Solnit on writing

This piece on how to be a writer by Rebecca Solnit on Literary Hub is making the rounds this week. Maybe you've seen it. Solnit is wise. So wise. She writes about finding joy, but not taking it too seriously, making writing a vocation, the importance of research and reading (and not reading), and many other things.

The advice that resonated most with me was: "Write. There is no substitute." AMEN! "It takes time. This means you need to find that time." YES. Because: "Remember that writing is not typing. Thinking, researching, contemplating, outlining, composing in your head and in sketches, maybe some typing, with revisions as you go, and then more revisions, deletions, emendating, additions, reflections, setting aside and returning afresh..." PREACH!

Unless your name is Carrie Bradshaw or you are a fictional character in the montage scene of a movie, typing is really just "this little transaction in the middle of two vast thoughtful processes."

Ten tips on how to be a writer. Go read the whole thing.

 

 

 

Maudie

Last night I went to see the TIFF film Maudie, a biopic about the Nova Scotia folk artist Maud Lewis (1903-1970). It's a beautiful movie and Sally Hawkins delivers a pitch-perfect performance as the title character but what really struck me was the script by Sherry White.

Maud Lewis is famed for her paintings - cheerful, primary coloured evocations of rural Nova Scotia and fuzzy cats - but what is truly incredible about her work is the fact that she could create any of it at all. Lewis suffered from birth defects that left her hunch-backed with deformed fingers and a chin that pressed into her chest. As a child she developed juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, a condition that worsened over time so that by the end of her life, she was confined to a small corner of her one room cottage where she spent all her time painting by the window, the only available source of light.

But Maudie is not a film about disability. Certainly, Lewis' hobbled walk and odd gait, her crippled hands, these are all present from the start, but her physical limitations aren't the point of the story. If anything, they blend in with all the obstacles of her life - the early loss of both parents, an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, poverty, a callous brother and aunt. At its core, Maudie is a love story. Not a love story about a cripple, a love story about an artist and a fish peddler, "two odd socks" thrown together by life. This is so powerful.

Also powerful is the dialogue which was wry and concise and rang true to life. At one point Lewis and her husband have an argument in a car. It's a turning point in the plot, the only real fight the two characters have. And what is fantastic is their dialogue which is at cross purposes. Each character has a different grievance to get off their chest. Everett speaks over Maud; he says one thing but really he means another. She tries to tell him something but can't get the words out. And of course the audience gets it. The careful writing in the script has brought us to a place where we know these characters. We understand the subtext. And the film is stronger for the restraint.

In praise of editors

It's been radio silence here for the past several weeks for two reasons. First, my husband and I packed up our lives and moved temporarily to Toronto (more on that later) and second, I'm deep in the throes of editing The Boat People.

Editing on this level, with the guidance and wisdom of actual professionals, is a completely new experience. For one thing it is DEMANDING. You know, I thought the manuscript was pretty good, nearly ready for publication, to be honest. But dear Reader, it was not. Not even close.

Here is the best analogy I've come up with: Writing a novel by yourself is like furnishing a house with the lights off. You feel around a bit, blindly, trying to get a sense of each room, how they fit together, their size. You throw paint on the walls, lay the carpets down. You can't see what colour anything is but it's dark so you don't know the difference. Then your writing group comes over. They help you move the furniture around. Still no one knows how the electrical works so you're fumbling in the dark. It seems pretty good though. You've even hung the art. It's nearly ready for the open house.

Then the editor arrives and flips a switch. Light floods in. Surprise! There's a hammock in the bathroom and a bed in the kitchen. Also, your editor is an interior designer. Now the novel looks completely different. You understand its real potential. You see which chapters must be added, the storylines that should be cut, the themes that need to be brought forward. Good editors call out your lazy writing (in a nice way, lazy writing is my phrase, not theirs), point out the scenes that are begging for catharsis, ask thought-provoking questions.

See what I mean about demanding? Basically you must re-paint all the walls, toss out some carpets and re-arrange half the furniture. And then you have to clean it all up. But it's also worth it. I'm nearly two thirds of the way through the first round (the toughest round, I'm assured) of professionally-aided revisions and already I can see how much stronger and richer The Boat People will be.

