Wasn’t it just the other day that all the retail signs announced: Get Ready for Summer!
I just blinked and now what do they say? Get Ready for School!
Once I got over depressing thoughts of our vanishing summer, it got me thinking. Some years back (many years, in fact) I decided it was time to return to school. A high school dropout, I’d left the workforce and a developing career in the human resource profession to stay home with my young family. Getting back into the H.R. game would be tough without a university degree; a sociology or psychology major would be best, I thought.
But I was a bit scared so decided to at least start with something I really liked. English. Books are good. And reading. And talking about books…about reading books…books…
Fast-forward a couple of dozen courses later and somewhat longer years of evening and summer classes at Trent University, Durham Region Campus, and I had my degree. And no, not sociology or psychology.
English. And darn-near a minor in Cultural Studies. Even better: I graduated on the Dean’s List.
What I Learned in School
Study what you enjoy. And be open to stepping beyond what you know you’ll enjoy.
I took an Introduction to Anthropology. In the course catalogue, it all sounded a bit “sciency” but a lot of it focused on the past, so, because I like history, I risked it and I loved it. I even considered changing my major.
During the section with a biology focus, I held a plaster cast finger bone of the famous “Lucy”, Australopethicus afarensis. Discovered in 1974 in Ethiopia, this hominid’s skeleton is about 3.2 million years old. It blew my mind and created a connection that inspired a thrice-published poem, Lucy’s Bones from Afar.
I didn’t know it at the time, but the next section on archaeology was great grounding for my final course before graduation on Greek and Roman Mythology. And from that course, I found my way to a series of poems and flash fiction, powerful characters and a novel that continues to simmer on the back burner.
Suffice to say that just one course outside of my English Literature comfort zone affected my muse, inspiring characters, poems, themes and plots in much of my future writing. I didn’t stop with Anthropology 101: Cultural Studies, Women’s Studies, Ancient History and yes, even a sociology course or two peppered my learning. By the time I graduated, I’d explored far beyond Shakespeare and sonnets.
Continuing that Education
I’m not suggesting that writers need university courses for success. That choice worked out well for me but not because I started out thinking about a career in literature. And it isn’t the only choice that had a profound impact on my writing.
Over the years, I’ve taken more than one writers’ workshop that inspired new and exciting work from me. I had mentors that gave me new perspectives. And there are many books on writing that took my craft on deep and engaging journeys.
Learning for all of us is on offer from a multitude of options: mentoring, workshops, private retreats, resource books, conferences, and so on. But not all conferences or workshops need to be about “writing.” And not all resource books should follow a familiar or safe path.
Some stretching into the unknown can help you reach new heights. It certainly did for me.
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 CharacterJeff 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.
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…..
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.
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.
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.
One way I free up my creative mind is to box it in. Sound contradictory? It is, but it works. Forcing my brain into constraints forces it to find new ways out, to connect things that are not normally connected and to reach for ways to use available concepts or images or ideas that aren’t the easy default but something deeper.
Using constraints is not a new concept, and it applies to all creativity, not just writing. Composer Igor Stravinsky described it this way: “The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees oneself of the chains that shackle the spirit… the arbitrariness of the constraint only serves to obtain precision of execution.”
Here are some constraints that I use to start poems. Notice, I say “to start”. Some of these tactics may produce a finished poem, but more often they simple set my mind in a new direction. After that I ignore the constraint and let the new idea lead me where it may.
Anaphora is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive phrases, clauses, or lines to create a sonic effect. When the initial writing is done, you can remove the phrase and just work with the images and thoughts you’ve generated.
I find it good to pick a focus, like a place, time, person or experience and use phrases like “On Saturdays…” or “My Aunt Emily…” In London…” etc., as well as general introductions like “I remember…” or “I don’t remember”, I believe…”, “I want…” or “If I could…”
I remember a piece of old wood with termites running around all over it the termite men found under our front porch.
I remember when one year in Tulsa by some freak of nature we were invaded by millions of grasshoppers for about three or four days. I remember, downtown, whole sidewalk areas of solid grasshoppers.
I remember a shoe store with a big brown x-ray machine that showed up the bones in your feet bright green.
