Creating the Right Time and Place to Write

Look and you will find it—what is unsought will go undetected —Sophocles

pitted-rockDuring a time when I had a demanding job as an scientist, wife and mother and community volunteer, I wrote and successfully marketed five books, over a dozen short stories and many articles and reviews. Some people, including my publishers, thought I never slept (true) or cloned myself (possibly). They couldn’t believe my productivity when I was so busy with life.

But I did what I did, because I’d worked out a system. One that I could live by. One that fit my lifestyle. One created out of respect for my art as part of my “busy” life of commitments.

The truth of it is that we all lead busy lives. If you are going to finish that novel you’ve been working on over the years or book of poems sitting in the bottom dresser drawer, you need to make a commitment. Aside from giving your art the respect it deserves, it comes down to creating a time and place to write.

It starts with being realistic about your daily schedules and routines and inclinations and picking a time and place accordingly. Try to be consistent. It’s actually best to create a routine related to both time and place; the key is to be realistic about it. Don’t fight your inclinations or habits; instead, build your writing into your lifestyle. This will ensure success.

Choose a Sacred Time

Finding the time to write is critical to succeeding. If you don’t dedicate time to write you won’t. Believe me, you won’t. Make it sacred.

Writer Louise DeSalvo shared a common story about her experience: “Many people I know who want to write but don’t (my husband, Ernie, for example) or who want to write more than they have but say they can’t find the time (my friend Marla) have told me that taking the time to write seems so, well, self-indulgent, self-involved, frivolous even. And that finding the time to write—even a diary, much less fiction or memoir or poetry—in their busy schedules is impossible. I’ll write when I have the time, they say.”

It doesn’t work that way. You don’t find time; you must create it.

Writing of any kind is a commitment you make to yourself. So, choose a time that’s right for you. If you’re a morning person, don’t pick the end of the day when you don’t function as well. Instead, pick the early morning to write, a time before everyone else gets up and the day’s distractions pile up.

It’s actually best to create a routine related to time of the day (e.g., fixed time such as every morning or right after supper) or based on some other constant in your life, say the school calendar or your daily activities. The key is to be realistic about the time(s) you’ve chosen. In other words, your goals should be realistic and realizable.

The second part of the commitment is sharing it with your family and friends so that they will respect your sacred writing time. By sharing how important it is to you, you also give them the gift of sharing the experience with you and they are more likely to respect your time alone to write. This is also why choosing a routine makes more sense; it is something your family and friends will better remember and abide by. Making it easy for others is part of making it easy for you.

Find Your Own Rhythm

There’s no rule for when and how often you write. Because frequency and schedule of writing depends on the kind of writing you do (e.g., novel, short stories, articles, research) and on your own rhythms, you must decide what works best.

Most writers recommend that you commit to a regular writing schedule that is realistic to your overall routine and biorhythms. Some recommend you write in the morning, after a refreshing sleep; others suggest you write at night, at the end of the day when your memories are more fresh with the day’s activities and stimulations. Yet others suggest you take time out during the day to jot down relevant experiences as close to the time as the muse hits you, then spend some time at the end of the day compiling it into your work.

In the end, it’s up to you to choose what works for you and your own rhythms. When is the best time for you to write? And for how long or how many pages? Once you decide, stick to that schedule.

Choose a Sacred Place

Writing is a reflective activity that requires the right environment. The best environment is a quiet one with no interruptions and where you are alone. A reflective environment will let you find a connection with your muse. You need a place where you can relax and not worry about someone barging in or other things distracting you from your reflections. You should also feel physically comfortable and the place should meet your time requirements.

Because the suitability of a place can change with the time of day, learn the rhythms that affect the place you wish to write in. For example, the kitchen may be the centre of activity during the day but an oasis of quietude during the evening. Similarly, learn what kind of environment stimulates and nurtures your writing. Does music help or do you need complete quiet? Do you respond to nature’s soft breezes and sounds or do you prefer to surround yourself with the anonymous murmur of a crowded café for company?

