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Most of the first pieces of writing I sold were poems. Most were under forty lines. In these short poems, I might use an organizing metaphor, but I never had to develop the metaphor beyond that. For years, I wrote fiction the same way, introducing details for color and ignoring them after I moved on from the passage where they appears. However, now that I am trying to write fiction on a daily basis, I realize that approach is inadequate. Instead, I have started practicing parsimony, hoarding details to return to them later on.

What I call parsimony is a restatement of Anton Chekhov’s old adage that, if a gun is hanging on a wall in the first scene of a play, it needs to be fired later on. It is a way of trimming the unnecessary from my writing, and of providing a structural unity.

Recently, though, I have started to appreciate how much parsimony can help with the struggle to plot. So far as I had ever thought of the matter, I imagined that writers carefully conceived of the details that they would need later on, and planted them early in a work. As they edited, perhaps they might go back and add details that a new plot twist required.

I’ve done my share of that, especially after receiving criticism in the writing circle I joined a few months ago. Yet far more often, that’s not how I work at all. More often, I still add details as they occur to me, just as I do in poetry. Then, when I take out the sketchy outline I made as I started writing, I find myself solving plot problems by referring back to the details I mentioned earlier.

For example, in one chapter of my attempt at a fantasy novel, I threw in the bit of color that the culture identifies streets not by signs, but by statues appropriate to the name of the street. In the next chapter, I needed to give two characters a place where they could watch events from the back of a crowd. Remembering those statues, I knew at once where they could stand. The statues, I realized, were a much convincing vantage point than a convenient window ledge or roof top, because the characters would not want to trap themselves if found by their pursuers.

Similarly, I needed someone with whom the protagonists could take refuge. I could have invented a new character, and inserted a few mentions of the character earlier in the narrative. Instead, I dusted off a character who had played a minor point, and the protagonists took shelter with her. I didn’t even have to go back and add anything, because she shared a grievance with the protagonists that would make her willing to help her.

In each of these instances, I avoided the complication of another character and increased the structural unity as well. Moreover, by looking back at what I had already written, I solved plot problems that I otherwise would have agonized over.

I still add bits of color as they occur to me, of course. Now, however, I make a note of them as I do, so that I can recall them later. The parsimony is not just in the structure, but in the economy of effort as well.

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Talking about fiction writing and how it is done is difficult. English simply lacks the vocabulary. Instead of choosing the correct word and moving on to a more detailed analysis, discussion is stranded in attempts to explain what I am talking about. Increasingly, I find myself resorting to similes and metaphors.

For example, in recent months I have found myself making comments like these ones:

  • Writing non-fiction is like juggling with three pins. Writing fiction is like adding another couple of pins. In fiction I have to worry about things like characterization that simply don’t exist in non-fiction. Also, I frequently suspect that fiction does not add additional pins so much as chain-saws.
  • Planning a novel is like having a compass, but not a road map. I only know the general direction I am heading, not the details of the route to get there.
  • My process of revision is like painting a canvas with increasing layers of paint. I begin with rough sketch, and begin filling in colors. With each pass, I add another color or layer of paint, adding texture and more of a mixture of colors. Every now and then, I pause to scrape off paint, or to touch up some corner of the canvas.
  • Writing a scene begins with choreography. Before I can write it, I have to know how each character will move during the scene. In the early stages of composition, I chalk in the marks each writer has to hit. Sometimes, I have to scuff out a chalk mark or two because the one I originally try just doesn’t work.
  • Part of the secret of developing characters is to find the rhythm of how each one talks. Until I find each characters’ rhythm – what they can say and can’t say, the tones they use, and their favorite ways of talking – I can’t begin to write the musical score. Once I know these things, my role is largely to conduct, choosing which character takes the lead and which is backup at any given moment. This role as conductor is relatively simple for a duet, where only two characters are talking, and becomes more complicated as the number of characters in a scene increase. In particular, as I write the score, I have to be careful that who says what or who replies to whom is always as clear as possible.
  • Writing is like playing the bagpipes. I can’t actually tune my words; I can only keep adjusting them until the resonances are close to the note I hear in my head.
  • Revision is like the last stages of wood carving. Knots have to be carefully planed away, and I have to keep sanding until I bring out the beauty of the grain.

