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.

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.

 

 

Dare to open that vein

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Credit: Soulsonpage

Helga’s Post # 123:    Whenever I am afflicted with writers’ block (a frequent occurrence), I am reminded of a quote that uses a chilling metaphor to describe the difficult process of composition: The famous quote, one that most writers are familiar with, is this:

‘There’s nothing to writing. Just open a vein and bleed.’

I would think that a good many wannabe writers would rush for the razor without hesitation if taken literally, if that were all it takes to write a good book.

Replacing the metaphor with more realistic tools, what does it mean? At the danger of over-simplifying the quote’s meaning, the more life experience a writer has, the better the chance he/she will write a great book, perhaps even a bestseller (assuming a certain level of writing skills). But not just ‘experience’. Anything is an experience, lining up at the super market, taking the dog out, whatever. Life challenges might be more accurate. And the steeper the challenges, the deeper the valleys that life has carved out for you, the more likely you will be able to ‘open a vein and bleed’. Not always, but there’s a good chance that writers who took it on the chin for much or part of their life will write stories that resonate, stories that readers will remember. Not only remember, but they’ll be chewing their fingernails waiting for your next book to appear in their favorite bookstore.

Take these examples:

One writer leads a straightforward, uncomplicated life. He has travelled widely. He has a decent job but is bored because it doesn’t really challenge him. There are no conflicts in his daily routine or only minor ones, no complicated relationships. He has never had to worry about money and he has never been betrayed, simply because he doesn’t feel close enough to anyone that it would matter. Never felt much passion for anything, never felt the agony or ecstasy over falling in love or being abandoned or watching a loved one die. He thinks he is happy by the sheer absence of calamities in his life, but he has no way of measuring it. Such a person could become a reasonably good travel writer or write a suspense story based on a simple plot and lots of action rather than interesting, three-dimensional characters. But he would be hard pressed to ‘open a vein and bleed’ in his writing.

Another writer lives a life full of contradictions. She has glimpsed heaven and hell in equal measure (or better yet, has lived through more hell than heaven). She has suffered difficult relationships, has experienced delirious happiness when falling in love, and felt the heart-wrenching agony of losses when she was abandoned or lost a loved one to illness. She has experienced financial calamities as well as betrayals. She has a checkered past that would make Lady Chatterly blush and therefore hasn’t shared it with anyone, even her closest friends. But she has no regrets. Everything she does, she does with passion, or she won’t do it at all. She has learned from mistakes, of which there were many. Instead of wallowing in misery and turning bitter she has chalked them up as necessary training ground to become stronger and more independent. She leads a roller coaster life without ever a boring moment.

Who has more to give to their readers? Who is willing to open a vein and bleed profusely, making it part of their story?

All this is self-evident. So, what’s the point?

For one, it’s a great tool for readers to choose quality books. Books that not only entertain while we are reading them, but that stay with us long after we have read ‘The End’. Sometimes years after we’ve read them. Books that have the potential to change us, that’s how deeply they touch us. Stories that we can’t stop thinking about, because their characters are so real we feel we have met them in person. Relationships between them have depths of emotions we may never have known exist, let alone experienced. Or else we have experienced something similar to the story and can relate to the author’s version, remembering and identifying with our own past. With our own bleeding vein.

When choosing your next book to read, take a look at the author’s bio. Does he/she know about their subject matter from their own life experience? We are all familiar with Hemingway’s illustrious life and how he managed to mirror that in his writing. Or, take Sean Slater, a bestselling author and personal friend (in fact he was the original founder of our writers’ group). A police officer in real life, his books are brimming with events that ring true because many of them are. He has lived them and he effectively weaves  them into his stories.  Another example is one of my pet authors, John LeCarre. He has lived the life of a spy, so he knows how to write about it with authority and authenticity. It helps that he is a man of great intelligence, passion and awesome writing talent. He is well in his eighties now but you wouldn’t know it from the way he writes those wonderful love stories that are always an important part of his books.

