Author: Alice Valdal (page 1 of 14)

To Tell or Not to Tell

 

 

My local authors group, VIRA, held their monthly meeting on Saturday. It was great to mingle with so many talented women.  The sharing of information, achievements, heartaches and life events during our “accolades” time is truly inspiring.  For many, that would be enough, but we had a workshop as well, presented by Susan  Lyons (w/a Savanah Fox, Susan Fox.)

Susan had asked the group beforehand what they’d like to work on. The response was huge and wide-ranging.  I wondered how she’d by able to turn all the varied suggestions into a cohesive workshop.  But Susan is a very organized person. She took everyone’s pet problem and lumped it into the challenge of conflict. 

Makes sense doesn’t it?  If you’re trying to develop a plot, external conflict is essential.  If you want to create memorable characters, they need internal conflict.  If you want emotional intensity for the reader, it starts with conflict. If you have a sagging middle, turn up the conflict.  Nearly all the difficulties writers encounter in creating a great story, can be addressed through conflict — or struggle, if you prefer that word.

Once she’d laid out the basics of conflict, Susan divided us into small groups – very small, three—and let us brainstorm. Using Deb Dixon’s formula of Goal/Motivation/Conflict, we talked about character, theme and plot in our work-in-progress.

I’m a little nervous of these types of exercises. Either I have nothing to say because I cannot create on the spot, or I’m afraid that my work is too new to withstand the scrutiny of other opinions.  When I start a story, it’s a bit like digging a well.  When the first trickle of water appears, I must be very careful not to damage the water table or the geology of the site.  One mistake and the water disappears.  It can be the same with story.  One criticism, one chance remark, and the “idea”, instead of developing, vanishes.

In my little group we had one story nearly finished, one that was well-started and mine, which is still a glimmer.

When the session ended, Susan was enthusiastically thanked. Everyone in the room had learned something, either about the story she was working on now, or one she might tackle in the future.  Despite my misgivings about “crowd-sourcing” my story, I got some good ideas and no damage occurred.  A very successful afternoon.

 

What about you?

As a writer, do you like to talk about your project from the first inkling or do you prefer to have the story down on paper before you share?

As a reader, do you like to see work in progress, or do you want the author to give you only the finished and polished version?

 

Down the Rabbit Hole – Research

What I learned this week while writing my “discovery” draft is that I need to discover some more historical facts. To that end, I’m reading 40 Years in Canada, by Samuel B. Steele. This is a wonderful, first hand account of the formation of the North West Mounted Police and they’re trek west in 1874-75. The impetus for this undertaking was to end the whiskey trade that was devastating the First Nations of the western plains.  In Steele’s day, they used the term Indian or Redman.  He writes “For the credit of the Dominion and humanity, it was absolutely necessary that a stop be put to the disgraceful scenes which were daily enacted on the Bow and Belly rivers and in the Cypress Hills.”

I’m a real fan of Sam Steele, who seemed to meet hardship and trial with good cheer and hard work.  He offers his greatest praise to men who did not grumble and who vied with each other to carry the heaviest load or make the most trips back and forth on the near impossible portages from Lake Superior to Lake Winnipeg. And he did it all “for humanity.”

As we live in an age marred by corporate greed and a “me first” attitude, it brought joy to my heart to read that when, after a march of 1,959 miles, a new fort was established, the first structures built were stables for the horses, then barracks for the men and lastly, quarters for the officers.

Much as I’m enjoying Sam Steele’s memoirs, they do not provide me with the details of a pioneer woman – what she wore, how she cooked, what she did for a sick child.  I’ve another book, Never Done—Three Centuries of Women’s Work in Canada, written by The Corrective Collective, and published in 1974.  This volume attempts to tell “her-story.”  The title comes from the old saying, “a man works from sun to sun but women’s work is never done.”

