Writers’ Olympics

stadiumSilk’s Post #160 — It’s the middle of the summer, the silly season. All eyes are glued to the Olympics, a welcome relief from political campaigns. The days are hot (at least here on the left coast), the beer is cold, the burgers are on the barbie, and a bit of light-hearted blogging is in order.

Every four years the Summer Olympics reminds the world what dreams, discipline and dedication can get you. Oh, and dollars – did I forget to mention dollars?

As the spectacle of the Games gets ever more entertainingly (even gaudily) ambitious, as the athletic clothing and gear gets slicker (thanks to sponsors), and as the monumental task of hosting this behemoth of a show gets more daunting (thanks Brazil, and good luck with your post-games hangover), the soul of the Olympics endures at the very simplest level, the level where all the rah-rah and glitz doesn’t count.

At its heart, what counts is the stories of the hopeful young competitors. They rock.

Maybe others tune in to indulge their fan patriotism, or to vicariously party on. For me, the draw is the inspiring – sometimes unnervingly perfectionistic – display of physical, mental and emotional grit played out at every sports venue. People putting themselves on the line, holding nothing back, totally exposed to an audience of millions.

The degree of dedication in Olympic athletes is absolutely stunning. There are few other human endeavours, if any, that demand so much, and reward the majority of participants with nothing but personal satisfaction. These may be called games, but they are not play.

At the same time, the Olympics are at the pinnacle of a worldwide sports development system that produces the most superb athletes in history, and they keep getting better. Every Games sees new records set and a higher level of performance achieved.

Ask yourself: in what other fields are human beings progressively getting better at what they do, eclipsing the achievements of their progenitors? Go ahead. Take your time. Dah da dum de dum. No rush. I’m sure you’ll think of something people do better now than they ever have before. People, mind you. Individuals. No ideas yet?

Okay, time’s up. If you did think of something, I’ll bet you the Brooklyn Bridge that it’s some form of technological (or maybe social) progress rather than individual human achievement.

Oh, sure, there are constant advances in technology, and it’s easy to confuse an improvement in the performance of things with an improvement in the performance of people. After all, it’s people who invent these newfangled things. But, sorry, no. The people who invented computers and air conditioning and charter schools and AR-15 rifles and Facebook were very clever, but they weren’t smarter than Aristotle or Galileo or Newton or Tesla or Einstein.

But imagine applying the whole Olympic idea to other kinds of endeavour … writing for instance. Could writers, through lifelong training and obsessive striving, reach literary achievements never before imagined? God knows most of us don’t do nearly enough obsessive striving or disciplined training on our own. No wonder many writers find themselves stumbling over everyday hurdles.

(Oh, I can’t commit to writing 2,000 words a day, I … have a job, have a family, have a vacation coming up, have a headache. So do Olympic athletes. See what I mean?)

Yes, I think this is just what we all need. An Olympic system for developing awesome writers. We need to get into training, people. No more butts on the couch. Get up and put those butts to work, uh, in a chair. Build those vocabulary muscles. Work on your plot spins and twists. And stick those landings at the end.

My modest proposal is to develop an Olympic style system to measure writing performance, because, well you know, what gets measured gets done or something like that. Just for starters, here are some top-of-my-head suggestions for events in the Writers’ Olympics. Please feel free to add your own!

Speedwriting Events
This is a series of sprint and long-distance race events in which writers must sit in a room full of desks and produce a fixed number of words – for example, a 100 word sprint, a 5,000 word marathon, and so on. Points for speed are then adjusted by making deductions for grammatical and syntax errors, as judged by editors. Further deductions are also made for quality deficits, as judged by critics. Note: the writing might be fast, but the judging will be slow, just as in real life.

Vocabulary Weightlifting Events
Giving new meaning to “weighing your words,” these events challenge writers to lift the efficiency and creativity of their work through the power of language. Various exercises, such as short fiction, poetry and essay, are judged on technical points and artistic merit. Originality earns extra credits, but competitors who push too far will receive gibberish deductions.

Storynastics
Writers perform plotting routines in a variety of fiction genres, such as mystery/suspense, thriller, romance, action and sci-fi/fantasy, meeting strict requirements for inclusion of a beginning, a middle and an ending. Technical points are awarded for story structure, plot twists, pacing, reversals and climax. Points for artistic merit are given for originality; story flow; balance of description, action and dialogue; and characters. Deductions are made for awkward transitions, intrusive backstory and unresolved subplots.

Rewrite Hurdles
First draft short fiction manuscripts are submitted in time trials, then edited by an eliminations judging team, with each minor edit deducting one point off a perfect score of 100, and each major edit deducting 5 points. The 10 top-scoring writers continue on to the finals, where they do a time-limited, blind rewrite, and are ranked by their ability to anticipate and clear the original editorial hurdles assessed by the judges, earning points for every correction of an identified fault. This is not only a deadline competition, but also a mind-reading contest.

Unpublished (and even published) writers often bemoan the difficulty of getting published, getting recognized, breaking through, dealing with the emotional trauma of rejection slips. Yes, it’s daunting. And it does sometimes seem like a lottery. I’m as guilty as the next person of thinking this way.

But, seriously, it’s a highly competitive field, just like sports. How many of us can truly say we put the time into training and learning, do the grinding work of writing and rewriting and re-rewriting, build up our strengths and relentlessly work on our flaws the way Olympians do? How much do we sacrifice in anonymity for our craft? What mental toughness do we cultivate to give ourselves the resilience needed to face inevitable failures and rejections – and then carry on anyway?

So, friends and writers, the next time you find yourself struggling with this ambitious goal of writing – a goal you chose for yourself – try thinking a bit more like an Olympic hopeful.

The part-timers, the short-cutters and the half-hearted are – let’s face it – probably not going to get to the big show. They can still enjoy writing recreationally, kind of like the way I enjoy the odd sailboat race. It’s all good. Even if an expectations adjustment may be required.

