Category: For Writers (Page 1 of 14)

Still Good Will

In 2018 I published a series of “good will” posts on this blog. I thought they made good reading for the Christmas season. The stories resonated with readers.

Now, as we enter our second COVID Christmas, I wonder if good will is hiding out in the attic or buried at the bottom of the garden. It sure doesn’t seem very evident.  We are worn down with restrictions, disappointments, cancelled plans. We are fearful of our fellow human beings — they might give us a deadly virus. We all know more about supply chains than we ever thought possible. Empty store shelves bring home the reality of economies in tatters world wide. There are no choristers singing on street corners, no shop clerks wearing Santa hats and wide smiles. Even if there is a smile, we can’t see it under the mask. 

Here, in B.C. we’ve had the added devastation of three “atmospheric rivers” dumping a month’s worth of rain in only a few hours. Rivers have flooded, dykes have been breached. All of the roads leading into Vancouver from the rest of Canada have been closed with mudslides, washed out bridges, and small lakes forming in the driving lanes. This year, it seems we’re in a season of disaster rather than good will.

And yet . . . in the midst of our terrible storms with bridges washing away and landslides sweeping vehicles off the road, comes this story of good will. 

A family travelling home on Sunday night was suddenly caught in a massive mudslide that shoved their van off the highway, rolled it twice down an embankment, shattered the windows, covered them in mud and even tore the shoes from their feet. The van came to rest against two trees above a raging river. 

Even though one of the passengers, a teenager, was grievously injured the family knew they had to get back up to the roadway before the storm swept away the trees and their tenuous support. 

Unbeknownst to the family, they were caught between two mudslides. Outside help could not reach them. Instead, strangers of good will came to the rescue.

Desperate, the father in the car sloshed the mud out of his eyes and mouth, then stumbled up the embankment, crossing a downed power line on the way. He knocked on the window of the first car. Inside was an off-duty ER nurse. She gave him a headlamp, then, while he went back to his family, she organized help.

Marooned on the highway,  were not only the ER nurse, but a paediatric nurse, a member of military reserve, a couple with a warm truck who offered shelter to the first child able to get out of the van and up to the highway, and an industrial painter with a van that allowed the most seriously injured teenager to lie down while the nurses assessed him.

The reservist was quick to help but realized an injured boy would not be able to scramble up the embankment on his own. Fortunately, the soldier had a rope in his truck and was able to tie it to a utility pole at the top of the embankment and use it to help the injured to safety. The 6 foot 2 lad with the head injury had to be literally pushed up the bank with his dad and the soldier supporting him from behind and the nurse pulling him from the front and lighting the way with a borrowed headlamp.

Once everyone was back on the road and sheltering in vehicles with kind strangers, a search and rescue team arrived from the closest town. They had to haul their stretchers through the debris field, 75 metres wide, caused by the slide and then, with the stricken boy loaded up, scramble back through the same obstacles to get to the ambulance waiting on the other side.

One by one, the SAR team got the family of five through the slide field and on to safety and medical aid.  Father and sons were taken to a small hospital where gashes were stitched up, a broken arm set, and eyes filled with mud and glass fragments washed out. However, the head injury was serious and needed quick attention. 

Going above and beyond, a medical team from a hospital on the other side of the blocked road organized to bring their ICU team to the injured teen. Two doctors, a nurse and a respiratory therapist got a police escort over flooded roads and a gravel pit to the train tracks. A railway vehicle then drove them to the small hospital, where they treated the teen, who had a skull fracture and a jaw broken in two places. Once the lad was stabilized and the immediate danger to his life passed, they got through to the air ambulance who air-lifted him to B.C. Children’s Hospital in Vancouver.

The rest of the family was fed and clothed and sheltered by strangers in the small town.

Today, the family swept up in the landslide is safely at home, recovering from their injuries and looking forward to Christmas. They are forever grateful to the heroes who put aside their own comfort and safety to rescue them on that awful night.