A lipogram is writing that excludes one or more letters. Here is a short poem by Daniel J Webster that excludes the most used letter in the English alphabet: “e”.
Most common of all marks from A to Z,
It’s tyrant to orthography, and smug
That not a thing of worth is said without
Our using it. . . .
A poem using only one vowel. Canadian poet Christian Bok is famous for his collection Eunoia, a collection of five univocal prose poems (which run into many pages each), one for each vowel.
Here is an excerpt from “A”
Hassan Abd al-Hassad, an Agha Khan, basks at an ashram – a Taj Mahal that has grand parks and grass lawns, all as vast as parklands at Alhambra and Valhalla. Hassan can, at a handclap, call a vassal at hand and ask that all staff plan a bacchanal – a gala ball that has what pagan charm small galas lack. Hassan claps, and (tah-dah) an Arab lass at a swank spa can draw a man’s bath and wash a man’s back, as Arab lads fawn and hang, athwart an altar, amaranth garlands as fragrant as attar – a balm that calms all angst. A dwarf can flap a palm branch that fans a fat maharajah. A naphtha lamp can cast a calm warmth.
Take a poem you find interesting (your own or someone else’s) and write a line opposite in meaning to each line in the poem. For a bigger stretch, keep to the same form and/or rhyme scheme.
Excerpt from PETALS
by Amy Lowell
Life is a stream
On which we strew
Petal by petal the flower of our heart;
The end lost in dream,
They float past our view,
We only watch their glad, early start.
by Gwynn Scheltema
Death is earth
On which we pile
Stone by stone the cairn of our mind;
The beginning found in birth
We build up all the while,
Only to miss their sad, final end.
Imitate a poem, even incorporating phrases from the original poem. If you use this only as an opening up exercise to find your own thoughts, make sure you eliminate the original poet’s words in your poem. If you keep any of them make sure to acknowledge the original poet.
Excerpt from “PATTERNS” by Amy Lowell
I walk down the garden paths,
And all the daffodils
Are blowing, and the bright blue squills.
I walk down the patterned garden paths
In my stiff, brocaded gown.
With my powdered hair and jewelled fan,
I too am a rare
Pattern. As I wander down
The garden paths.
After Amy Lowell
I walk down the garden-paths, And all the peonies Are full and showy, like happy children I walk down the patterned garden-paths In my husband’s shadow With painted smile and high bred manner I too am a rare Pattern. As I wander down The garden-paths.
Riffing off a concept
Wallace Stevens wrote a poem called “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” in which each stanza is a mini-poem, but all of them refer to a blackbird in some way, to unite the whole. This is a great way to start writing a poem. Think of 13 (or 14 or 16 ) ways of looking at anything: sunsets; lovers; baking apple pie; train journeys…..
First and Last
Here, take two lines at random from any text. Make it truly random by getting someone else to pick them. One line becomes the first and one the last line of your poem. When you’re done, remove the borrowed lines.
Poet John Hewitt recommends this tactic because “…it gives you something to start from. If you know what your last line has to be, you start to think of ways that you can get there. If you know that you have to write a poem about the constellation Orion, you go out and stare at the stars. You are no longer dealing with a blank page. You know that at least one of those words is going to be “Orion”. That’s a place you can start from.”
And one more thing
It is important to realize a constraint is a tool. It helps bring focus to a poem. You won’t always want restraints, but when you are stuck, a constraint is a good way to get the words flowing again.
Gilbert Sorrentino, poet, novelist, critic and professor says “Generative Devices are consciously selected, preconceived structures, forms, limitations, constraints, developed by the writer before the act of writing. The writing is then made according to the “laws” set in place by the chosen constraint. Paradoxically, these constraints permit the writer a remarkable freedom. They also serve to destroy the much-cherished myth of “inspiration,” and its idiot brother, “writer’s block.”
I love words. I’m addicted to them. I love words that I can roll around in my mouth and feel them roll off my tongue: lugubrious; predilection; vociferous. Words that tie my tongue in knots: mnemonic; synesthesia. Words that have strange meanings: enchiridion—a book to be carried in the hand. Words that express things hard to describe: petrichor—the pleasant smell that accompanies the first rains after a spell of dry weather. Words that carry sound and music: tinkle; boom; crash. Words that are fun: higgledy; pollywog and snollygoster.
