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, June 24, 2024

Writing Cheat Codes

Admittedly, I am still not back to 100% health. As noted in my previous post, I have been trying to bounce back from some walking pneumonia, and it takes a lot of energy to do things. Even though I might look like my "bounce" is fine, in fact, those things are still a struggle. After my writing workshop on Saturday, it took an great amount of energy to just get home and take a two-hour nap. It was truly exhausting! So, needless to say, my writing volume has taken a hit.

As also noted last week, I decided to do some reading to feed my creativity. However, it came to me that I could fall back on a few writing tricks that usually help me produce good, emotionally gripping pieces of work without totally expending myself. These are what I call the cheat codes of writing - the little tricks you can do to create a moving piece without much effort. Now, like most cheat codes, other experienced people can tell right away when you are using these, and they might call you out. However, if your objective is just to get some writing in and really flex your creative and emotional muscles, cheat codes work just fine.

The first cheat code is to write about your earliest good experience with a parent, grandparent, favorite aunt, or other loving family member. Write it from your perspective as a child, or reflect upon it as an adult - whichever the case, it should be a story written from the perspective of love and innocence. I always talk my childhood experience of sitting with my mother, watching her write articles for the newspaper, and plenty of times I sat beside my father's easel and watched him paint. Writing such memories from the perspective of an innocent child will move the reader because they are simple observations from a loving child. The story doesn't have to be more than that and it will still move the reader. More importantly, it will remind your inner writer that you still got it.

This next one's easy: pet stories. Everyone likes a story about a child and their first pet. Regardless of whether the pet was a cat, dog, horse, chicken, or fish, writing about that connection between a person and an animal is a natural draw. Something very primal, very simple, is brought out with those stories, and every reader has some kind of understanding of that connection - even if they hadn't felt it themselves. My father insisted he did not like pets, and we had a bunch of them. And yes, he loved every one of them despite his complaints (there's a great story about me catching him dancing a Kentucky two-step with our cat, but that's for another time). Writing a pet story gets a lot of mileage.

This one's not as easy from a personal perspective, but it's an easy win for a quality story: Death. Write about that moment you realized what death was. It could be as simple as when your family had to put down your dog, or when an uncomfortable first-grade teacher gathered everyone in class together to tell them that one of their friends wouldn't be there anymore. If it's close to the heart, all the better. Those moments have a universal connectivity with most every reader, so writing it will garner a response every time.

And if you want to really hit the trifecta (and you have the right ingredients), write that story about the day your first, most beloved pet died. The Dead Pets story is the master cheat code. Write that story. If you shed a few of your own tears while creating it, every reader will do the same.

For my next trick, I am going to take a two-hour nap in preparation for my next writing workshop tonight. Maybe some day I will write about it...      

Monday, June 17, 2024

Instead of Writing, How About Reading?

For those of you who keep up with my posts and caught Friday's bit about overworking, let me just say a few things. First, I stick by my words. Sometimes it is better to get some reading in to satisfy our need for creative exploration. Second, the things I wrote during that period of overload were not my best works. You will not be seeing them. With any luck, nobody will. Third - and this is the most important of them all - when you overload yourself, make sure you don't get sick.

A famous ancient philosopher once said, "Check yourself before you wreck yourself." Unfortunately, I did not do that as much as I should've. Belatedly, I did "check" myself in the sense of finally going to a doctor, who has a pretty good feeling that had already "wrecked" myself to some degree. Nothing permanent, nothing crippling, but nothing good or worthy of an origin story. To make a long story short, it was 97 degrees out here and I was in the doctor's office, watching her set up my prescriptions for treatment of walking pneumonia.

On the bright side, I can walk around, which is helpful. On the downside, it (and most every other activity) quickly exhausts me. Even typing up this post is a bit of an ordeal. However, I have decided to take the other part of my own advice and do the reading thing. I will still be going to my writing workshops if I can muster up the energy, and if I get inspired, I will write things. However, my primary goal will be to read things - particularly, things I have already read that really got my brain thinking in a different way.

And on that note, I will offer my Big List of Things to Read, a.k.a. - Reading in the Time of Pneumonia. Take them or leave them - these are what I will be going through:

Non-fiction:

  • Liar's Poker, The Big Short, Boomerang (The mortgage crisis in three books), Michael Lewis
  • Natural Obsessions, Natalie Angier
  • Money Makes the World Go Round, Barbara Garson

Fiction: 

  • Skeleton Crew, Stephen King
  • Night Watch, Terry Pratchett
  • Thieves' World, assorted authors

I hope to be back Friday with some actual advice on writing. For now, I have to go and pick up a big pile of pills. Stay healthy and keep on writing.   

Friday, June 14, 2024

Overload!

I can honestly say this has been one of the busiest weeks of the year for me - and it ain't even over. I've been taking about 6 hours of online courses every day this week, working through a bunch of at-home tasks, managing a few moments of personal chaos, and doing all of this while maintaining a low-grade fever due to a cold that doesn't know summer is around the corner. Oh - and I've been writing as well.

In my book, this amounts to a pretty full dance card. In fact, I can tell I probably bit off a little more than I could chew for the week when I decided to go to sleep at 8 p.m. one day. It just felt like the right time, since there was nothing more I could possibly do without falling asleep. In hindsight, however, I did notice that the one activity that really took a hit during my busy week was the writing. In fact, having gone over some of Tuesday's writing yesterday, I realized it was suffering because of all the other things I was piling on my plate.

Before anyone else brings it up, I understand that I always say, "Find some time to write every day." I still believe that. However, sometimes the facts on the ground are that the huge amount of responsibilities you have might push your writing down the list a bit. Furthermore, since I was running a bit of a fever, maybe writing was the one thing I could've left off the list. I still chose to do everything, utterly exhausted myself, possibly shook off the cold, and wrote some really bad stuff. Is any of this bad? Did my poor writing cause my writing skills to lose some ground? No, but there was probably a better option to feed the creative side of my brain without going through the strain of writing.

Any guess what the best alternative might be?

Well, when the task of writing might just be a little too straining for you after a hard day's work, the alternative is to read something. Anything, really, but preferably something you've never read before. I do not recommend dusting off that copy of The Iliad you've been meaning to dive into. Rather, I keep a number of anthologies by various authors lying around my bookshelves. Collections of short stories and essays by various authors always gives me a chance to get some reading in without devoting myself to an entire book. I can pull out a copy of my collection of O. Henry, decide I can read about twenty pages, look for a story or stories that add up to that goal, and go to work. If not that, poetry works as well. Or Vonnegut, or King, or any themed anthology (I particularly like, "The Ultimate..." collection by Byron Preiss for getting different takes on subjects like zombies, werewolves, etc.)

The key here is that while you don't necessarily have to write every day if you are just too burned out, it is still beneficial to feed the creative part of your mind. As creatives, that little bit of additional stimulus every day keeps us healthy and active, ready to actually kick our writing into gear when we finally reclaim some energy. And nothing helps recharge the creative batteries like reading. If anything, read something that's not so good then tell yourself, "You know, I am going to write something better than that," and then let the writing begin.      

Monday, June 10, 2024

It's All About Focus

I know I go on about this a little too much, but I wanted to discuss the importance of focus when it comes to writing. Not necessarily the art of staying on topic - though that is important - but rather focusing on the story you want to tell and targeting the very heart of the matter. This is what makes writing a very intimate experience, and the reader feels it as well. The more focused we are on a concept, feeling, or idea, the more the reader experiences what we are talking about.

