Speaking Google’s search language

Speaking Google’s search language

Gwynn Scheltema

When I search Google with writer, the search engine returns 1.6 BILLION results. If I get more specific with creative writer, the search results are halved to just under 800 thousand. So it would seem that being more specific is one way to get better results. However, if I now enter Ontario creative writer, the opposite happens and the returned results climb to 1.7 billion—more than the original search.

If you know how to search in terms that Google understands, you can get quicker, more accurate results:

Quotation Marks

Using quotation marks is known as a string search. Quotes around a “string of words” tells Google to search titles and text for those specific terms appearing together, but not necessarily related to each other. The search is now reduced to less than 100 thousand.

 

Minus Sign

Often in a search a certain result that we don’t want shows up again and again, cluttering up the search. In our Ontario “creative writer” search, the first pagesof results were are all related to jobs and hiring. If we want to exclude all job related results, we add a minus sign in front of the word job:  –job  or –hire The search more than halves again to less than 40 thousand…

and all the results with job or hire are gone.

Specific sites

When I look at the results after applying my minus signs, I notice that most of the sites are .com or .ca. If I was specifically interested in results from educational institutions, I can tell Google that adding site:.edu  

You can even ask Google to search a specific URL the same way. Just leave out the http://www. part:

Search only titles/text

If I wanted to research articles that focus on a particular person, I might ask Google for results that feature that person’s name in the title: allintitle: “Gwynn Scheltema”. As well, you can search only the text, and exclude the titles, by using allintext:

 

 Search a date range

If you want results from a particular time period, enter the dates you want with two zeros in between such as 2010..2015

Search for terms near each other

One of the most frustrating things about searching with several terms is that many results appear somewhere on the page, but bear no relation to one another. However, you can ask Google to find terms near each other by using AROUND(1) between terms.

“Gwynn Scheltema” AROUND(3)  “editor” will find pages where the exact name Gwynn Scheltema appears within 3 words of the exact word “editor”.

Use an asterisk within quotes for unknown words
If you know part of a phrase only, such as lyrics or titles, use an asterisk to represent the unknown words: girl with * tattoo or  *before the lord of song*

Of course, these tips only scratch the surface, but mastering them will give you more relevant results in less time. And for busy writers, that’s worth something.

Digging up Archives Part 2

Digging up Archives Part 2

Gwynn Scheltema

My recent blog Digging up Archives explored how to find archive repositories that might hold the material that is key to your research. But then what? What if the record exists on another continent? How do you know if the photos or maps they hold are the ones you need?

Since every archive is different in terms of size, staffing, regulations and collections, the first step is to find out what exactly what they hold. If they have a website, start there:

Catalogues and Databases

Do a topic search and find the relevant collections the repository holds. With luck the list of collections will have links to catalogues or databases similar to those in a library. Here you can search by subject, keyword, title, author, etc.  At Toronto University Archives I put in “Baffin Island.” The result showed 9 collections (3 of them digital). One that caught my eye was:

  • Al Purdy Papers: 28 tapes of Purdy reading his poetry (Cariboo horses; Pressed on sand). Typescripts and drafts of poems. Typescripts and mimeographs of articles and plays for television and radio.

Finding Aids:

Many catalogues and databases will then link you to finding aids. A finding aid (sometimes called inventory, collection listing, register, or calendar) provides a description of the contents of a collection just like a table of contents outlines the contents of a book. Finding aids sometimes also give background information on the collection, like when and from where it was acquired as well as how the archival staff have ordered the materials in the collection, and their physical nature.

With luck, the finding aids will be viewable at the website, but if not, some archives have paper copies on site, or will provide copies on request.

The finding aid for the Al Purdy Papers was 5 pages long. Here’s a sample of page 1.

Digital Collections:

More and more, archives are digitizing materials (photographs, meeting minutes, reports, letters, audiovisual recordings, etc.) making them more easily accessible, but beware. Often digital documents represent only a fraction of the total repository. You will have to ask the archival staff for assistance in accessing non-digitized content.

Archival Staff

Which brings me to probably the most precious asset in any archive, the archival staff who curate the collections. After you have examined the catalogues, finding aids, and website of an archive, archival staff can point you toward resources you may have missed. Write down the titles, call numbers, or other identifications from the materials you have sourced before you call or email. If an archive does not have a website, contacting the staff will be your only option.

In either case, if you are able to visit in person, set up an appointment time first. This will give the archival staff time to access the records you need, as they may be in another building or shelved in the basement stacks. Letting them know the background and scope of your project will help them better find appropriate materials.

