January 19

Writing by the Rules

I read a post on Twitter the other day asking the #WritingCommunity what their feelings were in regards to using adverbs and adjectives in their work. There’s a lot of debate on this – should a writer purge all the adverbs and adjectives from their text? Can we use a few now and then? The responses to the tweet weren’t unexpected. Some people were purists (don’t use them at all) while others said occasional use was okay. I agree with the latter opinion.

A few years ago (okay, more than a few, but since I’m writing this I’ll adjust the time) when I was in the Creative Writing program at Florida State, I had a fantastic professor who opened my mind as a writer. One of the many things she taught me was this – learn all the rules so you know how to break them. That resonated with me because, up until that time, I felt that I had to write a certain way and my prose suffered.

Before meeting Elizabeth Stuckey-French in that workshop, I had been taught all the rules for proper writing. It was very stiff, very confining, very boring, and it frustrated me. I wanted to be a good writer, and everything I was taught stated that good writers follow certain rules. No deviation. It sounds cliche’, but it was a different time in public schools and I doubt any of my earlier teachers were writers or gave much thought to the actual process of writing. I’m not faulting them…hell, I think I was the only kid in any of my schools that wrote fiction and poetry. At least, I’m the only one I knew of.

But discovering that I could disregard the rules was mind-blowing. I mean, I could have learned that on my own at some point, but having someone state it directly was a revelation and allowed me to reassess my writing, the way I approached it, the things I could do with it.

The way I see it now, telling a story is like painting on a canvas. I can mix and match different styles, use different perspectives, tell stories in all sorts of interesting ways. I felt as if I was let off a chain that had kept me restrained to the backyard and now I could roam the neighborhood and explore.

So whenever someone asks a question about rules or what writers should and shouldn’t do, I respond with the advice I learned back in school. Writers should never limit themselves. Our medium is words and words are like little brush strokes on a page. We mix them up, rearrange them, experiment with style and form, swirl things around into new and interesting formats. We are artists and artists should never be afraid to experiment.

And before I close this out, I highly recommend the writings of Elizabeth Stuckey-French. She’s a wonderful writer and an inspiring teacher.

RB

January 12

First Draft

I’ve finished the first draft of my first real novel (I’ve made a few failed, half-hearted attempts in the past) and found the process exciting and exhausting. As I noted to the writing community on Twitter earlier this week, I felt like I had run a marathon. Because of that, I’m setting the draft aside for a bit so I can come back at it later after I’ve let my brain recuperate and so I can have fresh perspective when I look at it again.

Never having written a long piece like this, I approached it similar to how I write a short story – I had the idea, a few characters, and a basic plot, then I just dove in and started writing. After a few pages I realized I needed more guidance than that. With a short story, it only takes a few pages before I know where I’m going with the story and have an ending in site. With a novel…well, I felt like I was looking for the finish line but it was hidden on the other side of a mountain range. In other words, it was overwhelming.

So I regrouped and created a basic outline – just a skeleton, really – and sketched out some short character bios for my cast. That helped. I dove back in and typed away, day after day, pushing through my doubts and apprehension, until I finally saw the finish line. In fact, I did still use my short story background in the process by looking at each chapter as sort of an unfinished shorter piece. That way, I was looking at it as a series of short runs rather than a long haul. It helped.

Over the years I’ve read many books on writing and found it interesting to see how the process is different for every author. Some take the route I followed, just having an idea, a handful of characters, and just diving in. I like this because the story isn’t over-planned. I like spontaneity in my creative process, not knowing exactly what might happen next. Will my protagonist make a stupid decision? Get laid? Kill someone? Maybe all three? Sure, I had a vague idea of what was going to happen, but without having a strict outline to follow it made the entire process more interesting to me.

And yeah, it probably made it more difficult, as well. Not having a concrete idea of where I was going slowed me down. There were a few wrong turns that ended up in deleted pages as I backed up and looked for another path. There was also some frustration when I wasn’t sure where to go. Like driving at night on unfamiliar roads with my lights off. I may have hit a few trees along the way. I still arrived safely at my destination, but some repairs are needed.

But there are authors who swear that the way to go is to create a detailed outline, with every plot twist and scene sketched out in detail and full biographies written for even the minor characters. I see where they’re coming from, but to me that feels like over planning. I understand their point – with a map to follow the process should be easier, faster, and less painful and frustrating. But in my mind I wonder where the fun is in that. Where’s the improvisation? Where’s the creativity?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not throwing shade on anyone. It’s just that I feel – for me – writing needs to be spontaneous, a little dangerous, and fun. I liken it to sex. You don’t want to explain to your partner exactly what you’re going to do, when you’re going to do it, and how long it will last. Kinda takes the fun out of the event.

