Take yourself on a date

Take yourself on a date

Gwynn Scheltema

When I read Julia Cameron’s seminal book The Artists’s Way, she introduced me to the concept of an Artist’s Date: a block of time set aside to nurture your creative inner artist.

This is how Julia Cameron describes it:

The Artist Date is a once-weekly, festive, solo expedition to explore something that interests you. The Artist Date need not be overtly “artistic” — think mischief more than mastery. Artist Dates fire up the imagination. They spark whimsy. They encourage play. Since art is about the play of ideas, they feed our creative work by replenishing our inner well of images and inspiration. When choosing an Artist Date, it is good to ask yourself, “what sounds fun?” — and then allow yourself to try it.

Different times

In normal times, Artist Dates were small adventures pursued by yourself outside your normal environment: poking around in a thrift shop, visiting a museum or art gallery, or trying a new restaurant. COVID has changed our choices, but definitely not eliminated them. You just have to be imaginative and remember what is at the core: fun; new to you; sensory and solo.

Because our creative brain is a sensory brain, anything that stimulates the senses or fires up the imagination will work.  Have an adventure; push yourself out of your comfort zone. We all accept play is crucial for a child’s development, it is also beneficial for adults. Play can add joy to life, relieve stress, supercharge learning, and connect you to others and the world around you. Play can also make work more productive and pleasurable.

As a writer, be mindful and consider how you might describe what you experience in words. Notice physical details and the emotions that stir within you. Make notes of your discoveries to use later.

Listen and move

Try listening to music you don’t usually listen to or you’ve never listened to before. A new instrument, a new singer, a new cultural sound. a podcast that seems “too frivolous”. Spotify is your friend.

Or go down memory lane. Dig out old CDs that haven’t seen the light of day since your youth. Go online and find songs of a particular decade. Create a playlist of old favourites. Listen to your parents’ era music, or your children’s or your character’s.

Dance like no one’s watching. Sing like no one’s listening. Whistle.

Take a walk or a hike in a new place and listen for as many sounds as you can: birds, falling water, rustling leaves, chattering squirrels—or clang of garbage cans being collected, sirens, traffic, people, dogs…

Do something that involves physical movement that you’ve never tried or haven’t done in years: jump rope, whirl like a dervish, dig out the old hula hoop, do a new yoga sequence, balance-walk along a raised structure, make snow angels, go tobogganing, hug a tree.

Make something

Try a new dinner recipe, make a favourite soup from scratch, or bake bread. Get really adventurous and make yogurt or sauerkraut or preserves.

Attempt a simple carpentry project, try beading or macramé. Join an online paint night.

Play with LEGO or play dough or wax crayons. Make a blanket fort and read a book in it. How does that feel? Silly? Good!

Colour some pictures. What memories does that bring up?

Make a vision board, or an inspiration board, or a collage of the way you feel today. Try a craft, not because it has purpose, but because it’s fun.

Treat yourself

Do something, anything, that is usually considered a waste of time or an indulgence: lie on your back and watch clouds; take a bath with scented candles or scented soaps or exploding bath bombs or bubbles; re-read a favourite children’s book.

Pop open your favourite beverage or drink that third coffee without guilt. Mindfully cream your hands and feet or experiment with new hairstyles. Dress up in your favourite colour—all over, all in—just for a day. Dress down in your most favourite rattiest outfit with no judgement. Purge your closet. Guys, don’t bother shaving for the day.

Binge watch a new TV series or a movie you’ve been meaning to watch. Watch a movie you want to watch that you wouldn’t admit to anyone you wanted to watch it.

Have a tech-free afternoon. Sleep in a hammock. Snoop on virtual house tours on the real estate sites. Eat a whole bar of chocolate.

Expand your mind

Sign up for a course in a new genre or poetry or stamp collecting or genealogy. Randomly follow a writer in another genre on Twitter and engage to learn new perspectives, or join a group on Facebook that is totally new to you, like astronomy.

Make a list of 100 things that make you happy. Start a journal of the 50 things you want your grandchildren to know about you. Write a bucket list and illustrate it or scrapbook it.

Take virtual museum tours, watch virtual opera or ballet. Use apps to walk the Camino or Cabot’s trail.

Last words

Artist’s dates break the routine and unlock creativity and optimism. In these times they can give us a sense of fun to help fight the confinement many of us may be feeling. I did a quick count, and I’ve listed over 50 things you could try. You could no doubt come up with 50 more.

Artist Dates are not high art. They are meant to be fun. Ask yourself, “What sounds playful? What does my inner child want to do? What am I drawn to that others might label a waste of time, too silly, too frivolous?” Try doing that.

