10 Questions to Ask Your Characters

10 Questions to Ask Your Characters

It’s Writescape’s 10th anniversary and we have lots of excitement planned for writers in 2018. This installment of 10 on the 10th is the latest in the series of monthly writing tips, advice and inspiration. Think of it as Gwynn and Ruth sitting on your shoulder and nudging you along. Share with your writing colleagues and encourage them to sign up for more.

Readers love “a good character” because something about that character resonates for them. You can make a reader-connection with your characters when you spend some time to get to know them.

These 10 questions are designed to get your characters to reveal insights. Your reader doesn’t need to know the answers but you do. What your characters reveal about themselves will affect every action/reaction that she or he makes. And that, dear writer, is a big part of what makes a fully fleshed, believable character.

 

  1. Who do you love? Love for another can be the driving force for a character. Unrequited or reciprocated, love is an emotional connection for readers. Or it could be your character is so self-centered that only they deserve to be loved by themselves.
  2. What’s your deepest fear? We all have fears. It is what makes us human. Your character is no different. And it will affect how she reacts to any triggers for that fear. And lets you add those triggers when you need them.
  3. How do you feel about your father/mother? — helps you get into the life history of your character. It affects everything your character says and does. Especially useful with mentor/influencer figures for your character.
  4. What do you like to eat for breakfast? — pretty mundane stuff, right? But what your character likes to eat reveals qualities: eggs and bacon (carnivore; not worried about health) oatmeal (solid; old-fashioned); kale and plain yogurt protein smoothie (health-conscious & maybe vegetarian). You’ll need to keep their diet in mind — it will affect what they tend to notice around food.
  5. What do you like most about where you live/work? The day-to-day is a big part of anyone’s life. From repetitive, structured assembly line work to high-pressure aerospace research, what your character experiences on the job affects her approach to the world. Or if he lives in a cardboard box in an alley or a sprawling mansion, it affects his clothes, his hygiene, his daily view of his neighbourhood. Discover what she likes to understand her regular behaviour.
  6. How do you feel about children? Oh yes. How does she feel about those little snotty-nosed rug rats? Does he go all goofy and fun-loving when kids are around? Is she worried about how her body will change when the baby is born? Does he want kids but doesn’t think he can manage? Complicated, conflicted or blasé, your character’s answers show you their nurturing instincts…or lack thereof.
  7. Do you believe in a god(s)? Whoa! Now this is really deep. Or maybe it’s not at all. Your character may have no interest in any faith and this is a simply answered question. Is their belief, or lack thereof, a philosophy or is it more ingrained than that? What is your character’s moral centre?
  8. If you could be anyone else, who would that be? Well, this could be a short answer: nobody. I like being me. Or maybe they actually long to be someone else, someone not even in your story. Golly! That could be very cool.
  9. Who has influenced you in your life’s actions? One outstanding teacher, a childhood friend or a series of people. Positive and negative: a colleague at work who had the courage to whistle-blow, or Aunt Peggy who was always positive no matter what life dealt her. A coach who introduced drugs or some criminal act. A sibling who demanded loyalty by blackmail. A mother who lied.
  10. What makes you happy? Sure it might be chocolate ice-cream, but go deeper. Glass-half-full person or glass-half-empty? Always looking for happiness in the future or the past or in the moment? Needs others to be happy or can find happiness alone? A taker or a giver?

One more important question. All of these questions are fine but the answers are deepened and your character far more revealed if you ask one simple question after they answer each of the others:

Why?

Don’t let your character off the hook with a short response. For example:  How do you feel about your father? I always hated my father. Why? Because he was despicable. What do you mean by that? He was an asshole. He beat my mother every Saturday night as far back as I can remember. Why didn’t she leave him? Because she was just as despicable…

Like what you’ve read? You can have 10 on the 10th delivered to you each month by sending us your email in the comment section. You can unsubscribe anytime. You’ll also receive The Top Drawer our Wednesday blog with tips, resources and inspiration for writers. To see past posts, visit: writescape.ca

One way I write a poem

One way I write a poem

Gwynn Scheltema

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

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

Emotion first

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

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

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

 
Emotion in context

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

 

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

Sensory details next

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

 

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

 
Metaphor

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

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

Finding nuggets

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

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

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

First pass

Trees wave knobbly fingers

ice on the lake fades against grey sky

it bides its time

before it moves on

so my love can return

I will be a honey scented crocus

waiting under the purple shadowed snow

foreverness

waiting for spring and my love’s return

waiting for the saffron sun to warm me

once more

 

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

Refining

SAFFRON LOVER

Bony tree limbs wave

gnarled knuckled fingers

lake ice stretches to grey sky

bides its time

before moving on

 

as the patient honey saffron crocus

nudges to the sun

beneath purple shadowed snow

I wait for spring

and your return

 

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

DID YOU KNOW

Image result for saffron crocus flower

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

It reminds me of counting words!

