The Unexpected in Life and Literature

With a thunderous crack much of the tree was gone, and so was our electricity. The pleasant weather we enjoyed earlier in the day had deteriorated into a nasty storm with mounds of charcoal clouds, torrents of rain, hail in some areas, and bolts of lightning.

We think the massive maple tree was hit by lightning because there wasn’t much wind at the time — no other reason for the tree to break apart as it did, flinging aside several branches all at once. One vehicle was slightly damaged, and a fence, but thankfully the tree fell away from any buildings.

Some days have a similar way of dropping the unexpected on us. My aunt would certainly agree with that! There’s not much predictability in life. Oh, of course we expect to get up, eat meals and go to work, meetings or church at specific times, but there’s no guarantee that our tomorrow will follow its anticipated schedule.

I suppose that’s why, when I’m reading a novel that drags me along on a character’s everyday journey, I lose patience. The predictable bits may exist in real life, but I don’t want to read about them. The ordinary has no place in most stories, even if the characters normally live a mundane life. It is the unexpected that jolts us out of complacency and propels us forward, eagerly flipping pages. Even in memoirs, we skip the boring bits. They may seem like useful transitions, but they also provide convenient places for the reader to lose interest and put aside the book.

Life in our neighbourhood will continue, but when the maple tree exploded, the local landscape instantly changed. We’ll all remember the moment when it happened — and that’s the kind of experience we want our readers to have … a memorable one.

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“The oaks and the pines, and their brethren of the wood, have seen so many suns rise and set, so many seasons come and go, and so many generations pass into silence, that we may well wonder what “the story of the trees” would be to us if they had tongues to tell it, or we ears fine enough to understand.”

Author Unknown, quoted in Quotations for Special Occasions by Maud van Buren, 1938

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“Therefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away;
behold, new things have come.”

2 Corinthians 5:17

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The Writer’s Brain (that place where ‘the right word’ disappears)

I hate those days when I sit down to write and my brain won’t cooperate. It’s not that Ms. Muse isn’t around, but that the perfect and plentiful thoughts she provides instantly disappear, falling into the shadows of my cerebral cortex before I can secure them on the page.

It’s not dementia or writer’s block, but that infuriating bleakness in my head I call the creative wilderness. It’s a cavernous void lurking somewhere between eureka and gotcha, where amazing ideas slip away into the dark, whirl around in a vortex, and finally re-emerge, frosted with mediocrity. I had a morning like that a few months ago, when a brilliant idea shimmered for an instant, then dropped out of sight. I struggled to grasp the elusive thought but the words I eventually dug up were lackluster. Nevertheless, they provided crude building blocks, so I pinned them onto the page and continued to write.

Then during recent revisions, a glimmer of the original idea flickered into sight. The sun came out; the temperature rose; the chill receded. I wrote furiously and the scene became what I had long ago envisioned. Gotcha! Finally.

There is a moral here… something along the line of persevering even when the Muse shows me a cold shoulder. Not getting bogged down searching for the perfect words when they’ve been temporarily sucked out of reach. Believing that I can always return to make the inadequate better, but if I allow myself to get dragged to a standstill waiting for the desired words to reappear, the rest of the story may never get written.

Are you one who has to make every scene perfect before moving on to the next, or do you ‘write like the wind’, getting the basics in place, knowing that you’ll strengthen the weak spots in later revisions?

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Le Mot Juste (Again)

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Yesterday marked my third anniversary in the blogosphere. (Really? How can that be possible?) As I’m on the road today, I’ve selected an item from my beginning days to re-post. I hope you’ll find this piece from the summer of 2008 of interest.

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I was blog-hopping recently, searching out my daily dose of writerly wisdom, and came across a comment made by the editor of Author Magazine that stuck with me. Referring to the meaning of the phrase le mot juste, the perfect word, Bill Kenower said, “Mathematicians agree on 12 x 12, physicists agree on gravity—why can’t we [writers] agree on something? Why can’t we agree there is at least one perfect phrase or word?”

But, of course, that will never happen. Even wresting a well-known word from my brain so I can utter it to the paperboy is a frustrating exercise some days, so expecting to find the exact word or phrase to perfectly convey a specific thought to every potential reader is beyond imagination.

