Category: Writing life (page 1 of 6)

Beginnings

This weekend I attended a meeting of my local romance authors group, where the workshop topic was “Brilliant Beginnings,” as presented by Vanessa Grant. We talked about hooks, and power words, and story questions, and tone, and sensory input and dialogue.  Everyone could agree on the importance to those qualities.  We also suggested a hint of the conflict should be present and something of the main character’s personality or background.  Quite a lot to pack into a few opening sentences, but we blithely agreed it could all be done.

Then we broke into groups to analyse the openings of several well-known authors and couldn’t agree on anything! In my group, I found the opening lines of Kristan Higgins’ novel, A Perfect Match, made me laugh.  I definitely wanted to read more.  Others in my same small group complained about a lack of conflict, not enough sensory detail and lack of story question.  When other groups reported in, there was a similar difference of opinion.

I was delighted to find disagreement.

I have maintained for some time that the axiom, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” applies to writing too. Readers have individual tastes, as do writers.  I may find a book that includes a character hooked on x-stitch intriguing while someone else may dismiss it as too old fashioned.  Some readers like lots of explicit sex, others, like me, prefer to close the bedroom door.  There is no one-size fits all.

This is not to say that studying writing, learning the techniques of successful authors, and  practicing the craft is pointless.  Those exercises are extremely valuable.  For by studying, learning and practicing an author can find her own style, her own set of “rules” and the readers who respond.  But as one who finds rules or templates hard to follow, I’m always seeking vindication.  Those who lecture on “this is how it’s done,” scare me.  I’ve tried to force myself into someone else’s shoes and my muse dried up completely.

So, I say “amen” to a difference of opinion.

What about you, dear readers? Want to play the opening lines game?  Here’s a few examples of my favourites.  Feel free to disagree.

“A fox got in amongst the hens last night, and ravished our best layer,” remarked Miss Lanyon. “A great-grandmother, too!  You’d think he would be ashamed!”  Venetia by Georgette Heyer

1801—I have just returned from a visit to my landlord—the solitary neighbour that I shall be troubled with. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

As Clara Morrow approached,  she wondered  if he’d  repeat the  same small gesture  he’d done every morning. 

It was so tiny, so insignificant. So easy to ignore.  The first time. The Long Way Home by Louise Penny

I live with my father, Ray Nickel, in that low brick bungalow out on highway number twelve. Blue shutters, brown door, one shattered window.  Nothing great.  The furniture keeps disappearing, though.  That keeps things interesting.  A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews

My house stands at the edge of the earth. the birth house by Ami McKay

 Maggie Ann Keaton swung shut the wrought-iron gates of her new home and secured the chain and padlock, giving them a hard tug to make sure they held, and hung a “No Admittance,” sign just for good measure. Love and Lilacs by Mary Alice Valdal

“I can’t believe we’re arguing about a waterbuffalo.” Annie Rush reached for her husband’s shirt collar, turning it neatly down. Family Tree by Susan Wiggs

Fear churned in Allie Tillman’s nervous stomach, like a butter paddle in a jar of thick cream. Bobbins and Boots by Shanna Hatfield.

Share your thoughts in the comments section and be entered to win a free e-copy of The Man Who Hated Christmas.  Winner announced Nov. 1, 2017.

If you enjoy dissecting the openings to books, the blog Writer Unboxed runs a regular feature called Flog a Pro.  Enjoy!

The Wisdom of Susan Wiggs

 

On a rainy Saturday, I attended a workshop given by Susan Wiggs and sponsored by my local authors group, VIRA. Wonderful way to spend a gloomy day. 

Being in a roomful of writers is a bit like going into the sunshine.  This group is positive, upbeat and cheerful – most of the time.  The workshop was no exception.  The room buzzed with energy and “reunion” conversations between Susan’s lessons.  While she spoke about her writing journey, you could almost hear the wheels turning as each writer present took in the information and considered how or if a similar strategy might be useful in her own path to publication.  I say “her” because it was an all female event, by accident, not be design.  Then again, the “femaleness” of the day may have contributed to the ambiance.  I’ve nothing against men, I’m quite fond of many of them, but a gathering of only women does have a certain vibe not present at mixed events.  I’m sure all-male events could say the same thing, although the vibe would be different.

