10 Questions for Great Character Arcs

10 Questions for Great Character Arcs

July 10, 2019

Every successful story involves either a change in character or a reason why they haven’t changed. It’s the difference between cardboard and real life.

The arc of a character involves their internal growth, on such qualities as morals or values, emotional strength and conflicting beliefs. A character’s growing awareness of themselves is more powerful if it involves a struggle, such as situations that test your character on all levels.

So, it is important to establish who your character is on an emotional and moral basis at the beginning of the story. This creates a benchmark and their arc can progress from there.

Here are ten questions writer can ask themselves to check on the arc of a character throughout their story:

1. At the beginning of the story, what are your character’s flaws (lack of confidence, arrogance, ignorance, etc.)

2. What is your character’s emotional wound (abandonment, witness to trauma, least favourite child, etc.)

3. What is her world view and what does it prevent her from doing?

4. How will your character’s knowledge of himself change throughout the story? In increments with each struggle? All at once in a defining moment when he loses everything?

5. How often are your character’s flaws tested or challenged? To increase tension, remember to escalate her challenges. Make them active scenes, not simply internal struggles.

6. In what ways will the character resist change? Remember to vary the intensity and circumstance.

7. How does the character’s world view change? Allow your reader to see this change in action. Does she receive information? Does he observe something with fresh eyes?

8. At what point does your character gain some insight into his own personality or makeup? (usually occurs just after the mid-point.)

9. At what point does your character act on that insight? (should be close to the climax or be part of what leads to that climax)

10. How is the change demonstrated in the story? Or, if there is no change in your character, is there a clear decision not to change?

These are great questions for all writers and can be applied to both main and secondary characters. Use the questions at the early stages of plotting your novel or thinking about your story. After your first draft, review again and look for places where you can make scenes more active or increase your character’s internal struggle as needed.

Just like you, the people in your story must experience growth on a variety of levels. And as a writer, it’s your job to create characters who live and breathe for your readers.

Books or Bust

Books or Bust

Gwynn Scheltema

This unusual picture came through my Facebook feed recently, and I was drawn not just to the semi-circle of mounted women, but to the library sign behind them. Apparently these women were librarians—travelling librarians. It got me thinking of the lengths to which people will go to have libraries and access to books.

Have horse will read

The Pack Horse Library Initiative operated in the 1930s during the Great Depression, as part of a program in Kentucky run by the Works Progress Administration. The WPA was the brainchild of U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt to help job seekers during the Great Depression.

Locally known and trusted women rode as much as 120 miles in a week to reach isolated mountain communities. They went in all kinds of weather and traversed difficult terrain, sometimes even finishing the trip on foot if it was too tough for their horses. Unemployment ended with war production for WWII and the pack horse initiative funding was stopped in 1943.

Walking the plank

On the other side of the world in Indonesia, the environment can’t stop readers getting access to books. In this fishing village, the “library” is a tin hut on stilts, whose only access is a series of wooden planks nailed together in a wobbly path over the water.

Despite its precarious position, the 85 degree heat and 90% humidity, the place is always packed, especially with children.

One man’s trash…

In Turkey’s capital, Ankara, garbage collectors began in 2016 rescuing books destined for the landfill to create a library for employees and family. The project mushroomed, and the local government got behind the idea and supplied a disused brick factory building at its sanitation department headquarters.

The “new” library opened to the public in September 2017 with over 6,000 fiction and non-fiction books, all gathered from the garbage or donated. It boasts a children’s section, an area dedicated to scientific research books, and some foreign language books. In fact, the library’s collection is now so large that it can loan books to schools, educational programs, and prisons.

Home tongue book refuge

What happens if your home language is not that of the dominant language at your town library? Most libraries have moderate foreign-book sections, but in Quebec City, there is a small library that houses English language books—and it’s not new. The Morrin Centre was built on the site of the old military barracks in 1808. Initially it was Quebec City’s public prison, housing its first prisoners in 1812.

Then in 1868 the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec moved in. Over the years, they have gathered historical Canadian documents, republished rare manuscripts and were instrumental in establishing the National Archives of Canada. Sadly many of the older books are no longer in the collection, but the collection still includes a number of books dating to the 16th century.

In more recent times, they established an English lending library, and also act as Quebec City’s English-language cultural centre and an historical interpretation site. The Society has hosted such greats as Charles Dickens and Emmelyne Pankhurst.

The New Pack Horse Librarians

We may not use pack horses any more, but many will be familiar with—the Bookmobile. (Also known as the Book Van or Travelling Library). Following WWII, vans filled with library books were driven by a librarian to areas that did not have bricks and mortar libraries, to village centres, schools, and sometimes even to individual homes. In the Canadian North, when the road ran out, the service continued by boat.

