Waiting Room

Waiting Room

Ruth E. Walker

As I write this, I’m at a local hospital playing the Waiting Game. My husband is undergoing surgery, a relatively routine repair of a long-standing issue. And I’m going to sit in this less-than-comfortable chair in a busy waiting room until he’s out of the OR, through recovery and on his way to a bed upstairs or, better yet, home.

So what’s a writer to do when the minute hand ticks by with the speed of a dripping faucet. A very slow dripping faucet.

I could write

There’s lots of ambient noise and I read recently that white noise was an important factor for many writers. My friend Rabindranath Maharaj worked on several of his novels in coffee shops. A Globe & Mail article cites a 2012 paper by researchers at the University of British Columbia describing the creative benefits of working in certain noisy settings. They found that in the buzz of low-level noises, our brains can easily shift into broader thinking, a useful tool for developing concepts or brainstorming.

So, I should be writing. Let all this hubbub and Paging Nurse White and Code Blue 3rd Floor murmur in the background as I map out the Next Great Novel. I should be writing. But I can’t because I worked in a hospital years ago and I know what those announcements mean. Too distracting despite being a useful tool and all that.

I could read

The second-best thing for a writer to do–if you can’t write, well then, you should read. I have a book with me, Louise Penny‘s Still Life. Even though last night I reluctantly put it down to turn out the light, here, in this waiting room, I’ve read the same page three times. Even great writing can’t hold me.

There’s a few well-worn magazines over in the corner. I could put my gloves back on (germs, don’t you know) and pick up a gossip publication and distract myself with movie news about who’s getting divorced, married, a film deal, and so on. But as I said. I’ve worked in a hospital. I know what those announcements mean. I’d just get to the interesting part about how some little-known actor finally gets the part she’s been waiting for and…Code Blue.

I also know what the look on that surgical nurse’s face means, too. She’s delivering difficult news to the couple across from me. It’s not the worst news–they don’t do that in the waiting room, that’s done behind closed doors. But somebody’s surgery is not as routine as they thought. So it puts my dripping faucet timeline into perspective.

I could go for a coffee

The cafeteria is just down the hall and around the corner. But if I leave, I’d miss watching the screen of the Family Tracking monitor showing where patients are in the process. For privacy, each patient is given a number and a rolling scroll of those numbers is colour-coded depending on their progress. I’m watching for the number that is my husband to move from In OR green into the next colour, purple PostOp.

So clearly, I can’t go for a coffee because I’d miss the change. And change is good when the clock ticks like a…well, you know.

Open my eyes

So this writer is going to do the only thing she can: watch. At an Andrew Pyper workshop some years ago, I recall his referring to a useful kind of watching for writers are “reportage” observations. Without emotion, observe. Focus on details but don’t attach those details to motivation. Be specific but don’t speculate.

It’s surprising how tough that actually is for me. I’m naturally a “speculator”, wondering about the possible reasons for any given behaviour that catches my focus. Thinking about second thoughts, hesitations, determinations. It’s what drives a lot of my writing. The ever-nagging why.

But with Pyper’s reportage, it is this…an older woman in a red puffy jacket pushes a large navy blue stroller down the hall toward the cafeteria. The little girl in the stroller is asleep, her round face, closed eyes and wisp of black hair just visible above the side of the stroller. They pass an orderly in pale blue scrubs pushing a stainless steel cart, the wheels squealing as he saunters by in the opposite direction. The little girl wakes and begins to scream.

These descriptions are to be tucked away and pulled out later. Perhaps to add some verisimilitude to a scene, drop in a touch of “the real” to ground a narrative.

Old habits…

Of course, I can’t do that very well either. And it has nothing to do with the colour coding on the Family Tracking monitor. It has everything to do with that little girl’s scream. What horror did that squealing wheel awaken in her? Could she be possessed? Is she reliving a trauma? Did the orderly secretly kick the stroller to waken the baby and distract us all from some nefarious scheme unfolding a few doors away?

It appears perhaps I do need a certain amount of noise to trigger some broad thinking. Especially when my attention is so keenly focussed elsewhere. If nothing else, the clock’s slow progress is forgotten for a few seconds.

And look. There it is. The patient number that means the world to me has moved into a new colour: Recovery Room orange. And the doc says he can come home today, after all.

Be a writer, after all

So, the takeaway for me in all of this? Earlier, I said the only thing I could do is “watch” a la Andrew Pyper’s reportage approach. Well, clearly, I also can write in a distracting environment and the evidence of that is this blog post.

Though truthfully, I’d not want to be sitting here again anytime soon. Instead, I’ll head to a coffee shop or hotel lobby or shopping mall to get my distraction fix.

How about you? Can you write anywhere? Or, like some writers, do you need absolute silence in a pristine setting?

A Panel of Poets

A Panel of Poets

Guest Blog by Antony Di Nardo

But first a word from Gwynn

As mentioned in last week’s blog, The Spirit of Sharing, I was honoured to moderate an unusual literary panel at the Spirit of the Hills Festival of the Arts in Cobourg, Ontario, on October 25, 2019. Four very different poets shared what form their poetry took, what poetry meant to them, what inspired them and what happened when poetry was shared. The Four poets who shared their thoughts on “A Panel of Poets”, were Ted Amsden, Cobourg’s poet laureate emeritis, American/Canadian poet Katie Hoogendam, subversive poet Wally Keeler and performance poet Dane Swan.

