10 ways to Nano-prep for writing your novel

10 ways to Nano-prep for writing your novel

It’s Writescape’s 10th anniversary and we have lots of excitement planned for writers in 2018. This installment of 10 on the 10th is the latest in the series of monthly writing tips, advice and inspiration. 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.

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 carpools or cooking dinners during November. Prepare them for your plan and then……START WRITING!

 

 

 

Flesh Out Characters with a Sketch

Flesh Out Characters with a Sketch

Ruth E. Walker

As a character-driven writer, I love discovering the deeper layers of the people I create. Usually, I already have a strong sense of what makes my characters tick—it’s what draws me to the page to explore their lives. But not always. Sometimes, even a “character-driven writer” needs to develop a character sketch to have a better understanding or handle on one or more of the people in a story.

A sketch can be like a quick line drawing or caricature that fleshes character out when you fill in some blanks:

  1. the basics: age, gender, height, weight, hair colour, shoe size…
  2. add a sense of place, both physical and social: home location, job, education…
  3. toss in a bit of “flavour” with likes/dislikes, idiosyncrasies…
  4. go even deeper: fears, longings, secrets (shhhhh!)…
  5. get a clue to motivations: what happened to them before the story starts?

It can be far more detailed, using shadow and light to reveal facets of personality (key for reaction and interaction), motivation (key for tension-building) and subconscious desires (key for thematic development.)

For example, starting with an idea of a character, a person for a story:

Bob is a 47-year-old truck driver for a long distance hauling company. He’s overweight but not obese and his hairline is receding. He drinks Gatorade to stay awake when he drives overnight. Bob likes old movies, baseball and wine gums.

Bob’s name, age, gender, appearance are sketched in. I tossed in a bit about Bob and his likes. A just-the-facts-ma’am approach is fine to start. If you want more than “good enough”, dive deeper. Everyone has a story. Even our imaginary “Bob” has more than one reason for what he does…or doesn’t…do.

A character sketch can offer a writer more than just an outline of the people in a story. In fact, the act of developing a sketch of a character might serve as a springboard of ideas for plot, setting or themes:

Bob, a 47-year-old truck driver has been hauling long distance rigs across the country for over twenty years. These days, even climbing up into the cab is chore; he knows he should drop a few pounds but it’s hard when he keeps getting the inter-province routes and shorter and shorter deadlines. Some guys pop pills to stay away on night runs but he keeps to power drinks, even if it means he has to piss in a bottle to avoid stopping. Besides, even when he does stop these days, sleep won’t come or at least not for long. Even pulling out the tablet and firing up a few old movies doesn’t do it for him anymore. Two Turner Classics and his eyes are still wide open, and then he’s chewing on wine gums for breakfast and pulling on his Blue Jays cap to get back on the road. His cap doesn’t really hide his thinning hair but still, it’s the Jays so that’s gotta count for something. That’s what his dad always said to him. Life, Bob—it’s gotta count for something. That is, until the day his dad hung himself from the barn rafters.

With genre fiction, there are certain types of characters we expect to show up. A cozy mystery needs an amateur, or even reluctant, sleuth. A fantasy should have supernatural or magical characters. A horror works best with a terrifying and evil villain. Etcetera. Of course, a wise writer takes those expectations and plays with them so that the reader gets some surprises. Like villains who turn into heroes or heroes with murderous hearts. And it’s those character surprises that open up tired plots and overused themes and can take your story on a whole new track.

Drawing out personality

There’s another kind of sketch that may prove helpful in understanding your character. In my workshops, I’ve used photos of people to inspire writers to discover new, unexpected characters for their stories. But I have also scoured magazines and photo books looking for faces or expressions that can help me solidify a character in my mind. A couple of years ago, I was a bit lost working on my science fiction novel. My main character had some “wobbly bits” to the person I thought she should be; in other words, she was a bit fuzzy. Never good for a writer.

I turned to a police sketch program online. After several attempts, I finally came up with her face and that helped me firm her up as I continued to write the latter half of the novel.

The free program I used is no longer available but there are several online services that can do similar work. You need to pay for and then download the program, for example, Flash Face and Portrait Pad. I haven’t tried either one but if you have, let us know in the comment section.

For those of you who use Scrivener for organizing and drafting your work, you probably already know the many uses of this program for sketching out characters, from visual aids to templates to file folders. The Write Practice blog shares some of the Scrivener character sketch features. For those of you not using Scrivener, The Write Practice reminds writers that most of these tools can be adapted for use without any specialized software.

And check out the five links to character worksheets in this All Freelance Writing blog. Writers are offered a range of approaches to finding and developing characters: questionnaires, checklists, guides and charts.

A character sketch is useful at any point in writing. From inspiring a new story to adding extra character touches to a third, or fourth or fifth or…later (!) draft, diving deeper into a character’s life is a tool all writers need in their creativity kit. So go ahead. Get sketching.

 

 

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10 effective ways for characters to describe themselves

10 effective ways for characters to describe themselves

It’s Writescape’s 10th anniversary and we have lots of excitement planned for writers in 2018. This installment of 10 on the 10th is the latest in the series of monthly writing tips, advice and inspiration. 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.

