Your Writer’s Voice

Your Writer’s Voice

Gwynn Scheltema

The lake inspires on this beautiful spring day. All around me words spill onto pages, fingers tap-tap on keyboards and there is an electric energy in the room. I’m among people who understand me, the writer.

photo by April Hoeller 2017

I’m here at Writescape’s Spring Thaw 2017.

On Saturday night we shared our work with each other, and as always I was blown away by the stories and the places they took me. And I was struck by the range of voices in the room, each with their own way of telling a story, of painting mood, bringing out emotion, of relaying information. Some voices were a familiar comfortable journey, some a new adventure into story.

But each voice was unique. And I’m not talking character voice here, I’m talking about that elusive quality we call the writer’s or author’s voice. The way readers recognize you as a writer. It’s partly style, partly tone and partly an undefined quality you might call your writer’s personality.

What is your style?

Style is the mechanics of how you write. Do you favour writing in short sassy sentences or long languid, contemplative ones, or something in the middle? Is your default  word choice urban or rural or academic or down to earth? Is your writing spare, with little description or do you use imagery and metaphor with gusto? Style can also be dictated by the market or genre you write in.

What is your tone?

Tone is the attitude of your writing. Do you hit readers between the eyes or are you subtle? Are you passionate, emotional, even evangelistic? Are you formal or friendly or casual? Are you obtuse or matter of fact? Do you teach or argue or merely suggest. Just like style, tone can be influenced by the market you write for.

 

What is your writing personality?

Your writing personality comes from who you are both as a writer and a human being. It’s molded by what you’ve experienced, the lenses through which you see the world, what you believe in, what inspires you, what influences you, your fears, your loves, your passions, your morals. It’s not dictated by anyone, but it is yours alone.

 

Why does it matter?

On a practical level, it helps you hone and edit your work. If you default to introspection in your telling of a story, perhaps you might need to up the energy more in places with more dramatization. If you typically create a first draft that races headlong from plot point to plot point, perhaps you need to give the reader a chance to breathe once in a while. And we all have stylistic tics: insistent words, phrases, constructions or images that bubble too often to the surface and which we no longer notice because they are part of us. I know, for instance, that I tend towards longer sentences and use the words “somewhat” and “little” a great deal in a first draft.

But it’s more than that. Recognizing that you have a voice that is uniquely yours is what helps you write authentically. Trying to write what you think you should write, or what others want you to write, often fights with the way you authentically write. We all have those moments when we feel a piece is not quite what we wanted to say. Chances are you’ve written it in something other than your own authentic voice.

Embrace your writer’s voice

Don’t fight the writer within. Your best, most authentic stories come from that place deep in you and will resonate with readers when you allow the distilled essence of your life, your experience, your passions and your attitudes come through.

The more you write, the more distinct and consistent your voice will become. Don’t worry about “finding your voice”. Just write what you are driven to write, in the way you think it is best expressed and send your writing out into the world. Your voice will be there.

DID YOU KNOW

Spring Thaw is just one of the retreats that Writescape offers each year. You can escape for a day of inspiration or settle in for a weekend or more of focused writing. Learn about what you can expect at at Writescape retreat.

Recipe for a Writing Grant

Recipe for a Writing Grant

Ruth E. Walker

Gwynn and I know firsthand what a thrill it is when someone validates us as writers. When you are told that you’ve won an award, a scholarship or a grant for your creative work, it’s not just about the money. Don’t get me wrong. For almost all of us, the “starving artist” is not a metaphor. It’s a hard reality.

Winning an award or grant is more than an income boost, however. It shows the world that others place worth on your craft. And it validates you as a working writer, one who is submitting their work for evaluation. That you are willing to risk the opinion of strangers.

So it gives us great pleasure to participate in an annual scholarship program with The Writers’ Community of Durham Region. WCDR is a 300+-member networking organization for writers of all types and levels. Heather O’Connor and I have been members for years and Gwynn was there at their very first meeting in the 90s. We all know that education is a prime focus for this non-profit group.

2017 Essay Prompt

When we were approached a few years ago to be part of their annual WCDR scholarship program we said Yes! Writescape funds a $150 scholarship.

Applicants must be members of WCDR, they must complete an online form to outline their background and budget details on their writing project/plans and, most importantly, craft a compelling essay inspired by a writing prompt. All applications are judged on their practical, logical content as well as how their passion is conveyed in responding to the prompt.

Our $150 support is not tied to taking any of our workshops or retreats. Writescape has no part in the adjudication process. We aren’t on any of the judging panels, we see none of the applications or essays, and only learn the name of the recipient a day or so before the award is announced.

A prize-winning event

It’s always been wonderful to attend the award breakfast and to hand out the prize. But this year was especially delightful for me. I’ve known the winner for twenty years. I also know he was the originator of the WCDR scholarship program and willingly volunteers his business acumen and well-honed technology skills to support the group and individual members.

