Parallel Plotting: Mirror, Mirror on the Wall…

ws_Forest_Dirt_Road-long“The common definition of plot,” says Ansen Dibell, author of Elements of Fiction Writing: Plot, “is that it’s whatever happens in the story.” But, “it doesn’t tell you how to make one,” he adds. “Plot is built of significant events in a given story—significant because they have important consequences.”

Dibell describes plot as a tapestry of pattern, form, shape and color that share recognizable meanings. And subplots are the threads that make up the story’s fabric. Parallel plots, braided plots … even the terms reflect a flowing river. This is an apt metaphor, particularly given that, as Dibell reminds us, “plot is a verb.” It is the engine that moves the story.

Subplots are more common in long fiction, where they are used to deepen a story and add layers that make it more intriguing and tease out more depth to the story. Subplots may provide varying aspects of a theme, from community to individual as played out by different characters. Ultimately, subplots and how they are crafted, provide the writer with the means to transcend plot into what Dibell calls pattern.

Parallel Plotlines & Patterns

Dibell describes “braided” plots, in which two or more subplots are woven together, and parallel plotlines, in which two plots share almost equal footing. This happens when strong protagonists carry each plot. Parallel plotlines often run counterpoint to each other in pace, tone and color. Each plot becomes richer and stronger when contrasted with the other. And they are always connected in some way, in many ways.

In Matrix Reloaded, Neo’s introspective and thoughtful plot with the architect of the matrix runs counterpoint with Trinity’s action plot as she sabotages the matrix and battles an agent. Both demonstrate conflict and tension but the tone and pace are opposite. This contrast only heightens each plot line.

Notice also how the two plot lines are connected and eventually converge in the final scene where Neo saves Trinity’s life by restarting her heart. Earlier on in, while Trinity is totally engrossed in her problems, Neo becomes aware of her struggle through the architect’s artful hint; this prompts Neo to choose his path to join her plot. His awareness is the bridge between the two plotlines. If you look carefully, you will find many other ways the two plotlines are connected, visually, mentally and viscerally and how they inevitably draw together in that riveting last scene; “how thoroughly,” Dibell says, “the story belongs to itself.”

Mirrored Pattern on the Wall…

Scenes, characters, and plots can be mirrored. It starts with identifying two situations that can be tagged for connection and built-in recurrence. Mirrored plots often run as double stories concurrently or through alternating flashback narration. Good examples include The Empire Strikes Back, Wuthering Heights and Lord of the Rings. My short story, The Arc of Time, used a double plot set 40,000 years apart, one played out with real characters and the other in the form of e-letters between two lovers. Both plots converged in the end.

Mirrored plots are achieved by setting up pairs of opposite and/or complimentary scenes that share emotional resonance.

Dibell provides these hints to create effective mirroring scenes:

  • Repeat one or more lines of dialogue (e.g. the “I love you” “I know” between Han and Leia in Star Wars).
  • Repeat a brief description of emotion.
  • Have the two situations go through similar stages.
  • Use similar imagery.
  • Ensure that subject and terms are the same.
  • Keep the polarities and emotional content the same.ws_Forest_Dirt_Road_1280x1024

Ultimately, the pattern that develops forms a moving story that has rhythm and cadence.

In short, nothing should happen at random. Plot should stem from “character under adversity” often with an urgent personal agenda. The plot of a story synthesizes the individual character subplots and subthemes and resonates with the overarching theme.

Nina 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.

The Power of Myth in Storytelling

conifer mirror in mistIf a being from another world were to ask you, ‘How can I learn what it’s like to be human?’ a good answer would be, ‘Study mythology.’ ”—Joseph Campbell

For Joseph Campbell, perhaps our era’s most influential student of mythology, myths express our basic need to explain, celebrate and immortalize the essence of life. Given that life itself has no “meaning”—it simply is—it is our stories (pulled from the ethers of our “muse”) that give meaning to life. We tell stories about how the world began, our struggles to survive, our victories against greed and evil. Each culture clothes its stories according to the place and time and associated issues. And each defines its heroes and villains accordingly. At the root of all these lies a universal and timeless human experience; where metaphor and imagery of myth transcend culture, time and place to encompass all of humanity and our striving journey toward truth, grace and peace. This is why all myth, from Plutarch’s Theseus & the Minotaur to George Lucus’s Star Wars, resonates with us, regardless of whether it was created yesterday or thousands of years ago.

