Romance: sweet or sizzling?

Romance: sweet or sizzling?

Gwynn Scheltema. 

Many years ago, as a beginning writer, I decided that the easiest fiction to write was romance. After all, I reasoned, it was shallow and formulaic. It would be easy.

So one summer, I conducted an experiment. I ordered four books in four different imprint series from Harlequin and read them all over July and August. I figured that by the end of summer, I would have that formula down pat!

Dead wrong!

I was wrong. Romance books are not shallow and formulaic. To be sure, they do follow an underlying expectation that the hero and heroine will get together in the end, but that’s where the formula ends.

They span many genres: mystery, suspense, historical; the plots are varied and complicated; the settings global; the characters believable and fascinating. And the writing was, for the most part, good. Some books were stronger than others for me, but I can say that about any genre I read. I realized very quickly that I would have to learn a whole lot more before I ever… if I ever… tackled a romance novel of my own.

Digging Deeper into Romance

red valentine graphicSo where do you go to find out more about the genre? The Romance Writers of America, (RWA) website gives a good overview of the genre as well as information on the romance sub-genres. They describe themselves as “dedicated to advancing the professional interests of career-focused romance writers through networking and advocacy.” There you can also find information of RWA chapters throughout North America including Canada, where you can meet other romance writers and attend workshops and conferences.

Sweet, saucy or sizzling?

One of the things I learned from my experiment was that not all imprints are the same. Some were sweet and innocent, some were downright racy. I wondered if I would ever be able to  write the sex scenes effectively and how to know how much was enough or too much.

Harlequin, the world’s largest publisher of romance, provides clear, detailed guidelines on their website for each of their imprints, from the word count to the level of sexual content. For example, Blaze editors ask for sensuous, highly romantic, innovative stories that are sexy in premise and execution. The tone of the books can run from fun and flirtatious to dark and sensual. Writers can push the boundaries in terms of explicitness…an emphasis on the physical relationship…fully described love scenes along with a high level of fantasy, playfulness and eroticism BUT not erotica. The Blaze line must still uphold the Harlequin promise of one hero and one heroine and an implied committed relationship in the end.

Unagented submissions

Some of Harlequin’s imprints require agent representation, but unagented submissions are welcomed for Harlequin Series. Harlequin Series Books (aka “Series Romance” or “Category Romance”) publishes more than 85 titles each month over a wide range of genres.

Your romance

Want to give writing romance a try?

This infographic from Harlequin’s website will help you decide where your romance fits in their imprint series.

Harlequin infographic



Did you know…

Registration for our Spring Thaw 2019 retreat is well underway. Save your spot now!


10 Ways To Write About Love & Sex

10 Ways To Write About Love & Sex

Look for Writescape’s 10 on the 10th for writing tips, advice and inspiration on the 10th of every month. Think of it as Gwynn and Ruth sitting on your shoulder and nudging you along.

Love is powerful and can enrich your characters and add tension to your plot. There’s all kinds of love but this month’s 10 on the 10th, we’re linking it to sex and the many ways you can add it to your story. From sweet to spicy, here are 10 things to consider when you write about love and sex.

1 Think Imagery: Candlelight. Moonlight. Satin. Silk. Moss. Strumming guitar. Sweet violins. Warm ocean breezes. Fur collars. Strawberries. Oil. Remember that the five senses are your best friends in creating emotional connection for your reader: touch, taste, smell, hear & see.

2 Think Relationship: An overworked approach is to pit adversaries against one another who, amazingly, fall in love. Why not reverse it? Take a loving couple and sever their relationship — go big with an unforgivable action or make it a last straw moment. Will they find a path back to each other? Or is someone else waiting in the wings?

love has no logic

3 Think Counterintuitive: Love has no logic and is based on multiple factors that draw two souls together. Or maybe three souls? Ménages a tois exist for a reason. Beyond sex, relationships of any kind are sustained through mutual or sometimes tacit (don’t ask/don’t tell) agreements.

Is it sense or sensibility?

4 Think Sexy: It’s anticipation that works in romance. Humans love to imagine the love-making long before it happens. So give us a flash of ankle, a flush of cheeks or fingertips touching lips in the early stages of the story.

Mae West

5 Think Words: Words are all part of foreplay. Over dinner or in bed or anywhere in between. Sweet nothings. Hot saucy comments. Think Mae West. “Why don’t you come up sometime and see me. I’ll tell your fortune.” Ah, innuendo…especially innuendo.

6 Think Clothing: Modesty in Victorian times meant the legs of furniture should be covered–oh my, your piano’s legs are showing! Thank goodness we got over that idea. For some, naked is best, but for many, degrees of covering lead to imagining, anticipation and surprise. And don’t forget dressing up and cosplay.

7 Think whole body: Every part of the body can be sexy. Lips, breasts and the usuals all work, but don’t forget feet and fingers, ears and shoulders, backs and throats. The body is always “in play” when it’s love, including the insides. Tingling tummies, salivary glands on overdrive and temperatures rising.

