Category Archives: Creative Writing Classes

Critiquing Cheat Sheet

Before using this critiquing cheat sheet, you must ensure that you have thick skin. It doesn’t matter if someone starts off with something encouraging (which, by the way, you should do) having your work critiqued is tough.

But thick skins are a necessity if you want to be a writer, and tough critiquing is the first step in a journey of rejection, self-flaggelation and heaps of crying sessions. But the goal is so wonderful (my book in a bookstore, yay!) that if you can survive all that, it’s so worthwhile.

1. Look at the Big Picture

Having a weekly group who can read your novel right from the beginning makes a huge difference. They will be able to look at the big picture and ensure that not only do you have an inciting incident that propels your protagonist on his/her path, but they will also be able to get a sense of what is at stake. In my classes, I enjoy people jumping in and having a meaningful discussion by sharing viewpoints, versus each person pontificating about a point and then moving on to the next person.

2. What NOT to Concentrate On

Critiquing is not about niggling at someone’s work. It’s about seeing the whole picture. Forget about a grammar or spelling mistake here or there. Correct it, and move on. The person will see it and note it for the next time. Instead, concentrate on the points that matter.

3. Showing vs. Telling 

Most early drafts tell when they should be showing, and quite often the writer has not picked up on this because they’re so bent on getting their story out. A small nudge in the right direction helps.

4. Character Development

Are the characters flat or uni-dimensional. Do they have flaws?

5. Plot 

Does the piece make sense? How does it flow well – what is the pacing like?  Does the opening/ending of the chapter capture your attention? Have you moved sentences around? Does the piece need to be tightened – too much verbiage? These are the types of questions you should be asking yourself when critiquing someone’s work.

6. Dialogue

  • Is the dialogue stilted?  Dialogue should sound like conversation, but it’s not. It’s a way to further the plot, but should never be an info dump.
  • Inner talk is good, so long as it seems natural. Not many of us go around delivering massive monologues to ourselves. Make sure the inner thought sounds natural.

7. Conflict

Tension and conflict is what makes a novel interesting. Is there any in the scene?

8. Passive vs. Active Voice

Passive voice is extremely common and many writers don’t notice it in their work. Look for weak phrases that begin with ‘it was’ – they’re easy to spot and are usually passive.

9. Point of View

This is something else that a fresh eye can detect. Very often, the writer will slip into an omniscient voice. Make sure the point of view is correct.

10. Voice and Tone

Slipping from the voice and tone of the main character can often happen, and pointing out that the character doesn’t sound like he/she should is something worth pointing out.

How to Plot a Story

If you are writing literary fiction, you can get away with no plot – lots of flowery writing  that goes nowhere, or little snapshots of life are perfectly acceptable for this genre. For anything else, your readers will expect a plot.

What is a plot? 

A plot is your main character diving into a crucial situation to pursue a specific goal but of course encountering insurmountable odds along the way. That is the essence of a plot. Lies, obstacles, misinformation, these are all wonderful components of a plot.

A plot is the skeleton of your story; the bones that hold the framework of your novel together and create the action and conflict. It is the reason for the tale. In The Hunger Games, for example, the people are … well, hungry. They compete in a game of death where the winner receives – food.

The main plot can be depicted in an arc to show the beginning, the middle and the end. It is the story of what happens to your main character; what she wants: whether it is a specific role on Broadway or to become an Olympic hurdling champion. Her objective has to be specific.

You can have sub-plots running through the main plot line – in fact, you need to have sub-plots in order to give your story more layers. Just like in real life where we have multiple things going on in our lives, so too, the protagonist of your story should have a full life. He should not so focused on his goal that nothing else happens to him. This type of character would be boring and one-dimensional.

Other Elements

Of course, your plot depends on other elements as well. It must be fleshed out. Remember the plot is just the skeleton. You give it substance by adding in:

  • Multiple characters
  • Conflict (this is super important)
  • Satisfying Ending

A Riveting, Gripping, Spell-binding Plot Line

That’s what all writers hope for. But what makes for a page turner, for a book that the reader just can’t put down? Three elements:

  1. Multi-dimensional characters you care about
  2. Writing that flows and is effortless
  3. Major and minor complications and obstacles that the protagonist must face and conquer. Keep your reader guessing in each chapter to make her want to continue reading.