Anyway, back to the workshop. Our group had send a list of topics we’d like to hear about.  I expected Susan to pick one or two.  Instead, she tried to touch on the entire writing journey from newbie to old pro and from idea to finished product.  A jam-packed day to say the least. 

Although time was limited, she did give us a few minutes to write down our three writing gurus, three essential writing tools and three writing triggers. Sadly, there wasn’t time to share, but even thinking about my own answers helped me to see a pattern in my process.  If I can exploit that pattern, perhaps I can increase my productivity and my craft.

One of my triggers is a clean slate.” That means a clean house, a clean desk, and a mind free of “musts” and “shoulds.”  For someone who procrastinates endlessly about housework, this creates a problem.  I have a cousin who sews and says she can’t work unless her sewing room is spotless and organized.  So long as I can find the sewing machine, I’m good to go.  Unhappily, I can’t apply that technique to writing.  Perhaps that’s why my second trigger is a coffee shop.

I believe the reason I escape to a coffee shop to write is because it provides that “clean slate” for me.  If there’s a streak on the window, it’s not my problem.  If the used cups are piling up in the bin, it’s not my problem.  If the lawn is a muddy mess, it’s not my problem.  At the coffee shop, the only requirement for me, is that I write.  Having coffee and chocolate for fuel doesn’t hurt. 🙂

My third trigger is research. I love to poke around in the library, the internet and newspaper archives for arcane bits of information.  Sometimes the research answers a question in my ms, sometimes it sends me down a whole new path.  I’d add a caveat to the research trigger though.  Be careful that it doesn’t take the place of writing.  Scholars have spent lifetimes on research.  A writer of commercial fiction can’t afford that luxury.  I try to make sure my research is focussed and doesn’t take me into a rabbit warren of facts that detract from the prime task of writing.

I’d love to hear from other artistic types. What triggers your creativity?  Can you work in a hurricane?  Can you balance your laptop on top of a to-do list and still make progress?

Leave a comment and get your name in the draw for a free copy of my Christmas short story anthology, The Man Who Hated Christmas.

Where Do Ideas Come From?

At some point in her career, every writer is asked “where do you get your ideas?” There are many answers, but I found a source for new story ideas at a concert at the Butchart Gardens last week.  One of the blessings of living in my part of the world is the live music hosted at the Gardens every night in the summer, or as one entertainer put it, “the best smelling concert venue in all of Canada.”  On this particular night, I heard Tiller’s Folly.  They are a B.C trio that now bills itself as “acoustic roots music.”

I went to hear them because I like Celtic music and that is part of their repertoire, but I heard much more than that. I got a lesson on Canadian and, more specifically, British Columbian history.  Tales of rum runners, and ghosts and explorers, and whales and miners and lumberjacks.

This group has done its research and brought history alive through story and song. I’m pleased to report they visit schools in our province so children are learning the history behind the names on streets, and mountain tops and waterways.

As a writer of historical romance, I was inspired. They told no tales of women on the pirate ships, but what if there were?  What if a woman joined a river exploration?  What if a woman tended a lighthouse?

If you are a writer, stuck for an idea, I’d suggest you listen to, or read the lyrics, of folk singers, or country and western singers, or opera singers. The music is full of tales of derring-do, of battles won and lost, of mighty men and inspiring women.  Sometimes they tell of small things, of a man and a woman and how they find love, of a family that loses its way, of a dream lost and found.

So, next time I’m stuck for a story idea, I’ll look up some songs by Tiller’s Folly. I’m sure I’ll be inspired.

Transition

My personal life is in transition right now, and it’s making me a bit grumpy. Of course, life is always evolving, always changing, but some changes , like marriage, or a new baby, or a disaster, or a lottery win, are more immediate and more disruptive than others.

As an author, I find change, especially big, unexpected change, fodder for the imagination. Many books on writing recommend “begin at the moment of change.”  And when I think about it, I believe I’ve read a number of books that begin with a marriage, or a new baby, or a disaster, or a windfall of fortune.  They’re great stories, that yank the reader into the lives of the characters with the first sentence.  The rest of the book explores the ramifications of that big change at the beginning, and follows the protagonist through the adjustments she makes until she emerges at the end of the story with a new normal.  If it’s a romance, that new normal results in happily-ever-after.

