Friday, January 30, 2009

The History of Objects

Objects have a life of their own, and this holds true in fiction as well as life. As a writer, I think it helps me to take advantage of this, to use this to enrich a story and enrich a character.

I've been thinking about this a bit since Wanu brought up characterization in the last thread. And characterization is one of the biggies, ain't it? A lot of what you do in a story will live and die with how well you develop a character (and a character arc). So I thought I'd put out a couple of ideas on characterization that I have floating around in my head (before I forget them). And, too, I find a sort of clarity by writing something down, a certain cohesion. Write it down and you have something to build on later...

So, the oldie but goodie aspect first: the five senses. The first thing I (almost) always try to do is to filter the story through the senses of a character. This provides immediacy, but it also provides, I think, the beginnings of individuality. My goal is to try and filter it through a particular character's senses. That is, not just generic sights, sounds, and smells, but details specific to an individual character. Are they visually oriented? I know I am, so as a writer I have to make sure to add other sensory details as well. I like touch... nothing is more immediate than touch. What are the sensory details that character would notice? Are they visual observers, or are they highly keyed towards audio? So, show the world through a character, and show what's meaningful to them.

Now we get to particular things, the actual objects of the world these characters experience. Again, my goal is to find particularity rather than generality. Objects have their own personalities. It's not just a refrigerator, it's a new fridge or an old one. Expensive or cheap? Shiny or dull? So this way I have a particular character experiencing a particular object.

What's the history of the object? What does it mean to the character? In one of my stories I have a woman with a new fridge. A new home, and a shiny high-tech new fridge. It's unmarked, gleaming, the brushed steel offering a distorted image... it's something she doesn't like, something her husband purchased as a sort of status symbol to show how he was rising in the world, to show what he had achieved. And yet his wife sits in her big new home isolated and alone, with only a gleaming fridge for company.

The history of the object has allowed an inanimate thing to take on a certain life, becoming almost a character, something for the MC to play off and reveal something of herself. After this you can then broaden the history. We now have a connection between a character and an object, in this case a fridge... but what about other fridges? Does her memory connect this fridge with any other? The character then makes a connection in her memory, a connection to her mother's fridge, a very different one than her own. White, a little dull, a little old and battered, and yet also loved, strewn as it is with grocery lists, photographs and the wobbly art of children. Now we have a disparity between two objects, two different histories, and these differences become relevant. The woman is childless, and the disparity highlights her sense of loss and isolation.

The simple object now works in the story almost as metahpor and symbol. It's active rather than passive, and this activity is really an embodiment of the character, of the tensions and conflicts inside them. A simple fridge has allowed the story to reflect two different histories, two different aspects of the character, as well as reflect the tension/conflict that forms one of the key dynamics of the story.

For me, this is a very useful technique, largely because it mirrors consciousness, and the revelation of a particular consciousness is the revelation of character. It allows the creation of a three dimensional character operating within their own unique world. It's a reflection of memory, really, a recognition of the subjective value of things rather than the merely objective. It's not a fridge, it's her fridge. It's not just an object, it's a part of a particular world, one piece of an interconnected tapestry of fictionalized memories.

So, objects and characterization... what's important to you when developing characters? Are there any craft tricks you like? Do you start with an image or a voice? Or something else entirely? Lay it on me...

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Flattening the Rollercoaster

Do you feel it? That you live and die a little with your stories? It's a wild ride, this writing gig. Peaks and valleys. The post about confidence made me think about something, along with a prompt from something Wanu mentioned the other day. It struck me that I might not have told you that I once had a literary agent. Did I? I figured I must have at some point... but then I started wondering. Perhaps I didn't?

And the reason I bring it up now is that I learned something from that experience. It was a few years ago now, for a book I wrote called A Love More Desperate,, a sort of surrealist war novel. The day the agent offered representation was a beautiful, happy, wondrous day. It was a day of validation, one which I'll always remember. It was a bright day in a time when I was mostly seeing black ones. I was trying to work while going to Teacher's College, I was planning a wedding, I was overworked and exhausted and just diagnosed with Colitis... and my father had just died. And then an agent asked to represent my novel.

It was a beautiful thing. Over the next while I worked with the agent, revising certain elements in the book. And then it was ready to go, and... the agent passed away from cancer.

