The Fifteenth International Writers’ and Artists’ Festival / Le XVe Festival International des écrivains et artistes–Quebec

best best group shotOn Friday, June 9th, I drove with friend, songwriter and poet Honey Novick, to the 15th International Writers’ and Artists’ Festival in Val-David, Quebec (June 10th and 11th, 2017). Celebrated artists, poets, writers and singers with an international heritage that included France, Chile, Argentina, Romania, Canada and the USA would congregate at the festival, set in a large house nestled deep in the Maple Laurentian forest.

The mixed Laurentian forest is called the “eastern forest-boreal transition” and includes a varied tapestry of broadleaf (aspen, oak, paper birch, mountain ash and maple) and conifer (pine, spruce and fir) trees.

Nina-fest-close-web

Nina Munteanu

When we reached our destination—a large three-story house surrounded by forest—I took in the aroma of fresh pine and “sweet fern” and spotted Bunchberry (soon to be designated Canada’s national flower), forget-me-nots and lupine carpeting the ground near the house. A young deer, foraging on a shrub’s new leaves beside the house, glanced at us without fear then slipped back into the forest.

I thought the setting ideal for an international festival celebrating the expression of the arts. I was scheduled to talk about my latest book Water Is…”, a personal and scientific journey with water, and to give a lecture on eco-fiction.

Outside-view-web

View outside my bedroom

Flavia Cosma, the originator and organizer of the festival for over a decade, greeted us at the door and in true Romanian-fashion immediately sat us down to eat and drink. After a seven-hour drive (we somehow ended up in Charlamagne, Celine Dion’s birthplace), I was hungry and enjoyed some of Flavia’s signature dishes, varză a la Cluj (cabbage a la Cluj) and salată boeuf (beef salad), made with carrots, parsley roots, eggs, potatoes, beef, pickles and peas mixed with mayonnaise. The view outside my bedroom on the third floor peered through tall firs to a mountain valley and the small village of Val-David. I looked forward to meeting poets, writers, musicians and artists the next day…

 

Day 1: Saturday

HoneyNovickBC-web

Honey Novick

Honey Novick (Toronto, Ontario), poet laureate of the Summer of Love Project 2007 Luminato Festival and winner of the Bobbi Nahwegahbow Memorial Award, opened the festival with an inspirational song.

Composers and singers Brian Campbell (Montréal, Quebec) and Ivan-Denis Dupuis (Sainte Adele, QC) provided additional and stirring song performance.

Louis Hebert

Louis-Philippe Hebert

Quebec author Louis-Philippe Hébert (Saint Sauveur, QC), winner of the Grand Prix Québecor du Festival de Poésie de Trois-Rivières and the Prix du Festival de Poésie de Montréal, read from his novel Un homme discret (Lévesque, 2017). Poet Julie de Belle read several poems, including When the sea subsides, finalist in the Malahat Review. Brian Campbell, finalist in the 2006 CBC Literary Award for Poetry, read from his book Shimmer Report (Ekstasis Editions, 2015).

FlaviaCosma-EarlyYears

Flavia Cosma

Poet and award-winning TV documentarist Flavia Cosma, who received the gold medal as an honorary member by the Casa del Poeta Peruano, Lima, Peru in 2010, nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and whose work has been used in University of Toronto literature courses, read from her collection of poems, The Latin Quarter (MadHat Press, 2015) and Plumas de Angeles (Editorial Dunken, 2008).

Felicia Mihali

Felicia Mihali

Romanian writer Felicia Mihali read from her novel La bien-aimée de Kandahar, nominated for Canada Reads 2013. Romanian author Melania Rusi Caragioiu, member of the Canadian Association of Romanian Writers, read from her book of poems Basm în versuri și poeme pentru copii in Romanian.

