Writers’ Craft 6: Tense

What time is it?

Choosing a tense for your story usually isn’t a big deal. Most fiction and even nonfiction is told in past tense, as in: They went there, and then they travelled further.

Why writers do this is not entirely clear. Certainly the practice of writing in past tense has been around a very long time. Mallory wrote Le Morte d’Arthur in 1469, and it is in past tense. Homer’s epic poem, Odyssey, even in the original Greek, was written in past tense, and that dates back to around the 8th or 7th century BCE.

It would appear employing past tense in writing is simply a comfortable, accepted form, perhaps because it most emulates how we converse. Most of what we discuss among ourselves tends to be in past tense, unless we’re speaking regarding future events. But for the most part, we recount events when in conversation. It’s usually how we tell an anecdote, recount our days among friends and family. Not that we don’t speak in future tense; certainly we do. But it’s not the tense we so easily and customarily slip into.

So, it only follows we naturally gravitate to past tense when writing. And that’s perfectly fine.

Unless…

You want to wake up your reader

If it’s a shove-your-reader-off-the-chair effect you’re going for, then you may choose to write in present or future tense. Both are arresting. Both require a sensitive hand else your work will end up so unapproachable as to be unreadable. Certainly there are some novels out there which have effectively, even brilliantly employed both present and future tense.

Present tense

Writing in present tense is just that: all the action happens right now, i.e: She picks up the newspaper and scans the headlines, feels frustration with the barrage of sensationalism, and tosses it back to the table.

Present tense gives immediacy and urgency to your story. There is nothing passive about present tense. And in the right hands it can be astonishing and brilliant; in the wrong it can be outré and unreadable. Novelist Anthony Doerr employed present tense in his novel All the Light We Cannot Seewhich went on to win the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and the 2015 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction.

Andre Dubus III employed the same technique in his widely popular novel, House of Sand and Fog. 

And the Angels Sang

When I wrote the cover story for my collection of short stories, And the Angels Sang, I chose to tell the story in present tense, because it is a deep character POV, that of Father Jean Brébeuf in his last moments of life. He is being tortured, horrifically, and I wanted to examine what he might have thought in those moments, how he might have slipped into hallucination as so often happens when we are thrust into extreme trauma. There is a sense of disconnect in those moments. And so the only way I could think to convey that sense of disconnect, was to write the story in present tense, because the story is happening right now. His pain is right now. And I wanted the sense of that to be right now for the reader. So, yes, present tense was chosen as much for shock effect as for a literary device.

Apparently it worked for one reviewer:

Lorina does a masterful job of summarising a lifetime of devotion to the cause in the final, frantic thoughts of Father Brébeuf. Delirious, near out of his mind with pain, he imagines the forest grove around him the pillars of a glorious cathedral. Similar fantasies transform his horrific death into a mystical rite of passage toward paradise. What strikes atheists like myself as an idiotic belief system here becomes very real, the key to salvation and transcendence, and his pity for his tormentors, utterly convincing. It takes exceptionally good writing to put you deep into the mind and thoughts of so alien a being.

R. Graeme Cameron

Amazing Stories

future tense

Even more difficult to write is a story told entirely in future tense. He will go down the road, meet a dog, and the dog will bark and then sniff his hand. He’s going to feel a pang of homesickness because of that filthy cur.

There is again a sense of disconnect and tension employing a tense other than past, in this case a feeling of inevitability, even futility, because the uncertainty and nebulous nature of the future now becomes a clear reality in the narrative. There is no ability to deviate from what is seemingly pre-ordained. And once again, this tense can be exhausting not only to write, but to read, so choose carefully.

Novelist Carlos Fuentes did so in his short novel, Aurawhich, by the way, is also told in second person.

There is a sense of the omniscient in a future tense story, perhaps because future tense, as Carlos Fuentes demonstrates, is most often told in second person.

What’s the correct thing to do?

Whatever suits you and your vision. That’s the correct thing to do. Sure, there are lots of people who are going to tell you to play it safe, to abide by some set of unwritten and uncanonized rules. But there are no rules. Not really. Art is subjective. Yes, you’ve heard me both say and write that previously. It’s true. Sure, you need to know the fundamental tenants of writing. But you also need to know how far you can bend them to create something astonishing, even transcendently memorable.

So, don’t be afraid to experiment. Write. And then write some more. Doesn’t matter if any of it is bin material or readable. Just write. Do like every other artist in every other discipline, and just create work. In the end that’s what it’s all about. Or should be. At least in my opinion.

You can follow me through my website: fiveriverspublishing.com

Writers’ Craft 5: Point of View

Who is telling your story and why

Point of view is simply that: who is telling your story?

While that definition may be simple, sometimes choosing who is telling your story can present a conundrum to the author. Is the story better suited to first person or third person? Or is your story compelling enough it requires second person?

Perhaps a review of what those points of view actually mean, and why you might chose one, is called for.

First Person

First person point of view is easily identified as an story, meaning there is one point of view, told from the main character, or narrator’s, perspective. For example, the opening sentence of my novel, Shadow Song:

I remember the summer I met Shadow Song was so green it hurt my eyes.

Shadow Song

In this case, the story is told entirely from the perspective of Danielle Michelle Fleming. It is her story, and while the story she tells deeply revolves around the characters of an Anishnabe midewewin, and her uncle, Edgar Fleming, it still remains her story. We discover the world of the backwoods of 1830s Upper Canada from her perspective. We experience her adoption and inculcation into Anishnabe society, and that tight perspective very much conveys the sense of a stranger in a strange land.

Because of that point of view, the story becomes intimate, as though she were sitting across the fire relating to you her experiences.

Employing first person narrative does just that: creates intimacy. It also narrows the scope of the story because everything must be seen and experienced through the eyes of that one character. So, being able to jump into the head of a secondary character isn’t possible, which means you have to be sure your main character has a strong enough voice to carry the story.

However, it is also possible to tell your story from several points of view while still employing first person. I did just that in my novel The Rose Guardianin which there are three distinct characters, each with their own narrative, two of which are told from first person, and the third from third, person. I chose to tell the story in that fashion in order to create a very strong sense of time and voice. It’s tricky writing, and not for the faint of heart.

