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?

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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.

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The Ontario Climate Symposium: Adaptive Urban Habitats by Design

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Nina presents Diana Beresford-Kroeger with a copy of “Water Is…”

I recently participated in the 2018 Ontario Climate Symposium “Adaptive Urban Habitats by Design” at OCAD University in Toronto, hosted by the Ontario Climate Consortium and the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority.

Day 1 opened with a ceremony by Chief R. Stacey Laforme of the Mississauga of the New Credit First Nation, followed by keynote address by Dr. Faisal Moola, associate professor of the University of Guelph.

A three-track panel stream provided diverse and comprehensive programming that helped further the goal to foster important discussions for how art and design can play a role in developing adaptive, low carbon cities. Panels sparked much networking among a diverse group of participants, who clustered around the refreshments in the Great Hall, where my “Water Is…” exhibit was located.

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The Great Hall, where participants networked over refreshments

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one participant clutches “Water Is…”

Water Is… was also there for sale, as part of my exhibit on water, along with Environment and Climate Change Canada, Green Roofs, Waste, and the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario. I had several lively and insightful conversations with participants and I’m glad to say that Water Is… made it into several people’s hands at the symposium. Water is, after all, a key component of climate and climate action.

The film “Call of the Forest: The Forgotten Wisdom of Trees” was screened and scientist Diana Beresford-Kroeger participated in a question and answer period then signed her latest book.

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Call of the Forest” was called “a folksy and educational documentary with a poetic sort of alarmism about disappearing forests,” by the Globe and Mail. The film “takes us on a journey to the ancient forests of the northern hemisphere, revealing the profound connection that exists between trees and human life and the vital ways that trees sustain all life on this planet.” The movie describes the numerous health-giving aerosols that trees use to communicate. Diana’s genuine and earnest concern illuminates her simple yet powerful narrative, such as when she says that the forests are “haunted by silence and a certain quality of mercy.” Featuring forests from Japan and Germany’s Black Forest to Canada’s boreal forest, this documentary is a powerful manifesto for sustainability.

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Diana lecturing in High Park

On Day 2, I toured the Black Oak savanna in High Park with Diana Beresford-Kroeger (author of The Global Forest). The tour was refreshing and enlightening. Diana is a genuine advocate for the forest and showed some of the medicinal properties of forest plants. An example is the common weed, Goldenrod; its astringent and antiseptic qualities tighten and tone the urinary system and bladder, making goldenrod useful for UTI infections; Its kidney tropho-restorative abilities both nourishe and restore balance to the kidneys.

Diana spoke from the heart and brought a wealth of scientific knowledge to us in ways easy to understand—like the biochemistry of photosynthesis or quantum coherence. Diana shared how over 200 tree aerosols help combat anything from asthma to cancer. I also talk about this in the “Water Is Life” chapter of my book, Water Is…, which I gave a copy to Diana.

 

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

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.

How Creative Destruction Embraces Paradox…

“Very well, then, I contradict myself; I am large—I contain multitudes.”—Walt Whitman

OuterDiverse-cover-webCreative destruction … sounds like a paradox, doesn’t it? Nature—and God— is full of contradiction and paradox. There is so much that we do not understand (at least on the surface)… and apparent contradiction proves that to me. In Outer Diverse, Book One of The Splintered Universe Trilogy, my character Serge says:

“… somewhere between the infinities of [worlds] you would experience paradox: black holes, quasars; intuition, déjà vu, clairvoyance… order in chaos…darkness at the heart of all beauty… beauty in the heart of all darkness…a mathematician with faith …the strength of surrender…loving your enemy…dying to live…”

Paradox lies undeniably at the heart of the clash of two realms.

I understand something of paradox. As an ecologist, I deal with it all the time.

Destruction in creation and creation in destruction is ingrained in the life-cycles of everything on this planet, indeed in this universe. A forest fire can destroy life but in so doing creates a more vibrant, healthier forest.

Darwins Paradox-2nd coverIn my speculative fiction novel, Darwin’s Paradox, Julie applies her father’s ecological precept to describe her observations on the rise and fall of a civilization, an ecosystem and an entire world. The precept was based on C.S. Holling’s 1987 ecological model of creative destruction:

Fire was a constant hazard in the heath. Yet, fire served the heath by discouraging invasive shrubs and halting succession. The grazing deer populations completed the job of keeping the heath from reverting to woodland. So, fire had its place as creative destroyer in the natural cycle of ecosystem behavior. Stable chaos, according to her father. It was a harsh and rude environment, Julie concluded. Like thieves in the night, bell heather, gorse and purple loosestrife snatched everything for themselves, leaving nothing for the others. Like many things in nature, the heath plants, though beautiful and fragrant, were ruthlessly greedy. . .