Greek, Roman, Norse, African and Asian myths all address fundamental questions about our humanity: the fall of Icarus, Jason and the Argonauts, Romulus and Remus, Oedipus, Medusa, Perseus, King Arthur, Oedisseus, Vassilisa, Siegfried and the Nibelungenleid, Beowulf and Grendel, Jonah and the whale, Isolde and Tristan, Persephone and the underworld, Orpheus and Eurydice, Hercules, Osiris, Gilgamesh … the list is endless.

Artist as Mythmaker … and Shaman

“There’s an old romantic idea in German, das Volk dichtet, which says that the ideas and poetry of the traditional cultures come out of the folk. They do not,” says Campbell. “They come out of an elite experience, the experience of people particularly gifted, whose ears are open to the song of the universe.” He is referring to the artist, who speaks to “the folk”, who answer and create an interaction. “The first impulse in the shaping of the folk tradition,” says Campbell, “comes from above, not from below.” He is referring to the divine source, the muse, the gift of “seeing” bestowed on those willing to open themselves to it. According to Campbell, “The function of the artist is the mythologization of the environment and the world.” Like the shamans of ancient times, the storyteller— whether painter, writer, actor, singer or filmmaker— interprets the divinity in nature for others. We interpret unseen things for a tangible world.

Artists are the mythmakers — the shamans — of today. The ancient shaman’s authority came from individual psychological experience, not a social ordination (like a priest). A shaman’s powers were symbolized through his own familiars and the deities of his own personal experience. His personal truth. As artists we wholly participate in our “landscape”. Like Dante, we journey to the depths of our world, become its deepest truths to emerge later and share.

The Mythic Hero’s Journey in Story

In my opinion, the best stories follow the mythic hero’s journey plot structure. This is because “hero’s journey” stories are transformative for not only the protagonist (our hero) but for readers following along and identifying with her. Stories that pull a reader through the three steps of a human being’s evolution (separation, transformation, and return) promise great depth and fulfillment. This is what great storytelling does: they take us on a transformative journey of learning, through challenges of change to realize a prevailing victory. Writers are the shamans of today and the heroes we write about are our agents of change. Through our artistic drama of metaphor, we make commentary on the world and what it means to be human.

The hero archetype is particularly interesting, given that he or she is essentially us as we journey to prevail over the obstacles of our fears, weaknesses, and disappointments. Every hero is on a quest or mission (whether she realizes it or not). The true mark of a hero is in her willingness to sacrifice something of value, perhaps even her life, on behalf of an ideal or a group and ultimately for the greater good. A hero is the ultimate altruist. And she is you, the artist.

The Power of Mythologist

I recall a discussion with a young friend some time ago about her knowledge of writers vs. book titles (she knew few names of writers, even those whose works she had enjoyed, but could happily recite book titles). I realized that she chose her books based on their cover and the promised story within—with no attention placed on the author and no intention of following the author’s other works.misty-forest-path

“When you find an author who really grabs you, read everything s/he has done,” says Campbell. “Don’t say, ‘oh, I want to know what so-and-so did’—and don’t read the best-seller list. Just read what this one author has given you … the world opens up in a way that is consistent with a certain point of view … When you go from one author to another, you may be able to tell us the date when each wrote such and such —but he hasn’t said anything to you.”

 

Nina 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.

 

Creating the Right Time and Place to Write

Look and you will find it—what is unsought will go undetected —Sophocles

pitted-rockDuring a time when I had a demanding job as an scientist, wife and mother and community volunteer, I wrote and successfully marketed five books, over a dozen short stories and many articles and reviews. Some people, including my publishers, thought I never slept (true) or cloned myself (possibly). They couldn’t believe my productivity when I was so busy with life.

But I did what I did, because I’d worked out a system. One that I could live by. One that fit my lifestyle. One created out of respect for my art as part of my “busy” life of commitments.

The truth of it is that we all lead busy lives. If you are going to finish that novel you’ve been working on over the years or book of poems sitting in the bottom dresser drawer, you need to make a commitment. Aside from giving your art the respect it deserves, it comes down to creating a time and place to write.

