Category Archives: writing and publishing

Walking through the words

How we write: Reflections on writing, walking, and words.

I write to discover and I walk to explore. Walking, I’ve found, helps me see things in a new way. Walking generates ideas. Today, Easter Sunday, 2017, I walked with my smart phone and recorded thoughts and observations along with snapshots of what inspired them.

Cairn: a stack of stones purposefully arranged like words in a sentence; a signpost marking the way when the trail is obscure or non-existent. Writer’s block: No trail, no compass, no cairn to guide. Or worse, complacency — no reason to explore.

You can write the truth but you can’t write the whole truth. The very act of writing is one of exclusion, choosing one word over another. A word is an X-Acto knife eliminating the possibility of all other words in that particular place. Sometimes its hard to write because of this exclusion, this leaving behind feels like forgetting. By choosing to tell this story this way, I’ve aborted countless others. Yet if I don’t write, nothing is born, nothing remains. I grieve for the world’s lost memories and all the unborn stories.

 

Each sentence we write, each paragraph, re-creates a past, one of many pasts, saving it from oblivion. But saving it for whom?

Back home, it’s time to start dinner. I’ll put the ideas I’ve collected in a vase of water in hopes of preserving them. Maybe I can work them into a story, an essay, a poem, later tonight…  But I know they won’t last forever, which makes them even more beautiful somehow.  — Linda Collison 4/16/2017

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Adventures in reading: Stories from Nagovisi

A Red Woman Was Crying 

A Red Woman Was Crying by Don Mitchell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I stumbled upon this collection of linked short stories at a bookstore in Hilo and was immediately absorbed in the Nagovisi way of life and the glimpses of human nature we share. Through the perspective of various narrators the author explores his experience as an anthropologist in the South Pacific Island of Bougainville during the Vietnam era. As such, these short stories form a fictional memoir. Don Mitchell writes with an anthropologist’s eyes and ears, and a writer’s heart. A Red Woman Was Crying is compelling, enduring literary fiction. I highly recommend it!

View all my reviews

A Red Woman Was Crying; Stories from Nagovis by Don Mitchell on Indiebound

 

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The Notorious Captain Hayes; a conversation with author Joan Druett

Joan Druett

The American-born seafarer William “Bully” Hayes was a notorious celebrity in his own lifetime and in the century after his death became the antihero of numerous accounts, novels, secondhand memoirs — and a Hollywood movie starring Tommy Lee Jones and Michael O’Keefe.  At least two Pacific watering holes have called themselves Bully Hayes — one in Hawaii and one in New Zealand.

Much has been written about this 19th century adventurer, accused of countless cons, crimes, swindles and brutalities — some true, some embellished, some pure fiction. Overshadowing his misdeeds, or perhaps driving them, is the portrayal of Captain Hayes as a charismatic and dauntless character —  an enduring, mythical,  antihero.  This image was created largely by the popular media of his time, says maritime historian Joan Druett. Her latest book, The Notorious Captain Hayes; The Remarkable True Story of William ‘Bully’ Hayes, Pirate of the Pacific, is the most definitive biography written about the man, the myth, the legend. The author has spent years reading everything in print about Hayes, studying contemporary newspaper articles, letters, diaries, ship logs and shipping lists in an effort to separate fact from fiction.

The result? An objective but very engaging popular history of a sea captain, trader, showman and blackguard known for his many dupes and crimes — some mere swindles — others abhorrent (rape, coercion, and blackbirding — the transport of poor refugees as cheap labor). Joan likens the mythical Captain Hayes to Hollywood’s Captain Jack Sparrow. The bad guy we love, an enduring archetype.

JoanDruettJoan Druett is an award-winning author of numerous maritime history and nautical novels, and a former Fulbright Scholar. She is married to Ron Druett, a maritime artist who has illustrated many of her histories. They live in New Zealand. Here’s a conversation we had via email which gives some insight into her writing process:

Joan, what was the most surprising discovery you came across in your research for The Notorious Captain Hayes?

