Tag Archives: creative writing classes

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.

3 Best Writing Books

Choose one or all of these writing books to gift the Shakespeare in your life.

kingOn Writing by Stephen King

This is my favorite book on writing – strange because I’m not a big fan of King’s mostly because I don’t like horror and find his writing style not very appealing. He is a master of plots though and has a wicked imagination, which I admire. What’s great about On Writing is the advice he gives. It is clear, meaningful and written is plain English. Buy it, you won’t regret it.

The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. Whitestyle

So many writers today have no idea how to string a sentence together and as for grammar and spelling – well, they seemed to have bypassed that class in grade school. You can’t write a novel the way you text, so if you want to learn the elements of writing – begin with this book.

 

bellPlot & Structure: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting a Plot that Grips Readers from Start to Finish by James Scott Bell

Whew! that’s one heck of a title, but read through that and you’ll get a super idea of how plots work and how to create them. James Scott Bell writes suspense and thrillers (not my favorite genre) but when it comes to teaching someone how to craft a novel – he’s No. 1 in my book.

 

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January Creative Writing Classes

Start the New Year off with a creative writing class. If you are new to writing and want to learn how to turn your idea into a novel, Creative Writing 101 on Tuesday afternoons is the one to choose.

You can come with your own ideas, or tempt your brain with some writing prompts.If you have a manuscript you’ve been working on for some time, and have gotten nowhere with – the Wednesday or Thursday class will be ideal for you. This is a challenging course where you submit 1,500 words each week. It is intended for writers who want to strengthen their manuscripts and move ahead rapidly. Be prepared for lots of hard work but plenty of fun.

Creative Writing Classes

WINTER 2017 – 12-week Writing Classes

imagesCreative Writing 101 – Tuesday afternoons Jan. 10 – March 14  from 12:30 – 3:30 p.m.
Crafting Your Novel – Wednesday afternoons Jan. 11 – March 15  from 12:30 – 3:30 p.m.
Crafting Your Novel – Thursday afternoons Jan. 12 – March 16 from 12:30 – 3:30 p.m.

Location: Unity Church, 3075 Ridgeway Drive, Mississauga
Fee: $160 for 12 sessions – To register, email: beverleyburgessbell@gmail.com

Convincing Dialogue

talkThe best way to write convincing dialogue is to remember that dialogue in fiction is NOT conversation.

It is a way of furthering the plot. It is never used just for the heck of breaking up the narrative.

If you listen to people talking in daily life, they use a lot of ‘hems’ and ‘haws’ – they leave sentences hanging and sometimes lose the thread of what they want to say. Donald Trump is a perfect example. Listen to him, and you’ll know exactly what I mean. He makes no sense at all.

In fiction, people talk it perfect sentences and they don’t waste valuable time making small talk. In fact, even greetings are short and to the point, if used at all.

What Can Dialogue Do?

Dialogue in fiction is used to propel the plot and to flesh out personality traits or characteristics conversationof the people populating your story.

  • Give a character a speech impediment or accent (just don’t overdo it or it will cause problems) or even have them mis-use words. Ex: Mrs. Malaprop from Dickens
  • Use them to bring in backstory in a natural and convincing manner
  • Fill in gaps in the storyline through a dialogue between two characters
  • Gossip or talk about another character thereby allowing the reader to discover more about the absent person
  • Allow one person to eavesdrop on another’s conversation

Potential Mistakes

  • Having dialogue for the sake of it. Dialogue must always have a purpose.
  • Unnatural speech. Let the dialogue flow naturally. Make sure the speech is right for the character talking. Example: if the character is uneducated, he will talk a certain way. If a character is a teen, she will speak like someone in high school with slang words (don’t overdo or you will date your piece).
  • Very long monologues can be boring. Break up the speeches with some give and take between the characters and also make sure we know what they are doing while they are talking.
  • Dialogue tags should be unobtrusive. Once in a while, you might want to use an adjective or adverb, but use sparingly.
  • Go easy on the accents, or jargon, or slang. A word here and there to give the flavor of what you’re trying to convey goes a long way.
  • Try varying your characters’ speech patterns. We all have different ways of talking. I have a neighbor that starts every line with “Nothing …” and then launches off into a long story. Give your characters some personalized traits.

So even though dialogue is written as if two people are conversing, somehow you have to convey that it is natural. Not an easy task to do. The best way you can do this is to write the dialogue and read it out loud. When you read it out loud, certain aspects will stand out and you’ll be able to adjust so that the words flow more normally.

