A new take on an old genre?

A new take on an old genre?

Gwynn Scheltema

So much dystopian literature is big on a military or quasi-military response from authorities to a global pandemic. Sheep-like broken people follow orders because of fear of the authorities and are hostile to anyone showing signs of infection.

But here we are in a global pandemic crisis and I’m learning that things can be very different and that there are many facets to consider. I don’t see people locking their doors and guarding their “territory” with a gun. I see instead so many kind and generous actions. I see cooperation and compassion. And I’m wondering if a new dystopian genre will (or should) reflect some of what I’m seeing.

The pace of change

If I had to name one thing about the COVID-19 crisis that really boggled my mind, it was the rapid pace of change. I remember doing the math around projected rates of spread at the beginning of March and rechecking my figures because I couldn’t believe the answers I was getting. What I knew yesterday is different today and who knows what tomorrow will bring– that’s a huge source of tension. Any story that mined and recreated that tension would keep me on the edge of my seat.

The hidden human consequences

I don’t see muscled men riding in jeeps brandishing sub-machine guns, or fenced off confinement areas full of people dressed in grey ragged clothes. I see very little of every-man-for-himself attitude (except around TP!!) But the virus aside, there are a host of dangers to be considered–just more subtle hidden consequences:

  • leaders who won’t heed the advice of experts
  • a lack of resources for frontline workers
  • the effects of isolation.

Yes, isolation is vital to stop the spread of the virus, but what dangers can bubble up:

  • women or children with abusers in the home
  • caregivers who get no respite
  • addicts with no access to their poison
  • street people forced inside
  • people living alone not having human contact for prolonged periods
  • mounting stress levels…

Currency

In this new take on the genre, will military, money and politics talk as loudly as before? Or will human interaction, village co-operative strength and simple needs become the top currency? Already dystopian literature often features barter rather than money as water and food resources become currency. In this revisionist genre will digital communications, farming and medical skills, and even art also play a part?

New sets of characters

In the cast of characters, I hope dystopian writers will give due weight to the “unseen” workers. I’m seeing grocery cashiers, fast-food servers, truckers, delivery people, the “unseen” hospital workers and so on, all being as vital to survival as first responders and lawmakers.

The change in attitudes

My observation has been that many people during the COVID-19 distancing have had very little trouble ditching the malls and stadiums and old “must haves”. Some of us quickly realized that we like the extra time with family, no commuting, less waste, less smog, and simpler expectations.

Shifts in values

I saw a post on Facebook that said “In the rush to return to normal, give great thought to what you want that normal to be.”

For dystopian writers— and indeed for all of us—will we find that more companies will allow work from home? Will retail shift from physical stores to online? Will we continue to take walks in the woods, be grateful for fresh produce, take better care of our planet? Will we take more time to connect with family and friends and be more grateful for what we have?

Same but different

Same but different

Gwynn Scheltema

The sun was out today and I took a photo of the view down to the lake…the same view I’ve taken dozens of times before. Yet I keep taking it because every photo is different.

It made me think of creative writing exercises in a group where everyone gets the same prompt and the results are always different. It also reminded me of several creative exercises that riff off the concept of same but different.

Australian writer, Paddy O’Reilly,  says“Deep and focused attention makes the old new. It recognizes connections between things we thought were unrelated. It throws light on hidden parts of ourselves and others. The attention we pay to the world pays us back as writers.”

View out the window

Poet Ingrid Ruthig taught me that same can be different. The basis of her book Slipstream  was a scene observed out of a window every hour on the hour for eighteen hours.

  • Pick a vantage point: maybe the same window or the same bench in a park or the same table in the café where you write. On different occasions, record what you see. Jot down notes or list randomly on a page. Also, take note of the thoughts that come to your mind that may not seem to have any relevance on the scene. Reminds you of… Same colour as… Makes you feel like the time when…
  • I try to write down at least 30 different observations each time. I find the first 20 are things that everybody sees. The last 10 are the interesting ones.
  • When you’ve done it several times, look for connections or themes or opposites—and see where freefall writing takes you.

The Hunter technique:

Some years ago, I made it into the finals of a slam poetry contest with a poem about naartjies (what Canadians call clementines). It was a poem about my life, but I used the naartjie as a thread to weave different periods in my life together, a technique called the Hunter technique.

In his book Write Your memoir: The Soul Work of Telling Your Story, Allan Hunter describes this technique as a way to rediscover details and memories buried under accumulated life.

