One month till Surrey International Writers’ Conference 2014!

SiWC 2014For the fall and winter months (Yes, they’re here, wail!), I’ve decided to resurrect Déjà vu Thursdays. Exciting, right? I knew you’d think so. To kick it off, and because I just realized that it’s exactly a month until I leave for the 2014 Surrey International Writers’ Conference, I give you a happy pre-conference blurt that I wrote way back on June 10th, 2009 just after I paid my registration fee and booked my hotel and flights for SiWC 2009.

I didn’t attend last year’s conference because I was (Oh, poor me!) in London. The year before that (so 2013) my father had just passed away, and the conference was a blur. To say I’m excited about this year, but also a bit unsettled, worried that it will trigger unhappy memories, is an understatement. I know he’d want me to attend, however, to have a great time, to share BIGGER THINGS, to refill my creative well, to encourage and be encouraged, etc. After all, in the hospital he told me, “You make sure you go to that conference, Ev, even if I’m not dead yet. You paid good money for it.” Which made me laugh because it was so typically pragmatic. And cry. And, of course, tell him absolutely no way was I going if he was still there to visit with. Anyway, I’ve kind of gotten off track. Back to my old but still relevant pre-conference thoughts. I’d love to hear yours on the subject!

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So I just did something very exciting—booked a four-night stay at the gorgeous Sheraton Guildford in Surrey, BC. It seems unbelievable, but it’s already time—really time!—to start planning my favourite annual indulgence: The Surrey International Writers’ Conference.

I normally try to rein in my freakish enthusiasm and exuberance while blogging, so I don’t scare readers away, but allow me one, YAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY!

I know some writers are sceptical of the advantages of writing conferences. They think they’re nothing but a money grab. They feel you don’t learn anything that you couldn’t from a book or a bit of research. They’re sure everyone’s just there for their egos—I’m a writer, look at me. They’re convinced you’d be better off spending the time writing, not talking about writing.

I confess I don’t understand conference bashers.

1. Yes, attending a conference is a financial commitment. That it costs you something is part of its value. Say what? Just that: Putting money into your craft, saying in essence, “I’m serious about my writing, and it’s worth not just my time, but also my material resources to pursue,” is like giving yourself a big ol’ permission slip to take your goals more seriously. It’s also a big cue to family and friends—Oh, she’s serious about this little writing thing.

Professional development (Yes, a little FYI, conferences are P-D, not just wonderfully social times where everyone sips wine, talks about their favourite things—books and storytelling, of course—and comes away absolutely inspired) betters the quality of your work and boosts your word counts. Being with other people who are excited about the same things you are is motivating.

2. Books on craft are great, and yep, you learn a lot reading them, but—and gasp, I can’t quite believe I’m saying this—there are some things being alone with a book can’t do. Reading alone in your study doesn’t give you the experience of being with 1000 other souls who love what you love—ideas, words, stories. It doesn’t give you the chance to laugh along with one of your favourite authors. It doesn’t provide the opportunity to stick up your hand in the middle of the information to say, “Gah—I don’t get it!” or “Yay—I love how you put that!”

Hearing authors talk about their personal experiences, reassure you that it’s an achievable dream (they’re living proof, after all), and answer every-question-you-can-imagine is invaluable. As is getting to learn face-to-face from agents and editors who accept books (maybe even one like yours!) for their livings.

3. As for the complaints about “egos” . . . I don’t see it. I’ve met people I don’t click with, sure. I may have (it’s terrible) even cringed or grimaced inwardly a time or two on behalf of a cornered agent or author, yep. But people are people wherever you go. The great, the bad, the meh—they’re everywhere. And for what it’s worth, I think writing conferences having a higher per ratio capacity of hilarious, generous, kind, and witty people than most public groupings. The feeling of community and camaraderie is almost the whole reason I go. I work alone day after day all year (Yay for the Internet, but that’s an aside). Even the most reclusive of us benefit from and need human company sometimes.

