How writing fiction helps us confront the uncertainties of life

Originally posted on Creative Writing with the Crimson League:

None of us knows what the future holds. Writing fiction is one way to grow more comfortable with the uncertainties of life.

None of us knows what the future holds. Writing fiction is one way to grow more comfortable with the uncertainties of life.

One of the most common arguments against reading fiction (and especially writing it!) that you’ll hear goes something like this:

  • What is the point? Isn’t the real world interesting enough?
  • Fiction is just escapism. Live your life.
  • Fiction has no real value. It’s pure distraction from real problems and issues.

Now, I don’t think any writer (or person who understands the value and importance of story to human nature and to human beings) thinks that we should lose ourselves completely in fiction and devote our lives entirely to it.

That said, it  saddens me when people make comments like those above. Fiction does SO MUCH for us as people who live and move and contribute to the real world.

For one, writing increases our capacity to empathize

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Alright, alright, alright: The genius of Matthew McConaughey

I wouldn’t call myself poor, but I don’t have enough money to spend even an extra $15 a month frivolously. That’s why I only just recently became a “True Detective” fan, though I’m not too far behind the bandwagon. I watched the season finale only a week after it aired live.

(Let me explain things a little better. My husband and I only buy HBO for 10 weeks in March/April, so we can watch “Game of Thrones.” I throw in the entire season of “Girls” On Demand and this year, “True Detective.”)

Now that you understand why this post wasn’t written weeks ago, I will commence with my thoughts about the show’s star, Matthew McConaughey.

matthew

I’ve seen many of McConaughey’s films. Most of them are horrible, but in a delightful way. “Sahara,” “Failure to Launch,” “The Wedding Planner -” these are not Oscar contenders, but entertaining. I’ve always thought he was quite a hunk, a “mimbo” if you will, but little more than that.  A pretty face, a hot bod, eye candy. But a serious artist? No way.

But ever since “Magic Mike” I’ve changed my mind about his acting talents. And not because I’m a woman who enjoys male strippers; I say this without the influence of my libido. McConaughey is likely the most underrated actor in Hollywood.

I have no training in acting, I barely understand it’s practice, and I don’t want to act in my local theater group. But I understand and love movies. When I write, I picture my scenes as if they were in a film and try to write with cinematic flair, moving the camera in and out and across the landscape. I hear dialogue dramatically, as if it were being spoken by an actor.

The difference, I think (and it’s certainly not the only difference) between books and movies is that in a book, many elements carry a story. This is true in a movie as well, but the story is primarily told by the actor – in the way he inhabits and portrays his character.

There are some actors who say the words, who may even insert some emotion and make the role their own. They’re perfectly fine actors – I’m thinking Leo DiCaprio as an example. He’s a great actor but you always see his face and his voice in every movie. You say – “hey, I like that Leo guy” whenever you see him on screen. Of course you do – his face is right there! Stick with me.

Then there are other actors whose every skin cell and hair follicle changes with every role. The story is made stronger and better and more memorable simply because they were part of the telling.

This where I circle back to my beloved Matthew and “True Detective.”  From the very first scene, I didn’t see the actor Matthew McConaughey standing in the cane field. I saw Rust Cohle, a real, flesh and blood person, studying a crime scene. His entire demeanor, from the way he held his body, to the style of his hair, to the expression on his face and the way he walked, McConaughey inhabited as Rust Cohle. Woody Harrelson at his side was still Woody Harrelson, not Marty Hart.

And because Rust Cohle was real, the dead woman posed beneath the tree, the investigation, the cruel landscape of impoverished Louisiana, became more real, too.

(And before you read on, here are two more clips, a little more proof that McConaughey is a chameleon.

I’m not sure what it is that makes the kind of actor I see in McConaughey (Meryl Streep, Daniel Day Lewis being two other examples) different from others. I don’t know how he manages to transform his being entirely, molding himself to his role like he’s stepping into new skin. But the talent is mesmerizing.

I can understand what’s required, however. The actor and writer both must get inside a character’s head. If your character is a serial killer, you have to understand him inside and out, you have to live his life, speak his words, practice his vices, cry when he cries. But the effort is worth it – for the audience. When I think about “True Detective,” I remember Rust Cohle the most. He made that story great, and Matthew McConaughey was nowhere in it. He disappeared inside the story.

Respect Matthew.

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Shameless (but necessary) self-promotion

Today’s post is a self-serving one. But it won’t take long, so bear with me.

I am an indie writer, hopefully a soon-to-be (self) published one. My big WIP is a novellette, perhaps novella when I’m finished, about a woman who murders her husband just before the 1998 Ice Storm. I’m pretty proud of it so far and it’s my very first long-form writing effort.

Yeah, it was that bad.

Yeah, it was that bad.

