Tag Archives: Oakville writing classes

Trusting Your Gut Instinct

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

My Trigger for Change

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

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

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

What does your gut instinct tell you?

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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.

Aspiring Author Advice from Jim Butcher

Jim Butcher is author of one of my favorite fantasy series: The Dresden Files. He’s also pretty inspiring when he rants. Aspiring authors – read on for great advice I pinched off his Live Journal blog.

The Most Important Thing an Aspiring Author Needs to Know

I’ve been giving a lot of advice on technique in this journal, an introduction to the craft and science aspects of writing a solid story. Now I’m going to briefly venture off into new territory. I thought I’d start by telling you the most important thing you need to know if you want to be a professional author: TANFL.

There Ain’t No Free Lunch.

Nothing worth doing is easy. Nothing worth having comes free. That’s as true in life as it is in your prospective writing career, but I think it’s important enough that it needs to be said.

Writing is a LOT of work. Breaking into the industry is a torment worthy of the fifth or sixth circle of Hell. Face that. Expect it. Deal with it. It’s going to be difficult.

It’s difficult from the get go: you’ve got to work your tail off and give yourself carpal tunnel just to make it to the front of the rope-line outside Club Author. There’s no guarantee that you’ll ever get in. There probably aren’t going to be very many people who are actively supporting your efforts. You’ll probably have more than one person say or do something that crushes your heart like an empty Coke can. You’ll probably, at some point, want to quit rather than keep facing that uncertainty

In fact, the vast majority of aspiring authors (somewhere over 99 percent) self-terminate their dream. They quit. Think about this for a minute, because it’s important:

THEY KILL THEIR OWN DREAM.

And a lot of you who read this are going to do it too. Doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. It’s just human nature. It takes a lot of motivation to make yourself keep going when it feels like no one wants to read your stuff, no one will ever want to read your stuff, and you’ve wasted your time creating all this stuff. That feeling of hopelessness is part of the process. Practically everyone gets it at one time or another. Most can’t handle it.

But here’s the secret:

YOU ARE THE ONLY ONE IN THE WORLD WHO CAN KILL YOUR DREAM. *NO ONE* can make you quit. *NO ONE* can take your dream away.

No one but you.

If you want it, you have to get it. You. An author can’t help you. An editor can’t help you. An agent can’t help you. If you want to climb that hill, the only way to do it is to make yourself do it, one foot in front of another, one word after another. It will probably be the greatest challenge most of you have ever faced.

And here’s the kicker: THAT IS A VERY GOOD THING.

If you stay the course and break in, you are going to acquire a ton of absolutely necessary skills. You have to learn to motivate yourself to write even when you don’t feel like it: Discipline. You’re going to have to learn the ropes of the business, and how to work with an editor: Professionalism. You’re going to face what might be years of adversity, facing a monumentally difficult task and you’re going to overcome it: Confidence. You’re going to do it with very little active support, and when you look back at this time in the future, you’re going to know that it was something YOU did all by yourself: Strength.

TANFL, guys.

Breaking into the business is a daunting challenge. But you aren’t going to BEAT that challenge. You’re going to transcend it. The very nature of the adversity is going to give you the strength and skill you need to overcome and succeed.

You want in? Here’s what you do:

1) Make up your mind that you are going to protect your own dream. If you’ve got its back, your dream is invincible.

2) Cultivate patience. Prepare for the long haul. Building your skills to a professional level can take years. So can building your professional character.

3) Put your Butt In the Chair and start writing. Period. No excuses. There is no substitute for BIC time. It’s part of the price you pay.

4) When you get done with a word, write another word.

5) Repeat steps 4 and 5 until your dream comes true.

Secret number 2– THE PAIN IS WORTH IT. If it had taken me TWENTY years instead of nine, IT STILL WOULD BE WORTH IT.

Cause here’s what you get: ding.

When it’s all done and you’re holding your first novel in your hand, you’re going to look back at your breaking-in period and wonder what all the drama was about. All the things that wrenched you inside out during the torment will suddenly seem small and unimportant. Know why? Because much like Scott Pilgrim, you have leveled up. Ding.

You’re going to look back at that time with pride, having overcome seemingly impossible odds against succeeding. You’re going to look at upcoming challenges as if they were a bottle of champagne to be savored and then gleefully smashed.

The true reward of breaking into the industry against all the odds isn’t money. It isn’t fame. It it isn’t respect.

It’s you.

It’s confidence. It’s satisfaction. It’s well-deserved pride. Suddenly, the other challenges in your life are going to dwindle as well, because you know you’ll be able to handle them.

TANFL.

Ding, baby. Ding.

Go write.

 

The Internet and the Writer

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

1. Research

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

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

2. Agent Tracker

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

3. The Miracle of Email

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

4. Google Earth and YouTube

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

5. Online Forums

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

Just don’t waste your time.

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Keep Your Muse Well-fed

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

What is the Muse?

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

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

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

How to Feed the Muse

1. Gather Experiences 

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

2. Read Indiscriminately

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

 

3. Cop a Phrase, a Word, a Line

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

4. Write with Enthusiasm

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

6. Surround Yourself with Like-minded People

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

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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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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.