Second person

Second person perspective is a you story and requires a controlled, sure narrative. It can be clumsy and a bit outré if you’re not careful, and perhaps is better suited to short fiction than a novel, simply because it can be a bit demanding for your reader. It’s an arresting point of view. Very effective if handled well. Plain silly if it’s not.

Apparently the American novelist Jay McInerney wrote his acclaimed debut novel Bright Lights, Big City in second person. I haven’t read the novel, much less know the author, so I cannot speak to the efficacy of this point of view in his work. Of course, in the end, it’s just one person’s opinion of a piece of art, and art, as we all know, is subjective.

Still, if you’re going to use second person, be very sure of your story and narrative.

Third person limited

Third person limited is the most common point of view a writer can employ, a he/she/they story. It’s an easy point of view to write, let alone read, and allows for greater creative latitude, and breadth of story, because you can choose to tell the entire story from one character’s third person narrative, or many characters by way of alternating chapters or sections between characters. It is important when writing third person limited to be sure you’re writing from one character’s perspective, and only one, in each section of your story.

Unless….

Third person omniscient

Ewww.

Sorry, was that my out loud voice?

Dune

 

It’s unfair of me to make that statement, because, again, art is subjective. To my taste, third person omniscient is a lazy writer’s fallback. Frank Herbert used it extensively in his epic SF series Dune. Given the huge appeal of the series, my antipathy to the point of view will seem unwarranted. And certainly other genre writers have employed this literary device. There’s nothing really wrong with the point of view. It still employs the he/she/they perspective, but switches between characters within the narrative flow so that in one paragraph the reader is experiencing one character’s actions and thoughts, and further down the page the reader is now experiencing a different character’s actions and thoughts. Omniscient. Just like the definition states.

What I personally don’t like about this POV device is the lack of character depth which occurs. I always feel as though I’m skimming across the surface of the story, being kept at a distance. It leaves me hungry, like only being able to eat the crust of a pie and not the whole thing, filling and all.

But, again, that’s just one person’s opinion.

It’s your story

Whatever point of view you choose, stick to it. Make it your own. In the end it’s your story, and only you can really know how you’re going to tell it, and who is going to be your voice.

If you’re looking for a book on the subject, I do recommend an excellent primer by Orson Scott Card: Characters and Viewpoint.

And most of all, just write.

You can follow me at my website: fiveriverspublishing.com

Derek Newman-Stille Interviews Marie Bilodeau

SF Canada is pleased to share a new interview from Derek Newman-Stille. They chatted with fellow SF Canada member Marie Bilodeau to find out what it’s like to write horror, as well as multiple speculative genres.

 

Interview with Marie Bilodeau on Writing Horror and Loving She-Ra

By Derek Newman-Stille

 

Derek Newman-Stille: “To start out our interview, can you tell readers a little bit about yourself?”

 

Marie Bilodeau: “I like to dabble in various genres of writing – I write science-fiction, fantasy, and horror, in both long and short forms. I’m also a professional storyteller, which means I stand up in front of audiences and tell either old tales, adapted ones, or some original works. Aside from that, I’m an event manager, a cupcake-lover, have many fluffy cats and love She-Ra. Perhaps am *in* love with She-Ra. …I think that pretty much covers it all.”

 

Derek: “Can you tell us a little bit about what it’s like to write across so many genres?”

 

Marie: “Certainly! It’s amazing! So, each genre is very firmly speculative fiction, meaning that there’s an element in it (usually in the world) that’s not quite of our world. It’s that worldbuilding aspect that I thoroughly love. In fantasy, you get to hurl fireballs. In science fiction, you can have space ships! In horror, monsters lurk in the shadows. And, best of all, you can have all of those things in the story and let the market figure it out!”

 

Derek: “Your science fiction often takes on horror elements as does your fantasy (I’m thinking specifically about your fairy tale work) – what generated your interest in horror and do you notice elements of it in your other work?”

 

Marie: “Horror is an amazing tool, because it’s so versatile. It can frighten, shock, repulse…it doesn’t matter, as long as it draws a reaction, often a visceral one. In my fairy tale inspired serialized novel, Nigh, I used horror in the tradition of fairy tales, often to warn, or correct behaviour. Which meant it also took on tones of existential horror, which you get at the heart of some stories, like Sleeping Beauty. Sure, she gets woken up. But, wait, she’s been sleeping for how long? Her world is gone? Not to mention all the other stuff that happens, depending on the version. That thread of horror isn’t often outright stated, but the reader often experiences it on an existential level. I have a short story coming in Jennifer’s Brozek’s 99 Tiny Terrors this year. It’s purely existential. Nothing happens except making tea and chatting with an old friend. But it’s visceral in what the reader knows, regardless of how the characters deal with it. That’s what makes horror so wonderful. It’s visceral, and often relies on universal experiences and archetypes to hit its target: the human heart.”

 

Derek: I can’t wait to read it!! I love existential horror! Horror has this amazing ability to unsettle the ordinary. Do you tend to use it to unsettle things and open unquestioned things up to questions?

 

Marie: “Definitely! With horror, as with any genre, you can get your reader to really question their own worldview (or find it reinforced!) But, to make it successful, the trick (which isn’t always easy to pull off), is not to outright state what you’re questioning. You have to craft the story in such a way that the reader ends up asking the question. That’s when you know you’ve hit home. The reader incorporated the story enough, lived in it, even in a brief piece of flash fiction, to inhabit it and see what was provided and, more importantly, what wasn’t mentioned at all. It means the story is now part of the reader, in the questions you’ve forced them to face. It’s one of the genres that benefits the most from a fine glitter dust highlighting just the right details.”

 

Derek: Relatedly, one of the things that I love about your sci fi is that no matter how alien your aliens are, they fundamentally say something about what it is like to be human. Can you tell us a bit about how you use the alien to comment on human experiences?

 

Marie: “That’s one of my favorite things! First, aliens are super fun to build! Like, how will you work? What culture propels you? What part of history got you to this point? How do you eat your food? DO YOU EVEN EAT! OMG you like music? But only as it shifts the tectonic plates of your volcanic world? BE MY VALENTINE, you amazing alien you!