Nicole Davidson, the mayor of Val-David, read some of her poetry. Jeanine Pioger, French author of Permanence de l’instant, read a selection of her poetry. Jocelyne Dubois showed her artwork and Romanian artists Carmen Doreal and Eva Halus discussed their artwork and poetry.

water-is-cover-web“Water Is…”: I shared the inspiration and making of my latest book, “Water Is…”, a scientific study and personal journey as limnologist, mother, teacher and environmentalist, which was recently picked by Margaret Atwood in the NY Times as 2016 ‘Year in Reading’ and recommended by Water Canada as ‘Summer Reading’. I discussed how I first conceived the book as a textbook early in my career as a freshwater biologist and how it morphed from one idea into something completely different and why it is my most cherished work to date.

Day 2: Sunday

French poet David Brême gave a workshop on poetry and the cultural hybridization of franco-québécoise (atelier sur la poésie et l’hybridation culturelle franco québécoise), which he had given earlier in Toronto.

couzier_nane

Nane Couzier

Montreal poet from France and Senegal, Nane Couzier, read from her collection Commencements, honorable mention in le Prix de poésie 2016 des Écrivains francophones d’Amerique.

JocelyneDubois

Jocelyne Dubois

Novelist and short story writer Jocelyne Dubois read from her novel World of Glass, finalist for the 2013 QWF Paragraphe Hugh MaLennan Prize for fiction. Laurentian poet John Monette, author of the collection Occupons Montréal (Editions Louise Courteau, 2012) read several poems and Eva Halus, Romanian poet, read from her book Pour tous les Voyages. Chilean poet Tito Alvarado also read his poetry.

NasulTV-claudiuScrieciu

Claudiu Scrieciu of Nasul.TV Canada

Claudiu Scrieciu and Felicia Popa of Nasul.TV CanadaTeleviziunea Libera—the Canadian chapter of Romanian TV in St. Laurent, Quebec, televised aspects of the festival and the closing ceremony. Felicia, who interviewed me for their show, talked with me about “Water Is…”.

naturalselectionEco-Fiction: I discussed how eco-fiction evolved as a genre and its importance, both metaphorically and literally, in the literature of the Anthropocene (with a nod to Margaret Atwood’s 2016 challenge to a college audience in Barrie, Ontario, to write the stories that focus on our current global environmental crisis). I provided examples of ecological metaphor such as Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, Michael Ondaadje’s The English Patient, Frank Hebert’s Dune, and Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native. Astute questions, initiated by Flavia, led to an animated discussion on our ultimate participation in Nature, co-evolution, cooperation vs competition, soft-inheritance, DNA repair and the role and place of water in virtually all things.

The festival concluded at the Centre d’Exposition (art centre) of Val David with “Les Mots du Monde”, where poets, songwriters and writers performed readings and song to the community. The cultural setting and perfect acoustics provided a true inspiration for Honey Novick’s stirring opening songs—angelic in nature and in voice. I asked colleague Jeanine Pioger to read my essay “Why I Write,” which I had translated into French with help from colleague Betty Ing. The French version appears below.

toast02

Toasting the international festival

After the closing ceremony, Flavia invited participants to a grand dinner party at the festival house featuring authentic Romanian dishes, good wine and stimulating conversation.

The festival was a great success on many levels. Honey Novick astutely thanked Flavia in a Facebook post, “thanks for the wonderful memories, great inspiration, generous hearts and a tremendous weekend.”  I felt a great resonance and synchronicity throughout the weekend. It was as though we all embarked on a dimensional ride together, orchestrated by Flavia, that challenged, fulfilled and enlightened…I spoke English, French and puțin limba română. Foarte puțin… …And the food… OOHLALA!

Mulțumesc, Flavia! A fost minunat!

BrianCambell-ShimmerReportEva Halus-Pour tous les VoyagesLatinQuarter-flavia cosmaun homme discret

 

La raison pour laquelle j’écris

L’écriture est le souffle et la lumière de mon âme et la source de mon essence. Quand j’écris, je vis le moment présent. Je suis dans le moment de la création, connecté au Soi Divin, embrassant la nature et l’ensemble de l’univers fractal.

Je fais quelque chose d’important.

Je me connecte avec vous.

