Write *Something* Every Day

Writers write. It’s as simple as that. Good writers tend to write a lot. That’s a big part of how they became “good” writers. If you aspire to become a writer, or if you’re already a writer and you want to improve your craft, the only way to ensure you’ll make progress is to put your butt in a chair and your fingers on a keyboard.

That alone isn’t a magical solution. You won’t learn proper techniques for grammar, punctuation, or anything else. But if you do some actual writing, you might just get your story out of your head and into some format that will allow you to work on it even more later. The important part — usually the hardest part — is writing down the tale that’s been needling you for the past few weeks, months or even years. The story sure as hell won’t tell itself! You have to do it. 

While this is certainly true of fiction, it’s absolutely true of memoir. You’re the only one who knows your story the way you do. As simplistic as that sounds, I’ve talked to people who are perfectly capable of telling their own story, but they complain that ghostwriters cost too much. Here’s a thought: write it yourself!

The reasons people toss off for why they aren’t writing are absolutely legion. “I’m too busy” is a great favorite. Most of the too-busy people I know, myself included, are too busy because we’re lousy at organizing our time. Find a half hour a day — morning, noon or night, it doesn’t matter — and set it aside as writing time.

Another one I just love to hear: “I’m waiting for inspiration.” Right. Like the Muse or the Goddess of Literature is going to appear to you in all their radiant glory and whack you upside the head with the inspiration stick. What a crock. Remember Thomas Edison’s take: “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” (Right now I’m channeling the Muse ripping into someone’s gray matter to whisper something inspiring.)

Yet another favorite is, “I don’t have a place to write, a place all my own — a hideaway, a garret, or a cell in a monastery — where I can work undisturbed.” Seriously? How ’bout the back seat of your car, or a table for two (you and your laptop) at the nearest Starbucks? They’ll even provide free Wi-Fi, not that you’ll need it because you’ll be busy working on your masterpiece. You won’t have time for Solitaire, or Facebook, or E-mail, or Amazon, or any of the other bazillion distractions provided by the web.

“Who’s gonna watch my kids?” I dunno, maybe your spouse? Your next door neighbor? The grandparents? Check local churches for a “Mother’s Morning Out” program, even if you’re a dad. Worst case: load up the car — or a wagon, or a city bus — with kids and laptop, and cruise over to the local playground, or the schoolyard, or some other place where the little ones might be able to entertain themselves while you sneak in a half hour of creative “me” time.

What you need to be striving for is the habit. Write every day, even if what you write isn’t part of your magnum opus. It could be a blog, or a journal, or a rant to the editor of the local newspaper. It could be a letter to your dear, old Aunt Edna for that matter. Whatever. Just do some writing every day that isn’t required for your job. It must be writing that comes from inside you.

Why? Because that’s where the magic begins. That’s where the stories live. It’s your job to find a way to get them out and share them with the world.

–Josh

PS: And lest I forget… Congratulations to the Auburn Tigers for their stunning win over archrival, and formerly #1 ranked, Alabama. War Damn Eagle! 

 

Posted in editing, Historical writing, Memoir, novel writing, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments

A Pre-Turkey Post

There’s something to be said for writing about the history of holidays, and the one that’s nearly upon us is a great example.

Just about the time your Halloween pumpkin rots down to a puddle of orange slag, Ta-Da — it’s time for Thanksgiving. Second only to Christmas in popularity, Thanksgiving is one of those rare holidays which doesn’t focus as much on religion or patriotism as it does on over-eating and football.

Even the Canadians have Thanksgiving, though they choose to celebrate it earlier than we do, most likely because they know the snow’s coming, and they’d best get in one last celebration before they’re forced into hibernation. As we’re prone to saying here in the deep, (warm) south, “Bless their hearts; they’re mounting their snow chains.”

But, back to Thanksgiving on this side of the border. There are some little-known but curious facts which bubble up during a search of historical references to this holiday and its American traditions. Since we’ve been discussing history, this is probably as good a time as any to share them.

Many of us focus solely on the traditional Thanksgiving feast. A vast amount of time and energy go into the preparation — and consumption — of this annual nod to gluttony. Don’t believe it? Then explain why we serve up about 535 million pounds of turkey on Thanksgiving Day. That’s over two pounds per adult. [Burp!] It’s serious business. In fact, according to the National Turkey Foundation (a real thing, by the way), the American turkey industry boasts an economic impact on the US of $97.5 billion bucks.

