What colours your writing and takes it from mundane to memorable?

You know what it can be like, driving through a winter landscape. There’s not a lot to see, but you’ve decided to make the trip, so you keep plowing ahead and eventually get to the destination.

“Mmm,” you might say, stretching road-weary muscles as you climb out of the vehicle. “What a long drive!”

“How was the trip?” a friend or family member will ask.

“Good, thanks… uneventful. It snowed a bit over the pass, but the roads were fine.”

Someone is bound to ask if you saw any game along the way, or stopped to take in any interesting sights. Unless something significant sticks out in your mind, you’ll probably not remember many details… just a lot of sameness. You’re happy to have made the trip — it wasn’t unpleasant — but you’re glad to reach the end of it.

Snowed

Such was the case on the day I snapped the following photograph. A fine snow blew sideways all morning, sending whirlpools of white sliding across the pavement. Distant scenes were pretty much obliterated and everything was dusted into a grey and white monotony. I didn’t take note of much, but I distinctly recall the stark contrast of the occasional orange-branched deciduous tree planted in various homesteads. I’m not sure what species it was, but the sight was memorable.

(Consider clicking on photo to enlarge.)

(Consider clicking on photo to enlarge.)

Reading a novel is very much like taking a trip. What  you remember about the experience — monotony or flashes of brilliant colour — depends upon the author’s skill.

In its writing, a story inevitably includes a certain amount of mundane action. It may be a transitional scene, or a means of showing necessary details of setting or characterization. But if nothing ever stands out as exceptional, a novel will be remembered (if it is remembered at all) as merely an “okay” read.

Nobody deliberately sets out to write a mediocre story, but it can happen all too easily as it progresses from one scene to another, from beginning, to middle, to end. Well planted plot twists, meaningful conflict, unique character(s), and distinctive settings help give a story colour and pull it out of the ordinary. So can well crafted writing.

If you haven’t read Donald Maass’s books on writing, I recommend them to you, especially WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL. In it, Don shows “how to take your prose to the next level and write a breakout novel—one that rises out of obscurity and hits the best-seller lists.” I don’t guarantee that best-seller bit, but following his suggestions can definitely put you on the road to being a better writer!

What makes a story memorable to you?

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Writing ‘ho-hum’ fiction

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Vancouver is the city of my birth. Its population today is much larger than it was all those years ago, but even then I considered it big. Still, my parents never hesitated to let me roam our neighbourhood to play with friends in the evening darkness, or as a young teenager to take a city bus into the downtown core by myself for weekly dance and baton lessons.

It wasn’t that crime didn’t exist. I recall hearing of a body being found in a wooded vacant lot next to my primary school — a lot in which most of us regularly played hide-and-seek games during recess and lunch hours. I was in Grade Three, and for the remainder of that school year there were more than the usual reminders not to talk to strangers. The P.A.C. had the lot cleared as a precaution, but the murder was seen as an exception… an isolated event.

Approaching Vcr 2

As I returned to the mainland from Vancouver Island via ferry earlier this week, the setting sun bathed the city in a rosy glow. But no amount of ‘viewing through rose coloured glasses’ can eliminate the statistics that prove how much it has changed over the years. It is now an area of about 2.3 million inhabitants — the third most populated metropolitan area in Canada. While it ranks as one of the top places worldwide for livability, there are also more homicides — to date in 2013 34 of them in the metro Vancouver area — as well as organized crime and drug-related gang activities.

It’s a beautiful city, but high-density living in the twenty-first century has its drawbacks. Many Vancouverites lock their doors even when they are at home, accompany children to and from all their activities, and never go for walks alone in secluded areas, especially at night. Although people don’t live in fear, nevertheless suspicion and caution are frequent bywords of our time. “You can’t be too careful.”

This week I was passing through Vancouver on my way home. I no longer live in the city, but when I consider how much things have changed in half a century, I understand why people are drawn to historical novels, seeing them in an almost nostalgic light. There has always been crime in the world, but we tend to believe earlier generations enjoyed a simpler, safer lifestyle.

Which brings me to my writing application. You knew there would be one, right? My genre isn’t historical fiction, although I occasionally enjoy reading it. Whatever I read, I respect authors who thoroughly research the eras in which their stories take place and whose characters and setting feel authentic.

Unfortunately there are some who are writing contemporary fiction, only because it’s what they know. They might believe no research is necessary, but in my opinion contemporary fiction requires a broad knowledge of present-day lifestyles. For instance, with over fifty percent of Vancouver’s residents having a first language other than English, it is one of the most ethnically and linguistically diverse cities in Canada.  Even when our personal lives might be limited in experience and exposure, our characters may need thorough researching to be realistic in today’s society.

If we aren’t careful, writing “what we know” could tell our readers we’re lazy writers!

Do you read or write contemporary fiction? What keeps some stories from coming across as ‘ho-hum’?

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It’s a long way to go (but it’s worth it)

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When our first daughter was married she went to live in the Yukon. It seemed very far away from our Vancouver Island home, and the next summer when we drove there to visit, we discovered indeed it was — some  2500 kilometres away. Yukon is in the northwestern corner of Canada. It’s sparsely populated, is the home of Mt. Logan, Canada’s highest mountain, as well as the world’s largest non-polar icefield (Kluane). The terrain is mostly boreal forest.

