10 meaningful writers’ gifts

10 meaningful writers’ gifts

Launched in 2018 as a year-long celebration of our 10th anniversary, this monthly post has proved so popular that we’re keeping it going into 2019. Look for Writescape’s 10 on the 10th writing tips, advice and inspiration throughout the year. Think of it as Gwynn and Ruth sitting on your shoulder and nudging you along. Share with your writing colleagues and encourage them to sign up for more.

‘Tis the season and a time to think about gifts for writing friends. If you’re anything like us, your list of writing friends and colleagues is wonderfully long. Or perhaps you’re not a writer but have one in your life and you want to give that writer a meaningful present at this time of year. We’ve come up with 10 gift ideas, and most of them cost you little more than time and a willingness to help. And bonus–many of them are environment-friendly.

  1. Time to write. With all of life’s commitments, a gift of time can be priceless. Perhaps offer to babysit, to do the grocery shopping, take kids to hockey practice or cook up a few meals for the freezer — any task that will free up time to write.
  2. Used books. Over the years, writer friends and I have had pot luck get togethers during the holiday season. Each person brings a much-loved gently used wrapped book and then we have a draw to chose a package to take home. Not only do you get a new book to read, but the discussion this activity generates is loads of fun.
  3. Help to face fears. Submitting and rejection is one of my fears. One of the best gifts I received was a commitment from a writer friend to help me to submit my work. I picked out three pieces, then she helped me decide on markets, craft the cover letters and actually send the submissions off.
  4. Space to write. I’m lucky enough to live in a picturesque retreat property. I often offer up my home to writer friends who need to get away. I either write with them, or give them their space, whichever they want or need. If you are away at work during the day, is there a writer who would appreciate a quiet space to themselves? Hey, they could even let your dog out for you.
  5. Help to remove a block. One of my writing friends is a bit of a clutter-bug. She was feeling creatively blocked but overwhelmed at the thought of sorting through the clutter. I offered a weekend and my organizing skills to open things up a little for her so she could get creative again.
  6. Promote on social media. Write a review. Subscribe to or comment on a writer’s blog. Like a writer’s Facebook page. Interact on Twitter or Instagram or Pinterest. Repost, repin or share. Circulate blog URLs. Interview a writer on your own blog. Swap links. Encourage others to do the same. The more often the better. Perhaps schedule an hour a month to act to help promote 8 writers. By this time next year, you will have taken 100 promotion actions.
  7. Share a skill. If you are an editor, gift an editing session. If you are a whiz with Scrivener, offer a coaching session. A dedicated brainstorming session for plot building. Share your skills and you share your gifts.
  8. Organize an “inspiration day.” Pack a picnic lunch. Schedule to coincide with a free day at the local art gallery, music in the park or outdoor theatre. Map the trip to visit gravesites, outdoor sculptures, historical sites. Be the chauffeur and tour guide but remember to build in time for note-taking, observations and serendipity explorations that pop up along the way.
  9. Buy their books. Seems obvious, but we tend to think of gift giving as just that. We need to give to the writer. But as a writer, I would happily forego “getting” and know that my book has been bought and is being read. I’d even be happy to sign it. Them. A whole pile of them.
  10. Ruth reads from “Living Underground”

    Attend a launch or reading. I have attended readings where the readers and their immediate families are the only ones in the audience. Commit this year to attending a number of author events, and take at least one friend with you. And buy the book! You usually get a good price at events, and a signed copy.

 

There are other low-cost but appreciated gifts to consider for a writer: a journal (not the fancy expensive kind, just a dollar store purchase that a writer won’t feel too intimidated to “muddy” the pages); an easy-grip pen and/or mechanical pencil; a package of paper for printing.

Many gift ideas could be packaged as “coupons”:

  • Good for one editing session in March or April for up to 10 manuscript pages.
  • Redeem for one afternoon of market research to develop submission strategy. Goal: 3 submissions to either agents or publications or contests.
  • Congratulations! The bearer of this certificate will receive a day of inspiration during summer 2019. Be whisked off to places and spaces that will tickle your muse and inspire some great writing. Provide gift giver with possible free dates to find a mutually suitable time.

So there you have it.  Be creative and surprise another writer with a gift on this list this holiday season. Or give the list to friends and family so they can give one to you.

Finally, if you have a big-ticket item on your own wish list–a new laptop, a writing retreat, a professional edit–ask family and friends to contribute to your Writing Dream Fund. Many hands can make dreams a reality.