But really big success – like becoming a bestseller in a highly competitive marketplace – takes really big effort. “Overnight success” is mythical. Yet hard work does pay off: we’re watching it on our screens in Rio right now. Even for the also-rans, pride in the achievement of getting to the elite level of Olympic sports is the reward of a lifetime.

And here’s the good news for writers: in Olympic competitions, there are no do-overs. But in writing, there are. And there’s no age limit.

What would Stephen King do?

King-on-writingSilk’s Post #159 — If you want to learn to be a good writer, you could do worse than read Stephen King. The guy is a legend, but let’s check his credentials anyway:

  • Published 54 novels, 6 non-fiction books, nearly 200 short stories. Yes, he’s been busy.
  • Sold more than 350 million copies of his novels. That’s certainly impressive.
  • Won too many awards to list, including Hugo Award, Bram Stoker Award, World Fantasy Award, Nebula Award, Awards from the Mystery Writers of America and the National Book Foundation, National Medal of Arts … Oh, you get the idea.
  • Written 39 stories that have been turned into movies, including 5 Oscar nominees. Nice sideline, eh?
  • Is reported to be worth 400 million dollars. That should impress anyone who likes to measure success in dollars and cents.

If you’re a writer, though, one particular book nestled in this vast body of work was written just for you: Stephen King On Writing – A Memoir of the Craft. As the huge horde of hungry, not-yet-published writers like me know very well, there’s no shortage of books on writing and publishing written “just for us.” Your shelves, like mine, may be groaning with them. In fact, there’s a whole industry built around selling advice and support to “emerging” writers.

A lot of the books on writing are useful (although prescriptions ought not necessarily be taken as directed), but you probably never heard of most of their authors before you aspired to become a published writer yourself. You can count on your fingers the books “for writers” penned by that super elite level of authors, the bestselling superstars.

Besides King, the ones that immediately come to mind are Ray Bradbury (Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity), Elmore Leonard (10 Rules of Writing), Janet Evanovich (How I Write), Elizabeth George (Write Away), P. D. James (Talking About Detective Fiction), Walter Mosley (This Year You Write Your Novel), Annie Dillard (The Writing Life), and the prolific Margaret Atwood, who has written three books on writing, writers and the writing life (Negotiating with the Dead – a Writer on Writing; Moving Targets – Writing with Intent 1982-2004; and In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination). A few of these books are in the “how to” or coaching category, while others lean toward memoir, but they’re all valuable and often quoted.

Yet the one that stands out most for me is Stephen King’s On Writing. I must admit that King had me at the epigraph, where he set the tone with a pair of quotes:

Honesty’s the best policy.
— Miguel de Cervantes

Liars prosper.
— Anonymous

And the book only gets more circular and thought-provoking from there on, as it spirals deep into the organic heart of King’s writing life. It begins with 100 pages of memoir, called “C.V.” I call it confessions of a congenital writer. This section is larded with gut-wrenching real-life moments. Life is messy and mysterious, it tells us.

We then get to a tiny section titled “What Writing Is,” only to discover that it, too, is messy and mysterious. He opens this section with an answer to its title: “Telepathy, of course.”

Then King proceeds to demonstrate by drawing us into an imaginary scene where writer and reader experience a “meeting of the minds.” That’s the telepathy part, styled as a magic act. It’s a story about storytelling that reminded me of the famous scene in the 1976 movie The Last Tycoon, brilliantly acted by Robert De Niro, with the punchline “the nickel was for the movies.” (You can see it here on You Tube)

King then completely shifts gears, diving into a short how-to section called “Toolbox,” in which he reads us the usual creative writing teacher’s riot act in an entertaining story form. (King was, in fact, a high school English teacher at one time.) He begins with the holy trinity: vocabulary, grammar, style. These are not optional. He steers us to Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style as our bible. He warns that hell awaits writers who use adverbs.

Then, happily, class is dismissed and he launches into the section we were waiting for: “On Writing.” Surely this is where the magic is revealed, where King will give up his secrets and teach us how we, too, can become bestselling authors in X number of steps.

At this point, if you’re reading the book, I recommend you go back to the second of King’s three forewords, which begins, “This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit.” This is a good reality check.

I won’t elaborate on what’s in this section of the book. You should read it yourself. But I will tell you some things I learned from it. There’s nothing pedantic or even very structured in this book because King is, first and foremost, a storyteller, not a how-to list maker. What I took from On Writing are more like illuminations – ideas that lit up in some brain cell for me as a result of going along for the ride, of reading a non-fiction book written by a great fiction writer.

These are my own interpretations, not a literal list from Stephen King:

The joy of writing: Writing should be a joy. If you love it, you do it. You build your life around it, not the other way around. And that includes omnivorous reading.

The fear factor: Writing is emotionally and intellectually challenging as well as demanding of your time, and taking criticism can be bruising. So you need to have lots of that joy on tap, lose your fear of failure, and just keep writing.

Nature + nurture: Writing your head off is bound to make you a better writer, but you also have to have some native talent to become a really, really good one. Conversely, native talent will not make you a really, really good writer unless you write your head off.

Writing and storytelling: Good writing is a commandment, but storytelling is the holy grail. Writing = the craft; storytelling = the magic. You can learn a craft; magic rises intuitively from the inside out. Craft has rules; magic does not. Writing is a skill; storytelling is a talent.

Storytelling and plotting: These are not, not, NOT the same thing. A story is a tale with a life of its own. A plot is a plan, a map of how to sequence and structure the telling of the story.

OPs vs. NOPs: Forget the binary debate between outlining vs. organic styles of writing (outline people vs. non-outline people, or plotters vs. pantsers). There is no “right way.” Do what feels right. Your first draft will fall somewhere on the spectrum of imperfection no matter how you approach it. At best it will need cosmetic surgery, at worst it will be a Frankenstein that needs errant body parts re-attached in the right place. The story rules. Serve the story, not the process.

