Fire Up the Intensity

Fire Up the Intensity

Ruth E. Walker

For the past few weeks, I’ve been hunkering down at our Haliburton County cottage. It’s beautiful up here; deep mounds of white snow contrasted against our mixed forest. Despite the snapping cold temperatures, we’ve been pretty snug with our woodstove and propane heater.

The view outside our cottage

Sitting next to that woodstove fire got me thinking about the way that fire and flame can pull out all sorts of emotions in me. Given that those emotions often fuel (no pun intended) my creativity, it nudged my thoughts to fire’s central role for human beings long before our written words.

After all, it would have been sitting around fires that long-ago storytellers captured imaginations and sowed the seeds for our ingrained need for story.

A prehistoric essential

Of course, fire was a huge part of our early ancestors’ ability to survive and thrive. From keeping their bodies warm, to drying and preserving fish and fauna, to cooking fresh foods, building and maintaining a fire was the difference between life and death. But it was far more than a survival tool. It was key to deepening our creative expressions.


A bull painting, made with ochre, discovered in Lubang Jeriji Saléh cave, East Kalimantan, Borneo, Indonesia, dated 40 ka (more than 40,000 years ago).

Some of the most stunning art from tens of thousands of years ago has been found inside caves in Europe, South America and Indonesia. Most of those caves run so deep that if you just travel a few steps inside, natural light vanishes.

So how did they manage to create paintings in the dark? Perhaps some art was created in the dark. But the artists left behind evidence of light sources: carved stone lamps that still hold the residue of oil and soot. So it was fire – or, at least, a flickering flame – that lit the stone canvas. It’s hard not to imagine prehistoric artists travelling deep within, carrying carving stones or pots of red ochre in one hand and a precious lamp in the other, making their way to fresh walls on which to record their stories.

An artistic depiction of a group of rhinoceros, was completed in the Chauvet Cave 30,000 to 32,000 years ago.

I travel in time


Skeletal cast of “Lucy.” (H. Lorren Au Jr/ZUMA Press/Corbis)

In another life, I might have followed my love of all things ancient and unexplained into the field of archeology. As part of my English and Cultural Studies degree – eked out over two decades of part-time studies – I had the opportunity to hold an australopithecine finger bone cast from none other than the famous Lucy. The poem “Lucy’s Bones from Afar” arrived almost fully formed that same evening and was soon after published in The Science Creative Quarterly in 2006. One of my first poetry credits.

Anyone who knows me, understands my math-challenged brain would never have let me follow my Indiana Jones dreams. But I’ve found other ways to keep the passion going with books and magazine articles and the endless rabbit holes found online.

On Twitter, I follow @Jamie_Woodward_, a geography prof at the University of Manchester, UK. He offers the most amazing Ice Age tweets that so often tickle my muse. For example, a rare clay sculpture of two bison found in a French cave led to yet another poem: Here, there be Bison.


Musée d’Archéologie nationale in France

The prehistoric cave art in Tuc d’Audoubert in France, plasters the walls in carvings and etched stone. There’s even ancient footprints hardened in the clay deposits, from which the bison were formed. I’m certain the bison artist was female and I wrote the poem from her perspective. For me, it is a solid connection to a creative soul who existed in 13,000 BC.

Burning questions

But if flame is the source of survival of our species and for first allowing creativity to deepen, flourish and, in the case of the cave art, to be preserved, it’s also been a source of terror and destruction. Beyond natural disaster, humanity has managed to harness flame as a weapon. From igniting gunpowder and cannon shot, we’ve managed to evolve the level of burn to horrific weapons of mass destruction.

pixabay.com

Maybe that’s why much of my creative focus has lately looked forward, to the future of this world or others, as imagined in science fiction.

And yes, dystopian tales hold a strong interest because they move me to ask questions. Questions like: why, when capable of so much beauty in art and creativity in science (didn’t they just land the latest rover on the surface of Mars?) why is the urge to burn it all down still out there?

Well writer? Maybe that illogical human predilection is of interest to you as well. Maybe it drives your muse and “fires up” your pen. I hope it’s good to know you are not alone.

A poem

Lucy’s Bones from Afar

Gracile Australopithecus: November 1974
 
Offered in atonement
these few small bones
meant nothing
but salvation: a kind
of anthropological grace
held in a trembling hand.
 
Mired in a bed of river dust
pillowed between rocks
and sheets of clay
ancestral arthropods led us on.
 
Before the fire
we danced and drank
and repeated the music
each rote word a triumph
in our mind
each note ingrained.
 
Under the brilliant carpet of heaven
deep in the musk of canvas
sweat and kerosene
we leaped with the flame
our shadows racing home
our footprints close behind.
 
Rearranging The Bookshelf

Rearranging The Bookshelf

Ruth E. Walker

A recent exchange of ideas on Facebook in a writers’ group page caught my interest. In short, a post from a writer was asking other writers if they felt “pressured” into including “LGBTQ” and “mixed race” characters into their stories.

The writer went on to suggest that the immensely popular (and rather sexy) Bridgerton series on Netflix was an example of political correctness because, despite being set in 1815 England, it included persons of colour among the aristocracy and upper classes. Oh my.

