Do-it-yourself writing course

I spent some time over the last couple of months looking for a writing course I could participate in. My challenges at the moment are two-fold – the hours I work are erratic, and I have relocated to a small town due to work. I am unable to commit to being anywhere at a scheduled time and place, and I don’t have the time to get to cities large enough to offer summer classes.

I looked into online options from the university where I took my two classes last year, but I didn’t want to spend hundreds of dollars on a course when there were weeks I wouldn’t be able to participate because my hours at work were overwhelming.

But! I have found a solution. I stumbled on a book called The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing by Alice LaPlante and it is wonderful. It’s a hefty tome, 600-odd pages long with a neon yellow cover. It’s a writing course in book form, and looks as though it could be the textbook for a university-level creative writing class. The chapters include “How Reliable is This Narrator: How point of view affects our understanding of a story”, “You Talking to Me?: Crafting effective dialogue”, “The Plot Thickens: Figuring out what happens next”, and so on.

Each chapter is divided into three parts. The first part is the textbook section, where Ms LaPlante takes the reader through the subject at hand. The second part includes exercises, with samples of responses from Ms LaPlante’s previous students. And the third section includes selected readings to illustrate the points made in the chapter, with questions afterward to help direct the reader’s understanding of how the craft was used in practice.

To this, I have also added Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces. My particular difficulties are with story structure in general, so I’m hoping this text will be helpful. And related to this, I’m digging into the iTunesU audio courses on mythology, to help round things out.

Also on my reading list are Stephen King’s On Writing. Because everybody says so, basically. And eventually I want to get a copy of Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose. It was too much to handle, trying to read all the books at once, so that one is for later in the summer, but I was really pleased when The Making of a Story turned out to have sections of guided readings. I am able to at least dip a toe in to that skill set.

This self-directed study is working well for me so far. If I have a free hour I can sit in a coffee shop and do the exercises. I can read the text before bed or over meals. And if work goes nuts and I end up with a 60-hour week, I can put it all down for a bit with no consequences.

The only thing lacking is the workshop aspect of a class, the ability to discuss thoughts and learn from others. But that can come later, when my work schedule allows me to go back to my night classes. In the meantime, it’s good practice.

Do you have a favourite writing handbook? I’m always looking to add to the list!

Book Review: Shakespeare’s Tremors and Orwell’s Cough, by John. J. Ross, M.D.

Apparently, Shakespeare died of mercury poisoning and Emily Brontë had Asperger’s.

The full title of the book is Shakespeare’s Tremors and Orwell’s Cough: The Medical Lives of Famous Writers. The author, John J. Ross, is a medical doctor who has gone back to examine the symptoms of several famous writers from history and give them up-to-date diagnoses of their various illnesses. There are ten chapters, each focusing on a different writer (or family of writers, in the case of the Brontës), with each chapter functioning as part biography, part medical history.

I raided the clearance rack at the bookstore not far from the theatre where I’m working this summer and scored six books for less than $40. This was the first one I read from the pile – and really looked forward to digging into it – because the subject matter just sounded interesting on so many levels. And on that front, for the most part, it didn’t disappoint. I enjoyed the pure nosiness of digging into the various biographies and the sometimes sordid details of the lives these writers led. The medical history of various diseases, their causes and their symptoms is gruesome but fascinating. And the historic medical treatment for those diseases could be a horror story on its own.

That said, the book was not well-written – the author is clearly a doctor, not a writer. For the bulk of the book, where he was simply explaining the details of a writer’s life or disease, Dr. Ross’ style was casual and certainly readable. But in three or four chapters, Dr. Ross decided he was going to write a little scene, as though we were there with Shakespeare while he visited his physician, and he did not have the writing skill to pull that off. The scene was still all about cramming in as much information as possible (which kind of felt like bragging, actually, in a ‘look at all the research I did’ kind of way), and the result was clumsy and awkward.

