Category: For Readers (page 1 of 8)

World Building

We celebrated Victoria Day in my part of the world, which meant a long weekend. I took that as permission to forget about chores for three days.  We went off to our favourite holiday spot and walked the beach, ate food that someone else had prepared, and read books until late into the night.  What a treat.

The first one I read was a real page turner. It combined elements of mystery, history and romance to take me into a world of glitz and glamour far beyond my own experience. In retrospect, the plot was improbable and there was a fair bit of friendly coincidence in the action.  But those weaknesses didn’t matter because the story and the characters hooked me in from the first line – a break-in where something spectacular is discovered. 

The author doesn’t tell me what so, I turn the page to find out.  Only now I’m in a different place, a different time and a very different mood, a family reunion, full of memories and nostalgia – and a dreadful foreshadowing.  It isn’t until the third chapter that the main action of the story gets going.

If I were to apply many of the “how-to” criteria for how to write a book, this one would fail. And yet, it was a great book.  How could the author break so many “rules” and still come up with a best seller?

I think her use of language to build a story world deserves a large part of the credit.  The book is thick with descriptive passages –a no-no in writing classes – yet the descriptions impart so much emotion, they aren’t the bits one wants to skip.  The settings convey fear, or anger, or sorrow or longing with such intensity they draw the reader deeper into the story.  Even when I closed the book to go for a walk, the mood of the thing stayed with me.  The author succeeded brilliantly at drawing me into her imaginary world and making me care about it. That’s the other key element.  I cared about what happened in this world.

The other book, was short, a straightforward “who dunnit.”  It was a classic goal/motivation/conflict story, yet it failed to capture me. Why? Because the story-world didn’t draw me in.  I know the action took place on a university campus because the author said so, but I couldn’t imagine myself walking the tree-lined paths of that campus.  In fact, I don’t know if it had tree-line paths, or dirt tracks or grassy boulevards.  Those details of setting were not on the page.  I didn’t encounter hoards of students rushing to class.  There were no bikes overflowing the bike stand and shackled to trees.  There was a library, but I’ve no idea if it was a nineteenth century cathedral to learning or a modern stone and glass monolith with banks of computers instead of bookshelves.

The characters had names and personality quirks, yet still felt interchangeable. i.e. pick one quirk: apply to a character: add a name.  These people didn’t come alive to me, they did not haunt my imagination and they certainly didn’t stay with me as I packed my suitcase.  The most serious character failing, in my mind, was the protagonist.  He is a male, yet his actions and thoughts all felt feminine to me.  Also, contrary to every writer’s advice book, each chapter ended with him going to sleep. A great excuse for the reader to do the same.

Both books were published by one of the big five publishing houses.

World building is a much studied aspect of fantasy/paranormal novels but those who write contemporary works are often chided about wasting words on description. Jack Bickham even has a whole chapter titled “Don’t Describe Sunsets” in his classic The Thirty-Eight Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (and how to avoid them.)

In the first book I read the author described sunsets over the Mediterranean, inky black nights in Paris and a perfect summer day in rural England.  She made me want to go there.  Made me want to experience an impossibly beautiful sunset, always just out of reach, always pulling me on one more step, one more page, one more hour.

I didn’t do any work on my own writing over the holiday weekend, but, as a writer, I never really stop thinking about writing. What makes it good? Why does it fall flat?  Learning those lessons in story is more fun than reading about them on the “help for writers” shelf.

What about you? Have you read a good book lately? One that grabs your imagination, pulls you into its fearful and complicated story-world and won’t let you go until you get to ‘the end?”  How did the author do that?  Did she use description and setting? Unforgettable characters? Non-stop action? In other words, what do you look for in a good book?

Books that Matter

My book club recently read a book titled, The Book That Matters Most, by Ann Hood.  The book tells the story of people in a book club where a year’s reading was chosen from the “book that mattered most” to each member of the group.  

I won’t go into detail of the book, but I will say that in my book group, we were all struck by the title, “the book that matters most,” and had a really fun evening discussing the books that have been most meaningful in our lives.

Of course, I put the Bible, at the top of the list. The Word of God has transformed millions, even billions of lives over time and shaped much of Western thought.

But leaving aside the Bible, we played with the notion of books that mattered. For many of us, it was childhood books., those tattered volumes that taught us to love reading.  For me I’d say Mother West Wind Why Stories, by Thornton W. Burgess. Burgess was a conservationist who wrote about the natural world, particularly animals, for children. This site lists his work totalling 172 books. My mother had read many of the books aloud as bedtime stories. My brothers and I knew all about Sammy Jay and Unc Billy Possom, and Grandfather Frog, and Reddy Fox, and Blackie the Crow. By the time we reached Mother West Wind our family was growing and Mom was short of time. It was also a period when I was learning to read for myself.

In school we had Dick and Jane books. If ever there was a series designed to discourage reading, that was it. How boring is “Look, look. See Dick. See Dick run?” Using those texts, I’d learned to read words, but Mother West Wind was the first time I read a story for myself.

Another of our book club named Anne of Green Gables as a seminal book for her. The reason? Her teacher read it aloud to the class. My friend’s home was different from mine – no one read bedtime stories. So, for her, hearing a book read aloud left a lasting impression.

Our group had a lively time calling up Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, Cherry Ames and Little Women as favourites from childhood. One woman mentioned Catcher in the Rye, a book that was included in Ms Hood’s novel. My friend read the book as a teenager and found it “perfect” for the time.

As an adult, I discovered Georgette Heyer while travelling through non-English speaking countries. When I found Frederica in a book store, I had to buy it. It was my first experience of Regency Romance and opened a whole new world of books to me.

My book club had a delightful evening. I won’t expand on our discussion of The Book that Matters Most, you can read it for yourself and form your own conclusions,  but we all agreed that the title was a great conversation starter and proved that books matter.

How about you? What book matters most in your reading life? Leave a comment and I’ll enter you in a draw to win an advance copy of my not yet published book, Her One True LoveTwo winners to be announced May 2, 2018.

 

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.

 

 

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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