Is Writing Memoir Worth It?

Is Writing Memoir Worth It?

Guest blogger – Heidi Croot

You’ve just shipped your memoir to a professional editor. The release feels like death and rebirth all at once. While you wait, breathless, for feedback, someone asks, How did writing your memoir affect you emotionally? And a follow-up question: Was it a worthwhile journey?

Wait a minute, you think. The second question implies that the answer to the first might sound something like, “It emotionally crushed me.” Because that’s what many people believe, right? That doing a deep dive into a painful past means wallowing in grief?

Here’s how I answered those questions when they were put to me during a radio interview with Northumberland 89.7FM’s Word on the Hills in mid-May, mere days after my manuscript dropped anchor in my editor’s inbox.

A worthwhile journey?

Last question first: Was writing your memoir a worthwhile journey? A thousand times yes. And, why?  Because of how it affected me emotionally.

Writing my memoir, Hope is a Tyrant, bordered on magic. It was a process of discovery. A woodland trail of surprises. A delivery into the ready arms of acceptance and healing. 

I’ve written my way into seeing people differently, important people, like my mother, for example, whose legs were paralyzed by polio when she was eight. Writing helped me understand that the biggest lie in our family was she had taken her disability in stride. She had not. How could she? Polio was far too big. She wore the mask her father, medical staff and a harsh world handed to her.

I’ve written my way into understanding mysterious undercurrents in my family, such as what was behind my mother’s obsession with her charismatic father—her mainstay and intellectual companion during years of loneliness at home and in hospital. I realized through writing that fantasizing about him made her feel special, and therefore worth the burden she had been forced to place on her family, and this helped her banish shame.

To my chagrin, I’ve also written my way into learning a few things about myself. Naïve, brimming with blind, stubborn hope, lacking boundaries, I failed many times to see different paths I could have taken to dial down family drama.

“My” story became “a” story

But the best part about writing memoir is how it eventually stopped being “my” story and became “a” story. In Wallace Stegner’s The Spectator Bird, a clairvoyant suggests that painful memories should be looked upon as part of a narrative, like chapters. Reframing painful events as scenes allowed me to exchange subjectivity for objectivity. Prick the bubble of my self-importance. Reduce the event to realistic, if not amusing, proportions. “Stories,” says the clairvoyant, “are part of the accumulation you think will tell you something.”

Acceptance and equilibrium

What memoir told me is that some relationships cannot be fixed. It told me how to accept this. How to be forgiving, empathetic, and less judgmental. How to find my equilibrium.

Turning in my manuscript to my editor has unmoored me, with maybe a little grief mixed in. For years, working on the memoir had kept my imperfect self linked to my imperfect parents, and perhaps to hope, which—if I’m right about hope being a tyrant—makes no sense, but that’s another thing I learned: I can live with paradox and imperfect endings.

And that will be true even if the imperfect ending to my memoir-experiment means a stern call to action from my editor: the inevitable, yet welcome, shuffle, delete, clarify, go deeper. Familiar pages in need of edits will beckon like old friends, eager to shepherd me through new portals to unexplored places, where still more epiphanies wait.

It will be worth it

All of which takes us back to the beginning: Seize every opportunity to write your life stories. The experience will affect you emotionally. It will be worth it.

Meet Heidi Croot

Heidi Croot lives in Northumberland County and is working on a memoir. Her corporate writing has appeared in numerous trade publications, and her creative work in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Writescape, Brevity, Linea magazine, the WCDR anthology, Renaissance, and elsewhere.

Out of Sight

Out of Sight

Ruth E. Walker

Sight, as a sense, is what the eye can see. You open your eyes and look in front of you and you see exactly what is there. Ah, but dear writer, as you see the words in this post, there is a tiny voice whispering in the back of your head and it is saying: But…but…but…

Of course, what you see is, in fact, there. But – and there it is – but what you see and how you see it depends on many factors. And if all your stories are full of factual descriptions of what is seen, you are not using this sense to your best advantage.

This post is not about description; rather, it’s an exploration of how to use the sense of sight to bring layers and interest into your writing.