The book I’m reading right now concerns an orphan in the mid-twentieth century. Talk about transitions!  Each family she lives with wants to change her.  They don’t like her hair, they don’t like her speech, the don’t like her name.  During the course of her life her name is changed several times, merely to satisfy the sensibilities of others.

Classics, like Pride and Prejudice, begin with change – a newcomer to the district. Mysteries often start with a murder, a major transition if ever there was one.  Regencies frequently begin with a young woman becoming an orphan, cast on the good graces (or not) of her relatives.  A friend of mine is writing a story that begins with a jilting.  Runaway Bride, starring Julia Roberts used that premise as well.  In my book, The Man for Her, the story opens with the appearance of a man the heroine thought was dead.

Some transitions are less traumatic – a holiday, beginning university, starting a first job – but even such “tame” changes can generate a spellbinding story. Alice Munro, in her short story, “Runaway” begins with a neighbour returning from a holiday.  Such a small change, yet it triggers a whole chain of events that change the heroine’s life..

The change in my life is not earth-shattering or traumatic, it’s merely unsettling. But, as an author, I have the opportunity to experience first-hand the emotional effect of a life changing event.  This is why writers keep journals.  Not only does a journal give me place to store ideas, impressions and insights, it gives me a safe place to write out my grumpiness so I can get on with enjoying my life, and all the changes that mark our days.

So, here’s to change — may it keep us involved and growing and learning.

Fantasy Anyone?

Recently I joined an eclectic group of writers.  We call ourselves a critique group but there’s not that much critiquing going on.  There is a lot of chat about the industry, marketing, punctuation, especially commas, grammar, and grandchildren.   This is the same group that put together “Dreams and Promises,” to celebrate Canada 150.  We write historical romance, contemporary romance, suspense, fantasy and “whimsy.”  One of our group, LizAnn Carson, has just released a fantasy trilogy called Aura Weavers.  The three books are, The Healer, The Bard, and The Scribe.

As someone who relies on historical fact to provide the framework for my stories, I’m in awe of fantasy writers and their imagination.  The task of creating a whole world with its own rules — is there gravity?  are there cars and roads?  are there schools as we know them? what is the social order? government? history?– is daunting.  Authors are often accused of living in a world of their own, but LizAnn has managed to put borders and rules in her fictional world and has sent it out into the world for others to enjoy.

If you want to give gentle fantasy a try, you can find her stories here.

Now, I’m going back to my own world where cars run on roads, the law of gravity is in effect and history still serves up the best stories.  Right now, I’m celebrating Christmas in the Rockies in the late nineteenth century.  Can I conjure up snow and freezing fingers while the sun shines outside my window, the thermometer reads 23 degrees Celsius and a golden eagle soars over the hayfield next door?

Ah, the power of imagination!

 

 

Voice

I had an object lesson in “voice” over the weekend. For nearly ten years I’ve been friends with a writer from Australia.  We began as partners in an on-line writing course.  When the course ended, we decided to keep in touch, so every Monday we exchange our news, mainly writing, but also family, pets, church, and current events.  This weekend we had a chance to meet in person.  Imagine my surprise when she spoke with an Australian accent.

You see, when I read her words on my computer screen, she sounds just like me.

After the initial shock, I laughed at myself for not “hearing” that accent in her written words. And that got me thinking about “voice.”

Donald Maass defines voice as “a unique way of putting words together, . . . a distinctive way of looking at the world…” Certainly, my friend has a unique way of looking at the world and of putting her thoughts into words, but in our interconnected, on-line world, what used to be regional differences are disappearing.  “Brilliant,” that I first heard as an English or Australian exclamation, in now nearly universal in English speaking countries.  One word she uses that does sound strange to my ear is “uni.”  In Canada we go to university.  In Australia, the kids are off to uni. But one word is hardly enough to convey an accent.

Of course, this discussion of voice is about the author’s voice. Each character in a story should also have a distinctive voice.  Now, if I tried to mimic my friend’s speech in writing, I’d be softening consonants, elongating vowels and moving the accents around on words like Melbourne and dropping whole syllables on others, e.g. barbie for barbeque.

