Tag Archives: Oakville writing classes

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.

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.

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

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.


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.


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.

Backstory Basics

Credit: http://emmawaltonhamilton.com

Credit: http://emmawaltonhamilton.com

Backstory is all those fun, murky or intriguing little details of what happened before your hero’s crappy day that you portray on page one.

It gives reasons and excuses for events that happen in the now of your story. But it is crucial to remember that backstory isn’t now. And if you dump too much of the past in one shot, it will take the reader out of the action of the story. And leach out all the emotional power out of your story action.

What’s its Purpose

  • It’s what makes your opening page possible, inevitable, engaging.classic-backstory
  • It’s the history of both your story world and your characters. It’s the events and people who have shaped characters and story setting.
  • It is NOT your unfolding story but it is everything that makes that story possible and necessary and inescapable.

Backstory accounts for the why of the story events and actions that occur at the top of your story. It’s the explanation for your hero and villain’s attitudes and motivations and drives

How to Reveal Backstory

You can slip it in so it seems incidental, as if you were revealing something else, or you could explain it plainly so there’s no doubt you’re writing a paragraph of backstory.

Use both methods but know that they create different effects.

When backstory is dribbled in, revealed piecemeal, the reader learns a character, gradually developing an understanding of his motives. When laid out though exposition, the reader is clearly told what’s happened and perhaps how it affected character or elements of the setting such as how her father beat or abused her, or perhaps because she was forced to go to church. Who knows?

Direct explanation CAN pull the reader out of the fiction. Use it sparingly, because you don’t want the reader to feel he’s being lectured. Rather, you want them to get to know a character the same way we get to know people in the real world.

Show backstory through:

  • sections of exposition, perhaps at the top of chapters and scenes
  • dialogue
  • character thought and reflection
  • flashbacks
  • a prologue

Show backstory to:

  • reveal character motivation
  • slow the pace
  • set up subsequent scenes
  • provide meaning for events and character action and reaction
  • add veracity to a character’s stands and personality
  • provide distractions and murky motives and red herrings (yes, you can manipulate backstory for purposes other than straightforward revelation)

Remember the Paul Masson wine ads? We will serve no wine before its time? That should be your pledge regarding backstory: Never too early and always just enough.

You might also like these posts from Writer’s Digest

Description in Writing

painting“Good description is a learned skill. It’s not just a question of how to; it’s a question of how much to.” – Stephen King

Stephen King is absolutely correct that good description is a learned skill. It’s a cliché but it’s true. Words are your paintbrush and it is the only way for your reader to be able to see what you are seeing, to experience what the character is experiencing and to live vicariously through your story.

Remember though that a reader likes to use her own imagination, so use description judiciously. That’s what Stephen King means in the quote above. You don’t want to inundate the poor reader with too much so that it turns them off. They want to visualize the beautiful setting with some hints from you of course. You supply just enough to give the reader a chance to fill in the details, but still take them in the direction you want them to go.

Good description involves:

  • Writing in a sensual manner i.e using your senses. Just describing someone’s physical attributes can make your description sound boring and like an ad placed in the personals.
  • Uses original similes and metaphors, but judiciously. Too many and you risk irritating your reader.
  • Adjectives are necessary and good for description but try to go beyond just telling us thesmile color of someone’s eyes or that they smiled. What sort of smile did they use – like they knew something you didn’t? And eye color – let’s take blue for example – there are so many variations in blue eyes. Use your imagination to tell us what kind of blue eyes they are. One of my other writers described a brown eyes as mocha. I thought that was original ‘cause I hadn’t heard that before.
  • Zero in on physical characterizations that make your character stand out. John Wayne always walked with a swagger; Clark Gable had outsized ears; Jim Morrison oozed sex appeal – you get the drift.
  • See the location through your character’s eyes.
  • Show not tell is what it’s all about and you only learn by doing. Allow the reader to feel the fear that the character feels entering a haunted castle or the wonder that Hansel and Gretel would feel on finding a gingerbread house made of candy.

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

Follow Bev on Twitter @bev_bell or on Facebook

4 Tips for New Writers

aliexpress-tips-reviewTip No. 1

New writers – this is your first, best, and most important tip. DROP the ‘wannabe’ moniker and recognize that you are a writer. If you think you are a ‘wannabe’ then you’ll never be anything but that.

Tip No. 2

So what if someone writes a similar story – someone once said (can’t remember which great mind said this) there are no new stories: everyone steals from everyone else and changes it to become their own. As long as there are different elements, all will be well. After all, a mystery is a mystery, a romance is a romance and so on.   Just do it and your story will turn out different.

Ask any of my students and they will tell you that I have a terrific knack of re-writing in their voice BUT – there is no way I would ever be able to write their novels because I just don’t think like them. I have no idea what choice of words they will use, where their plot meanders off to, what their characters will do and say and what exactly will happen in their story’s climactic moment. What I’m saying here is that if I were to write someone else’s story (I’m not talking about ghostwriting) that story would end up becoming mine because of the way I think, and the words and phrases I choose to employ. My style of writing is different from yours or anyone else’s.

So if your story starts off being similar to someone else’s, chances are it will become your own after just a couple of pages or so. Copying someone else’s style is a good way to begin writing and learning the ropes. What do musicians do? They sing other people’s songs and play other people’s riffs until they feel confident in doing their own material.

Tip No. 3

Each person’s writing is unique.  One way to discover your own uniqueness is to try writing in different genres until you find the style of writing you enjoy. And of course – read, read, and read some more.