  • Select an item we wear, use or make, and that recurs in your life: shoes, sewing machine, apple pie, bathrobe, car, eyeglasses, garden…
  • List 4 to 6 examples of when you had that item in your life. Where were you? Why did you have it? Who was in your life? Note as many details as possible about the item itself: old/new; given/purchased; physical details, etc. Most importantly remember how you felt about that item during the time you had it.
  • Make the connection: Very often the things we own and especially the way we feel about them reflect our emotional state from that time in our lives. Using the objects as a thread we can link different episodes in our lives. Try it…

Alien invasion

My husband and I play a game we call Alien Invasion. We imagine that we are trying to describe things that would seem the same to an alien. For example, all the kinds of moons we see: wolf moon, rain moon, wishing moon… Recently we had a full moon in February—a snow moon. If you were to describe such a moon, what words would you (or your characters) use?

What colour is snow? You’ve only need to spend an afternoon looking at The Group of Seven paintings to realize that it is everything from grey to pink to purple and yellow.

And how about water? What colour is that? Or the sky? Or hillsides?

Hone your observation and vocabulary skills by playing Alien Invasion: Waiting for a bus? Find 3 different ways to describe the bus shelter. Bored travelling in a car? Ask what colour blue the sky is today. Find words for the feeling in your stomach from watching the world woosh by.

That’s not how I remember it

When I read Barbara Kingsolver’s book The Poisonwood Bible, one of the things I loved most was the different perspectives the five voices telling the story had on the same events.

Weddings, holiday dinners, business meetings. Any occasion that brings people together will be a sea of different emotions, motivations, memories, attitudes, etc., all reacting to the same event.

If one of your scenes seems flat, switch perspectives for a while (just an exercise; you don’t have to keep it.) Once you know the perspective of others in the scene, you’ll be able to make dialogue more effective, and who knows…the scene may even go in a completely different direction.

Last Word

On April 17, 2020, a group of very different writers will all gather at the same place, Elmhirst’s Resort for Writescape’s Spring Thaw Retreat. There are only a couple of spots left, so if you were thinking of joining us, visit our website and secure your spot.

It was a dark and stormy night

It was a dark and stormy night

Gwynn Scheltema

Famously, “It was a dark and stormy night” is one of the worst ways to start a scene. Many writers take that to mean that you should never start with the weather, or indeed setting or description in any form. I disagree. I write from setting all the time.

A powerful workhorse

Setting can:

  • anchor the story in time, both historical time and time of day
  • define geographic place – in general (urban/rural) or specific (a particular building or room) 
  • set mood or atmosphere
  • employ seasonal symbolism (spring = rebirth, new things; winter = aging, death, etc.)
  • give a clue to character by what the character notices and reacts to in the surroundings.
  • use all five senses and more (colour, quality of light; temperature; texture) to create verisimilitude and increase reader engagement.
  • affect pacing: visceral senses of smell and touch increase tension; word choice for a description guides emotion (pierces vs chirps)

Walk with me

Come on. Bring along a notebook. We are going to allow setting to guide the start of a scene.

  • First anchor the main characters in place and time with an image. Present at least one reader question.

I turn back down the dirt track once the school bus has passed, jiggling its crumpled group of toque-topped children. It’s a long ride for young Jimmy—more than an hour before the bus spills him into the school yard at Campbellford Elementary. But he’s a country kid. Used to rising before dawn.

  • Now a wide angle visual shot that also sets the mood of the narrator. Use sentence structure that supports that mood.

The eastern sky struggles to draw back the fog blanket that hovers above the tree line, as reluctant as I am to face the day.  

  • A shot of colour without mentioning the colour. Something that re-enforces the mood.

The last of the autumn leaves nip at my ankles. 

  • Introduce a different sense (sound) that develops character or moves the plot.

My cell pierces the quiet morning. It’s Conrad. Shit. I let it ring. Fourteen rings. He doesn’t give up easy.

  • Now a wide angle again, include another sense (touch/ texture) and continue to develop character or advance plot. Consider pacing here. Speed up or slow down with sentence structure and word choice.

The clapboard farmhouse crouches on the hill, as if ready to pounce. “Been in my family for six generations,” Tom always boasts. Like that scraggly-beard had any part in it. Bastard!

  • Step into a direct action that launches the story. Stay away from the sense of sight. Use a more visceral sense to lend weight to this moment (touch).

When I reach the porch, my lungs burn from running, my mouth so dry I can hardly form the words I croak into my phone, “Chrissy? It’s Annie. Please, I need you to pick Jimmy up from school today and keep him overnight. Something’s come up. I’ll call tomorrow to explain.”

Not a formula

That scene is not a formula, just a sample. It’s sinister, moody and hints at danger. But it could have just as easily been more upbeat:

  • First anchor the main characters in place and time with an image. Present at least one reader question.

I watch the school bus lumber down the dirt road, jiggling its crumpled group of kids and backpacks and baseball bats and water bottles. It’s a long ride for young Jimmy—more than an hour before the bus spills him into the school yard at Campbellford Elementary. But he’s cool. A country kid. Used to rising early.

  • Now a wide angle visual shot that also sets the mood of the narrator. Use sentence structure that supports that mood.

The sun is already high in the eastern sky, warm on my shoulders. Today will be a good day. I know it.

