Favourite e-mails.

I love e-mails. I love their immediacy and the fact they can consist of only a single word or a whole screed.

I’m currently having a great e-mail conversation with my aunt.  She’s helping me edit one of my books which is set during WW2. But it’s not just her professional feedback I’m enjoying, it’s the little tidbits about her family life growing up that she keeps dropping in. Totally fascinating. I just love firing up my laptop in the morning and sitting down with my breakfast cup of tea to see what’s in my mailbox from her. (And one of these days I hope to persuade her to start her own blog on Growing up in Glasgow in the 30s and 40s so everyone can read her stories.)

But just edging her out this week was an e-mail I received yesterday which made me really – really – happy.  I’ve known Dee Van Dyk for… let’s leave it at a long time! She was my first introduction (via snail mail!) to the Alberta Romance Writers’ Association (ARWA) and has grown from being a colleague to a good friend. For many years she’s focused on non-fiction, publishing articles in many major magazines, but a few months ago – after several years of puttering around with a YA novel idea – she joined ARWA’s Summer Challenge to complete a first draft over the summer months.

Yesterday morning I woke up to the following e-mail header:  Do you know what this is?

And when I clicked on the image?

Her completed first draft of her YA Novel The Sin Eater!

dee imagge

It just shows what a person can achieve if they have passion and persistence.

Having read the first thirty pages, I can’t wait to read  the completed manuscript. Dee’s a hugely talented writer with a unique, vibrant voice. She’s going to the Surrey International Writers Conference this fall to pitch Sin Eater and I have no doubts it will be snapped up.

When she hits the bestseller list, don’t forget that you heard her name here first.

Way to go, Dee!

And keep those good news e-mails coming!

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Writers’ Retreat – Day One

It’s 11.30pm, so I’m going to cheat here and repost an article I just wrote for the Alberta Romance Writers’ Association blog. If you are an ARWA member and would like to join the discussion tomorrow, please contact me and give me your Skype address.

If you live in Calgary or Southern Alberta, stay safe and warm.

* * *

Despite the flooding here in Calgary, nine of us managed to get together for the first day or our retreat – five in person and four later on in the evening via Skype.

Our discussion brought up a few interesting topics.

1) Should we dumb down our writing – especially vocabulary – for our readers? Most readers read for pleasure/leisure and research shows that the most popular reading level is Grade 8/9. The reader wants to be able to lose himself a story, not constantly looking up the dictionary to find out what a word means. So, yes, do feel free to use the occasional ‘hard’ word but make sure the context is clear. If you want to find out what ‘level’ you write at, check out autocrit. There is also a facility on Word that allows you to do so.

2) Episodic writing. Charles Dickens was the master of episodic writing, but it appears to be having a comeback. Alexander McCall Smith recently released his book 44 Scotland Street. It was first published in The Scotsman, one chapter every weekday for six months – 100 short chapters. Not all the chapters end with a cliffhanger, but McCall knew he had to create an ending which would made the reader want to check in with the story the following day.

So what’s created a renewed interest in the episodic style? It could be the prevalence of blogging – Julie and Julia for example. For a video take on the episodic story, check out The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, a fresh retelling of Pride and Prejudice through the daily entry of a modern day blogger.

3) What we sometimes find from both unpublished and multi-published authors is the tendency to recount a scene/event from one person’s POV and then immediately retell the exact same scene from another character’s POV. Unless this is done with great skill it can pull the writer out of the story or bore them. Better to ‘move the story forward’, choose the most relevant POV character and only write the scene once!

We’re going to be meeting at 3pm on Skype tomorrow afternoon. If you’re an ARWA member and would like to join in the conversation you can do so either in person at Diana’s house, or via Skype. Just e-mail Diana with your Skype address and she’ll add you to the list. These are the topics we’ll be discussing:
1) How do we apply the ‘rules’ to our writing yet maintain our own ‘voice’?
2) Define ‘voice’.
3) Give an example of one piece of music/song that triggers your writing – and tell us why?
4) Define success? Does its definition depend upon which stage of the writing journey you are currently on.
5) Can/should an author put too much of themselves into their stories/characters.

ARWA Retreat meets The Great Calgary Flood

The worst flooding for 100 years.  We’re less than a mile from some of the most badly hit areas, but fortunately we’re warm and dry and still have power.  Four ARWA members have managed to make it in for the retreat – others who were coming in from out of town are staying home for safety, but we’re going to meet on Skype tonight.

http://globalnews.ca/video/661728/raw-video-downtown-calgary-flooding

This is probably the worst disaster Calgary has ever seen. Our mayor,  Naheed Nenshi, has apparently just been on CNN. It appears that out of the 100,000 people forced from their homes, only 1,500 have had to use the public shelters, such is the generosity of Calgarians.  As a city, Calgary rocks!