The authors have tried to tackle women’s history in Canada from the time of New France and les Filles du Roi through to World War One.  The resource yields many interesting facts such as, in 18th century Halifax the Inspector and Surgeon General was paid a guinea a day to operate a hospital.  The Matron of said hospital, while responsible for changing bandages, cleaning wounds, administering medicines, applying poultices, arranging food preparation, ensuring hospital maintenance and sweeping the floor, received no salary. (Picture me shaking my fists!) However, aside from sending me into a rage, the book is still sketchy on the details of daily life in a gold rush town.

Next stop, B.C. Archives.  They have letters and diaries on file.  Here’s to “discovering.”

A “Paws”

I’ve had a really busy Easter weekend — lovely, but busy.  Now I’m off “discovering” my story in draft form.  I’ll report on that later.  Meanwhile, here’s a picture of my cat for your enjoyment.

 

This is my black cat soaking up a few rays.

This is my tabby cat soaking up a few zzz’z.                                                               

Happy Easter week to you all.  May you “discover” many wonderful things.

 

 

In Praise of Discovery

B.C. Archives, Item PDP00289 – Captain George Vancouver’s ships HMS Discovery and Chatham leaving Falmouth, England, April 1, 1791; colour painting.

When I first tried my hand at writing, I knew nothing about the craft or the business. Blissfully ignorant, I just sat at my typewriter-yes, it was a long time ago-and started pounding out words.  A story unfolded.  I was thrilled.  Then I got stuck.  I put the ms away and lived life in the real world, but the story kept nagging at me.  I needed to get past the stuck point and finish it.  After a suggestion from a beta reader, I backed up a little, took another tack and got past my stuck point.  I finished the book.  I actually sold that book to a publisher.  It was all fun.

As I learned more about the business I became obsessed with writing faster and writing more. I ventured into the maze of social media. I beat myself up over my sloppy plotting and inefficient methods. I bought books, attended workshops and did my best to apply the wonderful advice I received to making my writing time more productive. I didn’t have fun.

Now, thanks to the wonderful Jennifer Crusie, I’ve found justification for my haphazard methods. This New York Times best selling author, doesn’t plot!  She noodles.  If the idea sticks, she goes on to write a “discovery” draft.  I love that word.  It sounds so much more respectable than pantsing. Ms Crusie starts to write, whatever bits and pieces of the story float into her mind.  Snatches of dialogue, setting, backstory, other characters—it’s all grist for the mill. In this phase I discover the back story for each character.  Their core values emerge.  Can I get a conflict at that level? Can I resolve it without diminishing either main character? Who else is in the story?  What is their role? What secrets lurk in the background?  How do they impact the characters and the story? So much to discover.

It sounds a lot like what I did before I learned I was doing it wrong.

It sounds like fun.

I’m off to discover now.

Flowing Waters

Spring has arrived in my corner of the world.  Blossoms popping out of the ground, buds swelling on the trees and ditches full of running water.

Don’t know if it’s the weather, but the creative juices are flowing afresh for me too.  I’ve an idea for a spin-off from my latest book (to be released in early summer).

This is that lovely honeymoon stage of the writing process.  The stage where I believe the book will be easy to write, the story will come together like magic and the finished product will be brilliant.

This is also where I employ my favourite plotting method.  The one where I lie on the couch and stare at the ceiling, letting words and pictures and ideas float freely through my mind.  Kind of like looking at clouds when I was a kid. No barriers to the imagination. The part before the hard work.

All the school children in my district are on spring break.  I feel a bit like I’ve been let out of school too.

Happy Spring, everyone.

Change the World?

 Placido Domingo is said to have given this advice to a young musician.

  • Give the audience your all, even your mistakes.  You are human.
  • Put on a smile.  It is a gift.
  • Never stop trying to change the world, no matter what your age.

It is that last point that intrigued me.  As writers we rarely meet our audience face-to-face so they won’t know if we smile.  Writing allows time for re-writes, proofing and corrections, so we have a chance to correct out mistakes before they are in the readers’ hands. 