If you can’t visit

Policies differ archive to archive, but here are possibilities for access if you can’t visit in person.

  • interlibrary loan – some archives lend printed materials or microfilm, but seldom primary or original documents like letters or diaries
  • scans or photocopies – be prepared for fees and limits
  • retain a research assistant – archives may recommend assistants or even provide paid research services
  • ask the archival staff – archivists routinely answer reference questions for researchers. Obviously it cannot be a great volume of material and you need to have specific questions.

 For many of us, the research part of the writing process is the most fun, and a visit in person to your chosen archive can be a highlight in that process. In Ruth’s previous blog, Holding history in my hands, she tells of her trip to the National Library and Archives to find her great-great-great-grandfather’s book. Published in 1790, it was a tell-all about The Hudson’s Bay Company, and a bestseller in its day. Ruth shares some of the protocols she encountered at the archives. It was a visit she will always remember.

 

Fall writing reflections

Fall writing reflections

Gwynn Scheltema

Fall. I love fall for the harvest, for the colour, for the diffused light and a sky that’s a different blue. I’ve harvested my veggies, and put away the summer furniture, put up pickles and raked leaves. Fall is a time to reap what you’ve sown, to reflect, to clean up and set up stores for the winter. I think writing has a “fall” period too.

Reap what you sow

What good is writing a wonderful poem, a brilliant short story, an entire novel manuscript, only to leave them forgotten in the digital drawer? A big part of being a writer is submitting your work. Agreed, not everything you write should see the light of day, but you know in your heart which pieces should be sent out into the world. It’s hard, yes. It takes courage to expose yourself to possible rejection, but you can only enjoy success if you take this important step. So, this fall, dig out those finished pieces, brush them off, pretty them up and decide where they can find a home. Then—the important bit—actually send them out!

Reflect

As we near the end of the year, reflect on what you achieved in your writing life. Was it more or less than you hoped for? If, like me, you didn’t get as much done as you planned, don’t beat yourself up about it. Take action instead.

Reflect on what stopped you or got in your way: Did you give your writing what it needs to grow? Enough time? Enough discipline? Enough freedom from the internal editor? Permission to write a shitty draft?

Reflect on what you are writing. Does it excite you? Are you afraid to finish it? Should you be writing something else? Are you afraid to try something new? Do you need help from a workshop or mentor?

Clean up

I am terrible for starting projects and not finishing them. Are you? Is there even one project you could finish up and clean off your list before the end of the year? What about your writing space and daily habits? Are they “cleaned up” enough for you to feel creative, to have the time you need? Should you be throwing some habits out and replacing them with new?

 

Set up stores for the winter

Now is the time to plan a winter schedule for your writing. What project/s do you want to tackle? Are there courses you need to sign up for in 2019? Conferences or retreats you want to attend next year that you must register for or save for now. A writing residency? A grant application? A submission schedule?

 

As winter approaches, take advantage of fall. Curl up in front of the fire with a hot beverage and make those plans. Be specific; make them attainable. Plan on a reward for when you reach your goal.

10 ways to Nano-prep for writing your novel

10 ways to Nano-prep for writing your novel

It’s Writescape’s 10th anniversary and we have lots of excitement planned for writers in 2018. This installment of 10 on the 10th is the latest in the series of monthly writing tips, advice and inspiration. Think of it as Gwynn and Ruth sitting on your shoulder and nudging you along. Share with your writing colleagues and encourage them to sign up for more.

In a few weeks, writers around the globe will commit to writing 50,000 words of the first draft of a novel in 30 days. Will you be one of them? National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo begins on November 1, and if you don’t know much about NaNoWriMo, check out our previous blog post NaNoWriMo 101.

That means that October, affectionately known as “Preptober” is a month for getting all your ducks in a row, so you’re ready to actually write on November 1. Below are 10 ways to get ready to write, for NaNoWriMo or indeed for any new novel project.

