Too Good to be True?

Too Good to be True?

Ruth E. Walker

We writers are eager for validation. It’s not an ego thing — it’s more about our insecurities as writers (Am I good enough? Is this the final draft of something people will want to read or is it garbage? And so on.)

So when something lands in your lap that offers an exceptional opportunity, you (and in this case, I mean me) get excited.

The pitch

Hello:

My name is Erica Loberg and I work for Soho Press. We are hiring writers and poets with adequate work-related experience for our upcoming conference. The objective is to have you share your experiences as a writer and/or poet with everyone attending the conference including some of our employees and members of the general public by invitation only. This is to encourage people looking to become new writers. We request for you to work 1 hour on any two days between October 10th and October 30th, 2021. This will be between 12 PM and 1 PM Eastern Daylight Time. We are willing to pay you $1,500 for these two days. If you are interested, please tell us the dates that you will be available for. Thank you so much.

Erica Loberg
Publicist
Soho Press
erica.loberg@sohopresspublishers.com

Oh my goodness. $750 an hour! How did they find out about my workshop and conference experience? And right at lunchtime — even if I was already booked into events, surely I could manage two lunch hour Zoom presentations. I mean, they probably have this conference on Zoom, right? It has to be real because that is Soho Press and that email address looks like a legit email address for Soho Press…and…and…and

Reality bytes

And. That whispering voice in the back of my mind eventually gets loud enough for me to listen.

Let’s take a closer look at this fabulous email. Using my editor’s eye, I see a number of things that my first quick read failed to consciously register.

#1 Hello: — this is a group email that doesn’t address me individually. Even if a group email was real, a publicist for a niche , respected publishing house wouldn’t start out with such a generic salutation opening and corporate-style tone. So try this edit: Hello. My name is Jane Doe and work for Microsoft. we are hiring software engineers with adequate work-related… Good grief. I think this is a plagiarized phishing email.

#2 We are hiring writers and poets. Hmm. Poets are writers. And why not editors, too? What kind of writers/poets? And adequate work-related experience? As demonstrated in #1, that kind of language is more related to corporate job searches than to those committed to the craft of writing excellence.

#3 This is to encourage people who want to become writers. Huh? “This”? As an editor, I always caution about vagueness in writing. Unexpected from a industry professional. And do publishers “encourage” those “who want to become writers”? Indeed, the closer I looked at “Erica’s” invitation, the more I considered the overall lack of logic and the vague language:

A conference? What kind of conference? Attended by some of our employees and members of the general public by invitation only. Really? A successful niche press is inviting “some” of its employees and a special list of people wanting “to become writers” to some unnamed online conference? (I guess that last bit is meant to cover the lack of any mention of the conference on the Soho website. Yes. I did my research. Eventually. For tips on research, see our August 25 post, Research Redux.)

#4 We request for you to work… significant grammar glitch here with a whiff of English-as-a-second-language. The latter is not a big issue unless you consider the source: a well-respected North American press. And isn’t Erica a communications expert as the Publicist for said press? So her grammar should be spot on.

Cue balloon deflating

There are several other clues that this amazing opportunity isn’t real but I should have immediately digested the biggest of them: $1,500 for two hours work. (It’s true that any presenter at any conference knows there are hours of prep that go into those two hours but $1500-worth?)

Logic said this is way too good to be true. And that was confirmed by the September 1 post (research – remember?) on the Soho Press website and Facebook page:

BEWARE: We are aware of an ongoing scam using real publishing industry employee and company names as well as faked company websites to solicit speakers for a conference. Soho Press is not involved with any such conference nor is there any such conference being planned. These emails are scams.

Soho Press

Moral of the story

Even a smarty pants like me, who frequently points out the scams that well-meaning friends excitedly send my way, we smarty pants can start down the path blinded by the light (in this case 1,500 dollars-worth of brilliance.)

It also shows that criminal phishers are getting more clever in their pitches. Erica Loberg checks out as Soho’s publicist. Her email appears legit but a closer look (research strikes again) reveals the press’s address for all emails are “X”@sohopress.com — minus the “publishing” (which is a dog whistle word for most of us writers but I digress.)

