Moving From Prosaic to Spectacular

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Reading on Algonquin Island, Lake Ontario (photo by Nina Munteanu)

What 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.

Looking at Ward Island from Algonquin Is.

View of Ward Island from Algonquin Island (photo by Nina Munteanu

Size and Vary Your Sentences  

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

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Montreux, Switzerland (photo by Nina Munteanu)

In 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. 

 

 

On Ecology, Women and Science Fiction: Part 1, Gnosis

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Montreux, Switzerland (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I’m an ecologist. We look at why things happen and work, and—perhaps most importantly—how they affect one another. Ecology is the science of relationships and consequence. I taught at the University of Victoria for several years then conducted environmental assessments as a limnologist (aquatic ecologist) for environmental consulting firms in British Columbia.

Nina looking up dougfir-LHP

Nina next to giant Douglas fir, Vancouver (photo by Margaret Ross)

My short stories and novels are—no big surprise—mostly eco-fiction. It’s been that way since I started high school in Quebec, in fact. That first year, when I fervently expressed exhortations for global environmental action, a well-meaning, but myopic teacher chided me for my extravagant worldview. “Stick to little things and your community—like recycling,” he’d suggested patronizingly.

I remember the shock of realizing that not everyone felt the planet like I did. Perhaps it was a teenage-thing, or a girl-thing, or a nina-thing. I prayed it wasn’t just a nina-thing

For the past few years I’ve been teaching writing at the University of Toronto and George Brown College in Ontario. I teach a workshop-style class that involves students bringing in and working on their current Work-In-Progress (WIP). And I’ve been noticing an interesting trend. Something cool is happening in my classes. More and more students are bringing in WIPs on ecological and global environmental issues. Many of the stories involve a premise of environmental calamity, but not in the same vain as previous environmental disasters that depict “man” against Nature. These works give the Earth, Nature or Water an actual voice (as a character). And a protagonist who learns to interact with it cooperatively.

EcologyOfStoryFor me this represents a palpable and gestalt cultural awakening in the realm of the “feminine archetype”.

The history of storytelling and of humanity’s evolution—how we relate to each other and our environment—are inextricably tied. The stories we tell—whether fiction or non-fiction—reflect who we are, what we value, and what we will become. Good stories are about relationships and their consequences.

Our capacity—and need—to share stories is as old as our ancient beginnings. From the Paleolithic cave paintings of Lascaux to our blogs on the Internet, humanity has left a grand legacy of ‘story’ sharing. Evolutionary biologist and futurist Elisabet Sahtouris tells us that, “whether we create our stories from the revelations of religions or the researches of science, or the inspirations of great artists and writers or the experiences of our own lives, we live by the stories we believe and tell to ourselves and others.”

Front Cover ONLY-webI mentioned that the majority of my stories are science fiction (SF). SF is a literature of allegory and metaphor and deeply embedded in culture. It draws me because it is the literature of consequence exploring large issues faced by humankind. In a February 2013 interview in The Globe and Mail I described how by its very nature SF is a symbolic meditation on history itself and ultimately a literature of great vision: “Speaking for myself, and for the other women I know who read science fiction, the need is for good stories featuring intelligent women who are directed in some way to make a difference in the world…The heroism [of women] may manifest itself through co-operation and leadership in community, which is [often] different from their die-hard male counterparts who want to tackle the world on their own. Science fiction provides a new paradigm for heroism and a new definition of hero as it balances technology and science with human issues and needs.”

Author Marie Bilodeau in the same interview added that, “the best part about writing science fiction is showing different ways of being without having your characters struggle to gain rights. Invented worlds can host a social landscape where debated rights in this world – such as gay marriage, abortion and euthanasia – are just a fact of life.”

Once the almost exclusive domain of male writers and readers, SF has been steadily changing, attracting more women writers and women readers. It is no coincidence that mainstream literary fiction writer Margaret Atwood began to write science fiction (which she still calls speculative fiction) in the 1980s with Handmaid’s Tale, and that her last five books are pure science fiction, mostly dystopias that explore the evolution of humanity.

Science fiction is maturing.

NaturalSelection-front-webWe’ve progressed from the biological to the mechanical to the purely mental, from the natural world to a manufactured world to a virtual world, writes philosopher and writer Charles Eisenstein. According to Carolyn Merchant, professor at UC Berkley, early scientists of the 1600s used metaphor, rhetoric, and myth to develop a new method of interrogating nature as “part of a larger project to create a new method that would allow humanity to control and dominate the natural world.”

“The modern self,” writes Eisenstein, has become, “a discrete and separate subject in a universe that is other [something SF writers know and write about]. It is the economic man of Adam Smith; it is the skin-encapsulated ego of Alan Watts; it is the embodied soul of religion; it is the selfish gene [of Richard Dawkins].”