8 Think Location: The forbidden element heightens excitement, so sex in public places, hidden away or new places makes for a different dynamic. In safe, well-known environments, something else needs to create the spark.

Speed things up…or sloooooow it right down?

9 Think time: Is this a quickie, or long and languid? Making a day of repeated fun or trying to fit it in before someone or something interrupts? For that matter, what about interrupted sex? What if one partner wants to linger and the other wants things over as soon as possible?

10 Think age and experience: First love or a long-term couple looking to spice things up? Simple sex or toys? From innocent kiss to full-on S&M, there is so much to choose from. Switch it up depending on age, experience, circumstance, motive and genre.

February 6: Just a date?

February 6: Just a date?

Ruth E. Walker

Why is February 6 an important date? For James II of England/James VII of Scotland, this is the day in 1685, he becomes king upon the death of his bother Charles II. In ancient Pompeii, AD 60 to be precise, a bit of wall graffiti shows February 6 as the earliest date the day of the week is known: Sunday apparently, though it would be Wednesday using our calendar. And for British women over the age of 30, this day in 1918 gave them the vote. At last, some women were considered to be adults…

From facts to inspiration

I’ve never paid attention to this particular date, February 6, and many other days that pass me by, year after year. But I got to thinking about how writers and other artists can find inspiration and ideas by checking out a day here or there.

Right now, I’m thinking that my friend and author of historical novels, Cryssa Bazos, would be able to tell me what inspired her to write about 17th century England. Perhaps she was just Googling dates when all the intrigue, civil war and passions of that time caught her attention.

And Pompeii? The place that captured the people and places of the ancient city, buried beneath a mountain of volcanic ash, is rich with high-tension moments. Unable to escape, families, friends and strangers succumbed to the poisonous gasses and then were covered with ash in their desperate last seconds, frozen with an arm extended in fear or draped around a loved one to protect one last time.

It was so sudden that tables were set with food, prepared for a meal never eaten.

Archeologists unearthed a time capsule, including that February 6 day-of-the-week discovery. And for writers, there’s been no end to the stories imagined by the vignettes revealed.

“Nice women don’t want the vote.”

Thinking about British women’s right to vote February 6, 1918, I was reminded how hard won our right to vote is in Canada. Not so very long ago, it was meted out, inch by excruciating inch, province by province, until Canadian women finally got the right to vote federally on May 24 1918.

Of course, there were exceptions. And there were restrictions. You had to be 21 or older, and not a Status Indian or Inuit woman (or man, for that matter.) And restrictions applied to anyone disenfranchised provincially for reasons of race. Thus, Japanese, Chinese and South Asians in B.C. and Chinese in Saskatchewan were kept from voting.

As a writer, this rabbit hole of research got me thinking.

Japanese Canadian soldiers WWI

I’m driven by character, and I try to imagine what the power to vote might have meant to a woman who, on May 23, 1918, couldn’t vote.

I’ll call her Edith.

And what it meant to a woman who, on May 24, 1918, still couldn’t vote.

I’ll call her Miko.

Consider the opportunities for tension if I put these two women in the same house. A Japanese immigrant, Miko is a cook in a boarding house. She is 48 and widowed. Her only child, her son, died fighting in the Great War. Edith’s mother owns the boarding house, and 25-year-old Edith joined the women’s suffrage movement with exuberance. She doesn’t understand why Miko is so quiet on this day because it is a day to celebrate. Whatever is the matter with Miko?

From character to plot. And all because of a date.

So, what about you? Did any of this tickle your Muse? Have you ever checked out an innocuous date and discovered a treasure trove that inspired you to release your Muse and take you on a journey to people or places you’d never thought about before?

Editor or Writing Coach?

Editor or Writing Coach?

Ruth E. Walker

It’s been my pleasure to serve as an editor on non-fiction, memoir and novel manuscripts. I’ve offered up my copyediting and proofreading skills to writers wanting a clean manuscript. Some of these manuscripts have gone on to become successful self-published books. And a few have gone on to agents or publishers, finding a home in traditional publishing.

Of course, no writer is perfect (even you, Ms. Atwood) and all books have benefitted from a good editor. However, some writers look for an editor for their manuscript when what they really need is a writing coach.

Whenever I’m asked to quote for an edit, I read an excerpt first. I’m looking for narrative skill (is this a story or a series of knocked-together events?) and a focus on craft (is there active narration, strong character development, solid plot and theme, a structure that fits the genre OR is it flat in several important areas of craft?) I’m also looking to see if my strengths are a good fit with the editing the writer needs. If not, I’ll suggest where the writer might look for editing support.

But if I see the necessary work on a manuscript as significant, I don’t give an editing quote. Instead I suggest the writer works with a writing coach and offer my services. I will still use my editorial skills but there is a big difference to how I apply them.

What is a writing coach?

