Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Some nice numbers

I'm happy to tell you that since I started this blog there have been no bounces.  That means, I'm told, that no one came just once.  It's impossible to know how many people came since many have come several times, but in the last two months alone  we have 2923 visitors from (in descending order of  numbers of visitors)
South Korea
Sri Lanka
United Kingdom
United Arab Emirates

I would like to thank you all for coming, and quietly observing or joining in, whichever makes you more comfortable.  I hope you will keep returning.  Do encourage your writerly or artist friends to visit.  Thanks so much, all of you,  for making this blog a success!


The word really means "breathing in".  We all do this all this time.  Sometimes, though, we take huge breaths in.  It's a gasp of astonishment, really.  We don't do it because we are breathless, but because we are "blown away".  When you can't write but want to, and you've got your attitude on and it still doesn't work, try going onto NASA's website, or National Geographic's or really any site that shows you photographs of things that already fascinate you.  Bet you'll find some "inspiration" there.
I love caves and stones and geology and astronomy and a lot of other astounding things.  So, here are a few pictures (or kind of picture) that give me inspiration.

cave SW Australia copyright free

Click to see an enlarged picture
stalactites (hanging) stalagmites (growing up) and pool in a cave


limestone cave, SW Australia

amazing space nebula (NASA)


Our North Star has a companion!

NASA photo of a massive star cluster

quartz crystal points in natural form

Grand Canyon National Park
The Grand Canyon

Lichen on a rock

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Serving of Story Part 3: Too Much Authority Too Soon

On September 20, I wrote a one-sentence comment on my blog:

"When you write, you don't write primarily from the mind, you write out of the love you feel for the people in your story, which means everything you write is meant to serve these people and does not exist to fulfil some intellectual goal of your own, such as getting published."

Today, I have the second of two important comments from readers that I really want to answer in detail, and so I'm doing it here, where I have a lot more room than in the comments section.

At 15 October, 2010 , Blogger Stephen Dunscombe said...

It's been a long, long time since I've felt any love for any of the people in my story, and I only really realised this recently. I still get ideas for *stories* - ideas that grab hold and won't let go, scenes and images that move me, that I want to make happen *somewhere* - but nobody in them has any life to them, and so the writing almost immediately becomes a slog.

I've recently gotten back into fanfic after many years of avoiding it, and I'm finding that helps - it's full of people I already know and love, and so I can go back to who they are again and again.


Fiction is a weirdsome beast.  It is both more and less true than reality.  The more true  part comes from your own understanding that your characters are never going to be coming to knock on your door to ask you to go out to the movies with them.  That one fact, the awareness deep inside you that fictional characters are never going to live  unless you make them live for the reader, forces you to write fiction that other people will want to read.  Fiction also is more true than fact because you, the author, knows what really happened, and why it happened, and why all the people in the story do what they do, and why somebody didn't go to his/her friend's house that night. 

The other part, where fiction is less true than reality, means that fiction is more contained than fact.  When you write fact you're always wondering what part to put in and what part to leave out.  It all happened, right?  But when you write fiction, you serve the story by including within it only those things that matter to the outcome of the story and the understanding of all the characters.  Your character doesn't have to actually tie his shoelaces.  He can just slam out the door.  He doesn't have to slam the green wooden door with the brass-dragon-head knob.  Do you see what I mean? 

There's the kind of Authority, in Story, that serves your story perfectly, allowing you to know 100% of why and how everything in the story happens.  Opposing that, is the desperation of not knowing how much to put in to start with, and how much to just fly with.  Most people don't do enough work period.  But I am fairly certain, given your clue about loving the fan-fiction as opposed to your own creative fiction, that the opposite is your problem.  You do too much work in your own creative fiction before you let yourself fly.

Listen to what MPax had to say about being 100% in Authority over her story:

"I've started the spit & polish on my second novel this weekend. So, I've been putting myself in my main character's shoes. Been writing up character goals, motivation & conflict charts. I don't do that until after the first draft as I plot best when writing. It works best with the characters telling me who they are instead of the other way around. Then I write up sheet to focus and do the spit & polish."
                                                           -MPax, private communication       

In other words, MPax just doesn't try to know 100% of what she knows she's going to have to know, in order for the story to make perfect sense in the world she has let form itself along the way.  She just does her "reality check" at the end.  I've never done that myself, but I can imagine it being "a blast", as she described one of her novels to me.  That's what writing should be.  A "BLAST"!!!  And even more fun because until it gets published, it's all yours.

