So I made this:
Still. I like it. And because I'm like a four year old who always wants to show you what he's made, even if it's a mud pie that he wants you to eat, here it is: I made this.
Not Your Average Writing Advice
It's usually a good idea to pander to your strengths in whatever you do. And I feel that, as a writer AND an editor, I have some pretty cogent things to say about how to get things done with writing. I see the same kinds of mistakes all the time.
Like ya, know. Whatever.
So I made this:
Of course, if I'm trying to help out with site traffic, who's this for: other writers, the very people to whom I already have a surfeit of access. Go on my twitter account and they're always there, yelling at me to take their free books and then never read them so they can feel good about meaningless numbers on their Amazon pages.
Still. I like it. And because I'm like a four year old who always wants to show you what he's made, even if it's a mud pie that he wants you to eat, here it is: I made this.
Take my mud pie, internet. Take my filthy mud pie and you like it.
They're out there.
Picture this if you will. A chilling scenario which reads like a Choose Your Own Adventure Book:
You're seated at a fire with as many as eight or nine other people. You're scared, you're restless, you're tired. At your feet, and within easy reach, each of you has a weapon: sticks with crudely-hafted stone blades, or sharp hand-axes with serrated edges.
Behind you, beyond the furthest reaches of the light, monsters slide through the darkness. Picture fangs the length of your fingers, claws like knives; they're as quick as regret and as quiet as cold. Only the fire keeps them from dashing in and snatching you away at will. You try to forget they're there and enjoy yourself, but sometimes you catch brief glimpses of oval eyes glittering in the light.
To find out your fate, turn 600,000 pages to the future.
The people in this scenario didn't really have much of a choice, because this isn't fiction, this is history. This is the beginning of culture, the beginning of what makes us human. This is page one, the beginning of you.
Our ancestors gathered around campfires like these nightly, while real monsters watched. Back then, claws and fangs didn't fear us like they do today. We were soft and slow and blind at night. So why should they?
The other day I was asked to give a quick blurb about stories. Stories: what are they? Having degrees in English and Anthropology, I'm always like that guy who only has a hammer: to him, everything looks like a nail -- ask me a question and all my answers come back 'caveman.'
(Okay, not 'cave man,' that's an outdated and always-has-been inaccurate term, but you know what I mean.)
Because, hey, the answers for most questions do involve cavemen if you wish to be properly thorough. So what if 600,000 years have passed since the campfire. Inside we're still the same. Except now we have more stuff.
We have our scenario. Campfire. Monsters. Weapons. Now add: Stories.
While we were making all our great stuff, concurrently we were sculpting ourselves through our stories, and this process began in the safety and comfort of the flickering firelight, the birthplace of all culture.
Because any of the people sitting there in the light who didn't physically have the propensity for storytelling, or for listening to stories, probably wouldn't be your neighbor, or anyone's neighbor, much longer.
Scenario within the scenario: Bob the Caveman was out that day and ran into a spot of trouble. In fact Bob was attacked by a gyro-slug, the huge imaginary prehistoric slug the size of a bear. Ferocious, were gyro-slugs, famous for having two spinning antennae atop their heads which they would use to commit acts of unparalleled aerial predation upon poor bipedalists stuck to the ground by their feet.
Page one is a strange and scary place.
Normally, meeting a gyro-slug would mean certain death for poor Bob, but this day Bob evades its first assault, the slug crashes to the ground, and quite by sheer dumb luck, lands near the salt lick which Bob had been quarrying, and melts with many unpleasant raspberry noises into a pile of gyro-slug mush.
Bob is ecstatic, and fortunately for everybody around the fire, Bob is a good storyteller. He arranges his thoughts about the incident in an orderly and rational fashion, using compelling details about the event, and is skillful at providing emotional cues about how he felt at the time to which his audience can relate. Finally, he brings the tale to a satisfying crescendo. Everybody sighs. Denouement. Good ol' Bob. What would we do without him. For a few moments, the monsters sliding through the darkness are forgotten.
Here's where I need another graphic: WHERE I ACTUALLY REALLY, REALLY COME TO A POINT.
Instead I'll creep you out with this. Aptly creepy.
REALLY. FOR TRUE.
