Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Digging for Story Gold - Making research pay off

I like to be taken into other worlds. Hammett’s Continental Op stories present the attitudes, people, and criminal behaviors he experienced working for the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Dune brings together the interplay of culture and a carefully worked-out ecosystem in a vibrant way. Among Moby Dick’s many virtues is the detailed picture it provides of the whaling world.

Experience and research make these settings (along with the characters who live in them) compelling. Sometimes, the facts are shoved in your face by circumstances, like needing a job. Sometimes, it’s all serendipity — an article your run across, the chance meeting with a talkative stranger, witnessing a dramatic moment in someone else’s life.

Most often, writers create their own luck by researching topics related to the stories they’re working on. This can take many forms:

Fun facts. The right, largely unknown fact presented clearly at the right time in a story can propel a story forward and delight readers. Bits of the Koran appearing in  Renaissance paintings. Koalas thriving on normally poisonous eucalyptus leaves. Madame Curie’s notebooks, still too radioactive to handle.

Getting it right. One key reason to do research is to avoid embarrassing yourself. When I was in grade school, I wrote a story where, instead of the last out in an inning, the clock ran out in a baseball game. Oops. When I wrote a story taking place in Singapore (this, before the Web) I collected maps, pictures and travel guides so the sense of place would come through. (I have since visited Singapore, and the scenes still feel accurate to me.) So getting it right is essential for authenticity.

Immersion. I took that research a step further and had a friend send me the local newspapers. This helped me get a feel for the culture, especially the perspectives of inhabitants. That sort of virtual tourism is easier to do nowadays. I often will read highly specific articles, flash through pictures, and watch videos to get the right feel for something in a story. (I’ll even seek out newspaper content, including the ads. Reading personal columns in foreign newspapers is a treat.) The only caveat here is not to get sucked in. I usually set a timer when I do this kind of research.

Not so fun facts. Obviously, it’s a mistake to show off by including everything learned in research. Most people get past what I call “book reporting” early in their writing careers, but there is one common slip, even among professionals. It’s easy to get sucked in by stuff that’s geeky but irrelevant. I’ve read pages (often fascinating) that took me through details of jewelry making or harvesting in the Middle Ages or the important use of car horns in New Delhi traffic. It’s great to dig into obscure areas and it’s fine write about such things in early drafts. But, ultimately, it’s best if such deep dives are used  in service of the story. It may hurt to cut these, but, when the narrative thread is interrupted, you risk losing your readers.

Premise. Sometimes, whole books can be built upon research. I explored the life of a female scientists erased from history and used that as a basis for a novel. H.G. Wells used single concepts — what if you could build a time machine? What if a person became invisible? Exploring fresh ideas can be entertaining, especially if people are pushed to change. (Ray Bradbury said the best science fiction movie ever made was Singin’ in the Rain. The premise? Sound added to movies, and how that changes everyone working in the business. That had already happened, of course, but the treatment exploited the best SF methods.)

Much of what writers do is deliberate research, with an emphasis on fact-finding. I do this, of course, but I also will give it a turn when I already have story characters in mind. I consciously try to see my findings through the eyes of specific characters. I look for emotional responses and what the ideas and concepts uncovered mean to them. (This may be a holdover from research I’ve done on speeches, w where everything explored is in terms of the individual speakers and the audiences that will be addressed.) I think that looking a research through these different perspectives makes it fresher and raises out-of-the-box questions. If yours is the only perspective in research, that can become very limiting.

And I’ll put in a word for curiosity-driven research, too. It has two obvious advantages. First, it will take you to unexpected places (and surprises are pure gold for storytelling). Second, your curiosity always connects you with things that already interest you. With luck, those interests will grow into passions you can share with readers. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Critiquing Without Bloodshed

People look for feedback, but most want compliments. Loved the characters! So imaginative. The twists and the turns kept me reading!

Uh huh. I actually do believe that positive responses are essential. There have been too many times when I’ve seen people kill the best parts of their stories because no one had TOLD them what the best parts were. Positive feedback is valuable, as long as it’s not distracting.

Equally valuable is thoughtful analysis and, yes, pointers to what doesn’t work or might be better. I recommend asking critics to tell you if they got hooked by the beginning, tell you if attention drifted at any point, tell you if anything was unclear or had to be read twice, and tell you if the ending is satisfying (which doesn’t necessarily mean happy, but it could). And, for a given genre, are the expected elements (e.g., meet cute in romances) all there.

It is a great practice when you ask for criticism if you note any specific questions you have beyond the above. You can even ask for advice to help solve a story problem (rarely, you might get a good suggestion).

When you get a crit, always say thank you with as much sincerity you can muster. Someone just read your work thoughtfully (in most cases). They deserve that. And you may need to come to them again. So thank them even if everything they said was useless and/or mean. Even if it’s stupid.

As an exercise, I chose to write thank you notes to dozens of contest judges. I had to write not just “thanks,” but something substantive about the value I received. This forced me to let many of the critiques sit until I cooled off. And I then had to look for value in each one — even the stupid ones. What happened was I discovered more value than I had imagined. Not every crit deserved this, but more did than I guessed. By being appreciative, I gave myself an important gift.

Let’s turn this around because if you get feedback, you probably need to give it. Here are the steps I use.

    1.    Read thoughtfully. Take the time and respect the material. Take care if you are NOT the intended audience.
    2.    Don’t critique when you are angry or feeling ungenerous. No one wrote the work and presented it to you as a cruel joke. Most people are giving you the best they can, and they are trusting you. Even when they may be wading into deep water.
    3.    Critique with their best interests in mind. Your job is to provide the most valuable feedback you can.
    4.    Find something positive to say almost immediately, if possible. You will need to include something that appreciates the work, and the earlier you identify that element, the easier it will be to frame the review in a generous manner.
    5.    Answer their questions, carefully. If they have asked for specific feedback, provide it in a way it can be heard and acted upon. You can be honest AND tactful.
    6.    Limit what you say. I rarely make more than three important points. Few people can absorb every criticism that comes to mind. Be selective. Nits are okay, but, unless you are proofing the work, don’t cite every instance where dependent clauses lack commas or lie/lay is misused.
    7.    Be sure about your “facts.” When you correct, make sure you’re right. Even if you know you are.
    8.    Your experiences aren’t universal. If a character reacts in a way you wouldn’t (or didn’t in real life), it might still be valid.
    9.    Be careful about using examples. They can become overwhelming. Try to restrict them to what will clarify.
    10.    Note where you lose attention or get confused. These observations are golden for writers.
    11.    Let it be their story. It’s great news that what you read has you so excited you could take the ideas and run with them. But respect the writer’s right to tell the story he or she intends to tell.