 

Peace, good will toward men, the angels sang on that first Christmas night. As the carol puts it, “Still through the cloven skies they come/ with peaceful wings unfurled/ and still their heavenly music floats/ o’er all the weary world. . . “

Surely the angels hovered over those folk of good will on a storm-swept night when a life was saved.

 

 

 

 

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By any Other Name

With apologies to Shakespeare, a rose by any other name might smell as sweet but would it evoke the same emotional response if you called it a thorn bush?

We writers tend to obsess about words, spending hours combing the thesaurus and the internet for the one with just the right nuance and connotation. We chose the verb strode versus trod to denote a manner of movement but also a sense of mood or characterization. Every word choice in our work, especially short works like poetry, has to pack a punch. Queen Elizabeth famously follows the rule of “never explain, never complain.” If a writer finds her/himself “explaining” their story it’s probably time for a good edit. Getting the words right means explanation is unnecessary.

I got a new take on the power of words at a recent writers workshop I attended. Jeff Elkins, The Dialogue Doctor, used an entirely different vocabulary to describe protagonist, antagonist, sidekicks, etc. The new labels on those stock story elements had me looking at my work in a whole other way. For example, he called the protagonist the vehicle of the story. Hence vehicle, protagonist, is the car the reader rides in for the journey from page one to the end.

I’ve read countless books and articles about making the protagonist interesting, appealing, sympathetic, flawed, wounded, redeemable . . . the list is endless. In fact, the list is so long its easy to gloss over it. But thinking of your protagonist as the vehicle of the story brings a whole other mindset to the fore. Is my protagonist a Cadillac or a jalopy or a rickshaw? Is it rusted or pristine? Does it smell of dog or baby? How many miles on the odometer? Using  a new word for protagonist rubs off the glaze of familiarity and sharpens my focus when developing the character. 

If you think of the story like a road trip all kinds of other terms crop up, like detour, accident, flat tire, hitchhiker. . . Again, looking at story elements from a different perspective gives them sharper edges, makes them more distinct.

Another standard element of story is conflict. For the longest time I couldn’t make sense of conflict. As my stories don’t involve war or fisticuffs I couldn’t see the “conflict.” Then a wise author used the word “struggle” and the mists lifted. A character struggles to find love. She struggles to be successful in her career. She struggles to become independent. I could relate to a character’s struggle, but not her conflict, even though they mean the same thing in terms of storytelling.

And speaking of character, there’s a word with many connotations. Primarily it means a person in the story, like the hero or the sidekick. But character also defines the type of person portrayed. In the old fashioned sense of the word character meant someone of upstanding reputation and merit, as in “a man of character” — or it can mean an eccentric, as in “he’s a character!”  Now, if you consider your lead character as the “conductor” of the story does it let you see him/her in a new light?

Can your antagonist be a spike belt laid across the roadway of the tale? Is the villain an imp who keeps turning the street signs around? Is your outline a recipe with a cup of love and a pinch of spice?

The mechanics of story telling don’t change regardless of the terms you use, but sometimes a different name on the rose, or the Hummer,  will jump start your creativity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Shallow thinking, Shallow story?

A recent blog post from Writers in the Storm, got me thinking about “deep thoughts.” The writer pointed out that the human brain needs at least 23 minutes to truly concentrate on a subject.

As I read her post I remembered that feeling of deep focus I had as a student squirrelled away in the stacks of my university library. Insulated from other students, the distraction of the world outside, and facing a deadline for an essay, I honed in on one subject and delved deep into research and into my own thoughts. It was hard work, but a great feeling. When I surfaced from a session it was like waking up to a different world. I’d been so immersed in study, everything else had vanished from my conscience.

Very occasionally I get that same deep focus when writing and the words flow like a river in flood. I’m in the zone, so deep in the story the characters speak on their own, I’m “living” the book.