These three greats say it best:

“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.” Albert Einstein

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” George Bernard Shaw

“The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct.” Carl Jung

Fire Up the Intensity

Fire Up the Intensity

Ruth E. Walker

For the past few weeks, I’ve been hunkering down at our Haliburton County cottage. It’s beautiful up here; deep mounds of white snow contrasted against our mixed forest. Despite the snapping cold temperatures, we’ve been pretty snug with our woodstove and propane heater.

The view outside our cottage

Sitting next to that woodstove fire got me thinking about the way that fire and flame can pull out all sorts of emotions in me. Given that those emotions often fuel (no pun intended) my creativity, it nudged my thoughts to fire’s central role for human beings long before our written words.

After all, it would have been sitting around fires that long-ago storytellers captured imaginations and sowed the seeds for our ingrained need for story.

A prehistoric essential

Of course, fire was a huge part of our early ancestors’ ability to survive and thrive. From keeping their bodies warm, to drying and preserving fish and fauna, to cooking fresh foods, building and maintaining a fire was the difference between life and death. But it was far more than a survival tool. It was key to deepening our creative expressions.


A bull painting, made with ochre, discovered in Lubang Jeriji Saléh cave, East Kalimantan, Borneo, Indonesia, dated 40 ka (more than 40,000 years ago).

Some of the most stunning art from tens of thousands of years ago has been found inside caves in Europe, South America and Indonesia. Most of those caves run so deep that if you just travel a few steps inside, natural light vanishes.

So how did they manage to create paintings in the dark? Perhaps some art was created in the dark. But the artists left behind evidence of light sources: carved stone lamps that still hold the residue of oil and soot. So it was fire – or, at least, a flickering flame – that lit the stone canvas. It’s hard not to imagine prehistoric artists travelling deep within, carrying carving stones or pots of red ochre in one hand and a precious lamp in the other, making their way to fresh walls on which to record their stories.

An artistic depiction of a group of rhinoceros, was completed in the Chauvet Cave 30,000 to 32,000 years ago.

I travel in time


Skeletal cast of “Lucy.” (H. Lorren Au Jr/ZUMA Press/Corbis)

In another life, I might have followed my love of all things ancient and unexplained into the field of archeology. As part of my English and Cultural Studies degree – eked out over two decades of part-time studies – I had the opportunity to hold an australopithecine finger bone cast from none other than the famous Lucy. The poem “Lucy’s Bones from Afar” arrived almost fully formed that same evening and was soon after published in The Science Creative Quarterly in 2006. One of my first poetry credits.

Anyone who knows me, understands my math-challenged brain would never have let me follow my Indiana Jones dreams. But I’ve found other ways to keep the passion going with books and magazine articles and the endless rabbit holes found online.

On Twitter, I follow @Jamie_Woodward_, a geography prof at the University of Manchester, UK. He offers the most amazing Ice Age tweets that so often tickle my muse. For example, a rare clay sculpture of two bison found in a French cave led to yet another poem: Here, there be Bison.


Musée d’Archéologie nationale in France

The prehistoric cave art in Tuc d’Audoubert in France, plasters the walls in carvings and etched stone. There’s even ancient footprints hardened in the clay deposits, from which the bison were formed. I’m certain the bison artist was female and I wrote the poem from her perspective. For me, it is a solid connection to a creative soul who existed in 13,000 BC.

Burning questions

But if flame is the source of survival of our species and for first allowing creativity to deepen, flourish and, in the case of the cave art, to be preserved, it’s also been a source of terror and destruction. Beyond natural disaster, humanity has managed to harness flame as a weapon. From igniting gunpowder and cannon shot, we’ve managed to evolve the level of burn to horrific weapons of mass destruction.

pixabay.com

Maybe that’s why much of my creative focus has lately looked forward, to the future of this world or others, as imagined in science fiction.

And yes, dystopian tales hold a strong interest because they move me to ask questions. Questions like: why, when capable of so much beauty in art and creativity in science (didn’t they just land the latest rover on the surface of Mars?) why is the urge to burn it all down still out there?

Well writer? Maybe that illogical human predilection is of interest to you as well. Maybe it drives your muse and “fires up” your pen. I hope it’s good to know you are not alone.

A poem

Lucy’s Bones from Afar

Gracile Australopithecus: November 1974
 
Offered in atonement
these few small bones
meant nothing
but salvation: a kind
of anthropological grace
held in a trembling hand.
 
Mired in a bed of river dust
pillowed between rocks
and sheets of clay
ancestral arthropods led us on.
 
