Morning Pages – My Take

 Following on from last week’s thoughts on meditation, this week’s blog features another way of clearing static from the mind, morning pages.

Julia Cameron, in her seminal book for writers, The Artist’s Way, insists that morning pages –three long-hand pages of stream-of-consciousness writing — are essential to the creative process.  Her theory is that we purge ourselves of mind static by writing it all down on the morning pages and are then free to get on with our work of creativity.

Anne Lamott, in her book Bird by Bird, instructs her students to start with childhood memories in their quest to “tell the truth” in stories.

I try to combine these two pieces of advice in my writing exercises.  Yes, I do writing exercises.  Just like a pianist practices scales, every artist/performer must keep her tools in good working order.  In other words, practice.  Many of my writer friends consider morning pages a waste of time.  The thirty minutes spent spewing drivel — their words, not mine — could be better spent on the current work.  That may be true for some, but I find doing some exercises before getting into the real work of the day, makes that real work more enjoyable, more poetic and more “true.”  However, I do choose which exercise to practice.

If my vocabulary seems to have shrunk to the same ten verbs repeated over and over, I do a “beautiful words” exercise.  Some words resonate with me, perhaps not with you, but the morning pages are for the writer not the reader.  So, I’ll fill a page with words like lilacs, lady, lavender, lollygag, lamp, luggage, lily, lollapalooza . . .  It doesn’t really matter what the words are, I’m just opening my mind to the beauty of language and calling some of those buried syllables to the forefront.  When I’ve finished, I go to my WIP and the words, that have been laboured and blocked,  now flow joyfully.

Often I’ll use my morning pages to create emotion.  Here’s where the instruction to start with childhood memories is invaluable.  As adults we’ve learned to be civilized, to bite down on harsh words, to take a balanced approach.  As adults, we’ve learned to flat-line our emotions.  As children, we had no such constraints.  If we were happy, we were ecstatic, if we were angry, we were in a red-hot fury, if we were hurt our very souls wept with the pain.  If the scene in my story demands that my heroine be angry, I’ll do a writing exercise recalling a moment in childhood or the teenage years when I shook my fist in the face of my tormentor and shouted out my righteous rage.

To make these exercises effective for the story teller, they must go into detail.  Remember the room you were in when the event took place.  Describe it in every tiny detail.  Try to recall if there was music or bird song or the hum of a furnace.  What did it smell like?  What were you wearing?  In the morning pages, you want to go deep into your memory.  As well as putting you in the appropriate emotional state, the writing will put you into deep point-of-view as well.  The scene you write after this writing practice will be more “true” than any you made up out of your conscious mind.  Don’t worry about running out of material.  Flannery O’Connor   said that anyone who survived childhood has enough material to write for the rest of his or her life.

Morning pages can take the form of character interviews or a diary entry.  Here is where I explore my character, sound out her childhood memories, let her dream without constraint of money or time or circumstance.  When I put that character into the story, most of what I wrote in the morning pages will never make the published page, but the essence of what I wrote, forms the character and the more “true” that character is, the better the story.

Make up your own writing exercises.  Practice them.  See if it doesn’t make your writing – or painting, or sewing, or teaching or gardening – more satisfying.

If you haven’t read “he Artist’s Way, or Bird by Bird I highly recommend them.

To Meditate or Not

My friend has taken up meditation. Like all new converts, she’s an enthusiastic promoter of her new practice.  She talked to me of  the benefits  of a calm mind – more focus, better time management, clearer thinking, higher productivity.  All attributes I would like to acquire, so I signed up for the ten free on-line sessions and then she gave me another thirty that she’d earned.  I regret to say, I’m a failure at meditation.  As I sit here with my feet flat on the floor, my hands resting on my thighs, my eyes closed and the soothing voice of the leader tells me to focus on my breathing and let my mind empty itself, all I can think of is the million other things I should be doing.

I try opening my eyes and I can see dust. I avert my eyes and see my notebook lying open on the desk, accusing me of wasting time.  I close my eyes and take a deep, cleansing breath.  A car door slams and I remember that I need to run to the grocery store.  The cat walks by and demands that I pick her up and pet her.  Now, a cat’s purr is very soothing but I’m working a knot out of her fur, not meditating. 

After a couple of weeks of failed meditation sessions, I’ve decided the practice is not for me.

