SiWC Workshops – Sharing What I Learned pt 1

Surrey International Writers’ Conference
#SiWC17

I’ll have to break this into 2 parts. One on writing, one on the business of writing (branding and self-publishing.)

So let’s look at the writing.

Don Maass, the master teacher of all things writerish, taught a workshop on Pacing Beyond Plot.

He’s got an amazing book out on The Emotional Craft of Fiction and, of course, Writing the Breakout Novel and I would highly recommend buying them, taking them out of the library or borrowing them from a friend (and never returning it).

Don Maass, master teacher of the writerly arts. #SiWC17

Mr. Maass wanted us to move away from pacing as simply plotting, to pacing as an emotional journey of our characters and their character arcs.

That growth, that movement, that change is compelling. Like a good car chase, it moves the plot forward and engages the reader.

I don’t know why, but that really struck me.

As he went through a ton of exercises, I thought, damn, I did that in Yager’s War. And that. And I totally nailed that one, too. But there were scenes (if I am totally honest with myself), where I realized, you know what, I didn’t nail it.

For me, it was the slower scenes. Where the character gets from point A to B. Now I could skip those but I used them to add character conflict and some interaction with the locations (since I firmly believe in making the location a character as well). But what if I kicked that up a notch and thought a LOT harder on how my character develops in that scene? Wouldn’t that make it better?

I think so.

So whenever a scene has low tension, I’mma gonna look at it again and see if I can create MORE emotional movement.

Should be fun.

**********

Robert Dugoni

Robert Dugoni. – Another great teacher, workshopper, and highly entertaining writer. His workshop –  The First 3 Pages. (I didn’t get a chance to take his editing one, but if someone did, could they please send me their notes.)

From RD, I learned just why those first pages are important.

Let’s face it, agents and editors are SUPER busy people, so they are looking for a reason to put that manuscript down and catch up on an episode of Stranger Things. So it has to be tight, it has to be completely mistake-free and the best writing you can do.

Making it our best work increases the chance of someone reading it.

So he asked us, does the first sentence hook the reader? Do you establish what type of book it is quickly? (A romance, mystery, SF etc). Do you engage our senses, quickly? Do you have action in the 1st 3 pages? Movement? Dialogue? Do you have someone important come on stage? Have you taken us into your world? Have you engaged us? Hooked us?

It’s a lot to do, but basically the idea is to make it amazing.

But the biggest thing I got out of the workshop was something I have to learn in life.

Just because I can, doesn’t mean I should.

Just because I can climb up the side of a ruined castle to reach the top, doesn’t mean I should. Just because I can start a novel with dialogue like Nelson DeVille did, doesn’t mean I should. Be aware that, as new writers, we simply have to be the best.

So if you’ve heard over and over again that you should never start a story with dialogue and you counter, hey, Ah, Bobberino, like, Stephen King did that in Firestarter, then ask yourself, first, are you Stephen King? Then ask yourself, should you have dialogue in the opening if you know a whole butt-load of agents and editors might reject it right there? Then ask yourself, if you still want to do it, why did the great writer’s do it, cuz they sure as hell had a reason why.

There are no rules in writing except the ones that work.

But you have to make it work.

**********

Michael Slade – check out his books and tell me they don’t give you the shivers

From the great storyteller, Michael Slade, I heard three things I need to remember.

  • For authentic characters or scenes, look to your own life. Remember the smells, the sounds, the way time played out. Go deep. Especially when you need to create chilling fiction, use what scares you.
  • A hero is only as good as the villain. Make the villain epic and you’ll force your hero to be epic as well. But give that villain something human. Hitler’s dog. Lector’s culture. Joker’s humor.
  • The more we like your character, the more we’ll worry when they’re in danger.

There was so, so much more that these fine presenters taught, so if you attend the conference next year, please check them out.

If you like what I’m writing about, take a look at my About a Stepdad Blog. Sorry for the double posts if you’re following both, I’ll be fixing that with my new website.

Don Maass teaser video

Robert Dugoni teaser video on writing.

Robert Dugoni in Writer’s Digest.

Michael Slade website, which is scary and cool.

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.

Describe description

Joe’s Post #165

potterWell, it’s time for me to do a series. Every book I write I envision as a trilogy so I’m all about coming up with one idea and making a ton of books from it. Like JK Rowling. Only she’s super successful.

Anyway, for the next few weeks, I want to look at the basics. Plot. Theme. Characters. Dialogue. Pacing. And the toughest nut for me to crack – Emotion. Not that I’ll give you any great advice (I’ll leave that for others), but I want to explore those topics a bit. As a writer.