How do you get readers to know what your main character looks like? Put your character in front of mirror and have them “notice” their almond-shaped eyes and cute dimples? Really? Sure, use that cliché if you want your readers to roll their own eyes and toss your book away.

There are much more effective ways to introduce descriptive qualities for your main character but first you need to make some important decisions.

Start with deciding what, if anything, you need your reader to know. And then get ready to get those important details delivered as soon as possible. Opting to bring in character description at Chapter 9 will only serve to annoy your reader because they will have already imagined what that character looks like. But avoid overloading the first few pages with description. Sprinkle it in, like a mild spice.

Like any good spice, character description should be subtle and give readers a glimpse of a character’s personality, skills, lifestyle, etc. Add to the story with character development or plot points: thick glasses, so does your character miss an important small detail? Long unruly hair covers the embarrassing childhood scar on his forehead?

Here’s ten ways to introduce character description without using a mirror:

1. Outside Observation: use another character to reveal details: All these months working beside you, I never noticed your green eyes. Or: That shade of pink really complements your peaches and cream complexion.

 

2. Closet Choices: when meeting someone they want to impress (are afraid of/are attracted to) they might think about their appearance and what effect it may have: He looked every bit a CEO. Would my gypsy skirt and Birkenstocks destroy the image I’d built up at the office?

3. Family business: try a comment directed to a family member on how alike or different they are. Sister — you may be lean and mean, but I like to think my ample figure speaks of kindness and warmth.

4. Action Figures: insert description as part of the action that adds to the mood – frantically rummaging through a drawer looking for the perfect sweater for a blind date or methodically polishing shoes before a big event;

5. Get Physical Part 1: choose to be indirect by describing another’s action — Jimmy easily handed me the file from the top shelf. “Here you go, Pintsize,” he said with a grin.

6. Get Physical Part 2: do it indirectly by describing an object: The box might be small but it was way too heavy for me to lift.

7. Use Science: do it by describing what physics allows them to do: With my height, swinging that broadsword through the fool’s neck would be childsplay.

8. Status: use profession/occupation – There was no point in brushing away the flour from my pastry chef uniform. My tailored suit was a stark contrast to the backyard full of jeans and sandals at this bbq.

9. Laughter: joke about it – most of us deprecate ourselves. Sure, I can have a second piece of cake. Especially if I want to add to the spare tire around my belly.

10. Self Aware: acute self-consciousness can be effective — I longed to grin back at him, but pressed my lips together instead. No way he was going to see my gap-tooth smile.

Often, the most powerful description is a trigger for an emotional reaction in your reader. A flaw or peculiarity can evoke empathy, raise questions and/or reveal your character’s humanity. After all, feeling connected is a big reason why we love stories and the characters we meet within them.

10 Questions to Ask Your Characters

10 Questions to Ask Your Characters

It’s Writescape’s 10th anniversary and we have lots of excitement planned for writers in 2018. This installment of 10 on the 10th is the latest in the series of monthly writing tips, advice and inspiration. 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.

Readers love “a good character” because something about that character resonates for them. You can make a reader-connection with your characters when you spend some time to get to know them.

These 10 questions are designed to get your characters to reveal insights. Your reader doesn’t need to know the answers but you do. What your characters reveal about themselves will affect every action/reaction that she or he makes. And that, dear writer, is a big part of what makes a fully fleshed, believable character.

 

  1. Who do you love? Love for another can be the driving force for a character. Unrequited or reciprocated, love is an emotional connection for readers. Or it could be your character is so self-centered that only they deserve to be loved by themselves.
  2. What’s your deepest fear? We all have fears. It is what makes us human. Your character is no different. And it will affect how she reacts to any triggers for that fear. And lets you add those triggers when you need them.
  3. How do you feel about your father/mother? — helps you get into the life history of your character. It affects everything your character says and does. Especially useful with mentor/influencer figures for your character.
  4. What do you like to eat for breakfast? — pretty mundane stuff, right? But what your character likes to eat reveals qualities: eggs and bacon (carnivore; not worried about health) oatmeal (solid; old-fashioned); kale and plain yogurt protein smoothie (health-conscious & maybe vegetarian). You’ll need to keep their diet in mind — it will affect what they tend to notice around food.
  5. What do you like most about where you live/work? The day-to-day is a big part of anyone’s life. From repetitive, structured assembly line work to high-pressure aerospace research, what your character experiences on the job affects her approach to the world. Or if he lives in a cardboard box in an alley or a sprawling mansion, it affects his clothes, his hygiene, his daily view of his neighbourhood. Discover what she likes to understand her regular behaviour.
  6. How do you feel about children? Oh yes. How does she feel about those little snotty-nosed rug rats? Does he go all goofy and fun-loving when kids are around? Is she worried about how her body will change when the baby is born? Does he want kids but doesn’t think he can manage? Complicated, conflicted or blasé, your character’s answers show you their nurturing instincts…or lack thereof.
  7. Do you believe in a god(s)? Whoa! Now this is really deep. Or maybe it’s not at all. Your character may have no interest in any faith and this is a simply answered question. Is their belief, or lack thereof, a philosophy or is it more ingrained than that? What is your character’s moral centre?
  8. If you could be anyone else, who would that be? Well, this could be a short answer: nobody. I like being me. Or maybe they actually long to be someone else, someone not even in your story. Golly! That could be very cool.
  9. Who has influenced you in your life’s actions? One outstanding teacher, a childhood friend or a series of people. Positive and negative: a colleague at work who had the courage to whistle-blow, or Aunt Peggy who was always positive no matter what life dealt her. A coach who introduced drugs or some criminal act. A sibling who demanded loyalty by blackmail. A mother who lied.
  10. What makes you happy? Sure it might be chocolate ice-cream, but go deeper. Glass-half-full person or glass-half-empty? Always looking for happiness in the future or the past or in the moment? Needs others to be happy or can find happiness alone? A taker or a giver?

