Category Archives: Creative Writing Classes

Trusting Your Gut Instinct

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Trusting your gut instinct is not as easy as it sounds. Years ago, when I first immigrated to Canada I worked as a secretary in a big paper company, right in the center of Montreal in the wonderful old SunLife Building. It was a great introduction to Canada, but I hated working as a secretary especially when I got promoted to be the Big Boss’ secretary. That meant I had to make him his daily cup of soup in addition to my other work. Grr, I absolutely detested it.

My Trigger for Change

But one day I visited a school friend of mine who worked at the World Bank in Washington. It was great fun until she made me cry. Yep, she got under my skin and made me feel awful because she made me realize one important thing (which I didn’t want to hear at that time) – I was in a job I hated and which did not suit me and … I could do so much better.

Once I got over my crying jag, I realized she was right. That’s when my gut instinct kicked in. I marched into my boss’ office (I wish I could say I told him where to stuff his cup of soup, but I didn’t) and quit to go back to university and get my Bachelor’s in Journalism.

That was the beginning of my belief in gut instinct. Whenever I’ve used it, it’s never let me down. When I’ve sat there analyzing my actions and decisions, I fall flat. My decision to become a writing coach was based on expertise – yes, but it was also based on my gut instinct that I could do the job. I had the qualifications, the knowhow and the temperament but most of all – my gut instinct told me I would be good at it. And it was right.

What does your gut instinct tell you?

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Sabotaging Yourself and Your Writing

You love writing your novel, yet somehow you can’t stop sabotaging yourself. What gives? Not sure, but I think it’s our innate way of trying to protect ourselves from rejection. Besides, it’s just so darned easy to blame everyone.

Sabotaging Strategies

Blame work and family for taking up so much of our time away from what we want to do – write, write, and write.

Blame agents for rejecting our work, not bothering to read the story, not getting it, and well – why bother if you can’t even get your query by the gate keepers

Blame our critiquing partners for not understanding what we’re writing and refuse to understand how their remarks and suggestions can help improve and texturize your work

Blame distractions like Facebook, email, google and housework.

Blame your own insecurities for not allowing you to pursue your goals of getting your novel published.

Is there any way to get past these sabotaging strategies? Sure. Just like any bad habit, it will probably take you a few months of concerted effort to force yourself to climb the self-esteem ladder.

Success Strategies

Writing books, teaching blogs, podcasts, magazines – there is something for everyone. But sometimes, this can actually be a problem. Too much information can be overwhelming. Troll a few sites, and see which ones appeal to you. Is the language simple and direct? That’s always a good clue.

Writing classes can be the perfect strategy for motivation and to snap the word ‘sabotage’ out of your writing vocabulary – but only if it is the right one for you. Small classes like in Beyond-the-Lamppost work well because the group leader has time for everyone.

Take responsibility for your own actions, and try to manage your time at home and at work. Setting aside a specific time to write – whether it is in the morning or late at night might help to keep you motivated and on track.

What do you do to nix sabotaging yourself?

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Cliches and How to Ditch Them

Cliches creep into your writing without you noticing them. I just started the first draft of a new novel, and discovered that not only was the working title a cliche – the entire piece I’d written was full of them. I counted perhaps four in the first chapter alone. Shocking, but it’s a first draft so who cares? The purpose of a first draft is to get your story down. Finessing comes later.

Once I noticed the amount of cliches, I started to look for them in my student’s work and discovered something noteworthy. You can often ditch cliches and your sentence not only works fine, it sounds better and the meaning comes through even stronger.

