More Writers on Writing

Just what the title says. There is no best way to write. Find a process that works for you and follow it. Sometimes, as in my case, it’s not about how you write; the inhibitor more revolves around why you write. Once I learned whom I write for and why, my writing began to improve tremendously. Here are some successful authors’ views:

Charlie Rose talks to Martin Amis, Zadie Smith, Malcolm Gladwell, Joan Didion, Jonathan Franzen, and Fran Lebowitz:

Fran, by the way, voices my own problem with my writing. I’ve recently encountered an impasse, not because my writing is bad, but precisely because I’ve reached that precipice where I could make The Leap. Suddenly, who cares about good? Good, as we know, is the enemy of great.

So, the problem with posting talks from writers is that even the most inhibited author is full of words. Try getting one to talk for fewer than 30 minutes. Nonetheless, here are a few  more short talks.

William Faulkner on The Sound and the Fury:

Tennessee Williams:

Anne Rice:

(Blogger’s note: I swapped out Gore Vidal because I’d decided he really didn’t say anything worth listening to.)

Elmore Leonard:

(This is my favorite of these interviews. He’s describing my current book, and now I know what my issue has been. I’ve let the characters in without an audition.)

Hope you enjoy the videos.

 

This Week’s Essays on Writing

Slide3This was the 3rd post I ever did on this blog, back on 28 December 2010. Obviously, no one really watched the videos because almost no one read my blog. I thought it worth reposting for those of you who aspire to be (or already are) writers.

Ray Bradbury on Writing Persistently

Stephen King – Advice to New Writers

Joyce Carol Oates – On Writing Characters

 

The Illusion of Confidence

Artistic endeavors are interesting things. In order to be accomplished, in any sort of way, one has to develop the underlying craft. Now, I’m not using that word in the pretentious way I hear it being used, e.g., “I am devoted to my craft,” she said, brushing stray strands of ermine from her face. No, I am talking about the grunt work that it takes to perfect the “art.”

For photographers, that means learning about composition, lighting, shutter speeds, camera types, angles, and more. It means you need to understand what the Rule of Thirds is, what vanishing points are, and when to use, or ignore these and other rules. It means you spend hours poring over texts, taking test photos, doing post processing. It means failed experiments with lighting and accidental delights. In short, it means work.

For writers, there are just as many technical details to learn. You need to know how to structure a story, what good pacing is and isn’t. You need to know grammar and spelling, editing and proofreading. You learn word usage, sentence structure. And then you read, read, read. Soon, there is no such thing as reading for pleasure — all reading is education, although some you get to enjoy.

Over time, you develop the skills, perfect the tools. Then, if luck persists, you go out and apply them, and hold your breath, and await the boomerang of criticism.

We wait, breathlessly, do artists. It’s not that we are weak-minded. Neither is it that we lack backbone, and need the affirmations of others to substitute for our own fortitude. Rather, it is that confidence in artistic endeavors are either transitory, or altogether false. Rarely is good art absolute, and when it is, you can be certain you are in the presence of a master.

Rembrandt was always good; so much so that even today we cannot tell his work from his students’. Why? Because his style came to define “good,” no matter how briefly. Van Gogh? Not so much. Was he good? Great? Did his work improve after his death, or did we become enamored with it because we love the sorrowful romance of his life story? We’ll never know for certain. All we know is that now, his work defines “good.”

And so it goes. No matter how many words I write (700,000 in my books, to date) I will never know whether they are good or not. The reason is simple: I don’t determine what is good. That is determined by those whom read them. Are popular, poorly written books (Shades of Grey, for example) good, or well-written, unread books that slipped off the shelves into the netherworld of dusty back bins good? Is it good because we say so, or because it was read? Is a photo a masterpiece because a million eyes have seen it, or because those few who have were moved enough to weep?

It’s not for me to say.

