The Careful Writer: Common Pitfalls of the Beginning Novelist: Part 2–Language

painted leavesHere are five things that I guarantee will improve your story:

  1. Voice: This is the feel and tone that applies to the overall book (narrative voice) and to each character. The overall voice is dictated by your audience, who you’re writing for: youth, adults, etc. It’s important to give each character a distinctive “voice” (including use of distinct vernacular, use of specific expressions or phrases, etc.). This is one way a reader can identify a character and find them likeable—or not. In a manuscript I recently reviewed, I noticed that the characters spoke in a mixture of formal and casual speech. This confuses the reader and bumps them out of the “fictive dream”. Consistency is very important for readers. They will abandon a story whose writing is not consistent. So, my advice to this writer was to pick one style for each character and stick to it. Voice includes what a character says. It incorporates language (both speech and body movements), philosophy, humor. How a character looks, walks, talks, laughs, is all part of this. Let’s take laughter for instance: does your character tend to giggle, titter, chortle, gafaw, belly-laugh? Do any of your characters have conflicts with one another? Either through differences in opinions, agendas, fears, ambitions… etc. One learns so much from the kind of interaction a character has with his/her surroundings (whether it’s another character or a scene).
  2. Point of View (POV): Many beginner’s novels are often told through no particular POV. Many first manuscripts often start in the omniscient POV (that of the narrator) and ever so often may lapse into one of the character’s POV briefly. This makes for very “telling vs showing” type of writing (not to mention being inconsistent again). 90% of writers do not write this way because it tends to be off-putting, it distances the reader from the characters, and is very difficult to achieve and be consistent with. Most writers prefer to use limited third person POV (told from one or a few key characters; that is, you get into the head and thoughts of only a few people: all the observations are told through their observations, what they see, feel and think). This bonds the reader to your characters and makes for much more compelling reading. I would highly suggest you adopt this style. That’s not to say that you can’t use several POVs… just not at the same time; it is the norm to use chapter or section breaks to change a POV.
  3. Passive vs. Active Verbs: beginners often use a lot of passive verbs (e.g., were, was, being, etc.). Some use too may modifiers. Try to find more active verbs. Many writers fall into the pattern of using verbs that are weak and passive (and then adding a modifier to strengthen it…it doesn’t). Actively look for strong, vivid verbs. This is a key to good writing. I can’t emphasize this enough. For instance, which version is more compelling: ‘she walked quickly into the room’ or ‘she stormed into the room’?
  4. Show, don’t tell: this is partly a function of POV and use of active verbs. Once you change to 3rd person, much of this will naturally resolve itself. An example of telling vs. showing is this: [He was in a rage and felt betrayed. “You lied, Clara,” he said angrily, grabbing her hand.] instead, you could show it: [His face smoldered. “You lied, Clara,” he roared, lunging for her.] Telling also includes large sections of exposition, either in dialogue or in narrative. This happens a lot in beginning writer’s stories. It takes courage and confidence to say less and let the reader figure it out. Exposition needs to be broken up and appear in the right place as part of the story. Story is paramount. “Telling” is one of the things beginning writers do most and editors will know you for one right away. Think of the story as a journey for both writer and reader. The writer makes a promise to the reader that s/he will provide a rip-roaring story and the reader comes on side, all excited. This is done through a confident tease in the beginning and slow revelation throughout the story to keep it compelling. Exposition needs to be very sparingly used, dealt out in small portions.
  5. Unclutter your writing: There is a Mennonite adage that applies to writing: “less is more”. Sentences in early works tend to be full of extra words (e.g., using “ing” verbs, add-ons like “he started to think” instead of simply “he thought”). Cut down the words in your paragraphs (often in the intro chapters) by at least 20%. Be merciless; you won’t miss them, believe me, and you will add others later in your second round of edits.

 

This is an excerpt from The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! (Starfire)

 

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.

