Take yourself on a date

Take yourself on a date

Gwynn Scheltema

When I read Julia Cameron’s seminal book The Artists’s Way, she introduced me to the concept of an Artist’s Date: a block of time set aside to nurture your creative inner artist.

This is how Julia Cameron describes it:

The Artist Date is a once-weekly, festive, solo expedition to explore something that interests you. The Artist Date need not be overtly “artistic” — think mischief more than mastery. Artist Dates fire up the imagination. They spark whimsy. They encourage play. Since art is about the play of ideas, they feed our creative work by replenishing our inner well of images and inspiration. When choosing an Artist Date, it is good to ask yourself, “what sounds fun?” — and then allow yourself to try it.

Different times

In normal times, Artist Dates were small adventures pursued by yourself outside your normal environment: poking around in a thrift shop, visiting a museum or art gallery, or trying a new restaurant. COVID has changed our choices, but definitely not eliminated them. You just have to be imaginative and remember what is at the core: fun; new to you; sensory and solo.

Because our creative brain is a sensory brain, anything that stimulates the senses or fires up the imagination will work.  Have an adventure; push yourself out of your comfort zone. We all accept play is crucial for a child’s development, it is also beneficial for adults. Play can add joy to life, relieve stress, supercharge learning, and connect you to others and the world around you. Play can also make work more productive and pleasurable.

As a writer, be mindful and consider how you might describe what you experience in words. Notice physical details and the emotions that stir within you. Make notes of your discoveries to use later.

Listen and move

Try listening to music you don’t usually listen to or you’ve never listened to before. A new instrument, a new singer, a new cultural sound. a podcast that seems “too frivolous”. Spotify is your friend.

Or go down memory lane. Dig out old CDs that haven’t seen the light of day since your youth. Go online and find songs of a particular decade. Create a playlist of old favourites. Listen to your parents’ era music, or your children’s or your character’s.

Dance like no one’s watching. Sing like no one’s listening. Whistle.

Take a walk or a hike in a new place and listen for as many sounds as you can: birds, falling water, rustling leaves, chattering squirrels—or clang of garbage cans being collected, sirens, traffic, people, dogs…

Do something that involves physical movement that you’ve never tried or haven’t done in years: jump rope, whirl like a dervish, dig out the old hula hoop, do a new yoga sequence, balance-walk along a raised structure, make snow angels, go tobogganing, hug a tree.

Make something

Try a new dinner recipe, make a favourite soup from scratch, or bake bread. Get really adventurous and make yogurt or sauerkraut or preserves.

Attempt a simple carpentry project, try beading or macramé. Join an online paint night.

Play with LEGO or play dough or wax crayons. Make a blanket fort and read a book in it. How does that feel? Silly? Good!

Colour some pictures. What memories does that bring up?

Make a vision board, or an inspiration board, or a collage of the way you feel today. Try a craft, not because it has purpose, but because it’s fun.

Treat yourself

Do something, anything, that is usually considered a waste of time or an indulgence: lie on your back and watch clouds; take a bath with scented candles or scented soaps or exploding bath bombs or bubbles; re-read a favourite children’s book.

Pop open your favourite beverage or drink that third coffee without guilt. Mindfully cream your hands and feet or experiment with new hairstyles. Dress up in your favourite colour—all over, all in—just for a day. Dress down in your most favourite rattiest outfit with no judgement. Purge your closet. Guys, don’t bother shaving for the day.

Binge watch a new TV series or a movie you’ve been meaning to watch. Watch a movie you want to watch that you wouldn’t admit to anyone you wanted to watch it.

Have a tech-free afternoon. Sleep in a hammock. Snoop on virtual house tours on the real estate sites. Eat a whole bar of chocolate.

Expand your mind

Sign up for a course in a new genre or poetry or stamp collecting or genealogy. Randomly follow a writer in another genre on Twitter and engage to learn new perspectives, or join a group on Facebook that is totally new to you, like astronomy.

Make a list of 100 things that make you happy. Start a journal of the 50 things you want your grandchildren to know about you. Write a bucket list and illustrate it or scrapbook it.

Take virtual museum tours, watch virtual opera or ballet. Use apps to walk the Camino or Cabot’s trail.

