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.

Emotional weather



Silk’s Post #140 — So, you’re writing a scene and there are a million things you have to remember to work into it somehow. The setting of the scene. Your point-of-view character’s “want”. Who the other characters are that he/she is interacting with, and what they want. The scene’s emotional hook. The plotting. The pacing. The conflict and suspense that’s supposed to be present on every page. And maybe you’re calculating how you can slip in some backstory without putting your author’s foot in your mouth.

Now, for really experienced writers – and, I imagine, for prodigies – all this is probably instinctive, like riding a bicycle. But for the rest of us, it’s like trying to remember all the individual component actions we need to coordinate to get rolling and have a successful ride. Hold on to the handlebars. Balance. Pump the pedals. Look ahead. Don’t go too fast. Don’t go too slow. Don’t turn too suddenly. Steer. Watch out for cars, dogs, potholes, loose gravel.

Like me, I’m sure the last thing you’re looking for is another thing you have to remember. However, recent events in the world have made me think about another component of storytelling that links “setting” to all the other elements in a very meaningful way.

It’s emotional context.

I don’t mean the specific emotions of your POV character, or even your whole cast of characters. I mean the emotional environment that is inherently part of the setting. The storyworld is made up of more than just physical landscapes, plot-related events, cultural attributes, eras and places. There are emotional dimensions to all these things that create an atmosphere in which the action takes place.

I would call it emotional weather. While it may be a subset of a broader, more persistent emotional climate (think, for instance, of the general mood in a place experiencing prolonged warfare, or economic distress, or their opposites), emotional weather is more volatile, difficult to predict, and local. And while it may be stormy in one part of the storyworld, or among one group of its inhabitants, it may be sunny in another.

Does this sound like a recipe for one of a writer’s most desired dishes: conflict? I think so.

All this may seem obvious as you’re reading it. But like a well-practiced bike rider, we don’t always think consciously about things that have become second nature to us. We all experience not only our own personal emotions that relate directly to our lives, but also participate in – and are affected by – the mass emotions of larger groups of people, people we don’t even know.

In the past couple of weeks, events have brought my awareness of this phenomenon up from my subconscious to my conscious mind. Think about the recent emotional weather experienced by these groups of people, and how it is likely affecting their perspective on the world, and yours …

  • Masses of Syrian refugees trying to gain safe haven in Europe.
  • 24 million people watching the televised Republican debates.
  • Tens of thousands watching Pope Francis’s addresses and homilies in person, and millions watching on television.
  • 60,000 attending the Global Citizen concert in Central Park in New York City, and millions more watching electronically.
  • 2 million Muslim pilgrims at the Hajj where hundreds were tragically crushed.

I defy anyone to experience any of these things directly – or even to observe them second-hand – and not react to them emotionally. Even if the experience isn’t deeply life-changing (which depends on how immediately and directly one is affected), it still can shift one’s perspective and attitude and beliefs. And in our era of mass communications, these “local” events are now experienced globally.

I think emotional weather shapes attitudes and actions more than we realize. And that makes it relevant to storytelling. It can infuse different groups of people with anger, bliss, intolerance, generosity, fear, hope, mistrust, trust, despair, joy. These feelings may be transient for some, but for others they may evolve into a permanent world view, especially if they seem to confirm pre-existing beliefs.

A key point is that people don’t have to directly experience the events or conditions that create emotional weather to be affected by it. Today, emotions can easily go viral.

So what does all this mean for a writer? I believe that when a story has deeper emotional context – when the writer builds emotional weather into the storyworld, as well as the personal emotions of the characters that are directly related to the plot – the book will be richer and more authentic.

Not only that, it will offer more opportunities to create conflict and tension. After all, conflict and tension are not just rational responses to stimuli. They’re inherently emotional. They may begin in the head, but they grow in the heart.

And that’s what storytelling is all about.

5/5/5 challenge scorecard for the week:

New pages written:  6 (that’s all?)

Word count: 6,916

Rewrites:  None

Blog posts written:  1

Research done:  6 hours

Other progress:  5writers blog renovation – wrote new and revised background pages, updated photos, other tech fixes.

Best new thing: Thanks, Pope Francis, for stepping into the lion’s den, shining a light in dark places, and making everyone with a heart want to be a better person. You rock. (And I’m not even Catholic.)

