Writing about Writing


The Power of Experience

There is a movie I love to watch named Shadows in the Sun, it stars Harvey Keitel as a struggling author, and Joshua Jackson as an editor/wannabe author.  It is, of course, a romance.  But it isn’t just a romance about people , it is also a romance about writing, hence why I enjoy it so much.

There is a scene in the movie where Weldon (Keitel) is talking to Jeremy (Jackson) about experience.  How do you write a scene, when you have never experienced what you are describing?  As an example, he asks Jeremy if he has ever been punched in the stomach.  Jeremy responds, ‘No’, prompting Weldon to punch him in the gut.  He then points out the various descriptive elements of being sucker-punched while Jeremy clutches his stomach in pain.  “That’s experience,” Weldon says.

This is such a great scene because, aside from being amusing, it also illustrates the way writers should look at their experiences.  Life isn’t just something that happens to a writer, it’s a way to learn and understand different scenes and emotional states, for the purpose of recreating them later.  This is important because these experiences go in a sort of ‘toolkit’ a writer dips into whenever he or she is writing a scene.  And of course, the bigger and more varied the toolkit, the more realistic and powerful the scenes will be.

I’ve thought about this many times, as I tend to consider myself as having had a very bizarre life, filled with great highs and terrible lows.  Perhaps this is reflected in the depressed, often pessimistic characters I have a tendency to create.

However, I started to think about it again when something happened to me recently.  I was at the vet with the Mrs and our kitten, Bieksa, when my body decided to completely check out.  And by check out, I mean I passed out.

Passing out isn’t a completely new experience to me.  I can recall about half a dozen occasions from my younger days when my body said ‘Nope’, and I woke up on the ground.  This time, however, I was determined to absorb everything I could about the experience.

So what do I recall?

Pre-passing out:

– Became dizzy

– Hearing a consistent, high pitch noise

– Extremities began to tingle

– Had a vague sense that maybe if I moved around, that would help

– Lost ability to focus on what was happening around me

After regaining consciousness:

– Blackness at first, just a sense that my mouth was opening and closing rapidly.  Felt like a fish.

– Couldn’t stop my mouth from moving.  Frustration.

– Very cold.

– Eyes open. World seems fuzzy and too bright.  Eyes refuse to focus on any one thing.

– Head hurts, a lot.  Pounding like someone is hitting the floor with a mallet.

– Confusion.  What happened?  Where am I? Why am I on the ground?  Why does everyone look so worried?

– Mouth still won’t stop moving.  How irritating is that?

– Dizzy, ears ringing, still can’t move.  Eyes catch a darkness on the floor at the top of my head.  What’s that? Blood?

– Slowly regaining motor functions.  Able to stop mouth from moving.

– Thought to myself, (Seriously, not a lie!) this is an interesting experience, I need to write it one day.

– When I can finally speak, my first word is ‘Head?’.  Turns out the blackness I saw was my hat.  Totally forgot I’d been wearing it.

– Finally able to move around a bit.  Can’t stand up yet, but able to sit up.  Like coming out of a really, really deep sleep in slow motion.

That about sums of the incident.  Neat, right?  If I was writing a scene like this before, I probably would have gotten pretty close, but now I think I could do much better.  For example, the whole thing with the mouth opening and closing on its own was a complete surprise.  Before now, I wouldn’t have thought to include an uncontrolled reaction like that.

Call me crazy, but when all was said and done, I wasn’t particularly concerned about myself.  I was mostly pleased that I’d been able to experience an interesting moment so vividly, because I think that is important.  Take the good moments and the bad, and experience them as vividly and honestly as possible.  The writing will be better for it.


Setting and Details

Two important components of any novel are the setting and the details.  Today I wanted to talk about them and how I approach these things in my writing.

When I say setting, I’m referring to location and atmosphere.  This could refer to a city and the general feeling around it, or it could be something small like a back alley within that city – how do these things look, sound, smell, and feel?  My novel takes place in Vancouver.  This seems like an easy choice because I live in Vancouver, making location research much easier than anywhere else.  But initially I was going to set the story in a sort of nameless New York.

Why was I going to do that?  Because I liked the idea of a large, nameless city.  That way it would be easier for people to identify with what’s happening and envision it as their own city.  So I used New York as a template, but never used the name.  I researched ambulances run by the fire department vs hospitals, local restaurants and even mapped out streets.

But the more I got into it, the more I disliked the idea.  Google maps, street view, and images are amazing tools, but it’s still hard to describe a place if I haven’t really experienced it.  So I switched to Vancouver and rewrote all of the sections that were too obviously based on New York.  I think it was one of the best changes I could have made, because it made writing the rest of the book a lot easier and opened up more possibilities to develop immersive scenes.

Details are a part of the setting, the two are intrinsically linked, but they encompass much more.  What makes them so important is they can make or break the suspension of belief in a novel.  It’s like the glue that holds the narrative together.  If I wrote a novel about programming, but couldn’t describe the difference between Java and Objective C, readers would get frustrated and not bother reading the rest, let alone recommend it to any of their friends.

One of my characters is a paramedic, so on a few occasions I need to write scenes where he’s doing paramedic-y things.  Aside from watching episodes of Third Watch and searching Google, I needed to learn how to write these scenes with at least a passable degree of realism.  So I got help.  Fortunately, I have a friend who knows everything I needed to know and was willing to help (Thanks Alina!).  With her assistance, I’ve been able to design two scenes that should come off as medically realistic.  One of them is already written, the other is coming up.

There is also, in my opinion, a line that needs to be walked when it comes to incorporating these aspects in the writing.  A few years ago I read a fantasy novel by an author who had a primary job making maps.  The writing reflected his interest in geography with pages of extensive geographic descriptions.  This, in my opinion, bogged down the narrative to an almost intolerable degree.  The story itself was fine, but there was just too much description.

So, obviously, I don’t want to go overboard.  But I also need to make sure I don’t go too far in the other direction.  Sights, sounds, and smells are the little things that help pull a reader into a setting.  A novel without description becomes barren and lifeless.  So where does mine land?  Hopefully right in the middle between too much and too little.