How Walking in Nature Helps Me Write

wooden bridge westcoast forestI don’t often get writer’s block. I just walk out of it into Nature.

My favourite place to walk is the forest, along a river.

Walking in a forest unclutters my mind and soul. The forest is simple in its natural complexity. Its beauty combs out the tangles of human complexity like a dam dissolving and grounds me back to the simplicity of natural life.

The river trickles in the background as I step through dappled light and inhale the organic scents of the forest. The forest and the river help me re-align and focus—without trying. That’s the magic of it. It’s in the not trying.

I carry a notebook with me to jot down ideas that come to me. They always do. I find writing by hand additionally helps in the creative process.

My favourite park is the little woodland of the Little Rouge River, located off a small road hidden from the sprawling desert of suburbia.

LittleRougeRiver-Maple-spring

my old maple leaning over the Little Rouge River

It was spring when I first entered this forest. I inhaled its complex smell, awakening with spring flowers. At my entrance, chipmunks scattered and scolded me for interrupting their calm. I chuckled and thought that I’d seen more within the space of one minute here than I had in a year in the suburb I currently live in. A duff-strewn path led me beneath the pungent smell of pine and cedar. I made my way toward the riverbank where beech and maple leaned over the water. I found a place to write.

When I returned in the fall, the forest was a mix of colour.  Most of the deciduous trees had dropped their leaves in a revealing show of textured grays, gray-browns and blacks. The bare trunks and fractal branches contrasted with the deep greens of the conifers. Rogue trees—like the oak and beech—still claimed their leaves, adding deep russet tones to the varied grays and deep greens of the canopy. The forest was now more open, emerging with ancient magnificence from a soft brown carpet on the ground. The air was fresh with the scent of loam, decaying leaves and saprophyte activity.

LittleRouge-icing shallows

A shallow part of the Little Rouge ices over with the first snowfall in late autumn

I strayed off the path toward the riverbank again. I was looking for the old sugar maple I’d spent time with the previous spring. After several bends in the river, I saw it, leaning precipitously over the river like an old man sharing an intimate story. It had already lost its leaves; they covered the ground in a soft carpet. The old tree literally hugged the bank in a braided network of snaking roots; like a carved figurehead hugs the prow of a great tall ship.

My OldMaple-burl copy

Burl on my maple

Eager to see my old friend up close, I scrambled down the overhanging bank using the old maple’s root “stairway,” then ungracefully dropped onto the cobbles below. Every part of my gnarly old maple tree was splendid. Its shaggy trunk stretched up with typical silhouette of branching-out arms that every Canadian kid drew when they were six. The horizontal roots stretched out in a tangle and stitched the bank together, keeping it intact.

The Little Rouge River calls me to sit and listen to its flowing song—a joyful playful symphony of breaths, chortles and open-throated froth. I sit. And still my breath. I find my whole body relax from the tension of the suburban drive. I am home, sighing with a rhythm I’d forgotten. Re-aligning. Bones with rock. Rock with twig. Twig with root. The animals no longer scold me. They have resumed their natural rhythm, as I merge into scenery. And write…

****

gnarly cedar

gnarly cedar roots

What I do is not new to creative thinkers all over the world and throughout time. I share great company with people who used walking (usually in Nature) as a venue toward creative thinking (and writing). All great walkers.

Aristotle conducted his lectures while walking the grounds of his school in Athens. His followers, who chased him as he walked, were known as the peripatelics (e.g., Greek for meandering). Darwin refined his ideas on natural selection and other topics during his frequent walks along his “thinking path”, a gravel road called Sandwalk Wood near his home in southeast England. Dickens walked for miles each day: “If I could not walk far and fast, I think I should just explode and perish.” Beethoven often took solitary walks. He strolled the Viennese woods for hours, finding inspiration for his works and jotting them down on a notepad that he carried with him. Nietzsche loved his walks in the mountains: “it is only ideas gained from walking that have any worth.” For Wordsworth, the act of walking was one in the same with the act of writing poetry. Both involved rhythm and meter. Henry David Thoreau was known for his great walkabouts. Walking through nature for Thoreau was a pilgrimage without a destination—more discovery and rapture.

