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, December 29, 2023

Writing and the Rabbit Hole

In this sweet spot between Christmas and New Year's Day, all my main activities reach a kind of lull, providing an opportunity to dive back into some things that I have neglected for a while (like since the last post-Christmas lull). Unfortunately, while this is a nice diversion from the real world, sometimes I dive in a little too aggressively, finding myself quickly heading into the deep end of one of my winter hobbies like genealogy or home repair. One moment I am packing up the Christmas tree, the next I am rebuilding the shelves in the utility room or digging through the archives surrounding Whitley County in the 1800s. Sure, it's fun, but it becomes a distraction and even a problem if I get so carried away that I can't just jump back into my life once January 2nd comes along.

In case you haven't guessed, this is a big issue with writing sometimes, and it can catch us when we least expect it. We get this urge to write about a crime in a small town, and before we know it we are digging through forensic files, trying to find out if clothing dye can conceal blood stains. (Side note: never look at a writer's Google history. Nothing good comes from doing that.) It's at this point that we realize we are no longer doing our writing, but we have wandered into something entirely different that is actually interfering with what we wanted to do - write about a crime in a small town.

This happens a lot - too often, in all fairness. And I see it on a lot of writing forums, where someone is hung up on their writing because they are not sure whether a cop in 1940s Vermont would say, "It's cool," and they can't verify or refute it. Do you see what's happening here? They are letting themselves get dragged away from what they want to do by getting hung up on some other detail that really isn't too important. That's when the rabbit hole opens up, and it's easy to fall into - especially when your mind is fairly distracted.

What drags me into the hole is when I get more time than motivation to do something. Do I want to clean out the utility room? Rarely, if ever. However, if I tell myself I have to do this, my unmotivated self will derail things by turning all my attention to that crappy shelf unit against the wall. If I don't watch myself, four hours later the utility room is twice the mess because I took everything off the crappy shelves and am trying to rebuild them with everything I have available. Needless to say, my utility room suffers when I clean it.

To avoid doing this when I am trying hard to write a piece I am no longer interested in - especially in those cases - I make two statements to myself that I have to keep. Statement #1: During the next two hours, I do not have to write this piece. Statement #2: During the next two hours, I will either write or do nothing - there is no other option. This relieves me from the obligation of writing, yet still makes sure that if I exert any energy, it will be toward writing. If things get tough, I just stop writing and sit there for two, three, five minutes doing nothing. The rabbit hole of researching dialogue might call to me, but I do nothing. Eventually, the writing starts again. And yes, I used to do this during my time doing economic research for a big, fancy company. Sit there at my desk, stare at a screen, and not write a report. It might've been weird for my coworkers if they watched me do this, but no problem; if they were watching me, apparently they needed the distraction.

So don't be afraid to go on an obsessive writing binge now and then. Just make sure you're staying on track and not slipping away from the thing you want to do - write.

And on that note, I am taking New Year's Day off, so my next post will be January 5th, 2024. Happy New Year!           

Friday, December 22, 2023

Another Holiday Writing Prompt

For most families in my area when I was a child, Christmas was a pretty big thing. No school for a couple of weeks, enough snow to start some trouble, presents from the big guy. Pretty much the usual story. I could write about any of those memories and tell an enjoyable little story about the holidays. However, I decided that's not what a good writing exercise is about. An exercise should really try and bring out something along with building those writing muscles.

I did think about suggesting an exercise where the objective is to write about the least holiday-like thing about this holiday season. Perhaps something about the rampant consumerism during a time that's supposed to be about giving and such. There's probably a story about a bad holiday memory floating around somewhere, but let's face it - where's the fun in that? A holiday writing exercise should not be all Grinchy. It needs to stir up the feelings we hold close and dear to our hearts. If you decide to write about your worst Christmas experience, that's your right to do so. I had something different in mind.

As I said earlier, I have plenty of good Christmas memories from my distant childhood, and any one of them could become a story. However, I decided that the more interesting exercise would be to intensify the focus. Instead of writing about that one Christmas with that one great gift, or when some holiday magic just happened to make everything special, I thought a worthy exercise would be to write about one item, one moment, one detail from way back when and let it be the center of all my feelings and discussion. The more isolated and detailed, the better. 