To demonstrate this, I think about the people I know who want to write about their life. They have a lot of great stories, their life has been a series of wonderful adventures, and they want to commit these to words. Therefore, they set upon the task of writing about their life. It's usually a mess at this point, because writing about a life is viewing things from 35,000 feet - the detail, the focus, is lost. Rather, they talk about their life but we really don't get the intimate experience of knowing who they actually are. We just get the broad strokes, when there is so much more to discover. 

I think a great way to experiment with focus is through a writing exercise. Now, I cannot take credit for this - it was mentioned by a fellow writer in one of my workshops and I thought it was so brilliant that I had to share it. (Plus, she's a regular reader, so she knows who she is.) It's a little elaborate, so work with me. The exercise was first, to draw a floor plan of your childhood home. I know - why is a writer drawing things? This is to activate our memories but to narrow our field and get into the context of what we would write about. The next step (that involves writing) is to pick out one room in that floor plan, and write about one memory from that one room in that house. No wandering around, no talking about all the Christmas celebrations in the family room or all the dinners cooked in that kitchen. One room, one moment, one memory. And... write!

To some, this may sound genuinely boring. Seriously, when there's so much life to write about, why spend all your words at that one moment in that one room? That's the genius of this exercise - writing about that one moment gives us the opportunity to express as much as possible about what made that moment so important; why it stood out after all these years and we decided to write about that one point in time and no other. In that one memory we can communicate more about ourselves than a long discussion about all the family gatherings we had or the color of every wall in the house. 

This is the intimacy that comes with writing about ourselves. If we truly want to write about ourselves and our rich life experiences, we need to make them living things, and we need to give that to the reader. It might just be one memory out of millions, but if we focus on ourselves and everything that comes with that memory, it's a truly expressive experience.

(Thanks again to the writer who shall not be mentioned by name. Expect my response to this writing prompt shortly.)       

Friday, June 7, 2024

Why Am I Reading This?

For those who didn't hear the amazing news, we just had one of the greatest upsets in sports history. The USA Men's cricket team managed to beat Pakistan in group play, making this easily the most unexpected victory in the history of the Cricket World Cup. The US team is hardly a powerhouse, and holds a spot in the tourney mostly because the United States is hosting it this year. However, this victory now places the team atop Group A, and well-positioned to make it to the next round. This victory is an amazing step forward for US cricket enthusiasts, and will be remembered long after the Cricket World Cup wraps up.

Okay - I am wagering that this first paragraph split the room amongst my readers. One group will be, "What are you talking about?" while others will be camped in the "Who cares?" group. As epic as the news is, this blog is really not an elite forum for cricket fans (and neither is this country for that matter). Most of you probably didn't know the US was hosting the Cricket World Cup, and were more focused on cicadas than cricket. 

This is, of course, something we have to consider as writers. If we write something about, say, the USA victory over Pakistan, we need to consider a few things. First, who are we writing this for? If we are writing this for a general audience, we need to approach it from their perspective: people who know virtually nothing about cricket. We have to get them interested without trying to educate them about the sport. Rather, we can approach it from their level, perhaps starting with, "I bet you didn't know the World Cricket Cup was being played in the USA right now. Well, it is, and the entire world got quite a shock when..." This introduces the uninformed reader to the subject in a safe manner, and they are not confused and turned off from the get-go.

Now, if you are approaching an audience of US sports enthusiasts, you are probably still not going to find many cricket fans. However, you now have a different perspective to approach the subject. You can lead with, "The Amazing Mets. The Miracle on Ice. Now we have another moment that defines the great upsets in sports history..." This appeals to a specific interest, drawing in the reader from their place of comfort. The appeal to famous moments in sports is an immediate draw, and the comparison can lead them into the world of cricket.

Of course, if you have an international audience or a bunch of cricket enthusiasts, just jump right in and lead with my opening lines to this post. They get to the point, draw in the cricket fans, and get the discussion rolling. No beating around the bush or building up the background that your audience would already know - it's just a jump-right-in approach that gets to the point. 

In short, when you think about writing a piece for an audience, the first question they will be asking themselves is, "Why am I reading this?" If you know your audience, you need to answer this question and appeal to their interests right up front. Otherwise, they lose interest faster than most of my readers will lose interest in the Cricket World Cup.         

Monday, June 3, 2024

Mid-Year Resolutions

Even after factoring in all the usual springtime festivities, this past month has been a busy one indeed for me. Between the graduations, the birthdays, the unexpected trips and traveling, an epic computer crash, some out-of-the-blue health issues and a flare-up of my favorite bad knee, it's amazing I got anything done this month. And my regular readers might've noticed that I had to cut back to one post a week for a while as I tried to keep up with everything else (apologies for the rerun posts). However, this happens to everyone - especially writers.

Now, I don't want to say I've had writer's block this past month. Far from it - I've been rather productive. However, I haven't been writing the things I've really wanted to write, mostly because I am not sure how to go about them. To me, this is the difference between writer's block and just being very busy - one is the inability to create, the other is not being able to take the time required to place yourself in the creative space required to make those special things come to life. So I haven't been blocked, I have just been in every other place besides my creative one.

And this leads me to the subject: Mid-year resolutions. Now, my regular readers will know I am not exactly a fan of resolutions based on the turn of a calendar page, and most everyone will know that the middle of the year is still a month away. However, this feels like a good time to plan out a few things that I can apply in the second half of the year to help me steer around problems like the ones I have been having over the past month. And I think it will help to start this list now because it's going to take a while to implement.

Firstly - and I recommend this to everyone - I will affix my writing time into a very regular place in the day. This time will be a pretty slack space, preferably right after I eat, where I can just put things together and get things onto the page or simply chase them out of my head. Sounds easy until you try it, so I recommend a half-hour, three days per work week (write on the weekends at your own pace).

Secondly - I will keep my notepad nearby (it's actually my phone, but you get the idea). If I have a burst of creativity, I will take advantage of it. I will write down (or record) any weird idea for a character, a story, a plot twist. It doesn't matter if I wake up at 3 a.m. with thoughts about a homicidal houseplant, I will make sure I commit it to something and look back at it again - probably during my pre-set writing time. 

Thirdly - I will bounce ideas off of other people. Being creative is wonderful, but it can be difficult in isolation. The other week I started bouncing a story idea off of a few friends, and it did wonders for helping me put it together in my own head, where I had been going in circles for too long. Now, it helps to bounce the right ideas off the right people, so choose your targets appropriately. However, in my case, I think I will be more open about these ideas because some just need a little breathing room to flourish.

I am posting these resolutions not to brag about my own goals as a writer, but to offer a little guidance to others who might be looking for a little direction and inspiration, or just a way to get out of their ruts. Everyone can benefit from a little promise-making, so I hope you make some good mid-year resolutions of your own (whenever that mid-year thing actually arrives).        

Monday, May 27, 2024

For Memorial Day

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.


John McCrae


 

Monday, May 20, 2024

The Writer's Spirit Animal - the Cicada

Up here in my little spot of the Midwest, it is cicada season. Every seventeen years (or thirteen for different breeds), about a bajillion bugs creep out from their little homes underneath old trees and undergrowth, molt off their old skins, feed for a little bit, then screech continuously for the few weeks that is their mating season. For those of you who have not heard this screeching noise, it's fairly tame as far as bug noises go. However, when 1,000,000 of them decide to harmonize in a nearby forest, or a few thousand camp out and have a singalong in the neighbor's backyard, it is memorable. When we first moved out here when I was very young, I experienced my first cicada uprising. It was like the entire forest preserve was shaking with an invisible force of life. It was fascinating and just a little scary.

