Monthly Archives: April 2016

Grammar and Vocabulary Matter



Do grammar and vocabulary matter any more? It wouldn’t seem so when you take a look at texting, email and even some blogs. Have to confess I use shortcuts when texting – no upper case, abbreviations that only make sense to someone in the 21st century  and, yes, I’m also guilty of ignoring punctuation.

Why? Because of the nature of the beast. Texting is instantaneous, like chatting. We don’t necessarily speak in perfect sentences or with good grammar so this seems to work for texting and the casual email.

 AUG. 15 The Dreaded Synopsis Made Easy (click here) 

AUG. 29 – Draft Your Query Letter (click here)

SEPT. 5 – Learn How to Find a Literary Agent  (click here)

But when it comes to writing a novel, or your blog (which literary agents, publishers, readers and the general public may judge you by)  you should use proper grammar and the correct vocabulary. Yes, grammar and vocabulary do matter … especially if you are a writer.

As writers, words are the tools we use to construct our story. And vocabulary is one of the most powerful of those tools. After all, if someone doesn’t understand what we are saying, then we have failed miserably. A good vocabulary allows you to communicate not only your ideas, but the thoughts and emotions of the characters that populate your novel, plus it allows the reader to visualize the world you have created through the art of description. The right word at the right time makes all the difference.

Just remember that having a rich vocabulary is not about using the most intricate or difficult word you can find, or using jargon. Think about vocabulary as choosing the best dress for the occasion.  dressesYou may have twenty-five gorgeous dresses in your closet, but the blue jewel tone is the one that will best display your assets for that particular occasion. That’s the one you go with.

In the same way, grammar can make or break your story.  Many writers whine that grammar is not their best suit. So learn it. It’s a bad carpenter that blames his tools for his shoddy work and it’s a bad writer that blames grammar for a poor story. Just like a carpenter needs to use a saw, so too, the writer needs to  acquire a rich vocabulary and to learn the rules of English grammar.


2016 Summer Writing Classes in Oakville

Creative Writing 101 – Tuesday afternoons Aug.2 – Sept. 13 (no class Aug. 9)

Crafting Your Novel – Wednesday afternoons Aug. 3 – Sept. 14 (no class Aug. 10)

For more details click on the links or email

Learn to Write a Query and Synopsis



Writing a query and synopsis for your novel is, arguably, more difficult than writing the darned story itself. How do you condense 90,000 words into a mere 3-400 words (for a query) or a page for a synopsis?

Join me for the following workshops and learn to do the impossible. You’ll leave with a working copy of your own query and synopsis.

Monday, August 15 – Synopsis WorkshopThe Dreaded Synopsis Made Easy (you’ll work on your own synopsis. Bring laptop.) 12:30 – 3:30 p.m. Cost: $40 Email to register and for location

Monday, August 29 – Query Workshop Draft Your Query Letter (you’ll work on your own query) 12:30 – 3:30 p.m. Cost: $40 Email to register and for location

The final piece of the puzzle is finding the right agent to help you get your book published. With hundreds of agents in both the United States and Canada, finding the one that suits you can be challenging. This workshop gives you the tools to find the right match for you and your manuscript.

Monday, September 5– Workshop – Guide to Finding a Literary Agent 12:30 – 3:30 Cost: $40 p.m. Email to register and for location

How to Create a Complex Villain

villainAll novels need a villain – and a complex villain at that. No cardboard, one-dimensional Darth Maul need apply. The only type of villain I enjoy is one who is so bad and with so many layers that he’s gooooood!

Disclaimer – for the sake of ease of reading, I’m using the pronoun ‘he’ but everything applies to ‘she’ too.

Villains, especially complex villains are fun to create. You get to use all the flaws, imperfections, negative traits and disgusting quirks that you’ve compiled over the years in the lovely little notebook that every writer carries wherever he or she goes – no, your phone doesn’t count! As far as I’m concerned, little ratty notebooks are the only ones that matter. The notebook that’s been stuck in your purse so long that it has lipstick and blush marks on it, pieces of gum stuck on and its pages are dog-eared. That notebook has undoubtedly captured the essence of whatever you have observed and need to note down.

Add Some Shoe-Shine to Your Baddiedownload

It’s simple. A complex villain is never simple. He doesn’t just want power or money just to be rich or powerful.That’s boring. Give your villain motivation. Perhaps his daughter or his favorite dog was killed by vicious drug lords or mad scientists and he’s out for revenge. Nothing will stop him.

Give Him a Past (and a horrible one at that)

Maybe he drowned rats as a kid or burned ants with a magnifying glass. It’s the type of thing that can lead to ever more repugnant deeds. You need to decide how deranged, vile or immoral he should be.

Are Villains Born or Made?

It’s nurture versus nature. Was your villain born or created because of something horrific happening in his past? All the psychological thrillers on television seem to have psychopaths who have become that way because their mothers fed them gruel or forgot to pack their lunch. Yes, I’m making light of this, but do your homework and either have something vile happen to your villain as a little boy or else have him born that way. Look around your child’s playground. There is always one kid who is bullying and tormenting the others. You can’t tell me that toddlers have learned that behavior – chances are they were born that way.