That he was so likeable! One chronicler of the many yarns told about this rogue wrote that he was “as charming a rascal as ever broached a keg or stolen port,” and everything I read about him — no matter how thunderously critical — confirmed this image.  It was little wonder, really, that he became magnified into the Robin Hood of the Pacific Ocean, because he was a-larger-than-life, charismatic figure. And yet the way he cheated people was truly shocking.”

In your preface you say “There was a lot of garbage written about him” Can you elaborate on your process of separating fact from myth?

By going through the newspapers of the time, including many shipping lists, I was able to build up a detailed timeline, and prove that he had an “alibi” for many of the farfetched yarns.  The first was that he took over the ownership of the clipper bark Canton during her voyage to Singapore in July 1854, but the shipping lists of the San Francisco papers had him in command of another ship on the Californian coast in July 1854. So he was innocent of that particular crime. And there were many other stories that were founded on idle gossip.  As well as this, Bully Hayes loved to tell tall tales about himself, and these were embellished and repeated all over the Pacific.”

You liken the myth of Bully Hayes to the now iconic Disney antihero, Captain Jack Sparrow – a great comparison and one which helps to explain his appeal.   Can you compare Captain Hayes’s him to any real life celebrities?

“It’s the combination of wickedness and likeability that makes Jack Sparrow a fictional version of Bully Hayes — that and the touch of humor.  And it is that combination that makes Bully Hayes stand out from political crooks and Wall Street pirates.  None of them as attractive as he certainly appears to have been.”

Your artist husband Ron has illustrated some of your past work. Did he have an artistic or other role in the making of the Bully Hayes biography?

“No.  The designer, the publisher and I had fun making up the jacket, as we wanted it to look like a “wanted” poster, and Ron had fun watching us at work.”

Joan, I’m an admirer of you work; your nonfiction is lively and your fiction has a sense of realism and historical accuracy. Do you have a preference?

“I used to say that I put on weight when writing nonfiction and lost it when writing novels.  How true that was I am not sure, but historical novels are very hard work.  Enjoyable, but not as easy as researching material, thinking about it, and then using it within a nonfiction framework.”

I’d hardly call researching material and writing a legendary man’s story easy. How long have you been researching Bully Hayes?

“Fifteen years!  I started in 2001, by reading everything in print.  Then I moved to newspapers.  As you can imagine, my eyesight kept on giving up on the job.  Trawling through microfilms isn’t fun. It was digitization that made the job possible.”

Hilo Bay

While reading Joan’s book this weekend on my e-reader I was reminded of a personal story associated with the myth of Bully Hayes and the long list of boats he became associated with — boats with evocative names such as Otranto, Black Diamond, Ellenita, Shamrock, Lotus, and many others — many of which came to a bad end. When Bob and I moved to Hawaii we bought Topaz, a 20-year-old sloop in need of some work, anchored off Hilo. I well remember closing the deal on the shores of backwater Reeds Bay, Bob writing the check to a scruffy, roguish, charming American sailor named Hayes. (We weren’t bilked: the boat was sound, had clear title, and we enjoyed many years sailing her). Our man Hayes immediately bought another boat named Pumpkin Patch and purportedly sailed to New Zealand with his wife and young daughter.  This was in 1993. After that, we lost track of him… Somehow –unfairly — I associate him with the legendary Captain William “Bully” Hayes, who died more than a hundred years ago but whose name and reputation lives on in the islands of the Pacific.

Follow author Joan Druett on her World of the Written Word blog.  For more information about her books, please visit  her website,  and Old Salt Press.

 

 

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How to help a story to fly (without killing it).

flying_bird_202171When your manuscript stretches its wings for its first flight be careful who you ask to critique it. Well-meaning readers can inadvertently clip the wings and strangle the voice of fledgling writers — in the name of offering constructive criticism.

