10 Great Books on Writing

10 Great Books on Writing

It’s Writescape’s 10th anniversary and we have lots of excitement planned for writers in 2018. This installment of 10 on the 10th is the latest in the series of monthly writing tips, advice and inspiration. Think of it as Gwynn and Ruth sitting on your shoulder and nudging you along. Share with your writing colleagues and encourage them to sign up for more.

The best advice for writers is to read, and read widely. Dip your toes into styles and genres you don’t normally read and take note of how those writers crafted their work.

But you also need to read books about writing. Writing is a solitary act but it doesn’t have to be an isolated journey. Books that explore the craft and practical considerations of writing are great companions along the writer’s path. This is a list of 10 of the books that helped us at various stages of our writing expeditions.Obviously it is not an exhaustive list, just a toe-dipping exploration.

Writing Down the Bones Natalie Goldberg. Gwynn’s first “writing book”, she’s reread it many times, as well as Goldberg’s other books in a similar vein Wild Mind and The True Secret of Writing. Writing Down the Bones helped Gwynn get her head around being a writer and trusting her muse. Nathalie’s Writing Practice method (like freefall) showed Gwynn how to go deep into her subconscious to find the good stuff.

A Passion for Narrative Jack Hodgins. It’s been around since 1991. And, sure, it’s meant for developing writers. But Ruth won’t ever let it go because it is the book that moved her from writer to WRITER. To quote her: It was like having him on my shoulder, nudging me along as I learned more deeply about the craft with every page I turned.

Bird by Bird Anne Lamott helped Gwynn hone her attitude to writing and gain the confidence she needed to really start getting words on paper. Personal anecdotes give advice on everything from writer’s block to finding your voice and the value of writing “shitty first drafts”.

On Writing Stephen King  Ruth loved this one so much she got the basic book, the CD for listening and the large-print version in case her eyes give out. More than a how-to from a master of storytelling and horror of all levels, this book is a fine companion for any writer who loses their way.

 

Plot versus Character Jeff Gerke. Gwynn writes from setting, then characters, and then tries to fit it all into a plot. This book recognizes both the pantster and plotter and leads them each through processes to a well-balanced novel: memorable characters and a good plot.

The Emotional Craft of Fiction Donald Maass. After taking a workshop with agent and bestselling author, Donald Maas, Ruth was compelled to get his latest book. And it’s a doozy with examples and exercises to sharpen your emotional intelligence as a writer, dig deeper in your scenes and keep readers reading.

The Writer’s Journey Christopher Vogler is Gwynn’s go-to book on story structure. Evolved around the Hero’s journey concept, Vogler adds in what works in story that has come out of myths, fairy tales and movies.

An Introduction to Poetry  X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia, ed. — this is one of Ruth’s go-to’s whenever she’s feeling stuck with a poem. It’s a basic college-level textbook but one that’s filled with poems and the thoughts of poets on poetry and life. These are voices of a rich cultural diversity, from ancient times to modernity, all trying to figure out the world and our place in it.

Fruitflesh Gayle Brandeis. While Gwynn also turns repeatedly to An Introduction to Poetry, she also finds this book of stories, meditations and writing exercises a constant inspiration when writing poetry. Brandeis seems to have the power to inspire, challenge and free the sensual.

The Angela Ackerman/Becca Puglisi series (Negative/Positive Trait Thesaurus, etc.) Ruth has the Negative Trait Thesaurus and Gwynn has the Positive Trait Thesaurus (we share) but we’ve spoken with enough writers to know that each book Ackerman and Puglisi puts out has become a practical resource that goes beyond suggesting appropriate body language or emotional responses. Also great for those moments when you’re stuck and need to surprise yourself with your character’s good or bad behaviour.

We’d be remiss if we didn’t make note of our own writing resource book, Inspiration Station. Published in 2010 with Piquant Press it was packed full of prompts and ideas to keep writers’ pens moving. Our first non-fiction publication proved to be a popular handbook as one way to keep the retreat feeling alive long after writers packed up and headed home. It’s been through two printings and is presently sold out, but Inspiration Station has gone back to the revision table and you can look for a new edition and format next year.

Pinterest for Fiction Writers Part 1

Pinterest for Fiction Writers Part 1

Gwynn Scheltema

My favourite procrastination tool is Pinterest, but unlike my next favourite procrastination tool, Solitaire, it actually serves many useful purposes for a writer.

What is Pinterest?

Think of Pinterest as an infinite digital corkboard. On your “corkboard”, you have visual topic collection files called BOARDS for your PINS. Pins are visual web links that take you to the source of the information you are pinning (magazine article, blog, website, youtube video etc.). If you pin someone else’s pin (greatly encouraged) you are RE-PINNING. A person who has a Pinterest account (it’s free) with a collection of boards is called a PINNER.

Pins don’t have to be only informational text.. You can pin pictures, infographics, videos, photos and all kinds of ideas and inspiration. You can make your board public or secret. You can be social or not as you choose. (I choose not.)