Among the audience members was Antony Di Nardo, a fine poet I first had the pleasure of meeting during the days when Ruth and I were editors for the literary journal Lichen Arts & Letters Preview. As the event progressed, I saw Antony scribbling notes and taking part in the discussions. Later, I asked him if he would mind sharing his observations with you here on The Top Drawer, and to my delight, he agreed. Thank you Antony, and over to you:

The Poetry Panel

Amsden talks of poetry as a state of rapture; Swan listens for its pitter patter; Keeler playfully recites the poet’s prayer in an Anglican chapel and subverts an institution; and for Hoogendam poetry is a world where time can come to a stop. Four poets, four traditions, four perspectives, four very different ways of understanding and questioning. Of giving poetry a forum for human discourse. And Gwynn Scheltema, our moderator, looks for answers.

Readers, writers, thinkers, talking and reflecting across the arts. A panel of poets, in this case, to ratify the only truth there is in poetry: it’s as subjective as personal experience.

Sure, there’s common context and cultural bias, societal slants and preferences, there’s even the current flavour of the month that contributes to shaping a poet’s voice, their choice of words. Each poet occupying their own seat, their own space in time, like every listener in the room. Who else, I wonder, saw the crucifix in the corner from the same angle that I did? The nail plunged into the heart of where the cedar crossbeams met? The lashing? The angel that appeared as a shaft of light?

Vitruvian man

“My mind wanders to Joy Harjo,” says Katie Hoogendam before she reads her own sample selection, and Harjo’s poem, she tells us, is about a farm boy who loses his two-year-old sister to a drowning accident and how he sees his mother descend into grief. The poem is called She Had Some Horses, and Hoogendam calls hers, Vitruvian Man, and while I listen to the narrative that unmistakably is the fabric of her poem, my mind wanders to the crucifix in the corner that is unmistakably Vitruvian.

Poetry is play.

Poetency & Apoetasy

Trucks and dolls and Lego blocks, our very first metaphors, our substitutes for making real (or “realer”) our understanding of the world around us. The Poetician, Wally Keeler, says so and I believe every word he says. In a poet’s mind there can be a new world order and it appears on paper and on the sides of transport trucks and as manifestos and in gleeful fabrications like “wire taps” that serve no purpose but to confront and re-imagine. Metaphor: to cross over and go beyond where no one has gone before. Poetry can do that and never hurt a fly.

Poetry is music, rhythm and jazz

And it takes words to do that says, Ted Amsden. It takes words that you might hear at the foot of a master, Earle Birney, say, who also had horses in his poems or Michael Ondaatje who referred to Ted’s first attempts with a manuscript as “half a beer commercial.”

Poetry is everywhere

And there’s poetry in beer commercials and also in Nathan Philips Square where one day Dane Swan looked down at his bare hands and wrote, “do not look at your hand, look at your hand.” Form he says is a function of the poem’s direction. And poetry, says Ted, happens when you treat yourself as a poet. Both rely on the intuitive, a poet’s first faculty.

Paying attention

Poetry also happens when you pay attention.

When she pays attention, Katie Hoogendam enters another world. The world of the imagination, I suppose, or Wally Keeler’s Imagine Nation, perhaps. Alien to some, familiar to others. It’s a good thing we have words in common to know what we mean. Nevertheless, it’s another place, a place of rescue or a place where you can meet yourself on different terms. Katie will follow an image to the ends of the earth and bring it back to put on the page. And sometimes, as it happens, she’ll open her hands to the sky and the words just fall in.

Poetry is work.

And when we work, we make mistakes, we fail and try again and get it wrong until we get it right. It’s a mind mapping activity, says Dane Swan. He makes a list of themes, supporting images, metaphors, visualizes concepts that fit the tenor of his observations where the poem had its beginnings. It’s a balance of trial and error. Of beauty and terror.

Leave more than you take

Here’s part of a poem by Dane Swan, Soothsayer, that Dane never read:

I am the result of my flaws,
mistakes,
failures,
losses.
Yet treated like a snob,
judged ornery,
misunderstood.


If my destiny is to fall apart
I shall give away my limbs
after using them to print text
hidden under pillows
by those who say my name in vain.


I’ll leave more than I took.

It is a good reason to write poetry, I think. To leave more than you take. One day I will see Wally’s People’s Republic of Poetry as a Broadway Musical. Vitruvian Man will come down from the cross and sashay into poetry. Ted will recite the words vulture and voucher from the back of a motorcycle and Dane will have figured out how to slip barbed wire into a poem.

But for now, I’ll content myself knowing that poetry is its own rapture.

Antony Di Nardo is the author of SKYLIGHT, which includes the long poem suite, “May June July,” winner of the Gwendolyn MacEwen Poetry Prize. His other books are Roaming Charges (Brick), Soul on Standby (Exile), and Alien, Correspondent (Brick). Born in Montreal, he divides his time between Cobourg, Ontario and Sutton, Quebec.

10 Important Tasks for Dialogue

10 Important Tasks for Dialogue

Dialogue is not filler, nor is it secondary. For readers, dialogue is the illusion of active listening, of ‘looking’ from person to person as the conversation unfolds. There are technical effects from dialogue that support and enhance your story. The following 10 on the 10th blog shares some examples of the important work of dialogue:

1. Develop Plot: To ensure you’re not writing “filler”, give your characters dialogue that moves the plot forward, develop scenes.

