Hiatus…

Hello, my favourite people on the Internet!
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I’m taking a short break from blogging to focus on my creative writing course and on rewriting my novel. Last fall, the addition of a course to my already packed schedule got me burnt out and I’d like to avoid it this time. Seeing how I’m two weeks late to post this, I think it was the right decision to make.

Have a great summer and see you again in July!

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Declutter your text: Don’t dump details

There is such a thing as too much information.

I know how tempting it is for beginning writers to tell the complete history of their world in chapter one, or to describe characters so thoroughly that no place is left for the imagination, backstory included. “Been there, done that,” like they say.

When you have a very detailed image of a character or place, or when you’ve spent hours over hours working on world building, it’s normal to want to share all of it. But what keeps people reading is the plot, and an excess of information can get in the way, in much the same manner that an excess of pretty words can create a heavy and somewhat dull sentence (see Use modifiers in moderation). Anyway, there is only so much information that the reader can remember at once.

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Details are to be sparkled, like spices. I like to compare words with images. Look at the picture on the left. You see the shape of a bird’s body, hints of feathers, a closed eye and an open beak, from which a heart is coming. You don’t have to think to see that 1) it’s a bird and 2) it’s singing a love song. Simple, yet effective. Stripping your text to its bare essentials is a great way to understand what the bare essentials are. Once you understand that, it’s easier to manage huge amounts of details, should you decide that simplicity doesn’t suit your style.

I like to pretend that I am writing a mystery, and what needs to be discovered is what characters look like, especially inside. If my lead female is an undiagnosed autistic, for example, I don’t just go and say it. There are loads of undiagnosed high-functioning autistic people out there, and they don’t go wearing a label on their forehead. But they go interpreting people’s words too literally, and they go anxious that they will miss social cues and embarrass themselves, etc. Instead, I show my lead female paranoid of being accidentally rude, realizing too late what people’s intentions are, internally debating whether something was said in a sarcastic way or not. And I show her pissed off when she feels like others think she’d dumb because she has trouble figuring out social interactions. I don’t even have to say that’s she’s been picked on because of it in the past. It’s backstory sans backstory.

Same if my lead male is pushy: I show him pushing and pushing until the other characters feel he’s overstepping the boundaries, and then I show him trying to restrain himself from pushing too hard, because of course that’s been reproached to him in the past. It might even have cost him a girlfriend or ten. Again, backstory sans backstory. Both examples also illustrate the right interpretation of “show, don’t tell,” which I used to find tricky since stories are inherently “told”.

Every time I write something that is not immediately linked to the plot, I ask myself:
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  1. Does it reinforce the characters, the themes, the scene or the voice/tone?
  2. Does it provide the story with an important element, like a hook, a comic relief, a change of pace?
  3. Could I write it in a more concise way, integrated into a plot-oriented scene?

Sometimes I’ll ask myself those questions during the first draft stage, but most of the time, it’s during the second draft… and all the ones that follow.

Of course, sometimes bits of historical information dumps are necessary, or a character’s backstory is an integral part of the plot, and such like. When that happens, there are a number of ways to make those more immediately interesting: you can insert a bit of history to slow the pace between two scenes heavy in action, for example. Or a sweet memory can add some relief to an otherwise angsty main plotline.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post! You can check out the following articles for more writing advice on how to declutter your texts or subscribe to be notified when I post a new article. Take care and happy writing!

Other posts in this series: Narrow your scopeUse modifiers in moderation, Beware of repetitions.

Review: The Summer Tree (The Fionavar Tapestry #1)

Context
In high school, I read almost exclusively fantasy, the few exceptions being either in the Freaky Stories collection or written by Jane Austen. Yet, I managed to ignore the existence of Canada’s own Guy Gavriel Kay until cégep, by which time my to-read list had already blown out of proportions. Even when my mother found the whole Fionavar Tapestry trilogy for something like a buck a piece, I didn’t start reading right away. It was a fantasy short story contest, which I ended up not even doing, that got me started… and addicted.

The Summer Tree

Review
It’s been a long time since a book captivated me this much. Every time I wasn’t reading, I’d wish I was. I stayed up late because I was unable to stop reading. It made me remember why I used to love reading fantasy so much, although it also reminded me of some of the things that ended up boring me out of fantasy novels…

I read the French translation, so I couldn’t talk about the language. However, there is one writing device that ended up getting on my nerves because I felt it was over-used: that technique where you make something surprising happen and then explain how the situation came to this. I don’t hate the technique per say; it can be super interesting and effective. But everything is better in moderation. I don’t know if a non-writer would notice it though.

