Second Book Syndrome

Second Book Syndrome

This week we welcome Seana Moorhead’s thoughts on writing the second book in a series. Seana is a Writescape retreat alumus, a lawyer and a fine writer and blogger at Ascribe Writers. She’s also a fun person to be around.

Guest Post from Seana Moorhead

I’ve been struggling with the second novel of my planned trilogy. I have all the words but it doesn’t feel like it holds together and I have no idea when or how to end it. My two main characters split up and I don’t know how to structurally deal with that. I try to console myself that the middle book of a trilogy is supposed to be the hardest to write.

Here’s my theory on why that is: a common problem with any novel is that the middle can sag. We spend so much time developing a great beginning and the perfect ending that the middle often drags. Magnified into a trilogy, the middle book struggles to compete with the fantastic first book and the final resolution of the third.  Like a “middle” child, it can feel neglected, having neither the attention of the first child nor spoiled like the youngest.

This distresses me, since I am a middle child. I am personally invested in having my middle book soar. But here’s the hard truth: I feel like I am failing it. I have read many trilogies where the second book is weak; even with trilogies that I love, I often suffer through the middle book. Their flaws can be many:

(a) often second books read like they have been rushed (which is most likely true in today’s market where a sequel must come out as soon as possible; thus my anguish now before I have even managed to publish the first)

(b) second books read like a rehashing of the first book (in my opinion, book two of the Hunger Games is guilty of this)

Image by TréVoy Kelly

(c) they wander, lack structure, have no focus because the middle is treated like a bridge between one and three with no real purpose of its own

(d) In an attempt, to “dark” or “deepen” the conflict of the characters, there tends to be a lot of whining by characters or characters acting poorly towards each other, gratuitous violence, often with torture as a way to “ramp” up the stakes but without any other clear purpose.

I like a well structured book.  My first novel is like a well-stitched dress, with its darts and pleats in all the right places, everything hanging properly. Currently my second is like a Raggedy-Ann affair made from patchwork pieces. Typical of a second child, only getting hand-me-downs.  Poor thing!

When in doubt, I research. 

First, I tried to research how to write a good trilogy. I will summarize the common general advice as follows: an overarching three act structure in the trilogy with each book containing its own three act structure. It helps to add new characters in book two.

Image by Erik Stein

Although all very good, but I need more. Why do second books so often fail?  Or maybe I should turn this question around: Are there any middle books that outshine their siblings? If yes, what creates this magic?

Since I am writing a fantasy trilogy, I focused my research in this genre. There are likely different answers if you are writing in other genres or a series (instead of a trilogy with an overarching storyline). Two examples came through in my research, one from film: The Empire Strikes Back; and one from the classic book, Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.

Note: spoiler alert ahead in case of the rare possibly that you haven’t actually read or seen the movie versions.

A side note: often Book 4 of the Harry Potter fame, also came out as an example of a middle book that works (although being in a seven part series). However, I wasn’t as fond of book four myself (my fav is still book 3 but that might be because I fantasize about having the cool hour glass time piece featured in book 3).

What is interesting about both Empire Strikes Back (ESB) and The Two Towers (2T), is that neither fit well into the classic three act structure (although you can impose this structure on them). The Empire Strikes Back is often cited as being one of the better films in the Star Wars trilogy.  Unlike the first film (the original Star Wars), which followed a classic three act structure complete with a clearly defined inciting incident and climax, ESB, doesn’t fall as easily into that structure. One commenter even suggested that ESB does have a 3 act structure but in reverse order (with the big battle scene at the beginning). I have read analysis that show it has a 6 act structure maybe because one difficulty with ESB is that it quickly divides into 2 subplots – one following Luke as he goes to find Yoda and learn the ways of the Jedi and the other, following the Han Solo’s and Leia’s storyline.  It doesn’t have a definite end as Han is left frozen in carbonite and things looks very bleak when the movie ends. I also read a very interesting analysis that shows how the ESB does have a perfect symmetrical structure with mirror scenes between beginning and the end (look this up if you’re curious).

The Two Towers, the middle book of the Lord of the Rings, is divided into two books (“Book III and IV”) and also involved multiple subplots – one of Frodo and Sam as they travel to Mordor; one of Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas and their travels in the Rohan and the battle of Helm’s Deep; and a third subplot with the other two hobbits. Instead of going back and forth between the story lines, Tolkien spends most of book III with the latter two plot lines and then in Book IV, shifting back to the Frodo and Sam plot line. Arguably, each sub-book separately has a 3-act structure within it, but when you examine The Two Towers, as whole, it is hard to impose the classic structure on it. I did notice how spending time with each subplots (instead of the more modern trend of leaping back and forth between chapters in subplots), allows the reader to appreciate the rise and fall of each subplots instead of being yanked back and forth.