The Careful Writer: Common Pitfalls of the Beginning Novelist: Part 1–Characters

painted leavesHave you ever wondered how an editor decides not to read your cherished tome past the second paragraph of the first page and has pegged you as a beginning writer? This used to really bug me… Now, as a published author, mentor, and writing coach I read a lot of unpublished manuscripts. I now recognize what these editors do.

So, I’d like to share what I’ve learned over the years (some of the very same comments that have been made of my work, I am now sharing with you). I’ll be providing you my advice in three parts: 1) characters; 2) language; and 3) structure.

Let’s start with characters, since they are in my opinion, the most important part of a novel:

Characters carry the theme of the book. Each character needs to have a role in advancing the plot and/or theme; each character needs a reason to be there. A character therefore needs to be distinctive and usually shows some character development (as story arc) from beginning to end of story. Your characters are the most important part of your book (more so than the plot or premise). Through them your book lives and breathes. Through them your premise, your plot (which is essentially just a way to create problems for your characters to live out their development) and story come alive. Through them you achieve empathy and commitment from the reader and his/her willingness to keep reading to find out what’s going to happen next: if the reader doesn’t invest in the characters, they won’t really care what happens next.

Characters need to be real. They come to life by giving them individual traits and real weaknesses and heroic qualities that are consistent and have qualities readers can recognize and empathize with. You play these against each other to achieve drama. For instance, a man who is afraid of heights but who must climb a mountain to save his love is far more compelling than one who is not; a military man who fears responsibility but must lead his team into battle; a scientist who is afraid of failure; etc.

Characters of beginning writers often suffer from lack of distinction, or purpose, and often simply clutter up a story. For a character to “come alive” their “voice” must be distinct. Give them distinctive body movements, dress, facial features and expressions that reveal character, inner feelings, emotions, fears, motivations, etc. Then keep them consistent. There are several techniques writers use to increase empathy for a character. This includes use of third person POV, keeping the story with focus on fewer rather than many characters, creating character dossiers and keeping them consistent, providing each character a distinctive “voice” (figuratively), as in how they behave, say, react, etc. Another way to make your characters distinct (and works to also tie into plot and theme) is to make your characters not get along. Make them argue, disagree (at least!), have suspicions, betray one another, laugh and ridicule, etc. By doing this you increase tension, conflict (two things every book requires) and you enlighten the reader into each of the characters involved. Make them fight or argue over what they believe in – or not. You need to describe your characters in effective brief but vivid language as the reader encounters them.

Here are some questions you need to ask about your characters:

  1. if I can remove the character, will the book fall apart? (if not, you don’t need that character; they aren’t fulfilling a role in the book);
  2. how does the character portray the major or minor theme of the book? (that’s what characters are there for)
  3. what is the role of the character? (e.g., protagonist, antagonist, mentor, catalyst, etc.)
  4. what is the story arc of the character? Does he or she develop, change, do they learn something by the end? If not, they will be two-dimensional and less interesting
  5. what major obstacle(s) must the character overcome?
  6. who are your major protagonist(s) (the main character who changes the most)?
  7. who are your major antagonist(s) (those who provide trouble for your protagonists, the source of conflict, tension, the obstacle: one of their own?
  8. what’s at stake: for the world (plot); for each individual (Theme) and how do these tie together? Every character has a role to fulfill in the plot and to other characters. Don’t be afraid to totally remove characters if they do not fulfill a role.

To summarize, each character is there for a purpose and this needs to be made apparent to the reader (intuitively through characterization, their failings, weaknesses, etc.). Make them bleed, hurt, cry, feel. This needs to be clear to the reader, who wants to empathize with some of them and hate others. How characters interact with their surroundings and each other creates tension, a key element to good storytelling. Tension, of course builds further with the additional conflict of protagonist with antagonists. But, in truth, it’s more fun to read about the tension from WITHIN a group that’s supposed to be together. Think of Harry Potter and what was juicy there… It wasn’t really Voldemort … it was what went on at Hogwarts between Harry and his friends and not-so-friends. That is what makes a story memorable; that is what makes a story something you can’t put down until you’ve finished it.

Part 2 of the Beginning Novelist will focus on language.

