My big, fat, emotional SIWC lesson

tragedy-comedy

Silk’s Post #107 — We all know it in our guts. From our first children’s fairy tale on, we know what’s at the heart of a good story. It’s that simple but powerful thing that keeps us spellbound:

Feelings.

Some genres celebrate the spectrum of feelings overtly – romance and horror spring to mind first – but there is no fiction of any kind that does not intentionally tug at the reader’s emotions.

Simply, stories are about – and for – people, and people have feelings. (Okay, some stories are about other anthropomorphized beings from bunny rabbits to ogres to space aliens, but as far as I’m concerned they’re all stand-ins for people). A story without emotional power is a story without a heart. You might get some people to read it, but you probably won’t get anybody to love it.

“Wow, I never really thought about putting emotion into my story on purpose,” said nobody who’s ever tried to write a book.

I mean, isn’t all this obvious? Well, yes, it is. So obvious that it’s awfully easy to assume we know what the hell we’re doing when it comes to writing about emotions. When our characters are sad, they burst into tears. When they’re scared, they burst into a dead run. When they’re joyful, they burst into song.  And so on. So to speak.

Writing one-oh-one. Got it.

But did I really “get it”? Don Maass’s excellent Master Class at the 2014 Surrey International Writers’ Conference, “The Emotional Art of Fiction”, showed me that there’s nothing obvious about emotional writing.

The class began on familiar ground. Lack of genuine emotion in writing leaves readers unengaged, Don said. Check, I said. Knew that. Readers want to go through a powerful emotional experience, Don told us. Yup, I said. Powerful emotional experience. No surprises there. Characters create emotions. If you put it that way, yeah, sure.

And that’s when the submarine started to descend, Captain Maass at the controls. Through a series of participatory exercises, we dived ever deeper into the ocean of human emotions and examined the subtle perspectives, signals and tropes that bring feelings alive on the page. Don’s teaching method is simple and effective. He asks probing questions about our work-in-progress and makes his students write out their answers.

The questions began with the obvious, like: What is the point of change at which my protagonist embarks on a new path – a path that is inevitable and unstoppable until the resolution. Okay, I got that one and managed to scribble it out in the minute or two allowed. Why does my protagonist care about this? was another softball. No problem.

But as we descended into the darker depths of the emotion ocean, to places less illuminated, the questions got harder to answer. What will this change do to reward my protagonist? was followed by What does he fear about it? – and then Could it make him a pariah because he cares about this?

Whoa. A pariah? There’s a question I had not asked myself. But as I thought about it … gee, well, yeah. Damn right. He could definitely become a pariah to a certain segment of the citizenry in the local story world, which, unfortunately for him, happens to be a very well-armed segment.

And there it was. A whole new emotional dimension.

I was so focused on the obvious emotional content – like my protagonist’s doomed attraction to the wrongest woman in the world for him, and the fact that he’s pursuing a professional challenge under tremendous scrutiny and time pressure – that I didn’t even think about the paranoia he should be experiencing because he’s likely pissing off a whole bunch of potentially hostile townsfolk.

By focusing on the obvious – the big and somewhat clichéd feelings – I’d missed a whole secondary layer of emotion. The townsfolk in question are not central to the story, but they’re part of the story world (and did I mention most of them are strapped?). Now I can up the emotional stakes by having my protagonist looking over his shoulder.

This example is just an appetizer. We discussed emotional demarcation points through the story structure, inner and outer journeys and how emotional perspectives shift along the way, and the kind of telling secondary emotions that hint obliquely at bigger hidden feelings. We discussed the revealing emotional dance between characters who have very different feelings about the same thing. And we learned some techniques for infusing characters with emotion by evoking, rather than reporting, what they’re feeling.

We also navigated the emotional pathways of great storytelling. Did Captain Don say this directly, or did the discussion just stimulate my own synapses so I could put it together for myself? I honestly don’t know, but here’s my take-away:

The characters won’t feel what the writer doesn’t feel. And the reader won’t feel what the characters don’t feel. Those are the links in the experiential chain. There’s no shortcut to eliciting deep feelings from the reader. You can’t just tell them how to feel. And you can’t make them feel by just telling them what the characters feel.

My big, fat, emotional conference lesson is that the storyteller’s job is to transmit an authentic, direct emotional experience to the reader – an experience that’s seated in the heart and the limbic brain. The trick is we have to do this using only the indirect tools and craft of language – logical tools that live in the cortex.