…But I digress. Aliens and different societies allow us freedom from current political, cultural and religious human realities and offers a blank canvas upon which to draw our tale. I especially love using them in my short stories. For example, my “Out-of-Worlds-Planet-Cessation Extravaganza” story in Amazing Stories is funny with cool aliens and solid event management techniques, but it’s all about how the “bling” of things can get in the way of basic humanity. In my Analog short story “Molecular Rage,” I wanted to show how someone not fitting in due to random (and cruel) determinations can hurt not just the ostracized individual, but their entire family and culture. Also, how it’s generally a shitty thing to do.

Both those things could have been done in our world, with plenty of examples to (sadly) go around, but often I find the reader to be more receptive to something when they don’t start putting up personal listening walls because of their own set of beliefs.

It’s a flip from horror, in a way. In horror, you want to use the visceral common experience to strike home. Whereas in this case, striking home means taking them out of a common experience by placing them amongst aliens, and using shadows of our world to keep the darkest places familiar. The reader can then cast their own light there, and come to their own conclusions.”

 

Derek: Do you find that your stories are influenced by current issues and events? What are some events that have inspired you to fictionalize them and imagine their possibilities in other worlds?

 

Marie: “Definitely! Okay, so there are the Big Ideas and Big Events, which I think lots of people tackle super well and because they’re big ideas, lots of people use them in their fiction. They’re thematic, and often should be!

What I love best, however, are small ideas. I love taking things that amuse me, fascinate me, just make me damn curious, and writing about those.

For example, the Fyre Festival was an amazing failure of event management. I watched it go down live, glued to my screen in fascination. When the two documentaries came out, we invited friends over, made tiny cheese and arugula open-faced sandwiches for snacks, and watched them back-to-back. They created a fuller picture which was amazingly bad. I laughed, and flinched, so much. Anyway, out of that came the idea for “Out-of-Most-Worlds Planet Cessation Extravaganza.” It wasn’t a retelling of the Fyre Festival (nothing could top the original!), but it was inspired by it. A small idea, about bling blinding event managers to the impact of their vision (in this case, how it affected the island inhabitants).

It’s a small thread in a giant messy ball of crazy yarn that I pulled out of that story, but it worked for my writing voice.”

 

Derek: “What are some of the other small ideas that have influenced some of your work?”

 

Marie: “I lump family stories into small ideas (because they have a more personal reach, I suppose?), and have used quite a few in my works! Nigh is a bit of a retelling of one of my family legends, for example. My Irish great grandmother, Mary Grant, had a sister named Alexandrine (or cousin? Some close relative, anyway). My dad gave me Alexandrine’s old pocket watch a few years back, along with its mystery. We know she was engaged to the gentleman who gave her this watch, but they were never married. And we have no idea why. She kept this watch to her dying day (after a long life) and passed it down the family line until it became mine. Why would she keep it? Did the young man die? Did he vanish? What happened?

Out of that family legend I imagined Hector Henry Featherson, a World War I soldier in the throes of PTSD who steps into a fairy circle a hundred years ago only to step back out now, finding his world and love gone, but still able to make a difference…

I see those little ideas as more personal, I suppose, and more unique to each individual.”

 

Derek: I love the way an object can inspire a story. I know that Ray Bradbury used to use objects around his office to inspire stories. Do you find that you often use objects as inspiration for new narratives?

 

Marie: “I love ephemeral objects as part of my writing process. Things that are here for the duration of the story. A marked change in my writing space, welcoming the new story to tea. For the Destiny series, my main character was a florist, and I’d get flowers for my writing room. For some stories, I just change the lights on my keyboard to a specific pattern (I have a fast and fancy gaming keyboard). I used to switch locations completely at times, like going to a convent to write (when leaving the house was a thing). Failing that, I now cater my little writing space for each story. So, I guess it’s not so much as items necessarily inspiriting the tale, but more items helping to create the right atmosphere for the story.”

 

Derek: You mentioned that you also do storytelling work. How has the current pandemic climate changed that kind of work for you?

 

Marie: It’s honestly blown it completely up! There are online storytelling gigs, but love having the audience in the room with me. They’re a part of the story. Their reactions inform how I tell the story. Their energy feeds me. I’d prefer waiting for those moments of magic to be possible again then try to capture a fraction of it online. Some people pull it off spectacularly well! But it’s not the teller I am. I’m hoping that vaccinations will make spooky tellings possible this fall. It’s my favourite telling time of the year!

 

Derek: You know I have to ask about your love of She-Ra. What inspired your adoration of her and has she inspired any characters in your own stories?

 

Marie: “I loved watching She-Ra as a teen. She was kickass, wore heels and a cape, was kind and a healer, fought an evil empire, rode a magical flying unicorn…what more could I ask for??? I loved that she represented strength, while still being feminine. That she wielded a sword and still healed. It was an example I desperately needed and craved as a kid. And I was just as inspired by the new She-Ra!

I haven’t based a character on her per say, but she inspires that dichotomy, that contrast in characters. No one is all good or all bad. Even warriors can have a soft touch. And everyone deserves a winged unicorn (though I’ve yet to write one in a story).

 

Derek: As we finish up our interview, is there anything you want to add or tell readers about yourself? Are there any current projects you are working on that you can tell us about?

 

Marie: The third book in The Guild of Shadows series, Hell Bound, is currently available for preorder, and it’s going to be another crazy fun adventure. With lots of death, but lots of giggles, too! I’ve also got another project I love, Wishstamp, which I invite you all to check out (www.wishstamp.com).

 

Marie Bilodeau is an Ottawa-based author and storyteller, with eight published books to her name. Her speculative fiction has won several awards and has been translated into French (Les Éditions Alire) and Chinese (SF World). Her short stories have also appeared in various anthologies. In a past life not-so-long ago, she was Deputy Publisher for The Ed Greenwood Group (TEGG). Marie is also a storyteller and has told stories across Canada in theatres, tea shops, at festivals and under disco balls. She’s won story slams with personal stories, has participated in epic tellings at the National Arts Centre, and has adapted classical material.

 

Derek Newman-Stille, MA, PhD ABD (They/Them) is a Disabled, Queer, Nonbinary activist, author, artist, academic, and editor. They edited the anthologies Over the Rainbow: Folk and Fairy Tales from the Margins (Exile) and We Shall Be Monsters (Renaissance Press) and are the 8 time Prix Aurora Award-winning creator of the digital humanities hub Speculating Canada. Derek has published in fora such as Uncanny Magazine, The Playground of Lost Toys, Quill & Quire, Fireside Magazine, Diamond Book Shelf, The Town Crier, Exile Quarterly, and Nothing Without Us. Derek’s art work has been published in fora such as Feminist Space Camp, Lackington’s, Postscripts to Darkness, and Aging Activisms.

