As I walked home, I had an idea.” The verb is now, “walked” and the reader is walking with the character. It may sound surprising, but switching to active voice versus passive voice can bring a reader closer to the action. Descriptions – I am cold, etc. – do not get a huge boost, but sentences describing an event or occurrence draw the reader in.

Now for the cool verbs that can take the fun out of things. Often, when we write dialogue, we can find ourselves using “said” quite a lot. The “he said/she said/they said/we said” routine gets old. However, throwing in different verbs to mix it up can often be more of a distracted. If your character is talking, having them extoll, demand, counter, rebuke, or emphasize can move the mood around unnecessarily. If people are talking, sometimes let them just “say” things, letting the dialogue run the scene. The same goes for simple things like walking, running, or other simple actions. There’s the temptation to traipse around, gallop, trot, sprint, stroll, or any number of ways to walk. However, it might surprise you to know that most people just walk (or run), and that’s fine. Unless the way your character goes from one place to another is important, don’t crack open the thesaurus and drop some big words. The meaning should come from their drives and motivations. 

Lastly, a note on misusing verbs. If you want to use a bold verb, keep in mind what it means, what it might imply, and how the reader might be distracted. I have seen too many people mix up extort and exhort, implicit and implicate, and so on. There’s no shame in having a dedicated tab to in the background just so you get the right word in there. As for the package that comes with a word, run, prance, gallop, and trot each suggest a style of running, and are not always interchangeable. And yes, some words have a very distinct meaning but carry a lot of subtext. Example: If something’s growth is held back, that can be referred to as “retarded growth.” The meaning is correct, but don’t think for one second that some readers won’t be distracted by the word usage. Even though no malice is intended, such casual use of a loaded word can derail a reader’s interest. I am not saying you shouldn’t use certain words. I only suggest that some words have consequences, and you should use them at your own risk.

Ultimately, your verb choices will carry a lot of weight with your stories. Using them effectively will pay off every time, but this requires some heavy lifting on your part. Choose wisely.


Friday, November 10, 2023

Recharging the Batteries

Today's post will be a little shorter than usual, and most of the reason why will be explained in the post. You see, every now and then, writers need to do something other than writing to hone their skills. Just like how chefs need to go to new restaurants and how directors need to see new films, writers need to get out there too. And while a good way for writers to learn is for them to read other writers' works, another way is to actually meet other writers and talk with them face-to-face.

As it happens, one of the local libraries decided to put on an Author's Fair, in part for that very reason - to get writers together and have them talk about writing and stuff. Also, since it's a two-day affair, there would also be time for any published writers to sell their books, meet up with readers, and talk about whatever writers want to talk about. In sum, it's two days of writers getting out there with other writers and doing writer things, along with a generous helping of civilians walking in to find out just what it takes for them to be a writer.

So, indeed, that's where I have been all day. I sat in the audience, asked questions, met people, and went back and forth about our processes, our structures, and our writing. I also sat on a panel discussing traditional publishing versus self-publishing, and got some quality mic time. And, of course, I got the opportunity to hopefully inspire some people to become writers, to pursue publication, and perhaps even hit up my blog now and then.

This means I have been busy all day, without a huge amount of time to write today's post. Furthermore, the library is hosting a Writer's Open Mic night, and I just have to go there and drop some verse for the good of my fellow writers. If you ever get the chance to attend one of those, do it. And when you hear these people doing their thing, for better or worse, remember that they all worked their way to the mic over time, and at one point were just audience members doubting they could do such a thing. It's a great way to learn that nothing is impossible. (That will also be the theme of the piece I am reading - no spoilers)

If I can offer one takeaway from all these words, it's this: Every now and then, get out there and walk amongst the other creatives. Chat about things you've written, things you've read, and things you might just be thinking about creating. Meet people and hear their stories. Listen to people and get to know them. It really can't hurt, and in many ways, it might just charge up your creative energies. Do you need a little boost? A touch of inspiration? Go to a book fair, and Author's Day, a poetry slam, whatever, and take it all in. Breathe it in like a refreshing spring breeze and let it move you. Where it moves you doesn't matter, just as long as it's toward a creative result. The rest is up to you.

Now I have to run. This story isn't going to read itself.     

Monday, November 6, 2023

Taking Advantage of the Basics

Let's start with a very simple statement: Stories thrive on tension and conflict. The more there is, the more the reader pays attention. People like to get involved with stories where even when they know the good guy wins in the end, they can't see the path to get to that place, and they don't know what it will cost our hero to get there. Tension and conflict both create questions in the reader's mind, and they seek answers to them by reading further. So it only makes sense that, as writers, we should install these elements wherever possible.

Now, as a disclaimer, tension doesn't mean everything has to be life-or-death decisions and conflict isn't always fistfights and car chases. Tension can be as simple as the character preparing to ask someone on a date but not knowing if they'll say yes, or worrying about how they performed on an important test. Tension is about the battle with the unknowns, and struggling with the possible outcomes. Conflict is more straightforward; a battle between two interests that go in opposite directions. The character wants to join the military but their parents want them to go to college. The forces in conflict are very much known, but they can't reconcile with each other. Life-or-death situations and car chases are also allowed, but they can be brewed up from the simplest of ingredients.

