Revisiting the Short Story and Heinlein’s Five Rules of Writing

george brown college

The seventh class of my 12-week Creating Science Fiction course at George Brown College is all about short story writing. I’m by nature a progressive—and an itinerant explorer; so, I am updating materials for my students and sharing them with you.

PlayingTheShortGame-DougSmithOne resource I’m eager to introduce to my students is Canadian SF short story writer Douglas Smith’s recent guidebook, Playing the Short Game: How to Market & Sell Short Fiction. Smith’s guidebook is a Tardis-style smallish yet comprehensive guide on what it takes to be a successful short story writer from starting & finishing to marketing & publishing to leveraging & promotion.

Smith is an accomplished short story writer and marketer, who has always openly shared his treasures of acquired wisdom with others.  His stories have appeared in thirty countries and 25 languages. He’s won three awards and has three acclaimed collections—so far. For years, his Foreign Market List has helped writers—including me—sell their work all over the world. To date, I have sold short stories (mostly translated reprints) to markets in Greece, Poland, Romania, Israel, and Italy—thanks to his list.

Why Write Short?

coffee-doubleespressoI’m a petite five foot-three height and purposely wear flat shoes. I love short. I prefer my espresso pulled in short shots—or  ristretto—in my flat white. Described as bolder, fuller, with more body and less bitterness, the ristretto is like a burst of intense flavor with a lingering finish. Short is pretty cool.

Douglas Smith gives seven excellent reasons for writing short fiction, even if you are ultimately a novel writer, like me. Writing short stories:

 

  1. Helps you learn your craft in easy, short-term, bite-sized amounts and over a reasonable time for you to learn, apply, and relearn
  2. Helps you test the waters of literature, to discover what excites you, provokes you and what ultimately you NEED to express
  3. Builds your resume, again more easily and quickly than a novel, toward that ultimate novel; publishers of magazines and publishing houses are more likely to take your work seriously if you have a publishing history
  4. Helps you explore ideas for your novel, by “pinging” certain premises you may wish to explore in further detail or take elsewhere in a novel
  5. Helps you build a backlist of published stories, which you own, once rights have reverted back to you
  6. Helps you build a network in your writing community of publishing houses, editors, other writers and so forth as you submit and exchange through your works and letters (including all those rejections!). Eventually, a pleased editor/publisher may invite you to submit to a “Best of” anthology or provide a collection. This has happened to me several times.
  7. Helps you learn the publishing business (well, sort of, says Smith…). Through exposure to the business side of publishing, you will gain an appreciation of how the publishing world works.

Know What You’re Writing

Nina-computer-KraveA short story only has 7,000 or less words to get your tale across while a novel has over ten times that many words to do the same. It follows then that the short story format is a simpler one. This does not necessarily mean easier.

Novels provide a sense of change, growth and solutions to problems and conflicts. “The short story doesn’t have the luxury of depicting change; the closest it can come is awareness,” writes Shelley Lowenkopf in her 2007 article “Telling Tales” in The Portable Writer’s Conference: Your Guide to Getting Published by Quill Driver Books.

She goes on to describe the short story as a close-up to a novel’s landscape. The short story is, therefore, often more intense and powerful. A short story, more than a novel, has the power to transport, disturb and enlighten.

ElementsOfFiction-SceneStructure-BickhamRenowned short story authors like Edgar Allen Poe, Nathanial Hawthorne, and Somerset Maugham, emphasize the importance of striving for one effect when writing a short story: the single effect you wish to leave with the reader at the end. This is accomplished by selecting events or situations that build quickly into a combustible response. Even Alice Munro, who is known for cramming long timeframes into her short stories, frames time through a single event: a meal, family gathering, wedding or funeral, for instance.

Jack Bickham, in his book, Elements of Fiction Writing: Scene and Structure by Writer’s Digest Books (1993) writes that, “story length, author intention, traditional expectations of the audience, and all sorts of things may affect the form a story may take.” Choosing the appropriate length to tell your story relies on the complexity of your premise and theme.

Understanding the Short Story Format

Here are seven tips toward writing a compelling and memorable short story:

  1. Open in the middle of something happening (e.g., action/in a “scene”)
  2. Make your opening provocative (raise the stakes as high as you can)
  3. Write scenes and write sparingly (avoid describing the obvious—use description to show something odd, memorable, exotic)
  4. Have characters define themselves and their goals through what they do and observe (e.g., show more than tell)
  5. Define characters with dialogue (a great way to reveal while keeping a high pace)
  6. Withhold vital information for as long as possible
  7. Don’t explain the ending (cut down on the denouement; let the reader make those conclusions—a key in the short story format)

Selling Your Short Story

Smith’s guidebook provides several chapters of excellent advice in logical steps toward a successful career.

Here are just a few gems that I will be sharing with my students.

First of all, remember that you are not selling your story; you’re licensing a particular set of rights for someone to do something with that story. Before you do anything else, do your homework: know the rights you’re selling; and which ones to keep. Smith describes five major types of rights: media; language; geography (less and less relevant); occurrence; and time.

86975836523792599_rgX5MKDy_fMedia rights include print rights, electronic rights and audio rights. Markets include magazines, anthologies and collections for short stories. Language and geography rights are pretty self-explanatory. Occurrence rights relate to whether the publisher is buying first or second and onward rights (otherwise known as reprints). Most publishers prefer to pay for the right to publish your work for the first time in that particular format (e.g., in print and in English, for instance). Having said that, I’ve had a lucrative history of selling reprints to some of my more popular short stories. I’ve furthered gone on to selling other rights, such as foreign language rights and audiobook and e-book rights. I’ve also sold two short story collections, one to an Italian publisher (coming out this year) and shorts in several anthologies. No movies yet… But I did have a serious discussion with a writer/producer on one of my shorts. Recall how many Philip K. Dick short stories have been adapted to movies (e.g., Total Recall, The Adjustment Bureau, Paycheck, Minority Report, and Blade Runner).