4. Four days of conferencing and sushilizing does not, in anyway, take away from my productivity. I write almost every day—and that’s in addition to my business writing, editing, and workshops. Surrey energizes me for a whole year. If I have a day where I feel kind of unmotivated, I look at the calendar and recall the goals I’ve set for the next conference . . . Speaking of which, I’m on track, but not ahead of where I wanted to be by this month, so I should go.

Happy writing, everyone—and if you’re heading out to Surrey this October for SiWC, let me know.

I’m also interested in any comments about why you love writing workshops or conferences—or really mix things up and tell me why I’m out to lunch and they suck!

~ Ev

Good For What Ails Me

I’ve been experiencing lovely, productive-feeling days this month. (I say “productive-feeling” because I think most days my output is the same, just sometimes it feels like “more” somehow than other days!) Maybe if you’re feeling less than prolific, inspired, or motivated, today’s Déjà vu Thursday, originally published here Feb. 18, 2013, will cheer you.
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Photo copyright (c) Marriah Bishop

Photo copyright (c) Marriah Bishop

Sometimes I romanticize the writing life. (Well, pretty much every aspect of life actually, but I’ll just focus on the writing aspects for now.) And while normally I feel this is a lovely quality, it has a downside. It can make me feel, when writing sessions are more tedious than magical, that maybe it’s because of some inherent flaw in me. Maybe I’m an impostor. A fraud.

I want “perfect” writing days:

Sessions where every penned nuance and detail is rife with significance.

Times with the texture and quality of embossed leather or whiskey soaked velvet (though if I think about it, I’m not really sure how either of those would describe a day at all).

Sprees filled with rambling, writerly chats, obscure poems found wedged between the floor boards in a bedroom of a long vacant house (again, a detail that seems sort of impossible to randomly happen upon when my butt is planted in my office chair, but don’t over think things: this is a perfect day, people!), and wine drank from pewter goblets.

Weather that’s all sunrise, sunset, or storm. Lavender-grey sky. Charcoal-soot clouds. Pounding rain that bends the trees and echoes my heart.

Hours when time pauses and my prose falls effortlessly upon the page, as moving and powerful as a wind that shakes leaves, bends boughs, and changes the season.

I want to be the poet in the turret, the crazy longhaired maiden-crone in the attic (but one whose family doesn’t disown her!).

So, although I often find that the reality of being a writer is pretty great, by comparison to the stuff of my daydream writer life, it’s sometimes a little disappointing. Or a lot, depending on the day. I’m continually surprised that writing is actually work—sometimes really hard work. It’s something I have to schedule in. It rarely just happens. And often it’s painful, like I’m a surgeon charged with the task of removing my own organs without anaesthetic and spreading them around for the world to see. But worse than the pain is the fear.

The fear that I actually have nothing to say. That perhaps the story “The Emperor’s New Clothes” was written with me in mind (“Aren’t they beautiful?” “Isn’t what beautiful? There’s nothing there.”) Fear that I am mediocre at best. Fear that people will see me naked and laugh, or worse, avert their eyes, turn away—ashamed, unable to relate, embarrassed for me. And even more fear: that I will never be read or connected with at all. I will send parts of myself into the void and be met with . . . silence.

How silly I am to worry about such things hit me afresh yesterday.

I’d fled my computer for a break to work in the yard. The air had a quality that, I don’t know, just made me want to laugh. Sweet and fresh, yet here and there, tinged with the earthy scent of dead plants, no longer frozen, freed to rot. The fecund smell of approaching spring is so ancient and independent of human involvement that it always seems almost otherworldly to me—yet also somehow makes me feel like every dream is possible.

The sun was trying to warm the winter-cold earth, and a brisk breeze carried an invigorating lesson: New life erupts from death. Growth springs forth from decay and rot and . . . well, shit.

Creation can be painful—just listen to my chickens. Yet, day in and day out, they each lay an egg—and though they complain bitterly during the process, they squawk equally proudly about the results of their labour. And as inglorious and common as laying an egg every day may be to some, each speckled brown oval is its own miracle too.

