Reading outside your genre

Reading outside your genre

Gwynn Scheltema

My last post was about defining what genres we write in. Which got me to thinking about what genres we read. And the value of reading outside our usual genres.

Books that move me

I love language and wallowing in words. I love to reread evocative passages, to stop mid story to share a sentence with my husband that I find particularly beautiful or thought-provoking. I like skilled play with fiction forms. Consequently, I often gravitate to literary fiction. Story is important to me, but plot is not. I prefer internal character struggles rather than thrilling events, or fast-paced action. I’m happy to spend time in people’s heads, seeing the world from their perspectives. Recent reads (which I highly recommend) have been: The Orenda by Joseph Boyden. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr and Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese.

I also like the books I read to be set in exotic places, in other cultures, and affected by political or natural turmoil that I am never likely to be faced with. I like to learn about other customs and occupations. The Bonesetters Daughter by Amy Tan (historical fiction), Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenston (non fiction/memoir) and In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner (historical fiction) fit that bill.

Broadening my reading horizons

But I’ve also had to spend a fair amount of time this year away from home, and have found myself reading books passed on to me or chosen for me by others, books I likely would have walked right by in the bookstore.

I learned a lot in the process. Reading time is limited and with the books I have to read for a variety of reasons, the time left for reading for enjoyment is really limited, but I was reminded that broadening my reading horizons was a necessary—and enjoyable— part of being a well-rounded writer and editor.

What I learned from the books that found me

Of the books that found me, let me tell you about just three of them. Turns out, I enjoyed them all, and reading as a writer, I learned a lot too:

The first one: Spud by John van der Ruit is a YA humorous coming-of-age story set in a fictional private boys school in South Africa in 1990 around the time of the release of Mandela. It’s written in a diary style like The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole.

Apart from bringing back a lot of memories of my own schooling in an Anglican Church School in Zimbabwe, Spud reminded me that humour is a great foil for addressing tough and often brutal circumstances. This book tackled bullying, attempted rape, mental illness as well as the usual problems of growing up, boarding school and relationships. It showed me that sometimes less is more, and that young boys and girls face many of the same problems. Structurally, the diary format allowed much to be said without embellishment or long drawn-out scenes. It allowed room for things to be left unsaid.

The next: The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling, listed as a contemporary mystery thriller, is a multi-voice fiction about a seemingly ordinary small-town and what really goes on behind closed doors.

Rowling’s dialogue in this book is superb. She handles the dialogue of different ages, cultures and socio-economic characters in way that their speech and dialect is distinct, authentic and utterly believable. I had a hard time getting into the book because there is an enormous cast of characters, and Rowling “head-hops” a great deal, but once in, I was hooked. From this book, I learned that multiple viewpoints can work well as long as each voice has their own story not more or less important than the others.

And the third: Some Girls, Some Hats and Hitler is a memoir by Trudy Kanter, an Austrian Jew who used her connections as a hat designer to escape events in World War II and find safety for herself and her husband Walter. Like Spud, this book handled grave situations with humour. What really struck me though, was how Trudy spent a lot of time talking about hats and fashion and parties and décor and other things that at first seemed frivolous and inappropriate for the dire war situation and terrible and frightening circumstances she was facing. But then I realized that that was Trudy’s coping mechanism. It got me thinking about the different ways different people use to handle a given situation. Just because I might handle a situation one way, my characters (and readers) might do something completely different.

Other reasons to read out of your usual genre

Stephen King famously said, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

Yes, you should read extensively in the genre you write to become familiar with it on all levels, but reading on a regular basis outside your genre, outside your comfort zone, makes you a better well-rounded writer. It clears the cobwebs away in your creative brain. Gets you out of a rut. New perspectives, new craft approaches and new possibilities. Same-old-same-old in your reading leads to same-old-same-old in your writing.

Who knows, you may discover a new genre that really speaks to you. Perhaps that coming-of-age story you’ve been struggling with as an historical romance might be better reworked as a dystopian YA. But you have to read some dystopian YA to find out.

