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?

Books or Bust

Books or Bust

Gwynn Scheltema

This unusual picture came through my Facebook feed recently, and I was drawn not just to the semi-circle of mounted women, but to the library sign behind them. Apparently these women were librarians—travelling librarians. It got me thinking of the lengths to which people will go to have libraries and access to books.

Have horse will read

The Pack Horse Library Initiative operated in the 1930s during the Great Depression, as part of a program in Kentucky run by the Works Progress Administration. The WPA was the brainchild of U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt to help job seekers during the Great Depression.

Locally known and trusted women rode as much as 120 miles in a week to reach isolated mountain communities. They went in all kinds of weather and traversed difficult terrain, sometimes even finishing the trip on foot if it was too tough for their horses. Unemployment ended with war production for WWII and the pack horse initiative funding was stopped in 1943.

Walking the plank

On the other side of the world in Indonesia, the environment can’t stop readers getting access to books. In this fishing village, the “library” is a tin hut on stilts, whose only access is a series of wooden planks nailed together in a wobbly path over the water.

Despite its precarious position, the 85 degree heat and 90% humidity, the place is always packed, especially with children.

One man’s trash…

In Turkey’s capital, Ankara, garbage collectors began in 2016 rescuing books destined for the landfill to create a library for employees and family. The project mushroomed, and the local government got behind the idea and supplied a disused brick factory building at its sanitation department headquarters.

The “new” library opened to the public in September 2017 with over 6,000 fiction and non-fiction books, all gathered from the garbage or donated. It boasts a children’s section, an area dedicated to scientific research books, and some foreign language books. In fact, the library’s collection is now so large that it can loan books to schools, educational programs, and prisons.

Home tongue book refuge

What happens if your home language is not that of the dominant language at your town library? Most libraries have moderate foreign-book sections, but in Quebec City, there is a small library that houses English language books—and it’s not new. The Morrin Centre was built on the site of the old military barracks in 1808. Initially it was Quebec City’s public prison, housing its first prisoners in 1812.

Then in 1868 the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec moved in. Over the years, they have gathered historical Canadian documents, republished rare manuscripts and were instrumental in establishing the National Archives of Canada. Sadly many of the older books are no longer in the collection, but the collection still includes a number of books dating to the 16th century.

In more recent times, they established an English lending library, and also act as Quebec City’s English-language cultural centre and an historical interpretation site. The Society has hosted such greats as Charles Dickens and Emmelyne Pankhurst.

The New Pack Horse Librarians

We may not use pack horses any more, but many will be familiar with—the Bookmobile. (Also known as the Book Van or Travelling Library). Following WWII, vans filled with library books were driven by a librarian to areas that did not have bricks and mortar libraries, to village centres, schools, and sometimes even to individual homes. In the Canadian North, when the road ran out, the service continued by boat.

These days, many large urban centers have bookmobiles, and just like their bricks and mortar partners, they offer more than books. They have library programming, and serve as WIFI hubs. They offer access to computers and printers, movies and video games.

Last word

It seems that when people love books, they will take whatever measures necessary to get them. Ain’t life grand!

Oops! Big Mistake

Oops! Big Mistake

Gwynn Scheltema

Last week several Facebook posts about author Naomi Wolf’s interview on BBC had my writer’s heart missing a beat and a whirl of thoughts spinning through my head: OMG! How awful for her. I’m so relieved it wasn’t me. How could that happen? How come no one caught it?

I’m not going to do a post-mortem on what Naomi did or didn’t do. You can read the myriad of articles about it on the Net. What I wanted to draw attention to was what chilled my spine even more than the thought that it could be me—the paragraph in the attached article where Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the book’s publisher in the U.S., told the New York Times that while it

“employs professional editors, copyeditors and proofreaders for each book project, we rely ultimately on authors for the integrity of their research and fact-checking.”

The reality is, Naomi’s nightmare could easily happen to any one of us.

I believe, however, that not all errors are created equal and understanding why we make errors helps us minimize them.

Sloppiness

I have a hard time calling lack of research, lack of fact checking, lack of all levels of editing “an error”, except in terms perhaps of judgement. Every writer (and publisher) should strive to present as perfect an error-free manuscript as possible.

That said, errors do happen even when we’ve been as careful as we can.

Technical Errors

The most obvious and most frequent errors are what you might call technical errors: typos, format errors, omissions. Despite numerous pairs of eyes, and excellent proofreaders they can still happen—and do.

Some can be funny: In Ruth’s book Living Underground, she noticed that the room she was describing had scones (not sconces) on either side of the fireplace.

Some are embarrassing, like the project I worked on at the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities that went through at least 4 levels of proofing, but when it went to the Minister’s office for final approval, someone there pointed out that we had spelled university wrong in the artwork that was repeated throughout!

And some typos, as we well know, can change the meaning of what we write, as my favourite example here shows:

Research errors

In this modern communication age, it is easy to rely on the most popular pages on the internet for research. The golden rule of research, however, is to get as close to source and prime documents as possible. By all means begin your research on the net, but sooner or later, try to use source documents, experts, diaries, photos etc. And understand that Google doesn’t list results based on authenticity and truth. Learn how to choose reliable sites.

Entrenched Errors

Much like the lyrics we sing incorrectly believing all the while that they are correct, we all have other “quirks” that surface every now and then. For years I wrote that one thing “jived” perfectly with another. It should, of course, have been “jibed”, but my mind had a mental picture of two people dancing a fast intricate dance and “jive” made perfect sense to me.

Similarly, memory plays a cruel joke here. We “remember” the “facts” so clearly that when someone with the shared experience corrects us, we are genuinely astounded (and usually highly defensive). My family have always talked of a certain great-grandmother Emma Thomas. One of my hobbies is genealogy and in my documented research, it turns out she was Emma Williamson. (I still don’t think they believe me.)