So what is a snollygoster? It’s a political thing, and I found out about it on a TED talk. Yup, I admit I’m addicted to TED talks as much as I am to words.
Who or what is TED?
TED was launched in 1984 as an invitation-only conference to bring together the innovative power of three fields: Technology, Entertainment and Design. It’s grown from a single conference to an annual open event that now includes scientists, philosophers, musicians, business and religious leaders, philanthropists and many others.
The TED website describes itself as: “a nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks… from science to business to global issues…in more than 100 languages… we’re building a clearinghouse of free knowledge from the world’s most inspired thinkers.”
TED also believes “passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and, ultimately, the world.” And I believe the same about words.
So treat yourself to some summer downtime enjoy these TED talks about words (and finally find out what a snollygoster is).
What’s a snollygoster?
Etymologist Mark Forsyth shares entertaining word-origin stories from British and American history.
Go ahead, make up new words!
Lexicographer Erin McKean encourages the creation of new words to better express what we mean and make more ways to understand one another. She shares 6 ways to make new words in English including compounding and verbing.
Beautiful new words to describe obscure emotions
John Koenig loves words that express unarticulated feelings like lachesism —the hunger for disaster, or sonder—the realization that everyone else’s lives are as complex and unknowable as our own.
What makes a word real?
Who decides if new words like hangry, defriend, and adorkable make it into the dictionary? Language historian Anne Curzan takes a look at the people behind dictionaries and the choices they make.
Lets put the “awe” back in awesome.
Which of the following is awesome: your lunch or the Great Pyramid at Giza? Comedian Jill Shargaa calls for us to save the word awesome for things that truly inspire awe.
The joy of lexicography
Lexicographer Erin McKean looks at the ways today’s print dictionary is poised for transformation.
What we learned from 5 million books
Google Labs’ Ngram Viewer is a database of 5 million books from across centuries. Erez Lieberman Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel show us it works.
Just the beginning
Don’t limit yourself to the talks listed here. TED topics such as author talks, writing, creativity, storytelling and more are waiting to inform, entertain and inspire you. Enjoy!
“Everybody loves a flawed character.” That’s a truism we hear often. A character with a flaw is, of course, channelling human qualities. After all, even the people we love the most in our lives carry “the stuff” that makes them imperfect.
My beloved aunt, who reads all kinds of books, loves Alice Munro, P.D. James and Margaret Atwood, and is in her happy place with a challenging crossword puzzle yet lacks the confidence to attempt to understand poetry. “I’m not clever enough,” she says.
The woman who loves language and words can’t understand poetry? But I cut her some slack because I love her.
So, too, will your readers cut you some slack when your characters reveal their flaws. But you want more than a reader’s understanding. You want those idiosyncrasies, characteristics and flaws to benefit your story. And they will when you use them deliberately to affect aspects of your story.
The following is by no means a full list of flaws. It’s a sampling just to give you something to think about as you work with your characters. Flaws affect actions, reactions and interactions:
Genetic or resulting from an injury, a physical weakness creates opportunities in your story
contrast (self against a perceived perfection in other characters)
sympathy (plays on your readers’ emotions — especially useful for villains)
motivation (especially strong when the flaw relates to character goals)
Consider Shakespeare’s Richard III; a villainous King of England but his motivation for power has a natural home in his deformity and how others treated him. Superman is invincible…except around Kryptonite.
So much of what we do is driven by our emotions. Your characters are no different.
baggage (Mother always liked you best — affects every action/reaction)
weakness (from dieting failures to adultery — endless plot possibilities)
neediness (operating through others’ approval fuels relationships)
The strongest characters in fiction are most successful when they have an emotional weakness of some type. In Game of Thrones, Ser Jaime Lannister is motivated by his forbidden love of his sister, Cersei. Despite his strengths, this one passion affects all of his decisions.
