Write Away: Highlights From the Poconos

Write Away: Highlights From the Poconos

Guest blogger Stephanie Gibeault writes for children. And lately, she’d been stuck on a novel she loves but couldn’t get liftoff with. A change in locale and working with experienced authors and editors paved the way for some breakthrough work on that middle grade manuscript. She shares her experience with us:

I always heard how amazing writing retreats can be. To learn and write in a resort-like location sounds like a dream. But they’re for people who already have well-developed skills. Right? Not for writers relatively new to their careers or with one unfinished work-in-progress.

Boyds Mills Press

In short, not for writers like me.

Maybe someday I thought I might indulge, but for now, I figured I didn’t have enough ability under my belt. And I didn’t want to be the least-experienced person in the room. Besides, I have a private office for writing, so why would I need to go somewhere else?

Then I stumbled across a five-day workshop I simply couldn’t resist – GettingYour Middle Grade Novel Unstuck at the Highlights Foundation.

Getting there

The Barn workshop centre

The Highlights Foundation is a not-for-profit organization with the mission of improving the quality of children’s literature by helping writers and illustrators hone their craft. They offer more than 40 workshops a year for both  published and novice writers at their retreat centre near Honesdale, Pennsylvania in the Pocono Mountains. Topics range from picture books to YA, and from fiction to the education market. They generously offer over $100,000 in scholarship aid each year to more than 100 attendees, and I am one such grateful recipient.

Despite my reservations about not being ready, I signed up for the workshop last spring because of the teaching staff. I didn’t want to miss my chance to learn from best-selling middle grade authors Elise Broach and Chris Tebbetts. Plus, a guest appearance by Aubrey Poole, editor at Hachette’s JIMMY Patterson Books imprint — too good to pass up.

Writing community magic

It was a magical event and exactly what I needed. Along with 11 other attendees, from a writer with many books under his belt to people just starting out, I learned about both the craft and business of writing, received one-on-one feedback on my work, and left feeling encouraged and inspired. Most importantly, I got “unstuck,” including waking up at 3:00 a.m. and rushing to my computer because I had figured out exactly how to raise my main character’s stakes.

My accommodation was charming, something out of a writer’s daydream. Although there are private rooms in The Lodge, I lucked into a private cabin. Who doesn’t want to write in a quaint little cabin in the woods?

I had twin beds, a desk, my own coffee maker, a mini fridge stocked with pop, and a small bathroom. Everything I needed to nestle in and get to work.

More than eurekas

The days were divided between class time and private writing time. During class, we had lectures, discussions, Q & A sessions, and even writing exercises with the opportunity to share our work with the class. We learned about plot and outlines, the revision process, developing scenes and characters, and how to write gripping first pages. And of course, how to move forward with your writing whenever you’re feeling stuck. (Editor’s note: more on that last one in a future post.)

There was also a one-on-one critique from one of the instructors. This was scheduled on the second day of the workshop, so there was plenty of time to put the feedback into practice. Then, most importantly, we had the opportunity to show the instructor our changes and discuss whether we were on the right track. Both Chris and Elise were incredibly generous with their time, and I took advantage to follow up with my new ideas. That kind of individual attention was invaluable.

Time well spent

Stephanie Elise & Chris

We also ate all our meals with our instructors. It was fun to get to know our teachers better and chat about publishing in such a social and relaxed atmosphere. I don’t know of many events, other than a retreat, that let you so casually interact with publishing professionals and published authors on such an equal footing.

And that private writing time I didn’t think I needed? It was productive, exciting and different from writing at home. A  new view, both from my chair and out my window, inspired me. Fresh off a lecture or critique, I felt motivated to work. No scheduling my writing between chores or other obligations. It was the sole reason I was there and that was liberating.

It was also wonderful to have no other responsibilities than to improve my skills. Other than loading up my plate at mealtimes, I didn’t have to lift a finger away from my pen or keyboard. And that meant more words in less time.

Cross-border revelations

I was the only Canadian at the workshop. I’d heard from other Canadian writers that breaking into the American market is an almost impossible goal. So, during a tour of Boyds Mills Press on the first day, I asked the assistant editor what she thought of working with Canadian authors. I also asked my instructors, Chris and Elise, and the Hachette editor, Aubrey, whether they thought there was such a barrier.

I’m pleased to report they all looked at me like I had two heads. Each one agreed that if the story was excellent, it didn’t matter if the author was Canadian or American.

The issue of setting was mentioned, however. Although a Canadian location was not considered a deal-breaker, it was pointed out that Americans prefer to read about America.

So, if location is not crucial to the story, perhaps moving your setting to south of the border is worth considering if you plan to publish in the States. Of course, this may be specific to children’s literature or these particular editors, but it is still helpful information.

