Slipstream — A Unique, Hybrid Fiction Cross-Genre

Recently, I was Zoom chatting with a writer friend. She asked me how it was going with my current work-in-progress—a project titled City Of Danger. I chuckled and said, “I’m intentionally breaking all the rules.”

“What genre is it in?” she asked.

I kept chuckling. “Hard to put a finger on it. It’s kind of a dog’s breakfast. Part hardboiled/noir detective crime fiction. Part thriller and suspense. A lot of historical nostalgia from the 1920s. And some sci-fi from a dystopian future. It involves malevolent AI and time travel. I might even throw in a touch of romantic comedy.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. I’m not doing what every editor, agent, and publishing guru always says to do. ‘Strictly write to one genre.’ Nope. I gotta be different.”

“Sounds like Slipstream.”

“Slipstream? What’s that?”

“It’s a unique, hybrid fiction cross-genre. The style has been around awhile, but it’s really gaining traction. Slipstream pushes creativity boundaries. It explores the depths of human experience, the human condition, in novel ways.”

“Damm. I thought I was inventing something new.”

She laughed, and we moved on to other things. When we were done, she’d piqued my interest. I Googled “Slipstream” and asked Chat about it. Did I ever get my eyes opened, and it fit exactly with what I stumbled upon while building City Of Danger.

Among other information, I found a great article in The Write Life titled How to Write Slipstream Fiction—Full Guide and Definition. Here’s the link and the piece’s opening words which don’t need me rephrasing:

In the ever-evolving genres of fiction, Slipstream emerges as a genre that defies the traditional boundaries of storytelling, offering a unique blend of the real and the surreal. This genre, sitting at the crossroads of speculative fiction and literary fiction, challenges our perceptions of reality, inviting readers and writers alike into a world where the ordinary becomes extraordinary.

If you’re intrigued by the idea of crafting narratives that transcend conventional genres, Slipstream fiction may be the creative avenue you’ve been searching for. This article is your comprehensive guide to understanding, appreciating, and ultimately writing Slipstream fiction that captivates and resonates.

What is Slipstream fiction?

Slipstream fiction is a genre that thrives on ambiguity, challenging both writers and readers to explore the spaces between the known and the unknown. Let’s dive into the core aspects that define this intriguing genre.

Our Slipstream fiction definition

Slipstream fiction is notoriously difficult to pin down with a single definition, but at its core, it represents a narrative that straddles the line between the speculative and the literary, often blurring the boundaries of reality and the fantastic. This genre is not just about fantastical elements or futuristic settings; it’s about invoking a sense of wonder, unease, or the uncanny through stories that feel both familiar and deeply strange.

Slipstream challenges our everyday understanding of reality, pushing readers to question what they know about the world around them.

It is this unique blend of the real and the surreal that sets Slipstream apart from more conventional genres, making it a fascinating field for writers who want to explore the depths of human experience in novel ways.

What are the key characteristics of Slipstream fiction?

Before we delve into the characteristics that define Slipstream fiction, it’s important to understand that these traits work together to create a distinctive reading experience that defies easy categorization. Here are the seven most important characteristics of Slipstream fiction:

  1. Ambiguity: Stories often leave more questions than answers, challenging readers to find their interpretations.
  2. Cognitive dissonance: The narrative may combine elements that traditionally don’t coexist, creating a sense of unease or perplexity.
  3. Surreal atmosphere: The setting or events have an otherworldly quality, even if rooted in the familiar.
  4. Emotional resonance: Despite the fantastical elements, the core of Slipstream fiction lies in its ability to evoke deep emotional responses.
  5. Intellectual stimulation: These narratives encourage readers to think deeply about themes, ideas, and the nature of reality itself.
  6. Genre blending: Slipstream fiction often incorporates elements from various genres, refusing to be boxed into a single category.
  7. Metafictional elements: There’s often a self-awareness within the narrative, playing with literary conventions and reader expectations.

Keep in mind that Slipstream fiction is by its nature a genre that blends elements and influences from a wide range of sources. As a result, feel free to use or ignore whichever characteristics of Slipstream depending on what your story requires.

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So, now I was really intrigued. I spent the better part of a day digging into Slipstream, and I did what I do with most things that intrigue me. I encapsulated it visually on an 11×17 inch sheet. It came out looking like this:

Some of the takeaways from my research were the terms cognitive dissonance, cognitive equilibrium, and cognitive consonance. I wasn’t quite sure what they meant and how they meshed with the Slipstream style. Here’s what my little AI friend said:

Combined, these three terms encompass aspects of cognitive psychology related to the harmony, conflict, and resolution of beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors:

Cognitive Dissonance highlights the discomfort that arises when there is inconsistency between beliefs, attitudes, or behaviors. It emphasizes the tension that individuals experience when they hold conflicting cognitive elements.

Cognitive Equilibrium refers to the state of mental balance or harmony that individuals strive for, wherein their beliefs, attitudes, and understanding of the world are consistent and coherent. It reflects the desire for stability and coherence in one’s cognitive processes.

Cognitive Consonance underscores the psychological comfort that individuals experience when their beliefs, attitudes, or behaviors are in agreement with one another. It signifies a state of alignment and consistency in cognitive processes.

Together, these concepts provide insights into how individuals navigate the internal conflicts and seek harmony in their cognitive processes, whether by resolving inconsistencies (cognitive dissonance), striving for balance and coherence (cognitive equilibrium), or experiencing comfort in consistency (cognitive consonance).

The concepts discussed in this thread—cognitive dissonance, cognitive equilibrium, and cognitive consonance—can intersect with the genre of Slipstream in intriguing ways.

In Slipstream literature, there’s often a deliberate blending of genres, a crossing of boundaries between the familiar and the strange, resulting in narratives that defy conventional categorization. This blending can mirror the cognitive tension of cognitive dissonance, as readers encounter elements that challenge their expectations and beliefs.

Moreover, Slipstream narratives often disrupt traditional narrative structures, creating a sense of cognitive imbalance akin to cognitive dissonance. The stories may provoke a sense of unease or uncertainty, inviting readers to question their assumptions and perspectives, much like cognitive dissonance prompts individuals to confront conflicting beliefs.

At the same time, Slipstream literature can evoke a sense of cognitive equilibrium through its exploration of the surreal and the ordinary coexisting. Just as individuals seek cognitive balance by assimilating new information into their existing frameworks (cognitive equilibrium), Slipstream narratives integrate disparate elements into a cohesive whole, inviting readers to find meaning in the juxtaposition of the familiar and the unfamiliar.

Cognitive consonance also finds resonance in Slipstream, as readers may experience a sense of satisfaction or resonance when seemingly incongruent elements in the narrative coalesce into a coherent whole. This alignment of disparate elements can evoke a feeling of harmony, akin to the psychological comfort of cognitive consonance.

In summary, the concepts of cognitive dissonance, cognitive equilibrium, and cognitive consonance offer a lens through which to explore the cognitive dynamics at play in Slipstream literature. The genre’s blending of genres, disruption of narrative conventions, and integration of disparate elements can evoke cognitive tensions and resolutions reminiscent of these psychological concepts.

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Me This is all well and fair, because the object of all fiction is to suspend disbelief in the reader and take them on an exciting, memorable journey. Mixing genres has been successfully done by many writers with many stories over time. Here are some of the Slipstreams that made it big:

Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Station Eleven by Emily St, John Mandel

Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami

The City & the City by China Mieville

The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster

The Arrival by Shaun Tan

Her — the movie by Spike Jonze

However, the granddaddy of Slipstream, and one of the early ground breakers, was The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. It’s about a guy who wakes up one morning and finds that he’s turned into a giant insect and has to deal with a situation that truly sucks. Here’s the opening paragraph:

Kill Zoners — Who has heard of the Slipstream style? Has anyone read Slipstream, and what do you think of wildly mixing genres? And has anyone written anything that resembles Slipstream? Let’s get a discussion going and share experiences.

Sphinx of Black Quartz, Judge My Vow

Internet — “What kind of a stupid, crazy, nonsensical headline is this? Are you drunk, Rodgers? Or did you ingest free hallucinogens supplied through your Canadian government’s grand social experiment?”

Me — “No, I’m clean and sober. I just found this phrase online and thought it’d open an interesting Kill Zone discussion about our keyboarding skills. Here, check out this meme.”

I’ll bet all, or almost all, folks who follow the Kill Zone site are writers to some degree. (BTW, I see the Kill Zone was once again listed in the May/June 2024 Writer’s Digest issue as being in the Top 100 sites for writers.) So, I think one thing we have in common outside of killing in zones is keyboarding.

I learned to type in 1978 while in the police academy. Typing was a mandatory class, and we had to graduate with at least 40 words per minute. This was long before personal computers. First, we banged away on manual/mechanical typewriters and then moved to electrics.

It wasn’t until the early 80s that “word processors” arrived and we threw away whiteout and carbon paper. By the time I retired, each of us in the detective section had laptops as well as standalones on our desks. That was just as the internet hatched.