10 Tips for Writing Dialogue

10 Tips for Writing Dialogue

It’s Writescape’s 10th anniversary and we have lots of excitement planned for writers in 2018. This installment of 10 on the 10th is the latest in the series of monthly writing tips, advice and inspiration. Think of it as Gwynn and Ruth sitting on your shoulder and nudging you along. Share with your writing colleagues and encourage them to sign up for more.

As an editor and writing coach, I’m always surprised by some of the dialogue mistakes some fiction writers make. This list should help eliminate those punctuation and style errors and keep your manuscript in the “clean” status editors and publishers value.

1. Quotation marks cradle the words spoken out loud by a character. They don’t go around any narrative that isn’t spoken out loud, like the attributive (dialogue tag) Manuela advised in the example below:

“Think of quotation marks like a blanket, containing a character’s words,” Manuela advised.

2. Punctuation that belongs to the words spoken out loud are also contained inside quotation marks, and not tacked onto the attributive or dialogue tag in the examples below:

“That’s incredible advice!” Jerry replied.

“Why are you surprised?” she asked.

3. Attributives or dialogue tags help readers know who’s speaking. But once those speakers are established, there’s little value in constantly using them. In fact, they can get in the way of the conversation and bore the reader, so drop them whenever you can.

“I guess I’m always surprised by how much I still have to learn.”

“All of us writers are always learning, Jerry. It’s part of developing our skills.”

4. Adverbs in dialogue tags are rarely needed.

“Skill development? It’s why I’m here. Make way for Super Skill Development Man,” Jerry shouted excitedly.

5. Beats or business placed before dialogue can set up the tone of the spoken words.

Manuela took a deep breath before answering. “While I appreciate your enthusiasm, Jerry, please take your seat and get ready for today’s class.”

6. Beats or business placed after dialogue can set up the next speaker’s tone.

Manuela took a deep breath before answering. “While I appreciate your enthusiasm, Jerry, please take your seat and get ready for today’s class.” She took a step back just as Jerry punched the wall, his knuckles now scraped and bleeding.

“I hate myself. I’ll never be a writer.”

7. Start a new paragraph with each different speaker. This clues in the reader to switch characters, like watching a tennis match.

“Don’t be so dramatic.”

“Can’t help it. I never wanted anything so bad.”

“Even so, you need to learn to channel that passion onto the page. Here’s a couple of bandages. Head to the washroom and clean that up. Then, if you’re serious about writing, come back, take your seat and get ready to write.”

8. Let your reader know when someone else joins the conversation.

A quiet voice from the back of the room piped up. “I guess he used to take drama, so he’s using Method Acting to develop his characters.”

Manuela searched the room for the speaker and found Angelique’s grinning face next to the back door. “Thanks for your input but next time keep it to yourself.”

9. Interior thoughts are not dialogue, not spoken aloud, so they are not placed inside quotation marks.

A quiet voice from the back of the room piped up. “I guess he used to take drama, so he’s using Method Acting to develop his characters.”

Manuela searched the room for the speaker and found Angelique’s grinning face next to the back door. “Thanks for your input but next time keep it to yourself.” Oh great. Class clown in the making.

10a. Some writers use single quotes for interior thoughts but they shouldn’t. Single quotes are only used for dialogue that is quoted inside spoken words.

Manuela faced the rest of the class. “The next one who offers up a comment like ‘I guess he used to take drama’ is going to find themselves out of my Writers Craft class. Understand?” Now that, she thought, should shut down the nonsense.

10b.Some writers use italics for interior thoughts but italics makes words and phrases stand out, like attention-seeking banners. Hi there. I’m an interior thought. It’s also more difficult to read and downright deadly when you write whole paragraphs of interior thought. Consider creating interior thoughts without any italics. Think about ways for you to craft thoughts in a way that doesn’t need to draw attention to itself.

And that, we think, is a valuable skill for all writers.

10 ways to Nano-prep for writing your novel

10 ways to Nano-prep for writing your novel

It’s Writescape’s 10th anniversary and we have lots of excitement planned for writers in 2018. This installment of 10 on the 10th is the latest in the series of monthly writing tips, advice and inspiration. Think of it as Gwynn and Ruth sitting on your shoulder and nudging you along. Share with your writing colleagues and encourage them to sign up for more.

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 carpools or cooking dinners during November. Prepare them for your plan and then……START WRITING!