Feedback is important to the writer; it’s crucial to improving our craft. Ultimately we want others to read and appreciate our work. If the piece falls flat on the pavement we need to rewrite it — perhaps many times until we achieve the desired effect. But beware: Some pre-readers” (a.k.a alpha or beta readers) are short-sighted, self-made critics who want to impose a deadening conformity on our almost-ready-to-fly story.  As a writer it takes experience, vision, and courage to know which suggestions to implement and which to ignore. An osprey doesn’t fly the same way a lark or a  hummingbird flies.

There’s an art to giving feedback; a spirit of creative cooperation is necessary to help someone else’s manuscript fly. An effective critique is objective in nature and supportive in delivery. An effective critique honors the writer’s intention and nurtures her voice. An effective critique is a one-of-a-kind gift.

In offering a supportive critique of another writer’s work we become better writers ourselves. But how to do it without making the story a reflection of our own voice? How do we offer feedback without changing the nature of another writer’s creation?

Here are a few guidelines I try to remember when I’m asked to critique a story’s first flight:

1. Find out what kind of feedback the writer is looking for. Critiquing a manuscript is not the same as editing one and it’s certainly not the same as reviewing a published book. In critiquing a work-in-progress I look at the overall story and how effective it is — I’m not a copy editor.

2. I try to identify what I feel is  the heart of the piece. I point out what works for me, what resonates, what I’d like to read more of.

2.  It’s important to find and praise the manuscript’s strengths as well as its weaknesses.  Identify what I find to be important themes.

3. Point out unclear writing and ask questions of the writer. Never use the words should or shouldn’t when giving feedback.

4. Be a mentor, not a critic. Respect the other person’s experience, their voice, and their creative style. Ultimately it’s their story — not mine.

Every manuscript written for publication will need to be edited for spelling and grammar — though not by pre-readers –and not everything we write is intended for a commercial market. Honor the writer and look for his particular message, his individual voice. Identify fresh writing that you connect with or respond to.  Encourage the writer to keep writing — or to find some other way to express his story or experience.

If you’re looking for feedback for your own writing, watch out for cats lurking in the grass. Online critiques from perfect strangers can be devastating — and totally off base. Instead, seek out supportive readers and, in return, be the supportive reader for others.

Finally, don’t push your fledgling manuscript out of the nest too soon and don’t rewrite your story to suit your all of your critics. Keep reading, imitate what resonates, and most importantly of all, keep writing. It’s a process, learning to fly.

 

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The power of Setting in fiction

Birds without Wings cb509e7e5de063a842529e43b8085978

I’m reading Birds Without Wings, by Louis de Bernieres — a novel I chose partly because I enjoyed Corelli’s Mandolin and partly because the particular setting is one I know so little about. Birds Without Wings is the story of a small coastal town in South West Anatolia in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire. I was lured by the setting – an element important to me as both a reader and a writer – and I bought the book on the promise of setting and my confidence in the author’s proven ability to transport me.

Is it because I like to travel that I’m drawn to novels that give me a vivid sense of place and time?

As fiction writers we hear a lot of advice about the importance of plot, conflict, and character development.  Stories happen to people (or other sentient life forms). What happens is plot. Characters and plot make a story but stories don’t take place in a void, they grow out of a particular place at a particular time in history. This time and place is the story’s setting.  Setting is more than a backdrop on a stage — it’s the medium, the stew, the garden in which the story is born and takes shape. Setting directly affects plot and character development.

There are different techniques writers employ to portray setting. One way is to write an establishing shot for the beginning and subsequent scenes, shooting with a wide angle lens, so to speak. The establishing shot is a sentence or paragraph that reveals the environment and places the reader in the scene – before focusing the lens on the protagonist and his actions or on the thoughts inside the character’s head.

Hemingway use of the establishing shot is evident in the short story “Hills Like White Elephants.” Here are the opening three sentences: The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun. Close against the side of the station there was the warm shadow of the building and a curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads, hung across the open door into the bar, to keep out flies.