It starts with being realistic about your daily schedules and routines and inclinations and picking a time and place accordingly. Try to be consistent. It’s actually best to create a routine related to both time and place; the key is to be realistic about it. Don’t fight your inclinations or habits; instead, build your writing into your lifestyle. This will ensure success.

Choose a Sacred Time

Finding the time to write is critical to succeeding. If you don’t dedicate time to write you won’t. Believe me, you won’t. Make it sacred.

Writer Louise DeSalvo shared a common story about her experience: “Many people I know who want to write but don’t (my husband, Ernie, for example) or who want to write more than they have but say they can’t find the time (my friend Marla) have told me that taking the time to write seems so, well, self-indulgent, self-involved, frivolous even. And that finding the time to write—even a diary, much less fiction or memoir or poetry—in their busy schedules is impossible. I’ll write when I have the time, they say.”

It doesn’t work that way. You don’t find time; you must create it.

Writing of any kind is a commitment you make to yourself. So, choose a time that’s right for you. If you’re a morning person, don’t pick the end of the day when you don’t function as well. Instead, pick the early morning to write, a time before everyone else gets up and the day’s distractions pile up.

It’s actually best to create a routine related to time of the day (e.g., fixed time such as every morning or right after supper) or based on some other constant in your life, say the school calendar or your daily activities. The key is to be realistic about the time(s) you’ve chosen. In other words, your goals should be realistic and realizable.

The second part of the commitment is sharing it with your family and friends so that they will respect your sacred writing time. By sharing how important it is to you, you also give them the gift of sharing the experience with you and they are more likely to respect your time alone to write. This is also why choosing a routine makes more sense; it is something your family and friends will better remember and abide by. Making it easy for others is part of making it easy for you.

Find Your Own Rhythm

There’s no rule for when and how often you write. Because frequency and schedule of writing depends on the kind of writing you do (e.g., novel, short stories, articles, research) and on your own rhythms, you must decide what works best.

Most writers recommend that you commit to a regular writing schedule that is realistic to your overall routine and biorhythms. Some recommend you write in the morning, after a refreshing sleep; others suggest you write at night, at the end of the day when your memories are more fresh with the day’s activities and stimulations. Yet others suggest you take time out during the day to jot down relevant experiences as close to the time as the muse hits you, then spend some time at the end of the day compiling it into your work.

In the end, it’s up to you to choose what works for you and your own rhythms. When is the best time for you to write? And for how long or how many pages? Once you decide, stick to that schedule.

Choose a Sacred Place

Writing is a reflective activity that requires the right environment. The best environment is a quiet one with no interruptions and where you are alone. A reflective environment will let you find a connection with your muse. You need a place where you can relax and not worry about someone barging in or other things distracting you from your reflections. You should also feel physically comfortable and the place should meet your time requirements.

Because the suitability of a place can change with the time of day, learn the rhythms that affect the place you wish to write in. For example, the kitchen may be the centre of activity during the day but an oasis of quietude during the evening. Similarly, learn what kind of environment stimulates and nurtures your writing. Does music help or do you need complete quiet? Do you respond to nature’s soft breezes and sounds or do you prefer to surround yourself with the anonymous murmur of a crowded café for company?

Places that work for me include the local coffee shop, a park near my house, a library or other quiet place where I can enjoy uninterrupted anonymity. Where you write may reflect what you’re writing and vice versa. To some extent, you are environment and environment is you. You might try a few places first and see what happens to your muse. What you write while sitting under an apple tree in the breeze hearing the birds singing may differ from what you write while sitting in your living room by the crackling fireplace with music playing or sitting at your desk in your bedroom in total silence or in a crowded café surrounded by cheerful bustle.

Again, as with your choice of time, tell your family and friends about your sacred place. Provide rules, if you have to. Let’s say it’s a desk in the study. You may, for instance, let others know that your “mess” is part of a work in progress, perhaps even explain a little about it so they understand the nature of what you’re doing and why it should not be touched or moved or used, even while you are away from it. This will ensure that they respect your things and what you’re doing.misty-forest-path

In the end it comes to finding the right integration and balance of time and place. Letting others know of your choices is equally important; this will ensure that they can help you, not hinder you in your writing. While writing is to a large extent an activity done in solitude, the journey is far from secluded. Ensure that you have a good support network.