First up (you guessed it) – Description.

For some people, description comes easy. Like Joe Montana throwing a football. Or Donald Trump insulting people. Or the Canucks losing.

For me, it’s a struggle. I want to move on with plot and character and if the reader can’t see what’s in my head, then that’s their problem, not mine, right?

One day, Apple or Google or that Elon Musk robot will invent a virtual book that downloads what’s in the writer’s mind. Until that day (and God help me if they don’t put some sort of adult content filter in there), I have to come up with decent descriptions of my characters and the places they inhabit.

Drawings might work, sure, or fancy-schmancy photos but (sadly), not many best sellers come with pictures. At least until I write one…

So that leaves me having to come up with settings that ring true.

If you want to check out a few authors who have recommendations on this, check out the links below, but let me tell you about how I get the job done.

My 4 rules on it are…

  • Setting MUST be seen through the eyes of your character. I mean, look at how an undercover cop would walk into a restaurant. He’d look for exits, people not donutssupposed to be there, and donuts. An interior decorator might notice how the the blood pooling on floor clashes with the green and yellow checkered floor. An erotic novelist might notice the hunky guy working in the kitchen, shirtless from the heat, his six pack glistening with sweat while he washes his giant cucumber. (Like in life, we all see things differently.)
  • I must have a photo or painting of the place, or have visited it myself. A picture is good, and even with google maps, I can haul out all sorts of interesting details. But nothing beats being there. Why? Because I can get an idea of the other things that matter in good description. Smells. Sounds. The feel of a dusty brick. The taste of penis shaped peppers. Whatever. If I am there and using my writing brain, then I can create something that’s real, because it is real.
  • dorothyIf there aren’t pictures or I can’t be there (like going back to ancient Egypt), then I will read what other novelists have written. Want to know what the roofs of Florence were like in 1724, then read Dorothy Dunnett. But be careful, you have to trust the source. I’m not convinced everyone’s done their homework, I mean, movie-wise, look at Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood. It’s frigging painful.
  • chekovIt’s all about bringing a world to life, so I do my best to add small details. Like my man Chekov said…

So that’s how I get it done. Or at least try to.

I can rely on my imagination, but unlike a friend of mine who can picture a whole scene in her novel like a movie in her head, my mind is a disorganized jumble of images and thoughts. Do I have to pick up the kids? What are my key plot points? What’s that song I keep hearing in my head? Where did I leave my iphone? What characters will be on stage in this scene? What themes will I forget about? Who was that half-naked woman that I looked up because of, ah, research?

No room for organized description, you see. Reality is my only hope.

So… How do you do description?

Links

11 Secrets to Writing Effective Description (cuz 10 isn’t good enough)

3 Must Know Ways for Creating Meaningful Settings. (K.M. Weiland includes my most difficult of writing challenges  Emotion!)

Stephen King (though he pretty much says ignore everything I just said and write, dammit!)

Novel Writing Help  (with some good examples)

Word Painting (more cool ideas)

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?

Does the Real World matter?

virtual-reality

Silk’s Post #134 — Joe’s last post, which warned that writers cannot hide in a room, made me laugh. Then it made me think. Then it sent me off into a hot-July-day, philosophical universe where all things can be possible and impossible at the same time, and no question is absurd.

So I ask: Does the Real World matter?

And what implications does the answer have for writers?

Here’s one super easy example of how increasingly blurred the edges of the Real World (the one we literally, physically experience), and the World of the Mind (the one we experience through imagination) have become: the news.

Here on our totally networked planet, we are constantly exposed to the Real World of wars, natural disasters, mass shootings, starvation, etc. (and happy things, too, of course, although those are usually afterthoughts when it comes to the news). But most of us experience these things purely in our imaginations, while sitting peacefully on the couch, popping cheese puffs, through the eyes of the adventurous reporters who are actually out there in the Real World. Yet we have the impression that we’ve “been there”, that we understand the experience. Hey, we’ve seen it with our own eyes! We’ve heard the bombs, observed the misery on the faces of victims, watched the cars get washed out to sea.

Thank you, TV, for making our world more – and less – real at the same time.

More and more today, the Internet is our source of Real World exposure. Cyberspace is much more real than carefully-produced TV, because here you can directly experience unfiltered, uncurated reality. It’s raw! It’s happening right now! It’s like having a real conversation with millions of real people living in the Real World!

Or not. I vote for “not”.