Places that work for me include the local coffee shop, a park near my house, a library or other quiet place where I can enjoy uninterrupted anonymity. Where you write may reflect what you’re writing and vice versa. To some extent, you are environment and environment is you. You might try a few places first and see what happens to your muse. What you write while sitting under an apple tree in the breeze hearing the birds singing may differ from what you write while sitting in your living room by the crackling fireplace with music playing or sitting at your desk in your bedroom in total silence or in a crowded café surrounded by cheerful bustle.

Again, as with your choice of time, tell your family and friends about your sacred place. Provide rules, if you have to. Let’s say it’s a desk in the study. You may, for instance, let others know that your “mess” is part of a work in progress, perhaps even explain a little about it so they understand the nature of what you’re doing and why it should not be touched or moved or used, even while you are away from it. This will ensure that they respect your things and what you’re doing.misty-forest-path

In the end it comes to finding the right integration and balance of time and place. Letting others know of your choices is equally important; this will ensure that they can help you, not hinder you in your writing. While writing is to a large extent an activity done in solitude, the journey is far from secluded. Ensure that you have a good support network.

This article is an excerpt from my fiction writing guidebook “The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now!” (Starfire, 2009).

 

Nina 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.

 

Our Deepest Fear

nature's canopyIt’s not what you think it is…

There’s a poignant scene near the end of the 2005 movie “Coach Carter” where a student finally responds to Carter’s insistent question of “what is your deepest fear?”. It is a quote often mistakenly attributed to Nelson Mandela but originally written by Marianne Williamson (“A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles”). And it speaks to the artist in all of us:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Let me tell you a story… I’ve been writing stories since I was ten years old. I used to stay up until late at night with my sister, when our parents were snoring in their bed. We told stories: fantastical stories with a cast of thousands and spanning the entire universe. When I was in my teens, I began to write a book, inspired by several dystopian movies and my own passion for saving the planet. It was called “Caged in World”. By the time I was married and had my son, I had written three entire books, none of which I’d published. I had by then sold several short stories and essays and articles to mainstream, travel and science fiction magazines. I started to become known as a reviewer and critic of movies and books. And my short stories were gaining good reputation with stellar reviews and invitations to appear in anthologies.

I began to market my first book—a medical ecological thriller—to agents and publishers. Although I got many bites for partials and even full manuscripts, none came to fruition.

Then something strange happened.

Driven by something inside me, I wrote over the space of a few months a book entitled “Collision with Paradise” based on some research I’d done on Atlantis, the bible and the Great Flood. The book was important to me on a number of fronts: in its ecological message of cooperation and its exploration of new paradigms of existence. I wrote it fast and well and it hardly needed editing. Without thinking and without hesitation, I submitted it for publication. As quickly as I’d written it, I had an offer from a publisher. My first published book! My first reaction was elation. My second reaction was: What have I done? I was proud of my book and its story, but it also contained erotica. My first thought was: how are my family and friends going to react? What about my parents? OMG! Fear, not of failure but of success came crashing down on me and I felt so exposed. If I could have retracted it, I might have several times. Thankfully, I didn’t. While some friends and family did in fact shake their heads and look askance at my work (and labeled it variously), the book was very well received by mainstream critics and readers alike. It was, in fact, a hit. Faced with success, I bowed to its consequences and embraced what it brought: the good, the bad and the ugly. I was, in fact, relieved. I have many times since contemplated my actions in submitting this subversive novel that exposed me incredibly. Was it brave intuition or bold recklessness that propelled me? The point is, I’d stepped out into the light, crossed the line into another paradigm. There was no way back into the shadows. And that’s good.nature's canop-2

Ralph Keyes, author of The Courage to Write, tells us “any writing lays the writer open to judgment about the quality of his work and thought. The closer he gets to painful personal truths, the more fear mounts—not just about what he might reveal, but about what he might discover [about himself] should he venture too deeply inside. But to write well, that’s exactly where we must venture.” If you’re emotionally or psychologically not ready for the consequences of getting published, then you will falter, procrastinate, forever fuss over your creation and convince yourself that it isn’t ready. In truth it’s you who aren’t ready. It’s you who aren’t ready to shine.