I am so glad I didn’t let my concerns hold me back from attending this writing retreat. I was wrong about the prerequisites and I undervalued the chance to write in a new location. And I wasn’t the only one with those same fears at the workshop.

We all struggle to call ourselves writers. If you are thinking a retreat would be valuable, just not right now, think again. There is no time like the present to improve your skills, receive encouragement, and get inspired. And a retreat is the perfect place to make that happen.

Did You Know?

Writescape has hosted many writers like Stephanie at our retreats. Some of them are writers who say “I’m not sure I’m really a writer.” We’re happy to report that each and every time, those writers leave our retreats knowing they are writers. It is not about the skill level. It is all about owning your true voice and finding the best ways to develop and  express it.

Next retreat: Spring Thaw at Elmhirst’s Resort in Kawartha Lakes. April 20 – 22 or Extend Your Pen until April 24. Includes manuscript feedback and one-on-one consultations. Registration is open now.

CAA One-on-one Feedback

CAA One-on-one Feedback

November 18, 2017

Gwynn Scheltema and Ruth E. Walker are offering the Canadian Authors’ Association, Niagara Branch, a special extra on November 18. After the 3-hour creative writing workshop (10 a.m. to 1 p.m.), What’s in Your Writer’s Wardrobe?*, this dynamic team of writing instructors and editors will conduct half-hour one-on-one feedback/consultation sessions.

*Workshop details

Contact: Charlotte King at gctoasties@gmail.com to register for this free workshop

Thanks to Canadian Authors Association, Niagara Branch and St. Catharines Public Library for co-sponsoring this event.

One-on-One Sessions include:

  • written feedback from either Gwynn or Ruth on up to 10 manuscript pages [**see below]
  • a one-on-one session with either Gwynn or Ruth to discuss the feedback
  • an opportunity to ask questions, discuss writing plans and potential markets

Interested participants must:

  • email up to 10 manuscript pages in advance to info@writescape.ca
  • provide material and payment no later than November 15.

Gwynn’s and Ruth’s feedback sessions are a featured cornerstone of their annual writers’ retreat, Spring Thaw. Skilled editors, they excel at finding a writer’s strengths and offering insights to specific areas that can benefit from further development. Because they are also writers, they understand that the best feedback needs to be specific and constructive.

Maximum of 6 participants.

Fee: $30 + HST includes written feedback from both Gwynn and Ruth

$30.00 CAA Niagara Feedback

Once you select Add To Cart, your shopping cart appears in the right-hand column of this page. You don’t need a PayPal account to use this secure payment method. You will need a credit card.

$3.90 HST will be added by PayPal at the checkout.

**Standard manuscript page:

  • double spaced
  • 12 point font – Calibri, Arial or Times New Roman
  • minimum 1 inch margins all round
  • paginated
  • name and title in header on each page

 

An Altered Life

An Altered Life

I’ve been to a place where all rivers run north, flowing up to the Arctic. I’ve travelled eight hours by car and then five hours by train to reach a place of six seasons: summer, fall, river freeze up, winter, ice break up and spring. I sat in a wide-bottomed freighter canoe, ferried to where the Moose River empties into the salted waters of James Bay.

Thanks to the kind invitation of the Ontario Writers’ Conference, I came to Moose Factory last month to teach a workshop. It was the first Moose Factory Writers’ Retreat, the brainchild of Jean-Pierre Chabot and the MoCreebec Eeyoud Council of the Cree Nation. I hope it is just the beginning of many more arts-related gatherings.

Imagine taking a workshop in the dining room of the Cree Village Eco Lodge, where the soaring wood-lined structure carries both traditional and modern cultural touches. The natural influences—stone, wood, light—affected every moment of our time in that room.

I’ll never be the same writer. There is an energy in Moose Factory unlike anything I’ve experienced. It is the place. And it is the people.

The Place

Moose Factory is where high school students don’t wait for their yellow buses, they cluster by the shore for water taxis (and during freeze up and break up, they climb aboard helicopters to cross the Moose River, and in winter, drive over on the ice road.) Here, school starts early to allow students time off for the all-important goose hunt each fall.

Here, the bright blue sky is big because the land is flat and the treeline marks the horizon with stunted dark spikes of black spruce. A place where walkways are scarce and no roads are paved, where the province’s Highway Traffic Act is powerless and a taxi ride across town is a flat rate.

I enjoyed fabulous bannock burgers at John T’s Wachay Wagon and great fish and chips at the Treeline Diner next to the Northern Store. At GG’s Ace Hardware, you can buy anything. And I mean anything. From ammunition, bagged candy and condoms to groceries, vacuum cleaners and christening outfits.

Compact, neatly maintained bungalows line many of the roads, like any other subdivision in southern Ontario. Except for spruce log tee-pee frames in backyards, and the occasional wildlife that wander through: an unfortunate moose, lingering tree-climbing bear cubs and the ever-present cheeky red squirrels enrich the stories around backyard campfires.