  1. Create a project hold-all to keep all research, writing, notes and ideas for your new novel. This could be a new folder in your computer, or a “new project” in Scrivener. Try a three ring binder scrapbook, with sections for research notes, character sketches, random ideas, checklists lists etc. Handy for quick reference, for validating research used, for trying out rough writing, for reference as you write. More than that, though, it is a tangible way to make the project real and a good way to stay focused and organized.
  1. Decide what you are going to write. Easier said than done. We all have stacks of ideas of what we could write about, but choose something that interests you. If you’re not passionate about your project you will find it hard to live with it daily and write productively. Choose a story you are spilling over to get out, or write a story that involves something you really want to spend time with. If you love Russian history, set a story in Russia during the revolution. If you’ve always wanted to know about perfume making, write a story where the protagonist is a perfumer. To help make it more real, choose a working title.
  1. Start with sketching interesting characters. If you’re a character-driven writer, begin with writing profiles of your protagonist and antagonist. Then as you work through your plot ideas (step 5) and new characters emerge, do character sketches of them too. If you’re a plot-driven writer, you may want to do step 5 first and return to this step afterwards. Remember these profiles are not just physical, but include your character’s history, flaws, emotional baggage, hopes, dreams, fears and relationships. You might find yourself returning repeatedly to these sketches to add details as you get to know them better.
  1. Ask yourself whose story you are telling and how it would best be told. Whose POV will best tell that story? One POV or multiple? What tense and person? Who is the reader you are aiming at? What genre? As you start to write, you may change these decisions, but start with a plan.
  1. Write your book jacket blurb. This may seem like it’s putting the cart before the horse, but it’s not. The book jacket blurb answers the all-important question “What is this book about?” The answer to that question helps to distill the thrust of the story: the conflict, the stakes and the character arc. It also helps define what age group and genre it is, because it focuses on the main thread of the story.
  1. Brainstorm story ideas. Outline potential plots. Ask yourself the simple but effective “What if?”, or use the base of all ancient myths and tales: the three act structure. If you know how you want your story to end, consider working backwards too. You might want to check out these tried and true variants of the three act structure too.
  1. Define your story world: place and time. This could be as simple as “Russia pre 1917 revolution” or “Haliburton 1956”, or as complex as a new fantasy world or imagined planet. Or it might be a mix, say a fictitious town called Halbury based on Haliburton. Setting is important to ground your story and your readers. The more complex your setting, the more up-front “world-building” you need to do: Government? Religion? Rules of magic? Climate? Etc. Prep work can include maps and floorplans.
  1. Outline potential subplots. Make sure they serve the thrust of the main story, that they have their own story arc and that there are no dropped threads.
  1. Sketch important secondary characters. Make sure they exist as a counterpoint or foil or supporter of your main characters. Like main characters, they too should have their own wants and needs and motivations. Ask yourself if one secondary character can do the work of two to keep the number of characters to a minimum, and to make each one stronger.
  1. Work on character arcs for all characters, primary and secondary. Each character must have their own motivations for doing what they do.

And one thing more

Get support. We all have lives to live and people in those lives. Talk to them about what you want to do and get them to realize you are serious. Enlist their help, whether it is to honour the time you set aside as uninterrupted writing time, or whether it is practical help like carpools or cooking dinners during November. Prepare them for your plan and then……START WRITING!

 

 

 

Computer Hacks for Writers and Researchers

Computer Hacks for Writers and Researchers

Gwynn Scheltema

If there’s a faster, easier way to do something I’m in. I love life hacks. Here are a few computer hacks I’ve collected  to make writing and researching easier. Try them. And if you have other hacks to share, tell us about them in the comments.

When writing or editing

  • Want to find an opposite, a rhyming word, a word for a phrase? Head to Wordhippo.com. They also have translations and pronunciation help.
  • Paste your finished prose into “Google Translate” and listen to it. Sometimes hearing sentences uncovers clunky bits and mistakes you might not notice by simply looking at it.
  • If you don’t have a grammar program, try Grammerly or Hemmingwayapp.com to help uncover passive voice, identify adverbs (so you can decide if you have overused them) and give you an overall reading level. (especially useful for non-fiction article writers).
  • Looking for a special font? Google.com/fonts is a collection of open source fonts, all optimized for the web.
  • When reviewing, change your font to something you don’t like. It will force you to slow down and read more critically.
Research hacks
  • Is your research article “Too Long Didn’t Read” or TLDR? Add Chrome’s TLDR free plugin to your browser screen to be one-click away from getting a condensed synopsis/summary view of news, blog posts, and other articles online. The plugin analyzes content and creates four different-length summaries.
  • Simple.wikipedia.org will condense the main points of any Wikipedia article
  • Does your Google search turn up too many options? Not sure which are most reliable? Search with scholar.google.com instead for more relevant choices.
  • When you copy from the net, use crtl + shift + V to paste it. This will prevent the text from formatting.
  • If you accidentally close a tab while researching, hit ctrl +shift+ t to reopen it.
  • Use the space bar to scroll down a webpage. Use shift + spacebar to scroll back up.
Keyboard magic
  • Instead of hitting the backspace key multiple times to erase a word., hit crtl + backspace to erase the whole word at once. It works the same for deleting a whole word with crtl + delete.
  • Although you can add symbols (like the copyright symbol ©) to your text using the insert tab, it is worth learning the shortcut keyboard codes for the ones you use most often. Note that these codes work only with a numeric keyboard, but on some laptops adding in the fn key allows them to work too. (e.g. alt + fn + 0169 = ©) You can look up the keyboard codes on the character map (insert tab; symbol; more symbols).
    Here are a few to get you started:
    • © Copyright symbol = alt +0169
    • ™ Trademark sign = alt + 0153
    • ° Degree symbol = alt + 0176
    • ¢ Cent sign = alt + 0162
    • £ English pound = alt + 0163
  • The control key also allows you to keyboard commands without stopping typing. Hold down the control key as you hit the shortcut. The keys themselves are also intuitive as they often stand for what you want to do. S for save. P for print, etc. The ones I use all the time are ctrl + f = find and crtl + z = undo.
    Here’s a full list:

.

There you go. Hack away, writer, and see if all this doesn’t make your writing and researching life easier.

Pinterest for Fiction Writers Part 1

Pinterest for Fiction Writers Part 1

Gwynn Scheltema

My favourite procrastination tool is Pinterest, but unlike my next favourite procrastination tool, Solitaire, it actually serves many useful purposes for a writer.

What is Pinterest?

Think of Pinterest as an infinite digital corkboard. On your “corkboard”, you have visual topic collection files called BOARDS for your PINS. Pins are visual web links that take you to the source of the information you are pinning (magazine article, blog, website, youtube video etc.). If you pin someone else’s pin (greatly encouraged) you are RE-PINNING. A person who has a Pinterest account (it’s free) with a collection of boards is called a PINNER.

Pins don’t have to be only informational text.. You can pin pictures, infographics, videos, photos and all kinds of ideas and inspiration. You can make your board public or secret. You can be social or not as you choose. (I choose not.)

Best of all, you can search by topic and define whether you are looking for a pin, a board, or a person. For example, I can search for all pins on “plot”, or all boards on “writing tips” or all people for “mystery author”.

If you download a “pin button” to your browser search toolbar, you can pin from anywhere you go on the internet including your own photos if they are in the cloud.

Novel vision boards

When beginning a novel, I create a board with my novel’s working title and pin images of possible characters, buildings, period dress, geographic details like birds or plants or places. Later I can add research links, newspaper cuttings, quotes, cover ideas, relevant books to read or anything else that might inspire or inform me.

I can even create sections within my board. For my mystery novel “Pyes and Ivy” I have sections for my characters, my town “Riverton” and the B&B where the action takes place “Ivy Lodge”.I find having the visual helps me keep things consistent.

Novel development boards

Of course, not every aspect of your novel has to be on one board. (You are allowed up to 500 boards and 200,000 pins). So let’s say you are working on your villain. You can create a board just for him/her. Get writing tips on writing villains. Get quotes from or about villains. Get ideas for names, motivations, and personality traits.

Rinse and repeat with other characters or setting or events…..

The craft

And when you have characters, you need an arc for them and a story arc too. Pinterest gives you access to loads of free printable worksheets for every aspect of planning your novel. Ditto for articles on “how to…” and “tips on …”

 

Looking for another way to describe hair colour? Words to use instead of “amazing”. Pinterest has pins for that. Also pins for commonly misused words, when to use what kind of hyphen, and avoiding clichés—including cliché characters.

 

 

Motivation

I have a board called “Words to write by”. It’s full of inspirational and kick-in-the-pants quotes. A quick visit there when I’m feeling like my writing is crap or I’m getting nowhere usually gets me going again. And let’s not forget the hundreds of writing prompts—visual and text; story starters and what ifs.

If you like to be social, you can follow other pinners, join group boards or comment on pins. There are even hilarious “Pinterest Fail” pins.

 

Making money.

Once you have a book to sell there are great ways to sell it on Pinterest. It’s the up and coming social media market place. But that’s a whole other blog. Stay tuned for Pinterest for Fiction Writers Part 2.

 

 

 

Out of the box poetry

Out of the box poetry

Gwynn Scheltema

One way I free up my creative mind is to box it in. Sound contradictory? It is, but it works. Forcing my brain into constraints forces it to find new ways out, to connect things that are not normally connected and to reach for ways to use available concepts or images or ideas that aren’t the easy default but something deeper.