Just remember that while we are born artists, it is still our choice to live as artists. Until we embrace that which is within us, we will not find our voice to give to the world. That is our gift to the world. Laurance Gartel says “to be an artist is to take responsibility for the world’s destiny. You shape it by your vision.”

The true artist is not interested in having a nice life, being comfy or fitting in, but rather sees himself as a benefactor. His goal is to make a contribution to life, and to this end there are no barriers, doors or blocks, but only wide open spaces.”—Brian Simons

 

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.

Discovering the Ecotones of “When Words Collide”

If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange apples then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.” —George Bernard Shaw

 

WWC-venue

The venue

In August 2015, as part of my sojourn in my homeland of British Columbia, I participated in When Words Collide, one of Canada’s premiere writing and reading festivals in Calgary, Alberta. This is one writing conference I make a point of attending every year.

Held at the Delta Calgary South Hotel, and run by the super team of Randy McCharles, Susan Forest, Sarah Kades, and Mahrie G. Reid—among other awesome volunteers—this multi-genre writing festival initially modeled itself after the International Surrey Writer’s Conference—flavoured and spiced with the joie de vivre energy of a science fiction writer’s convention. The integration of multi-genres, professional interactions (e.g., editors, publishers, writers and readers) and the festivity of costuming, song and dance, is a truly winning combination.

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Diana Gabaldon

Guest presenters included best-selling authors Diana Gabaldon, Brandon Mull, Faith Hunter, Daniel Abraham, C.J. Carmichael and agent Sally Harding. The festival included a diversity of panels and workshops, author readings, book launches and parties (including an absinthe-tasting party), an autograph session and a merchant’s corner.

I gave three workshops: one on writing fiction called “Five Things to Consider”; one on narrative voice and POV called “Mastering ‘Voice’ and Narration”; and one on setting called “Mastering Setting.”

Highlights were many: trading stories with my colleagues and writing friends over a drink or signing or loitering in the hallway is always a highlight. Meeting interesting people in a crowd of interesting people is another. Briefly visiting with Diana Gabaldon—an incredibly gracious and entertaining artist—is certainly another.

eco-fiction panel-WWC

Eco Panelists

An important highlight for me was moderating a panel on Eco-Fiction. Joining me on the panel were publisher/writer Hayden Trenholm, and writers Michael J. Martineck, Sarah Kades, and Susan Forest. The panel was well attended; panelists and audience discussed and argued what eco-fiction was, its role in literature and storytelling generally, and even some of the risks of identifying a work as eco-fiction.

Someone in the audience brought up the notion that “awareness-guided perception” may suggest an increase of ecological awareness in literature when it is more that readers are just noticing what was always there. Authors agreed and pointed out that environmental fiction has been written for years and it is only now—partly with the genesis of the term eco-fiction—that the “character” and significance of environment is being acknowledged beyond its metaphor; for its actual value. It may also be that the metaphoric symbols of environment in certain classics are being “retooled” through our current awareness much in the same way that Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four are being re-interpreted—and newly appreciated— in today’s world of pervasive surveillance and bio-engineering. I would submit that if we are noticing it more, we are also writing it more. Artists are cultural leaders and reporters, after all. I shared my own experience in the science fiction classes I teach at UofT and George Brown College, in which I have noted a trend of increasing “eco-fiction” in the works in progress that students are bringing in to workshop in class. Students were not aware that they were writing eco-fiction, but they were indeed writing it.

NaturalSelection-frontHRI started branding my writing as eco-fiction a few years ago. Prior to that—even though my stories were strongly driven by an ecological premise and strong environmental setting—I described them as science fiction and many as technological thrillers. Environment’s role remained subtle and—at times—insidious. Climate change. Water shortage. Environmental disease. A city’s collapse. War. I’ve used these as backdrops to explore relationships, values (such as honour and loyalty), philosophies, moralities, ethics, and agencies of action. The stuff of storytelling.

