Month: March 2023

Play to your Strengths

Becca Syme

Thanks to Zoom, I was able to attend a very interesting workshop by Becca Syme. The workshop was sponsored by my local romance authors group and I nearly didn’t attend. I find Zoom more frustrating than helpful most of the time, but, at the last minute, decided to check in, from home, just to see what was happening. Am I glad I did!

The workshop was titled “11 Myths about Writing and Why you should Stop Believing them Right Now.” 

Eleven myths seemed like a lot to me but that’s how many she had, including those time-honoured ones like “you should write every day,” and “you should write an outline in order to write faster.”  

Using something called the Clifton Strengths Test, she used personality profiles to challenge these “shoulds.”  She used only five major predictors. There are many others if you take the complete test. The ones she used are

  • Introverted vs extroverted
  • Momentum Producing vs Momentum Resistant
  • Prediction Comfortable vs Prediction Resistant
  • Responsive Controlling Environment vs Responsive Necessary Environment

These are not either/or characteristics. Rather, they are opposite ends of a continuum.  Since I never fall into a single category whether it’s choosing my best colours or finding my best diet types, learning that I could be somewhere in between for this exercise filled me with relief. When Becca went on to explain that not everyone benefits from writing an outline, and that “word count” isn’t the only measure of productivity, I danced around the room. 

I am very good at filling in charts, answering plot questions and writing an outline. Unfortunately, when I write the story, it bears hardly any resemblance to the outline. I rarely admit that fact because I believe the myth about writing an outline. If I can’t do that then, I’m a fraud, or as Becca puts it I. AM. WRONG.  However, if I stop believing that myth I am no longer wrong, I just have different strengths. Now, there’s a bit of good news!

I’ve been watching the national curling championships in Canada and now the Women’s world curling championships. Under the current rules, teams have so many minutes of “thinking time,” instead of a total time allotment for the game. In other words, the rule makers know that “thinking” is a key component of the game.  I’m one of those writers for whom “thinking time” is every bit as important as fingers on the keyboard. In fact, I “thought” this blog long before I came to the computer. For me, clearing my timetable so I can show up at the keyboard is only part of the equation. More importantly, I need to clear my mind so I can think about the story. I can do that while taking a walk, making the bed or weeding the flowerbed.

To be fair, at every writing workshop I’ve attended, the presenter has prefaced his remarks with the caveat, “this is what I do. It may not work for you.” Then he goes on to lay out a very orderly, rules-based method for producing lots of saleable words. I understand that. It is much easier to teach a “system” than to stand in front of a roomful of hopeful writers and say “I don’t know how you should write.” Ms Syme is the only one I’ve heard present an entire workshop on finding one’s own strengths and methods. 

I can’t claim to have put her wisdom into practice yet — it has been a very busy time in my life — but I’ve been happier. I’ve stopped wearing the cloak of I. AM. WRONG.

If you have a chance, I highly recommend Becca Syme’s workshops.

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Before and After


The beauty industry is rife with before and after pictures. Their aim is to show potential customers the benefit of some product or treatment, hence the “after” picture is far more appealing than the “before” picture.

Lately, I’ve noticed conversations containing the before/after phrase,  not in regards to a beauty treatment, but in relation to COVID-19. The pandemic created a great slash through the normal progression of our lives. We have “before,” when families and friends gathered for celebration and sorrow. When the only consideration in creating a guest list was the size of the table. Babies were born and grandparents, aunts and uncles flocked to the nursery to greet the new arrival. In times of loss, the bereaved drew strength from the mourners who assembled to comfort them. We didn’t think twice about being present in a group.

COVID changed all that. Some grandparents didn’t cuddle a newborn until the babe had become a toddler. Families grieved in isolation, unable to hold the hand of a loved one as they passed from this life. Our new guest lists may exclude the unvaccinated. Remember when banks had signs outside requiring customers to remove sunglasses and caps before entering the building? Now we see a masked man in a bank and shrug.

Most pandemic related restrictions have been removed now, but our behaviour has not returned to the “before” times. I doubt it ever will. 

From a personal and social point of view the effects of the pandemic are significant, leaving us more cautious, suspicious of our fellowmen. We must navigate a new “normal” and the journey  is uncomfortable and awkward.

From a writer’s point of view, the experience of the pandemic gives us a whole range of new responses for character-building. If a good story starts at a turning point, we have loads of examples from our daily lives to show what happens when a character hits a crossroads. Does she defy the risks and go out and party with strangers? Does she withdraw into her cocoon and miss out on the rest of life? Does she feel her way back into the life she had before, or does she close the door on those times and start over?

In my wip, the heroine is a widow. She behaves like a new widow, even though she lost her husband five years before the story began. That is because she has decided to withdraw — from friends and neighbours, from community, from organizations — from everything that gave her life meaning before her sudden change in circumstances.

Since the pandemic, I can look around me and see that response in real life. I know people who have stopped coming to church, have stopped going to the grocery story, have given up on movies or concerts, have cut themselves off from personal contact with anyone outside their household. I can use my observation of these people to give more depth to my protagonist

In my story the heroine is jolted out of her half-life by events — it would be a boring story if she wasn’t — and I can witness the same thing around me as people venture into society once more.  Some are cautious, wearing masks in every indoor setting. Some are being social, but only with a few close friends. Some are racing full-throttle into crowds of strangers.  More grist for the story-teller’s mill.

Regardless of how people respond to the post-COVID world (actually, the virus is still around, it’s just the restrictions that have changed) no one has been untouched by it. We all have this wide chasm, an empty place in our lives, from when the pandemic was at it’s worst. We date our memories as pre-pandemic or after. It’s as though we have had two lives.

One ended in March of 2020. 

As writers, this is familiar ground. Our stories are about change.  Page one is “before,” and the end is “after.” We can give our characters successes and defeats. We can make them victims of circumstances, or we can make them masters of their own lives. In fiction, we can make it up as we go along. That’s the joy of writing, The question is, how will we manage in real life?

In March of 2023 we begin the second part of our own story.

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