Category Archives: Publishing

No Great Mischief – Loss and Pain

SCEW - WordPress embedded icon - glass lookThis is a student video presentation about the immigrant experience, and the themes of loss and love in the late Alistair MacLeod’s stirring – and only – novel, No Great Mischief. Quotes from my essay Staring Down My Ghosts In Northern Ontario, published in the Globe & Mail a while back, were included as part of the presentation. Interesting synchronicity that the students couldn’t have known: MacLeod not only taught me, but was the first person to offer encouragement about doing graduate work, an astounding idea considering I had a business degree and one mediocre English course credit under my belt.  About a decade later he sat in on my thesis defense, which I didn’t realize was unheard-of until it was over and my defense committee commented that they’d never seen him do that before.  It’s humbling that my name even came within glancing distance of his when it comes to writing, even in a student presentation, but it’s pretty cool nonetheless. Dr. MacLeod was one of the loveliest men you’d ever meet with a fantastic sense of humor that got me through Jane Austin without going postal (sorry Austinites, but I’m more of a Frankenstein kind of gal). Thanks, students, whoever you are.

Click on Video above, or this link:

http://prezi.com/6n6dyjx7uwnu/?utm_campaign=share&utm_medium=copy&rc=ex0share

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June 12, 2014 · 1:12 pm

Do You Want To Be Published or Do You Want To Be Read?

SCEW - WordPress embedded icon - glass lookThe average employee will put around 2,000 (+/-) hours per year into a job. That’s eight hours a day, five days a week, week in, week out, excluding holidays, paid overtime, and the odd Monday morning I’ll-kill-myself-if-I-have-to-go-in-there time.

If there’s any truth to the the 10,000-hour rule for mastering a skill set, it would take approximately five years to accomplish anything meaningful on the job. Of course, give or take, considering differentials like intelligence, talent, ambition etc.

Let’s just say the average “writer” has one of these jobs that causes bills to be paid and food to be eaten and dumpster-diving to be forestalled. Let’s just say. Now, the 2,000 hours does not include off-site time spent finishing reports, ulcerating quietly on the bathroom floor, crying, or doing research.

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Important research.

Now, there are maybe another good 50 hours left in the week .  That’s pretty awesome, translating to potentially 3,000 more hours during the year to excel at something more important to you, like writing.

Oh, but oops – forgot about preparing meals, eating, and cleaning up after meals. Shopping. Housework. Yard work. Grooming. Childcare. Trying to figure out why the printer won’t print.

Friends. Social time. Sick time. Down time.

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Does this count as socializing AND rest?

Even if writers were left with half that time free (a generous estimate) to concentrate on writing, it would take a minimum of nearly seven years of dedicated effort to produce writing that resembled anything like mastery. Notice I said writing and not a manuscript. That’s because telling good stories is a whole nuther level of mastery and requires far more than a skillful way of stringing words together. Of course, that seven years includes everything from pre-writing to final editing, whether you’ve told a good story or not. Bear in mind that even after the Beatles began their insane rocket-ship ride to celebrity it took years to produce their truly great material.

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Ugh.

Then there’s the publishing process. It can take years of rejection and tinkering and full-out rewrites before a junior editor sifting through a slush pile notices you – if it’s a particularly good query. But even the query process has its own learning curve. If a query is noticed it might be 3-9 months before they let you know, and if a full manuscript is requested it can take up to a year or more before it’s read. If they like what they see, rewrites may be suggested. Make that “suggested”, ie: do it or get lost. Depending on the involvement, tack on another year, then another waiting for an analysis of the rewrites. Then there’s the hurdle of the editorial board approvals at every stage.

If it’s accepted, throw on another 1-3 years before a book reaches a shelf.

If it’s rejected, back  to square one.

This is why so many turn to self-publishing as an express route to authorship.

So, what is all this getting to? Writing is not like making popsicle-stick birdhouses. Treat it like a hobby, and you will be lucky if you can get your Gammy to take a copy.

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Oh, uh – hey, yeah that’s – and you did this yourself? Well, don’t you worry, Gammy knows EXACTLY where this belongs.

Maybe you feel the years slipping between your fingers, and as becoming a published author dims on the far horizon somehow it becomes more urgent than ever. Before I’m 30, you say. Then: before I’m 40, 50, once I’ve retired.

Before I die.

But no, you say. No way am I waiting years, decades to get this done. That brass ring is right there, if you could only reach –

Yes, do it. Do. It. Go ahead, self-publish, get your work out there and you’ll be the next Wool, and then it’ll be you making them bloody well wait for that contract.

Stop. Please. Stop and think for a moment about what it means to be an author versus a writer.

Be a writer first. Being a writer is all about you. Write because you love it and you have a story to tell, because it helps you work through your issues, because it relieves the stresses of life and lets you express yourself. But being a writer doesn’t mean being  readable  or publishable.

Becoming an author is no longer about you, because there’s another mind involved and that’s the reader. Becoming an author means you have a story that needs to be communicated to readers, because no matter what your issues are or how many stessors there are in life, you are first and foremost dedicated to perfecting your craft and raising your work to the realm of art no matter what the consequences are.

