Writing

What Happens Before the Writing?

Cage Dunn describes what she does before starting to write. This background work places the character into an environment with depth and nuance. Does anyone else follow a process like this? Comments on the original post, please!

Cage Dunn - Fibber, Fabricator, Teller-of-Tall-Tales

Pre-writing is a thing for me. I have pages and pages of ‘stuff’ that relates to some aspect of the story. Snippets of conversation, an overheard argument between unknown characters, sounds, places, objects. I particularly like rambling about the history of the place they’re in. How it started, why it started, when it grew beyond the initial dream and became ‘somewhere’. It means nothing to the story I write afterward, but it means something to me as I’m writing – it makes it real in my mind.

All these little bits go into the mix for that purpose – to feel real, to make it more than an imagined thing. There’s too much of it to be fake or imaginary. The people have history, the place has history, the underlying tensions and bickering and secrets make it as real as everything around me that I see, hear, touch, smell, experience.

View original post 503 more words

Novel or Novella?

Mark Paxson at Writers Supporting Writers has a question about whether to develop a promising story into a novel or treat it as a novella.

“Do you ever have this experience? You start a story. It’s going great and then something gets in the way and you begin to wonder if you can actually pull it off. If you can get your head around all of the details and the possibilities and the realities of the story itself?”

You may read the rest of Mark’s post HERE, and offer your thoughts in the comments.

What Are “Darlings,” and Why Should We Kill Them?

Uh-oh, it’s happened. I’ve been resisting, but now I’ve caved in. I’m writing a post about the second most popular piece of advice for writers (after “Show, don’t tell”): “Kill your darlings.”

First, the origins of the phrase. My admittedly casual googling led me to Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who apparently said: “If you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.'”

But what is a writer’s “darling”? I’ve seen the term applied to characters, scenes, sentences, and even single words. Strictly speaking, it’s anything that does not move a story along, however well-written it may be.

I can’t really quibble with that. Anything that weakens a piece of writing, that makes it less readable or creates plot holes or lapses in logic, should be changed or deleted.

But…

I don’t care for the phrase. Especially when it’s trotted out smugly and superciliously, with the unspoken but implied addendum of “…you naïve little writer, you.” It’s not the advice I object to, but the way it’s worded. Because it includes “kill” and “darlings” in close proximity, it’s seized upon with glee by people looking for an “advice to writers” topic.

The main thing that bugs me about “Kill your darlings” is the implication that anything the writer really loves about their writing, any sentence or paragraph they think is especially fine, must necessarily be a “darling,” and so should be ushered to the chopping block.

I don’t think that’s the meaning of the advice, however. Rather than “If you think it’s good, it must be bad,” think of it this way: If a scene or paragraph detracts from or harms the story, consider deleting it, even if it’s well-written.

I wonder how many writers, reviewing a work in progress after a productive writing session, think “Wow, this is really good. Did I really write this? It’s great!” Only to decide the whole thing must be a “darling” (because they like it so much), and therefore they must delete it forthwith. They end the session in a demoralized state, berating themselves for being a “bad writer.”

Getting back to Q (Quiller-Couch’s pen name), I’m wondering if that advice, which appeared in a lecture series, wasn’t intended as a rhetorical exaggeration, rather than an ironclad rule. Some writers–and those who love giving advice to us–are always looking for hard-and-fast rules, as though by adhering to them religiously, we can produce perfect pieces of writing.

Well, no. Writing doesn’t work that way. There is no formula or recipe.

Here is my revision of “Kill your darlings”: If some element in a piece of writing introduces awkwardness or is out of synch with the rest, take a close look at it. Consider changing or deleting it, even if you think it’s well-written.

Okay, that’s not nearly as brief and memorable as “Kill your darlings.” So if KYD is a actually a code for my longer and duller revision, great! But don’t automatically assume the worst of any piece of writing you love. By all means subject it to scrutiny. Seek out the opinions of critique partners, beta-readers, or editors. Consider their opinions (keeping in mind that mean-spirited or envious individuals may apply that “darling” label for reasons of their own). Don’t automatically “kill” something just because you like it.

Verbascum chaixii, yellow mullein with purple stamens
If I followed the KYD rule as a gardener, I would rip out these yellow mulleins, because they intrude into the path. But gardeners aren’t told to kill their darlings, so there they are.

Fellow writers, do you kill your darlings? How do you identify the ones that deserve deletion?

By the way, my most recent novel, She Who Returns, is free today (July 24th) on Amazon. Click the link below the cover image.