In short, Rich Helms a good guy.

Rich Helms is not, however, a poet. Nor does he write mysteries or thrillers or historical romance novels. His excellent resource book Book Trailer 101 coaches writers on making their own book trailers. And if you want to understand Amazon SimpleDB, Rich co-wrote a guidebook on that as well. So I was curious and asked Rich if I could see his application and essay. What technological advance was Rich taking on this time? He willingly shared his application. Turns out, Rich reaches back to the early days of civilization for his latest topic.

Rich is baking bread. And he’s writing about it.

In his background notes, Rich shows his logical side. “…40 years in computer research and development, where I took complex ideas and turned them into marketable products.” and lays out his plan “The next thing I want to tackle is how to write a recipe – an area in which I have no expertise.”

But baking bread is his passion. Does his essay reveal any passion?

“When I retired from the company I once owned, I spent a month living by the ocean. Every day, my dog, Margaret, and I would walk the shore, then stop and fish. My all-consuming thought was, what now?

I’m a computer nerd who bakes bread and writes about it, and I’m not afraid to describe bread baking as a sensuous experience. I revel in the feeling of kneading dough into a boule of smooth, elastic food that is alive and growing. I breathe deeply the smell of the flour and yeast fermenting, breaking down the starches as well as the tantalizing aromas of caramelizing sugars…”

“…Thinking back to my walks by the ocean with Margaret …when I returned each day, our footprints were gone. Only pictures on my phone proved that we had walked the shore. The sand looked clean, and all traces of the day before were removed. What remained was a clean slate beckoning us to start the walk again.

This all makes me think about my journey with breadbaking. The traces of the journey disappear; time washes them away. But what survives are the writing, the stories, the recipes and what I learn along the way. As I move forward, I am excited to knead a deeper element of writing into the mix.”

Yup. I’d say the passion is there. And a wonderful depth and elegance to Rich’s writing that I’d not seen before.

A worthwhile gift to writers

We know that every writer who has received the Writescape scholarship has appreciated the support and used the money to deepen their craft or expand their skills into new areas. This time, it’s especially nice for us to know the recipient. And I can add that I have tasted Rich’s breads: a superb cheese loaf and dinner rolls that engaged the senses and deliciously filled the belly.

This ancient craft is even older than written language. I’ll be looking for Rich’s recipe book but in the meantime, I’ll settle for an occasional taste from the hearth. Yum!

DID YOU KNOW

Writescape offers Get That Grant, a fabulous one-day workshop on the art and skill of applying for writing grants and scholarships. Participants have a pretty good track record, and we can happily boast that Rich Helms is only the latest success story from taking the workshop this past February. Heather O’Connor offers her workshop yearly in Durham Region as well as “on demand” for groups and organizations that express interest. Email info@writescape.ca for details.

 

 

Write Beyond the Boundaries

Write Beyond the Boundaries

Ruth E. Walker.

Earlier this month, I attended a cottage-country film festival in the Village of Haliburton, catching the last three of five films on offer. There were no red carpets, no star-studded galas.  And the sole  “paparazzo” was equipped with a nifty cell phone. Nonetheless, it was a life-changing moment for this writer. I gained a deeper understanding of three vital pieces of any creative enterprise.

Perspective

 

Perception

 

 

 

 

Persistence

But first some background

Doc(k) Day is a documentary film festival, organized by THOSE OTHER MOVIES Haliburton, a non-profit organization run by volunteers. It’s part of the Film Circuit, a division of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and has brought some fabulous festival films to the Haliburton Highlands.

I love TIFF and attend one screening a year in Toronto with my friend Heidi. A film festival with Heidi is often an adventure, so much so that I blogged about it on my own website. There was a bit less excitement at Doc(k) Day, but no less a moving experience.

The three documentaries I managed to attend were excellent. Directed by Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais, and created and narrated by Lawrence Gunther, What Lies Below is a remarkable film about the interconnectedness of the world’s waterways and how so many of us are blind to what is happening to an ecosystem we can’t see. All the more moving when you learn that documentarian Gunther has been blind since childhood.

Garry Beitel’s In Pursuit of Peace explores the world of peacekeeping in the 21st century and how Canadians are still filling that role despite our political shift to combatants instead of peacekeepers. It’s an excellent, and often daunting, glimpse into the challenges of conflict resolution in our fractured world. Nonetheless, I was left feeling optimistic.

Perspective.  Perception.  Persistence.

Cameraperson from Kirsten Johnson, renowned documentary filmmaker and cinematographer (Citizenfour, Fahrenheit 9/11) was in a class unto its own. Breaking boundaries of documentary film-making, Johnson gives the audience access to a kind of filmic memoir. From her personal catalogue of outtakes, side projects and shot set-ups, she marries highly personal film sequences with scenes in post-Serbian-war Bosnia, a day-in-the-life of a Nigerian midwife, a Brooklyn boxing match and several other fascinating snippets of people, places and events.

