An act of ego and a painted love letter

Helga’s Post #60:

o-kligman-570

‘Red Black and Silver’ by Jackson Pollock

This post is in honor of the 5 Writers’ upcoming deadline in early 2014. That’s when we are meeting to present outlines of our next novels.

It’s all about plot. To give your characters something to do.

One of the most agonizing decisions a writer will make is to decide on a plot for his or her first or next book. Endless choices. What to do? Write a novel that is a disguised autobiography? Pretend you invented your protagonist (which in reality is you, the author), as well as the antagonist, (your ex-spouse or your less than beloved sibling or parent) that engage in all that mischief in your novel.

Apparently, autobiographies that pretend to be fictional characters happen with alarming regularity. Sometimes thinly disguised (usually newbie writers) while better authors hide it more cleverly. It’s safe to assume that all of us create at least one character in our writing that is closely copied on someone we know, and more often, ourselves. ‘Writing is an act of ego and you might as well admit it,’ according to literary critic and writer William Zinsser. It makes sense. Write what you know.

So you decided more or less on your characters, maybe even before you have the outline of your plot, or the other way around. What will the plot be? You needn’t look far. Just read or listen to the news. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction. A minefield for writers deciding on a plot. Let’s look at a few examples. The most recent, in fact from today’s news, contain some beauties. Black Friday. The day after America gave thanks:

Police intervened in a shoplifting scheme outside a Kohl’s in Illinois. Officers chased two suspects who reportedly stole clothing. An officer was involved in a struggle and was dragged by a car driven by one of the suspects in the parking lot. Shots were fired, and the suspect was struck in the shoulder. The suspect and the officer were hospitalized.

A Las Vegas shopper who bought a TV from Target was shot by a thief while taking his purchase to his home. Warning shots by the robber caused the victim to drop the television. As the thief tried to load the TV into a car, he fired two more shots, striking the victim in the leg.

A man in Claypool Hill, West Virginia, was slashed to the bone with a knife after threatening another man with a gun in an argument over a Wal-Mart parking spot, Tazewell County Sheriff Brian Hieatt told NBC. Both faced charges after the incident.

Nice going. That could make a neat intro for a novel about the First World’s drug of choice, consumerism. Add some conspiracy theory on how big business gets into our brains with all sorts of subliminal images to get us hooked. Add some greedy multinational executive and a Chinese Communist party billionaire, and you got yourself a fine thriller. Call it the decay of civilization or something more fetching.

Black-Friday-Stampede

Black Friday Stampede.

If you are in the process of deciding on the image of your antagonist, you need look no further than the Chicago Tribune website ‘Mugs in the news – A collection of Chicago-area arrest photos’. It features 100 mug shots to get you started, complete with names and charges from attempted murder to every conceivable crime you ever heard of.

But let’s not dwell entirely on the violent stuff. If your forte lies in a genre less blood-lusty, you will find lots of juicy news that could be part of the plot for your next novel. Here is a recent snippet. I love the intrigue and romance of this love triangle story:

You could call it CSI art world, as reported in a Mail Online article.

‘How hair from a bear skin rug proved Pollock’s last work really was a love letter to his mistress.

A retired New York City detective has used forensic techniques to help solve one of the art world’s longest running cold cases over a disputed Jackson Pollock painting. For 57 years the artist’s mistress, Ruth Kligman, has claimed he created Red, Black & Silver as a love token for her, one month before he was killed in a car crash.the-last-pollock_2728930b

And now, thanks to the discovery of fur from a polar bear skin rug and hair from the artist, forensics expert Nicholas Petraco has authenticated her story. Traces of the fur from a rug in Pollock’s East Hampton home, a hair from the artist and sand unique to his neighborhood have all been found in the painting. The discovery marks the first time crime scene analysis has been used to prove a painting’s authenticity by looking for fragments found in it, rather than just on the paint.’

Granted, that by itself does not a story make. But the character of the mistress is fascinating. (Andy Warhol and other famous artists had a crush on her too.) And the outcome for her (by now her estate) was huge: a multi-million dollar windfall instead of zero if it were a fake. All due to a hair from a fur rug. We writers are creative. We could spin a yarn from this snippet – with fictionalized characters of course – that could be the springboard for a 400-page novel. It always starts with the writer’s two most often used words: “What if…”

Oh, the possibilities.

