Tag Archives: Oakville writing classes

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.

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

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.

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.

Foreshadowinghow-to-use-foreshadowing

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.

Telegraphing

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.

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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.

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