Heinlein’s Five Rules of Writing

Smith evokes SF writer Robert J Heinlein’s 5 rules of writing to succeed as a short story writer (as any kind of writer, actually). These are:

  1. You must write
  2. You must finish what you write
  3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order
  4. You must put the work on the market
  5. You must keep the work on the market until sold

I know… Number 3 sounds pretty suspicious, or arrogant at the very least. As Robert J. Sawyer concludes on his site in reference to the five rules, number 3 is open to reasonable interpretation. Of course, it must mean AFTER you’ve finished and edited the story with some level of confidence that you’re happy with it—never mind what other people think of it.

FictionWriter-front cover-2nd ed-webNina’s Bus-Terminal Model

In my writing guide The Fiction Writer, Chapter L (for “Long or Short?”), I talk about how I launched my own successful short story writing career. I’d been writing short stories for a few years without much success (I was getting interesting rejection letters, so I knew I was getting close); then I settled into a kind of model/routine. I call it The Bus Terminal Approach. As Smith attests—several times—it’s a numbers game. That’s how I played it. It starts with one story and relies on you not waiting until you write the next, and the next and the next. Here’s how it works:

  1. You list at least 3 markets that you’ve researched for Story A and send it to the first of the three
  2. You start right away writing Story B, send it to the first of 3 markets you’ve researched and listed for it
  3. When Story A rejection arrives, you do not revise but send it right away to the second market
  4. Same thing for Story B
  5. Write Story C and treat similarly

NaturalSelection-front-webRemember to keep track of what you send where and when and what happens to it. It can become a very confusing bus terminal otherwise, with someone ending up in Seattle when they are headed to Toronto! What happens with this approach is several things: you begin to treat the whole marketing/publishing process as a business (which it is) and because you have so many “buses” out there coming and going, the rejections don’t hurt quite as much and instead become part of the learning process, which they should be. You adopt a more business-like approach, which translates into your relationship with editors and publishers. A win-win situation results. Believe me; this works. Once I fell into this method, my sales increased by over 70%.

 

Several of my stories are currently available in a collection entitled Natural Selection by Pixl Press. You can read one of my short stories right on Amazing Stories: “Virtually Yours”.

My guidebook, The Fiction Writer, can be purchased in various online and onsite bookstores, including Amazon, Kobo, Chapters Online, Barnes & Noble, and several others even I don’t know about.

nina-2014aaaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s recent book is the bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” (Mincione Edizioni, Rome). Her latest “Water Is…” is currently an Amazon Bestseller and NY Times ‘year in reading’ choice of Margaret Atwood.

Vancouver Coffee Marathon—Four Coffee Shops in Four Hours

First Hour: Nusa Coffee

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The Asian Palm Civet

I started my coffee marathon at Nusa Coffee, on 4th Avenue in Kitsilano. Nusa means “islands” and, indeed, Marcus, one of the partners, told me that most of their coffee comes from Indonesia, an archipelago of over 17,000 islands stretching an expanse the length of Canada.

Nusa features coffee from beans grown in the Ngada region of Flores, the Toraja Highlands of central Sulawesi, the Kintamani Highlands of Bali and the Gayo Highlands in Sumatra Gayo.

Asian-Palm-Civet

Asian Palm Civet

But I’d come for kopi luwak—otherwise known as cat poop coffee—made from coffee beans that have been digested by a small Indonesian cat called an Asian Palm Civet (Paradosorus hermaphroditus)—a small viverrid native to South and Southeast Asia. They help maintain tropical forest ecosystems through seed dispersal as they feed on pulpy fruits such as mango, rambutan and coffee.

Why was I doing this? Well, since I’d heard about it, I just had to try it out for myself. According to The Vancouver Coffee Snob the civets feast on ripe coffee cherries, which start to digest and ferment in their stomachs.

Nusa-coffee pour

Marcus does the pour over

The enzymes allegedly remove the acidic tastes from the coffee, imparting new flavours. The cat then poops what’s left and farmers collect the poop, clean them, process and roast the beans. Civet coffee beans are harder and more brittle because they have been modified by the digestive juices of the civet.

Because of the new trend for Kopi Luwak, civets are being increasingly captured from the wild and fed coffee beans to mass-produce this blend. Many of the captured civets are housed and treated unethically. The impact of all these captures on the wild population and consequent ecosystems they live in, is not yet known. The lesson here is: do your research to ensure that the product you’re buying has been ethically collected from wild Civet poop. Nusa Coffee is one of them.

NUSA-Catpoo Coffee

Kopi Luwak at Nusa Coffee in Vancouver

Marcus let me smell the beans before grinding them. The aroma was deep, pleasant and nutty. That carried into the coffee pour over (which is more gentle than using an espresso machine). Then it came to tasting it: I found it unpretentious, earthy with subtle tones that lingered in the back of the throat. As I breathed in the kopi luwak, I thought of the jungle where the civet lives…and poos. Nusa Coffee is also unpretentious; a cozy café with wood benches and tables and no overbearing music.

 

Second Hour: Platform 7

Platform7 cafe

Platform 7 and bookstore in Kits

My second stop was Platform 7, on Broadway and Vine, where I stopped for lunch. Located in an old house next to a character-book store (a great combination for a writer!), Platform 7 is a creative take on a bustling “Victorian London train station in East Vancouver and a Belle-Époque Parisienne train station in Kits.”