Best of all, you can search by topic and define whether you are looking for a pin, a board, or a person. For example, I can search for all pins on “plot”, or all boards on “writing tips” or all people for “mystery author”.

If you download a “pin button” to your browser search toolbar, you can pin from anywhere you go on the internet including your own photos if they are in the cloud.

Novel vision boards

When beginning a novel, I create a board with my novel’s working title and pin images of possible characters, buildings, period dress, geographic details like birds or plants or places. Later I can add research links, newspaper cuttings, quotes, cover ideas, relevant books to read or anything else that might inspire or inform me.

I can even create sections within my board. For my mystery novel “Pyes and Ivy” I have sections for my characters, my town “Riverton” and the B&B where the action takes place “Ivy Lodge”.I find having the visual helps me keep things consistent.

Novel development boards

Of course, not every aspect of your novel has to be on one board. (You are allowed up to 500 boards and 200,000 pins). So let’s say you are working on your villain. You can create a board just for him/her. Get writing tips on writing villains. Get quotes from or about villains. Get ideas for names, motivations, and personality traits.

Rinse and repeat with other characters or setting or events…..

The craft

And when you have characters, you need an arc for them and a story arc too. Pinterest gives you access to loads of free printable worksheets for every aspect of planning your novel. Ditto for articles on “how to…” and “tips on …”

 

Looking for another way to describe hair colour? Words to use instead of “amazing”. Pinterest has pins for that. Also pins for commonly misused words, when to use what kind of hyphen, and avoiding clichés—including cliché characters.

 

 

Motivation

I have a board called “Words to write by”. It’s full of inspirational and kick-in-the-pants quotes. A quick visit there when I’m feeling like my writing is crap or I’m getting nowhere usually gets me going again. And let’s not forget the hundreds of writing prompts—visual and text; story starters and what ifs.

If you like to be social, you can follow other pinners, join group boards or comment on pins. There are even hilarious “Pinterest Fail” pins.

 

Making money.

Once you have a book to sell there are great ways to sell it on Pinterest. It’s the up and coming social media market place. But that’s a whole other blog. Stay tuned for Pinterest for Fiction Writers Part 2.

 

 

 

10 Ways to Start a Story

10 Ways to Start a Story

It’s Writescape’s 10th anniversary and we have lots of excitement planned for writers in 2018. This installment of 10 on the 10th is the latest in the series of monthly writing tips, advice and inspiration. Think of it as Gwynn and Ruth sitting on your shoulder and nudging you along. Share with your writing colleagues and encourage them to sign up for more.

Whether it’s the first sentence, the first paragraph, the first page, chapter or act, the beginning of your story must establish time and place, the main players and the normal world they live in. An effective beginning should give enough for the reader to ask questions and care what happens next.

But before you spend hours polishing and perfecting your beginning, please finish your first draft. When you know all about your story, you can more easily choose what will lead your reader into the narrative. And equally important, you’ll have a better sense of the first impression that will best represent your story: its themes, its direction and its heart.

There is no “best way” to begin. Here are 10 ways to consider.

1. In the middle of action  (in medias res)

Starting in the middle of a scene puts readers immediately in the world of the story and sets up reader questions. They’ll read on because they’ll want to know why this is happening, who these people are and what happens next.

Example: Mr. Jones, of the Manor Farm, had locked the hen-houses for the night, but was too drunk to remember to shut the pop-holes. (Animal Farm; George Orwell)

Who is Mr. Jones? Is he always drunk? What are pop-holes? Why are these hen-houses important? Where…..?

 

2. With the inciting incident

Instead of just any action, make it the event that sets the protagonist off on his narrative journey.

Example: He—for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it—was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters. (Orlando, Virginia Woolf)

3. Backstory that raises reader questions

Usually it is not a good idea to have backstory early in a story, especially on the first page, but sometimes a short sharp bit of backstory can effectively  set up enough reader questions to hook them in further.

Example: Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge. (The Blind Assassin; Margaret Atwood)

4. A strong character

A person who is so intriguing, surprising or terrifying that readers must learn more about them. Most often the protagonist, but not always.

Example: I was born twice: first as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974. (Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides)

 

5. Begin with the end or close to the end

Often called a circle device, this method offers the end or climax first and then readers want to go back to the beginning to find out how it all happened.

Example: Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. (100 Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez)

6. Setting

“It was a dark and story night…” is touted as one of the worst ways to begin, but many successful stories begin with setting. The secret is to see it through the eyes of the character and have it add to plot or character development or set a mood.

Example: Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me. There was a padlock and a chain upon the gate. I called in my dream to the lodge-keeper, and had no answer, and peering closer through the rusted spokes of the gate I saw that the lodge was uninhabited. (Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier)

7. Unexpected/surprise

Going contrary to expectation always gets attention. Turning paradigms on their heads opens the way for an explanation that readers will stick around to hear.