I left Don Maass’s Master Class with a new perspective:

  1. There’s nothing obvious about emotion in writing. It’s as complicated as people are.
  2. Emotional payoff for the reader trumps everything else.
  3. It’s about creating an experience, not delivering information.

These are deep waters. Don’t be satisfied just paddling around on the surface.

 

Perspective and expectations

Karalee’s Post #51

I’m away in Orlando, Florida, this week. My husband is at a conference and I’m having a blast being a “kid” out and about on my own. I took a day and visited Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios, promising myself to “go for it and check my fear at the park entrance.”

It was like Halloween and Christmas wrapped up in one delightfully sensory overloaded package. My expectations were high and there was too much to do in too little time.

So what did I do?

Hogsmeade StationI rushed over to Hogwarts. Diagon Alley was amazing and I was immediately funneled into the first roller coaster ride. I let myself be steered into the fingerprint locker area since no bags or purses were allowed on the ride. The guide there assured me I could retrieve my things (wallet with all my credit cards, etc.) as long as I didn’t lose my fingerprint between now and then, so off I went to the first ride with less than a 5 minute wait.

I walked up the winding roadway past the car that Harry crashed into the willow tree, and almost past the point of no return when I came to my senses. Above me the roller coaster went straight up and then straight down with twists and turns including upside down and possibly backwards except that was impossible, but wasn’t I in a magical place so it might just be possible …

Panic.

My heart was pounding and I couldn’t take my eyes off the terrifying sight above me. It reminded me of not being able to put down a book even though turning the next page would surely be the death sentence of one of the characters in a bring-on-the-nightmares-scene.

From a distance the ride looked fun and from that perspective my expectations hadn’t seemed unrealistic. I had expected a thrilling ride at the maximum level of my thrill-tolerance (which is nothing to brag about or even whisper about). But truth be told, I don’t like heights. Actually it terrifies me, especially going at a speed faster than the basilisk in ‘The Chamber of Secrets’ can slither up an ice-covered cliff.

I chickened out and scuttled back to get my stuff out of the locker that actually recognized my fingerprint and opened like magic. That experience was worth the jaunt up the hill to the non-ride, and with a lighter heart I headed for the butter beer cart and indulged in a delightful frozen drink that was as good as I had been told it would be. 

This time I was surprised that my expectations were met.

Jurassic ParkDrink in hand I was off to Jurassic Park where I did swallow my fear and go on the water ride. I scouted it out first, taking pictures of the final fall and asking disembarking passengers what side of the boat got less wet. Changing into my spare top I jumped aboard and expected to be frightened.

I was.

There were no line-ups so I decided to go again.

This time I knew what to expect. And it made it worse. My heart was pounding more than the first time since I knew my body was about to be thrown over the cliff and I would experience a few moments of weightlessness  before hitting the water at the bottom.

So cool really.

It’s like rereading a book you love so you can experience the story again. I want to write a book like that. I’d love my readers to come back knowing what to expect, yet wanting the experience again. The perspective would be slightly different. The experience would be too. That’s the beauty of story.

The rest of my day was full of sensory overload. There were rides where I knew I was sitting on a stable platform that rocked and spun around, but the visual display in front of me made me want to throw up or scream as I swore I was flying, falling, dying….

At one place I was told I was too “old” and too tall to go on a ride for kids so I got lost in the kids maze instead. Then on to pictures of Popeye and Olive, and a shoot-up with MIB where I had the highest score even though I don’t play video games. There may be a reason I write murder mysteries…

Before leaving I went back to Hogsmeade for another butter beer. The first one was great.

ButterbeerThe second was even better. I didn’t expect it to be.

I was surprised. 

Happy writing.

Hungarian language rhapsody

Silk’s Post #53 – A short, pictureless post from my cabin on a cruise ship on the Danube River. This is day three in Budapest, a place that was never even on my bucket list. This only goes to show that, a) I knew nothing about Budapest or I would have always wanted to come here, and b) I need to rethink my bucket list overall.

I was so ignorant about Hungary when I landed here on Friday night that I literally had no coherent expectations. I’m only slightly less ignorant now, but my expectations have soared, and been exceeded. Without getting into the whole history of this many-times invaded and occupied nation, or its proud but unpretentious culture, or its lyrical creative spirit (none of which I’m really qualified to comment on at length), let me just talk a bit about the voluptuous and fascinating texture of its language.