Characters drive story: Without characters, there is no story. Without characters who are real, dimensional and engaging – characters worth caring about – there are no readers.

Use your imagination: “Write what you know” isn’t a restriction, it’s an invitation. What you know – or can find out – are the answers to a constant stream of “what if?” questions you must pose. Those answers can come from your own experience, your probing imagination, or your research. Push your intuition and logic. Truth isn’t an average of likelihoods.

Use your senses: All of them. See, feel, hear, smell settings. Listen to dialogue. Pay attention to body language, micro-expressions, conflicts hidden under the surface. Taste foods, air, water, sweat from effort, sweat from fear. Do it every day, wherever you are. Recreate it in writing so that readers sense it too.

Making it matter: Some stories arise from a theme. Some themes emerge organically from a story. Either way works and can be enhanced in rewrite. Themes are a way to give a story more layers, deepen readers’ connection, make it matter to them, make it memorable. You can write a good novel with no theme, but why would you leave out this dimension?

Does all this seem familiar? Probably. Pick up any book on writing and you’ll find these topics covered somewhere, often prescriptively. Funny how you can “know” something – read about it, understand it intellectually – and yet not really experience that “aha!” moment at a deep, intuitive level until someone or something causes you to look at it through different eyes.

That’s what Stephen King’s On Writing did for me. I think it was because of his ability to create a story about story, to personalize it through the memoir material woven through the book. It was a hard book for him to write, every word “a kind of torture,” he admits. He began it in 1997, got half way through it, and put it in the drawer. Eighteen months later, in June of 1999, he “decided to spend the summer finishing the damn writing book.”

Two days later, he was fighting for his life after a horrendous accident in which he was hit by a van while walking down a country lane in Maine. It shattered his leg and hip, broke his ribs, chipped his spine. His story of this personal trauma in a section titled “On Living: A Postscript,” is a dramatic denouement to On Writing. The shock of it lit up the entire text of the book for me, like a bolt of fork lightning.

Five weeks after his accident, King picked up his half-finished manuscript of “the damn writing book” and began to write again:

That first writing session lasted an hour and forty minutes, by far the longest period I’d spent sitting upright since being struck by Smith’s van. When it was over, I was dripping with sweat and almost too exhausted to sit up straight in my wheelchair. The pain in my hip was just short of apocalyptic. And the first 500 words were uniquely terrifying – it was as if I’d never written anything before them in my life. All my old tricks seemed to have deserted me. I stepped from one word to the next like a very old man finding his way across a stream on a zigzag line of wet stones. There was no inspiration that first afternoon, only a kind of stubborn determination and the hope that things would get better if I kept at it.

And, of course, things did get better. Exponentially better.

If the story of this book does not touch you as a writer, it’s time to take up something else. It certainly touched me. While I’ve always acknowledged his great talent and loved a number of his novels – which are mostly outside my genre comfort zone – I’ve never aspired to write like Stephen King. I still don’t.

But what On Writing has inspired me to do is to be more like him. Hence, my new compass point: What would Stephen King do? I’m pretty sure I know what the answer will be nine times out of ten: just keep writing. 


This is the first in an occasional series I’m planning to do on the 5Writers blog of reviews/discussions of books on writing. Stephen King seemed a good place to start. After all he is, well, the King.

Who are we writing for?

who-are-we-writing-for-Silk’s Post #158 — The 5Writers are rolling again. Fingers flying over the keyboards. Chunks of time swiped from Normal Life to commune in solitary confinement with the muse. Free moments in between Other Important Things given over to imagining snips of dialogue or the delicate placement of plot points or the exact shade of a protagonist’s eyes.

Our own eyes scan public places for characters and their stories: travelers fidgeting tensely with their passports in the airport; mid-summer sidewalk cafe patrons sitting alone together with their iPhones; boaters walking the docks with burnt noses and three leashed dogs. Maybe we’ll see someone to add colour, or maybe we’ll find the inspiration for a whole new subplot.

Our families and friends may notice our blank stares from time to time, moments when we’re checked out of reality and are looking inward to a story twist no one else can see. Yet.

The miracle is that even one of us escaped from our writing desert, where we’ve been mostly trudging through a lengthy dry spell punctuated by the occasional sip of creativity at rare oases. Attempted re-starts at a sustained and serious writing life over the past year or so have been mostly mirages.

I can’t overemphasize how difficult this kind of drought is to overcome, even for professional, previously published writers. Which we are not.

So the fact that we have managed to re-boot our 5Writers critique schedule and our individual writing efforts as a group is pretty miraculous. Some will achieve momentum more quickly than others, that’s natural. Just as some may hit another hurdle to overcome, while others may find a clear path ahead.

But the statistics tell us that many, many more writers start a book than finish a book, and we’re determined to buck that trend. (I’d love to quote some stats here, but since I’m writing this offline while floating on a boat in a small bay in the San Juan Islands with sketchy cell service and zero wifi precludes it. However, I’ve gawked at the numbers before, and I know there is a shocking, planet-sized gulf between the large number of writers who give up and the smaller number of writers who follow through to “the end”. And an equally gigantic gap between the number of finished books and the number of books that actually get published.)

One of the key differences between giving up and following through may be the answer to the perennial question a writer must eventually answer: who are you writing for?

I just read a stinging observation in a favourite novel, in which a jaded inspector describes people at a demonstration in Moscow as “… a middle-aged intellectual crowd. Publishers who abandoned their writers, writers who wrote for the drawer … romantics who lamented a rendezvous with history that never took place.”

I think I can say with confidence that none of the 5Writers are writing for the drawer, at least not on purpose.

Rather, at the opposite end of the wide spectrum of possible goals for writers, our critique group actually began under a different banner: The Future Bestsellers Group. A moonshot goal.