Image by Gerhard Janson

Another thing I noticed immediately about ESB is that it does have a clear midpoint / mirror moment. It is the scene when Luke is in a cave and has a battle with a vision of Darth Vader. Luke severs the head of the specter but when Luke pulls off Vader’s helmet, he sees his own face. It’s an omen that Luke could be lured to the dark side. It symbolizes the theme of the story; the struggle between the light and the dark. Also it hints at the big reveal at the end that Vader is his father.  In the 2T, I would argue that the midpoint is when Gollum decides to let his evil side take control and betray Frodo (note, this comes a different point in the movie but in the books, this is the midpoint of book IV). This is an important plot point in the books since it is this decision that sets up the plot sequence for the rest of 2T and through to the third book.

The other thing I take from these examples, is that both focus on developing the characters, deepening the readers compassion and connection.  Although both also have more dark moments, they are done purposeful.  There are also good moments; in 2T, Gandolf returns; there is a celebration of the victory of Helm’s Deep.  In the ESB, there is lots of moments of humour; the romance between Han and Leia blooms. All is not doom and gloom. Although there is a tendency for a writer to want to “deepen” the conflict and make the second book all gloomy and black like a rebellious Goth teenager, there must be balance against this darkness.

Finally, both stories lack a solid ending but it’s okay. It’s a middle book and if your readers have stuck with you through another 100,000 words, take them with you to the third book. I am not a big fan of a cliffhanger ending (such as leaving Han in cardonite) but I also don’t have to try to tie up loose strings at the end of book 2. That’s book 3’s job. At the end of Two Towers, things do not look good: although there is victory at the battle of Helm’s Deep, the characters know there is a bigger war to come; Frodo and Sam’s fate appeared completely doomed. For Harry Potter, at the end of book 4, things look very dreary; Cedric is dead, Voldemort is back and powerful.  There may not be a cliffhanger but there are many unknowns and we clearly need to pick up the next book and find out what happens.

What does this mean for my problematic second book and me? 

Maybe I need to stop trying to find the three act structure (Oh, rebellious second child!). I have two subplots and I should embrace them, allow each their own breathing space.

I need to find the crucial midpoint, the centre tie that will allow it to hang properly without sagging in the centre.

Add humour and celebration as well as creating greater odds.

I can let the ending hang loose, like a thread to be pulled later by book three.

Off to write!

Seana Moorhead

Seana Moorhead is an aspiring writer and is working on completing her first fantasy novel. She moved to Grey County in 2002, having a passion for outdoor adventures, including kayaking and wilderness camping. Suffering from a book addiction, she will read almost anything that will grab her attention, lead her into another world or teach her something new. Seana lives in a bush lot near Owen Sound, Ontario with her partner and three dogs.

10 Places Writers Should Visit

10 Places Writers Should Visit

The world is richer for its artists, not the least of which are the writers. In every country, indeed in every nook and cranny of Planet Earth, you’ll find storytellers, word spinners and scene makers. For many writers, there are places on the planet that will forever be associated with them. The following list offers you 10 writers with whom place has a connection — whether they wrote in that place, or wrote about that place — the connection is clear.

As with all our 10 on the 10th lists, this one is not complete by any means. But it is, we hope, an interesting list.


1 Havana, Cuba — ERNEST HEMINGWAY; The Nobel Prize winning author wrote seven books during the 30+ years he lived in Cuba. Among them: The Old Man and the Sea; A Moveable Feast; Islands in the Stream. Ten miles east of Havana, his island home, Finca Vigía (Lookout Farm/House), is now a museum and a place to imagine his inspiration.

2 Huron County, Ontario — ALICE MUNRO; Nobel Prize for Literature winner, Munro’s short stories are most often grounded in Huron County, Ontario, Canada. The fall is a lovely time to drive through Huron County and visit Wingham where her childhood home is still standing. Dozens of small towns are scattered throughout the rich farmland and it is the ordinary lives of those ordinary people Munro writes about in the most extraordinary way.

3 London, England — CHARLES DICKENS. Take a literary pub crawl through London Town with Dickens (as portrayed by an actor/tour guide) and glean inspiration and literary tibits. Tourists are invited to visit the public houses and taverns frequented by great writers. They promise you’ll meet Dylan Thomas, Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, Anthony Burgess, T.S. Eliot and others. And support new London writers! (We really liked that last bit.)

Jeff Turl/Bay Today

4 North Bay, Ontario — GILES BLUNT. Thinly disguised as Algonquin Bay, the detectives in Blunt’s wildly successful crime novels travel streets with familiar names for anyone who knows North Bay. His Detective Cardinal series of books and now a 3-season television series is set (and mostly filmed) in the city perched on the shores of Lake Nipissing, 2 hours north of Algonquin Park. Blunt’s characters are believable and the dynamic between Detective John Cardinal and Detective Lise Delorme adds spice to the rising tension in each mystery. Blunt, also a screenwriter and poet, was born in Windsor, Ontario and raised in North Bay. Lucky for readers, even after he moved away, he recognized how ideal it was for setting a murder mystery there.