This is an excerpt from The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! (Starfire)

 

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.

 

 

He said, She said: Using Dialogue

fall trees pathOne of the most important devices to spice up narrative and increase pace is the use of dialogue. There’s a reason for this: we read dialogue more quickly; it’s written in more fluid, conversational English; it tends to create more white space on a page with less dense text, more pleasing to the reader’s eye.  Dialogue is action. It gets readers involved.

Good dialogue neither exactly mimics actual speech (e.g., it’s not usually mundane, repetitive or broken with words like “uh”) nor on the other extreme does it proselytize or educate the reader through long discourse (unless the character is that kind of person). Good dialogue in a story should be somewhere in the middle. While it should read as fluid conversation, dialogue remains a device to propel the plot or enlighten us to the character of the speaker). No conversation follows a perfect linear progression. People interrupt one another, talk over one another, often don’t answer questions posed to them or avoid them by not answering them directly. These can all be used by the writer to establish character, tension, and relationship.

Below, I provide a few tips when using dialogue in your story.

  • Show, don’t tell: a common error of beginning writers is to use dialogue to explain something that both participants should already know but the reader doesn’t. It is both awkward and unrealistic and immediately exposes you as a novice. For instance, avoid the use of “As you know…” It’s better to keep the reader in the dark for a while than to use dialogue to explain something. Which brings us to the next point.
  • Have your characters talk to each other, not to the reader: for instance, “Hello, John, you loser drunk and wayward son of the most feared gangster in town!” could be improved to, “You stink like a distillery, John! Wait ‘til papa’s thugs find you!”
  • Avoid adverbs: e.g., he said dramatically, she said pleadingly; instead look for better ways to express the way they said it with actual dialogue. That’s not to say you can’t use adverbs (I believe J.K. Rowling is notorious for this), just use them sparingly and judiciously.
  • Avoid tag lines that repeat what the dialogue already tells the reader: e.g., “I’m sorry,” he apologized. “Do you have a dog?” she asked.
  • He said, she said: reduce tag lines where possible and keep them simple by using “said”; another sign of a novice is the overuse of words other than said (e.g., snarled, hissed, purred, etc.). While these can add spice, keep them for special places as they are noticed by the reader and will distract otherwise.
  • Pay consistent attention to a character’s “voice”: each character has a way of speaking that identifies them as a certain type of person. This can be used to identify class, education, culture, ethnicity, proclivities, etc. For instance one character might use Oxford English and another might swear every third word.
  • Use speech signatures: pick out particular word phrases for characters that can be their own and can be identified with them. If they have additional metaphoric meaning to the story, even better. For instance, I know a person who always adds “Don’t you think?” to almost everything they say. This says something about how that person… well, thinks… I knew another person who always added “Do you see?” at the end of their phrase. Again rather revealing.
  • Intersperse dialogue with good descriptive narrative: don’t forget to keep the reader plugged into the setting. Many beginning writers forget to “ground” the reader with sufficient cues as to where the characters are and what they’re doing while they are having this great conversation. This phenomenon is so common, it even has a name. It’s called “talking heads.”
  • Contradict dialogue with narrative: when dialogue contradicts body language or other narrative cues about the speaker, this adds an element of compelling tension and heightens reader excitement while telling them something important. Here are a few examples:

“How’d it go?”

“Great,” he lied.

“I feel so much better now,” she said, eyes darting away from him.painted leaves

Well, you get the picture, anyway.

This is an excerpt from The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! (Starfire)

 

 

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.

Resonating with the Universe

bare trees in misty waterDoes art imitate life or does life imitate art? Which came first? Story or reality? Do we dream about our past or of another reality? What is déjà vu…really?  What came BEFORE the Big Bang? Did time even exist before we defined it?

The most frequent question asked of writers is “where do you get your ideas?” to which we often bumble some inadequate reply and evoke that indefinable abstruse term MUSE. But what is muse…really? Intuition? Divine inspiration?