You can find any amount of cliche examples if you troll the internet, but here I’ve chosen some examples from work I’ve edited and critiqued. Once these writers realized their attraction to cliches, they ditched them and came up with novel ways of re-arranging their sentences and pumping up the originality

Examples of cliches (with apologies to my students)

He sucked in his breath
Blood rushed to his face
With a deep breath
Chalking it up
Caught in the crosshairs
Blood pounding in her head
Whipped around the corner
Stifling a cry
Heart jumped in her throat
Time stood still
Sweat rolled down my neck
Chin trembled
Breath bursting from puffed cheeks
Chill ran down her spine
The hair on her arm stood up

The problem with cliches is not that the words used are inappropriate – sometimes they can be just the wording you need. The problem is they have become trite through over-use, and it gives the impression that the writer is lazy and un-original.

Once you clue in to your cliched writing, you will discover that it’s quite easy to come up with new ways to say the same thing. Don’t believe me? Try it, and find out.

Writing Fantasy

The biggest Do of writing fantasy is letting your imagination run free – after all, it is a fantasy that you are writing. However, within your fantasy world you need to have some rules. You get to make up the rules, but … you must abide by them – and it must be believable. It helps to make notes on your fantasy world, giving it a history and peopling it with characters so that it becomes real to you. But unless you are writing high fantasy, you won’t need to reach to the level that J.R.R. Tolkein or Georges R.R. Martin went to. (Is there some spooky coincidence to them both bearing the R.R. middle initials?)

Beware Cliches

Whether you are writing high or low fantasy, or even urban fantasy – there are many creatures
that have now become cliches: dragons, vampires, and werewolves are common examples. Does that mean you can’t use them? Not at all. It means you need to find something fresh about them – forget twinkling vampires – Stephanie Meyer beat you to that in the Twilight series, plus that was the weakest point in her book, if you ask me.

World Building

This is the fun part. You get to decide what type of a world it is, whether magic is a natural resource or a treasure that only few can possess. You get to create continents and oceans and people. You are a God, but just like God put certain physical rules into place – you have to do the same. He was consistent. Gravity is something that is felt over the entire world – not just in North America or Asia. In the same way, make sure you remain consistent in whatever you choose.

The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America‘s website is a resource that all fantasy writers should explore. This particular page (see link above) lists tons of questions which will help you build your fantasy world.

Best Blogs on Writing

I love skimming through the blogs listed below. They kick butt – mine! and force me to get back to the hard work of writing my novel. I’ve listed them in no particular order.

1. http://terribleminds.com/

I have absolutely no idea what books Chuck Wendig writes, and I don’t really care. All I know is his blog is a hoot, but not for the faint of heart. He swears – a lot, but his ramblings on writing – here’s an example: http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2016/08/09/25-reasons-why-i-stopped-reading-your-book/ are on point.

2. http://www.publishingcrawl.com/

This is one of my favorite blogs. They are a group of authors and publishing professionals who break down the profession into easy-to-absorb blog posts. They will also periodically accept queries to critique – although they only choose a few. As a bonus, they have a section entitled ‘Books Discussed/What We’re Reading’ which is great if you’re at a loss for something to read

3. http://queryshark.blogspot.ca/

Literary agent Janet Reid is truly a shark! Make sure you can survive her bite if you send her a query to critique. She’s merciless. But – her comments are on-point, and you can learn plenty from her rantings.

4. http://www.betternovelproject.com/blog/

This blog, run by Christine Frazier breaks down well-known and popular novels like Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and The Hunger Games and studying them to find out what makes them a best-seller.

5. http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/grammar-girl

No writer can survive without good grammar. It’s a fallacy to believe that your editor will fix everything. If you write ungrammatically, you won’t even be able to get to the stage where you will need an editor. Grammar girl is an indispensable aid.

Read them all, or just one of them. And let me know what you think.

The Internet and the Writer

As a writer, I can safely say that the internet is a boon and a bane to me. So easy to waste time and energy getting sidetracked by Facebook, or by some research you knew you had to do. One click leads to another, and another and by the time you’ve scrolled through umpteen pages – it’s lunch time and you’ve written but a single paragraph.