5 Georgia, USA  — FLANNERY O’CONNOR; The childhood home of O’Connor is in Savannah, the heart of which boasts some of the finest restored urban antebellum mansions. The South is the heart of O’Connor’s stories and she is unflinching in her tales of what some called “Southern Gothic” and even, “grotesque.” O’Connor said: “anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.” She lived out the last 12 years of her too-short life in Milledgeville, Georgia.

6 Trinidad — RABINDRANATH MAHARAJ; Born and raised in George Village, Tableland, Maharaj came to Canada because he wanted to attend a masters program in creative writing. But he found that the distance from Trinidad gave him a new perspective with which to write his novels and short stories. His award-winning novel, The Amazing Absorbing Boy, captured the view of Canadian life through the eyes of an immigrant Trinidadian teenager. So while some of Maharaj’s stories and novels are set in the lush tropics of Trinidad, beautifully described so that readers will want to visit, the island flavours even his books set in Canada.

7 Montreal, Quebec — MORDECAI RICHLER with a dash of LEONARD COHEN; Montreal is a city of creatives. Artists, poets and novelists have made this cosmopolitan city their own. Chief among them, Mordecai Richler, one of Canada’s best known writers who has left a legacy of literature. Like the vivid energy of his hometown, Richler was never a background player and spoke his mind freely. That same energy was found in his characters and storylines. His award-winning novels have been made into films — The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and Barney’s Version — and Richler’s books remain in bookstores today.  In 2015, Richler was posthumously made a “citizen of honour” in the city of Montreal and a library in the neighbourhood he portrayed in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, was given his name.

8 Ameliasburgh, Prince Edward County, Ontario. AL PURDY; In 1957, poet Al Purdy with his wife and father-in-law constructed the now famous A-frame.(Al tells the story in Reaching for the Beaufort Sea.). There he wrote poems about the area published as Poems  for All the Annettes . The following year The Cariboo Horses won the first of Al’s Governor General’s Awards. Even while the A-frame was being built, it became a meeting place—for poets, for poetry lovers, for those aspiring to be poets. The list of people who travelled to the A-frame reads like a who’s who of Canadian letters—Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje; Earle Birney, George Bowering, Margaret Laurence, Jack McClelland, …. The legacy continues through the A-Frame Residency Program.

9 Lakefield, Ontario — MARGARET LAURENCE; One of Canada’s finest writers, Laurence’s novels, short stories and essays were framed by the many places she called home. Born and raised in, a small town well west of Winnipeg, Laurence set her books in Western Canada, Somaliland and Nigeria, Africa. In 1973, she settled permanently in small town Lakefield in the Peterborough/Kawartha Region.  On the shores of the Otonobee River, she crafted scenes for her final and brilliant novel The Diviners. The town of Lakefield honours Laurence every July (her birthday month) with a literary festival.

10 Neepawa, Manitoba. MARGARET LAURENCE Yes. That’s two places for one writer and why not? Laurence’s childhood home in Neepawa is a museum dedicated to her and her writing. Purchased the year before her death, Margaret Laurence House hosts writers’ workshops and book launches. As an inspiring mentor to several young writers, Margaret would surely be pleased to know she continues to encourage writers to explore their craft.

On Looking Again

On Looking Again

Ruth E. Walker

At the end of every summer, I’m on the hunt. My prey? Bushes loaded with blackberries. Our Haliburton Highlands cottage property and the nearby road is thick with wild blackberry bushes and, depending on the year, they can offer a treasure trove of tartly sweet fruit.

Berries or no berries, those bushes are also loaded with thorns. Even the leaves of the blackberry bush are ready to tangle in your hair with a grip almost as powerful as super glue. But I persevere.

Why?

Blackberry jam.

I feel just like a pioneer as I gather those berries and the resulting jam is a delightful mix of sugary sweet and tangy tartness. I’ll admit that hunting for berries is not an easy task. The nasty thorns, for one thing. And the sneaky way blackberries can hide from even the most diligent picker.

Sneaky? Yes! This morning, I picked what I thought would mash down into 3 1/2 cups of crushed berries. I picked my bushes clean of ripe fruit so surely…nope. So I added my few blueberries and my last two strawberries. Surely now…nope, again.

I’d scoured those bushes and brought in what I could and it still wasn’t enough. Nonetheless, I know ripe blackberries can hide under leaves and deep inside the undergrowth. So I slipped back outside and…

Fresh eyes

A treasure trove waited for me. As I picked the berries I’d completely missed just two hours before, I thought about how editing is a lot like this. In two hours, the sun had shifted the shadows from early morning. The glistening ripe berries were there all along but in shadow.

Just like the typos and grammar glitches and dropped plot threads can elude me until I put the writing away for a while, the berries needed me to take a second look with fresh eyes.