Using constraints is not a new concept, and it applies to all creativity, not just writing. Composer Igor Stravinsky described it this way: “The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees oneself of the chains that shackle the spirit… the arbitrariness of the constraint only serves to obtain precision of execution.”

Here are some constraints that I use to start poems. Notice, I say “to start”. Some of these tactics may produce a finished poem, but more often they simple set my mind in a new direction. After that I ignore the constraint and let the new idea lead me where it may.

Anaphora

Anaphora is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive phrases, clauses, or lines to create a sonic effect. When the initial writing is done, you can remove the phrase and just work with the images and thoughts you’ve generated.

I find it good to pick a focus, like a place, time, person or experience and use phrases like “On Saturdays…” or “My Aunt Emily…” In London…” etc., as well as general introductions like “I remember…” or “I don’t remember”, I believe…”, “I want…” or “If I could…”

Joe Brainard wrote a book length poem about his life in the 1950s called I Remember. Here is an excerpt:

I remember a piece of old wood with termites running around all over it the termite men found under our front porch.

I remember when one year in Tulsa by some freak of nature we were invaded by millions of grasshoppers for about three or four days. I remember, downtown, whole sidewalk areas of solid grasshoppers.

I remember a shoe store with a big brown x-ray machine that showed up the bones in your feet bright green.

Lipogram

A lipogram is writing that excludes one or more letters. Here is a short poem by Daniel J Webster that excludes the most used letter in the English alphabet: “e”.

Most common of all marks from A to Z,
It’s tyrant to orthography, and smug
That not a thing of worth is said without
Our using it. . . .

Univocalism

A poem using only one vowel. Canadian poet Christian Bok is famous for his collection Eunoia, a collection of five univocal prose poems (which run into many pages each), one for each vowel.

Here is an excerpt from “A”

Hassan Abd al-Hassad, an Agha Khan, basks at an ashram – a Taj Mahal that has grand parks and grass lawns, all as vast as parklands at Alhambra and Valhalla. Hassan can, at a handclap, call a vassal at hand and ask that all staff plan a bacchanal – a gala ball that has what pagan charm small galas lack. Hassan claps, and (tah-dah) an Arab lass at a swank spa can draw a man’s bath and wash a man’s back, as Arab lads fawn and hang, athwart an altar, amaranth garlands as fragrant as attar – a balm that calms all angst. A dwarf can flap a palm branch that fans a fat maharajah. A naphtha lamp can cast a calm warmth.

Opposites

Take a poem you find interesting (your own or someone else’s) and write a line opposite in meaning to each line in the poem. For a bigger stretch, keep to the same form and/or rhyme scheme.

Excerpt from PETALS
by Amy Lowell

Life is a stream
On which we strew
Petal by petal the flower of our heart;
The end lost in dream,
They float past our view,
We only watch their glad, early start.

STONES
by Gwynn Scheltema

Death is earth
On which we pile
Stone by stone the cairn of our mind;
The beginning found in birth
We build up all the while,
Only to miss their sad, final end.

Imitation

Imitate a poem, even incorporating phrases from the original poem. If you use this only as an opening up exercise to find your own thoughts, make sure you eliminate the original poet’s words in your poem. If you keep any of them make sure to acknowledge the original poet.

Excerpt from “PATTERNS” by Amy Lowell

I walk down the garden paths,
And all the daffodils
Are blowing, and the bright blue squills.
I walk down the patterned garden paths
In my stiff, brocaded gown.
With my powdered hair and jewelled fan,
I too am a rare
Pattern. As I wander down
The garden paths.

Imitation exercise:

PATTERNS REPEATED
After Amy Lowell

I walk down the garden-paths,
And all the peonies
Are full and showy, like happy children
I walk down the patterned garden-paths
In my husband’s shadow
With painted smile and high bred manner
I too am a rare
Pattern.  As I wander down
The garden-paths.

 Riffing off a concept

Wallace Stevens wrote a poem called “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” in which each stanza is a mini-poem, but all of them refer to a blackbird in some way, to unite the whole. This is a great way to start writing a poem. Think of 13 (or 14 or 16 ) ways of looking at anything: sunsets; lovers; baking apple pie; train journeys…..

 

First and Last

Here, take two lines at random from any text. Make it truly random by getting someone else to pick them. One line becomes the first and one the last line of your poem. When you’re done, remove the borrowed lines.

