Top 10 Discoveries About My Book

Joe’s Post #180

This is how I imagine the book cover. Only with the shadow of a man in a coat and hat looking all detectivie

Are you surprised how your book turned out?

Now, spoiler alert, this is a longer post than normal. Get into your comfy underwear, pour yourself a glass of whiskey, put your feet up on the dog and continue.

Yager’s War has come so far since it’s inception back in 2016, but my first historical novel has finally been sent off to my first readers – Two professional writers, and one person who lived through that time.

Oh, but that seems so long, ago, now. A lifetime. And in that lifetime, I learned a lot about my story, which kinda surprised me since I thought I pretty much knew everything about it when I sat down to write it.

So, what did I discover?

1) I discovered that I can’t eat well and write. Now, this doesn’t have anything to do with the novel, per se, but if anyone is looking to write a character in a novel who writes for a living, it’s a good trait. Not a healthy one, but something odd. Quirky. Stupid. Peanut M&Ms. Pop. Pizza. Oddly, I didn’t drink. Sorry Hemmingway.

2) I discovered that I sat down to write this because I love history and World War II history in particular. But it’s not a love based on battles, but stories. It’s something that’s not being taught a lot in schools. It’s all about facts, maps, (wait, I love maps, too), and dates. Even without a specific person, there is a narrative that thrills me. The massively outnumbered Jews who fought the Germans in the Warsaw Ghetto. The 500 Spartans at Thermopylae. The Alamo. Then it hit me. I love the underdog. The few who stood up when it mattered BUT died in the end. All knew they would die, yet still fought the fight. That leaked into my novel in a big way (and will certainly be a major part of the second and third novels.)

3)

Iron Lungs. Therapy for polio. But it looks like something out of a horror movie.

I discovered a lot about things we understand now, understand back then. Polio. PTSD. Asperger’s. They’ve all existed since the beginning of time. Like the Queen of England. But we’re only now understanding them fully and I was surprised at the complexity of each one of those subjects.

 

4) I discovered ‘what to keep in and what to take out’ was tougher than I ever thought. Yanking out a whole subplot ain’t easy, my friends. It’s like trying to yank off a skin tag, it’s quite painful and wants to snap right back. I can still use a lot of what I wrote or imagined in my next book,

5) I discovered I could fall in love with one of

Amelia Anderson. (AKA-
Bryce Dallas Howard)

my characters. It’s amazing how much a story can change even from the 2nd draft, to the third. I yanked out some decent writing about my character’s interaction with a family to explore a love interest and I fell in love with that love interest. Amelia “Amy” Anderson, a brilliant red-head with Sherlock Holmesian Asperger’s. Socially awkward. Kind. Driven. Beautiful (of course, cuz, you know, I’m a guy.) I dream about her now. Don’t tell my wife.

6) I discovered it’s tough to choose what research to use and what not to use. I had to cut research out. Oh, that fine line between having authentic historical details and way, way, way too much information… it’s so easy to cross because information is so fun! (You know what I’m talking about, Paula!)

7) I discovered that I could make myself cry while writing. Not, oh god, this is terrible, but I moved myself at some of the tragic scenes. Maybe no one else will shed a tear, but it’s odd that I could actually get in touch with emotion. Without whiskey. Thanks to Don Maass for making me live in the pain for a while.

8) I discovered, much to my horror, that it was not as much fun, sometimes, to do research. Now, this really shocked me. I love learning new facts. Like did you know that the Kaiser, the Imperial Emperor of Germany, fled to Holland? And had the nickname of the Woodchopper? But trying to get all my facts right, like what soap the Dutch used for dishes or what goods were sold in the Waterlooplein market, well, that took a bit of work and I often got distracted tracking down other details.

9) I discovered this is not, at its heart, a who-killed-Roger-Rabbit story. This is a Jewish

Lest we forget

story. Again, a bit of a shock. Not that I didn’t have Jewish elements in it, but on the last rewrite, it really hit home how much I needed to tell the Jewish story here.

10) I discovered it’s a feminist novel. This came as the biggest shock. BIGGEST. Like finding a spider in your underwear.  Both of my main female characters are strong, independent women in a time where such things were not the norm. Maybe it was all the women in my life who influenced that. My mom who went to university and graduated as the only woman in her class. My wives, Margot and Corinne. My inherited great Baba, who designed and built a frigging church.

But all those discoveries aside, the novel will get one last polish from my first readers, then it’s off to the agent.

It is the best thing I have written, but something not achieved without great pain and anguish. Ask my wife who’d find me wandering around the house muttering, “No, that won’t work, won’t work, my precious, he has to die, yes, die but how, dammit, how?”

