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The Sorry State of Writer’s Craft in Canada

Note - This post was originally published in 2014 in a different source, but now that the source has been deleted I have decided to re-publish it here.


By Charles Moffat – November 2014.

Disclaimer – I should note that regardless of how bad I believe it is in Canada, it is likely worse in the USA.

I recall being at York University between 1999 and 2003 when my best friend was studying writing there – or more specifically she was studying English Literature until she could transfer into a different program that was specifically for aspiring writers seeking to hone their craft. I recall she had to make the attempt several times before she finally got into the writers craft program, which had very limited seats and many applicants. (Which makes me wonder, why the heck are they teaching English Literature if almost all the people in that program are actually trying to get into the writing program instead? Why don’t they just make the English Literature program smaller, and EXPAND the writing program? This makes more sense.)

I recall also writing numerous essays during my stay in university and thanking my lucky stars I had been whipped into shape during high school by Mrs Pletsch, not once but twice as I taken the Grade 11 English Writing course with her when I was in grade 10, and then the OAC English Writer’s Craft in grade 12. Obviously I had enjoyed having my writing skills challenged and “whipped into shape”. I say that in the nicest way possible as Mrs Pletsch was an older lady, nearing retirement, and she was very stern in her approach to writing. She accepted nothing less than perfection.

For my part I reached for the stars during her class. I wrote nothing less than a full length novel for the one assignment, which she was kind enough to edit for me.

During the grade 11 class she taught us the proper way to write essays and revisited that again in the OAC class. When I reached university and began writing essays regularly the essay drills we had completed in high school proved to be invaluable – as university professors want to be presented with perfectly written essays that make good logical sense. (For my sense of logic I will give thanks to the various science, math and philosophy classes I took in high school.)

Thus it was that when it came to essay writing assignments I did quite well in university.

Later in life I returned to fiction writing (try searching Charles Moffat on either Kindle or Kobo to find a selection of my works), but I also wrote numerous biographies, non-fiction pieces, and currently operating over 100 blogs on my various interests.

So now that I am done tooting my own horn – which was really a way of establishing my own credentials as a writer – let me get into the matter at hand.

Most students in Canadian universities don’t know how to write. A phenomenon which is getting worse according to educators, and is also present in American universities. Some educators point the finger at the internet, saying that people don’t read books as much as they used to. Some blame texting on cell phones as the reason why so many students have such poor writing skills, but that would only explain the poor spelling.

However we are not just talking spelling, grammar and sentence structure here, educators are also complaining that students seem to lack imagination, originality, that they are just ripping off other literary sources. Not fan fiction per se, but ripping off the plot, characters, etc.

For example, let us talk about The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.

Now I should admit first that Miss Collins is older than I am, and in theory might actually have a better education in the English language and writer’s craft than I do. Why then is her book series (which I have read and is somewhat poorly written) ripped off from the Japanese novels and/or films “Battle Royale” and “Battle Royale II: Requiem“? The Battle Royale novel was first published in 1999 and the film came out in 2000. If you are keeping track of the chronology, the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Hunger Games books came out in 2008, 2009 and 2010 and the films came out in 2012, 2013, the third film – part one – will be released in theatres later this month, with part two to be released in November 2015.

I have two theories on how this happened. One, Battle Royale (both the books and the films) have a huge cult following and Suzanne Collins either read the books or watched the films, and thought “Hey, I should rip that off and change the setting to North America.” Or… Two, movie producers who had seen Battle Royale approached Suzanne Collins to write a series of books ripped off from Battle Royale. Since SC is a writer for TV shows option two is certainly plausible.

Regardless of how it came to be it is clear The Hunger Games is ripped off from Battle Royale. The plot of male and female contestants, equal numbers of teenage boys and girls, fighting to the death and then seeking to overthrow the corrupt and diabolical government, set against a dystopian future is almost identical.

Next, I shall point to a series of novels which even the author admits are completely ripped off. I am speaking of course of Eragon – which the YA author admits is a fantasy version of Star Wars Episode IV. Eragon and the other books from Christopher Paolini are all ripped off from Star Wars. He doesn’t even deny it. They even made a film of the first book back in 2006, but it was so horrible that critics and anyone who has ever seen the first Star Wars film instantly hated it.

