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Frenzied creativity can keep you from getting all of your thoughts down

One challenge of being creative is that our minds often work much faster than the rest of our bodies can. Ideas can come at such a rate, our enthusiasm for a topic or story can be so intense, that we can find ourselves tripping over our words or leaving out things like nouns and verbs.

When I was much younger, I would see this challenge play out on my typewriter.

My thoughts were so frenzied and my fingers so quick that I would physically overwhelm the ability of the typewriter hammers to rise at the key stroke, strike the ribbon against the paper, and fall back into place before the next key stroke catapulted the next letter. Time and again, I would sigh in frustration as I would stop to manually separate the two letter arms that had become entangled.

But even in the absence of mechanical typing, such enthusiasm can result in conceptual clogging, where thoughts that cross your mind fail to find a home on the page.

Although this happens more in fiction than nonfiction writing, I have read examples in both situations where a writer has failed to include important information about their characters, the plot or even the settings of events. Because we see everything in our heads, because our thoughts move so quickly, we may not realize that we have failed to put this on the page.

When I write a line of dialogue for a character, for example, I hear the character’s voice in my head and I know his or her emotional state, so I hear the intonation that reflects that state.

On a good day, the same information is relayed in the words the character speaks and/or in the actions the character performs while saying those words. (On a really good day, the words spoken and the actions taken don’t exactly align, revealing subtext.)

As often as not, however, I threw down the first dialogue that came into my head or described a relatively generic action to get to the really cool moment a couple of pages from now.

Again, I heard the intonation. I know how the character is feeling. So, in my head, nothing is missing. Everything a reader needs to understand what is happening is found in the black letters that stripe the white screen or page.

 

Am I reading what you’re writing?

Your reader is not in your head, however. She doesn’t necessarily know how the character feels or where the story is going.

She will likely fill in those blanks with her best guess based on what she’s already read, and she might be right.

But if she’s not, if her assumptions are wrong, the moment of realization might be quite jarring, and she may have to drop back to re-read one or more passages to catch up to you.

NOTE: These moments are particularly noticeable if you have someone or a group do a cold-read of your work. The minute a reader starts the line “wrong”, you see (or hear) the potential train wreck ahead.

Any success you had in engrossing your reader and revealing your creative genius dissipates, and has to be newly won in the subsequent pages.

As the reader, if I need – or even just want – to know something to help me understand a character, relationship or scene, make sure I do. Make sure the idea or concept is on the page.

You ultimately cannot control what goes on inside the head of any reader, whether their personal perspectives or attitudes or what kind of day they’re having, but you can do as much as you can to get your idea, your story across with as few filters as possible.

You don’t necessarily have to do this with Draft One – anything you can do to ride the wave of enthusiasm and get Draft One completed takes priority.

But as you transition to Draft Two, Four or Eleven, look for opportunities to be clearer in your intent for your characters and your story.

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Aiming for clarity

How many ways could a given line or sentence be read?

Unless you’re purposefully pulling for subtext Nirvana, try to reduce that number, if for no other reason than the number in your head is probably three to five times lower than what it actually is.

Sometimes, clarity comes in the perfectly chosen word.

“Cameron put his glass down.”

“Cameron slammed his glass down.”

“Cameron let his glass drop.”

“The glass slipped from Cameron’s hand.”

Sometimes, clarity comes with more information/words.

“Cameron put his glass down.”

“Cameron gingerly nestled the glass into its condensation ring.”

“Avoiding a fist of broken glass, Cameron lowered his drink to the table.”

Yes, you run the risk of over-writing, and it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been accused of writing travelogues rather than setting descriptions in early drafts.

I would argue, however, that it is better to cut back something over-written than omit vital information.

And yes, for genres such as thriller or horror, you may want to avoid providing too much information for fear of ruining the suspense.

I’ll talk more about genre another time, but in the interim will suggest that while you may wish to mislead your reader, you never want to lie to them, even by omission.

Once the final reveal is made, the reader should be able to go back and see all the connecting dots. Simply leaving out an important point is a cheat, from my perspective, especially if it prevents someone from making connections.