If TV is a gigantic reality show (and by “reality”, I of course mean fiction), then the Internet is an even more gigantic reality show on steroids. It’s the perfect tool for creating imaginary realms that pretend to be the Real World in an extremely compelling way. What it adds is the ultimate seduction of interactivity, producing virtual worlds that eclipse what we used to understand as the Real World, where stuff actually happens and is physically experienced – not just imagined while sitting in front of a computer or poking at a smart phone while walking down the street tripping over fire hydrants.

The dark side: we all know that online you can experience virtual death through games. How many more steps of imagination are required to lure people, hungry for self-esteem, to experience Real World death by recruiting them into the ultimate reality shows concocted by ideologues? Are these reality show “contestants” surprised when they actually find themselves bleeding real blood on their way to that great reality in the sky?

Well. This is getting a bit more dark than I intended.

The light side, then: online you can be whoever you want to be. It’s not the Real World, after all, so who’s to stop you? Make up your own reality show, starring you. Post your own movies of your cat doing tai chi. Join a chat room where fantasy historical characters talk to each other in Middle English. Start a blog on UFOs and alien abductions. Publish your own book (woohoo!). Entertain yourself for hours, days, weeks – while the sun rises and sets, rises and sets, and seasons change outside your window.

Oh, right. That would be hiding in a room, which Joe has already told us writers can’t do.

Perhaps I haven’t made my point about the increasingly blurry relationship between the Real World and the World of the Mind very directly here. It’s a challenging concept to get your head around. But I think it matters a lot, and it especially matters a lot to writers.

Before the very short slice of modernity we now inhabit, human beings had no choice but to experience the Real World directly. There were few filters and lenses used to “interpret” reality, the chief World of the Mind perspectives being whatever spiritual beliefs prevailed in a particular time and place to help explain the inexplicable. Oral storytelling was the only transmission mechanism for ideas. Once language matured and became more abstract, then was written down, and eventually was able to be read by some growing proportion of the population, the World of the Mind began to really bloom.

And writers gained a big chunk of the franchise in this new, imagined world of ideas, taking over from the oral storytellers. Whether writing about religion, or science, or society, or fictional stories, writers had to contemplate the difference between the Real World and the World of the Mind in order to do their jobs. There was non-fiction. There was fiction. There once seemed to be an effort made to distinguish between the two (allowing for the fact that lots of things experienced in the Real World were entirely misunderstood until science started explaining them).

Where do we stand today? Well, everyone’s a writer (and most are their own editors). And everyone can go everywhere, and experience everything. Virtually, of course.

Our experiential landscape has become an admixture of the Real World and the World of the Mind, without bright lines or sharp edges separating them. We’ve even outgrown the binary categories of non-fiction and fiction. Now there’s creative non-fiction, a kind of literary mule with a kick.

The discourse of public life has become a game of propagandists versus fact-checkers, where the “truth” is whatever you can get away with saying. World-changing events and trends engineered by humans are often constructed on foundations of fantasy masquerading as reality (the former often more appealing than the latter).

Today’s “reality” is an easy place to get lost.

So back to the question: does the Real World matter? Perhaps I should add “anymore”. And if it does – or doesn’t – what does that mean for writers?

Call me an idealist, but I say that writers – whose work still has a huge influence on the World of the Mind – have a responsibility to the Real World. A sacred responsibility, perhaps.

I hope we are, at least sometimes, more than entertainers. I hope we can do better things with our words than just sell them like a cheap fix to give readers a thrill. Or, worse, lead them into some dark place where the Real World no longer matters.

If slippery, tricky, malleable virtual reality is challenging the immutable truths of the Real World for supremacy, who better to keep those truths alive in the World of the Mind than writers? Isn’t that part of our job? To illuminate? To enlighten? To encourage thought?

Better writers than I have explored this theme in more beautiful words:

“What is the purpose of writing? For me personally, it is really to explain the mystery of life, and the mystery of life includes, of course, the personal, the political, the forces that make us what we are while there’s another force from inside battling to make us something else.” — Nadine Gordimer (Nobel Prize in Literature, 1991)

“When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, “I am going to produce a work of art.” I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.”  — George Orwell (author of 1984 and Animal Farm)

“[My idealism is] still alive and well because without it the business of the writer would be meaningless … If we have any role at all, I think it’s the role of optimism, not blind or stupid optimism, but the kind which is meaningful, one that is rather close to that notion of the world which is not perfect, but which can be improved. In other words, we don’t just sit and hope that things will work out; we have a role to play to make that come about. That seems to me to be the reason for the existence of the writer.” — Chinua Achebe (author of Things Fall Apart)

“The role of a writer is not to say what we all can say, but what we are unable to say.” — Anais Nin (author of Delta of Venus)

“[In the end, all writing is about] enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well.”  — Stephen King (legendary, prolific, multiple-award-winning writer)

“A writer should tend to lift people up, not lower them down. Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.” — E.B. White (Pulitzer Prize Special Citation, 1978)

 

Writers cannot hide in a room

Joe’s Post #145

Taking the Blindfold Off

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

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

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

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

If you’re willing to observe it.

