The Nuts and Bolts of Writing

evite-ifoa-academy

Sometimes, as a creative writing instructor, I feel like the squisher of dreams. It’s nothing I’m doing intentionally, but as I lead students through the building blocks of good fiction writing, I can’t help but imagine what some of them might be thinking: “Dude is killing the magic.”

For many writers, part of the allure of our craft is its mystery. Who knows what compels us to sit at the keyboard and transform our thoughts and ideas into words? Who knows why we spend our subway rides thinking about scenes and plot twists and people who don’t exist in real life? Who knows why we tear things down only to build them up again and again and again?

That mystery is what draws many of us into writing. Speaking for myself, I have no idea what compels me to write, other than the need to do it. And, for many of us, this is why the magic of writing is so appealing. It’s as though the writing is in control of us, rather than the other way around.

Writing should feel intuitive and personal. It’s a room we inhabit even when we’re not sure why we’re there. It’s an obsession of finding precise language. It’s a mystical experience, especially when our writing takes flight and surprises us in the best kinds of ways.

And while that magic needs to inhabit your writing, there’s another, non-magical side that isn’t quite as fun. That’s what I call the nuts and bolts of writing. In other words, our conscious writing. Nuts and bolts are the practical tools of the trade that you need to factor into your writing. I’m talking good dialogue, evocative settings, believable plot points, compelling characters and more. The nuts and bolts side of writing isn’t glamourous. It involves a lot of tedious work. Nuts and bolts aren’t always in sync with our imaginations and can sometimes interrupt our creative flows. But without the nuts and bolts, the magical side of your writing can’t flourish.

© Paula Wilson

© Paula Wilson

In my course, Becoming a Better Writer and the two workshops I co-present, Improving Your Writing and Publishing 101, I try to help emerging writers understand the importance of being conscious of their writing. And while some writers are resistant to completely letting go of their magical, intuitive sides, embracing the conscious side of writing doesn’t kill the magic. In fact, the best writers are highly aware of every aspect of their writing, both the conscious and subconscious elements. It’s only when you understand the relationship between the magical and practical sides of your writing that you can achieve the heights that all writers strive for.

Five Questions with… David Bergen

David Bergen, author of Leaving Tomorrow and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets to see David on November 2, as well as a copy of Leaving Tomorrow! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: In an interview with Mark Medley of the National Post, you said, “I always have a book that I use that somehow inspires my novels.” What book inspired Leaving Tomorrow?
Bergen, David

David Bergen: For this novel, there was no one specific book, though The Red and the Black and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man were humming in the background. And Ecclesiastes. And Flaubert.

IFOA: Leaving Tomorrow focuses on young Arthur finding his place in his family and the world. How did you go about creating such a psychologically compelling character?

Bergen: I try to figure out what the character is pushing against. That is my starting point, and usually that leads to other discoveries. Nothing is obvious, and usually the little moments are the ones in which the character reveals himself.

IFOA: What was it like having one of your novels (The Age of Hope) selected to be part of CBC’s Canada Reads in 2013?

Bergen: Strange. Canada Reads is geared towards discussions of “issues” or “relevance,” and certain novels are not inclined that way. That said, I was pleased to have attention paid to The Age of Hope. Good people at Canada Reads, and I got to meet Ron MacLean.Bergen, Leaving Tomorrow

IFOA: Do you have a writing regiment?

Bergen: When I am writing and lucky enough to be in the midst of a novel, I write five days a week, six hours a day, at my office in the Exchange in Winnipeg. I aim for five hundred words a day.

IFOA: What was the best piece of writing you read in the past year?

Bergen: Traveler of the Century by Andrés Neuman.

David Bergen is the award-winning author of eight novels, including The Time in Between, winner of the 2005 Scotiabank Giller Prize. See David on November 2 as he reads from his latest, Leaving Tomorrow, an emotionally powerful story about a hopeful young man who yearns for a larger life outside of his small town in Alberta.