The next time you finish a good book, spare a thought for the editor(s) involved. They are the magicians behind the curtain.

A juggernaut of writers

A parliament of rooks. A pride of lions. A murder of crows. But what do you call a group of local women writers? According to The Overcast, we're a juggernaut! A juggernaut of writers.

On Friday, August 26th (7pm at The Space, 72 Harbour Drive), I'll be sitting on a panel with Lisa Moore, Megan Coles, and Andreae Callanan. We'll each do short readings and then organizer Elisabeth de Mariaffi will lead us in a conversation about literature, activism, and writing while feminist. The Event - Women's Rights: Readings and Discussion on Feminist Literature - is part of FemFest NL. Tickets are pay what you can at the door or you can purchase a full festival pass for $60 here.

For more on FemFest, check out Tara Bradbury's rundown in The Telegram and Emily Deming's piece in The Overcast.

 

Character is King

Like everyone else with a Netflix account, I am obsessed with Stranger Things. The Stephen King font and creepy opening music, the retro 80s vibe, that nerdy kid with no teeth....all of it hooked me.

Lit Reactor are also fans, as it happens, and Max Booth III has posted a great column today about what the show can teach us about characterization. Without giving away any spoilers, let me summarize a couple of the key points:

Think of exposition as narrative calories. You’re only allowed 2000 of them per book, so you better spread that shit out or you’re going to get hungry awfully fast.
— Max Booth III

1. Don't introduce a character with a massive exposition dump, unless you want to bore your reader. Reveal your characters gradually; allow the reader to meet them over time through the course of the story. Think about how we get to know people in our lives...bit by bit over time, through what they say and do and how they look and how others interact with them. Why should characters we meet on the page be any different?

2. Create nuanced characters. You can write a scene - as the writers of Stranger Things do - where two characters are in conflict but no one is really the bad guy. This, I think, is more often than not how conflict works in the real world. Both people act poorly. Or there is a misunderstanding and each person acts according to their narrow understanding of the situation. Heroes and villains are boring. Anti-heros are compelling. Villains who have endearing qualities, who can evoke even a bit of empathy, are more interesting.

3. Play around with stereotypes. Everyone expects the highschool Queen Bee to be a one-note bully. But what if she's not? What if she's deeply insecure about her dyslexia? Or is revealed to be heroic?

4. Character is King. Above plot and setting and scene, there is character first and foremost. Nothing makes me more perplexed than a character who acts in an inauthentic way; this is what happens when characters act in service to the plot. Ask yourself: is this really what this person would do, how they would feel? And be honest! Sometimes the plot as you originally envisioned it has to change. My advice: Create complex interesting characters and then follow where they lead.

If you've already watched the whole show, take a look at Lit Reactor's column. It's a thoughtful take on what works and doesn't in terms of characterization on the show.

And if you haven't watched the show yet....?!?

Bullet in the brain

Last month I taught a writing workshop for teenagers. I stuck to the basics: Aristotelean arc, point of view, character, plot. It was only a three hour workshop so we barely scratched the surface but I was thrilled with how much the students seemed to absorb and the quality of group discussion.

Much of the workshop was spent looking at excerpts of short stories, teasing sentences and paragraphs apart to see how all the different aspects of fiction (point of view, character, sensory detail) work together. We ended with Tobais Wolff's short story Bullet in the Brain. Find it at The New Yorker or allow Wolff to read it to you on this episode of This American Life.

Fair warning to anyone who doesn't know the story: HERE BE SPOILERS.

Wolff's story was the perfect end note, bringing together many of the things we had been discussing all afternoon. But the interesting thing about the story is how Wolff both follows and flaunts convention.

Bullet in the Brain goes like this: A man walks into a bank moments before two armed men hold the place up. The plot is compelling. Right away something dramatic happens and the tension climbs and climbs to a climax. And the pace is quick. The men with guns storm in on page two and by the top of page three one of those guns is shoved into the protagonist's midsection. So far, so conventional.

But then there's this: the protagonist is an ass. A book critic, Anders is known for the "weary elegant savagery with which he dispatched almost everything he reviewed." He's arrogant. He's elitist. He can't keep his fool mouth shut, not even when there's a gun shoved into his gut. This is a risk. Because when I paused the reading to ask the fifteen young writers, not one was rooting for Anders. And neither was I.

