Shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark

Helga’s Post # 36 — It’s a good thing that it has been raining buckets for the last week. Perfect weather to hunker down and delve into my fellow writers’ manuscripts. To read and to critique, that is the agenda for the month. The process is in full flight and I enjoy finally seeing the product of my writing partners’ hard work. An amazing collection of genres, styles and characters of all stripes. A kaleidoscope of action, emotion, and raw energy.

As I read my fellow writers’ manuscripts, I wonder how on earth five people who write such diverse stories in styles that couldn’t be more different, ever managed to launch a group. Not only launch, but work with undiminished enthusiasm to support each other by making sure we keep on doing what brought us together in the first place: to write some damn good fiction. And I hope that if any of us will start having doubts about staying the course, the group will close rank and bring the errant stray back to the fold.

Two years and counting. Probably a lot more to come, unless one or more of us get published and too busy to participate, like founding member Sean Slater (his pen name). The rest of us would understand.

So back to the different styles and stories. It struck me that regardless of the diversity, we all have come a long way since we embarked on writing fiction. Since we followed the  arduous, but in so many ways rewarding trail of the writer’s journey. Yes, all those workshops at conferences and writers’ tool-kit books did rub off. I can see it in the manuscripts at hand. We do follow certain patterns. We start our stories with action. We put lots of work into developing our characters to make sure they are anything but mainstream, so as to catch and hold our reader’s interest. We follow story arcs (sort of) and, without perhaps consciously doing so, adhere to the writing advice dispensed by the Masters.

Never forget the Masters. Their wisdom illuminates the dark trail we writers have to travel, helping us reach our destination – a story that will delight our readers. Their wisdom may be buried within our subconscious, but it’s there, ready to be called upon. And what I glean from our manuscripts, an amazing amount comes through in our collective writing. With that in mind, I found some morsels from authors in quite different genres, all offering counsel to make our writing better. Whether as diverse as Ernest Hemingway and Elmore Leonard, there are common threads that bind them.hemingway5

To start with intrepid Old Man of the Sea himself:

‘Remove unnecessary bullshit’.

His words exactly. He reportedly told F. Scott Fitzgerald: “I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.”

‘When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.’

‘Don’t describe emotion – make it.’

Close observation of life is critical to good writing, he believed. The key is to not only watch and listen closely to life events, but to also listen to any emotion arising from them and identify what it was that caused the emotion. If you can identify it and present it accurately and fully rounded in your story, your readers should feel the same emotion.

‘Be brief.’

Hemingway was contemptuous of writers who, as he put it, “never learned how to say no to a typewriter.” In a 1945 letter to his editor, Maxwell Perkins, he wrote:

“It wasn’t by accident that the Gettysburg address was so short. The laws of prose writing are as immutable as those of flight, of mathematics, of physics.”

There is another story illustrating the point: Apparently, Hemingway was lunching with a number of writers and claimed that he could write a short story that was only six words long. Of course, the other writers balked. Hemingway told each of them to put ten dollars in the middle of the table; if he was wrong, he said, he’d match it. If he was right, he would keep the entire pot. He quickly wrote six words down on a napkin and passed it around; Papa won the bet. The words were “FOR SALE, BABY SHOES, NEVER WORN.” A beginning, a middle and an end.

I get a sense that all five of us are instinctively trying to follow these suggestions, and more. We don’t succeed entirely of course, but as I read our manuscripts, I can feel we are aware and trying. Hemingway is one of many icons dispensing writing wisdom, but there is a common theme. And I sense we have learned a great deal from the masters, and much of this is seeping into our writing.

For a different tack, let’s look at another author: (Try to guess whose. Don’t peek)

– The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise you begin excusing yourself. You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it.

– Hold the reader’s attention. (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.) But you don’t know who the reader is, so it’s like shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark. What ­fascinates A will bore the pants off B.

– You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but ­essentially you’re on your own. ­Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.

– You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You’ve been backstage. You’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a ­romantic relationship, unless you want to break up. (Emphasis mine)

– Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.

– I never have [suffered writer’s block], although I’ve had books that didn’t work out. I had to stop writing them. I just abandoned them. It was depressing, but it wasn’t the end of the world. When it really isn’t working, and you’ve been bashing yourself against the wall, it’s kind of a relief. I mean, sometimes you bash yourself against the wall and you get through it. But sometimes the wall is just a wall. There’s nothing to be done but go somewhere else.

– Prayer might work. Or reading ­something else. Or a constant visual­isation of the holy grail that is the finished, published version of your resplendent book.

Yes, it’s from none other than our homegrown Margaret Atwood, her advice as sharp-witted as her own stories. I think we follow her advice in some fashion intuitively and without knowing its source. We certainly know (I hope) not to show our draft to someone with whom we have a romantic relationship. That’s what our critique group is for.

And last but not least, words that speak louder than the picture:

elmoreleonard

                        Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing

A writer’s workshop on screen

Star-Trek-Into-Darkness-Poster

Joe’s Post #37 — I’m often asked, mostly by myself, how does someone write a great story? It’s a great question and I want to answer that today by looking at Star Trek: Into Darkness.

Why?

Hello! It’s a great story!

As I’m busy reading the novels of the 5/5/5 (and from my own experience writing a novel for that challenge), I’m keen to figure out what works and what doesn’t. So, hearing good things about ST:ID, I took time off to go see that movie, clear my head, refocus my mind. Being in critique mode, it’s hard to watch any movie, read any book without engaging the annoyingly analytical part of your brain.