It’s my pleasure to work with other writers as their editor and sometimes, their writing coach. While it may be easier to find typos, grammar glitches and dropped plot threads in others’ work, it is still important that I take a second look.

It’s not about me

For me, another look at a manuscript is a check for what I missed the first time. It’s also important that I consider my more substantive edits. Maybe I was tired and misunderstood the writer’s intent. Or more importantly, maybe I’m putting more of “me” into the edit.

It’s important to honour the writer’s voice, their style and their intent. If my coaching or edits put any of that off course, then I’m not doing my job.

As an editor and as a writing coach, I work on helping the writer discover their strengths and pay attention to any areas they need to develop. I might offer a suggested approach to a particular scene or ways to build on character development. The writer can take my suggestions and make them their own. Or freely reject the suggestion and take a different approach — one that fits their style and voice.

But when it is about me…

In my own creative work, that second look is vital. It’s especially effective when I’ve put some distance between my first draft and the drafts to follow. Just like those berries and the shifting light and shadows, I can completely miss a treasure trove in my own manuscript unless I give it time enough for my fresh eyes.

Strengthening your scenes

Strengthening your scenes

Gwynn Scheltema

Have you ever read a section in a novel and then skimmed or skipped pages to get to the next interesting bit? Have you ever got frustrated over having to plough through screeds of internal character soul searching before anything actually happens? How about being confused and frustrated about where the story is taking place or who the character is and only finding out pages later?

In my recent blog, “What is a scene” I examined what a scene was and its function in a story: namely it is a building block in your story that moves the story forward, actions and tension that result in a change of some kind, either in the growth of the characters/relationships or the course of the plot or both.

If you are including these elements and your scenes still feel flat or confusing, how can you up the energy? Ask yourself these questions:

Is this scene dramatic?

Image by Isa KARAKUS

I don’t mean: is there violent action or overwrought emotion happening? I’m talking “show don’t tell.” Make your reader a witness to what happens. Is the reader “hearing” the character actually speak the words in dialogue or merely being told that the character said them? Is the reader being told that a character is angry or actually witnessing the physical or verbal reaction of that character that shows the anger? Is the reader observing the setting through the eyes and emotional perspective of the character, or being given a dry listing of the stage set?

Is the setting right for the scene?

Important news delivered in place from which there is no retreat or where expression of emotion is difficult will add tension. A child being told they are adopted on the school bus. A wedding engagement broken off in a busy restaurant. Being followed at night versus in the day.

Sometimes just changing the weather helps. If a marriage proposal takes place on a cliff, a lovely sunny day makes things easy (and likely boring). What if there’s a high wind? (element of danger or resistance) Rain? (negative feelings). Even proximity to the edge of the cliff can change the feel of the scene and either heighten or play against the emotions being expressed.

Is this scene repetitive?

Image by prettysleepy1

Because we write novels over long periods of time, it’s easy to forget that we have already mentioned something earlier. Did the reader already witness a scene that showed the tense relationship between siblings? If so, is this new scene showing something different in the relationship, like an escalation or de-escalation of that sibling tension?

Is this scene in the right place in the novel?

Would it help to move a scene closer to the beginning or end? Perhaps if the reader knew that a character hated her father early in the novel, her negative reactions to other male characters would seem more natural. Finding out early in internal dialogue that Amy really loves Jimmy despite her actions to the contrary might deflate the tension. If the reader believes like Jimmy that she hates him, the later realization and revelation of her love for him would be a more dramatic moment.

Can I up the stakes or make things harder?

Can you inject extra complications, or greater emotional or physical strain? Anything you can do to make things more difficult for your character helps. They don’t have to be big things. Rushing up a hill rather than on flat ground; running out of time; car trouble; interruptions…

Is this scene important?

If it’s important, slow it down. Our natural tendency as tension mounts is to go faster and faster, but the opposite maxim applies to good pacing in scenes. If your action is over too quickly the readers don’t get to enjoy the excitement. If the moment is high tension, give readers all the details, all the reactions, all the choreography.

Did I “Get in late and leave early.”?

I don’t know where I heard it, but I use this advice all the time to examine my scenes. Excessive internal thought, long description or exposition, or purposeless action or dialogue is a killer of tension at the start of a scene. It’s what one of my writing mentors refers to as “throat clearing”. Get to the action as soon as you can.

Image by Frauke Flohr

Consider this: The scene begins with a groom stuck in traffic. His cell phone is dead and he’s getting more angry with the taxi driver who moves him slowly though the traffic so that they finally arrive at the church just as his tear-stained bride is leaving on the arm of her father. —OR —The scene begins as a taxi screams into the church parking lot with the groom just as the tear-stained bride is leaving on the arm of her father.

And the same for leaving early. When a tense action scene has finished, don’t deflate the whole thing with a page of internal analysis or angst from the character. Yes, we do want to know how the character is affected and what they are going to do next, but use that page turning tension to start the next scene.