Before the fire
we danced and drank
and repeated the music
each rote word a triumph
in our mind
each note ingrained.
 
Under the brilliant carpet of heaven
deep in the musk of canvas
sweat and kerosene
we leaped with the flame
our shadows racing home
our footprints close behind.
 
On Chapbooks

On Chapbooks

Gwynn Scheltema

Covid messed with my creative mind back in April, bringing work on my mystery novel to a grinding halt. But the old adage of “when one window closes, another opens” proved to be creatively true for me. I dove back into poetry, which had been languishing somewhere in the back of the closet for some time.

Perhaps this short form was less overwhelming, or poetry was manageable in smaller chunks of time, but I suspect that it was more a case of emotions running higher than usual, and poetry being able to capture that state and be productive. Whatever the reason, the result is a file of 100 finished poems and a second file of about 60 poems in progress. Yay me!

My mission this year is to get an organized submission plan in play while I put together a full-length poetry collection ms. In my researching of current poetry markets, I was surprised at the number of presses that considered chapbooks. Hmmm… a chapbook would be quicker, but how would putting out a chapbook affect my ultimate goal of a full-length collection?

First Book Status

In poetry circles, you only get one “debut” book and there are contests and prizes that “debut” poetry collections qualify for. Fortunately, because chapbooks are considered not-quite-books by the publishing world, they don’t affect this status. Your first full -length collection is considered your debut book.

What makes a chapbook?

One Ticket Five Rides – anthology

Depending on the publisher, the general length runs from 15 to 30 pages of poems. Full manuscripts by comparison run on average between 40 to 80 pages of poems, but can be much longer. Full collections carry an ISBN and are marketed like any other trade book. Chapbooks can be trade books too, but often are part of the zine world, micro presses and self-published. As such, they seldom make it into the usual distribution channels.

Why publish a chapbook?

  • For the unpublished poet, it’s a chance to get publishing creds.
  • The process will prepare you for putting together a full collection.
  • A chapbook is a “safe” way to publish, because the work is not lost. You can publish it again in your collection.
  • You can take risks with a chapbook – give a chance to a new publisher, publish it yourself, create an artpiece.
  • A chapbook can keep you in the public eye in the time between publishing full poetry collections.
  • You need a home for perfectly good orphan poems that didn’t make it into a collection.

What goes into a chapbook?

If you think of a full collection as a bracelet of pea-sized red glass beads, a chapbook is not a ring-sized circle of miniature red beads; a chapbook is one magnificent red glass bead in all its glory, an orb of refracting light admired for its own beauty, whether or not it becomes part of a bracelet another time.

One poet friend embarked on a full-length collection project about a relationship in a particular Ontario locale. Although each poem stands alone, when read in order they tell the story of a summer and the growth and demise of the relationship. However, for a chapbook, she has extracted 15 poems that don’t focus on the relationship and don’t tell the relationship story, but which shed a spotlight on the geographic locale instead.

Another friend entered a chapbook suite in a contest and placed. Subsequently, he included the chapbook suite as one long poem in his full-length collection.

Yet another friend put together a chapbook of poems to raise money to help with her mother’s medical expenses. She wrote in her forward “I thought this chapbook was about my mom. It wasn’t until I put nearly everything together that I realized … it‘s about my experience of mourning the loss of my mother.”

A work of art

Given their small size and tight focus, chapbooks also lend themselves to becoming works of physical art. The chapbook I mentioned earlier about mourning the loss of a mother contained family photos, original artwork by the poet and was handstitched with red thread.

Container Books produce amazingly unique chapbooks that represent the contents: chapbooks as a View-Master reel and viewer toy, as a series of cross-stitch pillow kits, as tincture bottles with the text on the bottle labels. Other publishers offer special papers and bindings as varied and beautiful as the poems themselves.

Small but mighty

I’ve gained a new respect for chapbooks. I always thought of them as a trailer for the main event, but they are an event unto themselves. I think I’ll give it a try.

10 Chocolate Inspirations

10 Chocolate Inspirations

With Valentine’s around the corner, we’re exploring 10 ways that chocolate can inspire us. The cacao bean grows inside pods that are harvested and then the beans removed. From those beans comes the chocolate that so many of us love. But we’re also offering some facts about the little bean that might surprise you. Don’t you love surprises? We thought so.

Chemical Love

Chocolate contains a chemical called phenylethylamine which releases pleasure endorphins in the brain. Love potion? Chemical manipulation? Love substitute? How could this phenomenon be adapted to story?