As good as that first day was... this one was bad. Emptiness, really. It took awhile for it all to sink in. My hopes severed, loose, like a rope suddenly untethered. Life was interesting, too. Moving, starting a family and a new business... I put the book aside. Right choice? I don't know. But I was burnt out with it, I think. And maybe writing in general, or perhaps it was just a time to deal with life and grief.

But the writing spark hit me again, of course, once life settled a little. I started writing some new things, found a new space in my new life for the written word. But, looking back, I realized I'd learned some important things too. That sense of validation, that acknowledgment from an agent... while a beautiful thing, it was not something to stand my hopes on. Confidence, faith, belief... these have to lie somewhere else, otherwise I'd always be riding that dangerous rollercoaster.

I think what I learned was that I had to seek validation in the writing itself. It had to be something inside. It had to be inside both me and the story. It had to be something I strived for and reached on my own. The validation, the true satisfaction, had to come from my own sense of things, my own happiness with what I'd written. The rest would come after, and it would be what it was. It would succeed or not. But my hope, my faith, would not be tied to the whims of a capricious publishing world, but rather to my own simple stories, to words that I could shape, to words that could believe in.

And now? This is the year that I'm going to pick up that novel again. I'm going to make it anew, and take it on a trip... but it won't be on a rollercoaster. A train, maybe. Heavy, solid, hard to knock off its tracks. Slow at first, perhaps, but it has speed, a growing momentum. Hard to stop, those trains. I'll be in the dining car, relaxing, enjoying the view. I won't know the destination, but I know I'll be happy wherever it takes me.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Confidence: A Scam?

It's a mercurial thing, writing, fraught with complex dangers. You want to write something good, or even something great... but how do you go on, day by day, to get there?

I think confidence is part of the key, but confidence for writers can be a tricky thing. Writing, by its nature, is an act that, in many ways, is cut off from the world. We hide away to write, touching the world only in memory and thought... and that world rarely touches our words. And when it does it's often with a critique, a rejection. How do you persist in the face of doubts, in the face of the void that always hovers, seeking to steal your words? How do you keep confidence when pressed on all sides?

Luckily, confidence is an irrational thing. Ain't it grand? I've been thinking about confidence the last few days, ever since I read a survey on literary agent Nathan Bransford's blog, where he asked his readers if they were better writers than his average blog reader. Two thirds said they were... and I'm guessing some of those who voted no were, in their kindness and decency, merely being modest and secretly thought they were better (oh that heart of hearts...). So most of the writers thought they were better than average (defying the mathematical odds), and the same holds true for most socially affirmed abilities or qualities.

Part of this, in the case of writing, might be on account of the secret, hidden nature of writing. In a sense, we writers are like Saramago's city of the blind, all lost in our own isolated landscapes. It's hard (and subjective) to determine what's average, and who's above (or below) that line. Cognitive scientists call it the Dunning-Kruger Effect, where ignorance more often leads to confidence than a lack of it. And part of it may simply be that we'd rather not think we've been wasting our time. To spend all those hours, all that effort, just to find out we're less than average (or even less than average amidst a sample of talented and committed writers)... better not to think about that.

I have a feeling, though, that there's more to it than this. I think there's a wilful element to the irrationality of confidence, for I think a writer's drive, a writer's hope, often leaks into their confidence. It becomes a sort of faith. It's self-belief in the face of lacking evidence... or even in the face of contravening evidence.

I often think this is necessary. We need a bit of ferocity in what we think we can achieve. It's that ferocity, that willed confidence, that lets us write through criticism, through rejections, through "this isn't right for us". We measure others by what they are, and ourselves by what we might be. In our own words we see the shadows of a future ideal, something we can strive and reach for, something we can attain, for in our hearts we've already attained it.

Now, I don't think we need to leave rationality entirely behind. Indeed, we shouldn't. If you're a beginner who has trouble with basic spelling, grammar and syntax it probably doesn't do you much good to think you're a genius and the second coming of Cormac McCarthy (becuz he spells things funny too). But a healthy belief in your talent will take you fairly far, I think. True arrogance will only impede you, blinding you to your faults, the areas where you need to improve. Your confidence should be less like an unpassable barrier and more like a wide-spreading light that opens the road before you.

In the agent's poll I voted yes, I voted that I was better than the average writer. I didn't make that vote out of anything that I considered arrogance. Indeed, it was hard to press the Enter key. I believe in humility... but I also believe there's a danger in false modesty (whether conscious or unconscious). And making that vote, of course, doesn't mean I am better than the average reader/writer of that blog. But I think I have a need to think so, regardless of the truth.

