The facts in fiction

Karalee’s Post #97

Research is a necessary part of a writer’s journey. It’s often a major part of developing/designing our characters and it gives depth to our settings and ideas for our plots. As writers we use research to:

  • get facts straight.
  • know our characters’ world enough to be true to the characters’ behaviors and understanding of their world.
  • be authentic to the time era chosen for the story.

This can sound scary and it was for me when I first started writing. What if I got a fact wrong or didn’t describe something the way it really is? My reputation would be ruined before it was even made….

Now I’m more relaxed and don’t panic if I don’t know something when I’m writing. I can make a note of it and even research it later for exactly what I need and not read the entire encyclopedia of information on that subject (like I did before). Like most writers I can easily get lost in research. It’s often  a lot of fun, but it can also be a friend of the procrastinator. See Silk’s post on that subject! Above all else, it can be a huge time eater, consuming oodles and oodles of time.

One of my characters in my murder mystery has family connections to South Africa. I referred to a Kudu horn this week so I did a quick research on the internet to get a good picture of it in my mind. Of course I also read other information regarding Kudu horns and I now know that there is a Kudu poo spitting contest that more than likely I  won’t use in my story, but it still amuses me days later. This is one of the reasons that research eats time. Writers love to read and learn about stuff.

In his last post Joe is researching for his historical fiction novel in order to create an awesome character. Writers need to understand what has made their character the person he/she is in his story and how that character will react in different situations. I can picture Joe frantically writing down all his ‘What if…?” questions while surrounded by a roomful of books depicting the era of the war to end all wars. What if’s are so much fun and dig into the creative part of one’s brain.

At what point can research be enough and the writing begin? This is a question without absolutes for an answer since every writer has their own style AND level of knowledge about their subject. Writing about what you know eliminates much of the research regarding some subjects, but it doesn’t negate the process of developing your characters from birth to where they are presently in their lives. All writers need to build back-story for all major characters as well as most minor ones, although to a lesser extent.


For me, this is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the writing process.

Fiction is fiction and there is huge room for creativity, but for sure facts need to be correct or some expert out there will call you on it.

I laughed when I read a well known tourist guidebook when I was in Vegas last week. It says that only one building in Vegas tops 100 storeys and that is the Stratosphere. The entry then encourages tourists to go on the bungee-style SkyJump that drops your 108 storeys from said building. Of course my mind sees a huge SPLAT when I envision the bungee chord being longer than the building is high! Technically the guidebook wasn’t incorrect, but my mind saw 100 for the height of the building and 108 for the drop from the top. Then I wondered if survivors got a special deal on their next jump?? 🙂

This week:

  • No, I didn’t go to a cheap poker table in Vegas. (too chicken) Instead I played blackjack for money for the first time and went through my $100.00 almost too quickly to catch anyone else’s body language!  The fun factor didn’t last long, but I had my own feelings to reflect on and a lesson learned.
  • I consciously people watched in Vegas whenever out and about and at different gambling tables. Lots of sights to see!
  • Words written: 2,000.
  • Desserts eaten at buffet – your guess is as good as mine! Cheesecake and Crème Brule are favorites.
  • lots of walking to counteract above.

Happy writing! If I can write in Vegas, I can write anywhere!



Mr. Hemingway’s typewriter

Paula’s Post #98 — 1964, in the clip above, the great science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke predicted ‘the future’. A future where it would no longer be necessary to commute to hold meetings. A future where individuals in diverse and sometimes remote regions of the world would nevertheless enjoy immediate interconnectedness with colleagues around the globe.

I came upon this clip quite by accident but was amazed to discover, in retrospect, how eerily ‘prescient’ Mr. Clarke was about the society in which we live today.

While I do not know for sure, I suspect that on this Thanksgiving Day in the US, while I am basking in the California sunshine, one eye on today’s NFL football game while simultaneously perusing Brussels sprout recipes on Pinterest and surfing the net for interesting blog content for today’s post, my 5writer colleagues will be similarly multi-tasking.

2500 kilometres to the north, in a suburban outpost of Vancouver, Joe may be googling “Pre-war Amsterdam” or ‘US Infantry flamethrowers” or “Mustard Gas” while the latest instalment of “Game of Thrones” plays out on Netflix and the alarm on his iPhone reminds him he must put on his muck-lucks soon to pick up ‘the Oldest’ and ‘the Youngest’ at school, a new routine for new step-dad Joe.

A few miles further north and just across the river, Helga may have her iPad open on the kitchen counter, Skyping with her mother in Vienna. I imagine her chatting with her 92 year old mother, as she does every day, about the weather in their respective cities, or inquiring after old family friends, or perhaps confiding about the challenges she is facing in making all her beautiful artwork fit in their new home after a recent downsizing move. But Helga, too, may well be multi-tasking while she chats, laptop open before her as she checks out incoming email, or facebook.

Across town, I bet Karalee has her laptop open too. She’s had her nose to the proverbial grindstone lately, right in the midst of a gruelling,12-week online writing course she’s taking on first draft plotting and character development.  But none of us live in splendid isolation, and I know Karalee has a busy life with a husband and three kids. So I suspect she is also keeping up with a flurry of text messages from the kids, while figuring out what to make for dinner and simultaneously  emailing all members of her hiking group about the location for this weekend’s hike. All possible without ever leaving the table.  All possible without picking up the phone or opening her mouth to speak.