Misdirect, fine. Leave things open to interpretation, certainly. But never lie.

 

Seeing what’s not there

So, how do you know what you’ve inadvertently left off the page?

Time away helps.

Once that initial energy has dissipated, put the work away for a while. Clear your head by working on something else, and only then come back to it and see if it reads like you wrote it.

Alternatively, as suggested above, have someone (or some-many) read it aloud to you while you sit completely silent – not easy. You will hear every clunk and every reinterpretation of your intent.

And sometimes, you simply cannot see it, which is where people like me come in: experienced story analysts who know the standard or common issues that arise and can not only identify where they occur in your work, but also offer insights or possible fixes.

This is feedback at a higher level than editing – although many of us instinctively edit – and the best story analysts help you find your way of telling your story, not theirs.

Because the story analyst didn’t write your story, they’ll see the gaps or holes much faster and more clearly than you will, and will help you fill those gaps, ensuring that you have left it all on the page.

 

So, What’s Your Story is a story analysis service designed to help anyone tell their story better, whether fiction or nonfiction, long or short, written or verbal. Even if you’re just looking for a quick sense of how well you’ve told your story, we should talk.

Closing the book on bookstores

WBB death

I am a troglodyte…a knuckle-dragging, mouth-breathing dinosaur who will shortly find myself extinct for my inability to evolve with the world in which I live. You see, I like to read books.

So, what’s wrong with that, you may ask, lots of people read books. I have several dozen on my e-reader.

There’s the rub. I did not say novels, plays, short stories, historical or scientific treatises—all of which I do enjoy. Rather I said “books”. Those folded paper constructions across which are scribbled black serif or sans serif typefaces and maybe a few photos or illustrations.

This past week in Toronto, yet another bookstore (brick & morter, not Xena warrior princess type) met its demise. The self-described World’s Biggest Bookstore was a staple in downtown Toronto, a place to visit when you were trying to kill some time or perhaps even to purchase books, magazines, school supplies or those kitschy little items that no one ever thought they wanted but can’t seem to live without.

This past spring, about a dozen blocks away from the WBB, another bookstore met its demise and is in the process of becoming a craft store (because what erudite urbanite doesn’t want more Styrofoam cones and sewing notions?).

The reasons for these closures are many and varied, although the loudest one in downtown Toronto is the cost of renting or owning the space. Why house 10,000 hard and soft copies of books when you can house just as many Torontonians in roughly the same space?

I know there are other bookstores in Toronto. My concern is for how much longer.

They came for the mom’n’pop shops, and I said nothing.

They came for the specialty stores, and I looked the other way.

Then they came for the big box stores, and I was forced to buy an e-reader.

Despite the number of items I have purchased from e-tailers like Amazon and Indigo, there is still nothing better to me than the tangible feel of a book in my hands. There is a vibe in books that I cannot get electronically, unless I wet my fingers first, but that’s more of a shock than a vibe.

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I am a junkie for second-hand bookstores.

I love that musty smell that I am confident is a mould infection waiting to take root in my olfactory or pulmonary system. The crick of a book spine as you fold it back for the first time (my own spine makes a similar noise in the morning).

And the gentle signs of previous love, whether a notation from giver to receiver, random dog-ears suggesting the previous owner had ADHD or the odd tacky material sticking several pages together that we are all best not to think too much about.

As a side note: I find it ironic that I will pay $20 to $50 for a book in an antiquarian bookstore that I wouldn’t spend more than $3 on in a second-hand store. Apparently, signage works.

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I watch people in airports and on buses scrolling through their e-readers and wonder, where is the fun in that?

Don’t you miss the excitement of flipping ahead to determine whether you can stay awake long enough to reach the next chapter break? Or anxiously getting to the bottom of the page only to realize that the sentence finishes on the next page (don’t judge me, I live alone)?

Or knowing that in the coming apocalypse, you’ll be able to keep a fire going for several days? You try cooking squirrel over a burning e-reader and see how far that gets you.

(Note to self: Buy extra reading glasses. Learn the lessons Burgess Meredith did not.)