Dr. Ross was liberal with his diagnoses of Asperger’s and bipolar disorder – it felt like someone in every single chapter had one or the other. Or possibly both. He also acted as apologist for the appalling behaviour of several writers. Anything was excusable because they had literary genius. And in the chapter on Nathaniel Hawthorne he floundered for too long in the biography section before he got anywhere near the medical issues.

I found the chapter on Shakespeare the weakest of them all. (And, having lived in the theatre world for fifteen years now, I was most interested in that chapter.) There is a dearth of actual information, so Dr. Ross falls into the trap of assuming that since Shakespeare wrote about something, he must have experienced it. Dr. Ross counted the number of times sexually transmitted diseases were mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays, and used an increase in that number to conclude that Shakespeare himself must have contracted one, and a later decrease in number as evidence that Shakespeare was then cured of it. Using the text of the plays as illustration for a point based in fact is one thing, using it as evidence of that point is something else entirely.

[I read a terrible biography of William Shakespeare called Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt that was an egregious offender on that front (I ended up throwing the book across the room halfway through). It was full of ‘Shakespeare wrote such-and-such, therefore he must have…’. And indeed, when I flipped through the bibliography at the end of Shakespeare’s Tremors and Orwell’s Cough, Dr. Ross cited Greenblatt’s book as a source. So clearly bad habits are catching. If you’re looking for a good biography of Shakespeare – or if you’re interested in the history of theatre or Elizabethan England in general – I highly recommend 1599 by James Shapiro. That man has done his research, and he is a magnificent writer to boot.]

But I digress.

Shakespeare’s Tremors and Orwell’s Cough is an interesting book only moderately well executed. That said, I probably would recommend it if this kind of history and trivia was your particular cup of tea.

Fiction – If We’d Heard…

We didn’t hear Jules coming up behind us. You can see his shoes… I can’t believe the photograph captured that. The moment everything changed. My hands tremble, looking at it, even now.

If we’d heard…

No.

I haven’t seen Stefan since that day. That’s him on the left. You can’t see the look in his eyes… It breaks my heart. There should be a record of the way his face glowed when he looked at Lukas. That’s Lukas on the right, beautiful Lukas, grinning right at the camera… He looks happy.

#

We were up at the cabin that September. 1938. The weather was glorious – bright sun, and the air cool enough to keep us comfortable. We were hiking the hills, doing a little climbing. Just the three of us up there for the two weeks before Jules joined us.

I noticed right away that something was wrong. Stefan and Lukas wouldn’t touch each other, would hardly look at each other. Both of them rigid as starched collars. I couldn’t understand. If they’d separated, surely they wouldn’t have come on holiday together.

We stopped for lunch at the top of the ridge that first afternoon, and they sat one on either side of me while we ate in awkward silence.

“All right, what the heck is going on?”

Stefan opened his mouth to speak, but Lukas shook his head. Short, sharp. Stefan glared, hurt and angry, but subsided.

I turned to Lukas. “Tell me.”

His soul twisted in the depths of those beautiful blue eyes as he met my gaze and lied. “There’s nothing to tell.”

“She’s been in France,” Stefan said.

“So?”

“So she doesn’t understand.”

“So tell me. Please.”

“The SS,” Stefan said. “There have been raids, arrests, disappearances. It isn’t safe to be… what we are.”

Lukas turned away. “We aren’t anything.”

I could see Stefan’s face. I saw his heart break, right in front of me.

“You’re safe with me.” It was all I could think of to say.

#

The afternoon was just as silent and painful as the morning, but back at the cabin after supper, Lukas let Stefan take him by the hand, pull him out under the stars.

It was like old times after that. Until Jules came.

#

We were horsing around when we took that picture, playing with the self timer on the camera. It was our last day at the cabin and spirits were high. Jules had shut himself inside with his endless paperwork. We didn’t expect to see him until supper.

We must have disturbed him.

It started as a shove, playful, because Lukas was so poised in front of the camera. So perfect. So beautiful. Stefan gazed at him and smiled the smile that lit up his face. The shove turned into a caress, fingers teasing in the fine hairs on the back of Lukas’ neck.