  • A shot of colour without mentioning the colour. Something that re-enforces the mood.

I scoop up a posy of feathery Queen Anne’s lace and field poppies from the roadside bank.

  • Introduce a different sense (sound) that develops character or moves the plot.

My cell chirps like a pocketed bird. It’s Conrad. He remembered. I take a deep breath and fumble to answer before he rings off.

Your turn

Go on. Your turn. Take setting on your writing journey today.

Dream Your Writing Life

Dream Your Writing Life

Gwynn Scheltema

A new year and new dreams. It can be stifling sometimes to set goals— analyzing what coulda, shoulda, woulda. Instead…

Let’s dream a little…

What do you want your writing life to look like?

The operative word here is “you.” Never mind what others think you should be or do. Never mind about modelling someone else’s writing life. Pay no attention to any nay-sayers out there.

If you could write what you want, when you want, how you want or even not write at all, what would that writing path look like?

Go on… grab a piece of paper and just fantasize. Be bold. Be free. Don’t be hampered by skills, resources, obligations you may or may not have. This is an exercise in digging into your subconscious for what you really want. Write it; draw it; collage it. Doesn’t matter what medium you choose.

  • Why do you want to write?
  • What would you like to write?
  • Where would you like to write?
  • How often?  

So now what?

Phew! I bet that was quite the mental workout. Did you surprise yourself? Did you uncover new aspects to your possible writing journey? Did you leave out any writing you currently do? The chances are, if you were honest with yourself, you did all those things. So now what?

Once you dream it, the next step is to believe it.

Believe it

Stop! I can already hear the reasons for not achieving your dreams bubbling up….not enough time, got to pay the mortgage, I should be… It’s okay. We all know that reality has a habit of stomping on dreams, but I’ve also found in my life that defining what I want is the first step to believing it.

It is like telling my whole being to be on alert. If my conscious mind and subconscious mind are on the same page, (pardon the pun), I notice opportunities more, I take more risks, I’m stronger at dealing with blockers. And the more often I reaffirm to myself what I want, the more I believe it and the more able I am to make it happen.

Nobel Prize winner, Albert Szent-Gyorgyi said, “A discovery is said to be an accident meeting a prepared mind.” For me that is also a way of thinking of serendipity.

My dream

And I’ve seen it played out many times in my life. In the late 1990s, I was single, divorced, living pay cheque to pay cheque in a tiny townhouse and renting out my spare bedroom to make ends meet. I made a collage vision board of “My life in 10 years’ time”:  A large country home; forest; drifting in a canoe; me in a gardening hat with time to garden; piles of books; a figure seated at a computer typing away; a cat; an easel, grandchildren playing on a swing; words and phrases like “content”; “be a little selfish”; “watching clouds.”

Well, guess what? That is my life now. Knowing what I wanted helped me to seize the opportunity to buy the house I was renting, to have the courage to look for a better paying job, and to find a way to renovate the basement to rent out—all of which eventually allowed me to buy my present country property on the lake.

Knowing where I wanted to go helped me say yes to Ruth when we discussed pooling our writing workshops under a new umbrella, Writescape. And that opened up all sorts of writing path opportunities.

They say that you can’t run a race if you don’t know where the finish line is. I don’t like to think of it as a finish line, because my dreams change. I like to think of it as the next corner or the next bend in the path. I only need to see that far. I’ll dream again when I get there.

Handwriting vs. Keyboarding

Handwriting vs. Keyboarding

Gwynn Scheltema

Often among writers, the recurrent discussion over plotting versus pantsing ends with us acknowledging that there is no definitive “winner.” The creative mind, after all, is an elusive, complicated, temperamental entity.

So what about the question: Write by hand or keyboard?

 I’m sure you’ve heard these common arguments for or against:

  • I can’t write as fast as I think!
  • I love the tactile feel of a pen and paper.
  • It’s much easier to carry a notebook with me.
  • I can’t read my own handwriting.
  • I have to waste time typing up what I’ve written afterwards.          

It is already a proven fact that taking notes by hand improves learning, understanding and processing information, and remembering it afterwards. It’s also obvious that our writing needs to be typed up at some point and many of us are faster on the keyboard. We can also edit typed text more readily and send it out.

But, I know for myself, I feel differently when I’m holding a pen. I believe I’m more connected to the work and I feel like I write more authentically. So is there evidence that this could be true? Can our choice of writing implement affect how we create?

My Experience

I’ve been a creative writer for almost thirty years and I write both ways— but I always create in the same patterns:

I always compose poetry longhand,  I do free writing by hand, and I begin fiction pieces longhand.

I prefer to type when I’m working from an outline or extending something that’s well underway. I also find it easier to write genre fiction on the computer than memoir or literary fiction. I always type business writing directly into the computer.

