Why bother with writing exercises?

If you’re inspired enough to take a writing class of some sort, you’re almost certain to be presented with a creative challenge of one kind or another. Usually, these are in the form of writing exercises. Some writer friends of mine absolutely hate them. These are folks who occupy a wide range of experience and ability within the craft. And yet, almost all of them dig in and do the exercises–every time.

Why? The question is especially relevant when applied to the most accomplished among that crowd.

The answer is shockingly simple: they’re very likely to generate material they can use later. For many of them, it’s like putting money aside for a rainy day, a day when their creative well runs a little dry. At that point, having a supply of story openings, experimental scenes, and/or character descriptions can turn a disappointing writing session into a productive one. In some cases, the resulting output can be a creative bonanza.

“But,” you say, “I’m working on a non-fiction book. Doing an exercise about a fictitious character or some bizarre situation won’t help me at all.”

That’s a reasonable argument, assuming your current project is the only one you’ll ever work on. It may also be reasonable if you’re unable to imagine how writing from an alternative point of view might give you a better understanding of what your readers want, or that you won’t discover a way to say something that’s valuable because of its innate good humor and/or poignancy.

Writing exercises often strive to force students out of their comfort zones and into situations they’re unused to, or in extreme cases, afraid of. One can generally trust a writing teacher to find appropriate topics. It’s highly unlikely for instance, given the makeup of my current classes, that I’d ask them to write a sex scene or an execution. On the other hand, it’s entirely possible I’ll ask them to write their own obituary, provided they make it humorous. If I were working with a group composed only of published fiction writers, having them tackle an erotic encounter or some equally difficult scene is much more likely.

So who gets the credit when a student uses a writing exercise to produce something new and totally unexpected? The student, of course! The exercise, no matter how carefully planned, is merely a catalyst; the magic happens somewhere else, inside someone else.

And that’s the true beauty and power of those annoying exercises. Lift and stretch, y’all. Lift and stretch!

–Josh

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Time for a pat on the back…

In one of my classes recently, the writing assignment called for a scene written from the point of view of a non-human character. The idea was to push writers out of their comfort zones and force them to attempt something they might ordinarily never try.

What many of them accomplished caught me quite by surprise. Sure, I knew going into it there were some gifted writers in the room, and their output was every bit as good as I expected it to be. The serendipity phase came with the output of the writers just dipping their fingers and toes into the craft pool. Among their point of view characters were: a squirrel, a terra cotta pot, a camera, a set of golf clubs, a songbird, and a doorbell.

In truth, I enjoyed every single submission and found far better work than I expected. So, I’m considering the exercise a success, even though quite a number of students opted not to turn anything in. Who knows why? Life intervenes. I understand. But I’m still amped.

My students are all folks about my age. We’re a bit weathered; we’ve seen some things. We’ve forgotten a lot of things, too. But what I find most refreshing is what we remember, and remember with such clarity!

Writing has a way of bringing that out of people, provided they can find the time and make the effort. The joy I find in working with my students is amplified by their success.

Nice work, ladies and gentlemen! You’ve already proven 2018 is going to be an amazing year. I’m so eager to get started!

–Josh

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The Incredible HC Diet

As mentioned in my last post, I had planned to take some time off for the holidays. That came to pass via unintended means. Rather than celebrate and eat and drink myself into an ever-expanding waistline, I fell into a diet regimen with astonishing results. I call it the HC Diet; HC stands for head cold.

The amazing thing about this protocol is its ability to work despite any intentions the user has to drop out. So, instead of eating rich foods and consuming adult beverages, I’ve been subsisting on a diet of coffee and phlegm. This has been augmented by a strict policy of exercise avoidance.

Though I managed to drag myself to the keyboard for this brief post, the rest of my efforts have been confined to travel between bed and sofa.

Another interesting effect of this miracle diet is its impact on certain intellectual and emotional functions. My creativity, for instance, has all but disappeared along with my interest in virtually any program available on TV. I flipped through at least a thousand movie titles available free on cable, and couldn’t find a single one that touched my fancy much less tickled it.

Two visits to the local Doc in a Box generated four prescriptions and two injections (that required a different sort of cheek turning).

Am I feeling better? I dunno. I’m going back to bed now. Maybe I’ll have a better idea about that when I wake up. Tomorrow. Or the next day.