Now, many decades later, I have grown used to the shrieking little fellows, and I have even related to them to a degree. I don't necessarily follow their habits - I have long since given up sitting on my porch, shrieking aloud to attract females - but I have found a certain connection with them. Whether it's their red eyes or their very dry skin, something between the cicadas and me felt similar. It took a while to finally make the connection, but indeed I figured it out. That one common thread we must have was staring me in the face: Cicadas are obviously writers.

Now, at this point science can neither confirm nor refute the writing habits of the seventeen-year cicada, given the time-intensive nature of such studies. However, my less-than-scientific methods see the commonality between the two. You see, much like a cicada, a dedicated writer will spend most of their time in deep, silent thought. A hibernation of the body while the mind silently races about, putting together their latest masterpiece. If not for the human demands of regular calories and nutrition, a real writer would likely sit dormant for long spans of time, dust settling on them, moss growing high on their northern side as they contemplated their story.

And then, in a shriek of activity, the writer bursts forth with a flurry of activity. They become alive with activity - frantically writing, editing, workshopping pieces, getting feedback from everyone, all with that constant sound of them talking about their latest work. During this active streak, the writer rarely does anything but drink coffee, type, and occasionally let out a screech of triumph when a particular phrase or scene really works. Every writer knows this sound, and when they hear another writer make that noise, they nod their head in proud agreement.

And then, without anyone noticing it, the writer will finally fall silent again. The writing binge will be over, a new set of thoughts filling their mind as their body goes into that dormant state. Their coffee grows cold in the mug, the sheets of written copy sit there unedited, and it's back into hibernation as their mind churns about, going entering the next cycle of creation.

Maybe this is stretching it. Maybe I am a little more active than a cicada, and my writing cycles are a little faster than seventeen years. But as I hear them outside, screeching up a storm, I know they are in a very active state of mind, doing what nature demands of them. I nod my head in agreement, then get back to writing.       

Monday, May 13, 2024

Why Do Writing Prompts?

The simplest exercise for any writer; the push-up of the writing community is the writing prompt. Someone rattles off a word, topic, question, or otherwise meaningless sentence and you spend the next eight minutes writing about it. Has anyone ever written the perfect bit of prose from this exercise? Never. Has that eight-minute endeavor brought home a Pulitzer? Doubt it. And yet, just like a push-up, we do these to build up our writing muscles because they usually don't get that kind of exercise in the regular world.

If I asked you to tell me why you are on this journey called writing, you would probably lean back, think for a second, and offer a simple answer. "It brings me a joy I can't find anywhere else," "I like exploring the creative world inside my head," or "I want to be rich." (I genuinely hope it is not the last one.) I might follow up with a few more questions, you would offer answers, and we would have a conversation. No big surprise there - we do this every day. However, if I ask you to spend eight minutes writing about just why you are on this journey of writing, your answer magically changes. You not only answer the question, but you explain it. You think about how the other side of the conversation would go, and answer those points in one long narrative. Or maybe you answer the prompt by offering an example that crystallizes your feelings and gives the reader an entire experience. Maybe it comes to you in poem form, and you express yourself through metered rhyme. Most of these options would never occur organically during a standard conversation, but when it's a prompt, suddenly we find ourselves exercising.

My original approach to writing prompts went somewhere along the lines of "Ugh!!!!" I couldn't see the point of writing something that had no other purpose other than to make me work for eight minutes. Believe it or not, I felt the same way about push-ups and running laps in the gym. I was going literally nowhere, doing something I very rarely do under normal conditions, and killing precious time when I could actually be playing volleyball or whatever the day's sport was. Well, as it turned out, I made a discovery later in life. First, running a few laps before playing volleyball is a great way to stretch your legs so you don't pull your hamstring in the second game (learned that the hard way). Second, if you run a few laps regularly, you will have much more endurance to play more volleyball in the long run. And most importantly, you spend very little time actually playing volleyball and a lot more time just trying to stay in volleyball shape, and that's what the laps are for.

So even though my epic projects get their time, they do not get as much time as I like. I go to my workshops, talk about writing, review and critique other writers' works, and tend to the rest of my life - then I write. So, yes, those writing prompts help me get fit and ready for those times when I can go on a nice writing binge and get a few chapters knocked out. And while I don't know what the writer's equivalent is to pulling a hamstring, I can assure you I don't do that either.

Writer's prompt: What was the moment that made you want to pursue writing? Eight minutes, and... go!       

Friday, May 10, 2024

Time and Place

It's been a rough week for me, very rough indeed. I pushed myself to do my distance cycling (though by the end, I am not sure whether my bicycle or my knees were groaning the loudest). I also put in some quality treadmill time, took care of some household chores, finished up some business stuff, and prepared for Saturday's Writing Workshop (2:30 - 4:30 p.m., Park Forest library, for those who are interested). Right now I need find something relaxing to do.

By relaxing, I mean editing my latest work.

"How is that relaxing?" you might ask, and you wouldn't be alone in that sentiment. However, for everything we get into, we need to know the best way to react to it and the best way to take advantage of it. When I have been through a lot of physically demanding stuff along with stressful activities, I guarantee that the best place for my mind to settle into is the meticulous job of doing a line-edit or busily proofreading a manuscript (of which I have three to get through). During that process, I put my sore body into a comfortable position and let the critical, intellectual part of my mind take over. Sometimes I even have a metronome ticking in the background at 60 cycles per minute to match my usual resting heart rate (yes, there are plenty of apps for that). The point is, it works for me at that moment.

To further that point, as writers, we need to know what activities, outside factors, and other influences bring us into a place where we are ready to write. This could be a totally different set of factors than those that prepare our minds for editing, or just reading, or doing literally anything else. We need to maintain a certain self-awareness where we can monitor ourselves and realize, "You know, I do my best writing when I wake up," or, "My attention is the sharpest on a full stomach," or whatever. This way we target our senses and our moods to make the best out of a situation we're in.

You know my editing mindset already. Well, my best writing mindset is any time I am sitting in front of my laptop (that has become a physical cue worthy of Pavlov's dog), in some sort of public setting, with general noise in the background - but not too loud. It's better when I have been awake for a little bit, and preferably after having thought about personal things (I think that opens the creative doors for me). Once I have those elements around me, I just go into writing mode. Using just those little signs, I wrote an entire manuscript on my daily train ride.

Here's an experiment: Figure out what your best and worst situations for writing, reading, and for editing are (chances are they're all different moods). Then, for the next few weeks, when you find yourself in the ideal situation for writing, do some writing. Write literally anything - just start working that part of your brain. When the situation is best for reading, do that - focus on it and commit to it. And when the time is write to edit, well, hopefully you will be able to edit all that stuff you did during the writing phase.

Give yourself a month of doing that, then review the results. Look at what you've created, and examine how you feel about it. Hopefully, you will be in the first stages of forming some good writing habits, and you will be using them to the best of your abilities.       

Monday, May 6, 2024

A Little Comment About Modifiers

Instead of me rambling for a few paragraphs before getting to the point, let's just jump right into this while the subject is fresh. I deliberately used the word "little" in the title to make a point, and it's about modifiers. Specifically, what do they offer and when do we really need to use them? There are definitely occasions where modifiers are necessary - how will the reader know if a character is tall, dark, and handsome if you don't say it? - but we tend to use them more than we need to, and our writing pays the price.

Take the title of this piece: "A Little Comment About Modifiers." In this title, "Little" is the modifier, and it makes the title sound all quaint and homey. However, what does this actually provide the reader? By merely looking at the screen, you can tell that this commentary is about the usual length of my comments, so there's nothing really little about it. So, by calling it little, the only thing I am really accomplishing is a sort of trivialization of a commentary that I am actually proud of. One might say I am belittling it - pun intended.