Because being publishable starts with being readable – and that includes everything from children’s fiction to complex works that require an annotated concordance just to read.

Readability is good storytelling. Good storytelling attracts readers. Publishers are looking for great storytelling because they want to attract readers. Because, ultimately, readers mean sales. Not always, but mostly they know a good story when they come across it. And remember that what gets published is not always that good because the bulk of what comes in for review is just so gut-wrenchingly, pukingly awful. Sometimes what gets published is just the best of what came in, and that can be very little above mediocre. Rejection is not a way of hurting writers, but a way of saying you’re not there yet. Rejection is Writing 101 at the university of work harder, write better.

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Not. There. Yet …

So why are you going to self-publish? To attract readers? Oh my dear, self-publish because you have readers, because you have the stats to prove you can get more readers besides your besties and your family (hey, Gammy!). Readers don’t come because you’ve put your work out there. They don’t even come because you’ve set off a monster marketing and PR campaign. They come because the story is worth reading. To them, not to you. That’s why Wool happened.

Is it panic, then, because you want your name in print before you die? And what will that get you in the end? Humiliating failure with no up-side except maybe some vicious trolling and online snark to rip a hole in your soul (as opposed to, if you’re lucky, some very generous commentary from an editor in the process of rejecting you).

Because what’s the point in being published if nobody reads your work? Notice, though, that I’m not talking about sales. I’m talking about readers. Readers are not necessarily sales, but readers are definitely necessary – and absolutely pave the way – for sales.

Is wanting to be a published author such a blind ambition that you’ve lost sight of what it takes to have readers?

The time is necessary, fellow writers. Time is your investment, and not just the hours per day you dedicate at the keyboard, but the years of doubt and questioning and self-reflection required to move a story from its sacred position in your mind to a sacred position in the reader’s mind. Invest in this time no matter how much is required of you, and do it gladly because it is the birth canal that will bring story from within you  into the world. It’s messy and it’s ugly and many can’t go through with it. But like a baby’s gestation from zygote to beautiful autonomous infant ready to take on the world, the writer requires a gestation in order to become an author. Writing requires a gestation to become storytelling.

Ten thousand hours. Five years. Seven years. Ten.

So how about it: do you want to be published?

Or do you want to be read?

If you’re tired of trying to figure out how to tell a great story, stay tuned to this blog for news about a revolutionary new structuring tool that will help you not only get the bones of your story right, but also help you keep track of changes so your story makes sense from beginning to end no matter how many drafts. Be sure to subscribe to this blog to be kept in the loop so you can be among the first to try it out. In the meantime, download my free fiction-timeline-worksheet-3-0-sandrachmara to help get your story working now.

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Filed under Creative Writing, Editing, Fiction, Publishing, Sandra Chmara, Writing, Writing Advice

Writing Mistakes 101: Storybombing

SCEW - WordPress embedded icon - glass lookSay you’re watching The Walking Dead and the scene turns to everybody’s beloved bad boy Daryl.

So you’re all geared up for some more eye-popping, cringe-worthy gore and storytelling wizardry and – as always – delicious character development. The tension is positively aching. You’re ready for the jump-out-of-your-socks moment.

Photo courtesy of www.examiner.com

Walking Dead? Walking POET: “You take that stupid hat and go back to ‘On Golden Pond'”

Then Daryl swings his crossbow over his shoulders, leans back on his Harley, looks up into a cloudless Tiffany-blue sky – and starts talking about the music of solitude and how the weight of one empty heart is greater than weight of the world.

Photo courtesy of www.tiffany.com

“Azure” was taken.

Whuut?

I know. I mean, he might have all that in him but that ain’t Darryl’s voice. That ain’t even his character.

Writers do this all the time. Even published writers. In an industry where in-house editing is still smoking from the seemingly endless economic slash-and-burn, these mistakes slip by more and more.

So what’s going on? Well, likely the writer is the one who thinks about the music of solitude and the weight of the empty heart. And Tiffany-blue skies. Probably there’s even a notebook with this very phrasing scribbled out in woke-up-at-3am-giggling-over-this-idea handwriting. The writer has been dying to use it somewhere for quite some time, and when the protagonist is placed into a position where solitude and empty hearts become a focal point – BAM! There it is.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking about the kind of earned wisdom that comes from working the land or an embattled life. Some of the most powerful words have come from the least powerful people.

photo courtesy of torgo10.tumblr.com

Poor kid. Wait till he gets a mortgage.

The writer wants to philosophize and wax poetic to show off his or her ideas and some writing tricks, and uses a character to do something the story will otherwise  not allow.

Don’t count on publishing houses to catch this for you. One editor might be juggling the whole list for a season where there used to be a whole team. Or you might get someone who isn’t experienced enough, awake enough, or interested enough in fighting over it. But, you might say, if it doesn’t bother them, then what’s the big deal?

Well, buttercup, once the book’s out there, readers will care. Sure, if you’re a good enough writer they will enjoy your novel or story but those weird inconsistencies will irritate like a sesame seed under dentures. In a hyper-competitive book environment, can you afford to lose credibility and authority? What about your next time out? Word of mouth is still the greatest form of promotion, so when talking (or posting) about your book, readers are more likely to feel less positively than they would have if you hadn’t barged into the story.

