The Gift of Flaws

The Gift of Flaws

Ruth E. Walker

“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:

Physical Flaws

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.

Emotional Flaws

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.

Behavioural Flaws

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.

 

Best Writer’s Birthday Present

Best Writer’s Birthday Present

Guest blog: Lori Twining
   
The gift of getting away to write is captured by Lori 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?

Photo: Seana Moorhead, Donna Curtin and Lori Twining

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 on a 5-Day Writescape Writing Retreat
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.
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

Celebrating Poetry during NPM

Celebrating Poetry during NPM

Gwynn Scheltema

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!

Reading poetry

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.

Writing poetry

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.

Sharing poetry

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

Supporting Poetry

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?

Visit some of Canada’s poetry publishers: Brick Books; Black Moss Press; Hidden Brook Press and Guernica Editions. Or check out these 16 collections recommended by CBC last fall. Or the 10 best of 2017 recommended by Canadian League of Poets. When in doubt, head to your nearest independent book store.

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.

Trusting Your Reader

Trusting Your Reader

Ruth E. Walker

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.

 

For example

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.

 

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.

One way I write a poem

One way I write a poem

Gwynn Scheltema

Outside my window the snow is piled layer upon layer. It’s quite beautiful, but it does seem like winter has been here FOREVER. There is a spot near the pathway where bulbs will poke through in spring, and although it is mid-winter, I still look there in the hope of seeing a crocus nudging its way to the sun. But, nope! Not today. It’s as if winter knows how I feel and is teasing me, telling me to be patient. I feel a poem coming on…..

Poems are inspired by many things, and each poet usually has a preferred way of entering into a poem. For me it is an image, often an image from landscape, an image that evokes an emotion in me, an image that begins to tell a story…

Emotion first

Painting a pretty picture with words is all well and good, but if the picture is flat and emotionless, you don’t have a poem. I believe a poem’s prime function is to connect with the human heart, to evoke a reaction in the reader, to find common ground with emotions and experiences we all know.

So I work with the emotion first. I mentally or physically jot down what emotions the scene evokes in me and what that makes me think of. Even if my thoughts don’t seem to “match” or if they “fight” with each other, I just let the random subconscious thoughts bubble and land on the page:

 hope to see a crocus – frustrated with winter already – amazed at how those squirrels survive out there in the cold – awed by the beauty of everything – awed by the determination of a tiny flower pushing through all that snow – anticipation of spring coming in just a few weeks – resignation that there is still winter to live through – teased by winter – foreverness -winter teaching me a lesson in patiencepromise….

 
Emotion in context

Then I ask myself if there other times in my life that I have felt some of these emotions? This helps me relate what I’m seeing and feeling to “universal” themes.

 

waiting for Christmas as a child – anticipation of anything exciting – my mother telling me that “patience is a virtue”- watching a small child struggling with shoelaces – waiting for a lover who has gone away – bad dreams and how they are gone in the morning

Sensory details next

Then I list all the specific details I notice about the physical scene or image using all the senses and remembering extensions of the basic five senses like texture, quality of light, and temperature. And I always ask myself “What is missing?”

 

layers of snow – fluffy – heavy, bare knobbly branches – purple shadows – black squirrels – lake covered in ice that will leave soon – grey sky – cold – no warm sun- no crocus poking through – imagined honey smell of crocus – chatter of squirrels – creaking branches …

 
Metaphor

Then I ask myself what some of those images remind me of. Again, I don’t worry about it “fitting”. Just let the subconscious thoughts fall on the page

the creaking branches and knobbly branches remind me of my bony arthritic fingers – the squirrels are like busy moms dashing about making sure everyone has the things they need – layers of snow like blankets- ice is a blanket too  – crocus and saffron spice – sun like a returning lover

Finding nuggets

I read through my notes and see what jumps at me; first impressions, no overthinking:

  • hope to see a crocus- foreverness- anticipation of spring
  • waiting for a lover who has gone away
  • bare knobbly branches- ice that will leave soon
  • arthritic fingers – sun like a returning lover – saffron spice

Reading through this list I’m starting to get a feeling about spring being almost human like a lover – how that lover is gone but will return when the time is right if I can just be patient and determined like a crocus. And I really like the word “foreverness”.

