Story’s Little White Lies

134170985_istockphoto_thinkstockIt’s funny how as a writer I find myself becoming, at times, a better oral story teller. I just caught myself retelling a small scenario from church to my husband and simplifying some of the details to make a better verbal impact and a greater punchline.

Huh. Did I just lie? Did I just go against everything I’ve been taught all my life and tell a Lie?

Interesting. And all the more so because it’s becoming a bit of a habit.

There’s nothing worse than listening to someone tell a story and having them use a lot of “sort-of’s” and “kind-of’s,” or “a little bit’s.” Or describing something as “like a this thing–well, no, maybe it was more like a that–” They try to get the details just so and for many things, like telling how father’s iridectomy went, the details count. After all you don’t want Aunt Bertha passing the story to Uncle Curt and suddenly father’s iridectomy becomes a triple bypass complicated by a plantar’s wart and his body odor and he had an out of body experience in the midst of it.story-fun

If your child’s teacher calls to tell you your child spit on the janitor’s head, you better hope she’s not fiddling the truth, when your child only sneezed on the water fountain.

Nooo, we don’t want that sort of false retelling. And when the boss says you’re getting a $10 an hour raise and you open your next paycheck to find a 10 cents a day decrease— well there’s h— oops, certainly something to pay.

So how do we tell a story for the sake of a good story? Cause I know I’m not alone.

Because I’ve caught myself altering the strict truth of story simply for love of telling it well. I doubt I’m the only one. Let’s hope I’m not heading for perdition. Story gets into ones blood. It’s been part of civilization ever since—ever. Like since the first cave-men with no language, spoken or written, played charades to tell each other what happened out in the fields that day. of course they’re gonna swap the details to out-do one another.storytelling

What does fiddling the facts comes from? Perhaps some of us get tired of listening to stories from people who have to reclaim every detail, important or not, that slow down the story and cause you to lose interest. The tension is stretched to uselessness by constant correcting themselves or telling too much back-story in a backwards manner, whether it pertains or not.

Or it’s because, as of we writers, the editing of the written word, the maximizing of each phrase to carry the story, the careful choosing of words to say more than they do at face value, has taught us to edit more carefully the spoken story too.

It’s the essence that counts. The overall effect. The end result. Carried only by choice details, not all and sundry.story1


So what if the little boy in church today actually hummed a different tune than the Star Wars Theme song? If not, it was certainly a lot like it and created the same impact–a wave of tittering in the rows nearest him. So later when I told my husband, it would have lost the giggle factor if I’d out loud speculated if that’s what song it really was. The acoustic quality of the tale would have failed entirely, thus vetoing the point of the tale.

And it was funny. The little guy belted out that tune right during a pause.AA_New_Logo♫ ♯♪ Dun da da DUN dun, dunta da Daaaa…♫ ♯♪

Christina’s motto is:
“Some people see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say, why not?” (George Bernard Shaw)

Give Them Wings

Being a creative person, I get asked a lot, “How do you have such great ideas?”

There’s a few ways. I keep my eyes peeled. Not just at other people’s creativity, but at nature, patterns, colour combinations that please the eye, those that don’t—I observe people, places, things. And I listen too.

Yes it helps to have a natural bent towards creativity, but like anything, it can lay dormant, or be

One thing I have found true in both creative arts and creative writing, that ideas develop by doing. Again as with anything—practice-practice-practice.

Most projects I tackle, whether it’s sewing, or woodworking, or writing, start with a single idea, a vision, a spark. By the time I’m done, it has usually become quite different. Why?

In the doing, as I go along, I get more ideas because maybe a technical glitch has changed the vision, or I’ve come across something I hadn’t anticipated until I got right down to the details, and so I’ve adjusted the original plan to improve things, or as I fiddle with materials or words, I discover that if I use this instead of that then I can add the thingy to the whatsit and really make the project pop.drawing-board-670027_1280

Ideas occasionally fall from trees, but they need to be fed to grow. One must toss them around, chew them up, spit them out, and rearrange. The perfect sewing project rarely exists. Often one must take in a pattern here and there to make it fit.

An architect can have a great idea for a house, but perhaps the property is too narrow. He has to shuffle it around, change the layout to get it to work.

When moving into a new home, we have to fit all our old furnishings into a completely different space and organize it sensibly. That also requires a type of creativity and some rethinking before we get it right.

So with writing. I have found that the best points and connections and subtleties in my stories come from being immersed in the writing, completely unplanned. somewhere deep inside, the subconscious mind takes all your knowledge and observations and feeds them where they’re needed if we give it the chance. If I never take that original idea and start brainstorming and working it like a baker kneads dough, I would never progress.cargo-jet-108882_1280

The world progresses on ideas that were just tiny sparks. Take your favorite ideas and be bold enough to give them wings..