Awwk-waard!

Let’s put it this way: The Walking Dead is the powerhouse that it is because the writers know their characters. Even when they do something out of character, it is consistent with the circumstances. It all makes sense together. There is more going on under the storytelling surface than meets the eye, but it is within the narrative scaffolding and not the writers’ whims.

But just watch. As soon as they forget what their story is about, and as soon as their characters go off the map without circumstances that make sense, the viewership will drop like a bird having a heart attack in mid-air. When the writers start intruding on the storytelling to say something they’be been dying to add for a long time, to make the story about something other than what it’s about, to play with the underlying driving factors, this show is done.

It’ll be Lost all over again.

Is that what you want for your writing career?

Know you characters. Know your purpose. Know what drives the whole. Stay the aitch-ee-double-toothpicks out of your own story.

Then you will be less likely to storybomb your own writing.

Want to know how to prevent storybombing through structure? Read my post about an exciting one-of-a-kind writing tool soon to be launched that will change the way you write. Subscribe to this blog for updates on this never-before seen product, and be among the first to get hold of a copy. In the meantime, download my free fiction-timeline-worksheet-3-0-sandrachmara to get your plotting on the right track.

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Filed under Creative Writing, Editing, Fiction, Professional Editing, Publishing, Sandra Chmara, Writing, Writing Advice

Why Everything You’ve Ever Done To Keep Track Of Your Story Is Wrong

SCEW - WordPress embedded icon - glass lookGuidebooks: Blahblah blah. Blah blah. Blah. Huh? Interesting. But how was that supposed to help me actually write – ?

Workbooks: Scribble scribblescribble scratch. Erase-erase-erase. Scribble. Scribble. Who the – What the – Why’d I write that? And why did I put it there in the first place? Erase erase erase. Scribble. Rip. Dayum

Software: Tappity-tappity tap tap tappatappa. Tap. Delete delete. Tappity tap. Backspacebackspacebackspace. Tap. Delete delete delete. Tappity – Hmm. Where’d I put that part about the atheist praying mantis? Tap tap – Where did – Ah! Oh. Ugh. Delete delete delete. Wait – maybe I need it after all. No, it’s gone. But – maybe it really is important to the story. But then – Aw, I don’t even know any more. Click. P-khew!

Files & Notes: Aaargh! Sob –

Structural Flowchart* – Write write write. Oh! So that’s how that works! Wow. Just – wow. Write write. Oh, so that’s not supposed to be there. Correct. Track track – yes, now it makes sense why it didn’t work. It doesn’t link up with any of the other narrative threads. Ha. Lee. Loo. Ya.

Nuff said.

* Coming soon to a Kickstarter near you: the Writer’s Studio Series: Structural Flowchart (Classic Arc Narrative). Tell your friends. If you (and all those friends who are dying to write better stories) want to be updated about the progress of the project launch, please subscribe to this blog.

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A Revolutionary New Storytelling Tool Is Coming

SCEW - WordPress embedded icon - glass lookThis will change the way you write.

If you can imagine what blueprints and the fundamentals of structural engineering did for architecture, or what arrangement principles and scoring sheets did for composers, you have an idea what this tool will do for writers. It’s the perfect marriage of form and function, and there is nothing like it anywhere in the world. Anywhere.

The Writer’s Studio Series Structural Flowchart (Classic Arc Narrative) is not a guidebook, it’s not a workbook, and it’s not cumbersome, overly-complicated software. It’s so unbelievably simple that writers will wonder how it hasn’t already existed yet.

It will shave years of frustrated effort off your writing.

It. Will. Change. Your. Life.

What is it?

Stay tuned.

Soon I will be launching a Kickstarter campaign for this project, which will allow backers the chance to get hold of a hot-off-the-press copy long before it’s available to the general public.

But here’s where it gets amazing: without naming names (because I haven’t secured permission to name-drop yet, but you know which one I’m talking about), the biggest media venue in the world dedicated to writers wants a first-run copy of this product to assess for a possible feature article aimed at its global audience of writers and publishers. That means, after the Kickstarter campaign, if demand goes supernova, copies will be hard to get hold of for a while as I scramble with my supplier to manage the upped game.

This is where it gets ugly. Kickstarter is all-or-nothing. If a project doesn’t meet its goal, not one dollar changes hands. So, if writers want this amazing tool in their hot little hands, this thing has to go viral. That means every person reading this blog post who wants a copy of the Classic Arc Narrative Structural Flowchart will have to tell everyone, and ask them to tell everyone.

Subscribe to this blog for updates and clues, and be among the first to become a backer.

It’s okay to “like” the post, but this will not get you any updates, so if you want to stay informed about the progress of the project and the Kickstarter campaign, you must subscribe (along the side bar). The project launch will go hand-in-hand with the launch of a dedicated website. Once the Kickstarter campaign begins, there will only be 30 days to take action.

No one can imagine designing a building without blueprints, or composing a symphony without a score. It’s time writers were given the same advantage. The Writer’s Studio Series Classic Arc Narrative Structural Flowchart is the best possible tool available for structuring fiction. Find out for yourself what architects and composers have known for centuries.