Jules could see what the camera couldn’t. Jules could see the look in Stefan’s eyes. There was no lie that would convince him.

End

Author’s Note:

I wrote this for the Geist Postcard Story Competition, which involves writing a 500-word story that is tied to a single image. I found this picture on the Wikimedia Commons, saw the German names and the caption date of 1938, and… well. (I make no inferences about the lives or sexualities of the people in the picture – the story is entirely fictional.) I found out two days ago that I didn’t win the competition, but I’m still very pleased with how the story turned out, so I decided to share it here.

Is this writers’ block?

Today I’m struggling.

I’m struggling to find inspiration. I’m struggling with self-doubt.

I’m struggling with a brain that lies to me. When I have the meat of a scene and leap right in to see where it takes me, my brain tells me I can’t build the story around it, tells me I don’t know how and I never will. When I have an outline I’m happy with and all that’s left is the writing, my brain tells me I can’t craft scenes, I can’t harness emotion.

I’m struggling with rejection and the belief that I’m no good at this.

I’m struggling with a story that I’m growing to hate. And I’m struggling with the idea of giving it up, because real writers finish what they start.

It’s not always like this. But today I’m struggling.

The Corner in Torrin

The Corner in Torrin

The road to Elgol, the small village where my family lived going as far back as there are records to show it, has only one lane, winding and twisting with lochs on one side and steep hills on the other. … Continue reading

Book Review: Hild, by Nicola Griffith

Over the weekend, I finished the book I was reading, Hild, by Nicola Griffith.

For a quick run-down of the story, I will quote you the Amazon book description:

In seventh-century Britain, small kingdoms are merging, frequently and violently. A new religion is coming ashore; the old gods are struggling, their priests worrying. Hild is the king’s youngest niece, and she has a glimmering mind and a natural, noble authority. She will become a fascinating woman and one of the pivotal figures of the Middle Ages: Saint Hilda of Whitby.

But now she has only the powerful curiosity of a bright child, a will of adamant, and a way of seeing the world—of studying nature, of matching cause with effect, of observing her surroundings closely and predicting what will happen next—that can seem uncanny, even supernatural, to those around her.

Her uncle, Edwin of Northumbria, plots to become overking of the Angles, ruthlessly using every tool at his disposal: blood, bribery, belief. Hild establishes a place for herself at his side as the king’s seer. And she is indispensable—unless she should ever lead the king astray. The stakes are life and death: for Hild, for her family, for her loved ones, and for the increasing numbers who seek the protection of the strange girl who can read the world and see the future.

I’m still not entirely sure what to write about this book. It’s unlike anything I’ve read recently.

It’s a fictional historical biography. I bought it at a science fiction and fantasy book shop and that seemed perfectly natural, until halfway through when I realised there are no fantasy elements in the book. The main character, Hild, is viewed as a seer, a prophetess, by those around her, but as we grow with her, we see that her predictions come from her unparalleled gift for observing the world around her, for seeing patterns and following them to their conclusions. She has no sixth sense as such.

Being a biography (sort of), the book doesn’t have the kind of driving plot that is expected in most novels. We follow Hild as she grows into womanhood in a world of early medieval kings and warlords. I did enjoy the experience of reading Hild very much. Nicola Griffith has wonderful use of language and she creates a richly detailed world. I loved learning about 7th century England just as much as I loved learning about Hild.

There was a core group of characters that I came to know and understand as part of Hild’s world, but I did feel overwhelmed by the vast array of secondary characters, all with unfamiliar (and often similar-sounding) names, who wove in and out of the story. Enemies and allies, messengers and priests, soldiers and servants. There were too many of them for me to remember who was who from one chapter to the next. (Particularly since, due to long hours at work, I was reading this book in slivers of five pages at a time.)