And Silk? Our transplanted Yankee? Maybe she’s cooking a big turkey dinner over on bucolic Saltspring Island. If so, perhaps she’ll give it a good pesto rub with the fresh basil pesto she put up last summer, or use some of those home-grown apples for the stuffing. But if that all so sounds oh so 20th C to you, do not fear. Knowing Silk, she will already have perused a dozen writing blogs and be emailing us with the latest tidbits on indie publishing. Or maybe she’s working on her review of Larry Brooks’ ‘Story Engineering‘, which I think she plans to use as some kind of ‘hall pass’ to get out of actually outlining the novel she is about to embark on. Oh, and knowing Silk, she’ll also be right in the midst of resizing jpegs and choosing fonts for the latest edition of the Sailing Club Newspaper.

I haven’t seen most of my 5writer colleagues for over two months, but thanks to the power of the internet, I bet I have a pretty accurate picture of how they might be spending their day. All these marvels may seem common place to us now, but fifty years ago in 1964, when Mr. Clark made his bold predictions about ‘the future’, American Thanksgiving was the ‘starting gate’ for my parent’s annual Christmas card binge fest. A four week stretch in the run-up to Thanksgiving where they’d sit down at a card table in the living room and spend hours each evening crafting hand written, personalized, chatty ‘Christmas Cards’ to a list of friends and families who’s contact details were carefully entered into a special little address book. The ‘list’ stored with boxes of left over cards in the closet under the stairs. Ready for next year.

In 1964, the writing and receiving of Christmas Cards was a ritual of communication equivalent to today’s internet communication via email, facebook and Twitter. It is how we checked on the health of old friends, shared news of children, promotions, vacations, moves and marriages. Some even used a mass form of this medium, enclosing the ubiquitous, mimeographed ‘Christmas Letter’ so mocked by my witty mother.

I recall my Mom, upon receiving one of these chatty communications, would spend hours composing ‘replies’ –  hilarious parodies where she’d counter her friends boastings of their husband’s promotion to ‘Second Assistant Regional Sales Manager’; or ‘Susie’s handsome letterman prom date’, or ‘Carl’s third-place swimming trophy’ countering with her own albeit ‘fake’ revelations of the dramatic ‘news’ in our family which usually focused on some unwanted teen pregnancy, hooliganism or other harrowing misfortunes.

She never sent these replies, but my mom could be pretty damn funny at times.

She came from a family where you were brought up to believe it was wrong to boast about your achievements. Wrong to engage in boorish ‘my-child-is-clever-than-your-child’ gabfests. God knows what she’d think of the endless photos on facebook of children’s soccer trophies and dance recitals… or the endless photos of hubby’s new Jaguar or Porsche… the suite the Ritz Carlton where the Jones stayed while on their anniversary trip to the Big Apple.

Yes, times have changed. If I received a ‘Christmas Letter’ that made me laugh and if I was in a spiteful mood, I could, with a click of my mouse, forward the offending letter to my entire address book. Boom! Done.

But a revolution in social communication is not the only revolution wrought by the internet. As Joe’s post of yesterday on ‘Researching Characters’ reveals, we are now in an age where Joe can, with a few taps of his fingertips, learn what uniform his character would would have worn in the Great War. He can research in minute detail where the wool was woven, he can find images of the doughboy’s rations and even create a lexicon of era-appropriate slang. In short, his work is a lot easier than say, Mr. Hemingway’s, who had to actually sign on to be an ambulance driver, get shelled by artillery and spend days recuperating in a field hospital to know what shrapnel wounds felt like.

This is no slight to Joe. Just a simple illustration of how easy we now have it. Easy, and at the same time difficult, for the internet is like a vast smorgasbord, where new dishes never stop coming. At some point, we must push away from the table and write.

Here, maybe Mr. Hemingway had the advantage. No laptop, no email, no facebook, no twitter. No Skype, or FaceTime, Pinterest or Instagram. No iphone. No text messages.

Just a keyboard. A keyboard, his imagination and a blank piece of paper.

Hey! I bet you won’t guess what I just found? Did you know there is a website called ?

Started in 1974, it’s an ongoing project featuring the lives, works, and typewriters of the most outstanding authors around the world including, of course, Mr. Hemingway.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, i took me about 3 seconds to find photos of Mr. Hemingway with his typewriter.


Maybe 40 total to find a royalty free image from Wikepedia Commons, of a Hemingway typewriter with a blank page in it.

800px-Hemingway_typewriter_studio_FL1 That’s research today.

My question for next week?

Are we better writers? Or just better researchers? 

My “Thanks” for Thanksgiving?

I’m thankful for my loving husband, for putting up with me.

I’m thankful for my wonderful stepkids and grandkids, who live too far away but send such great photos and movie clips of the kids and whom I hope to see ‘in person’ soon.

I’m thankful for the talent, camaraderie, hard-work, unselfishness and honest feedback from my 5writer colleagues, and yes, for the ability of the internet to keep us feeling like ‘a group’ scattered though we are.

I’m thankful for the many ‘gifts’ of kindness from my many friends and family throughout the year.

I’m thankful for good health.

And I’m thankful for never being bored, even though, sometimes, then internet means I don’t get as much done as I think I am going to get done.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Oh… and did you know Angelina Jolie wanted to buy a Hemingway Typewriter for Brad as a wedding present? It must be true, I read it on TMZ!

Best Show Last Week – Check out Chicago PD.  A fast-paced and driven cop drama.

Book That I’m Reading At the Moment – Tamar – Oh I have some things to say about this one!

Outlines Done – 0

Pages written on New Book  0

# Turkeys eaten – only a little bit of one… more today.


Researching characters

Joe’s Post #120 

William "Wild Bill" Donovan, future head of CIA

William “Wild Bill” Donovan, future head of CIA

Researching characters? Say what?

Has anyone ever done research to help create a character?

