Assembling My Tools: My Writer’s Toolkit

Armed with dialogue, suspense, world building, and reverie, as well as all the other craft elements related to those, I write stories.   I have used reverie in both first person and third person point of view narratives.  In the first person, reverie can stand alone without the use of a dialogue tag such as ‘she thought.’  It can be a standalone sentence, italicized or not.  However, using close third person point of view, a standalone sentence of thought next to the description of a character’s action, will allow the reader to infer as to whose thoughts they are a reading.  For example, in my current writing project I recently wrote, “Kirsten was now certain Ryan was acting differently.  He had never been the flirty type, what had gotten into him?  Maybe this was ‘off campus’ Ryan?”  Even though I did not use a dialogue tag or italics, because of the lead sentence about Kirsten’s certainty, the next two sentences stand alone as reverie of Kirsten’s thoughts.

When it comes to dialogue, and dialogue attribution, I take Stephen King’s advice in On Writing to heart.  “When debating whether or not to make some pernicious dandelion of an adverb part of your dialogue attribution, I suggest you ask yourself if you really want to write the sort of prose that might wind up in a party-game” (126).  King’s example, “’Put it down!’ she shouted menacingly” (126), is just more interesting to me with description instead of an adverb.  “Put it down!” she shouted, a knife gripped in her hand.  As a writer (and reader) I want to know what made her shout menacing.  The adage “show, don’t tell” applies to many craft elements, not just exposition, so I don’t want to be told how she shouted, I want to be shown.

Building suspense is another craft element I’m currently working to improve.  I want to keep my reader turning the pages from the very first page, maybe even the first line.  With my first novel (written in 2009), I once caught myself apologizing to a potential reader (a personal friend).  “It’s twenty chapters long, but I think it really gets going on chapter eleven, if you can make it that far.”  I cannot believe I’ve actually said that!  The problem is my potential readers cannot just start to read my book on chapter eleven, as much as my insecurity at the time might have wanted that.  The first ten chapters had built the world, built the plot, and most of all, built the suspense.  I think what my younger self meant was that the suspense starts to pay off in a big way around chapter eleven.  I know some stories unfold out of order in time, but when it comes to building suspense, there is a method of building that suspense that rises above the order of the timeline of the story.  It would be take a lot of rewriting to reorder the suspense if, after the fact, a writer wanted to reorder their sequence of events.  Myself, I usually write in a linear sequence of events, each scene building on the previous.  The first line of a novel can have a ‘hook,’ a provocative line of writing that sparks the reader’s interest, but so can the last line of each chapter, and so can the last line of a scene.  Suspense can be built with multiple hooks of provocative statements, leading to what occurs next.  I prefer using subtle hooks or hint, rather than obvious ones, to build suspense.  In my current writing project, I want to be building suspense, but I’m not always deliberate about it.  I’m not tackling my writing armed with forethought along the lines of, “I better insert a hook in here soon.”  It usually happens more organically.  I’ll write a line, and then think, ‘hey, that sounds like a hint of something deeper.’  And then I think, ‘hey, maybe I should end the chapter here.’  But not always.  For example, “But something about Ryan enthusiasm for the specifics of this particular incident was still surprising, especially considering it happened, wasn’t it ten years ago?”  This didn’t end the chapter, but at the time I was writing it, I didn’t (and still don’t) know Ryan’s motivations.   Therefore, his obsession over something that happened almost a decade ago feels like a hint, I’m just not sure exactly what it is hinting just yet.

Exploring the craft element of world building reminds me of discussions concerning genre.  In my current project, my imaginary landscape is located close to our world along a spectrum, where at one end is the world in which we live, and the other end is a world that has never existed or never could exist.  In a world which resembles ours so closely, I struggle with knowing where my work falls in terms of genre.  Is this speculative fiction or not?  I sense that this world is different than ours, but I don’t know yet in what way.  Maybe it is something metaphysical that is different, rather than physical.  I am just like one of my characters.  They sense something is wrong, something is different, but they are not sure what it is yet.  As I am not big on plotting everything out ahead of time, I’m just as uncertain as my characters, which makes writing this story just as revealing as reading it would be.  However, I am throwing off some of my early constraints with world building, and allowing my characters some freedoms I do not currently feel I have, for example,

“Suicide could be a touchy subject, but within this group of friends she felt she could safely express anything.  That was one of the reasons their disparate group seemed to work.  They allowed each other to say the things, the not politically correct things, that they weren’t allowed to say in class or anywhere else.  Even though the university advertised their campus as a place for freedom of thought and expression, in just the three short years they’d been attending this school, she had already noticed an increasing shift towards censoring what was allowed to be said.”