Stay safe out there, everyone.

Forget-Me-Not

I’ve been a bit quiet on the blog front recently. No excuse, really. Just distraction.

Elona Malterre talked to The Alberta Romance Writers’ Association a few weeks ago on Writing The Short Story. She’s a multi-published author and one of the founding members of The Alberta Romance Writers’ Association. One of the comments she made really stood out for me: A short story involves unity of Place, Time and Action.

I’m probably not going to be blogging much next week. I’m hosting a writing retreat at my house next weekend, so between then and now I’m going to be busy cleaning, cleaning, cleaning! Until then, here is a short story for you to read, Forget-Me-Not.

I hope you enjoy it.

Working with a Critique/Feedback Group

The Alberta Romance Writers’ Association (ARWA) runs a winter and summer writing ‘challenge’ programme. This is an opportunity for small groups of members (3-4) to meet online once a week to read and offer support and feedback on current works in progress. The aim is to produce a first draft manuscript over a 3-5 month period.  Currently we have an 80% completion rate and interest in the ‘Challenges’ continues to grow.

For those of you who have never been a member of a critique group, what kinds of things should you consider before taking the plunge, either with ARWA or with your own writing group?

Being a member of a critique group involves both Giving and Receiving.

GIVING:

1) Tread with care. It seems to be human nature for us to remember the negative things people say about us rather than the positive. There’s a line in the movie You’ve Got Mail where Tom Hanks tells Meg Ryan, “It’s not personal, it’s business.” She responds with, “It’s PERSONAL to ME.” Writers who offer their work up to peers for review are putting themselves on the line.  If you flat out say ‘I don’t like it,’ that’s as good as telling someone their baby is ugly. If something doesn’t work for you, try and figure out why.

2) Focus on the positive. My personal creed is to preface my feedback with at least 2-3 things I liked about the manuscript and also end on a positive note.

3) Ensure your comments will help the writer tell the story s/he wants to tell, not how you would write it.

4) Try to find out what the writer wants from a critique.  If they ask for something specific – eg I think my hero might be too unsympathetic – then focus on instances where a little tweaking of a word/action could turn that around.

5) If you feel the writer has a lot to learn, don’t try and overwhelm them with feedback. Concentrate on the one thing you feel is most important to address in that week’s particular submission – eg POV, passive voice etc.

6) Try to give at least one checkmark or ‘nice’ on each page –  eg. for a piece of dialogue/description etc.

7) On a personal note, if I’m critiquing a hard copy of a manuscript, I prefer to use a pencil rather than a pen.  If I’m commenting digitally, I will use a grey font colour rather than a coloured one.  (Never use red – too much like school!)

 

RECEIVING:

1) Make sure you take note of the positive things people say about your manuscript.  Sometimes we only hear the bad things, so be very careful you don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater if/when you decide to do a rewrite based on the feedback you receive.

2) Most feedback is subjective.  (Remember the dozen or so editors who turned down Harry Potter?) However, if you have two or more people saying the same thing – eg POV/weak characterisation – then that’s maybe something you should look at.  However, you might also get into a situation where 2 people like something and 2 people don’t. Who is right and who is wrong?  It’s up to you to decide. It’s your story.

3) Don’t defend your manuscript or get into an argument over it. If someone doesn’t get what you’ve written, they don’t get it.

4) A discussion is not the same thing as an arguement. Discussions can be very useful.  For example, going back to the unsympathetic hero, I might make a suggestion which the writer doesn’t like – eg what if he helps an old lady across the street –  but that might trigger a comment from someone else which does work for the writer, or at least sets the writer on the path to find his or her own solution.

5) Remember, this is YOUR story.  It’s up to you to decide whether or not to use the feedback you’ve been given.

 

Everything I know about writing… Part Two

Most writers can usually come up with a great beginning to a story and a cracking end, it’s all that muddy stuff in the middle that’s the problem. Yes, yes, I’d read all about three act structure, rising action blah-blah-blah, but I just wasn’t getting it.  And then I happened to go to a workshop given by Michael Hauge.  He described structure in a very particular way, and…  Ping!  ON went the lightbulb.

All of his information is on his website and in his books – but it was his description of the important mid-point of a story that really captured my attention.  He describes the midpoint (50%) as The Point of No Return (PONR).  In an airplane, the PONR is when the plane does not have enough fuel to return to its point of origin but must complete the journey or crash. (Assuming that it’s flying over ocean with no other places to land available.)

A story consists of two journeys: The Outer Journey (plot) and Inner Journey (hero’s transformation). Once you reach the PONR, neither the plot nor the hero can go backwards.