It’s been an interesting journey, combining my deep emotional connection to the Netherlands (based on my visits there and my reading of the holocaust), my love of a good thriller, and my love of books that touch a poignant chord within us all.  But, as any writer should, if someone has a way to make it EVEN BETTER, (my first readers, my agent, my editor, Bob the grocery bagger,) then I’ll kick it up yet another notch.

Because I not only want it to be the best story I’ve ever written, but one of the best others will ever read.

Character matters

My go-to philosophers, Calvin and Hobbs

My go-to philosophers, Calvin and Hobbs

Joe’s Post #167 — Trying to get re-inspired to write has been a bit of a challenge.

I’ve been thinking a lot, which is something I do instead of writing, and this time, my thoughts have turned to character.

I want to make my characters real. Alive. Compelling. Full of good and bad.

I got hammered on a few short stories for lack of character depth. Oh, how much easier it would be to have a written story with theme music and linked sites to show the character’s backstory and they challenges they faced.

But, sadly, I’m not a director. Nor a movie maker. I’m a fiction writer and I need to find a way to bring my characters to life better.

So I looked at the novel I’m reading. No help there. It’s Baldacci and while he’s a best-selling writer and a darned good writer of thrillers, his characters are, at best, shallow and under developed.

Then I watched Babakook with my 13 year old. Apart from being terrified, a light bulb went off. This movie shows people in their worst state. It ripped open their ugly inner selves for the world to see.

And that got me thinking.

Is that what makes a good character?

a-game-of-thrones-book-1-of-a-song-of-ice-and-fireOh, lord there’s a lot of advice on this, but for me, it’s someone who’s complex. Queen Cersei from the Game of Thrones is a vicious, vindictive woman who has sex with her brother. A lot.

Yet…

Yet, she loves her children unconditionally.  No matter what kind of monsters they are.

She has a code. Protect the ones she loves at all costs.

Even if she ignores all the bad stuff. Like, ah, tossing other people’s children from towers.

Doesn’t that make her more compelling?

So how do I make mine compelling?

Make them less…. Good?

Hmmm.

So, I grabbed a glass of wine, sat in my favourite chair and began to challenge my character’s goodness. When my main character is drowning in a WW1 shell hole what if there is someone in there with him? Someone drowning too. Make him not alone. Make it not a lonely struggle.

Good. Hmmm. I’m liking this.

Now, he’s the type of guy who would save the other man. He’s the hero type. But what if instead of saving the other man, in his panic, in his fear of drowning, he steps on top of the other man to free himself? He’s 16. He’s shell-shocked. He’s living out his worst fear…

shell shock What if, later, they called him a hero for what he did in that battle, after he got out of that hole? What if he never told anyone what happened?

What if it became his darkest secret?

What if that moment in the shell hole haunts him forever? Defines him?

Hmmmm. I’m getting closer to making him a more compelling character, right?

Still more to do, but oddly enough, I’m more inspired to write about this guy, and that’s never a bad thing.

So now I need to look at the other characters. Maybe find some good in the villain?

*******

Is this how good characters are made? Or are there any other suggestions?

 

 

Twist your plot. Can your characters escape?

Karalee’s Post #133

twisterOne can spend a lifetime surfing the web and hanging out on social media. I’m choosing to cut back (I can actually choose how to spend all of my time) and I’m spending those minutes that often stretch into hours being more productive by reading books and working on my new business.

But every once in awhile a gem pops out from Facebook or Twitter. It happened today when I scrolled through my FB feed and I paused on a UTube that a friend posted. For some reason I clicked on it. Thanks Randy!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sBoyS4wHPTc&sns=em

This tickled my murder mystery writing funny bone. The site is called Spy Escape & Evasion and subjects like this are good to jump-start your imagination and “what if…”

A few examples from this site are:

  • airplane survival secrets
  • how to become a human lie detector
  • how to escape handcuffs
  • how to escape zip ties
  • how to pick locks
  • how to disappear
  • how to escape rope
  • stun flashlight

Of course once you become immersed in discovery and contemplating how you might use new ideas in different ways in your fiction writing, you can spend all day surfing again.

Outliers

 

The internet easily becomes a circular web, catching the curious, the bored, the procrastinators, the blocked, the (put any excuse here….). It’s easy to go back to the first line in this blog:

One can spend a lifetime surfing the web and hanging out on social media.

The trick is to break the circle, use the internet with purpose and focus – and then get off.

 

Become an Outlier.

Can you?

___________________________________________________________________

Perspective Photos:

grouse ice rink

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy writing!

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.

 

 

The magic of fear in writing

Karalee’s Post #132

fearI was musing the other day, thinking about all the emotions and sensations people go through during their lives. Most of us at some point have felt excitement, joy, peace, terror, pain, sadness, ecstasy, fear, happiness, contentment, anxiety, cold, hot, restless, panicked, relaxed, blissful, etc.

