Parallel Plotting: Mirror, Mirror on the Wall…

ws_Forest_Dirt_Road-long“The common definition of plot,” says Ansen Dibell, author of Elements of Fiction Writing: Plot, “is that it’s whatever happens in the story.” But, “it doesn’t tell you how to make one,” he adds. “Plot is built of significant events in a given story—significant because they have important consequences.”

Dibell describes plot as a tapestry of pattern, form, shape and color that share recognizable meanings. And subplots are the threads that make up the story’s fabric. Parallel plots, braided plots … even the terms reflect a flowing river. This is an apt metaphor, particularly given that, as Dibell reminds us, “plot is a verb.” It is the engine that moves the story.

Subplots are more common in long fiction, where they are used to deepen a story and add layers that make it more intriguing and tease out more depth to the story. Subplots may provide varying aspects of a theme, from community to individual as played out by different characters. Ultimately, subplots and how they are crafted, provide the writer with the means to transcend plot into what Dibell calls pattern.

Parallel Plotlines & Patterns

Dibell describes “braided” plots, in which two or more subplots are woven together, and parallel plotlines, in which two plots share almost equal footing. This happens when strong protagonists carry each plot. Parallel plotlines often run counterpoint to each other in pace, tone and color. Each plot becomes richer and stronger when contrasted with the other. And they are always connected in some way, in many ways.

In Matrix Reloaded, Neo’s introspective and thoughtful plot with the architect of the matrix runs counterpoint with Trinity’s action plot as she sabotages the matrix and battles an agent. Both demonstrate conflict and tension but the tone and pace are opposite. This contrast only heightens each plot line.

Notice also how the two plot lines are connected and eventually converge in the final scene where Neo saves Trinity’s life by restarting her heart. Earlier on in, while Trinity is totally engrossed in her problems, Neo becomes aware of her struggle through the architect’s artful hint; this prompts Neo to choose his path to join her plot. His awareness is the bridge between the two plotlines. If you look carefully, you will find many other ways the two plotlines are connected, visually, mentally and viscerally and how they inevitably draw together in that riveting last scene; “how thoroughly,” Dibell says, “the story belongs to itself.”

Mirrored Pattern on the Wall…

Scenes, characters, and plots can be mirrored. It starts with identifying two situations that can be tagged for connection and built-in recurrence. Mirrored plots often run as double stories concurrently or through alternating flashback narration. Good examples include The Empire Strikes Back, Wuthering Heights and Lord of the Rings. My short story, The Arc of Time, used a double plot set 40,000 years apart, one played out with real characters and the other in the form of e-letters between two lovers. Both plots converged in the end.

Mirrored plots are achieved by setting up pairs of opposite and/or complimentary scenes that share emotional resonance.

Dibell provides these hints to create effective mirroring scenes:

  • Repeat one or more lines of dialogue (e.g. the “I love you” “I know” between Han and Leia in Star Wars).
  • Repeat a brief description of emotion.
  • Have the two situations go through similar stages.
  • Use similar imagery.
  • Ensure that subject and terms are the same.
  • Keep the polarities and emotional content the same.ws_Forest_Dirt_Road_1280x1024

Ultimately, the pattern that develops forms a moving story that has rhythm and cadence.

In short, nothing should happen at random. Plot should stem from “character under adversity” often with an urgent personal agenda. The plot of a story synthesizes the individual character subplots and subthemes and resonates with the overarching theme.

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.

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.

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.

 

 

On Ecology, Women and Science Fiction: Part 2, Praxis

marsh boatIn Part 1, Gnosis, I explored the nature of our current worldview, its shifting face and how literature and women writers have both contributed and enlightened this shift.

I talked with four women, all in the science fiction or eco-fiction genres; two are writers, and two are publishers. We discussed this shift, what it looks like, what the “feminine archetype” means and the nature of “Optimistic SF.”

When asked to describe SF today, Lynda Williams, author of the Okal Rel series, argued that, “SF is mainstream now … It has grown up, emotionally, from being about wish-fulfilling technologies … to embracing the social implications of change.” Stephanie Johanson, editor and co-publisher of Neo-opsis Science Fiction Magazine, notes that, “Science fiction often reflects the views of the day, following and expanding on newer technologies.” Williams adds that SF fiction has gained a literary presence, but at some expense: “now there’s a sordid fascination, in a lot of self-consciously dark SF, with self-interested cynicism and extended analogies to drug addiction as a means of coping with reality.” Johanson provided a different perspective. “Stories that predict doom have been around since the beginning of SF,” she argued. “But lately perhaps there might be more stories with a glimmer of hope … perhaps it won’t be science that destroys us … the right sciences might actually save us.” Editor and Publisher of On Spec Magazine, Diane Walton shares that she is seeing a lot of Post-Apocalyptic submissions, “mainly because it’s interesting to put your characters in a setting where the rules don’t apply any more. They have to try to rebuild the life and security and order they used to have, or else revert to savagery, or else adapt to a whole new set of circumstances—the choices are endless. Except zombies. I don’t want to see any more zombies.”

