February 6: Just a date?

February 6: Just a date?

Ruth E. Walker

Why is February 6 an important date? For James II of England/James VII of Scotland, this is the day in 1685, he becomes king upon the death of his bother Charles II. In ancient Pompeii, AD 60 to be precise, a bit of wall graffiti shows February 6 as the earliest date the day of the week is known: Sunday apparently, though it would be Wednesday using our calendar. And for British women over the age of 30, this day in 1918 gave them the vote. At last, some women were considered to be adults…

From facts to inspiration

I’ve never paid attention to this particular date, February 6, and many other days that pass me by, year after year. But I got to thinking about how writers and other artists can find inspiration and ideas by checking out a day here or there.

Right now, I’m thinking that my friend and author of historical novels, Cryssa Bazos, would be able to tell me what inspired her to write about 17th century England. Perhaps she was just Googling dates when all the intrigue, civil war and passions of that time caught her attention.

And Pompeii? The place that captured the people and places of the ancient city, buried beneath a mountain of volcanic ash, is rich with high-tension moments. Unable to escape, families, friends and strangers succumbed to the poisonous gasses and then were covered with ash in their desperate last seconds, frozen with an arm extended in fear or draped around a loved one to protect one last time.

It was so sudden that tables were set with food, prepared for a meal never eaten.

Archeologists unearthed a time capsule, including that February 6 day-of-the-week discovery. And for writers, there’s been no end to the stories imagined by the vignettes revealed.

“Nice women don’t want the vote.”

Thinking about British women’s right to vote February 6, 1918, I was reminded how hard won our right to vote is in Canada. Not so very long ago, it was meted out, inch by excruciating inch, province by province, until Canadian women finally got the right to vote federally on May 24 1918.

Of course, there were exceptions. And there were restrictions. You had to be 21 or older, and not a Status Indian or Inuit woman (or man, for that matter.) And restrictions applied to anyone disenfranchised provincially for reasons of race. Thus, Japanese, Chinese and South Asians in B.C. and Chinese in Saskatchewan were kept from voting.

As a writer, this rabbit hole of research got me thinking.

Japanese Canadian soldiers WWI

I’m driven by character, and I try to imagine what the power to vote might have meant to a woman who, on May 23, 1918, couldn’t vote.

I’ll call her Edith.

And what it meant to a woman who, on May 24, 1918, still couldn’t vote.

I’ll call her Miko.

Consider the opportunities for tension if I put these two women in the same house. A Japanese immigrant, Miko is a cook in a boarding house. She is 48 and widowed. Her only child, her son, died fighting in the Great War. Edith’s mother owns the boarding house, and 25-year-old Edith joined the women’s suffrage movement with exuberance. She doesn’t understand why Miko is so quiet on this day because it is a day to celebrate. Whatever is the matter with Miko?

From character to plot. And all because of a date.

So, what about you? Did any of this tickle your Muse? Have you ever checked out an innocuous date and discovered a treasure trove that inspired you to release your Muse and take you on a journey to people or places you’d never thought about before?

Editor or Writing Coach?

Editor or Writing Coach?

Ruth E. Walker

It’s been my pleasure to serve as an editor on non-fiction, memoir and novel manuscripts. I’ve offered up my copyediting and proofreading skills to writers wanting a clean manuscript. Some of these manuscripts have gone on to become successful self-published books. And a few have gone on to agents or publishers, finding a home in traditional publishing.

Of course, no writer is perfect (even you, Ms. Atwood) and all books have benefitted from a good editor. However, some writers look for an editor for their manuscript when what they really need is a writing coach.

Whenever I’m asked to quote for an edit, I read an excerpt first. I’m looking for narrative skill (is this a story or a series of knocked-together events?) and a focus on craft (is there active narration, strong character development, solid plot and theme, a structure that fits the genre OR is it flat in several important areas of craft?) I’m also looking to see if my strengths are a good fit with the editing the writer needs. If not, I’ll suggest where the writer might look for editing support.

But if I see the necessary work on a manuscript as significant, I don’t give an editing quote. Instead I suggest the writer works with a writing coach and offer my services. I will still use my editorial skills but there is a big difference to how I apply them.

What is a writing coach?

