Thank you to all our subscribers and clients for your continued support of Writescape. 2020 has been a tough year for so many, so we hope our wee bit of holiday lyric editing puts a smile on your face and ink in your pen.
With a tip of the toque to Winter Wonderland*
The muse is calling, are you listening? Poems and stories; ideas glistening So pumped we can write We're happy tonight Writing in our winter wonderland
Go away 2020 Here to stay words aplenty Good wishes to all As the words form and fall Writing in a your winter wonderland
May the muse be always with you, Gwynn and Ruth
*Winter Wonderland: composed in 1934, lyrics by Richard Bernhard Smith & music by Felix Bernard. The song is so popular, it has been recorded more than 200 times. Now, how’s that for inspiring?
On the eve of Remembrance Day, veterans of war and those who fought and died are on our minds. November 11 is just one day but the solemnity and memories of the day carries an emotional intensity that many of us bring into our stories.
Writers have been chronicling battle stories since ancient times. Virgil’s epic poem, The Aeneid, offers us a searing immersion: so all had one longing, to let the sword decide.
We’ve been letting the sword (or gun or cannon or bomb or laser beams or…) decide ever since. Naturally enough, we writers have mined (pun intended) humanity’s predilection to fight and there’s no end to the kinds of books – biographies, histories, poetry, stories, novels – that explore that motherlode of emotion and power. Here are ten possible approaches:
1.Heroic battles – Here the writer has a vast landscape and nobody does it better than the ancient storytellers, such as Virgil, Homer and Sophocles. Their legacy can be found in all the epic scenes of warrior hordes (Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones) with clanging, clashing, slashing swords and axes hacking their way to the castle gates. Those scenes echo into modern history where swords are replaced with bayonets and rifles. Futurists imagine the same scenes but played out with visionary weaponry.
2. One-on-one Combat – Move beyond the broad landscape and get up close and personal with the dance between two enemies. It is a tension-filled moment that deserves a slow burn to reach a full roiling boil. Two characters, circling one another, gauging each other’s weaknesses, holding back until the moment to engage is clear. Now think beyond the battlefield and examine other kinds of fights between two characters: for example, a marriage falling apart. Warren Adler’s The War of the Roses chronicles the emotional costs of the legal battle and the soul-sucking aftermath.
3. The Homefront – Who’s left behind? How are they surviving? Pacifists, injured, too young, too old, too frightened – stories that focus on everyday people who can never forget what is happening in the wider world. Keeping the war in the background has been excellent inspiration for kidlit authors such as beloved writer Bernice Thurman Hunter and her novel The Girls They Left Behind. In adult fiction, the WWI Homefront is explored beautifully in Frances Itani’s Deafening. If you plan to write a novel set during our current and relentless pandemic, reading books about the Homefront might give you some needed distance.
4. From the Enemy’s POV – Writing through the enemy’s perspective is an exercise that can offer writers entry into their antagonist’s motivations. This is an excellent tool to breathe more life into that character. And sometimes, it might be more interesting to write the whole book with the villain as your Main Character. Oscar Wilde did it with the classic novel The Picture of Dorian Gray and more recently Gillian Flynn’s delightful Gone Girl.
5.Turf War – From schoolyards to neighbourhoods, boundaries real or imagined are instant tension points. Opposing gangs have a long history in literature: Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is a classic example. In Richard Scrimger’s Ink Me, Bunny, a mentally challenged 15-year-old, gets the wrong tattoo and that gives him entry into a gang about to do a high-stakes deal. Often funny but never patronizing, readers get a glimpse into the world of gangs and that of young adults who are differently abled. In Angie Thomas’ debut novel, The Hate U Give, readers get a deep dive into complex issues of racism, police brutality, activism and social justice – all of it framed within the context of boundaries held by gangs, organizations, institutions and families.
6. Civil War – A nation divided, rebellion, cults, rumours and secrets. Any social unrest is pure gold for tension and a fascinating cast of characters. Suzanne Collins dove into that world when she created The Hunger Games and you know how that turned out for her. But if you want a lived-experience to flavour the writing, CivilWarStories by Ambrose Bierce, a veteran of the American Civil War, is great writing. Ahead of his time, Bierce has a speculative fiction touch that offers us more than battle stories.
7. The Aftermath – From Ancient Greek playwrights (Euripides’ Trojan Women) to cold war novelists (Nevil Shute’s On the Beach) to post-apocalyptic authors (Cormac McCarthy’s The Road) much of post-war life, real or imagined, is never easy. Trauma, starvation and uncertainty can be counterbalanced with resilience, foraging and rebuilding both physically and socially. It’s up to the writer where to place the greatest weight.