These days, many large urban centers have bookmobiles, and just like their bricks and mortar partners, they offer more than books. They have library programming, and serve as WIFI hubs. They offer access to computers and printers, movies and video games.

Last word

It seems that when people love books, they will take whatever measures necessary to get them. Ain’t life grand!

A Writer’s Voice

A Writer’s Voice

Ruth E. Walker

In my workshops, I often remind writers that their voice is unlike anyone else’s. No one has their life experience, no one thinks with the same brain or writes with the same heart. Writers may share the same topic or scenario or even characters, but none will produce the same story in the same voice.

The voice with which we write is unique to each of us. It’s found in the types of words we prefer to use, the kinds of sentence structure that fits our imagination, the things we choose to include or exclude, the punctuation, verbs and metaphors. Our writing is full of signposts for readers: This is a story by…Margaret Atwood, Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, Alice Munro…

At the same time, a writer’s voice is not exactly a static quality. As we experience life, our deepening well of compost combines with new material and alters our perspective and thus, affects our writing. But essentially, the core of our voice—the beating heart of our motivation and the words that flow from that core—that doesn’t change.

So what does that change in perspective bring us if it doesn’t affect our voice?

Tone.

Tone is the mood of our writing

It’s in the email we fire off to a company to complain about a faulty product. My preferred tone in those emails is more like I’m disappointed but giving you a chance to fix it versus You people suck and I’m never buying a thing from you again. We may be using our writer’s voice with word choice and punctuation but a complaint email is not the same tone one uses to invite friends and family to a party, right?

A recent trip to the Stratford Festival in Ontario got me thinking about the difference between a writer’s voice and tone.

Our playbill included a matinee performance of William Shakespeare’s Henry VIII (a history play that should appear on the stage more often, especially if Martha Henry directs it) and an evening spent chortling away during The Merry Wives of Windsor (a comedy both hilarious and uncannily fit for our times.)

Same author (I thought) on the playbill. Same iambic pentameter. Only…I thought Henry VIII‘s prologue sounded off to me. It all seemed a bit “loud” and “instructive” in tone. Same with the epilogue.

Will didn’t write it all!

A bit of research revealed that a collaborator, playwright John Fletcher, worked with Shakespeare on Henry VIII and likely contributed the prologue and epilogue, as well as nearly half of the play. Admittedly, I didn’t notice the change in voice elsewhere, but I think my reaction to the prologue and epilogue relates to how non-Shakespeare they felt.

Is that because I like Shakespeare’s work so much that I noticed when the featured lines didn’t quite deliver The Bard to my ear? I’m not sure. This is not the only play on which he had a collaborator. But it was a revelation to discover that someone else contributed both prologue and epilogue to Henry VIII, along with full scenes including the last four scenes of the final act.

Nonetheless, the production at the Stratford Festival is outstanding: high moments of drama, tender pathos and a healthy dollop of pageantry is expertly delivered.  Of course, Shakespeare’s trademark irony brings occasional smiles, but the tone of the play is serious and reflective, with a shift into pomp and ceremony at the end at the baptism of the infant Princess Elizabeth.

The Merry Wives of Windsor could not be more opposite with “pomp” placed squarely in over-amorous Falstaff’s pompous conceit and “ceremony” delivered through weddings—only one of which was real. Farcical and staged with plenty of visual hilarity, the tone of this play is decidedly different from the serious historical Henry VIII.

And yet. There is an undercurrent that suggests the mistaken conclusions of a jealous husband  could have unhappy consequences. And how very modern to have two women as central characters, devising a plot to shame a lecher. Thrice. (Falstaff is not the brightest bulb in the chandelier.)  And to have a daughter choose her husband, instead of the choices of her parents, is likewise a modern twist in a time when marriages were driven by economics and social standing.

Tone can’t hide voice

Despite the collaboration in Henry VIII, both plays held the trademarks of Shakespeare’s voice: iambic pentameter in free verse, rhyming couplets to emphasize dramatic moments, themes of love, betrayal, confused identities. His metaphors and similes enrich meaning in a language that is almost foreign to contemporary audiences. And his invented words—nouns and verbs—remain in current use.

Critic.

Bandit.

Swagger.

For more on his wordsmithing, See Grammarly’s 15 words invented by Shakespeare.  But more than inventing words, the worlds Shakespeare invented were stories that hold lessons for our world today.

Not born a genius; he worked for it

As he honed his craft, the sometimes stilted structure of Shakespeare’s earlier plays gave way to more natural breaks and punctuation. His characters moved from near-stereotypes to more nuanced humans with flaws that made them shine. Like all of us, he learned to make language work for what he wanted to achieve on the page…and, on the stage. And his voice remained, naturally, his.

Shakespeare’s plays hold different tones: from sombre and heartbreaking tragedies to hilarious near-slapstick antics and imaginings. But they carry the same voice, one that keeps us coming back to productions since the 1590s. And that is a track record any of us would long to have.