With so much turkey on the table, the great majority of Americans are doing their part to eat it. In fact, the average American will gobble down 4,500 calories on T-Day. That’s broken down by food: 3,000 and snacks: 1,500. Estimates for the number of calories in beer, wine, and sundry other spirits are not available.

And what Thanksgiving meal would be complete without green bean casserole? Thank Campbell’s soup for that. They put the recipe in a cookbook half a century ago and now harvest $20 million annually selling cream of mushroom soup.

After the meal, many of us waddle to the nearest sofa and settle in to sleep through an NFL football game on the tube. But the tradition of  NFL games played on Thanksgiving day didn’t start until the 1930s. The “real” first Thanksgiving day football game was in 1876, between Yale and Princeton. The latter’s cheer, by the way, “Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah! Tiger! S-s-s-t! Boom! A-h-h-h!” dates back to the following year and remains in use with slight modifications today.

Eventually, we’ll succumb to what we misguidedly believe is the effect of the tryptophan we’ve ingested thanks to the turkey. Not so. There’s more of that sleep inducer in the average chicken. We get dopey because of all the other stuff we ate and mostly drank, and digesting that takes energy.

We then drift off to sleep dreaming about turkeys and/or cheerleaders. With any luck, we won’t dream about “Turkasaurus,” the recently discovered, prehistoric critter more correctly called the anzu. Some clearly delusional reporter types referred to it as the “Chicken from hell.” They obviously failed to look at the skeleton or the artist’s renderings. This was no chicken as anyone can plainly see.

And while domestic turkeys usually weigh twice as much as wild turkeys and are too large to fly, the anzu had all the necessary ingredients to terrify the average clan of cave-dwelling proto-humans, if only they existed back in the late Cretaceous.

Anzu stood over 11 feet tall and probably weighed around 600 pounds, maybe more. It had the body of a raptor, the head of a turkey, and the crest of a cassowary; it sported big sharp claws and, almost certainly, feathers. That’s enough to keep me awake!

But, lest we end on a carnivorous note, this is probably a good time to toss in something less creepy. Like, oh I dunno, a poem. How ’bout “Mary Had A Little Lamb?” Most of which was written by Sarah Josepha Hale. Why is that important? ‘Cause she’s the one who convinced Abe Lincoln in 1863 that declaring Thanksgiving a national holiday would be a good idea. “Black Friday” retailers should have been thanking her ever since.

–Josh

 

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Thinking and Feeling

What is it that’s so hard about getting into a character’s head? It’s a problem many of my writing friends and students encounter, and it happens all too often, or so it seems to me. I suspect in most cases it’s merely the author’s eagerness to finish the work. Lord knows I’m guilty of the very same need to be done.

The thing is, reader’s don’t feel that way. In most cases, they’re eager to know more. Why did she say that? What’s he thinking? Didn’t he realize doing that would hurt her feelings or make him look like a complete jackass? What prompted that? What’s behind this?

As writers, it’s our job to detect these moments and to supply the necessary detail. The trick, if there is one, is in finding those moments. About the only thing I can guarantee is that it’s a great deal easier to do when looking at someone else’s work.

Sadly, it isn’t just a question of locating spots in the text where one can take a momentary look into a player’s gray matter. One must also consider the pace of the story. If things are happening left and right, and the action is all important, a pause to find out what someone is feeling won’t work. At best it’ll reduce tension, and that’s the last thing a writer wants to happen during an action scene. It’s not enough for poor Sisyphus to roll that boulder up the mountainside; someone needs to grease the path, or the boulder. Or, if this is a Hollywood story, both. In any case, he doesn’t need to be ruminating about his spot on the bowling team.

If the action isn’t fast-paced and non-stop, there should be moments when the character will naturally wonder about events and their impact on him and those important to him. An alternative to such introspection is emotion. What does Anita feel as she sees a car slowly rounding the corner while her child, Bertram, is crossing the street? That could depend on a number of things: does she recognize the car? Does she know the driver? Does her child see it, too? Since there’s no sense of impending disaster, she has time to think, and if the issue is important to the story, she should think about it. What if it’s a loved one returning from overseas duty? That would get her pulse going.

