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We are Cups

by Gregory A. Kompes

“We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled. The trick is, knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out.”
~Ray Bradbury

Zen in the Art of Writing is filled with gems like the one above. I love this image, this metaphor, this idea that all of our life and experience, all the sounds and events and people and places and books and movies and music and weather and…and…and…that all of it goes in and that we tip ourselves over and don’t spill it all, but only the beautiful. Only the work.

Bradbury is a master of creating worlds, of creating suspense, of creating terror. He’s a tight writer who has a strong, solid, easily read voice on the page.

Just us on Thursday as we talk about his collection of essays on writing and life and experience. He’s used memoir to teach. When done well, as he does, the work is not only useful ideas, but inspired construction, too.

The Writer Workshop Book Club for Writers, 7 pm.

We Write from Experience

by Gregory A. Kompes

I have always considered myself to be a “student of life.” Back in my early twenties, this was because I’d chosen to drop out of college to be a musician. For a decade I traveled a lot of the world playing music.

Later, after I discovered music didn’t pay enough to actually live, I had day jobs in PR, finance, and banking.

That launched me back into school (because the day jobs paid for it!) And, I began my pursuit of a writing career. Since that first degree, I’ve gone on to get two others, including an MFA in Creative Writing.

Possibly more importantly, I’ve continued to travel the world and have lots of experiences in the process. Just recently, I hugged a sloth in Honduras and wandered the Lamanai Maya ruins and climbed the tallest Maya temple ever discovered.

There’s an old adage that we should write what we know. I’m happy to challenge that notion. With a bit of research we can learn about anything. And, with a bit of effort, we can certainly put ourselves into the shoes of a character who does things we would never do.

But, still, we hear: write what you know.

I don’t think this applies to only writing about out personal experiences. Instead, we need to find the emotional connections our characters experience and those we derive from our own emotional experiences.

And, yet, there’s still something important to be said about having as many personal experiences as we possibly can. We should see and hear and taste and touch and experience as much of the world as we possibly can. We should visit locations far and wide and then write them into our books and stories.

Make it a goal to have experiences that are worth writing about. Because, while you can learn a lot about sloths from the Internet, there’s nothing like spending time hugging one, touching their thick, slightly oily fur, looking into their dark eyes and being warmed by their odd, smiling face, while being pricked by their long claws as they slowly and gently push them into you for balance and stability.

Me and the Sloth in Honduras, February 2020

Choose Words with Intention . by Gregory A. Kompes

Use the right word. Find the right word and revise it. Determine the desired meaning, usually from a weak word. Don’t be lazy about the revised selection. Dig deep into your brain. Don’t just settle for the first word. Don’t settle for was or blue or table. Don’t be indolent or lax. Take a moment. Think. Dig. Try a few choices. Roll the choices around in your brain, on your tongue, in the sentence, in the scene, in the greater meaning of life.

Think about whether your character would say it that way, would use that word, would even think that word to describe his grandmother’s doilies. Let your characters drive you, motivate you to choose crochet instead of knitted. Use their diction in that tight-third scene to choose yarn over fiber. Use their experience in that first-person narrative to choose a better word over your first word.

See it, hear it, smell it as they would. Express those ideas and thoughts in their voice, in their diction, using their meaning of the words you choose.

Understand the world you’re creating from the character’s perspective. Take the time to see the world through their eyes; take the time to explore the world and the motivations of each character based on their background and their upbringing. Know that that background and upbringing is, generally, different from your own. Know that it’s probably very different from your own background.

Go deeper now, think about a stronger verb, delete those weak words and reach for stronger words. Write words that are specific, that engage, that paint pictures through the senses with color and smell and sound. Evoke feeling through the words you choose, but not through weak words like think and felt. Evoke feeling through showing with specifics: gauzy, yellowed-lace curtains sucked out through the window as the temperature plummets twenty degrees in a few seconds while nickel-sized hail pelted the battered old house.

Show us don’t tell us. Help the reader live the experience through specific, special, meaningful words. Let the reader breath in the frigid, wet air, hike the four-hundred stone steps toward the peak of the Great Wall, smother in the steamy, over-heated stone sauna.

You see it better now, yes? Choose Pekinese instead of dog; choose crimson or scarlet or cherry or ruby instead of red or cerulean or sapphire or indigo instead of blue. Choose shades and tastes and colors and place names that are specific and evoke deeper meanings not only for the reader, but for the character experiencing them in your writing.

Write the character from their perspectives and background and education and thoughts and fears and loves and hatreds. Writer those characters into settings described based on how they see their world, or the world they now find themselves in. Take advantage of this to not only describe the scene, but to more fully develop the character.

Get into their heads and hearts and souls by choosing meaningful, deep, luscious words that drip with intention.

