Put it on Repeat

Put it on Repeat

Ruth E. Walker

It’s Groundhog Day and this morning Wiarton Willie or Punxsutawney Phil will have divined our weather future. Early spring. Late spring. It’s the same thing every year. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

If you know the Bill Murray film “Groundhog Day”, you’ve seen Bill’s hapless weatherman Phil Connors relive the same miserable day, trapped in a time loop he can’t escape – at least, not until he learns some essential life lessons: namely, what it is to be a true human being.

It’s a funny movie with some serious undertones. Phil is an unlikeable narcissist, lacking in compassion and empathy. But his blinders are lifted, through countless February 2nds, again and again, until he finally becomes the person he should have been all along.

The power of repetition              

Skilled writers and especially poets are well-familiar with the repetition tool. Sounds, words, images reappear to make connections, to emphasize or to treat the ear to an echo.

John Milton’s massive poem Paradise Lost has nearly 11,000 lines but the lines he gives to Lucifer ruminating on his kingdom in Hell are effective (and often quoted) repetitions:

The mind is its own place, and in it self

Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.

Milton repeats this idea later in the stanza, underscoring the Devil’s motivation:

To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:

Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.

Lines, stanzas and even separate poems reach out to one another. Even repetition in titles creates connecting threads (Milton’s Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, and the titles of many novels that are part of a series — Harry Potter, for example.)

There are many forms of literary repetition. Google will take you from “7 Types of Repetition” to “25 Literary Techniques of Repetition”, such as alliteration, assonance, negative positive restatement, parallelism, chiasmus – many of them sounding like weird medical conditions.

Whatever the term, repetition in all writing is a power tool. And as with all power tools, caution should be used.

Hammer or nail?

Description often needs a form of repetition to become clear to a reader. But writers can get tripped up when they go from nailing in another foundation board to set a scene or develop a character, to hitting the reader on the head with a hammer of unnecessary repetition.

For example:

               The child’s blue eyes were the colour of the sea, ever changing with the light and shadows.

That’s a lovely image, comparing eyes to the sea. If the child’s eye colour was significant to either the plot or character(s), that image could reappear at key points in the story. But a writer needs to make choices on how and when to repeat an image so that the reader doesn’t roll their eyes and mutter “I know, I know – eyes the colour of the sea – get on with it already…”

Rarely do you want an exact repetition.

“Look dear, the child’s blue eyes are the colour of the sea!”

“Yes my love, and did you notice how they change in light and shadow?”

Yuck.

But a wise writer can play with an image to craft echoes of ideas and add richness to a story.

“I took the stroller out to the boardwalk this morning. When the little one woke and sat up, the strangest thing happened. Just beyond the reef, a whale breached and she laughed. But when I looked at her, she had tears in her eyes. Remarkable.” He paused and glanced away. “And that laugh – at first, I thought I was hearing a dolphin. But it was her. The child.”

Press “repeat” in your story or hit the “delete” button?

Look for repetition in your own writing. Take a close look at narrative scenes, seek out descriptive words ask yourself the following:

  • Does this repetition have a purpose? Are you emphasizing for a reason?
  • If so, is it necessary here? Would it have more impact elsewhere in the story?

Now, do the same in action scenes.

  • Is the repetition adding to rising tension or is it getting in the way?
  • Would it be better to have it later or earlier in the story?

And finally, look closely at dialogue. Repetition in dialogue may relate to the way a character speaks, such as dialect or an idiosyncratic phrase or word (“oy!” or “Well now,…”) Or it may be a hammer, with characters essentially giving the same information that the reader already knows. Either way, it can be too much of a good thing.

  • Am I overusing a repeated phrase? Does it overtake the spoken words and get in the way of important information?
  • Are my characters saying the same thing unnecessarily?

At the risk of repeating myself, repetition is a writer’s tool. It has the power to overwhelm, confuse or bore your reader. Use it wisely, and you will craft unforgettable prose or poetry.

Drip, Drip, Drip

Drip, Drip, Drip

Guest Post by Heidi Croot

Writing the first-draft hot mess of my memoir was easy—a mudslide down the inky slopes of several thousand journal pages.

  • Rewriting countless drafts, fun—an archeological dig I’ve never tired of.
  • Restructuring the thing, hell—as I struggled to place backstory at the precise moment of reader thirst. 

