Category: For Writers (page 1 of 7)

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?

Tools for Writers

    This week I discovered a new-to-me writing resource. It is called The Emotional Wound Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.

The author’s discuss the character’s development from the point of view of an emotional wound that occurred before the character ever appeared in your story.

The fact that people are shaped by their life experiences is not news but I like the approach taken in this book.  There are a few chapters discussing what an emotional wound is and how we all carry them with us for life.  The authors even warn aspiring writers to be aware of how delving into another’s wound may trigger a reaction in themselves. There is a chapter discussing how to brainstorm a character’s wound and another suggesting how various wounds may result in specific behaviours.

For anyone with a passing knowledge of psychology 101, there isn’t anything earth-shattering here, but the authors have geared their book toward helping writers and for me, that makes it particularly useful.  I already had a sense of my character, — name, age, physical attributes, goals – but I didn’t feel I knew her as well as I needed to.  Using the suggestions in The Emotional Wound Thesaurus, I began to dig deeper.  Why was my character a stickler for the rules?  Why had she emigrated to Canada?  What did she want besides the obvious, a home and a job?

While I pondered those questions, I read through the list of suggestions in the thesaurus and found several that sparked a plot idea.  So, without even applying the techniques described, the book had already helped me.

The “wounds” are arranged in categories, e.g. Crime and Victimization, or Failures and Mistakes.  Within each of these larger categories are individual possibilities.  For failures and mistakes, the list includes accidentally killing someone, or failing at school, or caving to peer pressure, to name a few.  My heroine had none of those burdens to bear but I could see her “failing to do the right thing” and/or “using poor judgement leading to unintended consequences.”

If you like charts and graphs, the book includes appendices with “a wound flowchart,” “a character arc progression tool,” and a “backstory wound profile tool.”  I generally panic when confronted with flow charts and the like, so I may not use these tools, but I’ll have a look around, just in case there’s a surprise.

This book is one of a series of  “Thesauruses” for writers.  Or is that “Thesauri?”  There is also a website Writers Helping Writers with loads of information and links to all kinds of other tools.  I’m really glad I found this resource.  Hope it’s helpful to you, too.

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.”

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.

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