Given our trials, our achievements, our learning, our disappointments, our experience, our growth, and now our resurrection, I think the 5Writers have a better handle on who we are really writing for – and for each of us, individually, that falls somewhere between the drawer and the bestseller lists.

Here, I speak for myself. I’ve come to embrace the idea that I write, first, for myself, and second for the kind of people I like to talk to.

I write for people who are interesting and interested, who have ideas and like to discuss them, who have empathetic hearts and curious minds. I write for people who love a puzzle, a mystery, a challenge, who seek truth whether or not they expect to find it in any absolute, unchanging form. People with open minds. Smart people. People who know they don’t have all the answers, and that no one else does either. People who care about others. People who cherish their values. People who feel deeply. People with a sense of humour. People who love words. People who love story. People I could stay up all night conversing with, perhaps over a few bottles of wine. And, of course, the most important item on their resumes: people who love to read.

When I’m feeling high and hopeful about my writing (and, thus about my chances of getting published), I think of this group of people as a crowd big enough to support a bestseller. When I’m in a trough of writing angst, sure that no one outside my 5Writers group will ever read my manuscript, I try to think of something else I’d rather do with my creativity, my mind, my words, and I remember that I write because it’s what I love to do most. I write for the experience, not the drawer.

But here’s some good news!

Ever since the whole Brexit tantrum, when the the Brits collectively decided to pull up the drawbridge and pretend globalization has not already occurred, I’ve been thinking about the global marketplace for writers.

This is especially interesting from the perspective of the sentimental vestige of Rule Brittania called The Commonwealth (where I now live, in Canada), and also that other former British colony where I was born (the US). The irony of Brexit is that it’s a reminder of the global power England once wielded.

The legacy of English dominance in the colonial era is still incredibly significant — in fact, it’s such a big a part of our global landscape that I think people don’t even notice it anymore, like the fact that the sky is blue.

That legacy is the English language.

Happily for us, it’s the language we write in — which is the most widely spoken language in the world by far. Wikipedia tells me there are 2,400 million English speakers in the world today. The next closest language is Mandarin Chinese at 1,090 million. Now, even though English has under 400 million native speakers, compared to about 950 million for Mandarin, it has become dominant as the world’s second language of choice. This virtually assures its continued spread in today’s era of globalization – which will continue, Brexit notwithstanding.

In fact, the new prime mover of world order – namely business/commerce – which has enthusiastically adapted to globalism even as political, cultural and religious institutions have resisted it, has adoped English as its own Esperanto.

I therefore dare to declare that English-speaking writers are in one of the most advantageous positions in the world today to practice our profession in a growing, rather than shrinking, marketplace.

Yes, worthy books get translated and can succeed (sometimes spectacularly) in places where people don’t normally read the language they were originally written in. But doesn’t it make sense that the more English speakers (and readers) there are in the world, the better the market odds get for writers of books in English?

There — doesn’t that make you feel good? And hopeful? And enthusiastic about pounding out some wordage today?

Rebooting the Group

Joe’s Post #171

So, can you reboot a writing group? Refocus it? Get its writers writing, again?

It turns out, *spoiler alert*, you can.

On June 13th, we all met and made our declaration of writing intentions. While not as impressive as the declaration of independence or a declaration of love, it did allow us to find a way back to writing, albeit via a winding, and somewhat meandering path.

I don’t think a single one of us went home and wrote 50 pages. But, we did get writing done. Myself, I managed to get 32 pages done, mostly (due to my horrific tendency to procrastinate), in the last week.

But before that, I spent time going back to the basics. Working on my characters, helped by my writing friend and published author, Sean Slater.

Here’s what I learned in this part of the journey

  1. More beautiful because of her flaws. Like me.

    More beautiful because of her flaws. Like me.

    I found that if I had a picture of my character, a whole ton of things fell into place for that character. When I looked at my protagonist’s sister, the one he rushes off to Europe to save, I saw a beautiful woman who didn’t like to smile because of her teeth. And from that, I built not a plot device, but a real person.

2) A book is defined as much by the villain as the hero. It’s something I’ve worked on a lot in the past, but it’s something I REALLY worked on this time around. Again, it started with an idea, I added a picture and then spent two days writing his life story, his fears and hopes, and his hidden secrets.

3) I stopped stressing about drafting the PERFECT opening line. I know it matters, I do. I get that. But I can spend weeks, I kid you not, trying to find that perfect line and still fail. So,  I let got of that and just wrote.

4) I signed up to attend the Surrey Writer’s Conference, and while that alone didn’t inspire me to write more, there is an editor there who may just be looking for the exact type of book that I’m writing. So that inspired me. (So, if you’re thinking of going, know that we’ll be there. At least 3/5 of the 5/5/5).

5) Like playing tennis after not playing tennis for 25 years, it’s hard to do. You get rusty. Nothing flows. There’s lots of sweating and swearing. But if you keep at it, you’ll get better. Faster. Stronger. Like the million dollar man. Personally, I’m not there, yet, but if I keep at it, I have to believe I can get there.

So that’s a quick update.

siwcWho’s going to Surrey this year? Who wants to buy me a drink so I can pitch my novel without it sounding like this, “it’s a story, ah, about, um, a guy, who does this, err, thing and stuff gets in his way, so he has to, you know, do more stuff?”

Hugs!

 

Looking Back to Move Forward

Joe’s Post #170

writing quoteSo after the writer’s group meeting, we came to one big conclusion on how to rekindle the fire for writing.

Go back to what worked.

Makes sense, right?

Makes sense, right?  I mean if you lost weight by doing a combination of yoga, smoothies and hanging upside down, why not got back to that?

Here are the 10 things that worked for us.