For me, it was a bit of head-scratcher. Casting on Bridgerton is, among other things, meant to challenge viewers to rethink history and imagine what might have been. It was a delightful binge watch and, frankly, it didn’t take too long for me to absorb the fiction of the tale and just sit back and enjoy the story.

No pressure here

I don’t feel pressured to include characters of colour or of indigenous heritage or those who are LGTBQIA2S+ any more than I feel pressured to write in a particular genre or narrative tense. I write the stories I’m meant to write with the characters who show up.

And isn’t that the role of fiction? To entertain, yes. But also to hold up the mirror and see us as we are? And what better way to remind us what we have lost over the years of separation and “difference” versus inclusion and shared visions? Bridgerton was refreshing.

I do know that books by marginalized authors are sorely underrepresented on mainstream bookshelves. So it makes sense to me that, as an understanding of an underserved market dawns on agents, publishers and booksellers, the demand for those books will increase. Rightly so.

But they are not books being written for any underrepresented groups. They are for everyone. Remember that those books will show us who we are. Those writers will hold up the mirror for us to see ourselves — ALL of us who make up our country. High-quality books will arrive on the bookshelves, some will be made into films or inspire television programs or win prestigious literary prizes. But more importantly, they will be read by a diverse, engaged audience.

It’s Black History Month in Canada

Black History Month in Canada was proclaimed nationally in December 1995, when the House of Commons officially recognized February as Black History Month. There’s more than a proclamation needed to create understanding. But it was part of a journey we’re all still on and there’s lots to learn.

For example, this week I learned that the church that Harriet Tubman attended in St. Catharines, Ontario, while tirelessly rescuing others through the Underground Railroad, still stands. The Salem Chapel counted Harriet “Moses” Tubman as a congregant from 1851 to 1862, at which point she returned to the United States.

According to the the church’s website: the majority of her clandestine Underground Railroad rescue missions started and ended in this British Canadian town. In 1868, when asked where and why she guided the freedom seekers, Harriet Tubman said, “I would’t trust Uncle Sam with my people no longer; I brought them all clear off to Canada.”

Want to learn more about Harriet Tubman? Cornell University features a selection of several biographies. She may soon appear on the US $20 bill, but this courageous woman left a lasting influence on Canada and our history. And I, for one, didn’t even know that much. Clearly, I need to expand my reading choices.

Back to writing

So what does diversity in publication mean for non-marginalized writers? You must still craft the stories you are inspired to write. But it’s time for the majority of us to make room for those who have had fewer opportunities to have their words heard.

And if you want to expand your reading library, check out 49th Shelf online, a curated resource of Canadian books with a wide range of categories to choose from. From diversity and inclusion in Young Adult to African-American fiction, 49th Shelf is open for readers to discover a treasure trove of homegrown writers.

Postcard Storytime

Postcard Storytime

Ruth E. Walker

Earlier this month, Gwynn explored the idea of story length and short story forms in a blog about story size, Does Size Matter? In it, she lists several forms of short fiction.

I have a soft spot for the power of a postcard story. I’ve taught a couple of workshops that take a close look at that form, a kind of snapshot story of few words.

Like all super-short forms, it is extremely hard to write a compelling tale that engages readers and challenges them to consider another world, another life lived. But it is a brilliant exercise for any writer to attempt. Why? Because it helps you learn the value of a few words that can say so much. And that, my friends, is a vital editing skill for any writer.

What is a postcard story:

Originally, a postcard story was supposed to be short enough to fit on a postcard. A beginning, middle and end boiled down to only the absolutely necessary words to set a scene and deliver an emotional impact.

For a long time, it seemed that 250 words was the magic number as a word-count maximum. But it is in the eye of the beholder and some contests have set higher and lower word counts.

For our purposes, let’s just focus on 250 words maximum. How can anyone write something that short that is also powerful to read?

Start 30 seconds before the end

Unlike a longer work, your opening in a postcard story is almost your ending. There’s no room to set up characters or setting. Backstory is implied without explanation and with the barest of detail.

We’re told to start a story in the middle of things happening – in medias res. But for successful postcard stories, that needs to become in quae tandem – at the end of things. So think in terms of moments, like the smoke rising from the barrel of a shotgun, the click of a closing motel door, a cold breeze through a broken window.

Great postcard stories capture the moment just after something significant has happened and because of it, everything changes.

Be suggestive

You are not setting up complex themes; rather this is a single scene with one main idea at work. But if you want a postcard story to work as well as a longer work, you need that scene to contain richness and depth—even if it is only ‘implied’.

  • characters must appear to have a life
    • Use Action:
      • brushed dirt from his pants
      • slips off her ballet shoes
      • takes a sip from the broken cup
  • setting may be a mere blink but with that blink we ‘see’ specifics
    • Describe with energy
      • hairline cracks in the paint
      • fireball sun sets behind the mountains
      • whisper of dust on the bookshelf
  • your plot must be larger than its 250 words
    • Go Big thematically (but keep it small)
      • death/birth
      • conflict/peace-making
      • letting go/taking charge

End with a bang

The last line is the killer in all short fiction and never more so than in a postcard story. It makes the final “sense” of the snippet, the ah-ha. It suggests what is to come without stating it. The very best last lines in a postcard story will make you suck in your breath and then hold it for a moment before releasing it.