YellowBirch-winter

Yellow birch trunk

Stanford researchers demonstrated that walking boosts creative inspiration. They showed that the act of walking significantly increased creativity for 81% of the participants and that the creative ideas generated while walking were not irrelevant or far-fetched, but innovative and practical.

“The answer begins with changes to our chemistry,” writes journalist Ferris Jabr in The New Yorker (2014). “When we go for a walk, the heart pumps faster, circulating more blood and oxgen not just to the muscles but to all the organs—including the brain. Many experiments have shown that after or during exercise, even very mild exertion, people perform better on tests of memory and attention. Walking on a regular basis also promotes new connections between brain cells, staves off the usual withering of brain tissue that comes with age, increases the volume of the hippocampus (a brain region crucial to memory) and elevates levels of molecules that both stimulate the growth of new neurons and transmit messages between them.”

SONY DSC

Nina Munteanu walks the forest

While walking is good for our creativity and general well-being, walking in a park or wilderness is so much better. Researchers in Europe and Japan found that anxiety and depression was significantly reduced in the presence of green space and that it boosted attentiveness, focus and academic performance. Vegetation creates “a halo of improved health.” Dr. Frances Kuo at the University of Illinois demonstrated that just seeing a tree helps cognition and promotes a sense of well-being. While a human-made environment of objects—cars and buildings—requires high-frequency processing in the brain; a landscaped environment allows the observer to relax his or her attention, resulting in reduced muscle tension, lower heart rate, and a generally less stressful physiology.

Finding a favourite tree might be the best thing you do to boost your creativity.

 

References:

Nina-willowtree

Nina Munteanu by a large willow tree

Cameron, Julia. 1992. “The Artist’s Way”. Penguin Putnam Inc., New York, NY. 222pp.

Deasey, Louise. 2015. “Negative Ions Are Great for Your Health”. 
Body and Soul.

Munteanu, Nina. 2013. The Journal Writer: Finding Your Voice. Pixl Press, Vancouver, BC. 170pp.

Oppezzo, Marily and Daniel L. Schwartz. 2014. “Give Your Ideas Some Legs: The Positive Effect of Walking on Creative Thinking”, Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, Vol. 40, No. 4: 1142-1152.

Wells, Nancy M. 2000. “At Home with Nature: Effects of ‘Greenness’ on Children’s Cognitive Functioning”. Environment and Behavior 32 (6): 775–795.

 

 

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.

Surfing Schumann’s Wave and Catching the Ion Spray: Everything in Life is Vibration

water in motionSometime ago, on another writing site that I used to post for, a reader/writer made an interesting comment to my article ” Stoking the Scintillation of Inspiration.” She said, “I feel energized and challenged to see where my mind takes me in the midst of my mommy days.  Often it’s when my four young children are home the ideas long to push through the clutter of multiple voices and feverish activity.

It made me think about what it is in those “repetitive tasks” that stoke our muse and how we as writers can benefit from them. Is it simply God’s ironic sense of humor (e.g., “You’re too busy to do anything about it now, so I will give you a genius moment to ponder….Good luck remembering it!”). Or have we inadvertently caught the universal wave? Einstein once said, “everything in life is vibration.”

We are creatures of rhythm: circadian, diurnal, and seasonal. Let’s face it; our environment—light especially—affects our behavior, psychologically, physiologically and even socially. For instance, mood-altering chemicals generated in the pineal gland in our brain, are partially affected by the light received from our retina. Our world is composed of energy, light, sound and matter, all expressed at different frequencies. Music—which is all frequency—can heal the body, strengthen the mind and unlock the creative spirit. For instance, music with a pulse of about sixty beats per minute can shift consciousness from the beta wave (ordinary consciousness at 14-20 Hz) toward enhanced alertness and general well-being at the alpha range (heightened awareness at 8-13 Hz, and essentially the standing wave in Schumann’s Cavity).

water surgingThe study of cymatics, coined in 1967 by Swiss doctor Hans Jenny from the Greek word kyma (wave), explores how sound affects gases, liquids, plasmas and solids and how vibrations, in the broad sense, generate and influence patterns, shapes and moving processes. When sound travels through non-solids it moves in longitudinal waves called compression waves. In matter, the medium is displaced by sound waves, causing it to oscillate at a frequency relative to the sound, and visible patterns emerge.

