Travel Writing – Why Do It?

Joe’s Post #137

Travel Writing – Why do it?

DSC00216It’s funny how much writing we actually do that we don’t count as real writing. We focus on novels, short stories, page counts, when the coffee shop opens… you know, what we call the important stuff.

But so many people take time out of their valuable trip to record their experiences. Not many think, oh gosh, I’m going to publish my adventures and make millions and get to meet Ellen. But many do think that what they’re experiencing is worth writing about. For themselves. For their friends. For therapy. Whatever. Bottom line is, they sit down and write.

shakespeareFor me, I began by writing everything down by hand way, way back in the 80’s. If you’d have asked me why, I’m sure I could have told you. It was my first big trip out of my small town to England, a place full of history, a place that had spawned Dickens and Shakespeare and Churchill, a place in which so many stories had been set.

How could you not want to go there?

How could you not want to write about what you saw, what you ate, what you did?

And I did just that. With my little notebook and a pen, I’d write in the morning while others ate. I’d write in the pub or in a lineup while waiting to see a museum. I’d write before going to sleep and when I woke up.

Looking back, I’m amazed I did so much work, that I was able to carve out time to get writing done.

But I felt it was important. It was a way to process my experiences. It was a way to remember details I knew I’d forget.

tower of londonHowever, for that trip and years afterwards, I only wrote about stuff. Like, “I saw the tower of London today. It opened at 8am. It cost 15pounds. I thought that was a lot.” Sometimes I managed a detail like what a placed smelled like or how the coffee tasted or how funny people talked. Or I even tagged why a place might be important like.

Then one day, while sitting in the shade in Sienna, Italy, I realized I’d been doing it all wrong. I realized travel writing was more about the emotions and the experiences. Not so much what I saw as what I saw and felt about it.

It transformed my travel writing.

And transformed it in more ways than one. Not only did I try make others feel like they were with me in my adventures, I spent a TON more time writing about them. Soon, I was even including things like hooks in and out, themes and, gosh oh golly, humorous observations.

It’s a lot more work, but it’s far better than what was on the first floor of the British museum. If you want to check out those blogs, go here, here or here.

And as I read more travel writing blogs or books, I see that they, too, do their best to relay the experiences, not just the facts.

brysonIn that vein, if you want one of the greatest funny travel books ever, read Bill Bryson. If you want a few blogs to check out, go no further than Alison and Don’s.

So, when you travel, do you write about it?

If so, what makes you want to write about traveling?


Best show last week – Ok, put down your laptop, stop watching any reality shows, it’s Game of Thrones time, a show so amazing, that I even watch all the credits.

Book that I’m reading at the moment –  Reading Sean Sommerville’s latest book. The Unforgiven. Man that guy can write.

Pages written on new book  3 weeks in, have hit my goal of 10 pages a week. I’m finding more time and, more importantly, finding my groove, again.

Social media update – If you like anything  on my step-dad site, or this blog, please follow or share on FB. Pretty please!

Best thing last week  Writing more, reading more, and Game of Thrones is on, so life is very, very good.

Worst thing  More doctor’s appointments. Nothing in our medical system moves quickly.

Where to begin



Where do you start a book?

It’s something that still causes me a bit of confusion. And with confusion comes consternation and with consternation comes stress and panic and whammo, fun goes out the window like a cat fleeing the vacuum cleaner.

So, finding this answer, well, it’s part of my ‘return to the fun of writing’ quest.

It all started after I finished a book that made me think, gosh, they really didn’t start this in the right place. I remember back to a workshop that I took where the presenter looked at my first 20 pages and put the first 15 aside and said, start here, page 16.

Both stories had the same problem.

Both started with a lot of explanation or backstory. It’s like the author saying, ok, hold on a second, before I begin, there’s some stuff you gotta know or else the story isn’t going to make sense. Now, I know it may be a bit boring and may even lack context, but trust me, once the story begins, it’s awesome.

In fact, I think I sent a query like that. Dear Agent, this story is amazing, but you’ll have to read past the first 30 pages, ok, and then, like, it’s super good and you’ll love it.

fire in fictionHey, I get why those opening pages are hard. Look at what my man, Chuck Wendig says. Or read Don Maass. Or do a quick google search.

You have to have conflict and stakes and a strong setting and dialogue and a great opening line and no exposition and surprise and mood and tension and introduce the theme and main character and have a unique voice and…

Come on, is it any wonder we get all stuffed up on the first pages?

