[originally posted 14 Nov 2007 at LiveJournal]

I don’t know what it is with me and beginnings, but until I have the beginning working, I don’t feel as if my writing is getting anywhere. I’m not temperamentally capable of skipping the beginning and coming back to it later. This has always been my way during essay and article writing, and today I discovered it applies to fiction as well.

I started my second short story today, part of my PicoWriMo target. The writing was flowing well. I had some plot points roughly worked out and knew where I was going. The characters were coming to life and acquiring personality. The descriptions were good. I was on my way, or so I thought.

Then, at around 700 words, I wrote something that I realized was the real beginning of the story. There was nothing wrong with what preceded it; it was simply not needed. So I started over, at the new beginning, and summarized all that preceded it in a single short, snappy paragraph.

When reading, I like beginnings that grab me right away and don’t waste time getting things started. There are many ways to do this, and they don’t have to be fancy — just interesting and effective. When writing I try for a strong opening. If I don’t have one, I don’t have momentum and the piece stalls until I get one. I have to get the beginning right, or close to right. Then it starts to flow into the right channels.

When I think of all the writers I’ve read, the one who does the best beginnings is Agatha Christie. I don’t always find her middles and endings as strong, but I’ve never read another novelist who can get a novel started so quickly and so well. Bang! You’re right into it, often chuckling or smiling at her wit. She doesn’t do it with a set formula either. Each novel opens uniquely. I think my favourite first chapter of all time is from The Body in the Library. It never ceases to make me smile. All of which contrasts sharply with the darker elements that arise later in the story.

Middles and endings have plenty of pitfalls of their own, but for me the critical part of any writing I do is getting the beginning right.

Speed Writing

Lately I’ve been using a creative technique I call speed writing. It’s simply my adaptation of the well-known technique of freefall, or associative, writing. You write anything that comes to mind or anything triggered by something in your surroundings then use word association to keep it going in a kind of stream of consciousness.

It can start with a simple observation of someone in a coffee shop. You might describe the person, then speculate on what their story might be. Or you might see a dog outside the window with a strange collar around its neck and speculate on the owner. Anything will do as long as you let it flow.

Some writers say they use this method as a warmup exercise before starting their more focused writing for the day. Many of them record these kinds of jottings in their journals, which is what I’ve begun to do.

The difference, for me, is that I have to do it fast. If I amble along at a moderate pace, my inner critic begins to notice what I’m writing and begins to comment on it: that’s a really stupid idea, or, do you think anyone with that name could do that, or why are you doing this instead of getting down to some serious work? You get the drift.

My inner critic is strong. I’m a highly rational person, prone to writing essays, and my inner critic thinks my foray into fiction writing is a silly waste of time. You’d be better off out taking photos, it says to me. It’s an ‘it’; it doesn’t even have gender. It’s squeamish about make-believe and writing things that can’t be verified or at least supported by a good argument. My inner critic wanted me to become a scientist or engineer, and I almost did. But I was saved by my discovery of English lit and I long ago turned sail in the direction of poems, novels, short stories, plays, and literary essays. I’m not sure my inner critic has ever forgiven me.

So, I have to run, and run fast. That is, I have to type like the devil, outrunning my inner critic before it can start to criticize. Which is one of the reasons I use a keyboard for writing most of the time. I can type at least ten times faster than I can write longhand. To give my inner critic even less of a grip on me, I not only type as fast as I can when freefalling, I don’t look at the screen of whatever I’m typing on. This speeds me up even faster. I forget about typos altogether, unless I feel them as I’m typing. Let Word flag them when I import my document.

So far it’s working, and nearly every day I give thanks to that inner voice that way back in 1962 gave me the courage to talk my high school guidance counsellor (who doubled as my dreaded geometry teacher) to allow me to take a typing class. I was in the academic stream and typing classes were offered only in the commercial stream. She bought my argument that I needed to be able to type essays and reports when I went to university, and I learned how to type on upright Underwoods and Royals with blank keys. But I digress…

I don’t know if this would work for anyone else, but if you want to try an interesting approach to freefall, associative writing, try typing as fast as your thoughts come to you. If you’re a good typist, don’t even look at the screen or keyboard. Look out the window and let the fingers fly.

The point is to loosen some creativity and let it spread. I’ve already found the nuggets of some interesting short story ideas in my speedos (my pet name for these flourishes, despite the unfortunate double entendre).