Darwins Paradox-2nd coverCompetition is a natural reaction based on distrust—of both the environment and of the “other”—both aspects of “self” (as part) separated from “self” (as whole). The greed for more than is sustainable reflects an urgent fear of failure and a sense of being separate. It ultimately perpetuates actions dominated by self-interest and is the harbinger of “the Tragedy of the Commons”.

According to Elisabet Sahtoutis, humanity is currently poised on a tipping point. Thousands of years of national and corporate empire-building have reached a tipping point in planetary exploitation, says Sahtouris, “where enmities are more expensive in all respects than friendly collaboration.”

Competition naturally gives way to creative cooperation as trust in both “self” and the “other” develops and is encouraged. “Communities with many cooperators and altruists do better than groups dominated by narrow and selfish thinking,” writes Alain Ruche, strategist for the Secretary General of the EU External Service. Ruche adds that a biological predisposition to cooperate appears to be independent of culture.

Water Is-COVERExamples of creative cooperatives exist throughout the world, offering an alternative to the traditional model of competition. Cultural creatives are changing the world, Ruche tells us. These creatives, while being community-oriented with an awareness of planet-wide issues, honor and embody feminine values, such as empathy, solidarity, spiritual and personal development, and relationships. Mechanisms include reciprocity, trust, communication, fairness, and a group-sense of belonging. I give examples in my upcoming book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press, due in Spring 2016.

In the September 2009 Peace Summit in Vancouver B.C., the Dalai Lama shared that “the world will be saved by the western woman.” This “call to adventure” by His Holiness reflects the hero’s journey steps suggested by Richard Tarnas in the epilogue of his book The Passion of the Western Mind: “the driving impulse of the West’s masculine consciousness has been its dialectical quest not only to realize itself, to forge its own autonomy, but also, finally, to recover its connection with the whole, to come to terms with the great feminine principle in life…to reunite with the mystery of life, of nature, of soul.”

Log over water forest-DeasPark

Deas park, BC (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Poised and ready, rising from its previous dualistic perception, the soul finds Home in Wholeness, and returns to the intrinsic truth of the world. The world realizes itself within and through the human mind, projecting a fractal vision of a holonomic universe.

To return to science fiction, my point is that the stories I’m seeing more and more—whether by established writers or by my own students—are reflecting this emerging worldview. It is the worldview of Jung and synchronicity; of David Bohm and “implicate order”; of Rudolf Steiner and “cosmic intelligence”, of biochemist Mae-Wan Ho and “quantum entanglement”, of Frans de Waal and “empathy”, and of Matt Ridley and “altruism”.

In Part 2 (Praxis), I provide examples and interviews with other writers.

 

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.

 

How to Write Science Fiction at George Brown College April 2016

nina-workshop 2This April, I will teach my 12-week long writing course on how to write science fiction.  The 12-week course “Creating Science Fiction” runs TUESDAY nights from 6:15 to 9:15 starting April 5th through to June 21st at George Brown College on King Street in Toronto and costs $285.

“Creating Science Fiction” is now part of George Brown’s Creative Writing Certificate.

See the description below:

Microsoft Word - GBC-SF course-APRIL2016 AD.docx

Meant for both beginning writers and those already published, the 12-week course is run like a workshop with student input and feedback on student’s WIPs.
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I explore with students the essential tools used in the SF genre (including world building, research and plot approaches). Students will work toward a publishable original piece by learning to generate and follow through with premise, idea and theme.
George Brown College is located on 200 King Street, Toronto, Canada.
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nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

What Genre Are You Writing … And Marketing?

Our multiplex world of discerning consumers is getting used to having what they consume laid out clearly and categorized. Literature is no different. Since the time of the ancient Greeks, when Aristotle proclaimed in his Poetics that poetry could be categorized into many “species”, critics have endeavored to label art to help the “commoner” interpret it.

Defining Genre

The word “genre” comes from the French word for “kind” or “gender” and provides a loose set of criteria for a category of composition. People in the book industry often use it to categorize literature.

“Genre” is notoriously difficult to define. For instance, what kinds of literary form should properly be called genres? Poetry is generally thought of as a literary “mode”, being too broad and too varied to be called a “genre”. The various types and forms of poetry are more properly called genres, such as the epic or the lyric.

A genre can be defined either by the formal properties of the work, or by its subject matter. A poem can be called a sonnet if it is 14 lines long, or described as an elegy if it speaks of the death of a loved or admired person.

Although genres are not precisely definable, genre considerations are one of the most important factors in determining what a person will see or read. Many genres have built-in audiences and corresponding publications that support them, such as magazines and websites. Some people think that books and movies that are difficult to categorize into a genre are likely to be less successful commercially. They’re probably right. And this is why we do it.

