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The truth of the world

Written By: Louise - Jun• 14•14

Lots of people – for some reason inexplicable to me – do not differentiate between TV characters and the actors who play them. Apparently soap actors get hassled by some ‘fans’ constantly with complaints like “you shouldn’t have done that to Jeanine, she’s a good wife to you” despite the fact that the actor in question has been married for many decades to someone else who isn’t, to put too fine a point on it, fictional.

The writers’ version of that is people assuming that you are always writing about yourself. We aren’t. Trust me, not only is the kid being pitched against a megalomaniacal sorcerer , or the female war veteran coming to terms with rape, not the writer – but the writer doesn’t want to be them either.  It is neither projection nor wish fulfilment.

We do have to draw on or confront things about ourselves though. To write someone else successfully you have to be able understand your own emotional responses, what provokes them and how they make you feel physically. What kind of thoughts, language and sensations go with them.

You also need to be able to edit them out, and put them aside, so that you can get your head around how someone else may have a completely different emotional response to you. It’s tricky and challenging. Often early readers will come back with comments like: “She wouldn’t do that” or “I don’t understand why she doesn’t cry.” It isn’t enough to then make her cry or change her response … you have to unpick how you have developed that character and reinforce it to the point where the reader says: “Yes. I was right with her in that moment.”

You hear lots of people say they are going to write a book one day, as though it’s something they can take up when they have nothing better to occupy them. Like golf. Or origami. A pastime.

It isn’t. It’s a hard-won skill, not just in terms of craft and words written – and the rhino-like epidermis you need to cultivate – but in self-awareness and personal growth. To create new people, you have to try to understand yourself and those around you. Whatever the genre, people and their relationships are at the heart of every story we care about.

So if you ever meet a writer, be kind. They may be a little dishevelled. It’s possible they haven’t yet washed and they are muttering to themselves. It’s possible they will talk about imaginary characters as though they are real and will take you aback with how frustrated, angry or sad they can be for and about these people who do not exist.

They may also seem a little self-absorbed.

It’s for a good reason. They are trying to understand the truth of the world, so they can write it down. On behalf of writers everywhere, I ask you please, just put the kettle on and be kind.

I Want to be an Astronaut. No, a Cowboy. No, a…

Written By: Boopadoo - Jun• 07•14

spacemonkey

It’s coming. I’ve been putting it off for a long time, but the moment is near. I have to decide what kind of writer I shall be.

I have to pick a genre.

I hate that word. I hate the entire concept. I hate the idea that once I pick one, that is what will define me as a writer (unless I want to use noms de plume, of course). In this age of self-, indy, e-, Amazon, short attention span extreme competition publishing, no one can be simply a “writer of fiction” anymore. Unless you’re Margaret Atwood. She can get away with denying A Handmaid’s Tale is science fiction because, well, she’s Margaret Atwood. The rest of us are fantasy writers, or science fiction writers, or romance novelists, or mystery writers, or horror writers, or urban paranormal writers, or YA writers… …at least in YA you can branch out into subgenres like “YA Urban Fantasy,” but at the core you’re still a YA writer. It’s not me doing the labeling, it’s the market.

So why is this a problem for me? I mean, I don’t want to come across as some prima donna who would be difficult for editors/agents/publishers to deal with, but I don’t necessarily have to like the rules to play the game well, as long as I understand and abide by them. My problem is that I’ve finally figured out what it is I write: I write about relationships The setting, scenes and characters vary wildly form story to story, but at the core, they’re all the same: relationships. So I end up with romance in my sci-fi, literary themes in my horror, fantastical beings in my literary pieces, social issues in my urban fantasy… …I love writing it all, but there simply is no “relationship genre.”

Therein lies the rub. It’s decision time because I really, really need to finish something and get it out there, once and for all. I’ve found a voice and want it to be heard. I have several in-progress pieces that could become my debut novel, and whichever one I choose will define my genre. Two of them would make me a dystopian science fiction writer. One would make me a writer of high fantasy. One would make me an urban paranormal fantasy writer. One would make me a horror writer. One, which is actually the furthest along, most fleshed-out and currently one of my two front-runners, could actually go down two very different paths. Because the protagonist is a fifteen year-old, if I finish it in a slightly tragic direction, I’m a writer of historical fiction. If I alter the path just a tiny bit, build in a lesson and a happier ending, I could be a YA writer.

That’s two genre choices in one project! Do I want to be a YA writer? An historical fiction writer? A science fiction writer? What I do know is that I want to be a published, accomplished, even successful writer. It all adds up to my ultimate quandary, what could be one of the most important decisions I ever make:

What do I want to be when I grow up?

Desert People

Written By: Jae - May• 31•14

 

Full dark nomad(Photo courtesy of Sally Harrison)

I’ll begin with a kind of health warning. I’ve only seen a snapshot of desert people; a tiny fragment of time, sanitised for western tastes, and separated to some degree from real-life concerns. I am fully aware that some truly dreadful things happen in these parts of the world. And the same is true the world over; good and bad have always lain side by side.

I’m not sure where my fascination with the desert came from, perhaps the film Lawrence of Arabia, watched whilst sprawling on the rug in front of the t.v. as a teenager, or maybe nature documentaries or wild-west desert canyons in western movies. In my more romantic moments, I imagine I have an affinity with the desert. I am fascinated by how plants, animals and humans survive in such conditions. And it’s more than a cognitive thing. It’s a heart thing, too.