Yet trying to write an accent on paper is fraught with hazards. Jack Bickham, in The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (and how to avoid them) has a whole chapter titled, “Don’t Mangle Characters’ Speech.”  Trying to convey a Scottish burr or a Cockney inflection results in unreadable misspellings that are more apt to annoy the reader than draw her into the story.  More importantly, they may insult some minorities and date your book to yesteryear.

So how do you convey that a character has an accent not shared by other characters in your story?

Let them tell us.  A POV character might comment on someone else’s southern drawl, or tony Oxbridge vowels. 

Use word order and word choice.  A rancher from Texas will use different idioms than a banker in Edinburgh.  And, for the record, not all Canadians end their sentences with “eh,” but it’s fun to through it in when we’re on a patriotic rant.

So, why was I startled by my friend’s accent? Perhaps because we’ve been exchanging letters for so long I’d forgotten how far away she lived.  Perhaps because both our countries are part of the British Commonwealth and we share a common cultural background, or maybe I tend to see (and hear) the world through my own experience.  In any case, I had a lovely time and I’m truly thankful to modern technology for letting me develop a friendship on the opposite side of the world. 

Homecoming

I’m just home from a trip to Newfoundland.  I’ve long wanted to visit Canada’s most easterly province.  At one time I naively thought I could “do” the Maritimes all in one sweep.  Once I got my geography straight, I realized that our oldest settlement (St. John’s,  1583) and newest province warranted a trip all by itself.  For the purists among you, Newfoundland joined Confederation in 1949, as Canada’s tenth province.  Nunavut, created in 1999 is a territory.

The island is nicknamed “The Rock,” and I certainly learned why during our 3000 km journey. Rocks and trees and lakes, for miles and miles and miles, although in NL they use the word pond.  Only a couple of very large inland bodies of water got the lake designation.  Oddly, once I’d adjusted my West Coast expectations, the landscape began to feel familiar.  I grew up on the Canadian Shield in Northern Ontario, so  Precambrian rock and glaciations are home turf for me.  I felt at ease in this wilderness.

We journeyed to L’Anse aux Meadows, away at the northern most tip of the island, to see the remains of the Viking village that was established there five hundred years before Columbus “sailed the ocean blue.”  Here we learned that some vegetation like Lingonberries (Partridge berries in Newfoundland vernacular) were also found in Norway.  The area also contains bog iron, a necessary ingredient for forging, and a staple in the Norse culture.  Those adventurous seafarers chose to build a village in a place that reminded them of home.

 

One of the most striking features of Newfoundland culture, is the people’s attachment to their homeland.  Economic hard times have meant droves of Newfoundlanders have had to leave home in search of work, but no matter where they find themselves in the world, their deep desire is to return to “the Rock.”

For myself, I enjoyed my explorations, but I felt a lift of the heart when I started for home. I craved the comfort and ease and familiarity of my own place and my own things and my own people.

 

As writers, we can use that longing for home to give our readers an uplifting journey that, takes them to new places, excites them, frightens them, teaches them, and eventually brings them home with a smile. We can instil that sense of familiarity and safety with the author’s voice, the type of story, and the core truth of our tales. 

When a reader picks up a book by Alice Valdal, she has certain expectations.  It’s my job to make sure those expectations are met.  When the same reader delves into a novel by Cora Seton, the expectations are different, and Ms Seton must work hard to satisfy her reader, too.

  Readers love to venture into new places, new situations, different times, but, I believe, they want to come home safely at the end.  That desire is a powerful tool for the writer.  Use it wisely, make your readers happy, and watch your sales grow.

Down Time

 

We’ve had a long weekend where I live so I took some time for rest and recreation. These photos will show just how restful the days were.

 

 

Then it was time to plant the garden. Not so restful but full of re-creation.

Not exactly an artist’s date as defined by Julia Cameron but still a weekend of filling the well.

To all who celebrated Victoria Day this weekend, I hope you came back to work renewed.  To those who will mark Memorial Day next weekend, I wish the same for you.

Civic Privilege

I’m writing this blog while on duty for the provincial election. Our church is a polling station and a member of the congregation must be present at all times.  It’s a small duty.  I need to show people where the washrooms are and where we keep the coffee cups.  In an extreme case, I can shut off the water and electricity.  I’m playing a very small role in public life and I’m glad to do it.  High school social studies courses talk about “civic duty,” but I’m inclined to call it “civic privilege.”  I’m blessed to live in a land with a free vote, a free press and freedom of assembly, among other things.  I’m honoured to contribute to that society.