Does the Real World matter?


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)


A picture worth a thousand plots. Or turning ideas into stories

Helga’s Post #102: Like all writers, I am inundated with countless ideas that I think might be worthwhile for turning into a story (not exactly words of wisdom to the initiated). Writers get ideas during most of our waking hours, and probably more often than not, they keep us awake at night. So it’s not a lack of worthwhile ideas that stifles our writing progress.

Where do all these ideas come from? It’s often a small detail that catches my attention, an image of an every-day occurrence, maybe with an unusual twist that over-stimulates my brain. I believe that happens to all writers. We think up possibilities or conclusions when we witness some ordinary event or not-so-ordinary people. That’s the start and essence of a story.

But harvesting these ideas and turning them into real stories becomes a challenge. If only we could remember these flashes of brilliance when we get to sit down at the keyboard. For me, an unexpected, surprising image works best. It can stick to my brain like secured with heavy-duty contact cement. It won’t let go until I spin a story around it.

Here is one such example.

I was late for an appointment the other day, a hugely important one: getting my hair cut. Please don’t judge me as excessively vain – I wear my hair short, very short, so it really shows when I don’t keep it cut regularly. Since I am planning to go on a lengthy trip, I could not afford to miss it. So here I was, rushing to my precious appointment at the salon, and being late because of a traffic jam on the way.

What’s your point? You may well ask. What’s this got to do with writing?

Okay. I admit this is not a suspense story or thriller. I just want to illustrate that writers have priorities. When something crosses our paths that we instinctively know will turn into a story, nothing will stop us. Not even missing a hair appointment.

So here I was, one block from the salon on Mainland Street, running, fighting a nasty January wind. I turned a corner, and what I saw made me slow to a crawl and then stop. Full stop. I stood as if rooted to the cobblestones.

I slowly reached into my purse for my iphone. I tapped on the camera icon. I pretended to focus on the building behind. Click. And another. And then I was gone. He didn’t notice. How could he?IMG_1182

And that’s the story. A solitary man immersed in the warm closeness and affection of his dog, and his other dog up close too. A man who couldn’t care less about the weather or a passerby getting a photo of him. A man so completely absorbed that nothing else seemed to matter. What does his body language reveal? Is he happy, sad, content, longing for something?

Not sure if I made the point. Or even if there is a point worth making. To me, this image for some reason triggered an emotion. A sadness, but also something else. That’s when I started thinking up a story. It would not have had the same effect on me if the man had been in rags, begging for money using his dogs as props. This man however was well dressed. Expensive shoes, rings on his fingers, a stylish cardigan. I didn’t see his face. It’s his body language that got me thinking.

What’s going on here? My imagination started to churn into full gear. What if… what if…

I recently found a useful exercise on another writers’ blog, ‘The Science of Story’, by David Baboulene, a story development consultant. His advice? Keep it simple, and furthermore: “If you keep the protagonist and his aims to the fore, ensure everything is relevant to these aims; and set them head on against conflicts provided by the forces of antagonism, then show us how the protagonist overcomes the forces of antagonism and how s/he grows in achieving those aims by the end, you will probably have a fine story in front of you.”

He provided the following template as an exercise:

My story is about <name of protagonist>. His/her goal is to <insert aims here>. However, s/he is blocked in achieving these goals by <insert forces of antagonism here>. Only one of the protagonist or forces of antagonism can win; their aims are mutually exclusive. At climax, <insert key conflict event> happens, leading to <resolution for protagonist happy or tragic ending>, depicting a significant <positive or negative> change in life values and moral understanding for the protagonist.

Let’s see how my man/dog image could morph into a story:

My story is about Stephan Bartok, retired owner of a profitable restaurant chain (I chose the name because I want him to be an immigrant from Europe). His goal is to remarry after losing his wife in a tragic accident. He is terribly lonely and has started an online relationship with a woman who seems like a perfect partner in every way. They share values, interests and educational background. She is twenty years younger. She, like Stephan, was born in Hungary and now lives in Virginia. She works for the CIA and does a lot of travelling to the Middle East. A first meeting is arranged and he plans to propose marriage. However, he is blocked in achieving these goals by his online love cancelling because she becomes ill with a mysterious virus and can only be cured with an experimental drug. He sends her money and more money until he realizes he’s been scammed. His only solace are his two dogs.