First pass

Trees wave knobbly fingers

ice on the lake fades against grey sky

it bides its time

before it moves on

so my love can return

I will be a honey scented crocus

waiting under the purple shadowed snow

foreverness

waiting for spring and my love’s return

waiting for the saffron sun to warm me

once more

 

Hmmm. It’s got some decent images, but it’s too wordy and too obvious. I need to let the images speak for themselves. Style is too linear and conversational. I need to get rid of unnecessary articles and other words. Knobbly is too soft a word. Images need focus to give the contrast of cold colourless hard winter (lover gone) and softer brighter spring (person in love waiting and hoping) And as much as I love the word foreverness, I’m not sure it fits. I also need to give it a title (a well-chosen title will set up expectations and help with defining what the poem is about).

Refining

SAFFRON LOVER

Bony tree limbs wave

gnarled knuckled fingers

lake ice stretches to grey sky

bides its time

before moving on

 

as the patient honey saffron crocus

nudges to the sun

beneath purple shadowed snow

I wait for spring

and your return

 

So there it is for now. It’s got a way to go, for sure, but it’s started and on the page.  Now, I’ll let it rest a couple of days or weeks and come back to it. Distance will tell me what changes – if any –  to make next.

DID YOU KNOW

Image result for saffron crocus flower

Saffron spice is harvested from the stigmas of a crocus flower. Each saffron crocus bulb produces only one flower and each flower produces only three stigmas.  To get 1lb of dry saffron requires 50,000–75,000 flowers which require about 20 hours of labour to pick. 

It reminds me of counting words!

Add to your word count this spring with 5 days away at Spring Thaw retreat. Get written feedback and a one-on-one consultation with Ruth and Gwynn.  You can 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.

My Digital Idea Archive Project

My Digital Idea Archive Project

A reader left this comment on one of our recent blog posts: “Great blog! I’ll be saving this to my Digital Idea Archive.” What’s a Digital Idea Archive??? We contacted the reader, Leah Murray from BC, and asked her to explain….

Guest blogger: Leah Murray

Do you sometimes need a new idea to get creative and writing again? I do. But now I know what to do about it, thanks to my Digital Idea Archive Project.

I figured my project needed to be tackled in three parts:

  1. Find inspirational ideas I want to keep
  2. Stash ’em someplace safe for future reference
  3. Find ways to retrieve them after we’ve passed through the ancient mists of time (gulp).

Getting the archive set up was straightforward. Sure, it posed a few questions, but I found the solutions and in the end it was worth the effort.

 Find ideas I want to keep

Google’s computerized searches are well up to the work of finding inspiration. If Google could do it online, could I harness that for personal use?

Yes. There’s a handy thing called a Google Alert that will scour the web and bring back whatever it finds about your interests in the form of a daily emailed digest. It took me no time at all to set up Alerts for books, writing tips, photography, farming, small business, and other topics that interested me.


Emailed items turned out to be another piece to the puzzle:  if I can see the original text or image that triggered my idea, I can recreate my train of thought in a flash.  Getting ideas emailed to me or emailing myself and then archiving those emails appropriately seemed a good way to start. My Google Alerts became  part of that

My written work is often triggered by images, so Pinterest was the next stop. There I set up “boards” for books I wanted to read, writing craft, punnies, inspirational artwork/photos, places I want to go, and my perennial interest in self-help/DIY things. Like Google Alerts, Pinterest also sends me a weekly email based on my preferences.

My newest venture is Instagram, a mobile app a lot like Pinterest, but which I find good for sourcing and organizing videos and the people who produce them, like this video on what Instagram can do.