You might even consider ending mid –action. Now there’s a page turner. Or perhaps end with a character epiphany, or a promise of further revelation, a discovery or a threat. As they say about so many things: “Leave them wanting more.”

Last Word

Tighter, richer and more textured scenes make for a tighter, richer more textured novel. Examining individual scenes and making them as strong as you can is worth the effort.

The Write Award

The Write Award

Ruth E. Walker

Awards. What writer would not want to win an award for their writing? After all, we write with passion and know that few of us will be compensated for the hours and hours we devote to our craft. So awards and grants are a welcome bonus. A recent article in the Toronto Star newspaper about Canadian writers of commercial fiction got me thinking about who wins the major book awards and who gets left out.

In Canada, we have some lovely prizes for fiction writers. Notable among them:

Scotiabank Giller Prize

Arguably, the “Giller” is the glitziest party with hefty prize money for the winner: $100,000. The four finalists each receive a very nice $10,000. The prize is awarded each year to a novel or collection of short fiction.

Governor General’s Award for Fiction

While the Scotiabank Giller prize is rich in monetary rewards, there’s no denying the cachet connected to the GGs, a national recognition of literary merit since 1936. Expanded over the years to the current seven categories: fiction, non-fiction, poetry, drama, young people’s literature — text and illustrated — and translation. The Canada Council for the Arts hands out prizes for English-language winners and for French-language winners. 14 prizes in all, with writers, illustrators and translators receiving $25,000, their publishers receiving $3,000 and finalists receiving $1,000.

Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize

Like the Giller, this prize is awarded annually to a novel or collection of short fiction. The $50,000 purse is impressive and finalists receive $5,000 each.

Canada Reads

Inspired by the one-book, one-community phenomenon, CBC launched Canada Reads where five diverse panellists each champion a book that they think all of Canada should read. There’s no prize money; however, finalists and winners have all seen significant increase in sales for their books. Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion sold 70,000 copies after being declared winner in 2002, fifteen years after it was first published.

There are also many regional, provincial and municipal awards for literary fiction. But where is the prestigious prize for popular, commercial fiction? Generally sponsored by writing associations and groups, genre fiction has some great prizes. For example:

According to Wikipedia, there are more than 50 literary awards in Canada for writers of adult and children’s fiction. In Canada, literary awards of serious prize money and prestige most often means serious fiction — elegant text, subtle layers of meaning, imagery and metaphor that bring us to tears with their beauty.

What about the joy of reading a terrific book? Commercial fiction, also known as “popular fiction”, is that book you can’t put down because the fascinating characters or plot are like musical earworms you cannot get out of your head. And the suspense or romance is pulling you along. There may be precious little imagery happening or subtle layering, but does that mean it is “less than” a literary gem anointed by a panel of literary judges?

I once taught a workshop where a participant was shocked that I referenced Stephen King as a strong and compelling writer. She once said a similar thing in her university English literature class and was shamed in front of her classmates by her prof’s seething rejection of “that hack.”

Victorian-era best-selling author Charles Dickens was considered to be a hack, I told her. And like Dickens, Stephen King’s work has found its way onto more than one postsecondary syllabus.

Of course, there’s also some satisfaction in King’s earnings as an author of popular fiction. But even bestselling Canadian authors of popular fiction are unlikely to find themselves on the Giller prize list or anticipating a nod for a GG.

Maybe we should take a page from the National Book Awards in the U.K.  Launched as the Popular Fiction Award in 2006 and now dubbed the Fiction Book of the Year, the shortlisted and winning books have included thrillers, romance and humour. Currently sponsored by a corporate giant in vision care, they are now known as the Specsavers National Book Awards.

Seems like a good idea to me. And I suspect our many popular fiction writers would agree.

Last Word

Ruth is delighted to confirm the Writer in Residence for the Arts Council, Haliburton Highlands is bestselling Canadian author of decidedly popular fiction, Susanna Kearsley.

Her latest book, Bellewether, is Haliburton Reads & Writes pick for The Big Book Club and readers are invited to join Susanna in Haliburton on September 15 to talk about Bellewether and ask Susanna questions about the book. The Big Book Club will be live streamed so that anyone can join in and participate in the discussion and Q&A. Check out the Facebook page for details.

Susanna’s books, published in translation in more than 20 countries, have won the Catherine Cookson Fiction Prize, RT Reviewers’ Choice Awards, a RITA Award, and National Readers’ Choice Awards, and have finalled for the UK’s Romantic Novel of the Year and the Crime Writers of Canada’s Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novel.

What is a scene?

What is a scene?

Gwynn Scheltema

I was with a group of accomplished writers last night, discussing emotional shifts in scenes. Part way through, one of the group said, “I understand all this, but my problem is, I can’t get my head around what a scene is in the first place.”

Of course, we all offered up our version of “what a scene is”, but they were somewhat vague definitions and all different. I know for my part, I had to really think to put what I know instinctively into words. Hence this post.

