Month: November 2022

Remembrance Resource

Although we are now heading into the Christmas season, I want to share a resource I came across as part of our Remembrance Day activities.

Our local newspaper does an excellent job of connecting readers with the actual people who went to war. For one thing they run a “remembrance” page where families can commemorate their loved ones. One item clutches at my heart strings–a family of seven, four brothers to WWI and three more to WWII. On first glance I thought the family was lucky since only one brother was killed in action. On a closer reading I found that the surviving brothers of WWI were all invalided out. One suffered shell-shock (we call that PTSD now) for the rest of his life.

However, the newspaper cannot tell all the stories, there are too many. Into the breech has come Vancouver Island University with its “Letters Home” project. The university has collected letters written by soldiers away from home and sent to their families. In November, copies of those letters are delivered to the current occupant of the house at that address.

The recipients are surprized to to receive a letter written from the trenches a hundred or more years ago, but most are touched by the message, and reflect on the young man (only men were in combat at that time) who left home and family in the cause of justice and freedom.

What makes this project unique and wonderful is the fact the letters are not held in a museum. Rather they are digitized and then returned to the family that owns them. Thus Canadians can read the real life experiences of our soldiers without depriving the families of a precious artifact.

So far the university has digitized 30000 letters and thousands of photographs. The database is searchable and available to the public for free. It can be found at canadianletters.ca.

I took a quick look and was immediately drawn into a story. The first letter on the landing page was from a young man wondering why Marjorie hadn’t written. I wanted to jump back in time and give Marjorie a stern lecture. Then I wondered if Marjorie had become ill or maybe died herself and no one had the heart to tell her soldier-beau. Or maybe Marjorie had written but the letters were intercepted. Of perhaps . . .

Look at the story possibilities that jumped to mind after reading only a few paragraphs. For writers of fiction, this database is a treasury of ideas. For people living in a former soldier’s home, they are a window to the history of the house. For citizens who weep for the lives lost, the dreams unfulfilled, and the heartbreak of millions, the letters are a way to honour our brave men and women who sacrificed so much that we might live in peace.

On this day of American Thanksgiving celebrations let us give thanks to our veterans for their service.

 

 

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Avoid the Second Night Blahs

At one time of my life I was involved with amateur theatre. I loved it. Rehearsals were a blast. Meeting the cast, who became your family for the run of the show. Costumes, make-up, staging– it kept me coming back year after year. Opening nights were the best. The air buzzed with excitement. Players vibrated with nerves and anticipation. The energy backstage could have powered the stage lights. When the curtain went up, we reached out to that audience with both hands, determined to shake them out of their seats and send them home amazed by the talent right there in their home town.

The second night, meh. . .  The actors were exhausted from the effort they’d put into opening night. We had to work at putting energy into the performance. Second night audiences always seemed uninvolved. Even though the show might be technically more polished than opening night, it usually felt flat to the cast. We just hoped the audience wouldn’t notice how hard we were trying.

The book I just finished, felt a bit like second night at the theatre to me. It wasn’t wrong, it just wasn’t right. If this had been the author’s second book, I’d have put its shortcomings down to time pressure — an editor or agent demanding a new book in a few months whereas the first one took a year or maybe years.  But this was the third book. What happened? How can we avoid this let down in our own writing?

I’ve just finished reading a book I anticipated with joy. Unfortunately, the actual book disappointed. I’d read two of the author’s previous books with pleasure. The latest had the same WWII, England setting. The main characters were a group of women, just like in the earlier books, yet this one relied on too many co-incidences, too many unmotivated changes of heart, and too easy resolutions to the conflict. 

          Have a Big Idea   

 Sometimes, with the pressure to produce a new work in less than your comfortable timeline, an author may jump at the first idea that presents itself. If it’s a small idea it may work for a short story, but won’t be enough to carry a whole novel. Even if you are a pantser, try to jot down a few turning points to be sure your idea will carry a whole book.

         Do You Have a Passion for this Book?                   

 That first book, was likely a story that had been brewing in your imagination for some time. You just had to write it. You were in love with the characters. The setting was a place you knew well, whether real or fictional. You couldn’t wait to spend time in that place with those people.If you are now writing on command from reader or publisher expectations, you may be creating a less interesting place with one dimensional characters. Even if you are under pressure, make sure the story you tell is one you love.

          The Editor on Your Shoulder

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could “un-know” much of what we’ve learned as we wrote those first words? In blissful ignorance, we plunged right in and let the characters tell the story any way they wished. We didn’t worry about head-hopping, or point-of-view, or beats, or three-act structure. Now, all of those writing crafts are important. Learning them and using them in your own process will improve the quality of your book in second and third drafts. But all that stuff can clutter up your brain in the rough draft. Replace that nagging editor with a bluebird of happiness — one who chirps “great line”, “too funny,” “I’m crying.” That’s the voice you want to listen to when getting the story onto the page. When you’re ready to edit and revise, set the bluebird free and let the nagging editor do her job. Just don’t let her try to edit the blank page.

Remember the Rules of the Craft

After years of writing and a bunch of manuscripts, it’s possible to go on automatic pilot. That may have been what disappointed me in the book I just read. First rule, we need conflict and it has to matter.

In this book, the conflicts were real and important, yet they were easily resolved with a single conversation, or even a character just having a change of heart for no particular reason.

Character development. In this example, the characters had a sameness to them although they came from very different backgrounds. There wasn’t enough difference in their speech or in their inner dialogue to make them stand out. And they were all “nice.” We all want nice people in our real lives, but in fiction they are bland and boring. 

Go Deep on POV.  It seemed to me that this author had given us an outline of her story rather than the finished product. She set up intriguing situations but only scratched the surface of the characters and the  conflicts. Even the setting was given a mere glance. Rationing, food shortages, enemy bombers, black marketers . . . these are all riveting elements for a novel, yet I was never really afraid, or hungry. Mostly I was disappointed. An author that I know can write a gripping tale, had short-changed me on this one. I don’t know why. I just know I’ll think twice before putting down money for another of her books.

And that is the real lesson for authors in this experience. It is a truism that you are only as good as your last book. Don’t kill your career by putting out something that is less than your best.

 

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