The world of Fionavar is strongly inspired by The Lord of the Rings (with maybe some Narnia?), which in many other books made me roll my eyes, but The Summer Tree brings enough new elements (paganism-inspired gods, for example) and is of sufficient general quality that I didn’t mind too much. What I did mind a bit was the weird names in seemingly another language while everybody in Fionavar was speaking English. It’s one of those things that Tolkien did well, but that his “copycats” should drop. That’s a minor thing, though.

The characters are interesting enough, the guys especially. One of them, my favourite, the one I identified the most with, felt more “alive” than most fantasy characters. The girls… meh. Maybe other girls could relate to them; I couldn’t. But that’s often the case, especially with girls-written-by-male-author. In the second volume (yes, I couldn’t wait to start the next book in the trilogy), one of the female characters becomes much more interesting though.

The book was written in the 80s and… it smells of the 80s, too. The mindset, the preoccupations, that kind of things. It was also the rise of feminism and sexual liberation… consequently, in Fionavar, guys seem unable to spend a single night alone in their beds: girls won’t leave them alone. Such girls typically don’t even have names and none of them ever gets the guy to think they might want to start a relationship with them (in a few instances, the guy even thinks about starting a relationship with another girl the very next day!). It sounds like a second-rate porn trope. The redeeming points here are that said scenes are non-explicit and typically span on over a paragraph each. Not so bad as to make me hate the book or author, but annoying enough for me to lower my rating by 0.5 points.

Just like The Lord of the Rings, the book can’t stand alone. There is “some sort of ending”, but of the type that feels like “here ends the first act” more than “here could have ended the story if the writer hadn’t felt like writing a sequel”. Its structure is, again, similar to that of The Lord of the Rings: when the characters get separated, you first follow one party, and then the next. And boy do you want to follow and see where it leads!

Rating: 8/10

Who would I recommend this to? Adult or young adult fans of fantasy, especially non-writing men or boys. Although, outside from the great classics by Tolkien and CS Lewis and the like, I’d sooner recommend Robin Hobb’s The Farseer Trilogy. I might need to reread that one so I can properly critic it.

Confession of a scatterbrain, or how to fail fast

Pile of files
What my pile of projects end up looking like…

It always starts with good intentions. “I’ll focus on this one book,” I think. “Plus my blog. This one book and my blog, I can manage that much! Well, that plus a creative course once in a while. Oh, but here comes a short story challenge! I want to try that too! Just one short story per month, I can manage that much! And what a nice – free – writing contest! I want to try!” Urgh.

I get exhausted. I miss blogging weeks, I neglect my novel.

I translated something a few weeks ago on the concept of “failing fast” in business: you try new products, give up quickly those that don’t work and pursue the ones that do – it’s often more cost-effective than extensive market research. At the time, I failed (haha) to see how I could use it in my own life; it seemed more of a business-oriented concept. Plus that implies… you know… actually failing. I hate failing more than the average person. I hate failing like only a perfectionist can. I’ve been to unreasonable lengths to avoid failing.

That’s plain stupid.

In February, I said how Joanna Penn’s How To Make A Living With Your Writing inspired me to make a plan for my writing career… Career. I’ve always been disgusted at the idea of considering writing as “work” because, for me, work was inherently boring and repetitive, and something you’d never do if you were rich enough. I could be a billionaire, I wouldn’t stop writing. Writing is what I live for. I want to write for a living only so I can have more time to write. But now might be the time to change my mindset regarding work.

Because if writing is work, then I am allowed to fail any writing project. In fact, sometimes it could be desirable that I do. So, here’s me failing fast (and publicly) at the 12 short story challenge and the writing contest. I tried those on a whim, they got in the way of my novel and my blog, so they’re a failure and I need to let those go. And you know what? I don’t feel like I am a failure like I thought I would.

I feel free.

Now I can focus on what really matters right now: my novel and blog, and nothing else (writing-wise, I mean). Maybe a creative writing course in May if my finances allow it. Two projects plus my continuing education. Right now, with work and a preschooler to raise, that’s all I can manage, and it’s okay. Time is a precious – and limited – resource so I need to use it sparingly.
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But I know very well that I’ll still want to take on new projects… Hanging loose, they’d fly round and round my head and keep distracting me. So I made a list of those projects that tempt me the most. It’s an adequate cage for such creatures; I can go on my merry way, knowing that I can come back later, when I have more time, and pick one up without being scared of them flying away forever.