But none of those ups and downs compared with the anxiety I felt about sending my manuscript to my two aunts and my uncle, who appear frequently in its pages.

I had reason to be nervous.

My memoir is about their eldest sister, my mother—a woman they were estranged from most of their lives, my own longest estrangement from her spanning a mere seven years. My aunts and uncle tried to have my back through the turbulence. An only child, I leaned heavily on their love and support.

Yet as soon as I mentioned I was writing a memoir, I detected frost in the air. Heard rumblings of that old lament, “airing the family’s dirty laundry.”

I understood their wariness.

They were of a generation that preferred to hold troubling family truths underwater with the flat of their palm. I am driven to haul those truths out, towel them down, assess them from every angle. What can they teach us? How might they heal us?

My aunts and uncle don’t read memoir. I knew if they were going to accept my manuscript, I couldn’t just thrust 300+ pages at them and hope for a miracle. I would need to chart a wayfinding course to the genre using signposts and lamplight.

And about two years ago, drawing on what I knew about awareness campaigns from my 35+ years in corporate communication, that’s what I did.

I casually sent them essays by memoirists who acknowledged their vulnerabilities and the challenges of truth-telling.

I sent book reviews and memoir quotations to show what other writers were sharing with the world.

I sent updates on my own project with excerpts from my work-in-progress that I hoped would demonstrate a balanced take on our difficult family circumstances.  

This drip-drip-drip approach paid off when the Los Angeles Review of Books published my essay, “How to Tell Your Mother She Can’t Go Home Again,” describing one of the harshest events of my mother’s life (and mine)—her first day in a nursing home, eight years before she died.

With that, my memoir project could no longer be ignored. Nor could its intent, tone or potential reception in the world.

My aunts and uncle read the piece and sent congratulations.  

We had taken the first hill.

It was time for the second.

By now the manuscript was ready for beta readers. I promised my relatives a copy but kept them waiting while I finished some edits. One aunt in her eighties complained that at this rate she might not be around to finally read the thing. My uncle asked how it was going. I could hear the other aunt’s fingers drumming from her home in California.

They were eager to read.

Good.

I emailed the pdf to the California aunt. She immediately responded with family stories triggered by my chapters, as well as helpful editorial suggestions and a factual correction.

“For the duration of the reading it was as though my sister were alive, in front of me with all of her strife and fury…” she wrote me when she finished reading. “You’ve done yourself proud, Heidi.”

My beloved writers’ groups responded to this news with jubilance.

Meanwhile, I invited my other aunt, and my uncle and his wife of 50+ years, to my home, where I presented them with coil-bound copies. We spent a convivial weekend enjoying a charcuterie board, tacos, wine, and quiet time as they turned pages.

They didn’t offer encouragement, though my uncle remarked that his avid reading signaled his interest, and his wife dissolved into tears at one point, acknowledging the painful path our family had been forced to take in tangling with my mother.

In my beta reader guidelines, a one-page menu of suggestions I developed for first-time readers on what kind of comments would be most helpful, I had asked for their feedback within a month—one week away as I write this. I’ve invited them back for a second weekend to close that loop. After all, this was a business arrangement: their access to my full work in exchange for their editorial catches and family history tweaks.

No reply yet.

Offering feedback can be challenging when you’re not used to it. 

No reason to be nervous, I want to tell them. You’re in safe hands here. It’s going to be all right.

Originally published online in Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction, Writescape is delighted to share Heidi’s practical approach to introducing memoir to family members who could be uncomfortable with the form.

Heidi Croot

Heidi Croot lives in Northumberland County, Ontario, Canada, 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, Brevity, Linea magazine, Writescape, the WCDR anthology Renaissance, and elsewhere. You can reach Heidi on Twitter @heidicroot.

10 Free Apps for Writers

10 Free Apps for Writers

Last week’s post There’s an App for That may have been a fun tongue-in-cheek take on writing apps, but it got us thinking about what was out there for writers. The short answer is “way too many apps and programs to even scratch the surface in one blog”, but let’s start with 10 apps that are free.

