Souping it up

I’m a bit of a soup addict. Whenever I’m stressed, inching toward depressed, or feeling blue about something, I make soup. Chopping and grating, bringing to a boil, simmering. . . tasting. The steamy aromas of mingled garlic, onion, occasionally ginger . . . Mmm.

There’s something Zen about cooking in general, and making soup from scratch especially. And like my aunt says, even if you can’t cook, it’s hard not to make great soup, so long as you use quality ingredients. It will sound corny, but I think she’s right only to a point. Something of yourself has to go into the pot too—your love, your affection, your hope, your well wishes . . .

Yesterday I made salmon chowder (from a Spring my son caught last summer) and while I consider myself a decent cook, I impressed even myself. I was wowed by the scrumptious creamy, savoury results. I used a recipe from Allrecipes.com, then modified it (as is my style) ‘til the concoction in my pot could never be recreated using the recipe card sitting on my counter.

As I cooked (and tasted!), my mind wandered all over the place, but especially back to the novel that I’m working on. In the last scene, written just shortly before I started dinner, my MC was making soup. And there were soup references in my last novel too. The books aren’t the type that will be marketed at gourmands, with recipes in the back (though I do love those). In fact, the scenes are very brief—I don’t know if a reader would even consciously remember them, but they are, I realized, symbolic.

Soup is the epitome of comfort food, belonging and home. Every culture has its own variations of the dish, and while soup can be whimsical, there’s nothing trendy or passé about throwing things in a pot to simmer and blend all together into something, always a bit different, always good. Soup, regardless of its name, is as old as the human race.

And what does my character want and crave, but not have? Family. A sense of belonging. A home.

Food and eating of all kinds (not just soup!) has weighty (no pun intended) positive and negative connotations for the character as an individual and within his/her relationships. What your character eats or doesn’t eat, and the way they eat—standing over the kitchen sink, or with wine and candles even when alone—says a lot about their personality, their desires, their family background, their financial situation and so much more.

The way characters prepare food (or don’t) also shows who they are, how they perceive themselves, and how they want to be perceived by others. I don’t know what this says about me, but when I make soup, I feel like a good mom. What does your character feel like? A house elf? A slave? A fortunate soul to be able to cook when so many people in the world can’t put food on the table?

We shouldn’t make every scene about drinking tea or buttering fresh baguette, but we should remember that all humans everywhere eat—or need to eat—and have strong feelings about food. Sneaking in small sensory details about this primal need can be a great way to reveal information about your character.

So how about it? Have you ever considered what the food references in your story might be saying about your characters? Would adding some details about eating somehow enhance your characterization?

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 . . .

Axe sharpening . . .

I was introduced to Ecclesiastes 10:10 the other day—Using a dull axe requires great strength, so sharpen the blade.

The verse was used in the context of faith, how it can be easy to go through the motions, to seem fine when really you’re discouraged and struggling. How instead of taking strength, joy and peace from your faith, sometimes clinging to it can seem like drudgery. The speaker went on to talk about how to sharpen your blade and the importance of doing so.

I appreciated the message and felt the verse applied to a lot aspects of life—relationships, jobs, writing. Almost everything in life, no matter how passionate we are about it, has seasons where continuing on just feels like work, where we wonder if what we seek is actually attainable, where we question whether there is anything special or valuable in what we’re trying to hold on to…

If you’re like me (and since you’re probably a writer reading this blog before getting to down to work, I suspect you are), you’re no stranger to hard work. You’re used to sitting down whether you’re inspired or not and putting words on the page. You’ve steeled yourself against rejection. You will keep wielding your axe because it’s what you need to do—and let’s face it, in the end, a dull axe does the same job as a sharp one. And for that pragmatic attitude and ethic, we should be congratulated. We rock!

Thankfully, not every writing session fit the description above—far from it. We know flow. We’ve embraced the muse. Had those wonderful times when the stories and thoughts in our heads pour out faster than we can type, those moments when we finally glance at the clock we can’t believe that we’ve been writing for hours and we still feel so energized. All is right in the world. All is right in our heads. We are writers; we pour our inky-hearts out on paper—we rock!

I guess what I’m trying to say is yes, persevere when the work is hard and it’s all sweat and fear. But yes, double-yes!—seek those things that remind you that writing is your passion, that make your time spent at the computer less like hacking and more running a warm blade through butter that has fresh bread waiting for it.

Here are a few of the things that sharpen my blade and make me feel that I’ll burst with contentment because I get to write: Spending time with my opera-singer sister and laughing about the angst of the artist’s life. Keeping close contact with writing friends, through e-mail and an online forum. Reading good books. Writing things that are just for me, like poetry. Doing writing exercises and taking “no pressure” classes and workshops—and, maybe ironically, giving workshops. Playing outside, rain, snow, or shine. Making sure I have do-absolutely-nothing slouch time. And (again, perhaps ironically) writing through those uninspired dull-hatchet times.

