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.

 

Make Your Opening Count

moss-closeWhen I began marketing my short stories and novels, I was often puzzled by the request to just see the first page of my work. “I only need to see the first page to know whether your book is good or ready to publish,” they would say. I was aghast. How presumptuous! Surely, that wasn’t enough! Surely they were just putting me off and not really interested in the first place! That couldn’t be enough…

I was wrong. It often is.

Years later—and currently a seasoned writer of over a dozen published books, short stories, and a writing teacher & coach—I can tell you that it is generally true. The opening page is usually enough for me to know whether the author is professional, knows their ending, writes a compelling and directed story, and whether the story is ready to be published. Does that sound pompous of me?

If you think so, then read no further. If you’re not sure, read on and I hope to convince you that your opening is more than likely the most important part of your novel or short story. That doesn’t mean that you should inordinately concentrate on polishing it over and over and over at the expense of the rest of your work. That won’t work either; this is because a good opening relies on a good story. Think of it as the introduction to the core issue of your story. Think of it as a long title. If you don’t know where your story is going or what it is about, then your opening will undeniably reflect this.

A good opening resonates with the theme of your story; a great opening creatively illuminates that theme with intrigue.

My post entitled “How to Hook Your Reader and Deliver” discusses the three-step model of hooking the reader in an opening and how to maintain their interest throughout the length of your story. You can read it there, so I won’t go into it here (e.g., the steps are 1) arouse; 2) delay; and 3) reward). What I wanted to talk about here is more about what goes into a first page of any piece of writing to make it a great opening.

“A novel is like a car,” says Sol Stein (Sol Stein on Writing). “It won’t go anywhere until you start the engine.” Take a look at the opening of your WIP and see if its engine is running.

Openings should:

  • Begin with something happening to a major character
  • Arouse the Reader’s interest (with intrigue)
    • Introduce conflict
    • Threaten a likeable character
    • Reveal an unusual character or situation
  • Begin with a “scene” (action; “showing”) not a “sequel” (reflection; “telling”)

“Start your book with a scene where something is happening, and action takes place; show the drama not the reaction to it,” says Elizabeth Lyon (The Sell Your Novel Toolkit). Start in the middle, not the beginning of your story. Dwight Swain (Techniques of the Selling Writer) tells us that scenes and their corresponding sequels form an integral part of a story’s larger plot movement. And to apply sound story-building, this dynamic relationship must be first understood. You “show” in a scene, which plays out the goal, conflict and inevitable disaster of the protagonist; sequels, in turn, often “tell” of the protagonist’s reaction, dilemma, and decision (which propels the character on to the next scene). Yet, time and again, I read openings that are actually sequels (leading to action; but not action themselves). They may languish and even entertain with clever intellectual description, but they do not scintillate with intrigue or direction. It is a little like reading the review of a movie before watching it for yourself (one of the reasons why I never consult a review before I watch a movie—because I want to live it with the characters first hand, or at least give myself the chance to).

Another way of thinking of the scene / sequel dynamic is to see them as cause and effect or action and reaction. An opening in action is more likely to grip the reader in its visceral intrigue and promise of the story’s direction than an intellectualization of an event that happened off stage.

The table below provides a few suggestions on what to include and what not to in an opening page.

Good Openings Don’t… Instead They…
Contain lots of back story Integrate back story in with scene as needed in the appropriate place
Contain lots of exposition, setting, character description, etc. Reveal place and character detail with action as needed
Start with reflection, explanations – particularly about something “off-stage” in time or space Start with action / conflict / turmoil / discovery – start mid-stride with intrigue, then reveal after…
Start with a dream or waking up or other ordinary / mundane scenario heading towards the action or conflict Start with something HAPPENING … Start with a SCENE in “the NOW” as it is happening
TELL SHOW

 

misty-forest-path-slovakiaThere are many ways to manage the fine balance of exposition, telling and showing and
other challenges in grabbing and keeping the reader’s interest; all very pertinent to your opening page. But that’s another article.

 

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.

Find Your Focus This Christmas–Reprise

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

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

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

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

snow-christmas2008-sammyMy male cat, smelling fresh from outside, found his rightful place on my lap and settled there, pinning me down with love. And there, as I breathed in the scent of wax and fir and cat I found myself again.

