Getting into Writing Balance

Getting into Writing Balance

Gwynn Scheltema

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting back in balance

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

Commitment:

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

 

Talent:

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

Craft:

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

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

A few more tips

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

 

 

 

 

Plotting a Search for Structure

Plotting a Search for Structure

Ruth E. Walker

At my critique group last night, we did a bit of dissection on the plot of a member’s novel in progress. Sounds scary, doesn’t it?

Here’s a bit of background. One of our members has a great story for middle grade readers. It has lots of elements that the age group enjoys:

  • a relatable POV character with a problem to solve
  • some simmering tension with a member of the opposite sex
  • a science fiction backdrop that is fun and fantastical
  • a school full of goofy rules, and
  • a dastardly villain bent on stopping our POV character dead in his tracks

All the right ingredients. But the novel wasn’t quite working the way the writer hoped it would. So he continued to work on the story and recently sent us a revised synopsis.

Our role, as with all submissions, was to look at the synopsis, mark up the copy with questions and notes, and bring it to the session for discussion. Questions and detailed notes are important but the discussion in our critique group is widely considered the true gold of membership.

Our critique group collectively has some wide-ranging skill sets and expertise. This we all bring to the table. But a couple of us (not me!) are exceptional in the plot department. One, in particular, often brings visual aids, related reading and notes from research and workshops.

Last night, I suspect Christopher Vogler’s ears were burning. And the meeting room’s white board was a colourful palette of ideas and plot points.

How it worked for one writer:

Our two-hour session focused on reviewing our colleague’s current plot structure as outlined in his synopsis and getting to the heart of his story.

It was brilliant. Dividing the basic plot into three main acts and then placing the existing story into that structure allowed the writer to consider changes that simplified areas of the story. Some parts were more complex than they needed to be. At least one character needed to be shipped to the Island of Unwanted Characters.  And some goals needed to be adjusted.

The writer had some significant ah-ha! moments. He left the meeting with a renewed sense of where he wanted his story to go. What started out like a last-ditch revision became the groundwork for a new vision and plenty of possiblities.

And, as a side benefit, I found it all immensely helpful in looking at my own work in progress.

The basics of the Three-Act Structure:

Act I sets the stage, introduces the POV character with a problem(s) to overcome and the inciting incident.

Act II is the meat of the matter and has its own moment of crisis in the mid-point. As our colleague explained, “It’s like in the Wizard of Oz where they reach the Wizard, and Dorothy thinks he’ll send her home. But no. First they have to complete this impossible task: kill the Wicked Witch of the West.

So using Dorothy and Wizard, Act II is divided into two sections: Act II a (following the yellow brick road to see the Wizard) and Act II b (kill the witch before she kills Dorothy, Toto and her three companions)

And then, of course, Act III. This final act has the crushing disappointment of learning the wizard is not all-powerful after all, quickly followed by a joyful realization that everyone had what they needed all along, the journey home and most important, the POV character’s completed arc of understanding or change. (There’s no place like home…)

Can this approach work for you?

So, looking at your plot, are there areas in your story that you think could use a bit of tightening up? Could a three-act structure overview give you clues about needed changes? Or does it confirm that you have all the necessary ducks in a row? Good for you if that’s the case!

A word of caution. My critique group example is just a simplified version of one approach to looking at plot. Screenwriter and script consultant, Christopher Vogler, has a popular book The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers (which, strangely enough, had a cameo in our session yesterday.) Vogler’s 407-page book is only one of the many great resources for writers on structure and storytelling.

Have you struggled with structure? What did you do to help you get past the challenge of plotting? If you have suggestions, let us know what resources and approaches you recommend for other writers.