Does the chicken question whether it can lay an egg, or if it can, will it be a good enough egg, or if its worthy of even attempting to lay an egg in the first place? I’m not a chicken whisperer, but I don’t think so. Hens definitely seem to have more of an “I’m a chicken, dammit. Of course I lay eggs. Get over yourself and get cracking” attitude. Can I do any less or be any less pleased with my output?

And the chickens lay regardless of the day, temperature, or individual mood—mild and balmy, or bitter and hideous. And likewise, my hedge puts out buds when it’s supposed to, despite the wind, the danger of frost. . . . It seems to like it when I fuss, but it does its thing whether I’m there or not.

I have perfect dreamy writing days occasionally, and they’re amazing. I mean who doesn’t love to feel their work is going well, that they’ve connected with something deep within themselves, and enjoyed the process? Who doesn’t revel in a bit of romance?

I wonder though—perhaps ironically—if my writing is better on the days it feels like organ-extraction? Or if maybe the revolutions between between angst and toil and ecstasy and pleasure are all necessary? Maybe writing is like the rest of life, a continual shift of seasons. Some more enjoyable than others, perhaps, but all crucial, all inevitable. And maybe it’s just something I shouldn’t think about too much—just enjoy and accept (with a little squawking occasionally!).

E-reading + Ether Books + short stories by me!

On this cold, blustery, rain-swept night (my favourite fall kind!), I hope you’re home and snuggled on the couch with a blanket, a glass of wine and a good read . . .or, at least, that you will be soon. And in light of that wish, I present today’s Déjà vu Thursday, originally published here Dec. 28, 2010. May you find a short story or two to amuse you and/or make you think!

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evbishopetherbooks-1So how many of you found an iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch or some other e-reader wrapped in pretty packaging this year? I sort of did. My mother-in-law spoiled my hubby and me with a very generous gift and I decided to dedicate my half to my craft: an online writing class and an iPhone (Yay! I knew there was a reason I was still using my old flip-talk even though Bell has been telling me for almost five years that I’m “entitled” to a new phone). I’m completely excited, primarily because of the phone’s e-reading possibilities.

As a reader and a writer, I have always adored the short story form, but it’s become harder and harder to find short stories to read (and short story markets to submit to).

The boom of e-zines has been good for us short story lovers, however (especially the story-a-day sites like Every Day Fiction Magazine and Daily Science Fiction, but perhaps the saviour of the short story will be electronic readers, including the new generations of phones with their lovely do-everything-but-the-dishes apps and gorgeous screens. Perfect for packing lightly in your bag or pocket, you have a variety of reads available wherever you go. And what better read could a person have in transit or when waiting for a meeting than a short story?

Ether Books
, a UK publisher, agrees with me so much that its whole focus is publishing “the very best short stories and essays from today’s literary stars and up-and-coming writers directly to your own phone.”

And, I’m ecstatic to say, Ether Books has acquired three of my short stories–all speculative in some way or another–for your reading pleasure (er, well, I hope it’s pleasure!): “HVS,” “Red Bird,” and “Wishful.”

I’d love for you to read them and share the word with any one you know who likes a weird little story–and don’t stop with my works. Ether’s “shelves” are full with a great collection of short stories and essays in every genre you can imagine.

Ether Books’ app is available for free here or by searching for Ether Books with your iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad.

You can find “HVS,” “Red Bird,” and “Wishful” by searching for my author name, Ev Bishop.

Just for fun, see if you can spot me in Ether Books’ “Our Writers” page. 😉

If you read my stories, please share them and/or review them! I’d love feedback.

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p.s. Updated note . . . Even since I wrote this, the e-reading world has changed dramatically. I think the majority of avid readers have an e-reader now, or at least some device that they can purchase electronic stories for . . . Do you agree? 🙂

Inklings, Procrastinators, Me…

Photo by en.wikipedia user, Remember, and has been released into the public domain.

Photo by en.wikipedia user, Remember, and has been released into the public domain.

Well, it’s a Déjà vu Thursday once again, and this re-shared post, though perhaps not the most amazing piece I’ve ever written, feels super-exciting and completely apropos for two reasons:

1) The Surrey International Writers Conference is just around the corner, and it always kindles thoughts on the importance of a writer’s community—thoughts that are more poignant this year, as I’m actually not attending the conference (for the first time in ten years!).