The People

Where to begin? It would take several blog posts to give you a reasonable sense of the generosity and attention I received from Moose Factory residents. When I say attention, I don’t mean fawning admiration or special treatment. I mean people who are present. With you. In the room. It’s remarkable.

It made for a great workshop. I never worked so hard or felt as satisfied at the end of a session as I did in Moose Factory. Our coffee house event the next day was a community celebration of poetry, song, art and prose. The Big Dipper is now also a furred fisher that sacrificed everything to return water to the land. A section of an old freighter canoe, a canvas for the beautiful art of John Reuben, will soon hang on my cottage wall.

But let me tell you story. I was on this trip with Naomi Mesbur and Barbara Hunt of the Ontario Writers’ Conference. Along with Durham Region writers, Erin Thomas and Adele Simmons, we were treated to many amazing moments by the people of Moose Factory.

When The Past Became Present

photo: Hjvannes
On one of our several wanderings, Norm, a workshop attendee, former Cree chief and teacher, and now minister, took us into St. Thomas’ Anglican Church. Built in 1885 by the Hudson’s Bay Company, it needs to be restored before it can be used again. St. Thomas’ is an impressive structure, the huge timbers and curved wooden ceiling reflecting the skill of HBC shipbuilders. The massive bell was removed from the cupola and waits silent and still, just inside the entrance. Stained glass windows were also removed and sealed in wooden boxes until their return to the original frames.

We all knew we were being offered a privileged glimpse into this locked and vacant building.

Norm has faith that this historic church will be restored. He asked us to take a seat in the dusty pews. He told us of how the front pews were reserved for management and staff of the Hudson’s Bay Company. The Cree worshippers were kept in the back pews. Norm said, despite all the things his people have endured over the years, they never lost their faith. Just outside, next to the river, they once camped close by.

And then Norm shared something I will never forget. He sang a morning hymn. In Cree. The same hymn sung many mornings by the long ago people camped by the river, the church just steps away. Norm’s words and music soared above and through us as we sat in those pews. Just as they must have done in the 1800s and 1900s, as the mist lifted from the river and the sun coloured the tips of the treeline.

Moose Factory is rich in contradictions. Wi-Fi in the Eco Lodge. Pot holes on the roads that could swallow your shoes. While waiting for my first taste of bannock at the Wachay Wagon, I chatted with members of a movie crew. They were filming author Joseph Boyden‘s Through Black Spruce. They were easy to spot among the locals. More than their big city attire, they carried a kind of out-of-place vibe as they clustered together.

I understood that awkwardness. I, too, felt like I’d fallen through the rabbit hole after stepping onto the Eco Lodge dock. I certainly hope that movie crew allowed the magic of the people and the place to move into their hearts. Like them, I was motivated to come for artistic reasons—my next writing project will explore my ancestral connections to Canada’s fur trade. I hoped for some inspiration.

What I came away with was so much richer. Meegwetch.

DID YOU KNOW?

Writescape picks its retreat locations carefully. We’ve always chosen settings that are flavoured by the natural world. We look for landscapes that inspire with lakeside sunsets or sunrises. Trees, gardens and winding paths offer gifts to the perceptive writer. Quiet corners, comfortable, well-appointed rooms and healthy foods nourish bodies and imaginations.

Join us on November 3 to 5 at Fern Resort on Lake Couchiching for Turning Leaves. Our guest author Vicki Delany looks forward to chatting on Friday evening and delivering a Saturday morning workshop. With more than 20 books to her credit, Vicki has so much to offer participants. This retreat is suitable for writers at all levels.

Women Killing It

Women Killing It

Gwynn Scheltema

When I read Julia Cameron’s seminal book The Artist’s Way, she introduced me to the concept of a writer’s date: a block of time set aside to nurture your creative inner artist.

The idea behind this concept is that as we create, we run the risk of emptying our creative well, so we need to constantly refill that creative well by consciously experiencing new things, taking time to observe, taking time to breathe and reflect.

The Artist’s Date

There are many things you can do on your artist’s date. Because our creative brain is a sensory brain, anything that stimulates the senses or fires up the imagination will work: a walk in the park, making soup, lying on your back and watching clouds, going to a food or music festival. It doesn’t matter as long as you do it mindfully.

This coming Labour Day weekend, my artist’s date will take me to a new writing festival being held in Picton, Prince Edward County. It has the fun title of “Women Killing It.”

In the morning, I’ll be taking a workshop titled “So You want to Write a Mystery?” with author Mary Jane Maffini. In the afternoon I’ll join four writers of mystery and suspense for “Murder at the Vicarage”, an afternoon of readings, discussion and sumptuous Victorian high tea at Macaulay House.