Half the people around the campfire don't have the physical propensity for storytelling, or for the rational organization of information that Bob possesses. But just for the sake of simplifying a ridiculous scenario, let's say that one of them is very, very poor at it, even while being wonderfully bright in every other respect. From Bob's story he fails to take away -- with any serious retention -- the location of where Bob was attacked, where Bob found salt, or how he evaded certain death. The rest of the group begins carrying salt with them wherever they go. When attacked by gyro-slugs in the future, suddenly they are the victors, until the terrible squishy predators learn to fear humans.
But not before they fall upon our hapless outlier -- saltless -- and lacking the genetic predisposition for storytelling, removing him from the gene pool.
This example is a bit extreme, of course -- Gyro Slugs were only two-thirds the size of what I've described -- but, in essence, the propensity for storytelling allows for the greater diffusion and retention of facts and ideas. Those with the best ideas and communication skills were the best suited to survive and pass on their life-saving storytelling acuity to successive generations.
Especially since what our unlucky outlier lacked most from that fireside meeting was the sense of growing closeness and comaraderie with the rest of the band, the buddings of cultural identity, without which, we could hardly call ourselves human.
And if you question in your mind whether unconscious keys like this really could have been passed down through the ages, ask yourself why people have an intrinsic fear of the dark, or why so many find fire so immediately comforting.
A mere 600,000 pages later, we still crave stories that involve danger, triumph, and reward, even though we no longer have to face these things on a daily basis. Now we crave them because we love them.
So, tonight, as I Lord of the Rings myself to sleep, I'll take a moment to remember page one and my predecessors who listened.
And I'll remember to bring a small bit of salt in my pockets tomorrow when I go to the store.
Just in case.
As if Anybody Cares
But hey, I have another day or so until I'm finished my next blog post, and so have a gaping huge white space here on my blog. A torture, the blank pages. They mock me and hide in my closet at night. No matter how many shows of Doctor Who I watch, they're still there. I guess I'll have to take care of it by myself, Tardis-less.
Now where did I put my sonic pencil?
So anyway, here's an interview I did for We Write Worlds last year. I'll add some pictures shortly, perhaps scandalous ones.
Here's a suggestion: Turn the interview into a drinking game. When I sound pompous, that's one shot. When I plug my own books, you chug a beer. If you end up thinking, Oy, I wanna smack this little sock-puppet right in the chops ... well, perhaps it's time to stop reading it as a drinking game and go for a nice lie-down while I surreptitiously sneak out the back.
Mind you, that impulse would verify that you were reading closely.
As early as seven, I said I would be a writer when I grew up. I wrote a lot during junior high. I wrote every day in high school. Of course in high school I wanted to be a poet, and I have many old notebooks still sitting in my old room at my parent’s house that I need to burn someday.
For a while I let myself be convinced that writing was not a viable career path (That may, unfortunately, yet prove to be true). I studied English in university until I dropped out after two years. Then I got a science degree in Anthropology, studying Osteology and Archaeology, until I realized I would, at best, be a mediocre archaeologist, and that simply wasn’t good enough.
One day I decided I would write, and that was that.
At the time I was living in a bush camp a hundred miles from civilization in the north of British Columbia. I still remember the exact moment when, in the middle of the forest, I stood up, looked around, decided I wasn’t going to go back to do an archaeological thesis – I would write instead – and I was happy.
At the end of the summer, I returned home and wrote a terrible novel.
Scandalous photo #1
2: How many books have you written?
I have completed three books. I have two in states of undress.
My first novel remains untitled, best left buried in my bookshelf. It was a compilation of true hitchhiking stories to a fictional place, tales that I had either experienced myself, or compiled from the experiences of people I knew.
My second novel was A String of Momentary Silences, which is the only novel-length piece I currently have available through Amazon and Smashwords, about a man who decided to step off the hamster wheel of his dreary life. He stutters rather badly and hates his existence, and decides he’d be better off never speaking to anybody ever again. After he does that, life is easier for him, and he explores his world as an unspeaking individual. He meets a fellow who runs the puppet show at the local market, a man who also doesn’t speak, and the two become friends. Meanwhile he meets a woman online, and struggles with wanting to tell her that he can talk to her as he feels terrible lying to her with his silence. A String of Momentary Silences is not a long novel, but I always have trouble describing it.
My third is unfinished Twice Against the Same Stone, about a woman nearing her golden years, but who’s lived a bit of a criminal life, and she’s trying to make amends for her many mistakes.
My fourth is Raw Flesh in the Rising, about a man exiled to the leper colony on the Hawaiian island of Molokai in the late 1800s. There, the one healthy man among the sick, he becomes the leper among the lepers.