Another example of civic privilege occurred in our city this weekend with the Times-Colonist book sale.  For the past twenty years our local newspaper has organized a gigantic used book sale.  Members of the public are encouraged to clear out their unwanted books and donate them to the sale.  An army of volunteers unpacks them, sorts them, lays them out on tables and returns forgotten photos or stashes of money found between the covers.  The proceeds of the sale go to literacy programs in area schools.

It all began as a one-off idea by a concerned citizen, worried about cuts in the education budget.  The newspaper editor agreed.  Expecting only a few boxes, he offered to store them in his office until sale day.  It wasn’t long until he realized his mistake.  When the paper published a request for used books they were overwhelmed by the response.  Tens of thousands of volumes appeared on their doorstep.  That first sale raised $20,500.00.  Over it’s life-time the sale has raised $5,000,000.00 for local schools and reading programs. 

Not only do schools receive a generous cheque, the day after the sale teachers are invited to come in and scoop up the leftovers for free.  (Books sell for $1.00, $2.00 and $3.00)  After the teachers, local charity stores stock up their shelves.  This year the city police department came in and made off with a few bundles of free reading for prisoners in the cells.  What can’t be sold is sent to an international charity that donates books around the world.  My old coffee table book may end up in a mission school in Africa.

The one-off idea failed.  The book sale is now a feature of our community life.  The local curling club has become the sorting/selling hub of the enterprise.  An army of volunteers plans their vacations around the book sale.  New friendships are forged, old acquaintances renewed, and books get into the hands of readers.  It’s a win/win/win for everyone.  It couldn’t happen without good citizens, people who step up to fill a need, people who get behind a great idea, people who make a difference.

So, as I donate a little time to ensure my civic privileges, I’m proud to be part of such a caring, sharing, and responsible community.  Happy voting, everyone.

Libel or Slander

Canadian tort law states: The common law protects every person from harm to their reputation by false and derogatory remarks about their person, known as defamation. In addition, all Canadian provinces have libel/ slander legislation (defamation includes slander and libel, where slander is verbal defamation and libel is printed defamation).

 I looked up this information because I’d listened to a sports broadcast where athletes read derogatory messages that had been sent to them, usually on Twitter. The comments were appalling, hurtful attacks based on the players’ physical appearance, name, or gender. They had nothing to do with the skill or sportsmanship of the athletes involved. The broadcaster featured the comments in a “joke” section of the airing. Believe me, puerile, vulgar and slanderous comments are never a joke.

 I’ve no objection to vigorous debate.  A healthy democracy demands it.  But that debate should be about ideas and solutions, about a better future for the world.  The vile, brainless, profanity-ridden bluster of the ignorant that shows up on the internet is not debate.  It is verbal garbage.  It seems anyone with a public profile is grist for the mills of the haters but politicians are especially subject to these brainless tirades. Female politicians fare even worse. Do we really live in a society where a woman with an opposing point of view deserves to be raped? Will vicious, personal attacks prevent war, feed the hungry or even fix the pothole on your street? The answer is no, but they have and will drive dedicated, caring people out of public life, making all of society poorer.

 Words are powerful. They have the ability to demean, frighten and silence. As writers we know that. Why else does an author write, edit, re-write and rework her words in order to give them potency? As readers, we respond to words that touch our hearts, lift our spirits and encourage us to dream. We memorize poetry, not bigotry.

 Recently facebook has announced it will increase its efforts to flag and take down fake news, but the problem goes beyond fake news. What about those who commit violent crimes and post a video of their heinous actions? The material is all too real, but it undermines the very fabric of civilization, tearing moral standards to shreds, and reducing human beings to “objects,” to be used and exploited by evil internet trolls.

I hope platforms like facebook and Twitter can regulate users on their networks, but I long for a world where that isn’t necessary. Mayberry never existed, but I’d rather strive for a world as kind and gentle as that fictional place, then encourage the destruction of all acceptable standards of civility.

That’s why I write about heroic characters, even with their flaws and failings, they try to do the right thing, to help their neighbours and to honour their God. I hope that’s your choice too.

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