In a quote from his autobiographical essay, Philip Pullman says, “It’s important to put it like that: not ‘I am a writer’ but rather ‘I write stories’. If you put the emphasis on yourself rather than your work, you’re in danger of thinking that you’re the most important thing. But you’re not. The story is what matters and you’re only the servant, and your job is to get it out on time and in good order.” But where do they come from, Philip?

In my 2012 historical fantasy “The Last Summoner” (Starfire), the young Baroness Vivianne discovered that she could alter History. Having travelled into the future (e.g., 2010 from 1410 Poland), she used hindsight to recreate a new path for humanity, one devoid of two world wars and the evils consequently unleashed. Vivianne traveled back in time and tried to subvert critical events (time/space nodes) involving Emperor Wilhelm II, Annie Oakley, Nikola Tesla and others. In each case, her interference failed to alter the event in the way she had hoped. In fact, while the details of History differed, the end result remained pretty much the same. For instance, it seemed that no matter what she did to prevent World War I, it happened anyway.

Vivianne discovered that she was unable to alter History the way she’d intended. She found to her dismay that every time she set out to alter a crucial event, quirky consequences ensued and events did not yield to her clever manipulations—as though History had an uncooperative conscience and a predetermined destiny to fulfill.

OK… That’s just me being the writer, subverting the protagonist with obstacles played out in ever-twisting plots and subplots. But, what if…

What if… History (as in any realized reality) is predetermined through its harmonic relationship with other realizable realities? Given that all mass and energy is governed and expressed through frequency, and given that in physics (and music) frequencies exist as multiples of some fundamental frequency; then does it not follow that threads of realizable realities, intertwined around a fundamental path (of history), would move inexorably toward a common destiny?

A recent article I ran across on a writer’s forum discussed how artists tend to mimic each other’s ideas, or come up with the same ideas at the same time. Aside from outright stealing (which happens a lot less than people think), multiple and independent formulation of same ideas is also more common than people think. And it’s increasing. Multiple-independent discoveries (and inventions) have increased in society a thousand-fold since the nineteenth century. Some followers of Jungian thought suggest that this is because the fabric of our society is acting more and more like a neural network, learning, interacting and sharing toward the achievement of a common zeitgeist.

What if… the whole of our society behaves like an autopoietic system, self-organized, adaptive, evolving and tapping into—and possibly influencing—a common super consciousness? One related to a fundamental frequency?

Ray Tomes of the Alexandria City Meeting in 1996 suggested that “the pattern of cycles found in every field of study on earth, in astronomy and also in music are all explained by a simple rule that says that a single initial frequency will generate harmonics and each of these will do the same.”

Why do galaxies and stars form where they do? Toss a handful of sand on a drum and then beat it (not at the centre); you will find that the sand moves to certain places and congregates into predetermined patterns. These are the nodes of the standing waves in the drum. The standing waves are electromagnetic waves (e.g., radio waves, light and x-rays etc). Consider the “predetermined” beauty of natural phenomena. Consider the Fibonacci numbers and the golden mean in nature. Consider fractals and the Mandelbrot Set, quantum entanglement, and Schumann Resonance. Consider synchronicity, autopoiesis and self-organization…

Einstein tells us that, “everything in life is vibration.” Schroedinger’s wave function describes us as vibrating waves.

The normal standing wave created in the Schumann Cavity (the cavity formed by the Earth’s conducting surface and the ionosphere) occurs at a wavelength equal to the circumference of the Earth, and at a base frequency (and highest intensity) of between 6-8 Hz (7.83 Hz). This is called Schumann Resonance Frequency, after the man who formulated it mathematically in 1954 (after Nikola Tesla described it in the late 1800s). Some call this basic frequency the Earth’s “heartbeat” or the “tuning fork” of the planet, suggesting that it generates natural healing properties when living things are entrained to its rhythm. It turns out that all biological systems resonate at this same frequency range. The electrical resonance of the Earth lies between 6-8 Hz. This coincides with alpha rhythms produced by the human brain during meditation, relaxation and creativity.

