20 December 2015

Another Year Ends

I think I'm going to make it--that is, if this hotel wifi holds together long enough! It's been iffy at best and I'm using my older, slower netbook instead of my fast newer laptop which, apparently got some malware at a previous hotel stop and now will not connect to any wifi even if I try to shove it down its wifi slot. (So beware those public access electronic connections!) But I digress...

So I think I'm going to make it. A long year full of frequent travel and everything else required of me with little rest or break between each. Makes one feel rather like a superhero. In fact, I've come to realize that my superpower is being able to trick myself into believing I'm going to make it. I shall adopt the name Incredibleman. Then I'll make-believe I believe it. And this sojourn of journeying is finally about to end, and end hopefully with a whimper not a bang. Easier to deal with a whimper, you know. 

Then I would like about a year off before I do anything else.

I began the year by traveling near and far, then I wrote about previous travels near and far, then I traveled again, mostly far. While I was traveling near and far, I wrote about other, foreign destinations (i.e., "far") but not about those particular destinations where I happened to then be traveling. For example, I wrote a novel about Greenland while I was in China. You can read about that a few blog posts back in the sacred timeline. It's a weird situation, I know. But that's how life goes, and I tend to roll with it as long as I get a boost from gravity.
The new year looks good, because it's a blank slate and I don't have much on my plate as I look ahead out the window at the future on the wilted lawn. Yes, 2016 is wide-open and waiting to be filled! I'll be back at the day job instructing young writers how to become old writers. I've also promised to punch out an "epic fantasy with dragons"--which I've started to the tune of 3000 words and 3 dragons killed (sorry, if you are a dragon lover). It's intended to be a personal challenge, so I accepted the slap of gauntlet. Or I could just as easily be tapped on the brain by a different muse, say, a Victorianesque romance involving well-dressed bunnies. Anything is possible. 

Thus, to all of you wonderful blog-readers who pass by these electronic files, I wish you a merry holiday season and the best of everything. Perhaps, even a full bag of coal. You know you can burn coal to keep warm, don't you? I never understood why it was such a bad gift. I mean, can you just go out and get some coal on your own? Where does one buy a lump of coal these days? You can buy your own knick-knacks and frivolous keepsakes yourself, after all, and in many different places. But despite the material accoutrements of the season, we always enjoy the personal greetings!

So thank you very much for your continuing support! I wish you the best of everything in the coming year! Keep safe and stay happy! Read and read again! (FYI, I just bought a fresh copy of Moby Dick, because I lost my dog-eared paperback in high school and never replaced it; otherwise, I have five or eight books beside my nightstand in various states of read.) And if you see something you like, tell others. I'm talking about books, of course. Tell others what books you've enjoyed reading and--if the mood should strike you--you might find delight in something I've sunk my blood, sweat, and tears into making. It's entirely possible. The world is full of possibilities! 

Enjoy the final days of 2015! Make the best of 2016! And never look back!

(C) Copyright 2010-2015 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

13 December 2015

3.5 Steps to Successful Writing Collaboration!

Collaboration is a new thing for me even though technically I suppose I've borrowed plenty of times before from real life situations, people, and places. However, this time, writing A GIRL CALLED WOLF, I had a definite plan when I decided to write a novel based on the true life of someone I had met. I realize in hindsight that there are exactly 3.5 steps to successful collaboration.

Step 1

The first issue to grapple with was classification. Is a novel a legal document? Does the word novel mean everything is guaranteed fictitious? I doubt everything in a novel is fictitious. There are always those disclaimers saying "any resemblance is coincidental." 

Writers "borrow" all the time from real people, places, and events. Writers fictionalize the real, usually for the sake of telling a good story, sometimes to hide some unpleasant details. And whose autobiography doesn't include a fair amount of hyperbole or glossing over embarrassments? What is truth, after all? Moreover, is the true truth all that important to telling a compelling story?