Have a wonderful writing week, fellow axe-wielders! And if you have time to share, I’d love to know: What sharpens your blade?

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.

Looking Back to Move Forward

Euf, I’ve been a bit quiet on here lately—sorry. I wasn’t off in a corner sulking about the poor economy or worrying my ring around my finger, wondering if I was just deluding myself with the whole you-can-be-writer-if-you-don’t-give-up-thing. Or at least I wasn’t doing those things much.

I was prepping for the Surrey International Writers Conference, then I was attending it, then I stayed on in Vancouver visiting family and friends for a bit. Then, upon arriving home to a very sick husband, the fallout of a “surprise” electrical upgrade emergency for my home that I learned about just prior to flying out, plus playing life-catch-up, I just didn’t get here.

Anyway, while I was away, I discovered a deep well of affirmation/inspiration. Of all the great things Surrey has given to me over the years, this year’s gave me perhaps the most important: the knowledge that whatever the future carries, I write and will keep writing, not because of any dreams about what my writing might become financially or end up being to someone else, but because of what my writing is right now, what it has always been: My guts. My search for connection. My way of making sense of the world (or attempting to). Therapy (Thankfully, I’m a big fan of play therapy—it’s not all angst-ridden and dreary). My way of celebrating, appreciating and critiquing . . .

Past conferences have always motivated me in the business-side of writing—get an agent, get published, make $$$ so I can write more . . . This year, listening to all the solid advice from agents and editors and great inspirational wisdom from publishing writers, I decided that approaching creative writing as a business is bullshit (in a positive, warm, energizing, not negative way). Writing is about the writing. The other stuff is just other stuff.

I still want an agent. I still want to share my stories—at which point, they’re not solely mine anymore, I realize. I still want a few regular dollars, so I can afford the hours I write without feeling like a burden on those I love. But in forty years, if I’m still writing with only the few odd acceptances here and there, I will still be writing.

This sense of “whatever” about publishing has freed me up in some way. It is time to start putting my stories out there in earnest, because it doesn’t matter how they’re received. I would prefer, kindly. But rejection won’t stop me. Anymore. And maybe that’s why I’ve been hesitant in the past. While writing, I’d remember what it’s all about, but I’d forget when faced with the idea of having my work “judged.” Now I don’t care. I like what I write. I write what I like.

Editors and agents have to think about marketing and bottom lines, blah. If someone ever likes my stories enough to take them on, I will think about those things too—and will work hard for them. But those elements will always be after-writing-concerns.

There is a lot of value in living and working with an eye on what you want to accomplish next (not to the exclusion of enjoying today, of course, but that’s another post), but if a writer writes because they love/need the writing itself, looking back—and being awed by how far you’ve come and how much your writing has done for you—will be a huge part of moving forward.

Sex, violence, morality, and other scintillating-somewhat-scary subjects . . .

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 . . .

Short Story Tips

To help in our quest to write ever better, I’m going to list some of the things that are considered in the TWG Fiction Contest’s judging. I suspect other contests look at similar elements.

1. Opening ~ Is there something in your first line, first paragraph, or first page that hooks the reader and makes him/her want to read on?

2. Characters ~ Do your characters live off the page; do they seem like they must be real, living breathing people somewhere?

3. Dialogue ~ Do the things your characters say “ring true”? And does your dialogue move the story forward and add to characterization?

4. Plot ~ What does your character want and what’s getting in the way of his achieving that goal? Make sure it’s clear!

5. Theme ~ Does your story have some sort of lasting power? Does it give the reader something to think about after the last page is read? Is it about more than just the actions and events that take place between its pages?

6. Involvement ~ Does your reader get so caught up in the story that they forget they’re reading? Watch out for “telling” and explaining everything.

7. Language ~ Do you show a masterful command of language—maybe even flashes of brilliance? Find and destroy language/usage/grammar problems!

8. Pace ~ Page by page, do you create a “must keep reading” feeling?

9. Ending ~ Does your ending give your reader that “ahhh” feeling (happy or sad); does it add to the story as a whole?

That little extra ~ There are many other qualities that make a story jump off the page and into a reader’s head, so pay attention to the above, but don’t treat it like a check-list. Have fun with your stories; run with your inspirations. Concentrate on showing the story that you’re burning to tell, and regardless of contest or market response, don’t get discouraged. Keep getting the words out on paper!

Happy writing to us all,

Ev