Change the world?  That is what the arts are all about.  No matter if we write or sing or paint or sculpt, the artist’s job is to change or clarify the way people view the world.  We evoke emotion that inspires action.   One has only to pick up a newspaper or turn on the television to realize our world is beset by problems that are overwhelming to the individual.  It would be easy to take refuge in cynicism or ignorance. Yet, collectively, we can make a difference.  The artists among us have a responsibility to reach that place within humanity to urges us to build a better world.

Remember “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson.  Published in 1962 it inspired the environmental movement that began in earnest two decades later and resulted in the ban on DDT.

Consider the “Singing Revolution” where hundreds of thousands of Estonians gathered to sing forbidden patriotic songs as a protest against occupation by the Soviet Union. Estonia is now a free nation.

Aesop used story to illustrate and motivate in his famous fables.  Who doesn’t know the tale of the tortoise and the hare, with it’s moral of perseverance over flash and dash. Written over 2500 years ago, the lessons still resonate.

Setting a romance novel alongside these great works may seem presumptuous, but romance is read by millions of women.  In the past few months we’ve all seen the power of women united in a single cause.  The romance genre has been routinely dismissed by academia, but now various universities are offering courses on it.  That’s the power of good story-telling; the power of art.

I’m a fan of Mr. Domingo.  His advice resonates with me.  I do try to give my best in all circumstances.  You can’t see it, but I’m a smiling sort of person. Change the world?  That’s a big task.  Still, my stories celebrate love. They illumine positive relationships between men and women and children.  They are hopeful. They are uplifting.  They portray a world of decency and faith and good neighbours. That’s how I try to change the world.

 

 

The Most Important Element

“The most important element is passion.”

Those are the first words I heard when I turned on the radio this morning.  The announcer was speaking of music, but the same applies to all walks of life, whether it be career, sports, relationships or hobbies.  I’m watching The Brier (the national championship for men’s curling in Canada).  One of my favourite teams has had a poor year, losing many matches.  But they’ve got their old form back and are top of the standings now.  The difference?  Passion.  Even the broadcasters remark that the team is demonstrating the intensity that won them past championships.  They are exciting to watch.

 

Last week the clutter in my office reached the tipping point – literally. The pile on the desk tipped over into the pile on the chair which tipped into the pile on the floor.  I was trapped.  Unless I did some clearing out, I couldn’t get from the desk to the door.  It took a whole day and some tears as I sent old notes, cards and manuscripts to the recycle bin, but now when I walk to my desk, I’m energized by the clean surfaces and neatly stacked supplies. 

As part of the clear out, I examined old workshop notes. That brought a few tears too.  I remembered my naïve self heading off to those classes convinced I would learn the “magic” element that would turn me into a prolific, best-selling author. I’d come home from each session invigorated, eager, feeling on the cusp of something wonderful.

Time passed. I’m not a best-seller.  Realism has overtaken passion. The manuscripts are more polished, better structured.  The characters are more rounded. The prose is clear and fluent.  So, I’ve learned much in my years of writing, but I’ve also lost some of the passion.

How to get it back?  

Last week I talked about learning something new. That’s a good step. 

Reading a good book is another. My tablet is full of new e-books, my bedside table has a stack of TBR titles, but so much of that reading feels like work. I’m studying my craft.  For a change of pace I returned to an old favourite.  Joy coloured my reading time. I remembered that, as an author, I wanted to give that kind of joy to my readers.  The passion is stirring.

Make new friends. There is nothing so wonderful as an old friend, but a new friend can stir up  the soul. It’s kind of like going out on a blind date. So much to discover.  Will she become a soul-mate or turn out to be a dud?  I don’t know, but the journey promises excitement.  I’ve joined the Pioneer Hearts group on facebook, where I’m meeting new people who share my passion for history.  I’m excited to chat with them.

In her iconic book on writing, bird by bird, Anne Lamott talks about the writing frame of mind. She points out that starting and abandoning numerous projects indicates a lack of passion for them.  She recommends that writers look to their core values and write from that place.  You probably aren’t even aware of your core values, they feel like universal truths that no one has ever not known.  But it is the job of the writer to explore those truths, to lay them out for the world to see, to dissect them and put them back together again.  A writer’s passion lies in telling her truth.