The café offers a large variety of coffees from their espresso bar, cold bar and brew bar. I enjoyed friendly service and pleasant jazz-fusion music as I ate lunch, a deliciously grilled turkey with cranberry sandwich.

Platform7-interior

Inside Platform 7 Coffee

 

Third Hour: Federal Store

Federal Store outside3

The Federal Store

I continued east across town along Broadway into Mount Pleasant and walked south along Quebec Street toward 10th Avenue, where the Federal Store greeted me on the corner. Surrounded with cheerful flowers on all sides and a vegetable garden in the back, the café-grocer beckons me inside. I enter and feel like I’ve entered an alternative past: an integration of ’50s trompe l’oeil 3-D checker floor, plants, and homemade baking in the display with the avant-garde chic of wood and white.

I ordered an Earl Grey tea (for a change from coffee) and sat outside, where I enjoyed the loose tea as birds sang around me and bees buzzed among the flowers.

Mia Stainsby of the Vancouver Sun writes, “One block away, Main Street hyperventilates and cars exhale carbon monoxide. But here at Federal Store, it’s quiet and I’m caught in a time warp. The vintage room stirs up romantic notions of simpler times.”

Federal Store entrance2

The Federal Store

 

Fourth Hour: Le Marché St. George

It grew hot as the day progressed, but I kept cool under the thick canopy of maples, chestnuts and ash trees as I proceeded southeast to my next destination. Once I’d topped the hill, I turned east on 28th and as I neared my next destination, I realized that I’d saved the best for last.

Le Marche St George-outside

Le Marche St. George

When I caught sight of Le Marché St. George, tucked behind several large poplar trees on the residential corner of 28th and St. George, I had to smile like a pilgrim finding a rest stop. Edith Piaff’s sultry voice sang through the open door of the large old house as cyclists and locals sat outside, drinking coffee and discussing their day. I entered the café-general store, walls high with diverse produce. It was no ordinary general store. This was the kind of place—I recalled my son telling me earlier—where you could buy your next Christmas gift. A cornucopia of interesting flotsam beckoned: from Woodlot candles and Maison Orphée mustard to black cyprus flake sea salt, flat breads, gourmet honey and pasta.

LeMarche StGeorge-inside

Inside Le Marche St. George

I ordered a flat white, which turned into a cappuccino. The barista—let’s call him Etienne—apologized and was ready to start over but I accepted the drink with a smile; I’d noted that he’d really made a European cappuccino, which is essentially a flat white (a cappuccino with no dry foam). I took the coffee and sat outside under the shade of a poplar tree and opened my book, “Barkskins” by Annie Proulx.

Beside me, two young Asian men were discussing an article they’d read about how men get into and out of a bathtub. I realized I’d read the same line of my book several times when one fellow confided to the other that he thought he had sleep apnea and was slowly dying from oxygen deprivation over nights of not quite sleeping.

All in a summer’s day, I thought, and closed the book and my eyes, then put my feet up on the planter and smiled the smile of pure contentment.

kopi-luwak -civet cat

 

nina-munteanuNina Munteanu is an ecologist, limnologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

Amazing Cover Art, Part 2: Anne Moody and Costi Gurgu

MockUpEcology-2

The cover for Nina’s upcoming writing guide: illustration by Anne Moody; typology & design by Costi Gurgu

In my article “Should You Judge a Book by its Cover”, I wrote about the importance of cover art for book sales and to maintain integrity and satisfaction with the story inside. In the article, I pointed out that, “If you don’t know the author of the book, the nature—and implied promise—of the cover becomes even more important. If the book does not deliver on the promise of the cover, it will fail with many readers despite its intrinsic value. A broken promise is still a broken promise. I say cover—not necessarily the back jacket blurb—because the front cover is our first and most potent introduction to the quality of the story inside. How many of us have picked up a book—intrigued by its alluring front cover—read the blurb that seemed to resonate with the title and image, then upon reading our cherished purchase been disillusioned with the story and decided we disliked it and its author?”

Cover art provides an important aspect of writer and publisher branding. Cover artists understand this and address the finer nuances of the type and genre of the story to resonate with the reader and their expectations of story. This includes the image/illustration, typography, and overall design of the cover. A cover for a work of literary fiction will look quite different from a work of fantasy or romance. Within a genre, subtle qualities provide more clues—all of which the cover artist grasps with acute expertise.

I’ve been fortunate in my history as a professional writer to have had exceptional art work on the books I’ve written or collections and anthologies I’ve participated in (see the mosaic below of many but not all the covers my work has been associated with).

For most of my books, my publisher provided me with a direct link to the cover artist (e.g., Dragon Moon Press, Edge Publishing, eXtasy Books, Liquid Silver Books, Starfire, Pixl Press) and I retained some creative control. I even found and brought in the cover artist for projects I had with Pixl Press.

Anne Moody and Pixl Press

Anne-Studio01 copy

Anne Moody working on her next painting

I met Anne Moody at the environmental consulting firm where I worked after leaving the University of Victoria. I’d taught limnology (the study of freshwater) for several years at UVic, then I joined the Vancouver firm as an aquatic ecologist and environmental consultant. That’s where I met fellow ecologist, Anne. Anne is a plant ecologist who has worked with federal and provincial governments on reclamation and restoration projects. She’s designed and planted marshes throughout the world and has taught at university in her field of expertise.

Anne wasn’t painting then. She started long after we parted our ways—she to a government job and I to a teaching job at The University of Toronto. However, as she mentions in her short bio, Anne has been drawing and painting since childhood—just like me. The difference is that she has come back to the fine arts with an eye for compelling imagery. Using her science knowledge and discipline to work with light, texture and form, Anne creates works of stunning originality that resonate with rugged landscape and with those who belong to it. Her work is, needless to say, fetching for a book cover!