8. The Peacemaker Diplomats, politicians and kings. Historical fiction is rich with books about peacemaking in world history. Tolstoy’s War and Peace gives us a sweeping saga plucked from history. But writers have a way of taking the known and applying it to the unknown. Erin Bow’s masterful YA novel, The Scorpion Rules, takes diplomacy onto an intergalactic scale that holds hostage the lives of world leaders’ children. No war between worlds and no kids get euthanized. Simple genius.
9. Undeclared War – Nothing underpins a story’s tension meter with more energy than a seething simmering dance between two enemies. As up close as a divorce in the making (The War of the Roses) or as broad as worlds balancing on the verge (Peter George’s Red Alert, inspiration for the classic film Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb). When the threat of war is constant, readers keep turning the page.
10. Tools of War – Speaking of loving the bomb, a war without weapons is a schoolyard turf war. Come to think of it, even that situation has its own weapons: taunts and gestures can ignite a war of words; fists, knees and teeth can up the scale. So, as much as big shiny boom machines can have an impact on a battle, remember that your reader’s emotional journey will accelerate with the smell of sweat, taste of blood, squeeze of skin and screams of battle, not to mention the look on combatants’ faces: jubilant in celebration or horrified in defeat.
No matter how large or how small the scale, a story of war offers writers so many possibilities and these ten musings are merely a long view with a pair of binoculars. It’s up to you to find the emotional heart in your story’s battle and bring it beating and alive for your readers.
On November 11, you will be asked to offer “a moment of silence” at 11 a.m., the date and time the Great War officially ceased in 1918. Writescape suggests that “a moment” as you well know, it merely a breath, a blink of the eye or a swallow. Those who have given their lives for their country need more than a moment to be remembered. War, no matter the cause, is hardly a reason to celebrate because the human cost is far too great and death is forever. Keep that in mind with all your war stories.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 supervising a session of the kids’ online learning, cooking dinner or creating a separate writing space for you during November. Prepare them for your plan and then……START WRITING!
For the past two years, I’ve participated in the Hike Haliburton Festival, leading one of the more than 100 hikes held over 4 days each fall. But not just any trek through the woods or up a hillside, my hike is called a Hike and Write: Inspiration Trail.
It all started three or four years ago when Barrie Martin, a curator of outdoors experiences in Haliburton County, invited me to sponsor a hike in the festival. Our back and forth correspondence led to him inviting me to instead lead a hike in 2018.
Me? Lead a hike? At first, I had this picture of some of the challenging trails I’d portaged and hiked over the years. Frankly, I’m past all that.
But Barrie persisted. Told me I could design whatever kind of hike I might like that would include writing.
And that’s the so cool factor that elevates the Hike Haliburton Festival from a series of treks in the bush to hikes that integrate the arts, culture, heritage and foodie experiences.
For example, Hike for Art’s Sake was a wander along quiet roads with a local artist to sketch abandoned buildings from bygone days. And for the mushroom lover, they could take the Fungophile Foray, an easy walk in search of edible fungi. All 115 of the 2019 hikes were free.
After hosting two back-to-back hikes last year, I opted to extend the pen with a single walk in the morning and an afternoon writing at my cottage. Five hikers joined me at Dahl Forest for a hike along the Big Bend Trail Loop. They were ready to walk along, using the senses to make observations to apply to writing opportunities.
Special guest magic
Just before we started, a sixth hiker arrived. A celebrity guest, in fact. The 2019 Writer in Residence for Haliburton, Susanna Kearsley, joined us. The bestselling author of 13 books was generous with her time and attention to the other hikers. Notebook in hand, she explained how paying attention to small details is a vital part of recreating reality in her novels. How the light hits the lichen and moss on a rock, or the power of the damp scent of a pine forest — these are the kinds of things she looks for and records.
The weather was perfect. A stunning blue September sky, a light breeze riffling the tall pines and fir trees, and a carpet of moss and pine needles underfoot.
Stopping at a riverside picnic bench, I led the hikers in a freefall writing exercise. The pen starts and doesn’t stop. Writers are encouraged to “follow the energy” and “write what comes up.” There’s more to it but that’s for another time.
It was magical. I was wondering how well the afternoon could go given how perfect the hike and morning had unfolded. Would an afternoon of tea and light refreshments lead to more brilliant writing?
I needed not to worry. The afternoon was just as perfect as the morning had been. Was it spent writing in hushed stillness, against the backdrop of the cottage birdsong and rustling leaves in the breeze?