All I can offer is that I’ve been photographing since I was 12, and have been serious since I was 16. I have no idea if I’m good. I know I’m okay, as my work gets enough attention to qualify as okay. Is my writing good? Is Roxx a good book because one reader loved it enough to want to remember the words, or is it defined by those who started reading and didn’t finish? Is the book excellent because each chapter in the 2nd half is better than the one before, or poor because it doesn’t race to the ending like the Hunger Games trilogy? What the hell difference does it make?

What defines the gift a work brings is how it is remembered, or, more accurately, if it is remembered. Whatever I write will be judged a success or failure long after I am gone. If a child, who is not currently alive today, laughs, or cries, at one of my stories, then I am a good writer. Until that happens, I’ll work under the assumption that I am not. Not yet.

Which means, of course, I have work to do. And work. And work. And work.

Because it’s not a craft, unless you are crafting it.

Why be an Author?

Why would anyone in their right mind be an author? I’m not referring to being a writer; that’s different. There is only a single reason to be a writer — you were born that way. Sure, it may take you a while to notice it, as it did in my case. But the writer is always there.

I remember being absent from school for a couple of days in the 3rd grade. When I got back, the teacher informed me the class had spent the previous 2 days learning to write poetry. I had exactly an hour to catch up. Now, in my many days in front of our in-home library, I’d spent hours reading and re-reading children’s poetry. I figured, “How hard could it be?” In my ignorance, I knocked off a poem about birds in fifteen minutes. I turned it in, and to my teacher’s surprise, it wasn’t bad. My mom carried that silly poem in her wallet for decades.

Still, I didn’t notice I was a writer. I had no imagination, you see. The first time I really began to see the writer within was when I turned 20. Despite being an accounting major, most of my friends were either musicians, artists, or poets. The latter group used to pen poems and recite them to African drums. Sometimes, I’d accompany them, just for kicks. But I wasn’t a drummer, or an artist, because I had no imagination. In private, however, I thought I’d try to write some poems, because, “How hard could it be?”

Most sucked, a lot. But 5 of them got selected and published in a small, New York City poetry journal. So, I decided, maybe I was a poet. By then, I understood that I was a writer, because I could no longer stop writing. I’d never thought myself an artist, unless you counted the fact that I had a camera in my hand from age 12 on.

See, I’d never put the pieces together. I’d always been an artist, just not practicing. You are born an artist or a writer. It’s an innate part of your personality, whether you give it voice or not. You can certainly ignore it, but I promise, that will be to your detriment.

Being an author, however, is completely different. Being a writer (artist) is a personality trait. Being an author (painter) is a vocation or avocation. Anything that can be done as a career is a choice. You can do it, or do something else. But if you chose to be one, do so with eyes open. As an author, let me warn you: you probably won’t get rich. Some do; most don’t.

William Faulkner is considered to be one of the most talented authors in history. In fact, in my survey of the 100 Greatest Writers in History, Faulkner came out 2nd, behind the unreadable James Joyce.

Faulkner
Faulkner, all 5 feet, 5.5 inches of him. (This photo actual size)

Even so, he couldn’t make a living as an author. In order to make ends meet, the creator of such classics as The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom! worked in Hollywood for years, penning 6 credited screenplays, including “To Have and Have Not” and “The Big Sleep,” two of Bogart’s best movies. This, from the eventual winner of a Nobel Prize in literature and 2 Pulitzer Prizes. See, it’s damned hard to get noticed. Without Faulkner’s friendship with Howard Hawks, for whom he penned 5 of the 6 screenplays, he may have never gotten enough visibility to achieve the fame he did.

That’s not to say you won’t either. However, it is to say that fame and fortune isn’t the reason to pursue any career, whether its author, painter, athlete, or lawyer. The reasons to do so are simpler than that: because you find the work enjoyable and because you are willing to work hard enough to be the best at it that you can be.

“Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.” – William Faulkner

It took me a while to answer my inner question of why I write. I used to have different answers, but they were never the reasons I gave my friends. The real reason is simple. I want to create characters that people never forget. In the not distant future, I will die, and cease to be. My daughter will have children, grow old, and die. Within the span of fifty years past the end of my life, few, if any, will remember me. Almost none will know the details of my life, because few know them now.

But maybe I can perfect my quirky, silly, brilliant, sexy and open BacallDeschanelHepburn iconic female lead. Perhaps I’ll get her right one day, and you, and your children, and their children will never forget her. Maybe I’ll stumble across a new male heroic lead, one who doesn’t shrink from a fight, but who neither is threatened by knowing the girl is smarter and maybe a bit braver.

Perhaps you’ll read my female lead, pursued in romance by her best friend, a woman as different from her as the stars are from the sea, and maybe you’ll root for them to vanquish their foes and fall deliriously in love. Maybe it’s Roxx or Trint. Or maybe you’ll meet a stranger to this planet, in physical form for the first time, discovering what it means to be a woman. Maybe Luce will be the one you don’t forget.

To be honest, I know I haven’t written that character yet. My writing is still improving enough weekly for me not to think it’s good enough. But that’s why I’m an author … because I’m determined to reach good. At the end of my life, I may have never written a character I’d love to have seen Bogie play, and maybe “Baby” was always too cool for any of my female leads, but dammit, I’m going to die trying.

Humphrey Bogart - in Casablanca, playing chess with Peter Lorre
Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, playing chess with Peter Lorre

Because I’m a writer; I may as well use it for something.

What LeBron and Jordan Taught Me about Writing (and Life)

Writer’s Note: This is a long post, but it’s about the NBA, Writing, and the Key to Life.

I am a fan of NBA basketball. In fact, it’s fair to say I’ve been a near fanatic for most of my life. I grew up watching the greats: Wilt Chamberlain, Clyde Frazier, Jerry West. I was a fan through the Magic vs. Bird years, and endured, and eventually rooted for Jordan’s Bulls. These days, I watch most every Miami Heat game, while choking down occasional helpings of my hometown team, the Wizards.

This week, sportscasters and writers are aflame with LeBron James’s recent feat: scoring 30 or more points while hitting 60% or greater in six straight games. For all you non-basketball fans, suffice it to say it’s an unheard of level of efficiency.

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So now, laughably, all those same people who were bashing LeBron two years ago are gushing all over him now. Some have even begun the whispers – maybe LeBron is as good as, or (gasp) better than Jordan.

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Now, before you Jordan worshipers douse me in Haterade, let me quickly say I’m not getting into that stupid debate. There is no such thing as a Greatest of All Time (GOAT). The best offensive player in history was Wilt. The best defender was Bill Russell. The winningest NBA baller was Russell with 11 championships – hell, even Robert Horry had 7.

The arguments remind me of those who try and determine who was the best writer of all time (which I wrote about previously). Each of the greatest among us has different gifts, and to attempt to compare one to the other misses the point. No one was as enduring as Shakespeare. Yet, even the Bard never reached the economic heights of J. K. Rowling. Picking Jordan as the GOAT diminishes everyone else whose path to success was different or who played under different circumstances.

Sure, Jordan was arguably the best NBA championship performer of our generation. (I couch it in those terms because I never saw Russell play.) He also had the greatest impact on young players worldwide, and was certainly the most economically successful. So, does this supersede Wilt’s 50 points per game season, or Oscar Robertson’s triple-double (points, rebounds, and assists) season? Not in my opinion. A crate of apples isn’t better than a crate of oranges; it’s just different.

So, what does this have to do with writing? Everything. See, I’ve been pondering why Jordan, who was less heralded than LeBron at age 19, yet achieved the same number of MVPs, reached the same number of NBA Finals as LeBron at this stage of his career, and managed to win 3, while Mr. James has but one. My conclusion: it’s all about coaching.

