Category: For Writers (page 1 of 8)

The Secret Sauce

What’s your secret sauce?

That was the question raised by Shannon Mayer at a workshop last weekend, sponsored by VIRA.  She compared writing a story to baking a cupcake.  Each needs the basics in the recipe, but the thing that sets one story (cupcake) apart from another is the author’s secret ingredient.

Some authors tickle the reader’s taste buds with humour, or snappy dialogue, or heroic characters, or memorable secondary characters. Others can trigger deep emotional responses in the reader with the authenticity of the emotion on the page.  The trick, says Ms Mayer, is to determine what your own special ingredient is, and then to include it in all your stories.  Readers will come to look for that favourite flavour in your writing and be loyal to you.  Leave out that secret spice and readers will be disappointed.

So, I’ve been thinking . . . who has that special recipe that draws me back over and over? Do I have a recipe of my own?  When I started writing historical romance, I discovered Maggie Osborne.  It seemed every idea I wrote about, she’d already done it – only better.  In some ways I was encouraged that I shared ideas with a writer of her stature.  In other ways I felt defeated because I could never write like her.

Then again, none of us can or should write like another. If we imitate, we are not authentic.  If we copy, we don’t discover our own tantalizing flavour.

So, what is my secret ingredient? Not sure I’ve nailed it yet, but one reader said my writing “feels happy.” Another said they are “sun-shiny.”  I think I’m getting a hint here.

It seems to me that many writing experts are pushing for grittier, more angsty work, so finding an audience for “happy” is not an easy path. Still, I believe there is enough angst and grit in our everyday world that we need some cheerfulness.

What about you, dear reader? Do you respond to dark and dangerous? Do you enjoy a vacation in a sunny tale? Have you found the secret ingredient from one of your favourite authors?

What Socrates Knew

For some bizarre reason I decided to use the end of summer to brush up on my philosophy reading. Don’t ask why!  I haven’t wanted to work outside because the temperature has been uncomfortably high.  Then we had smoke filled skies for a week—forest fires burning out of control in other parts of the province but a weather system that sent the smoke our way and kept it low to the ground.  In this atmosphere I picked up The Consequences of Ideas, Understanding concepts that shaped our world, by R.C. Sproul. The book had been on my TBR list for a while. I guess I thought some difficult reading would prove an antidote to bad air.

I vaguely remember the Locke-Descarte theory from philosophy 101, a required course for general arts students in my university days, but Sproul goes back centuries before those two great thinkers. In the 5th and 6th Centuries B.C., Pythagoras, the mathematician,  Heraclitus, Parmenides, Zeno of Elea, Anaxagoras, were all creating systems of thought to explain reality, the universe, cosmos, man’s purpose, and God, among other concepts.

I didn’t recognize most of these names, but it was interesting to read of ideas we now take for granted, universe, for example, before they were universally accepted. That, of course is the point of the whole book—to show how one idea, or philosophy, leads to another and how each is built on the ideas of those who came before.

By the time I reached the chapter on Socrates, I felt I was coming into familiar territory. We’ve all heard of the Socratic method of teaching.  However, before I could read about good old Socrates, the author introduced me to Gorgias, a radical skeptic.  If you thought skepticism was a modern concept, remember that Gorgias was born 500 years before Christ.  Gorgias declared that there is no truth. He practiced rhetoric, the art of persuasion in public discourse.  Rhetoric was not to proclaim truth, but to use persuasion to achieve practical ends, regardless of truth.  To some degree, he could be seen as the forerunner to advertising.

Enter Socrates. He abhorred Gorgias theory. Truth could not, should not, would not be denied. The death of truth, said Socrates, would mean the death of virtue, and the death of virtue would spell the death of civilization. Without truth and virtue the only possible outcome is barbarianism.

Aha! This is why I took up a philosophy book decades after it was required reading.

Truth.

We cannot live in a civil society, with all its benefits, if we do not acknowledge truth. As writers, I believe, we must speak truth.  Even if we write fiction, we must acknowledge the underlying truths of the world we build.  In my fiction, the laws of gravity exist, time exists, history exists, two plus two equals four.  For writers of fantasy, those things may be different, but once the fantasy world is set, it too operates by its truth.

Some fiction writers like to joke that they tell lies for a living, but a falsehood is not the same as fiction. When we write creatively, the reader knows the story is an invention. She has agreed to suspend disbelief for the duration of the narrative. There is no attempt to hoodwink the reader into believing what she reads is factual.

A falsehood on the other hand, is a deliberate attempt to mislead, to convince the audience that something that is not true, is true.

For the skeptics and cynics among us, Gorgias may be hailed as a hero. For me, I’ll stick with Socrates.  We dare not deny truth.

 

“Stuff Happens”

Kathleen McCleary at the Writer Unboxed blog posted last week about an American survey that shows the books we read as children remain the best loved books of most adult readers.