My first contact with anything approaching the aridity of the desert was a holiday to Cyprus in my late teens, stunned by the hair-dryer heat as we got off the plane. I had never been anywhere so hot, or so different. I adored the exotic surroundings, prickly pears at the roadside, misshapen trees alone in the middle of a beige-baked landscape, and slow moving locals with impossible loads on the backs of donkeys. I felt like I had come home. I cried when I had to leave and, on my return to my physical home, I attempted to learn Greek from a tiny book, determined that I would go back and live there. It was a short-lived dream in the ‘real-world’ of exams, universities, jobs, careers.

Every holiday since that includes dry heat and rugged landscapes, invokes a wistful comment to my husband. “I should have been born somewhere like this; somewhere hot and wild.”

My first visit to a ‘real’ desert started out as a bit of a disappointment. In my mind were rolling, deep-red sand dunes, fluttering, dark nomadic tents, Omar Sharif in full tribal gear…you get the picture. What I got, in Sinai, was a landscape that looked like a quarry, stone and palm-frond huts, and a small man in jeans and t-shirt driving a huge 4×4. Not the kind of place you fall in love with, and yet I did.

The desert creeps up on you. It captures something deep inside.

I’ve just returned from a trip to a different desert, a different tribal people and yet the similarities are striking. This time the desert, in Saharan Morocco, was picture-postcard perfect; dunes, tents and mysterious men with dark eyes—you know the ones, swathed in deep blue turbans…ahem! Our guide greeted us at Marrakech airport wearing a bright yellow turban, striding through the crowds and turning heads from every direction. So easy to fall in love with the place. And I cried again when I left—my heart broken wide open by the desert.

From the perspective of this second visit, I can see what I missed first time around—well, I didn’t so much miss it, as I couldn’t define it. This time I felt it all, consciously. Last time I was asleep to what I was feeling. My body and heart knew but my mind had so many layers in the way.

The desert, to me, means freedom—some of which comes from, paradoxically, the restrictions that the desert imposes. So many of our social conventions imprison us but they’re so automatic that we don’t notice. In our desert camp, unsurprisingly, water was scarce, so the water was switched off between 6pm and 6am. The showers were basic and the water trickled. One day we had no water at all because the sand-storm cut the power. No water, no washing, no problem. Wet wipes cover the basic necessities, three minutes of a job. The desert heat and the local dress code meant that loose comfortable clothing, covering arms and legs freed me from social pressures of ‘attractive’ clothing, holiday swimwear, when you’re a, let’s say, robust, older woman, and the hassle of smothering sun cream everywhere. It’s a very small step, then, to let go of other conventions; make-up, mobile devices, running to a schedule. Even on holiday, schedules can dominate.

During my first trip to a desert, I was all wrapped up in doing. It took a while to drop into just being and even then my mind couldn’t recognise it for what it was. I could label this feeling ‘contentment’ but I couldn’t identify its source other than ‘the desert’. All the desert people I have met, admittedly a tiny proportion of the whole, live their life in the moment. There’s a general idea of what an activity, a day, or even a whole week might involve, but it is lightly held and can change at the drop of a head scarf. There was nothing in our Moroccan schedule about henna tattoos, but, out of our fascination with the decorated feet of two of the Berber women, came a slow, wonderful afternoon. The dining area, enclosed with hanging blankets from the previous day’s sandstorm, became an artist’s studio and a women’s retreat. The young woman henna artist, worked for hours as more and more of us were drawn to the ritual. The money she earned in an unexpected afternoon’s work would see her family secure for some time. This lightness of being leads to flexibility and joy.

In this space it is easy to feel the joy. From both desert trips, the images and sounds that tumble and jostle in my mind are joyous. There were two Bedu men who danced, every part of their bodies holding the rhythm, laughing and giggling together. A Berber man drumming, who, in a trance within seconds of his hands touching the skins, seemed to be listening to another dimension. Delight in the first wobbly steps of kittens out from behind their nest between the drums.  Drinking tea in the shade in companionable silence—two Bedu men, two British women. Berber women dancing, joy in their bodies, in the shelter of the dance tent, or in a music shop off the Jemaa el-Fnaa, drawn in off the square by the sound of the drums. Silence on the Saharan sand dunes at sunrise. The taxi driver, who brought us to the camp—supposed to return to Marrakech but who stayed for the rest of the week—dancing beside the campfire. Walkers sitting in the shade of a tamarind tree in the near-to-midday heat. When one makes the space to be, the joy is very close to the surface.

The desert is ferocious too, a fearsome place, as can be its people. That walk on the desert margins in the late morning heat, showed me my physical limits, and how a little bit of adaptation and being in the moment turns an ordeal into something joyful. The sand, in shadow, was cool, the light dappled, the breeze a blessing, and the company gentle. My fears, the first time in the desert, were vague and projected out onto the unfamiliar all around. This time my fears were specific and owned by me. Take care in the sun. Be more physically fit next time. Respect local customs; old ladies do not like their photographs being taken, however accidentally, and will hurl a stone unless persuaded otherwise.

Berber breakfast

(Photo courtesy of Sally Harrison)

A deep ache, which I didn’t know that the desert people soothed, until I returned home this time, was my need for community. Take a look at the photo above. Do you see how their shoulders touch? How their heads are close together in sharing breakfast? When they’re drumming, or watching others perform, it’s the same. Sinai or the Sahara it’s the same. Conversations around a campfire, both joyful and sorrowful, they’re shared. This one is hard to describe in pictures and sounds. It’s a feeling, a homecoming.

Throughout it all runs a deep code of generosity and courtesy. Once you are a guest, desert people will do everything in their power to meet your needs. It distresses them to imagine that something you need is amiss. Of course, this is a two-way deal; respect is required in both directions.