Using crystal oscillators and a “tonoscope” to set plates and membranes vibrating, Jenny controlled frequency and amplitude/volume to demonstrate that simple frequencies and songs could rearrange the essential molecular structure of water and other materials.

Jenny was convinced that biological evolution resulted from vibrations in a kind of fractal progression, and that their nature determined the ultimate outcome. He speculated that every cell has its own frequency and that a number of cells with the same frequency create a new frequency, which is harmonious with the original, which in its turn possibly forms an organ that also creates a new frequency in harmony with the two preceding ones. Jenny was saying that the key to understanding how we can heal the body with the help of tones lies in our understanding of how different frequencies influence genes, cells and various structures in the body (think of how you feel when you listen to Mozart’s Divertimento No. 15 vs. when you’re listening to Mick Jagger belt out Ruby Tuesday).

crashing wavesBoldly extending his tonoscope research into voice and language, Jenny discovered that when the vowels of ancient Hebrew and Sanskrit were pronounced, the sand took the shape of the written symbols for these vowels, while modern languages didn’t generate the same result. This has led spiritual philosophers to ponder if “sacred languages” (including Tibetan and Egyptian) have the power to influence and transform physical reality, to create things through their inherent power, or through the recitation or singing of sacred texts, to heal a person who has gone “out of tune”?…

This is an exceptional concept…

In a controversial movie called “Water”, Rustum Roy, professor at the State University of Pennsylvania and member of the International Academy of Sciences, posited that water has “memory”, based on the structure it takes on as a result of electromagnetic fields and various frequencies to which it is exposed.

ocean wavesI’m a practicing aquatic scientist and I’m compelled to note that the human brain is 75% water; it is not surprising that we can be affected by the shape and form of water itself—and, in turn, may shape water with our minds. This is in itself a startling admission and opens up a myriad of controversial topics, which many scientists find hard to reconcile and refuse to investigate, let alone entertain. And, yes, I am edging into the area of metaphysics, “science fiction”, and “fanciful thinking”. A place populated by heretics who do “questionable science”, those rogue mavericks who dare step outside the realm of traditional science to imagine, to dare pursue a truth using unconventional means.

Here’s my point: water is important to us in ways science can’t even begin to explain. Because science can’t yet explain it, should we abandon the potential and its investigation? All good science was once perceived as magic before it was understood.

Let me take it one step further:

I posit that our entire bodies are sending and receiving vibrations at different frequencies with our environment, other people and other animals around us, inanimate objects, even the seemingly ‘empty’ space. It has permeated our culture more than you may realize, including the metaphors we have seamlessly adopted in our common language: terms like “bad vibes”, “you can feel the tension”, and “you could cut the air in here with a knife”.

shallow oceanIf you think this is all too weird, consider the weirdness of quantum mechanics, which shows us that not only is “solid” matter made up mostly of energy and “empty” space but what makes a solid a chair vs. you sitting on it is the vibration of its energy. Quantum science has demonstrated that light and matter are made of both particles and waves (New Scientist, May 6, 2010) and can exist in two simultaneous states (heard of Schrodinger’s Cat?). Let’s consider, for instance, “entanglement” (quantum non-local connection), the notion that particles can be linked in such a way that changing the quantum state of one instantaneously affects the other, even if they are light years apart. And what does it mean when solid flows, ghost-like, through itself under certain conditions? Or parallel universes are created by splitting realities? (You’ll have to check out my historical fantasy “The Last Summoner” for a unique take on this popular notion).

Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feyman says of the paradoxes presented by quantum mechanics, “the ‘paradox’ is only a conflict between reality and your feeling of what reality ought to be.”

So, what does all of this have to do with “writing”, scintillating or otherwise, some of you may be asking… Well, nothing … Everything …

Reference:
Munteanu, Nina. 2016. “Water Is…The Meaning of Water” Pixl Press, Vancouver, BC. 585pp.

