10 Ways To Use Personal Papers

10 Ways To Use Personal Papers

Paper is the writer’s friend, especially when you have a great idea in a restaurant and want to scribble down the main points but your cell phone is dead and your laptop is back at home and the idea is losing its thread and you’re desperate…ah-ha! The crumpled napkin from your lunch sits next to your pen and…you create a masterpiece outline. Too bad it fell out of your pocket as you left the restaurant. See #10 on what might become of your great idea.

There are all kinds of personal papers just waiting for writers to mine the gold found within. For July’s 10 on the 10th, here’s 10 takes on what you might discover.

1.   Excerpts from diaries and journals can fill in details in a story without being an “As You Know, Bob” moment. Be careful though — avoid info dumps or long boring passages — create excerpts that seem real while providing only the details the character (and readers) need to know.

Use this technique if it’s a logical addition and not “oh yeah, the reader needs to know there’s a secret rendezvous place so let’s have the character who can barely read suddenly have a journal with all the details conveniently hidden under her bed…”

2.   Actual diaries and journals can be a tremendous research rabbit hole for writers to fall into. Tantalizing pieces of history are on offer that often set up more questions than answers:

Today, we stopped at Aunt Mable’s farm. Cousin Dedalaus refused to come out and say hello. After we left, Papa said we weren’t to ever go back there. Mama just smiled and said We’ll see.

3.   Shopping lists can give insights to character personalities such as someone who claims to be on a diet yet has ice cream, sugary drinks, cookies and candies on their list.

Or how about a character who writes their shopping list in alphabetical order: apples, auger, bananas, bread, garden hoe, jam, measuring cup, milk, onions, plywood, yams, yellow spray paint.

Or a character who creates a shopping list by cutting out the pictures from grocery store flyers and pastes them onto a sheet of paper?

Why not just take the flyer along and circle the items to buy? Well, maybe she needs items that are not all shown on one store’s flyer. Or maybe he has a thing for certain coloured foods. See how you can play with it, writer?

4.   Shopping lists (or lists in general) can create questions when there’s something strange in the mix such as:

  • take the dog to the vets
  • pick up order from hardware store
  • call Calli’s dance teacher to rebook
  • rotate the body in the freezer

5.   Letters can deliver surprises – Twists and turns in your plot can arrive in the mail — and of course, that can be via email. But there’s something offered in an envelope that email can’t capture. Before pressing SEND, consider ideas around handwriting versus typed addresses, and scented paper, or fancy seals on the flap.

Email will deliver the news but anyone who mails a letter or card these days is offering a bit of insight into who they are and perhaps even their motivation:

  • Hello. You don’t know me but your father and my father were the same person. Call me if you want to know more. (what reader isn’t going to want the character to make that call?)
  • Dear Homeowner, did you know your house is built over the remains of a sacred Druid site? (again, the reader’s interest is piqued)

6.   Letters can add layers to relationships — Again, there are differences offered in snail mail vs email. But no matter which you opt for, the opportunity to enrich your story is there for the taking:

Dear Algernon, I haven’t been able to sleep more than an hour or two each night without knowing if you have any feelings for me. Last weekend at the dance, you spent almost the whole time with other women. But when you took me in your arms for the last dance, the warmth of your hand on the small of my back and the intensity of how you looked at me almost the whole time — Algernon, please tell me I’m not imagining things. In breathless hope, Hortense

7.   Letters can reveal character — So, about that layering of the relationship. What Hortense perceives can be made clear to the reader if her correspondence gets this kind of reply :

Dear Hortense. Thank you for your charming letter. I confess to being confused, however. As an instructor, I’m required to dance with all the women in class. As you must know, it would be difficult for us to waltz without placing my hand on the small of your back. As to intensity of expression, that might have been my effort to avoid your rather sharp heel landing on my feet. Again. And it might also explain my waiting until the last dance before escorting you to the dance floor. I wish you only the best in any future dance classes. Regrettably, my classes are all full for the foreseeable future. Sincerely, Algernon

8.   Classified ads can be a treasure trove of inspiration and ideas. Who hasn’t been moved by this famous six-word story, attributed to Ernest Hemingway and framed like a Buy & Sell advert: For sale, baby shoes, never worn.

But actual classified, “For Sale: Gently used prosthetic arm”, and especially the personals, can inspire or confuse – or both. Like this gem culled from New York magazine early-1990 archives:

Lovely, Lively, Literate — Lean, Lollobrigida-like NY lady — longs for love, laughter, languid lunches, lunar libations, with legally-free, long, lean, literate, loquacious non-lunatic, 40s–50s. recent photo, personal note.

Was she a writer with a penchant for alliteration? The possibilities loom large.

9.   Glossy ads and feature articles are full of interesting characters and scenarios that can inspire ideas, such as beautiful happy people driving shiny sports cars with the top down on treacherous mountain roads. What’s waiting beyond the next bend?

Some ads are deliberately provocative, such as Australia Ad Standards: If You Are A Woman Don’t Bother Reading This Ad, meant to highlight unacceptable issues in advertising like sexism, racism, and other social issues.