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

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas!

 

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.

Sharing Nature’s Terrible Secrets And When Trees Talk Dirty…

 

nature's canop-2One of the lectures I give to my science fiction writing students is called “Ecology in Storytelling”. It’s usually well attended by writers hoping to gain better insight into world-building and how to master the layering-in of metaphoric connections between setting and character.1

I talk about the adaptations of organisms to their changing environments. I describe the trophic (energy) relationships from producers to consumers and destroyers in a complex cycle of creative destruction. Students perk up when I discuss some of the more strange and interesting adaptations of organisms to their environment: twisted stories of adaptations and strategies that involve feeding, locomotion, reproduction and shelter.

Purposeful Miscommunication & Other Lies

For instance, the Alcon blue butterfly hoodwinks ants into caring alconbluebutterfly-antsfor its larvae. They do this by secreting a chemical that mimics how ants communicate; the ants in turn adopt the newly hatched caterpillars for two years. There’s a terrible side to this story of deception. The Ichneumon wasp, upon finding an Alcon caterpillar inside an ant colony, secretes a pheromone that drives the ants into confused chaos; allowing it to slip through the confusion and lay its eggs inside the poor caterpillar. When the caterpillar turns into a chrysalis, the wasp eggs hatch and consume it from inside.

This reads like something out of a noir thriller. Or better yet, a horror story. Nature is large, profligate, complex and paradoxical. She is by turns gentle and cruel. Creative and destructive. Competitive and cooperative. Idle and nurturing.

When I bring in extremophiles, who thrive in places you and I would cringe to set foot in, students’ imaginations run wild with ideas. I describe a panoply of weird adaptations in Nature—involving poisons, mimicry and deception, phototaxis and something called anhydrobiosis, which permits the tiny tardigrade to shrivel into a tun in the absence of water then revive after a 100 years with just a drop of water.

water-bear03

Tardigrade

All this adaptation hinges on communication. How an organism or population communicates with its environment and among its own. Examples of “strange” communication are the purview of the science fiction writer … and already the nature of our current world—if you only know where to look. The scope of how Nature communicates—her devices and intentions—embraces the strange to the astonishing. From using infrasound to chemical receptors and sensing magnetic fields. To allelopathy. Aggressive symbiosis. And so much more.

When Trees Share the Dirt

“Trees are the foundation of a forest, but a forest is much more than what you see,” says University of British Columbia forest ecologist Suzanne Simard.

suzanne-simard-portrait

Suzanne Simard

Simard, who has published hundreds of papers over 30 years of resealch, suggests a kind of “intelligence” when she describes the underground world “of infinite biological pathways that connect trees and allow them to communicate” In a forest. This communication allows the forest to behave as if it was a single organism, says Simard. Her early in situ experiments showed solid evidence that tree species, such as Paper Birch and Douglas Fir communicated in a cooperative manner underground through an underground mutualistic-symbiosis involving mycorrhizae (e.g., fungus-root). These trees were conversing in the language of carbon and nitrogen, phosphorus, water, defense signals, allelo-chemicals, and hormones via a network of mycelia. Fungal threads form a mycelium that infects and colonizes the roots of all the trees and plants. Simard compares this dense network to the Internet, which also has nodes and links—just as the forest.

forest-conversing

Myccorhyzae and fungal highways

Fungal highways link each tree and plant to its community, with busiest nodes called hub trees or mother trees. Calling them mother trees is appropriate, given that they nurture their young in the understory; sending excess carbon to the understory trees, which receive less light for photosynthesis. “In a single forest,” says Simard, “a mother tree can be connected to hundreds of other trees.” These mature trees act as nodal anchors—like major hub sites on the Internet—for tree groupings; according to Simard, they look after their families, nurture seedlings and even share wisdom—information—when they are injured or dying.

Simard made another incredible discovery: that mother trees “recognize their kin.” In experiments her team ran using related and unrelated seedlings, the mother tree preferentially sent its excess carbon to kin over non-kin seedlings.

These discoveries pose some serious implications in how we do and should manage our forests. “You can take out one or two hub trees, but there’s a tipping point,” says Simard. “You take out one too many and the whole system collapses.”