Last words

Artist’s dates break the routine and unlock creativity and optimism. In these times they can give us a sense of fun to help fight the confinement many of us may be feeling. I did a quick count, and I’ve listed over 50 things you could try. You could no doubt come up with 50 more.

Artist Dates are not high art. They are meant to be fun. Ask yourself, “What sounds playful? What does my inner child want to do? What am I drawn to that others might label a waste of time, too silly, too frivolous?” Try doing that.

These three greats say it best:

“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.” Albert Einstein

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” George Bernard Shaw

“The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct.” Carl Jung

On Chapbooks

On Chapbooks

Gwynn Scheltema

Covid messed with my creative mind back in April, bringing work on my mystery novel to a grinding halt. But the old adage of “when one window closes, another opens” proved to be creatively true for me. I dove back into poetry, which had been languishing somewhere in the back of the closet for some time.

Perhaps this short form was less overwhelming, or poetry was manageable in smaller chunks of time, but I suspect that it was more a case of emotions running higher than usual, and poetry being able to capture that state and be productive. Whatever the reason, the result is a file of 100 finished poems and a second file of about 60 poems in progress. Yay me!

My mission this year is to get an organized submission plan in play while I put together a full-length poetry collection ms. In my researching of current poetry markets, I was surprised at the number of presses that considered chapbooks. Hmmm… a chapbook would be quicker, but how would putting out a chapbook affect my ultimate goal of a full-length collection?

First Book Status

In poetry circles, you only get one “debut” book and there are contests and prizes that “debut” poetry collections qualify for. Fortunately, because chapbooks are considered not-quite-books by the publishing world, they don’t affect this status. Your first full -length collection is considered your debut book.

What makes a chapbook?

One Ticket Five Rides – anthology

Depending on the publisher, the general length runs from 15 to 30 pages of poems. Full manuscripts by comparison run on average between 40 to 80 pages of poems, but can be much longer. Full collections carry an ISBN and are marketed like any other trade book. Chapbooks can be trade books too, but often are part of the zine world, micro presses and self-published. As such, they seldom make it into the usual distribution channels.

Why publish a chapbook?

  • For the unpublished poet, it’s a chance to get publishing creds.
  • The process will prepare you for putting together a full collection.
  • A chapbook is a “safe” way to publish, because the work is not lost. You can publish it again in your collection.
  • You can take risks with a chapbook – give a chance to a new publisher, publish it yourself, create an artpiece.
  • A chapbook can keep you in the public eye in the time between publishing full poetry collections.
  • You need a home for perfectly good orphan poems that didn’t make it into a collection.

What goes into a chapbook?

If you think of a full collection as a bracelet of pea-sized red glass beads, a chapbook is not a ring-sized circle of miniature red beads; a chapbook is one magnificent red glass bead in all its glory, an orb of refracting light admired for its own beauty, whether or not it becomes part of a bracelet another time.

One poet friend embarked on a full-length collection project about a relationship in a particular Ontario locale. Although each poem stands alone, when read in order they tell the story of a summer and the growth and demise of the relationship. However, for a chapbook, she has extracted 15 poems that don’t focus on the relationship and don’t tell the relationship story, but which shed a spotlight on the geographic locale instead.

Another friend entered a chapbook suite in a contest and placed. Subsequently, he included the chapbook suite as one long poem in his full-length collection.

Yet another friend put together a chapbook of poems to raise money to help with her mother’s medical expenses. She wrote in her forward “I thought this chapbook was about my mom. It wasn’t until I put nearly everything together that I realized … it‘s about my experience of mourning the loss of my mother.”

A work of art

Given their small size and tight focus, chapbooks also lend themselves to becoming works of physical art. The chapbook I mentioned earlier about mourning the loss of a mother contained family photos, original artwork by the poet and was handstitched with red thread.

Container Books produce amazingly unique chapbooks that represent the contents: chapbooks as a View-Master reel and viewer toy, as a series of cross-stitch pillow kits, as tincture bottles with the text on the bottle labels. Other publishers offer special papers and bindings as varied and beautiful as the poems themselves.