Isaac Asimov a dit : « j’écris pour la même raison que je respire — parce que si je ne le faisais pas, je mourrirais ». C’était aussi vrai quand il était auteur inconnu qu’après qu’il est devenu grand écrivain. Il parlait métaphoriquement, spirituellement et littéralement. Je sais que si je n’écrivais pas, je me priverais mon âme de sa respiration de vie. Il représente plus que la vérité métaphorique ; il est scientifiquement prouvé. L’écriture expressive — que ce soit sous la forme de l’écriture d’un journal, de blogging, de l’écriture de lettres, de mémoires ou de fiction — améliore la santé.

Que vous publiiez ou non, votre écriture est importante et utile. Prenez possession de celle-ci, nourrissez-la et considérez-la comme sacrée. Inspirez le respect des autres et respectez tous les écrivains à leur tour ; ne laissez pas l’ignorance vous intimider et vous faire taire.

L’écriture, comme toute forme de créativité, exige un acte de foi ; tant en nous-mêmes qu’en les autres. Et c’est effrayant. C’est effrayant, parce qu’il faut que nous renoncions au contrôle. Il est d’autant plus préférable d’écrire. La résistance est une forme d’autodestruction, dit Julia Cameron, auteur de The Artist’s Way.

Nous résistons afin de maintenir une vague idée de contrôle, mais au contraire, nous augmentons nos chances de développer la dépression, l’anxiété et la confusion. Booth et al. (1997) ont conclu que la divulgation écrite réduit sensiblement le stress physiologique du corps causé par une inhibition. Nous sommes nés pour créer. Pourquoi hésitons-nous et résistons-nous? Parce que, dit Cameron, « nous avons accepté le message de notre culture… [que] nous sommes censés faire notre devoir et puis mourir. La vérité est que nous sommes censés être prospères et vivre ».

Joseph Campbell a écrit : « suivez votre bonheur et les portes s’ouvriront là où il n’y avait pas de portes avant. » Cameron ajoute : « c’est l’engagement interne pour être fidèle à nous-mêmes et de suivre nos rêves qui déclenche le soutien de l’univers. Alors que nous sommes ambivalents, l’univers nous semblera également être ambivalent et erratique. » Quand j’écris, je vis le moment présent, en harmonie avec le moment divin de la création.

En pleine joie.

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.

Limestone Genre Expo—One of Kingston’s Gems

Nina-Hali-clifi2

Nina Munteanu and Halli Villegas

I recently attended the Limestone Genre Expo in Kingston, Ontario. Held at the St. Lawrence College campus—ideally suited to a literary festival—the expo featured panels, readings, and workshops.

The festival was well attended by local, Canadian and international authors, editors, publishers, and readers—all committed to exploring literature, the arts and to having a good time.

Authors included Tanya Huff, Nancy Kilpatrick, Caro Soles, Violette Malan, Rick Blechta, Matthew Bin and Eve Langlais, among many others.

Nina-books-Limestone2016

Science Fiction GOH in 2016

Publishers included Exile Editions, Chizine Publications, Bundoran Press and others. Exile Editions recently published their anthology “Cli Fi: Canadian Tales of Climate Change” in which my story “The Way of Water” appears.

I was Limestone’s Science Fiction Guest of Honour last year; this year I got to relax and I sat on three panels.

NancyKilpatrick-limestone

Nancy Kilpatrick

In “Alternative Histories to Cyberpunk“, I was joined on the panel by Matthew Bin, Maldonado Skaff-Koren, Eric Desmarais, Michael Romaric, Dominic Bercier, and A.A. Jankiewicz with moderator Sean Moreland. We mostly discussed the literary device of alternative timelines and unanimously concluded that visionary science fiction that “failed” to predict the future was successful alternative “history”. This theme continued in the science fiction panel.