And some ads are simply head-scratchingly inspirational for backstory, as in who thought a sarcastic ad about zits and a teen’s lovelife was a good idea?

10.   Discarded scraps with phone numbers, cryptic notes, and even doodles can trigger ideas, questions and creative thinking. The Litter I See Project features poetry and prose based on found litter.

Since June 2015, Carin Makuz, has been sharing intriguing images of her trash-on-the-ground discoveries on her website and Facebook page, and more than 100 writers have answered her call. Visitors to the website can donate directly to Frontier College, a well-respected national literacy program for adults, youth and children.

Now that’s taking lost, forgotten or unloved items to a very good place. And the poems and stories are terrific examples of what you can do with scraps and scrawls.

10 Effects Mothers Bring to Stories

10 Effects Mothers Bring to Stories

Yesterday was Mother’s Day, where mothers are brought breakfast in bed, given floral bouquets of appreciation, and celebrated by everyone with Hallmark sentiments. Well, perhaps not “everyone.”

North American social norms tell us mothers are this mid-twentieth century wonder woman, taking care of her children, ensuring they are fed and nurtured in every sense of the word, juggling the needs of the family and always putting herself second.

Except mothers are people and therefore complicated human beings who can find a home in your stories far outside of the ideal. Here are 10 “kinds” of mothers you can consider in your writing. These mothers can offer conflict, safe spaces, scene-stealing, selfishness — they can hold the promise of the future or inject fear, confusion or coldness into your stories.

Villains or saints, mothers hold power in your fiction.

1.  Birth Mothers

This group of mothers offers readers reflections of beginnings, the vital importance of nurturing and often suggests a position of power/strength. Birth mothers hold the promise of the future through the next generation. They also hold the lineage and that echoes the stories and traditions of the past.

In Camilla Gibb’s acclaimed novel, Sweetness in the Belly, the story begins with a birth in a rain-damp alley behind an old hospital in London, England. The infant girl’s “mighty and unconscious wail” sets the tone for power even in grief that our main character, herself an orphan, must draw on.

2.  Grandmothers

Long held to be vessels of great wisdom from years of life experience, grandmothers are seen as elders and teachers rich in unconditional love. A fine example of a selfless grandmother is in Roald Dahl’s The Witches. In Dahl’s usual quirky style, this grandmother is a retired witch hunter, and teaches her grandson (an orphan) how to spot the evil witches in their disguise. Expect the unexpected in any Dahl story.

And who can forget Little Red Riding Hood’s dear sweet bedridden grandmother? But if we go “unexpected” in this classic tale, what if Granny conspired with the Big Bad Wolf to get rid of Little Red? Can you think of a reason for Granny to turn bad? There. We knew you could do it.

3.  Stepmothers

Long painted as the villain in fairy tales, stepmothers work well as an interloper/newcomer character. They can add the quality of the unnatural, of being outside the family “clan” and subject to suspicion and even hatred and perhaps a target to kill off. From Snow White’s cruel stepmother to the artificial stepmothers in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale where slave women are forced to bear children to be raised by ruling class women in a patriarchal dystopia.

But turn the “evil stepmother” upside down, and you have dear Mrs. Dashwood in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. The second wife to deceased Mr. Dashwood, she suffers at the hands of her stepson and his conniving wife. Kicked out of the family home with a small annuity, she must find husbands for her two daughters.

4.  Absent Mothers

These characters will serve any longing for/searching for scenarios in your stories. Because mothers are key figures in our lives, an absent mother calls our attention. Like stepmothers, absent mothers are not “natural” in terms of social expectations. A fine option for a mystery can be made with a missing mother. Or a simple set up could be a mother who is dead. But even there, fiction holds a lot of possibility and complexity.

In Yann Martel’s brilliant Life of Pi, we see his mother as a loving and caring parent. But with her death, as related by Pi to investigators about the ship sinking he survived, readers are never 100% certain about what happened. Except that she is gone during much of Pi’s story. And because she was a memorable character, we feel her absence.

5.  Adoptive Mothers

Like the grandmother figure, an adoptive mother can be a source of unconditional love. She symbolizes a form of motherhood but from a distance. Whether she adopts by choice or adopts by circumstances, the adoptive mother can be either wonderfully selfless or perhaps an opportunist.

In Heather Tucker’s haunting novel The Clay Girl the caring adoptive mother figure is found in Aunt Mary who offers Ari temporary sanctuary by the sea but constant unconditional love. But what if there’s an inheritance to be had or the need to put on a show and appear selfless? There’s room for a calculating adoptive mother to find life on a page somewhere. A page of yours, perhaps?

6.  Neglectful Mothers

Careful writer. This one is a minefield of missteps if you don’t bother to humanize even the most neglectful mother. We’d all like to believe that no mother could be intentionally neglectful. If you’ve read Tucker’s The Clay Girl, you already understand why Aunt Mary is so necessary to Ari’s tender soul as her birth mother consistently and completely misses all the marks for even basic motherly instinct.