To begin, our ability to see is found in the eye’s ability to reflect all the light in our field of vision. For example, if a gorgeous red cardinal sat outside my office window, I see that bird because its body reflects the existing light. My brain “sees” what reaches my eye’s retina then travels through an electronic signal to my brain where it interprets the signal to be an image.

All sight is a form of interpretation

Miriam-Webster definition reminds us that sight is what we construct into a representation of the position, shape, brightness, and usually color of objects.

How we construct the interpretation of what we see is shaped by an accumulation of our individual experiences from infancy to the present. Think about that when your characters act and react to their surroundings.

  • How do they truly “see” their world?
  • What colours, shapes, shadows and light would they notice first?
  • And does that change as their experiences in the story accumulate?

Perception is all

Remember that red cardinal? Could it be a robin? What if my family always said those all-red cardinals were male robins and the ones with the red breasts were female robins? The family belief would go on to ingrain a kind of logic – why do they sound different? “Because males sing a different sound from the females”, and so on.

Of course, that’s not what I grew up thinking. But – and there it is again – but I might have.

In the Young Adult novel, The Giver, a community creates a peaceful and stress-free life for all citizens by removing all emotions and creative stimulation. No one sees in colour in this bland and predictable place.

Until 12-year-old Jacob begins to have flashes of colour and discovers there is so much he and the others have been missing. This sets him off on an incredible journey of discovery.

“I” witness accounts

With our sight, we see what we see and, accordingly, should all be seeing the same thing even if we might call it something different. Except when we are affected physically (like with Jacob’s story) or emotionally, like when high levels of stress and the release of adrenaline puts pressure on a person’s vision resulting in blurred vision. Or skewed vision. Or fragments of vision. Or a vision of something that isn’t even present.

Consider an accident scene and the statements of a number of witnesses. They all “saw” the same thing but – here is that whisper again – but they don’t necessarily see the same thing in the same way.

It used to be that criminal cases were deemed to be watertight if the prosecution had an eyewitness to the crime, a believable person who could identify the criminal. But – yup, once more – but, we humans are fallible and what we are certain we “saw with out own eyes” has increasingly been of less value without lots of corroborating evidence.

Add into the mix the explosion of video evidence with more and more cell phones and CCTV surveillance in public places. A reliance on individual witness accounts is even more problematic.

But – are you tired of that one yet? – but grainy images, unclear shadows and the possibility of “doctoring” those images add the possibility of errors of perception — or even just the power of suggestion to change what is “seen”. And this suggests great ideas for writers, especially those who write thrillers and mysteries.

Losing sight

Finally, let’s consider the possibilities when sight is altered or has the power to alter someone’s life. Many myths, fables and stories include strange abilities with sight or complete blindness. In Greek mythology, to look upon the face of the snake-haired Medusa would turn you to stone.

Sight has also long been connected to our hearts. From the Greek myth of Odysseus and Penelope to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and beyond, love at first sight is a recurring theme throughout the ages of storytelling. In more modern times, sight continues to take centre stage in fiction. Even in comics, Superman’s x-ray vision proves useful to battle evildoers.

The absence of sight is key to some spectacular fiction. Portuguese author José Saramago’s novel Blindness explores what happens when a virus renders a population sightless. In the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel All the Light We Cannot See, a young blind girl in WWII occupied France and a German boy soldier connect through secret broadcasts of her reading from a braille copy of a Jules Verne novel.

Can you see the possibilities?

There are many more examples of sight as a tool for writing. The inability to “see” can be a metaphor for other kinds of “blindness.” An unreliable narrator may not see the truth around her but a character with limited vision might be the first one to see what needs to be done.

Playing with sight and perception can be a powerful tool in your toolkit. Discover where you might bring it into your story. Try using the “but, what if” approach to perception or view, and maybe you’ll see what difference it can make in a scene or a character.

Rhyme Time

Rhyme Time

Gwynn Scheltema

So here we are in Poetry Month once again and Ruth is busy doing a series on the senses, so I thought I’d marry up with that and write a poetry-based blog that speaks to last week’s blog, Can you Hear Me?  Specifically I thought I’d speak to the often heard comment: “Why doesn’t poetry rhyme anymore?”