When you read a book you enjoy, parse it to see how the dialogue is written. I will often devour a book I enjoy and then go back and read it at leisure to understand why I enjoyed it so much. What worked? What made it so compelling? This is why it is so important to read if you want to write. You can learn so much.

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From Idea to Story

Credit: designshack.net

Credit: designshack.net

There is no easy way to get from idea to story.

Ideas themselves are a snap to acquire. But what you do with them after is the key. You can get ideas in your dreams, in everyday life, in overheard conversations and on the television. You religiously jot them down in your idea notebook, but when the time comes to begin writing that masterpiece the muse has often taken wing and flown off. Those magnificent words you logged with such gusto stare back at you in meaningless mots of drivel.

Is there anything a writer can do?

Yes, there is. Keep jotting those ideas down, and then begin asking yourself some pertinent questions such as:

  • Does this idea lead anywhere?
    What does the character want?
    Is this a mystery, a romance, fantasy?
    What conflict does the main character face?
    How will he resolve this conflict?
    Does he have goals and objectives?
    Can I stuff obstacles in his way to prevent him from reaching his goal?
    What kind of change will the character experience during the process?
    Is there a way for me to populate my character’s world?
    What sort of resolution does my character want?
    Which part of the original idea excites you (the writer) most?
    How can I let my imagination run free and take this snippet of an idea and build an entire world around it?
    Can I take this boring idea and revitalize it by placing it in a genre where it would be fresh and exciting?

If you can answer these questions, then you are on a roll and should be able to flesh out your idea into a story. Start off thinking in terms of a short story if that is more helpful to you. As long as there is a beginning, a middle and an end, it will serve as a guide or synopsis for you on your way to creating a full novel-length manuscript.

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Inspiration For Stories

Credit: a2ua.com

Credit: a2ua.com

Inspiration for a new book comes in different forms for different people. Sometimes a word or a phrase can start you down a path to a novel, sometimes a quirky character that you’ve met may become someone in your story, and sometimes it’s just plain hard work coming up with a good idea.

How to Come Up With Inspiration

Inspiration is everywhere. As a writer, you just need to recognize it. Sometimes, a riveting childhood – be it good or bad – can kick-start a story. Jeannette Walls did this with her book The Glass Castle.

The main thing anyone can do is to allow your imagination to bloom. Elizabeth Gilbert, authorelizabeth of Eat, Pray, Love gave a very interesting TEDTALK called Your elusive creative genius which goes into the whole notion of a creative muse. All writers will be inspired and motivated by this Ted Talk. 

But all the inspiration in the world will amount to nothing if you don’t put that effort into practice. Once you have an idea, you need to flesh it out and see whether it has enough meat to cover an entire novel – or perhaps it’s meant to be just a short story.

The most important thing you can do for yourself though is to write. Trust in your imagination by testing out new ideas and novel scenarios.

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First Line in a Novel

www.almostanauthor.com

www.almostanauthor.com

Should a first line in a novel be dialogue? This was a discussion with a writing student of mine who opened her novel with a line of dialogue. The line was good and worked very well. It just didn’t work for me as a hook.

And of course, the hook in a novel is paramount. Without it, your book will be shelved – and not bought. Worse, not read.

Personally, I find a novel weak when it begins with dialogue, rendering me confused as to what’s going on, who’s talking and why. I want a first narrative sentence that grabs me and wallops me over the head immediately before I get sucked into dialogue.

Credit: www.indiesunlimited.com

Credit: www.indiesunlimited.com

But, as I mentioned to the student, having said that, what every writer should bear in mind is that your novel is just that – yours, so of course you have ultimate say in what you believe to be the best way to introduce your work. But, trends are constantly appearing in the publishing world (ex. semi-colons and colons are going out of style) and if you want your novel to be picked up by an agent, it is necessary to modernize and bring your work up to what is perceived to be the modern standard.

 It is a fine line to walk – making sure that your novel is true to the way you want it to be and making sure that the literary gatekeepers will approve and take it on in order to get published. As far as my students are concerned – the goal for me is to have everyone  (including myself) published in the traditional way (for me, it is the yardstick for everything). So while we cannot slavishly follow every trend, certain aspects are worth noting so that you can be published. After all, is that not our goal?

 The first page, first paragraph, nay – first line is ultra important to me and as many of my students will tell you very frankly – I have been an unmerciful nag on this subject. It is the crux upon which you can succeed or fail, so think long and hard  how you want to proceed with the opening.

Let me know what you think.