Example: On a wintry Tuesday afternoon, Dr. Richard W. D’Souza stood in front of a shelf stacked with gallon jugs labeled Artificial Saliva and Pooled Human Saliva, and spoke about the art of killing. (“Breath Mints: A Hot War for America’s Cool Mouths” By Alex Kuczynski New York Times)

8. Truism

A truism is a statement that is so obviously true that it is almost not worth saying, but using one as a start to a story usually implies that the story to follow is about to prove it untrue, or at least comment on it in some way, and so readers are drawn in to see what the “other take” is.

Example: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. (Pride and Prejudice; Jane Austen)

 

9. Pressing fear, disgust, and other unpleasant buttons

In much the same way that we cannot not look at a train wreck or accident on the highway, people are facinated by situations where they can vicariously experience the unthinkable.

Example: It was a pleasure to burn. It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. (Fahrenheit 451; Ray Bradbury)

10. Prologue

A prologue establishes context and gives background details, often some earlier story that ties into the main one. Publishers are not keen on prologues, but in the right genres (e.g. epic fantasy) they have a role to play to help the reader understand the world they are launched into, or to set up an image or incident that will be returned to. If you do use a prologue, keep it short.

18 Ways to Choose a Title

18 Ways to Choose a Title

Gwynn Scheltema

 

Your book title is the first impression your readers get of your novel. It’s the first chance to connect, to inform, to intrigue, and to firmly hook readers. A great title will help readers find, remember and buy your book.

You want your title to be representative of your story, to give an indication of content or theme or genre. You want it to be unique but not confusing. You want it to be memorable and easy to spell. If you are writing a series you’ll want something to tie them together.

On a practical level you need a title short enough to fit on the cover or spine, but long enough to not get lost among other titles in computer searches. Consider how it will fit in URLs, tweets and Pinterest posts, how it will read on digital devices. The current trend seems to be single word titles, but five words or less is a good length to aim for.

Because a title is such an important aspect of your book, choosing one can be tricky and even overwhelming. The choice isn’t necessarily one you need make when you are still drafting the manuscript. If you have one in mind when you begin, by all means make it your working title, but reconsider its suitability again when the book is finished.

 So let’s get started…

What is your story about?

  • The Hunger Games
  • Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

A memorable image

  • Little House on the Prairie
  • In the Shadow of the Banyan
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

 Character’s name

  • Carrie
  • Anna Karenina
  • Jane Eyre

 Characters role

  • The Golden Son
  • The Last Emperor
  • My Sister’s Keeper

 When the story happens

  • 1984
  • That Summer in Franklin
  • Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

 Where the Story takes place

  • The Colonial Hotel
  • Treasure Island
  • Jurassic Park

 Genre

  • Murder on the Orient Express
  • A Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy
  • Dracula

 Metaphors

  • All the Light We Cannot See
  • The Nightingale
  • Three Day Road

 A representative line from the text

  • Cutting for Stone
  • Let’s Not Go to the Dogs Tonight
  • Sweetness in the Belly

 Questions

  • They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
  • Who Has Seen the Wind?
  • Are You My Mother?

 Go against expectation

  • Fahrenheit 451
  • The Blind Assassin
  • Slumdog Millionaire

 An important symbol or object in the story

  • The Golden Compass
  • The Book of Negroes
  • Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

 A Play on words: double meanings, puns

  • Living Underground
  • Lifting the Veil
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

 A twist on a known phrase

  • The Wife’s Tale
  • Elementary, She Read
  • By Book or by Crook

 Single words 

  • Divergent
  • Room
  • Silk

 Old titles reworked

  • Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
  • Zen and the Art of Faking It
  • Gnomeo and Juliet

 The promise of a story

  • The Handmaid’s Tale
  • The Girl on the Train
  • Gone Girl

 Theme

  • Infidel
  • Pride and Prejudice
  • Greener Grass

 

There is no ONE right way of choosing a good title. Brainstorm many possible titles, ask family and friends or readers which ones grab them. And when you sign a publishing contract make sure you know who gets to choose the final title.

DID YOU KNOW

When naming Writescape’s annual retreats we chose titles that had double meanings, were metaphors for the act of writing and which evoked a visual image: Spring Thaw and Turning Leaves

Registration is now open for Turning Leaves. We’re celebrating our 10th anniversary in 2018 on November 2 to 4 at Fern Resort near Orillia, Ontario. This all-inclusive retreat includes Friday night fireside chat with our guest, Andrew Pyper, about the writing life and an intense morning workshop with Andrew on Saturday. He’s an award-winning writer, a master of dark and disturbing mysteries and fantasy, and excellent workshop facilitator.

Our limit is 20 participants. A $250 non-refundable deposit will guarantee your spot. We expect there will be a waiting list.