No, I’m not saying that Jordan was an inferior talent whose brilliant coaches got him over. Instead, I am saying that to achieve greatness, to maximize one’s potential, one has to avail oneself of whatever resources are available. This includes finding mentors, using strategic and tactical resources, and most importantly, doing what they teach you.

43_3108473_0da6677b699ebb81Let’s quickly look at the two players’ paths. Jordan left high school and went to the University of North Carolina, playing under legendary coach Dean Smith. Coach Smith was a brilliant tactician who won 879 games in his career, including two National Championships. Jordan helped win him his first. Jordan was great in college, but no one foresaw what he would become. In part, that was because he played alongside another 1st-ballot Hall of Famer, James Worthy, and a very talented Sam Perkins. After three seasons, Jordan went pro.

Sam Perkins, Michael Jordan, and Coach Dean Smith
Sam Perkins, Michael Jordan, and Coach Dean Smith

We all know what happened next: He developed into a brilliant offensive (and defensive) weapon, and won six NBA titles, the first coming a year after new coach Phil Jackson arrived. Jordan won all six titles playing with 1st-ballot Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen, and the last three with Hall of Famer Dennis Rodman. Does the pattern sound familiar? We’ll get to that later.

Teams carry each other
Teams carry each other

The rest is history. By the time he retired everyone (but me) agreed he was the NBA’s GOAT. (I still like Wilt. And Magic. And The Big O. And Kareem. And …)

LeBron took a different path. He was decreed the Second Coming of Jordan while still in high school. urlHe forwent college, going straight to the NBA, along with enormous endorsement contracts. He carried played for the Cleveland Cavaliers for seven years, taking them to the Finals once, before making The Decision to join Batman Dwyane Wade, as the Heat’s new Superman. (There ain’t no Robin.) Now, in year 3 of his stint with the Heatles, LeBron has become that which everyone always thought he would be, back when he was a teenager.

So, what’s the lesson here, you ask? Well, let’s compare:

–       Jordan left high school and honed his craft under the tutelage of a master coach. Dean Smith taught him the game, and Did Not allow Jordan to use his athleticism to the detriment of developing other skills. In effect, he pushed him out of his comfort zone.

–       Jordan improved his game year by year, as LeBron has done. However, he began to win titles when he 1) teamed up with another All-Star performer (Pippen) playing under probably the best basketball coach of all time.

–       LeBron, by contrast, missed the 3 years of being coached up by a master teacher. Instead, he jumped straight to the pros, where he was expected to be the alpha dog, the main attraction, and the only real superstar.

–       LeBron’s coach in Cleveland was good, but not great, and certainly no Phil Jackson. Throughout his career, LeBron had been admonished (by critics) to develop a post-up game (playing close to the basket where his size and quickness gives him an advantage), and to develop a consistent jump shot. He resisted both. Since he was the alpha dog, no one made him.

–       He finally paid attention to history and began to recreate what Jordan had: finding two Hall of Fame caliber teammates and a better coach. More importantly, he worked in the offseason to improve his jump shot, and took private coaching from Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon to improve his low-post game. In effect, he finally used his resources and accepted coaching.

The result? No one has seen anyone make basketball look so easy before. We don’t know how good the man will be, and that’s the entire fun of it.

Let’s step back now, and apply these lessons learned to writing, or to any endeavor you may be undertaking.

1. Learn the fundamentals. Both LeBron and Jordan have a single thing in common beyond working harder than everyone else: they made few mistakes on the court. Both are students of the game, and applied what they learned. If you’re not dead, you haven’t finished mastering the fundamentals. (If you are dead, stop haunting my blog, you ghost-ass bitch.)

2. Coaching makes a difference. Jordan never won a title playing under less than a Hall of Fame coach, despite his talent. Why? Success is hard. If it weren’t it would mean nothing. Those 3 years of college LeBron missed probably did more to limit him than any opponent. Imagine LeBron in Cleveland after being forced to learn to play power forward as well as he did point guard. He would have entered the league the player he is becoming only now.