Tip No. 4

Start with a short story on something you know very well – for ex: if you come from a small town in Quebec, try your hand at a mystery that occurs in the Quebec wilderness. You’ll be able to bring that whole landscape alive – imagine something horrible happening in the aluminum mines of Shawinigan or someone falling into the vats of pulp at the paper mills in Trois Rivieres. It will give you a chance to do a nice accent for interest as well – just some ideas.

I used the Jeffrey asbestos mine (from Quebec) in one of my stories because I know Quebec fairly well.

Think about it. It’s easier to start with something small and then you can flesh it out.

Check out these links from Writer’s Digest:

Imagination in Fiction

Credit: omflit.com

Credit: omflit.com

Imagination and fiction go hand in hand. Without the ability to imagine, you cannot write fiction.

Writing fiction is fun, but a lot of hard work. Your mind and imagination is a muscle, just like your biceps or triceps and needs to be exercised in order to flex and grow and create.

No one can get you to start writing fiction. They can offer you prompts to start the process, but in the end, it is your own creativity and the power of your words that do the work.

Using Your Imagination to Write

Like any other muscle, your imagination needs to be worked on. Sometimes a writing prompt like Seventh Sanctum: the page of generators – random tools for art, gaming, writing, and imagination can help kick-start the creative process and knock those cobwebs out of your head. Give it a try. There are many writing prompt generators on the internet.

Another way to envision characters and storylines is to carry around a notebook and become an observer. People watching is fun.  There are stories, characters and plots everywhere. Don’t rely on your memory for capturing the unusual, the eccentrics, the oddballs. Jot down notes. You’ll find they are most effective and from those notes, you can create characters that will have veracity and uniqueness.

Last, but not least – start writing – take a creative writing class and become part of a community of like-minded individuals who will help you through critiques and feedback.

Writing fiction can keep your mind alert and the more you use your imagination, the more you can imagine.

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

Follow Bev on Twitter @bev_bell or on Facebook

Writing Festivals

lamppost-4Writing festivals can be fun and good learning experiences for writers. Four of us Lamppost Writers headed out to this past weekend’s Word on the Street Writing Festival in Toronto.

We attended four presentations. Three we found productive, one we didn’t. Read on for some insights.

What Literary Agents are Looking For

olgaOlga Filina of The Rights Factory and Carolyn Forde of Westwood fordeCreative Artists gave us a substantive idea of what agents look for in their slush pile. It largely depends on each agent, so checking out their websites is important.

My Relationship Hurts: Love and Feelings in Literature

Authors Kim Echlin and Trevor Cole led this presentation. This topic was supposedly on romance, but neither author wished to discuss sex in romance. Since both appeared to be literary writers, they both talked around the subject instead of about it. Questions from the audience were lacklustre reflecting the boredom we all felt. The only time the audience woke up was when there was a question regarding a love triangle.

Mr. Cole would help sell a few more books to women if he got off his high horse and realized that women were people too. I found the way he talked about his book and his protagonist who decides to brainwash his ex-wife into loving him again quite offensive, as did my other three companions. To be clear – it wasn’t the subject matter as the way he spoke and his body language and dismissive attitude.

Overcoming the Odds: Long Journeys to Publication

Ann Y. K. Choi, author of Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety and Shari Lapena, author of The Couple Next Door both gave the audience an insight into their road to publication. Ann Choi’s enthusiasm was infectious; Shari Lapena seemed stand-offish and out of touch with the audience.

First Impressions: Manuscript Evaluations

Several first pages from novels were read and discussed by Humber teacher Kim Moritsugu and Dominic Farrell, developmental editor with Dundurn Press. Ms. Moritsugu was excellent and the points she made were well taken. Mr. Farrell, unfortunately, appeared nervous and it was difficult to follow the thread of his remarks.

Would I go again to the Festival? Yes, definitely – but the organizers should ensure that their presenters are vetted so that the audience gets the most of the Festival. 

Memoir Writing

memoirMemoir writing is one of the most popular forms of creative writing, and it can be a wonderful gift to your family and friends.

Your life story is, by definition, a memoir and as such is yours and yours alone. No other author could possibly have written the same story and that’s what makes it unique. But what are the chances of your memoir getting published in a traditional press? Sadly, not very high. And that’s because, unless you have an incredibly unusual life, very few publishers are willing to take a chance on you. After all, why would anyone pick up a memoir by someone who is unknown?

For celebrities however, the opposite rings true. They have a built-in fan base and that’s whykeith there is a flood of mediocre memoirs by celebrities. Because, let’s face it. They may be celebrities, but they may not be good writers.

What can you do to get your memoir noticed?

Write a spectacular memoir that hovers on fiction like The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls. Reading this memoir is like reading fiction. You keep asking yourself how this could possibly have happened in real life.

Many people like to write about their problems with divorce, drugs, abuse, incest – and this can be a very cathartic experience but it is a difficult genre to sell to a publisher unless you are well-known or have something extremely unusual in your story. That’s why it makes sense to look up memoirists who have written on the same subject. The reason you want to look them up is to make sure your story has a completely different slant.

Read, read, and read some more in order to write well.

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

7 Serious Tips for Writing a Humor-Filled Novel
5 Moral Dilemmas That Make Characters (& Stories) Better
3 Things Your Novel’s Narrator Needs to Accomplish

Follow Bev Bell on Twitter @bev_bell or on Facebook