Etc. etc.

We can spin this yarn any way we like. What if… what if… indeed, we have a myriad of ways to let this play out. We can use characters based on real people in our lives, we can tell the story to reflect our own values, likes and prejudices, and whatever else we want to do. We are omnipotent and unstoppable. We are the storytellers.

Who else could claim such powers?

Artful reality and the cutting of dull bits


Silk’s Post #76 — I’ve been obsessing about storytelling since I had my epiphany on the immortality of stories in my post last week, “Survival Guide for Writers.” Why do stories move us, entertain us, excite us, give us insights, and make us see the world and humanity through a sharper lens? And how do stories artfully distill real life and dramatize it?

Alfred Hitchcock famously asked “What is drama but life with the dull bits cut out?”

As with all great and memorable quips, this has the ring of truth. Writers will smile and nod their heads in agreement. There’s a certain obviousness to it. Don’t bore your reader. Of course. This is common knowledge.

But here’s what isn’t common knowledge, the secret behind the ‘obvious’ truth in this simple quip: what Hitchcock knew that many writers do not is what the ‘dull bits’ actually are.

On my short trip this week, my time has been claimed by a whirlwind of overdue family visits, leaving little opportunity for writing. But that hasn’t stopped me from pursuing my self-assigned, on-the-road writer’s quest: learning to identify ‘dull bits’.

Much advice has been given on this topic, most of it in the form of ‘don’t do this’ lists. Don’t open your book with the weather. Don’t go on and on with endless descriptions that bog down the pace. Don’t include forgettable volleys of literal, uninteresting dialogue. Don’t go into pedestrian narrative detail about every action, like a ‘how-to’ manual. Don’t get trapped in a POV character’s head with long ruminations that put readers to sleep. These are simple prescriptions that promise boredom-free stories. Easy peasy.

But wait.

Every one of these rules has been broken by the best writers in certain circumstances, and the results can be sublime.

Opening with weather? Examples abound, some leading to immediate replacement of the book on the shelf, others inexorably drawing the reader into the story. Long descriptions? Some of the world’s best-loved books are littered with them. So are the rejected books in most slush piles. Literal dialogue? It has been used to engaging effect by the masters, and to the opposite effect by lesser writers. Narrative detail? We’ve all seen examples of the kind that creates tension, and the other kind that kills tension. Pages of interior thought? Captivating in some books, a literary sleeping pill in others.

So if such rules identifying ‘dull bits’ are not absolute, then what’s the difference between gripping writing and writing that we skim over in our quest for ‘the good part’ of a book?

I think the difference is whether the writer has a clear sense of story. Whether a particular chunk of content serves that story … or is extraneous to it. Whether the whole story is a continuous, dynamic thread that grabs readers and leads them through highs and lows and tension and emotional twists to a satisfying conclusion … or just a procession of scenarios (regardless of how well written, in terms of technique), which never really ‘gel’ into a strong, memorable story. In other words, I think ‘dull bits’ is a relative term, depending on story context.

Look at it this way: maybe ‘dull bits’ aren’t entirely defined by the nature of their content. Maybe they are simply the things that readers don’t care about or can’t fully connect with. If the writer can make the reader really care about a chunk of content, then, by definition, it is not dull.

So, now to my research. My week-long study of ‘dull bits’ has, perhaps irrationally, consisted of analyzing:

  • one day of air travel from Vancouver to Sacramento
  • screenings of 4 Academy Award-nominated movies

An Airport Scenario with ‘Dull Bits’ Removed (or Re-purposed)

Yes, there is great people-watching in airport, mainly because everyone is in transit. If one has a bent towards intrigue, romance or fantasy, then speculating on where people are going – and why – can lead to some tantalizing story ideas. One stimulating exercise is to mentally add a background sound track to the action you’re watching, like an imaginary movie. Does a tale start to spin itself?

The actual experience of being in an airport, however, is intrinsically boring. Everyone is waiting for something. In limbo. Filling the time eating overpriced snacks, zoning out on mobile devices, tossing back a quick drink among strangers in nobody’s neighbourhood bar, shuffling around last-minute souvenir and duty free shops, attempting an uncomfortable nap on furniture designed to keep people awake, making trips to echoing washrooms with sticky-faced children in tow, reading whatever’s at hand, or just fidgeting in the myriad ways people fidget. No one really wants to be there. It’s almost the dictionary definition of a ‘dull bit’.