Is this nit-picking? Sort of. We often use words such as these in standard conversation, putting an inflection on them so that whoever is listening gets the point. Often this comes with no shortage of sarcasm. "Why don't I like black olives? Let me give you a little hint - I'm allergic to them!" In this spoken-word example, little is far from referring to something small, but rather understating something that is actually very important. In this case, I openly endorse using a modifier in this manner.

However, most people don't do this, and it gets thrown around without concern, all to the detriment of our poor readers.

"I was a little mad." "We were sort of lost." "She was kind of tall." In these examples, using a modifier takes a simple point-of-fact comment, and actually makes it less interesting. A reader wants to read about someone being mad, not a little mad. How different is being lost from sort of lost? Kind of tall is kind of boring. Each of these sentences has a wonderful opportunity to bring forth some real creativity and make the lines pop, but instead they become weaker for their modifier. Whenever you find yourself using a weak modifier like, a little, kind of, sort of, or similar words, use the opportunity to write a few lines that really show off your writing. Here's what I did with the examples at the beginning of the sentence.

"I was mad. Not foaming-at-the-mouth, red-in-the-face, take-a-swing-at-anything mad, but pretty damn far from happy."

"We were lost. It felt like if we just backtracked a few intersections and took one left instead of a right, we'd be on our way, but we didn't know which right turn was the wrong one."

"She was tall. Her height let her stand just above any crowd, enough to make eye contact with her from across the room"

That's all it takes, and the reader gets a little more engaged rather than a little more bored. So, give this a little try on your next piece, and see if it makes a little difference.           

Monday, April 29, 2024

Writing the Perfect Word

I'll be the first to admit that today I am under the weather. Not in that good, hungover, "I feel horrible but it was worth it" kind of way, but in that spring cold bug in the sinuses kind of way. This kind of stuff really saps my energy, so in some ways this will not be a long post. In other ways, however, it will be very long. Confused? Well, I will fall back on Mark Twain's quote, “I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

When we don't concern ourselves with getting the perfect words on the page, we can actually write quite a bit. We can write long, drawn-out descriptions of many things, we can ramble on about our annoying sinus cold, we can explain in one-hundred words what might normally take us twenty to discuss. That's where I am at right now - I want to explain something fairly simple, but since my batteries are low, I will not focus on using the one perfect word and instead throw a cloud of ten at you in exchange.

It's only by sheer chance that the subject of the perfect word came up today when I am feeling far from perfect. Someone in our writing workshop was discussing their recent writing experience, and their observation boiled down to this: Getting exactly the right word to stand for everything you want to say, knowing that word will last well beyond your time, is surprisingly hard. Words are like that. They carry a lot of weight, but they are also precise devices meant to tap into very particular emotions. Love and hate are thrown around a lot because they refer to strong emotions, but we all know that they are broad terms that sometimes miss the more detailed point we want to make, whereas passion and rage  might be far better qualified to speak on your behalf. This is the exhausting part of choosing the right word.

Back during my time in finance, Fed Chief Alan Greenspan used the term, "irrational exuberance" during one of his speeches back in late-1996. You likely do not remember the speech, but that two-word phrase caught on as the best way to describe the building stock-market bubble that promptly blew up a little over three years later. Two words that defined the late 1990s. Why did they catch on? Well, it likely comes as no surprise that Greenspan later acknowledged that he spent twenty minutes sitting in the bath, ruminating over the exact way to quantify just what the markets suspected. Twenty minutes figuring out two words? Really? Well, they were well-spent because long afterward, those words remain a key phrase in finance and economics books discussing that era.

As for my friend on the writing group, he was looking for a word to go on a headstone. I don't know how long he spent on the challenge, but I am sure it was more time than Chairman Greenspan spent. And that is just why we can rush through and write a blog post in twenty minutes to talk about the exhaustive effort it takes to choose the right words. And it's also why we read those works again when we have more time and energy, comb through the meaning, and make it a real work of art.

For now, I have finished my words, so I am going to retreat to the couch and fight off this bug.          

Monday, April 22, 2024

A Writer's Non-Writing Tip

Anyone who knows me or who is a regular (or semi-regular) reader of this blog knows I have had a pretty rough month or so. I won't go into details about that - look over my post list and I think you'll get the gist of things. Now, in the past I have discussed ways to use adversity or hard times to sharpen your writing skills - often they boil down to, "write about things." However, this has been a very trying time for me, so I've kicked it into high gear and pulled out my strongest writing tool. Surprisingly, it doesn't even involve writing.

As an aside, some of the most intense writing I ever did was during my career in finance as an economist. I had my lovely little space where I would write, and I would diligently put together some truly inspired, insightful, perfectly voiced analysis. These things were legends of economic writing, and I would share them right now if they weren't proprietary information. Anyway, the most telling sign that I was in the middle of a truly epic writing breakthrough is the energy-savers on the office lights would kick in and the area would go dim. I would have to wave my arms around so the energy-saver detectors would recognize there was a human in the office and turn the lights back on, then I would diligently go back to my work, which involved me being motionless. Not writing, not moving, not doing anything but thinking. And what thoughts they were.

Sometimes, a writer's greatest things are in their head. Not their greatest writing - that's always in words - but their greatest ideas and insights form within the chaos of the mind. A writer can sit there, eyes fixated on a blank screen, for long stretches while their mind churns over amazing thoughts, connecting the dots into unseen patterns that suddenly bring out a picture they never expected. And then... the magic happens and they write it down just as easily as anything else.

So, getting back to my point about this strongest writing tool that I keep in my back pocket for the truly tough times, it's surprisingly simple. In my case, I go for a walk. Not sightseeing, not adventuring. I walk around, and let my mind mill through what is really bugging me. The grief, the sorrow, the frustration or the fear of mortality - I let those things take over and watch what they do and where they go. One by one, they run around, scream, rage, bring out all their anxieties, and reveal everything I need to know about them. I let them wear themselves down until they are ragged and exhausted, and I see what they are really yelling about. I see what scares them, what frightens them, what makes them demand so much of my brain's bandwidth. At that point, I know exactly what they are. At that point, I can bring out the writer's favorite tool - I can write about them, and put them away for good. 

I'm not saying this is easy - I took a 15-mile walk today to try and wear down the current beasts - but it is important. Sometimes we need to hand the mic over to the problems and just let them rage. Preferably in a safe place, like on a walk, or while we're cycling, or somewhere without much distraction. Then, once we do this, we can create some of the most genuine, honest writing we have ever accomplished. And a little cardio as well.         

Friday, April 19, 2024

Hump Day - The Writing Version

Any writer has been there; many more than once. We have our character, we have our conflict, we know the ending we want. We jump into the creative process full-force - whether with a short story, a novella, or a full-length manuscript, we take on the project eagerly and relentlessly. It is something we have thought about, planned for, and spread out before us as the grand design for a wonderful creation. We hit those words running, and we create. We create a wonderful opening, our first sentence is a real grabber, our character introduction is perfect, everything's right on schedule. And then...

then...

Oof. Then there's a lag. A big, fat, old nothing. We've gotten our story to a point and we look forward and see this big empty page before us. We've burned through the exciting part and now we sit in the thick of creation, and it feels like something's missing. We are no longer connecting things. We know the next conflict, the next challenge, but our character is just sitting there, and we can't seem to figure out just how to get them to the next scene. It's a common problem, but it is the worst thing because we go from full-speed ahead to just sitting on the side of the road.

This is usually a sign that the character is missing an internal driver, or least the writer isn't completely in touch with it quite yet. Often, stories flow like chase scenes - the character hits an intersection and has to turn left, right, straight, or stop. Once that choice is made, they go barreling head-long into the next decision rushing upon them, turning into side plots and character-developing arcs, passing distractions and knocking over inconvenient story obstacles. However, story development isn't always so clean. Sometimes, the rush of the story doesn't force the character to make a choice, and they must make the decision on their own. That's when the trouble comes. That's when the writing can't get over the hump.