Inspiration comes in all forms
It was, instead, a delightful afternoon of discovery. Over tea, coffee, cheeses, fruits and ginger ale, Susanna shared some of her experiences as a writer. She spoke of her research and pleasure in writing. And soon enough, the conversation turned to the importance of story.
I sat to one side, judging just when I’d suggest clearing the table to start to write. I waited for the inevitable lull in the conversation.
But then — oh then — the real magic happened when the topic of films that tell a good story came up. And chief among them, the Marvel movies. It turned out that Susanna and one of our hikers (and a colleague writer of mine), Stephanie, were both big fans of the comic book film series. Drawn to the cinema for the strength of story and characters that carry that story, the two fans exchanged favourite movie titles.
The other hikers were intrigued and soon enough, Susanna and Stephanie were curating the ultimate list of Marvel movies to watch. Titles were broached, discussed, discarded and reordered into a “must see” list, and in what order they should be seen.
I’ll admit relief that Guardians of the Galaxy was included on that list — I’m an old-school Marvel fan but that revised rag-tag band of misfits resonated with me. At this point, I stopped to consider what we were all talking about. Frankly, I was perplexed by how a writing afternoon morphed into an analysis of superhero characters, their origins and challenges.
And then I got it. It’s the story, stupid.
What drove Stephanie and Susanna to get into such animated chatter about the film series was to talk about the power of story to transport us. Story in cinema led to the Marvel movies and the rest, as they say, was our afternoon.
As the afternoon wound down, the hikers went home elated with their day spent hiking and writing in the morning and exploring ideas of story at my cottage. The curated list of “must see” movies went with them and they were already planning a series of binge movie nights.
Was this a silly thing to end our hike with? Absolutely not. We all crave story in our lives.
From the once-upon-a-times of our childhoods to the complexity of a well-crafted novel, it’s story that nudges our imagination and offers us new ways of seeing our world. It’s why we write. And thankfully, story can be found just about anywhere: on a morning walk through a stunning forest or over tea and biscuits in a rustic cottage.
Lucky us. We get to find those stories and make them our own.
Sometimes, the people I create for my novels and stories wake me up at night. They rattle around in my head like restless spirits and refuse to quiet down until I write a scene they’ve been waiting for.
Wait a minute. A scene they’ve been waiting for?
Exactly. I guess that’s how real they’ve managed to become in my imagination. So real that my subconscious gives them room to believe themselves to be alive.
All writers discover and develop their characters by a variety of approaches, each as unique as the writer themselves. But sometimes, our imaginations can use a little help.
For one of my workshops, I developed a simple and fun exercise for finding a new character. It works for villains, heroes, secondary folks, and even walk-on characters. Use it any time you hit a wall and need a nudge to add new people to a story or scene. It can even help when you have no idea what you’re going to write: bingo! a character to build a story around…all from a recipe.
Follow the recipe
1 cup of a real person: I find a visual source most helpful (a magazine photograph, portrait in an art gallery or people-watching expedition) Perhaps for you, there’s a person in history — recent or long ago — who has fascinated you. Whoever you choose, it’s time to build a story character from an image. Note some vital statistics about this person, (age, gender, eye & hair colour, etc.)
Then go a bit deeper into who they are (family, education, social position/job, hobbies, favourite foods, pets, etc.) Allow your imagination to take you to counter-intuitive places: thing — and people — are never completely what they appear to be on the surface.
Finally, answer three questions:
what does this person want?
what does this person actually need?
what does this person fear the most?
Of course, this outline of a person is open to change once you start to write the story. But by this point, you should have a sense of a personality coming to life. All you need now is to add the rest of the ingredients.
1 cup of story idea: Maybe your new character has inspired a story idea already but if not, here’s a quick option: choose a central theme (quest, coming of age, gods vs humans, humans vs nature, etc.) and a genre (romance, sci-fi, contemporary, literary, thriller, historical, etc.) Write down the theme and genre (or blend of genres) and add in a few lines about the possibilities to come (escape of star-crossed lovers, a search for a missing “x”; a defense of a territory; a coronation gone wrong, etc.)
2/3 cup of setting: place, era, season, time of day. Here’s where you add in some sensory elements: temperature, quality of the light, smells in the air, sounds near and distant, etc.
1/4 cup of backstory: Careful, too much backstory up front and it will overtake your story stew. Go for subtle flavours: a hint of betrayal, a whiff of loss, a sprinkle of insecurity or shame.