This article is an excerpt from my fiction writing guidebook “The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now!” (Starfire, 2009).

 

Nina 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.

 

Make Your Opening Count

moss-closeWhen I began marketing my short stories and novels, I was often puzzled by the request to just see the first page of my work. “I only need to see the first page to know whether your book is good or ready to publish,” they would say. I was aghast. How presumptuous! Surely, that wasn’t enough! Surely they were just putting me off and not really interested in the first place! That couldn’t be enough…

I was wrong. It often is.

Years later—and currently a seasoned writer of over a dozen published books, short stories, and a writing teacher & coach—I can tell you that it is generally true. The opening page is usually enough for me to know whether the author is professional, knows their ending, writes a compelling and directed story, and whether the story is ready to be published. Does that sound pompous of me?

If you think so, then read no further. If you’re not sure, read on and I hope to convince you that your opening is more than likely the most important part of your novel or short story. That doesn’t mean that you should inordinately concentrate on polishing it over and over and over at the expense of the rest of your work. That won’t work either; this is because a good opening relies on a good story. Think of it as the introduction to the core issue of your story. Think of it as a long title. If you don’t know where your story is going or what it is about, then your opening will undeniably reflect this.

A good opening resonates with the theme of your story; a great opening creatively illuminates that theme with intrigue.

My post entitled “How to Hook Your Reader and Deliver” discusses the three-step model of hooking the reader in an opening and how to maintain their interest throughout the length of your story. You can read it there, so I won’t go into it here (e.g., the steps are 1) arouse; 2) delay; and 3) reward). What I wanted to talk about here is more about what goes into a first page of any piece of writing to make it a great opening.

“A novel is like a car,” says Sol Stein (Sol Stein on Writing). “It won’t go anywhere until you start the engine.” Take a look at the opening of your WIP and see if its engine is running.

Openings should:

  • Begin with something happening to a major character
  • Arouse the Reader’s interest (with intrigue)
    • Introduce conflict
    • Threaten a likeable character
    • Reveal an unusual character or situation
  • Begin with a “scene” (action; “showing”) not a “sequel” (reflection; “telling”)

“Start your book with a scene where something is happening, and action takes place; show the drama not the reaction to it,” says Elizabeth Lyon (The Sell Your Novel Toolkit). Start in the middle, not the beginning of your story. Dwight Swain (Techniques of the Selling Writer) tells us that scenes and their corresponding sequels form an integral part of a story’s larger plot movement. And to apply sound story-building, this dynamic relationship must be first understood. You “show” in a scene, which plays out the goal, conflict and inevitable disaster of the protagonist; sequels, in turn, often “tell” of the protagonist’s reaction, dilemma, and decision (which propels the character on to the next scene). Yet, time and again, I read openings that are actually sequels (leading to action; but not action themselves). They may languish and even entertain with clever intellectual description, but they do not scintillate with intrigue or direction. It is a little like reading the review of a movie before watching it for yourself (one of the reasons why I never consult a review before I watch a movie—because I want to live it with the characters first hand, or at least give myself the chance to).

Another way of thinking of the scene / sequel dynamic is to see them as cause and effect or action and reaction. An opening in action is more likely to grip the reader in its visceral intrigue and promise of the story’s direction than an intellectualization of an event that happened off stage.

The table below provides a few suggestions on what to include and what not to in an opening page.

Good Openings Don’t… Instead They…
Contain lots of back story Integrate back story in with scene as needed in the appropriate place
Contain lots of exposition, setting, character description, etc. Reveal place and character detail with action as needed
Start with reflection, explanations – particularly about something “off-stage” in time or space Start with action / conflict / turmoil / discovery – start mid-stride with intrigue, then reveal after…
Start with a dream or waking up or other ordinary / mundane scenario heading towards the action or conflict Start with something HAPPENING … Start with a SCENE in “the NOW” as it is happening
TELL SHOW

 

misty-forest-path-slovakiaThere are many ways to manage the fine balance of exposition, telling and showing and
other challenges in grabbing and keeping the reader’s interest; all very pertinent to your opening page. But that’s another article.

 

Nina 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.

