“On the Wall” will be up at everydayfiction.com tomorrow!

I’ve been writing a fair amount of short stories lately–very short, like under 1000 words. These little tales are fun to write and also beneficial from a craft point-of-view. (I usually write them as a form of exercise, practicing something specific in each one.) Then, as more “exercise,” I’ve been taking the stories a few steps further–through an edit and polish and then submission (when I like what I’ve come up with that is. I don’t rework/submit every one).

Tomorrow (Friday, May 7) one of my short stories will be the story of the day at Every Day Fiction Magazine.Please go and read it and leave a comment: “On the Wall” by Ev Bishop. I’d love to receive responses!

Happy writing and reading this week, everyone!

~Ev

On Rewriting – a link to Alexandra Sokoloff’s wisdom

I’m not in rewriting mode right now, but Alexandra Sokoloff’s latest post at Murderati, “Top Ten Things I Know About Rewriting,” struck me anyway. It’s jammed full of really helpful information, laid out in a clear, easy-to-adopt way.

I wanted to keep a link to it for my own further reference, and I thought what easier place than here on my blog? Convenient for me and a nice resource for you all too.

Happy writing (or editing, as the case may be! :)),
Ev

Wherever you go, there you are . . .

Photo by Ev BishopOnce upon a time, a long time ago, I was sitting at the end of a wooden dock in the purple-not-quite-dark haze of a warm northern summer night with a dear friend. We were discussing places we’d been (or he was) and places we hadn’t (me, everywhere; him, it seemed then, nowhere). I confess I was expressing a bit of jealousy and at one point he looked out over the shimmering dark mass of the tiny isolated lake we visited, and his side profile was a perfect black shadow.

“Nah, you don’t get it,” he said. “Wherever you go, you bring yourself. After about two weeks in any place, you stop being a visitor and they’re just the same as anywhere else, because you’re the same person. So if you enjoy where you are in general, you enjoy the place. If you aren’t happy in general, you aren’t happy in a new place.”

It was a life changing moment, though I didn’t realize it then; it grew on me over the years as the wisdom in his casual words came back to me time and again, applying aptly to so many facets of life.

And just recently, a variation of its truth struck me in how it relates to reading and story. I was commenting on a short exercise one of my friends did called *The Iceburg. In her reply to my comments, it became obviously, embarrassingly clear that I had completely missed her intended “understory” and put my own feelings and sentiments and past onto the character and his motivations/feelings.

I felt kind of stupid, but then I didn’t, because I realized that’s what readers do. They bring themselves to the book. To the short story. To the poem. Despite our best and most skilled writing, despite our subtle pointers and sometimes even didactic scenes meant to reveal something specific, readers will immerse themselves, with their personal histories, their guilts, their persuasions, in your story.

So can you challenge readers whom I’ve basically just said come into your story with preconceptions, prejudices, set ideas, notions, etc? Absolutely. The power and joy of reading—and its value—is that through story, you experience a new or different world and can add others’ experiences to your own, enlarging your thinking and ways of seeing/perceiving the world.

But equally absolutely, you will sometimes be surprised by what conclusions a reader arrives at about your story . . . hopefully not in too negative a way—my friend wasn’t offended—I hadn’t said anything offensive—she was just curious about how I’d gotten what I had from my read . . . and quite simply this was how: her character reminded me of someone I knew and I put all my “stuff” with that person on to her character.

So what does this fact that the reader brings him/herself to the story, thus colouring its reading, mean for us as writers? At least two things: 1) We should write our stories putting as much personal heart, care, and detail as possible. They are ours. 2) We should share our stories, knowing that once we do, they are ours no longer—or, at very least, not in the way they were, because now they are the reader’s. Precious and loved—or hated and scorned—perhaps for reasons we skilfully intended, perhaps for reasons that have nothing to do at all with what was actually in the story we wrote.

For me, it takes a bit of the pressure off—yes, I want to write stories that people love, relate to in some way, “get” . . . But if they don’t, perhaps it’s not me. It’s them. 🙂


* The Iceberg comes from a book of writing exercises that I recommend you buy: The 3 am Epiphany by Brian Kiteley.

If you’d like to try the exercise yourself—it’s a great one—here you go: “Write a small story or storylet that works with the idea of an iceberg, whose great mass is mostly below the water and therefore unseeable. Write a scene in which much of the actual story is not told. Let us feel the rest of the story that bobs quietly underwater, but don’t let us see it concretely. 500 words.”

If you do the exercise, I’d love to hear how it went, or better yet, let me read your resulting short story.