–Josh

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The power of dialog

It’s unfair to highlight one aspect of writing, whether non-fiction or fiction (in any of its many flavors) when there are so many such factors to choose from. But one thing is certain, bad dialog can derail an otherwise good story. A great plot won’t save it, nor will superbly drawn characters. At least, not these days. Examples of crappy dialog by well-known authors abound, but most of them achieved their fame a long time ago. Today’s market isn’t as forgiving, especially for those whose books don’t occupy an all but hereditary spot on the bestseller lists.

So, what makes dialog good, and why is it a powerful tool? If done right, dialog can go a long way in helping a writer in the “show, don’t tell” game. What characters think, do and say shapes them in a reader’s mind. How they say things is just as important.

“Good” dialog is nothing like real-world dialog. For one thing, it tends to be smarter and sassier with few, if any, uhms and uhs. It rarely incorporates a listener’s name in a verbal statement, and it takes full advantage of action tags which will also help to portray a character’s outlook, proclivities, and mood. (Full disclosure: I had a proclivity once, but I had it removed.)

Rather than continue to preach, I’ll simply provide a modest exchange between two people who meet in a bar. The original version of this arrived in my email one day and consisted of about ten short paragraphs leading to a punch line. I’ve revised it to include all the issues mentioned above.

Male Logic

“So,” Wanda said over a glass of Burgundy, “you like beer?”

Jake nodded, yes.

“How many beers a day?” she asked.

“Usually about three,” he said. “Sometimes more, sometimes less. It depends.”

“On what?”

“On how I feel. Sometimes I’m really thirsty, sometimes I’m not.”

“That’s reasonable,” she said. “And how much do you pay, per beer?”

“Here? In this bar?”

“Yeah.”

“Five bucks, but that includes a tip. I appreciate good service.” He winked at their waitress.

“That’s commendable,” Wanda said. “And how long would you say you’ve been doing all this beer drinking?”

Jake tilted his head, stretched, and let out a sigh. “About 20 years, I guess.”

Wanda whipped out a pen and did a quick calculation on a napkin. “If a beer costs $5 and you have three a day, that puts your spending each month at $450.” She scribbled through another short equation and smiled at the answer. “In one year you spend about $5400 on beer. Does that sound right?”

“I suppose,” Jake said. “I don’t see anything wrong with your math.”

Wanda worked through one last problem then sat back, feeling satisfied. “If you spend $5400 a year on beer — not accounting for inflation — you’ve spent something like $108,000 over the past two decades.”

Jake shrugged. “If you say so.”

“Do you realize that if you didn’t drink so much beer, you could have put that money in an interest-bearing savings account. And, taking into consideration compound interest for the past twenty years, you could have gone out today and bought an airplane?”

Jake thought about that for a moment and then drained his glass. “Do you drink beer?”

“Why, no. I don’t,” Wanda said.

Jake smiled. “So, where’s your airplane?”

~*~

Notice there’s a mix of long and short paragraphs, as well as long and short sentences. The first half is strictly dialog, then the action tags kick in. This helps to keep dialog from sounding sing-song and stilted. Characters react, both orally and visually, which keeps the scene moving.

Just for practice, the next time someone sends you a joke or some other cute bit of dialog, see if you can improve it to publication standards.

–Josh

PS: I’m taking a little time off for the holidays, but I’ll be back in January. See you then!

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Do you need to take a research trip?

For many writers of historical fiction, the place they’re writing about is nowhere near the place where they live. And, unless they have a great deal of extra cash in their budget, going to those places will be difficult if not impossible.

Writers living in the Southern United States won’t have any trouble finding Civil War battlefields and museums dedicated to that period in our history. Historical societies abound, as do many extremely knowledgeable folk who are quite willing to share their expertise. But what about writers living on the West Coast? Where do they go? How far east must they travel to find something authentic?

Maybe not far at all. In 2017, California hosted two dozen events which focused on the Civil War. These included reenactments, displays, and various other “You Are There” events and activities. So, just because you aren’t blessed by having a deep South address, you can still do some valuable research on the Great Unpleasantness.

If you’re writing about a particular period in the history of Europe, there’s a good chance you’ll need to write a scene, if not a great deal more, set in a castle. If you’re interested in capturing the feel of a castle, does that mean you’ll have to pony up for tickets to the Old World? Maybe. And hopefully, you’ll know in which country your story takes place. That’ll make the selection process easier. But just in case you don’t know or aren’t sure, Wikipedia has lists of castles in over 40 different countries. That’s a lot of castles!