I can understand that. In my post on The Book that Matters most, I noted that the people in my book club referenced books of their youth as being the most influential stories they had read. Granted, my book club is a small sample, but it reflects the much larger sample cited in Ms McCleary’s post.

McCleary believes the reason we love our childhood books is because “stuff happens.” Compare Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with Waiting for Godot, and the thesis becomes clear. Alice encounters all kinds of “stuff happening,” as she journeys through the rabbit hole.  Nothing happens at the bus stop while Didi and Gogo wait for Godot to show up.  I remember the first time I saw the play. I was outraged that I’d sat through it all listening to these characters speculate on the state of the absent Godot and a few other non-sequiturs and then have them amble off-stage.  The play was over and nothing happened! Academe considers Waiting for Godot one of the most significant English language plays of the twentieth century, but it doesn’t show up on many “I loved this story” lists.

I like “stuff happens” as a plotting device. An author can outline her story as the inciting incident and then this happens and then this and then this and then this . . . until “they all lived happily every after.”  It not nearly so elegant a device as Deb Dixon’s Goal, Motivation, Conflict, or Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey but it keeps the importance of action in the forefront of the writer’s mind.

We don’t all write adventure stories or grand operas, but action is important in any good story. Even books which focus on character development and a journey of self-discovery need action to hold the reader’s attention and give the character a framework to make that journey.

I’ve never used the “and then. . .” method as a writing aid, but whenever I’m stuck, I ask myself, “What will make the reader turn the page?” The answer to that question is usually, “something happens.”  And then, something else happens.

What about you, dear reader? How important is “stuff happens” in your reading choices?  Can you wait for Godot and engage in philosophical discussion or would your rather encounter a March hare? Do books you read when young still resonate?

Mingling Fact and Fiction

While thumbing through the just returned books at the library I stumbled upon The Lost Diaries of Susanna Moodie, by Cecily Ross. Proof of my theory that the best library books are the ones someone else chose.  I snapped up “The Diaries” and was soon immersed in the world of Britain and Canada of the mid-nineteenth century.

Susanna Moodie is best known to every Canadian school child for her most important work “Roughing it in the Bush,” the biographical tale of a genteel Englishwoman trying to stay alive in the Canadian wilderness. Susanna and her husband, John Moodie, are truly babes in the woods.  Neither has any idea of the physical aspects of clearing land and farming.  John Moodie in particular, a half-pay officer from the British Army, is entirely unsuited to the life they have chosen.  He emigrated with dreams of living on a country estate with others to do the manual, back-breaking work of carving a farm out of the bush.

I remember first reading Roughing it in the Bush, as a child and marvelling at how mis-informed or wilfully ignorant the British upper classes were about homesteading. As a farm-girl, I knew the long hours, hard work, knowledge and skill required to turn forest bottom into fertile hay fields. I knew that livestock had to be tended every day, fed and watered regardless of the weather or the farmer’s personal agenda. John Moodie had none of those attributes. He was a jovial fellow, convinced that wealth in the New World would fall into his hands.  In truth, he and his family would have starved to death in their first winter had not the local First Nations tribe provided them with food.

The Lost Diaries of Susanna Moodie is a work of fiction, as the author makes plain, but it is based on real characters. The facts of their lives are well-known from previous research and from Susanna’s letters and literary writings as well as from accounts in the local newspapers and official documents. 

This is one of those instances when fact and fiction mingle to make an entertaining tale while keeping the historical record intact. From reading her own works, I know that Susanna was a pessimist and John and eternal optimist. I know he was a poor business man.  I know that Susanna made enough money from her writing to keep them going – barely.  What the author has done is write of Susanna’s thoughts and emotions — that turns the historical character into a multi-dimensional woman, thus bringing history alive for a modern reader.  It’s a fine line to tread. One I’m cautious of in my own work. Too much fiction, and the author distorts history.  Not enough fiction, and many readers turn away from an instructive discourse rated as too dull. In my view, Cecily Ross has struck the right balance. And I have a new empathy for Susanna Moodie, daughter, sister, mother, wife and writer, who struggled mightily to maintain her “self” in an age that considered her an appendage of her husband.

Secondary Characters

Could Mrs. Ralston look like this?

“Mrs. Royston, Emma’s busybody `heart of gold’ landlady, snobbish Mrs. Allen, and Grey’s very surprising mother Lady North are only a few of the plethora of engaging secondary characters that were sprinkled throughout as well as noteworthy in adding a great deal of substance to this very entertaining story.” – Marilyn Rondeau, review of Her One and Only, the second of the Prospect Series.

 

I’m glad Ms Rondeau enjoyed the secondary characters in my book. I’ve always enjoyed writing them and find it easy to create these “colourful” personalities.  In fact, I don’t really create them.  They just come on the scene complete in themselves.  I wish I understood the alchemy that produces them.  I wish my main characters would appear as effortlessly! 