Another thing Wolff does is he subverts the Aristotelean arc. In a conventional story the denouement and conclusion follow in short order after the climax. Some stories dispense with the resolution altogether and end on a cliffhanger. This makes sense of course; once the big blow up happens, there's little reason for the reader to hang around.

But in Bullet in the Brain, the climax happens at the bottom of page 4 and there are still three more pages left to go...nearly half the story! After the present tense action, the compelling narrative that has keep us glued to the page, ends, Wolff pulls us into flashback and character development.

What?! Character development is meant to happen in the first act, during the "introductions" stage. Flashback is used to develop character of course but also to pause the narrative and draw out the tension. It's not used at the end, after the gun has been fired and the main character is a goner.

Or is it? Wolff doesn't just make the unconventional work, the story works because he flips convention. The drama of the robbery - which we are tricked into thinking is what this piece is all about - is only there in service to the real story. The real story is a tale of character development, how this man Anders became the surly goat he is today. The real story is embedded in the flashback. And then the turn happens. Not in the action on the page (the outcome of which is foreshadowed by the title), but in the mind of the reader. At the end I asked the students how they felt about Anders. They were surprised to find they sympathized with him.

The spreadsheet

It's rejection season! Seven rejections so far this month. My friend Sonam asked me how I handle it - so many "no"s. I've written about rejection before but not about my spreadsheet. The spreadsheet is key to the whole "brush it off" process. (It's also key to staying sane and organized.)

The format doesn't matter too much. Submitted. Rejected. Accepted. That's all you need. Create the spreadsheet as soon as you start sending your work out. That way, when the replies come in, you'll have a place to tally them up and something concrete to do.

The act of filling in the boxes can be analgesic. You read the rejection. You fill in the spreadsheet. Decide if you need to revise the story. If not, because you can see at a glance which publications haven't seen the story yet, you can re-submit right away. The goal is to have as few stories in the rejected section as possible.

Recently, I began jotting down alternative publications beside each submitted story. I highly recommend this approach. It makes re-submitting even more automatic and leaves zero time for brooding.

Writers! If I can give you one piece of advice: stop feeling sorry for yourself. That is precious time when you could be writing, editing, submitting, reading or binge watching Orange is the New Black.

Eventually something will stick. A story will be accepted and then you can move it to the "published" section of the spreadsheet (keep it visible, close to the rejected list). This is important because you can see over time how stories graduate from rejected to accepted. And keeping track of which publications rejected the stories will also help you see the truth: that taste is subjective. Just because a story is rejected doesn't mean it's worthless. Sometimes, yes, the story needs work. And if a rejection comes with feedback, consider it a gift. But often a rejection from one publication is only that: a rejection from one publication.

The spreadsheet speaks the truth. Look at all those acceptances! Look at all those rejections! Being a writer means being rejected. So go send your work out, go court rejection.

 

 

 

 

Write what you know

Earlier this year, I was asked to adjudicate a junior short fiction contest. Young writers ages 12 -20 submitted their stories and essays and I was given the monumental task of picking winners. When I told a couple of teacher friends that I was doing this they told me to expect cutting. Cutting is important, my teacher friends said. Teenagers always write about characters who cut themselves.

I didn't read any self harm stories but there were some common themes: New York City, spies, zombies, violent crime, and the tragic deaths of healthy young people. The body count was high! Everything about these pieces felt familiar. Maybe a little too familiar. I was a teenage writer once, pouring all my imagination and purple prose into page after page on WordPerfect. My stories were invariably about teenagers on an island, being picked off by a serial killer (spoiler: the killer was one of the teenagers!). I knew nothing about deserted islands or serial killers just as I suspect most of these young writers know little of spies and violent crime. What I wanted to say to all of them was: never mind all this; write what you know!

Because here's the thing: there was a lot of talent in these pieces. Evocative scene setting, beautiful turns of phrase, and endings that surprised and thrilled me. But a lot of it was overshadowed by the emphasis on high-stakes plot. Occasionally, a glimmer of some real truth, some messy uncomfortable human emotion, shone through and that's when I got interested.