Poet John Hewitt recommends this tactic because “…it gives you something to start from. If you know what your last line has to be, you start to think of ways that you can get there. If you know that you have to write a poem about the constellation Orion, you go out and stare at the stars. You are no longer dealing with a blank page. You know that at least one of those words is going to be “Orion”. That’s a place you can start from.”

And one more thing

It is important to realize a constraint is a tool. It helps bring focus to a poem. You won’t always want restraints, but when you are stuck, a constraint is a good way to get the words flowing again.

Last word

Gilbert Sorrentino, poet, novelist, critic and professor says “Generative Devices are consciously selected, preconceived structures, forms, limitations, constraints, developed by the writer before the act of writing. The writing is then made according to the “laws” set in place by the chosen constraint. Paradoxically, these constraints permit the writer a remarkable freedom. They also serve to destroy the much-cherished myth of “inspiration,” and its idiot brother, “writer’s block.”

 

 

 

10 Ways to End a Story

10 Ways to End a Story

It’s Writescape’s 10th anniversary and we have lots of excitement planned for writers in 2018. This installment of 10 on the 10th is the latest in the series of monthly writing tips, advice and inspiration. Think of it as Gwynn and Ruth sitting on your shoulder and nudging you along. Share with your writing colleagues and encourage them to sign up for more.

Last month, we looked at 10 Ways to Start a Story. Let’s flip that around and consider 10 ways to bring it all to a close. For many writers, the ending is as much a challenge as getting those first few words when they begin. And for some writers, it’s even a greater challenge.

But make no mistake. Just as how you start a story is vital, how you finish is equally important. Getting to “The End” can’t disappoint or frustrate your reader — whether you wrap it all in a nice neat bow or leave the reader in contemplation, your ending should work with the whole story. Consider these 10 approaches to see how each one affects the end of any story. We’ve given examples and have done our best to avoid spoilers.

1. Back to the Beginning (Circle or Frame) Mary Shelley’s gothic horror novel, Frankenstein, begins as Dr. Frankenstein is rescued in the Arctic Sea by an obsessed ship captain. The driven doctor recognizes the captain’s obsession, so he shares his story of creating the Frankenstein Monster to warn him how he came to be there, chasing his monsterous creation to the North Pole. An equally creepy modern title to check out for this approach is Fight Club.

2. Implied Ending (Walk into the sunset) Many western genre stories end with the protagonist and companion “riding off into the sunset” and presumably to live and face another day, side by side. This kind of can be a fine example of show, don’t tell. An implied ending can be ambiguous. For example, Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers offers readers the sound of water in a bathtub to set a kind of closing mood that could be “sorrow or gladness”. Our narrator chooses to think he and his brother are likely safe; the reader is not so certain.

3. Sequel (We’re baaaaack) Oh, there are so many sequels out there — trilogies, series, cross-pollination (think the Marvel Universe), prequels and so on. The good news is that writers who have long, complicated stories (The Lord of the Rings, The Hunger Games) can separate them into connected standalone novels. Remember, however, standalone is key. The end of each of The Lord of the Rings trilogy had to satisfy its readers, while at the same time enticing them to read the next book.

4. Open-ended (Choose your own ending) with Frank R. Stockton’s 1882 story The Lady, or the Tiger, readers must decide at the end what choice the princess makes; will she choose to let her lover be devoured by a tiger or let him live in arms of another woman. It’s a question that has troubled readers for over a century. And not a bad way to get your story to keep your readers thinking. And thinking.

5. Twist (Surprise!) A variation on open-ended conclusions, this approach builds on expectation. Author O. Henry was a master at this form and The Gift of the Magi is one of his most memorable tales when a wife’s and husband’s love and sacrifice at Christmas — surprise! — both negates and honours each of their gifts.

6. Happy Ever After (smiles all ’round) Of course, romance stories are supposed to end in this same way: girl gets guy or girls get guys (as many of Shakespeare’s romance plays end)… romance is all about love.  And there are many forms of love — girl gets girl or guy gets guy — but not all of them sexual. And happy ever after doesn’t need to even centre around a romance. Indeed, once Gretel pushed the witch into the oven, she and Hansel reunite with their remorseful father and live, we are certain, happily ever after.

7. Mirror (architecture echo) It was the worst of times and the best of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness… Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities starts off with a 119-word long opening sentence, a description of duality echoing the conflicted chaos of the French Revolution. But he doesn’t end it the same way. He echoes the basic architecture of the opening comparison but with a short and tight finality that makes clear that this is “the end” of the story and of one of the characters. It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.