Christina’s motto is:
“Some people see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say, why not?” (George Bernard Shaw)

Ergodic Lit

Sounds a little too much like the other kind of literature whose genre begins with an E but trust me, it’s quite different.

We were introduced to this genre of writing at our last writer’s meeting. And yet not introduced. We’d seen it, not very often, but didn’t know it had a name.

House of Leaves, by Mark Danielewski is a prime example of ergodic literature. Here are a few screenshots of the book:House of Leaves 440-441trSome of the text is “normal.” It has footnotes. But even the footnotes have footnotes, as they carry on with other bits of the fiction novel. The set-up makes you sit-up and pay attention. The reader interacts with the story, because sometimes when the characters experience down times, the text goes straight down the page. If there is turmoil, the text follows suit by being a jumble or by being superimposed over top some smaller text.

It’s creative, it’s thought provoking–it’s art!.

Think of children’s books being like this. I mean, chapter books. We know picture books do this. They have lift the flap pages and pop-ups and doo-dads and hiccups. Full flaming colour. And then we move on to chapter books. Kids books have come a long way and are lively, with great illustrations. but there’s always a percentage of kids that go off books, when they have to read them themselves, at least for the most part.

What if they start reading, because a teacher or aunt or bus driver is standing over their back with a report card, and their phone or i-pad or x-box is burning a hole in their pocket. They’re reading, um, yeah, whatever, mostly looking at the pictures, and they turn the 3rd page and pow–the text is in mirror writing. Or in a checkerboard. Or in a big spiral and you have to read it from the inside outward turning and turning and turning the book? Hey, cool! (I wrote letters to a school chum like that. She was kerfuzzled. Still, she never forgot who I was.)

These days, attention spans are shortened and people are used to instant gratification. Fast food, one hour photo, speeding tickets–the list goes on. Books are full of intrigue and suspense. Who of all these characters we meet is the bad guy?? What is the priceless treasure they will find under the bed mattress in the dump? You’ve got to keep reading to find out. That takes—like—forever.

Pictures help keep kids interested. Heck, they keep me interested. But what if more kids books were ergodic?Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events uses this technique in a few places. Someone uses the word ever in a sentence and in order to stress this, the word ever is repeated for an entire page. Elsewhere, he has a full page spread in just black. Not black text–just blackness. He also repeats an entire page but in such a way you know it’s not a printers error. It’s part of the story.

Would the ergodic technique help reluctant readers develop a passion for reading? I concur. The variety in page lay-outs, text size, shape and direction, make the reading more interactive and give a certain gratification in bits at a time as you progress through the book. Splash a little colour here and there as a bonus, and a few images for the younger readers and bam—interactive experience that still amounts to just reading, no button pushing, and no intrusive beeping.

Besides, wouldn’t it make reading to your kids more interesting? I definitely concur. Now I just need to snoop through the bookstore and see if there are any kids books out there like House of Leaves.

Christina’s motto is:
“Some people see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say, why not?” (George Bernard Shaw)

Maximizing Chance

Student demo
The demo: Can you hear me?
Often, when I visit schools and libraries to speak to youngsters, I tell the story of Rene Laennec. The story is a guaranteed attention-getter and high on the oddball scale so kids love it. But I love the story too, because I get to ham it up with a demonstration that calls for volunteers, all the while marvelling at the freaky role chance plays in so much of what we do.

In 1816, Rene Laennec, a French doctor, was called to a sick patient’s home. As he walked the streets of Paris, he pondered a problem. His patient, a woman with heart disease, was obese and Laennec worried that he might not be able to hear her heart beating.

Along one street, the laughter of children playing a game with a pile of lumber interrupted Laennec’s thoughts. The game was simple. One child pressed an ear against one end of a long wooden beam.  Another child tapped the other end to send a message.  Magnified by the density of the wood, the sound travelled through the board, sending the children into fits of laughter.

Laennec watched the game, his problem forgotten for the moment. But as he walked to the patient’s home, an idea simmered.  By the time he reached his destination, he had a solution.  He rolled a sheet of paper into a tube.  When he pressed one end of the tube against his patient’s chest and listened at the other end, he clearly heard the movements of her heart.