I’ve made a start on all of the above. Now, I’m going to do some of the exercises from those old workshops.  After all, in my office clean up I unearthed coloured pencils, index cards and a variety of charts. I’m already smiling in anticipation. The exercises won’t create passion in the work, but they may put me in the frame of mind where passion happens.

Anyone else like to share some tips on how to keep the passion alive in your writing when you feel jaded with the whole thing? Please share.

Benefits of Learning New Things

 

In the last issue or RWR® Holly Jacobs reported on her return to school and taking ceramics. She liked it.  It improved her writing. It improved her life. Her story is only one of many describing the benefits of life-long learning.

Google “try new things” and you’ll get a raft of articles, some scientific, some opinion, some psychological and some medical.  From all of them, you’ll get encouragement to try something new.  Here’s a brief summary.

From a “happiness” perspective.

  • You grow as a person
  • You rejuvenate yourself.
  • You’ll become more adept at every day skills, saving time and reducing stress.
  • If you’re not learning something new you stagnate.
  • Learning something new improves your self-esteem.
  • You meet new people. As old friends drop away through life changes, it is essential to cultivate new friendships.
  • You become a more interesting person
  • You aren’t bored

From a scientific point of view.

  • Learning new things changes the white matter in your brain, improving performance.
  • The more you learn, the easier it becomes. By stimulating neurons in the brain, more neural pathways are formed and messages from one part of the brain to the other travel more quickly.
  • You make connections between different skill and knowledge areas. In other words, the more you learn, the more you learn. The more you exercise your brain, the better it works.
  • You adapt better to change. In our world where change is happening at an unprecedented rate, the ability to adapt is priceless.
  • You may decrease your chances of developing dementia, or, at the very least, slowing its progress.

Let’s look at these benefits as they apply to writers.

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron explores a number of ways writers can become more creative, productive, and happy. Among her chapters are:

  • Recovering a sense of Identity.

Surely learning new things plays into that sense of identity. You are not the person you where at 15 or 25 or even 55. You are a life-long learner, an interesting person.

  • Recovering a Sense of Power.    

Having more skills and information at your disposal must confer a sense of power.

  • Recovering a sense of Possibility.

Once you’ve mastered one new skill you are open to the possibility of learning another, and another. Your mind is open to new experiences, your senses are tuned to notice the world around you. With a sense of possibility, your writerly antennae are aquiver.

  • Recovering a Sense of Abundance.

With an ever expanding circle of friends, days filled with satisfaction of learning and striving, your creative well is filled—abundance.

  • Recovering a Sense of Connection.

Taking a class, joining a new group, reading outside your comfort level. All of these things connect you to the ever-changing world around you.

  • Recovering a Sense of Autonomy.

Fear is an unwelcome companion to many writers. It sits there on your shoulder whispering that “you’re not good enough. You can’t do this. You will fail.” By learning new skills, you whack Fear in the solar plexus. You have an A+ on your paper, or your musical composition or your woodworking project. Proof positive that you can. You are free to pursue your writing career without constantly worrying that you can’t.

I did a very small new thing this week. I downloaded the Libby app to my tablet in order to borrow electronic books from my local library. It worked! A miracle considering how many computer glitches I’ve encountered in the past month.

As a result, I feel empowered, connected, and my self-esteem has risen. Such an amazing lift to my spirits from a very small accomplishment.

Have a happy week. Go learn a new thing.

 

 

Opening Lines

Heading into my final round of editing this week. I’m very excited and scared to death at the same time.  This book, the third in the Prospect series, has been a long time in the incubator.  Now that it’s ready for publication, I want to get it “right.”

I’ve already made several passes through the ms on the computer, now I’ve printed it out for a final read. My twentieth century brain “sees” things on paper that it misses on a screen.