Many great programs and apps like Scrivener and iAWriter have free trial periods, but the ones listed below are entirely free. Please note, that we are not endorsing or recommending here, just passing along what we have discovered is out there. Have fun trying them out.

1. yWriter

Designed for Windows in a similar vein to Scrivener, yWriter breaks your novel into scenes rather than chapters. You can track your progress using a storyboard, daily word counts and the status (written/to-be-written/in progress) of your scenes.

2. Reedsy Book Editor

This app is for formatting your book for publication. Drag and drop chapters, insert images, and create front and back matter. Then export it as a file that can be uploaded to any ebook retailer or print-on-demand supplier.

3. Grammarly

Useful for writers who want to proof short pieces, it is more than a standard spelling and grammar checker. It also provides a label and detailed reason for each correction, so you can learn how to avoid that mistake. You can also set audience, formality level, and tone (confident, urgent, etc.) and analyze for clarity, engagement, and delivery.

4. Hemingway

This app is free if used online. Like its namesake, Hemingway is designed to keep things short and sweet. This editing app gives feedback on sentence length, word usage, reading level, passive voice, and adverbs using different-coloured highlights.

5. Readable

Like Hemingway, Readable’s focus is on plain language, but is also useful for text analysis. This app keeps tabs on estimated reading times and scores on multiple readability scales such as Flesch-Kincaid and Gunning Fog.

6. NaturalReader

We always recommend reading work aloud to catch awkward bits and missing words etc., but sometimes your eyes and brain conspire to read what isn’t there. This text-to-speech app will read it for you. You can choose reading speed and a voice you like and follow along with the text. You can pause, rewind, and fast-forward too.

7. Airstory

Airstory combines the research, outlining and writing process with its divided screen. On one side, you add cards containing notes, references and ideas. On the other, a bulleted outline of your project. Great for essays and non-fiction or historical fiction.

8. OneLook

Free online, OneLook is a collection of dictionaries—over 30 orthographic, linguistic, explanatory, and other anthologies. It also has a reverse dictionary and a synonyms feature where you look up by describing a definition.

9. FocusWriter

Exactly as the name suggests this app’s interface looks like a sheet of paper, and lacking any fancy formatting options or research notes to distract you, you have no choice but to write. You can still track progress and set a timer, but not much else to derail a squirrel brain.

10. Portent’s Content Idea Generator

This app asks you to define the main subject of your article (even one word is enough), and then supplies headline and content suggestions. Great for bloggers.

Winners! Summer 21 Poetry Contest.

Winners! Summer 21 Poetry Contest.

Thanks to all the poets from all over Canada who entered our Summer 21 Poetry Contest. Today, the 21st we take great pleasure in announcing and congratulating the top three winners:

Drum roll please……

  • 1st Place: Marg Kropf – Coming of Age
  • 2nd Place: Les Robling – XXI
  • 3rd Place: Reva Nelson – Twenty-one and Done

Before you read the winning poems and why we chose them, here is what the contest asked for:

Compose a 21-line poem in any form, where the subject matter evokes some aspect of the number 21. Your poem does not have to actually contain the words “twenty-one”, although you are welcome to do so. The title is not considered one of the 21 lines.

Winner: Marg Kropf – “Coming of Age”

COMING OF AGE

They reproach, these stops and starts
Of children’s feet
My measured tread
Along a dusty street,
Along the hopscotch lines
So crazily bent
Around the jagged cracks
In the cement.
Children dash against the sun
And I can see
That they are at some game
And unaware of me.
Their looks cry out,
“Too late. It is too late!
You are the traveller
Who can pass this gate
But once, then vanish
In an angry sun.”
I feel old, old,
Immeasurably old.
Tomorrow I will be twenty-one.


Judges’ Comments on “Coming of Age”

On the cusp of full adulthood, our narrator is acutely aware that a return to childhood is not an option. The imagined admonishments of the children symbolize the vanished years, and their imagined taunts sting. The children can brave dusty streets and jagged cracks in the cement; indeed, they can dash against the sun. Fearless. And, of course, there’s an underlying reminder to any reader beyond the age of 21, that this too is no longer attainable. We’re reminded how, at our own age of twenty-one, we felt about aging; how each year passes and leaves us feeling old, old, immeasurably old.