I clear my mind by writing it down. If I can’t sleep at night, I get up and write down the matters that are keeping me awake.  Then I go back to bed and drop off immediately, knowing that the problems are noted on a piece of paper and will be waiting for me in the morning.  I don’t need to keep running them through my mind during the hours of darkness.  When I’m stuck with a story problem, I write a list of possible actions and the outcomes of each.  Then I can easily determine where the story should go from here.  When I’m preparing for a big dinner party, I write down all the little things that must be accomplished before the guests arrive.  Once an item is on paper, I can get on with the job and not keep stopping to remember.

There are many studies to show that taking notes by hand rather than by typing improves students’ performance. This is because “Generative note-taking pertains to “summarizing, paraphrasing, concept mapping,” according to Pam A. Mueller of Princeton University and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of the University of California, Los Angeles.  Robert Dugoni advises writers in his workshops to put away the keyboard and make their own, hand-written notes, even though he will provide his own notes at the end of the class.

Even if you’re not a student taking notes in class, there are good reasons to “write it down.

It makes you smarter.

That’s because putting pen to paper stimulates a part of the brain called the reticular Activating System, i.e. the act of writing it down tells the brain to give more importance to the stuff you’re focusing on at the moment

It sparks your creativity.

Susan Sontag and Truman Capote and J.K. Rowling, among others, write their first drafts with a pen. Susan Wiggs not only writes her first draft longhand, but with a particular pen, and a particular ink.

It keeps your brain sharp.

The act of writing engages motor-skills, memory and more and is a good cognitive exercise for aging boomers who want to keep their minds sharp.

So, thanks, my friend for sharing your joy in meditation, but I’ll give it a pass. Pen to paper, heart to brain, is my preferred method of finding focus, attacking a problem, or clearing the clutter from my mind.  For anyone who wants to try the course she recommended, here’s the link.  headspace.  For everyone else, visit your favourite stationery store and stock up on pens and pencils, notebooks and writing pads, line them up on your desk and enjoy.

 

 

 

Universal Truth

 

I’m reading “The Valiant Nellie McClung, a Christmas gift.  I’m well acquainted with this Canadian icon, I’ve written about her in this space before.  What I’m struck with in this reading, is the timelessness of her writing.  So timeless, in fact, that some sixty years after her death my local newspaper is re-running some of her columns and they are very popular, not just from an historic point of view but from a current one.

What makes her still relevant? It’s her ability to hit upon universal truths.  Language changes, styles change, manners change, but when Mrs. McClung writes about war, her words ring true for any conflict. “War is not only a waste of things we can see and touch, but makes heavy inroads on the invisible and intangible things of the spirit.” When she speaks of the struggle of good over evil, that struggle is relevant in any age. “The power of evil . . . now stands before us in tanks that belch fire, in planes that drop bombs on hospitals and schools, in grasping bloodstained hands, ready to strangle the innocent and throttle our liberties.” McClung was writing about WWII but her words could apply to Syria, or Sudan, or Somalia today.  Even when she writes of domestic things, she calls to the heart of all of us who long for home. “I began to feel at home as soon as I walked up the gangplank.”

So, apart from my admiration for the woman, why am I telling you about Nellie McClung’s writing today? Because all writers, whatever their time, whatever their genre, strive to tap into that universal truth, that notion that crosses the ages.  The theme of star-crossed lovers has been explored from Shakespeare to Hardy to Bernstein.  Sibling rivalry is a story as old as Cain and Abel.    For romance writers,  we often explore such truths as the need to belong, the desire for family, the longing for justice.   Note this is not the same as genre tropes such as reunion stories, secret babies or runaway brides.  A truth is much deeper and more profound than a genre convention.

Nellie McClung was a woman of strong faith. Her words and actions were shaped by her Christian beliefs and her unwavering belief in Christian democracy.  Her tireless championing of women and children and all those who suffered under the existing power structure stemmed from those convictions.  I believe that is one reason her writings still resonate.  Not only are her themes universally true, they are true to her.

As story-tellers today, we must remember to be true to ourselves in our fiction. No matter the current “hot” topic, if the writer dislikes vampires, she will not be successful as an author of vampire stories.  If she hates small towns, then setting a tale of family and church and community in a small town will ring false to readers.  An old adage for authors is “write what you know.”  I suggest “write what you believe.”