Rebuilding Your (Porch) Novel

Rebuilding Your (Porch) Novel

Ruth E. Walker

Sometimes what happens in our lives has a weird way of being reflected in our writing journeys. It’s a bit like the universe has a sense of humour. And sometimes, we get to laugh. Or at least smile.

At the end of winter at the cottage, it was lovely to see the deep snowdrifts finally melt. Of course, there were also lots of cold snaps, so that the melt was often stopped in its tracks. That included on the roof of our screened porch. Melt freeze. Melt freeze. Melt freeze. We were unable to get up to the cottage for a couple of weeks to check for ice. The ice dam formed. And then the April rain came.

Soon enough, it was raining inside the screened porch. A dozen buckets could barely keep up.

So my husband and I got on top of the roof, for hours scraping off the ice build up. Finally, all the ice was cleared off.

Sifting through a mess

But the damage was done. Not only did we have to replace the roof but some walls, insulation and flooring had to be ripped out. Then, time to shore up the foundation. Add new load-bearing beams.  

Given some moments to rest between ripping out and building back up, I had some time to reflect. It is, I thought, a lot like editing.

Which is what I am doing with my novel in progress. The story explores some turning points in my character’s childhood, teen years and his life as a young man. As the novel is based on an old Breton fairy tale, I wrote earlier drafts all in chronological fashion. Once upon a time…to…They lived happily (ahem) ever after.

But I’ve come to realize the novel isn’t quite working in that structure.

Renovate buildings…or books

So I’m ripping out walls (chapters.) Re-positioning the roof (plot.) Shoring up the foundation (thematic elements.)  And adding load-bearing beams (character development.)

But, like the repairs to our screened porch, I’m making discoveries as I go.

If you have to re-position the screened room roof, you need to consider the roof line of the main (original) building. So, as I’m playing with the plot, I wonder how far I can deviate from the original fairy tale.

Pretty far as it turns out. Just like the screened porch’s roof revision.

Advantages to major repairs

The porch’s new roof line meant walls needed to be built higher. So why not add regular windows instead of the nailed-in screens if we’re doing that? And how about a patio door to bring in more light? And let’s insulate under the floor instead of just the walls. A 3-season room takes on new life for all four seasons.

So as I work with my novel’s plot, I’m bringing in new characters, new scenes, new possibilities to raise the stakes for my character. I’m picking the pockets of other old fairy tales, travelling the world of fable and fabrication to discover ways to enrich the story. Taking a page from the braided essay format, I’m tossing aside chronological structure and weaving together childhood, teen years and adult life.

Will it work? Well, I hope so. But even if I end up back with the chronological beginning-to-end structure, I have far more to work with than when I finished the original draft.

It’s a whole new look.  And I think I’m moving in.

Workshop News

If you want to see Ruth’s Haliburton cottage porch reno in progress, come to her all-day workshop Saturday June 15. Create Compelling Characters will offer writers a series of hands-on exercises and inspiring explorations of character in fiction, memoir and nonfiction. Nestled among the pines, overlooking the lazy river, it’s a location that holds inspiration and the echoes of writers who’ve written their novels in The Rustic.

10 Sites for Writers

10 Sites for Writers

Websites for writers can be a treasure trove of inspiration and resources. For June’s 10 on the 10th, we’ve compiled, in no particular order, a list of ten helpful places for you to visit. These are websites that, as writers, we’ve found useful and upon occasion fun. Happy surfing!

#1 Writers’ Digest has been around for decades, first as a magazine and now also hosting a massive site that’s loaded with articles on just about any topic a writer might want to explore. Sign up for their newsletter — it’s full of advice and ideas. https://www.writersdigest.com/

#2 Literistic. Imagine receiving a monthly list of contests and magazines with upcoming deadlines for submissions. Literistic caters to people who write poetry, fiction and nonfiction in Canada, the United States and Britain. There’s a free shortlist or you can choose the $8.50/month list that is curated with only the markets and topics that you select. https://www.literistic.com/

#3 One Stop for Writers is a great site with a range of tools for writers. Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi (co-authors of six best-selling resource books including The Emotion Thesaurus) joined forces with Lee Powell (creator of Scrivener) to build what they term a “library” for writers. You can register for free and if you like what you see, sign up for a monthly paid subscription. https://onestopforwriters.com

#4 49th Shelf is a website focusing on the books of Canadian writers (but a great discovery for writers outside our borders). Why are we featuring a website about books? Let us quote an American writer here: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.” from Stephen King’s Top 20 Rules for Writers. Yup. We agree. https://49thshelf.com/

