10 Chocolate Inspirations

10 Chocolate Inspirations

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

Chemical Love

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

Let Myths and Legends inspire you

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

A smoking hot bean

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

Happy Accidents

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

Story starters

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

Chocolate movie inspiration

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

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

Ignorance is not always bliss

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

Favourite Things

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

Prescription: Chocolate

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

Show me the (Chocolate) Money

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

10 Words from Writers

10 Words from Writers

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

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

You be the judge.

What is a writer?

Aristotle: We are what we repeatedly do.

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

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

How does a writer work?

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

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

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

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

Why be a writer?

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

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

Last word on writing

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

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

10 Quotes for Our Time from Children’s Books

10 Quotes for Our Time from Children’s Books

Our strange times present us with new situations to face almost daily and how to think about and celebrate the holiday season this month is just one of them. In olden times, before the printing press, the court jester held up a mirror to the events of the day and gave people different perspectives to consider. Literature does that too—including children’s literature.

Below are just ten of many wonderful quotes from children’s books that are beautifully relevant to our times.

Isn’t it nice to think that tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet? Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery

Don’t be afraid of death; be afraid of an unlived life. You don’t have to live forever; you just have to live. Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt

There is nothing sweeter in this sad world than the sound of someone you love calling your name. The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo

Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, when one only remembers to turn on the light. –Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling

I don’t understand it any more than you do, but one thing I’ve learned is that you don’t have to understand things for them to be. –A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

If ever there is tomorrow when we’re not together… there is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we’re apart… I’ll always be with you. —The House at Pooh Corner by A.A. Milne

We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are. —Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling

Words can be worrisome, people complex, motives and manners unclear. Grant her the wisdom to choose her path right, free from unkindness and fear. Blueberry Girl by Neil Gaiman

It’s no use going back to yesterday because I was a different person then. –Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

We must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy. –Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling

And even though 10 on the 10th shares just 10 in a list, here is a final quote that hopefully will lift the spirits and warm the heart of every writer:

So Matilda’s strong young mind continued to grow, nurtured by the voices of all those authors who had sent their books out into the world like ships on the sea. These books gave Matilda a hopeful and comforting message: You are not alone. ―Matilda by Roald Dahl

10 Ways to Write about War

10 Ways to Write about War

On the eve of Remembrance Day, veterans of war and those who fought and died are on our minds. November 11 is just one day but the solemnity and memories of the day carries an emotional intensity that many of us bring into our stories.

Writers have been chronicling battle stories since ancient times. Virgil’s epic poem, The Aeneid, offers us a searing immersion: so all had one longing, to let the sword decide.

We’ve been letting the sword (or gun or cannon or bomb or laser beams or…) decide ever since. Naturally enough, we writers have mined (pun intended) humanity’s predilection to fight and there’s no end to the kinds of books – biographies, histories, poetry, stories, novels – that explore that motherlode of emotion and power. Here are ten possible approaches:

1.  Heroic battles – Here the writer has a vast landscape and nobody does it better than the ancient storytellers, such as Virgil, Homer and Sophocles. Their legacy can be found in all the epic scenes of warrior hordes (Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones) with clanging, clashing, slashing swords and axes hacking their way to the castle gates. Those scenes echo into modern history where swords are replaced with bayonets and rifles. Futurists imagine the same scenes but played out with visionary weaponry.

2. One-on-one Combat – Move beyond the broad landscape and get up close and personal with the dance between two enemies. It is a tension-filled moment that deserves a slow burn to reach a full roiling boil. Two characters, circling one another, gauging each other’s weaknesses, holding back until the moment to engage is clear. Now think beyond the battlefield and examine other kinds of fights between two characters: for example, a marriage falling apart. Warren Adler’s The War of the Roses chronicles the emotional costs of the legal battle and the soul-sucking aftermath.

3. The Homefront – Who’s left behind? How are they surviving? Pacifists, injured, too young, too old, too frightened – stories that focus on everyday people who can never forget what is happening in the wider world. Keeping the war in the background has been excellent inspiration for kidlit authors such as beloved writer Bernice Thurman Hunter and her novel The Girls They Left Behind. In adult fiction, the WWI Homefront is explored beautifully in Frances Itani’s Deafening. If you plan to write a novel set during our current and relentless pandemic, reading books about the Homefront might give you some needed distance.