When we know a character in full, when we understand them well enough to write about them, we know the little things. Do they prefer chicken or fish? What's their favorite color? What's their go-to song during karaoke? These things may never come up, but we can jump at the opportunity to provide an answer. However, we also need to know what moves them, what draws them in, what makes them interesting enough to have their own story. And one of the most important things we need to know is what moves them from one scene to the next when nobody is chasing them through the story. When the decision is theirs alone, what do they do?

Often, this is difficult to write instinctively because a lot of examples around us are idle examples, or times when the world happens to us, not when we venture out and take a chance. The way to get over the hump is to think about what pushes us internally to make big decisions, to take major steps in life, when nobody is forcing us. We need to find our own inner force, and then look for something similar in our  character. Once we find that, the writing becomes that force pushing us past the hump and into our next scene. From there we continue.

Simply put, to truly know your character, know what moves them, what inspires them. What makes them laugh or cry? What sound might draw them into a room? What might cause them to take a day off of work, or to break from their habits? Know those things, and there won't be any humps to overcome.   

Monday, April 15, 2024

Writing Aside: Tom Hernandez

This morning I woke to, among other things, an email telling me that at 1:30 a.m., Tom Hernandez, co-founder of the WriteOn group in Joliet, passed away. In all honesty, I knew this email was coming. Everyone who knew Tom knew this email would show up. We had been preparing for this moment for a while, and yet when it arrived, I feel everyone realized they were never actually ready for it. Maybe we can never be entirely ready. And yet, at 1:30 this morning, Tom passed away.

As mentioned, this came as no surprise. A while ago, Tom notified us that he had a pretty vicious form of cancer. He would be fighting the good fight, but he acknowledged that this kind of cancer wasn't one to give up easily, and more often than not, it won the battle. This was a lot to take in, and the fight would in fact be real-life game of crack-the-whip for all parties involved. Eventually it reached a point of inevitability, and everyone found a way to process what the future would be. I took a slightly different spin on it. I made a decision that I would look at what I had learned from this horrible set of experiences, and that's how I will remember Tom.

We all know the classic action-thriller structure: Unwilling character brought into a struggle of immense proportions and forced to not only fight for their very existence against insurmountable odds, but to eventually rise up and be the hero, saving the world and walking away triumphant. It's pretty standard, and it's always good for some high-adventure fun. The classics, however, stand apart from the everyday action movie for one reason, and it has nothing to do with the outcome. Rather, it's all about how the story was told. Did we go into the Lord of the Rings books wondering if Sauron would ultimately conquer Middle Earth, leaving the civilized world in flames? Nope - we knew that good would prevail somehow. The real grabber, however, was the telling of the story, and how everything developed.

Full disclosure: When Tom first made his announcement, a part of me knew - knew - it wouldn't end well. I was supportive and rallied for his cause, but a part of me started preparing for that day I would get the email. However, a funny thing happened. Even though in my mind I knew how the story would end, I started paying more attention to how Tom lived those moments of his fight. I watched as he put forth goals to reach and different landmarks to achieve, how he took a special appreciation for what life he had, even as his very body tried taking it from him. Suddenly, I wasn't thinking about the end of the story, but rather the story unfolding in front of me. And it was fascinating. I learned about living from Tom's last few years of life, even though the story would soon end.

The final conclusion to me is this: We all have that end coming. Some day our friends and loved ones will get that email about us. Young or old, unexpectedly or foreseen, all of our stories end with that email. However, the part that counts the most, the only part that matters, is the story that comes before that final page. To the people seeing our story, we are the hero facing the insurmountable odds, fighting the good fight, and walking away having done the best we ever could. We inspire others around us to be better writers, better people, or just better. The end of the story will come, but people will remember the adventure, so it's up to us to make it a good one. 

Rest in peace, Tom.                

Friday, April 12, 2024

A Good Thing About Social Media

I will admit this, possibly to the surprise of my many former colleagues in the financial sector, but the writer in me misses my days back in economics. During that time, I would do a lot of writing, though a lot of it was actually reporting - discussing economic indicators, legislation, political shenanigans and so forth. I would report on those, analyze their impact, and then draw conclusions from everything I processed. If this is boring you already, you truly understand the broader world of economics.

Since this was reporting, the writing could be dry. Real dry. Like overdone toast in the Sahara dry. It was very business-like, very research-driven, and finding room for a personal voice was difficult. However, the writing was only half of the job. The other half was knowing what I wrote about so well that I could defend it like a doctoral dissertation, which also meant writing what I knew well enough to explain it to people who could throw questions at me from any and every direction - and often did.

Now, did it make a difference just how I wrote about the correlation between the Spanish peseta and the Portuguese escudo during the late 1980s? Not really. What had the biggest impact was being able to sit there, face senior management, and take fire from everything from currency discussions to whether or not that's the proper spelling of escudo. (My guess is few of you know the spelling for sure and even fewer care.) This was a constant test of my mettle, every question a make-or-break challenge. I assure you that all of those questions made me a better economist, sometimes even when I didn't have an answer because it got me thinking more about the subject.

Now here's where this all ties into social media. I have often extolled the benefits of writing workshops,  in part because it provides that same question-and-discussion format that makes things interesting. Well, one thing in particular that social media offers is about a bajillion pages for beginning writers, aspiring writers, creative writers, and all other kinds of writers. These forums have people posting totally random questions about voice, perspective, PoV shifts, how to structure a story, and so on ad infinitum. More importantly, responses come from everywhere. These aren't just dialogues with one board moderator, but with an entire community of writers, some of whom have the exact same questions, and plenty who can offer their own insights and their experiences. The best part? It's all there for you to jump into. If you have an answer, throw it into the thread. If you have a question, post it and let the answers pour in. And, of course, read the comment threads (though at your own risk - comment threads are notoriously volatile) and find things you like.

Now, the writer pages on Facebook might not be as exciting as the peseta:escudo relationship back when those were real currencies, but that's for you to decide. I've been writing for over twenty years, and I still find questions that challenge me. Furthermore, I often answer peoples' questions in a way that make me really think about my form and process before I open my big mouth. It's just like an interrogation by senior management, except there's less money on the table. 

The advice part of this piece: Hop onto social media and just join a few writing groups. I prefer Aspiring Writers United and Fiction Writers, but a simple group search under "writing" or "creativity" should provide a wealth of groups to work with. (And again, be careful with the comment thread. Seriously.)       

Friday, April 5, 2024

Making It A Special Day

As most people in the continental US have heard, a broad swathe of real estate across the country will be witness to a total solar eclipse (weather permitting). This most impressive of events rarely occurs in this country, and won't happen again in totality here for a few decades. Therefore, people are taking the day off, getting out their road maps (Google Maps at least), and figuring out just how to see this spectacle. Out by my place, we will not have eclipse totality (I think they say 94%), so a lot of people are driving two hours south to get the experience in full. They are making a real day out of it.

This kind of event - a rarity indeed - is one that will provide writers with plenty of inspiration for short stories, poems, essays, and whatever they want to create. I expect the eclipse will be followed by a wave of creativity hitting the feeds (along with a lot of people asking, "Why do my eyes hurt?"), followed by a creative lull. No surprise here. However, being inspired by this celestial event is the low-hanging fruit of creativity. Still just as tasty, but there are plenty to choose from. I would argue that every day can be eclipse day if you know where to look.