The great thing about being critiqued is it’s mostly about you. You, and only you, have the power to decide a criticism is valid or should be rejected.

The great thing about critiquing is you don’t have to make the changes. You DO have to protect your relationship with the writer by acting respectfully and providing your feedback in a caring way. You never know how fragile their ego is. Don’t find out the hard way.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Finish with Enthusiasm

Hello, all
Since this article just went up a few days ago (associated with my Savvy Authors class), I'll just point you toward it for this week's post. I hope you enjoy it.


Want more? I just sent out issue five of my newsletter, Productive Writing. Want to subscribe? Just send a note to
Put Subscribe in the subject line.  I'll add you to the mailing list. And if you want any of the published issues, just let me know. I'm happy to send you copies.

Issue 5: Good (and Bad) Examples
Issue 4: At Home with Your Story
Issue 3: Out of Your Comfort Zone
Issue 2: Speed Date Your Character
Issue 1: Plotting Help

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Upcoming Online Classes

Please excuse the interruption in content. Since I have several courses coming up soon, I thought I'd list them all in one post.


How to Write Fast (Savvy Authors)
Crank up the efficiency and get that novel, short story, article or script DONE.
Through exercises, evaluations, tips and technologies, you can learn to write faster. Discover how to break through blocks, get ideas, develop plots, draft and polish in less time without losing quality. 


Writing Flash Fiction (Southern Tier Authors of Romance)

Don’t have time to write a novel? Well, fewer people have time to read one. That’s why flash fiction is hot, with over 300 paying markets looking for well-formed stories of 1000 words or less. Learn how to write, market and sell these tiny tales.



Write Who You Are (Yosemite Romance Writers)
The most valuable thing you have to offer as a writer is yourself —your knowledge, insights, perspectives, and experiences. By mining what you alone have to offer, you’ll fulfill your potential and connect deeply with your readers.

In this course, students will learn out to:
  • identify and assess what they uniquely have to offer readers,
  • put a focus on the issues that matter most to them and conveying the emotional truths that make these matter to others,
  • select projects that fit their voices, skills, and interests so they can connect more effectively with readers.


Lost in the Story-A Workshop on Reader Immersion (Northeast Ohio Chapter of Romance Writers of America)

We all know what it’s like when we enter a story so thoroughly we forget the world around us. Getting readers totally engaged is a huge part of success for fiction writers. In this class, you’ll work with the instructor to master the four essential elements of story immersion: creating a good foundation (meaning avoiding mistakes that can distract), sensory details (in the right measure), emotion (especially concern for the protagonist), and verisimilitude. As you continue, you’ll learn to architect your story with hooks, surprises, turns, pacing, and a satisfying ending.
The class will conclude with voice, style, and ways to charm the reader.


Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Recognizing and Crafting Small Story Moments That Matter

Most storytellers know about the big moments are are expected by readers. The climax. The black moment. The inciting incident. And, if you write in a genre, you know about common tropes and how, say, a romance writer looks forward to the “meet cute” and the “first kiss” (or its equivalent).

For those who plot, these moments are mapped out early on. And that makes perfect sense. Why write a story where you’ll grasp for a big moment and come up short? (Unless, of course, you are a daredevil pantser.) Articles, chapters, and whole books may be dedicated to taking on big moments, but smaller moments are often what sticks in a reader’s memory. So, with this post, I’ll review a few worth keeping in mind.

The Crack - What happens when a noble character makes a compromise? Apparently for the greater good, but really for a selfish reason? A high school student neglects a lifelong friend when there’s a spot open in the popular crowd. A banker makes an unsupported loan to someone who may be able to provide a personal favor later on. A boss hires the cuter, less qualified person for the job.

The character may have a great rationalization, but this moment sets up a shift in values that won’t end well. A careful reader notices such a moment and becomes intrigued — as long as the writer gives this small moment the same attention as a big one.

The Soft Heart - I love it when villains have moments of empathy. They step away from cardboard outlines, become more real, and grab my psyche with an unanswered “what if?”

The Revelation - “[Luke,] I am your father.” That one can’t be missed. (Just misquoted.) But lots of seemingly smaller revelations can become memorable. In Gone With the Wind, the conversation between Scarlett and her father is indelible for me. “That’s it. We must ask Mrs. O’Hara.” At that point, she knows he’s gone mad and will be no help to her.

Feet of Clay - Atticus Finch, unsullied hero, right? But if he were perfect, To Kill a Mockingbird would not have a story. He does not take proper care of his children, and this is clear when he goes to tell the bad news to Tom’s widow. He brings his son Jem along, and the boy is terrified by a drunk, homicidal Mr. Ewell. Maybe Atticus isn’t the perfect single parent. Maybe that’s why both his kids are put in mortal danger later on.

These are just a few small moments the best writers use to deepen stories and make them unforgettable. You can find your own by listings stories you love and thinking about the scenes that have become important to you — as reference points for your life, as ones you look forward to re-experiencing, or as ones you tell others about (often word-for-word). It’s worthwhile looking to see why they are vivid. How stakes rise in those scenes. How the actions and decisions and shifts in perspective bring characters to life.

With close inspection, you can appreciate them more and discover new ways to make your own work more memorable.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Dilemmas Drive Stories - The power of tough choices

In the Old Testament, God demands that Abraham sacrifice his son. That’s a heck of a dilemma. Abandon a god with whom you have a loving relationship or murder your son. Personally, intolerable. But story gold.

Writers have been using dilemmas since the very beginning. In general, it’s about having to choose between to horrible, irreversible alternatives. Sophie’s Choice includes a powerful example. She must decide who will live, her son or her daughter.

Extreme choices reveal character, both in terms of how the choice is arrived at and in terms of the aftermath, how the person deals with its consequences — especially psychologically.

Abraham chooses God, confirming his faith. He is stopped from sacrificing his son and, through his son, becomes the patriarch of a great nation. Sophie sees her daughter taken away to her death and is traumatized. She becomes an alcoholic and kills herself.

As a writer, giving characters dilemmas forces dramatic story choices because it evokes emotions — in you and your readers.Explorations that would otherwise become impossible become necessary. (That is, unless you fudge it by some device like time travel. That trope is called upon in Harry Potter and isn’t a complete failure because the mechanism is foreshadowed effectively. In Superman, where the hero gets both choices by making the world spin backward, all the drama and joy of the movie is sucked away.)

