About Silk Questo

Writer. Sailor. Designer. Mermaid.

Hi, I’m back.

siwc2017

At SIWC 2017 with two of my writing mentors, Hallie Ephron and Diana Gabaldon.

It’s been a long hiatus. My last post on the 5writers blog was in August 2016. Gasp, can that be true?

I’ve been away so long, the whole WordPress interface has changed and now feels like an alien planet. Even my very brief writing renaissance after attending last year’s Surrey International Writers Conference didn’t lure me back to blogging.

And since I’m in a confessional mood, the truth is I haven’t written anything in a year. Zip. Zilch. Nada.

But here I am, fresh from SIWC 2017, screwing up my courage to face the blank page once again, and wondering how to pick up the 5/5/5 narrative.

Fortunately for those of you who’ve wandered over here today out of curiosity, I learned a game-changing lesson at Surrey last week. It’s a truth so dead simple, a first grader knows it intuitively. Somehow, though, once people become “writers” and start novels and fall in love with their own words, they often have to learn it all over again.

Take out all the boring stuff. There you have it.

Abracadabra! This simple rule releases me from catching you up on my past 12 months. From a writing perspective, it would be the most boring of topics. I can summarize it very succinctly.

Lost momentum.

I believe it happens to every writer at some point. And therein lies the more interesting tale. Some abandon writing for years while continuing to wrestle with their unfulfilled creative urges. Some find other passions. Some lose their enthusiasm, or maybe their courage. Without the kind of crazy optimism it takes to climb Novel Mountain, many never return.

But for those of us who have temporarily lost heart, or drifted away, or simply procrastinated so long that even the thought of writing has become an embarrassing reminder of our failures … is there a way back?

Of course there is.

My own journey, like every writer’s, is unique. But if you should ever become a lapsed writer like me, I offer you these scribbled directions based on my wandering route home to Writerland. Maybe it will help you find your way back …

Start with this: Where the hell am I?

It’s always good to start with wherever you are. If you don’t know, find out.

I’m talking about “where” in very broad terms here. Where are your head and your heart? And equally important, where are you in your life? You’re the protagonist here. It’s your character arc to shape as you will. If it’s all working beautifully for you without taking on the burdens and pleasures of writing again, then just carry on. You can stop reading now. Go in peace and have a wonderful life.

But if your world seems somehow incomplete – a little emptier maybe – without writing, then just simply resolve right now to get back to it.

Next: Face forward.

No, no – DON’T LOOK BACK. Turn around, look ahead. Let the past go. That’s it! Don’t explain. Don’t justify. Don’t drag out that tired list of excuses. In fact, this is a good time to just stop thinking and go with the flow. If writing is calling you, answer.

Now for the hard part: Drop your burden of fear and self-doubt.

Do it deliberately. Just toss it to the side of the road. But what if I never get published? you ask. What if I fail (or fail again)? Well, define “fail”. If you love wordsmithing, if you get stimulation from creativity, if storytelling gives you pleasure, then writing is its own reward. And like everything else worth doing, the more you do it the better you get. It’s a journey. Do the diehard golfers you know beat themselves up because they might fail to qualify for the US Open? Yes, getting published traditionally is kind of a lottery, no matter what the gatekeepers say. But if getting published is a primary goal, you can do it yourself these days. There. Excuse gone.

Get some writing friends.

I wouldn’t be in the game at all if I didn’t have the support of my wonderful 5/5/5 writing colleagues. A writer’s journey doesn’t have to be a lonely one. Get in a writing group. Or start one. Join a book club. Get to know your librarian. Don’t just hide away and hope for the best.

Study craft.

You have to get your head back into it. But before you worry about publishing, or pitching, or blogging, or anything else … study craft. Get the books. Take the workshops. Check out the craft websites. Subscribe to the trade publications. It’s a lifelong learning curve, and a fascinating one. No one makes it just on “raw talent”. Craft can, and must, be learned. And remember this Taoist wisdom: When the student is ready, the teacher appears.

Read.

Take a deep dive into good writing, especially (but not exclusively) the kind you want to do yourself. The more I write, the more I read. It’s all part of the same process. But when you’re not writing – for whatever reason (don’t explain, I don’t want to know) – then pick up a book and read your heart out. It’s inspiring. And it teaches you while it entertains you.

Launch your comeback as a scheduled event.

