Deadlines: Motivator or Barrier?

Deadlines: Motivator or Barrier?

Ruth E. Walker

Discovering Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was a thrill. Oh, the combination: wit, satire and science fiction comedy. As a young-ish mother of four, the escape was delicious.

And lately, I’ve enjoyed getting reacquainted with his wacky worldview in the television series Dirk Gently’s Holisitic Detective Agency. But all that is an aside (which is one of things I loved about reading Douglas Adams — the incredible digressions…but then I also enjoy Monty Python.)

What I most admire about Douglas Adams is how often his words (either from his books or otherwise) remain so smart and relevant. Here’s a gem from a speech “Parrots, the universe and everything” at the University of California in May 2001. It was just days before his untimely death at age 49:

We don’t have to save the world. The world is big enough to look after itself. What we have to be concerned about is whether or not the world we live in will be capable of sustaining us in it.

And here’s my favourite because it fits my writing world:

I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by. 

Yes indeed. So today, I have no less than two writing deadlines. First, I need to finish THIS post and get it proofread and ready to launch by midnight. And second, long before midnight, I need to send the last four chapters of my novel to my critique group.

Time Management?

Look at that. My “midnight” deadline is secondary to my “long before midnight” deadline. Well, that must be because my last four chapters are ready to go.

Nope. They are “mostly” ready (Python-esque description, yes?) I’m still agonizing over plot decisions I’ve made. I’m unsure if I’ve overwritten the final few scenes, that I’ve gone for “big” when “intimate” might better serve the story.

Yes. Of course I hear you. Isn’t that what my critique group is for? To offer feedback on the writing? So what is my problem?

It’s the deadlines that are killing me and my creativity today. Add into the mix some background on another deadline, one that I’ve missed. In the past couple of years, I’ve been at a few writing conferences. At those conferences, there were optional pitch sessions with literary agents. I started with the idea that I could use those sessions as a chance to practise a real pitch for when the book is done.

So I paid attention to the questions the agents asked. I noticed what got their interest in the written query and writing sample and what put them on snooze. And I practised being comfortable sitting across from someone who might have a profound effect on my writing career. Believe me, I need that practise.

True confession

I can stand at the front of a room and deliver a workshop with passion and confidence. But offer up that compelling elevator pitch? Describe my book and its themes in 25 words or less? Open my mouth and not jam my foot directly into it?

Something terrible happens to me when I’m talking about my novel to agents and editors. My brain leaves the room. So practise is necessary, in my case.

Last September, I was at a pitch session with a well-known literary agent. I didn’t even have to open my mouth before she let me know how much she enjoyed my writing sample. In seconds, I went from Nervous Nellie to author. We had a great meeting and I imagined how lovely it would be have this woman as my agent. She asked to see the full manuscript in November. “Of course,” I said. I was only a month or so from penning “The End” so that timing was a perfect fit.

I had a deadline. I had strong interest from an agent. And a manuscript so close to being done, I could taste it. What could go wrong?

The Douglas Adams effect

Whoosh. That deadline went by so fast, I barely heard it. Sure, I have a lot of reasons that the book languished, unfinished. But I suspect that a big part of the missed deadline is related to my lack of confidence in writing the darn thing. That’s not a logical reason. Feedback from agents and editors in my practice sessions, along with my excellent (and tough) critique group’s comments, confirms that the writing is strong and the story original and engaging.

But when are we logical beings? When does our passion for our craft translate into efficiency and organization? In my case, it often doesn’t. Remember those digressions I love? Squirrel! And I’m madly off in several directions, forgetting the original goal.

Nonetheless, I’ve made it to the end of this post so that is one deadline met. As long as no squirrels pass my window and the house remains relatively quiet, I should also manage to meet the next one. And as to that November 2016 so-important-I-shouldn’t-let-it-whoosh-by deadline? I can only hope that literary agent is okay working with authors for whom deadlines are sometimes counter-productive. And that she’ll like the novel well enough to sign me.

I’ll keep you posted.

Did You Know:

You’ve got lots of time before registration deadline for Turning Leaves, our annual fall retreat. But don’t let that stop you from signing up. The first four writers who sign up get a special bonus: a suite room with a lake view. Still waiting for the deadline to creep up on you? With this year’s guest author Vicki Delany ready to share secrets on how she’s one of Canada’s top mystery writers, we expect a full house. Don’t be disappointed. November 3, 4 & 5.