Overnight success

A few years back I was listening to a radio interview of a musician who’d just made it big, and the DJ asked her, “So how does it feel to be an overnight success?”

She laughed. “People keep saying that and I have to keep telling them my overnight success took 13 years of really hard work.” She went on to say that her “secret” was to learn to keep working through disappointment and rejection, to keep focused on her love for the music she was creating.

I use her words for encouragement and motivation in my writing life, often—Don’t give up, Ev. Keep writing. You love it and you’re getting better and better. Persist, persist, persist!

Just before starting to write this post, I plugged overnight success took 13 years into Google and was amazed by how many hits it got. Apparently this long arrival of “overnight success” is the rule not the exception—10 years, 13 years, 15 years, 20 years, 32 years—all those were referred to as overnight successes, triumphs, sensations. . . .

And it makes sense. The Arts used to be referred to as Disciplines, a name that better reflects the nature of creative pursuits. I also like referring to writing as a craft, because of the word’s connotations of work, practice, honing, refining . . .

Then just last week, my attention was pointed to an article from August 2006’s Scientific American, “The Expert Mind” by Philip E. Ross. He makes a fascinating, well-supported argument for the idea that “effortful” study and motivation are far larger contributors to success in academic and artistic fields than innate ability.

Here are just two of the quotes that really struck me:

“The 10-year rule [coined by Herbert A. Simon of Carnegie Mellon University] states that it takes approximately a decade of heavy labour to master any field.” ~ Phillip E. Ross

“At this point, many skeptics will finally lose patience. Surely, they will say, it takes more to get to Carnegie Hall than practice, practice, practice. Yet this belief in the importance of innate talent, strongest perhaps among the experts themselves and their trainers, is strangely lacking in hard evidence to substantiate it.” ~ Phillip E. Ross

As I am often dubious about my talent, I find great hope in the studies that Ross references. I love all things word and story related, yes. And sometimes I think I have a modicum of talent, maybe. But I know too many people whose natural talent for storytelling exceeds mine to the point that I should have given up long ago if mastery and success were purely talent-based.

What I do possess, however, is tenacity. I’m stubborn. Always have been—childhood pictures prove me out: mini-Ev, all of four-years-old, brow furrowed obstinately, jaw jutting in firm commitment to my focus. And I have a strong work ethic (my euphemism for obsession ;-)).

But even importantly, I find joy and challenge (yes, even with the frustration!) in the learning, in the toil, in the striving to say it better, be more evocative, be more honest.

There’s a small, weird part of me that knows success as the world calls it won’t be my idea of success at all. The point of writing for me, the fun, is the growth, the power of developing writing muscle, and (I’m sorry, it’s the worst cliché!) the journey . . .

I’ve been writing seriously, working on my craft, for just over ten years. Do I hope to see my novels in print soon? Absolutely. I want to share my stories, to give (hopefully) a bit of what so many others have given to me through their carefully scribed words and thoughts. But when “it” has happened, when I have a book or ten out there, will I think I’ve arrived? Nope. I hope to be the kind of writer whose best work is always yet to come.

So here’s to the work and to overnight successes for us all—be they tomorrow, ten years, or even more from now.

Happy writing,
Ev

The Power of Story and Theme

I’ve known for a long time that I listen to, read, write, watch and tell stories for fun, yes, but also to help figure out what I think, to mash out how I believe I should live, to discover what it’s like, at least partially, to be someone else with different life experiences, to express things I feel that can’t be described in mere recitations of facts and statistics.

As a teacher, a student, a writer, I am always wowed by the power of story to create understanding, convey meaning, show relationships, and provoke thought. It’s not that I agree with every idea a story puts forth or even think agreeing is the point. The point of stories—what makes them so important and valuable—is how they provide glimpses into how people arrive at the places they do, how events shape other events, how life is perceived and experienced by another.

If you tell me war is damaging or that prejudice hurts generations of people, I’ll nod thoughtfully, because intellectually I know those are truths. If put me in a war via story or subject me to cruel indifference (or worse) because of prejudice via a character, I will know the truth on a whole different level, because I will have gotten just a bit of taste of what it must be like to suffer those things.

If you tell me that constant bullying can create a monster, I might or might not believe you (or I might start framing an argument for how people can’t just blame their circumstances on people around them). If I’m put in the situation as a fly on the wall, made to see the effects of one person of constant abuse over time, I’m probably going to be a rash of more elaborate things: a) less likely to bully b) more likely to recognize when something is mean c) more intent on being kind to people I perceived as being picked on d) less wishy-washy and permissive of mistreatment of others . . .

