Tag Archives: Oakville writing classes

Blank Page Syndrome

Credit: The Draw Shop

Blank Page Syndrome – it really is a syndrome – and a scary one at that. If you are a writer, I can guarantee that you have been struck with it at one time or another.

You can suffer through it until you get a breakthrough or you can take some medicine to cure it.

Causes of Blank Page Syndrome

No. 1 – No fun, no passion – You’ve lost that spark that got you excited in your story. The writing has become humdrum, the characters dull, and you’ve edited it so much that you can’t stand the story any longer

No. 2 – Perfectionism – it’s probably what’s caused No. 1 (No fun, no passion). Forget about editing every little detail. What I like to do is make my comments in the comment boxes and let them stew for a while. By all means, re-work areas that you’ve decided to change – but remember that a first draft is your chance to get your thoughts and ideas down. Don’t sweat every little detail

No. 3 – Burned Out – You’ve gone at with such gusto, that you’ve burned yourself out. Writing a novel takes time and effort.

Remedy for Blank Page Syndrome

No. 1 – Pilfer – Steal a great line from a novel you’ve read and write it down to start your thought processes off. Trust me when I say you will not be plagiarizing simply because that line will not stay the way you’ve written it down – not for long, anyway. As your creative writing juices start to run, you’ll realize why that line worked for its own author and how it needs to change for you. So go for it – write it down and let the magic begin

No. 2 – Pretend – Act out your story in your mind. Become the heroine and play-act her problems in order to solve them. Role playing is not just for video games and nerds. Try it – you’ll like it and before you know it – Blank Page Syndrome will be vanquished

No. 3 – Write – Anything you like. Try a poem or a song or even a limerick, but base it on the story you are writing. Sometimes a change of writing can help kick-start that blankness in your head.

No. 4 – Brainstorm – this is my favorite remedy. If you belong to a great critiquing group, they can be a help like no other. They probably know your story as well as you and can give you stupendous ideas of where the plot should go. Use them as a fail-safe remedy.

What’s your remedy for Blank Page Syndrome?

New Year Writing Resolution

New Year’s Resolutions, list of items

Your New Year writing resolution is still pretty fresh in your mind, I’m sure. You’re probably writing away madly and sure that you will be able to keep up the frenetic pace for the rest of the year.

I hope so, but chances are – the writing peaks and wanes.

Achieving Your Writing Resolution

Be consistent and and dedicated. It’s a surefire way to achieve success. While I do believe that the muse does descend upon all creative types, it is necessary to build on what the muse imparts. That means – fleshing out your story idea, adding meat to the bones of your characters’ personalities and carving out conflict after conflict to hinder your protagonist.

Making Writing Your Priority

Of course you have other things to do in life, but ensure that you set aside an hour or two to consistently work on your story. It’s really not that much time. Think of how much time you fritter away watching television or window shopping. Don’t think of it as strict ‘writing’ time – it can mean editing the work or just planning how to progress.

Consistency

Consistency is boring for many, but it’s also the key to maintaining your writing resolution. If you know you are going to spend time writing from 2 – 4 in the afternoon, you will work the rest of your schedule around it. It’s a date with yourself, similar to what you do to go to the gym. It will also help the panic that arises when you know you have one night left to submit your piece for critiquing to your writing group – and you have nothing to submit.

Treat Your Resolution as a Challenge

Many of us like a challenge – even if it’s with our own selves. Challenge yourself to maintain your writing discipline for the next month. And when you achieve that, renew the challenge for the next month and so on. You’ll be so pleased with your progress, it will keep you going.

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Forcing Your Hero to Act

Forcing your hero to act might sometimes be tough. He may be like one of those inflatable tube men that flop around in the wind – just unable to make a stand. How do you get him to knuckle down, grow a backbone and do something for god’s sake.

First off, don’t despair. We can give that tube man some guts and a skeleton, and force him to be a real man.

Here’s how:

A Relentless Opponent

Make sure your villain is a take-charge type, with plenty of intestinal fortitude – the type that never gives up, is a manipulating bastard, and will hound the hero till he has no choice but to force the issue and take a stand. What can the villain do to do this? Plenty. Threatening the life of someone the hero loves should work unless the hero is completely lily-livered (and in that case, he should not be the her), or the bad guy could spread false rumors, tell lies or poison the hero’s pet puppy.

Bar the Doors – No One is Getting Out

Imprison your protagonist and antagonist in a room – okay, it doesn’t have to be a prison. Use your imagination and figure out how you can get them together. Maybe they’re stuck on a ship, or stranded in an elevator that’s stopped between floors or seatmates on a plane. Whatever. Only, you know as the writer, you’re not letting them leave until there is a confrontation, and your hero is forced to act in some way.

Use a Stop Watch

Literally. Forcing your hero into a time crunch will compel him to act. Just like we are forced to write to a deadline or that horrible lady sends unpleasant emails, coercing your hero or heroine into a deadline will push them to confront their fears and act. Perhaps the iceberg on which they are standing is melting and she has to tell him she loves him before they perish, or he is leaving on a jet-plane, don’t know when he’ll be back again (I know I’m dating myself with this song) and so the time for decision is on her.

 

Diagnosing a Problem Story

Diagnosing a problem story can be … well, a problem.