Is there actually a big difference between "based on" and "inspired by"? We see that at the start of many films. Even though the film purports to be a version of a novel, we do not get quite the same story. The way around telling the same story is to label it as "based on" or inspired by." Based on is a declaration of connection to a work and sincere attempt to duplicate a prior source. Inspired by is, obviously, only a source of inspiration, thus only serving as a starting point for any version the author/producer wishes to tell, regardless of how close to the original it may be. 

In the case of A GIRL CALLED WOLF, I wanted to tell an essentially true story. At least to begin with that story. However, the vagaries of time being what they are, the story could not end other than in the future. And that, as most of us know, would certainly be fiction. A made-up ending to a true novel. Is there such a genre? A hybrid biographical novel with a fictional ending? 

When I had compiled enough information through social media and some Q&A via email about my heroine's life in Greenland and Canada, and decided her story had to be told, we discussed how it should end. If the story within the "true zone" is already inspiring, the conclusion must also be inspiring--heroic, even. That kind of climax is not too difficult given her adventures through the years which lead up to the present date. It would be quite natural to continue in the same direction and literally go out with a bang--or not [spoilers avoided]. So we settled on A Novel inspired by a true life.

Step 2

Then there was the theme. The message. An old writing professor of mine liked to repeat some famous writer's quip: "If you want to send a message, write a letter!" That's true enough as a writing axiom. Theme might be a better word than message. Don't most novels have a theme, a moral point, or feeling that the reader gets by the end? I seldom start a novel with a theme in mind, but the story tends to develop its own theme by the middle of the manuscript and from that moment I work to accentuate that theme. Our heroine had a rough start to her life and overcomes much along the way in remaking herself into the kind of person she believes will make a difference, not someone who is merely one of the crowd. So we elected to take the situation of her present day world and run with it.

Thus, we have a novel which is a retelling of a true life--birth, childhood, teenage years, youth and on into adulthood--as accurately as can be portrayed given the need for approval from the woman whose life serves as the model for the story. So let's call it 88.5% true--because any one of us is likely to sugar-coat some events and exaggerate others, mute certain details and play up others. Is any autobiography 100% true? Perhaps only to the author! So it is a novel overall, a fictionalized account based on a real person's story yet with a conclusion inspired by the present situation for both her and the world she lives in. I think we've hit the Trifecta! 

To create such a hybrid, I did a lot of interviewing with Anna Good, posing many questions and getting many answers. As a life story, we divided the years by location, placing them in chronological order rather than using flashbacks. I asked her to list 10 major things that happened at each location. I tried to flesh out ("showing" rather than "telling") the more important ones. I wrote as factually as possible, substituting RGW--really good words--when there were gaps in the timeline. I tried to make clear connections that I saw between actions and reactions. Then I sent drafts to Anna for her approval. Generally, she accepted anything I tried to do, only pointing out factual errors or occasionally guiding me in new directions. She seemed happy to let me tell her story in a dramatic way that was, according to her, better than she remembered. That's the supreme compliment to a ghostwriter, isn't it?

Step 3

I began by asking for answers to a lot of questions. We began by breaking down the story into locations. Then compiling details about incidents at each location. If you are working on a collaborative project like this, feel free to use my list of questions.

