Finding inspiration

Quilt-1

One of my newest treasures is this hand stitched Double Irish Chain scrap quilt made by my aunt. She was 86 at the time. It took her two years, and I believe was the last one she made. I apologize for the cliché, but it truly is a work of art.

She had a sewing machine, but it was too heavy to lift from the cupboard shelf, so she decided she would sew the quilt entirely by hand, just as her mother and her grandmother had, and as she had done before. She said if she’d realized at the beginning, however, just how much work this one was going to be, she might not have undertaken it.

Quilt-2

I wonder if that isn’t true for many novelists, too. Few realize how much work will go into producing 90,000 ‘just right’ words, until ‘The End’ is staring back at us from the page. If we knew how much effort and time it was going to take, and the possibility that it would never be of publishable quality anyway, would we even begin?

While some might not, I believe the dedicated ones would, simply because they have a creative spirit and the desire to try. The drive to produce something special, something of significance, has to be followed by the determination to make a start. Then, word by word, stitch by stitch, we keep going. We know our earliest creative attempts aren’t going to be perfect, but only by learning and experience will we improve, and we have to begin somewhere.

Like playing a concerto, hand stitching an intricate pattern, or painting a masterpiece, writing an outstanding story takes more than desire. It takes ability, dedication, perseverance, and very hard work.

I’m not there yet as a writer, but the exquisite beauty created by my Aunt Norma inspires me to continue on my journey.

What inspires you in your creative pursuits?

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“For everything that was written in the past
was written to teach us,
so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures
and the encouragement they provide
we might have hope.”

[Romans 15:4]

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 (Photos by Norma McGuire)

 

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It’s all about communication

There’s a very nice little mailbox standing at the end of our driveway. It meets all the requirements that Canada Post has for an individual rural mailbox … but our mail is not delivered there. Instead, we walk or drive the equivalent of about three city blocks to where a set of group, or community mailboxes are located.

Mailboxes

It’s not a huge problem for us to pick up our mail there. We’ve been doing it for almost twenty years. But recently Canada Post changed its services and began phasing out home delivery even in the cities, causing much indignation from those who have always enjoyed the convenience of door-to-door delivery. It’s an economic move for Canada Post.

I understand their rationale, but this business of raising postage costs while reducing services has been going on for many years, and I’ve never understood why they think charging us more but offering us less is going to make them more money. The more it costs me to mail a letter, the fewer letters I mail, and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone. This has the potential of being a constant downward spiral!

I like the personal touch of handwritten cards and letters, but as they become more expensive, I resort more to e-mail and telephone calls. When I look at the number of people I contact regularly through e-mail, Facebook, and Twitter, I recognize the convenience and immediacy of digital communication with them has many benefits. I probably wouldn’t handwrite long, newsy letters every few days if I needed to seal pages into envelopes, affix a costly stamp, and trundle them off to the post box, then wait a week for them to be delivered. Instead, I resort to a quick few paragraphs on the computer or iPhone, press ‘send’ … and my message is instantly in a friend’s home to be read at their convenience.

Is it a better way to communicate? I don’t think so, but as long as Canada Post continues to make it more expensive, more difficult and more time consuming to do it ‘the old fashioned way’, I won’t hesitate to follow the digital trend.

As a writer, I think communication is a big deal, but I seem to be in the minority when it comes to the personal version. Even cursive writing and penmanship are becoming a lost art as they are being phased out of the curriculum in many schools. I sometimes wonder if there is a correlation between the decline in personal communication and the breakdown of social standards — i.e., lack of respect for other people and for public property, ignorance of etiquette and common courtesies, etc.

That may be taking it a little too far, but it’s food for thought.

One dilemma that the decline in personal communication creates is in novel writing, where rapidly changing technologies outdate what would otherwise be timeless stories. Any mention of faxes, cell phones, thumb drives or CDs, for instance, will sandwich a story firmly in a particular decade, and possibly make it less relevant to potential readers.

We’ve come a long way from author Jack Whyte’s “cold stone slab and a chisel”* but I’m not sure every step has been in a desirable direction.

How do you address constantly changing methods of communication in your novel writing?

* Jack Whyte, Surrey International Writers’ Conference 2014

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Starting again from scratch

One of the flower beds at the front of our house is looking bleak. After fifteen years of neglect, several cypress shrubs were overgrown, and pruning worsened their appearance. Like the heather I muttered about last month, they no longer turned an attractive face to the passing public. (Don’t take me literally. I know they couldn’t be seen from the street, but I need a bit of literary license to bolster my rationale!)

Each summer I planted different annuals around them to pretty up the space. A few weeks ago I decided it was no longer helping. So, last week DH and I made the big decision to dig everything out (including the three offending heathers), and we’re starting from scratch.

Fifteen years of weeding, watering and pruning. All that work. For nothing. Well, I suppose not entirely for nothing since the bed looked reasonably nice for ten of those years. The problem is, cypress really aren’t the right plants for that location, but I didn’t realize it fifteen years ago. The only plants we’ve left behind are two helleborus orientalis (lenten roses), which have managed to survive surprisingly well despite being hemmed in by the cypress.