To create a dilemma, it is essential to know who the character is and what he or she values deeply. (The biggest writing failure is making the dilemma too trivial. Some writers have a difficult time making things tough for their characters.)

The dilemma should be between two bad options, not two good. I had a friend who had to choose between attending Johns Hopkins Medical School and the University of Pennsylvania’s med school. It caused her some stress, but was not the stuff of great drama.

While the main character may lack some knowledge, it’s best if the choice is not driven by the character being TSTL (too stupid to live).

The choice must be clear. There can’t be a third option or a compromise choice. It might be necessary to consult with other people to identify and close down creative opportunities.

The choice must be irreversible. This may take some thought. Many times, I’ve worked with writers who thought choices could not be reversed. But readers are very good as sniffing out ways they can be. A dilemma must put the character into a new world and make the old world inaccessible. Ideally, that new world will come with some surprises. Unintended consequences are a good thing in stories.

When the character makes the choice, it must be “in character.” While before the choice is made the readers must doubt which way the character will go, afterward it’s best to see the choice made as being inevitable. (This is very difficult to pull off, and works best if plants that point to the decision, such as an earlier decision, come earlier in the story. Another good way to make it work is by buttressing the decision after the fact. For instance, a friend saying something like “I knew you’d make the right choice” can make it easier for the reader to believe the decision.)

Ideally, the choice should do more than change the fortunes of the character. It should be tied to his or her flaws and change them as people, too.

Sometimes a dilemma only emerges after a series of small choices lead the character into a corner. Think of stories where a less than alert or willing to compromise character takes the bait and ends up beholden to a villain.

There are what I call dilemma plus stories. In most cases, these include a choice that seems awful, but has a logical bonus that makes a happy ending possible. But it is also possible to make things go very bad.

What is a dilemma for a character may not be a dilemma for readers. Irony may be in play, either because the reader has superior knowledge or, more interesting, because the reader’s values clash with those of the character.

The potential for dilemmas in a story may not be obvious. It's worth looking more closely at the important choices your characters make to see if they can be constrained in ways that force dilemmas. This takes some courage because, ultimately, it will take you, as a writer, into uncomfortable territory. But it will pay off in terms of reader engagement and deeper insights.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Character Virtues Become Vices - Extremes, contexts, and differing values

When I was in my 20s, someone accused me of being so broad-minded that I was flat headed. I was reminded of this as I attended a workshop with Donald Maass, based on his book, The Emotional Craft of Fiction. He went through a series of positive traits that, when taken too far, became questionable. One that struck me in particular was a protagonist who would go from being helpful to interfering with others recklessly.

These progressions seemed natural to me, and perhaps provide alternative solutions to advice I've given about giving main characters important flaws. So I decided to explore it further.

    •    What happens when a confident protagonist becomes egotistical or narcissistic?
    •    What about a carrying character who becomes indulgent or spoils someone he or she loves?
    •    When does a trusting person become so naïve it threatens the welfare of those around him or her?

I was reminded of a man who spoke at my church about tithing. He had made this a priority for himself and his family, to the point where, despite he and his wife having jobs, the family often became dependent upon social services. His generosity had, to my mind, gone so far he put his children at risk. It's an interesting thing to think about of virtue that would be admired in a monk becoming a threat to offspring.

I know many people whose humility made them self-effacing to the point where they did not fully share their gifts and talents with society. Perhaps this is another case where what is good for the individual can get so big that society loses.

    •    Can a protector become a bully?
    •    At what point does a courageous person become foolhardy?
    •    What stops a man with an iron will from treating others with disdain?

Can someone absorb with curiosity damage others in seeking answers? Certainly there were people who worked on the atomic bomb who concluded their session with knowing had led to a turn in history that put humanity in jeopardy.

I've been fascinated for a long time – and not in a good way – by the idea that a true friend will take your call in the middle of the night and go out to bury a body, no questions asked. To me, this is loyalty taken to extremes. To others, the value of friendship trumps other values. The concept of omertà – the Mafia code of honor – does not allow for ratting on a family member, no matter what crimes have been committed. My values differ.

An empathetic person can become a busybody. A funny person can become bitingly satirical and verbally abusive. A respectful person can become a toady.

Some virtues can, when amplified or twisted, can become bad in any context. Some reflect differences in values as they are transformed (corrosive to individual morality or relationships or society or humanity or future generations). Some people become possessed by their virtues and go out of control, acting without thought, deliberation, judgment, or prudence.

Is the road to hell really paved with good intentions? For writers, virtues and good intentions can be pushed to create stories when sharper conflicts and more interesting character arcs.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Working With Your Story Ideas - Connect, nurture, shape, and grow

Developing ideas is a natural step after discovery and collection (the topics of last week's post). I previewed this a bit when I mentioned "maybe withs." It's time to dig into this a little more beginning with making a fuzzy distinction between random ideas and those that seem to along with identified projects. Why a fuzzy distinction? Because, while your brain is noticing and selecting facts, insights, images, relationships, and other story fodder, its initial classifications should always be suspect. While an idea might seem to, at first blush, fit with other ideas or be matched to specific projects as it’s collected, your muse may have something — much better – in mind. This is why I recommended adding question marks as he took notes.

When your idea already has a home and you want to work with it, the easiest of idea development is fitting it into what you already have going among your story notes (e.g., efforts on your Work In Progress). But, while it's tempting to put the ideas to work immediately, many ideas will be improved if you take them to extremes. For descriptions, this may mean making them more eccentric and specific. For something that a hero or heroine might put at risk, raise the stakes if you can. Make obstacles you identify more tortuous and major protagonists less capable of meeting them (or raising the price for doing so).

You can also consider applying ideas in places they "don't belong." Be mischievous with mismatches. It's common, for instance, to adapt a great line by a villain so that it can be used by the hero or heroine. You can make a different character face and obstacle or have a surprising characteristic. For one of my stories, I took a talent that interested me and first gave it to a woman, then a middle-aged man, and finally to an adolescent boy. It only became fully alive with the last choice.

What about the fresh ideas? For these, I like to ask questions. Obviously, I look for extremes and for other ideas with which they might be matched. But I also ask how they might fit in with the zeitgeist (and sometimes that means looking at the Google Trends listings). I see if there is something within the idea that suggests conflict, especially a moral conflict. If it naturally creates a true dilemma – where both choices lead to horrible consequences – I know I really have something.

I play with ideas in different geographic settings, in different eras, and in different subcultures (such as military). I explore the possibility of using the idea in different genres. I especially work to discover the unexpected. Sometimes this means brainstorming. I love to create lists of 20 possibilities off of an idea and see which ones are the most surprising.