A writing coach has a focus on your development as a writer. More than offering editorial advice and copyediting skills, a writing coach recognizes important areas that need developing and will work with you to improve them. It’s important to help you understand why something isn’t working well. Just as importantly, a writing coach will try to help you hold onto and use that understanding in your work. In my case, I’m like a cheerleader every time my clients apply what they’ve learned to their manuscript.

Serving as a kind of mentor, a coach spends time talking with you about your project, your intended audience and your overall goals as a writer. Consider a writing coach to be like an athletic trainer, someone who helps the writer focus on the skills needed with the desired goal as a constant beacon. A writing coach keeps you accountable and, even better, can help you approach the page with excitement and energy.

A writing coach is not your friend; instead, the coach is there to encourage and support your journey and to be clear about the steps needed to be successful. You should expect to see examples or suggestions that help your writing develop. If after a couple of sessions, you don’t feel good about the process or your progress, than it’s likely that writing coach is not for you.

Coaching is far more “organic” than editing. For example, I’ve recently worked with a writer on Point of View (POV). Once that writer gained a deeper understanding, I knew it was time for her to experiment with different approaches. My intention is to help her make decisions about writing a novel from one POV,  various POVs or as third-person narration with a limited POV.  Ultimately, it is her decision. But it’s a decision she’ll make with a clear focus on the kind of story she wants to tell and the best narration to achieve that.

Writing Coach on your shoulder

I’m far more interested in seeing the writer’s skill develop than in fixing a manuscript to “okay” level. If the story doesn’t resonate and the characters are flat stereotypes, readers won’t engage even if there are no typos and the grammar is perfect.

Nonetheless, I still make any necessary standard edits such as typos, grammar or textual errors. And I’ll comment on areas to develop: glitches in logic, lack of character development or a plot gone awry. But as a coach, I want my clients to understand what can strengthen their narrative skills. And I want them to apply that new understanding in subsequent work.

While I can’t let go of the editor, as a coach I want to support a writer to develop their storytelling techniques. When writers explore areas of craft that will enrich what they’re trying to share in their work, they reveal abilities they didn’t know they had.

Did you know?

Coaches for writing are also found in business. Clear written communication can be struggle for some people in the corporate world and with the speed of social media, one wrong word can create a huge backlash.

For another take on the role of a writing coach, take a look at author Ryan G. Van Cleave’s post on The Writer online.

Assumptions Stump a Writer

Assumptions Stump a Writer

Ruth E. Walker

A writer—any good writer—has certain gifts and qualities that should serve them well away from their works in progress. But recently, I was reminded that those gifts can only show up if they are called on to do so. When we let assumptions take over and when our imaginations are dulled, it won’t matter how creative our thinking is. We’ll be as clueless as the next guy.

It all started with the dishwasher. We’ve gone two years without a working dishwasher and when recently offered a gently used one, we said yes. It’s nice to have one when there’s a lot of company and a lot of dishes, I reasoned.

Our lovely gift was easily installed and the first run through was a total success. Sparkling clean dishes and I didn’t need to don rubber gloves.

Reality bites

Two days later, we ran it again. Once again, the dishes were sparkling clean. But the nearly 1/4 cup of water on the floor was a sign our free dishwasher might be a bit of a lemon.

Now here’s where the writer in me should have given this a lot more consideration. Writers are supposed to look closely at things, to puzzle out mysteries and consider optional scenarios. Many of us suffer from the ” What if” syndrome. We ask questions. We do it all the time for our characters and plots. So, logically, we should do it in life.

But the writer in me jumped ship as I stared at the small puddle in front of our dishwasher.

I called the installer. It would be a few days before he could come back out to look at it, so we waited.  Meanwhile, we worried. How much would the repair cost? Could it even be repaired? Was this a huge mistake, taking on a used dishwasher?

Asking yourself the right questions

It was my husband who first broached the optional scenario. Maybe it was the ice cubes.

Ice cubes?

The evening of the water leak, he’d dropped a tray of ice cubes onto the kitchen floor. He thought he’d got them all, but in retrospect he wondered if he missed a couple under the cupboard. Beside the dishwasher, in fact.

And here’s where my writer-brain finally kicked in. If this leak was from the dishwasher, why had it only been clean water? Cold clean water, in fact. If the gasket was faulty on the door in just one corner, it still would have been faulty during the whole cycle and not just the rinse. But there’d been no soapy residue.