Let Myths and Legends inspire you

Myths and legends are always great inspiration for writing or indeed actions of many kinds. Ancient Mayan calendars led many to believe that the world would end in 2012. It didn’t, but Qzina Specialty foods were inspired to create a 9-ton replica of the Kukulkan temple in Chichen Itza, Mexico. It took the company’s pastry chef 400 hours to build and beat the previous Guinness World Record for the largest chocolate sculpture.

A smoking hot bean

Since 1500 BC, cacao was a staple in Central American diets. Mayans served chocolate drinks as a mealtime staple, creating chocolate concoctions with chili peppers, honey or simply water. That tradition continues. Today’s savvy cooks add a touch of unsweetened chocolate, or cocoa powder, to their bubbling pots of chili. Why? Because cocoa enriches the flavours of the peppers and spices in a yummy pot of chili. But just like any flavour-booster, that chocolate is a tiny addition to the whole pot. Otherwise, it will overwhelm the rest of the flavours bubbling away. Use the chocolate-in-chili concept in your writing: a teaspoon of effective description is much better than a page of every little detail that overwhelms your reader.

Happy Accidents

Surprises keep stories fresh, especially when the outcome seems inevitable. The surprise serves double duty when it surprises the characters as well. It really happened to Percy Spence, a scientist working on WWII radar and weapons projects. Percy noticed that being near a magnetron melted the chocolate bar in his pocket. The idea that magnetrons might heat food at incredibly fast rates, gave birth to the microwave oven.

Story starters

  • Zeus stared at me. “I hate chocolate. It’s only for weak mortals.”
  • When Cindy opened her eyes, the world was made of chocolate…
  • I’ll have a hot chocolate please- double whipped cream…
  • Brad skied up to the kiosk at the end of Dragon Run and ordered two hot chocolates…

Chocolate movie inspiration

The Mexican love and social drama Like Water for Chocolate is set prior to the revolution of 1910. Director Alfonso Araus’ film is based on the novel Como agua para chocolate (1989) written by his wife, Mexican writer Laura Esquivel Valdés. Great movie for studying family relationships.

Chocolat – One Taste is all it Takes is based on the novel Chocolat from British writer Joanne Harris (1999). This fairy tale for adults set in the French countryside towards the tail end of the 1950’s stars Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp. ’Nuff said.

Ignorance is not always bliss

While cacao beans were first harvested in Mexico and Central America, 60% of cacao bean harvest comes from the west coast of Africa, specifically Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire. So, there must be lots of chocolate there too, right? Guess again. Imagine what it must be like to taste sweet chocolate for the first time. In 2014, a news crew from VPRO Metropolis filmed a farmer and his family and labourers tasting chocolate for the first time. Their delight and amazement is humbling to watch. For many of us, we have hundreds of ways to enjoy chocolate. But for many of the people who grow and harvest that lowly bean, few have ever had that sweet confection melt in their mouths. Why? They’re paid very little for this labour-intensive crop. What can your story introduce as a first-time moment?

Favourite Things

Chocolate makes it to many people’s list of favourite things. What’s on your character’s list of favourites? Why? What does that tell you about that character? Try this exercise with villains, side-kicks—any character that needs fleshing out.

Prescription: Chocolate

Oh yes! Something delicious that is also good for you: chocolate has flavanols, which, besides being rich in antioxidants also can lower blood pressure. But before you devour that caramel-butternut chocolate confection, you need a few more facts. Processed chocolate – milk chocolate or Dutch-processed cocoa powder – loses most, if not all, of those lovely flavanols. So choose dark chocolate and remember that even that choice can be a highly processed product. Ah, choice. It’s one of the best ingredients in any plot. When a character has to make a choice, much can be revealed about who they are and it ups the tension which, as readers will tell you, that’s a very sweet thing to have happen. Does your story have enough choice?

Show me the (Chocolate) Money

The Aztec culture believed cacao beans were a gift from their god. So valued that Aztecs used the beans as currency for trade and religious ceremonies. Consider how something ordinary could be transformed into a sacred item. Look around your home and imagine one lowly object being a gift from a god. A vacuum cleaner? Crystal vase? Magnifying glass? Write a scene where a character begins to doubt the belief.

Rearranging The Bookshelf

Rearranging The Bookshelf

Ruth E. Walker

A recent exchange of ideas on Facebook in a writers’ group page caught my interest. In short, a post from a writer was asking other writers if they felt “pressured” into including “LGBTQ” and “mixed race” characters into their stories.

The writer went on to suggest that the immensely popular (and rather sexy) Bridgerton series on Netflix was an example of political correctness because, despite being set in 1815 England, it included persons of colour among the aristocracy and upper classes. Oh my.