And on that note, the basic ingredients to any story serve as the best way to create tension and conflict from the get-go. The three Ps of stories - plot, people (characters), and places (setting) - are required parts of any narrative, and if we tweak these around, we can stir things up from square one. Of course, other sources should come along throughout the story, but if we kick things off quickly, we take in the reader early on and they don't put down the story until it's done.

Now, each of the three Ps on their own are not very exciting, though we should always consider how to make them interesting. With the characters, they should have separate interests and drives, and not always be on the same page. Honestly, characters that all think alike are boring. When they have different political, social, or professional perspectives, those can create conflict, and the writer should take the opportunity to have these differences run into each other. Places is a little more difficult since they tend to stay in place, but different kinds of places can evoke different moods and responses, which will be important later. Consider the environment of rural Kansas versus New York City. Both are places where people live, and each actually contains a Manhattan, but that's where the similarities end. And of course, plot - what the story is about. This should have some kind of problem built into it - a story about a young man from Manhattan, Kansas adapting to life in New York City while searching for his birth parents. The unknowns abound.

The real fertile area for tension and conflict, however, comes from where the Ps intersect - when the people and places don't get along, or the character's mission (plot) is obstructed by their location or other people. When our young man from Kansas shows up in New York, every clash of ideals should be brought to the fore. The reader should feel like this was a bad idea for our character and he will be eaten alive. They should be asking themselves if this mission to find his birth parents is really worth it, especially once he meets the kind of people that totally clash with him. Even the struggle to try and work through the bureaucracy of big-city government should feel like a battle. All these clashing interests and environments should be leaving the reader without a moment's peace and wondering just how the main character will survive it all.

Now, the actual story can be whatever the writer wants, and should have its own home brew of conflict and tension. However, find the clashing interests that are there from the first word, that hit the reader quickly, and bring them out as soon as possible. That will set the stage for some exciting storytelling, and create a sense of urgency for the entire story. And that's what the reader wants.            

Friday, November 3, 2023

For Those Sitting Out on NaNoWriMo

It's November, which to writers means everyone will be talking about NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). First will be the talk about how exciting it is, then about how tough it is, then about the thing that happened that brought our writing to a screeching halt. At the end of the month, only a small percentage of those who took on this challenge will have a completed first draft. However, most every participant will have gained a lot of other things. It's those other things that I want to talk about, instead of NaNoWriMo, and how you can gain them without actually writing a novel this month.

The first thing we gain from finishing this month-long challenge is the sense of accomplishing the utterly unthinkable: writing a novel. Just like running a marathon, for most people it's not about their time but actually completing the race. Someone who has finished a marathon automatically gets a bunch of bragging rights just for having finished it. Obviously, if you don't participate, you can't get the accolades for finishing, but that doesn't mean you can't set out some goal and push yourself to achieve it. I've never ran a marathon nor do I expect I will ever willingly do so. However, I did set out to do a long-distance bicycle trip, and last year I finally accomplished it. Not a marathon, but I took pride in the accomplishment. So, this month, set some writing goal - create something outside your comfort zone, write a poem, do some FanFic - something that requires you to step up your game. Then do it, and give yourself credit for having completed the task.

Now, one big benefit people gain from NaNoWriMo that they might not realize is the gift of habit. When you force yourself to write for an hour every day for a month, it starts developing into a routine. At first it might just be something done at the end of the day to get in those 2,000 words before going to sleep. However, after a week of repeating that task, that end-of-day routine becomes more familiar. The mind starts looking forward to it. The mental energies perk up as that time approaches. It becomes a comfortable writing zone, and it is conducive to more writing. Eventually, the writer has developed a full set of writing habits that will help kick things in gear long after November has passed. If you use November as an opportunity to write something - anything - every day at about the same time and in the same place, and do it for a month, the habit will form. Familiarity will settle in, and it becomes easier to write. If you write something at the same time every day for the entire month, you have just developed a writing habit that will serve you well.

Of course, those lucky people who end up with a completed first draft have 60,000+ words of work to be proud of. (They haven't hit the terrifying December Edit-A-Thon, but that's not the point.) Having a body of work to look at, to behold, is like having that medal you get at the end of a marathon. To the non-novel writer, if you write every day - even if it's not the same story - you will end the month with a body of work. You will have accomplished something that you can admire, brag about, edit (if you so choose), and it can never be taken away. Even if it's just a journal filled with writing, keep it somewhere special, because that is your education as a writer in those pages. Be proud; you deserve it.

In short, if you don't think you have a novel in you quite yet, don't feel bad about taking a pass on NaNoWriMo. Have patience with those who will not stop talking about it, and console those who had to give up. However, if you want to still benefit from this month of writing, then try writing something every day. You will be surprised what happens when you dedicate yourself to an activity for an entire month.