Environment, and ecological characteristics were less “theme” than “character,” with which the protagonist and major characters related in important ways.Snowpiercer-french

Just as Bong Joon-Ho’s 2014 science fiction movie Snowpiercer wasn’t so much about climate change as it was about exploring class struggle, the capitalist decadence of entitlement, disrespect and prejudice through the premise of climate catastrophe. Though, one could argue that these form a closed loop of cause and effect (and responsibility).

snowpiercer-posterThe self-contained closed ecosystem of the Snowpiercer train is maintained by an ordered social system, imposed by a stony militia. Those at the front of the train enjoy privileges and luxurious living conditions, though most drown in a debauched drug stupor; those at the back live on next to nothing and must resort to savage means to survive. Revolution brews from the back, lead by Curtis Everett (Chris Evans), a man whose two intact arms suggest he hasn’t done his part to serve the community yet.

Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton), an imperious yet simpering figure who serves the ruling class without quite being part of it, reminds the lower class that: snowpiercer-mason

We must all of us on this train of life remain in our allotted station. We must each of us occupy our preordained particular position. Would you wear a shoe on your head? Of course you wouldn’t wear a shoe on your head. A shoe doesn’t belong on your head. A shoe belongs on your foot. A hat belongs on your head. I am a hat. You are a shoe. I belong on the head. You belong on the foot. Yes? So it is. 

In the beginning, order was prescribed by your ticket: First Class, Economy, and freeloaders like you…Now, as in the beginning, I belong to the front. You belong to the tail. When the foot seeks the place of the head, the sacred line is crossed. Know your place. Keep your place. Be a shoe.”

Ecotones are places where “lines are crossed,” where barriers are breached, where “words collide” and new opportunities arise. Sometimes from calamity. Sometimes from tragedy. Sometimes from serendipity.

When environment shapes a story as archetype—hero, victim, trickster, shadow or shape shifter—we get strong eco-fiction. Good eco-fiction, like any good story, explores the choices we make and the consequences of those choices. Good eco-fiction ventures into the ecotone of overlap, collision, exchange and ultimate change.

Water Is-cover01In my latest book Water Is… I define an ecotone as the transition zone between two overlapping systems. It is essentially where two communities exchange information and integrate. Ecotones typically support varied and rich communities, representing a boiling pot of two colliding worlds. An estuary—where fresh water meets salt water. The edge of a forest with a meadow. The shoreline of a lake or pond.

For me, this is a fitting metaphor for life, given that the big choices we must face usually involve a collision of ideas, beliefs, lifestyles or worldviews: these often prove to enrich our lives the most for having gone through them. Evolution (any significant change) doesn’t happen within a stable system; adaptation and growth occurs only when stable systems come together, disturb the equilibrium, and create opportunity. Good social examples include a close friendship or a marriage in which the process of “I” and “you” becomes a dynamic “we” (the ecotone) through exchange and reciprocation. Another version of Bernard Shaw’s quote, above, by the Missouri Pacific Agriculture Development Bulletin reads: “You have an idea. I have an idea. We swap. Now, you have two ideas and so do I. Both are richer. What you gave you have. What you got I did not lose. This is cooperation.” This is ecotone.

I think we are seeing more eco-fiction out there because ecosystems, ecology and environment are becoming more integral to story: as characters in their own right. I think we are seeing more eco-fiction out there because we are ready to see it. Just as quantum physics emerged when it did and not sooner, an idea—a thought—crystalizes when we are ready for it.

Don’t stay a shoe … go find an ecotone. Then write about it.

Hope to see you at When Words Collide next year.

 

For my complete critique of Snowpiercer in The Alien Next Door, go here.

 

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.

Why You Want to Go To A Writer’s Convention

IMG_0304A while ago I attended (and participated as panelist and guest author) at the World Fantasy Convention in Toronto. And I was all jazzed about it! Why?… Well, let me tell you why…

If you haven’t yet attended a writer’s conference or convention, it’s high time you did. Because, not only are you missing out on an education, you are missing out on a sub-culture that may change your life as a writer, help feed the hungry and align the universe. Seriously.