Featured image from Pexels

manuscript and notebook She Who Comes Forth work in progress

Why Do I Write (and Publish)?

There is private writing (diaries, lists, things not to forget, unvarnished thoughts) and public writing (fiction, essays, treatises, histories, etc.). Private writing is not meant to be read by anyone else. Public writing is intended to be read by others, which is why it’s published. That’s what I’m talking about here.

Why do I write with intent to publish?

A few weeks ago, I heard a composer (Jim Hopson, who has written a concerto for alphorn) say that a musical score is just a set of instructions for performers. It’s the performance that matters, not the marks on paper. Then I wondered if the text of a novel can be thought of as a set of instructions for a reader’s brain to make a mind-movie. In which case it’s the reading that matters.

Except the author can’t assume the work will be read.

So why do I want to create such a thing? Especially as an obscure indie author.

Here is one answer, from author Chuck Litka, in a a comment on Mark Paxon’s June 20th WSW post “Is It Vanity?”:

“Putting aside why we write in the first place, for me publishing can be summed up in one word; completion. When I make a painting, it is complete in and of itself. It doesn’t have to be displayed, published, or sold to be a painting. A manuscript, however, remains a manuscript until it is published and made available to readers as a story or a book. If it was written to be read by strangers, it is an unfinished and unrealized project until it is published. I like finishing projects.”

Certainly, no one needs to write in order to fill a shortage of books or stories. There isn’t one; quite the contrary. But is there an eternal need for new stories? Or old ones freshly rendered. It could be argued either way, but for sure we have an eternal need to create story.

I write to satisfy a need to create my own version of a story. Whether anyone reads it is a secondary matter, although after I’ve expended the time and effort to bring the thing into existence and polish it, making it available for others to read is the logical completion of the process. Knowing that someone has read it is a validation of my efforts.

I’ve realized that as I write I am conscious of a ghostly shape in the corner, a potential reader, a receptive mind hovering on the edge of my consciousness. I don’t envision this entity in any kind of detail, but it’s always there.

Another musician I heard recently talking about what it’s like to return to live performances after the pandemic said the audience closes the feedback loop. Perhaps readers are to writers what an audience is to performers.

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

The question is: would I write even if I knew no one would ever read the written work? If that ghostly reader vanished?

Answer: I would write, but I might not publish. My writing would then be private. Lacking an incentive to make it readable, its quality would probably decline. It would become obscure and idiosyncratic.

Photo by Nadi Lindsay on Pexels.com

But we don’t know that no one will ever read our published writing, any more than we know that someone will. There is always hope, however threadbare it may be. For posthumous success, perhaps? And when an idea surges forth and insists on being rendered into writing, the ghostly reader shows up as well.

All right, fellow writers, what about you? Why do you write and publish? Do you envision a reader for your writing? Would you continue to write and publish even if your works were unread?

This is the second of two posts. The first one is: “Why Do I Read?”

Grieving A Writing Life

Author K.M. Allan shares some heartfelt thoughts about the writing life in this post. Fellow writers, have any of you experienced a similar trajectory? I know I have!

K.M. Allan

When you start out in the writing community, you’re learning, and part of that process is seeing those before you rise.

Just as you’re entering the query trenches, there are others being lifted out of them with agent representation and publishing deals, and you wait patiently for the day that person will be you.

Before you know it, years have gone by. You’ve been part of the writing community for a long time, helping those who are now the newbie you once were.

Experienced in the query trenches, you’ve seen it all, gotten every rejection type there is: the no answer, the form letter, the good but not good enough. You might have even hit that 100 rejections goal you’d heard other writers talk about but never thought you’d reach because your MS was too good. At least you thought so.

You might have rewritten it since those lofty…

View original post 1,065 more words

CMOS, root saw, and Kindle e-reader

The Right Tools for the Job

I’m not much of a consumer, but in the past couple of months, I’ve acquired three items I consider to be tools for specific purposes: a copy of The Chicago Manual of Style (17th edition), a Silky Gomtaro 240 mm root saw, and a Kindle e-reader.

Chicago Manual of Style
Self-publisher’s tool.

As someone who edits her own writing, I finally decided I need a definitive authority on matters of grammar, punctuation, and usage. Working through beta readers’ comments on my WIP, or trawling through the manuscript before moving on to the publishing stage, I kept encountering questions I couldn’t answer. Should “the” in the name of a pub or bar that begins with that word (as in “The Blue Poppy Pub”) be capitalized when it occurs in the middle of a sentence? What is the correct order of punctuation marks when a word is quoted in dialogue just before a question mark? Example: “What do you mean by ‘a problem’?” I asked.