From obsessive compulsive to egomaniacs, personality flaws drive characters to extremes. And those extremes can form some of the most intriguing characters.
focus (sees the trees, sees the forest, sees how it’s all connected)
restrictive (painting self into that corner and struggling to escape)
creative (artist, scientist, surgeon, magician…endless character options)
social (friendly, adulterer, won’t keep their subdivision garden neat)
Sherlock Holmes, anyone? Dozens and dozens of books, movies, television series…all from just one fascinatingly flawed character.
Applying the Flaws
Consider a character that you’ve already started to work with. Add a flaw — physical, emotional, or behavioural. What changes? Can it affect your plot? Does it enhance your themes? Has the tension gone up a notch? What about relationships — any shifts in how characters interact with each other?
And what if you change up the flaw? A whole new ballgame? Oh, the possibilities are as limited as your ability to experiment.
Guest blog: Lori TwiningThe gift of getting away to write is captured byLori Twining on the Ascribe Writers group blog. Gwynn and Ruth are delighted to share her words with our readers. April 24, 2018: Spring Thaw
Every writer gets to celebrate one birthday every year. If you have a writer in your life, what do you get them?
Sure, writers love things like coffee, pens, highlighters, cake, wine, empty notebooks (cheap ones from the dollar store will do just fine), leather bound notebooks are awesome too (although most writers are afraid to write in them for fear of wrecking them), coffee, wine, dinner out somewhere, cake, coffee, maybe some more wine, definitely some more cake… but seriously, what is the one present a writer could receive, that would make them the happiest writer you know?
What is it?
Well, I am a writer and I give myself a present every year AND I consider it the best present in the world for a writer who works full time for someone else.
The gift of TIME
When I say time, I don’t mean buy them a watch. I mean, buy them a gift of time ALONE, without interruptions.
How do you do that?
Simple. I’m doing it right now.
I’m alone, well almost. I have two writing buddies from my local writing group, Ascribe Writers, who drove over four hours with me, to arrive at a beautiful lake where spring has already arrived (unlike the piles of snow still sitting at home). Here at Rice Lake, we found an amazing all-inclusive writing retreat at the fabulous Elmhirst’s Resort in Keene, run by Writescape (The Writing Retreat Specialists). Which means, there are over a dozen other writers here too.
It’s also difficult for those same writers who have to feed their families after they are finished working, clean up and do dishes, and then run their children to various sporting events, after-school jobs or to the gym or library. Time disappears too fast, and if there is an hour or two left in the day, writers are usually exhausted and probably couldn’t even write one sentence that made any sense.
So, technically, I’m not always alone. BUT, 87% of the time I am. I’m spending five whole days concentrating on writing my novel and I’m extremely happy to be making progress in huge leaps and bounds. It’s hard for writers that go to a day job for 8-13 hours each day, Monday to Friday, and still want to write for the fun of it.
If you have the opportunity to sign up a writer that you know for a 3 or 5-day writing retreat, GO FOR IT! They will love you. Or perhaps, YOU ARE THE WRITER? Then, feel free to treat yourself to this amazing gift.
Seriously, I’m almost convinced that this place is Heaven for writers. Early morning coffee at 5 a.m. on the deck watching the sunrise as you think about the motives of your characters and why they are doing what they are right now. If you get stuck, there are other writers that will help you brainstorm, giving you ten new ideas you never thought of before. They will help you with your title, your character names, a restaurant or hotel name, and they’ll even help you with motives for murder.
Feed your passion
Perhaps you are a writer that has lost your muse? Maybe you are stuck? Confused? Lost? And want to quit writing? Well don’t do it. Writing retreats are the best medicine for a soul who is passionate about writing.
Ruth E. Walker and Gwynn Scheltema run a daily workshop or two during the writing retreat to get the creative juices flowing or just to stretch your creative mind. They never fail to surprise me, by discussing a topic I thought I already knew about and presenting it in a completely different way. Fascinating approaches to getting into your character’s minds and then allowing us to try it in exercises that you can actually use in your novel.
Anyone who knows me, knows that I hate doing writing exercises. These two ladies have convinced me the writing exercises are a precious gift for my writing projects, and they are definitely NOT a waste of time. It is worth every single penny, just to figure out that aha! moment that fixes everything in your story. I’m so grateful.