No. The more logical culprit had been a couple of wayward ice cubes tucked up next to the bottom right corner of the dishwasher. And there they melted. And there they waited for me to jump to conclusions.

Hand slap to the forehead

I ran the dishwasher again. No leak. I called and cancelled the service call. No invoice to pay.

I’ve used the dishwasher two times since the ice cube hypothesis and not a drop of water on the floor. The dishwasher is fine. It’s my brain that needs some work.

Assumptions can be the bane of any writer’s life, especially when they filter into our writing. It’s the place stereotypes lurk, the home of As You Know, Bob moments and the heartbeat of a complete lack of surprise in our stories.

It is exactly what you do not want your reader to experience. Ho-hum…

And writer, here’s the thing to remember: if you can avoid assumptions in other areas of your life, it can save you some angst and expensive service calls.

By the way, did you take a close look at the picture at the top of this post? Did you assume he was a writer, sitting on that stump? He’s actually an artist sketching in the forest. Give yourself ten points if you thought he was an artist. Otherwise, guess you’ll have to keep working on looking closer at things.

Let’s end with a wish for you all to have a lovely holiday season and all the best for an inspired new year.

Your Anytime Writing Retreat

Your Anytime Writing Retreat

Ruth E. Walker

Shortly after our most recent retreat, Turning Leaves, I heard from a writer who wasn’t able to attend. She was disappointed to have missed the retreat and, of course, we missed having her there. But it started the kernel of an idea for me.

What to do when you can’t get away to write but you really need that getaway?

Do it yourself

A self-directed retreat can give you the boost you and your writing need. There are two basic ingredients necessary to create your own writing retreat.

  • permission — allow yourself this gift — whether it’s for 30 minutes or 33 days, gift yourself and your muse with writing time
  • difference — as simple as facing your laptop in a new direction or as drastic as getting in the car and driving west without a destination in mind, a different writing space will loosen your perspective

The “where” doesn’t matter as much as the “okay” you need to give yourself. Once you commit to accepting the gift of time to write, the rest will fall into place. So, you’ve said okay to a retreat? Now to focus on the “where.” Many writers don’t have to even head out the front door.

Retreat at Home:

Begin by creating the right space that will give you the retreat vibe. Turn off the TV. Log off the WiFi. Unplug the phone. Eliminate distractions — if you need to, hire a babysitter or dog walker. Maybe light a candle or incense.

Take your journal or laptop into a room you don’t normally write in. Stand at a window you don’t usually look through. Sit on your apartment balcony or the backyard deck. If you’re a morning writer, keep your jammies on before you start to write. If you tend to write later in the day, start out with a walk in your neighbourhood, but travel in a new direction.

Do a little fuel prep in advance of your self-curated home retreat. Put together meals and snacks in advance. I don’t mean potato chips and dip…treat yourself so this feels special. Crudité. Antipasto. Shrimp cocktail. Whatever will raise the bar for you to a place of being pampered.

Retreat away from Home:

If a retreat at home would never work (i.e., noisy neighbourhood, roommates, cramped quarters) consider where you might escape to. I know writers who write at their local library. They turn off their phones, squirrel away in a quiet corner and spend the day writing. And with so many libraries loosening up those old rules of no food or coffee, bringing your lunch and favourite munchies along is less of a barrier. You can’t sit there in your jammies but there’s nothing that says you can’t wear your old sweatshirt and kick off your shoes to get comfy. My local library has an upscale coffee shop onsite where you can write your book and eat your cake, too.

Another option is to book yourself into an inn or B&B to write for a couple of days. Book for the off season to get lower rates. A friend and Writescape alumnus, Ingrid Ruthig, is an award-winning poet and accomplished artist. She creates her own writing retreats by booking a room in a B&B and staying for a few days. She’s disciplined enough to keep her focus on why she’s there and uses the new space as inspiration for her work. And she notes that the breakfasts make for a stellar start to her day.

Be creative. Head to a coffee shop to write. How about the local museum? Do the kids have a backyard treehouse? Retreating away from home doesn’t need to be an overnight excursion. The main point is finding a place that is different; it is difference that can inspire creativity.

Look for artist residencies

An artist residence can offer time and space to writers. Some residencies involve a large financial commitment. But some are provided free of charge or have scholarships or bursaries to offset the cost. And some pay you to attend.