So pulling back and analyzing this, it seems that I choose longhand for projects where I must delve deeply into my creative well and find ideas and get the juices flowing.  I also use it to access memory and emotion. Once I have the ideas in my head, I revert to the keyboard to get the work done. And as business writing for me is largely formulaic, it’s always a case of “getting the work done”.

Could my choices be based in science?

Emotion

We’ve all heard about writing being cathartic, relieving stress and helping diminish trauma. This is one of the great benefits of journalling. And there’s evidence that handwriting may be better for this form of therapy than typing:

Virginia Berninger at the University of Washington concluded from her studies: “When we write a letter of the alphabet, we form it component-stroke by component-stroke, and that process of production involves pathways in the brain that go near or through parts that manage emotion.”

Another 2005 study by Chris R Brewin and Hayley Lennard in the Journal of Traumatic Stress found that writing about a stressful life experience by hand, instead of typing it, led to higher levels of self-disclosure and a greater variety of words used to describe the experience.

Perhaps the emotional component in my poetry. freefall writing and non-genre writing is the reason I prefer to write them longhand?

Motor activity and focus

When we write, we are finding, formulating and externally processing our thoughts, all at the same time.

In the words of neuroscientists, writing is a complicated combination of perception, motor commands and kinesthetic feedback. Writing by hand is a two-way street, an inter-dependency, with the visual focus at the point of the pen.

Typing, by contrast, is a physically disembodied action, we’re focussing only on the screen. There’s no physical two-way communication.

“The primary advantage of longhand is that it slows people down,” says Daniel Oppenheimer, a professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University.

That makes sense for my process: The beginning stages of telling my story need to be handwritten. Slowing down gives me more opportunity to access thought and formulate it before communicating it. The kinesthetic process lets me feel more connected. I’m also free to scribble notes, make diagrams, shove in arrows or circle important matter. I’m dealing with an unformed creation and have the freedom to let it speak through me, before it is locked into formal text.

Once the ideas are formed, then typing can take over: faster, more convenient and easily manipulated.

So, handwriting or typing?

As I said at the start, there is no one answer. It’s all up to you. But perhaps knowing a smidgen of the science behind it, you can tailor your own choices.

Or perhaps technology will solve the problem for us with the new wave of e-writers: write by hand and convert to text.

Last word (or video?)

Jake Weidmann is one of only 12 people in the world who holds the title of Master Penman. He sees handwriting as a creative art form in itself and a direct link to his creative mind.

The Spirit of Sharing

The Spirit of Sharing

Ruth E. Walker

As noted in last week’s Top Drawer, Gwynn and I attended the Spirit of the Hills (SOH) Festival of the Arts in Cobourg, and filled our creative wells with workshops on the craft of writing. But there was more energy and inspiration to be found in the community rooms at St. Peter’s Anglican Church.

Ruth at Writescape’s table

Drawing together the arts of all kinds, the festival celebrated visual arts, music, theatre, dance and literature. And in each of those disciplines, there was a myriad of creative expressions. From Flamenco dancing to fabric art to photography to performance poetry, SOH festival attendees were treated to a rich immersion in the arts.

Not only were there feasts for the eyes and ears, there were several opportunities for collaboration and communication between artists.

Gwynn moderated an intriguing panel discussion between four poets, who proved that poetry is not just an economy of words on the page. Ted Amsden, Cobourg’s poet laureate emeritis was joined on the panel by American/Canadian poet Katie Hoogendam, subversive poet Wally Keeler and performance poet Dane Swan. The audience was challenged to consider how each poet approached their craft

A Royal reception

Hon. Elizabeth Dowdeswell

The arts tend to be taken for granted, so when the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, the Honourable Elizabeth Dowdeswell, entered the exhibition hall on Friday afternoon, the excitement meter rose significantly.

She is the Queen’s representative in Ontario, and in her own words, is “Storyteller in Chief.” Her Honour knows the power of words to engage others, and holds close the stories she hears from her travels throughout the province. Gwynn and I were delighted when she stopped by our table for a brief chat.

Reva Nelson & Piers Walker

On Friday evening, we were treated to an evening of music, dance and theatre. As much as I enjoyed all the offerings, one short play held a special joy.

“Mouse”, by Marie-Lynn Hammond, explores how two different commuters — an introverted older woman and an over-active young man — have far more in common than they first realize. Of course, the fact that I had a connection with the young male actor might have influenced my strong preference. Cannot lie: I’m always a proud mother when I watch any of my children do something they love.

Mixing up the arts

The arts were thrown into a different mix of voices when Saturday’s lunchtime panel, moderated by Alan Bland, brought together poet Dane Swan, multi-talented singer-songwriter David Newland, award-winning author K.D. Miller and opera singer turned author and editor, Christopher Cameron. The audience engaged in a free-ranging discussion on the challenges and benefits of sharing across the arts.

Our consensus? There’s a definite richness of thought when artists of various disciplines take the time to talk with and learn about each other.