Writers’ Craft 4: Character Development

An essential skill

One of the most powerful and essential skills in your writing arsenal is the ability to develop and write believable characters who step off the page into the minds of your readers. But it would seem it’s also one of the hardest skills to effectively master. Do it well, and you haunt the thoughts of your readers. Do it wrong, and your reader closes the novel, likely never to return either to that novel or any other written by you. Good character development drives plot, action, environment and mood. Good character development is of profound import.

Who is this person?

In my opinion, the only way you can write a believable character is to know that character, and that starts with a detailed character sketch, and that works back to the third installment of this series: Outlining.

While creating a character sketch isn’t necessarily part of creating your outline, in my experience it runs in tandem, because as you’re evolving your story, you’re also discovering more about who your main character, and even subsidiary characters, are. There are no ultimate methods of creating those character sketches. What I’ll present here are some methods I’ve found work for me. Adopt or adapt as suits your needs.

The genesis of all my novels always involves a main character as one of the main ingredients. At first I have just a nebulous understanding of who this person is. As I develop my outline, and write, I come to better understand who this person is, and that’s when I sit down and develop a character outline. It often becomes quite detailed, with extraneous information which will never make it into the novel, but it does inform how I present that character, why they do what they do, how they feel, their raison d’etre, if you will. I list things such as:

  • physical description, age and gender
  • nationality
  • religion or spiritual belief if that is germane to the story
  • how they survive, as in how they earn their living, if they’re self-sufficient, or beholden to someone/thing for their existence
  • are they in a relationship/s
  • what is their place in the society in which they live
  • fears, likes, dislikes
  • soft and hard skills; i.e. are they adept at communication, negotiation, or inept? Can they nurture, or are better a destruction, apathetic, or narcissistic? Can they code programming? Can they sail a ship? Wield a hammer? A sword? A gun? Can they sew and maintain clothes? Make shoes? Grow a crop? Tell what kind of rock they’re walking over? It’s this part of the character sketch which often becomes the bedrock of how I choose to have the plot unfold through my character’s viewpoint.
  • are they well-travelled, or not, and if not do they have an understanding of the world or environment beyond them?

From those essential details develop others which allow me to fully understand who is this person. If I understand them intimately, am able to have an informed conversation with them, then at that point I know my reader will believe that character to be real as well.

How to convey that character to your reader

Too often I’ve read a manuscript in which the opening paragraphs describe how their main character looks and feels. That method, in my view, immediately sets up a cool distance between me and the character, because I’m aware of the writer, not the character and their world. The writer is telling me what’s going on. The character isn’t.

I’ve also, to my dismay, come across too many instances in which the character has been completely eliminated from any environmental description, thereby effectively diminishing the importance of character. It’s character which drives your story, or should be if you want to fully engage your reader.

Allow me to use an example I created in an earlier post about submissions.

In the post I used a well-known clumsy opening statement:

It was a dark and stormy night.

Which I suggested could become:

She stood there shivering, rain sheeting down her face, wondering not for the first time what she was doing out on such a night, in such a storm, with the wind howling like her own thoughts.

Now the weather is part of the character. There’s tension because she’s shivering. Is it from cold? Is it from fear? Perhaps fear because we are then given the clue she’s distressed as indicated by the phrase: howling like her own thoughts.

That’s just one very basic example of good character development, let alone a good opening paragraph.

Or take a look at this example:

She was tall, dressed in green taffeta that rustled against her petticoats and hoop, her long hair pulled into a crown of dark, chestnut curls. There were pearls at her throat. She unfolded her fan and said in a husky voice to the gallant approaching her, “My dance card is full, but I could make an exception for you.”

This is all kinds of wrong, yet we see this sort of writing so often in many period romances which flood the market. It’s consumable, forgettable, and could definitely be better. If this story is being told from this antebellum femme fatale’s point of view, the third person observations are out of character. Certainly the gallant approaching her might observe these physical details, but it is unlikely she would. Better not to describe any of this, allow your reader to fill in the gaps in this case, because the fact she’s tall and speaks in a husky voice are all irrelevant, extraneous points which do nothing to develop her character. Instead, it might be better written thus:

When she saw him approaching, she knew immediately he’d observed the quality of her green taffeta gown, the expanse of its skirts. She’d chosen her attire carefully, knowing she’d have to be the perfect bait tonight. Everything depended on it. And to secure this traitor’s attention, she offered another enticement when she pre-empted any introduction by saying, “My dance card is full, but I could make an exception for you.”

Now the narrative is entirely in her head, a very tight character point of view, which develops clearly and with interest who and what she is. I chose to eliminate any description of her hair, because it’s not germane to the action or her point of view. We know she’s involved in some sort of subterfuge or scheme, and that further develops her character because it raises the question: is she a spy, or a Scarlett O’Hara on the hunt for a husband? We know she’s an assertive person, willing to take chances, because she’s just breached etiquette, and we know this without being told. We know this because it’s just part of the action. We haven’t been told by the writer intruding upon the narrative.

From Mountains of Ice

Allow me to dissect for you a passage from my novel, From Mountains of Ice. 

The porter at the gate of Portelli’s home, once Sylvio’s, immediately admitted his former employer, bowing, uttering greetings. The man rushed before Sylvio, letting fly commands to servants as he passed to have Sylvio taken to the Sindaco’s study, to have refreshment brought. With as much grace as he could muster Sylvio followed the servant he was handed off to, trying to alleviate the discomfort he knew these people felt on the rare occasion he entered his confiscated, reallocated, ancestral home.

What do we infer from this short passage? We are told Sylvio enters Portelli’s home, which was once Sylvio’s. We are shown how the porter reacts in a fashion of deference to Sylvio. And we are given a revelation into Sylvio’s character in the fact he’s mustering grace, feeling uncomfortable with the attention and respect he’s being shown. That may indicate a humble person, someone self-effacing, and also someone who takes into consideration the feelings of those around him because of the fact he does attempt to muster grace instead of feeling this attention was his due and therefore the servant beneath his consideration or care.