Keyboarding seems to be a relatively new term for punching out letters, words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters, and stories—regardless of your medium. I hate texting as I’m somewhat anal on grammar, punctuation, and so on. That little screen on my Samsung is too small for my eyes, and that little keyboard makes a lot of mistakes that must be reversed before sending. It’s too much of a time suck when I can email from my 17” laptop. Or often, I use the telephone feature.

I’ve been a civilian writer for over a decade. Grammarly shows me at 3.1 million words, and I keep track of my speed. When I’m in the zone (as in writing into the dark) I pump out 1,000-1,200 words per hour. And that’s using a thumb and two fingers on my right hand and one finger on my practically useless left.

Cursive is nearly extinct, but I do a lot of block printing in notes. I’m not one for using a keyboard to take down studies except for cutting & pasting from the web and printing it off on a Word.doc. However, when composing something fresh, such as this hastily prepared post, I let my fingers do the talking. At 519 words, this took me about half an hour to complete.

That’s all I have to say about the keyboarding exercise using Sphinx of Black Quartz, Judge My Vow to replace the lazy old dog typing thing. Whatever works, right?

Kill Zoners — Your turn. Tell us about your QWERTY adventure. What keyboarding method/skills do you currently use? Are you an all-in, eight-fingers and two-thumbs speed demon? Or are you a two-fingered hunt and pecker? Or maybe somewhere in between? Join in and share your stuff in the comments!

Did Vincent Van Gogh Really Commit Suicide?

Dutch Post-Impressionism master Vincent Van Gogh was a phenomenal force who helped shape modern art culture. His influence ranks with Shakespeare in literature, Freud in psychology, and The Beatles in music. Van Gogh was also plagued with mental illness, suffered from depression, and was tormented by psychotic episodes.

Conventional history records that Van Gogh died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1890 at the age of 37. However, an independent and objective look at the case facts arrives at an entirely different conclusion—Vincent Van Gogh was actually shot by someone else, and it was deliberately covered up.

This isn’t to say that Van Gogh was murdered as in an intentional homicide case. As a former police investigator and coroner, I’m well familiar with death classifications. The civilized world has long used a universal death classification system with five categories. They are natural death, accidental death, death caused by wrongful actions by another human being which is a homicide ruling, self-caused death or suicide, and an undetermined death classification when the facts cannot be slotted into one conclusive spot.

I’m also familiar with gunshot wounds. Understanding how Vincent Van Gogh’s fatal wound happened is the key to determining if he intentionally shot himself, if he accidentally caused his own death, or if someone else pulled the trigger which killed Van Gogh. Before analyzing what’s known about the Van Gogh case facts, let’s take a quick look at who this truly remarkable man really was.

Vincent Willem Van Gogh was born in 1853 and died on July 29, 1890. During Van Gogh’s life, he produced over 2,000 paintings, drawings, and sketches. He completed most of these in his later years and was in his most-prolific phase when he suddenly died.

Van Gogh didn’t achieve fame or fortune during his life. He passed practically penniless. It was after death when the world discovered his genius and assessed his works of bright colors, bold strokes, and deep insight as some of the finest works ever to appear on the art scene. Today, an original Van Gogh is worth millions—some probably priceless.

Vincent Van Gogh achieved artistic saint status. It’s not just Van Gogh’s unbounded talent that supported his greatness. It’s also the mystique of the man and the martyrdom mushrooming from his untimely death that robbed the world of an artist—a starving artist and a man who lived on the fine line between genius and nut.

Most people know some of Van Gogh’s masterpieces. Wheatfield With Crows may have been his last painting. Café Terrace At NightThe Potato EatersIrisesBedroom In ArlesThe Olive Trees, and Vase With Fifteen Sunflowers are extraordinarily famous. So is The Starry Night. (I happen to have a hand-painted oil reproduction of Starry Night right on the wall in front of me as I write this, and my daughter has Café de Nuit hanging in her home.)

Most people know the story of Vincent Van Gogh’s ear. It’s a true story, but the truth is he only cut part of his left ear off with a razor during a difficult episode with his on-again, off-again relationship with painter Paul Gauguin. The story goes on to say that Van Gogh gave the piece of his ear to a brothel lady, then he bandaged himself up and painted one of many self-portraits. I just looked at this portrait (Google makes Dutch Master shopping easy) and was struck by the image of his right side being bandaged. Then I realized Van Gogh painted selfies by looking in a mirror.

And most people know something about Vincent Van Gogh’s time in asylums. This is true, too, and he spent a good while of 1889 in Saint-Remy where he stared down on the town and painted The Starry Night from later memory. The celestial positions are uncannily accurate.

In late 1889, Van Gogh moved to a rooming house in Auvers-sur-Oise near Paris. His painting production went into overdrive, and he was at the peak of his game. On July 27, 1890, Van Gogh left his room with his paints, canvas, and easel. He returned empty-handed with a bullet in his belly.

Vincent Van Gogh’s spirit left this world at 1:30 a.m. on July 29. He passed without medical intervention at his bed, and the medical cause was, most likely, exsanguination or internal bleeding. There was no autopsy, and Van Gogh was buried in a nearby churchyard the next day.

There are various ambiguous statements purported from Van Gogh. He did not admit to shooting himself or intentionally attempting to commit suicide. However, the record indicates he didn’t deny it. The record can also be interpreted that he covered up for someone else.

What is fairly clear is the description of Vincent Van Gogh’s gunshot wound. There are conflicting locations, (chest, stomach, abdomen), but this is explainable from Dutch/French to English translations. It’s highly probable that one bullet entered the left side of Van Gogh’s mid-section and traversed his intestines in a left-to-right direction. There was no exit wound and no serious spinal damage as Van Gogh had walked home from the shooting scene, up the stairs, and to his room where he expired a day and a half later.

There was no firearm found and absolutely no history of Vincent Van Gogh ever owning or operating a gun. He was a painter. Not a hunter or soldier. (Note: There was a rusted revolver found in an Auver field in 1960 which was said to be the weapon. There is no proof that it was.)

There was no suicide note or any deathbed confession. Aside from being an artist, Van Gogh was a prolific writer who documented many thoughts as he progressed from mental sickness to physical health. In late July of 1890, Van Gogh’s writings showed him to be optimistic and with plans to paint as much as possible before an anticipated period of blackness returned. Two days before his death, Van Gogh placed a large art supply order.

Suicide, in Van Gogh’s case, wasn’t surfaced in the early years after his death. There were murmurs among the villagers that “some young boys may have accidentally shot” Van Gogh as he went about his work in a nearby field. There was no coroner’s inquiry or inquest, but there is documentation of a gendarme questioning Van Gogh if he intentionally shot himself to which Van Gogh allegedly replied, “I don’t know.”

The first strong suicide suggestion came in 1956 with Irving Stone’s novel and movie Lust For Life. It was a documentary that took liberty with Van Gogh’s life and times. It concluded Van Gogh was a troubled soul—a beautiful soul—who ended his life intentionally. The book and movie were bestselling blockbusters and cemented the suicide seed to an adorning public.

It became ingrained in lore and public acceptance that Vincent Van Gogh was a desponded psychotic who suddenly up and killed himself rather than continue a tormented existence of interpreting beauty in nature and people. It was the gospel, according to Van Gogh historians, who were comfortable with a suspicious explanation.

Other people weren’t. In 2011, two researchers took a good and hard look into Van Gogh’s life and death. They had full access to the Van Gogh Museum’s archives in Amsterdam and spent enormous time reviewing original material. They found a few things.

One was a 1957 interview with Rene Secretan who knew Van Gogh well. Secretan admitted to being one of the boys spoken about by the villagers who were involved in Van Gogh’s shooting. Rene Secretan, sixteen years old in 1890, told the interviewer he wanted to set the distorted record straight that was misrepresented in the book and movie.

The interview documents Rene Secretan as saying the handgun that shot Van Gogh was his, and that it was prone to accidentally misfiring. Secretan self-servingly denied being present when the accidental shooting happened, claiming he was back in Paris and not at his family’s summer home in Auvers. Secretan failed to identify those directly involved or exactly what circumstances unfolded.

The researchers, Pulitzer Prize winners Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith who co-wrote Van Gogh: The Life, found corroborating statements placing Van Gogh near the Secretan villa on the afternoon of the shooting. They also sourced a leading expert on firearms and gunshot wounds who refuted any chance of Van Gogh being able to discharge a firearm with his own hands that could have caused the wound in its documented location.

Dr. Vincent Di Maio (a 2012 key witness in the Florida trial of George Zimmerman who shot African-American youth Trayvon Martin in a neighborhood watch altercation) concluded that Van Gogh, who was right-handed, could not possibly have held a firearm as it had to be; therefore the shot had to have been fired by another party. Dr. Di Maio also commented on the lack of reported gunshot residue on Van Gogh’s hands and clothes. In 1890, most cartridges contained black powder which was filthy stuff when burned at close range.

Researchers Naifeh and Smith also took a deep dive into what they could find on Rene Secretan’s background. They painted him as a big kid—a thug and a bully who was well known to have picked on wimpy Van Gogh throughout the month of July 1890. Secretan came from a wealthy Paris family who summered at Auvers with their second home within walking distance of Van Gogh’s rooming house.