One more important question. All of these questions are fine but the answers are deepened and your character far more revealed if you ask one simple question after they answer each of the others:

Why?

Don’t let your character off the hook with a short response. For example:  How do you feel about your father? I always hated my father. Why? Because he was despicable. What do you mean by that? He was an asshole. He beat my mother every Saturday night as far back as I can remember. Why didn’t she leave him? Because she was just as despicable…

Like what you’ve read? You can have 10 on the 10th delivered to you each month by sending us your email in the comment section. You can unsubscribe anytime. You’ll also receive The Top Drawer our Wednesday blog with tips, resources and inspiration for writers. To see past posts, visit: writescape.ca

Trusting Your Reader

Trusting Your Reader

Ruth E. Walker

As a writing coach and editor, I often remind writers to trust your reader. This is not reserved for those new to the craft. Even writers with published work under their belt will slip into the world of telling when they should be nudging.

Show vs nudge

We writers hear it all the time: show don’t tell. It’s great advice and it means to write so that you keep readers engaged. Show is all part of a writer’s essential toolkit of Active instead of (ho-hum) passive writing:

  • use active verbs instead of adverbs
  • watch for info-packed sentences and unnecessary description
  • keep characters reacting physically
  • remove repetition (words, phrases, actions) unless it is important to the story/character
  • avoid clichés and stereotypes—surprise your reader (and yourself)

But it’s not exactly what I mean with “nudge.” I mean something even more subtle, more layered. Something that moves your writing up the ladder. Something that echoes subconsciously for readers.

 

For example

Imagine you are writing a book about a teenager who is a soccer star. Alexia has all the usual teen angst of being confident and insecure. Everyone tells her she defends the net like a world cup pro, that The Beautiful Game will be her ticket to success. But Alexia fears that she’s only a soccer star on her high school team and will be revealed as ordinary when she joins the provincial all-stars.

But what is your story really about? The desire to be a soccer star is just what Alexia thinks she wants. What she really wants is for her mother coaching soccer in Europe to come back home and show that her own daughter is more important than her mother’s career.

That deep longing that Alexia won’t even admit to herself is your ticket to “nudge.”

Avoid the Hammer

My Writescape colleague Gwynn often refers to tell as a Hammer (as in, hitting your reader over the head and saying, “Hey reader, are you getting this?”) Like me, she sees missed opportunities for subtle hints or when the supposed hint is as obvious as…well—a hammer to the forehead.

Back to Alexia’s longing. We could have her write in her diary: I miss my mother. I wish she’d come home. Nope. Hammer.

We could have her watch the other mothers cheer for her teammates and wipe wistful tears from her eyes. Nope. Hammer with a Sentimental Whack.

We could have sit with her best friend and talk about it:

“Why are you so upset Alexia?”

“Well Pat, I really miss my mother. With her over in Europe coaching that semi-pro team I just feel so alone here. I don’t have any grandparents or other family except Dad. And he’s busy all the time and really, I think they’re separated and just not telling me. The seasons over there are longer than ours here and I want her to come back before my season ends, to see me play just once.”

Nope. More than a Hammer, this exchange also qualifies as an As You Know Bob moment, where a writer has their character say things the person listening would already know but wants to make sure the reader has all the important information. All. Of. It.

This is a prime example of not trusting the reader to either have already figured it out OR (and this is just as important) have the patience to piece it together as the story moves forward.

Don’t poke your reader in the eye

Let’s go back to Alexia’s longing. Would you give her a mother figure in the new coach of the provincial team? That would be kind of obvious. Besides, Alexia needs to learn about the complications of mothering and find a way to connect with her absent mother.

One way to do this is to make Alexia be a mother-figure. A pet perhaps? Too unlikely. Maybe a new teammate who is even more insecure than Alexia and she nurtures her along? Too obvious and lacking in energy.

What if the provincial team requirement is a certain amount of volunteer work? What if the winter before she leaves for training camp she gets stuck with 6 weeks coaching at an inner city community centre. Despite her initial frustrations and lack of empathy, she forms attachments. And then finally, she has to leave for training camp before “the big game/event” of the community centre. She has to choose between her soccer career and the “support your team” mantra she kept telling her young charges.

Maybe all this helps Alexia see her mother in a different light—the pull between family and career that many women struggle with. Maybe this isn’t the most subtle nudge to keep Alexia’s longing a constant theme. But the point here is that I was nudging you to consider ways in which you can adjust a story—pare it, shape it—and eventually move it into thoughtful territory that nudges readers into deeper engagement with your writing.