So … delete delete delete? Or can this scenario be dramatized?

If, in this temporary, restless and unnatural society of strange bedfellows, a sudden disruption occurs – an explosion, a chase, the rantings of a deranged person, a staggering man with a knife in his back, a frantic lost child, a clown on a unicycle – we have elevated all these ‘dull bits’ into something much more interesting. Not only do we have the unexpected disruption, but we also have the different reactions of all the people who have now become witnesses, united in surprise. Haven’t the ‘dull bits’ now been sharpened into shards of drama?

Or what if one person in the ordinary airport scene is behaving differently from all the others. He stands rigid, focusing intensely on an exit door. His eyes dart to a pair of security cops walking briskly through the airport, heads swivelling and radios in hand. He turns his back to them and saunters to a news stand, picks up a magazine as they pass, watching the exit door from a new position. He’s clearly waiting too, but not for a plane. A child slips his mother’s protective grip and runs, squealing with laughter, towards the news stand, nearly running into him, Mom in pursuit. The man ignores it, takes a sideways step, turns his face away. Can’t you hear the tense, ominous sound track? Don’t you want to know what happens next?

There’s a story in each of these scenarios, and the ‘dull bits’ have been recruited in the service of these stories. You could envision a dozen other stories that could play out in this  circumstance, where the contrast between the ordinary and the extraordinary amplifies the disruption about to happen.

But what if nothing happens? Maybe the story is about a mother and child who are travelling to a new home far away. Maybe not by choice. Or maybe after a death in the family. The trip might change the child’s life forever. But the same rules about ‘dull bits’ apply. If the airport scenario is a transformative experience for the child – a portal to the future – and this can be dramatized through an incident, or even through the child’s perceptions, excitement, fears, hopes, then the ‘dull bits’ serve the story’s dramatic intent. Otherwise, the scene is an expendable – or it would be if Hitchcock were producing it.

Critically-Acclaimed Dramas: Three Hits and a Miss

This was, by any measure, an extraordinary year for cinematic dramas. One of the most remarkable things about the field of Oscar nominated films is how many of them were based on true stories, among them American Hustle, 12 Years a Slave, Dallas Buyers Club and Captain Phillips, all movies I saw in the past couple of weeks.

Could there be a juicier opportunity to study how great storytellers can artfully create superb drama from real life – by cutting out the ‘dull bits’? If you ever wanted to develop a course to teach writers that great, authentic ‘real life’ dramas are intensely concentrated – and artfully manipulated – versions of true stories, these movies could form the whole curriculum.

Even the most gripping true story in real life has dull bits. What a great storyteller does is create an artful reality, not a faithful report of everything that happened. At least, this is my theory.

I’m no film critic, and my focus here is limited to this one criterion: how these cinematic storytellers eliminated the ‘dull bits’, while retaining the authenticity of ordinary life. How they re-purposed the ordinary – the ‘dull bits’ – to amplify the extraordinary drama of the stories.

I couldn’t find a single useless ‘dull bit’ in either American Hustle or Dallas Buyers Club. Not one.

Christian Bale arranging his absurd comb-over in American Hustle – as an opening scene, no less! – was captivating. Seriously. A man combing his hair. I watched it with dropped jaw. It made dramatic and bold use of an excruciatingly dull detail to deliver vivid and intimate insight into the character of the protagonist. All that came after followed suit – a rich, colourful, improbable circus of characters lurching through a real-life inspired story (the Abscam scandal of the 1980s) that spun out like a collision of the mundane, the corrupt and the grandiose. It left me breathless.

An emaciated Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Clubcareening down the hardscrabble Texas highway towards the salvation of bootleg AIDS drugs in Mexico, stopping to weep, flooring the gas pedal, possessed with life, refusing to give it up. This was just one of more memorable moments than I can count, shown through extraordinary use of the most ordinary details. Brilliant scene after brilliant scene, with raw and powerful performances that didn’t seem like acting at all. In this film the writers disappeared. The director disappeared. The actors disappeared. It was just the audience immersed in the story of real people, experiencing it directly in the gut. This was a movie that you felt with all your five senses, and maybe with your sixth sense too. No ‘dull bits’. None.