I failed and it freed me.

Of course, applying the “fail fast” strategy will be an ongoing journey, but I’m confident now that I can stop my hatred of failure from interfering with my productivity.

On another note, I’ll experiment with deadlines for publishing my blog posts in the following weeks… Mondays have been especially busy for me these last few weeks, so one less thing to worry about on that day will be much welcome.

“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”
– J.K. Rowling

Review: Negociating with the Dead

Negotiating with the Dead coverContext
In my first creative writing class, three books on writing were recommended to the students: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott (click to read my review of it); Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing by Margaret Atwood; and On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. Having read and loved The Handmaid’s Tale, I figured I absolutely needed to read Margaret Atwood’s non-fiction book on writing.

Review
Negotiating with the Dead is unlike any other books on writing that I have read in the past. I couldn’t describe it better than Atwood herself:

. . . what I had in mind was a grand scheme in which I would examine the various self-images – the job descriptions, if you like – that writers have constructed for themselves over the years.

It reads like a university-level book assigned for a literature course, which isn’t really surprising since it derives from lectures she gave at the University of Cambridge. The tone is rather formal (though sometimes witty), the language is recherché (sometimes even obscure for a speaker of English as a second language), the subjects explored are highly philosophical and of very little concrete use. However, the lack of concrete use does not equate with the lack of value. I enjoyed the autobiographical bits which, though interesting on their own, also explained Margaret Atwood’s style and her choices of subjects and themes as a bonus.

Margaret_Atwood_2015Born in 1939, Atwood has grown up in a Canada that’s very different from the one I know. As a result, some of the matters she explored felt outdated (e.g., I’ve never felt any less likely to succeed or be respected as a writer because I’m a woman – the prospects seemed equally bleak for both sexes). Most matters, however, remain true: I especially resonated with her chapters on the duplicity of the writer (how the writer seems to be a different entity than its human host… hello, persona), the Great God Pen (how easy it is to neglect oneself in favour of one’s art) and temptation (the correlation – or lack thereof – between the artistic value of a work, it’s popular success, and whether its author “did it for the money”).

The author supports her exploration of “being a writer” with a multitude of extracts from classic works, which contributed to that feeling of it being assigned for a literature course; it also resulted in my despairing at the sudden explosion of my want-to-read list.

At first sight, there is no recognizable structure. I kept on waiting for “the point” of the book, but after I finished it I realized the musings were it. Where Anne Lamott, in Bird by Bird, felt like a mentor giving her good friend the reader advice on how to deal with “the condition of being a writer” and how not to bang their head against the wall or commit suicide, Margaret Atwood feels like a university professor philosophizing about said condition, observing that it does bring its share of pain:

The suffering will come whether you like it or not. Suffering is a result of writing, rather than a cause. Publishing is like being put on trial.

She asks a lot of questions, most of which remain unanswered like all philosophical matters.

Rating: 8/10

Who would I recommend this to? Writers, especially older, more experienced ones. If you love history and philosophy, that’s a plus. I’d recommend staying away from it if, as a general rule, you dislike the way philosophers talk or if you’re looking for a book that will be useful to you as a writer.

Liebster Award 2018

This week is special since the charming A.J. Reeves nominated me for the Libster Award! You’ll get to know some odd facts about me as well as discover some blogs I enjoy, yay!liebster-award1a

1. What book had the most impact on you?
There would be three: The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien triggered my first attempt to write a novel; Feeling Good by Dr David D. Burns helped me accept my own depression as an illness and not a fault of character, as well as helped me heal from it; and How To Make A Living With Your Writing by Joanna Penn empowered me to reach for my dreams.

2. What movie would be greatly improved if it was made into a musical?
I’m not a fan of musicals so… none.

3. If given the choice, which literary man or woman would you like to have a relationship with? And what relationship? (friend/co-conspirator/love interest/enemy/etc.)
I’d want to co-write a book with James Patterson! Doesn’t everybody?