Creative destruction was first introduced as a term in 1942 by the economist, Joseph Schumpeter to describe the process of industrial transformation that accompanies radical innovation. According to Schumpeter’s view of capitalism, innovative entry by entrepreneurs sustained long-term economic growth, even as it destroyed the value of established companies that enjoyed some degree of monopoly power. An example is Xerox, who has seen its profits fall and its dominance vanish as rivals launched improved designs or cut manufacturing costs, drawing customers away.

The Science of Creative Destruction

In his classic paper, entitled: “Simplifying the complex: the paradigms of ecological function and structure” (1987) C.S. Holling applied Schumpeter’s term to ecology. Holling’s model of ecosystem behaviour recognized ecosystems as non-linear, self-organizing and continually adapting through cycles of change from expansion and prosperity to creative destruction and reorganization.

creative-destruction-model

Holling presented several paradigms that ecologists use to describe the causes and behaviour (and management) of ecosystems, including an equilibrium-centred view (based on the constancy of behaviour over time), which Simon Forge described as “driving using the rear-view mirror”—trying to judge the road ahead by what went on behind. Holling advocated a “nature evolving” view, which describes ecosystems as undergoing sharp, discontinuous changes that are internally organized and balanced (I like his mobius loop to describe the closed ouroborus-like cycle of creation and destruction in nature). Holling described four phases of natural ecosystem succession within his “nature evolving” paradigm. It starts out with the exploitation phase, in which new opportunities are realized through rapid colonization and competition. Natural forces of conservation (e.g., nurturing, consolidation) lead to vulnerable systems (e.g., old growth forests), as stabilizing factors lose strength and the system evolves from having few interrelationships to having many. The result is often an abrupt change that both destroys systems and creates opportunity (creative destruction) through fire, storms, pests, senescence. Mobilization of bound, stored “capital” (e.g., carbon, nutrients and energy) through physicochemical and biological processes like decomposition and mineralization completes the dynamic cycle of functional ecosystems.

What this means for the ecosystem manager is that efforts to detect responses to changes, including human interventions like restoration activities, are confounded. Traditional (equilibrium-centred) ecosystem management may be misdirected, resulting in pathological “surprises” of ecosystem response and a spiralling vigilance and cost in control measures. Examples of traditional equilibrium-centred management of forests, fish and other organisms of terrestrial and aquatic environments with devastating consequences include:

  • firecycle copySuppression of spruce budworm populations in eastern Canada using insecticides partially protected the forest but left it vulnerable to an outbreak covering an area and of an intensity never experienced before;
  • Forest fire suppression reduced the probability of fire in the national parks of the United States but the consequence has been the accumulation of fuel to produce fires of an extent and cost never experienced before;
  • Semi-arid savanna ecosystems have been turned into productive cattle grazing systems in the Sahel zone of Africa, southern and east Africa, and other parts of the world. However, changes in grass composition have promoted an irreversible switch to woody vegetation and the systems have become highly susceptible to collapse, often triggered by drought; and,
  • Protection and enhancement of salmon spawning on the west coast of North America may have led to some success regarding enhanced stocks (e.g., hatchery-grown fish), but fishing industry is left precariously dependent on a few enhanced stocks which are vulnerable to collapse.

In each of these examples, the policy succeeded in its immediate objective. But in each case the system evolved into something with different properties and each “solution” led to a larger problem. In short, the biophysical environment had evolved into one that was more fragile, more dependent on vigilance and error-free management. Something Holling called “Nature Engineered.”

In his classic 1987 paper, Holling suggests that ecosystems be viewed—and managed—as “Resilient Nature”, where the experience of instability maintains the structure and general patterns of ecosystem behaviour; in other words, that Nature ‘learns’ and accommodates with time. In the final analysis, it is a matter of scale.

We are seeing that now as global warming takes force and we step solidly into the depths of the Anthropocene Age where green is the colour of resilience.

The Narrative of Creative Destruction

Water Is-COVER-webIn my book Water Is… I write: “Destruction in creation and creation in destruction are ingrained in the life cycles of everything on this planet and in the universe. A forest fire can destroy life but in so doing creates a more vibrant, healthier forest. Holling and I, in our separate studies, were really drawing on the ancient knowledge of polarity and cycles in nature. The opposing forces of polarity generate ongoing cycles of creation and destruction. The Ouroboros, remembering.”