When you’re ready to “come out” as a committed writer again, get some skin in the game. Go to a writers conference and sit in a room with HUNDREDS of other writers. There’s a whole writing community out there. Enjoy the contact high. Listen to the agents, the publishers, the editors, the other experts presenting … and learn. Take notes. Talk to everybody. Don’t be shy. Remember, if you write, you are a writer. Not a wannabe. Think of the whole shebang as a celebration of your return to the writing life. Wasn’t it nice of the conference organizers to hold it in your honour?

Make use of the momentum.

Anyone who’s ever gone to a good writers conference, ready to learn, comes away from it energized and inspired. Don’t waste the momentum. It doesn’t last forever. When you get home, write something. Immediately. Don’t wait more than a few days to get a new routine established and commit to your writing practice. I didn’t take advantage of my momentum after SIWC last year. It won’t happen that way this year.

This year I’m happy to say, “Hi, I’m back.”

 

 

Writers’ Olympics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What would Stephen King do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Honesty’s the best policy.
— Miguel de Cervantes

Liars prosper.
— Anonymous

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Who are we writing for?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But here’s some good news!

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

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

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

That legacy is the English language.

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

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

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

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

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

Turning point

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

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

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

But the bigger question is: Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank God for a great writing group.

Stay tuned!

Brevity

twitter-execution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brevity is hard to achieve.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scary question.

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

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

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

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

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

Lives of punctuation marks

question-mark

Silk’s Post #155 — If you don’t think deeply about punctuation marks, you’re not alone. They are the ever present but rarely noticed sentinels of the sentence. The grammatical traffic cops of wordsmithery. Like the Beefeater guards at the Queen’s House, they carry out their ancient duties to bring order to the page in silent anonymity. Only when misplaced or otherwise abused do they draw attention to themselves.

So perhaps it’s no wonder that, like the Beefeaters, punctuation marks really don’t change much from year to year. Actually, they don’t even change much from century to century.

Think about this: in the last quarter of 2015 alone, the Oxford English Dictionary admitted 111 new word entries into its lexicon, including cisexism, gramps, locovore and tradeocracy (look ’em up).

Now, when was the last time you heard of anyone adding a new punctuation mark?

Yes, there have been some experimental hybrids, but most of them have failed outside the lab. When released into the real world, they were unable to sustain themselves and had to go on unemployment.

Think of the interrobang, for instance. You’ve never heard of it? Back in 1962, ad man Martin K. Speckter thought it would be useful to splice together a question mark with an exclamation point. Whaaaat?! Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time, I’m sure. Especially for advertising copy.

But, although it was incorporated into a few modern type fonts and, during the 1960s, was even included on some Remington and Smith-Corona typewriters (remember typewriters?), the interrobang is essentially homeless today. You might find one sleeping in the back alley of an obscure typeface, but it never really became a member of punctuation mark society.

Although not growing, that exclusive society has a stable population of marks that refuse to die. They may go into semi-retirement from time to time, but they never seem to be declared obsolete.

No, there’s no equivalent to the decommissioning of a word like quagswagging when it comes to punctuation marks. I can’t say I’ll miss quagswagging personally (it means to chatter, babble, talk idly or senselessly), because I’d never heard it before I found it in my search for abandoned words. Perhaps a year from now it will disappear altogether, even from the logophile websites. R.I.P., quagswagging.

My point is that language changes, evolves, responds to new developments in the world, such as globalization, technology and channels for communication. Take texting, for instance. Who had ever heard of SMS language (also known as textese) 15 years ago? As they say, DBEYR – but with the pace of change in lingo, it might be more apt to say Don’t Believe Anything You Can’t Read without a decoder or a teenager by your side.

But while all that’s been going on, punctuation marks seem to have remained exactly the same. Your commas, your question marks, your semicolons.

Wait!

Are there still semicolons? I’m trying to remember the last time I saw one.

Oh, right! It was in a winky smiley 😉

These textual emoticons looked for a while to be the last hope for modernization of the staid old stable of punctuation marks. Wildly creative usage of colons, parentheses, dashes and such, in fanciful combinations, sprang from the thumbs of smartphone users to cover the full spectrum of human emotions. Happiness, sadness, horror, playfulness, skepticism, boredom, and embarrassment.

It was like a punctuation mark party.

The stiff-upper-lip regiment of symbols had finally been freed from the constraints of their grammatical duties. And they went wild *\o/*

But alas, it may have been a short parole from guard duty. As soon as the punctuation marks became the life of the party, about a million techie designers began to churn out character sets of full-colour emoticons to replace them: facial expressions covering every nuance of emotion in every skin tone, clapping hands, devil faces, thumbs up, skulls, cats with hearts for eyes.