Two things I've added to idea development in recent years have been especially fruitful. One was to bounce ideas off of things I'm obsessed with. By definition, anything that connects in such a deep way that it causes a compulsive dedication of time and resources is an obsession. Knowing what these are (for me) makes it easier for me to put more work into using an idea, once it's attached to one of my obsessions.

The other thing I've added is examination against themes that recur in my work. I have plenty of stories completed at this point in my career, not to mind for values, situations, and questions that are important to me. As with obsessions (but at a grander scale) storytelling themes naturally drive effective and sometimes inspired use of ideas that have been discovered and collected. If you haven't written on the stories to identify themes that matter to you from your work, lists 10 or 20 of your absolute favorite stories and see if you can identify their themes… And if there are themes that show up often.

These are some hints on how to develop ideas. It's in no way exhaustive. I fill pages with questions to ask and ways to push around and connect captured ideas. I've also written blog posts (Writers, Try This at Home 8 - Developing your story ideas and A Closer Look at Your Story's Topic 2 -- The story essay shortcut) that fit into this general area that you might find useful. But analysis, pattern matching, questions, and systems will never quite do everything in terms of idea development. For one thing, the choices you make along the way will have to do with your intuition and instincts. And, there may be a little bit of magic that shows up from time to time, if you let it.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Ideas for Writing - Jot this down

Ideas are the lifeblood of writing — both for fiction and nonfiction. A systematic approach toward discovering, managing, and developing  ideas can make a big difference in productivity. Here are some things to consider:

Curiosity - Many people become writers because they want to know everything. By actively developing curiosity — both broad (lots of areas) and deep (digging into the details) -- a writer creates more opportunities for insights and connections.

A prepared mind - Writers need to continue to learn. This means studying the craft and reading, of course, but it also means taking courses and researching a variety of areas, including those that are not for the current work in progress. A future work in progress is likely to come from an interest in mastering a new skill, traveling, or immersion in new experiences. In my opinion, actively seeking out topics that are outside your comfort zone can be especially valuable.

Openness - None of us is immune to filtering information. We choose, judge, and categorize what comes to us. As Harry Nilsson said, “You see what you want to see, and you hear what you want to hear.” Paying attention. Listening. Suspending attempts to interpret and create a narrative. These open you (and your stories) up to new possibilities. Give yourself the chance to be surprised.

Okay, now unexpected perceptions and facts, insights, answers, and connections begin to make themselves available. How do you respond?

Cast a wide net - Be willing to collect what’s useless. Grab anything that your intuition says is worth another look. Utility and relevance are valuable criteria, but they aren’t the only criteria for collection. Create new criteria. Include questions.

Actively search - Take time to brainstorm, to create lists of possibilities that go beyond the obvious, and to chat with people (including people outside your circle) about what you’ve discovered, the questions you have, and what you wonder about.

If all of this has become part of your routine, you’ll have a steady flow of ideas. Through much of my life, I jotted these down in journals or on stray bits of paper. For instance, lots of random notions are jotted in the margins of my college notebooks.

Much of what I noted down is now inaccessible to me, either because it is stored away or written in an incomplete way. 

It takes a lot of discipline even to collect notes for writing. Keeping them ordered is another level of seriousness (or maybe OCD). But capturing ideas in an organized way has a big payoff in terms of richness of opportunities and time saved. I've used computer notes and digital audio memos. The best solution for me is carrying around a tiny notebook of Postits.

From the time an idea is collected, it goes into a specific category. Here are some I've used:
  • Titles (This is the only category that does not require full sentences.)
  • Incomplete story concepts
  • Complete story concepts
  • Good references (always includes notes on value to me)
  • Setting descriptions (Great when I'm stuck in a place that might be used in a story)
  • Notes for stories in progress or in development (always labeled with story titles)
  • Character physical descriptions
  • Character insights
  • Character motivations
  • Character tortures
  • Story obstacles
  • Story stakes
  • Loglines
  • Fun facts to know and tell your friends
  • Physical reactions (especially to emotional experiences)
  • Descriptions of action/movement
  • Experiences that provoke
This isn't a comprehensive list, but I’ve found it to be a useful set of buckets for me. Not much falls into “miscellaneous.” And, yes, some things go into more than one category or get moved later on.

Either weekly or when I know I have a good number, I copy or just put these Postits into notebooks in under the appropriate categories. It's mindless, so I can do it while listening to an audiobook or watching television.

By the way, discovery and management can be different in cases of collaboration. A well-run brainstorming session with the right people can be productive and a lot of fun. And when I was on an innovation team, my ideas went directly onto a white board. More often than not, people on my team added their own questions, comments, and connections over time. It was like having elves at work as I slept.

The focus in this post is on managing the ideas as they’re discovered, but I’m happy to blur the task when idea development opportunities come up as I work. There are the “maybe withs” that come when my intuition says ideas might belong together. Sometimes, the reason why the idea caught my attention or its potential utility will occur to me, and I’ll write that down alongside the idea. Or there may be a suggestion that a fact or notion belongs with a specific story. I’ll include that, too.

I work to keep all of these development bits tentative. As a reminder of this, they are always followed by question marks. This keeps my options open, and it is not unusual for development bits to be put aside or radically changed (for the better) later on.

Someday, I promise myself, I'll mine the many notebooks and tiny slips of paper that have ideas written down. Someday. But, for now, I'm not adding to the chaos.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

A Short (Non-Scientific) Quiz on Your Writing Craft — Find your strengths

Different writers have different strengths. Does that seem strange? I'm not sure why it should be, but I continue to run across people who only separate writers into "ones I like" or "ones I don't like." Often this translates into who they consider to be good writers or bad writers.

This is fine for people who don't write themselves, but it lacks specificity, and that's problematic for those who hope to create and sell works -- especially fiction. Happily, most writers learn to critique along the way, and that leads them to a better appreciation of the strengths of the writers they read. Curiously, it doesn't seem to lead to close examination of their own strengths.

About a year ago, I created a productivity quiz. People seemed to like that, so how about a strength quiz? You aren't stuck with one answer for each. Choose all you feel (mostly) apply.

As a storyteller, I:

A. Hook readers into stories with us and downs and satisfying endings.

B. Create logical stories that make their points.

C. Get down impressions that people find engaging.

D. Tell stories clearly enough so that people don't get confused.

E. Throw things together and hope.

In creating characters, I:

A. Introduce seemingly real people who go through distinct, emotional, and transformative experiences that readers can't forget.