Then, in my writer’s way, I wondered  what underlies all the bad feelings and what can change all the good ones into bad ones. I realized that the common denominator is FEAR.

The definition of fear is:  an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.

The magic of this definition for writers is the word belief.

Think about that. We can make our characters believe anything we want. We create their lives from inception to death, building their belief system through their experiences, and those experiences can trigger reactions and behaviors throughout their lives.

Why is fear so magical? Fear is a great motivator for action to get away from the danger that is likely to cause pain or threaten the character. The fear can be up front and physical like getting run over by a truck, or a swarm of bees heading your way. Fear can also be perceived in one’s mind. Now that’s magical. It’s also endless in the scenarios that can be conjured by the hand of a writer. Inside one’s mind is where psychological manifestations blossom, where beliefs flourish whether they are true or false.

For example, if a character was bitten by a dog when he was a child, he may panic when he hears a dog bark even if the dog is locked inside and can’t harm him. Even more powerful, the character could panic at the mere thought of a dog being close by even if there is no dog at all. The truth here is that there is no danger at all, but the character can still be in a state of fear.

Fear is a great tension builder. It’s the monster under the bed, the darkness hiding all the bad things in the night, it’s one’s imagination running terrifyingly free in one’s mind. Its a veritable treasure chest for a writer to pull from.

Does happiness or excitement compel characters to flee, or murder, or do other criminal acts? Or is it the fear of losing someone you love that causes you to murder the lover? It certainly isn’t in the moment of happiness that characters do bad things.

I can’t think of another emotion that’s as strong and compelling as fear to make characters engage in extreme actions to get away from danger or the threat of danger whether it’s real or perceived.

Can you?

___________________________________________________________________

Perspective Photos:

cypress snow

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

bird in snow

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy writing!

5 More overlooked emotions

skateboard-man

Silk’s Post #147 — I just got a like and a share on a post I wrote two years ago, which is a bit like sticking your hand in the pocket of a jacket that’s been hanging in your closet forever and finding a $10 bill. (Thanks Kelsie and Shannon).

So I went back and read it. And like any long-suffering, praise-starved, unpublished writer, my first thought was: Wow, this is better than anything I’ve written recently. Followed, of course, by a flutter of panic, pangs of angst, and a dash of hopelessness.

If you’ve been reading some of our 5writers posts recently, you’ve probably picked up on our collective struggles to put butts in chairs, get words on paper and keep enthusiasm high as we approach our self-imposed February 5th deadline for finishing our first drafts in the second 5writers5novels5months challenge. Last week I blogged about The art of course correcting as a strategy for giving ourselves the gift of more time, pulling ourselves out of our writing hole, and rehabilitating our 5/5/5 spirit.

After a probably unhealthy amount of introspection (and a couple glasses of wine), I concluded that there’s a life-imitating-art parallel between the arc of writing a book and the arc of becoming a writer.

At the beginning it’s pure excitement, ideas and enthusiasm and confidence bubbling up like one of those science project volcanoes. Then comes the interminable muddled middle, the all-work-and-no-play slog when you wonder what in the hell you were thinking when you embarked on this shapeless plot and whether you’re really cut out for the writing life. It’s all you can do to keep the faith long enough to reach The End, when you finally catch fire again, tie up all the threads, and bask in the glow of accomplishment. You need to really enjoy that glow, because it has to carry you through the next phase of rewrites and queries – a process that can be so demoralizing it will drive you either to start a new book so you can enjoy that beginning rush again, or quit writing and take up something easier, like rocket science.

Well, right now, I’m deep in the mushy middle – both of my book and of my second-career learning curve to become a writer of novels. The original excitement of the starting writer is long past, and the hoped-for success of the accomplished writer is still far, far ahead.

So it was almost shocking to revisit my writing self of two years ago and read the enthusiasm and engagement in my words. What happened to my writing joy? My competency? My confidence? Will I ever get it back?

Then, something unexpected happened.

My mood lifted. And I started getting excited again, because I remembered: I can do this. The proof was right there on the page.

As an hommage to that two-year-old post, The top 10 most overlooked emotions, I’ll work on getting my groove back by adding another 5 under-appreciated emotions to the list for consideration when you’re trying to add nuance and dimension to your characters. This time I’m focusing not on reactive, situational emotions, but instead on underlying emotions that shape a character’s personality and attitude. My preamble to that post still fits here:

In the service of the writer’s twin holy grails – TENSION and CONFLICT – we cram in the obvious basic feelings like LOVE, HATE, FEAR, HOPE, ANGER, HAPPINESS, IMPATIENCE, RESENTMENT, DOUBT, and EXCITEMENT. 