A craft element related to world building can be the setting.  I’ve been told that it is not a good idea to use specific places (when writing about planet Earth, at least), so that your reader can transpose your setting to anywhere in their own imagination.   For a North America audience, I could have my characters inhabit a fairly generic contemporary town where they go to a motel and a dollar store, for example.  Or I can send my characters to the Thunderbird Motel and the Lucky Dollar Plus, in Hope, British Columbia, where they filmed Rambo: First Blood.  I am getting really specific which, I believe, will ultimately contrast with what I figure out is different with this world.

 

 

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Kindred: A Review (Of Sorts)

Octavia E. Butler’s 1979 novel Kindred introduces the reader to Dana and her husband Kevin, propelling us from the very first lines into a story of time travel where Dana is inexplicable called nearly two hundred years into her family’s past.  The theme of having to conform and adapt for survival in unfamiliar surroundings is standard in a time travel tale, and it is those unfamiliar surroundings that give life to the story. In Kindred, setting is crucial. The Antebellum South is a period of history dominated by plantations with slave agriculture, and a woman of color from 1976 Los Angeles suddenly thrust and forced to survive in this setting is intensely shocking and riveting for character and reader alike. The story works to enthrall the reader because the setting is one of our past only known in history books, mixed with the science fiction element of a modern woman having traveled through time through a familial connection, drawing her to specific times in the past to save the life of the man directly responsible for her genetic lineage.

In Kindred, Butler effectively uses the time Dana spends in the past to provide a visceral look at this particular time in the history of the United States.  Dana’s day to day interactions with plantation life provide the reader with a first person immersive view of the Antebellum South. Watching Dana face the additional challenge of being forced to not only conform to that unfamiliar world, but, because of her race, having to submit to being a slave to a plantation owner, all while having been transported from her present life where she had lived her whole life as a free woman, underscored the history of slavery and its abuses in a new way. What Butler does differently than other time travel stories is that Dana’s husband Kevin, by grabbing onto her body when she is about to travel, is transported along with Dana early in the story.  Usually, the theme of surviving in an unfamiliar environment is that of a lone struggle, dealing with not only the shock of displacement, but also of isolation.  In Kindred, Butler has Dana deal with the initial shocking disturbance of two short jaunts into the past, only to surprise the reader by then having Kevin travel as well.  It is here that Butler’s story takes on a new dimension.  The dynamic of a husband and wife together conforming to the past would have been interesting enough, but because of the place and time of slavery, Dana can only hide in plain sight as Kevin’s slave and property.  Dana’s forced slavery to someone who is her husband is an incredible way to tackle other narratives from that time period, not only about the treatment of slaves, but the treatment of female slaves as concubines.  Even though the sensibilities of the society at the time did not openly condone ‘masters’ having sex with their slaves, which was more because of racism and less about adultery or any other consideration, an unspoken policy of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ permitted this sexual abuse.  Dana and Kevin are forced by this environment to have everyone believe what is happening between them is this abuse in practice, when Dana finds sanctuary in Kevin’s room at night.  Kevin’s own time travel is mostly eclipsed by Dana’s plight as a slave, and as a female in this time period, but Kevin’s story is important to the overall tale, especially when he is left in the past for five years without Dana.  As this was primarily Dana’s story, without any change in point of view, unfortunately Butler did not fully develop Kevin’s journey in the novel.

As a story of time travel, Butler created a connection to Dana’s ancestors with the necessity of her travel in order to ensure a future in which she would be born.  This appealed to me in the same way as other stories in this genre specific to travel to the past.  It deals with a protagonist who, when in the past, has knowledge that others in the story do not.  Traveling from a future time in to the past has the effect of making the character remarkable with the gift of foreknowledge of events.  Dana’s discussion of the fact that in the present she is married to Kevin as his equal, certainly makes her seem remarkable to the people of the plantation like Sarah.  “Nigel said you and him was married.  I didn’t believe it” (394).  Even if Sarah doesn’t understand Dana is talking about a future time in where it is legal for a mixed-race couple to be married, and could instead be referencing a far-off place, it is still so incredible a prospect as to make Dana seem exceptional in more ways than one.  Additionally, traveling from a future time in to the past has the effect of making Dana remarkable with the gift the acquired human knowledge.  Rufus seems to feel Dana is super human, especially having witnessed when she has disappeared right in front of him, and he cannot understand how she fails to save his father’s life.  Even though she tries to explain her knowledge of medicine is limited, the things she knows about Malaria and other diseases, for example, and the simple pills she had brought with her from the future, had served to make her seem omniscient and all powerful.

