Tuesday, April 27, 2010

12th Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival

For three years in a row I’ve gone to the Blue Met expecting the halls of the Delta Centre-Ville to be flooded with literary buffs and aspiring writers like me. Unfortunately, this has not been the case. This year I went twice, and to my surprise, the events were starving for an audience. I am not going to name the events but I can assure you that I was disappointed to find a dearth of attendees. I expressed my concern to one of my mentors who was reading from his latest novel at one of the functions. Truth be told, the presence of the Montreal English writing community was not as strong as I thought it would be.

I guess we can all blame the ash cloud from Iceland's spewing volcano which halted air traffic across Europe (some authors and guests speakers were stranded there). However, Ian McGillis from the Gazette Narratives pointed out that there were some other inconveniences. For instance, "The bookstore is one of the few areas where people naturally congregate, and they want to chat, so surely there's a way. And how about closing the door during events in the auditorium, especially those that involve film screenings? Not only does sound from the nearby bookstore leak in, but the light is distracting. Finally, the decision that certain smaller rooms don't require amplification needs a re-think. On Sunday afternoon I attended Devenir ecrivain in the Versailles room and the back few rows could barely hear what the writers were saying. Several people gave up and left before the end."

Mr. McGillis also added, "The hotel itself still seems to have been laid out expressly to prevent spontaneous gatherings. There's a bar and restaurant but not the kind that encourage hanging out. And obviously the Delta can't be blamed for being where it is, but I can't help thinking how different the general festival atmosphere might be if the venue were located a little more in the thick of things. Imagine stepping outside straight into the bustle of Ste-Catherine or St-Denis as opposed to a cold concrete canyon. I wonder how many visiting writers leave without ever knowing how exciting our city can be."

We just hope that the Blue Met organizers pay heed to some of the comments people have made regarding this year's event and implement new ideas for next year's festival.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Valley of Fire

Last night (April 22), I went to the Yellow Door to hear author Steven Manners, one my former mentors, read from his latest novel Valley of Fire. I was piqued by the passage he read, so I bought his book. It tells the story of John Munin, a rational and gifted psychiatrist who believes that the soul and psyche are interesting only in dissection. Penelope is Munin's star patient. She suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder and is particularly susceptible to Munin's searching analysis. Munin plans to present Penelope's case at a major medical conference in Las Vegas, but tragedy strikes on the eve of the event and the probing psychiatrist's orderly world crumbles in the crucible of the desert. After the reading, I had the pleasure to talk to him and ask him a couple of questions about this book.
1) How long did it take you to write this novel?

I thought about it for a couple of years. I would go to Las Vegas, sit in coffee shops and sketch out the book on placemats. The writing itself took about a year. I finished a first draft, then put it aside to write a nonfiction book (Super Pills). Then I went back and revised the novel over a 6-month period. The publication process took about another year.

2) How did you come up with this idea?

I'd written a lot about psychiatry, and had interviewed people with obsessive-compulsive disorder. The hyphen was what interested me: it's the space between the obsession (the mental drive) and the compulsion (the behaviours).

3) Did you ever get writer's block writing this novel? What advice would you give to aspiring writers if they ever get writer's block?

Writer's block is a peculiar obsession of writers. I'm not sure why. To me there are three types. The first is simple: you aren't writing because deep down you have nothing to say. So figure out what you would like to say, then move to the second type of block.

You may not be writing because you don't know yet what to write or how to write it. That's a sign that you need to lie on the couch, take a shower, walk the dog, or whatever it is that you do to generate ideas. The problem may be that you don't know how to approach the scene. How do you enter and exit? What is the point? Where is it set? So you need to think about it some more. Once you've got it clear in your head, it's just a matter of labour to write it down.

Try reading. Some people may think this is a displacement activity but it isn't. Writing is about solving problems of characterization, scene-setting, tone, etc. and countless other people have addressed these problems - successfully or not - in their books. If you have a library in your head, you can say to yourself: this author solved the problem by doing this. That can be a big help in unblocking yourself. Now if you're thinking that reading someone else's book has nothing to do with your creativity or your self-expression, then I'd suggest that you're misinterpreting what self-expression means. It about expressing yourself, not expressing your Self. You are crafting a story, and you will inevitably be there on every page. So focus on what your characters do and say, not on what you would do/say in that situation. That's why I advise people in workshops to avoid first-person narratives, but that's my particular bias.