Tom Hanks as Captain Phillips, facing off with a skeletal Somali pirate who informs him “I’m the Captain now” after a daring takeover of his cargo ship off the Horn of Africa. The haves meet the have-nots. Civilization and privilege meet anarchy and desperation. This is a big theme played out in the drifting confines of the isolated ‘island’ of a vessel. The life-or-death story has inherent drama, and perhaps leaving out the ‘dull bits’ was relatively easy. The circumstances didn’t allow for boredom. Yet, I would not give this movie top rating for elimination of ‘dull bits’, mainly because of the short, but boring, opening scenes when Hanks packs his bags in home state Vermont, drives to the airport, says goodbye to his nice wife, and boards a plane for Djibouti to assume command of the ship. Establishing scene of normalcy. Introduction of nice-guy protagonist. Ho hum. A scene built on ‘dull bits’ that could be used to demonstrate what not to do. But the movie got better, much better, especially when the pirate Muse (Barkhad Abdi) shows up and owns every scene he appears in.

I did say three hits and a miss. I was actually shocked when I watched the Best Picture of the year, 12 Years a Slaveand found myself struggling through it. I had high expectations. Could there be a more dramatic story, a story less likely to have ‘dull bits’ than this now-famous tale of betrayal, cruelty, suffering, injustice and finally rescue? Yet, even though virtually every scene was a portrait of high drama, the movie itself played out like a series of still pictures in a gallery, which, ironically, felt unconnected by a real sense of story. Like still pictures, the pace of scene after scene was glacially slow, as though to force the audience to stop and examine the reality before their eyes thoroughly, in solemn contemplation. One shot of the protagonist’s nearly expressionless face, camera locked, lasted half a minute at least. What was he looking at? We don’t know. What was he thinking? We don’t know. What was he feeling? We don’t know. I’m sorry, this was one of many ‘dull bits’.

One spectacular exception was the electric scene where Patsey, played by Lupita Nyong’o, defies her master after being caught with a precious bar of soap, which crackled with animation. This was, for me, the most powerfully emotional moment in a story that featured a litany of unspeakable cruelties shown in clinical detail.

Is this a great film? I can say it is an important one, perhaps a historic one, certainly a brave one. And it will stay with me. Yes, it worked for me as a history lesson. Unfortunately, it didn’t work for me as a drama. Inarguably, it was real life. But in the storytellers’ mission to not turn away – to not cut out the difficult bits – I think they also failed to cut out the ‘dull bits’. My takeaway: despite its undeniable impact, it did not achieve the ‘artful reality’ that could have brought this story fully to life in all its dimension.

My love letter to writers


Silk’s Post #72 — Writers are Beautiful Dreamers. That’s one of the things I love best about them, and I’m coming to realize that it’s probably my key motivator in choosing the writing life. So this is my love letter to kindred spirits.

This special species of human being – the Beautiful Dreamer – has always been relatively rare, except among children. We are supposed to grow out of this mentality when we hit adulthood, as though there’s obviously something more important to achieve in life than being curious, imaginative, empathetic, creative and hopeful. As though ‘dreaming’ and ‘working’ are two different planets that inhabit separate galaxies, never to come within a million light-years of each other’s orbits.

It’s no surprise that Beautiful Dreamers tend to cluster in the arts. Or that their primary motivation, and reward, is not really about making money. How many creative people were discouraged in their youth from pursuing their dream to be a novelist, a singer, a painter, a playwright, a sculptor, an actor, a dancer, an inventor? The talents for which children are lavishly praised (“What a beautiful painting, pumpkin”) somehow become re-cast as irrelevant hobbies when it’s time to choose a real profession (“But sweetheart, you can’t really expect to make a living as a painter”).

When I ran my agency, I employed many very talented fine artists who, in order to pay the rent, re-channeled their creativity into what was originally called ‘commercial art’ (later to be known as the disciplines of graphic design and illustration). Fortunately, most of them remained Beautiful Dreamers.

What especially confuses the pursuit of writing for Beautiful Dreamers is that it’s so pervasive in everyday life – a river fed by so many disparate streams.