A writing coach has a focus on your development as a writer. More than offering editorial advice and copyediting skills, a writing coach recognizes important areas that need developing and will work with you to improve them. It’s important to help you understand why something isn’t working well. Just as importantly, a writing coach will try to help you hold onto and use that understanding in your work. In my case, I’m like a cheerleader every time my clients apply what they’ve learned to their manuscript.

Serving as a kind of mentor, a coach spends time talking with you about your project, your intended audience and your overall goals as a writer. Consider a writing coach to be like an athletic trainer, someone who helps the writer focus on the skills needed with the desired goal as a constant beacon. A writing coach keeps you accountable and, even better, can help you approach the page with excitement and energy.

A writing coach is not your friend; instead, the coach is there to encourage and support your journey and to be clear about the steps needed to be successful. You should expect to see examples or suggestions that help your writing develop. If after a couple of sessions, you don’t feel good about the process or your progress, than it’s likely that writing coach is not for you.

Coaching is far more “organic” than editing. For example, I’ve recently worked with a writer on Point of View (POV). Once that writer gained a deeper understanding, I knew it was time for her to experiment with different approaches. My intention is to help her make decisions about writing a novel from one POV,  various POVs or as third-person narration with a limited POV.  Ultimately, it is her decision. But it’s a decision she’ll make with a clear focus on the kind of story she wants to tell and the best narration to achieve that.

Writing Coach on your shoulder

I’m far more interested in seeing the writer’s skill develop than in fixing a manuscript to “okay” level. If the story doesn’t resonate and the characters are flat stereotypes, readers won’t engage even if there are no typos and the grammar is perfect.

Nonetheless, I still make any necessary standard edits such as typos, grammar or textual errors. And I’ll comment on areas to develop: glitches in logic, lack of character development or a plot gone awry. But as a coach, I want my clients to understand what can strengthen their narrative skills. And I want them to apply that new understanding in subsequent work.

While I can’t let go of the editor, as a coach I want to support a writer to develop their storytelling techniques. When writers explore areas of craft that will enrich what they’re trying to share in their work, they reveal abilities they didn’t know they had.

Did you know?

Coaches for writing are also found in business. Clear written communication can be struggle for some people in the corporate world and with the speed of social media, one wrong word can create a huge backlash.

For another take on the role of a writing coach, take a look at author Ryan G. Van Cleave’s post on The Writer online.

Copy that! January Update

Copy that! January Update

In 2018 our Top Drawer blog Copy That! explained the situation with the ongoing court battle in Canadian courts over creative rights. We then updated you on the Review of the Copyright Act and brought you an update. As we enter 2019, here is the latest update as emailed to creatives by Access Copyright:


Related image

I’ve spent a large part of my professional life at Access Copyright. I’m often asked by publishers and creators what keeps me going, especially through the challenging times.

The answer is simple: it is my privilege to work on behalf of Canadian creators and publishers to make sure their rights and the value of their work are both recognized. In the last few years, workplace gurus have talked a lot about the importance of alignment between your personal values and your work. I feel like I’ve been blessed; this is meaningful work and I cannot imagine doing anything else.

Image result for access copyright

Late last year, I testified before the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage for the Study of Remuneration Models for Artists and Creative Industries. I had the honour of being accompanied by one of Canada’s most prolific Young Adult writers, Sylvia McNicoll. Please take a moment to hear her opening statement before the Committee.

During the question period, one of the MPs asked if there might be a middle ground, a way to protect writers and ensure learners in the public sector have access to high quality materials, given limits to funding.

It’s a question I’ve heard (and answered) many times. Sylvia’s response below truly gets to the heart of the issue.

Ms. Sylvia McNicoll:
     I think it’s just obvious that immediately tariffs have to be enforced [1]. That was never a compromise, to say that you could have an educational exemption and not pay anything. That’s full-handed giving them free….

    This has been going on for close to five years. Different schools opted out at different times. They believe now that they are entitled. It will be very difficult. They have no knowledge of ever paying for photocopying or for digitally reproducing materials.

    We need to get the fines, the tariffs, in place, and then we need to rein in this exemption.

Ms. Roanie Levy:
    If I could add something, the system of collective licensing was created precisely so that the entire book doesn’t have to be bought all the time. It provides that means of accessing without having to pay the full price of all books all the time for every student.

     It’s also important to keep in mind—because I think that because of all of the noise we hear about this and all of the efforts that are made to evade having to pay—that we have the sense we’re talking about incredible sums. In the elementary and secondary sector, we’re talking about $2.41 per student per year. Then they could do the copying of their chapters and their 10% to their heart’s content. It’s $2.41 per child per year, and the ministers are still not paying.

    In post-secondary, at most we are talking about $26 per student per year. It’s the price of a pizza. In college, we are talking about $10 per student per year. We’re not talking about sums that would bankrupt anyone, that would add any true additional burden on students whatsoever.

Ms. Sylvia McNicoll:
    May I add that while it’s just a pizza for them, it’s my mortgage, my groceries, and it’s my car payment. Right now, it’s my dental bill.