Add to your word count this spring with 5 days away at Spring Thaw retreat. Get written feedback and a one-on-one consultation with Ruth and Gwynn.  You can tailor your weekend to suit your needs.There is an agenda and formal programming, but you choose what sessions and activities will work for you.

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.

The Making of a Short Story

The Making of a Short Story

Gwynn Scheltema

I wrote a short story last week that forced me to write outside my real-life comfort zone. My story was for an anthology being put together as part of the many commemorative events to celebrate Canada 150. The submission call was for an “immigrant story”.

I’m an immigrant. I came to Canada in 1982 to escape a country that had been embroiled in a civil war for more than ten years and which had recently gained independence. Unfortunately for my family, the other side won and leaving seemed the best option on many fronts. But this blog is not about that and I didn’t want my immigrant story to be about that.

The story I wanted to tell was how it’s the little details in a new life that are the hardest. Finding jobs and a place to live are huge, seemingly insurmountable problems, but they are expected hardships, things you can brace yourself for and work to overcome. But just when you think it is all going well, that you’re getting ahead, some small detail surfaces and derails you. That’s what I wanted to write about.

I’m a private person, not given to public displays of affection or emotion. I cry in private. But for this story, I wanted to zero in on an emotional moment and portray it without being melodramatic or cliché. But how to do that?

The emotional mirror

Most readers, even though they may not realize it, read to mirror their own lives. Have they felt that way before? What would they do in a similar situation? How is this situation different from their lives? A story about events of that civil war would be different from an average reader’s life, but would it connect with readers on a human, emotional level? The key to making my story work was to focus not the events the reader couldn’t relate to, but on the emotions the reader could relate to. The emotional mirror.

To resonate with the reader, I had to identify the emotion I wanted the story to illustrate and the reader to feel. In this story, I wanted to show the feeling of being out of control, disoriented and emotionally afraid when the logical mind tells you there is nothing to fear. All emotions that everyone has felt at some point in their lives.

Let it unfold…slowly

Peter Selgin, writer and professor at Antioch University’s MFA Creative Writing Program, gives his writing students an exercise: Write two pieces each about 250 words long. Piece One should rivet the reader; Piece Two should bore the reader stiff. Each student reads both pieces out loud.

“In almost every instance the result is the same,” he says, “The ‘riveting’ piece bores, while the ‘boring’ piece holds interest.”

Why? Peter explains that, “In their effort to grip us, beginning writers tend to rush: They equate their own adrenaline with that of the reader. Conversely, when trying to bore, the same writers take their time; they don’t hesitate to lavish 250 words on the subject of a wall of white paint drying. And—to their consternation—the result holds our attention.”

So for this story, I chose a small incident that happened over a short period of time, but I slowed down the telling, letting it unfold moment by moment. By not hurrying, there was room for the emotion to build, for inner thought as well as outer action.

Envision it

As I wrote, I closed my eyes and imagined the scene in my mind. What could I see above, below, to the sides? What people and things were in my periphery? What could I hear, smell, touch, what was the quality of the light, temperature of the air? What emotion was I feeling at each point and what did that emotion look like in gestures, actions and reactions? Show don’t tell.

Match style to purpose

Writers have two roles in every piece they write. One to tell a story; two to craft it well. Having decided on the subject matter and how to let the story unfold, I summoned up craft I’ve learned over time.

To heighten the feeling of disorientation, of not fitting into a new world, of being out of control, I edited to make the sentence structure disjointed in places, short and fragmented in others and even syntactically out of step at times.

I made sure to use smell and texture or touch where I could as these senses tend to be more emotionally charged than sight and sound. I used setting details to echo the atmosphere of the fear that the narrator was feeling.