Flavour bouquet: Just like that cheesecloth bag of spices in your chili sauce, here’s where you can mix up an interesting blend for your new-found character. Characteristics. Idiosyncrasies. Behaviours. Qualities of goodness and evil because no person is completely honourable, good and kind. And all of it affects the kind of person you are cooking up.
The garnish: An exciting way to serve up your character is through a line of dialogue. A few intriguing words can be all you need to set in motion a scene for your character.
Make it more than parsley on the plate: “Quick man! Jump overboard or die!” “Before the three moons rise, I promise to find your starship.” “My lady, the castle road and all who travelled it are gone.”
Of course, like any recipe, it’s always open to personal preference. So go ahead and experiment. Add new ingredients. Use more spice. Go heavy with the garnish. The point to all this is to muck about in the kitchen of your creativity and see what ends up on your page. At the very least, you’ll have something on the table that you’ve never had before. Hopefully, it’s one tasty treat.
If you want to cook up more characters or spice up ones you already have, Ruth’s offering a one-day workshop Create Compelling Characters on June 15 at her Riverside Cottage property in Haliburton. Registration is open now.
Many years ago, as a beginning writer, I decided that the easiest fiction to write was romance. After all, I reasoned, it was shallow and formulaic. It would be easy.
So one summer, I conducted an experiment. I ordered four books in four different imprint series from Harlequin and read them all over July and August. I figured that by the end of summer, I would have that formula down pat!
I was wrong. Romance books are not shallow and formulaic. To be sure, they do follow an underlying expectation that the hero and heroine will get together in the end, but that’s where the formula ends.
They span many genres: mystery, suspense, historical; the plots are varied and complicated; the settings global; the characters believable and fascinating. And the writing was, for the most part, good. Some books were stronger than others for me, but I can say that about any genre I read. I realized very quickly that I would have to learn a whole lot more before I ever… if I ever… tackled a romance novel of my own.
Digging Deeper into Romance
So where do you go to find out more about the genre? The Romance Writers of America, (RWA) website gives a good overview of the genre as well as information on the romance sub-genres. They describe themselves as “dedicated to advancing the professional interests of career-focused romance writers through networking and advocacy.” There you can also find information of RWA chapters throughout North America including Canada, where you can meet other romance writers and attend workshops and conferences.
Sweet, saucy or sizzling?
One of the things I learned from my experiment was that not all imprints are the same. Some were sweet and innocent, some were downright racy. I wondered if I would ever be able to write the sex scenes effectively and how to know how much was enough or too much.
Harlequin, the world’s largest publisher of romance, provides clear, detailed guidelines on their website for each of their imprints, from the word count to the level of sexual content. For example, Blaze editors ask for sensuous, highly romantic, innovative stories that are sexy in premise and execution. The tone of the books can run from fun and flirtatious to dark and sensual. Writers can push the boundaries in terms of explicitness…an emphasis on the physical relationship…fully described love scenes along with a high level of fantasy, playfulness and eroticism BUT not erotica. The Blaze line must still uphold the Harlequin promise of one hero and one heroine and an implied committed relationship in the end.
Some of Harlequin’s imprints require agent representation, but unagented submissions are welcomed for Harlequin Series. Harlequin Series Books (aka “Series Romance” or “Category Romance”) publishes more than 85 titles each month over a wide range of genres.
Want to give writing romance a try?
This infographic from Harlequin’s website will help you decide where your romance fits in their imprint series.
Did you know…
Registration for our Spring Thaw 2019 retreat is well underway. Save your spot now!
Look for Writescape’s 10 on the 10th for writing tips, advice and inspiration on the 10th of every month. Think of it as Gwynn and Ruth sitting on your shoulder and nudging you along.
Love is powerful and can enrich your characters and add tension to your plot. There’s all kinds of love but this month’s 10 on the 10th, we’re linking it to sex and the many ways you can add it to your story. From sweet to spicy, here are 10 things to consider when you write about love and sex.
1 Think Imagery: Candlelight. Moonlight. Satin. Silk. Moss. Strumming guitar. Sweet violins. Warm ocean breezes. Fur collars. Strawberries. Oil. Remember that the five senses are your best friends in creating emotional connection for your reader: touch, taste, smell, hear & see.
2 Think Relationship: An overworked approach is to pit adversaries against one another who, amazingly, fall in love. Why not reverse it? Take a loving couple and sever their relationship — go big with an unforgivable action or make it a last straw moment. Will they find a path back to each other? Or is someone else waiting in the wings?
love has no logic
3 Think Counterintuitive: Love has no logic and is based on multiple factors that draw two souls together. Or maybe three souls? Ménages a tois exist for a reason. Beyond sex, relationships of any kind are sustained through mutual or sometimes tacit (don’t ask/don’t tell) agreements.
