Wednesday, October 30, 2013

A System for Getting Description and Setting Right

http://www.amazon.ca/Write-Great-Fiction-Description-Setting-ebook/dp/B003YJEYCY
Great Book for Beginners
So my writer instructor pointed out a little while ago that I am having some troubles with description of settings in the second half of my RoboNomics manuscript. And so I pulled out the first book I read on the topic: "Description & Setting" by Ron Rozelle. It's part of the "Write Great Fiction" series that I am always banging on about, since it's those books that really got me kick started when it comes to this whole novel writing business.

It's funny. I spent a lot of my writing time in university -- those snatches of time between classes and exams -- describing things. Tiny details of setting and atmosphere that I scribbled into notebooks. I sketched out short stories that revolved around incidents that could not really be call plot but were rather long descriptions of landscape with a few events, barely related to each other, in between. So when I started on the manuscript for RoboNomics, I figured that description was not my weakness. I poured all of my efforts instead into understanding the fundamentals of a good plot. But lately, because it's been pointed out to me that my settings are generic and lacking in detail, I begin to remember my first 'novel'.

My first novel, written when I was in the fifth grade, was 37 pages long. And it was more of a plot synopsis or outline than it was an actual novel. It was all story. First, this happened. Then, that happened. Then something else happened. Et cetera right up until I wrote 'The End'. Thinking back to that, it seems that my natural state is storytelling. It's a relief to realize that I have what it takes when it comes to the meat of a novel. But now I really do have to work on getting the potatoes just right.

As you may have cottoned on already, when I write I am all about systems. I have a tendency towards absentmindness and forgetfulness which can be disastrous when writing. Especially when focusing on description since it's all in the details. So I need to rely on a system.

Dollar Store Beauties
The System

Part I: The first part of the system involves carrying around tiny notebooks and pens wherever I go. This is very important. And it involves paying attention. I have to admit that I've got out of this dual habit in the past five years or so and it's contributed to my settings being vague and wishy-washy. But it is a habit I had earlier in life, when I was a little less cynical. The good thing about always being on the lookout for interesting details and then figuring out how to describe them is that you'll never be bored.

Part 2: Next I use a system that I read about in the book "Description & Setting." What you
do is make a chart with seven columns. The first column will be the name of the place in the story where some action takes place. And then onto the next six:

1. Sight: Visual details, obviously. This comes first since humans are primarily visual. Duh.

2. Smell: Scents add quite a bit to a scene. Strongly tied to memory for us and thus extremely evocative. I think that if nothing else, you should describe setting using this first two categories. But that's still pretty bare bones, isn't it?
Setting Chart



3. Taste: I guess taste is next because it is tied to smell. Sometimes when I'm describing a place in which no eating will take place, I fill this column with the 'taste' associated with the way the place smells. Does that make sense?

4. Hearing: Apparently not as important as Sight and Smell -- but this is, I have to admit, my favorite column. Adding description of sounds makes a scene three dimensional for me.

5. Touch: I always have trouble with this sense. I have to really stretch myself to imagine what walking on certain surfaces feels like, what the wind is like that day or whatever. Because what if my characters never touch anything in the scene?

6. Intuition: This is an interesting one that the book recommends, and a challenge. That sixth sense -- as in -- you're not going to feel the same in a sunny park as in a dark house, right?

Anyways, so that's what I'm working through now. Some of my scenes are places I've actually been to and some are imaginary places. I have more trouble in writing about places I've been to. That's actually when I need this chart the most. Thank god for Google Maps and Google Earth, reminding me of little details that I've forgotten. And YouTube, which is helpful in looking up what certain things in the world actually sound like. I'd say too bad we don't have Smellovision, but it's pretty damn easy to remember what things smell like (brain structure being what it is). The challenge with scents is trying to describe them adequately and poetically.

The Point

The point in making these charts is not to use every detail in the descriptions of a setting. The charts are time consuming, yes, but very important. In jotting down details, I can not only more fully imagine my story world but while I am getting those details on paper a lot of times passages of description will suggest themselves to me.

What do you think? Do you have a system for description like mine? Or do you just use notebooks as a repositories of detail that you can always return to?