Whether my story was successful, I won’t know until it’s accepted and published, but I felt good about it when it was finished and that’s always a good sign.

DID YOU KNOW

Among the workshops Writescape has offered is one on writing short fiction, “Does Size Matter?” Gather your group. Pick your topic and your date. And we’ll bring Writescape’s workshops to you. Choose from our Workshop Catalogue, or contact us to provide a custom workshop to fill your needs.

 

The Power of Colour

The Power of Colour

Ruth E. Walker.

St. Patrick’s Day is coming, and we can expect lots of green glitter, shamrocks and dyed beer. It’s a time where just about everybody declares a connection to the Emerald Isle, real or otherwise. On March 17, we are green with envy for anyone who really is Irish. But is it easy being green? Just ask Kermit. Or any seasick passenger.

Colour associations are like gold to the knowledgeable writer and when used in subtle ways, bring added depth to text. Figurative language–using words or expressions that mean something different from the literal interpretation– is a useful skill for all writers. And colour is a power tool that works brilliantly with figurative language. But don’t splash colour willy nilly into your writing. The link between colours and ideas relies on many factors to reach your readers’ imaginations.

Get red for your readers

Think of the colour red. Basic association leads us to all things bloody. Red is life, as in lifeblood. Red is love, beating-heart, romantic love captured in a red Valentine. Red is hot, as in fire. Red is also danger: stop signs and red flags. And it is anger, as in flushed cheeks. And what about those red flushed cheeks? They can mean shame. And arousal. Or the aftermath of a brisk winter walk.

See what is happening here? Red on its own has common associations and it also has branches. Once you throw “people” into the mix, our associations get increasingly complex with lots of room for error and misdirection. So it is up to writers to set the stage for meaning.

Here’s a simple sentence of description:

He hesitated outside the room, his cheeks reddened.

Is “He” embarrassed? Turned on? Frostbitten? Angry? The reader will never know if you haven’t put into place all the right ingredients. And is it necessary to say “reddened”? Why not imply red cheeks and allow the reader to imagine or even experience the colour?

Same colour…different tones

Here are three different takes of the same scene with some tweaking for changing emotions:

Fury:

Paulo hesitated just outside the door, gripping the handle so hard he was sure he could crush it. She was hiding on the other side. He felt colour ignite the skin of his face. Good. Let his fury be the first and last thing she sees.

 

 

 

 

Arousal:

Paulo hesitated just outside the door, gripping the round knob so hard he was sure it would catch fire under his touch. She was hiding on the other side. He felt heat rise over his face. Good. Let his passion be the first thing she sees.

Shame:

Paulo hesitated just outside the door, gripping the handle so tight he was sure he could break it and keep him outside forever. She was hiding on the other side. His cheeks burned. Good. Let his shame be the first thing she sees.

Remember: Preparing context  is important. And using imagery to support the emotional context helps guide your reader to understanding.

 

 

A rainbow is global but symbolism is another story

Another part to using colour in your descriptions is to remember colours hold different meanings for different cultures. Western brides would be unlikely to wear red to their wedding. But in many Eastern cultures, red symbolizes the colour of celebration, good fortune and a long life.

That’s why using colours is so dangerous to writers. You need to be clear about what you intend for the colour’s meaning, but subtle enough that you’re not hitting your reader over the head with a hammer. (As an aside, my three examples earlier are exaggerated for effect. I’m sure you could be more subtle than those attempts.)

Christina Wang explores colour in an interesting article for Shutterstock, the stock-photo company: Symbolism of Colour and Colour Meanings Around the World. And you can look further into the whole idea of imagery, symbolism and meaning. Head to the library and discover how symbolism is analyzed in psychology, art, religion and dreams.

There are only two kinds of people in the world, the Irish and those who wish they were

As for me, I’ll be putting on the green this Friday. I can truly claim some Irish lineage, admittedly mixed in with English, Scottish and Norman flavours.

Nonetheless, on St. Paddy’s Day, I’ll be wishing a leprechaun or two might happen by with all the colours of the rainbow to inspire creativity and a quick pen to record it with. Because for writers, that’s a true pot of gold.