My fifth, and current work in progress, is where I relinquish my grip on five-word titles. Systematic Rube, my first non-fiction book, is a rough outline of the silviculture industry as it represents rite of passage in Canada. I received a grant from the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council to work on Systematic Rube in the spring of 2011.
3. What inspired you to write your (latest) book?
My latest book is Systematic Rube, exploring tree planting as rite of passage in Canada. It was not born from inspiration; rather it is a child of exasperation.
I spent thirteen months, working every day, writing Raw Flesh in the Rising. Then I spent sixteen months editing , every day, seven hours a day. I didn’t work for those two years; I wrote. Six months into editing I needed a break. I wanted to write – firstly – something new, and – secondly – something fun.
I had learned so much from writing Raw Flesh in the Rising. I wondered what my first person writing would look like. One day I sat down and began to write, cataloguing my favorite stories from my years working in the forests of British Columbia. At the time, thematically, it was very free-flowing. Having since gained purpose, it has become regimented and directed, though I still love working on it as I can do anything I want as long as I stay within the boundaries I’ve set for myself.
4. What is your favorite genre to read?
I read roughly equal amounts of literary fiction and science fiction, and then a smattering of fantasy, history, and science writing. If it’s well written, engaging, and/or introduces me to new ideas and concepts, I’m game to read it.
5. Is your writing style at all influenced by those of your favorite authors?
My style is influenced in different ways by different authors. Firstly, stylistically, I love writers with a flair for language, such as Jack Kerouac, Louis Ferdinand Celine, Henry Miller, Allen Ginsberg, Herman Melville, Thomas Wolfe, and others. I first fell in love with Kerouac when I was sixteen. I read On the Road, decided it was over-hyped, and set it aside. Back then, however, I would read every book twice; only by reading it twice, I had decided, could I truly get a good grasp on the flavor of the book.
I finished On the Road for the second time two days later, and already I was in love. The man was a genius with language. To think that everything he wrote is a first draft still blows my mind.
Steinbeck is my favorite conventional author. His stories capture straightforward characters doing everyday things – and they are stories told simply as well – yet they add up to an amazing thematic complexity which I love. Very powerful.
I won’t say I’ve been influenced by either. More like inspired and admired. In the end, they are benchmarks.
6. Which is your favorite book that you’ve written?
My favorite book, to this point, has to be Raw Flesh in the Rising. I spent two years writing and editing the novel to my satisfaction, crafting everything the way I wanted. Then, when I was finished, I cut 50,000 words out of it. To say that any other novel was my favorite would be a harsh pill to swallow at the moment.
Luckily, it’s paid off. In 2011, I won the Percy Janes First Novel Award for Best Unpublished Novel in the NL Arts and Letter’s competition. I’m currently shopping the book to publishers.
I should probably flash this around more often while I still hold the award:
7. What is your opinion of the art of writing?
Writing is an art like any other. One can be an artist who understands every facet of the history of his art and how his own work relates to all the other work which has come before him, or one can simply be an artist for fun and enjoyment. There’s value in both, and the best writing, in my opinion, combines the two.
8. What advice would you give someone who is just beginning their own novel?
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
Don’t rely too much on writing guides or you’ll just end up writing like everybody else who’s read them.
Remember the lessons of your high school teachers when it comes to making jot notes and outlines. They work.
Walk sometimes instead of driving. And without headphones.
Listen to critics, but don’t write their words in your heart.
Grammar, spelling, and punctuation, are supremely important. A writer not using the tools of his trade properly would be akin to a carpenter trying to build a house by hammering screws with a wrench.
Don’t emulate the best in your genre, but the best writers in general.
Read a lot; and again, read the best.
Write a lot. Make sure you love your writing for what you’ve written, not because it’s you who’s written it.
9. Do you have any funny and / or interesting stories about how you’ve come up with plots or characters?
In my novelette, Do Unto Others, which I’ve published to Amazon, the mayor and priest of my fictional town of Scanlon are based on the real historical characters, Bernard and Pierre Clergue, the local bailiff and parish priest of the town of Montaillou, France, in the 13th century. Pierre was a womanizer who used the priesthood to seduce women, and Bernard a bit of a brute who used his authoritative position to become wealthy.
Also, and I’m still not sure if I consider this funny or not, but I began writing Raw Flesh in the Rising on a whim. It was supposed to be about forty pages and take me a month. It consumed the next two years of my life.