For me, it was a bit of head-scratcher. Casting on Bridgerton is, among other things, meant to challenge viewers to rethink history and imagine what might have been. It was a delightful binge watch and, frankly, it didn’t take too long for me to absorb the fiction of the tale and just sit back and enjoy the story.

No pressure here

I don’t feel pressured to include characters of colour or of indigenous heritage or those who are LGTBQIA2S+ any more than I feel pressured to write in a particular genre or narrative tense. I write the stories I’m meant to write with the characters who show up.

And isn’t that the role of fiction? To entertain, yes. But also to hold up the mirror and see us as we are? And what better way to remind us what we have lost over the years of separation and “difference” versus inclusion and shared visions? Bridgerton was refreshing.

I do know that books by marginalized authors are sorely underrepresented on mainstream bookshelves. So it makes sense to me that, as an understanding of an underserved market dawns on agents, publishers and booksellers, the demand for those books will increase. Rightly so.

But they are not books being written for any underrepresented groups. They are for everyone. Remember that those books will show us who we are. Those writers will hold up the mirror for us to see ourselves — ALL of us who make up our country. High-quality books will arrive on the bookshelves, some will be made into films or inspire television programs or win prestigious literary prizes. But more importantly, they will be read by a diverse, engaged audience.

It’s Black History Month in Canada

Black History Month in Canada was proclaimed nationally in December 1995, when the House of Commons officially recognized February as Black History Month. There’s more than a proclamation needed to create understanding. But it was part of a journey we’re all still on and there’s lots to learn.

For example, this week I learned that the church that Harriet Tubman attended in St. Catharines, Ontario, while tirelessly rescuing others through the Underground Railroad, still stands. The Salem Chapel counted Harriet “Moses” Tubman as a congregant from 1851 to 1862, at which point she returned to the United States.

According to the the church’s website: the majority of her clandestine Underground Railroad rescue missions started and ended in this British Canadian town. In 1868, when asked where and why she guided the freedom seekers, Harriet Tubman said, “I would’t trust Uncle Sam with my people no longer; I brought them all clear off to Canada.”

Want to learn more about Harriet Tubman? Cornell University features a selection of several biographies. She may soon appear on the US $20 bill, but this courageous woman left a lasting influence on Canada and our history. And I, for one, didn’t even know that much. Clearly, I need to expand my reading choices.

Back to writing

So what does diversity in publication mean for non-marginalized writers? You must still craft the stories you are inspired to write. But it’s time for the majority of us to make room for those who have had fewer opportunities to have their words heard.

And if you want to expand your reading library, check out 49th Shelf online, a curated resource of Canadian books with a wide range of categories to choose from. From diversity and inclusion in Young Adult to African-American fiction, 49th Shelf is open for readers to discover a treasure trove of homegrown writers.

Moving Foward

Moving Foward

Guest blogger – Christopher Cameron

“I write for the same reasons I run: not for expiation but for exaltation; not to pull myself up from the depths, but to fly higher. I cherish the whole endless, chaotic process of writing, from first spark of inspiration to final revision.”

So says author and editor, Christopher Cameron on his website, and today, with permission, we repost his blog about running that originally appeared on January 1, 2021 on the Northumberland Festival of the Arts blog  A Journal in Time of Pandemic and Lockdown.

Moving Forward

Some runners wear headphones and listen to music or audiobooks, but I love hearing the sound of my shoes hitting the road as I run through the hills of Northumberland. Different sounds for different roads: pat-pat on pavement; critch-critch on gravel; and a kind of a wash-wash on dirt roads.

It isn’t unusual for me to run for several hours, and some people are amazed that I actually enjoy this. My reward is the peaceful contentment that comes from moving myself forward from one place to another under my own power. In the years since I moved to Meyers Island, south of Campbellford, I’ve run all of these pathways countless times, and most are as familiar to me as my own driveway.

Yet somehow, each run is slightly different, each path finds something new to throw in my way, and it is those differences that keep me guessing and engaged. Every step forward adds to my knowledge and experience for the next time.

You don’t have to go out and run for hours to know that some things are hard. Home-schooling children is hard; trying to run a storefront retail business is hard; isolating yourself from loved ones is hard. They were hard during what people are calling the “before-time.” They’ve been even harder this year. There have been more hills to climb, more trees fallen across the path.

People seem to like lamenting the loss of the good old days, and everybody is looking forward to a return to normalcy. Some on social media have been billing 2021 as some kind Elysian fields, where we can all go back to the wonderful life we led before the bad old days of 2020.

It reminds me of a Facebook group I followed for a while: a lot of people wondered why life couldn’t be like it once was, when ice cream was only five cents. I suspect that if Facebook had been around back when it “once was,” there would have been a group wondering why life couldn’t be like it was when ice cream was only one cent.