Sadly, that level of focus is rare.  Life in our modern world is full of interruptions — social media, family members, the telephone, a knock on the door . . . Delving deep into a subject, especially our wip, can be tough. But shallow thinking and lack of focus will result in characters that are superficial, a thin plot, and a predictable outcome. Would you pay good money for such a book?

Fortunately, focus is a lot like a  muscle. The more you work on building it up, the stronger it gets. So, how do we reach that level of deep focus?

  • Sleep Not enough sleep due to sleep disorders or persistent insomnia make it difficult to concentrate. If sleep deprivation clouds your brain, fixing that is a good first step in exercising your concentration muscle.
  • Health/age Depression, hearing loss, vision loss can all work against our ability to focus says Dr. Kirk Daffner, of the Center for Brain/Mind Medicine at Harvard affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital. We can’t stop ageing, but maintaining a healthy life-style will slow down the inevitable effects of time.
  • Attitude Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” Abraham Lincoln                                                                                                                                                                             People with an optimistic outlook are better able to put aside the nagging, negative thoughts in their head and knuckle down to the task at hand. The power of positive thinking is real.
  • One task at a time Many view multi-tasking as an achievement but according to a study out of Sanford University,  multitasking makes us stupid.  Our brains are wired to receive one set of information at a time. multi-taskers are trying to draw from several sources of information at once and they can’t keep it straight. Our brains just don’t work that way. The brain is meant to filter information to what is relevant. Trying to do many things at once slows down the brain. 
  • Editing is not writing  “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully.” Steve Jobs
    When your brain is confronted with two tasks that are seemingly on the same level of importance, it will choose the easier one.  In my world, editing is easier than getting words onto a blank screen. If you are in the creative phase of your wip, stick to it. Some writers edit as they go but it is very easy to get distracted with research or grammar or the search for the “right” word instead of concentrating on the story.
  • Motivation  Why do your write? For fame? For fortune? To make your mother happy? Because you love it? Love is the best motivation. If your love your job it’s not “work.”
  • Devices  One study showed that when working on a PC, desk phone or cell phone users worked about 2 minutes and 11 seconds before switching to another task. Electronics and the internet cater to our need for instant gratification. Remember you need at least 23 uninterrupted minutes to get into deep concentration. If you want to focus deeply on your writing, turn off the distractions.
  • Choose one  We all expect to accomplish several tasks in a day but it will boost your productivity if you choose the most important one and schedule your best time of day to do it. If you want to get into the zone and write 2500 words, decide whether you’re a morning person or a night-owl, then set yourself up to get those words down in your best time of day. The less important tasks will still get done and they won’t take away from your primary job.

 Writing this blog was my primary task for today. Now that it’s done I feel uplifted, energized and gratified. Making dinner will be a snap.

 

 

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Quirks and Traits

I’m rereading a book where one of the main characters is an editor who mentally parses interesting words in her thoughts. E.g. while struggling with the onerous task of clearing her basement she thinks “Latin: onerosus, meaning ‘burden”.” This mental editing is a character quirk that has nothing do to with moving the plot forward, but it makes the character interesting and unusual, and keeps this reader turning pages.

Many authors use quirks in character building —

  • Colin Dexter’s Morse solves the Times crossword in record quick time.
  • Miss Marple knits and eavesdrops
  • Abby on NCIS covered in tattoos and piercings, looks scary but is kind and loving.

In science, trait refers to a characteristic that is caused by genetics, e.g. blue eyes. A quirk is defined as a peculiarity of behaviour, a mannerism. In the old TV show “Monk” the main character suffered from OCD. I’m sure living with that condition is very hard, but in the show Monk’s obsessive straightening and tidying and germaphobia is entertaining. In the British show, “Professor T,” the main character has a similar quirk. 

Habit, mannerism, trait, quirk, foible, idiosyncrasy . . . all mean more or less the same thing, but the consistent definition for “quirk” in different dictionaries is that the characteristic is strange, weird, peculiar or unexpected.  Whatever you call that odd thing your character does, the weirder you make it, the better when it comes to keeping your readers engaged. 