Marie-Lynn Hammond
& San Murata
Gwynn reading poetry

But the best example of sharing across the arts, for me, was the very cool Words on the Wire, multi-media event on Saturday afternoon. Video poems engaged our eyes and minds, exquisite music and singing rose to the rafters in the chapel setting, pioneer Susanna Moodie addressed the audience, and poetry and prose was shared by diverse voices. Musician and songwriter Marie-Lynn Hammond was joined by acclaimed violinist San Murata. And a personal favourite of mine, Gwynn Scheltema, read two gorgeous poems from her poetry manuscript.

By bringing together a diverse gathering of arts and artists, the Festival attracted the attention of the Queen’s representative, someone who regularly consults with the provincial government and who articulated her belief in the power of grassroots art and volunteer activity to bring people together and enrich their lives. The Festival showcased the work of creative people in a public, accessible place. But more than that, Spirit of the Hills festival organizers created a space in which artists could share ideas, inspiration and art forms with each other.

The Festival of the Arts is held every two years in Northumberland County. I’ll be marking fall 2021 on my calendar to be ready for another immersion in the many creative experiences that will be on offer. In the interim, I’ll be looking at ways I might collaborate with various artists to see what synergy can develop.

Collaboration + creative people = ??? Share in the comments what you think can come out of collaboration across art forms.

Collaboration Opportunity

Applications have just opened for Halls Island Artist Residency in Haliburton County. For summer 2020, organizers are dedicating one 12-day residency for up to four artists who want to collaborate on a project(s).

main cabin

Halls Island is an off-grid, eco-sensitive island on Koshlong Lake. Residencies are available to artists of all disciplines. Other than a $10 non-refundable application fee, residencies are free to successful applicants.

“As an environmental artist and geo-poet, the Island itself was a way to rejuvenate, and become re-inspired in my practice.”


Sophie Edwards, artist residency at Halls Island, 2019

Applications and additional details are available online.

Seasonal Symbolism

Seasonal Symbolism

Gwynn Scheltema

While our first response to fall might be thoughts of harvests, colourful leaves, Thanksgiving and delicious pies, for a writer, the symbolic meanings of fall are more profound—and useful—than you might think. In our writing, a reference to a cold winter day or a ray of sunshine can allude to more than its literal meaning.

Throughout history, cultures, science, and astrology have linked the seasons to the human life cycle and to nature’s influence on our lives. This connection is in our bones and it is universal. So writers can use seasonal symbols to express, heighten, or even play against feelings and the passing of time and age. And readers will pick up on those symbols and their meaning.

Think of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. At the beginning of the novel, it is spring. Nick Caraway is at ease with the wealthy people he meets. As summer progresses, the heat intensifies and tensions start to rise. As autumn arrives, Gatsby dies and Nick’s warmth of feeling and his dreams wither.

What are the traditional symbolic meanings of autumn?

Maturity

In fall, the growing cycle gives us ripeness and maturity. The harvest is associated with abundance, prosperity and wealth. Humans too experience an “autumn”. If spring represents new birth and childhood, and summer symbolizes youth, autumn represents adulthood and maturity.

Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman is set in  damp, shadowy, late-autumn woods haunted by literal death that symbolizes the end of girlhood.

Change

Falling leaves symbolize change and even though they are brilliant in colour, we know what is soon to follow—winter. Fall brings a certain melancholy. We must prepare for an end. Our symbolic human autumn of maturity must prepare for the winter of old age and death.

In Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. This story takes place during fall with the town experiencing grief over the death of Ichabod Crane and as chilly autumn progresses, so do their fears of death and the Headless Horseman.

Preservation and reconnection

With the approach of winter, animals store food and create cozy hibernation spaces. We preserve the harvest and retreat indoors. We stop wandering and stay home. We tend to look emotionally inwards too, reconnecting with ourselves and those important to us. We consider the choices we have made, and the options still open to us.

Jacques Poulin’s book , Autumn Rounds, is a tale of love that arrives in the autumn of life. A man sees a marching band from his Quebec City apartment window, and motivated by his realization that life is slipping away makes a choice to join them.

Balance

Because day and night are the same length on the autumnal equinox, ancient cultures associated this day with the concept of balance. Astrologically, the sun enters Libra, symbolized by a pair of balanced scales. As we slow down after the business of summer, and with the harvest in, we take time to tap into the balance within us.

In October by Richard B. Wright, a man accompanies an old acquaintance on a final, improbable journey searching for answers in the autumn of his life.

But it doesn’t have to be all about sadness. Instead, we can think of death (and ultimate renewal) as a kind of letting go. We can look to our inner egos and patterns of behavior and let go of destructive attitudes. The idea of letting go also stresses the temporary nature of everything around us.

9 ways to use seasons as a writing device

Passage of time: Passing seasonal setting details running in the background of your story will help the reader know how slowly or quickly we are moving through time.