But Into Darkness was so good it not only squashed that side of my brain, it filled it with warm and fuzzy thoughts. As I wrote in another blog, Star Trek: Into Greatness, this movie is epically awesome.

And for a few reasons that matter to me as a writer.

Structure and character.

But since I can’t really talk about structure without talking plot or pacing or themes, and thereby spoil this movie for everyone, let me go to the opening scene as an example of how to start a story.

Kirk is being chased. It doesn’t open in a bar or in a house or with a character kicking back and watching TV. No, it starts with action. Why? It’s an action movie.

He’s being chased through a cool red forest by people with spears who seem to want to kill him for taking a sacred scroll of sacredness or because they hate his big head, I dunno, but he’s running and spears are flying and then a great monster leaps out and Kirk, being Kirk, being an action guy, phaser-stuns the beastie only to have Bones leap out and say something like, “Dammit, Jim, you just shot our ride.”

Now why is this so great? Oh, it looks amazing on screen, it really does, (the blood-leafed forest makes the landscape look so alien) but for all the action, it’s funny and it shows the characters and how they react to events.

Kirk, when faced with a monster, shoots first and ask questions later.

That’s his character.

It turns out to be a bad move.

Things get worse for him (and Bones).

This is exactly what we all must make happen in our own stories.

But making an action character isn’t hard. Show him in action. Show him to be decisive, even if wrong, and show him to always be willing to make the hard choices.

But building on that to make a great character is a little more complex.

The writers start with little things like when Kirk returns to Earth, strutting through the streets like someone who’s just saved a world, spins in place to say “Hi, Jim Kirk,” to two pretty women who walk by.

Do I have those moments that define a deeper character, like Kirk talking to the girls? Or later, when confronted by someone who says he has a ‘reputation,’ he seems genuinely surprised that he does and when further pressed to remember one of his conquests, he cannot for the life of him remember so he lies and says otherwise? Lying doesn’t do him any credit as a human being but makes a better character.

Have I done the same?

The writers then add more human moments like his bewilderment and anger at the person he thinks betrayed him, or his realization that his actions do have consequences and not only for himself. Plus, (and big bonus marks here), the writers ensure those consequences make things worse. Much worse. They make him suffer. They take away all that he wants. His life is shattered. His dreams are destroyed.

But does he do? Does he give up?

No. He begins to transform.

It’s what needs to happen in every one of our stories. Our characters have to suffer and by suffering, transform. As readers, as watchers, as writers, we all love to see how people overcome the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

So, have I put my characters in constant danger where every decision they make seems to take them farther and farther from their goal? Have I made them suffer? Do they transform?

I think so, but, again, I’m-a-gonna take a long hard look at this one, too.

The writers also make sure that Kirk is active in every scene that’s he’s in. This is so important for all us writers to remember. Kirk doesn’t sit in a room full of admirals and shut up. No, he sees something, a vital clue and brings that to everyone’s attention. It would have been so easy for the writers to have an admiral dictate that entire scene, but no, they know it has to be Kirk or this story is weakened.

Are all my character’s active in my novel? I dunno, I hope so, but I’m damn sure I’m going to check now. If they are active, could they be more active, make a bigger impact on the story, on their world?

I could go on and on here, oh I really could, the villain is beatable, he has a ship that is unstoppable, allies become friends, friends allies, and let’s not forget the two hot aliens with tails.

But the best thing I can do is recommend you see this movie. Go as a writer. If you can’t get into that zone the first time, it’s ok, the movie is that good – it should take you out of that zone the first time. But see it again and look at how they develop the characters and plot. Look at how they build the villain and oh, what a villain he is. Look at how each character interacts with the others on stage and how each interaction builds the depth of all the characters.

Sure it’s an outstanding movie.

But for us writers, it can also be a lesson on how to do things right.

Balancing writing and babies

Karalee’s Post #36 — No, I’m not a grandmother (I’m definitely not old enough, or should I say feel old enough). What is happening though, is my daughter and her boyfriend are nesting. They bought their first apartment two months ago and last Saturday they’ve brought home an eight week old puppy, Bruno the Airedale.

BrunoYoung people are, well, young. Full of energy and sometimes not so practical. For instance, my daughter works in the landscape business and her boyfriend is in construction. Full-time work, plus they have their own company and work an extra three to four hours after their regular job. Plus weekends. It is awesome to see young people work so hard, but a puppy?

Practical they aren’t. They have no time to look after a puppy. And, it’s the busiest season for both of them. Why didn’t they get a dog in the winter? I don’t know. That would be more practical.

But when I think about it, I was running a full-time physiotherapy practice when I had my first, then second and finally third child. I had no family in town to help child mind, and really didn’t have ‘time’ either.

We make time. Prioritize.

So, I’m the fall out puppy-sitter. I don’t really mind except that my two dogs’ noses are severely twisted and I’m on a deadline of reading and critiquing. What about the house and garden, and my son’s graduation in two weeks and all the grandparents here too?

Timing is everything. In real life, and in fiction writing.

This week (and I’m sure the next couple of months will too) reminds me of my story I sent to my fellow 5Writers for them to critique, and how it took persistence and super attention to details to get my ducks to line up for the climax.

In comparison taking care of Bruno is easy. I’ve already figured him out: run him around for 45 minutes and then I can get 1.5 hours work done. Repeat. Repeat.

Bruno

Bruno

If only raising children and writing novels were as easy.