At first, we never rest long in any one place, and it is a challenge to make connections between the disparate scenes. But eventually, the struggle lessens as the camera’s eye guides us to understanding. We return to familiar scenes and people, hear their words, learn their fears, comprehend their circumstances. And the energy of the whole begins to take shape.

At least, it did for me. Judging by the audience reception, the film moved many others to new perspectives. But we had to slow down our process. We needed to allow our perception to make room for different, for strange, for fresh. And we had to be persistent in giving the film time to take us there.

A writer can learn from film

Here is where the writer in me was doing an internal dance for joy. What if I took that same approach with the book I plan to start writing this summer? Slow down the process. Make room for different ways to explore and take in the research. Allow “strange and fresh” room to take hold of my imagination. Be persistent in this slow-cooking process of inspiration. Let the shape of the thing that I will eventually write find its own way into my mind.

I’m used to chasing after my ideas. To following my characters on their journeys. To setting out with a question as my launch pad. Instead, I’m going to let the question come to me. Maybe it won’t even be a question. Maybe it will be something I’ll perceive for the first time. Some new perspective on an old idea. Or a persistent voice whispering in my ear.

Disparate scenes from the past might mingle with today. Like Kirsten Johnson, maybe I’ll find a new way of storytelling. I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, let me know if a film has ever spoken to you as a writer the way Cameraperson did for me.

DID YOU KNOW

Our website holds an archive of all our blog posts. You’ll find useful tips, interesting insights and practical advice from the Writescape Team and a few guest bloggers. And don’t forget to visit our retreats and workshops section to discover what’s coming up with Writescape. You’re always welcome to Escape to write with Writescape.

Tax tips for writing income

Tax tips for writing income

Gwynn Scheltema

A query arrived in the Writescape’s comments mailbox last week the gist of which was:

I self-published a book in 2015 and sell via Amazon.com. I received a form in the mail (1042-S Foreign Person’s U.S. Source Income Subject to Withholding). My Amazon book sales are pretty paltry (a whopping $277!). Must I report this on my Canadian tax return? 

I answered in a private email, but thought that this question and others related to writing income may be on the minds of many Canadian writers preparing tax returns this time of the year, so below is the answer to this question and a few more tips about reporting writing income to get you started.

One of the many hats I wear, is that of a tax preparer at a local accounting office, which I have done for decades, so I do know a thing or two about filing Canadian taxes. And since 2009, Writescape has periodically offered a workshop on tax tips for writers and artists.

That said, a caveat: The tips offered here are general information only. Your tax situation could be influenced by other factors not dealt with here, so if you are at all in doubt, contact your accountant or follow the links to CRA’s website for more information.

What kinds of income are considered writing income?

  • royalties/ advances for book sales 9print/e-book) from your publisher (T5)
  • independent book sales, print and e-book, (possible foreign income slips )
  • grants, bursaries and residencies (T5 or T4A)
  • school visits and speaker honorariums (possibly a T4A)
  • access copyright royalties (T5)
  • public lending rights payments (PLR) (T4A)
  • freelance earnings (possibly a T4A)
  • workshops, coaching, retreat facilitation ( possibly a T4A)
  • writing contest winnings

How much do I have to make before I have to report writing income?

Canadian taxation works on the honour system. Even if you do not receive a T slip from the entity that paid you, you are obliged to report all your income from all sources worldwide. That includes sales through Amazon, PayPal, eBay and other websites, books sold at craft fairs, honorariums for being a guest speaker, etc.

Where on my return do I report my writing income?

That depends on whether you are, by Canada Revenue Agency’s (CRA) definition, a “hobbyist” or a “writer” operating as a small business. In VERY general terms:

  • a “hobbyist” reports T slip income on the lines instructed by the T slip. Generally, hobbyists do not deduct expenses, although deductions are allowed on some grants and scholarships.
  • a “writer” operating as a small business (with an expectation of profit), reports all income including income on T5s and T4As as part of business income on form T2125. (Be aware you may have to inform CRA by letter that you are doing so, so that they do not think you forgot to report the T slip income.)
  • any T4 income as a writer or editor is employment income and should not be reported as part of a writing business.

What do I do about income from outside Canada?

  • Foreign T slips you may receive include a 1042-S for the US or a SA103S for the UK.
  • Canadian residents must file worldwide income regardless of whether a return is required or not in the foreign country where the income was generated.
  • Double taxation agreements exist between Canada and many countries, e.g. the US. This means that if you paid tax on certain income in the US, you will not be taxed again on that income in Canada. CRA may, however, charge a difference between rates.
  • Foreign income must be reported in Canadian dollars. You can use the exchange rate for the date/s the income was received, or you can use the Bank of Canada average rate for the year.