But it’s the subtler shades of emotion that help elevate characters from bland and predictable to spicy and complex. Without these grace notes, emotions can come across as cartoon-like as emoticons. Here are some more to consider …

1.  WELTSCHMERZ – I wish the English language had equivalents for some of the German words that pack a whole suitcase full of emotional complexity into just a few (admittedly chewy) letters. Just saying the word Weltschmerz seems to dredge up a whole gutful of deep, organic feeling. Weltschmerz, Weltschmerz, Weltschmerz. I just can’t say it enough.

Germans love to craft words that are collisions of two or more thoughts, and Weltschmerz, said to be coined by author and humorist Jean Paul (Johann Paul Friedrich Richter, 1763-1825) translates roughly as world-pain or world-weariness. Wikipedia defines it as “the kind of feeling experienced by someone who believes that physical reality can never satisfy the demands of the mind … anxiety caused by the ills of the world.”

This below-the-surface emotion – a favourite of authors in the Romantic era like Byron, Hesse, and Heine – has added depth to memorable characters in modern novels by writers such as John Steinbeck, Kurt Vonnegut and Henry Miller. It’s having a new vogue among today’s essayists, as they attempt to put a name to our collective unease at the world’s present dysfunction. And it even has its own built-in mission: to strive, even against hope, to make things right.

Do you want your action-oriented protagonist to be haunted by a certain sense of deep longing … the pain of a failed idealist that has not hardened into cynicism … a kind of hole in the soul that can never be patched? Give him a dose of Weltschmerz.

2.  PLAYFULNESS – This important emotion is too often dismissed as frivolous. Well, it’s not. Maybe it makes you think of puppies and kittens. I believe that a sense of playfulness is the bright face of curiosity (the dark face of curiosity is usually termed “morbid”).

Curiosity is all about “inquisitive thinking such as exploration, investigation and learning … [and is] heavily associated with all aspects of human development,” Wikipedia informs us. Thomas Hobbes wrote, “Curiosity is the lust of the mind,” and Edmund Burke called it “the first and simplest emotion which we discover.”

There’s all kinds of serious brain science behind this passion for understanding, but it starts in childhood in the pure form of play. Although psychological research into adult playfulness is apparently in its infancy (“probably because it wasn’t deemed worthy enough,” bemoans University of Zurich psychologist René Proyer), it has been highly correlated to academic performance, active lifestyles, good coping skills, creativity, and attractiveness to members of the opposite sex.

People like playful people. (Wouldn’t you like to meet the guy with the skateboard on his head?) So if you want to make readers love your character a little more, let him be playful. Maybe some of it will rub off on you!

3.  GRAVITAS – If you’ve Weltschmertzed your character successfully, you may already be on your way to achieving gravitas. But is it an emotion? Well, not exactly. But it certainly is the product of a cluster of emotions – or perhaps I should say of a person’s way of managing those emotions.

Gravitas was identified as one of the primary Roman virtues, alongside other qualities like dignitas and veritas. In short, it’s an attribute of people who take things seriously, and are taken seriously – and trusted – by others. People with gravitas are the “adults in the room”: responsible, earnest, dignified, substantial. People who have depth of personality. People not given to playing fast and loose with their emotions.

If you think about the traits of the spectrum of politicians currently in the headlines, for instance, you can quickly pick out those who have it, those who don’t but wish they did, and those who you might suspect are wearing a mask of gravitas that hides who they really are. See how much fun this is? How gravitas makes a great protagonist (think Strider)? And how much more interesting an antagonist who’s faking gravitas could be than a standard cardboard bad guy?

4.  GRATITUDE – The emotion of gratitude is getting a lot of attention lately, as it deserves. People now talk about “practicing” gratitude, as opposed to just naturally feeling it. According to some current thinking, “people aren’t hardwired to be grateful … and, like any skill worth having, gratitude requires practice.” (Really?)

Psychologist Robert Emmons, for instance, wrote a 2008 self-help book called Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You HappierIt doesn’t take a professional, though, to know that gratitude will make you more popular – people love an ingrate the way they love a person who kicks dogs.

Gratitude can be seen in an immediate emotional reaction to a stimulus, but it can also be present as a general attitude closely related to humility. A fictional character who exhibits gratitude will win the empathy of many readers … and could be a terrific opposing foil for a bad actor who makes readers want to choke him to death with a big piece of humble pie.

5.  INSECURITY – Ah, the writer’s companion. Definition: anxiety about oneself, lack of confidence, self-doubt, diffidence, nervousness, inhibition, sense of vulnerability or inferiority. Who has never, ever felt like this, even for a moment? Any hands? I thought not.

When it comes to characters, an insecure protagonist is usually a horrible idea unless you have some plan to rehabilitate her pretty quickly. It isn’t easy to relate to a clingy victim – or, on the other end of the spectrum, a bombastic over-compensator – as the main POV character. Insecure people are needy and often make others uncomfortable, as anyone who’s been closely shadowed by one at a party will attest. They can try your patience and suck your emotional energy. So, as main characters, they usually don’t cut the mustard.