Lastly, I want to touch on Harry Potter – and my own series of books Lilith Bloodstone. Both of which have some clear inspiration coming from Ursula Le Guin’s “A Wizard of Earthsea". The plot of “A Wizard of Earthsea” is about a young man who joins a school of wizardry, where his skill earns him both friends and enemies, later leaves the school – and, spoiler alert, there is a bit of a fractured soul in the plot. Le Guin’s book, published in 1968, is considered to be one of the most influential books in the history of fantasy writing – ranking up there with The Lord of the Rings and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Thus it is no surprise that when Harry Potter eventually appeared on the fantasy genre scene that fractured souls ended up being part of the story arc. (Harry Potter also rips off the 1986 film Troll, The Lord of the Rings and other sources too.)

And really, there is no shame admitting where your inspiration comes from.

For me I read “A Wizard of Earthsea” around 1994-95 and I began writing the Lilith Bloodstone series in 1999. In the very first adventure Lilith faces an undead spirit – the fractured remains of an ancient wizard’s soul, so fractured he doesn’t even remember his own name. Each adventure that Lilith has however stands alone and only a few of them have an overall story arc. My goal in writing them was to make her character one that could wander from place to place, having adventures, and each adventure would stand alone. Similar to the various Conan the Barbarian stories, The Hardy Boys, Lassie, etc. Thus I would be able to write as many stories as a felt like writing about the character until I bored of writing such stories, and if the event I was struck by the writing muse again I could always return and write more Lilith Bloodstone stories. It gave me much more creative freedom to have a character which I can use again and again, who I know intimately and I can focus on how she responds mentally to each set of circumstances. I only hint during the stories about the circumstances which led up to her father’s death, a story I know which will play out in time. I have put a lot of creativity into the development of her character, the secondary characters, her family history/origins, and so forth…

I can only imagine what teenagers are writing now: Stories ripped off from The Hunger Games, Harry Potter or other contemporary sources – which are themselves ripped off from other sources. It reminds me of how people in the 1980s sometimes made audio tapes that were copies of copies of copies of copies, and the more copies that were made the more the quality of the sound was degraded to the point it only vaguely sounded like the original. It is essentially the idea that if people keep copying things that the quality of the copying going inevitably will get worse if people are copying copies of copies.

You may have heard that there are actually a limited number of stories out there, and this is partially true. There are certain stories that people have a tendency to repeat again and again. Seven stories to be precise, which are the most frequently common. The exceptions to these popular stories are often stories based on true stories, which makes them more unique.

The Seven Plots are:

Overcoming the Monster / Villain – This is the classic Conan story, but also describes Hercules, Robin Hood, Spartacus, the plot of the film Jaws, and even various plots for Godzilla.

Rags to Riches – Cinderella, “Brewster’s Millions”, etc. (Note: There is also the reverse, Riches to Rags.)

The Long Quest – “Jason and the Argonauts”, “The Lord of the Rings”, etc. Heck, even various Star Trek plots use this one.

Voyage and Return – The Odyssey, the 2014 film “Interstellar” which I saw last Friday (it was awesome), the TV series “Lost in Space”, and the more modern TV series “Farscape”.

Comedy / Ridiculous Circumstances – William Shakespeare’s “The Twelfth Night”, the John Candy film “Delirious”, etc.

Tragedy – William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Pyramus and Thisbe, etc.

Rebirth / Redemption – A Christmas Carol, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and Macbeth fall into this category.

Some of the best plots often combine multiple different plots from above. For example the 2011 film “In Time” is basically a combination of Rags to Riches, a Robin Hood style quest to overthrow the monetary system (the monetary system is the monster) – and the hero and heroine are stuck in a Romeo and Juliet relationship which appears to be doomed from the beginning.

Now if you can come up with an eighth plot, one which has no villain, is not a comedy or tragedy, the hero doesn’t redeem themselves, there is no rags to riches or riches to rags, no voyage or return – well good luck trying to make such a story.