Ok, bye. P.S. Two days until NaNoWriMo 2013! Excitement! :)


Monday, October 28, 2013

Halloween is Already Over

I love Halloween. On Saturday my love and I went to a Halloween party. I worked on our costumes between day job assignments last week. They weren't very elaborate, just a cutesy clever couple's costume the idea for which I found on this website. But, as you can see, we made PB&J our own. Some cheap t-shirts, felt and fabric glue and we had a costume! I also made a knife as a prop but that was lost at the party. Not that it matters, what with being made out of cardboard, tin foil and left over felt and everything.

The party itself was pretty fun. As with all these institutional shin digs that we've been to together, it started with an early dinner at 6 p.m. and probably didn't end until 3 in the morning. We've yet to make it to the end, however. We had a bit too much fun and didn't stay too, too late.

Some of the costumes were really elaborate. For some odd reason, it seems like Bo Peep was super popular this year. There were three at our party, and it wasn't as if 500 people showed up. There was also minions from Despicable Me, (which I have yet to see) and folks from Breaking Bad and Duck Dynasty. Nothing from Game of Thrones, oddly enough. Mummies and zombies and vampires, the usual. One of these years I will actually convince him to come to a Halloween party in an elaborate costume. I'm just not sure how much time I'll need to persuade him that it's a good idea to dress up as Beauty and the Beast, or something.


So that's Halloween for the year. It's weird how this year the partying aspect of Halloween is so far from the actual day. I suppose some people might have parties next weekend? But that would be weird, right, celebrating it in November? For me, the lid is on it for another year. I'd like to tell you that I'll be handing out candy on the 31st, but after last year's turnout of two children, I think I might just turn out the lights and not bother. And to think, our first year here I bought something like two 50 piece boxes and was terrified I would run out! It does mean that the only Halloween candy I've had this year was rockets (yeesh) but it also means that I'm saving myself from having to eat 98 pieces of miniature junk food on my own... :P

Monday, October 21, 2013

My Daily Writing Goal


It's often heard in writerly circles that writers should aim to pound out at least 1,000 words a day. If you are working on a project, if you expect to lead a writing life, this is a good place to start producing material. It's good advice that has been mocked: write 1,000 words a day and then stop, no matter how you're feeling. But I take a different approach to that perhaps worn-out advice. On the days when it feels like pulling teeth to get something on the page, I tell myself to write at least 1,000 words. And yes, as soon as I finish a sentence that passes that arbitrary mark I just stop. Because some days are like that.

But the point of the exercise is not just to write 1,000 words. If I'm on a roll I could pass that easily and write until I'm not feeling it anymore. It's just that my cycle of inspiration is changeable and 1,000 words is a good start when I feel I'm just not up to the task of writing something original. And even if the work is crap, it's the work of it that counts. Writing, like many things worth doing in life, is a practice.

to facilitate this activity, I've recently come across a program called "Omm Writer". I find it is a sublime little tool for fulfilling the daily writing goal. It blocks out everything else going on in computer town and fills the screen with a simple white background. A nice blank slate with no internets. It also comes with music. Two tracks that are very empty and ambient, one a little more upbeat than the other. There's a third track that's essentially a rhythmic crunching that eventually sounds a bit like a train. Actually that third one is my favourite, having helped me write a very harrowing scene involving something like a robot army.

I've come across a lot of little apps and things that help one focus on writing alone, but I really like Omm Writer for little extras. What do you use to write out 1,000 words a day? Do you use an application or do you prefer the old-fashioned pen and paper route?

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

S.A. Wilson's Blog - A Warning

That title sounds soooo serious. Seriously, everybody, seriously.

I just wanted to drop a little note today to discuss what is upcoming: Day Job Peak Season. For the next month or so I will be publishing far less on this blog than I would like, thanks to lovely 12 hour days for three to four straight weeks. I am looking forward to this even less than you are, Dear Reader. During any free time (weekends) I can scrap out I will try to write two or three posts at a time and post them during the weekdays. But honestly, I can promise that -- or anything, really. The job I have doesn't take a lot of brainpower but it does take presence. And sitting like a zombie at a desk for that long a stretch each day can be super, super draining.