I think the trick to writing quirky characters is to keep the behaviours off-beat. A quick search of the internet turned up a list of 500 character quirks. Among the things listed are computer nerd, pacing when thinking, chewing fingernails, chewing gum . . . In my opinion, these habits aren’t weird enough to qualify as quirks.  

The quirk must be unique and unexpected. The first time I saw a movie where a daring-do hero was afraid of clowns I was delighted. Since then, I’ve seen that meme overused and it has lost its power. Now, whenever a clown comes on screen, I expect the cop/fireman/soldier to fear it. 

So, what would be some fun quirks to incorporate into a romance? Perhaps the heroine never meets a man without visualizing him as her groom. If he’s “the one,” we go directly to HEA. If he’s not “the one” the way in which the vision dissolves could be fun. e.g. he melts, or he grows a monkey tail and swings through the trees, or he explodes and destroys the wedding chapel.

In the old television show, Remington Steele, the title character solved mysteries by relating them to old movies. I found that quirk memorable and it heightened the dissonance between him and his lady boss, who was a trained detective. In that case, the quirk served to make the character unique and added to the romantic tension of the story.

In my book, The Man for Her, Lottie’s hatred of the search for gold could be described as a quirk, but I’d be more inclined to call it a learned characteristic since it comes from experience and, therefore, not that unexpected. Still, for a story set in the gold rush, having a heroine who hates gold is a bit quirky.

Not every book will have a quirky character. If they did the quirks would quickly become stale and boring. Still, if you can incorporate a little oddity into one of your characters, readers will remember.

Please share your favourite quirky characters in the comments below.

 

 

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Opening Pages

My writers group held a get-together on the weekend, where we celebrated meeting in person, enjoyed lunch and had few laughs. We also read and critiqued two anonymous pages of writing from each person present. It took me several tries but I finally came up with the two opening pages of my WIP. that I felt comfortable sharing. I’ve posted them below and would welcome your comments.  I’ve entered the group’s comments in blue.

 

 

Saskatchewan, Canada, 1917

A mournful train whistle echoed across the empty prairie, just as Kirsten Swendsen stepped onto the stoop of Glenrose County School #5 and locked the door behind her. She narrowed her eyes and watched as the great steel beast clanked and hissed to a halt at the town station. Even from a distance she could discern a woman descend from the passenger car. After the briefest of pauses, the train thundered on its way, leaving the lone figure, erect and still, on the platform.

A shiver of unease snaked down Kirsten’s spine. Women did not travel alone in these parts. Immigrant women always arrived with a husband and often children in tow. A single woman was most likely bound for a brothel but they usually headed for the cities. Glenrose was too small to have a red-light district, but some of the hotels were known to have a “back room” where single men could “relax.”

She pursed her lips. One thing about the war, it had emptied the prairies of virile young men. The woman at the train station would be hard-pressed for customers.

A flock of geese flying low overhead roused Kirsten from her reverie. Today was threshing day at Luke Walden’s farm. She’d promised to help in the kitchen. Poor man, she thought, as she stepped up into her gig. She and her family were relative newcomers to the area, but she’d heard the rumours. Luke Walden’s wife had runaway with an actor ten years ago, leaving him to run his farm and raise his children alone. Her heart clenched. Luke was a good man. He deserved better.

She shook her head, then glanced over her shoulder. The woman still waited on the platform. Kirsten squared her shoulders and dismissed her fanciful thoughts. Luke’s wife had been gone too long to come back now. Everyone assumed she had died. Gathering the reins into her hands, Kirsten clicked her tongue, and set her horse to a brisk trot. A day at the Walden farm would lift her spirits, even if the work was hard.

 

At the sound of wagon wheels, the woman at the train station lifted her head, breathing in the smoky mist of a prairie morning. Kathleen Walden. She tried the name on her tongue and found it strange. For the past ten years she’d called herself Kitty O’Hearne. Kitty had suited her – a coquette with sharp claws, sleek and serpentine, gliding soundlessly through the night, then curling into a warm lap with a throaty purr.