Here’s another one, quite different. Writers who love the macabre might find excitement and inspiration in this story:

‘(Reuters) – A German policeman has been arrested after the chopped-up body of a man he met on a fetishist website for cannibalism was found buried in his garden, police in the eastern city of Dresden said on Friday. “The victim had been fantasizing about being killed and eaten by someone else since his youth,” Dresden police chief Dieter Kroll told a news conference. It was not immediately clear whether any act of cannibalism had taken place. The investigation recalled the case of Armin Meiwes, dubbed the “Cannibal of Rothenburg”, who killed and ate a man who had advertised on the Internet for someone to kill him “and leave no trace”. Meiwes, who filmed the act, received a life sentence in 2006. Dresden police said the suspect was a 55-year-old who worked as a technical expert in the criminal investigation department. The victim was identified only as a 59-year-old man from Hanover and the case was being treated as murder, they said.’

Not my forte.

Nothing yet that holds appeal for you? Try this, just reported today:

‘Remote-controlled helicopter allegedly used for prison smuggling’.

Or this:

LONDON – The London Fire Brigade is asking the public to use some “common sense” after firefighters assisted a man whose penis was stuck in a toaster. The Fire Brigade said the 1,300 emergency calls involving people stuck or trapped since 2010 included a man with his penis stuck in a toaster, an adult stuck in a child’s toy car and 79 people who were unable to free themselves from handcuffs donned for amorous purposes, The Mirror Reported Monday.

Don’t you just love these images? So have fun, let your mind stray as you plan your next novel.

How to write a synopsis

synopsis

Joe’s Post #72 — How do you write one?

Damned if I know. I’m bad at it. Like really bad. Like Highlander 2 bad.

It’s a hard thing for me to do. You know, write one or two pages on something that’s actually 500 pages long. What do you leave out? What themes, subplots and clever little jokes do I keep? How do I condense thousands upon thousands of my wonderful words and unbelievably brilliant ideas into something exciting without confusing the sh*t out of everyone?

But, as already stated in previous blogs, I am nothing if not stubborn, so for the last few days, I’ve been working on my synopsis. Lots of them.

It hasn’t gone well, but today, I think I cracked it.

How did I do that?

I got out of my head and just wrote about the best parts of my story. Not “and then this happens and this happens, and then someone’s penis falls off.” Nope. I tried to hit the key points, the ones I would talk about if anyone asked about my book.

I have no idea if it works any better than the previous 11 drafts. Not a clue. But it flows better, that’s for sure, and it was kinda fun to write. So, maybe that’s the secret.

I started out with a sentence describing my story. I chose one similar to (but not exactly the same as) the one I’d written for my query. Then I worked on characters and what they wanted and what stood in their way and why it mattered and what they did to overcome the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

That led to five pages of writing.

Too long.

I cut back as much as I could.

Four pages.

More needed to be cut.

I took out most of the lead-up. No one at the conference ever said to me, “hey handsome Joe, tell me more about the backstory.”

I deleted all the subplots. Fun as they are, they distract from the story when you’ve only got a few pages to work with.

That got me to three pages.

Just one more to go.

I could do it.

I took a break, grabbed a beer, watched Dallas fumble on their first possession (that’s football talk for those in the know) and then went back to it. With coffee. And a donut. Ok, three donuts.

And then I had two pages.

Probably as good as I could do. It focused on what the agents had questioned me about. World-building. The magic. The big bad.

So, Monday, it’ll be time to send it all off. Query, synopsis, 10 pages (bio if necessary).

Here’s a link if you want to check it out. There are many like it, but this one’s pretty darn good.

johnnySorry there are none written by Johnny Depp.

Writer’s epiphany, where does it come from?

Karalee’s Post #56

I’ve been struggling, really struggling (okay, I’ve admitted it) to create a super protagonist that I relate to on a deep visceral level and someone who I can struggle and grow with. That is what I yearn to do in my novel. I’m also convinced that when I get into that groove I will have so much fun and satisfaction that getting published will be the icing on a rich multi-layered chocolate cake. Now that’s a great vision.

But a vision doesn’t get the job done. So what is this epiphany I’m talking about? 

The genre I love writing in is mystery thriller and I’ve gravitated to having a female detective. But in reality, I’m not a cop and don’t live and breathe cop-ese. I’ve done my homework to learn about the trade, such as taking a Police Academy course and going on a ride-along for a 12-hour shift (great experience and I was there after a bank robbery, a stolen car, and stolen property that brought the police dogs out). And, of course, there is always ongoing reading and research, and I have some practice in shooting guns in Las Vegas at one of their many “gun experience” stores.