Happy critiquing.

In the details…

Paula’s Post #37 — Yesterday was Memorial Day in the United States, the annual holiday to honor the men and women of the armed forces and in particular those that didn’t make it home again.

A somber occasion, which somewhat perversely is often celebrated with trips to the beach and picnics, falling as it does on the weekend that is traditionally considered the first day of summer. Or for those fashionistas out there, the day we can start wearing white again.

But it is so much more than that.

We don’t celebrate Memorial Day in Canada, we honour the men and women who served on Remembrance Day – at the 11th hour, of the 11th day of the 11th month, the same time the Armistice was signed following World War I.

November 11th.

In Canada, it always rains on Remembrance Day. I know this because when I was a little girl, I played the flute in the West Vancouver Band.

West_Vancouver_Band.jpg

A concert band, as you can see from the photo above.

An indoor band.

Except on Remembrance Day. On Remembrance Day, we marched. We marched in the Remembrance Day parade.

This Memorial Day, I played golf. A beautiful glorious day in the California Desert (yes, I’m back in California for a couple of weeks). An impossibly perfect day that seemed all wrong for remembering our service men and women.

photo

For me, this juxtaposition of thoughts, these reflections on Remembrance Day and Memorial Day, brought back a flood of memories. Memories rich with surprising details, long forgotten.

I remembered that in my youth, when we marched on Remembrance Day, we’d assemble in the supermarket parking lot before the parade and the mothers and fathers in the band auxiliary would pass out plastic rain slickers to cover our blue wool uniform jackets. They even had little plastic covers for our hats. When we put the covers on, our hats and jackets mostly just looked grey, just like the weather. A fitting match for the mood and the sky.

Since I played the flute in the band, one of the few instruments where you cannot attach a lyre, they also handed out leather arm buckles for us to strap around our forearms. That way, you could stick the little square sheet of band music in the buckled-on lyre and read the sheet music when you held up your arm to play. At least that was the idea. Until it got soggy. It didn’t work very well in the rain.

Flute Lyre

But if you put your arm down and swung it back and forth while marching, with your flute tucked under your other arm like you were supposed to hold it when not playing, you risked having the music fall out on the pavement and get all wet, then you’d have to scramble out of formation and run back and pick it up and find your place again.

And then, your face was red, pretty much the only thing not grey on an otherwise grey day.

Funny how you remember these things. All these little memories tucked into the crevices of our brains. Until yesterday, I’d forgotten about those stupid flute lyres. Frankly, I’d even forgotten the word “Lyre” it is not one I use in everyday discourse. But like that, while thinking about Memorial Day and Remembrance Day, I was transported back to 1972 and marching in the West Vancouver Band in the rain.

I could see the raindrops shimmering on my silver plated flute. The trombones, playing too loud. The way the drummers tapped out a cadence for us on the rims of their drums and with their sticks, to keep us in step. Left, left, left right left… shuffle to catch up and keep the line straight.

Memories, all but forgotten until some little stimulus opened the door and brought them all out again. Writers need to remember things. That is where we find the rich details for our writing. We only need to find the right stimuli to activate those memories.

We often here the phrase:

“Write what you know.”

That doesn’t mean that you should write a story about working in an accounting firm, because you are an accountant, nor that your protagonist should be a dental assistant, because you are a dental assistant. It means that you should draw on your rich store of hidden memories to provide authentic detail in your stories. To make your readers feel like they are there, because you’ve been there before them.

That doesn’t mean you can’t write about assembling a bomb, or shooting a gun, or kidnapping, or running for President, or surviving a horrible accident. We do and must write about tall these things in fiction, fortunately, with respect to the more gruesome and horrifying events, without actually witnessing them.

But to be a good writer, we do need to find experiences in our own lives that provide the rich overlay of detail, to make our scenes alive.

So, for me, my stimuli this year was the thought of Memorial Day, and how different it is to remember the fallen in the sunshine in May, instead of in the rainstorms of November.

Somehow, the weather in November seems more fitting, although I always feel badly when it rains and I watch our aging WW II veterans march down the street in the rain without canes and walkers. They always look so serious, so proud. So frail. I’m always afraid someone is going to fall and break a hip or have a heart attack.

It always make me cry.

Yesterday, I played golf on a pristine, country club golf course, no one behind me, – just 9 holes, and a perfect blue sky day in 90 degree weather.

All by myself.

All by myself with time to think.

I enjoyed myself, but the whole time I played, it just didn’t seem fair.

So yesterday, on Memorial Day, while I was thinking about all that didn’t seem fair, I remembered all those small little details from Remembrance Day’s past. 

I don’t know if I will ever write a novel about marching in a parade in the rain. Maybe I’ll write a novel with a hired killer, stalking her prey in the rain. And if I do, I’ll remember the details: the shimmer of rain drops on the barrel of the gun, the feel of rain, sloshing in shoes, the cold and the chill of hair plastered to your cheeks.

So if and when you recall the rich details of an event, long forgotten, write them down.

Oh, and I hope yesterday, on Memorial day, you remembered someone who served.

Critical (re)thinking skills

debate

Silk’s Post #37 — The 5 Writers are deep into critique mode now, with another deadline looming. In a little less than three weeks, we must all present ourselves at Whistler, prepared to say something intelligent, helpful, and maybe even provocative about each other’s books.