"Pete, meet me at Crawley's barn at sunset. I'll bring Billy." 
"Want me to bring a gun?"
"Nah. If I find Billy before sunset, we won't need one."

2.  Move in Time:  When the story needs to shift into a new scene, or you want to cover a period of time without going into detail about that period of time, offer a line that sets up the new scene:

“Good then. I’ll see you next week." 
 or “So it's settled, we leave at dawn.”
or "Give me an hour or two and I'll call you back."

3.  Reveal underlying tensions:  Characters, like real people, have emotional baggage and secrets. Dialogue can give a clue that a character has something they’re hiding.

“Just what did you mean by that?” she asked. 
He shrugged. “Nothing. Now let’s just move on, okay?”

4.  Enrich themes/mood:    Characters can help readers pick up on the mood of a piece by what they say.      

“I hate this damp and cold. And those dark clouds can only mean
we're in for more rainfall.”
or "Come on, Charlie. Let's jump in every puddle we see."

5.  Echo time/era/culture: Dialogue can add authentic details to bring out the story’s genre, culture or time period.  

“Ach, lass. Will you no be gettin’ down from there?”
or “My lady, 'tis unseemly to be about at this late hour.”
or "Golly. Is that one of them new tellyvisions?"

6.  Establish setting:  Setting a scene through description alone can turn into a laundry list of what can be seen. Let dialogue do some of that work so that readers get enough detail to fill in the rest. More importantly, let dialogue help readers to stay connected to characters by “seeing” what they see and with the emotion they see it.

"Zargon! Power up the hyperchute—enter that wormhole!”
or "Bring me that beautiful leather bound volume from the top shelf."
or "Careful now! Mind you don't step in that stinking muck." 

7.  Imagine geography: Not all stories need large scale world-building but many fantasy, science fiction or quest stories will involve creating a world that readers can believe in. Dialogue helps to make it real because it’s real to the characters.

“Wait. I think I see a body of water through the trees.” 
or "This map doesn't show......."
or "That desert's got to be five day's walking or more. And not even
 stones or scrub for cover."

8.  Reveal facets of character: Dialogue is an active way to reveal character emotions, backstory and motivations.

"Please don't leave me alone with him; I can't go through that again.” 
or “How amusing. You dare to speak. Guard—kill him.”
or "I'm going to tell you a secret...."

9.  Focus on dynamics: How chracters talk to each other reveals not only clues about each character but also about their relationship with one another.

“You just can’t leave me alone, can you?"
“Ah, but if I did, you’d start to hate me all the more.”

10.  Show don’t tell: Dialogue is one of the easiest ways to give tired prose an energy lift, and turn “Tell” into “Show”. And that includes the body language and action beats in between the words. It’s dramatization that the reader can be immersed in, can “hear”, “see” and therefore feel.

Tell: Her father was abusive, but she had long since stopped caring.
Show:"Jesus girl. What's this slop ya call dinner?" Pa swiped the dish from
the table. Ma's best china plate shattered against the door. "And look
what ya made me done now, ya good-for-nothing..."
Mary scooped up a shard and turned to face him, looked  Pa square in the
eyes. "You can break me all ya want, Old Man, but ya'll never touch another
thing what belonged to Ma."

                

The Spirit of Sharing

The Spirit of Sharing

Ruth E. Walker

As noted in last week’s Top Drawer, Gwynn and I attended the Spirit of the Hills (SOH) Festival of the Arts in Cobourg, and filled our creative wells with workshops on the craft of writing. But there was more energy and inspiration to be found in the community rooms at St. Peter’s Anglican Church.

Ruth at Writescape’s table

Drawing together the arts of all kinds, the festival celebrated visual arts, music, theatre, dance and literature. And in each of those disciplines, there was a myriad of creative expressions. From Flamenco dancing to fabric art to photography to performance poetry, SOH festival attendees were treated to a rich immersion in the arts.

Not only were there feasts for the eyes and ears, there were several opportunities for collaboration and communication between artists.

Gwynn moderated an intriguing panel discussion between four poets, who proved that poetry is not just an economy of words on the page. Ted Amsden, Cobourg’s poet laureate emeritis was joined on the panel by American/Canadian poet Katie Hoogendam, subversive poet Wally Keeler and performance poet Dane Swan. The audience was challenged to consider how each poet approached their craft

A Royal reception

Hon. Elizabeth Dowdeswell

The arts tend to be taken for granted, so when the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, the Honourable Elizabeth Dowdeswell, entered the exhibition hall on Friday afternoon, the excitement meter rose significantly.

She is the Queen’s representative in Ontario, and in her own words, is “Storyteller in Chief.” Her Honour knows the power of words to engage others, and holds close the stories she hears from her travels throughout the province. Gwynn and I were delighted when she stopped by our table for a brief chat.

Reva Nelson & Piers Walker

On Friday evening, we were treated to an evening of music, dance and theatre. As much as I enjoyed all the offerings, one short play held a special joy.

“Mouse”, by Marie-Lynn Hammond, explores how two different commuters — an introverted older woman and an over-active young man — have far more in common than they first realize. Of course, the fact that I had a connection with the young male actor might have influenced my strong preference. Cannot lie: I’m always a proud mother when I watch any of my children do something they love.