Kindred was published in 1979 and can be compared to The Mirror, by Marlys Milhiser published in 1978.  Both novels have female protagonist travelling in time to the past, both making connections with their own ancestors.  In Kindred, Dana is transported back to the early 1800’s and meets her own several times great-grandparents.  In The Mirror, Shay is transported from the 1970’s back to the 1880’s, and into the body of her own grandmother.  In Kindred, through Dana’s multiple travels to save her ancestor’s life, to ensure the birth of a child that will continue to the direct genetic line eventually leading to Dana herself, Butler only gives the reader this brief look into Dana’s life during the two weeks in the present in which she time traveled, and the nearly one year of time she spent trapped in the past.  Flashbacks provide the reader some back story into Dana’s life in the present time and how she came to be married to Kevin, but as this was a single novel and not a book series, there is an unfinished feel to the story.  Kevin assimilation back into his life after his five years in the past, and how Dana and Kevin move forward together after both their ordeals, the one they endured together and the ones they endured separately, is sadly beyond the scope of the story told in Kindred.  In The Mirror, Shay is forced to live out her entire life as her own grandmother, eventually catching up with her former self in the present, only to witness the body switch and time travel to the past happen all over again.  Milhiser’s story came full circle, whereas Butler left me wanting more.

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Everything Changes

My mom, and her mom before her, both worked at our small town’s public library. I remember playing there on a Saturday afternoon while my mom worked her shift. It was warm, dusty, and quiet.  I especially loved the second-floor stacks, which consisted of an openly visible area with a baloney, encircling the high ceiling. Instead of finding a book and an overstuffed chair, I would sit cross legged on the scratchy industrial carpet of this upper aisle, close to the balcony, but not too close, with a bird’s eye view of my mom at the circulation desk.

Indigo Books, (formerly Chapters, Canada’s Barnes & Noble equivalent), used to feel like a library to me. High ceilings, stacks of books, comfy chairs. The dull murmur of mall shoppers a comforting blanket of noise.  With the re-branding from Chapters to Indigo, I visited the recently renovated store, and I barely recognized it. The entrance is lined with board games, most notably Monopoly: Cheaters Edition.  No longer is the store an open concept, with books as far as the eye can see. It is now laid out like a furniture store, partitioned in to sections and decorated like a contemporary home. To the right, the woman’s section designated by the pronoun “Her” in various fonts, is selling purses, clothes, designer couch cushions, dishes, and various candles and soaps. Everything is wrapped in plastic with no scent.  Walking through the various ‘her’ rooms I found shelves were no longer filled with row after row displaying the spines of many books. Instead, travel and cookbooks faced me with space between them, free of clutter. The men’s section was not designated as such, but the ‘her’ rooms had given way to magazines, a Starbucks, and an exit to echoing noise of the tiled mall thoroughfare.

I retraced my steps to the board games and turned left. Here the children’s section housed more books than ‘hers’ did, but it was also nearly dominated by the licensed merchandise of book franchises and toys like LEGO Star Wars. I exited the children’s section and ventured further towards the back of the store. I ascended some stairs to a mezzanine level and I found the ‘old’ store. It was half the size it used to be, but it was still there. Non-fiction and the A-Z stacks of fiction. Hardcover and paperback alike. I stood there for a while, taking in the more familiar sites, then looked out over the rest of the store. From my vantage point, it looked like something from The Maze Runner, except decorated by Wayfair.

At the foot of the stairs, a local author had set up a table to sell her book. A few people stood in front of her table, smiling and talking with her. The cover of the book showed a grubby pair of shoes and with a pang of sadness or maybe guilt I imagined it was about surviving a war.  With an uncomfortable smile and a nod, I passed by her table and left the store.

