The Iceberg Cometh, Part 1

This is the first in a series of posts that explain short stories and their component parts.

“Hemingway said that only the tip of the iceberg showed in fiction—your reader will see only what is above the water—but the knowledge that you have about your character that never makes it into the story acts as the bulk of the iceberg. And that is what gives your story weight and gravitas.” Jenna Blum, The Author at Work

When I started writing seriously, I began with novels. I thought to myself, “Why should I write short stories? The novel is the real thing for real writers! I don’t want to waste my time with ‘practice writing’.” Apart from the absolute arrogance in that sentiment, there is nothing about writing short stories that is a waste of time. Not only do they make you a better writer, they are an art form unto themselves. So, in this post, I want to talk about the elements of a good short story and, in doing so, help you see how you can write using the iceberg theory as well.

Let’s begin by looking a what constitutes a short story.       

The key is in the name; a short story is short. Every publication has a desired word count for the stories they publish. I’m working on a story now for a journal that has a requirement of 6000-9000 words. A contest that I’ve entered a few times makes their limit 2000-3000 words. Generally, 10,000 words tend to be the top limit, but occasionally some publications will accept up to 20,000 words.

Let’s get the whole word count thing out of the way.

I’ve given you the general length of a short story, but what about the really short stories. I mean super short.

Flash fiction is a subgenre of short stories. These are stories that are 1000 words or less. They must still follow the conventions of a short story—a compelling story, strong plotline, and interesting and developing characters, often with a twist or surprise at the end.

Flash fiction, while a subgenre in itself, also has sub-subgenres.

Short shorts or sudden fiction are on the longer end of the flash fiction scale. They fall between 500 and 1000 words.

Microfiction is the shorter of the short stories, usually at 300-400 words. While 300-400 words may seem extremely short, there are even shorter sub-subgenres.

Postcard fiction is a story that could be written completely on a postcard—usually between 25-250 words. There is often an image to accompany the story.

Nano fiction, are stories that are 300 words or less.

A drabble has to be exactly 100 words—no more, no less. This count does not include the title. These stories, as short as they may be, still must have good short story construction.

A dribble or a mini-saga, similar to the drabble, must have an exact word count, but in this case, the count is only 50 words.

And then we get to the extreme of the short story form—the six-word stories. These are incredibly challenging. Not only is the writer restricted to 6 words, it still must have a complete story with all of its components. Some writers flip this into non-fiction by writing six-word memoirs. Could you pare part of your life story down into six words? I’m not sure I could.

Okay, if you are like me when I started writing short stories, I know how many words to write, but what words should those be?

There are five basic elements to a short story. There are other things that a short story can include, but let’s just start with the basics.

Plot: Think of the plot as the pathway your story takes to get from beginning to end. It is also a chain of events that are cause-and-effect and builds one on top of another as it moves from the inciting incident, through the rising action to the climax and down through the denouement to the resolution. Plot is closely tied to the story’s conflict. There are six stages to the plot:

  • Exposition: this is a short piece at the very beginning in which the following are introduced: Important background information such as the setting, the characters, the conflict
  • Inciting incident: this is the event that takes the protagonist to the place where they are introduced to the conflict and thus, starting the plot.
  • Rising action: the conflict becomes clearer, more intense, and often more complicated, and the protagonist struggles to deal with it.
  • Climax: the conflict here reaches its highest point, so much so that the protagonist is forced to deal with it. This leads to a redirection in the chain of events which often helps the reader understand the complexity of the conflict, the characters, and the situation.
  • Denouement: the conflict has been resolved and the action slopes down to the ending.
  • Resolution: the conflict is now done, the reader can put down the story and walk away feeling satisfied with what they have read.

Walking the Subtlety Tightrope

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Is subtlety a good thing for writers to insert into their stories?

            Subtlety is a tightrope, sometimes a tightrope in a windstorm. When you write subtlety into your story and ask someone to be a beta reader, if that person is another writer, probably they will get your subtlety. If you ask someone who just likes to read, probably they won’t. The issue with having a writer read your story or novel is that they have spent hours, days, and often years evaluating stories for just such subtlety. If you ask a friend or colleague who is not a writer, they don’t have that experience. These folks may not have the writer’s vocabulary to tell you what does and doesn’t work, but if you listen to them carefully, you can glean what problems your writing may or may not have, including too much subtlety.

            To write with subtlety is, as I mentioned above, a tightrope. A story with not so much subtlety could give your story popularity with a wide audience, however a story with a great deal of subtlety can be extremely powerful, but not everyone will get it.

            It is at this point that you, the writer, must make a decision in regards to power versus popularity. Something to keep in mind here is this: if you tip too far into the Subtle Sea, and you get reader feedback that they didn’t understand your story, it is not the fault of the reader. This is the writer’s story and so any decisions we make as writers fall strictly in our laps. If our readers do not understand, it is our error, not theirs. So be strategic. Think about what you really want. Do you want everyone to love your book? Then less subtlety. Do you want a very powerful story to knock the socks off some of your readers? Then more is better.