 

10 Ways to Increase Tension

10 Ways to Increase Tension

It’s Writescape’s 10th anniversary and we have lots of excitement planned for writers in 2018. This installment of 10 on the 10th is the latest in the series of monthly writing tips, advice and inspiration. Think of it as Gwynn and Ruth sitting on your shoulder and nudging you along. Share with your writing colleagues and encourage them to sign up for more.

Tension is a huge part of engaging your reader with the story. And it helps to engage you, the writer. No one wants to read a book where the Big Problem is solved in chapter one, or where a character has nothing to overcome, no challenges to face. The cat sat on the mat vs the cat sat on the dog’s mat. Challenges drive a story.

Your job is to create the right amount of tension at the right time to keep readers wanting more. Here’s ten ideas on ways you can inject needed energy whenever your story begins to slow down or fall flat.

1. Raise the stakes

The greater the risk of loss or danger, the higher the tension. If at the start he stands to lose his job, but then his life is threatened, we have rising tension. If his life was in danger at the beginning, but that dissolves and all he stands to lose is his job—rising tension? Not so much.

2. Let your character fail

Each time a character attempts and succeeds at solving parts of the “big problem,” he moves closer to a successful resolution. But if he fails at some of the attempts, he has fewer options to succeed, and often less time in which to accomplish his goal.

3. Escalate threats and obstacles

If the character has just succeeded in winning a major sword fight, having her beat a sparring partner at practice will have no tension. Presented in reverse, both happenings carry tension.

4. Let readers know something the character doesn’t

If we know that a character is being stalked, but she is unaware, we have tension. If we see him get closer or cock a gun and she still is unaware, tension rises.

5. Play up emotional strain

It’s easy to add physical danger, but psychological strain is just as important. A decision to make; guilt over an action, fear of discovery, a secret suppressed.

6. Balance high dramatic tension with calmer scenes

High tension scenes all the time is exhausting for a reader. Let them breathe with quieter paced scenes so that when the next high-tension scene arrives they get the thrill of rising adrenalin again.

7. Change up the source of tension

If suspenseful scenes only happen when the antagonist is on stage, predictability sets in and tension is lost. If the reader never knows who will instigate the next conflict, threat, misunderstanding, mistrust, dislike or complication, tension is always tantalizing, just on the cusp.

8. Keep characters active

Passive characters who wait for things to happen to them rarely create tension. Characters who act, react and are proactive keep things fresh and moving when they become the source of tension.

9. Limit backstory

While backstory is essential to understanding why a character does what he does, it’s all past action and stops the active story from moving forward. Keep backstory short and meaningful to the active story event. Or save it for areas where you want a break from high tension.

10. Make writing craft work for you

In addition to “just telling the story”, consider the power of setting to create a suspenseful mood. Use loaded symbolism and word choice to heighten what is happening.

Like what you’ve read? You can have 10 on the 10th delivered to you each month by sending us your email in the comment section. You can unsubscribe anytime. You’ll also receive The Top Drawer our Wednesday blog with tips, resources and inspiration for writers. To see past posts, visit: writescape.ca

Theme and Premise

Theme and Premise

Gwynn Scheltema

I’m often asked what the difference is between theme and premise. Here’s my take—with a comment or two from others:

 What is theme?

A story needs to be unified around something, and that something is theme, a recurrent idea or motif.  You can begin to identify your theme by coming up with ONE word to sum it up. That one word is usually a human quality: Friendship. Love. Trust. Fear. Redemption. Abandonment. Freedom. Motherhood. Truth. Ambition. Justice. Revenge. Confidence.Or a universal quality: Duality. War. Confinement.

But the theme of a novel goes deeper. Theme in a novel is not just that one word, say LOVE, but the statement the author makes about the motif with the story.

FROZEN: sisterly love is greater than power.

Generally, theme is linked to the emotional growth of the protagonist, or the personal vendetta of the antagonist.

Sometimes you don’t know what your theme is up front. You might change it, or discover it in the course of storytelling. It evolves. And that doesn’t matter because it isn’t stated anywhere in the narrative. It’s a sense we come away with, a flavour, a key.

Theme can also be several statements/explorations around a human quality. For example, an author could explore different kinds of LOVE through different characters: brotherly love, love of self, absence of love, parental love, love of money over people, love of country etc.

What is Premise

Premise, on the other hand, is the idea behind the story, what the author is writing about, the basic idea and foundation for the plot.

John Truby suggests premise is the simplest combination of character and plot: Some event that starts the action, some sense of the main character and some sense of the outcome.

Author and screenwriter Alexandra Sokoloff talks about the premise being “the pitch” for the story. That works too. After all, a pitch is the one-liner distilled version of your book and introduces us to the main character, what obstacles he must overcome, and why.

 

HARRY POTTER: When boy wizard Harry Potter and his friends at Hogwarts wizard school are threatened by the Dark Lord, Harry must find his magical power to overcome him and become a man and a great wizard.

 

Premise out of theme

Chris Vogler agrees that premise is the basic idea and foundation for the plot but also that it is “a more developed expression of the “theme” idea, beyond just one word. It’s a sentence that you pull out of that one word.”