Five Questions with… George Fetherling

George Fetherling, author of Travels by Night and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets to see George on November 2! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: You’re presenting the 20th anniversary edition of your memoir Travels by Night at IFOA. How does it feel to revisit a memoir 20 years later?Fetherling, George

George Fetherling: Re-reading (and expanding and revising) the text was an odd experience for someone in his mid-60s looking back at what he wrote in his mid-40s about his first 21 years. I’m glad I wrote it when I did, because I scarcely recognize the narrator today except in some matters of diction. So the effect is a little like shaking hands with one’s ghost.

IFOA: How has the Canadian publishing industry changed since your early involvement in it?

Fetherling: Pretty well everything about Canadian publishing has changed in my time, sometimes for the better, but mostly not. On the plus side, the industry is certainly much more cosmopolitan and diverse than it used to be. But is it any more stable? Old publishers are always folding up, shutting down or being sold off as new and unexpected ones spring up and graduate from small- to middle-sized.

IFOA: Your literary output is extraordinary. Which of your own projects are you most fond of?

Fetherling: Travels by Night is my best-known book, I guess, but two others that people seem to like are the novel Walt Whitman’s Secret (already made into a play in the US, with a Canadian production now in the works) and The Sylvia Hotel Poems. My own favourite of my books—but no one else’s evidently—is my biography of the late George Woodcock.

Fetherling, Travels by NightIFOA: What project is next for you?

Fetherling: I’ve been working on a novel, a kind of noir, because after all I was raised noir. It will probably be called The Carpenter from Montreal.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: I often wonder…

Fetherling: I often wonder how I have survived against the odds—and how long I might continue to do so.

George Fetherling is a prolific poet, novelist, cultural commentator and memoirist. He presents the expanded 20th anniversary edition of his memoir Travels by Night, which discusses literary life in the 1960s. On November 2, he discusses writing and real-life inspiration alongside four other authors.

Five Questions with… Rudy Wiebe

Rudy Wiebe, author of Come Back and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets to see Rudy on November 2, as well as a copy of Come Back! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: Your website says that you have “always held to the fundamentals of plot, character and, above all, story.” Can you elaborate?

Rudy Wiebe: To be utterly simplistic, all human stories involve some achieving, some overcoming of something: that is, some conflict. Plot, the action sequence of that conflict, and character, the determiner and performer of that action, make up (!) the story. Obviously, a book could be written on this matter—and many have been.

© J.D. Sloan

© J.D. Sloan

IFOA: What role does spirituality play in Come Back, a novel concerned with loss and death?

Wiebe: Come Back is a story of death and memory and family. As such, matters of the human spirit play a more significant role than physical or material facts, important as the latter always are in life. The hope, the faith, the love within human spirituality are the realities that become most powerful in the lives of the novel’s characters, though they cannot, of course, experience these realities fully. At least not yet.

IFOA: Name one book that has made a lasting impression on you.

Wiebe: One (of many) would be The Fairytales of the Brothers Grimm. In my earliest grades in school, I read so many simple versions of these stories (“The Wolf and the Seven Kids,” “The Fisherman and his Wife,” “Snow White,” etc.) that when I was studying in Germany I bought the complete 1819 collection, and discovered more marvellous tales like  “The Singing Bone,” “The Messengers of Death” and many others (there are over 200). From their ultra realism to their musical magic, reading them in their original German helped me understand better that, somehow—who knows how—song and story are the foundations of human life.

Wiebe, Come BackIFOA: Finish this sentence: I write best when I…

Wiebe: …Face a specific writing problem, have considered it and gone on to do other things and return to it again, as for the first time; and then, words will find an order in my head and/or on paper that evokes a clear image of what created the problem in the first place.

IFOA: How has your writing changed over time?

Wiebe: This question is undoubtedlyly better answered by perceptive readers. As for me, I would hope my stories have grown more gently insightful, more wide-ranging in their subject matter, and, above all, more entertaining and convincing—better yet, intriguing—in their believability.

Rudy Wiebe is a novelist, short story writer and essayist. He has been the recipient of many awards, including the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction and the RBC Taylor Prize. Wiebe is also an Officer of the Order of Canada. See him in a round table discussion on November 2 as writers discuss real-life inspirations and the directions these inspirations have led them in.