Because I’d rather not be another writer whose work is never read by anyone, I’ve started building my platform. This includes a totally awesome mailing list that I would like to promote. I plan on two issues per month, and in each I’ll generously lavish subscribers with original flash fiction, reveal a bit about my writing process (think research notes, character profiles, etc.) and expound some writing wisdom for fellow writers. The first issue is planned for the first Tuesday in May.

If you’re interested, sign up here. I won’t spam you, hopefully I won’t annoy you, and if you do subscribe, the first thing you’ll get is a big digital hug.

Happy hump day!

Know thyself to know thy character

 

Being self-centered, selfish and narcissistic aren’t good qualities. No one wants to be around that person. But it doesn’t hurt to look a deeply at yourself and use what you see there (scary, right?) to help build realistic fictional characters.

Oh, Narcissus, you're so full of yourself.

Oh, Narcissus, you’re so full of yourself.

I can’t think of anything more critical to a good story than a strong character. I’m no expert, but as a writer, I find that no story should begin its first draft without figuring out who your main character is and getting to know him or her as intimately as you know yourself. You don’t need to outline or use colored index cards or any other finicky plotting methods to help you navigate your new story. But this is critical – know thy character.

First, foremost, every time. Characters drive stories, and if you don’t know your character, how are you supposed to figure out what your story is going to be?

For example. Let’s say your story is about a group of paranormal explorers visiting a haunted insane asylum. (Forgive the blah nature of this example). Your character comes upon a closed door and on the other side, he hears piercing screams, heavy footsteps and crashing noises as if furniture is being overturned. Whether or not your character opens the door into that room is dependent upon the kind of person he is. If he’s a curious adrenaline junkie, he’s opening that door. If he’s cautious and a bit cowardly, he’s moving on. And that decision moves the plot forward, either into a tense and frightening action sequence where your character comes face to face with a tortured specter, or down the hall and into another room where your character trips over rusty medical equipment and breaks his nose.

I’ve started plenty of stories in which I wasn’t fully acquainted with my main character. These stories were incredibly difficult to write. But when I prepared a character profile beforehand, I experienced a couple helpful consequences. First, as I brainstormed the personality of my main character, that development inspired ideas about how I wanted to craft the plot. In effect, my character effected the story before it was even written. The more obvious result was that the story I wrote was infinitely easier to get down. Once I knew who my character was, I knew what to write.

frankenstein

Make one character with bits and pieces of others. It’s alive!!

What does all this have to do with being a self-absorbed jerk? Well, in order to know thy character, you need to know thyself. In order to write about your character, to anticipate his actions, you need to be able to relate to him. And the way to achieve this familiarity is to insert aspects of your own personality into his profile. It can even be one thing – a quirky habit, a fatal flaw, a redeeming quality, a hobby – but use that thing to anchor yourself into the character. Use it as an entry point into understanding the rest of him.

Another helpful practice is to mine the people around you – evaluate them, study them, observe their behaviors and habits, and integrate and combine their personality traits into the Frankenstein that is your main character. This will create familiarity as well. Most importantly, incorporating real life human nature will help you make your character’s actions more logical and realistic.

Resources
Gotham Writer’s Workshop Character Questionnaires
Character Development
Character Development Worksheet

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For the love of simple words, speak to me plain, Jack!

I recently hit a new record in book-quitting: two in as many weeks. After such a discouraging run, I switched gears, quite frankly a little fed up with fiction and ready for plainer words. I picked up a non-fiction book, Blood Royal by Eric Jager and it was just the anecdote I needed for substandard writing.411jQDZc8eL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-v3-big,TopRight,0,-55_SX278_SY278_PIkin4,BottomRight,1,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_

Before I get into the book itself, I’d like to go on a rant for a minute. I’ve already spoken about one book I had to quit – Carrion Comfort – but I haven’t mentioned another, a book so irritating, so misleading, so maddening I feel angry at the author a little: Savage Lands by Claire Clark. How can I express my dislike for this novel, expect to warn you not to bother reading it?

Curiously, when I was trying to decide not to waste another five minutes of my finite days on this planet with Clark in her florid version of 18th century Louisiana, I decided to read GoodReads reviews of the book and found that everyone had the exact same complaints. Forgetting the loathsome characters and indecipherable plot, we all had a problem with Clark’s excessively poetic writing. Which honestly, as a writer, I found very uninteresting (how many times can you really say that a smile hid in the “corners of his mouth?” Enough already.) Many readers said her writing style distracted from the story and stunted not only the development of her characters but the progression of her story. Her beautiful words and lyrical sentence constructions became speed traps, spikes in the road that tore at the rubber tires of my interest (how’s that for poetic?).

Though I wrote throughout my childhood and teen years, my writing style was truly molded by five years as a journalist. In that profession, we stick to the facts, to simple sentences and bite-size words. There is no embellishment. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy some color in the words that I write (the fiction ones) and the books that I read. But I need it in doses, not in literally every paragraph.