First be specific.  “LOVE” isn’t specific enough. What kind of love? Brotherly love? Blind love? Love of country? Loving yourself?  What kind of trust? What kind of faith?

And then restate it as a kind of formula:   

X behaviour leads to Y consequences

MACBETH: ruthless ambition leads inevitably to destruction

 

 

Why does it matter?

Premise is useful as you write because it holds the ultimate character transformation in the front of your mind, so you are conscious of your character’s actions and reactions being in step with where he is along the character arc. For instance Harry Potter could never have faced the dementors at the beginning of the series, not only because he didn’t have the wizardly skills, but because he had not yet found his confidence or his loyalty.

As you write, theme doesn’t matter, but when it comes to editing, it provides an umbrella measure to decide which scenes and characters can get cut. Does this scene support the theme better than this one?

One last word

Screenwriter Andrew Oye sums the whole thing up very nicely. He says premise and theme are cousins not twins. That the premise is the subject of the story and the theme is the meaning from the story.

 

Following the Pyper

Following the Pyper

Ruth E. Walker

Over the past few years, it’s been my pleasure to take three workshops with best-selling author Andrew Pyper. And I can tell you that those workshops were incredibly helpful to me in terms of craft and technique.

I first met Andrew in 2000. It was shortly after his first novel, Lost Girls, came out. He was a guest at Words in Whitby, a magical reading series that sadly no longer exists. Fortunately, Andrew’s books last—both on the bookshelves and in the memory. On the bookshelves because they continue to sell. In the memory because they haunt you.

The same can be said about his workshops. But that haunting is a good thing because he offers writers the opportunity to understand elements of the craft in approachable and human terms.

An “Artiste” at work

I’m a pantser. Meaning, I write by the seat of my pants. I follow my characters around like a love-struck puppy. I’m content to let them tell me their stories. I write scene by scene and the hell with what kind of book I’m writing—it’s MY book so leave me alone World.  Of course, all that is in the first flush of creativity—that beautiful first draft that glows in the dark and suggests how perfect it is.

Then I have to turn it into a real book with plot and character arcs, engaging themes and all those scenes in the best possible order. I figured I wrote it scene by scene so why wouldn’t it all be in a good order?

My critique group, on the other hand, often points out things like: Why is there so much backstory in the beginning? And This is not the best place to slow down the pacing. And Are you certain you want this climax so early in the book?

Pshaw. What do they know?

They know a lot. Which is why I value them so much. But still, I fought against the tyranny of plot and the three-act structure. Enter Andrew Pyper and his plot workshops.

What Andrew taught me

Plot is not a four-letter word (even though it technically is.) And any pantser who avoids thinking in terms of plot (like I used to) is not doing themselves any favours.

From Andrew, I learned that analysis of structure is an excellent way to understand plot. Whether you use the standard 3-act structure triangle image of rising action, or a straight line divided into three separate acts, or Post-it Notes on the wall…

…you will come away with a visual picture of the frame on which your gorgeous prose hangs. It took me two different workshops with Andrew before I allowed my tentative plotter into the room.

But once I did, it opened up a whole new vista on actually seeing and, more importantly, understanding the frame that plot offers. Once there, I was ready to tackle the next bit of knowledge Andrew shared: the three-act structure is not just three acts.

Act Two = Two Acts

Imagine all three acts; now, divide Act Two in two. Why? Because the middle is the majority of your book. Consider the novels you love, the ones you cannot put down. Are they all relentless, never-ending races through the middle to get to the climax—the big scene, the moment you were dying to reach, the discovery of who the murderer is, of the at-last togetherness of the gal and the guy, that final battle with the monster…?

No they aren’t. In fact, the great books open up even more questions and several smaller crises in Act II, the middle section. They often let you THINK the monster had met its end only to discover the sacred ring was no longer in the protagonist’s pocket and, oh my god, the monster is still alive and the protagonist is trapped in a place she’ll never escape from.

She’s doomed. They’re all doomed.

That is the middle of Act II. Dividing it into two “mini-acts” makes perfect sense. As Andrew pointed out more than once (I was sometimes slow to catch on to this) Act II is always much longer than Act I (the set up/moment of change) or Act III (what Mark Twain called The burying as in let’s get it done quick.)

If you’re going to keep the reader engaged for that big chunk of your book’s middle, pull out some big guns of crisis. Not the BIG crisis; you still have to save the “ultimate battle” scene for the end.

No point in having Inigo skewer Count Rugen or Westley save Princess Buttercup in the middle of the book. But why not kill Westley in the middle of the book and keep Inigo and Fezzik busy trying to bring him back to life in time to save Princess Buttercup? (Yes. I just finished The Princess Bride and recommend it as a great novel for plot analysis.)

Self-reflection

So pull out your current work in progress. Can you apply a three-act structure? Is your middle Act II nothing but the road to one big crisis, with no rest stops along the way and subsequent crisis to threaten everything?