“Everyone’s a writer,” we used to lament with a roll of our eyes in the agency business. Meaning: every client thinks they (or their office assistant or their sales associate) can write a headline, a slogan, a TV commercial. And they can. But most of the results are laughably dreadful and hackneyed (sorry, former clients, I exaggerate of course).

The fact is that everyone who’s literate does write – even if it doesn’t go much beyond emails or reports or business letters. Not everybody paints or sculpts – or even sings or dances – but pretty well everybody writes. And the special disciplines of professional writing (technical, journalistic, business, academic, scientific, promotional and other commercial writing forms) all demand high skill levels, offer some level of personal reward, and often even pay well. Lots of writers who dream of being novelists wind up in these niches.

I did.

But when I made the shift from my make-a-living career to my make-a-life career as a novelist, I had to resuscitate my slumbering Beautiful Dreamer. Believe me, it wasn’t just asleep, it was virtually in a coma after all those years of dreamless commercial writing.

My realist left brain told me that writing a novel would be nothing more than a hobby, an affectation. An amusing retirement time-filler now that my important (i.e., commercially valued) writing career was behind me. But that was just a cynic’s hangover from my many years of jaded adulthood.

After the rejuvenating therapy of attending writers conferences, working with my cherished 5writers colleagues/friends, and tentatively stumbling my way through my first novel and halfway through my second, my Beautiful Dreamer right brain has finally regained full consciousness. It took about three years. (Who expected that?)

Beautiful Dreamers believe in possibilities, even remote ones. When they’re told something is impossible, it doesn’t fling them into despair – it spurs them on. When popular wisdom dismisses freewheeling imagination and creativity as unserious indulgences, Beautiful Dreamers thumb their noses and push themselves farther out into uncharted territory, looking for—something. They don’t know what yet, but it’s out there …

… Some kind of truth, something that matters. Some different revelatory perspective. Some story that can be told in visuals, or sounds, or words – a story that will show us what it is to be human. A story with the power to make people care, laugh, think, cry, understand, love.

What sort of crazy pursuit is this? Well, not the kind many people really bother with after the age of, say, 18 or so. It violates the left-brained, adult notion that setting off without knowing your destination is folly. This ‘rule’ confuses purposeful, open-minded exploration with wandering aimlessly in the wilderness. Beautiful Dreamers may seek their holy grails, but also accept that the journey, in itself, can be a kind of destination.

What prompted all this introspection? By chance, I tuned in yesterday to “The Night That Changed America: A Grammy Salute To the Beatles,” which commemorated the 50th anniversary of the night the Fab Four first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show back in 1964 and set off a mania.

Okay, I hear you saying “Cool,” but if you have even one skeptical brain cell, you may be automatically classifying this as nostalgic trivia. Another cheesy tribute show where all the obligatory stars come out in their spangles and pretend to be each others’ BFFs with phoney air kisses. An entertainment package aimed at baby boomers longing for their glory days, designed to sell air time to pharmaceutical companies eager to sell their target audience all manner of products to perk up their aging bodies. I’ll admit it, that’s where my mind went first.

But as I quieted my inner party pooper and listened to the music again – for the first time in a long time, truth be told – my Beautiful Dreamer got up and started dancing in my head. Not out of nostalgia for my youth. Not out of sentimentality for the flowering of my generation. Just simply because of the music itself. The art of it. The hopeful, wise, uplifting, anything’s-possible, Beautiful Dreamer quality of the tunes that made the Beatles one of the greatest bands in history.

I hadn’t realized until that night the degree to which I had dismissed them as a pop-culture artifact of the sixties. In the process of ‘maturing’ into a responsible adult, I had distanced myself from their optimistic, idealistic, yet irreverent music. Kids’ music. As I marched into the future with the rest of the gigantic (some might say robotic) baby boom cohort, I didn’t want to be ‘dated’ – stuck in what Bruce Springsteen slyly called “boring stories of glory days.” Oldies stations were for oldies. Masters (and Mistresses) of the Universe look ahead, not back.

But here I sat, listening to the old music with new ears, tears streaming down my face. Why? Because it felt so good to immerse myself in a soundtrack written by and for Beautiful Dreamers. Just as they did back when, the Beatles’ songs filled me full of hope and joy. The melodies and words still felt fresh. Timeless, in the same way that dreams always belong to the present and never get ‘dated’.