Mixing up the arts

The arts were thrown into a different mix of voices when Saturday’s lunchtime panel, moderated by Alan Bland, brought together poet Dane Swan, multi-talented singer-songwriter David Newland, award-winning author K.D. Miller and opera singer turned author and editor, Christopher Cameron. The audience engaged in a free-ranging discussion on the challenges and benefits of sharing across the arts.

Our consensus? There’s a definite richness of thought when artists of various disciplines take the time to talk with and learn about each other.

Marie-Lynn Hammond
& San Murata
Gwynn reading poetry

But the best example of sharing across the arts, for me, was the very cool Words on the Wire, multi-media event on Saturday afternoon. Video poems engaged our eyes and minds, exquisite music and singing rose to the rafters in the chapel setting, pioneer Susanna Moodie addressed the audience, and poetry and prose was shared by diverse voices. Musician and songwriter Marie-Lynn Hammond was joined by acclaimed violinist San Murata. And a personal favourite of mine, Gwynn Scheltema, read two gorgeous poems from her poetry manuscript.

By bringing together a diverse gathering of arts and artists, the Festival attracted the attention of the Queen’s representative, someone who regularly consults with the provincial government and who articulated her belief in the power of grassroots art and volunteer activity to bring people together and enrich their lives. The Festival showcased the work of creative people in a public, accessible place. But more than that, Spirit of the Hills festival organizers created a space in which artists could share ideas, inspiration and art forms with each other.

The Festival of the Arts is held every two years in Northumberland County. I’ll be marking fall 2021 on my calendar to be ready for another immersion in the many creative experiences that will be on offer. In the interim, I’ll be looking at ways I might collaborate with various artists to see what synergy can develop.

Collaboration + creative people = ??? Share in the comments what you think can come out of collaboration across art forms.

Collaboration Opportunity

Applications have just opened for Halls Island Artist Residency in Haliburton County. For summer 2020, organizers are dedicating one 12-day residency for up to four artists who want to collaborate on a project(s).

main cabin

Halls Island is an off-grid, eco-sensitive island on Koshlong Lake. Residencies are available to artists of all disciplines. Other than a $10 non-refundable application fee, residencies are free to successful applicants.

“As an environmental artist and geo-poet, the Island itself was a way to rejuvenate, and become re-inspired in my practice.”


Sophie Edwards, artist residency at Halls Island, 2019

Applications and additional details are available online.

Why Workshop?

Why Workshop?

Gwynn Scheltema & Ruth E. Walker

This past weekend, Gwynn and Ruth spent some time at the Spirit of the Hills Festival of the Arts. We’ll have more to say about this great festival next week but wanted to share some insights we gained from each taking a writing workshop.

K.D. Miller

Ruth attended The Captive Moment with author K.D.Miller where she spent time with the haunting paintings of Alex Colville. K.D.’s Governor General’s Literary Award-nominated collection of short stories were inspired by 12 of Colville’s paintings.

Cynthia Reyes and Ronald MacKay

Gwynn attended Your Journey, Your Story with Cynthia Reyes and Ronald Mackay. Both published memoirists, their workshop covered the structure and purpose of writing a memoir.

Both Gwynn and Ruth are seasoned workshop facilitators. They both spend a great deal of time researching the topics they teach and discover new ways to inspire writers to keep their pens moving and their imaginations engaged.

So why would either of them want to take workshops?

To be better writers

More than just wanting to learn new things to bring into their workshops, they are both, at their core, writers. As such, they need their pens to keep moving and for their imaginations to be engaged.

Ruth left The Captive Moment with two new poems and one story idea. Gwynn left Your Journey, Your Story with a workable plan for focussing the story aspect of a memoir.

Of course, they both left with new ideas to bring into their own workshops. But that was simply a bonus. For Gwynn and Ruth, carving out time to devote solely to their craft, to stretch, experiment and explore always fills their own creative wells.

That makes them better workshop facilitators AND better writers.

Workshop with Gwynn and Ruth

On Saturday, November 2, join Ruth at Blue Heron Books in Uxbridge for a creative writing workshop, A Recipe for Great Characters. This hands-on morning session is part of Blue Heron’s inspired Book Drunkard Literary Festival. Cook up a new character or add spice to an established character in a fun and creative way.

On Sunday, November 10, Gwynn is at the Writers’ Community of York Region’s monthly meeting. Drawing on her expertise as a professional accountant, Gwynn is sharing Touching on Taxes, helping writers identify the different kinds of revenue associated with writing and how to report it.

Seasonal Symbolism

Seasonal Symbolism

Gwynn Scheltema

While our first response to fall might be thoughts of harvests, colourful leaves, Thanksgiving and delicious pies, for a writer, the symbolic meanings of fall are more profound—and useful—than you might think. In our writing, a reference to a cold winter day or a ray of sunshine can allude to more than its literal meaning.

Throughout history, cultures, science, and astrology have linked the seasons to the human life cycle and to nature’s influence on our lives. This connection is in our bones and it is universal. So writers can use seasonal symbols to express, heighten, or even play against feelings and the passing of time and age. And readers will pick up on those symbols and their meaning.

Think of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. At the beginning of the novel, it is spring. Nick Caraway is at ease with the wealthy people he meets. As summer progresses, the heat intensifies and tensions start to rise. As autumn arrives, Gatsby dies and Nick’s warmth of feeling and his dreams wither.