I’ve come to the conclusion that in the world of writing there is not much writers fully agree upon. There is so much well-intentioned advice available, but no single approach to the craft that works for every person.

I’m told the best time to write is (a.) in the morning when my mind is fresh;  (b.) in the quiet of the night when there are no interruptions. The best place to write is (a.) sequestered in my office without distractions; (b.) in a coffee shop, bus or library surrounded by stimulation. The best way to write is (a.) with pen or pencil and paper for visceral involvement with my words; (b.) with wordprocessor or computer for quick capture of ephemeral thoughts and ease of editing.

I am encouraged to (a.) create first and worry about crafting later; (b.) ensure each word, sentence and paragraph is the right building block for what will follow. I am advised to (and as admonitions go, this is one of my favourites) (a.) follow the rules if I ever hope to get published; (b.) break all the rules if doing so serves my purpose.

Agreement is a fragile commodity in today’s world so perhaps it’s not surprising that writers cannot find it within their communities of communication. For writers, the perfect word will always be just out of reach.

How do you counteract the frustration when you’re not able to find just the word you need? 

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Photo by graur codrin

Making appropriate use of quirkiness in our characters

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Recently Jeanette Levellie had us sharing our pet peeves and Jessica Patch talked about our quirks. They were referring to those things that either annoy us or seem peculiar. The thing is, neither is unusual. Don’t we all have them?

I admit to some idiosyncrasies (only the unkind would say they border on OCD). When doors and drawers are meant to be shut, I like them closed all the way. Sliding closet doors that are left slightly ajar force me into corrective action, even when I’m already in bed. Honestly, do you expect me to sleep with that gaping void staring at me all night? Bifold doors and open drawers that snag me as I walk by, beg to be slammed shut. Cushions askew on the couch, and towels crooked on the rod? Need I say more?

If normal people have quirks (hey! I’m normal… at least in most areas), isn’t it logical that our characters not only might, but should, too?

There is a danger in creating stereotypes – for instance, looking at physical features and bronzing the hero’s brawny chest while scarring the antagonist’s cheek. A lot is written about using character flaws to make our protagonists real, but to accomplish realism takes more than simply portraying random weaknesses and strengths.

Personalities are complex – just ask anyone who has examined the results of a Myers-Briggs test. If we are to develop credible characters we need them to display the kind of strengths and weaknesses that we would find in real people but also have a few quirks to make them memorable. Not too many. Just a few, such as we all have.  (I hear you objecting, but I’m almost positive I’m not alone with mine.)

The Myers-Briggs test divides us into four main personality types that can be combined in multiple ways to create sixteen:

  1. Extrovert (E) versus introvert (I),
  2. Sensitive (S) versus intuitive (N),
  3. Thinking (T) versus feeling (F), and
  4. Judgmental (J) versus perceptive (P).

We can’t just pull quirks out of the proverbial hat and assign them to our characters. The quirks or idiosyncrasies need to be reasonably in line with the characters’ personalities.

Who’d have guessed that making our characters appear real could be so much of a challenge?

In your current w.i.p., what quirks does your main character have? Do they fit his/her personality? Are they ones you possess or have you borrowed them from people you know?

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No, You’re Not Ready to Publish

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Don’t you hate it when the Inner Critic is right? After years of being shoved aside and trampled, he gloats over fleeting opportunities to jump up and down and yell, “I told you so!” and it’s so annoying.

It’s not easy to admit, but many of us are probably among the 99.9% of writers who mistakenly thought our brilliantly written and endlessly polished first novels were ready for launching. In hindsight we know better, but at the time we were enthusiastic about their chances in the market.

I read of one writer who said, “Don’t tell me first novels never sell. If I believed that, why would I bother to finish mine?” When we first begin writing, the naïve mindset is like a protective cloak… “we don’t know what we don’t know.”

My husband quotes one of his professors as cautioning, “For the first ten years in ministry, don’t preach on Revelation. After that you’ll know better than to preach on Revelation.”  As writers we could use a similar admonition — something along the lines of, “Write your heart out on the first book but steel yourself to the reality that it’s only a learning experience.”