FictionWriter-front cover-2nd ed-web copyWhen Pixl Press started looking for suitable cover artists to rebrand my writing craft series, I showed some of Anne’s work to the director Anne Voute. Pixl Press had already worked with Costi Gurgu and we liked his work. The result of Anne’s illustrations and Costi’s typography and design was a series of stunning covers that branded my books with just the right voice.

Journal Writer-FRONT-cover-WEB copyThe Alien Guidebook Series, of which two books are out so far (The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! and The Journal Writer: Finding Your Voice) was designed by Costi with a guidebook brand that would stand out, yet showcase the natural British Columbia landscape art by Anne that I felt strongly connected to. Anne’s cover art for The Journal Writer is one of several studies of Toquart Bay, BC.

FictionWriterCoverWeb copy 2Anne’s illustration for The Fiction Writer (a painting of Knutsford, BC) actually represents the second cover. The Fiction Writer was originally released in May 2009 and the cover portrayed a spiral galaxy—beautifully designed by Virginia O’Dine. The cover overly stressed my science fiction background and did not give a balanced portrayal of the guidebook, which addresses any fiction—not just science fiction. Anne’s portrayal of a field in Knutsford was deemed better suited to a new branding for the series.

MockUpEcology-2I am currently researching and writing the third guidebook in the series—a reference on world building and use of ecology in story—The Ecology of Story: World as Character.

I visited Anne at her ranch near Vanderhoof, B.C., to discuss a cover. Between chores on the 100-acre ranch, gourmet meals from local produce, and lively political discussions over generous amounts of wine—we spent the entire weekend looking over and evaluating Anne’s pieces as potential cover art. Anne had so many good pieces, I became confused with what would work best.

Nina-sedgefield at Annes-closest2 copy 2

Nina stands in Anne’s sedge marsh

Finally on the last day, we stumbled on the perfect one: a painting Anne had done of a photograph her daughter had taken during a wildfire in northern British Columbia. Anne had stylized the photo into its own narrative that was compelling. My publisher was excited by it. We expect Pixl Press to release The Ecology of Story in late 2019.

NaturalSelection-front-web copyAnne’s art work for the cover of Natural Selection: A collection of short stories had originally resonated with me when she had first shown me the original painting at an art show on Vancouver Island. Called Mere Tranquility, her acrylic and oil painting uses shades of aqua, green, blue and yellow to convey a small pond during a quiet summer day. She’d captured the elusive dance of light and water perfectly. I was reminded of the genius of Monet. Anne was delighted to let us use it. Pixl Press commissioned Gurgu to design the cover; his minimalist clean design was pure genius.

The cover for Natural Selection remains one of my favourite covers of all time. And it just so happens that the cover art and design solidly portray the tone and content of the stories within. Bellisima!

 

 

anne-moody-plein-air-painting

Anne Moody painting en plein-air

Anne Moody is a celebrated Canadian artist and plant ecologist. She worked with the British Columbia provincial government in their Department of Environment and now consults for her own company. She has been drawing and painting since childhood and won her first award at a “Painting in the Parks Program” when she was nine.

“I consider myself a realist, strongly tempted by abstract elements wrapped in story,” says Anne. “The images that speak to me are scenes that convey meaning beyond superficial beauty. My compulsion to paint takes charge when an image embedded in my memory will not allow me to rest until I promote it to canvas. My choice of medium, water-colour, acrylics or oil, is dictated by the nature of the image.”

All Nina Munteanu books can be found on most Amazon sites.

Microsoft Word - Publication-COVERS-all-2018.docx

nina-2014aaaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s recent book is the bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” (Mincione Edizioni, Rome). Her latest “Water Is…” is currently an Amazon Bestseller and NY Times ‘year in reading’ choice of Margaret Atwood.

Wonder and Reason in The Age of Water

elephant kitten streamWriter and essayist Annis Pratt begins her compelling essay “World of Wonder, World of Reason” in Impakter, with the question: “Do we live in a world of wonder where Nature ultimately calls the shots or a world of reason where Homo Sapiens are in control?”

Invoking the now vogue term “Anthropocene”, she puts it another way: “Is Nature dependent upon our definitions of it, or does it both precede and transcend human consciousness?  Does the term “Anthropocene” signal an apocalyptic shift that places us at the center of the Universe and if so, is the death of Nature upon us, or are we mistaken?”

Pratt examined and synthesized four works of different perspectives on nature and humanity to answer these questions. My book “Water Is…” was among them:

  1. The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World” by Andrea Wulf (Knoff, 2015)
  2. The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate” by Peter Wohlleben, translated by Jane Billinghurst (Greystone Books, 2016)
  3. Water Is…The Meaning of Water” by Nina Munteanu (Pixl Press, 2016)
  4. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari (Harper Collins, 2015)

The first three, says Pratt, are scientists who made close observations of nature that filled them with wonder at the complexity of its processes: “Alexander von Humboldt, an 18th century Prussian scientist, the father of ecology; Peter Wohlleben, an ecologist who worked over twenty years for the forestry commission in Germany and Nina Munteanu, a limnologist, university teacher and award-winning ecologist.” The fourth, an Israeli historian, Yuval Noah Harari took a dramatically different stance, says Pratt. “He deplores our epoch when human egos have run amuck, putting Nature itself in peril.”

