Tag Archives: Creative Writing

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

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

Pete And Repeat Were Writing A Novel …

SCEW - WordPress embedded icon - glass lookThe answer is repeat. Always.

In an earlier post about the compositional qualities writing shares with musical scoring, I introduced the idea that writers must think about force and momentum, tempo and pacing, and not only the mix of components and voices, but when to best use them for maximum effect. Well, there’s something else that writers share with composers but don’t seem to understand as well, and that is the way repetition of a motif/riff  or symbol or theme holds everything together.

What makes Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 so timeless is not the whole, but how poignantly repetition interacts with the listener to render familiarity and recognition into reciprocal qualities. The repeated motif, in this case, is the part you hum. Sometimes its the only part of any song you can remember. Repetition does so not randomly or trivially, but with a significance that helps the composer’s message connect with the listener’s sensory impressions of the world. Through tone and timbre, key and pitch, Beethoven manipulates repetition to make us feel something impending and tempestuous, the fugue of power and fragility. In that familiar motif all listeners gather together from our remote, private experiences to stand on the same page as the composer, an invitation into the rest of his story, which somehow is (and becomes) our own story. It’s as though he taps into something on a quantum level that goes beyond culture and experience, revealing a moment where we can all recognize our commonality.

But notice: repetition is not static. Every time he plays with key or timbre, or any other element of composition, he is pulling us forward into narrative, letting repetition act as a guide into a symphonic landscape, gently providing cues about what’s going on around us.

Writers can use motival, symbolic, and thematic repetition for very specific pertinent details, and with purpose. Jack Torrance’s continually wiped mouth, Miss Haversham’s decaying wedding gown, Fabritius’ painting of a goldfinch, the gardens in Candide.

However, repetition just for the sake of hammering an image into a reader’s head is counterproductive. It can stand out like a tic or bad habit and can lend an impression of poor writing skills or lack of imagination. Each instance must come alive through changes in the mood, presentation, or placement to draw the reader, with the subtlety of a sixth sense, deeper into the story. The more unique and essential to the particular story (as opposed to storytelling in general ), and the more it keys into human experience by bridging the gap between the universal and the personal, the greater the chance of making an impact on the reader. The best writers make repeated themes, symbols, and motifs seem like such an organic part of the story that the absorbed reader will not consciously pick up on it, yet it is this device by which our  emotional, psychological, and intellectual participation with the story has been most profoundly enriched.

Even if we have no desire to emulate the masters, even if we’re writing the most basic fanfic, the goal of every writer is to connect with the reader, or else what’s the point? The way repetition is used throughout narrative is just one of the many important tools writers have to help them succeed, and there are no better teachers than the best that storytelling has to offer.


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

Add This And Stir For Memorable Writing

Do a quick tally of memorable writing and you’ll find that a surprising amount of fiction includes a very specific feature. Is this deliberate, subconscious, a device not revealed until writers reach some mysterious tenth World of Writercraft level where we can unleash these heretofore unknown literary easter-eggs? And what is the magic in it?

No. I won’t reveal it. But I will offer clues so you can figure it out for yourself:

Bright without light, I hide; between day and night I abide. Most rare, no fair, doomed to scare, I am sporting and sported beyond my share. In two dimensions I am fabulous, in three fabu-less, with never a reason why. What am I?

Go ahead. I’ll give you a minute…

Huh, right?

Why is it used in the first place, and why does it stir up such magic in stories? What does it add to memorable writing? If you’ve used it in your own writing, how did you give it purpose? More importantly, why?

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

5 Important Questions That Will Help You Find The Story You Were Born To Write

Want to kill your chances of a writing career? Write inauthentically. Write generic dreck that anyone in the literate world could duplicate. Draw from a shallow pool teeming with small ideas. You may think that really memorable stories are pulled from the air, the same air you breathe, but they aren’t. They come from the very core of a writer’s being. Do yours?

So what’s the difference between writing stories and putting in writing the stories you were born to tell?

And remember, you are not trying to compete with Tolstoi or Tom Clancy. Your greatest competition comes from you – yesterday, ten years ago, or a minute ago. You are the bar you must surpass. Every day.

Here’s a way to find out what you already have inside you. Don’t worry about all the stories you ever want to write. Scrap everything you’ve already written. Just think about The One, right now. Every new story must begin this way, as The One. Genre is no exception.

1. What has been your private war?

We can’t all be Dostoevsky or Hemingway and bring a stint in Siberia or a couple of wars into our writing. That’s just not realistic. But we’ve all done battle. We’ve all experienced lifetime sentences – and sometimes even these are not our own; they’ve occurred within the sphere of our lives and altered us deeply, and we have paid and paid, and fought our way free of it just the same.