What are the traditional symbolic meanings of autumn?

Maturity

In fall, the growing cycle gives us ripeness and maturity. The harvest is associated with abundance, prosperity and wealth. Humans too experience an “autumn”. If spring represents new birth and childhood, and summer symbolizes youth, autumn represents adulthood and maturity.

Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman is set in  damp, shadowy, late-autumn woods haunted by literal death that symbolizes the end of girlhood.

Change

Falling leaves symbolize change and even though they are brilliant in colour, we know what is soon to follow—winter. Fall brings a certain melancholy. We must prepare for an end. Our symbolic human autumn of maturity must prepare for the winter of old age and death.

In Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. This story takes place during fall with the town experiencing grief over the death of Ichabod Crane and as chilly autumn progresses, so do their fears of death and the Headless Horseman.

Preservation and reconnection

With the approach of winter, animals store food and create cozy hibernation spaces. We preserve the harvest and retreat indoors. We stop wandering and stay home. We tend to look emotionally inwards too, reconnecting with ourselves and those important to us. We consider the choices we have made, and the options still open to us.

Jacques Poulin’s book , Autumn Rounds, is a tale of love that arrives in the autumn of life. A man sees a marching band from his Quebec City apartment window, and motivated by his realization that life is slipping away makes a choice to join them.

Balance

Because day and night are the same length on the autumnal equinox, ancient cultures associated this day with the concept of balance. Astrologically, the sun enters Libra, symbolized by a pair of balanced scales. As we slow down after the business of summer, and with the harvest in, we take time to tap into the balance within us.

In October by Richard B. Wright, a man accompanies an old acquaintance on a final, improbable journey searching for answers in the autumn of his life.

But it doesn’t have to be all about sadness. Instead, we can think of death (and ultimate renewal) as a kind of letting go. We can look to our inner egos and patterns of behavior and let go of destructive attitudes. The idea of letting go also stresses the temporary nature of everything around us.

9 ways to use seasons as a writing device

Passage of time: Passing seasonal setting details running in the background of your story will help the reader know how slowly or quickly we are moving through time.

Mood: Although all emotions occur in all seasons, we tend to connect spring with hope/renewal; summer with joy/exuberance; autumn with melancholy/acceptance, and winter with sadness/loneliness. Using images, metaphor or setting details that evoke the appropriate season for the emotion, will heighten the mood.

As the horse crossed the line, Jim’s hopes fell like an entire tree of autumn leaves.

An hour passed and Mary did not show. Adam shifted on the cold bench, wished he’d brought a warmer sweater.


Image by beate bachmann from Pixabay 

Subversion: Playing against the four seasons we know by having five seasons or only two will help readers accept that your story is set in another world.

Plot device:  a body drowned in fall can only be discovered when winter ice melts. It gives the murderer time, but sets up a deadline for tension.

Irony: a couple fall in love in the dead of winter and break up in the summer.

Upset expectation: a character declines in spring and comes into their own in winter. This affirms that although humans are part of nature, they are not necessarily enslaved by its patterns.

Motifs/themes for a character. Amy is a “spring” character: optimistic, always learning something new; growing constantly; dresses in bright colours. Astrid is an “autumn” character: melancholy, always anticipating that something dark lies ahead; has red hair and wears a lot of brown.

Reveal emotions. In Beverly Cleary’s Emily’s Runaway Imagination, the story begins with spring and a feeling of welcome change. Almost exhilaration:

It seemed to Emily that it all began one bright spring day, a day meant for adventure. The weather was so warm Mama had let her take off her long stockings and put on her half socks for the first time since last fall. Breezes on her knees after a winter of stockings always made Emily feel as frisky as a spring lamb. The field that Emily could see from the kitchen window had turned blue with wild forget-me-nots and down in the pasture the trees, black silhouettes trimmed with abandoned bird nests throughout the soggy winter, were suddenly turning green.

Everywhere sap was rising, and Emily felt as if it was rising in her, too.

  • Structure

Steven King’s Different Seasons is a book made up of four novellas. The stories themselves are not connected, but they each follow the symbolic meanings of the seasons to form a cohesive whole:

  • Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption (Hope Springs Eternal) 
  • Apt Pupil (Summer of Corruption) 
  • The Body (Fall from Innocence) 
  • The Breathing Method (A Winter’s Tale) 

The Dragonlance Chronicles trilogy by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman also follow the natural cycle of nature:

  • Book 1. Dragons of Autumn Twilight. The protagonists unite and become aware of the growing evil in the land
  • Book 2. Dragons of Winter Night the heroes are separated, and not all escape unscathed.
  • Book 3. Dragons of Spring Dawning, the heroes reunite and restore the Balance between Good and Evil

How do you put the seasons to work in your writing? Let us know in the comments below.

Sum Up The Story

Sum Up The Story

Ruth E. Walker

The manuscript is finished. You’ve edited until you can’t look at the words for one more minute. Your beta readers are all giving you the Thumbs Up. It’s ready to go out.

Then you see it. On the submissions page of the publisher you hope will publish your book. They want a synopsis. (Cue Jaws music.)

Good grief. You’ve perfected your manuscript. Shouldn’t that be enough?

Get over it. They want a synopsis and you have to produce one. So let’s cover the main points to help you pull it together.