Fiction is full of selfish, vain, flighty, inattentive mothers, or mothers who (Jane Austen once more) like Elizabeth’s mother Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice who manipulates and plans and frets to get her daughters married off. But she’s not a cardboard character once you recognize the fate of husbandless women. Mrs. Bennet is highly motivated but neglects the fact that like and love are essential ingredients in a happy marriage.

7.  Overprotective Mothers

Well, the average mother might question herself on whether she’s being too cautious in the raising of her children. So, it’s good to have your mother characters doubt themselves from time to time.

But in the hands of the psychological horror master, Stephen King, the overprotective mother can get notched up to an awful (in)human being. His blockbuster of a first novel Carrie gave us Margaret White, Carrie’s fanatically religious mother who swears to keep her daughter “safe” from her developing teenaged body. The results are, well, an inevitable explosion of repression let loose with horrific consequences.

8.  Animal Mothers

From Bambi’s ill-fated mother to Peter Rabbit’s cautioning mama, there are plenty of animal stories that feature loving mothers. Animal mothers are instinct-driven, protective and nurturing. The top animal that demonstrates all this and more is the female elephant. Pregnant for 22 (!) months, these massive beasts deliver calves that are blind and completely dependent. But that mother instinct kicks in for the entire matriarchal herd, and all the females (grandmothers, aunts, sisters, etc.) pitch in to nurture and protect the very young. Unless you want a full-on trampling, never be a threat to a baby elephant.

Some females in the animal kingdom offer the ultimate sacrifice after doing their “mother” thing. For example, salmon, octopus and squid devote all their energy to laying their eggs before dying.

And then there’s the not-so-perfect animal mommas that neglect their young or kill and even eat their newborn young. Pigs, rabbits, prairie dogs, and other species commit infanticide but fortunately, it’s a rare behaviour. Check out Wikipedia if you want to follow that “rabbit hole” of horrifying facts.

9.  Mother Earth/Mother Nature

Oh my, this Mother has been personified and worshipped for as long as sapiens walked the ground. In Greek mythology, she is Gaia. To the ancient Romans she is Terra. In Indic faiths, she is Prithvi (the Vast One) or Bhumi (the mother of gods) representing the earth. Throughout the world, various cultures and faiths cast our planet as an all-encompassing nurturer and revere her for her many gifts.

And yet, we do make a mess of Mama Earth, don’t we? And sometimes, Mother Nature gives us a good whipping: hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, droughts, landslides, avalanches and — dare we suggest it — pandemics serve to remind us that she, like most mothers, is a powerful force. And silly us, we’re not serving her very well. Let’s hope that with more interest in harnessing her renewable resources and reducing our carbon footprints, we might get her to settle back down.

10.  The Mother Of All…

So it seems only appropriate that this figure in all our lives — yes, until cloning becomes fully automatic, we all have to be born — that this figure should somehow represent the ultimate, where we can simply use any noun to notch up something to the biggest, the greatest, the most impressive. The mother of all construction projects. The mother of all vacations. The mother of all wedding receptions. But it is not always complimentary. For example, the mother of all headaches. The mother of all snowstorms. The mother of all… well, you get the drift.

So, as we’ve just got through the second pandemic-restricted Mother’s Day let’s not wait for the next second Sunday in May to celebrate a woman special to you. Mother, grandmother, stepmother, adoptive mother and so on, why not designate a random day in the future to make it The mother of all Mother’s Day.

10 Chocolate Inspirations

10 Chocolate Inspirations

With Valentine’s around the corner, we’re exploring 10 ways that chocolate can inspire us. The cacao bean grows inside pods that are harvested and then the beans removed. From those beans comes the chocolate that so many of us love. But we’re also offering some facts about the little bean that might surprise you. Don’t you love surprises? We thought so.

Chemical Love

Chocolate contains a chemical called phenylethylamine which releases pleasure endorphins in the brain. Love potion? Chemical manipulation? Love substitute? How could this phenomenon be adapted to story?

Let Myths and Legends inspire you

Myths and legends are always great inspiration for writing or indeed actions of many kinds. Ancient Mayan calendars led many to believe that the world would end in 2012. It didn’t, but Qzina Specialty foods were inspired to create a 9-ton replica of the Kukulkan temple in Chichen Itza, Mexico. It took the company’s pastry chef 400 hours to build and beat the previous Guinness World Record for the largest chocolate sculpture.

A smoking hot bean

Since 1500 BC, cacao was a staple in Central American diets. Mayans served chocolate drinks as a mealtime staple, creating chocolate concoctions with chili peppers, honey or simply water. That tradition continues. Today’s savvy cooks add a touch of unsweetened chocolate, or cocoa powder, to their bubbling pots of chili. Why? Because cocoa enriches the flavours of the peppers and spices in a yummy pot of chili. But just like any flavour-booster, that chocolate is a tiny addition to the whole pot. Otherwise, it will overwhelm the rest of the flavours bubbling away. Use the chocolate-in-chili concept in your writing: a teaspoon of effective description is much better than a page of every little detail that overwhelms your reader.

Happy Accidents

Surprises keep stories fresh, especially when the outcome seems inevitable. The surprise serves double duty when it surprises the characters as well. It really happened to Percy Spence, a scientist working on WWII radar and weapons projects. Percy noticed that being near a magnetron melted the chocolate bar in his pocket. The idea that magnetrons might heat food at incredibly fast rates, gave birth to the microwave oven.