The most joyous thing on my recent trip was that this time I got to meet desert women in a setting other than being sold jewellery. Both settings, though, challenged my stereotypes. In Sinai, the women had mini businesses in their own right, selling jewellery, scarves and embroidered goods. We saw them in twos and threes on the beaches and at the side of roads hitchhiking.  The older women were treated with respect, listened to, escorted carefully down a stony slope. In Morocco the women on the staff were vibrant, confident women with strong voices and such a joy in life. They joined in the drumming with the men and, from what I could tell via body language and voice tone, demanded their share of the performance. They are direct, forthright and take no messing. They are not hidden away, nor meek and mild, despite their veils.

It is too easy, in a world dominated by a few huge corporate media organisations, to believe there is only one kind of people in the Middle East or North Africa—hardened terrorists and their downtrodden women.  In truth, it is an intricate weaving, with the desert people and their land at the foundation.

 

 

 

Has SF Lost Something over the Decades?

Written By: Stephen Godden - May• 24•14

Moonman

A friend of mine used to run a second-hand bookstore on eBay. Then he wrapped it up and was intending to take his unsold stock to the tip. This is sacrilege to me—you do not throw books away, never ever. I now have two—yes two—copies of the Da Vinci Code to prove this. My friend (hmmmm, that might be overstating the case here) slipped another copy into the job lot of books he gave me. Oh how I laughed. And I still can’t bring myself to throw ‘em in the bin.

I said I’d take any Speculative Fiction books he was going to toss. So a few hundred or so came my way. I was slowly working my way through them when I stumbled on some SF magazines from the 60s. Specifically New Worlds #107 from June 1961 and Galaxy #81 from August 1960.

So I read them.

And started thinking.

Have we lost something over the decades? Have all the writing courses , and latterly writing blogs, created an imbalance in the actual writing? Has fiction as a whole gone too far in the direction of literary quality and forgotten the basic rule of writing fiction: first tell a good story?

If you ever get a chance to read some old magazines from the 1950s and 1960s, do so. This is just before the New Wave came crashing into the party. You see a similar sort of disconnect with early 1980s SF, just before Cyberpunk spiked the wine with acid, but this disconnect between Golden Age and New Wave is really quite marked because up until that point literary concerns were subservient to the ideas.

The stories in these magazines are good, strong, well written, with clever ideas behind them. Apart from Brunner, Pohl, and Tubbs, they are written by writers I have never come across before—though they might be pseudonyms for famous writers, that sort of thing went on a lot back in those days. These stories were not collected into anthologies. These stories were considered average, normal stories of their day.

The science is, naturally, old fashioned; the cultural aspects can be a little disconcerting; the ideas are tropes that have now been mined to death; and the pace can be a little slow, but I think the average level of story-telling ability is higher than I see now in various modern SF magazines and sites. I was sucked into the stories, reading on to find out what happened next.

Yes, these are rather muscular stories, but they do drag you along. Modern SF, not so much. There are of course reasons for this.

We know all the tropes. We don’t have to explain them, we just point to the version of the trope we are using and get on with the writing. But this means that the idea quotient is lower so the literary quotient has to go up to raise us above the slush pile. I’m as guilty of this as anyone. I favour clarity in the prose over pyrotechnics, because I think pyrotechnics are no use if the reader can’t ‘see’ the scene or comprehend the idea, but I do try to write great prose; I love it when somebody says, “cracking line”, or even better quotes a line back to me.

However, I also try to write good stories, with strong characters, and clever little ideas.

The lack of need to explain how a trope, like say faster-than-light drives or time travel, works in your universe (its a warp drive, its hyperspace, its the grandfather paradox, its quantum time leading to parallel worlds) frees up the writer to concentrate on other aspects of the writing. But what we forget is that these are tropes only to those of us who have read a large chunk of what came before. We forget that we should explain at least some of it for new readers to the genre. And in those explanations are spaces for new variations, new ideas, new plot lines.

Great prose is all well and good but without a great story it is essentially onanism as a spectator sport.

Read some old SF sometime. Those writers knew how to tell a story.

 

Image Attribution 

 

 

The Hallyu Wave

Written By: Janet Allison Brown - May• 10•14

You’ve heard of the Mexican wave, right? This is nothing like that. This is a new wave, like modernism or French cinema. The Hallyu wave is sweeping out of South Korea and roaring across the world—and not only the Asian part of the world. Don’t worry if you haven’t heard of it yet: you will.

I once sat in the groomed gardens of Chatsworth with a Japanese woman. I drew her attention to a group of what I took to be her compatriots. Those are not Japanese, she told me with hauteur. Those are Koreans. I apologised and asked how she could tell; they were out of earshot and, to my ignorant eyes, there were no discernible ethnic differences. Clothes, she said impatiently. Style. A Japanese would never be so … so … flashy.

They were kind of flashy. And funky. And achingly cool, from their clothes to their asymmetrical haircuts. They were svelte and feline, boys and girls. Most of all, they were noticeably confident. Everything I knew about Korea I learned from MASH. This was not what I expected.

Gifts from a good friend

My ever-faithful friend, Michaela, is always chasing some fascination down the rabbit hole, and she’s the one that introduced me to Korean drama. Michaela is one of those woman whose kitchen smells of Good Things at all times. Day or night, when you visit there is a warm embrace, a pot of real coffee, and something yummy straight from the oven or fridge. Like a Russian grandmother (but younger, glamorous, and Czech/Canadian), she feeds your body and then she feeds your soul. Listen to this new song! Look at this film! Have you seen this video, read this book, heard this story?

Everyone should be lucky enough to have a Michaela in their life.

So one day we sat in her darkened living room and began to watch my first Korean drama. It was ‘You’re Beautiful’. Cue catchy pop music, unintelligible dialogue, clumsy sub-titles.