 

Did you know:

The luck of the Irish may be with you. There’s still a couple of spots left in our writers’ retreat on April 21 – 23. Join Gwynn Scheltema and Ruth E. Walker at Emhirst’s Resort for feedback on your manuscript and one-on-one consultation. Enjoy dedicated time to write, the camaraderie of other like-minded folks and inspiring lakeside vistas. All-inclusive means you just need your writing project, jammies and a change of clothes. Writescape takes care of all the rest at Spring Thaw 2017.

Writing through Hard Times

Writing through Hard Times

Ruth E. Walker

When we were looking at the focus for The Top Drawer for December of 2016, we thought it would be good to highlight positive, uplifting topics. For too long, we thought, the world’s been listening to a lot of negative words and ideas. Let’s keep it optimistic and encouraging. Set the tone!

So we celebrated the delightful and inspired writing spaces of Noelle Bickle and Heather Tucker. Creative writing teacher Dorothea Helms (a.k.a. The Writing Fairy) made us smile about the tough realities of humour writing. And we ended the year with some easy-to-accomplish writerly resolutions for 2017.

 

Cue fireworks and happy music…wha-?

 

For 2017, we wanted to continue that positive vibe. But world events are impossible to ignore. Negative politics and incomprehensible behaviours are being analyzed in every form of media, social or otherwise. Protests are erupting worldwide like pre-holiday pop-up shops.

Frankly, with a son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren in Texas, it’s difficult for me to look away. Not even the keening call of my nearly finished novel is pulling me from the news. Indeed, on Sunday night, the horrific attack in Ste. Foy, Québec, brought me to my knees.

 

As a writer, what can I do to work through this deep foreboding in my heart? Sure, I marched in the Women’s March (in Texas, no less.) In actions and in words posted on my personal social media, I share my support for thoughtful discourse, equality and empathy. I believe in social justice.

Writing strategies for challenging times

 

I am also a creative writing teacher, and dedicated to sharing ideas on technique, craft and inspiration. Indeed, Gwynn Scheltema and I started Writescape to encourage and support writers, and that isn’t going to change.

So what can we writers do when the world sucks away our energy?  As part of our “2016 positive words” theme, Gwynn brought constructive ideas about what we writers can do when writing is just not possible. Her Art of Noticing is one way to work through emotional fatigue and rekindle your muse.

I find physical exercise is also helpful. I’ll be at the gym tonight, pedalling off steam and worry, and trying not to look at the latest headlines scrolling past on the overhead TVs. I hope that when I come back home, my manuscript will forgive my lapse of the past couple of days and allow me back into my characters’ lives.

All writers (because writers are also people) have found themselves without the will to think and to express themselves creatively. So I turn to four wonderful writers for their words of wisdom.

Advice for writers from beloved best-selling authors:

 

Poet, civil rights activist and beautiful thinker, Maya Angelou said: What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.’ And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay. Okay. I’ll come.’

 

Novelist Jack London offers up some tough love for writers who are distracted or down in the dumps: You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.

 

Poet, novelist and so-very-wise Margaret Atwood advises us to face our reality and use it to make true our writing: The darkness is really out there. It’s not something that’s in my head, just. It’s in my work because it’s in the world.

And I’ll end with some words from the great science fiction writer who first spoke to my adolescent heart from the shelves of my public school library, Ray Bradbury: You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.

 

There you go writers:

  • seduce your muse by not giving up
  • chase down inspiration like a Palaeolithic hunter
  • remember you’re a writer and awful is necessary even in fiction, and
  • whatever you do, don’t let reality take you down.

How are you coping? Comments please:

Let us know if world events are simply background noise and not distracting you. Or If you’re struggling with staying focused these days, share some tips or ideas on how to write through it all.

Check out more Top Drawer posts in our blog archive

Purple Prose

Purple Prose

Gwynn Scheltema

In a course I teach on effective description, I talk about “purple prose” and invariably I’m asked what that means. To me, purple prose is writing that is so excessive, elaborate or flowery that it calls attention to itself and breaks the flow of the story. It’s usually recognizable by the excessive use of sensory detail.

But hang on…isn’t the use of sensory detail a mark of good writing? Absolutely! Using all the senses and painting with words through simile and metaphor makes for rich, engaging narrative. The operative word in my comment “usually recognizable by the excessive use of sensual detail” is the word “excessive”.

So how do you know what is enough and what is excessive?