Story starters

  • Zeus stared at me. “I hate chocolate. It’s only for weak mortals.”
  • When Cindy opened her eyes, the world was made of chocolate…
  • I’ll have a hot chocolate please- double whipped cream…
  • Brad skied up to the kiosk at the end of Dragon Run and ordered two hot chocolates…

Chocolate movie inspiration

The Mexican love and social drama Like Water for Chocolate is set prior to the revolution of 1910. Director Alfonso Araus’ film is based on the novel Como agua para chocolate (1989) written by his wife, Mexican writer Laura Esquivel Valdés. Great movie for studying family relationships.

Chocolat – One Taste is all it Takes is based on the novel Chocolat from British writer Joanne Harris (1999). This fairy tale for adults set in the French countryside towards the tail end of the 1950’s stars Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp. ’Nuff said.

Ignorance is not always bliss

While cacao beans were first harvested in Mexico and Central America, 60% of cacao bean harvest comes from the west coast of Africa, specifically Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire. So, there must be lots of chocolate there too, right? Guess again. Imagine what it must be like to taste sweet chocolate for the first time. In 2014, a news crew from VPRO Metropolis filmed a farmer and his family and labourers tasting chocolate for the first time. Their delight and amazement is humbling to watch. For many of us, we have hundreds of ways to enjoy chocolate. But for many of the people who grow and harvest that lowly bean, few have ever had that sweet confection melt in their mouths. Why? They’re paid very little for this labour-intensive crop. What can your story introduce as a first-time moment?

Favourite Things

Chocolate makes it to many people’s list of favourite things. What’s on your character’s list of favourites? Why? What does that tell you about that character? Try this exercise with villains, side-kicks—any character that needs fleshing out.

Prescription: Chocolate

Oh yes! Something delicious that is also good for you: chocolate has flavanols, which, besides being rich in antioxidants also can lower blood pressure. But before you devour that caramel-butternut chocolate confection, you need a few more facts. Processed chocolate – milk chocolate or Dutch-processed cocoa powder – loses most, if not all, of those lovely flavanols. So choose dark chocolate and remember that even that choice can be a highly processed product. Ah, choice. It’s one of the best ingredients in any plot. When a character has to make a choice, much can be revealed about who they are and it ups the tension which, as readers will tell you, that’s a very sweet thing to have happen. Does your story have enough choice?

Show me the (Chocolate) Money

The Aztec culture believed cacao beans were a gift from their god. So valued that Aztecs used the beans as currency for trade and religious ceremonies. Consider how something ordinary could be transformed into a sacred item. Look around your home and imagine one lowly object being a gift from a god. A vacuum cleaner? Crystal vase? Magnifying glass? Write a scene where a character begins to doubt the belief.

10 Words from Writers

10 Words from Writers

It’s a new year and, while last year’s issues linger on, we writers are ready to take on whatever else 2021 will hand us. After all, it’s life’s experiences that fuel us, inspire us and challenge us to pull out the best possible words in the best possible order and place them on the page.

At least, that is the theory. To underscore that concept and to keep you in a positive creative space, we’re sharing 10 quotes about the craft from 10 different writers. Energizing? A calorie-free fill-up, we hope. Inspiring? Probably. Challenging? We surely think so.

You be the judge.

What is a writer?

Aristotle: We are what we repeatedly do.

Susan Sontag: A writer is someone who pays attention to the world.

John Updike: Writers may be disreputable, incorrigible, early to decay or late to bloom but they dare to go it alone.

How does a writer work?

Anne Lamott: Very few writers know what they are doing until they’ve done it.

Anais Nin: The role of the writer is not to say what we all can say but what we are unable to say.

J. K. Rowling: Anything’s possible if you’ve got enough nerve.

Robert Frost: Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.

Why be a writer?

Jorge Luis Borges: When writers die they become books, which is, after all, not too bad an incarnation.

Franz Kafka: A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.

Last word on writing

Stephen King: An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.

We expect that at least one of these intriguing quotes from writers might nestle next to your muse and help keep your pen filled with unstoppable ink. As the year unfolds, keep in touch. Let us celebrate your wins and soothe any scrapes or bruises that might come your way.

10 Quotes for Our Time from Children’s Books

10 Quotes for Our Time from Children’s Books

Our strange times present us with new situations to face almost daily and how to think about and celebrate the holiday season this month is just one of them. In olden times, before the printing press, the court jester held up a mirror to the events of the day and gave people different perspectives to consider. Literature does that too—including children’s literature.

Below are just ten of many wonderful quotes from children’s books that are beautifully relevant to our times.