I can’t help you to know how to write this last line. But I can tell you that you’ll recognize when you have it right because you will suck in your breath and then hold it for a moment. And then, release it.

Job done, you’ll say.

Curious about postcard stories?

Visit award-winning Irish writer Jan Carson’s site to view some of her postcard stories, published by Emma Press. Cheeky. Clever. Disturbing.

Job done and done well.

Curious about short fiction in general?

More on writing short fiction in Gwynn’s post Thoughts on Short Fiction. And you can read our winning entry in last year’s under-500 words story contest: Woman with Cigarette by Helen Bajorek-MacDonald

Writing The End

Writing The End

Ruth E. Walker

These days, we’re seeing a lot of endings. Some endings are permanent as favourite retailers and restaurants close and jobs disappear. Some endings are temporary; personally, I can hardly wait for hugs and kisses with my family to come back. And many of us have experienced terrible endings in our lives: separations, divorces or heartbreaking deaths.

With such massive change in the world and so much coming to a close, how is a writer to stay focused on getting words onto the page? Is the opening scene of a story sitting untouched in your laptop? Have you got three great chapters finished but is your mind a complete blank about the rest of the story? Are you in a state of despair?

Here’s something to try:

Create Your Story’s End

Wait a minute, you might say. How can I write the end of the story if I don’t know what happens in the middle? In fact, I don’t think I even care what happens in the middle. I can’t wrap my brain around all that second act stuff, the character arc, the rising tension and bigger and bigger challenges. It’s too much.

Right. That’s the point. Give yourself a Writing the Middle Break, send your imagination off on a kind of vacation or, better yet, a writing retreat with just one goal in mind: The End.

When you write the end of your story, you have a signpost just waiting for you and your pen. Crafting an ending will give you a place to aim the middle of your story toward.

And yes, I hear you: What if I choose the wrong ending? How can I know how it ends if I don’t know all the middle stuff?

Please, just listen to yourself. The ending is always found in the beginning. You’ve already written the beginning and if the sacred heart of your story is missing then your problem is not the middle, it’s the start. Your main character needs something – not wants but needs something that is part of their growth.

Essential End Ingredients

Main Character: a solid ending features your MC as a changed person. Maybe they accomplish something they didn’t believe/know they could. Or they learn something startling or perceive something they didn’t see before. It’s a revelation or a gentle coming-to-terms moment. No matter what you write, it has to be about, and directly involve, your MC.

Time: This is not a rushed project with a deadline so take it slow as you sketch it out. Allow the pieces to come to you bit by bit. And for heaven’s sake, use the senses.

Think for a moment about the lighting in this scene. As you imagine it, what shadows are cast? Does anything catch and reflect the light? What’s the temperature and how does your MC’s body react to it? Is there a scent and is it pleasant or stinging? What sounds are present – thundering cacophony or whispering winds? What is now silent? Is your MC’s mouth dry or do tears run down their cheeks?

Are they alone? Is your MC touching something or someone? Who, or what, is absent?

Using the senses will immerse the reader in the scene. Bonus for you, writer: engaging the senses will draw you into the scene like nothing else. And double bonus: when you get back to writing the middle, keep using the senses and your story will sing.

Back to Main Character: Consider the MC’s wants and needs that you, of course, have laid out in the opening scenes (if you’re uncertain, stop right here and go back to the beginning to make sure you have.) Bring closure to those wants and needs. Maybe the MC figured out long ago (in that middle you haven’t written yet) that their want was wrong all along. Give your MC a moment to acknowledge that one last time. And then wrap your arms around that essential need your MC didn’t even know they had and give us one last reflection.

Be Open to Change: Remember this is just your first draft and by the time you finish the whole story, you may know that the ending you wrote isn’t quite right. Maybe you’ll need an entirely different ending. But this is not a wasted exercise. Far from it.

I warrant writing the imagined ending scene will, at the very least, give you a greater connection with your MC and inspire a return to writing the rest. Or maybe it will help you realize your beginning isn’t working and you’ll need some serious editing to craft the right opening.

But what if writing this exercise IS the ending of your story? Our subconscious is constantly steering us. If you allow it to work its magic, it just might move you from Why the heck did I even start this book? to Why the heck did it take me so long to get back to this book?

And with that, I can only offer you this: The End.

Foreshadow the Future

Foreshadow the Future

Ruth E. Walker

I enjoy the outdoors. I get pleasure in working in the garden, especially at my cottage. I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty or derive pleasure when my plants flower or produce fruit. Nighttime calls of spring peepers in the far-off swamp or critters hopping under the shade of the hosta remind me of renewal. Even the cold hand of winter offers pleasures, albeit frigid and at times, deadly.

I tell you this – my affection for the natural world and my respect for it — to set the stage for what is to follow. In fiction, this is referred to as foreshadowing.

Humane Humans

Nature has a way of reminding cottagers that flora and fauna were here first. Anyone who has struggled with fallen trees, poison ivy infestations or rodent incursions can confirm that. As much as is possible, we avoid herbicides for irritant flora. We use live traps for the rodents, my kind husband trekking over to the swamp to release the pesky mice.

It’s not to say we don’t target poison ivy with Round Up when the hillside is awash in the stuff and there’s been no deer around to help control it. And yes, snapping traps and even Warfarin has been pulled out when humane methods can’t keep up. But it’s never the first choice. And we hate the result.