Frogging It

Frogging It

Erin Thomas

I’ve often taken satisfaction from the idea that writing, in some ways, is like knitting. Not the following-patterns part, although sometimes in the depths of my writerly frustration, I imagine that would be nice. And it’s not the tangible result, either; a writer goes through many, many iterations before having something tangible to show for her efforts.

No, it’s more the idea of building something big—a scarf, a sweater, a blanket—out of a series of small steps. It’s holding the “whole” in your mind, when all you can see is a pile of yarn, when all you can do in the moment is make one more tiny stitch towards that whole.

Word by word, or bird by bird if you’re an Anne Lamott fan. Stitch by stitch.

I work away at my shawl; one stitch is almost nothing. It’s a word, a period. An entire row of stitches, maybe that’s something. There’s a sense of completion there. A paragraph, or maybe even a scene. But it takes so many, many rows to make a shawl.

Writers work in “the end” and “the now”

Building a novel, or a draft of a novel, feels a bit like that. You have to split your mind; part of it imagines the finished product, holds the shape of it before you. This, it says. This is the reason you’re working. This is what you’re making.  But that finish line is a long way away, so another part of your mind focuses only on the task at hand, the small piece you’re doing just now. The stitch, the row, the bit of lace. The next twist of the cable.

Maybe you go so far as to admire how it connects to what came before, how the project is growing. What you cannot do is focus on how much there is still to do. That way lies discouragement. In knitting, as in writing, it pays to have something of a zen mindset. Your work is the work of the moment.

Sometimes, though, there’s a mistake. Sometimes there’s a mistake so big, so early in the project, that you can’t work back and fix it. For a while, maybe, you pretend it’s not there. You pretend no one else will see it. It’s okay. It was near the edge, near the beginning, before the pattern really took shape; maybe you can pretend it happened on purpose.

But it nags at you. After all, you started this because you had a vision. And this object in your hands, it doesn’t match that vision.

You work ahead. Maybe you can fix it. Maybe you can repeat it, somehow, or work in a call-back. You’ve made so many stitches since that point. Good stitches. Stitches that look the way they’re supposed to. You keep going, building on those good stitches. But if the initial flaw is big enough, it will affect the whole. The pattern is broken; the count is off. You could push ahead, you could even finish it, but will you be happy with the finished project?

The fix is usually necessary

Sometimes, the answer is no. Sometimes, the only answer is to start over. So you pull on the yarn and all those lovely stitches unravel, and you rewind the yarn, and your project dissolves back to the mistake or even the starting point, and you begin again.

Knitters have a term for this. It’s called “frogging it,” apparently because “rip it, rip it” sounds like the noise frogs make.I’ve used other f-words from time to time.

I’ve frogged novels, too. When something is wrong that’s fundamental to the story, when it’s built into every scene and chapter and fibre of the novel, sometimes it’s best to start over.

Starting over hurts. You’ve written all those lovely words. Your critique partners have helped you hone them. Some of those chapters sing. Starting over feels like a waste.

What remains is priceless

It’s not a waste. When you frog your knitting, you don’t lose everything. You keep the yarn, the substance out of which the project is made. And you keep the knowledge you gained—the new stitch patterns you learned, the deeper understanding of how the garment comes together. This time, you can do it better. You’re aware of the pitfalls. You can work more easily. Maybe you can even add something that will improve it.

Frogging it isn’t always the answer. Sometimes there will be a way to fix what’s wrong without pulling apart the entire manuscript. But sometimes, sometimes, it’s necessary. And when it is, the best thing you can do is grit your teeth and rip that yarn with courage and commitment, knowing that you’re going to tackle this project again, or even build something better out of the same stuff.

And you begin again. Stitch by stitch.

Erin Thomas writes books for children and young adults (and knits compulsively) from her home in Whitby, Ontario. For more information, visit www.erinthomas.ca.

Plotting a Search for Structure

Plotting a Search for Structure

Ruth E. Walker

At my critique group last night, we did a bit of dissection on the plot of a member’s novel in progress. Sounds scary, doesn’t it?