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Stranger in a Strange Land

One of the most obvious genre tropes in any time travel story is that of a “Fish Out of Water,” where a character is placed in a situation completely unfamiliar to them (TV Tropes).  I prefer the title of Robert Heinlein’s 1961 science fiction novel about a human Martian who comes to Earth for the very first time to offer a humanized description of the trope, “Stranger in a Strange Land.”  By the very nature of the plot of travelling in time, at some point, the character or characters will find themselves immersed in a time that is not their own and is therefore unfamiliar.  In Octavia Butler’s Kindred, the character of Dana, who is also joined at one point by her husband Kevin, finds herself transported from the year 1976 to the early 1800s.  Additionally, she is transported from Los Angeles on the west coast of the United States, to Maryland on the east coast.  In H.G. Wells The Time Machine, the character called the “Time Traveller” is only transported in time, his time machine being fixed in its place in London as the world around it ages.  Although Butler’s characters travel into the past, Wells’ character travels ahead a nearly incomprehensible amount of time into the future.  Having the characters dealing with an unfamiliar environment inevitably results in both novels dealing with how the characters will survive their respective ordeals, closely connecting the Stranger in a Strange Land trope to the theme of survival.

When it comes to surviving, the human ability to conform to their surroundings and adapt is vital.  Although survival and adaptation are addressed in both novels, there are distinct differences between the two stories.  In Kindred, Dana must conform to the societal role of slave expected of her, submissive and subservient.  It is when she doesn’t conform to her surroundings that she finds herself in danger of physical injury.  When her life is truly threatened, and she is in danger of being killed, Butler crafts the nature of Dana’s ability to time travel to intervene to bring her back to her present time in order to save her life.  In chapter two, Dana and Kevin discuss how dangerously close to death she has to be in order to time travel, and how non-conforming behaviour in the past is tantamount to suicide and could be what leads to her death.  However, Dana doubts her ability to continue to survive back in a world that goes against her nature, “To survive, my ancestors had to put up with more than I ever could” (120).  Despite the dangers, she is drawn back numerous times to the past to ensure the survival of her ancestor so that her direct ancestor, Hagar, will be eventually born.  The act of time travel results in both danger, by immersion in an unfamiliar world, and then in survival, in first conforming to that world and then ultimately escaping.

In The Time Machine, the Time Traveller also conforms to his surroundings and becomes “frugivorous.”  Although the world of the Eloi initially seems devoid of animals to hunt for meat, the traveller does not even consider that he should not conform to eat as the Eloi do.  “These people of the remote future were strict vegetarians, and while I was with them, in spite of some carnal cravings, I had to be frugivorous also” (71).  Instead, he spends his time exploring his new surroundings, happy to accept what food is immediately available, going along with the group.  Even later when he catches a glimpse of the Morlocks, he does not think that they are animals he can now hunt.  He is content with adhering to the behaviours of those with whom he finds himself surrounded until he finds himself threatened when his time machine is taken.  When this occurs, initially he is devastated, “I felt hopelessly cut off from my own kind—a strange animal in an unknown world” (99).  When his survival instincts return, he decides, “It behoves me to be calm and patient, to learn the way of the people,” (100), in which he hopes will help him find a solution to the problem of the missing machine.

In both Kindred and The Time Machine, Dana and the Time Traveller both face life threatening situations.  Dana is almost raped on more than one occasion, threatened with a gun, whipped, and deals with near fatal blood loss from self inflicted wounds.  The Time Traveller is unknowingly at risk from the Morlocks, being in their proximity without realizing he is their prey as a food source, and ultimately when they are using his machine to trap him for food.  Both stories also find the main characters in situations where their actions inadvertently hurt others.  In Kindred, Dana’s contact with Sam and Rufus’s jealousy leads to Sam’s sale, which Dana has to accept in order to protect herself, despite her moral outrage.  In The Time Machine, the Time Traveller inadvertently starts a forest fire while trying to protect Weena and himself from the Morlocks, actually resulting in Weena’s death.  In both stories the characters acquire weapons to help them survive, Dana deliberately brings a knife with her, and the Time Traveller finds matches to replace the ones he used up, using light and fire to protect himself from the Morlocks.  Both characters survive by triumphing over their adversaries in the end, and returning to their own time, with the Time Traveller presumably taking another trip in which we do not know the outcome.