  • For each location you lived, list ten things that happened.
  • Who was involved in each incident?
  • What caused it and what was the result?
  • How did you feel about it?
  • How did you feel about the result?
  • What did you think about the incident with regard to your life in general?
  • What ties to the past did the incident have and did you recognize that at the time or later?
  • What did you do differently as a result of the incident?
  • What caused you to change locations? Good reason or not good reason?
  • How did you feel about the cause of changing locations?
  • How did you feel after the change of location?
  • What are 5 things that stand out in your mind about the location?
  • Best thing and worst thing about the location?
  • What sayings or big ideas do you remember hearing from each location?
  • What did you gain at each location?
  • What did you lose at each location?
  • After you arrived at a new locations, did you ever wish to return to the previous? If so, why? 
  • Describe a dream you had sometime at each location.
  • Describe the major people you interacted with at each location.
  • Describe the place where you lived (the building/room) at each location.
  • Describe the food at a typical meal at each location.
  • Describe something fun you experienced at each location.
  • Describe something annoying or irritating that happened a lot at each location.
  • In childhood locations, describe a time you got into trouble. How were you punished?
  • In adult locations, describe an incident where you got into trouble. How was it delt with? Punishment?
  • Describe the appearance and personality of the major people you interacted with at each location.
  • Pets?  -for each location
  • Hobbies? -for each location
  • How did you travel around at each location? 
  • Describe an incident with a travel-related problem.
  • When living at each location, what did you want more than anything?
  • When living at each location, what did you fear more than anything?
  • What are some of the books you read? Which ones were important to you?

The village of Tasiilaq, east Greenland, on a nice summer day.
Anna Good, the model for this novel, had attempted to write it herself in the 2014 National Novel Writing Month competition but only got to about 5000 words, mostly about what she remembered of her earliest childhood. I used that in chapter 1, which helped us get started. Then I filled in as many incidents as possible. However, like any life, we tend to recall only the most significant events--good or bad. 

Keeping the novel manageable required us to limit the telling to those events which had significant impact on: 1) her reasons for moving to a new location, 2) her personal growth, 3) support for the theme of the book.

Therefore, chapter 1 has some flash-forwards, anticipating events to come. This is a result of melding Anna's original text with the text I prepared. It seemed to work, giving the reader a sense of where the story is leading without giving away any spoilers. It grows interest in the story. 

Step 3.5

The rest was careful manipulation of facts and sensory details. To back up my understanding of the locations, I did my own research on Greenland and the arctic. I also double-checked every detail with Anna. Mostly she let me write it out; then we quibbled over the details. We understood that I was not writing so much "her exact story" as a story of a girl similar to her who had these similar experiences. The deciding factor was the decision to use her real name(s; they changed at each location) thus forever linking this novel to her life.

The previous blog post describes more of this process.

(C) Copyright 2010-2015 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

06 December 2015

A Girl Called Wolf ...saves the world!

Ever since I was a little boy trying to write science-fiction stories, people have asked me where I get my ideas. It's a question most writers get. To me, the implication has always seemed to be that I'm either quite insane or I am cheating a little by borrowing real events. Both are partly true. Usually I develop a "what-if" scenario that intrigues me. Most of my books came about that way.

However, my latest book is a strange kind of collaboration. There truly are a lot of stories out in the world and if one merely pays attention one will hear them, read them, talk about them, and perhaps write them down so others can experience the amazing adventures of real people who walk through our lives. They say fact is stranger than fiction. Perhaps that's true. (Pardon the pun.) In this case, my new novel A GIRL CALLED WOLF is a hybrid of fact and fiction: telling the story of Anna Good up to the present day and then extending the story into the future--which may or may not turn out to be fiction.
Over the past two years I've interacted on social media with many people. They post bits about their lives, as we all do. Pictures, snippets of events, episodes that go well or as often go badly. I tend to hold back my personal life. Nobody's interested, or someone out there might be far too interested in me. Either way, it has been my tendency to sit back and observe. And I watched a mutual friend of an internet contact blossom from an introvert in real life to a confident social media maven eager to tell about her life.

Her username is Anna Good on Facebook and @Anna4Anybody on Twitter (how it came to be is in the book). Over the years, I have found her story compelling, heroic even. Her early life was definitely not what most children experience. I was intrigued. So I began a conversation that extended over the year, picking up all the key events, many of the details, becoming more and more intrigued and naturally absorbing Anna's way of thinking and speaking. It was a story I would want to read. 

Then I asked the fateful question: "Could I write your story?"