If you’re a word fanatic like me, you experience language at multiple levels. You feast your eyes on the shapes of words on the page (maybe this is the designer in me), you roll words about in your mouth and wrap your tongue around them, and you listen to the music of the sounds words produce. So, for me, the Hungarian language is as rich and exotic a feast as their dishes are to a foodie.

We tend to value things for their rarity, it seems (with apologies to those with palates more refined than my own, how else could you explain the price of beluga caviar?). If you want to know the value of letters, for example, you need look no farther than the Scrabble™ score sheet. A “Z” is worth 10 points, a “J” fetches 8 points, a “K” or “Y” 5, and a “V” 4. I’ve always thought of these letters as special. Elevated above others. Exotic. Memorable.

There’s scarcely a word in the Hungarian (or Magyar) language that doesn’t include at least one of these letters. “How are you?” = Hogy van? “Very well thank you.” = Koszonom nagyon jol. “Call the fire department!” translates to Hivja a tuzoltokat! (which, by the way, translates to 42 Scrabble points).

How can you not love a language so full of rare, jaw-cracking letters?

Especially when it sounds like music when spoken? There’s nothing gutteral about it. More like wind through rushes, bees buzzing around flowers on a hot summer afternoon, the clink of glasses toasting your health, and the cadence of horses’ hoofbeats galloping along in the background.

I don’t know what value these observations might have for my writing friends or those following this blog, other than the reminder to look and listen for poetry and new perspectives in unexpected places. There’s nothing like dropping yourself into a different culture to get your eyes and ears working.

So, Orulok hogy megismerhettem, Budapest. Pleased to meet you.

Critical (re)thinking skills

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Silk’s Post #37 — The 5 Writers are deep into critique mode now, with another deadline looming. In a little less than three weeks, we must all present ourselves at Whistler, prepared to say something intelligent, helpful, and maybe even provocative about each other’s books.

My post last week, Critiquing creative spirits, tried to look ahead to the challenges we would encounter in this task, recognizing there’s a certain amount of ‘critique anxiety’ that goes along with handing your virgin 400 pages over to someone else to pass judgement on. Frankly, I thought the post was pretty common sense stuff – nothing very controversial about it.

Was I ever in for a shock.

As usual, I posted a link to Fiction Writers Guild, one of the couple of writers’ groups I belong to on LinkedIn. And then the fun began. Unbelievably, as of today the discussion thread has drawn 322 comments, from the informative to the emotional to the argumentative to the downright nasty. (For a brief moment, I even found my name at the top of the FWG list of “Top Influencers for This Week”). Granted, much of this fire was stoked by a particular contributor who brought a very strong point of view to the topic and apparently had the time and the sustained interest to defend and promote it vigorously.

It was a real learning experience for me.

I’m not generally much of a discussion group participant, truth be told. I’m already struggling with a bottomless ‘to-do’ list. So what I learned about discussion groups is probably ‘old hat’ to those who frequent them. The main take-away was how easily threads can be hijacked by anyone who is particularly passionate about the topic, or craves attention, or has an agenda of their own to serve. No surprise, really, when you think about it.

The secondary take-away is that, in a discussion group, people ‘talk’ to each other in a manner that they probably never would dare to in face-to-face conversation. That has good and bad implications. The safe distance provided by cyberspace may encourage honesty and forthrightness. That’s admirable. It may also push forthrightness past the bounds of civility and promote flat-out rudeness and bullying. That’s despicable.

I can almost hear you rolling your eyes. Naive, am I not?

But enough Psychology 101. What did I learn about writing and critiquing?

First: that there are many species of critique that span the spectrum from the tiptoeing style of “writing by committee” in a workshop setting, to the no-holds-barred style of anonymous crits in a training setting such as the “Boot Camp” program for beginning writers.

Second: that the two issues which generated the liveliest and most interesting debate (for me, anyway) were honesty in critiquing, and which aspect of the process a writer learns the most from – giving critiques or receiving critiques.

Our 5 Writers critique process seems to fall somewhere mid-spectrum in the range of approaches. It is neither anonymous nor collaborative, but collegial. That is to say, we try to give honest criticism in a face-to-face meeting (supported by written critiques and often margin notes), but we don’t “work on” each other’s stories as a group or critique re-writes. From the forum, I surmised that this approach is most appropriate for – and likely used most often by – small groups of writers who are at an intermediate or higher level of craft, and are writing in similar forms (e.g., novels) and/or genres. Mostly, such critique groups include unpublished writers, but I understand that even some published authors may find them valuable. The key seems to be working with others at a relatively well-matched skill level using agreed methods and standards for critiquing.