3.  Step out of the comfort zone  – I promise you that both players were forced out of theirs. Dean Smith didn’t play alley oop ball to the exclusion of all else. Phil worked his offense, irrespective of who had to sacrifice to make it work. LeBron made his historical 30-point, 60% run playing the power forward game he had steadfastly refused to play his whole career. You cannot grow without stretching.

4. Get Good Teammates – For writers that means find artists, marketers, agents, publishers, editors, critics. GOAT or no, Jordan won no titles without Pippen. LeBron won none without D-Wade (who won none without Shaquille O’Neal or LeBron). Writing takes an inordinate amount of individual effort. Publishing, however, is a team sport. You will not win it alone.

5. Ignore Haters, but listen to critics – this one will determine whether you succeed or fail, in my opinion. Coming out of college, the NBA draft thought Sam Bowie would be better than Jordan. Sam Who? When LeBron left Cleveland, haters said he would never win a championship. They said if he won one, no one would credit him because it would be Wade’s team. LeBron was Robin; D-Wade was Batman. When the Heat won the title, nobody said either thing. Haters don’t study history. If they had, they would have noticed LeBron was following the Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson model of playing with Hall of Famers. Lone Wolves don’t win titles. However, critics also said LeBron needed to play the low post and shoot more consistently. Year 1 with the Heat, he didn’t. They lost. Year 2, he did; they won.

6. Don’t measure success with numbers – Robert Horry won more titles than Jordan. Pippen won as many. Udonis Haslem has twice as many championship rings as LeBron. Give yourself permission to measure your success by achieving whatever it is you set out to achieve.

See, the lesson here is simple. Basketball is the key to understanding the universe. That’s why God made the planets round. We’re all part of the game. Life is a team sport. Play it to win.

21st Century Support

Support is relative

As an artist/writer, I have been thinking quite a lot about support lately. I’m not talking about the kind where  you depend upon the kindess of strangers friends to meet your daily needs. I’m not even talking about the emotional support (attaboys, etc.) that all who endeavor to share their creations need. I am talking about tangible support from family and friends as we put our secret selves out for public display.

Can I preach for a moment? That’s a rhetorical question; if you know me, you have already learned that I will irrespective of whether anyone is listening. So, yeah, I’mma preach for a spell.

Art is fucking hard. If you’ve ever done any, you already know what I mean. Bad art is easy, I will agree. But see, we artists have a name for bad art. We call it a first draft. And first drafts are just what they sound like – a beginning. Art takes time, revision, hair-pulling, self-doubt, critique, and a spectacularly thick skin.

At its best, it involves sitting in a quiet space, adding whatever devices the artist has learned will free his/her imagination, and then closing the door, and letting all the demons out. Sometimes, they paint the canvas brilliantly, and we sit back  and thank whomever substitutes for the creator for the gift. More often than not, however, we stop, disgusted, and wonder how such a perfect idea could have turned into such shit when it hit the page.

But we are driven, we artists, or obsessed, if we are successful ones, and so we chip away at the damaged block we chiseled out of our hearts, and attempt to make it sing. And yes, I do realize I just mixed 3 metaphors, but I’ve done so on purpose. That’s what art is like. You start on one path, a simple one, trying to sketch what you see. But then it takes a turn; the work decides it needs more dimensions than your simple piece, and suddenly, it’s a sculpture, for which you didn’t bring the right tools. And, after months of crying blood and sweating laughter, you finish. But it isn’t right, because your sculpture is a song, and you forgot the words.

It never works; it’s always wrong.

And then one day, it isn’t. You finished, not because you’re done, but because you can no longer make it better; you can only make it different.

And these, my friends, have all been the fun parts. The work, you see, is no more than becoming that whom we were born to be. The rest – the magical, horrible unveiling, that is the hard part. So, we do – we finish, and, gods help us, we share. And you know what we get from friends and family?