Here’s a bit of background. One of our members has a great story for middle grade readers. It has lots of elements that the age group enjoys:

  • a relatable POV character with a problem to solve
  • some simmering tension with a member of the opposite sex
  • a science fiction backdrop that is fun and fantastical
  • a school full of goofy rules, and
  • a dastardly villain bent on stopping our POV character dead in his tracks

All the right ingredients. But the novel wasn’t quite working the way the writer hoped it would. So he continued to work on the story and recently sent us a revised synopsis.

Our role, as with all submissions, was to look at the synopsis, mark up the copy with questions and notes, and bring it to the session for discussion. Questions and detailed notes are important but the discussion in our critique group is widely considered the true gold of membership.

Our critique group collectively has some wide-ranging skill sets and expertise. This we all bring to the table. But a couple of us (not me!) are exceptional in the plot department. One, in particular, often brings visual aids, related reading and notes from research and workshops.

Last night, I suspect Christopher Vogler’s ears were burning. And the meeting room’s white board was a colourful palette of ideas and plot points.

How it worked for one writer:

Our two-hour session focused on reviewing our colleague’s current plot structure as outlined in his synopsis and getting to the heart of his story.

It was brilliant. Dividing the basic plot into three main acts and then placing the existing story into that structure allowed the writer to consider changes that simplified areas of the story. Some parts were more complex than they needed to be. At least one character needed to be shipped to the Island of Unwanted Characters.  And some goals needed to be adjusted.

The writer had some significant ah-ha! moments. He left the meeting with a renewed sense of where he wanted his story to go. What started out like a last-ditch revision became the groundwork for a new vision and plenty of possiblities.

And, as a side benefit, I found it all immensely helpful in looking at my own work in progress.

The basics of the Three-Act Structure:

Act I sets the stage, introduces the POV character with a problem(s) to overcome and the inciting incident.

Act II is the meat of the matter and has its own moment of crisis in the mid-point. As our colleague explained, “It’s like in the Wizard of Oz where they reach the Wizard, and Dorothy thinks he’ll send her home. But no. First they have to complete this impossible task: kill the Wicked Witch of the West.

So using Dorothy and Wizard, Act II is divided into two sections: Act II a (following the yellow brick road to see the Wizard) and Act II b (kill the witch before she kills Dorothy, Toto and her three companions)

And then, of course, Act III. This final act has the crushing disappointment of learning the wizard is not all-powerful after all, quickly followed by a joyful realization that everyone had what they needed all along, the journey home and most important, the POV character’s completed arc of understanding or change. (There’s no place like home…)

Can this approach work for you?

So, looking at your plot, are there areas in your story that you think could use a bit of tightening up? Could a three-act structure overview give you clues about needed changes? Or does it confirm that you have all the necessary ducks in a row? Good for you if that’s the case!

A word of caution. My critique group example is just a simplified version of one approach to looking at plot. Screenwriter and script consultant, Christopher Vogler, has a popular book The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers (which, strangely enough, had a cameo in our session yesterday.) Vogler’s 407-page book is only one of the many great resources for writers on structure and storytelling.

Have you struggled with structure? What did you do to help you get past the challenge of plotting? If you have suggestions, let us know what resources and approaches you recommend for other writers.

Romancing the Villain: A Writer’s Love Story

Romancing the Villain: A Writer’s Love Story

Ruth E. Walker

It’s true. We all love a really good villain. Providing, of course, that they’re between the covers of a good book or kept safe inside a movie or television screen. That’s the other side of our love affair: we control where and when we spend time with those villains. Writers know that if we want readers to root for the hero, we need to create a good bad guy. Here are some points to consider.

The hero/villain bond

Moriarty and Sherlock Holmes. Shere Khan and Mowgli. The White Witch and Aslan. A villain is the counterpoint, the mirror, the connection to the dark side of our hero.

Voldemort would just be an ugly, nasty, nameless whozits without Harry Potter. With young Harry in our hearts and minds, He Who Cannot Be Named notches up the terror-meter. And when he finally shows up, he sets fire to the page. Harry’s emotions catch fire too, and not always with good result. That’s important. For Harry, the villain is part of his journey, and all good heroes have flaws that villains love to exploit.

But we don’t just need the villain to serve as the foil for our hero. The most interesting villains come with baggage and struggles of their own. And generally, they don’t even KNOW they are villains.

(I see dead people…all the time. And they don’t know they’re dead.)