There were no good old days, unless you count Carly Simon’s maxim that they are happening today. There are just days, one after another, like steps along a path. We move forward, by running, walking, wheeling, or simply by living. We clear the hurdles any way we can and we keep going. When needed, we stop to help a fellow traveller along.

I think we should congratulate ourselves at the end of this year. It’s good to see how far we’ve come and to collate what we’ve learned so we can use it on the road ahead.

I used to have a mantra I repeated in the tough parts of a very long endurance event, when the night had settled over me and all my energy was gone: I’m alive and I’m moving forward. As long as these two things are true, nothing else can stop us.

It’s probable that 2021 will throw stuff at us we can’t even imagine yet. As the late Gilda Radner reminded us, “It’s always something.” Who knows? Maybe someday we will look back on 2020 and sigh wistfully, remembering when all we had to do was wear a mask. But we will have our experience, our vision, and our humanity to help us navigate our way home.

And isn’t it marvellous that we still have ice cream?

Meet Chris

Christopher Cameron enjoyed a long and successful career as a professional opera singer, performing on opera and concert stages across Canada. In 2009, he began a career as a freelance writer and certified copy editor.

His first book, a witty, irreverent memoir of his singing years, Dr. Bartolo’s Umbrella and Other Tales from my Surprising Operatic Life (Seraphim Editions), was published in 2017.

Chris lived in Toronto for most of his life until he and his wife Karen relocated to the banks of the Trent River in Campbellford in June 2017. Chris is also an ultramarathon runner, long-distance cyclist, and seven-time Ironman triathlon finisher. He blogs about reading, writing, and athletics on his website.

Postcard Storytime

Postcard Storytime

Ruth E. Walker

Earlier this month, Gwynn explored the idea of story length and short story forms in a blog about story size, Does Size Matter? In it, she lists several forms of short fiction.

I have a soft spot for the power of a postcard story. I’ve taught a couple of workshops that take a close look at that form, a kind of snapshot story of few words.

Like all super-short forms, it is extremely hard to write a compelling tale that engages readers and challenges them to consider another world, another life lived. But it is a brilliant exercise for any writer to attempt. Why? Because it helps you learn the value of a few words that can say so much. And that, my friends, is a vital editing skill for any writer.

What is a postcard story:

Originally, a postcard story was supposed to be short enough to fit on a postcard. A beginning, middle and end boiled down to only the absolutely necessary words to set a scene and deliver an emotional impact.

For a long time, it seemed that 250 words was the magic number as a word-count maximum. But it is in the eye of the beholder and some contests have set higher and lower word counts.

For our purposes, let’s just focus on 250 words maximum. How can anyone write something that short that is also powerful to read?

Start 30 seconds before the end

Unlike a longer work, your opening in a postcard story is almost your ending. There’s no room to set up characters or setting. Backstory is implied without explanation and with the barest of detail.

We’re told to start a story in the middle of things happening – in medias res. But for successful postcard stories, that needs to become in quae tandem – at the end of things. So think in terms of moments, like the smoke rising from the barrel of a shotgun, the click of a closing motel door, a cold breeze through a broken window.

Great postcard stories capture the moment just after something significant has happened and because of it, everything changes.

Be suggestive

You are not setting up complex themes; rather this is a single scene with one main idea at work. But if you want a postcard story to work as well as a longer work, you need that scene to contain richness and depth—even if it is only ‘implied’.

  • characters must appear to have a life
    • Use Action:
      • brushed dirt from his pants
      • slips off her ballet shoes
      • takes a sip from the broken cup
  • setting may be a mere blink but with that blink we ‘see’ specifics
    • Describe with energy
      • hairline cracks in the paint
      • fireball sun sets behind the mountains
      • whisper of dust on the bookshelf
  • your plot must be larger than its 250 words
    • Go Big thematically (but keep it small)
      • death/birth
      • conflict/peace-making
      • letting go/taking charge

End with a bang

The last line is the killer in all short fiction and never more so than in a postcard story. It makes the final “sense” of the snippet, the ah-ha. It suggests what is to come without stating it. The very best last lines in a postcard story will make you suck in your breath and then hold it for a moment before releasing it.

I can’t help you to know how to write this last line. But I can tell you that you’ll recognize when you have it right because you will suck in your breath and then hold it for a moment. And then, release it.

Job done, you’ll say.

Curious about postcard stories?

Visit award-winning Irish writer Jan Carson’s site to view some of her postcard stories, published by Emma Press. Cheeky. Clever. Disturbing.