 Best for last

  • Most contest winnings are considered “prescribed prizes” and are not reportable or taxable. Yeah!!
  • Unlike employment income, writing business income and grants and bursaries can be reduced by expenses paid to generate that income. What expenses? That’s a whole other blog.

Useful links

 

 

 

Writing Contests: One.Oh-oh.One

Writing Contests: One.Oh-oh.One

Ruth E. Walker.

It’s been my pleasure (mostly) to serve as a judge on a number of writing competitions. I’ve also been both a first-tier and second-tier reader, helping to cull the entries down by eliminating entries with problems. And I’ve been a final judge for regional, national and international writing contests, choosing winners from 15 or 20 of those final top entries. Each and every time, it’s been a thrill to read creative work that made me feel “as if the top of my head were taken off” (to quote Emily Dickenson.)

I wish I could say it is true for all contest entries. But it is not.

Take this past week. A national organization of professional writers asked me to be a second-tier reader. This means I read stories that had already been reviewed and moved forward by a group of first readers who eliminated others. This should mean I would be reading stories that were pretty darn good. I was looking forward to making my notes.

All the entries I read had a great story idea. But not all of them were great stories. Not even pretty darn good.

For this contest, I am only one of several second-tier readers who are also reading 14 entries. So I’m not reading all the entries that reached the second tier — I’m only reading a fraction of them. But of my 14 entries, there were only 6 that I would have recommended as a first-tier reader.

The other 8 all had problems in terms of technique and execution. Here are just four of the many issues I encountered in the stories I scored in the bottom 8:

Don’t tell me, show me. This is a familiar refrain from creative writing instructors. But what do we mean by that? It’s more than the difference between I feel cold versus I shiver and rub my arms, although that is a good beginning. It is equally an issue if the writer shows us something — The cold crept under my flesh and into my lungs and then in the next line continues to tell us about it: It was below zero and I felt so cold.

The need to tell, especially after a show, is a sign of a writer who doesn’t trust themselves or their readers. Does this mean that every line needs to be a show versus a tell? No. But any story that relies on tell is a story that soon bores its readers.

 

Description is great. But if you have to hit your reader over the head with a hammer to ensure they are “getting the picture”…well, it’s soon painful. Definition of Adverbitis: excessive use of adverbs, especially when a great verb is the better choice: swiftly ran = raced/rushed/galloped — any of those three options create great visuals. The same goes with unnecessary adverbs: hurriedly, loudly, slowly…crept slowly = crept carries the whole image. I mean, can you ever creep fast? And how about plummeted swiftly? Ever seen anything plummet slowly?

And a quick note on adjectives. Use them, sure. But think before you dip your creative paintbrush three times too many: A charming, vivacious redheaded librarian is way too much for any brain to unpack and visualize. Stick to the essential descriptions of your character or the setting — leave room for your reader to fill in the rest.

Passive writing: boring, boring and more boring. Be ruthless in seeking out and eliminating passive writing wherever you can. Look for the “to be” construction: was, is, were, has/had been, will/would be…etc. You can’t avoid passive verbs but they should not dominate the page. The same goes for passive sentence construction, where the object of an action becomes the subject of a sentence: The writing group was disturbed by the brass band. (passive) The brass band disturbed the writing group. (active)

Proofread. And proofread again. Best not to write your entry six hours ahead of the deadline because chances are you will miss mistakes. Put the story in a drawer for at least a day, longer if you can. Then use a ruler to focus your eye on a line-by-line check for errors or omissions. Why does this matter? One of the top three entries I read this week was tied, in my mind, with two others for first place. But it wasn’t error-free. So while I loved it, it made it easier for me to place it lower than the other two that didn’t contain errors.

Writing contests give writers an excellent opportunity to submit their work. Unlike the slush pile, writers know someone will actually read their entry. To be a finalist or to win is a validation of your craft and I can say it’s one of the best moments for any writer. I know because I’ve had that fantastic feeling many times in my writing career. It’s one I want every writer to experience and it’s why I wrote this post.

Quick Tips
Before pressing SEND:

  1. Telling us a story is not as interesting or engaging as showing us a story
  2. Lots of adverbs and plenty of adjectives are signs of a writer who doesn’t trust themselves or readers
  3. Passive writing is boring and often unnecessary
  4. Spelling mistakes and typos affect how a judge reads your entry
  5. A great story idea may get you past first-tier readers but 1, 2, 3 or 4 will not get you to the final judge
Did You Know?

Not only is Ruth E. Walker a sought-after judge for writing competitions, she has organized and run writing competitions for fiction and poetry. And Ruth’s fiction, poetry and non-fiction work has also won or placed in dozens of writing contests. Along with contest judge and award-winner, Dorothea Helms (a.k.a. The Writing Fairy), Ruth facilitates Write to Win, a full-day workshop devoted to entering and winning writing contests.

