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

The Battle of Grunwald and the Fate of the Teutonic Knights

400px-Grunwald_Wojciech_Kossak copy

Battle of Grunwald

On this day, June 14th, every year, the Polish and Lithuanians celebrate the Battle of Grunwald; they celebrate with pride, erecting mock-ups of the battle to honour this important—yet largely unknown moment—in history: when the proud Teutonic Order fell to its knees and Poland became a nation.

Which brings me to my book The Last Summoner and how I get my ideas for stories…

Cover1_LastSummoner-frontcoverI teach writing at the University of Toronto and fiction writing at George Brown College in Toronto. A question I’m often asked is how I get my story ideas. I always start by sharing my favourite example of how I came to write my historical fantasy The Last Summoner:

It started in 2008, when I saw the most incredible image by Croation artist Tomislav Tikulin as I was browsing sites on the Internet. The image was of a magnificent knight, standing in a war-littered mire and gazing up, questioning, at the vaulted ceiling of a drowned cathedral. A great light shone upon the knight in streams of white gold–as if a message from heaven. It sent my imagination soaring with thoughts of chivalry, adventure and intrigue.

Who was this knight?

teutonic_knight_by_flipation

Teutonic knight

With that image imprinted inside me, the next nexus moment came when I stumbled across a significant but little-known battle in the medieval Baltic, the Battle of Grunwald. It would turn out to be the defining battle for what are now the countries of Poland and Lithuania. On June 14, 1410, they were still part of Prussia and tyrannized by the Teutonic Order, who were Christianizing the pagan Baltic on behalf of the Pope. In truth, the Order had been for centuries gathering wealth and land for colonizing Germans in their drang nach osten; they built sturdy castles (many of which still stand today) and grew into a force of monk warriors, feared for their cunning strategy and treacherous combat abilities.

The Battle of Grunwald was, in fact, an upset in history. The Teutonic Order was powerful, intimidating and extremely capable. They should have won; but the peasant armies of Prussia slaughtered the Order, killing most of its knights. Historians debate that the hochmeister’s arrogance—indeed the arrogance of the entire Order—precipitated their downfall. They underestimated their adversaries and got sloppy.

After the Polish and Lithuanian armies outsmarted the Order and slayed the Order’s hochmeister, along with many of their knights, the Order’s own peasant slaves finished the job using clubs, pitchforks and stones.

Every year, the Polish and Lithuanians celebrate June 14th with pride, erecting mock-ups of the battle.

vivianne-medieval-fighterIntrigued by this little known order of religious crusaders, I pursued the premise of an alternative consequence: what if the Teutonic Knights had NOT underestimated their enemy and won the Battle of Grunwald? Would they have continued their catastrophic sweep of Northeast Europe into Russia and beyond? Would they have claimed the whole for Germany’s expansionist lebensraum movement, fueled by its sonderweg—a dialectic that would ultimately lead to the killing fields of the Holocaust?  What if the success of the Teutonic Order helped consolidate a united fascist elite, ambitious to conquer the world? What if Nazism sprang up 100 years earlier than it did in our current reality?

The Last Summoner arose from this premise. Enter our hero, young 14-year old Vivianne Schoen, Baroness von Grunwald, a self-centred romantic who dreams that her ritter will rescue her from an arranged marriage to some foreign warrior. As a result of an impetuous choice, she makes the startling discovery that she can alter history—but not before she’s branded a witch and must flee through a time-space tear into an alternate present-day France—now ruled by fascists. There, she learns that every choice has its price.

knight-cameo copySpanning from medieval Poland to present day Paris, The Last Summoner explores the sweeping consequences of our “subtle” choices. From the smallest grab to the most sweeping gesture, we are accountable for the world we’ve made. During her 600-year journey to save the world and undo the history she authored, Vivianne learns wisdom and humility. Through the paradox of history, she learns that what might have seemed the right choice for an immediate future, turns out to be disastrous for a distant future. To win is also to lose; to save oneself one must surrender oneself; and to save the world one need only save a single soul.

The knight standing in the drowned cathedral is none other than Vivianne.