In these three sentences (each one a little longer and more complex than the one before it) the author sets us in the scene. Even if we don’t know where the Ebro River is at first, we know it is a dry and barren place through which a river and railroad tracks run – a place so hot even the shade cast by the building is warm. The curtain made from strings of bamboo beads is a tangible object that forms a bridge from something we know or have seen before to this particular setting. By the end of the paragraph (three more sentences) we know the story takes place at a remote train station in Spain between Barcelona and Madrid and it involves an American man and a “girl.” After this establishing shot of six sentences Hemingway slips into his effective style of terse dialogue and short, simple, powerful sentences to develop the characters and reveal the inherent story.  (Tim Tomlinson of the New York Writers Workshop talks about Hemingway technique on pg. 57 of The Portable MFA in Creative Writing. The story “Hills Like White Elephants” is available online in pdf format and is free to download.)

OceanNeal Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane beings with the protagonist driving down a long, narrow, winding, bumpy road. As we ride along with him we feel we’re driving back in time and we’re not entirely sure it’s a good place we’re headed.

Developing a rich setting – is it accomplished through experience and imagination – or is it through the mechanics of craft? Both, I’ve discovered. The immersive technique of writing helps bring the setting into focus. Writers who have lived or can deeply imagine their settings and can bring to life details otherwise unseen by a writer who crafts by technique alone.  Details and nuances of setting can be uncovered or added on during a second or third draft. Don’t go overboard – less is more – according to twenty-first century tastes.  By choosing just the right details and the right words to convey the atmosphere – the physical, emotional, political, and the cultural environment – you immerse the reader in setting without bogging her down.

Deconstruct your favorite stories for setting, to see how its done. Browse novels in the library, at the bookstore, or online (Amazon’s “look inside” feature) to find techniques that resonate with you.

H.P. Lovecraft’s The Shunned House is all about setting – can a setting be the protagonist?

Joseph Conrad’s settings – often hot, tropical, shipboard, Victorian – are rich in mood, atmosphere, and moral conflict.

Conrad 51lXYO4L08L._SX302_BO1,204,203,200_She floated at the starting point of a long journey, very still in an immense stillness, the shadows of her spars flung far to the eastward by the setting sun. At that moment I was alone on her decks. There was not a sound in her –and around us nothing moved, nothing lived, not a canoe on the water, not a bird in the air, not a cloud in the sky. In this breathless pause at the threshold of a long passage we seemed to be measuring our fitness for a long and arduous enterprise the appointed task of both of our existences to be carried out, far from human eyes, with only sky and sea for spectators and for judges.

In this, the second paragraph of the novella The Secret Sharer, the author not only puts us on a sailing vessel in deathly quiet waters on the eve of a long voyage, he also evokes a supernatural atmosphere in his introspective tone and hints at a struggle of some sort, as well as a mystery.

Details of setting can mirror the mood or it can be in opposition to it. For example Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery begins on a beautiful blue sky day when nothing bad could possibly happen:

The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green.

 There is inherent tension here because the reader knows something is going to happen, but what? And to whom?

Another way to reveal the setting is piece by piece, weaving minute but important details into each paragraph – details that create atmosphere and remind us where we are. Neil Gaiman does this particularly well in his literary coming-of-age fantasy — except he wants to make us wonder when we are — have we traveled back in time, or forward in time? The place is familiar but is it now or is it then?

Part of the trick of portraying an exotic place or an historical time is not just showing what is unique about that setting but connecting us to sensations that are familiar to a modern reader; details or descriptions that form a bridge between what we’re familiar with and what we’ve never experienced first-hand.

Setting is often thought of as adjectives, phrases and entire sentences devoted to description, yet too much detail bogs the reader down the way a forest of kelp clings to a swimmer’s limbs.  Instead of objects or description of weather, clothing, or architecture, think focus. What’s important to the story in the particular paragraph, the particular sentence you are writing? What do you want your reader to see or hear that grounds them in the setting – the place and time where this particular story was born? Don’t describe everything the character sees in the room, choose one or two details and work them into the action or dialogue.

