Keeping it Real

This is a tough one. “Ohhhh, Murphy, but ya might’ve bit off more ‘n ya could chew wit dis one!”   But why? What does it even mean – Keep it Real? It’s a cliché, isn’t it? A saying? A canard. A thing? Well, yes, but also no.

To me it means: be consistent.

First things first: all stories must be grounded in something which the reader accepts as true. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a true story or not, or whether it’s even possible – it doesn’t even matter how ridiculous it is – as long as the reader can accept it.

For example, how did Douglas Adams manage to convince us to accept the ‘reality’ of his Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy? By giving even his extra-terrestrial protagonists large doses of humanity. Like the two-headed Zaphod Beeblebrox: split personality, with his yin and yang constantly and humorously externalized. And the big, ugly Vogons with their terrible poetry – pretty darned human if you ask me. Thus, even the bizarre can be made believable. Adams gave the human reader something to hang on to to by allowing all his unusual characters human characteristics. And at the same time, by making planet Earth the target of an intergalactic bureaucratic SNAFU (which we all understand), he gave us the powerful emotions of outrage and fear – i.e., a common ground with the book’s main human character, Arthur Dent.

Likewise with the hobbits of J.R.R.Tolkien. They live in hamlets such as we recognize today, build homes very much like ours and use traits that we admire to become believable, lovable, tenacious, pint-sized versions of ourselves. It matters not that they are aided in their quest by elves, dwarves and wizards or that they are fighting against the most unspeakably evil trolls and goblins. It only matters that we believe, and that if we can believe in the hero, everything else will fall into place.

Thus, every outlandish world created in fiction is a blend of what we know to be true and what the writer wishes us to suppose. The ‘different’ builds on the familiar, from which it derives credence. The author establishes reality by reference to the familiar.

This is equally true for more so-called ‘realistic’ tales. If you appreciate that everything  you read is something you’re not living, then whether or not it accords with what you understand as empirical reality makes no difference. It takes skill to pull a reader out of his own life and engage him in someone else’s. Grounding the reader in his own understanding should be the first thing a writer tries to do.

Never underestimate the reader. The reader is smart. The reader is aware. The reader knows when something is not right – according to the world being created – and they will bristle at things that do not add up. The writer, therefore, has an obligation to be faithful to their own creation; to make it full, complete, and correct.

If you give them something to hang on to, they’ll stick with you, no matter what.1054915 (22)

Next time: ambiance

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Write what you know

‘Write what you know’ was the mantra of my earliest Creative Writing professor, at York University, way back in 1988, and it still makes sense today. I mean, how can you write what you don’t know? How can you hope to be realistic and accurate if you have no idea what you’re talking about?

But what does ‘write what you know’ even mean? Does it restrict us to those subjects in which we have experience? Are we typecast by this dogma into only writing certain kinds of stories, or stories on certain subjects? If I’m a teacher, does that mean I can only write stories about teachers or teaching? Lord, I hope not – that wouldn’t give me much variety in my projects, would it? And besides, if you can only realistically write what you know, how do you explain the genius of Azimov, Tolkein and Rowling?

I think what my professor meant was two-fold: first, we should tap into our own experiences and feelings to infuse our writing with true emotional realism. And second, if we must write outside of our direct experience, then we need to make sure that we do our research.

Example? I’ve never been into outer space, but I can read about it in books, and if I can do that then I can write about it in my stories. Equally, I’m no judge or lawyer, but by researching the court system I can quite safely write books set in the legal environment.

But what does ‘research’ mean anyway? There are three kinds.

Primary research is interviewing someone who does have the critical life experience, and asking questions until we understand and appreciate the nitty-gritty of the thing. If I were somehow able to hook up with Chris Hadfield, for example – say I invited him over for supper or took him out for a coffee – I could pick his brain for all the details my protagonist would need to be a realistic, world-saving outer-space hero.

Secondary research involves the culling of data directly from marketing reports, company websites, magazine articles etc – all the relevant places for information on the subject at hand – and coming to conclusions from my own analyses. For my outer space saga – once I was finished picking Mr. Hadfield’s brain – I would head down to my local university library to paw my way through books, videos, essays, reports, research documents, theses, and so on, and I would draw on my readings to support theories based on what I’d read.

Tertiary research is the primary and secondary research of others that has already been analyzed and distilled. Think of encyclopedias, almanacs, text books and course notes. The information in these publications is invaluable, but it needs to be accepted carefully. Because someone else has already interpreted the data, a tertiary source could, in theory, be wrong. And if their interpretation is inaccurate, your use of it will render your project inaccurate too.