Give Him a Soft Spotwith cat

Stroking a fluffy cat while pondering evil deeds is always a classic – James Bond villain in You Only Live Twice does this with aplomb as does Dr. Evil in Austin Powers. But try something fresh. Whether it’s a love for a hairy tarantula or a guinea pig, give him something to soften his evilness. It doesn’t even have to be a pet. Perhaps your villain enjoys the sweet scent of jasmine or is a master gardener.

What kind of villains do you enjoy creating?


2016 Summer Classes in Oakville

Creative Writing 101 – Tuesday afternoons Aug.2 – Sept. 13 (no class Aug. 9)

Crafting Your Novel – Wednesday afternoons Aug. 3 – Sept. 14 (no class Aug. 10)

For more details click on the links or email



Congratulations to Beyond-the-Lamppost student, Karen Harding. 20160413_123625Her short story Bill McBean, Tall and Lean was published in this month’s issue of Our Canada.

Karen’s story so captivated our writing group that we coaxed and cajoled her into transforming Bill McBean into a novel for middle-grade readers. The result – an exciting, action-packed story that will thrill young boys and girls, even as it takes us back into a time where lives were simpler and adventures joyful and fun.

Congratulations, Karen and we look forward to seeing the book, based on this short story, published soon.


2016 Summer Classes in Oakville

Creative Writing 101 – Tuesday afternoons Aug. 2 – Sept. 13 (no class Aug. 9)

Crafting Your Novel – Wednesday afternoons Aug. 3 – Sept. 14 (no class Aug. 10)

For more details click on the links or email

The Inciting Incident in Your Novel

The Inciting Incident is probably the most important part of your story. It is what propels your protagonist off on his path and gives the novel its raison d’être. In Harry Potter, forharry-potter-acceptance-letter-619-386 instance, Harry’s letter from Hogwart’s becomes the inciting incident. He is determined to find out what is in that letter and it forces his Uncle Vernon to try and destroy it. That letter is finally delivered to him by Hagrid  … and Harry finds out he’s a wizard. Talk about a life changing event! 

Inciting Incident

The inciting incident is the event that throws the protagonist’s world out of balance and sets the story in motion. The plot is trying to get the balance back.

Knowing where to start your story is crucial. Inexperienced writers start with backstory and of course we know that is a fatal mistake. The reader will get bored quickly. Starting in media res is the best way to get your plot off with a bang. It means immediately plunging your hero into a crucial situation or in the middle of an action scene and then having him figure out how to extricate himself from the mess he finds himself in.

Here are other ways to conceptualize the inciting incident:

  • download (1)it knocks the hero out of his everyday routine
  • it is the event which sparks the fuse of your plot
  • it’s something that MUST happen in order for your protagonist to do, or go, wherever she has to
  • what is at stake?

Whom should the reader care about?

It is obviously the protagonist so, as a rule of thumb, introduce the hero right from the start. Sometimes, as in a murder mystery, the victim may be introduced first but make sure the hero is presented as quickly as possible so that the reader can become invested in the character.

How do we make people care about our protagonist?

We can do this by allowing the reader to see her in action doing something that reveals who she is. This makes the inciting incident a good place to start simply because the protagonist is reacting to something extremely important.  Exposition, which is background information that must be given the reader, can be inserted later through dialogue and flashbacks.

The inciting incident does not have to be a negative thing like a murder: life can be unbalanced by winning the lottery or having a baby. It just has to be vitally important to the character. This is totally subjective – it has to be important only to the character, not necessarily to anyone else. It must be personal. Also, the inciting incident cannot happen offstage. The protagonist must be aware of it.

A story does not have to begin with the inciting incident but it should be foreshadowed. You can bring it in when the time is right, but it is best if you do it as early as possible.

Example of inciting incidents:

ozWizard of Oz – The tornado that takes Dorothy out of Kansas and into Oz

Legally Blonde – When Warner dumps Elle instead of proposing to her as she expected

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – When Lucy hides inside the wardrobe and finds Narnia

Do you know what the inciting incident in your novel is?


2016 Summer Classes in Oakville

Creative Writing 101 – Tuesday afternoons Aug.2 – Sept. 13 (no class Aug. 9)

Crafting Your Novel – Wednesday afternoons Aug. 3 – Sept. 14 (no class Aug. 10)

For more details click on the links or email



Five Mortal Sins of Writing

Look out for these five mortal sins of writing.

Last call for Spring Writing Classes – One spot still open in the Thursday session and space available in Creative Writing 101 on Tuesdays. Click here for details


Expressions become clichés when they are used so often that everyone knows them. Who doesn’t know such clichés as ‘fit as a fiddle’ or ‘in the nick of time.’ It’s also the mark of a lazy writer who doesn’t want to think deeply. Choose expressions that bring your work alive. Sometimes just reworking the cliché can revitalize the expression and it becomes your own. Let’s take ‘fit as a fiddle.’ First of all, why did anyone come up with that? How can a fiddle be fit? How about ‘fit as Jillian Michaels.’