Wonder: Alexander von Humboldt

AlexVonHumboldt

Alexander von Humboldt lived from 1769-1859 (when Darwin published Origin of Species) and considered a genius, polymath, explorer and keen observer of botanical phenomena. In a world and time when Enlightenment thinkers and scientists predicated their observations on a premise of a static unchanging Nature (recall this was prior to Darwin’s controversial theory of evolution), von Humboldt discovered that nature’s one constant was change. As with von Goethe and von Schelling, von Humboldt embraced Naturphilosophie to comprehend nature in its totality and to outline its general theoretical structure. Naturphilosophie espoused an organic and dynamic worldview as an alternative to the atomist and mechanist outlook prevailing at the time.

Von Humboldt succeeded in proving that species change according to their circumstances, such as altitude or climate. According to Wulf, Bildungsreich was a force that shaped the formation of bodies, with every living organism, from humans to mould, having this formative drive. Von Humboldt’s “discovery that natural phenomena are inter-influencing elements of an interdependent whole, connected and interacting along an ‘invisible web of life,’ made Humboldt the first ecologist,” writes Pratt.

Wonder: Peter Wohlleben

Wohlleben

“Contemporary German forest ranger Peter Wohlleben belongs to the same school of Naturalphilosophie as Humboldt, bringing a similar sense of curiosity and wonder to his botanical observations,” says Pratt, who suggests that criticism aimed at his work arose in response to the anthropomorphic “voice” he uses—despite validation through the work of Dr. Suzanne Simard, Professor of Forest Ecology at the University of British Columbia.

Simard showed that trees “talk” to each other through electrical impulses as part of an underground network of fungi: “like fiber-optic internet cables.”

Pratt describes the events that led to Wohlleben’s path as an ecologist and his series of “hidden life of” books: he had become uncomfortable chopping down trees and spraying the forest with chemicals and became depressed when his superiors refused to consider his alternative methods. Wohlleben had decided to quit his job and emigrate to Sweden, when the town of Hummel decided to annul its state contract, reconstitute itself as a private preserve, and hire him to implement his innovations.

Wohlleben uses the findings of Simard and other scientists that trees communicate, nourish and heal each other. “It appears that the nutrient exchange and helping neighbors in times of need is the rule, and this leads to the conclusion that forests are superorganisms with interconnections much like ant colonies,” writes Wohlleben.

Wonder: Nina Munteanu

NinaWaterIs-Impakter

“In the same way that Peter Wohlleben approaches the hidden life of trees with a combination of scientific observation and enthusiastic wonder, in Water Is…The Meaning of Water,  Canadian limnologist Nina Munteanu observes the hidden properties of water with a scientist’s eye for detailed processes and a sense of amazement at their intricacies,” writes Pratt. “Echoing Humboldt’s discovery of the interwoven multiplicities of nature, [Munteanu] “transcends ‘Newtonian Physics and Cartesian reductionism aimed at dominating and controlling Nature’”:

“Science is beginning to understand that coherence, which exists on all levels—cellular, molecular, atomic and organic—governs all life processes. Life and all that informs it is a gestalt process. The flow of information is fractal and multidirectional, forming a complex network of paths created by resonance interactions in a self-organizing framework. It’s stable chaos. And water drives the process”—Nina Munteanu, Water Is…

“In addition to providing a gripping analysis of water science,” says Pratt, Nina Munteanu’s Water Is… “provides an encyclopedic trove of quirky observations, like how Galileo understood water flow, the Chinese character for water, Leonardo da Vinci’s water drawings, the Gaia Hypothesis, and David Bohm’s theory of flux.”

“the Gaia Hypothesis proposes that living and non-living parts of our planet interact in a complex network like a super-organism. The hypothesis postulates that all living things exert a regulatory effect on the Earth’s environment that promotes life overall…Much of nature – if not all of it – embraces this hidden order, which I describe as ‘‘stable chaos’”—Nina Munteanu, Water Is…

Reason: Yuval Noah Harari

YuvalNoahHarari

Israeli Historian, Harari sees Homo Sapiens as destructively self-serving. “Even in our earliest history,” Pratt tells us, “he suspects we were responsible for the extirpation of the Neanderthals. Everywhere we settled, mammoths and other megafauna suffered mass extinction. “The historical record,” he concludes, “makes Homo Sapiens look like an ecological serial killer.”

We are like the bully elbowing his way at school. And our casualties—such as the extinction of a dozen species a day—are innocence lost.

According to Harari, while the industrial revolution “liberated humankind from dependence on the surrounding ecosystem,” it provided no lasting benefit to the human race: “Many are convinced that science and technology hold the answers to all our problems…” but, “Like all other parts of our culture, it is shaped by economic, political and religious interests…We constantly wreak havoc on the surrounding ecosystem, seeking little more than our own comfort and amusement, yet never finding satisfaction.”

Human-Centred or Nature-Centred?

To answer Pratt’s first question: “Do we live in a world of wonder where Nature ultimately calls the shots or a world of reason where Homo Sapiens are in control?” she invokes global warming to suggest that we don’t have the last say in the planet’s welfare: “Aren’t these tumultuous catastrophes demonstrative of nature’s ability to rise over and against what we throw at it? Global warming may end civilization and perhaps the human species along with so many others we have destroyed, but are human beings really capable of engineering the destruction of the planet?  I doubt it.”

I concur. While humanity is capable of extensive natural destruction, Gaia will not only accommodate—it will prevail. Very soon—some think now already—Nature may no longer resemble that “friendly” and stable Holocene environment that we’ve come to rely on and exploit so heedlessly. Species will die out. Others will take their place in a shifting world.

As the first swell of the climate change tidal wave laps at our feet, we are beginning to see the planetary results of what humanity has helped create and exacerbate. Humanity has in many ways reached a planetary tipping point; a threshold that will be felt by all aspects of our planet—both animate and inanimate—as the planet’s very identity shifts.