B. Freshen and individualize archetypes that engage readers and encourage them to come along on their journeys.

C. Present goal-oriented protagonists who face obstacles take on risks.

D. Assemble a cast required to act out the story I've chosen.

E. Grab a copy familiar characters from stories I know.

My descriptions:

A. Immerse readers and engage their senses so they feel as if the stories are happening to them.

B. Make sure readers have a sense of time and place, can visualize action, and are clear about important aspects of the setting that will impact the story.

C. Include enough cues to the physical dimensions (place, character appearances, tasks) so they are oriented effectively.

D. Provide enough description to keep readers from getting lost.

E. Describe a lot or a little depending upon what comes out as I compose the story.

My plots:

A. Are fresh, full of surprises, logically sound, and deliver both emotional impact and insights.

B. May get crazy and cheat a little, but they are always entertaining.

C. Have plenty happening and don't confuse readers.

D. May include digressions and omit potentially effective scenes, but always come across to careful readers.

E. Include what I believe readers need to understand, along with my favorite scenes.

My writing style encourages readers to:

A.  Read aloud and reread my work just for the joy of the language.

B. Engage so thoroughly they forget they are reading.

C. Read quickly to get to the good parts, skipping portions as appropriate.

D. Work past difficult passages so they can get to the end.

E. Ask someone else to read it for them and provide a summary.

Okay, that gets things started. I could easily add choices here that would reveal strengths and developing high concepts or mastery of genre tropes or humor or dozens of other skills and talents that attract readers to their favorite authors.

I hope you have lots of "As" and "Bs," but don't fret if you don't.

Here's the point: you can look through these areas of writing (and add your own) to get a better understanding of where your strengths are. Weaknesses, too, but don't let those dominate your thinking. Though it might be tempting to devote yourself to shoring up your weaknesses, knowing your strengths gives you targets for education and practice at what you do best.

Since readers come to writers for their strengths and usually excuse all but their most glaring weaknesses, it might be a good idea to spend at least half your efforts at improving your craft in the areas where you are most strong. These are opportunities to become so good, you'll stand out as a writer.

"Going with your strengths" has been a successful strategy for athletes, but I rarely hear it recommended for writers. So, while you may want to put some work in wherever your answers were "E," don't neglect those for which your answers were "A" or "B." You may find that slight improvements where you're strongest will get your work noticed.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Three Protagonists I Love and Worry About - The flaws will set you free

It is amazingly tough for writers to give heroes and heroines really big flaws because they love them and identify with them. (There are similar problems with creating real obstacles, genuine losses, and real pain.)

The argument that there is no big character arc if the protagonist only has peccadilloes and that villains can’t be as interesting unless the main character has a big sin to exploit is not heard by many writers I work with. In an earlier post, I recommended giving heroes and heroines a deadly sin, one of the classic ones (Greed, Wrath, Lust, Sloth, Envy, Gluttony, and Pride).

But with many writers, a trait like shyness becomes the “sin.” Usually, the response is usually along the lines of “my hero cares too much” or “my hero is too giving.” Fidelity, honor, respect, and so on are brought out as the major flaws. Hmm.

I hope this is clear:

Virtues are not vices, no matter how they get twisted.

They may need management and balance, but they are essentially good. With some exceptions (like revenge tales), few readers wants to see a hero or heroine jettison kindness or courage or loyalty or generosity or empathy or gentleness or self-sacrifice.

A good test is whether, in any context, the behavior caused by the flaw would be problematic. If not, maybe it’s not a useful flaw, storywise.

Let’s look at three flawed protagonists, beginning with the villains.

Singing’ in the Rain

Villain Lina Lamont wants Don Lockwood and to stay on top at the studio. Ultimately, by grabbing Kathy Seldon’s voice, she rescues her career and has a contract written so she can take the studio away if she’s crossed.

The hero, Don Lockwood, is prideful. He lies about his past. He holds onto the matinee image he hates because it is tied to success. He offers up Kathy’s voice as a way to save his career.
Until the end, he is willing to humiliate and sacrifice Kathy to spare himself failure.


Villain Jaws is a big shark, malevolent, eats people. The shark’s ally is the Mayor who keeps people in the water despite the dangers.

Hero Chief Brody faces problems like a terror of water and ignorance of the community and the environment, but — until the mother of a lost child slaps him in the face — he doesn’t own the responsibilities of his job. While the stink of cowardice about him is intense, I’d tag him as someone who is Slothful. (As I recall, in the book, he is a cuckold who just takes it.) He doesn’t see himself as someone who can take charge of dealing with the shark, either indirectly or directly. The Mayor seems to know this, and gives him “outs” to avoid taking charge and to back away from his decisions.

Working Girl

The villain, Katherine, has everything. Looks, education, and power. She wants to keep all of these, and is willing to connive and lie at the end.

Before she figures out what’s going on, this story's villains are people who are supposed to be the heroine's friends — Cyn and Mick. They know about all her bad choices (usually going along to get along) and use them to great effect to keep her in her place.

The main character, Tess, lies, steals (identity and possessions), and uses her sexuality to get ahead. Sloth (in the beginning, not standing up to others), Greed, and Dishonesty are essential parts of her behavior. The dishonesty is probably the worst of these, and that is what she gets entangled in at the end. Truth, truth, and more truth are what turns the ending for her.

I like all these protagonists, but they are all seriously flawed. I like them anyway. It is normal to like flawed protagonists. Heroes and heroines don’t need to be perfect.

More importantly, their flaws make me worry about them, and they give them plenty of room to grow and to sacrifice or act with courage in the end. I cheer when they finally find what they need to be all they can be by the end of the story. All of the stories above are big and memorable… and they all include serious growth for the main characters.

If you want to explore this further, analyze a favorite movie where you see a big character arc. Dare to name the flaws of your beloved protagonists. It will set you free to give the main characters of your own stories big flaws.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Elevating the story experience - Creating moments that matter

We read stories for experiences. Some pieces of fiction deliver through an accumulation of images and dramatic action. But, occasionally, there are moments that connect with us. Hallmark used to do (and maybe still does) advertising that touched heartstrings by creating what seemed to be authentic moments in very brief commercials.

These could prompt genuine memories, similar experiences, and, when done most effectively, deep empathy for what we all, as humans, goes through. I actively work to achieve this in my writing – often in nonfiction as well as fiction. So, first let me define what I call a "moment." Then I'll discuss some ways such moments might be created. Finally, I'll talk about some things to consider when using moments in your work.