“Vibrations are dynamic things not unlike living things,” John Keely, researcher in harmonics, adds. “They are active and prolific in their dynamics as are their harmonic offspring. These discrete tones of the harmonics interact with each other… They will in a very natural way mix, merge and divide among themselves just like living cells.”

In “Outer Diverse”, the first book of “The Splintered Universe Trilogy” (Starfire), Galactic Guardian Rhea Hawke speaks with Ka, an alien mystic, about music, frequency and harmony. And something called “the music of the spheres”. Says Ka:

“…The particular tone of the planet’s song is dependent upon the ratio of its orbit, just like the relationship of a keynote to its octave. The cosmic beauty of the octave is that it divides wholeness into two audibly distinguishable parts, yet remains recognizable as the same musical note…We, of course, now know that ratios in frequencies of spectra of elements compare to intervals in a musical chord,” Ka went on, leaning forward on his massive feathered arms. “Given that a pitch of sound is analogous to the color of light, both being caused by the frequencies of their waves, we can characterize entire worlds based on these properties,” he ended, beak-mouth breaking into a beaming grin that showed his round little teeth.  “It was your Kepler—a scientist I believe—who suggested that when planets formed angles equivalent to particular harmonic ratios, a resonance was created both in the archetypal ‘Earth soul’ and in the souls of individuals born under those configurations…He called it a celestial Front Cover ONLY-webimprint,” Ka continued, now leaning forward with his cup in both hands, “and said that in the vital power of the human being, ignited at birth, that remembered image glows. That geometric-harmonic imprint is the music that impels each listener to dance … from the particle to the cosmic. Your own heart finds its shifting harmony between excessive order and complete randomness, encompassing complex variability—a symphony—in its beating pattern. Sound—vibration—is the language of the mind and the secret to creation.”

We are creatures of this planet, co-evolved with Earth’s environment through the helix structure of our DNA and the water coursing through us; this is reflected in our behavior, culture, intelligence and beliefs. Our entire bodies resonate with all other life at a similar frequency as the planet Earth. Our brains in their most “divine” state of creativity, prayer or meditation reflect the same frequency. We are a gestalt culmination of light, wave-pulse, matter and motion resonating with this beloved planet Earth. Our minds, bodies and souls “sing” its choral aria. What is muse if not this wonderful “intent”?

So, which came first? Story or reality?

 

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.

 

Write What You Know–Write “From the Inside Out”

Canadian ForestWhen I first heard the writer’s edict “write what you know” I rejoined: but I write science fiction—I write about the unknown. What I still had to learn was that by describing “the other” SF really describes “us”. We explore ourselves through our relationship with the unknown. We do this by ensuring that all our plotlines reflect theme.

Write About What You Know

How many times have you been told to write about what you know? And how many times have you trusted that advice? Well, how interesting is that?!? We think our lives are dull, boring, and mundane. We write – and read – to get away from it, don’t we?

nina-LL-interviewe-closer

Nina Munteanu

Well, yes…and no…

In the final analysis, even good “escapist” writing, like some science fiction, despite its alien settings and creatures of imagination, is grounded in the realities of our every-day lives, which form the basis of human nature. Love, ambition, trust, hate, envy, honor, courage. All these are universal human traits which the writer taps into and ultimately writes about.

“In the 19th century, John Keats wrote to a nightingale, an urn, a season. Simple, everyday things that he knew,” say Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux in The Writer’s Guide to Creativity. “Walt Whitman described the stars, a live oak, a field. They began with what they knew, what was at hand, what shimmered around them in the ordinary world.”

Writing about what you know isn’t about literal truths; it’s about what you know inside your heart. Write from the inside out. Write about what excites you; what frightens you; what angers you, makes you sad, happy. As SF author Marg Gilks says, “You know more than you think.”

Twisted Truths & Inner Knowledge

Writers can use our own knowledge and experiences in everyday life and translate them into something far from ordinary. You start with universal experiences.