What does that all mean? Well, simply put, I know plenty of people who have a real connection to the ritual of setting up the Christmas tree on whatever night happens to be the right one. That might make a good story, but try looking for the emotion in hanging up one particular ornament, or putting the angel/star/light on the top of the tree. Capture one instance, and write about everything that the moment meant. Think of the first moment you connected with the importance of the Hanukkah candles, or felt something special about the holidays. Isolate one moment - an important, valuable holiday event, then write about it. It can be receiving a card from a relative and being moved by the words, or just staring at a candy cane in front of the gingerbread house and feeling something more than wanting to eat it. Try applying that kind of focus - the pleasure of the simple moment - into your writing, and see what happens.

Full disclosure: This is a nice way to write poems. Not that I am stealthily pushing poetry on the unwilling. I am just mentioning that good poems are often meditations upon one shining moment.

On that note, I will leave you to your holiday merriment. I hope that you give a try at creating something that you find both special and meaningful. I will be doing this exercise during the holidays. This also means that my next post will be on December 29th. Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 18, 2023

Here Come the Holidays

I did a double-take when I checked the calendar today. Seriously - it's the 18th. Of December! I think someone should've informed me about this earlier, because this was not supposed to happen so quickly. One day I'm out riding my bicycle, enjoying the endless Midwestern summer, and then *BAM!* December 18th. And, of course, with it comes all the holiday things, including all the holiday promises I make but rarely keep, all the holiday weight I put on but rarely lose, and all of the parties I go to, events I attend, and things & stuff in general that often take me away from things that I want to do, like write. So this year, I decided to (kind of) fix this.

Well, first things first. I have nothing wrong with any of the holidays this season. Be it Hanukah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, Tet, or any holiday between now and the end of January, I am all for them. I enjoy the spirit of them and the celebration that ensues, and I always try to do something on New Year's Eve (though my friends are oft reluctant to stay up that late). I just think that as a writer, I should find a way to incorporate writing habits and practices into my routines. So, on that note...

The attached tweet made me think about a very important part of being a writer, which is that the best writers do not exist in isolation. They are part of a continuous give-and-take with other people at different stages of their journey. We all can learn from one another, and hopefully, we all pay it forward by offering our advice to one another. Sometimes we do this deliberately, other times people just pick up little habits by example. I, of course, am a very deliberate person - just in case you didn't figure that out from my five years maintaining a writing blog - but there is more than that. A part of helping people become better writers isn't just talking about what you do and how people can do what you do. It's participating in their journey as well as yours.

Probably the thing I enjoy the most about discussing writing with other people is not the teaching part, but the motivating part. When another writer takes a risk and makes a leap toward growth, I love pushing them toward that step and helping them find the value in the risks they take. Even if the experiment is a catastrophic failure, I help them fail upward, toward a better product. This is part of what Gaiman talked about when he discussed helping each other. Helping is not just teaching, but supporting and guiding people in a positive manner. And this is something that any of us can do. Even if we feel like we're not the best person to help, we can show people their own strengths and help them build themselves into better writers. And if we learn something from the process, well, so be it.

This is something I plan on doing throughout the holidays - reminding people what makes them good and important. Whether it's about their writing or just about them in general, when we bring people forward it comes at no expense to our own growth. In fact, we might grow a little as well. Remember that machine that broke while measuring the Grinch's heart growing? Something like that.

So for now, I suggest spreading the holiday spirit by helping motivate those around you, particularly the writers. And, of course, if you want to get them something, I recommend the latest anthology from the New Lenox Writers' Group, A World of Change, now available on Amazon. Anthologies are always fun, and I have a few stories in there as well. Happy Holidays!         

Friday, December 15, 2023

Taking Yourself Out of Writing

One fun thing about writing workshops is the holiday party (assuming the group has one). They can be wide and varied, and sometimes if they are held away from the usual meeting venue, they can go well beyond the world of writing. For one of my groups, we rented a room at a nice restaurant because there were a lot of us, ate our body weight in pizza and enjoyed one another's company. Basically, what any good holiday party should accomplish. However, in my case, it became something more.

I had a seat at what some people called, "The Poetry Table." This was not assigned seating or any planned positioning, it's just one of the features of the people seated there. And to be fair, the people at that table were far more accomplished at poetry than yours truly, but I digress. The conversation went in a lot of directions, from growing up to family traits to various felons and undesirables in our family tree to hypothetical life questions and different views of the world at large. Nothing got too deep and we kept current events out of the discussion. However, an interesting idea emerged, and I kept thinking about it long after I was driving home, drinking Pepto-Bismol like a dessert cocktail.

