Sunday, June 21, 2020

Aha - So This Sort of Thing is Possible

Weather a novel by Jenny Offill, has opened my writer's eyes and renewed my writer's hope.

Sometimes my increasingly insistent "Voice" and my slow but stubborn developing "Craft" have loud arguments with each other. They fight, they sulk and walk away, sometimes they wake the neighbours. 

"This is the right way to do it," Craft says, "You know the contest editors will tell you that was the wrong way." 

"Ah, but it's not me," Voice says, "It doesn't produce the, I don't know, the tone, the emotional reaction, the ambiance, the something-or-other I'm after. I know it's awkward, but it's true, and for right now it's the best I can do."

Here is a typical positive comment about Weather from Goodreads:

"I loved every minute of Weather. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, thanks to the choppy style, specific brand of humour and refusal to deliver conventional narrative movement, but I thought it was brilliant."

And a not-so-positive one:
"I don't think this is a bad book at all, I want to make that clear right away.  I think Jenny Offill is a talented writer, and that she achieves everything she set out to achieve with this little book . . . But with that said... I didn't particularly like it?  I mostly found this book incredibly forgettable . . . and there was nothing about Lizzie's story in particular that justified to me why this was the particular story that Offill chose to tell."

And one that, I suspect, represents the broader world of creative storytellers and reviewers:
"This is not an easy book to review . . . 
My guess is that readers will either appreciate and enjoy it ...
Or ....
They won’t."

My point for newish and renewing writers is not to grab a copy of this particular novel -- it may hold zero inspiration for you -- but that out there somewhere there may well be an example of something you have been wandering around in circles, striving for, but not being able to explain what it is. To others or even to yourself.

When, suddenly, there it is. Maybe not exactly but close enough. An example of the possible.

In short, keep writing, yes. But keep reading too.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Bob’s 2020 Twenty Five Favourites for a Desert Island

Selection Guidelines

  • This is writing I would want to take to a desert island. Not “Best Writing”. I couldn't identify “best” writing if it fell on my head.
  • The list is cumulative, from 1813 to so far in 2020.
  • As I reviewed my selections, I must confess some inclusions surprised me. I mean, really, how long can a person hang onto Salinger's work even given its impact on a young man's imagination all those years ago? And, I must admit I have included Robertson Davies mostly because I wasn't aware there were any Canadian writers until I read him. But, on a desert island, the re-discovery of that memory would make me smile.
  • None of my writing colleagues are here. Many deserve to be. I am routinely impressed, educated, humbled, and encouraged by their work. Between you and me, I will confide to you I plan to sneak two or three bags of their writing onto my desert island. In plain brown wrappers.
  • There is also an extensive list of authors and their works that I found painful to exclude. What a wonderful problem! What a rich world of the written word we live in.
  1. Andre Alexis Fifteen Dogs – novel 2015
  2. Jane Austen Pride and Prejudice – novel 1813
  3. Lord Byron (George Gordon) So We’ll Go No More A-Roving – poem 1830
  4. Billy Collins Fishing on the Susquehanna in July – poem 1998
  5. Robertson Davies The Deptford Trilogy Fifth Business 1970 and two other novels – 1975
  6. Charles Dickens Great Expectations-- novel 1861
  7. Emily Dickinson A Bird Came Down the Walk – poem 1891
  8. F Scott Fitzgerald The Great Gatsby – novel 1925
  9. Yuval Noah Harari Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind – nonfiction 2015
  10. Ernest Hemingway Death in the Afternoon – nonfiction 1932
  11. Stephen Leacock My Financial Career – short story 1910 (from Literary Lapses)
  12. James Henry Leigh Hunt Jenny Kissed Me – poem 1838
  13. Alice Munro Lives of Girls and Women – interrelated short stories/novel 1971
  14. Simon Rich The Ride Back to Beersheba – flash fiction 2007 (from Ant Farm . . . Situations)
  15. J. D. Salinger The Catcher in the Rye – novel 1951
  16. Julie Schumacher Dear Committee Members – novel 2014
  17. William Shakespeare Let me not to the marriage of true minds (Sonnet 116) poem 1609
  18. Muriel Spark The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – novel 1960
  19. J. R. R. Tolkien The Lord of the Rings – novel (six books published in three volumes) 1954/55
  20. John Kennedy Toole A Confederacy of Dunces – novel 1980
  21. Mark Twain The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – novel 1885
  22. Kurt Vonnegut Slaughterhouse-Five – novel 1969
  23. Mo Willems Waiting Is Not Easy – picture book 2014
  24. Kevin Wilson Nothing To See Here – novel 2019
  25. W. B. Yeats When You Are Old – poem 1893

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path To Higher Creativity

This book, written by Julia Cameron in 2002 and still going strong, has found a place on my "Recommended for New and Renewing Writers" list. It took me a while to place it there and its inclusion does worry me somewhat.

I'm one of the last people to emerge enthusiastic about the general notion of 'writing is the universe flowing through your fingers.' And, even more so, with another hat on, I have had to endure the overwhelming popularity of people like Napoleon Hill -- Think and Grow Rich --  who had gas station supervisors buying new suits to represent the success that surely awaited them just around the corner. Personally, I am more of the Thoreau bias: "Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes."

Still, the book was recommended to me by a fellow writer whom I admire, had begun to follow its specific daily program, and reported increased liberating creative results from doing so. 

So, I'm reading the book. And, while I have not followed the daily program (others have wagged their finger at me for this felony), I have noted a number of things that have lifted my spirit and exorcised certain devils.

Sometimes, it's as though Julia Cameron is talking right to me. 

So, I place it on my list of Recommend's.