Reality sucks! But it’s not as if we expect a new surgeon to immediately perform brain surgery, or a beginning athlete to compete in the Olympics, so why do we expect our first novel should be bestseller material?

Anne Allen wrote an excellent post on “12 signs your novel isn’t ready to publish.” She directed it to those who were tempted to self-publish too soon, but her ideas make good sense for all of us seeking publication. I particularly like the simplicity and sense of her comment, “All beginners make mistakes. Falling down and making a mess is part of any learning process. But you don’t have to display the mess to the world.”

Yes, we worked darned hard on that story and we’d like to reap some benefit from the effort. Well, guess what? We did. The benefit is in the education. We read and wrote and learned. Part of what we learned is how little we actually knew before we began the process. Part of what we will learn tomorrow is how little we know today.

When more experienced writers warned me about the Inner Critic’s unreliability, they didn’t suggest how to react on the odd occasions when he might be right. I’m sorry, but there’s no being graceful in the face of his taunts.

“I’m learning with experience. So shut up already!”

If someone knowledgeable told you the book you are currently writing would never sell, would you finish it anyway, or stop where you are?

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Ostrich Photo by anankkml

What I learned about writing from a crochet pattern.

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Until it was finished, I couldn’t envision how the design was meant to look. It was a crocheted afghan pattern a friend gave me many years ago. I read it through several times but it still didn’t make a lot of sense. Starting with the first line of instruction I chained the specified number of stitches, and carried on, one row at a time, until a pattern began to emerge.

Computer software manuals are a little like that, too. I can read them repeatedly, but until I finally sit down at the computer with instructions in hand to work my way through the various steps one at a time, I’m boggled.

Without a pattern to guide me I could crochet a large rectangular bedcover using the one or two stitches I know and various colours of yarn. The result might provide a cozy cover but it would lack a pleasing design. I couldn’t hope to win any prizes in the Fall Fair or sell it and expect it to become someone’s heirloom. And without a manual I could probably figure out the basics of the software by trial and error, too, although many of its sophisticated features would remain undiscovered. I’d never be able to use it well enough for a business application.

“Anyone can write a book!” True enough, but few books that are written without the knowledge of good plot and structure concepts, character development and effective dialogue have any hope of finding success in today’s highly competitive publishing market.

I’ve often read that we should write our first novel from the heart, allowing creativity free rein. Then take time away from writing to read and research about the craft before undertaking future projects. We can expect to improve as we continue to learn and practice.

When I consider the future of my afghan, I realize the quality of the finished product depends not only on learning how to follow the pattern, but also on first practicing until the stitches are correct and the tension is even. I will undoubtedly be proud of my accomplishment when it’s finished, but any person experienced in crocheting would quickly recognize the piece as being made by a beginner. It takes specialized knowledge, much patience and a lot of practice to become proficient at creating any art form.

How much practising have you done to reach where you are today? As a writer do you consider yourself a novice, intermediate or expert? (Throw humility to the wind and be as honest as you like.)

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Beware of the writing expert!

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Since I’m not an expert on the craft of writing, you don’t get many how-to posts from me. Generally I share my personal writing experiences and observations, or perhaps point you to someone else who has posted something brilliant. That’s what I believe aspiring writers can accomplish with their blogs – offer experiences, opinions and referrals, along with support and encouragement.

Photo credit: Graur Codrin

I’m always a little leery of what I call ‘instant experts’… people who may be self-taught and either self- or traditionally-published or still unpublished, but have made many discoveries during the process.

Writing isn’t a science. Yes, there are hundreds of books, blogs and gurus to expound on the dos and don’ts of good writing. But what one promotes as gospel, another dismisses as garbage. There are guidelines, some of which are important to know, but there are also best sellers written by people who have never followed them.

As I read the many comments on my post about cookbooks last week, I was impressed by those who suggested the value of recipes lies in the experience of those who developed them. The best cooks adjusted quantities, added pinches of flavouring, taste-tested, lowered or raised oven temperature until the product was exactly right.