Well, that’s what I’m doing. It’s because I’m writing a historical thriller. It’s because a character is built from their past. It’s because of what has happened to them,shapes them. Defines them.

It’s how they see the world. All plot flows from their experiences, training, and personality. All descriptions are seen through their eyes, which has seen so many things before. It’s how they deal with relationships, with adversity, with success or failure.

So how can research help?

Well, once again, I’m just me. But once I have an idea of a character, I need to know their past. For this story, I looked at the Great War and how it affected people. I remember talking to my great-uncle about his experiences. I was 10 and he was, gosh, old, I guess. Really old. He got a funny look on his face when I asked him about it. Like he wasn’t there suddenly.

I thought old age. But he came back and told me a horrific story of being gassed. He told the story with intensity, like it mattered that I know it, like it was yesterday, like it still terrified him. When he was done, he was exhausted, his eyes were wet, and he said, “No one should ever have to experience war.”

That war changed him in a very deep way.

Know this fellow? He was deeply affected by WW1.

Know this fellow? He was deeply affected by WW1.

So for this story, I began to read more about that war to end all wars. I knew I wanted my character to suffer. I wanted that war to transform him. So how could I make a horrific, truly horrific war even worse? What role could he have played in the war? How could he have been scared physically, emotionally?

I came up with a flamerthrower carrier. A man who burned other men alive. A man who every German machine gunner tried to kill over all others. How would THAT affect him?

Or, how would he deal with gas or drowning in the water-filled shell holes? Wait, water-filled, what if he couldn’t swim? What if he fell in with a 50lb tank of gasoline on his back and began to sink in the watery mud, struggling, clawing, tearing at the sides of the hole, sinking deeper, going under once, fighting for breath, going under, twice, terrified…

And who could save him who would later reappear in his life? Or would he save himself? Would he learn he could count on people or learn there was only himself?

But no, dammit, the US army didn’t use flamethrowers. History was against me, this time. Next week I’ll talk a bit about fact vs fiction, but for now, dammit, no flamethrowers.

So what if I replace the flamethrower with a wounded friend he was carrying? Hmmm.

Would his parents have been interned?

Would his parents have been interned?

On to other parts of his life. What defined him as a child? As a young adult? Growing up in Chicago, being the son of emigrant?  How could I make his life tougher? How could I make it a vital part of who he became? What if he grew up in a poor area, an Irish area, where there were only 2 choices in life, gangs or cops? And what if both were equally bad?

Then what would motivate him to go to war? What posters would inspire him? What speeches? What articles read in the newspaper? Ah, wait, newspapers, could he read? Did he go to school or did he have to help his father? What if his father was a blue collar worker through and through, but wanted more for his son and pushed him to read? Would that make his closer to the Irish boys? Or more of an outcast, quoting Byron or Marx or Dickens?

Public Service Announcement, Chicago, 1919

Public Service Announcement, Chicago, 1919

Then, when he got back, how could I make his life worse, still? What if the great flu pandemic killed off his wife, his family? We forget that 50-100 million people died. 50 million people!!! Wouldn’t that affect him?

And what would he vow when he got back home, later than the rest, having missed the parades, his lungs scared by gas? What would he believe in? What would he not? What if he vowed he would never kill again, no wait, that doesn’t quite work, so what if he vowed to save people, save as many as he killed? Would he become a gangster? No, probably not. A cop?

Why not? The last honest man in Chicago? A bull fired with determination to help people, even the dead. Maybe, ESPECIALLY the dead.

Then, how would he find the roaring twenties? How would he get through the Great Depression? How would he deal with Prohibition and the massive corruption it created? How would he deal with raising his sister, the only member of his family to have survived the pandemic? What if she became his world, his anchor?

Brücke Nijmwegen, Sicherung durch holländische SoldatenThen what would happen if she left and got in trouble? What if she sent a message from Holland in 1940 saying she needed his help? And what if he arrived too late to save her?

All of this has to be based on history, HIS history – as influenced by the world around him or the people in it.

This all begins with research. I want to read about the letters they wrote home. I want to read about the details of the battle. I want to read the newspapers of the time. I want to find out if mail got to the front lines (spoiler, it did!). I want to know what they wore, the conflicts between race and religion and social status. EVERYTHING!

All so I can know the world that shaped my character(s).

I love finding this stuff out, I really do, but there’s a trap, isn’t there?

I’m not writing a history book.

At some point, I need to get my character onto the page and torture him some more.


Best Show Last Week – Check out “Chicago PD”.  A fast-paced and driven cop drama.

Book That I’m Reading At the Moment – Tamar – Oh I have some things to say about this one!

Outlines Done – 0

Pages written on New Book  0

# Turkeys eaten – 1 but somehow I forgot the stuffing!!!!!!!!!!!

# of new friends made on Twitter – 7 (hmmm, have I neglected twitter? She is such a needy thing, she is.)

# books ordered for research – 0 (But I need to look into Chicago between wars and find me a good WW1 book.)

Health – Better.

Best Thing Last Week – Finding a book about Paris in 1938, a best-selling novel by Alan Furst called Mission to Paris. Who says WW2 books can’t sell?

Worst Thing – Taking classes for the first time in 20 years. Ever had that nightmare about being in class and knowing nothing? Well, that was my experience, but at least I had pants on (unlike my dreams).

How was everyone else’s week?


Character, character, character


Silk’s Post #110 — In real estate, famously, the three most important things are location, location, location. In writing, it’s character, character, character. At least, according to me.

Let me convince you.

But first: a spoiler alert.