My post last week, Critiquing creative spirits, tried to look ahead to the challenges we would encounter in this task, recognizing there’s a certain amount of ‘critique anxiety’ that goes along with handing your virgin 400 pages over to someone else to pass judgement on. Frankly, I thought the post was pretty common sense stuff – nothing very controversial about it.

Was I ever in for a shock.

As usual, I posted a link to Fiction Writers Guild, one of the couple of writers’ groups I belong to on LinkedIn. And then the fun began. Unbelievably, as of today the discussion thread has drawn 322 comments, from the informative to the emotional to the argumentative to the downright nasty. (For a brief moment, I even found my name at the top of the FWG list of “Top Influencers for This Week”). Granted, much of this fire was stoked by a particular contributor who brought a very strong point of view to the topic and apparently had the time and the sustained interest to defend and promote it vigorously.

It was a real learning experience for me.

I’m not generally much of a discussion group participant, truth be told. I’m already struggling with a bottomless ‘to-do’ list. So what I learned about discussion groups is probably ‘old hat’ to those who frequent them. The main take-away was how easily threads can be hijacked by anyone who is particularly passionate about the topic, or craves attention, or has an agenda of their own to serve. No surprise, really, when you think about it.

The secondary take-away is that, in a discussion group, people ‘talk’ to each other in a manner that they probably never would dare to in face-to-face conversation. That has good and bad implications. The safe distance provided by cyberspace may encourage honesty and forthrightness. That’s admirable. It may also push forthrightness past the bounds of civility and promote flat-out rudeness and bullying. That’s despicable.

I can almost hear you rolling your eyes. Naive, am I not?

But enough Psychology 101. What did I learn about writing and critiquing?

First: that there are many species of critique that span the spectrum from the tiptoeing style of “writing by committee” in a workshop setting, to the no-holds-barred style of anonymous crits in a training setting such as the “Boot Camp” program for beginning writers.

Second: that the two issues which generated the liveliest and most interesting debate (for me, anyway) were honesty in critiquing, and which aspect of the process a writer learns the most from – giving critiques or receiving critiques.

Our 5 Writers critique process seems to fall somewhere mid-spectrum in the range of approaches. It is neither anonymous nor collaborative, but collegial. That is to say, we try to give honest criticism in a face-to-face meeting (supported by written critiques and often margin notes), but we don’t “work on” each other’s stories as a group or critique re-writes. From the forum, I surmised that this approach is most appropriate for – and likely used most often by – small groups of writers who are at an intermediate or higher level of craft, and are writing in similar forms (e.g., novels) and/or genres. Mostly, such critique groups include unpublished writers, but I understand that even some published authors may find them valuable. The key seems to be working with others at a relatively well-matched skill level using agreed methods and standards for critiquing.

But what about the honesty factor? Do the absence of anonymity and the constraints of diplomacy and personal friendship inhibit the kind of forthright criticism that writers truly need to hear – even though they may dread it?

My answer is: No. Or at least, not necessarily. Read on, and I’ll tell you why I think meeting this challenge is not only achieveable, but is an extraordinarily good exercise.

My thoughts about honesty in our style of critiquing are linked to the other key debate in the forum: which aspect of the process a writer learns the most from – giving critiques or receiving critiques. The stated purpose of our 5 Writers group is to provide our members with useful critiques of their own work so they can improve their novels with the ultimate goal of getting published. This, for me, has been a tremendous help in getting past my own blind spots and identifying strengths and weaknesses in my stories. Since I would call myself an experienced writer, but a neophyte novelist, critical comments that relate to the craft of storytelling are especially helpful for me.

However, over the couple of years I’ve belonged to the group, I’ve come to realize that I am, in fact, learning more from doing the critiques of others’ work than I am from receiving their critiques of mine. This has been a surprise, and perhaps it took me a while to recognize it precisely because it was unexpected. Why would I be learning more by giving than receiving?

The explanation is perfectly captured in the axiom:

“If you want to learn something, read about it.
If you want to understand something, write about it.
If you want to master something, teach it.” — 
Yogi Bhajan

When you have to give a written critique, it forces you to really think about the strength or weakness you’re commenting on. You have to get down to the specifics and articulate the problem in terms that will be useful to the writer. In other words, you must come to thoroughly understand your own critical thoughts before you can convey your insights, in writing, to someone else.

Very frequently, this thought process delivers an extra zinger: you recognize that your own work has the very same problem somewhere, but you had not quite been able to put your finger on it until you recognized it in someone else’s book.

Going back to the issue of honesty and diplomacy: I believe that the deliberate effort to serve up sometimes serious criticism in a digestible manner that will nourish the writer actually adds to the learning experience for the giver as well as the recipient of the critique. Some think that adding the ‘condition’ of being diplomatic rather than blunt inevitably dilutes the hard truth with equivocation or false praise.

I’m sure that happens. Maybe often. But I don’t believe it’s at all inevitable. The challenge of writing out the ‘hard truth’ in an honest but respectful (and, yes, sensitive) manner forces us to use our critical thinking skills – and writing skills – to the fullest extent. Therefore, we learn the most from writing the toughest critiques, and doing it well.

A great critique helps the writer receiving it to literally see his/her work through the eyes of the critique giver. As we learn this skill of critiquing, we also learn the corollary skill of seeing our own work through fresh eyes. Even more important, we learn to visualize our own work through the eyes of a reader. Perhaps not everyone gets out of this process what I do, but I believe these lessons are there to be learned for those who invest serious time and effort into doing their critiques.