Women Killing it

This Crime Writers Festival showcases nine Canadian women authors of crime and mystery. On Friday evening at “The Mysterious Affair,” a table-hopping event introduces each of the authors in turn: Mary Jane Maffini, Susanna Kearsley, Nazeen Sheikh, Elizabeth J. Duncan, Melodie Campbell, R.J. Harlick, Barbara Fradkin, Maureen Jennings and Robin Timmerman.

Saturday features the workshop and event at Macaulay house I mentioned earlier, and the day finishes with an evening event, “Appointment with Death (and Dessert).” Here, authors writing on the darker side will discuss murder, motives and MOs.

Why have this festival?

The festival was the brain child of mystery author Janet Kellough and Vicki Delany, also a crime writer and then Chair of the Crime Writers of Canada. They felt that Canada’s talented pool of women crime writers needed to have more exposure. I’m glad they did. What a treat! All this talent in one place, right in my backyard.

Perhaps you’ll take yourself on an artist’s date to “Women Killing It.” Find out details online or on Facebook.

You might also like to listen to two recent interviews with the organizers Janet Kellough and Vicki Delany on Word on the Hills radio program hosted by Felicity Sidnell Reid and me. These two prolific writers talk about the festival and their latest books.

 

DID YOU KNOW

Co-organizer of Women Killing It, Vicki Delany, will be our guest author at this fall’s Turning Leaves 2017 Retreat. Vicki is one of Canada’s most varied and prolific crime writers. Her newest cozy series is the Sherlock Holmes Bookshop Mystery Series. The first volume Elementary She Read was published in March 2017, and the next in the series, Body on Baker Street will hit the shelves on September 12.

Ten Ways to Get the Most from Writing Prompts

Ten Ways to Get the Most from Writing Prompts

Gwynn Scheltema

At the recent Just Right at Glentula Retreat, we used a number of writing prompts. Most writers have tried them at some point in their writing journeys. Some love them; some not so much. I find them invaluable. I’ve used written, verbal, visual, and textural prompts. I’ve even used smell and taste prompts.

Some writers resist prompts, because they feel that their writing time is limited and they should be writing the “real stuff.” But remember that “completing the prompt” is not the object. The goal is to get you writing, to get you writing what has the most energy for you, and to lead you into your writing project.

How do you do that?

Follow the energy

Often when you begin writing about the subject of the prompt — say swimming in a lake — it can take you  somewhere else — say an experience of drowning or crab baskets in Italy or how your father never believed in taking vacations. Go there. Forget the prompt and go where the energy is.

Prompts unlock memories and experiences, and when you write honestly about them, about how you felt, what you observed, and perhaps even capture some of the dialogue that was spoken, you can take that piece and adapt  it later for your “real” writing.

Prompts are not precise nor prescriptive.

Understand the possibilities of “You”

Prompts often use the pronouns “you” or “your”: “Write about your greatest fear” or “Imagine yourself beside a body of water…” Of course, you can write about your own experience, but you can also approach it as if you are one of your characters. And not just your protagonist or your viewpoint character. Often it is more revealing to pick your antagonist, or a minor character.

Switch it up

Try the same prompt from two different characters’ points of view. If the prompt says “What’s your favourite colour?”, get your character to answer. What colours does she/he have an aversion to? Perhaps you don’t know. Write about the fact that you don’t know that about your character. Why don’t you know? What else don’t you know? Or have characters answer that question about each other. What did your protagonist’s mother think were his /her favourite colours? How did that play out in your protagonist’s life? Did the mother always dress your protagonist in blue for example?

If you are a memoir writer, remember that the people in your life are your characters; they are just called Mom, or Dad or Great Aunt Mabel. And like a fiction writer, you can stretch by writing as if you are another character.

 

Prime the Muse

Prompts take you places you don’t expect, but I’ve also found them useful for getting into scenes that I was planning to write. Start by identifying a scene in your story you want to work on. For instance, you might want to do a scene where one character makes the first show of affection towards the other. Using the prompt “What’s your favourite colour?” as a line of dialogue could take you to a scene at a fair or in a mall where he is buying her something, or in a garden where the flowers are in bloom, or just in the kitchen choosing a coffee mug.

Write what you know  

The facts of your life may not be the stuff of wild imaginative novels, but your human reaction to events is as valid as any character in any novel. Perhaps you haven’t been in a dugout canoe in the Amazon Jungle, but you know how it feels to sweat. You also know how helpless you can feel in a strange place. Could the feeling of being swept down the river with the jungle crowding in also feel like being swept along in a crowd at a frenzied rock concert or at busy subway station? It’s not the facts from your life that connect with readers, it’s the emotions and commonalities.

The Senses

Like the things you feel, what you see, hear, touch, taste and smell also relate to what we all know. When writing from prompts, the senses will always ground you and lead you forward. Make use of ALL five senses. Also consider the temperature, the quality of the light, time of day, the weather, the seasons, the historical period.