Simard shared that “in 2014 the World Resources Institute reported that Canada in the past decade has had the highest forest disturbance rate of any country worldwide…In Canada it’s 3.6% per year…about four times the rate that is sustainable.”

“Massive disturbance at this scale is known to affect hydrological cycles, degrade wildlife habitat and emit greenhouse gases back to the atmosphere, which creates more disturbance and more tree die-backs,” says Simard. She adds that the practice of planting commercially valued species at the expense of the indigenous aspens and birches lacks complexity and promotes vulnerability to disease. It’s creating “a perfect storm,” Simard concludes.

Trees & Climate Change

A major international report on climate change shows that wildlife habitats will be dramatically impacted around the world. In Canada, this could fundamentally alter 65 per cent of its existing natural habitat in the boreal and Arctic regions, where warming will be the greatest. The report says that seven Canadian provinces – Ontario, Quebec, Alberta, British Columbia, the Yukon, Newfoundland and Labrador and Manitoba – will have more than half of their natural habitat at risk.

Simard asks: “Instead of weakening our forests, how can we reinforce them and help them deal with climate change?” She suggests four simple solutions:

  1. Get out into the forest and re-establish local involvement in our forests, using management techniques based on local knowledge
  2. Save our old-growth forests, the repositories of genetic material, mother trees and micorhizal networks
  3. Save the mother trees when cutting trees
  4. Regenerate our forests with a diversity of species types and structures

“Forests aren’t just a bunch of trees competing with each other; they are super-cooperators,” Simard points out. “The great thing about forests,” she reminds us, “is that as complex systems, they have an enormous capacity to self-heal.”

How Healing Trees Can Heal Us

Aside from being highly evolved water management specialists, trees are chemical factories that broadcast a host of aerosols into the atmosphere around them. Researchers have found over 120 substances, of which only half could be identified. These aerosols are part of a sophisticated survival strategy, writes botanist and biochemist Diana Beresford-Kroeger. Studies have shown that willows, poplars and maples warn each other about insect attacks; undamaged trees then pump bug-repelling chemicals to ward off the attack. Black walnut trees emit juglone, an aerosol that repels competing nearby plants and some insects. Scientists demonstrated that airborne communication between individual sagebrush plants (called “eavesdropping”) helped neighbouring plants resist attacks. The monoterpenes like pinene and linene can relieve asthma and even fight cancer.

You can read more about this in my book “Water Is… (Pixl Press).

 

1I give several lectures based on this general topic of world building for writers. One I gave recently, at CanCon2016 in Ottawa, focused on aquatic worlds, my scientific area of expertise.

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. Read Nina’s climate/eco-fiction Darwin’s ParadoxAngel of Chaos and Natural Selection.

 

A Rose By Any Other Name…

Bernese Oberland, bern…Would it smell as sweet? When Shakespeare first used that now famous line spoken by Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, he was no doubt evoking the importance of representative symbolism while suggesting that the true nature of the thing had its intrinsic value beyond its icon. Or did it? “’Tis but thy name that is my enemy,” Juliet goes on to say. “Thou art thyself.” Surely, in society, a name embodies the thing; the part the whole. We even have a word for that kind of metaphor. It’s called synecdoche.

It does bring to mind the importance of names in culture and literature. The name of a thing may often link it to its invariable destiny. Or is it the other way around? And does it matter, in the final analysis, whether “the name” is the function of existentialist predilection or the end result of fatalistic determination. Of the egg and the chicken, which comes first? And does it matter? Even for a writer—artist and “God of story”—this is not totally clear. How will we choose and how will we be interpreted?

 

My Name…

Nina_Woods_5

Nina hiking in an Ontario forest

Take my name, for instance. When I tell people my name I often add that my last name, Munteanu, means “from the mountain” in Romanian. I often fanaticized that my ancestors had come from the Transylvanian Alps of Romania. What I often forget to tell people is that my first name, Nina, means “little girl” in Italian, Spanish and Russian and God knows what other language in the universe. If you were to put the two names together, you would get the archetype represented by Heidi or Pipi Longstocking—depending on what kind of attitude you cared to promote. While I admired the feisty Swedish redhead’s unconventionality and fortitude, I, gravitated to the Heidi image—I identified with that spirited but ever-so-cute Shirley Temple version of an orphan girl who comes down from the pure fresh mountains and brings joy and laughter to the cynical world around her. As a child, I empathized with her stubborn crusade for truth and justice: that famous pout and little stomp of her foot as Heidi stood up to those big bullies and managed to endear herself into the hearts of everyone.