That said, progress on my manuscript has been lagging behind my enthusiasm. It’s not that I haven’t been busy regarding my writing career. I’ve taken Jami Gold’s ‘Seat of your Pants’ outlining course and have spent productive time learning more about the Scrivener writing software so I can be more efficient in my organisation of my manuscript and have sent off a short story to one of Writers Digest contests.

And all the while, I’ve been trying to visualize and write out who my protagonist really is.

Yes, my days have been full to overflowing, but all told my satisfaction level has been low and my self-inflicted nemesis called Guilt has been swooping down trying to claw at me like Hitchcock’s, The Birds. I was twelve and babysitting when I first saw that movie.

Maybe you remember where you were too?

I can still see it and feel it as though it were yesterday and I was WAY TOO SCARED to go upstairs and check on the children sleeping!

That may have been the start of my writing career now that I think about it. What would I do to be able to instill such a long-lasting emotional response to a story? It is well worth devoting my life to, and NO, I’m not setting my expectations too high.

With my manuscript progressing at a staggering limp I decided to offer my help to a friend that is trying to write a non-fiction book. I can introduce her to Scrivener and help her organize and we can spin our ideas together.

We are meeting on Friday. 

What fun!  And it is still in the writing arena to boot.

Today I was sorting through some Christmas stocking stuffers I have been accumulating throughout the year in the anticipation of making a list for a shopping afternoon with my daughter on Friday. I was opening the bags and looking at this and that, and remembering where I was and what I was doing when I had purchased them. My mind was in neutral and I was simply enjoying the peace of the moment.

Then out of nowhere an epiphany hit.

A 3-D image complete with a life history popped into my head as if it had been dropped from outer-space by an alien. Maybe they are out there throwing down images all the time, mind-melding with us humans, maybe spreading propaganda too … (Yes, I was a Sci-Fi fan way back, even going to conventions!) Most people say it is our subconscious at work, but I think aliens sound better.

But, by whatever means the images and feelings came to me, my protagonist had a sudden life-altering experience. Not a sex change or a lottery windfall, rather a new role in the policing world of forensics and solving murders. (TBA in my first bestselling book!)

So today I’m a happy writer again, and my advice is to go out there and work on a project that has been bugging you and needs to be done, one that doesn’t take Einstein-like concentration, and one that you can let your mind wander around with no place to ‘have to be’.

Then simply enjoy the moment and let the aliens help!

Happy writing.

Interview with the protagonist – take #2

on-the-air

Substitute for Silk’s Post #61 — Follow-up interview conducted in National Public Radio studios, KPLU Seattle-Tacoma.

Interviewer:  Good morning on this partly-sunny Thanksgiving week Monday. Welcome once again to Book Talk: New Voices, a weekly exploration of emerging writers. And speaking of ‘sunny’, regular Book Talk listeners may remember my unusual interview last April with Sunny Laine, who is not an author at all, but a new protagonist in an upcoming mystery-suspense story by emerging writer Silk Questo. The story is set right here in Seattle, and today Sunny is back to update us on her, uh, development … Hello again Sunny.

Sunny:  Hi. Thanks for having me, but … look, I don’t want to get off on the wrong foot here, but could I just make one comment?

Interviewer:  Well, certainly. That’s why you’re here.

Sunny:  Development? That’s what you said – my development. That’s a little impersonal sounding, you know? I mean, I’m not a new mall. I’m a human being. Okay, I know I’m fictional, but I do have feelings, right? Frankly, I’m just a little sensitive on this topic.

Interviewer:  I see. Well, uh, you know I haven’t had the chance to interview many, uh, people like yourself – fictional characters, that is – so I’m curious about your unique perspective. Can you tell me a little more about this sensitivity?

Sunny:  To be honest, I’ve had a difficult time finding myself and I’m even beginning to wonder whether my story is going anywhere. I’ve been doing a lot of sitting around, waiting for Silk, and it’s making me stir crazy. No one likes to be neglected, you know? It’s nerve-wracking.

Interviewer:  Sounds like you’re frustrated.

Sunny:  Frustrated, yes. And a little scared.

Interviewer:  Scared?