A Murder Most Foul

Despite knowing that death is part of nature, I get upset when I find a dragonfly crushed on the sidewalk or drive past roadkill on the highways. Poor things, I think.

Nonetheless, I became the dealer of death at the cottage. Those gardens I like to tend? They’re all edged with a variety of rocks. Attractive to look at until the grass grows up around them. The lawnmower can’t trim that. So I get up close and personal with my garden shears.

Last month, I crouched down by the rocks, snipping away at the green growth. Until my shears cut through something else. Something that felt like bunched fabric. Or worse. And it was. I decapitated an adult frog. A split second before, it was crouched in the shadow of a rock overhang, unseen. Then it sprang out at the precise moment the two sharp edges of my shears met and severed its head and life in an instant.

Man, I was sick at heart. Still am, in fact.

I’ve spent weeks trying to blot that image out of my head. Today, while once more trimming the rocks, I was so careful. I made a lot of noise, knocking my shears against the rocks. I called out: “Foreshadowing. Here I am. Pay attention, critters.” And weirdly, that got me thinking about how important foreshadowing can be in writing.

Why Foreshadow

Dropping clues into fiction arouses the interest of readers and that’s a primary benefit for any writer. Laying a foundation of foreshadowing creates anticipation that pulls readers through the story. Writers have a full set of tools to inject foreshadowing: images, character action/reaction, dialogue and setting elements, for example. From concrete objects to shadows and colours, the important part is choosing the right tool in the right place.

When you foreshadow, you tickle readers’ curiosity. When you deliver the on that foreshadow, you evoke emotions in readers. You can build internal tension by doling out that delivery bit by bit.

  • Opening scene: Shadowy figure in distance at funeral of POV character’s mother
  • Mid-point: Shadowy figure shows up trying to attack the POV character but evades capture
  • Final scene: Shadowy figure reveals she is POV character’s birth mother & wasn’t trying to attack but longed just to hold him again

That’s a powerful writing tool. But there are a few DOs and DON’Ts of foreshadowing all writers should keep in mind. Here’s three to get you started.

Don’t use a hammer when a feather is enough. An obvious foreshadow is a hammer: As she watched the overloaded pleasure boat pull away from the dock with her husband and children waving jauntily to her, she thought that she should have insisted they all wear lifejackets. Be subtle instead.

Do try to be strategic. Not all foreshadowing leads the reader to the conclusion they expected. Sometimes it is useful to have readers think they know what will happen but then you surprise them. But be careful: the foreshadow still needs to lead to the unexpected result. Be logical.

Don’t worry about foreshadow in the first draft. A bit like reverse engineering, subtle hints and deliberately placed objects or elements are part of editing that first draft. That’s not to say that you didn’t already have foreshadowing in the early writing, but often it is of the hammer variety. Your job is to refine that into the subtle variety. Edit with purpose.

Back to the Beginning

Part of working in foreshadow is returning to the beginning to find places where it can be added. But foreshadow is not restricted to the beginning of a story or novel. It can be an effective tool at the start of a new scene or to create suspense at the end of a scene or chapter.

It is, however, most effective at the start. It sets up expectations. So, what about going back to the beginning of this piece and checking it for elements of foreshadowing? In the comments, share anything you noticed.

Understanding Underwriting II

Understanding Underwriting II

Ruth E. Walker

Last week, we looked at underwriting in fiction and focused on underwritten scenes. Scenes are the building blocks of any story and essential for developing forward progression.

As a refresher, if a scene is underwritten, it lacks at least one of three important qualities: a reader’s connection to emotions, sensations and, ultimately, the story.

Most scenes involve the actions and reactions of a story’s characters. And it is here–in how a writer treats character development–that the beating heart of a story is found. Story is what we long for but it is character that embodies that story and leads us through to the end.

More than once, I’ve worked on novels that have underwritten important elements of character development:

  • physical presence (external = movement & abilities)
  • moral centre (internal = reactions & decisions)
  • wants and needs (external vs internal = motivations & goals)

When any one of these is underwritten, writers risk losing vital connections to readers.

The body is alive

The physical presence of your character is much more than describing how they look. How they move is based on their physical capabilities: strengths and weaknesses. And those strengths and weaknesses will change depending on their circumstances.

Big, tall Deshawn has to rescue a buddy trapped in a haunted house. We know he’s afraid of the dark.

Below are three different ways of sharing physical information about Deshawn, from a passive “tell” narrative, to a more active and physically connected narrative, and then finally a physically and emotionally active approach. Consider all three and decide which one is easiest to visualize and believe in the action.

  • Deshawn is a tall man. The room beyond the doorway he passes through is dark and frightening.
  • Deshawn stoops to pass through the doorway and looks around the frightening dark room beyond.
  • Deshawn tucks in his shoulders and lowers his head to pass into the room, his eyes wide and searching for any flicker of movement in the dark.

Unless they’re in a coma, your characters will always have to move their bodies. Those bodies need to act and react as any other body would. They feel the cold. Muscles get tired. Armpits sweat. Stomachs rumble. Eyes strain. Goose bumps appear.

Overwriting would be to have all those physical actions happening at the same time. But underwriting is to not have any of them ever happen to your characters. Using the senses — taste, touch, sound, smell and sight — will help keep readers physically connected to the people in your stories.