Do your job with every word you choose. Choose words one by one that have multiple layers of meaning, words a scholar or student must pick apart and suck on to gather their full taste and meaning.

Reading Matters

Reading every day is almost as important as writing every day for a writer.

Why?

Because reading creates a foundation of knowledge that pays off over and over again for a writer.

That foundation includes the content that we read, especially if we’re reading craft books and how-to books. But, it also pays off big time when we read works in our own genre.

If you’re writing mystery, seeing how another author plots and paces their book informs you. If you’re writing literary fiction, seeing how another author describes setting informs you. If you’re reading thrillers, seeing how another author develops tension informs you. On and on it goes. Seeing how another author entrances you, attracts you, engages you informs your writing.

There are some authors who say they don’t want to read because it might inform their writing, might alter what they’re writing. I say, that’s exactly why you want to be reading. We should be influenced by all the work that has come before our own. 

We simply become better writers by reading the work of others.
Stephen King wrote “if you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to write.” 

It really is that simple. We become better writers when we read…

Join us for a discussion of Kings, On Writing, Thursday, January 30, at 7 pm.

What Works…and What Doesn’t

by Gregory A. Kompes

Photo by Helloquence on Unsplash

When I teach my English composition students how to begin critiquing their peer’s work they are often hesitant. So many of them don’t feel “qualified” to offer critique or feedback because they’re new to writing themselves. I’m often asked, “How can I critique someone when I don’t feel I know what I’m doing with writing.”

It’s a good question.

But, we all know far more than we give ourselves credit for. We’ve been reading books and articles and textbooks and cookbooks and blogs and letters and emails and all sort of written work almost our entire lives. We also watch television shows and movies. And, hopefully, we were read to as children. All of this consumption of content gives us a foundation in storytelling…and thus a foundation from which to offer feedback to others.

So, to help my students learn to critique, I offer two statements as prompts to get them talking about the work-in-progress:

1. What Works?
When offering feedback and critique, it’s important to let the writer know what’s working well. What do you like about their story or essay or memoir or stage play. What have they written that moved you? What phrases or sentences sounded wonderful and evoked the senses. When we know what others like, we can create more of it.

2 What doesn’t work?
Next, explore what didn’t work for you in the text. What phrases or words did you stumble on? Have they offered incorrect word choices? Has the point of view changed? Could they use more emotion or words the evoke the senses? Has the whole passage been written in a passive way with “to be” verbs instead of active verbs? On and on…

And, no matter what you think of a piece of writing, I always recommend “no blood on the floor” critiquing. What does that mean? It means we critique the writing and not the writer. No matter what the content of the work, it’s for us to comment on how it has been written, not judge it for what has been written. After all, we are all colleagues on our own writing journey toward exploring the world through an expression of words.

Bring your own experience and learning to the critique table and as you offer your thoughts you’ll find yourself learning as as a writer from what you give to others.

Where to Start a Novel

In classic literature, authors would take paragraphs, even chapters to introduce you to the main character and often give a complete family background and history. They’d tell you everything they could. And, readers would dutifully hang in there and read it all. Why? Because there weren’t a million other things vying for their attention. In the 19th Century, there weren’t TVs, Smartphones, Computers, or Social Media. No, folks who could read sat and read by candlelight through the long dark winters. They memorized passages. They talked with others about the books they’d read. And, because most had few books, they re-read everything many times.

Things are different today. Readers (and everyone else) has been influenced by TV, Movies, and Media in all forms. We have shorter attention spans. We want to be caught up and immersed before we have time to think about anything else. 

Writers need to be aware of this, conscious of the desires and needs of readers. There’s plenty of time in a novel-length work to share the issues that got the main character into the chase scene or the murder or the moment of change that is setting off the story into motion. Readers expect to be immersed into the story from the very first paragraph.
In writer terms, this is called: in medias res … narrative that beings in the middle of the plot, in the middle of the action. 

By all means, write out the family history and the background of your main character and all the other characters, too. But, in the second or third draft, find a spot where your story kicks into high gear, the moment that changes the protagonists direction in life, the moment just before or as they leap off a cliff. That’s the place to begin and capture your reader. Once captured, feel free to tell the reader all about your main character and their parental relationships…say in chapter six.

January Book of the Month: On Writing by Stephen King

The January Book of the Month is On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King.

On Writing: 10th Anniversary Edition: A Memoir of the Craft

Immensely helpful and illuminating to any aspiring writer, this special edition of Stephen King’s critically lauded, million-copy bestseller shares the experiences, habits, and convictions that have shaped him and his work.

“Long live the King” hailed Entertainment Weekly upon publication of Stephen King’s On Writing. Part memoir, part master class by one of the bestselling authors of all time, this superb volume is a revealing and practical view of the writer’s craft, comprising the basic tools of the trade every writer must have. King’s advice is grounded in his vivid memories from childhood through his emergence as a writer, from his struggling early career to his widely reported, near-fatal accident in 1999—and how the inextricable link between writing and living spurred his recovery. Brilliantly structured, friendly and inspiring, On Writing will empower and entertain everyone who reads it—fans, writers, and anyone who loves a great story well told.