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Staring Down Ghosts

(Staring Down My Ghosts In Northern Ontario from the Globe & Mail 03/10/2012. Note: The paper’s editing preferences, while not reflective of the choices I would have made as an editor, have not been altered from the published article.)

Little is left of the old nickel town of Victoria Mines: a few metres of crushed slag that once formed a road; sunken foundations, bits of wood.

Now a ghost town in Ontario’s Sudbury Basin, it is where my family’s Canadian story began, around the turn of the last century.

Since my father’s death, my heart has been balled into a fist. I thought that coming to look at this place might ease the grip.

As we exit the car, we spread out and take measure. Granite tumours bulge: unwelcoming, treacherous for my elderly mother and aunt and uncle. My husband and I keep our little boy close.

Occupying this ground demands an almost sepulchral reverence. It is a haunted space, even if its ghosts exist only in my awareness that life once burgeoned here and then was gone.

Scattered in the scrub are morsels of ore and the occasional verdigris shock of copper-cobalt. Evidence of the living – broken jars, a wooden cross, shards of metal – lie hidden within a hissing ocean of weeds and grass.

Where the mine and the smelter once thundered and murky smoke drifted across the years, while a thousand souls fought for survival, there is silence.

Wind shushes through the leaves, a parched, papery sound, and I swear I can hear the murmuring past: the clatter and tinkle of the dinner table, men’s voices, occasionally women’s, the distant wailing of a baby.

The sky is cloudless and almost pure indigo. Chirring grasshoppers and the ravens that haw from time to time form a bleak antiphony to the ghost-echoes of women dying in childbirth; the barking and hacking of tuberculosis, silicosis, cancer; the low and terrible moans of hunger and disease in brutal winters.

My father’s death has unnerved me, even though it was expected. Through him I was bound to my ancestors, but I was coldly severed in that instant when his world went black and disappeared. Ever since, I have felt as much left behind as these places that formed, and deformed, our history.

When the past is unknown, the individual lives caught up in those shadows can become unknowable. This was my father, and in a way he was lost to me long before his death. I thought that maybe, if I picked through our shared past, I would find my dad and feel connected to something I never really had.

The oldest family photo of my grandfather shows him in 1914 on the newly built porch of his general store in Coniston, about 60 kilometres west of Victoria Mines. Another spoke in the Sudbury hub, Coniston was born out of the ruin of Victoria Mines, whose operations dried up like dozens of others dotting the ore-rich Basin. My grandfather’s prospects moved in an almost organic synchronicity with the mining fortunes in the region. In that photo, his Hollywood-handsome figure exudes attitude: Arms folded, he gazes on some unseen point beyond the camera. Sporting a great handlebar mustache, his expression is pure swagger. He has the world by the tail, and it shows.

How different from the old, prattling man who died 40 years ago, his eyes long emptied of vigour.

Each successive grief – the loss of two daughters in infancy, his wife’s defection under the pressure of his expectations, and finally the double blow of his second-born daughter’s death along with her unborn child – took its toll. And just as he’d imposed his supremacy and demands for perfection upon his family, so too did he impose his brokenness.

His descendants carried this with them, a kind of permanent hurt passed on like a gene nobody could decode.

The past became veiled in shame and silence, breaches in the narrative that stopped the story dead. We didn’t know how to ask our way past them, to isolate those metaphorical chromosomes and the memory-material that defined our familial angst.

At Victoria Mines, birch trees reach from thin soil like sun-bleached bones and the lank forms of Jack pine and white pine have filled the emptiness. In the old, sepia images of the town there were no trees. This place, too, is an erasure.

All this goes together: These lost towns and lost stories and lost relationships are the defining features that create the landscape of our lives, then vanish without a trace. It’s what’s in between that’s missing, borne silently among us like a genome: the when and where and why of them and of us.

The curve in the slag-banked road, if you catch it at just the right angle, mirrors the curve of the main road visible in one of those misty old images. It takes a while, experimenting with perspectives, to see the lay of the land through the eyes of all these ghosts. But see it we must.

My father’s death was not just a door slammed between life and afterlife: It was the breaking of a DNA narrative. To relate our experiences is to breathe life into words, to give power and expiation to our brief presence.

Something about who we have become mutates when a parent dies. Maybe it’s the discovery that we have never really been ourselves under the weight of all those pasts, known and unknown. Maybe what changes is that their deaths are not only a severance, but a freeing. It’s the dissonance that is so hard to navigate.

What has bound up my heart so that I can barely breathe remains. It will likely be there, in some part, for the rest of my life. It’s what loss is.

As we return to the car, I take one last look around. No voices have whispered their answers.

Then I realize: There is something I must say, too. Every day.

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The Alchemy of Great Storytelling

In the ancient world, the magic of turning lead into gold was thought to be achieved through alchemy. What are writers trying to do but work toward some kind of alchemy through words? Strong writing and great storytelling – not always concurrent expressions – are something exquisite wrought from the ordinary.

The Prima Materia of Great Storytelling

Water. Wind. Fire. Earth. Original elements – Prima Materia – in a particular combination, in particular quantities, combined with a mystical unknown element called quintessence by some, the Philosopher’s Stone by others, were thought to turn sundry earth-bits into precious metal.