Plot Structure

It may not seem like it when you are reading a fascinating story but the author has structured the plot in a very specific way in order to grab your attention and keep it for the duration of the book.

  1. Beginning. This is where we meet the protagonist and find out what he or she is doing and why. We often discover them in the middle of some action that will form the basis of the story. Enough backstory will leak through to give us some idea of their personality and their present life. Conflict will be introduced to keep us biting our nails and rooting for the hero.
  2. Middle. The action keeps moving at a rapid pace. Sub-plots enter the story and must be attended to as well.
  3. More than middle of the way. The climax of the story is reached and we have bitten our nails down to nub by this point. In Titanic, it’s when the ship hits the iceberg and panic ensues.
  4. End. The action starts to wrap up. In Titanic, that means Jack manages to get Rose on a wooden board that’s only big enough for one person. He remains in the water and by the time rescue arrives he is frozen to death. The resolution of the story happens when Rose (now very old) passes away and is reunited with Jack.

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Too Old to Write

Frank McCourt was 60 when he published his first book

Too Old to Write – think again.

Writing is something you can do at any age. In fact, retirement brings you the perfect opportunity to allow your imagination to run free. After all, your mind is not encumbered with worries about work and other mundane bothers.

Plusses to Writing When you are Older

Think about your children, and your children’s children. They may be too busy with their day-to-day activities to listen to your stories of your childhood during the Depression or your stint in a war. But one day, they will be. Writing a memoir will bring that history to life. You don’t want it to be a statement of facts – that’s one reason why young people dislike history in school: boring facts. Dress your memoir up. Bring in the excitement, the dread, the horror, the fear and the adventures you went through. Your family will eat it up like candy.

Everyone has a story in them. Try telling anyone that you are writing a book, and they will tell

Credit: livescience.com

you that it’s something they want to do too. If you enjoy reading fiction, try your hand at it. Not only will you enjoy the process, it will also help to keep your mind active and your brain cells healthy. Besides, it’s sheer fun to create something out of nothing.

Taking a creative writing class is a great way to meet other people who have similar ideas and a fantastic way to enlarge your circle of friends. Quite often, as we get older we notice that our thinking and feelings have changed and are not necessarily close to those we were once friends with. Enjoy the camaraderie that a class of fellow writers bring.

Age brings wisdom and a certain I-don’t-care attitude. You have reached a stage in life where you can do what you want and damn what anyone else thinks. So write down those gems that are hidden in your mind, and take a chance on yourself. You’re never too old to write.

You might also like these posts from Writer’s Digest:

Improve Your Writing

If you are a beginner writer, chances are you need to improve your writing. The writing style that children learn in school is vastly different to what novelists use. In fact, the styles taught in high school are almost the very opposite of what you should do.

Recently, I coached a high school student who wanted to improve a short story she had written. Every second dialogue tag had adverbs added to them: ex: she said warily; excitedly; innocently; emotionally; coldly – you get the drift. In actual fact, adverbs should be used like condiments – only when needed.

What Areas to Improve

There are so many areas to concentrate on. As a writer, the English language is your tool and if you are unable to use that tool well – you will not be able to write. Some of those tools include grammar, vocabulary and spelling. Learn to spell, or at the very least, use your spell-checker.

A thesaurus is built-in to your computer – use it, but be aware of the words you choose. Randomly ascribing a word you’ve found on your thesaurus does not work. You actually need to understand the meaning and the context of the word you choose

Writing and Feedback

Writing, writing and writing some more will help you to write well. Pick up a piece you wrote just a few years before and you’ll be surprised at the change in the flow of your thoughts and your word.
Joining a creative writing class with an instructor who is tough, fair and offers good feedback is a great idea. You will be part of a group that will not only help and challenge you, it will also motivate you to continue writing and offer a camaraderie that you will enjoy.

There’s so much more that will help you improve your writing. You need to learn structure, how to pace your story and allow the words to unfold, how to plot, how to build characters, how to write so that you hook your audience in. But the most important of all is to just get out and start writing.

Creative Writing Coach

In January 2014, I re-invented myself as a creative writing coach.  With just four writers in my new Beyond-the-Lamppost Creative Writing group, I wondered whether I was making the right decision.

What was the Right Choice?

Should I continue my freelance work ( I still had enough work to keep me happy with three different companies although writing about milk packaging, trucking and home renovations was not my definition of fulfillment) or should I devote myself to my own novels?