Mood: Although all emotions occur in all seasons, we tend to connect spring with hope/renewal; summer with joy/exuberance; autumn with melancholy/acceptance, and winter with sadness/loneliness. Using images, metaphor or setting details that evoke the appropriate season for the emotion, will heighten the mood.

As the horse crossed the line, Jim’s hopes fell like an entire tree of autumn leaves.

An hour passed and Mary did not show. Adam shifted on the cold bench, wished he’d brought a warmer sweater.


Image by beate bachmann from Pixabay 

Subversion: Playing against the four seasons we know by having five seasons or only two will help readers accept that your story is set in another world.

Plot device:  a body drowned in fall can only be discovered when winter ice melts. It gives the murderer time, but sets up a deadline for tension.

Irony: a couple fall in love in the dead of winter and break up in the summer.

Upset expectation: a character declines in spring and comes into their own in winter. This affirms that although humans are part of nature, they are not necessarily enslaved by its patterns.

Motifs/themes for a character. Amy is a “spring” character: optimistic, always learning something new; growing constantly; dresses in bright colours. Astrid is an “autumn” character: melancholy, always anticipating that something dark lies ahead; has red hair and wears a lot of brown.

Reveal emotions. In Beverly Cleary’s Emily’s Runaway Imagination, the story begins with spring and a feeling of welcome change. Almost exhilaration:

It seemed to Emily that it all began one bright spring day, a day meant for adventure. The weather was so warm Mama had let her take off her long stockings and put on her half socks for the first time since last fall. Breezes on her knees after a winter of stockings always made Emily feel as frisky as a spring lamb. The field that Emily could see from the kitchen window had turned blue with wild forget-me-nots and down in the pasture the trees, black silhouettes trimmed with abandoned bird nests throughout the soggy winter, were suddenly turning green.

Everywhere sap was rising, and Emily felt as if it was rising in her, too.

  • Structure

Steven King’s Different Seasons is a book made up of four novellas. The stories themselves are not connected, but they each follow the symbolic meanings of the seasons to form a cohesive whole:

  • Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption (Hope Springs Eternal) 
  • Apt Pupil (Summer of Corruption) 
  • The Body (Fall from Innocence) 
  • The Breathing Method (A Winter’s Tale) 

The Dragonlance Chronicles trilogy by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman also follow the natural cycle of nature:

  • Book 1. Dragons of Autumn Twilight. The protagonists unite and become aware of the growing evil in the land
  • Book 2. Dragons of Winter Night the heroes are separated, and not all escape unscathed.
  • Book 3. Dragons of Spring Dawning, the heroes reunite and restore the Balance between Good and Evil

How do you put the seasons to work in your writing? Let us know in the comments below.

Strengthening your scenes

Strengthening your scenes

Gwynn Scheltema

Have you ever read a section in a novel and then skimmed or skipped pages to get to the next interesting bit? Have you ever got frustrated over having to plough through screeds of internal character soul searching before anything actually happens? How about being confused and frustrated about where the story is taking place or who the character is and only finding out pages later?

In my recent blog, “What is a scene” I examined what a scene was and its function in a story: namely it is a building block in your story that moves the story forward, actions and tension that result in a change of some kind, either in the growth of the characters/relationships or the course of the plot or both.

If you are including these elements and your scenes still feel flat or confusing, how can you up the energy? Ask yourself these questions:

Is this scene dramatic?

Image by Isa KARAKUS

I don’t mean: is there violent action or overwrought emotion happening? I’m talking “show don’t tell.” Make your reader a witness to what happens. Is the reader “hearing” the character actually speak the words in dialogue or merely being told that the character said them? Is the reader being told that a character is angry or actually witnessing the physical or verbal reaction of that character that shows the anger? Is the reader observing the setting through the eyes and emotional perspective of the character, or being given a dry listing of the stage set?

Is the setting right for the scene?

Important news delivered in place from which there is no retreat or where expression of emotion is difficult will add tension. A child being told they are adopted on the school bus. A wedding engagement broken off in a busy restaurant. Being followed at night versus in the day.

Sometimes just changing the weather helps. If a marriage proposal takes place on a cliff, a lovely sunny day makes things easy (and likely boring). What if there’s a high wind? (element of danger or resistance) Rain? (negative feelings). Even proximity to the edge of the cliff can change the feel of the scene and either heighten or play against the emotions being expressed.

Is this scene repetitive?

Image by prettysleepy1

Because we write novels over long periods of time, it’s easy to forget that we have already mentioned something earlier. Did the reader already witness a scene that showed the tense relationship between siblings? If so, is this new scene showing something different in the relationship, like an escalation or de-escalation of that sibling tension?

Is this scene in the right place in the novel?