On top of all this, once November hits NaNoWriMo begins and adds another demand on my time. But NaNoWriMo is something I will not give up, as it will provide me with a lot of new fictional material to work with.

I'll do my best -- if not, I'll see you on the other side!!!

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

A Colourful Edit


I'm working through the next 25 page section of my manuscript. Specifically, I'm working through a process I'll refer to as 'deep editing' before it is in good enough shape to be sent off to my writing instructor.

I've decided to use colored pens because when I first began this writing course, I was extremely worried about one of my personal editing foibles. That is, whenever I am editing for multiple reasons: i.e. vagueness, continuity, et cetera, I lose track of everything I am correcting except for one thing. And who wants to go through a manuscript multiple times, looking for different types of errors? If I do that I get distracted on the first read-through and start fixing multiple things. No, what I needed was a system.

I also remembered when a friend I had in grad school raved about the use of coloured Staedtler pens in heavy, intellectual pursuits. The idea is that the pens make the work a little more fun. And so, although I am a firm believer that you really don't need to shell out money to get the 'gear' (I'm working at you, Moleskin) to write, I found a pack of 12 fineliner for $7.

Then I made up a color coded editing system based on the feedback my instructor had given me on my reoccurring faults:

Purple = not important to describe
Green = convoluted sentences
Orange = vague descriptions (otherwise known as slow down and look around)
Pink = diction: tell it like you're telling a friend

...et cetera. The deep edit consists of corrected all these mistakes as well as copyediting.

The result, as pictured above, looks more than a little chaotic. But I'm actually finding it extremely useful. It is focused my editing and revision efforts in a way that has never happened to me before and I don't think I'm likely to change the process now, or ever! Plus, my friend was right: colours make it fun. :)

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Learning my Art

My writing course instructor mentioned, a little while back, that I should read the book, "The Art of Fiction" by John Gardner, to supplement my course readings. And so I bought a copy and started reading.

In the beginning of the book, Gardner points out that a firm grasp of the rules of grammar are necessary in order for the student of writing to become a great writer. Fair enough. He then goes on to point out that an education in canonical literature is also essential.

This latter point may be debatable, sure. But while (as I have pointed out before) I have spend most of my reading life between the pages of the Western classics of English literature, I don't know that my art has exactly been bettered for it. I don't have a literary education. I spend my schooling years learning far too much about Epistemology, Philosophy of Artificial Intelligence, Cognitive Science, the schooling of four years and Curriculum Studies instead.

So what is a new (old) writer to do? I have taken a big step by enrolling in Humber College to learn the art of fiction. But I considered in reading the above points that in order to enrich my art, I need to take it a step further.

Because I am not where I would like to be. Ever since I was a young girl, I just assumed that at the end of my life I would be remembered as among the greats. A Tolstoy, a Faulkner, a Kerouac, a Hemingway, a Bronte. Something like that. But when I read my current work, it's not up to par. Sure, it's a first serious work and it's not like it's Twilight bad. But it doesn't really rise above about a Dan Brown level. Is this something to complain about? Maybe not -- but I think I can at least do something about it.

I'm not about to go back to school. Accumulating degrees has been proven futile and I could not handle more student debt than I already have. But I can do something: I can turn to the thing that has emerged in the past few years -- just when I need it most: iTunesU.


So I've made up a course of study for myself from some English universities. From Open University I have an introduction to interpreting literature. I have a survey of English and Western literature. Stanford and Yale will guide me through some of the earliest of Greek and Roman works. Oxford will help me understand Shakespeare, and later George Eliot and D.H. Lawrence. And then back to Yale to study the American novel in depth.

So much for the fiction canon -- that's as much as I could find. But then I will move on to more specific matters: studies of the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. And then if I haven't tired out completely, I will move on to studying a bit of poetry with Cambridge. Finally I'll "Challenge the Canon" at Oxford. And I'll accomplish all of this, I've decided, during my little trips to the coffee shop. It's a perfect way to do it: take a couple hours and my iPad mini, sit with a coffee and a snack and learn what I need to learn.