4. What is the most embarrassing thing you have ever worn?
I don’t get embarrassed that easily. But the weirdest thing I’ve worn was… Zebra stripes. Like… actual, indelible sharpie zebra stripes on my skin. It was for a team challenge with my swimming team in high school. We won. I had to go to school with stripes still showing for a few days, haha.

5. What part of a kid’s movie completely scarred you?
Nothing really “scarred” me, but I was freaked out by the entire world of Wonderland… especially the Cheshire cat.

6. If you were arrested with no explanation, what would your friends and family assume you had done?
Hm… Assault and battery? Legitimate defence? The dude would have totally deserved it though.

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One of my BJDs (Ball-Jointed Dolls)

7. What is your weirdest hobby?
I guess it depends on your definition of “weird”. Collecting BJD, maybe? Or playing with Lego bricks? Though I neglect those these days because I prioritize writing.

8. What secret conspiracy would you like to start?
I don’t have time to start conspiracies, I have books to write!

9. What mythical creature would improve the world most if it existed?
Fire-breathing dragons? Just kidding. I suppose that would be angels. ♥

10. What’s the most imaginative insult you can come up with?
You have as much culture as a sanitized plastic ball.

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The rules of this award are as follows (cause all nice things have to have rules):

  • Create a new post thanking the person who nominated you, linking to their blog. Include the award graphic.
  • Answer the questions provided.
  • Make a new set of 10 questions for your nominees to answer.
  • Nominate 5-10 recently followed bloggers and share your post with them so they see it.

My questions for you are:

  1. If you had to name one song summing up your life over the last few years, what song would that be?
  2. If you had to describe yourself in a single word, what would it be?
  3. If you could magically acquire one talent or personality trait, what would it be?
  4. If you had no obligations (family, money, etc.), what would you spend your life doing?
  5. If you had to use a piece of fiction (book, movie, video game, etc.) to describe your goals, what would it be?
  6. If you could have anybody, real or fictional, help you reach your goals who would you choose and why?
  7. If you could have any superpower, what would it be and why?
  8. If you could live anywhere, real or fictional, where would it be?
  9. If you could change one piece of fiction’s ending, what would it be and how would you change it?
  10. If you could have a device to do any one thing in your place, what would it do?

My nominees for the Liebster Award are (in no particular order):

My Stories With Music
Floatinggold
Matthew Taggart
Brenda
Charlotte Annelise
Lauren
The Ink Owl
Unsaid Words
Keith MacArthur
Crowded Mind

Argh! So many great bloggers, it was hard to choose! Eliminating those who had much over 1k followers and those I’d already nominated last year for the Blogger Recognition Award helped a little but… uuuurgh! If you don’t feel like participating, it’s alright. Just sharing your blogs make me happy.

Love yourself!

BearYou are kind,

full of respect

and compassion

for mankind.

Against aggression, you take action!

You won’t let your friends be treated unfairly!

So why do you bully

yourself?

I am intimately acquainted with self-hatred. When I was at my very worst,  I believed myself even too incompetent to live. One shrink got mildly angry at me and said I wasn’t even trying to help myself. I told her that I was beyond hope and that I was sorry I was wasting her time.

Of course, that was the depression talking.

Eventually, I got better and regained some self-love. I created that persona of mine, bought pretty clothes, took care of myself. I started doing more of what I loved the most. I tried hard to love myself despite my faults, but I would still have episodes of acute self-hatred.

Last week, this interview made me realize I was still doing something wrong: the thing is not to love myself despite my faults. It’s to love myself with them.

If a person was a painting, then their personality traits would be the different colours.  When looking at the picture, you don’t think “this colour is good, this one is bad”. You look at how the colours interact and see what they portray.

You’ve got only one picture. It’s not finished; it’s a neverending work-in-progress. You can keep adding to it. But it is much easier to do if you don’t try to change it completely and then beat yourself up when you don’t succeed.

Learn to love and respect your picture the way it is. Identify what still needs works, but don’t put too much pressure on yourself. These things take time, so be patient. Take breaks. When you screw up, wipe and start again.

I find that the more I love myself, the more confidence I have, the more I feel in control of my life and the happier I feel. These are all interconnected.

Do something you love today. Take care of yourself. Don’t beat yourself up: that never helped anyone. Here’s a nice post by Jason Connell on how to love yourself.

Happy Valentine’s Day! Enjoy the chocolates.

Fox

*By the way, I’m aware that my poem is amateur-ish, but I love it anyway.