And not just different genres, but different writing forms: short stories, poetry, plays…  Each form can teach you different writing skills that will help with your novel. Plays are excellent for studying dialogue, poetry can remind you about image and metaphor and the economy and power of words.

So take the plunge, be adventurous, make a pact with yourself to include a new genre or new form when you pick up your next book. You’ll be glad you did.

DID YOU KNOW

Ruth and Gwynn are off to the Niagara Region this month to deliver a workshop that explores writing in different styles and genres, called What’s in Your Writing Closet. If your group is interested in this or any of our workshops, explore our on demand workshop options.

 

 

The Art of Noticing

The Art of Noticing

Gwynn Scheltema

Lately I haven’t been writing much. For once I have a valid reason. I’ll spare you the details, but essentially, because of a family crisis, I find myself back at my childhood home in Zimbabwe with little to no time to myself and definitely no emotional energy to be creative.

I decided that I should at least do a bit of journaling, and record what is happening and how I felt about the situation I find myself in, but I’m too close to it right now, and too focused on what needs doing to write even that. My friend and business partner Ruth, in her wisdom, suggested that I just be aware of the five senses while I am here. Store up the smells and sounds and tastes of Africa where my novel is set.

It was a good idea. I had noticed, for instance, that when I arrived in the last week of October the Jacaranda trees were in full and splendid bloom. They only bloom like this for about a week, and if you are lucky enough to witness it, you can find yourself travelling under a canopy of trumpet-shaped lilac blossoms—no green leaves yet, just blossoms— each blossom bunch a nodding head of delicate beauty. Then one gusty wind storm or a thrashing afternoon thundershower and they fall en masse, carpeting the ground in lilac for one glorious day until they are trampled underfoot into a bruised mess. I knew this about Jacarandas. I’d grown up with them. But in my memory, I had one important detail wrong. I always thought this happened in September!

flying-white-antsIt’s also the time for flying white ants. I thought I knew all about them too. After all, as kids we used to catch and cook them on a fire till they were crispy and edible. (Yes, people, the fad move to eating insects is definitely not revolutionary.) What I had never noticed, however, was that once they lost their wings (a natural occurrence) they seek each other out on the ground and form a train of wingless bodies head to toe. To what end, I have yet to discover.

So, I told myself, maybe forget trying to advance the novel for now and concentrate on noticing with a writer’s eye. Australian writer, Paddy O’Reilly,  says, “Deep and focused attention makes the old new. It recognizes connections between things we thought were unrelated. It throws light on hidden parts of ourselves and others. The attention we pay to the world pays us back as writers.”

It’s advice I give to participants in my creative get-a-ways at Glentula. It takes time and focus and a willingness to really look and see what really is and not what you think is or should be. There is an art to noticing.

So how can you develop your writer’s eye and learn to really notice?

  1. Practise, practise, practise

cafe-845527_640Whenever you are out and about, pay attention. In cafés, in waiting rooms, at the supermarket or on a lonely country road. Notice with all the senses. I listen in on conversations at Tim Hortons, or between the cashier and the shopper, moms at baseball games and GO train passengers. I notice the words and phrases they use, the topics they discuss and the reactions of those around them.

I often travel by car long distances on the same road and have challenged myself to notice different things on different trips. One trip, I may focus on what grows in ditches. Or what yellow things occur naturally in nature. What birds sit on fences or what a roadkill really looks like. I feel the fabrics in a fabric store or smell the flowers in public gardens. How do you describe the taste of coffee?

  1. Look for incongruitiesleaves-1380761_640

How is the thing you are observing different from other things of its kind? Why is it different? What’s missing? What’s extra? Why are all the kids at the crosswalk wearing coats except one? Why does only one apartment in a high-rise have a balcony flower box? Can you think of a story behind that observation?

  1. The same thing can be different

Microsoft Word - Artist's Book Cover in total.docMy good friend, Ingrid Ruthig taught me an important lesson about observation: the same thing can be different. The basis of her book Slipstream was a scene observed out of a window every hour on the hour for eighteen hours.