 

 

Point of View

As mentioned last week, my blog has been the victim of a hacker.  The site is now rebuilt and is clean.   Google still flags it as hacked, but it is now safe.  We’re in the process of getting Google to verify and take down their warning.

 

I went for a walk through the Butchart Gardens with a young relative recently.  It was a lesson in point of view.  Things I thought were significant, like the totem poles, received a ho-hum from the four year old, but a very sleepy bee warranted five minutes study.  We met another very short person and engaged in an exchange of teddy-bear touching.  There was a BIG dog, very friendly, and on a leash, but my little charge kept her fingers tightly curled into her palms when invited to meet it.  When the dog is at knee-level it’s beautiful and well-behaved.  When you’re face to face, it’s another perspective altogether.

There was a stroller in our company, so we took paths that avoided steps. Another point of view for me.  I’m apt to take the wide path that includes a long staircase into the sunken garden.  Taking the graduated route brought me to a knot garden I’d never seen before.  There were little pockets of crocus and snowdrops hiding in concealed corners of the road less travelled.  Every trip to the gardens requires that someone sit on the brass pony.  I can pretty much step over it, but the four-year old needed a boost and then her feet didn’t reach the stirrups.  Sitting on the pony became a big deal.  Even mounting a giraffe on the carousel required a lot of lifting and clambering before she was safely in the saddle.  It’s been years since I’ve ridden the carousel and I’d forgotten how fast it turns.  If I had to hang on tight, the little one needed to cling with fingers and toes and knees.  When we got off, I felt dizzy.  She had no problem and declared her intention to race me to the next tree.  I declined but congratulated her on her fleetness of foot.

We looked at maps every now and again and my companion sussed out the ice cream bar on the first perusal. The previous week it had been closed so I cheerfully promised an ice cream cone if the stand was open.  It was!  I paid up and had one for myself as well.

We went through the greenhouse because I thought she’d like the flowers. Wrong.  She did however, enjoy the gold fish.

We talk a lot in writing circles about point-of-view, getting inside your character’s head, writing only what the character can experience. It’s good advice.  My adventure with a chattering four year old was a perfect example.

I’ve just finished a book by a well-known contemporary author that was written entirely in the omniscient view point, surprising, since that style is now considered old-fashioned and remote. The writer is skilled at her craft, so I was engaged with the characters and their story, but all the while I kept thinking I was reading a set-up and that the real story would begin after the characters were introduced.  Didn’t happen.

Another lesson in point-of-view. The technique has the advantage of letting the author tell the reader about things the character’s cannot know but which are important to the story, but it distances the reader from the characters.  Instead of being inside the story, I felt like a hovering presence looking down on a stage. I was an observer rather than a participant in the drama.

I love going to workshops and learning about the craft of writing, but nothing takes the place of real-life experiences. I’ll never again walk in the Butchart Gardens without being aware that my point-of-view is not universal.  I might try getting down on my knees to see what the world looks like from there.

Blurb

 

My apologies to anyone who received repeated posts on E. Pauline Johnson. This website has been the victim of some malicious hacker.  The nasties were too deep to clean, so we had to rebuild the whole site.  My techie assures me it now safe.  Why are there so many evil-doers in the world and what benefit do they gain from turning innocent people’s lives upside down, not to mention the cost!  Okay, enough rant.  On to writing business.

 

Recently I attended a workshop on writing the back cover blurb to your story. The instructor was the fabulous Shelley Adina Sneft Bates – she writes under all those names –and the worksheet looked straightforward.

To begin she told us to write a “shout line.” That’s the line that goes at the top of your back blurb, maybe on your website or advertising copy.  It’s a single sentence that intrigues the reader and suggests something about the story.

I’m no good at summarizing a whole book into one line, but my attempt, “You’ll need a rifle,” said the preacher, Received applause and a big thumbs up.  I felt pretty good.

The first paragraph of the blurb on a romance novel is supposed to talk about the heroine, the second paragraph introduces the hero and the third paragraph provides the setting and the conflict and a hook. All in about 200 words.

At this point I moved from star pupil to bottom of the class. My effort had the group asking all kinds of questions that had nothing to do with my story, so my blurb must have been misleading.  Also, my story contains a love triangle, so I didn’t want to introduce only one hero on the back blurb, that would be a spoiler.  I want to reader to wonder “whom will she chose?”  I felt pretty dumb.

Was the problem my ability to write a back blurb, or was it the story itself? I have plenty of angst over my writing without any help from “my friends.”