4. From the Enemy’s POV – Writing through the enemy’s perspective is an exercise that can offer writers entry into their antagonist’s motivations. This is an excellent tool to breathe more life into that character. And sometimes, it might be more interesting to write the whole book with the villain as your Main Character. Oscar Wilde did it with the classic novel The Picture of Dorian Gray and more recently Gillian Flynn’s delightful Gone Girl.

5. Turf War – From schoolyards to neighbourhoods, boundaries real or imagined are instant tension points. Opposing gangs have a long history in literature: Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is a classic example. In Richard Scrimger’s Ink Me, Bunny, a mentally challenged 15-year-old, gets the wrong tattoo and that gives him entry into a gang about to do a high-stakes deal. Often funny but never patronizing, readers get a glimpse into the world of gangs and that of young adults who are differently abled. In Angie Thomas’ debut novel, The Hate U Give, readers get a deep dive into complex issues of racism, police brutality, activism and social justice – all of it framed within the context of boundaries held by gangs, organizations, institutions and families.

6. Civil War – A nation divided, rebellion, cults, rumours and secrets. Any social unrest is pure gold for tension and a fascinating cast of characters. Suzanne Collins dove into that world when she created The Hunger Games and you know how that turned out for her. But if you want a lived-experience to flavour the writing, Civil War Stories by Ambrose Bierce, a veteran of the American Civil War, is great writing. Ahead of his time, Bierce has a speculative fiction touch that offers us more than battle stories.

7.  The Aftermath – From Ancient Greek playwrights (Euripides’ Trojan Women) to cold war novelists (Nevil Shute’s On the Beach) to post-apocalyptic authors (Cormac McCarthy’s The Road) much of post-war life, real or imagined, is never easy. Trauma, starvation and uncertainty can be counterbalanced with resilience, foraging and rebuilding both physically and socially. It’s up to the writer where to place the greatest weight.

8.  The Peacemaker  Diplomats, politicians and kings. Historical fiction is rich with books about peacemaking in world history. Tolstoy’s War and Peace gives us a sweeping saga plucked from history. But writers have a way of taking the known and applying it to the unknown. Erin Bow’s masterful YA novel, The Scorpion Rules, takes diplomacy onto an intergalactic scale that holds hostage the lives of world leaders’ children. No war between worlds and no kids get euthanized. Simple genius.

9. Undeclared War – Nothing underpins a story’s tension meter with more energy than a seething simmering dance between two enemies. As up close as a divorce in the making (The War of the Roses) or as broad as worlds balancing on the verge (Peter George’s Red Alert, inspiration for the classic film Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb). When the threat of war is constant, readers keep turning the page.

10. Tools of War – Speaking of loving the bomb, a war without weapons is a schoolyard turf war. Come to think of it, even that situation has its own weapons: taunts and gestures can ignite a war of words; fists, knees and teeth can up the scale. So, as much as big shiny boom machines can have an impact on a battle, remember that your reader’s emotional journey will accelerate with the smell of sweat, taste of blood, squeeze of skin and screams of battle, not to mention the look on combatants’ faces: jubilant in celebration or horrified in defeat.

No matter how large or how small the scale, a story of war offers writers so many possibilities and these ten musings are merely a long view with a pair of binoculars. It’s up to you to find the emotional heart in your story’s battle and bring it beating and alive for your readers.

On November 11, you will be asked to offer “a moment of silence” at 11 a.m., the date and time the Great War officially ceased in 1918. Writescape suggests that “a moment” as you well know, it merely a breath, a blink of the eye or a swallow. Those who have given their lives for their country need more than a moment to be remembered. War, no matter the cause, is hardly a reason to celebrate because the human cost is far too great and death is forever. Keep that in mind with all your war stories.

10 ways to Nano-prep for writing your novel

10 ways to Nano-prep for writing your novel

In a few weeks, writers around the globe will commit to writing 50,000 words of the first draft of a novel in 30 days. Will you be one of them? National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo begins on November 1, and if you don’t know much about NaNoWriMo, check out our previous blog post NaNoWriMo 101.

That means that October, affectionately known as “Preptober” is a month for getting all your ducks in a row, so you’re ready to actually write on November 1. Below are 10 ways to get ready to write, for NaNoWriMo or indeed for any new novel project.