Studies have shown that people suffering mild depression actually see themselves more accurately than those who aren't (though they also rate others higher than they should). It's interesting, and not a little disturbing: most of us are deluding ourselves, at least a little. But to me it's also confirming. Human endeavor is about moving forward, about what might be rather than simply what is. Human advancement is often based on a sort of blind faith, even if only in ourselves, in what we migth do or become. It's a matter of self-belief.

So if confidence is a scam, it's a trick we pull on ourselves. And happily so.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Of Coffee and Chocolate

So I've got a story or two in me.
Ah, who am I kiddin? I've got hundreds. Dark comedies, actioneers, sci-fi and fantasies most especially. Shorts, novellas and maybe—just maybe—a novel or three as well. The words congeal into paragraphs like soldiers forming battalions and rage inside me like a turbulent sea. The floodgates tremble. The dam bulges. The levee is about to break. A literary flood is imminent, waiting to be inscribed laser-like onto my computer screen, held at bay by gritted teeth and sheer willpower.
I will sit down, crack my knuckles and simply let it all flow…
It's that easy, right? Right.
It's one thing to turn the reins over to the muse right after reading an awesome book, or seeing an adrenaline-jolting movie, or running with the bulls in Pamplona. Yeah, those mountain top experiences infuse you with energy and a sense of urgency to go out and show the world exactly what you're made of.
But what about those other 364 nights out of the year. You know, when the kids need help with homework and the yard needs mowing and your needy Jack Russell Terrier just won't quit depositing her slobber-coated tennis ball in your lap?
What keeps you going when you only have snippets of hours here and there and you are tired and beat down and are working on what seems like the 2999th day of writing your 3000 word short story and you are in danger of going into the negative on your one-word-a-day goal but all you really want to do is go eat a chocolate chip cookie and go to bed?
The deeper I get into this whole writing deal the more I realize that, sure, craft is necessary as is skill. Of course, some smattering of talent is a plus and the nuts and bolts of grammar and composition will likely come in handy. But discipline and focus are the glue that binds it all together. Not all of us have a cabin by the sea that we can sequester ourselves away in for months at a time, to emerge haggard and bleary eyed with a completed novel in hand.
We live in the real world and quite often, real life gets in the way. It's about a daily grind. Writing when you really don't feel like a writer. Pushing yourself like a marathon runner who is on the verge of collapse.
So, how do you do it? What tricks of the trade do you employ to distill something usable from those late nights?
It's all about coffee and chocolate…

Monday, January 19, 2009


Ever feel cheated by the blurb on the back cover of a book?

And I don't just mean the marketing stuff. I understand the superlatives. They can be tiresome, but that's the basic reality of the market. "This is the most fantastic book of the decade, the best since X, a sterling combination of Y and Z!" That's marketing, that's trying to sell something. I'm fine with it. I mean, I know they can't just go and say "Hey, this is a mediocre novel in a long tradition of mediocre novels on this subject."

But what about the story blurb itself? Ever feel a little cheated? And, while reading the book, you find yourself stopping and turning to that blurb, as if to reassure yourself that this really is the book you thought you were reading? It's not that the blurb is completely alien. I mean, there's usually a number of corresponding and identifiable elements. It's just that they don't seem to fit together in the same way. The story as outlined and promised in that blurb simply isn't the story inside the covers.

Of course, this is subjective. It's a reader's view only (and a single reader, at that). And the blurb probably wasn't written by the writer. (or it was?) It just seems strange. Such blurbs remind me, sometimes, of the phone game. Pass one sentence independently through thirty different people and what do you have? A very different sentence, usually. It feels like some of these blurbs have been edited and reworked and rewritten as little stories themselves, evaluated for marketing potential and then reworked again... without much thought for the actual story inside.

Have you come across this? Any thoughts? And as a writer would you want to write the blurbs for your own books? (or have a say in them, at least?)

Saturday, January 17, 2009


When did you know? I want to write. I want to be a writer. What was the day? Was it something specific?

Something Damon said in one of the other threads made me think about this, about my own epiphanies about writing, about the desire to do this wondrous strange thing. For me, once I started reading I think I started wanting to write. Back in grade school I started writing fantasy stories. Novels, really. I'd write chapter one, and maybe two, and then the grand story would taper off after twenty or thirty pages. But the desire never left.