January 16th, 2013
Today I was directed to a Tumblir site making fun of Bad Book Covers. Or, as it says, lousy book covers. Trolling through them however, I thought a few of them simply didn't belong. To me they seemed homages to the science fiction book covers of the 1960s and 1970s.
I read it for the articles.
Which, in my opinion, are great.
Make no mistake, I'm well acquainted with those. On many occasions I've come across books -- often wonderful critiques of society as a whole, great anthropological fiction, or early thought-experiments on how technological society is changing us all -- that I've simply been too embarrassed to buy because of their covers.
I couldn't bring myself to hand the book to the clerk and say, "Yes, I am interested in purchasing this. Here is real money."
Heinlein's Friday comes to mind immediately. Many times, while delving deep into second-hand shelves in tiny bookstores in small towns in northern places, I came across this book, and always considered buying it.
But nope. Never did. Probably never will.
Heinlein is famous for his space floozies, as I'll try to demonstrate below. Some of his books should have come in brown paper bags.
I have a number of examples of interesting old book covers, but science fiction covers of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, seem to epitomize a certain way of thinking.
Essentially, the way I see it, many science fiction publishers didn't take their own genre seriously. When it came time to produce covers for what often became classic works of the genre, this is basically how I imagine their line of thinking went:
QUESTION: Who reads science fiction?
ANSWER: Adolescent boys.
QUESTION: What do adolescent boys like?
ANSWER: Spaceships. And girls.
It amuses me that the little corner book shop that sells magazines and local literature has a rotating rack of 50 Shades of Gray. The rest of the shop is quaint, family-oriented. Right next to the spindle of erotica is a huge display of spritely stuffed animals.
I caught the eye of a kid right after I caught him on his tip-toes to sneak a better look at the plastic-wrapped magazines on the top shelf. A grin there. He scurried off.
Used to be that I'd come home from university and I'd be able to tell who was also coming home from away by what they were wearing. It was easy. People in my town were about five years behind the popular fashion trends of the rest of the country.
Today, I realized this was no longer the case, and I lamented that the outside world had found us, that we'd greedily snatched up all the shiny beads we could carry. After all, isolation breeds diversity, identity.
Quick on the heels of that thought I realized that I've been in the province going on five years. Maybe it was still the case that we were behind the rest of the country, and I was now five years out of date myself....
A bit of a gangly hope, that one.
Fleeing the mall, I saw a sign in the parking lot that read "Reserved Parking," with an arrow pointing down a lane. I followed the arrow and, when I got to the back, was very amused to see that the reserved parking was a large unpaved square, dusty and rutted.
It's been said that it's great that I can make money doing something I love - sorta - and, obviously, gravitating towards books in public when I'm trying to escape books at home gives credence to this point. But, to make a fine distinction about it, I would have to compare it to a doctor who's always been a fan of the human form. It might be what he loves, but most of the time he only sees the human form when something's terribly wrong with it. He then has to cut it open and try not to lose his wristwatch inside.
Literary stories, they sneer -- Boring garbage! Maybe. But not as easy to write. Layers, my friends, layers, interconnected like a cat’s cradle. Pinch the wrong damn strings and it all unfurls into a useless yarn.
Eat my puns, better technical writer.
In fact, I left my house this evening, needing supplies to feed my keyboard, and I was no beautiful butterfly emerging from a cocoon. More like a mole blinking in the sunlight after a long hibernation.
Strolling to the store, nothing seemed real to me -- not the leather-clad lady with her bare midriff and peanut-shaped body buying cigarettes -- not the wobbly trees of Bannerman park -- not the August cool-down of the evenings on my arms. I could have closed my eyes and forgotten it all.
It is a cliché of art that the artist gets so wrapped up in their created work that the created work seems more real than the world -- enough bad science fiction has played with the concept that I mentally throw popcorn at the idea when it pops up.
And, initially, I laughed at myself. I certainly didn't want to stumble myself by giving that cliche any leeway.
(A bit of a digression)
When I used to merely write – often only with the simple goal of being able to esteem myself a writer one day – the good ol' days -- the naive ol' days -- I used to happily close my writing sessions with finality – DONE.
Laptop shut with a satisfying click, there was a succinct severing of ties. The next morning, I’d pick up where I left off.
These days, being done with writing for the day means the start of making content. No fulfilling click signalling a return to the world.
Not as simple as the mere act of writing. I can do math; that doesn’t make me a mathematician.