I’m about to riff off Joe’s last post, “Writing rules?”, in which he discusses how successfully a great book (and now movie) – Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn – can break a bunch of them and make you forget there were supposed to be rules at all. I will be submitting Gone Girl as Exhibit A in my character, character, character argument. And I may give away a few of Flynn’s dirty little secrets.

gone-girlGone Girl is a book-length collision of characters. A suspenseful, horrifying, grotesque dance of truth and lies, love and hate, clarity and delusion, dominance and submission. It brings out the prurient interest of the reader at a deep and unwholesome level, like a kind of intellectual porn. It is spectacular.

The pas de deux at the heart of the book is a wild tango: the externally ordinary but internally twisted marriage between Nick and Amy, two of the most compelling characters in modern American literature.

As Joe mentioned (and this is not giving much away to the insightful reader, who will recognize it very quickly), both Nick and Amy are unreliable narrators of their own stories. Both are point-of-view characters. Both play the dual roles protagonist and antagonist. Both are heroes. Both are anti-heroes. Both are villains. In fact, it’s a crowded marquis when you add up all the credits for these two characters alone.

Gone Girl is, in short, the perfect case study of how all stories are started by characters, are driven forward by characters, and are brought to a resolution by characters. Pretty strong blanket statement, eh? Any arguments against? I’m sure there are.

What about all those other story elements? Concept, for example. Doesn’t a story really begin there, ignited by the classic “disturbance to normal life”? Well, yes. But it’s the characters’ response to that disturbance that begins the story itself. Disturb away to your heart’s content, but if nobody reacts there is no story.

In storytelling, the old conundrum of whether a tree falling in the forest makes a sound if nobody is there to hear it is finally resolved. Nope. No sound. At least not one that can be written about.

And, by the way, writers come up with “concepts”. It’s part of the creative process. Readers, however, don’t read “concepts”. They read stories.

Okay, but how about theme? Isn’t that really the core of many stories? In a theme-driven story, the characters are essentially actors employed to deliver the key message. Their actions and feelings and fates illustrate ideas or forces that are deeper, bigger, more universal than the consequences of their own small lives. I mean, think saga here. Think good vs. evil.

But hold on. Isn’t the real appeal of this type of book the human drama of characters caught up in a thematic story world full of moral dilemmas and conflicts between things like sacrifice vs. comfort, duty vs. love, society vs. the individual? What meaning or resonance would any literary theme have without the personal, human dimension created by characters of free will?

And let’s also clear up that old “law” that conveniently explains the division that’s supposed to exist between “character-driven” novels (often described as literary fiction) and “plot-driven” novels (presumed to be commercial fiction). Apparently, in these “character driven” stories, nothing actually happens. Characters just lie around, inert, thinking thoughts. In contrast, “plot driven” story characters are swept along in a river of action, constantly busy doing whatever their author wants them to, like tin soldiers moved around a pretend battleground by an eight-year-old general.

Maybe once upon a time, this seemed like a good way to categorize books. Someone must have thought it made sense, because we’ve all heard this “character driven” vs. “plot driven” mantra for years (to me it always sounded like code for hardcover vs. pulp). But I’m not buying it anymore.

I’m prepared to go out on a limb and declare that a story, at its heart, is always about people doing stuff, simple as that. Character + action. And in the old chicken-and-egg riddle, I further declare that the character chicken came before the action egg. Hell, I like to live dangerously.

Think about it. Whether it’s literary fiction, paranormal, action story, romance, sci fi, horror, historical, humour, mystery, suspense, thriller, YA, steampunk, or urban post-apocalyptic teen vampire fantasy, every story must be driven forward by the actions of characters. And those actions are driven by the (simple or complex) feelings, needs, motivations and beliefs of those characters – which is what makes the actions interesting and compelling. Character, character, character! I can’t say it enough.

I think we “emerging writers” get tripped up by this very simple principle sometimes. We take it to heart that character is important, so we often start by engineering a protagonist by the Frankenstein method. We stitch together a bunch of humanoid ingredients – gender, age, looks, strengths, weaknesses, clothes, hobbies, likes, dislikes, hair and eye colour, personality – tack on a backstory, and … voila! Our creature is ready to drop into a plot!

Not so fast. Here are just are two of the potential problems still lurking.

The first problem is that we have created, essentially, a mannequin. It still needs to be brought to life (remember the lightning storm in Mary Shelley’s brilliant Frankenstein?). Our mannequin protagonist isn’t a character until he actually starts doing (and feeling) something. Instead, we often spend a lot of pages introducing our character to readers passively, through description and backstory.

We want them to understand who this character is, deep down inside. What makes him tick. We want them to love our proud creation. Or at least to relate to him. We often don’t even realize we’re doing this – standing next to our protagonist like a proud parent telling the reader all about him instead of letting him show them his stuff. But for me, as a reader, meeting a new protagonist in the early pages of a book often feels like an enforced tour of Grandma’s baby picture album. I suspect these are the pages most agents and editors chop without mercy.

(Have you had the experience, as I have, of speed dating an agent at a writers’ conference and being told to start your story on page 6 or 10? Why? Because they know what readers actually want. They want to get to know the character through his actions.)

The second problem (just skip this paragraph if you’ve never, ever done this) is that we tend to mould our protagonist in our own image. Writers are always sneakily writing about themselves – or the selves they’d really like to be (or perhaps are afraid they might become). How can I say this, you might protest, when your protagonist is totally different from you? Different age, looks, circumstances, maybe even gender! Okay, then, why do so many protagonists come off as essentially good guys with some obvious (but mostly endearing) “faults” pasted on, often faults that don’t go deeper than quirks? My suspicion is it’s because we identify so strongly with them. They’re our stand-ins. Their popularity is our popularity. We don’t want them to piss anyone off, and that can lead to a bland protagonist.