Whether such metaphors make sense to anyone other than me is questionable. All the same, I keep developing the metaphors and similes, partly because I want to talk about what I am discovering, and partly because talking about the process seems safer than talking about what I am writing, which I suspect would keep me, like so many wannabes, from actually getting the words down.

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Last Friday, I attended the VCon novel-writing workshop. I came looking for encouragement, and found it in the comments of the two professional writers, Eileen Kernaghan and Robert Sawyer. Many of the negative comments could be disregarded as a sign of careless reading, although, Sawyer, to my embarrassment as an ex-English teacher, pointed out at least two places where I should have used the subjunctive.

However, the comment that I have mulled over the most was Sawyer’s complaint about the main character’s name. In reviewing a couple of entries to the workshop, he mentioned a dislike of invented names like Luke Skywalker. I am thinking about the comment because I at least partly agree with him, but changing a character’s name is a serious step. To my poetry-trained year, changing the character’s name means changing their personality as well, which can require a complete revision of the manuscript.

On the one hand, I dislike the surnames often borrowed from role-playing games, especially from elvish characters. Often these names show either a lack of imagination, such as (to invent an example on the spot) Inglorion Far-Traveler, or (to invent another quick example) an embarrassing attempt to sound mystical and exotic, such as Glorfindel StarDweller. My character’s name fits neither category – or so I believe – so I am not exactly pleased to have it lumped in with them. Yet considering that Sawyer is a successful, better than average professional writer, I want to think twice before disregarding his criticism – always keeping in mind that one writer’s opinion of your work can sometimes mean no more than they would done things differently.

On the other hand, invented or obscure names are used by many writers. Charles Dickens, for example, had Uriah Heep, Oliver Twist, Whackford Squeers and dozens of others. Thomas Hard had Tess of the D’Ubervilles. Stephen King had Dolores Claiborne. And if you include semi-allegorical names, like Mrs. Malaprop, the examples jump from the dozens to the hundreds. From these examples, I conclude that unusual names are acceptable in popular literature, and are even more so in fantasy and at least sometimes in science fiction. Granted, though, they may not be to everybody’s taste.

I have considered some alternative names, and found one or two that seem acceptable to me. All the same, I am glad to be some ways from a second draft, so I have time to think more about the issue.

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In “The Naked and the Nude,” Robert Graves points out that, while the two words are generally treated as synonymous, he personally makes a distinction. To him, the naked are honestly and unconsciously clothed, while the nude are sly exhibitionists. In the same way, I make a personal distinction between “author” and “writer,” two words that in theory have the same meaning.

The distinction is more than academic to me. For thirteen years, I have made a living mainly by selling my writing, and I have had both “author” and “writer” used to describe me. However, over the years, I have come to prefer “writer” and to use it to describe myself while shying away from “author” altogether.

Part of my preference is due to the fact that “author” carries more weight to my ear. To me, authors are people who write books, and, although I have one book to my credit – my reworked master’s thesis – that was twenty-five years ago, and the rest of my publications have been articles or at the most chapters in other people’s books. Nor am I the only one to define the words this way – wannabe writers, I notice, usually prefer to call themselves “authors,” given even a small justification.

However, for me, “author” sounds too grandiose. As the first syllable suggests, both “author” and “authority” have a common origin in the Latin word “auctor,” whose various forms can mean “promoter,” “originator” as well as “expert” or “holder of power.” In other words, an author is someone who originates thought, or is the source of others. Echoes of this meaning can be read in Mathew 7:29 of the King James Bible, where Jesus is described as having “taught as one with authority, and not as the scribes” – that is, as someone with original ideas, and not someone simply repeating what others have said or someone making a scholarly article full of citations.