There are dozens and dozens of residencies in Canada, the U.S. and abroad. The Write Life has a list of 27 Amazing Writing Residencies. I’ll admit to being intrigued by the winery retreats — Writing between the Vines will give you a week-long, no charge residency in either California or B.C. You have to get there and you need to bring your own food but my goodness, imagine a cabin tucked away among the cabernet sauvignon in the Sonoma Valley!

Closer to my home in Ontario, the A-Frame Residency in Ameliasburg offers writers the use of poet Al Purdy’s iconic Prince Edward County home. $650 paid to writers weekly for a no-fee 4-week stay is a remarkable gift. Not to mention the hope that some of the Governor-General Award-winner’s creative spirit could rub off on you as you work. Applications re-open fall 2019.

Heather O’Connor, who’s attended many of Writescape’s retreats, wrote about her artist-in-residence experience at Quetico Provincial Park, west of Thunder Bay and bordering Minnesota. In that post, she shares how she also funded the travel expenses to get her to Quetico, which gives us a nice transition to the next topic.

Fund Your Retreat

Apply for writing grants to help cover the cost of any writing retreat, either self-directed or carefully curated by others. Local, regional, provincial and national organizations offer grants to help support you in this journey. We’ve written a few blog posts about grants and how to get them, including this story of a breadmaker’s grant. And Heather O’Connor, arguably one of the most successful writing grant applicants we’ve ever known, offered some sage advice in this 2016 blog post.

So, whether you hunker down at home or leave the country, there are many ways to create your own writing retreat. Whatever it takes to charge your batteries and keep the words flowing, we wish you well. May the muse be ever-present and the writing, sublime!

Writescape’s next retreat

Registration for Spring Thaw, our annual creative getaway at Elmhirst’s Resort, doesn’t officially open until December 1. But for our retreat alumni and subscribers to our Top Drawer blog, we’re giving you a bit of a head start.

Spring Thaw, April 26 to 28, 2019, is an all-inclusive writing retreat in cozy cottages on the shores of Rice Lake in the Kawarthas. We create an intimate and safe space in which writers can explore ideas and stretch their creative energy. At Spring Thaw, you’ll have:

  • editorial review on 10 manuscript pages
  • private feedback consultations
  • creativity sessions to inspire your muse each morning
  • private room in shared, fully equipped lakeside cottages
  • optional evening activities
  • full access to resort amenities: WiFi, indoor pool, whirlpool & sauna, trails

Writers can keep the energy going with our Extend-Your-Pen option, April 28 to 30, two more days devoted just to working on your writing.

Retreat alumni and members of writing organizations can take advantage of our special discounts. Spring Thaw is a wonderful escape to let you imagine, reflect and write.

Editng…Editing Angst

Editng…Editing Angst

Ruth E. Walker

Have you ever picked up a book, started to read it and stopped? Maybe you put it down, never to pick it up again. Perhaps the subject matter didn’t fit your taste. Maybe the author’s style didn’t speak to you.

Or just maybe you asked yourself, who edited this?

That’s a question that should not be on any reader’s mind. Editors are behind-the-scenes workers. They ask the author questions, offer guidance, note big issues of plot and character, and point out logic, syntax, grammar and spelling errors before that manuscript heads to the printer. They appreciate a quiet acknowledgement in the back.

When something’s missing

A book that hasn’t been edited often shows some of the following: Spelling errors. Logic glitches. Flat characters. Vague references. Passive text. No forward progression. Lack of plot arc. Unnecessary repetition. Stilted dialogue. Lack of action. Lack of transitions…

Any combination—indeed, even if it’s just one of these errors repeated—will kick readers out of the story. If it’s just an error here or there, the kick out is temporary. But readers are not too forgiving and when those editing misses pile up, a reader will abandon the book.

I’ve seen issues even with a traditionally published book, but most often, it’s the self-published books that show a need for editing. Those unsold books end up in boxes in a writer’s basement, or dumped on bargain sales tables. I wish more writers would factor in the cost of editing when they budget to self-publish. So why don’t they?