According to the researchers of Van Gogh: The Life, Rene Secretan had seen the Buffalo Bill Wild West show in Paris, and Secretan fancied himself as a cowboy character. Secretan fashioned a costume to go with his cocky role of a western gunfighter, and he acquired a revolver that was prone to malfunction. They documented incidents where Secretan would mock Van Gogh as he painted, play pranks on him, and supply alcohol to Van Gogh who couldn’t afford it.

It was during a mocking spat, the researchers surmise, that somehow Secretan’s revolver went off and struck Van Gogh in the abdomen. According to the theory, the boys fled, disposed of the weapon, and formed a pact of silence. If this was true, the question arises of why didn’t Vincent Van Gogh report the truth, and why has the suicide conclusion remained steadfast.

Naifeh and Smith address this in their book with this quote: When all this (accidental shooting theory) began to emerge from our research, a curator at the Van Gogh Museum predicted the fate that would befall such a blasphemy on the Van Gogh gospel. “I think it would be like Vincent to protect the boys and take the ‘accident’ as an unexpected way out of his burdened life,” he agreed in an e-mail. “But I think the biggest problem you’ll find after publishing your theory is that the suicide is more or less printed in the brains of past and present generations and has become a sort of self-evident truth. Vincent’s suicide has become the grand finale of the story of the martyr for art, it’s his crown of thorns.”

As an experienced cop and a coroner, I think Naifeh and Smith are on to something. There are two huge problems with a suicide conclusion in classifying Vincent Van Gogh’s death. One is the lack of an immediate suicide threat. The other is the gunshot nature.

I’ve probably seen fifty or more gunshot suicides. All but one were self-inflicted wounds to the head. The exception was a single case where a shotgun was placed against the chest and the pellets blew apart the heart. I have never seen a suicide where the decedent shot themselves in the gut, and I’ve never heard of one.

Vincent Van Gogh didn’t leave a suicide note. He made no immediate suicide threats and, by all accounts, things were going well for the struggling artist. It makes no sense at all that Van Gogh would head out for a summer’s day, begin to paint, produce a gun from nowhere, shoot himself in the stomach from the most inconceivable position, then make it home—wounded—without finishing himself off with a second shot.

If I were the coroner ruling on Vincent Van Gogh’s death, I’d readily concur the cause of death was slow exsanguination resulting from a single gunshot wound to the abdomen. I’d have a harder time with the classification. Here, I’d have to use a process of elimination from the five categories—natural, homicide, accidental, suicide, or undetermined.

There is no possibility Van Gogh died of natural causes. He was shot, and that is clear. Was he murdered or otherwise shot intentionally? There is no evidence to support an intentional homicide classification. Did the firearm go off accidentally? It certainly could have, and there is information to support that theory but not prove it.

Suicide? Not convincing. The available evidence does not meet the Beckon Test where coroners must establish beyond a reasonable doubt that the decedent intentionally took their own life. If the death circumstances do not fulfill the requirements of the Beckon Test, then a coroner is not entitled to register a suicide classification.

This only leaves undetermined. Coroners hate closing a file with an undetermined classification. It’s like they failed in their investigation.

Unfortunately, in Vincent Van Gogh’s case—from the facts as best as are known—there’s no other conclusion than officially rule “Undetermined”.

I’m no longer a coroner, though, so I’ll stick out my neck.

On the balance of probabilities, I find Vincent Van Gogh was accidentally shot, then sadly died from this unintended and terrible tragedy.

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Kill Zoners – Does this theory of Vincent Van Gogh’s death circumstances make sense to you? Have you heard it before? And are you a VVG artwork fan – do his creations speak to you?

Painting With Words

Kill Zoners — It’s my pleasure and privilege to welcome a great guest to our blog. Ed Hill is a prominent Canadian painter and storyteller. He’s a prolific artist and writer who’s guided me as a life mentor and protected me as a police colleague to which I’m forever grateful. Please welcome Ed Hill to the Kill Zone.

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Garry Rodgers and I have been friends for well over 40 years. When he asked me to submit an article for The Kill Zone, I was well aware my thoughts would be read by any number of accomplished novelists. While I consider myself a writer, particularly within the realm of my discipline of being an artist, I could find writing in such company as this, a bit intimidating.

But I don’t. My writing is about emotion, spirit, energy, and a very direct link to my artistic creations in the form of paintings. As I finish a painting, my work is only truly completed when I “paint” the final bit with words.

You see I’m a painter first, and being a writer is but a part of my artistic expression.  A bit of history will help explain. In the mid 1980’s, in the middle of a 34-year Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) career, my painting journey began. I was taught by an indigenous artist. And as such, much of what I learned was from the indigenous perspective.

It was from those origins that I found the value and reality of writing a story with each painting. A visit to my website www.edhillart.com will show that each image has a story, and that story is as much a part of my painted creation as the painting itself. In fact, whenever I sell a piece of my work, the story is always attached. I tell anyone who owns a piece of my work that unless they know the story of the image, they only have half of my artistic creation.

I suppose a bit of cultural history might be in order here. Within the indigenous culture virtually every painting, sculpture, totem pole, beadwork, or song has a story. Just ask. Within the very natural surroundings that we all live in, the indigenous culture has a story. And so, from the origins of my painting career my indigenous teacher, Roy Henry Vickers, taught by example. Every painting he does is accompanied by a written story.

When I started painting in 1985, I wrote a story with the very first image I created. You’ll find the image of my first painting at my website under the title of “Old Man”. And ever since, every painting I’ve done has a story. Some are emotional. Some are poetic. Some are a protest. And some can even evoke a spiritual connection for the reader.

Old Man by artist Ed Hill

The painting and the very act of creating it dictate what the story will be. Indeed, over the years I’ve written so many stories that they could be compiled and published as book themselves. Some people in fact have told me that they have used my website as a “book” while they’ve taken the time to view the paintings and read the hundreds of stories attached.

As I have taught my painting techniques to many artists over the years, I’ve always touted the value of composing a story to be a part of their painting I’d be generous in saying that perhaps 5% of my students practice that teaching. So many find it hard to express their thoughts and emotions.

As any of you reading this article know, it takes discipline to sit down and write. Not everybody has the commitment, energy, creativity or that unique and special discipline to be a writer. As the old saying goes, “If it was easy, everybody would be doing it.”

As writers, I know you write from experience, but you also create from emotion, from a place of energy and creativity. You write from an inner need to get it out there. When that writer within has a story to tell, your inner muse is always calling to you. And so it is with me as an artist.

When I have a painting in progress, I often tell my wife as we are away from my painting, that I can “hear it calling to me”. And therein lies the story. You see, for me, the story develops and reveals itself as I paint. Seldom do I paint an image with the title and story realized ahead of time. In the many hours of painting, lost in the Zen of creativity, I let my brain wander. I may be painting an image I’ve seen for decades, yet now I have chosen to paint it.

Why?

Why now?

That’s when the story begins to whisper. And as I paint and compose the image, so too the words of my story flood my brain. Hard to explain, the story comes in an inspirational, creative, and even a “spiritual” surge from within. I’m not overstating that. The story comes from the very spot within me that the painting comes from.  It’s a part of my artistic creation. When composing my story, as I write, I paint with a palette of words.

Sometimes the title is evident almost immediately. Other times, only as the paint dries and the words of my story turn into sentences does the title take shape.  And when it does, the title in particular is compelling. It must be.

Titles such as “Get Over It”, or “Covid Blue” are good examples of that. To understand those titles, you have to read the story. And when you read the story, you’ll then refer back to the painting. The energy of that loop is complete.

Covid Blue by artist Ed Hill

Get Over It by artist Ed Hill

The image is the very first contact anyone usually has with my creative expression, but the title is what turns their gaze to the story. And I’ve watched from afar at shows where someone will study my painting, turn to the story, then back to the image with their eyes opened to the very intention and spirit of the painting. And speaking commercially, quite often it’s the story that connects the viewer to the image, and that results in a sale.

Often, I can sit in my home with a coffee and just revisit the many paintings I have hanging on my walls. I’m always taken back as to the “why” of a particular painting. I marvel at the very creation, and many times realize I could never do that painting as well were I to try it again. That painting was a product of a moment in time, a moment charged with circumstance, serendipity, and emotion.

I “use” my paintings a lot for that purpose. I find a soothing comfort in just revisiting them and savouring the colour, composition, light and dark, and very presence of the image itself. But so too, I will read the story attached just as often. Those words painted into the composition of the story have an everlasting energy. It’s an energy that never grows old.

My family have instructions. When and if my time comes to be in a bed someday as I approach the end of my life’s journey, they’re to read to me. They’re to read those stories of emotion, spirituality, and creativity. For those are the touchstones of my life.

I know those words, even if my eyes are closed to the paintings themselves. I know too that those words will resonate with a positive energy that’ll have some meaning and comfort to me. When the lights do inevitably go out, it’s those words that I want to take with me.