Is it sense or sensibility?
4Think Sexy: It’s anticipation that works in romance. Humans love to imagine the love-making long before it happens. So give us a flash of ankle, a flush of cheeks or fingertips touching lips in the early stages of the story.
5 Think Words: Words are all part of foreplay. Over dinner or in bed or anywhere in between. Sweet nothings. Hot saucy comments. Think Mae West. “Why don’t you come up sometime and see me. I’ll tell your fortune.” Ah, innuendo…especially innuendo.
6 Think Clothing: Modesty in Victorian times meant the legs of furniture should be covered–oh my, your piano’s legs are showing! Thank goodness we got over that idea. For some, naked is best, but for many, degrees of covering lead to imagining, anticipation and surprise. And don’t forget dressing up and cosplay.
7 Think whole body: Every part of the body can be sexy. Lips, breasts and the usuals all work, but don’t forget feet and fingers, ears and shoulders, backs and throats. The body is always “in play” when it’s love, including the insides. Tingling tummies, salivary glands on overdrive and temperatures rising.
8 Think Location: The forbidden element heightens excitement, so sex in public places, hidden away or new places makes for a different dynamic. In safe, well-known environments, something else needs to create the spark.
9 Think time: Is this a quickie, or long and languid? Making a day of repeated fun or trying to fit it in before someone or something interrupts? For that matter, what about interrupted sex? What if one partner wants to linger and the other wants things over as soon as possible?
10 Think age and experience: First love or a long-term couple looking to spice things up? Simple sex or toys? From innocent kiss to full-on S&M, there is so much to choose from. Switch it up depending on age, experience, circumstance, motive and genre.
Launched in 2018 as a year-long celebration of our 10th anniversary, this monthly post proved so popular that we’re keeping it going. Look for Writescape’s 10 on the 10th for writing tips, advice and inspiration on the 10th of every month. 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.
Movies. Film. The cinema. The flickers…or flicks as they became known. Since 1895, the art of filmmaking has left a legacy of profound movie moments. For nearly 125 years, audiences have lost themselves in the stories unfolding on theatre screens. While the way we watch movies has changed — reclining and wired-for-motion seats in state-of-the-art theatres to surround sound in homes with 75″ television screens and Netflix at the ready. What hasn’t changed is the importance of a compellling story to create excellence in film.
Yes. Of course. Some “blockbuster” films are more about sound and fury than a believeable plot and characters. At a recent screening of “Aquaman,” Writescape’s Ruth Walker almost always knew the next plot twist or line of dialogue before it was voiced. “It was a fun movie with great visual effects,” she said. “But so predictable.”
Nonetheless, in our first 10 on the 10th for 2019, we’ve come up with an admittedly arbitrary list of movies that are useful to explore and perhaps will help you find some inspiration to be completely unpredictable.
#1 I Remember Mama— a 1948 movie about a young aspiring writer who discovers her “ordinary childhood” as a Norwegian immigrant in 1900 San Francisco is actual gold for her stories. Memoirists, be inspired because despite a dose of sentimentality, there is also a frankness in this movie that surprises. All memoir is strongest when it tells the truth. The movie is based on the stories of Kathryn Forbes which she based on her own Norwegian-born grandmother’s life in early twentieth century San Francisco. Real life is the well of inspiration for writers everywhere.
#2 Adaptation written by Charlie Kaufman who is also, coincidentally, the lead character played by Nicolas Cage — a funny and unsettling 2002 film about a screenwriter failing at adapting a novel for film and his overshadowing, successful twin. Twists. Identity crises. Writerly angst. More twists. Confusion. Mayhem. In fact, many writers will recognize this as just another day in the life. Is this Kaufman’s memoir? Sort of. For the screenwriters among you, here’s a link to the screenplay on Stephen Follows’ website.
# 3 Sense and Sensibility 1995 Ang Lee version for a film adaptation of a timeless plot. All of Jane Austen’s books make for terrific film and television series but this is an excellent example of subplot doing brilliant service to the main plot. Austen wisely set the subplot with the main character’s sister and made these sisters different in almost every regard. The simple main plot of girl falls for unattainable boy needs the heightened tension of girl’s sister falls for falsely attainable boy while one true love watches in agony from the sidelines. The standard romance plot in Austen’s hands becomes a look at social status and, in particular, women’s power (or lack thereof) in the early nineteenth century England. A deceptively simple plot with a potent punch.