When someone says that, they are usually referencing the kind of recognizable rhyme we think of associated with Hallmark verse or Robert William Service’s The Cremation of Sam McGee.  [no disparaging here, just identification]. Of course, the debate over the merits of “traditional rhyming verse” versus “free verse” continues with no resolution in sight, but given the myriad aspects associated with poetry, it’s interesting that that debate usually centers around rhyme or the lack thereof.

The truth is, free verse is alive with rhyme. All kinds of different rhyme. Let’s take a look.

Traditional rhyme

Rhyme is based on an identity of sound between words or verse-lines, “sound echoes” if you will. Traditional verse relies largely on end rhyme or external rhyme – placing rhyming words at the end of a line:

Lets take the first few lines of Robert Frost‘s famous poem, “Neither Out Far Nor In Deep.”
The people along the sand
All turn and look one way.
They turn their back on the land.
They look at the sea all day.

As long as it takes to pass
A ship keeps raising its hull;
The wetter ground like glass
Reflects a standing gull.

In traditional verse forms, the end rhyme is usually organized into rhyme schemes. The rhyme scheme in excerpt above is ababcdcd.

Anything but end rhyme… 

Now compare that with these lines from a “free verse” poem, The Anniversary”, by American poet Ai:

…I’m not afraid of the blade ninja-877220_640
you’ve just pointed at my head.
If I were dead, you could take the boy, ….

There are no end rhymes here, but there is plenty of rhyme nonetheless.  In the first line we see an example (afraid; blade) of internal rhyme – rhyme that occurs within a verse line. As in a lot of free verse, rhyme also occurs from line to line, just not necessarily at the end. (head/dead).

Rhyme, rhyme rhyme….

These are perfect, strict, full, or pure rhymes– the last fully accentuated vowel and end consonant are identical. Be aware that we are talking sound here, not spelling. – cat/hat; tree/bee; fool/mule; tough/huff.

hands-1345059_640Perfect rhyme can be further divided: masculine rhyme, where one final stressed syllable rhymes (sang/rang), and feminine rhyme, where at least two syllables rhyme and the final syllable is not stressed (mo-ther/bro-ther; com-par-i-son/gar-ri-son).

Additionally, Ai’s poem contains slant rhyme (also known as off rhyme, near rhyme, imperfect rhyme or half rhyme) – words whose sounds are closely related but not identical. If the poet plays with consonants at the beginning of words, that’s alliteration; at the end of words, it is called consonance. If the poet plays with similar vowel sounds, it is known as assonance. Blade and head at the end of the first and second lines have the same end consonant sound, although they have different vowel sounds. Other slant rhymes would be bend/hand; home/same; trophy/daffy; fellow/fallow; kind/conned.

Rhyming choices don’t end there. Eye rhyme, for instance, plays with sight, not sound: two words that look like they ought to rhyme, but don’t. (love/move; lull/full; though/cough).

Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem, “We Real Cool”, is chock full of rhyme and other sonic devices:graffiti-8391__180

We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
Die soon.

I’m sure you’ve already found internal rhyme (thin/gin); and slant rhyme (real/cool). There’s also assonance (sing/sin), alliteration (lurk/late), and consonance (real/cool) and repetition (We). This piece also has para rhyme, or rich consonance, that uses consonant blends and the order of consonants to create sound echoes. (left/late; strike/straight; jazz/die-s).

Conventional verse was primarily rooted in the oral tradition, and rhyme helped us remember the lines. Free verse is largely a written medium, appreciated visually as well as through sound.

Rhyme creates emphasis and structural unity, and draws attention to the relationship between words and thoughts. In Brook’s poem, notice how the absence of repetition (We) in the last line emphasizes the thought that their lives will be truncated too. Good rhyme goes beyond the obvious.

I love rhyme, but end rhyme is my least favourite. In many ways I prefer to discover the patterns and links as I read. When used effectively, I believe rhyme adds to the sensory impact of poetry by creating a pleasing network of related “sound echoes”.

Can You Hear Me?

Can You Hear Me?

Ruth E. Walker

Listen. I’ve got something to tell you but first, close your eyes. Ready? Now, imagine you’re in a dark room, so dark you can’t even see your hand in front of your face. Okay. Now pay attention to the sounds around you. Tell me about them.