But alter the situation just slightly, and have that car careening around the corner, and everything changes. Unless there’s something profoundly wrong with Anita, she’s going to react in a major way. It’s easy to show these actions, but harder to expose the conflict inside. It could begin with a sharp inhalation of breath, followed by a scream or a shout, followed by an attack of nerves or a short but profound mental blackout during which she is so narrowly focussed on little Bertie she’s unable to do anything but race toward him, oblivious to everything else.

The thing to avoid is a mismatch. If one of your characters thinks inappropriate things during chaotic events, readers will laugh at him. If you’ve done it intentionally, that’s fine. But if not, they’ll likely develop ideas about that character you’d rather they didn’t have. As suggested at left, this character is a complete idiot.

Please, don’t let your characters be idiots.

–Josh

 

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Historical tidbits revisited

Q: What, exactly, is a historical tidbit, and if not used as a plot point, what good is it?

A: It’s merely a history writer’s gold.

If you click on the illustration to the left, you’ll see a larger version. Wikipedia says this is the “Musei Wormiani Historia,” the frontispiece from the Museum Wormianum depicting Ole Worm‘s cabinet of curiosities. In other words, it’s an entire collection of historical tidbits, or at least the physical kind.

If you’re writing a story set in a specific historic period, tossing in a reference or two about something common back then but obscure now does at least two things: it provides an interesting glimpse into the day-to-day business of living in that period, and it suggests to the reader that the writer knows whereof he or she speaks.

Consider a story set in the early 20th century, just over a hundred years ago. Even though motor cars had been around for a good 20 years, paved roads were still largely a novelty.  In 1909, 22-year-old Alice Ramsey, an adventurish gal from New Jersey, climbed into her brand new, 30 horsepower Maxwell and headed due West. She became the first woman to drive completely across the country. She covered over 3,600 miles, and yet barely 150 of them were paved.

As late as the 1930s, streets in Manhattan were being paved with bricks. Imagine how such travel conditions might impact your story. Imagine traveling without a map or directions, let alone a GPS!

Here’s another thought, especially if you’ve got something of a political thriller in mind, and you’d like to use that same period. Imagine you’re standing outside the White House, smack in the middle of Washington, DC, when all of a sudden the lawn mowers appear. They’re pictured below.

The point here, of course, is to use these details to your advantage. If your character must walk across the White House lawn, there’s a better than even chance that he’ll arrive at the portico with something unpleasant on his shoes. Wouldn’t that make for an interesting scene?

Step back less than a generation, and sideways a bit to reach New York City, and you no longer have to worry about sheep droppings. Instead, you’ll have to navigate streets populated with about 170,000 horses pulling wagons, trolleys, and a wide range of other wheeled vehicles.  Assuming these animals were reasonably well cared for, each one would produce several pounds of manure and a quart of urine each day. Where do you suppose it all went? According to published reports, the city had no sanitation department in the 1800s.

And when one of those poor creatures died, the carcass was left where it fell until it rotted down enough to make its removal more manageable.

Knowing such details is one thing, using them is another. It’s not a writer’s job to hammer historical facts into the reader’s head. Just because you dug up these tidbits doesn’t mean your readers must review them, too. Tidbits work best when they become part of the setting. What might be natural to someone living in New York at the turn of the 19th/20th century may have been shocking to someone from the future. But you don’t have to write science fiction to take advantage of such gems. Someone living a few hours away from New York might have a similar reaction.

Knowing your historical setting, and immersing yourself in it, gives you the opportunity to bring it to life. It’s normal, everyday stuff to your characters, but to your readers, it may well be the most interesting thing they encounter all day.

–Josh

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Okay, so where does this fit in?

Imagine you’re going to write some historical fiction. It could be a short story; it could be a novel, or it could be something in between. You’ve got a great idea: wrap the story around a compelling but little-known smidgen of history. Your intent is to rescue that tidbit from obscurity and use it as a fulcrum on which to lever your vision of events to dizzying heights.

The whole enterprise is so tempting, you all but drool in your eagerness to begin. Except for one tiny detail: you don’t have a clue what that tidbit might be.