So how do writers turn word-bits into that rare, lustrous, ductile narrative commodity? Is there a secret buried beneath great storytelling and strong writing (even if not exclusively great literature) that can be made more understandable through the old ideas of alchemy?

The classical elements recur in psychological theory, Jungian in particular, where alchemy corresponds to the process of individuation.

All this translates aptly into the literary realm, and has been woven through narrative in other guises. For some authors the classical elements relate to the seasons. The weight or focus upon a given season gives birth to genre. Winter/water is satire; spring/wind is comedy; summer/fire is romance; autumn/earth is tragedy.

It is the life cycle of conception, birth, growth, and death. In maturation it’s the stages that take us from dependency to initiation to mating to mortality.

In storytelling, just as it is in the specific process – the Magnum Opus or Great Work – that creates the Philosopher’s Stone or unknown element, precedence of order matters. In every great narrative, the crux of strong writing depends upon beginning in the right place. And if alchemy is really an expression of the universal and the primal, a structural truth springing organically from something that has existed in us since first consciousness – then the beginning, it seems, is really an end.

The Process of Great Storytelling

The Ordinary

The generative phase of the Great Work is that of Nigredo. In the realm of classical elements, this is the earth constituent,  represented by the Hippocratic humour of black bile – melancholy. Necessarily, this aspect of the mystical alchemic process is the decomposition of the ordinary and the known, the lead. It is the chaos before creation.  It is autumnal, the cyclical space wherein the past is in ruin but the future remains beyond reach. It is tragedy. It’s the spiritual death without which there can be no rebirth. For Jung, this was a confrontation with Shadow, the concealed subconscious aspect of Self. For Freud: Apocalypse, the breaking up and breaking down of the known.

It’s possible that this beginning place seems so natural in literature because it corresponds with the origins of our very existence: the beginning is the void. It’s what precedes the Big Bang, and the nothingness before creation and before birth; it is the nothingness without which the eventuation of human existence would have been impossible.

From the the Book of Genesis to The Satanic Verses, great narratives begin with void – of the soul, the psyche, the city, society, civilization, the personal life, the political and ideological life.

This is more than just a character who wants something, as writing advice often suggests. Writers who want a shot at something greater than invisible-making work must dig into the profundity of the void, what it looks like (deeply, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, existentially), how we share it, and how it translates into narrative. Jung’s Shadow occupies this space: it is the face of identity turned as much away from the self as the public, and its awakening triggers the ruin of the known self. Pull a scratch-n-sniff level excavation, or go full-bore into the bowels of human experience; how far depends on the writer’s capabilities and will. The richness and value to the reader(s) will be a matter of what’s been tapped, and how.

In Crime and Punishment, the void is ever-present in the bleakness of pre-Bolshevist Russian society, but the void is also – simultaneously – the looming presence of radicalism that forms in answer to Raskolnikov’s social reality. In every description is a suggestion that Raskolnikov is a product of a gaping social and ideological blackness. It is already in him, psychically formed of the Intelligentsia ideal like a pustule. It’s in the physical filth and greyness. It’s in the man who beats his horse to death as much as it is in the reactions of those who witness it. From the outset Raskolnikov is the embodiment of spiritual, intellectual, and social putrefaction. His choices are society’s choices. His actions are those of a man who has broken open the breach of false selfhood and recognized his own Shadow. He murders because his intellectual superiority makes him fit to judge the moral worth of another human being. So says the mask-self. But as Raskolnikov comes to understand his Shadow self he accepts what truly underlies his murderous side.

Similarly, Jean Valjean in Les Misérables enters a time and place already in the process of destruction. But more importantly, he is France’s benumbed conscience, the nowhere place out of which the future of France will be born. He is a grown-up construct of the society that gave birth to him, that made it possible for him to become a hardened criminal to begin with. On a dark and solitary road he begins to awaken to his Shadow self.

The Magnus Opus’ Albedo (white) phase is a purification of lead into silver. Water is the element. It is winter, and satire. The decomposed remains from the generative phase are washed through into two predominant opposing principles. Of the humours, Albedo corresponds with a phlegmatic temperament – unemotional, stolid, calm. For Jung the splitting is between the psychological Anima and Animus – unacknowledged femaleness and unacknowledged maleness that must finally communicate to achieve wholeness and eventually a fully individuated Self. It is Freud’s Deluge among the archetypal motifs.

No better literary exemplar for this idea of splitting and opposing principles can be found than A Tale of Two Cities. The famous opening lines foreshadow the ways in which England and France, London and Paris, and Sidney Carton and Charles Darnay come to represent social, ideological, and political cleansing, and the distillation of self and identity – all in opposition. They query the provenance of human and cultural development. They are at once forces that both compete and complete.

The Extraordinary

Nothing as common or predictable as a simple ablution will metamorphose the ordinary into the extraordinary. Even with strong writing and strong storytelling this holds true, and it’s what divides good from great.

In narrative, to misunderstand the core of this transcendent movement is to derail storytelling and character development. It’s to continue the trajectory of the ordinary, or to make an auspicious beginning only to lose narrative footing by attenuating its potential right back to ordinary.