Five reasons to not hire an editor:

  1. I have family and dear friends who can help me edit my book.
    • That’s great, except none of them are professional editors but “they all read a lot and they love me.” And that means they might notice some things that need work. Or not. Hopefully, they capture everything that needs editing and they agree on everything that needs work.
  2. My printing company provided editing services—they proofread it all.
    • Be careful. Proofreading is not editing; it’s a focus on the final manuscript just before printing. It finds errors with spelling, grammar, syntax, word usage and consistency. Proofreading does not consider pacing, character development, thematic issues and figurative language, plot arcs, subplot(s), effective description, setting clarity, etc. Proofreading will not suggest that your book begins in the middle of chapter 4 and all that comes before is either unnecessary or better placed elsewhere. Proofreading will not ask you questions that help you discover that your main character has almost no motivation. Proofreading is necessary, but only one piece of the editing process.
  3. I love my book and I don’t want to change anything.
    • You are one in a million and should have no trouble making it to all the best-seller lists.
  4. Having an editor scares me. How do they know what I’m trying to accomplish? What if they tell me my book is awful?
    • No editor should scare a writer; if so, that editor is not for you. You’re not looking for a dear friend (see #1) to help you polish your manuscript. You need a professional with whom you feel comfortable enough to trust with your work. So shop around. Ask others about editors they’ve hired to work with. Are there testimonials on the website? Get quotes. Ask questions: Have you edited science fiction before? Have you worked on non-fiction? Do you offer consultation to discuss suggested edits? Do I have to pay in advance? Can I spread out my payments? Ask the questions that are important to you and see what the answers are.
  5. I can’t afford an editor
    • Hire a good editor, and you hire a professional who is objective about your book. Someone who wants you to have good sales. Someone who is motivated to help your book be the best it can be. You’ve invested untold hours in crafting your story. You’re already paying to have it bound with an attractive cover, printed and delivered to your door. You will be spending money and a huge investment of time to promote the book. In an already crammed marketplace, do you want to have a reader pick up your book, scan the first couple of pages and then put it back down?

Even Margaret Atwood appreciates an editor

I work as an editor and have done so for many years. While I’m no Margaret Atwood, I’ve been edited by others and appreciate all their work on my magazine articles, poetry and short stories. But I am immensely grateful to my editor, George Down, for his work on my novel Living Underground. George asked questions. George caught errors. And most importantly, George didn’t shape my novel into George’s book. He helped me see what needed attention and let me craft my baby into its best possible shape.

I blogged about the role of the editor a couple of years ago. Editors Frances Peck and Sherry Hinman offered some great advice in that blog. And I wrote about George and The Book Band in another blog. I continue to follow these editors’ advice and celebrate what they taught me about editing.

Plotter + Pantser = Plantser

Plotter + Pantser = Plantser

Ruth E. Walker

Some writers are plotters. They develop outlines and character sketches. Spend time in archives researching long before putting words on the page. When they sit to write, they are prepared. They have a plot in mind.

Some writers are pantsers. The follow the shiny object of an idea, a snippet of overheard conversation, the allure of an intriguing character. When they sit to write, they are happily adventuring into the unknown.

Which one is right?

Pantsing

If you had asked me earlier in my writing career, I’d be all for pansters. Write by the seat of my pants, that was my motto. I’ve done some fine work that way, writing I’m quite proud of. And it is my way of getting to the page, of discovering the story, the layers of personalities in emotions, actions and reactions. I’m excited to follow their journey. If I had it all mapped out, it would deflate some of the energy that feeds me in the writing.

 

Plotting

After a retreat weekend with author Andrew Pyper, I’m thinking maybe my pantser approach led me to too many half-baked novels that languish in my drawers. Sure they are full of wonderful, quirky characters and great beginnings and even some exciting endings. Yet the middles are not so clear. In fact, that early excitement that led me to the page seems to have led to some deadends. And maybe if I’d had some plot in mind, the story of each might have been different.

But I’m not ready to declare an all-out allegiance to plotting my novels. Instead, I’ve come up with a kind of hybrid. A Frankenstein-ish patchwork that continues to serve my artistic needs as a writer. This method also offers satisfaction to my less-confident left brain approach to writing a novel. I end up with a plot that gives a solid foundation to my characters and themes.

How plotting marries pantsing

It starts with the midpoint of a novel. As the author of 10 successful novels, Andrew knows a thing or two about plotting a novel. He’s clear that the midpoint comes pretty much in the middle of the novel and that getting it right is crucial to the rest of the work. In fact, if the midpoint isn’t smack dab in the middle of the book, well, you’ve likely either not correctly identified your midpoint or put it in the wrong place.