Be your character

How you convey your character to your reader has to come from your own deep well. You have to know your character so well that you can speak with their voice. Or put another way, be your character. 

That can be difficult and uncomfortable for some writers, because it means you allow yourself to open up and let your own emotions, feelings, and responses flow out into the story. It creates a certain vulnerability at times. But it also allows you to write characters who are true, and real, and believable. So, if you’re writing a tense scene, get inside your character’s head so deeply that you feel your heart skipping. If it’s a tragic scene, allow yourself to cry. If it’s a moment of halcyon, allow yourself to slide into the beatitude of the environment your character is experiencing, and then let those feelings, imaginings, flow out from your mind into the mind of your character, and from there into your scene. There is truth in this process. There is believability. And in doing so you will have built upon the development of a character who will be memorable, someone your reader will want to know, and will think about long after the last page has been read.

You can follow me at my website: fiveriverspublishing.com

Derek Newman-Stille Interviews Mark Leslie (Lefebvre)

SF Canada is pleased to share a new interview from Derek Newman-Stille. They spoke with fellow SF Canada member Mark Leslie (Lefebvre) on subjects ranging from researching werewolf books to spending the night in a haunted hotel room.

Interview with Mark Leslie (Lefebvre) on Writing Werewolves and Haunted Houses

By Derek Newman-Stille

 

Derek Newman-Stille: “To begin our interview, could you tell readers a little bit about yourself?”

 

Mark Leslie (Lefebvre): “I’m a writer, editor, bookseller, storyteller with about twenty-five or so books out there in the world. I tend to drift toward the darker realms of speculative fiction in my writing; and most of my non-fiction books are explorations of haunted locations. I have also written a few books about the business of writing and publishing under my full name, tacking “Lefebvre” back on.

I started writing when I was about fourteen years old, received my first rejection at the age of fifteen, and have, of course, collected thousands of rejections since then. My first short story was published in 1992, the same year I started working in bookselling. I’ve grown up within the industry learning about both the author side and the book industry side of things, which I believe has afforded me a unique perspective over the years.

Because I wear many different hats in the roles I’ve played over the years, I often find that the term “Book Nerd” fits quite nicely.”

 

Derek: “I like that term “Book Nerd”. That is fantastic. You have published in a lot of genres and even extended from Speculative Fiction writing into non-fiction explorations of haunted narratives. Do you find that your explorations of stories about hauntings influences your Speculative Fiction?”

 

Mark: “Oh yeah, for sure. It’s difficult to turn off the speculative fiction writer mind when I’m doing research for haunted locations. Several of my fictional pieces have been inspired by some of the ghost walks, tours, and reading I’ve done to learn about haunted locations.

That’s the beauty of writing both fiction and non-fiction. I can be doing research on a location that I’m writing about for one of my “true ghost story” books, and something within the stories I’m learning about trigger a thought or an additional “what if?” that inspires me to imagine something. Riffing on true tales is a great source for my writing. Of course, almost everything I experience is prime to be plucked for my writing at one time or another.”

 

Derek: “I like that inspiration of the “what if”. Do you find that your work is often inspired by the “what if” question and what are some situations where you have asked yourself “what if” and it has planted the seeds of a new story?”

 

Mark: “If I stop to think about it, “What if?” is likely the most common underlying fundamental of most of what flows from my pen. And not just for the fantastical tales where I inject speculation and wonder; but even for my non-fiction.

It’s easy to see where I took research or something I saw or heard and then went off in a specific “what if” direction.

For example, my Canadian Werewolf stories and novels came from wondering what it might be like to be living in a large metropolis while suffering from lycanthropy. How would a werewolf have to organize his time? What are the logistics involved when one wakes up from a night of howling at the moon and needs to find clothes to get back home? Those questions birthed the novel A Canadian Werewolf in New York.

Some of my ghost stories were also based on wondering odd things, such as: if objects can be haunted, what might happen if a collector of haunted objects thrust a bunch of haunted items into a personal at home museum. Would these ghosts, now forced to share the same space, act like children forced to share a bedroom?

I think many of my speculative musings often involve dark humour.

One of my most popular stories to read in front of an audience, “That Old Silk Hat They Found” was born from wondering what might ACTUALLY happen if a snowman came alive.

An example from non-fiction might be when I’m researching to write about haunted locations, I approach the research with an open-minded skepticism. I’m a believer, but I also look for plausible explanations for different alleged hauntings. But there’s always a part of me that clings to the “what if this there actually is a ghost? And what if the ghost is this historic figure? And what if….” etc etc.”

 

Derek: “I can imagine looking out on the world of 2020 and now 2021 there must be a lot of “what if” material to inspire you. How has this past year inspired your writing? What narratives do you see potentially arising from the events of this year?”

 

Mark: “Interesting question.

I haven’t done a lot of fiction writing about the events of the past year or so, but I imagine that there will be things that will subconsciously inject themselves into my writing. For stories I’ve written in that time period, I’ve purposely avoided pandemic or anything associated with it.

I have incorporated some of the modern political landscape into a novel in progress that’s coming out in February 2021. FEAR AND LONGING IN LOS ANGELES, the latest in my “Canadian Werewolf” series, involves the rise of a terrorist neo-nazi group. Interestingly, that premise was scripted back in 2016. The manuscript was put aside until late in 2020 when I started working on it again, and surprised myself that those elements were in there.

One of the things that the global pandemic, lockdown, and all the accompany elements have done for me, is inspired me to re-engage with other forms of entertainment, and storytelling; especially parody.

I’ve long enjoyed writing parody lyrics to pop songs, and often used that as a writing warm-up activity. But the pandemic and lockdown inspired me and my partner to collaborate on a few pandemic parody videos, where we recorded the song and created a video.

Two of those were “Stuck in This House Here With You” (a parody of “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Stealers Wheel. And then we followed that up with a K-Tel commercial parody, which was a collection of short pandemic-themed parody song clips, including “Sharing Broadband Streams” which was a parody of the Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton song “Islands in the Stream.”

If I were to look for positives in the current global situation, I think it would be that it was a reminder to me that I am a born storyteller, regardless of the media it comes out in.”