I also had difficulty keeping track of the many place-names that were mentioned. Armies marched across the map, the royal court moved from house to house, shifting alliances changed the borders of the kingdoms… I’m familiar with the geography of present-day England, but no matter how many times I googled the map of medieval kingdoms, I couldn’t keep them all straight in my head.

That said, I also rapidly decided I didn’t care. It didn’t matter much to my enjoyment of the book whether I could hold on to the shifting politics. Hild did that for me, and I trusted her. I gave up all need to solve any mysteries ahead of her, and just read for the simple joy of the language and the world-building and the ensemble of core characters.

I don’t know that I would recommend this book to everyone, but I would say that it is an interesting book, well-executed. The end notes implied Nicola Griffith is working on a follow-up book chronicling Hild’s later life, and I look forward to reading that when it comes out.

Daily Science Fiction

I want to share a short story that I loved.

A friend of mine introduced me to Daily Science Fiction not long ago. It’s a mailing list (they also have a website) that will deliver a new science fiction story to your inbox every day. I fell in love with the concept, even though I quickly fell way behind in reading the stories. I do enjoy having them in my inbox, and will often dip in to read one or two on my lunch break – on days when I get a lunch break. (Work is still a little nuts.)

The other day I read a story that completely charmed me. I loved the characters and the tone and the language. There was a hint of mystery and a feeling of quiet melancholy. I have a huge love for post-apocalyptic stories, but this one was unlike any other I’ve read so far. It’s my favourite of the stories I’ve received in my inbox, so I thought I’d share it.

The Astrologer’s Telling is by Therese Arkenberg (who blogs at ThereseArkenberg.blogspot.com).

Eurovision Melancholy

Yesterday was the Eurovision Song Contest and I’m still sad that I couldn’t watch it this year.

For those of you in North America who may not have heard of it (I hadn’t before I moved to Europe), the Eurovision Song Contest is kind of like a bigger, campier version of American Idol, where every contestant comes from a different country and the whole thing happens in one night. Also, campier. Did I say campier? So. Much. Camp.

I was first introduced to Eurovision while I was on tour with the circus. My colleagues were initially appalled that I’d never heard of it, and then felt the need to induct me into the cult. The circus was the perfect environment in which to experience Eurovision for the first time. The group was largely made up of straight women and gay men, and we were from so many different countries that it could get nicely competitive. We all gathered in someone’s hotel room (I can’t remember whose) with plenty of snacks and lots of wine, and it’s possible we laid bets on whose country would win. Since Canada doesn’t compete (the definition of ‘Europe’ in Eurovision is flexible and includes in this case both Russia and Israel, but it hasn’t bent far enough to yet include North America), I rooted for the UK, my second home, and I think I ‘won’ that night, as the UK placed second overall, higher than anyone else’s home country.

That was 2001. I stayed with the circus until mid-2003, and then remained in Europe until mid-2005. Eurovision was a party every year. But in 2005 I moved home to Canada, and Eurovision doesn’t even air here, so it mostly fell off my radar after that.

Until last year. Last year I was on tour with a show in the UK for the first six months of the year. In May, I happened to be renting a room from a lovely married gay couple in Liverpool. I got home from work one evening after the show, and was greeted by Adrian as I headed upstairs.

“We were out earlier, so we taped Eurovision and we’re just about to watch. Do you want to join us?”

“Oh my god, I think I do.”

There were snacks. There was wine. There was slightly bitchy commentary. It was awesome.

So I’m missing it this year. I’m told a bearded transvestite from Austria called Conchita Wurst won it this year. I’m looking for a way to stream the contest from Canada, but failing that, I may just need to look up Conchita’s performance on YouTube.

In closing, I’m going to leave you with my favourite performance from last year’s Eurovision, which was Greece’s entry:

And, just for good measure, the most WTF moment from 2013. This is Serbia’s entry:

WTF ARE THEY WEARING?! I can’t even understand. And I didn’t even show you the entry with the giant in it. Or the one where the woman’s dress telescoped up while she sang.