Following the Pyper

Following the Pyper

Ruth E. Walker

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

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

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

An “Artiste” at work

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

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

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

Pshaw. What do they know?

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

What Andrew taught me

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

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

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

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

Act Two = Two Acts

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

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

She’s doomed. They’re all doomed.

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

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

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

Self-reflection

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

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

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

DID YOU KNOW?

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

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

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

 

 

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.
Craft 101: Listening to Learn

Craft 101: Listening to Learn

Ruth E. Walker

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

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

Plenty, from all of it.

Exploring the new and shiny

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diving into the familiar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beautiful words sum it up

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

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

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

DID YOU KNOW

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

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

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

 

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.

What’s on the 49th Shelf?

What’s on the 49th Shelf?

Gwynn Scheltema

My spring email notification from the 49thshelf.com arrived today and it got me thinking about what an amazing treasure of Canadian literature this website is—one that every Canadian writer (and reader) should know about.

49thshelf.com is the largest collection of Canadian books on the Internet. They are also likely the most fully realized collaborative website in the world celebrating one nation’s books and authors.

How did the 49th Shelf get started?

Rather than complain about Canadian books and authors often being overshadowed in the marketplace by the sheer volume of books from the US, a community of Canadian publishers of all sizes, across the country, got together and created this site.

Funding came from the Association of Canadian Publishers (ACP), in partnership with the Canadian Publisher’s Council, and from the Department of Canadian Heritage and the Ontario Media Development Corporation (OMDC). Amazon.ca is currently the lead sponsor for the project.

What’s on the 49th Shelf?

The 49th Shelf has one purpose: “to make it easier for readers to discover Canadian books. Canadian books in all genres, from bestselling authors to new talent, from publishers large and small, from all regions of the country.” Each week the homepage highlights new releases.

 

 

To date, they have assembled more than 100,000 Canadian titles from all types of authors, publishers, and genres including self-published authors. The search function allows you to search by those categories as well as by region with their Local Map function (which you can add to if you are a member).

 

 

Reading Lists

My personal favourite feature on the site is the reading list feature. Everything from 2018 award lists like 2018 Finalists for BC Book Prize and the 2018 RBC Taylor Prize Finalists to perennial genre lists like Cozy Mysteries to lists linked to current happenings in the world like this one in response to #National Walkout Day last week:.

Inspiring Stories of Fighting Injustice

#NationalWalkoutDay, where school children and teachers across the US protested gun violence by walking out of their schools for 17 minutes this morning – part of a larger, powerful movement organized by kids – inspired us to share this list with you. The books are all about recognizing injustice, finding ways to fight it, being inspired by real-life heroes, and becoming powerful in important new ways.

And what I love is that I can create my own personalized reading list to bookmark new releases I’m interested in reading, as well as recommend books to others.

Off the Page Blog

They also have a great blog, “Off the Page” with insights into Canadian authors, books and publishing as well as cool stuff in and around Canadian books. For instance, these new releases included The Apocolypse of Morgan Turner by Edmonton author, Jennifer Quist. The book is set in Edmonton and Jennifer blogs on what other authors, books and literary institutions Edmonton has to offer.

Can I add my book to the site?

49thShelf.com imports publisher-supplied data from the national database: BNC BiblioShare: including eBooks, from all publishers, and self-published titles. There is no charge to have books listed on 49th Shelf.

If you don’t have an ONIX data file for your book, you can find out how to make that happen by going to BookNetCanada.ca. There you’ll find the necessary webform to fill out as well as tutorials and manuals to help you.

Any data that you add to the system via the webform will automatically be imported to 49th Shelf as long as you add the country code for Canada (“CA”) in the Contributor section.

Can I sell my book or buy books on 49thShelf.com?

49thshelf.com does not sell books. Instead it supports bookstores across the country, providing direct buy links to retailers’ sites and publishers’ websites on every book page.

 

Oh! And one more thing!

Every week, 49th Shelf posts #giveaways and #bookgiveaways on Twitter and also for members on their website. Free books! You gotta love it!

DID YOU KNOW

Gwynn recently interviewed Beth Bruder, Vice President at Dundurn Press and a founding member and chair of the ACP committee that launched The 49th Shelf. Listen to that interview on Word on the Hills radio program on Northumberland 89.7FM.