 

Derek: “You have mentioned your Canadian Werewolf stories and I am really looking forward to reading them. I used to teach a werewolf course at Trent University, so the werewolf is something that I am incredibly fascinated by. What inspired your interest in the figure of the werewolf?”

 

Mark: “It’s funny because for the longest time I tried to avoid writing using the “classic” monsters of horror like vampires and werewolves, because so much had already been done with them.

But it was reading the guidelines for an open anthology call that inspired my “Canadian Werewolf.” The editor had been looking for stories about the human side of a “monster” and that’s what sparked me to think about what it might be like for the human living in a big city and trying to engage in a normal life despite this hiccough.

With his affliction, he has no memory or conscious control of the wolf. So when he wakes up, he has no idea where he is or what he was up to. That premise was intriguing me, as my main character writes in his first tale, upon waking up naked in Battery Park with a bullet hole in his leg, the taste of human blood in his mouth and no memory of the night before and says: “What the hell had I been up to this time?”

I ended up giving my human wolf-inspired enhanced senses; modelling them off of Wolverine and Daredevil from the Marvel comic books. Of course, my character, Michael Andrews, was, himself (like me) a huge fan of Spider-Man, and therefore adopts a “great power/great responsibility” moral compass that guides him along. He can’t help but use his powers to stop and help others, even when he’s in the middle of some personal desire or goal.

I also had a lot of fun playing with the concept of alpha dog, or alpha wolf. Because, while, as a wolf, he might be the alpha, he is definitely a beta human, or a bit of a pushover. I played up the polite, Canadian stereotype in his character, as well as my own naive nature of having grown up in a really small town in Northern Ontario.”

 

Derek: “The werewolf is such a fascinating figure because it occupies that space of being both human… and not human at the same time. It opens up so many possibilities for being an outsider who is also an insider. I find it interesting that you set your story in the United States. Was this at all inspired by the insider/outsider quality?”

 

Mark: “Oh, that’s a great question.

Funny, I set it in the US because when I wrote the first short story that eventually turned into the novel, I had visited New York City for the first time. I was fascinated with how such a larger city as New York could be so urban, and yet have unique natural landscapes in so many neighbourhoods.

I was also fascinated at how the neighbourhoods themselves were so interesting and dynamic, and could each have their own distinct feel of “home” and comfort despite being part of this bustling city that never sleeps.

I only played up the insider/outside qualities as an after-thought, rather than as a fore-thought. I didn’t realize Michael was a beta human until an early reader of the manuscript complained that an “alpha wolf” would never drop onto his knees and sob in front of the woman he loved and lost. When I reflected on that, I knew that would be part of what made him unique, and allowed me to use that alpha/beta contrast. Perhaps this is a similar contrast to Michael being a small town country bumpkin making his way in the Big Apple.

And now that you mention it, I’m starting to reflect on the first person narrative where Michael (who happens to be a writer), is very reflective on making note of observing specific things about his situation and the people around him.

For example, he recognizes that wolves do not kill for sport, like humans; they only kill for food, or over protecting their pack or territory. Humans are a far more frightening creature, when you think about it.”

 

Derek: “Speaking of the supernatural, I have to ask about some of your nonfiction work on hauntings. What inspired you to start researching and publishing about hauntings?”

 

Mark: “I blame historic ghost walks. I fell in love with history through ghost walks in Ottawa and Hamilton, ON. And, prior to that, I enjoyed history about as much as I enjoyed walking golf. I mean I put it right up there with watching paint dry.

But going on a tour and learning about local and Canadian history from a guide who was dressed in Victorian garb and carrying a lantern brought such a uniqueness and immediacy to the experience that I realized that we walk upon lands that are rich with history, rich with the tales of those who came before us.

It was shortly after moving to Hamilton and going on several of the local ghosts walks that I was inspired to want to capture some of these tales and share them. I learned that Dundurn, Canada’s largest independent publisher, had always wanted to publish a book of ghost stories about Hamilton. I did some research, leaned there had never been such a thing — ie, there was a hole in the market — spoke with the folks offering the tours about the idea of a book, and they gave me full access to their research and archives, and the rest was history.

I pitched the book, Dundurn sent me a contract, and I set about writing it.

I’ve since written other books based on looking at potential holes in the market combined with locals and subjects I’m interested in. So I’ve covered cities I’ve lived in (Hamilton, Sudbury, Ottawa), cities I love (Montreal), as well as other locations (haunted bookstores and libraries, haunted hospitals).”

 

Derek: Do you visit the spaces where people report ghost stories and, if so, what is that experience like?

 

Mark: “Yes, I do, whenever possible, visit the spaces. Ideally when I’m researching and writing them. Sometimes, though, it’s after I’ve already written about them.

I’m actually a big chicken, so I’m often quite nervous visiting such locations.

Though I’ve never had anything paranormal or something I can’t explain happen to be when doing that research, I’m still quite the chicken.

I typically marvel at the history of a specific locale, even if it’s not at the ghosts or hauntings the place is known for.

But I do often approach such visits with a sense of quiet respect and honour. Often times the location is the site of some horrific tragedy or murder, and I sometimes feel as if I’m visiting a grave.

So there can be a great deal of high emotions that come with visiting particular locations. Fear, excitement, quiet reflection, sadness.”

 

Derek: “I recently got a copy of Haunted Hospitals that you published with Rhonda Parrish and I was wondering what got you fascinated with hospitals as particular spaces of haunting. They strike me as places that are already uncomfortable for people. Do you think that this discomfort and the uncertainty around life and death may inspire people to create ghost stories about them? Or is the fraught nature of these spaces a possible reason why ghosts linger?”

 

Mark: “Great question.

Hospitals, are, in an of themselves, a place where people come and go out of the world, where all kinds of the heights and depths of human experience happen. Even if you don’t believe in ghosts or spirits or supernatural elements, you can’t help by marvel at the power that a location like a hospital holds.

There were plenty of doctors and nurses who had been willing to share tales about inexplicable experiences they had at the hospital where they worked, but when it came time to me asking permission to use these stories (even if I were to make them anonymous), they declined. While slightly disappointed, I also completely understood their decisions, and saw it as a sign of respect they held for their colleagues, patients, and perhaps also the previous tenants of the buildings where they work.