Basic definitions

A dictionary definition describes a scene as “a sequence of continuous action in a play, movie, opera, or book. Synonyms: section, segment, part, clip, sequence”, but when faced with dividing up pages of fiction, that doesn’t really help.

In the film and video world, a scene is generally defined as “the action in a single location and continuous time.” Again, in fiction, that leaves questions. Is a run of internal thought a scene? What if the location changes during a single action? What if the whole book takes place in one location or in one single time unit?

Expanded definitions

Scenes are capsules in which compelling characters undertake significant actions in a vivid and memorable way that allows the events to feel as if they are happening in real time. (Make a Scene by Jordan E. Rosenfeld.)

A scene is a sequence where a character or characters engage in some sort of action and/or dialogue. Scenes should have a beginning, middle and end (a mini-story arc), and should focus around a definite point of tension that moves the story forward. (Teach Yourself How to Write a Blockbuster by Lee Weatherly and Helen Corner )

A scene is a unit of story in which something changes. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and at the end something is different than it was at the beginning. It may be a character or a situation, or just our understanding of a character or a situation, but whatever it is, it’s changed when the scene is over. (What’s a Scene (And What’s A Chapter?), Timothy Hallinan)

Never mind the definitions

All of these definitions make good points, and there’s likely no perfect definition that works for every circumstance. It’s largely instinctive, so if it feels to you like a scene, treat it that way.

I think the easiest way to decide if a scene is a scene is to know that every scene must have purpose. Every scene should do these two things:

  • move the story forward—the reader learns new things about the character or the plot events or both.
  • affect dramatic tension —something must change: events escalate, or relationships grow or emotions become heightened or diffused.
Image by Sasin Tipchai

Scenes are building blocks. Most often, they involve an action undertaken by the characters. The reader watches the action unfold “in real time” like watching a movie. They hear what the characters say, they witness the movements they make; they see the setting; and— they learn something new about the plot or the characters. Action and reaction.

A simple description of a setting is not a scene— but a character moving through and noticing that setting in a way that triggers a memory that we then witness as back story played out before us is a scene.

A summary history of a fantasy world is not a scene— but a character discussing that history with another character in dialogue is a scene.

A strong scene is one that has drama (action witnessed; movement and/or dialogue- internal or external); emotion (character reaction that reveals character development), and a sense of time and place (feels real and keeps the reader grounded.)

Image by Wokandapix

How long a scene is, or whether it involves only dialogue or only physical action is irrelevant. My test is to ask myself these things:

  • Does this segment have a purpose? If I removed it would the story be lacking?
  • Does this segment have energy (show don’t tell) or will the reader skip over it?
  • Does the dramatic tension change in some way over the course of the scene?

Last Word

This post just skims the surface, but it’s a start. Explore these links to learn more.

10 Instructional Writing Quotes

10 Instructional Writing Quotes

Inspirational quotes are great for lifting the mood or motivating us to get back into our writing. But today, we give you 10 quotes from creative people that resonate for the craft of writing.

  • Details, details

Good writing is remembering the detail most people want to forget. Don’t forget things that were painful or embarrassing or silly. Turn them into a story that tells the truth.―Paula Danziger

  • Dimensional Characters
Image by HartmutStein

Dimension means contradiction: either within deep character (guilt-ridden ambition) or between characterization and deep character (a charming thief). These contradictions must be consistent. It doesn’t add dimension to portray a guy as nice throughout a film, then in one scene have him kick a cat.—Robert McKee

  • Theme vs. Message

Theme is also not the same as message. A message, by my definition, is a political statement. It is a principle that concerns people in a particular situation and is not universally applicable to any member of the audience.—Michael Hauge

  • Get out of your own way

It took time to learn that the hard thing about writing is to let the story write itself, while one sits at the typewriter and does as little thinking as possible. It happened over and over again, and the beginner learned—when you start puzzling over an idea, and slowing down on the keys, the writing gets worse and worse.—Richard Bach

  • Foreshadowing
Image by Logga Wiggler

When you insert a hint of what’s to come, look at it critically and decide whether it’s something the reader will glide right by but remember later with an Aha! That’s foreshadowing. If instead the reader groans and guesses what’s coming, you’ve telegraphed.—Hallie Ephron

  • Get right in there

…if you’re intruding too much on a character or the voice of a character, [or] if you find that you’re stepping back from that character and that situation and you’re commenting on it–you’re not doing your job. You need to be as true and as empathic to that moment as possible. You can’t be at a remove.—David Margulies

  • Realism vs. Verisimilitude

Is realism what people read novels for? No. A novel must have verisimilitude, that is, the appearance of reality, within the context of the world created by the book. —William Bernhardt

Image by prettysleepy1
  • Adverbs

The road to hell is paved with adverbs.—Stephen King

  • Strong Ending

Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.—Kurt Vonnegut

  • Writing Like No One is Looking

…write without looking over [your] shoulder. Write it as if no one is going to read it. That’s what frees you. If you can stop thinking about critics, and your editor, and whether your book’s going to make it into the Times, and how long it is going to be on the list, I mean, that can totally free you up.—Terry McMillan

Found Poetry

Found Poetry

Gwynn Scheltema

Last week, Ruth blogged about Anna Swanson’s “The Garbage Poems” inspired by words on garbage Anna picked up at favourite swimming spots. That reminded me of the fun I’ve had over the years writing “Found Poetry.”

