Writing beyond the Grave

 

When waking up at 3 a.m. and having the memories of a very ancient obituary writing assignment on my mind for absolutely no reason at all, I decided to get up and write this blog so as to contemplate how death and dying is represented in different writing forms and the difference in the way it is conveyed in social media and literature.

Obituary writing is not all it’s cut out to be. When I was first assigned to write the obituary of a living person as a learning assignment while studying journalism I think I would have sooner chewed my arm off. I did not want to decide someone’s method of dying when they were still on the planet breathing the God given air we have. I was not worthy or meant for such a fate. By luck, or misfortune, the person to whom I had been assigned learned of the true nature of my assignment by chance.

It turned out that the person to whom I had been assigned was particularly superstitious and by the next day I was forbidden from completing the assignment and given an alternate one in its place. But that didn’t excuse me from learning the ins and outs of what an obituary must include.

In the digital age many readers are thirsty for information, as much of it as can be dished to them as possible and many are fooled by death hoaxes circulating on social media.

Writing about death in its many forms is an industry of its own and it is the elephant in the room that demands to be heard.

While it is unpleasant and no one particularly enjoys discussing it (okay some people do) death has amassed its notoriety for its ability to employ the masses writing obits, doing feature news reports, collecting hits on social media platforms and writing memoirs of famous and fictional people who pass.

Have you ever examined death in literature? Because writing is such a fine art the writing of a character’s passing can be particularly painful for the author and sometimes, just as hard on the reader. Why? Because even though these people are fictional (unless you’re writing a memoir) and often times play smaller roles in the novel, as authors and readers we invest our time and our minds to “getting to know them” and what they represent: their values, hobbies, likes, dislikes, hurts and triumphs, all that life has to offer for a character in a book, especially a good book, leaves us often wishing for more time to “know” the character that was created. Other times readers are glad the S.O.B (whomever it is) has finally kicked the bucket and that means a happily ever after ending they have so painstakingly been hoping for, doesn’t it?

The writing process that goes into killing off a character or revealing a character’s death is different for every author. Sometimes, ‘he died’ is all one needs to write to make the desired impact the author is searching for, other times it is more beneficial to draw out a character’s passing over an entire chapter through other characters’ dialogue, setting up the location to reflect something morose and let the circumstance of the person/character’s death make the impact on the reader.

Does life ever end happily ever after? Is there happiness in dying? Is there a reward in writing about dying? You bet there is. For the life of a writer it is all part of making a living.

 

 

 

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Still Alice, Still Impressed

A few days ago I finished reading Still Alice by Lisa Genova. Powerful literature sends home a message that resonates with its readers and Genova’s writing has done just that.

Still Alice explores the life of a woman named Alice Howland, a linguistics professor, wife and mother, who learns she has the early onset of Alzheimer’s disease. It follows her life experience by showing the reader what Alice was experiencing before she was diagnosed to the final stages of how Alzheimer’s disease impacted her life giving insight to what this disease really does to the body of its victims.

Disclaimer: No one close to me has suffered with this and so I was able to read this book as an objective reader instead of an inquiring, concerned family member. What I found fascinating was how Genova kept a reader like myself interested: by throwing in elements of crafty literature in the character development, plot and story structure that I could relate to.

Being able to relate to the character in the story as a person is what really resonated with me. Genova crafted the type of fictional character that if one could sit down to coffee with, one very well might. Now, a message from reality: This is the effect great literature leaves with its readers. A desire to know more about the character and their life and to see them on their journey from beginning to end.

I have at times forgotten why I walked in the kitchen only to walk back in twenty minutes later and push the brew button on my Keurig. No, it’s not the same thing as having alzheimers to be clear. This simple detail: That I could possibly relate to what it means to forget things, kept me reading.The more I read, the more wanted to know and understand more about the effect this has on people who do lose their memory to this horrible disease. I wanted to even on the surface grasp in effect, the tragic loss that comes with losing life as the victim knows it and see what losing memories of the ones they love really does to them. How does this affect them? Genova captures this effectively and with great passion in her words. What is the role of the friends and family members? I wanted to know more about the fictional characters whose lives were turned upside down.

Here’s why I think Genova’s first – time novel worked:

Genova explores family dynamics at its core when families are faced with providing care for a loved one whose diagnosis is a terminal illness. She builds her story bit by bit, word by word adding a new details around every corner. She avoids repetition in her literature. She avoids flashbacks but instead keeps the story moving forward and we unravel more about her career and family life as we go along. She uses colorful verbs and meaningful adjectives in her syntax. She says what she means in a way that readers can relate no matter whether they’ve heard of alzheimer’s a day in their life or not.

Like linguistics and learning about language? You’ll want to read this. Know someone who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s? This book will inform you while entertaining your hunger for a great story. Are you a writer? Read this book. You will learn more about the craft of writing and how to create prose that readers will love by studying the successes in literature of those who came before you.