2) Right around the time of SiWC, I’ll be in London, England . . . but making a side trip to Oxford where I’ll do what? Well, have lunch and a drink (or two, ha ha) in The Eagle and Child! (Yes, that’s right—the pub where C.S.Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and the rest of the Inklings used to meet up.) To say I’m excited about EVERYTHING surrounding the trip would be the silliest understatement! Most of all, I just can’t wait to spend ten days with one my best friends (and one of my favourite writers), Jen Brubacher. Friends, especially ones who share your passions, are wonderful gifts.

Anyway, that was a ridiculously long introduction. Enjoy this week’s Déjà vu!

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C.S. Lewis is one of my favourite writers. I love his Narnia creations, and his books on Christian faith (most notably, Mere Christianity and The Problem With Pain) were instrumental in bringing me to Christ. It was, however, his writing in A Grief Observed that most spoke to me. Though losing a wife and losing a mother are ultimately different; loss is ultimately the same and Lewis’s honest writings about sorrow helped me. And re-affirmed my conviction that books and story—fiction and non—are crucial helpers to us humans as we try to figure out how to live and what it mean to be, well, human. It’s not giving Lewis too much credit to say he’s one of the reasons* I started writing again.

But it’s not really C.S. Lewis I want to write about today. It’s his Inklings—a writing group that, from what I’ve gathered, consisted of twelve or so members (including J.R.R. Tolkien). I won’t embarrass myself with the romantic view I have of the bunch holed up in some pub, corner of a library, or ancient book and antique laden reading room. I won’t confess that thinking of them, I always feel the warmth of a crackling fire glowing from a grate and see it casting looming shadows of the literary greats along the walls—shadows that grow as their stories did, well into the night. And I won’t admit that I’m sure they always drank port—its scarlet red shimmering as firelight refracted off the crystal glasses containing it—cheers! And of course there’s cigar smoke. And equally of course, somehow said smoke is sweet and mellow and doesn’t make me gag or give me a headache just being in the same room with it.

Oh, how jealous I was of his writing group! And then I got to be part of my own—a smaller group, though, I think, not lesser for being less. We try to meet in person once a year or so (and usually manage to, thanks in part to the huge pull of SiWC—but it’s tricky as we hail from different parts of B.C., and now, London, England), and we meet online regularly in a private forum called Procrastination (which makes us Procrastinators now, doesn’t it?). We drink lots of tea and coffee—and only occasionally port. I do have a wood fire that warms me—or at least the living room near me. We all have tonnes of books—or at least read tonnes of books. I don’t smoke cigars, but can’t speak for the others in the group.

I wish I lived in a place where we could all be together, at least monthly, but I can’t complain too much because I live in a time where despite huge geographical differences, we can still maintain very close relationships and share our words in real time, almost instantaneously.

It has been said that C.S. Lewis would’ve written and published all that he did without the Inklings (and the same has been said of Tolkien), and I suspect that may be true—at least partially. I think his writing community was a huge help to him, creatively and emotionally and practically.

The writing life can be a lonely, misunderstood and alienating (except when it’s the glorious opposite of all those things!). The writing craft is daunting—you only master one thing to notice six other problems you’d never even thought of dealing with. And the publishing world? Well, let’s just say it’s always been rife with tales of doom and gloom and the end of books and reading—not the happiest news when one’s trying to eke out a living with their words. Meeting with kindred spirits who like you, who like your stories, who are kind and funny and compassionate—even while they’ll straightforwardly tell you what is and isn’t working with your stories—keep you keeping on.

In James W. Miller’s review of Diana Pavlac Glyer’s The Company They Keep: C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien as Writers in Community, he says that, “using a formula for determining influence created by another scholar, Karen Lefevre, Glyer analyzes the way the Inklings served as Resonators (encouraging voices), Opponents (thoughtful critics), Editors, and Collaborators (project teammates) for one another. She then adds her own fifth category, that they were Referents who wrote about one another and promoted one another’s books to publishers and the public.”

