Category: Writing life (page 1 of 11)

6 Influences on Perception

I’ve been thinking a lot about perception lately, because I’ve had cataract surgery. What do I see before the surgery? What will I see afterward? Do I want distance vision or close-up vision? What happens with colours? Can I drive at night? What matters most to me?

When it comes to my eyes, my answer “all of it.” But even with the best eye-sight in the world, we still have blind spots in the way we perceive the world. e.g. As a woman of faith, I see a rainbow as a reminder of God’s promise to Noah. A secularist may see some pretty colours in the sky. A physicist may see an example of refractive light.

What does this have to do with writing? More than you might think. Perception and point of view are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same thing. Typically we think of point of view means whose head we are in. If we are in our heroine’s head, the story is told from her point of view. True, but not enough for compelling story-telling. How often have you heard the advice to write in “deep” point of view. That is, get deep into your character’s head and heart and soul to make her come alive to the reader. That’s where “perception” comes in.  How does your character perceive events? Not just what she can see and hear and touch and smell. Perception is how she evaluates those sensory inputs. And that, of course, relates to character.

Here are some examples of perception on a single event. A woman heads off to work, but her car won’t start. How does she perceive this circumstance?

  1. The optimist may run for the bus, assuming that one will come along at the right time and get her to the office only a little late.
  2. The pessimist goes back into the house and cries, defeated before she even begins, sure she’ll be fired for being late. She’ll run out of money and miss the mortgage payments on her house and she’ll end up begging on the street with no one to help her.
  3. The self-made woman will open the hood and get out her toolbox. She has already learned auto mechanics for just such an event.
  4. The femme-fatale walks onto the street and waits for a man to come to her aid. If she’s good at her character she won’t have to wait long!
  5. A witch might try casting a spell. — I told you character and perception go hand-in-hand. 🙂
  6. A pragmatic woman might call her garage, then her boss and get on with the day without any hysterics.

These are only six possible reactions to an obstacle but they illustrate how character influences perception.

I’ve just read an old mystery by Mary Higgins Clark where a psychopath manages to perceive everything that happens as proof that the people around him are responsible for all his misfortunes and they must die. Scary stuff, but by his own perception, entirely reasonable.

Self-talk accompanies most of us most of the time.  If our internal messages are negative, we take on a defeated attitude, if they are positive, we’re motivated to succeed. Athletes visualize themselves winning the race, clearing the bar and standing on the podium as they train. The positive images result in better performance.

Understanding perception can help writers keep a clear perspective on their own work. It can also help them create characters that are unique and consistent and memorable for readers.

I’ve had my cataract surgery and had a multi-focal lens implanted. It works almost as well as young eyes. I can clearly see the panorama outside my window, and the computer screen in front of me and the instructions on my eye-drop prescriptions. My “perception” of modern medicine is awe.

How do you perceive the protagonist in your book? What character trait is most attractive to you either as a writer or a reader? How does that trait influence the character’s perception of events? Please share.

 

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Deep Point-of-View

I had been going to write about deep point of view today. Until I went outside. On a perfect fall day, all cerebral activity vanished and I had only emotion.

The bounty of this earth stirred my soul to gratitude and wonder. Look at this little apple tree, laden with fruit. And these, boxes and boxes of apples from the Golden Delicious.  We haven’t even touched the Northern Spy or the Ida Red.

My heart overflows. I must share–both the fruit and the feeling.

Not content with apples, I look about and see the fuchsia glowing in the sunlight.

Dahlias     burn red like fire and shine white like ice.

 

The last roses of summer perfume the air.

Fall, the season of harvest, overwhelms with its abundance, its extravagant grace.

Over the past week, we’ve heard a lot about climate change and the fragility of our planet. It is a cosmic topic, perhaps requiring an astronaut’s view to comprehend. But I can see the bounty of my orchard, the beauty of my garden, and tremble for them. 

Guess I did write about deep point of view after all. Mine. No skimming the surface here with words like “she worried,” or “he felt.” This page holds emotion with a capital E. That’s what a romance reader wants in our books.