Get Emotional

What excites you; what frightens you; what angers you, makes you sad, happy. These are emotions we all feel. When we give our characters experiences similar to our own, we breathe life into both character and experience and provide the reader an anchor for her heart.

Get Sensational

You know how it feels to have your knees shake with fatigue after a long climb or the hair-raising trepidation of walking into a dark place. Use these sensations to make your writing more sensual with added dimensions of reality.

Get People Around You

My neighbor has a funny way of focusing his gaze slightly off me when he talks, like he can’t look me directly in the eyes. When he approaches my house to deliver the paper, Dennis strides with a lilting gait as he listens to hip-hop on his ipod.

Drawing from what you observe and know of the people around you is one of a writer’s most treasured resources for character description. I always carry a notebook with me no matter where I go, even if it’s only to the grocery store.

The Magic of Storytelling

A writer is like a magician. You play upon what readers all “know” then surprise them with the unexpected.

Unleashing your imagination and letting it soar while grounding yourself in the realities of universal truths is the stuff of which stories are made. This is what most of us mean when we say “write what you know.”

“Unless you are writing about a personal tragedy,” says Tina Morgan of Fiction Factor, “you will have to use your imagination. Use the creativity that drives you to write in the first place. Take those feelings you have every day and amplify them. Make them more intense, more vivid. Before you know it, you will be ‘writing what you know’.”

“Next time you hear ‘write what you know,’ ” says Gilks, “you’ll realize that you know an awful lot about what matters most in a story’s success. It’s waiting only to be shaped by your imagination.”

Write Real

Literary Agent, Rachelle Gardner, provided a great definition of “write what you know” on her blog. Here’s an excerpt:

Most people think “write what you know” means you have to put characters in situations you’re personally familiar with. If you’re a mom with five kids, you should write a mom story. If you’ve fought cancer and won, you should write about that. But in my opinion, that’s not what it means.

Write what you know means write with authenticity about thoughts, feelings, experiences of life. Be honest. Write from a deep place. Don’t write from the surface. Whether you’re writing about parenthood or cancer or anything else… be real.
Rachell Gardner

Don’t reflect what you know from other people or the media… write what you know from your own inner life.

An excerpt of this article appeared in CBC’s Canada Writes.

Nina-CanadaWrites2012

Nina Talks Writing on Dragon Page

michael-stackpoleSome years ago, I was interviewed by Michael Stackpole (New York Times bestselling author of over 40 novels, including “I, Jedi” and “Rogue Squadron”) and Michael Mennenga (CEO of “Slice of Sci-Fi”) on Dragon Page Cover to Cover.

michael mennengaWe talked about my book “The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now!” and what new writers fret over. A lot of the discussion focused on how to handle rejection and I shared my “bus terminal” model (also in my book), which worked very well. For details on our discussion about the industry and craft of writing, listen below:

 

 

DragonPage-FictionWriter

The Bus Terminal Model:

FictionWriter-front cover-2nd ed-webHere is an excerpt from The Fiction Writer, Chapter R:

One way to see your way through rejection is to find ways to distance yourself from your story once you’ve sent it off and to see the whole process of submission-rejection-acceptance as a business. The very best way to do this is to submit lots of stories and to keep submitting them. With novels, this is a little harder to do but you can certainly be working on the next one once you’ve submitted the first.

When I was writing short stories, I kept a list of what and where I submitted, along with the most important item: where to submit NEXT. At any given time, I made sure that I had at least x-number of submissions out there and each story had a designated place to go if it returned. As soon as a story came back from magazine A, I simply re-packaged it and sent it to magazine B. The critical part of the list was to have a contingency for each story: the next place where I would send the story once it returned. I was planning on the story being rejected with the hope that it would be accepted; that way, a rejection became part of a story’s journey rather than a final comment.

I ran my submissions like a bus terminal. A story was in and out so fast it never had a chance to cool off. And, since I had five other pieces out there, I could do this with little emotion. I was running a fast-paced “story depot”, after all. All my stories had to be out there as soon as possible; if they were sitting in the terminal, they were doing nothing for me.

 

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.