#4 Pan’s Labyrinth — this visually stunning and mood-rich 2006 film set in 1944 Fascist Spain was written and directed by Guillermo Del Toro. Part fairy tale and part historical film, this Spanish-language movie blends reality and fantasy so well that belief in the mythical creatures is as strong as in the heroic characters. Why should you see it? Del Toro worked from his 20-year journal notes of ideas and concepts to carve out a screenplay that feels like an ancient parable told long ago. He had the whole screenplay in his head before he wrote a single word of it. And bonus trivia for all writers: he wrote the English subtitles because he was disappointed with the subtitle work on his earlier movies. Clearly, a writer who is dedicated to his craft, and who cares about his audience and conveying his story to them.
#5 Dinner at Eight — a clever, star-studded 1933 comedy/drama. The whole complex plot revolves around a high-society dinner party organized by a wife to help her husband’s business dealings and all the problems in the hours before: Suicides, business failures, affairs, sneaky backroom deals and lack of a single man to balance the table setting. Nonetheless, Mrs. Jordan’s dinner gets served precisely at eight. The “over-acting” of the age is a fabulous metaphor for when stereotypical characters can be successful because they carry a message: pretense vs reality. No one is who they pretend to be. The writing is darn good as well, adapted from a Broadway play.
#6 Julie and Julia – 2009 “blogger” story based on the real-life Julie who has a blog in which she will make a Julia Child recipe every day and blog about it. We get Julia Child’s history as well, as Julie’s life takes twists and turns she didn’t expect. Julia refused to acknowledge the Julie blog which adds another rich layer to the background of the story. A useful examination of writing two POV characters and ways to create thematic connections between two separate stories. In real life: Julie and Julia never met and they don’t in this movie, either. Yet we suspect they could have been friends.
#7Run Lola Run— a 1997 German thriller written and directed by Tom Tykwer. It’s a simple plot: Red-head Lola has 20 minutes to get 100,000 Deutsche Marks to her boyfriend Manni or he’ll rob a store to get the money to pay back the mob. Much of the movie is about Lola running. And running. And, yes, running. But it is a clever tale, told with three different endings. Every action and interaction Lola has the first time she tries to save Manni shows up in the next two endings. Like the butterfly effect, a simple pause not taken or decision delayed has consquences. And through each iteration, there are important constants that anchor the themes of free will and fate. Take note of the “blind woman” character and her pivotal role: is this fate for Lola or is she being given the chance to, at last, get it right?
#8 The Princess Bride— This 1987 classic film’s screenplay was adapted by the novel’s writer, William Goldman. Directed by Rob Reiner, the movie preserves many of the elements that make the novel a delight to read. Ironic. Self-aware. Fantastical. Romantic. Adventurous. And rich in life lessons, including: There is such a thing as Mostly Dead. Revenge can’t give us back what we’ve lost. And inconceivable is a word that can be overused and, occasionally, misused. The Princess Bride is a story of True Love, framed by a grandfather reading the book to his ill grandson. It honours the gift of imagination and delights in playing with the tropes of fairy tale and fable, just as the novel continues to do for readers since its 1973 publication date.
#9 Misery – a 1990 adaptation of Stephen King’s best-selling 1987 novel, the movie was directed by Rob Reiner. And the screenplay adaptation was written by William Goldman. Despite that successful pairing for The Princess Bride, there is little humour in this movie but plenty of irony. And really, it’s about a best-selling novelist, so already it has a hook for any writer. The movie is true to the novel with few exceptions. Given that many of Stephen King’s novels and novellas have been made into movies, it’s interesting to note that this is the only one to have garnered an Academy Award. Actor Kathy Bates embodies the obsessed fan Annie Wilkes and deserved that award. King structures well-paced plots and develops engaging characters that translate well onto the screen. However, this is a psychological horror film so it’s not for everyone. But with a novelist as our protagonist and a crazed reader as our antagonist, it comes close to the writerly bone. Perhaps having a Number One Fan is not always something to strive for.
#10Moonlight— a 2016 coming-of-age film, written and directed by Barry Jenkins. Just like Del Toro, this movie’s writer and director lovingly crafts an evocation of time and place that is both highly specific and broadly universal. As writers, we strive to create characters and storylines that resonate with readers. Moonlight manages that because it is unflinching in giving us flawed characters with rich layers of humanity. At its heart, the storyline explores the outsider’s journey: a quest to discover who he is and embody that person. It takes the standard 3-act structure to heart: each act, or chapter of the film, is a slice in the life of a boy who becomes a teen and eventually, in the third act, an adult. There’s a lot of learn even from the film techniques of Jenkins, for example, changing the colour tone and palette of each act to echo the time in which it occurs and the emotional energy of our lead character.