  1. Create a project hold-all to keep all research, writing, notes and ideas for your new novel. This could be a new folder in your computer, or a “new project” in Scrivener. Try a three-ring binder scrapbook, with sections for research notes, character sketches, random ideas, checklists lists etc. Handy for quick reference, for validating research used, for trying out rough writing, for reference as you write. More than that, though, it is a tangible way to make the project real and a good way to stay focused and organized.
  1. Decide what you are going to write. Easier said than done. We all have stacks of ideas of what we could write about, but choose something that interests you. If you’re not passionate about your project you will find it hard to live with it daily and write productively. Choose a story you are spilling over to get out, or write a story that involves something you really want to spend time with. If you love Russian history, set a story in Russia during the revolution. If you’ve always wanted to know about perfume making, write a story where the protagonist is a perfumer. To help make it more real, choose a working title.
  1. Start with sketching interesting characters. If you’re a character-driven writer, begin with writing profiles of your protagonist and antagonist. Then as you work through your plot ideas (step 5) and new characters emerge, do character sketches of them too. If you’re a plot-driven writer, you may want to do step 5 first and return to this step afterwards. Remember these profiles are not just physical, but include your character’s history, flaws, emotional baggage, hopes, dreams, fears and relationships. You might find yourself returning repeatedly to these sketches to add details as you get to know them better.
  1. Ask yourself whose story you are telling and how it would best be told. Whose POV will best tell that story? One POV or multiple? What tense and person? Who is the reader you are aiming at? What genre? As you start to write, you may change these decisions, but start with a plan.
  1. Write your book jacket blurb. This may seem like it’s putting the cart before the horse, but it’s not. The book jacket blurb answers the all-important question “What is this book about?” The answer to that question helps to distill the thrust of the story: the conflict, the stakes and the character arc. It also helps define what age group and genre it is, because it focuses on the main thread of the story.
  1. Brainstorm story ideas. Outline potential plots. Ask yourself the simple but effective “What if?”, or use the base of all ancient myths and tales: the three act structure. If you know how you want your story to end, consider working backwards too. You might want to check out these tried and true variants of the three act structure too.
  1. Define your story world: place and time. This could be as simple as “Russia pre 1917 revolution” or “Haliburton 1956”, or as complex as a new fantasy world or imagined planet. Or it might be a mix, say a fictitious town called Halbury based on Haliburton. Setting is important to ground your story and your readers. The more complex your setting, the more up-front “world-building” you need to do: Government? Religion? Rules of magic? Climate? Etc. Prep work can include maps and floorplans.
  1. Outline potential subplots. Make sure they serve the thrust of the main story, that they have their own story arc and that there are no dropped threads.
  1. Sketch important secondary characters. Make sure they exist as a counterpoint or foil or supporter of your main characters. Like main characters, they too should have their own wants and needs and motivations. Ask yourself if one secondary character can do the work of two to keep the number of characters to a minimum, and to make each one stronger.
  1. Work on character arcs for all characters, primary and secondary. Each character must have their own motivations for doing what they do.

And one thing more

Get support. We all have lives to live and people in those lives. Talk to them about what you want to do and get them to realize you are serious. Enlist their help, whether it is to honour the time you set aside as uninterrupted writing time, or whether it is practical help like supervising a session of the kids’ online learning, cooking dinner or creating a separate writing space for you during November. Prepare them for your plan and then……START WRITING!

10 things poets can teach us

10 things poets can teach us

Brevity — economy of words — to say so much with so few words is far more powerful than filling a scene with tonnes of description. It works the same way that bulleted, step-by-step directions work better than long paragraphs of first set out all your tools and triple check that you have everything you need and then open the box and take out the hoozits and then you put the hoozits into the whatzits, turning all the way and making sure you haven’t…etc., etc

Sound – rhyme, near-rhyme, alliteration – our ears are engaged with words that share similar sounds when placed close together or in patterns. Amidst…pussy-willow pads of labs, a sudden set of deer tracks – Barry Dempster 

Repetition — always with a specific purpose to underscore a meaning or idea — your slightest look easily will unclose me / though i have closed myself as fingers,  e.e.cummings

Ideas have power — taking us to places in unexpected ways excites our imaginations — To see a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower… Wm Blake

Imagery — picture words are effective to convey far more Who made the grasshopper…who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down… Mary Oliver

Structure — the scaffolding on which a poet hangs their words — just as any genre of prose has expectations and writers work with and, often, challenge those expectations, poets take familiar forms and upend them. 