To claim to be an author, then, would seem to be a declaration that nobody has had thoughts similar to mine or expressed as well as mine, and that people should therefore listen to me. Yet while that should be the level of excellence to which I or any other writer should aspire, I feel uncomfortable making that claim for myself. If made at all, such claims are the rights of readers. Undoubtedly, too, the pressure of deadlines and the effort to make a living has encouraged at times to write at least than my best. In fact, I am sure that the distinction between original writers and the rest of us is not nearly as clear as the word “author” possibly implies.

By contrast, “writer” is a humbler term. It simply means someone writes, with no reference to quality or originality – and that I unarguably do. For that reason, I prefer to express no pretensions, and simply call myself a writer instead of an author.

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Discovering a young artist near the start of their career is always exciting. Jaimie Katerina Nole came to my attention when Haisla carver John Wilson directed me to her Facebook page and “The Pregnant Frog Woman” one recent Saturday afternoon, and I knew at once that I wanted a copy. In fact, I wanted one so strongly that I settled for an ordinary limited edition – all that was left — even though I almost never buy anything except originals, artist’s proofs, or remarques.

I have only met Nole once for about five minutes, but she struck me as a young woman of determination. If I have her story straight, she was enrolled in the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art a few years ago, but withdrew when she became pregnant. She is apparently planning to return to the school this autumn, but, in the meanwhile, “The Pregnant Frog Woman” seems proof that she is making the most of her situation. When she posted the print, she quickly received over 3,800 Likes on Facebook, and decided to make a print of it.

“The Pregnant Frog Woman” is a striking piece for at least two reasons. For one thing, human forms remain uncommon in the modern revival of Northwest Coast art, female forms even rarer, and pregnant forms almost unheard of. So, although the kneeling posture is a conventional one, Nole quickly makes it her own simply by her choice of subject matter. The use of green and black is much less unusual, but enough to reinforce the impression of originality.

However, what is most striking about the print is Nole’s skill with the traditional forms. The use of ovoids for the shoulder, elbow, hip and knee joints is traditional enough, but those in the print are a variety of shapes, their contents echoing and contrasting with each other. The curve of the knee and breast parallel each other as well, and so does the knee and the buttock. Within the breast, the u-shapes also mimic the overall shape, suggesting the successive swelling of the breast during pregnancy.

Several other features of the design also emphasize the signs of pregancy. For instance, thick, black formlines frame the green uterus and fetus above and below it. Even more interestingly, the formline – which varies far more than usual in beginner’s work – is at its thickest around the breast and the bottom of the hip joint, between which the newborn will eventually pass. Not only is pregnancy the subject, but the design continually calls attentions to the symptoms of pregnancy in subtle ways.

A trace of eeriness is added by the signs of a supernatural creature, such as the long slender fingers and the hand with three digits, all differing little except in size from the visible foot. Since the head is barely sketched in, the focus is on the mysticism of pregnancy – the feeling, you can easily imagine, that the figure herself is feeling as she holds her hand over swelling stomach, perhaps to feel signs of movement.

Nole tells me that she is planning a series of prints of different aspects of motherhood, and, despite being a childless widower, at some point in the series, I would like an original. If “The Pregnant Frog Woman” is any indication, Nole not only understands the tradition in which she works, but has the unusual power of embedding emotion within its strict conventions. If her subsequent designs can match this one, Nole is an artist who seems likely to make her mark.

Jaimie-Nole

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Last summer, I contributed to Haida Raid 3: Save Our Waters, an environmentalist animation. I couldn’t resist, given the cause and the perk of a print: Jaalen Edenshaw’s “K’alt’side K’aa” (“Laughing Crow”).

Edenshaw is the brother of Gwaii Edenshaw, one of the foremost jewelers on the coast. Much of his work is on poles and other community art, with only an occasional piece making it as far south to Vancouver. So I was happy when, a few weeks after the Haida Raid fundraiser closed, I received this small sample of his work. Many people assume that Haida art has no humor, and I’m glad to have a piece that proves otherwise.