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Calico Cats Part Three

It’s been a helter-skelter kind of week, so I thought I’d bring you more wisdom from the calico cats — both for writing and for living.  Here goes.

 

 

 

 

If you get hung up, just hang in there.

 

Nothing like sunshine to beat the blues.

If you’re stuck up a tree, enjoy the view.

Cute always works, especially if you can perfect the innocent look.

Don’t be afraid to reach high. Explore new places.

Share, it’s the right thing to do.

Love your sister — and fellow writers, too.

Treasure the moments. We grow really fast.

You’re never too big for a lap.

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Character and More

Vancouver Island Romance Authors held its annual all-day workshop last weekend with presenter Eileen Cook. Eileen is a member of The Creative Academy and one terrific teacher. Before becoming a successful YA author, she studied psychology and worked as a counsellor. Using that training and experience she is able to provide unique insights into personalities — both real and fictional — that helps her to create complex, interesting and captivating characters. She shared some of her wisdom with us.

One of her hints in the first part of the workshop was to create a character timeline from birth to page one of your novel, from that character’s pov. If an event was positive, you wrote it above the line, if negative, below the line. This showed that, apart from the event itself, we learned the character’s belief about that event, and thus had insight into her motivations and goals.

                  I tried the exercise for my own real life and noticed that many of the events I would have put below the line in real time, in hindsight went above the line. An interesting outcome that matches my optimistic outlook. For a character in a book, having her hang on to the negative might make for a more interesting story.

                Eileen emphasized that “belief” about an event could be more powerful than the event itself. It is the character’s belief about her body, her parents, her job, her boyfriend . . . that creates the consequences that lead to story.  I’ve been watching for that concept in real life. I know a couple who has left their church because they “believe” they can’t make connections. When I look at their circumstances, as an observer, it seems to me they had plenty of friends. Yet, in terms of their action, it is their belief, not my observation that counts.

                Similarly, I look at my heroine, racked by guilt. In my gentle, authorly way, I want to remove her burden and show her she’s not to blame for an accident, but that would be the end of the story. Much better for her to suffer and struggle until, with the love of the hero, she forgives herself.

There were more wonderful lessons during the day, but Eileen ended with a talk about the life of a writer. It ain’t easy! We meet with rejection in the pre-publishing world and we meet with damning reviews in the post-published world. Family, friends and colleagues may ask why we “waste” our time writing “that stuff.”

Mark Twain said: Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.” 

Eileen echoed that advice and encouraged us to use positive self-talk as well as to cultivate supportive friends. VIRA is a lovely group of writers who encourage, engage and empathize with one another. Most writers need something like VIRA, whether it’s a formal organization or a few supportive friends. We want our characters to be kind to children and puppies. We should be kind to ourselves.

All in all, it was a wonderful way to spend a Saturday. Attendees have all been raving about how inspired they feel, how eager they are to get back into their work, and how many ideas are raging through their imaginations. A workshop that doesn’t end when the day is over is a gift. Thanks, Eileen.

To connect with Eileen about your own writing, go to https://ccscreativeacademy.com/ You’ll benefit from her wisdom along with others.

 

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A Better Writer

titleRead A Better Man, Louise Penny’s latest book over the weekend. I finished it late on Sunday night and have moved on to a new novel. Yet Penny’s story continues to haunt me. Why?

I asked myself that question as a writer, not a reader. What is it about her writing that gets inside my head and refuses to leave? Can I learn from her to make my own work more compelling? I found a number of answers.

First: Compelling Characters.

Everyone who has ever taken a class or a workshop in writing fiction knows compelling characters are key to a successful novel.

Penny’s characters are all well-rounded, complex, interesting and tug at the heart strings. I don’t want to go into a long review here, so I’ll concentrate on the lead character, Armand Gamache, a senior officer in the Sûreté du Québec. Gamache is an emminently appealing character, kind, honest, brave, loving, loyal—and deeply wounded. As a police officer he has seen and done things that cut to his soul. He has been betrayed by colleagues, attacked by politicians, shot by criminals. Penny creates scenes of evil and hate and greed and she puts Gamache in the middle of it. She tries his principles, tempts him with an easy way out. She hurts him deeply, yet he remains true to himself and what he stands for. As a reader, I’ve come to trust him, depend on him to get me through the terrible events of the novel and show me that justice will prevail, that good men can, if not win, at least survive.

