Thank you to all our subscribers and clients for your continued support of Writescape. You inspired us throughout 2019, and 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
Gone away blocks and crying Here to stay fingers flying Good wishes to all As the words fall 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?
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.
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…..
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.
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.
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.
I’m often asked what the difference is between theme and premise. Here’s my take—with a comment or two from others:
What is theme?
A story needs to be unified around something, and that something is theme, a recurrent idea or motif. You can begin to identify your theme by coming up with ONE word to sum it up. That one word is usually a human quality: Friendship. Love. Trust. Fear. Redemption. Abandonment. Freedom. Motherhood. Truth. Ambition. Justice. Revenge. Confidence.Or a universal quality: Duality. War. Confinement.
But the theme of a novel goes deeper. Theme in a novel is not just that one word, say LOVE, but the statement the author makes about the motif with the story.
FROZEN: sisterly love is greater than power.
Generally, theme is linked to the emotional growth of the protagonist, or the personal vendetta of the antagonist.
Sometimes you don’t know what your theme is up front. You might change it, or discover it in the course of storytelling. It evolves. And that doesn’t matter because it isn’t stated anywhere in the narrative. It’s a sense we come away with, a flavour, a key.
Theme can also be several statements/explorations around a human quality. For example, an author could explore different kinds of LOVE through different characters: brotherly love, love of self, absence of love, parental love, love of money over people, love of country etc.
What is Premise
Premise, on the other hand, is the idea behind the story, what the author is writing about, the basic idea and foundation for the plot.
John Truby suggests premise is the simplest combination of character and plot: Some event that starts the action, some sense of the main character and some sense of the outcome.
Author and screenwriter Alexandra Sokoloff talks about the premise being “the pitch” for the story. That works too. After all, a pitch is the one-liner distilled version of your book and introduces us to the main character, what obstacles he must overcome, and why.
HARRY POTTER: When boy wizard Harry Potter and his friends at Hogwarts wizard school are threatened by the Dark Lord, Harry must find his magical power to overcome him and become a man and a great wizard.
Premise out of theme
Chris Vogler agrees that premise is the basic idea and foundation for the plot but also that it is “a more developed expression of the “theme” idea, beyond just one word. It’s a sentence that you pull out of that one word.”
First be specific. “LOVE” isn’t specific enough. What kind of love? Brotherly love? Blind love? Love of country? Loving yourself? What kind of trust? What kind of faith?
And then restate it as a kind of formula:
X behaviour leads to Y consequences
MACBETH: ruthless ambition leads inevitably to destruction
Why does it matter?
Premise is useful as you write because it holds the ultimate character transformation in the front of your mind, so you are conscious of your character’s actions and reactions being in step with where he is along the character arc. For instance Harry Potter could never have faced the dementors at the beginning of the series, not only because he didn’t have the wizardly skills, but because he had not yet found his confidence or his loyalty.
As you write, theme doesn’t matter, but when it comes to editing, it provides an umbrella measure to decide which scenes and characters can get cut. Does this scene support the theme better than this one?
One last word
Screenwriter Andrew Oye sums the whole thing up very nicely. He says premise and theme are cousins not twins. That the premise is the subject of the story and the theme is the meaning from the story.