Try describing the same thing at different times of the day, different seasons. Notice what cell phone covers women or young people choose over older men. Don’t just notice a colleague’s scarf, notice how it is tied today versus yesterday. What colour is the asphalt when it rains versus a sunny day? What colour is snow? (it’s seldom white).

  1. Read people

Don’t just look at people in general, look for specifics: what makes them stand out or blend in. What actions and body language do they use to exude confidence or jealousy or nervousness? What can you deduce from how they dress or wear their hair or hats? If a couple looks unhappy, businesslike or best friends, can you identify what made you come to that conclusion? What is it about someone that makes you uneasy or willing to open your heart to them?

  1. Challenge your powers of description

How many ways can you describe something? What is it like? How many different similes can you come up with? How would your characters describe it? My husband and I try to find different names for the kinds of moons we see: wolf moon, rain moon, wishing moon… Do you always resort to sense of sight? Do you consider light and temperature, texture and mood?

piet-my-vrou

So what have I noticed today? I’ve noticed the three-note call of the piet-my-vrou bird is the first birdsong of the morning. That the pods of the weeping boer bean tree hang like fruit bats. That the blue-green iridescent loerie bird that flew overhead has red underwings, and the bark of the fever tree is yellow.fever-tree

That my sister’s dachshund dog is so portly that when he sleeps his legs stick out straight like roadkill. That the tortoise in the garden can devour half a watermelon in twenty minutes, and that my mother’s hair is the colour of history: iron, copper, silver and gold.

flower-15249_640And I’m waiting to see if, like the lilac Jacarandas, the red flamboyant trees will lose their blossoms in the storm that is now brewing on the horizon.

What did you notice lately?

Been there: Using real-world settings in fiction

Been there: Using real-world settings in fiction

Gwynn Scheltema

I’m always fascinated by the worlds that writers create for fantasy and sci-fi novels. I think I’m fascinated by the sheer complexity of creating an entire culture from its laws and religion to its people, plants and landscape.

But basing our stories in the “real world” we all know (or think we know), can be just as complex.

Keeping facts straight.

krzywy-las-641507_640Using real settings—real towns or cities, real street names, real landmarks— can seem easy because you have everything created already. You don’t have to invent culture, landmarks or names. If you mention the CN Tower or Westminster Abbey, you need only give a few details, and readers can fill in the rest.

Provided you get it right.

You can be sure that if you get it “wrong”, someone’s going to tell you. Or your reader will be aware that you made a mistake once, and be on the alert in case you do it again, so now there is a subconscious element of distrust as they read. At the very least, it will kick them out of the narrative momentarily.building-72225_640

Your Impressions

Sure, you can control facts to a large degree with good research and careful editing, but what you can’t control is readers’ reactions to your perceptions of real places. If, like facts, readers think that you got the impression “wrong”, it will be noticed, and have the same effect as getting facts wrong. If, as a narrator, you describe a particular real neighbourhood as “dangerous”, or “upcoming” or “ugly”, that might be your interpretation, but your reader may not agree. Your perceptions of real places are valid, but so are your readers’impressions of the same place.

So what can you do?

Impressions vs. facts

As you write be aware which setting details are facts and which are opinions. Characters only should express all the impressions or opinions. Characters in this instance include the narrator in a first person story. In sections of exposition, stick to facts. This is a good rule of thumb for any details actually, not just for setting. Essentially, setting opinions expressed through exposition become “author intrusion” and open that door for “getting it wrong”.

Manipulating impressions

The moment you move impressions of real places to the realm of character, you have the opportunity to manipulate setting to support other elements like character development and theme.

By choosing to focus on the details the character notices in a setting and what they think and how they feel about it, says as much about the character as the setting. Characters usually notice the things that align with their emotional state and with their level of understanding. You can set or heighten mood and sneak in details that will be important to plot or speak to theme.

midway-game-983385_640

Think of a child and his mother entering a fairground. The child is likely feeling excited and looking forward to fun, so will notice details that are colourful, fun and energizing: whirling rides, flags and balloons, stalls full of prizes to be won. The mother might be jaded by years of attending fairgrounds, aware of potential danger and cost. She will notice questionable people, machinery that looks or souman-1283576_1280nds dangerous and the crush of crowds that make it hard for her to keep track of her child.

