Writer: Who’s in Your Tribe?

Writer: Who’s in Your Tribe?

Ruth E. Walker

Margaret Laurence, one of Canada’s exceptional writers, spoke of the other Canadian writers — friends, colleagues or just-starting-out — as “the tribe.” It was at a time when writing was a lonely business in Canada. When literary prizes were few (let alone boasting glitzy galas and live broadcasting) and especially for women writers, when there were few achieving success and critical acclaim. So for Laurence, she saw the truth behind the word “tribe”: a community of humans.

In ancient Rome, the root word of tribe, tribus, meant a division within the state. When European settlers began explorations, they used the word “tribe” to describe any and all cultures they came in contact with. I guess it was a handy, one-size-fits-all way to deal with difference and we’re still dealing with the fallout of that conquer-all mindset.

A Tribe of Writers

But back to Margaret Laurence and her use of tribe. It was a term used in a good way, meant to gather together the group of humans who penned words, often without any hope of recognition or acclaim. Her tribe was other Canadians driven by the passion and need to write.

Some years ago, I had a chat with Linwood Barclay, then a Toronto Star columnist and now a hugely popular author of mystery novels. He told me how Laurence was a mentor to him when he was a student at Trent University.  He never forgot her kindness and direct, unerring eye, and the difference it made to his eventual career and international success.

Linwood was in Margaret’s tribe long before he was selling his books in the millions. And Laurence was in his tribe, long before he realized he had a tribe.

Everyone’s Tribe is Unique

My tribe is difficult to capture in words, mostly because it is a loose-knit connection of all kinds of writers. Sometimes I spend more time with some tribe members than others. My intense critique group, Critical ms, where we give written and verbal feedback to each other, meets every other week, alternating between Peterborough and Whitby. The Writers’ Community of Durham Region counts among its membership many writers who I am so happy to call friends as well as colleagues.

Haliburton Writers

My tribe also includes the Canadian Authors’ Association, CANSCAIP, The Writers’ Union of Canada, the Muskoka Authors’ Association and the Muskoka Novel Marathon group (the photo at the top of this post is from 2014, the year I attended the MNM in Huntsville.) I’ve recently expanded my tribe to include members of the Literary Arts Roundtable of the Arts Council, Haliburton Highlands.

  • Do I know everyone in all those organizations? No.
  • Do I support the work they do and volunteer when I can to help them grow and support other writers? Yes.
  • Do I have members of my writing tribe who don’t belong to any of these groups? Yes indeed.
  • And do I have members of my writing tribe who I value beyond the ordinary? You bet.

I have a core group of writers who I might term My Tribe within My Tribe. My go-to people when the rejections arrive and the first ones to know when I’m celebrating. The ones I will drop almost anything for if they need my help. Some have been in my tribe since 1996 when I started this crazy journey of words. And some are more recent core members. They are more than friends and colleagues, and they know it.

Tribe Members Aren’t Always Writers

My tribe also includes people who are not writers. The people who support and encourage my writing — family and friends who turn out for book launches, readings and events I help organize. And I learn from the non-writing members of my tribe. I learn about books I might not have picked up myself to read. I ask research questions and get directed to places and people who can help. I have beta readers who offer feedback and suggestions.

In short, a writers’ tribe benefits you when it’s not an exclusive group.

So who’s in your writers’ tribe? Is it like my ever-expanding circle of contacts or a more intimate group or a combination? Is your tribe online or face-to-face? Is it just Canadians or does it have an international flavour?

One thing is certain: Writing is a solitary act but it doesn’t have to be a lonely one.

Links to writing organizations in my tribe:

The Writers’ Community of Durham Region

The Writers’ Union of Canada

Canadian Authors’ Association

CANSCAIP (Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers)

Muskoka Authors Association

Muskoka Novel Marathon (Facebook page)

Arts Council ~ Haliburton Highlands

 

 

Pinterest for Fiction Writers Part 1

Pinterest for Fiction Writers Part 1

Gwynn Scheltema

My favourite procrastination tool is Pinterest, but unlike my next favourite procrastination tool, Solitaire, it actually serves many useful purposes for a writer.

What is Pinterest?