Good vs evil vs a little of both

Morality (beliefs, values, principles) is part of what drives your character’s actions and reactions. Characters make choices and firm decisions based on their moral centre. Underwriting happens when writers either don’t know what their character believes in or doesn’t give characters an opportunity to act on or challenge that belief system.

In Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, we gain insight into the moral centre of Aunt Lydia. A disturbing and evil antagonist in the first book, we discover that she is far more complex. We learn about her life before the extreme right-wing, Christian theocracy takes over part of the United States. If she opted to cling to her values and principles, she would be executed. She chooses life and must suppress her moral centre until she finds her way back to embrace it once more.

While I’m not suggesting that all your characters must have deep-seated values and principles, you will create well-rounded, logical and engaging characters if they act within some kind of moral centre. They won’t be underwritten because their actions and reactions will be logical, consistent and recognizable. And just like Atwood’s Aunt Lydia, there is plenty of room to play with the range of morality from which they operate.

Motivation and goals

Just as characters act from a moral centre, what they want and why they want it forms another part of what drives them and the narrative forward. You risk underwriting your character when goals don’t appear until halfway through the novel. Worse yet, if a character has no goal, they have no reason for motivation. And why will a reader worry about their failures and cheer their successes?

A character’s motivation can change, as can goals. What a character wants at the beginning of any story is rarely what a character needs. In terms of plot, readers want to follow an interesting or intriguing story. They don’t want an aimless meandering stroll through narrative that eventually gives them the ah-ha moment. “Oh, her mother’s disappearance is why she won’t commit to any relationship. Would have been good to get a hint of that long before page 107.”

There are plenty of ways to add a brushstroke or two before page 107. Figurative language is one method: metaphor and symbolism, for example.

  • a character’s attachment to a mother figure — a Madonna icon, an activist role for “Mother Earth” OR the reverse — disgust of sacred “mother” icons, a pro-development role that dismisses “tree huggers,” etc.
  • what your character refuses to see — photo album with mom’s pictures removed, flipped over or folded to hide her image. (There’s no need to explain the reason at this point — on page 107, it will support the ah-ha moment that makes the reveal be logical)
  • a character serving in caregiver (mother) role — a house plant, a pet, a neighbour’s child — and not doing it well at all, gives you lots of room to play: a missing neighbour’s pet — that you lost — is not the same as a missing neighbour’s child — who you were babysitting

In the process of editing, revising, rewriting and second-guessing ourselves, it’s easy enough to pare out elements of character development. A simple method to uncover underwriting for characters is to ask yourself the following:

  • Is this character physically present, using their senses, filling their space, moving appropriately?
  • Is this character acting in concert with their beliefs and principles? And if not, is there a reason?
  • Does this character know what they want? Are they working towards it and, if not, why not?
  • And, as the author, do I know what they need? And am I moving them (or the plot) towards that?

Tip of the character iceberg

And this is just the start. Characters, like real human beings, are amazingly complex and this blog is really just touching the surface. There are many good books that explore character and how to enrich yours. The more you know your character and how they should be acting and reacting, the less underwritten your characters will be.

Understanding Underwriting

Understanding Underwriting

Ruth E. Walker

We recently featured a series of posts about overwriting. It got me thinking about the opposite issue: underwriting. Writers often don’t notice underwritten scenes and characters but we editors sure do.

Underwriting can be as specific as a scene or part of a scene doesn’t have the impact you hoped for. Or it can be as broad as missing key plot elements that set up events later in the book.

Underwriting is missed opportunities to connect emotionally with your reader by letting them “witness” the story. Would you rather read a single sentence: Dustin yelled at her in his usual hurtful way to get his way“? Or read the scene of actual dialogue and action that took place, so you can “see” and “hear” the nasty words he used, and her cowering, him looming over her …?

Underwriting has several consequences but the most important one is that it doesn’t engage your readers. Underwriting creates:

  • Emotional disconnect
  • Sensory disconnect
  • Story disconnect

Today, we’ll focus on underwritten scenes and then follow up with a focus on underwritten characters.

Your novel is full of scenes. Some scenes take up a whole chapter and some chapters carry several scenes. But long or short, all scenes have a purpose: keep the reader engaged and push the story forward.

A scene needs geography

We need to be grounded in place — not nailed in place with every detail revealed but enough setting features that readers can visualize what’s happening. Choose elements that matter to the scene and its purpose. Is it important to the plot to know it’s sunset? Let that blazing orb drop behind something that develops the story — a castle in the distance, a massive range of mountains, a line of camels crossing a dune.

Spotlight: Let the reader’s eye take in the quality of the light and how it plays on an object that has significance. Or use the senses to bring something important into focus: colour, shape, and textures — odours faint or strong — distant noises or booming sounds — flavours and temperatures on the tongue — textures and touches. Put that dried fig in someone’s mouth. Run fingertips along the gladiator’s shield. Create a sensory connection for readers.

A scene needs action

Action comes in many forms: movement (large and small) and dialogue (lengthy or brief). But don’t forget the action found in internal thought (a moment of angst, reaction, an internal struggle or making a decision.) The process of coming to a decision, especially in a key area of the plot/character development, is sometimes given little or no air. And that’s a missed opportunity to bring your reader into a character’s emotional life.