But that makes Nervous Nellies or Bobby Blowhards perfect in some secondary roles. For instance, as the sidekick whose insecurity hides her brilliant mind, or big heart. This gives your protagonist an opportunity to exhibit sterling characteristics like empathy and loyalty. And sets up a satisfying surprise when the inhibited sidekick has to rise to the occasion and find her courage just when the protagonist needs her.


5/5/5 challenge scorecard for the week:

Since we’ve done our 5/5/5 course correction in the name of sanity and mutual support, I’m now aiming to complete my first draft by April 5th. But I don’t want to float off completely into the ether of unaccountability, so I’m re-starting my blog post scorecards.

New pages written:  Since when? Oh, yeah – well let me just take a look, um. Right, uhhh … let’s see. What was the question again? Hold on – is that the phone? Sorry, I have to take this. I’ll, um, get back to you on that.

Word count:  Still 9,320

Rewrites:  None

Blog posts written:  2 this week (and this one’s early … a first!)

Research done:  A little tiny bit

Other accomplishments:  Figured out my ending, my villain and a main character’s motivation to take the action that sets the whole plot rolling. Hallelujah!

Best new thing:  My sciatica went away.

Holiday progress:  Christmas letter done. Decorations out from under the stairwell. Cards in progress. Gifts to be mailed away bought and being wrapped in … 5 … 4 … 3 … 2 … 1 minute. Bye now until next week!

Wheat or chaff? It’s all about relationships

Image

Helga’s Post #119: What makes a story really and truly tick?

We all know the answers, so no point preaching to the choir. What does get overlooked more often than what’s good for us writers, is this:

The power of relationships.

Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? Yet it’s so common to forget about it and rather focus on getting characters right. Powerful characters that we hope will keep the readers turning the pages of our story. In fact, it’s the relationships between these strong and interesting characters that is the make-or-break aspect between a flop and a bestseller.

Sure, a good plot helps. Suspense and pacing is crucial. Setting will frame the story. Credible, three-dimensional characters are all-important. But interesting characters by themselves are not enough to make a book roar.

It’s how the characters relate to each other that defines the story – and may well determine the book’s future success or failure.

This was brought home to me again after watching the movie Bridge of Spies with Tom Hanks.

Never wanting to miss a Steven Spielberg flick I expected much and was not disappointed. In fact, I was quite shaken, not because of the plot, setting or acting, all of which were exceptional, but by the superbly acted and unusual relationship between the Russian spy and the American lawyer assigned to defend him. I will not do a spoiler here, rather I recommend this movie to any of you writers out there. Go and watch it with a view of judging what makes this film as powerful as it is. Then go back home and try to weave these aspects into your own story.

The plot and genre also acted as a huge attractant for me, so please keep that in mind about my starry-eyed review. The setting of the film is late 1950s Brooklyn and later East Berlin, height of the Cold War scare. Height of the hysteria and hatred around Soviet Russia. Spies working each side of the two worlds. Time of the apocalyptic fear that gripped America during the dark days of ‘Mutual Assured Destruction’. Based on the 1960 U-2 incident during the Cold War, the film tells the story of lawyer James B. Donovan who is entrusted with negotiating the release of Francis Gary Powers—a pilot whose U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union—in exchange for Rudolf Abel, a captive Soviet KGB spy held under the custody of the United States.

I loved it for its excellence but also as it reminded me of my novel Closing Time (unpublished), the manuscript collecting cobwebs under my bed for the last five or six years. Its setting is 1958 Vienna, the story based on true events but with fictionalized characters (other than President Eisenhower and Nikita Khruschev). Its focus is also the Cold War, the topic negotiating the limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty between the superpowers. It was the second novel I wrote. At the time I thought it was pretty good but a number of rejections from editors and literary agents made me doubt my earlier enthusiasm. And so it lingered since.

Watching ‘Bridge of Spies’ however made me rethink my own story. Perhaps it’s worth dusting off the cobwebs. Sure, it needs a total re-write. I may have to change my protagonist and the antagonist, but these are relatively small details. I have the setting nailed, because that’s where I grew up. A little later than the time of the story, but I can relate.

The major part of the rewrite will be my characters’ relationships to each other. My mind is going into overdrive as I write this.

Thank you Steven Spielberg, not only for a great movie, but also because you have done me a great favor. Maybe you have spawned a book worth publishing. Thanks for the memories.

 

Story ecosystems

ancient-aboriginal-art

Ancient Aboriginal art – Australia

Modern graffiti – London

Modern graffiti – London

Silk’s Post #145 — Sometimes the most valuable writing insights don’t come from books or courses or conference workshops. They just pop up out of “real life” and open your eyes to some different way of understanding that you can apply to your craft.