Sunny:  Yeah! Wouldn’t you be? My life hangs in the balance here. I mean, will I die on the page before I even get a chance to live?

Interviewer:  Well, you have the microphone here, Sunny. What would you like to say to Silk about your feelings?

Sunny:  How about, “Get the lead out girlfriend!” I mean, I don’t want her to think I’m … difficult. It’s just that, as I said last time, it’s not easy being a protagonist in an unfinished book. Especially one that’s creeping along at the pace of a three-toed sloth. I keep telling her it only takes nine months to gestate a real, living baby – shouldn’t she be able to pop out one little book in a year?

Interviewer:  And what is the ETA for this manuscript you’re starring in?

Sunny:  (Laughs) Silk says end of the year.

Interviewer:  And what do you say?

Sunny:  I say, what year would that be?

Interviewer:  My goodness. Well, let’s move on to other subjects. How have you changed since we last chatted?

Sunny:  Well, that’s the good news. I got a big promotion to ‘first person’ status, so now I’m telling my own story in my own voice. I’m really excited about it.

Interviewer:  Wonderful! So I’m guessing you have a bit more influence on the story now?

Sunny:  You bet. The first thing I did was stop going to my law classes. I’m really not big on sitting on my backside in a lecture hall. Boring, boring, boring.

Interviewer:  But how will you get your law degree, then? I thought that was so important to you! Weren’t you on a mission to get justice for – who was it? – someone in your family.

Sunny:  My brother Wolf. But don’t worry about my academic career. I can do this. Believe me. But I’ll do it my way.

Interviewer:  You sound very determined. I just hope you know what you’re doing.

Sunny:  Me too.

Interviewer:  Now, on another front, how are your relationships with your fellow characters going? Any love interests we can look forward to?

Sunny:  There will be if I have anything to say about it. But the ‘person of interest’ I have in mind will be a real challenge. One of those hard-to-get types. Mystery man, right? Deep. With a bit of a dark side. Those bad boys always turn me on. But he’s really good-hearted inside. Or I hope so …

Interviewer:  Sounds delicious. And dare I ask about the villain? I believe we established that this is a murder mystery when we last spoke, and I assume you’ve been reassured by Silk that you’re not the victim. Do you know who your evil opponent is?

Sunny:  Sore, sore subject. The fact is I still don’t know if I’m a victim or not, and that’s very unnerving, to say the least. I mean, if I get killed, I can’t really be the protagonist, right?  This living in doubt is enough to kill me all by itself. The problem is, in a murder mystery you really can’t assume anything. Otherwise, where’s the suspense?

Interviewer:  Yes, I take your point. And the villain? Have you met him or her yet?

Sunny:  No idea whatsoever. You don’t think Silk’s going to tell me ahead of time, do you? It would ruin the surprise. She doesn’t give a sh— … a hoot whether I can sleep at night or not. In fact, I think she spends most of her time thinking up ways to make me suffer. She won’t be happy until I’m totally paranoid.

Interviewer:  That sounds … distinctly uncomfortable.

Sunny:  Now you’re getting the picture. You think it’s easy to star in this type of story? It’s torture, from start to finish! That’s the point, see? Now maybe you understand why I’m trying so hard to kick Silk into gear so we can get this thing done. I’m sick of living in fear. I’d like to know, once and for all, whether I live or die.

Interviewer:  I had no idea what a tough job you protagonists have in the mystery suspense genre. I must admire your grit. You’ve certainly given me a new appreciation of the drama that goes on behind the scenes.

Sunny:  Yeah. Welcome to my hell.

Interviewer:  Well, we’ll all be on the edges of our seats until your story is finally out, Sunny, and I wish you the very best of luck with all your challenges. Thanks for joining us this morning, but that’s all the time we have today. This is NPR’s Book Talk: New Voices, reminding you to read someone new this week!

Sunny:  Can I say one last thing?

Interviewer:  Yes, quickly please.

Sunny:  Silk, if you’re going to kill me off, at least let me have a hot affair with you-know-who first, okay? 

New horizons

Helga’s Post #59 — Today I went on a hike through the desert of California’s Coachella Valley along the San Andreas Fault. A first visit here for me.

I was fascinated to learn that despite its benign name (Saint Andrew), the San Andreas Fault is a violent and destructive killer. Over its long history, spasms of its enormous energy have been released in countless earthquakes along its great length. These have ranged in magnitude from slight tremors to cataclysmic upheavals and rupturing of Earth’s surface.