Although both characters conform for survival, they both desire to return to their correct place in time, and at various times in their respective stories, work to accomplish that aim.  However, Dana’s environment is the one that starts to affect her the most.  In The Time Machine, the Time Traveller makes a connection with Weena, but he never considers abandoning his past for this simpler time in which his intellect and ingenuity would be able to protect him from the Morlocks and lead others to the same.  Dana does not consider abandoning her future with Kevin, however, by the sheer amount of time she is forced to spend in the past with her survival dependent on conforming, she eventually realizes she has assimilated.  “Once—God knows how long ago—I had worried that I was keeping too much distance between myself and this alien time.  Now, there was no distance at all.  When had I stopped acting?  Why had I stopped?” (586).    When Kevin was left in the past for five years, he also had trouble adjusting to returning to his own time, but we are not privy to his thoughts.  Even though Dana is waiting for the birth of Hagar to hopefully signify that her time travelling can come to an end, it is at a point before Hagar’s birth that she realizes she has stopped acting as though she belongs there, which is something she feels she has not chosen.  Although the Time Traveller was forced to conform, when faced with the loss of his machine, the Time Traveller does not choose to surrender to his circumstances.    With time travel stories, the trope of Stranger in a Strange Land is linked to the theme of survival, which requires conforming, and if enough time passes, inevitably leads to an exploration of assimilation.  With Dana’s internal thoughts, Butler’s Kindred explores the nature of submission to assimilation, not just as a slave, but to one’s surroundings.

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Let’s Try to Define Genre

In terms of fiction writing, the term genre defines to me a way of providing a category or grouping into which a story falls, mostly based on the story’s setting. Previously, I thought a specific genre would give me an idea of the subject matter of the story, but that is not always the case.  And therein lies the problem with providing any category or grouping for a story, it is truly limiting.  For example, if I take a story in which the subject matter is an orphaned young man who fights against tyranny, and place it in an outer space setting, that means the genre classification becomes Science Fiction.  If I take a story about an orphaned young man who fights against tyranny, and partner him alongside a grizzled detective who is trying to solve the murder of the young man’s parents while fighting against a broken justice system, then the genre classification becomes Crime and Detective.  A similar story about an orphaned young man who fights against tyranny in a strange world where he is the only one who can weld a magical sword and is advised by a wizard becomes Fantasy.  A similar story about an orphaned young man who fights against tyranny in early twentieth century Oklahoma becomes Historical Fiction.  If the young man is a compelling central character, maybe the genre simply becomes Young Adult.  Genre can be whatever the writer wants it to be, and we can blend them so that we have a story in which the subject matter is an orphaned young man who fights against tyranny in early twentieth century Oklahoma after finding his parents murdered and the only clue is a magical sword.  But ultimately, deciding on a limited genre category for a story may not even be in the writer’s hands.

I cannot say it much better than Ursula K. Le Guin, in her speech entitled “Genre: A Word Only a Frenchman Could Love,” given at the PLA conference in Seattle in February of 2004.  “We need a method for sorting out and defining varieties of narrative fiction, and genre gives us a tool to begin the job. But there are two big problems in using the tool. The first is that it’s been misused so often that it’s hard to use it rightly—like a good screwdriver that’s all bent out of shape because some dork tried to pry paving stones apart with it.” Le Guin points out obvious flaws of using genre categories which are “stereotyped thinking of reviewers, by the ingrained habits and superstitions of publish­ers, and by the shelving and descriptive practices of booksellers and libraries.”  She says perhaps they have a use as a descriptive category but can be very harmful when used to value the writing.

For me, labels are perhaps necessary tools, but they come with nasty side effects. Firstly, a genre label can set an expectation that cannot be fulfilled by the actual writing, because a setting focused label does not necessary tell us anything about the actual subject matter of the story. Understandably, when it comes to marketing and selling a book, we want to be told something about the story, so we know whether or not it is the kind of story we’ve been drawn to and enjoyed in the past.  But to try and narrow complex stories down to basic labels, especially focusing on just the setting or backdrop in which the story takes place, can set up not only reviewers and publishers to be swayed by stereotypes, but also the potential readers. The second problem is too strong or narrow a label can stop a reader for giving a book a chance at all. A reader only has past books with a certain label upon which to have formed an opinion that will guide future choices. If my experience with science fiction was with a dense, difficult to access and confusing world which I felt dominated almost everything else in the story, then I may shy away from any future book purchased labeled as ‘sci fi.’ If I read one disturbing horror novel written by Stephen King, I may shy away from all future works labeled by his publisher with something along the lines of ‘The Master of Horror strikes again.’ For example, King’s Dark Tower Series is a work of Fantasy, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, in my opinion, is a really great middle grade novel, and Joyland is a wonderful crime story.  These genre labels are out there for these King stories and others, but his horror writer moniker can really get in the way of attracting new readers (or parents) who find it hard to believe Stephen King ever wrote anything appropriate for middle grade or young adult.