Well, unlike the ghosts in The Sixth Sense, most villains do know what they’re up to. But in their own story, they’re the hero. George R.R. Martin said:  A villain is a hero of the other side.

King Joffrey, anyone?

Author Stephen King has created many memorable twisted characters and sometimes, they start out as the hero of the story — Carrie, for example. Villains in King’s hands are much more than stereotypical bad guys. Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win. Indeed, Mr. King. Indeed.

What does your villain want?

Your villain is more than window dressing. When you write them, do you consider their life story? What about their childhood disappointments? Their losses? Their fears? The source of their desire for world domination?

Maybe Iago secretly reads romance novels to learn to be less awkward in lovemaking. Maybe The White Witch just wants Narnia to stay a frozen wasteland because she’s afraid of growing old.

Just like your story’s hero, your villain needs goals. Readers may not need to know all about the “inciting incident” that sets your villain on the road to bad deeds. But as the writer, you need to know your villain’s motivations.

To support a good plot, the villain’s goals should be contrary to your hero’s goals, or at the least, interfere with your hero’s ability to achieve them. Energy and tension come from those conflicts. The greater they are, the stronger the plot, so your villain better not be feeble. Think of it this way: a weak villain makes for a weak plot.

How complex is your villain?

Compelling characters resonate with your reader. They trigger emotions. Villains hold our attention when they are three-dimensional and we believe they exist.

Your villain may only have a walk-on part to trigger the inciting incident for your hero, but that villain still needs to be believable. And one part of making villains believable is to ensure they believe in themselves.

Consider Javert in Hugo’s Les Miserables. An intelligent man of principles, he relentlessly pursues justice, but without an ounce of compassion. We believe in him because he believes completely in his truth. Actor Jack Gleeson, who plays maniacal King Joffrey in the Game of Thrones television series puts it this way: Both villains and heroes need to have a steadfast belief in themselves.

How well does your villain fit with your story?

This one can be a tricky question. Simply making a character “evil” and “heartless” doesn’t mean that character will fit the story you are telling. As already noted, you can look to your hero to find some of the right kind of villain qualities. But you also have to consider time and place.

A story set in medieval times can have a villain who is chivalrous and noble but has no hesitation in running a broadsword into child’s heart to make a point. That same twisted knight may not fit so easily in a contemporary horror novel.

Take a close look at the story you are writing. Is your villain the best antagonist you can create, or is there room to refine your “baddie”? Up his sympathy factor? Lose some of her stereotypical nasty behaviour? Since I started to write this article, I’ve had some ideas that will send me back to my own in-progress novel. Again.

But that’s okay. I like my villain and hopefully, you will too.

DID YOU KNOW?

Villains, Vendettas and Vagabonds is a one-day workshop Ruth facilitates for writers. She’ll be in Niagara-on-the-Lake in September sharing insights and ideas on creating great “bad” in fiction. The workshop is part of the NOTL Writers’ Circle programming for 2017.

She’ll also be offering this workshop in Durham Region this fall. Stay tuned for details.

Janus: the god of writing?

Janus: the god of writing?

Gwynn Scheltema

January is believed to be named for the Roman god, Janus. The first month of the Gregorian calendar, January replaced March as the first month of the Roman year, no later than 153 BCE.

As we’ve left behind 2016 and begun 2017, consider that Janus is, among other things, the god of time, beginnings and endings. His two faces look simultaneously to the future and the past.

Janus symbolized change, transition and motion. He presided over the progress of one condition to another, from one vision to another, and young people’s growth to adulthood, transition from savagery to civilization, from rural to urban space, from one universe to another. Janus oversaw the beginning and ending of conflict. As a god of motion, Janus caused actions to start.

He represented time, and was worshipped at planting and harvest, at births and marriages and deaths. He had a role to play in journeys and exchanges, gateways and thresholds.

Doesn’t that sound like a writer? I think writers are a lot like Janus, presiding over our fictional worlds.

So what can we learn from Janus?

Past and Future are connected

At any point in the writing of a story we need to be looking into the past and the future simultaneously. Even though action and plot are moving forward into the future, we need to be aware of our characters’ pasts or back story, because that is what drives all our characters’ quirks and traits and shapes the decisions they make.