When asked if SF had a role in literature, Johanson suggested that, “SF has fewer limitations and more frontiers to explore than other genres.” Both Johanson and Walton suggest that its main role is to challenge our preconceived notions of the world and “open up the mind to new possibilities.” Walton and Williams agree that SF is recognized more today as “real” literature rather than being dismissed as “escapism.” Williams shares that SF’s roots are as old as myth. “Like myths and bible stories, SF is an instructive literature, pointing out how things can go wrong (or right) and why. The growing up SF has done since the 1950s lies in an increasing recognition that [humanity is its] own worst enemy and a better understanding of human nature is crucial to the problems we face, not just the hard sciences.”

I shared that I had witnessed (at least in my classrooms and writing workshops) a rising ecological awareness, reflected in a higher percentage of new writers bringing in works-in-progress (WIPs) that were decidedly “eco-fiction” or “climate fiction.”

“I have always gravitated towards, and often found, literature with ecological components,” Sarah Kades, author of Claiming Love confides. She then adds, “But I do agree with you that ecological awareness is not only gaining momentum, it is front and centre for many, and as such, we are naturally finding it more and more in literature.”

“I never thought of my own work as ecological,” shares Williams. “But it’s true: the underlying issue in it is how does, or can, the collective will prevent groups or individuals from destroying what is irreplaceably precious…Yes, I think SF has graduated from a fascination with building bigger death rays to tackling questions of how we avoid committing the unthinkable while still indulging in lots of entertaining conflict. Because conflict must exist in any story. We wouldn’t be human without it. There’s plenty of conflict in an ecosystem, too, but it stays balanced. SF used to be optimistic about scientific discoveries shifting the system out of balance in the direction of net gain for humankind. And this has happened. Even today’s poor are richer than yesterday’s. What worries us, increasingly, is whether some sudden imbalance could tip us into irreversible catastrophe because unlike 1950s readers we don’t trust smart and powerful people to act sanely in their quest for power.”

“I think that authors have come to a realization that the setting of a book can be just as strong a character (and character-builder) as the people in it,” says Walton. “Humans are so vulnerable, and must depend on their brains and skills at manipulating the environment to be able to adapt to harsh and potentially life-threatening situations…We don’t have fur, for example, or the ability to burrow under the sand to find shelter from a hot sun. So the books that embrace the environment, and that use it to present character-building challenges to the protagonists, can be more interesting than just a ‘good guys against bad guys’ story in any genre.”

Johanson provokes with the concept of awareness-guided perception—itself a valid cultural metric: “Perhaps there is an increase of ecological awareness in literature, or perhaps we are just noticing stories that have always been there.” This notion was discussed in a recent panel on Eco-Fiction in which I participated with Susan Forrest, Michael J. Martineck, Hayden Trenholm, and Sarah Kades at the writer’s festival When Words Collide in Calgary. One author 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. Johanson cites Brian Aldiss’ Helliconia trilogy, John Varley’s Titan trilogy, Joan D. Vinge’s The Snow Queen, and the works of Jules Verne. Classic titles Walton remembers from her younger days include John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar and Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Word for World is Forest; and more recently, The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. Walton includes the 1965 Dune series by Frank Herbert, given that the environment of the desert and how humanity has adapted to it plays a major role in the series.

I proposed that an awakening to the feminine archetype (cooperation, compassion, relationship, altruism) is occurring and currently reflected in literature. Johanson suggested that, “If [cooperation, compassion, relationship, and altruism] are used in balance with science and logic, there can be an optimistic future.” Had she seen this increasing in literature? “I don’t think so, but perhaps I have been reading the wrong stories,” Johanson admits. Kades shares a different perception. “I would definitely agree there is an awakening to the feminine archetype in our culture as a whole, and literature is reflecting this,” she argues. “The books that resonate most strongly for me are the ones that honour and celebrate both the feminine and masculine, stories that demonstrate mutual respect and successful collaboration between men and women. Throw humour and romance in there, too, and it’s irresistible.”