Who’s Your Audience and Why Should You Care?

winter-path-in-sunThe artistic process, whether painting or prose, is admittedly the child of self-expression. The long-standing image of the artist cloistered in her studio—hunched over a writing desk or standing before a canvas to create from the depths of his/her soul—is surely a truism. Artists create from the heart; we dive deep inside our often-tortured souls and closeted past to draw out the universal metaphors that speak to humanity and share—

Ay, there’s the rub. For to share is to have a dialogue and to have a meaningful dialogue is to demonstrate consideration of the other. Somewhere in that journey that began with self, others entered. It is, in fact, something of a paradox and a conundrum for many artists. One that has challenged the artistic community for centuries. It is also why many artists have relied on agents, benefactors, and advocates to effectively communicate, target — and even interpret—their often abstruse “message” to appropriate audiences.

Purists will tell you that a true artist need not consider her audience; because her self-expression naturally finds relevance with the culture and zeitgeist from which she writes through universally understood metaphor: her story is their story.

But is that enough?

I suppose it finally comes down to whether you are interested in sharing. I don’t know any published authors who don’t wish their books to sell. Every storyteller needs an audience to connect with and engage. That is ultimately what good storytelling does: engage, connect, rouse emotions and evoke empathic feelings. Make an impact.

Does identifying and targeting a specific audience result in more satisfied readers and ultimately better sales? Of course it does. The more you—and whoever is helping you market your work—know about your audience, the more likely you are going to attract them to your book, convince them to buy it and ultimately connect with them through story.

That’s the irony of art: it is a treasure that is created out of the depths of solitude but ultimately brought into the light and shared with the world. For your art to have impact, you must know and understand your world.

Knowing your audience will affect every aspect of your book project. It will help determine:

  • What your story is about and how you write it (e.g., language, “voice” or personality, narrative style, tone or mood/attitude, characters, setting and theme, even length)
  • What genre and sub-genre(s) it lies under
  • The look and tone of the cover and blurb (one that matches the story and its audience; I previously wrote about book jacket blurbs and book covers )
  • All aspects of promotion, including the language and images you use, where you direct your marketing and how (e.g., medium, timing, etc.)

For your work to succeed, it’s important to consider the following:

  • collision-with-paradise-smallWrite to the audience’s expectations (given the promise of your work): success of stories with readers will rely on the alignment of expected story structure, tone and endings. My romance SF therefore reads differently from my hard SF in so many ways.
  • darwins-paradoxWrite to the understanding level of your intended audience: how and what I write for my hard science fiction audience (with expectations on accurate and intelligent exploration and extrapolation on science) is different from the style I use for my historical fantasy. This will include “voice”, language and use of specific vocabulary, terms and concepts, sentence structure and pace.
  • Write with the knowledge of your relationship to the reader: how will you gain their empathy and buy-in to your story? This will depend on the genre of your work and expectations of its associated readership.

 

Understand Your Audience

Who is going to read your work? To what age group to they belong? What culture and sub-culture? What gender(s)? What education and intellectual capacity? Economic status? What regions? What political leanings? Prejudices and beliefs? What knowledge-base? For instance, you wouldn’t use a lot of multi-sylabic latinisms in an action thriller; but you might in a literary fiction or even high fantasy. If you research and create a profile of your intended reader, this will help you identify who you are writing to.  “Knowing or anticipating who will be reading what you have written is key to effective writing,” says SkillsYouNeed.com.

It isn’t enough to know who is reading, but why they are reading your writing. Ask yourself these two questions:

  1. Who do I want to read this? Who are you writing for? They are your primary audience; the ones you will truly resonate with your story; they will be your fans: who are they?
  2. Who else is likely to read this? This is your secondary audience, readers who may not necessarily read your genre but are interested in the issues or premise of your story or will appreciate how you’ve handled it in your story: who might they be? 

 

Writers are Solopreneurs

In his 2014 article in Forbes, Jayson DeMers shares that: “Market research was once the purview of only big companies. If you weren’t a Fortune 1000 brand, investing in any form of customer research was outside the scope of what many businesses could afford. Today, advances in market research technology have opened a whole range of services to even the smallest businesses. Small enterprises and solopreneurs routinely test ideas before they take them to market, saving tens of thousands of dollars and years of time developing products and services that fall flat with the market.”