Move into Metaphor

When you have considered the senses, move into metaphor. Ask yourself: What does this remind me of? What is it like? What is it not like? Explain it to someone who’s never seen, heard, touched, smelled or tasted it before. What would a child relate it to? What would your character compare it with?

Be specific

As you write, imagine being in your scene. Notice and write about specific sensuous details: not “a car” but “the dented yellow Edsel-Ranger taxi.” Write about unusual details, incongruous details. Write about what’s missing. Imagine the scene with and without people — general people, specific people. Listen for snatches of remembered or overheard conversation.

 

Opposites

Turn the prompt around and do the opposite. Substitute “hate” for “love”, try “old” in place of “young”, use “like least” instead of “favourite”. Write using both approaches and consider the similarities or juxtapositions created. If you can’t remember, start with “I don’t remember.” If you’ve never experienced the prompt, say singing for a crowd, start with “I have never sung in front of people because …” or “I have never sung in front of people but I have …”

Lists

Sometimes a topic seems too big to approach with authenticity. For instance, if the prompt asks you to write about someone you fear, and you’ve always feared your father, you may not feel comfortable diving into writing about him. Instead make a list of all the people you fear. Try to make the list really long. The items you add to the list last are often the ones buried deep. At the end of your list may be a kid from grade school. Write about him. Chances are you’ll find you feared him for many of the same reasons you feared your father.

Or make a list about all the emotions you feel about your father, and write about any one of them.

Give it a go

Prompts have been the source of many of my “keep” scenes. I may end up only using a portion of what I wrote, perhaps just one paragraph, but the prompt usually takes me where I’ve been resisting going and anything that gets me writing is a good thing.

Need a prompt now? There are lots of online sites. Here are a few for fiction, non-fiction and poetry:

Now, go and write, write, write ….

DID YOU KNOW

At Writescape retreats, we provide optional creativity sessions to tickle your muse and a companion work book full of prompts and ideas to take your writing to places it hasn’t gone before. Join us at our next retreat: Turning Leaves 2017.

A Boy, His Words, His Way

A Boy, His Words, His Way

Ruth E. Walker.

This time last year, I wrote about my annual experience at Durham Integrated Arts Camp, an 8-day arts-infused camp for Grades 7 – 12 students. Run by my local school board, DIAC is held at a private camp fairly close to my cottage.

I love going there. I teach an elective “Creative Words” where my students are encouraged to leave behind grammar and spelling worries and just focus on writing their words, their way. I tell them, “This is school but our focus together is on being creative with words. Exploring the craft of writing. Stretching our pens into richer territory as writers. Not worrying about the three-point paragraph.”

Daily Wordplay

I had 54 students split over three periods — and each day, we played with words. Exercises, experimentation and sharing work with each other. Partnered or in small groups, they would read selected excerpts to one another. I wanted them to gain confidence in reading their work aloud and offering each other feedback.

Every day, we ended with at least one timed freefall writing exercise. Freefall, originated by the great W.O. Mitchell (Mitchell’s Messy Method), means they follow the energy, don’t stop writing, don’t fix anything and even if they can’t think of what to write, that is exactly what they write.

I can’t think of what to write. I don’t know why Ruth is making me do this. I can’t stand it when people make me do stuff like this. Just like when…

And before they know it, they’re writing about something that catches their imagination. It’s great to watch them drop deeper and deeper into the zone of writing in freefall.

The Challenge

But there was one student who caught my attention.

Day One, he came into our old workshop building and sat himself as far as possible from all the others. Arms crossed, hood up and over his head and cowl raised to cover his mouth was a clear signal to the rest of us: I am not comfortable. And I’m not at all sure about this.

I’ve met this boy before. Well, not him exactly, but others who seemed like him. As a visiting artist at an alternative high school, many students would greet me in just this way. I was hopeful that my eventual success with them would help me here.

During the first freefall, I saw that he wrote very little. So I asked him quietly if I could help. “I can’t write without paying attention to grammar and spelling. It matters to me,” he said.

Spelling and grammar matter?!? I could have kissed him right there and then. But besides getting me fired for being completely inappropriate, it would have freaked him out. So I said “Write in whatever way works for you. I say it doesn’t matter about spelling and grammar to free people up but if it matters to you, then go ahead, pay attention to it. Remember: your words, your way.”

Day Two. Hood and cowl off. Still sitting separate but not as far away. Seems to be writing more.

Day Three. He comes into class, smiling over something someone had just said to him. Sits next to another student. I thought to myself, when this boy smiles, the room lights up. Cliché, I know. But it is exactly what I thought. Because it was true.

And here’s the best part of this day. It came time for sharing. By now, a few students volunteer to read to the whole room.