We gather with all the writers twice a day to eat lunch and dinner (breakfast is provided in your cabin, helpful if you’d rather sleep through it). While there, we discuss the normal struggles writers face with writing, editing and getting published. We share ideas on how to feed our family quickly and still find time to carve an hour or two out of the day to write. Some of us are early risers and get up before the sun does and others are night owls and double as the nightly neighbourhood watch, while the rest of us sleep.
Feed your body
I should mention the food. Oh my goodness! It is fabulous. Roast beef that melts in your mouth, fresh grilled salmon, luscious pork covered in apple slaw, veggies, pasta, rice, fruit, crepes with fresh fruit, omelettes, BACON and vegetarian options for every single meal. Desserts galore, with so many options, it takes you five minutes to decide what you want to have. You walk away stuffed to the ears, thinking you will never eat another bite for as long as you are at the retreat. Well, I can easily say, that a quick walk along the shoreline, and several hours of pounding a keyboard cures that. So, we eat every 5-6 hours whether we are hungry or not. AND, we love every minute of it.
I could go on and on, describing what a great birthday gift I gave myself this year, but I still have two more days left of writing at this retreat, so I need to get back to writing about murder and mayhem in the big city.
One More Thing
One last thing, while I’m speaking of murder… Writescape has another 3-day writing retreat this fall: Turning Leaves on November 2nd– 4th, 2018. It will be held at Fern Resort on Lake Couchiching in Orillia with special guest Canadian author Andrew Pyper. Registration opens on Wednesday, April 25. If you love psychological thrillers, mysteries or dark fantasy books (a.k.a. horror), you might want to join me at this writing retreat. Of course, all of the discussions and writing exercises are adaptable to all the different genres you are writing. But, if you are writing mysteries or thrillers, you’ll have Andrew on hand to ask questions about the genre or the publishing process, all weekend long. Go to the website to reserve your spot: WRITESCAPE WEBSITE. Limited spaces available.
Okay, wait, this is the LAST, LAST THING, I promise. Look at this picture of a writer sitting on the cabin’s back deck in the warm hot sun, accompanied by a friendly kitty-cat, writing beside a beautiful blue lake, listening to the Loons calling out… “THIS COULD BE YOU!” Think about that for a minute.
Lori Twining writes both fiction and nonfiction, with her stories winning awards in literary competition and appearing in several anthologies. She’s an active member of many writing groups: International Thriller Writers, Crime Writers of Canada, Romance Writers of America, Toronto Romance Writers, Writers’ Community of Simcoe County and Ascribe Writers. She’s a lover of books, sports and bird watching, and a hater of slithering reptiles and beady-eyed rodents. www.lvtwriter.com; Twitter @Lori_Twining.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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:
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…
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I love April. It’s a month of budding trees, long-asleep bulbs poking through the earth, warm sun on my back and the promise of summer to come. And April is National Poetry Month (NPM)—a chance to read, write, share and support poetry on a national scale. I love it!
I also love the story that started it all: Back in 1996, members and staff of the Academy of American Poets headed to the steps of a post office in New York City where individuals waited in line to mail their tax returns. The story goes, that they handed out copies of T.S. Eliot’s poem, The Waste Land, which begins, “April is the cruellest month….”
In 1998 Canada followed their lead and today, NPM brings together schools, publishers, booksellers, literary organizations, libraries, and poets from across the country. This year, 2018 will celebrate the 20th anniversary of NPM in Canada!
If you don’t have poetry on your bookshelves, there is plenty out there to sample. You might want to start with the Poetry Foundation website where you can search poems by poet or poem title or explore their collections by topic. You can listen to audio clips of poetry read aloud and browse their magazine Poetry, the oldest monthly poetry magazine in the English-speaking world.
Another great website for classic poetry and prose is Project Gutenberg. This volunteer-based site offers over 56,000 free eBooks mostly of older works for which copyright has expired. Here is a great spot to sample poets like Keats, Wordsworth, and Robert Frost.