Another manipulation is to purposely describe factual details “wrong” to establish an unreliable character.

Fiction and reality fusion

Perhaps the best way to use real settings is to create a fictional piece within the real one. A fictional town in real Northern Ontario. A fictional bar in Paris. You still get the advantages of the “real world” settings, but not the disadvantages. Your fictional component should be similar enough for believability, but you have the freedom to create your own “impressions”’ of the place. You get to decide if the place is “dangerous”, or “upcoming” or “ugly”, and your readers will believe you.

 

Making a Scene… with Dialogue

Making a Scene… with Dialogue

In just over a month, I head to the Ontario Writers’ Conference to mingle with writers, publishers, agents and editors. I’m also delivering a workshop on dialogue, specifically on dialect and diversity in dialogue.

It took me many years to become comfortable using dialogue. My early characters spent a lot of time in their heads thinking about what was going on. In their heads, they voiced concerns, got angry, wanted to ask about stuff. The reader knew all this, [if they were still awake at this point] but the other characters in the story didn’t. Eventually, I realized my characters needed to react and interact— out loud!

But just saying everything out loud is not the whole story. Dialogue scenes are powerful. Dialogue is one of the best ways to engage the reader. Even if characters are sitting still, a dialogue scene works as an action scene and propels the story forward. And it can do so much more—even several things at once—like reveal character, advance the plot, create mood, build conflict, reveal backstory or support the theme.

“Writing good dialogue is art as well as craft,” says Stephen King. Here are 5 tips for writing good dialogue scenes:

Know why you are writing the scene

Dialogue is not filler—or shouldn’t be. If your characters are just discussing the weather or what they want for dinner, your readers’ eyes will glaze over. Kind of the same way I skip over all the pictures of people’s dinners on Facebook. Will the scene reveal or hint at some backstory, or let the reader see how the relationship is developing, or give information about the plot.people-talking

“You wouldn’t say that if you had known my mother.” (Hint at back story? Reveal character?)

“Mike said it was just over the hill, an old factory where they processed paint or something.” Relaying information BUT it must be new to the reader AND to the character being spoken to.

Make dialogue do double duty

Once you’ve decided what the main purpose of the dialogue scene is, see what else you can make it do at the same time.

 “You wouldn’t say that if you had known my mother. She was a right ball breaker. Besides, she had a stash of these things up at the old farmhouse in Williamstown.” (hint at back story PLUS info for the plot?) 

“I’ll never step foot in that woman’s house.” (Opinion of another character? Showing anger and resistance? Plot problem?…all three?)

Anchor the scene

It’s okay to dive into the scene right in the conversation, but if you start a chapter with dialogue make sure it’s not “floating”. Readers need to know who is talking and where they are, and what point this is in the story. If you don’t, the reader will find it hard to absorb the dialogue nuances or subtext because they will be too busy trying to get oriented. I’m not suggesting a long piece of exposition here. Set it up in the chapter before, use a name in the spoken dialogue, or add a beat of setting.talking

Floating:  “I can pick you up around seven. At the diner okay?”

Anchored: When Leah reached the motel, she rescued her cell from the clothes on the backseat. “Amber, I can pick you up around seven. At the diner okay?”

Show emotions

Always be aware of the emotions being felt by the characters speaking and convey that in word choice and body language, not exclamation points or adverbs tacked onto the end.

Adverbs and punctuation: “I will NOT GO!!!” said Lily defiantly.

Beats and word choice: Lily crossed her arms and stared from under smoldering eyebrows. “A team of horses couldn’t drag me to that place.”

Never use dialogue as an “info dump”

My critique circle calls this an as-you-know-Bob moment. Characters should only talk about the things that are important to them at that point in the story, that fit with their emotions at the time, and that they would ordinarily say in real life to another person.