#5  Word A Day. Five days a week, 52 weeks of the year, receive the gift of a daily word. Not only do you get a word, you get its pronunciation, meaning(s), and the history of that word. Each week is thematic. Last week’s theme: weird plurals. Who knew more than one charisma are charismata? Or on the theme of words that don’t mean what you think they do, bloodnoun — it has nothing to do with the stuff in your veins; instead, it’s another word for bullfrog. Words, words, words! https://wordsmith.org

#6  GrammarlyThe more you write (and read) the stronger your own store of grammar and spelling know-how should develop. However. There are times when having a quick resource to check for clear writing and correct grammar is appreciated. Like 3 a.m. when the deadline is looming and you need to feel confident. You’re welcome. https://www.grammarly.com/

#7  WorldCat Need an out-of-print book? Researching for a historical novel? Get connected to world-wide library catalogue system. A 3-minute YouTube video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vos5ivBeZ5c  gives you a walk-through on how to use WorldCat. Search by subject, title or author. Create your own lists of resources and add or delete items as it suits you. Locate books in a multitude of languages. Read and/or post reviews. A gigantic library at your fingertips. Meow!  https://www.worldcat.org/

#8  Poets & Writers Like Writers’ Digest, this is a wide-ranging website for writers, but it’s a non-profit organization. And we like seeing “Poets” listed first and foremost. Yes, there’s lots here of a general note for writers but P&W gives attention to those of us who work with fewer words on the page. The Bard would approve.  https://www.pw.org/

#9  The Writers’ Union of Canada  This website offers writers some free resources, such as lists of Canadian writing-related associations, literary agents in Canada, award programs for self-published authors,  and many more links. In addition, the union’s resource books for writers are low-cost and high-value: for example, negotiating your own contract, or estate and legacy planning for writers.  https://www.writersunion.ca

#10  Freerice This fun online word game is perfect for writers who want to challenge their brain while helping out a good cause, The Word Food Programme of the United Nations. The ad-supported site generates words with multiple possible meanings. You contribute 10 grains of rice for every correct answer. Increase your speed to raise the stakes and shift out of your comfort zone. Playtime for writers in English, French, Spanish, Italian or Korean! http://freerice.com/#/english-vocabulary/6116

By no means is this a complete list of useful or interesting writerly websites.

What sites have you discovered that other writers will find helpful? Suggest them in the comments section.

Publishing LGBTQ

Publishing LGBTQ

Gwynn Scheltema

June is Pride month, so this week I thought I’d take you on a short Canadian tour and introduce you to a few Canadian publishers who regularly publish LGBTQ books by Canadian authors.

Harlequin

First stop: Toronto. Head quartered in Toronto, Harlequin publishes around 100 titles a month. Yes, that’s right…100 books! They publish paperbacks, ebooks and audio books. One of their many niches is one they describe as “gay romance”. June 2019’s titles include a lesbian romance: New Ink on Life by Jennie Davids and a gay romance by Adriana Herrera, American Fairytale.

Submissions Guidelines

Arsenal Pulp Press

Out to the West coast now to meet this Vancouver publisher that regularly publishes LGBTQ work including books by Canadian authors S. Bear Bergman, Ivan Coyote, Amber Dawn, Vivek Shraya, and Kai Cheng Thom.  

They also have a series made up of out-of-print queer titles called “Little Sister’s Classics”. If that name sounds familiar, it’s likely because it reminds you of Little Sister’s Book & Art Emporium, in the heart of Vancouver’s gay district on Davie Street. They have been around for years and were legendary in taking on Canada Customs to have gay literature declassified as porn.

In March this year, five Arsenal titles were nominated for the  Lambda Literary Awards, (writing prize for LGBTQ authors) The nominees were Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead, Little Fish by Casey Plett, Sketchtasy by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, Sodom Road Exit by Amber Dawn, and The Tiger Flu by Larissa Lai.

Submission guidelines

Insomniac Press 

Back to Ontario—London to be precise. Insomniac Press has evolved over the last 25 years from a small press that published poetry chapbooks, to a medium-size independent press that publishes non-fiction titles as well as fiction and poetry sold in 40 countries.

Insomniac has also become known for its special niche areas like black studies, personal finance and gay and lesbian books. They publish two queer mystery series by writers Liz Bugg and Nairne Holtz. Insomniac’s anthology No Margins: Writing Canadian Fiction in Lesbian, features a whole host of LGBTQ authors.

Just released is Rinaldo Walcott’s book of essays Queer Returns.

Submission Guidelines

Metonymy Press

Heading over to Quebec, we find Metonymy, a newish Montreal-based press that publishes literary fiction and nonfiction by emerging writers. Their website explains: “We try to reduce barriers to publishing for authors whose perspectives are underrepresented in order to produce quality materials relevant to queer, feminist, and social justice communities.”

Two of their books were recently nominated for Lambda Literary Awards: Small Beauty by jia qing wilson-yang and Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir by Kai Cheng Thom.