Did I have enough insight into the creative process in order to guide other writers? Yes, upon reflection, I knew I did. From the creative writing classes I myself had taken, I knew I could offer much, much more. Those classes were too big with far too many people all clamoring to have their views heard – but sadly, very few of them had anything of value to add. The leader of these classes is insightful, but given that his classes are so big, is completely unable to provide any detail to any one person’s story or to see the arc of the plot – where it should go and how it should unfold. Besides, providing three long pieces in a 12-week span was not my idea of achieving my goal: finishing my novel and becoming a traditionally published author.

What to do?

Many thanks to those first classes because it did set me on the right road. It taught me to end my chapters on a cliffhanger, and it gave me the camaraderie of other writers. But that’s all it could do for me, and I noticed many others who were similarly stalled. If you’ve been stuck writing the same story for 5 -7 years – there is a problem … and I noticed this among many of the other writers. That’s why I felt there was a need for Beyond-the-Lamppost.

My Solution

  1. Submit 1,500 words each week so that your story moves rapidly forward, and your peers remember your plot since you continue it each week
  2. Small groups of writers at the same level who have the ability to critique and/or the willingness to learn
  3. Major feedback from the coach who looks at the weekly piece with an eye not just on that submission, but with its place in the whole story
  4. Option to brainstorm instead of submitting a piece

My Qualifications

My training in journalism had given me a good eye and the tools of the trade: the ability to write succinctly, and grammatically and to a self-imposed deadline. Plus, I was very good at ledes (the first line in any article – now re-named ‘the hook’ in novels) I had to trade objectivity with creativity and that worked too – I was far more creative than I’d realized. Plus, having done a lot of editing as well, I knew just where and what to cut.

Just do it, I told myself … and I did … and I’ve never been happier. Thank you to my two groups of talented writers (you know who you are) and I look forward to broadening my classes to one more in the New Year.

Rules for Writers

rulesRules I Agree With

Never open a book with weather – Agree (Boring)

Never use the words “suddenly”. Agree – within reason.

Winter 2016/2017
Creative Writing 101 – Tues. afternoons Jan. 10 – March 14 in Oakville – details HERE 
Crafting Your Novel – Wed. afternoons Jan. 11 – March 15 in Oakville  – details HERE
Crafting Your Novel – Thurs. afternoons Jan. 12 – March 16 in Oakville – details HERE

Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Agree – it can become fatiguing quickly

Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. Agree completely

Read it aloud to yourself because that’s the only way to be sure the rhythms of the sentences are OK – Agree.

Carry something to write on at all times. Agree – you never know when inspiration will hit

If you’re using a computer, always safeguard new text with a ­memory stick – Agree – don’t be stupid

If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page. – Agree. Doing nothing gets you nowhere

Give the work a name as quickly as possible. Own it, and see it. Agree – it will bring your book alive

Do change your mind. Good ideas are often murdered by better ones. Agree, within reason. If you keep changing your mind, you’ll get nowhere

A problem with a piece of writing often clarifies itself if you go for a long walk – Agree, or sleep on it

Never worry about the commercial possibilities of a project. Agree – your job is to finish your book

Keep a diary. Agree – if you don’t you’ll regret all those great thoughts or character you forgot to jot down

Have more than one idea on the go at any one time. Absolutely agree – don’t depend on just one idea

The way to write a book is to actually write a book. Absolutely agree – just do it.

Rules I Disagree With

Avoid prologues – Disagree (I read them all and find them fascinating)

Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue – Disagree – Said is one of the best dialogue tags to use, but mix it up every now and then for variety

Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” – Disagree –  They can be powerful when used with a discerning eye

Keep your exclamation points ­under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. Bah – humbug – Disagree –  J.K. Rowling uses them by the handful – on each page

Don’t write in public places. Disagree – Write wherever is right for you

You might also like these posts from Writer’s Digest:

 

Strong Female Characters

 

hermioneTen Tips for Creating Strong Female Characters

1. Strong female characters should be people first and female second. The fact that they’re women shouldn’t get in the way of their other traits – whether good or bad.

2. All the women in your novel need not be sexy. Are all your male characters gorgeous with no other characteristics?

Winter 2016/2017
Crafting Your Novel – Tues. afternoons Jan. 3 – March 21 in Oakville – details HERE 

Crafting Your Novel – Wed. afternoons Jan. 4 – March 22 in Oakville  – details HERE
Crafting Your Novel – Thurs. afternoons Jan. 5 – March 23 in Oakville – details HERE

3. Most women are not wispy waifs or voluptuous Victoria Secret models. A woman can be attractive and not fit a stereotype.