And he raises his hand. “I’ll read,” he says. Stands. Speaks his truth as captured on the page by his pen. Three seconds of silence as he sits back down and the room erupts in table thumping and cheers, and so many comments, we ran overtime. And his smile? Surely the glow illuminated the whole camp.

His Art, His Way

That glorious moment. That alone would have been enough to fuel my workshopping heart for years to come. But it was at Talent Night on Day Four that I learned as strong as his voice is on the page, there is another art that will claim his soul.

Imagine. A full set of drums, glistening red sides, gleaming cymbals and so on, on an otherwise bare stage. And my grammar-and-spelling camper sits at those drums, illuminated by the single spotlight. Nearly 450 campers in the audience, along with various instructors and staff. I recall thinking to myself “Oh, he drums. Hmm. That explains the excellent rhythm in his reading…”

The background music starts up. Something jazzy, if I recall. A moment spent thinking, well, isn’t this a nice surprise — he likes music with some depth, maturity…and then his drumsticks dive into the call and answer of the music. And the music, quite frankly, ceases to matter.

Have you ever seen Gene Krupa or Buddy Rich battle it out at the drums? Were you mesmerized by the 2014 film “Whiplash”? Have you felt the magic of TorQ Percussion vibrate into your bones?

Well, you may then have an inkling of what we experienced in that auditorium. His sticks flew, so fast, so hard, so exquisitely staccato that when one splintered off, part of it cartwheeling into the air, the cheers rose to the ceiling and came back down again. He didn’t stop for a nanosecond. His joy. His passion. His complete immersion in the zone was for us to watch and marvel at. This was no Grade 8 boy taking his first tentative steps on stage. This was a musician on the path to mastery and we were his witnesses.

The spontaneous standing ovation from his peers invited another glorious smile. More than acceptance, all of us in that auditorium were connected with the artist and he knew it. Many of us know what we saw that night. Years from now, we can say we were there when…

And how does this creative writing teacher feel about a young man’s clear gift as a writer being second fiddle to his drum kit? Fantastic. Who know what other gifts he’s harbouring? I’ll be back next year to see what I can discover.

Did You Know?

So many artists didn’t start out knowing they were meant to work in a particular medium. Or they were obligated to follow family footsteps while their hearts really belonged elsewhere. And some artists have more than one career.

The great American poet, William Carlos Williams was, for much of his life, Chief of Pediatrics at Passaic General Hospital. Vincent van Gogh tried being a missionary, teacher and art dealer before he discovered art school at age 27; ten years later, he committed suicide but left behind a remarkable legacy of iconic art.

Some writers take time to achieve publication. Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison (The Bluest Eye) and ahead-of-her-time rule-breaker George Eliot  (a.k.a. Mary Anne Evans) both published their first books at age 40. Much beloved Dr. Seuss (a.k.a. Theodore Geisel) was 33 when his first children’s book arrived on the shelves.

And some writers take a long time to find their voice. Anna Sewell was 57 years old when her first and only novel, Black Beauty was published. She died the following year but lived long enough to see the book’s initial success.

Whether you’re a teenager with a brilliant writing career mapped out or nearing retirement and thinking about that novel you always wanted to write, remember this great advice I got from an agent recently. “Age doesn’t matter very much in the publishing world. It’s the quality and marketability of the writing that matters.”

The 13,000 Km Workshop

The 13,000 Km Workshop

Gwynn Scheltema

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image paradox

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

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

…Of easy wind and downy flake.

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

Symbol Paradoxes

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

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

 

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

 DID YOU KNOW?

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is One Journal Enough?

Is One Journal Enough?

Gwynn Scheltema

Like a lot of teenage girls, I kept a diary for several years. Entries are a hodgepodge of the trivial: (we didn’t have the geography test today), funny: (my blue dress seems to have shrunk and Daddy is not amused!), and, on occasion, surprising: (I found myself sleepwalking last night).sad-woman-1055092_640

I wrote strictly about my life, what happened and how I felt about it. The diaries were hard-cover, date-at-the-top-of-the-page books, and fifty years later, I still have them. I’m glad I have them. But I know I likely wouldn’t if they had been soft-cover spiral-bound notebooks.

And now?

Yet these days, I do journal in spiral-bound notebooks—and tiny pocket notepads, on the computer and in large books with unlined paper. So why the difference?

What prompted me to think about my different journals, was a comment from Heidi Croot on my post To Edit or Not to Edit, where she mentioned the Steinbeck style of journaling (a guest post by by Kendra Levin on Brian Kelms blog) where Steinbeck had a “companion journal” chronicling his progress on his novel. I don’t have a Steinbeck companion journal (yet), but I do have a variety of journals that serve different purposes and their physical form does seem to influence their use.

female-865110_640Sadly, I have several beautiful journals—handmade paper, illustrated, filled with wise sayings, beautifully bound—and I will likely never write in them. I’m afraid I’ll “spoil” them, like everything I write in them needs to be perfect. Silly, maybe, but that’s me. Many writers are inspired by beautiful paper or pens, or illustrations and bindings. Just not me.