The distinction between past back story and present, or future action and plot, is a cornerstone for understanding pacing. The plot and action is what moves the story forward and keeps the pace up (and the reader engaged). The moment you indulge in a flashback (back story; the past), your pacing stands still. Sure we learn things about the characters, but the storyline is momentarily halted. Stay in the past too long, and the reader will lose interest.

That’s not to say that backstory is not important. It is. It is the subconscious motivation that drives the characters’ present actions. The future unfolds according to the events of the past, and witnessing some of the past will help the reader understand why a character acts the way he does.

Beginnings and Endings are connected.

We all know that stories have a beginning, middle and end, but it’s more than that. Like Janus, we need to be aware of the beginning and end simultaneously wherever we are in the writing of the story. Everything is causal. Nothing happens without a reason.

Plotters write their plot beginnings with plot endings in mind. Pantsers freewheel the plot but know their character arc beginning and ending. At any point in the story the reader should feel that there is change afoot, that there is growth and discovery around the corner. Your reader should sense that at the end, it will have been worth the journey, and that the promise given at the beginning has been kept.

Duality in characters

The two-faced Janus reminds us, too, that our characters also have dual aspects. They are at once good and bad. Readers relate to villains who have redeemable qualities. Readers like heroes with flaws. It makes them rounded and believable, not cardboard.

A character arc is a progression from one condition to another: from shy to confident, from intolerant to tolerant, from angry to calm and so on. Cardboard characters have no arc. They are shallow and act without motivation, act only because the author needs them to. If the writer, like Janus, is aware of the character’s past as she writes the action and change of the future, then the character will be more developed. The reader will care what happens to the character and keep turning the page. And that’s what we all want.

So as we write, let’s remember Janus, this January and all year long. Our readers will thank us.

DID YOU KNOW

You can explore your inner Janus this April at Writescape’s Spring Thaw retreat. This all-inclusive getaway at Fern Resort on Rice Lake, Ontario, offers plenty of time to focus on character arcs, plot developments and flashbacks that don’t drag down your story. Gwynn and Ruth are on hand to give you one-on-one feedback on your work in progress. Registration is open now.

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.

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.

 

There All Along

There All Along

Guest Post: Erin Thomas

Today I took a life drawing class, part of a teacher meet-and-greet event at Centennial College. Unlike the gentleman who jokingly stood up and pretended to walk away when the teacher explained that there was no nude model, I was intrigued by the sound of our assignment: we were going to draw an eye.

 First Steps

The charcoal felt alarmingly light in my fingers and snapped off at the slightest provocation, but I slowly got the hang of drawing with the side of it, not the tip. Shading. Playing with weight and layers and darkness. The bumps on the easel board under my paper gave an interesting texture, like leaf-and-crayon art.hand-drawn-987070_1280

The eye was a sphere, the teacher explained, and that was where we were to start—just shading a circle. With no real understanding of how the dark blob on my paper was going to turn into an eyeball, I followed her lead. Soon we were covering part of the eye-circle with lines that turned into an eyelid. A lower lid followed. I had lines in the wrong spot; finger-smudging made them paler, but they didn’t quite disappear.

“Don’t try to copy,” the teacher advised. “Just think about the shape of the eye.” But I couldn’t see the sphere of it anymore. The lid seemed to be covering an eye-blob that was a different shape than the eye-blob that was emerging.

Adding More 

I made more lines. It didn’t help.

I stepped back, tryeye-1447938_1280ing to find the beach ball of the greater eye within the drawing. It looked wrong, that was all. Unbalanced. I had drawn the eye of a crazed murderer, a horror-movie clown. And it was staring at me.

I made a line, smudged it out. Tried again, making a bigger mess each time. Eyelashes maybe? No. It turned out that eyelashes were not the answer.

 Uncovering

“Good,” the teacher said. Good? Were we looking at the same drawing? Ah. This was teacher good, not real good. I have used this good myself.

“Just clean it up here and here,” she added, and with an eraser she cleaned up some of the leaf-and-crayon-like texture in the eye-white. She showed me that there is usually a space between the iris and the lower lid, and with a quick dodge of her hand, made it appear. She adjusted the shape of the area over the eye, and suddenly it matched what was beneath it.

There all Along

Now I could see the beach-ball roundness, the shape of it, the lines that belonged and the ones that didn’t. It had been there all along; I just couldn’t see the shape of it. Now, I could.