Ahem. Allow me to suggest a few possibilities gleaned from an entirely cursory stint of online browsing.

1) Back in the day — during the Industrial Revolution, but before the invention of the alarm clock — a squad of peculiar markspersons was employed to shoot peas at the windows of factory workers to wake them up in time to report for work. And work like that was hard to pass up, even if you left a finger down at the factory.

I can imagine several scenarios where an interruption in this service might lead to catastrophe or at least some amount of conflict. And let’s not forget, conflict is at the heart of every good story.

2)  In the middle ages, people believed that sperm coming from the left testicle produced girls. Men who wanted only sons had it removed. Keep in mind, that during this time the folks doing the surgery were more commonly employed as barbers.

I can only begin to imagine how many truly awful outcomes such misguided notions could generate, but a story told from almost any viewpoint could be quite interesting.

3) The Law Of Unintended Consequences: While Pope Gregory IX was in power in the 1200s, he declared that cats were linked to devil worship and had countless numbers of them killed. It’s thought by many that the disappearance of those cats caused an explosion in the rat population which in turn aided in the spread of the bubonic plague or Black Death which in turn killed hundreds of millions of people in the 1300s.

I’m thinking of an “I told ya so” sort of character.

4)  At the beginning of the American Civil War, the commander of the Confederate army, General Robert E. Lee did not own any slaves. The victor of the conflict, Union General Ulysses S. Grant, did. Furthermore, the constitution of the Confederate States of America banned the trade of slaves while the Union constitution did not. Oh, and just so you know, the first slaves in America were the Irish.

If you can’t find a story in there somewhere, you’re just not trying hard enough!

5)  Red rover, red rover: In WWII the Russians trained dogs with bombs strapped to their backs to run under tanks. At the appropriate time, with German tanks advancing, the dogs were released. Alas, they were only trained to run under Russian tanks and ignored the invader’s armor entirely. Instead, they did as they were taught, running under Russian tanks and blowing them up instead.

For someone who loves dogs, like me, there’s a delicious comeuppance in that. There may not be enough story stuff here for a novel, but it’d sure make for an explosive short story.

6) Though credited with many cultural advances and military victories, Peter the Great had a seriously “less than great” side. Many scholars believe he had his wife’s lover, Willem Mons, beheaded. He then had the head preserved in alcohol and put on display where his wife would always see it. (The head now resides in the Kunstkamera, Russia’s first museum.)

I’m not sure whose point of view I’d employ in the retelling of this, but it could be interesting.

History, it’s way too weird to be made up!

–Josh

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Historical fiction, or hysterical?

I’ve been approached to teach a new class: How To Write Historical Fiction. Flattered at first, and confident about teaching in general, I agreed to give the idea serious thought. How hard could it be? After all, I co-wrote a trilogy of lengthy novels set in the first century BC and followed those with two more written entirely by me — one set in colonial America and the other set in Georgia during WWII. If the reviews the books have gotten are any measure of success, then all five are doing quite well. Readers like them.

Then, just as I’d convinced myself I’d become something of an expert on the topic, I thought of a film which came out about five years ago based on a book which came out two years earlier. The title: “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.”

Was this historical fiction, too? Would I be expected to teach folks how to take real historical characters and set them to doing things that couldn’t possibly have ever happened, at least not in the world I inhabit? The answer, I suppose, is yes. Sure. Why not?

 

Full disclosure: I haven’t read the book or watched the film about Lincoln’s vampire adventures, and I doubt I ever will. Vampire stories just don’t do anything for me. The old Bela Lugosi films were enough. But the very idea had me thinking about the role of history in fiction. What would be the point of trying to put limits on it? Why should historical fiction be limited to someone’s arbitrary constraints? Just because the books I write don’t portray actual historical characters doing bizarre things, doesn’t mean everyone else should follow suit. Why not write a story about a 19th century, American politician who chases vampires? Or Werewolves? Or unicorns? Hell, why not Pokemon, too? (Uh, no. Bear with me, and I’ll explain.) Evidently, werewolf and vampire stories sell pretty well.