A poet friend of mine got the opportunity to kill some time in the Albuquerque airport waiting for her flight. If there is something that is the exact opposite of the wonder and awe of a total eclipse, it is probably the Albuquerque airport. So there she sat with nothing to do but listen to nearby musicians play for passers-by while waiting for her flight. Some people might bury themselves in a book, others might catch a quick nap. She looked around, listened to the music, and had her eclipse moment.

As a creative, she took in what was around her, what she had experienced during her time in New Mexico, and all the little things most people take for granted. She let it sink in, she found the inspiration (or maybe the inspiration found her) and she could not help but to write a poem about Albuquerque. By searching through that moment and all its little elements, it became more than just a day, it became special and unique. Everything came together and *BOOM* a poem happened.

Normally, I would present that poem for all to enjoy, but it's not mine; it's hers. However, I took it upon myself to realize that any given day can have some feature worth writing about - you just need to look. Sometimes you just need to feel what is around you, or see it all from new eyes. I mean, come on - Albuquerque? If that can inspire, anything can inspire. It just needs to be seen, heard, and ultimately felt. The writing is just the end product.

Since Monday will be Eclipse Day for me, my next post will not be until April 12th. Enjoy this natural wonder, use proper eye protection, and after all is said and done, maybe write something about it.            

Monday, April 1, 2024

An April Fool's Day Don't (for writers)

It's April 1st, the day people love to dread, or just dread. People find ways to fool and deceive those around them in interesting, mischievous, and sometimes plain old cruel ways. Maybe it's something as simple as unplugging your co-worker's keyboard while they are away from their desk, or sending out a silly memo that's obviously meant to be a joke. On this day we are all participants somehow - often unwillingly - and hopefully we learn to take things lightly, let the foolishness wash off of us, and go about our business, feeling a little lighter and carefree for the experience.

A warning to writers: Readers do not take pranks so well.

Now, part of writing a clever story involves playing a game with the reader. In the classic-twist-at-the-end story, it is revealed that something the reader assumed was in fact not true, or that something they took for granted was entirely different. In a way, this is playing a joke on the reader by cleverly leading them down a particular path just to say, "Gotcha!" at the end. It requires a certain amount of craft and skill to do this, and it definitely takes practice. However, there are right ways and wrong ways to do it.

If you and I were walking down the street and I suddenly punched you in the shoulder then shouted, "Ha! Gotcha!" that wouldn't be much of a joke. It would be a surprise, and not what anyone expected, but there's no humor there. Along a similar line, you have that thing kids do when they tell you to look over there, the when you do, they say, "Ha! Made you look!" Well, that much is true, and it played upon my expectation of seeing something, but it isn't exactly funny after the age of nine.

Too often, writers fall into the same trap. It can come in many forms, but they all have the equivalent effect of, "Ha! Made you look!" The writer creates a narrative, then it turns out that it was all just a dream, and the character returns to their life. The character pursues something that turns out to be nonexistent, and goes back to their life none the wiser. And the worst one - the character breaks from the story to have some sort of experience, then returns to the story and the experience never comes up again. These are the literary equivalent of failed April Fool's pranks and should be avoided at all costs.

So how do we know we are writing ourselves into a cheap little joke? The proof should be in the results, as in, there should be results or some form of consequences from whatever occurred. Think about the three examples in the previous paragraph. They all conclude with the character being unchanged, having just wasted time doing something that had no real impact on them. If the character isn't affected, why would the reader be affected? We have to approach these stories and think about how the reader will see a change (or a deliberate denial) in the world around them. The story needs to be impactful; it needs to make a difference. It doesn't need to be a profound statement, but the character at the end should be different in some striking manner. Like the example I mentioned at the end of the first paragraph in this post, if we feel a little lighter and carefree for the experience, then it was worth having. 

So, for anything you write, and for any joke you pull, make sure it has some intention, purpose, and casts a new light on some part of the reader's world. That's the difference between a good joke and just saying, "Made you look!"              

Friday, March 29, 2024

A Tribute to All Writers

I will be the first to say it has been a rough week. The most trying part of it has been long bouts of introspection, covering various eras of my life. And as many of you might have guessed, given the events of my last post, I have been thinking a lot about writing: what role it plays in my life, how it has shaped me, and where I am in this long writer's journey. Truth be told, I didn't come up with answers. If anything, I ended up with more questions.

However, it did put me into a mindset about just what writing is all about. What it does to us, what it does for us, and how it can live long beyond our time. I've had these thoughts before, and, as usual, I wrote about them. The result of this reflection was a piece that I read at the most recent writers' meeting - the Tinley Park League of Aspiring Writers. A few people requested copies of my work, then a few people suggested I simply post it on my blog so everyone could appreciate it.

So, without further ado, here is the piece I wrote about a writer's connection to writing, and all of its meaning:

It Continues

I am proud to say I am a crappy writer. Some people may protest and try to build my esteem, but let me offer context. When I say I am a crappy writer, this is because I now know so many adjectives that are far worse than merely crappy, and I have risen above those. In short, I have learned over the years to not chart myself on the goals I want to reach, but rather the milestones I have already passed. In doing that, my journey ahead is not anchored by one specific point, but rather an endless series of amazing paths leading toward a beautiful horizon. I am not tethered in my journey, but rather freed to move forth. And I continue.

If I have learned one thing from this journey of writing, it is that every word we place on paper expands us as people, elevating our existence to something greater, something unimaginable but wonderfully achievable. We start this adventure by learning words. Then, by sheer force of will, we start saying these words. They become the building blocks for greater ideas, and we grow. We create. And if we are wise, we push this process forward. We continue.

Eventually, we learn to write these words, each one leaving a footprint in the sands of time. Our ideas flow out of our bodies, taking hold first in voice, then on paper, then in the minds of others. Our conscience expands outside the boundaries of our heart and mind, and into the world. We reach other people, engage with them, take in their presence, and like the spark of life itself, our words expand into their hearts and minds. Our ideas live in others, taking on their own lives and purposes. They continue.

This is the power of the written word – to be a continuation of everything we are and that we can be. As these words nurture our being, our soul expands beyond the confines of our bodies, casting itself forth and touching others. It reaches other souls, merges with their passions and ideas, radiating out like waves in a pond, but getting stronger with every ripple. Our words become this pulse, this sound, this ever-growing signal of our presence. Those words continue.

With our written words, with our ideas, we can touch the world, we can reach the hearts of everything in existence. Even after my hands stop typing these ideas, the words will carry me through the ether, resonating with everyone they touch. Those thoughts, those ideas never end, carrying themselves through time itself, transmitting our deepest existence into the universe. It feeds into something so vast, so incredible, that our little bodies can’t comprehend its grandiosity. But those words, those ideas, that little part of us that we send out into the world becomes a part of this everlasting presence of the Universe forever. That part of us becomes part of existence’s indelible fingerprint through time.

It always continues.

     

Monday, March 25, 2024

Side Note: Chris Drnaso

I had a pretty busy day leading up to sitting here at my desk, typing up this post. Woke up early, played with the cats, had breakfast, got in some work, walked about 22,000 steps (just over 10 miles with my legs), and enjoyed the lightest of rain on a very pleasant spring day. All the time I was doing these things, I was thinking about different things I wanted to write about this afternoon. Definitely something about just what it takes to be a writer this time around, but I couldn't grab just one idea. By the time I got home from my long walkabout, I had centered around a basic premise and would see where it went. I sat down, fired up the computer, and prepared myself.

That's when I discovered that Chris Drnaso had died.