A healthy combination of all these kinds of research will serve your project best. Then, when all your facts are before you, you can begin the work of crystallizing your new-found knowledge into believable and engaging characters and circumstances.

So what’s the bottom line? Once you’ve learned something, it’s yours, and you can use it as you wish.

Make sense?

Photo 8-3-2013, 10 50 12 PM

Next: Keeping It Real

The Order of Things

Along with syntax, diction, rhythm, meter, grammar, word choice, plot and style, structure is probably the most important thing in your writing.

Think about it. When you take pen and paper in hand and sit down at your desk to write, you already have an idea of what you want to accomplish. You already know the basics, like whether your project will be a short story, a novel, a screenplay, or something else altogether. Or at least, you should know this.

What you don’t know is the fundamental structure of the work – how it’s going to coalesce to keep the reader organized and on target, and interested. You need to have the structure in place long before you start being creative.

The good thing is that there are as many different structural frameworks to choose from as there are ideas in your head, and that there are no hard and fast rules other than that your structure should make sense for the story you are telling, and that it should be consistent throughout your project.

Why is the structure so important? Because if you don’t control the structure you cannot possibly control your creativity.

I recently chatted with a client about the structure of her new novel. I had the first draft of several chapters already in hand – about 29,000 words – but there was something not quite right about the way she was trying to focus on one character who was learning from another. The hierarchy was wrong. The order was off. We talked about it and she summarized precisely what she was going for, so I suggested, ‘why not give them equal time in the first person and let the reader learn directly from them both instead of having one character teach the lessons of the other?’ It occurred to me, you see, that direct was better.

As writers we must think of our characters and the events of their story in terms which give the reader the experiences they are meant to have. Take this tried and true storyline as an example:

  • Boy meets girl
  • Boy and girl face a challenge to their relationship
  • Boy and girl deal with the challenge together – facing it head-on
  • Boy and girl triumph, and live happily ever after.

Great. Fantastic. It’s got a beginning, a middle and an end. We meet them, they triumph, and we exult in their future happiness.

But a story needs twists and turns to keep the reader engaged. Not since kindergarten have we been content with the linear – and the boring – in our storytelling, and as writers we must absolutely insist on complications – after all, no story is complete without conflict, mistakes, misdirection, and deliberate obfuscation.

But does this change the basic structure? Not at all. It is the elements of complication within the structure which change. Thus:

  • Boy meets girl
  • Parents don’t approve
  • Boy and girl run away
  • Boy and girl get separated, or discover incompatibilities
  • Boy and girl figure out through a process of cleansing and learning that they are in tune with each other despite their problems
  • Boy and girl reunite, face the challenge together
  • Boy and girl tell the parents “I told you so”
  • Parents accept that maybe they were wrong, and
  • Boy and girl live happily ever after.

A structural complication can thus be an external issue, such as an evil competitor or interfering parents, or an internal issue, such as a dirty little secret. Problems are ultimately a source of satisfaction and happiness for the reader. Think of Forrest Gump, or Professor John Nash and what they had to go through.

So can you see the A and the Z? The A is the beginning, the Z the triumph and the living happily ever after. The rest of the alphabet is the story itself.

If you forget everything I’ve said so far, at least remember this: being organized will save you a lot of time over the course of your project. It won’t reduce the amount of creative work you have to do, but it will obviate several of the re-builds that would have resulted from inadequate forethought.

Photo 10-3-2013, 12 59 09 PMSo start with the structure. What is your A, and what is your Z, and how are you going to get your protagonist from one to the other?

Next time, Write what you know.

Let the Doors Swing Open

There’s a sense of achievement that comes from writing – a joy at having expressed yourself, and at having drawn a perfect stranger into the world your words wish to create. But there are perils, too – pitfalls waiting to swallow the budding writer whole – to chew him up and spit him out.

In this blog I want to try to attend to some of those pitfalls and to offer useful tools for the budding writer to overcome the challenges they face. I want to visit the writing world in positive terms and to take the sometimes overwhelming aspects of the craft and simplify them – to make them manageable and less intimidating. I do this not just for my fellow writers, but for their readers, for I can think of no better, quicker, or easier way to reduce suffering in the world than to elucidate the writing process and so help writers to excel.

But be warned! I am no expert. I face the same challenges as everyone else on this planet. I too must conquer fear, overcome weakness and endure low self esteem. I am not immune to the vagaries of happenstance, or the frustration of writer’s block. I too must bull my way past obstacles and somehow come to readable copy. I have a poetic soul, but it is elusive, and in my writing I too must coax it to perform.

So come along with me. Learn at least what makes this writer tick, and see if any of my methods will work for you. At the same time, tell me what you do, so we can learn together.

Next time… The Order of Things