Idea archive part one, check.

Stash ’em someplace safe

I live in a tiny granny suite in the southwestern corner of BC, where space is at a premium. I can no longer keep physical archives, and I didn’t have enough empty file storage space on my existing computer. My archive still had to exist in a form that was

  • accessible with minimal effort,
  • human browsable, for when I’m leisurely searching files for a fresh idea or slant on a perennial topic, and
  • computer searchable, for when I’m working on a broad topic with lots of disparate notes from different times.

A quick poke through Staples and London Drugs websites unearthed the perfect solution: a hefty 2 terabyte Passport drive that plugs in to a USB port on my computer, and holds LOTS of files. All I needed was a sale and less than $100 to end my space challenge.

Most mail programs allow you to print your emails to pdf and put them in disk folders, but I’m lazy-fingered and find that inconvenient. Gmail for example: Right-click on any white space in the email you’re looking at, choose Print, and then use the Change button under Destination to select “Save as PDF”. Most recent versions of Windows and Mac OS have this built in – if yours doesn’t, an Adobe Reader download – – will install it for you.

But my emails get sorted into archive folders under my in-box: I just drag and drop them from inbox to mail folder as I’m checking email each morning. I then use Office 365’s Outlook archiving features to put folder structure and emails onto my Passport drive.

All social media platforms have been known to lose links to information, so things I want to keep, I save to my own archive. In Pinterest I just click on the image, then the “Read It” button at the bottom right hand corner of the image, and copy-paste the article into a Word document and store it in an appropriate folder on my computer. LinkedIn lets me copy and paste entire conversations the same way.

Consistent folder names across the various storage, email, and social media platforms make retrieval much easier. Folder structures work best for me if they are named in the ways that I think, so I created my own. A couple of hours saw my folders labelled and matched on every platform.

I write a LOT about photography and digital imaging, and write poetry, essays, and fiction, so here’s how I organized things.

Occasionally I create a desktop or browser shortcut, aka a bookmark, if I think a topic is a passing fad rather than a long term trend. Bookmarks are easy to create both in Mac and Windows.

For stuff I’ll work on in the next month or two, I save browser bookmarks in folders (yes, you can make – and search – your own folders there too)! ( Chrome does it this way; Firefox this way, )

Idea archive part two, check.

 Retrieve ’em when you need ’em.

Getting things back from storage, of course, is key.

Emails (in individual folders OR across the entire inbox and all sub-folders) are searchable by subject line, content, keyword, date and sender and by some or all of the above in every mail program out there. You just have to learn how. Every email program is slightly different, and not everyone uses my beloved Outlook. For Gmail, I read the search instructions first, learned about search operators next, followed up with a couple of questions in the support chat forum, and I was away to the races.

I then started to learn how to use my File Manager search function to retrieve things. I was astonished to find that my computer has a collection of lovely internal searching systems tucked away in its version of “plain view” – here’s a Windows tutorial on how to find and use those effectively. Macs aren’t wildly different: you use Finder there instead of File Manager, but the principles are identical.

Et voila: one big idea archive, for zero physical space, a few dollars, and a bit of head-scratching.

Digital Idea Archive Challenge conquered!

Meet our guest blogger – Leah Murray

Leah Murray operates byteSMART Strategies from the Lower Mainland of British Columbia, Canada.

Following a career in the Canadian Forces, Leah opened her first technology support business in Oshawa, Ontario.  She closed that business in order to work with scientists in the Research & Development division of an international pharmaceutical company headquartered in Toronto. Several years in rural Ontario developed her passion for small businesses, artisanal, agricultural and otherwise, and today she devotes her energy to helping these enterprises plan, transition and manage their technology.

Today, her raison d’etre is the bringing of technology into the service of the arts, and she writes about it!

A Writer’s Listening Skills

A Writer’s Listening Skills

Ruth E. Walker

My grandmother wore hearing aids. Bulky beige plastic half-moon shapes sat behind her ears.  They were attached to wires that held a small custom-moulded earpiece to fit into each ear canal.