It’s actually one of the highest compliments you can give a reader: I trust you to understand what my story is about. And frankly, it’s a lot more interesting to write without a hammer in your back pocket. And, as you know Bob, it’s something I encourage writers to remember.

DID YOU KNOW

Gwynn and Ruth are great writing coaches. It’s been their pleasure to work with writers of all kinds and at all levels. At the next Writescape retreat, Spring Thaw, they get to kick off the retreat with some one-on-one consultation with the writers there. Plus they both provide written feedback for work submitted in advance.

Support. Clear and constructive feedback. And the care and feeding of the writer’s soul that comes at all Writescape retreats. April 20 for 3 days or extend your pen for 5 days.

 

Getting Your Novel Unstuck

Getting Your Novel Unstuck

Guest blogger Stephanie Gibeault is a freelance writer with a passion for fiction for young readers. She recently wrote a post for Writescape about the benefits of writing away at the Highlights Foundation’s Pennsylvania retreat. As she promised in that December post, she’s here to share what she learned about getting a novel unstuck:

Whether you call it writer’s block, an empty tank or say your creative well has run dry, every writer has days or weeks when putting words on the page is a challenge. This past summer, I found myself stuck on my middle grade manuscript.

I created a storyboard (on my closet doors) to help me see the flow of the plot, only to discover there were structural issues I hadn’t noticed before. I could see what the problems were, but had no idea how to fix them. Thankfully, I had already signed up for a workshop dedicated to getting unstuck.

Stop spinning your wheels

In my recent guest post, I wrote about my experience at the Highlights Foundation workshop Getting Your Middle Grade Novel Unstuck. I learned many things at the workshop, but the main focus was how to deal with being stuck.

Beginning, middle or end of your story—there are great techniques that can help move you forward. Instructors Chris Tebbetts and Elise Broach armed me with loads of options. And many of them don’t even involve working directly on your manuscript.

The most valuable piece of advice I took away from the workshop: there’s always something you can be doing even if it’s not writing.

Experiment with play

Sometimes, it feels like anything other than writing a new scene is procrastination. That’s simply not the case.

Anything that moves you forward with your writing, builds your skills, increases your familiarity with your characters or fleshes out your plot is a productive and effective use of your time. That’s incredibly liberating.

Discovering your characters

Successful middle grade writers create characters their readers connect with—and characters the writers know inside and out. Chris and Elise offered lots of suggestions to get to know our characters better. Here’s a really effective one for me:

  1. Create a chart with a column for a character’s self-perception and a column for how they are seen by others.
  2. The two columns are those perceptions that are true or accurate and those that are false. This provides insight into your character’s psyche – what they hide from others and what they hide from themselves.
TRUE/ACCURATE FALSE/INACCURATE
HOW BOB SEES SELF Hilarious

Fun-loving

Always positive

Never afraid

HOW OTHERS SEE BOB Cute but annoying

Makes light of tough situations

Attention-seeking

Over-the-top

Journal as your character. Get at their innermost thoughts, motivations and goals.Other ways of getting in touch with your characters include:

  • Fill out a questionnaire or survey as one of your characters. How do they answer differently than you or another character would?
  • Write about a character’s perfect day. What makes him or her happy?
  • Create a character profile with details like hair colour, favourite movie and best friend. The more details the better.
  • Write a letter to yourself from a character about what you are getting right and wrong about him or her in your manuscript.

Stretch some more!

I learned how writing prompts helped uncover details about our characters and plots. I thought it would be limiting because I’d have to go in a particular direction rather than letting my creativity flow.

I was amazed. Forced to explore areas I might otherwise have ignored, I answered questions not directly related to my story but essential to understanding it. Simple questions like, “What does this character want?” or “Why do I love this story?” gave me a great start.

ReVision to move forward

Editing can be as radical as starting from scratch and rewriting a scene entirely from memory. You’ll likely retain your favourite parts while stumbling onto some new descriptions, dialogue and directions at the same time. With track changes in your word processor, it’s easy to compare the two versions, choosing the best sections to keep.

Or be more conservative and only delete what isn’t completely necessary. Decide what, if any, details need to go back in and what the reader never needed in the first place.

One of my favourite suggestions was when Chris told me to rewrite a section of my manuscript in first person point of view. The purpose was not to rewrite my entire manuscript, (although that is exactly what I will do), but to get me deeper into my main character’s head.

I couldn’t believe the difference it made. No longer hovering over my story, now saw it through my protagonist’s eyes. Changing point of view, or even tense (from past to present, for example), allows you to approach your narrative from a different angle and that can be all you need.

No more excuses

With so many available options, I no longer have any reason to be stuck. Or to use the phrase “writer’s block”. If you’re feeling stuck with a writing project, consider trying some of these suggestions.

Remember to take advantage of workshops and retreats to help propel you forward. My experience at Highlights sure made a difference for me.

Did You Know

Are you stuck? Writescape retreats offer the perfect space to stretch your writing skills, re-imagine your work in new and exciting ways and the safety you need for full-throated expression. Spring Thaw is already half full of eager and focused writers like you, ready to give focus to their work.