Has subtlety always been part of storytelling?

            Intuitively we may want to answer ‘Yes, of course!’ but we would be wrong. In fact, it was not until the last century that adding subtlety became fashionable. In the 19th century, almost all of writers wrote in third person omniscient making subtlety unnecessary. The omniscient POV allows the reader to look into the minds of ALL the characters. Think Jane Austen or the Bröntes. At the very end of the 19th century, Henry James began releasing stories written in the 3rd-person limited POV. In doing this, the readers no longer had the ability to see completely into the minds of all the characters. Even the protagonist can be unreliable for the reader. The reader can only truly be aware of what the protagonist is aware of. This is where subtlety can be important to the understanding of the theme, or even the basic plotline. Certainly, the growing popularity of the theories of Sigmund Freud had an impact on this change. People were slowly coming to realize that people don’t always know why they do what they do. In this case, subtlety becomes important. Your characters may never figure out their own motivations but as long as your readers can, then you are fine.

What can subtlety add to your writing?

           

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As I said above, subtlety can make your story much more powerful. A very short story that has been incorrectly attributed to Hemingway is this:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

This is the height of subtlety. We do not know what the story is until the final two words—the death of a baby before she began to walk—and even then, a reader not used to subtlety might miss the meaning.

            “The Chrysanthemum” by Steinbeck is a story rich with subtlety. This multi-layered story hints at the relationship between the protagonist and her husband as well as the protagonist’s inner workings. You have to read very carefully between the lines, but if you can get the subtlety, it is a very powerful story.

            “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” by James Thurber shows us a protagonist who is, to the reader, clearly ridiculous, but Walter Mitty is oblivious. Actually, oblivious is not quite the right word. He is vaguely aware of his ridiculousness, but he chooses to ignore it. So, instead of ‘oblivious’, it seems that ‘in denial’ would be a better choice. The subtlety comes in the intersection between Mitty’s real world and his imaginary world.

            “The Story of an Hour” AKA “The Dream of an Hour” by Kate Chopin is only three pages long, making it as short as some flash fiction. This story is ambiguous and because of that, intriguing. In three short pages, she hints at an analysis of death, marriage, and personal needs and desires. It is an hour in the life of a woman who has just been told that her husband is apparently dead. Because the story is so short, Chopin could only hint at these themes, but in doing so gives us a powerful story.

            Another author who wrote with subtlety was Yukio Mishima. His collection of short stories under the title Death in Midsummer is masterful. He was able to write stories that are almost painfully subtle, however his readers are relieved of the burden of figuring out the underlying message because Mishima had complete control, not only over his entire story, but also over his last lines. These final lines are so strong, they feel like the proverbial punch in the gut. I found myself frowning when I first read his stories. I struggled to understand, and then–BOOM–the last line knocks you flat. In doing this he has the best of both worlds—the subtle and the obvious—making his stories truly powerful. The description on Amazon for Death in Midsummer  sums up everything nicely:

Nine of Yukio Mishima’s finest stories were selected by Mishima himself for translation in this book; they represent his extraordinary ability to depict a wide variety of human beings in moments of significance. Often his characters are sophisticated modern Japanese who turn out to be not so liberated from the past as they had thought.

            I strongly recommend reading Mishima’s short stories, or even his full-length novels.

I will wrap this up by saying, yes, be subtle, but not about anything that is critical to the understanding of your story. Another writer might figure out the intricacies but a nonwriter might just miss that which is critical. So jump on that tightrope and enjoy your balancing act as you swing to that perfect balance between powerful writing and popularity.

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The Prodigal Author Returns

It has been three long years that I have let my website wither. My excuse? Life got in the way. A car accident buggered my already fragile back; my mother died; my husband and I bought, ran, and then closed a small fair trade gift store; I wrote a horror novel and started on a paranormal historical novel; I published my first collection of poetry; we travelled to Ireland, Scotland, Spain, Morocco, and of course, our second home–Sicily, and we were in 68 days of lockdown in Italy during the first wave of COVID-19.

An Irish Cobb on the side of the road as we drove to Malin Head, Donegal, Ireland

I had been writing intermittently, but other than the horror novel (which I’m hoping may be out next year), I hadn’t really focused on any one project. Then, a few weeks ago I began a vampire novel. Not something I ever thought I would do, but here I am, probably 1/2 way into my first draft and I am loving this toothy girl! She is one tough cookie who has no idea how tough she is. And voodoo! I am learning so much about voodoo. The novel takes place in New Orleans so I have been researching my butt off because it is very important to me to represent it in a respectful and accurate manner.