But what about the honesty factor? Do the absence of anonymity and the constraints of diplomacy and personal friendship inhibit the kind of forthright criticism that writers truly need to hear – even though they may dread it?

My answer is: No. Or at least, not necessarily. Read on, and I’ll tell you why I think meeting this challenge is not only achieveable, but is an extraordinarily good exercise.

My thoughts about honesty in our style of critiquing are linked to the other key debate in the forum: which aspect of the process a writer learns the most from – giving critiques or receiving critiques. The stated purpose of our 5 Writers group is to provide our members with useful critiques of their own work so they can improve their novels with the ultimate goal of getting published. This, for me, has been a tremendous help in getting past my own blind spots and identifying strengths and weaknesses in my stories. Since I would call myself an experienced writer, but a neophyte novelist, critical comments that relate to the craft of storytelling are especially helpful for me.

However, over the couple of years I’ve belonged to the group, I’ve come to realize that I am, in fact, learning more from doing the critiques of others’ work than I am from receiving their critiques of mine. This has been a surprise, and perhaps it took me a while to recognize it precisely because it was unexpected. Why would I be learning more by giving than receiving?

The explanation is perfectly captured in the axiom:

“If you want to learn something, read about it.
If you want to understand something, write about it.
If you want to master something, teach it.” — 
Yogi Bhajan

When you have to give a written critique, it forces you to really think about the strength or weakness you’re commenting on. You have to get down to the specifics and articulate the problem in terms that will be useful to the writer. In other words, you must come to thoroughly understand your own critical thoughts before you can convey your insights, in writing, to someone else.

Very frequently, this thought process delivers an extra zinger: you recognize that your own work has the very same problem somewhere, but you had not quite been able to put your finger on it until you recognized it in someone else’s book.

Going back to the issue of honesty and diplomacy: I believe that the deliberate effort to serve up sometimes serious criticism in a digestible manner that will nourish the writer actually adds to the learning experience for the giver as well as the recipient of the critique. Some think that adding the ‘condition’ of being diplomatic rather than blunt inevitably dilutes the hard truth with equivocation or false praise.

I’m sure that happens. Maybe often. But I don’t believe it’s at all inevitable. The challenge of writing out the ‘hard truth’ in an honest but respectful (and, yes, sensitive) manner forces us to use our critical thinking skills – and writing skills – to the fullest extent. Therefore, we learn the most from writing the toughest critiques, and doing it well.

A great critique helps the writer receiving it to literally see his/her work through the eyes of the critique giver. As we learn this skill of critiquing, we also learn the corollary skill of seeing our own work through fresh eyes. Even more important, we learn to visualize our own work through the eyes of a reader. Perhaps not everyone gets out of this process what I do, but I believe these lessons are there to be learned for those who invest serious time and effort into doing their critiques.

Bottom line: things that are the hardest to do are the things that we learn the most from in our attempts to master them. And “hard” does not mean “impossible.” It just means, in the immortal words of novelist John Irving in The Hotel New Hampshire:

“… you’ve got to get obsessed and stay obsessed.”

Hat trick

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Silk’s Post #35 — I am really looking forward to a change in headgear. Yes, this week I get to take off my writer’s hat and put on my critiquer’s chapeau.

Frankly, it will come as a relief.

I wish my writer’s hat had been padded. Better yet, a hardhat. It would have saved my noggin during the past few months of bashing my head against the wall. hard-hatYes, I’ve been struggling. Oddly enough, not because I have writer’s block, as such. What I really seem to have is the classic eyes-bigger-than-my-stomach syndrome whose symptoms include ridiculously long “to do” lists, which never seem to have all the items crossed off.

The truth is that I make too many commitments, and have too much optimism about how quickly I can clear my desk, and my calendar, of other obligations so I can “get back to writing.” My head-bashing incidents occur every time life reminds me that I’m actually not, in fact, Superwoman. Which happens frequently.

So now you know the ugly, brutal truth. I am far from “The End”.

Okay, okay. I hear a chorus of people protesting. A real writer would have put the writing first on the list, not last. Why have I granted priority to all this other stuff ahead of my 5writers challenge? Isn’t this just a lame excuse, or maybe an alias for writer’s block?