 

 

 

10 effective ways for characters to describe themselves

10 effective ways for characters to describe themselves

It’s Writescape’s 10th anniversary and we have lots of excitement planned for writers in 2018. This installment of 10 on the 10th is the latest in the series of monthly writing tips, advice and inspiration. Think of it as Gwynn and Ruth sitting on your shoulder and nudging you along. Share with your writing colleagues and encourage them to sign up for more.

How do you get readers to know what your main character looks like? Put your character in front of mirror and have them “notice” their almond-shaped eyes and cute dimples? Really? Sure, use that cliché if you want your readers to roll their own eyes and toss your book away.

There are much more effective ways to introduce descriptive qualities for your main character but first you need to make some important decisions.

Start with deciding what, if anything, you need your reader to know. And then get ready to get those important details delivered as soon as possible. Opting to bring in character description at Chapter 9 will only serve to annoy your reader because they will have already imagined what that character looks like. But avoid overloading the first few pages with description. Sprinkle it in, like a mild spice.

Like any good spice, character description should be subtle and give readers a glimpse of a character’s personality, skills, lifestyle, etc. Add to the story with character development or plot points: thick glasses, so does your character miss an important small detail? Long unruly hair covers the embarrassing childhood scar on his forehead?

Here’s ten ways to introduce character description without using a mirror:

1. Outside Observation: use another character to reveal details: All these months working beside you, I never noticed your green eyes. Or: That shade of pink really complements your peaches and cream complexion.

 

2. Closet Choices: when meeting someone they want to impress (are afraid of/are attracted to) they might think about their appearance and what effect it may have: He looked every bit a CEO. Would my gypsy skirt and Birkenstocks destroy the image I’d built up at the office?

3. Family business: try a comment directed to a family member on how alike or different they are. Sister — you may be lean and mean, but I like to think my ample figure speaks of kindness and warmth.

4. Action Figures: insert description as part of the action that adds to the mood – frantically rummaging through a drawer looking for the perfect sweater for a blind date or methodically polishing shoes before a big event;

5. Get Physical Part 1: choose to be indirect by describing another’s action — Jimmy easily handed me the file from the top shelf. “Here you go, Pintsize,” he said with a grin.

6. Get Physical Part 2: do it indirectly by describing an object: The box might be small but it was way too heavy for me to lift.

7. Use Science: do it by describing what physics allows them to do: With my height, swinging that broadsword through the fool’s neck would be childsplay.

8. Status: use profession/occupation – There was no point in brushing away the flour from my pastry chef uniform. My tailored suit was a stark contrast to the backyard full of jeans and sandals at this bbq.

9. Laughter: joke about it – most of us deprecate ourselves. Sure, I can have a second piece of cake. Especially if I want to add to the spare tire around my belly.

10. Self Aware: acute self-consciousness can be effective — I longed to grin back at him, but pressed my lips together instead. No way he was going to see my gap-tooth smile.

Often, the most powerful description is a trigger for an emotional reaction in your reader. A flaw or peculiarity can evoke empathy, raise questions and/or reveal your character’s humanity. After all, feeling connected is a big reason why we love stories and the characters we meet within them.

10 Great Books on Writing

10 Great Books on Writing

It’s Writescape’s 10th anniversary and we have lots of excitement planned for writers in 2018. This installment of 10 on the 10th is the latest in the series of monthly writing tips, advice and inspiration. Think of it as Gwynn and Ruth sitting on your shoulder and nudging you along. Share with your writing colleagues and encourage them to sign up for more.

The best advice for writers is to read, and read widely. Dip your toes into styles and genres you don’t normally read and take note of how those writers crafted their work.

But you also need to read books about writing. Writing is a solitary act but it doesn’t have to be an isolated journey. Books that explore the craft and practical considerations of writing are great companions along the writer’s path. This is a list of 10 of the books that helped us at various stages of our writing expeditions.Obviously it is not an exhaustive list, just a toe-dipping exploration.

Writing Down the Bones Natalie Goldberg. Gwynn’s first “writing book”, she’s reread it many times, as well as Goldberg’s other books in a similar vein Wild Mind and The True Secret of Writing. Writing Down the Bones helped Gwynn get her head around being a writer and trusting her muse. Nathalie’s Writing Practice method (like freefall) showed Gwynn how to go deep into her subconscious to find the good stuff.