Inspired by Tikulin’s knight depiction, I managed to convince my publisher at Starfire World Syndicate to purchase rights to the image; Tikulin’s image–Vivianne’s dream–became the actual cover of my book. I was overjoyed! When The Last Summoner hit the shelves in 2012, it quickly soared into an Amazon Canadian bestseller and remained in the top 10 for several months in the category of fantasy, historical fantasy and science fiction. The book continues to find new readers who enjoy the thrilling time-travelling journey of its 15th century heroine and its surprising plot.

LastSummoner-scifi-fantasy

“The Last Summoner” sandwiched nicely between Ray Bradbury and George R.R. Martin

The Last Summoner is a blend of fantasy, history, and alternate history,” writes Canadian author Kristene Perron. “Fourteen year old Vivianne , the story’s hero, discovers that she has strange powers on the eve of the legendary Battle of Grunwald.  Marked as a witch, Vivianne escapes through time and space, but her actions change history and threaten to destroy the world.”

Kristene had chosen the book to review based on a description I had provided of the painting that inspired the novel created by artist Tomislav Tikulin.

Cover1_LastSummoner-frontcover

Illustration by Tomislav Tikulin. Cover design and typology by Costi Gurgu

The Last Summoner fascinated Kristene. “Ordinarily, historical fiction doesn’t excite me,” writes Kristene. “But the premise of this novel—which included a good dash of fantasy and time travel—was an exception. There is history aplenty and Munteanu has obviously done her homework. The world of 15th century Germany is authentically realized and the little touches of fantasy blend seamlessly.” She was pleased with Vivianne as a hero and how I had “endowed [my] protagonist with the skills and knowledge necessary for the plot without stretching plausibility.”

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Kristene then added, “What I most enjoyed about this story was that for the majority of it I genuinely didn’t know where the plot was going or what would happen next. I’m one of those annoying people who can usually figure out the entire plot of a book or movie within the first few scenes (watching movies with me can be challenging), so to come teutons3-close02across a story that stumped my super CSI powers of deduction was a real treat.”

“For those in love with science fiction at its best, The Last Summoner is a complex story of ignored responsibilities and their dire consequences, of love and betrayal that span centuries and multiple worlds. Time travel, multiverse travel, immortality, alternate history in which the Nazis have won, not in the twentieth century but way earlier, in the Teutonic age. Angels and mutants, utopias and dystopias, even a Tesla occurrence— everything a science fiction reader could ever desire in a book. A masterfully told story with great characters. Nina Munteanu moves flawlessly from a medieval story to a modern one and everything in between.”—Costi Gurgu, author of RecipeArium

Jonathan, history buff and author of Sci-Fi & Fantasy Reviews , writes: “The Last Summoner is a unique story melding Germany of the 15th century and modern France, even if a different France from what we would recognize. The story centered around the very real and pivotal Battle of Grunwald in which a coalition of Polish and Lithuanian forces defeated the monastic Teutonic Knights. The book takes a look at the young 14-year-old baroness of Grunwald, someone not quite human, and how she attempts to right a wrong and get history back on track…The author is a good writer, and her wordsmithing is excellent…The historical research was outstanding…Given that this is fiction, and that two settings did not follow history as we know it, never-the-less, each event was either very accurate to our known history or made logical sense in the other settings. I am not a huge fan of alternative history books, but in this one, I was extremely caught up in the final section of the book, and I had to contemplate how the world might be different with only a few changes to our history.”

vivianne-dark-medieval-knight copy

Jonathan adds, “While I was familiar with most of the historical background of the book, I was unaware of some facts, such as the Tartars taking part in the Battle of Grunwald. I thought this was a mistake made on the part of the author and went to confirm that, but in fact, the author was correct…a clever, well-written book. I would recommend it without hesitation.” The reviewer did have one quibble: my liberal use of French and German in the book.

Professional photographer and science fiction/fantasy reader, Rick LeBlanc shared that he’d “read The Last Summoner on the flight back from World Fantasy Con: could hardly put it down. Just loved the historical references of gear, place and events. The characters red-leaves-in-pond-vicki horton-botwere incredibly strong and involved you in their lives. The flow was fun & fast-paced. Merci, Nina. Great book!”

“I loved, loved, loved the metaphors. A page-turner that left me wanting to be Vivianne when I grew up.”—Carina Burns, author of The Syrian Jewelry Box

knight-cameo copyThe Last Summoner is an enticing fantasy exploring the Knightly order and adding many new perspectives.”—John Taylor, The Midwest Book Review

nina-2014aaaNina 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.

