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, 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...


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!"