Moment — a brief, authentic, crystallized experience conveyed to others in a work of art.

A moment may occur in other than prose works. In fact, I was inspired to write this piece after having read a poem by a friend that brought back an experience I had in a museum. And I strongly suspect that the van Gogh featured was a moment captured and shared by the artist — one which touched both me and my poet friend. Music often conveys moments in its own way (and I think it can do so by prompting memories, even when the intention of the composer and the work's artistry is questionable). Photographs, scenes in movies, and an expressive sequence in dance — any of these can create moments for us.

By authentic, I don't mean factual. Art often tells the truth by re-composing, recontextualizing, adding to, or taking away from real experiences. Oh, and sometimes artists just make things up.

So, as a storyteller, how do you create moments?

Memories – There's a lot of power to drawing on your own experiences, the ones that really matter to you. The ones that provided insights and shaped you or that are connected to turning points, changing the direction of your life. These memories, I suspect, are just below the surface for much of our lives. One of the great things about being a writer is having a great reason to note them when they pop to the surface.

One caution about using memories is the challenge of taking a fresh experience and turning it into art. When the memories haven't had a chance to age, it's difficult to tell which elements matter and can be communicated to others.

Listening — As characters become more fully alive, they are more likely to transform scenes into moments. For me, this happens when I let the story deviate from the outline. When a character does something unexpected, it seems like it's often a challenge I don't want him or her to face (or that I don't want to face). I get pulled into the moment, but only if I allow that to happen. I have to cede some control, and I always have reasons not to.

Listening to characters comes up more easily and naturally for me during rewriting. This might be a jump away from the established plot, but it's more likely to be experiencing a deeper connection with a scene that is too sparse. When I come across a scene that is important and I don't feel fully immersed in it, that's an indicator. I need to slow down. I need to let the character live in that moment — which often creates a fiction moment that is organic and highly effective.

Art — Just as my friend created a poetic moment from van Gogh's painting, stories can be enhanced by referring to the works of others. This doesn't have to be so explicit it mentions the work you experienced. In fact, usually, capturing the response itself within a different context works best. Think of how sense memory works in acting. The point there is not to bring your memories to the audience, but to bring your authentic response to the experience of playwright's work evokes.

One way I actively work to improve scenes is to look for inspiration in the works of other writers. I have a catalog in my head of emotional moments in short stories and novels. When I want to create a similar moments in my stories, I read and analyze one of these reference scenes. I don't reproduce them directly. I worked to understand what the writer did. (Often, I'll look at three or four references when creating a moment that is important or difficult.) Once I see what the possibilities are, I can use my own approaches more effectively.

The main warning I have on creating moments is to make sure they serve the story. It's tempting to put in a moment that is powerful, but belongs in a different story. It's easy to give the character a moment that isn't right for him or for her. And there are moments that can disrupt the balance and the flow of the story. It's extremely difficult to cut a well realized moment, but if it doesn't fit, it needs to go.

Creating the right moments for your story may not be easy or feel natural. For me, it often requires a deliberate effort. And things don't always work out, even after I've invested time and imagination. Still, I resist the temptation to abandon my attempts to include moments in my stories. Why? Much of the delight I take from reading stories comes from the moments other writers have included. If they can take the trouble to do that, so can I.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Set Your Stories Apart with Stark Differences - An argument for more positive moments

Contrast. It’s one of the great tools for writers and other artists. It’s one reason heroes have flaws and villains have virtues. It helps a monster stands out starkly in a placid suburban setting.

Following a long tradition of comedy teams, Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie couldn’t be more different, which is why the are fascinating to watch. A generous act by a character who has been selfish can be poignant… or unsettling. A billionaire who hits the lottery isn’t much of a story. Make the winner a single mom who has trouble getting food on the table, and everything that follows is interesting.

Dystopias, horror stories, and disaster epics often lack contrast, and I think it weakens them. I am not a fan of Night of the Living Dead and its ilk. Not because they're gruesome (Tarantino outdoes Romero for blood), but because they are unrelenting.

This came home to me as I starting digging into contemporary horror. Though I have favorites like Alien, it’s not my genre to watch or to write. That’s why I’ve purposely been immersing myself in it, to get out of my comfort zone.

It is bleak. And, so often, there are few contrasts. This, to me, dulls even the sharpens images. Reading through script after script, it occurred to me that this lack goes beyond horror into other genres. It’s almost as if writers and directors are reluctant to include positive moments or characters who haven’t had the virtues drained out of them.

Going in the other direction is just as bad. Sappy, unrealistic stories that would gag anyone with two brain cells to rub together were in vogue when I was little, and I soon joined the revolt against these manipulative stories that left me unmoved.

Note: Frank Capra took the brunt of the rejection of happy stories, with his work referred to by critics and later generations as “Capracorn.” Pottersville in It’s a Wonderful Life is a nightmare. George Bailey is a flawed, reluctant hero who intends to commit suicide. For all its patriotism, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington ends well because a man blows his brains out. Sappy? Nope.

It’s Capra’s second-rate, would-be imitators that created the culture of happy stories of TV and movies made my teeth hurt. They were as unrelenting and lacking in contrast as many of today’s stories. The falseness of a greeting card world is not what I’ve advocating.

I do believe that it is both daring and powerful artistically to create contrasts by included basically good people in stories. Having successes for characters along the way. Including beauty. And, while I’m a sucker for dark humor, there is a place for heartfelt humor, too. And getting sentimental now and then? That’s okay, too.

Have the courage to bring the full palette of human situations to your work, and you can create more complexity and contrasts that will make your stories memorable.

Upcoming courses…

How To Write Fast  February 1 – February 28, 2018
Crank up the efficiency and get that novel, short story, article or script DONE. Through exercises, evaluations, tips and technologies, you can learn to write faster. Discover how to break through blocks, get ideas, develop plots, draft, and polish in less time without losing quality.

STORY BOOTCAMP  February 5 – March 2, 2018
Start fast! Keep it humming. End with authority. Polish, correct, and tighten the prose. Learn how to rewrite your story, whether fiction or nonfiction, so it entices, captivates, and delights readers. This course will explore the dimensions of your story and push them to the limits so you get the most from your premise and your readers get compelling experiences. No slackers! This is a highly interactive class that depends on commitment and participation.

Next week, I’ll send out issue four of my newsletter, Productive Writing. Want to subscribe? Just send a note to howtowritefast@gmail.com with Subscribe in the subject line.  I'll add you to the mailing list. And if you want any of the published issues, just let me know. I'm happy to send you copies.