Risk — poets, like all artists, take risks with more than just structure. Cowboy Poetry is a venerable form, evoking images of the Old West, cattle drives and breaking wild horses.  But modern Cowboy Poetry can be a different story: …the bridge abutment already signed
with 4 white crosses for those who did not
quite
       make
             this
                curve
because of booze, because of snooze…Paul Zarzyski

Symbolism — it’s like holding a flash card designed to evoke meaning, a symbol instantly takes us places. Consider a flag — now make it a white flag — now a Confederate flag — now a nation’s flag upside down — it is still a flag but each time, symbolizes something different. Where the flag is placed can change the symbol it represents. Is it tattered and falling from dying hands? Is it held high during an attack? Is it being consumed by flames on a roadway?

Pacing  – Use long languid lugubrious multisyllables with loads of vowels to slow the reader or short sharp words with hard consonants to pick up the pace. Somnolent through landscapes and by trees / nondescript, almost anonymous, …P. K. Page

Breaks – line breaks, stanzas, dashes all signal to the reader to notice, to pause and let what has just been said sink in and prepare for a new thought. Writers have similar signals at their disposal: white space when changing POV, time or location; paragraphs, chapters or a statement all on its own line.

10 Sites for Writers

10 Sites for Writers

Websites for writers can be a treasure trove of inspiration and resources. For this month’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.

Ten Ways to NOT Win

Ten Ways to NOT Win

One of our most popular workshops has been Write to Win, a full-day focus on writing contests with Dorothea Helms and Ruth E. Walker.

Since Writescape is in the midst of wrapping up the first-tier judging of our own writing contest, we thought it might be fun to share one of the tip lists from that workshop.

Here’s the Top Ten Tips to Avoid Winning Writing Contests:

1. Don’t enter. Contest judges can only assess the entries they receive. Have you ever looked at winning entries and thought that your story is just as strong–or maybe stronger? Dorothea and Ruth have both been judges for regional, national and international writing contests. And frankly, we’re not always looking at the very best writing. You never know who has entered, how strong your work is in comparison and what might catch a judge’s eye. In short, you are guaranteed never to win–if you don’t enter.

2. Exceed the word count for prose or line count for poetry. Word counts are there for a reason. No matter how brilliant your words are, if there are more than the contest limit, you are disqualified. Read the guidelines and follow them.

3. Forget to include the entry fee. Online submissions often make this part easy but sometimes paying the entry fee is a separate step. And there are still a few contests out there that ask for mail delivery. IF you do forget after pressing SEND, you can try to contact the contest administrators and ask if they’ll accept your fee arriving late. NOTE: Dorothea and Ruth will tell you that running a professional writing contest takes time and money (advertising, judge honoraria, etc.) and that the entry fee is meant to offset those costs. For literary journals, writing organizations and other non-profits, contests can be part of fundraising. So it’s a good thing to not forget that fee.

4. Send something inappropriate (e.g. poetry for a prose contest or vice versa). In the same way that you don’t send a thriller novel manuscript to a publisher of children’s literature, make sure you have a submission that fits the contest. As an editor for a literary journal, Ruth received fiction entries to the annual poetry contest. Just like exceeding the word-count guidelines will get you eliminated, ignoring what the contest is about moves your entry immediately to the NO pile.

5. Enter with previously published material if the rules specify that it be original and unpublished. Dorothea and Ruth have each experienced this awkward situation in separate contests. In both cases, the top three winners and honourable mention entries were already informed of their status when one of the winning writers revealed their work had been accepted and published elsewhere. Not only did both of these writers get disqualified but some of the other top three entries suddenly found they “progressed” in the contest. While it was good news, finding out you are now getting the gold medal when you were celebrating silver is less than ideal.

6. Put your name on your submission when the rules specify not to. It’s an easy mistake to make as most writers have their name in the footer or header of their work in draft format. But it will probably get you disqualified.

7. Leave out your contact information. Unless the guidelines tell you to, don’t put it on your entry (see #6) but your cover letter needs to have it. With online submissions your contact info is part of the process. But there are still contests that ask for mail delivery so make sure contest administrators have a way to reach you.

8. “Decorate” your entry, hand-write or use a BOLD or italicized font throughout. Keep your entry professional and simple in appearance and tone. Unless the contest rules state otherwise, default to standard formatting (2-inch margins, double spaced) with Times New Roman 12 pt font. As we’ve noted before : Read the guidelines.

9. Don’t read previous winners to see what a successful entry looks like. Contests are like any kind of submission. You research what the literary agent is looking for in a client. You check out the books a publisher produces to see if your book fits. When you read past winners’ work, you get a sense if your story or poem or novel excerpt might fit.