The Ouroboros is an ancient symbol that depicts a serpent or dragon swallowing its own tail to form a circle. As a serpent devouring its own tail, the Ouroboros symbolizes the cyclic nature of the Universe: creation out of destruction, Life out of Death. The Ouroboros eats its own tail to sustain its life, in an eternal cycle of renewal. In the Gnosis scriptures, it symbolizes eternity and the soul of the world.

“in the Chinese I Ching, the hexagram for “crisis” also represents “opportunity.” This is because when we are in stasis (which represents lack of movement), we do not recognize our path; perspective only comes with movement. In this way, calamity, initially seen as disaster, may be viewed as unexpected opportunity for creative change. The unpredictable nature of water provides the opportunity to teach and learn.” The “crisis” of change and “destruction” provides opportunity, just as collision of viewpoints bring new ideas.”

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Recommended Reading:

Holling, C.S. 1987. Simplifying the complex: the paradigms of ecological function and structure. Eur. J. Oper. Rel. 30: 139-146.

Holling, C.S. 1973. Resilience and stability of ecological systems. Annual Rev. Ecol. Syst. 4: 1-23.

Holling, C.S. 1977. Myths of ecology and energy. In: Proceedings Symposium on Future Strategies for Energy Development, Oak Ridge, Tenn., 20-21 October, 1976. Oxford University Press, New York, N.Y.

Munteanu, N. 2016. Water Is… The Meaning of Water. Pixl Press, Vancouver. 586pp.

 

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.

 

My Writing Retreat in Niagara-on-the-Lake

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Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery

When I’m not teaching writing at UofT in Toronto, I’m often writing at home. And if I’m not writing at home, I’m often traveling to where I will write. You get the picture: I’m a writer. My website mantra reads: “I live to write; I write to live.”

I’m always looking for great places to write, to synthesize observations and experiences for an article or to plot my next novel. As writers, we are constantly studying the nature of our surroundings, how people interact, what they do, how events affect us and more. Writing is as much about experiencing life as writing about it. But we need both to flourish: something to write about and a place to write about it.

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Noble Restaurant, Prince of Wales Hotel

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Horse and carriage on King Street

Recently a good friend of mine lured me out of town on a trip to Niagara-on-the-Lake. She didn’t blink an eye when I grabbed my computer and happily accompanied her on our wonderful adventure. We started at the Prince of Wales Hotel, named in honour of the 1901 visit of the Duke and Duchess of York, who were later crowned King George V and Queen Mary.

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Fred Gamula

We got there just in time for supper in the elegant and panoramic Noble restaurant. Of course, we had to order the divine “Grand Hotel Tasting Menu”, a four-course meal, paired with several fine wines. Sommelier Fred Gamula guided us through the “Grand Hotel Tasting Menu” of crisp romaine hearts, grilled chili marinated quail, pan seared trout and Grand Hotel Opera cake. Each course was paired with a wine that brought out the best in each; from an Inniskillin Chardonnay Reserve to a Flat Rock Twisted, to a Cave Spring Gamay and finally a Taylor Fladgate port. Gamula and I got into a diverting conversation about looking after the environment and water (I later gave him a copy of my book “Water Is…”).

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Patio of Prince of Wales Hotel

Gamula grew up on a small fruit farm in Niagara-on-the-Lake and has seen some changes in the area due to development. Some not so good. We agreed that the trick is to embrace influx while preserving the very reason for that influx—to enjoy and preserve the wonderful country, vineyards and wineries in the area.

I found a wonderful place to write on the Churchill Room patio facing King Street, where the horses and carriages waited for customers. As the sun set, I drank my Campari and orange juice and wrote my novel to the cheerful sounds of birds, rustling trees and exploring people.

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Nina and her favourite hippo

The next morning we wandered Queen Street before heading out to explore wine country. Curious about Reiner’s window display, I wandered into what I thought was a leather shop—expecting the usual fare such as purses, satchels, belts and the like; but it turned out to be a speciality leather ottoman store.

HippoOttomanThese weren’t ordinary ottomans—they were all animals! Hippos, bears, moose, elephants and pigs stood on stout legs, begging for a nice home to live in.

The store is named after leather crafter Reiner Henneveld who came to Canada in 1950 from Germany and created his first animal-shaped ottoman in the shape of a pig—after his pet pig, Wilbur. Reiner’s two sons have taken up the craft with a commitment to individual design and workmanship that includes hand sewing, cutting and stuffing and using the finest upholstery leather. I found them comfortable and very attractive.