On first reading, the ending comes as a surprise, despite the title, because the poet so accurately captures the heavy feeling of being old that we can imagine a much older narrator. In the first lines, are images and connotations of heaviness and age, of a life measured: feet and treads, numbers and prescribed routes in hopscotch, lines and roads that point to journeys made and the nod to the children’s rhyme “Step on a crack/ Break your mother’s back,” as well as the sensory details that feed the emotion: dusty, crazily bent, jagged cracks.

At the first turn, the mood lightens as we witness the children and their imagination game. Here the movement is fast and sunny and loud. And then the final turn back to the narrator, I feel old… setting us up for the kicker last line.

The poem is further supported by an intriguing rhyme scheme and rhythm that hearkens to the unbalanced feeling of the narrator, especially with the extra penultimate line that throws the scheme off just before the final statement.

2nd Place: Les Robling – XXI

XXI 

Just one topic comes to mind,
Bill Twenty One, cruel unkind.
A misaligned, nasty law,
No matter how it's written down
Causing many a facial frown,
An act around a social flaw.

Banning ethnic dress and symbol
Crosses, hijabs, turbans and all,
Casts a pall on a nation
Denied the right to free choice;
Discrimination all should voice
Not rejoice this indignation.

What a year, what a frightful age,
Covid pandemic, nature's rage,
A rampage across the land -
Fever, dry cough, tiredness,
Painful death from this virus
Undesirous deadly hand.

Yet, covid will be slayed, soon now;
But this Bill lives on, somehow,
Twenty one, merde, disallow

Judges’ Comments on “XXI”

Roman numerals in the title create curiosity about the poem to come. Rhyming couplets and metrical structure are tough to pull off in a poem without it reading like a greeting card. This poet wisely avoids a simple AABB scheme and opts to vary the rhythm and tone with an AABCCB for three full stanzas and then ties it nicely with a triplet stanza at the end.

A clever use of internal rhyme again keeps the greeting card element at bay: down, frown, around; choice, voice, rejoice; tiredness, virus, undesirous. And enjambment of some lines further helped to keep the rhyme from calling attention to itself because the content spans the lines and carries the reader with it: Banning ethnic dress and symbol / Crosses, hijabs, turbans and all, / Casts a pall on a nation

This poet is to be applauded for risking a topical and controversial subject, as good poets have done through the ages. In many ways this poet pulled it off. Reserving personal opinion, however, and merely presenting facts and images and possibilities so that the reader comes to that opinion on their own, would make this even stronger.

3rd Place – Reva Nelson – Twenty-one and Done

TWENTY-ONE AND DONE 

When my son was eleven
I was imparting some motherly wisdom
On choices and values
He questioned why
I was telling him this
Since his values were in place

“I’m done, Mom, you’ve told me
You don’t need to tell me again.”

“What do you mean you’re done
Are you a Christmas turkey?" I asked

By eighteen I thought now he’s done
Off to university and safe
But many new challenges emerged
And I wasn’t done either

At twenty-one I thought now he’s done
And I am finished parenting
Not so, not done

Now, years later, my grandson is turning one
I see that no one is done
Not even me

And parenting is infinite
roast turkey


Judges’ Comments on “Twenty-One and Done”

There is a solid progression here with touchstones of ages 11, 18, 21 and beyond and back to 1. The last full stanza brings us full circle to the wisdom our narrator gains. As much as she wanted to impart wisdom to her young son, she (and we readers) are reminded that gaining wisdom is not something that can be measured in years. Indeed, our grandmother narrator is still gaining wisdom.

Use of actual dialogue in this poem gives the reader insights into character without having to describe or filter the view. A touch of humour lightens what could have been a dry delivery, given the prosaic style. While this narrative structure offers a useful parable, and a recognizable theme to engage readers, a stronger sensory engagement through use of poetic devices or form or use of the senses would bring the reader closer to the poem on an emotional level.

Last Word

So there you have it. Congratulations to the winners and indeed, congratulations to everyone who entered. As all writers know, submitting is the hardest part.

A Writer’s Power Tool

A Writer’s Power Tool

Ruth E. Walker

A recent newscast featured a Saskatchewan couple who’ve been waiting for months to celebrate Christmas with their grandchildren. As the pandemic lockdown has eased in their region, and gatherings are now possible, they could celebrate together at last.