Join us for an all-inclusive escape on the shores of Rice Lake. Elmhirst’s Resort boasts cozy fully equipped cottages with fireplaces, private bedrooms and gorgeous sunrise lake views. All you need is your jammies, toothbrush and writing materials; writers at all levels are welcome. Choose either a 3-day or 5-day retreat. April 20-24.

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Power Up Your Dialogue

Power Up Your Dialogue

Ruth E. Walker

Excerpt from “Shooter”, award-winning Young Adult novel by Caroline Pignat:

I meet his eyes. Hold them for a moment. “Thanks…Hogan.” He shrugs it off like it’s no big deal. But it is, for me, it’s huge.
“Okay–but your brother is definitely dead,” Xander blurts at Hogan. “That I know because–.”
“Xander!” Isabelle cuts him off. “Geeze, don’t you have a filter?”
“No.” Confused, he looks down at his camera. “I never use one. I’d rather see things as they really are.”
We sit in awkward silence, looking everywhere but at each other.
“He’s right. It’s true.” Hogan lets out a deep breath. “It’s been two years. I should be able to at least say it.”
But he doesn’t.
Xander tilts his head and stares at Hogan. “But it’s true that you killed him?”

In fiction, well-crafted dialogue like Pignat‘s can take my breath away. But what if your dialogue is so over-written, unrealistic or dull that your reader wants your characters to stop breathing? Or at least, stop talking.

I get to read a lot of dialogue from writers at all stages of their writing career. For example, I read and assess self-published works from potential members of a national writers’ organization. I’m also a coach and editor working closely with writers seeking to polish their manuscripts. And I teach workshops that focus on crafting excellent dialogue in fiction.

I’ve read some fantastic and engaging dialogue. And I’ve read dialogue that felt like listening to someone recite the nutritional contents of a milk carton. Believe me, you want the words your characters speak to be fantastic and engaging. No 19% of vitamin D for you.

Dialogue has work to do

I’m always surprised when writers miss opportunities to make dialogue work for them. Dialogue is not filler, nor is it secondary. It’s a multi-tasking powerhouse and writers would be wise to remember that.

But even more important, there are technical effects that support and enhance your story. The following are just a few examples of the potential for spoken words:

Plot:

  • propel your narrative forward with action: “Get up! They’re swarming the gates.”
  • foreshadow, suggest, nudge: “Are you sure the doors are all locked?”
  • establish setting, time, era: “Mistress, your limbs are showing ‘neath your petticoat!”

Character:

  • convey emotional state: “Every time I look at you, I see her, alive again.”
  • highlight personality/idiosyncrasies: “Beans can’t never touch meat on my plate. I won’t eat it!”
  • establish culture/social background: “Ach lass, will you no’ be getting down from there?”
The art of character-speak

If we wrote dialogue like true, normal conversations, we wouldn’t have readers. Most real life conversations are a jumbled mess, peppered with ums, ers and ahs, interruptions, half-finished sentences and the shorthand of shared experiences.

For readers, dialogue is the illusion of active listening, of looking from person to person as a conversation unfolds. Readers also enjoy an increase in white space to ‘rest’ their eyes. Conversations create the dynamic that excites readers and keeps the story moving forward.

The job of the writer is to put words in the mouths of our characters and make it all sound natural while making sure it does some of that multi-tasking work we want it to produce.

Here are two approaches to consider.

1. Take out words to give a more natural flow. Start with a basic conversation.

“Did you see that cat get run over by the bus?”
“What cat are you talking about?”
“Frank’s old tabby cat, Tibby.”
“I didn’t see a thing. I guess Frank will be a mess.”

By taking out a word here and there, and giving a bit of a tic to one of the speakers, we also get a bit more flesh on the character.

“You see that cat get runned over by the bus?”
“What cat?”
“Frank’s ol’ cat, Tibby.”
“Didn’t see a thing. Guess Frank’ll be a mess.”

2. Use surprise or the unexpected to up the tension. Real life is often surprising when our conversations with a neighbour or colleagues go off to places we didn’t expect. Do the same thing in your dialogue because there is nothing like potential conflict to tempt your reader.

“Hi, Andrea.”
“Janice? It is you.”
“It’s so good to run into you, Andrea. You look amazing.”
“Why did you hide him from me?”

Knowing when to bring in dialogue

If there is a formula for when and where to use dialogue, I’d love to know what it is. I can say this much: When I look over my fiction, I see that I use dialogue most often when I need to raise the stakes or create conflict or tension in the story.

I don’t mean that the “conflict” or “tension” needs to be dramatic verbal combat. There are gradations and shades to tension and conflict, so sometimes that means being subtle in how I construct those conversations between characters.

Brushstrokes can be more effective than a gallon of paint. With those big scenes of a major reveal or emotion, I will often default to dialogue. But I also use dialogue for subtext and quiet discoveries.

Choosing to write scenes primarily through dialogue, action or narrative, is intuitive for most writers. But when looking at your second or third drafts, pay attention to where you’ve made those choices.

It could be that what you’ve shared in a long, explanatory passage of mostly narrative just might be better delivered through conversations between your characters.

Did You Know?