  1. Meet regularly. Yup, easy to say, harder to do, but we all made a commitment to commitment. Dates were booked. Hosts or hostesses chosen. Calendars were marked.
  2. Set deadlines. I hate to admit it, but without a deadline, I’m like a little puppy who finds all sorts of interesting things to do when what I should be doing is taking a poo. Oh, that sniff is nice and this tastes good and what’s that over there? Deadlines, however, put a leash on me and while that metaphor now wanders into the weird, what I’m saying is I get stuff done when I HAVE TO get stuff done.
  3. Get back to critiquing. It helps as a writer to figure out what things worked and didn’t work by reading other writers.
  4. Write 30 pages for that deadline. Just 30. Now, at one time, I could do that in a day. Ok, maybe two since I type like a drunken gorilla, but 30 pages in two months, that is so completely doable.
  5. Set the bar low. (see the 30 pages and deadlines above). The reason a low bar works is that if you get too lofty a goal, then when you fail, you feel like crap and tend to find other things that make you feel better. Like eating chocolate or watching Game of Thrones for the 100th time. But with a low bar, I find not only do I hit a goal, but I exceed it, thereby feeling good, thereby writing more, thereby feeling good… and on and on.
  6. Become a part of the community, again. Being an introvert and thinking I can achieve success alone may not actually be possible. For me. So, we’re all going to work on not only connecting as a group on a regular basis (and not just the meeting every other month) but find a way to expand our connections. You know, network and stuff. (Someone get me a drink.)
  7. Go to Surrey. Not to pitch, though we could do that, but to get inspired by other writers, but workshops, by crawling out of our hermit caves and talking to people. (Make that drink a double.)
  8. Find another writer to add new blood to our group. The problem is, we need to become a group, again, before we can add a few more bodies. That means hitting blog deadlines, writing 30 pages, and providing something of value to future potentials.
  9. Write what we want, not what we think will sell. I think that one of the killers of our writing goals has been the idea we should write the novel that will sell millions instead of writing something we’re passionate about. Passion will get the writing done. Not $$$ signs.
  10. Drink more coffee.

Will it work?

I dunno, but it’s worth a try, because, in our current state, we’re feeling shame, a sense of failure and our writing has largely ground to a halt.

 

 

Turning point

Silk’s Post #157 — In two hours I’ll be sitting down around a table with the other four of the 5writers. By the time I stand up again to leave for home, my writing career will have taken a new path.

At this moment, as I sit on a ferry crossing the Georgia Strait to Vancouver watching the fir-clad shores through Active Pass crawl by the ship’s windows, I don’t know what that path will be. This is the last moment I can capture my feelings about The Big Drought in my writing life before I decide what comes next.

Writers whose passion never flags, whose dedication never falters, will have trouble understanding how I – and to varying extents the rest of the 5writers – lost momentum over the past few months. Or maybe over the past two or three years. Our 5writers5novels5months blog has been all but abandoned since the start of 2016, some brave efforts at a rally notwithstanding. The simple functional reason is that our collective writing output has slowed down to a trickle. For me, less than a trickle. Not even a dripdripdrip.

But the bigger question is: Why?

While each of the 5writers has undergone significant life changes since we embarked on this journey together six years ago (can it have been that long?), that’s the too-easy, unsatisfying, explanation. Competing priorities, new interests, personal setbacks and triumphs, family matters, lifestyle changes – all have had their influence. There’s only so much time, after all, and how we spend it comes down to necessity and choice.

Choice is the point. A passion for writing – a mission to complete a book and get it published – is inherently a crazy ambition, a calling, a driving obsession, an act of faith. We all know how many published writers there are in the world. One zillion. For every published writer, there are probably 100 unpublished writers. We knew all that.

Yet, like most writers who love the creative process and (somewhat blindly) follow their dreams, we chose to believe in ourselves. We chose to spend our precious time tapping out words without knowing whether they would ever reach an audience.

True writing passion is supposed to be unquenchable. A life’s work. Not a transient hobby.

And yet. Here I am with three unfinished books and virtually no new pages so far this year. No wonder it’s been challenging to keep the blog going. Writing about our writing progress and the lessons learned along the way became the biggest chunk of my output of fiction.

But today the 5writers meet again. It will be a reckoning of sorts.

Can we resuscitate our gasping blog? Only if we can renew our writing commitments. Some of us may burst into bloom once more. Others may fade. No choice is wrong. And it’s not that we need each other’s permission or depend on each other’s choices to make our own decisions and go our own way. We’re five different people writing five different things, not a collective that can only thrive or perish as one.

However, we are each other’s witnesses. We each promised ourselves we’d become serious (aka, published) writers, and we pledged to support each other in those efforts.

It’s so easy to let individual passion for a difficult and emotionally risky venture die quietly while no one else is looking. To busy yourself with other matters, salve regret with new diversions and let forgetfulness heal your disappointment in yourself. My abandonment of what once was an animating passion is a deep, slowly diminishing ache.

But someone is looking. My cherished writing colleagues. Their witness is something I can’t put in the bottom drawer and forget about, like my manuscripts.

And today, I have to think about it all. Talk about it. Unflinchingly. And make a choice about my future path as a writer. It’s going to be a turning point that will impact my life in a big way. In just a couple of hours.

Thank God for a great writing group.

Stay tuned!

First Story Part 2 – How To Write It

mood01So how do you get a 9-year-old to write a story? Sure, it’s hard to get his butt in the chair and actually write, but once there, what does he do? What have they taught him in grade 4?

Much to my shock, it’s actually quite a bit. And yet, it’s also quite simple.

Here’s the thing. There are hundreds and hundreds of books about how to craft a story. Seems everyone has an idea. Stephen King. James Scott Bell. Dilbert.

But looking at the 5 page hand out the teachers gave The-Youngest, it made me realize that sometimes it’s actually not that complex.

Forget the 400 page books on character. Forget the tomes on plot. Forget everything about what you’ve read. Here’s how to write.