It was like waking up from a years-long sleep, and thinking – Where was I? Oh yeah, I remember. This is what I was supposed to be doing. Dreaming. Not sleeping.

Perhaps not all writers are Beautiful Dreamers. But a lot of them are, and I love them for it. As seekers, they elevate the world. They prize freedom. They are mindful. They help counteract the dead weight of skepticism, expediency, selfishness, fear, intolerance, corruption and other forms of negativity that drag humanity down to the level of our baser instincts.

In other words, we need as many of this breed as we can cultivate.

So, following the prescription that ‘All You Need Is Love’, I want to tell all you writers and other hopeful, curious, caring, creative souls out there that you are Beautiful Dreamers, and you’re close to my heart.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

And then what happened?


Silk’s Post #58 — Once upon a time there was a … little girl who wore a red riding cloak … young prince imprisoned in a tower … big hungry brown bear … bearded dwarf whose axe had turned to rust … lonely maiden with hair that fell to her waist … wolf who could not howl … wizard who lived in a tree … writer who wandered the world in search of the perfect ending.

You’ve easily recognized each of these as a story waiting to be told. Just add “and then what happened?” and the narrative-generating triangle is complete: protagonist, problem, plot. The pattern is essentially the same for all stories, whether a simple nursery rhyme, an ancient mythical saga, a complex techno-thriller, or a modern murder mystery.

And that pattern is, apparently, imprinted in our DNA. Why?

That stories have always been with us since we became human beings – or maybe before that, if you ask me – is one of those truths we accept easily, like the sequence of day and night or the fact that we have two hands rather than three. Stories are understood as natural phenomena. Which makes storytelling fodder for science, which always abhors magical explanations.

In his online Wired article, “The Art of Immersion: Why Do We Tell Stories?”, Frank Rose sets out the de-romanticized case:

“Anthropologists tell us that storytelling is central to human existence. That it’s common to every known culture. That it involves a symbiotic exchange between teller and listener — an exchange we learn to negotiate in infancy.

Just as the brain detects patterns in the visual forms of nature — a face, a figure, a flower — and in sound, so too it detects patterns in information. Stories are recognizable patterns, and in those patterns we find meaning. We use stories to make sense of our world and to share that understanding with others. They are the signal within the noise.

So powerful is our impulse to detect story patterns that we see them even when they’re not there.

In a landmark 1944 study, 34 humans — Massachusetts college students actually, though subsequent research suggests they could have been just about anyone — were shown a short film and asked what was happening in it. The film showed two triangles and a circle moving across a two-dimensional surface. The only other object onscreen was a stationary rectangle, partially open on one side.

Only one of the test subjects saw this scene for what it was: geometric shapes moving across a plane. Everyone else came up with elaborate narratives to explain what the movements were about. Typically, the participants viewed the triangles as two men fighting and the circle as a woman trying to escape the bigger, bullying triangle. Instead of registering inanimate shapes, they imagined humans with vivid inner lives. The circle was ‘worried’. The circle and the little triangle were ‘innocent young things’. The big triangle was ‘blinded by rage and frustration’.”

If you’ve ever doubted the power of story, or the fertility of human imagination, your mind should now be at rest.

You’ve probably done this yourself many times. It’s called people watching. You’re waiting in an airport, a restaurant, a park, and you find yourself in a daydream state. You watch passers-by and make up stories about them. Who they are, where they’re going, and why … What’s his story, the man in the raincoat that’s a little too big for him? Why is he walking so fast? Is he trying to catch a plane, or avoid someone? Yes, there, he just looked over his shoulder … and then you make up a narrative to explain what you see. It’s natural, and seductive. Maybe even compulsive.

Stories are serious instruments, capable of creating change, peace, fear, hatred, ease, love. Great minds that have thought deeply about the role of story in human affairs have even wondered whether the cause-and-effect relationship is circular rather than linear – with reality generating stories, and stories repaying the favour by creating reality.

But that’s getting a little deep for me, because this post is about clearing away all the noise in my brain – all the received wisdom about fiction writing that eloquently fills the thousands of pages of good-advice books on my shelf – and focusing only on the simplest, purest element: Story. That part of fiction writing that a child of three understands just as well as an elder of 93.