As a deep-seated rationalist, I need all the help I can get when tapping into the creative side of my brain. Speed writing opens me up to a playfulness that doesn’t always come easily to me. It doesn’t work miracles, but it does generate ideas, and that’s worthwhile, as long as I don’t stop there and later do the hard bit: turning it into some kind of story.

A Touch of Frost

A Touch of Frost
Originally uploaded by StarbuckGuy

Autumn is poignant with change and the final stages of plant life as winter approaches. Even with climate change and milder autumns and winters, the magic of the seasons continues.

I once lived in a land where there were no seasons, just climate. There was summer climate (hot, blazing) and winter climate (mild) and very little rain; I lived ten years in the Arizona desert. I prefer the real winter and real seasons of Ontario.

When the first frost comes the air is crisper, the light softer, and coffee tastes better. Buffleheads have returned to the harbour. A few tenacious birch and maple leaves are hanging on, in yellow and red defiance of the season, but soon they too must have their winter sleep.

Taken with Nikon D200 and Micro-Nikkor 55mm f/2.8 lens.

I didn’t know writing was this hard

[originally posted 6 Nov 2007 at LiveJournal]

I do most of my writing at my local Starbucks. This morning I didn’t feel particularly well but I walked there from my house (it’s about a 15-minute walk at a good pace). I arrived a little later than usual and the place was hopping. I was lucky to get a table where I could prop my AlphaSmart Neo and do some typing. (I should note that I try to limit my gear to only half of a small table in case someone needs to sit at the other half.)

I did some brainstorming and word association on paper first, priming the pump for my second short story. Then I typed in my journal for about half an hour. I was feeling worse by the minute so I used my cell phone to call Marion to see if she could pick me up in the car so I wouldn’t have to walk back. Because I’m still recovering from an angioplasty and stent procedure from about six weeks ago, she came right away. She found me with my head down on the table, like some old drifter in his cups. I was feeling so faint I couldn’t raise my head without passing out, and I couldn’t walk to the car. I was beginning to sweat profusely. When it didn’t improve in a couple of minutes, she called 911 for the paramedics. An ambulance arrived and, I’m told, they brought a gurney in through the front door. I was sitting near the back door. I recall being lifted on to the gurney and answering questions: “No, no chest pains, just feeling faint.”

But I was so out of it I couldn’t open my eyes. I heard the Starbucks assistant manager saying to someone, “He’s one of our best customers.” I’m a regular anyway.

I passed out for a short while, and on way way out thought I was dying. Too bad, I thought, so this is how it ends. I hadn’t the energy to care. When I came to, and obviously hadn’t died yet, I had vomit in my throat. I thought I’d burped it up. Then the paramedic began wiping my face down with a towel. I’d vomited in my oxygen mask and the top half of me was a mess. When we got to emerg, I was finally able to open my eyes and take in the surroundings. The usual questions, the usual procedures. Blood work, ECG, IV, questions. It was obvious to them that I wasn’t having a stroke — I was lucid and could answer questions easily, except what meds I was on. I couldn’t remember them all. My blood pressure was very low — the paramedic told the hospital people he couldn’t find a pulse. Marion told me later I’d turned as grey as my hair.

I was feeling better, and my blood pressure gradually rose to a normal level. The blood work came back fine — no electrolytes indicating a heart attack. I was kept under observation all day and blood work and ECG was repeated at 5pm. When both showed normal, I was released, after being treated to a hospital meal of overcooked corn, soggy potatoes, and some kind of meat dish I couldn’t identify.

I’m home now, none the wiser about what happened. The hospital didn’t know, other than it wasn’t a cardiac event. It might be a side effect of some of the aggressive new meds my cardiologist has me taking. Who knows?

But I made my PicoWriMo word count for the day. Does writing get easier than this?

My Office

My Office
Originally uploaded by StarbuckGuy

My local Starbucks, as many of you know, is one of my favourite hangouts. It’s situated beside the harbour lighthouse and provides a half-way point on my daily walks. Moreover, I like the coffee. It’s not the best I’ve tasted by any means, but it’s the best I’ve tasted in Port Credit.

The staff are friendly and the place has high windows, giving it a light, airy feel. The ceiling goes up very high — at least two stories — with skylights. The actual floor area is small and because it’s a popular venue, getting a seat is by no means assured. I fare best when I arrive relatively early in the morning.