End of Digression
Of course, I must point out that I am the worst kind of hypocrite. Because what’s the first thing I’m going to do once I’ve applied the spit-polish to this piece? That’s right, I’m going to post it. I’m going to make it into content. And I’ll be content if someone were to read it.
Marvel at my perspicacity and ironic outrage.
By that, I mean, in my head I took a snapshot of them, only briefly, and I then brought that snapshot very near to me and I explored it. In a flash, I crawled all over the outsides of those buildings, feeling the gritty splintering of the wood, the bumps and the striations. I flew through the houses, circling the occupants like an intruding wasp, then shrank myself down to ant-size and stared up at the houses, like monoliths, getting in close to see the chips in the paint on their front doors, grass growing up through cracks in the concrete.
I don’t get out as often as I’d like these days. I edit for people. Usually, I wish I were writing. Then I work on my own stuff. Usually, I wish I were writing then too.
For a sidebar, see the side bar.
I move from computer to computer, desk to bed and back, often with an olly olly oxen free of paper and pencil in between. Being a quirky shut-in is not a holy kafkaesque condition . Often it’s a result of guilt and determination: if, distracted by the million shiny voices pumped into my cell via the magic dust of technology, I fail to get as much work done as I’d like, I feel the guilt of a day wasted, and so remain tethered to the area, stubbornly adhering to the outdated theory that if one puts Artist and Medium in close proximity, something called Art will eventually be made.
I think zookeepers use the same methodology with pandas.
The determination part of that equation comes when I vehemently try to make the previous statement true, despite frequent failures.
When I do escape my chairs, I want to run. I want to exercise.
It may be a cliché, but it seems to me that writing happens very similarly as to how parents have described their baby’s poops to me: you’re either ready for it or you’re not; often it’s interesting what you see in there; generally, you don’t know where it came from; sometimes it just fills up what you're using to keep it in, making a mess; it's when you're not ready for it that it's messiest, and then that it goes everywhere.
Pulling the view three hundred feet into the air like Google maps.
I run at Quidi Vidi lake, a fifteen minute walk from my house. I began by the statue, dedicated to the people of the city in 2005, of a man rowing a boat, called ‘The Rower.’
A word of extrapolation here.
Quidi Vidi lake is in storied St. John’s, Newfoundland, home to the St. John’s Regatta, the oldest continuous sporting event (rowing) in North America. Also the only municipal holiday in North America that depends on the weather and changes dates. Townies – as the citizens of St. John’s are called, living in the only city in the province – play Regatta Roulette every August. Go out drinking the night before the scheduled holiday. Stay out late. If it rains the next day, strap on the shackles and head to work; if it’s sunny, you win Regatta Roulette, tie on a pillow.
In a city surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, five of the six chambers are loaded.
Without even thinking about it, I was achieving the same ends by sequestering myself at home so I could cultivate and till the fertile fields of own mind. Isn’t that the ironical part about making literature? The old adage says: Write what you know! And also, in the same breath: Experience! Capital E there. You need to have things to write about. Go see things.
But, almost by necessity, writing is a practice which requires quiet and concentration, the orderly arrangement of thoughts, weeks and months of self-absorption and the fostering of embryonic ideas. No wonder so many writers write books about being writers. Right?
On second thought, perhaps I should have entitled this piece, “The Write Way.”
Of course, nothing indicates that those old guys I used to watch hadn’t had amazing lives either. That’s another sad fact, only realized as I loitered on the bridge, deciding to never again feed the ducks. Who knows what those men had lost.
I always picture a peppy cheerleader saying that. You can’t just jump right in and write without getting out to find the right things to write about, right? Unless you're religious and can write about rites. That’s the right shut-in sorta shindig. Of course, to be successful, you’d have to write about the right rites, amirite?
Then, terribly, his hands were anvils again. The men, leering still, grinning still, even up to the moment Eric, worked into a spitting frustrated rage, hit them, their skulls were like eggshells. They burst apart like greasy tomatoes. Guilty steaks littered the ground, and the half-shattered grins of the men glinted like strings of pearls in the sand. In his sleep, legs wheeling, Eric groaned.
The two together then receded like rocks sunk into the sea, white shards shrinking, until both became as dead and distant to him as the moon; and though he found again that he could speak, too late, he had nothing to say. Half-shattered grins glinted like strings of pearls in the sand and, in his sleep, legs wheeling, Eric’s groans wandered unheeded amongst the broken pillars of the trampled grass.