But if you’re an American writer on a budget, and a trip outside the country isn’t an option, don’t despair. There could be something much closer that’ll  give you a taste of castle living. Just do an internet search of castles in the United States. You may be surprised to discover there’s something worth seeing within a day’s drive or less.

There are two in upstate New York: Bannerman Castle (shown above) and Boldt Castle. Hearst Castle is located in California, and the Biltmore Estate is snuggled into the Smoky Mountains in North Carolina. But they’re not the only options for those needing some close-up castle time. If all else fails, Disneyland and Disneyworld offer options based on the opulent Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria. (You can always ignore anyone looking like Cinderella. If you’re over twelve, they won’t be interested in you, either.)

Writing a western? There are ghost towns–populated and unpopulated–all over the West, where the wild days of the frontier are brought back to life. The pickin’s are slimmer in the East, but if you look hard enough, you can find something, even if it’s just a theme park. While not exactly museum quality, a good bit of time and effort go into making some of those parks quite authentic.

Your best bet for experiencing the flavor of an era is probably a “living history” museum. Columbus, Georgia, for instance, features Westville, a re-created town based on pioneer life in Georgia in the mid-1800s. Not exactly Dodge City, but a great source of historical material just the same. The many delightful volunteers there are more than willing to share their passion for the past. The Tullie Smith House in Atlanta, run by the Atlanta History Center, provides visitors with an up-close and personal look at rural life in Georgia before the Civil War.

If you’re writing something set during the Revolutionary War, go ahead and spend whatever it takes to visit Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, an incredible recreation. Like most living history museums, Colonial Williamsburg provides very knowledgeable staff decked out in period clothing who can answer your questions. Best of all, many of them remain in period character, speaking in terms comfortable to those living in 1776, if not today. It’s not a bad way to pick up on the nuances of that era’s language. If you’re smart, you’ll sneak some of it into your dialog.

Whatever period you’re writing about, take the time to search the options made available by living history museums and expositions. What you’ll discover are details which can only enhance the realism of your tale. If you can’t be an expert, you can always talk to one.

And whether you drive, fly, or swim to your desired destination, keep track of your expenses; more than likely they’re tax deductible.**

Got some travel/research tips of your own? Please share them in the comments section below. I’d love to read them!

–Josh

**I’m neither a tax attorney nor an accountant, nor have I ever portrayed one on stage or screen. So, when it comes to the tax man, you’re on your own!

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Details can make or break a story

Have you ever watched a movie where someone missed an obvious mistake? Maybe you saw a Roman soldier wearing a wristwatch in some sand and sandal epic, or there were high tension power lines on the horizon of a Civil War scene. For the casual viewer, such boo-boos are a source of amusement. For the folks who did the editing and proofing of those films, mistakes like that could be career killers.

For writers, especially those doing historical fiction, similar blunders are possible, and the consequences can be similarly harsh. Independent writer/publishers can absolutely be fired–by their readers. And once a writer loses credibility with his audience, getting it back is difficult, if not impossible. Science fiction readers can be particularly brutal when it comes to recognizing errors of fact. But history lovers expect accuracy, too.

Suppose you’re writing a period piece set in the early days of the United States, say in the middle of  Thomas Jefferson’s administration. The President decides to send a cheerful holiday greeting to the families of Lewis and Clark, the intrepid adventurers he dispatched to explore territory acquired in the Louisiana Purchase. Your fictional character volunteers to carry out the missive mission and procures a selection of greeting cards for the chief executive’s use.

The very first Christmas card.

Suddenly you’re on shaky ground, historically speaking, even though greeting cards have been around in one form or another since ancient times and were used back then by both Chinese and Egyptian well-wishers. Europeans didn’t get on the bandwagon until some enterprising Germans started using handmade and hand-delivered New Year’s greetings and Valentines in the 15th century. Actual Christmas cards didn’t show up until 1843, and that was in England. Mass produced cards didn’t make their debut until the 1860s.

That being the case, perhaps you’d be better off having Jefferson dictate letters instead, which your character can dutifully deliver. That process, by the way, offers the opportunity for mischief, mishap, and mayhem–any or all of which can befall your hapless player and thereby complicate your plot, always a desirable outcome.

And while we’re thinking about writing something during the Jefferson administration, let’s consider what sort of instrument your character might use to take notes. A pencil? A fountain pen? Stylus and tablet?