At the heart of florid writing is the emphasis on the writer’s acumen rather than the story. I read in a writing book once that the reader should not notice the writing, or say “wow, that was a beautiful sentence” too often. I think writers who lean on their linguistic prowess are making up for a lack of storytelling ability.

That brings me back to Blood Royal. Jager’s writing style is journalistic, but just a shade more creative. Though his writing is simple and straightforward, he effectively builds a brilliant and atmospheric

The murder of the Duke

The murder of the Duke

story that blooms in the imagination with every simple word. The book tells the story of the Louis I, Duke of Orleans, brother to mad king Charles VI, who was brutalized and mutilated at night in the streets of Paris in 1407. After a vivid telling of the murder itself, the book follows Guilliame de Tignonville – a Medieval Sherlock Holmes who used pretty modern methods of criminal investigation – in his path to tracking down the killer, and the political repercussions of the Duke’s untimely demise.

It’s a brilliant book that reminds me why I enjoy creative non-fiction as much as fiction. But it also reminds me of something else – that the reader wants to be engaged and involved in a story. Writing that recounts a story simply, without excessive embellishments but just enough to give the reader a clear and vivid picture, allows him the freedom to move within the story himself, to fill in the blanks with his own imagination and creativity. And when a writer gets out of his own way long enough to let this magic happen, he creates a much better story.

 

 

Huffpost Books gives grammar advice to writers

All too often, these pieces are titled “10 essential grammar tips” or the like, and the author proceeds to talk about common errors in writing that aren’t actually grammatical in nature, or he or she compares anvils and oranges.

My friend and cohort Mignon Fogarty once said to me, “I’m not really Grammar Girl; I’m more like Usage Girl.” It’s true; she devotes much of her time and energy to offering advice on word choices and meanings. The alliteration of Grammar Girl is catchy, and she’s terrific, so why argue with success?

With that in mind, let’s differentiate the various elements of writing — with the goal of preventing writing “experts” from calling a common typo or misused hyphen a “ubiquitous grammatical error.”

Read the rest here.

Funny Canadians. Seriously.

I think being a writer is the best job in the world. The life of a “reporter” is particularly fun, though I’m not the kind of reporter I used to be – back “in the day” I wrote hard news for the local paper . I still do a bit, interviewing people to build feature stories and profiling others in advance of a performance or art show or the like.

This week, I got to interview a famous person. I felt guilty about the fact that until I learned of his upcoming performance at a local college, I hadn’t heard of him, only because there are so many talented people in the world that it’s easy to miss someone once in a while – to your own detriment. In my case, I missed out on Stuart McLean and The Vinyl Cafe. For the similarly ignorant, the show runs on radio in Canada, the US, on satellite and online, and features stories about Toronto couple Dave and Morley and their kids, Sam and Stephanie; Dave owns a record store, called the Vinyl Cafe.

When I figured out how well known his show was, and how renowned and talented he was, I become very nervous. I stumbled my introduction and sounded like an amateur, but did alright through the interview. We talked about humor and what makes things funny and whether it’s something you can learn. Spoiler alert: You can’t – you either are or you’re aren’t.

McLean had many interesting insights about humor, saying memorably that we laugh because life is a funeral:

we’re all putting our arms around each other and saying ‘yup, isn’t this crazy, isn’t this wonderful, isn’t this sad – lets laugh.’

The next time you’re at a funeral and start telling funny stories about the deceased, you’ll understand what he means.

Anyway, miracle of all miracles – and one of the reasons I’m blessed to do this job – he invited me to his show as his guest and offered me a backstage pass so we could meet.

Through McLean’s podcast, I also learned about another writer, his friend and similarly renowned Canadian author W.O. Mitchell, who passed away in the 1990s and also has a flair for the funny. His novel, Who Has Seen the Wind is a classic, and I’ve quickly added it to my reading list.

I’m going to stop talking now because I’d like you to listen to their stories instead – it’ll be worth your time.

And please follow this link to hear McLean’s March 15th podcast, which features a hilarious story from W.O. Mitchel about when he was a boy and he and his friends blew up an outhouse.

Reblog: Oh, snobbery – blogger says self-published ARE NOT authors!

Michael Kozlowski, editor of digital publishing and device blog Good E Reader, sent the indie author world into a tizzy this past weekend when he published the piece Self-Publishers Should Not Be Called Authors.

While I consider Michael a colleague and friend, I have to disagree with his main premise here, which is that, “Just because its easy to upload your written word, so that it can be downloaded to another machine does not make you an author, any more than me buying a stethoscope allows me to be called a doctor.”

I’m sure you can see why this would upset indie authors, many of whom have struggled over the past five years to secure legitimacy in the eyes of retailers, readers and the publishing industry.