I also found it fascinating that, when you go back in history, there was this odd blurry line between hospital, and asylum, and prison. In some cases, like in terms of Canada’s oldest jail, you had pickpockets and murderers sharing the same space with folks who needed to be hospitalized for a mental disorder. In much of the research I did, there plenty of elements of a “hell on earth” environment for many of the downtrodden and less fortune of society.

But considering the depths of horror, the extremes of emotions, wouldn’t hospitals be a spot that is rife for either hauntings or at the very least some sort of echo of the intense energy and emotions experienced there?”

 

Derek: “You know I have to ask – have you seen any ghosts or do you have any personal haunting stories that you are comfortable sharing here?”

 

Mark: “It’s funny that you ask that. For years, whenever I was asked this question I would be able to laugh and say. “Nope. Good news is that I’ve never seen a ghost or experienced anything paranormal. But I still believe in ghosts. I mean, I don’t have to have seen an atom myself to believe in them.”

But I can’t say that any more.

A few years ago, my partner Liz and I were traveling back home from a work related trip to Orlando where I had to speak at a writer’s conference. We decided to take some extra time and drive, exploring different hiking spots and breweries along the way. (We are also still researching to write a book about haunted bars and breweries, so that was part of the trip).

But on our way back, we planned a stop in Weston, West Virginia at the Trans Alleghany Lunatic Asulym. That appears in the book Haunted Hospitals, and this was about a month after the book was released. This was a case where I visited the spot AFTER having written about it. In fact, this was a chapter that Rhonda wrote, so I wasn’t as intimately familiar with it as she was.

But the night before, we arrived in town on a foggy night around midnight, and had been driving all day, having left Orlando in the morning. The first hotel we stopped in at was full. No rooms left. So we went down the highway to the next one. Liz was driving, so I ran in.

They had a single room. “But,” the clerk said. “It’s two double beds. No Queen. No King.”

“That’s fine,” I said. We just needed a place to drop into sleep, get up in the morning and go on the tour of the local historic haunted building, and then head back home.

We went to bed immediately. Liz took the bed closest to the washroom, and I took the one nearest the door. She had a hoodie on, threw it over her head and fell fast asleep.

It always takes me longer to fall asleep, and, because I’m a big chicken, if often takes a bit longer in a strange hotel room, despite being tired.

But I finally fell asleep.

I woke, some time later, to the sound of Liz getting out of bed and shuffling to the bathroom. I cracked an eye open to see her moving past the end of her bed toward the washroom, listening to the shuffling of her feet on the carpet.

I laid there waiting for her to turn on the bathroom light. But it never went on.

Then I heard something in the bed beside me. The sound of her breathing in her sleep.

“What the hell?” I whispered, sitting up. There was a woman in our room!

I looked at the door, saw that the security bolt was still latched.

How was that? How did she get in?

I looked over at Liz, she was sleeping in the bed beside mine.

I figured I must have likely fallen asleep after seeing her move to the bathroom, then woke up a few minutes later, thinking only seconds had passed; and that explained what I thought I’d seen.

I eventually convinced myself my imagination was running overtime and fell back asleep.

Only to be woken again to the sound of something clacking on the table at the end of my bed where my laptop bag and our passports were.

I sat up again. There was something in our room! A thief, maybe, trying to steal our passports, my laptop!

Again, there was nobody there. Liz was still fast asleep.

It took me longer to fall asleep the second time. But I did.

In the morning, I asked Liz if she’d gotten up at all during the night. She said, NO, she had slept through pretty much the whole night. I then said: “Wow, because here’s what I thought I saw and heard last night.”

I relayed the story to her, and her face went extremely pale.

Liz is not a believer in ghosts. She’s fascinated by the tales, but unlike me, she doesn’t believe.

The look on her face told me she was having second thoughts.

“What? What is it?” I asked.

“Well,” she said. “I wasn’t going to say anything because I thought maybe it was a dream, but here’s what happened to me last night.”

She relayed that she had been asleep, facing the wall, when she felt a presence standing over her. She knew it wasn’t me, the way a person just knows. And then she felt a hand press onto her shoulder; it felt like a woman’s hand. Because she is a feisty person, the alpha in our relationship, she steeled herself up to spin around and punch the stranger standing over her in our hotel room.

But when she spun, there was nobody there.

In a nutshell, we both felt the presence of a woman in the room with us in different ways.

It was a bit eerie. But not scary. She was just a presence. So we made sure to wish her well and say good bye to her when we left.

Then we went to one of the most notoriously haunted asylum in that part of the country, and didn’t see a single ghost or unexplained activity.

But I suppose I can no longer say that I’ve never seen a ghost; or, at least, some sort of thing that I can’t properly explain.”

 

Derek: “What is it like to interview people about their experiences of hauntings?”

 

Mark: “Interviewing people about ghosts and hauntings is quite interesting.

In some cases, they are excited to share some unique and thrilling experience. In other cases, they are sharing something profoundly emotional and disturbing.

I find that it’s important for me to tread cautiously and respectfully as much as possible.

They might also be dealing with worries over being made fun or or not believed, so there’s that element too.

Also, I always ensure that those who share their stories have the option of me changing their name and identity.

I also realized that I can’t always just take the story that people share with me. Even true stories need to have some sort of story arc. So I’ll often write down their story and then, when I write the tale out, I’ll elaborate and flesh out the story with additional details that make sense based on my research and the setting, even if it wasn’t part of their original tale.

And then I usually share that chapter with them after the fact to ensure I’ve capture the details accurately, and respectfully.

In some cases, I’ve had stories I’ve written where I really had to elaborate and injected my version of what I thought the dialogue might have been (where the person sharing the story didn’t give “line by line” dialogue explanations) – I merely fleshed out the story with what I felt would be realistic elements.

Most of the time, they’ll come back with a “wow, it was like you were right there!” response, suggesting I managed to flesh out just enough detail to be close or accurate or authentic about the experience.

Because it’s that type of authenticity that I believe resonates with the reader.”

 

Derek: “Having done a few ghost tours of cities and being someone who is passionate about history, I have always found it fascinating the way that ghost stories are often ways of beginning narratives talking about the history of a particular location. Do you find that the narratives you record inspire you and your readers to learn more about local history?”

 

Mark: “Oh yes. One hundred percent.