So moral of the story? It’s bad enough having to deal with rejection, missed deadlines and the cold echo of nothing from that agent in your INBOX but this is truly devious.

One good thing perhaps, it might just spark a tale or two for me and maybe for you, too.

For more ideas, check out Will Ferguson’s 419 — a beautiful and tragic novel about the complex reality for poverty-driven scammers and the phish who bite on the hook.

Binge-worthy Podcasts for Writers

Binge-worthy Podcasts for Writers

Guest blogger – Lori Twining

Some of my writing buddies have been struggling to find the words lately. I’m no different. There are days I sit at my desk and stare at a blank page and wonder why I am even bothering to get up. Seriously, I could be sleeping right now. I never get enough sleep.

The thing is, I have found a way to get my writing mojo back. I’ve been multi-tasking. While I paint or quilt or indulge in other other creative pursuits, I’ve been listening to podcasts specifically for writers. They are so engaging that it has turned me into a BINGER! I have become a person who exhibits excessive or uncontrolled indulgence in podcasts—a podcast binger who often listens to four podcasts in one single day.

But, why? How could they be that good?

All of the podcasts listed below inspire me. Authors explain how they balance their family life with their writing life, what time of day works better for them, or how they came up with such brilliant story ideas. I love hearing how my favourite authors churn out bestsellers one after another.

Whether these podcasts help you improve your craft or help you understand how other people are making a living doing the one thing you are passionate about, I should warn you that you have hours of binge-worthy episodes waiting for you.

Here are a few of my absolute favourite writing podcasts:

“The Shit No One Tells You About Writing” with Bianca Marais.

This podcast has a segment called “Books and Hooks” featuring two Literary Agents as cohosts: Carly Watters and Cecilia Lyra. Writers are encouraged to send in a query letter and the first five pages of their manuscript. They discuss what the writer did well, what the agents were confused about, and suggest what the writer could do to improve it. I have listed some examples of their podcasts to try, but you can find hundreds to choose from on their website. Following the Books and Hooks, Bianca interviews an author about a specific topic such as:

How Writers Write hosted by Brian Murphy

How Writers Write is a podcast for creative writers to learn how their favorite writers tell their stories. The podcast’s host, Brian Murphy, interviews world-class writers to decode their tips, routines, and motivations for producing bestsellers.

The Crew Reviews Podcast

Thriller Talk Podcast with K.J. Howe and Ryan Steck (YouTube Channel)

The Writer Files: Writing, Productivity, Creativity, and Neuroscience with Kelton Reid

The Creative Penn Podcast: Writing, Publishing, Book Marketing, Making A Living With Your Writing with Joanna Penn

The Writer’s Digest Podcast with Gabriela Pereira:

If podcasts are not for you:

If you have tried listening to podcasts and they are not lighting a fire under your butt, then perhaps you should try listening to author interviews. Live events are happening across the globe almost every single night. Most of these events can be listened to while you lounge in the bathtub, eating cookies (meaning your face will not be on ZOOM camera). This is always a plus because no one needs to comb their hair during a pandemic if they don’t want to.

Live Events (Live Facebook or Instagram Events):

  • Murder By The Books ~ Live Author Interviews via Facebook Live
  • Anderson’s Bookstore ~ Live Author Interviews via Facebook Live
  • Genre Masters ~ Live Interview via ZOOM
  • Day Drinking with Authors with Molly Fader~ Live Interviews via Facebook
  • First Chapter Fun with Hannah Mary McKinnon and Hank Phillippi Ryan

*NOTE: Many live interviews are archived online after the event and are available to listen to at any time.

Last Words:

After binging on a few podcasts or author interviews, I am positive you will be inspired and motivated to write your own words down on the page. There is no stopping you now. Get to it. Just put your butt in the chair and write all the words. I can’t wait to read them.

Meet Lori Twining

Lori Twining writes both fiction and nonfiction, with her stories winning awards in literary competition and appearing in several anthologies. She’s an active member of many writing groups: International Thriller Writers, Crime Writers of Canada, Sisters In Crime, Toronto Romance Writers, and Ascribe Writers. She’s a lover of books, sports and bird watching, and a hater of slithering reptiles and beady-eyed rodents. Find more info at www.lvtwriter.com ; Twitter: @Lori_Twining

Research Redux

Research Redux

Ruth E. Walker

History holds so much richness for writers. It’s a deep well many of us dip into, finding inspiration, surprises and mysteries. And it’s why we call it a rabbit hole–wander in and you might find it tough to resurface.