Would it help to move a scene closer to the beginning or end? Perhaps if the reader knew that a character hated her father early in the novel, her negative reactions to other male characters would seem more natural. Finding out early in internal dialogue that Amy really loves Jimmy despite her actions to the contrary might deflate the tension. If the reader believes like Jimmy that she hates him, the later realization and revelation of her love for him would be a more dramatic moment.

Can I up the stakes or make things harder?

Can you inject extra complications, or greater emotional or physical strain? Anything you can do to make things more difficult for your character helps. They don’t have to be big things. Rushing up a hill rather than on flat ground; running out of time; car trouble; interruptions…

Is this scene important?

If it’s important, slow it down. Our natural tendency as tension mounts is to go faster and faster, but the opposite maxim applies to good pacing in scenes. If your action is over too quickly the readers don’t get to enjoy the excitement. If the moment is high tension, give readers all the details, all the reactions, all the choreography.

Did I “Get in late and leave early.”?

I don’t know where I heard it, but I use this advice all the time to examine my scenes. Excessive internal thought, long description or exposition, or purposeless action or dialogue is a killer of tension at the start of a scene. It’s what one of my writing mentors refers to as “throat clearing”. Get to the action as soon as you can.

Image by Frauke Flohr

Consider this: The scene begins with a groom stuck in traffic. His cell phone is dead and he’s getting more angry with the taxi driver who moves him slowly though the traffic so that they finally arrive at the church just as his tear-stained bride is leaving on the arm of her father. —OR —The scene begins as a taxi screams into the church parking lot with the groom just as the tear-stained bride is leaving on the arm of her father.

And the same for leaving early. When a tense action scene has finished, don’t deflate the whole thing with a page of internal analysis or angst from the character. Yes, we do want to know how the character is affected and what they are going to do next, but use that page turning tension to start the next scene.

You might even consider ending mid –action. Now there’s a page turner. Or perhaps end with a character epiphany, or a promise of further revelation, a discovery or a threat. As they say about so many things: “Leave them wanting more.”

Last Word

Tighter, richer and more textured scenes make for a tighter, richer more textured novel. Examining individual scenes and making them as strong as you can is worth the effort.

What is a scene?

What is a scene?

Gwynn Scheltema

I was with a group of accomplished writers last night, discussing emotional shifts in scenes. Part way through, one of the group said, “I understand all this, but my problem is, I can’t get my head around what a scene is in the first place.”

Of course, we all offered up our version of “what a scene is”, but they were somewhat vague definitions and all different. I know for my part, I had to really think to put what I know instinctively into words. Hence this post.

Basic definitions

A dictionary definition describes a scene as “a sequence of continuous action in a play, movie, opera, or book. Synonyms: section, segment, part, clip, sequence”, but when faced with dividing up pages of fiction, that doesn’t really help.

In the film and video world, a scene is generally defined as “the action in a single location and continuous time.” Again, in fiction, that leaves questions. Is a run of internal thought a scene? What if the location changes during a single action? What if the whole book takes place in one location or in one single time unit?

Expanded definitions

Scenes are capsules in which compelling characters undertake significant actions in a vivid and memorable way that allows the events to feel as if they are happening in real time. (Make a Scene by Jordan E. Rosenfeld.)

A scene is a sequence where a character or characters engage in some sort of action and/or dialogue. Scenes should have a beginning, middle and end (a mini-story arc), and should focus around a definite point of tension that moves the story forward. (Teach Yourself How to Write a Blockbuster by Lee Weatherly and Helen Corner )

A scene is a unit of story in which something changes. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and at the end something is different than it was at the beginning. It may be a character or a situation, or just our understanding of a character or a situation, but whatever it is, it’s changed when the scene is over. (What’s a Scene (And What’s A Chapter?), Timothy Hallinan)

Never mind the definitions

All of these definitions make good points, and there’s likely no perfect definition that works for every circumstance. It’s largely instinctive, so if it feels to you like a scene, treat it that way.

I think the easiest way to decide if a scene is a scene is to know that every scene must have purpose. Every scene should do these two things:

  • move the story forward—the reader learns new things about the character or the plot events or both.
  • affect dramatic tension —something must change: events escalate, or relationships grow or emotions become heightened or diffused.
Image by Sasin Tipchai

Scenes are building blocks. Most often, they involve an action undertaken by the characters. The reader watches the action unfold “in real time” like watching a movie. They hear what the characters say, they witness the movements they make; they see the setting; and— they learn something new about the plot or the characters. Action and reaction.

A simple description of a setting is not a scene— but a character moving through and noticing that setting in a way that triggers a memory that we then witness as back story played out before us is a scene.

A summary history of a fantasy world is not a scene— but a character discussing that history with another character in dialogue is a scene.

A strong scene is one that has drama (action witnessed; movement and/or dialogue- internal or external); emotion (character reaction that reveals character development), and a sense of time and place (feels real and keeps the reader grounded.)