Walton observes that, “It’s definitely something that drives a story in a different direction from the more “male” pursuits of taking everything by force, or the lone-wolf hero solving problems without any collaboration with others.” She confides, “I loved the new Mad Max film, where compassion and collaboration made the story come alive. And yet, it has been accused, by some, of being a feminist propaganda film.”

Williams answers with a tale of two characters. “Amel, my prince-raised-as-pauper, is a hero of the pol virtues. Loosely speaking, we could call the pol virtues feminine. Horth Nersal, on the other hand, is an alpha male—a hero of the rel variety in Okal Rel theology. There are important female characters in my saga, but I have to confess my teenage self was simply more fascinated with heroic males for reasons inaccessible to my older, sager self. So, in my own work I could make the case that Amel’s problem-solving and character development is absolutely an example of an awakening to the feminine archetype. And he does wind up in power. But even as Amel gets his act together, after book six, and learns to use his more subtle kind of influence to make the world behave, Horth Nersal starts stealing the spotlight. I don’t quite know how this happened. And maybe Amel’s central, anchoring role throughout the series argues in favor of the feminine principle dominating. But I think the Amel/Horth dilemma isn’t unique to my own work. I see it crop up in other SF where, on the face of things, one might say the feminine archetype is in ascendance.”

Can we (as writers and editors and otherwise) foster such a change in worldview and gain a sense of place, purpose and meaning in our lives through it?

“If writers are writing stories to change the world, and I hope some are, then they should write stories that first entertain,” Johanson advises writers. “It doesn’t matter how great a theory, or how good an idea, if it doesn’t entertain, fewer people will read it. This also applies to editors. Karl and I decided early on that we wanted to teach people with the stories we published in Neo-opsis Science Fiction Magazine. We wanted our readers so entertained that they wouldn’t necessarily realize that their views had just been broadened.”

“As a writer I feel a rather persuasive responsibility to help foster positive social change,” says Kades. “For me it is considerable motivation of the stories that take turns between calming, weaving, and banging around in my head, eager to get out. And stories don’t have to tackle epic social issues to be a conduit of positive social change. Stories that create new ‘normals’ of compassion, respect and tolerance are just as important and interesting as stories that address specific social issues. To create change, first we must imagine it. Writers can help with that.”

“I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about meaning and purpose these days,” Williams confides. “First, we need to foster creativity in others and respect it in ourselves. But in both cases we must challenge our creative cravings to do work. I personally believe the richest entertainment comes not just from simple wish-fulfillment narratives – although these are fun and perfectly at home in epic literature – but from touching a raw nerve here and there, and making sure the ‘bad guys’ are at least as realistic as the heroes, not just straw men defeated by a better ray guy. Best of all, can a resolution be found in which the bad guys co-exist with their conquerors? At least think about it, and how your society might avoid problems cropping up again, and make that part of the fabric of your tale.”

“I’m not sure I agree with this being part of my role as an editor,” Walton shared. “It may be that I am drawn more to the kinds of books and stories that espouse this concept, and thus more likely to buy them to publish. We are all gatekeepers of some kind or another. One thing that is interesting is the recent brouhaha over the Hugo awards, where, I think, the various ‘puppy’ slates would look on any sort of eco-fiction that embraced the feminine archetype as being something only a Social Justice Warrior would like. Some people just don’t want their worldview changed, I guess.”

…Which brings me to “Optimistic SF” and what it represents. In a recent discussion with Lynda Williams over several Schofferhofers at Sharkey’s Pub in Vancouver, we shared our thoughts on how the evolution of the science fiction genre and the place that optimism holds in literature and art, generally. Is “saving the world” and “The Hero’s Journey” still viable in literature today? And how many Schofferhofers does it take to get there?

“I’ve asked people to help me define ‘Optimistic SF’ on my blog,” Lynda shares. “Check out what we’ve got so far at http://realityskimming.com/2015/09/10/fall2015optimisticsf/ and leave your own suggestions if something springs to mind. My own definition has to do with how a story makes me feel. If I’m entertained and emerge feeling there’s some point to living another day rather than convinced human beings are a bad idea best eliminated quickly before they do more harm, it’s optimistic SF. I want to encourage the notion that it’s not dumb or simple minded to strive for improving the world or defending moral behavior when feasible.”