Want to learn more about Lisa Genova or Still Alice? Check out http://lisagenova.com/about-lisa/

Reading is an important part of being a successful writer. It expands your vocabulary, brings you into another world, it’s relaxing and at times other people telling their stories can inspire us to tell our own stories.

What book will you be reading next?

 

Fairy tales are Not? for Children

Let’s say you’re already a writer but you have never had anything published. Your goal is to become a published author. First rule of thumb (usually) is write what you know. (Second rule of thumb is write what you don’t know) Preferably after following rule #1. (Third rule of thumb or at least how I do my writing is by following rules one and two simultaneously.)

You want to write a book about or covering a topic you already know about, this will be to your advantage. Let’s say you’ve got plenty of experience with children. Or maybe you realise you are already qualified because you were once a kid yourself. Bingo! You can be a children’s author. Now, outline your story.

So you’ve got your protagonist, your antagonist, you’ve carefully created your story arc except you’re mulling over how much and what type of conflict is appropriate because, after all, you’re writing for kids and certainly you don’t want to end up writing about grown-up issues in the process because you know your audience.

But think back, what books were you reading as a child and what type of conflict did they deal with? From fairy tales to adventures if you were to re-read your favourite authors’ stories that you read as a child with grown-up eyes, what the grown-up perspective of what that literature reveals may astonish you.

Fairy tales are not for children. Or are they? In grade school I had an awesome teacher who handed out books to each of his pupils when it was their birthday. The very first story book ever put into my hands was Hansel and Gretel, by Engelbert Humperdinck. And, I loved it. (Yes, I know you should never start a sentence with the word and. But it’s fun. (So is starting a sentence with the word but.)

Hansel and Gretel is a great fairy tale. The evil witch, the curiosity of when, how, or if those children might escape the lovely candy house that roused their curiosity and appetites and got them into trouble in the first place. As a child I’m sure I would have loved and could picture that house vividly. The reunion that takes place at the end, (I won’t say with who on the very off chance you have not read this story before) because of course all fairy tales should end happily ever after, right?

But looking back…the abusive step-mother, the poverty stricken home life these kids must have experienced, the neglectful father who waited so long (it would seem) to catch up to his kids leaving them to fend for themselves; like children in a third world country waiting for help from someone on the outside. A little dramatic, I know, but it’s meant to be.

Some readers might contemplate where the authoritative figures were that should have swooped in and helped these kids out? The good news is, that is not what most children reading that story resonate with, although it might be possible for them to resonate with the story if they came from an abusive home life. These are not things I contemplated after reading this story as a child. I loved the adventure, the conflict, the suspense. The truth is, what writers’ write often and more often hits home and finds success (at least I’ve found) when the children find something they can identify with in the plot and when the story is so well written that they don’t want to put it down.

Did the author of this story push boundaries of ethical storylines for children by writing about an abusive situation? Do the children (readers) see that? Or are they picking up the book for its sensationalism? What are your thoughts?

Young adult novels, also known as a Y/A novel for novice writers are some of the first I remember in my childhood years. An adventure story, James and the Giant Peach, one of my all-time favourite children’s books by Roald Dahl, is about James, a young boy who goes on an adventure in a giant peach with a bunch of colourfully created insects and faces many challenges in his adventure.

Do you remember the ending to that story? No spoiler alerts here. But consider that story again with grown-up eyes: young boy escapes abusive home life and runs away from his troubles only to find that running away does not solve life’s problems.

The authors of children’s books are many and there are conflicts in (cough: most) if not all story lines. How else can we create stories if we do not create conflict? What you say and how you say it depending on who you are saying it to makes all the difference in who your intended audience should be. Keep that in mind if you are thinking of writing something more advanced than a picture book. How you create your manuscript from the characters you create to the predicaments you present them with will help determine the genre you are writing. The details you leave in and the details you leave out will impact everything from who reads your manuscript to who will buy it. Ultimately, it will affect your audience.

What are your literary ethics? Where do you draw boundaries on what you write and the type of characters you create? Are there any fairy tales you have read that you particularly loved or hated? Why?

I’ll be honest. I love writing and I’m in the middle stages of self-publishing my first children’s book, Loved Like Me but I really just wanted a reason to write about fairy tales.F

Engaging children in writing and literature

 

Our writing mentors are not always famous novelists or renowned screenwriters. Sometimes they are our biggest fans, our greatest supporters and the people we love. Sometimes, they are our children.

Since the time my son was in my womb he has been engaged through me in writing and storytelling. He developed further interest in stories, storytelling, writing and literature as he has grown. (I’ve seen him perusing my books and his own.) He has learned about drama, action, literature, fiction and fantasy, by being exposed to stories expressed through film on television that were once only audible to his developing ears in my womb. We always keep books in the house to and invite him to pick them up as we encourage him that reading books is something he might be interested in doing. And he is.

As a baby, the first book I read aloud to him was Love You Forever, By Robert Munsch. This author has a plethora of books that are favourite reads among children. My son was and still is no exception to this fact. I read this book to him repeatedly and he never tired of it. (One of the signs of a great storyteller.)