The aids helped with her hearing but at times the high-pitched whining feedback loop was terrible, and she constantly had to adjust the volume. As a child, I thought it seemed a lot of work just to hear better. As I got older, I wondered what it would be like to have to wear hearing aids.

As fate (and genetics) would have it, I’m about to find out.

Hearing is believing

Why would a writer need to worry about perfect hearing? After all, my work exists between my fingers and the keyboard and/or the page. I don’t need to hear what I’ve written when I’m editing—I just need to know that I’ve used the best possible words in the best possible order.

I write fiction. I am especially drawn to characters—their motivations, fears, desires, idiosyncrasies. And I’m curious about them and love to get inside their heads—in short, how their actions and reactions reveal who they are.

Dialogue is a huge part of revealing character. Through conversations and interior monologue, I get to do a lot of exploring and developing interesting characters. And getting that on the page is what gives readers insights into what makes characters tick. What they say. What they don’t say. And how they say it.

I like to think that I’m pretty good at this part of the writing process. I have, as they say, an “ear” for dialogue, for the way people speak and I’ve learned how to use that in my fiction.

I’ve honed that skill by reading how other writers use dialogue. And I’ve further honed that skill by listening in on conversations over the years, by paying attention to how people speak, and especially if they have an agenda or perhaps something they want to keep private.

But lately, I’ve had some trouble with that listening-in part.

I beg your pardon

Over the past year or so, I’ve gone from occasionally asking people to repeat themselves to missing about 40% of what is being said around me. Phone conversations are more difficult. The television is set at an increasingly high volume. Indeed, our PVR has been a godsend so I can rewind and replay two, three even four times to get what I missed.

Parties are really tough even though I’ve become adept at the “large conversation gathering smile”—the go-to when I can’t hear most of what is being said but don’t want to appear “out of things.”

But does this actually affect my writing? I suspect it does in ways I’ve not yet considered. And most importantly, it’s severely limited my listening-in skills. My gift for dialogue doesn’t rest at my fingertips the same. It’s almost as if I have trouble hearing what my characters are saying.

A hearing loss is isolating and while I can still turn to writing to focus my energy, I am missing out on aspects of life.

Solitary craft still needs the world

What I write and how well I write is directly affected by me living a life outside my writer’s room. I’m inspired by the world around me. From birdsong in the early morning to the river’s gurgling at the cottage to the chatter of people in the grocery story, it all is part of what makes me the writer I am.

Sure, the act of writing is solitary. But for me, it is the result of all the senses in play in the world around me. There is nothing solitary about that.

I’m lucky. I have the means to purchase hearing aids that should help me return to the conversation of the world. And if I’m right, those hearing aids will give this writer a much needed boost of inspiration and life.

DID YOU KNOW

In 2015, The Guardian newspaper published an article Hearing Words, Writing Sounds: Examining the Author’s Brain. It’s a fascinating glimpse by Richard Lea into the idea of two kinds of “listening” — writing and reading.

For Pakistani and UK novelist Kamila Shamsie, “It’s about the sound of sentences.” and accordingly, she reads her chapters aloud when she finishes each one. But Booker Prize winner, A.S. Byatt, never reads her work aloud because there are “clearly distinct forms of written and spoken language”.

Professor Brenda Rapp of Johns Hopkins has focused a research study on speech and writing and two regions of the brain: one dedicated to producing and interpreting speech and one to the act of writing. They are, according to Rapp, separated at a very deep level. According the Lea’s article, Rapp’s study followed:

…patients with specific difficulties in speech and writing for 15 years [demonstrating] that writing and speaking are supported by different parts of the brain, not just in terms of the processes controlling the hand and mouth, but at deeper levels of the language system that contain knowledge of how words are put together.

