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, 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).            

Monday, March 4, 2024

Writing and Exploring

There has been a lot going on this past weekend, and so much to talk about. With politics being what it is, Caitlin Clark setting the NCAA record for points scored, the whole Middle East thing - the list seems endless. So what am I going to chat about, and how will it relate to writing? Well, I decided to be very controversial this time and write about something very close to my heart: the 1976 AMC Pacer. So, as I often said every time I started my first car, "Let's see if this goes anywhere."

Yes, I admit it. My first car was a ten-year-old silver 1976 AMC Pacer which I bought for $300 and, frankly, felt like I got a deal. Yes, this car was one of the ugliest vehicles made in the 1970s, only rivaled by the distressingly hideous AMC Gremlin. However, this Pacer - also known as The Fishbowl and The Pregnant Rabbit due to its wide build and low center of gravity - was my car, and I took pride in every bit of it. Its doors the size of air locks, the deep bucket seats, the leaking gas tank, that noise the transmission made, these were all part of the sweet love language between me and my first car.

On one foggy December night, I totaled it. Admittedly, totaling a $300 car is not difficult, but I really did a number on it. Long story short, I flipped it. Not rolled it (which would've been a feat unto itself), but flipped it, landing on its roof. I wasn't going too fast, but a combination of misjudging where the road turned, the steep embankment at the road's edge, and my utter lack of driving skills left the car upside-down, roof crushed down to the top of the driver's seat, every piece of glass shattered, and my cut-up self inside the wreck.

No spoiler here - I survived. I actually walked away from the accident, badly cut and a few fractures, but alive. It became a local legend among my friends, and I joked about it just like anyone should. However, I was not okay. I would have flashbacks. Certain sounds and feelings made my heart pound and my breath race. Sure, it was a funny story to tell to my friends as long as I skipped over the parts that quietly terrified me. However, there was an underlying trauma that would not go away. It showed up in all the worst places, and I couldn't connect myself to it.

Eventually, I started writing about that accident to try and process what had happened. My first short story about it, "My Uneventful Death," was a recollection of what happened, how it happened, and the things I saw and felt. It was very workmanlike; my first step into actually exploring that night through the safety of writing, and it uncovered some truths I had not noticed before. It brought some fears to light, which honestly was kind of scary. However, a part of me knew it was a healthy kind of fear, and that if I wrote about it and put these thoughts on paper, they couldn't make trouble for me.

Through the safety of the page, I went deeper into the experience and uncovered some of the deeper trauma I had been holding inside. That's the thing about trauma - it lives outside the light, thriving in darkness. And when those experiences are dragged out and forced to stare into the sun, they wither like vampires at high noon. They lose their power. The more I wrote, the more I exposed them to the outside world, and their hold on me became weaker with every word. And yes, the panic, the phobias, the neuroses, they all lost their power as well.

This is the power of writing - to bring the inside world out and show it for what it really is. Writing defuses the nastiest things and puts them in a safe context. And now, with the use of the written word, I am now able to admit publicly that I once owned a 1976 Pacer. That's a tough thing to admit.           

Friday, March 1, 2024

The Twilight Zone

The other day, I decided to leap into a pretty interesting rabbit hole. I started watching the original episodes of, "The Twilight Zone." Given that many of the original episodes were based on short stories, it felt like a nice way to stir up my creative writer side. Well... before you know it, my creativity was churning in every which way. I even posted a quote from one of the episodes that really resonated with me and the most important purpose behind writing. For those of you who didn't see it, it is as follows:

"I'm a human being. I exist! And if I speak one thought aloud, that thought lives, even after I'm shoveled into my grave"!    - Mr. Wordsworth in "The Obsolete Man"; The Twilight Zone

If you don't know the episode, this statement was by a man defending his right to have books and to their importance in a totalitarian society where the written word was outlawed. Needless to say, it did not go well for him - but there's more to the story than that. Anyway, this post is not about some hypothetical society but rather just what those magical words do when we commit them to the permanent record.

I have a modest collection of late 19th- and early 20th-century books. Nothing spectacular, nothing first-edition (I do have a signed first-edition copy of Coraline by Neil Gaiman, but that's not quite the same genre). There's Shelley's Frankenstein, Dickens' A Christmas Carol, the works of O. Henry and Edgar Allan Poe, stuff like that. However, the one book I find fascinating was one by an unheard-of author who wrote this book on the history of the Scottish kings. The book itself is not a revelation (outside of how it completely dispels the myth that is Braveheart), but there's an inscription on the first page that is priceless to me. This book was given to my great-grandfather back in the 19th century by his teacher as a sort of graduation present. He wrote a note of congratulations and hoped that my great-grandfather would go on to do many great things, and wished him well in life.

You've never met that teacher nor my great-grandfather. I've also never met either of them for that matter. However, with that one inscription, that teacher comes to life again every time I read it, as does my great-grandfather, who passed away almost 100 years ago. The emotions of that moment and the act of giving that gift from teacher to student all travel forward to the present day and live again in my mind, even if just for the briefest of periods. 

Just as Mr. Wordsworth suggested, that thought now lives long after those people are gone. Honestly, that's a spectacular thing when you think about it. And yes, when I think about it, I make a special point to remember that when I write my words, my thoughts, my fanciful stories, they have the power to reach beyond mortality itself and tap the shoulders of descendants I will never meet. In that moment, a part of me will live again, if only in the mind of another reader.

That's a Twilight Zone moment in itself when you think about it. But don't just think about it. Write it down.