 

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.

Stoking the Scintillation of Inspiration

forest steps“Many of us wish we were more creative,” Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, shares. “Many of us sense we are more creative, but unable to effectively tap that creativity. Our dreams elude us. Our lives feel somehow flat. Often, we have great ideas, wonderful dreams, but are unable to actualize them for ourselves. Sometimes we have specific creative longings we would love to be able to fulfill … we hunger for what might be called creative living.”

Many of us are, in fact, creatively blocked. How would you know if you were? Jealousy is an excellent clue. Are there creative people you resent? Do you tell yourself, ‘I could do that, if only…’ An old friend of mine used to constantly share that he would “start living and settle down” once he had enough money. It never happened; and he never did—twenty years later. That was sad; because he was waiting for life to begin, when it was already happening—and he was missing it.

forest boardwalkCreative recovery (or discovery) is something you can learn. It is something you can enhance and direct. “As you learn to recognize, nurture, and protect your inner artist,” says Cameron, “you will be able to move beyond pain and creative constriction. You will learn ways to recognize and resolve fear, remove emotional scar tissue, and strengthen your confidence.”

Stoking the creative artist inside you may be as simple as giving your mind the chance to wander—and taking the time to pay attention. Rhythm and regular, repetitive actions play a role in priming the artistic well. Cameron lightheartedly describes how the “s” activities work so well for this: showering, swimming, scrubbing, shaving, steering a car. I can testify to the latter—how many great plot ideas have I cooked up while driving to work! Filmmaker Steven Spielberg claimed that his best ideas came to him while he was driving the freeway. Negotiating through the flow of traffic triggered the artist-brain with images that translated into ideas. “Why do I get my best ideas in the shower?” Einstein was known to have remarked. Scientists tell us that this is because showering is an artist-brain activity.

wood bridge forest-congaree national parkThe magical part in this is to pay attention. Pay attention to your life experiences; don’t ignore them. Sit up in the bus and watch people, play with the images, sounds and smells. Get sensual and let your eyes, ears, nose and limbs delight in the world. It’s amazing how interesting the world becomes once you start paying attention.

Henry Miller tells us to develop interest in your daily life; in people, things, literature, and music: “the world is … simply throbbing with rich treasures, beautiful souls and interesting people. Forget yourself,” he says.

Looking outward as well as inward allows us to explore different angles and facets of the same thing. When we see the same thing through different perspectives we rediscover something new in ourselves. We create interest and connect the world to ourselves.

Julia Cameron shares that “art may seem to spring from pain, but perhaps that is because pain serves to focus our attention onto details (for instance, the excruciatingly beautiful curve of a lost lover’s neck). Art may seem to involve broad strokes, grand schemes, great plans. But it is the attention to detail that stays with us; the singular image is what haunts us and becomes art. Even in the midst of pain, this singular image brings delight. The artist who tells you different is lying.”

Curious child

Brenda Ueland tells us why we should all use our creative power: “Because there is nothing that makes people so generous, joyful, lively, bold and compassionate, so indifferent to fighting and the accumulation of objects and money.”

forest path copyReferences:

Julia Cameron. 2002. “The Artist’s Way”. Tarcher. 272pp.
Nina Munteanu. In Press. “The Journal Writer:  Finding Your Voice”. Pixl Press. 132pp.

 

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.

Find Your Focus This Christmas–Reprise

winter walkHow many of you are still running around preparing for the Christmas celebration or secular family festivity? Buying that last minute gift you’d forgotten or were chasing down since a bazillion days ago? Or making last minute changes to your travel plans, house-cleaning for guests, mailing of cards or parcels or meal preparations?

Well, you’re reading this blog post … That means you’re sitting down and taking a minute to relax and regroup. That’s good. Remember to breathe… while I tell you a story…

I’d just finished a three-day drive through snow and rain storms from Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia, to Toronto, Ontario, where I was staying for a few days before catching a flight to Vancouver to spend Christmas with my son and good friends on the west coast. Talk about fast living.