Isn’t it nice to think that tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet? Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery

Don’t be afraid of death; be afraid of an unlived life. You don’t have to live forever; you just have to live. Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt

There is nothing sweeter in this sad world than the sound of someone you love calling your name. The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo

Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, when one only remembers to turn on the light. –Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling

I don’t understand it any more than you do, but one thing I’ve learned is that you don’t have to understand things for them to be. –A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

If ever there is tomorrow when we’re not together… there is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we’re apart… I’ll always be with you. —The House at Pooh Corner by A.A. Milne

We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are. —Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling

Words can be worrisome, people complex, motives and manners unclear. Grant her the wisdom to choose her path right, free from unkindness and fear. Blueberry Girl by Neil Gaiman

It’s no use going back to yesterday because I was a different person then. –Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

We must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy. –Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling

And even though 10 on the 10th shares just 10 in a list, here is a final quote that hopefully will lift the spirits and warm the heart of every writer:

So Matilda’s strong young mind continued to grow, nurtured by the voices of all those authors who had sent their books out into the world like ships on the sea. These books gave Matilda a hopeful and comforting message: You are not alone. ―Matilda by Roald Dahl

10 Ways to Write about War

10 Ways to Write about War

On the eve of Remembrance Day, veterans of war and those who fought and died are on our minds. November 11 is just one day but the solemnity and memories of the day carries an emotional intensity that many of us bring into our stories.

Writers have been chronicling battle stories since ancient times. Virgil’s epic poem, The Aeneid, offers us a searing immersion: so all had one longing, to let the sword decide.

We’ve been letting the sword (or gun or cannon or bomb or laser beams or…) decide ever since. Naturally enough, we writers have mined (pun intended) humanity’s predilection to fight and there’s no end to the kinds of books – biographies, histories, poetry, stories, novels – that explore that motherlode of emotion and power. Here are ten possible approaches:

1.  Heroic battles – Here the writer has a vast landscape and nobody does it better than the ancient storytellers, such as Virgil, Homer and Sophocles. Their legacy can be found in all the epic scenes of warrior hordes (Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones) with clanging, clashing, slashing swords and axes hacking their way to the castle gates. Those scenes echo into modern history where swords are replaced with bayonets and rifles. Futurists imagine the same scenes but played out with visionary weaponry.

2. One-on-one Combat – Move beyond the broad landscape and get up close and personal with the dance between two enemies. It is a tension-filled moment that deserves a slow burn to reach a full roiling boil. Two characters, circling one another, gauging each other’s weaknesses, holding back until the moment to engage is clear. Now think beyond the battlefield and examine other kinds of fights between two characters: for example, a marriage falling apart. Warren Adler’s The War of the Roses chronicles the emotional costs of the legal battle and the soul-sucking aftermath.

3. The Homefront – Who’s left behind? How are they surviving? Pacifists, injured, too young, too old, too frightened – stories that focus on everyday people who can never forget what is happening in the wider world. Keeping the war in the background has been excellent inspiration for kidlit authors such as beloved writer Bernice Thurman Hunter and her novel The Girls They Left Behind. In adult fiction, the WWI Homefront is explored beautifully in Frances Itani’s Deafening. If you plan to write a novel set during our current and relentless pandemic, reading books about the Homefront might give you some needed distance.

4. From the Enemy’s POV – Writing through the enemy’s perspective is an exercise that can offer writers entry into their antagonist’s motivations. This is an excellent tool to breathe more life into that character. And sometimes, it might be more interesting to write the whole book with the villain as your Main Character. Oscar Wilde did it with the classic novel The Picture of Dorian Gray and more recently Gillian Flynn’s delightful Gone Girl.

5. Turf War – From schoolyards to neighbourhoods, boundaries real or imagined are instant tension points. Opposing gangs have a long history in literature: Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is a classic example. In Richard Scrimger’s Ink Me, Bunny, a mentally challenged 15-year-old, gets the wrong tattoo and that gives him entry into a gang about to do a high-stakes deal. Often funny but never patronizing, readers get a glimpse into the world of gangs and that of young adults who are differently abled. In Angie Thomas’ debut novel, The Hate U Give, readers get a deep dive into complex issues of racism, police brutality, activism and social justice – all of it framed within the context of boundaries held by gangs, organizations, institutions and families.

6. Civil War – A nation divided, rebellion, cults, rumours and secrets. Any social unrest is pure gold for tension and a fascinating cast of characters. Suzanne Collins dove into that world when she created The Hunger Games and you know how that turned out for her. But if you want a lived-experience to flavour the writing, Civil War Stories by Ambrose Bierce, a veteran of the American Civil War, is great writing. Ahead of his time, Bierce has a speculative fiction touch that offers us more than battle stories.

7.  The Aftermath – From Ancient Greek playwrights (Euripides’ Trojan Women) to cold war novelists (Nevil Shute’s On the Beach) to post-apocalyptic authors (Cormac McCarthy’s The Road) much of post-war life, real or imagined, is never easy. Trauma, starvation and uncertainty can be counterbalanced with resilience, foraging and rebuilding both physically and socially. It’s up to the writer where to place the greatest weight.

8.  The Peacemaker  Diplomats, politicians and kings. Historical fiction is rich with books about peacemaking in world history. Tolstoy’s War and Peace gives us a sweeping saga plucked from history. But writers have a way of taking the known and applying it to the unknown. Erin Bow’s masterful YA novel, The Scorpion Rules, takes diplomacy onto an intergalactic scale that holds hostage the lives of world leaders’ children. No war between worlds and no kids get euthanized. Simple genius.