When I read that description, I thought, Egad—I’m so lucky! I have the good fortune of being part of a community like that too.

How about you? What is your writing community like? Are you part of a writing group? Does it have a name? Is it a face-to-face group or an online one? Do you feel there’s an advantage to either type of meeting?

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* Well, him, Stephen King, and Julia Cameron—bwahahahaha, what a combination! I wonder what on earth they’d think of being grouped together?)

Writing Is Like Cooking

It’s been too long since I celebrated Déjà vu Thursday; consider this post me bringing the tradition back. I love to cook (and to eat) and today, while it’s cold and blowy out, the urge to fill the house with comforting smells and heat is stronger than ever. Enjoy!
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. . . writing is like cooking is like painting is like sculpture is like music is like gardening is like tying flies is like carving is like making bread is like making wine is like singing is like dancing is like cooking is like writing . . .

I’ve been thinking a lot about creative endeavours as a whole lately—thoughts sparked, I’m sure, by two gallery openings I got to attend (Noreen Spence’s took my breath away), but kindled into full flame by Laura Best’s great post on the same topic, my summer gallivants to the local farmer’s market and all the cooking I’ve been doing lately.

I love writing more than almost anything, playing with words, fighting with words, praying with words, crying and bleeding in words, loving through words, and yet—

When I cook, particularly when I’ve using fresh good ingredients, a feeling kindred to what I experience when I write wells up in me.

In concocting the perfect meal, there’s the same search for just the right bits and just the right balance of those bits—too much spice overpowers, diminishing/desensitizing the tastes buds, and flavour is actually lost, not enhanced. Too little seasoning and there’s no interest, no pizzazz.

And to cook well, you have to be brave, willing to experiment, not afraid to fail . . .

But you also have to build on prior knowledge—yours and others. Cooking is a pleasure and an art. It is also darn hard (and hot!) work sometimes. And there will always be those who don’t appreciate what you have to offer.

What you put into your work always counts. You can wreck quality ingredients, but it is hard to totally ruin them. On the other hand, however, if you start with crap—processed, chemically enhanced, super sugary, high fat junk—well, people might ingest it, might even think they like it, but for how long? That kind of meal does nothing for a person over the long term, has no lasting satisfaction and makes you feel empty sooner than later.

Good meals take time to prepare and they can be labour intensive, but the subtle flavours, complex layers and textures, the sensuous details—they give something to you that lasts far after you’ve finished the last bite. They become a part of your overall health and well-being. They create a feeling of abundance and community, and even if the taste was bittersweet, you’re better off for having experienced it.

Cooking and writing. I’ve yet to find better forms of nourishment. How about you? Is there something else that you do in life that echoes the joy and satisfaction that writing gives you?

p.s. My extended metaphor may have been a little over top for some of you (especially if cooking is your nemesis), but if you enjoyed it—or want a different analogy altogether—check out Jen Brubacher’s rather brilliant comparison between writing and building a house. It’s fun and very apt!

p.p.s. I’ve talked about cooking here before, if you’re interested in souping it up . . . 🙂

It’s all Rock ‘n’ Roll to me

This weekend, I’m going on an Artist Studio Tour. I’m sure I’ll find ideas about things I can do with my own creative space, but my real goal is to soak in others’ inspiration and water and renew my crazy inner word and thought garden.

I’ll try to share some of my impressions next week, but in the meantime I’ll leave you with this week’s déjà vu: some of my previous ponderings on other artistic forms and their affect/influence on my writing.

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My daughter has started painting. She also takes a lot of photos (digital and old school 35mm). Lately, I’ve been struck by the contrast between her two arts—and how those differences relate to writing.

Photographers strive to capture images of what’s already visible in the world and focus in on it, with the goal of revealing what exists—what is tangible, what is right there in front of us—in a new way, making people see.

And, of course, most artists wielding a camera hope to make us feel—to invoke peace, hope, or joy showing the lovely things that exist all around us. To stir up empathy or make us angry (thus, hopefully, motivated to do something about whatever issue riled us up). To kindle awe or understanding about the world around us. To make us laugh. To make us cry. But they attempt to do that by showing us what already exists.