Just the important bits

A synopsis is a kind of point-by-point outline of the story, summarizing what happens and who is changed by the end.

A synopsis is not a marketing tool but the first paragraph should offer a touch of a hook or any of the unique elements of the story. It’s not written like your novel yet it should hold a sense of your writing voice…your style…and the genre/style of the book. And just as important, it’s not a jacket blurb so be prepared to reveal the ending.

If a synopsis is interesting enough, agents and publishers will want to read the manuscript despite knowing the ending.

Short is sweet

For a novel, a synopsis can be as short as one page or as long as five pages. I recommend going shorter. Ideally, no more than two pages.  Unlike the manuscript, text is single spaced so you have a fair amount of room in those two pages.

To take full advantage of two pages, keep to the main story and the primary characters. You’re outlining the events but this is not a point-form summary. So your creative self needs to come through in how the synopsis is crafted. You can, for example, lift a slice of description or a touch of dialogue right out of the manuscript to use in your synopsis.

For example:  Mary is distraught by her husband’s perceived betrayal. “I’ve wasted years of trusting you!” Little does she realize that she is the one who betrayed them both.

Motivation + action = story

A synopsis needs to introduce the main characters, a touch of character(s) motivation and reveal conflict right from the beginning.

Don’t be coy—set the stage for the rest of the story:  Mary and Omar are the ideal couple, leaders in their rural community and a successful left-leaning political team. Newly re-elected mayor, Mary is confused when Omar opts to resign his council seat without telling her first. But when she discovers he’s involved with a far-right insurgency, she’s horrified and throws him out of their home. Then terrorists take a bus full of school children hostage and Omar is the only person they’ll negotiate with.

Subplots are not part of a synopsis but you can offer a single line or two if it matters to the main story.

For example: The themes of betrayal and loss are mirrored in a subplot involving school friends. In the same way, background or walk-on characters don’t need to be mentioned unless they are integral to the plot. As with subplots, keep it to one line: When the terrorist spokeswoman hesitates, she’s executed by the leader who then gives police 5 minutes before one of the children will be killed.

Zip up the ending

When you get to the ending, don’t short change your synopsis. Demonstrate how your ending has punch or significance: As Mary holds a dying Omar in her arms, she realizes her refusal to listen to the only man she’s ever loved cost him his life. Whispering into his ear, she promises to raise their unborn child with a true understanding of its father and his beliefs.

Check for basics

 There are several ways to tackle a synopsis. A simple approach builds it from listing the major turning points for your main character, then fleshing out a brief summary of the action at each point. Don’t forget to keep the whole narrative arc in mind as you work:

Inciting incident or the crack in the world of your main character that sets them off.

Rising action or the events that add tension and propel the story forward.

Climax or the point of excitement, ultimate change or Oh My God moment.

Resolution or the place that brings the story to a close.

There’s no perfect way to write your synopsis. But if you keep to these four elements, add in a dash of your writerly style and remember to focus on the main story, you should be well on your way to a compelling two-pager.

The Last Word: more synopsis resources

https://blog.reedsy.com/how-to-write-a-synopsis/ — examples and ideas on building a great synopsis.

https://theeditorsblog.net/2012/07/15/clear-the-dread-from-the-dreaded-synopsis/— a detailed analysis of the how and why of synopsis. A long read but packed with things to consider once you’ve got the basics put together.

10 Canadian Autumn Books

10 Canadian Autumn Books

Ah fall! We love this season of harvest and slanted light and cozy fires. What better time to curl up with a good book. As Stephen King so wisely reminds us “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

So here is an autumn tribute to Canadian authors. You’ll find fiction, non-fiction, memoir, short stories, YA, poetry and children’s books, all united by this wonderful season. Happy reading!

Season of Fury and Wonder by Sharon Butala (2019)

This collection of short stories presents the lives today’s old women, who understand that they have been created by their pasts, and that some things cannot be learned when you are young.

All Things Consoled: A daughter’s memoir by Elizabeth Hay (2018)

Winner 2018 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Non-fiction. A memoir about Lizzie the so-called difficult child. By looking after her parents in their final decline, she hopes to prove that she can be a good daughter after all.

Days by Moonlight by Andre Alexis (2015)

2017 Windham-Campbell Prize; Winner 2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize A dark comic novel that explores what is real. Alfred Homer takes a journey during the “hour of the wolf,” that time of day when the sun is setting and the traveller can’t tell the difference between dog and wolf.  It is a land of house burnings, werewolves, witches, and plants with unusual properties.

 Homegrown: Celebrating the Canadian Foods We Grow, Raise and Produce edited by Mairlyn Smith (2015)

More than a cookbook, Homegrown celebrates what makes Canadian products unique and why “Made in Canada” stands as a mark of excellence. Recipes alongside humorous stories and sidebars showcase the best of Canada.

 21 Days in October by Magali Favre (2014)

In this YA novel set during the troubled period of Quebec’s and Canada’s history in October 1970, young people deal with gruelling factory work, unemployment, harsh police and military action, and imprisonment, but also, hope, political commitment and first love.

 My October by Claire Holden Rothman (2014)

2014 Shortlisted for Governor General’s and Longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller. Set in Montreal and told in three voices, My October is the story of a family torn apart by the power of language and of history. Hannah is the daughter of a man who served as a special prosecutor during the October Crisis, and her husband Luc is a novelist. Their troubled son, Hugo, commits an act that sets them on a collision course with the past.