So, if you haven’t figured out what “genre” your writing falls under, start figuring it out now; your future publisher and marketer will want to know because they, in turn, have to tell their distributor and bookseller where to shelve the book. This is why you need to do this; the alternative is leaving it to Jack in the marketing department who may not have even read your book, but used the cover picture to figure it out. Yikes!

Genre Categories

Today’s Teacher provides the following list for genres in literature:

  • Biography/autobiography
  • Fantasy
  • Historical Fiction
  • Myths & Legends
  • Poetry
  • Science Fiction
  • Fairy Tales
  • Folk Tales
  • Mystery
  • Realistic Fiction
  • Non-Fiction
  • Short stories

They were pretty good in identifying the major genres but they missed Romance, Westerns, Horror, Erotica, Literary Fiction, Humor, and Young Adult (if you want to call that a genre). The point I’m making is that each person is bound to come up with a different list of genre categories. Go to five of your favorite bookstores (not just the chain stores, but the independent bookstores) and see for yourself how the professionals do it. It’s a miserable confusing mess. I’ve seen science fiction thrown in with fantasy and the whole category called “fantasy”. I’ve seen Diana Gabaldon’s historical time traveler series shelved under romance, mainstream and science fiction or fantasy depending on the bookstore. In truth, it’s all of these. Which brings us to cross-genre literature.

Crossing the Genre Lines

“Cross-genre”, also called “slipstream” or “interstitial fiction” or “fabulation”, is most commonly defined as fiction that crosses genre boundaries. Unless you’re Bruce Sterling, that is, who defines slipstream as:

A contemporary kind of writing which has set its face against consensus reality. It is fantastic, surreal sometimes, speculative on occasion, but not rigorously so. It does not aim to provoke a ‘sense of wonder’ or to systematically extrapolate in the manner of classic science fiction. Instead, this is a kind of writing that simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the late twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility. We could call this kind of fiction Novels of Postmodern Sensibility, but that looks pretty bad on a category rack, and requires an acronym besides; so for the sake of convenience and argument, we will call these books ‘slipstream.’

“…Simply makes you feel strange”? Although lots of writing may do that to me (of course, I’m strange already), I’m not sure that I would define “slipstream” as writing that “makes you feel strange”. This is because I don’t think you can pin it down; it’s too slippery a “creature”. However, I think that this form (or is it a movement?) is promising to be one of the most exciting things occurring in literature today.

Patrick Kelly, in Asimov’s Science Fiction, wrote:

Today, we have literally many dozens of writers in both mainstream and genre who are working from these influences and creating new forms of cross-pollination. The problem with talking about cross-genre is that it’s not a single movement–it’s a bunch of individual writers pursuing individual visions that tend to simply share some of the same diverse influences. So it’s difficult to pin down and say ‘this is what it is and what it isn’t.’ That’s what is exciting to me about it–that it is difficult to categorize. In a sense, that means it’s a complex, organic creature.

Some popular “cross-genre” mixes include:

  • Action comedy = action + comedy
  • Black comedy (tragicomedy) = tragedy + comedy
  • Comedy-drama (dramedy) = comedy + drama
  • Romantic comedy = romance + comedy
  • Science fiction Western = science fiction + western

A friend of mine who is part Cree writes “slipstream” or “cross-genre” works that are essentially unclassifiable. Although she is a great writer, she has yet to find a publisher. I know why; they don’t know how to market her books to the booksellers. Where do you put them on the bookshelf? What a conundrum for the publisher and bookseller alike.

But, things are changing and hopefully my friend will see the results of that change. The irony of “slipstream” defying categorization is that it may be the next bestseller.

“From the ‘Lord of the Rings’ box-office smashes in the theaters to adults reading ‘Harry Potter’ books on their commute, it seems that the fantasy genre has permeated the mainstream,” notes Alana Abott, with Thomson Gale (an e-research and educational publishing firm). “The publishing industry has noticed, and new books combining familiar mainstream forms such as historical fiction, romance, and chick-lit are beginning to see an influx of magic.” Cross-pollination is cool. Cross-genre is “in”.

What genre are you writing?

Steveston-boats

Steveston, BC (photo by Nina Munteanu)

 

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.

 

Creating Great Characters in Fiction

 

renoir-table-close01Fiction characters have a dramatic function and a role in advancing the plot and theme of your story. They need a reason to be there.

Your characters need to appear real without being real. Characters in fiction fulfill a dramatic function in the story for the reader and are, therefore, more logically laid out. They may, as a result, be more coherent, consistent and clear in their actions and qualities than a person in real life.

In his 1995 article in SF Writer called “On Writing: Constructing Characters”, Hugo and Nebula award winning SF author Robert J. Sawyer reminds us that “story-people are made-to-order to do a specific job.” This notion goes back “twenty-five hundred years to the classical playwrights,” says Sawyer. “In Greek tragedy, the main character was always specifically designed to fit the particular plot. Indeed, each protagonist was constructed with an intrinsic hamartia, or tragic flaw, keyed directly to the story’s theme.”