I will venture to guess, however, that Seth Grahame-Smith, who wrote the Lincoln story (and collaborated on the screenplay), took a great deal of care with the setting. Lincoln may be chasing vampires, but I’ll bet he isn’t doing it from the back of a Ford convertible, or checking his wristwatch to count the hours before midnight. And I’m certain the ol’ rail-splitter never tripped over Pokemon. All other fantasies aside, some things just didn’t exist in the 19th century. Something in the story must be historically accurate, and I imagine Grahame-Smith made sure there were plenty of such somethings. That’s what makes this kind of story fun. Is it great literature? No, but who cares?

There’s a great deal of charm in the idea that the history we know may not have happened quite the way we learned it in school. Maybe George Washington didn’t chop down a cherry tree. Maybe it was something far more sinister, something that merely adopted the appearance of a cherry tree. <cue evil laughter>

Does this revelation change my thinking about teaching the class? Nope. On the contrary, it opens up an array of possibilities — and possible stories — and anyone who wants to may write one. My job will be to help them write a better story, something I already do.

At its core, fiction is about entertainment. I like historical fiction because it adds the opportunity to educate and challenge preconceptions, too. That’s a wonderful thing. Books don’t need to provide the same mind-numbing pablum we get from television. More and better writers will generate more readers, and hopefully, more enlightened ones.

When I review my own history, much of which was spent in the company of heroes from books, movies, TV, and even a few 78-RPM records, I have questions. Who dreamed up the backstory for Roy Rogers and Dale Evans? Why couldn’t the bad guys ever hit a target? It’s a mystery to me. Do you suppose it was the presence of vampires which prompted the Lone Ranger to use only silver bullets?

–Josh

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Formula for fiction? Back to the beginning…

formulaI had been writing fiction for several years before I had the chance to attend a workshop presented by Kris Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith. This husband and wife team has achieved near legendary status in the speculative fiction writing world. They have both produced a prodigious volume of high quality fiction across several genres and under a variety of names. Fortunately for me, in addition to their professional editing and publishing efforts, they found time to lead workshops for writers at all levels of achievement. I didn’t get much sleep that weekend, but I sure learned a lot.

Arguably the most valuable instruction I received was on something called 7-Point Plotting. It was originally devised by Algys Budrys, himself a legend among Science Fiction writers. I have used it ever since and offer it to anyone interested in producing well-rounded stories.

Every story should have a beginning, a middle and an end. That’s easy enough. Budrys, known to his friends as “AJ” broke this down further. He postulated that a good Opening (the beginning) consisted of three distinct elements: Character, Setting, and Conflict.

I find it easier to summarize these as: a Person, in a Place, with a Problem.

Beginning1. Person — Usually, but not always, the primary character in the story. People work best, although there’s no law against starring an animal, alien, machine, or vegetable.  Most folks like reading about… folks.

 2. Place — Where does the action take place? In a courtroom?  A spaceship?  In Captain Kangaroo’s basement?  An interesting setting will often grab a reader when the conflict is weak.

3. Problem— This could be the primary focus of the tale, or it could be a lesser issue. But every opening must have an element of Conflict, because that is what grabs a reader.

Next up is the Middle. According to Budrys, this consists of one or more paired concepts:

Middle4. Try — This is the effort usually made by the protagonist to resolve the main Problem of the story. Each such effort is paired with item 5: a Fail.

5. Fail — Not all fails are fails! Sometimes a protagonist will succeed, only to find that the original problem has gotten worse. As expected, failure will lead to more difficulty, too. Most short stories use one or two Try/Fail sequences. Novels often go through dozens.

At some point, the story will reach the End. Budrys broke this down, too.

End6. Climax — This is the result of the final Try/Fail, the most dramatic and far-reaching. Success or failure here could mean life or death for the protagonist.  It is the culmination of all the efforts of all the characters to force a solution to the Problem.

7. Denouement — This is what Mark Twain called the “Marryin’ and the Buryin’,” and that’s a very succinct way to describe it. It amounts to a summary of who survived the Climax.

The point of all this is NOT to suggest that you should address each of these elements specifically while working. I’ve found the most effective way to use the scheme is to wait until you’ve finished a story. If it works, and you’re happy with it, move on. If it doesn’t work, then break out the 7-Point chart and see if there’s something missing.

Finally, here’s a visual interpretation of the 7 Points when fully incorporated:

Tension timeline

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