One thing is certain: environments will cease to be hospitable for humanity. Compared with many other life forms, we actually have very narrow tolerances to stay healthy and survive:

  1. We need lots of water (70%)
  2. We freeze or cook beyond the 40-100 degree F range in a galaxy that goes from minus 400 at the moon’s south pole to 25 million degrees inside the sun
  3. We faint from lack of oxygen on our tallest mountains
  4. We need a pH balance of 6.5 to 7.5 to stay alive
  5. Ionizing radiation kills us at low concentrations
  6. Many compounds in the wrong amounts are toxic to us

But something will benefit. For every perturbation imposed there is adaptation and exploitation, stitched into the flowing tapestry of evolution. That is ecology.

Ecology studies relationships and change in our environment: how we interact, impact one another, change one another. Ecology studies individuals, communities and ecosystems and provides insight into the dynamics that cause and result from these interactions.

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In my upcoming novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” a journaling limnologist in the near-future reflects on the acidified oceans in her current world: flagellates (microscopic plankton with flagella) have outcompeted diatoms (food for many species) and are mainstay of the box jellyfish—the top marine predator from the Proterozoic Era—that has overrun the entire ocean. The box jellyfish is currently overrunning Tokyo Bay. The story proceeds into the future when dead zones—currently found in the Gulf of Mexico, the mouth of the Mississippi River, Chesapeake Bay, Kattegat Strait, and Baltic Sea—occur on virtually every marine and freshwater coast; the AMOC eventually fails and the oceans grow toxic; sea level immerses Florida, the Pudong District, the entire Maldives, and dozens of coastal cities; and global temperature has triggered a heat-related epidemic involving heat shock proteins. This is a world very different from the one we have grown accustomed to; it is a harsh, hostile world that no longer treats us well; but it is a world, none the less.

Living with Natural Succession

One of the first things we learn in Ecology 101 is that change is the one constant in biology; systems endure by striking dynamic equilibria within a shifting tapestry. Succession—the natural procession of one community to another—lies at the core of a dynamic and functional ecosystem, itself evolving to another system through succession.

morraine lakeStill immature and undeveloped, an oligotrophic lake often displays a rugged untamed beauty. An oligotrophic lake hungers for the stuff of life. Sediments from incoming rivers slowly feed it with dissolved nutrients and particulate organic matter. Detritus and associated microbes slowly seed the lake. Phytoplankton eventually flourish, food for zooplankton and fish. The shores then gradually slide and fill, as does the very bottom. Deltas form and macrophytes colonize the shallows. Birds bring in more creatures. And so on. As Nature tames the unruly lake over time, one thing replaces another. As a lake undergoes its natural succession from oligotrophic to highly productive eutrophic lake, its beauty mellows and it surrenders to the complexities of destiny. Minimalism yields to a baroque richness that, in turn, heralds extinction. The lake shrinks to a swamp then buries itself under a meadow.

Ecology and Story

NaturalSelection-front-webIn a talk I give at conferences on “Ecology and Story”, I provide examples of extremophiles that have adapted to and thrive in extreme conditions on Earth.  The brine shrimp of Mono Lake—an endorheic lake that is extremely salty, anaerobic and alkaline—happily hatch in the trillions every year. The bacteria of Rio Tinto—toxic with heavy metals—thrive on the iron through a biofilm that protects them. Radiotrophic fungi feed on gamma radiation at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Life on Earth will endure and prevail—not despite but alongside humanity’s imposed ecological succession.

The question is, will we survive our own succession?

Literature of the Anthropocene

Memory of waterTerms such as eco-fiction, climate fiction and its odd cousin “cli-fi”, have embedded themselves in science fiction and literary fiction terminology; this fiction has attracted a host of impressive authors who write to its calling: Margaret Atwood, Emmi Itäranta, Jeff VanderMeer, Richard Powers, Barbara Kingsolver, Upton Sinclair, Ursula Le Guin, JoeAnn Hart, Frank Herbert, John Yunker, Kim Stanley Robinson, James Bradley, Paolo Bacigalupi, Nathaniel Rich, David Mitchell, Junot Diaz, Claire Vaye Watkins, J.G. Ballard, Marcel Theroux, Thomas Wharton—just to name a few. The list is growing. Of course, I’m on it too. Many of these works explore and illuminate environmental degradation and ecosystem collapse at the hands of humanity.

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Nina MunteanuNina Munteanu is an ecologist, limnologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

Nina Delivers Words and Worlds at WWC

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Smoky sun overlooking Rockies

I recently travelled from Vancouver with Pixl Press director Anne Voute through the smoky Rockies to the 8th ‘When Words Collide’ writers festival in Calgary. The festival was held August 10-12, 2018 and brought together just under a thousand readers and writers in multi-genres to attend presentations and panels on writing and publishing.

The three-day writers’ festival ran a 10-track program that included informative panels, Blue Pencil Café, Editors Speed Mingle, pitch sessions with agents and publishers, and challenging workshops.

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Selling books at Myth Hawker

My books were on sale in the Merchant’s room at Sentry Box (a local Calgary bookstore) and Myth Hawker Travelling Bookstore. By the third day, Myth Hawker sold all available copies of Water Is…

I participated in panels, Blue Pencil Café, Editors speed mingle and several presentations and workshops:

  • You Oughta Be in Audio: a discussion between me and audiobook narrator and producer Dawn Harvey on the making of the audiobooks for The Splintered Universe—now available in three formats, print, ebook, and audiobook. While paper sales dwindle, audiobooks continue to be the fastest growing segment of the publishing world with sales increasing by 30% year over year for the past decade.