Okay. I’m not Heidi. But that archetype resonated with me as I was growing up. In some way, my empathy with the Heidi archetype played a role in my life-choices. Whether this resulted from gestalt psychology or universal determinism is likely not important. What is important in storytelling is how we as artists use this in our choice of names: all kinds of names, from places to events, to people and things (which for me as a science fiction and fantasy writer is equally important, given that many of the terms I use I created from my imagination). Let’s look at some examples…

 

Names in Literature and Film…

the MatrixNeo in The Matrix is an anagram for “One”. Before he changes his name to Neo, he goes by the name of Thomas Anderson. Thomas is Hebrew for “twin” (e.g., Agent Smith tells Neo, “you have been living two lives.”). Of course, Thomas was also one of Jesus’s disciples, the one who doubted. The Wachowski Brothers chose the names of all their main characters with careful purpose. Morpheus (the god of dreams, who takes Neo out of his dream); Trinity (who connects and unifies the “father” the “son” and the “holy spirit” through her faith).

Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird is a true country gentleman and modern knight, espousing the chivalric code of courage, humility, justice and service. Atticus draws an association from Attica of ancient Greece in which Athens was located. A place renowned for its wisdom, rational approach to life and its belief in justice. 

Luke Skywalker in George Lucas’s Star Wars is another clearly allegorical name that evokes the hero’s journey. Luke, besides reflecting Lucus’s alter-ego, also means “light”. The name Skywalker effectively portrays a god-like individual who must wander far in a heavenly walkabout on his quest for freedom and justice and the light of truth. George Lucas created allegorical identities with most of his Star Wars characters from Han Solo to Princess Leia Organa.

Becky Sharp in William Thackery’s Vanity Fair dispensed her “sharp” wit to manipulate her entire world from the dull-witted Amelia Sedley to her high society suitors. Her last name also carries connotations of a “sharper” or con-man.

Scarlet O’Hara of Margaret Mitchel’s Gone with the Wind was a woman who breathed fire and passion.  She epitomized the famous quote of Victor Frankl:  what is to give light must endure burning. She burns all right; and lives—humbled and enlightened and even more determined.

John Crichton-S1

John Crichton (Ben Browder)

John Crichton in David Kemper’s Farscape. Choosing the name John for the main character identified him as a “universal everyman” and representative of humanity, from his frequent references to pop culture to his off-colour jokes about humanity in general. The name also identifies the kind of hero he portrays. He is not some super-hero with extra-ordinary powers or qualities. He is an ordinary man who finds himself in extraordinary circumstances; he is you and me. Together with the name Crichton, this associates him with adventuring, generosity, idealism and inspiration. Indeed, this character proves himself a very different kind of hero. John Crichton is a diplomat, a humorist, a clown, an intellectual and strategist all rolled into one. A warrior poet.

Inner-diverse-front-cover-WEB

Rhea Hawke, Galactic Guardian

I chose the name Rhea Hawke in my trilogy The Splintered Universe to represent the complex and paradoxical nature of the lead character. The Titan Goddess Rhea is the mother of all gods, including Zeus, giving birth and nurturing all that she has created. Those of you who have read Outer Diverse, Inner Diverse and Metaverse (Books 1 to 3 of The Splintered Universe Trilogy) will recognize that Rhea Hawke is, in fact, an agent of death. She is essentially an assassin for the Galactic Guardians; one who invented a much coveted devastating weapon of mass destruction, the MEC (that selectively maims, kills or leaves alone any species based on their unique DNA signature).  This aspect of her character of course fits with the hawk, the stealthy keen-eyed predator. A creative predator. But, there is a nurturing, soft and “mothering” side to Rhea beneath her predatory bravado. It reveals itself through sub-text and subtle metaphor. Rhea Hawke is ultimately a paradox. Like her name. Like most of us.