If so, take the time to look closely at the story and see what you need to add to the middle. Maybe move some of the action in Act III and see if it really belongs in Act II.

If you still resist the call of your inner plotter, pull out some of your favourite books and analyze their plot’s structure. Then think a bit about why you loved reading them. More than just great characters and fantastic scenes; it’s how and when and where those scenes appear and those characters behave. In other words: plot.

DID YOU KNOW?

Registration is now open for Turning Leaves, our annual fall retreat. We’re celebrating our 10th anniversary in 2018 and we are tickled to confirm that Andrew Pyper (yes, that Andrew Pyper) will be joining us for three days of focus on the craft and practicalities of writing fiction.

On November 2 to 4 at Fern Resort near Orillia, Ontario, this all-inclusive retreat includes Friday night fireside chat with Andrew about the writing life and an intense morning workshop. He’s an award-winning writer, a master of dark and disturbing mysteries and fantasy, and excellent workshop facilitator.

Our limit is 20 participants. A $250 non-refundable deposit will guarantee your spot. We expect there will be a waiting list.

 

 

Craft 101: Listening to Learn

Craft 101: Listening to Learn

Ruth E. Walker

Recently, I attended the Festival of Authors, an annual celebration of books and the people who write them. Presented by the Ontario Writers’ Conference, the Festival held a perfect mix for me: authors I’ve read and know and authors I’ve haven’t even heard of.

Why is an author reading important? What can I learn from a new writer? And for that matter, what’s left to learn from a writer I know?

Plenty, from all of it.

Exploring the new and shiny

Just like when I first start to write something new, an unknown writer offers me exciting possibilities to discover. It’s a chance to sit back and listen to where they found their inspiration and what brought them to the page. I get to hear about their life before the book and where it has taken them.

For Greg Gilhooly, I Am Nobody granted him one more measure of freedom climbing out from under a decades-long burden. Graham James, the hockey coach predator, groomed Greg for sexual assault. And when he read from a visceral childhood scene of grappling with the nightmare of shame and confusion, the room was breathless and silent.

But it was the follow-up interview with knowledgable and gracious host Ted Barris that connected us all to Greg.

A teachable moment for every memoir writer: Your story may be filled with pain and you may have lost so much in living it but your strength lies in your clear-eyed backward glance. Truth telling versus blaming. Offering solutions. No “poor me” in this interview. A thoughtful and compassionate writer, Greg should be at many more festivals.

Katherine Ashenburg‘s life experience included radio producer, newspaper editor and nonfiction author…so naturally she would want to write a novel about the wives of two 19th century Swedish artists. A début author as she starts into her 70s (so début it was only Week One) Katherine is already working on her second novel.

Her reading was excellent. Nuanced and richly layered dialogue captured the unsaid as much as what was in the conversation. Then Ted and Katherine had a conversation that was equally intriguing about research and the source of inspiration.

Write when you’re ready, no matter when it is: Why write about Sweden? A years-ago trip to see artist Karl Larsson’s home in Sundborn triggered an idea that waited for the “write” time for Katherine to take it to the page.

Diving into the familiar

I first heard Brad Smith at a Whitby, Ontario author reading in 2000 after he published his second book, One-Eyed Jacks. It’s a novel I quite enjoyed, along with his next book, All Hat. His style was gritty back then with a distinctly Canadian spice of irony sprinkled with humour. The Return of Kid Cooper is Brad’s 11th novel and he chose to read one of the more “low-key” scenes. And there it was: distinctly spiced with humour and ironic tones.

Brad wisely chose to read something that showed off his skill with evoking time and place and rising tension: Montana at the Alberta border, cattle ranch in 1910, and a recently released killer sipping tea on the porch with two ladies. We were all sipping tea along with them. And knowing fireworks were coming.

A great lesson for when you read your work: choose a scene that whets the appetite but leaves them wanting to know more. That’s what Brad wisely did.

Similarly, poet Barbara E. Hunt chose to read just a few poems from her latest collection, giving us a glimpse into her approach to the maker-theme of Devotions. More than a book of poems, this is an interactive “colouring book”, inviting readers to make their own version with illumination edging on each page, ready for paint, crayon, or multimedia interpretations.

Make it an invitation: An homage to many of the homesteading skills of the past, Barbara’s reading was an invitation to discover much more between the pages.

And that is what connected all the readings and interviews for the audience. You, the audience, are invited to discover. The passions of the authors. The questions that drive them.  The discoveries they make. The serendipity of story beginnings. Their struggles. Their human qualities that find their way into their books.

It’s a validation for you, writer. You’ll find yourself reflected in an answer to a question or a way of presenting a scene. And you also learn: how to answer questions, how to choose a reading, how to connect with an audience.

Beautiful words sum it up

The evening kicked off with Festival patron, Wayson Choy, giving us a proverbial kick in the pants in typical gentle, encouraging and generous Wayson-style. “Find your truth and share it,” he said, reminding us that we all have “wonderful stories within and every right to tell them.”

