Kate’s rules for writing

RulesA few years ago, the Guardian celebrated Elmore Leonard’s famous rules for writing fiction by soliciting further rules by other well-knowns – people like Athill, Enright, Ford, Gaiman, Kennedy, on and on. From time to time my author, L, will lead a writing workshop, and often she’ll pack along a printout of the many rules that appeared at the Guardian site. They make for light relief or discussion starters when she wants a change of pace. Or when she wants a laugh. The advice from Margaret Atwood, for instance, is funny as well as wise.

From now on, L will also pack along the link to Lynn Coady’s 10 rules for writing fiction. Coady’s version is a great send-up of such lists. It’s hilarious. Then again, it’s more than a send-up. For instance, here’s her final tip: Remember: Writing is freedom.

But like so many things to do with writing, I wonder, does anyone ever ask the characters if they have their own rules for writers? I mean, for us the stakes are pretty high. And so, grounded in my own experience as a character being written, I offer the following:

1. Jeez, remember whose story you’re working on. Yesterday I had to bring it to the attention of my author that I was beginning to act more like Sylvie than like myself. Sylvie’s another one of L’s creations, and she lives in an entirely different novel-in-progress. We do not share the same tastes in music, art, food, men, anything. I don’t sound like her at all, though I admit we both have moments when we sound a little like L. Or we sound like what goes on in L’s mind when she has the sort of thought her upbringing prevents her from saying out loud. So, writers, go ahead and work on multiple projects, but remember who you’re dealing with.

2. Don’t put stuff from your own life in your novel. Both L and I have worked in libraries, and in an early draft she made me stagger through the discovery of what she called ‘found poetry’ buried in the pages of the Dewey Decimal Classification Manual. The ‘found poem’ dealt with how a conscientious librarian might classify books to do with Penology and various related subjects, for example, Forms of punishment, early, which included Boiling in oil, etc. and Pressing to death. The heading Minor punishments included subheadings for  Ducking stool and Scold’s bridle and … but enough of that. Need I say this passage was heavy with metaphor? L was just tickled with it, while I would sooner, I don’t know, watch Honey Booboo than read something like that. Fortunately, L realized you might feel the same way, and she excised the whole bit. I’m now 500 words less weighty.

3. Be sure to put stuff from your own life in your novel. L admits she has occasionally felt a longing for a father she hardly knew. That longing found its way into my own story, and I’m happy it did. L hasn’t laced her own story through mine to any great extent, but those photographs my dad left behind – and my quest to take my own shots in all those same places – L did the same thing with photographs her own dad left behind.

4. Contradiction: Embrace it. It will sink a novel; it will save a novel.

5. Regarding sex: Let your characters have some. Arousal, at the very least. We deserve it, and we so appreciate it. You needn’t go into a whole lot of detail if you’d rather not. Trust your readers: Once you get them started, they’ll know what to do. As will your characters. Trust me.

I’ll leave you with only those five for now, because it’s my experience that novelists need time to absorb, process, integrate. At any rate, my novelist does.

Always Under Revision is a series of posts in the voice of Kate Mueller, the protagonist of a novel-in-progress by Leona Theis. Kate is also narrator of the first and last stories in one of Leona’s earlier books, Sightlines.

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The Vanderbilt longlist and the long and the short of word limits

Competition word limits — I can tell you firsthand they have an effect on a fictional character. As to whether that effect is good or bad, let’s just say there’s room for argument.

DSC_0029_2A few months ago I wrote here about how happy I was that a story featuring myself — an excerpt of the novel L is writing about me – appeared on the longlist for the CBC Writing Award. I also went on about the trauma of having my story boiled down and down and down in order that L could meet the draconian CBC word limit of 15oo.

To add insult to injury, my fictional cousin Sylvie, who features in a different novel L is working on, now has the pleasure of appearing on the longlist of a competition where the word limit was a very generous 10,000 words. With a word limit like that, a character has an enviable amount of room — space for layers of complexity and telling detail and, even more important, telling contradiction. Oh, you’ve no idea! She even has time for sex on a hot afternoon on mattress on a stranger’s cool basement floor. Go ahead, ask me if I would have liked to have time for that, or something like it, in my own story.

The piece that’s on the longlist for the Vanderbilt-Exile Short Fiction Award is called “How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person through Yoga,” and it’s both a chapter of a novel-in-progress and a complete story in its own right. All 6,291 words of it.

When that slim, 1500-word slice of my life appeared a few months ago on the CBC list, my author L told me that the extreme edit she’d put me through had been a salutary exercise in getting at the essentials, an exercise in making sure every single word was both necessary and carefully chosen.

And then she turns around and sends off a blousy six thousand–plus piece of work about Sylvie, and I catch her talking about things like ‘freedom to explore’ and ‘expanded possibilities for resonance.’ Nuance, that sort of thing.

Is it the habit of writers to think up, ex post facto, justifications for anything that seems to have worked in their favour? Or is it just the habit of my writer to do that?

Writers often talk about the differences between the short story and the novel as art forms. Let me tell you, there are short stories, and then there are short-shorts, and they are two different art forms as well. I, for one, would rather live in a ‘short’ than in a ‘short-short.’ I’m just saying, L, in case you’re paying attention.

Always Under Revision is a series of posts in the voice of Kate Mueller, the protagonist of a novel-in-progress by Leona Theis. Kate is also narrator of the first and last stories in Leona’s first published book, Sightlines.