Like you were 9 and you had nothing in your head on how to actually do it.

#1. Ask what if. It’s that easy. It’s the basics of story-telling. What if you were transported to the minecraft world? What if you were an NHL goalie and you were in a shootout for the Stanley Cup? What if you were a new Stepdad and spent most the time being constantly confused and bewildered?

What if we could bring dinosaurs back to life?

What if we could bring dinosaurs back to life?

All stories can start from there. All of them. What if Dinosaurs came back to life? Jurassic Park. What if a giant shark decided to attack a beach community? Jaws. What if there was a school for wizards and by writing about it, you could make billions of dollars? Harry Potter. What if women liked porn and bad writing? Fifty Shades of Grey.

See? If in doubt, start with what if.

#2 But where can you get the what if ideas? Try, Building Ideas With Memories. I call it mining your own life, but it’s the same thing. The-Youngest looked at what he did on vacation, what made him scared, what hobbies he had, what events in his life were important.

#3 Begin with Something Happening. In the case of The-Youngest, he had to follow “The night I followed the (blank), this happened”. So, “The night I followed the cat and the cat had to fight a dog.” Isn’t this the essence of how to get a story going? A character, in movement (following), another character, (a cat or turtle or bunny) when something happens.

So, what could happen in Minecraft? Or in an NHL game? Or to some poor stepdad who has no idea how to scorekeep?

After much thinking and talking with The-prettiest-girl-in-the-world, aka his mom, he settled on a minecraft story.

#4 Figure out who your good character is. Figure out your bad guy. What traits do they have? What defines them? Make notes.

Dark Knight succeeds mostly due to its characters

Dark Knight succeeds mostly due to its characters

All stories, yes, all stories, succeed or fail on their characters. Howard the Duck sucked so bad because, well, Howard the Duck sucked so bad. The Dark Knight succeeded because it had a tortured Batman and one of the greatest villains of all time, Heather Ledger’s Joker.

So, The-Youngest made himself a list of traits. (Interestingly enough, one trait was that the bad guy was good looking, while his good guy was ‘not good looking.’ Hmmmm. Interesting.

#5 When you write, use feeling words. It’s how we connect to the characters. We need to feel what they feel if we are to feel for them. Wait, does that make sense? It sounded good in my head, but whatever, think about how your character reacts to what happens. Not just physically, but emotionally. How does it affect them?

Annoyed. Scared. Disgusted.

He made a list.

#6 Use your senses. Smell. Taste. Sound. Sight. Touch.

This is to draw us into the world. A world with 5 senses becomes real. It becomes relatable. Now, I’m not sure he actually remembered this in his final draft, but it’s something to keep in mind when writing. Eating zombie flesh tastes yucky, right? Smells bad too, right? But how does it taste? How would it feel in your hands? What details are so totally gross that you can barely stand to look at it?

He may have forgotten about this one a bit. As do I.

#7 How does your story begin? How does it end?

I always know this, but I struggle with the middle. Still, as a learning tool, it’s vital. If you know where it starts, you can, uhm, you know, start, and if you know where the story is going, where it will end, you can throw things at the characters that prevent them from getting there. Until they do. The end.

#8 Then you write.

Seriously.

So he began with an idea.

What if someone hacked into his minecraft account and destroyed his valuable supply of diamonds, blocks of gold and stacks of ender pearls?

He worked on his characters, the good guys, Florence and Flo. He worked on his bad guys who had made a fatal mistake of leaving a small electronic trail F&F could follow and exact revenge.

He knew where he wanted to start, he used a few ‘feeling’ words, and he wrote a pretty damn good story.

It is here if you want to read it.

Nothing like a good minecraft story

Nothing like a good minecraft story

FLOYD AND FLORENCE’S MINECRAFT ADVENTURE

This is a story about how 2 cousins named Floyd and Florence helped the police capture Henry and Jerry. They are wanted all over canada for major robberies. Floyd is 15 and Florence is 12. Floyd is an expert minecrafter and Florence is a noob at the game. Florence is staying for the summer break at Floyds house.

 Floyd helped Florence make a tree house. Florence learned how to place a block, how to hit, how to move, how to mine and how to craft. Together they created a giant castle with a moat.They have 3 double chests full of diamond blocks. These are super hard to get.

One night when Floyd is out with Florence at mc donalds, SOMEONE BROKE IN TO Floyds back door and went straight after the computer. They put it in their bag and they left. Henry and Jerry (the bad guys) hacked into Floyds computer and got on their server. They destroyed Floyd and Florence’s castle but they accidently left a sign there saying where their campsite is on the server. Floyd and Florence were very upset at first but then remembered that they had a backup laptop hidden in the basement.

While Florence is asleep Floyd goes on to the backup computer and gets the server. He follows the sign Henry and Jerry put there and he finds their camp site and gets their stuff back. Floyd sets up a trap at the camp site so when they go in their big main shack it will blow up. The trap is also a virus. It tells the police where they live.

When the police get to Henry and Jerry’s they arrest them. They find $3,000,000 worth of stolen things. Floyd and Florence get rewarded $1,000,000 and really good laptops. Floyd and Florence bought a lot of NERF GUNS and video games. Their parents let them play Minecraft any time they wanted.

the end

I was so proud of him. The ending even made me laugh.

It’s amazing what your children can teach you. In this case, it was to remember, at the end of the day, a story is pretty simple (and writing one can even be fun!)

1st story

A reblog from my About A Stepdad Blog.🙂  But hey, it’s about writing.

First tooth.

First tooth.

I’ve missed a lot of kid ‘firsts’.

First steps. First tooth. First use of the f-bomb.

But this one I’ve managed to see. Last week, The-Youngest wrote his first story.

He didn’t do it by choice, however. He didn’t sit down and think, my goodness, I need to write a story about an evil brother who constantly tries to scare the bejesus out of his gentle, younger brother. No. He was forced to do it by his arch enemy. The school system.