The wounds, I believe, are what makes Gamache so relatable. I’m too soft when it comes to hurting my characters. I like them and I don’t want to make them suffer, but the suffering is where real character is displayed. It is where readers identify with characters and ache for them and cheer for them and read on until they are safely home again.

Second: Appealing setting

The village of Three Pines plays a large role in the stories. It’s a bit like an English village that you might find in a Miss Marple mystery, but it is deeply Quebecois. The bistro, the village green, the duck pond, the old church, the book store, and B&B – these are all Quebec, with harsh winters, hot summers, mosquitos, and no WiFi.  All the instant communication a modern culture takes for granted, must slow down in Three Pines. This lack of speed in the village is a wonderful plot device, stretching out the suspense. It takes time to get reports, it takes time to run down leads, it takes time to receive orders. If you’re really in a hurry you can drive a few miles out of town to where there is cell phone reception, but that takes time too.  Everything takes time and we settle into Three Pines like a comfortable old armchair. We probably want a latte and a wood-burning fireplace, and good friends and good conversation. We want to luxuriate in the slowed down time of this village.

Third: Beautiful writing

Penny’s prose is almost poetic. She is obviously well-read and educated, referencing art, literature and politics, yet her language is not beyond the understanding of most readers. She doesn’t dazzle with long words and convoluted sentences, but there is a poet living in Three Pines and her phrases creep into the narrative and make it sparkle. There is also a foul-mouthed duck who roots us firmly in the modern culture. In other words, Penny has a recognizable and enthralling voice.

Fourth: Dynamic Plot

Since these are murder mysteries one would expect lots of plot turns, but Penny is a master at throwing in an unexpected twist. Even when you think a character has won, he loses. Even when Gamache seems defeated, he has an ace up his sleeve. I am always in awe of people who can plot out even a simple mystery, With Penny’s serpentine plot twists, I can only marvel.

This is only a brief analysis of what I think makes her books so remarkable and none of it is new. All of these points are developed in how-to-write books, workshops and university courses, but Louise Penny has provided us with a masterful example.

Even if you write lighter stories, where romance and humour are more important than danger and crime, I recommend any of Ms Penny’s books as a great learning tool — and a wonderful way to spend a weekend.

Anyone else a fan? Who’s your favourite writer. Does he/she get inside your head and refuse to leave?

 

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Winner!

We interrupt this blog post to bring you the author’s annual brag fest. The fall fair was on the long weekend and I won some prizes. Not as many as some years, but still enough to encourage me to try again next year.

By the Friday before the fair, I’m worn out with fretting and primping and second guessing myself and I wonder why I bother. Then I win some ribbons and by Tuesday, I’m looking at the catalogue to see what else I might enter next year. 

I encouraged a friend to enter this year for the first time. She did and then spent two weeks telling herself not to get too worked up about it all. “It’s only a country fair.” “It doesn’t matter if the judges like my rose. I like it,” and other depressing sentiments of that sort. When she won a first prize she jumped up and down like a school girl, squealing, “I won, I won, I won.” 🙂  

I think writers are like that too. Give them a little encouragement and they jump into the next story convinced it will be the best ever, maybe even earn a movie contract.  So, hope, is a universal trait. That’s something writer’s can use in crafting their tales. Since I’m a naturally hopeful person, my stories are full of hope and it is usually fulfilled. Others take a more pessimistic view and they create characters without hope. This too can serve the story well. Someone with no hope of winning, of finding a better path, of being loved . . . sounds like a perfect villain.

Another universal trait is the desire to win. Whether it’s a blue ribbon at the fair, or a mega-lottery prize or a foot race or an election. We all want to win something. “How to” books on writing ask the author to define her character’s goals. If the word “goal” doesn’t spark your imagination, try asking what your character wants to win.  It means the same thing, but sometimes we respond to a different word more effectively. For myself, I wrestled with “conflict.” Then I heard someone use the word “struggle,” and I understood what story-conflict means.