Small but mighty

I’ve gained a new respect for chapbooks. I always thought of them as a trailer for the main event, but they are an event unto themselves. I think I’ll give it a try.

The Gifts of 2020

The Gifts of 2020

Gwynn Scheltema

As Ruth said in last week’s blog, I’m a master planner. I’ve always set goals, had a plan, been S.M.A.R.T. But I gave up writing New Year Resolution lists years back because, for me, they always seemed to be lists of my future failures, lists of not meeting my own expectations.

Instead, I switched to thinking positively about myself, mentally listing all the small and large achievements over the past year. I also began allowing myself to dream and visualize and imagine what I wanted to do—and not do. I learned to strive for balance in my writing life and life in general.

If there’s one thing that I have learned over this last year, it’s the importance of kindness and acceptance and the finding of joy and fulfilment in the unexpected, big and small. And part of that is the acceptance of self, flaws and all. 

So, in 2021 I’ve decided I am going to put kindness to myself first in any plans I make or goals I set and strive for participation and passion, not perfection.

Unexpected writing gifts

Someone once said that if you think your glass is always half empty, then pour it into a smaller glass and quit whining. I tried to take that approach in 2020 whenever new annoyances and problems arose, and realized that out of a seemingly all-bad year, a number of things did go well for me in my writing life.

I live out in the country, a good hour from all the people and events and activities I like to engage with. By May, a general acceptance of ZOOM and work-from-home meant I didn’t have to spend so much time travelling. That gave me more time for myself and my writing—a true gift.

And technologically, ZOOM was just the start. I gained a whole gift bag of new skills:  I learned how to make videos, how to work with MP4s sent to me from people’s phones and convert and edit them for podcasting. Ruth and I took a stab at giving online workshops, learning all about break-out rooms and gallery views and split screens and converting in-class learning materials to the screen. An arts group I volunteer with went virtual with Google Groups and Google Meet and is planning virtual arts activities I would never have imagined were even possible.  

I took part in virtual critique group meetings, online workshops and paint nights. I had time to read more. I enjoyed countless free offerings of art of all disciplines from around the world. So much to fill my creative well and give me new ideas. Another wonderful gift.

Being stuck at home allowed me to work on habits—breaking old bad habits and cultivating new good ones to replace them. On the writing front alone, I have been able to get back into journalling morning pages, into genuine regular creative time. I’ve had time to sort through years of journals and boxes of scraps of paper to find half-written poems and story ideas and put them into digital files where I can find them again. I’ve been able to spend quality time on putting together my poetry collection, so that in 2021 it may actually finally be done! The gift of moving forward even when everything seems static.

Of course, my 2020 gift list is much longer, full of good things that happened or that I came to appreciate, but you get the drift.

Moving forward

So now as I head into 2021, a big part of my plans and dreams and visions for the future is going to be influenced by what I learned in 2020:

  • Be kind to yourself and don’t expect perfection
  • Do more of what feeds your soul, your passions and your creativity
  • Do less of what others say you should be doing
  • Be flexible and willing to change direction and do it positively
  • Be present, mindful, grateful, and notice and appreciate
  • Go with the flow

Achieving writing goals is all very well, but if they are achieved at the expense of your health or your family relationships and other important aspects of life, then perhaps you need to reconsider. Take time to live.  Take time to grow. Take time to love.

Above all, be kind to yourself and others. Look for the good in everything. Enjoy the writing journey you’ve chosen for yourself. Enjoy life. Be positive and you’ll get there. Have a wonderful 2021.

Does Size Matter

Does Size Matter

Gwynn Scheltema

A couple of weeks ago, I shared my thoughts on writing short fiction and in the comments, someone asked, “How short is short fiction?”

That’s a loaded question because, like poetic forms, short fiction comes in a host of forms and lengths and changes with the times.

This sample list of interesting short fiction forms and their word counts comes from a seminar I gave a few years ago at the Ontario Writers’ Conference:

Six word stories

Should provide a moment of conflict, action, and resolution that gives the sense of a complete story transpiring in a moment’s reading.

@twitterfiction

Fiction in 140 characters or less.

Expresso Stories – 25 words or less

A literary form for today’s frothed-up, on-the-hoof, want-it-all-now consumer lifestyle: complete stories that take no longer to read than an espresso takes to slurp.