I think it’s easier to quantify, though equally hard to do.

Don’t bore the reader.

Ha. That’s like saying just write a great opening chapter, right? What an asshole suggestion.

But here’s the thing. Here’s what makes a good book for me:

Does your character have a problem that needs solving? It doesn’t even have to be the main plot problem. It can be a simple want, like Vonnegut said, your character ‘wants a glass of water.’ Is there something that buggers up his world?

Sure, it can have a bit of backstory. It can lack a wicked opening line. It doesn’t have to have zippy-zappy dialogue. It doesn’t have to have poetically beautiful descriptions or a gun battle with a shark.

But it does have to interest me. Engage me.

There’s a host of ways to engage the reader. All are good. But there’s no magic bullet.

All I can say is that you don’t have to do it all.

Simple as that.

However, you have do something right. Maybe two things. Three would be even better.

That’s the key, I think. I don’t have to do a hundred things in my opening, but I do have a do a few things well. So I’m going to pick my strengths and run with them.

And now here’s my last piece of advice, advice from someone who’s just written the opening three times.

It’s ok to write out a few ideas and see if one is better than the other. Sort of ‘what if?’ yourself. What if I start on the docks rather than the ship, what if I start in rain instead of sun, what if there’s a time factor? Explore the possibilities.

Hey, not all of us are Hemingway or Atwood or King. And who really knows how much they toss away, anyway. Am I right?

Believe it’s ok to toss stuff away. To have some fun with the opening.

And if you don’t get it right, that’s ok, too. You can go back and do your own, ‘wait, cut these 15 pages and start here,’ thing. Everyone’s got their own process. Just get started, get yourself interested in the story, and keep on writing. Have some fun with it.

Cuz if it ain’t fun on some level, it’s about a zillion times harder to do.

I’ll have more on this next week.

But in the meantime, what do you do for your openings? Bev? Sheila? Lisa? I’m looking at you.


Best show last week – Nothing to report, but this week the Walking Dead starts. OMG excited!

Book that I’m reading at the moment – Finished Alan Furst’s, Mission to Paris. I dunno. Sometimes I just don’t get why a book gets published.

Pages written on new book   Not sure but writing every day. I’ll do up a count for next week. Add up the chapters. Change the font to 16. Add a lot of page breaks. I’m hoping the number will look good.

Social media update – Last week’s post on research generated a lot of discussion on Linkedin. Thanks to everyone who participated.

Health  Still sick. But almost better.

Best thing last week  Stepdad blog. 

The BEST book he's written so far IMHO.

Ok, this will be the last time, but Unforgiven is out in Canada. Written by the politically incorrect, Sean Slater, I honestly believe it’s his best book.

So if you see it anywhere, buy it. Or hit the Amazon link below.


Moment of truth


Silk’s Post #90 — Tomorrow (Tuesday) the 5Writers will get together to talk about where we go from here as a writers group. Over the four years that our current membership has been together, I think it’s fair to say we’ve all learned a lot about writing. But we’ve learned even more about ourselves, and about the value, challenges and rewards of collective creative effort and mutual support.

It has been an incredible experience – one that I would encourage other writers to seek.

What have we actually accomplished? I can only testify to our progress since I was invited by colleagues I first met at the Surrey International Writers Conference to join the group in 2010 – after our founder moved on to bigger and better things as bestselling crime thriller author, Sean Slater. I missed those first, inspiring days. But since 2010, here’s a brief recap of our evolution:

For two years, under the optimistic banner “Future Bestsellers”, our focus was a regimen of critiquing each other’s first drafts at a rate of 30 pages per month. We were all roughly in comparable stages of our projects. We put a lot of work into each critique, typically providing margin notes, summary comments (usually anywhere from 3 to 6 pages), and a face-to-face presentation/discussion. Thus were 10 books fully or partially critiqued. And we weren’t shy about it.

This feedback was critical to me. You might say it tore the veils from my eyes and forced me to look at my own work in a different way. Some sessions I would leave with soaring spirits, others with a heavy heart. But because of the caring and supportive environment our group has cultivated, and the honesty and intelligence of its members, I always left a meeting feeling that I’d learned something of great value that would help me become a better writer.