Cover1_LastSummoner-frontcoverI brought up the notion of history’s quantum properties, a braided flow of multi-dimensional and entangled realities. This served as premise for my alternative historical time-travel fantasy The Last Summoner, which takes place in fifteenth century Poland. On her fourteenth birthday, the baroness Vivianne Von Grunwald discovers that she can change history as an aeon; but she soon realizes that, while she is able to change some disastrous historic event, its entangled “destiny” indelibly moves closer to the original consequence than her intended one: yet another disaster. My scientific approach to alternate history is what excited me to write this, my only fantasy so far among a dozen science fiction novels.

CaroSoles

Caro Soles

In the panel “The Science behind Science Fiction” I was joined by Katherine Prairie, Anita Dolman, Matthew Bin, Lisa Tooey, Kristen Kiomall, and A.A. Jankiewicz with moderator Caroline Frechette. We discussed the utility and risk of using pseudoscience in a science fiction story, a genre known for expectations of accuracy and prescience. In 1979, Ray Bradbury wrote: People ask me to predict the future, when all I want to do is prevent it. Better yet, build it. Predicting the future is much too easy, anyway. You look at the people around you, the street you stand on, the visible air you breathe, and predict more of the same. To hell with more. I want better.”

TanyaHuff-signing

Tanya Huff signs one of her books

Depending on whether the story is considered hard SF or soft SF, this level of accuracy in both actual science presented as premise and ability to predict science and technology will vary. Given that science fiction is largely metaphoric, the predictability of an SF story is secondary to the story’s value as metaphor and allegory. The consensus of the panel was that the audience determined the importance of precision and accuracy. In the final analysis, if the story is grounded in its own consistency, anything is possible.

WonderWoman

Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot)

In “Women in Genre” I was joined by Violette Malan, Nancy Kilpatrick, Eve Langland, Alyssa Cooper, Janet Kellogg, and Liz Lindsay with moderator Sandra Kasturi. The banter was by turns fun and edgy, all lubricated with good humour by all participants. As a writer of science fiction and fantasy of which 90% feature a “strong female protagonist”, I brought up the controversy of what, in fact, determines a good female lead in story. Why do so many heroines still provide just a kick-ass version of a male hero? Why are so many female protagonist heroes still defined by the rules of what makes a male a hero? Where are the real women?

Politics south of us aside—along with Margaret Atwood’s all too realistic Handmaid’s Tale (currently playing on Bravo TV), we discussed the recent push-back in Texas on the all-women showing of “Wonder Woman,” which prompted many heated tweets. The Atlantic recently published an article on the film—and surrounding events—entitled “Wonder Woman, Heroine of the Post-Truth Age.”wonder-woman-movie-poster

Wonder Woman is set at the height of World War I, but is otherwise a decidedly modern movie,” writes Megan Garber of The Atlantic. “It stars a woman (Gal Gadot) and treats a man, Steve (Chris Pine), as its damsel-in-distress. It has managed, even before its release, to enrage men’s-rights activists, which is quickly becoming a reliable measure of a movie’s modernity.”

wonderwoman-golden lassoWonder Woman uses a unique weapon, the Golden Lasso, known as the Lasso of Truth—because it compels anyone wrapped by it to reveal the truth.

When William Moulton Marston—scientist and inventor of the polygraph machine— created the Wonder Woman character, he envisioned a warrior who was also an investigator of truth. “Frankly,” he said, “Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world.” He believed that a world that gave women more power—politically and otherwise—would be more peaceful, more empathetic, more worthy, writes Garber. “And so Wonder Woman is a work that is decidedly at home, across its dimensions, in the world of 2017—a world that is on the one hand newly recognizing women’s widespread capabilities, but that is on the other deeply anxious about ‘alternative facts,’ about ‘fake news,’ about politically weaponized lies, about falsehoods that are uttered with no seeming consequence. The princess’s lasso, that shimmering metaphor for objective truth, is a symbol of aspiration; seen in another way, though, it is a symbol of despair. Here, in this wobbling weapon, is “wonder” as in awe; here, too, is “wonder” as in uncertainty. Here is a tool of truth that is decidedly ambivalent about its own powers. “How do I know you’re not lying to me right now?” the princess asks the spy. And the only way she can know for sure is to trust, paradoxically, in magic.”