Going back to fan-fiction, Stephen, and finding it helps you to love your writing again, just has to explain why your "original" fiction might turn to slog for you - as opposed to the love and fun and excitement you have writing fan-fics (which are stories written in worlds and with characters other writers have created, the original story not being fan-fic, but something that allows the original writer to tell one story in one part of his/her world, and to have 100% understanding of why and how everything happened in that story, while still leaving, beyond those boundaries, a richness and edginess that provoke other writers to want to see more and more and more stories in that world, and so to write them themselves.)  Boundaries in fan-fiction, being more or less pre-determined, allow you to relax, settle into a world you already know really well, with some characters you know very well indeed, and either use just them or introduce some new ones, and then create a new story beyond the boundary of the original story.  Because you're relaxed and haven't had to work yourself to death to know everything about everything in this world with people you haven't had to slog over to make real and believable, then you can catch something amazingly like lightning, and write yourself a story and have fun again.
What I believe about you, Stephen, without really any evidence except intuition, is that you are the kind of person who fears to hurt your amazing idea in your own creative fiction by not knowing enough  about your world and its people before you start writing.  How much is too much? How much is enough?

Imagine eating an endless medieval banquet, each course having stuff you like, each course giving you some satisfaction, but as you get fuller, and fuller, and heavier and heavier, you find yourself just... well, tired.  And the courses just don't stop.  You want them to bring a dessert made of air, but always one heavy course leads to another.  Instead of courses of food, imagine creating an island, and peopling it, and then you wonder if it's volcanic, and if so what kind of  pressures created the island just here, so you look across the world at some undersea crevice, and you say, okay, this is getting plugged up and it causes pressure under my island.  Satisfied, you want to go on, but that crevice, why is it getting plugged up?  Being a highly intelligent, thoughtful, and curious individual, you have to know.  And so, one thing leads to the next, and it's just like that banquet, Stephen.  Your world has too much STUFF in it for your story to need, in order to work.  You overdose on heavy main courses of research, and by the time you get to your wonderful idea as the "dessert" part of your story, it's only the beginning

Not fun any more?  Well, I guess not!!!  Not easy to love a brilliant idea that is only the beginning after all the work you've already done. 
Don't take this to mean that you should not do the kind of work that you do, in writing your own creative fiction.    Just don't try to do it all at first, because you'll end up doing more than you'll ever need in your story.  Your idea strikes.  You do not put it on the shelf.  You start writing with it.  It will be only a scene, the first scene where this idea is going to have an effect on characters that are only just vaguely formed in your mind.  As you write it, you'll find out what you need to know that you don't know yet.  When that happens, when there is one thing that simply must be known, then you figure out that one thing.  Eventually, bit by bit, as you are  writing, problems will arise you'll solve them where they happen, and then you'll keep on writing, until a character refuses to do what you'd do, and you don't understand why until you sit down with your notebook and just let the ideas flow. 

I call it having my character in for coffee.

When the need to know something comes up, that's when you do the work.  It's never a slog then.  It's always only one bit of information, and you know why you need to know it, and you don't have to take a year to figure it out.  By the time you're done, you'll know everything you need to know about your world, your characters, and your idea.  Maybe there's other stuff you could know about it, but as long as what you have done is solid and strong and a place for lightning to hit the stars, it doesn't matter.  Let other fan-fiction writers add to your world, and enjoy it that they can.  That you've left them space to do it. They can't change your story because it's 100% solid with your Authority.  But they can love your world, and your characters, and play with them the way, right now, you're playing in other peoples' worlds.

Now won't THAT be amazing?  Knowing you've created a world and characters 100% complete within the boundaries you've set for those characters to solve their particular plot problem, while still leaving enough edges and depths to make other people want to work with them?

Think of your solitary creative fiction like that.  Think that you are creating the source of a million and one fan-fics. 

And every now and then, it doesn't hurt to take a holiday from writing your own stories, anyway.

An excellent method to characterize

MPax has permitted me to use this quote:

"I've started the spit & polish on my second novel this weekend. So, I've been putting myself in my main character's shoes. Been writing up character goals, motivation & conflict charts. I don't do that until after the first draft as I plot best when writing. It works best with the characters telling me who they are instead of the other way around. Then I write up sheet to focus and do the spit & polish."
                                                           -MPax, private communication       

This may help you all to understand my comment to her earlier.  She has Authority, but she doesn't know it until the story is over. See?