Entrenched misunderstandings also come from cultural teachings: the same opinions or viewpoints passed down through generations until they become “fact.” I hardly need remind you of the age-old green and orange feud in Ireland or more recently the historical events that have come to light through increased interest in the Indigenous view of our country.

Dangerous Senses Errors

This phrase comes from C. S. Lewis’ book Studies in Words:

“The dominant sense of any word lies uppermost in our minds. Wherever we meet the word, our natural impulse will be to give it that sense. When this operation results in nonsense, of course, we see our mistake and try over again. But if it makes tolerable sense, our tendency is to go merrily on. We are often deceived. In an old author the word may mean something different. I call such senses dangerous senses because they lure us into misreadings.”

This is the kind of error that Naomi Wolf fell victim to. In her book Outrages she refers to dozens of men being executed for sodomy in Victorian London. She based this on research that showed that men accused of sodomy (a capital offense) had been given a sentence of “death recorded”.

Interviewer Matthew Sweet pointed out that beginning in 1823, a sentence of “death recorded” meant that the judge was abstaining from voicing a sentence of capital punishment in cases where he anticipated a royal pardon would have been be forthcoming if a proper death sentence were issued. So in short, “death recorded” meant “pardoned” (the opposite of what Naomi believed.)

Many on social media have been quick to ask why she didn’t look up “death recorded”. But be honest now—would you have? This is a perfect example of what C.S. Lewis was talking about. She was researching individuals accused of a capital offense. The sentence written in the records said “death recorded”. The dominant sense of those words is that “a notation of a death was made”. I think I would have made the same assumption Naomi did.

Last Word

So how can you prevent, or at least minimize these different kinds of errors? Be aware. Understand where and why errors arise, and look for next week’s blog for practical suggestions.

Going Forward in Reverse

Going Forward in Reverse

Gwynn Scheltema

The age-old plotter vs. pantser debate always ends with the acknowledgement that there are as many ways to write a novel as there are novelists. So to stir the pot a bit this week, I thought I’d throw in the idea of outlining backwards.

Not a new idea

Plotting in reverse is not my idea, and it’s not new. Novelist John Irving uses this method and even takes it a step further:

“I don’t begin a novel or a screenplay until I know the ending. And I don’t mean only that I have to know what happens. I mean that I have to hear the actual sentences. I have to know what atmosphere the words convey. Is it a melancholic story? Is there something uplifting or not about it? Is it soulful? Is it mournful? Is it exuberant? What is the language that describes the end of the story? And I don’t want to begin something – I don’t want to write that first sentence – until all the important connections in the novel are known to me. As if the story has already taken place, and it’s my responsibility to put it in the right order to tell it to you.”

Now this may sound overly dramatic, but I can see how knowing that “atmosphere” would be helpful. If I know that ending as I’m writing the beginning, I can make sure all elements support that ending from the start.

Supporting the Message

Writing a novel is a lot like making an argument. Knowing the conclusion of the argument or the essence of the message you want to convey means that everything that comes before can contribute in some way to that final message.

Say for instance that I’m writing a book that involves a love affair and instead of the two lovers getting together in the end, the guy decides to go home to his wife, so his lover shoots him.

Character: I can give hints of her jealous nature, or her tendency to do rash things. I can set up the evidence that she is capable of taking a life. And as for him, maybe I need to heighten his inability to make decisions or insert scenes where we see him back out of commitments.

Setting and story world: It would be helpful if guns were normal part of her life so that grabbing a gun in that final scene isn’t contrived. And we would know she knows how to use it. Perhaps she works as a park ranger or her father and brothers are all hunters. Maybe she’s a biathlete.

Theme: The theme may now be betrayal or jealousy rather than self-acceptance or trust. I can build this into subplots or other characters either to echo the theme or contrast it.

And notice we are talking here about knowing the ending only. Not outlining the whole novel. Knowing where you’re headed simply allows you to write a tighter and more focussed story.

Smaller segments

The idea can be applied to smaller segments of your novel too. Events in a believable plot all hinge on cause and effect; on action and reaction. Equally, you can think of it in reverse: he did this because she did that, or they are in this situation because this happened yesterday.

Coming at it in reverse can be useful when you get to a point in the story and don’t know how to link to a scene that you know comes up in the future.

For example, if I knew that Clara needed to arrive back at her childhood home just as it was burning to the ground, but right now in the story she is happily away at school with no intention of going home, I can visualize the fire scene and work backwards:

Ask questions

How do you work backwards? Ask questions: What would have happened immediately before this house burning scene to cause it? And what would have happened before that scene to cause that? And so on like dominos to the point in the story where Clara is at school.

Why is the house burning down? Who started it? How are they connected to Clara? Is there a reason they might be so angry or so depressed that they would want to force her to go home?

If the fire is not deliberate, what other things might make Clara come home in the middle of term? Is Clara or someone else ill? How did Clara arrive there………

Now with the scenes slotted in to the next point, I can write forwards again, logically and with purpose. Instead of writing forward with a blindfold, I’m just filling in the blanks.

Last word

Kurt Vonnegut said, “A step backward, after making a wrong turn, is a step in the right direction.”

It seems that a step backward in writing, when you don’t know where you’re going, is also a step in the right direction.

Romance: sweet or sizzling?

Romance: sweet or sizzling?

Gwynn Scheltema. 

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

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

Dead wrong!

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

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

Digging Deeper into Romance

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

Sweet, saucy or sizzling?

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

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

Unagented submissions

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

Your romance

Want to give writing romance a try?

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

Harlequin infographic



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