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  • World As Character: a presentation on creating a world with meaning. In most science fiction and fantasy, the world that we create is often very different from our own; in speculative fiction it’s often very similar; in contemporary fiction it is virtually the same. In all cases the world you build should embed in your story with layered metaphoric meaning. Nina Munteanu will discuss how to build a world that interacts with character to inform greater meaning in story.

FictionWriter-front cover-2nd ed-web copyJournal Writer-FRONT-cover-WEB copyI also networked my writing community for world examples to use in my Alien Guidebook on world building: The Ecology of Story: World as Character. Anticipated release by Pixl Press of this third guidebook in the Alien Guidebook series is Summer of 2019. In keeping with the branding of the series, artist Anne Moody is providing the cover illustration and Costi Gurgu the cover design for The Ecology of Story. Covers for the previous two books were also done by Anne and Costi.

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‘Ordinary Hero’ by Anne Moody

Earlier in the month, I travelled north with the Pixl Press director to Anne’s ranch in Vanderhoof to requisition a cover from her for the guidebook. After days of discussion and “show and tell” and after several pieces of art were tentatively selected, Anne pulled out a piece that stopped our search dead. ‘Ordinary Hero’ depicts a lonely firefighter, trudging in the burning forest, tired gaze to the burning crown of a tree. Considering the subject matter and our world today, we thought this was perfect for my book.

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cover design by Costi Gurgu, illustration by Anne Moody

Depicted in shades of blue, charcoal and brilliant red, the cover contrasts and harmonizes well with the brand typology and cover design by Toronto graphic artist Costi Gurgu.

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nina-munteanuNina Munteanu is an ecologist, limnologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

Smoke Descending

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Port Guichon in Ladner at 6 pm

Today—as writing friend Sylvia and I decided to have our coffees inside Stir Coffee House rather than its pleasant patio under the peach-coloured haze of Ladner—much of British Columbia was under high evacuation alert, was being evacuated or was under an air quality advisement. More than 20,000 people have evacuated their homes or are on alert while over 500 fires burn across the province.

In Vanderhoof, where good friend Anne lives on her ranch, the air quality index is beyond the high limit of the scale (over 600 on a scale that only runs to 500).

An air quality advisory was issued for Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley on Tuesday. Then the smoke from higher elevations descended that night. Wednesday morning, I walked into Ladner village through a haze that smelled of old fire. An uneasy disquiet stirred inside me. Then I realized it; the air wasn’t that easy to breathe. The AQI was over 150 and steadily climbing. By the time Sylvia and I left the café, the AQI would measure over 200 (considered “very unhealthy”).

SmokeySun-child on swing-eastvan

According to Environment Canada meteorologist Lisa Coldwells, a broad dome of high pressure is sitting on top of the province, providing only slight winds even at high altitudes. “The smoke doesn’t have a chance to dissipate. It just comes up off the fire(s) and it’s just sort of gently moving towards Vancouver, the southern tip of Vancouver Island and the most populated areas,” she says. A temperature inversion is making the situation worse, effectively trapping the smoke.

Fine particulate matter, also known as PM2.5 (measured as particles at or smaller than 2.5 µm) is causing most of the haze and driving the health warnings. These particles pose the greatest health risk. Much smaller than the width of a human hair these particles can go deep into the lungs and bloodstream, resulting in oxidative stress and affecting the heart. Smoke will also carry coarse particulate matter, known as PM10 (particles that measure 10 µm to 2.5 µm). Coarse particles are of less concern, given they are more easily caught by our filtering systems (like nose hairs and phlegm) but can irritate your eyes, nose and throat. Concentrations of PM2.5 greater than 25 micrograms per cubic metre prompt health warnings. According to Chris Carlsten, UBC public health associate professor, these higher levels dysregulate the normal balance in the lungs, leading to inflammation that causes difficulty in breathing and wheezing.

AQHI-MetroVancouver

The Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) was developed by Environment Canada, the BC Ministry of Environment and BC Ministry of Health, Metro Vancouver and the BC Lung Association to measure air quality on a scale. The index typically goes from 0 to 10 with 7-10 representing “high risk” conditions. Numbers higher than 10 are unusual and indicate a very high risk to health. The 0 to 10 index corresponds roughly to the Air Quality Index (AQI), which measures concentrations of particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and ozone and converts these to a number on a scale of 0 to 500.

AirQuality-Map

As you can see, an AQI of over 100 is moderately polluted and considered unhealthy, particularly for sensitive groups such as people with asthma, respiratory issues, elderly or small children. Today, Ladner’s AQI rose steadily during the day until it was well over 200, considered very unhealthy.

AQI-concentrations-health

According to Tiffany Crawford of the Vancouver Sun, the air quality in Vanderhoof—30 kilometres south of the more than 86,000-hectare Shovel Lake wildfire—measured over 600 on the AQI; more than double the level considered hazardous to health. The AQI in Houston measured 410 and in Burns Lake it was 408—all levels way beyond ‘hazardous’.

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Highway 27 between Vanderhoof and Fort Saint John

To give you an idea of how that feels, someone developed an app using Berkley Earth’s findings on the equivalence between air pollution and cigarette smoking. According to Berkley’s formula one cigarette smoked per day equals 22 µg/m3 of fine particulate matter.

PM2.5-cigaretts

The current air quality rating in Vancouver measured 10 today, which is like smoking 7.4 cigarettes. In Abbotsford in the Fraser Valley, that comes to 8.3 cigarettes. Further north in Fort St. John you’re smoking 11.8 cigarettes and in Prince George you’re smoking 16.7 cigarettes. By contrast, in Gwallior India—one of the most air-polluted places in the world—the equivalent daily cigarettes smoked is only 3.5.