But they didn’t have to pull out the holiday trimmings. The holiday tree, adorned in lights and ornaments, and the carefully wrapped presents under that artificial tree have been waiting since December for restrictions to loosen and for family to gather.

What on earth could inspire a family to be ready for Christmas all this time? Day after pandemic day, looking at the reminder of what didn’t happen. The grandkids’ gifts unopened. The goofy animated décor gathering dust, still and silent. What kept them optimistic?

Hope

It is the saving grace of the human race. The thing that keeps many of us going when everything seems impossible, frightening or deadly. Hope.

John William Waterhouse

In Greek mythology, Pandora (meaning All Gifts) was created by Zeus’s order to punish mortals for receiving the gift of fire from Prometheus. Zeus designed Pandora to have insatiable curiosity and when he gives her a jar as a wedding gift, he tells her never to open it. Sure enough, she eventually can’t resist and the miseries and evils – greed, avarice, jealousy, hatred, cowardice, illnesses, pestilence – were all released.

Interestingly, ancient versions of this myth have all sorts of variations:

  • the jar was full of blessings, not evils
  • Zeus had two jars in Olympus, one with blessings and one with evils
  • Pandora’s husband, Epimetheus (meaning Afterthought), opened the jar, his name suggesting he learned from making mistakes like that one

Good with the bad

Not only did the ancients write various interpretations of the myth, over the centuries, translations and poetic license gave readers alterations to Pandora’s tale. In the version I learned as a child, the jar was a box like in Waterhouse’s painting and one thing remained inside: Hope. Hope begged to be released too and when released, gave all suffering mortals something to keep them going.

But is Hope a two-edged sword? Does it underpin all stories from the romantic to tragedies? Do readers hope for the lovers to finally find each other or hope that survivors will find the strength to carry on?

And what about our real lives? Hope surely underpins real lives, keeping us going when all is bleak. But sometimes Hope prolongs our agonies, offering something to sufferers that cannot be.

What drives your stories?

Just as we writers hope our work will find an audience, hope provides powerful motivation to characters in stories. And as we’ve suggested again and again, motivation drives your characters and keeps a forward momentum in your stories.

Your characters want to win the race, to learn the family secret, to escape from poverty, to slay the dragon and release the captives. And your readers are right there with them, cheering them on, hoping they achieve their goal. Unless, of course, you’ve not capitalized on the idea of motivation.

As you edit, look for motivation:

  • Make it clear in beginning chapters – what does your character want?
  • Keep it the driver of your main character – tie in reactions, choices, behaviour
  • Avoid motivation that makes no sense – unless it is key to creating a conflicted character

As your character grows emotionally (character arc) that motivation (want) can change and often does.

Winning the race becomes less important when she realizes the prize at the end is not worth leaving friends and family behind. Releasing the prisoners won’t succeed even if he slays the dragon unless he finds and defeats the dragon master.

Hope holds lots of power to motivate your characters. But you can motivate your characters through other powerful emotions: fear, longing, grief and so on. No matter the choice, don’t lose sight of it as you write and look for its presence as you edit.

Speaking of Hope:

Gwynn and I hope you don’t miss our summer contest, closing June 30th. It’s a fun way to imagine Summer ’21, the most hopeful summer in a long time.


Celebrate with us the Summer of ’21 and create a poem in any form as long as it has 21 lines. There will be prizes, bragging rights and the top 3 entries will be published right here over the summer.

Visit the post to get all the details and a boatload of inspiration and ideas — 21 of them, in fact. Entries are already coming in and we hope to read yours soon.

What a Touching Story

What a Touching Story

Ruth E. Walker

I imagine you’ve heard this kind of phrase more than once:

I’m touched by your generosity.

I swear he’s been touched by an angel.

I can’t wait to get my hands on that ring.

As soon as this bloody plane touches down, I’m out of here.

And so on. It is interesting that the sense of “touch” should be used in such emotionally charged moments. I believe it speaks to the power this sense has to connect our hearts and minds.

In any kind of writing, the power that all five senses can bring to your material is enormous. In previous posts, we’ve written about smell, taste, hearing and sight. Then just to keep you thinking, we followed each post on the sense with a companion post focusing on poetry using that sense.