One of the things you have to do when you are writing a vampire novel is to establish the R.O.V. or Rules of Vampire-ness. Wikipedia has a truly exhaustive list of all the possible characteristics of being a vampire. Does your vampire burn in the daylight? Does your vampire fly? Or shapeshift? Is she repelled by garlic, holy Christian objects, or running water? So many things to decide! It’s what we call world building. World building got me thinking, and I realized how, in each writer, there is at least a part of them that has an ENORMOUS ego. How can we believe that we can create anything that could rival this world we live in? And, once created, share it with the rest of our world, confident that everyone else will love it too? No, you can recognize the writers walking down the street by their massive craniums!

But seriously, there is an aspect of this in all writers and as I thought about this yesterday, I wrote down the following:

So I will close this little post here as I am off to a different file on my computer in which I can be as goddam godlike as I please.

TTFN

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Canada Reads 2017

The Canada Reads Shortlist is out.  They are all very deserving books, but, as always, my shortlist would have been different.  These are the books I would have chosen:

#1

The Break by Katherena Vermette

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Excerpt:

It is so late it’s early. She had waited hours for the police to come. Waited shaking, thinking they would come at any moment. She was unable to stop cleaning or crying. She should have called her Kookom then. She would’ve been asleep, but she still would’ve answered. Or Aunty Cher, she would’ve come over, made the coffee, yelled at the cops when they started acting like they didn’t believe her. But Stella didn’t do any of that.

Jeff gets up, stands behind her at the sink and pulls her into his arms, forcing her into a hug. She waits until he’s done so she can ring out the wet cloth.

“You were half asleep. And it’s okay. It’s okay. But with your past, hon, you know you could’ve just been dreaming. You could’ve just been confused.”

She breaks away from him and goes to wipe the table. “There’s blood all over out there,” she says over her shoulder as she storms out of the kitchen again. The wind picking up outside, knocking at the old window.

“No one says nothing happened,” he sighs. “It just might be different than you think.”

She doesn’t say anything, just scrubs.

I find this excerpt incredibly powerful.  The feeling of not being believed even though there is evidence, even though it is gut-wrenchingly horrible, even though you are a human and deserve to be believed, is a painfully familiar feeling and pulled me right back to a time in my life when the people on whom I depended most denied my reality.  It’s like… no, not like, it is being victimized all over again.  This book did make the shortlist and is being defended by Candy Palmater.    

Apart from the emotional impact, this book employs shifting narratives–something I enjoy reading and use in my own writing.  A story about the residents in Winnipeg’s North End, it is an important addition to the growing renaissance of Indigenous literature.

This book did make the shortlist and is being defended by Candy Palmater.    

 

#2

I am Woman by Lee Maracle

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Excerpt:

Scribble… scribble… scribble… I gathered up a host of paper napkins, brown bags and other deadwood paraphernalia on which I had scribbled the stories that people gave me. Scribbled sitting in the back of buses, inside grungy restaurants and in the audiences of large gatherings. Typed out the scribbles between the demands of young children and worked them up for publication until finally they made their way to the printer.

On all these scraps are written the stories of people of my passion. In the early years of my political activism the passion expressed itself as a virulent hatred for the system which destroyed our lives, our families; today, the passion expresses itself as deep caring. I resisted publishing for a long time, not because I lacked confidence in the words scribbled on my scraps of paper – the voices of the unheard cannot help but be of value – but how can one squeeze one’s loved ones small, onto the pages of a three-dimensional rectangle, empty of their form, minus their favourite colours and the rhythm of the music that moves them?

 

Oh, I love this book for so many reasons.  Published in 1988, it still resonates.  She writes with passion about writing, about indigenous women, about all women, about activism, and does it so poetically that reading it is like following the flute of the Pied Piper.  She is masterful with her pen.

 

#3

Waiting for First Light: My Ongoing Battle with PTSD by Romeo Dallaire with Jessica Dee Humphreys

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Excerpt:

A pain shot through my arm, from the shoulder right down to my fingertips, waking me. I struggled upright, and squinted through the darkness, seeking the source. A sniper’s bullet? A grenade? Years of artillery training and months of war had made me immune to the sound of explosions, so it was entirely possible that I’d missed it.

Confused, I tried to attune my senses to the unfamiliar darkness and the curious silence. I was clearly indoors, but this was not my office at the Amahoro Stadium in Kigali. Since the war began, I had slept at my desk, with lights blazing, ready to take immediate action. Three, four hours, tops. The sounds of the deep night – animals rustling, babies crying, the fax whirring machine, the crackle of the walkie-talkie anticipating a call for help from a vulnerable field post, distant (and often not so distant) firefights – these had been the faithful companions of my sleep.

 

In my previous career, I was a teacher.  For 33 years I taught English, Canadian history, Japanese, Humanities, First Nations Studies, English as a Second Language, and probably a few other things that I’ve forgotten.  But, of all of my teaching experiences, by far the most important and impactful for me was teaching a class called Social Justice 12.  Every time I taught this class, my students, by the end, were saying “Why have we never been taught this before?”  The educational assistants, who were invariably assigned to help the students with special needs that I welcomed into my room, fought over who would get to be in my classroom.  I knew I was doing something special.