For example, I can tell you that three cars just drove past my house. My office is in the front and we’re close to our street. And the windows are old so I can hear quite a bit. Here comes another car, tires sizzling on the wet asphalt, engine whirring, the whoosh of air so clear as it passes right in front and now all the whoosh, whirr and sizzle fading, fading, fading…gone. It’s silent again.

So what about your sounds? Did you default to reportage: three cars just drove past? Or did you work to recreate the sounds around you? Sizzle, whirr, whoosh.

Sounds like fiction

There is a time and place for good old narrative in any story. It’s a shortcut to convey information without getting bogged down in too many details. Narrative is useful to bridge between scenes, or transition time and place, or give readers a break after a busy action scene.

For example: She stopped when she heard the sound of a shotgun in the distance.

This is basic narration giving readers an important detail and setting up the scene to follow. But if you don’t need narration and instead, you want your reader to be closer to your character’s POV, to feel their reaction, to hear what they heard, it’s wise to move from narration into action.  Bring the reader in closer.

Closer:             She stopped when a shotgun fired in the distance.

Even Closer:    Bang! She held still and listened. Was that a shotgun?

In the Even Closer example, we are much more inside the character’s POV, the sound followed by the physical reaction followed by the internal thought “Was that a shotgun?”

Run your own soundboard

Just like sizzle, whirr and whoosh, Bang! is a use of figurative language: it is onomatopoeia, or when a word mimics or recreates the actual sound. Traditionally, onomatopoeia should be in italics but that rule, like many others, has loosened. The main point is that writers need to be consistent throughout the whole story. Personally, I prefer not to use italics for onomatopoeia.

Similarly, how sounds are introduced is a matter of choice. There is nothing wrong with using the phrase “the sound of” to set up a noise. But like good old narrative, too much of it becomes repetitive, slows down the pacing and does little to engage your reader’s imagination.

For example:

First, he heard the sound of a door opening and then he heard the sound of footsteps and he held his breath. Then he heard the sound of bricks falling.

Instead:

Something – the door? – creaked. A scrape of shoe leather on the floorboards, once, twice, three times, coming closer. He kept his own breaths small and then a clattering thump of falling bricks and dust washed over him.

Notice in this last example how the sound and the dust both “washed over” the character. Sounds create vibrations that our ears hear but also that our bodies feel – sometimes on a subconscious level and sometimes, like stomping feet in a packed stadium, the sound rattles our bones.

A wise writer appeals to the full range of senses, leaving room for a full body experience for the character and consequently, for the reader.

Sound check

The type of sound you are working with will dictate how it needs to show in your story.

Natural sounds are the most obvious because they are the sounds that fit into the scene of the story. The roar of a lion on safari or at the zoo; the revving of engines at a car race; the plink-plinking of rainfall on leaves in a forest.

Sounds with meaning express the perception of characters and the mood of the scene. So the whimpering of a baby can evoke nurturing responses “Oh, Hassan, our sweet baby is waking at last” versus “Is that thing going to cry all night?” So, if that whimper is to irritate, your character needs to react to the sound, imagining it increase in pitch and intensity.

Similarly, pounding on the door, shattering glass, rapid-fire tapping of toes, drumming of fingers, grinding of gears – these are sounds meant to express a mood and to raise tension. And what about the swish of silk, popping of a champagne cork, the crackle of a fireplace? Depending on how you use it, sound can create a warm sexy moment or a sinister seduction. You’re the sound technician and you need to create that choice.

Finally, what about imagined sounds? Like sounds that carry meaning, these are noises that only your character can hear and are part of their perception of their world. Held in their thoughts, these sounds relate directly to who your character is. An egotist may hear applause from her co-workers every time she makes a point in the boardroom. A self-conscious introvert might imagine snickers when he’s forced to offer an opinion. And some over-imaginative characters could hear non-existent sounds all the time.

But like any action/reaction, remember to crosscheck your character’s imaginary sounds with their wants and, more importantly, their needs. That introvert wants to have others value his opinion but he needs to first gain confidence. So as the story moves forward and your character stiffens his spine, that imagined snickering should fade away and eventually, be replaced with real approval from others.