By grade seven and eight I was able to hold through a little better, and tried to find ways to make all my school projects into stories. Deadlines helped little Ink finish his word contraptions. A fantasy story about the false satisfaction of revenge, a dinosaur tale, a vampire vs. werewolf story in childhood suburbia... Writing stories was becoming a part of me, though much of this was still unconscious and unacknowledged. Subsumed beneath the surface, perhaps, but the hidden desires were there. Story...

By the end of high school I think I knew in a more serious way. No OAC (fifth year) math or sciences. But lots of English courses. And I wrote some things that people seemed to like, that made them look at me a little differently. I decided what my major was going to be at University: Creative Writing. This is what I wanted, to write stories. Unpractical, yes, but what the hell? Hey, I had hair down my back and wore loose jeans and unbuttoned plaid shirts. Grunge, man. I certainly wasn't thinking about becoming an accountant (or the owner of a bookstore, for that matter).

University only confirmed the desire. And, what's more, I started to get a lot better. In fourth year I remember a sort of vague epiphany as things came together: "Oh, this is how you do it..." Grad school was a chance to take that feeling, that sudden understanding, and put it to good use. It was time to write and see if I could really do it in a serious, prolonged way. Not just meeting a deadline, an assignment here or there. But to write seriously, daily. To write a novel and see if I could actually do what I always wanted to do.

Learning that I could do this made me think that, yes, I could be a writer. Yes, I would be a writer. I would do it or die trying.

And here I am, still trying, still not dead. So what about you? How'd the writing bug hit you? Early? Late? When did you know?

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The End...

So what's that feeling like for you when you reach The End?

I ask because tomorrow, if all goes according to plan, I will reach the end of a revision draft, and it's got me thinking. So, what's it like to finish a draft for you? First, second, third, fourth? Twelfth? Novel or short story or article or poem? Do they differ? How does it compare to coming to the end of something you're reading? Similar or different?

I'm looking forward to tomorrow (even if the completion of this draft means I merely go back to the beginning to start over again...), but does everybody like finishing a draft? Do some people miss it? Immediate nostalgia, perhaps? Maybe they feel like they're suddenly adrift on the sea...

So lay it on me, folks. I give you carte blanche on the topic. The End.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Nagging: A Story of Love

There was a boy, once. He was eight years old, an athlete, tall for his age, and he thought himself a little math wizard. He loved numbers, loved solving things and figuring them out. He loved to draw, too, and build things, crafting worlds from blocks and Legos and G.I.Joes (and odd combinations of all three). He liked stories, too. But he didn't like to read. He drew a line in the imaginary sand and would not cross.

There was a mother, too, of a small and bookish family. They all loved to read, all except the boy. And so she nagged, pleasantly but persistently. She nagged with the speed of the tortoise, slow and sure. If the boy had read more he would have known that the tortoise always won the race. But he resisted, holding off, holding off...

The mother kept nagging. She nagged and nagged... until finally the boy capitulated and the mother took him to the library where they withdrew a book called The Hobbit by a writer with many initials in his name.

The boy read the book.

He read it with the slow acceleration of a train, building a momentum that couldn't be halted. He finished the story, exulting, needing more. He was changed, irrevocably changed. The mother took him back to the Library to get new books by the man with many initials in his name and the boy soon found these books were even better than the first one. He now thought of the library as his friend. A romance commenced, between the boy and the books by the author with many initials in his name. He was horribly promiscuous and unfaithful, the boy, falling endlessly for other books, other stories. And yet in the end he always came back to his first love, unable to leave it completely.

It was with him forever, and that was okay. The books had become part of him, engendering an obsession with story, with words, with worlds of the imagination. They opened his eyes, a little, so that he could see beyond the easy solutions of arithmetic. Wonder and awe were not parts of a geometric puzzle, but rather of a narrative that scooped him up and carried him outside himself. And wherever he went in those stories he carried a little bit of them back with him. Little nuggets, little moon rocks brought from the sky. Each one was like a little brick. They accumulated in rough piles, here and there, until eventually he had the idea to build something with them, just as he had with his wooden blocks and plastic Legos.

And the boy was happy, for now he could create his own wonderments, his own lopsided towers of awe. A mother's love had led to nagging, and nagging to a boy's love and a boy's gratitude.

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
And now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.
- J.R.R. Tolkien

So, folks, how about it? Did you have a first influence? What got you in the game? And who? Gimme some stories... (I'm still addicted, you see)

And thanks, Mom...