When we begin to tell stories, our characters can often suffer from lack of distinction or purpose; they will clutter and dilute a story’s promise. You may wish to focus on fewer rather than many characters. One way to tell if major and minor characters are fulfilling their role in story is to assign one or more archetypes to them (see my earlier article on archetypes in the Hero’s Journey). If you can’t come up with an archetype for that character, he or she may simply be there, filling up unneeded space. You might need to merge two characters into one or nix a few altogether. This is especially important in short story. The most common thing new writers do is clutter a short story with too many characters and associated sub-plots. These stories are actually novel-wanna-be’s.

You achieve distinction in characters, including minor characters through a number of ways. One is “voice”. A character’s “voice” must be unique. Give your character distinctive body movements, dress, speech, facial features and expressions that reveal his inner feelings, emotions, fears, motivations, etc. Then keep them consistent.

It may also be useful to create character dossiers on major characters to help keep track of their distinctive traits and keep these consistent. Dialogue is an excellent tool to reveal a person’s education, philosophy, biases, culture and history. A character’s inflections and common vernacular can be used to identify them from a particular region or culture.

Fictional characters come to life by giving them individual traits, real weaknesses and heroic qualities that readers can recognize and empathize with. You play these against each other to achieve drama. For instance, a man who is afraid of heights but who must climb a mountain to save his love is far more compelling than one who is not afraid; same for a military man who fears responsibility but must lead his team into battle; a shy scientist impelled to discovery; etc.—the hamartia that Sawyer talked about.

Highland cr in winter

Highland Creek, Ontario (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Make your character bleed, hurt, cry, and laugh. This needs to be clear to the reader, who wants to empathize with some of them and hate others. How characters interact with their surroundings and with each other creates tension, a key element to good storytelling.

“The lesson is simple,” Sawyer tells us. “Your main character should illuminate the fundamental conflict suggested by your premise.”

 

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.

 

 

Write a Story Title That Arouses

Think of the title to your story as the ultimate headline. It’s the first thing an editor reads of your work. Titles are often used by one reader to describe the story to another reader. According to Kathryn Bohnhoff, author of The Crystal Rose, “titles can determine whether a story is read, in what spirit it’s read, and whether it’s remembered by name or forgotten.” Choose it wisely.

Three Cardinal Rules for Title Selection

When choosing a title for your story it should be: 1) original; 2) easy to read; and 3) appropriate to your story.

Make your title original (like your story) and preferably unusual in some way. It’s best to use something that is different enough to stand out but not so different that it will be difficult to remember. It should “role” off the tongue with ease. Titles are best if they are short and not difficult to pronounce. One way to check this is to read it out loud. Some publicists have suggested that a title should be short enough (and therefore large enough) to be read from across a room. One or two word titles are often chosen for that reason. Lastly, your title should reflect the subject or heart of your story, but without giving it away. A title should be the ultimate tease, the ultimate promise. Titles, says Bohnhoff “can be like store windows that offer a tantalizing glimpse of what’s inside, or they can give away the entire inventory.”

Darwins Paradox-2nd coverTypes of Titles

The best titles are those that grow naturally out of the subject matter and capture the emotion and heart of the story. A title can be a play on words (e.g., You Only Live Twice) or convey several meanings at once (e.g., Darwin’s Paradox). A title could be the name of a place, thing of person (e.g., Doctor Zhivago). Titles can be metaphors or provide contradiction or irony (e.g., Calculating God). They can be a popular expression or harbor a hidden meaning that unfolds in the story (e.g., Pale Fire). They can also be a portion of a famous line (e.g., Brave New World).

Some Titles Are Better Than Others

collision with paradise1I chose the title, Collision with Paradise for my 2005 science fiction romantic thriller to convey the paradox of conflict and action in collision with the quest for well-being (paradise) that reflected my lead character’s own conflict. The two juxtaposed as oxymoron made the title provocative and readers became naturally curious. What made it particularly tantalizing—and me somewhat smug—was that the cover and the setting and premise/plot all resonated with the abstract theme. The plot involved the real collision of a spaceship with hotshot pilot on a planet with a jungle paradise. So, even though the title very accurately conveyed the overall theme, it didn’t give it away; the reader still had to tease it out through the subtext and subplots of the story.

Highland cr in winter

Highland Creek, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Whatever title you select, remember the three rules and keep it simple and relevant. Think of some titles of your favorite stories. Think of what the title conveys and what it quietly implies, given your knowledge of the story. Here are some to ponder: A Tale of Two Cities; Gone With the Wind; White Oleander; Lady Chatterley’s Lover; The Blue Sword; Return of the Native; Lord of the Flies.

 

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.