I close these thoughts by referring the reader to one of my paintings titled “Forever”. I think the story of “Forever” applies to my written words. And so too to yours. Created with our energy and inspiration—as writers—our words will long outlive all of us. They are FOREVER.

Forever by artist Ed Hill

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Bio — Born in Paris, Ontario in 1948 and later moving to Peterborough, Ed Hill’s journey to becoming a distinguished artist began in earnest after a career in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, which he joined at age 20. His artistic ambitions, which had been a mere dream since his high school days, began to crystallize in the mid-1980s after moving to Tofino, British Columbia, and meeting the renowned artist Roy Henry Vickers.

Under Vickers’ mentorship, Hill honed his skills and developed a distinctive style, producing his first notable work, “Old Man.” His art, deeply inspired by the landscapes of British Columbia, seeks to evoke the profound emotions tied to the region’s natural beauty.

Now retired and living in Gibsons, British Columbia, with his wife Joy, Hill continues to explore and depict the “West Coast” essence, aiming to capture the moments where nature and the observer’s inner world harmoniously align, hoping his viewers anywhere can feel the unique “music” of British Columbia’s landscapes through his work. Visit www.edhillart.com.

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Kill Zoners — Painting with words. How does this resonate with you? Do you “see” your writing as it’s imagined and unfolds? Could you captivate your story in one image as Ed does with his? Let’s discuss, and please share how you paint with words.

Don’t Let The Old Man In

Country music master Toby Keith has left us for the Grand Ole Opry in the sky. Mr. Keith was only sixty-two when he passed last month after a brave battle with cancer. It’s a sad loss not just for America but to the entire entertainment world. A brilliant singer, songwriter, producer, actor, and businessman is gone.

Toby Keith started his career in 1998 with his debut super-hit How Do You Like Me Now? Over the next twenty-six years, he recorded five albums that went gold or better. Outstanding are the songs he wrote: American Soldier, Should’ve Been a Cowboy, Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue, and I Love This Bar.

Of all the songs Mr. Keith wrote, played, and produced, there’s one I think is superb. Just outstanding. Don’t Let The Old Man In.

Story goes that Toby Keith met Clint Eastwood at an event. (Eastwood, now ninety-three, is currently directing and producing his newest upcoming movie titled Juror No. 2.) Keith asked Eastwood what the secret was for staying so active and healthy at his advanced age. This is what Clint Eastwood said:

Every day when I wake up, I don’t let the old man in. My secret has been the same since 1959—staying busy. I never let the old man into the house. I’ve had to drag him out because he was already comfortably settled, bothering me all the time, leaving no space for anything other than nostalgia.

You have to stay active, alive, happy, strong, and capable. It’s in us, in our intelligence, attitude, and mentality. We are young, regardless of our ID. We must learn to fight to not let the old man in.

That old man awaits us, stationed and tired by the side of the road to discourage us. I don’t let the old, critical, hostile, envious spirit in—the one that scrutinizes our past to tie us up with complaints and distant anxieties, or relived traumas and waves of pain.

You have to turn your back on the old murmurer, full of rage and complaints, lacking courage, denying himself that old age can be creative, determined, and full of light and projection.

Aging can be pleasant and even fun if you know how to use your time if you’re satisfied with what you’ve achieved, and if you still maintain enthusiasm. That’s called not letting the old man into the house.

These words immensely resonated with Toby Keith. They inspired him to write Don’t Let The Old Man In which is dedicated to the legend who is Clint Eastwood. Here are the lyrics:

Don’t let the old man in
I wanna live me some more
Can’t leave it up to him
He’s knocking on my door

I knew all of my life
That someday it would end
Get up and go outside
Don’t let the old man in

Yeah, many moons I have lived
My body’s weathered and worn
Just ask yourself how old would you be
If you didn’t know the day you were born

Try to love on your wife
And stay close to your friends
Toast each sundown with wine
Don’t let the old man in

Hmmm Hmmm Hmmm Hmmm Hmm Hm

Yeah, many moons I have lived

My body’s weathered and worn
Ask yourself how old would you be
If you didn’t know the day you were born
 

 

When he rides up on his horse
And you feel that cold bitter wind
Look out your window and smile
Don’t let the old man in

Look out your window and smile
Don’t let the old man in

This story—the lyrics, the music, and the video—resonates with me. I’m sixty-seven, and to some, I’m an old man. But I don’t see myself that way. To me, I’m more productive/busy than I was in my thirties and forties. And my productivity/busyness keeps increasing.

I’m blessed with longevity genes. I lead a healthy lifestyle. I don’t smoke. I’m a social drinker. And I’ve never done drugs in my life. Not even inhaling second hand weed.

I’m active. My wife of forty-one years and I stick-walk with weights and aim for 5K steps per day. (On ambitious ones, we’ll do 10-12K.) I have a proportionate weight-to-height ratio and get proper sleep. My stress level doesn’t exist, I have no worries, and at my last medical checkup the doc said I was operating like a 30-year-old.

And I have a purpose. This is the key to senior survival—way, way beyond worries. A definite purpose with a burning desire to achieve it.

I never gave much thought to why I’m like that. Not until I heard Don’t Let The Old Man In and understood the lyrics. I guess I’m this way because I won’t let the old man in.

Kill Zoners — I know there are contributors and followers who top my place on the seniority chart. How do you deal with the old person at the door? Let’s hear from those junior and senior to my 67th-out-of-100 rank.

Dedicated to my 75-year-old life-long friend and mentor Ed Hill www.edhill.art.com 

How Many Books is/are Too Many Books?

Read a lot. Write a lot.

That’s probably the universal message we hear from great and prolific writers, most notably from Stephen King who said, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that. If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. Read a lot, write a lot is the great commandment.”

I read a lot. I’d write a lot, too, if I didn’t spend so much time reading. To say I have a thousand books is an understatement. It’s well north of that if you take in the digital stuff on my Kindle. That’s not including the articles I find and the posts I read that constantly drop into my inbox.

And it’s not figuring the books I’ve given away over the years—mostly because my wife said I had too many books. Which leads me to ask you the question, “How many books is/are too many books?”

I’ve always been an avid reader. So were my folks. My dad sat for hours in his recliner with books in his hands. That was before the web days and to quote my sister, “If Dad had the internet, you’d never got him off it.”

My mother was an English teacher with a Masters in Lit. Her thesis was on Thomas Hardy, and I still have part of her extensive shelves that includes most of Emerson. (I have to say I find Emerson very trying to read.)

My dad left me five volumes of Churchill’s memoirs and two volumes of Eisenhower’s. And from the two of them, (my mum and dad, not Churchill and Eisenhower) I inherited a hardcover of Treasure Island printed in 1883. Plus, they gave me a beautiful, hand-illustrated work of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

Maybe I have too many books and that’s okay. They’ll go to my kids one day… if they want them. But I’m not parting with my books anytime soon. At least not if I can help it.

Back to my question. How many books is/are too many books? I don’t know if there’s a right or wrong answer to that.

But if I had to cull my collection and could retain only five (not counting the classics handed down from my parents) these are my keepers:

5. A dog-eared and marked-up paperback of Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill.

4. A pristine and unfaded, first-edition hardcover of On Writing by Stephen King.

3. A delaminating Reclaiming History hand-signed by Vincent Bugloisi.

2. Descent Into Madness written by my friend Vernon Frolick.

1. My grandmother’s Bible.

Kill Zoners — How many books is/are too many books? Name the top five they’d have to pry from your hands. And what’s the proper term — is or are? Grammarly indicates it’s okay to use either.

100 Days of Rejection

Rejection. Every writer who’s ever auditioned in publishing knows the feeling. Some more than others because some writers are punishment gluttons who keep on submitting queries despite many times being shouted at, “No!”

There’s a famous Stephen King quote that goes, “By the time I was fourteen the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing.”

I don’t know how many rejections Mr. King got before he struck gold with Carrie, but I do know of a man who purposely set out to experience one hundred days of rejections. His name is Jia Jiang, and he put on a marvelous TEDx Talk called What I Learned From 100 Days of Rejection. It’s a must-watch for all writers, entrepreneurs, and creatives who wander into the crosshairs of criticism and rejection.

Spoiler Alert: Jia Jiang was emotionally traumatized as a six-year-old, first-grader when his teacher tried a social experiment that publicly humiliated him. He was so scarred that it wasn’t until his thirties that he faced up to his fear of public rejection. Mr. Jiang overtook his fear by intentionally devising one hundred creative ways to approach strangers and filming their responses to his “crazy” proposals.

Jiang’s crazy proposals went viral, and he now travels the world giving keynote presentations and holding workshops helping others overcome their fear of rejection. You can watch his amusing and informative TEDx Talk here, and you can visit his website RejectionTherapy.com here. You can also source his book Rejection Proof — How I Beat Fear and Became Invincible Through 100 Days of Rejection.

I’ll leave you with a rejection story that happened to me. I finished my first novel manuscript in 2011. I paid to have it professionally edited and, when it was done-as-good-as-it-was-going-to-get-done, I shopped it around the agents. I don’t remember exactly who or how many—probably thirty or forty—even some big names as well as some newbies. I maybe heard back from ten of which eight or so were form rejections.