To understand Chris Drnaso was a bit of a challenge for me - the man was quite the enigma. He headed up our writer's group at the Tinley Park library - the League of Aspiring Writers (LAW, which, coincidentally, is meeting tonight). He's been a writer for a long time, but would be the first to admit he wrote his first novel as a personal "bucket list" challenge. (I did not know this at the time he mentioned his first book, but he had been battling cancer at the time - a fight he kept up for 17 years.) So, what started as a personal challenge to see if he could do it developed into another chronic condition - that of being a writer. He wrote several more books, each one a personal mission to create, to share, to immortalize an idea. He became a writer basically by the sheer action of writing. And from that he became a teacher.

I knew him as a very generous and giving person, but more important than that was his willingness to share. That's an important step for any writer to take - putting your work out there and taking in the feedback that allows you to discover more about what works, what doesn't, and how your own voice sounds. I know plenty of prolific writers who remain stuck in place because they can't muster up the moxie to put themselves out there and run the risk of growth. Chris did this happily, and was always very constructive in lifting others up as well. Even when he would explain how one of my submissions just didn't seem to work for him, he would do it in such a way where I knew exactly what I needed to do to up my writing game just a little bit more. And it always worked.

Now I am preparing to go to tonight's meeting. I have a piece of writing to share, and yet that's not the part that will concern me. The news of Chris's death is just getting around, and I am not sure if the LAW members know about it at this point. This meeting will be different, and even if we have a full house tonight, there will be an empty space that we just won't be able to fill. I think we will still get our acts together so we can read, and critique, and motivate each other to be better writers. I am pretty sure he would've wanted it that way.

Thank you, Chris.        

Friday, March 22, 2024

Stuck In the Corner

In case you are unfamiliar, the picture is Hinkum, one of my two cats. On one curious day, this little kitty jumped onto an unstable stack of crutches I had stored in my office (yes, I do go through more than my fair share of crutches). Hinkum's weight stabilized the pile as he sat on them, but if he made the slightest shift to get off, the collection wobbled, shook, and threatened to collapse. Hinkum was terrified, so all he could do was sit atop the crutches and howl pitifully for someone to come rescue him. I finally did, but not before taking a picture for posterity. (You can tell that Hinkum was not amused that I wanted to take a picture first instead before saving him.)


Poor Hinkum's plight stemming from that one stupid decision - which he has not repeated since - reminded me of what writers will go through constantly. They will write their characters into a corner, leaving them with no means of escape. Either the character is physically trapped, or has to make a decision that is against the character's beliefs, or some other situation where there is no justifiable way out. As much as we plan and plot and structure our stories, this will inevitably happen, and we are left there, howling for someone to rescue us.

Now there are a few ways to get out of this situation, but first let me discuss a couple that you should avoid. The worst one, bar none, is the one that I call, "Papa Smurf knows magic." Yes, I am referring to the cartoon character dating back so far it says something about my own age. Anyway, this is the route where, to escape the situation, the character does something that has not been previously discussed nor is fully explained, as if this little secret had been in their back pocket all along. This is sloppy writing, mostly because it cheats the reader of having all the information the character would have. It is a magical escape, but it comes at the expense of disappointing the reader.

The other one to avoid is often referred to as Deus ex machina, which is a fancy way to say, "Someone else unexpectedly bails them out." Again, this can be a cheat to the reader. When the protagonist is surrounded by the bad guys and he's out of bullets, you can't have the police suddenly show up saying they got a call and came running. This is an empty victory, and leaves the reader feeling the same way.

The way to get out of these corners has actually been in front of you all along. People don't like it, but it's necessary if you want to be fair to the reader. When we have written our character into a corner, when they are stuck in an irreconcilable situation, we need to take the tough medicine and unwrite that situation. If we want to use the Papa Smurf way, we need to write in a few scenes where this secret ability of theirs is demonstrated, preferably in a way that is relevant to the story. Furthermore, we have to check the rest of the major conflict scenes and consider whether they could've/should've used it there as well. Then we need to rewrite the big stuck-in-the-corner scene so it doesn't seem like the big secret is just the obvious way out. Otherwise, the story becomes painfully predictable.

This is similarly used in the Deus ex machina scenario - it's allowable if you include scenes of someone calling 9-1-1 and alerting the police, thus creating a rush against time for them to arrive before it's too late. This is difficult. Depending on the complexity of your story, this might require rewriting several scenes. However, if you respect your reader and want a genuinely solid story, it's a required step.

Or you could just leave the cat on the stack of crutches and go do something else. I do not recommend this option.         

Monday, March 18, 2024

Finding the Pain Point

Any semi-regular reader of these posts will know that often I recommend writing about things to which you are emotionally sensitive. I have mentioned before some of the techniques I use to approach those subjects in my own writing as well. In, "Poking the Painful Places," I introduced everyone to my alter-ego, Tom, who is my stand-in when I want to write about horrible things that I've experienced but just can't talk about directly. Tom's taken a beating in the past, and likely has more beatings coming his way. However, he can handle it - he is literally written to handle it. He feels the pain, and I continue to write.

This time, though, I am going to approach this from a different angle. Instead of writing about the things that hurt us, what happens when we write about things that the reader might be sensitive to? How do we address something so sensitive - other peoples' pain? This kind of writing is difficult, mostly because even if we put poor old Tom through that wringer, it's the reader who could really be shaken. Maybe that's good, maybe that's bad, so let's look at it a little deeper.

Now, any writing about basically any deadly sin or major social taboo is going to be offensive to some people - that's the price of writing about these subjects. American Psycho went very aggressively into the mind of a psychopath, and the ensuing mayhem in that book was quite disturbing to some. Stephen King touches upon many, many horrifying subjects in his works, and in that regard, certain people avoid his writing. However, from a writing point of view (rather than genre perspective), this is strong, effective writing. So is there really a way to be too offensive for the mainstream reader?

Well, let's clear away a few givens. If you read a horror novel, you will likely experience fear. Ghost stories are meant to scare you, stories about atrocities should horrify you. What usually makes this work is when the writer doesn't throw around a bunch of shock events, but rather focuses on points that will discomfort the reader on a personal level. The writer seeks to bring in enough reality and relatability to the character or situation to make the fictitious seems plausible, even a little too possible. The writing should find those little details and shroud the reader with them, leaving them no other alternative but to live in that world.

Think of it this way. Let's look at a typical horror story about a serial killer terrorizing a town. Easy enough - you have suspects, victims, investigation, etc. Now, the easy scare would be to get into vivid, brutal detail about the victims, their torture, and their brutalized bodies. That's gross horror, but does that touch the reader's sensitive spot? Maybe if they're squeamish about blood, but it's probably not too effective for a 300-page book. What strikes closer to the heart could be the kinds of victims. The child-killer is a commonly-used idea because that pokes at a reader's worst fears. For other factors, maybe there is evidence suggesting the killer could be someone well-known in town - a teacher, a beloved crossing guard, or that nice guy down the street who gives out the big candy bars during Halloween. Uncertainty and suspicion become the pressure points there. What if things get really scary because the evidence starts pointing at the character the readers really care about. That fear that the nicest person around could be such a monster - that gets the reader edgy, and an edgy reader will keep on reading.

In well-written scary novels, most of the violence is implied, inferred, or only referenced indirectly, because that vagueness plays upon the imagination of the reader, which is far more imaginative than just a package of words. A writer doesn't have to be excessively violent or graphic if they have control of the reader's fears. They just need to poke the pain points, and the reader does the rest.              

Friday, March 15, 2024

Outside or Inside

One of the most important and often overlooked techniques in writing is determining the best perspective from which to tell the story. This has been experimented with a lot in the Young Adult genre - a particular series about vampires from a vampire's perspective comes to mind - but perspective is more than just who tells the story. It's also important to decide how the story focuses on a particular character. Depending on that vantage point, it can tell an entirely different story.