[1] Since 2012, educational institutions outside of
Quebec have refused to pay royalties under tariffs certified by the Copyright
Board of Canada. This action has deprived creators and publishers of an
important source of income. For example, under the current elementary and
secondary schools tariff, this non-payment results in an annual loss of $9
million in royalties for the copying of published works by K-12 schools.



Related image

Canadian creators and publishers have suffered under the education sector’s copying policies and practices. I believe politicians and policymakers in Ottawa understand the unintended, negative consequences the 2012 changes to the Copyright Act have brought about.

Now, as they prepare their report and recommendations, I hope they’ll remember Sylvia – and the thousands of writers and publishers who are in the same predicament – looking to make their next mortgage payment, book a dentist appointment or pay for groceries.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

The licence costs are minimal, but the resulting royalty payments make a significant and meaningful difference to Canada’s creators and publishers.

Sincerely,

Roanie Levy
President & CEO
Access Copyright

Access Copyright files submission to the Heritage Committee as part of its Remuneration Models for Artists and Creative Industries study

The submission outlines how copying policies enacted by the education sector after the passage of the Copyright Modernization Act have had serious consequences for creator and publisher income levels and proposes four concrete actions to address this critical issue:
• Amend the Fair Dealing Exception to distinguish between individual and institutional copying;
• Introduce the Artist Resale Right;
• Harmonize statutory damages available to collectives;
• Confirm tariffs set by the Copyright Board are and have always been mandatory.
Our submission can be found here.

Access Copyright teams up for joint Copyright Act review submission

In December, Access Copyright was one of 34 organizations that came together to form The Partnership for the Future of Canadian Stories to represent those who create, read and care about Canadian stories. Collectively, the Partnership prepared an evidence-based analysis to correct misleading claims put forward by opponents of effective copyright to members of the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Economic Development, and the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage.

In December, the submission was filed with both the INDU and the Heritage Committees. Read it here.

The Partnership makes two recommendations to address the current reality facing creators and publishers and their ability to be fairly compensated for the educational use of their works:
• Clarify that fair dealing does not apply to educational institutions when the work is commercially available;
• Harmonize statutory damages available to collectives.

Lend your voice to support Canadian creators and publishers during the Copyright Act review

When creators speak, politicians listen. It’s important we remind the Heritage and INDU Committees of the negative consequences of the 2012 changes to the Copyright Act. It is also vital that they continue to hear this message while they write their final reports.

With this in mind, the I Value Canadian Stories coalition will launch a new letter on the I Value Canadian Stories website the week of January 21. We’ll send an email when it’s ready. It will take no more than two minutes to visit the site and send your letter in support of Canadian creators and publishers.

In case you missed it…Last fall, the I Value Canadian Stories campaign shone the spotlight on Canadian writers and visual artists. Check out the site’s Videos page to learn more about the work of creators like Andrew Pyper, Amy Stuart, Sky Gilbert, David Chariandy and Jennifer Mook-Sang.

Negative consequences of the Copyright Modernization Act in the media

Recently, CBC Radio’s The Sunday Edition (hosted by Michael Enright) and CBC’s The National covered declining incomes for Canadian creators and publishers. The segments addressed the unintended consequences of the Copyright Modernization Act for both communities.

Take time to enjoy the gift

Take time to enjoy the gift

In January, we traditionally take stock of our lives. For writers, that involves our creative lives, our writing lives. So far, we have already looked at Getting into Writing Balance. Our guest blogger (and long-time writing friend), Aprille Janes offers an uplifting take on examining our creative lives from the perspective of “taking time to enjoy your creative gifts”. Currently, Aprille focuses on visual art at her Stone Bay Studio in Nova Scotia, but her message is relevant for any creative.

Guest post: Aprille Janes

Take time to enjoy the gift

 

The artist is nothing without the gift, but the gift is nothing without work. – Emile Zola

Time away is a gift

This year, being away for a whole month was a first for both of us.

A month changes things, providing distance and perspective. It made me see I was in danger of filling my schedule with things that took me away from what I really wanted. Putting together a program to help artists find time was keeping me too busy to paint.

How’s that for irony?

So I took a deep breath, slowed down and asked,

2019 Planner“What do I really want in 2019?”

Easy. I want to prioritize my painting.

That means committing to a daily practice of drawing and painting, taking time to be a student and making my art a priority rather than an afterthought. Like practicing daily scales, I need to put in the work.

 

We all have our own ways of bringing our dreams to life, but what we do each day, at a ‘right here, right now’ level, will determine whether we get there.  — Tara Leaver, Artist

And, as we all know, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. When I say “Yes” to something then I must say “No” to something else.

“What is necessary and what is distraction?”

When I arrived back home I began making time for my dreams by looking at the “mental clutter” I had allowed into my life. Like physical clutter, it took up space, made it hard to navigate and gathered dust.

I don’t know about you, but I tend to subscribe to things as I’m browsing because they catch my eye or I want their ‘freebie’ or there’s a program I’m interested in. That means I end up on a lot of lists if I’m not careful.