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Heroic Fantasy and Moral Simplicity

Heroic fantasy helped raise me.

Seems a silly thing to say, doesn't it? But it's true. Fantasy novels (at least the good ones) were like supplementary parents. It's a little sad, sometimes, that we don't see each other much anymore. I've been busy, you know, with Big Theme and Moral Ambiguity and that slick sonofagun the Human Condition. But I miss ol' Heroic Fantasy sometimes, though mostly in a nostalgic way, a weren't those great times kinda way.

But I don't look down on Heroic Fantasy. We may not visit much, but I'm still glad it's out there. Why? Because I think there's value in the moral simplicity it offers.

One important avenue of art (at least the written kind), is to show, and to explore, the world as it is. I believe this, and I seek this in my own writing. I'm trying to find truths, and if they aren't universal and aboslute truths they are at least subjective and personal ones, uniquely prophetic. But this exploration of life and meaning isn't the only avenue for literature, and I think Heroic Fantasy fills another niche.

There's value, I think, in exploring not the world as it is but the world as we want it to be. It's little more than a wish, but a wish can be an important thing. Wishes shape actions and beliefs. Wishes are hope.

A hero, a dark lord. Black and white, good and evil. Seems hokey, at times, and yet there's a relevance here. This is narrative as moral fable, as a reinforcement of an ideal. Heroism is possible. Is that the way it always is in the real world? No, of course not. It is rare, in fact, and yet it is there. And so why not aspire to it?

Heroic fantasy, I think, aspires to that ideal, to hold up a vivid tapestry of what might be, of what we might wish of ourselves. Will we live up to it? Perhaps, or perhaps not. But I think we might be better for having that tapestry before us.

I read a lot of fantasy growing up. Some good, lots bad... but even the worst usually offered a comforting framework. Some would call it escapism, mere wish fulfillment... but wishing for something creates an interesting path in the brain. You go from wishing to wanting to finding.

I read, years ago, some studies on human behaviour which showed that certain types of delusionary thinking were a basic aspect of human life. The brain doesn't want to see things perfectly clearly. Reality can be dark and overwhelming, and the mind copes by telling itself little falsehoods. The brain's a fibber. It convinces you of possibility where there is little. When someone you love dies and grief claims you... the brain will distract you for moments here and there. It's a safety function, a diversionary process to poke you temporarily through the grief. It keeps those feelings from overwhelming you... Yes, they will come back, you can't trick yourself forever. You'll see a shirt that the dead person left hanging on the back of the door and the grief will wash back over you, a black sea, and you will wonder that you forgot for a moment. But those little diversions are windows on a brighter world. A false world, maybe, a trick of the brain, but a necessary one. This is hope, perhaps, at its most basic.

Stories of heroic fantasy are like wishes, are like little acts of hope. They are a clean light shining on what seems a dark world. They are a slender path calling you onward, bidding you to follow.

Now, if grey has become my favourite colour (seductive and shifting and ever mutable), it is sometimes still nice to remember the beauty of black and white.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Which Ideas do You Wish You'd Come Up With?

With the festive season slowly receding, that time for giving, and celebrating, and letting everyone know just how much we love them, what better time to eye-ball other people's stuff and go into a jealous rage?

My question: what story idea/s do you wish had been yours, and why?

My first answer would have to be: everything from Babylon 5! Such a great story. Apart from the occasional overly-convenient wrap to an episode, B5 was an absolute powerhouse of ideas, and characters, and tensions, and philosophical analogy. Damn, that's some good stuff, and I'd have loved to come up with all that.

In reality, it was J. Michael Straczynski who came up with the main idea, and he planned out all five seasons, but the screen writing was done by a team. I guess if I'm up against a genius and his writing army, then I don't feel too bad about not getting there first.

Perhaps oddly, I would have liked to come up with The Prince of Tides, too. The book is incredible, and I love the way modern issues are dealt with (such as ethnic minority, cultural tradition, feminism, and individuality... so much!) while the story of a troubled family is slowly brought to the fore. I've seen the film, too, but I can't remember if it had the same ending as the book. I do recall that 'the sister' wasn't very much in evidence, whereas she's a much bigger presence in the book, you get more visits to the hospital, and more flashbacks, many of which include horrific and/or disturbing scenes. The book made me cry, and that's very rare between me and fiction, so that's one of the reasons I'd like to have come up with the whole idea.

There are a few more, but I can't think of any specific at the moment.

How about you guys?