Cue a new obsession. In a very short time, I was dreaming in Korean. In my imagination, I’m fluent—hell, I am Korean.

Telling stories

Korean dramas have inspired an army of devotees not just in Korea but across Japan and the rest of Asia, into America and, increasingly, through Europe. So what is it about them that viewers love so much? Good old-fashioned storytelling. Everything else I’m about to tell you is my own understanding: there’s not yet much about Korean drama written in the English language, and I don’t read Korean, so it’s hard to do any research. But believe me when I say that storytelling is the key. Taken as a whole, these dramas have the breadth, depth, and occasional light-relief silliness of Shakespeare, delivered by way of the seventies US mini-series and the British soap opera.

Did I really just cross King Lear with Charlie’s Angels and Eastenders? Yup. You’ll laugh; you’ll cry. You’ll find yourself caring deeply for characters just like you, navigating the kinds of issues that face us all: how to be happy, find a partner, raise children, contribute to society. But it’s the context that makes it so fascinating for a western viewer. These characters, with their cool clothes and mobile phones glued to their ears, always take their shoes off and don slippers before entering a house. Youngsters use social terms of respect for their elders or those more senior in the social hierarchy—which appears to be stratified by profession, wealth and success, not birth. Many plots involve arranged marriages—arrangements made in the interests of family and, above all, business. Business moguls behave like the British 19th century aristocracy, plotting mergers and takeovers by using their children as assets in the marriage market. The youngsters themselves skip between McDonald’s and traditional chicken-feet restaurants. They drink Budweiser and Korean soju. They flirt and fall in love and find ways to stretch the social conventions that bind them.

The same but different

By western standards, it’s a startlingly disciplined society—and also a very physical one. Parents administer slaps and clipped ears at will; friends bash and bang each other. A thump is as good as a nudge or a wink. It looks brutal but it clearly isn’t intended, or considered to be that way.

And then there’s the piggy-back. When a boy likes a girl and the girl likes him back, he gives her a piggy-back ride. Seriously. The piggy-back ride is the indicator of barriers broken down, feelings acknowledged, even if not yet spoken aloud. Parents gaze fondly at their progeny engaged in this ungainly exercise, or they gnash and wail, according to the suitability of the match.

It’s … unusual. And interesting. If anyone reading this can explain to me the significance of the piggy-back, I’d be eternally grateful.

A slower pace

In western TV and cinema we’ve crossed so many lines that there’s no trace of where they ever were. Nudity, graphic sex and violence—they barely register on the public psyche. In Korean drama, a kiss on the lips is a Very Big Deal. Often doesn’t happen at all. So you have to – gasp – use your imagination. Love is conveyed in longing looks and studied gestures. It’s romantic and sweet. Not that sex isn’t mentioned. Single motherhood, love affairs, complicated relationships—they’re all there. But always within the context of the characters and society—never casual, never for their own sake.

If you’ve ever watched a Miyazaki/Studio Ghibli anime you’ll marvel, like me, at the time the camera sometimes spends on a single shot. The fallen leaf sending ripples out across a lake; someone pouring boiling water onto tea leaves; smoke rising into the sky. Korean drama does the same thing. The small details are lovingly captured. The result is that you, the viewer, are totally absorbed into the story. This is slow-build entertainment. This is for settling in with a Michaela, eating good things, sharing moments. You need time to appreciate these dramas.

Carrying the past in their hearts

The plots aren’t generally complicated. There’s a lot of Twelfth Night-style gender swapping: girl obliged by circumstance to pose as boy, straight boy falls in love with him/her and has to address his sexuality. Youngsters do what their parents ask, but they try to follow their own hearts, too, and the outcome is often a bittersweet compromise. I’m left with the impression of a society treading a delicate path between high-tech modern times and a powerful, all-invasive and much-respected past. And while people might tread cautiously, they also progress with quiet optimism. In the dramas, at least, the past is not being thrown away, or overcome; it is being lovingly transformed into the future.

Korea has a long and illustrious history, during most of which it has been an independent territory. Maybe that explains the confidence. Koreans know who they are, notwithstanding the tragic and lasting events and schisms of the 20th century. Historical dramas are unsurprisingly common. A popular approach is to jazz up the Joseon (technically a five-centuries-long period, although the term Joseon appears to be generically applied to the historical past, although I could be wrong; I’m utterly dependent on the subtitles) with wisecracks and funky music.

The industry

Hallyu actors are wildly revered. Success in Korea is quickly followed by success in Japan and outwards from there. Actors are expected to tour widely, to sing to their vast audience of fans at arena gatherings, and sometimes to dance, too. Some actors are multi-talented; others not so much, but the audience appreciates the effort. Actors are expected to be grateful to their fans; they promise to work hard, to become better at what they do, to fulfil their fans’ trust.

There are undercurrents, of course—rumours of devastating studio contracts, of the casting couch. Actors work unfeasibly long hours; the few that cross over from Hallyu to Hollywood express astonishment at the cushy conditions in the US. You don’t whine in Seoul; you’re grateful for success, and you pay for it with long working hours and gruelling public displays of devotion to the fans.

So how can I watch them?

There are various internet sites where you can access these dramas. Most of them are subbed (subtitled) by amateur enthusiasts. For any one drama, you usually have the choice over three or four subbed versions and, in time, you come to recognise which subber’s style you prefer—the fan-subbers sometimes have their own subset of fans.

