Short Story: Hard to Be an Artist

Foreword: I wrote this text and another one like it (but it turned out less interesting so I might not post it here) in a week for my second creative writing class. The instructions were to create two very different characters and to insert them in the same given script, which I won’t reveal so as not to spoil the fun.

~*~

Hard to Be an Artist

 

It was that time of the year again: the entire neighbourhood was having yard sales. Aiden loved browsing through loads of unusual items for sale, cheap. About half of the stuff in his apartment came from either yard sales or thrift stores. But this summer, he was broke. He tried to focus on the sidewalk, but attractive colours in his peripheral vision made him turn his head to look at a table. Maiwen’s comic Be-Twin. She only sold the paper edition for a limited time, and Aiden had missed it. Yet there it was. He took the first volume in his hand and thumbed through the pages.

“Four dollars each,” said a boy’s voice.

Eight bucks. Aiden had only $23.65 left until his next paycheck the following week and he had intended to use it all for groceries. But he couldn’t let this chance pass, he’d never get another one.

“Six for both?” he tried, looking up at the kid for the first time.
“What is it? Buy one, get one 50% off?” The kid looked at him intently. “Seven is fine.”
“Deal.”

Aiden took out a twenty dollar bill and handed it to the boy.

“Oh wait, I’ll give you a $2 coin so you can give me a five.”

The boy took it, and gave Aiden a five dollar bill.

“Uh… there’s ten bucks missing,” he said. “I gave you 22, so you should give me back 15.”
“No, you gave me 12.”
“Dude, don’t give me that. I know I gave you 22.”
“You didn’t.”

Aiden’s shoulders fell. He thought this awesome find was the end of his three-month bad luck streak, but it appeared only to add to it… There was really no way to win in fighting with a kid over 10 bucks.

He looked at the other items on the table: other comics, a few toys and various household items.

“Alright, what’s it for?”
“What?”
“You’re selling your comic books and toys. You treated them well, too. They’re like new. And you’re lying about me having given you a $10 bill so you must be pretty desperate for money.”
“I’m not! And these things look new because I barely played with them, that’s why I’m selling them.”
“Uh-uh. Alright. Then let me tell you something. The reason I need this $10 bill is to buy my week’s groceries. See, my computer died on me the other day and I had to buy a new one right away, because I need it for work. If you keep my 10 bucks, I’m left with only six dollars and sixty-five cents for a whole week.”
“Use your credit card.”

Aiden smiled.

“Credit cards aren’t magic, you know? It’s already loaded from buying the computer and I might not be able to pay it back before I get charged a ridiculous amount of interest. Come on. Give me back my ten bucks and it’s all forgotten, ‘kay?”

Pouting, the boy reached inside the tin box for a ten dollars bill and gave it to Aiden.

“I’m sorry. You have nice clothes, I didn’t think you were so poor.”
“Thrift stores are cool. So, what was the money for?”
“A graphic tablet.”
“A tablet? You’re an artist, uh?”
“Jacob’s very talented,” said a woman’s voice. “Look.”

The woman picked up a sketchbook on a chair and handed it to him.

“Mom, don’t show those! They’re just rough sketches,” said Jacob, yet he let Aiden take it.

There were several sketches of the same character’s head in different angles. On other pages, there were character designs, buildings in perspective, various landscape elements like trees and flowers and rocks, a bicycle, a dog.

“Impressive.”
“Right? But art supplies are so expensive.”

She shrugged, powerless. The entire neighbourhood was rather poor. Aiden nodded.

“Well, keep it up, Jacob. Practice makes perfect. It was nice doin’ business with you.”

The boy showed a weak smile and Aiden left.

***

He appeared again an hour later, carrying two bags.

“I thought you were broke,” said the boy, frowning.
“I am. This,” he said raising the fullest bag, “is my groceries for the whole week.”

He took care not to look at Jacob’s mother and be reminded of how he failed at this whole adulting thing.

“What’s in the other bag?”

Aiden smiled and held out the bag towards Jacob.

“Why don’t you take a look?”

The boy reached for the box inside and pulled it out. His jaw dropped.

“A Wacom?!”
“It’s a bit old, but it’s still working fine. That’s what I used all through my art major, so… you won’t really need anything bigger unless you go pro.”
“You’re giving it to me? Thank you thank you thank you!”