Trying to find answers on the internet yielded a lot of irrelevant stuff (depending on how I worded the search) as well as contradictory answers. It wasn’t usually obvious how authoritative any specific answer was, either. So I shelled out the nearly $100 (in Canadian dollars, and including shipping) for a copy of CMOS.

And those two example questions? According to CMOS 8.45 “An initial the as part of a name is lowercased in running text, except in the rare case of an initial The in the name of a city.” So it’s “I’ll see you at the Blue Poppy.” And the matter of punctuation after a quoted word within a spoken sentence? It’s explained thus in CMOS 13.30: “Exclamation points, like question marks, are placed just within the set of quotation marks ending the element to which such terminal punctuation belongs.” To be honest, that sentence is pretty murky, but the examples had ‘?” rather than ?'”

Silky Gomtaro Root Saw
Cutting tool. Suckers, look out!
Root saw label

I’ve complained before about shrubs that spread by underground suckers. Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium) is one of the worst. The little saw intended for cutting sheetrock (gyprock) I’ve been using to cut suckers isn’t up to the job. So I tracked down a saw made for cutting roots. Strangely, Amazon was unable to supply it, but I was able to order one from a farm and garden supplies store in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. I still use tools I bought there when I lived in that city more than 30 years ago. I suspect they happened to have one hanging around in old stock, whereas the ‘Zon was affected by “supply chain issues.” I intend to tackle the Oregon grape later this spring, using the new saw judiciously. (It wasn’t cheap, also almost $100 with shipping).

Kindle e-reader
Reading tool.

I’ve resisted for years buying one of these. Until now, I’ve read Kindle ebooks on my tablet, with the Kindle Reader app. But the tablet is fairly heavy and needs frequent recharging. It’s fine for scanning blog posts first thing in the morning, but for reading books, I much prefer my ancient Sony e-reader. It’s light and runs forever on a single charge. But of course it can’t be used for Kindle books. When I realized I was avoiding Kindle books written by fellow indies because my reading instrument was awkward, I caved in and bought a Kindle reader. An hour after it arrived I had activated wi-fi, linked it to my Amazon account, and was reading a book I bought months ago. (But I’m still a bit disturbed by the extent to which Amazon intrudes into my online life. Plus it doesn’t feel as though I own Kindle books the way I own the epubs I buy from the Smashwords store and read on the old Sony reader.)

The right tools for the job do make a difference.

ouroboros dragon black and white

Reading Jung on Alchemy

At some point while I was writing The Friendship of Mortals, the first book of the Herbert West Series, I realized that alchemy had intruded into the story. It must have originated with the book’s narrator, librarian Charles Milburn. His job requires him to catalogue books about alchemy, and eventually he decides his friend Herbert’s experiences are analogous to a transformation from a base metal into gold.

So I (the writer) had to learn more about alchemy. I was slightly familiar with it from library research for a term paper in my undergrad years, specifically writings of the Romanian historian and philosopher Mircea Eliade. Alchemy had lodged in my mind as “one of those interesting things.” When I decided to read up on alchemy while writing TFoM, I discovered that Carl Gustav Jung had read and written a great deal about it.

I don’t remember buying Alchemical Studies, which is Volume 13 of The Collected Works of C.G. Jung, but there it was among my books. I decided to read it, even though I had finished writing the Herbert West books long before, and didn’t intend to change them. It took me a couple of months to work my way through it. I read for about 30 minutes to an hour a day. Skimming was definitely out; if I was going to do that, I might as well not have bothered. Every page bristles with footnotes. Some text is in Greek or Latin (always with English translations, fortunately).

So what did I learn, apart from the fact that I’m pretty much ignorant when it comes to psychology? Jung thought the alchemists (those who wrote down their ideas, anyway) experienced the same psychological events as people of his own time, but described them using symbols from religion and mythology. The alchemical process, he said, paralleled what he called the process of individuation, or the fulfillment of one’s potential. This accounts for the multiplicity of alchemical ideas and the apparent contradictions among them. Alchemy wasn’t a secret known to a select company of initiates, but a psychological process.