Amid all the complexities of the writing process – the genres, market segments, grammar, style, agents, queries, character development, setting, dialogue, tension-building, pace, plot points, hooks outs, blogging, three-act structure, heroes’ journeys and god knows what else – it’s easy to lose sight of the most important thing. And there can be only one most important thing.


Today I decided to take a break from writing book number two, and rewriting book number one – okay, I wasn’t doing both at the same time, in fact I wasn’t doing either one, but I was mentally obsessing about both of them – and think a little about the story for book number three. What a refreshing change – like escaping from a smelly, wet bog full of sucking mud to a fragrant forest rill with warm sunlight sparkling on the ripples.

Some writers are natural storytellers. Their minds effortlessly wander in a narrative pattern. These are the bards – the ones who share a gift with the traditional troubadour, griot, seanchai, poet, teller of folk tales. The rest of us have to work at it. Work at getting back to the joyful basics of pure story.

Writing is what I already know how to do. Storytelling is what I’m learning. One epiphany that’s finally dawning on me (oh so slowly, and so late) is that story is not plot. Story flows organically. It’s the natural answer to the question “and then what happened?” Plot advances mechanically from one strategic point to the next, like a military campaign. Maybe this is a faulty distinction, but that’s how I see it.

Story for me is a noun – a kind of magical place we try to evoke. Plot is a verb – an effort to  create an interesting route map to get us there, and lure our readers to come with us. It seems to me that, while plot keeps readers turning the pages, it is story that lingers in their memories afterward.

Every writer wishes to find that secret route map: the plot that will unerringly deliver us to the perfect story with the perfect ending. All the writing gurus, god love ’em, try their very best to give us the directions. Oh, you’re looking for Story? Just keep heading up Tension Drive, cross Conflict Avenue, and when you get to Crisis Square, take a left …

Of course, there is no secret route map, and writers who try to follow some off-the-shelf, sure-fire formula usually produce a book that can boast fully-checked-off ‘to do’ lists … but little story magic. Sometimes they can even sell the book. Perhaps you’ve read some of these plots, and quickly forgotten the story – and maybe the title and the author too.

I’m hoping for something more ambitious. A novel that harnesses plot to reach that indescribable, elusive haven called Story. 

No better way to get inspired than listen to master storytellers tell us about Story in their own words:

“If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” — Rudyard Kipling

“Love is the answer to everything. It’s the only reason to do anything. If you don’t write stories you love, you’ll never make it. If you don’t write stories that other people love, you’ll never make it.” — Ray Bradbury

“People have forgotten how to tell a story. Stories don’t have a middle or an end anymore. They usually have a beginning that never stops beginning.” — Steven Spielberg

“There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.” — Willa Cather

“We have defined a story as a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. ‘The king died and then the queen died,’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief,’ is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it. Or again: ‘The queen died, no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king.’ This is a plot with a mystery in it, a form capable of high development. It suspends the time-sequence, it moves as far away from the story as limitations will allow. Consider the death of the queen. If it is in a story we say ‘and then?’ If it is in a plot we ask ‘why?’ This is the fundamental difference between these two aspects of a novel.” — E. M. Forster

“Storytelling is storytelling. Good stories need compelling characters and interesting conflicts. That’s the bottom line no matter what medium you’re writing for.” — D. J. MacHale

“Know the story – the whole story, if possible – before you fall in love with your first sentence, not to mention your first chapter. If you don’t know the story before you begin the story, what kind of a storyteller are you? Just an ordinary kind, just a mediocre kind – making it up as you go along, like a common liar.” — John Irving

“I am always at a loss at how much to believe of my own stories.” — Washington Irving

“Don’t forget – no one else sees the world the way you do, so no one else can tell the stories that you have to tell.” — Charles de Lint

“All stories interest me, and some haunt me until I end up writing them. Certain themes keep coming up: justice, loyalty, violence, death, political and social issues, freedom.” — Isabel Allende

“You should do what you enjoy doing, what brings you passion. As kids, we spontaneously sing and dance and tell stories, and along the way, someone comes and says, ‘No. You shouldn’t be doing that.’ And we slowly begin to unlearn our passions. I think you have to hold on to those things.” — J. Michael Straczynski

“The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” — Muriel Rukeyser

“Memory is the way we keep telling ourselves our stories – and telling other people a somewhat different version of our stories.” — Alice Munro

“To hell with facts! We need stories!” — Ken Kesey