Now I looked at each and every promotion and update that came through my inbox and held it up for scrutiny.

  1. Did I even sign up for this? Even with all the anti-spam laws, I still get added to lists without my permission. Those are an easy decision. Unsubscribe.
  2. Is this information pertinent to me anymore? More often than not the answer was No because my life has changed so much. Unsubscribe.
  3. When was the last time I read the information this sender provides? If I can’t even remember – unsubscribe.

Now I’ll admit that unsubscribing sometimes felt a little like breaking up. Often they ask “Why” and it’s tempting to write “It’s not you, it’s me”. Mostly though, I skip giving a reason unless the sender is a friend in the real world.

This is an ongoing process but the difference in less than a week was phenomenal. My inbox holds only those things I deem important to me personally or to my renewed focus on the painting.

the gift of mental decluttering
And speaking of distractions…

Where do I want to invest time on social platforms? Do I have a reason for being there?

For me, it boils down to InstagramFacebook and Pinterest, which make sense to me as a visual artist. I deleted my profile on LinkedIn because I’m not in the corporate/business world any longer. The jury is still out about Twitter.

I left a number of Facebook groups because I wasn’t interacting or they belonged to a different phase of my life. My Creative Fire Café , of course, stays put. I love the community we created and what we learn from each other. The social aspect of Facebook is also a gift because it keeps me in touch with family and friends.

Gift of Changing “The way it’s always been”the gift of studio time

The “Yes” part means daily time in my studio, painting and learning. In the past, I held a belief that my creative time “had” to be in the morning. And yet, I easily slipped into an afternoon routine which feels natural.

By taking care of a few things each morning such as social media, my coaching practice and biz admin (and yes, household chores) I relax and totally focus on my art in the afternoons. Up to now, I hadn’t even recognized that feeling of “something’s not done” and the pressure it created to hurry through my painting time.

Now the parent part of my brain says “Right. Chores are done. Go play.”

Gift of Self-Care

At The gift of self care via a dogthe end of my studio time, right on the dot of 4:00, Joey the Dog comes in, sits down and stares hard at me. He’s letting me know in no uncertain terms, it’s time for his walk. It’s like having my own personal trainer.

These days I find myself taking longer walks which means more fresh air and exercise. Because my other priorities now have their place, I am free to enjoy the moment plus the exercise loosens me up after sitting for so long. When I get back to the house, my husband and I have a cup of tea and spend some quiet time together.

Without even trying, I’m practicing better self-care and enjoying quality time with the spouse, a precious gift.

The Sum of the Equation

All of these small changes add up. Fast. I see positive growth in my art which translates into feeling relaxed and happy, knowing my dreams are getting daily attention. I even sleep better. My time is being spent on priorities, not busy work.

What strategies have worked for you when it comes to finding more time to focus on your priorities?

More about April Janes

Aprille has fond childhood memories of outdoor adventures and time spent near the water. Today, she lives by the Bay of Fundy and her art reflects this love of the outdoors. She divides her time between painting, writing and teaching watercolour workshops.

Find her at:

10 Movies to Inspire Writers

10 Movies to Inspire Writers

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

Movies. Film. The cinema. The flickers…or flicks as they became known. Since 1895, the art of filmmaking has left a legacy of profound movie moments. For nearly 125 years, audiences have lost themselves in the stories unfolding on theatre screens. While the way we watch movies has changed — reclining and wired-for-motion seats in state-of-the-art theatres to surround sound in homes with 75″ television screens and Netflix at the ready. What hasn’t changed is the importance of a compellling story to create excellence in film.

Yes. Of course. Some “blockbuster” films are more about sound and fury than a believeable plot and characters. At a recent screening of “Aquaman,” Writescape’s Ruth Walker almost always knew the next plot twist or line of dialogue before it was voiced. “It was a fun movie with great visual effects,” she said. “But so predictable.”

Nonetheless, in our first 10 on the 10th for 2019, we’ve come up with an admittedly arbitrary list of movies that are useful to explore and perhaps will help you find some inspiration to be completely unpredictable.

 

#1  I Remember Mama— a 1948 movie about a young aspiring writer who discovers her “ordinary childhood” as a Norwegian immigrant in 1900 San Francisco is actual gold for her stories. Memoirists, be inspired because despite a dose of sentimentality, there is also a frankness in this movie that surprises. All memoir is strongest when it tells the truth. The movie is based on the stories of Kathryn Forbes which she based on her own Norwegian-born grandmother’s life in early twentieth century San Francisco. Real life is the well of inspiration for writers everywhere.

 

 

#2  Adaptation written by Charlie Kaufman who is also, coincidentally, the lead character played by Nicolas Cage  — a funny and unsettling 2002 film about a screenwriter failing at adapting a novel for film and his overshadowing, successful twin. Twists. Identity crises. Writerly angst. More twists. Confusion. Mayhem. In fact, many writers will recognize this as just another day in the life. Is this Kaufman’s memoir? Sort of. For the screenwriters among you, here’s a link to the screenplay on Stephen Follows’ website.