I move around a lot these days. It helps me to appreciate some of the most simple things in life and reminds me of what I love most about Christmas: how it focuses my heart and reconnects me. I don’t mean just with relatives and friends either, although the season certainly does that. I’m talking about my soul and the universe itself. Before I became an itinerant, Christmas bustled with my responsibilities as primary caregiver, social coordinator and hostess of major parties. After I’d said goodbye to our visiting friends and done the dishes and tidied the house; after my husband and son had gone to bed, I sat in the dark living room lit only with the Christmas Tree lights and the flickering candle, and listened to soft Christmas music, primed to write.

snow-christmas2008-sammy

Sammy

My male cat, smelling fresh from outside, found his rightful place on my lap and settled there, pinning me down with love. And there, as I breathed in the scent of wax and fir and cat I found myself again.

Most of us think of Christmas as a busy time, of getting together (often dutifully) with family and friends, exchanging presents and feasting. Christmas is certainly this, but that is only a shallow view of a far deeper event; and I don’t mean only for Christians.

Whether celebrating the holy light of Hannukah or the birth of Jesus, or the winter solstice, this season provides us with the opportunity to meditate on far more than the surficial nature of the symbols we have come to associate with the season: the Christmas tree, presents, turkey dinner, Santa Claus or Saint Nicholas—most of which originate from pagan tradition, by the way.

Says Lama Christie McNally (author of The Tibetan Book of Meditation), “once you dive below the surface, you will discover a beautiful clear place—like a diamond hidden beneath the rubble. It is your own mind, uncovered … Tibetans say we have only just begun the process of awakening—that we still have quite a way to go in our evolutionary process. And it has nothing to do with building spaceships or computers. The next step in our evolution takes place within.”

Christmas is, more than anything, a time of embracing paradox. It is an opportunity to still oneself amid the bustle; to find joy in duty; to give of one’s precious time when others have none, to embrace selflessness when surrounded by promoted selfishness, and to be genuine in a commercial and dishonest world. If one were to look beyond the rhetoric and imposed tradition, the Christmas season represents a time of focus, a time to reflect on one’s genuine nature and altruistic destiny. A time to reconnect with the harmony and balance in our lives.winter trees snow

A time to sit with our cat, pinned with love, and write our next novel.

 

Merry Christmas and Happy Winter!

 

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.

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

winter treesWhen 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

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

What’s Your Voice and Is it the Right One?

bare trees in misty waterThe term “Voice” describes various aspects of a writer’s expression in story; it includes your unique writing style and the style you’ve chosen to adopt for the particular story you’re telling. The voice of your story is influenced by your audience—youth, adults, crazy people, etc.—as well as the subject matter and general overall theme of the story.

Voice is the feel and tone that applies to: 1) the story or book (narrative voice); 2) to each character in that story; and 3) the author’s own voice (authorial voice; in business it’s called the brand), which you carry with you in every work. It is the combination of all these “voices” that make each of your works unique. Think of a fine artist, a painter like Vincent Van Gogh, whose unique painter’s “voice” was apparent in all his Impressionistic works. The wild swirls of light and texture characterized all his paintings; yet, each individual work expressed its own unique message in Van Gogh’s artistic journey.

Authorial Voice

You express your authorial voice and the voice of your story through tone, perspective, style, language and pace. All of these reflect your intent and are ultimately expressed in the story’s overarching theme. The overarching theme is ultimately the author’s theme, the “world view” — the “so what part” — of the story. The principal character and minor characters will carry variations of the main theme, each with his or her unique voice. Invariably, the voice of the story reflects the author’s philosophy, biases and message.

Writers generally struggle in the beginning to obtain their unique “voice”, often adopting the voice of a writer they admire. Although this can help a writer define their own voice (by illuminating what they like and strive for), it can also retard an author’s unique self-expression. It is so much easier to use another’s proven formula; the danger is that you may never escape from beneath the shadow of your hero. In the area of science fiction, which I write, the internet is rich with “fan fic” (an endearing term for works based on already established stories, worlds, characters, and styles.) Many fan fic writers will not emerge from the shadow of unoriginality to find their own voice.  So, take heed and be mindful of your own voice. Determine what is important to you and you will find your voice.