One of these perspective game-changers hit me recently and I wanted to pass it on.

Every hear of biocultural diversity? I hadn’t until last week, when I met up with some very smart sailing friends from an NGO called Terralingua, whose mission it is to preserve biocultural diversity through research, education and policy-relevant work in cooperation with some pretty impressive supporters and partners – like the United Nations Environment Program, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Worldwide Fund for Nature.

I mean, Wow. As interesting conversations go, this was a 10 out of 10. Here’s a quote from their literature (emphasis mine):

“For millennia people have been part of nature and have co-evolved with it. Over time, we have adapted to the natural environment, while drawing material and spiritual sustenance from it. By interacting closely with one another and with nature, we have developed thousands of different cultures and languages — distinctive ways of seeing, knowing, doing, and speaking … This is the true web of life: interlinked diversity of nature and culture.”

Okay, a bit wonkish – but I get it: people are part of the ecosystem, just like the plants and the other animals. And not just any generic ecosystem, but the specific and unique geographic neighbourhood they live in. And the culture – including language – that they create is specifically in response to the realities of that locale (debates about the number of words Eskimos have for snow notwithstanding).

Seems obvious when you think about it. Existential, even.

But somewhere along the path to “civilization”, I suspect our big brains started thinking of ourselves as a species somehow apart from – and above – the messy web of other organic life and landscapes. God-like, perhaps.

Maybe it started breaking down when people got mobile – left “the garden”, so to speak, in search of greener grass. And then, of course, there has been the levelling and disruptive effect of technology – our deus ex machina with unintended consequences.

Today, if you don’t happen to live in an unmolested tribal village, you probably don’t think of yourself as an example of biocultural diversity. And maybe the top of your worry list is not dominated by preservation of what now seem like outmoded – even doomed – tribal cultures in remote places with names you can’t pronounce.

Because we live in a global culture now, don’t we? It seems like there’s no place left on Earth where you can’t find a McDonalds, or a Starbucks, or a smart phone, or the industrial waste of some international corporation, or someone who can speak English (though, as I wrote in an earlier post, There’s more than one English). In contrast, there’s not much undisturbed wilderness anymore, if any. Instead, we have zoos and what Joni Mitchell called tree museums (aka “parks”).

Nevertheless, it didn’t take much to convince me that biocultural diversity matters and needs to be preserved. Count me in. Maybe it’s just my incurable idealism, but I say grab on to whatever bits of wisdom and harmony you can, wherever you find it, because there’s little enough of it to go around. It might save your life sometime.

But hold on – what does this have to do with writing?

Well, you know how brain synapses work. They let thoughts wander, and ideas morph into other ideas, and concepts find unlikely applications. And it all started me thinking about story ecosystems.

For a writer, biocultural diversity is the perfect model of a story world. You just have to expand the element of the natural environment to include all types of environment … urban neighbourhoods, alien planets, gated suburban communities, farm lands, resort destinations, refugee camps … you get the picture.

Three big things have changed in the modern world: the nature and impermanence of these new environments, the mind-boggling pace of life, and the inescapable connectedness people have with each other far beyond their own home territory. Nothing is slow anymore. Nothing is isolated. And, foolishly, we live today as though nature has been “conquered”.

What hasn’t changed as the world has gone “global” is people’s adaptation to their own local environment, although we now have to learn our survival skills way, way faster than our forebears. We’re not only still part of diverse ecosystems, we cling to them, sometimes desperately. Everybody needs to belong – to have their own territories and tribes.

Their own different cultures and languages — distinctive ways of seeing, knowing, doing, and speaking.

For a writer, this perspective reveals character, plot and setting as completely unified aspects of a story. It put my head into the story I’m writing in a whole different way. It gave me the key to my main character’s motivations, interactions with others and with his environment, way of thinking, way of talking, plans and actions, consistencies and inconsistencies.

Thinking of my protagonist as part of his ecosystem – not just a character who dropped into the plot and setting from “somewhere else” – was a subtle shift, but a profound one. Why? Because I saw that the inevitable “somewhere else” was my own head, and when I first dropped him into my plot, I now realize, he took with him all my own personal cultural referents. In other words, the author was present in my story – too present.

The received wisdom, we’ve all heard, is that there’s a bit of autobiography in every writer’s protagonist. And that’s okay. We all have a little Walter Mitty in our souls someplace. But I think the greatest books, and the most memorable characters, get their authenticity and uniqueness from their cohesive story ecosystems.

For me, it’s more clarifying to see things through this holistic lens than to think about character and setting and plot and dialogue and pace as separate elements, then try to somehow knit them together. I think wrapping your head around your story ecosystem helps with character POV, fends off the dreaded author voice, and lets characters be who they are and do what they’d naturally do.