Photo credit: Carlos Porto

I have a recipe for scones given to me by a member of one of our churches. Kay often brought us a bag of her fresh-made scones, along with a jar of homemade raspberry jam. Oh, what a wonderful treat that was! Those scones were indescribable! (The jam was wonderful, too.) I begged the recipe from her and carefully followed it, but I absolutely cannot get scones to taste like hers. Others have shared their not-quite-as-good recipes and offered advice, but nothing I make is quite the same. I don’t have Kay’s touch, or her knack of “not really measuring” or knowing the exact moment when they are ready to leave the oven. I wish I could intern in her kitchen… be her baking apprentice on scone-making days. I’m sure it’s the only way I could hope to learn how to make perfect scones. Either that, or spend years developing my own unique recipe.

There’s a writing analogy here. I’ll bet you can figure it out, too.

How do you distinguish between useful writing advice and advice you should ‘take with a grain of salt’? What makes a writing mentor valuable?

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One Writer’s Admission and a Giveaway

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Fifty-three. That’s how many books I have on a particular shelf in my office, and that doesn’t include reference books or any borrowed from the library. All of them tell me how to write a novel. I counted them because I thought it would bolster my confidence. After all, if I’ve read that many books about writing, surely I must know something about how to write. Right?

Then again, the more how-to books I read, the closer I edge to the precipice of information overload. I don’t like to admit the truth, but here it is: the more I read, the harder it is to remember what I’ve read, and that’s frustrating.

But this week I discovered an excellent check list on Rachelle Gardner’s blog — in fact, not one, but two extensive lists about what “an editor looks for when reading a manuscript.” The perfect refresher course for my foggy brain. On Monday her post was all about characters. On Tuesday the topic was the story itself.

I can’t begin to reproduce all the information, but please consider clicking over to read Rachelle’s posts for yourself. You shouldn’t miss them.

Then come back here and tell me which point you found the most valuable. From the comments left here between now and 11:59 p.m. (Pacific time) Thursday I’ll choose one person at random to receive their choice of one of the following books… ‘oldies but goodies’ that are either duplicates or I’ve read more than once and am finally willing to part with to make room on the shelves for new purchases. (What? You didn’t think I was going to stop reading, did you?)

Negotiating With the Dead: a Writer on Writing (Margaret Atwood) 2002

The Maeve Binchy Writers’ Club (Maeve Binchy) 2008

The Writing Life (Annie Dillard) 1989

Thunder and Lightning (Natalie Goldberg) 2000

Writing Historical Fiction (Rhona Martin) 1988

So, what are you waiting for? Go click on the links to Rachelle’s posts, then come back here and tell me which point you found the most helpful.

I’ll announce the winner Friday morning.

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Whiteout! Navigating a Storm of Information


Six hours on the highway and what do I remember most about Sunday’s trip? The couple hours making our way through a near whiteout.

Wind drove the snow horizontally at us, at times obliterating the scenery and obscuring the road. We crawled along until, with a swirl, the snow would be whipped thin and we would catch glimpses of the vehicles ahead of us.

As we cautiously descended the mountainous route, weather and road conditions improved until once again things were in focus and we could relax and enjoy the trip.

There are times when I study the writing advice offered by many experienced authors and industry professionals and begin to feel as if I’m in an informational whiteout. With words of good counsel coming at me from every direction it’s sometimes hard to discern the best route.

A cautious and common sense approach applies here, too.

  • Consider the source

Not all self-promoted sources are equally qualified to offer advice. Some information should be taken as opinion based on personal experience… experience that may not be the professional norm. I look to successful authors, agents and editors for recommendations.

  • Balance information with application

We can be blinded by reams of information from books, blogs, speakers and critiquers. Better to alternate research with writing, putting information into practice as we discover what best applies to our writing style.

  • Trust your instincts

As their creator we should know what we want our stories to accomplish. Once we’ve learned the basics of good writing, completed a few novels and shared them with appropriate readers for feedback, it’s time to evaluate suggestions and advice.  Not every recommendation will fit with our purpose. We must learn to depend on the judgment of a trusted editor or agent, but also on our own instincts.

These are my basic guidelines for navigating an overwhelming storm of writing information. What else have you found important?

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A Quote of Note

Found on Jessica Page Morrell‘s blog yesterday:

“Forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won’t. Habit is persistence in practice.”

~ Octavia Butler

In my opinion, that’s worth memorizing!

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