We were recently asked what a writing coach does. A writing coach supports writers at different stages of the creative process. At Writescape, we often work with writers who just want to know if they are on the right track.

Sometimes a writer needs help with specific techniques like Point of View, dialogue or story structure. And sometimes, a discouraged writer just needs someone to prompt or encourage them.

Coaching services should be tailored to your unique needs and timetable. Writescape’s  coaching services combine online, mail and telephone or in-person communications — depending on geographic, time and similar circumstances.

Contact info@writescape.ca for more information on our coaching and editing services for writers.

A Writer’s Listening Skills

A Writer’s Listening Skills

Ruth E. Walker

My grandmother wore hearing aids. Bulky beige plastic half-moon shapes sat behind her ears.  They were attached to wires that held a small custom-moulded earpiece to fit into each ear canal.

The aids helped with her hearing but at times the high-pitched whining feedback loop was terrible, and she constantly had to adjust the volume. As a child, I thought it seemed a lot of work just to hear better. As I got older, I wondered what it would be like to have to wear hearing aids.

As fate (and genetics) would have it, I’m about to find out.

Hearing is believing

Why would a writer need to worry about perfect hearing? After all, my work exists between my fingers and the keyboard and/or the page. I don’t need to hear what I’ve written when I’m editing—I just need to know that I’ve used the best possible words in the best possible order.

I write fiction. I am especially drawn to characters—their motivations, fears, desires, idiosyncrasies. And I’m curious about them and love to get inside their heads—in short, how their actions and reactions reveal who they are.

Dialogue is a huge part of revealing character. Through conversations and interior monologue, I get to do a lot of exploring and developing interesting characters. And getting that on the page is what gives readers insights into what makes characters tick. What they say. What they don’t say. And how they say it.

I like to think that I’m pretty good at this part of the writing process. I have, as they say, an “ear” for dialogue, for the way people speak and I’ve learned how to use that in my fiction.

I’ve honed that skill by reading how other writers use dialogue. And I’ve further honed that skill by listening in on conversations over the years, by paying attention to how people speak, and especially if they have an agenda or perhaps something they want to keep private.

But lately, I’ve had some trouble with that listening-in part.

I beg your pardon

Over the past year or so, I’ve gone from occasionally asking people to repeat themselves to missing about 40% of what is being said around me. Phone conversations are more difficult. The television is set at an increasingly high volume. Indeed, our PVR has been a godsend so I can rewind and replay two, three even four times to get what I missed.

Parties are really tough even though I’ve become adept at the “large conversation gathering smile”—the go-to when I can’t hear most of what is being said but don’t want to appear “out of things.”

But does this actually affect my writing? I suspect it does in ways I’ve not yet considered. And most importantly, it’s severely limited my listening-in skills. My gift for dialogue doesn’t rest at my fingertips the same. It’s almost as if I have trouble hearing what my characters are saying.

A hearing loss is isolating and while I can still turn to writing to focus my energy, I am missing out on aspects of life.

Solitary craft still needs the world

What I write and how well I write is directly affected by me living a life outside my writer’s room. I’m inspired by the world around me. From birdsong in the early morning to the river’s gurgling at the cottage to the chatter of people in the grocery story, it all is part of what makes me the writer I am.

Sure, the act of writing is solitary. But for me, it is the result of all the senses in play in the world around me. There is nothing solitary about that.

I’m lucky. I have the means to purchase hearing aids that should help me return to the conversation of the world. And if I’m right, those hearing aids will give this writer a much needed boost of inspiration and life.

DID YOU KNOW

In 2015, The Guardian newspaper published an article Hearing Words, Writing Sounds: Examining the Author’s Brain. It’s a fascinating glimpse by Richard Lea into the idea of two kinds of “listening” — writing and reading.

For Pakistani and UK novelist Kamila Shamsie, “It’s about the sound of sentences.” and accordingly, she reads her chapters aloud when she finishes each one. But Booker Prize winner, A.S. Byatt, never reads her work aloud because there are “clearly distinct forms of written and spoken language”.

Professor Brenda Rapp of Johns Hopkins has focused a research study on speech and writing and two regions of the brain: one dedicated to producing and interpreting speech and one to the act of writing. They are, according to Rapp, separated at a very deep level. According the Lea’s article, Rapp’s study followed:

…patients with specific difficulties in speech and writing for 15 years [demonstrating] that writing and speaking are supported by different parts of the brain, not just in terms of the processes controlling the hand and mouth, but at deeper levels of the language system that contain knowledge of how words are put together.

Like Shamsie, I often read my work aloud. Does that mean I’m listening for something more than what I see on the page? I think so, even if I’m not too sure what it is that I’m hearing when I read my work.

How about you? Read The Guardian article and think if “listening” comes into your process of writing. Or, like A.S. Byatt, do you keep your focus strictly “on the page” in how the words work?

One Woman Crime Wave

One Woman Crime Wave

In Conversation with…Vicki Delany

So many of us dream of being a full-time writer. But how many of us would sell our house and retire early from a job as a systems analyst with a major bank to do it? Vicki Delany made that gusty move in 2007. Now she rarely wears a watch and can write whenever she feels like it. In just ten years, Vicki (also writing as Eva Gates) has more than 20 crime and mystery novels to her credit .