One of the units I taught was on genocide; how it happens, what are the stages, when global powers could step in to prevent it.  We used the genocide in Rwanda as an example.  At the beginning of the unit, many of my students had not heard of Romeo Dallaire, but by the end, my students (and I) were impressed by his bravery, his humility, and his humanity.  We all agreed that he was a real Canadian hero, and I believe every Canadian should read this book.  

 

#4

One Hour in Paris by Karyn L Freedman

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Excerpt:

In early June, while still travelling with Lisa, I spent a day and a half in Heidelberg with my ex-boyfriend who was there for the summer, studying German. I think he now goes by his given name, David, but back then everyone knew him by his nickname, Stream. Stream and I met in 1987 in New York City. I lived there for two years while attending the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), where I studied fashion merchandising. I had gotten there by accident. I graduated high school – barely – in 1986. The rebellious years that I referred to earlier were at their peak then and I was struggling to find my way. I went through half a pack of cigarettes a day and spent my weekends smoking pot and getting high. Those were dark days. I would regularly sneak out of my house in the middle of the night to meet other wayward friends and then sleep through classes the following day (during grades 11 and 12, my absentee rates were routinely higher than my grades). The only thing I was focused on was avoiding the emotional consequences of my privileged, middle-class, suburban upbringing.

 

Wow.  For me, that last line says it all.  I, like her, grew up in a privileged, middle-class, suburban family.  From the outside, it looked like rainbows and sunshine.  But inside, it was dark and miserable.  I, too, was sexually assaulted.  For me, it happened when I was a child and not only did I not tell anyone, I didn’t have the vocabulary at that time to describe what had happened to me.  In Canada, 1 in 4 women will have been sexually assaulted by the time they are 18.  Think about that.  Next time you are walking down the street, just count four random women.  One of them was sexually assaulted.  If you are walking down a busy street in Vancouver or Calgary or Toronto or Halifax, spend two or three minutes counting ‘one, two, three, four’ as women walk by you.  In two minutes, you will have likely counted to four twenty-four times.  In two minutes, you have walked by twenty-four women who have been sexually assaulted.  And for men, the number is one in six.  If you do the same exercise for men, you will have walked by 18 men who have been sexually assaulted.  In two minutes, you will have walked by 42 people who have been sexually assaulted. Forty-two.  And yet, there are still people who deny we live in a rape culture.  ‘Nuff said.

 

#5

Company Town by Madeline Ashby

 

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Excerpt:

On the stairs to the third tier, she saw the man with the rifle.

He paced the refinery catwalks high above the fray. As Hwa watched, he paused and began examining the rifle. Hefting it in his hands. Peering down the scope. The gun was illegal on the platform; since the fall of the Old Rig there were laws against projectiles and explosives and all the other things that could cause a pillar of fire to vaporize a crew of roughnecks like tobacco leaves. Not that that mattered, in this long and terrible moment. What mattered was that he could shoot into the crowd. What mattered was her promise to protect two men in that crowd.

 

I chose this particular book because it is so different from the rest.  I love fantasy–in fact, I am working on a YA fantasy trilogy right now.  There are three things that make this particular novel so interesting for me:

  1. There is a very strong female protagonist,
  2. The author plays with time and reality, and
  3. It is so well written.

 

Character Development – The World is a Dangerous Place

I always have too many writing projects on the go.  Currently, I am:

  1. Editing my 125,000-word novel down to 120,000 so that it can be published before summer and available for summer reading lists,
  2. Stopping and starting my online novel Broken Mirrors (rather more stopping than starting at the moment),
  3. Just finished a one-act Christmas play and polishing it as part of a book of short plays,
  4. Turning my recently finished novella into a play so that they can be published together in one volume,
  5. Helping my publisher-husband flesh out the idea of a literary journal for new creative writers in the Cowichan Valley (where his company is based), and
  6. Doing character sketches for a YA fantasy trilogy I plan to write this summer.

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On top of this, I am just winding up teaching a creative writing class and will be starting a new one in February; I’m working on my certification as an editor; I’m starting a bi-monthly writing workshop for people who want to submit to my husband’s new literary journal.  AND, of course, there are the writers’ groups and readings that I attend.  You know, it’s a good thing I retired from my day job!

But today it is #6 on the list on which I want to focus my attention.  The most interesting and compelling characters are the ones that are the most flawed.  Think Holly Golightly, Don Quixote, Severus Snape and Harry Potter, Holden Caulfield, Mr. Darcy, the Artful Dodger and Fagan, Lisbeth Salander, Macbeth and King Lear, the Wife of Bath.  Hell, even Max from Where the Wild Things Are.  The list is endless.  When I was a kid, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, it was a real insult to refer to someone as “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm”.  She was a sickly sweet, always positive, always upbeat, far too perfect little girl.  It is hard to create a relatable character that has no dark side.

 

This post will be the first in examining what makes people, and therefore characters, flawed.  I will borrow liberally from the book Into the Light: Codependency, a Spiritual Journey by my very good friend Neil Douglas Tubb.  The book is out of print, currently, but if you are interested in getting a copy, let me know and I will see if Neil has any more kicking around.