9. Undeclared War – Nothing underpins a story’s tension meter with more energy than a seething simmering dance between two enemies. As up close as a divorce in the making (The War of the Roses) or as broad as worlds balancing on the verge (Peter George’s Red Alert, inspiration for the classic film Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb). When the threat of war is constant, readers keep turning the page.

10. Tools of War – Speaking of loving the bomb, a war without weapons is a schoolyard turf war. Come to think of it, even that situation has its own weapons: taunts and gestures can ignite a war of words; fists, knees and teeth can up the scale. So, as much as big shiny boom machines can have an impact on a battle, remember that your reader’s emotional journey will accelerate with the smell of sweat, taste of blood, squeeze of skin and screams of battle, not to mention the look on combatants’ faces: jubilant in celebration or horrified in defeat.

No matter how large or how small the scale, a story of war offers writers so many possibilities and these ten musings are merely a long view with a pair of binoculars. It’s up to you to find the emotional heart in your story’s battle and bring it beating and alive for your readers.

On November 11, you will be asked to offer “a moment of silence” at 11 a.m., the date and time the Great War officially ceased in 1918. Writescape suggests that “a moment” as you well know, it merely a breath, a blink of the eye or a swallow. Those who have given their lives for their country need more than a moment to be remembered. War, no matter the cause, is hardly a reason to celebrate because the human cost is far too great and death is forever. Keep that in mind with all your war stories.

10 ways to Nano-prep for writing your novel

10 ways to Nano-prep for writing your novel

In a few weeks, writers around the globe will commit to writing 50,000 words of the first draft of a novel in 30 days. Will you be one of them? National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo begins on November 1, and if you don’t know much about NaNoWriMo, check out our previous blog post NaNoWriMo 101.

That means that October, affectionately known as “Preptober” is a month for getting all your ducks in a row, so you’re ready to actually write on November 1. Below are 10 ways to get ready to write, for NaNoWriMo or indeed for any new novel project.

  1. Create a project hold-all to keep all research, writing, notes and ideas for your new novel. This could be a new folder in your computer, or a “new project” in Scrivener. Try a three-ring binder scrapbook, with sections for research notes, character sketches, random ideas, checklists lists etc. Handy for quick reference, for validating research used, for trying out rough writing, for reference as you write. More than that, though, it is a tangible way to make the project real and a good way to stay focused and organized.
  1. Decide what you are going to write. Easier said than done. We all have stacks of ideas of what we could write about, but choose something that interests you. If you’re not passionate about your project you will find it hard to live with it daily and write productively. Choose a story you are spilling over to get out, or write a story that involves something you really want to spend time with. If you love Russian history, set a story in Russia during the revolution. If you’ve always wanted to know about perfume making, write a story where the protagonist is a perfumer. To help make it more real, choose a working title.
  1. Start with sketching interesting characters. If you’re a character-driven writer, begin with writing profiles of your protagonist and antagonist. Then as you work through your plot ideas (step 5) and new characters emerge, do character sketches of them too. If you’re a plot-driven writer, you may want to do step 5 first and return to this step afterwards. Remember these profiles are not just physical, but include your character’s history, flaws, emotional baggage, hopes, dreams, fears and relationships. You might find yourself returning repeatedly to these sketches to add details as you get to know them better.
  1. Ask yourself whose story you are telling and how it would best be told. Whose POV will best tell that story? One POV or multiple? What tense and person? Who is the reader you are aiming at? What genre? As you start to write, you may change these decisions, but start with a plan.
  1. Write your book jacket blurb. This may seem like it’s putting the cart before the horse, but it’s not. The book jacket blurb answers the all-important question “What is this book about?” The answer to that question helps to distill the thrust of the story: the conflict, the stakes and the character arc. It also helps define what age group and genre it is, because it focuses on the main thread of the story.
  1. Brainstorm story ideas. Outline potential plots. Ask yourself the simple but effective “What if?”, or use the base of all ancient myths and tales: the three act structure. If you know how you want your story to end, consider working backwards too. You might want to check out these tried and true variants of the three act structure too.
  1. Define your story world: place and time. This could be as simple as “Russia pre 1917 revolution” or “Haliburton 1956”, or as complex as a new fantasy world or imagined planet. Or it might be a mix, say a fictitious town called Halbury based on Haliburton. Setting is important to ground your story and your readers. The more complex your setting, the more up-front “world-building” you need to do: Government? Religion? Rules of magic? Climate? Etc. Prep work can include maps and floorplans.
  1. Outline potential subplots. Make sure they serve the thrust of the main story, that they have their own story arc and that there are no dropped threads.
  1. Sketch important secondary characters. Make sure they exist as a counterpoint or foil or supporter of your main characters. Like main characters, they too should have their own wants and needs and motivations. Ask yourself if one secondary character can do the work of two to keep the number of characters to a minimum, and to make each one stronger.
  1. Work on character arcs for all characters, primary and secondary. Each character must have their own motivations for doing what they do.