Maybe you think internal thought is “tell” instead of “show.” And sometimes, it may very well be “tell” but, in fact, necessary tell that feels just like show. Not everything needs to framed through movement or dialogue in order to feel active and move the plot forward.

For example:

He held the urn in both hands. If he threw it now, all the pain and frustration would be over. So easy. Just drop the thing over the cliff. Watch it smash on the rocks below and then turn and walk away. Let his father’s ashes go and never have to face his mother and sister, or tell them what he’d done, how Dad’s ashes were all that was left. But easy had never been his way. Not then. And not now. He slipped the urn back into the cardboard box and returned to the car. Time to face the family.

A scene needs meaning

If every scene has a job to do, then your role is to make sure it gets that job done. Too often, we see manuscripts where important plot points arrive without any set up. For example, the main character wants forgiveness from her ex-husband but we only discover that halfway through the book. Readers will wonder where that’s coming from. But if you make forgiveness a theme, you can bring in metaphors, images and hints of that want so, for example, the ex-husband element makes sense.

Perhaps early in the story a small transgression is forgiven. Is she a character who often says “sorry” over little things then waits to hear “that’s okay”? Maybe something gets broken and she’s more upset than the owner of the broken item. Maybe a favourite film is “Unforgiven” or a favourite Mark Twain quote is Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.

A useful approach to make sure your scenes are doing their job is to ask yourself: What is the point of this scene? It’s a simple question but an important one. Are you developing character motivation, introducing a new character, raising the stakes, revealing a new plot element, establishing time and place, showing conflict, etc.? When you know the purpose of each scene you can make vital editing decisions:

  • Eliminate or combine/conflate scenes that do the same work
  • Energize flat scenes with action
  • Slow down a scene for emotional impact
  • Reorder scenes for more logical progression

When you analyze the purpose of each scene, you gain a better understanding of your novel. And that makes for a confident writer.

Find the balance

  • Avoid a laundry list of setting description but ground readers in the scene with just the right brushstrokes of important details about place.
  • Avoid too much chatter and physical action but feed the emotional connection with characters by letting readers hear their thoughts at important moments.
  • Avoid packing in too much figurative language but enrich the story with metaphor and subtle hints, especially where it’s missing in a key scene.

A writer is like a movie director, deciding who and what to include in the scene, where to aim the camera, how to light the scene, etc. Fortunately, you don’t have to call in the crew and actors to re-shoot your scene. Instead, you choose whether to trim or embellish on the page. And that’s the beauty of our craft: until it goes into the hands of the publisher, it’s all up to us to make those choices.

Overwriting Part III

Overwriting Part III

Ruth E. Walker

We come to our final installment of some of the most common forms of overwriting. Two weeks ago, we looked at sentimentality and over-the-top emotional writing. Last week, we explored hammers (are you getting it, reader?) And this week, it’s time to recall the times in your reading life when you thought the writer was giving you more than you needed.

Nobody likes a know-it-all

The know-it-all form of overwriting comes when a writer has done considerable research on a topic or they have life experience to share in their story. The author intends to create an immersion in a particular time and/or place by seeding the work with reality.

But what starts out as interesting elements soon become a piling on of images, places, names, distances, amounts and so on that readers must wade through. Keep that image of wading through, waist deep in details that are “true.” So often, writers defend these details by offering “I’m just setting the scene with realistic detail.”

Sure. Be real. But also be realistic. How much detail is necessary? Are you giving your reader breathing room to use their brains, to fill in any gaps with their imaginations?

He was gagged with a rough woolen cloth woven by the executioner’s wife so he could say nothing as he stood on the 12 by 14 wooden scaffolding, eyeing the crowd of more than 250 townspeople and foreigners from across the channel gathered below in the village courtyard. He knew which ones were foreigners as many wore colours and fine cloth reserved for the nobility though clearly they were mere traders. He glanced over at the permanent constructions of wood upon which corpses of others were decomposing. Soon, his body would join the others to be were exhibited after the execution, until he also decomposed. For this purpose, wagon-wheels were attached onto upright poles near the gallows to serve as platforms upon which the beheaded and broken bodies of criminals were laid. 

So let’s find the know-it-all material and revise this to give just enough detail for readers to see the scene.

He was Gagged with a rough woolen cloth woven by the executioner’s wife so he could say nothing as he stood on the 12 by 14 wooden scaffolding, eyeing the crowd of more than 250 townspeople and foreigners from across the channel gathered below in the village courtyard. He knew which ones were foreigners. as Many wore colours and fine cloth reserved for the nobility though clearly they were mere traders. He glanced over at the permanent constructions of upright wood poles supporting the wagon wheels upon which where the corpses of others were decomposing. Soon, his headless body would join them others to be were exhibited after the execution, until he, too, decomposed. For this purpose, wagon-wheels were attached onto poles near the gallows to serve as platforms upon which the beheaded and broken bodies of criminals were laid. 

The fix is in

Tidying up to see how it looks with commas and tweaks made, we have a tighter finished paragraph. Readers of historical fiction love to make discoveries, so the reference to the out-of-towners showing up in off-limits garb is a fun fact from early medieval days: certain finery was restricted to Lords and Ladies.

