Reading outside your genre

Reading outside your genre

Gwynn Scheltema

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

Books that move me

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

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

Broadening my reading horizons

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

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

What I learned from the books that found me

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other reasons to read out of your usual genre

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

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

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

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

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


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



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.


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.

Making a Scene… with Dialogue

Making a Scene… with Dialogue

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

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

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

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

Know why you are writing the scene

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

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

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

Make dialogue do double duty

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

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

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

Anchor the scene

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

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

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

Show emotions

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

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

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

Never use dialogue as an “info dump”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep it Simple: Keys to Realistic Dialogue Part 1

Keep it Simple: keys to Realistic Dialogue Part 2

On Writing – Dialogue – Robert J Sawyer

9 Easily Preventable Mistakes Writers make with Dialogue