So if we are honest it is pretty uncommon for people to come up with an original plot.

Now back to Canada, and to a lesser extent Canadian universities.

Asides from Margaret Atwood, can you name a famous Canadian fiction writer who is a household name? (I don’t count, since I am writing this, plus I am not a household name.) Can you name one who is still alive today?

Unless you are extremely well versed on famous Canadian authors then you probably won’t be able to name more than one or two names from the list I compiled at the bottom. (Feel free to scroll down to the list after trying to think of a name or two, preferably ones who are still alive.

Okay, now that you’ve scrolled down and seen how short that list is (seriously, they are only authors worth mentioning, a testament to the shortage of Canadian authors of merit). And you will notice the small number who are still alive, excluding Margaret Atwood. That tells us that Canada isn’t really churning out high successful authors. So what are we doing wrong? Is is Canada’s education system, which for many authors is comprised of whatever they managed to learn in high school and maybe a few classes in university about the craft of writing (keeping in mind that Canadian universities are now flooded with companies that write essays for hire, and even do course work)? Or maybe it is on an institutional level, wherein publishing companies in Canada are rather weak, unprofitable… Can you name a Canadian publishing company? I cannot. Possibly because all of the truly profitable publishing companies are in the USA or UK.

What about awards for Canadian authors? The Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Governor General’s Literary Awards, or the Trust Fiction Award. Rubbish awards in my opinion. If you want to make sure your book doesn’t sell much, win a Canadian fiction award. Winning or even competing in one of these rubbish contests is a sure sign a writer needs to go back to the proverbial drawing board, rethink their career and what they are writing about. If you provided a pile of books by past winners of those prizes to a group of people (teenagers, adults, it doesn’t matter) their response to being forced to read such books would be “Omigod, these books are sooooooo boring…”

Therein lies the problem with Canadian writers, regardless of whether the root of the problem is our education system, our horrid publishing industry or even our rubbish awards. The problem is that the vast majority of things Canadian writers seem to be churning out is BORING. (And I can prove they are boring using the Dumbbell Test described further below.)

Imagine you are a young writer who wants to become an author. Chances are likely you have dreams (delusions) of grandeur, becoming famous and a best-selling author. (And snubbing Margaret Atwood at a gala, if you plan on being a snobbish author.) If you think for an instant that your book idea is interesting and should be written, ask a friend to hold up a 5 to 10 lb dumbbell while you describe the plot of a story to them. Tell them that they should lower and (gently, don’t drop it) set down the dumbbell the moment they get bored of the plot. If your friend gets bored during the first minute of holding up the dumbbell and sets it down, you should come up with a better idea for your book. If after the minute they are still holding up the dumbbell and haven’t become bored, then absolutely, go ahead and write the proposed book.

For more guaranteed results, repeat this test several times with several other friends or colleagues. Then ask your friends at what point in the plot do they become bored. Their insights will give you a good idea as to what you are doing wrong.

Note – Only ask friends who read books from the genre you are writing in. Friends who only read fantasy fiction might get bored very easily if you try to tell them the plot of a murder mystery plot.

I could keep writing, but I think I have made my point clear. Most Canadian writers (and American writers, and sometimes even famous writers) are copying old plots too much, often lack writing skill, and it is small wonder so few Canadian writers become household names.



The List of Household Names of Canadian Authors

Margaret Atwood, still alive!

Lucy Maud Montgomery (oh yeah her!), died 1942.

Mordecai Richler, died 2001.

Margaret Laurence, died 1987.

Farley Mowat, died 2014.

Leonard Cohen, still alive!

Pierre Burton, died 2004.

Douglas Coupland, still alive!

William Gibson, still alive + I didn’t even know he was Canadian.

Anyone else not listed here is not famous enough to warrant being mentioned because they are not a household name – so don’t bother sending me emails saying “What about so-and-so!” I have never even heard of so-and-so. How can s0-and-so be a household name if I have never heard of them. Please look up the meaning of household name for pete’s sake. Pete, now there’s a guy who has a household name. Very famous. Saint Peter. I think he was in a very famous book and is considered to be one of the authors…

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