A Passion for Narrative Jack Hodgins. It’s been around since 1991. And, sure, it’s meant for developing writers. But Ruth won’t ever let it go because it is the book that moved her from writer to WRITER. To quote her: It was like having him on my shoulder, nudging me along as I learned more deeply about the craft with every page I turned.

Bird by Bird Anne Lamott helped Gwynn hone her attitude to writing and gain the confidence she needed to really start getting words on paper. Personal anecdotes give advice on everything from writer’s block to finding your voice and the value of writing “shitty first drafts”.

On Writing Stephen King  Ruth loved this one so much she got the basic book, the CD for listening and the large-print version in case her eyes give out. More than a how-to from a master of storytelling and horror of all levels, this book is a fine companion for any writer who loses their way.

 

Plot versus Character Jeff Gerke. Gwynn writes from setting, then characters, and then tries to fit it all into a plot. This book recognizes both the pantster and plotter and leads them each through processes to a well-balanced novel: memorable characters and a good plot.

The Emotional Craft of Fiction Donald Maass. After taking a workshop with agent and bestselling author, Donald Maas, Ruth was compelled to get his latest book. And it’s a doozy with examples and exercises to sharpen your emotional intelligence as a writer, dig deeper in your scenes and keep readers reading.

The Writer’s Journey Christopher Vogler is Gwynn’s go-to book on story structure. Evolved around the Hero’s journey concept, Vogler adds in what works in story that has come out of myths, fairy tales and movies.

An Introduction to Poetry  X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia, ed. — this is one of Ruth’s go-to’s whenever she’s feeling stuck with a poem. It’s a basic college-level textbook but one that’s filled with poems and the thoughts of poets on poetry and life. These are voices of a rich cultural diversity, from ancient times to modernity, all trying to figure out the world and our place in it.

Fruitflesh Gayle Brandeis. While Gwynn also turns repeatedly to An Introduction to Poetry, she also finds this book of stories, meditations and writing exercises a constant inspiration when writing poetry. Brandeis seems to have the power to inspire, challenge and free the sensual.

The Angela Ackerman/Becca Puglisi series (Negative/Positive Trait Thesaurus, etc.) Ruth has the Negative Trait Thesaurus and Gwynn has the Positive Trait Thesaurus (we share) but we’ve spoken with enough writers to know that each book Ackerman and Puglisi puts out has become a practical resource that goes beyond suggesting appropriate body language or emotional responses. Also great for those moments when you’re stuck and need to surprise yourself with your character’s good or bad behaviour.

We’d be remiss if we didn’t make note of our own writing resource book, Inspiration Station. Published in 2010 with Piquant Press it was packed full of prompts and ideas to keep writers’ pens moving. Our first non-fiction publication proved to be a popular handbook as one way to keep the retreat feeling alive long after writers packed up and headed home. It’s been through two printings and is presently sold out, but Inspiration Station has gone back to the revision table and you can look for a new edition and format next year.

10 Ways to End a Story

10 Ways to End a Story

It’s Writescape’s 10th anniversary and we have lots of excitement planned for writers in 2018. This installment of 10 on the 10th is the latest in the series of monthly writing tips, advice and inspiration. Think of it as Gwynn and Ruth sitting on your shoulder and nudging you along. Share with your writing colleagues and encourage them to sign up for more.

Last month, we looked at 10 Ways to Start a Story. Let’s flip that around and consider 10 ways to bring it all to a close. For many writers, the ending is as much a challenge as getting those first few words when they begin. And for some writers, it’s even a greater challenge.

But make no mistake. Just as how you start a story is vital, how you finish is equally important. Getting to “The End” can’t disappoint or frustrate your reader — whether you wrap it all in a nice neat bow or leave the reader in contemplation, your ending should work with the whole story. Consider these 10 approaches to see how each one affects the end of any story. We’ve given examples and have done our best to avoid spoilers.

1. Back to the Beginning (Circle or Frame) Mary Shelley’s gothic horror novel, Frankenstein, begins as Dr. Frankenstein is rescued in the Arctic Sea by an obsessed ship captain. The driven doctor recognizes the captain’s obsession, so he shares his story of creating the Frankenstein Monster to warn him how he came to be there, chasing his monsterous creation to the North Pole. An equally creepy modern title to check out for this approach is Fight Club.

2. Implied Ending (Walk into the sunset) Many western genre stories end with the protagonist and companion “riding off into the sunset” and presumably to live and face another day, side by side. This kind of can be a fine example of show, don’t tell. An implied ending can be ambiguous. For example, Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers offers readers the sound of water in a bathtub to set a kind of closing mood that could be “sorrow or gladness”. Our narrator chooses to think he and his brother are likely safe; the reader is not so certain.