Job done and done well.

Curious about short fiction in general?

More on writing short fiction in Gwynn’s post Thoughts on Short Fiction. And you can read our winning entry in last year’s under-500 words story contest: Woman with Cigarette by Helen Bajorek-MacDonald

Writing Speeches for Profit

Writing Speeches for Profit

Guest Post by freelance writer Dorothea Helms

Helping people put into words what they want to say in public can be a fun and lucrative source of revenue for freelance writers. Ghostwriting speeches and/or remarks for businesspeople is like writing dialogue in fiction: you have to put yourself into the “voices” of your characters rather than write how you’d say things. Here are a few tips on how to approach speech writing for clients.

Before you write

  • Know the main purpose of the speech. Is it to entertain? Inform? Educate? Inspire to action? This should affect everything you write for the job.
  • Keep in mind the rhetoric (speaker-audience-message) triangle. The words you weave must be appropriate for all three.
  • Know your speaker. Have a conversation with the person to discover their speaking style. Does your client speak with flowery words or in straightforward business talk? If you cannot meet in person, at least video call or chat over the phone.
  • Know your client’s event participation and timing. Will they be giving a formal speech or adding some remarks to an agenda? Will your client be the emcee? How long should the presentation be? Most people speak at approximately 140 words per minute. If your client speaks slowly or quickly, adjust your word count accordingly. If your client is the emcee, you’ll need to add some occasional (DIRECTIONS) in caps and bracketed to indicate when introductions and other parts of the event occur.
  • Know your client’s audience. Who will your client be addressing? The presentation must be appropriate for the audience.

THE SPEECH ITSELF:

There’s an old saying that is still valid in today’s professional presentation world: Tell ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em; then tell ‘em; then tell ‘em what you told ‘em. This is a good rule of thumb for a formal speech. Regardless of any speech’s length or purpose, follow these tips for effectiveness.

  • Research – be sure that any statistics or other information your client uses are accurate.
  • Use powerful verbs – a good power verb will always be more effective than an adverb and a weak verb (think “crept” rather than “walked slowly”).
  • Add humour only if appropriate – again, think of the audience. People can be easily offended. Audiences are diverse, and it’s wise to use a light hand with jokes or funny anecdotes.  
  • Add personal or other appropriate anecdotes – this can give a personal slant that connects the speaker to the audience. “I wonder if this has ever happened to you…”
  • Simplify language and read your draft aloud – remember, writing for speaking is different from writing for reading. If you stumble over a sentence when reading out loud, rewrite that sentence.
  • Stay in the active voice throughout – this will have much more impact on the audience.
  • Avoid blanket sweeping statements – a statement that can’t possibly be true will turn off an audience. An example: “Everyone knows that …”
  • Be positive – whenever appropriate, say what it is, not what it’s not – use the power of a positive voice. The subconscious processes only the positive, so when you say something like “real estate sales cannot get any worse,” you plant the seed that they can.
  • Make the tone conversational – The audience should feel as though the speaker is communicating with them.
  • Be ready to edit – Your client may love the speech as is; however, remain open to making changes if you are asked to. Often, a client looks at remarks differently once they are written down. That person might realize something should be added or removed. One of the speeches I wrote went through six drafts before being approved. The client was happy with the results and the fact that I didn’t take suggested changes personally. This point is appropriate for all business writing. 

How to get speech writing assignments

  • Your website
  • Business cards
  • Add speech writing to your Facebook, LinkedIn and other profiles.
  • Advertise to local organizations, wedding planners, new businesses, etc.
  • Corporate newsletters
  • Trade journals
  • Networking
  • Existing clients (this is a major source of speech writing jobs for me)
  • Word-of-mouth

I have written speeches and remarks for all kinds of events from Bar Mitzvahs to condominium openings. You can too. My motto is: If you write well, you can write anything well.

From a college creative writing course to a freelance writer earning six-digit figures yearly, Dorothea Helms has come a long way, baby. Now semi-retired, she is still in demand for her writing/editing services, including ghostwriting speeches for business professionals. Her work has appeared in dozens of publications including Chatelaine, CBC.ca/Parenting, The Globe and Mail, Canadian Architecture & Design, LICHEN Arts & Letters Preview, Stitches the Journal of Medical Humour, and Homemakers, to name a few. Yes, four of those publications are no longer in existence, but Dorothea accepts no responsibility for their demise. Wherever Dorothea goes, humour follows.

10 Words from Writers

10 Words from Writers

It’s a new year and, while last year’s issues linger on, we writers are ready to take on whatever else 2021 will hand us. After all, it’s life’s experiences that fuel us, inspire us and challenge us to pull out the best possible words in the best possible order and place them on the page.