So now, let’s go back to Gone Girl. Want to know how to create unforgettable characters? Read this book. It’s an extreme example because Gillian Flynn gets us addicted to her unreliable (and ultimately unlikeable) characters to the extent that we have to find out what they’ll do next, even though it makes us uncomfortable. Despite the fact that they’re really quite fucked up, we want to understand them. And even while they make us cringe, we don’t hate them.

And here’s the brilliance of this psychological thriller: we keep seeing flashes of our secret selves in them, hating to admit it. They become a kind of Rorschach test for the reader. We don’t just want to find out what happens to them in the end. We need to know.

The punchline of my thesis: the only ones who can entice, motivate, even force readers to turn the page in your book are your characters. They are your stars, sometimes temperamental and difficult to direct. But if you can dig down and get a powerful performance out of them, they’ll put you on the bestseller lists.

Writing with distractions

Karalee’s Post #96

I’m off for a few days with my husband for a mini-break before the Christmas rush, and to get to a warmer place than Vancouver in November.


What does this mean for my writing?

I will be taking my computer loaded with my manuscript on Scrivener and continue to dedicate 3 hours a day to writing. It helps that I’m taking a course through Writer’s Digest on 12 Weeks to a First Draft.

poker chipsIt also sparked my memory regarding what I can do as a writer to REALLY  help with my weakest area regarding writing and that’s character development. I recently took another course with Dean Wesley Smith called Character Voice and Setting. I learned about and started to have a much better understanding of how to write a character that readers relate to and get emotionally involved with. Two of many gems I took away are:

  1. Setting is always in the opinion of the character. (This is GOLD)
  2. If you want to study human behaviors, a great place is to take $100.00 and go to the cheap poker table and study people as you blow your money. Dean assured the class that we would get our money’s worth!

So with this realization I’m even more excited to go to Vegas! I don’t know the game of poker (well, a little bit only), but either I can learn or I can watch (and take notes) while my husband loses $100.00!

Jane Friedman also had a guest blogger this week, John Williams at Glimmer Train, that addressed character as well. It is an issue for all writers and the more one learns about this aspect, I believe the more believable characters one can develop.

C.S. Lakin that writes the blog is also an excellent resource for character development and many aspects of writing.

Happy Writing!

Writing rules?

timmiesJoe’s Post #119 – So there I was, bum in chair, a Timmies coffee steaming beside me, the sounds of skates and coaches yelling just beyond the plexiglass in the Langley Sportsplex, and I was just about to write another riveting, nay, epic tale about my research.

But no. Though I’ve learned some amazing things about Holland during the war and my books have all come in (including a text-book on Anglo-Dutch relations during the war, and I don’t mean a sex book) I thought, based on the last posts by Silk and Paula, that I’d talk about a book.

The reason I want to talk about it is it’s a book I read on recommendation, a book that’s been turned into a movie, and a book that does something (actually a LOT of things) different.

gone girlIt’s Gone Girl.

Oh, it’s a massively clever book, this one. It’s a writer’s book. And it’s one that all writers need to look at in their darkest moments, when the rules of writing or a teacher’s words about what to do and what not to do come haunting us in the dark.

First off, it’s got two “I” perspectives, or what I like to call ‘first person perspectives’. That’s odd right there. Two you say? Why, yes, two. One from the present, the other, mostly, from a diary. How many times have we heard that can’t be done? Well, Gillian Flynn did it. And did it well.

Second, backstory. It starts on the 2nd chapter.

Wait, what? I thought we couldn’t have backstory right off the bat? Well, looks like you can.

Third. Two, count them, two unreliable narrators. I don’t want to give away plot points or twists or spoilers, but both lie their asses off to the reader, either by omission or by outright deception. Now, who has heard we can’t have unreliable narrators? Who thinks you can’t write a book, a book in 1st person that has things hidden from the reader?

Well, Gone Girl did just that.


In your face.

So, I ask you, are there any hard-cannot-break-rules for storytelling? Really? Did she outline or not outline? Did she worry about making her characters likeable or unlikeable? I dunno.

What she did was write a brilliant story. It’s seriously one of the best books I’ve read in a long, long while. She told the story she wanted to tell and told it the way she wanted to tell it.

It’s compelling because it has a great question that needs to be answered. It works because the voices in the book are unique, brutally observant, and (frankly) deeply disturbing. It’s amazing because the plot is so tight, so tense that it’s impossible to put down. (Oh and check out her verbing of words – like someone “mosquitoing around her.”)

So here’s the thing, at least for me, and it harkens (yes, I said ‘harkens’) back to something one of my writing gurus said. “Just write a good book.” “But how, dammit, how?” I cried out. And there are ways to do it, techniques to use to hook a reader, to make them not be able to stop at the end of a chapter, to have characters we loathe and love, etc, etc, but when it comes to writing that book, just write it.

Anyway you want.

I think I’ll do mine in my own blood. I hear agents love that.

‘Un-novel’: the antithesis of novel



Paula’s Post #97 — Who, do you suppose, besides me, caught the faint but unmistakable whiff of rebellion in Silk’s last post on ‘Chaos Theory‘?

Her near-visceral longing to hear her literary and creative heroes grant her ‘permission’ to embark upon her novel with joyful abandon… to ‘set sail’ (an apt metaphor, as Silk is the nautical one amongst us)… to break free from the chafing strictures and the ties that bind.

Silk is not alone. I, too, admit to a certain ‘wistfulness’, knowing that our next 5writers novels are intended to be:

…thoughtfully planned…


…the product of focused study (see previous posts on ‘deconstruction’)…

…finally crafted…

…and based on the classic art and science of story-telling, as explained by the gurus of fiction-writing.