For Laennec, it was just the beginning. He experimented with different materials for his listening device.  Being an expert wood turner, he produced a cylinder of wood about thirty centimetres long. Hollow in the center with adjustable cups at either end, it was the prototype to the instrument every doctor and nurse uses today – the stethoscope.imagesTJQBR6YR

I share Laennec’s story with young audiences to illustrate the kind of non-fiction writing I do – the narrative variety where the goal is to captivate readers with a true story. But I also tell the story of the stethoscope with a second purpose in mind, and to do that I add a little something else – a follow-up story that is tied to the first.

I tell audiences how I stumbled upon the Laennec story while searching for information about something else, how it twigged my interest in a totally new subject, and how it led to my first book, The Serendipity Effect, a collection of short stories about mistakes, accidents and freakish occurrences in science.

And that, I tell youngsters, is how chance works. Whether you are a doctor, scientist, teacher, electrician or writer (maybe especially writers), ideas are everywhere, free for the taking, free for you to adapt, mold and use in other ways. What seems like a coincidence or chance occurrence might be opportunity knocking, begging to be let in. The question is: Will you open the door to the unexpected when it happens? Not everyone will. images

Louis Pasteur, who developed the first vaccine after a mishap in the lab steered him in a new direction, knew a thing or two about this. “Chance favours the prepared mind,” is his oft repeated quote. To harvest chance, you’d have to first recognize it as an opportunity. You need a certain mindset, a working framework to begin with. Laennec was pondering a problem when he spotted children at play. I was looking for a subject when I stumbled upon the Laennec story.  Both of us were actively pursuing something. In a sense, we were preparing ourselves to recognize chance when it happened.

Maybe for writers, especially those struggling with writer’s block, the lesson might be this: Don’t sit there, waiting for a thunderbolt of inspiration. Get involved. Dig deep. Get busy. Do something. Till the soil so when seeds of opportunity land, they have a place to grow.

Other posts that might interest you:

Quotes to Get You Over a Brick Wall

Do You Have Ink in Your Blood?

Fear of Starting vs Fear of Finishing

Larry Verstraete ( is the author of 13 non-fiction books for youngsters, many of them offshoots of weird and unexpected occurrences.  His 14th book, a middle grade novel, Missing in Paradise, is scheduled for release by Rebelight Publishing Inc. in November.


For Larry Verstraete, an award-winning author of books for young people, writing is all about the journey and often the perfect writing storm occurs when high adventure, science and history converge. An advocate for literacy, Larry often visits schools and libraries to share his passion.

Get a Life, They Said

“Life Histories of American Insects.” It’s a book I found.

Did you know American insects had a “Life?” I don’t mean a life as in life not death. I mean the “get a LIFE” kind of life.BookSuperimposedd2

Well I didn’t either. I ventured to find out what other creatures and people had a Life. Apparently bees do:

And I found others too.

Soooo. . .

I’m thinking all these beings, even the house sound like they have more of a Life than I do, a writer driving herself batty with revisions, etc. . . sitting on the same chair, no padding left on it, staring at my screen and often backspacing nearly as much as I have written. . . eyes going like a fan in swirls. . .

I but I do have a Life. And not just one, but many. They are just not visible to the masses yet. But I can touch them, I can taste and handle them. I feel the emotions, the joy and despairs of characters I have given birth to, and others that have meandered my way. I know their fears and trials, and I help them by giving them friends and mentors on their paths. I challenge them with antagonists, people they can’t stand.

I am fully acquainted with their locations, the weather there, the living conditions, the secret rooms, the slippery paths, the hermit up the hill and his secrets, the widow in the flower shop who treats O like an adult not a child and tells her the truth. I know why M. takes up an old questionnable art for revenge, and I know she’s not all bad, underneath. She has suffered. I know the old folklore of the village L lives in and why the dog only comes back with one shoe–there’s an old mystery there. I know of ghosts real and imagined and their hidden agendas.

I smell the moss on the stone gates and the mold in the ruin. I know X loves to explore it and I know why she can’t tell what she finds when her leg cracks right through the floorboards. I know the pain she feels and wince. I make faces at the computer screen to explore how she deals with it.

I tense up when R’s secret gets out and he has dire consequences to face. And feel his relief on my own features when the right person stands up and covers for him.

Yeah sure, it’s all second hand stuff, you might argue. Aah, but I’m creating many lives—bringing things into being that weren’t there before.

We writers do so much research even when we’re writing fiction that we do expand our borders beyond our four walls in a way that becomes very real to us. Sure it would be fabulous to do, go and see all the things I want to, and the things I want to write about in situ. One day. For now my “Life” and I do have one, is by proxy. And I’ll make the most of it.


Christina’s motto is:
“Some people see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say, why not?” (George Bernard Shaw)
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