Category: Writing life (page 1 of 11)

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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Season of Change

My household has just come through a time of sadness. Our fifteen year old cats both died. We missed them sorely, constantly opening doors to let them in, then remembering they were gone. There were many tears.

For several months we lived in a house with no pets. We didn’t have to organize visits to the vet or clean up litter boxes. We could go away without finding a cat-sitter. Yet our hearts were heavy. We missed the extra heartbeats in the house. We missed the love the furry little creatures doled out on their own schedules. We missed being “staff” to our royal felines.

Last week we brought two calico kittens into our home. Life has changed! they have only two speeds — top gear or sleep. The floor is littered with shredded paper, empty spools, a Ping-Pong ball and a roll of string. Anything and everything is a toy, including my bare toes. I bear little scratch marks everywhere. Yet I am happy.

My friend came to meet them and couldn’t stop laughing as they wrestled and jumped and ran. She asked if I ever got anything done. The answer was “not much.” It took me three days to complete what should have been a two hour task.

But there is joy in our hearts. After a time of mourning, we celebrate new life.

Writers experience seasons of change in their work-life too. A friend of mine recently switched from historical romance to historical mystery. The change renewed her enthusiasm for writing. It brought her a new audience and it refreshed her spirit. A change of season in her writing life.

I know another author who has decided to change her writing schedule from one book a month to one book a year. For her the season of growth has changed to the season of reflection. For now, she has time to fill the well, to enjoy her family and to appreciate the beautiful place we live.

A well-loved vocal teacher in my town passed away recently. At a service for her I saw old programs and photographs. Before she became a teacher, this woman had a successful career as a performer. None of her students every heard her express regret for the change of season in her life. She embraced teaching with enthusiasm and dedication, taking enormous satisfaction in the success of her students.

Life is not static. We don’t stay children, or newly-weds or young parents for more than a season. We do not stay mired in sorrow or exultant on the mountain tops. Life is change.

Barbara O’Neal not only writes great books, she is a font of wisdom on the writing life. She says, And don’t forget to plant some new joy for writing.

So, I may be distracted and unproductive for a time while I enjoy my calico cats. That’s my season of life just now. It’s all part of living and writers need to live fully. Instead of chafing at wasted time, I’ll embrace a slower pace. Who knows, it may improve my writing?

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Notre Dame

courtesy cnn

Along with most of the world, I had a heavy heart on Monday morning. The film showing Notre Dame de Paris burning seems so impossible. This icon of France, monumental architecture of the medieval world, symbol of the Christian church, guardian of the city for over 1000 years is so etched on the public conscience it seems impossible that it can be lost. When I saw the spire topple I couldn’t help but sob.

Today, there are vows to rebuild and pledges of millions of dollars, to help with that effort. There is comfort in know all the world cares about this piece of history. I wonder though, will it ever be the same? Can a reproduction take the place of the original?

A few years ago, my husband and I took a trip through Europe where we visited castle after castle and cathedral upon cathedral. Nearly all had been severely damaged during WWII. They had been rebuilt using materials and techniques true to the original structure. The results were truly amazing.

One structure in particular, the Residenze at Würzburg, had been nearly 87% destroyed, yet many of the treasures had already been removed from the building — much as many of the art works had already been removed from Notre Dame. Between 1945 and 1987 the Residenze was restored at a cost of approximately €20m.

For me, the most spectacular room was the mirror cabinet . The walls were formed of glass and paintings were etched on them from behind! i.e. the artist had to build up the image backward. So in a face, the dot of light at the centre of the eye went on first, then the pupil, then the iris, then the white of the eye, then the lids, etc. The last touch put on the painting was the background. My mind boggled at the skill and knowledge required to achieve such an effect. 