There was not even one request for a look. So, I moved on. That was when indies were starting to take hold in ebooks, so I went that route. My debut did well on the Amazon charts and, not long after its release, I got an unsolicited email from a literary agent asking if I was represented to which I said, “No.”

I won’t say who, but they requested my complete manuscript to which I complied. After a few weeks, the agent got back to me. “It’s a pass on this one,” they said. “I didn’t quite connect with the story, but I will say you have a really good voice. Send me your next one. If you write it, I’ll read it.”

To which I did. I sent them my sequel—the full 90K word ms—as a Word.doc attachment direct to the agent’s personal email they first cold-called me from and complimented my voice.

Well… I got back this icy, snot-infused reply. “How dare you bypass the company submission guidelines and contact me directly!”  BTW, I just Googled that agent and can’t find them working today.

So, Kill Zoners, that’s my rejection story. How about yours? Let’s hear who’s been snubbed by the world and how badly it went.

Thirteen Strange Superstitions About Death

Death is an uncomfortable subject for many folks. Perhaps it’s the severe emotional reaction people have to death—especially if it’s someone close—that makes the living act in bizarre ways. Or maybe it’s because death’s process is not well understood that causes normally rational individuals to believe in irrational concepts.

Recently, I looked over notes from my coroner understudy days. One training segment was in understanding various cultural practices and traditions about death. This was valuable information, as a difficult part of a coroner’s job is interacting with the deceased’s family, and those relatives can come from a diverse ethnicity with some pretty peculiar beliefs.

For today’s Kill Zone piece, I thought I’d share thirteen strange superstitions about death.

  1. Coins on the Eyes

The practice dates to the ancient Greeks who believed the dead would travel down to Hades and need to cross the river Styx in order to arrive in the afterlife. To cross over, they needed to pay the boat driver, Charon, so coins were placed over the eyes of the dead so they’d be able to pay the fare.

Secondly, and more practically, many people die with their eyes open. This can be a creepy feeling, having the dead stare at you, and it was thought the dead might be eyeing someone to go with them. Coins were a practical item to weigh down the eyelids until rigor mortis set in—coins being round and fit in the eye sockets as well as being relatively heavy.

The most famous set of eye coins is the two, silver half-dollars set on Abraham Lincoln, now on display in the Chicago Historical Museum.

  1. Birds and Death

Birds were long held to be messengers to the afterlife because of their ability to soar through the air to the homes of the gods. It’s not surprising that several myths materialized such as hearing an owl hoot your name, ravens and crows circling your house, striking your window, entering your house, or sitting on your sill looking in.

Birds, in general, became harbingers of death but somehow the only birds I personally associate with death are vultures.

  1. Burying the Dead Facing East

You probably never noticed, but most North American cemeteries are laid out on an east-west grid with the headstones on the west and the feet pointing east. This comes from the belief that the dead should be able to see the new world rising in the east, as with the sun.

It’s also the primary reason that people are buried on their backs and not bundled in the fetal position like before they were born.

  1. Remove a Corpse Feet First

This was Body Removal 101 that we learned in coroner school. We always removed a body from a house with the feet first. The practice dates from Victorian times when it was thought if the corpse went out head first, it’d be able to “look back” and beckon those standing behind to follow.

It’s still considered a sign of respect, but coroners secretly know it’s way easier to handle a body in rigor mortis by bending it at the knees to get around corners, rather than forcing the large muscles at the waist or wrenching the neck.

  1. Cover the Mirrors

It’s been held that all mirrors within the vicinity of a dead body must be covered to prevent the soul from being reflected back during its attempt to pass out of the body and on to the afterlife.

This practice is strong in Jewish mourning tradition and may have a practical purpose—to prevent vanity in the mourners so they can’t reflect their own appearance, rather forcing them to focus on remembering and respecting the departed.

  1. Stop the Clock

Apparently, this was a sign that time was over for the dead and that the clock must not be restarted until the deceased was buried. If it were the head of the household who died, then that clock would never be started again.

It makes me think of the song:

My grandfather’s clock was too large for the shelf
So it stood ninety years on the floor
It was taller by half than the old man himself
Though it weighed not a pennyweight more

It was bought on the morn of the day that he was born
And was always his treasure and pride
But it stopped, short, never to go again
When the old man died

  1. Flowers on The Grave

Another odd belief is about flowers growing on a grave. If wildflowers appeared naturally, it was a sign the deceased had been good and had gone on to heaven. Conversely, a barren and dusty grave was a sign of evil and Hades. The custom evolved to putting artificial flowers on the grave although it’s now discouraged by most cemeteries due to maintenance issues.

Additionally, it’s always been practice to put flowers on a casket. This seems to have come from another practical reason—the smell from scented flowers helped mask the odor of decomposition.

  1. Pregnant Women Must Avoid Funerals

Ever hear of this? I didn’t until I researched this article. It seems to have come from a perceived risk where pregnant women might be overcome by emotion during the funeral ceremony and miscarry.

That’s pushing it.

  1. Celebrities Die in Threes

Most people heard that Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, and Michael Jackson died three days in a row. It’s an urban myth that this always occurs with celebrities and it’s the celebrity curse.

To debunk this, the New York Times went back twenty-five years in their archives and apparently this is the only time three well-known celebrities died in a three-day group.

  1. Hold Your Breath

Another popular superstition is that you must hold your breath while passing a graveyard to prevent drawing in a restless spirit that’s trying to re-enter the physical world.

That might be a problem if you’re passing Wadi-us-Salaam in Najaf, Iraq. It’s the world’s largest cemetery at 1,485.5 acres and holds over five million bodies.

  1. And the Thunder Rolls

Nope, not the Garth Brooks song. It’s thought that hearing thunder during a funeral service is a sign of the departed’s soul being accepted into heaven.

Where I grew up, thunder was thought to be associated with lightning and being struck by lightning was always a sign of bad luck.

  1. Funeral Processions

There’re lots of superstitious beliefs around funeral processions.

First, it’s considered very bad fortune to transport a body in your own vehicle. And approaching a funeral procession without pulling over to the side and stopping is not only bad taste, but also illegal in some jurisdictions. It’s said if a procession stops along the way, another person will soon die, and the corpse must never pass over the same section of road twice. Counting cars in a procession is dangerous because it’s like counting the days till your own death. You must never see your reflection in a hearse window as that marks you as a goner. Bringing a baby to a funeral ensures it will die before it turns one. And a black cat crossing before a procession dooms the entire parade.

One thing I know to be true about a funeral procession is what happens when you leave the back door of the hearse unlatched and the driver accelerates going uphill.

  1. Leaving a Grave Open Overnight

I don’t know if this is a superstition or not, but I see it as good, practical advice to not leave a grave open overnight. According to the International Cemetery, Cremation, and Funeral Association, the standard grave size is 2 ½ feet wide by 8 feet long by 6 feet deep.

With a hole that big looming in the dark, one could fall in and seriously harm oneself.

Kill Zoners—What other strange superstitions have you heard about death? Have you used any of these in your writing? Feel free to add to this list.

The Editor Over Your Shoulder

I have a treat for Kill Zoners today. For years, I’ve followed advice from a Tucson, Arizona-based writer resource agency aptly called The Editorial Department. A craft book titled Self-Editing For Fiction Writers – How to Edit Yourself Into Print, co-written by Renni Browne and Dave King, formed a foundation to my writing start. Today, it’s well-worn, dog-eared, and full of red and yellow mark-ups.

Renni Brown founded The Editorial Department in 1980. Now her son, Ross Browne, serves as its President and Director of Author Services, and I contacted him asking for permission to share this treat on The Kill Zone. It follows an Editorial Department newsletter several weeks ago that said this:

After 53 years editing books, teaching writing and editing, and helping hundreds of authors launch successful careers, our founder Renni Browne has made the decision to retire. It’s our pleasure to share some of the guidance, feedback, and encouragement she provided to our authors over the years in her own words. Here is her essay titled The Editor Over Your Shoulder which is a collection of tips.

Why you shouldn’t explain emotions to readers.

Strong feelings usually speak for themselves.

A word about explaining emotions to the reader. Showing them is so much better. People love to pick up on the codes from the signals we all put out—we spend many of our waking hours doing it—and in literature it’s one of your strongest forms of reader participation. So, the less you explain things to your readers, especially characters’ emotions, the more intense their involvement. There will be times when an explanation will be unavoidable or even desirable, but as a general rule, when you catch yourself explaining how a character feels, first see if the reader can’t discern the emotion from what you’ve already written. If you’re sure he or she can’t, try to find a way to make that possible. In the example I quoted, interior monologue would probably be the way to go.

On writing a bookworthy sleuth.

Encouragement for an author with a bland protagonist.

Since the story’s success hangs, in part, on the protagonist, let’s talk about yours. Bailey has a mysterious past (which I’ll talk about more in a second), and she’s got a trauma she’s working to overcome (an arc). She has a solid foundation—as well as a great deal of unrealized potential.