In Dante’s Peak, Pierce Brosnan and his team come to town to investigate a rumbling volcano. He tells the mayor (Linda Hamilton) that the volcano might blow or it might not – he’ll only know for sure if sulphur leaks into the water system.  (Outer Journey/Plot.) In his personal life, his former girlfriend was killed in a volcanic eruption several years ago and he’s not had a relationship with a woman since. (Inner Journey.)

Close to halfway through the movie, Pierce takes Linda back to her house after a date.  At 50%, they kiss in her kitchen. (Not a commitment, but this is the first time he’s kissed another woman since his girlfriend died.) They’re interrupted by her son, who wants a glass of water.  When he turns on the tap, guess what he finds?  That’s right, sulphur.  The mountain is going to blow.  In both outer and inner journey, they’ve reached the PONR.  There is no going back for mountain or man.

But that’s what works in movies.  What about books?  Literature?

Jane Austen is one of the most accomplished and beloved authors of all time, and I doubt she ever read a How-to writing book in her life.  Her most famous novel, Pride and Prejudice, is about a man who must overcome his pride, and a woman who must overcome her prejudice.  Open the book halfway through (or check out the 6 part BBC TV series at the end of episode 3 and beginning of episode 4) and what do you find?  Darcy proposes to Elizabeth – the most insulting proposal ever – and is shocked when she, quite rightly, refuses him. With what she knows about him, she vows he’s the last man she’d ever marry.  His pride several dented, Darcy returns home to write Elizabeth a letter in which he acknowledges that some of the things she accused him of are true, but he also puts her right on some of her mistaken beliefs.  On receiving the letter Elizabeth then begins to question her prejudices.  This couple still have a long way to go before the story is over, but from this point on, neither is able to regard the other – or themselves – in the same light as before.

The PONR is a powerful tool in structuring your story.  Now click on Michael Hauge’s website and check out what he has to say about Opportunity, Change of Plans, and Major Setback.

Happy writing.

Everything I know about writing… Part One

Everything I know about writing I learned from two sources.  The Alberta Romance Writers’ Association (ARWA) and Michael Hauge.

ARWA is a wonderful writing organisation. If you want to learn about the craft of writing, this is where to do so.  Established in Calgary twenty-six years ago by the writer Judith Duncan, it remains one of the most successful writing organisations in Canada.

Still, when I tell people I belong to ARWA, they sometimes give me ‘that’ look.  You know the one.  It’s the expression that says – You wouldn’t catch me dead reading one of ‘those’ books.   (Which doesn’t exactly ring true because 80% of all books sold in North America are romance novels, so somebody has to be reading them.)

I have to wonder what it is that makes people so embarrassed about the idea of reading – or writing – a love story.  No other genre comes in for such ridicule.  (Western, Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Who-dunits.)  It makes me question whether or not we really believe in that famous quote,  “No man ever said on his deathbed, ‘I wish I had spent more time in the office.’”   But I think we do.  Remember Hugh Grant’s line from the beginning of Love Actually, where he recalls that all the messages sent from the twin towers on that fateful day were messages of love?

I’ll be honest, I joined ARWA with the notion of scribbling a few romance books, making some money, and then going on to write ‘real’ novels.    I mean, how hard could it be?

Very hard, as it turns out.

Before the reader even cracks open the front cover of a love story she knows how it’s going to end. This is unlike any other genre and means the romance author must be highly accomplished to keep the reader engaged with her characters and story through 50,000, 85,000, or 100,000 words.  To do that, one needs a thorough understanding of plot, character, conflict, structure, theme, POV, voice, dialogue, tension, outlines, synopsis, etc.  Which is where ARWA comes in.

For twenty-six years, ARWA has offered monthly classes in all aspects of the craft of writing.  They’ve hosted conferences and brought in writers, agents and editors from all over North America.  For the last two years, they’ve hosted a panel discussion at the When Words Collide Conference in Calgary.  This year, two of ARWA’s members, Sarah Kades and Lorraine Paton are presenting a three hour workshop on Creating Sexual Tension.  This workshop is for all writers, not just romance writers. Some of the most memorable/iconic moments in ‘non-romance’ books/movies are the relationships between the characters.  Think John Book and Rachel in Witness.  Han Solo and Leia in Star Wars.  Hawkeye and Cora in Last of the Mohicans. Rick and Ilsa in Casablanca.

I’ve known Sarah and Lorraine for several years.  Both are intelligent and passionate writers and teachers of the craft. Their upcoming workshop is not to be missed. I’m going to register right now.  Why don’t you join me?

http://www.whenwordscollide.org/spec_workshop.php

Ooops.  I seem to have run out of time. I’ll tell you about Michael Hauge tomorrow.