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Serving of your Story Part 2: Authority

At the end of September -  was it only a bit more than  two weeks ago? - I posted this to my blog:

When you write, you don't write primarily from the mind, you write out of the love you feel for the people in your story, which means everything you write is meant to serve these people and does not exist to fulfil some intellectual goal of your own, such as getting published.

There were quite a few comments, and I thought a couple of them needed more space than the ridiculously few characters allowed in a comment.  Here's the first one.

At 04 October, 2010 , Blogger Quenby said...

In the past, when I was writing creatively and not academically, I would always base my characters on my family members. I would take small problems or troubling characteristics/situations they had and turn them into a character-defining dimension.

Because I used real people to base my fiction on, I felt so very close to my creations because, while they are severely flawed or fragmented(both my characters and the members of my immediate and extended family)I love them all dearly. I may sometimes be conflicted in my feelings, but there is always love. Investing so much emotion into characters can be exhausting because it forces you to face the aspects of the real people your characters are based on, and it's not always pretty. Through this type of writing, I've found myself able to forgive my characters, who may emphasize a certain flaw more than the real person, and in this way, it can be so very cathartic when you look at the real life inspiration and see their smaller flaw in comparison.

I don't know if this makes much sense, but what I'm trying to articulate is that creative writing can be so very personal, so essential, and so entirely necessary that when you choose to put your work out there for publication only to have it shot down, it can be devastating. I haven't attempted publishing any of my creative writing, but I can surmise that if anyone were to reject my characters or their stories, it would seem like a slight against those dear to me. I want people to be able to forgive my characters the way I have.

Your comments about loving the characters in your stories are different from what I meant when I talked about loving and serving the characters and the story. I'm really glad you brought these points up, however, because you write so cleanly and without confusion that I understand what you are saying and I'm sure other people will understand it too.  By asking it so clearly, I can, I hope, answer you in such a way that other people will gain their own answers too.   I hope, too, that I will be able to provide you (and the rest of the people reading this) with some things to think about, and at least a hint at some of the answers you need.

WHY NOT USE PEOPLE YOU KNOW IN YOUR STORIES?  WHY NOT JUST GIVE THEM NEW NAMES AND USE THEM?  EVERYONE HAS TROUBLE WITH THEIR FAMILIES.  WHY NOT WRITE FROM THE FIRST PERSON AND JUST CHANGE THE NAME OTHER PEOPLE CALL YOU BY IN THE STORY?  WHY NOT WRITE A STORY ABOUT THE FAMILY AND THE TROUBLE YOU'VE HAD WITH THEM -- AND KILL FOUR BIRDS WITH ONE STONE?   (four birds: tell you later.)  These are questions that have come up so many, many times in writing workshops that you needn't feel you've asked something that other people instinctively know.  Virtually no writer I know has ever expressed to me the answers to the above questions, though all the writers I know and respect do NOT use people they know as characters, and do NOT use their own problems, and do NOT write as if they are the main character. 

One problem is that you know your own family.  You learn even more about your own family as you write about them.  It makes you uncomfortable, exhausted even. You add more of the character flaws to the people you love because that is what the story is about, and you get even more exhausted.  Eventually, through writing creatively about them, you come to some kind of resolution that allows you, Quenby, to understand and forgive your own flesh and blood. 

But what has this to do with other peoples' flesh and blood?  This is what has you in a turmoil, Quenby.  Unless you have the freedom to create, to change characters in a major way from the way you believe 100% that they are in your own real life, it is very difficult to make those characters connect to other peoples' flesh and blood.  I know you won't quite believe that.  You'll say, "But I have a friend whose parents did that to her."  And I'll say truthfully, "That's sad.  Was it exactly that, what they did to your friend?  And do you know why they did it?  Was it for the very same reason as your parents did what they did to you?" 

Now in saying this, I'm not really writing about your parents, Quenby.  I don't even know your parents.  I don't know your friend, or your friend's parents.  I don't know what the problem is that your "parents" did to "you" and that you are "writing out".  My connections to everything here are only as true as you can make them be for me.  

"Well I'll just write more about them, and then you'll know," you might say.