What is a found poem?

I like to think of found poems as word collages. That is not to say I actually cut out the words and paste them (although you can if you wish). I create found poems by recording existing text that I, well,—find.

Like Anna, I could find them on garbage, or on all manner of other things like newspaper articles, graffiti, ads, menus, posters, billboards, brochures, letters, book pages, or even other poems. Charles Reznikoff in his book Testimony, created his poetry from actual criminal law reports! His poems spoke about human violence and suffering in a time generally considered peaceful.

The found poem became popular around the same time as Andy Warhol’s Pop Art and similarly it uses and makes a statement about the everyday text all around us.

Writer Annie Dillard says, “Turning a text into a poem doubles that poem’s context. The original meaning remains intact, but now it swings between two poles.” In more recent times, “Blackout poetry” has embraced the text aspect of found poetry with art. (And it’s fun to do).

What makes a found poem a found poem?


Image by Sue Rickhuss from Pixabay 

I don’t know if there are “official rules” for writing found poetry, but the rules I impose on myself are:

  • consists exclusively of found text, in whole or in part
  • the words of the poem remain as they were found (same order and syntax)
  • omissions allowed but NO additions
  • form, line breaks and punctuation are left to the poet
  • the poem as a whole should make a statement about the source it was extracted from

For me the last point is the most important. It’s not just a case of putting pretty words together, but of recognizing where they originated.

The creation process

My found poem “J.T. Winik, “Lovers” oil on canvas” won first place in a contest some years ago. I used a December issue of The Condo Guide Magazine, one of those free ones that you pick up from newspaper boxes at the street corner or at the GO Station. The poem is printed below and here is how I created it:

I flipped through the magazine and wrote out snippets of interesting phrases from the ads and the articles, and the cover. I ended up with about three pages of “bits.” Most of them were to do with “uptown” or “downtown” and the overarching theme was how condo living was the ultimate way to live. (Not surprising). My poem therefore—according to my self-imposed rules—needed to make a statement about condo living.

One ad/article spoke about renting original artwork from galleries for condos. “Where the Art is” (I used that line) had a photo of Canadian artist J.T. Winik’s painting, “The Lovers”, as one of the illustrations. I ended up using that as my title. Next I noticed that in my list I had the phrases “Uptown girl” and “Downtown queen,” and realized that the phrase “Where the Art is” could be used for its implied meaning of “Where the [he]art is.” I thought perhaps I could contrast the two “women” and their lifestyles and in the process make my statement on condo living.

Image by Gary Ross from Pixabay

With this in mind I chose the phrases that best fit the theme I was building and discarded the rest. I arranged and re-arranged; I joined some phrases together, or used only half phrases, to give new meanings. I played with punctuation and line breaks. For example, “Moonlight washes a glow over snow-blanketed streets” and “Artfully ILLUMINATING” (a title for a piece on light fixtures) became “Moonlight washes, artfully illuminating.” I made sure there were absolutely no added words, and I hadn’t rephrased or reordered any of the snippets.

The final result:

“THE LOVERS” OIL ON CANVAS
Found Poetry in the December issue of THE CONDO GUIDE
 
Right downtown urbanation looks at
Where the Art is
A rather windy November evening
Moonlight washes artfully illuminating
Bohemian city nights in winter – Luna vista?
 
Uptown girl: Silent nights
Live in the glasshouse
Finding ways to hide the light
A perfectly proportioned concrete shade
This is your world
Small, unobtrusive; melody
Bending and refracting
Keyless, virtual
Do you daydream green or grey?
Cool is the underlying theme.
 
Downtown queen
Heady mix of the creative—SOHO
Rent original art steps from the Art Gallery
Celebration of the urban life on the edge of the moment
Connecting them
The dust of everyday life; Garden in Red #7
Bliss coming soon; Navy blu
Mixed media
 
What surrounds you?
Metal and concrete like islands
Niches and unused spaces—intimate
Drawn in by the buzz; late-nighters and
Out-of-towners; Quick move-ins
Dip in the infinity pool; massage rooms?

Desire this palette?
Purchase price does not include parking
If you think you’ve seen it all, think again
Perfection consists of doing ordinary things
What are you in the mood for?

The Poetry of Garbage

The Poetry of Garbage

Ruth E. Walker

I love old sayings. They’re like echoes of little stories, scenes that happened long ago and stuck around like a cautionary whisper through the ages. 