And she finds time to give back to the writing community. For two years she was Chair of Crime Writers of Canada, and is also a member of Capital Crime Writers and Sisters in Crime. Just this last Labour Day weekend she was an organizer for the first festival of Women Crime Writers: “Women Killing It”.

Plus, she’s taking precious time out  to join us as Writescape’s guest at this year’s fall retreat, Turning Leaves 2017.  Perhaps you’ll join us too, but right now, take a glimpse into the writing life of this prolific, energetic and generous crime and mystery writer.

What attracted you to the mystery/crime genre?

Mystery novels really do fill the spectrum from light and fluffy to very dark indeed. Something for everyone in fact. Darker crime novels, such as psychological suspense, show the human psyche under pressure.

They take (usually) normal people and put them through a heck of a lot. Some survive, some do not. Physically as well as mentally or morally.

Crime novels allow the reader to ask him or herself: what would I do in this situation? What would I do if this happened to me? How far would I go to save my child/defeat my enemy/get revenge/save myself? What would I do for money/for love?

I’m not interested, as a reader or a writer, in explicit violence or international spies. I’m interested in character and character development, good and bad. It’s through the lens of the crime novel that we can explore people under extreme pressure. The use of a crime or a mystery allows the author to up the stakes for the characters, but the essential humanity and the complex range of human emotions are what’s all-important.

At the moment, I’m writing mostly cozy books. Cozies are all about friends and family and community. The tone is much lighter, there is never any real danger to the main characters, and not much in the way of tragedy or angst. Sometimes a little dash of romance, but the friendships are all important. People love these books because they come to love the characters and the town they live in. And the food. Food and books are often important in cozy novels.

What books are on your bedside table right now?

I’m reading The Perfect Spy by John Le Carre, recommended by a friend. A powerful, complex, intricate novel by an author at the height of his powers. I’ve just finished Dust and Shadows by Lyndsay Faye. In the Sherlock Holmes Bookshop series, all the books and merchandise for sale in the shop exists in real life. I don’t read everything my fictional character stocks, but I do like to dip my toes into Sherlock pastiche now and again.

Up next? Probably In the Name of the Family by Sarah Dunant. I am not a big historical novel reader, but I have loved Dunant’s books. I’m looking forward to the September release of Collapse of a Country: A Diplomat’s  Memoir of South Sudan by Nicholas Coghlan because I have been to South Sudan and I set one of my adult literacy novellas there. (Juba Good)

Tell us about your most recent mystery book series

The latest series is a cozy series, meaning very light, an easy read. No human tragedy or angst here. Gemma Doyle owns the Sherlock Holmes Bookshop and Emporium on Cape Cod. The first book in the series is Elementary She Read.  When Gemma finds a rare and potentially valuable magazine containing the first Sherlock Homes story hidden in the bookshop, she and her friend Jayne (who runs the adjoining Mrs. Hudson’s Tea Room) set off to find the owner, only to stumble upon a dead body.

elementary-she-read-rgbThe higBody on Baker Street - finalhly perceptive Gemma is the police’s first suspect, so she puts her consummate powers of deduction to work to clear her name, investigating a handsome rare books expert, the dead woman’s suspiciously unmoved son, and a whole family of greedy characters desperate to cash in on their inheritance.

But when Gemma and the ever-loyal, but often confused, Jayne accidentally place themselves at a second murder scene, it’s a race to uncover the truth before the detectives lock them up for good.

The second in the series hit the shelves last week on September 12, and is called  Body on Baker Street. The series is a lot of fun with lots of Sherlock Holmes references, but the books can be enjoyed by people with no interest in the Great Detective at all.

Describe a typical writing day/week

When I am at home I write every day, seven days a week. I get up in the morning and go to my main computer in my office, and read e-mails, read the papers online, spend a bit of time on Facebook or Twitter.

Then it’s time to start to write. I walk into the dining room and stand at my Netbook computer which is on the half-wall between the kitchen and the dining room.  As I pass through the kitchen, I put one egg on to boil.  (In the summer, I might sit outside on the deck). I always write, standing up, on the Netbook. I read over everything I did the previous day, doing a light edit as I go. I then take my egg into the study and eat it while checking email.

Then back to the small computer for several writing hours. Discipline is important to me, or I’d never get anything done.

What was the best piece of writing advice you ever received?On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

In On Writing, Stephen King says to be a writer, you have to read and you have to write. Read, and read a lot. It’s the only way you are going to learn the craft of writing.

What are you working on right now?

The fourth, as yet untitled, book in the Sherlock Holmes Bookshop series.  I am about to start going over the publisher’s edits for The Spook in the Stacks, the fourth in the Lighthouse Library series I write under the pen name of Eva Gates.

 

DID YOU KNOW

At Writescape’s Turning Leaves 2017 fall retreat November 3rd to 5th, you can meet Vicki Delany at the author’s chat on Friday evening and take a workshop with her on Saturday morning, as well as enjoy her company at meals and social times.  