In retrospect, I believe that the even more important lessons were learned when critiquing the writing of others. It’s so much easier to see what works and what doesn’t work in someone else’s manuscript than it is to see it in your own. But if you have an open mind and are honest with yourself, you’ll recognize those same characteristics – both flaws and successes – in your own work. It’s a revelatory process.

But routine can be an enemy of creativity. So, two years ago, we decided to re-invent the group through the 5writers5novels5months challenge, which we launched on September 5, 2012.  This began with the wild idea – dreamed up virtually on the spot – to each write a novel in five months, and blog about the process. If you’ve been following us for a while, you know how it went. The mission to complete five novels on deadline was partially accomplished. The mission to start a blog that might be interesting to writers and others has been a whole education in itself, and, I think, a pretty successful venture. The mission to create a learning experience was absolutely accomplished, culminating in a fantastic, week-long writers’ retreat in Whistler, BC in June 2013, where we delivered full-book critiques (and ate a lot of candy bars).

But the publication mission is still to be accomplished for the 5Writers.

Over the past year, we’ve each pursued our own writing agendas and kept blogging, while a number of other priorities have kept the 5Writers extraordinarily busy. But now, the break’s over. We’ve come up with a number of ideas for again re-invigorating our group and challenging ourselves as writers. We’re ready for a new phase. We’re getting fired up. We all want to go that final mile on the road to publication.

And that new plan starts tomorrow. A meeting of the minds. A celebration of how far we’ve come, and a re-commitment to how far we still need to go. A new jolt to our comfort zones. And hopefully … a moment of truth.

Stay tuned!

More ‘It’

Joe’s Post #95

I am often accused of beating a dead horse.

Well, I’m too old to stop. I want to continue to look at the ‘it’ factor.

Karalee said it might be imagination and I thought, you know what, that’s not a bad observation, especially when we’re talking books over movies. 50

Great books stir us. Fan fiction gets written. Like when E.L James read Twilight, (and drank a few glasses of wine, me thinks) it inspired her to write 50 Shades. Blogs get posted (hey, just do a search for blogs on Harry Potter  and you’ll see what I mean ). Debates get started (whole forums are filled with Game of Thrones arguments and for the record, Tyrion IS THE BEST CHARACTER in the series, ok, the best!) Costumes made.

Wait, what, we all don’t make costumes?

Paula talked about ‘it’ from a writer’s POV, like what makes her want to write. And what motivates her to write is history. Her own. Others.

I totally get that.

Silk, wrote about ‘it’ coming from the heart and even, god bless her, quoted the economist. She’s bang on, as always. ‘It’ has to come from the heart.

And that makes me realize, we’re all kinda talking about the same thing, about where ‘it’ comes from both from us as reader and writers. hope

It’ inspires us.

Characters, setting, plot, laughter, tears, hope, fears, whatever.

For a book to have ‘it’, it must make me want to do something. It must spark my imagination. I want to talk about it, write about it, live in that world…

hobbitWhen I stole the Hobbit from my brother and read it, it inspired me to write hobbit fiction, learn dungeons and dragons (yes, I am that nerdy), and make more maps than a coked-up cartographer. When I read books like Sean Slater’s Striker series, or the Jack Reachers, or The Wheel of Time or LeCarre’s spy novels, I wanted to write books like that.

But writing can inspire us in other ways. It can make us better people. (and by that I mean wear a kilt after reading Outlander). It can make us think about things we hadn’t thought about. (I must have looked up every aspect of Mars after reading the Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury – however, the less said about all the maps and pictures I drew the better.) It can make us do things we’d normally not try (Bill Bryson made me want to travel and fall down a hill, oh and make maps.)

So, every book I’ve ever written has been inspired by someone else’s book.

And I want to write a book what will inspire others to write about my character’s backstory, or the world before or after my book takes place, or what would happen if my protagonist wore a kilt and loved to bind girls with silky ties?

A lofty goal?


But why not try?

Now, lemme think. Has my book got anything that will inspire anyone to do anything?

Realizations at a reading

Joe’s Post #88

My best realizations often occur when I least expect them. Sort of a zen thing – let the universe unfold and stop trying to kick it in the nuts to do stuff for you.

thriller writersSo, let me share my recollection of the realizations I had while listening to other writers at Incite: The Dark Side: An Evening with Mystery and Thriller Writers. With Sean Slater, (“Sean Slater is a police officer in Vancouver, BC, winner of The Province’s Sunday Serial Thriller contest and the author of the Jacob Striker thriller series”), Deryn Collier, Craig Davidson (aka Nick Cutter), and Andrew Pyper.