On June 17, Ruth and Dorothea will take Write to Win to Minden in the Haliburton Highlands. With writing, it’s all a contest where the judge can be your next literary agent or publisher. Why don’t you join them. Sign up here.

What’s in a Name?

What’s in a Name?

Gwynn Scheltema

I have a one-syllable name—Gwynn. It’s a fairly common Welsh name although my spelling is a little unusual in that it doesn’t have an “e” on the end. And, no, no-one was drunk on the way to the registry office, or misinformed or forgetful or anything else. The story goes that I don’t have an “e” because my brothers (who got to choose my name) couldn’t decide between Gillian and Lynn so they smooshed it together and added a “w” for easier pronunciation to make Gwynn.

Growing up, I didn’t know this story; I only found out in my twenties. However, my father’s family had emigrated from Wales in the late 1800s and the name means “bright, white, fair, pure, blessed” and I’m blonde, so it’s a good fit. I like it. I like that it’s different. I like that it can’t be shortened. I like that it fits my history.

Names affect the way we feel

How a person or character feels about his or her name can affect what they feel about themselves. I love the way this excerpt from Margaret Atwood’s short story “Hairball” sums up the idea. So much character and back story is packed into the paragraph. Sometimes it is the character’s own view of herself, and sometimes how others see her.

During her childhood, she was a romanticized Katherine, dressed by her misty-eyed, fussy mother in dresses that looked like ruffled pillowcases. By high school, she’d shed the frills and emerged as a bouncy, round-faced Kathy, with gleaming freshly washed hair and enviable teeth, eager to please and no more interesting than a health-food ad. At university she was Kath, blunt and no-bullshit in her Take-Back-the-Night jeans and checked shirt and her bricklayer-style striped denim peaked hat. When she ran away to England, she sliced herself down to Kat. It was economical, street-feline, and pointed as a nail.

What’s behind a name?

Playing with names is a useful and powerful tool to add to your writing toolkit. Names have meanings, ethnic histories, associations with myth and stories, famous people, gods and family ties. Choosing the right name is the key.

Finding out what’s behind a name can be fun (and addictive). The web is full of sites that give the etymology, history and meaning behind names—first names and last names. There are sites for choosing baby names, for seeing the popularity of names over the years and even “character analysis” based on names.

Choosing a name

Devyani Borade blogged in Writer’s Digest about a quirky method to choose character names for fantasy characters: “Eyes closed, I randomly open a dictionary. Then I run a finger down the middle of a column while mentally keeping a beat, and stop at the count of six. (Why six? Because on this occasion, my story has six characters.) “Macamba: (n) Tropical American feather palm having a swollen spiny trunk and edible nuts.” Interesting. I repeat the process and come up with “Tabes: (n) Wasting of the body during a chronic disease.” Ah, just sublime. Then I switch the last letters. Et voila! Tabea Macambs. Pretty exotic, eh?

Names and Personality

I went to Quizony and did a quiz called “What Should Your Name Be?” based on personality. Apparently, my name should be Camilla. The quiz tells me: “Camilla is the name of a legendary female warrior… can make tough decisions… never afraid of taking on responsibilities… always has new ideas and new goals.”

Actually, I like it. And it’s a pretty accurate assessment of me. So it got me thinking about a character I’m working with whose name I’ve changed several times during the writing of my novel. I did the quiz again, only this time I answered the questions as if I was my character, Emily. According to the quiz, her name should be Victoria: “… powerful and forceful… determined… people respect and look up to you.” Hmmm. It fits her. I’ll think on it.

If your character is young, you might like to try a similar site where all the questions are geared to YA.

Over to you

Do you have a character whose name you aren’t quite happy with yet? Perhaps a character that needs naming?  Spend some fun time looking up names, their meanings and histories, their connections and personality traits.  And let readers know in the comments below how you pick names for your characters.

DID YOU KNOW

The name of the Rice Lake resort where we hold our annual Spring Thaw retreat is Elmhirst. It means “the elm-wood hill”, from the Olde English pre 7th Century “elm”, with “hyrst”, wooded hill. Join us there to focus on your work in progress and receive feedback from two skilled editors.  Come for three days or five, April 21 to 25 for an all-inclusive escape to write.

The Power of Colour

The Power of Colour

Ruth E. Walker.

St. Patrick’s Day is coming, and we can expect lots of green glitter, shamrocks and dyed beer. It’s a time where just about everybody declares a connection to the Emerald Isle, real or otherwise. On March 17, we are green with envy for anyone who really is Irish. But is it easy being green? Just ask Kermit. Or any seasick passenger.

Colour associations are like gold to the knowledgeable writer and when used in subtle ways, bring added depth to text. Figurative language–using words or expressions that mean something different from the literal interpretation– is a useful skill for all writers. And colour is a power tool that works brilliantly with figurative language. But don’t splash colour willy nilly into your writing. The link between colours and ideas relies on many factors to reach your readers’ imaginations.