I’m proud of myself for finishing the first draft and I’m excited by the story. Based on feedback from my cohorts in the Twitter-verse, I’m going to try to wait thirty days before I take a second pass on the draft. In the meantime, I’m going to work on a couple of new short stories get a few completed ones submitted.

RB

January 5

Highway Thoughts

Whenever I travel by road, especially on the Interstate Highways, I find my mind wandering into the landscape that passes by the windows. You’ve seen those long empty stretches, no exits, no towns or cities nearby, just endless thickets of trees or acres of rolling fields. I often wonder what it would be like to just pull the car over and go exploring, tramping through the undergrowth or the tall grass. Would I find some lost relics? Maybe an old Native-American campsite? Pirate treasure?

It makes me wonder how long it’s been since someone walked through that wilderness. Was it ever explored? Did anyone ever live there? Die there? When there is no sign of civilization it makes me believe that I could be the first one to walk those woods or fields, the first to leave footprints, the first to discover something hidden there.

I have similar thoughts when I spot what appears to be a long unused dirt road or path snaking its way through the woods. Who built that road? What was it used for? Where does it lead? Of course, I pass by so quickly that I can’t get a good look at it, but it’s enough to stimulate my imagination. If I were to pull off at the next exit, would I be able to find that dirt path again? Probably not, but it doesn’t stop me from thinking that it might lead to some old, rundown house full of forgotten antiques, or perhaps an abandoned cemetery with toppled headstones.

I encounter the same thing when I travel back roads. I spot those crumbling wooden buildings, the empty farms, the overgrown dirt road leading off into nowhere, and my mind can’t help but speculate. What happened to the people who lived there? Did they just pack up one day and move? Did they die off mysteriously? Someone obviously spent time and effort to clear the land, build the structures, so I find it curious that all that would be left behind to return to the earth.

And yeah, I often wish I could blow off my destination and go exploring instead.

I tried to write a story once, many years back, about two guys who follow one of these unused dirt tracks and find themselves in a dilapidated town full of vampires. The story sucked, but it gave me the opportunity to explore one of the many highway daydreams I’d had over the years.

And while it been almost a year since I’ve traveled any great distance, I still have other stories packed away in my subconscious, all centering around the forgotten paths, empty woods, and abandoned buildings I’ve glimpsed while speeding down the Interstate or back roads. They will always be there, beckoning me to come explore and have an adventure.

RB

January 1

Happy New Year – 2019

Here we are – a new start in a new year. I’m not one for making resolutions for the new year. I think it’s good to have goals, but I don’t like to use the new year as a benchmark. Some goals are easier than others, so some can be achieved quickly (then you’re done) while others may take years to accomplish (never-ending). I set goals as I need to. If I knock one out, then I set another. If one drags on…well, then I stick with it as best I can until I hit it.

2018 was an interesting year. I turned fifty, which was quite the accomplishment for me. I was a bit rough on myself when I was younger and wasn’t sure I’d make it this far. So while I did hit that milestone, there were so many other things that distracted me from growing older. Issues at work, at home, the ups and downs of everyday life. There was so much going on around me that the year flew by and I feel as if I barely had time to notice it.

Online, I see a lot of people hoping that 2019 will be better for them. We all want that for ourselves. But we have to keep in mind that we need those down times, those unhappy experiences. It’s what helps us to appreciate the good stuff. If life was always good we’d be bored and wishing for excitement.

For those folks who had a rough 2018, it’s okay. We’ve all been there. We’re all fumbling about in our lives trying to make things work, trying not to fuck things up, and hoping we don’t hurt anyone or anything. I know how hard it can be but I try to stay positive. I try to remember the good things in my life, even when shit is hitting the fan. There may not be much good at any given moment, but there’s always something good to focus on. For me, I often think of my dogs, about how they act when I get home at the end of the work day, how much they love riding in the car with the windows down, or walking in the park on a cool morning. When I’m having a rough time I force myself to stop what I’m doing and take a moment to think about them. It helps me to re-center myself. It also makes me smile.

I sincerely hope that everyone has a good year, a better year. I hope that despite any obstacles or setbacks, everyone accomplishes something important, achieves some level of success, and that they (and you) feel loved and needed. It may come from unexpected sources and you may not notice it right away, but there’s someone who cares about you and wants to see you happy.

Remember, we’re all just guessing. There’s no user manual for life. We simply try to move forward, try to be happy, try to succeed.

So try to do some good in your world. Even if you’re feeling down, try to make someone else smile. It’ll be good for both of you.

Happy New Year.

RB