 

 

# 3 Sense and Sensibility 1995 Ang Lee version for a film adaptation of a timeless plot. All of Jane Austen’s books make for terrific film and television series but this is an excellent example of subplot doing brilliant service to the main plot. Austen wisely set the subplot with the main character’s sister and made these sisters different in almost every regard. The simple main plot of girl falls for unattainable boy needs the heightened tension of girl’s sister falls for falsely attainable boy while one true love watches in agony from the sidelines. The standard romance plot in Austen’s hands becomes a look at social status and, in particular, women’s power (or lack thereof) in the early nineteenth century England. A deceptively simple plot with a potent punch.

 

#4  Pan’s Labyrinth — this visually stunning and mood-rich 2006 film set in 1944 Fascist Spain was written and directed by Guillermo Del Toro. Part fairy tale and part historical film, this Spanish-language movie blends reality and fantasy so well that belief in the mythical creatures is as strong as in the heroic characters. Why should you see it? Del Toro worked from his 20-year journal notes of ideas and concepts to carve out a screenplay that feels like an ancient parable told long ago. He had the whole screenplay in his head before he wrote a single word of it. And bonus trivia for all writers: he wrote the English subtitles because he was disappointed with the subtitle work on his earlier movies. Clearly, a writer who is dedicated to his craft, and who cares about his audience and conveying his story to them.

 

#5  Dinner at Eight — a clever, star-studded 1933 comedy/drama. The whole complex plot revolves around a high-society dinner party organized by a wife to help her husband’s business dealings and all the problems in the hours before: Suicides, business failures, affairs, sneaky backroom deals and lack of a single man to balance the table setting. Nonetheless, Mrs. Jordan’s dinner gets served precisely at eight. The “over-acting” of the age is a fabulous metaphor for when stereotypical characters can be successful because they carry a message: pretense vs reality. No one is who they pretend to be. The writing is darn good as well, adapted from a Broadway play.

 

 

#6  Julie and Julia – 2009 “blogger” story based on the real-life Julie who has a blog in which she will make a Julia Child recipe every day and blog about it. We get Julia Child’s history as well, as Julie’s life takes twists and turns she didn’t expect. Julia refused to acknowledge the Julie blog which adds another rich layer to the background of the story. A useful examination of writing two POV characters and ways to create thematic connections between two separate stories. In real life: Julie and Julia never met and they don’t in this movie, either. Yet we suspect they could have been friends.

 

 

 

#7  Run Lola Run — a 1997 German thriller written and directed by Tom Tykwer. It’s a simple plot: Red-head Lola has 20 minutes to get 100,000 Deutsche Marks to her boyfriend Manni or he’ll rob a store to get the money to pay back the mob. Much of the movie is about Lola running. And running. And, yes, running. But it is a clever tale, told with three different endings. Every action and interaction Lola has the first time she tries to save Manni shows up in the next two endings. Like the butterfly effect, a simple pause not taken or decision delayed has consquences. And through each iteration, there are important constants that anchor the themes of free will and fate. Take note of the “blind woman” character and her pivotal role: is this fate for Lola or is she being given the chance to, at last, get it right?

 

 

#8 The Princess Bride — This 1987 classic film’s screenplay was adapted by the novel’s writer, William Goldman. Directed by Rob Reiner, the movie preserves many of the elements that make the novel a delight to read. Ironic. Self-aware. Fantastical. Romantic. Adventurous. And rich in life lessons, including: There is such a thing as Mostly Dead. Revenge can’t give us back what we’ve lost.  And inconceivable is a word that can be overused and, occasionally, misused. The Princess Bride is a story of True Love, framed by a grandfather reading the book to his ill grandson. It honours the gift of imagination and delights in playing with the tropes of fairy tale and fable, just as the novel continues to do for readers since its 1973 publication date.

 

 

#9  Misery – a 1990 adaptation of Stephen King’s best-selling 1987 novel, the movie was directed by Rob Reiner. And the screenplay adaptation was written by William Goldman. Despite that successful pairing for The Princess Bride, there is little humour in this movie but plenty of irony. And really, it’s about a best-selling novelist, so already it has a hook for any writer. The movie is true to the novel with few exceptions. Given that many of Stephen King’s novels and novellas have been made into movies, it’s interesting to note that this is the only one to have garnered an Academy Award. Actor Kathy Bates embodies the obsessed fan Annie Wilkes and deserved that award. King structures well-paced plots and develops engaging characters that translate well onto the screen. However, this is a psychological horror film so it’s not for everyone. But with a novelist as our protagonist and a crazed reader as our antagonist, it comes close to the writerly bone. Perhaps having a Number One Fan is not always something to strive for.