Submission guidelines

Talonbooks

And lastly, I want to head back to the West Coast to tell you about Talonbooks, because as well as literary fiction and poetry, they publish drama (including the amazing queer writer Tomson Highway), and translations of French texts, (including Quebecois lesbian author Marie-Claire Blais.) Recent publications include novels by Karen X. Tulchinsky and Gail Scott and poetry by Daphne Marlatt.

Last Word

If you are looking for more LGBTQ markets or books, here are two blogs you may want to check out:

Oops! Big Mistake

Oops! Big Mistake

Gwynn Scheltema

Last week several Facebook posts about author Naomi Wolf’s interview on BBC had my writer’s heart missing a beat and a whirl of thoughts spinning through my head: OMG! How awful for her. I’m so relieved it wasn’t me. How could that happen? How come no one caught it?

I’m not going to do a post-mortem on what Naomi did or didn’t do. You can read the myriad of articles about it on the Net. What I wanted to draw attention to was what chilled my spine even more than the thought that it could be me—the paragraph in the attached article where Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the book’s publisher in the U.S., told the New York Times that while it

“employs professional editors, copyeditors and proofreaders for each book project, we rely ultimately on authors for the integrity of their research and fact-checking.”

The reality is, Naomi’s nightmare could easily happen to any one of us.

I believe, however, that not all errors are created equal and understanding why we make errors helps us minimize them.

Sloppiness

I have a hard time calling lack of research, lack of fact checking, lack of all levels of editing “an error”, except in terms perhaps of judgement. Every writer (and publisher) should strive to present as perfect an error-free manuscript as possible.

That said, errors do happen even when we’ve been as careful as we can.

Technical Errors

The most obvious and most frequent errors are what you might call technical errors: typos, format errors, omissions. Despite numerous pairs of eyes, and excellent proofreaders they can still happen—and do.

Some can be funny: In Ruth’s book Living Underground, she noticed that the room she was describing had scones (not sconces) on either side of the fireplace.

Some are embarrassing, like the project I worked on at the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities that went through at least 4 levels of proofing, but when it went to the Minister’s office for final approval, someone there pointed out that we had spelled university wrong in the artwork that was repeated throughout!

And some typos, as we well know, can change the meaning of what we write, as my favourite example here shows:

Research errors

In this modern communication age, it is easy to rely on the most popular pages on the internet for research. The golden rule of research, however, is to get as close to source and prime documents as possible. By all means begin your research on the net, but sooner or later, try to use source documents, experts, diaries, photos etc. And understand that Google doesn’t list results based on authenticity and truth. Learn how to choose reliable sites.

Entrenched Errors

Much like the lyrics we sing incorrectly believing all the while that they are correct, we all have other “quirks” that surface every now and then. For years I wrote that one thing “jived” perfectly with another. It should, of course, have been “jibed”, but my mind had a mental picture of two people dancing a fast intricate dance and “jive” made perfect sense to me.

Similarly, memory plays a cruel joke here. We “remember” the “facts” so clearly that when someone with the shared experience corrects us, we are genuinely astounded (and usually highly defensive). My family have always talked of a certain great-grandmother Emma Thomas. One of my hobbies is genealogy and in my documented research, it turns out she was Emma Williamson. (I still don’t think they believe me.)

Entrenched misunderstandings also come from cultural teachings: the same opinions or viewpoints passed down through generations until they become “fact.” I hardly need remind you of the age-old green and orange feud in Ireland or more recently the historical events that have come to light through increased interest in the Indigenous view of our country.

Dangerous Senses Errors

This phrase comes from C. S. Lewis’ book Studies in Words:

“The dominant sense of any word lies uppermost in our minds. Wherever we meet the word, our natural impulse will be to give it that sense. When this operation results in nonsense, of course, we see our mistake and try over again. But if it makes tolerable sense, our tendency is to go merrily on. We are often deceived. In an old author the word may mean something different. I call such senses dangerous senses because they lure us into misreadings.”

This is the kind of error that Naomi Wolf fell victim to. In her book Outrages she refers to dozens of men being executed for sodomy in Victorian London. She based this on research that showed that men accused of sodomy (a capital offense) had been given a sentence of “death recorded”.

Interviewer Matthew Sweet pointed out that beginning in 1823, a sentence of “death recorded” meant that the judge was abstaining from voicing a sentence of capital punishment in cases where he anticipated a royal pardon would have been be forthcoming if a proper death sentence were issued. So in short, “death recorded” meant “pardoned” (the opposite of what Naomi believed.)

Many on social media have been quick to ask why she didn’t look up “death recorded”. But be honest now—would you have? This is a perfect example of what C.S. Lewis was talking about. She was researching individuals accused of a capital offense. The sentence written in the records said “death recorded”. The dominant sense of those words is that “a notation of a death was made”. I think I would have made the same assumption Naomi did.

