Category Archives: Motivation

My Alien Being

I’m sitting on the beach in Essouira, Morocco. No bikinis dot the Sahara-red sand. There’s just kids playing soccer, tourists declining barkers carrying silver trays of delicate sweets rebaked in the afternoon sun and camels carrying giddy riders through sea side dunes. Surf’s high – so high the pulsing ocean is blood red with a ribbon of frothing foam and the sea monster’s mouth snaps shut on the shore. A shard of light spears roiling storm clouds. Awestruck, I gape, ignoring the stinging sand in my eyes and the salty spray turning my hair prematurely white. I want to fall to my knees in reverence knowing that if I wasn’t a child of science, this moment would be my moment of truth because I’ve seen the Angel. From this point forward, my writing would no longer be of fantasy but of prophecy and revelation.

Walking through the Medina, with store keepers cooing enticements of shared tea or special deals for pretty women or special Berber massages, I’m reminded that I’m not simply the observer, I’m the alien being observed. No matter how modestly I’m dressed, how respectful I’m being, I’m still a foreigner in a country where I don’t speak the main language. And I love it. I laugh at the offers, banter with the best all the while noting my reactions and theirs. But then I’ve had enough. Enough of the smells of sweet spices teasing my nostrils which have just been assaulted by heaps of raw fish. Enough of chickens squawking while docile rabbits nibble grass in the butcher’s stall. Enough of brightly colored linens carefully displayed, leather goods spilling into the street, metal workers hammering out bowls. Enough of watching the ebb and flow of tourists pushing, vendors enticing and arms desperately flailing about to secure a good deal.

Alienness overload. That’s what this is.

Somewhere deep inside, we all try to understand the alien within ourselves otherwise, we wouldn’t be writing fantasy. But writing is a safe way to practice the alien experience vicariously through the new worlds we’ve built, through plot twists and every character’s angst. Sometimes it’s too safe and our writing suffers for it. When we’re too familiar with something, we lose the rawness of wonder. We need to remember that rawness, that excitement and fear when our character enters a new world. We can’t let our familiarity overshadow the character’s experience.

That’s why I like to travel to countries where I don’t understand the language and the customs are totally new. It’s raw. It’s exciting. Sometimes it’s overwhelming. But always, it reminds me that my characters have their own points of view about the world they’re experiencing. I know that when something so familiar to others is so new to me. It’s safe but it isn’t. It’s fun but it’s scary. It’s awesome and it’s overwhelming. Those feelings are what I must hold on to because my characters can never be as comfortable as I am about the new world I’ve created for them.

I am their interpreter. Bringing their experiences to life on the page. Finding that raw edge, the vulnerability that makes them spin out of control or struggle for control in the alien landscape. I challenge them by committing the cultural faux pas which forces them to take desperate actions to survive.

Understanding the alien within never gets any easier – it only gets more exciting. Our need for belonging and security heightens our awareness yet when those needs are our memories of alienness drift away. So I travel the roads unknown taking care to note the alien nature, the creeping comfort of familiarity and to translate that to the written word. Somewhere in those gems of observations are not only the feelings my characters will have, but the sparks of ingenuity for inspiring deeper, richer worlds where angel swords pierce the heart, sea monsters snatch unwitting victims from the shore and someone falls in love with the alien.

Sloshing through the Slush Pile ““ Beginner Concerns

You wrote a story and submitted it. Good for you! Pat on the back! It takes courage to not only write but to submit! But, your story wasn’t chosen? That makes me sad, especially after all that effort. So, how do you get your story through the first reading also known as the slush pile? It’s no great mystery. I’ve been a slush pile reader and have judged the Imaginative Fiction Writers Association (IFWA) short story contest and I’m here to share some of the common writing mistakes made by beginning writers.

Actions speak louder than words
There is the saying that actions speak louder than words. For the writer the saying should be reworded to: a character’s actions and reactions, based on his value system, are more revealing than a mere listing of movements and setting. Feelings, actions and reactions, what’s worth fighting for, our successes and failures in that fight and how they affect us – those are the things which move your reader and create your story.