But I digress. When you're planning a piece of writing, cut yourself some slack and give yourself some time to sort it out - with the caveat that you have to assure yourself that something will get written at some point. It may not be today or this week, but it will get done.
The third type is motivational - why bother? Isn't there something else you'd rather be doing? That can delay things for quite a while, but ultimately you have to decide: Are you a writer, or not? If you are, then a writer writes. If you aren't, it doesn't matter.

Wise words for all us! Fellow writers, I hope you are inspired after reading this interview. Once again, I thank author Steven Manners for taking time to answer my questions.

The book is available at most bookstores, including Chapters and Amazon. Or from the publisher http://dundurn.com/

Monday, April 19, 2010

Bad scenes go in the bin!

Working on my latest story has been grueling. Would you believe that I’ve edited this story twenty-one times? Not in one day though! I started this story back in March 2008 but I put it away for a while. Actually, it started out as a colorful story full of quirky characters. However, as I keep tweaking and revising, it seems to have taken a weird turn. Today, this story is only a shadow of my original draft (Unfortunately, a lot of my characters got the ax because they were not helping move the story forward). A friend told me that I need to rework some scenes in order for the story to work. So here I am! Fixing the scenes and following some great tips by award-winning, best-selling author, Dr. Vicki Hinze. If you are having problems writing good scenes, you may want to read Dr. Hinze’s article.

1) Each scene is a capsule that depicts a specific story event. That event relates to the events in each of the other scenes, and when the writer strings all the scenes together, s/he's got a book.

2) Each scene moves the plot and characters ever forward toward the story's resolution and conclusion. When we discussed plot, we determined that to hold together and carry the story weight, the plot had to contain specific elements. Well, a scene has to carry its weight, too. Something essential to the whole (novel) must be in a scene to justify its place (and space) in the novel. That justification is an earned right—each scene must prove that including it is essential. Otherwise, in editing, it gets the ax.

3) Every scene needs an inciting incident, a spark that sets the scene in motion. Think of this as the cause that incites an effect (remember, in plot, we worked from cause to effect to cause to effect) that links the scenes to each other. (What happens in a scene causes the next scene to happen, and so on.)

4) In each scene, the character has a goal and a strategy for reaching that goal. If the character doesn't want anything, then the scene lacks purpose. If the character doesn't have "a plan" (ill-conceived, halfcocked plans are fine; there must just be some semblance of one which motivates the character to act) to get what s/he wants, and there is no one trying to stop him/her from getting it, then you've got no scene goal/strategy and worse, no conflict. If there is no conflict, you have no story—applied to the scene, you'd have no scene.

5) Each scene has a resolution. Now the scene resolution might carry the character closer to his/her goal, or push him/her further away from it. It also might cause the character to change from one goal to another. The point is, there is a sense of closure, on having gotten all we're able to get from this scene, and there is movement. Each scene resolves (goes from beginning to middle to end), preparing the way for the next scene or the story's conclusion.

Do keep in mind that just because a scene is wonderfully written and lyrical and pleasant to read doesn't mean you keep it in your novel. Every scene requires conflict. Without it, the scene can't be justified. As I said (but it's worth repeating because it's so important), every scene carries the burden and blessing of advancing the story. If it doesn't, then it shouldn't be there. Run a check on your scenes to make sure the elements are there. It's a great way to tighten your writing—and to help bulletproof your manuscript.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Don't get mad, get better!

What happens when you learn one of your stories didn’t make the cut? Sulk? Whine? Quit writing? Well, for your sake, I hope you did none of these. Stressing over why your story was not picked it’s not going to change the outcome of things. Your attitude, on the other hand, will help you get your story published. Even if your story was well-written, chances are your theme was not appealing to the judges. This however, does not mean that your story won’t be liked elsewhere. Do your homework and inquire about magazines that are more compatible with your genre or writing style. Instead of giving up on your story altogether, I advise you to put it away for a while and come back to it when you are feeling less despondent. One of my mentors gave me great advice when he told me to use this anger and frustration, and turn it into positive energy to fix my story. The "rejected" entry should serve as the spring board for the next writing dive. Keep an open mind. Have someone else look at it. Ask your colleagues and friends to give you feedback. In the end is up to us, the writers, to keep our stories alive. We just have to make them better. So, next time one of your stories is not published, tell yourself “It’s their loss!” Revise it and make it a winner!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Is the publishing industry on life support?

No. Not according to Mr. Nicholas Hoare, owner of Nicholas Hoare Bookstores. Last night I attended a meeting where he discussed the future of the publishing industry in Canada. He said that there’s a decline in Canadian books because a lot of material falls between the cracks. Electronics are the culprits, too, as they are choking the market. However, the economy or the big book companies have nothing to do with Canadiana’s poor performance. The reason is salability.