So here’s what I use and why:

Journal for Morning Pages

After the teenage years, I didn’t journal for decades. What got me back into it was Julia Cameron’s creative self-discovery book The Artists Way, where I discovered morning pages—three pages of uncensored writing done first thing in the morning. No rules, don’t overthink, just write three pages of something. When I first started, a lot of it was ranting or wishing and even to-do lists. But now, it’s a mix of personal and creative. Most of my poetry starts in mornings pages, and I use it to “talk out” fiction problems too, and start fiction scenes.

leather-refillable-journalI tried various sizes, lined and unlined, and finally settled on a 6 x 9 lined. It fits easily on my bedside table and filling 3 pages doesn’t intimidate me. The reality is, I often fill far more. They fill up quickly, so I invested in a leather refillable version that closes with a tab and has a pen holder. Refill notebooks are cheap and easily found at the dollar store, because it is a standard size. I’m not forced to buy refills from the original manufacturer.  As I finish each one, I label it with the dates it covers and store them on a shelf in my writing room.

B.I.C. File

Morning pages are done by hand on paper before I get out of bed. If I wrote everything by hand, however, I would waste a lot of time typing it up. So I have a computer journal too.notebook-405755_640

I house it in Scrivener, and the project name is BIC (bum in chair). I write here with the same uncensored writing attitude as morning pages: sometimes timed freefall sessions, sometimes writing prompts, all in an attempt to stay ahead of the internal critic. It works. Many blogs and fiction scenes have been birthed here. When I create something I think is useful, it’s easy to copy and paste it to the relevant writing file and keep going.

Journal for Anytime – Anywhere

This notebook has to fit in my purse, so it’s much smaller, about 3 x4, dollar store quality. In it, I record odd thoughts or observations that come to me when I’m out and about. It has no organizing method, and I make sure it doesn’t have too many pages, because if it stays rattling around too long in my purse, it tends to fall apart. This forces me to take the contents and do something with them: type them up in appropriate computer files (blog ideas; scenes for the novel; poetry ideas etc.), add them to projects, or discard them.

Visual Journal

maple-leaf-638022_640A good friend of mine keeps her journal in a large blank-paged artist’s sketch book. She writes in it, draws in it, sticks photos and leaves and feathers in it too. It’s like a giant scrapbook, and she says she likes the freedom of not having lines. I’m not so good with things that don’t have boundaries—safety edges—but I do keep a version of this. I have one for my novel, with newspaper clippings, photos, magazine cut-outs, maps of towns or plans of houses. Visual stuff. Electronically, I use Pinterest (a board for each novel) and Scrivener has great research capabilities for keeping visuals and web links.

Teeny-tiny sentence-a-day journal

flowerets-577081_640Quite by chance, I was given a pocket journal, about the size of a credit card. I wondered what on earth I could possible use it for. I decided I would force myself to observe through all the senses and each day write just a single line to describe something in a different way. The sentence-a-day part didn’t work out, but those single lines have inspired poetry and been a great exercise for my creative mind.

Whether you want to keep the personal separate from your fiction, or hate margins, or need space to draw, it’s all your choice. Ultimately, there is no right or wrong form for a journal. What’s important is that it suits your way of creating.

What journals do you keep and why?

Sharpening your creative edge

Sharpening your creative edge

Gwynn Scheltema

This weekend, Ruth and I spent a few hours with a motivated and talented group of writers in St. Catharines. Some were beginners, some seasoned professionals, but all of them dived in and challenged themselves and took creative risks. It was thoroughly energizing.

boots on rail lineWriting is, for the most part, a solitary act. Sometimes lonely, sometimes blissfully peaceful. But I find that too much alone time as a writer is not always good. Yes, I might get more written, but it can also sometimes skew my writing perspective.

I can get rooted in bad writing habits, forgetting to use fundamental writing skills I have used before. My writing challenges can start to feel insurmountable. Or I can relax into my writing comfort zone and stop taking risks…dulling my creative edge.

Being with other writers this weekend, feeling that energy that emerges when writers get together, reminded me that I need to build that into my writing life. I also need to hone my creative edge by deliberately taking regular creative risks.

So how can you take regular creative risks and re-energize?

Give voice to non-POV characterseyes-141363_640

Write a scene from a non-POV character‘s perspective. This reminds you that each character has their own motivations. You don’t have to use the piece you write, but in the act of writing it, that character may give you insights about your regular POV character or about the events in the scene. Perhaps there are even connections to other characters you were missing.

Approach description differently

addict-84430_640Challenge yourself to use visual description sparingly, and increase the use of the other senses instead. Try also to limit scene description to just two or three details. (And make sure that the details are ones that the characters would naturally notice and not just things the author wants the reader to notice.)