Last Word

So how can you prevent, or at least minimize these different kinds of errors? Be aware. Understand where and why errors arise, and look for next week’s blog for practical suggestions.

Serendipity. Curiosity. Chutzpah.

Serendipity. Curiosity. Chutzpah.

Ruth E. Walker

For writers, serendipity, curiosity and a dash of chutzpah will uncover treasures: a great story or fascinating characters. Recognizing that moment and then acting on it can make all the difference.

A recent trip to meet colleagues for lunch gave Gwynn and me a chance for a leisurely stroll up Bay Street in Toronto. Spring was everywhere. Warm air and gentle sunshine. Pedestrians wore the slightly bemused smiles of people waking after a long and lingering winter.

And all along the sidewalk, cement planters outside of massive glass-walled corporate towers were a riot of spring blooms.

Gwynn was in photo op heaven, snapping pictures of especially vibrant flowers.

Purple pansies. Heady-scented hyacinths. Daffodils dancing in the breeze. And tulips.

Oh my, the tulips. Cupped heads reaching up, announcing the season, green spikes of leaves catching the sunlight. Red. Pink. White. Yellow.

And at one especially beautiful set of flower-rich planters, white tulips with the red streaks. “Canada 150 tulips,” I called to Gwynn. I so wanted to have those tulips in 2016 to plant for 2017 and celebrate our country’s sesquicentennial. But they sold out so quickly, I missed the chance.

I noticed a woman working on one of the planters, a large plastic garbage bin next to her and her hands busy yanking out any tulips that were drooping or beginning to widen their blooms. I couldn’t believe that they were replacing the tulips already. We had a long way to go before spring would give way to summer-stocked planters.

Gwynn and I walked over to her and, after a short conversation, learned that any spring flowers close to the end of their bloom (yes, tulips have a fairly short bloom time) would be removed. And if they drooped, they were doomed.

“What happens to the bulbs?” I asked, eyeing the garbage bin nearly full of bulbs, leaves and flower heads.

For this office tower, garden companies are contracted to fill the planters. Building staff — like this woman — maintain the planters, removing any tulips and bulbs. The bulbs? “Compost,” she said. “Garbage.”

Gwynn and I left there, continuing our walk to lunch.

And our pockets and purses? Full of bulbs.

The woman thought were nuts but happily let us pick up half-a-dozen bulbs each and squirrel them away in our purses. And I nabbed a solitary Canada 150 tulip to decorate our lunch table.

From bulbs to books

If we had just walked away, empty-handed, regrets would have followed me home. Regrets are a part of life but they should be the exception. How many times have you regretted something you should have captured in your writing?

Waking from a dream, full of a story that vanishes like wisps of clouds by the time you brush your teeth, grab a quick yogurt, pour your coffee and sit at your computer.

Listening in on a fascinating conversation at a bus stop, box office line-up or café and promising yourself to write it down as soon as you get home but life was busy as you walked through the door and by the time you sit at your computer hours later, those words are now jumbled snatches that lost their energy.

Visiting a new place — a different city, a trip to the country, a historic building — any opportunity to tickle your muse and fire up your creative juices, can be gold to a writer. And that gold can crumble like pyrite if ignored–or turn into platinum if the writer mixes serendipity with curiosity and a dash of chutzpah. (I’m still toying with a story idea about the Roman gladiator who left behind graffiti on the Colosseum.)

Essential ingredients

Serendipity: The timing of the lights at the corner of Bay and Front Streets crossed us over to the east side of Bay. It’s the shady side before noon and Gwynn prefers the sunny side. But the lights ignored her preference.

Curiosity: Gwynn and I could have simply walked past that woman, assuming the tulip bulbs were destined to be stored dry and cool and replanted in the fall. But I wanted to know why she was taking still blooming tulips from the planter.

Chutzpah: I asked if the bulbs were garbage, could we take a few? (note: for me, this is chutzpah. For others, this might have been a no-brainer. But I’m shy by nature and pushed myself to open my mouth and ask.)

Result

Gwynn and I both love gardening. Gwynn’s lakeside property is a gorgeous mix of flowers, forest and winding walkways. And I’m slowly rehabilitating a former urban backyard dumping ground into a perennial pleasure. We share plants and both our gardens will boast Canada 150 tulips next year (as long as the squirrels can be convinced to leave them alone.)

Bonus result for this writer: I have a character and story cooking in my mind. She’s a maintenance worker, spending her days in the shadows of a 75-story office tower, picking up trash from thoughtless passersby and trimming plants that almost no one notices. She pays her rent on her two-room west-end basement apartment by working weekends and midnights cleaning inside those tower offices. She’s tired all the time. But if she works hard and saves enough money, she can hire an immigration lawyer to help her bring her three children to Canada.

And then the lawyer disappears with all her money…

Serendipity.