Think of Pinterest as an infinite digital corkboard. On your “corkboard”, you have visual topic collection files called BOARDS for your PINS. Pins are visual web links that take you to the source of the information you are pinning (magazine article, blog, website, youtube video etc.). If you pin someone else’s pin (greatly encouraged) you are RE-PINNING. A person who has a Pinterest account (it’s free) with a collection of boards is called a PINNER.

Pins don’t have to be only informational text.. You can pin pictures, infographics, videos, photos and all kinds of ideas and inspiration. You can make your board public or secret. You can be social or not as you choose. (I choose not.)

Best of all, you can search by topic and define whether you are looking for a pin, a board, or a person. For example, I can search for all pins on “plot”, or all boards on “writing tips” or all people for “mystery author”.

If you download a “pin button” to your browser search toolbar, you can pin from anywhere you go on the internet including your own photos if they are in the cloud.

Novel vision boards

When beginning a novel, I create a board with my novel’s working title and pin images of possible characters, buildings, period dress, geographic details like birds or plants or places. Later I can add research links, newspaper cuttings, quotes, cover ideas, relevant books to read or anything else that might inspire or inform me.

I can even create sections within my board. For my mystery novel “Pyes and Ivy” I have sections for my characters, my town “Riverton” and the B&B where the action takes place “Ivy Lodge”.I find having the visual helps me keep things consistent.

Novel development boards

Of course, not every aspect of your novel has to be on one board. (You are allowed up to 500 boards and 200,000 pins). So let’s say you are working on your villain. You can create a board just for him/her. Get writing tips on writing villains. Get quotes from or about villains. Get ideas for names, motivations, and personality traits.

Rinse and repeat with other characters or setting or events…..

The craft

And when you have characters, you need an arc for them and a story arc too. Pinterest gives you access to loads of free printable worksheets for every aspect of planning your novel. Ditto for articles on “how to…” and “tips on …”

 

Looking for another way to describe hair colour? Words to use instead of “amazing”. Pinterest has pins for that. Also pins for commonly misused words, when to use what kind of hyphen, and avoiding clichés—including cliché characters.

 

 

Motivation

I have a board called “Words to write by”. It’s full of inspirational and kick-in-the-pants quotes. A quick visit there when I’m feeling like my writing is crap or I’m getting nowhere usually gets me going again. And let’s not forget the hundreds of writing prompts—visual and text; story starters and what ifs.

If you like to be social, you can follow other pinners, join group boards or comment on pins. There are even hilarious “Pinterest Fail” pins.

 

Making money.

Once you have a book to sell there are great ways to sell it on Pinterest. It’s the up and coming social media market place. But that’s a whole other blog. Stay tuned for Pinterest for Fiction Writers Part 2.

 

 

 

The Gift of Flaws

The Gift of Flaws

Ruth E. Walker

“Everybody loves a flawed character.” That’s a truism we hear often. A character with a flaw is, of course, channelling human qualities. After all, even the people we love the most in our lives carry “the stuff” that makes them imperfect.

My beloved aunt, who reads all kinds of books, loves Alice Munro, P.D. James and Margaret Atwood, and is in her happy place with a challenging crossword puzzle yet lacks the confidence to attempt to understand poetry. “I’m not clever enough,” she says.

The woman who loves language and words can’t understand poetry? But I cut her some slack because I love her.

So, too, will your readers cut you some slack when your characters reveal their flaws. But you want more than a reader’s understanding. You want those idiosyncrasies, characteristics and flaws to benefit your story. And they will when you use them deliberately to affect aspects of your story.

The following is by no means a full list of flaws. It’s a sampling just to give you something to think about as you work with your characters. Flaws affect actions, reactions and interactions:

Physical Flaws

Genetic or resulting from an injury, a physical weakness creates opportunities in your story

  • contrast (self against a perceived perfection in other characters)
  • sympathy (plays on your readers’ emotions — especially useful for villains)
  • motivation (especially strong when the flaw relates to character goals)

Consider Shakespeare’s Richard III; a villainous King of England but his motivation for power has a natural home in his deformity and how others treated him. Superman is invincible…except around Kryptonite.

Emotional Flaws

So much of what we do is driven by our emotions. Your characters are no different.