The boy went and hugged an unsuspecting Aiden, almost knocking him down. Then it was his mother’s turn. Aiden was not mentally prepared for a hug attack.

“I can’t thank you enough,” said the mother. “It means a lot.”
“Twajsling…” he cleared his throat and tried again. It was just l-lying around in my closet in case my new tablet broke, but… these things don’t break. Like, ever.”

The boy promptly rescued a manga box set and two action figures from the table.

“Mom, can I set it up now?”
“Sure.”
“Can you help me… what’s your name?”
“Aiden. If your mom doesn’t mind… sure.”

Jacob’s mother nodded, and they went inside to plug it and install the driver. Then Aiden proceeded to give the boy several useful tips to get used to working with it. By the time Aiden went back out to go home, Jacob’s mother had carried most of the unsold items back inside for the night. He helped her carry the table.

“If you’re not too busy, will you stay for supper? We’re having spaghetti. It’s nothing fancy, but… it’s healthier than instant ramen.”
“You saw that, uh?”
“I sort of tripped on your bag, spreading its contents all over the floor. Dozens of instant ramen packets staring at me,” she said as if speaking of creepy critters.
“Sorry, I shouldn’t have left it in front of the door. I live alone,” he explained.
“It’s fine, I’m teasing you. I have a 13-year-old son, I’ve seen worse. So, are you staying? I’m sure Jacob would be ecstatic to get to talk about drawing with someone who gets it for once.”

Aiden smiled, remembering his own mother’s exasperation when all he could talk about was colour theory and human proportions.

“I’d love to, thanks.”

~*~

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Review: Outlining Your Novel

outlining-your-novel-km-weilandContext

I’ve already written about K.M. Weiland, saying how impressed I was with the free learning material she offered. Among the books she has for sale, Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success is the first I bought. It’s one of my best investments ever. This 187-page book is my new bible.

I’ve struggled a lot with outlining in the past. My attempts at pantsing all ended with two or three elegant chapters, abandoned when structural issues or plot holes craters came in the way. My first attempts at outlining were not very successful either. I didn’t know how to do it properly. I half-pantsed, half-outlined my first complete novel, and as a result, I had to re-outline it and rewrite half of it from scratch. I don’t mind; I enjoyed the learning process and I’m confident that, once I’m done, the result will be as great as I could expect for a first novel. But Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success made me confident I can do it right next time and not waste so many hours fixing the mess.

Review

As usual, I’ve enjoyed Weiland’s voice: the writing it tight and to the point, with a pinch of humour. It’s pleasant to read. It’s also well structured, with handy checklists at the end of each chapter. There are a few typos, like words broken off by hyphens in the middle of a line, but nothing awful.

The book covers everything, from brainstorming to character development to setting, with examples from famous books or movies. It brushes lightly on story structure, but if you struggle with it, you can always get Structuring Your Novel from the same author. There are also interviews with other writers on their outlining processes, which I thought was a nice touch; some resonated with me a lot, other… not so much. That’s okay; it means the approaches to outlining are varied and there’s something for everyone.

I loved that the author takes you by the hand and tells you exactly how to outline the way she does. You couldn’t wish for a more comprehensive approach. Some writers might prefer a less lengthy process, but my control-freak self will have a lot of fun with it.

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What my copy of the book looks like now

I didn’t just read the book from cover to cover; I worked my way through it over three months to re-outline my novel for the rewrite. I added self-stick tabs at all the important places and even savagely highlighted important passages. For a “new” book, one that’s still at the stage of idea in my mind, it would take longer. If you get the book, I encourage you to do the same. Take your time with it. Enjoy it.

There is an accompanying workbook, which I haven’t bought yet – I prefer working on loose leaves in binders over anything else. However, I got the free sample from Amazon and it does add a bit to the content of the main book, with infographics, so I might get it later.

Rating: 9.5/10

Who would I recommend this to? Every fiction writer should read this, whether they’re just starting out or a bit more experienced. Even pantsers could enjoy it and learn from it. I have no doubt it will make me able to write strong stories faster, and that it can do the same for you.

 

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!

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:
blue flower3

  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

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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.