She is a big city girl who moved to the backwoods, and by the time we meet her, she seems pretty well adjusted. Yet this is a missed opportunity for conflict. As a transplant to the Blue Ridge (and the South in general) myself, I remember the transition being a LOT more rocky than Bailey seems to have found it. It’s one thing for her to appreciate the differences, but it’s another to embrace them all so completely and so soon. In other words, we feel like we’ve missed out on some of Bailey’s character development here.

Bailey is also part of a grand tradition of journalist detectives, and as such, she has quite a bit to live up to here. It’s not enough for a protagonist (in any genre) to be good—they need to be unforgettable. What’s unique about Bailey? What makes her stand out? She’s not a wisecracking reporter (a la Fletch), nor is she quirky (like Jim Qwilleran of The Cat Who series). What—in short—is her angle?

On what makes a memoir truly satisfying.

To an author whose omissions weakened the impact of a riveting life story.

As I said, a good memoir reads like fiction, with the author in the role of the protagonist. Not that it should be a series of dramatic scenes with the plot of the author’s life, but the events need to be recounted dramatically, and the author—the hero—is necessarily an invention, a character. This book seems to have been written from your intuitive grasp of this reality about memoir, which is why so much of it is entertaining and why I believe readers will care about you even if they don’t know you personally.

A good memoir also tells the truth about its author. Not the facts, a great many of which may be honorably withheld. In reviewing Kazan in the Times, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. concluded by describing A Life as “the impassioned testament of an artist who has done his valiant best to tell the truth about himself.” You’ve omitted a lot of facts, which is fine. The omission of the truth of much of your feelings (though excitement is conveyed with stunning effectiveness) hurts the memoir.

A truth you’ve withheld about yourself that I think you shouldn’t is your volatile personality, your extremes of temperament. You already come across as passionate, extraordinarily eloquent, full of surprises, given to extremes. It will come as no surprise to the reader to learn that you possessed (until later years, when you mellowed!) a temperament that made you difficult to live with and work for. You needn’t go into self-analysis—you can simply say you tended to get carried away with the urgency of the moment and ranted, sometimes scaring the daylights out of people or infuriating them.

You’re very good at capturing the atmosphere of the era you’re writing about, whether it be the political climate or the way things worked in publishing. But from time to time you dramatize events with so much detail that readers will experience fatigue or burnout trying to keep track of all the names and developments. I’ve given you some guidelines for cutting and tightening. You’re too close to your story to sense where it’s overkill.

What I’ve done in the document that follows is go through the book, pointing out places where I think you’re losing your readers and making suggestions to keep that from happening. I’ve seldom stopped for praise, so let me cover that base here: I’ve loved working on this memoirIts flaws you can and will fix. It’s an energetic, provocative, surprising, engaging memoir, as full of twists and turns as a good novel.

On what literary agents and publishers want from a first novel.

To an author whose manuscript doesn’t (yet) hit the mark.

Although I thoroughly enjoyed your novel, I’m going to begin by setting you straight about its weaknesses, because so much of what I have to say is in the context of today’s ruthless and often dismal marketplace for debut fiction.

That marketplace does exist. Publishers have to bring out first novels or they’ll never have new writers to make money for them down the line, and most publishing editors I know are actually on the lookout for the new novelist who’s going to break out.

By which they mean: fiction that’s strongly plotted, that has a story they’re confident readers will be caught up in, a story that won’t let them go, a story that will resonate with its readers after (to their sorrow) they’ve reached the final page. This means the novel has a strong, fresh, original plot–yet what actually creates that level of reader involvement is characters that are irresistible. Not just appealing, not just captivating, but so captivating that the reader cares intensely about at least one and hopefully all of the main characters and has a serious stake in what happens to them.

And as if that weren’t enough, the editors want the novel to be superbly (preferably brilliantly) written, in prose with a distinctive narrative voice that holds up all the way through. When they think they’ve found such a novel, it gets one of the pitifully few spaces for first fiction on their list.

On the problem with cartoonish action hero battle scenes.

And why believability matters in action thrillers.

Your battles are vividly described with details that put the reader on the scene. But these are cartoon battles, never credible because the level of violence dealt to Cramer is often greater than any human could survive. A middle-aged man who gets thrown with enormous force into wall after wall, or slammed against a marble floor littered with glass shards, doesn’t pop up merely cut and bruised to fight yet another foe who’s possessed of superhuman strength. A young woman whose arm has just been virtually wrenched out of its socket doesn’t get hurled from the top of a gallery “into the abyss” and manage to grab a rung and hang on. Passages like this one occur frequently:

He picked me up and slammed my back down against the roof, harder. I recoiled from the pain. My hand was throbbing. My back was screaming.

His back is screaming? This is the ninth or tenth time Cramer’s back has been slammed against concrete or a wall or a roof. His back should have been broken long before now.

The problem with cartoon battles, however much fun they may be to read, is that they keep readers from accepting and fully entering the world you’ve created. You really want them to do this so they’ll care on a deep level about what happens in that world—not just have a good time reading about it. This means you need to stick to the writer’s obligation to tell the truth. Telling the truth for a writer involves making things real for the reader.  That means not violating (at least, not strenuously violating) the physical laws of nature if you’ve set your story up so that you’ve got aliens fighting humans who have a home-team advantage.

On the importance of dazzling dialogue.

And a tip on how to write it.

You probably have a pretty good idea of what mastering dialogue could do for your writing. If you write short stories or novels, you want your characters to captivate and convince the reader. Those characters come to life—or fail to—when they speak.

Crisp, revealing dialogue that fits naturally into the mouth of its speaker is something most serious writers work hard to achieve.

You may not know that many literary agents and acquisitions editors skip to the first dialogue passage when they’re “sniffing” manuscripts to determine what’s going to make it into the briefcase for reading. But understanding the importance of superb dialogue doesn’t automatically translate into writing it superbly.

The reality is that nothing translates automatically into the creation of superb dialogue—not even, necessarily, that brilliant, tone-perfect “ear for dialogue” few writers are blessed with. Writing superb dialogue starts with superb characterization—it takes complex, distinctive, interesting people to have interesting things to say to each other, to speak with snap and bite and occasional wit. Such characters can only be created by a writer of some intelligence and imagination. So it follows that if you have strong characters, the chances are that you can create strong dialogue for them. If you know what its components are, you can take steps to make sure your dialogue hits the mark.

On the importance of convincing motivation for a character’s choices.

To an author whose well imagined character does implausible things to serve story.

The first thing I want to say, because I’m going to come down hard on you in one area, is that you are a superb writer with a strong plot and a really interesting heroine.

So what’s the problem?

Motive. Why on earth does Alice, as you’ve characterized her, hang out with Preston? Get into his car? Let him go on doing the repulsive sexual things he does until the inevitable rape? After a while we learn that she loves being treated like a grownup, but by Preston? Loves that enough to put up with what goes with it? It’s just too hard to believe.

There’s no evidence in these pages that she likes him, enjoys him, thinks there’s anything good about him. As for his romantic and sexual moves, not only do they disgust her, but he’s her sister’s husband!  It’s hard enough believing her sister would marry this older jerk with the ghastly manners, bizarre behavior, and receding hairline, but we can assume she’s dumb. Alice we know, and her letting Preston get by with murder with her before he literally murders her sister just doesn’t make a lick of sense.

There are two things I can think of that will keep this from making the story unbelievable. First, you have to give Preston some appeal. Make him fun, make him endearing in some way, give him a good side. Right now he’s a cartoon villain, and no child of any age with a lick of sense would go anywhere with him after the first time. And if he forced her to, she’d tell somebody. Or if she didn’t, she’d act so traumatized that somebody would notice and question her until she spilled or they got suspicious. But this issue is entirely solved if he’s got some good points to balance the awful ones.

Second, you need to have Alice get something out of their encounters that’s important to her. It’s not enough just to let us know that he treats her like a grown-up–show him doing that, show her reveling in it, have him be sweet about it. Let us know from the get-go how bad things are at home, which will set up her need for the “love” he showers on her.

Of course, you show us her mounting awareness that what he’s doing–what they’re doing–is wrong. Really wrong. The older she gets the more she realizes how wrong it is, the more she tries to extricate herself from the relationship the more threatening he becomes, and so on.

If she’s going to survive this ghastly childhood, you might consider having Preston leave her alone for periods. Or having him be away for some reason for a while. Or simply having him not be “at” her all that often.

Alice is a wonderfully developed character who’ll be totally convincing–if you can just make the reader understand why she lets Jack do what she does.

On scene versus narrative summary.

Encouragement to an author who leans too heavily on the latter.

Your novel has a lot going for it: a wonderfully rendered rich tapestry of a setting most readers will find fascinating, a dysfunctional but loving family with conflicting aspirations at the center of which is a young man who keeps sacrificing his happiness to fulfill what he sees as his family responsibilities.

You have a marvelous eye for detail and sense of place. These gifts enable you to recreate India so vividly that your readers will live there for the length of the novel, immersed in the scene except for a brief side trip to Russia. You also recreate Indian culture beautifully, its standards, mores, limitations.

