Category Archives: Creative Writing Classes

Time Traps and the Productive Writer

Time trap

Time traps is one of the biggest problems a writer today faces. I know this from experience. Once upon a time I called it procrastination, and as a journalist and then a freelancer I knew it well. I’d spend tons of time doing the laundry, twiddling my thumbs, walking the dog – anything to prevent me from starting my piece. Because I knew that I worked better under pressure, that my thoughts unfurled when my deadline approached.

As a novelist, however, I only have a self-imposed deadline. Now, unfortunately, procrastination has turned into time traps – time traps such as trolling Facebook, getting side-tracked on my daily dose of Trump nonsense, falling down the sinkhole of Google, and playing Words with Friends.

How to Sidestep Time Traps

Yes, it is possible. Going cold turkey and saying you won’t ever go on Facebook is the same as saying you’ll never touch another carb again. It’s just not sustainable. Instead, set aside a half hour to catch up on Facebook. Let’s face it – you don’t really have to ‘like’ and comment on every post you read, and if you’re like me – you don’t actually post a whole lot.

CNN and Trumpian Nonsense

Give yourself fifteen minutes to catch up on Trump’s latest nonsense. He’s not worth much more.

Google

Here, you need some self-restraint. It’s hard not to get distracted from the valid research you are doing. I find the best way to stop myself from going crazy on  links within links is to just not click on anything. Stay focused on the article you are reading and exercise control. You can do it.

Words with Friends

No words of advice here. As those of you I play with know, I have absolutely no self-control whatsoever. The physical game of Scrabble was a family favorite growing up, and Words with Friends is my comfort game. So – time trap or not – I don’t care.

What are your time traps, and how do you deal with them?

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Story Craft

Is there such a thing as story craft? You betcha. Doctors learn to diagnose and treat patients, lawyers master the rules of law, plumbers plumb and scientists tap the secrets of the universe. So why is it so difficult for aspiring writers to believe they should learn how to craft a story?

Writing is Writing is Writing

No, it’s not. There are many different kinds of writing forms, and just because you can write an essay or a technical document does not mean you know how to craft a story. When I was a reporter/journalist/freelance writer, my world revolved around making sure I had the facts down correctly. One of the first things we learned was the upside down pyramid where you cram in all the most interesting information about the subject you are reporting on. That’s because chances are the reader may never get beyond the headline and the first paragraph.

While you do use a similar technique in crafting a story, you only give away enough to hook the reader and reel them in.

Crafting a story means exposing yourself by allowing your imagination to run free. And that can cause embarrassment, humiliation, and open yourself up to ridicule. But it can also allow you to create an incredible world with characters that are so interesting, they fly off the page and become real. As Jim Butcher of The Dresden Files says “Writing is the original virtual reality.”

The Novelist’s Toolbox for Story Craft

1. It all begins with a workable idea. Ideas are cheap, and are everywhere. But your idea is just an extremely flimsy skeleton. The hard work is figuring out whether you have enough meat in that idea to cover those bones.

2. Structure and technique are necessary constructs that a novel must possess in order for the reader to not be confused about what’s happening. This includes choosing a point of view and deciding where to begin your novel. In media res which means ‘in the middle of action’ is the best way to begin. Capture and hook your reader.

3. Creating a plot (and sub-plots) that is cohesive, exciting and full of conflict for the protagonist. Throwing in a few red herrings helps, if you can carry it off. But most importantly, learning how to manipulate your reader’s emotions so he/she cares about the protagonist is one of the tenets of story craft. If you can get the reader to care, he/she will have no choice but to continue reading

4. Learn how to write engaging dialogue that furthers the plot, and has a specific purpose. Story dialogue, as I’m sure we all know by now, is not conversation. It should sound like a well-honed conversation, but devoid of all the ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ and inane bits that conversation usually is jammed with. Dialogue is always there for a reason. Read it out loud so that you can ensure that it sounds realistic.

5. Think about a baseball player. They make it seem so easy to catch a flyball, or wham a home run. But that comes after hours upon hours of practice. Write, write and re-write until your story reads like it was so easy to write.

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Honesty or Whitewash

Credit: erinspain.com

Honesty or whitewash – what’s your drug? My gang of writers know that I seem to be totally incapable of whitewashing anything. I really do feel whitewash is best left for picket fences and buildings in Greece. Knowing the truth about your writing can only help to get you closer to your goal of being published.

My Online Group Experience

Recently, I met up with a couple of writers I had met. Our loose plan was to begin an online critiquing group since I wanted some input for my new story. I had taken a risk, and started a high fantasy story. It’s not my forte, but I thought I’d try something different. My usual style is contemporary fantasy. The online group started out well. They both hacked my story to bits … and they were absolutely right. It was a very early first draft, jammed full of cliches and completely pretentious. In other words – crap. And they were right.

I looked at my work, and realized that the essential bits were good, but everything else had to go. The upshot – I think my new version is working because now I’m writing my own story, not a cliched, watered down version of something else.

But the problem came with reciprocation. One writer accepted her critiques and moved on. The other tried to convince me that since she had worked in a children’s setting before, she knew better. Maybe she did. But having written for one age group does not mean you automatically know how to write for another age group. The bottom line is that if you ask for a critique, you should know how to accept honesty. If you want whitewash, well then – you should go to your mother or some other family member. Needless to say, that online group crumbled.

As writers, it behooves us to take into account what others we trust say about our work. Getting upset initially is natural. But once you get over it, honest comments can become a gift.

What do you prefer – honesty or whitewash?

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Dreams, Despair and Depression

Credit: novelwomen.org

I call them the three D’s of a writer’s life – dreams, despair, and depression. First, you have a wonderful dream of writing a novel. Not just any novel – a bestseller. It will be top of the New York Times Bestselling list, will become a hit movie, and of course you will be the next J. K. Rowling aka the richest person in the world.

Hah. Reality sinks in when you start writing your magnificent opus. First draft, then tenth draft and one day you realize you are in total despair. Your characters hate you, and the feeling is reciprocal. You’ve gone through your manuscript so many times that you can’t see what the story is about any more.

That’s when depression sets in. You will never sell the stupid thing, no one will ever want to read it, and you are a total bust.

How to Help Yourself

Here are a couple of ways to help you hang on to your dream, to kick despair out of your life and to tell depression to take a hike – a really long one, far away from you.

Worm your way into a critiquing group. A good critiquing partner is worth his/her weight in not just gold – make that diamonds. He/she will quite often have far better insight into your own work than you do. It’s a weird phenomenon, but true.

The second way is to join a creative writing class or hire a creative writing coach. My gang of writers at Beyond-the-Lamppost have become sharks … and I love it. They’ve learned to glean not only the essential parts of each writer’s characters, plot and conflict, but they also offer suggestions on how to improve the work, cut out extraneous bits, and craft the work into something that stands out in quality and originality.

How do you deal with dreams, despair and depression when writing?

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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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