The drive home over a mountain road in a torrential rainstorm cleared my head! While trying not to hydroplane or cross the invisible lane markings or have a panic attack, I mentally worked on my back blurb.  By the time I got home, I was much happier with it.  Not only that, I’m happier with my story.

So, two lessons learned. One is an old lesson I seem to need repeated at frequent intervals.  Namely, I cannot wedge my story into someone else’s pattern.  Those charts and headings and “musts” paralyze my brain, and I feel imprisoned by the boxes.  I know this, I just forget when confronted by a shiny new template.

Second lesson learned, the exercise of writing a back cover blurb even before the book is finished serves as a tool to clarify the plot and the story question. With those two points clearly in mind the writing and editing process is faster and more effective.

Oh, third lesson: read the weather forecast before committing to driving that road!

 

E. Pauline Johnson

Something new is happening with Canadian bank notes. For the whole of our history the notes have featured the image of the reigning monarch and former prime ministers. Now, the ten dollar bill will feature a famous Canadian woman, other than Queen Elizabeth II.

As part of the process for choosing whose picture would grace the bank note, Canadians were asked to submit suggestions. These were narrowed down to a list of fifteen: artists Emily Carr and Pitseolak Ashoona; authors L.M. Montgomery, E. Pauline Johnson and Gabrielle Roy; pioneering feminists Nellie McClung, Idola Saint-Jean and Therese Casgrain; humanitarian Lotta Hitschmanova; aircraft designer Elsie MacGill; Olympian Bobbie Rosenfeld; and businesswoman Viola Desmond.

My book club decided we’d each choose one of the candidates and read up about her and present our report at our March meeting. I chose E. Pauline Johnson.

Now, I knew she was part First Nations and I knew she was a poet, but that barely touched the surface of this amazing woman.

Born in 1861 on a reserve near Brantford, Ontario,  she took the name of Tekahionwake, and billed herself as a Mohawk Princess.  She was only about one quarter Mohawk, she was not a princess and the Indian name she assigned to herself was made up. Still, she identified strongly with her Mohawk heritage and drew on their legends and history for her own writings.

Her mother, Emily, was a Quaker, without a drop of Native blood in her veins, and some very odd views on marriage.  Emily’s own mother-in-law had objected to the marriage on the grounds that Emily was not Indian.  Her minister refused to perform the ceremony because the groom was not White.  Against this heritage, Emily enforced a social isolation on her children preventing them from being fully native or fully white. They were not to participate in kissing games, popular in Upper Canada at the time, nor to let anyone, male or female touch them, even on the hand. The result was that white neighbours considered them stuck-up and the children on the reserve called them “proudy.”

Against such a background, Pauline wrote poetry and developed a taste for dramatic acting.   She sent her poems to various magazines and a few were published. She made very little money from her writing but she gained some important friends in the literary world. Socially, she was more lonely than ever.  Pauline was popular, witty, charming and full of life. Society matrons welcomed her into their homes as an entertainer but they stood firmly against welcoming her as a prospective daughter-in-law.

In 1892 Pauline recited at a concert put on by the young Men’s Liberal Club of Toronto.   She was an “instant” success. Her stage career was launched. From there she went on to perform all across Canada, mostly one-night stands in little whistle-stop towns, but also in the cities of Toronto, Montreal, Winnipeg and Halifax. Her goal in the beginning had been to raise enough money to travel to London, England in search of a publisher for her book of poetry. Two years later she had saved enough and struck out for England armed with letters of introduction to the Canadian High Commissioner, the Marquis of Lorne and the Marquis of Dufferin, who, with his wife, became her patron. She was soon entertaining audiences in the drawing rooms of Hanover Square, and reciting for the King and Queen.

But her main purpose in visiting London was to find a publisher for her book of poetry. Within a few months she had the necessary introductions and met John Lane, the publisher of Oscar Wilde, John Davidson, Kenneth Grahame, and others. Into this august company, came E. Pauline Johnson with her little book of poetry, The White Wampum. Quite an accomplishment for a “colonial” let alone a woman of mixed blood, and scanty education.

Although her objective of finding a publisher had been accomplished, Pauline soon learned that she needed to continue with her stage career in order to promote the sales of her poetry. For the next sixteen years she undertook a gruelling schedule criss-crossing Canada, with some forays into the United States and another trip to England. She acted as interpreter for a delegation of chiefs from the Vancouver area who sought an audience with King Edward VII to outline their grievances against white settlement that encroached on their reserves.