  • baggage (Mother always liked you best — affects every action/reaction)
  • weakness (from dieting failures to adultery — endless plot possibilities)
  • neediness (operating through others’ approval fuels relationships)

The strongest characters in fiction are most successful when they have an emotional weakness of some type. In Game of Thrones, Ser Jaime Lannister is motivated by his forbidden love of his sister, Cersei. Despite his strengths, this one passion affects all of his decisions.

Behavioural Flaws

From obsessive compulsive to egomaniacs, personality flaws drive characters to extremes. And those extremes can form some of the most intriguing characters.

  • focus (sees the trees, sees the forest, sees how it’s all connected)
  • restrictive (painting self into that corner and struggling to escape)
  • creative (artist, scientist, surgeon, magician…endless character options)
  • social (friendly, adulterer, won’t keep their subdivision garden neat)

Sherlock Holmes, anyone? Dozens and dozens of books, movies, television series…all from just one fascinatingly flawed character.

Applying the Flaws

Consider a character that you’ve already started to work with. Add a flaw — physical, emotional, or behavioural.  What changes? Can it affect your plot? Does it enhance your themes? Has the tension gone up a notch? What about relationships — any shifts in how characters interact with each other?

And what if you change up the flaw? A whole new ballgame? Oh, the possibilities are as limited as your ability to experiment.

 

Trusting Your Reader

Trusting Your Reader

Ruth E. Walker

As a writing coach and editor, I often remind writers to trust your reader. This is not reserved for those new to the craft. Even writers with published work under their belt will slip into the world of telling when they should be nudging.

Show vs nudge

We writers hear it all the time: show don’t tell. It’s great advice and it means to write so that you keep readers engaged. Show is all part of a writer’s essential toolkit of Active instead of (ho-hum) passive writing:

  • use active verbs instead of adverbs
  • watch for info-packed sentences and unnecessary description
  • keep characters reacting physically
  • remove repetition (words, phrases, actions) unless it is important to the story/character
  • avoid clichés and stereotypes—surprise your reader (and yourself)

But it’s not exactly what I mean with “nudge.” I mean something even more subtle, more layered. Something that moves your writing up the ladder. Something that echoes subconsciously for readers.

 

For example

Imagine you are writing a book about a teenager who is a soccer star. Alexia has all the usual teen angst of being confident and insecure. Everyone tells her she defends the net like a world cup pro, that The Beautiful Game will be her ticket to success. But Alexia fears that she’s only a soccer star on her high school team and will be revealed as ordinary when she joins the provincial all-stars.

But what is your story really about? The desire to be a soccer star is just what Alexia thinks she wants. What she really wants is for her mother coaching soccer in Europe to come back home and show that her own daughter is more important than her mother’s career.

That deep longing that Alexia won’t even admit to herself is your ticket to “nudge.”

Avoid the Hammer

My Writescape colleague Gwynn often refers to tell as a Hammer (as in, hitting your reader over the head and saying, “Hey reader, are you getting this?”) Like me, she sees missed opportunities for subtle hints or when the supposed hint is as obvious as…well—a hammer to the forehead.

Back to Alexia’s longing. We could have her write in her diary: I miss my mother. I wish she’d come home. Nope. Hammer.

We could have her watch the other mothers cheer for her teammates and wipe wistful tears from her eyes. Nope. Hammer with a Sentimental Whack.

We could have sit with her best friend and talk about it:

“Why are you so upset Alexia?”

“Well Pat, I really miss my mother. With her over in Europe coaching that semi-pro team I just feel so alone here. I don’t have any grandparents or other family except Dad. And he’s busy all the time and really, I think they’re separated and just not telling me. The seasons over there are longer than ours here and I want her to come back before my season ends, to see me play just once.”

Nope. More than a Hammer, this exchange also qualifies as an As You Know Bob moment, where a writer has their character say things the person listening would already know but wants to make sure the reader has all the important information. All. Of. It.

This is a prime example of not trusting the reader to either have already figured it out OR (and this is just as important) have the patience to piece it together as the story moves forward.

Don’t poke your reader in the eye

Let’s go back to Alexia’s longing. Would you give her a mother figure in the new coach of the provincial team? That would be kind of obvious. Besides, Alexia needs to learn about the complications of mothering and find a way to connect with her absent mother.