If you’re a novice, I’d recommend starting where I started, with “You’re Beautiful”, which is a sweet and funny tale of girl takes her brother’s place in a boy-band and promptly falls for the lead singer, an OCD type who is horrified to find himself attracted to a ‘boy’. Silly, yes, but never small or mean, and hugely entertaining. The lead singer is played by Jang Geun Suk, a gamine young actor with a woman’s beauty and the cheeky dimples of a six-year-old. Rather surprisingly, he manages to be sexy, too. He also plays in my other great favourite, the historical drama “Hong Gil Dong”, about the eponymous, legendary Korean folk hero (think Robin Hood). “Hong Gil Dong” is, in my view, unmissable television. And if I tell you that there is a Norwegian song in the varied and wonderful soundtrack, you’ll see how far Hallyu plans to reach.

Both “You’re Beautiful” and “Hong Gil Dong” were written by the Hong sisters, about whom I know absolutely nothing except they are two modest, unstarry women that write hit drama after hit drama. Their sense of pacing is awesome. A W E S O M E.

So here’s my advice. Find a few spare hours, the company of a Michaela, and a cosy spot with internet. Then hunker down and be prepared to be a little bit educated and a great deal entertained. Hallyu’s going to get you, so you might as well go down in comfort.

When the Drummers were Women

Written By: Jae - Apr• 19•14

If you’ve read some of my other blog posts here, you’ll have no doubt guessed that for many years I’ve been a restless seeker. Trying to find answers to something I’m not very clear about. It’s an itch I can’t scratch.

I’ve done a lot of reading and debating, and for a good portion of time, my research and discussion had a distinctly masculine style to it. This is hardly surprising given that a) academia in this field is largely male led, and b) I am, female emancipation aside, a product of my upbringing and education. I am only recently seeing just how caught up in the patriarchy I am, how un-emancipated I am. It has come as a bit of a shock, given that I thought I was up there in the vanguard. So, recently I have shifted across to what is generally viewed as a more feminine approach in my research; more experiential, less ‘scientific’.

For a time I was part of the “Integral” scene, devouring everything written by Ken Wilber that I could find and an active participant of an online forum. I loved it. It opened up a whole new way of seeing things. It introduced me to some truly wonderful people. I thrived, I blossomed, and I clambered out of my narrow perspective.

The quadrants model (scroll down the Ken Wilber Wikipedia page above for a simple explanation) gave me a way to look at the world and see that everything contains ‘a truth’. Not THE Truth, but one aspect of truth as perceived by each individual involved. This allowed me to stop labelling myself as a fraud when I could so easily see everyone’s point of view and, chameleon-like, adapt to suit any given situation. Simply put, I was/am able to operate across the quadrants.

The associated ‘lines and levels’ model of human development proposed that whilst one ability may predominate in any given individual—for example, cognitive ability—each of us is a patchwork of a number of lines of development, each at different levels. Perhaps one is very well developed cognitively, but still child-like emotionally or morally. This then has an impact one’s decisions and actions. In western society it is cognitive ability which is most highly prized.

If you want to take a deeper look at Wilber’s work, here’s a link. See here for Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences.

An additional idea from Wilber’s version of the integral movement, which I found really helpful, was the idea of living life integrally. He proposed that, to make any real progess in personal development, as a minimum one should be actively working on oneself in the four areas of, mind, body, spirit and shadow—shadow being the unconscious aspects of our personality (behind the scenes a bit like Dorothy’s wizard in Oz). These four are like the Holy Trinity (if you’ll accept my slightly off-centre analogy).  I was firmly ensconced in ‘mind’. And looking back, the suggested practices for each of these areas were thoroughly masculine; all about structure and discipline, very little flow.

This exploration sufficed for a while. Then I attended an integral workshop for women only. I didn’t choose it by design. Women-only was not my norm, despite having gone to an all-girls school, but it was the only one I could get to. It was a deeply scary week of body, spirit and psychological work. Strange things happened, as I mentioned in my blog Supernatural is Eminently Natural. From that point on, intellectual debate wasn’t enough. I wanted to live the things we were discussing.

So, the purpose of this long pre-amble and where did it come from? I recently started to read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces and found myself battling through some very heavy language. I wondered what the purpose was of language so dense that I had to read many sentences three times to capture the meaning. I reflected on my recent pattern of reading mostly books with accessible language; plain English, definitely non-academic, and still covering similar issues and explanations. I felt unease at a sense of my betrayal of the more rigorous approach I was used to through my upbringing and education. There’s a similar thing going on elsewhere in my life, away from more rigid, pre-defined and complex practices, and towards more free-form, self-directed explorations. I’ve shifted from pre-defined yoga and Sufi practices to deeper psychological work via shamanic processes and through to dance, drumming and art as pathways to self and Self. It is suggested, in the book of the same title as this post by Layne Redmond, that in older societies women were the drummers predominantly and that the focus was healing and spiritual practice.

It’s been a long journey since that first women-only workshop, with my experiments winding out in a bigger and bigger spiral. And still I’m battling with doubt. Is this free-for-all approach simply laziness (as my inner critic would have it) or is it a shift from the rigidity of masculine structures towards the flow of the feminine? With it come those things so often devalued in our society; intuition, experiential, feelings-orientated.

I’ll let you know, if I ever find an answer.

 

Setting the hook: Beginnings

Written By: Stephen Godden - Mar• 23•14

author-bedtime-beginnings-11929983-l (1)

Beginnings huh? Now there’s a can of worms. Lets start with structure as a whole, because beginnings are part of the holistic structure of a story.

I like the 7 act structure.

Act 1: introduction.

Act 2: Set up.

Act 3: Conflict begins

Act 4: Mid-point

Act 5: Conflict intensifies

Act 6: Climax

Act 7: Coda

Since we are talking about beginnings I’ll only deal with act 1 and 2, which correspond to First Act of the Three-act structure, also called the beginning.

Act 1: the introduction.