The opening pages are super important. The other writers read from the mid parts of their books and the writing was fine, even outstanding, but I wouldn’t have bought any of their books. Why? They didn’t make me want to read more.

IMG_3342Sean did.

Plus he told a joke. “They introduced me as a massage therapist who became a cop. What if I was a cop who become a massage therapist and wrote a book called, “Rubbed the Wrong Way”?

So, yeah, humor plus a reason to make someone NEED to keep reading  = super important.

I must revisit all my opening chapters and make sure they ROCK! And make sure there’s humor.

PX4All the authors said that you shouldn’t let research get in the way of you telling a story. Make it up. It’s ok.

It has to sound authentic, but unless you’re writing a procedural or a manual, don’t sweat the details. Write, “she screwed on the silencer,” not, “she took the mark E3MB Gungan Magnamatic silencer and rotated it 11 times onto the favoured weapon of SOCOM, the PX4 Storm Special Duty Beretta with revolving barrel, snag proof design, accessory rail, automatic firing pin block, external hammer design, 3 dot sight system and reversible magazine release (though, to be fair, it’s a pretty awesome gun!)

This I have to keep remembering. It’s ok to make shit up. if you say SOCOM uses a glock, it’s only gonna make the gun guys (and SOCOM guys) go nuts. Your average reader won’t know the difference. But if you wrote, say, SOCOM uses a musket, well, you might want to do a bit more research.

But as Sean added, he wanted to get the ‘culture’ right. And that was the revelation for me. Make sure to take the reader into another world, be it the world of detectives, the world of unicorns, or the world of teenagers who realize they must kill each other to survive.

All of the authors also agreed that you don’t need any training. Forget degrees, classes, workshops, gurus or psychics. Just read great fiction. Read it deliberately. Then write.

For me it’s kinda like over-researching. I love learning and I can over-learn things sometimes. I need to just write.

IMG_3359Lastly, I realized how important it is to be part of a community. A writing community. It’s like poking yourself in the eye. If you do it alone, you begin to think you’re a bit of an idiot. If you do it with others, then you’re a community – of idiots – but a community nevertheless.

So, if you get a chance, go to a reading sometime. Go because it’s great people watching. Go because it’s enlightening. Go as a fellow writer to see people who’ve made it. They’re all like you and me.

And that’s something I need to realize every so often.


Blogs Done This Week: 2 (another hockey blog)

Movies Seen in Theaters: 0. Who has time?

Best Shows on TV: Walking Dead (cried), The Blacklist (took notes), True Detective (wanted to make Matthew McConaughey eat something.)

Days to Vacation with my new family: 2

Queries out this week: 0

Rejections for the last week: 0 (good news or bad news?)

Queries Still Out there: 5

Hope Meter: 40/100 Up a lot from last week. Got my laptop back. Saw the Sean speak as the Writers Fest. Saw my mystery writing group. Worked my ass off on an outline. Feeling like the story is coming together.

Surrey Writer’s Con (Act 3 – Success or Not?)

Joe’s Post #67

successWas it a success?

Well, no one said, “OMG, I HAVE to read this novel, send it out right away, no wait, print it up and give it to me now, I’m going to cancel everything else and read it… and get you a cupcake.”

But setting that up as the measure of success is unrealistic. And a bit silly. It’s sort of like me thinking I’m the handsomest, funniest, tallest guy in the bar. I may think that way after 4 shots of tequila, but it’s not reality.

The reality is that I got great feedback on the challenges I will face in submitting this novel. On Friday, I heard this loud and clear and it was depressing. Really shoulder-slumping depressing. But with sober second thought, if I know there’s a problem, I can rework my selling tools to deal with that. I won’t run from the concerns, I’ll tackle them head on and see if I can find a way to make someone believe in this story as much as I do.

So let’s take another look at this.

I managed to pitch 5 agents and editors, I talked to one more in a workshop. All good. However, I missed talking to one agent due to some really bad timing decisions on my part, and a complete inability to stalk someone. I thought I could do a quick pitch as she left the interviewing room but she was nowhere to be found. I thought she might be at the supper but despite walking around with a glass of water and stopping at every table and staring at everyone with a Gomer Pyle expression on my face, I couldn’t see her, even though I found the agents table.