A genre label is a necessary marketing concern, but as a writer, there is no correct way to focus on only one aspect of my story, like its setting, in which to create a label.  Le Guin’s article mentions that Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was initially being labelled as science fiction by Atwood herself, but then it was ultimately sold under Atwood’s long established literary label status.  Myself, I have written several stories, trying different genres (settings and backgrounds), and I would have to similarly call most of my writing science fiction as well.  But that label does not actually tell you what I wrote about.  The ‘science fiction’ aspects of my novels are just setting, just the backdrop in which the story plays out, and as with most genre labels the label just does not encapsulate the real story. The dystopian country of Gilead that is the setting of The Handmaid’s Tale provides the backdrop and facilitates Atwood’s deeper story, which is the character driven account of the handmaid Offred. By this example, aren’t all stories character driven?  Newer marketing ‘labels’ have begun to focus on the characters, for example LGBTQ literature can fall into any genre, but a publisher may choose to highlight simply that it is LGBTQ, in the same way a publisher may choose to highlight a young adult novel in any genre as simply young adult.  Ultimately, I suppose genre categories is all we have until someone comes up with something better.

 

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I’m a Writer, I’m a Reader

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Just one more personal essay on Stephen King.

Which came first, the genre or the writing? Prior to reading Stephen King’s book On Writing, paired with an introduction course to completing a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing, my writing always came first with little thought as to genre or anything else. It was almost as if I thought I was writing by some lucky accident, and if I thought too much about when, why or where my creative ideas struck me, I would lose my nerve. You couldn’t plan these things, could you? I did not think I had that elusive flash of genius creative idea yet, but I loved writing so much, that I was just hoping lighting was eventually going to strike the way it did with Stephen King. What On Writing really changed for me was the idea that I just had to wait for that flash of genius, or that lightning needed to strike, or that I was just going to have a lucky accident one day leading to the greatest story ever told. In his biographical introduction, King outlines just how much hard work occurred prior to when he first had his huge success with the paperback publication of Carrie. Surprise, surprise to me, Carrie was no where near where his story started.

Stephen King started writing at a very early age, and therefore by the time Carrie was published when he was nearly twenty-seven years old, he’d been trying, and yes failing, as a writer for more than a decade. His ideas are not lucky accidents, flashes of genius (okay, maybe some of them are), or when lightning strikes, they are simple creativity. They are things I am already doing with my own writing, answering the ‘what if’ questions. “The most interesting situations can usually be expressed as a What-if question: What if vampires invaded a small New England village? (’Salem’s Lot) What if a policeman in a remote Nevada town went berserk and started killing everyone in sight? (Desperation) What if a cleaning woman suspected of a murder she got away with (her husband) fell under suspicion for a murder she did not commit (her employer)? (Dolores Claiborne)” (169). Prior to reading this, it never occurred to me that the simple ‘what if’ questions in my head that I wanted answered, were similar to questions asked by someone as prolific and talented as Stephen King. And with just a ‘what if’ question, I could plan a story, even if I loathed to do an outline, “Please remember, however, that there is a huge difference between story and plot. Story is honorable and trustworthy; plot is shifty, and best kept under house arrest” (170). With story, I could follow through on my question, answering it in whatever genre, or in my case speculative world, I felt would be a good fit.

Certainly, On Writing has encouraged me to focus on genre, because it has allowed me to broaden my own definition of the genre of Speculative Fiction. My ‘what if’ question creative ideas are not going to be jinxed just because I ponder genre with a little deliberation. Even though Stephen King doesn’t use the term ‘Speculative Fiction’ in his book, which was published in 2000, so much of his writing falls neatly into this broad genre. A quick (and not scholarly) Google search definition of Speculative Fiction defines it as an umbrella genre used to encompass Science Fiction, Fantasy, Superhero Fiction, Science Fantasy, Horror, Utopian and Dystopian Fiction, and Supernatural Fiction, (Wikipedia).  And yet, despite the diversity in his writing as any reader of his knows, King is labeled as a writer of Horror, a moniker with which he seems to be stuck.