3. Sequel (We’re baaaaack) Oh, there are so many sequels out there — trilogies, series, cross-pollination (think the Marvel Universe), prequels and so on. The good news is that writers who have long, complicated stories (The Lord of the Rings, The Hunger Games) can separate them into connected standalone novels. Remember, however, standalone is key. The end of each of The Lord of the Rings trilogy had to satisfy its readers, while at the same time enticing them to read the next book.

4. Open-ended (Choose your own ending) with Frank R. Stockton’s 1882 story The Lady, or the Tiger, readers must decide at the end what choice the princess makes; will she choose to let her lover be devoured by a tiger or let him live in arms of another woman. It’s a question that has troubled readers for over a century. And not a bad way to get your story to keep your readers thinking. And thinking.

5. Twist (Surprise!) A variation on open-ended conclusions, this approach builds on expectation. Author O. Henry was a master at this form and The Gift of the Magi is one of his most memorable tales when a wife’s and husband’s love and sacrifice at Christmas — surprise! — both negates and honours each of their gifts.

6. Happy Ever After (smiles all ’round) Of course, romance stories are supposed to end in this same way: girl gets guy or girls get guys (as many of Shakespeare’s romance plays end)… romance is all about love.  And there are many forms of love — girl gets girl or guy gets guy — but not all of them sexual. And happy ever after doesn’t need to even centre around a romance. Indeed, once Gretel pushed the witch into the oven, she and Hansel reunite with their remorseful father and live, we are certain, happily ever after.

7. Mirror (architecture echo) It was the worst of times and the best of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness… Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities starts off with a 119-word long opening sentence, a description of duality echoing the conflicted chaos of the French Revolution. But he doesn’t end it the same way. He echoes the basic architecture of the opening comparison but with a short and tight finality that makes clear that this is “the end” of the story and of one of the characters. It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.

8. Lesson (Pay attention and learn) Aesop’s Fables are all written with a moral lesson endings — that fox never gets the grapes and is sure they’re just sour anyways. Many fairy tales also have a moral or a lesson, sometimes it’s just implied like Goldilocks:  Goldie, don’t go in strange houses or Red Riding Hood: Red, don’t talk to strangers and for Pete’s sake, Hansel and Gretel, don’t nibble on strange houses.

9. Reveal (Elementary, my dear Watson) A classic ending for mystery or thriller novels, the protagonist (dogged detective or amateur sleuth or unjustly accused victim) pulls together all the clues, red herrings included, and dissects them one by one. The final clue, the moment of ah-ha, is delivered with a flourish and the reader remarks either, Gosh, I didn’t see that one…or…I knew it! The point you need to remember is to be clever and careful; today’s readers don’t expect Sherlock Holmes’ genius and acute observation skills.

10. Epilogue (Fortune teller reveals all) At the end of Offred’s narration in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, it isn’t 100% clear on whether protagonist Offred is being arrested or, as she believes, in the hands of an undercover resistance member on her way to freedom. However, there is an epilogue that helps us decide on that question — and gives us more information about the time in which Offred lived.

No matter how you end your story, remember that it is always a story that the reader wants. A great story will pull your reader along to the end. So a clever and creative ending will make little difference if what comes before it lacks energy, doesn’t have compelling characters or loses its way to reach that ending

And for now, that’s got to be The End.

10 Ways to Start a Story

10 Ways to Start a Story

It’s Writescape’s 10th anniversary and we have lots of excitement planned for writers in 2018. This installment of 10 on the 10th is the latest in the series of monthly writing tips, advice and inspiration. Think of it as Gwynn and Ruth sitting on your shoulder and nudging you along. Share with your writing colleagues and encourage them to sign up for more.

Whether it’s the first sentence, the first paragraph, the first page, chapter or act, the beginning of your story must establish time and place, the main players and the normal world they live in. An effective beginning should give enough for the reader to ask questions and care what happens next.

But before you spend hours polishing and perfecting your beginning, please finish your first draft. When you know all about your story, you can more easily choose what will lead your reader into the narrative. And equally important, you’ll have a better sense of the first impression that will best represent your story: its themes, its direction and its heart.

There is no “best way” to begin. Here are 10 ways to consider.