The problem - I think - is we are told to write what we know. And we think: what I know is boring; no one is going to read that. My advice is more specific: focus on the real feelings and emotions of which you have intimate knowledge. Interrogate those areas of your life which are most painful, most awkward, most cringe-inducing. And then write about those things.

Write about being bullied. Write about feeling inadequate. Write about being abandoned by your friends in the cafeteria. Write about failure. Write about loneliness. And then if you want to set the story in New York City, by all means. Or make your characters werewolves. Have them join MI5. Send them to Saturn.  If your writing is driven by real emotions and feelings, if writing makes me you feel unsettled and deeply uncomfortable, then the setting and characters and plot will matter very little. Because the things you invent will be secondary to the emotions that you know

I'd like to go back in time and give this advice to myself: You'll never be this age again! And when you're older you won't have access to the intense, complex emotions you have now. Write this stuff down!

It's low stakes (emotionally) to construct a high-stakes plot that is removed from the reality of one's own life. But when you make yourself vulnerable, when the act of writing feels high-stakes to the writer... that's when the story gets real, gets interesting.

Empathy

If you love literature and intelligent conversation, you must subscribe to The Guardian Books podcast. Today's episode is absolutely timely given the heartbreaking result of yesterday's Brexit vote (ie. Britain's decision to leave the EU) and the shameful campaign of bigotry and ignorance that preceded it.

With so much right wing hate and fear-mongering swirling around at home and abroad, it is a balm to hear these writers talk about how literature can build empathy and give people back their humanity.

The poet David Herd speaks eloquently in this podcast about refugee stories and how they go unheard: "the story will be told to the UK [Border Agency] or the Home Office or told in some hearing and on every one of those occasions it's being distorted or broken up and then one version is compared against another and on any of those occasions if there's any reason to doubt the story, then the story is throw out. And so what's been impossible for so many people is the opportunity to tell their story in a way and a context in which the story can actually be heard."

I've just begun revisions to my novel and Herd's insight really resonated as both utterly true and utterly heartbreaking. But what gives me hope is the writers on this podcast, all of them attempting to give people back their stories, to share those stories with the world.

Listen to the full podcast here.

 

 

Glimmer Train

Good news! I submitted a story to Glimmer Train's Very Short Fiction Contest and they gave me an Honourable Mention!

The notice of the mention was especially nice arriving as it did on the heels of a rejection from The Paris Review.* Actually, the email from Glimmer Train came as a relief. A few months ago, I began submitting stories internationally and so far it's been nothing but rejection (five to be precise). And while an honourable mention doesn't equal publication it does feel incredibly positive, like encouragement to keep going. Thanks for the virtual fist bump, Glimmer Train!

I first discovered Glimmer Train a few years ago when I read Bret Anthony Johnston's Soldier of Fortune, a story that was first published in their pages then went on to win the Pushcart Prize and be included in 2011's Best American Short Stories collection.

I really admire Glimmer Train. It is run by a tiny team of two: co-editors and sisters Susan and Linda. I love their mission of publishing unknown and emerging authors, their commitment to payment, and their work ethic. And bottom line: they publish fantastic fiction. Glimmer Train stories have a seriously impressive record of prizes including the Pushcart and O. Henry.

The perk of rejection is it frees stories up. Back into the deck they go to get re-shuffled and sent on, out once again into the world.

*It seems audacious to admit I'm submitting stories to The Paris Review. But there is it. I AM! Why the hell not?

Meanwhile, back at the ranch

Here's some solid advice I got a year and a half ago about plot and structure: banish the words "and then" and replace them with "but", "therefore", and "meanwhile."

But is the idea of conflict and opposition. The good guy wants something but the bad guy stands in the way.

Therefore there must be an escalation of action and tension. The good guy does something to get around the bad guy but he hits a roadblock he must overcome.

Meanwhile suggests a parallel narrative, two plots happening in tandem. When one story hits a climactic peak, you cut away ("Meanwhile, back at the Ranch...") to the other.

Editor Tony Zhou explains in this video and if you still don't get it, have a look at this post on Vox.