The midpoint needs to do important work with your characters, especially your main character. It’s the place in which you need to deepen your characters or change them. A place of revelation or challenge. A spot where threat rises, opportunities present themselves or choices have to be made.

It also needs to be where the story moves forward or, at least sets up the forward movement. The midpoint can also be the starting point for a writer, with the beginning and end to come to the writer later on.

No write or wrong about it

Working with a midpoint is not prescriptive and this is where the pantser in me gets excited. I can write as a pantser with an awareness of the midpoint. I don’t need to have a detailed outline or even a firm sense of where the story/character is going. I just need to know that at some point in the process, I have to stop to consider where my midpoint is. And then consider if it is strong enough, if it carries the weight the novel needs to pull the reader along as well as pull me along.

You know those half-baked novels in the drawer? Well, I think I have an idea about how I might get them out of the drawer for a second chance. Maybe they will get sent back to the Island of Unwanted Manuscripts. And maybe not. But it won’t be because I didn’t know what to look for.

 

Something Wicked is Coming

Something Wicked is Coming

Ruth E. Walker

It’s October, Hallowe’en is coming and as two of my writing idols once wrote: Something Wicked this Way Comes. William Shakespeare gave the line to Macbeth’s witches. Ray Bradbury wrote a novel about an ill wind that blew in devilish characters.

But in today’s parlance, wicked has come to also mean GREAT!

When the universe sends you signals, the wise writer pays attention. I had something totally wicked happen to me and it has fired up my pen once more. I’m about to dive back into an old manuscript and I feel great!

There’s lots of ways a writer can lose the muse with a story. Usually, it’s just a short-lived, middle-of-the-book depression that a chat with a supportive colleague can fix. Sometimes, it’s a bit tougher to get past and a workshop or two can help shed light on the lack of inspiration. Occasionally, it’s much more serious and can lead to an abandoned manuscript.

Not all manuscripts can or should be resurrected. I have a couple in the drawer that I consider to be “training wheels.” But I also had a novel in progress that was a contemporary retelling of an old Breton fairy tale. It was a risky business, taking the magic of the tale and reworking it. But I disliked the so-called happy ending and I knew the main character deserved a much better happy ending.

It was great fun and a huge challenge. I had to make the magic real and the reality, magical…yet grounded. I re-read Arthur Ransome’s Old Peter’s Russian Tales, Grimm’s deviously delightful fairy tales and William Goldman’s The Princess Bride. I dived back into my cultural studies oral narrative course work, spending time with The Mabinogion and Alice Kane’s The Dreamer Awakes. I let the rhythms fill my bones and added layers of story to the novel. I was on a creative roll.

How I lost my way

I signed up for a week-long writing retreat and symposium. I felt that being far from home with experienced authors, attending workshops and most importantly, one-on-one sessions with a well-published writer, would offer me insights and inspiration.

The escape to a distant location was amazing. Expansive horizons in a rural setting. My own private room and writing space. Far-off coyotes howling and yipping every night. We even had a gorgeous full moon. And somebody else cooked for me. Heaven.

Surrounded by writers at all levels of the writing journey, I enjoyed listening to the enthusiastic and generous teaching faculty. Except for one thing: my mentor writer was less-than-positive about my story.

Not all mentors are meant to be

I arrived at our one-on-one session and when handed back my submission, I saw my retreat mentor had read the 10- or 15-page excerpt. There were plenty of notes scribbled in tiny script on those pages. But I was tough. I figured I could take it.

I left that one-on-one session a total mess.

I was asked if I were writing a story for children. Oh my God, I thought, I’ve been writing a children’s story all along? I was told to read other fairy tale re-workings and learn from those authors. I should have said “I have,” and then named them. I should have asked what the mentor knew about writing for children because I sure knew the difference. I should have asked why my mentor’s tone was so condescending.

I should have asked a lot more questions. Instead, I simply took it all in. My mentor had published books in book stores. My mentor had an agent. My mentor seemed to be “in” with all the other faculty.

I arrived at that retreat excited and enthused. And while I benefitted from the other opportunities the retreat offered, I left feeling confused and that I’d made a mistake.