 

 

 

I had been expecting a line-by-line critique re writing style, grammar, tone, etc. Instead the group pounced on the two characters, pronounced Kirsten dull and wanted to see Kathleen as the heroine, despite the fact she’d abandoned her husband and children to run off with an actor. What do you think?

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Captain James Cook

July 1, 2021 was a strange kind of Canada Day. With many COVID restrictions just beginning to ease, there was a wariness about big gatherings. Added to that were the recent announcements of graveyards at Residential Schools, and many felt this was not a time to celebrate our country. The First Nations leadership asked Canadians to spend the day in reflection about the past and future of Canada. But crowds bent on destruction ignored that call. They set fire to churches, defaced public property and toppled statues. One of the targets was the statue of Capt. James Cook on the inner harbour in Victoria, B.C.

Mobs seldom do a thorough investigation of the facts. They are fired by emotion–anger, fear, vengeance–and are determined to carry out their own form of justice. History is littered with tales of innocent men lynched by a mob. In this case, Cook was targeted as revenge for the horrors of residential schools in Canada. Since the man lived and died before Canada was a nation, the link is tenuous.

Born in England in 1728, James Cook joined the Royal Navy in 1755 after serving an apprenticeship on board a number of trading vessels. With the navy he served in the Seven Years War along the east coast of what is now Canada.  He was a remarkable map-maker and undertook the first scientific large scale hydro graphic survey of present-day Newfoundland. So accurate were his maps that they were used for over 200 years, well into the twentieth century. 

His scientific accomplishments brought him to the attention of the Royal Society, founded in the 1660’s with the mandate to recognise, promote, and support excellence in science and to encourage the development and use of science for the benefit of humanity.

With the backing of the Admiralty and the Royal Society, Cook made three voyages of discovery to the Pacific. The first two voyages resulted in extensive mapping around New Zealand and Australia along with many South Sea islands, including Hawaii.

On his third voyage, Cook reached Nootka Sound in British Columbia. In an excerpt from his journals he writes: 

We no sooner drew near the inlet than we found the coast to be inhabited; and at the place where we were first becalmed, three canoes came off to the ship. . . a person in one of the two last stood up, and made a long harangue, inviting us to land, as guessed, by his gestures. At the same time he kept throwing handfuls of feathers toward us; and some of his companions threw handfuls of red dust or powder in the same manner. . . one sung a very agreeable air with a degree of softness and melody which we could not have expected; the word haela being often repeated as the burden of the song.. . .  A great many canoes, filled with the natives, were about the ships all days; and a trade commenced betwixt us and them which was carried on with strictest honesty on both sides. . .

One of Cook’s notable accomplishments was the good health of his crew. No one died of scurvy, the illness that decimated crews on long voyages during the 18th Century. Cook maintained cleanliness and ventilation in the crew’s quarters, and insisted on a diet that included cress, sauerkraut, and a kind of orange extract.  (vitamin C) For work against scurvy, he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society and awarded the gold Copley Medal, one of its highest honours.

 Cook explored and mapped more territory than any navigator of his era. His achievements have been honoured by scientists and statesmen  for the past 240 years. Even NASA paid tribute. Cook’s HMS Discovery was one of several historical vessels that inspired the name of the third space shuttle, and NASA later named their final shuttle “Endeavour” after the ship he commanded on his first circumnavigation of the globe. When the shuttle Discovery made its final space flight in 2011, its crew carried a special medallion made by the Royal Society in honour of Cook.

Captain Cook died in 1779 in Hawaii during a dispute over wood and a cutter with the King of Hawaii. His statue was ripped down by a mob and thrown into the sea in Victoria, British Columbia in 2021.