Facing “The Other” in Fiction

Facing “The Other” in Fiction

Ruth E. Walker

Bias is a tricky frame of mind. As writers, our biases deserve our attention because they affect how we write.

Our experiences — from infancy to adulthood — shape how we see the world and the other people who we interact with. Media and popular culture. Schoolyards. Neighbourhoods. Travel. It all reaches our senses and informs us about “the other.” And that drills down to how we write characters, create cultures and societies, and even what parts of the landscape we include in our settings.

But bias is learned. Sometimes, “the other” is not seen as such until something or someone tells us so. I used to think it was a natural human reaction to identify “the other” (the person who is not PLU: People Like Us.)

But I was wrong. That bias of identifying “the other”, turns out to be more socially constructed than a natural human reaction. I know this because it happened to me.

1978: A Hard Lesson

Forty years ago, I was a young bride newly moved to London, Ontario. I got a receptionist job at an employment agency. I started out handing out application forms and giving typing and aptitude tests to people looking for temporary or full time work. I’d usher them in for the interview with the professional interviewer.

Eventually, I started offering up insights and feedback to the professionals from my interactions with the applicants. In a couple of years, I was interviewing the inexperienced applicants. You know…those the professionals didn’t have time for. Persons with disabilities. Persons of colour. In short, the less-likely to be sent on for job assignments, the more likely they got me for an interview. Those days, it was a great example of the need for equity in employment.

By waelder – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1962578

One day, the professionals were away and I got to interview a “walk-in” keypunch operator. Back then, computers needed skilled keypunchers to input data. This young woman had taken all the courses. She completed the co-op training. She was dressed professionally and I enjoyed chatting with her. I sent her for an interview at one of the largest industries in London at the time.

The next day, the boss called me in to her office. The company wanted to hire my applicant. But my boss was distressed and angry. “Why on Earth did you send that woman to X company?” she demanded.

“Because she was qualified,” I answered, flustered.

“But she’s a [the woman’s last name],” my boss said. I wondered what the heck her last name had to do with anything, especially her job skills?  And then my boss continued. “She’s a wahoo from the reservation. She’ll work long enough to collect unemployment and then quit.”

A wahoo? I’d never heard the term before. I didn’t understand why my boss was so annoyed. How could she know what would happen with this woman? Reservation? The light started to leak into my brain and I realized she meant the woman was from a First Nation. But I remained confused.

I came from the suburbs in Toronto. I didn’t know a darn thing about reservations. I’d never interacted with Indigenous Canadians, so there was no framed experience. I had simply interviewed a woman who qualified for a job.

And, by the way, she got the temporary job. She held the job. She got hired on full time. She could be working there still and is maybe a senior executive. Who knows?

Letting More Light In

The experience planted a seed in me about this idea of bias. I held onto this seed during my career in Human Resources. I took HR courses on equity, gender issues, discrimination. I wanted a better understanding of how to move past knee-jerk reaction and find the way to human-to-human connection.

I’ll admit to failing, more than once. But the point is, I hope, that I didn’t stop looking for the human instead of “the other”. And I bring that seed—and desire to connect human to human—to my life as a writer. I don’t want to write stereotypes. I don’t want to assume…I want to know about others.

My current work in progress is a science fiction set off-world among people who hold values and beliefs far different from my experiences. And those people are split into two distinct societies with opposing interests, religions and social/political structures. It’s a mess. And it’s a lot of fun to write because I get to explore the world of bias and misunderstanding.

Of course, it’s fiction so I can imagine all sorts of craziness. But even born out of my imagination, my fiction also carries some of my biases. However, here’s where the awareness comes in: I pull the rug out from under my own ideas of “perfection.” And it taught me things. I have learned that, for example, matriarchal societies are not necessarily all nurture and love. Indeed, given the right ingredients, any perfect world can fall apart in a matter of one or two generations.

Bias. It affects how we see and respond to the world. As writers who want to craft truly human stories, we will be wise to keep our biases in mind.

I encourage you to explore your own biases in fiction. And give them some consideration in your life as well. It might open some doors you never knew were there, just waiting for you to come by.

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.

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