Maybe. But whatever you call it, I’m willing to bet that I’m not the only would-be novelist who’s had difficulty getting into the rhythm of “The Writing Life.” Difficulty making the kind of commitment that involves tough choices.

Egotistical choices.

What? I can hear some of you almost sputtering now. Just simmer down, I’ll explain.

I’m no selfless Joan of Arc, but the fact is that I have a lifetime of “training” to do the right thing. And what is that “right thing”? All that adult stuff, that’s what. Eat your vegetables before you can have dessert. Meet obligations to others before you can take time for yourself. Get your work done before you can play.

party-hatAnd there is the telling clue – the heart of my struggle. My paradigm for writing is that it’s play, not work. Why? I love to do it. No matter how hard it is, how much effort it takes, how stuck I may get, how tired I am, I love every minute of it. It isn’t work for me. It’s play, pure play. Work is what I have to do. Play is what I choose to do, strictly for myself. Selfishly. It’s what I get to do after I’ve done all my other “work” and met all my other commitments.

See the problem here? It’s about that “to do” list that never gets all checked off. And because my calcified work ethic classifies writing as “play,” I must steal time to do it. Yes, this is wrong. So wrong.

But now, it’s time to change hats and serve others – my cherished 5writers friends and colleagues, who have poured their souls into the manuscripts I’m about to read. Will I have the same trouble prioritizing my critiquing task? Absolutely not. It’s a commitment to someone else, and I’ll move heaven and earth to get the job done in time for our big retreat in June.

Too bad I haven’t been able to give my own writing the same level of priority.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned through this process, it’s that I have to re-train myself to see my writing in a different paradigm. It is work, even if it feels like play. That’s what it means to take yourself seriously as a writer. I don’t need a shrink to discover what’s been inhibiting my progress – whether you call it writer’s block, a terminal case of the “convenient social virtue” (as John Kenneth Galbraith called it), or whatever other head-bashing terminology you can come up with.

Since I can’t seem to put play ahead of work after a lifetime of being in harness, I have to reclassify my writing as work instead of play. Okay. Got it.

Meanwhile, I’m truly looking forward to changing hats and diving into four whole-book critiques over the next month. It may not sound like a break, but for me it will feel like one. And I have no doubt that I will emerge from this next phase re-inspired and re-invigorated.

That’s my hat trick for today.

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Thoughts about POV

Karalee’s Post #34

I was walking my dogs on Jericho Beach in Vancouver last weekend and a yellow kayak was pulled up onto the rocks and sand, its owner somewhere on land.

kayak1

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At first it almost blended in with the scenery.

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kayak2

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Then it was a definite part of the scenery.

kayak4

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And closer up, it became a major part of the scenery.

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kayak5

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Even closer, it is the scenery.

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Of course this made me think about writing and what we have our characters actually focus on in the scenes we write.

In general, the less intense the scene is the more of the surrounding world (as opposed to the close-up view) our character can be aware of. That said, if a sniper is on a building a block away, a long-shot view can be very intense indeed.

No matter the focal point, the world is seen through the eyes of the point-of-view-character. I’m blessed with the ability to envision that perspective with vivid imagery in my head. My tendency is to be too precise, too focused, and not bring in the outside world enough to capture the sounds and smells and all the other senses of where my character is.

For some reason this walk on the beach drew my attention to how the world really does look different at a distance versus closer up and all the in-between stages. Now, take two characters in your book on the same walk and they would each see their world differently. To me that is the essence of developing our characters; how they view their world depends not only on their physical characteristics, but also through their past experiences and how they have dealt with them.

Of course I already knew this, but don’t we all have those “aha” moments when the obvious becomes, well, obvious? It’s fun too, to look at the world and know that you know how to describe it from various points-of-view. Every one of them will be right, but only one will be the right one  for the scene we’re writing.

Now that is where the skill of a writer lies.

I read a blog http://www.livewritethrive.com and the author addresses the topic of Shoot Your Novel. It’s a good read. Topics the author includes are :

Sometimes just taking a walk with no expectations (other than to enjoy the beautiful sunshine and watch my dogs have fun) allows the mind to wander and notice things a bit differently. Now I can use that yellow kayak in my mind’s eye as a vivid reminder of who is focusing on what in my writing. Then, as a more experienced writer, I will ask myself if that point-of-view is the right one for the scene or is there a better one?