Magic is OK, though. It is, after all, the stuff from which we draw when we write.

Nina-SF GOH-Limestone Genre Expo

Nina Munteanu, Science Fiction GOH at Limestone Genre Expo 2016

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

The Art & Science of World Building: The Tools You Need to Make a Believable World

futistic cityMost fantasy and science fiction novels require major world-building, which involves both real and imagined aspects.

World building spices real physical and social facts with the author’s imagination to create a civilization, a political structure, a culture and zeitgeist as backdrop and influence to story. Writers define world-building as the process of constructing an imaginary world, usually associated with a fictional universe.

Popularized at science fiction workshops during the 1970s, the term describes the development of an imaginary setting that is coherent and possesses a history, geography, and ecology that is rich, unique and resonates with the story’s premise.

The list below provides things to consider when first building your world:

  • The world (e.g., on Earth or not)
  • Physical and historical features (climate, geography, resources)
  • Magic and magicians (e.g., rules of magic, technology)
  • Peoples and customs (e.g., language, ethics and values, religion)
  • Social organization & structure (e.g., government, politics, conflicts, fashion, entertainment)
  • Commerce & trade (e.g., industry, transportation, communication)

Science vs. Art In World-Buildingthe-city-cgtrader

If a novel is a historical fantasy set on Earth, science is not a critical part of world building; if a novel is set on some probable planet in the Andromeda Galaxy, then science becomes an integral part. But, in both cases the writer needs to do his or her research. In the case of the historical fantasy, world building will be based on accurate historical information, even if an alternate history is being written.

Part of the reason people read historical epics is to learn more about that particular civilization and time period. The reader trusts that the writer will give him or her the facts on the world, while taking liberties on the remaining story elements. Similarly, a science fiction reader opens the first book in Larry Niven’s Ringworld series with the expectation of learning about a made-up world based on accurate principals of science.

A lot of science fiction is written by nonscientists. That said, many science fiction readers— particularly those who enjoy hard science fiction—expect your science to be not only plausible but somewhat proven and your premise to be based upon sound scientific principle. They expect your research to be impeccable because they are expecting to learn something—in science.

World-Builder’s Disease? 

City of Woven Streets

“City of Woven Streets” by Emmi Itaranta

“Fantasy writers have a penchant for working up histories of imaginary empires that can run for hundreds of pages, full of maps and chronologies and genealogical trees a yard long,” says Ansen Dibell, author of The Elements of Writing Fiction: Plot. “Similarly, science fiction writers can fall in love with their hardware and want to show it off,” he adds and describes this as a kind of narrative cancer, a “World-Builder’s disease.”

Most writers who world-build keep extensive files of background information on their worlds. In some cases, these can be published as companions to the main book series (e.g., J.K. Rowling’s books on Quiddich or magical creatures, which most certainly came from her extensive background notes). Dibell’s point is that this information doesn’t belong in the main book, where it can interfere with the process of storytelling. It becomes “info dump”, which is often very static, lacks drama, and proves ultimately boring.

Tying Your World to Theme and Plot

NineteenEightyFour

“Nineteen Eighty Four” by George Orwell

What’s important to remember is that the world you build is part of the story. It isn’t just a lot of “interesting” detail. The world you build, like a character in your story, plays a role in defining and supporting its theme. The major qualities of your world are, therefore, best derived for plot and thematic reasons—which come from “story”. The rest—the details—are things you can find in books, websites or get from experts in your local university, etc.  Don’t let science intimidate you; but ensure that you get it right by using your resources and verifying your information with an expert. Use your local libraries, universities, colleges, and online resources. Interview scientists, technical people and other writers. That’s part of being a writer too.

 

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.

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.

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.