The last World Fantasy Convention I attended was several years ago in 2008. It was held in Calgary, Alberta, when I still lived in Vancouver, British Columbia. The ten-hour drive through some of the most glorious Canadian wilderness and mountains was bracing and we were lucky that the weather played fair. It was an auspicious start to a wonderful journey of self-discovery.

Hosted by toastmaster Tad Williams, this world-class convention featured guests of honor, David Morrell, Barbara Hambly, Tom Doherty and Todd Lockwood. The World Fantasy Convention promised great things and delivered them. And I’m not just talking about that white chocolate cranberry-date-nut dip that had me loitering at the hospitality suite. Or all those midnight parties that served savory wine with salted almonds, sharp cheese and colorful conversation with the likes of David Hartwell, Tor editor and impeccable dresser (gotta love those ties!). I’m not even talking about the hot tub that sprung a leak on the 18th floor at 1 am or the entertaining panels and readings, which rocked for both writer and reader.

What made the con great for me was seeing my writing community (both writing colleagues and readers who followed my writing) and meeting new people, all lovers of books and “story”.

I was rudely eyeballing someone’s nametag on his chest, when I collided with the Prince George crowd that included authors, Lynda Williams (herself responsible for some pretty nasty intergalactic wars), Nathalie Mallet (who cages princes) and publisher Virginia O’Dine of Bundoran Press (rumored to have been somehow responsible for the hot tub fiasco). I also chummed with Jennifer Rahn, author of The Longevity Thesis, who was charmed by my sly cat (she’s a softy at heart). My cat-colleague Toulouse just kept charming his way through the crowd right to the book fair. We wandered to the back where Anita Hades of Edge Books gave Toulouse her usual greeting (a feline move that was a cross between Sophie Marceau and Brigitte Helm; both she and Toulouse have French blood coursing through their veins, after all—c’est vrai!).

I’d come a long way from the first writer’s conference I went to as a budding writer of a few short stories and non-fiction articles…

Here’s what author Susan Denney says about her first writer’s conference: “Going to my first writers’ conference was an act of faith. I was just starting to make some freelance sales when the members of my writers’ group encouraged me to join them at a conference a few hundred miles away. The expense didn’t seem justified to me. The cost was far more than I had earned through writing that year. But they convinced me at last and it proved to be a great investment. The benefits of a writers’ conference are there for anyone who has a desire to be a better writer.”

Here are some reasons why you can’t afford NOT to go to a conference or convention:

Contacts: you will make contacts with people working in the industry, an extremely valuable asset; this industry is a social one, based on trust, respect and joyfulness. While there’s no guarantee that you will meet anyone famous or influential, you will definitely meet people who know more about writing than you do. Just hanging out with professional writers, editors and agents is educational. If nothing else, you will gain some confidence and ease with industry people, who are real people too. Some may become friends; some may become colleagues; some will become both.

Appointments: through agent/editor/author appointments, you will have a chance to have a quality private conversation with a professional on all aspects of writing and publishing. This is your chance to pitch your novel or ask that one burning question. You know you’ll get a candid and professional answer. That in itself is invaluable and may be enough reason to attend the con. Appointments are also your best chance of getting your manuscript read. This is because it bypasses the slush-pile and months of waiting for a response. More and more editors and agents look to conferences to meet potential authors. For them, meeting an author in person is a bonus to their gauging potential success in a relationship with them.

Education on Craft & Marketing: you will learn something about craft and marketing, no matter what stage you are in your writing career. Depending on the conference or convention, aside from good information from panels, you may also get personal mentoring, 1-page critiques, or attend small themed workshops. Feedback from an experienced writer can save you months of frustration and grief. Just hearing about what is currently going on in the industry is also valuable and conferences are a good way to get the skinny on what the current issues in the writing and publishing industry are. Getting it from those who are working inside avoids the idle and potentially harmful gossip.