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But alas, I am a vanishing breed and like the thunder lizards that came before me, I will have to make way for those annoying little rodents that scurry around under desks and floors and through the walls…yes, the guys from I.T.

But until that day comes, I shall continue to hunker in my apartment, surrounded by my beloved paper friends and learn a bit more about modern squirrel trapping techniques.

Squirre-BBQ

Ten books that influenced my life

There is a thing going around Facebook these days—electronic chain mail, really—where friends invite each other to list the 10 books that have stuck with them through life. Thanks (??) to my friend Nancy for inviting me to participate.

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The Complete Works of William Shakespeare

Since my first introduction to the works of the Bard in Grade 9 (Merchant of Venice) through my many pilgrimages to The Stratford Festival in Southern Ontario, I have been entranced. No matter what is going on in my life, I find solace and refuge in the pages of the Master’s folio. Favourite play: Henry V. My lone tattoo: Julius Caesar V.v.73.

His life was gentle, and the elements

So mix’d in him that Nature might stand up

And say to all the world ‘This was a man!’

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DuneFrank Herbert

For such a short book—and particularly within such a long series—this is a novel I return to on a regular basis. The story is woven so tightly and yet offers mythic proportions. The language is at once simple and profound…and incredibly quotable. Every time I read the story, I find a new interpretation.

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past, I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone, there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

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Asimov on ChemistryIsaac Asimov

To a budding geek, this book and the next on my list were manna from heaven. Although I was a fan of Asimov’s fiction, I found a home in his look at various subjects in science (and eventually theatre and religion). He explained the universe to me in a way that no one else could and gave me the tools to extend that learning to others (whether they wanted to hear it or not).

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Broca’s BrainCarl Sagan

While Cosmos was the book (and television series) that everyone else was talking about, this was the book that first grabbed my attention. Like Asimov, Sagan had a way of contextualizing science that few others have mastered, offering not just a series of facts, but the stories of the people behind those facts, including the dearly departed Paul Broca. Asimov and Sagan likely influenced my decision to move into science writing.

Wolf

Never Cry WolfFarley Mowat

If not for my abhorrence of discomfort, I would be living on the Canadian tundra today, studying and communing with the wolves. That’s how powerful this book was to me. Many criticize Mowat for fabricating many elements of his non-fiction and particularly in this story, but I don’t really care because he grabbed a young mind (mine) and transported me into the minds of the wolves he studied for the Canadian government. To see these creatures as more than just vicious wild dogs was life-changing.

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Purple CowSeth Godin

Drive past enough farm fields filled with cows and eventually you cease to see them. Drive past a purple cow, however, and you stop. In short, the premise of a book of blog entries that challenges the reader to skew their view of the world with an eye to drawing the attention of your audience. Less an epiphany than a confirmation of what I already believed, Purple Cow told me there was merit in my mania.

Natural

Popular Natural HistoryRev. J.G. Wood

Published in 1885 (my edition), the content of this book is not only dated (it includes a discussion of the dodo), it is often outright wrong. But it holds a special place in my heart because I received it from my great-grandmother and it initiated my fascination with antiquarian books, something that continues to this day despite my inability to financially support it. These books—particularly the non-fiction—open a portal into another time and another way of thinking, much as the rest of my book collection will in 100 years.

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The Love You MakePeter Brown & Steven Gaines

The murder of John Lennon in 1980 took what was a passing awareness of The Beatles and turned it into an obsession for me. I had heard the music, I had seen the movies, but I was completely unaware of their context. Thus, the biography of the Fab Four, written by insider Peter Brown (…called to say, you can make it okay, you can get married in Gibraltar, near Spain), blew the lid off my ignorance, pouring kerosene on a flame that has not died in the intervening 34 years.

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The Elements of Style – Strunk & White

As a writer and editorialist (I will not call myself a journalist…different craft), you might suspect that this book is close to my heart because it helped me become a better writer. And you would be DEAD WRONG. Just the opposite, in fact.