You wouldn’t know its violent nature as you traverse the sand dunes and arrive suddenly at an oasis dotted with gigantic palm trees. Everything looks so peaceful, making it difficult to imagine the earth could suddenly open beneath your feet.

But this is not a National Geographic blog sort of thing. How does it relate to writing? I am not sure it does. Except there is a link between this location and what it does for my own writing. The wide vistas are so unusual for someone living in Vancouver where the ocean is so close, and high rugged mountains define the area. The difference is that Vancouver is limited in every direction but east. The Pacific Ocean to the west, mountains to the north, the U.S. border to the south. Vancouver can only expand to the east. Where I live, I see mountains or the ocean. Nothing like the endless horizon and barren mountains of the California desert. There is nothing to stop the eye. The landscape goes on forever. A curious feeling.

It has an interesting effect on me. It allows the mind to open and expand. To change direction and say, wait a minute, why did I limit my story line in my new novel to such and such? Why does my protagonist have to work for the U.N. instead of a dubious think tank? Truth be told, I have trouble digging my way out of a particularly challenging scene that defines the rest of what happens in my story. It’s a nasty experience. I think and think, and try to fix it, but it doesn’t seem to work because I refuse to change direction from the original idea.

So time to let it happen. To face the music. To say, if it doesn’t work, don’t waste time to fix it. A blank page doesn’t have to be my enemy. It can just as easily be my friend. My conspirator. My opportunity to create something better without the shackles of pages written so far. I don’t own these pages anything. This is after all the prerogative and the power of a writer: to create a new story. To create new characters and kill the ones who refused to perform. To create loving tender relationships or murderous conspiracies. To save the world or let it go to hell in a handbasket.

Nobody else in the world has such power. We writers do, so let’s use it.

And we are trying. There is a new wind blowing here in the desert. Writing buddy Paula is hard at work creating a local writing group. At yesterday’s inaugural meeting some new talent showed up. Two women who would love to write novels and are willing to commit to learning the craft. What is encouraging and proves again just how useful writing groups are, is their background. One is a paramedic, trained firefighter and has lots of experience working inside the prison system. The other woman has written short stories that have been well received by established authors. She has a huge family story to tell that just gave me goose bumps listening. More potential members are waiting in the wings.

I am big believer of synergy. The potential benefit of each new or established writing group member’s experience could benefit everyone in the group. Will it get off the ground? Too soon to tell. But if it does, who knows, there may be potential for collaboration across the miles.

Meanwhile, I better go back go my own project. I have to make progress and get that draft finished, or no writing group in the world is going to help.

But it’s fun to explore new horizons. Happy writing to all of you out there.

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The most amazing YA book insight of all time

Joe’s Post #71

dr hoAre you ready for such an insight? Something so amazing it will be like Dr. Ho’s secret for weight-loss, migraines and dementia combined with Monty Python’s meaning of life?

It came to me last night as I lay in bed, eye still twitching from a day spent dealing with used car salesmen. I was reading Quarantine, a terrific book that is basically Lord of the Flies on steroids. (See, why can’t I think of a quick pitch like that?!?!) It’s not like a lot of the YA books I’ve read recently and that got me to thinking.

What makes a good YA book?

The answer? The amazing insight I had?

It varies.

Ok, I know that’s not an answer, but yet it is. Here’s the thing. A good YA book doesn’t always have to have a dystopian theme. It doesn’t have to have a female character as the protagonist. With or without a bow. It doesn’t have to be 64,000 words. Or 120,000 words. It doesn’t even have to be all light and airy.

That’s not to say there aren’t some guidelines. See the Dummies’ guide. But the more I read, the more I realize that a good story is a good story. No rules. No have-to’s. No restrictions.

city of bonesYou want sex. There’s books out there like that, some pretty hard core. You want violence, well, no big surprise, but they are out there as well. You want books about abuse and drugs, or about angel spawn and demons, or about loss and love? All there.

The key, at least for me as a reader, an old, kinda wrinkly reader, is that I have to have a few things that work. I chose all YA books off the best-seller lists (I mean, why not, all those authors are doing something right) and so clearly these books speak to them young’uns as well.

So, it varies what makes a good YA book. Like any book. But if anyone wanted to know my opinion, based on nothing more than reading a few books and having an ego that thinks everyone wants to hear my opinion, here are a few suggestions for anyone writing for that segment.