The discussion was about ego - how we place ourselves into anything we create, and how that can interfere with what we might truly want to do. Think about this: If you were to write about the most embarrassing moment in your life, what would it be? Now, if you found out (prior to writing this piece) that you would be presenting it to a group of your fellow writers, or close friends, or family members, how would this change your writing? What would change about your writing if you knew you would be tied to it, versus just writing something for the sake of writing it?

We learn a lot about ourselves from the stories we create. However, there's a greater opportunity if we sit down and write something, knowing full well nobody is ever going to see it. We can write about something horribly embarrassing, even shameful, if we free ourselves from having ourselves identified with the story. One therapy treatment is to write a letter to someone, expressing every bit of anger, frustration, hatred, and dark emotion you might hold toward that person, then burning the letter. Not even your therapist has to read it - you just create something to pour the words out of yourself and onto the page, then embrace the growth from the experience and let the words fade away. This is called writing without ego - taking yourself out of the writing equation and just creating.

It may sound like it's a technical detail that's too abstract to make a difference, but we all can hold ourselves back when we know our writing will be identified with us in some manner. Even with writing fiction, the stories we create will bear our thumbprint, and there is this instinctive need to react to that connection. Writing without ego is to write without restrictions and really let the creative process take over without any chains. It may sound weird, but it is surprisingly freeing.

If you ever get the desire (and seriously - give it a try), try writing something - a paragraph, a poem, a character sketch or essay, knowing nobody will ever see the content. Plan ahead of time to burn the pages, delete the file, bump off any witnesses, and eliminate the work from existence. Then, sit down and write something daringly personal, and see where it goes. See where your mind goes when you are no longer in charge of the trip.

And seriously - don't forget to destroy it afterward. If you've written something very personal, you probably should wipe it out.       

Monday, December 11, 2023

Sometimes A Verb Is Just A Verb

For all of the talk I do about the broad process of writing and creativity, a few people have noted that I sure do go on a lot about grammar and punctuation. I will confess that I do take a side in the war on adverbs, I have a strong opinion on the Oxford Comma, and don't get me started about descriptions. And yes, when it comes to verbs - particularly passive versus active - most people know I plant my flag on the active verb camp. However, I do try to remind people that before they read a thesaurus and discover a whole bunch of synonyms to replace the verb in, "he said," take a pause. Sometimes, a verb doesn't need to be anything fancy.

Elmore Leonard famously put amongst his 10 Rules for Good Writing, "Never use a verb other than 'said' to carry dialogue." (He also was strongly against using adverbs to modify "said," but that's another discussion.) Whether you agree with this or not is up to you. His point was to keep things simple and to the point. When a person is talking, they say things. Let them say them and get on with the story. Personally, I allow myself a little freedom in this vein. When my characters yell at each other, or whisper secrets, or stutter or are hesitant, I let the reader know this if it's relevant to the story. If they are whispering things to each other so nobody hears them, and, in fact, nobody hears them, it's really not that important. However, if someone yells across a room that his girlfriend's pregnant and she didn't want anyone to know yet, then yelling reminds the reader that literally everyone heard it. The verb choice does have a role, but don't let the search for the perfect one get you bogged down.

Another thing I go on about is not using the word "was" (the passive voice) in sentences where an active verb would also work. This is the example I cite:

  • "As he was walking home..." (passive)
  • "As he walked home..." (active)

Active is the better choice a lot of times because it is the more engaging voice. Usually we talk in the passive voice, which makes it a little difficult to adjust our writing to the active voice. However, we don't need to do this all the time. Here's some simple sentences: "It was a pleasant day, just like any other." "The door was red with old bronze hinges." "He was the last member of his family line." Can you think of a way to make these sentences more engaging? Possibly, but why? They are descriptions - let them describe the thing and move on. Now, if the object is doing something, that's an opportunity to be active. "The red door was swinging wildly in the wind, straining its old bronze hinges." In that case, change "was swinging" to "swung" and you're active. Otherwise, let the pleasant day, the red door, and the guy with the family line issues just go about their business.

Lastly, a little repetition is okay throughout your work. Like using, "said," people will also walk and run, they will sleep, chew, sneeze, and so forth. If it's a basic activity, just let it happen. Don't feel a person running down the street has to bolt down the sidewalk, dart into an alley, streak along its narrow pavement, and dash into a causeway. Instead, just run down the sidewalk, into the alley along its narrow pavement and into a causeway. It's to the point, so let the verb make the point.

And to go back to Elmore Leonard, just make sure it feels natural. His other rule aside from the 10 linked above is, "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it."             