Or consider having a poem delivered to your inbox each day. Sign up at Academy of American’s Poets.org to receive original new poems during the week and classics on weekends. Poetry Foundation also offers a poem a day by email or via an app on your phone. If you’d rather begin small, try Carol Rumen’s Poem of the Week published in The Guardian.
Just like the reading version of a poem a day, Writer’s Digest runs a Poem-A-Day challenge each year curated by Robert Lee Brewer, author of the blog Poetic Asides. Each day during April, Robert posts a prompt and invites poets from around the world to write and post their poems and comments on the postings. He also chooses a daily winner and an overall winner for the month. Writescape’s Ruth E. walker won one of the daily challenges with a poem she wrote at our Spring Thaw retreat that year.
If you are new to poetry, perhaps consider taking an online course to get you started and inspired. MOOC (Massive open online courses) offers a wide variety for studying poets or writing poetry like this one from California Institute of the Arts.
During poetry month, poets and lovers of poetry encourage activities to celebrate poetry. In my region, Poetry in Cobourg Spaces (PICS), along with convenor James Pickersgill, worked with Ted Amsden, Cobourg’s poet laureate, to create a poetry event on Earth Day.
The public plus local schools were invited to submit to a poetry contest. The poems had to be on topics directly related to Earth Day, like the environment, our planet, ecology, nature, organic gardening and/or farming, evolving human awareness of other living organisms, climate change, greenhouse effect, and pollution. The poems were to be 24 lines or less and the winners read their poems at ceremonies at Cobourg’s Ecology Garden on April 22, Earth Day at dawn!
Also in my area, a group of poets, equipped with vintage typewriters brought people’s stories to life through poetry in a unique public art installation.
At the Shelter Valley Folk Festival five Green Wood poets talked with people and created poetry, non-stop, for over three hours. Beginning with the question “what brought you here to this moment?” the poet and person talked for 15 minutes before leaving the poet to capture the essence of the conversation. It was all pecked out on a typewriter in public view. Identified with a number for anonymity, the poem hung on a clothesline, both as a public art installation and a personal gift for the person to take away.
I love it!
One of the spin-offs that came out of NPM is something called Poem-in-Your-Pocket Day. Also celebrated in April—this year on April 26—Poem-in-Your-Pocket Day encourages people to carry a poem with them, and share it with others throughout the day. This day is celebrated not just in North America, but in Europe and Australia too. Some of the activities that everyone (not just poets) are encouraged to get involved with are:
Start a “poems for pockets” giveaway in your school or workplace
Urge local businesses to offer discounts for those carrying poems
Post pocket-sized verses in public places
Start a street team to pass out poems in your community
Distribute bookmarks with your favorite lines of poetry
Add a poem to your email footer
Post lines from your favorite poem on your Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or Tumblr
Send a poem to a friend
Of course, like writers, poets struggle to make a living from their art. So I challenge you to buy a book of poetry this April. No idea what to buy?
Poets also appreciate attendance at their poetry readings. A quick Google search of “poetry reading” and “Northumberland” gave me 3 readings in the next three weeks I could attend including this one at the Cobourg Poetry Workshop. Notice boards in coffee shops often have reading flyers, and if your city boasts a university, there are bound to be readings connected with them too.
Let us know in the comments how you intend to celebrate National Poetry Month. So much poetry to explore. Only 30 days in April. Better get busy!
DID YOU KNOW
A Writescape retreat alumnus, Ingrid Ruthig, recently won the 2017 Gerald Lampert Memorial Award for the best first book of poetry, This Being. This national award, sponsored by the League of Canadian Poets, places Ingrid firmly in the midst of such well-known poets as George Elliott Clarke, John Newlove, John Barton and Pearl Pirie.
And she spent her Spring Thaw retreat time focusing on her poetry. We think it was time well spent.
As a writing coach and editor, I often remind writers to trust your reader. This is not reserved for those new to the craft. Even writers with published work under their belt will slip into the world of telling when they should be nudging.