I joke, only slightly tongue in cheek, that it’s my office. I do a lot of writing there. I often carry a writing device with me — a Palm TX with wireless folding keyboard, or this AlphaSmart Neo, a writing device designed for the school market, but very popular among writers. It doesn’t do much except provide a wonderful, full-size keyboard with a small but highly readable display. I think of it as a paperless typewriter. It turns on instantly, with no long boot cycle, and it runs for approximately 700 hours on a set of 3 AA alkaline batteries.

It’s come at a good time. On LiveJournal, where I maintain a writing journal called Silver Bullets, I’m taking part in a community project called PicoWriMo, a takeoff on NaNoWriMo. PicoWriMo is a less ambitious project than NaNoWriMo’s target of a 50,000 word novel written in the month of November. In PicoWriMo we set our own, more modest, targets. Mine is to write and edit two finished short stories during November. I’ve just finished the first draft of one — a story with a sci-fi theme.

The Neo is pictured here with my Starbucks coffee, Moleskine journal, and additional Nikon 100mm f/2.8 Series E lens. Taken with a Nikon D200 and 28mm f/2.8 Series E.

Feedback on my first short story

By acting as my first reader, my wife Marion helped me enormously with my short story, “Channeling Rusty” [since renamed “A Brief Encounter”]. She make a lot of perceptive comments and asked some good questions. Aside from pointing out some minor things, which were much appreciated, she helped me look at things that would strengthen the story. More conflict between rational disbelief and the desire to entertain belief is needed between the two human characters. They need more differentiation.

The main thing she helped me with was understanding that the plot was weak. She wanted it to have more of a peak and denouement. I agree totally. In the immortal words of the Everley Brothers, “the movie wasn’t so hot; it didn’t have much of a plot.”

Plot is my weakest area. As soon as she described what bothered her about the story it clicked, yes, this is what’s the matter with it. I knew something wasn’t right but couldn’t quite figure it out.

As an essayist, plot has never been an issue. My essay writing moves from idea to idea, concept to concept, observation to observation, across some theme. I’m not a natural-born storyteller, but if I want to write fiction, I need to become one. As I said to Marion, I need to practice making up stories about things as a mental exercise. Perhaps there’s a storyteller inside, waiting to be discovered.

I had an epiphany about this as I discussed it with Marion. If I try my hand at fiction, working really hard at it, and fail, I don’t mind. What would bother me is always wondering if I could write fiction, but not trying. I love essays and essay writing and have several in mind, so it’s not as though I would no longer be a writer. And who knows? I might succeed in writing passably good fiction. Time will tell. I think short story writing, and possibly a novel, is exciting territory to explore. Above all else, I love writing, even when I hate it.

They say that aging isn’t for wimps. Neither is writing. It’s hard work and has limited rewards. I think you need to be driven to write to stick with it.

What I love about this foray into fiction writing is that I’m learning and growing. As long as that’s happening, I’m not stagnating. I’m alive. Is that part of the reason why we write? I think perhaps it is.

A First Draft

Today was a milestone day. I finished the rough draft of my first short story. I sat in Starbucks typing on my AlphaSmart Neo amid the increasing din of a Saturday morning crowd. My local is beside a river and the rowing crowd wanders in after their early-morning rowing and take up most of the tables. One guy in particular has a loud, braying voice that pierces through the ambient noise.

Despite not getting there as early as I wanted to, I finished the draft!

This evening I’ve printed it out and tomorrow I’ll release it to my inner editor, who has been chomping at the bit, eager to get his critical paws on the story.

It’s short: around 2200 words, but I think some of the scenes will be expanded during editing.

Short Story Writing Workshop

[originally posted 2 Nov 2007 at LiveJournal]

Last Saturday I attended a workshop called “How to Write a Theme-based Short Story in Under 30 Days” given by freelance writer Paul Lima. I only learned about it a few days before the workshop and was delighted to get a seat. Sponsored by WEN (Writers & Editors Network), a west-Toronto writing group, it took place from 9:30-3:30 on Saturday, Oct 27 at a church in Mississauga, Ontario, near my home.

I’d taken a workshop with Paul once before, on the business of freelance writing, and it was excellent — filled with tips, tricks, methods, and common sense. I’ve also attended some of his sessions at Wordstock, an annual single-day conference for reporters, writers and editors sponsored by the Ryerson Journalism Alumni Association. Paul is one of those solid speakers who is gently no-nonsense with the ability to inspire others to get out and try things, with good advice on how to go about it.