Watch the volume

Sound, like the four other senses (taste, touch, smell, sight) needs to be balanced. Writers should consider where and when sound is best used. Here are some questions to ask when you are editing that first or second draft:

  • Do you want background sound or is it important for readers to hear it loud and clear?
  • Is the sound revealing something, hiding something or simply part of the expected scenery?
  • Would another sense be stronger to convey the mood or intention of the scene?
  • Is this sound logical — i.e., could it truly be heard, is it a sound that fits the location, is it a sound that would actually be noticed by the characters?

Earlier this month, I wrote about using the sense of smell in writing. Look for future posts on taste, touch and sight. Well, that sounds like a wrap. Thanks for listening.

Scent to Engage

Scent to Engage

Ruth E. Walker

The other day, I was in the spare room, organizing some bedding when I brushed up against the jewellery armoire that belonged to my mother-in-law. It’s a treasure trove of costume jewellery – some high-end, some vintage and some just-fun pieces. Since her death in 2005, we’ve been slowly working through a lot of her belongings. Some were easy to move along. Some, like this cherry wood oversized chest still has a hold on me.

As I brushed past it, the front door popped open. Immediately, I was swept into a maelstrom of memories. It wasn’t the jangle of chains and beads that hung on the inside of the door. Nor was it the turquoises and greens and brilliant blues of those assorted beads. None of that.

It was the smell, the scent of her favourite perfume still clinging like flowering vines to each and every piece in there. After more than 15 years, I could hear her voice, her laugh, the whoosh of breath as she would collapse into a chair. It reminded me of the incredible of power that the senses, and in particular, the sense of smell, has for us human beings.

A writer’s power tool

Anyone who has taken a Writescape workshop, attended a Writescape retreat or received a substantive Writescape edit will have heard or seen how we emphasize the five senses in all forms of writing. We call it a power tool in all writers’ kits of technique and craft. Beyond sight – writers need to engage readers’ senses: taste, touch, sound…and the most powerful one? Yeah. You know it, don’t you. Smell.

Smell is the most evocative sense for triggering memories and connections. I suspect it has something to do with our hardwiring from when we first stepped down from the trees and stood upright in the savannah, raising our nostrils to the air, seeking food and water, avoiding things that smell “off” and staying alert for the whiff of sabre-toothed tigers, cave bears, and massive, roaming bison.

It smells like science

Scientific research affirms that our sense of smell is different from the rest of the senses. All the others – taste, touch, sound and sight – they get processed in the brain through our thalamus – the info relay station. In turn, the thalamus sends those sensations to the hippocampus (our memory manager) and the amygdala (our emotion processor.) But smell, it’s a bit of snob. It bypasses that trusty old thalamus and takes a direct path to the olfactory bulb which, in turn, has its own direct link to the hippocampus and amygdala.

Did you know that human beings have at least 1,000 different types of smell receptors but only four types of light sensors for sight and about four types of receptors for touch?

(Thanks discovery.com for helping me make sense of the human brain.)

Apply often

So that, dear writers, is why this sense is supercharged and ready to ignite your stories. If you want to read more about how the olfactory bulb stores our long-term memories that influence our behaviours, the above-noted link to discovery.com will take you there. On the other hand, if you want a complete tour of the olfactory system, Wikipedia offers a dump truck load of scientific illustrations, terms and definitions.

Applying any sense in your writing works best when it:

  • Is in the logical place (but sometimes the illogical place works best)
  • Fits with your character (or maybe surprises your character)
  • Fits with your setting (whoa! Where did that stink in my flower shop come from?)
  • Fits with your story (a bakery should always smell like…rotting meat?)

The writer has several choices when incorporating a physical sense into a scene. As noted in the above “absolutes”, turning things around can be an effective tool for raising intensity in a scene.

Subvert the normal world

For example, your calm, cool and buttoned-down accountant might surround herself with comfort scents – a faint whiff of sandalwood in her study, an understated sniff of cedar in her walk-in closet, the dry musk of leatherbound account ledgers on her desk.

How can you shake up the predictable safety of her world?

