The school of real life


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.



How is fiction not like reality?


Silk’s Post #83 — Does this sound like a pretty stupid question? It’s a no-brainer, you might think. Fiction is not true. Reality is.

Are you sure?

Maybe this only seems obvious because, by definition, we don’t give “no-brainer” questions much thought. We treat them as givens. Settled law. Reality is something we can believe in. Rock solid. Fiction is—well, just something made up. Unreal. Fiction is the thing that “truth is stranger than” according to the old saw (an adage that is predicated on the notion that reality can sometimes surprise us by being more unbelievable than fiction, but fiction is always unbelievable).

And here’s the challenge for writers of fiction: to engage readers in your made-up story – to make them care about your characters, your plot, your setting, your theme – you must make it all seem like reality. Or at least plausible within a context that readers can relate to. The world and people in your book may be fake – works of imagination – but they need to feel true at some level to be meaningful to readers.

Authentic, convincing, resonant, compelling – these are the words authors would love to be reading in reviews of their novels. How do we get there?

Let’s start with the Oxford Dictionary, just to give this post a whiff of authority:

fiction — n. 1  an invented idea or statement or narrative; an imaginary thing. 2  literature, esp. novels, describing imaginary events and people. 3  a conventionally accepted falsehood (legal fiction; polite fiction). 4  the act or process of inventing imaginary things. Synonyms: unreal, imaginary, invented, made-up, fanciful, mythical, fictitious.

reality — n. 1  what is real or existent or underlies appearances. 2  the real nature of a thing. 3  real existence; the state of being real. 4  resemblance to an original (the model was impressive in its reality). Synonyms: actuality, fact, truth, genuineness, authenticity.

But indulge me for a few minutes while I try to follow the twisted loose thread in this neat dichotomy: the thread of believability. Here are two simple questions, each of which can only be answered  with “no”, that pretty well blow Oxford’s comfortable clarity to smithereens and (fortunately for us writers) open up a wonderfully blurry world:

Does something need to be believable to be true?

Does something need to be true to be believable?

Before I get totally lost in the depths of philosophy and etymology, let me explain my inspiration for this post. It was a tweet from Senior Editor Melissa Ann Singer at Tor/Forge Books:

feel like I can’t say this enough: every scene must have a purpose. every part of every scene must have a purpose. no filler.

I think this neatly sums up the most important way that fiction is not like reality. Real life is absolutely chocked with filler. A great novel has none.

I think this is where so many “emerging” novelists – myself included – get lost trying to follow the believability thread. Believability isn’t about reality at all. When readers (your critique group, your agent, your aunt Polly) tell you that your story is unrealistic, inauthentic or not believable, they aren’t longing for true-to-life filler. The tooth-brushing scene where a character thinks deep thoughts while gazing into the mirror (or maybe just remembers to buy more toothpaste). The waking up scene. The drinking tea scene. The hanging out at the bar scene. The driving (or walking or riding on the bus) scene where the character needs to get from one plot point to another and is conveyed there literally. The waiting scenes in all their myriad guises – waiting for the phone to ring, the plane to land, the other shoe to drop. Give your readers these realistic bits of filler and they’ll stop turning pages in a hurry.

Let’s face it, a lot of reality is just plain boring.

Even worse, from a reader’s perspective, is that many of the filler scenes in fiction seem to be inserted for the purpose of delivering backstory and exposition that the author couldn’t really find a place in the story for, but believes the reader simply must know in order to understand the plot or the character.

Another, even less appealing, type of filler is when the author just likes the sound of his/her own voice. Real life is full of such tangents, but fiction can’t survive them. All of us, on occasion, have been guilty of indulging in flights of fancy, or mini-treatises on a favourite topic, or deft philosophical observations, or long poetic descriptions, or just cleverly worded side-trips that sound wise and erudite. Guilty as charged here, I don’t know about you.

But, while these forays might make for interesting late night conversation over a bottle of wine in real life, in fiction they’re filler.

So, if fiction needs to feel true and be believable, but not literally be true or mundanely realistic, what do you leave out and what do you keep in? How do you even recognize filler in your own writing?

In writing fiction, we get to take tremendous liberties with reality in order to achieve believability, tell a good story, and connect with the reader at an emotional level. In fact, we must take those liberties. But when you’re still a novice, this can produce a lot of angst. Especially if you get lost in research.

For example, much is made of accuracy in details. What type of firearm does a police officer carry in Pasadena? What factory colours did they make ’57 Chevies in? What are the first symptoms of bubonic plague? How does the Cloud actually work? We live in fear of getting these things wrong and being caught out. But perhaps we shouldn’t confuse the need for authenticity with slavish adherence to reality. What we really need to serve is the story’s believability (taking into account the genre’s audience).