The short story workshop couldn’t have come at a better time: I’ve been working on my first-ever serious story, one with a science fiction theme, and after a good start and an interesting idea I was stalled. On my own I’d determined that the reason I was stalled was that I really didn’t know where the story was going and it didn’t just spontaneously shout to me, “go here!” My muse apparently doesn’t work that way. I wish she did, but she’s been good to me overall and I’ll not take her to task for my own lack of planning.

I decided that, like it or not, I was going to have to work from a plot outline and know how the story develops and how it ends before I can make it work.

It came as no surprise to me then to hear Paul say that most writers fail to finish things because they get stalled without a plan. He strongly believes in plot-point outlining and doing some strong prep work before doing the actual writing. Things like thinking and brainstorming about your characters, plot, conflict, setting, and theme.

Similar to the advice listed in D.G. Jerz’s Short Stories: 10 Tips for Novice Creative Writers, Paul advised working with word association and clustering, and doing some freefall writing — a kind of stream-of-consciousness writing — if something catches your fancy during brainstorming and you want to explore it. He took us through some freefall writing exercises and I was surprised at some of writing fragments that came out of this. Most of the participants had workable story material embedded in their freeform and one of mine was unexpected and powerful. I read it to my wife, Marion, the evening after the workshop and she was still thinking about it the next morning. A gift from the muse, primed by the exercise. I hope to make use of this fragment in some future writing.

As you might infer from the title of the workshop, Paul is very organized in his approach to writing, and the “30 day” aspect of the workshop is not a gimmick, but rather a method by which a beginning writer can work out the plot and character elements, develop a plot outline, and work from plot point to plot point, in a scheduled fashion, until the first draft is complete. As Paul advised, the first draft will be shitty, but it’s easier to edit and revise a shitty draft than to edit nothing.

The wonderful thing about workshops like Paul’s is that they give a budding writer confidence, and a time-honoured methodology for success. Later, you might discard the method in favour of one of your own, but it gives you a way to successfully develop and complete a short story, and that’s a powerful confidence builder.

I’m not certain how far the outlining technique will work for me. From the time I first started writing essays in high school, then university, I worked without an outline and wrote the outline after the essay if one was required. For complex articles, like the kind I wrote for Here’s How! magazine on Internet social communities, I used rough outlines, and points I wanted to make certain I covered, but even there it was an organic mix, with many of the outline points coming out of the writing.

There is no right or wrong way to write, if the writing works. I’ve listened to several interviews with novelists who say they don’t outline — they just start writing and discover their plot and characters as they go. Some people can pull it off. I don’t think I’m one of them despite my natural aversion to outlining.

So I’ve given myself the assignment to start over with my story concept, and work a lot more on characters and plot before I start writing it again. I don’t mind starting over. The first attempt sucked, big time. First I’ll try it “by the books”. What I need to clear the first hurdle in my quest to become a fiction writer is some completed work. Once I have that, I might loosen up my approach to it. Or I might not.

The workshop helped me considerably and a side benefit is that I had the chance to meet other writers who are working on short fiction. I’ve become a member of WEN and look forward to the meetings. Overall, $89 (non-member fee for the workshop) was a great investment


I started an account on LiveJournal after learning, on the AlphaSmart Writing Tools Flickr group, that there is a picowrimo writing project group here running in parallel to NaNoWriMo but with more modest goals.

The day after Halloween, and I started the day with a cardio stress test that marks the beginning of my cardio rehab program. This is my second time through the program. The nurse who wired me for the stress test today got a chuckle out of my description of myself as a ‘repeat offender’. The test went well enough. I predicted that I would have some chest pains when we reached the peak of the test, to keep them from being alarmed, and that it was okay. Sure enough, it showed up on the cardiogram just as I predicted, at the point I predicted. No big deal. I have blockage in a minor artery (results from my last angiogram) that are in no way life threatening and will likely recede as my conditioning improves.

I stopped by a new Starbucks today, at the corner of Hurontario and Harborn, where the hospital shuttle bus left me off so I could catch a city bus the rest of the way home. I’ve passed by it many times and wanted to try it out. It’s strategically placed at a major Mississauga traffic intersection and proved to be a very busy Starbucks. There were plenty of seats inside, so I took out my Neo and typed into my journal.

I’m working on a short story but didn’t want to work on it this morning. I’m about to start writing a new scene, and I’d like my head to be a little clearer before I start. Man, I never knew fiction writing was going to be such hard work.

Now that the stress test is over I can indulge in caffeine again. I had a Grande Bold at Starbucks. Now that I’m home I’ll brew a nice pot of green tea.