Exactly where this moment occurs in a narrative is part of storytelling’s quintessence.

Citrinitas represents the yellow bile of the humours – elemental fire. Yellow bile is choleric, aggressive. In this phase an alchemic transmutation by fire occurs, where silver transforms into gold.  Of the Jungian archetypes, fire is the Wise Elder or Senex. For Freud it’s Creation.

In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness Marlow’s encounter with Kurtz, both obliquely through the idea of him and directly with the eerily brilliant but dying Kurtz, changes Marlow. Most would argue that Kurtz is the evil genius archetype but the transformation of gold in this alchemic phase does not necessitate a gentle, coddling Wise Elder. It demands a catalyst for a trial by fire. That Kurtz is the evil genius is only one aspect of his own evolution into demigod and chieftain, a self-styled and perverse redaction of the Senex, but his role in the narrative is no less that of the Wise Elder for his depraved contribution to Marlow’s development. In fact, it might be argued that only Kurtz’ personal and projected dissonance with his own embodiment of “horror” could hold the power to purify Marlow’s Self.

Finally, signifying success in the alchemic process is the unity of the quintessence with the newly rarefied gold. This phase is called Rubedo. The element is air, and the Hippocratic humor is that of blood or sanguinity. It’s Jung’s archetypal Self.  The importance of this coalescence lies in the representation of red in both components of this final stage – gold and quintessence – and thus the unity of opposites; it’s material with immaterial, body with spirit, effable with ineffable; it’s a signal completion of the Magnum Opus and the fully individuated or actualized Self. As a Freudian archetypal motif: Unity.

Not all alchemic endings are happy, but they must ring true to the process that generates them. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, the moment when Dorian stabs his own portrait symbolizes a confrontation between what he has learned of himself and what he has become. Only death can provide true unity. The metaphoric and symbolic synthesis is not just concluded through the redness of blood, it is made choate.

Raskolnikov and Sidney Carton choose self-sacrifice – that of freedom and that of life, respectively, to substantiate the unity between the past self and the discovered Self.

To some extent, all great stories contain elements of the alchemic. As humans, our very existence – our lives – play out that paradigm. Throughout literary history it seems to have always cohered with readers, and likely always will.

Perhaps this sheds some light on the qualities that make stories relatable and memorable. For writers, that is the eternal mystery. Its revelation lies both in the cosmic and quantum matter of human experience, that existential site either too big or too small to understand except in pieces, where we and our stories become one.

Writers must find that place, interpret its alchemic Prima Materia, then assimilate them in just the right way, in the right quantities, in the right order, weighted precisely, then – gold.

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The Best Editing Tool You Probably Don’t Use

All writers experience this problem: after hours or days or months staring at the computer screen while your imaginative gems appear before your eyes one pixellated word at a time, you no longer have perspective. As far as editing tools are concerned, you’re tapped. Is it writer’s block? You’re missing even simple mistakes. You don’t realise you’ve repeated the same word ten times on the same page. How is the narrative flow? Who knows? After reading and re-reading your manuscript you get …

Nothing.

You might as well have cotton balls for brains.

Print it out, of course, but in terms of qualitative effect as an editing tool it’s only one removed from what you see on the screen. Back to cotton balls. Plus, who needs to kill so many trees when there’s a better way?

This trick refreshes your perspective so that you can see your work with new editorial eyes. Mistakes and flow problems will pop out like never before, just as they do when you’re reading a novel.

Have you guessed what the editing tool is yet? Your e-reader!

Most e-readers allow you to download pdf files, so the next time you need to do a major read-through, create a pdf file that will allow you to throw your manuscript onto the little screen and give it a published-novel look that will completely alter how you see your own work.

There are some formatting issues you will need to take into account first. If you don’t make them, it just won’t work. These instructions are for KOBO in Microsoft Office Word, although other devices can’t be very different.

  1. First create a copy of your file in Word and tweak the name (eg: My Novel2 or My Novel – e-reader). You will  need this secondary Word file as a base to create a pdf file. Always keep your original document intact.
  2. On the Home tab in your new Word file:
    • Select All. Formatting changes must be done with all the text selected
    • Under Font choose Palatino Linotype – Size 14. The PDF/KOBO sync did not handle some fonts well, especially Times New Roman, creating a dog’s breakfast of the file, so this was one that worked cleanly. You can try others yourself. The goal is to be viewing a product that most closely resembles a finished novel even if you prefer to work in sans, which is why a classic serif font works best.
  3. Go to Page Layout tab
  4. Choose Page Setup:
    • Paper Size:  8.5×11” Borderless (this is an important distinction, usually used for printing photos). You may need to create a custom paper size to accommodate the borderless feature.
    • Orientation: Landscape
    • Multiple Pages: 2 pages per sheet
    • Margins: Top: 0.5”; Bottom: 2.0”; Inside: 0.5”; Outside: 0.5”; Gutter: 0.0”
  5. Choose Paragraph:
    • Indentation: Special – First Line by 0.3” (standard 0.5 eats up too much space on the small screen)
    • Line spacing: single

When Saving As PDF:

Choose Save As. When the screen for the Save As PDF feature pops up, choose Options:

  • Page Range: All
  • Publish What: Document
  • Include Non-Printing Information: Document Structure Tags for Accessibility (allows table of contents and bookmarks in e-reader. Without re-formatting the tags and bookmarks it won’t be pretty but at least you’ll be able to navigate through the KOBO Menu’s Table of Contents feature)
  • PDF Options: Bitmap text when fonts may not be embedded

Try creating JPEG or GIF cover art for your book and insert it as the first page, with the title and your name splashed across the front. It’ll do wonders for how you imagine your project. You can stretch it across the whole page by selecting a Through text-wrapping option to give you control of image placement, and then dragging the edges.