Happy writing.

Of strokes and spankings

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Image courtesy Huntstown Community Centre

Helga’s Post #28 — Ah, sorry, this is not about 50 Shades, but the topic du jour: feedback on our writing.

“The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector.”

I am lucky. Because in case I missed out on the gift Ernest Hemingway thought essential, my writing partners will put me straight. I know I can count on them. They are the toughest, kindest, most brutal, most loving, most caring people I’ve ever met.

So this post is all about Critiques. How to give them, how to receive them.

Our last few posts on this blog focused on that very issue. That’s because the 5 writers will soon be facing their biggest challenge yet.

No, not the challenge of finishing our novels by May 15th, though that’s formidable enough. As Joe mentioned in his last post, that date may seem far away, but this particular day lurks on the calendar. Unmovable. Irrevocable.

On May 16th, the real challenge begins. That’s when we start reading each others’ manuscripts. Four books for each of us to read, and to critique. One week for each full-fledged book to read and to critique.

And then, during the week starting June 15th, each of the 5 writers will take the floor as our motley group gathers and speak for two hours critiquing each book.  If math is not your strong point (neither is it mine), it comes down to this (let’s pick on Joe as an example):

He is sitting somewhere comfy (a must for what’s about to happen to him), legs crossed, never-empty coffee mug resting nearby, pen in hand, writing pad on lap, beloved Vega at his feet. The clock strikes 9:00 AM. Throats get cleared. The first critic has the floor. For an entire two hours. Likely with intermittent and unsolicited comments from the rest of the motleys. Then the next speaker takes over. And the next, until at the end of the day, poor Joe will have received eight hours of critique of his novel, from four people, who, such as human nature goes, may have widely different views on the quality of his manuscript.

We haven’t yet decided on the lineup. The way it worked in the past was the host(ess) got critiqued first, clockwise in the way we were seated. (Do you sense some strategy, some tactic that may have been employed in the seating order? Such as, the last writer to be critiqued may get less time, as everyone’s energy and attention span wanes, and we all want to go home? Of course not. Writers wouldn’t do that.)

But this time around there won’t be a host, as the 5 writers will be ensconced somewhere at the Village in Whistler. Maybe we’ll draw names from a hat to keep it democratic. If you think all this procedural stuff is trivial, think again. There is politics involved.

Yes, politics. Anyone who has ever been part of a team or a group, which means most of us, knows how much strategy is involved in the actual ‘process’ of meetings. The seating order, the lineup of speakers, the strength  of coffee served, all could influence a meeting’s outcome. Meetings can get derailed because of poor planning, which means everyone leaves with a knot in their stomach. Bad feelings can carry over and keep you miserable for days and sleepless at night. It’s counter-productive.

Granted, our critique group meetings are not quite in the same league as your routine corporate meetings with agendas and specific goals. Also, there’s no money involved. Our meetings have no written agendas (usually), but our goal is always the same: to provide each of the 5 writers objective feedback on their work. Feedback that points out strong points as well as flaws in our writing, which should result in a better novel in the end. To see each of our books published. Just as we pledged back on September 5th 2012, the start of our challenge.

And ‘Feedback’ is where the challenge lies. We want to give useful feedback on how to make the writing better, but in a manner that’s not a death blow. Somewhat gently, but not so gently that it’s take-it-or-leave-it for the writer. Of course, we all want to hear we’re wonderful and without flaws. Hearing that our writing is not always stings, even when we’re genuinely interested in improving it.

One really great aspect of the 5 writers group is that we all realize there’s lots of room to improve. We have learned since we established our group that getting one’s ego stroked does not necessarily make our writing better. That’s for needy writers. Mostly, getting ‘hit’ with a comment pointing out flaws is far more helpful. As long as the feedback is given sincerely and void of sarcasm, it will target, like a heat-seeking missile, what needs to change and what the writer needs to focus on.

We all have different personalities and patterns of communication. Our perspectives on what constitutes flaws and strong points can vary widely. That’s the human nature dilemma, or strength if you will. One critic thinks your main character is god’s gift to women, while another thinks he’s a perennial ninny. I like to think of it as our strength. Think about it: We get not only one, but four opinions on each aspect of our writing. If I’m receiving consistent feedback on my writing from every member of my group, I had better listen up and sharpen my pencil.

Because it will make me a better writer. Guaranteed.