Bottom line: things that are the hardest to do are the things that we learn the most from in our attempts to master them. And “hard” does not mean “impossible.” It just means, in the immortal words of novelist John Irving in The Hotel New Hampshire:

“… you’ve got to get obsessed and stay obsessed.”

A Master’s Voice

le carre

Illustration credit: Kathryn Rathke

Helga’s Post # 35 — I came across a great article about spy author par excellence, John le Carré. As one of his fans, I would like to share his secrets about writing, especially since my blog muse refused to make an appearance today. I loved to learn about his favorite tricks, his golden rule, his role models, in short, his writing style that made him such an icon. The excerpts are from The Economist magazine ‘Intelligent Life’.

First, a little background on the Master:

David Cornwell did not want to be a writer. As a teacher in the 1950s he dreamt of being an artist, and would paint in his spare time. By 1960, however, as an intelligence officer for MI6 in Bonn, he was writing in frantic hours after work. From then on, he was John le Carré.

 

Born in Dorset in 1931, he was brought up by non-conformist grandparents and a Micawber-like father (note: if you, like me had to look it up, it means ‘one who is poor but lives in optimistic expectation of better fortune’) who had spells in prison and sent his son to an expensive school. “From a largely working-class background,” he once said, “I was being groomed for something more refined.” He read languages at Oxford, emerging with a first.

 

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold“, his first hit, turns 50 this year. Written in the early days of the Berlin wall, it anatomises the horror of the cold war. “We forget the terror too easily,” le Carré says. His 22 novels, eight of which feature George Smiley, prevent us from doing so. The master of dialogue as a form of interrogation, he writes with an urgency that distances him from the pack of thriller writers. His next arrives this month; his 2010 novel “Our Kind of Traitor” is being made into a film.Richard-Burton-in-The-Spy-006

 

One of his Key Decisions: To use the jargon of spycraft. Smiley’s people are lamplighters, scalphunters and talent-spotters. Secretaries are “mothers”; spies on your side are “part of the family”. To be blackmailed is to be “burned”, a style of spying is “handwriting” and a failed mission is “being sent home in your socks”. Like boarding school, the secret service runs on nicknames and catchphrases. Le Carré’s skill stops this being irritating, and lets us join the club.

 

His Golden Rule:  Keep it simple. He favours short words. This makes the odd descriptive flourish—such as the image, in “Call for the Dead”, of lines in a face “cutting the skin into squares”—all the more piercing, like a match suddenly lit in the gloom.

 

His strong points:

1) Use of free indirect style, like Jane Austen. In nearly all his novels, le Carré flits between first and third person. He can catch the inflection of speech—”Lord knows”— while never fully giving his characters away. It is the technique of an author who wants to hold his cards to his chest.

2) Short chapters that often end on cliff-hangers. Conversation will be cut off mid-speech at the end of one chapter, to be taken up in the next. Brevity is the key: three months in prison will be covered in three pages. A punchy statement sends you racing to the next page: “And suddenly, with the terrible clarity of a man too long deceived, Leamas understood the whole ghastly trick.”

3) Smiley. “A small, frog-like figure in glasses, an earnest, worried little man.” Le Carré’s most famous creation is a donnish, seemingly “expressionless” figure, watery eyes hidden behind owlish lenses. Epitomising the intelligence of his craft, he is the opposite of the bandit-like figure of James Bond.

 

His favourite trick: Setting the scene in sharp outlines. “The thin rain hung in the air, so that the light from the arclamps was sallow and chalky, screening the world beyond.”

 

Role Models: He confesses he owes much to Graham Greene: his precision, lucidity and the ability to throw you into a scene with beads of sweat on your brow. Like Greene, he deserves to rub shoulders with the seemingly more literary Joseph Conrad, whose lonely single men and corrupt officials seep into le Carré.

 

Typical Sentences: It takes three (two short, one long) to show his measured fury. “‘This is a war,’ Leamas replied. ‘It’s graphic and unpleasant because it is fought on a tiny scale at close range; fought with a wastage of innocent life sometimes, I admit. But it’s nothing, nothing at all besides other wars—the last or the next.'” (“The Spy Who Came in from the Cold”)

 

He continues to inspire me on every level. Whether it’s plot, or his memorable characters that make me feel as if I know them in person, and his mastery of the language, all make me read his books over and over again. Not long ago I dusted off my well worn copy of “The Little Drummer Girl” and I enjoyed it as if I were reading it the first time. Mind you, he is not the easiest to read. He challenges his readers with a plethora of complex characters, many of whom have secrets you won’t guess until the very end.

A master of voice and deception. Above all, a storyteller that never lets me down.

 

“15 Things a Writer Should Never Do”

Joe’s Post #36 — Busy reading 5/5/5 books. Just finished the first one. Three more to go. So, with no writing being done (a big mistake on my part) and no agents demanding to read the most amazing novel of all time, let’s look at a cool article from WD.

From Writer’s Digest. By Zak Petit (my comments are below his)

Based on interviews with authors over the years, conferences, editing dozens of issues of Writer’s Digest, and my own occasional literary forays and flails, here are some points of consensus and observations: 15 of them, things anyone who lives by the pen (or seeks to) might consider. It is, like most things in the writing world, a list in progress—and if you’ve got your own Dos or Don’ts to add, I’d love to hear them in the Comments.