Nothing of importance.

You see, I’ve learned that support in the 21st century is no longer a tangible thing. Instead, it has become commercial support, or a reality TV almost-real thing. They buy your books, and they want “hard cover” but first, you must “sign it.” Know why? Because they have no intention of reading your book. They aren’t going to frame your sketch and put it in the office to enjoy. No, instead, they are giving themselves a gift on your behalf. They are enabling themselves to feel they know an artist, or believe they are helping support you, without doing the single thing the artist wants them to do:

Care about the fucking art.

We don’t want you to buy the damn book. We want you to want to read it. I don’t give two shits how long you’ve known your artist friend/lover/spouse, if you’ve never read their work, you don’t know shit about them. That’s because the work is where they live – the inside part, that secret part they want you to see, but can only explain through their work. When you tell them you bought their book, but don’t, they know. They know, because as soon as you tell them, they check their sales numbers so they can always remember which one was you. But it doesn’t click over, because you never bought it. And when you do buy it, but never bother to read it, they know that too.

And do your artist friend a favor, if you see their art, but didn’t like it, consider being honest enough with them to tell them it wasn’t for you. Then, continue to wish them well. They didn’t make the art for you, so they only hope you like it – but they are well aware perhaps you won’t. They won’t die from your honesty. I can’t say the same about your lack of interest, however. Those little cuts don’t heal very well.

So, yeah, I’m preaching tonight. I’m preaching because I’ve written 5 books, and none of the people in my life – the ones really in my life – gives a shit. I’ll be truthful, of all the friends and family, exactly 4 have ever read a single book. Now, understand, my family calls me or emails, crying as they read blog posts or poems I’ve had published. But no one reads the books. Is it because they suck? I don’t think so; I’ve only ever gotten 1 bad review, by a clown who confessed he didn’t read the second half of the book.

No, they don’t read because that would require actual time. And time, my friends, is thicker than blood, which is only marginally thicker than water.

Thank God the interwebs are thicker than time, so I do get support. However, being an artist has redefined whom I consider friends. Those who tell me they will buy my book (and don’t) or are waiting for signed (free) copies, wait on. I care about you and your 21st century support even less than you care about who I really am. For clarity, if you’ve never read my work, or share 50% of my genetic code, we ain’t really friends. We’re still cool, but friends support each other.

At least, that’s what my ex-wife, who suffers from daily migraines but still read my 1st book, and is the cover model for my latest one tells me. Support is a real thing. Gestures are for middle fingers.

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As a P.S., here are some rejected covers for the latest book, The Juice. Just so you can see that revision, revision, revision is the only way to achieve art.

Initial Take (and name)

How Much Description is Enough?

Since I am self-taught as a writer, I usually feel like a fraud when I post anything that sounds as if I’m being instructional. Who am I to tell anyone how to write, when I have rarely let anyone tell me? So, it is with some trepidation that I post this. But then I remember tutoring graduate students subjects I had never taken (none of my students ever got under a “B”) and recall I have always been better at teaching than doing.

I am a visual person. That’s not surprising given I’ve been fascinated by photography since childhood. Comparatively speaking, writing came to me late in life. As a result, or perhaps due to my innate fascination with visuals, I approach narratives as if I am describing the environment to a non-sighted friend.

Now the key word in the previous sentence is friend. All too often, I have seen descriptions that read as though one were filling out a police report. While this may be effective in some genres – police procedurals, for instance – readers want a more intimate view of the scenario. As writers, we are to present not only what is seen, smelled, heard, but also what the narrator is feeling. We want to understand his experience at that moment, so that the visual cortex in our brain can interact with the language center, and present us an image. In so doing, the writer has placed us in the scene.

So, let’s try a writing exercise, just for fun. (Understand this is not purporting to be the correct way to write descriptions – it is simply how I do it. Perhaps there is a kernel that you can use in your own writing.