So, what do you think of my little course of study? Do you think it's a good idea, or even remotely like an actual university English Lit degree? Do you think authors really need such a background in order to become great? Is it a case of 'knowing the rules before you can break them?' Or should I just be able to come to greatness without such an education?

Monday, October 7, 2013

Around the Corner to the Coffee Shop

So I've decided to incorporate a routine into my work days: going to the coffee shop. Around 2 or 3 p.m., I've decided that at least once a week I need to get out and treat myself to a coffee break. This accomplishes a bunch of stuff:

1. Exercise: It's only a ten minute walk to two coffee shops: Timothy's and Starbucks. If I convince myself to do this throughout the winter, I think I'll be a lot closer to healthy than I am now.

2. Eluding the Lull. As I've written here before, my afternoons are often laggy write-offs since I am a morning person to the extreme. If I take a little walk and consume a little caffeine, it might be enough to get me through that awful time of day.

3. Inspiration. I figure that if I get out of the house and into the world, I can do some people watching and get some fodder for future storytelling.

4. Lonesomeness Busting. Writing is a lonely pursuit, especially when one sits at home in front of a computer screen all day, every day. I think going out for a coffee break might assuage that feeling of loneliness or at least make me feel as if I am a bit more a part of the world.

Today I did it! I went and had a little latte. As a first step I only had my phone with me, since I still get this feeling in the pit of my stomach when I think about bringing a laptop or a how-to writing book along. Imposter Symdrone: I got it bad. But baby steps, baby steps.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Movie Montage

The other day I was thinking about my life as if it were a biopic that someone had created. I posted something on Twitter to the effect of, if my life were a biopic, the time I am currently living through would be represented by a musical montage. You know -- that mid-movie creative shortcut when the story speeds through the dull bits of life with at least some entertainment value.

Two examples:

 
 

 The thing that these two montage clips have in common are their emphasis on training. So in my life right now, it's as if the clip started with my inwardly declaring, "I'm finally going to do it! I'm going to write a novel and get it published." And then the music began.

But it's not as though I think of this as a bad thing. I don't mean to say that my life right now is dull -- that's not exactly the point. It's just that the nature of my work makes it unpresentable. The repetitiveness of my days means that this era of my life is not marked by any stellar event. The whole of my time in Winnipeg has been unchanged. There are social outings indeed, but nothing life-changing. It is all very routine. And I am okay with that. I can see the life changing events on the horizon, and right now is marked by working towards those events tiny step by tiny step.

It took me a long time to come to the conclusion that a routine like mine is okay. Because my early life was marked by almost a complete lack of appropriate mentors, (i.e. fiction authors) I didn't realize what the work of writing novels actually entailed. And now that I know, I am content with it. So, anyone who is contemplating writing a novel and how great that will be, let me disabuse you of romantic notions:

1. Writing a novel is much like writing a Master's or Ph.D. thesis. I did complete a Master's thesis, and that experience taught be a lot about thorough research, patience and avoiding shortcuts. And mostly about self-motivation. Which, if you're going to write a novel, you'll need in spades.

2. Writing a novel requires a lot of sitting. When I was younger, I was prone to romanticizing the writing life. I thought I'd live in a trendy walk-up or loft. I thought I'd bike around, mostly to intelligentsia parties and coffee shops. Actually I'd call them caf├ęs. But the reality of a writer's life is that it requires more sitting than otherwise. Sitting alone in a room, imagining, drafting, or mostly editing and revising. So much editing.

3. Writing requires balance. I used to fall prey to this thought that I have to put every moment into writing. That I had to sit at my computer for 16 hours a day or else I would fail. But I am finding more and more that better writing comes when I take breaks. When I go out with friends to yoga class. When I take a coffee break. When I do the dishes. Because it is during those times that my brain laboratory goes to work on sticky writing problems. Of course, none of this makes for entertaining footage.

4. Writing requires that you get up every day with the desire to write. It may not look like an exciting life from the outside, and it's certainly not what I expected. But being able to fall into a routine of creativity is very rewarding. And for the first time in my life a routine feels good and comfortable.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Night at the Symphony

Now that I've devoted a post to bashing Winnipeg, I'm going to take it all back. Well, maybe some of it.