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THE WORLD IS A DANGEROUS PLACE

 

“When I come to the edge of my known universe, when I come to the end of where the light shines for me. It is from this point on that I have to be a risk taker.  It’s when I have to go blindly off into something or someplace I have never seen or been before…when I step off into my darkness and it is the darkness of my unknown, it is then that I grow.  It is then that I come to know.  It is then that I notice the light.” NDT

 

For a variety of individual reasons, many of us grew up believing that the world is a dangerous place and we are alone in facing it.  Let’s look at one of my favourite characters–Harry Potter.  Harry grew up locked in a closet under the stairs and raised by people who despised him and feared what he represented.  Harry truly lived in a world that was out to destroy him and, because of his upbringing, he believed that he was alone in that battle–that he had no right to ask anyone to risk their lives to help him.  In the real world, Harry would have likely been diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder:

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“Even though some of the causes for reactive attachment disorder are unavoidable, the message to the child’s psyche is the same, “my needs don’t matter.” This hard-wired belief is very challenging for a child or teen to overcome – the belief that he or she doesn’t actually matter can impact nearly every facet of his or her life.”

According to Village Behavioral Health, these are some of the symptoms of children with attachment disorder:

Relationships: In relationships, a person who has RAD may be bossy, untrusting, manipulative, and controlling. They may have challenges giving or receiving genuine love and affection. Their unstable peer relationships are tenuous at best, as children and teens with RAD blame others for their mistakes or challenges.

Behavioral: Destructive, irresponsible, impulsive, and defiant behaviors. Children or teens with RAD may steal, lie, abuse others, start fires, behave cruelly to animals, or act in a self-destructive manner. They also may avoid physical contact with others, and engage in drug or alcohol abuse.

Moral:  Teens with RAD may lack faith, compassion, and remorse for their actions.

Emotional: Children who have RAD may feel sad, moody, fearful, anxious, depressed, and hopeless. These children may display inappropriate emotional reactions.

Thoughts: Children and teens who have RAD may have negative beliefs about themselves, life, and other relationships. These children and teens are unable to understand the concept of cause and effect. Additionally, they may experience inattention and challenges with learning.

The symptoms in bold and italics are characteristics we see in Harry.  The first time I thought about this, my reaction was “No way.  Harry is not any of these things.”  Yet, there are examples of every one of those symptoms I outlined above in Harry.  He is just such a likeable and relatable character, we gloss over his flaws even though his flaws and his struggle to overcome them are what make him so likeable.  His arc is satisfying because he overcomes failings that we recognise in ourselves.  JK Rowling is masterful at creating wonderfully flawed characters.

How can you make use of this?  Feel free to make your characters as messed up as you like.  It will just make the reader that much more satisfied when your characters conquer their weaknesses.  Not to mention that flawed characters are much more fun to write.

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Looking Through the Cracks

I was recently asked to speak at the Cowichan Centre for Peaceful Community.  It was September 11th, the 15th anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Centre.  I was caught in a conundrum.  How do I say anything positive on the anniversary of an attack that changed how we look at the world forever?  I struggled with this for a couple of weeks and then, just two days before – on the 9th, I was procrastinating, as I often do, by watching YouTube videos and I came across JK Rowling’s commencement speech at Harvard University and I knew what I wanted to say.

 

JK Rowling is, of course, the author of the Harry Potter series of books, and arguably the most celebrated and successful children’s writer of all time.  Her first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, hit the stands and the bestseller lists and became widely known and wildly popular.  I have a bit of a stubborn streak and I often avoid the things that everyone says I “must do” or “must try” or even “must read” and so, even though my daughter was four when the first book was released and a perfect age (in my opinion) for the Philosopher’s Stone, I studiously avoided buying a copy.  That is until I was poking around in a bookstore with another mother I knew.  When she found out that I hadn’t started reading Harry to my daughter, she put the Philosopher’s Stone in my hand and said, “Buy this.” So I did.

 

At that time in my life, I had more in common with Jo Rowling than I knew.  We were both single parents, both out of terrible marriages to abusive men, both battling depression, and both wanting to write.  My daughter was struggling too.  Her father was not only abusive to me, he was horrible to her as well.  She was diagnosed with ADD and her teacher at school was so awful to her that year because of her symptoms, she begged me to let her change schools even though she would be moved away from her tight-knit group of friends.  And when she did change schools, she struggled for months with loneliness and depression.  That is a gut-wrenching thing for a mother to watch in her child at any time but even more so when her child has not yet moved out of elementary school.

 

Harry Potter handed us a lifeline.  Every night, no matter how awful the day had been, we snuggled in her bed and read another chapter of Harry’s life.  His battles felt so familiar to my daughter – a horrible teacher, an abusive parental figure, bullying, isolation – so when he fought Voldemort and Professor Quirrell and won it felt like we had won too.  In fact, we had.  We had finished the Philosopher’s Stone, just as my daughter finished that school year and we both felt like the battle had been won.  Of course, my daughter and I and Harry were handed other battles by life, as life is wont to do.  But through it all, Harry walk with us. 