Curiosity.

Chutzpah.

I highly recommend it.

Logic Glitches & Inspiration

Logic Glitches & Inspiration

Ruth E. Walker

Inspiration for a writer can arrive at the most inconvenient times. Nonetheless, it’s good to answer the call of the muse. Even if that call comes via another call that is less than charming.

A recent 7 a.m. long distance phone call woke me with that moment of panic. Was someone ill? Did I forget that I was supposed to be somewhere? And why in heaven’s name does the phone have to play Ride of the Valkyries? [note to self: consider changing the ring tone.]

I managed an almost-awake hello and received the bad news. My credit card had been compromised. It had been used on two large online purchases, and did I authorize them?

Just three days earlier at a party, a good friend told me about her credit card being used for $1300 US-worth of Marriott hotel stays and fine dining. Which, of course, she hadn’t been at either hotel or restaurant…or in the US for that matter. Fortunately, she didn’t have to pay for the theft, just the inconvenience of waiting for a replacement card.

So it took me a few seconds to realize what I was dealing with.

Scammers.

Thinking is good

My logical side kicked in and I ticked off the boxes of How Stupid Do They Think I Am:

Box Number One: The call was a recording. A woman’s serious tones, in an vaguely English-accented voice, advised me “Your credit card has been used recently in two large purchases online. Two-hundred-and-fifty-dollars on Amazon and a one-thousand-two-hundred-dollars on eBay.” A recorded call. Seriously?

Box Number Two: The call didn’t identify the credit card company.

Box Number Three: Nor was my name used (um…it was a recording. Duh.)

Box Number Four: The detail provided on the amounts and places of purchase was in stark contrast to the lack of identifying info (see Box Two and Three.) This is the genius method of sounding legit whilst scamming.

Box Number Five: I was to “press 1 now” if I hadn’t made those purchases. By now, the caller’s tone was downright threatening. Customer Service 101 was clearly not in her background.

Bonus Box Number Six: I took the call at the cottage. My bank and credit card contact info is not my cottage number.

Thank goodness I have a logical side. I hung up. But as a writer, now my brain is working overtime.

Inspiration is really good

Who is this woman? Did she know she was making a recording that would bilk lots of ordinary folks out of money? Is she a victim or a willing participant? Does she know credit card companies will cover these sorts of losses so she thinks she is only scamming the corporations?

Is her vaguely plummy accent real or does she have a range of accents she pulls out for various countries or regions? That accent might not do as well in other English-speaking countries. Does she have a lovely southern drawl for US calls south of the Mason-Dixon Line?

Where was she when she made that recording? In a sound studio between music recording sessions? Or a dingy backroom in some illegal call centre in southeast Asia or downtown Toronto?

And what about the rest of her life? Was this a harmless one-off that somehow ends up costing her in the future? Was she tricked into this recording, told it was an audition for computer voice in an upcoming film? And then later on, in an audition for a real film, the casting director recognizes her voice as the one that scammed him a few years ago and he vows revenge…

See? One inconvenient and potentially disruptive phone call, and my imagination is off to the races.

Before you think this is one crazy idea, take a look at Will Ferguson‘s unsettling but terrific novel 419, a deep dive into the world of the insidious Nigerian Internet scams, and the people who, worlds apart, are drawn into the trap of a better future. You remember those emails…”Sir or Madam, I am the son of an exiled Saudi prince. I need your help in getting my late father’s treasure and promise you 20% of the millions hidden in Swiss bank accounts…”

Combining thinking & inspiration is best

My 7 a.m. cottage phone call proves that my muse is alive and well, even if not conveniently timed. It confirms I possess a vital skill that I employ as a writer and an editor: Logic. And logic drives all narrative arcs. From science fiction or fantasy to police procedural mysteries, logic forms the base of all the story elements: plot, conflict(s), character motivation and behaviour, setting, and resolution.

That last one, resolution, is the place that many writers lose the thread of logic. Have you ever read a good book only to arrive at the end and be confused or disappointed by how things are wrapped up? The ending just isn’t logical. Maybe there was nothing in the preceding pages that set up that ending. Or maybe the author thought “Surprise!” was a neat way to end.

Logic works in real life. So it has to work in your writing. If it’s logical that your character would give up their life’s work as an astrophysicist to become a hermit on the mountain top, you better give us something in the story that supports that change.

If it’s snowing heavily in the beginning of the chapter, the characters better have their coats, hats and boots on as they squint into the flakes. And for heaven’s sake, don’t have the cop showing up on his motorcycle at the end of the chapter. Are there even snow tires for a motorcycle. [note: research is an important step to ensuring logical writing.]

Logic in writing. Use it. Because if you don’t, we will notice.

Last Word

Writescape workshops help writers focus on the important elements of story, including logical plots and characters with motivation and behaviour that makes sense.