They made the lowly, home-made emoticons that were cobbled together from punctuation marks look like kindergarten stick figures 😦

(By the way, you can’t even represent emoticons the old-fashioned way using punctuation marks in a lot of current software – including WordPress; they are subjected to a kind of technological forced-retirement and automatically replaced with graphics.)

How long will it be before punctuation marks are once again relegated to enforcement of literary laws? Doing jobs like halting sentences. Or sentence fragments.

Once again, they’ll have to get their jollies by chastely separating independent clauses. Fastidious writers know that clauses can’t be trusted if left alone together in close proximity; they have a tendency to lose all control and become a run-on sentence.

Do punctuation marks question their lot in life?

Well, it probably does give them pause.

But once in a while (although it must be added that these occasions are becoming rarer), they do get to declare their enthusiasm! Or surprise!

If you’re a writer, I have a request of you: please be kind to punctuation marks. After all, they’re senior citizens, so they deserve some respect.

You’ve probably noticed that some of them don’t get out much anymore. For instance, the semicolon is almost completely restricted to non-fiction these days, especially dry reports, academic papers and legal documents. They used to gambol across the pages of literature back in their glory days, but today they aren’t running with the artsy crowd.

The truth is, most punctuation marks don’t get to have much fun, unless they find themselves a poet, or perhaps an experimental novelist.

And the shameful problem of punctuation mark abuse has proliferated in recent times. Terrible things are being done to dashes, you might have noticed. Commas are often jammed into one overcrowded sentence with wanton disregard for their comfort. At the same time, lonely colons have been seen wandering the page, looking for something to do. Even editors have been charged and convicted of casual cruelty or neglect.

So the next time you’re at the keyboard, give a thought to the lives and livelihoods of punctuation marks. Be supportive. Remember they’re still coming down from that emoticon party and are likely to be a bit sensitive.

Unfinished stories

bedwell-hbr-1977

Silk’s Post #154 — If you’re a writer, you have unfinished business. Don’t try to deny it. I can’t believe there’s a writer alive who doesn’t have at least one half-written manuscript stashed in some bottom drawer. I have two of them, frozen in the middle of the story, like the last-viewed frame of a movie put on “pause” and then forgotten.

But that’s not what this post is about. What I’m talking about is all those little mysteries served up for us every day, snatches of real life stories-in-progress we observe and, if we’re writers, we wonder about.

We don’t know what came before. We don’t know what will come after. All we’re left with is this one glimpse, this one clue, and the twin questions that are ever on the minds of story lovers: What’s the backstory? What happens next?

These moments can be inspirational for a writer because there’s a germ of a story in every scenario. Glimpses of life on the street, in an airport, at the mall, in a restaurant, on the beach … all those good “people watching” places. We can’t help following any interesting little drama that comes our way, to see how it plays out. Really, it’s none of our business.

But writers are like spies. We snoop.

Now, sometimes there’s really no story there. Just boring old, everyday, predictable stuff. After all, if life is full of little mysteries, it’s also full of little clichés. But maybe the writer takes away some bit of noteworthy colour – an accent, a gesture, some tension beneath the surface, or perhaps a micro-expression of tenderness – that can be recalled later to add texture to a scene.

But when you do observe a little piece of mystery, it haunts you. I’ll sketch out one of these incidents from my own life to show you what I mean, a scene seen and not forgotten. It happened years ago, but it still sticks in my mind …

The Runaway

It’s a late October Saturday in Bedwell Harbour, Pender Island, and we’re pushing the envelope on the cruising season in our small, unheated wooden sailboat. Only one other vessel, a 36′ Grand Banks trawler, is anchored in the small bay of a marine park that’s usually chock-a-block with boats in the summer.

We’re two diehard cruisers, apparently, sharing this lonely anchorage in the late-afternoon chill of an overcast day.

As an invisible sunset approaches, an eerie pink blush colours the western sky. I wrap myself in a heavy Cowichan sweater against the damp cold and grab my trusty Nikkormat, intent on capturing an arty portrait of the slightly surrealistic seascape. (The now-faded result is above).

What I also capture is a memory of a mysterious incident that has stayed with me for four decades.