This is where you introduce the character, the setting, and the theme/conflict at the heart of the story. It generally takes up around 10% of the length of the story (these percentages are approximate, it could 5% or 15%, but it is unlikely to be 20%) and in this the writer will do all the major introductions.

How they do that is individual to the writer and the story. You can drop the reader directly into the action, you can use a flash-forward (so beloved of JJ Abrams) which is a variation of in medias res.

You can use a slow build, taking your time to show the character in a normal setting before kicking their legs out from under them, this is usually called the Ordinary World opening and you can see it in the original Star Wars movie, when Luke is being a farm boy before the Empire comes calling (though that film also starts with the space battle, to help set the world).

You can start with the character being given the mission.

Hell you can start anywhere, but the important thing is it is an introduction. You have to introduce the main character, the setting, and the main story arc. No ifs or buts on this. That is the job of the introduction to a story, to hook the reader in.

It is a bit of an artificial divide between introduction and set-up, but I like it because it allows me to know what precisely I am doing where. In the introduction of Kinless, for example, I introduce the Protagonist: Drustan; the bad guys: The Vascanar (via another character Jarl); the main thrust of the story: Drustan has something they want that fell into his hand by accident; and the Female Protagonist: Marisa.

That all takes place in the first 10-12% of the novel. And brings in other characters and themes.

Act 2, the setup.

This sets the hook.

Because of its brevity the introduction doesn’t really allow for a lot of exposition, the writer is only able to give a taste of the setting and the character’s personalities. You don’t want to tell the reader everything straight out the blocks, or what’s the point of them reading the story.

The set-up is normally around 20% (again a rough percentage), so with the introduction’s 10% the beginning takes up about a third of the story, which closely corresponds to the First Act of a three-act structure.

The set-up has a bit of breathing space and allows the writer to fill in some detail. But all the time the writer is setting the hook, making damn sure the reader doesn’t slip it and go do sommat else.

By the end of the set-up the story should be in full flow, everything should be in place for the conflict to flower. But the seeds of the conflict are in the beginning.

By the end of the set-up period in Kinless, I have Marisa and Drustan together. I have Torquesten chosen by his demonic gods and I have Jarl meeting a ghost. I have also shown how the magic in this world works and all the bad things that can happen here. And the conflict (the pursuit of Drustan and his ragged band of refugees) is ready to start.

It’s quite easy to see where the set-up ends in Kinless, because I called it part 1.

 

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In This Episode…

Written By: Boopadoo - Mar• 16•14

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I had another of my writing revelations a few mornings ago, like when I discovered research can be fun or that plotting might not be so bad. It went like this…

I’m driving to work on a Wednesday morning, and with every half-mile I travel the weather is deteriorating, from cold rain to wet snow to low-visibility squalls. On a major highway, nearing my place of employment, driving very slowly and conservatively due to the incoming blizzard, I started to move over in order to let another driver off of an entrance ramp and onto the road. I hit a layer of slush in just the precise manner to put me sideways, no avoiding it, no anticipating it might happen; the universe simply determined my courtesy should be repaid with a spin. I used all the emergency driving techniques I know, avoided hitting any other cars, and got myself stopped on the opposite side of the three lanes, facing the steep ditch between the two sections of the road. Crisis averted…

Not quite. The rain and higher temperature of just an hour earlier had left the hill a soft, muddy mess, and the driving snow covered that with slippery slush, creating a surface so slick I had no way of stopping my slow slide down to the bottom. I stomped the brakes, tried to reverse in 4-wheel drive, all to no avail. Lower and lower I coasted, in slow motion, until my truck finally stopped a foot from the icy water at the bottom. Seriously? No, really, this was a joke, right?

Anyway, I now had nothing to do but wait for the tow truck to come and winch me out. An hour and 45 minutes of turning the engine on when it got too cold, watching the temperature gauge drop and the snow pile up around me. Fear not, faithful readers, for I did have notebooks and pens with me – I always do – so I started writing. It was during this time that I had my blaze of self-awareness, an epiphany with potential to change the way I do all things writing. I realized a truth about myself: I am a serial writer.

se-ri-al  adjective  repeatedly committing the same offense and typically following a characteristic, predictable behavior pattern.

I’ve blogged about my quirks before, how I can’t help but need just the right pen combined with just the right notebook, sometimes just the right music for each separate project, and never changing the combinations until the project is done. Again and again, repeating the habits with each new endeavor. Serial behavior. Thing is, it’s not what I’m writing about this time.

se-ri-al  noun  a novel, story or play appearing in regular installments, such as on television or radio or in a magazine or newspaper.

Now that’s what I’m talking about.

Since May of 2011, I’ve been part of a unique group of writers from around the world, called WriterLot. What sets this group apart from our countless predecessors and peers is our mission and its execution, which is to provided readers with a brand-new piece of short-form writing every single day, for free. WriterLot members have fluctuated in number from 12 to 16 at any time, with the optimal norm being 14 so that each member appears on the same day every two weeks. I have every-other Wednesday. Members have come and gone, special guests have become full members, full members have gone on hiatus, others have returned, still others have stepped-up to fill schedule gaps above and beyond their normal offerings.

Throughout all of this there have been, I believe, around eight of us who have never fluctuated for more than a day. I happen to be one of them. That is a lot of original pieces on a very regular basis. As webmaster for WriterLot, I name all the web page files; I use initials to identify the writer for me, followed by a four-digit consecutive number. My latest piece is boop0084. That’s 84 short stories and/or serial episodes every other week, to the tune of something like 130k words, in just under three years.