Writers are strugglers. With ideas, with their own and societal limitations and norms, with the past, the present, the future. Heartbreak, normalcy, alcoholism, failure, mediocrity, illness, death, crippling poverty (or, yes, crippling comforts).

The battle of the artist has always been to understand the relationship between darkness and light in all their literary iterations: hope and despair, war and peace, good and evil, life and death. Try to think about one single book you’ve ever loved that doesn’t touch on that dichotomy somehow.

What are your private struggles telling you? How can you shift these struggles onto a different track? How can you exploit the range of emotions and perceptions and psychological states from the personal and transfer them to the general?  Stephen King might never have fought a demonic presence in the real-life Overlook Hotel where he stayed, but the key emotional and psychological features from which The Shining developed came from something very real in his experience with alcoholism and personal demons. Which leads to:

2. What is your driving emotion?

This is a two-parter: the general and the specific. This is your raw being, something desperately pathological about you. Fear (of?), anger (toward?), guilt or shame (about?), disgust (for?), contempt (over?), happiness (with?), sadness (over?). It’s not what you think of yourself or what you present to others – or what others think about you; this is what defines you at your core. Being able to see this about yourself, especially in relation to its role in writing, takes maturity and life experience . Your relationships and decisions and world-view are largely ruled by this core emotion. It might have already become an underlying component of your writing, but it also could be the one thing you keep running from.  Figure this out, unpack it down to its bare bones, then let it inform the authenticity in your stories. Give your characters (or your fictional society) the general driving emotion, then change up the focus of that emotion. What’s truest to you will be truest to your readers.

Think about how many ways your writing can go wrong if your driving emotion is anger and you’re trying to write over-the-top light-hearted YA romance. It’s going to pour through your story on a subconscious level through the words you choose, the tone, and even how your sentences are constructed. But if you understand what’s inside you, you can rewrite a character in that same story whose actions and reactions are based in anger (you’re an angry environmentalist, but your protagonist is an angry combat vet). Because core human emotions produce universally recognizable outcomes, you can give your character your anger with his or her own justifiable backstory. Research the effects and outcomes of your driving emotion so you know how it can influence someone’s life. Research how that same driving emotion affects those who come in contact with the person actually living it. What does a wife’s anger over childhood abuse do to a husband and children? Friends? When you can see how it ripples into narrative development you’ll be able to level your sights on the right genre, the right audience, and the right tone. By doing so you will not only deepen characterization but also put something authentic and unique into what might have been a very run-of-the-mill storyline.

3. What fascinates you?

Easy peasy, right? We all have passions. We all have that one or five interests that make us wonder if we’ve dipped our toes into the shallows of a diagnosable disorder. But this is not a disordered pursuit that may or may not involve adult diapers and pressure sores you could store your change in (presumably for the giant Dr. Pepper and Doritos).

No, this is an ordering of some kind. It’s a pursuit of something greater. It’s speaking to you now, even if it didn’t five years ago and may fade in six months, and it’s part of a personal or universal weft and woof that you may or may not be aware is forming into a narrative tapestry. It’s a place where you lose yourself to find yourself, and ultimately gain some spark of understanding about the larger world or human nature. It’s a place where knitting is not just needles and yarn (A Tale of Two Cities), and where the news is not just talking heads (The Year of Living Dangerously).  It’s a bug in your ear, a scratch you need to itch.

Are you obsessed with the idea of the English Moors? Old manor houses? Meh, you and about a bazillion other Downton Abbey fans. Mysterious writers? Biography? Okay, now we’re getting away from something common. Twins? Dead twins? Hot cocoa? Red-heads? Ooh,  moving away from the generic, yes, but now we’re moving toward the unique, the individual. But so what? Ah. Add fear of alienation as the driving emotion. Then you just got authentic all up in your business and wrote The Thirteenth Tale (Diane Setterfield) and not some derivative DA or Bronte fanfic.

So what is it that draws you in? Really, why must you know, immerse, master, subject yourself to any particular interests? What is this giving you that nothing else can? What’s on the other side of the veil?

Because it isn’t just the thing itself that’s writable. It’s they why of it.

4. What is the relationship between the answers to #1, #2, and #3?

The war between darkness and light in our own lives defines our driving emotions.  Driving emotion is tied to where our focus is trained, which is linked to to our need to cope with the war between darkness and light. It’s the writer’s job to figure out how it’s all connected to the way a story is born.

5. How do the stories you most love reading relate to  your driving emotion?

We all prefer stories that speak to our core selves in some way. When you understand your own driving emotions you’ll recognize the power of their psycho-emotional authenticity in the stories you read, and thus their ability to draw readers when those same core emotions are poured into what you write.