As I work on the second book of my speculative fiction, I research ancient (and not-so-ancient) history to strengthen plot developments and character actions and reactions. I look for the sparks that ignited revolutions, for the leaders and strategies behind uprisings, and for the willful blindness of those in power.

Good grief, we humans are ridiculous when it comes to willful blindness. From aristocrats to bureaucrats to potentates, the “safe” bubble that power, influence and wealth creates is the reason so many of them are in shock when the masses are at the gates.

Similarly, we humans are one hot mess when we are that angry mob. Just wander through social media of all stripes to find postings of extreme outrage, disgust and threats. And algorithms make sure that like feeds like, so travelling down that rabbit hole is risky business.

Frankly, it’s why I barely dip my toe into that form of fury. Give me instead human interest stories or pics of your grandkids any day.

The online anger is nothing new. The difference is the speed and volume that social media platforms provide. And while they can offer insights into discontent, there is no lack of page-by-page context available in physical text. That’s why I like to research through books and magazines. Just one phrase or footnote can launch a whole new idea.

When you write with history in your back pocket, your characters, plots and themes carry a truth. Truth grounding any fiction creates reality for the reader – and most importantly, confidence for the author.  And that, dear writer, is pure creative gold.

Revisit Research

Research is a topic we’ve covered in previous Top Drawer posts. So I’ve gathered a collection of some of our more popular posts on that topic because, after all, they’re still useful and timely. You’ll notice that most of them are written by Gwynn. She is known for bringing her analytical mind to the creative table, and for that I am grateful, as are her readers.

Let’s start with the treasures found in archives. In a well-received two-part series, Gwynn explores where and how to dig in:

Digging up Archives – Part I — an overview of where to find archives in Canada and beyond.

Always thorough, Gwynn followed that post with the answer to “Now what?” in Digging up Archives – Part 2 Top Drawer readers told us they had a much better understanding of where and how to use archives for research after reading Gwynn’s posts.

I chronicled my own experience with Canada’s National Library and Archives, researching my great-great-great-grandfather’s book about the Hudson’s Bay Company in the late 1700s. Holding History in My Hands shares what that moment was like.

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And more recently, Gwynn posted a number of computer hacks that make writing — and researching — easier and faster.

In Computer Hacks for Writers and Researchers, she offers up a taste of ways writers can make the work less onerous.

Access is key

A final note – many of the featured sources are online. Given that we are still treading a careful line between in-person and virtual activities, what was convenient less than 18 months ago is now pretty much a lifeline.

We writers know that library and archive staff are incredibly helpful when doing our research. Express your appreciation when they go that extra mile and be kind when health and safety regulations limit their efforts.

Writing in the time of the pandemic…that has an interesting ring to it, don’t you think? I wonder what the textbooks, novels, poetry, lyrics and archives of 2020 will reveal to writers in the year 2220 and beyond?

LAST WORD: OUR FALL RETREAT

Re-emerging, our all-inclusive writing retreat in October is now fully booked except for one single cottage available at a premium rate. OR if you’re a cottager/resident nearby, we have a couple of spaces for day-rate participants.

Email us at info@writescape.ca for details.

Wait List:

We are launching a Wait List for anyone who’d like to join us at Elmhirst’s Resort this fall. Email us at info@writescape.ca with the subject line: Wait List Fall Retreat and if we have any cancellations, we’ll let you know in the order your email was received.  

Revisting Contest One. Oh-oh. One.

Revisting Contest One. Oh-oh. One.

Ruth E. Walker

Just last week, I received some great news. PRISM International selected my entry “Exit” for their longlist in the Grouse Grind short fiction contest. It’s been a bit of a drought for me over the past year or so. I’ve struggled with producing creative work and when I manage to actually submit anything, rejections have been the result.

No matter how polite and encouraging a rejection might be, it gets a writer down, you know? So hooray for writing contests for providing the spark that gets this writer back up again and writing.