One way to do this is to make Alexia be a mother-figure. A pet perhaps? Too unlikely. Maybe a new teammate who is even more insecure than Alexia and she nurtures her along? Too obvious and lacking in energy.

What if the provincial team requirement is a certain amount of volunteer work? What if the winter before she leaves for training camp she gets stuck with 6 weeks coaching at an inner city community centre. Despite her initial frustrations and lack of empathy, she forms attachments. And then finally, she has to leave for training camp before “the big game/event” of the community centre. She has to choose between her soccer career and the “support your team” mantra she kept telling her young charges.

Maybe all this helps Alexia see her mother in a different light—the pull between family and career that many women struggle with. Maybe this isn’t the most subtle nudge to keep Alexia’s longing a constant theme. But the point here is that I was nudging you to consider ways in which you can adjust a story—pare it, shape it—and eventually move it into thoughtful territory that nudges readers into deeper engagement with your writing.

It’s actually one of the highest compliments you can give a reader: I trust you to understand what my story is about. And frankly, it’s a lot more interesting to write without a hammer in your back pocket. And, as you know Bob, it’s something I encourage writers to remember.

DID YOU KNOW

Gwynn and Ruth are great writing coaches. It’s been their pleasure to work with writers of all kinds and at all levels. At the next Writescape retreat, Spring Thaw, they get to kick off the retreat with some one-on-one consultation with the writers there. Plus they both provide written feedback for work submitted in advance.

Support. Clear and constructive feedback. And the care and feeding of the writer’s soul that comes at all Writescape retreats. April 20 for 3 days or extend your pen for 5 days.

 

Getting Your Novel Unstuck

Getting Your Novel Unstuck

Guest blogger Stephanie Gibeault is a freelance writer with a passion for fiction for young readers. She recently wrote a post for Writescape about the benefits of writing away at the Highlights Foundation’s Pennsylvania retreat. As she promised in that December post, she’s here to share what she learned about getting a novel unstuck:

Whether you call it writer’s block, an empty tank or say your creative well has run dry, every writer has days or weeks when putting words on the page is a challenge. This past summer, I found myself stuck on my middle grade manuscript.

I created a storyboard (on my closet doors) to help me see the flow of the plot, only to discover there were structural issues I hadn’t noticed before. I could see what the problems were, but had no idea how to fix them. Thankfully, I had already signed up for a workshop dedicated to getting unstuck.

Stop spinning your wheels

In my recent guest post, I wrote about my experience at the Highlights Foundation workshop Getting Your Middle Grade Novel Unstuck. I learned many things at the workshop, but the main focus was how to deal with being stuck.

Beginning, middle or end of your story—there are great techniques that can help move you forward. Instructors Chris Tebbetts and Elise Broach armed me with loads of options. And many of them don’t even involve working directly on your manuscript.

The most valuable piece of advice I took away from the workshop: there’s always something you can be doing even if it’s not writing.

Experiment with play

Sometimes, it feels like anything other than writing a new scene is procrastination. That’s simply not the case.

Anything that moves you forward with your writing, builds your skills, increases your familiarity with your characters or fleshes out your plot is a productive and effective use of your time. That’s incredibly liberating.

Discovering your characters

Successful middle grade writers create characters their readers connect with—and characters the writers know inside and out. Chris and Elise offered lots of suggestions to get to know our characters better. Here’s a really effective one for me:

  1. Create a chart with a column for a character’s self-perception and a column for how they are seen by others.
  2. The two columns are those perceptions that are true or accurate and those that are false. This provides insight into your character’s psyche – what they hide from others and what they hide from themselves.
TRUE/ACCURATE FALSE/INACCURATE
HOW BOB SEES SELF Hilarious

Fun-loving

Always positive

Never afraid

HOW OTHERS SEE BOB Cute but annoying

Makes light of tough situations

Attention-seeking

Over-the-top

Journal as your character. Get at their innermost thoughts, motivations and goals.Other ways of getting in touch with your characters include:

  • Fill out a questionnaire or survey as one of your characters. How do they answer differently than you or another character would?
  • Write about a character’s perfect day. What makes him or her happy?
  • Create a character profile with details like hair colour, favourite movie and best friend. The more details the better.
  • Write a letter to yourself from a character about what you are getting right and wrong about him or her in your manuscript.