Get red for your readers

Think of the colour red. Basic association leads us to all things bloody. Red is life, as in lifeblood. Red is love, beating-heart, romantic love captured in a red Valentine. Red is hot, as in fire. Red is also danger: stop signs and red flags. And it is anger, as in flushed cheeks. And what about those red flushed cheeks? They can mean shame. And arousal. Or the aftermath of a brisk winter walk.

See what is happening here? Red on its own has common associations and it also has branches. Once you throw “people” into the mix, our associations get increasingly complex with lots of room for error and misdirection. So it is up to writers to set the stage for meaning.

Here’s a simple sentence of description:

He hesitated outside the room, his cheeks reddened.

Is “He” embarrassed? Turned on? Frostbitten? Angry? The reader will never know if you haven’t put into place all the right ingredients. And is it necessary to say “reddened”? Why not imply red cheeks and allow the reader to imagine or even experience the colour?

Same colour…different tones

Here are three different takes of the same scene with some tweaking for changing emotions:

Fury:

Paulo hesitated just outside the door, gripping the handle so hard he was sure he could crush it. She was hiding on the other side. He felt colour ignite the skin of his face. Good. Let his fury be the first and last thing she sees.

 

 

 

 

Arousal:

Paulo hesitated just outside the door, gripping the round knob so hard he was sure it would catch fire under his touch. She was hiding on the other side. He felt heat rise over his face. Good. Let his passion be the first thing she sees.

Shame:

Paulo hesitated just outside the door, gripping the handle so tight he was sure he could break it and keep him outside forever. She was hiding on the other side. His cheeks burned. Good. Let his shame be the first thing she sees.

Remember: Preparing context  is important. And using imagery to support the emotional context helps guide your reader to understanding.

 

 

A rainbow is global but symbolism is another story

Another part to using colour in your descriptions is to remember colours hold different meanings for different cultures. Western brides would be unlikely to wear red to their wedding. But in many Eastern cultures, red symbolizes the colour of celebration, good fortune and a long life.

That’s why using colours is so dangerous to writers. You need to be clear about what you intend for the colour’s meaning, but subtle enough that you’re not hitting your reader over the head with a hammer. (As an aside, my three examples earlier are exaggerated for effect. I’m sure you could be more subtle than those attempts.)

Christina Wang explores colour in an interesting article for Shutterstock, the stock-photo company: Symbolism of Colour and Colour Meanings Around the World. And you can look further into the whole idea of imagery, symbolism and meaning. Head to the library and discover how symbolism is analyzed in psychology, art, religion and dreams.

There are only two kinds of people in the world, the Irish and those who wish they were

As for me, I’ll be putting on the green this Friday. I can truly claim some Irish lineage, admittedly mixed in with English, Scottish and Norman flavours.

Nonetheless, on St. Paddy’s Day, I’ll be wishing a leprechaun or two might happen by with all the colours of the rainbow to inspire creativity and a quick pen to record it with. Because for writers, that’s a true pot of gold.

 

Did you know:

The luck of the Irish may be with you. There’s still a couple of spots left in our writers’ retreat on April 21 – 23. Join Gwynn Scheltema and Ruth E. Walker at Emhirst’s Resort for feedback on your manuscript and one-on-one consultation. Enjoy dedicated time to write, the camaraderie of other like-minded folks and inspiring lakeside vistas. All-inclusive means you just need your writing project, jammies and a change of clothes. Writescape takes care of all the rest at Spring Thaw 2017.

The 13,000 Km Workshop

The 13,000 Km Workshop

Gwynn Scheltema

While caring for my post-operative mom in Zimbabwe this winter, I signed up for a creative writing class. Although it was an introductory class, I knew that coming away with just one new skill or “ah ha” moment that moves my writing forward would make the day worthwhile.  Besides, I needed to do something that would get my head (and pen) back into writing.

The facilitator was John Eppel, an award-winning poet and novelist, and newly retired English teacher. I didn’t know his work, and with no Internet connections available to me, I arrived without expectation. There were sixteen of us in the group, seated on dining room chairs gathered in a circle in his living room. We were all ages, and a good mix of men and women. I relaxed. This all felt comfortable and familiar.

In his introduction, I learned that John was primarily a poet, and had been raised in a small mining town not too far from my own home town of Bulawayo. Like me he had been through the Rhodesian civil war of the 60s and 70s, but unlike me, he had remained in Zimbabwe, teaching English at a private school and for South African Universities. He told us that the day would be spent not “learning how to write”, but learning about the power of words. Perfect! I love words. Today I would be a happy word-wallowing hippo.

And the day delivered—in spades. There were many “ah ha” moments. Here’s one about paradox:

“Philosophy gives up at paradox, but that’s where poetry begins.”