What if she finds a street person perched on her desk, a decidedly unwashed individual with a preference for beans and cheap beer? Upside down goes her ordered world – and not just because of the surprise of the desk squatter, but the lovely scents you’ve surrounded her with up to this point fade from this nasal onslaught.

How can adding the street person to the story be logical? What if the accountant unknowingly holds the key to how the intruder lost everything: his job, reputation, wife and kids, home. Falsely accused and convicted, he’s finally out of prison. Our squatter is determined to restore his original life. The “stink” he brings into the room is a metaphor for all the terrible things that still cling to him.

Will she wash them away?

Apply with subtlety

On the other hand, when you want to be subtle with an emotional scene, tug at heartstrings or allude to themes in your story, you can use smell to underscore the moment. It’s easy to use the overpowering odour of flowers to evoke the floral perfumes so prevalent at funerals. But can we be more understated?

For example, a scene about dying could include something that doesn’t smell but hints at it. A painting of lilies or of mixed blooms. Silk or plastic flowers. A carpet with a chrysanthemum motif. A scented candle still wrapped in plastic. A bottle of hand sanitizer, so antiseptic…so embalming fluid-like.

Or a wooden jewellery armoire, tucked in the corner of your spare room.

Over to you. What are the scents that send your memories and emotions on a trip far away and long ago? Share them in the comments. Meanwhile, happy and slightly scented writing to you all.

Does Size Matter

Does Size Matter

Gwynn Scheltema

A couple of weeks ago, I shared my thoughts on writing short fiction and in the comments, someone asked, “How short is short fiction?”

That’s a loaded question because, like poetic forms, short fiction comes in a host of forms and lengths and changes with the times.

This sample list of interesting short fiction forms and their word counts comes from a seminar I gave a few years ago at the Ontario Writers’ Conference:

Six word stories

Should provide a moment of conflict, action, and resolution that gives the sense of a complete story transpiring in a moment’s reading.

@twitterfiction

Fiction in 140 characters or less.

Expresso Stories – 25 words or less

A literary form for today’s frothed-up, on-the-hoof, want-it-all-now consumer lifestyle: complete stories that take no longer to read than an espresso takes to slurp.

Hint Fiction – 25 words or less

A hinting story, should do in twenty-five words what it could do in twenty-five hundred, that is, it “should be complete by standing by itself as its own little world.”

Trifextra – exactly 33 words

Stories written from prompts, and having something to with the number three.

Trifecta – no fewer than 33 and no more than 333 words.

A competition in which writers are given a one-word prompt, use the third given definition in the Merriam-Webster dictionary to write a story between 33 and 333 words.

Minisaga, mini saga or mini-saga – exactly 50 words [AKA ultra-shorts or microstory.]

Started by The Daily Telegraph and used in business as an educational tool to stimulate creativity. They are often funny or surprising and are described as “bite-sized lessons for life and business.”

Dribble Fiction – exactly 50 words

An offshoot of Drabble with the word count reduced to 50 words.

55 Fiction – 55 words

From the New Times short story contest. 55 Fiction has: a setting; one or more characters; conflict and resolution.

Postcard Fiction – usually 50 words or less but up to 250

Literary exploration, usually inspired by photographs and able to fit on a standard size postcard.

Micro fiction – under 100 words

A complete fictional story in a limited number of words in any genre.

Drabble Fiction – exactly 100 words

Originated in UK science fiction fandom in the 1980s. Drabble calls for brevity, testing the author’s ability to express interesting and meaningful ideas in a confined space.

Feghoot or Shaggy dog story – usually 100 to 250 words

Usually sci-fi, centers around or concludes with a pun, has a title character in a dangerous situation, any place in the galaxy, any past or future time. Can involve the travelling device with no name, represented as the “)(“.

Haibun – usually 100 to 1000 words.

English haibun is of one or more paragraphs of prose coupled with one or more haiku. It may record a scene, or a special moment, in a highly descriptive and objective manner or may occupy a wholly fictional or dream-like space. Accompanying haiku has a direct or subtle relationship with the prose.

Short Story 1000 to 15000 words.