My mistake was not my mentor’s fault

I didn’t challenge my mentor. I didn’t ask questions. I let the whole thing simmer instead of addressing it on the spot. And I may have missed an opportunity to take in valuable insights from my mentor because I was so distressed.

My mentor did not abandon my story. I did.

It’s been eight years but the universe has conspired to bring me back to Yvon’s tale. This past summer, I needed something to read for a maximum of 7 minutes at a public event. Something “light or humorous and crowd pleasing” the invitation suggested.

Trying to find a short passage was a challenge, and a lot of my work is serious, sometimes edgy stuff. And then I remembered the opening of Yvon’s story. Ironic and satirical and just a little bit magical. So I dusted it off, tweaked it here and there, and read 7 minutes to an appreciative crowd this past summer.

But the clincher of the universe nudging the muse along was a post a colleague writer put on my Facebook page two weeks ago. She was part of a novel-writing group we were in together when I first developed Yvon and his story. She posted a cartoon of Baba Yaga — a witch character who shows up in my manuscript.

Bingo! How could I turn my back on Yvon a second time?

Baba Yaga cartoon credit: cranberrytime

Some mentors are exactly what you need

Two weeks ago, I met with another mentor, author Frances Itani. She is the 2018 Writer in Residence for the Arts Council of Haliburton Highlands where my cottage is located. Frances read a brief excerpt of Yvon’s story and offered excellent advice: practical, encouraging and insightful. She pointed out strengths in the style and areas to tighten. And most importantly, she asked me questions related to the theme and heart of the story. Questions that helped me plan the revision to come.

I’m just finishing the edits on my YA sci/fi novel, getting it ready to go out to agents once more. This time, it won’t be a challenge to let go of The Last Battlewipe because The Perfect Beauty of Yvon Torville is waiting for me to get started again. I’m a lucky writer to have such a busy muse these days. It’s totally wicked what this way comes.

 

 

Flesh Out Characters with a Sketch

Flesh Out Characters with a Sketch

Ruth E. Walker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drawing out personality

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Writer: Who’s in Your Tribe?

Writer: Who’s in Your Tribe?

Ruth E. Walker

Margaret Laurence, one of Canada’s exceptional writers, spoke of the other Canadian writers — friends, colleagues or just-starting-out — as “the tribe.” It was at a time when writing was a lonely business in Canada. When literary prizes were few (let alone boasting glitzy galas and live broadcasting) and especially for women writers, when there were few achieving success and critical acclaim. So for Laurence, she saw the truth behind the word “tribe”: a community of humans.

In ancient Rome, the root word of tribe, tribus, meant a division within the state. When European settlers began explorations, they used the word “tribe” to describe any and all cultures they came in contact with. I guess it was a handy, one-size-fits-all way to deal with difference and we’re still dealing with the fallout of that conquer-all mindset.

A Tribe of Writers

But back to Margaret Laurence and her use of tribe. It was a term used in a good way, meant to gather together the group of humans who penned words, often without any hope of recognition or acclaim. Her tribe was other Canadians driven by the passion and need to write.

Some years ago, I had a chat with Linwood Barclay, then a Toronto Star columnist and now a hugely popular author of mystery novels. He told me how Laurence was a mentor to him when he was a student at Trent University.  He never forgot her kindness and direct, unerring eye, and the difference it made to his eventual career and international success.

Linwood was in Margaret’s tribe long before he was selling his books in the millions. And Laurence was in his tribe, long before he realized he had a tribe.

Everyone’s Tribe is Unique

My tribe is difficult to capture in words, mostly because it is a loose-knit connection of all kinds of writers. Sometimes I spend more time with some tribe members than others. My intense critique group, Critical ms, where we give written and verbal feedback to each other, meets every other week, alternating between Peterborough and Whitby. The Writers’ Community of Durham Region counts among its membership many writers who I am so happy to call friends as well as colleagues.

Haliburton Writers

My tribe also includes the Canadian Authors’ Association, CANSCAIP, The Writers’ Union of Canada, the Muskoka Authors’ Association and the Muskoka Novel Marathon group (the photo at the top of this post is from 2014, the year I attended the MNM in Huntsville.) I’ve recently expanded my tribe to include members of the Literary Arts Roundtable of the Arts Council, Haliburton Highlands.