Show vs nudge
We writers hear it all the time: show don’t tell. It’s great advice and it means to write so that you keep readers engaged. Show is all part of a writer’s essential toolkit of Active instead of (ho-hum) passive writing:
use active verbs instead of adverbs
watch for info-packed sentences and unnecessary description
keep characters reacting physically
remove repetition (words, phrases, actions) unless it is important to the story/character
avoid clichés and stereotypes—surprise your reader (and yourself)
But it’s not exactly what I mean with “nudge.” I mean something even more subtle, more layered. Something that moves your writing up the ladder. Something that echoes subconsciously for readers.
Imagine you are writing a book about a teenager who is a soccer star. Alexia has all the usual teen angst of being confident and insecure. Everyone tells her she defends the net like a world cup pro, that The Beautiful Game will be her ticket to success. But Alexia fears that she’s only a soccer star on her high school team and will be revealed as ordinary when she joins the provincial all-stars.
But what is your story really about? The desire to be a soccer star is just what Alexia thinks she wants. What she really wants is for her mother coaching soccer in Europe to come back home and show that her own daughter is more important than her mother’s career.
That deep longing that Alexia won’t even admit to herself is your ticket to “nudge.”
Avoid the Hammer
My Writescape colleague Gwynn often refers to tell as a Hammer (as in, hitting your reader over the head and saying, “Hey reader, are you getting this?”) Like me, she sees missed opportunities for subtle hints or when the supposed hint is as obvious as…well—a hammer to the forehead.
Back to Alexia’s longing. We could have her write in her diary: I miss my mother. I wish she’d come home. Nope. Hammer.
We could have her watch the other mothers cheer for her teammates and wipe wistful tears from her eyes. Nope. Hammer with a Sentimental Whack.
We could have sit with her best friend and talk about it:
“Why are you so upset Alexia?”
“Well Pat, I really miss my mother. With her over in Europe coaching that semi-pro team I just feel so alone here. I don’t have any grandparents or other family except Dad. And he’s busy all the time and really, I think they’re separated and just not telling me. The seasons over there are longer than ours here and I want her to come back before my season ends, to see me play just once.”
Nope. More than a Hammer, this exchange also qualifies as an As You Know Bob moment, where a writer has their character say things the person listening would already know but wants to make sure the reader has all the important information. All. Of. It.
This is a prime example of not trusting the reader to either have already figured it out OR (and this is just as important) have the patience to piece it together as the story moves forward.
Don’t poke your reader in the eye
Let’s go back to Alexia’s longing. Would you give her a mother figure in the new coach of the provincial team? That would be kind of obvious. Besides, Alexia needs to learn about the complications of mothering and find a way to connect with her absent mother.
One way to do this is to make Alexia be a mother-figure. A pet perhaps? Too unlikely. Maybe a new teammate who is even more insecure than Alexia and she nurtures her along? Too obvious and lacking in energy.
What if the provincial team requirement is a certain amount of volunteer work? What if the winter before she leaves for training camp she gets stuck with 6 weeks coaching at an inner city community centre. Despite her initial frustrations and lack of empathy, she forms attachments. And then finally, she has to leave for training camp before “the big game/event” of the community centre. She has to choose between her soccer career and the “support your team” mantra she kept telling her young charges.
Maybe all this helps Alexia see her mother in a different light—the pull between family and career that many women struggle with. Maybe this isn’t the most subtle nudge to keep Alexia’s longing a constant theme. But the point here is that I was nudging you to consider ways in which you can adjust a story—pare it, shape it—and eventually move it into thoughtful territory that nudges readers into deeper engagement with your writing.
It’s actually one of the highest compliments you can give a reader: I trust you to understand what my story is about. And frankly, it’s a lot more interesting to write without a hammer in your back pocket. And, as you know Bob, it’s something I encourage writers to remember.
DID YOU KNOW
Gwynn and Ruth are great writing coaches. It’s been their pleasure to work with writers of all kinds and at all levels. At the next Writescape retreat, Spring Thaw, they get to kick off the retreat with some one-on-one consultation with the writers there. Plus they both provide written feedback for work submitted in advance.
Support. Clear and constructive feedback. And the care and feeding of the writer’s soul that comes at all Writescape retreats. April 20 for 3 days or extend your pen for 5 days.