This whole adventure reminded me of a blog post I wrote back in 2017. Looking at it now, I see that it’s still a valid and useful resource, especially as with Writescape’s recent poetry contest, we received a number of excellent poems which could not be considered as they didn’t fit the required parameters. Rule #1: follow the guidelines.

The following is a slightly updated version and, I trust, something that may inspire other writers with a spark or two of ideas.

Prepare to be judged

It’s been my pleasure (mostly) to serve as a judge on a number of writing competitions. I’ve also been both a first-tier and second-tier reader, helping to cull the entries down by eliminating entries with problems. And I’ve been a final judge for regional, national and international writing contests, choosing winners from 15 or 20 of those final top entries. Each and every time, it’s been a thrill to read creative work that made me feel “as if the top of my head were taken off” (to quote Emily Dickenson.)

I wish I could say it is true for all contest entries. But it is not.

A few years ago, a national organization of professional writers asked me to be a second-tier reader. This means I read stories that had already been reviewed and moved forward. This should mean I would be reading stories that were pretty darn good. I was looking forward to making my notes.

All the entries I read had a great story idea. But not all of them were great stories. Not even pretty darn good.

For this contest, I was only one of several second-tier readers who were also reading 14 entries. So I wasn’t reading all the entries that reached the second tier — only a fraction of them. But of my 14 entries, there were only 6 that I would have recommended as a first-tier reader.

The other 8 all had problems in terms of technique and execution. Here are just four of the many issues I encountered in the stories I scored in the bottom 8:

Don’t tell me, show me. This is a familiar refrain from creative writing instructors. But what do we mean by that? It’s more than the difference between I feel cold versus I shiver and rub my arms, although that is a good beginning. It is equally an issue if the writer shows us something — The cold crept under my flesh and into my lungs and then in the next line continues to tell us about it: It was below zero and I felt so cold.

The need to tell, especially after a show, is a sign of a writer who doesn’t trust themselves or their readers. Does this mean that every line needs to be a show versus a tell? No. But any story that relies on tell is a story that soon bores its readers.

Description is great. But if you have to hit your reader over the head with a hammer to ensure they are “getting the picture”…well, it’s soon painful. Definition of Adverbitis: excessive use of adverbs, especially when a great verb is the better choice: swiftly ran = raced/rushed/galloped — any of those three options create great visuals. The same goes with unnecessary adverbs: hurriedly, loudly, slowly…crept slowly = crept carries the whole image. I mean, can you ever creep fast? And how about plummeted swiftly? Ever seen anything plummet slowly?

And a quick note on adjectives. Use them, sure. But think before you dip your creative paintbrush three times too many: A charming, vivacious redheaded librarian is way too much for any brain to unpack and visualize. Stick to the essential descriptions of your character or the setting — leave room for your reader to fill in the rest.

Passive writing: boring, boring and more boring. Be ruthless in seeking out and eliminating passive writing wherever you can. Look for the “to be” construction: was, is, were, has/had been, will/would be…etc. You can’t avoid passive verbs but they should not dominate the page. The same goes for passive sentence construction, where the object of an action becomes the subject of a sentence: The writing group was disturbed by the brass band. (passive) The brass band disturbed the writing group. (active) And avoid long digressions and backstory. It’s a short story or excerpt, not a history lesson.

Proofread. And proofread again. Best not to write your entry six hours ahead of the deadline because chances are you will miss mistakes. Put the story in a drawer for at least a day, longer if you can. Then use a ruler to focus your eye on a line-by-line check for errors or omissions. Why does this matter? One of the top three entries I read this week was tied, in my mind, with two others for first place. But it wasn’t error-free. So while I loved it, it made it easier for me to place it lower than the other two that didn’t contain errors.

Writing contests give writers an excellent opportunity to submit their work. Unlike the slush pile, writers know someone will actually read their entry. To be a finalist or to win is a validation of your craft and I can say it’s one of the best moments for any writer. It’s a fantastic feeling that I want every writer to experience and it’s why I wrote this post. (And why I re-posted it.)