What particularly interests me about this piece is its resemblance to some of the figures on the ring I bought from Gwaii Edenshaw five years ago. I had asked Gwaii to do a ring illustrating the story about how Raven turned the crows black. Not wanting to share their salmon with Raven, the crows put crumbs in the dozing Ravens’ mouth, then try to convince him that he already eaten when he wakes up. But Raven is not deceived, and throws the crows into the fire, singeing them so that their feathers turn from white to black.

bruce-ring3

On the ring, Gwaii depicts the crows in the middle of sprinkling Raven with crumbs of salmon, rolling them into his mouth and along his back. The crow figures resemble the ones on Jaalen’s print, and I mean to ask him which came first the next time I see him.

Meanwhile, the print is a good example of how I can enjoy a hundred dollar piece as much as a ten thousand dollar one. With a print run of 270, the print is unlikely ever to be valuable, but I admire it for its unusual posture, as well as the lines indicating movement on both sides of the figure. Compared to most prints, it is a cartoon – but that, I suspect, is exactly what was intended.

laughing-crow

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Shortly after 4:35PM on Saturday, March 28, I finished my manuscript for “Designing with LibreOffice.” It was the end of two years of work, stolen from my efforts to make a living and from my leisure time, as well as the start of the next stage in bringing the book to market.

At eighty-thousand words, the manuscript is the largest I’ve prepared since my master’s thesis twenty-five years ago. This time, no lightning strike directly overhead took out my hard drive a few weeks before a critical deadline, but other obstacles impeded me instead. Unlike with my thesis, I couldn’t take the time to do nothing else until it was done. Grief, repetitive stress injuries, and bad knees took their toll, dragging out the writing far beyond what I had expected.

Then, too, I confess there was mission creep. I was aware of the problem, having tried to write a book on OpenOffice.org over a decade ago, only to lose the control of the scope, but it happened again anyway. This time, while I wanted to avoid too much detail, I soon understood that,while I started only with the intention to explain styles and templates in LibreOffice ,the exercise would never serve readers unless it also explained typographic conventions and standards.

Fortunately, having worked as both a technical writer and a graphic artist, as well as a free software writer, I was well-positioned to write such a book.

However, the form it needed took a while for me to understand. What I wanted to write was only partly a technical manual. It was also an explanation of typography, mixed with advice about how to – and how not-to – use LibreOffice. Finding the voice and structure for all these aims was much harder than the physical act of writing, which is why some of the chapters only took their right form in my third draft.

I finished, tired and satisfied, and smirking just a little at having overcome everything when I finished sending the last of the files to my editor. Had I been living with someone, undoubtedly we would have gone out to dinner and so to bed, but instead, I floated vaguely around the townhouse, imagining vast panoramas of spare time opening around me in the days to come.

That won’t happen, of course. Next comes the corrections requested by my editor, the selection of the cover, and the building of the concordance for the index. At some point, too, I have to divide into small sections to sell separately from the hard copies of the entire book (the downloads are free). Already in the past two days, this new stage is starting, so I feel like I am at the tip of the crest, feeling the roller coaster starting to tip inevitably downwards.

Time now to disengage from the book, to re-frame it in my mind as no longer mine, but an object to prepare for others. Time to lose the ego’s perspective, in which criticism feels like an attack, and to become detached and business-like.

Still, even as that next stage begins, a sense of accomplishment lingers. Not the meaninglessness of self-esteem, but the sense of accomplishment of having finished not only a long project but one which very few other people have the background to do.

I suspect it won’t be another twenty-five years before I write another book length manuscript. Possibly, I may begin a new project by the end of summer. Meanwhile, I’m going to surf the crest of the wave of accomplishment, believing for a while that I’m not so useless as I sometimes believe.

Will the return to reality will feel like toppling headlong into the waves and losing all sense of direction? Probably. But for a moment I’m standing tall, doing handstands on my board, waving to those stuck on the beach.

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