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5 Pitfalls in Research

As a writer of historical fiction I am beset with questions of historical accuracy and attitudes of the times vs the ultra-sensitive world of today. As I child, I read “The Plains of Abraham” and “The Loon Feather” with an open heart and an uncritical eye. Even though the books were fiction it never occurred to me that they were not “true.” But in the 21st century, history is fraught with cultural traps. Can we use the word “Indian?” That’s how Indigenous people were referenced in the nineteenth century. If my story is set in 1890 and I use the term First Nation, it is anachronistic. I think I need to be true to the facts of history, but it is difficult to discern what is fact and what is opinion.

Here are a few warnings I’ve picked up along the way. 

  1. Don’t trust Hollywood. I watched a classic movie the other day and, even without being a scholar of Indigenous culture, I could tell that the movie-makers had picked bits and pieces from various First Nations and thrown them all together into a pastiche of what would seem authentic to their audience. I’m not slamming the movies. They were producing a visual extravaganza to be projected on big screens in cinema-scope and Technicolor. Mountains and totem poles and natives in war paint served that purpose well. But, if we want historical accuracy, we need to look further.
  2. Eye witnesses are unreliable. That is a fact every police officer and every courtroom lawyer can verify. Ask five people to describe a car crash and you’ll get five very different versions, some even contradictory. Not the fault of the witnesses. They are describing what they saw, but they saw the event only from one physical perspective and through the lens of their own belief system. I’m reading a book about brothels on the Canadian prairies in the first third of the 20th century. It is well researched and written by a respected historian. He relies heavily on newspaper accounts of the day. Yet, in those newspaper accounts the prevailing attitude of the times –live and let live–colours even the simplest facts, like the number of houses of ill repute on a given street.
  3. Fine Arts of the day are more likely to depict the artist’s impressions and the saleability of a piece than actual fact. Galleries throughout North America are hung with paintings depicting Indigenous peoples capering naked through the snow. There is no historical evidence of this style of “undress” in the Indigenous peoples of this land. Apparently artists and their customers couldn’t differentiate between native populations of warm south seas islands and those of snow covered northern climes.
  4. Photographs likely are more accurate than art works, although, Hannah Maynard (1834-1918) was able to create all kinds of effects in her pictures, like the one showing her at a tea party, pouring tea over her own head! She had no need of Photoshop. 
  5. Original Sources, the gold standard for historical research, still need to be tested. Francis Dickens of the North-West Mounted Police is an example. By his own account he was an heroic stalwart of a storied police force. His father, the author Charles Dickens, considered him bumbling and incompetent. In histories of the Mounted Police, charges against Officer Dickens include drunkenness, laziness and recklessness. Later histories conclude he was just an ordinary man, no better and no worse than his contemporaries.

So, where do we look for truth? I think historical research requires the same kind of diligence we use in analysing the news of today. What’s the source? Is it reliable? Do various reports reinforce the facts? Are we reading in our own echo chamber or are we truly exploring other points of view. 

Finally, remember that historical “fiction” is not a scholarly treatise. Tell a good story and use the time and setting to add colour and authenticity. Be true to indisputable facts, like dates and laws of the land. Visit museums and troll the archives to support your understanding of the age, then tell your story in the best way possible.

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Killing My Darlings

This has not been a happy week for me.

I started the rework on an old ms with high hopes. I had a new heroine and planned to turn the old one into the antagonist. In the original story she was a villain and I had hoped to reform her in this novel. Turns out, I couldn’t. Even as the author I could not make her likeable — she is sexy as hell and dangerous–but just too selfish and self-centred and manipulative to have my lovely hero love her again.

The new heroine doesn’t show up in such bright colours but she is loyal and steady and smart and becoming and generous and has a heart for the misused hero. Still, when I write her description beside that of the original, she comes off as bland. I’m afraid readers will think the hero has settled for second best when he chooses her. 