At least, that is the theory. To underscore that concept and to keep you in a positive creative space, we’re sharing 10 quotes about the craft from 10 different writers. Energizing? A calorie-free fill-up, we hope. Inspiring? Probably. Challenging? We surely think so.

You be the judge.

What is a writer?

Aristotle: We are what we repeatedly do.

Susan Sontag: A writer is someone who pays attention to the world.

John Updike: Writers may be disreputable, incorrigible, early to decay or late to bloom but they dare to go it alone.

How does a writer work?

Anne Lamott: Very few writers know what they are doing until they’ve done it.

Anais Nin: The role of the writer is not to say what we all can say but what we are unable to say.

J. K. Rowling: Anything’s possible if you’ve got enough nerve.

Robert Frost: Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.

Why be a writer?

Jorge Luis Borges: When writers die they become books, which is, after all, not too bad an incarnation.

Franz Kafka: A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.

Last word on writing

Stephen King: An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.

We expect that at least one of these intriguing quotes from writers might nestle next to your muse and help keep your pen filled with unstoppable ink. As the year unfolds, keep in touch. Let us celebrate your wins and soothe any scrapes or bruises that might come your way.

The Gifts of 2020

The Gifts of 2020

Gwynn Scheltema

As Ruth said in last week’s blog, I’m a master planner. I’ve always set goals, had a plan, been S.M.A.R.T. But I gave up writing New Year Resolution lists years back because, for me, they always seemed to be lists of my future failures, lists of not meeting my own expectations.

Instead, I switched to thinking positively about myself, mentally listing all the small and large achievements over the past year. I also began allowing myself to dream and visualize and imagine what I wanted to do—and not do. I learned to strive for balance in my writing life and life in general.

If there’s one thing that I have learned over this last year, it’s the importance of kindness and acceptance and the finding of joy and fulfilment in the unexpected, big and small. And part of that is the acceptance of self, flaws and all. 

So, in 2021 I’ve decided I am going to put kindness to myself first in any plans I make or goals I set and strive for participation and passion, not perfection.

Unexpected writing gifts

Someone once said that if you think your glass is always half empty, then pour it into a smaller glass and quit whining. I tried to take that approach in 2020 whenever new annoyances and problems arose, and realized that out of a seemingly all-bad year, a number of things did go well for me in my writing life.

I live out in the country, a good hour from all the people and events and activities I like to engage with. By May, a general acceptance of ZOOM and work-from-home meant I didn’t have to spend so much time travelling. That gave me more time for myself and my writing—a true gift.

And technologically, ZOOM was just the start. I gained a whole gift bag of new skills:  I learned how to make videos, how to work with MP4s sent to me from people’s phones and convert and edit them for podcasting. Ruth and I took a stab at giving online workshops, learning all about break-out rooms and gallery views and split screens and converting in-class learning materials to the screen. An arts group I volunteer with went virtual with Google Groups and Google Meet and is planning virtual arts activities I would never have imagined were even possible.  

I took part in virtual critique group meetings, online workshops and paint nights. I had time to read more. I enjoyed countless free offerings of art of all disciplines from around the world. So much to fill my creative well and give me new ideas. Another wonderful gift.

Being stuck at home allowed me to work on habits—breaking old bad habits and cultivating new good ones to replace them. On the writing front alone, I have been able to get back into journalling morning pages, into genuine regular creative time. I’ve had time to sort through years of journals and boxes of scraps of paper to find half-written poems and story ideas and put them into digital files where I can find them again. I’ve been able to spend quality time on putting together my poetry collection, so that in 2021 it may actually finally be done! The gift of moving forward even when everything seems static.

Of course, my 2020 gift list is much longer, full of good things that happened or that I came to appreciate, but you get the drift.

Moving forward

So now as I head into 2021, a big part of my plans and dreams and visions for the future is going to be influenced by what I learned in 2020:

  • Be kind to yourself and don’t expect perfection
  • Do more of what feeds your soul, your passions and your creativity
  • Do less of what others say you should be doing
  • Be flexible and willing to change direction and do it positively
  • Be present, mindful, grateful, and notice and appreciate
  • Go with the flow

Achieving writing goals is all very well, but if they are achieved at the expense of your health or your family relationships and other important aspects of life, then perhaps you need to reconsider. Take time to live.  Take time to grow. Take time to love.

Above all, be kind to yourself and others. Look for the good in everything. Enjoy the writing journey you’ve chosen for yourself. Enjoy life. Be positive and you’ll get there. Have a wonderful 2021.