Given the current publishing paradigm—which offers less and less to the author, writers are now more than ever required to understand their audience, given their need to be solopreneurs, succeeding on their own know-how, rather than relying on some marketing department that no longer exists.

To know your audience is to know your story better.

A previous version of this article was published in the Clarion Foundation blog and presented by Lynda Williams.

 

nina-2014aaNina 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.

Crossing into the Ecotone to Write Meaningful Eco-Fiction

If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange apples then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.”—George Bernard Shaw

 

naturalselectionAt Calgary’s When Words Collide this past August, I moderated a panel on Eco-Fiction with publisher/writer Hayden Trenholm, and writers Michael J. Martineck, Sarah Kades, and Susan Forest. The panel was well attended; panelists and audience discussed and argued what eco-fiction was, its role in literature and storytelling generally, and even some of the risks of identifying a work as eco-fiction.

Someone in the audience brought up the notion that “awareness-guided perception” may suggest an increase of ecological awareness in literature when it is more that readers are just noticing what was always there. Authors agreed and pointed out that environmental fiction has been written for years and it is only now—partly with the genesis of the term eco-fiction—that the “character” and significance of environment is being acknowledged beyond its metaphor; for its actual value. It may also be that the metaphoric symbols of environment in certain classics are being “retooled” through our current awareness much in the same way that Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four are being re-interpreted—and newly appreciated— in today’s world of pervasive surveillance and bio-engineering.

darwins-paradoxI submit that if we are noticing it more, we are also writing it more. Artists are cultural leaders and reporters, after all. My own experience in the science fiction classes I teach at UofT and George Brown College, is that I have noted a trend of increasing “eco-fiction” in the works in progress that students are bringing in to workshop in class. Students were not aware that they were writing eco-fiction, but they were indeed writing it.

I started branding my writing as eco-fiction a few years ago. Prior to that—even though my stories were strongly driven by an ecological premise and strong environmental setting—I described them as science fiction and many as technological thrillers. Environment’s role remained subtle and—at times—insidious. Climate change. Water shortage. Environmental disease. A city’s collapse. War. I’ve used these as backdrops to explore relationships, values (such as honour and loyalty), philosophies, moralities, ethics, and agencies of action. The stuff of storytelling.

Environment, and ecological characteristics were less “theme” than “character,” with which the protagonist and major characters related in important ways.

Snowpiercer-frenchJust as Bong Joon-Ho’s 2014 science fiction movie Snowpiercer wasn’t so much about climate change as it was about exploring class struggle, the capitalist decadence of entitlement, disrespect and prejudice through the premise of climate catastrophe. Though, one could argue that these form a closed loop of cause and effect (and responsibility).

snowpiercer-posterThe self-contained closed ecosystem of the Snowpiercer train is maintained by an ordered social system, imposed by a stony militia. Those at the front of the train enjoy privileges and luxurious living conditions, though most drown in a debauched drug stupor; those at the back live on next to nothing and must resort to savage means to survive. Revolution brews from the back, lead by Curtis Everett (Chris Evans), a man whose two intact arms suggest he hasn’t done his part to serve the community yet.

Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton), an imperious yet simpering figure who serves the ruling class without quite being part of it, reminds the lower class that:

We must all of us on this train of life remain in our allotted station. We must each of us occupy our preordained particular position. Would you wear a shoe on your head? Of course you wouldn’t wear a shoe on your head. A shoe doesn’t belong on your head. A shoe belongs on your foot. A hat belongs on your head. I am a hat. You are a shoe. I belong on the head. You belong on the foot. Yes? So it is.  snowpiercer-mason

In the beginning, order was prescribed by your ticket: First Class, Economy, and freeloaders like you…Now, as in the beginning, I belong to the front. You belong to the tail. When the foot seeks the place of the head, the sacred line is crossed. Know your place. Keep your place. Be a shoe.”

Ecotones are places where “lines are crossed,” where barriers are breached, where “words collide” and new opportunities arise. Sometimes from calamity. Sometimes from tragedy. Sometimes from serendipity.