Narrative Voice

Narrative voice belongs to the persona telling the story. Which persona you adopt in narration depends on what kind of story you are telling, and the kind of emotional atmosphere you wish to achieve, says Crawford Kilian, Canadian author of over a dozen novels. The persona develops from the personality and attitude of the narrator, expressed through the narrator’s choice of words and depictions. Depending on your choice of POV (see my previous article on Viewpoint), the narrator of your story can be one or several main characters or you, the writer. More on this below.

Character Voice

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 chaotic mixture of formal and casual speech. This confuses the reader and bumps them out of the story. Each person’s speech is typically consistent, reflecting their ethnic and regional background, who they hang around with, their education, history and biases. Consistency is critical; it helps readers identify with a character. They will abandon a story whose writing—and voice—is not consistent. So, my advice to this beginning writer was to pick one style for each character and stick to it.

Voice incorporates language (both speech and body movements), philosophy, and 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, guffaw, belly-laugh? Does she usually put her hand over her mouth when she does? Does she do or say certain things when she’s nervous?  See my upcoming article on body language for more detail.

Who Should Tell the Story?

When telling a story through the eyes of a single viewpoint character, it makes most sense to tell it through the main character, the protagonist, around whom the story usually revolves. She is the one who’s going to be chiefly affected by the events of the story. Ansen Dibell, author of The Elements of Fiction: Plot, asks the question: “Who is really at the story’s heart?” If you’re having trouble with the story of Sally and Norman from Sally’s point of view, perhaps you should try telling it through Norman’s point of view. Or perhaps your main POV character is a third person, looking on and, in turn, changed.

Narrating a story from an outsider’s viewpoint (the hidden protagonist as observer-narrator) —sometimes called displaced narrative — can also add an element of complexity and depth to a story. The Illusionist is a good example of this. This story, about Eisenheim (the Illusionist) and his beloved, is told through the cynical eyes of the city’s chief inspector, who learns to believe again through his “experience” of their story. Other examples include J.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between, Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Saving Private Ryan, My Beloved, Charlotte Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, and Joanne Harris’s Chocolat.

Using a displaced viewpoint character to narrate a story works particularly well if you want to keep your main character strange and mysterious. Having an “outside” character tell the story of one or two other characters, also gives the writer a chance to add another thematic element to a story (the one belonging to the narrator). A story told through the eyes of a dreamer will be very different than one told by a ponderous thinker.

Other kinds of narration include:

  • detached autobiography (narrator looks back on long-past events; e.g., To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee)
  • letters or diary (narrative told through letters, also known as the epistolary novel; e.g. my short story, Arc of Time)
  • interior monologue (narrator recounts the story as a memory; stream of consciousness is an extreme form of this narrative, e.g., Ulysses by James Joyce)

bare trees in misty waterHow Many Should Tell the Story?

The use of multiple viewpoints is common among writers and adds an element of richness and breadth to a story. With each added character’s POV, readers are more enlightened to the thoughts and motivations of characters in a story. When you have several characters telling the story, this is called a rotating viewpoint. A few points to follow include:

  • Alternate or rotate your differing viewpoints clearly (scene by scene, chapter by chapter, or part by part)
  • Don’t change viewpoints within a scene
  • Separate different POV scenes within chapters with extra white space or some kind of graphic (e.g., ****)

References

Dibell, Ansen. 1999. Elements of Fiction Writing: Plot. Writer’s Digest Books. Cincinnati, Ohio. 170pp.
Killian, Crawford. 2003. “Narrative Voice”. In: Writing Fiction: http://crofsblogs.typepad.com/fiction/2003/07/narrative_ voice.html
Morrell, David. 2000. “First Blood, Third Person”. In: Fiction Writer. April, 2000.
Munteanu, Nina. 2009. The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! Starfire World Syndicate. Louisville, KY. 266pp.

 

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.

What POV are You Using and Why?

bird-in-rainThe story’s viewpoint can be told from several perspectives and which one you choose can be critical to how your story comes across.