And if you’re looking for a plot for your next romance, try the country fair. Lots of intrigue in the judging tent, conflict among the exhibitors, skullduggery in the garden. The possibilities are endless. And at the end, your heroine can come home with a fistful of blue ribbons.

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Love that Beat

Thanks to my friend A.M. Stuart, I have discovered Gwen Hayes and her little book, Romancing the Beat, story structure for romance novels. It’s a little book, but it supports my long-held belief that romance authors must write at least two stories in every book. One, the plot or action story, two, the romance. It’s always nice when someone else confirms your own opinion. 🙂

Hayes approach to the love story follows a simple pattern:

  • set-up,
  • falling in love,
  • retreating from love,
  • fighting for love.

The beauty of this little checklist is that it can be applied during –the dreaming part of the writing, (when the author is just noodling around with ideas)

–when writing an outline,(for those plotters among us)

–during the writing of the story,

–or after the story is finished and the writer is in editing mode.

As someone whose first draft is always a discovery draft, being able to apply “the rules” after the fact is a great benefit.

If you use Scrivener, there is a template available on Hayes’ website with romancing the beat loaded onto Scrivener.

There are scads of “how-to write” books on the market. I’ve read many of them and recommended them on this blog, but Romancing the Beat, hits a high note for me. I’m happy to recommend it.

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Summer Time and . . .

the livin’ is easy or it’s full steam ahead. 

I’ve just been listening to CBC radio two and both Julie Nesrallah and Tom Allen have remarked on W.A. Mozart’s remarkable productivity during the summer of 1788. In a matter of weeks, Mozart completed three symphonies, two operas, a significant number of chamber works and gave numerous performances in various European capitals.  He accomplished  all this while in desperate financial straits and while his infant daughter took ill and died. Truly an incredible burst of creativity.

For most of us though, summer is a time to relax, read for pleasure only, visit with friends and relatives and smell the roses. When I was a kid, the end of school signalled summer vacation. The days seemed to stretch into forever. Routines and schedules vanished. We showed up at mealtimes, but the rest of the time was for entertaining ourselves.

We crawled through the long grass playing “cowboys and outlaws.” We built hay forts in the barn. We lay on our backs gazing at the sky and finding pictures in the clouds. We bombarded any available adult with requests to take us to the lake for a swim. On the way home, ice cream cones were essential. There was always a dog for companionship. Usually we could find kittens in the barn. As I remember, those summers were a sunny idyll.

One of the first bits of advice given a beginning writer is “write what you know.” There are many who will argue with that maxim. After all, you don’t have to be a murderer to write a thriller. You don’t have to be an astronaut to write a space fantasy. I didn’t experience the gold rush first hand, but I’ve set my Prospect series in that era. Still, “what I know” from those childhood summers has crept into the story. In The Man for Her, Sean, afraid of heights, has to climb to the top of the hay mow. The barn of my childhood helped me write that scene. When Michael brings a box of kittens into the kitchen at Pine Creek Farm, bits of myself play into the scene.

As a grown up, I miss those summers. Mostly, I miss the promise of those summers. At the beginning of July, everything and anything seemed possible. September and a return to school were too far in the future to even contemplate.

Some years ago, I decided to recapture some of that summertime magic. I made a list of ten things that mean summer to me and set out to experience them all before Labour Day rolled around. My list included the scent of new mown hay, evenings on the swing outside, impromptu visits over the back fence and a swim in the lake. The lake trip required a picnic with egg salad sandwiches and chocolate brownies to make it complete. My friend and I often remark that that was a great summer even though we were both working full time.

Now that I’ve given up my day job, a lack of routine is “routine.” Still, the smell of fresh hay, an unexpected visit from a long-lost relative and an evening watching the sun go down, still capture the sense of summer for me.

What about you? Are your summer days “lazy, hazy?” Do you experience an outpouring of creativity? Do you feel the joy of that first day without school? What’s on your list of perfect summertime moments?

 

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Stock Characters–Good or Bad?

One of the joys of being a writer is the excuse to people-watch. Where others might be considered nosy, we writers are doing “research.”