Aside from the usual eye out for typos and inconsistencies, like changing hair colour or a week with two Mondays, I want the story to engage the reader right from the start. I’ve been studying opening lines in my favourite books, reading advice columns and watching “flog a pro,” on Writer Unboxed.  Ray Rhamey  writes a regular feature on that blog where he quotes the opening paragraph or two of a best seller and asks readers if they’d turn the page.  It’s a fun game, but I’m often at odds with him.  Rhamey wants lots of tension and action in the opening lines.  I understand that.  It’s a great hook.  Yet, when I check out my favourite stories, they often begin slowly, setting the scene, hinting at a problem but not diving straight in on the first page.  Many books on my keeper shelf begin with dialogue, which may seem innocuous but speaks to character and motivation.

Advice for writers always emphasises the importance of the opening line. It should ask a story question, hint at the protagonist’s character, introduce the setting and exhibit the author’s “voice.”  All in ten words or less.

I think lots of writer advice books are geared to high-concept stories – thrillers, action novels, suspense; the type of book, that when turned into a movie, opens with a gun fight or a car chase.

Romantic movies usually start more gently. “You’ve Got Mail,” begins with a long sequence of shots setting the location in Seattle.  “Casablanca” starts with a map and ominous music while a voice over sets the scene.  In a book, that would be omniscient author. “Titanic” is a sepia scene of passengers waving from the deck of a cruise ship.  There are other examples, but you get the idea – no gun fights.

My book starts with setting, gold rush town in 1888. The heroine is excited about a new business venture.  She has risked her inheritance.  She has a sister.

There’s more, of course, but if we were to follow Ray Rhamey’s model, that is all you would get before he asked the question “would you turn the page?”

Over to you, dear readers. How do you like your opening lines in a romance?  Would you read the next line after this opening?

On a hot sunny morning Louisa Graham stood on the boardwalk of Prospect’s main street and pointed with pride to the brand new sign over the photography studio.  “What do you think?” She craved her sister’s approval.

Twists and Knots in Yarn

On Valentine’s Day is seems appropriate to talk about expressions of love–handmade love. As witnessed by the response to last week’s blog, quilters love their craft .  This week, let’s hear from the knitters and crocheters.

I’m more adept with needles and yarn than I am with needle and thread.  As usual the impetus for my projects is a baby in the family.  This little blanket is not much to look at, although I tried to dress it up with a picot border, but it is made of a yarn that babies love.  It is very, very soft and the little ones always reach for it when they want to snuggle down.

This was a more ambitious project and one of my favourites. I loved the soft texture of the yarn and warm cream colour.  I did not love sewing it all together!  Each square is made up of four little squares. I had eighty short seams, then twenty long seams to do, then a border.  By the time I finished I was vowing never to tackle that project again.

 

For the next project I used a technique where each little square is attached to the next little square as you go along! There is a term for this but I can’t remember what it is.  I’ve tried Google, but they only help when you can tell them what you’re looking for. J  Anyone here remember the name of this technique?

And while I’m on the subject of baby projects, here are a couple of crocheted blankets I made to welcome newborns to the family. The pattern is all printed on a grid so I had to get a magnifying light to read it.  Very easy to lose count of the stitches.  The one with the pig I did twice as the first effort was lost in a house fire.  I thought, if I could replace at least one of the items destroyed it might help to ease the family’s pain.

                   

Not all my projects are for babies. Here is an afghan I started to use up the leftovers in my stash.  My friend persuaded me to put it in the fair, where it won a “special mention.”  The judges loved the colours but noticed that I’d run out of yarn on one stripe and had to substitute another.  Just like with quilting, I like to use up my left over bits.

Anyone else want to share? I’d love to see pictures of your favourite projects.

Do you like to read about household arts in your favourite books? I enjoy weaving a bit about my hobbies into my books.  In “The Man for Her,” the heroine is adept with needle and thread.

And please, if you know the name of that technique for knitting one square onto another, please tell me.

Happy Valentine’s to all my readers.

 

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