Community: you will be exposed to a community of writers, hundreds of creative people in various stages of their careers. By interacting with both those you can help and those who can help you, you will gain a measure of both humility and confidence and satisfaction. We learn so much by helping others. Simply being with other writers can help hone your people-skills, the same ones you will need when approaching agents, editors, publishers and research sources during your career as a professional. Remember, if you aren’t having fun, you are missing one of the most important aspects of attending a writer’s conference, and you will lose your own effectiveness.

Energy: there is nothing more energizing than a common sharing among those of like-minded thought and vision. Writing is primarily an individual pursuit, often thought to belong to the introvert; but, to succeed in the writing/publishing industry a writer must display staying power, persistence, confidence and enduring energy. There is nothing quite as inspirational as hearing an accomplished writer provide their story of victory against odds. I will never forget the moving words of Ray Bradbury at a conference in Palm Springs years ago. I have repeated those words many times since. If you come to a conference with the right mind-set, I guarantee that you will leave with more energy than you came and with a burning need to write.

Exposure: depending on the kind of conference or convention you attend, you will have the opportunity to expose yourself to something different (e.g., different fiction genres and associated communities; fiction vs. non-fiction; different media; etc.). I attended a romance writers conference a few years back (I write mostly science fiction and fantasy—but often with romance elements in them) and found it bracingly educational.

New Markets & Ideas: conferences attract writers of all kinds. Conferences provide fertile ground for cross-pollination of ideas, markets and marketing ploys. Writers, like you, are generally a nice crowd; most are willing and eager to share their successes and failures. And contacts. Sharing is one of the great things that happens at conferences. There may be a common pin board set up for people to share. Most conferences are Twitter and Facebook enabled for quick and easy viral sharing. If you don’t come away from a conference with at least one new idea, contact or market, you haven’t done your job: talk to people.

Here are a few do’s and don’ts for when you go conferencing:

  1. Wear comfortable but not sloppy clothing and shoes (it’s likely that you will be doing a fair bit of standing and walking); you want to make a good impression. Be yourself and dress accordingly.
  2. Bring promotional material with you (e.g., business cards, flyers on your book, stories, etc.). Have something to share and exchange with other writers and professionals. Most conferences also have tables devoted to shareware. This is your chance to introduce you and your writing to others.
  3. Take something to write with (e.g., notebook and pen or iPad, etc.).
  4. Talk to people. Chances are that everyone there is interesting.
  5. Respect the time, particularly other people’s time, and keep your appointments and meetings.
  6. Don’t bring your heavy manuscript with you to the conference. Agents and editors don’t have the time or inclination or space in their suitcase for it. Use the conference to make an impression and get an invitation for something later in writing.
  7. Keep all of your interactions verbal and face-to-face. Don’t rely on memorized speeches or a folded up written pitch in your pocket. Keep it casually professional. Make eye contact and speak from the heart. Show your passion.
  8. Have fun. And don’t be afraid to show it; there’s nothing more infectious and attractive than someone having fun.

 

Some upcoming writing-artistic conferences/ conventions / festivals in the Toronto area include:IMG_0306

 

 

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.

 

 

Learn How to Write Science Fiction at George Brown College

For those in the Toronto area, I’m teaching a 12-week course on how to write science fiction at George Brown College this spring.

Called “Creating Science Fiction”, the course runs Wednesday nights from 6:15 to 9:15 starting April 8th through to June 24th and costs $278. The course is also part of George Brown’s Creative Writing Certificate.
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Meant for both beginning writers and those already published, the 12-week course is run like a workshop with student input and feedback on student’s WIPs. I explore with students the essential tools used in the SF genre (including world building, research and plot approaches). Students will work toward a publishable original piece by learning to generate and follow through with premise, idea and theme.
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George Brown College is located on 200 King Street, Toronto, Canada.
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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 Art and Magic of Storytelling: Part 1, Sparking the Premise

Cover1_LastSummoner-frontcover copyFrom where do we get our stories?

This is a question I am asked time and again. My readers, friends and colleagues alike marvel at my imagination, and ask me how I create these fantastical worlds and situations. Cornered in a moment of inarticulate bliss (this often happens to me), I shrug and blather off some ridiculously obscure tale of luciferous logolepsy.