This is the sought-after flow state that writers report when they say their characters “take over” and insist on how they’ll act and react. The polar opposite is the character who initially captivates the writer and reader, then – when put to the test – doesn’t live up to his billing, but rather devolves into the author’s pawn to serve the plot. Sound familiar?

I may have just written 1,000 words to state the obvious. But sometimes simple truths take the long way around to get into your head.

Writers cannot hide in a room

Joe’s Post #145

Taking the Blindfold Off

homers headAs writers, we live in our heads a lot. I think I may have said this once or twice. We often sit in dark rooms, alone, gulping cold coffee and creating worlds filled with all manner of characters or monsters or fluffy bunnies.

But every so often, writers are forced into the real world. Into the big city.

It’s a scary place. There’s light and the smell of hot dogs and lots of people. There’s the ear-splitting sound of jackhammers, gritty air that makes your eyelids feel like sandpaper and even more people … everywhere … in cars, on the sidewalk, in malls, wandering into traffic, or shouting at imaginary demons …

In such a chaotic environment, though, is writing gold.

If you’re willing to observe it.

I watched an old Chinese couple navigate the Skytrain with only nods to each other. An unspoken language that only they understood, but understood completely.

I sat a seat away from an Aboriginal man who bobbed with the rhythm of the train, reading his bible and mouthing the words to himself.

I laughed as three young men, not even 20, gave each other advice on how to attract women. Apparently the secret is the right cologne.

And that’s just from a Skytrain run.

In the real world, there are more details, more ideas for characters, and more character traits to be mined than being in a room by yourself.

A balding man with a ring of hair, all well-combed, well maintained, except for the very back which stood up as if he’d been electrocuted. But it was the one place he couldn’t see, or had no one else at home who’d tell him.

A woman changes out of her high heels to ride the Seabus, wearing simple flipflops with her expensive suit until the Seabus had landed on the other side.

A gruff construction worker complains to his friend about aspheticides that killed pests with a lethal combination containing lead and arse-ianic. Personally, I think he’d sniffed a bit too much of that arse-ianic.

But there’s so much to see. To smell. To hear, taste or touch.

Or to imagine.

Opening line – “22 people sat beside the dead man and before someone noticed the blood.”

Or – “When Rebecca arrived at the airport, she realized she’d forgotten three things: the book she’d almost finished reading, her lucky jogging socks and her boyfriend. Well, she would miss two of those things.”

I honestly wished I’d brought a pen and paper to make notes, but I was on a different mission. Fun with the family. So I didn’t record all that I should have recorded, but the whole adventure did remind me that, to be good writer, you can’t just sit in the dark and make shit up.

Unless you’re Stephen King.

all work

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Write with emotion

dive-in

Silk’s Post #133 — It has been an emotional year, and not half over yet.

The world has had its punishing cataclysms, some delivered by nature, others by the hand of man. It has had some surprising social victories to celebrate, including progressive decisions by the US Supreme Court, and a demonstration of the awesome power of forgiveness in a Charleston church. Personally, I’ve had some unforgettable, joyful travel adventures and shared some soul-nourishing times with people I’m glad to have in my life. I’ve also lost some dear friends. Three women who I love have lost their longtime partners to cancer.

So, yeah, my feelings have been working overtime.

And that’s the natural response to the highs and lows life throws at you. In fact, despite the pain of sorrow, I think we long to experience emotions. It’s in our DNA. It means we’re alive. Maybe it even keeps us alive. My thesis is that emotions give our journey on earth meaning and significance, perhaps even more than the worldly successes we strive so hard to achieve.

People need to feel. And that’s why I think people read to feel.

While storytelling may be about connecting through narrative with ourselves, with others, with our past and future, with our common humanity, and with the rules of the road in life – as well as being the purest form of entertainment – it has a cardinal rule. And that rule has to do with emotion.

Filmmaker Andrew Stanton (Toy Story), in his fantastic TED Talk, The Clues to a Great Story, in 2012, said storytelling must do one thing above all else:

Make Me Care.

In his excellent book Writing 21st Century Fictionwriting guru Donald Maass puts it another way:

What is it that moves readers’ hearts? What conjures in readers’ imaginations a reality that, for a while, feels more real than their own lives? What glues readers to characters and makes those characters objects of identification: people with whom readers feel intimately involved, about whom they care, and whose outcomes matter greatly? Emotions. When readers feel little or nothing, then a story is just a collection of words. It’s empty.

You’ve heard this all before, haven’t you? As an abstract piece of wisdom, it seems so obvious it scarcely needs to be said. Of course storytelling must evoke emotions. It’s right here in my How To Be A Great Writer 101 notes. Got it. Let’s move on.