Five Questions with… Claire Holden Rothman

Claire Holden Rothman, an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions! She is the author of My October, which was recently announced as a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction.

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets to see Claire on November 1, as well as a copy of My October! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: My October deals with Quebec history, referencing in its title the October Crisis and the FLQ. How do your characters confront history in My October?

Claire Holden Rothman: I believe the pastor more particularly, our stories about ithas enormous influence over our present-day lives, though we’re mostly unaware of it. The process holds true on the personal level as well as on the broader social or political one. In Quebec, we’ve created a variety of stories about events in our history. The October Crisis of 1970 stands out. It’s one of the few instances in which discourse was discarded in favour of physical violence. In My October, Luc Lévesque wants to avoid confronting darker aspects of the past. His wife Hannah feels such guilt about events that occurred decades and even generations ago that her vision of her own culture and language is skewed. Fourteen-year-old Hugo, meanwhile, struggles to get past the constricting stories by which his parents live and to create a new narrative grounded in the here-and-now.

© Arthur Holden

© Arthur Holden

IFOA: Was it difficult to write in three unique voices?

Rothman: For me, voices are what fiction is all about. I am obviously not a 14-year-old boy or a French-speaking male Québécois writer. I have met such people. I have watched them and tried to imagine what it must be like to live in their skins. One of the great pleasures of writing fiction is imagining other people as fully as I can. A while ago there was this great debate in Canadian literary circles about appropriation of voice. Does a white male writer have the right to write from the perspective of a Native American woman? This sort of thing. I never understood the controversy. The whole point of fiction is trying to imagine what others are seeing, hearing and thinking. It’s not appropriation of voice; it’s empathy.

IFOA: What are the roles of writing and translating in your novel?

Rothman: One of the central ideas in this novel is story-telling, so it’s fitting, I think, that Luc Lévesque is a professional writer of stories. His wife Hannah is his English translator. She has won prizes for her work just like Luc has for his novels, but this does not alter the fact that in some real way, she is effaced. The words she transmits to the world are not her own. Translation may be an art (as anyone who has experienced the joy of reading good literary translation can attest), but it’s a derivative one.

IFOA: You work as a translator, like your character Hannah Lévesque. Do you have anything else in common with Hannah or the other characters in this novel?

Rothman, My OctoberRothman: It is true that like Hannah I work as a translator. I’m also married to a highly verbal, gifted half-French writer (of plays). I’ve lived all my life in Montreal, where issues of language, history and identity are constantly being analyzed and talked about. And here’s a confession. I’ve carried a painful, lifelong sense of personal responsibility, as Hannah does in the novel, for cultural wounds inflicted generations ago in a Quebec that no longer exists.

I am also a novelist like Luc Lévesque. I am not famous, but, like him, I spend hours at my desk, digging for nuggets of human truth. I’m also a bit of a Luddite. I wear fingerless red gloves, as Luc does, to keep my hands from chafing while I type.

IFOA: You translated the first Canadian novel, L’influence d’un livre. What was that experience like?

Rothman: Fascinating and daunting. The novel was published in 1837, during the Patriotes’ rebellion. The French in which it’s written is a bit archaic. I had to experiment to make my English sound old, but not so dusty that it alienated contemporary readers. L’influence is a weird little book. It’s a first (and only) novel by a spirited young manhe once planted a stink bomb in the legislative assembly in Quebec City during an altercation with a politician from Yamaskawhose tastes ran to the macabre and the supernatural. The novel is full of stories: real-life newspaper reports of murder and betrayal in what was then Lower Canada, as well as tall tales and local folklore. I loved all of these stories, although I sometimes questioned Philippe-Aubert de Gaspé’s ability to fit them into a coherent whole. The book feels post-modern in its fragmentation.

Claire Holden Rothman is the author of two story collections and the bestselling novel The Heart Specialist, longlisted for the 2009 Scotiabank Giller Prize. She will discuss, along with other Canadian writers, the October Crisis and the effects of the FLQ on November 1.

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