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

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

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

And that’s just from a Skytrain run.

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

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

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

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

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

Or to imagine.

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

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

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

Unless you’re Stephen King.

all work

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To write or not to write everyday

Joe’s Post #139

Is there a right answer?

it hardcover_prop_embedStephen King believes in writing 1000 words a day, 6 days a week. Hard to argue with the guy who wrote about killer clowns and domes and sold a zillion books  There’s also a 750 word/day club. I even suspect there’s a 12 step writing-every-day program.

On the other side, people like Paula or Cal Newport argues that such a regime is for full-time writers, only, that we doom ourselves to failure by setting such an artificial deadline.

So let me present another POV.

I doesn’t matter.

Write every day if that motivates you. Personally, I find that such a goal is good enough to keep me going in the short term, but not good enough for a long term project like a novel. For that, I need to be in love with the idea or the characters or a really comfy chair.

If writing once a week for a good 5 hour stretch works, that’s ok, too. Or writing a novel in month. Whatever.

I think it all comes down to motivation. What makes you want to sit alone in a room, stare at a blank screen and try to knit a story from the cobwebs in your brain? What makes you commit hours and hours and hours to something only your cat or critique group may read? What makes you put aside family, the latest Bachelor episode or a golf game so you can put words on a page?

torFor me, it was a deadline that motivated me to write. A deadline from an open call by one of my favorite publishers. TOR. They were looking for novellas. 30,000-40,000 word length.

I had a short story that I loved and thought, hey, why not turn it into a novella? I loved the setting – NY in a slightly altered universe, one where magic is creeping into the world little by little. I loved my character – a creature of the old world, a Fey, who means to misbehave like Malcom Reynolds in Firefly, and uses his magical talents to solve crime. I loved the plot, but I knew I’d have to create a new one for the novella.

It didn’t matter that it wasn’t quite what they’re looking for. It didn’t matter that I’d never written a novella. I didn’t even matter that we were out of motivational wine and chocolates.

I just decided to write.

In 10 days, I’ve got 80 pages done. Oh, I know, it could be better, but that’s 80 pages on a brand new story. I was writing again. About 15,000 words worth.

Due to commitments, I couldn’t write every day, but if writing every day gets you back to writing, then I’m all for it. I didn’t write one day for 5 hours, but if writing once a week for 5 hours gets you back to writing, then I’m all for it.

In the end, whether you’re inspired by a deadline, a daily goal, by a trip you took, an adventure you had or something you just need to get off your chest, writers write.

So, as Silk said, this day we write, but I have to ask…

What process to you use for writing? 

*****

Best show last week – Game of Thrones. Without a doubt, though I hear good things about Outlander.

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  80 pages on the new novella.

Social media update – If you like this blog, please follow us or share us on facebook

Best thing last week  Back to writing, again. 80 pages is not bad.

Worst thing  Finally over my cold, but it’s left me with diminished hearing. Dammit. I may need to get a hearing aid. I greatly feel this is the beginning of the slow slide that will eventually see me in adult diapers and a hover-walker.

For anyone interested in the TOR open call, see this link.

 

Bootcamp for writers

Joe’s Post #135

i dont know butWhat do you do when you’re stuck in a non-writing groove? Maybe you look at a writing bootcamp.

Not the kind of bootcamp where you get yelled at by an angry-looking marine or go around singing martial marching songs. “I don’t know but I’ve been told, if you don’t write, you don’t get sold. Sound off, one two, sound off, three four…”

Nor the kind where you leap over logs and end up running through mud. Nope, a writing bootcamp is where you, ah, write.

It’s something the group is considering. What better way than to get together, unfurl our laptops, and grind out page after page? We can be there for support. For advice. Or simply for company.

stephen kingThere are, of course, some variations on this theme. I think the Hemingway version involves a lot of scotch. Certainly the Hunter S. Thompson version would include a lot of blow and hookers. I imagine Stephen King’s would involve graveyards and listening to thrash metal music and something that would probably scar me for life.