If you ever doubt your ability to write a story (and who among us has not felt that doubt many times?) take a dose of Wayson. Write your truth. Listen to the life of writers whenever you get the chance. Read new voices along with the tried-and-true.

It’s all part of the learning journey for a writer at any stage.

DID YOU KNOW

There are so many opportunities to hear writers read their work and be interviewed:

In the fall, the International Festival of Authors is a 10-day offering of writers in Toronto and B.C. has the Vancouver Writers Fest. In several cities, look for the one-day celebration of books and writers at Word on the Street. Do some research and you’ll find authors reading from coast to coast to coast in Canada. From coffee shops to university lecture halls to writer organizations, there are plenty of events that feature authors and their books.

Even if you can’t get out to an author reading locally, you have no excuse to miss out on the experience of listening to writers discuss their work and occasionally read from it. CBC Radio offers up Writers and Company with Eleanor Wachtel and The Next Chapter with Shelagh Rogers.

 

10 Questions to Ask Your Characters

10 Questions to Ask Your Characters

It’s Writescape’s 10th anniversary and we have lots of excitement planned for writers in 2018. This installment of 10 on the 10th is the latest in the series of monthly writing tips, advice and inspiration. Think of it as Gwynn and Ruth sitting on your shoulder and nudging you along. Share with your writing colleagues and encourage them to sign up for more.

Readers love “a good character” because something about that character resonates for them. You can make a reader-connection with your characters when you spend some time to get to know them.

These 10 questions are designed to get your characters to reveal insights. Your reader doesn’t need to know the answers but you do. What your characters reveal about themselves will affect every action/reaction that she or he makes. And that, dear writer, is a big part of what makes a fully fleshed, believable character.

 

  1. Who do you love? Love for another can be the driving force for a character. Unrequited or reciprocated, love is an emotional connection for readers. Or it could be your character is so self-centered that only they deserve to be loved by themselves.
  2. What’s your deepest fear? We all have fears. It is what makes us human. Your character is no different. And it will affect how she reacts to any triggers for that fear. And lets you add those triggers when you need them.
  3. How do you feel about your father/mother? — helps you get into the life history of your character. It affects everything your character says and does. Especially useful with mentor/influencer figures for your character.
  4. What do you like to eat for breakfast? — pretty mundane stuff, right? But what your character likes to eat reveals qualities: eggs and bacon (carnivore; not worried about health) oatmeal (solid; old-fashioned); kale and plain yogurt protein smoothie (health-conscious & maybe vegetarian). You’ll need to keep their diet in mind — it will affect what they tend to notice around food.
  5. What do you like most about where you live/work? The day-to-day is a big part of anyone’s life. From repetitive, structured assembly line work to high-pressure aerospace research, what your character experiences on the job affects her approach to the world. Or if he lives in a cardboard box in an alley or a sprawling mansion, it affects his clothes, his hygiene, his daily view of his neighbourhood. Discover what she likes to understand her regular behaviour.
  6. How do you feel about children? Oh yes. How does she feel about those little snotty-nosed rug rats? Does he go all goofy and fun-loving when kids are around? Is she worried about how her body will change when the baby is born? Does he want kids but doesn’t think he can manage? Complicated, conflicted or blasé, your character’s answers show you their nurturing instincts…or lack thereof.
  7. Do you believe in a god(s)? Whoa! Now this is really deep. Or maybe it’s not at all. Your character may have no interest in any faith and this is a simply answered question. Is their belief, or lack thereof, a philosophy or is it more ingrained than that? What is your character’s moral centre?
  8. If you could be anyone else, who would that be? Well, this could be a short answer: nobody. I like being me. Or maybe they actually long to be someone else, someone not even in your story. Golly! That could be very cool.
  9. Who has influenced you in your life’s actions? One outstanding teacher, a childhood friend or a series of people. Positive and negative: a colleague at work who had the courage to whistle-blow, or Aunt Peggy who was always positive no matter what life dealt her. A coach who introduced drugs or some criminal act. A sibling who demanded loyalty by blackmail. A mother who lied.
  10. What makes you happy? Sure it might be chocolate ice-cream, but go deeper. Glass-half-full person or glass-half-empty? Always looking for happiness in the future or the past or in the moment? Needs others to be happy or can find happiness alone? A taker or a giver?

One more important question. All of these questions are fine but the answers are deepened and your character far more revealed if you ask one simple question after they answer each of the others:

Why?

Don’t let your character off the hook with a short response. For example:  How do you feel about your father? I always hated my father. Why? Because he was despicable. What do you mean by that? He was an asshole. He beat my mother every Saturday night as far back as I can remember. Why didn’t she leave him? Because she was just as despicable…

Like what you’ve read? You can have 10 on the 10th delivered to you each month by sending us your email in the comment section. You can unsubscribe anytime. You’ll also receive The Top Drawer our Wednesday blog with tips, resources and inspiration for writers. To see past posts, visit: writescape.ca

GPS for the subconscious

GPS for the subconscious

Gwynn Scheltema

I call it mind mapping. You might call it clustering or brainstorming. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that this visual technique works to generate ideas and get subconscious thoughts down on paper before you lose them.