As writers, we need to be aware of tone and palette choices in our stories. As we gain ability of that technique, it will transfer into emotional resonance every time we want it to occur in our writing.
More on that subject another time.
This list of movies for writers is by no means exhaustive. What movies do you think writers should put on their “must watch” list?
A writer—any good writer—has certain gifts and qualities that should serve them well away from their works in progress. But recently, I was reminded that those gifts can only show up if they are called on to do so. When we let assumptions take over and when our imaginations are dulled, it won’t matter how creative our thinking is. We’ll be as clueless as the next guy.
It all started with the dishwasher. We’ve gone two years without a working dishwasher and when recently offered a gently used one, we said yes. It’s nice to have one when there’s a lot of company and a lot of dishes, I reasoned.
Our lovely gift was easily installed and the first run through was a total success. Sparkling clean dishes and I didn’t need to don rubber gloves.
Two days later, we ran it again. Once again, the dishes were sparkling clean. But the nearly 1/4 cup of water on the floor was a sign our free dishwasher might be a bit of a lemon.
Now here’s where the writer in me should have given this a lot more consideration. Writers are supposed to look closely at things, to puzzle out mysteries and consider optional scenarios. Many of us suffer from the ” What if” syndrome. We ask questions. We do it all the time for our characters and plots. So, logically, we should do it in life.
But the writer in me jumped ship as I stared at the small puddle in front of our dishwasher.
I called the installer. It would be a few days before he could come back out to look at it, so we waited. Meanwhile, we worried. How much would the repair cost? Could it even be repaired? Was this a huge mistake, taking on a used dishwasher?
Asking yourself the right questions
It was my husband who first broached the optional scenario. Maybe it was the ice cubes.
The evening of the water leak, he’d dropped a tray of ice cubes onto the kitchen floor. He thought he’d got them all, but in retrospect he wondered if he missed a couple under the cupboard. Beside the dishwasher, in fact.
And here’s where my writer-brain finally kicked in. If this leak was from the dishwasher, why had it only been clean water? Cold clean water, in fact. If the gasket was faulty on the door in just one corner, it still would have been faulty during the whole cycle and not just the rinse. But there’d been no soapy residue.
No. The more logical culprit had been a couple of wayward ice cubes tucked up next to the bottom right corner of the dishwasher. And there they melted. And there they waited for me to jump to conclusions.
Hand slap to the forehead
I ran the dishwasher again. No leak. I called and cancelled the service call. No invoice to pay.
I’ve used the dishwasher two times since the ice cube hypothesis and not a drop of water on the floor. The dishwasher is fine. It’s my brain that needs some work.
Assumptions can be the bane of any writer’s life, especially when they filter into our writing. It’s the place stereotypes lurk, the home of As You Know, Bob moments and the heartbeat of a complete lack of surprise in our stories.
It is exactly what you do not want your reader to experience. Ho-hum…
And writer, here’s the thing to remember: if you can avoid assumptions in other areas of your life, it can save you some angst and expensive service calls.
By the way, did you take a close look at the picture at the top of this post? Did you assume he was a writer, sitting on that stump? He’s actually an artist sketching in the forest. Give yourself ten points if you thought he was an artist. Otherwise, guess you’ll have to keep working on looking closer at things.
Let’s end with a wish for you all to have a lovely holiday season and all the best for an inspired new year.
Shortly after our most recent retreat, Turning Leaves, I heard from a writer who wasn’t able to attend. She was disappointed to have missed the retreat and, of course, we missed having her there. But it started the kernel of an idea for me.
What to do when you can’t get away to write but you really need that getaway?
Do it yourself
A self-directed retreat can give you the boost you and your writing need. There are two basic ingredients necessary to create your own writing retreat.
permission — allow yourself this gift — whether it’s for 30 minutes or 33 days, gift yourself and your muse with writing time
difference — as simple as facing your laptop in a new direction or as drastic as getting in the car and driving west without a destination in mind, a different writing space will loosen your perspective
The “where” doesn’t matter as much as the “okay” you need to give yourself. Once you commit to accepting the gift of time to write, the rest will fall into place. So, you’ve said okay to a retreat? Now to focus on the “where.” Many writers don’t have to even head out the front door.
Retreat at Home:
Begin by creating the right space that will give you the retreat vibe. Turn off the TV. Log off the WiFi. Unplug the phone. Eliminate distractions — if you need to, hire a babysitter or dog walker. Maybe light a candle or incense.