 

There is a great deal of wisdom to be learned in Harry Potter and from JK Rowling.

What lessons have I gleaned from reading Harry Potter?  The words of Jo Rowling carry a ring of truth:

“Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times if one only remembers to turn on the light.”

“Do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living, and above all those who live without love.”

“There will be a time when we must choose between what is easy and what is right.”

“Things we lose have a way of coming back to us in the end, if not always in the way we expect.”

“We’ve all got both light and darkness inside us.  What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.”

 

In the course of the Harry Potter books, Harry faces in Voldemort, an evil with the power to destroy any goodness in the world.  And what is it that made Voldemort, the most powerful wizard in the Harry Potter world, vulnerable to a simple skinny teenage boy with glasses?  It was that he underestimated the power of love.

 

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Image found at http://leelastarsky.livejournal.com/115734.html?thread=1570582

 

 

Acts of love surround us every day, even – or rather especially – in times places of great evil.  Some of the stories are well known – the family that hid Ann Frank, Oskar Schindler saving the lives of so many Jews, the Christmas eve armistice in WWI, Romeo Dallaire’s bravery in the Rwandan genocide, Doctors Without Borders, Mother Teresa – but there are so many that we will never hear of because they are done in anonymity.

 

We are living in a time of great evil.  ISIS attacks are splashed across the news.  You have to look through the cracks to find the stories of love, but they are there. There is the couple from Berlin who started Refugees Welcome, a website that matches refugees with people willing to share their homes with them. The Ismaili activists in the city of Salamiyah in the centre of Syria refused to cooperate with the rebels and welcomed, sheltered and fed 20,000 Hama refugees in 2011.  Dr. Peter Gary, a Holocaust survivor, speaking to tens of thousands of young people over two decades about the power of love and the defeat of hate.  We don’t have to look far to find examples of love. And how fortunate we are for that.

Faith in Humanity Restored

The 3 Day Novel Contest: Oh The Horror!

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Yesterday the 3 Day Novel Contest wound up at midnight.  In three days contestants write a novel.  Yup, that’s right.  It’s a short novel – a novella really – but it is complete – 18,000 words in three days.

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18,000 words in 3 days = carpal tunnel!

It is the second time I have entered this contest.  The first time I was unprepared.  Oh, I read all the hints and suggestions on the web page, including their Survival Guide but NOTHING prepares you for the actuality of writing almost non-stop for three days until you have a completed novella. It is a crazy rollercoaster of a weekend.

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The first time I entered, I had an idea semi-formed, but when I sat down to write, the whole thing flew out the window and I went in an entirely different direction.  This worked out well for me as it ended up with the publication of Greenwich List.

This time, I decided to take an idea that had been floating around in my head for five years.  I outlined the story in five ‘acts’.  It seemed like a clever idea at the time.  But, as with the first year, all my cleverness turned out to be useless.

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I did hold onto my idea, however.  This idea was like a friend.  She had been sitting with me for five long years – tapping at my brain saying “Write me!  Write me!  You know you want to!”  So that’s what I did.  I took my friend and wrote the story that had been clamouring to come out for all these years.  You might be saying now, ‘Diane, what was that idea?’  Well, sorry, not going to tell you.  It came out over the weekend as a novella, but I am planning on turning it into either a full-length novel or part of a collection of stories so you will just have to wait.  I will tell you, however, that it was a horror story. The first I have ever written!  And, while I think I pretty much got it right, I went back afterwards and looked what HP Lovecraft had to say about the genre.  Some of what he wrote is now a bit out of date, but much of it is timeless, especially in regards to weird or horror fiction.

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Rules and Themes of Horror Writing as Adapted from HP Lovecraft

 

The true weird tale has to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain–a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space. – HP Lovecraft

 

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  • There are two categories of “weird” fiction (which includes horror).
    • The horror expresses itself in some unexpected condition or phenomena.
    • The horror expresses itself in a character’s behaviours which are connected in some way to a bizarre condition or phenomena.
  • Each weird/horror story involves five definite elements
    • some basic, underlying horror or abnormality in character or setting.
    • how the horror affects the characters/setting/etc..
    • how the horror presents itself; what does it do & how does it do it?
    • how do the characters react to the horror?
    • how does the horror act within the given circumstances or ‘world rules’ set out in the story.
  • There must be the “maintenance of a careful realism” within the operating rules of the world created throughout the story except in the aspects that are impacted by the horror.
  • The horror must have carefully contrived emotional build up. All that a horror story should be is “a vivid picture of a certain type of human mood”.
    • subtle suggestions of emotion or clues to the horror or characters’ responses are key.
    • use “imperceptible hints and touches of selective associative detail which express shadings of moods” to make the unreality of the horror seem real even though we “suspend or violate the illusion of time, space, and natural law”
    • Avoid lists of incredible events which add no substantive meaning to the horror.
  • There needs to be an air of ‘awe and impressiveness’ around the horror.