The town of Prospect is peopled with all kinds, from oddballs to pillars of the community , but I’ve developed only a few of them.  Just as too many cooks spoil the broth, I believe too many characters spoil the story. My current reading includes such a huge cast their introduction takes up the first sixty pages of the book—yet nothing about the plot is to be found in those pages. I’m confused as to who is who and why I should care.  The book is part of a long series, so I suppose the author thinks she needs to bring new readers up to speed on everyone from the previous books, but it gets tedious. In my case, I’ve used four or five characters to provide a flavour of the time and place and not burdened the reader with a long list of who’s who.

Secondary characters have a specific role in the story, like mentor, busybody, joker, side-kick, but they should never be caricatures. My Mrs. Barclay, for example, is a “butinsky”, but she is also kind. She manages her husband but is quick to obey when he puts his foot down. I use her voluble nature to deliver necessary information to the reader, but in an entertaining way.  Mrs. Barclay is never one to sermonize. She has a stern sense of what is right, yet compassion may overcome her principles. Altogether she is a complex and memorable character – and she grew organically as the stories of Prospect unfolded.

When it comes to my main characters, the process is not so easy. I create character charts, do character interviews, work up a goal-motivation-conflict graph, poke away in their backstory, search for their dreams and fears. and secrets.  The process is hard work and I’m never as satisfied with the final version as I am with the secondary character who just walks on-stage.  Why?  If Mrs. Barclay can come rollicking into the story and make us laugh, why does Emma take so much careful planning?

I think the answer lies in that last sentence. By the time Mrs. Barclay—or any other secondary character—shows up, the story is already unfolding.  These bit roles flesh out the time and place, amplify the main characters and maybe provide a bit of comic relief from the intense emotions of the love story. The hero/heroine have to start the story, have to overcome inertia to get the wheels rolling.  Their goals are what propels the plot.  Their dreams are what makes the reader care. Their conflict, internal and external, details the theme of the book.  If I want to make the reader agree that ‘love conquers all’ I show that through the h/h.  They are the driving force.  The secondary characters are just along for the ride.

That said, I love my bit players. I can let them be outrageous and not worry if the reader will dislike them. I can make them timid without worrying that timidity is not an heroic characteristic. I can make them truly annoying and be happy if the reader dislikes them.  I think I like my secondary characters because they let me play.  H/h, whatever their personalities, require that the author obey the expectations of the genre.

Look for more of Mrs. Barclay in the upcoming novella, A Chance for Love. Oh yes, there’s a new character in Prospect, a mule named Bartholemew.

Over to you.  What are your thoughts on secondary characters?

Ripping Back

It’s summer time and the weather is hot and dry. I decided I wanted a new dress.  I found a cool fabric and a pattern.  Took extra care to fit the paper pattern, cut out the dress and sewed it up.  All was well.  I’d have a new dress for Sunday.  Except, the neck facing didn’t sit down properly.  I unpicked the seam, worked the curve again, pinned it, re-stitched – same problem.  Repeated this process several times with the same, unsatisfactory results. ( I know.  Repeating the same actions over and over and expecting a different outcome is a sign of madness.)  Before I ended up putting a hole in the fabric I put the whole thing away and cleaned my closet instead.

Eventually, I looked at the problem again and realized my error occurred several steps before the facing. No matter how much I tweaked that final seam, it wouldn’t come right until I ripped back to the source of the mistake.  Ugh!  I hate ripping out, but I want this new dress and I want it to look good, so rip I did.

The whole process is a bit like editing. I had gotten stuck in my wip – maybe that’s why I decided to sew instead. When I couldn’t avoid the keyboard any longer, I cogitated on the source of my problem and realized I needed to go back.  Tweaking the last sentence, playing with the last paragraph, substituting words and synonyms was not going to get me unstuck. The error was structural.  I needed to shore up the foundations of the story.  My “cute” idea was not enough to carry a whole book.  Fortunately, re-writes on a computer aren’t as arduous as ripping out a seam.  I can fill in the blanks, add pages of new conflict and flesh out my character motivations without hours of labourious unpicking.

So, there I am, on track with the dress and the story. It’s a good week.

A Painful Lesson

This week I’ve been given the opportunity to experience what it is like to count the minutes until your next dose of pain medication. Complications from a dental procedure left me with a swollen face and an aching jaw that sent me to emergency over the weekend.  For two days I literally counted the minutes, day and night, until my next set of pills.  Of course, my pain was no where near that experienced by cancer patients or trauma patients, but I now know a little of how it feels when pain rules every moment of your day. Perhaps I can use that in a story some time.

Some writers will tell you that they use writing to get through the bad times. Not me.  I couldn’t put myself into an imaginary world when the real one demanded so much attention.  However, I could read.  I’m so grateful to authors who tell stories that, even for a little while, distracted me from my aching jaw.

And on that note, here’s a link that may interest you.

It’s a Book!

Getting the notice, “your book is live” from Amazon is a thrill.  Holding the paperback book in your hand makes it real.  Today I got my author copies.  Picked them up at the mailbox, walked home with the box in my hand then ripped into it to reveal —  A Book!

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.

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