Jung sums it up thus at the end of the final essay in this volume:

double quotation mark open

Alchemy lost its vital substance when some of the alchemists abandoned the laboratorium for the oratorium, there to befuddle themselves with an ever more nebulous mysticism, while others converted the oratorium into a laboratorium and discovered chemistry. We feel sorry for the former and admire the latter, but no one asks about the fate of the psyche, which thereafter vanished from sight for several hundred years.

Well, I don’t know about that. My own idea (and I’m certainly nowhere near as learned as Jung) is that alchemy was rooted in metalworking, which must have been viewed in prehistory as a near-magical ability overseen by divine forces. The practical process was adopted by thinkers as a metaphor and used to express their ideas about the inner workings of the human mind and spirit. In medieval times, some alchemists worked with metals and other substances, heating and dissolving, combining and distilling. I’m sure many were affected in various physical ways. Mercury, lead, and acids can be toxic. Explosions and fires probably happened regularly in the “laboratorium.” Other alchemists confined themselves to the “oratorium,” and spent their time thinking and writing. But when alchemy fizzled out in the 17th century, psychological ideas certainly didn’t vanish. They found expression in literature, art, and poetry. What about Shakespeare and William Blake? Jung himself says that Goethe’s tragedy Faust (early 1800s) is full of alchemical ideas.

My takeaways from each of the five essays:

  • Commentary on “The Secret of the Golden Flower.” I have to admit, I found this somewhat incomprehensible because of my deficient knowledge of psychology and its terms. The only points I grasped were that a superficial adoption of yoga practices by Europeans was not the correct approach to the wisdom of the east. I kept reminding myself that this essay was written in the 1930s, and wondering exactly what “yoga practices” Jung was referring to.
  • The Visions of Zosimos. Describing the writings of a 3rd-4th century Graeco-Egyptian alchemist and Gnostic mystic, this essay impressed upon me the fact that alchemy in some form or other was written about for nearly two thousand years. Many of the basic concepts and symbols are described here in vivid and dramatic detail. Jung’s interpretations point out similarities among many mythologies and religions, concluding that “although chemistry has nothing to learn from the vision of Zosimos, it is a mine of discovery for modern psychology.”
  • Paracelsus as a Spiritual Phenomenon. Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, known as Paracelsus, was a 16th century Swiss physician, alchemist, and philosopher. Reading this essay, I detected a measure of respect and admiration by Jung for a fellow countryman and also one for whom “the art of healing” was of great importance. In performing this role, Paracelsus had to reconcile his Christian faith with natural religion, and in this conflict, Jung says, he began groping toward psychology and psychoanalysis.
  • The Spirit Mercurius. Of the five essays, this one impressed me the most. Jung shows the similarities among Mercury/Hermes, Wotan, the devil, Lucifer, and a Christ-analogue, a figure he calls “this many-hued and wily god.” I think that figure was lurking in the background when I wrote the Herbert West books, which is why I found this the most readable of the essays.
  • The Philosophical Tree. The final essay begins with descriptions of tree-like forms in paintings and other artworks created by some of Jung’s patients. I found them fascinating, but admit that I rather lost my way in the subsequent discussions of tree-symbols, snakes, Gnosticism, and the lapis. Jung takes the reader through a bewildering array of writings, symbols, and myths, to conclude with the human need to confront the unconscious and integrate it into the personality.

I suspect some of this book’s substance failed to register in my understanding, but in any case, reading it certainly exposed me to ideas and images I would not have encountered otherwise. The bizarre visions or dreams of Zosimos of Panopolis, for example, in which the dreamer is pierced with a sword and dismembered “in accordance with the rule of harmony.” Or the multiple manifestations and meanings of the Spirit Mercurius. Or Gnosticism (Just say “know”). And a whole list of new-to-me words: antinomian, ithyphallic, hylic, quaternity, ogdoad, chthonic, pleroma, mythologem, nominalism… to name a few.

Even though I don’t intend to learn much more about psychology, I identified a few terms I wished I had understood before I started reading. The idea of “projection,” for example, or “individuation,” or “participation mystique.” Wikipedia rabbit holes beckon!

Given all the above, how worthwhile was my reading of Jung’s essays on alchemy? At the very least, it did not lead me to conclude that I was irresponsible or frivolous in the way I incorporated alchemical ideas and symbols into my fiction. (Of course, it’s pretty hard to tell, given the self-contradicting and incredibly varied ways to describe the process and the ideas behind it, accumulated over a couple of millennia.) I approached alchemy as a process of transformation, whether material, spiritual, or psychological, and I don’t think I went wrong with that.

Squared circle, alchemical symbol
Image source unknown

Featured image from Pixabay