Story and Metaphor in Art Form: How Writing and Painting Whisper or Shout Their Truths

God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains; it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world—C.S. Lewis

conifers in the mistA short while ago I painted on a canvas for the first time in over twenty years…okay, thirty years. It was a thrilling experience but also refreshing and freeing to use a different medium to express myself and tap into that place—that force—that resides inside us and speaks to us.

Part of the thrill was that I was being coached by a good friend of mine who is a master painter and teacher. What’s interesting is that while she instructed me on some of the painting methods, it struck us both how many similarities existed in composition, technique and structure between visual art and storytelling.

Take direction, for instance. A writer uses plot and subplots to move a story and its characters through a textured and colored tapestry of theme. According to my friend, every painting flows, often directionally (like many photographs) from the lower left to upper right, leading the eye from one place to another, exploring a theme, idea or emotion. Plot is motion. So is the paint brush.

You think only writers tell stories. Well, look again at visual art. Every work of art expresses an artist’s feelings, thoughts and emotions; an artist’s story. We are all stories, after all, and we all have many stories inside us. The writer’s medium is the word; the painter’s is the visual image. Isn’t it a truism that a picture is worth a thousand words? The range and type of story varies equally in both media. For instance, writing ranges from poetry or poetic prose (e.g., Ulysses by James Joyce) that requires substantial interpretation to allegory (obvious symbols) or creative non-fiction (like this blog post) whose artistry lies mostly in its composition and reporting style. Paintings also display a range from the poetry of abstract or surrealistic art (e.g., the surrealism of Salvadore Dali), which requires more interpretation, to realistic “photographic” art whose interpretation lies more in its composition (e.g., the detailed realism of Tomislav Tikulin).

The “language” that writers and painters use finds its parallels in form, structure and intent.

For example, let’s take metaphor. The writer uses one concept or image to evoke the feeling of another; “raining cats and dogs” for instance. The painter can evoke the feeling of one medium with another, achieving the same effect through metaphor—producing a stronger more compelling image through oblique metaphor and another perspective. For instance, a painter using acrylics may evoke the tone and emotion of a watercolor by using soft brushstrokes or another medium (e.g., using a sponge or cloth to apply the paint) and lighter softer colors to achieve that signature wash.

A story’s depth is achieved through animating three-dimensional characters that reflect a multi-layered theme. A painting’s depth works through the dance of light, shadows and textures and the use of techniques like fading and detail. Chiaroscuro in story and in painting play on contrast, perspective and the interplay of light and color to pull the viewer and reader deep into the artwork.

Painters echo elements from one part of a painting to another to make it cohesive and provide a “complete” piece that is ultimately satisfying to the viewer. Painters do this by using repeated elements like shapes, curves, and color schemes to get the same flow, or using a faded version of a similar image elsewhere. Techniques that writers use to achieve the same echoing effects for a satisfying story include parallel plotting, mirrored plots, framing (particularly of story promise with climax and dénouement), and themed beginnings and endings.

You’ve heard of writer’s block? There’s also painter’s block; the painter staring at the white canvas, paint brush poised to make that first stroke. Luckily, there’s something called painting-over the dry; not unlike editing a paragraph using the control-shift “x” and “v” key on the computer. Writers continually revise their first drafts, cutting out extraneous exposition and adding thematic details. The writer’s revision process is all about fine-tuning, simplifying and polishing. Painters also “edit” their art through similar means. We even use similar language for both media: “polishing”, “adding color”, “making it flow”, “adding texture”, etc.

conifers in the mistEvery artist is a reporter of life and truth; every artist chooses the medium that best expresses his or her art. I started out in the visual arts. I was all ready to pursue a fine arts degree in university to become a commercial artist. Then, right on registration day, I opted out of art altogether and went into the science program. Heck, I went all the way to getting a Masters of Science degree, taught university science courses and consulted in the environment. Now, here I am writing science fiction and eco-fiction and teaching writing to engineers and scientists and science fiction writers. Cool, how we choose our path…

 

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.