Word count varies with publication form: collections, anthologies, magazines, or journals; print or on-line; genre or not. Print costs for journals, magazines and anthologies usually keep the count between 2000 – 4000.Genre stories for anthology collections can go to 7500 words. Single author collections often have one longer story up to 15000 words coupled with shorter stories.

Novellette – 7500 to 17500

Novella – 17500 to 40,000, sometimes 50000

Bottom Line:

  • Write your story the length it needs to be without thinking about word limits. Decide afterwards if you want to edit it to fit a certain count.
  • If you hope to sell your story, figure out what magazines or anthologies would be the best fit for the content/genre/style of your story, then look up their submission guidelines.
  • For contests, don’t ever exceed the stated limit.
Writing The End

Writing The End

Ruth E. Walker

These days, we’re seeing a lot of endings. Some endings are permanent as favourite retailers and restaurants close and jobs disappear. Some endings are temporary; personally, I can hardly wait for hugs and kisses with my family to come back. And many of us have experienced terrible endings in our lives: separations, divorces or heartbreaking deaths.

With such massive change in the world and so much coming to a close, how is a writer to stay focused on getting words onto the page? Is the opening scene of a story sitting untouched in your laptop? Have you got three great chapters finished but is your mind a complete blank about the rest of the story? Are you in a state of despair?

Here’s something to try:

Create Your Story’s End

Wait a minute, you might say. How can I write the end of the story if I don’t know what happens in the middle? In fact, I don’t think I even care what happens in the middle. I can’t wrap my brain around all that second act stuff, the character arc, the rising tension and bigger and bigger challenges. It’s too much.

Right. That’s the point. Give yourself a Writing the Middle Break, send your imagination off on a kind of vacation or, better yet, a writing retreat with just one goal in mind: The End.

When you write the end of your story, you have a signpost just waiting for you and your pen. Crafting an ending will give you a place to aim the middle of your story toward.

And yes, I hear you: What if I choose the wrong ending? How can I know how it ends if I don’t know all the middle stuff?

Please, just listen to yourself. The ending is always found in the beginning. You’ve already written the beginning and if the sacred heart of your story is missing then your problem is not the middle, it’s the start. Your main character needs something – not wants but needs something that is part of their growth.

Essential End Ingredients

Main Character: a solid ending features your MC as a changed person. Maybe they accomplish something they didn’t believe/know they could. Or they learn something startling or perceive something they didn’t see before. It’s a revelation or a gentle coming-to-terms moment. No matter what you write, it has to be about, and directly involve, your MC.

Time: This is not a rushed project with a deadline so take it slow as you sketch it out. Allow the pieces to come to you bit by bit. And for heaven’s sake, use the senses.

Think for a moment about the lighting in this scene. As you imagine it, what shadows are cast? Does anything catch and reflect the light? What’s the temperature and how does your MC’s body react to it? Is there a scent and is it pleasant or stinging? What sounds are present – thundering cacophony or whispering winds? What is now silent? Is your MC’s mouth dry or do tears run down their cheeks?

Are they alone? Is your MC touching something or someone? Who, or what, is absent?

Using the senses will immerse the reader in the scene. Bonus for you, writer: engaging the senses will draw you into the scene like nothing else. And double bonus: when you get back to writing the middle, keep using the senses and your story will sing.

Back to Main Character: Consider the MC’s wants and needs that you, of course, have laid out in the opening scenes (if you’re uncertain, stop right here and go back to the beginning to make sure you have.) Bring closure to those wants and needs. Maybe the MC figured out long ago (in that middle you haven’t written yet) that their want was wrong all along. Give your MC a moment to acknowledge that one last time. And then wrap your arms around that essential need your MC didn’t even know they had and give us one last reflection.

Be Open to Change: Remember this is just your first draft and by the time you finish the whole story, you may know that the ending you wrote isn’t quite right. Maybe you’ll need an entirely different ending. But this is not a wasted exercise. Far from it.

I warrant writing the imagined ending scene will, at the very least, give you a greater connection with your MC and inspire a return to writing the rest. Or maybe it will help you realize your beginning isn’t working and you’ll need some serious editing to craft the right opening.