Actually, let’s not. Let’s stay right here in the complicated, shape-shifting, constricted, psychedelic, colourless, loud, passionate, confusing, silent, elating, scary, inspiring, tragic, heartwarming, tense, quicksand-filled world of emotional landscapes. Okay, let’s get out the roadmap and see where we are. Oh, right. I forgot. There is no road map.

We know a lot about emotions. Life is full of them. Psychology books dissect and explain them. We all feel them, personally. We can call upon all that knowledge to tell how something feels. Oops … did I say “tell”? Yes, that’s the trap, isn’t it?

So, following the fiction prescription of Show Don’t Tell, we can probably describe the visible clues that convey our character’s feelings. The glistening eyes that speak of sorrow held in check. The muscular tension of anger. The white-knuckled grip of fear. The glowing face of love. That’s better, right? Well, maybe.

But here’s the challenge. Getting across to a reader that a character is experiencing an emotion is not the same as getting the reader to experience an emotion. Far from it.

As Maass says, “Familiar emotions, especially when in neon lights, have little effect on readers.” He cautions against the extremes of “warm” emotional landscapes bestrewn with flowery purple prose, and “cool” emotional landscapes so devoid of overt feelings they’re like deserts of the heart.

So, let’s go back to Stanton’s cardinal rule: Make Me Care. It’s not just about intensity, or even authenticity. It’s about connection.

And that, naturally, leads us to character. If a reader doesn’t care about the character, can’t relate to him and what he’s experiencing, isn’t emotionally engaged in the outcome, all your attempts to write with emotion fail. The words just lie there on the page, dead on arrival.

Of course, you’ve heard all this too. Make your character relatable! Lure the reader into caring about him! Let’s say you’ve zoomed ahead of many writers (hopefully going beyond the simplistic advice of giving your character a flaw, because people are reported to love flaws, so any character with a flaw must be automatically relatable), and you’ve managed to achieve this wonderful state of character grace. Congratulations!

Now when you convey your character’s emotions, the reader should definitely feel something, right? Well, maybe.

What? There’s more to this emotional landscape navigation? Sorry, but the answer is Yes. Hey, if it were easy, everybody could be a bestselling novelist!

For example, there’s cliché avoidance, which applies to emotional stimuli and responses just as it applies to character, language and other elements of fiction. Two-dimensional (aka cardboard) emotions, predictable responses, melodrama – these don’t move readers at a deep level. Maass talks about the power of more nuanced emotions that surprise, that conflict, that intrigue and provoke.

The character’s dog is hit by a car and dies? Yes, that’s horribly sad, and it’s natural for the character be broken-hearted. But what else does he feel that adds dimension? Anger at the driver who hit his dog, or at himself for letting the dog run out on the road? Remorse and regret if he ran over it himself, in a mindless hurry to get somewhere? Secret relief that his life is simpler without a dog, that he’s now free to take that trip to Kathmandu? Self hatred at feeling this relief? Delayed mourning for his dead mother who gave him the dog when he was a teen? Fresh resentment for his girlfriend, who never liked his dog? What if there’s something about the circumstance that he actually finds funny, and is stricken with intolerable guilt about this taboo response?

It could be a simple case of boy-loses-dog. Or a much more nuanced case of boy’s-karma-runs-over-his-dogma. Sorry, I couldn’t resist a bit of black humour, so to all you dog lovers out there, please don’t send me hate mail.

Although, if you did, it would suggest something important: I Made You Care.

I believe some of the most powerful emotional effects you can achieve in fiction arise from those things that are the hardest to talk about in real life. Things that are threatening, taboo, disturbing, dangerous, fraught with dilemma. Things that are close to the soul, risky to examine. Things that reveal more about our secret selves than we want to share. Not just things we’re afraid of, but things we’re afraid to admit about ourselves. Things never talked about by what another writing guru, James Scott Bell, calls “Happy People in Happy Land.”

And that’s why, as writers, we open our own veins and bleed all over the paper. Everything we reveal about our characters also reveals something about ourselves. Writing with emotion in a way that really touches and engages readers to feel something means writing from the heart.

Or, as some of the greats would put it …

No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. — Robert Frost

It’s all about passion. Heart is what drives us and determines our fate. — Isabel Allende

Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart. — William Wordsworth

You get your readers emotionally involved in your characters by being emotionally involved yourself. Your characters must come alive for you. When you are writing about them, you have to feel all the emotions they are going through – hunger, pain, joy, despair. If you suffer along with them, so will the reader. — Sidney Sheldon

What comes from the heart goes to the heart. — Samuel Taylor Coleridge

I love writing. I love the swirl and swing of words as they tangle with human emotions. — James A. Michener

I want to make you laugh or cry when you read a story … or do both at the same time. I want your heart, in other words. If you want to learn something, go to school. — Stephen King