1. In the middle of action  (in medias res)

Starting in the middle of a scene puts readers immediately in the world of the story and sets up reader questions. They’ll read on because they’ll want to know why this is happening, who these people are and what happens next.

Example: Mr. Jones, of the Manor Farm, had locked the hen-houses for the night, but was too drunk to remember to shut the pop-holes. (Animal Farm; George Orwell)

Who is Mr. Jones? Is he always drunk? What are pop-holes? Why are these hen-houses important? Where…..?

 

2. With the inciting incident

Instead of just any action, make it the event that sets the protagonist off on his narrative journey.

Example: He—for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it—was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters. (Orlando, Virginia Woolf)

3. Backstory that raises reader questions

Usually it is not a good idea to have backstory early in a story, especially on the first page, but sometimes a short sharp bit of backstory can effectively  set up enough reader questions to hook them in further.

Example: Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge. (The Blind Assassin; Margaret Atwood)

4. A strong character

A person who is so intriguing, surprising or terrifying that readers must learn more about them. Most often the protagonist, but not always.

Example: I was born twice: first as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974. (Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides)

 

5. Begin with the end or close to the end

Often called a circle device, this method offers the end or climax first and then readers want to go back to the beginning to find out how it all happened.

Example: Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. (100 Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez)

6. Setting

“It was a dark and story night…” is touted as one of the worst ways to begin, but many successful stories begin with setting. The secret is to see it through the eyes of the character and have it add to plot or character development or set a mood.

Example: Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me. There was a padlock and a chain upon the gate. I called in my dream to the lodge-keeper, and had no answer, and peering closer through the rusted spokes of the gate I saw that the lodge was uninhabited. (Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier)

7. Unexpected/surprise

Going contrary to expectation always gets attention. Turning paradigms on their heads opens the way for an explanation that readers will stick around to hear.

Example: On a wintry Tuesday afternoon, Dr. Richard W. D’Souza stood in front of a shelf stacked with gallon jugs labeled Artificial Saliva and Pooled Human Saliva, and spoke about the art of killing. (“Breath Mints: A Hot War for America’s Cool Mouths” By Alex Kuczynski New York Times)

8. Truism

A truism is a statement that is so obviously true that it is almost not worth saying, but using one as a start to a story usually implies that the story to follow is about to prove it untrue, or at least comment on it in some way, and so readers are drawn in to see what the “other take” is.

Example: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. (Pride and Prejudice; Jane Austen)

 

9. Pressing fear, disgust, and other unpleasant buttons

In much the same way that we cannot not look at a train wreck or accident on the highway, people are facinated by situations where they can vicariously experience the unthinkable.

Example: It was a pleasure to burn. It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. (Fahrenheit 451; Ray Bradbury)

10. Prologue

A prologue establishes context and gives background details, often some earlier story that ties into the main one. Publishers are not keen on prologues, but in the right genres (e.g. epic fantasy) they have a role to play to help the reader understand the world they are launched into, or to set up an image or incident that will be returned to. If you do use a prologue, keep it short.

10 Ways to Increase Tension

10 Ways to Increase Tension

It’s Writescape’s 10th anniversary and we have lots of excitement planned for writers in 2018. This installment of 10 on the 10th is the latest in the series of monthly writing tips, advice and inspiration. Think of it as Gwynn and Ruth sitting on your shoulder and nudging you along. Share with your writing colleagues and encourage them to sign up for more.

Tension is a huge part of engaging your reader with the story. And it helps to engage you, the writer. No one wants to read a book where the Big Problem is solved in chapter one, or where a character has nothing to overcome, no challenges to face. The cat sat on the mat vs the cat sat on the dog’s mat. Challenges drive a story.

Your job is to create the right amount of tension at the right time to keep readers wanting more. Here’s ten ideas on ways you can inject needed energy whenever your story begins to slow down or fall flat.

1. Raise the stakes

The greater the risk of loss or danger, the higher the tension. If at the start he stands to lose his job, but then his life is threatened, we have rising tension. If his life was in danger at the beginning, but that dissolves and all he stands to lose is his job—rising tension? Not so much.

2. Let your character fail

Each time a character attempts and succeeds at solving parts of the “big problem,” he moves closer to a successful resolution. But if he fails at some of the attempts, he has fewer options to succeed, and often less time in which to accomplish his goal.

3. Escalate threats and obstacles

If the character has just succeeded in winning a major sword fight, having her beat a sparring partner at practice will have no tension. Presented in reverse, both happenings carry tension.

