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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“A Day in the Life” of Nina Munteanu in The Toronto Guardian

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Felix loves water!

On October 20, 2018, the Toronto Guardian presented “A Day in the Life” of Nina Munteanu, Toronto writer. The series previously profiled writer Charles de Lint, dance artist Natasha Powell, choreographer Maria Shalvarova, dancer Lori Duncan, author Claudiu Murgan and many others.

Editor Merridy Cox (who edited Nina’s latest book “Water Is…”) introduced the “Day”, followed by eight photos that marked Nina’s “typical” day, then a short interview by the Guardian.

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Nina’s early morning walk with Oli

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Nina writes her next novel at a local indie coffee shop

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.

 

Nina Munteanu Interviewed in Canadian Romanian Newspaper “Observatorul”

Claudiu Murgan (author of “Water Entanglement”) recently interviewed me in the Canadian Romanian newspaper Observatorul.

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Gaudeamus Book Fair in Bucharest, Romania

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Nina Munteanu at Gaudeamus

In the interview, I talked about my involvement with the Toronto Romanian community through the Immigrant Writers Association and my visit several years ago to Bucharest Romania to launch my two writing guidebooks with Editura Paralela 45 at the Gaudeamus Book Fair at the Rome Expo Exhibition Centre:

“In 2011 I attended the launch of my writing guide Manual de Scriere Creativa. Scriitorul de fictiune (The Fiction Writer) in Bucharest, hosted by Editura Paralela 45 at the Gaudeamus Book Fair. Dr. Florin Munteanu, respected scientist in Complexity Theory, kindly picked me up at the airport and took me to the Phoenicia Grand Hotel where we relaxed in the lounge and discussed fractal geometry and the Fibonacci Golden Ratio over café cremes. It was a very civilized introduction to this eclectic “city of joy” and I felt strangely at home.

It was a wonderful experience, which included drinking copious amounts of Tuica with my publisher and touring the Lipscani District with George Kudor, a student of Florin’s. Florin calls Romania “the corpus callosum of the world” where east and west converge, mingle and learn. It’s no wonder that Romania is one of the leading countries in the world on complexity theory, a science that embraces the “collision” of different “worlds” to create more than the sum of its parts.”

scriitorul_de_fictiune_Munteanu_coperta1 copyFictionWriter-front cover-2nd ed-webThe Fiction Writer (Scriitorul de fictiune) was very well received by the Romanian writing community. Romanian poet and English instructor Lucia Gorea calls The Fiction Writer “the most practical book on publishing that I’ve ever read, and I’ve read them all!”

 

In the Observatorul interview, Claudiu asked me if I was pursuing other projects in Romania. I am currently corresponding with a Romanian distributor to get some of my other books translated and published in Romania. I also co-edit Europa SF, a European ezine on speculative fiction from around the world, with a focus on European science fiction, fantasy and horror.

The Way of Water-COVER copyI hope to collaborate more with colleague and friend Cristian Tamas, who introduced me to editor/publisher Francesco Verso (of Future Fiction) and Mincione Edizioni, who published my short story “The Way of Water.” I later developed “The Way of Water” in novel form and I anticipate its release next year.

I hope to do more with Dr. Florin Munteanu and Claudiu Murgan on projects to do with water—particularly on entanglement, intention, subtle energies and memory. I would be delighted if a Romanian publisher chose to translate my book “Water Is…The Meaning of Water” and publish it for Romanians.

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Gaudeamus Book Fair in Rome Expo Exhibition Centre, Bucharest

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Lipscani District in Bucharest

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Nina enjoying the book fair

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.

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

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

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

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

Why Write Short?

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

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

 

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

Know What You’re Writing

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

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

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

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

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

Understanding the Short Story Format

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

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

Selling Your Short Story

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

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

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

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

Heinlein’s Five Rules of Writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Nina Munteanu Talks Writing and Water on “Liquid Lunch” on That Channel

Nina Munteanu discusses her eco-fiction and water’s strange properties with Hildegard Gmeiner and Hugh Reilly on Liquid Lunch.

Nina Munteanu

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.

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?…

 

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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.