Wherever she went Pauline inspired admiration and loyalty, but romance eluded her. She was betrothed to Charles Drayton but his socially conscious family objected to the match and he eventually cried off. She fell in love with a swindler, Charles Wurz, who stole her money and then abandoned her. It is a testament to her personality that when she was dying, penniless in Vancouver and too ill to work, her friends took it upon themselves to publish a collection of her poems, and thus provide her with an income. Society matrons, her first manager, stage partners, prominent businessmen, high-ranking politicians, all rallied to help Pauline Johnson.  Flint and Feather was published in 1912 and her champions went on a marketing campaign that secured sufficient funds to care for Pauline until she died. When she passed away of breast cancer at the age of 52 in 1913, mourners lined the street as her cortege made the three-block journey to Christ Church Cathedral. Every flag in the city flew at half-mast. In accordance with her wishes, her ashes are buried in Stanley Park. She did not wish for a memorial but in 1922 the Women’s Canadian Club raised the money and erected a stone to mark her grave.

Pauline Johnson was not the woman chosen to be on Canada’s newest $10.00 bill, but she was a remarkable woman who made her own way and lived her own dreams in an age when “ladies” were expected to bow to male authority and confine themselves to the home. She proclaimed her Indian blood proudly at a time when First Nations people were excluded from many parts of Canadian life. Her most famous poem, The Song My Paddle Sings, was memorized by generations of Canadian school children, including me.

I’m so glad my book club pushed me to read the biography of this remarkable author.

Yay VIRA

Another snow day! Frankly, I’ve had enough.  The first one or two are fun, an unexpected holiday, hunker down by the fire, write, write, write.  But being housebound is getting old!  In this part of the world, we should be out in the garden.  In fact, I pruned fruit trees on the weekend, but Monday saw more snow.

I’m feeling a little cranky just now, but I am grateful that snow was no where in the forecast when VIRA held its annual Valentine’s lunch. February, Valentine’s, romance – seems a perfect combination.

For years this event was mandated by our association with Romance Writers of America® and included lots of awards for writing and volunteering. We had a keynote speaker, usually someone with a first sale – that was in the days when traditional publishing was the only way to go.

Life, and particularly writing life have changed since those early days in my career. Our group is no longer associated with RWA® but we still want to celebrate our craft and each other so, Valentine’s continues to be a highlight of our year.  We’ve cut down considerably on the formality of the occasion although we still celebrate successes and milestones.  This year we had a few more speeches than last.  I enjoyed them.  They reminded me of what it means to be a romance writer, encouraged me to embrace the new business model in  publishing and to set goals for myself for the coming year.  But mostly I enjoyed hanging out with other authors, exchanging war stories, comparing writing routines, hearing the latest from conferences others had attended.

I’d been feeling a bit isolated in my writing. I have an on-line partner whom I treasure, but nothing beats face to face.  As though to underline my feelings, I just read a blog this morning proclaiming just that notion.  “No writer succeeds alone,” and “Everyone needs support” were two of the section headings.  Yes, thought I.  Perhaps it’s because here in North America we’re in the depths of winter that there is a longing for friendly company, perhaps it’s just the fact of being a writer spending long hours alone with my thoughts, but February is definitely a time when I’m glad I have writer friends to share the journey.  We may not write the same kind of books, we may not read the same kind of books, we may be traditionally published or e-published, we may spend hours on social media or we may find social media the greatest time-suck going.  What we share is the struggle and passion of putting words to paper, of creating a story from nothing but our own imaginations, of having that euphoric moment when we write “the end.”

Merci, mes amis.  You make the journey fun.

Good-bye Stuart McLean

An iconic voice for Canada fell silent last week.  Stuart McLean, storyteller and host of CBC’s Vinyl Café lost his battle with cancer on Wednesday, Feb. 15.  He was 68.

I’ve never met Stuart McLean in person, but he has been a welcome guest in my home most Saturday’s for the past many years. His stories of Dave and Morley, their family and friends made me laugh, brought a tear to my eye, and connected me to hundreds of thousands of other Canadians, all tuned to the same radio show.