How to Know if you have a Problem Story

If someone asks you this mucho important question, and you are unable to answer it without a lot of “ums,” “ahs,” and a bucketload of background information – then, you have a problem story. It’s time to take a timeout, and figure out what the story is all about. You need to tease the threads apart and decide:

1. Who is your main character? It should always be the most interesting character in the novel; the one with the major problem; and the one who has the most to lose

2. Does your protagonist have a major problem? If she doesn’t, your story will go nowhere. That, my little chickadees, is what your novel is supposed to be about. It’s supposed to be about the heroine facing a major obstacle, jumping over a buttload of hurdles, and racing to the finish line ahead of the opposition that is doing everything to block her from getting to the end, achieving her goals, and getting to live happily ever after.

3. What is the plot? A plot is the individual events that takes the hero from his inciting incident (which kickstarts the hero’s journey) to the climax (where he achieves his objective and gets what he deserves) and finally to the denouement or satisfactory ending.

4. Conflict is at the center of every good novel. Without it to drive the plot, your story will meander, your characters will be flat, and your story lacklustre. That’s why an inciting incident is so important at the start of your novel. It provides the hero with conflict immediately, and spurs him on, keeps him focused, and motivates him to continue to the end so he can win his prize.

5. If your story has so many sub-plots, twists and turns, that you cannot identify the main thread, then once again, you have a problem.  All sub-plots need to link to the main in some way. If they don’t, ditch them.

Solution

The best way to fix your problem is to let your ego take a hike. Join a critiquing group, or a writing class with an instructor or coach you trust, and be prepared to write, write, and write some more.

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Scene Sequels

Credit: helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com

Scene sequels are what happens after a particular scene ends.  If you’ve done your scene right and ended on a cliff-hanger, then you need sort of take a breather and forge some kind of emotional connection. In other words, make your reader care about what’s happening to your character right after you leave him hanging on the ledge.

A scene sequel does three things:

1) Gives your POV character a chance to react emotionally to whatever has happened

2) Gives him/her the opportunity to figure out how to proceed as he/she is (if you’ve done your scene correctly) in a bit of a bind – which is good. It makes your reader worry whether he/she will make the right choice

3) Sets up the next scene by making a decision one way or another

In order to write a scene sequel correctly, you have to also make sure it unfolds in the right order, because that’s the way a normal person reacts. We think emotionally, then stop to reason, consider all our options, and then carry out whatever we decide. Your character is human too (well, if he’s not, then you may be able to change this sequence of events).

1) Your character must react emotionally i.e. cry, beat his breast, chop someone’s head off!

2) Stop and review the facts – this doesn’t mean logically like Spock. It just means he tries to figure out what’s going on

3) Figure out different scenarios as in – ‘what if I did this’ or ‘what if I did that’

4) Make a decision

Think about your character discussing some terrible ordeal she’s just been through with a best friend, or perhaps praying out loud in church – going through the steps of what happened, and then coming to some kind of decision as to how to proceed. That, my friend, is a scene sequel.

Each of these steps don’t need to have the same weight each time. Maybe some times, the character is heavy on emotion, other times it’s trying to anticipate what sort of action she has to take. The only thing to remember is that these steps need to be covered.

Time Traps and the Productive Writer

Time trap

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

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

How to Sidestep Time Traps

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

CNN and Trumpian Nonsense

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

Google

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

Words with Friends

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

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

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Story Craft

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

Writing is Writing is Writing

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

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

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

The Novelist’s Toolbox for Story Craft

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

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

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

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

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

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What Motivates You to Write?

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What motivates you to write is such a fundamental question, but so many of us don’t know the answer. Or the answer is mixed up in a whole bunch of other ones so that the motivation gets diluted.

What Motivates You?

There are a heap of answers to this question, but I’ll list a few:

1) You want to make money, or make a living on your books. I’ve got news for you. You probably won’t, certainly not the oodles that Stephen King and J.K. Rowling make. A first contract is very humbling. So, if your plan is to make money – you really ought to think again. Your best bet is to retain your day job, and write when you have time. If you make it the best-seller list, you get your big chance to march into your boss’ office and tell him/her where to stuff it. And good for you.

2) Fame – again, I’ve got news for you. Same as above. Your chances of fame are possible, but not probable. Of course, you can always become a Stephanie Meyer or a Cassandra Clare, but sadly, the odds are against you. Yes, I know, I don’t sound very positive, but the truth is the truth.

3) Writing because you love it – Hooray, that’s probably the best reason of all, and that’s because you’ll be doing something you enjoy doing, and it will show. Jumping on to some successful genres or plot-type will not get you published, because the trend will probably be over by the time you actually get your novel ready to be submitted. Better to stick with what you know and love.

4) Writing because you’re addicted – Hooray, that’s probably the best reason of all. That’s because that ‘genre’ comes with ‘stick-to-it-iveness.’ You will discover a whole new world of critique partners and writer friends who enjoy the same things you do. And that camaraderie is hard to come by. I know I cherish it.

Motivation is important because it is so difficult to actually get published. There are so many gatekeepers to get through that it can be a disheartening procedure. I’m talking about traditional publishing of course. If you self-publish, then you bypass many of these hurdles. There are other hurdles, but that’s the subject of another post.

Why do you write? What motivates you?

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Trusting Your Gut Instinct

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

My Trigger for Change

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

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

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

What does your gut instinct tell you?

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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.