  • Do I know everyone in all those organizations? No.
  • Do I support the work they do and volunteer when I can to help them grow and support other writers? Yes.
  • Do I have members of my writing tribe who don’t belong to any of these groups? Yes indeed.
  • And do I have members of my writing tribe who I value beyond the ordinary? You bet.

I have a core group of writers who I might term My Tribe within My Tribe. My go-to people when the rejections arrive and the first ones to know when I’m celebrating. The ones I will drop almost anything for if they need my help. Some have been in my tribe since 1996 when I started this crazy journey of words. And some are more recent core members. They are more than friends and colleagues, and they know it.

Tribe Members Aren’t Always Writers

My tribe also includes people who are not writers. The people who support and encourage my writing — family and friends who turn out for book launches, readings and events I help organize. And I learn from the non-writing members of my tribe. I learn about books I might not have picked up myself to read. I ask research questions and get directed to places and people who can help. I have beta readers who offer feedback and suggestions.

In short, a writers’ tribe benefits you when it’s not an exclusive group.

So who’s in your writers’ tribe? Is it like my ever-expanding circle of contacts or a more intimate group or a combination? Is your tribe online or face-to-face? Is it just Canadians or does it have an international flavour?

One thing is certain: Writing is a solitary act but it doesn’t have to be a lonely one.

Links to writing organizations in my tribe:

The Writers’ Community of Durham Region

The Writers’ Union of Canada

Canadian Authors’ Association

CANSCAIP (Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers)

Muskoka Authors Association

Muskoka Novel Marathon (Facebook page)

Arts Council ~ Haliburton Highlands

 

 

Back to School: Kids Play?

Back to School: Kids Play?

Ruth E. Walker

Wasn’t it just the other day that all the retail signs announced: Get Ready for Summer!

I just blinked and now what do they say? Get Ready for School!

Once I got over depressing thoughts of our vanishing summer, it got me thinking. Some years back (many years, in fact) I decided it was time to return to school. A high school dropout, I’d left the workforce and a developing career in the human resource profession to stay home with my young family. Getting back into the H.R. game would be tough without a university degree; a sociology or psychology major would be best, I thought.

But I was a bit scared so decided to at least start with something I really liked. English. Books are good. And reading. And talking about books…about reading books…books…

Fast-forward a couple of dozen courses later and somewhat longer years of evening and summer classes at Trent University, Durham Region Campus, and I had my degree. And no, not sociology or psychology.

English. And darn-near a minor in Cultural Studies. Even better: I graduated on the Dean’s List.

What I Learned in School

Study what you enjoy. And be open to stepping beyond what you know you’ll enjoy.

I took an Introduction to Anthropology. In the course catalogue, it all sounded a bit “sciency” but a lot of it focused on the past, so, because I like history, I risked it and I loved it. I even considered changing my major.

During the section with a biology focus, I held a plaster cast finger bone of the famous  “Lucy”, Australopethicus afarensis. Discovered in 1974 in Ethiopia, this hominid’s skeleton is about 3.2 million years old. It blew my mind and created a connection that inspired a thrice-published poem, Lucy’s Bones from Afar.

I didn’t know it at the time, but the next section on archaeology was great grounding for my final course before graduation on Greek and Roman Mythology. And from that course, I found my way to a series of poems and flash fiction, powerful characters and a novel that continues to simmer on the back burner.

Suffice to say that just one course outside of my English Literature comfort zone affected my muse, inspiring characters, poems, themes and plots in much of my future writing. I didn’t stop with Anthropology 101: Cultural Studies, Women’s Studies, Ancient History and yes, even a sociology course or two peppered my learning. By the time I graduated, I’d explored far beyond Shakespeare and sonnets.

Continuing that Education

I’m not suggesting that writers need university courses for success. That choice worked out well for me but not because I started out thinking about a career in literature. And it isn’t the only choice that had a profound impact on my writing.

Over the years, I’ve taken more than one writers’ workshop that inspired new and exciting work from me. I had mentors that gave me new perspectives. And there are many books on writing that took my craft on deep and engaging journeys.

Learning for all of us is on offer from a multitude of options: mentoring, workshops, private retreats, resource books, conferences, and so on. But not all conferences or workshops need to be about “writing.” And not all resource books should follow a familiar or safe path.

Some stretching into the unknown can help you reach new heights. It certainly did for me.