10. Don’t bother to double check before pressing SEND. Oh the agony. We’ve all done it, haven’t we? Been so confident our work was ready. Or so tired and it’s 10 minutes to deadline. Or so distracted and busy we just want to get it done. And we do. We press SEND. And then we read the entry at some later point and slap the side of our head because the typo in the third paragraph is YELLING at our eyes. So. Stop. Think. If you can, put it away to look at one last time tomorrow. And then press SEND. Or drop the envelope into the mailbox. Because, you know, #1 on the list.

10 Stay-at-home Prompts

10 Stay-at-home Prompts

Feeling cooped up a little these days? Use writing to break free for a while. After all, there are no boundaries on the imagination. Here are 10 safe prompts to try without leaving home.

  1. There’s a group on Facebook called View From My Window. It’s a fascinating group with views from people’s windows all over the world. Some have magnificent vistas, some just a modest balcony, some a brick wall. What is most fascinating is the stories of the people with these different views. Write about the view from your window today. Or write about a window view from your past like perhaps a child’s bedroom window; window of a first apartment; window travelling to….

2. On social media people are reporting how increased time at home has allowed them to observe their own surroundings more closely. They are seeing and hearing birds they’ve not noticed before. Close your eyes and listen: note the sounds you hear – identify at least 5 – work those sounds into a poem or prose piece.

3. If social media is anything to go by, cooking from scratch has been a favourite activity lately. Find a recipe from an old cookbook and attempt it (or imagine attempting it). Keep a notebook at hand. Respond to the directions (what the heck is a roux anyway? what will happen if I substitute margarine for butter?) Make notes about the smells as you mix, roast, bake, BBQ or sautée. What about sounds: metal spoons scraping bowls, sizzles in the pan, chimes of the timer. Taste as you go forward. Remember to write it all down. It’s life or death: imagine serving the finished dish to people who can decide your fate.

4. Have you been sorting through drawers and closets lately? Go to your clothes closet or the linen closet. Close your eyes and try and identify the fabrics by feel (terry cloth; cotton; satin; wool; etc.) What memory of a piece of clothing or furnishing comes to mind as you feel the fabrics? Write about it.

5. Archaeology at home. Dig into the back of your closet or crawl space or rummage around in that junk drawer we all have. Look for something you haven’t held or seen in a long time. What’s the story? Where did you last have it and why? And why is it now a forgotten item?

6. Non-fiction: How have you made your surroundings more positive this year prompted by the pandemic? Started a veggie garden for the first time? Bought extra hanging baskets because you’ll be home more? Bought a bird book because you are noticing the birds more?

7. Magazine mania. Pull out a couple of magazines you’ve already read. Make a list of 10 article titles. Using most if not all, rearrange the titles or pieces from the titles to create a poem. Do the same thing with 10 books. 

8. Zoom in on distancing. Think about how natural responses to fellow human beings have changed during this strange time. No hugs. No handshakes. No communal sharing of food. Write about another time or place where what we think of as natural responses are denied either by rules (prison); circumstance (hands in bandages from burns), geography (travelling in space), custom (love between a royal and a commoner).

9. Dance into a story. Play some music you like and get up on your feet. Be creative. Dance like no one’s watching (which is probably the case, anyway.) Now, change it up. Play music you’d never dance to — something way outside your comfort zone. Pay attention to how you try to move to the music. Your frustrations. Your attempts. When you stop, create a scene about a character at a party (remember those?) who doesn’t know how to dance. 

10. Time travel. Locate yourself in the same spot for one minute every hour. Do this for at least 6 hours — more if you can manage it. At every hour, look around and pay attention to what you see. What is the quality of the light? Does it shift position? What else do you notice? Imagine what it could be like for someone who can’t move, who can only stay stationary and observe. Write about it.

10 ways to doom your novel

10 ways to doom your novel

For the month of May 2020, we imagine many of you are thinking about your manuscripts. Isn’t it time to give yourself time away from focusing on hand washing and sterilizing the grocery bags? We think so. This month’s 10 on the 10th blog post is designed to help you spot story pot holes and set about fixing them. Happy writing!

1. Refuse to Revise: Perhaps someone, somewhere, sat down and wrote the perfect 87,000-word novel without making a single change, each word falling onto the page like an elegant dance of perfection. Um. No.