I had hopes for a permanently lush, satisfying-to-behold garden bed, but am now resigned to all the work it’s going to take to begin again. More plant research. Money spent at the nursery. Some back-aching soil amending and digging.

Sometimes we have to do the same thing with a novel. We might spend a year (or several) writing it, fiddling with it, editing and revising, but it never quite meets our expectations. There comes a point when we accept it has no future. If we like the premise, the only option may be to toss out all the old words and start from scratch with new ones. Abandoning all the original work is a tough decision, but what’s the alternative?

Pardon me while I go hunt up my pen… er, I mean my shovel.

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Have you ever had to abandon your darlings and start over again? Did the new writing take less or more time than the original? Was it easier or harder?

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The Concept of Aging and Time in Novel Writing

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Cute, eh? That’s me, more years ago than I’m prepared to acknowledge. I think I was barely two.

Then I was five … 

… and suddenly eighteen.

And now? Let’s not even go there! I’m looking back through the years since then and shaking my head at all the changes they’ve brought. Aging means more than accumulating a few grey hairs (okay, so it’s more than a few), and arthritis. I like to think there have been significant accomplishments and contributions along the way, and perhaps a smidgeon of wisdom gained, too. One sure thing is that time doesn’t hover motionless as the calendar pages flip.

Authors are confronted with the need to provide realistic aging in stories and series that span large periods of time. Consider Alex Haley’s ROOTS, a multi-generational family history written in 1976, and the Cleary family saga, THE THORN BIRDS, written in 1977 by Colleen McCullough. The latter covers more than sixty years while four-year-old Meggie transitions into a mature woman.

J.K. Rowling didn’t face that dilemma to the same extent, but when it came to filming her HARRY POTTER series, the actors were challenged to retain the aura of school children over a period of several years. There’s an interesting video here that shows the ten-year aging process of Daniel Radcliffe.

Historical fiction may take us into a previous era, but a contemporary series must deal with the element of time, too. Which brings me to ask if you’ve written novels that require you to cope with the passage of time, be it in a character or a community.

What things would need to be taken into consideration when writing a saga or series?

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Claiming the Facts – Researching the Ridiculous

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Something about claims on labels has bothered me for years. I read them because I want to know how I might be affected by a product.

So if an antiseptic kills only “99.9%” of viruses and bacteria, I don’t want to know just the ones it kills, I want to know the remaining .1% that are left behind to threaten my wellbeing. That’s not being nit-picky, is it?

 

And if a bath soap recommended as gentle enough for a baby’s skin is only “99.44% pure”, is it unreasonable to be concerned about the impurities that make up the .56% balance of ingredients? After all, so many products out there offer medical solutions by being absorbed through the skin – nicotine and anti-nausea patches, to name just two – I’m hesitant about my grandchildren being exposed to even small amounts of an unknown impurity during bath time at grandma’s.

 

Which all goes to say how important research is… most of the time.

In a post last fall I mentioned the importance of having accurate details in our writing, and just last week in one of her posts Jody Hedlund talked about how we do our research. As I read through the responses it was obvious there are many different approaches. Some do copious amounts of research before beginning to write. Some do only what’s necessary to get started and then research for specifics as they go along. Still others do very little in the initial draft, choosing to let creativity move them along, and fill in the blanks by researching later during the revision process.

However we do it, there are two points that beg to be noticed:

  1. Whatever details we use must be correct. Readers will notice incongruities and lose faith in our credibility and our authority to tell the story. If we throw in facts of questionable accuracy during the initial writing, we need to mark them for later verification.
  2. There is only so long we can put off writing in favour of research.  While it can be tempting to stay immersed in all the fascinating data, at some point we have to push aside the books and notes, turn off the internet, and begin writing the story. It doesn’t matter how accurate the details or how authentic the setting, if the story is never told.

If you do initial research for a story, when do you know it’s time to start writing? Oh, and if you’ve run across any statistics on the missing .1% and .56% mentioned earlier, I’d love to have you share them!

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Only a week until NaNoWriMo!

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Eep! November is only a week away and everyone’s talking about NaNoWriMo – the thirty-day writing marathon that I’m trying desperately to ignore. If you’re out of the loop, it’s NAtional NOvel WRIting MOnth, and it involves writing a complete 50,000-word novel during the month of November.

It began as a lark in 1999 with twenty-one “overcaffeinated yahoos” in the San Francisco Bay area, and year by year has exploded into a worldwide online event that in 2010 involved 200,500 participants. The story of how it happened is found here.

It’s a tortuous, and exhilarating run of madness, and it works. If your writing needs a kick-start and you’re willing to make a commitment to write at least 1,667 words a day, without editing (because there’s no time to edit – you do that when November is over), it’s great motivation.

I’ve participated four of the past five years, but this year my enthusiasm has waned before November even arrives. I have other writing on the go and want to stay focused on it. There may be 1,667 words written in a day, or there may not be. There may be more on some days, but at the moment I don’t want to be conscious of having to log in and report the numbers. If I change my mind, I’ll let you know.

How about you? Will you be taking part in NaNoWriMo? What would be its advantages or disadvantages for you?

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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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