Finally, plug your e-reader in, open the folder that contains your pdf file, right-click on the file and choose Send To from the drop-down menu to select your removable storage device. Done.

The beauty of this editing tool is that you can send your file to someone who also has an e-reader. It’s a highly accessible feedback tool. Although you can’t make changes like you can with an open Word document, you can certainly keep your original file open and on hand to make changes as you read. Alternatively, keep a paper pad nearby to make notes on the changes you need to make in your original Word document.

Make all your changes to the original Word file, not the pdf Word file. Although it’s a hassle, even if you copy and paste the text into the secondary document, each time you want a new copy for your e-reader you’ll have to change the formatting once again. Merging files may work, but it’s an experiment you’ll have to try yourself.

This is probably the best editing tool you will ever use to give you a fresh perspective. Try it, and see if it doesn’t completely change the way you read and edit your own work.

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Making Yourself Submission-Ready

Remember the scene from Seinfeld where Elaine develops a rash, and every attempt to seek medical help ends in the ominous click of a ballpoint pen and a permanent notation in her file that marks her as a difficult patient – all the way up to the government level? What, you may ask, does that have to do with writers making themselves submission-ready?

Well, my friends, you are Elaine, your masterpiece of fiction is a rash, and somewhere out there is someone ready with a ballpoint pen.

What if your submission makes an editor never want to hear from you again? Are you prepared to make a name for yourself for all the worst possible reasons, all of which tie your name to literary garbage? What do you suppose that does for your chances of getting published in the future?

Everyone makes mistakes when they start out, but writers who begin the submission process rarely think about submission-readiness or the effects of a premature effort.

Unfortunately, writers waste a lot of time with false starts – not just their own, but that of the publishers and editors and agents who must slog through acres of tripe and dreck just to waste more time sending out rejection letters. Are you one of those writers who make editors want to quit their jobs? Will you get it wrong? Did it already happen?

Are you submission-ready?

Find out. Before you lick that stamp, here’s a check list that can help you determine your submission-readiness:

  1. You’ve vetted your entire work somewhere for detailed feedback, and parts of it broadly through different venues:
    • workshops
    • writing conferences
    • writers’s groups (with at least one person who knows something about writing)
    • writer-in-residence programmes
    • college/university coursework
    • MA/MFA
    • professional editing services
    • legitimate competitions
    • publication history
  2. You’ve learned to self-edit:
    • POV is clear and strong, without confused multiple points-of-view within a scene
    • purple prose is under control (and you know what it is when you see it as well as when you write it)
    • sentences vary in structure, length, and word choices, and partipate actively to convey pacing and tone
    • able to pick out repetitious words and phrases both in close textual proximity and overall
    • minimal spelling and grammar mistakes
    • no errant homophones (it’s/its; their/there/they’re, etc.)
    • able to maintain focus on the main story line and excise anything that detracts from moving the plot forward – even when you love it
    • facts are checked and double-checked
  3. You understand what kind of story you’re writing:
    • genre
    • style
    • category
    • form
  4. You know whether your characters are flat or dimensional, you know the narrative uses of each, and you made a deliberate choice based on the kind of story you’re writing.
  5. Your plot choices are focussed and well-considered:
    • chronology
    • appropriate use of flashbacks
    • setting
    • structurally sound
    • tone
  6. Character development arc is defined
    • purposeful
    • tied to events and experiences
    • keeps the story moving forward
    • you can easily describe it to someone
  7. You’ve identified your audience
  8. You’ve made conscious and purposeful structural choices:
    • you know how your narrative is shaped
    • you know how to start and end a paragraph, and why
    • you know how to start and end a chapter, and why
    • you know where to start and end your story
  9. You’ve mastered dialogue:
    • it’s natural
    • each character voice is distinct, even without indicators
    • it drives the story forward
    • it adds to character development
  10. You display a mature attitude about writing:
    • you are able to accept analysis and criticism without falling apart
    • you understand that nobody is going to steal your work or your ideas no matter who sees it
    • you are able to distinguish between valuable critique and misdirected criticism
    • you show an ability to simultaneously work and wait
    • you’ve read books produced by the publishing house(s) to which you are submitting, you can see an obvious pattern of literary tastes, you know that the publishers’ preferences either relate to your writing or don’t, and this research informs your choice of publishing targets.

Everybody who ever started out writing stinks. Everybody. There is a learning curve that takes longer for some, and less time for others. For some writers the window of opportunity and the story’s readiness won’t come together for years or even decades. A great story is worth holding onto, and worth waiting for that conjunction of time and talent and tastes that turns a seemingly futile effort into literary magic. The key is having the strength of character to resist sending your material out simply because your wrote it, and knowing the difference between your story’s readiness and your own.