Today, we bring it all home with a focus on the sense of touch and ways in which it can power up the emotions in your writing and immerse your reader in the story.

A trio of touches

We touch through our skin. As our bodies are 99.9% wrapped in the stuff, this massive organ is constantly sending messages to our brains. Once there, our brains choose what signals to notice and what signals to put aside.

There are three types of touches.

  1. A light touch, also known as a “protective touch” includes tickling. A light touch engages our brain immediately so, if an insect starts crawling along your arm, your body responds right away. Depending on your history with bugs, you might swat or brush away the insect immediately or, if you’re less bug-averse, take a closer look to decide if it’s a threat or benign.
  2. A fine touch, also known as a “discriminative touch” is responsible to give your brain specific information about what is touching your body. So, the fine touch alerts the brain that the insect left a slimy trail on your arm as your fingers touch the yucky stuff. Ewww. Get. Slime. Off.
  3. Touch pressure and deep touch pressure is the last of the trio. Shoes that are too tight or that dear old auntie who gives everyone a hug are examples of touch pressure. Covered with a soft feather duvet or a double-layer woolen blanket, it’s your touch pressure sense that tells your brain how heavy each one is. If you’ve ever caught your fingers in a car door, you’ll know what deep touch pressure is like.

Be aware of the degree of touch in your writing. I’ll have more to say on that in a moment.

Touch in writing

It’s easy to use ordinary actions. He touched her face. She picked up the stone. They hugged each other. But it’s useful to consider the variety of ways in which humans give and receive a touch and apply those to your writing.

Touch is more than hands. All of our body is touching something all the time. Even naked, our skin is touching the air.

  • Do your characters touch only with their hands?
  • If the hands are the logical body part to use, can you get more specific? Fingertips, nails, palm, heel, knuckles – all can be used to “feel” something/someone
  • What degree of touching? He felt for a pulse versus he pressed two fingertips against her cold neck, seeking a pulse.
  • What other body parts can you use for touch? Our bodies bump into things all the time and we don’t notice – are there places where a hip brushing against a doorway or when a thorn lodging inside a thigh could give a bit more of setting for your reader? Lean back in your chair and what parts of you are connecting with it? Now write a paragraph or two with one of your characters sitting in a chair, describing the physical connection with that chair.

Go beyond the physical

And touch is not simply physically connecting with something. There are degrees of types of touch that relate to more than the object itself. Touch as an action either being delivered or received is affected by a person’s emotional state and by their own history (stove=hot!) and sensory input levels. Someone with acute sensitivity to physical touch will back away from a hug or even a handshake. And that same person may avoid wools, corduroy or nylon materials. A person with low levels of sensitivity may not notice the texture of rough wool and, in extreme cases, not have any sensory input for types of pain.

With the emotional in mind, remember that the act of touch includes many qualities, and as infants, we learned about our world through the senses. Touch taught us so much through physical explorations. If you want to bring your reader deep into the story, you’ll be wise to keep those qualities in mind:

  • Texture – every physical thing has an exterior that has a texture. Sharp, smooth, ridged, pocked, spongy, liquid, etc.
  • Size – from tiny seeds to cardboard boxes to solid walls, touch informs us of size
  • Shape – similar to texture and size, our 3D world holds all of geometry. Round, flat, oval, rectangular, bulgy, pyramidic, etc.
  • Temperature – cool to the touch, barely warm, flaming hot, ice cold. Our skin is our constant thermometer
  • Pressure – a squeeze of an arm or a chokehold on our throat, we feel the touch and can decide if it’s good or bad
  • Vibration – Place a hand on the washing machine in the spin cycle and the movement and noise reaches us but it’s our skin that is the “first responder” to that vibration
  • Pain – So many kinds of pain that come from our skin being touched by something or someone and yet, so many kinds of pain that can be relieved with a soothing or loving touch

This is just an overview of this last of the five senses. When you finish your first draft, remember to give at least one edit pass that focuses on your use of the senses. If they’re missing or just given a superficial treatment, then you are probably missing the opportunity to immerse your reader in the physical and emotional heart of your story.

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.