1) Big ideas help. Hunger Games. Huge. Kids killing kids so they can feed their districts. Oh, how I would have loved to see how that one was pitched.

2) Things have to happen fast.  Quarantine. Hunger Games. Read them both. Take a look. Plenty of other great examples out there but these rock. I think that more than adult fiction, YA fiction needs to grab it’s readers by the throat and not let them go.

imagesCAUTN5WE3) Character matters. Of course it does. How could it not? Take a look at Celaena Sardothien (I know, I know, that’s not an easy name to get your mouth around) from Throne of Glass. Or if you want to go all old-school, look no farther than Harry Potter (a mid-grade novel that stole the hearts of YA readers as well).

4) Voice, my friends, voice, voicie-voice McVoicie. All good novels have it. YA needs it even more. Voice is attitude. Voice is character. Voice is what sets one novel apart from another (and usually a best seller from one that gets rejections).

5) Anything goes. Oh, you doubt me? Read the Book Thief. Yes, it’s YA and one of the most beautiful and haunting books I’ve ever read. But boy oh boy, does it break the rules. Or look at Divergent. It starts with a character looking in the mirror (and who amongst us has to be told to NEVER do that?). Or even the other books I’ve cited. Harry Potter, a midgrade book that sold billions. Hunger Games, a book about children killing children. The list goes on and on.

So, as I prepare to send off my queries and pages, I have to keep this in mind. It shouldn’t matter that there isn’t a book like mine for that market. In fact, I think THAT should be a selling point. It shouldn’t matter that I’ve broken some rules. It shouldn’t even matter that it’s a wee bit longer than most.

All that matters is story – and I hope that I’ve written a good enough one.

To grab any reader.

How colorful is your writing?

Karalee’s Post #55

The autumn colors this year were spectacular and the color that struck me most of all was red. 

Now if you stop and think of anything that red represents to you, I bet that one or two words will conjure up a picture in your mind and any emotions that go along with it.

Therefore, to a writer’s delight, not only is a picture worth a thousand words, a couple of words can also be worth a thousand words too. Now don’t get me wrong, even 100 fantastic picture-producing and emotional evoking words won’t make up for a 100,000 word story.

I find it interesting that red represents the full gamut of emotions from passion to rage or love to hate, and are often represented by objects that have come to symbolize them.

Red Raspberries 2013

Red has also come to represent foods that are high in nutrition.

Red Mushroom 2013

But, it can also be highly poisonous. This mushroom was down the block from where I live.

Red can also be ugly, like blood, or beautiful like a sunset.

When I think about it, the versatility of red  is amazing.

In our writing the color red and what it represents can become cliche. On the other hand, it can conjure up an image worth a thousand words.

The beauty is that we can also make red represent something completely different in our stories. Something unique. Something surprising.

It could even be a red herring.

Go for it.

Happy writing.

A painful topic

torture-chamber

Silk’s Post #60 — I have a confession to make: I don’t do pain very well. Any kind of pain, physical or emotional – my own pain, someone else’s pain, even the pain of fictional characters.

My natural reaction to pain is to avoid it, turn my back on it, run from it. If I can’t manage that, I try to deny it, ignore it, make light of it. Or just change the subject. Pain is way out of my comfort zone.

What prompted this thought stream are some recent real life passages. The death of a friend. My lameness from hips and knees that recently decided to seize up without notice, just in time to remind me that I’ve passed the milestone beyond which I can’t really claim to be “middle-aged”. The horror of the destruction in the Philippines, where another friend lives. People near and dear to me who are struggling with health issues. There’s nothing like real life pain to kill one’s inner Pollyanna.

Fortunately, however, my own inner Pollyanna is an eternal goddess – she refuses to die. And this post is about writing, not moaning or mourning or making believe life is pain-free.

When people decide to become writers, I wonder how many of them know what they’re in for? It sounds easy until you try to do it. Writer dreams can be so charmingly optimistic. I laugh at my own naiveté just a few short years ago, before I learned that there’s so much more to writing than just spinning great yarns. More than just following the how-to-write-a-bestseller prescriptions. More than just making words sing.

Because I’m finally learning that writers must struggle to look unflinchingly at real life, delve into their own souls with eyes wide open, and then translate the truths they see into resonant stories that move people through the whole range of human emotions from laughter to tears. You can’t create the joy without the pain.