 

Use prompts

Using prompts forces you to come at things from different entry points. They stimulate memories and experiences that can be adapted to fiction and can be a springboard to new ideas. Here are three links to get you started.

Freefall writestamp-895380_640

Freefall writing is one of the best and most satisfying ways I know to stay ahead of your internal editor and left analytical brain and give your right creative brain and your subconscious a chance to surface. By writing without stopping for a set time, and having no expectations of what will be written is extremely freeing, and time and time again I’ve seen wonderful writing emerge from the practice.

Get together with other writers
Dining at Turning Leaves
Dining at Turning Leaves

Even if you have a wonderful writing space at home, getting together with other writers to write is a different and energizing experience. I live next to a lake, but look forward to going on retreat whenever I can. It allows me to “leave the world behind” for a short while and concentrate on being creative. Being with a group of people who understand the writing world is invaluable and seeing others around me writing motivates me to write too. Try it. Join Ruth and me at our annual fall retreat Turning Leaves 2016 this November.

 

 

 

 

To edit or not to edit…

To edit or not to edit…

Gwynn Scheltema

You write Chapter 1. It flows like paddling a canoe in a strong current, a few J strokes and you are heading forward fast. Yes!

Chapter 2 starts out that way too, still moving well, still splashes of enthusiasm and creativity, but the current flows a little slower now. You think back to Chapter 1. Did you start in the right place? Perhaps you should go back to the beginning and make sure?

So you retrace your steps back to the start and paddlecanoe-1082130_640 through Chapter 1 again. For the moment you are convinced that, yes, you started in the right spot. But you find a short cut on an upper stretch that improves the trip, so you make it. Chapter 1 feels really good now.

Back on the route of Chapter 2, you look for similar shortcuts, note the beautiful spots you don’t have time to explore, make notes about bad spots you’ll avoid if you come this way again.

In Chapter 3, your writing river opens into a lake. You’re not sure exactly which way to point the canoe, so you figure you’ll go back to Chapter 2 and explore those beautiful spots before you continue.

And while you are in Chapter 2, you figure you probably missed a couple of beautiful spots in Chapter 1, so you go back to Chapter 1 and….

Sound familiar?

The internal editor

It’s certainly the story of my writing life. But I know I’m not alone. The urge to rewrite before you’ve finished the story is powerful. Many discarded, unfinished manuscripts have polished first chapters that would keep readers reading…if there was more to read.

It’s all the fault of that dastardly writers’ internal editor. The one that tells us that our writing is “crap”; that we are disillusioned at best and arrogant at worst to think anyone would want to read what we write. The one that tells us we need to be perfect.

man-286477_640And the truth is, most first drafts are not publishable. As Hemingway so succinctly said, “All first drafts are shit.” First drafts will have strong parts and weaker bits, and bits that should be axed and areas where more needs to be written. That’s NORMAL. That’s what the editing process is for.

But if you heed your rational, analytical, internal editor, and constantly loop back out of the writing process and into editing, you will run out of creative energy. And you will push the unconscious creative writer in you further and further away.

In her book on writing, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott wrote:bird by bird

The only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page… Just get it all down on paper because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means.

No editing on a first draft?

 So does that mean that you should never edit as you go. Of course not.

I get momentum for a new chapter by going into the previous chapter—not back to the beginning of the novel— to read it and often edit it. That’s productive. You get into the voice of your characters again, you renew your sense of place in the story. And the time invested is not huge. More importantly, you do it as a way to move forward, not as an excuse to not move forward.

Perhaps like me, part way through your manuscript, you feel that the wrong character is telling the story, or that the POV should be first person instead of third person. I think it makes sense at this point to go back to a previous chapter or two—again, not necessarily the beginning—and rewrite and decide. But make that decision and move on.

girl-1563986_640Time and circumstance play a role too. If all I have is the forty minutes on a noisy train, likely editing is a better use of my time.But maybe not. Maybe just thinking through a plot hole or a character’s reaction in an upcoming scene would be better for keeping the novel moving forward.

It’s definitely tempting to go back to edit when you can’t think of  what to write next. I do it all the time. But I’ve found some effective ways to overcome that urge:

  • Go for a walk and think my way through the plot or character problem and then write forward again.
  • Use targeted writing prompts
  • Freefall write
  • Write a brief summary of the scene I’m stuck on, and go on to the next scene.
  • Persuade myself to write just one sentence…then one more…then…

It all comes down to how much your editing loops are preventing you from writing new material. We all create and work differently. If a bit of editing gets the creative juices flowing, go right ahead. But if it’s a procrastination tactic, fight the urge. The main goal of your first draft is to get the whole story down.

How do you stop yourself from using editing as procrastination? Share your tactics in the comments below.