Where we drove, the climate was considered to be subarctic and for a time as we made our way over the ‘Top of the World’ Highway between Yukon and Alaska, we were in the tundra. I would never have broken off any of the plant life to bring home, but near the roadside I found this tiny three inch twisted bit of branch with dried miniature leaves. I still have it thirty years later.

Yukon Root

(To enlarge, click on photo)

I caught my first view of the Northern Lights in the Yukon, and heard my first wolf howl. All of the Yukon scenery was breathtakingly beautiful, but that Top of the World Highway was spectacular. It’s not my photography, but this video will give you a brief taste of what we saw.

The vast wilderness was almost overwhelming. We could drive for an hour and never see another vehicle, person or building. Reaching our destination was an exercise in faith. But it was so very worth it.

There is a writing analogy here. This is November 1st and many writers are undertaking NaNoWriMo — the quest for 50,000 words in thirty days. For novelists who find that total daunting, the journey is one of faith. Yes, it’s a long distance, but if there’s no start made, there’s no destination reached. We have to make the commitment, step on the accelerator, and be prepared for a wild ride.

I won’t be working from scratch this November, but have a revision I need to finish, and it’s a challenge. NaNoWriMo is the perfect opportunity to hunker down and focus on making my words better. What’s your goal for November?

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“The freshness, the freedom, the farness…”
[Robert Service]

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The (sometimes) irrelevance of statistics

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Statistics are interesting things. They can tell you a lot… or nothing at all, depending on how they are used.

British Columbia is the most westerly province in Canada, snugged up against the Pacific Ocean. I live in the extreme southwest corner of the province but at various times have travelled its highways and waterways to pretty well every part of it. One of our daughters lives in the southeastern corner of BC, a trip we frequently make. We drove there again this summer, through a variety of terrain:

(A click will enlarge each photo)

Mountains

… through towering mountains …

Lakes

… past lakes and rivers …

Desert

… through desert lands …

Waterfall

… and lush lands …

Lush

… until we returned once again to the Fraser Valley.

Fraser Valley

Every time we go I am amazed at the diversity of scenery. It isn’t a long distance by map-reading standards — a road trip of 950 km straight across the bottom edge of the province. But then I start comparing statistics. BC is 944,735 sq km in area. It represents just 9.5% of Canada’s 9,984,670 sq km. When I try to grasp that in proportion to the world’s 510,072,000 sq km, I can’t. It’s beyond my brain’s capacity. (So is getting these stats absolutely correct. Take them as approximations!)

So I wonder where I ever got the idea that my finite mind could take in the immensity of God’s infinity. No amount of studying will ever let me know him in totality. But as I travel life’s journey I can experience the bits that are applicable to my needs at any given time — the effect of his love, needed strength or courage, his comfort and peace, a spillover of joy, times of reverence and awe.

I don’t need to be able to see God, or to define or describe him. My experience of him is enough.

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And if you think you need a writing analogy here… consider that you don’t have to know every detail of a story before embarking on its writing. If you have absorbed the concept, you can put the pieces together during the journey. Step out in faith and  keep going.

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I keep asking that
the God of our Lord Jesus Christ,
the glorious Father,
may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation,
so that you may know him better.

(Ephesians 1:17)

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For in it the righteousness of God
is revealed from faith for faith,
as it is written,
“The righteous shall live by faith.”

(Romans 1:17)

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Too focused for my own good…

The homeward journey last week took us through a variety of terrain. After leaving Kamloops, BC the highway meandered upwards following Kamloops Lake to a lookout that we’d passed many times. This time we decided it was a good spot to stop for lunch. Before going inside the trailer, however, I wandered around with my camera, looking for a few interesting shots. The sky was mostly overcast so the colours weren’t great.

Kamloops Lake 1

But I kept trying…

Kamloops Lake 2

That’s the City of Kamloops in the haze at the end of the lake.

Kamloops Lake 3

I wandered closer to the bluff, trying for more colour in the foreground. There was a shapely old tree out there, too…

Kamloops Lake 4

By then it was time to grab something for lunch. While eating in the trailer I reviewed my photos, and discovered the best colour around was on a sign that had photobombed my last picture:

Kamloops Lake 5

How did I not see that???

Being totally focused on one thing can cause a person to overlook something else that might be more important! I have to wonder if that applies to one’s writing, too. When we set our mind firmly on publication and look in no other direction, perhaps we miss some of the opportunities that God has spread out in front of us — other ways to serve him with our written words.

I’m not suggesting we should give up on our dreams, but pursue them in consultation with the One who knows what our future holds.

Q4U:

  • Before you focused on gaining a specific goal, were there other related achievements that brought you satisfaction/fulfillment?

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“When one door closes another door opens;
but we so often look so long and
so regretfully upon the closed door,

that we do not see the ones which open for us.”