 

HP Lovecraft was the master of weird fiction and was a great story-teller.  His rules for writing are basic and can apply to any fiction writing.

  1. Write out the chronology of the story.
  2. Write out the order of narration of the story.
  3. Write the story in order of #2.  Write it quickly and without criticism – that will come later.
  4. Revise, revise, revise!!!
  5. Do a neat, well-formated copy.

Good advice for all of us.

Discovering a New Facet to the Diamond that is Writing

Last night I did something that I had been intending to do for… well, years.  I attended and read at a spoken word event.  In my little town, there is a funky little performance space called The Duncan Showroom.  It is a favourite location for musicians because of the intimate atmosphere.  Nick and I had gone down on Sunday to hear Sam Weber and his band play.  Sam was a student of mine and was in the same grad class as my daughter so I was truly looking forward to hearing him play.  I wasn’t disappointed. He and his band were fabulous and fun and it was a great show.  

 

When we were leaving, I looked up on their bulletin board and noticed a little piece of paper. As small as the paper was, the words seemed huge and they reached out and grabbed me by the throat.

For The Love of Words

Well, this seemed like a sign – and last night I showed up, added my name to the list and plunked my bottom into a front row seat. There is something that you don’t get from the solitary action of plunking away at your computer that is available in abundance in a reading – feedback. As I read, I could hear chuckles and out and out guffaws as I read my “Open Letter to an Unnamed GPS Executive”. And later, several people came up and congratulated me on my writing.  What a great feeling that is! I will be back there again to read something else – probably some poetry – later in the summer. So… here I am, reading last night.

**warning – there are a couple of f-bombs and a bit of other adult language.

 

 

If you want to see the whole show, click here.

 

 

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Gail and I hadn’t seen each other in at least a year.  This is a pattern in our friendship that does not in any way diminish the enjoyment we get in spending time together. I love Gail because she is honest yet kind.  She is a great believer in “not my monkeys, not my circus” – a philosophy around which I try to live my own life.  When she arrived, there were two paintings lying on my kitchen table.  Nick and I had, on the previous Tuesday, been to a ‘sip and paint’ party at a local pub.  One of the things that I truly love about being married to Nick is that he does not subscribe to the machismo that some men find necessary to protect their own fragile egos.  I can tease Nick about going on a ‘bro-date’ when he hangs out with one or another of his buddies and he doesn’t get weird or defensive about it.  He is also completely comfortable hanging out with a bunch of women.  In fact, I think he actually likes hanging out with women. You see, Nick is an introvert.  He likes being around people, as long as he gets some alone time.  And he prefers to sit and listen rather than jump into the middle of a conversation.  As far as my friends go, this is a good thing because we could talk the leg off… well, off a horse, donkey, table – anything that has a leg really. So, last Tuesday, Nick found himself in the Cobblehill Pub, surrounded by a large group of women, most of whom had one, or several glasses of wine in them. We were gathered there to all paint our versions of a west coast scene.  After a lot of laughter, we all walked away with a painting.

Back to Gail. She walked over to the table and gazed down at the two paintings.  “What’s this?” she asked. “Oh, Nick and I went to a painting night at the pub.” “That sounds like a lot of fun.” Now, something you should know about Gail, she is quite an accomplished artist. Her paintings hang in galleries regularly and she has been working on her craft and honing her talents for decades.  I LOVE that Gail’s only comment was, “…sounds like a lot of fun.” I know, and she knows that these are very amateurish paintings and, even though they will be hung up somewhere in our house, I am not so naive to think that we will be displacing Van Gogh or Monet or Leonardo in the Louvre any time soon. Or, in fact, be hanging in even the most desperate of galleries.  She is honest enough to not praise our work, but kind enough to say simply… “sounds like a lot of fun.”

 

As I was pondering the paintings (which are still lying on the kitchen table, BTW) and Gail’s kind response, I was reminded of the time I wrote my first novel, Greenwich List (yes, I have put a link here in the hopes that you will click and buy – gratuitous self-promotion is encouraged here). I wrote it over a Labour Day long weekend for the 3-day novel contest.  Oh, I was so naive back in those halcyon days of my youth in 2009. When I didn’t win anything, I decided to send the book off to a couple of publishers, sure in my inexperience that someone would want to publish it. So when I got a contract I was thrilled but not surprised.  Oh, what I know now and didn’t know then.  Naivete, thou art my middle name.

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I have been thinking (oh foolish girl) that perhaps I would do the 3-Day Novel Contest once more.  I went on Twitter (my current favourite time waster) and searched for the 3DNC. I eventually ended up at a tumblr page belonging to someone named “Miss Voltairine“. Now, anyone that would reference Voltaire on their tumblr page gets my vote, so I read, with interest, her lessons that she had learned from the 3DNC.  And here, with her kind permission, they are:

 

lessons from the three day novel contest, or, what you need to know about writing a novel in three days:

1. You totally can write a novel in three days if you have three days where you can write relatively uninterrupted. Yes, you can. No, really. This one is bolded because it’s the most important one.