Autumn Leaves by Manolis Aligizakis (2014)

This lyric poetry collection from a Greek-Canadian poet who emigrated to Vancouver in 1973, is about longing and desire through the passing seasons. The poems have a Mediterraean flavour and were originally written in Greek.

Grateful by Marion Mutala, illustrated by E. R.(2014)

Be grateful for all your blessings. A poignant conversation between parent and child across the years.

October by Richard B. Wright. (2008)

Globe and Mail Book of the Year list.  A man accompanies an old acquaintance on a final, improbable journey searching for answers in the autumn of his life.

Autumn Rounds by Jacques Poulin, translated by Sheila Fischman (2002)

On a whim, a man joins a touring marching band he sees from his Quebec city apartment window. Among the troupe is a woman he recognizes and so begins a tale of love that arrives in the autumn of life.

Hike to Write

Hike to Write

Ruth E. Walker

For the past two years, I’ve participated in the Hike Haliburton Festival, leading one of the more than 100 hikes held over 4 days each fall. But not just any trek through the woods or up a hillside, my hike is called a Hike and Write: Inspiration Trail.

It all started three or four years ago when Barrie Martin, a curator of outdoors experiences in Haliburton County, invited me to sponsor a hike in the festival. Our back and forth correspondence led to him inviting me to instead lead a hike in 2018.

Me? Lead a hike? At first, I had this picture of some of the challenging trails I’d portaged and hiked over the years. Frankly, I’m past all that.

But Barrie persisted. Told me I could design whatever kind of hike I might like that would include writing.

And that’s the so cool factor that elevates the Hike Haliburton Festival from a series of treks in the bush to hikes that integrate the arts, culture, heritage and foodie experiences.

For example, Hike for Art’s Sake was a wander along quiet roads with a local artist to sketch abandoned buildings from bygone days. And for the mushroom lover, they could take the Fungophile Foray, an easy walk in search of edible fungi. All 115 of the 2019 hikes were free.

After hosting two back-to-back hikes last year, I opted to extend the pen with a single walk in the morning and an afternoon writing at my cottage. Five hikers joined me at Dahl Forest for a hike along the Big Bend Trail Loop. They were ready to walk along, using the senses to make observations to apply to writing opportunities.

Special guest magic

Just before we started, a sixth hiker arrived. A celebrity guest, in fact. The 2019 Writer in Residence for Haliburton, Susanna Kearsley, joined us. The bestselling author of 13 books was generous with her time and attention to the other hikers. Notebook in hand, she explained how paying attention to small details is a vital part of recreating reality in her novels. How the light hits the lichen and moss on a rock, or the power of the damp scent of a pine forest — these are the kinds of things she looks for and records.

Dahl Forest

The weather was perfect. A stunning blue September sky, a light breeze riffling the tall pines and fir trees, and a carpet of moss and pine needles underfoot.

Susanna Kearsley captures a scene

Stopping at a riverside picnic bench, I led the hikers in a freefall writing exercise. The pen starts and doesn’t stop. Writers are encouraged to “follow the energy” and “write what comes up.” There’s more to it but that’s for another time.

It was magical. I was wondering how well the afternoon could go given how perfect the hike and morning had unfolded. Would an afternoon of tea and light refreshments lead to more brilliant writing?

I needed not to worry. The afternoon was just as perfect as the morning had been. Was it spent writing in hushed stillness, against the backdrop of the cottage birdsong and rustling leaves in the breeze?

Not exactly.

Inspiration comes in all forms

It was, instead, a delightful afternoon of discovery. Over tea, coffee, cheeses, fruits and ginger ale, Susanna shared some of her experiences as a writer. She spoke of her research and pleasure in writing. And soon enough, the conversation turned to the importance of story.

I sat to one side, judging just when I’d suggest clearing the table to start to write. I waited for the inevitable lull in the conversation.

But then — oh then — the real magic happened when the topic of films that tell a good story came up. And chief among them, the Marvel movies. It turned out that Susanna and one of our hikers (and a colleague writer of mine), Stephanie, were both big fans of the comic book film series. Drawn to the cinema for the strength of story and characters that carry that story, the two fans exchanged favourite movie titles.

The other hikers were intrigued and soon enough, Susanna and Stephanie were curating the ultimate list of Marvel movies to watch. Titles were broached, discussed, discarded and reordered into a “must see” list, and in what order they should be seen.

I’ll admit relief that Guardians of the Galaxy was included on that list — I’m an old-school Marvel fan but that revised rag-tag band of misfits resonated with me. At this point, I stopped to consider what we were all talking about. Frankly, I was perplexed by how a writing afternoon morphed into an analysis of superhero characters, their origins and challenges.

And then I got it. It’s the story, stupid.

What drove Stephanie and Susanna to get into such animated chatter about the film series was to talk about the power of story to transport us. Story in cinema led to the Marvel movies and the rest, as they say, was our afternoon.

2019 Hike & Write: Inspiration Trail

As the afternoon wound down, the hikers went home elated with their day spent hiking and writing in the morning and exploring ideas of story at my cottage. The curated list of “must see” movies went with them and they were already planning a series of binge movie nights.

Was this a silly thing to end our hike with? Absolutely not. We all crave story in our lives.