I think I will have to learn how to stalk properly.

Epic fail on the stalking.

But a success (for the most part) on the whole ‘meet important people thing’.

My pitch, though, was off. It failed to connect or at least create something that agents or editors thought was magical (and by that, I mean sellable.) I went with a character-theme heavy pitch but I needed to emphasis an audience and what would make it sell.

My bad. I’ll be far better prepared next time. I already have some ideas.

But epic fail on the pitch part.

However, my ability to haul my sorry ass out of a bad pitch was pretty good. Not REALLY good as my nerves may have log-jammed-up my thoughts and I may spit out words like a mini-gun spits out bullets, but with the exception of one editor, I convinced them there was at least something to look at. Or they took pity on me. Either way is fine.

So, success there.

seanAs well, epic success on the query. That one I got right. After retooling it at 1am. Again, thanks for my buddy Sean (who’s celebrating his latest book, The Guilty, and probably working on a way to get a topless picture of himself in the next fireman’s calendar.)

Epic success, at least for me, on meeting new people as well. It got easier and easier and reminded me that I’m not alone in this quest to get published.

Lastly, my business card rocked! In my darker moments, I think the agents/editors agreedphoto (5) to look at my stuff because they loved my card.

So, all things considered, the conference was very much like my real life, there were moments of hope and moments of despair, there were ups and there were downs – and there were cupcakes. I’m proud that no matter how terrified I was to go and pitch my novel, especially when I began to realize my pitch was massively off, I still went in and did it and did it again and again. I never did overcome my fear but I didn’t let it stop me from doing what must be done.

Score one for the good guys.

I also think I have three of the most important skills a writer needs.

1) Pigheaded stubbornness (stupidity?) to keep doing this no matter the setbacks or math that says my chances are slim.

2) The desire to keep learning, to write better, to find a way around or through obstacles and barriers.

3) And of course, perhaps foolishly, I believe I can write and tell a good story.

I’ll be back again next year.

I hope to see more people there. If you go, make sure to come up to me and say hi. I’ll be the nerdy-looking guy in the business center taping away on my laptop, a cup of coffee and remains of a cupcake nearby.

Happy 146th Birthday! (the good, the bad, and the not so ugly)


Helga’s Post # 41 — Just one week after welcoming the summer solstice, I have the honour of posting yet another upcoming celebration: Our beloved country’s 146th birthday.

Happy Canada Day once again!

And what a year it’s been for our mighty nation! Let’s start with the bad and the ugly and, like a good novel, keep the good stuff for the end. So what have some of our famous sons and daughters been up to this past year? How about this for a sampling (to make our neighbours to the south snicker). Canada, eh? Not so boring after all

– We got a mayor with a crack scandal (Rob Ford, mayor of Canada’s largest municipality, Toronto).

– Talking of mayors, this headline just out: “Alexandre Duplessis, Scandal-Plagued Canadian Mayor Denies Allegations of Sexual Favors”.

– A series of politico scandals have recently rocked Canadian cities: Montreal’s interim mayor was arrested on corruption and defrauding the government charges. He took over from ex-Montreal mayor Gerald Tremblay who resigned last fall amid allegations of illegal campaign donations. The list goes on.

– Moving on to federal politics: yesterday in the House of Commons, the son of former prime minister Trudeau, now leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, called the Environment Minister “a piece of shit”.

– Moving on to the west coast: a premier who couldn’t even win her own seat… (she will run for a by-election July 10).

How about a story about a hero’s journey, a topic we writers have more than a passing acquaintance with.

Chris Hadfield is an astronaut. He recently got back from space. He commanded a space station orbiting Earth. In space. Not only did this Canadian from Sarnia, Ontario spend five months on the International Space Station, he did it in the most awesome way possible. He brought the ISS experience down to us mere earthlings with a constant stream of tweets, photos, videos and chats. In 146 days, he made space cool again as he captured our collective imaginations. Chris Hadfield

To continue with the good stuff: Canadian writers and novels. It’s books after all  that this blog is about. Aside from the fact that Canada has a respectable number of internationally known literary authors, we can proudly claim that some of the best crime fiction authors live here.