Cover1_LastSummoner-frontcoverLady Vivianne Schoen, the Baroness von Grunwald, in my historical fantasy The Last Summoner, is a being of light who can travel time-space and must alter history starting with the Battle of Grunwald in 1410. Her first name derives from the Latin vivus meaning alive or the French word vivre for life. And live she must—for over six hundred years— if she is to succeed in recasting history to make this a better world. There is an ironic layer to her name, but I can’t reveal it here for those who haven’t yet read the book. In future Paris she meets François Rabelais, named after the 15th Century satirist, philosopher and dissident. While this youth on the surface represents the antithesis of the medieval scholar, he finally reveals himself as a philosopher warrior and humanist like his 15th Century namesake.

 

Names as Symbols of a Changing Culture…

Names—what we call things—are supreme icons for a culture of a time and place to identify and define its archetypes, values, symbols and hegemonies. Names define an entire zeitgeist.

Think of the word chivalry. Derived from the 11th Century French term chevalier (horseman), the term came to be understood in the 12th Century and later as a moral, religious and social code of knightly conduct. The code generally emphasized the virtues of courage, honor, purity and service. The term also described an idealization of the life and manners of the knight at home in his castle and with his court, embodying notions of “courtly love” and devotion to God and country. However, when it originated in the 11th Century, chivalry meant simply the “status of fee associated with military follower owning a war horse.”

The Sufi word futuwwa shares similar connotations to chivalry and virtue. Futuwwa was also the name of ethical urban guilds in Medieval Muslim realms that emphasized the virtues of honesty, peacefulness, gentleness, generosity, avoidance of complaint and of hospitality in life. However, Al-Futuwa was also the name of the Arab-Nationalist Young Arab Association and the Hitler-Jugend style pan Arab fascist nationalistic youth movement in Iraq in the 1930s to 50s.

Speaking of Hitler and Nazi Germany, another name and symbol, the swastika—which in Bernese Oberland, bernthe modern post-WW2 world has become synonymous with fascism and anti-Semitism—was in fact an ancient symbol of prosperity that represented the revolving sun, fire or life. In the ancient language of Sanskrit, swastika means “well-being”. It was used widely in ancient Mesopotamia, South and Central American Mayan art, by the Navajos and continues to symbolize the four possible places of rebirth in Jainism and night-magic-purity-destruction to Hindus.

Choose your names carefully and with purpose.

 

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. Read Nina’s climate/eco-fiction Darwin’s ParadoxAngel of Chaos and Natural Selection.

 

When Art Tangos with Science

purple mountainsImagination is more important than knowledge—Albert Einstein

 

I tell stories. I’m also a scientist. I use the scientific method in my research to seek truth; I also find truth presented to me through the symbols of intuition.

A few years ago, I was introduced to Krista Fogel, a University of British Columbia masters student, who was investigating the use of creative art in high-ability scientists. She named her thesis: “The Self-Perceived Experience of Investigating Science with an Artistic Spirit: A Hermeneutic Phenomenological Study of High Ability Scientists Who Also Engage in the Arts”. Hermeneutic, by the way, is the development and study of theories of the interpretation and understanding of texts (I had to look it up) and phenomenology is an approach to philosophy through the study of phenomena.

Krista wanted to interview me as part of her project. I was flattered, of course. Me, a High Ability Scientist? Who’d told her that? Once I got past my own humble angst, I found Krista’s questions bracing; they reopened a world of compelling ideas I had carried with me for some time. The concept of using art to do good science has dwelled inside me since registration day at Concordia University when I quit my fine arts program to pursue a science degree only to come full circle and write fiction. I got my Masters Degree in Ecology and Limnology and was then working as a scientist for an environmental consulting firm (I now write and teach writing full time). I did research, drove boats, collected samples and analyzed data then wrote up my findings and made recommendations. I wrote science fiction novels on the side.

“History shows that eminent scientists, such as Leonardo da Vinci, also engaged in the arts,” said Fogel. She went on to cite 400 other famous scientists who also practiced art at a high level. “If not entirely engaged in the arts, scientists throughout history have at least engaged in science with an artistic spirit. Scientists and artists use common tools for thinking such as intuition and imaginative processes.”

Krista and I met several times at the local Starbucks, where I “toked” on coffee as she fumbled with her notes. A young gal with a direct but unassuming gaze and a gentle smile, Krista asked me to share my personal experience of mixing art with science. Every good scientist is an artist at heart: science is the tool and art is the process.

