Category Archives: Creative Writing Classes

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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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.

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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

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