Hint Fiction – 25 words or less

A hinting story, should do in twenty-five words what it could do in twenty-five hundred, that is, it “should be complete by standing by itself as its own little world.”

Trifextra – exactly 33 words

Stories written from prompts, and having something to with the number three.

Trifecta – no fewer than 33 and no more than 333 words.

A competition in which writers are given a one-word prompt, use the third given definition in the Merriam-Webster dictionary to write a story between 33 and 333 words.

Minisaga, mini saga or mini-saga – exactly 50 words [AKA ultra-shorts or microstory.]

Started by The Daily Telegraph and used in business as an educational tool to stimulate creativity. They are often funny or surprising and are described as “bite-sized lessons for life and business.”

Dribble Fiction – exactly 50 words

An offshoot of Drabble with the word count reduced to 50 words.

55 Fiction – 55 words

From the New Times short story contest. 55 Fiction has: a setting; one or more characters; conflict and resolution.

Postcard Fiction – usually 50 words or less but up to 250

Literary exploration, usually inspired by photographs and able to fit on a standard size postcard.

Micro fiction – under 100 words

A complete fictional story in a limited number of words in any genre.

Drabble Fiction – exactly 100 words

Originated in UK science fiction fandom in the 1980s. Drabble calls for brevity, testing the author’s ability to express interesting and meaningful ideas in a confined space.

Feghoot or Shaggy dog story – usually 100 to 250 words

Usually sci-fi, centers around or concludes with a pun, has a title character in a dangerous situation, any place in the galaxy, any past or future time. Can involve the travelling device with no name, represented as the “)(“.

Haibun – usually 100 to 1000 words.

English haibun is of one or more paragraphs of prose coupled with one or more haiku. It may record a scene, or a special moment, in a highly descriptive and objective manner or may occupy a wholly fictional or dream-like space. Accompanying haiku has a direct or subtle relationship with the prose.

Short Story 1000 to 15000 words.

Word count varies with publication form: collections, anthologies, magazines, or journals; print or on-line; genre or not. Print costs for journals, magazines and anthologies usually keep the count between 2000 – 4000.Genre stories for anthology collections can go to 7500 words. Single author collections often have one longer story up to 15000 words coupled with shorter stories.

Novellette – 7500 to 17500

Novella – 17500 to 40,000, sometimes 50000

Bottom Line:

  • Write your story the length it needs to be without thinking about word limits. Decide afterwards if you want to edit it to fit a certain count.
  • If you hope to sell your story, figure out what magazines or anthologies would be the best fit for the content/genre/style of your story, then look up their submission guidelines.
  • For contests, don’t ever exceed the stated limit.
Thoughts on short fiction

Thoughts on short fiction

Gwynn Scheltema

With the shortest day of the year around the corner, I thought I would write today about short fiction. I began my writing journey writing short stories and poetry and in many ways , I think the two are alike.

Here are some of my random thoughts on writing short fiction. Interestingly, the same perspectives can be applied to writing poetry.

  • Short stories are like poems in that they steer the reader into reading the piece more than once, and the reader finds something new on each reading.
  • A “mainstream” short story can be about anything: a mood, a character, a setting, even a flashy writing style. A genre short story is about an idea. The fictional elements—character, plot, setting, etc.—are only there to dramatize the idea.
  • One idea is enough for a story. Two is more than enough. Three is too many.
  • The more extraordinary the idea, the more ordinary the language. For experimental writing choose everyday events. The stranger the idea, the more real the world must seem to be.
  • Know whose story it is, who is telling the story, and why.
  • The short story is a controlled release of information. Never rush or compact it. The fewer the words, the more air it needs to breathe.
  • Symmetry is more important than plot. A short story must make a pleasing shape, and close with a click. Repetition is good for symmetry but must be used sparingly, like salt.
  • One world only. Dreams are out of place in a short story.
  • One POV is enough. Two is more than enough. Three is too many.
  • Go easy on character descriptions. Nobody cares what your characters look like. They only need to be able to tell them apart.
  • Leave stuff out. It’s what’s left out that makes what’s left in do its work more effectively.
  • Withhold as much information as possible for as long as possible. When the reader knows everything, the story is over.
Longlist Announcement

Longlist Announcement

Gwynn Scheltema

In May we invited writers to submit to a postcard story contest based on a visual picture of an interesting face in black and white. All just for fun, no monetary prizes. We’d like to thank all those writers who entered from Canada and abroad. We’d love to give you all a prize just for submitting because often that’s the hardest step, but of course we can’t.