But it’s medieval times so that scaffolding would be wood, not steel or aluminium. And who needs to know the size of the scaffold? In particular, that last line sounds like it came out of a textbook. But if we take snippets of detail and work them into the paragraph as through the narrator’s eyes, we get enough to set the stage without it feeling like a history lesson.

Gagged with a rough woolen cloth, he stood on the scaffolding, eyeing the crowd gathered in the village courtyard. He knew which ones were foreigners. Many wore colours and fine cloth reserved for the nobility though clearly they were mere traders. He glanced over at the upright poles supporting the wagon wheels where the corpses were decomposing. Soon, his headless body would join them until he, too, rotted away.

Dumping grounds

Two other frequent offenders in the Know-it-all category, are info dumps and the As You Know, Bob dialogue trick, each designed to tell readers important information.

An info dump is fairly straightforward — like the overload of details in the previous example. But they also happen when an author adds details a character can’t possibly know.

For example, it’s important that readers know setting details but consider our main character, Tyson, a bored teenager:

Tyson followed his parents into the late-12th century cathedral. It was a Gothic style building with chevron vault ribs that crossed the high ceiling and echoed as he sang his favourite song, the echo bouncing off the walls peppered with secular and sacred themed stained glass windows and beautiful frescoes painted between the windows.

Chevron vault ribs? Secular and sacred? No way is Tyson going to know — or admit to knowing — the terminology of medieval architecture. The author is intruding here, dumping information into the story. Maybe it’s necessary information but this is Tyson’s story and that information needs to be filtered through his eyes and his brain.

Tyson dragged behind his parents and into another old building full of thousand-year-old knick knacks. He had to admit the acoustics were amazing when he belted a totally lit tune and it echoed like crazy in the super high ceilings. But his dad was totally awks about it, like his song was going to crack one of the fancy coloured glass windows. As if.

If the specific details are crucial to the plot, you can have Dad or a tour guide give Tyson the necessary information.

Similarly, As you know, Bob informs the reader but in a way that is clearly the author informing the reader. One character turns to the other and says: Sir, if we take that route it will lead us directly into the heart of enemy territory where, no doubt, the secret weapon is hidden and where we’re open to ambush.

Um. Can you see the flashing sign: Know-it-all Provides Important Detail? Yes, you can introduce information through dialogue. But for heaven’s sake, be subtle. If unsure whether you dialogue is off, imagine it starting with As you know, Bob. If it fits, you have a problem.

Fix the dialogue by being more subtle and more natural.

“That route is tricky, sir. If they have anything to hide, they’ll be on high alert.”

If readers really need to know the secret weapon is hidden there, find another moment to hint at it.

Info dumps and As you know, Bob moments often come when a writer is impatient to get necessary details injected into a story and then move on. Learn to have patience. You can find ways to introduce specific details without rushing to get it all into one moment. Layer it in and add only what is necessary. Recognize what your character(s) could possibly know and stay within that boundary.

Finally, always remember to leave room for your reader to imagine. It’s a sign of trust. So trust that your reader is smart enough to connect the dots and fill in the blank spaces between the details you provide.

Trust your reader and you’ll get even better at trusting yourself.

Overwriting Revisited

Overwriting Revisited

Ruth E. Walker

Last week’s blog post in The Top Drawer summarized the three deadly sins of overwriting: over-emotional writing (i.e., sentimentality); hammers and know-it-all writing. We kept our focus on sentimentality and over-the-top emotions.

This week, we’re heading to the workshop to focus on those hammers.

Hit that nail, again and again, and again…

My Writescape partner, Gwynn Scheltema, introduced me to the concept of hammers. She used to draw tiny hammers at the side of my text in any spot I “hammered home” a point for my readers. It’s an image I’ve never forgotten and one I imagine every time I come across it in my editing role.

The most common hammer I find is when a writer “shows” something (usually by creating a vivid image or two) and then “tells” it afterwards. As in:

Pay attention reader

Camille dabbed her eyes with a tissue. Her cheeks were wet from the falling tears.

The first sentence is a nice show through character action (dabbing her eyes) that also reveals reaction (crying). Of course her cheeks are wet from the falling tears. It’s like the writer isn’t sure the reader has the whole picture.

Remember, your job is to show enough for readers to envision the scene — the reader’s job is to use their imagination and it’s hard for readers to do when you paint the complete picture.

Similarly, writers hammer home emotions: Camille dabbed at her eyes with a tissue. She was so heartbroken, she’d begun to cry. Again, the action/reaction happens in the first line which shows us the emotion. Don’t water down the power of the action/reaction with an Are you getting this, reader moment.

In dialogue, writers hammer home emotions when they use qualified attributions like:

“Oh my God! You didn’t,” Zhan said with surprise.

Or

“Oh my God! You didn’t,” Zhan said incredulously.

The dialogue’s emotion is clear without adding descriptions to the attributive. Instead, use this opportunity to insert a beat or bit of business to underscore the emotion or enrich the development of your character or the plot.

“Oh my God! You didn’t.” Zhan balled his fists and turned away from his mother.

Just one more tiny nail

Another hammer is more challenging to recognize but no less important to know as you edit your work. This hammer comes when writers set something up and then, at the last moment, tag on a bit more to make sure readers get it. In this case, setting up that a character “paused.”