 

Write About What You Know

Beauty Creek, Jasper National Park, Alberta, CanadaHow 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?

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.”

The advice, “write what you know” isn’t about literal truths; it’s about what you know inside. As SF author Marg Gilks says, “You know more than you think.”

Twisted Truths & Inner Knowledge

In an article in Writing World, Gilks discusses how a writer can use her 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 when the sun shines on your face or the rain drenches you. You know how it feels to have your knees shake with fatigue after a long climb on a hot day or the invigorating freshness of a cool lake in summer.

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.

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

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.

 

How Art Reveals Truth in Science

It is quite possible … that we will always learn more about human life and personality from novels than from scientific psychology —Naom Chomsky

niels bohr

Niels Bohr

In the 1920s, physicist Niels Bohr struggled to re-imagine the structure of matter. He rejected the current hegemony of a fractal “solar system” model and sought a new metaphor.

“When it comes to atoms,” said Bohr, “language can only be used as poetry.”

Bohr compared the invisible world of atoms and electrons to cubist art because, according to Jonah Lehrer in an article in SeedMagazine.com, it “revealed the fissures in everything, turning the solidity of matter into a surreal blur.” In 1923 deBroglie had determined that electrons could exist as particles or waves. Bohr maintained that the form they took depended on how you looked at them: by simply observing, you determined their nature.

Many of us believe that while art can be profound, it does not solve practical challenges of reality; only scientific knowledge, which progresses on a linear ascent toward greater understanding, resolves the serious challenges of our world and will one day solve everything.

This is, of course a matter of belief. Novelist Vladimir Nabokov once wrote, “the greater one’s science, the deeper the sense of mystery.” The traditional elements of science have used a reductionist approach to understand the whole, looking at the parts and reconstructing the causal pathways. Take the synapse, for instance. Neuroscientists now know that 100 billion electrical cells occupy a human brain, that every cubic millimeter of the cerebral cortex contains a billion synapses involved in the neurotransmission of electrical impulses in perception and thought. Yet, as Novelist Richard Powers challenged, ‘If we knew the world only through synapses, how could we know the synapse?”

neuroscience“The paradox of neuroscience,” said Lehrer, “is that its astonishing progress has exposed the limitations of its paradigm … Neuroscience has yet to capture [the] first-person perspective. Artists … distill the details of real life into prose and plot … They capture a layer of reality that reductionism cannot … and provide science with a glimpse into its blind spots … Sometimes the whole is better understood in terms of the whole … No scientific model of the mind will be complete unless it includes what can’t be reduced.”

Logical minds will reject art as too incoherent and imprecise to contribute to the knowledge base provided by scientific process. They will maintain that Beauty isn’t Truth, that the novel is just a work of fiction, and abstract art the arcane expression of a micro-culture.

But what of paradox? Critic Randall Jarrell contended that, “it is the contradictions of works of art which make them able to represent us — as logical and methodical generalizations cannot — our world and our selves, which are also full of contradictions.” The cultural hypotheses of artists can inspire the questions that stimulate important new scientific answers, adds Lehrer.

neutrino colliding

Neutrino colliding

The irony of modern physics is that it seeks reality in its most fundamental form, and yet we are incapable of comprehending these fundamentals beyond the math we use to represent them. The only way to know the universe is through analogy.

Richard Feyman

Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman said, “Our imagination is stretched to the utmost, not, as in fiction, to imagine things which are not really there, but just to comprehend those things which are there.” While artists rely on imagination, much of modern physics exceeds the imagination: dark matter, quarks and neutrinos, black holes, multiple dimensions and folded space. To venture beyond the regular confines of our “ordinary world” where matter is certain, time flows forward and there are only three dimensions, we must resort to metaphor. “Metaphor in science serves not just as a pedagogical device,” wrote physicist and novelist Alan Lightman, “but also as an aid to scientific discovery.” Einstein came up with relativity while thinking about moving trains; Arthur Eddington compared the expansion of the universe to an inflated balloon; James Clerk Maxwell visualized magnetic fields as little whirlpools in space. String theory is often imagined as garden hoses.