My own kids have shown me the power of even “little” stories. I was uptown with my son the other day and he was playing with a novelty pen that had a big rubber head with googly-eyes that bulged out, as if on springs, when you squeezed it. He was making it make weird faces, kind of chuckling. Then he stopped laughing and said, “Just like a hamster, right, Mom?”

Gack! I thought and got ready to launch into a momesque lecture. “That’s not a funny way to joke.”

“I’m not joking,” he said quickly. “It just made me think of about Uncle Wilfie’s birthday party and his poor hamster baby. I still use that story to scare little kids, you know.”

Just as I started an inner monologue, berating myself for telling that story where the intrinsic message was so obviously lost, he went on.

“You know, show them, especially – – – – , he doesn’t have very good control, the danger of giving into that I love you so much I wanna squeeze you feeling.”

Awww, I wanted to squeeze him. So I did, but just a little, cause hey, he’s 13 and I’m pretty fortunate that he allows me to be seen with him in public, let alone give him a half-hug—and besides, as established, hard squeezing can be dangerous.

Where am I going with all this?

Do I think every story should have a conceived lesson on behalf of the writer? Gah, no! (But I also don’t mind if there is one, so long as it’s done well and is integral to the story, and the story isn’t just some pale, whinging thing tacked on to try to disguise a lecture.)

Do I think fiction writers have a job to inform, reform and educate? Not in any calculated way, no. Do I think writers must have deep reaching themes that they set out to tackle? Absolutely not—not intentionally, that is.

I do think the best stories—the ones that stick with us, that we ask to hear again, that get reread and reread—contain ideas and situations that affect us in a far deeper way than being merely entertaining. They are about far more than escalating action, a wacky offbeat laugh-a-minute MC (or a deep, brooding one), the gruesome, vivid details, the ahh of perfect romantic love . . . They resonate—Yes, this is what it means to be human. Or they challenge us—This is what it could (or should!) be like to be human. They speak to us somehow about how we live, have lived, or want to live.

The trick to writing these “best stories” then—actually, that’s badly worded. It’s no trick—it’s the one aspect of writing where craft books and technique can’t help us, where the only “skill” lies in just being ourselves. We have to allow what we really care about, fear, ponder, hate, love, question to well up in our stories. Our characters are not us (usually), they’re not even based on us (again, usually), but they are people and people have universal wants, needs, fears, questions . . . Let yourself (and your characters) tackle those things and you will not only have a book that the reader won’t put down, you will have written a book with the power to affect, transform, challenge, affirm and encourage—

Intimidating, isn’t it? Yes, but I don’t know if it needs to be. If we write whatever story currently yelling in our heads, the best we can, letting ourselves “go there” (those places we want to shy away from because they feel too personally revealing), I suspect, without any intention at all, when we reread our first draft, we’ll see our theme emerging. We’ll be intrigued by, maybe even a little awed and challenged by, the emerging power in our story.

I know I was a little long-winded this post, sorry–I had no Internet for eight days, so I had lots of time for my words to build up! I’d love to hear about your thoughts on theme and how you approach, consciously or not . . .

Beware the Audience!

I’ve been writing for a long while now, and over the past twelve years, I’ve been fortunate enough to see some of my words go to print.

Knowing that I will have at least a few readers is almost entirely wonderful. I always dreamed of sharing my stories, so as corny as it is, every time I’m published, it’s a bit of a dream come true. It’s inspiring—At least one person (the editor!) feels my thoughts are worthy of being read . . . It’s motivating—Oh, rats. I can’t watch The Office Season 3 all day and night again. My fill-in-the-blank-with-current-project is due. (Deadlines = this writer’s best friend.)

There is a downside to knowing you have an audience, though—and it’s a sneaky one, one I hadn’t known I was affected by until yesterday when I was journaling about the past year. I was mid-scribble in my private notebook, when I realized I was holding back, just a bit. I was writing about the parts of my life readers might be interested in, instead of all the myopic navel gazing stuff that’s only important to me.

I was candid. I whined. But I was candid, politely. I whined only in a philosophical, interesting way, not in a full out temper-tantrum-brat way (and I wish it was because I’m more inclined to be philosophical and interesting than beastly, but no, that’s not it at all).

I found myself editing my thoughts before I spilled them, consciously choosing a synonym if I’d just used the word I was about to scrawl down.

