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.

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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3) What we sometimes find from both unpublished and multi-published authors is the tendency to recount a scene/event from one person’s POV and then immediately retell the exact same scene from another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.

Disengage the digital and engage the mind.

I’ve been having trouble focusing on my writing recently. I might claim writing’s the most important thing in my life  – after my family –  but over the past few weeks I’ve not been giving it the attention it deserves or requires. To try and help get my focus back, I picked up a copy of MANAGE YOUR DAY from Kindle and have been working my way through it.

One contributor to the book remarked that we can’t seem to allow ourselves to enjoy the moment nowadays – that faced with a few minutes of ‘spare time’ we immediately plug ourselves in to some kind of electronic device (phone/e-reader) and cut ourselves off from the world.

So…long story short.  About an hour ago I found myself waiting for a bus downtown. (Last time I used transit, a single adult fare was $1.65.  Now it’s $3.) My immediate response was to pull out my Kindle, but then I thought: Wait a minute. Doesn’t that mean I’m doing exactly what the writer of the book says I shouldn’t do?

So, from 1402h to 1406h, on 5th and 5th in Downtown Calgary, I put down my Kindle, and this is what I saw.

A car that had bronze rims – instead of silver – over black tyres. They looked really cool.

A slim guy, in running gear, running along the sidewalk, discussing a business deal while talking on his phone – he was so fit that he was neither breathless nor breaking a sweat. 

A slim guy, in a business suit, running along the sidewalk (late for a business meeting?) red in the face and out of breath.

Two food trucks driving past.  City council okayed them a while ago – must try one out sometime. 

The bright blue metal transit seat I was sitting on had an open mesh/grated design.  Is that because we get snow in the winter and it melts easier?

A burst of laughter from five window cleaners across the street taking a break.  Four guys, one girl (with blue hair). What does it feel like to clean the 40th floor windows?  And how do you prevent yourself from getting a blue face when you dye your hair that colour?

A few people wearing ear buds on their iPods (closing themselves off to the world – according to the book) but quite a few people wearing headphones of really funky colours.

It’s 20C out today, so quite a few open top cars.

Several men of ‘a certain age’ wearing ponytails.  Is that because they grew up in the seventies… or an attempt to hide their bald patches?

I ‘unplugged’ for four minutes and collected a wealth of data for setting a scene in a downtown location.  Am I likely to use it in the near future?  Probably not, but you never know. But what if we, as writers, take four – oh, go on, make it five – minutes each day to unplug and just look, listen, smell and feel what’s going on around us?  Imagine the detail we’d have for our stories.

BTW, if you’re on a Calgary bus, trying to exit out the back door, and don’t want to look like a total numpty who hasn’t been on one since the fare was $1.65, a word of advice: when the green light goes on above the door, you PUSH the door open!  :o)

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.

 

The Magic of What If? and Why?

When I first started writing I had one – just one – idea for a story. That was a bit scary.   Would I ever come up with a second?

And then, as I immersed myself in the craft and process of writing, that wonderful thing happened – as it does to most writers – where everything I saw, read, heard, or did threw up thousands of potential ideas.

But there’s a huge difference between having an idea and transforming it into a story. That’s where the two magical writing questions – and I truly believe there is a magic to them – of What If?  and Why? come in.

For example, here’s an article (click here) I saw in the Daily Mail (please don’t judge me!) a few weeks ago.  This gives you the What If?  What if an apartment in Paris lay empty for seventy years?   (It doesn’t have to be an apartment.  It could be a single room.  A cupboard, even.  And it doesn’t have to be in Paris.  It could be set in London, or Glasgow, or Calgary, or anywhere. It doesn’t even have to be contemporary find. The room/house/building might have been discovered in the 18th Century.  Or the 6th.)

Now comes the most important question – the one that allows you to develop an idea into a story.

Why?

Why was the house abandoned?  What happened here? Does it hold a secret? Was it, perhaps, cursed, and if so, why? Why did no-one ever cross the threshold in seventy years. Why did the neighbours not question what lay behind the doors?

Why then leads you on to the next important question –  Who?  Who did the property belong to? Who was s/he?  (Or they?) Why did s/he never return?  Out of fear? Grief? Denial? Laziness? Forgetfulness? Did the owner perhaps die and her children didn’t even know the apartment existed?  (If not, why not?) What, if any, impact did abandoning this house have on his or her life?

Then come other questions.  When did this happen? What was going on during this time period in the character’s personal life? What was going on in the wider world around him or her?

Where did it happen and why is this place so significant?

Don’t always accept the first answer you come up with – if you dig a little deeper on each question you will probably come up a more interesting and less clichéd answer.

If you still can’t find an answer, maybe you’re trying to force things, or perhaps shift your focus to one detail – e.g. the painting – in the building.  What if the painting is of the owner?  (What if it’s not?) Why was it painted? When was it painted? Who was the artist? Why – if it’s so valuable – was it left in the apartment?

The questions are endless but the two most important  – the ones that will always get you started are:  What If?  Why?

Guess Who?

Randy Bachman (ex Guess Who and Bachman Turner Overdrive) has recently been touring the country talking about his career and performing some of his greatest hits.  Having seen his show in Banff, it struck me that some of his insights apply to us as writers, not just musicians.

1) When inspiration strikes, BE READY!