Damn, I hate lectures …
Information dumps are bad any time – back story, setting, telling me what the character is thinking. When I hear the “professor’ lecturing me on what it’s like in space when I want to know how the character will solve a problem, I’m gone ……. and please, stay away from omniscient musings on the human condition!

The sleep inducing setting
Starting a story with a list of items the character sees isn’t exciting. Not even in real life do we note all the details in a room when we enter it. But we do notice things which affect how we feel or cause us to react like a dead body on the floor or the missing captain and the view screen showing the planet’s surface growing larger.

Setting not only sets the time and place for your story but more importantly is used to stimulate the senses; to evoke a feeling for the situation and to provide a context in which your character will react. Yes, some novels start with awesome descriptions of setting. So what makes that work? Setting is used as a character – it evokes a feeling. It’s no mistake that in Twilight, for example, the climate is cold, rainy and generally depressing. Similar, is it not, to how Belle feels about herself?

Writing in first person
Many a good idea was killed by this Point of View. Writing in first person doesn’t mean it’s a free license to explore your grey cells to produce copious ponderings. Writing in first person is difficult because there is only one point of view through which to reveal a world, create drama and to incorporate a story line which is interesting. It can be done. The trick is not to tell, but to show the person actively assessing and responding to his situation. Through his eyes and actions, he must reveal information about the people he interacts with, his surroundings and how he feels. First person can be a great way to get deeply into someone’s psyche, the trick is not to get bogged down in the thinking process. All the rules for a good story arc still apply.

Stories need to be dynamic
Whether they’re dynamic emotionally or action oriented, I don’t care. Have some tension, carry it through to the climax and ending. Actions need reaction. Reactions produce more actions. Show, don’t tell. Don’t list events, or actions, or use empty words like “pondered “which evoke nothing except that the writer didn’t really know how the character felt or how he should react. A story needs a plot and increasing tension with a climax. Writing a descriptive scene isn’t a story.

Proof reading and feedback
Truly, most of us cannot be a good judge of what we write, certainly not in the beginning of our careers. The act of writing is a solitary event insofar as we need to write our story. After that, it’s a collaborative process requiring feedback and revisions. Your manuscript is easily rejected because of poor grammar, spelling and punctuation, clunky dialogue or extensive monologues. Plot problems or character concerns such as inconsistency or believability are things proofreaders can catch.

Keep on writing!
Cheers!

The Lonely Writer …

There is a misconception that writing is a solitary activity. Insofar as the first steps of the process are concerned, it is. The initial draft and the rewrites can only be done by the writer. But check out the thank you or acknowledgement pages of any published book. It lists writing groups, friends, family, editors, research contacts, mentors – in short, it’s a community of support and resources which helped the author create a publishable book.

Support systems are integral to our success. They inspire us. They challenge us to perfection. They nourish our thirst for knowledge on craft and genre. They help us understand the business of writing – how to get the first contract, who to approach and how. And it’s a blessing when that support system is found within your writing group.

Every good writing group has members who help each other, by giving advice on craft and genre. But, most importantly, we need to be with like-minded people – those who understand the writing life – the joys and successes or the struggles and crazy times. These are the people who celebrate with us when the first draft is complete. They share our angst as we rewrite and perfect our work. They commiserate with us through the rejections. They party with us when the manuscript is sold and finds a home in bookstores.

I love the writing groups I belong to. One is this group which founded The Fictorian Era. Although we span three countries, we set weekly goals, support each other through highs and lows, beta read for one another and discuss issues for emerging authors. A local group, Mystery Writers Ink, provides awesome speakers and resources on matters of crime and craft. And, the third group, Imaginative Fictions Writers, is a critiquing and professional development group many of whose members have spearheaded the When Words Collide, a multi genre popular fiction conference for readers and writers.

The support we receive, we must give back. That is the nature of the writing life. We are there for each other. So, look at the writing group you belong to. Does it feed you? Does it inspire you? Then, ask yourself, how can I give back to it? Writing groups function because of dedicated volunteers. But, those volunteers can only do so much without jeopardising their own writing. The old adage, many hands make light work, seems trite, but it’s true. If we all do a little, we all get a lot back.

Just remember, successful authors have a community of support around them ….

Check out:

http://www.whenwordscollide.org/

http://www.mysterywritersink.com/

http://www.writtenword.org/ifwa/