Monday, December 4, 2023

Looks Mean Something

Just this one time, let's step back from the deep process of writing, and explore a few other ideas. In particular, the impression you want to cast upon your readers. Most of the time, this starts with the opening line of your short story, essay, or other work. However, sometimes the potential reader will have made up their mind well ahead of time that your work isn't worth their time - without even reading a word.

I had a discussion earlier today with a fellow writer who had recently been to a local book fair. He spoke with a number of the authors and sampled several works, including those by independent publishing houses and those who self-published. What he discovered was that any number of authors - some of who were really good writers - had printed works that were visually unreadable. Whether it was a cover that looked like an old encyclopedia, flagrant spelling and grammatical errors (like in a chapter heading), a layout not quite at par with your old high-school newspaper, or just awkward presentation, some of these things were unsellable. The reader might very well be missing a very engaging story, but that first impression is everything.

Sad but true, a lot of book sales are made or lost with that first glance. Does the cover capture their attention? If yes, the potential reader might pick it up and flip through it as if that will somehow reveal the book's quality. They'll probably turn to the blurb on the back, and if it doesn't look interesting, they might skip that and it goes back on the shelf. The poor little blurb is the reader's first chance to explore the actual writing, and it gets ignored because the font is small and boring. 

Go to any book store (if you can find one) and peruse the New Releases section. A lot of those books will have the same cover style - a full-sized picture, the title front-and-center in bold, Avant Garde letters, then the author's name and some little comment about the book's genre or whatever. This is a tested-and-true cover style to capture the eye, but unfortunately when it is used by every major publishing house, it very much gets lost within the many other releases. The one that stands out will be the one that breaks away from tradition but still has an intrinsic appeal. They're tough to find these days, but they make the sales.

Now, if you haven't quite gotten to the point of writing your own novel, here's the takeaway you can apply to your own writing. In whatever you write, put your thumbprint on those words as quickly as possible. Let the reader know your style upfront; in the first sentence if possible. Make that first line your selling point for the rest of the work. With short stories, that's where the convincing begins, so draw them right there and then. More importantly, make this your habit, and it will carry through into the rest of your life. You will engage people with your stories from the first words, your toasts will immediately draw everyone's attention, and you will write some awesome thank you notes this way. And then, when you are finally published, you will instinctively want that first published work to be your selling point.

(And if you could thank me in the dedication, that would be great.)         

Friday, December 1, 2023

Where Does the Story Begin?

During the Monday night writer's workshop I regularly attend, we were given a simple writer's prompt of which we had eight minutes to finish. The prompt: Start writing from these three words, "Our story begins..." Something clicked in my mind, and I started typing (Yes, I am the guy who types instead of writes). Eight minutes later, we put down our pens (and keyboards), then read what we did. Everyone did surprisingly well, really exploring the prompt's potential. After I read mine, the writer next to me leaned over and said, "I think you just wrote Friday's blog post." Turns out, she made an excellent point. And on that note, here's what I wrote:

Our story begins… at the end, where every story should. 

This is something weird to tell a writer, but I tell every beginning writer and novelist-to-be that their story begins at the end.

Why? Very simple. People go into the process of writing a story because they have something bouncing around their brain that they want to get out. I know I sure did. And when they finally take that big step, when they commit to writing the Great American Novel, well, that’s where the rubber hits the road. Or so they think.

Actually, I tell them it’s a very important part of the journey, but it’s not the journey. The writing of that story is more like sitting over a fold-out road map (I’ll oldsplain what that is later), looking at different routes, circling truck stops on the way, and figuring out just how to get there. 

People look at me confused. “But… But… I’m writing. How can I not yet be at the beginning if I’m already writing?”

I say, “Yes, you’re writing. And in that, you are discovering a lot of things. Most importantly, you are trying to find out where the story begins. And when you reach the end, you will know where.”

Indeed, writing a story is technically, chronologically, how the story starts. It’s the act of conception, the first thing to illuminate the writer’s mind and take then from event to event, from chapter to chapter, from act one to act two to act three and the dramatic finish. However, this entire process of creation is all about discovery. It is the mixing of ingredients, the brewing of the potion. It is more important than anything else, but it’s not where the story starts.

Let me offer you this: When you write your first novel – and I hope you do, and that many more follow – I want you to savor the act of creation but not get seduced by it, because a greater love is on its way. The story truly starts the moment you’ve finished that first draft. That’s when the magic happens.