After my initial run of individual short stories in 2011, I decided it might be fun to start something thematic, to connect individual stories to a greater arc. Like individual episodes of a television series, each offering would either end with its own tidy little arc conclusion, or with a cliffhanger, while still being part of a longer story. Without consciously realizing what it is I wanted to accomplish, I began to write serials.

First came the Turtleverse, with its time and space spanning characters and locations. Then came my obsession with a character from one of my not-WriterLot projects. His backstory became the year-long A Boy in Gray serial. After that, a few longer, 6k to 10k word stories, broken up into small, easily digestible chunks for five, six or seven episodes each. My latest series, Block 65, is the first time I planned on writing a serial from the outset. Without realizing that is what I’d been doing for two years, I fully intended to end every episode of Block 65 on a cliffhanger or open plot, like an old-timey pulp magazine or the nickel-a-show, Saturday morning cinematic offerings my father used to love as a kid.

So, this recent revelation is the moment it clicked in my mind that writing serial-style is how I’ve always done it, even before WriterLot. When writing novels, which is what I had been trying to do, I merely assumed each chapter should be like a television episode, as I mentioned before. I would give every chapter two or three exciting little scenes and end with a cliffhanger or tidy little arc ending to transition the overall story. Mind you, other than basic English and grammar classes, I’ve never actually had any formal creative writing training, so if what I’m writing here makes you think “um, yeah, everybody knows this”, my lack of actual writing education is from where my ignorance stems.

This is how I approached Paige 99, my current novel-in-progress. For ten chapters I moved things along at breakneck speed because I knew how each one should end from the outset. I quite literally wrote one chapter/episode at a time. Then I took a break from Paige 99. When I started up again, I just started writing. And writing. And writing. Then I realized I had to go back and figure out several chapter breaks after the fact. I tried to slog on, but I got bogged down in Paige’s girlfriend and mommy issues, and questioning who she is and who she wants to be. Then I stalled.

Finally, stuck at the bottom of a ditch in a raging blizzard, I figured out who I am as a writer. I’m a serial writer. Approaching chapters in an episodic fashion is how I keep pace, how I keep things exciting. It forces me to keep tight track of every word I’ve previously written. It forces me to make sure my research is always accurate, so as not to be contradictory later. It has made me a better writer than I ever thought I could be. It’s given me the confidence to write that last sentence, to realize I might actually be good at this stuff.

I am a serial writer, and proud to be so.

 

Haunted Houses

Written By: Jae - Mar• 08•14

On the morning before last Halloween, or Samhain if you prefer, there was a piece in a newspaper featuring the top twenty most haunted places in Britain. I’ve been to two of them; Ruthin Gaol and Plas Teg Mansion, both in North Wales. Given my past history I was nervous as we creaked across the old floorboards to the room where most sightings were reported, but I didn’t see, feel or hear anything strange whilst I was there.

I have had other experiences, though, that make me wonder how it all works.

The first house that husband-before-he-was-husband and I bought had a presence. She appeared at the top of the stairs and in our bedroom. I used to wake, heart racing a bit, with an image of a woman in my mind and the sense of being watched, but no animosity. There is a state called a hypnogogic state, that time between wakefulness and sleep, where people reportedly experience strange phenomenon and it could be argued that this is what I experienced. It’s strange though that I don’t consistently experience presences as I awake. They are not spread evenly through my life, regardless of location. I’ve observed, over the years, that first house of ours go up for sale with regular monotony; every eighteen months or two years. Perhaps it’s just that it’s the kind of house you buy as a first-time buyer.

One hotel in Dumfries and Galloway had a scarier presence, distinctly unfriendly, but nothing untoward happened other than a disturbed night’s sleep. The one place that truly scared me was a holiday place in France. It was a modern, well-appointed property, light and airy; definitely not your usual Scooby-Doo haunted house. The owner forgot to ask us for our breakages deposit when we arrived. What good luck, we thought.

There were eight of us. We all had separate unexplained experiences that we each dismissed, up until the point where we could no longer.  They were physical things, not just creepy feelings and wild imagination.

My watch disappeared from the shelf above the kitchen sink. I searched the bedroom as the first obvious place to look. No watch.  I checked with everyone. No watch. A couple of hours later, it lay across my pillow like a gift. Horrible smells wafted from one cupboard every so often. I accused my other half of fart-related pranks. One man’s half a bottle of after-shave ‘evaporated’ and shaving foam sprayed out by itself, in a cool room shaded with shutters. Some of us caught glimpses of a figure dressed in brown; I saw a small man in 20th Century infantry style uniform.

One afternoon, we returned from three hours at a market, to find the woman that we’d left behind chilling-out over coffee and a newspaper, shaking at the bottom of the garden. All the doors in the house had banged shut at the same time as our car tyres had crunched away over the gravel drive. She had climbed out of the kitchen window in her night-dress, with her newspaper, rather than dash through the hallway where the nasty sensations were strongest.

On our last night there, the contents of a box of matches—just enough to last until we left in the morning—disappeared. We came back from our evening meal to find the wall mirror lying face down on the tiled floor of the bathroom, beneath the wash hand basin, unbroken, string still attached and wall-hook still in place. Needless to say, it was another sleepless night. It is the only holiday ever where I couldn’t wait to go home.

We had another house where the property came with a previous owner’s walking stick hooked over the bottom of the stairs bannister. It was kind of cute, added to the history of the place so we left it there. It belonged. We loved the place. The combination of very steep stairs, children, and their insistence on playing with the stick led me to hooking it on a top kitchen cupboard. Well, the stick’s previous owner—Dolly—was not at all happy. Dolly let us know that she was distinctly annoyed. My eldest son stopped staying up to watch T.V. programmes by himself. He said the living room was creepy. The place was suddenly noisy; creaks and groans and rattles. I put the walking stick back, apologised and we made sure to say ‘hello’ to Dolly each time we came in. Things settled back down again.