While getting the details right is challenging, the hardest thing is to pick which ones are necessary and which ones are filler. And that goes for every bit of content in the story: characters, descriptions, settings, events, and all that difficult connective tissue that binds the scenes together. Filler must be exterminated. For a lot of writers, the seek and destroy mission to eliminate filler may happen in the second or third draft. The sooner, the better, because the longer words stay on the page, the more necessary they seem to your story. When they become like old friends that you hate to abandon, it’s harder to recognize them as deadly filler.

But if you want to end up with a manuscript that a publisher will leap on and people will gobble up, you need to pare it down to exactly what’s needed to tell a memorable story – not one word more, not one word less. You have to get it down to its essence.

Great fiction compresses reality, enhances it, sculpts it to the needs of the story. Great fiction stimulates the colours of the imagination, whose brilliance far surpasses the colours the eye can actually perceive. It animates unforgettable characters and larger-than-life heroes. It creates grace notes seldom heard in the noisy everyday world. It dials up emotion, collapses time, supercharges curiosity, and above all imbues every event with meaning, value and consequence. And great fiction demands that every story end with a satisfying conclusion, whether happy or sad or triumphant or haunting.

None of this is like real life. But great fiction makes us believe it. Or maybe more important, makes us believe in it.




There’s only one first time

By the time I had reached the end of this post on Monday, we found ourselves in a cell hole. Cut off, incommunicado, out of touch. As much as I love getting away from civilization on our sailing adventures, we also leave behind some taken-for-granted conveniences. So my Monday post has become my Tuesday post.


Silk’s Post #49 – Grace Harbour is one of our favourite anchorages in Desolation Sound, an untamed jigsaw of islands and inlets that chokes the north end of the Georgia Strait up the coast from Vancouver, British Columbia.

The Strait separates the southern half of Vancouver Island from the mainland. The northern half is kept apart from the soaring mountains and deep fjords of the mainland coast by the narrower Johnstone Strait, with its swift currents and sometimes vicious seas.

I’ve been here before. It’s always enchanting, but no visit can ever duplicate the experience of discovering it the first time.

imageDesolation Sound was named by Captain George Vancouver on his voyage of exploration in 1792. Obviously, he wasn’t in a very good mood when he came up with such a depressing moniker. The islands that rise up from the sea, some separated by narrow passages with currents that run as strong as 12 or 14 knots, are called the Discovery Islands. Most are named for English or Spanish mariners on the voyage, as though Europeans were the actual “discoverers” rather than Johnny-come-lately visitors to a land that had been settled by the First Nations for 10,000 years.

But that’s the power of the discovery experience. There’s a certain magic in seeing or doing something for the first time that can never be duplicated. It doesn’t matter that thousands or millions of people before you have seen or done the same thing. The discovery experience is when something comes alive for you for the first time, and prior to that it may as well not have existed. The moment belongs to you alone.

Probably the best read, and most treasured, memoir of this coastline is The Curve of Time, written by M. Wylie Blanchet, an adventurous widow who used to bring her five young children upcoast for whole summers in the wilderness aboard a small boat back in the 1920s and 1930s. Here’s one of her descriptions that, to my ear, sounds like love at first sight:

“The mountains grew higher and higher, and gossiped together across our heads. And somewhere down at their feet, on that narrow ribbon of water, our boat with the white sails flew swiftly along, completely dwarfed by its surroundings.”

The first time is when all your senses are in overdrive. What you are seeing or doing is brand new, and you gulp it down greedily. Maybe fear motivates you to pay attention, or maybe wonder or delight – depending on the circumstances. Your senses take in the big picture and the vivid details at the same time, and your brain processes them at light speed and files them in your memory cache.

This memory cache is a wonderful survival mechanism because it allows us to recall what we’ve learned and not have to learn it all over again every single time. However, it also makes the second-time experience less dramatic than the first, because we call on our memories instead of entirely relying on our senses.

Whenever we experience a “first time” it’s like seeing the world through the fully open eyes of a child again. It’s when we’re completely “present”, in the moment, engaged and excited by novelty. Isn’t this why people love to travel to new places, to recapture this feeling?

So what does this all have to do with writing? I think the mental and emotional state of “being present” is essential to all art – writing, visual art, performing art, all of it. It’s what separates the fresh and original from the tired and trite. If we can train ourselves to truly be attentive, with mind open and senses alert and unfiltered, our observations will be sharper and more insightful, and our writing will be more alive and gripping.