Evidently, the critique process ahead of us in June will be far more complex and challenging. Because each of us will have written a complete novel without the usual feedback and handholding for the monthly thirty pages the way we have done critiques in the past. There is far more at stake now, because we’ve been flying solo during the entire process of writing four hundred or so pages. For all we know, our manuscripts could be headed for the NYT Bestseller list, or the dung heap. Or somewhere in between.

One thing we can count on, without reservation, is mutual trust. Yes, egos are involved, and yes, we all need positive stroking. But when we dish out the spanking, we do it with honesty and best intentions.

A gift, no less.

 “Positive feedback is like the wind in your sails.Corrective feedback is like a rudder to keep us on course.”  (Dr. Matthew White, Psychologist)

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Advice to frustrated writers: get out

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Silk’s Post # 29 — That’s right. Get out. See ya later. Have a nice … walk.

Yes, getting outdoors more is good for you. You didn’t think I was advising you to get out of the writing profession, surely?

Okay, sorry for the provocative title. It was a cheap trick to get your attention. “Why Not Take a Nice Walk Outdoors?” seemed like a kind of boring title. It sounds like a mildly irritating entreaty from a well-meaning family member who doesn’t understand why it’s absolutely imperative that you continue to sit at the keyboard for hours and hours, rewriting that scene that isn’t quite working until your eyeballs fall out of your head.

Yesterday, when I should have been writing my book – or at least my blog post for today – I got outdoors instead. Easter Sunday in the Pacific Northwest is always subject to the weather lottery, especially when it comes early. This year we hit the zillion-dollar payoff, when a perfect, sunny, hot, calm July day somehow wandered into the end of March and called every winter-weary soul outdoors.

daffI’m lucky when it comes to what ‘outdoors’ means. Since I live on a small farm, stepping outdoors means being in a green field with a pond and an orchard, populated by a small flock of sheep and surrounded by a forest of fir trees and maples. The daffodils just started blooming and the early fruit trees are in bud.

Not only that, I live on a smallish island, which is a real advantage for a mermaid. So for me, there was only one thing to do with yesterday’s gift of dazzling weather: get out on the water. I spent the whole day at sea with my favourite skipper, and without my computer. Salty bliss with an unexpected sunburn as a souvenir.

Okay, you may be thinking, goody good for you but what does this have to do with writing?

Getting outdoors is especially good for people whose calling forces them indoors to hunch over a computer for hours, days, weeks at a time. It’s not just about exercise, though “go take a walk” is good (and probably needed) advice for most writers. It’s also about the benefits of getting a snootful of nature.

waldenOne of the most famous literary proponents of getting ‘back to nature’ was Henry David Thoreau, the iconic iconoclast who will be forever remembered for his classic manifesto Walden (originally published as Walden; or, Life in the Woods).

“How vain is it to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live,” wrote Thoreau.

In his introduction to a 2003 edition of Walden, literary luminary John Updike (who calls Thoreau a totem of the back-to-nature preservationist, a perfect crank and hermit saint) wrote: “‘Simplify, simplify,’ Walden advises, and we try, even though a twenty-first century attainment of a rustic, elemental simplicity entails considerable complications of budget and transport.”

The affinity of writers to nature is legend. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe illuminates the attraction thus:

“In nature we never see anything isolated, but everything in connection with everything else which is before it, beside it, under it and over it.”

Albert Einstein, who turned his own creative genius in the direction of science, said it even more simply:

“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.”

Maybe that’s what poet William Wordsworth meant when he wrote:

“Come forth into the light of things. Let Nature be your teacher.”

Still not convinced that getting outdoors and communing with nature will make you a better writer? Recent research provides evidence that Thoreau, Goethe, Wordsworth and Einstein were on the right track, at least in that communing with nature gets you outdoors, and – as I keep harping – getting outdoors is good for people in general and writers in particular.

This from a Huffington Post article from June 2012:

Thanks to more of us living in cities than ever before, fewer people are finding their ways into the great outdoors on a regular basis – and it’s starting to wreak havoc on our health. We’ve all experienced the “aaahh” feeling when breathing in fresh air, and that physical benefit goes right to our heads. Even if you’re hitting up the gym regularly, studies have shown that putting in time outdoors instead can up positive mental health by 50 per cent.

A 2011 study found that outdoor exercise was associated with greater decreases in tension, confusion, anger and depression when compared to indoor activity. And a 2010 study found that even just five minutes of exercise in a green space can improve mood and self-esteem, the BBC reported.