And it hit me—Beware the Audience! Don’t let the fact that you might have readers keep you from saying what you need to say. It is crucial to get what you’re thinking, feeling, observing out on the page in the ugliest, most uncensored way. And likewise, sometimes you just need to spill Pollyannaish clichés of joy and happiness out in ink.

Writers who want to share stories, poems, ideas, and thoughts with others have to consider their audience. (Hello, Punctuation and Word Choice. Greetings, Grammar Conventions! Good-bye, Incoherent Ranting. See ya, Said-that-twenty-times-already-aren’t-you-over-it-already. Put on a towel, Too-much-information-girl.)

However, writers who want to have stories, poems, ideas and thoughts to share must have times when they completely ignore the possibility of there ever being a reader. They have to write things that make them cringe, things that they burn, literally, once they’re out on the page. Or at least I need to.

I have to get out the junk, so that the things I really wonder and care about are freed from the mire of everyday stuff. The process is akin to wading into my closet and weeding through a whole bunch of things that are out of season, that I want to keep but don’t wear anymore, that I’m holding onto for someone else, to get the one item that’s perfect for right now.

I’d love to hear thoughts on this topic. Does thinking about potential readers freeze you or inspire you? Can (should!) a writer ever fully forget the possibility of an audience?

The whether or not of writing weather . . .

The world seems not the same, though I know nothing has changed.
~ Opening line of “Pale” by Within Temptation

I woke up this morning to a world gone freshly white. I’ve lived here (in Terrace, British Columbia, Canada) most of my life, but the abruptness and totality of our seasonal changes never fails to awe me. My perception of the lay of the land is always changing. What I think I see or know is constantly called into question—especially when it snows.

There are jokes about Canadian literary writers’ obsession with weather, but I think that realism (in any story) demands those details. The weather in most parts of Canada is extreme. Extreme snow. Extreme deluges. Extreme dry. Extreme humidity. And much of life here, despite modernity’s best attempts to make us feel we’re somehow above the elements of nature, is dictated by weather. Canada is not alone in that, however.

Weather and its cousins, Physical Geography, Seasons, and Climate, represent hundreds of characters—benevolent and life-giving rulers, cruel and exacting tyrants, warm and sexy seductresses, cold nasty sonofabitches . . . They shape our daily activities, whether we’re conscious of it or not, dictate a lot of our choices, thwart plans, complicate simple goals, and exacerbate struggle—and not in imagined ways. In real, practical, everyday ways.

You might have a character who consciously muses about the changing weather for symbolism’s sake (better not be every character though! Most people bundle up and peel off layers without ever noticing that the wind, warm earlier, had grown chilly ;-)). You might use seasons as metaphors, blah, blah, blah (Oh, wait, I’ve done that and liked the effect a lot . . .) You should always have characters affected by weather and seasons.

When Ed peals out of the driveway in a rage, what time of year is it? If it’s October – March here, you can safely (heh) have that simple action escalate into a terrible accident. He hits black ice and just like that his car is out of control. He takes out the family’s mailbox. Or the dog. Or his five-year-old daughter who’s just trudging back from her snow fort next door.

When Kelly, new to the North, tells her eight-year-old that he can go play at the nearby park as long as he’s home before dark, then loses track of time unpacking, it’s 11:00 p.m. before she realizes it’s just starting to get dark and there’s no sign of her son.

Weather and terrain affect how people view the world and their place in it, and shape personality, however subtly. Someone who chops wood everyday and has to make sure someone’s home regularly to keep the woodstove topped up so the pipes don’t freeze has a different way of perceiving life than someone who doesn’t own a winter jacket and depends on repairman to regulate his complex’s thermostats.

At the very least, individual responses to weather and landscape give hints to personality. I imagine (or not :D) fairies in flowerbeds, see wood nymphs in the falling leaves, and know that the crystal white winter world I dwell in is somehow mystical.

A person using descriptions like mine would contrast dramatically with one who’d make an observation like a friend of mine recently did, after driving back from Prince Rupert: “Did you know that for a big part of the year here, life is literally black and white? It explains a lot about Northerners.”

Her wording struck me. I was wowed. And she’s right. When the months are at their coldest and most snowy, the North is monochromatic—and much more seems black and white, than gray. That has to have some impact on those who live up here. The possible insight that comment might give into another individual’s approach to life was amazing to me!

Including sensory details about the landscape and what the elements are doing can be a powerful, visual way to give readers a sense of place, if not overdone, of course, but I challenge you (and myself!) to use the weather and geography in the best way—as they are in real life—as dynamic forces, slightly under the main action, supporting it and intensifying it.