 

#10 Moonlight — a 2016 coming-of-age film, written and directed by Barry Jenkins. Just like Del Toro, this movie’s writer and director lovingly crafts an evocation of time and place that is both highly specific and broadly universal. As writers, we strive to create characters and storylines that resonate with readers. Moonlight manages that because it is unflinching in giving us flawed characters with rich layers of humanity. At its heart, the storyline explores the outsider’s journey: a quest to discover who he is and embody that person. It takes the standard 3-act structure to heart: each act, or chapter of the film, is a slice in the life of a boy who becomes a teen and eventually, in the third act, an adult. There’s a lot of learn even from the film techniques of Jenkins, for example, changing the colour tone and palette of each act to echo the time in which it occurs and the emotional energy of our lead character.

As writers, we need to be aware of tone and palette choices in our stories. As we gain ability of that technique, it will transfer into emotional resonance every time we want it to occur in our writing.

More on that subject another time.

This list of movies for writers is by no means exhaustive. What movies do you think writers should put on their “must watch” list?

Getting into Writing Balance

Getting into Writing Balance

Gwynn Scheltema

Several years ago, I attended a writing workshop with Caroline Pignat, (a wonderful author and twice a Governor General Literary Award winner!) and she began the session with this simple exercise:

  • On a piece of paper draw a circle that represents the creative talent you think you have.
  • In relationship to that, draw an overlapping circle that represents the writing craft skill level you think you have.
  • And now add another overlapping circle that represents your commitment to actual writing.
 What did it mean?

The middle area where the three circles intersect represents the success you can expect with your writing goals.

My talent and craft circles were about the same size, but my commitment circle was woefully small in comparison. The resulting central shape for success was tellingly small too. According to this diagram, if I upped my level of commitment, my success area should increase. I kind of knew this in my heart of hearts. I can write, but I don’t. I should submit, but I don’t. It was common sense really. And it compelled me to change some things in my life to remedy it.

Your circles may be different: perhaps you write every day and have a natural talent for telling stories, but your level of craft is low — passive writing, bad grammar or a lack of understanding of structure. Or you’ve taken a boatload of workshops and read widely on the craft, and you have a high level of commitment, but your storytelling skills need help and it means you don’t turn out compelling fiction.

Whatever the imbalance, paying attention to it will help you succeed.

Getting back in balance

So as part of your resolution making /goal setting this January, work on getting your circles in balance. There are many ways to do it, but here are a few tips:

Commitment:

  • Schedule writing time like any other appointment and stick to it
  • Find a writing buddy, and support and motivate each other
  • Fight feeling overwhelmed by making small, specific and achievable goals
  • Find a place to write where you feel creative and are not disturbed
  • Tell your family about your goal and ask for their support

 

Talent:

  • Believe in yourself; confidence is the best boost for talent
  • Face fears – submit even though you fear rejection; try a new form or genre – you won’t know what you’re good at until you try
  • Remind yourself why you like to write and rekindle your passion
  • Read, read, and read – your ability will improve by osmosis. Really!
  • Fill your creative well often – try other art forms; visit museums, galleries, parks and natural spaces. Remember observation, mindfulness and curiosity.

Craft:

  • Join a critique group – the critiques you receive are just part of the learning process. Giving critique and listening to critique of others’ work helps you understand all aspects of craft and different genre expectations. You’ll also learn to read critically.
  • Read as a writer – when you are impressed by the way an author handles a scene, analyze what they did to achieve it.
  • Take workshops or attend conferences – choose them wisely depending on what you need to know to improve right now. Random courses are more likely to boost procrastination than skill.
  • Allow yourself to write a “shitty first draft” by knocking the inner critic off your shoulder. Like all skills, writing takes practice.
  • Network with other writers at breakfasts, workshops and writing events. I often learn as much from attendees as I do from facilitators.

I’m happy to say that when I check in with myself this New Year, I know my circles are more in balance – still not equal – but improving. And I’m happy with that.

A few more tips

Some previous Top Drawer posts you might like to revisit that speak to aspects of this post:

 

 

 

 

Assumptions Stump a Writer

Assumptions Stump a Writer

Ruth E. Walker

A writer—any good writer—has certain gifts and qualities that should serve them well away from their works in progress. But recently, I was reminded that those gifts can only show up if they are called on to do so. When we let assumptions take over and when our imaginations are dulled, it won’t matter how creative our thinking is. We’ll be as clueless as the next guy.

It all started with the dishwasher. We’ve gone two years without a working dishwasher and when recently offered a gently used one, we said yes. It’s nice to have one when there’s a lot of company and a lot of dishes, I reasoned.

Our lovely gift was easily installed and the first run through was a total success. Sparkling clean dishes and I didn’t need to don rubber gloves.

Reality bites

Two days later, we ran it again. Once again, the dishes were sparkling clean. But the nearly 1/4 cup of water on the floor was a sign our free dishwasher might be a bit of a lemon.

Now here’s where the writer in me should have given this a lot more consideration. Writers are supposed to look closely at things, to puzzle out mysteries and consider optional scenarios. Many of us suffer from the ” What if” syndrome. We ask questions. We do it all the time for our characters and plots. So, logically, we should do it in life.