Releasing him, Daddy placed both his hands on Teddy’s shoulders, holding him at arm’s length, appraising him head to toe as he paused for a moment or two.

If you read over the actions: hands placed on shoulders, holding at arm’s length, appraising head to toe — all that takes a moment or two so that last bit tagged on “as he paused for a moment or two” is unnecessary. Readers have already imagined the pause as they read.

Hammers often show up in early drafts, especially in drafts with an excess of passive writing. When I see a lot of adverbs and too few active verbs, I can expect to see a high number of hammers as well. Look for those “ly” words and see if a verb with energy can be used instead (walked happily: skipped/danced; ran swiftly: raced/rushed/fled; slowly walked up: crept/snuck up/step by step — there are plenty of active verbs out there.)

In our workshops, Gwynn and I often talk about adding new skills and techniques to your writer’s toolkit. But hammers are one tool you want to leave on the workbench and out of your writing.

Next week, we’ll be looking closely at Know-it-all moments, another common form of overwriting.


Trust Your Reader & Yourself

Trust Your Reader & Yourself

Ruth E. Walker

As an editor, I see a great deal of overwriting. Sometimes, it’s just an occasional dip that needs correcting — a moment of unnecessary description or repetition. But when overwriting overtakes the story, it slows pacing, deflects from the story’s core and distracts readers with “window dressing”. My job as an editor is to help writers see when they overwrite and discover ways to fix it.

Overwriting can find its roots in a lack of trust. A writer may not trust that the reader will “get it” and so puts in extra material to ensure complete understanding. Or a writer may not trust themselves– that they’ve created enough detail that the reader will see what is intended.

Three Deadly Sins of Overwriting

Overwriting covers a lot of sins in stories. Three of the most common forms of overwriting are: over-emotional writing, hammers, and know-it-all writing.

Over-emotional writing leads to sentimentality, theatricality and hyperbole. For today’s Top Drawer blog, I’ll focus on this one. But first, a quick summary of the other two. Next week we’ll take a closer view of them.

Hammers are those phrases and sentences that “hammer home” something a writer wants to make sure their reader “gets.” Repetition and over-use of imagery and metaphor can turn into hammers in your work.

Know-it-all writing is similar to hammers but it’s related to research or knowledge that the writer has and adds in to “prove” they know their stuff. Not restricted to historical writers, know-it-all writing can come across like an author “info dump” of details.

Let’s get emotional

Here’s an example of overwriting for emotional impact.

As she sat before her vanity mirror, Camilla lowered her gaze and placed her right hand on her beating heart. If she could, she would squeeze the life out of that heart and fling it to the floor and stomp all over it. He was leaving her without saying goodbye and the sadness filled her very being, her soul. How could she live without him? Her throat constricted with a burning lump of pain and tears welled up from her eyelids and trickled down her cheeks. They fell from her chin and plunked one after the other onto the letter she clutched in her left hand, resting on her lap.

Of course, without having the whole story before us, it’s hard to know what part of this scene is window dressing and what is essential to both plot and character development. But if we look closely at the work each part of this scene is doing, we could decide what to cut, what to tweak and what to leave as is.

So let’s examine:

As she sat before her vanity mirror — is this a reflection scene? Is it, literally, a mirror moment where a character reflects and realizes something about themselves? Is this “scene setting” even necessary? With “As she…” we’re pretty sure that Camilla is already sitting there, the line or two before this likely put her in front of that vanity. Trust your reader to make that connection.

Get right to the moment. Camilla lowered her gaze and placed her right hand on her beating heart. All hearts beat. Does it matter which hand? Cut beating and right. Your reader doesn’t need it.

Be true to your character. If she could, she would squeeze the life out of that heart and fling it to the floor and stomp all over it. He was leaving her without saying goodbye and the sadness filled her very being, her soul. How could she live without him?

Is Camilla a drama queen? Is she petulant, angry or heartbroken? Is she all three at this moment or do her feelings progress? What is the overriding fear? Start with that. He was leaving her without saying goodbye. And then the deeper, primal fear: How could she live without him?

Squeezing her heart, flinging it to the floor and stomping all over it — that’s hyperbole and petulance — in this moment keep us in the sorrow, the grief. And as for sadness filling her very being, her soul — that’s far too cliché and a full on “tell”. Her behaviour — hand to heart, tears falling unchecked — shows us her sadness.

Show me the sorrow

And it’s there, in those last two descriptive sentences that with some careful paring and tweaks, we can move this scene from sentimentality to deep emotion. A simple constriction of the throat — don’t we all know that feeling when sorrow moves up from our aching hearts to tighten our throats? And tears that we can’t stop, coursing down our cheeks and sliding off our chins? Simple short images that call up our own experiences with sorrow –without any window dressing.

Camilla lowered her gaze and placed a hand over her heart. He was leaving her without saying goodbye. How could she live without him? Her throat constricted, and tears welled up and trickled down her cheeks. They fell from her chin onto the letter in her lap.

In any high-emotion scenes, you can double-check your approach and seek out any phrases or sentences that are more than what is necessary to convey the emotion. But also look for what is necessary to stay true to your character and your plot and then decide what can be cut or amended.

Just remember to ask yourself: am I trusting my reader? and am I trusting myself?