No matter where you are on the curve, there is no advantage to rushing unless you’re writing a shocking expose about political candidates and the election is in a few months. Even then, opportunity does not make a well-told story.

Your chances of getting published are greatest when your work displays a consummate consciousness of craft, professionalism, and maturity; when you’ve faced the death of any illusions about the writing life or your own magnificence; when you show a willingness to do the hard work of making yourself as submission-ready as you have made yourself author-ready.

Because if you don’t … CLICK!

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Women and Writing: Epic Fail

If you’re a woman and a writer, and if you publish, you have about a 75% chance – give or take – of being universally ignored in literary reviews. This according to the latest data collected by VIDA now reverberating throughout the literary community and stirring up every shade of argument and apologia.

Are the lines really drawn between genders or is something else going on? And if women are so under-represented in the literary world, what’s getting in their way? Is male dominance so entrenched as to expressly give preference to inferior writing because the author is male?

It’s frightening to imagine the business model that represents. Ultimately, it’s like some kind of sick Soviet delusion that crams the Lada down the public throat because it can’t admit what a failure communism is, doesn’t care what the market wants, and won’t concede to the better – though flawed – system of democratic free-enterprise.

Are we to believe that some nefarious patriarchy is so moronic and self-destructive that brilliant writing will be systematically and pointedly pushed aside to serve a male agenda, even at the risk of lowering standards, profitability, and overall readership?

The VIDA people trot out arguments about the ratio of submissions and qualitative rubrics to dismiss the proportionality of reviews to submissions between the genders, cited by editors and publishers to explain the representational discrepancy. In other words, editors and reviewers are saying that 75% of the attention goes to male writers because 75% of the submissions are from male writers. VIDA doesn’t buy that, and believes it can mathematically chop up quality in an analysis to determine that these reviews are preferentially ignoring works of a higher calibre because the writers are women. The idea of qualitative rubrics is curious, since writing quality and publishability are so utterly subjective that it’s hard to imagine a statistically viable rubric for a process built necessarily on variability and inconsistently personal taste, which may differ widely within a single publication from editor to editor, much less from publication to publication. Even two comparable qualitative samples in writing cannot possibly express the broader scope of ineffable narrative factors that make one story a failure and the other a success.

A recent Globe & Mail article by newly minted publisher Linda Leith is likely to kick up a lot of dust just as it appears to have settled. She explains, without blame or setting up an argument about the causal chain, that in her experience as an editor, women fail both in the quantity and quality of submissions, and that if a publisher’s objective is to select the best of the best – well, the numbers are in favour of men. Hands down. Why women are submitting so infrequently relative to men, and why the writing quality is so poor are questions that must be asked and answered.

To this, VIDA would say that it’s the job of the publisher to go out and solicit women writers.

If editors must scramble to solicit writers who lack the wherewithal, ambition, or talent to find markets for their work, should they be published? Are they even ready for it? Such a publishing model – pushing the disinterested and the halfhearted – the half-baked – into publication just to make the numbers look good – is a recipe for mediocrity and failure. It does not answer the core questions about submission rates and quality.

Successful women in any field have been successful because they wanted to be, and they had the chops to flip inevitable chauvinism right on its back. Margaret Thatcher was not solicited to be Prime Minister to even out the gender score. She earned it. Oprah Winfrey did not become an entertainment powerhouse because some special interest group recognised the triple-whammy of her gender, racial, and weight disadvantages, and so coaxed her out of the shadows like some shy, dungeon-blinded patriarchal captive.

Will men go out of their way to shut women out? Some. But not all.

For anyone who wants what they want there are many routes to success, and they will turn and push and turn and push until something gives. They just do it. And if resistance and failure put an end to their efforts, then they likely didn’t want it with the same single-mindedness as the competition.

The internet is too immediate and too accessible to leave stuffy journals of yore with such overarching power. Even if the Old Boys are still at it, readers will effectively and efficiently bypass disingenuous publications that continuously churn out mediocrity that comes by way of skewed ideological positions, or more directly by pushing their version of the Lada on a public with a taste for something else.

No review can make a reader passionate about bland writing. A lack of formal reviews won’t keep a brilliantly written novel by a woman from the big prizes, or from the perusal of the general public. Readers will choose and buy, now more than ever, based on the opinions of other regular readers. Nothing can be more democratic and anti-chauvinist and anti-patriarchal than that. They will assess online commentary and reviews because they trust the integrity of even the most basic likes and dislikes, and ultimately they trust the aggregate.

So if the Big Boys are pursuing a dead agenda a hundred years past its due date, then the public will reward them by rendering such journals and their reviewers irrelevant, thus bringing to an end formal, knowledgeable literary reviewing. If such is the case, good riddance.

In the end it’s the depth and the storytelling magic that matters, not the review. Readers will always be attracted to beautiful writing, a sense of insight, and the writer’s connection – intellectually, spiritually, emotionally – with the broad sweep of the human condition.

Not male condition. Not female condition.

The  human condition. How beautiful. How full enough for us all.

Maybe that makes all the difference.

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