4. Let readers know something the character doesn’t

If we know that a character is being stalked, but she is unaware, we have tension. If we see him get closer or cock a gun and she still is unaware, tension rises.

5. Play up emotional strain

It’s easy to add physical danger, but psychological strain is just as important. A decision to make; guilt over an action, fear of discovery, a secret suppressed.

6. Balance high dramatic tension with calmer scenes

High tension scenes all the time is exhausting for a reader. Let them breathe with quieter paced scenes so that when the next high-tension scene arrives they get the thrill of rising adrenalin again.

7. Change up the source of tension

If suspenseful scenes only happen when the antagonist is on stage, predictability sets in and tension is lost. If the reader never knows who will instigate the next conflict, threat, misunderstanding, mistrust, dislike or complication, tension is always tantalizing, just on the cusp.

8. Keep characters active

Passive characters who wait for things to happen to them rarely create tension. Characters who act, react and are proactive keep things fresh and moving when they become the source of tension.

9. Limit backstory

While backstory is essential to understanding why a character does what he does, it’s all past action and stops the active story from moving forward. Keep backstory short and meaningful to the active story event. Or save it for areas where you want a break from high tension.

10. Make writing craft work for you

In addition to “just telling the story”, consider the power of setting to create a suspenseful mood. Use loaded symbolism and word choice to heighten what is happening.

Like what you’ve read? You can have 10 on the 10th delivered to you each month by sending us your email in the comment section. You can unsubscribe anytime. You’ll also receive The Top Drawer our Wednesday blog with tips, resources and inspiration for writers. To see past posts, visit: writescape.ca

10 Questions to Ask Your Characters

10 Questions to Ask Your Characters

It’s Writescape’s 10th anniversary and we have lots of excitement planned for writers in 2018. This installment of 10 on the 10th is the latest in the series of monthly writing tips, advice and inspiration. Think of it as Gwynn and Ruth sitting on your shoulder and nudging you along. Share with your writing colleagues and encourage them to sign up for more.

Readers love “a good character” because something about that character resonates for them. You can make a reader-connection with your characters when you spend some time to get to know them.

These 10 questions are designed to get your characters to reveal insights. Your reader doesn’t need to know the answers but you do. What your characters reveal about themselves will affect every action/reaction that she or he makes. And that, dear writer, is a big part of what makes a fully fleshed, believable character.

 

  1. Who do you love? Love for another can be the driving force for a character. Unrequited or reciprocated, love is an emotional connection for readers. Or it could be your character is so self-centered that only they deserve to be loved by themselves.
  2. What’s your deepest fear? We all have fears. It is what makes us human. Your character is no different. And it will affect how she reacts to any triggers for that fear. And lets you add those triggers when you need them.
  3. How do you feel about your father/mother? — helps you get into the life history of your character. It affects everything your character says and does. Especially useful with mentor/influencer figures for your character.
  4. What do you like to eat for breakfast? — pretty mundane stuff, right? But what your character likes to eat reveals qualities: eggs and bacon (carnivore; not worried about health) oatmeal (solid; old-fashioned); kale and plain yogurt protein smoothie (health-conscious & maybe vegetarian). You’ll need to keep their diet in mind — it will affect what they tend to notice around food.
  5. What do you like most about where you live/work? The day-to-day is a big part of anyone’s life. From repetitive, structured assembly line work to high-pressure aerospace research, what your character experiences on the job affects her approach to the world. Or if he lives in a cardboard box in an alley or a sprawling mansion, it affects his clothes, his hygiene, his daily view of his neighbourhood. Discover what she likes to understand her regular behaviour.
  6. How do you feel about children? Oh yes. How does she feel about those little snotty-nosed rug rats? Does he go all goofy and fun-loving when kids are around? Is she worried about how her body will change when the baby is born? Does he want kids but doesn’t think he can manage? Complicated, conflicted or blasé, your character’s answers show you their nurturing instincts…or lack thereof.
  7. Do you believe in a god(s)? Whoa! Now this is really deep. Or maybe it’s not at all. Your character may have no interest in any faith and this is a simply answered question. Is their belief, or lack thereof, a philosophy or is it more ingrained than that? What is your character’s moral centre?
  8. If you could be anyone else, who would that be? Well, this could be a short answer: nobody. I like being me. Or maybe they actually long to be someone else, someone not even in your story. Golly! That could be very cool.
  9. Who has influenced you in your life’s actions? One outstanding teacher, a childhood friend or a series of people. Positive and negative: a colleague at work who had the courage to whistle-blow, or Aunt Peggy who was always positive no matter what life dealt her. A coach who introduced drugs or some criminal act. A sibling who demanded loyalty by blackmail. A mother who lied.
  10. What makes you happy? Sure it might be chocolate ice-cream, but go deeper. Glass-half-full person or glass-half-empty? Always looking for happiness in the future or the past or in the moment? Needs others to be happy or can find happiness alone? A taker or a giver?