Mr. Hoare added that we have to show appreciation for unknown authors. Great books deserve to be published even if they are not best-sellers. For instance, The Life of Pi, a fantasy adventure novel written by Canadian author Yann Martel. It was first published by Vintage Canada and was received with enthusiastic reviews but moderate sales.

In Montreal you must sell a minimum of two thousand copies in order to be called a best-seller. And that’s only in Montreal!

Furthermore, McArthur and Company (which he co-owns) produces twenty to thirty titles a year because they are very particular at what they take on. Private publishing will always have a place for authors who are willing to do their own peddling. Mr. Hoare also said that we shouldn’t be afraid of Kindle, the largest E-ink screen (a thin, lightweight, electronic reading device that you can take anywhere and download your favorite book, newspaper, or magazine). He said that there will always be books. True, Kindle has its charm but also a downfall. Customers (like me, for instance) want to see and feel so they can buy. People who grew up reading conventional books will not stop buying conventional books. Avid readers like Mr. Hoare won’t stop buying books. Let’s face it, we love books!

In a nutshell, Mr. Hoare says the market is there, vibrant, curious, and thriving for novelty. The market for book is expanding, not contracting.



Saturday, April 10, 2010

Talk is cheap...

I am working on two short stories right now. I thought they were finished. Boy was I wrong! One of my mentors made me realize that they needed more than just tweaking. I’ve learned not to get too attached to my stories in a way that I won’t let them follow their own course. Instead of commenting on all the areas that needed fixing, I’ll focus on the one element that is vital to a short story: Dialogue.

Although dialogue should sound real, it doesn’t mean it has to be exact to the way we talk on a daily basis. We also have to take into consideration our characters: where they come from, where they live, what their native language is, what their social or educational background is, etc. Failing to do so, will lead us to a failed story.
Here are some points to consider when writing a dialogue:

• Establish the tone or mood
• Provide exposition or back story
• Reveal character and motivation
• Create immediacy and intimacy (build reader empathy)
• Move the plot forward and/or increase its pace
• Create or add to existing conflict
• Remind the reader of things they may have forgotten
• Foreshadow

When in doubt, we have to ask ourselves if someone we know would say this in a trivial conversation. Let’s not forget that dialogue is the vehicle that moves our story forward. Be careful of the character’s language as this reflects conflict and emotion. Don’t extend the dialogue in such a way that the reader may get bored. Remember: it’s a short story, not a play. Don’t confuse the reader by letting him/her guess who’s talking. Use tags: she says, he asked, I said (but don’t overdo it). Don’t use unnecessary adverbs attached to the tags. This just kills a good dialogue. And last but not least, ask your fellow writers, family, and friends to read your dialogue to see if it resonates with them.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Beware of the Big Bad “S”: Sentimentality vs. Sentiment

British poet, William Wordsworth once said “Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.” A beautiful message indeed. However, we have to pay heed that our feelings don’t metamorphose into sentimentalism when we’re writing. The predominance of sentimentality in the story can do more harm than good as it lessens the quality of our work. I once struggled with a story, my “bipolar” story as I used to call it while I was in the process of writing it, because it had both sentimentality and sentiment in some paragraphs. My mentor told me I was manipulating the reader’s emotions. So, he gave me a great piece of advice on this subject which I would like to share with you.

“There is a big difference between sentiment (which is good) and sentimentality (which is not). Sentimentality is unearned emotion. In other words, if, as a writer, I am asking a reader to fill in the story with experience from their own life, or with stock responses, then I am being sentimental. It is my job as a writer to bring energy to the reader, not to take it from the reader.”

Let me provide you with an example in order to prove his point. A story that begins with “Tears flowing like a river,” is sentimental. We don't know the character. We don't know the situation. Tears flowing like a river is a cliché. My mentor told me that “We are being asked for an emotional response that does not fit with anything we know from the story. If you had prepared us, given us a very emotional scene that led, eventually, to a moment of high emotion and conflict that demanded those tears, and if you had prepared us for that particular river, then it would not have been sentimental.”