Image by Wokandapix

How long a scene is, or whether it involves only dialogue or only physical action is irrelevant. My test is to ask myself these things:

  • Does this segment have a purpose? If I removed it would the story be lacking?
  • Does this segment have energy (show don’t tell) or will the reader skip over it?
  • Does the dramatic tension change in some way over the course of the scene?

Last Word

This post just skims the surface, but it’s a start. Explore these links to learn more.

Found Poetry

Found Poetry

Gwynn Scheltema

Last week, Ruth blogged about Anna Swanson’s “The Garbage Poems” inspired by words on garbage Anna picked up at favourite swimming spots. That reminded me of the fun I’ve had over the years writing “Found Poetry.”

What is a found poem?

I like to think of found poems as word collages. That is not to say I actually cut out the words and paste them (although you can if you wish). I create found poems by recording existing text that I, well,—find.

Like Anna, I could find them on garbage, or on all manner of other things like newspaper articles, graffiti, ads, menus, posters, billboards, brochures, letters, book pages, or even other poems. Charles Reznikoff in his book Testimony, created his poetry from actual criminal law reports! His poems spoke about human violence and suffering in a time generally considered peaceful.

The found poem became popular around the same time as Andy Warhol’s Pop Art and similarly it uses and makes a statement about the everyday text all around us.

Writer Annie Dillard says, “Turning a text into a poem doubles that poem’s context. The original meaning remains intact, but now it swings between two poles.” In more recent times, “Blackout poetry” has embraced the text aspect of found poetry with art. (And it’s fun to do).

What makes a found poem a found poem?


Image by Sue Rickhuss from Pixabay 

I don’t know if there are “official rules” for writing found poetry, but the rules I impose on myself are:

  • consists exclusively of found text, in whole or in part
  • the words of the poem remain as they were found (same order and syntax)
  • omissions allowed but NO additions
  • form, line breaks and punctuation are left to the poet
  • the poem as a whole should make a statement about the source it was extracted from

For me the last point is the most important. It’s not just a case of putting pretty words together, but of recognizing where they originated.

The creation process

My found poem “J.T. Winik, “Lovers” oil on canvas” won first place in a contest some years ago. I used a December issue of The Condo Guide Magazine, one of those free ones that you pick up from newspaper boxes at the street corner or at the GO Station. The poem is printed below and here is how I created it:

I flipped through the magazine and wrote out snippets of interesting phrases from the ads and the articles, and the cover. I ended up with about three pages of “bits.” Most of them were to do with “uptown” or “downtown” and the overarching theme was how condo living was the ultimate way to live. (Not surprising). My poem therefore—according to my self-imposed rules—needed to make a statement about condo living.

One ad/article spoke about renting original artwork from galleries for condos. “Where the Art is” (I used that line) had a photo of Canadian artist J.T. Winik’s painting, “The Lovers”, as one of the illustrations. I ended up using that as my title. Next I noticed that in my list I had the phrases “Uptown girl” and “Downtown queen,” and realized that the phrase “Where the Art is” could be used for its implied meaning of “Where the [he]art is.” I thought perhaps I could contrast the two “women” and their lifestyles and in the process make my statement on condo living.

Image by Gary Ross from Pixabay

With this in mind I chose the phrases that best fit the theme I was building and discarded the rest. I arranged and re-arranged; I joined some phrases together, or used only half phrases, to give new meanings. I played with punctuation and line breaks. For example, “Moonlight washes a glow over snow-blanketed streets” and “Artfully ILLUMINATING” (a title for a piece on light fixtures) became “Moonlight washes, artfully illuminating.” I made sure there were absolutely no added words, and I hadn’t rephrased or reordered any of the snippets.

The final result:

“THE LOVERS” OIL ON CANVAS
Found Poetry in the December issue of THE CONDO GUIDE
 
Right downtown urbanation looks at
Where the Art is
A rather windy November evening
Moonlight washes artfully illuminating
Bohemian city nights in winter – Luna vista?
 
Uptown girl: Silent nights
Live in the glasshouse
Finding ways to hide the light
A perfectly proportioned concrete shade
This is your world
Small, unobtrusive; melody
Bending and refracting
Keyless, virtual
Do you daydream green or grey?
Cool is the underlying theme.
 
Downtown queen
Heady mix of the creative—SOHO
Rent original art steps from the Art Gallery
Celebration of the urban life on the edge of the moment
Connecting them
The dust of everyday life; Garden in Red #7
Bliss coming soon; Navy blu
Mixed media
 
What surrounds you?
Metal and concrete like islands
Niches and unused spaces—intimate
Drawn in by the buzz; late-nighters and
Out-of-towners; Quick move-ins
Dip in the infinity pool; massage rooms?

Desire this palette?
Purchase price does not include parking
If you think you’ve seen it all, think again
Perfection consists of doing ordinary things
What are you in the mood for?