Truth is, for most of us, the successful novel or story is the result of repeated revisions. Not just proofreading and editing for spelling and grammar. We’re talking revisions. Dropping the first three chapters of backstory and starting just before the inciting incident. Rewriting the ending completely with a different purpose in mind than the original ending. Revision is not for the faint of heart, but getting your hands deep and dirty into your manuscript is part of shaping it into publisher-ready material.

2.  Start in a perfect world: A perfect world without any hint of discord or danger is a fantasyland. From kids who leave dirty dishes in the basement to the pestering pets demanding attention, our ordinary lives are full of irritations and disappointments. But remember to save the big issues for the inciting incident. That big crack in your main character’s world is what drives the narrative into the meat of the story.

3. Only develop your protagonist: You know everything about your main character from favourite pets to emotional wounds, from the layout of a childhood bedroom to motivations for every action taken.

But the other characters in the novel circle like stage actors waiting to appear and act for the sole convenience of the protagonist. Life and stories don’t work that way. All characters should act from their own motivations and experiences. Ditch the cardboard, and put flesh on everyone’s bones.

4. Avoid Danger or Fear:  For effective fiction, tension is necessary. There are degrees of tension used by writers. Some books (especially thrillers) can start with a bang but others gradually develop tension in a variety of ways. From a foreshadow (“Careful Maeve, that horse is skittish”) or bit of figurative language (looming dark skies, thunder in the distance, etc.), skillful writers learn to raise the stakes with tension as the story goes forward.

5. Rely on Expounding Exposition: Scenes with action, dialogue and tension propel your story forward. Lengthy passages of and then this happened and then this happened and then this happened will put your reader to sleep. Seek out places where you give information that could be better delivered in a scene between characters.

Ginny was worried that Dewa’an was afraid. It was his first sleepover at her house. She comforted him by reading a story and leaving the light on. 

OR

“Dewa’an, would you like me to stay and read you a story?”

He barely nodded, his eyes still wide and searching.

Ginny held up Stuart Little. “My kids loved this one. Maybe you will too.”

She’d barely read ten pages when he fell asleep. Ginny kept reading for two more pages just to be safe. Before she left the bedroom, she switched off the big light and turned on the wee nightlight on the dresser.

6.  Clog with Filler Scenes:  Sometimes we don’t realize we’re writing a filler scene. It’s a great scene with strong dialogue and character bits and foreshadowing and lots of great stuff. But if you look closer, it’s covering most — or even the same territory as a scene you wrote earlier. It’s advancing the same elements that the earlier scene advanced. 

Time to murder this darling. Or revise it so it’s doing new work to move your story forward. All scenes need to add forward progression with at least some of the following: answer some questions and raise more, enhance character qualities or introduce new ones, add or enhance setting details, and so on.  The scenes you write are meant to pull the reader’s engagement along to the next scene and all the way to The End.

7.  Use Droning Dialogue:  Dialogue in fiction is the illusion of conversation.  And it has specific jobs to do when you use it: convey information that relates to the plot, to the characters, the setting and so on. So like Filler Scenes, mindless chit chat does nothing to add to the reading experience. What does your current dialogue do to advance your story?  Learn to spot the fat and then pare it. And pare it again.

8.  Pack in Know-It-All stuff:  You’ve done your research. You know exactly how many steps it takes to get from the front door to the attic. The map of all the islands, ports, harbours and rocky shoals is ingrained in your mind and you want your readers to know you know. Don’t. Just don’t. There is a huge difference between a strategically placed reference or two to help ground your reader and a litany of details that soon become a list readers must wade through before getting back to the story.

9.  Display your vocabulary: Yes, it’s important for writers to be widely read and in the process, you’ve developed quite a vocabulary.  Whoopee for you, but like the know-it-all research, don’t try to impress your readers with a display and get in the way of the story. Use words suitable for the genre and audience and stand back and let them do their job.  Don’t excavate a cavity, just dig a hole.

10.  Be Predictable: It’s important that your characters react and that the story follows a logical path. But beware the characters that never veer from what we’ve come to expect or storylines that offer no surprises. Take this approach with your dialogue and try for exchanges that show two very different agendas. Many of our conversations don’t quite go as expected, like for this retail store customer:

“Good morning, I was wondering if you had any—”

“Did you close the door?”

“Ah. Yes. Now I was wondering—”

“They get in when you don’t close it tight.”

“I closed it. Now, listen, I’m looking for—”

“There’s one now. At your feet.”

“What— What is that?”

“A displaced soul.”

There you have it. Ten ideas to consider and help you take your manuscript forward. Happy writing.