We’ve all heard this ad nauseum: make your characters suffer. It’s almost a writer’s mantra. If your protagonist doesn’t suffer and struggle, what does he or she have to overcome? And if there’s nothing to overcome, where is the story? I get that.

But here’s the thing: writing about pain is not altogether natural. It’s different from the rest of the range of human emotions and experiences, because it’s like the negative pole. It repels us. Okay, there are some writers who find pain attractive, but I don’t personally find them attractive. For me, a relentless focus on pathology is deadening.

In critiquing my 5writer friends’ manuscripts, reading a wide range of authors (both great and not-so-great) in various genres, and re-reading my own stuff, I’ve come to an interesting conclusion. The best writers often seem to be the ones who can write about pain bravely, evocatively, in a way that touches the heart without hardening it.

This is a hard balance to achieve. On the one side are squeamish writers, like me, who are inclined to keep the mean parts behind closed doors. On the other side are sensationalist writers who revel in spattering guts, gore and other forms of suffering across the page the way Jackson Pollock flung paint. And then, there are those who get confused about how and where to plant painful-but-necessary scenes (which, in my opinion, probably includes most of us unpublished writers).

An example from my 5writers group (I’m not naming names). One of the best of the manuscripts we’ve collectively turned out over the past couple of years features a fantastically-limned villain who is truly horrific, yet compellingly magnetic. This is a twisted character who loves to torture. There is a chilling and suspenseful lead up when the villain captures a naive and hapless victim. There’s spine-tingling tension as we anticipate the pain scene. Implements of destruction. Harsh and clever interrogation. High jeopardy. The victim sweats. The torturer gloats. Then the victim, in terror, blurts and yields. And the villain relents. What?! The victim gets off with the equivalent of a slap on the wrist. The payoff for all that tension is cancelled. Later in the same manuscript, however, there is a scene of indescribable brutality whose main purpose is to demonstrate another character’s capacity for violence. However, this scene is a pastiche that doesn’t really impact the plot and delivers no real tension. Hence, for me, it seemed gratuitous.

I give this example because, a) it’s from an early draft of a terrific book that I believe should, and will, be published, and b) it demonstrates that even when a writer is able to brilliantly master the difficult painful bits, they have to be in the right place, at the right time, with the right imagery to serve the story and move the heart.

Ultimately, a story that brings real life to the page – with the boring bits taken out, as Alfred Hitchcock famously said – must have a physical effect on readers. They should feel that roller coaster of emotions in their bones.

The joyful scenes should make their hearts swell and bring a smile to their lips. The tense scenes should have their pulses hammering with fear. The sad scenes should make them bawl their eyes out. And the painful scenes should make them wince, suck in their breath, squeeze their eyes shut.

A writer has to be able to pull all these strings, whether implicitly or explicitly, gently or brutally, depending on the nature of the story.

So the painful truth: a writer’s job is to avoid nothing and confront everything.

Notes from the desert

Helga’s Post # 58 — Have you ever wondered what triggers creativity? Something that acts like a fertilizer to the brain that boosts an artist’s imagination, pushing the boundaries? What sensory stimuli give us those magical and fleeting days when our writing is just perfect?

The question occurred to me recently after I arrived at a location totally new to me. That’s where I am writing this post.

I have shed my Vancouver November grubbies of sweaters, socks and fur-lined slippers for sandals, shorts, tank tops and, for much of the day, my swimsuit. In fact it hardly ever gets dry because I am constantly in and out of the pool.

For the first time in my life I am visiting the desert. Not the Lawrence-of-Arabia or the English-Patient famed one, nor the Sahara of Morocco, or Genghis Khan’s Gobi desert. In fact I am staying with friends in the Coachella Valley, just west of Palm Springs.

Anyone unfamiliar with Vancouver in November will not understand the culture shock of stepping from the plane after a mere two and a half hour hour flight into the pure bliss of a blue cloudless sky, a landscape framed with endless palm trees and colour everywhere. From the light pink hue of Oleander blossoms to the deep magenta of Hibiscus flowers all framed with the formidable backdrop of the San Bernardino Mountains to the north and Santa Rosa Mountains to the south.

Pure magic for a visitor from the Wet Coast. Especially the blue sky and clear light.

Vincent van Gogh came to mind. To create his most magnificent paintings he needed to see the particular blue sky characteristic of Provence. He needed that sensory stimulus.   I am sure that the same holds true for countless writers. What is it about a blue sky that so seems to inspire the arts?