Ironically, Anna, a University of Manitoba student about to graduate with a degree in librarianship, is an avid reader. And she writes poetry. People told her she should write her story. She gave the National Novel Writing Competition a try in 2014, planning to write her autobiography, but couldn't make much progress telling her story herself. Not a problem: hire a writer to write it for you! On social media it is easy to become friends with writers.

Anna is an enthusiastic promoter of indie authors and was one of the more active fans of my 2014 vampire novel A DRY PATCH OF SKIN, enjoying it enough to help promote it on social media. She also enjoyed my novel A BEAUTIFUL CHILL, which described my brief encounter with her half-sister. (Yes, there's a kind of connection, after all, although Anna and I have never met face to face.) So Anna trusted me to be able to tell her story.

We began with interviews by email and on social media, lots of Q&A. Some of the material was difficult to handle--that is, situations in life not always being pleasant. I began slowly, as usual, searching for the right voice, trying to make the narrative sound like her authentic voice while maintaining a readable style that suggests a native speaker of Greenlandic. Being a trained linguist helps. We had to work around her classes and exams, and her fight schedule as a boxer (had to take some liberties with her record) as well as her training schedule as a member of the Canadian Army reserve. These could be spoilers. It's not a spoiler that her favorite word is badass. Definitely a long way from living "on the ice."

Then I left for China, where when I wasn't teaching a class on American Business Writing, I was pounding the keys of my laptop. (See my account of that here.) NaNoWriMo be damned! I still wrote more than 50,000 words during the month of July. With each chapter written, I sent off drafts so Anna could check them for authenticity and she often sent back suggestions for changes. We negotiated a lot: the cold hard facts vs making a good story. As with any life story, we had to compress some events, merge others, take some shortcuts, to create a compelling story which follows her adventures without reading like a set of diary entries. Writing to create drama, that is, to tell a good story, not just writing that this happened and then that happened. And yet, the writing flowed almost effortlessly. It seemed one of the easiest novels I've ever written. Of course, I always had a muse and a plot-checker working with me!

During the final revisions, we worked to accentuate certain episodes, particular details, and cut others until we had a good finished story. With Anna's approval, we finally get to bring her story to the readers of the world. However, there is a twist. Up to the present day, the novel follows her life. Beyond the present day, what might happen? It is easy to speculate based on what has happened in her life and in the book. An exciting ending to an adventurous story? What to do? Any more teasing would take us into spoiler territory. Of course the ending is full fiction--it occurs in the future, after all.

We chose the following structure, using larger chapters which place the events both chronologically and by location:

Chapter 1 - The Dark
Chapter 2 - The Ice
Chapter 3 - The Village  (...that would be Tasiilaq, on the east coast of Greenland)

Chapter 4 - The Town    (...Nuuk, the capital of Greenland)
Chapter 5 - The City     (...Toronto, largest city of Canada)
Chapter 6 - The Province   (...Manitoba; Winnipeg is its capital)
Chapter 7 - The Nation    (...of course, that would be Canada)
Chapter 8 - The World

The cover art was created by Anna's half-sister, Iris Schaeffer, who is by necessity a character in the book. She says she is "all right" with how she is portrayed.

Back cover text:
Ice and snow are all 12 year old Anuka knows outside the hut in Greenland where she was born. When her mama dies, Anuka struggles to survive. The harsh winter forces her to finally journey across the frozen island to the village her mama always feared.

But the people of the village don’t know what to do with this girl. They try to educate and bring her into the modern world, but Anuka won't make it easy for them. She sees dangers at every turn and every day hears her fate echoing in her mama’s voice.

Her mama gave her that name for a reason. She is A GIRL CALLED WOLF who searches for the place where she belongs, a destination always just out of reach, on a path she will always make her own.

Kindle version available now. Paperback coming soon--as soon as Anna approves a proof copy! Knock-knock...ahem...waiting!

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is my story and I'm sticking with it!

(C) Copyright 2010-2015 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.