And one thing more

Get support. We all have lives to live and people in those lives. Talk to them about what you want to do and get them to realize you are serious. Enlist their help, whether it is to honour the time you set aside as uninterrupted writing time, or whether it is practical help like supervising a session of the kids’ online learning, cooking dinner or creating a separate writing space for you during November. Prepare them for your plan and then……START WRITING!

10 things poets can teach us

10 things poets can teach us

Brevity — economy of words — to say so much with so few words is far more powerful than filling a scene with tonnes of description. It works the same way that bulleted, step-by-step directions work better than long paragraphs of first set out all your tools and triple check that you have everything you need and then open the box and take out the hoozits and then you put the hoozits into the whatzits, turning all the way and making sure you haven’t…etc., etc

Sound – rhyme, near-rhyme, alliteration – our ears are engaged with words that share similar sounds when placed close together or in patterns. Amidst…pussy-willow pads of labs, a sudden set of deer tracks – Barry Dempster 

Repetition — always with a specific purpose to underscore a meaning or idea — your slightest look easily will unclose me / though i have closed myself as fingers,  e.e.cummings

Ideas have power — taking us to places in unexpected ways excites our imaginations — To see a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower… Wm Blake

Imagery — picture words are effective to convey far more Who made the grasshopper…who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down… Mary Oliver

Structure — the scaffolding on which a poet hangs their words — just as any genre of prose has expectations and writers work with and, often, challenge those expectations, poets take familiar forms and upend them. 

Risk — poets, like all artists, take risks with more than just structure. Cowboy Poetry is a venerable form, evoking images of the Old West, cattle drives and breaking wild horses.  But modern Cowboy Poetry can be a different story: …the bridge abutment already signed
with 4 white crosses for those who did not
quite
       make
             this
                curve
because of booze, because of snooze…Paul Zarzyski

Symbolism — it’s like holding a flash card designed to evoke meaning, a symbol instantly takes us places. Consider a flag — now make it a white flag — now a Confederate flag — now a nation’s flag upside down — it is still a flag but each time, symbolizes something different. Where the flag is placed can change the symbol it represents. Is it tattered and falling from dying hands? Is it held high during an attack? Is it being consumed by flames on a roadway?

Pacing  – Use long languid lugubrious multisyllables with loads of vowels to slow the reader or short sharp words with hard consonants to pick up the pace. Somnolent through landscapes and by trees / nondescript, almost anonymous, …P. K. Page

Breaks – line breaks, stanzas, dashes all signal to the reader to notice, to pause and let what has just been said sink in and prepare for a new thought. Writers have similar signals at their disposal: white space when changing POV, time or location; paragraphs, chapters or a statement all on its own line.

10 Sites for Writers

10 Sites for Writers

Websites for writers can be a treasure trove of inspiration and resources. For this month’s 10 on the 10th, we’ve compiled, in no particular order, a list of ten helpful places for you to visit. These are websites that, as writers, we’ve found useful and upon occasion fun. Happy surfing!

#1 Writers’ Digest has been around for decades, first as a magazine and now also hosting a massive site that’s loaded with articles on just about any topic a writer might want to explore. Sign up for their newsletter — it’s full of advice and ideas. https://www.writersdigest.com/

#2 Literistic. Imagine receiving a monthly list of contests and magazines with upcoming deadlines for submissions. Literistic caters to people who write poetry, fiction and nonfiction in Canada, the United States and Britain. There’s a free shortlist or you can choose the $8.50/month list that is curated with only the markets and topics that you select. https://www.literistic.com/

#3 One Stop for Writers is a great site with a range of tools for writers. Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi (co-authors of six best-selling resource books including The Emotion Thesaurus) joined forces with Lee Powell (creator of Scrivener) to build what they term a “library” for writers. You can register for free and if you like what you see, sign up for a monthly paid subscription. https://onestopforwriters.com

#4 49th Shelf is a website focusing on the books of Canadian writers (but a great discovery for writers outside our borders). Why are we featuring a website about books? Let us quote an American writer here: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.” from Stephen King’s Top 20 Rules for Writers. Yup. We agree. https://49thshelf.com/

#5  Word A Day. Five days a week, 52 weeks of the year, receive the gift of a daily word. Not only do you get a word, you get its pronunciation, meaning(s), and the history of that word. Each week is thematic. Last week’s theme: weird plurals. Who knew more than one charisma are charismata? Or on the theme of words that don’t mean what you think they do, bloodnoun — it has nothing to do with the stuff in your veins; instead, it’s another word for bullfrog. Words, words, words! https://wordsmith.org

#6  GrammarlyThe more you write (and read) the stronger your own store of grammar and spelling know-how should develop. However. There are times when having a quick resource to check for clear writing and correct grammar is appreciated. Like 3 a.m. when the deadline is looming and you need to feel confident. You’re welcome. https://www.grammarly.com/

#7  WorldCat Need an out-of-print book? Researching for a historical novel? Get connected to world-wide library catalogue system. A 3-minute YouTube video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vos5ivBeZ5c  gives you a walk-through on how to use WorldCat. Search by subject, title or author. Create your own lists of resources and add or delete items as it suits you. Locate books in a multitude of languages. Read and/or post reviews. A gigantic library at your fingertips. Meow!  https://www.worldcat.org/