A stitch in time saves nine. Somebody procrastinated into a real mess and the deadline for that edited version is at midnight..

A change is as good as a rest. When you can’t take a vacation, move your computer desk to the opposite wall.

There’s an old chestnut I really like: One person’s trash is another person’s treasure. And it has never been more true when it is trash that finds its way into poetry and visual art.

I recently attended a poetry reading and artist talk at the Haliburton Highlands Museum. A poet and an artist were coming to Halls Island Artist Residency and the program was part of their community engagement for the residency.

April White
Anna Swanson

The poet was Anna Swanson, an award-winning Newfoundland poet and the visual artist was April White, also an award-winner from Newfoundland whose watercolours have been shown nationally and internationally. Both Anna and April live in St. John’s, and in 2016 joined forces for a collaborative work about garbage.

Anna Swanson wrote The Garbage Poems, inspired by a swimming hole in Flatrock, Newfoundland. She loves being in the water — as someone with a chronic illness, she said moving in water gives her physical and emotional freedom. Anna also cares about nature, so she started picking up garbage left behind by other visitors to that swimming hole.  Sorting the garbage at home gave her a chance to look more closely at the trash. Beer cans. Fast food wrappers. Chip bags.

Lo and behold, that garbage was covered in words. Expected words like drink vitamin  antioxidant  burgers soda fresh and so on. But the unexpected words were intriguing to Anna: festival, dream, promise, stormbrewing…she even found the word trigonometry.

Well, that did it. She realized she just might have the making of some found poetry, using only the words on the trash. Anna ended up with a poem series titled The Garbage Poems. But she knew there could be more to this series than words on the page.

In 2016, she teamed up with artist April White after seeing her stunning exhibition “A Day in the Life.”  Watercolours, drawings and texts chronicled one full day in April’s life.

Their collaboration became the perfect match of poet and visual artist. April created watercolour images for the poem-inspiring trash (and subsequent bags of trash as Anna continued to visit various swimming spots.)

Finally, Matthew Howlett, writer, artist and web designer, created an interactive website that invites visitors to create their own poems using the words found on Anna’s trash. April’s renditions of each piece of garbage can be viewed individually. Click on the image and all of the words on that piece of trash appear below for you to take them to create poetry of your own. You can even choose the entire set of all the garbage words, in both official languages, and see where that takes you.

If Anna’s trashy treasures don’t inspire you, the website has a copy and paste option, where you can take a piece of random text and then by deleting, rearranging or repeating, you can create your own found poetry. Here’s the first two lines of a poem I’m working on from the words of an 1860s book on etiquette:

            The true language of a heart

            may not enter a crowd gracefully…

Okay. Not yet genius. But it was fun and perhaps the start of an idea for me to work on.

So now it’s your turn. Visit The Garbage Poems website and read Anna’s poetry, view April’s images and see if you can turn trash into treasure.

Book Nooks

Book Nooks

Gwynn Scheltema

Ever since I was little, I’ve loved hide-away places and I’ve loved books. Put the two together, and I’m in heaven. I was lucky enough to have my own bedroom growing up, and could close the door and read in comfort on my bed. But for all that, I still preferred and created cozy, secret “book nooks” in the bottom of my closet, or under my desk covered with a blanket. I longed for a padded a window seat.

Book nooks don’t have to be fancy, or requiring of great space or large funds. Below are a few ideas gleaned from the internet:

Whimsical window seats:

No need for a window with a wide sill. Just frame out any window with simple shelves, a purchased bench or custom built box. Outdoor furniture cushions, or fabric covered foam and a few throw pillows and it’s done.

This vertical shelf design comes from The Habitat Collective at the habco.com

The horizontal design is from Googodecor at googodecor.com

Convert a closet or old wardrobe

Do you really need all that “stuff” in the closet in the spare room, or the basement? How about converting it to a book nook for your kids or grandkids?

Ever since reading the tales of Narnia, wardrobes have had a magical feel for me. As a child I would have LOVED this Narnia inspired wardrobe book-nook from Blesserhouse.com

Reclaim under the stairs:

Harry Potter made good use of his spot under the stairs. Why not use that space for a child’s Harry Potter hide-away?  Or make it a bit more adult for yourself?

These designs come from media.bookbub.com; http://gurudecor.com/ ; and https://gowritter.com/smart-ideas-for-under-stairs-storage-space/

Repurpose space and furniture you already have:

William Morris said, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” But when you have a small house, the furniture has to fall into BOTH categories –

Think outside the box.

Here Ikea spice racks become picture book shelves; vertical shelves and cabinets are laid on the floor with a mattress on top. A curtain is hung from the ceiling around a hoop.

These ideas from kidsroomideas.net; https://www.clubmamans.com/ and  www.prettylittlerowhouse.com 

Last word.

In the end, it doesn’t matter where you read, as long as you do. Happy reading!