Who’s Your Audience and Why Should You Care?

winter-path-in-sunThe artistic process, whether painting or prose, is admittedly the child of self-expression. The long-standing image of the artist cloistered in her studio—hunched over a writing desk or standing before a canvas to create from the depths of his/her soul—is surely a truism. Artists create from the heart; we dive deep inside our often-tortured souls and closeted past to draw out the universal metaphors that speak to humanity and share—

Ay, there’s the rub. For to share is to have a dialogue and to have a meaningful dialogue is to demonstrate consideration of the other. Somewhere in that journey that began with self, others entered. It is, in fact, something of a paradox and a conundrum for many artists. One that has challenged the artistic community for centuries. It is also why many artists have relied on agents, benefactors, and advocates to effectively communicate, target — and even interpret—their often abstruse “message” to appropriate audiences.

Purists will tell you that a true artist need not consider her audience; because her self-expression naturally finds relevance with the culture and zeitgeist from which she writes through universally understood metaphor: her story is their story.

But is that enough?

I suppose it finally comes down to whether you are interested in sharing. I don’t know any published authors who don’t wish their books to sell. Every storyteller needs an audience to connect with and engage. That is ultimately what good storytelling does: engage, connect, rouse emotions and evoke empathic feelings. Make an impact.

Does identifying and targeting a specific audience result in more satisfied readers and ultimately better sales? Of course it does. The more you—and whoever is helping you market your work—know about your audience, the more likely you are going to attract them to your book, convince them to buy it and ultimately connect with them through story.

That’s the irony of art: it is a treasure that is created out of the depths of solitude but ultimately brought into the light and shared with the world. For your art to have impact, you must know and understand your world.

Knowing your audience will affect every aspect of your book project. It will help determine:

  • What your story is about and how you write it (e.g., language, “voice” or personality, narrative style, tone or mood/attitude, characters, setting and theme, even length)
  • What genre and sub-genre(s) it lies under
  • The look and tone of the cover and blurb (one that matches the story and its audience; I previously wrote about book jacket blurbs and book covers )
  • All aspects of promotion, including the language and images you use, where you direct your marketing and how (e.g., medium, timing, etc.)

For your work to succeed, it’s important to consider the following:

  • collision-with-paradise-smallWrite to the audience’s expectations (given the promise of your work): success of stories with readers will rely on the alignment of expected story structure, tone and endings. My romance SF therefore reads differently from my hard SF in so many ways.
  • darwins-paradoxWrite to the understanding level of your intended audience: how and what I write for my hard science fiction audience (with expectations on accurate and intelligent exploration and extrapolation on science) is different from the style I use for my historical fantasy. This will include “voice”, language and use of specific vocabulary, terms and concepts, sentence structure and pace.
  • Write with the knowledge of your relationship to the reader: how will you gain their empathy and buy-in to your story? This will depend on the genre of your work and expectations of its associated readership.

 

Understand Your Audience

Who is going to read your work? To what age group to they belong? What culture and sub-culture? What gender(s)? What education and intellectual capacity? Economic status? What regions? What political leanings? Prejudices and beliefs? What knowledge-base? For instance, you wouldn’t use a lot of multi-sylabic latinisms in an action thriller; but you might in a literary fiction or even high fantasy. If you research and create a profile of your intended reader, this will help you identify who you are writing to.  “Knowing or anticipating who will be reading what you have written is key to effective writing,” says SkillsYouNeed.com.

It isn’t enough to know who is reading, but why they are reading your writing. Ask yourself these two questions:

  1. Who do I want to read this? Who are you writing for? They are your primary audience; the ones you will truly resonate with your story; they will be your fans: who are they?
  2. Who else is likely to read this? This is your secondary audience, readers who may not necessarily read your genre but are interested in the issues or premise of your story or will appreciate how you’ve handled it in your story: who might they be? 

 

Writers are Solopreneurs

In his 2014 article in Forbes, Jayson DeMers shares that: “Market research was once the purview of only big companies. If you weren’t a Fortune 1000 brand, investing in any form of customer research was outside the scope of what many businesses could afford. Today, advances in market research technology have opened a whole range of services to even the smallest businesses. Small enterprises and solopreneurs routinely test ideas before they take them to market, saving tens of thousands of dollars and years of time developing products and services that fall flat with the market.”