Quick Tips
Before pressing SEND:

  1. Telling us a story is not as interesting or engaging as showing us a story
  2. Lots of adverbs and plenty of adjectives are signs of a writer who doesn’t trust themselves or readers
  3. Passive writing is boring and often includes unnecessary information
  4. Spelling mistakes and typos affect how a judge reads your entry
  5. A great story idea may get you past first-tier readers but 1, 2, 3 or 4 will not get you to the final judge

Last word

As of this writing, I don’t know if my story Exit made it beyond PRISM’s longlist. But here’s the link to their website so you can check out what happened. While you’re at it, check out PRISM’s other contests — creative non-fiction and poetry, for example.

May your muse be ever-present and generous.

Poetic Synchronicity

Poetic Synchronicity

Gwynn Scheltema

I never cease to be amazed at synchronicity in life.

In my county this week, The Art Gallery of Northumberland launched a collaborative project with three area libraries. They riffed off the idea of “little libraries” that has been around for some time—and which we covered in a previous post—only this time they are offering visual art rather than books on a take-one-leave-one basis. What fun!

And then what should I find, but a poem about this very same idea only with poetry. How’s that for synchronicity in action! It’s called “Poetry Caching in Spring” by Linda Varsell Smith and was posted on poetscollective.org

Poetry Caching in Spring

A realtor box
with free poems staked in yard
awaits visitors

Some walkers pick up
poems, thinking house for sale
crumble, toss poems

Rain seeps in the box
dribbles down smudging pages
Sun will curdle them

Walkers sit on wall
resting, reading poems, put
in backpacks or hands

Yanked up by the stake
to mow lawn, rests on trash cans
near camellias

Hail pelts plastic
casing, white as snow, soft ping
droned out by traffic

Stick-on, raised letters
offer poetry to all
who come to pass by

And, here’s where synchronicity really goes into overdrive: “Poetry Caching in Spring” it is a 21-line poem written in a 21-line poetry form called an Ethnographic Haiku—a perfect form for our Summer 21 Poetry Contest.

Ethnographic Haiku

An ethnographic haiku poem is made up of 7 haiku, in the usual 5-7-5 syllable line format, but the subject of the whole poem (in the case of “Poetry Caching in the Spring”, it is the box of poetry) should have a relationship with the environment.

Additionally, the poet is required to evoke at least three of the five senses and each haiku should represent one day in a full week in the life of the subject. The form is titled and punctuation is optional. That’s quite a tall order, but Linda Varsell Smith certainly pulls it off beautifully in her poem.

I cannot verify who came up with this form, but the details for writing one appear in Syllables of Velvet, a book of poetic forms collected by Linda Varsell Smith who writes in her intro:

“I found these forms in handbooks and on the Internet. I have worked on playing with forms in four previous books dealing with forms. Cinqueries: is a book filled with cinquos and lanternes. Fibs and Other Truths showed the many variations of fibs. Poems That Count is a collection of many syllabic, metric and word counting forms and examples. Poems That Count Too is a further collection of counting forms with examples. Syllables of Velvet incorporates all the forms in the previous books plus many discoveries beyond. I wrote at least one example for over 300 of them and directions how to do many other forms.”

Distorted Diablo

I was further surprised to find another 21-line poetic form, created by Pat Simpson, called a Distorted Diablo.

This form plays, as its name suggests, with the number 666, commonly known as the biblical devil’s number. The distortion comes from flipping the central 6 upside down into a 9 to get the new number 696. These numbers now become the line form of the poem: a stanza of 6 lines, followed by a stanza of 9 lines and finishing with a second 6-line stanza for a total of 21 lines.

In addition, the sixain segments are both written with 6 syllables per line and the middle 9-line stanza has 9 syllables in each line. Rhyming is optional. My instinct if I were writing a Distorted Diablo would be to make my content devilish or distorted, but apparently subject matter is not prescribed.

Here is an example of a Distorted Diablo called “Ode to Volunteers.”

Summer 21 Poetry Contest

So that brings me to a reminder about our Writescape Summer 21 Poetry Contest.  The two forms above may tickle your muse, but poems can be any form you like. Just remember that the poem must be 21 lines long and evoke some aspect of the number 21 such as age of majority, or blackjack or 21 ways to… etc. We gave you lots of examples in the contest announcement blog. The contest is free to enter. Deadline is June 30 and the winner will be announced on July 21.

Full submission details here. We look forward to seeing your poem.

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.