Out of the Grand Banks cabin comes a coatless teenage girl, perhaps 14 or 15 years old. Her body language is agitated, her motions more a product of nervous energy than purpose. A late-middle-aged man follows her on deck. Pursues her, really. He’s the right age to be her grandfather. A woman who looks to be his wife sticks her head out of the cabin door to watch, an anxious expression on her face.

The choreography of the deck scenario is a pantomime of entreaty and rejection. I can’t make out their stuttering conversation because they’re downwind of our boat, but the drama unfolding is clear. He puts a hand out to her, tries to engage. She turns her back, shakes her head, steps away. Like a cat climbing further up a tree to avoid her rescuer, the girl stays out of reach. He advances, she retreats, again and again.

There is no reconciliation to be had, and it’s a small boat. The grandfather and grandmother confer, an intense discussion, their heads together. They keep glancing at the girl now standing alone in the cockpit hugging herself in the wind. Finally, he steps inside the cabin, leaving her to calm down.

Does their conversation go like this?

Grandfather: (frustrated) I can’t get through to her, she’s just unreachable. You can’t help someone who refuses to be helped. So what do we do now?

Grandmother: (calming) Let her simmer down, she just needs some alone time. Don’t worry, she won’t stay out there long, it’s freezing. And she can’t go anywhere.

If that’s what they say, they are wrong.

The girl steps onto the Grand Banks’ transom and pulls the boat’s dinghy in on its painter. It’s a small rowboat, the kind that was common 40 years ago. As the wind picks up, she climbs down, unties the dinghy, and fits the oars into the oar locks.

By the time Grandpa and Grandma come bursting out the cabin door, the girl is halfway to the deserted shore. She pulls at the oars with more fury than coordination. Choppy waves splash against the dinghy and the wind flings salt spray over her. She’s still coatless.

As she nears the narrow beach that fringes the steep, forested shore, I look back toward the Grand Banks at a scene of panic, with both grandparents now standing at the rail, yelling at the girl to come back.

She ignores them. She’s deaf to their increasingly urgent cries. When she hits the beach, she awkwardly jumps out of the dinghy, one foot in the cold water, and drags it partway up on the beach. Then, with one look back, she covers the fringe of beach in a few determined steps and plunges into the forest at a narrow trailhead.

Gone, just like that. The dinghy rocks with the waves breaking on the beach, half on shore, half still in the water. Dusk is approaching.

Back on the Grand Banks, the man and woman seem paralyzed with disbelief. They continue to strain against the rail, calling to the girl who disappeared. Then they stop calling and simply stare toward shore. The man retrieves binoculars from the cabin and scans the forest. They can’t follow her. The dinghy was their only way off the boat.

They retreat to the cabin.

Within half an hour, I hear a powerful outboard engine and our boat rocks from a wake. I go back out in the cockpit to see a small Coast Guard search-and-rescue vessel approaching the stern of the Grand Banks and watch the boat-to-boat conversation, full of urgency and gestures, between the rescuers and the grandparents.

The Coast Guard boat pushes off and follows the dinghy’s path to shore, two of the crew minding the boat and one disappearing up the forest path. Dark is falling quickly.

Then we wait. Coast Guard crew, anxious grandparents, and me – the spying neighbour.

Though I think the search seems like a fool’s errand, it would be unthinkable not to try to find the girl. But it’s now almost dark, and the shore is a vast, forested pile-up of bluffs, threaded with trails and not much else. It’s cold out in the cockpit, and there’s nothing to see. Our portable kerosene heater down below has warmed our small cabin and the brass lamps have been lit. But I can’t tear myself away. I’m hooked.

When I finally see the bouncing flashlight beam on the shoreline and the rescuer emerges from the shadow of the forest – with the girl in tow – I’m shocked, but relieved. She wears his oversized jacket. Her head is down.

They climb back into the search-and-rescue boat and take the dinghy in tow. In flashlight glimpses, I see the Coast Guard vessel stop alongside the Grand Banks and hand the dinghy painter to the skipper.

I wait to see the girl climb on board, back to the embrace of her grandparents, contrite perhaps, her tantrum over. I wonder if the incident is destined to become a future family tale that will be embellished and embroidered with years of re-telling. A colourful story that will be repeated by the girl’s grandchildren someday, to laughter and feigned disbelief.

And then, the rescuers – with the rescued girl – roar off into the night.

What?

Why didn’t they return the girl to her grandparents? But wait – are they her grandparents? Where are her parents? Why was she out on the boat? What was she upset about? Where did the rescuers take her?

You can probably think of a dozen more questions.