Given the current publishing paradigm—which offers less and less to the author, writers are now more than ever required to understand their audience, given their need to be solopreneurs, succeeding on their own know-how, rather than relying on some marketing department that no longer exists.

To know your audience is to know your story better.

A previous version of this article was published in the Clarion Foundation blog and presented by Lynda Williams.

 

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.

Buy and Give a Book for Christmas

misty mounteinsThere are many reasons to look at buying and giving books for Christmas; not the least to maintain and encourage our literacy, culture and artistic spirit, but also to promote the industry you and I rely on as writers and readers.

According to Literary Statistics Canada, 42% of Canadian adults between the ages of 16 and 65 have low literacy skills. 55% of working age adults in Canada are estimated to have less than adequate health literacy skills. Shockingly, 88% of adults over the age of 65 appear to be in this situation.

Literacy is the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, compute and use printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning to enable an individual to achieve his or her goals, to develop his or her knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in the wider society. — UNESCO

Reading fiction greatly improves our quality of life. Reading is just plain smart. In a study entitled “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind” in the October 2013 issue of Science, researchers Kidd and Castano reported that reading literary fiction led to better performance on tests of affective and cognitive Theory of Mind compared with reading nonfiction, popular fiction or nothing at all. Theory of Mind (ToM) describes the ability to understand others’ mental states, a crucial skill in complex social relationships that characterize human societies. Check out my article on reading fiction, which discusses how it improves empathy, sharpens your brain, helps you sleep better and helps against Alzheimer’s Disease.

I’ve compiled a list of books that I have recently purchased and have or will be giving away this Christmas. Looking at the list, I realize that it represents an eclectic range of style, form and subject matter. That’s good. Diversity is good. Here’s my list:

water-is-webWater Is… by Nina Munteanu. Part history, part science and part philosophy and spirituality, “Water Is…” combines personal journey with scientific discovery that explores water’s many identities and ultimately our own. From water’s many scientific anomalies to its metaphoric archetype with humanity’s evolution and ubiquitous existence in the universe, water remains our most precious and mysterious substance.

 

 

 

flight-behaviorFlight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver. A multi-layered meditation on individual responsibility, told through the discovery by a rural family of the climate-changed behaviour of the monarch butterfly. See my review of Flight Behavior.

 

 

 

 

threebodyproblem-cixin-liuThe Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu. In this Hugo Award-winning first of three books on first contact, Liu weaves in metaphoric layers of significance—from the Chinese Cultural Revolution to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring—to reflect on the perspectives of intelligent beings.

 

 

 

 

boilingpoint-maude-barlowBoiling Point by Maude Barlow. Barlow lays bare the issues facing Canada water reserves, including long-outdated water laws, unmapped and unprotected groundwater reserves, agricultural pollution, deforestation and climate change. With its focus on Canada, this book provides an “action” companion to my own “Water Is…”

 

 

 

 

memory-of-water-emmi-itarantaMemory of Water by Emmi Itaranta. This award-winning speculative post-climate change story is dark and reflective like a silent river of unknowable depth, “Memory of Water” flows with a meaning that lingers with you—like the organic scent of soil after a rainstorm—long after you have put the book down. Told in subtle tone and nuance, like an Ingmar Bergman film, the story of a young tea master in a post climate change world unravels a quiet and insidious oppression. Master Noria must navigate the police state to hide her secrets about water. Water remembers…

 

 

quantum-nightQuantum Night by Robert J. Sawyer (autographed). Told through a high paced psychological-political thriller, the story explores the thin line between good and evil and the world of the political sociopath from a Canadian perspective. I braved a snowstorm to attend Robert’s Toronto launch of this book, whose haunting story has persisted with me still; the mark of a great work.