As-you-know-Bob moment: “We’ll go to Mike’s place, near your Mom’s house, and give rubbish-143465_960_720him the book you’re holding.” (The listening character knows where Mike’s place is and knows who is holding the book. No emotional content here.)

Real words: “Ok, Ok. We’ll go to Mike’s place, already. Give him your bloody book.”

Spending time on dialogue is well worth the effort. It dramatizes your story helping readers feel like they are actually listening in.

Do you have any dialogue tips to share? Post in  the comments below.

If you want to explore dialogue further, here are some other blogs you might find interesting. .and useful.

Keep it Simple: Keys to Realistic Dialogue Part 1

Keep it Simple: keys to Realistic Dialogue Part 2

On Writing – Dialogue – Robert J Sawyer

9 Easily Preventable Mistakes Writers make with Dialogue

Recipe for Great Characters

Recipe for Great Characters

Ruth E. Walker.

Sometimes you need to cook up a new character. Sometimes, you just want to add depth to a character that could use a little spice. Here’s my quick and easy recipe. It’s open to all kinds of substitutions, so feel free to experiment and season to taste. I’d love to hear how it worked for you. By the way, if you are missing any of the “ingredients” email info@writescape.ca and I’ll email you a starter.

MAIN INGREDIENTS:

  • 1 cup of ‘real’ person (a neighbour, a picture from a magazine or someone from your past, for example)
  • 1 cup of a story idea (choose a theme or a question that begs for an answer)
  • 2/3 cup setting (browse through travel brochures, coffee table books or stare into your own backyard)
  • ¼ cup back story (this one’s entirely up to you, writer!)
  • Flavour bouquet (mix 3 positive and 2 negative traits, such as cheerful, friendly, kind and boastful, envious…)
  • 1 tsp of a line of dialogue (overheard on a bus or at an event, or some line you really like)

DIRECTIONSCharacter

  1. In a quiet room, mix together the first three ingredients. Allow them to simmer over a low heat. Stir occasionally to see what changes.
  2. Add back story. Continue to simmer.
  3. Choose contents of your bouquet. Loosely tie ingredients together and add them to the pot.  NOTE: Don’t worry if any bouquet ingredients seem too strong at first; you can always spoon some out for now. Remember to reserve your removed ingredients in case you need them later on.
  4. Carefully insert the line of dialogue.
  5. Bake in your pre-heated mind for 2 minutes.

INGREDIENT LIST — brief notes here, just the bare bones. This will be your reference point as you write your character scene later on.

1 cup of real person

  • Name
  • Gender
  • Age
  • Appearance Basics

1 cup of a story idea

  • Kind of story and genre
  • Loss/Gain
  • Theme(s)
  • Emotional connection for character?

2/3 cup setting

  • Place
  • Year
  • Season/temp
  • Time of day
  • Smells, sounds

¼ cup back story

  • Childhood
  • Old losses
  • Old gains

Flavour bouquet

  • Positive
  • Negative

1 tsp of a line of dialogue

“Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah-de-blah blah!”

Additional spices

You are the cook; what else do you want to add?

Watch Your Language AND From Inspiration to Publication

Watch Your Language AND From Inspiration to Publication

Gwynn Scheltema and Ruth E. Walker are at the Ontario Writers’ Conference.

Gwynn is offering an advanced class: Watch Your Language. Dialect, foreign languages, accents and other linguistic touches provide diversity and authenticity to dialogue. Gwynn will help participants avoid character stereotypes so that what is being said is not overshadowed by how it’s being said. Gwynn’s popular workshops at the OWC are consistently highly rated and fully booked.

Ruth’s beginner workshop From Inspiration to Publication invites new writers to play with words through hands-on exercises and fun activities. Participants will risk a little and try on different forms of creative writing. Useful handouts offer tips on submitting material to the right market. Ruth will also serve as a Blue Pencil Mentor, offering helpful feedback in one-on-one discussions with writers about their manuscripts.

Gwynn and Ruth have been at the OWC since it launched, facilitating workshops, mentoring writers and enjoying the many speakers and learning opportunities that a comprehensive conference like this has to offer.

To register, visit the Ontario Writers’ Conference.