We come to know the family well enough that we feel we’re a part of it, following its members over a period of nearly twenty years. There’s a sense of authenticity in your depiction of family life that makes its members and what happens in their daily life real to the reader.

But for all these virtues, there are ways you’ve handled your story and the characters who enact it that make it hard for readers to be as involved as you want them to be. Or, to put it another way, you tell the story in a way that at times makes it too easy for the reader to drop out of the novel.

All stories need narrative summary—a novel consisting of nonstop scenes would lack texture, offer no setting, and be exhausting to read. But you seriously overuse summary in this manuscript.  Narrative summary fills the reader in, tells rather than shows. Scenes involve your readers, putting them in the story, making them part of events as they’re happening. Readers don’t want information, they crave experiences. They need dialogue—they need to hear your characters talk. In proportion to the length of the novel, there’s very little dialogue. And very few scenes—again, considering the length of the novel.

And it’s in scenes rather than narrative summary that conflict is made real for the reader–and conflict is something this story needs a great deal more of, because it’s what drives fiction, what keeps readers reading. When conflict does arise, you seldom give us an all-stops-out immediate scene. More often there’s a scrap of a scene, or the conflict takes place offstage. (For example, we never see Ishab beating Kash, and when they fight verbally, we only hear scraps of the conversation.)

On pace of character development.

A quick reflection on the value of avoiding too much too soon.

The process of creating interesting and memorable characters whose fate readers can develop a stake in is just that: a process, not an event. You want readers to get to know your characters the way they get to know people in real life—a little at a time. So in the first five pages, writers should usually be more concerned with introducing their character(s) in a compelling fashion than developing them to any significant extent.

On overwriting.

To a skilled author guilty of this cardinal sin.

So you’re a talented writer. Excellent!. You’re also an overwriter. Not good! You overwrite because you don’t realize how effective something you’ve just written is–and so you add to it, puff it up, emphasize it, repeat it in different words, draw it out, etc.

Overwriting undermines the effectiveness of what could otherwise be a really captivating story. It signals the reader that you’re trying too hard. It makes you look amateurish—which is a shame, because you aren’t amateurish, you’re a good writer with amateurish habits common to many first novelists. Fortunately, these habits are easy to get rid of once you recognize them.

On narrative summary.

To an author overusing a useful literary device.

Part of the problem is your approach to the story, which is heavily weighted in favor of narrative summary. Very often you summarize character attributes, scenes, dialogue, events, all sorts of developments. Narrative summary has its place and makes a fine showcase for that wonderful voice of yours, but readers need to hear characters speak, see events happening, participate in scenes—and you short-change them in this respect. Very often, instead of scenes, we get information.

It’s a natural but misguided impulse to let your readers know as much as possible about your novel’s setting and main characters as soon as you can.  The result is often an opening, or even a whole novel, whose sheer bulk of information muffles the drama and emotion and slows the pace. But readers are like children—they want the good stuff, they want it now, and they don’t care what you think is best for them.  The good stuff is story—dramatic character interaction and intriguing situations.  Fiction doesn’t run on information; its fuel is the opposite, an information vacuum you might think of as mystery.  Readers keep reading to find out what happened, why, and what will happen next.  The more information you give them, the weaker that vacuum becomes. This novel is overloaded with information, especially but not exclusively at the beginning.

On making a well imagined villain more believable and frightening.

Breaking from stereotypes may be the answer.

The situation in the opening scene of this terrorist thriller could hardly be more tense, but the execution could have a much sharper impact. Your terrorist, however convincing his credentials, might as well hang a sign around his neck saying: I’m a fanatical terrorist! I belong to Al Qaeda!

He fits the stereotype perfectly, and his behavior is provocative. But what if he were polite instead of rude? Soft-spoken? What if the captain and co-pilot were still uncomfortable but had nothing concrete to base their discomfort on? He’d be a lot scarier. You see, stereotypical villains aren’t real enough to scare us. But suppose Malik is the living, breathing ball of rage you depict him to be, seething with hatred for Americans, and he’s trying to conceal it?  So he keeps his voice low, his words polite, but he’s still seething with hatred.

Now you have something really interesting, a terrorist who’s trying to hide not just his identity and agenda but his essence, and he can’t. He says something perfectly nice and it sounds menacing. Think about it. Even pre-9/11, these guys would not have wanted to alarm anybody or call attention to themselves. So Atta would be polite. (On page 95 he engages in “pleasant conversation” with an older couple; on page 96 he smiles at security guards.) But nobody filled with as much hatred as he turns out to be would be able to pull it off.

On faith in a coming-of-age novel.

To an author struggling to make her character’s faith a driving force of a compelling plot.

The motor for this novel is Gina’s desire for God, yearning for intimacy with God, and longing for a sign.  Yet this wonderfully forthright, up-front, articulate character who in her first breath as a character is praying doesn’t seem to have any clear notion of what kind of sign from God she wants, or what that means to her. Nor do we know why she wants it in the first place. We learn almost immediately that her parents aren’t really religious—that is, they go to a church but have no discernible spirituality. Gina, on the other hand, is actually a budding mystic, though she wouldn’t have the first notion of what one is.

She’s been growing up in a town where the range in religion flavors goes all the way from A to, maybe, G. You’ve got your Baptists and your Pentecostals, your Methodists and suchlike, then there’s the fringe snake-handling congregation, but her town doesn’t have an Episcopal church, no outside influences that might have inspired in Gina a desire for intimacy with God.  Yet this is what she wants–more than anything on earth. Even more than red shoes and red sequins and to wear Fire ‘n Ice lipstick and get kissed on the lips thus rendered appropriately seductive!

And this isn’t just a passing phase with her, either.  She keeps praying—entertainingly and intensely–through the whole novel.  Nor does any experience that befalls her seem capable of entirely snuffing out this desire for God, though it’s stronger at some points than at others.  It’s a flaw at the core of the story that the desire isn’t always credible.  Part of the problem is its etiology, but part of the problem is that the desire isn’t made real enough throughout. You’ve presented us with a character who is supposed to be in love with God?  Then it’s up to you, her creator, to make us absolutely believe she is.

Now, unless you want to afflict her with an unhealthy obsession (which I know from our conversations isn’t your intention at all), this can’t ever seem to be a one-way love interest.  You make it two-way in Sewanee (and with an occasional fleeting hint—a crumb, really) but basically, you have Gina waiting for a dad-blamed sign—which she indeed wouldn’t be able to define but shouldn’t be 100% vague—and getting mighty little from the Lover she longs for. NOT FAIR. Not like God, not a’tall. More importantly, not credible. It’s undermining the hell out of your motor.

Even more important, it keeps the single most important element in your novel from seeming 100% authentic, or from holding up 100% of the way. It has to hold up 100% of the way if this book is to fulfill its wonderfully rich potential. It has to be made totally real and will, as a result, become absolutely, wonderfully comic. (Not unlike God himself in one of his lesser-known attributes) And the only way you can accomplish this, since you’re God in Gina’s universe, is to go into the deepest part of yourself, from which Gina came, and let her experience some courtship. A passionate longing for God is weird, to say the least. It’s not what teenage girls want but it’s what this one wants. Again, your most important task is to make us believe it, make it real the whole way. Make it the most authentic element in this book, not sometimes authentic and sometimes grafted-on.

On engaging readers’ imaginations.

And the value of never explaining emotions.

People love to pick up on the codes from the signals we all put out, and in fiction it’s one of your strongest forms of reader participation. So the less you explain things to your readers, especially characters’ emotions, the more intense their involvement. There will be times when an explanation will be unavoidable or even desirable, but as a general rule, when you catch yourself explaining how a character feels, first see if the emotion can’t be discerned from what you’ve already written. If it can’t, try to find a way to make that possible.

Phrases like “I was terrified,” “He made me so nervous I could hardly speak,” and “My heart was beating so fast I was afraid she’d hear it,” show up with dismaying regularity in the fiction of novice writers.

On dialogue.

Quick tips for new authors.

  • Never, ever explain your dialogue. If it doesn’t convey what you want, rewrite it.
  • Paragraph whenever a character starts speaking unless just a very few words precede the dialogue (He looked up.) Don’t bury your excellent dialogue—set it off. Paragraphing for dialogue also makes a dialogue scene look more inviting, thanks to the white space on the page.
  • Use plenty of sentence fragments. Most people do in conversation, so have your characters do it more often.
  • Use past perfect tense rarely—and only when it’s really necessary.
  • Screenwriter’s trick: Try to avoid direct answers to questions asking for a yes or no. The answer is nearly always obvious from the rest of the sentence.

On character autonomy.

Why you best characters need to think for themselves–and sometime surprise you.

Every serious fiction writer tries to create rounded, fully dimensional characters who take up space when they enter a room—characters the reader will care about. Most fiction writers call on memories of friends and strangers, as well as imagination, in selecting the combination of faults and failings that best serve the plot, then assign them to a character. Sometimes the process works. Often it doesn’t.