4. Just because a woman is competent, strong and independent does not mean she has to be a Plain Jane. Think Buffy, Hermione Granger and Scarlett O’Hara.

5. Making your female character good at stereotypical boy things like an auto-mechanic in order to depict she’s a strong character is a cop-out. Sure, she can be a mechanic if that’s what she likes to do, but don’t do it for reason.

6. A lot of women will probably notice bad skin or frumpy outfits on another woman, but beyond that they won’t scrutinize the other woman too hard. They’re way more likely to notice a snooty expression or a false smile.

7. Not all women want marriage and children. Some want one or the other, some want neither. Likewise, not all women want to be CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. Some want to be psychiatrists or artists or teachers or musicians…or whatever else – just like men.

8. Female characters should probably not be solely motivated by a need to have the approval or attention of a man. Or all men in general, really. Female characters who do this ought to change by the end of the story, and realize that their happiness shouldn’t depend on the whims of menfolk.

9. Avoid overly ‘man-hating’ women. Being empowered doesn’t mean she’s terrible to men just for being men—it just means she’s not stepped on for being a woman

10. Don’t have a female character just to have a female character. Make her a whole person.

You might also like these posts from Writer’s Digest:

Real People in Fiction

kim-karMany times your plot might call for using real people in your story – is that kosher? Can you do it without being sued? For example, you might want to use the crazy Hell’s Angel character who happens to live on your street or a celebrity you may have met, or know about. Would you be sued?

Winter 2016/2017
Crafting Your Novel – Tues. afternoons Jan. 3 – March 21 in Oakville – details HERE 

Crafting Your Novel – Wed. afternoons Jan. 4 – March 22 in Oakville  – details HERE
Crafting Your Novel – Thurs. afternoons Jan. 5 – March 23 in Oakville – details HERE

A Short Guide

  • Rule for celebrities are different than for us common folk. Their names and faces are worth money, plus they have the dough to sue you if they don’t like, or object to what you have written about them. If it is a dead celebrity, the rule is different, although there are exceptions (people who have died in California and some other states still have rights or perhaps it is their estates that have the right – you will need to find out about this for sure before you write about someone from such states).
  • Generally, once a person is dead, their rights die with them.spock
  • Generally, you cannot use a live person as a character in your book because it invades their privacy and there is a possibility that they could bring a libel suit against you if you have them (as your character) say or do something that goes against what they might actually do or say in real life.
  • Cameos are acceptable, especially if you use an actual event they attended or spoke at. Anything that you cull from an interview with the person can also be used. You cannot change the facts. If you say that your character looks like Paul Newman in one of his movies, that’s fine.
  • Ordinary people like your weird uncle or crazy aunt also have privacy rights. They may not sue you, but they will despise you and perhaps turn your family against you … or they could lap it up. You never know.

Strategies if you have to use a real person

  • Change their name and details so they cannot recognize themselves
  • Don’t make them look absurd or turn them into criminals. Most people would love the notoriety, but you just never know

There’s no law against using someone’s story to inspire your own. In fact, it is a common way for authors to get ideas. Alice in Alice in Wonderland was based on Alice Liddell as everyone knows and there are so many others.

In fact, we often use anecdotes and stories from our own life to kick-start our novels. And that’s great. It brings a certain veracity to your story. Just remember that there are others who are involved as well who might take exception to what you say – it is part of their life too, after all.

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Writing Good Prose

proseWriting good prose is an art worth cultivating. Many writers are adept at it, while others aren’t so good. Develop this skill if you expect to become a published author.

You probably have one short paragraph to capture a literary agent’s attention before they toss your masterpiece aside. So what should a budding novelist do?

Winter 2016/2017
Crafting Your Novel – Tues. afternoons Jan. 3 – March 21 in Oakville – details HERE 
Crafting Your Novel – Wed. afternoons Jan. 4 – March 22 in Oakville  – details HERE
Crafting Your Novel – Thurs. afternoons Jan. 5 – March 23 in Oakville – details HERE

Sharpen Your Writing Skillssharpening-steel-app1

An agent will be able to tell almost instantly if the writing has an amateurish cast to it. You may have the most intricate and exciting plot and a climax to beat all others but if the reader doesn’t get past your poor writing, your novel will never get published. Get rid of flat, boring writing. Juice up your prose, give your words depth and excitement. Grab them by their consonants and make them pay you for using them.