With that in mind, here is a list of great summer reading. Pack a picnic basket with some fine Canadian cheeses, a bowl of local cherries, a bottle of Okanagan wine, and have your spouse or favourite friend join you to head for the beach. Leave space in your basket to pack some of these fabulous books:

Sean Slater: (I would be remiss if I didn’t top the list with Sean Slater. Not only is he the founder of our critique group and lifelong honorary member, his books are truly awesome. Fast-paced crime fiction, impossible to put down once you start.) His titles: The Survivor; Snakes and Ladders; The Guilty. More in the works.

More good reads:

Louise Penny: A Trick of the Light

Peter Robinson: Before the Poison

Robert Rotenberg: The Guilty Plea

Jack Batten: Take Five

Gina Buonaguro: The Wolves of St. Peter’s

Rick Mofina: Into the Dark

Rosemary McCracken: Black Water

Janet Bolin: Thread and Buried

Meg Howald: Expatriate Bones

This only a minuscule sample. If you want to expand the list, check out the website of Crime Writers of Canada. You may be amazed at how many excellent Canadian authors live and write here. The books on offer are as diverse as the people of our great country.

And with some luck and a good dose of perseverance, who knows, you may see some of the 5 writers’ names on the list sometimes soon. Rest assured, we are all hard at work after getting back from our Whistler retreat. The myriad of advice and suggestions for rewriting and editing our novels in progress will keep us busy and out of mischief for a while to come.

Shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark

Helga’s Post # 36 — It’s a good thing that it has been raining buckets for the last week. Perfect weather to hunker down and delve into my fellow writers’ manuscripts. To read and to critique, that is the agenda for the month. The process is in full flight and I enjoy finally seeing the product of my writing partners’ hard work. An amazing collection of genres, styles and characters of all stripes. A kaleidoscope of action, emotion, and raw energy.

As I read my fellow writers’ manuscripts, I wonder how on earth five people who write such diverse stories in styles that couldn’t be more different, ever managed to launch a group. Not only launch, but work with undiminished enthusiasm to support each other by making sure we keep on doing what brought us together in the first place: to write some damn good fiction. And I hope that if any of us will start having doubts about staying the course, the group will close rank and bring the errant stray back to the fold.

Two years and counting. Probably a lot more to come, unless one or more of us get published and too busy to participate, like founding member Sean Slater (his pen name). The rest of us would understand.

So back to the different styles and stories. It struck me that regardless of the diversity, we all have come a long way since we embarked on writing fiction. Since we followed the  arduous, but in so many ways rewarding trail of the writer’s journey. Yes, all those workshops at conferences and writers’ tool-kit books did rub off. I can see it in the manuscripts at hand. We do follow certain patterns. We start our stories with action. We put lots of work into developing our characters to make sure they are anything but mainstream, so as to catch and hold our reader’s interest. We follow story arcs (sort of) and, without perhaps consciously doing so, adhere to the writing advice dispensed by the Masters.

Never forget the Masters. Their wisdom illuminates the dark trail we writers have to travel, helping us reach our destination – a story that will delight our readers. Their wisdom may be buried within our subconscious, but it’s there, ready to be called upon. And what I glean from our manuscripts, an amazing amount comes through in our collective writing. With that in mind, I found some morsels from authors in quite different genres, all offering counsel to make our writing better. Whether as diverse as Ernest Hemingway and Elmore Leonard, there are common threads that bind them.hemingway5

To start with intrepid Old Man of the Sea himself:

‘Remove unnecessary bullshit’.

His words exactly. He reportedly told F. Scott Fitzgerald: “I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.”

‘When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.’

‘Don’t describe emotion – make it.’

Close observation of life is critical to good writing, he believed. The key is to not only watch and listen closely to life events, but to also listen to any emotion arising from them and identify what it was that caused the emotion. If you can identify it and present it accurately and fully rounded in your story, your readers should feel the same emotion.

‘Be brief.’

Hemingway was contemptuous of writers who, as he put it, “never learned how to say no to a typewriter.” In a 1945 letter to his editor, Maxwell Perkins, he wrote:

“It wasn’t by accident that the Gettysburg address was so short. The laws of prose writing are as immutable as those of flight, of mathematics, of physics.”

There is another story illustrating the point: Apparently, Hemingway was lunching with a number of writers and claimed that he could write a short story that was only six words long. Of course, the other writers balked. Hemingway told each of them to put ten dollars in the middle of the table; if he was wrong, he said, he’d match it. If he was right, he would keep the entire pot. He quickly wrote six words down on a napkin and passed it around; Papa won the bet. The words were “FOR SALE, BABY SHOES, NEVER WORN.” A beginning, a middle and an end.