While I started off not being interested in history at all, it was through my exploration of ghost stories that I learned to love history. In fact, when I visit new locations, I look for historic tours so I can learn more about the locale, the people, the buildings, the architecture, the culture, all of it, even if there aren’t any ghost stories to share.

I’ve heard from readers who said that one of the elements in my ghost stories have intrigued them enough to continue to do research on a thing I perhaps only touched upon, because in a ghost story book, you have to stick to the chills and thrills.

When I was writing Tomes of Terror: Haunted Bookstores and Libraries, the book nerd in me often took over (I think he and I share this same body in a lycanthropic manner) and went whole hog writing about the history of various bookstores and library locations. My editor and I actually fought over how MUCH detail I wanted to inject. She reminded me that people were there with a willing suspension of disbelief to read about ghosts, and I was harping on about bookish history. We finally compromised, and I cut a significant amount of that out of the chapters, but managed to get some of it back into the book in these little side-bar segments that appear in some chapters. That way, the true believer ghost lovers would still enjoy the chapter, and the bookish folks like me could dig into and enjoy the in depth book history insights.”

 

Derek: “Thank you for a brilliant interview and for sharing so much with us. As we finish the interview, is there anything you want to mention here or any current projects you want to let us know about?”

 

Mark: “Thank, you, Derek, for a fun chat.

I appreciate the conversation, and the only other thing I’d add is that if people wanted to find out more about me, or check out the various things I’m up to www.markleslie.ca has info, links to my books, and all my exploits on social media.  Thank you!”

 

 

Mark Leslie (Lefebvre) has been writing since he was thirteen years old and discovered his mother’s Underwood typewriter collecting dust in a closet. Under the name Mark Leslie, he has published more than a dozen full length books. He pens a series of non-fiction paranormal explorations for Dundurn, Canada’s largest independent publisher. He also writes fiction (typically thrillers and horror) and edits fiction anthologies, most recently as a regular editor for the WMG Publishing Fiction River anthology series.

Between 2011 and 2017, Mark worked at the Director of Self-Publishing and Author Relations for Kobo where he was the driving force behind the creation of Kobo Writing Life, a free and easy to use author/small-publisher friendly platform designed to publish directly to Kobo’s global catalog in 190 countries. Mark has spoken professionally in the United States and Canada, in the UK and across Europe, specializing in advances in digital publishing and the vast and incredible opportunities that exist for writers and publishers.

 

Derek Newman-Stille, MA, PhD ABD (They/Them) is a Disabled, Queer, Nonbinary activist, author, artist, academic, and editor. They edited the anthologies Over the Rainbow: Folk and Fairy Tales from the Margins (Exile) and We Shall Be Monsters (Renaissance Press) and are the 8 time Prix Aurora Award-winning creator of the digital humanities hub Speculating Canada. Derek has published in fora such as Uncanny Magazine, The Playground of Lost Toys, Quill & Quire, Fireside Magazine, Diamond Book Shelf, The Town Crier, Exile Quarterly, and Nothing Without Us. Derek’s art work has been published in fora such as Feminist Space Camp, Lackington’s, Postscripts to Darkness, and Aging Activisms.

Writers’ Craft 3: Outlining

Technical issues

I was going to make this entire Writers’ Craft series as vlogs. However, I have a problem with my ISP, in that they have not upgraded the lines in our wee village, and so uploading to YouTube is problematic. The first two videos required an overnight upload, with nothing else eating up broadband. The third one has been a bust, I’m afraid. I’ve tried four times now. The first three attempts resulted in 3% upload after 24 hours. The last attempt stalled at 26%. And I’m out of patience. So, I’m back to the written word, which I suppose is appropriate given I’m supposed to be imparting wisdom on the creation of the written word. Life is full or ironies, say what?

Creating an Outline, or why bother?

I know of a good many writers, be they novice or experienced, who ask that question: Why bother outlining? In my experience, outlining is an essential tool if you’re going to write.

  1. Outlining saves time, because the need for extensive revision will be reduced. You’ll know where you’re going with the story, and why, rather than employing the ‘panster’ method of just writing without any idea at all where you’re going with the story.
  2. Outlining adds cohesion to plot progression, because you’ve thought out your story ahead of time.
  3. Outlining helps you to solidify character development.
  4. Outlining allows you to develop literary devices throughout your story by way of foreshadowing, pacing, and when to introduce a character or plot element.
  5. Outlining helps to identify any further research you’re going to require.
How to create your outline

I use Word or Excel, depending on the complexity of my plot. Normally I use Word, and lay things out by chapter or section, and often pre- or append character sketches as well as world and environmental details. However, when I wrote The Rose Guardianthe story was a bit more complex, employing three different voices in three different timelines, and because of that I used Excel so I could easily scan and organize, as well as keep the continuity of the overall storyline. That also allowed me to clearly define character sketches which allowed me to use those influences in other sections.

I remember well interviewing Marian Fowler, a great Canadian biographer (Blenheim, Below the Peacock Fan, In a Gilded Cage) who was a stickler for accurate research. She used 3×5 cards to outline her biographies and research, and then pinned the cards to a board, or laid them out on a table in her office. I did often wonder what she did if a strong breeze blew through the window. But it was a system which stood her in good stead for many decades.

Other writers I know have written points out by hand on sheets of paper, and then organized those sheets in binders of folders. Others yet have used sticky notes on a wall near their computer. Some have even gone to the trouble of creating visual sketches, working out an actual storyboard.

Just find a system that works for you and use it. You’ll be grateful you did when it comes time to do your revision.

An Outline is a guide, not a monument

It’s important to remember, as you write, your outline is a guide, not a rigid format to which you must adhere. Things occur to you as you’re writing, new ideas, change in plot, change in character, and that’s the way it should be. Just make note of that in your outline and adjust accordingly. I think of an outline as a recipe, if I may be allowed to use a cooking analogy. It often occurs I don’t have all the ingredients for the recipe, which means I liberally substitute. So, I may have started out to make a lasagna, but found I had neither tomatoes nor ground meat, but I did have cream, an abundance of cheese, greens and mushrooms. I still made a lasagna. It was just flavoured differently.

Same with writing and an outline. But it’s important to have at least that basic structure of an outline in place, otherwise you may end up making salad instead of lasagna.

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