The next morning, Sunday, I expect the Grand Banks to depart at first light. It’s understandable that they didn’t up-anchor in the night to follow the girl, but now, in the light of day, they have urgent and unfinished business to attend to.

But they don’t leave. They carry on as though nothing at all happened the night before. Just an older couple enjoying a quiet, relaxing, off-season cruise. We leave at noon. Monday is a workday. They’re still anchored there, dinghy floating placidly off the stern.

Grandpa putters with some minor deck chore. Grandma calls him in for lunch.

The End.

Feel let down? I still do. An unfinished mystery story is an irresistible call to any writer – a call to fill in the blanks. We want to turn the page, and when the next page is missing, we feel compelled to write it.

Give in to that urge, and maybe the half-a-book in the bottom drawer will actually get finished one day!

Reclamation of dreams

abandoned-farmhouse

Silk’s Post #153 — I’ve always been fascinated by abandoned places, attracted to the empty stage sets of lives now relocated, or finished. I wonder whether those lives were recorded somewhere, whether they’re recalled by someone, or whether they’re irretrievably lost to memory.

But I’ve never stepped into an abandoned place where the dreams that once filled it did not come instantly to life, leftover shreds of hope and intent that were once the substance of lives that mattered. Dreams echo. The imagination leaps ahead, visualizing rooms full of furnishings and people, creating scenarios. The heart aches with the sorrow of abandonment, the weight of time. But simultaneously, it longs to know the story whose traces have been left behind. Who were these people? What happened to them?

If you’ve been following this blog, you’ve probably noticed that, lately, it has been feeling, well, a bit abandoned. Once animated by four or five posts every week, it now sometimes has only one or two. In some recent weeks, it has been a room empty of conversation.

And so, are the 5 Writers moving out? Moving on? Deserting our writing lives and taking up residence in some other other space, to live some other life and pursue some other truth? Honestly, I don’t know the answer, and it will likely be a different answer for each of us.

But here’s what I do know: As I walk through the 5writers5novels5months blogspace, I’m haunted by the richness and vibrancy of our dreams, our hopes and our intents. And I long not only to foresee our story, but to create it.

Of course, the only stories I can create are my own: both my reality and my fiction. Because I have three books, manuscripts that literally sit within the reach of my hand right now, that I have all but abandoned.

One is finished in first draft: my firstborn. It’s the one closest to my heart because it’s the most personal, set on the island I call home. It’s also the one with a plot structure so flawed it will need multiple surgeries to bring it to life, and even then could still turn out to be a Frankenstein of a book.

One was my entry in the original crazy 5writers challenge starting in September 2012: my attempt at a relatively formulaic genre book. Like a horrible mother, I abandoned it halfway through, bored with a plot arc that failed to matter enough to me. It will need an infusion of consequence, something to make me care about finishing it.

One is the book I’ve been working on since 2014, but although it’s a theme-driven story that I do really care about, I have made pathetically little progress. It needs nothing more than an author with the will to write write write. A writer with the burning desire to know the story.

The whole idea of abandonment touches deep emotions. When I chose this topic for my post, I wandered the net looking for abandonment definitions and references, and found them to be universally distressing and depressing. It’s the sad, broken face of failed dreams, the antithesis of the fresh start.

Now, simple logic and emotional intelligence would dictate that the road back to productivity for a blocked writer really needs to begin with a fresh start.

Of course! That’s the ticket! It sounds like much, much more fun than revisiting abandoned manuscripts, cobwebbed with frustrations, guilt and regrets. Wind up the run-down clock once again! Re-infuse my writing life – both novel and blog – with a new sense of purpose and commitment! Get excited about a brand new story, one with endless possibilities and – as yet – no flaws, troubles or broken promises to drag me down!

But that’s not what I’m going to do. You probably already guessed that.

I feel drawn back to that which I’ve abandoned. I have an ache to reclaim those dreams, to re-animate the characters I gave birth to, and to nurture them to maturity. I want to rediscover the soul and the hopes and the naive confidence of the neophyte novelist I was six or seven years ago, when I felt like I was bursting with creative energy.

I want to re-engage the writer I was, back when writing was what mattered most to me, was at the centre of my self-identity. When it was a mission, a seemingly achievable mission. Before I realized how hard it would be to do such a thing really well – as well as I demanded of myself. Before I discovered how challenging it would be to sustain my enthusiasm over the long arcs of time required to finish novels that had some hope of getting published. Before I understood the true costs and disciplines of the writing life.