 

 

 

year-of-the-flood-atwoodThe Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood (autographed). Set in the visionary future of Atwood’s acclaimed Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood is at once a moving tale of lasting friendship and a landmark work of speculative fiction. In this second book of the MaddAddam trilogy, the long-feared waterless flood has occurred, altering Earth as we know it and obliterating most human life. At a recent talk she gave, I thanked Margaret for her environmental efforts and gave her a copy of my own book, Water Is…

 

 

freenetFreenet by Steve Stanton. The novel is about the power of free information in a post-digital age. Told as a thriller with interesting characters and world building, the book explores what digital immortality means. See my review of Freenet.

 

 

 

 

naturalselectionNatural Selection by Nina Munteanu. This short story collection explores humanity’s co-evolution with our environment and technology. A man uses cyber-eavesdropping to make love. A technocratic government uses gifted people as tools to recast humanity. The ruins of a city serve as battleground between pro-technologists and pro-naturalists. From time-space guardians to cybersex, GMO, and biotech implants, this short story collection is a journey of great scope, imagination and vision. “…a stunning example of good storytelling with an excellent setting and cast of characters.”—Tangent Online

 

 

silent-spring-rachel-carsonSilent Spring by Rachel Carson. Written in the 1960s, Carson’s cautionary book remains as relevant and powerful today as it was 50 years ago. Worth reading for her outlook on the awareness and protection of the natural environment just as Jane Jacobs was on the urban environment

 

 

 

 

far-from-the-madding-crowd-cover-imageFar from the Madding Crowd by Thomas .Hardy. A classic to be savoured. Thomas Hardy weaves a rich pastoral tale that examines the foibles of humanity: pride, vanity, greed, passion…and gives us a touching love story with a realistic ending. Set in Hardy’s Wessex country, the setting is as much a character as his cornucopia of delightful human characters. What I love best about Hardy is how his setting evokes (like a Greek god) story. Through beautiful description, imagery and evocative language, this is not the sort of book you want to race through to see what happens; but to read slowly and savored like a dark, rich coffee. Breathe in its hypnotic scent and let it linger.

 

 

martian-chronicles-copyMartian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. The Martian Chronicles isn’t really about Mars. It’s about us. Who we are, what we are, and what we may become. What we inadvertently do—to others, and finally to ourselves—and how the irony of chance can change everything. The 1970 Bantam book jacket so aptly calls The Martian Chronicles, “a story of familiar people and familiar passions set against incredible beauties of a new world … A skillful blending of fancy and satire, terror and tenderness, wonder and contempt.” See my 2012 article on Ray.

 

 

fahrenheit-451-ray-bradburyFahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. A classic tale by a master of the craft of metaphor. Bradbury uses the fireman in a world where they make fires instead of putting them out, to explore the phenomenon of censorship in a world obsessed with being “good”. Scenes in his book were reminiscent of what the Nazis did in Opernplatz, Berlin. In fact, of this event Bradbury made this poignant statement: “It follows then that when Hitler burned a book I felt it as keenly, please forgive me, as his killing a human, for in the long sum of history they are one in the same flesh.”

 

darwins-paradoxDarwin’s Paradox / Angel of Chaos duology by Nina Munteanu. This duology explores human-technological symbiosis, AI consciousness, transhumanism and our reconciliation with Nature. I give this duo away every Christmas because they are quite simply my most popular fiction books.

 

 

 

night-country-loren-eiseleyNight Country by Loren Eiseley. Eiseley reflects on the mystery of life, throwing light on those dark places traversed by himself and centuries of humankind. The Night Country is a gift of wisdom and beauty from the famed anthropologist.

 

 

 

 

pilgrim-at-tinker-creekPilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard. A personal narrative of the author’s explorations on foot in her neighbourhood as she witnesses astonishing incidents of “beauty tangled in a rapture with violence.”

 

 

 

 

novel-shortstorywritersmarket20172017 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market by Writer’s Digest. An excellent resource for writers, which includes (besides hundreds of listings for book publishers, literary agents, fiction publications, and contests), erudite and useful articles—including “Creative Cures for Writer’s Block” for which I was consulted.

 

 

 

What’s on your list?

 

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.