What is mind mapping?

Mind mapping is a my non-linear way to organizing thoughts without my internal critic getting in the way. At the same time it allows me to link and organize those ideas, so that the finished exercise is something I can work with.

Sound contradictory?

Perhaps, but it is based on some interesting studies on the way we think. Ralph Haber’s study of memory, found that we have nearly 90% success rate recalling images rather than words. Tony Buzan’s research found that those who took notes using key words learned more effectively. Mind mapping combines keywords and visual representation.

Mind map mind set

Start with an open mind and playful attitude. Mind mapping is a “brain dump.” Expect that many of the ideas you produce will not be useful. That’s not important. You can harvest the valuable nuggets later.

Your brain works best in short, intensive bursts (5 minutes or so), so once you begin, work fast and write down only key words, symbols, images, phrases … not sentences. Strive for an explosion of ideas.

Write with a pencil, your favourite pen, coloured markers, crayons or whatever helps to make you feel creative. Same goes for the paper you choose: with or without lines, coloured, big or small.

Where do you start?

Begin with one central keyword or concept in the centre of the page. Starting in the middle of the page gives the creative right brain a head start, as our non-creative left brain is used to starting in the upper left-hand corner.

You can put the keyword in a circle or a cloud shape or not enclose it at all (this is a creative process, so there are no “rules.”)

You can use an idea you want to work with or a random word picked from a book or given to you by someone else.

Then what?

I started with the word GERANIUM.

Write down/draw anything that keyword suggests to you, and then a word or symbol associated with that new thought, and so on, until you have a chain of linked ideas moving out from the central theme. Do not judge your ideas at this stage; simply write them down.

Put an idea down even if it seems unrelated – your subconscious probably knows more than you do.  DOCTORS OFFICE showed up on one of the branches. What does that have to do with geraniums? Seemingly nothing now, but when I organized the ideas afterwards, the link became clear. (I’ll explain later).

Keep your hand moving. If ideas slow down, take your hand back to the central concept and begin a new branch. Draw empty lines, and your brain will move to fill them automatically; or inject more energy with a different colour pen.

Eventually you’ll have several trains of thought, all different from each other and yet linked by the central concept. You can now organize them to fit your purposes.

Organizing and using your mind map ideas

Ways to use the ideas you’ve generated can be as varied as the ideas themselves.

Say I’m looking for an idea for a non-fiction article. Perhaps my first instinct around the word GERANIUM is to do an article on container gardening, I take a highlighter and highlight all the ideas that fit in any way with that slant. In the example, I’d highlight: POTS, RED, HANGING, TRAILING, VERANDAH, PATIO, SUMMER, SCENT. Hmmm….. boring!

But in the process, the word SCENT reminded me that geranium leaves can be used to scent and colour sugar. The mind trail on HERBS, TEAS, SPA suddenly becomes more interesting. A non-fiction article on “Using Flowers for Special Teas” now has possibilities. I might do another mind map now with the word TEA in the centre.

Use a mind map over and over

But don’t stop there. The same mind map can be used several times, at different times for different styles of writing.

The phrase DOCTORS OFFICE has me curious. I follow the branch back towards the centre, trying to work out what PINK and SUGAR have to do with it. Then it hits me… when I was a child, our doctor used to hand out tiny cylindrical candies that smelled like scented geraniums. I realize that I haven’t seen them in decades. What other sweeties from that era are no longer around? Hmmm….. Another article? A scene for my novel? A short story? Things are brewing now.

Later, it strikes me as interesting that I have two trails that contain the word VERANDAH, and I’m drawn to the references to LATIN WORD; SECRETS; SCHOOL FRIENDS; IVY; OLD BUILDINGS; ENGLAND. I think I feel a poem emerging…..

Even the trail that started out with the boring POTS; RED, ended with SQUIRREL; CRINOLINE: HIBISCUS. Now I realize, that’s a story my subconscious has unearthed about a little critter that came to my garden last year. He loved hibiscus shoots, and …

When should I do a mind map?

Use a mind map whenever you want to generate new ideas. Use it to focus in on a particular problem area. Use it to expand something you are already working on. Use it to reveal hidden subconscious perspectives on a seemingly boring topic. Or just do it for fun and see where it takes you. Quick. Easy. Worth it!

DID YOU KNOW

The perfect spot to be creative – and mind map to your heart’s content – is at Spring Thaw 2018 on beautiful Rice Lake in Keene, Ontario. Come for 3 or 5 days and escape to write with Writescape.Tailor your weekend to suit your needs.There is an agenda and formal programming, but you choose what sessions and activities will work for you.