Painters, or the ones whose work I relate to most anyway, seem to approach their work the opposite way. They start with reaction (emotion) triggered by something real and try to express how feeling looks. The results on the canvas may be realistic and identifiable—a brook, a tree, a face . . . but they just as easily might be abstract colours and shapes and form, or some combination thereof. The final piece creates something real, yet isn’t fact-based or often a literal representation.

For me, those visual processes are close cousins to writing—non-fiction is like photography. I write about what really exists, for a variety of reasons—to create a record, to encourage, to challenge, to entertain, to inform. . . .

In fiction, I start with an idea or emotion or question and explore it through story—sometimes realistic, sometimes absolutely fantastic. Every time, with the hope of stirring the fears, concerns, rages—and the dreams, worries, and hopes—of the reader. I’m not concerned with the factual at all.

Whether the setting is a modern high school classroom, the moon, or a castle in a land of fairies, what I want is for people to feel—to recognise that emotional truths exist separate from literal events, times and places. After all, there’s something surreal about being human—there’s our physical reality, but then again, something so, so much more than that, in which we live and move and have our being.

Poetry and music are like what mixed-media is to visual arts—seeking to express what almost defies expression, to give substance to what is invisible yet is also somehow the crux of existence. Oxygen to plant life.

I read a comment on a blog recently that said that “real” writers don’t write blogs. (The irony that the comment was made on a blog, by a writer made me smile—and in a large part helped fuel this slightly odd post. As much as I see differences within the forms, mostly I see connections and related pathways between all modes of artistic and creative output. I’m not sure there’s any definitive definition for a writer—except that he or she writes. And although it’s interesting and fun (perhaps even helpful, occasionally) to wax poetic on the purpose and function of various forms of writing, I don’t know if it really matters how or why or what a person writes.

Can (should!) a writer ever really go it alone?

Déjà vu Thursday – This is a re-post of a fairly recent pondering (written originally August 5, 2011), but it feels timely because the Internet—and its friend and foe ways—has been a big part of my writing life again lately. Just last night I was thinking, Yeesh, if it wasn’t for my writing friends and cohorts, what would I do? Maybe you’re feeling a similar blessing (or a sad lack?). As ever, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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If you have other things in your life—family, friends, good productive day work—these can interact with your writing and the sum will be all the richer. ~ David Brin

Last night I met with the Northwords Writers’ Camp writers and presented on how the Internet fits into/enhances my writing life. I mentioned how it’s a great resource for:

Support, Inspiration, Community
Education, Practice
Writing markets, Publishers
Marketing, Communicating and building relationships with readers

I also delivered the reminder that we all apparently need to hear on on occasion. Just like any super hero has their kryptonite, the Internet has a side that can cripple even the most stalwart writer. It’s called TIME SUCKAGE. Only writing is writing.

And I touched on a few other things to beware of online (in blogs or public forums):

Nothing is private
Nothing goes away
Published online (even “just” on your blog) is published.

But feeling that the pros of getting involved in the Internet writing community (how it can help one grow in and enjoy his/her writing life) far outweigh any small cons, I encouraged each attendee to start their own blog and we spent the rest of our time talking about Do’s and Don’ts of great blogs and did some writing exercise to per chance get us started.

As ever I was blown away by people’s creativity and how unique and highly individual each person’s results were, even with exercises as specific and guided as the ones we did together were. It reminded me yet again of why I write, why I read—to share, to learn, to grow. To think, to laugh and sometimes, though definitely not last night, to cry.

It also reminded me of how good it is to get together with other writers (in person, live!) and talk craft. The Internet is awesome and I’m incredibly grateful for it, but it doesn’t replace the value and importance (and fun :)) of getting together in real-time with flesh and blood people who share your interests. (We talked about that too.)

If you’ve been writing in solitary confinement (as is, of course, the necessity and norm)—or perhaps are feeling that you’re not getting enough alone time with your words—re-read the quote I opened this post with. It’s good to have people and other activities in our lives. They refill the well.