I came upon a piece of serendipity research the other day. Two older ladies were having lunch at a table close to mine. I found myself smiling at the sight of them. Both wore modest blouses and skirts– hemlines on the longish side–and flat shoes. Their grey hair was worn in a bun and their faces had only a little powder as a finishing touch. They looked perfect. They seemed familiar, but I couldn’t place them, until it came to me. They were archetypes of the Miss Marple variety. In fact, either of them could have stepped into the Joan Hickson role without a ripple.

Across the room was another woman or a similar age, but very different appearance. Long blonde hair curled over her shoulders. False lashes, foundation, rouge, highlighter, mascara, heavy eyeliner and bright lipstick accented her features. Her blouse was low-cut and she cast flirtatious glances at her male companion.  She reminded me a bit of “our Rose” on “Keeping Up Appearances.”

Then at an outdoor concert, I encountered yet another prototype–this time of the patrician lady. Again she was older, white hair swept into a French roll, erect carriage, well-cut clothes, even if they were just slacks and a sweater, high cheekbones, small chin. Once more I felt as though I recognized her, even though I hadn’t. She could have played the dowager countess on any number of period plays.

As writers, we want to create unique, memorable characters, but as I considered these women, I wondered about the usefulness of stock characters. Should an author keep a number of these prototypes in her tool box? I don’t call them stereotypes because that implies a flat personality as well as a recognizable appearance. My dowager countess could be kind, or critical, generous or mean. My ‘Miss Marple’ could be nosy and nasty, or she could be knowledgeable and helpful. Just because she sports a certain look, doesn’t mean her character is uninteresting.

The fact that I felt a recognition for these strangers, suggests to me that readers might relate to characters they feel they already know. Or maybe I just watch too much British television. What do you think? Do you enjoy recognizable types of characters in a novel or does their appearance make you toss it aside as too predictable?

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Podcasts and the Well

Perhaps it’s the time of year or maybe it’s the time of life, but lately my inbox has been filled with blogs about “filling the well.” The phrase refers to Julia Cameron’s iconic, The Artist’s Way, in which she posits that to be creative the artist must have a deep well of experience and detail in order to pour out our creativity on the page. For many writers, this book is required reading, and re-reading.

One of my blog friends took a nature walk. I can definitely identify with that. Nothing like flowers and trees and water and the sound of birds to refresh the soul. Another learned a new skill — and perhaps a discovered a new hobby. Another technique endorsed by Ms Cameron.

A corollary to “filling the well” is the artist’s date. In this case, the writer takes herself on a date. She may go to a museum, take a walk, go window-shopping, take in a concert. The range of activity is limited only by the author’s imagination. The one rule for the date is that the writer must go alone.

While I understand that Ms Cameron’s thesis that the artist needs to be alone to avoid distraction, I don’t always agree. Sure, a walk on the beach with the wind and the waves, alone with your thoughts is a great refresher. But, as writers, we spend many hours alone. Sometimes, when I go on a date, I want company. I want to hear another’s voice, hear another’s thoughts, hear another’s laughter. The number of hours available for solitary well-filling is limited so I’ve hit on a compromise. When I really crave company, but want to open my mind to new things, I listen to podcasts.

In a way I’m still alone. I don’t have to answer any questions or smile politely or hold my tongue when I disagree, but I have the comfort of a human voice. Plus, it’s kind of like a free university. So many topics to chose from. I can get a new perspective on history. The Secret Life of Canada. I can get a music lesson. Ted talks is one of the best known broadcasts for new ideas, old problems and deep thinkers.

I’m a news junkie and a raving Canadian so CBC podcasts appeal to me. There are also many podcasts on creativity. Basically, pick your topic and someone has discussed it on the air somewhere, sometime, and you can listen in as mood and time permits.

I wouldn’t suggest podcasts can take the place of listening to a live concert, or attending a lecture or walking in a forest of tall trees. Those are all essential “fill the well” activities, but sometimes we need to look outside our own interests and try something new. A podcast may be just the spark to set your creative fires burning brightly.

P.S. Anyone care to recommend a favourite podcast? Leave a comment and I’ll send you one of my short stories.

 

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