Issue 4: Idea Discovery (Tasks 1)
Issue 3: Out of Your Comfort Zone
Issue 2: Speed Date Your Character
Issue 1: Plotting Help

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Writers, Try This at Home 15 – The power of selection

In my high school chemistry class, one of the first exercises was to write down our observations of a lit Bunsen burner. Most people's lists were small, as I recall. They concentrated on the colors in the flame and the shape of the flame itself. I filled more than a page with everything I took in — the smell, the sound, and even the distortion of visuals beyond the flame caused by what I came to know was the schlieren effect. All this was fine as far as being scientific, but the best literary descriptions are limited. By making the right choices, images can be conveyed that are vivid and convey emotion and mood without being exhaustive.

This is not to say that it's always important to be succinct. In moments of tension, stress, and high emotion, our real experiences tend to include more details. Time seems to slow down. And it's perfectly valid – indeed desirable – to emulate this in writing some of the more important and engrossing scenes in stories. Also, if you are writing something that is closer to poetry (Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes is a great example), more complete descriptions can build and sustain experiences that are both more subtle and multidimensional.

In general, however, a writer who leans toward including everything will wear out his or her readers and drive them away. Not only does it lead to unbalanced storytelling, but it makes it more difficult for most readers to participate in creating fictional worlds. Usually, a better choice is to select a few evocative elements to include, possibly supplemented with an apt metaphor.

How do you make the selections? Primarily, you look toward who your audience is. You don't want to choose elements that are presented with words that force them to open up their dictionaries and care must be taken with going into territories that are unfamiliar.

By the way, it's fine to have descriptions that are good enough for you in early drafts. These can be setups for revisions, providing enough information to narrow the choices, establish the right mood, and fashion strong prose later on. (This deals with all descriptions – of locales, objects, characters, actions, and what goes on inside your characters' heads.)

So, when you are drafting your story don't feel compelled to make your selections immediately. Feel free to include as much as comes to mind without editing yourself. While your muse may help you to find elements that delight you and may end up in the final draft (and even presents you with good metaphors) don't expect it to. Just get the words down.

During revision, focus sharply on your audience and on the larger context for the description. This is particularly important if you are presenting material that must be remembered, such as clues.

Then, you might want to follow three principles:
  • Fix anything that doesn't feel fresh. One thing that usually happens during drafting is clichés and "so what" elements come to mind quickly. Challenge these. Make the effort to think about other ways to convey what you want in your description so it can have the maximum impact.
  • Trust your gut. For those elements that matter most, your tastes and sense of what is most important is likely to provide the best guidance on what you should select.
  • Ruthlessly cut. Especially if you but down a lot of description, it may be tempting to keep it around. It's easy to get charmed by your own words. Keep the overall goal in mind, which is telling your story in a powerful way. My rule of thumb is to highlight three elements in a description and see if the rest can be cut. Often it can't, but striving for the minimum number of words will help you to add punch to your prose.
You might want to take a second look at your work to see if you have included all your descriptions for analysis and revision in this way. Many writers tend to have a limited view on what description is, focusing on describing locales or what strange (such as a monster or an unfamiliar device). But some of the most important descriptions are of what your characters are feeling or what they notice about another person or activities. So don't miss these.

What to try at home? I've included a photograph of Abraham Lincoln. As a first step, you might want to write as complete a description of the picture as you can. Include everything you notice. Feel free to add a metaphor or two.

Then step away from your description for a bit. When you come back, try to convey what you see in the image and what the image means to you in a few sentences. (You might try to describe Lincoln within the context of historical fiction from a specific point of view like a political rival. Or see what description would, if you wanted to presents your emotional response to the photograph. Or even consider how you would present Lincoln as the hero of a romance.)

When you've done this exercise, look to see what you left out and see if you can discover some of the reasons why you made your choices.

Even working with images, emotions, and activities in isolation can make your story stronger. But, if you find your way to consistency and description from scene to scene, making the best choices for your reader in terms of vocabulary, clarity, and emotional hooks, you can put your readers inside your stories in ways that make what you write more memorable.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Writers, Try This at Home 14 - Anchoring your readers to your stories

I saw a short documentary about the creation of a music video. The special effects expert took a detour from all the celebrity gossip to talk about the key elements in drawing viewers in. He said reality was the biggest hook, which was why he had spent time creating just the right shadows for each segment so that the band – which had been reimagined as giants performing against different city backgrounds – would seem real.

This can be one of the great tricks for maintaining the suspension of disbelief for readers or viewers of any story. I think the best way to do this is to incorporate truth expressed in a novel way. When we recognize something the story as being authentic, and apt description as life as we know it, we tend to surrender to the dream being composed by the creator. Another approach, which works with mimetic fiction, is including details from real life. If, for instance, you can correctly describe a place where those in the audience have been, you can get them nodding their heads and looking for more.

What else can you do to stop your readers from escaping the artificial bounds of your story? It goes without saying that any errors – in language, and facts, or in internal consistencies – will pull them out the story. So avoiding mistakes is half the battle. A more subtle trick, which works especially well in the realms of fantasy (including science fiction and horror) is to use the credibility of a sympathetic character to make images and situations more credible.

Ultimately, I think the most powerful anchoring strategy is to choose a few details that connect with the reader through the point of view character. It isn't really necessary in most cases to provide a full description of a scene or a character the protagonist meets or a process – such as a sword fight. Selecting those things that matter to the viewpoint character, especially those that evoke emotion, is one of the most powerful ways to keep readers immersed in the scene you've created.

This is actually so powerful it can overwhelm problems and story logic and distortions in perceptions. Over and over again, I've noticed that readers will completely buy into the perspectives of unreliable narrators – which is a powerful proof of how identifying with a character creates its own reality. (This tends not to pay off for most readers. I found that the most difficult stories to sell are those with unreliable narrators — perhaps because it violates, or at least bends, the contract of trust between writer and reader. But it's not a bad thing to keep in mind when you need to finesse something your story to keep the plot moving forward.)

So what should you try at home this time? Here are three suggestions:
  • Find is scene you really love and a story and determine how the writer established credibility.
  • Take a scene you've written and see if an apt description will make it more credible. (Try this even if you believe the reality is already well-established. You might discover something useful.)
  • Consider one of your key scenes from the point of view of a different character. This is an exercise, so it doesn't have to be the best choice in terms of the full story. Rewrite the scene so that the details and factual elements would be true and compelling for a reader identifying with this alternative perspective.
There are other things worth exploring in terms of anchoring readers and the reality of your story. One powerful technique to look at is anything involving action, movement, or change. Just as it's easier to remember what a person looks like if you think about them doing something, it is more likely that a reader will put him or herself into a story if you can activate the mirror neurons that cause them to experience engaging in that activity.