Fogel concluded that when conducting scientific investigations with an artistic spirit, the scientist holds her heart central, from which the artist springs. This “allows us to connect with serendipitous occurrences, which breed discovery,” Fogel added.

You can train your mind as both artist and scientist to become more aware of serendipitous occurrences around you. I call it being in sync and wrote about it in a previous article here (“Writing in Sync”). Often, when I’m researching a novel, I pick up things serendipitously. Something will come up that just fits with what I was searching for. An article pops up in the news. Or I’m talking to someone and they bring up just the topic I am researching. These things always happen to me. This occurs not only in my fiction writing but in my scientific pursuits. Some years ago, I was doing a pollution study using glass slides for colonizing algae to compare communities of an urban stream to those of an agricultural stream. I was really looking to see the difference between communities of these different stream environments when I discovered that the algae were colonizing the glass surfaces according to the current. Compelled with more questions of why, how and what if, I pursued this new line of research (which turned out to be far more interesting than my original research premise) and wrote several ground-breaking papers on it.

Indeed, questions like “why” and “what if” are germane to both art and science; the ‘what if’ question is the science fiction writer’s mantra and the premise, which comes from the artist part of you: imagination and an inquisitive and open mind. The idea of seemingly unrelated events intersecting to produce meaningful patterns has spawned new notions of thought from the scientific study of spontaneous order in the universe (synchrony), to Synchromysticism — the discovery of convergent archetypal symbols in pop culture (e.g., books, music and film).

Writer and philosopher Jake Kotze suggests that, “Synchronicity happens when we notice the bleed-through from one seemingly separate thing into another — or when we for a brief moment move beyond the mind’s divisions of the world.” Synchronicity and serendipitous discovery, like metaphor, appears when we change the way we look at things.

Serendipitous discovery comes to us through peripheral vision. Like our muse, it doesn’t happen by chasing after it; it sneaks up on us when we’re not looking. It comes to us when we focus outward and embrace our wonder for this world. When we quiet our minds and nurture our souls with beauty. It is then that what we had been seeking naturally comes to us. Like a gift.

Author Sibyl Hunter tells us that “Sync operates as an undercurrent of divine awareness personified through the myriad processes and symbols that make up the building blocks of our reality. Within that current, we spin our modern-day myths into books, fairy tales and movies, subconsciously retelling ourselves the same story over and over.” This also holds true in the models and metaphors of scientific genius, which often spring from the creativity of an intuitive heart and imaginative mind.

According to Mark A. Runco (California State University) “creativity depends on originality, while accomplishment and achievement reflect other problem-solving skills. Creative thinking involves at least three things: 1) the cognitive capacity to transform experience into original interpretations, 2) an interest in producing original interpretations, and 3) discretion.” The title of Piaget’s monograph, To Understand Is to Invent, reflects the fact that we do not have an authentic understanding of our experience until we construct that understanding for ourselves. In other words, “it is one thing to memorize some datum; it is quite another to discover it for one’s self; only then do we understand,” says Runco. Fogel concurs: “what Piaget called invention is a kind of creation, a creation of personal meaning. Piaget tied assimilation to imaginative play into creative interpretation.”purple mountains

According to Dean Keith Simonton (University of California), even the most illustrious creative geniuses of history have careers riddled by both hits and misses, both successes and failures. He uses Albert Einstein as an example. A man who has achieved almost mythical status as a genius, Einstein’s career “was plagued by terrible ideas, false starts and surprising disasters.” Simonton tells the story of Einstein’s debate with Niels Bohr over the implications of quantum theory, in which Einstein offered a series of arguments that Bohr countered. Bohr once even pointed out that Einstein failed to take into consideration the theory of relativity! According to some, Einstein wasted the final years of his career working on a unified field theory that was almost universally rejected by his colleagues. Einstein defended his missteps by noting that errors can advance science so long as they are not trivial; the greater the error, the greater the opportunity for new perspective and discovery.

It is left for us to simply recognize the dance.

 

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. Read Nina’s climate/eco-fiction Darwin’s ParadoxAngel of Chaos and Natural Selection.

 

Moving From Prosaic to Spectacular

woman-writing-a-bookWhat makes some writing stunning and other writing lackluster? Mostly, it’s the language—the words—you use. And, it isn’t just what words you use; it’s how you use them. Here are a few things you need to consider when translating your work into something that “sings”.