The problem I ran into with On Writing is the notion that everyone who is called to be a writer will most likely devote to it all their spare time.  When I first started writing, I loved it, but I also loved music, and between grades seven and twelve, I was alternatively involved in Concert Band, Stage Band, and Choir, sometimes all three.  And I took piano lessons, guitar lessons, and flute lessons.  With all that going on, I still found time to teach myself to type using my mother’s old electric typewriter, while transcribing the poems, sketches, and short stories I wrote.  But I did not devote all my spare time to writing.  King states, “Talent renders the whole idea of rehearsal meaningless; when you find something at which you are talented, you do it (whatever it is) until your fingers bleed or your eyes are ready to fall out of your head” (150).  No, I did not do this.  Certainly, I wrote, but I still went to bed at a decent hour, graduated high school with honours, went to college, and got married.  I did a lot of other things in addition to writing, including family life, full time office work, and part-time post-secondary education.  King can only apply his story to the craft of writing, which involved staying up writing until the wee hours of the morning, and going to work (in the early days) with about four hours of sleep.  I may not have spent my days working and nights writing (which would have resulted in the inevitable neglect of cooking, cleaning, and laundry), but I always came back to writing, like an old familiar shoe.

I eventually went back to school and stumbled into a minor in Creative Writing for my Bachelor of Arts in English.  I know people who go back to school, work and their job all day, and then pull long nights of class and homework, finishing a degree in just a few years.  I took ten years to finish my university degree while working full time.  That does not mean I was less dedicated.  In fact, sticking with it for ten years probably shows an entirely different level of dedication.  The writer who takes ten years to complete a novel instead of one, is no less dedicated either, (and may still have a clean house as well).

Even now, knowing I want to focus entirely on writing, does not yet change the balance I have to maintain of a work and home life in addition to my aspirations of becoming a novelist.  The operative word is ‘becoming’ a novelist, which implies that it is a work in progress.  “The sort of strenuous reading and writing program I advocate—four to six hours a day, every day—will not seem strenuous if you really enjoy doing these things and have an aptitude for them; in fact, you may be following such a program already” (150).  Even though I enjoy reading and writing immensely, I still cannot devote this kind of time daily.  I understand why King assumes his reality could work for everyone, as this was a reality he faced back when writing Carrie, along with a wife, kids in diapers, and a full-time job.  But realistically, a person can pursue their passion with just as much heart, if not as much actual time spent daily.

One of the most important things that I can take away from my reading of On Writing is allowing myself to identify as a writer. I write; therefore, I am a writer.  I do not have to (yet) be commercially successful at writing to allow myself to claim the avocation in which I spend a lot of my time, albeit not as much time as some.  King seems to feel me, his reader, would not pick up a book entitled On Writing, if I was not interested in writing, therefore he includes in the book some guidance as to best to join him in that pursuit. King acknowledges, “Critics and scholars have always been suspicious of popular success,” (143), and that by writing this book On Writing to any and all writers out there, “I expect to be accused by some of promoting a brainless and happy Horatio Alger philosophy, defending my own less-than-spotless reputation while I’m at it, and of encouraging people who are ‘just not our sort, old chap’ to apply for membership at the country club” (144).  However, this is one of the parts of On Writing that really connected with me.  I can learn new things and practice my craft.  I can join the country club afterall.

Another thing that I can take away from On Writing is the reminder to never stop being a reader.    “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot” (145).  On the funny side of things, you may just read something that isn’t really all the good.  “What could be more encouraging to the struggling writer than to realize his/her work is unquestionably better than that of someone who actually got paid for his/her stuff?” (146).  On a more serious note, the best way to learn is from other writers.  Before university writing programs, you had to learn from those who were already doing what you wanted to do.  “Good writing, on the other hand, teaches the learning writer about style, graceful narration, plot development, the creation of believable characters, and truth-telling” (146).  This is permission to sit down with a good book whenever the mood strikes, no guilt or thoughts of what work I should be doing instead necessary, because Stephen says I should read as much as possible.  Therefore, I am happy to be in a situation where I work daily at balancing it all, family, work, school, and writing.  Oh, and don’t forget reading.

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It’s Just My Opinion

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It is probably not an accident that just today I came across a quote by Bill Bullard, which states, “Opinion is really the lowest form of human knowledge. It requires no accountability, no understanding. The highest form of knowledge… is empathy, for it requires us to suspend our egos and live in another’s world. It requires profound purpose larger than the self kind of understanding.”  When it comes to receiving feedback on my creative work, I believe that my fellow student writers are being accountable, are understanding, and are drawing on their advanced education in the subject of writing to give me their opinion, therefore I am not saying that I agree with the quote that the critiques I receive will be “the lowest form of human knowledge.”  However, at the end of the day it will still just be their opinions and identifying that may help thicken my skin.  My difficulty may lie more on the empathy side of things, to allow myself to voice an opinion, the acceptance of which may not be easy for the other student writer.