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Wayne Gretzky with his “99”

After lunch we visited old favourites and explored new vineyards and wineries. Wayne Gretzky Estates recently opened its winery and distillery on Old Stone Road. The estate is getting known for its No. 99 Red Cask Canadian Whisky; “the same soils that produce great grapes also grow grains that are used to produce whisky,” they write. The whisky is made in small batches from rye, malted rye and corn that has been individually mashed, fermented and distilled. After aging, the whisky is finished with red wine casks from the Wayne Gretzky winery.

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General store of Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery

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Pork chop, sea-salted bread and Sangria at the Ravine restaurant

The Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery is an old haunt for its charming and diversely stocked general store and its rustic-style restaurant with imaginative and surprising menus. Both inside and outside seating offer vistas of undulating countryside and the sounds of a working vineyard. Another great place to write!

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A sparrow sings his heart out on his very own house in Ravine vineyard

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Free range chickens roam the vineyard at Ravine

I’m half-inclined to shift over to writing a murder-mystery series about a young recent George Brown graduate who comes to Niagara-on-the-Lake to work as a Sommelier in one of the hotels—only to find intrigue and—of course—a murder to solve. What do you think?…

 

nina-2014aaa

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Do You Know Your Story Is Finished?

fir tree looking upA student of mine once asked me how many drafts it took to get the final version of a story. I answered cagily: as many as you need. I wasn’t trying to be cheeky or elusive. In truth, this is a question that only you can answer; and it will be different with each story you write.

George Lucas once said in an interview about the remaking of Star Wars that in the film industry, projects were never finished; only abandoned. What he meant by this was that at some point in the creative and revision process of polishing a story, you have to stop and show it to the world. Let your baby walk and stand on its own.

This is a big step for all beginning writers and many will freeze. Terrified at the idea of failure or censure, they end up sabotaging their own work. If you’re emotionally or psychologically not ready for the consequences of getting published, then you will falter, procrastinate, forever fuss over your creations and convince yourself that it isn’t ready. In truth, it’s you who aren’t ready.

This is a shame because to have written an entire novel is a great accomplishment. You’ve already done what over 80% of those who embark on a book don’t do: finish it. To halt the process by entering a perpetual cycle of revision is admitting defeat when you have really won the major battle. It’s like that fatal stumble on the last leg of a homerun.

If the idea is to publish, then you need to give yourself a kind of deadline or goal, based on something that makes sense to you and is achievable. This could even include a time deadline.

Robert J. Sawyer’s response to the question of “when do you stop revising?” was: “When you’ve taken out all the boring bits.” That may seem on the face of it either too simple or too abstract. But, in fact, he is right on the mark. However, to truly achieve that conclusion and consequently get your manuscript to where it is meant to be without you lingering like a frightened ghost, you need to accurately perceive what “boring” is. In order to do this you need to do several things.

The first is to gain objectivity of your work. You accomplish this by setting it aside for a while and letting it “breathe” (really, you’re letting yourself breathe). By distancing yourself a little from your work, you are able to return with a fresh outlook and read it more like a reader. Your “boring” meter will be running better this way and you will be in a better position to pick out redundancies, overly long exposition and detail, lack of context, “talking heads”, lack of action or tension, and confusing or awkward sentences. The other thing you gain with distance is the ability to describe your book’s theme and major plot. What is it really about? You need to reach the point where you can describe it in a couple of sentences or even a few words as you would describe a movie you like to a curious friend who hasn’t seen it yet.

Once you’ve gained some objectivity, you can critique each scene and each character for his or her plot purpose within that central plot and theme. You can also assess each sub-plot’s role within the major plot and theme. When every paragraph within every scene within every chapter of your story scintillates with purpose and meaning, you have accomplished your task of removing the boring bits. Now you have a story that is finished.

Art is self-expression and expression is a reflection of the culture and time in which you live. Stories are a snapshot of time and place. Treat your art like life; some revision is good but at some point you need to just LIVE. Let go of your work and move on to the next chapter.

 

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

 

What Did You Do Before You Were Famous…?

rain spattered city2So, you’re a famous author now…

You’ve published several books and they sold more than a dozen copies each. In fact, a few have been translated and are in second printings. You’ve received some recognition and awards and a bazillion nominations. You’ve landed some speaking engagements with writing and reader groups and a movie producer is soliciting a treatment from you. You have a following…Fans who “stalk” you at the writer conventions you participate in. Fans who want to co-write the sequel to your current bestseller with you, because they understand your universe—and your characters—so well. You discover that some fans have gone ahead and written fan-fic about your main character and universe on the Internet—a sign of adoration. Really.