Mr. McLean told not only tales of his own creation, but those of others.  His “Vinyl Café Story Exchange” invited listeners to share their own stories.  “They had to be short, they had to be true, after that they could be anything at all.”  And share we did.  Stories of practical jokes, stories of reunions, days at the lake, small town happenings, poignant good-byes and a meeting with Queen Elizabeth when she was still Princess Elizabeth, and in uniform.

The stories were read on air, Stuart’s voice infusing the short paragraphs with a warmth and sincerity that gave significant to the commonplace. We heard stories from fellow citizens living thousands of miles away and they became our neighbour, just down the road.  Part of Stuart’s enduring legacy is that drawing together of Canadians from all parts of this vast country and connecting them with each other.  While provinces quarrel over tariffs and health funding and pipelines, Phil in Ontario and Kurt in Vancouver are having a chat about lost love and being a father.  Clare in Vancouver and Glen in Atikokan wrote of canoe trips.  Marlene in Sechelt and William in Brandon wrote of small miracles during a Christmas snowstorm,  quintessential Canadiana, as told by our friends and neighbours.  Listening to the Vinyl Café was like sitting around the kitchen table at home —  with thousands of your best buddies.

Stuart had a raspy voice that wrapped about his listeners like a comfy old sweater, a little tatty, a little worn, but still the favourite garment in your closet, and a rambling style that happily drifted off on tangents. A style that would drive an editor to distraction, Stick to the plot, Stuart, but which appealed to his listeners so much that they wrote their own stories in the same way.

In an age when entertainers want to be edgy, Stuart was kind. He made us laugh until our sides ached, but it was humane laughter, laughter that recognized the failings and foibles of human existence, that held up a mirror to ourselves, but the laughter was never cruel. His Arthur awards, named after a fictional dog, celebrated small acts of kindness or generosity or citizenship.  On “Arthur Day” he would telephone the recipients, on air, and explain to them about their prize.  One time he got a wrong number.  Instead of hanging up and getting back onto the on-air schedule, he started a conversation!  Turns out the recipient of that wrong number was having a hard time of it.  His father had been laid off, home life was bleak and the lad was sitting alone on Saturday morning.  He’d never heard of the Vinyl Café.  “Don’t worry,” said Stuart, “you’re in the majority.”  By the end of the call, our lonely teenager had perked up  and was looking forward to attending one of Stuart’s shows, with complimentary tickets, of course.  All this was on radio, we couldn’t see facial expressions, but that young lad’s voice went from bleak and dreary to excited and enthusiastic, full of anticipation.  That’s the kind of thing Stuart did.  I thought he should have received an Arthur award himself, for that phone call.

Now, Stuart is gone and with him the cast of characters, Dave, Morley, Mary Tarlington, Polly Anderson, Eugene and a host of others who peopled our imaginations and enriched our lives. We’ll miss them all.  When he announced his illness, Stuart said he didn’t want us to worry about him, he’d be back.  He also told a story where Sam, Dave’s son, was assured by a Tarot reader that if things didn’t work out in the end, then, it wasn’t the end yet.  So Stuart, cancer won and you lost, so this can’t be the end yet.

So long for now.  Thanks for everything.

The Archives

It’s time to clear out my writing office. For someone with a scant “published” list, I have an enormous number of words committed to paper.  I have several drafts of all my traditionally published books, plus the proofs, both marked and corrected versions.  I’ve filled the file cabinet, the closet, an old trunk and now have piles on the floor of new and old writing.  My personal archive.  Why am I keeping all these miles of words?

Perhaps it’s because putting words on paper is hard work. Perhaps it’s because I’m afraid I’ll never find those words again.  My friend, when home computers were new, hit a button somewhere and turned her term paper into an alphabetical list of words.  Imagine her panic.  The paper represented weeks of work, it was due in a matter of hours and now all her work was a mere list of words.  Perhaps it is that distrust of technology that makes me print out draft versions of my work and keep them. Perhaps it’s just the packrat in me.

Along with the piles of manuscripts, I have boxes and boxes of old birthday cards.  Every time I pull them out, determined to glean only the special ones and recycle the rest, I get stuck in reminiscence and put nearly all of the cards back in the box.  Such is the power of words on paper.

My brother has been researching our family history but has been miserly with sharing his findings with the rest of us. The reason, he says, is because most of his work is guesses but once a guess is put down in writing, it isn’t long until that guess becomes a “fact.”  Imagine having a brother so wise!