I’m a different writer now. Better, but less idealistic. I’m like a middle-aged woman returning to a childhood home after the family is all gone, after experiencing the successes, failures, joys and regrets that life inevitably delivers. And I know that reclamation of those earlier dreams will be a process of putting past hopes and present reality side-by-side and accepting the obvious differences. And moving on from there.

I have yet to decide which of my three books to embrace again, but I sense that doesn’t matter as much as how I step back into my own writing life and embrace my dreams again, after disappointing myself by abandoning them.

The important decision, though, has been made. For me, giving up is not an option.

The school of real life

real-life-school

Silk’s Post #152 — Learning to be a writer requires honing many skills, from the obvious – like proficiency with grammar, narrative and plot structure – to the less anticipated, including more than a passing acquaintance with marketing and development of a steely, independent work ethic. Successful writers today are less likely to be dreamy-eyed scribblers or muse-driven obsessives as they are to be disciplined entrepreneurs.

My point is that, given the right temperament and a reasonable modicum of talent, all this can be learned by the wannabe writer. And there’s no shortage of learning opportunities out there, from formal classes leading to degrees, to conferences, workshops, online courses, and a plethora of books and publications.

But storytelling – well, there’s a different skill set entirely. For me, a great storyteller is able to capture the attention and imagination of readers, engage them emotionally in the narrative, and make them care as deeply about the characters and the outcome as if the story truly affected their own personal lives.

As Helga discussed in her heartfelt post, “Dare to open that vein”, that kind of authentic storytelling comes from the writer’s own emotional capacity, borne of experience.

I might dare to say that there’s only one place to learn to be a storyteller: the school of real life.

The heart and soul of it is the ability to feel emotion and share it in a way that compels readers to feel it too. But is it enough to have deeply experienced life’s emotional ups and downs yourself? And if you have led an “ordinary” life that’s relatively free of wild adventure, high drama, emotional pinnacles, sharp reversals, and personal trauma – does that condemn you to a narrow range of shallow emotions as a writer? Or is there more to it than that?

Helga’s post got me thinking about this. I’ve read works by fantastic storytellers who write with emotional authenticity born of eventful, even adventuresome, lives. Helga gave some wonderful examples, like Ernest Hemingway and John Le Carré, and it’s easy add others such as Mark Twain and Sebastian Junger. But I’ve also read deeply engaging, emotionally charged stories by authors who’ve never done anything much more exciting than sit in a coffee shop, tapping out a tale on their laptop.

So what’s the magic ingredient?

Perhaps it’s how the writer engages in her own life, and the lives of others around her. How she interacts with the people and places in her life’s narrative. How she opens up and drinks it in, makes herself emotionally available to her experiences. How she observes people and their behaviour. How she empathizes with them. How she imagines the stories she sees played out in short, unfinished chapters at the coffee shop, on the street, in the airport, at a glimpsed accident or crime scene, even in newsclips on television. How she opens her eyes rather than turning away, and notices details and nuances. How she lets herself experience not only her own narrative, but also, vicariously, what happens to others. How she engages, pays rapt attention, rather than tuning out.

It seems to me this way of experiencing life takes three things: you must be naturally curious, you must be keenly observant, and you must be deeply empathetic. These are all major contributors to intuition, which I think is not so much a magical sense as a way of looking at and thinking about the world around you.

I suspect most people believe they’re doing all these things already, that they know “what’s going on”. But I’m always surprised at how many people I interact with who seem to walk through their lives in state of semi-awareness, at best.

They’re the ones who aren’t really paying attention to what others are saying, because they’re too busy inside their own heads, thinking about what they’re going to say next. They’re the ones who fail to notice when someone close by is in silent distress, or when there’s a disturbance in their peripheral vision, or when a comment made in a group of people chills the air and turns postures rigid. They’re the ones who miss their openings to probe a novel topic, or to watch an interesting scenario play out.

The real world has an unlimited treasure of things to learn, and where there are people, there are stories fuelled by the full range of emotions. I believe that if you study and appreciate people and what animates them, even in the most ordinary of circumstances, you can use those insights to create memorable characters facing extraordinary circumstances – from heroes to villains.

And if you get the characters right, characters that resonate, characters that jump off the page, then all the rest is, in a sense, circumstantial. A stage set. It’s the people who act, who drive the narrative forward, and who take your readers with them on their journey.

There are unlimited insights to learn in the school of real life, there for the taking. All you need to do is pay attention with open mind and open heart.