Like Shamsie, I often read my work aloud. Does that mean I’m listening for something more than what I see on the page? I think so, even if I’m not too sure what it is that I’m hearing when I read my work.

How about you? Read The Guardian article and think if “listening” comes into your process of writing. Or, like A.S. Byatt, do you keep your focus strictly “on the page” in how the words work?

Rinse and repeat

Rinse and repeat

Gwynn Scheltema

Okay, I know; I know. New Year is yelling out “GOALS” and “RESOLUTIONS”, and no one really wants to hear it, least of all me. But when I got to thinking about it, I realized I have a few ongoing goal-setting and goal-achieving tools in place already. And they work! So I thought I’d share them with you.

Little and often

While I’m a great supporter of having big long-term goals and a vision of where you want to go in life, I find that sometimes the big picture can be overwhelming. I believe that those big concepts should be the background canvas on which you paint in the details as you go—and re-paint them if you choose.

The writing critique group I belong to understands this perfectly. We meet every two weeks and at the end of each meeting we all set a writing goal for the next two weeks only. We each set our own goal depending on what we are working on at the time and what is happening in our lives.

We encourage specificity— “5000 words” or “edit 3 chapters” or “fill plot hole in Chapter 7 or “four meaningful bum-in-chair sessions”. At the next meeting if we miss our goal, we pay up to a charity fund. But we also encourage life balance. It’s okay to not set a goal if your life dictates. We also recognize that sometimes “thinking about” a plot or character qualifies as long as sooner or later that turns into “writing about.”

This system works because it is frequent, achievable, and there is accountability. Small goals and small successes that add up over time.

Eat that Frog

Mark Twain once said that if you start the day by eating a frog you will have the satisfaction of knowing that this was probably the worst thing you had to do that day. The frog is a metaphor for your biggest and most important task of the day and has become a popular procrastination-busting technique.

When I’m trying to avoid that “frog”, I play solitaire, disappear into social media or sort the kitchen junk drawer or….. I’m sure you have equally pointless—and time consuming—avoidance tactics.

Learning the skill of attacking the most important task first (writing related or not) and getting it out of the way frees you up. You’ll have more time, less guilt and a clear mind to be creative. It’s a skill that helps you accomplish whatever you set as your priorities—including your goals.

It does take practice, but like anything in life, the more you consciously do it, the easier it becomes. Most writers can perform to a deadline. Perhaps putting your own deadline on your “frogs” will help?

 

Make your bed

Now this may seem contradictory to the “eat the frog” principle, but getting through your to-do list and achieving your goals begins with making your bed.

Your mom probably drilled that in to you, but the idea came back into popularity with Navy SEAL Admiral McRaven’s speech to grads in 2014: “If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed. If you make your bed every morning, you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task, and another, and another.”

All I know, it works for me.

Your frog for today

So there you have it.

Today, go make your bed, then sit down and decide on a reasonable achievable goal to be accomplished within the next two weeks. Then break it down into what needs to be done first, and then next, and next after that….

Tomorrow, make your bed, look to see what is #1 on that list and eat that frog.

Day after tomorrow, eat frog #2

Rinse and repeat…rinse and repeat…

DID YOU KNOW

A writing retreat is a great way to focus on your writing projects and goals and registration for Writescape’s Spring Thaw 2018 is now open, and already half full.

This all-inclusive writing retreat is held at the fabulous Elmhirst’s Resort on Rice Lake in Keene. Stay for the weekend or treat yourself to an extra two days of writing.

    • 10-page manuscript evaluation with written feedback from Ruth and Gwynn
    • one-on-one manuscript consultation with either Gwynn or Ruth
    • private writing time
    • optional daytime creativity sessions to fire up your pen
    • a companion workbook with inspiration, prompts and supports
    • optional evening activities to network and share ideas and inspiration with retreat colleagues
    • comfortable cottages with wood-burning fireplace
    • first-class amenities and delicious meals

Brochure-Spring Thaw-2018