Randy and his band were in the middle of a performance when one of the strings on his guitar broke.  Apparently it was a fancy guitar, so the rest of the band went off for a drink while he set to restringing. When it was done, he tried a riff to make sure everything was in tune… and realised the riff he’d come up with was something special.  Knowing that if he stopped playing he’d forget it – this was in the days before recording devices on cell phones! – he called the drummer from the wings to keep the rhythm going, then the other guitarist and then finally the lead singer.  “Sing something!” he told him. There and then, on that stage, they came up with both the music and lyrics for their iconic American Woman. (Something similar happened to Paul McCartney with ‘Yesterday’ which he initially called ‘Scrambled Eggs’, and we’ve all heard about J.K. Rowling coming up with the story of Harry Potter on a train.

Moral:  When a great idea strikes you, write it down – or record it in some way – IMMEDIATELY.

2) Sometimes when you’re at your most relaxed and not trying, you come up with your best work.

‘You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet’ was their ‘work song’ – the song they used to warm up before performing or recording.  Not thinking it had much merit they had no plans of recording it, but when they were persuaded to do so, it became one of their biggest hits.

Moral: Sometimes you don’t always know what’s best. Listen to what others say.  You might not like a particular story you’ve written, but if it strikes a chord with others, you might have captured a piece of magic.

3) Get yourself noticed.

Originally a hit in Europe, RB’s band covered Shakin’ all Over. However, there was a legal issue with the band’s name at the time and the record company decided to put the record out with a white label and the title Guess Who?  This led to speculation that some of the musicians included Paul McCartney and Keith Richards and generated enormous interest.

Moral: As writers, we are responsible not just for writing the best stories we can, but for getting them and ourselves out there and noticed.

Theme

When I teach a writing workshop, I always begin with this disclaimer: There is only one ‘right’ way to write a story, and that’s the way that works for YOU. 

Over a long period of experimentation, I’ve discovered what works for me – at this particular time of my writing life.  As I continue to grow and develop, that approach and my insights might change.  So, have a read through this posting and if it strikes a chord with you, that’s great. If not, stay true to your own writing path.

Defining theme:

There are two ways of answering the question, What is your story ‘about’?

The first ‘about’ gives you the premise – in approximately 25 words or so.

The second ABOUT gives you the theme – in one word.

Premise: ROCKY is a story about a small time boxer who is offered the chance to fight the heavyweight champion of the world.  (This is the story, the plot.)

But what’s at the heart of this story? What is ‘Rocky’ ABOUT as opposed to ‘about’?  In one word, the theme is RESPECT. Watch any scene from that film and it’s about Rocky, Adrian, Paulie, Mickey and even Apollo Creed gaining or losing respect from others or themselves.

Bringing things more up to date, watch an episode of Mad Men.  I believe the overall theme for that show is the LIE.  As ad men, they are professional liars, but watch how often lies – and the opposite, truth – are depicted in every scene, both professional and personal.

What are some themes?  Respect.  Love.  Revenge.  Survival.  Trust.  Honour.  Winning. Resilience.  Truth.  Freedom.  Ambition.  To illustrate the theme, show the theme itself and its opposite.

What about a romance novel?  In that case, surely the theme must be ‘ Love’ or ‘Love conquers all’?   I would ask, ‘What is the ‘all’ that love will conquer by the end of your story?’  (Betrayal?  Trust?  Truth?  Respect?)  When you’ve worked that out, you’ll have found your theme.  Your premise is a story about two people falling in ‘love’.

What does theme have to do with character development/characterisation?  Everything.  Character behaviour reveals theme. For example, take the theme ‘Control’ (and its opposite – ‘Freedom’) and have two very different characters go shopping.  One, for whom control is an important part of her personality, won’t go anywhere near a shop without a detailed shopping list.  She’ll know the price of everything, including that week’s bargains, and will have the correct money ready for the checkout girl even before she rings in the first price. Another, for whom it’s all about freedom, will go in there, pick whatever takes her fancy off the shelves and then have to rummage in her purse for payment at the checkout.

Do you need to know your theme before you begin your first draft?  Of course you don’t. Personally I think it makes things easier because it allows me to keep my characters (primary and secondary) and plot tight and focused, which leads to a more focused and – hopefully – dynamic first draft. However, other writers need to write the story and discover their theme along the way in an organic way.    (Control and freedom, right?)

Remember, there is no single ‘right’ way to write.  Just write.

Bothered and Bewildered

You know that horrible feeling when you sleep through your alarm and spend the next few hours trying to play catch up?  Welcome to my day.

Here’s the thing… I’ve been planning on starting a blog for a while.  I’m going to be publishing  a series of books this autumn, and with that comes the requirement for a website.  A friend recommended it might be better to get the whole website/blog thing figured out beforehand so I can then concentrate on my writing.

Flash forward to today.  The perfect time, I decide, to start pulling my website together.  I’ll put in a few photos, a little bit of text, and then over the next week I can pull together a couple of blog topics before I push the ‘live’ button.

How was I supposed to know it went live as soon as you sign up?  They only had three TV channels when I was growing up!

So here I am, scrambling to introduce myself and this blog.  What’s it going to be about?  Three of my passions; the craft of writing, travelling and the history of the Second World War.  If you enjoy these topics, I hope you will join in the conversation.

Thanks for stopping by.

(Hmmm.  Maybe I’d better double check my alarm clock tonight.)