I think these are pretty good criteria for selecting your next good book. (Depending of course on what kind of reader you are). Better yet, why not write one? If you are reading this blog it’s likely that you too have chalked up a lot of interesting life experience that can be mined for your next writing project. And if you are not in a hurry to get published so you can pay your next months’ rent, you will add more material to your arsenal for later use. Meanwhile, live those passions that we so love to read about, regardless of your age, because we are never really too old for that.

Oscar Wilde got it right when he said, ‘To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.’

 

The mind’s eye

imagination

Silk’s Post #148 — Imagination is an amazing thing – you might even say a super power. It lets you, as a reader, envision in your mind places you’ve never seen, and stimulates strong emotions about people you’ve never met – even people who never were. If an author has done a good job, your imagination fills in the sights, the sounds, the smells and the whole atmosphere of a written scene and brings it to life in your mind’s eye.

That’s the alchemy of written (or oral) storytelling. It’s an ethereal collaboration of writer and reader that allows plot, setting and characters to become real and active and compelling, without being literally dramatized on stage or screen.

Achieving this dynamic balance between writer and reader gives rise to a lot of literary “rules” that warn writers not to break the spell by putting their foot into the proverbial bucket.

Avoid the overt presence of “author voice” is one of those – an admonition that sounds slightly absurd the first time the budding writer encounters it. In whose voice should a writer write, if not her own?

But what it really means is: don’t tell the reader what to think, how to feel, where to go. Make him an active collaborator by letting the story play out in his own mind’s eye. Let him conjure his own picture of your characters, imagine and share their emotions, envision the experience of being inside the plot.

Such a delicate balance, this suspension of disbelief. So many ways to unintentionally burst the bubble. Too much backstory or narrative, or too little. Too many details, or not enough. Wooden or clichéd characters. Laboured dialogue. Plot twists that don’t surprise, or that come out of the blue. Cascades of adjectives and adverbs that leave nothing to the imagination. Too much telling and not enough showing.

We all know what it feels like to get “lost” in a book, to compulsively turn the pages, to feel like we’re there. That’s when the magic is working: when the story world in our mind’s eye is almost more alive than the real world – not because we’re inside it, but because it’s inside us.

It’s where the imagination of the writer and the imagination of the reader invisibly merge.

Achieving this storytelling “state of grace” with words alone is truly a feat. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a moving picture is worth a fortune. But a book of words has neither. It calls on a reader to exercise imagination, to become immersed in a story, to be an active participant, in a unique way. (Perhaps that’s why the often heralded demise of books and reading simply hasn’t materialized and, I believe, never will – despite movies, and TV, and now the internet.)

I think the great storytellers are the ones who write with an innate awareness that the job of their words is to evoke more than explain. To lead the reader into the story, and inspire his imagination. To stimulate the reader to bring those words to life, to dramatize them – in pictures, and shades of colour, and motion, and emotion – all in his mind’s eye.

Would it change your approach to writing if you shifted your point of view to see the storytelling process as a creative collaboration between the author and the reader?

Hmmm. Just imagine.


5/5/5 challenge scorecard for the week:

We’re deep into the holiday season now, and that’s challenge enough. Decorating, celebrating, shopping, wrapping, cooking, eating, drinking, visiting with friends and family. My post on imagination was a break from that non-stop holiday-making, a couple of hours spent at least thinking about writing, if not actually writing.

New pages written:  None

Word count:  Still 9,320

Rewrites:  Nope

Blog posts written:  One

Other accomplishments:  Fitting a turkey, a ham and about four bags of holiday groceries into my fridge.

Best new things:  Binge watching The Blacklist. Choosing a year’s worth of great reads for 2016 with my stellar book club. Receiving the gift of Helga’s treasured recipe for Dresden Christmas Stollen.

Holiday thoughts:  How to say “Peace on Earth” without it sounding as automatic and meaningless as “Have a Nice Day”? If we could all keep the spirit and grace of this holiday season in our hearts throughout the year, that would be a great start.

My warmest holiday wishes to all the readers of our blog and my wonderful writing friends.

What happened to pen and paper?

Karalee’s Post #130

Jot it downLast week I had one of those aha moments, the kind that’s hard to admit because it is so obvious. The kind that the young these days call a brain fart.