By the time he was two, I was telling stories to my son not out of story books but from the top of my head. In the beginning of storytelling, a lot of what I came up with made no sense as rough drafts whether verbal or audio are wont to do. Some stories were only three sentences long and they still had a beginning, middle and end. (This could also be material for a plot for a picture book.) These stories are usually a few extra sentences longer with illustrations. Other stories I invented captivated him until I had to add, “to be continued” and sing him a lullaby as he fell asleep. (I really plan on keeping my day job – singing is not my forté.

At the age of two and a half, my son, and now his sister, have been adding their own elements to the stories as I create them. Minor characters, change of setting, i.e.: the park instead of the moon, chocolate ice cream instead of jelly beans, their names as the protagonists over randomly chosen character names. Plot twist, “and then the character…” Conflict, i.e.: but he couldn’t do this because…(Insert reason.) I am impressed and intrigued with their vivid imaginations and I encourage them to tell the stories spending these times listen to them be the storytellers. These are the times that as a mother, I live for.

Through their curiosity in stories and their interest in words, my children are expanding their vocabulary, their interests and their story telling skills all while teaching me how to be a better writer and storyteller. They are teaching me about children’s writing by expressing what does and doesn’t interest them. They are my first “readers” and as biased as they may be, I am grateful for the lessons they have taught me about the life of a storyteller. Storytelling, aloud, is a learning curve for me and I am grateful to have such a compassionate and non-judgemental audience.

I love that I can share my love of writing with my children and I love that they are learning to love stories and storytelling in return. I think it is one of the greatest gifts any writer who is also a mother can receive.

Sleeping with the Frenemy

Keep your protagonist’s friends close and their ‘frenemies’ closer. This is the key to great conflict in novels. Imagine that character A and character B were great friends until a guy came between them, but there was no conflict in their friendship as a result? They continued talking, drinking coffee (or liquor) together, going out bowling and never once got in a fight where they are yelling at the top of their lungs or pulling each other’s ponytails? (Let’s face it, women these days don’t fight like that in real life. We women are far too sophisticated in our thinking, Sadly however, on the page and on the big screen, these are some of the behaviours  exhibited by female characters through conflict in the storyline. Sucks, doesn’t it ?

I much prefer the conflict in literary novels like Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, or for the screen, almost any film Angelina Jolie has appeared in has appealed to me as storylines exhibiting great plot lines acted out by a female character. Conflict breeds drama. Without drama and conflict, stories and movies often suck.

When considering how to bring conflict into your protagonist’s life ask yourself, what is the biggest obstacle that I could put in my character’s path that the protagonist could resolve? Write it in your story. It is possible you may pick a problem that even as the author you find insurmountable to write your character out of but with time and persistence, you will find a way to resolve it. Just don’t resolve it right away. Let the character come close to finding a resolution, and then drop another bomb.

What I love about the idea of ‘frenemies’ in literature is that the antagonist and the protagonist are often so close they can feel the breath on the other’s face and not for a minute know that they are about to be screwed over, locked up, abducted etc…

Show your readers how the ‘frenemy’ of your protagonist really feels through dialogue with other characters, through their actions and behaviour  in your written word, and through exhibiting, where possible, the point of view from the omniscient narrator.

How much conflict you put into your story is up to you but keep in mind, if your story is all roses and sunshine, no matter how great you may be at writing, people won’t flock to it.

A Writer’s Guide to Etiquette IRL

 

Eavesdropping on conversations at restaurants or cafes is encouraged; just don’t get caught.

If a story you are interested in writing is based on real life, always ask the person’s permission before writing their story and try to get that permission in writing. Don’t write anything libelous or defamatory. (Look those terms up if you don’t know what they mean.)

If you have an interview with a source for an article you are writing on a topic you are very interested in, whether you are a student, author or journalist, dress the part. This is business, even if it is mixed with pleasure.

When writing non-fiction novels about family members, remember that they are people too and it is best to conceal them as the opposite sex and twenty to one-hundred years older or younger than they are and preferably have them living in another country or province than you. An easier idea; write a fiction novel and create characters that are based on your imagination instead of people from real life.

If you are a memoir writer, I’m open to tips on writing memoirs, drop me a line.

When writing about subjects you know nothing about, do your homework. Accuracy in print and online is imperative to your reputation as a writer or journalist.

If it’s a topic that has been written before, you can write about it too but from your perspective and based on your creative genius or muse. Plagiarists are not artists, they are thieves from the underworld of the writing industry.

If you are going on a date with your significant other, leave the notepad or recorder at home. (The laptop and possibly the camera too.) This is harder to do IRL but reading it makes it sound easy. Just an FYI. Choosing an activity that will occupy both your mind and your hands (for those who have an impulse to talk while typing) helps.

If you are tired of reading about the etiquette of writing, why the hell aren’t you writing already? I’m tired of being polite. No, I’m not. You guys are the best. Thanks for reading my sh$t.