#8  Poets & Writers Like Writers’ Digest, this is a wide-ranging website for writers, but it’s a non-profit organization. And we like seeing “Poets” listed first and foremost. Yes, there’s lots here of a general note for writers but P&W gives attention to those of us who work with fewer words on the page. The Bard would approve.  https://www.pw.org/

#9  The Writers’ Union of Canada  This website offers writers some free resources, such as lists of Canadian writing-related associations, literary agents in Canada, award programs for self-published authors,  and many more links. In addition, the union’s resource books for writers are low-cost and high-value: for example, negotiating your own contract, or estate and legacy planning for writers.  https://www.writersunion.ca

#10  Freerice This fun online word game is perfect for writers who want to challenge their brain while helping out a good cause, The Word Food Programme of the United Nations. The ad-supported site generates words with multiple possible meanings. You contribute 10 grains of rice for every correct answer. Increase your speed to raise the stakes and shift out of your comfort zone. Playtime for writers in English, French, Spanish, Italian or Korean! http://freerice.com/#/english-vocabulary/6116

By no means is this a complete list of useful or interesting writerly websites.

What sites have you discovered that other writers will find helpful? Suggest them in the comments section.

Ten Ways to NOT Win

Ten Ways to NOT Win

One of our most popular workshops has been Write to Win, a full-day focus on writing contests with Dorothea Helms and Ruth E. Walker.

Since Writescape is in the midst of wrapping up the first-tier judging of our own writing contest, we thought it might be fun to share one of the tip lists from that workshop.

Here’s the Top Ten Tips to Avoid Winning Writing Contests:

1. Don’t enter. Contest judges can only assess the entries they receive. Have you ever looked at winning entries and thought that your story is just as strong–or maybe stronger? Dorothea and Ruth have both been judges for regional, national and international writing contests. And frankly, we’re not always looking at the very best writing. You never know who has entered, how strong your work is in comparison and what might catch a judge’s eye. In short, you are guaranteed never to win–if you don’t enter.

2. Exceed the word count for prose or line count for poetry. Word counts are there for a reason. No matter how brilliant your words are, if there are more than the contest limit, you are disqualified. Read the guidelines and follow them.

3. Forget to include the entry fee. Online submissions often make this part easy but sometimes paying the entry fee is a separate step. And there are still a few contests out there that ask for mail delivery. IF you do forget after pressing SEND, you can try to contact the contest administrators and ask if they’ll accept your fee arriving late. NOTE: Dorothea and Ruth will tell you that running a professional writing contest takes time and money (advertising, judge honoraria, etc.) and that the entry fee is meant to offset those costs. For literary journals, writing organizations and other non-profits, contests can be part of fundraising. So it’s a good thing to not forget that fee.

4. Send something inappropriate (e.g. poetry for a prose contest or vice versa). In the same way that you don’t send a thriller novel manuscript to a publisher of children’s literature, make sure you have a submission that fits the contest. As an editor for a literary journal, Ruth received fiction entries to the annual poetry contest. Just like exceeding the word-count guidelines will get you eliminated, ignoring what the contest is about moves your entry immediately to the NO pile.

5. Enter with previously published material if the rules specify that it be original and unpublished. Dorothea and Ruth have each experienced this awkward situation in separate contests. In both cases, the top three winners and honourable mention entries were already informed of their status when one of the winning writers revealed their work had been accepted and published elsewhere. Not only did both of these writers get disqualified but some of the other top three entries suddenly found they “progressed” in the contest. While it was good news, finding out you are now getting the gold medal when you were celebrating silver is less than ideal.

6. Put your name on your submission when the rules specify not to. It’s an easy mistake to make as most writers have their name in the footer or header of their work in draft format. But it will probably get you disqualified.

7. Leave out your contact information. Unless the guidelines tell you to, don’t put it on your entry (see #6) but your cover letter needs to have it. With online submissions your contact info is part of the process. But there are still contests that ask for mail delivery so make sure contest administrators have a way to reach you.

8. “Decorate” your entry, hand-write or use a BOLD or italicized font throughout. Keep your entry professional and simple in appearance and tone. Unless the contest rules state otherwise, default to standard formatting (2-inch margins, double spaced) with Times New Roman 12 pt font. As we’ve noted before : Read the guidelines.

9. Don’t read previous winners to see what a successful entry looks like. Contests are like any kind of submission. You research what the literary agent is looking for in a client. You check out the books a publisher produces to see if your book fits. When you read past winners’ work, you get a sense if your story or poem or novel excerpt might fit.

10. Don’t bother to double check before pressing SEND. Oh the agony. We’ve all done it, haven’t we? Been so confident our work was ready. Or so tired and it’s 10 minutes to deadline. Or so distracted and busy we just want to get it done. And we do. We press SEND. And then we read the entry at some later point and slap the side of our head because the typo in the third paragraph is YELLING at our eyes. So. Stop. Think. If you can, put it away to look at one last time tomorrow. And then press SEND. Or drop the envelope into the mailbox. Because, you know, #1 on the list.