When environment shapes a story as archetype—hero, victim, trickster, shadow or shape shifter—we get strong eco-fiction. Good eco-fiction, like any good story, explores the choices we make and the consequences of those choices. Good eco-fiction ventures into the ecotone of overlap, collision, exchange and ultimate change.

water-is-webIn my latest book Water Is… I define an ecotone as the transition zone between two overlapping systems. It is essentially where two communities exchange information and integrate. Ecotones typically support varied and rich communities, representing a boiling pot of two colliding worlds. An estuary—where fresh water meets salt water. The edge of a forest with a meadow. The shoreline of a lake or pond.

For me, this is a fitting metaphor for life, given that the big choices we must face usually involve a collision of ideas, beliefs, lifestyles or worldviews: these often prove to enrich our lives the most for having gone through them. Evolution (any significant change) doesn’t happen within a stable system; adaptation and growth occur only when stable systems come together, disturb the equilibrium, and create opportunity. Good social examples include a close friendship or a marriage in which the process of “I” and “you” becomes a dynamic “we” (the ecotone) through exchange and reciprocation. Another version of Bernard Shaw’s quote, above, by the Missouri Pacific Agriculture Development Bulletin reads: “You have an idea. I have an idea. We swap. Now, you have two ideas and so do I. Both are richer. What you gave you have. What you got I did not lose. This is cooperation.” This is ecotone.

winter-birch-sunset-snowI think we are seeing more eco-fiction out there because ecosystems, ecology and environment are becoming more integral to story: as characters in their own right. I think we are seeing more eco-fiction out there because we are ready to see it. Just as quantum physics emerged when it did and not sooner, an idea—a thought—crystalizes when we are ready for it.

Don’t stay a shoe … go find an ecotone. Then write about it.

 

 

nina-2014aaNina 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.

Sharing Nature’s Terrible Secrets And When Trees Talk Dirty…

 

nature's canop-2One of the lectures I give to my science fiction writing students is called “Ecology in Storytelling”. It’s usually well attended by writers hoping to gain better insight into world-building and how to master the layering-in of metaphoric connections between setting and character.1

I talk about the adaptations of organisms to their changing environments. I describe the trophic (energy) relationships from producers to consumers and destroyers in a complex cycle of creative destruction. Students perk up when I discuss some of the more strange and interesting adaptations of organisms to their environment: twisted stories of adaptations and strategies that involve feeding, locomotion, reproduction and shelter.

Purposeful Miscommunication & Other Lies

For instance, the Alcon blue butterfly hoodwinks ants into caring alconbluebutterfly-antsfor its larvae. They do this by secreting a chemical that mimics how ants communicate; the ants in turn adopt the newly hatched caterpillars for two years. There’s a terrible side to this story of deception. The Ichneumon wasp, upon finding an Alcon caterpillar inside an ant colony, secretes a pheromone that drives the ants into confused chaos; allowing it to slip through the confusion and lay its eggs inside the poor caterpillar. When the caterpillar turns into a chrysalis, the wasp eggs hatch and consume it from inside.

This reads like something out of a noir thriller. Or better yet, a horror story. Nature is large, profligate, complex and paradoxical. She is by turns gentle and cruel. Creative and destructive. Competitive and cooperative. Idle and nurturing.

When I bring in extremophiles, who thrive in places you and I would cringe to set foot in, students’ imaginations run wild with ideas. I describe a panoply of weird adaptations in Nature—involving poisons, mimicry and deception, phototaxis and something called anhydrobiosis, which permits the tiny tardigrade to shrivel into a tun in the absence of water then revive after a 100 years with just a drop of water.

water-bear03

Tardigrade

All this adaptation hinges on communication. How an organism or population communicates with its environment and among its own. Examples of “strange” communication are the purview of the science fiction writer … and already the nature of our current world—if you only know where to look. The scope of how Nature communicates—her devices and intentions—embraces the strange to the astonishing. From using infrasound to chemical receptors and sensing magnetic fields. To allelopathy. Aggressive symbiosis. And so much more.