It’s not about waiting around for some magical story to fall into your lap.  It’s already somewhere inside you, waiting to be molded and shaped into something that will be closer to magic than anything you could ever stumble upon.

Read the next post in this series: 5 More Important Questions That Will Help You Find The Story You Were Born To Write

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.


Filed under Creative Writing, Fiction, Sandra Chmara, Writing

NEW! Fiction Timeline Worksheet – Improved: Now Including Structural Template


As mentioned in the original Fiction Timeline Worksheet Post, this spreadsheet (in MS Excel) is always open to improvement according to suggestions and experimentation. So here it is, distilled and ready to help writers organize and make better sense of their stories.

Click to downloadfiction-timeline-worksheet-3-0-sandrachmara

Follow this blog for updates on the upcoming launch of a game-changing story development tool that can do what no existing writing management system can – turn writing into storytelling so writers can finally understand how to engage readers to improve the chance of getting read and getting published.

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

Get In The Car And Write: 10 Rules For A Great Ride


Everything a writer needs to know about storytelling can be summed up in the image of a journey by car. Narrative is the vehicle; the driver’s seat belongs to the writer. The reader is the passenger.

First, there is the journey’s context : the forward perspective of the windshield, interiority, presence, and the backward perspective of the rear-view mirror; surrounding all that is place or settingPast, present, and future are concurrent, though not simultaneously apparent. Ahead it’s at once familiar and unknown. Even landscapes seen countless times  before are never certain, never fully understood or seen in their entirety. Anything can happen, anything can come at you and from all angles – head-on or t-boned, or running up from behind.  The mysterious can appear momentarily in the flash of a headlight, out of the corner of an eye, changing the atmosphere from pleasure to terror, from fear to relief. In that blind space where the horizon meets the road all stories are still a surprise yet to be encountered. Behind  is defined by what has passed as much as the aspect of it not seen before. Let’s not forget, too, about occupants.

It is an endlessly changing setting. It’s transformative. There is a beginning and an ending to the journey.  This is story.

But the storytelling environment is still incomplete: to inhabit the vehicle of narrative without one’s own eyes reflected in the mirror – to write without deep psychical reflection and thus see one’s own engagement with the life out of which story erupts is to ignore all that has made great writing part of a living literary space. The writer is the one looking out and looking back. The writer isn’t just driving; he or she is in the story. It’s his or her unique point of view that informs, that provides all the fresh details and epiphanies along the roads we’ve all traveled before, and guidance through the terra incognita we may never know about outside this journeyWho you are as a reader when the writer turns the key in the ignition is never the same you when the motor is cut. Neither is the writer unchanged.

Much theory has been written about the place a writer holds in the value of the completed narrative. Some argue that to read the writer into text is inconsequential and even damaging to the discrete experience of the art and artistry itself, but that is a post-publishing argument that holds little sway on what happens during the writing process. The truth is, even commissioned work is deeply informed by the writer.

Get in the car and give your readers the ride of their lives. You’re the driver. You’re the guide. You can either make it so unbearable  with pointless nattering and irrelevant trivia that they’re willing to open the door and do a tuck-and-roll into the gravel shoulder just to get away from you, or you can awe and inspire them so they’ll never forget what you did by letting them in the car.

Your choice. Here are ten rules for giving your reader the trip of a lifetime:

  1. Know who to travel with: It’s awkward being on a road trip with the wrong people. There’s a huge difference between travelers who want to see the Nevada desert and those who just want to get to Vegas. Know your audience, people. Don’t invite a Cormac McCarthy fan on a Harlequin tour.
  2. Know what kind of ride you’re offering: If you don’t give your passengers a sense of where they’re going, they might pack babushkas and find they really needed bikinis and speedos. That’s not good for anyone. When they have an idea of what’s going on, it’s easier for them to sit back and enjoy the scenery. So if your story is an international intrigue, set it up from the first chapter. Get the tension and players in there fast. If it’s a character-driven historical epic, there’s more leisure to build up the world. But like the road trip, if by the tone of your first chapter or scene your readers were expecting a suspense-packed run through the streets of Mogadishu but are finding out about protagonist Johnny’s first loose tooth and some back-story about how his mom & dad met and got the farming business started – there’s a problem. Look over there, in the passenger seat: see how your reader’s hand is curling into a fist? She’s getting ready to punch you, and if she bails at the next greasy spoon off the highway she’ll never take a ride with you again.
  3. Get a tune-up and wash before you go: Departing with your machinery in order creates the best chance for a smooth, enjoyable, breakdown-free journey (yours and the car’s). Put your narrative in order. Outline. Plot. Create structure. Clean up adjectival and adverbial dirt and debris. Get rid of the weird sounds. When you turn the key, the engine must start and stay started.
  4. Cleanliness is next to writerliness:  Nobody wants to be trapped with your BO. Don’t make this trip about your various means of offense: personal problems, political bias, racism, idiocy, purple adjectives and adverbs. Take control of yourself, take control of your story. Of course, you can go ahead and do it anyhow but the only people who will voluntarily go on your journey will be those who like BO as much as you do. In other words, if you want great people to get in the car, and a lot of them, don’t stink it up.
  5. Be an entertaining tour guide: Imagine getting into a car with a driver who points out every minute detail along the way (Oh, look, another squirrel pancake), announces every move they’re about to make (I’ll be turning left up there at the left turn signal), misses the authentic regional gems (Hey, there’s the Golden Arches! Let’s eat!), and seems to know nothing about the history of anything (Nah, Gettysburg sounds boring). Then there’s the driver who goes on and on about the post-structuralist blah blah blah (Aren’t you a stupid little lemming on your brain-holiday when you’re really marching inexorably to your own state-prescribed death? Idiot.). Zzzzz. Give this ride some heat, for crying out loud. Choose the kind of story you want to tell, and how you’ll tell it. Focus on what’s important. Don’t be obvious about what’s coming. Let the reader be taken by the mystery. Be original. Be authentic. Be unique. Challenge readers, change them. Use what you understand, and if possible make the most of your own backyard so your story doesn’t sound like everyone else’s out there. Don’t resort to what’s been done before. Put your heart into it, but give your audience something to think about too. Know the world your characters occupy, and how it has influenced their personalities and choices. Don’t treat your readers like idiots. Be the source of energy and light. Expose. Enlighten. Entertain. Then you’ll stand a chance of getting $20’s stuffed into your waistband by appreciative fans at the end.
  6. Don’t get run off the road: Being aware of the environment and the rules of the road means less chance that your passenger will be ejected through the windshield. Keep your eyes on the road, and don’t spend too much time looking back.  Backward is for spatial orientation, not for navigation. It’s impossible to move forward when you’re spending most of your time and efforts staring in the rear view mirror. This is not the same as knowing the kind of road trip you’re offering. This is about losing your plot, and making it impossible for readers to get back into the story. Readers don’t like being in the death seat, so don’t put them in a position where you’ll lose them after a few kilometers chapters.
  7. Bodily functions can’t be ignored: People eat on road trips. They drink. They use toilets, belch, and fart. But guess what, they smell things, and have attitudes, reactions, and feelings. Give your characters a real life. Use all the senses – smell, taste, touch, sound, sights, and even that tingling spidey sense. When that guy in the back seat pulls out his gluten-free organic barksicle that smells like armpits, that tells you something important about who he is. It also tells you something about his fellow passengers how they react when he takes it out. The boozehound who thinks she’s hiding her flammable breath with a pack of Fisherman’s Friends? Ditto. Use details with purpose. Tell readers who characters are by what these little details of life say about them – doesn’t matter what, just make sure all your characters live and breathe, not just the protagonist. And when you give them some snackage make sure we can taste it too.
  8. Backseat drivers need not apply:  This is not a democracy. Someone’s got to be making the big decisions, otherwise the journey becomes a dog’s breakfast  (ie: possibly a meal of it’s own vomit). Writers, don’t let the publishing industry tell you what kind of story to write. Don’t let your friends or family or fellow writers dictate, influence, or shame you into altering tone, style, genre, or voice that isn’t you. This is not the same as letting an expert or a trusted beta reader shape your story and making it the best one possible – for you. If someone advises you, listen because they’re right and because it makes the story better, not because you don’t have confidence in your own work. Because whose journey is this? Yours. Who’s in the driver’s seat? You. Everyone else is along for the ride.
  9. Don’t get stranded: If you don’t plan, and you don’t have a way out of a dead end or a bad situation, the journey’s doomed. Readers don’t want stories that stall. This is not about genre or plot, it’s about pacing and momentum. Keep it moving. Get rid of non-essential scenes, characters, or plot choices.  Use active verbs over passive. Let your people DO things instead of having things done to them, or observing, or remembering. Americans landed on the moon: subject-verb-object. If the driver doesn’t know how to get out of it, don’t expect the passenger to hang around to take over navigation or fix the flat for a story that came to a grinding halt 150 pages from the end of the book.
  10. Leave room for the unexpected:  Don’t be predictable. Be open to those amazing discoveries that aren’t in the guide books or maps. This is what makes the journey unforgettable.

Be unforgettable. Do it for your readers. It will reward you as much as them.


Filed under Creative Writing, Fiction, Sandra Chmara, Writing

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.

Other posts by Sandra Chmara:

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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 …


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.

Other posts by Sandra Chmara:


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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!

Other posts by Sandra Chmara:

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