It happened while I was driving around doing my daily work, fitness, errands and chores. A typical day until I actually noted and listened to that little voice in my head that kept whispering like a mantra of sorts.

“I can’t write right now. My computer is at home.”

It became painfully obvious that I’ve been using this as my excuse to NOT get my writing done. Throughout every day, and I mean every day, I have a few minutes here and there that I could be jotting ideas down. Heck, many of my “great” ideas come while I’m driving and my subconscious is diverted. It’s the equivalent to other people singing in the shower and the idea bulb suddenly lighting up in the mind like a movie set.

The thought can be so strong that it makes you rush naked and dripping out of the shower to write it down before it slips away down the drain along with your soaped up water.

Wait!

Did I say you rush to write it down? On what?

Do you risk dripping water on your computer? Maybe you grab a pen and write that brilliant thought down on good old-fashioned PAPER?

Aha! I  could do that in my vehicle.

I could stop at the curb, pull out pen and paper and jot my ideas down. Easy peasy and as obvious as a pimple on one’s nose.

Joe’s post this week If Writers Had Drill Sergeants was meant to be if you believe in Karma. Imagine what I can accomplish in a 45 minute burst with my ideas already written down and saved on paper, real paper, and not buried back in my subconscious. My pages could be pounded out so fast and furious that I’d burn my fingertips from the keyboard friction. I’d feel so euphoric that I would be Battling the Monster; writers and mental health like in Paula’s last post and I’d be cured of depression and self-doubts, and, and, and….

Can all this be because of pen and paper and simply saving my ideas? Intuitively I feel like a weight has been lifted and unhealthy ties severed between myself and having to have my computer handy in order to write at all. I don’t need to isolate myself in my office.

Also, I don’t need to take my computer everywhere with me, and find an outlet, and WiFi.

I could even go away for a weekend without it! My computer doesn’t rule all.

When I outline a novel idea I do it on a big roll of children’s drawing paper from Ikea. I use pencil. I draw circles and lines and write on the sides. I put in my timelines and dates and use different colors. I drink coffee and pace the floor. I walk outside to clear my head. I have FUN and it’s always with good old paper and pen ( or pencils).

It’s after this initial burst of creativity that I start to rely on the computer. I organize my chapters and research and character development using Scrivener. It’s a great tool and I love using it. I could also make Scrivener work for me when I’m not home and the ideas rolling around in my head start to surface. It’s easy to print out the last chapter I’m on, or a scene I’m fiddling with, or even the character development folder. I could take paper with me. I could jot stuff down on it. I could let my imagination go wild.

Then when I take those ideas and enter them into the computer it’s almost like the second draft. At this point Joe’s Drill Sergeant can take over.

Do other writers out there feel completely reliant on their computers to get any and all of their writing done? I think this is a mindset that many of us have fallen into.

I’m going to let go of my computer umbilical cord for a few minutes here and there every day and get back to keeping a notebook with me. And a pen. I know my creativity flows all day. I will jot it all down.

I will write on paper.

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Productivity: I’m at the midpoint of my third short story. I will print it out and take my pen and some more paper with me from the house. I will let you know next week how it works for me.

Motivation:  I’m following The Miracle Morning by Hal Elrod. The book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell is on my bedside table along with Dalai Lama’s book The Art of Happiness.

Happy Moments:

  • walking on the powdery snow-like beaches around Tampa Bay, Florida last week with my hubby and friends.
  • the heat in the sun in Florida
  • visiting the Chihuly Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida
  • my daughter dropping by with a list of recipes for us to bake for Christmas goodies. She has great taste.

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Perspective Photos:

 

chihuly glass

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

chihuly boat

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy writing!

 

 

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.

Life is a mystery story

halloween

Silk’s Post #144 — Today, which happens to be Halloween, also happens to be my birthday. In my heart, I really own Halloween. I’ve always considered my birth date profoundly lucky. And, somehow, significant.