Grown-up writer

I did two things recently that made me feel like an actual honest-to-god grown-up writer. First, I called Canada Revenue Agency and got myself a business number. Which basically means I'll be able to write off fancy pens as a business expense. (Score!)

And second, I got some proper photos taken. My friend Nadra (of German word fame) very patiently took shot after shot while I posed awkwardly in a park (then later in a tunnel). She frowned and stood on tip-toe and changed lenses. "Look left. Look right. Turn a little to the side," Nadra said. I tried not to blink and asked her to please make me look like Natalie Portman. Here are a couple from the park. I'm giddy over how they turned out.

 

Photo by: Nadra Ginting

Photo by: Nadra Ginting

Photo by: Nadra Ginting

Photo by: Nadra Ginting

Always be submitting

Always Be Submitting. Always. Always. Be. Submitting. Send your work out into the world, to contests and publications, in your home country and abroad. Never mind the rejection. Rejection just means you can send that story elsewhere.

The New Quarterly is looking for stories, poems, and essays from diverse writers for a special feature on diversity in their Fall issue. The best part is you can skip the usual submission rigamarole and email your piece directly to them. Also, there's no max word count. DUE DATE: JUNE 15, 2016.

Also, this insane new prize was recently announced. Fifty thousand American dollars (That's sixty three and change Canadian) for a story, novel, or screenplay featuring a female protagonist. Writers of all genders and nationalities welcome. Learn more and submit here. DUE DATE: JUNE 8, 2016. FIFTY THOUSAND AMERICAN DOLLARS. What are you waiting for?

Legs Dangling Out

Hey! ArtsNL just awarded me a grant!

I'm really pleased. The money is much appreciated of course but almost as important is what a grant represents. Someone is willing to invest in my work. And in a collection of short stories, no less. Novels get all the glory but a short story is no easy feat. Bless you, ArtsNL.

The name of the thing keeps changing but at the moment the collection is called "Legs Dangling Out." It's a line from an early short story that was cut long ago. I've been bashing away at these stories for a while now - since I started writing, really. I've got about twenty (some published, some still in early stages) and a complete first draft is coming into view. December is my goal and I'm toying with the idea of taking a class in the Fall to give me the final push across the finish line.

Watch this space.

 

Grief bacon

My best friend Nadra sent me a new word. Torschlusspanik. It's German (of course) and it's that urgent fear you have when you think you are running out of time to accomplish big goals. Always a bridesmaid, never a bride. Looking up from the bottom of the career ladder while everyone's well on their way to the top. Tick-tock goes your biological clock. Torschlusspanik!

The Germans have a genius for concisely describing complex emotional states in a single (sometimes unwieldy) word. Schadenfreude, wunderkind, and wanderlust have migrated into our lexicon. Here are a few others I vote for entry:

Kummerspeck literally means "grief bacon." Sounds delicious right? Kummerpseck are those unwanted pounds you gain from emotional eating.

Blaumachen is an early morning lack of motivation. All you want is to hit snooze and roll over. Blaumachen. Say it out loud. It even sounds a bit like BLAH MORNING!

Backpfeifengesicht is the face that wants to be punched. I wish I could figure out how to pronounce it.

Treppenwitz is that George Costanza moment when the perfect witty comeback occurs to you...too late!

Lawnya Vawnya

Literary readings are usually quiet affairs. Silent book-ish types in an intimate space, eyes closed perhaps so as to better picture the scenes being described.

And then this one time I was asked to read at a rock concert. At the 6th annual Lawnya Vawnya, to be more precise. Five booze-fueled days and nights, more raucous kitchen party than music festival.  I'm not going to lie: the prospect was intimidating.

I was scheduled for Sunday - the closing night. So on Saturday I did a bit of reconnaissance at The Ship. Punch Table, Partner, and Psychic Fair put on a loud and up-tempo show. Everyone was jumping around, dancing, going hog-wild. And I was terrified. I was supposed to get up and read to a crowd like this?

Luckily, Sunday's show had a mellow (hungover?) vibe. Maybe everyone was hung over. Pilot to Bombardier (love them!) were on first and graciously saw themselves out with a low key final song. Then MC Vish Khanna - to whom I will forever be indebted - gave the audience a stern lecture: "Now we're going to have a writer come up here to read something. And you're all going to SHUT THE FUCK UP. I'M SERIOUS. I DON'T WANT TO HEAR A PEEP OUT OF YOU. JUST SHUT. THE. FUCK. UP."