1. Research

Everything is so much easier with the internet at your fingertips. Whether it be looking up a word or synonym in a thesaurus or finding the perfect name for your character from sites like fantasynamegenerator.com

I’ve researched agents, publishers, scrolled through dozens of blogs to learn about the publishing business, or to check on my favorite authors. You want it – it’s there.

2. Agent Tracker

Looking for agents for your book just became that much quicker and easier. All you need to do is type in your criteria into your favorite search engine and within seconds you can find all the literary agents you could possibly query.

3. The Miracle of Email

Once upon a time, you had to send your query and first pages in by snail mail. Not only did it cost a bundle, waiting twelve weeks or more for an answer was completely unfeasible. Nowadays, with a click of your mouse you can send your query out to as many agents as you want. How great is that.

4. Google Earth and YouTube

With Google Earth and the ever-expanding world of travel blogs, you can journey anywhere in the world and garner some cool virtual insight into places you know you’ll never be able to afford to visit. I had to do some research on Kolkotta and while I lived there when it was known as Calcutta, there’s a lot I’ve forgotten. Somewhere, someone has visited it and uploaded a wealth of information just for you.

5. Online Forums

I’ve used online forums like Absolute Write to check what others have thought of different agents – whether they respond back or just throw your precious words on the scrap head. I’ve also answered questions on sites like Quora so that others can benefit from something I know.

Just don’t waste your time.

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Keep Your Muse Well-fed

Keep your muse well-fed, or watch her vanish. She is like a never-ending hunger that needs food but fails to get filled. And that’s good. She, the muse, is what brings that creativity to you. Feed her well.

What is the Muse?

The Muse comes from Greek mythology. They were nine goddesses who embodied the arts and  inspired the creation of literature and science. The muse can descend at any time, and if the recipient is not ready to receive, she will disappear and that inspiration will be lost.

Ray Bradbury, prolific science fiction writer, was a big proponent of the muse. He fully believed that when she descends and gives you the gift –  that story controls you. In a 1980 essay he said, “My stories have led me through my life. They shout, I follow. They run up and bite me on the leg— I respond by writing down everything that goes on during the bite. When I finish, the idea lets go, and runs off.”

If that’s not the muse, I don’t know what is.

How to Feed the Muse

1. Gather Experiences 

All those adventures and impressions from childhood and beyond should be collected and stored away to be used when needed. Snap up the landscapes, the textures, the foods, the experiences, the flavors to be given new life in a novel of your own.

2. Read Indiscriminately

Those writers who read only one type of genre are starving their muse. Can you subsist on just chocolate? Likewise, the muse is nurtured on every type of novel. Trashy romance or classic Hemingway – they both do their job in providing the variety that the muse requires in order to inspire that wonderful story that lurks within you.

 

3. Cop a Phrase, a Word, a Line

Write down fresh similes, fragments of paragraphs that you enjoy reading, or words that tease your tongue,  and action verbs and adjectives that you wouldn’t normally think to use. Then when you’re stuck, look through these lists and one of them might trigger the right inspiration.

4. Write with Enthusiasm

Writing is a joy, not something that you should feel you’re forced to do. Sit down to your computer with anticipation and wonder about what will come from your mind down and in and out your fingers. Enjoy the sensation of creating.

6. Surround Yourself with Like-minded People

Forget about people who are negative. Surround yourself with other writers who are supportive of you and your craft.

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Staying Focused on a Single Story

Credit: Attitudes 4 Innovation

I know I have trouble staying focused on a single story – and that’s good and bad, depending on how fast the ideas flow and how fast you write.

Staying focused on a single story allows you to put all your efforts into getting the manuscript done, polished and edited and finally out the blinking door and onto a literary agent’s doorstep. Then, you can start on something else.

But having more than one story going at a time works for those of us who find that if they’re stalled on one plot line, can continue working on something else at the same time and – voila! At the end – you have two novels for the price of one!

Pulled in all directions? Have great story starts that go nowhere? Mind too full of ideas? Here’s what to do.