I think the ability to bring all our faculties to the present moment stimulates and feeds imagination. Some writers seem to have a natural gift for this creative state of mind. We read their scene descriptions and we’re absolutely “right there” in the story. We find surprise and delight in their original plot twists. Their words carry us to the equivalent of real life “first time” experiences.

You know when you’re in the hands of one of these master writers and storytellers. It’s when you can’t turn out the light and go to sleep, even though your eyes are burning and the alarm clock is set to wake you in a few short hours. Or when you can’t stop yourself from reading passages aloud to the person next to you.

imageThe analogy of writing as a journey of discovery is far from original, but not less true for being something of a cliche. Capturing the spirit of the “first time” remains an elusive art. And it keeps us at the keyboard, searching for the words that will bring our story fully to life with the authenticity and originality of the discovery experience.

A sense of place

Silk’s Post #10 — Ooh, ooh, ooh, stop! Slow down, slow down. This is where I want to be. I want to enjoy this, explore everything. Oh please … I don’t want this to end …

Not dialogue from a sex scene in my novel. This was me talking to my husband Sunday morning – not in (ahem) our bedroom, but in our car as we drove south on Interstate 5 in the driving rain, on our way to California for a whirlwind family Thanksgiving rendezvous. What got me so exercised as I stared out the shotgun seat window, watching the exit signs slide by?

University of Washington

Pike Place Market, Seattle

We were driving right by my novel’s locations, the ones I’m burning to explore, understand, become intimate with. Seattle, Whidbey Island, the University of Washington campus, Puget Sound, Deception Pass and so many other tantalizing venues.

I ‘know’ these places. But I don’t KNOW these places the way I need to. I want their smells in my nose, their sounds in my ears. I want to know the shortcut from my protagonist’s apartment to her favourite restaurant, and what – exactly – she might see if she walks that route in the dead of night. I want to see the view from her window, sit in the transit shelter where she catches a bus, stand on the beach west of her family’s Whidbey Island home, and see the road where her brother had his accident.

For me, place is always one of the most important characters in any book. When I took the plunge and wrote my first novel (the one calling to me from the depths of my computer files, where it awaits a strenuous rewrite), I took the advice of many writing gurus and wrote what I know … at least in terms of location. And what I know is my adopted island home. A place locals often refer to, with fondness, as Planet Saltspring. I know my own island so well I can tell you which patch of bigleaf maple trees along the Stewart Road route from the south end to Ganges village has the best show of golden colour in the fall. And I can describe about 90 per cent of the fascinating items you’ll see at the colourful Saturday Market in Centennial Park.

I want to know the locations of my new story this well. But I wanted to stretch out beyond Saltspring. It was time for me to ‘leave home’ and write about a different setting. Seattle and Whidbey Island are not dramatically different from Vancouver and Saltspring Island, that’s true. But every place on Earth is unique, like a fingerprint. And to be a dynamic, memorable – perhaps even haunting – ‘setting character’ for a novel, that place must be authentic. A living thing.

And here we were, speeding down I-5, right past it all. No time to stop because of our breakneck schedule. I could have wept.

I am always mightily impressed by writers who can create an authentic sense of place when setting their novel in location where they’ve never lived. Maybe never even visited. What supreme confidence! To craft a memorable setting – a setting essential to the story and its characters – by drawing on research and imagination alone.

This is, to me, perhaps a more daring feat than the kind of creative world-building that makes fantasy or science fiction so appealing, as awesome as that may be in its own right. The simple reason: no one alive can really complain about how wrong you got it. With real places, every hint of inauthenticity stands out like London Bridge in the middle of a desert to a person who actually calls that place home.

World-building takes magic. Writing about real places before you really know them intimately – that takes crust.

So, as I watched my new novel’s landmarks disappear in the rearview mirror on Sunday, a sense of longing and promise gnawing at me, I made a vow. Like General Douglas MacArthur, shall return. Like the Terminator, I’ll be baahk. I will walk in my characters’ footsteps and look through their eyes at the inspiring, nuanced world in which their story plays out. I will learn what makes this ‘setting-character’ tick, experience its resonance. Bring it to life so that no one could ever mistake it for someplace else.

But not now.

Now, I just need to write and keep writing. Write, right or wrong. Take my best shot. Invent what I don’t really know. Screw stuff up, maybe. Describe things I’ve never seen and paint my settings with colours I know may be off a shade – or even laughably inaccurate.

And then, as Joe described in his fabulous Las Vegas Rewrite blog, I will revisit the scene of the crime and find out how close I came. Or didn’t. And fix accordingly.

Ah, the joys of rewrite. Another bridge to cross.

Deception Pass Bridge, Whidbey Island