Hence, “killing my darlings.” All the flair and power I put into the description of the now villain has to be tempered and the bland heroine spiced up. The latter is fun, the former is painful. Stephen King wrote: Stephen King wrote, “kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”

Well, my egocentric little scribbler’s heart is breaking. Maybe I can just save those words to an outtake file somewhere. 😉

What about you, fellow authors? What do you do when your favourite passage has to go?

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What Makes a Heroine?

 

 

   A lone woman alit from the caboose of an early morning freight train.  She stood, silhouetted against the pale dawn, a tumble of black curls cascading down her back, a shabby valise crumpled at her feet.  She was the kind of woman who drew men to her like foxes to a vixen.  Yet, when they looked into her eyes, they averted their gaze and slunk away.  She saw too much, this ripe, fecund female; saw the hunger in their bellies, the lust in their loins and the evil in their souls.  In her charms were both rapture and damnation.  Few men would risk their souls to claim the promise of her full hips and overflowing breasts.

   Exiting the school house Kirsten Swendsen narrowed her eyes to study the stranger who looked so at home in Glenrose, Saskatchewan. As the truth dawned, animosity shattered her schoolmarm serenity. Runaway, adulteress, unfit mother, indecent, wanton . . . the list of Kathleen Walden’s sins filled many a gossip’s chatter. Kirsten had no doubt the woman at the train station was Kathleen, come back to damage the lives of her children and husband again. Rage jolted along her veins. Without weighing the consequences, she stepped into her gig and turned the horse for Walden farm.  

 

   Here is the question. Which woman should be the heroine of this book? Kathleen has lots of baggage from a previous novel. Can a woman who has abandoned her children and disgraced her husband be convincingly rehabilitated so that the reader believes her wronged husband can love her again? 

  Kirsten is a schoolmarm in every sense of the word. Can an opinionated, rule-ridden, super-achiever be a romantic heroine? Can a man who has loved Kathleen love her antithesis?

  As a reader, which woman would you root for?

  All comments gratefully received.

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7 Thoughts on Plots

Coming off of six weeks of courses on plotting, I’ve reached a few conclusions for myself. Some may be helpful to other writers.

  1. I truly am a pantser. I always thought I just didn’t know how to plot. Now, following the steps of these courses, I have created a complete plot. The problem is, when I tried to write a few scenes I found I’d lost interest.
  2. We pantsers find joy in uncovering the story as it goes along. I know a mystery writer who is half way through the book before she figures out “whodunnit.” If we know the ending and all the turning points in advance, there is no more excitement.
  3. All is not lost. As a pantser I’m often staring at the screen wondering what happens next. I’ve learned a better question is, what do they “do” next. My characters spend too much time drinking tea and thinking.
  4. “Why” is an excellent question at all stages of story-writing. Even when I get my characters into fist-fights or prairie fires, the action may seem random. “Why” they do something is always good to know and will keep the story from wandering.
  5. Time is my friend. I am useless at brainstorming sessions where people fire off ideas like a shotgun. I may take a day to give my character a name, let alone a story. These courses have been deliberately step-by-step. I can use that, even as a pantser.
  6. Romance stories are not formulaic. Any teacher who gives me a formula like — Name —must ———–because ———–, but————–gets in the way, so he———– but then————  Writing to a formula like this freezes my creativity. Fortunately, the courses I just took don’t use that approach.
  7. Even though I’m a committed pantser there are elements of plotting that I can use to improve my process and maybe save myself the frustration of deleting thousands of words.

All in all, I’ve found these six weeks of learning from Laurie Schnebly Campbell most enjoyable and useful. Even putting to bed the notion that if I could only plot in advance I’d be a better writer is worthwhile. Instead of doubting my process, I can use what I’ve learned to refine it. 

I’m constantly uplifted by the generosity of romance writers — their willingness to teach, to share business knowledge, and to encourage and support each other is truly remarkable. In a world that more often turns to cynicism and anger and hate, the example of romance writers offering hope and friendship and a helping hand is something to celebrate.  

Please use the comments section of this post to add your own thoughts on plot.

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