Pencils were common in the colonies long before there was a USA. Benjamin Franklin advertised them in his Pennsylvania Gazette prior to the revolution. Your character would likely have preferred ink. That would mean using a quill pen since reliable fountain pens weren’t invented until 1884.

The history of the ballpoint pen, by the way, is an interesting story in itself, for writers anyway. The first patent for a ballpoint pen was issued in 1888 to John L. Loud, an American banker. Loud, it seems, was better at banking than inventing, and his device didn’t catch on. That didn’t happen until 1938, when László Bíró, with help from his brother, invented the pen we’re using today.

With the advent of WWII, Bíró sold his interest in a company he started with Andor Goy, left Europe, and eventually settled in Argentina. There he was awarded a patent on June 10, 1943 (National Ballpoint Pen Day), and later made a deal with an Englishman named Henry Martin to promote the invention. Martin sold it to both the British and American governments for use by their air forces. Within months, the pen appeared on the commercial market as the Reynold’s Rocket. Though pricey at $12.50 each (or roughly $150 today), the pens sold like crazy–over a million and a half were rung up in the first half year of production.

Back in Europe, László’s former business partner, Andor Goy, sold his pen holdings in 1945 to Marcel Bich who created the now ubiquitous Bic pen. (Can you imagine running to the office supply store for a package of Goy pens?)

Though László Bíró never achieved fame and fortune for his invention, his birthday, September 29, is celebrated in Argentina as Inventor’s Day. Incidentally, the Argentine word for “pen” is birome.

Details are important; they may harbor stories we never dreamed of.

–Josh

 

 

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Historical fiction story starters

Every story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. Ridiculously easy, no? The blueprint I use for my fiction breaks those parts down a bit more. In the beginning, there’s a person in a place with a problem. In the middle, good and bad stuff happens. In the end, the biggest and baddest thing happens, and we find out who survives.

Historical fiction isn’t any different, except that the story occurs in a documented time and place other than here and now. As the creator of this fiction, you get to choose who your characters are and what they do. If you stick with the documented version of history, you’re likely writing historical fiction. Any changes you make to what actually happened will push your book into the alternate history pile. That’s not a bad thing; it’s merely a distinction that will save readers time when they’re looking for something new to read. Those who thrive on reliving past events generally avoid reading alternate versions.

Writing alternate history can definitely have a positive effect. Some people like to speculate about what might have happened if only… Use your imagination to see how this plays out. What might have happened if:

  • Lincoln hadn’t been assassinated
  • Henry VIII remained happily married the first time around
  • Jesus had been female
  • England won the American Revolution
  • Julius Caesar and the Romans were conquered by the Celts
  • Italy used atomic weapons in WWII

Conjuring up scenarios like these is exquisitely easy. One simply needs to look at the historical record, and alter something significant. What if the defenders at the Alamo had been able to hold out until reinforcements arrived? What if Spain had won the Spanish American war? What if… Well, hopefully, you get the picture.

The need to study the period you’re writing about doesn’t change. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing historical fiction or an alternate version; the starting point is the same, and you must get those details right.

Imagine opening your story in San Francisco. It’s a lovely spring afternoon in mid-April, 1906, the day before the great earthquake which all but leveled the city.

Your characters must deal with all the subsequent emergencies using only those tools available at the time. Will this require some significant study of the period? It certainly should, unless you’re already an expert. The more accurately you portray the era,  the more real the story will feel, and the more likely your readers will be to finish it.

Very basic questions come into play. What did people wear? What did they eat? Where did they live? What were the schools like? What sort of politics existed then? The possibilities for questions are endless.

What if you’re writing a book aimed at middle-schoolers and you decide to plunk your hero or heroine in a public school somewhere in the South — Alabama maybe, or Georgia — smack in the middle of The Great Depression? It’s not enough to know there wasn’t much that was “great” about it, except for the almost universal misery. But you’ll need to become ultra-familiar with that, because even though you’re writing for 11 to 13-year-olds, your book will inevitably land in the hands of someone old enough to remember those days. And if you get the details wrong, they’ll be only too happy to point out the errors. Publicly. In a review. That the entire world can see at their leisure.

The sound you’ll hear next is your credibility swirling down the old flusheroo.

So, where do you go for those details? Can you just Google it? Who can you trust?

Stay tuned. We’ll deal with some of that in a later installment.

–Josh

 

 

 

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