Ultimately, the goal is to not just get your readers to lose themselves in the story, but to keep them as completely within the story world is as possible. It is this sort of attention to living within your narrative that makes readers want to go back to Middle Earth or Hammett's San Francisco or Scarlett O'Hara's Tara.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Writers, Try This at Home 13 - Titles for your stories

Public Radio International recently ran a story about a literary hoax — Naked Came the Stranger. The broadcast related how about two dozen Newsday writers came together to create a sexy bestseller. It was interesting, in many ways, but a remark on how the title came to be — taking two words, "stranger" and "naked," from other bestseller titles — got me thinking.

What does make a good title? Certainly, grabbing words from works that are popular in your genre is a pretty good strategy from a sales point of view. It's great to play off of positive associations, as long as you don't disappoint your public... If there are cannibals in your title, there better be cannibals in your story. Unless the title is being used ironically (which is a risky practice).

The safest bet is to come up with something that tells people what the story is about. With Star Wars, you knew going in that you'd be watching a science fiction movie and that it would include battles in space. The original audience might not have known that Night of the Living Dead was about zombies, but only the clueless would have expected anything other than a horror movie. Speaking of Clueless, it had to be a comedy, right?
Some titles just sound wonderful. I don't think it's a coincidence that To Kill a Mockingbird, The Lord of the Rings, Pride and Prejudice, Huckleberry Finn, and A Tale of Two Cities are among my favorite works, ones that I've read and reread over the years. A title that sounds good and is immediately appealing promises, at the very least, above-average prose. In many cases, it seems to indicate that the author and I will be simpatico.

Just  to get past knowing too much about the story, I looked at the list of the New York Times Notable Books for 2015. Here are some wonderful titles that would tempt me to check out the books:

City on Fire

Dragon Fish

The First Bad Man

Preparation for the Next Life

The Sellout

Thirteen Ways of Looking

The Visiting Privilege

These are two or three key words each, and many of them raise questions. Just like my favorite works. (There can be longer titles that are effective. Harlan Ellison's "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" and "Repent, Harlequin, Said the Ticktock Man" are marvelous. Harlan is poetic and a risk taker. Among his works is the ironically titled "A Boy and His Dog." He also has the marvelously titled "Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes," which is two words and raises questions.

One of my practices of the years has been to collect titles. I love it when words seem to belong together. I love it when they can be taken another way or raise questions. I love words that evoke feelings and images. In many cases, I've carried around a title for years before I understood what the story had to be.

One benefit of a great title is it will capture attention. A handful of powerful words can act like the images advertisers have always looked for, those which would cause you to stop and take a second look.

But for me, as an author, titles do more. They help to provide a focus for the work, if I get them right. In fact, a good test that I don't really grasp what my story is about is when I can't come up with the title that sticks in my mind and feels right.

The worst sin of titling is not paying it off. Wrong title for the genre? You failed. Points to a trivial aspect of the work? No good. Never gets explained or isn't explained satisfactorily? Sorry. You lose.

Never disappoint. Of course, a lot of fulfilling expectations is dependent on the audience for the work. The meaning of To Kill a Mockingbird, which is such an evocative title, is explained within the work and deepens your understanding of the story. However, there is a great meme where a cat is frustrated because he's read the whole book and never gotten clear instructions on how to kill a mockingbird.


Try this at home. Collect a set of titles. (You may want to start with “The Greatest List of 100 Completely Random Movie Titles Ever Compiled in the History of Mankind.”  Creating your own list of twenty titles is a good start. Sort them from best to worst, and see if you can determine why the top ones work well. Then consider the bottom five. Try to create new titles for these. Make these titles consist of three important words each. Make them appropriate for the genre in which you write. (Do any of your retitles grab you? Consider writing the stories they deserve.)

Once you've done this, you might want to flex your muscles by looking at some of your work and see if you can give those stories with weak titles better titles.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Writers, Try This at Home 12 -- In-person research

So much is available online. Just google and you get all the answers, right? And it is amazing how much is available in terms of databases with primary documents, experts at hand to answer questions, and videos of places you never been.

It's all great, and I would say invaluable in terms of planning your investigations and digging into otherwise inaccessible realms (such as the past). However, too much dependence on the Web can rob your work of zest and immediacy. Obviously, the Internet does not serve all of your senses. If you want to describe the smell of incense at Midnight Mass, a Wikipedia entry won't do. The best virtual reality available won't give you the experience of shaking someone's hand and looking them in the eye. And while you might not seek out the feelings you get from riding a subway at two in the morning, doing so will make your skin crawl in ways that a video on YouTube never could.

Since you may be out of practice dealing with the real world, try to do one of these each week, even if you can't use them in your current work:
  •  If you find yourself waiting somewhere, pull out a pad to record your environment. Write in full sentences. Include all the senses. And pay attention to the people. See if a few can be captured in 50 words or less. If you can recreate the mood of the locale, that will pay dividends as you compose your fiction. By the way, you don't have to just record locations you end up in randomly, you can choose to go to a museum or a park or even a subway.
  • Interview an expert. I'll make this easy on you: Come up with a topic that intrigues you and create a series of questions that dig into the subject, and then talk to a librarian. (I haven't met a librarian yet who doesn't love this sort of thing, though you might want to make an appointment.) Or you can be more daring and arrange to interview someone who is directly related to your area of interest -- a doctor, scientist, politician, prison guard. It's likely you have a neighbor with an interesting job, so consider that option as well.
  • Do something that could be used in a story. I like things related to work. A ride-along with the local police, a tour of a brewery, or attending a band rehearsal might be good. Think crafts. Think courses that are hands-on. Or volunteer to do something useful in the community like cleaning up a park.
Get out there. Learn to record experiences. Then, when you have become proficient, make in-person research part of you writing process.

As for the practice above? Save your results. Though you may not have a use for this information now, you could in the future. One of my exercises aimed at writing anywhere was the first. Now I have a collection of notes to draw upon whenever I find myself in a locale that is relevant to a story.
I just sent out issue three of my newsletter, Productive Writing. Want to subscribe? Just send a note to howtowritefast@gmail.com with Subscribe in the subject line.  I'll add you to the mailing list. And if you want any of the published issues, just let me know. I'm happy to send you copies.

Issue 3: Out of Your Comfort Zone
Issue 2: Speed Date Your Character
Issue 1: Plotting Help