The other night I watched this movie based on a true story about a young, healthy woman who begins to experience a breakdown in her sense of reality. She starts seeing things that aren't there, hearing sounds when all is quiet, and eventually having full-on delusions. Through the movie we are shown these things - we know the things she is claiming to see and hear aren't there. We are shown her delusions through her increasingly erratic behavior, and we watch her fall apart all while the doctors test her for everything, find nothing, and disagree on what to do next. In this regard, we experience her story as would a family member or close friend watching someone descend into madness.

A gripping and sad story, but what if we saw it from her perspective instead?

When we show someone hearing something that isn't there and arguing with other characters about the thing we know isn't happening, we immediately associate this to the main character's growing problem. However, if it's from her perspective, we hear the background noise and therefore experience her frustration when her friends say they don't hear it. Delusions from her perspective appear real, and when we show them as being a solid part of her reality, we get the audience to experience the confusion, the frustration, the madness. At this point we no longer experience the story from the view of a helpless family member or friend, but from inside our character's head - which becomes a very frightening place to be.

Depending on which perspective is offered, we have two completely different movies. One is a very sympathetic story of one woman's struggle to find out what's wrong before it's too late, but the other is more of a psychological thriller, forcing the viewer to struggle with the boundaries of reality and delusion. Writing is the exact same idea - which story do you want to tell? It's all a matter of whether you explore the experience from inside the character or outside the character.

Unfortunately, I had similar (but far less severe) neurological problems for a brief period about twenty years ago, and the experience left me needing to process it somehow. Now, my roommate at the time helped me through the worst of it, and telling the story from what she experienced could've been a good story, perhaps even done to humorous effect (She insists she wasn't embarrassed in the slightest when she found me wandering naked through my own house, looking for my parents). Instead, I told it from the perspective of being inside the delusion, not giving the reader a clue about where my reality dropped off until the big reveal. Readers found it a little uncomfortable and very engaging, some even reading it a couple of times to realize what they had just experienced. Later I wrote the "outside" story from my roommate's perspective, and in the end I enjoyed that one too.

As a simple writer's exercise, read a short story. After that, think about another character in the story, and think about how things might be different from their perspective. Better yet, rewrite the story from that character's point of view. You might be surprised when you step out of the main character and into the mind of another. And if it excites you as a writer, it will definitely excite your readers.       

Monday, March 11, 2024

One Word at a Time

For those of you who have not been keeping track at home, this is officially my 500th post on this site. Yes -- 500 times where I've logged on, told a little story and tied it in to writing and developing your personal writing process. Over the course of that time I have discussed a pretty wide variety of writing subject, a few not-so-writey topics, and plenty that might've been better off rewritten. However, the tally just hit 500, so it's time to say exactly what that means.

First - for those of you who started reading this blog in 2018, you are very much appreciated. I get comments, IMs, and plenty of spam, but the personal comments mean the most to me. Second, for those who have jumped in at some point after this site's premier launch, well, you have some catching up to do. If you can wait a bit, however, you might be able to get a good overview in the book that will come from all this, "How to Be a Writer in 400 Easy Steps (give or take)." That's a working title, but if I can ever gather all my content, I think it's getting the green light.

However, here's one of the biggest takeaways from this blog, and it's one that you could've very easily overlooked. You see, each one of these posts runs about 500-600 words. Over the course of 500 entries, that amounts to at least a quarter-million words typed through a twice-weekly creative exercise. One-quarter of a million at minimum, mind you. That's a pretty huge amount of writing, all taking place over the course of a couple of hours every week. 

Now think about this: What if you kept a writing journal, and wrote in it 2-3 times a week? Just writing a discussion of your day, reflections about some interaction, or just reflecting about something or another counts as writing. Just a couple of entries every week over a few years builds up a lot of writing experience, and with minimal loss of time. This is how we become writers. It might seem simple, but the key is to set aside a little time... and write! The more you do it, the better you get at it, and the easier it is to do so you do it more. Before you know it, you have a few journals tucked away full of whatever you wanted to write about, and your skills are that much better for having done it.

A number of years ago, I discussed, "Million-Word Theory" in a previous post-Thanksgiving entry. If you don't want to read the whole thing (which you should, since it is good and I need the clicks), it suggests that you need one-million written words under your belt to really have a writing voice. This being said, we don't hit that goal all at once, but rather approach it word by word, making our way toward it through a bunch of little steps. Journal entries, random poems and essays we write, and just the things we create for no other purpose than to stretch out our writing muscles. Chances are, nine out of every ten of those words won't be particularly amazing, but they will develop a certain set of skill so that by the end of the million-word march, You know how to find the special one out of ten that really works. And at that point, you have no other choice but to call yourself a writer.

So, for those of you who have been along for the first 500 posts, I hope you enjoyed the ride. And for all the newcomers, well, hold on tight - the next 500 should be fun.     

Friday, March 8, 2024

Writing Real Fiction

I know a number of writers who have decided ahead of time that they can't write fiction. They offer plenty of reasons: "I'm not that creative," "I don't like making up stories," or "The truth is usually more interesting anyway." Okay, fair enough. I don't force people to write anything they don't want to, but I do offer this one question in response: "What makes something fiction?" The answer is a little more slippery than one might think.

Let me offer you a little story. This morning I was supposed to go to a friend's house to help them set up their computer. It was a last-minute thing, so I just got my stuff together, hopped in the car, and took off. However, I hadn't eaten anything that morning, so I made a quick stop at the gas station to grab a couple of donuts to enjoy on the drive. They were of the same quality and texture you would expect out of gas-station donuts, and I ate them anyway because I needed something to keep the blood sugar up, or I would start getting cranky. So down they went along with a refreshing Diet Coke, and I went to my friend's house. I show up, go inside, and guess what? They have donuts waiting for me because they knew they called me at the last minute and I get cranky on an empty stomach.

Now here's the question - is this fiction? Well, I can tell you this much. All of those events happened in one way or the other. All of the facts and details are true. However, it is fiction because they didn't exactly happen in that order with the same people. I did go to a friend's place today to do computer stuff, but the donut part was from years ago with another friend entirely. And frankly, I rather enjoy gas-station donuts. So it was fiction, but the basic story is derived from a package of various truths, just reorganized to come to a specific ending. And that is all fiction really is.

Now, sometimes people respond with, "But wait - fiction is more than that. It can be robots and dragons and time travel and all that. Simple donut fiction is too simple to be an example." But is it? In the story above, I merely used a frame of reference that I knew everyone could understand. Turning it into sword-and-sorcery fiction of sci-fi fiction merely means changing the shape of various nouns into different ones. Instead of a car, I can hop on my six-legged horse, ride my hoverbike, engage my magical flying carpet, or just fire up the old MT-1000 matter teleporter. Fiction isn't in the nouns, it's in the story.

The difficult part of writing fiction is trying to find a bunch of events and occurrences that lead up to some significant point. That's the thing about reality - when we have a special set of events that adds up to a meaningful conclusion, we remember it. It stands out because usually life doesn't connect all the dots very well. In fiction, those dots have to line up perfectly every time. So when I ask the question, "What makes something fiction?" it isn't the aliens or dragons or zombies at all. It's only about whether or not those events did, in fact, happen in the order you said they did. The rest is just stage dressing. In that regard, writing fiction can be incredibly easy - it's just about putting together a bunch of blocks to make the shape you want.

In short, I always suggest people try writing fiction if only to see how they can take little truths of life, rearrange them into a new and more interesting order, and enjoy the result. It's kind of like writing non-fiction, just with an outrageous amount of creative license. And with some stories the ending might be more satisfying than all the gas-station donuts you can eat (my record is six).