Poetry begins? A paradox is a situation, person or thing that seems to combine absurd or contradictory elements that prove to be true. I liked John’s explanation that dual meanings in words allow room for reader interpretation, and the wobble in logic makes the reader stop and think about what is written, even if only at a subconscious level.

He’s right. Take this line from D.H. Lawrence’s poem “Mountain Lion.”

….blue is the balsam, water sounds still unfrozen, and the trail is evident…

If water “sounds still” there is no noise, but if it is “still unfrozen” is must be running and therefore making a sound. A paradox, but one for me that now suggests new sounds, perhaps the creak of ice forming, or pop of a bubble trapped in the forming ice.

Image paradox

Now stretch that concept to an image (a cluster of words to which one or more of our senses respond.)

Image paradoxes, like word paradoxes, merge opposites. In the well-loved poem by Robert Frost, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” an image that has always intrigued me is in the line:

…Of easy wind and downy flake.

I realize now that image is a paradox. What is a “downy flake”? “Downy” suggests soft and warm (life), yet “flake” suggests stone-sharp and cold (death). By using opposing words together, the image attempts to evoke a simultaneous experience of living and dying—which, (not coincidentally) is the theme of the whole poem.

Symbol Paradoxes

But John Eppel took it a step further. He introduced me to symbol paradoxes. First he explained: “A symbol is an image with a more fixed connotation than other images.” We all recognize a white dove as a symbol of peace or a red rose as a symbol for romantic love. Symbolic images gain even more power when they are used in an opposing way.”

A unicorn is a symbol of purity and also, paradoxically, of lust. In the play, “The Glass Menagerie”, the glass unicorn represents fragile Laura’s lust for self-absorbed Jim and also her lack of sexual experience. The breaking of the glass unicorn becomes a symbol for Laura’s failed attempt at seduction.

 

Heady stuff for sure, but it fired up our discussion over lunch. We all agreed that it was freeing and motivating. I couldn’t take home the Zimbabwe summer sunshine, but that day exploring paradoxes on the other side of the world travelled home with me. Now, I’m inspired to drag out some of my poems that “aren’t quite there” and see if working in a few paradoxes might make them sing.

 DID YOU KNOW?

Spring Thaw, our upcoming retreat, is the perfect opportunity to play with paradoxes in your writing, and focus on your work in progress and receive feedback from two skilled editors. Join us for three days or five on the shores of Rice Lake for an all-inclusive escape to write.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Frogging It

Frogging It

Erin Thomas

I’ve often taken satisfaction from the idea that writing, in some ways, is like knitting. Not the following-patterns part, although sometimes in the depths of my writerly frustration, I imagine that would be nice. And it’s not the tangible result, either; a writer goes through many, many iterations before having something tangible to show for her efforts.

No, it’s more the idea of building something big—a scarf, a sweater, a blanket—out of a series of small steps. It’s holding the “whole” in your mind, when all you can see is a pile of yarn, when all you can do in the moment is make one more tiny stitch towards that whole.

Word by word, or bird by bird if you’re an Anne Lamott fan. Stitch by stitch.

I work away at my shawl; one stitch is almost nothing. It’s a word, a period. An entire row of stitches, maybe that’s something. There’s a sense of completion there. A paragraph, or maybe even a scene. But it takes so many, many rows to make a shawl.

Writers work in “the end” and “the now”

Building a novel, or a draft of a novel, feels a bit like that. You have to split your mind; part of it imagines the finished product, holds the shape of it before you. This, it says. This is the reason you’re working. This is what you’re making.  But that finish line is a long way away, so another part of your mind focuses only on the task at hand, the small piece you’re doing just now. The stitch, the row, the bit of lace. The next twist of the cable.

Maybe you go so far as to admire how it connects to what came before, how the project is growing. What you cannot do is focus on how much there is still to do. That way lies discouragement. In knitting, as in writing, it pays to have something of a zen mindset. Your work is the work of the moment.

Sometimes, though, there’s a mistake. Sometimes there’s a mistake so big, so early in the project, that you can’t work back and fix it. For a while, maybe, you pretend it’s not there. You pretend no one else will see it. It’s okay. It was near the edge, near the beginning, before the pattern really took shape; maybe you can pretend it happened on purpose.

But it nags at you. After all, you started this because you had a vision. And this object in your hands, it doesn’t match that vision.

You work ahead. Maybe you can fix it. Maybe you can repeat it, somehow, or work in a call-back. You’ve made so many stitches since that point. Good stitches. Stitches that look the way they’re supposed to. You keep going, building on those good stitches. But if the initial flaw is big enough, it will affect the whole. The pattern is broken; the count is off. You could push ahead, you could even finish it, but will you be happy with the finished project?

The fix is usually necessary

Sometimes, the answer is no. Sometimes, the only answer is to start over. So you pull on the yarn and all those lovely stitches unravel, and you rewind the yarn, and your project dissolves back to the mistake or even the starting point, and you begin again.