Some are structured (from Writer’s Digest). Some are fun and spontaneous (from Capilano College). Some set goals (like the one I went to in Oregon as part of the Oregon Writer’s Network, where we set a goal of writing a book in a week). Some just get together to write.

What’s important is that all of them motivate writers to write. And that’s what we need to do.

When I went down to Oregon, I was with a houseful of professional writers. That alone added a huge incentive for me not to sit there and play Minecraft or go for a walk on the beach and gaze at the waves. And I wrote my ass off. 400 odd pages in 6 days.

Now, I’m not saying it was the greatest novel I’d ever written, and I ran into a huge plot flaw problem on day 5 that I couldn’t fix in the time allotted, but I wrote, and wrote a lot. I didn’t even spend much time with the other writers, talking about ideas or methods or just the best way to make a cup of tea. It’s something I actually regret, but (again) I didn’t get distracted from my reason for being there.

So, I think it’ll be a good thing for us to gather together and write.

I don’t know if we’ll set goals as a group or as individuals.

I don’t know if it’ll be some place fancy like Palm Springs or my backyard.

structured writingI don’t know if it’ll be all structured and organized (like get up at 7am, pee from 7:10-7:11, dress from 7:11-7:30, coffee and breakfast 7:30-8:00, heavy drinking from 8:01-11:15, write…. 8:10-8:20 crying and swearing time. 8:30 bed), or we’ll just wing it day-to-day.

But I do know that if we get together for the purpose of writing, we will write. The peer pressure will be there. The support will be there. The encouragement for getting sh*t done will be there.

So I ask you all: What would your writing bootcamp look like? How would you set it up?

******

Best show last week – Seasonal finale of the Walking Dead. Brilliant stuff.

Book that I’m reading at the moment –  Shadow’s Edge. Brent Weeks. Nearly done and it’s his best book so far. But why, Joe, why? It’s because he gave his hero a nice cost to using his uber powers. A brutal cost, but an effective one.

Pages written on new book  I’ve now officially committed to the group to write 10 pages a week. A low total for a professional writer, but it should be me started.

Social media update – Finally finished my epic journey as a chaperone on my step-dad site. Check it out.

Health  Still functionally deaf at the moment due to an ear infection. F*ing hell. It’s like living in a bubble.

Best thing last week  I found out I’ll be getting more time to write. Let’s hope I can use that time effectively.

Worst thing  Nothing. Life is good.

Links to other writers and bloggers to check out….

Ok, I asked everyone to check out this guy, but if you haven’t, then now’s the time….

chuck

Chuck Wendig

http://terribleminds.com (it is NSFW, but funny as hell!)

Where to begin

From astrolog.com

From astrolog.com

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.

Slater

Writing space

Joe’s Post #109 — I’m in the process of moving and have the opportunity to set-up a new writing space. In the next few hours, I’ll be dismantling my desk, packing up my computer and filing my files. I’m not the only one of the 5/5/5 to be moving. 3 of 5 of us decided to add this to our complex lives.

deskBut for some reason, the whole idea of setting up a new space is very exciting. Yes, I’m that lame. I get excited by things like new books by my favourite authors, a lovely place to sit and read, and (apparently) a new writing room.

So what will I do to make the new space awesome.

Here’s Joe’s top 5 things he needs in a writing room.

  • I need a table to create maps, to colour them and to spread them out. I can also use this table for my complex (some say insane) outlines.
  • my publicationI need wall space to hang maps, pictures of the subject I’m writing about and a place for my one small publication. I have it framed. It reminds me that I can do it (with a bit of luck and some damn fine writing.)
  • I need a lot of bookshelves for books. I have a small space reserved for me, but a huge space set up for the likes of Lee Child, Mr King, GRR Martin and Janet Evanovich. Oh, and a few shelves of non-fiction books. Maybe a little more than a few shelves.
  • I will need a door to close when I have to do serious writing. I can write a blog when I’m surrounded by family (albeit with spelling mistakes and grammatical errors), but to get into my head, really get in there and play around, I need no distractions.
  • I need a computer that will not crash when I have 40 odd windows open. Some will be chapters, some will be research, some will even be emails or articles I’ve read, but I love the instant access of this modern age and dammit, I’m going to take full advantage of it.

So, in 2 days, my new life begins. Give me a week to get that room set up the way I want.

Then let’s see what happens.

*****

What would you need in your writing space?