From the once-upon-a-times of our childhoods to the complexity of a well-crafted novel, it’s story that nudges our imagination and offers us new ways of seeing our world. It’s why we write. And thankfully, story can be found just about anywhere: on a morning walk through a stunning forest or over tea and biscuits in a rustic cottage.

Lucky us. We get to find those stories and make them our own.

Fall for Workshops

Fall for Workshops

Ruth E. Walker

The autumn season is always a busy time: harvesting the last of the crops and taking in the warmth of daytime sun. We’re all aware winter is waiting in the wings.

For writers, this often means hunkering down into our writing space and getting serious about our projects. Maybe we start a new story or poem, review our plot and character arcs, or ready our works in progress for submission.

Getting serious can also include taking workshops, attending events or signing up for long-term courses. At the very least, getting serious means being open to learning something new about the business or craft of writing. In short, adding to your writer’s toolkit.

The British novelist Matt Haig (How to Stop Time, The Radleys and Reasons to Stay Alive) offers this about courses in creative writing:

To say that creative writing courses are all useless is almost as silly as saying all editors are useless. Writers of all levels can benefit from other instructive voices.

Matt Haig

Of course, you can find quotes from bestselling writers that will say the opposite–that you either have it or your don’t. Workshops won’t make any difference, etc.

But I side with Matt. We all have the ability to write, to shape ideas into words, to blend those words into sentences and put those sentences into a kind of order to say what we want to say. But even natural ability, dogged determination or unique vision will benefit when a writer focuses on the why and how of the craft.

Of course, I have an interest professionally in writers taking courses because I occasionally offer workshops. And I’ve seen first hand the discoveries and breakthroughs many of those participants have made in my workshops. But I also take workshops and attend writers events because I always learn something new. Every. Single. Time.

Ready, set…learn

For the next few weeks, I’ll be involved in several learning opportunities, either as a participant, organizer or instructor. This doesn’t include my biweekly meetings of Critical MS, an intense critique group where we all learn from offering and receiving feedback on our works in progress.

On September 28, I’ll be attending From Inspiration to Publication, a professionals panel of folks with publishing know how. The world of publishing has never been more interesting so I’ll want to understand more about self-publishing, audio books and co-operative approaches. Compare and contrast, as they say.

From Inspiration to Publication Saturday September 28

Located in Minden, Ontario, the morning panel discussion will be instructive with Scott Fraser from Dundurn Press, Shane Joseph from Blue Denim Press, Frances Peck from West Coast Editorial Associates and freelance writer and children’s author, Heather M. O’Connor. Author and journalist Jim Poling Sr. will moderate the panel.

In the afternoon, I take off my participant hat and put on my workshop facilitator hat to offer a hands-on workshop From Inspiration to Publication, running concurrently with the one-on-one sessions participants have booked with the panellists.

I know this will be a fantastic event because I’m also one of the volunteer organizers for the Arts Council Haliburton Highlands, Literary Arts Roundtable. Three hats. One event.

Travelling words

I’ll be back in Durham Region on October 17, meeting with the Sunderland Writers Group at the local library. I’m an invited guest, sharing some exercises along with writing tips and resources to support the launch of this new group.

On October 22, I’ll be offering a creative writing workshop for the Peterborough Library for their Try It Tuesdays program. Try it Tuesdays is meant to be a taster for anyone curious about creative writing. Experienced writers can challenge themselves in this workshop by going deeper with each of the exercises.

Laura Rock Gaughan

On October 23, I’ve organized an evening writing workshop at the Haliburton Library with author Laura Rock Gaughan. Laura was a resident artist at the Halls Island Artist Residency in Haliburton County (another of my volunteer organizations) and this workshop is part of her community project for the residency. As a side note, Laura is also the recently appointed executive director of the Literary Press Group, representing 60 independent publishers in Canada.

October 24 to 26, Gwynn and I will be in Cobourg at the Spirit of the Hills Festival of the Arts. The Festival is a celebration of sharing across the arts, and naturally Writescape will be there as participants and to showcase what we do.

Gwynn has worn several hats for this event too. She was an editor for the anthology Hill Spirits IV that will launch on the Saturday evening; as a co-host of Word on the Hills on Northumberland 89.7FM she has interviewed several of the participants in the festival line-up, and she was the judge for the poetry contest run by the festival. Even my son Piers will be performing in a play that was a winner in the playwrights contest.

Shelley Macbeth

On November 2, I’ll be at the Book Drunkard Festival in Uxbridge, Ontario, offering my half-day workshop, A Recipe for Great Characters. From October 17 to November 3, the Festival — a brainchild of the great Shelley Macbeth of Blue Heron Books — celebrates all things bookish. As the website says: The festival captures the wonderment of the written word and its ability to intoxicate, transport and transform.

When winter comes, spring can’t be far behind…

Once you’re finished with all that hunkering down in winter, you’ll want to dig out and be inspired as nature comes back to colourful life.

Spring Thaw 2019

Join Gwynn and Ruth at Writescape’s Spring Thaw writers’ retreat April 17, 2020. Choose from 3 days, 5 days or 7 days to focus on your writing. The all-inclusive escape includes lakeside accommodation at Elmhirst’s Resort on Rice Lake and all meals, as well as all taxes and gratuities.

One-on-one feedback sessions, daily workshops and group gatherings over the weekend combine with plenty of private time for writing and reflection. $250 deposit secures your spot at Spring Thaw 2020.