Let’s find out by looking at this paragraph of purple prose:profile-461076_640

The pretty young girl sat delicately on the lush green grass under the old gnarled oak tree. The starlings sang excitedly above, and the air was filled with the perfume of wildflowers. Overhead the fluffy white clouds drifted gently, and the sun shone brightly in the blue summer sky. She felt happy. She turned coyly to the boy beside her and said hesitantly in her high sing-song voice, “Would you like a bite of this sweet juicy apple?”

At first glance, it seems to follow the guidelines for “good” writing. We have colour and sound and smells and textures. We have emotion and interaction. But for all that, it sounds amateurish. It’s awkward to read.

Here are five tips to recognize and overcome purple prose:

1 + 1 = ½

The first thing to notice is the proliferation of adjectives. When it comes to adjectives, I always say that “one plus one equals a half”. By that I mean that if you use more than one adjective to describe something, you dilute the effectiveness of each adjective. This happens, because the reader must process both adjectives separately with the noun it describes. The mind must process “the girl is pretty” and then “the girl is young”. It’s too much, and slows the reader down. In this paragraph, there are seven instances of this. (Can you find them?)words-1034410_640

Instead use just one adjective and if possible choose a stronger noun to convey the other descriptor. “Pretty young girl” could become “pretty teenager”. “Lush green grass” doesn’t need the word “green”, because “lush” says it all. Likewise, you wouldn’t expect a summer sky to be anything but blue.

Kill “descriptor” adverbs.

Note I said “descriptor” adverbs (my own label, by the way). I don’t condemn all adverbs. Adverbs like daily and often have a role to play in showing, time and frequency etc. by answering the questions of when? and how? It’s the ones that answer the question: in what way? that cause the problem. In our sample paragraph, “sat delicately” is a case in point. It’s much stronger and easier for the reader to process, if you ditch the adverb altogether and strengthen the verb to “perched” or “poised”. The starlings might “chatter” or “chirp” or “chorus” rather than “sing excitedly”. You could use a phrase like “the girl curled her legs under her”.

Swap out cliché.

A cliché is a descriptive phrase that once was a great way to describe something but which has been so over-used that it no longer has any effect on the reader except to draw attention to itself and pull the reader out of the narrative. This sample uses the cliché “fluffy white clouds”.dragonflies-1431304_640

It would be simple to say, “Find another way to describe the clouds,” and that would be valid, but I think it goes deeper than that. I believe that you should swap out cliché with details that are not already supplied automatically by the reader. If you mention a summer day, most people will automatically imagine blue skies, hot sun and fluffy white clouds. Pump up your writing by supplying a detail they may not imagine and therefore will notice, say, “a pair of tangled dragon flies”. Not only does this give a unique detail to the scene, it can also do double duty in mirroring or echoing the story thread of these two young people alone together.

Show Don’t Tell

Yes, I know, you’ve heard it before, but it’s true. This entire paragraph is tell. The reader is being told what everything looks like and what the characters are doing and how they are feeling. We are observers only, not participants in the story. We can only guess at the character’s thoughts and motivations.

This piece would be stronger if we saw at least some of the scene through the eyes and thoughts of one of the characters. That way, we get a feel for how the character feels, and this is heightened by descriptive details that the character would notice in that emotional state. Make the characters real. Give them names and thoughts and gestures.

To recognize “tell” look for places where emotions are named: “She felt happy”. Ask yourself: What does happy look like in this situation? What would she be thinking at this moment? What body language might she use? What sensory details would she notice?

Alice watched two dragonflies flit in a tangled dance near Robbie’s red face—whether from the summer heat or embarrassment, she couldn’t tell.

So what?

No matter how powerful the description, it has to have a purpose. Don’t describe for the sake of it, just to paint a setting. Always have a second purpose. As I said in my post Been There, use brief, targeted description to create atmosphere, to mirror emotion, to illuminate character or advance plot.

So let’s have another crack at the sample paragraph:

apple-1228374_640Alice curled her legs under her and lowered herself to the lush grass as close to Robbie as she could manage without startling him and breathed in the sweet smell of crushed wildflowers. Robbie closed his eyes and settled back against the ancient oak, folding his farmer-tanned arms behind his head. She watched two dragonflies flit in a tangled dance near Robbie’s red face—whether from the summer heat or embarrassment, she couldn’t tell. She hoped it was the latter. What now? Should she say something? But what? Above the chattering starlings seemed to egg her on. She reached into the picnic basket, swallowed hard and said in a voice she barely recognized as her own, “Want a bite of my apple?”