Much as I appreciated seeing the treasures of Medieval Europe I couldn’t help but ask why a war-ravished country was willing to spend so much on old buildings. The population needed food, shelter, transport, schools, hospitals . . .  How did they justify the expenditure of millions and millions of dollars on historic buildings. The citizen I asked replied that their history was what they had to show to the world. In North America, she said, or Australia or New Zealand, we have landscape. In Europe, they have history.

While I love the vistas and open spaces of my country, Canada, I’m not sure we have a good sense of history. I’m glad that Europe does. Today Notre Dame de Paris is a shell, but it holds the heart of a people. I rejoice that it will rise from the ashes.                                                                                                                                                            

 

 

 

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Second Thoughts

I’m often troubled with insomnia.  Experts warn against lying awake for hours on end. They suggest insomniacs get up and “do” something useful. What the experts forget though, is that bed is cozy and comfortable. Getting up requires leaving those warm blankets and stumbling around in the dark and cold. I’d rather lie in bed, even if I’m not asleep. My compromise is to “think” something useful, while enjoying the comfort of my pillow. Sometimes I write letters in my head, or draw up a plan of action for the next day. Often, I think about my work in progress. That’s what prompted today’s blog.

While lying in the dark as the minutes ticked over I mulled the writing so far and came to the conclusion that my heroine was too bland. I’d tried to make her shy and nervous, but I’d given her a profession that required assertiveness and skill. The two aspects of her character were not working together. I came up with a solution. In her working life she is capable and cheerful. Only around one family member do her insecurities come to the fore. This solution pleases me no end, even though it means I must go back through the pages already written and incorporate the character changes. I’m sure I’ll like my heroine better.

One of the ways I’ll show the two opposing facets of her character is through letters to her sister. Here’s a sample.

You’ll have to laugh, Chastity when you read about my first day. I arrived travel-stained and smeared with mud. I found two mad men in the hospital entrance, one hopping about and shrieking like a banshee, the other brandishing a pistol. I didn’t know whether to interfere or run for my life. I chose to act. If Florence Nightingale can nurse soldiers in a war zone, I can dress wounds in a mining town.  As it turns out, the man with the pistol is the doctor.. . .

She paused in her writing to chuckle as she imagined Chastity’s shock upon reading this tale. Then she sobered. Chastity was a kindred spirit, sharing Verity’s sense of the ridiculous and view of the world. She could happily live with that sister. But Moira . . . Levity vanished as she considered her youngest sister, scarred, dour, and difficult and all Verity’s fault.

Does that excerpt give you a hint of Verity’s character and her conflict? I’d love to see you comments.

How do you spend sleepless nights?

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Genre as Training Ground

My book club’s choice for this month was a  book by an author I knew first as a romance writer. I looked forward to a gentle read. Wrong! The author had written what Donald Maass might call a “breakout” novel, the story that is deeper, more complex, bigger, and usually a better seller than the genre novel that preceded it. The book I just read achieved all of that.

Yet, I could still see the “genre” fingerprints in the work. There was The Writer’s Journey technique of a call to adventure, the refusal of the call and finally crossing the threshold that launched the protagonist into the story. Since there were two parallel stories, the author used this technique with both of them.

I could also detect Goal, Motivation, & Conflict on nearly every page. Each of the main characters was focussed on a goal of protecting family, motivated by love of family. Then the writer threw obstacle after obstacle in their way. Sometimes small goals were achieved and the story moved forward. Sometimes those goals were thwarted, leading to further complications. In one memorable scene the main goal appeared to be accomplished, only to turn to ashes. You can’t go home again, no matter how desperately you try.

True to her roots, the author included a romance, but it was a side bar, not the core of the novel. The book was not what I’d expected, but it was a good read and I’m sure our book club discussion will be lively.

Coming from my perspective as a romance writer, I found affirmation in this author’s journey from genre to mainstream. Nearly every writer dreams of writing the breakout novel, both for the financial reward and for the literary satisfaction. Based on this book, writing genre fiction is excellent training.

I’m always on the lookout for a breakout novel. Any suggestions?

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