Yes, only writing is writing, but sometimes to keep on track with our writing (in a way that brings joy, refreshes our inspiration, soothes our fears, etc) connection with other kindred souls—online or face-to-face—is just what the Dr ordered.

What do you think? Can any writer truly go it alone?

Sex, violence, morality and other Scintillating-somewhat-scary stuff . . .

Déjà vu Thursday – In light of my last post, I thought I share one in a similar vein, written way back on October 12, 2009. Enjoy and as ever, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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I spent a lovely morning reading and contemplating various writing blogs. Kathy Chung (of Kathy – Rambling—a new blog I will now frequent) wrote about questions of morality that she’s been pondering because of one of her characters.

Joseph Grinton (Writing about modern romance), also newly frequented by me, had thought-provoking words in How To Write Sex Scenes.

I didn’t come across a blog post that opined on how much detail should be given in depicting violent acts, or discussed how to write violent scenes realistically, or tackled realism versus gratuity, but somehow (and not just because I think Sex, Violence and Morality makes a grabbing title) the three things seemed linked in my mind. Writing about them (and similar high-octane subjects) demands a certain bravery.

In the early days of my fiction, I realized that I was guilty of writing in the same manner that I watched scary movies as a kid. Scary music cues something Awful about to happen—swoop, blanket over my eyes. Smack, hands over my ears to tune out screaming and howling . . . I’d actually ask, “Is it over yet?” and wait for confirmation that the most horrible bits had passed before I’d peek again.

In writing that avoidance technique looked like this: Write a hook or some great invocative scene that foreshadows emotional or physical (or better, both at once) danger to character. Insert # # # to show that time has elapsed. New scene starts immediately after Event deemed too violent, too sexy, too something-scary to delve into comfortably. Often, since the reader needed to have some knowledge of the ordeal, I would do some sort of recounting, usually in the form of a conversation between the sufferer of the atrocity and his/her close friend.

“I can’t believe you went through that.”

“I can’t believe it either. I thought I would die when Joe pulled that knife on me and proceeded to—”

“It must’ve been even more terrifying because it probably triggered childhood memories of watching your own mom be killed in front of you . . . ”

“It did—but I managed to summon the will to fight, because I pictured my own daughter Macy’s little innocent face—I want her to grow up strong, to not feel like being a victim is inevitable the way I always did . . . ”

(Okay, please, please note, my writing was never really that bad—or Gah, I hope it wasn’t! But if a person avoids showing events as they happen, unnatural, stilted summary scenes become necessary—and if you’re even thinking, “My summary scenes aren’t stilted. They’re graceful and elegant,” go slap yourself and delete/rewrite the scene!)

I’m still working through what I feel is a good balance between portraying life as it is really experienced and what is too much—a completely subjective line, I realize. And I still battle with self-consciousness and worry. What will people think of me when they see the things that make up my head? What will people close to me say if my stories don’t line up with their ideas of morality? GAH—I write sex scenes and have children who read—awkward! I keep returning to the fact that to avoid writing something because it makes me (or someone else) uncomfortable is stupid and goes against the very reasons I write: to explore the world I live in, to figure out what I think, to yell into space: I am here, trying to figure things out . . . And in the end, if I offend or make someone close to me feel awkward? Well, they don’t have to read me.

So how about you? Are there topics you “don’t go”? What scenes are (were) your Kryptonite? Have you found ways to overcome your inhibitions? Should writers even try to overcome a shyness? Maybe some boundaries are good things . . .

The Power of Story and Theme

Déjà vu Thursday This was originally published here on Write Here, Right Now on January 31, 2010. I’ve been thinking about a lot of things lately and this seemed a timely repeat. ~Ev

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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 . . .

Wherever you go, there you are . . .

Déjà vu Thursday This was originally published here on Write Here, Right Now on March 24, 2010. As I’m feeling overwhelmed by winter and daydreaming about moving to a warmer climate, I thought the topic was very apropos. It made me feel better to read it. I hope you enjoy it too. ~Ev

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.