Erin's Eyeball Art
Erin’s Eyeball Art

How often have I done this with a piece of writing? When something’s not working, sometimes our impulse is to keep adding lines. Add another character to supply the missing bit of information, add a plot twist to add excitement. Soon the shape of the story is obscured.

Part of what I love about my writing groups is their ability to see the shape of the eyeball underneath it all, when I can’t. To point out which lines I should erase. How many times will I need to learn the lesson that the right answer to a story problem is usually the one that’s already seeded in the manuscript? Sitting there. Waiting to be seen.

What doesn’t add…

The miracle of the eraser reminds me of my favourite piece of writing advice, one I heard from Kathy Stinson, although she makes no claim to have invented it. “What doesn’t add, subtracts.” And sometimes, it seems, subtracting is a way of adding.

Stories, it seems, have shapes of their own. telling-libraries-stories-with-video-11-638

Switching between charcoal and eraser, I made an eye. This eyeball art of mine is not going to win any prizes. It was not even the best piece of rookie eyeball art hanging on the wall with all of the other rookie-art eyeballs. But it is arguably the best thing I’ve ever drawn.

I’m going to keep a picture of it handy, to remind me to think about the shape of my story. To remind me, when I’m frustrated and lost in the lines, to be patient—to step back, to try again. The thing I’m drawing with my words might already be there, waiting to be uncovered.

Erin-1-042-4x5-rgb-240x300

Erin Thomas writes books for children and young adults from her home in Whitby, Ontario. She enjoys trying new hobbies on for size, but promises not to pursue a career in fine art. For more information, visit www.erinthomas.ca.
Draco’s Fire (HIP Books Fall 2009)
Boarder Patrol (Orca Sports Spring 2010).
Wolves at the Gate (HIP Books Spring 2011)
Overboard (HIP Books, Spring 2012)
Haze (Orca Sports, Spring 2012)
Roller Coaster (HIP Books, Fall 2013)
Forcing the Ace (Orca Limelights, 2014)
The Power of Cameo Characters

The Power of Cameo Characters

Gwynn Scheltema

“Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.”

~ The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien

Incidental characters, walk-on characters, cameo characters—call them what you will—they have an important part to play in a novel. Do you remember a scene where a character appears just briefly and then we never see that character again? 

When a writer includes a walk-on character, is that a good thing or a bad thing?

The answer depends on what kind of novel you’re writing, where in the novel the character appears, and what the character does in the scene.

Mister Pip

Mister_Pip_(Lloyd_Jones_novel)One of my favourite “cameo characters” is a woman known only as “Daniel’s grandmother” who comes to share her wisdom with Mr. Watts’ class in Lloyd Jones’ book Mister Pip:

Daniel’s grandmother, stooped and old on her canes, peered back at our class with her weak eyes. “There is a place called Egypt,” she said. “I know nothing of that place. I wish I could tell you kids about Egypt. Forgive me for not knowing more. But if you care to listen, I will tell you everything I know about the colour blue.”

And so we heard about the colour blue. “Blue is the colour of the Pacific. It is the air we breathe. It is the gap in the air of all things, such as the palms and iron roofs. But for blue we would not see the fruit bats.

You can find blue squinting up in the cracks of the wharf at Kieta. … It is trying to get at the stinking fish guts, to take them home. If blue was an animal or plant or bird, it would be a seagull. It gets its sticky beak into everything.

But blue also has magical powers,” she said. “…Blue crashes onto the reef and what colour does it release? It releases white! …A final thing, children, and then I will let you go. Blue belongs to the sky and cannot be nicked which is why the missionaries stuck blue in the windows of the first churches they built here on the island.”

What is achieved with the character of Daniel’s grandmother?

Now on the surface, she seems just a quirky character who says some strange things about a common thing we think we know about already. Rebels have invaded the island and they are all living under very strained conditions. She has been invited to teach the children something, and yet she speaks “only” about blue.woman-1031000_640

She appears about a quarter of the way through the novel, just as things are taking a new and frightening turn. Perhaps her only purpose in the novel, therefore, is to provide some colour (pardon the pun), or perhaps some comic relief from an otherwise serious situation.

And that would be fine, because those are two good reasons to have a walk-on character.

 Is Daniel’s grandmother really just incidental?

Lloyd Jones’ character seems incidental—indeed, she could be removed altogether with no effect on the plot line—but she definitely adds to the novel.