1. Don’t assume there is any single path or playbook writers need to follow. (Or, for that matter, a definitive superlative list of Dos and Don’ts …) Simply put: You have to do what works best for you. Listen to the voices in your head, and learn to train and trust them. More often than not, they’ll let you know if you’re on the right path. People often bemoan the surplus of contradictory advice in the writing world—but it’s there because there really is no yellow-brick road, and a diversity of perspectives allows you to cherry-pick what uniquely suits you and your abilities.

— Oh how many times in how many ways has everyone heard the ‘You can’t’ litany. You can’t write in first and third person. You can’t write a book about S&M sex. You can’t write in crayon and send it to an agent with a lock of your own hair (ok, that one may be true.) But seriously, the moment anyone tells you you can’t do something, I guarantee there is someone who did. And got published.

2. Don’t try to write like your idols. Be yourself. Yeah, it sounds a bit cheesy, but it’s true: The one thing you’ve got that no one else does is your own voice, your own style, your own approach. Use it. (If you try to pretend to write like anyone else, your readers will know.) Perhaps author Allegra Goodman said it best: “Know your literary tradition, savor it, steal from it, but when you sit down to write, forget about worshiping greatness and fetishizing masterpieces.”

— In the end, we all write stories in our own unique way. I love that I can write in a YA style, a noir style and a rich fantasy world style. But they are all still me.

3. Don’t get too swept up in debates about outlining/not outlining, whether or not you should write what you know, whether or not you should edit as you go along or at the end—again, just experiment and do what works best for you. The freedom that comes with embracing this approach is downright cathartic.

— Exactly. What works for one, may not work for another. Both have advantages and disadvantages. Me, I have sticky-notes attached to sticky-notes attached to walls, lamps, a mind map and sometimes my shoe. Hey, it’s my way and it mostly works.

4. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket when it comes to pitching something—always be working on your next book or idea while you’re querying. Keeping your creative side in gear while focusing on the business of selling your work prevents bigger stalls in your writing life down the road.

— This is a lesson I needed to relearn. Had I to do it all over again, I would start another novel right after finishing the YA one in 5 months. As soon as I finish with the June critique, I’ll rework the YA story then start a new one.

5. Don’t be unnecessarily dishonest, rude, hostile—people in the publishing industry talk, and word spreads about who’s great to work with, and who’s not. Publishing is a big business, but it’s a pretty incestuous business. Keep those family reunions gossip free.

— Treat them like you’d treat your family. Ok, maybe not your family because of that time your brother borrowed your car and got drunk and threw up in the tape player and then stuffed your favourite David Bowie mix tape in there and that tape took forever to make and… well, you get the idea. Me, I treat them like I hope they would treat me one day.

6. Don’t ever hate someone for the feedback they give you. No piece of writing is universally beloved. Nearly every beta reader, editor or agent will have a different opinion of your work, and there’s value in that. Accept what nuggets you believe are valid, recognize the recurring issues you might want/need to address, and toss the edits your gut tells to toss. (Unless the changes are mandatory for a deal—in which case you’ll need to do some deeper soul searching.) Be open to criticism—it will make you a better writer.

— I dunno about this one. I heard feedback from one agent given to another writer, not me, no really, not me, but he said, “Your writing isn’t professional.” Ok, what are you supposed to do with that? It’s just too vague, dismissive and somewhat mean-spirited to be of any value. But if you ever get a professional in the business to give you some constructive feedback, not matter how hard it is to hear, give it a good go around in your head and see if it could help.

7. … But, don’t be susceptible to the barbs of online trolls—you know, those people who post sociopathic comments for the sake of posting sociopathic comments. That’s what trolls do: they troll (on Amazon, Goodreads, Twitter, etc.). It’s not personal. Which means the message at the core of their words means as little as the 0s and 1s used to code it. Ignore them heartily.

Oh those trolls. Good lord. Find a way to ignore them.

8. Don’t ever lower you guard when it comes to the basics: Good spelling, healthy mechanics, sound grammar. They are the foundations that keep our writing houses from imploding … and our queries from hitting the recycling bin before our stories can speak for themselves.

— Amen!

9. Don’t ever write something in an attempt to satisfy a market trend and make a quick buck. By the time such a book is ready to go, the trend will likely have passed. The astronomical amount of romantic teenage vampire novels in desk drawers is more than a nuisance—it’s a wildfire hazard. Write the story that gives you insomnia.

— What, no vampire-zombie dystopia novels with bow-wielding heroines? I could write one, you know, I really could.

10. Don’t be spiteful about another writer’s success. Celebrate it. As author Amy Sue Nathan recalled when detailing her path to publication in the upcoming July/August 2013 issue of WD: “Writers I knew were landing book deals and experiencing other things I was working toward, so I made a decision to learn from them instead of begrudging them. I learned that another author’s success doesn’t infringe on mine.”

— Honestly, it’s other people’s successes that keep me going.

11. Don’t ever assume it’s easy. Writers with one book on shelves or one story in print often had to keep stacking up unpublished manuscripts until they could reach the publisher’s doorbell. (The exception being those lucky 19-year-old savants you sometimes hear about, or, say, Snooki. But, hey, success still isn’t guaranteed—after all, Snooki’s Gorilla Beach: A Novel has only sold 3,445 copies.) Success is one of those things that’s often damn near impossible to accurately predict unless you already have it in spades.

— Hey, it’s not easy. I’m not Snooki.

12. Don’t forget to get out once in a while. Writing is a reflection of real life. It’s all too easy to sit too long at that desk and forget to live it.