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.
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.
Foreshadow the Future

Foreshadow the Future

Ruth E. Walker

I enjoy the outdoors. I get pleasure in working in the garden, especially at my cottage. I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty or derive pleasure when my plants flower or produce fruit. Nighttime calls of spring peepers in the far-off swamp or critters hopping under the shade of the hosta remind me of renewal. Even the cold hand of winter offers pleasures, albeit frigid and at times, deadly.

I tell you this – my affection for the natural world and my respect for it — to set the stage for what is to follow. In fiction, this is referred to as foreshadowing.

Humane Humans

Nature has a way of reminding cottagers that flora and fauna were here first. Anyone who has struggled with fallen trees, poison ivy infestations or rodent incursions can confirm that. As much as is possible, we avoid herbicides for irritant flora. We use live traps for the rodents, my kind husband trekking over to the swamp to release the pesky mice.

It’s not to say we don’t target poison ivy with Round Up when the hillside is awash in the stuff and there’s been no deer around to help control it. And yes, snapping traps and even Warfarin has been pulled out when humane methods can’t keep up. But it’s never the first choice. And we hate the result.

A Murder Most Foul

Despite knowing that death is part of nature, I get upset when I find a dragonfly crushed on the sidewalk or drive past roadkill on the highways. Poor things, I think.

Nonetheless, I became the dealer of death at the cottage. Those gardens I like to tend? They’re all edged with a variety of rocks. Attractive to look at until the grass grows up around them. The lawnmower can’t trim that. So I get up close and personal with my garden shears.

Last month, I crouched down by the rocks, snipping away at the green growth. Until my shears cut through something else. Something that felt like bunched fabric. Or worse. And it was. I decapitated an adult frog. A split second before, it was crouched in the shadow of a rock overhang, unseen. Then it sprang out at the precise moment the two sharp edges of my shears met and severed its head and life in an instant.

Man, I was sick at heart. Still am, in fact.

I’ve spent weeks trying to blot that image out of my head. Today, while once more trimming the rocks, I was so careful. I made a lot of noise, knocking my shears against the rocks. I called out: “Foreshadowing. Here I am. Pay attention, critters.” And weirdly, that got me thinking about how important foreshadowing can be in writing.

Why Foreshadow

Dropping clues into fiction arouses the interest of readers and that’s a primary benefit for any writer. Laying a foundation of foreshadowing creates anticipation that pulls readers through the story. Writers have a full set of tools to inject foreshadowing: images, character action/reaction, dialogue and setting elements, for example. From concrete objects to shadows and colours, the important part is choosing the right tool in the right place.

When you foreshadow, you tickle readers’ curiosity. When you deliver the on that foreshadow, you evoke emotions in readers. You can build internal tension by doling out that delivery bit by bit.

  • Opening scene: Shadowy figure in distance at funeral of POV character’s mother
  • Mid-point: Shadowy figure shows up trying to attack the POV character but evades capture
  • Final scene: Shadowy figure reveals she is POV character’s birth mother & wasn’t trying to attack but longed just to hold him again

That’s a powerful writing tool. But there are a few DOs and DON’Ts of foreshadowing all writers should keep in mind. Here’s three to get you started.

Don’t use a hammer when a feather is enough. An obvious foreshadow is a hammer: As she watched the overloaded pleasure boat pull away from the dock with her husband and children waving jauntily to her, she thought that she should have insisted they all wear lifejackets. Be subtle instead.

Do try to be strategic. Not all foreshadowing leads the reader to the conclusion they expected. Sometimes it is useful to have readers think they know what will happen but then you surprise them. But be careful: the foreshadow still needs to lead to the unexpected result. Be logical.

Don’t worry about foreshadow in the first draft. A bit like reverse engineering, subtle hints and deliberately placed objects or elements are part of editing that first draft. That’s not to say that you didn’t already have foreshadowing in the early writing, but often it is of the hammer variety. Your job is to refine that into the subtle variety. Edit with purpose.

Back to the Beginning

Part of working in foreshadow is returning to the beginning to find places where it can be added. But foreshadow is not restricted to the beginning of a story or novel. It can be an effective tool at the start of a new scene or to create suspense at the end of a scene or chapter.

It is, however, most effective at the start. It sets up expectations. So, what about going back to the beginning of this piece and checking it for elements of foreshadowing? In the comments, share anything you noticed.