How to Keep on Track

1. Weekly classes definitely help to keep you on track since you are forced to cough up 1,500 words each week. The pressure, as many of us know, forces the brain to produce.Look at the Big Picture

2. Set a goal and tell the world … or perhaps just those who are supportive. If you know you have a deadline of a year to complete your novel, and you have a personality that sets store by deadlines – you will honor it and reach your goal. Give yourself some motivation for getting there. It could be anything – from a new app to a fancy new outfit – whatever will give you the impetus to get there.

3. On the flip side of goals and deadlines are penalties which you can give yourself or a trusted accomplice to exact. It could be monetary or whatever you determine, but it must be something that will hurt, if even just a little bit.

4. Force yourself to write or dictate into a phone a certain amount each day. I find that inspiration often hits me when I’m walking Indy, so I always carry my phone around and talk into my memo app. I may look like a fool to people who pass me by, but hey! who’s laughing when I’m that much further along in my manuscript.

5. Brainstorming with your writing group can also help to keep you on track. Enthusiasm is infectious and if your writer friends are enthusiastic about where your story is going and what your characters are doing – you’ll get fired up again and the creative thoughts will begin to flow again.

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Capturing Ideas

Credit: Clarice Bajkowski

They’re everywhere, but capturing ideas and transforming them into a coherent and gripping story is what’s difficult. In fact, sometimes ideas can be overwhelming. It’s tough to actually sit down and convert them into something worthwhile. Other times, it’s a challenge to carry through on an idea and see it to the end. Is it good? Bad? Indifferent?

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “In writing, there is first a creating stage–a time you look for ideas, you explore, you cast around for what you want to say. Like the first phase of building, this creating stage is full of possibilities.”

Capturing Ideas

In this technological age – the phone is king. There is a notepad ready, so you can let your
fingers do the walking or (if like me – you are walking your dog) you can turn on the microphone and let the ideas reel out of you and into your trusty phone. Just be prepared for some nonsensical words – I find the mic is great at substituting silly words for what it thinks you are saying. Speak slowly and clearly, or you’ll find you have created a new language that is incomprehensible even to you!

You can also use the camera to capture images that inspire you.

Photo courtesy of waferboard on Flickr

Notepaper and pen or pencil is still a writer’s best friend. Never leave home without it. Your phone may die, technology may come to an end, but if you’ve captured your ideas on paper, you’ll breathe easier knowing your thoughts are there for you to retrieve when you need them.

Sticky notes are another great tool for capturing ideas that pop into your head when reading a novel. Something a character says, or a phrase that catches your eye could lead to something momentous. Grab a sticky note and paste it in the book along with whatever it is that gave you your eureka moment.

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Curiosity and the Writer

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it’s what keeps us writers sharp. It’s what motivates us to keep banging on those keys until you get a blinding headache or your keys wear out – whichever comes first. It’s what keeps you up at night trying to figure out your plot line, or whether your sub-plots will work, or whether the whole damn story is worth writing at all.

How Curiosity Shapes a Story

It’s curiosity that makes us wonder where our characters want to go, and what they want to do and leads us to write that gripping story set in some fantastical world.

How to Stimulate Curiosity

1. Start with the the 5 W’s of Journalism – Who ? What? When? Where? Why? How? (yes, I know  ‘how’ doesn’t start with a W, but in journalism circles it’s considered a W!) Ask these five questions to generate curiosity about your characters and they will tell answer. Don’t believe me? Give it a try and find out.

2. Pique Your Interest –  It just takes a little bit of interest in a subject for the mind to get intrigued.  And the moment you are intrigued is when you become inquisitive and want to find out more. Nowadays, with the internet available at your fingertips, there’s no better time to satiate that thirst.

3. Keep Writing – Keep writing – that’s another way to stimulate curiosity and complete your manuscript! Start off with a great hook – something that intrigues you yourself and sets your mind wandering and wondering. No better way to find out what your story is all about.

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