But you weren’t always famous…

Neither was John Steinbeck, Ursula Le Guin, J.D. Salinger, Harper Lee or J.K. Rowling…

When did the transition occur for them? It’s not that easy to peg and it isn’t that obvious. This is partly because, it depends on each writer’s own criteria for success and fame. Particularly given that many writers aren’t, in fact, seeking fame, per se.

However, what every career writer wants, which often comes alongside fame is this: autonomy and the ability to write for a living without having to sneak it in at midnight after you’re finished your “real” job.

No one is “born” a writer; most of us start out doing something else to make a living. In the meantime, we work hard on what we love and what feeds our souls and our passion for storytelling. We assiduously write on stolen time and submit queries and letters. We do research and marketing. We write drafts, do revisions, attend classes and read books. All hoping to eventually write full time.

Let’s look at the humble roots of some famed writers and what key moment signified their move into the light of career novelist:

JK RowlingJ.K. Rowling was an unemployed single mother on public assistance when she wrote the first book. The book was rejected by over a dozen publishers before a small British publisher, Bloomsbury, said yes.

JohnSteinbeckJohn Steinbeck worked through many odd jobs before earning enough to work as a full time writer. His day jobs included: apprentice painter, fruit picker, estate caretaker and Madison Square Garden construction worker. He also ran a fish hatchery in Lake Tahoe and did guided tours there.

MargaretAtwoodMargaret Atwood worked in a coffee shop. She says her first job experience was NOT ideal: She had to deal with a difficult cash register, a rude ex-boyfriend who would come by just to stare at her and barely tip, and fellow employees who were definitely not friendship material.

WilliamFaulknerBefore his writing career blossomed, William Faulkner worked for the postal service, as postmaster at the University of Mississippi. In his resignation note, he summarized the struggle of art and commerce faced by most authors: “As long as I live under the capitalist system I expect to have my life influenced by the demands of moneyed people. But I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp. This, sir, is my resignation.”

JD SallingerIn a 1953 interview, J.D. Salinger shared that he had served as entertainment director on the HMS Kungsholm, a Swedish luxury liner. He drew on the experience for his short story “Teddy”, which takes place on a liner.

Ursula_Le_GuinUrsula Le Guin struggled initially to be published in the mainstream fiction world, but her first three novels, Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile and City of Illusions, put her on the sci-fi map.

JamesJoyceAn accomplished tenor, James Joyce made money singing for his supper before his work was published.

HarperLeeHarper Lee worked as a reservation clerk for Eastern Air Lines for several years, writing stories in her spare time. A windfall came when a friend offered her a Chirsmas gift of one year’s wages and one year off to write whatever she pleased; she wrote the first draft of “To Kill a Mockingbird”.

stephen kingStephen King was a janitor for a high school as he struggled to get his fiction published. His time wheeling the cart through the halls inspired him to write the opening girl’s locker room scene in “Carrie”, his breakout novel.

KurtVonnegutKurt Vonnegut managed Americas first Saab dealership in Cape Cod during the late 1950s, a job he joked about in a 2004 essay, “I now believe my failure as a dealer … explains what would otherwise remain a deep mystery: why the Swedes have never given me a Nobel prize for literature.”

Virginia_WoolfWhen Virginia Woolf’s brilliant novels failed to find a publisher, she and her husband Leonard bought a printing press and set up their own publishing compay Hogarth Press in their living room. They published Woolf’s masterful novels, such as Orlando and To The Lighthouse, as well as T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, among other classics of the era.

TS EliotT.S. Eliot worked as a clerk for Lloyds Bank of London. During that time, he composed “The Waste Land”.

Franz KafkaFranz Kafka served as the Chief Legal Secretary of the Workmen’s Accident Insurance Institute. Obviously.

Douglas Adams was a bodyguard. Even published authors often have to work other jobs to make ends meet, Douglas Adamsand The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams was no exception: At one point, he served as a bodyguard for a wealthy Arabian family while he wrote for radio shows and Monty Python. Good writers are good multitaskers!

James_michenerJames A. Michener was a teacher before writing only at age 40. He Michener is notable more for his output than his age. The Tales of the South Pacific author (whose Pulitzer Prize-winning book would later be adapted into a Broadway musical) wrote a staggering 40 books after the age of 40—nearly a George_Orwellbook a year—after spending much of his life as a teacher.

Before he wrote 1984, George Orwell served as an officer of the Indian Imperial Police in Burma, where he was known for his “sense of utter fairness.”

 

 

nina-2014-BWNina Munteanu is an ecologist, limnologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.