Stretch some more!

I learned how writing prompts helped uncover details about our characters and plots. I thought it would be limiting because I’d have to go in a particular direction rather than letting my creativity flow.

I was amazed. Forced to explore areas I might otherwise have ignored, I answered questions not directly related to my story but essential to understanding it. Simple questions like, “What does this character want?” or “Why do I love this story?” gave me a great start.

ReVision to move forward

Editing can be as radical as starting from scratch and rewriting a scene entirely from memory. You’ll likely retain your favourite parts while stumbling onto some new descriptions, dialogue and directions at the same time. With track changes in your word processor, it’s easy to compare the two versions, choosing the best sections to keep.

Or be more conservative and only delete what isn’t completely necessary. Decide what, if any, details need to go back in and what the reader never needed in the first place.

One of my favourite suggestions was when Chris told me to rewrite a section of my manuscript in first person point of view. The purpose was not to rewrite my entire manuscript, (although that is exactly what I will do), but to get me deeper into my main character’s head.

I couldn’t believe the difference it made. No longer hovering over my story, now saw it through my protagonist’s eyes. Changing point of view, or even tense (from past to present, for example), allows you to approach your narrative from a different angle and that can be all you need.

No more excuses

With so many available options, I no longer have any reason to be stuck. Or to use the phrase “writer’s block”. If you’re feeling stuck with a writing project, consider trying some of these suggestions.

Remember to take advantage of workshops and retreats to help propel you forward. My experience at Highlights sure made a difference for me.

Did You Know

Are you stuck? Writescape retreats offer the perfect space to stretch your writing skills, re-imagine your work in new and exciting ways and the safety you need for full-throated expression. Spring Thaw is already half full of eager and focused writers like you, ready to give focus to their work.

Join us for an all-inclusive escape on the shores of Rice Lake. Elmhirst’s Resort boasts cozy fully equipped cottages with fireplaces, private bedrooms and gorgeous sunrise lake views. All you need is your jammies, toothbrush and writing materials; writers at all levels are welcome. Choose either a 3-day or 5-day retreat. April 20-24.

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My Digital Idea Archive Project

My Digital Idea Archive Project

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

Guest blogger: Leah Murray

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

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

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

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

 Find ideas I want to keep

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

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


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

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

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

Idea archive part one, check.

Stash ’em someplace safe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Idea archive part two, check.

 Retrieve ’em when you need ’em.

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

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

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

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

Digital Idea Archive Challenge conquered!

Meet our guest blogger – Leah Murray

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

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

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

A Writer’s Listening Skills

A Writer’s Listening Skills

Ruth E. Walker

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

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

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

Hearing is believing

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

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

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

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

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

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

I beg your pardon

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

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

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

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

Solitary craft still needs the world

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

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

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

DID YOU KNOW

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rinse and repeat

Rinse and repeat

Gwynn Scheltema

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

Little and often

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

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

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

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

Eat that Frog

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

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

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

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

 

Make your bed

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

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

All I know, it works for me.

Your frog for today

So there you have it.

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

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

Day after tomorrow, eat frog #2

Rinse and repeat…rinse and repeat…

DID YOU KNOW

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

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

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

Brochure-Spring Thaw-2018

Winter’s Here

Winter’s Here

It’s winter. Ah yes. There’s no escaping it, but guest blogger Felicity Sidnell Reid sees it as a chance to indulge in books. And she tells us how a particular book turned a cold day into a warm experience.

Felicity Sidnell Reid

When the wind is whipping snow around my garden and even my dog is reluctant to brave the cold outside, it’s time to read without guilt. 

My Christmas, this year, has been filled with books. And the weather is cooperating, encouraging me to stay home and read… and read.

An intimate conversation

 

Dancing Fish and Ammonites: A MemoirAt present I am perusing Penelope Lively’s memoir, Dancing Fish and Ammonites. Penelope Lively is the author of 17 novels, 3 collections of short stories and several memoirs. She won the Booker Prize for Moon Tiger (1987) and has been awarded many other honours.

Dancing Fish and Ammonites is full of insights for writers, as well as, a passionate defence of reading and books.Its discursive nature demands such attention. Written when she was 80, she reflects, in a series of essays, on Old Age, her Life and Times, Memory, Reading and Writing, and Six “Things”.