(Alexander Graham Bell)

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If any of you lacks wisdom,
let him ask God,
who gives generously to all without reproach,
and it will be given him.

James 1:5

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Journeying IV – Coming Home

“Wisdom and understanding can only become the possession of individual men by travelling the old road of observation, attention, perseverance, and industry.”

Samuel Smiles
On the road...

On the road…

I’m a terrible homebody! If I had my druthers, I’d probably be an armchair traveller and have a clone to do any actual travelling. While I love our fifth-wheel trailer and our little Cariboo cabin and I love visiting our children and their families,  getting organized to leave home is always an effort. Staying home is comfortable.

On the other hand, I can’t imagine missing out on the sweet discoveries, the family joys, and All. The. Photo. Opps along the way. (Oh, and the cruising experiences… I have to admit to liking them, too.) So, I compromise and travel only to places that are meaningful to me. And then I come home. I said I was a homebody, didn’t I? 

I’m home again after three-weeks-less-one-day away. I had a wonderful time, but it feels good to be back. Now I get to be the insufferable host(ess) for the next while, and bring out my photo albums… 😉

(If you wish, you can click on a photo to enlarge it
or, if you prefer, you can skip the next part altogether.)

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Waiting at the Galena Bay ferry landing.

Waiting at the Galena Bay ferry landing.

On board...

On board…

Crossing Upper Arrow Lake, BC

Crossing Upper Arrow Lake, BC.

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Journeying II

The start of our vacation journey was not entirely uneventful. We had barely entered the town next to ours, when our brakes began smoking — never a good thing when you’re towing a 27′ trailer! Fortunately the services we needed were close at hand and, a few hours later and $900 poorer, we were back on the highway again.

Not long after, however, we came upon an accident scene involving a large transport truck. As the traffic control person eased us past the scene we saw what was left of the truck being readied for removal, and it was evident that someone else’s journey had begun with a  much more serious incident.

Accident 1

Accident 2

Because of the delays, we didn’t cover much mileage our first day, but ended up spending the night in a small municipal campground along the Similkameen River. Instead of dwelling on the day’s unpleasant aspects, we said a prayer for the safety of the driver, gave thanks for our own, and opened our eyes to the view from our trailer’s window.

We were reminded that whatever life brings, there are still joys to be discovered in the blessings that surround us if we turn our eyes towards the Creator.

RV View

RV View 2

“Let us fix our eyes on Jesus.”

Hebrews 12:2

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“Turn your eyes upon Jesus
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace.”

Words & Music: Hel­en H. Lem­mel, 1922

Music Video

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Journeying

Lately there’s been a lot of journeying going on in the lives of friends and family members. Some of it’s easy to enjoy… some, not so much. When the terrain gets a bit uncertain, it’s good to remember, “we may not know what our future holds, but we know Who holds our future.”

Life

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“Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.”

Psalm 119:105 (ESV)

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Has life taken you into any uncertain, unfamiliar or not-so-pleasant places recently?

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Emerging into the light

“For me, writing is exploration; and most of the time,
I’m surprised where the journey takes me.” 

Jack Dann

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When I lived in Toronto years ago, the subway system wasn’t as extensive as it is now, but it moved people quickly from the area of the city where we lived, north to where we wanted to go. It has since been expanded to serve more areas of the city in conjunction with other above-ground rapid transit methods. I hated the subway.

I don’t like tunnels either, but in big cities they’re often as much a part of the transit system as a subway or bridge. On Sunday we attended a special church service on the north side of Burrard Inlet… just over an hour’s drive from our home in the Fraser Valley. Getting there required travelling over multiple bridges and through a long tunnel.

DSC04267

At one time when entering a tunnel I would clench hands together, hold my breath, close my eyes and pray there would be no interruption to the traffic flow until we emerged on the other side and I could breathe again. I’m a little claustrophobic, and through the years I’ve found better ways to deal with the accompanying panic. Sometimes that means avoiding the provoking situation… like finding a different route; but other times it means facing the fear, taking deep breaths and focusing on the exit.

On this occasion, as we approached the exit I focused on what was to come — several miles of highway construction.

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Last week we travelled this same route to reach the Horseshoe Bay Ferry for a trip to visit family and friends on Vancouver Island. On the Island, the highway didn’t bore through the mountains. It wound up and around them. I prefer it that way. I like to see my surroundings and appreciate the journey en route to the destination.

DSC03797

DSC03796

Writing can be like that, too. Sometimes we’re moving blindly through a story, not sure of the destination but willing ourselves forward, confident that eventually we’ll emerge into the light. Without claustrophobia we might not mind navigating the darkness. For me, although I’m not a plotter, a little route-planning is a good idea. It helps me avoid the panic of  wondering what I’ll do if the flow of words comes to a sudden standstill. Without following a detailed map, however, it also gives me the opportunity to enjoy times of discovery, even occasional surprises, along a slightly familiar road.

How much planning, if any, do you do before embarking on your writing? Do you ever have times of panic in the middle of a manuscript? Would more preparation have helped avoid them?

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“I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of hunger for life that gnaws in us all.”

Richard Wright, American Hunger, 1977

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