Yahoo News cites another study that concludes getting outdoors not only makes you healthier, it makes you nicer:

A study out of the University of Rochester suggests an outdoor romp in a natural setting – even for 10 minutes – can significantly improve your mood, increase your energy levels and make you a nicer person.



“Data shows that even 10 minutes outside will increase your feelings of wellness and vitality as long as you’re paying attention to nature,” says Dr. Richard Ryan, one the study’s authors. “People feel they’re more autonomous and integrated when they’re outside, more in touch with themselves, [so their increased niceness] is partly a reflection on that.”

 “We can’t just be around artificial environments all the time. We really need access to the green world,” Ryan adds.  


Don’t care all that much about being nicer? Well, maybe this will convince you about the benefits of getting outdoors. Three researchers from the University of Michigan published a 2008 research report “The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting with Nature,” which opens and closes with the following statements:

Imagine a therapy that had no known side effects, was readily available, and could improve your cognitive functioning at zero cost. Such a therapy has been known to philosophers, writers and laypeople alike: interacting with nature. Many have suspected that nature can promote improved cognitive functioning and overall well-being, and these effects have been recently documented …

In sum, we have shown that simple and brief interactions with nature can produce marked increases in cognitive control. To consider the availability of nature as merely an amenity fails to recognize the vital importance of nature in effective cognitive functioning.

So, there!

When I was drifting around Captain Passage and Montague Harbour yesterday, it was actually all in service of better writing. Improving my cognitive functioning. Getting my head together.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

easter-sail

Getting some perspective on perspective

perspective

Silk’s Post # 27 — This is a short trip into the murky territory of ‘perspective’ and ‘point of view’. These terms are often used interchangeably in general discourse, to describe some combination of outlook and opinion. However, they have more esoteric meanings to the writer of narrative fiction. Still, most people would probably say it’s pretty clear what these words mean.

But should they?

I thought I had a perspective on narrative perspective until I started doing a bit more research online. That was an hour ago, and it wasn’t an illuminating hour. (Since I’m on the road I’m without my library of writing books that have whole chapters on this topic).

I found many more references covering ‘perspective’ and ‘point of view’ in literature than I had time to read. Some seemed to interpret these terms as ways to describe the same phenomenon, others insisted they were distinctly different things. Some declared there were only four points of view in literature, or knocked off an appealingly simple definition (did you know there is actually a Point of View in Literature for Dummies online?). Some were mind-numbingly dense academic lectures. I concluded I could spend many more hours trying to interpret the various interpretations, and retreated to write my post in a state of only partial enlightenment.

It made me wonder how I wrote a whole book without really knowing the finer points of this stuff. But then, it would appear that a good many of the online references I consulted really don’t know them either.

Narrative perspective is a quicksand that can really suck you down when you dip your toe into the murky region of personhood: First Person, Second Person, and the whole Third Person family, which includes the pesky narrative voice triplets – Third Person Objective, Third Person Subjective and Third Person Omniscient – who like to fool writers by impersonating each other.

And let’s not even talk about Alternating Person View. About halfway through my first book, the eagle-eyed Karalee observed in one of our critique sessions that I had already created eight POV characters. Executions followed (of some characters, not of Karalee).

If you really want to drive yourself nuts, you can contemplate the differences between Third Person Omniscient and Universal Omniscient (sometimes referred to as the “Little Did He Know” POV). Or you might wish to converse knowledgeably about whether Third Person Objective is really better named (as some insist) Third Person Dramatic. And, of course, you’ll want to be aware that if you are using the Third Person Subjective narrative voice for only a single character in your book, it’s more properly called Third Person Limited.

Not only that, there are other, even more rarefied narrative voices to choose from – antiquated or black sheep POV cousins such as the Epistolary Voice (who speaks through letters or documents), and my personal favourite the Unreliable Narrator Voice (who obviously speaks with forked tongue).

Now that I’ve led you into this swamp, I wish I could pull you to shore with some nice, crisp definitions of all these POV variations on narrative perspective. Sorry. I’d love to help you but I’ve completely lost perspective.

Oh, and did I forget to mention that each of these POV varieties comes with its own set of strict rules, which must be absolutely followed except when they can be broken, and which often sound exactly like the rules for some other POV variety with the exception of some slight sub-rule?

[Sigh].