Instead, this book informed me that my new Editor had absolutely no respect for my writing nor that of my writer/editor colleagues. In our first staff meeting, she cheerfully told us she was looking to make some changes in our magazine and then gave us each a gift of this book. In my eyes, it was tantamount to handing Dostoyevsky a first-grade reading primer and suggesting he rewrite Crime & Punishment in the format of Mr. Whiskers (no self-aggrandizing hyperbole intended). I moved on.

Etymology

Chambers Dictionary of Etymology – Robert K Barnhart (Ed.)

As a word-jockey, history-buff and all-around geek, I can never be sure if my wife’s gift of an etymology book was a reward or a well-disguised pun-ishment (the hyphen should give you a clue as to why she would punish me). Regardless, the book has served me well as I endeavour to sculpt language to fit my needs, crossing words at their roots to develop new varietals that colour an otherwise mundane existence.

500

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So I have hit the milestone blog post: 500.

For some of you, who have followed me from the earliest days, you are no doubt thinking: “500? Really? Seems like 5,000.” For those of you relatively new to the wonder that is my blog, please note closely the previous statement.

I dithered over what to write for my 500th post, and have decided I’m going to talk about you…well, some of you.

I “follow” quite a few blogs…I read many fewer…and I seek out even fewer. I’m sorry for those I don’t visit more regularly…hours in a day and all that. It’s some of that last group, I want to highlight here…those glorious few who make me stop whenever I see they’ve posted something new.

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Filippa Levemarks Blog

The paintings that this woman creates and the themes she explores by mixing media and mixing subject-matter blow me away. Rare is the image that doesn’t elicit some emotion in me. Hers is a style I have seen nowhere else and is worth exploring.

 

Jack Flacco

To read Jack’s blog is to have no clear idea as to who Jack is, and I mean that as a compliment. Jack takes on any subject it seems, but always in a thought-provoking and welcoming way that makes you want to contribute with a comment. His latest topics have been: monotasking, Veronica Mars, infectious pandemic readiness and phone addiction.

 

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Bare Knuckle Writer

As the title suggests, Steph Snow is a no-holds-barred writer who likes to talk (or rant) about writing. With generous dollops of humour, she discusses the creative fortunes and practices that torture her soul on a seemingly daily basis. Misery truly does like company.

 

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Readful Things Blog/Julian Froment’s Blog

I list these two blogs together because they are both discussions of the written word—e.g., reviews of books and authors, discussions of book marketing—and because the bloggers (Ionia Martin & Julian Froment) are beautifully connected at the soul (I don’t ask questions about any other forms of connections). Amazing people whose love for words is only surmounted by their love for each other.

 

Schelley Cassidy Photography

As a photo-hobbiest, I deeply appreciate the craft and skills that other photographers bring to the world. In this case, however, Schelley and I seem to share a greater fascination for the minute rather than the panoramic, as suggested by her regular feature “What is it?” where you only see an aspect of an object and are left guessing as to what that object is.

 

Ron Scubadiver’s Wild Life

If I couldn’t have my life, I would want Ron’s. A world traveller and freelance journalist, Ron is an amazing photographer, capturing incredible aspects of life in the many places he has visited. I particular enjoy his collections of people photos, often taken at a festival or gathering, which are incredibly natural and inviting.

 

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Ned’s Blog

Ned Hickson is not right in the head. And that’s what I love about him. A journalist in the Pacific Northwest and volunteer firefighter (or latex-coat fetishist…can’t really tell), Ned brings an irreverent sense of humour to everything he writes, earning him several accolades including his own NSA file. Ned also has a book to his credit, which I believe he has to return to the library next Tuesday.

 

Curnblog

More a collective than a personal blog, Curnblog offers amazing insights into all things film, whether examining an individual film or genre from angles such as sociology, creativity or cinematography. Predominantly the work of James Curnow, the blog is like having your own little film school where you can access new and unusual topics on a weekly basis without the pressure of essays, theses or exams.

 

There are so many other blogs to which I would like to direct you, but I am happy that you made it this far down the page. Perhaps for my 1000th blog post!

My gratitude for your patience and enduring interest.

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The new neighbours

Rather than unpack yesterday afternoon, I decided to take a walk around my new neighbourhood and get to know the neighbours.