Different stories lend themselves to different narrative styles and point of views (POVs). In his April 2000 article in Fiction Writer entitled “First Blood, Third Person” David Morrell warns that some writers may “select a viewpoint merely because it feels natural, but if you…don’t consider the implications of your choice…your story might fight you until you abandon it, blaming the plot when actually the problem is how you’re telling it.”

The viewpoint choices include:

  • Omniscient
  • Third person limited
  • Second person
  • First person

Omniscient View

The omniscient view is the broadest view. Through this viewpoint the narrator describes everything and everyone and may drop into any character at any time, and — in the case of a beginning writer — all too confusingly in the same paragraph.

While this POV is the easiest one to use it is really the hardest to master. In the wrong hands, this viewpoint can be as intrusive as it is distancing. And it is prone to polemic. In the hands of a masterful writer, this viewpoint can make for the most powerful and rich storytelling. Epics of any kind, especially epic fantasies or historical epics, lend themselves to this style. The omniscient viewpoint is particularly suited to a story that is “large”, where ultimately the main character is not any particular protagonist but “the story” itself, or a society or world or time period. The writer must still somehow achieve connection and intimacy with the reader to succeed with this viewpoint. You can do this through lyrical and compelling narrative, poetic language and powerful imagery.

Limited Third Person Viewpoint

A story told through limited third person POV is narrated from one or a few key characters (though not at the same time) by revealing not only their movements but their thoughts and feelings (e.g., he struggled up to his feet, giddy with pain). When starting out, it is often best to adopt this style, which is generally more personal, appealing and least confusing. So long as you respect the readers’ need for clarity by keeping to one POV per scene, you can choose to enter into the heads of as many characters as you wish. It is the norm to use chapter, section or scene breaks when changing from one POV to another.

This style of narrative is the most common one used in contemporary books, particularly genre books, thrillers and action/adventure books. Through conflicting perspectives of your characters, you can swiftly paint a rich tapestry of tension for both characters and reader.

Second Person Viewpoint

This second person viewpoint (“you”) is not often used, mostly because it is both distancing and less easy to read. Although it is a narrative often used in conversation (e.g., “you never know what you’re gonna get with a box of chocolates, do you?”) this style of narrative is harder for readers to embrace and get close to the story’s characters. This viewpoint works effectively in certain artistic situations when you wish to purposefully impart a distance to the narrator, due to their own limitations, infirmity or situation.

First Person Viewpoint

The first person point of view is both the most limiting perspective (told only through one viewpoint) and most personal and revealing (of that viewpoint character). This viewpoint works well in literary fiction where the main character’s thoughts and issues are the key focus in the story. When the character who changes the most is the one telling the story, this makes for very compelling reading.

Many detective stories are told in first person to great effect. The reader is right there with the detective, solving the mystery. The first person viewpoint is also the preferred POV for memoirs, for obvious reasons.

One thing to keep in mind, particularly when narrating through the first person POV, is the reliability of your character. You need to decide how reliable your first person POV character is in telling the story and how you will impart this to the reader.  Writing through a character’s faulty perception of the world (and of themselves) provides a writer with an incredible opportunity but also an incredible challenge. You can only go so far with an unreliable character before losing your own credibility as a writer — and losing the reader in the long run. Obviously, you need a balance.

If you are struggling with your story and can’t quite pinpoint what is bogging it down, try changing how you are telling it. Change the viewpoint and see what happens.

References

Munteanu, Nina. 2009. The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! Starfire World Syndicate. Louisville, KY. 266pp.

FictionWriter-front cover-2nd ed-webThe Fiction Writer “is the most practical book on publishing that I’ve ever read, and I’ve read them all! Not only is each chapter packed with advice for writers at every level of the publishing process, but the text is highly readable and even entertaining. The clear format, the direct style and the playful layout keep the large volume of information from ever becoming dry or boring.

This book is aimed at anyone interested in gaining entrance to the world of publishing, whether you want to write sci-fi novels, poetry, children’s books, how-to books, or magazine articles. If you want to publish with the big-name pros or even self-publish, this book will help you decide what would suit you best and how to achieve it.”

Lucia Gorea, English professor at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver

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.