Some great books were written in and about the desert. Not necessarily the desert around Palm Springs, but any. I am familiar with some titles, and now I have added a few more to my reading list.

One that I read years ago and found intriguing is The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell. A huge work that is actually four books: Justine, Mountolive, Balthasar, and Cleo. It transported me to a desert far away that felt as if I was living there.

Some others on my reading list:

Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz (ranks amongst the author’s most enduring works)

Desert Solitaire by Edmond Abbey (It’s non-fiction but told like a novel.)

Wet Desert by Gary Hansen (shocking and tense)

Pearl in the Sand by Tessa Ashfar (historical fiction)

There are hundreds more titles, all inspired by a desert location. What is intriguing to me is the passion of the stories and the popularity of desert writing. I would not be surprised  if the impact of the blue sky and brilliant colors have something to do with it. A sensory trigger.

I hope that my surroundings will trigger some of my own creativity during my short stay in the desert. But now it’s time for a break at the pool with a good book. I will add some pictures next time, because iPad is a pain in the butt to do that.

An Evening With David Sedaris

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Joe’s Post #70 — The David Sedaris tickets I’d bought placed us on a temporary wooden floor in front of the stage. It trembled so much when people walked on it that we thought there was an earthquake. Corinne was unsettled by this. I was thrilled. Earthquake … David Sedaris, either way, we were in for an adventure.

When we arrived, we had arrived too late to grab any food beforehand and too early to just sit down. So, we did what everyone else seemed to be doing.

We had a drink and ate a bag of nuts. Then we stood in line to get my book signed.

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He drew a gun in mine. I have no idea why. He just looked up, looked at me for a moment, then at Corinne, then me, again, then put his head down and drew a gun. For protection, he said as he drew it.

“I have her for protection,” I told him, trying to be funny and failing like a skateboarder falling off a railing and cracking his nuts on the hand rail (exact same feeling, by the way).

He looked at me like I totally didn’t get his joke.

And I didn’t.

To this day.

But we moved on. Like all good Canadians do when we are confused. We just went inside and sat down and waited.

The lights dimmed.

david sedarisDavid Sedaris came out. He was shorter than I thought he’d be. I don’t know why I think men with towering intellect will be taller. History seems to say the opposite.

He reminds me of someone who would run a used book store, the books not even creased, his eyes glaring at you to dare to crack one open and damage it. But he looks at ease as he takes his place at the podium. He’s comfortable up there, the lights on him and only him, and he radiates an odd mixture of humbleness and leprechaun-like mischief.

He is the author of about nine books and countless articles, yet I have only read two of them, but what I’ve read, I’ve loved. His quiet, sometimes gentle humor lulls me in with witty, observational anecdotes, then wham, he smacks me in the face with something out of left field. He can go from describing how achingly beautiful the countryside in Sussex looks to telling a joke that ends with the punchline, “Did you know that grandma can take my entire fist up her ass.”

Of all the people listening to him, though, all the hipsters and fans, all the wannabe writers and lovers of the written word, I probably laughed the least. Shame on me, really. But as I listened in amazement to the way he told stories, to his turn of phrase, his timing, his impeccable word choice, I was in awe. Like when you see something or hear something so perfect, you just stand there with your mouth open. Gobsmacked. Like you’ve just had electro-shock. Or your nuts crushed by a railing.

I dunno how long he talked. I was lost in the moment. An hour? Two? I laughed when he said things so funny that even I, the detached observer, couldn’t help but laugh, uncontrollably, like a fart sneaking out when you do the downward dog, but for me, the pure joy was being in the presence of a master storyteller. That joy was all encompassing.

Read this story from the New Yorker. Tell me you do not laugh.  Or this one about middle age.

In between his readings, he snuck in quick observations or anecdotes, but, as funny as they are, it’s the stories he tells that made me love him. I listened. I tried to learn. I tried to remember what worked.

IMG_1811[1]It was one of the best experiences I had this year, but not just because of him. Beside me, Corinne laughed and laughed and laughed. She has one of those rare, magical laughs that lights up her whole face and makes you want to laugh along.

A man could happily spend a lifetime making her to laugh. Or taking her to people who do.

At least I can do the latter.

But it gave me hope that somewhere out there, there might be a market for a guy who likes to write about shit he thinks is funny.