 Better?

Have a go yourself. How else could this paragraph be written? Paste your version in the comments below.

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?

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.

 

One Day I Will Write About This

One Day I Will Write About This

Guest blogger: Erin Silver

When my husband left me to be with another woman — when he confessed he was in love with someone else — there wasn’t much I could say. But I do remember telling him one thing: One day I will write about this.

fist-bump-1195446_640At first, I couldn’t write about my experience. The feelings were too raw. The emotions too heightened. I had no perspective on what had happened to me and what it meant in the grand scheme of my life. If I had tried to write about my divorce when the process began four years ago, it would have been an angry jumble of words. Words I may have regretted sharing one day.

Something told me it was time

But within two years, I was ready. Something clicked inside of me. Something told me it was time. By then, I was no longer angry. I had grown as a person and a writer. And suddenly I had a story to tell; a story about someone who was betrayed and bewildered, left to start life over from scratch. Someone who had to rediscover herself and find a way to become happy for the sake of her young boys.

strategise-865006_640I had worked through some real lows with my therapist and eventually came to realize that I wasn’t actually worthless and unloveable. Among the lows were some really bad dates and the feeling that I might never find love again. That was a terrifying thought: not knowing how my story would end or if the eventual ending would be happy. But there were some highs, too: taking my boys on a road trip all by myself, being accepted into a Masters of Fine Art in Creative Nonfiction program, meeting someone special and watching our kids grow to care for one another. I wouldn’t trade these experiences for anything.

Sharing my story

interior-design-1048090_640I began scouring my brain for different angles, different facets of my story to share with new audiences. I pitched certain ideas to certain editors, and I followed up and followed up and followed up until I began selling pieces.

I wrote about taking my son to therapy for Todays Parent, co-parenting for the Globe and Mail and going back to school for the Toronto Star. I pitched a blog, A Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce, to UrbanMoms.ca and write regularly about my everyday experiences. Before I knew it, I had developed a portfolio of articles and blogs related to divorce, single parenting and co-parenting. I’m now writing an intimate and even funny “foodoir” (memoir plus food) about the last four years of my life.

It’s not necessarily been cathartic, as you might think. I’d prefer to describe it as a mandatory part of my existence. I can’t explain it or rationalize it. It’s not like I want to talk about it; I want to move on. I don’t want to confess my private life to people I’ve never met; it’s not pleasant dredging up memories and feelings I wish I’d never experienced. When I get into the thick of it, it’s actually quite painful. I write as I cry and I cry as I write. But I’m drawn to it not because it’s fun, because I have any interest in bashing my ex, or hanging onto the past. No, it’s just something I must do.

Because if I, a writer, don’t write about it, then everyone else going through the same thing will erroneously believe they are alone.peas-580333_1920

It’s how I felt when it happened to me. Like nobody understood my pain or suffering. Like I was the only one who was ever cheated on, betrayed, and divorced; who had to date after being dumped, put my life back together, and manage as a single mother. If I write about it — all aspects of my journey, my innermost feelings and thoughts — someone else might realize that things happen for a reason and that you must rise above challenges, face disappointments head on, to get to a better place. It’s truly what keeps me going.

Writing your experience

If you feel drawn to a particular or painful topic, like me, here are a few tips that can help you write about it:

  • Wait until you’re ready. Don’t rush the process.
  • Keep a journal, then refer to it later.
  • Take the time to reflect on your experience, even if it’s painful.
  • Be honest with yourself. Is that really how you felt?
  • Don’t hold back. If you’re uncomfortable with what you’ve written or feel too exposed, you can always edit it later.
More about Erin:

erin silverErin Silver is a writer, editor and blogger with work in Good Housekeeping, The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, Today’s Parent, Chatelaine, ParentsCanada, Best Health and Clean Eating magazine, among others. Her blog, “A Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce,” appears on UrbanMoms.ca. Erin also blogs for the HuffingtonPost.ca. She is currently pursuing her Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction at King’s College in Halifax and writing her first book, Burnt: Cooking My Way Through Divorce.