Good Quality Prose

Toss the hackneyed, trite and well-worn phrases. That means no clichés please. They’re stale, dull and often inaccurate. What exactly does ‘fit as a fiddle’ even mean? Invent your own metaphors and similes. They’ll freshen up your narrative and give it your own creative twist.

Simple and Direct

dickensLeave Dickens where he belongs – in the nineteenth century. His convoluted prose might have brought him top dollar and earned him a place in the classics but let’s face it – who talks like this anymore? “What extravagances she committed; what laughing and crying over me; what pride she showed, what joy, what sorrow that she whose pride and joy I might have been, could never hold me in a fond embrace; I have not the heart to tell.” This type of monologue worked for David Copperfield. It will not work for you. Instead, try being simple and direct. Say YES to short, active sentences and a resounding NO to passive, tortuous language.

Your Reader is Not a Fool

Hitting the reader over the hat with a fistful of adjectives will show you for what you are – an amateur writer. Good writers know to use them judiciously. Trust in your reader to use his/her head. Several adjectives in a row will most often, weaken your sentence. Delete some and see for yourself.

To Be or Not to Be

This verb, in all its different forms, can dull your prose and squash your writing. What are the different forms of ‘to be’? They are: ‘am,’ ‘is,’ ‘are,’ ‘was,’ ‘were,’ ‘be,’ ‘being,’ ‘been,’ and the future ‘will.’ Notice how often you use them and watch how they can turn a sprightly phrase into a stodgy, boring union of words.

Check out these articles from Writer’s Digest:

1. Does a High School Protagonist Mean Your Book is Young Adult?
2. Six Tips for Writing Young Adult Horror.
3. How to Write for Teens Without Sounding Like an Adult Writing for Teens.

Foreshadowing or Telegraphing

banner_helpfulhints_lgWriters need to know whether they are foreshadowing or telegraphing in their stories but not everyone understands the difference.

By now, most of us know that we should go back and touch up our stories so that there is a hint of foreshadowing – so that our readers can look back and think ‘aha, that rascally author hinted at X, X and X and by god, I didn’t know it at that time.’

If you have done that, hurray and kudos to you. You’ve done it right.

If, on the other hand, you’ve dropped so many HINTS (and I use caps for a reason) that the reader has an easy time figuring out what will happen – you are guilty of telegraphing your plot instead of foreshadowing it.

Under no circumstances should your reader guess what your story is all about. After all, why bother reading it then. Right?

Sometimes, though, authors get so muddled up that what they think is foreshadowing is actually telegraphing. Make sure you are not guilty of this common mistake.

Foreshadowinghow-to-use-foreshadowing

In foreshadowing, the author drops enough hints so that the reader can whap the side of his/her head and think ‘oh god, I should have figured that out.’ It’s kind of like a mystery in many ways. Random characters that are woven in and out of the plot so that the reader questions who, what and why they are there is good. They should be able to be tied together by the end of the book and when the reveal is done, it should be a ‘eureka’ moment. That is good foreshadowing.

Good old J.K. Rowling and Georges R.R. Martin are past masters at this. Read, read and read these type of books to figure out their sneaky ways.

One great way of foreshadowing is to plop in clues after you have finished your first draft. Drive your readers insane. They will thank you in the end when they read your very satisfying ending that doesn’t gel with any of the theories they have formed in their own minds.

Telegraphing

telegraph-sounderHow often have you seen a movie where you have figured out the plot before the end? Isn’t it a massive disappointment? What’s the point of watching (or reading) something where you can predict the end?

Most of the fun is trying to do so, but not actually being successful.

If someone can guess correctly what’s going to happen to the main character, you’re telegraphing. This often happens when you are telling too much in your novel. Go back into your draft and obfuscate, confuse and muddle up your story line.

Bottom line – foreshadow, but do not telegraph.

Check out these articles from Writer’s Digest:

1. Does a High School Protagonist Mean Your Book is Young Adult?
2. Six Tips for Writing Young Adult Horror.
3. How to Write for Teens Without Sounding Like an Adult Writing for Teens.