I remember writing my first story at 9, the same age as The-Youngest. It was called The Invasion of the Mole People –  Blue construction-paper cover, twenty handwritten pages (Jam smears on a few of them), eleven illustrations (all bad).

My parents loved it.  My teachers loved it.  My friends loved it.  I knew, then, that I wanted to be a writer.

Throughout my school years, I continued to write, and by the end of high school, I even attempted my first novel, Starborn, a story about a hunter of rogue androids who doesn’t realize he’s an android.

I received an A in English class and a stack of rejection letters.

Sadly, out of high school, I did not pursue a writing career in any shape or form.  Instead, I chose the very exciting field of accounting.  Oh, the glory, the challenges, the excitement!  But I still kept on writing.

So I was super excited to help The-Youngest out. I mean, damn, this is what I’m trying to do: Write.

Surely he would want my input or want to make use of my vast experience, right?

Wrong.

That moment before you write

That moment before you write

He’d worked himself into a quick tizzy about doing it, and only wanted The-prettiest-girl-in-the-world (AKA his mom) to help him out.

That was heartbreaking. I so wanted to help him out. But he wouldn’t have any of it.

Here’s how the conversation went…

“I can’t write a story.”

Prettiest-girl-in-the-world: “Sure you can, honey, you just have to sit down and start.”

“I can’t, I don’t know what I’m going to write. I’m not a writer.”

“Sure you are. You just have to start at the beginning. What story do you want to tell?”

“I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.”

Ok, hold on. Wait. That was the conversation she has with me every time I start to write a story. But The-Youngest’s conversation went pretty much the same way.  Like any writer, he was terrified of that first page. Of no ideas coming forth. Of not being able to tell a story.

But unlike me when I wrote my first story, the schools have done an amazing job in teaching the kids HOW to actually write a story. And he had his mom.

I’ll detail the amazing cool (and super simple ideas the school had for creating a good story) in the next blog, but for now, here’s why the Prettiest-girl-in-the-world is such a great mom.

Her: So what if we tell a minecraft story? About two boys named jinga-jinag and goobermunday.

Mom! What? You can’t have names like that.

Her: No? What should their names be?

*Thinks* Floyd and Florence.

Her: Good names. And what’s happened to them?

I dunno.

Her: What would be the WORST thing to happen to them in minecraft?

The worst?

Her: Yup

Someone stole all their stuff.

Her: Oh, like what?

Diamonds and stuff.

Nothing like a good minecraft story

Nothing like a good minecraft story

Her: Why would someone do that?

They’re bad guys. They like destroying things.

Her: That’s pretty terrible. What are Floyd and Florence going to do?

Then the ideas came fast and furious. They came so fast he couldn’t write them down so she did, scribbling while his mind went this way then that way, then flipped around and raced in a totally new direction. Not once did she say an idea was wrong or silly. She just kept him talking.

Then, like magic, they had a ton of writing on sticky notes and a good story.

The-Youngest got out his laptop and began to type. He typed until he finished the story. In one burst. Like he eats a bag of chips.

Then he proudly printed it out.

I was so excited to read it. It had been so cool to watch the creative story-birthing process, and listen to how the Prettiest-girl-in-the-world help brainstorm the best story possible.

He was proud of himself, too. You could tell.

He’d done what all writer’s do in the end.

He wrote.

All he needed was a muse and despite the fact I hate it couldn’t have been me, The-prettiest-girl-in-the-world did incredibly well.

Next up, a quick peak into how the schools are teaching kids to write.

When Life Gets in the Way

Cri-kee

Helga’s Post # 124   Maybe I got my mojo working again. At least I hope it’s not just a writer’s unfounded optimism. We writers have a tendency for that.

Time will be my judge. At any rate, it feels good to wallow in that precious groove after a lengthy absence. Sort of like coming back to the fold after drifting aimlessly without any idea of a destination.

From my periodic scanning of fellow writers’ blogs I know that I was but one of a legion. Does it make me feel any better? Not really. Every single one in this motley crowd has legitimate and sound reasons for shelving the one activity they like best, for ignoring that itch that can’t be scratched. Yet, we dropped it. Abandoned, betrayed, or put on ice if we are unwilling to call it by its real name.

Much has been written about the reasons why writers suddenly turn into deserters. The term writers’ block is pulled out whenever a writer is stuck for any reason whatsoever. Mostly when well-meaning friends and family inquire what might be the problem. “Why can’t I find your book on the bestseller shelf in the front of the bookstore?”

It’s the most über-used term in the writers’ universe.

I will not write yet another piece on writers’ block and the predictable parroted answer, ‘because life got in the way’. It’s one of the most widely touted reasons for abandoning writing. Of course life gets in the way. Otherwise we’d all be dead.

In this post I will go in the opposite direction. I will try to understand the forces that motivate a writer’s to return to the fold, to pick up where they left, and do so with renewed passion.

So, putting this argument on its head, what are the forces that make some writers return after a long bout of writers’ block? What does it take to truthfully look friends and spouse in the eye and say, “I am a writer.” No wordy explanation needed. They may believe it or not. What counts is that you know deep down it’s true. You have reached a turning point.

So, yes, life gets in the way. It stops us from being writers, apparently. But it’s exactly that which makes us writers again: Life. Simple as that.

An unexpected event. Something totally unplanned catapults us in a direction we never intended. Gets us out of our comfort zone. Makes us take risks. Perhaps after a long period of misery that has started to define us, that has made us forget that life can actually have joys waiting for us. Joys long forgotten and buried. Suddenly the world looks different.

No, it’s not. It’s us who are looking at the world with different eyes. It need not even be a hugely significant event. It can be as simple as adopting a pet. Anyone who has ever done that will agree that it can enrich your life beyond words.