Ten Ways to Get the Most from Writing Prompts

Ten Ways to Get the Most from Writing Prompts

Gwynn Scheltema

At the recent Just Right at Glentula Retreat, we used a number of writing prompts. Most writers have tried them at some point in their writing journeys. Some love them; some not so much. I find them invaluable. I’ve used written, verbal, visual, and textural prompts. I’ve even used smell and taste prompts.

Some writers resist prompts, because they feel that their writing time is limited and they should be writing the “real stuff.” But remember that “completing the prompt” is not the object. The goal is to get you writing, to get you writing what has the most energy for you, and to lead you into your writing project.

How do you do that?

Follow the energy

Often when you begin writing about the subject of the prompt — say swimming in a lake — it can take you  somewhere else — say an experience of drowning or crab baskets in Italy or how your father never believed in taking vacations. Go there. Forget the prompt and go where the energy is.

Prompts unlock memories and experiences, and when you write honestly about them, about how you felt, what you observed, and perhaps even capture some of the dialogue that was spoken, you can take that piece and adapt  it later for your “real” writing.

Prompts are not precise nor prescriptive.

Understand the possibilities of “You”

Prompts often use the pronouns “you” or “your”: “Write about your greatest fear” or “Imagine yourself beside a body of water…” Of course, you can write about your own experience, but you can also approach it as if you are one of your characters. And not just your protagonist or your viewpoint character. Often it is more revealing to pick your antagonist, or a minor character.

Switch it up

Try the same prompt from two different characters’ points of view. If the prompt says “What’s your favourite colour?”, get your character to answer. What colours does she/he have an aversion to? Perhaps you don’t know. Write about the fact that you don’t know that about your character. Why don’t you know? What else don’t you know? Or have characters answer that question about each other. What did your protagonist’s mother think were his /her favourite colours? How did that play out in your protagonist’s life? Did the mother always dress your protagonist in blue for example?

If you are a memoir writer, remember that the people in your life are your characters; they are just called Mom, or Dad or Great Aunt Mabel. And like a fiction writer, you can stretch by writing as if you are another character.

 

Prime the Muse

Prompts take you places you don’t expect, but I’ve also found them useful for getting into scenes that I was planning to write. Start by identifying a scene in your story you want to work on. For instance, you might want to do a scene where one character makes the first show of affection towards the other. Using the prompt “What’s your favourite colour?” as a line of dialogue could take you to a scene at a fair or in a mall where he is buying her something, or in a garden where the flowers are in bloom, or just in the kitchen choosing a coffee mug.

Write what you know  

The facts of your life may not be the stuff of wild imaginative novels, but your human reaction to events is as valid as any character in any novel. Perhaps you haven’t been in a dugout canoe in the Amazon Jungle, but you know how it feels to sweat. You also know how helpless you can feel in a strange place. Could the feeling of being swept down the river with the jungle crowding in also feel like being swept along in a crowd at a frenzied rock concert or at busy subway station? It’s not the facts from your life that connect with readers, it’s the emotions and commonalities.

The Senses

Like the things you feel, what you see, hear, touch, taste and smell also relate to what we all know. When writing from prompts, the senses will always ground you and lead you forward. Make use of ALL five senses. Also consider the temperature, the quality of the light, time of day, the weather, the seasons, the historical period.

Move into Metaphor

When you have considered the senses, move into metaphor. Ask yourself: What does this remind me of? What is it like? What is it not like? Explain it to someone who’s never seen, heard, touched, smelled or tasted it before. What would a child relate it to? What would your character compare it with?

Be specific

As you write, imagine being in your scene. Notice and write about specific sensuous details: not “a car” but “the dented yellow Edsel-Ranger taxi.” Write about unusual details, incongruous details. Write about what’s missing. Imagine the scene with and without people — general people, specific people. Listen for snatches of remembered or overheard conversation.

 

Opposites

Turn the prompt around and do the opposite. Substitute “hate” for “love”, try “old” in place of “young”, use “like least” instead of “favourite”. Write using both approaches and consider the similarities or juxtapositions created. If you can’t remember, start with “I don’t remember.” If you’ve never experienced the prompt, say singing for a crowd, start with “I have never sung in front of people because …” or “I have never sung in front of people but I have …”

Lists

Sometimes a topic seems too big to approach with authenticity. For instance, if the prompt asks you to write about someone you fear, and you’ve always feared your father, you may not feel comfortable diving into writing about him. Instead make a list of all the people you fear. Try to make the list really long. The items you add to the list last are often the ones buried deep. At the end of your list may be a kid from grade school. Write about him. Chances are you’ll find you feared him for many of the same reasons you feared your father.

Or make a list about all the emotions you feel about your father, and write about any one of them.

Give it a go

Prompts have been the source of many of my “keep” scenes. I may end up only using a portion of what I wrote, perhaps just one paragraph, but the prompt usually takes me where I’ve been resisting going and anything that gets me writing is a good thing.

Need a prompt now? There are lots of online sites. Here are a few for fiction, non-fiction and poetry:

Now, go and write, write, write ….

DID YOU KNOW

At Writescape retreats, we provide optional creativity sessions to tickle your muse and a companion work book full of prompts and ideas to take your writing to places it hasn’t gone before. Join us at our next retreat: Turning Leaves 2017.