When your characters fail to bring a story to life, you’ve failed to bring the characters to life. Conceiving of, and breathing life into, characters is probably the hardest, loneliest task you will ever face as a writer. When you make your characters out of pieces you collect from different people in your life and memory, you’re engaging in a profoundly incarnational act. Still, unless you grant those characters loving tolerance— giving them the opportunities to discover how they move, what they want to do, and how they want to do it—they will forever walk around stiff and wooden, awaiting or obeying your instructions.

I’m not suggesting that you let your characters write themselves. The author must create characters. But once incarnated, a character with some autonomy will be ten times more likely to engage the reader than will the character whose creator keeps a death grip on her motives, actions, and speech. The story with characters manipulated in the service of a pre-existing plot may entertain its readers, but it will never move them.

As a reader I want to feel, not think. You can have your main character stuck in a puddle of Super Glue on a railroad track with the express bearing down, and I won’t feel a thing if I haven’t come to care about him. Smash! He’s dead—so what? Unless I, the reader, have something to lose too, the character’s fate is unimportant to me, and my engagement in the story is minimal. What can you do to make readers care about the characters in your stories? Where does this magical incarnation begin? I think it begins with love. The reader’s relationship with the characters can only grow out of the writer’s relationship with those characters.

On avoiding over-explanation.

To an author who tells readers to much–with the best of intentions.

You have a lot of hard work ahead of you. The biggest task may be getting rid of what shouldn’t be in the novel. At the top of that list would be explanations to the reader, which come in the form of interior monologue, dialogue, and narration. And very often, what’s being explained is already perfectly clear to the reader. Writing is a form of communication, and writers have an understandable but unfortunate urge to make things clear. I say “unfortunate” because when you make something clear that readers can figure out on their own, you sacrifice a powerful way to engage them at a deeper level in your story.

Here’s how it works. Let’s say we read interior monologue that tells us Pie is smitten with Alex, or interior monologue that tells us Alex is smitten with Pie. We already know they’re attracted to each other, so we feel patronized. That feeling distances us at least a little from their unfolding romance. But suppose neither character expresses these thoughts directly. Suppose we see them together, listen to their dialogue, pick up subtle hints that suggest they’re attracted to each other, and come to the conclusion that whether either of them realizes it or not, they’re falling in love. At this point we’re involved in the story at a deeper level because we’ve invested a little of ourselves in it. Which is exactly what you want.

You have explanations of Pie and Alex’s feelings, explanations of fanatical Muslim philosophy and religious ideals, explanations of terrorist aims, and so on—very little, in fact, happens or is felt in this novel that isn’t pointed out or explained to the reader. (“Bob was angry, and Fletch was desperate.”) Sometimes explanations are necessary; more often, they’re not. If you stripped away most of the explanations, this novel would with that change alone become a much better book.

On a common misstep in a novel’s first chapter.

A tip for novelists on what to avoid.

The most common mistake we find writers making, albeit with the best of intentions, is to open their novels with some kind of information—exposition—rather than with a scene, something that happens. (Or by pulling the reader’s attention from an opening scene to explain it in some fashion.)

This is often deliberate, the idea being that the more readers know about someone or something, the more likely they are to take an interest. But most readers are more inclined to take an interest in a story based on witnessing what characters do, say, and think than on what the writer tells them before they have a chance to see the characters in action. This is just one reason why it’s a good idea to begin with a scene, or a character facing a challenge. It’s also the principle underlying the most time-honored advice for the novice fiction writer: show, don’t tell.

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From all of us at The Kill Zone, many thanks to Ross Browne at The Editorial Department for allowing a repost of The Editor Over Your Shoulder and all our good wishes for Renni’s retirement.

Writing to Think

Charlie Munger has died. Mr. Munger was ninety-nine and lived a long, brilliant life. He was highly successful in many fields. Making money, for sure, but he accumulated and distributed vastly more valuable assets of wealth such as life long learning and influencing others to think by writing.

Charles T. Munger was the multi-billionaire vice president of Berkshire Hathaway, one of the world’s leading financial institutes. He was the man who taught Warren Buffett how to invest and stood giant as a role model for many thought leaders. That includes writers—past and present—who used Munger mental models to help understand and articulate their thoughts.

Shane Parrish is one of those thinkers and writers. Shane hosts the Farnam Street website. It’s named after the lane in Omaha, Nebraska where Charlie Munger lived his entire life.

Farnam Street is a thought-provoking site and publishes every Sunday morning. Last week’s edition included a piece titled Writing To Think. Shane, being a Munger disciple and promoter of works like Poor Charlie’s Almanack and The Psychology of Human Misjudgement, encourages his followers to freely share his material. With that invitation, I’m going to repost Shane Parrish’s article, Writing To Think.

Writing to Think by Shane Parrish

A few weeks ago, my 13-year-old son asked me why writing was so important. He wasn’t happy. One of his teachers had asked him to write an essay and he would rather use AI to generate it for him and be done with it.

The question seemed as natural to him as using a dishwasher is to us. If there is a better, more convenient way to do this, why not use it?

Today’s kids are growing up in a world where they can generate essays in seconds. Many employees are already using AI for a lot of simple tasks like email, catching up after vacation, summarizing meetings, and drafting PowerPoints. While some of these tasks might be accomplished more efficiently by ChatGPT than by human effort, I’d argue there are times when inefficiency is the point.

The reason they teach writing to kids in school is not to generate endless essays on history or books but to create a space to practice reasoning. By delegating writing to AI, my son might be reducing his time spent doing homework. But he’s missing the chance to think more clearly about the topic at hand.

Writing forces you to slow down, focus your attention, and think deeply. In a world where attention is fragmented in seconds, thinking becomes more reactive than reasoned. Only when we have time to play with a problem can we hope to think about it substantially. Writing requires sticking with something a little longer and developing a deeper understanding.

Mortimer Adler once said, “The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks.” We all know someone with this surface level of understanding. They read an article or two and have the confidence of an expert. It’s as if you are having a conversation with someone who tells you they are a hockey player, only to find out they’ve never skated.

Writing is the process by which you realize that you do not understand what you are talking about. Of course, you can learn a lot about something without writing about it. However, writing about something complicated and hard to pin down acts as a test to see how well you understand it. When we approach our work as a stranger, we often discover how something that seems so simple in our heads is explained entirely wrong.

Most organizations see PowerPoint and writing as interchangeable. They are not. Powerpoint masks poor thinking. Just because presentations are easy to create doesn’t mean the person creating them understands what they are talking about. If my experience is any indication, about 30-40% of people giving presentations lack more than a surface-level knowledge of what they are presenting.  All the time spent making the presentation look good comes at the expense of wrestling with the problem and developing unique insights.

Pretty graphics don’t only drug the presenter, they also intoxicate the audience. When dressed up, even poor thinking can come off as well thought out. Writing avoids this because it strips away the fancy graphics. Poor thinking has nowhere to hide.

Other than reading them yourself, one way to test your ideas is to let others read them. Strangers reading your writing can’t see all the thoughts in your head, only the ones you put into words and share. It’s easy to assume the people who disagree with you are wrong. Sharing your understanding with the world allows you to not only test your thinking but gain the perspective of others (as the comments here will no doubt do). Writing forces you to step on the ice and skate.

Anyone who’s ever revised a piece of writing and done it well knows the pain of having to kill their darlings. But deleting, in writing and life, is a valuable tool. When you write, you develop an attachment to the text you produced only because you produced it. Choosing to discard writing forces you to reconcile between what is true and what you wrote, which can lead to tremendous personal growth both in writing and in life.

AI-generated text, on the other hand, is disposable by nature. It doesn’t force you to practice attachment and letting go. The most important key on the keyboard and in life is often the one that deletes.

Deciding what to pay attention to and, more importantly, what to overlook and remove, is one of the most critical skills. Breaking a problem down into its essential elements and reassembling it from the ground up helps you to discern fact from opinion. Wisdom is as much about knowing what to ignore as it is about what to pay attention to.

Perhaps the best reason to write is that it offers a vehicle for discovering deeper insights.

Practically speaking, writing forces you to take a complicated and ill-defined problem and compress it into something more manageable. This ‘compression’ is useful. Not only does it help you remember your ideas, but it helps you develop new ones. Paul Graham put it this way: “A good writer doesn’t just think, and then write down what he thought, as a sort of transcript. A good writer will almost always discover new things in the process of writing.”

The insights you discover are not limited to the subject you write about. You also learn about yourself. Writing doesn’t just convey your ideas; it conveys a part of you. Your personality and worldview become part of the work itself. While the reader remembers the story, the writer is forever changed.

Many things can be done by tools that write for you, but they won’t help you learn to think, understand deeper, or solve hard problems.

When it comes to my kids, I told them, “One of the ways we learn to think for ourselves is to write out our thoughts.” When your invisible thoughts become visible, you are forced to wrestle with them in reality and not your imagination. “But Dad,” they protested as they continued to write in their summer journals, “It is so much easier to outsource to AI.”

They’re right. But they aren’t yet smart enough to see that in a world where intellectual labor is increasingly outsourced to tools, the human aptitude for clear thinking and unique insights will become all the more valuable.

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Kill Zoners — Does this piece resonate with you? Please share your thoughts on writing to think—and thinking to write—with our group.