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Narrative Drive, Plot, Character, “The Witch Elm” & Cathy

I tend to work best -- or, at least it's my comfort zone -- if I can start with concepts. “Just write” is not advice that is all that useful to me. At the same time, it is also true I can get happily bogged down in ideas about writing rather than actually doing it. For me, insisting to myself that I write or edit something virtually every day is a discipline I need to strictly observe.

I have adapted (stolen) from Mary Daniels Brown and Stephen King to wrap my head around these three aspects of any short story or novel – Plot – Narrative – Character. Of course, since having two writers in the room means there are at least three opinions declared loudly and firmly – you could look hard and long to find any agreement on these descriptions. Still, even though this is just me (& Mary and Stephen sort of), I find the following useful – inspiring & eye-opening actually – and it’s what I’m going with for now.

Plot is usually the main character’s actions in pursuit of a goal. Plot may include “whys”, linkages between events, causes and effects, motivation. If you were outlining a plot, you would do so in chronological order. As the author, you may or may not tell the story in plot order. You may not even really know what the plot is until you’ve finished writing (and re-writing) the story.

Narrative is the order in which the author presents the various events that make up the plot. The narrative is structured so that the telling of the story is interesting to read. In the words of Stephen King, how you “keep the ball rolling”.

Characterization is a representation of who the character is. Behaviors, thoughts, dialogue, physical appearance, the response of other characters – lots of stuff – might go into the writer and the reader getting to know a character. One author might produce a detailed character description before starting the story. Another author might begin writing the story and allow the characters to “reveal themselves” in the writing process. Another author will do a little bit of both. Writers could argue all day about this.

Plot + Narrative + Characterization = Story

One of my favourite people, Catherine Dunphy, includes the following in her resume: a National Newspaper Award winner, a writer for The Toronto Star for over 25 years, the author of television screenplays and books (one of which was nominated for the Governor General’s Award) and more. I knew her before she was any of those things. Currently Cathy is a member of Mesdames of Mayhem, an active writers’ group focused on crime fiction.

Cathy recommended I read a number of books, including “The Witch Elm” by Tana French. I am glad I did even after my grumbling about its 500-page length. It really helped me to differentiate between plot (a good solid “B” for a bestselling novel I’d say – meaning a billion times better than most) and narrative (incredibly compelling A+++++). I just kept wanting to read the book. The other thing that impressed me was her command of characterization. (I mean, this is a crime novel right? You know, intricate plot points that are obvious only in retrospect? Standard characters briefly outlined?) Not so here – these characters, while eccentric, are anything but standard and are entirely believable.

My being able to ever perform at this level is unforeseeable. But, having watched someone else do this has improved my modest accomplishments.

Thank you Tana French. And thank you, Cathy.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Deep 3rd Person

According to, "Deep POV is third-person subjective taken a step farther than the normal
The third-person subjective shows story through the eyes of one or more characters—one at a time, no head-hopping please. 
Deep POV goes beyond that to take readers into the head and heart of a character, allowing the story to be seen and felt through the characters' experiences and history and thoughts and feelings."

Well, well, well. I will go back and check my Bugs in the Grass for head-hopping once again. It's one of my stories I can't seem to let go of -- for all its faults, it seems to me it has so much life. Of course, very often writers are the worst assessors, delusional even, regarding the quality and vitality of their pieces. I have t say, though, that my own experience of myself and of the reports of other writers is that our delusions tend to be on the "I don't think it's good" side of the ledger.

Author Intrusion

One of the many advantages of participating actively in your local writing group -- besides the usually cited examples of associating with like-minded individuals who actually understand the magnitude of your triumphs and defeats; the pure social experience for writers who spend most if their time in solitary pursuits, and so forth -- is that you can actually learn something.

For instance, a few days ago someone used the phrase 'author intrusion' (which is a lovely-sounding phrase even without knowing its meaning, don't you think?). I looked it up.

Someone (I think from says: "Authorial intrusion is My own memory a literary device where the author intentionally breaks from the narrative and addresses the reader directly. Used correctly, this device can create a relationship between the author and the reader adding an additional layer to the story. Used incorrectly, it becomes an annoying nuisance.", the site I recommend for a detailed explanation, says: "If you are writing in 1st person POV or deep 3rd, you shouldn't use authorial intrusion. 
My own positive memories include Tom Jones and how much I enjoyed Henry Fielding's interjections; and The Great Gatsby.

So now, I'm going to revisit my own Bugs in the Grass story and see if I can remedy my use of "Gentle Reader" author intrusion.

Right after I figure out what "deep 3rd" person is.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Narrative Drive

So, a valued mentor let me know that the work he has seen from me lacks "narrative flow". As I have mentioned (!) before, I had to look that phrase up. Me being me, INTJ, I needed to understand what this odd phrase might mean. After severe and prolonged introspection, I discovered that diversions, reflections, and non-sequiturs are my natural place to come from. And I do believe that the best writing, from all of us, emanates from our natural place. At the same time, I am also acutely aware that our weaknesses are often, not always but often, our strengths overdone. So, I decided to look at this newest phase of my apprenticeship as a writer by addressing this. So, I looked around (yes, some more) and decided that if any form of fiction required 'narrative flow' it was a crime novel. So -- you can see the punishing logic driving me here -- I decided to write a 'mystery' while at the same time maintaining as best I could my own 'voice.' A short novel, no less.

Here's my observation so far. I have committed to progressing from swimming a few laps in the pool, -- passably, mostly, some of the time, if you don't look too close -- to swimming the English Channel.

I have actually begun this Quixotic journey with the usual mix of terror and enthusiasm.

I like it and I am just so uncomfortable. Sound familiar?