— Wait? What? Writing is a reflection of real life? It better not be because that would mean I need to write a book about napping on the couch, going to the bathroom, eating a hamburger over the sink or hunting for lint in my belly button.

13. Don’t ever discount the sheer teaching power (and therapeutic goodness) of a great read. The makeshift MFA program of countless writers has been a well-stocked bookshelf.

— OMG so true. Next week, I’m going to post about the openings to some of my favourite books.

14. Don’t be afraid to give up … on a particular piece. Sometimes, a story just doesn’t work, and you shouldn’t spend years languishing on something you just can’t fix. (After all, you can always come back to it later, right?)

— Yup, some of the novels I’ve written will remain in a sealed vault beneath my hot water tank. They were practice novels. Nothing more. And any rumors that one of those books is the great american novel that combines the explosive sexuality of 50 shades with the character depth of Game of Thrones and the gut-splitting humor of Douglas Adams should not be believed.

15. But, don’t ever really give up. Writers write. It’s what we do. It’s what we have to do. Sure, we can all say over a half-empty bottle of wine that we’re going to throw the towel in this time, but let’s be honest: Very few of us ever do. And none of us are ever really all that surprised when we find ourselves back at our computers, tapping away, and waiting for that electric, amazing moment when the pebble of a story shakes loose and begins to skitter down that great hill …

— I can’t. 

I write therefore I am.

Thanks to Writer’s Digest and Zachary Petit for inspiring this.

Reading is part of the writing process

Karalee’s Post #36

coffee and paper(image by misspudding)

I love to read and have been reading many self-help books in the last year and I’m absolutely enjoying reading my 5Writer’s fiction stories. I’m a slow reader so am quite anxious that I may not get through my commitment to critique and contribute to the extent that meets my own expectations. That said, I know I’ll do my best and that is what counts.

A blog post I’ve read recently sums up why I write and what I’m looking for in my fellow 5Writer’s:

http://www.livewritethrive.com/2013/05/20/the-sensitive-passionate-story/

Another blog post that is fun to read is http://jmmcdowell.com/2013/05/21/some-light-reading/

Time is of the essence as we’re a crazy bunch to read and critique all four submissions in four weeks! Thank goodness it’s predicted to be a rainy week.

To me being part of a writing group is a privilege. It has pushed me into and through and into another level of discomfort to expose my innermost creative processes that sometimes is hard to admit to myself I have those thoughts! It’s a wonderful and a very important aspect to being challenged to become the writer I’m meant to be. It’s a win-win and I don’t take the feedback personally, rather as an opportunity to do something even better than I submitted to my trusted friends.

I’m absolutely looking forward to the feedback I will be getting. 

So, I need to get back back to reading and contributing to the ongoing process that is part of what a writing group does. As far as a reader goes, I’m the turtle here. Nothing like understanding one’s attributes. 

I think I may be the only one in our group that can say this: I can’t wait to start the editing process. Yes, I LOVE editing because my story is already there and I can simply work on making it the best it can be. I enjoy getting back into the story and feeling it come alive again as I reread it. We all know that setting our writing aside for awhile is the best way to highlight what is and isn’t working.

I know that the weakness I have in getting my story written in the first place is the self-editing I do along the way. It’s a blessing too, and being aware of my habit, I can make it work for me and not against me.

I still remember being surprised at the Surrey International Writer’s Conference when I learned that many well-known and bestselling authors still belong to a writing group. Writing can be a lonely process, and belonging in a writing group not only is a social outlet, it also is a strong contributor to developing and refining our craft. 

Happy reading and writing.

Unravelling technology… Or just unravelling?

Paula’ s Post #36 — Coming to you live from my ‘Unravelling Technology’ seminar in beautiful Indian Wells California. A beautiful venue… a sumptuous free breakfast… A movie star handsome, high-energy presenter … All at the right price:

Free!

How cool!

Like it or not, being tech savvy is so incredibly important, for writers, for professionals for everyone.

So … I’m not posting today, I’m learning, juggling my iPad and iPhone, simultaneously taking notes and blogging.

So, I promise to post more next week … this week, I’m too busy getting tips on posting.

In the meantime, you may enjoy this:

Check out this video on YouTube:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GAx845QaOck&feature=youtube_gdata_player

Critiquing creative spirits

whistler

Credit: Randy Lincks photo.

Silk’s Post #36 — After all these months of sweat over our manuscripts, we now have our critiquing retreat scheduled for June. Or as I’ve been calling it, Critter Week. With our lofty goal of getting all our 5 novels published (and why aim for less?), it’s appropriate that we’ll be meeting high in the coastal mountains at Whistler, BC.

Perhaps I should re-tag it the 5 Writers Critter Summit.

We convened at Joe’s house last week for a pre-retreat planning session. I was impressed with the nutritionally-balanced sustenance Joe provided, including some kind of sugar-dusted pastry things filled with chocolate, a very upscale cheese plate, and some cucumbers sliced so artistically it would have made Martha Stewart proud. He sliced them himself. I watched him. (End of colourful backstory.)

After we sorted out what our room arrangements would be for four women, one man and a dog, the conversation naturally turned to critique etiquette. It’s one thing to subject a chapter or two to the scrutiny of critters (during our monthly critique sessions, we were submitting 30 pages at a time), but quite another to submit your whole book to be picked apart … the book you’ve just spent nine months gestating, like a baby (in the analogy shared by Helga’s and Karalee’s recent posts).