All Hallows’ Eve (or holy evening) is the night before All Saint’s Day. It’s Pagan and Christian. To ancient Celts, Samhain celebrated the end of harvest season, a liminal time for welcoming the souls of the dead who were apt to cross the threshold between their world and ours at the cusp between summer and winter. To early Christians, Allhallowtide was a time to honour and pray for dead saints, martyrs and the faithful through nighttime vigils and daytime feasts.

Sound similar? Of course. Both observances invest meaning in the turn of the seasons from warm to cold, from light to dark. And both ritualize the greatest of all mysteries: the cycle of life and death. Scary, big ideas. As the Northerners would say in Game of Thrones, “Winter Is Coming”.

As a free bonus, my birthday came along with a treasure chest of rituals, traditions, myths, symbols and celebrations, some historical and some modern. Really good, spooky ones, especially for kids. Costumes! Witches! Black cats! Ghosts! Jack-o-lanterns! Bonfires! Trick-or-treating! Mmmmmm. Candy.

But this post is more than just a walk down memory lane and a shameless plea for birthday greetings. It’s a musing on the purpose of storytelling. And Halloween – the Pagan new year – is a perfect time for contemplating the mystery story of life.

So here’s my theory: life is essentially a game of survival for all the creatures on Earth. We’re born, we live, we die. Cats and hedgehogs and oysters and giraffes probably don’t think much about the meaning of life, beyond the next meal and the urge to multiply.

But humans … well, we’re burdened by this generous, three-pound lump of gray matter sloshing around in our skulls (thanks, Eve!), which compels us to ask questions and seek meaning in everything. Why is the sky blue? Where did everything come from? What am I doing here? What’s the point of life? And what comes after it?

And so we try to explain reality to ourselves, largely through our imaginations (and, relatively recently, through science). That’s where storytelling comes in. Not only do we make up stories to explain what we actually see and experience, we fill in the unknowable blanks by creating spiritual world views that explain the remaining mysteries. Because it just doesn’t seem right that life might not mean anything in the context of the universe. It must. Right?

This need to discover and create meaning has spawned most of what we know as human culture, from the arts to the sciences, from religion to politics, from philosophy to birthday parties.

Wait, what? Birthday parties? Yes, special occasions are important expressions of meaningfulness (if that’s even a word).

Look at it this way: trotting around on four feet grazing the savannah every single day is an existence for creatures who don’t contemplate the meaning and mystery of life. They simply live it. Totally in the moment, every moment. Internal needs and external conditions dictate behaviour. Special occasions are not self-created, but are delivered by nature. Think floods, fires, meteors crashing into the planet. That’s survival (or, in unfortunate cases, extinction).

We, on the other hand, live in the past, present and future. We make rituals, and build monuments, and celebrate occasions, and organize knowledge, and create art, and write stories … all, at the heart of it, to elevate (or invent) the meaning of life. That’s something beyond pure survival. It’s a form of creation. (Science fiction, and probably NASA, have even given some creative thought to overcoming the meteor-collision-extinction scenario).

Of course, we also do a lot of other things that are destructive, rather than creative, but that’s another discussion entirely. It’s creativity’s evil twin, which can only be brought to heel through enlightenment.

The heaven and hell story is one way to understand it all, but there are many themes and variations. And so the mystery story of life continues. I believe the need for storytelling grows, rather than diminishes, as the speed of progress increases.

I love the symbolism of Halloween, with its rich cultural depth and vivid life-versus-death lore, as an enduring example of how we tell ourselves our own story. How we explore the mystery of life’s meaning by creating a narrative for the things we perceive and experience and imagine, but don’t always understand.

As long as humans seek meaning, storytelling will remain one of our most powerful tools. The way we’re built, we can’t resist mysteries, and we can’t put them down until they’re solved.

So don’t worry about what the future holds for writers. The truth is out there, and we’ll need someone to tell it.


5/5/5 challenge scorecard for the week:

Sorry to report, I’ve been a very guilty truant for the past couple of weeks. Not only did I miss my blog post last week, I made little progress on my novel while on the road – best intentions notwithstanding. I’m hoping to piggyback on the jet stream created by all the (even crazier) writing colleagues out there who will embark on NaNoWriMo in just a few hours’ time. I’m thankful I have 90+ days left to complete my first draft, and not the 30-day deadline the NaNo’s are working to. Special thanks to 5writer friend Paula, who delivered a beautifully written and well-timed butt-kick in her post Write on!