The simple of it is that it always comes as a spark. Followed by inspiration. And from there, a story emerges. Premise to dramatization. So, let me tell you a story about how my 2012 historical fantasy The Last Summoner (about a medieval time traveler who must save the past from the future) came to be.

It all started with the Battle of Grunwald and the Fate of the Teutonic Knights—that is, when I stumbled upon it during an Internet ramble. But, in fact, it started before that—the spark, that is.

My part in this piece of history really started sometime in 2008 with the vision of an incredible image by Croatian artist Tomislav Tikulin (who had done the cover art for a previous novel Darwin’s Paradox). On Tikulin’s website I saw the image 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. It sent my imagination soaring with thoughts of chivalry, adventure and intrigue.

Who was this knight standing in the mire?

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 14th 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 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 their hochmeister, along with many of their knights, the Order’s own peasant slaves finished the job using clubs, pitchforks and stones.

Intrigued by this little known order of religious crusaders and their bizarre fate in an upset battle with a peasant army, I pursued

St. Etienne abandoned church

St. Etienne abandoned church

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 North-east 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? And what if, as a result, Nazism sprang up 100 years earlier?

The Last Summoner, arose from this premise. Enter our heroine, young 14-year old Vivianne Schoen, Baroness von Grunwald, a self-centered romantic who dreams that her ritter (her knight) 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 ruled by fascists. There, she learns that every choice has its price.

Spanning from medieval Poland to present day Paris, France, 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 mire is Vivianne.

The Last Summoner, published by Starfire World Syndicate, was released in 2012 and remained a Canadian bestseller on Amazon for several months. It represents my first historical fantasy in an otherwise repertoire of hard science fiction. The Polish and Lithuanians celebrate June 14th with pride, erecting mock-ups of the battle annually. Some day I hope to participate.leaves over water

The cover art for The Last Summoner is that very image that inspired my story. The Universe gifted me with the chance to acquire the image from Mr. Tikulin and a publisher willing to purchase it. I’d entered my own dream.

 

 

p.s. definition for luciferous logolepsy: “an illuminating obsession with words”

 

This article first appeared on Warpworld on Nov. 30, 2013.

 

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.

Finding the Right Time and Place to Write

knox college breezeway02Look and you will find it—what is unsought will go undetected —Sophocles

 

During a time when I had a demanding job as an scientist with an environmental consulting job, was a devoted wife and mother and community volunteer, I wrote and successfully marketed five books, over a dozen short stories and many articles and reviews. Some people, including my publishers, thought I never slept (true) or had cloned myself (possibly). They couldn’t believe my productivity when I was so busy with life.

But I did what I did, because I’d worked out a system. One that I could live by. One that fit my lifestyle. One created out of respect for my art as part of my “busy” life of commitments.

The truth of it is that we all lead busy lives. If you are going to finish that novel you’ve been working on over the years or book of poems sitting in the bottom dresser drawer, you need to make a commitment. Aside from giving your art the respect it deserves, it comes down to creating a time and place to write.

It starts with being realistic about your daily schedules and routines and inclinations and picking a time and place accordingly. Try to be consistent. It’s actually best to create a routine related to both time and place; the key is to be realistic about it. Don’t fight your inclinations or habits; instead, build your writing into your lifestyle. This will ensure success.

Choose a Sacred Time

Finding the time to write is critical to succeeding. If you don’t dedicate time to write, you won’t write. Believe me, you won’t. Make it sacred.

Writer Louise DeSalvo shared a common story about her experience: “Many people I know who want to write but don’t (my husband, Ernie, for example) or who want to write more than they have but say they can’t find the time (my friend Marla) have told me that taking the time to write seems so, well, self-indulgent, self-involved, frivolous even. And that finding the time to write—even a diary, much less fiction or memoir or poetry—in their busy schedules is impossible. I’ll write when I have the time, they say.”