In Robbie Blair’s article, “Thickening Skin: 6 Tips for Taking Criticism,” he points out that number one, a writer should accept that criticism will never be easy.  Myself, I have already developed the mental frame for receiving constructive criticism that all critiques are ‘opinions’ and everyone is entitled to have one.  My first question is usually: Does the opinion have a constructive element on which I can make an improvement to my writing?  If the answer is yes, then I get to rewriting.  That takes me to Blair’s second tip to make it about the story.  Because I respect my fellow students’ knowledge, I would then follow with Blair’s third tip and work to understand what the “criticism reveals about the reader’s experience.”  Blair’s fourth tip is about trying everything.  I am one of those people who work best in a neat and organized environment, so I intend to systematically go through each and every suggestion, within reason, as Blair also states, to ensure I am giving my writing the best possible chance for improvement.  For me, this works best on a line by line or paragraph by paragraph basis.  Truthfully, I have never had a constructive criticism on a larger scale that would involve rewriting whole chapters based on one suggestion.  If that were the case, I expect the ‘try everything’ recommendation would be difficult to achieve depending on the number of critiques on which I am working.

I believe Blair’s fifth tip is helpful for the time in which our creative work is being scrutinized in the public domain.  He states, “Some people aren’t your audience. Others are just ass-holes.”  This will be an important tip to have once we leave the relative safety of our graduate studies environment.  Overall, his sixth tip, “Stop being such a romantic,” is useful in thinking of your creative work not as an all-or-nothing, brilliant, one-in-a-million epiphany made while taking a trip on a train, (I’m talking about you, J.K. Rowling), but instead as a product of your determined hard work.  Although, I have no doubt Rowling worked very hard and determinedly after her flash of inspiration about a boy named Harry who lived under the stairs.

In a reversal of the idiom, “You can dish it out, but you can’t take it,” I tend to be the opposite.  I can take it, but I have trouble dishing it out.  I can apply all of Robbie Blair’s advice and control my reaction to receiving constructive criticism.  However, I cannot control how others receive my opinions, and that is something I struggle with.  Despite wanting to embrace Dr. Robert Kegan’s Theory of Adult Development, and stay firmly in Stage 4—Self-Authoring Mind, (with a goal of someday achieving Stage 5—Self-Transforming Mind), the truth is with the thought of giving a critique to someone’s else creative work, I find myself firmly enmeshed in Stage 3—Socialized Mind, overly concerned (and possibly overly empathetic) with the ideas, norms, and beliefs of the people and systems around me.  Even if I try my best to make it constructive criticism, it is still just my opinion, and I will need to work on having the self-authoring confidence that my opinion could have a constructive element on which my fellow writer can make an improvement to their writing.

At a fairly young age, Stephen King wallpapered the roof of his loft bedroom with rejection letters.  “By the time I was fourteen (and shaving twice a week whether I needed to or not) the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing” (41).  Later, he participated in a poetry writing workshop while doing his undergrad at the University of Maine where he met his wife, and called his novel writing his “dirty little secret” (234) which he left back in his dorm room.  Nowadays King says, “When you give out six or eight copies of a book, you get back six or eight highly subjective opinions about what’s good and what’s bad in it” (216).  He has those trusted people to read his finished drafts, including his wife, before he gives them a few rewrites and a polish, and then hands them off to his editors.  “Some will feel Character A works but Character B is far-fetched. If others feel that Character B is believable but Character A is overdrawn, it’s a wash. You can safely relax and leave things the way they are (in baseball, tie goes to the runner; for novelists, it goes to the writer). If some people love your ending and others hate it, same deal—it’s a wash, and tie goes to the writer” (216-7).  I think ‘tie goes to the writer’ is great advice, because at the end of the day, in receiving a critique, you have just received your reader’s opinion, and you can still choose to go with your first instincts about your story.

Workshop feedback should provide me with a whole list of impressions my readers received from how I wrote my story.  With Robbie Blair’s ‘try everything’ approach, I will look systematically look for suggestions that provide actionable areas for revision.  If I have received concrete notes regarding something I can improve on, then this will work to polish my subsequent drafts.  In the end, however, tie goes to the writer, and if on balance there is only one opinion of a certain tone, whereas no one else seemed to feel that way, and I believe the suggestion is not something I want to change about the story, then I will feel confident I can rely on my own first instincts about my story.

 

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