In the photo diptych  above, we have two views of an old church in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. Often, when starting a narrative, I will use one of my photos, or find an image close to what I have in mind, to give me a starting point.

If this were a school assignment, wherein we are asked to tell us what is in the photo, we might write something like this:

John walked up to the old church, the sharp angles of its high roof blotting out all but a sliver of the sun. Copper-hued brick buttressed the large stained-glass windows, mirroring the colored rooftops of the surrounding buildings.  The church was an enormous structure, with stone walls, stolid interiors, and a dank draft that carried a mildewed smell even in the summer heat. John tried to imagine the struggle of the ancient artisans, carrying the hand-hewn gray stone up the steep hill. It was a testament to their God, to be certain.

Now, this is okay, and I pretty much follows the rules. It describes the basic building, without being an architectural guide, gives some of his 5 senses, and even a bit of the emotional impact of the structure. Still, it doesn’t tell me how it feels. I want to know if the building moves him. What was it like to reach it? I want a hint as to whether it is important to the rest of the scene.

So, let me try again. This time, how about I do just a little more research first? The church is on a steep hill; so let me start with that. (Here’s a photo I shot of the same hill, in Harper’s Ferry.) Like the first, this is written extemporaneously, just trying to pull out what the visual gives me.

John made his way up the narrow stone steps to the old church, weaving through the throng of tourists who were descending, and cutting lip-curled, disdainful glances as he stopped, panting from the steep ascent.

I’m way too out of shape for this. The climb was one hundred steps, but may as well have been a thousand. Years behind a desk had left him unprepared for the adventure that awaited him. Reaching the summit, he stopped, hands to knees, and saw the church for the first time.

It was all sharp angles and aggressive lines, with the setting sun bowing in reverence behind the crosses that top each vaulted ceiling. The building’s architects had clearly designed the old Catholic church to be both functional and imposing, with the retreating sun bathing the entire structure in halos the original citizens surely imagined were the hands of God himself.

John walked to the side entrance of the church, opposite the sun, and bathed in evening shadows. The birds were still here, despite the billowing trees. The air was still, save a dimly putrid smell of fungus that seeped the pores of the faded gray stone that comprised the church’s façade. There was an entrance here, a small wooden door that listed hours of availability to tourists. This was not his goal. Instead, he crept around to the building’s rear entrance, barely lit by the dying rays of sun, and found it. A single, unobtrusive entrance, with a sign that read, “No admittance. Authorized personnel only.”

For not the first time, he wished he were not so authorized. As he reached for the leaden doorknob, his eyes caught movement in the stained-glass window above. There, amidst the muted catholic colors and a reflected skeleton of a long-dead tree, stood Father Mullen.

John shivered, despite the oppressive heat.

Now, using all of this may be too much, and it’s not great literature yet. That’s okay; that’s what editing is for. (I don’t edit my blog posts before posting, as I want this stuff to be real and raw.) But by focusing on the “why” John is here, instead of the “where,” the scene of the church is pulled into the story. The details that I found, which weren’t in the first version, came out as a direct result of focusing on who John is, and how he is feeling. Now, the lovely church is a thing of dread, because John doesn’t want to be there. Hopefully, if we have crafted the details right, the reader wants to turn the page, and find out whom this Father Mullen is.

More importantly, I, as the writer, want to find out too. And that is my last bit of advice for the day: in our writing, we must keep ourselves engaged. If we are not, our readers will certainly not be.

Now, I would LOVE it if you would try this exercise yourself, and share the results. Do a first description, just focusing on the “what” and the 5 senses (sight, smell, sound, touch, taste) that surround it. Then try again, adding in a focus on the “why” – why’s it’s important, why the narrator is there. If you can’t figure out why it’s important, you shouldn’t be describing it. If you want to participate, but lack photos, let me know, and I’ll post a few good ones. 🙂