"Maybe I don't really believe that you are remembering with 100% truth everything you've already written,"  one of your readers might say, who will perhaps have just seen or will have seen early on through the "fictional" first person narrator to know it's really you, the author.  You would have entered your own story somehow, and the reader would have seen it. 

How?  I believe it has to do with AUTHORITY.

An author has authority because s/he knows 100% of what happened in the story and why.  S/he has notes.  S/he has what s/he has already written.  S/he has friends to tell him or her, after reading something, "Hey man, why didn't your main character just go live with his best friend?"  To an author, that would be an option, one that would be carefully considered, and even (okay, I'm not as crazy as this sounds :}) would kind of been talked over with the character, to see if it's something the character would choose to do under these circumstances.  But a writer who is writing a story based on coloured fact, would simply say, "He didn't, that's all."


And now we are into the first place where fact is different from fiction.  Your life seen through your eyes, is very different than your life seen through your family's eyes.  Truth is somewhere in there.  Some things are true, some are only true in your eyes, some are never true.  I know this.  I have a daughter.  She remembers some things one way.  I remember those episodes quite differently.  The truth is in there somewhere, but it's not for sure 100% accurate in my mind and it's not for sure 100% accurate in my daughter's mind.  Neither of us are liars.  Nor are you, Quenby.  All this problem with truth happens because no one really knows the whole truth of a real life story the way a writer of fiction knows the whole truth of a fictional story. 

Memory colours events.  We just had a guest for the weekend.  This is a fact.  A story came up about a thing that happened 25 years ago.  The two guys were going to do a musical gig on radio.  One of them remembers (or so I was re-told this morning) that he had to keep using the bathroom.  The other of them remembers that neither of them ever even left the car because a panic attack was going on.  Today, having heard the story, last night, I remembered our guest saying he'd gotten locked in the bathroom.  I also remember the panic attack story.  There's truth in what I remember.  But what part of my memory is the exact truth?  Can I even be 100% sure that the one that remembers the panic attack in the parked car remembers it 100% accurately?

You are right to say you can't easily "expose" your stories to a critic's gaze.  You didn't say this, but I know that part of the reason you are uncomfortable and exhausted at the thought is that you are stifled by the reality that your parents/siblings/cousins/etc. will read your story no matter how you try to hide its publication from them, and know what you think of them, or thought of them, before you wrote your way to understanding and forgiving them.  You know very well they don't see themselves the way you do. That they never thought of themselves the way you did.  Worse, in making them a bit "worse" or "different" for the sake of the conflict you're writing this story around, they will see the exaggeration and nothing else you could ever say will bring them back to you with love.  They don't care if you forgive them in the end of the story, because they don't realize what on earth made you think they needed forgiveness in the first place.   Therefore, what is true for you isn't true for them.

Kill four birds with one stone: your family's sense of itself, yourself in relationship to them in your mind once you've "written it out" and seen how much less bad they are than you had thought, yourself in relationship to them once they read the story, and -- the story itself.  You'll kill it for sure, because you won't have served all the characters in it with the kind of love that lets them be what they are. 

 A fiction writer would let them be what they are, even mean.  By letting them be that way, the fiction writer (a very good one, anyway) would come to understand why they are that way.  Remember Margaret Laurence's novel The Stone Angel?  Remember that dreadful female main character?  Did you love her at the end?  I did.  I cried for her.  But a writer can't make that happen for a reader unless s/he has the freedom to allow the characters to slowly explain, through the things they do,  100% of why they are the way they are.  In the end, then, the author will know 100% about everyone and everything in the story.  It won't be a question of what's right and what's wrong, or who remembers what.  In writing about your family, Quenby, you would always be constrained by the fact that they can't be evil, they can't even do real evil,  because you love them. 

Write with authority.  Write fiction.

Make it up, and make it seem real.

Keep on writing your excellent slice-of-life from your point-of-view diaristic but resolved stories, if you want to.  And then hide them until everyone who could ever be hurt by them is dead.  

But don't limit yourself like this, Quenby.  Hang loose, free yourself from reality, and then sit down at the computer and INVENT. 

Sunday, October 17, 2010


There is a site I belong to that gives its members the freedom to review a book by one word:




Or, almost as bad, to review a book by simply using stars:

The guidelines are: 1 star: I hated it
                             2 stars: it was okay
                             3 stars: I liked it
                             4 stars: I really loved it
                             5 stars: It was amazing.

What do you think about this kind of book reviewing?