2. A big part of this is condensing the entire emotional process of coming to terms with starting, working on, and finishing a novel into an incredibly short time frame. This is, like, so exhausting. 

3. A lot of people will tell you that sleep is optional but you don’t have to completely forego sleep to get this done.

4. It’s okay if you’re behind after the first day. The first day is the hardest. 

5. The third day is the easiest, and also the day when you will get the most work done. 

6. There is almost no way this novel will be good. You literally wrote it in three days, what are you expecting. There are publication and cash prizes for the official three day novel competition but you shouldn’t do it expecting to win. You’re probably not going to place. That’s fine. Your reward is that you now know you can produce a novel-length volume of work in three days.  

7. You will feel really stupid about failing NaNoWriMo in the past.

8. Keep some kind of record of how you feel while you’re doing it. 

9. Thank the people in your life for putting up with you doing this, especially if you live with other people. Especially if you share chores with those people. Especially if those people have to deal with you sitting in your underwear on the couch all day for three days. 

10. It helps to be as healthy as you can possibly be. 

11. Whether or not drugs will enhance your performance is something you need to work out for yourself. 

12. Make sure you have lots of snacks going in.

13. Remember to hydrate.

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Now, here are a couple of hints that I would like to add.

  1. Read the 3DNC webpage.  It is full of good info.
  2. Remember that part way through, you will lose your mind.  Don’t worry, it will come back.
  3. Rule number 2 states “You are allowed, though not required, to develop ideas and an outline prior to the contest. You do not have to submit your outline, and you can change and adapt your novel as you see fit.” My advice is to MAKE AN OUTLINE.  Even if that is not the way you write normally.  There is nothing normal about writing a novel to completion (including editing) in three days and you will be sorry if you don’t.  Having said that, feel free to toss the outline in the bin if it isn’t working for you.  But do it early. You only have 72 hours, don’t waste 50 of it on writing from an outline that isn’t working.
  4. Register and send your money in early.  For most of us, $35 – even if it is Canadian dollars – is a heck of a lot of money. Writing, unless you are JK and have Harry Potter royalties making you richer than the Queen, does not pay well so committing your hard-won dollars (or pounds or euros or yen…) will actually get your bum in your computer chair and your fingers on the keyboard.  At least, it did for me.
  5. Oh, and stock up on highly caffeinated coffee – espresso would probably be best.  You will need a lot.  However much you think you will need, you need more.  Toss the chamomile tea, you don’t want to be falling asleep at your keyboard any more than necessary.
  6. As Miss Voltairine mentioned in #12.  Snacks.  Lots and lots of snacks.
  7. Finally, going into this contest with a little bit of naiveté is a good thing. It’s kind of like giving birth.  It doesn’t matter how many childbirth books you read, or how many women’s stories you hear – nothing, and I mean nothing, will prepare you for what childbirth will be like whether you are the one actually popping the kidlet out or the person whose hand is being crushed by the woman doing the popping. If you actually knew what it was going to be like, you might not even want to go there.  But, again like childbirth, there is something after you have recovered that makes you think – hey, maybe I should do that again.  Which. I am  going to do. Shoot me now.

 

 

Mando Method #amwriting

 This morning when I was – well let’s be honest – procrastinating over my writing, I found the hashtag #mandomethod followed by a number. I was intrigued. I clicked on #mandomethod and found all kinds of tweets that were similar – #mandomethod 417. #MandoMethod 381. #Mandomethod 591, not bad! What the heck was this Mando Method?  It didn’t take much searching for me to find the original blog post that explained what the Mando Method was. I won’t explain it. Just click on the link and you can read the post for yourself.  “Well, hell!” I said to myself. “This sounds like a great idea!” So, I set the stopwatch on my phone and started writing.  Twenty-one minutes later I had 201 words. TWO HUNDRED AND ONE!  If you took the time to link back to the original blog post, you would have seen the following:

Hour 1 – 493 words

Hour 2 – 644 words

Hour 3 – 602 words

Hour 4 – 596 words

Hour 5 – 677 words

Hour 6 – 550 words

Hour 7 – 585 words

Hour 8 – 781 words

Each of those represents 15 minutes of writing.  A quick search on Twitter and I came up with pretty similar numbers… including the following:

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Eight hundred and fifty-one? Really?  It’s not that I doubt @RidiculouslySpeedyWriter at all.  I have no doubt that this person wrote 851 words in 15 minutes.  What gets me is that I wrote 201 and that took me 21 minutes to write.  No wonder The Bastard of Saint Genevra took me five freaking years!  

So, I have decided that I am going to blame this on menopause.  New hashtag… #amwritingthroughmenopause.