New pages written:  Let’s not go there

Word count:  Still 9,320

Rewrites:  None

Blog posts written:  1

Research done:  Yes!

Best new thing:  A wicked good Halloween birthday, with thanks to my wonderful tribe of well-wishing friends.

Apple progress:  Piemaking tomorrow!

Making it up vs. making it real

research-key

Silk’s Post #139 — As the 5writers and friends dive into our second write-a-book-in-five-months challenge, we will all (at some point) come face to face with The Research Conflict.

I’m dramatizing, of course – isn’t that what writers do? But especially at the beginning of a fiction project, research certainly can feel like a conflict. It keeps insistently horning in, begging for attention just when we’re trying to lay down some narrative riffs, slowing our progress and often carrying our attention off in far-flung directions.

How to manage simultaneous research and writing is a topic we’ve talked about before in this blog (search this site for “research” and you’ll see how many posts pop up), but it all came rushing back to me last week when I tried to get off to a quick start and pile on some wordage. For me, early progress is the critical push I need to keep momentum going. As Karalee noted in her recent post, “Commit to finish”, most of us are much better starters than we are finishers.

The last thing a writer needs is to get bogged down at the starting line, dragging a heavy load of research references along.

Now, we’re all writing different stories in the 5/5/5 challenge, with some projects still to be confirmed, but it looks like at least four of us are writing real-world fiction in which settings, topics and context will require a high level of accuracy and authenticity. Two of us have added the extra challenge of writing historical fiction, and at least two of us have chosen settings in places we don’t live – and perhaps have never even seen.

All to say that most of us are embarking on a research journey as an integral part of our story development. We’re not necessarily starting on a blank page, however. A lot of homework has already been done in preparation, and there may even be some outline-ish story plans lying around. Most of us also have early chapters drafted (some of these written quite a while ago and pulled out of the drawer again on September 5th).

But regardless of conceptual story plans, or background reading, or research notes … you know what happens when we sit down to actually write a scene. A ton of fresh questions suddenly materialize, demanding answers before we can confidently craft that next paragraph.

For example, I have an opening scene in a prison visiting area. Yeah, I know. What was I thinking? I’ll probably lose eight out of 10 readers in the first three pages (and the two that read on will be weirdos), but it seemed like a good idea at the time. I’m happy to say I’ve never had the pleasure of sitting in a prison visiting area, but as a writer that’s now a problem. I’ve seen lots of them on TV and in movies, but since this is a specific prison, I need to describe a specific visiting area, not a generic one.

My choices: 1) go there (not now, thanks); 2) search for information online (did that for half a day, didn’t find a visual representation); 3) call and request a photo or description (maybe later); or 4) make it up.

I chose to make it up, and that was okay.

Until curiosity got the best of me and I made another foray online, dug deeper, and deeper, and actually came up with some footage of the visiting area in that particular prison. Woohoo! I couldn’t have been more excited if I’d discovered a forgotten winning lottery ticket in the back pocket of my jeans. And all it required was, oh let’s see, about 8 hours of research.

Wow, this book is going to take a loooooong time to write at that pace.

There are lots of strategies writers use to work around this research vs. writing time/distraction conflict. Some dedicate a significant preparation period to research and outlining, then barrel on through their first draft without interruption. This doesn’t work so well for “organic” writers (sometimes called NOPs or pantsers), however. Others flag unresearched items with a “check later” note, and just keep their writing pace up without breaking stride – not a bad idea.

Most of us probably do a bit of everything: some basic research in preparation for writing, some interruptive side-trips while writing the first draft to research critical points that affect context or plot points, some good old making it up as we go, and some clarifying research at second draft stage.

But while that’s all well and good, it may also be worth thinking ahead about the level of detail and accuracy really required to tell a particular story authentically, and engagingly.