When Trees Share the Dirt

“Trees are the foundation of a forest, but a forest is much more than what you see,” says University of British Columbia forest ecologist Suzanne Simard.

suzanne-simard-portrait

Suzanne Simard

Simard, who has published hundreds of papers over 30 years of resealch, suggests a kind of “intelligence” when she describes the underground world “of infinite biological pathways that connect trees and allow them to communicate” In a forest. This communication allows the forest to behave as if it was a single organism, says Simard. Her early in situ experiments showed solid evidence that tree species, such as Paper Birch and Douglas Fir communicated in a cooperative manner underground through an underground mutualistic-symbiosis involving mycorrhizae (e.g., fungus-root). These trees were conversing in the language of carbon and nitrogen, phosphorus, water, defense signals, allelo-chemicals, and hormones via a network of mycelia. Fungal threads form a mycelium that infects and colonizes the roots of all the trees and plants. Simard compares this dense network to the Internet, which also has nodes and links—just as the forest.

forest-conversing

Myccorhyzae and fungal highways

Fungal highways link each tree and plant to its community, with busiest nodes called hub trees or mother trees. Calling them mother trees is appropriate, given that they nurture their young in the understory; sending excess carbon to the understory trees, which receive less light for photosynthesis. “In a single forest,” says Simard, “a mother tree can be connected to hundreds of other trees.” These mature trees act as nodal anchors—like major hub sites on the Internet—for tree groupings; according to Simard, they look after their families, nurture seedlings and even share wisdom—information—when they are injured or dying.

Simard made another incredible discovery: that mother trees “recognize their kin.” In experiments her team ran using related and unrelated seedlings, the mother tree preferentially sent its excess carbon to kin over non-kin seedlings.

These discoveries pose some serious implications in how we do and should manage our forests. “You can take out one or two hub trees, but there’s a tipping point,” says Simard. “You take out one too many and the whole system collapses.”

Simard shared that “in 2014 the World Resources Institute reported that Canada in the past decade has had the highest forest disturbance rate of any country worldwide…In Canada it’s 3.6% per year…about four times the rate that is sustainable.”

“Massive disturbance at this scale is known to affect hydrological cycles, degrade wildlife habitat and emit greenhouse gases back to the atmosphere, which creates more disturbance and more tree die-backs,” says Simard. She adds that the practice of planting commercially valued species at the expense of the indigenous aspens and birches lacks complexity and promotes vulnerability to disease. It’s creating “a perfect storm,” Simard concludes.

Trees & Climate Change

A major international report on climate change shows that wildlife habitats will be dramatically impacted around the world. In Canada, this could fundamentally alter 65 per cent of its existing natural habitat in the boreal and Arctic regions, where warming will be the greatest. The report says that seven Canadian provinces – Ontario, Quebec, Alberta, British Columbia, the Yukon, Newfoundland and Labrador and Manitoba – will have more than half of their natural habitat at risk.

Simard asks: “Instead of weakening our forests, how can we reinforce them and help them deal with climate change?” She suggests four simple solutions:

  1. Get out into the forest and re-establish local involvement in our forests, using management techniques based on local knowledge
  2. Save our old-growth forests, the repositories of genetic material, mother trees and micorhizal networks
  3. Save the mother trees when cutting trees
  4. Regenerate our forests with a diversity of species types and structures

“Forests aren’t just a bunch of trees competing with each other; they are super-cooperators,” Simard points out. “The great thing about forests,” she reminds us, “is that as complex systems, they have an enormous capacity to self-heal.”

How Healing Trees Can Heal Us

Aside from being highly evolved water management specialists, trees are chemical factories that broadcast a host of aerosols into the atmosphere around them. Researchers have found over 120 substances, of which only half could be identified. These aerosols are part of a sophisticated survival strategy, writes botanist and biochemist Diana Beresford-Kroeger. Studies have shown that willows, poplars and maples warn each other about insect attacks; undamaged trees then pump bug-repelling chemicals to ward off the attack. Black walnut trees emit juglone, an aerosol that repels competing nearby plants and some insects. Scientists demonstrated that airborne communication between individual sagebrush plants (called “eavesdropping”) helped neighbouring plants resist attacks. The monoterpenes like pinene and linene can relieve asthma and even fight cancer.

You can read more about this in my book “Water Is… (Pixl Press).

 

1I give several lectures based on this general topic of world building for writers. One I gave recently, at CanCon2016 in Ottawa, focused on aquatic worlds, my scientific area of expertise.

nina-2014aaNina 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. Read Nina’s climate/eco-fiction Darwin’s ParadoxAngel of Chaos and Natural Selection.