In the words of The Overcast's Lukas Wall: "Sharon Bala read to a remarkably silent audience at The Ship. That room has never been so quiet with such a crowd, with only a warm breeze carrying in the chatter of people smoking cigarettes outside..."

It was surreal! I've never seen an audience - rocking out mere moments ago - suddenly become so silent. I'm incredibly grateful to every person who stood there, silent as lambs, patiently listening.

It's LIT!

Have you heard of All Lit Up? It's a website and resource for discerning readers looking for quirky Canadian writing from Indie publishers. You can browse and buy books and trawl through their blog for recommendations and reviews and updates on literary festivals.

All Lit Up just featured Racket. The blog post is funny and spot on. Some choice excerpts:

"Racket is one of those books you can judge by its cover."

"And if a Newfoundlander in Fort Mac is waiting for a bucket of salt beef to come off the luggage carousel, there’s a good chance he’s also waiting for a bag of Purity’s hardtack."

"But there is also something saucy and self-aware about the cover of Racket, an anthology of short stories that claims to introduce new Newfoundland writing. Saucy, because the Purity brand stands for tradition while the stories here are contemporary. They are written in Newfoundland and they are fresh off the press, but they make no attempt to capture ‘Newfoundland’ as we have understood it in the past."

Read the full post here.

THE BOAT PEOPLE

BEAUTIFUL NEWS! My debut novel, The Boat People, will be published by McClelland & Stewart (in Canada) and Doubleday (in the US).

Editors Anita Chong and Melissa Danaczko made a joint offer for the US/Canadian rights and I was overjoyed to accept.  As my friend Nancy says, M&S and Doubleday US = the SERIOUS, BIG TIME! But the other truth is I had spoken with both Melissa and Anita at great length before they made the offer. (Funny story: the calls were arranged one after the other and I'd promised my agent Stephanie I'd give her a ring when I was done. And I was on the phone, first with Melissa, then with Anita, for so long (2.5 hours to be exact) that Stephanie thought I'd forgotten all about her!) So by the time the offer came, I was confident that Melissa and Anita shared my vision for the book and that the manuscript would be in safe hands with them.

I'm more grateful than I can say (and possibly also a bit teary) - to Anita and Melissa and their respective houses for seeing possibility in my novel, to Stephanie and the team at Transatlantic for making this whole process so seamless and stress-free, to every single friend, family, and Port Authority member who read my craptastic early drafts, to my husband Tom who never doubted this would happen. BIGGEST DREAM COME TRUE.

Full details are on the press release here.

Character alignment

Another great podcast is Imaginary Worlds, a show about "how we create them and why we suspend our disbelief." Even though I'm not a sci fi/ fantasy nut, I'm  hooked on this show. Mainly because it gets at what I am interested in: story telling and fiction-making.

The most recent episode, on the topic of character, is especially instructive. Good versus evil and all the shades (six, to be exact) in between.

The Three Types of Evil

  1. Evil but law-abiding: a character like Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter books whose uses rules as a way to enact her cruelty but would never act outside of the law. Remember: Umbridge was never a Death Eater. But maybe only because that was "illegal."
  2. Evil but neutral about the law: a character like Voldemort who cares nothing for laws and institutions and definitely does not mind killing even loyal followers when they cease to be of use.
  3. Chaotic Evil: an anarchist villain whose only motivation is upheaval. The Joker!

It's a valuable exercise to think about character in this more in-depth way. Beyond morality, how do your imaginary friends interact with the law? Kirk and Spock are both good but one is law-abiding and the other will happily bend the rules. And that difference is where the conflict in their relationship lies, it's what makes the dynamic between them rich. Or consider Marvel heroine Jessica Jones who is actually good but wants so desperately to be neutral, a lone wolf. The conflict in the show then becomes Jessica Jones versus herself. Of course there's also a dastardly villain but this internal battle of woman vs. herself is the true emotional heart of the story.

Go listen to Imaginary Worlds to hear about the rest. The episode is called "Why they fight" and it runs 23 minutes.