8. Lesson (Pay attention and learn) Aesop’s Fables are all written with a moral lesson endings — that fox never gets the grapes and is sure they’re just sour anyways. Many fairy tales also have a moral or a lesson, sometimes it’s just implied like Goldilocks:  Goldie, don’t go in strange houses or Red Riding Hood: Red, don’t talk to strangers and for Pete’s sake, Hansel and Gretel, don’t nibble on strange houses.

9. Reveal (Elementary, my dear Watson) A classic ending for mystery or thriller novels, the protagonist (dogged detective or amateur sleuth or unjustly accused victim) pulls together all the clues, red herrings included, and dissects them one by one. The final clue, the moment of ah-ha, is delivered with a flourish and the reader remarks either, Gosh, I didn’t see that one…or…I knew it! The point you need to remember is to be clever and careful; today’s readers don’t expect Sherlock Holmes’ genius and acute observation skills.

10. Epilogue (Fortune teller reveals all) At the end of Offred’s narration in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, it isn’t 100% clear on whether protagonist Offred is being arrested or, as she believes, in the hands of an undercover resistance member on her way to freedom. However, there is an epilogue that helps us decide on that question — and gives us more information about the time in which Offred lived.

No matter how you end your story, remember that it is always a story that the reader wants. A great story will pull your reader along to the end. So a clever and creative ending will make little difference if what comes before it lacks energy, doesn’t have compelling characters or loses its way to reach that ending

And for now, that’s got to be The End.

10 Ways to Start a Story

10 Ways to Start a Story

It’s Writescape’s 10th anniversary and we have lots of excitement planned for writers in 2018. This installment of 10 on the 10th is the latest in the series of monthly writing tips, advice and inspiration. Think of it as Gwynn and Ruth sitting on your shoulder and nudging you along. Share with your writing colleagues and encourage them to sign up for more.

Whether it’s the first sentence, the first paragraph, the first page, chapter or act, the beginning of your story must establish time and place, the main players and the normal world they live in. An effective beginning should give enough for the reader to ask questions and care what happens next.

But before you spend hours polishing and perfecting your beginning, please finish your first draft. When you know all about your story, you can more easily choose what will lead your reader into the narrative. And equally important, you’ll have a better sense of the first impression that will best represent your story: its themes, its direction and its heart.

There is no “best way” to begin. Here are 10 ways to consider.

1. In the middle of action  (in medias res)

Starting in the middle of a scene puts readers immediately in the world of the story and sets up reader questions. They’ll read on because they’ll want to know why this is happening, who these people are and what happens next.

Example: Mr. Jones, of the Manor Farm, had locked the hen-houses for the night, but was too drunk to remember to shut the pop-holes. (Animal Farm; George Orwell)

Who is Mr. Jones? Is he always drunk? What are pop-holes? Why are these hen-houses important? Where…..?

 

2. With the inciting incident

Instead of just any action, make it the event that sets the protagonist off on his narrative journey.

Example: He—for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it—was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters. (Orlando, Virginia Woolf)

3. Backstory that raises reader questions

Usually it is not a good idea to have backstory early in a story, especially on the first page, but sometimes a short sharp bit of backstory can effectively  set up enough reader questions to hook them in further.

Example: Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge. (The Blind Assassin; Margaret Atwood)

4. A strong character

A person who is so intriguing, surprising or terrifying that readers must learn more about them. Most often the protagonist, but not always.

Example: I was born twice: first as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974. (Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides)

 

5. Begin with the end or close to the end

Often called a circle device, this method offers the end or climax first and then readers want to go back to the beginning to find out how it all happened.

Example: Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. (100 Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez)

6. Setting

“It was a dark and story night…” is touted as one of the worst ways to begin, but many successful stories begin with setting. The secret is to see it through the eyes of the character and have it add to plot or character development or set a mood.

Example: Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me. There was a padlock and a chain upon the gate. I called in my dream to the lodge-keeper, and had no answer, and peering closer through the rusted spokes of the gate I saw that the lodge was uninhabited. (Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier)

7. Unexpected/surprise

Going contrary to expectation always gets attention. Turning paradigms on their heads opens the way for an explanation that readers will stick around to hear.