June 15, 2019: Create Compelling Characters. Join Ruth E. Walker at her Haliburton cottage for a one-day focus on the people in your story.

Fall 2019: Watch for Gwynn Scheltema’s Tax Tips for Writers at the November 10 meeting of The Writers’ Community of York Region, and for Gwynn and Ruth’s Master Class at The Writers’ Community of Durham Region.

10 Peeks into a Writers’ Retreat

10 Peeks into a Writers’ Retreat

We are here at Spring Thaw, on the shores of Rice Lake at this year’s annual writers’ retreat. The sun is shining, the coffee is hot and everyone is tucked away in cottages, writing. And we don’t worry when they might need some inspiration, because we always plan our program to meet the diverse needs of our participants. From those just starting out to seasoned and published authors, writers at our retreats know two things:

1. Gwynn and Ruth are always available for support. And 2. They have their themed retreat handbook full of tips, prompts and resources.

Here are 10 snippets from 10 of our past retreat handbooks:

#1  From Up Close and Personal:

Write like a movie camera.

Start close up, focused on one detail, then draw back and reveal the larger scene. Don’t make it all description. Bring it alive with action, reaction and dialogue—and don’t forget about evoking emotion.

#2 From Myths & the Stories We Tell

Being Vulnerable

In life, if you want to become closer with someone it’s necessary to be open and vulnerable. The same can be said of the relationship with the reader.

Revisit an emotional scene you have written and find ways to be more open, honest, vulnerable. Write as if it will never be read. You don’t have to use the scene you write, but practice writing what you REALLY feel and want to say rather than what you think you SHOULD say.

Switch it up: Write a dream or daydream where a character experiences the situation they have long hoped for.

#3 From Q is for

To craft your one-sentence pitch, try one of these two methods:

Best-selling authors share their one-sentence pitches, 25 words or less, using the What If or So What method.

The elements of the “What if . . . So What?” pitch include:

  • the major conflict (plotline) of the story.
  • the protagonist.
  • the answer to the question, “So What?”

Kathleen Antrim’s one-sentence “what if” pitch for her novel Capital Offense

What if the first lady (PROTAGONIST) is plotting (CONFLICT) to overthrow the president? (SO WHAT) 

#4 From Bridging Your Words

Links to 6 Continents & 6 Lit Journals accepting international submissions

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Africa—South Africa: New Contrast
Asia—China: Cha
Australasia—New Zealand: Takahē
Europe—Spain:  The Barcelona Review
North America—Canada: The Malahat Review
South America—Argentina: The Buenos Aires Review

#5 From Secrets:

A whisper of words.

Secrets can be big or small, important or silly, even funny. Some have grave consequences if divulged. Others are just an embarrassment. Some secrets hurt, some protect, some exclude, some are a lie. Hmmm……

In your story: What is the secret? Who is keeping the secret and from whom?Who are the people involved? Why does it need to be kept? What will happen if it is uncovered? Is someone digging to figure it out? Why? How are they involved? What are the risks and rewards of discovering the secret?

#6 From Linking Ideas and Inspiration

Tap into your creativity and make connections in surprising ways.

Work as fast as you can to escape your internal editor. Without thinking or stopping, make a vertical list of  whatever word is suggested to you from the one above. Try for at least 25 words.

Use your own word or add to this list if you like…

join
club
weapon

Use the last word to spark a new piece. Or write something that uses these words in the order in which they appear, beginning with the first one you added.

Use several words in one sentence or only one every other sentence. Whatever works for you.

#7 From Voice:

Wise words

“A voice cannot carry the tongue and the lips that gave it wings. Alone must it seek the ether.  And alone and without his nest shall the eagle fly across the sun.”           ― Kahlil Gibran

“Words are the voice of the heart.”   ― Confucius

Let your muse go where it wants to…No holding back… just write…For last year’s words belong to last year’s language. And next year’s words await another voice. ― T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

#8 From Shadow and Light:

#9 From Both Sides Now:


“Every family has a story that it tells itself, that it passes on to the children and grandchildren. The story grows over the years, mutates, some parts are sharpened, others dropped, and there is often debate about what really happened. But even with these different sides of the same story, there is still agreement that this is the family story. And in the absence of other narratives, it becomes the flagpole that the family hangs its identity from.” (A.M. Homes)

A.M. Homes

# 10 From Then and Now:

When is Lying in Memoir Acceptable? 3 Key Issues

An abridged version of a post by Tracy Seeley, author of My Ruby Slippers. tracyseeley.com

Last Word:

So there you have it. If you would like to join us on our next annual Spring Thaw Retreat in 2020, mark your calendars for April 17, 2020. Come for 3 or 5 days as we’ve offered before, or try the new option: 7 days!—whatever fits your needs, your budget and your time. Registration opens on June 1, 2019.