But what if writing this exercise IS the ending of your story? Our subconscious is constantly steering us. If you allow it to work its magic, it just might move you from Why the heck did I even start this book? to Why the heck did it take me so long to get back to this book?

And with that, I can only offer you this: The End.

Thoughts on short fiction

Thoughts on short fiction

Gwynn Scheltema

With the shortest day of the year around the corner, I thought I would write today about short fiction. I began my writing journey writing short stories and poetry and in many ways , I think the two are alike.

Here are some of my random thoughts on writing short fiction. Interestingly, the same perspectives can be applied to writing poetry.

  • Short stories are like poems in that they steer the reader into reading the piece more than once, and the reader finds something new on each reading.
  • A “mainstream” short story can be about anything: a mood, a character, a setting, even a flashy writing style. A genre short story is about an idea. The fictional elements—character, plot, setting, etc.—are only there to dramatize the idea.
  • One idea is enough for a story. Two is more than enough. Three is too many.
  • The more extraordinary the idea, the more ordinary the language. For experimental writing choose everyday events. The stranger the idea, the more real the world must seem to be.
  • Know whose story it is, who is telling the story, and why.
  • The short story is a controlled release of information. Never rush or compact it. The fewer the words, the more air it needs to breathe.
  • Symmetry is more important than plot. A short story must make a pleasing shape, and close with a click. Repetition is good for symmetry but must be used sparingly, like salt.
  • One world only. Dreams are out of place in a short story.
  • One POV is enough. Two is more than enough. Three is too many.
  • Go easy on character descriptions. Nobody cares what your characters look like. They only need to be able to tell them apart.
  • Leave stuff out. It’s what’s left out that makes what’s left in do its work more effectively.
  • Withhold as much information as possible for as long as possible. When the reader knows everything, the story is over.
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.

Quirky websites for historical fiction writers

Quirky websites for historical fiction writers

Gwynn Scheltema

I’m a genealogy junkie. I admit it. Digging into my past is my favourite procrastination tactic. But in the process, I’ve come across a few quirky sources of historical information, that are useful not only to geni’s but to writers of historical fiction too.  We all know about Google and Worldcat and History.com, but have you ever explored these sites?

David Rumsey Map Collection

This site has over 64,000 maps and cartographic images. His focus is on rare 18th and 19th century North American and South American maps, but you’ll also find materials from Africa, Europe and Asia. Not only can you view maps side by side, but you can also overlay historical maps over modern ones to see how an area has changed over time.

Facebook

Did you know that there is a Genealogy on Facebook list, a 173-page PDF file containing 5,700-plus links, published by Katherine R. Willson. A Canadian version by Gail Dever includes French-speaking groups and pages.

These genealogy groups are great for requesting help with foreign record translations or asking about specific eras and ancestral villages like Ballymena, County Antrim in Northern Ireland during the Irish famine of the 1840s.

HistoryPin  &  WhatWasThere

If you’re looking to compare a modern UK street view with an old one or see if an historical site survives today, try Historypin. This is a free collaborative site with over 400,000 old photo and story submissions plotted on Google Maps.

For North America, try What­WasThere. It works the same way. For instance, a search for Pueblo, Colorado gives images of the late 1800s and early 1900s and then the aftermath of a 1921 flood.

WolframAlpha

Need to know the weather for a specific date? What about calculating a birth date based on a death date from a gravestone? WolframAlpha is a computational knowledge base that accesses more than 10,000 databases to return information based on your calculation requests.

IrelandXO

Ireland Reaching Out website is a treasure trove of all things Irish, from westward Trans- Atlantic crossings records during the great famine to why the names Flan, Florry, Finn and Fitheal are actually all the same name. Similar websites exist for many countries. I have South African ties, so I use the South African sites eGGSA.org and Stamouers .

Cyndi’s List

Cyndi’s List is a cornucopia of useful information arranged by topic on EVERYTHING, not just historical information. In the genealogy category alone, you can find everything from records of Canadian Military casualties to South African gravestones search sites, from information on workhouses in the UK to transcribed diaries.

So there you have it. Hours and hours of procrastination facination. This list is of course, by no means exhaustive, just some of my favourites. Share quirky historical sites that you use in the comments below.