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Smoky sun over Ladner at 6 pm

As the coffee machines ground and wheezed with the sweet aroma of coffee, Sylvia and I talked about an exciting project that involved ecology and empowerment. Of course, we talked about the wildfires too. How could we not? It was on everyone’s mind today. With such overt signs, who couldn’t think of them. It was the smoke. We saw it coil and loiter along the street corners. We smelled it. Breathed it in. Felt it inside us. The remains of so many trees that had burned to the ground. “The souls of trees,” as good friend Anne had blurted out. Their ashes and smoke had soared high into the atmosphere and now descended on us, kilometres away. I couldn’t help feeling a sadness. Not just for so many people in hardship. But for so much living tissue, burnt up in smoke.

Sylvia later told me that she didn’t make her next appointment in Vancouver. Feeling the effects of the smoke, she had decided to go home, where her HEPA filter awaited. Smart move, Sylvia.

 

nina-munteanuNina Munteanu is an ecologist, limnologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

 

 

 

Coming Home to Water at Stir Coffee House

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Nina on Ladner pier

For several years I’ve been returning from Toronto—where I teach at The University of Toronto and George Brown College—to Ladner, BC to spend my summers.

I cherish the time as a chance to see family and friends and to enjoy a different pace of life—one I enjoyed when I used to live and work here and where I brought up my family. We lived in a comfortable house on a quiet street and our back yard faced one of Ladner’s sloughs and beyond that a vast tract of farmland, most often scored with rows of potato plants. My son Kevin had grown up swimming in the slough and jumping off the rope swing his dad had constructed. Pilgrims from close and far came to use that swing and enjoy the murky waters of our back slough.

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Kevin on the rope swing

Parties at our place always involved water and getting wet. We even had a fleet of kayaks and canoes that we took on paddling adventures through farmland and under highways, with the occasional siting of muskrat, carp, heron, or eagle. Coyotes whined and barked at night as bats dipped through the night air, foraging for food. My female cat poised for the hunt and sometimes brought in her “catch of the day.”

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Cathleen and Nina at Stir

This summer, good friend and writer Cathleen Chance Vecchiato decided I should give a talk to my old community on Water Is… my recent bestselling book on water. With that, she immediately made it happen. The venue was already decided: the best café in Ladner, Stir Coffee House. I’d taken Cathleen there the previous year as part of a tour of the old farming and fishing village. Cathleen was charmed by the village atmosphere.

Stir Coffee House was happy to host a talk and Robert and Cathleen proceeded to plan it. Ian Jacques at The Delta Optimist wrote a wonderful piece on my journey, the talk and the book.

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On the evening of August 16th a growing crowd of people, eager for more on this precious substance flowed into the café until there was hardly a seat left in the cozy venue. I recognized some locals as well as colleagues from my environmental consulting days in Vancouver. It was a good crowd.

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Water Is… snug against an iced latte

I shared the story of how I came to write this book—not a limnology book for non-scientists, as I thought I was going to write—but something that was more than science. Something that encompassed so much more about water: what it means to each of us and how we still don’t understand its many magical anomalous properties. I confided my discovery that the synchronicity of important moments in my life were all connected to water, which compelled the book to evolve into a study of “what water means to us.” Good friend Emmi Itäranta, author of Memory of Water, called Water Is… a biography of water.

Travelling the world has helped me realize that I was blessed with an abundance of water. I lived my entire life in a country of plentiful and healthy water. And for most of that time I didn’t even realize it. Canada holds one fifth of the world’s fresh water in lakes, rivers, and wetlands, as well as in our underground aquifers and glaciers. Canada’s wetlands, which cover more than 1.2 million square kilometres, makes Canada the largest wetland area in the world.

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Nina with hosts Hope and Trevor

Perhaps it is no coincidence that Canada is steward of the world’s largest wetlands. Wetlands include marshes, swamps, fens, and bogs, all irreplaceable habitat for a huge diversity of nesting, feeding and staging waterfowl, reptiles, amphibians and mammals—many at risk. Wetlands provide a major filtration system, removing contaminants, improving water quality and renewing water’s vitality; wetlands serve as reservoirs, controlling and reducing flooding toward a more balanced hydrological cycle. Wetlands are a source of oxygen and water vapour, serving a vital role in our global atmospheric and climatic cycles. As ecotones— transitional areas—wetlands protect coasts from erosion and provide exceptional opportunity for boundary interaction and the emergence of vitality. Like a good metaphor, wetlands “recognize” and encompass similarities between dissimilarities. Wetlands powerfully connect. Canada’s strong multi-cultural policies and its open tolerance in embracing and celebrating diversity makes it the “wetland” of the world.

When I turn on the water tap in my house in Canada, it is pure drinking water. I don’t need to boil it or filter it or test it for impurities and toxins. I am confident that it will nourish and hydrate me like water should. I can bathe without restriction. I can play with it.

My water hasn’t changed; but I have. I do not take it for granted. I know that I am blessed.

I am home and I am so grateful.

 

In the Moment-anthology copyPart of this article is an excerpt from Nina Munteanu’s “Coming Home to Water” first published in “In the Moment” (A Hopeful Sign) edited by Gary Doi, September 2016; reprinted in “The Earth We Love” (Mississauga Writers) edited by Elizabeth Banfalvi, September 2018; and “The Literary Connection IV: Then and Now” (IOWI) edited by Cheryl Antao Xavier, upcoming 2018.

 

nina-munteanuNina Munteanu is an ecologist, limnologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.