I have to say, this city does do a few things really well. It does have a really great symphony. It also has a stellar ballet. And I guess sports teams, if you care about those sorts of things. These items are not unique but they are done well.

On the weekend we went to the WSO's performance of "Sci Fi Spectacular," a pops show that has been making the rounds in North American symphonies for at least five years. George Takei's epic voice and Jack Everly, possibly the world's most charismatic conductor, made it super fun.


It was my love's birthday present/event, in response to my wanting to go to the ballet for my birthday six months ago. We also bought half-price 'flex pack' tickets for three more shows the rest of the season. I am super excited about it! WSO is awesome!



Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Nuit Blanche WPG

Back in 2008, I attended my first Nuit Blanche in Toronto. It was amazing. The streets were packed with people of all ages, and every corner had a different exhibit. It helped, I suppose, that the neighbourhood I lived in at the time was close to OCAD, so a lot of art students were participating.

Unfortunately, it was an unseasonably cold night and I was not dressed warmly enough. So I turned in early. I wish I hadn't. Because I didn't realize that not all Nuit Blanches are created equal.

Saturday Night

This past Saturday evening and into the night, I went with a small group to check out Nuit Blanche Winnipeg. My love and I had an engagement earlier in the evening, so by the time we met up with our group it was nearly 11:30 p.m. But that's okay, right? Nuit Blanche is all night! Wrong.

Apparently, what we didn't realize and what I should have researched before was the fact that in Winnipeg, where most of everything shuts down at 6 p.m. on any old regular day, most of the exhibits shut down at midnight. Balls. We did see a tiny handful of art installations, but because most of the evening was already over, the crowd that was attracted by the post-midnight fare consisted of a bunch of 22-year-old hipsters rather than actual artists.

Highlights

It wasn't all bad. The best was the Costume Museum of Canada's exhibit, "From Bloomers to Bikinis." It was really cool to see Victoria biking outfits, 50s ball gowns and 80s workout thongs. And for free. I'm not sure whether it was the best of the entire night, but definitely the best opened after midnight.

There was also something called "the Alley" off of Market Square where a light installation was set up. It was nice to look up while walking in the space, seeing little blobs of white and red and blue like colorful stars above. In spite of the fact that I stepped in something ominously slimy and one of the group stepped on something else that cracked underfoot.

Lowlights

The Market Square in the Exchange District itself was a stupid hipster party during which the DJs sang bad covers of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones over dance beats. Contemporary art. Yeah, okay.

Then there was a Tale for Two, which although it was a neat concept (music played on headphones while you look down into a light box to see a photo of arranged clay miniatures) didn't make sense. It was a story, I supposed, and so tried to attach a narrative structure to it. But I couldn't. Maybe that was the point? Either way I felt quite disturbed my it. Surrounding that exhibit was another massive crowd of young hipster, milling and getting high. Sigh.

There was a Mad Men party. There was a bike along that ended in a party. That was part of the problem, wasn't it? The night was more about parties that ended at midnight or 2 a.m. than it was about exhibits that presented until 6 a.m. I suppose a lot of folks in this city wouldn't stay up until 6 a.m.?

The worst thing that happened that night, however, was when we went into a building that was actually an art space during daylight hours. We walked in and were met by a trio of high, giggling hipster girls who told us there was nothing to see in there. After we were turned away, I looked at my Nuit Blanche flyer. There was supposed to be something in that building. There was meant to be an art exhibit that lasted all night long.

Conclusion

Maybe it's not fair to judge the event of one city of approximately 750,000 people to the same event of a city of 5 million people. After all, Toronto's Nuit Blanche has a corporate sponsor. As much as I'd hate to admit it, that helps. Toronto is, (whether we want to agree to the fact or not) the nation's centre of arts and culture -- arguably one of the most artsy and most culturey cities on the continent. Whereas Winnipeg is just -- well, not much. But coming from 'out east' to this city, I suppose I did expect more. Perhaps it's just my eastern go-getter attitude grinding up against this prairie town's love of comfort and the status quo. Not sure. Either way, experiencing Winnipeg's Nuit Blanche, for me, represents a microcosm of my Winnipeg experience in total: limitless possibilities for awesome, lost opportunity to be awesome.