One more important question. All of these questions are fine but the answers are deepened and your character far more revealed if you ask one simple question after they answer each of the others:

Why?

Don’t let your character off the hook with a short response. For example:  How do you feel about your father? I always hated my father. Why? Because he was despicable. What do you mean by that? He was an asshole. He beat my mother every Saturday night as far back as I can remember. Why didn’t she leave him? Because she was just as despicable…

Like what you’ve read? You can have 10 on the 10th delivered to you each month by sending us your email in the comment section. You can unsubscribe anytime. You’ll also receive The Top Drawer our Wednesday blog with tips, resources and inspiration for writers. To see past posts, visit: writescape.ca

  10 Quick—and effective—Edits

  10 Quick—and effective—Edits

It’s Writescape’s 10th anniversary and we have lots of excitement planned for writers in 2018. To kick off the celebration, we’ve launched 10 on the 10th. This series of monthly resources will bring tips, advice and inspiration directly to your inbox. Think of it as Gwynn and Ruth sitting on your shoulder and nudging you along. Share with your writing colleagues and encourage them to sign up for more.

Here are your first 10 tips:

 1. Get the action going

Replace passive, weak verbs, especially forms of the verb “to be”

  • Before:      It was a dark and stormy night.
  • After:        The storm raged through the blackness. 

2. Keep things moving forward by reducing the use of “had”

“Had” refers to “completed’ action. It has no forward movement. Use “had” once or twice at the start of a section/paragraph to establish the time period, then revert to simple past tense.

  • Before:      She had been the only one in the house, and had paid the rent faithfully each month. She                                   had taken care of the place and had put up drapes and painted.
  • After:        She had been the only one in the house, and paid the rent faithfully each month. She                                          took care of the place and put up drapes and painted.

3. Keep the action going

Delete empty words like very/somewhat/really. Energize the word being modified instead.

  • Before:      Despite the very hot afternoon….
  • After:        Despite the afternoon’s sweltering heat…

 

 4. Keep your actions strong; beware the “-ly” adverb

Can you replace it with a stronger active verb?

  • Before:      He went quickly
  • After:        He ran – or dashed, charged, bolted…

 

 5. Change up the senses you use in description.

We default to the sense of sight. Try replacing visual details with ones of another sense.

  • Before:      Anita set the gold-rimmed tea cup  on the lace cloth…
  • After:        The tea cup rattled in the saucer as Anita placed it on the lace                             cloth…

 

 6. Take your reader deeper into the world of the story

Look for named emotions (happy, sad) or physical states (fearful, tired) and replace with concrete and sensory detail.

  • Before:       She felt disappointed
  • After:        She sank onto the bench and hugged her knees

 

 7. Keep your writing fresh

Look for tired and overused clichés. (Microsoft Word’s grammar checker notes clichés with green squiggly lines.) Create visuals that add to the story or your character.

  • Before:      His beard was as white as snow
  • After:        His beard was as white as his lab coat

8. Eliminate repetition. Eliminate repetition.

Identify any “writer’s tic” that you know you have. Phrases, descriptions, gestures and so on, rapidly  lose their energy when they are overused or placed too closely together.

Example:

  • How many times do your characters “roll their eyes” or “take a deep breath?”
  • How many times have your told readers it’s “a red car?”

 

9. Keep your tricky words tamed

Are there words you constantly mispell…um…misspell? Are you working with strange names or technical terms? Keep them correct and consistent by adding them to your software’s dictionary or AutoCorrect function.

How to:     Right click on the word. Choose either Add to dictionary or AutoCorrect

 

 10. Know your country

Is it color or colour? Are they good neighbours or good neighbors? Writing for American readers, Australian readers or British readers? Incorrect spelling won’t please your publisher. Make sure your  software is defaulted to the “right” English.

How to:     Most MSWord programs have the language default on the bottom info bar. Left click to select your language.

 

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