Knitters have a term for this. It’s called “frogging it,” apparently because “rip it, rip it” sounds like the noise frogs make.I’ve used other f-words from time to time.

I’ve frogged novels, too. When something is wrong that’s fundamental to the story, when it’s built into every scene and chapter and fibre of the novel, sometimes it’s best to start over.

Starting over hurts. You’ve written all those lovely words. Your critique partners have helped you hone them. Some of those chapters sing. Starting over feels like a waste.

What remains is priceless

It’s not a waste. When you frog your knitting, you don’t lose everything. You keep the yarn, the substance out of which the project is made. And you keep the knowledge you gained—the new stitch patterns you learned, the deeper understanding of how the garment comes together. This time, you can do it better. You’re aware of the pitfalls. You can work more easily. Maybe you can even add something that will improve it.

Frogging it isn’t always the answer. Sometimes there will be a way to fix what’s wrong without pulling apart the entire manuscript. But sometimes, sometimes, it’s necessary. And when it is, the best thing you can do is grit your teeth and rip that yarn with courage and commitment, knowing that you’re going to tackle this project again, or even build something better out of the same stuff.

And you begin again. Stitch by stitch.

Erin Thomas writes books for children and young adults (and knits compulsively) from her home in Whitby, Ontario. For more information, visit www.erinthomas.ca.

Plotting a Search for Structure

Plotting a Search for Structure

Ruth E. Walker

At my critique group last night, we did a bit of dissection on the plot of a member’s novel in progress. Sounds scary, doesn’t it?

Here’s a bit of background. One of our members has a great story for middle grade readers. It has lots of elements that the age group enjoys:

  • a relatable POV character with a problem to solve
  • some simmering tension with a member of the opposite sex
  • a science fiction backdrop that is fun and fantastical
  • a school full of goofy rules, and
  • a dastardly villain bent on stopping our POV character dead in his tracks

All the right ingredients. But the novel wasn’t quite working the way the writer hoped it would. So he continued to work on the story and recently sent us a revised synopsis.

Our role, as with all submissions, was to look at the synopsis, mark up the copy with questions and notes, and bring it to the session for discussion. Questions and detailed notes are important but the discussion in our critique group is widely considered the true gold of membership.

Our critique group collectively has some wide-ranging skill sets and expertise. This we all bring to the table. But a couple of us (not me!) are exceptional in the plot department. One, in particular, often brings visual aids, related reading and notes from research and workshops.

Last night, I suspect Christopher Vogler’s ears were burning. And the meeting room’s white board was a colourful palette of ideas and plot points.

How it worked for one writer:

Our two-hour session focused on reviewing our colleague’s current plot structure as outlined in his synopsis and getting to the heart of his story.

It was brilliant. Dividing the basic plot into three main acts and then placing the existing story into that structure allowed the writer to consider changes that simplified areas of the story. Some parts were more complex than they needed to be. At least one character needed to be shipped to the Island of Unwanted Characters.  And some goals needed to be adjusted.

The writer had some significant ah-ha! moments. He left the meeting with a renewed sense of where he wanted his story to go. What started out like a last-ditch revision became the groundwork for a new vision and plenty of possiblities.

And, as a side benefit, I found it all immensely helpful in looking at my own work in progress.

The basics of the Three-Act Structure:

Act I sets the stage, introduces the POV character with a problem(s) to overcome and the inciting incident.

Act II is the meat of the matter and has its own moment of crisis in the mid-point. As our colleague explained, “It’s like in the Wizard of Oz where they reach the Wizard, and Dorothy thinks he’ll send her home. But no. First they have to complete this impossible task: kill the Wicked Witch of the West.

So using Dorothy and Wizard, Act II is divided into two sections: Act II a (following the yellow brick road to see the Wizard) and Act II b (kill the witch before she kills Dorothy, Toto and her three companions)

And then, of course, Act III. This final act has the crushing disappointment of learning the wizard is not all-powerful after all, quickly followed by a joyful realization that everyone had what they needed all along, the journey home and most important, the POV character’s completed arc of understanding or change. (There’s no place like home…)

Can this approach work for you?

So, looking at your plot, are there areas in your story that you think could use a bit of tightening up? Could a three-act structure overview give you clues about needed changes? Or does it confirm that you have all the necessary ducks in a row? Good for you if that’s the case!

A word of caution. My critique group example is just a simplified version of one approach to looking at plot. Screenwriter and script consultant, Christopher Vogler, has a popular book The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers (which, strangely enough, had a cameo in our session yesterday.) Vogler’s 407-page book is only one of the many great resources for writers on structure and storytelling.

Have you struggled with structure? What did you do to help you get past the challenge of plotting? If you have suggestions, let us know what resources and approaches you recommend for other writers.