Example: On a wintry Tuesday afternoon, Dr. Richard W. D’Souza stood in front of a shelf stacked with gallon jugs labeled Artificial Saliva and Pooled Human Saliva, and spoke about the art of killing. (“Breath Mints: A Hot War for America’s Cool Mouths” By Alex Kuczynski New York Times)

8. Truism

A truism is a statement that is so obviously true that it is almost not worth saying, but using one as a start to a story usually implies that the story to follow is about to prove it untrue, or at least comment on it in some way, and so readers are drawn in to see what the “other take” is.

Example: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. (Pride and Prejudice; Jane Austen)

 

9. Pressing fear, disgust, and other unpleasant buttons

In much the same way that we cannot not look at a train wreck or accident on the highway, people are facinated by situations where they can vicariously experience the unthinkable.

Example: It was a pleasure to burn. It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. (Fahrenheit 451; Ray Bradbury)

10. Prologue

A prologue establishes context and gives background details, often some earlier story that ties into the main one. Publishers are not keen on prologues, but in the right genres (e.g. epic fantasy) they have a role to play to help the reader understand the world they are launched into, or to set up an image or incident that will be returned to. If you do use a prologue, keep it short.

18 Ways to Choose a Title

18 Ways to Choose a Title

Gwynn Scheltema

 

Your book title is the first impression your readers get of your novel. It’s the first chance to connect, to inform, to intrigue, and to firmly hook readers. A great title will help readers find, remember and buy your book.

You want your title to be representative of your story, to give an indication of content or theme or genre. You want it to be unique but not confusing. You want it to be memorable and easy to spell. If you are writing a series you’ll want something to tie them together.

On a practical level you need a title short enough to fit on the cover or spine, but long enough to not get lost among other titles in computer searches. Consider how it will fit in URLs, tweets and Pinterest posts, how it will read on digital devices. The current trend seems to be single word titles, but five words or less is a good length to aim for.

Because a title is such an important aspect of your book, choosing one can be tricky and even overwhelming. The choice isn’t necessarily one you need make when you are still drafting the manuscript. If you have one in mind when you begin, by all means make it your working title, but reconsider its suitability again when the book is finished.

 So let’s get started…

What is your story about?

  • The Hunger Games
  • Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

A memorable image

  • Little House on the Prairie
  • In the Shadow of the Banyan
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

 Character’s name

  • Carrie
  • Anna Karenina
  • Jane Eyre

 Characters role

  • The Golden Son
  • The Last Emperor
  • My Sister’s Keeper

 When the story happens

  • 1984
  • That Summer in Franklin
  • Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

 Where the Story takes place

  • The Colonial Hotel
  • Treasure Island
  • Jurassic Park

 Genre

  • Murder on the Orient Express
  • A Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy
  • Dracula

 Metaphors

  • All the Light We Cannot See
  • The Nightingale
  • Three Day Road

 A representative line from the text

  • Cutting for Stone
  • Let’s Not Go to the Dogs Tonight
  • Sweetness in the Belly

 Questions

  • They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
  • Who Has Seen the Wind?
  • Are You My Mother?

 Go against expectation

  • Fahrenheit 451
  • The Blind Assassin
  • Slumdog Millionaire

 An important symbol or object in the story

  • The Golden Compass
  • The Book of Negroes
  • Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

 A Play on words: double meanings, puns

  • Living Underground
  • Lifting the Veil
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

 A twist on a known phrase

  • The Wife’s Tale
  • Elementary, She Read
  • By Book or by Crook

 Single words 

  • Divergent
  • Room
  • Silk

 Old titles reworked

  • Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
  • Zen and the Art of Faking It
  • Gnomeo and Juliet

 The promise of a story

  • The Handmaid’s Tale
  • The Girl on the Train
  • Gone Girl

 Theme

  • Infidel
  • Pride and Prejudice
  • Greener Grass

 

There is no ONE right way of choosing a good title. Brainstorm many possible titles, ask family and friends or readers which ones grab them. And when you sign a publishing contract make sure you know who gets to choose the final title.

DID YOU KNOW

When naming Writescape’s annual retreats we chose titles that had double meanings, were metaphors for the act of writing and which evoked a visual image: Spring Thaw and Turning Leaves

Registration is now open for Turning Leaves. We’re celebrating our 10th anniversary in 2018 on November 2 to 4 at Fern Resort near Orillia, Ontario. This all-inclusive retreat includes Friday night fireside chat with our guest, Andrew Pyper, about the writing life and an intense morning workshop with Andrew on Saturday. He’s an award-winning writer, a master of dark and disturbing mysteries and fantasy, and excellent workshop facilitator.

Our limit is 20 participants. A $250 non-refundable deposit will guarantee your spot. We expect there will be a waiting list.