Yes, there’s a bit of critique anxiety in the air. Look, it’s hard for creative spirits to take criticism. We writers share our thin-skin DNA with visual artists, filmmakers, designers, actors, musicians, in fact all manner of creative types. Creative people take big emotional risks by exposing their innermost thoughts, insights and feelings to the world in works of art that we hope will entertain, enlighten and move our audience.

When they applaud, they validate our art and empower us. When they boo, they crush our fragile egos.

Okay, creatives, don’t get your knickers in a twist over the “fragile egos” comment. If you bristle at that, it only demonstrates that you’re not really ready for honest criticism yet. But let me clarify. In my humble opinion (and with absolutely no professional credentials in the field of psychology), all human beings have fragile egos.

The difference with creatives is that, in order to make art that aims to have an emotional effect on other people, we put our own egos on the line and subject ourselves to the judgement of others. You can’t build a fortress around your soul when you’re creating art meant for the public. There’s a reason for the “tortured artist” stereotype. There’s also a reason for the “starving artist” stereotype, and one of the objectives of our 5 Writers group is to help each other avoid any hint of either torture or starvation.

Isn’t it every writer’s goal to be recognized, appreciated and financially rewarded? Well, there’s just one little step we all need to get through to make that possible. We have to be damn good. (Sigh.) So, yes, we’re back to the subject of critiquing (and critique anxiety), remembering it has one simple purpose: to make our books damn good.

spark

Credit: iStock licensed photo.

So, how to critique creative spirits in a manner that reveals their writing weaknesses and stimulates them write a better book, without sapping their confidence and killing their all-important creative spark?

Truthfully, this is an awesome responsibility. It requires honesty with diplomacy. We have to  be detailed enough to provide meaningful criticism without being picky or petty or prescriptive or sarcastic or dismissive. Critters need to explain why the strong parts work as thoughtfully as why the weak parts fail. We have to be forthright in our judgements about those things subject to legitimate critique (like character, plot, and pace), while withholding judgement about things that aren’t “on the table” (like choice of genre).

And, ultimately, we have to try to see the book we’re critiquing through the eyes of an agent, an editor, and a reader … a book that was written by an author who has become a friend and a confidant. This isn’t easy. But it’s necessary.

Since I have previously finished only one first draft of a full length novel and only a partial first draft in our 5 Writers challenge, I’d have to be considered the “junior” member of our group (at my age, you have to love being a “junior” anything). However, when it comes to critiquing creatives I have decades of related experience. And in the task ahead, I know I’m going to have to tap into every lesson learned.

Way back in time when the dinosaurs roamed the earth, as a junior graphic designer and copywriter, I once got fired from a great job at a design agency for being too headstrong. Speaking of fragile egos, I was devastated. Tears were shed. Souls were searched. In the end, instead of turning to something safer, like rodeo riding or nuclear physics, I went into business for myself. I vowed, Scarlett O’Hara style, never to work for anyone again.

It took what seemed like forever, working from the smallest home office in the world, to build up my own agency. In a few years I hired my first employee, and a few years later I had a dozen, including some of the best creative talent in the marketplace. Now I was a creative director, not just a designer and writer, and had to learn a whole new skill set: critiquing, coaching, and leading talented people who each had their own great ideas, their own vulnerable egos, and the chops to easily walk out the door and find a good job somewhere else. The path was not without pitfalls, but a truckload of creative awards and many continuing happy relationships with creative colleagues to this day demonstrate that I must have learned some lessons over time.

Apart from my never-ending attempt to master the discipline of “people skills” – a cosmos filled with both shining stars and black holes – one of the most important of those lessons was to recognize that the job of the creative director is to encourage originality (what’s the big idea?), while seeing the work from the point of view of the target market (does it resonate?), and presenting it in a way that will sell it (can it get past the gatekeeper, aka the client?).

In my new career as a writer (and critter), these principles still hold true. A “damn good” book has to be fresh and authentic. An original “voice” is gold. It has to have audience appeal (which also means the writer has to have a keen sense of who that audience will be). It has to move people in some way, have an effect. And it has to get past the gatekeepers – in the book world, these are agents, editors and publishers – or it simply won’t be sold.

Yes, okay, I know it isn’t the whole story. I’m leaving aside the gigantic subject of self-publishing, which will perhaps be a subject for another day.

I’m also leaving aside the suspicion, harboured by many unpublished writers and unfortunately supported by at least anecdotal evidence, that getting published is more like winning a lottery than achieving a level of excellence deserving of recognition. It’s true. Life isn’t fair. One of the other things I learned as a creative director is that you can put your heart and soul into a creative pitch, have the best idea in the universe, execute it brilliantly, seem to wow the client, and yet fail to win the account for all kinds of frivolous reasons. The fix was in beforehand, maybe over a game of golf. Or the client’s wife doesn’t like green, and you made the logo green. Or someone’s nephew works for the other agency. Or somebody didn’t like somebody’s tie/politics/joke/handshake. Or (dare I say it?) because the client just made a terrible mistake. We’ve all heard of manuscripts shot down in the first five pages for reasons that sound just as ridiculous.

But, as critters, it’s beyond our power to make life fair.

So our challenge at the 5 Writers Critter Summit is simple but not easy. Help each other write/re-write damn good books with the “right stuff” to have a fighting chance of getting published. And offer our critiques in a manner that brightens, rather than dampens, each writer’s creative spark.

Like advice about how to write, there is a great deal of useful information out there about how to critique. Yes, it can be a learned skill to a great degree. But, like writing itself, in the end it’s an art.