I get a sense that all five of us are instinctively trying to follow these suggestions, and more. We don’t succeed entirely of course, but as I read our manuscripts, I can feel we are aware and trying. Hemingway is one of many icons dispensing writing wisdom, but there is a common theme. And I sense we have learned a great deal from the masters, and much of this is seeping into our writing.

For a different tack, let’s look at another author: (Try to guess whose. Don’t peek)

– The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise you begin excusing yourself. You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it.

– Hold the reader’s attention. (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.) But you don’t know who the reader is, so it’s like shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark. What ­fascinates A will bore the pants off B.

– You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but ­essentially you’re on your own. ­Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.

– You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You’ve been backstage. You’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a ­romantic relationship, unless you want to break up. (Emphasis mine)

– Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.

– I never have [suffered writer’s block], although I’ve had books that didn’t work out. I had to stop writing them. I just abandoned them. It was depressing, but it wasn’t the end of the world. When it really isn’t working, and you’ve been bashing yourself against the wall, it’s kind of a relief. I mean, sometimes you bash yourself against the wall and you get through it. But sometimes the wall is just a wall. There’s nothing to be done but go somewhere else.

– Prayer might work. Or reading ­something else. Or a constant visual­isation of the holy grail that is the finished, published version of your resplendent book.

Yes, it’s from none other than our homegrown Margaret Atwood, her advice as sharp-witted as her own stories. I think we follow her advice in some fashion intuitively and without knowing its source. We certainly know (I hope) not to show our draft to someone with whom we have a romantic relationship. That’s what our critique group is for.

And last but not least, words that speak louder than the picture:


                        Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing

Why do writers write? Because it isn’t there.

Helga’s Post # 23:

Thomas Berger thought so, and I agree. Here are some reasons why ‘I’ write:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFrequently, I get asked what gets me to do this crazy thing, writing fiction. Why am I, and other supposedly rational folks writing a story that takes a fair chunk out of a person’s life from the little that’s left of it. A lot of those grains of sand sinking to the bulging bottom of life’s hourglass on something that may lead – nowhere.

Well, somebody has to tell that story. There’s no choice. If I won’t write it, it will never be told. Imagine the consequences: a story that nobody before me thought of, a story that is incredibly important to me, where I gave birth to people that nowhere else exist but in my mind but who matter to me, people who nobody will ever get to know? A story that I, or any writer for that matter, found important enough to conceive, to think through to the end, to embellish, to change, to improve during many sleepless hours of the night?

Clearly, not writing if you have a story to tell, is not an option. Especially from the point of view of the person who first created it, and, if he or she is a writer, to put it into words and save it for posterity.

Can there be a more noble vocation than writing?Build Your Writer's Platform & Fanbase In 22 Days front cover

Not that it’s a profitable vocation (unless you are writing ‘how-to-get-published’ books or ‘how-to-suck-eggs’ instructions for aspiring authors). Read Joe’s post of yesterday. He puts it bluntly. Even a pimply-faced kid makes more money working at McDonald’s. So writing is not a vocation for the needy.

Which is rather a pity, because they, the needy, are the ones who might have insights into the dark underbelly of society, thoughts about places in the mind where we don’t ever want to go, and of life itself, that those of us who own dishwashers and lawns and Kobo readers and toilets, lack by necessity. Sure we try in some of our writing to convey the raw aspects of life on the fringe. The defeats as well as the triumphs. But let’s face it, if it comes to trying to get into the head of a character who really, really, doesn’t have a clue where he or she will sleep that night, where to get the money for a fix to keep him from going mad, it’s a stretch.

So how to get that across to the reader? Who wants to read about people like that in the first place? Who wants to read about ‘losers’?

Maybe not want, but should. Because it’s a facet of our society that needs to be told. Not only told. Understood. Empathized.

To be sure, much fine writing exists about marginalized people everywhere. On a local level, we are familiar with the topic from authors like our friend and founder of our critique group, Sean Slater, who works as a cop in Vancouver’s downtown Eastside, noted for its high incidence of poverty, drug use, sex trade, crime and violence. Canada’s worst.

Fine writing. Yet, it’s a tall order for any writer to speak from the point of view of its inhabitants, the disenfranchised, unless we’ve lived it ourselves. To tell about their feelings, their hopes and their fears, their longings, their struggle of existence on the streets one day at a time, their view of life itself. Now that would be a challenge for the next novel.