Pablo Picasso bullfight,1934

Pablo Picasso’s Bull Fight, 1934

The greatest physicists of the 20th century thought metaphorically. String theorist Brian Greene wrote that the arts have the ability to “give a vigorous shake to our sense of what’s real.” Picasso never understood the equations, says Lehrer: “he picked up the non-Euclidian geometry via the zeitgeist.” A century later some scientists still use his fragmented images to symbolize their ideas.  “Novelists can stimulate the latest theories of consciousness through their fiction … Painters can explore new theories about the visual cortex … Dancers can help untangle the mysterious connection between the body and emotion.”

Both science and art benefit from exchange. By inviting art to participate in its conversation, science provides art with the opportunity to add science to its repertoire. And through its interpretation of scientific ideas and theories, art offers science a new lens through which to see itself.

Karl Popper exhorts us to “give up the idea of ultimate sources of knowledge, and admit that all knowledge is human; that it is mixed with our errors, our prejudices, our dreams, and our hopes.”

And that is the stuff of fiction after all…

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Why & When Should You Write a Synopsis?

cat typewriterWhen I was just beginning as a novelist, the publisher guideline request “submit a synopsis and sample chapters” was intimidating to say the least. There was something terrifyingly daunting about writing a succinct compelling summary of my 300-page novel packaged into just a few pages. As author Katherine Eliska Kimbriel said, “The instinctive response [of the author] is to clap on a helmet and start digging a trench.” I had a right to be terrified. In some ways the synopsis is the hardest thing for a novelist to write. Yet it is the first thing most publishers and agents want (and have time) to see of your cherished project (aside from those sample chapters, of course). Every fiction writer who wants to sell in the current market must know how to write a synopsis because that’s what an editor wants to see first. Most editors (if they’re good) are overworked with scarce enough time to answer their phones, much less their emails.

I’m not going to describe how to write a synopsis in this post. If you want to see an excellent summary of what a good synopsis should look like, there are many excellent descriptions by professional editors, agents and other writers who describe what a synopsis is and even give examples—including my own book “The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now!”, Chapter “O.” Elizabeth Lyon also describes the synopsis (as opposed to an outline) in several of her how-to books.cat-on-typewriter

Instead, I present here why you should write that dreaded synopsis, and way before you finish your book, too.

Synopsis vs. Outline

A synopsis is not an outline. Both are useful to the writer, yet each serves a very different purpose. An outline is a tool (usually just for the writer) that sketches plot items of a book. It provides a skeleton or framework of people, places and their relationships to the storyline that permits the writer to ultimately gauge scene, setting, and character depth or even determine whether a character is required (every character must have a reason to be in the book, usually to move the plot). For writers just beginning, this is an excellent tool to keep the narrative spare and compelling and to remove superfluous characters and other things (a common beginning writer inclination). A synopsis, on the other hand, is an in-depth summary of the entire book that weaves in thematic elements with plot to portray a compelling often multi-level story arc. This is usually what an editor wants to see, although I have seen them request an outline as well. To put it basically, the outline describes what happens when and to whom, while the synopsis includes the “why” part.

What a synopsis does (along with the sample chapters and extremely important query letter) is get your manuscript read by an editor. That’s the real purpose of a synopsis. An editor makes his/her decision to look at your manuscript based on these three items: query letter (intro to you); sample chapters; and your synopsis. Ultimately, their decision resides with whether your project fits their own imprint at the time.

If that isn’t reason enough to write a synopsis of your novel, below are two others:

Synopsis as Storytelling Prompt

cat typewriter2A synopsis of your novel goes beyond the outline to help polish elements of story arc, characterization with plot and setting with story. The synopsis can answer questions perplexing the author, stuck on a scene or plot item. It helps you weave your novel’s elements into a well-integrated story that is compelling at many levels. Because the synopsis is based on emotional turning points (related to theme), character dramatization of the premise is a key foundation. It makes sense to write drafts of your synopsis as you go along in the novel; that way it’s useful to both you and to the editor and then it’s more or less written when you need to submit it along with sample chapters…and not quite as daunting a task either.

Synopsis as Marketing Summarytrees sunlight

Your well-written synopsis is often used internally by the publishing house staff (e.g., by artist, copywriter, and sales department) once your novel has been accepted.

I advise you to write it now. Don’t wait. Make the synopsis work for you throughout your novel’s journey.

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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