For interested writers, Pearl Luke maintains an up-to-date list of writing competitions. It’s a terrific resource. Her site, Be a Better Writer, is worth an extended visit.

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Leona’s next big thing

The Next Big Thing is a set of interview questions making its way across the literary netscape in chain-letter fashion. In an earlier post, I mentioned that my author would answer the nine questions here at Always Under Revision. Here she is, then, talking about the novel-in-progress that features me, Kate Mueller, as protagonist.

What is the working title of your book?

The Originals

Where did the idea come from for the book?

Marine Building 1945I have a handful of photographs my father took in Vancouver during the Second World War. When I was living in Vancouver in 1998, I tracked down the sites of his photos and took present-day shots. (You can see one of these pairs of photographs here.) I began to imagine a fictional character doing this. What was she looking for? What if she didn’t like what she found?

What genre does your book fall under?

Literary fiction. Character-driven, with attention to language and resonance, and with no lack of drama, humour, and surprise. (One can hope.)

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Deadwood is one of my favourite shows, but that’s not the only reason I’d choose Molly Parker to play Kate. She’s a smart actor and interesting to watch.

Kate’s sister Pen is difficult to cast. There’s one really tough scene she’ll have to pull off. (At least, it was tough for me to pull it off. So far I’ve rewritten it twenty-three times.) Michele Williams? Not quite right.

Michael Cera could play Kate’s dad when he was young, in the 1940s. Skinny, vulnerable, trying to find his way.

I have trouble casting Kate’s eight-year-old nephew Billy, as I’m not familiar with very young actors. Is there a boy version of Michael Cera? Maybe MC could play both roles.

I can see Ethan Hawke as Nickers, Kate’s left-behind, just-barely lover. I used to think I didn’t like this actor, but I admit I’ve seen Before Sunrise at least three times. It’s a movie about conversation, and so much else.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Rather than confront her fear of the blank canvas, an artist attempts to set to rights both her career and her wobbly sense of self by starting a ‘collaboration’ with her long-gone dad. It’s a lot to ask of a father she hardly knew.

(If you really need this to be a single sentence, please replace the period with a semi-colon.)

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

It’s too early to say. My book may take the same path as so much literary fiction in Canada – neither represented by an agency nor self-published, but rather published by an independent literary press.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Far too long. The next project is coming along much more quickly.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

In my dreams, this book would sound like Andrea Barret when she was writing the story “Out Here,” tossed in with Jessica Grant when she was writing Come, Thou Tortoise, and stirred with a spoonful of Alice Munro. In my dreams.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Dad in shadowsIndirectly, my father inspired the book. When he died I was at an age when I thought parents were at best an inconvenience, an embarrassment, and at worst the source of all my troubles. I didn’t know him well, and you can read what I’ve written about those sentiments here. When he surfaces in my mind, he is mostly in shadow. For me, the fact that I hardly knew my dad has led to occasional bouts of vague regretful longing. In the novel, for protagonist Kate, the yearning for a long-gone dad becomes an obsession, and her project with the photographs becomes a high, unstable stack of expectations.

Vancouver inspired me too. I was fascinated by the anecdotal histories I uncovered about the city in wartime, the small dramas within the larger drama. Some of these found their way into the manuscript.

What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

This is a story about siblings, and about how the father one sibling remembers can be different in important ways from the father the other remembers. Answers are long-buried, and truth, at any rate, is notorious for shifting shape.

Also, there’s a monkey living inside Kate’s head.

That’s all I’ll say about my project. Here are links to the writers I’m tagging. They don’t have their interviews up yet, but check back in a week or two.

Please visit thess writers in coming weeks for their answers to the same questions:

Jane Munro, author of several books of poetry, most recently being Active Pass (Pedlar Press). A new collection is forthcoming  with Brick books.

dee Hobsbawm-Smith, author of Foodshed, and forthcoming collections of both poetry (Hagios Press) and short stories (Thistledown)

Anne Lazurko, author of the forthcoming Dollybird (Coteau)

My thanks to Sean Johnston for tagging me.

Always Under Revision is a series of posts in the voice of Kate Mueller, the protagonist of a novel-in-progress by Leona Theis. Kate is also narrator of the first and last stories in Leona’s first published book, Sightlines.

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I’m free!

CoverforpromoHere is news to lighten a winter day: For a limited time, my author L is making the Kindle version of her first book, Sightlines, available absolutely free. You can download it anytime Friday, March 8, through Sunday, March 10. Once you have it, it’s yours. It won’t smash like a pumpkin once the promotion ends.

I hesitate to interrupt this blog – which typically tries to say something worthwhile about writing and/or the creative process in every post – in order to present this promotional message, but, as I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, I am the character who narrates the first and last stories in Sightlines. This was my first appearance in print.

Beginning Friday morning (just after midnight), you can download the free Kindle version of Sightlines from Amazon.com or Amazon.ca. The promotion runs till midnight Sunday (Pacific Time).

If you don’t own a Kindle reader, free Kindle software is available for smartphones, iPods, iPads, personal computers and lord knows what other devices. If you have friends who like free books, please let them know, or share this post.

Of course, the hope with any free promotion is that people will not only download the book, they’ll read it as well. And if one or two or three of the readers feel so moved, they’ll put up a review at Amazon. That last part, of course, is entirely up to readers. It’s out of my hands, and out of L’s as well.

Always Under Revision is a series of posts in the voice of Kate Mueller, the protagonist of a novel-in-progress by Leona Theis.

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