220px-Beats-of-the-southern-wild-movie-posterMaybe it won’t have a wide readership. Then again, who knows? Super heroes don’t always make for the most interesting reading. Think about the movie that got a lot of accolades at the Oscars, ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’. In the hand of a skilled director (or yes, writer) if you push the right button, people will listen. And learn. And support change. Maybe. Unless they have to give up their dishwashers and lawns. And rain showers and French wines (I prefer New Zealand myself).

Good fiction entertains and transport us to different worlds for a while, as it should. As the author promised its readers. Great fiction does all of that, but more: it holds up a mirror and asks us questions that make us squirm. Questions that lure us to lift that rock to see what lives beneath. That makes us take risks discovering something we would rather not to see.

I am reading a novel like that right now. I wished I could write one like that. Maybe the next one.

For now, I am still writing my 5 Writers Challenge novel, a suspense story set in Vancouver and New York. Enjoying the process, and going slow and deliberate like a good tortoise should.

Book buying

books and books

Joe’s post #18 — How do you buy books? By genre? By authors? By recommendations from friends? By the pretty picture on the cover?

Ok, but let’s be more specific. How do you decide to buy a book by a new author, by someone you’ve never read before?

That’s a challenge for all of us new writers. How do we stand out? How do we get the attention of an agent, of a publisher, of millions of readers?

I’m not sure I have the answer, but I can look to how I buy a book by an author I’ve never read before.

1) Genre. It’s my first filter. New or old, I go to a section that I love to read. Mystery. Thriller. Fantasy. As new writers, we don’t have much of a choice where our books get put, but we can help agents and publishers by delineating where we think our books belong. My latest book, YA fantasy. One day, I hope to be able to move out of that genre and into mainstream. Sort of like moving out of my mobile home and into a spacious condo overlooking the city of Vancouver.

a-game-of-thrones-book-1-of-a-song-of-ice-and-fireCover and Title: Yes, it matters. At least to me. If the cover has a bare-chested man with a half-naked women pressed up against him, I won’t care that there’s a dragon in the background. But show me something like what’s on the latest Game of Thrones, and you got yourself a sale. Have a cool title like “The Bone Collector?” Even better.

So, writers, make sure you have a cool title.

Any recommendations: Has it won awards? Does GRR Martin recommend it? Oprah? Are there any quotes from famous authors, like “Best book I’ve read since my book” or “I’m going to kill this bastard for writing such a great story.”

I can tell you one thing, if I ever get published, I will shamelessly pester all my published writer friends to write something nice about my story.

The Flap: Ok, I made that word up. It’s the ‘blurb’, or the synopsis or why the hell should I buy this book?  So now I’m standing in a ‘section’, trying to look cool, and I’ve picked up a book with an interesting cover and a neat title (and maybe with a nifty recommendation.) Now, I read the back (or, in the case of the hardcover, the promo inside the dust jacket.) It has to wow me. I’m sorry, it does. If I read ‘bored housewife…’ I put the book back. If I read something that might interest me, then I move to the last filter.

The First Pages.   You can fool me with a nifty cover – I’m easily distracted by pretty colors and half-dressed women on dragons. You can fool me with recommendations – Writers have been known to get together at comicons or mystery writers at wine tasting nights and agree to endorse each other’s books. You can fool me with a cleverly written blurb – Hey, they have entire marketing departments working on this in-between martinis. But it’s harder to be fooled by someone’s actual writing. So I read the first pages, a few paragraphs somewhere in the middle, and then I make a decision.

As new writers, I think we need to remember this. Words matter. Voice matters. Style matters. How a story starts… matters.

The Way Around It All: Frankly, the way I usually buy books by authors I haven’t read is that I’ve been told it’s awesome by a friend I trust. Any time I get a text like “OMFG you have to read this!!!!!!!” I will give it a try, despite the number of exclamation seanpoints. If someone brings a book to a coffee chat and the first thing they say, after telling me how handsome I look, is “I have just read the most amazing book of amazingness ever!” then I’ll give that book a try. I mean, why not, they’ve done all the work and all I have to do is look up that author?

Like this one. Check it out. It’s a FANTASTIC book.  !!!!!!!

But no matter what your own personal filters are, give a new author a try.

We need all the help we can get.