Or you find a new passion. A career change that allows you to express some long-buried or never developed talents. Perhaps you suddenly discover you can draw. You pursue it and find you can paint too. Any number of such things can transform you and change your perspective.

Or, perhaps the most sure-fire reason is you meet someone new and start a relationship. Someone who was never on your radar screen suddenly takes your heart by storm. (There is a reason why the market is glutted with romance writers and readers)

All of these events give rise to positive emotions that can be so overwhelming that there is no room inside you any more. You need to find an outlet, you need to give these raw and tender emotions a voice.

Welcome back to writing!

And once you get back to your keyboard you will suddenly find it’s a different style of writing. You read over some of your previous work that you abandoned because ‘life got in the way’. You notice it sounds flat, possibly boring. You realize this new writing is different. It’s stronger, more powerful. It’s edgy, and deep, and it resonates the new ‘life that got in the way’. It mirrors your newfound passion. And it needs to find expression or you fear you will burst at the seam.

It’s not an option. It’s a gift that cannot be squandered. And every writer who has been there knows. As for myself, I am carefully wading in those positive waters, after a very long time of grief and loss. Life simply got in my way, in a good way, and the transition leaves me no choice but to put it into words.

Will it last? Stay tuned. And don’t forget to leave your keyboard occasionally and let life take you where it should. You may be surprised how much power you have to give it direction. Only you can choose to take that positive fork in the road. To push the reset button. And let that awesome writer inside you come on stage.

 

Brevity

twitter-execution

Silk’s Post #156 — Has there ever, in the long history of the written word, been a more diminishing, devaluing trend than the imposition of the 140-character tweet as the arbitrary standard for social media discourse?

Has written expression been stripped of all its depth and nuance, and reduced in the Twitterverse to simplistic word belches? Slogans. Headlines. Blurts. Clichés. Inanities masquerading as deep thoughts. Rabble rousing provocations. Nyah nyah nyah taunts. (I’m looking at you, Donald Trump).

Anything worth saying requires more than 140 characters, doesn’t it? Is the world’s written expression in danger of being reduced to captions and emoticons? Is the richness and beauty of wordcraft being abandoned by an impatient audience trained to salivate for the next thing instead of the real thing? Is the literary sky falling?

Brevity is the soul of wit has become the watchword of tweeters, bloggers, copywriters, politicians, pundits, comedians, and others who use words as their professional currency since The Bard assigned that line to Polonius in Hamlet. Was Shakespeare wrong, or was he prescient?

As is often the case, Shakespeare’s subtleties tend to get lost when cherry-picked phrases are appropriated to serve a modern purpose. A little context: these ironic lines spoken by the foolish chatterbox Polonius, who thinks himself the smartest guy in the room, couch news of Hamlet’s madness to his parents, the King and Queen, in a gust of unnecessary and self-aggrandizing claptrap which demonstrates the speaker’s inability to take his own advice on brevity:

My liege, and madam, to expostulate
What majesty should be, what duty is,
What day is day, night night, and time is time,
Were nothing but to waste night, day and time;

Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief. Your noble son is mad …

Yet, no matter how ironically delivered, the truth of the gem hidden in an almost throw-away clause lives on in proverb. And there’s good reason for that.

Brevity is hard to achieve.

Writing short is much harder than writing long. Doing it well – that is to say achieving brevity while conveying meaning, beauty, truth, in short: wit – is the hardest of all.

I have a confession to make. I used to be an advertising copywriter. I don’t mean I did it in between more noble gigs or bouts of unemployment – I did it for decades. It was my career. And if you can separate what I learned from its commercial context, the gem of truth in that experience is that writing great advertising – with its rigid, Twitter-like restrictions on length and format – is hellishly difficult.

Want to know why there’s so much truly horrible, cringe-worthy, throw-your-shoe-at-the-TV advertising? That’s why. It’s hard. Only truly talented writers – people who can understand a human desire, capture a resonant thought, and stir a genuine emotion using a minimum of powerful words and imagery – are capable of creating great ads. And these writers, as even a casual acquaintance with the media makes perfectly clear, are rare.

At the risk of turning from the ridiculous to the sublime, look at poetry as another example of the challenge – and power – of brevity. Who has ever written a haiku? I see a lot of hands going up. Anyone who’s ever taken a creative writing class, or been a bookish teenager in love, has probably written a haiku.

Now the punchline: who has ever written a good haiku? I realize it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between a good haiku and a lame one (which should be a clue in itself). Yes, the exotic format does tend to make all haiku poems seem profound. But they’re not. Many of them are nonsense. (You can probably see by now how I’m working my way back to Twitter.)

I asked at the beginning whether the corrupting influence of tweets – essentially packaged word snacks – are killing our hunger for, and skill at preparing, full-course word meals. Are we dumbing down our communications in a way that risks dumbing down our ability to think, to use our full array of synapses to understand complex ideas and appreciate subtle nuances in written expression?

Scary question.

But maybe that’s the wrong way to look at it. More words don’t necessarily translate into more meaningful words. Maybe the existential challenge still is learning to convey more meaning using less words.

Brevity is the soul of wit – “wit” in Shakespeare’s context meaning intelligence, wisdom, perspective (with appreciation, in dramatic terms, for life as simultaneously both a tragedy and a comedy). In just 26 characters, he nails the writer’s challenge of capturing the “soul” – the essence of the conflict-laden human condition – in the most concentrated, evocative language possible.

It’s an art so difficult to truly master that it remains a rare commodity. I believe it’s a skill that needs to be cultivated and practised by all writers, whether they turn their hand to poetry, essays, short stories, novels, speeches, or, yes, even the modern vernacular of advertising and social media.

Can you write well? Good! Can you write short? If you tweet, that question answers itself.

Now try conveying a page of meaning in a single paragraph. Or a sentence. It’s fantastic mental and creative exercise. It might even turn you into a poet, and help keep the literary sky from falling.