Use Active Verbs and Reduce Modifiers

Many writers, not just beginners, slide into the pattern of using passive and weak verbs (e.g., were, was, being, etc.). Then they add a modifier to strengthen it. It doesn’t. Actively look for strong, vivid verbs. This is the key to good writing. Active and powerful verbs move a story forward. For instance, which version is more compelling?

Jill was walking quickly into the room.

or…

Jill stomped into the room.

The second example not only more quickly and efficiently demonstrates how Jill entered the room, but demonstrates with what attitude. There is no substitute for the use of powerful, appropriate verbs in sentences.   

Avoid Excessive & Meaningless Prose

Novice writers often use too many words to describe an event, action or scene. An overabundance of words slows down the story and obscures plot and action. Excessive prose includes:

Repetition: many beginning writers will often first tell then show in a scene. You don’t need to do both; trust the reader to get the “show”.

Extraneous words: e.g. “he started to think” instead of “he thought”; use of the obvious such as “she saw the big man lying on the bed” instead of “a big man lay on the bed” (“she saw” is implied through her POV). This second example also demonstrates how you can shift the readers’ attention from “her seeing” (in the first phrase) to “the man lying” on the bed (in the revised phrase). This simple change can create a much more powerful sentence through the seamless shift in reader attention.

Dull description not related to plot: I recently edited a writer’s over 400-page urban fantasy that contained far too much ordinary detail. Detail that, in small doses, may have enlightened the reader on the qualities of the protagonist; but in larger doses ground the narrative to a boring halt.

When you look for a more efficient and purposeful way to say something, you cut out unnecessary detail. Remember that virtually all description should be related to the plot and theme of the story.

Alliteration, Metaphor, Simile, Personification

These devices bring lyricism and cadence and powerful imagery to your prose. However, as with anything powerful, you need to use these judiciously. Use them where you wish to convey a strong image and to punctuate your prose.

Be Mindful of Word Accuracy

More often than you might think, a writer inadvertently misuses a word to convey an idea or emotion. For instance, let’s consider the following sentence, which describes a character’s reaction to a dog being cruelly mishandled:

“What are they doing?” Jack said crossly.

The modifier crossly suggests that Jack lacks compassion; it infers petulant annoyance.

“What are they doing?” Jack scowled.

Scowled still suggests the same icy disdain, though it may have been delivered with false bravado or through genuine discomfort from a hidden compassion. If the writer wished to convey shock, disgust or compassion, the following would better represent that sentiment:

“What are they doing?” Jack said, eyes wide.

Or:

“What are they doing?” Jack stammered.

Avoid Using Words like “Felt” or “Seem”

These “telly” words prevent the reader from directly experiencing the story by imposing a level of interpretation. For example, “he felt himself falling” can be improved to “he fell”. If you want to spice up the phrase, use another verb: “he toppled” “he stumbled” or “he crashed”.

Read your Writing Aloud & Punctuate Your Pauses

It isn’t just a clever metaphor when they say your writing style is called your “voice”; because your readers “listen” to what you write. Reading out loud helps define cadence, tone and pace of your prose and streamlines your writing. When you read aloud, pay attention to where you naturally pause. You may wish to put in a comma, semi-colon or period there.

Size and Vary Your Paragraphs  

Paragraphs are visual elements that help people read; they break up text on a page in logical places to provide white space for reader ease. I’ve heard people quote the “two-inch” rule for maximum paragraph length and I concur. This is one of the reasons some passages are harder to read than others; long paragraphs are more tiring to the eye. Find those logical breaks and put them in. Varying paragraph length creates a more interesting story “landscape” for the reader. Don’t be afraid to go to some extremes like using the one sentence – or even one word – paragraph.

Size and Vary Your Sentences  cool texture

As with paragraphs, overly long sentences can try a reader’s patience and you may lose them entirely. Too many short choppy sentences can also reduce your prose to a mundane level. Varying your sentence length in a paragraph creates the lyricism and cadence that makes prose enjoyable to read.

 

 

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. Read Nina’s climate/eco-fiction Darwin’s ParadoxAngel of Chaos and Natural Selection.