Some key points that'll help you avoid sentimentality:
1- Use specific images and situations, not general or conceptual ones.
2- Don’t rely on clichés or trite subject matter.
3- Don't rely on adjectives.
4- Use events and images that amaze the reader.
5- Don’t tell the reader what to feel. Instead, let the reader experience feelings along with the character.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Laugh all your way while writing a successful story à la Woody Allen

The other night I watched Woody Allen’s The Curse of the Jade Scorpion. It was not one of his best works but it was still entertaining. I am a fan of his no matter what subject he writes about. I know that not everyone appreciates his quirkiness and cynicism. But I am almost sure most people would agree that his thought-provoking work has inspired many writers. Woody Allen's sense of humor may be the catalyst to his writing style, which has proven to be successful. He has received several prestigious awards throughout his fifty plus years of his multi-faceted career. When I think of Woody Allen, I think of him as a producer, director, actor, and a screenwriter, too. That’s why I was surprised when I learned he has written numerous plays and short stories. And, I was even more amazed that he’s written three anthologies of short stories. I am currently working on my own anthology, and although my stories are not light in tone like those of Woody’s, I am using his writings as an ‘anti-stress-er’ (more like a writer’s block plunger!). Even if you’ve never watched a Woody Allen movie, you can see his writing style through his use of dialogue, diction, character development, and setting (which most of them are set in his hometown of New York). What I am trying to say is that writing should be fun. We should allow ourselves to laugh at our own mistakes and move on. So whenever you’re stuck and your story is not evolving, think of Woody Allen: He made it all the way with humor.

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Cleaner: be your own editor

As writers, we get excited getting the first draft down. The adrenaline is pumping as our words and ideas are flowing. However, after we’ve accomplished the first step to writing our story, the hardest part follows. Editing! I’ve talked about editing in my previous posts but I have to reiterate that we can’t escape this exhausting process. We often feel disheartened with the first draft’s revision: fixing syntax and semantics, including or dismissing metaphors, adding and omitting things, and finally, checking punctuation and spelling. In other words, you have to clean up your work. I’ll share with you what I learned in one of my workshops about revising my own work:

1) Read your entire draft. This doesn’t mean you have to do it right after you’ve finished writing your draft. “Put it in a drawer,” as my mentor used to tell me. Give your eyes and your mind a break. You can come back to the story the day after, or a week later.
2) Determine what the problem is. Pay attention to your POV, your character’s development, dialogue, plot, and climax.
3) Make a modification chart. My mentor taught me to draw a chart where I divide it into scenes (almost like an outline) and place the protagonist and antagonist on each half of the page. This would give me a visual of where the story (climax) is going.
4) Rewrite. After you’ve cleaned up, rewrite the whole story. Don’t get the “attachment syndrome” as I call it. Let go of dialogues, words, similes, or anything that may not be moving your story forward. You wouldn’t stay in a bad relationship, right? You would want to move on with your life. So does your story!
5) Polish your prose. Pay attention to clichés, redundancies, weak verbs, and extra adjectives. My mentor always reminded me to use strong adjectives and verbs that would be more effective to the story.

So in the spirit of spring, let's get cleaning!

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Eight Commandments of Writing

Sometimes we get caught up in our own writing that we forget about our audience. Guilty as charged! I’ve done this a couple of times. It is okay to sit down and write your story at once (you don’t want your muse to take a nap on you), but don’t forget that you have a responsibility to your reader. Even if you finish your poem, short story, or novella in one sitting, you cannot neglect the most important (and grueling, may I add) part of the writing process. Editing! I have to reiterate what I’ve mentioned in one of my previous post: edit, edit, edit till you can’t think anymore. That’s why I want to share with you Steve Berry’s eight rules of writing:

1. There are no rules. You can do anything you want as long as it works.
2. Don't bore the reader. You can bore the reader in a sentence, in a paragraph, by misusing words, poorly choosing words, using the wrong length, etc.
3. Don't confuse the reader. Don't misuse point of view. Don't do too much at once.
4. Don't get caught writing. Don't let you, the author, enter the story. (E.g., "And he never would see Memphis again." How would anyone other than the author know that the character would never see Memphis again?)
5. Shorter is always better. Write tight. It makes you use the best words in the right way.
6. Don't lie to the reader. It's OK to mislead, but don't lie. If you say the character's motivation is A and it turns out to be B (and you haven't foreshadowed it at all), the reader will feel cheated.
7. Don't annoy the reader. Don't use names that are hard to pronounce or write choppy sentences throughout the entire book. It keeps people from getting close to your characters.
8. You must tell a good story. Bad writing can be forgiven with a good story. A bad story with the most beautiful writing cannot.

Although these are essential points to keep in mind when writing, they are not written in stone. I’d like to add my personal point: #9 Let your heart be the pen to your next great story. I hope this inspires you to write your next masterpiece.