2.Thesaurus Abuse

A thesaurus is a fantastic tool and I use it bountifully. See – that makes no sense. What I really want to say is, I use it liberally. Just because a word is in the thesaurus does not mean you can substitute it for another. Words in English have many meanings and you have to ensure that you are using the correct word. Ex: The profound river – instead of deep river.

3.Mixing Metaphors

A metaphor compares two unrelated objects or ideas to make your own point more striking.



One of the most famous is Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage.” Problem is many writers … and politicians end up mixing metaphors. What this means is they mix two unrelated metaphors or two unrelated images that do not go together. For example saying “Mr. X wields his axe to cement his position.”

4. A Torrent of Adverbs and Adjectives

I really don’t have a problem with adverbs – when used in moderation. Sometimes, they are just what you need to make your point. But if you continuously, unceasingly, incessantly, endlessly, always use them – they become fatiguing.



So too does the excessive use of adjectives. Use them only in strings of three and make them count. Adjectives and adverbs that are tossed in willy-nilly only clutter up your prose. Words like nice, pretty, kind, a lot, quite, funny are acceptable, but dull adjectives. They don’t tell us much. They’re far too vague. Instead of using such words try showing what make Mary Ann look pretty or how she is kind and you’ll find that your prose will perk up and your story will begin to shine.


Excessive description is often the mark of an inexperienced writer. Your reader has an



imagination. Let him/her use it. You, as a writer, provide the bones and the reader can fill in the rest.

This is an excerpt from The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis.

Polly had discovered long ago that if you opened a certain little door in the box-room attic of her house you would find the cistern and a dark place behind it which you could get into by a little careful climbing.

C.S. Lewis could have described this in detail, but just giving us those few descriptors allows us to visualize the space on our own … and we find we can do it quite well.

Let’s try to cleanse our souls of these five mortal sins.


2016 Spring Writing Classes for Beginners and Advanced

Creative Writing 101 – Tues. afternoons April 12 – June 28 in Oakville  (space still available)

Crafting Your Novel – Wed. afternoons April 13 – June 29 in Oakville (FULL)

Crafting Your Novel – Thurs. afternoons April 14 – June 30 in Oakville (1 spot available)

For more details click on the links or email


Exquisite Words and Fancy Sentences



Sometimes we get so involved in writing exquisite words and fancy sentences that we forget to go with our gut. For sure, as writers we must write well, but not at the expense of beautiful sentences with no actual story to bind them together.

Where’s the Beef?download

Never a truer piece of advertising! You can be as lyrical and poetic as you want, with elaborate descriptions and detailed narrative but if you do not grab your reader by the gut and twist it, they will just wonder what the story is about? The intricate descriptions may hold their attention for a while, but in the they will put the book down because they don’t know where and what it is leading to.

If you can write as well as Ernest Hemingway but have no plot, no characters that grab you by the throat and prevent you from breathing, no twists and turns and no exciting adventures that leave you panting for more – you have nothing. You must have a story … and an interesting one at that. The fancy writing comes second.

Fantastic writing, a great way with words and vivid dialogue will only get you so far. A juicy plot is what you need first. Good writing is second. Why? Because if your story is gripping, your reader will want to know what comes next. J.K. Rowling will never be in the same literary class as V.S. Naipaul but who cares?

There are only a select few who even know who V.S. Naipaul is (FYI – he is a Trinidad-born Nobel Prize-winning author) but there is almost no one in the world who does not find Rowling’s Harry Potter series gripping or who has not heard about them.

download (1)Rowling can bring a story alive in a way that most writers cannot and that’s because she has such a compelling story. You just can’t wait to find out what happens to poor old Harry Potter. His future is so unpredictable that we cannot help reading on. Even her secondary characters are fully formed and have lives of their own that we can’t help getting invested in.

What does our gut want?

  1. A Juicy Problem

Our story must open with something crucial to the hero that takes him out of his comfort zone and instantly gives the reader something and someone to root for. They must know what the point of the story is.

Know what your protagonist wants.

  1. An Emotional Connection

The reader wants to connect with the story in a visceral way – with a gut feeling that he/she is going to love or hate the main character. Reading fiction is not a cold and dispassionate activity – you can leave that for studying something dry and dull like statistics. With fiction, we want to feel that connection to the protagonist and insidiously experience whatever the heroine is encountering – her fears, risks, adventures, her love – whatever.

  1. A Deeper Meaning

Your whole story is not just about the plot and the twists and turns it may take. It’s about the protagonist and how he changes as a result of whatever he has to go through. In other words, the reader doesn’t just want to know how the main character solves his problem. The reader wants to know how the character will evolve and see the world differently because of how he surmounted the problem and achieved his goal.

What is your reader really rooting for when they read your story? It should be more than just your heroine achieving her goal.


2016 Spring Writing Classes for Beginners and Advanced

Creative Writing 101 – Tues. afternoons April 12 – June 28 in Oakville (space still available)

Crafting Your Novel – Wed. afternoons April 13 – June 29 in Oakville (FULL) 

Crafting Your Novel – Thurs. afternoons April 14 – June 30 in Oakville (1 spot left)

For more details click on the links or email