But the writer in me jumped ship as I stared at the small puddle in front of our dishwasher.

I called the installer. It would be a few days before he could come back out to look at it, so we waited.  Meanwhile, we worried. How much would the repair cost? Could it even be repaired? Was this a huge mistake, taking on a used dishwasher?

Asking yourself the right questions

It was my husband who first broached the optional scenario. Maybe it was the ice cubes.

Ice cubes?

The evening of the water leak, he’d dropped a tray of ice cubes onto the kitchen floor. He thought he’d got them all, but in retrospect he wondered if he missed a couple under the cupboard. Beside the dishwasher, in fact.

And here’s where my writer-brain finally kicked in. If this leak was from the dishwasher, why had it only been clean water? Cold clean water, in fact. If the gasket was faulty on the door in just one corner, it still would have been faulty during the whole cycle and not just the rinse. But there’d been no soapy residue.

No. The more logical culprit had been a couple of wayward ice cubes tucked up next to the bottom right corner of the dishwasher. And there they melted. And there they waited for me to jump to conclusions.

Hand slap to the forehead

I ran the dishwasher again. No leak. I called and cancelled the service call. No invoice to pay.

I’ve used the dishwasher two times since the ice cube hypothesis and not a drop of water on the floor. The dishwasher is fine. It’s my brain that needs some work.

Assumptions can be the bane of any writer’s life, especially when they filter into our writing. It’s the place stereotypes lurk, the home of As You Know, Bob moments and the heartbeat of a complete lack of surprise in our stories.

It is exactly what you do not want your reader to experience. Ho-hum…

And writer, here’s the thing to remember: if you can avoid assumptions in other areas of your life, it can save you some angst and expensive service calls.

By the way, did you take a close look at the picture at the top of this post? Did you assume he was a writer, sitting on that stump? He’s actually an artist sketching in the forest. Give yourself ten points if you thought he was an artist. Otherwise, guess you’ll have to keep working on looking closer at things.

Let’s end with a wish for you all to have a lovely holiday season and all the best for an inspired new year.

Just one sentence

Just one sentence

Gwynn Scheltema

Something I’ve learned from my yoga practice is how to calm my mind and rid it of swirling daily mental debris by focusing on my breathing. I take a few deep breaths and listen to the sound of it, notice the temperature of the air as it enters and leaves my body, feel the rise and fall of my belly as I inhale and exhale — and before I know it, my heart rate slows and a calm comes over me. Daily problems are pushed away and I feel renewed.

Mental filters

I do the same kind of mental focussing at the start of freefall writing practice. I learned this from my friend and mentor, Sue Reynolds. She explained to me that when we do this kind of breathing practice, we put ourselves in a state similar to that we experience just before we fall asleep, where we are aware but not necessarily thinking in the same rigid patterns that we would when awake.

Medical researcher Valdas Noreika is his study “Intrusions of a Drowsy Mind” hypothesizes that when we enter sleep, the brain steadily dismantles the models and concepts we use to interpret the world, leading to moments of experience unconstrained by our usual mental filters.

I believe that, yes, this works for writing because we are putting aside our usual mental filters like the inner critic; the fears; the lack of self-confidence; the desire to be and do what others want of us and on and on…. But I also believe that the act of focussing is just as important.

Focussing

The beauty of focussing is that we need only think about (substitute “worry about”; “imagine”; “create”) one thing—one small thing—at a time.

At our recent Writescape Turning Leaves 2018 retreat, we were talking about writing every day: how hard it is; how necessary it is; how productive it is. One of the participants said that she demands only two sentences from herself daily.

She went on to explain that having made the effort to sit down with her WIP to write “only two sentences” she invariably writes a lot more, but that having such a small focused goal is not overwhelming and easily doable, so she does it.

Go Small to go Big

In an article in Glimmer Train, Jane Delury uses the technique of writing just one sentence to get unstuck.

She says: “This sentence doesn’t need to have anything to do with the work that you are wrestling. Maybe it’s about the chip in the coffee mug on your desk. Maybe it’s about a phone call with your mother last night. Or the patter of rain against the window. Maybe it’s about the doubt that your story or novel has stirred in you, concretized in an image that will form if you stay long enough between capitalized letter and period for the clichés to flow away, long enough for the appearance of magical corpuscles.”

Just one Sentence

There is power in writing just a sentence or two. When I attended a retreat with Peter Carver and Kathy Stinson, we did an exercise that I use often now to get my writing flowing. It combines the principles of continuous writing, like freefall, with the focused goal of “just one sentence”.

Set a timer for one minute (when you get good at this, increase to longer times) and write without ending your sentence. Use any and all conjunctions and other methods of joining phrases, such as: and; and then; but; until; because; however; etc. Just keep writing and writing and writing. Afterwards, it is easy to erase the bits you don’t want and fix the sentence structure.

I find that this exercise forces me to stay with a topic, character or scene and go further with it than I would normally have done, and that is when the good stuff comes—when the mental filters are gone and I’m focused.

Try it!

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