Get your copy at The Writer Workshop Bookstore or on Amazon

We’ll be talking about the book over coffee and wine on Thursday, January 30th at 7pm at The Writer Workshop. (1190 King George Blvd #A7, Savannah, GA 31419)

New Year Resolutions

I’ve stopped creating New Year’s Resolutions many years ago. After all, my resolution is always the same: Write Every Day! Simple. Not always easy to keep that resolution, but I strive for it and come pretty close.

So, instead of setting goals or creating rules that, generally, are out the window before February blows in, I spend an hour or two on or around the first of January reading, once more, The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. While not all of it applies, and rules–especially grammar rules–are meant to be broken, I find that having a strong grammar foundation and basic rules of style reinforced at least once a year gives me a foundation from which to break the rules with thoughtful intention. Plus, I like White’s wittiness.
The Little Book remains a quick-reference go-to book. It’s where I start my English Composition Students. And, it’s my recommendation for writers who don’t yet have a strong grammar foundation. Why? Because it’s short (only 88 pages in most editions) and it generally gives the necessary rules of grammar and style that the English speaking and writing world have collectively agreed upon. And, did I mention that White’s pretty funny.
So, instead of making resolutions you already know you’re going to break, just as you do every year? Why not spend a bit of time reading a time-honored classic and improving your writing for the rest of the new year…

Available in The Writer Workshop Bookstore and on Amazon.

The Process

The question of process has been coming up a lot lately, so I’ve been thinking about it.

  • What’s your process?
  • What’s your writing process?
  • What’s the workshop process?
  • What’s the meaning of life?

Well, I think they’re all pretty much the same. Most of us writers have to write. We do it because we love it. We do it because it’s like breathing. We do it because it gives meaning to our lives. I’m sure there are as many other answers as there are people answering the questions.

My writing process? Generally? I write everyday. I’m what some call a “pantser.” That means I often don’t work with an outline. Instead, I take a journey through the first draft of a work without knowing where I’m going. So far, it’s worked out fairly well. This is one of the reasons I love NaNoWriMo so much each November. The true practice of starting on November 1st with a blank page and writing everyday until you reach 50,000 words. Hopefully, before November 30th. I accomplished that goal again this year. Bully for me!

Then, I read what I’ve written and create an outline. That’s when I see if what I’ve done is working or not. If I’ve wandered too hopelessly down a dark alley. And, based on that review, I revise and revise and revise. Finally…

I workshop. I love the workshop. I follow the MFA version, more or less. A group of people come together on a regular basis, every Wednesday, for instance. The attendees read a few pages of their work aloud and the others in the room offer their feedback and critique–some of it written on the page, some of it verbal. So much is learned throughout the workshop process.

  • We learn about our own work by reading it aloud;
  • We learn more by hearing the thoughts and reactions of others to our work;
  • We learn so much by choosing the feedback that we want to incorporate into the revisions;
  • We also learn by hearing the work of others;
  • We learn by offering feedback, both written and verbal;
  • And, we also learn how to show up.

And, that’s what it’s really all about. That is the foundation, the meaning of life…we have to show up. We have to do the work. We have to participate.

So, whether there are others in the room or I’m alone for a few hours at the workshop space, I show up. I write every day. I read my work. I revise. I offer feedback. I support the work others are doing as I support and nurture my own work as a writer, as an artist.

I show up.

What is NaNoWriMo?

Twenty Years of NaNoWriMo!

November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Now in it’s 20th year, NaNoWriMo is a writing challenge. The goal? Write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. That works out to 1,667 words each day during the month of November. This amazing challenge not only helps you get a lot of words down and work out a story line, it also helps establish the daily writing habit. While it’s a huge challenge to complete, it’s also an amazing accomplishment. 

So, if you do it what do you win? Well, a certificate of achievement, bragging rights, and, most importantly, the foundation of a new novel. True NaNo die hards show up at a blank page on November 1st and they see what happens (no plotting or planning). This is my preferred method. But, You can certainly plot in advance if you so choose. You can come to the page with an idea or a character or a bit of story in your head. And, while the goal is to write a novel, a work of fiction, there’s always a strong contingent of those who “go rogue” and write nonfiction or continue work on a book in progress or, well, fill in the blank. 

If you decide to take on the NaNoWriMo challenge, be sure to add me as your “Buddy.” My NaNo handle is Gak13.

The Writer Workshop will offer 6 NaNoWriMo Write-ins during the month of November. Come, spend some time writing with friends, and receive a free gift. Download the Calendar for all the November events.