Take your journal or laptop into a room you don’t normally write in. Stand at a window you don’t usually look through. Sit on your apartment balcony or the backyard deck. If you’re a morning writer, keep your jammies on before you start to write. If you tend to write later in the day, start out with a walk in your neighbourhood, but travel in a new direction.
Do a little fuel prep in advance of your self-curated home retreat. Put together meals and snacks in advance. I don’t mean potato chips and dip…treat yourself so this feels special. Crudité. Antipasto. Shrimp cocktail. Whatever will raise the bar for you to a place of being pampered.
Retreat away from Home:
If a retreat at home would never work (i.e., noisy neighbourhood, roommates, cramped quarters) consider where you might escape to. I know writers who write at their local library. They turn off their phones, squirrel away in a quiet corner and spend the day writing. And with so many libraries loosening up those old rules of no food or coffee, bringing your lunch and favourite munchies along is less of a barrier. You can’t sit there in your jammies but there’s nothing that says you can’t wear your old sweatshirt and kick off your shoes to get comfy. My local library has an upscale coffee shop onsite where you can write your book and eat your cake, too.
Another option is to book yourself into an inn or B&B to write for a couple of days. Book for the off season to get lower rates. A friend and Writescape alumnus, Ingrid Ruthig, is an award-winning poet and accomplished artist. She creates her own writing retreats by booking a room in a B&B and staying for a few days. She’s disciplined enough to keep her focus on why she’s there and uses the new space as inspiration for her work. And she notes that the breakfasts make for a stellar start to her day.
Be creative. Head to a coffee shop to write. How about the local museum? Do the kids have a backyard treehouse? Retreating away from home doesn’t need to be an overnight excursion. The main point is finding a place that is different; it is difference that can inspire creativity.
Look for artist residencies
An artist residence can offer time and space to writers. Some residencies involve a large financial commitment. But some are provided free of charge or have scholarships or bursaries to offset the cost. And some pay you to attend.
There are dozens and dozens of residencies in Canada, the U.S. and abroad. The Write Life has a list of 27 Amazing Writing Residencies. I’ll admit to being intrigued by the winery retreats — Writing between the Vines will give you a week-long, no charge residency in either California or B.C. You have to get there and you need to bring your own food but my goodness, imagine a cabin tucked away among the cabernet sauvignon in the Sonoma Valley!
Closer to my home in Ontario, the A-Frame Residency in Ameliasburg offers writers the use of poet Al Purdy’s iconic Prince Edward County home. $650 paid to writers weekly for a no-fee 4-week stay is a remarkable gift. Not to mention the hope that some of the Governor-General Award-winner’s creative spirit could rub off on you as you work. Applications re-open fall 2019.
Heather O’Connor, who’s attended many of Writescape’s retreats, wrote about her artist-in-residence experience at Quetico Provincial Park, west of Thunder Bay and bordering Minnesota. In that post, she shares how she also funded the travel expenses to get her to Quetico, which gives us a nice transition to the next topic.
Fund Your Retreat
Apply for writing grants to help cover the cost of any writing retreat, either self-directed or carefully curated by others. Local, regional, provincial and national organizations offer grants to help support you in this journey. We’ve written a few blog posts about grants and how to get them, including this story of a breadmaker’s grant. And Heather O’Connor, arguably one of the most successful writing grant applicants we’ve ever known, offered some sage advice in this 2016 blog post.
So, whether you hunker down at home or leave the country, there are many ways to create your own writing retreat. Whatever it takes to charge your batteries and keep the words flowing, we wish you well. May the muse be ever-present and the writing, sublime!
Writescape’s next retreat
Registration for Spring Thaw, our annual creative getaway at Elmhirst’s Resort, doesn’t officially open until December 1. But for our retreat alumni and subscribers to our Top Drawer blog, we’re giving you a bit of a head start.
Spring Thaw, April 26 to 28, 2019, is an all-inclusive writing retreat in cozy cottages on the shores of Rice Lake in the Kawarthas. We create an intimate and safe space in which writers can explore ideas and stretch their creative energy. At Spring Thaw, you’ll have:
editorial review on 10 manuscript pages
private feedback consultations
creativity sessions to inspire your muse each morning
private room in shared, fully equipped lakeside cottages
optional evening activities
full access to resort amenities: WiFi, indoor pool, whirlpool & sauna, trails
Writers can keep the energy going with our Extend-Your-Pen option, April 28 to 30, two more days devoted just to working on your writing.
Retreat alumni and members of writing organizations can take advantage of our special discounts. Spring Thaw is a wonderful escape to let you imagine, reflect and write.