First off, I don’t think that the doctor analogy is apt. When it comes to creative pursuits, like painting, sculpture, dance, writing, etc., who is to say who is a practitioner and who is not?

(I totally agree with Digital Book World, by the way)

Read more here.

 

 

Don’t rush the dragon!

The writer and the reader are two very different creatures. The writer’s life revolves around patience, precision and perfection. The reader, on the other hand, wants you to finish your next damn book!

Damn, Khaleesi!

Damn, Khaleesi!

I haven’t yet suffered the impatience of an excited reader (maybe some day) but one author who knows the feeling all to well – and may not really give a fig – is George R.R. Martin. He is notorious for the time he takes to complete the novels in the Song of Ice and Fire series, and no wonder – the books are infinitely complex and incredibly long, and I’m very grateful for it. But he kept readers in agony between a Storm of Swords and a Feast for Crows (a five-year wait) and did the same between Feast and the last published book in the series, Dance with Dragons (six years). The next novel is set to follow in 2015 (at least those on Winds of Winter-watch say so), which if proven true would only require a meager wait of four years.

It’s not as if Martin has been sitting on his hide, spending the millions the HBO series has no doubt earned him; no, he’s been working on non-SOIAF projects and other SOIAF-related books, including The World of Ice and Fire, which I can’t wait to read. But it was an announcement on Martin’s Not a Blog about this fake history of Westeros that agitated his impatient fans into a tizzy about the author’s ancillary projects. The blog entry was posted on GoodReads,  and impatient (and quite frankly, unappreciative “fans”) wasted no time digging at Martin about finishing Winds of Winter.

Good to hear, even though the main story has yet to be completed…

Good next we need history of Dwayne, Pentos, Lisene and all islands present in this world and once you are done with it then if you remember you can get back to actual series.

How about writing and most of all completing the next book instead of making money by new merchandising products?

After almost 15 years of marginal plot development, I think he could use a little kick in the tush.

john snow

Brooding Beyond the Wall

I wouldn’t want fans like these. But as a reader and a huge fan of Martin’s series, I understand the frustration. Every couple months, I search for news about the publication date for Winds of Winter, I agonize and theorize about the fate of John Snow, I worry about Martin keeling over before he can finish his opus and the whole story never being told. And I worry about the HBO series taking over the novels and revealing the ending before they are published.

But I am not going criticize Martin for taking his sweet time. As a writer, I understand his need to write at his own pace and respect that he hasn’t cowed to HBO’s pressures and his fans and rushed through the next installment in  the series. The resulting book would be truncated and poorly executed and only disappoint fans. Non-creative type folks need to be schooled in the creative process. The first lesson: it can’t be rushed.

At the heart of such a conflict is the simple fact that the reader and the writer also have very different relationships to the same story. The reader reads it for entertainment, because he cares about the characters, he loves the fictional world and he wants to escape inside it. The connection between book and reader is intimate and meaningful, but shallow in comparison to the relationship between a writer and the same work. The writer knows his characters as well as he knows himself. He spends hours, days, weeks, months, years, inside this world, trying to perfect every line of dialogue, every plot point, every description. It’s hard work. And more than that, the writer himself, his very soul, lives inside the novel – in its characters, woven into its theme, even in the words chosen.

Show them who's boss, Brienne

Show them who’s boss, Brienne

The creative process opens the mind to explore unexpected avenues, and characters lead the way; pushing that exploration ruins its beauty and unpredictability. It can’t be forced. I say – take your time Mr. Martin. Take your time to give us the best novel we could hope for. And if you need to rewrite it 10 times to make it perfect, so be it.

(The above are all my favorite SOIAF characters. This is just because I’m kind of a pervert:)

Oh...yeah

Oh…yeah

Literary trinkets for bookish type people to drool over

Hermione Granger's time turner

Hermione Granger’s time turner

The Raven, in scarf form

The Raven, in scarf form

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The Heart Tree from Game of Thrones

A poster dedicated to doomed love

A poster dedicated to doomed love

418kbCHmZwL

Beauty and The Beast enchanted rose

Drink your literary love

Drink to your literary obsession

Lord of the Flies T-Shirt

Lord of the Flies T-Shirt

jane-austen-jersey-scarf-10592-p[ekm]248x250[ekm]

Did Jane Austen ever imagine she’d one day be a scarf?

A handbag made of books!

A handbag made of books!

War of The Worlds poster

War of The Worlds poster

Have irritation with your coffee

Have irritation with your coffee

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I don’t think I need to explain this

Hummingbird book ends

Hummingbird book ends

Woven words bangle - Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Woven words bangle – Elizabeth Barrett Browning

The Cheshire Cat

The Cheshire Cat

Agatha Christie bracelet

Agatha Christie bracelet

A zipped pouch that looks like a library card!

A zipped pouch that looks like a library card!