In other words, no more ‘free-wheeling’ fun. No more ripping out a story, not knowing where we are headed. No more entertaining ourselves. No more letting our characters run roughshod over our rudimentary plotting, no more letting our characters send the story reeling away in an entirely new direction.

We’re going to do it right, this time, Dad gum it! Just you wait and see.

Or so we told ourselves, when we promised that, this time, we’d approach this novel writing business scientifically and learn, learn, learn, learn our craft the hard-way, no matter how boring it may be to deconstruct an entire novel.

Except, in the oft quoted words of the Bard, aye, there’s the rub.

At least for me.

Because the truth is, it is boring.

Really boring.

I feel like I’m back in school. Wait. Worse than that. I feel like I am back in math class. Yes, math class. Struggling to construct and deconstruct algebraic formulae (and yes, Silk, or whomever else is out there checking on sin and syntax, and spelling, the plural of formula, is formulae).

I looked it up.

And guess what? Looking up mundane facts is, shockingly, more fun than trying to deconstruct a novel.

Let me expand on this theme.

I currently have at my bedside a table full of fabulous new and half-read novels. Virgin novels, so to speak. I mean, isn’t that the whole idea of a novel? That it be, well, not to put to fine a point on it, ‘novel’? As in virgin? As in not despoiled?

But I’m not reading those virgin novel novels right now.

We agreed.

They are not part of the program. Instead, I’ve more or less promised to deconstruct a previously read  novel: Louise Penny’s, fine, first published novel, Still Life.

Except I already read it.

Almost a year ago. And that means, even at my age and with my memory not quite as sharp as it once was… I still more or less remember it.

And of course, that means that it is not novel at all. It is un-novel. Except there’s pretty much no such word, unless you’re quoting from the French (in which case, it is going to be spelled ‘une nouvelle’ since the French decided, way back when, in the way that the French like to do, that ‘novel’ is one of those nouns that should be feminine, not masculine).

That’s actually a fascinating topic, come to think of it. Have you ever looked at the absurd way the French divided all their nouns into masculine and feminine?

I once had a French person explain to me that the predominantly male French scholars who decided on these ‘gender assignments’ had a penchant for making all good and wonderful things male, and all the other not-so-wonderful things, female. How else can you explain, as writer David Sedaris once humorously pointed out — the French rather confusingly assign the masculine to the word “vagina.”

Oh, but where was I?

Although there is no such thing as ‘un-novel’. We do have the French, ‘use nouvelle’, or better yet, ‘un roman.’

So, no, there is no such word as un-novel. Not really.  But there could be. Soon.  Just like “selfie”. Why, as we speak, we 5writers could be creating a previously unknown word, and making something utterly new.  Created by we 5writers in our quest to deconstruct. We could make up the word:



Like Silk, I’m feeling wistful right about now.

Like most of my 5writer colleagues, I’m super busy this fall. Pre-occupied with many different things and perhaps busier than I’ve been since I retired from the Public Prosecution Service.

I’m busy with responsibilities at work and at home.

Deconstruction,  like school work, requires space, time, diligence, patience and discipline. Writing requires all those things, too. But writing is interesting. Especially when you’re telling yourself a story. Especially, when you don’t know how it ends.

Pages deconstructed since last blog post: 10

Pages I want to deconstruct before next blog post: 0

Pages I want to read? Pages I want to write?: Now, we’re getting somewhere.

P. S.

Word Origin and History for “Novel”
adj. — “new, strange, unusual,” early 15c., but little used before 1600, from Old French novel, nouvel “new, young, fresh, recent; additional; early, soon” (Modern French nouveau, fem. nouvelle), from Latin  novellas “new, young, recent,” diminutive of novus “new”.
n. — “fictitious narrative,” 1560s, from Italian novella “short story,” originally “new story,” from Latin novella “new things” (cf. Middle French  novella, French nouvelle), neuter plural or fem. of  novellas. Originally “one of the tales or short stories in a collection” (especially Boccaccio’s), later (1630s) “long work of fiction,” works which had before that been called romances.


“A novel is like a violin bow; the box which gives off the sounds is the soul of the reader.” — Stendhal, Life of Henri Brulard


Chaos theory for writers


Silk’s Post #109 — One of the light-bulb moments for me at this year’s Surrey International Writers’ Conference came during the terrific panel discussion, “Edge of Your Seat Tension” with bestselling mystery/suspense authors Chevy Stevens, Hallie Ephron and Robert Wiersema.

The inciting question was a perennial one: do you outline your stories before you write them? (The debate between OPs and NOPs – or planners vs. pantsers, if you will – never ends, does it? It’s the Mobius loop of writing.)

Three heads nodded in unison, well, figuratively anyway. Yes! They all outline!

Damn. The buoyancy leaked out of me like a deflated balloon. I hated to hear this endorsement of the dreaded outline, especially from these admired writers.

Why? I am outline averse. I’ve tried traditional outlining a few times and never could stick it out to “the end”. I’ve flirted with all sorts of other plot planning schemes – from the formulaic to the esoteric – and I just haven’t found a method yet for anticipating my way through the entire sequence of a novel-length story from start to finish.

I lack that crystal ball in my head. Damn. How do these people do it?

Then one of them (Robert, I think) gave the game away. He always writes an outline, he said, and then always departs from it fairly quickly. I had a vision of a happy train jumping the track and chugging off across the hills and dales toward some unmapped and unscheduled magical station. A railroad relative of the Hogwart’s train, perhaps. Hallie chimed in with her own admission of outline abandonment. Chevy noted that her publisher likes her to stick to an outline. She sounded a little sad about that, I thought, like a kid who has to stay inside and finish her homework before she’s allowed outdoors to play.