That’s my challenge to the writers on our 5/5/5 journey: stop now and consider the most congenial balance between making it up vs. making it real.

It is fiction, after all. It just needs to feel true, to be authentic enough to suspend disbelief. Yes, inaccuracies will be picked up by readers who are more intimate with your topic, or setting, or context than you are. It would be nice to make everyone happy, but the majority of readers really won’t know whether there are 15 cubicles in the prison visiting area, or 20.

And there’s another, even more important, consideration: the story flow. All the details that make a book “authentic” are really there to set the stage for your play. Story is king. The factual details should add texture, context and sometimes meaning – but not distract.

Inaccurate details or lazy generic writing distract. Have you ever read a book that made you mentally chew out the author for “obvious” blunders or frustratingly vague or clichéd descriptions? Of course you have. Even famous authors can be guilty of this. Tsk tsk.

But equally distracting is an avalanche of carefully researched, totally accurate details that are entirely irrelevant or unnecessary for telling the story. It’s just show-offy. Look how much research I did! When I encounter this, I want to scream I don’t care, just get to the point for crying out loud.

If I may repurpose the sly quotes Stephen King chose to open his wonderful book, On WritingI think they perfectly frame The Research Conflict …

Honesty’s the best policy.   — Miguel de Cervantes

Liars prosper.   — Anonymous


Word count:  5,658

Rewrote:  Prologue

Blog posts written:  1

Research done:  2 days’ worth

Best new thing:  A weekend of harvesting the apples in our orchardapple-harvestjonagolds

Thought of the week:  Like so many other aspects of modern life, politics has now fully metamorphosed into a reality show. What’s next?

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

 

Does every story need love?

Karalee’s Post #104

With Valentine’s Day on the horizon, love is a topic that many people are either hiding under the covers to avoid talking about it, or doing other stuff under there that gives love the freedom of expression.

It’s got me asking whether fiction stories need love?

 

My initial response is “Of course not. They don’t all need love.”

On the other hand, when I think about it, I can’t remember a story I’ve read that didn’t have some element of love in it. Very few had scenes with hot-and-steamy go-for-it-sex described in detail. And truth told, seldom is it necessary to tell all.

Love though, doesn’t have to mean romance.

Love can be between a child and her mother. Between siblings, or friends, or cousins, or any other family members. What about your pets? Dogs, cats, horses, etc? Remember Old Yeller? or Black Beauty?

So what is necessary for love? How does it get into every story?

Only two things are needed. 

  1. Characters
  2. Relationships

Simple, right?

Put two people together and there will be some kind of relationship. Good chance it won’t be a loving one, but every character has a history. Since attachment is a basic human need, a necessity for survival in our infancy, somewhere along the line your character will have experienced love with someone, and if not a human then with a pet that had provided nurturing along life’s journey.

Your character’s back-story is what has made him (or her) who he/she is. Love will always be in there somewhere, and how your character acts or reacts will reflect that relationship in some form.

What do you think? Does every fiction story have some thread of love included?

I read Jami Gold’s blog. I loved her post this week and you might want to check it out too. It’s about the romance genre in general and titled, Is “Love Conquers All” Realistic?

Did you know that after this year, the next time we can celebrate Valentine’s Day on a Saturday is in 2026? That must be the reason my husband can’t book a restaurant table that he wants in Vancouver this weekend! And it’s not only because he left it until 3 days beforehand…

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Writing Progress: Good progress reviewing my very rough first draft.

Writing Distractions:  

  1. I’m almost finished setting up my new office space. It’s got a great ambiance so progress is a must.
  2. Went wedding dress shopping last week with my daughter. Great fun!
  3. Organizing photos for said wedding. Memory lane is a huge distraction, but tons of fun!
  4. Feeling guilty about avoiding getting my tax stuff done….

Treats eaten: homemade chocolate pudding x 2 (small and delicious!) but only after a large salad. It all helps!

Movies/TV watched: getting into the series Selfridges. I’d like to watch what Joe is into as well, Better Call Saul.

Books reading: Gabor Maté’s In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts.

Perspective Photos taken this week:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy writing!