Given that the written word is so powerful, it behoves all of us, especially writers, to chose those words carefully, to consider their impact not only in the moment, but in days or years to come. Are our words kind, do they inspire, are they true, are they of benefit to the reader?  In troubled times it is easy to dismiss fiction, especially romantic fiction, as fluff, a waste of time and money, an escape from reality.  In part, those pejoratives may be true, but romantic fiction at its best reminds the world that love is powerful, that relationships give meaning to life, that justice will out.  And there is really nothing wrong with a little escapism.  Why else did Bob Hope visit war zones?  People in conflict and danger, stress and fear, need relief.  They need laughter.  They need a world where the good guys win, where the guy gets and girl and they all live happily ever after.

Words on paper can free or they can imprison.  Today I will reduce the amount of paper in my office, but I’ll continue to hoard beautiful words.

Lesson from a Master

Dancer Fred Astaire was one of Hollywood’s best box office draws during the 1930’s and 1940’s.  Some say he was the most popular music dancer of all time.  Although his style appeared effortless, those one take sequences on film were the result of hours and hours of rehearsal.  Previous to Astaire’s success, Hollywood musicals concentrated on large chorus lines, filmed from different angles, resulting in a kaleidoscope effect.  Astaire changed all that, presenting a solo dancer or couple in full-figure with minimum edits and camera angles.  When you watch Fred Astaire, you see the real thing, no cameral magic to cover a misstep.

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were before my time but I’ve always enjoyed watching them in old movies. I never thought of him as much of a romantic hero – too thin, too small, slightly balding – but I admired his dancing.  Recently I saw an old movie clip of Astaire that segued into a modern dancer performing the same routine.  I was astonished.  The difference was so stark even a layman like me could see the difference.  The modern dancer was competent, never missed a step.  But Astaire was grace and elegance and fluidity and style with a capital S.  Despite having watched his movies, I never really appreciated his talent until I saw a poor comparison.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lfyXPONE7Ws

As writers we’re encouraged to study our heros. Find an author we admire and enjoy.  Study her methods.  Read and re-read her work.  Dig out what makes her words special and then incorporate what we’ve learned into our own writing.  I admit that lesson doesn’t produce good results for me.  I’m so overwhelmed with admiration for the authors who write with energy, and style and grace and elegance and verve and . . . that I forget I’m supposed to be pulling the story apart and doing a critique.  I also find it hard to put my finger on just what it is that makes a particular author’s work so compelling for me.

Now, using my experience of watching Fred Astaire and an also-ran, I’m studying a “bad” book. This is an assigned reading for my book club.  Otherwise, I’d have tossed the novel after the first five, boring pages.  There are no “rules” for writing but there are certain conventions and expectations.  For readers of fiction, I believe the first expectation is to be entertained, from the very start.  One of the blogs I follow, Writers Unboxed, has a regular feature called “Flog a Pro.”  Here the writer community is asked to comment on the first page of a best-selling novel and determine if they, as an editor, would turn the page.  I’m sure the first page of this book would receive a “fail” in his test.  It does not engage this reader, nothing happens, there is no story question, there is no pithy dialogue, there is no appealing character.  In short, the beginning is boring.

Note to self: Reread first page of manuscript and be sure there is action, a question or a character who is so engaging the reader can’t help wanting to know more.

Most teachers of creative writing suggest limiting the story to one or two point-of-view characters. This book has four at least plus a couple of secondary POV segments.  Not only does the story bounce around from one POV character to another, it bounces around in time from pre-war, to present day, to London Blitz, to post-war England and other points in between.  When the author finally caught my attention, she jumped to a different character in a different time.  When I got involved there, she jerked me to yet another time and character.  By this time, I’d forgotten the initial question and I no longer cared.

Note to self: Teasing the reader with tidbits of information to draw her along in the story is a useful technique.  Driving the reader nuts with endless, unresolved cliff-hangers will see your book make a splat on the wall.

The “heroine” of this book, is an unlikeable character. She is deceitful, conniving and self-absorbed.  Tragedy in her personal history does not excuse her outrageous and damaging behaviour.

Note to self: Make your heroine likable.  Flaws make a character more believable, but if the character is your hero/heroine, there must be some redeeming features. (S)he must grow, change and present the reader with an admirable personality by the end of the book.

Thank you Mr. Astaire, and the also-ran dancer who showed me the true genius of the master. I still wish I hadn’t had to read the last book, but you’ve shown me how to learn from a bad example.

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