Now, just in case you think I’m mad, or very impressionable, I contrast these experiences with a night spent wild-camping in a Scottish woodland. The place was truly dark at night away from the screened camp fire, and with the wild sounds around us (owls screeching, leaves rustling) and the smoke drifting, it ‘should’ have been scary, creepy, venturing out alone to answer nature’s call. But it wasn’t.  I’ve stayed in many places, old and new, where I haven’t felt presences or experienced strange goings-on; those are the exception rather than the rule.

I do wonder what these experiences are: an entity, an energetic echo, a thinning of the veil between dimensions or universes, an aspect of our own inner workings? I like the mystery.

Writers Are Different

Written By: Stephen Godden - Mar• 01•14

Writer are different...

Writers are different. Not from other people, not from other creative people, but from each other. In much the same way that there is more genetic variation within a population than there is between populations, there is more variation between writers than there is between writers and musicians, or writers and visual artists, or writers and architects, mathematicians, actors, scientists, designers, or any other of the myriad ways to be creative.

All of which are equally valid. Got that? There is no hierarchy of creativity.

Writers are people, just like everybody else, and they vary, just like everybody else. Their creativity is the same as all the other creative people in the world, but how they approach the craft of writing is individual to them, which makes them more different from other writers than they are from other creative people.

I believe that, in intellectual terms, creativity IS talent. Some children are born more creative than others. Some would call them talented (I would call them talented) while others refuse point blank to believe in talent, because to them that seems (I suppose, I don’t actually understand the thought process) unfair.

Life ain’t fair. Life is just life, and some people are built to run faster than others, some are stronger than others, some are more flexible than others. Why should creativity be any different. The outlier theory says that you simply have to practise something for 10 000 hours and you will master it.

Nope. You have to have natural ability too. It all starts with natural ability. If you don’t have the right body shape you can train all your life and you still won’t break the eleven second hundred metres, you still won’t be able to bench press five hundred pounds, and you still won’t be able to tumble and bounce along a sprung floor like a gymnast or acrobat. That is simple fact.

You need a natural ability, you need a body that is set up to do all those things. And then you hone it, day after day, week after week, come rain or shine, until you have mastered that native ability and become adept in your chosen sport.

Why should creativity be different? Why should the brain be different from the rest of your body? It’s that old nature/nurture debate again. I tend to believe that duality is a false one. I tend to believe any either/or statement is usually false. It’s why I’m agnostic.

Anyway, that was a bit of a digression to set up the terms of my actual argument.

Writers are different. There is no one single way to write and anybody who tells you that there is only one way to write is an idiot. Seriously, a complete nincompoop who has never really thought about the writing process in anything other than the most superficial of ways.

If they are writers then they are saying ‘This is what I do. This is what works for me. Therefore this is the only way to do this thing called writing.’

If they aren’t writers (and there are an awful lot of non-writing writing gurus out there) then they are saying, ‘I don’t actually know what I am talking about, but if I make it sound simple then I can make it sound easy. And if I make it sound easy then people who don’t want to put in the 10 000 hours to hone their ability will listen to me because I am offering them a short-cut.’

There are no short-cuts. Sorry, but they don’t exist.

(From now on I am talking about Fiction Writers, so when I say writer I mean somebody who writes fiction).

And now we come to it.

The planner/pantser debate.

(Rubs hands together, rolls shoulders, grins at the monitor).

We’ve established that writers are different from each other, that they are as varied as the world in which they exist. That is a given.

So why is there even a planner/pantser debate? What does it matter HOW a writer gets a story written, so long as the story works? What does it matter if their method is different from your method?

What does it matter?

It doesn’t.

Not at all.

All that matters is the story.

There are as many ways to write a story as there are writers in the world.

And there is no duality of pantsing and planning. It is not an either/or question. It is a continuum. It runs from pantsing on the left (the side sinister) to planning on the right (the side anal). Most writers are sinisterly anal, a mix of just getting the words down and having some idea of where the words are going before they start.

Some writers need to know the end before they write the beginning. Some writers need to plan out every plot point and character interaction in exhaustive detail. Some writers stick a few signposts up so they don’t get lost on the way. And some writers just start writing without a clue of where the story is going.

It is a diverse writer-line of independent methods like integers on the number line.

Writers are different, so stop arguing about the ‘best’ way to write and start discussing what works for you.

Oh and I am pretty far over to the side sinister, pretty much a pure pantser, which is why the false debate is so irritating to me. I don’t disparage planners (OK, the ‘side anal’ might be considered a disparagement, but it’s more of just a joke. I could call pantsing the ‘side messy’ if you like) but I have certainly been disparaged by planners.

And they normally end up going all ad hominem on my arse. I’ve been called a liar, because obviously I must be lying about my writing method to make myself look cool (at least I think that is the thought process). I’ve been called deluded, which is still being called a liar, except in that case I am lying to myself. I’ve had long arguments with people where they call planning ‘plotting’ and then argue that I am plotting so therefore I am not a pantser; yeah, no comment (there were a load of comments at the time, but who has the time for that nonsense).

Let me make this clear.

I don’t give a damn how another writer chooses to create their stories. I only care about the end-result. Does the story work? That’s it.

If you need to plan then plan. There is nothing inherently more creative in just diving into a story and pantsing the hell out of it. Just as there is nothing inherently better in how individual sportspeople prepare for their events. There are just things that work for them that may not work for others.

All writers are different, and some of them are arseholes. Try not to listen to them, or your heart might give out halfway down the story-track.

 

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