This was all very liberating. Pantsers unite!

But wait. These writers do still outline, even knowing their stories are, more likely than not, going to skitter off in some unanticipated direction later. Why do they do it? I sensed I was still not off the story structure planning hook (in fact, I’m now immersed in Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering, which seems a promising approach for naturally organic writers like me).

But I’ve been thinking about the tangled and dense issue of story planning for a long time, and there’s something that still bothers me about outlines. Something I’ve struggled to put my finger on. Something opaque that should be obvious, but isn’t (at least to me). Tonight I think I may have just conjured it to the surface.

It’s about predictability.

All writers (and readers) know that predictability on the page is a story-killer. A stone cold murderer of suspense. A fast track to boring oblivion.

But prediction is exactly what an outline seeks to do. It’s supposed to be a roadmap to a pre-determined destination. Just follow the map, strewing words about as you go, and you have a book. You don’t want the resulting book to be predictable for the reader. Yet the outline should do exactly the opposite thing for the writer.

Or should it?

We’re all familiar with the “Butterfly Effect”, a key element in scientific chaos theory. This charmingly named phenomenon comes from the title of a paper presented to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1972 by Edward Lorenz, titled “Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?” (Eat your hearts out, all you writers out there trying to come up with a catchy title for your new book.)

In more scientific language, Lorenz’s theory is defined in Wikipedia as “sensitive dependence on initial conditions in which a small change in one state of a deterministic non-linear system can result in large differences in a later state.” Basically it means that predictability goes out the window when many different forces begin interacting with each other in complex ways. Wikipedia goes on to note:

The butterfly effect is a common trope in fiction, especially in scenarios involving time travel. Additionally, works of fiction that involve points at which the storyline diverges during a seemingly minor event, resulting in a significantly different outcome than would have occurred without the divergence, are an example of the butterfly effect.

( Note: This is not all there is to chaos theory. In fact, it’s the simple-to-understand part. Understanding the rest of it probably requires two or three high level university degrees in mathematics.)

To my own (admittedly non-scientific) mind, chaos theory’s application to plotting practically jumps off the page. After all, what is storytelling, if not a “deterministic, non-linear system” for examining the unpredictability of cause and effect in the great saga of human behaviour?

And maybe that’s why outlines so often collapse somewhere along the way to getting a story written. It is hellishly difficult to predict all the twists and turns – the chaos – that will result from the interactions between all the characters and elements the writer brings to life on the page.

Perhaps a good story should be capable of surprising the writer by jumping the tracks envisioned in an outline. At that point, what’s a writer to do?

a) Drag the story out of inconvenient chaos and back to the original outline?
b) Stop writing and do a new outline?
c) Go with the flow?

Chaos theory for writers would suggest that c) is the best answer. Maybe writing is an art, not a science, but the best stories are the ones that reveal some kind of truth about the real nature of life. And life is both messy and precise at the same time.

Just like the unpredictable act of storytelling.

If everyone writes, who will read?


Joanne Woodward, 1960

Helga’s Post #95: You may have noticed the absence of my weekly postings, although my 5 writers friends have more than made up with theirs. Regrettably, I am currently dealing with a crisis that saps my creative energy. So instead of coming up with some clever words of my own on the topic of writing and publishing, I am quoting heavily from an article I found instructive and interesting. I hope you will too.

The article – an essay of 25 pages actually – was published in The Economist magazine, titled ‘The Future of the Book’, no less. Here are some excerpts, with comments of my own:

Almost as constant as the appeal of the book has been the worry that that appeal is about to come to an end. The rise of digital technology—and especially Amazon, a bookshop unlike any seen before—underlined those fears. In the past decade people have been falling over themselves to predict the death of books, of publishers, of authors and of bookshops, even of reading itself. Of all those believed at risk, only the bookshops have actually suffered serious damage.

Let’s look at some numbers. In 2013 around 1.4m International Standard Book Numbers (ISBNs) were issued, up from around 8,100 in 1960. What I find significant is that the 1.4m figure does not include the many e-books that are being self-published without an ISBN.

Here is what caught my eye in the essay: At last spring’s London Book Fair there was a booth rented by eight authors who said that, between them, they had sold a staggering 16m books and spent weeks on the New York Times bestseller list—all without the help of a traditional publisher. They are used to having their claims dismissed; Bella Andre, a self-published romance writer with an economics degree from Stanford, got so irked when a publisher challenged her heady sales figures that she took a picture of a bank statement and sent it to him. “No one is counting our books in any survey that comes out in the media,” sighed Barbara Freethy, another romance writer. She says that, as of September, she has sold over 4.8m books.

With stories like these, even the most gloomy predictors of the book’s demise had to soften their forecasts. Against their predictions, people hang onto their books because they crave immersive experiences. Books may face more competition for audiences’ time, rather as the radio had to rethink what it could do best when films and TV came along; the habit of reading for pleasure has fallen slightly in the past few years. But it has not dropped off steeply, as many predicted. The length and ambition of a bestseller such as Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch”—864 pages in paperback—shows that people still tackle big books.

And they are willing to cart them around, too. The much ballyhooed decline of the physical book has been far from fatal. In 2010 Simon & Schuster predicted that half of all book sales would be e-books by 2013. Instead, last year e-books accounted for around 30% of consumer book sales (not including professional and educational books) in America, the largest book market in the world and the country where e-books took off most quickly. In Germany, the world’s third-largest, e-books were around 5% of consumer book sales. The growth rate of e-books has recently slowed in many markets, including America and Britain. Publishers now expect most of their sales to remain in print books for decades to come—some say forever.