Within the structure of a declarative sentence whole worlds can be evoked. Nouns and verbs can help express setting, even in an action sentence stripped of adjectives, adverbs and modifying phrases. This is setting at its most elemental. The mere action of moving a character from one place to another can evoke different settings. Nouns, verbs and direct objects are freighted with meaning so that even a six word sentence gives a hint of time and place. Here’s a simple exercise: Using only a noun, verb, and prepositional phrase or direct object, try to reveal a different setting.

walk-932965_960_720The couple strolled through the park

 

London_Cab_of_1823,_with_curtain_drawnThe carriage clattered across the cobblestones

457 (2)The teenagers raced down the highway

Having chosen the best nouns and verbs for the job you can now flesh out some sentences with descriptive clauses to enrich the story’s environment. A character’s thoughts, personal values, cultural mores and prejudices can also indicate setting. Don’t forget dialogue but avoid overusing dialect and slang; it can be distracting, confusing, or even annoying. Instead, examine speech patterns, rhythms and vocabulary to suggest time and place.

 

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Most of my own fiction is inspired by setting. In writing Water Ghosts I wanted to explore a setting within a setting, within a larger setting. That is, a boat carrying ghosts from the past as well as living souls, adrift on a vast unfathomable ocean.  The story had its beginnings in my imagination aboard a real vessel — the Intrepid Dragon II — moored at the Ala Wai Small Boat Harbor on Oahu where Bob and I kept our own sailboat for many years. My experiences at sea further fueled the setting as well as the plot. Yet it took numerous drafts to portray the setting in a powerful way – as powerful as the ocean itself. Or at least that was my intention.

On the advice of a writer whose opinion I value, I added an establishing shot at the beginning of the first chapter, showing the boat Good Fortune at the crumbling docks of the Marianas Marina in Honolulu.  Since most of the story takes place aboard this floating stage it was important to show the reader the boat from the protagonist’s perspective on the first page.  In an earlier draft I had this information but it was further along in the chapter. Moving it to the beginning felt right and I thanked the writer (Rick Spilman, Old Salt Press ) for this suggestion.  Here then, is the establishing shot.

Chapter 1

The doomed ship is set to sail at ten A.M. and I am to be aboard. The taxi has dropped us off at the marina – my mother, her boyfriend and me. They’re here to see me off.

From the parking lot I can see it. Good Fortune is unmistakable because it’s bigger than the other boats and because it’s old and foreign-looking. Three masts rise up like pikes from the rectangular deck. A tattered pennant hangs limply from the smallest one. Faded yellow silk.

I don’t want to go but Mother is making me. Walking toward it, carrying my sea bag, I already feel like I’m drowning. Dragging my feet along the rickety wooden pier, past neglected powerboats and sailboats covered with blue plastic tarps, I’m trying to resign myself to my fate. I’m trying to do what Dad used to tell me to do when I was afraid. Think of something funny! But nothing funny comes to mind.

Looking around at this run-down dockyard in an industrial park near the Honolulu International Airport I’m thinking it’s wrong, it’s all wrong. Hawaii is not paradise – at least, not for me. A jet takes off, flying low overhead, drowning us out momentarily with its thunderous roar. Mother covers her ears with her hands and squeezes her eyes shut until it passes. The boyfriend glances at his big gold watch and grins.

“Nine-forty,” he says. “You’ll be boarding soon.”

I wrote the first draft of Water Ghosts under the working title “Blue Milieu,” which gives you some idea of how important the setting was to me. More than background, setting surrounds us and is organic to each story we write. Setting influences plot and character development and provides a portal to the imagined past and future.

Bon voyage

WaterGhostsAudiobook

Water Ghosts, as narrated by Aaron Landon

James McCafferty, a 15-year-old troubled by the visions and voices in his head, is a unwilling passenger aboard a Chinese junk — an adventure-therapy sailing program for teens with behavior problems. Once at sea James’s premonitions of doom begin to take shape in the form of long-dead ghosts who populate the hold of the ship. One in particular, the spirit of Yu, a young courtier from the Ming Dynasty, makes himself known to James and seemingly tries to befriend him. Then one by one the adults on board go missing and the teens are left alone to fend for themselves — and struggle for their very lives.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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