Johanson adds that, “I became a fan of SF, because of stories that I might now classify as ‘Optimistic SF’, stories that made me look forward to the future, characters that I would love to have as friends, and places I wanted to explore. Optimistic literature to me isn’t free from problems. It wouldn’t be a story if everything was splendid. It is conflict that makes a story, but optimistic SF solves problems, and by the end of the story things are looking that much brighter. Anne McCaffrey wrote a lot of ‘Optimistic SF’. I was very fond of her Dragons of Pern series, though the later books by her son Todd McCaffrey seem far less optimistic in nature. I found many of Larry Niven’s novels to be optimistic, like the Ringworld books. Lynda Williams’ Okal Rel novels have a lot of suffering in them, but her series has always seemed like ‘Optimistic SF’.” For Johanson, optimistic SF has at least one optimistic character, one positive goal achieved and a positive [resolved as opposed to ‘happy’] ending, not “leaving evil posed to strike.” She suggests that this includes “overcoming adversity, exploring, discovering, and/or self-growth.”

Walton submits that optimistic SF is, in fact, a challenge to write, “because you still need to have some kind of antagonist (be it human, alien or environment) to make the protagonist want or need something enough to take risks and go on that literary journey. Maybe the optimism comes from stories that are ‘less dark’ than others?”

Lynda Williams openly shared her ambitions for her recent publishing venture, Reality Skimming Press: “Reality Skimming Press is my answer to how to continue being creative now I’m post-published. Not just to keep the Okal Rel Saga in print, although that’s my core motivation for even considering becoming a publisher. But to be brazen enough to talk about ideas and art and what it means to be optimistic, for example, instead of bowing to the demands of commercial success and elusive, fickle fame. Arguably, Reality Skimming Press is the ultimate feminine solution where the meaningfulness of the work and quality of the relationships, on and off the page, trump the call to do battle for the big prizes. Success is lovely, of course. And showers of gold and fame wouldn’t be scornfully rejected. It’s more a case of asking the question: ‘Would I do this even if I never got rich or famous?’ And if the answer is ‘yes’ to have the courage to keep enjoying the journey.”martian_chronicles

Sarah Kades echoed my initial discovery in “responsibility and connection,” noted in my first article, with her admission: “It was rather startling [to] first realize [that] the responsibility I feel [in writing] socially relevant stories is not universally held among writers. It is not, which is of course just fine; it just surprised me because of how [strong] it is in me. The knowledge brought my writing and my voice into sharper focus for me.”

 

 

nina-LL-interviewe-closerNina Munteanu is an award-winning Canadian ecologist and novelist. In addition to eight published novels, she has authored short stories, articles and non-fiction books, which have been translated into several languages throughout the world. She is currently an editor of European zine Europa SF and writes for Amazing Stories. Nina teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Her latest book “Water Is…” (release May 10 2016 by Pixl Press; available for pre-order April 12) is a non-fiction examination of the meaning of water.

Lynda WilliamsLynda Williams is the author of the ten-novel Okal Rel Saga and editor of the growing collection of works by Hal Friesen, Craig Bowlsby, Krysia Anderson, Elizabeth Woods, Nina Munteanu, Randy McCharles and others writing works set in the ORU. As a publisher, she is working with Kyle Davidson, Jeff Doten, Sarah Trick, Jennifer Lott, Paula Johanson, Lynn Perkins and Yukari Yamamoto in re-inventing publishing through Reality Skimming Press. Lynda holds three degrees and works as Learning Technology Analyst and manager of the Learn Tech support team at Simon Fraser University. She teaches part-time at BCIT.

Sarah KadesSarah Kades hung up her archaeology trowel and bid adieu to Traditional Knowledge facilitation to share her love of the natural world and happily-ever-afters. She writes literary romantic eco-fiction where nature, humour and love meet. She lives in Calgary, Canada with her family. Connect with Sarah on Facebook, Twitter and www.sarahkades.com.

 

Stephanie and IsaacStephanie Johanson is the art director, assistant editor, and co-owner of Neo-opsis Science Fiction Magazine, publishing since 2003. She is an artist who has worked in a variety of media, though painting and soapstone carving are her passions. Stephanie paints realism with a hint of fantasy, often preferring landscapes as her subjects. Examples of her work can be viewed on the Neo-opsis Science Fiction Magazine website at www.neo-opsis.ca/art.

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Diane-Walton02Diane Walton is currently serving a life sentence as Managing Editor of On Spec Magazine, and loving every minute of it. She and her lovely and talented husband, Rick LeBlanc, share their rural Alberta home with three very entitled cats.