It doesn’t work that way. You don’t find time; you must create it. Writing of any kind is a commitment you make to yourself. So, choose a time that’s right for you. If you’re a morning person, don’t pick the end of the day when you don’t function as well. Instead, pick the early morning to write, a time before everyone else gets up and the day’s distractions pile up.

It’s actually best to create a routine related to time of the day (e.g., fixed time such as every morning or right after supper) or based on some other constant in your life, say the school calendar or your daily activities. The key is to be realistic about the time(s) you’ve chosen. In other words, your goals should be realistic and realizable.

The second part of the commitment is sharing it with your family and friends so that they will respect your sacred writing time. By sharing how important it is to you, you also give them the gift of sharing the experience with you and they are more likely to respect your time alone to write. This is also why choosing a routine makes more sense; it is something your family and friends will better remember and abide by. Making it easy for others is part of making it easy for you.

Find Your Own Rhythm

There’s no rule for when and how often you write. Because frequency and schedule of writing depends on the kind of writing you do (e.g., novel, short stories, articles, research) and on your own rhythms, you must decide what works best.

Most writers recommend that you commit to a regular writing schedule that is realistic to your overall routine and biorhythms. Some recommend you write in the morning, after a refreshing sleep; others suggest you write at night, at the end of the day when your memories are more fresh with the day’s activities and stimulations. Yet others suggest you take time out during the day to jot down relevant experiences as close to the time as the muse hits you, then spend some time at the end of the day compiling it into your work.

In the end, it’s up to you to choose what works for you and your own rhythms. When is the best time for you to write? And for how long or how many pages? Once you decide, stick to that schedule.

Choose a Sacred Place

Writing is a reflective activity that requires the right environment. The best environment is a quiet one with no interruptions and where you are alone. A reflective environment will let you find a connection with your muse. You need a place where you can relax and not worry about someone barging in or other things distracting you from your reflections. You should also feel physically comfortable and the place should meet your time requirements.

Because the suitability of a place can change with the time of day, learn the rhythms that affect the place you wish to write in. For example, the kitchen may be the centre of activity during the day but an oasis of quietude during the evening. Similarly, learn what kind of environment stimulates and nurtures your writing. Does music help or do you need complete quiet? Do you respond to nature’s soft breezes and sounds or do you prefer to surround yourself with the anonymous murmur of a crowded café for company?

Places that work for me include the local coffee shop, where its desultory conversations and laughter—and wonderful smells of fresh coffee—provide a pleasant living-landscape for my muse. I also enjoy my daily walk with a notebook or iPad in the park along the river near my house. I teach writing at the University of Toronto St George campus in downtown Toronto and just recently discovered an enclave that excited my muse. The outside breezeway at Knox College, with arched ceiling and columns, adorned with hanging plants, is pure magic. The breezeway cuts through an outside courtyard of gardens and yard, populated with songbirds and the gentle rustle of a refreshing breeze. Benches and small tables and chairs line the breezeway, ensuring a writer’s sanctuary.

Where you write may reflect what you’re writing and vice versa. To some extent, you are environment and environment is you. You might try a few places first and see what happens to your muse. What you write while sitting under an apple tree in the breeze hearing the birds singing may differ from what you write while sitting in your living room by the crackling fireplace with music playing or sitting at your desk in your bedroom in total silence or in a crowded café surrounded by cheerful bustle.

Again, as with your choice of time, tell your family and friends about your sacred place. Provide rules, if you have to. Let’s say it’s a desk in the study. You may, for instance, let others know that your “mess” is part of a work in progress, perhaps even explain a little about it so they understand the nature of what you’re doing and why it should not be touched or moved or used, even while you are away from it. This will ensure that they respect your things and what you’re doing.

In the end, it comes to finding the right integration and balance of time and place. Letting others know of your choices is equally important; this will ensure that they can help you, not hinder you in your writing. While writing is to a large extent an activity done in solitude, the journey is far from secluded. Ensure that you have a good support network.

This article is an excerpt from my fiction writing guidebook “The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now!” (Starfire, 2009).summer-forest-streaming

 

Nina 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.