Her book is not a chronological narrative, but more of a conversation, which bewitches the reader into silent — or sometimes out-loud debate. I found myself commenting, questioning, agreeing and disagreeing as though she were sitting across from me by a flickering fire, surrounded by her personal library of books—which seemed a little odd because Penelope Lively is not a cosy author.

Sympathetic to the human condition, in her fiction she creates complicated, engaging characters with a masterful brush and brings her narratives to a satisfying conclusion. But a certain detachment and a satiric eye also contribute to the style of her writing. Not surprising then that her memoir turns out to be an examination of the ideas that have shaped her life, rather than a chronicle of it— but, though I’ve finished the book, I still don’t know how she made this discussion so intimate.

A tethered life

 

Lively has always been deeply interested in time, memory and context. “A lifetime is embedded; it does not float free; it is tethered to certain decades, to places, to people…” Though she read history at University, she has had a life-long interest in archeology. Artefacts and the physical evidence of the past which she examined in The Presence of the Past; An Introduction to Landscape History (Harper Collins, 1979) as well as personal and contextual history, have inspired much of her writing.

She explains that, “age, memory, time and this curious physical evidence of what I’ve been up to—how reading has fed into writing” are the topics of this meditation on her life.

Lively writes passionately about the importance of memory, both individual and collective. Of collective memory she says, “We all need…the ballast of the past, a general past, the place from which we came.” The study of history enables us to see ourselves as part of a narrative; the “understanding of time and a respect for memory…” prevent us from being “afloat, untethered.”

A mass of lurking material

 

She explores the operation of memory, and how it affects people, in her novels. “You can make lavish use of it, allowing it to direct what happens or simply evoke what has once happened to flesh out a character, or give added meaning to what a person does or thinks. It is the essential secret weapon for a novelist.”

And personal memory is a “mass of lurking material” which frequently inspires or colours one’s fiction. “Time itself maybe inexorable, indifferent, but we can personalize our own little segment; this is where I was, this is what I did.” So is it memory which makes us who we are?

Books are a central part of the writing experience

 

Then Lively considers the importance of reading and how that has shaped her life. Living, always, in a house full of books, she knows that the “inferno of language” sitting on her shelves, is sorted by the mind; much is discarded, forgotten, but a “significant amount, becomes, that essential part of us—what we know and understand and think about above and beyond our own immediate concerns. It has become the life of the mind.

What we have read makes us what we are…” A survey of a lifetime’s eclectic reading illustrates how it refines a writer’s taste and allows the exploration of a myriad of possibilities. She recalls the wonder of wandering in libraries, of how the “reading of a lifetime—has been [a] marriage of the fortuitous and the deliberate, with the random, the maverick choices tipping the scale and serving up, invariably, the prompts for what would next be written.” This is not to say that writing is a direct response to what we read for it may be years before it becomes the prompt for a story or a novel.

She concludes that we write fiction out of “every aspect of experience” but as far as she’s concerned, “books are a central part of that experience…” Her fear in old age is that, one day, she may not be able to read or keep her books around her, that she may lose her “familiar, eclectic” collection that “hitches me to the wider world; that has freed me from the prison of myself; that has helped me to think, and to write.”

Leap out of your own timeframe

 

In her final chapter, Lively returns to the topic of identity. In picking out six objects she values and which “articulate something of who I am” she gives the reader another look at herself, the interests of a lifetime and how her imagination works.

None of the “six things” is of great monetary value, but each object, lovingly described, provokes recollections, associations and is a “vivid, tangible reminder of people who have been here before, making things, and using them and discarding them…” for, from ammonites to a sherd of pottery, decorated with dancing fish, these objects have enabled her to make “imaginative leaps out of [her] own timeframe and into other places—places where things were done differently.”

Meet our guest blogger – Felicity Sidnell Reid

Felicity Sidnell Reid is an author, poet, artist and broadcaster. Her historical novel Alone: A Winter in the Woods was published in 2015. She is a co-host on the radio program “Word on the Hills” on Northumberland 89.7FM .

 

 

Title picture of cardinals courtesy of Anne Sidnell

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.