We needn’t be quite as ambitious as Donna Tartt. Regardless of the length of our book and genre of choice, publishing is within reach of all of us. Writers, do take note and take heart: To write a book costs nothing but time. To hire an editor, cover designer, formatter and publicist can, if you think them necessary, be done for $2,000 or less. Amazon will publish and sell the resultant e-book to any of its 250m customers who may be interested; smaller sites will do the same, and many offer print-on-demand sales, too. Authors who self publish an e-book through Amazon get up to 70% of net sales, as opposed to the 25% they might get on an e-book that went through a publisher.

Not surprisingly, traditional publishers hoping to spot the next hot thing have started to scour online writing sites, such as Wattpad, where people receive feedback on their work from other users. Any interest they show is normally warmly appreciated. In the past 12 months the average earnings for self-published authors have probably been around $1,180, reckons Mark Coker, the boss of Smashwords, a self-publishing platform, with most of them getting less than that. Such authors find themselves highly dependent on Amazon’s recommendation system and websites that offer promotions to boost their sales; most readers still gravitate to books that have been professionally written, edited and reviewed.

But the advantages of being “properly published”—editors, promotion, and the like—should not be oversold. “We have to be careful not to compare the reality of self publishing with the ideal of legacy publishing,” says Barry Eisler, a thriller writer. In 2011 he walked away from a publisher’s advance of $500,000 in favour of the self-publishing route; he says the decision paid off well. Susan Orlean, an author and a staff writer at the New Yorker, considered something similar for a recent book. “In a million years I would have never thought of that before,” she says. She thinks the day will come when publishers may have to start unbundling their services. They could start offering “light” versions of their services, such as print-only distribution, or editing, and not taking a cut of the whole pie.

Publishers realize that they have to change. “Publishers will only be relevant if they can give authors evidence that they can connect their works to more readers than anybody else,” admits Markus Dohle, who runs Penguin Random House, the world’s largest consumer-book publisher. Such connection is crucial, because the same technology that is making it easier for people to publish their own books is also making it easier for them to explore new ways of finding, sharing, discussing and indeed emulating the books of others. (Ms James’s “Fifty Shades of Grey” started off as fan-fiction based on the characters of Stephenie Meyer’s bestselling “Twilight” books.)

From online reviews to the world’s numerous literary festivals to all sorts of social media, writers are ever more aware of and available to their audiences. Ms Orlean says she was used to “writing into the void”, but now posts regularly about what she is working on. For her and others the contact seems like an opportunity. Others find it irksome. Most, probably, see it as a bit of both. But it is not going away.

So what does all that mean for aspiring authors? The picture is murky at best, depending how you look at it. While there will be more books, there may be fewer people who can make a full living as writers and publishers. In previous eras, people did not expect to earn a living by writing books, but used books as a means to advance their career or as a creative outlet. It is clear that most self-published authors are not doing it for the money they can reasonably expect to get—they are doing it to leave a mark, if only a digital one. Those who make a living too may increasingly be the ones who become marketable personalities online, on the festival circuit and elsewhere, rather than being just faded pictures on the inside back cover.

One thing is certain: There will be new experiments in storytelling, new genres born of the electronic age, and new authors who never would have been discovered in a print-only world. And that brings me back to the title of my post, a question posed by Christoph Martin Wieland, an 18th-century German writer. If you think about it, it’s even more relevant than during his lifetime:

“If everyone writes, who will read?”

Regardless, the answer to the question ‘What is the future of the book?’ can be summed up simply with this: It is much brighter than people think.


The changing face of storytelling

Karalee’s Post #95

ofmiceandmenThis week I went with friends to see the National Theatre Live satellite broadcast Of Mice and Men. The stage production was absolutely fantastic and the characters were so compelling that I was emotionally drawn into their personal lives to the point that I felt I was part of their lives.

And to be sitting in a comfortable high-backed padded seat in a theatre in Vancouver with people in the audience eating popcorn and candy bars while the live show was taking place (albeit this show was taped earlier) in London, England, is completely amazing.

This got me thinking of storytelling in general and how we get our stories told to the public. Who doesn’t love going to the movies or seeing live theatre?

Storytelling has gone from oral tradition and acting out the story among small groups. When the written word was invented books came to be and those stories were also acted out on stage. The invention of cameras introduced television and movies as the medium for storytelling.  All of these technologies are used for getting stories out to the masses.

Technology continues to change the way stories are told. This week the blog The Killzone brought to my attention that with access to the internet books are evolving. Ebooks can now be reader interactive using multimedia format. As you read you can surf the net with links in the book which gives a whole new experience to the reader.

But with all these different ways of storytelling, what continues to be consistent is what storytelling is all about. No matter the venue a story must have a setting, a plot, and characters. For a story to be compelling it must be entertaining or captivating in some manner, which means the audience must become emotionally connected to some aspect of the story.

This emotional connection is generally through great character development and the growth and changes the character makes as the story unfolds.

So if I cut to the chase and look at storytelling over the centuries, nothing fundamental has really changed. Would you agree?

This week:

Words written: 2,000

Dog walks: 21 (2 dogs 3x/day)

Episodes of Orange is the New Black: seen them all now!

Journaled my writing: 0. Need to bump up the priority of this.

Finished reading To Kill A Mockingbird for an online writing course. Have downloaded Gone Girl already and will read it since Joe says it is fantastic.

Ebook downloads: 6. Until this summer I hadn’t read any Ebooks. Now I’m downloading many books, not only fiction for reading, but also cookbooks, memoirs, and books on writing. The instant gratification is amazing and I’m enjoying reading on my iPad a lot more than anticipated. No wonder eBooks are becoming so popular!