Instead, today we announce our longlist. We originally planned on having five on the long list, but ended up with six.

Longlist (in alphabetical order):

Helen Bajorek-MacDonald

Adam Conway

Deb Rankine

Lisa Reynolds

Ann Rocchi

Lori Twining

So now what?

Over the next three weeks we will feature the winning entry and two runners up with comments by the writers on what inspired them and from us on why we chose them.

But today let’s talk about the advantages of being on a longlist, a runner up or an honorable mention.

Potential

If your submission made it on to a longlist, it means your entry was among the cream that rose to the top. Even if it doesn’t ultimately win, the judges acknowledged that it had potential to be a winner.

Feedback

Sometimes you get feedback, and any judge or editor comment is worth the price of admission. You’re not obliged to take their advice, of course, but it answers that eternal question: why didn’t it win? In some cases, it’s good practical advice, and in some cases, it’s subjective, but at least you know where you stand.

Learning

If you don’t get feedback on your submission, take the time to read and analyze the winning entries. How are they different from yours? What did they do to really shine? Tighter story? Great voice? Interesting unique style? Dynamic dialogue?  Don’t get emotional or defensive. Instead, focus on learning what steps to take to put you on the road to success.

Confidence

Knowing that you made it into the top group of the entire entry body can be a huge boost to confidence especially for new writers or those who feel like they are in the doldrums. It’s recognition after all. Affirming recognition. When I was a new writer, my creative writing teacher had the class enter the Toronto Short Story contest as an assignment. I’m one of those don’t-share-till-I’m-sure kind of writers and sending in my entry felt like casting a delicate flower onto stormy waters. When I placed in the top 20 in a field of over 4000, I was ecstatic. I ran around the empty house telling every table and cupboard and drapery, then phoned all my writing buddies. Even though I didn’t win, I finally felt like a real writer.

Publishing credits

Some contests publish some or all of their longlist winners, and that counts for your writing resume. Even if it isn’t published, the fact that it made it onto the long list is resume worthy. One year I made it onto the Contemporary Verse 2 (CV2) longlist for their popular 2-day poetry contest  (again, didn’t win) but received a year’s subscription to the magazine as a reward. Now my longlist success sits proudly on my writing resume. Agents and publishers look for publishing credits, and longlist placings tell them that your work has been judged as worthy of winning.

When my Writescape partner Ruth entered the Montreal International Poetry Prize in 2011, she was thrilled to be placed on the longlist. It meant her poem Gilt made it into the online longlist anthology, and became a proud item in her literary resume.

Exposure to the Industry

Ruth was equally chuffed when her short story entry received an honourable mention in Geist‘s Literal Literary Postcard Story contest. Then the icing on the contest cake: the prestigious U.S. quarterly, Utne Reader, asked for Ruth’s permission to reprint her story in their online magazine. So not winning top spot can give you inroads to places you didn’t foresee.

In our years as editors for the literary journal Lichen Arts & Letters Preview Ruth and I were often asked to be judges and many times, deciding on final winners from the longlist was a painful process. All too often, a great story didn’t win but was eminently publishable. Knowing this, when we received submissions that could boast a longlist placing on the piece, it made it out of the slush pile pretty quickly.

Networking

With the ease of modern social media, making contact with your fellow longlist peers or others following the contest results can increase your writing network, and suggest possible writers for critique sharing or beta reading.

Motivation

Yes, it’s disappointing to be on a longlist and then not make it to the finish line, but the trick is to focus on the fact that the piece had enough merit to make it that far, and let that success propel you forward.  Take a second look, edit it or polish it and send it out again. If it’s that close, it will find a home.

So hearty congratulations to our longlist writers! Stay tuned for next week’s announcement and publication of our third place entry.

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.