This scene supports one of the themes of Mister Pip, which is the examination of the power of the imagination and words, and how they can achieve what is seemingly magic.art-Mr-Pip-620x349

She is also foreshadowing what Mr. Watts will do: SPOILER ALERT: to delay execution, he will weave a “magic” tale from what seems at first to be ordinary things . Daniel’s grandmother has told the children in a kind of metaphorical code or allegory what will happen. She has told them to “listen” and to believe in the magic of ordinary things.

In fact, when Mr. Watts thanks her, he says, “…while we may not know the whole world, we can, if we are clever enough, make it new….We just have to be as imaginative as Daniel’s grandmother.”

 Memorable and effective incidental characters…

  • add local colour
  • provide a break in mood or pace so readers can breathe
  • do something “complete” in their own scene so that removing them from the book seemingly doesn’t affect the main plot
  • can be used for wider purposes such as theme, foreshadowing and comparison to emphasize other characters
  • are often best left unnamed
  • should only show up when other main characters have been established

So cameo characters can enrich, elucidate, or refocus a novel, or they can simply entertain. Good ones usually have more than one purpose—and are always memorable.

Share a cameo or walk-on character that you remember in the comments below.

 

Even Villains Need Some Affection

Even Villains Need Some Affection

Ruth E. Walker.

I do love a great villain in fiction: Voldemort, Moriarty, Bill Sykes, Cruella de Vil. And so, true-life baddtoddler sitting at beachies fascinate me – I want to know what made them nasty. Surely, no baby is born wicked (back off horror writers, I’m talking real life here.) I mean, even Adolph Hitler and Paul Bernardo were wee thumb-sucking tots at one point. I wonder what happened to drain out their empathy and fill it with cold-hearted evil?

When I’m creating villains, I want to know the same thing. Right now, I’m refining a female character that is the main antagonist to my female protagonist. She’s a cruel and devious villain, and she wants my main character dead. And, just for an added twist of nasty, my sneaky villain happens to be my protagonist’s mother.

It turns out the reason she wants her daughter dead is a big part of my protagonist’s ultimate goal. And here’s why I’m telling you this. Despite writing an outline, I had no idea about this goal when I started to write this book. My villain led me to it. Thanks Nasty Mom.

Character motivation is key…so experiment 

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It wasn’t until I started to focus on my villain’s motivation that I discovered something important: I didn’t know what my protagonist’s underlying goal was. By fleshing out the villain, I discovered what it needed to be. Now my plot is stronger and my overall characterization is richer. Writing experimental scenes from the mother’s POV gave me “entry” to her head. Stopping to ask “why” and letting her tell me through free-writing was genius. I didn’t always like what she said but it helped me make sense of who she is and how she got like that.

None of those writing experiments will be in the book. But that’s okay – because now my villain’s behaviour, her physical form, even what she notices and doesn’t notice, is clear to me. And that makes me write her scenes – along with her actions and reactions – with confidence. Readers notice when you aren’t consistent or logical.

Writer, how do you feel about your villain?

dalai-lama-1169298_1920 smallAnd I have some sympathy for her. What? Concern for a murderous matriarch? Yes. Because I know what happened in her life to drain the maternal instincts and replace them with self-preservation and steely resolve. And I’m a fairly compassionate person, so I like to think that even the worst of humanity has some glimmer of good in them, if only life had been kinder.

We are all capable of doing horrible things. And wonderful things. So the terrible villains that I create in my fiction all have some “wonderful” inside them. It keeps them complex and unpredictable – like real people. For readers, complex and unpredictable can make for fascinating stories. Just like real life. And that, as writers, is what we hope to achieve in our work.

Do you have any favourite villains?

Have you fallen for any desperadoes in your own work or in books you’ve read? Spend a few minutes just thinking about what makes them your favourite. Who or what do they remind you of? How do they make you feel?

The next time you are writing a villain, show that nasty, evil character a little writerly love and compassion. Take a look at why they are so nasty. Your muse and your readers will thank you for it.

Don’t have a villain as yet? Try my quick and easy recipe to develop characters to get you started. Just toss in some extra negative traits to make sure you get enough nasty in there. Having trouble with finding negative traits, try Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s book The Negative Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws.

If you’d like some help, join me on March 5 for my Master Class in Character: More than Flesh and Bones.