While driving up to Whistler recently for a ‘me, myself and I’ writing retreat, I used the road time to compose six-word missives about my own father. As you know, words are like cooking – when you stir up something on the stove for a while and let the water evaporate, whatever remains becomes stronger and stronger! Using the minimum number of words to pack the maximum amount of punch is always a good exercise in building your writerly impact – and, in this case, it’s guaranteed to pack an emotional wallop for you, as well.
Some of my favourites on the site (a selection will be harvested and run in a print edition of the National Post) include “Lost you early, now I understand” by Richard Rajotte and “Always there before we needed you” by Sean Cameron. Reading through the entries, you can’t help but contemplate the dad you had, or wished you had, or the parent you want to be.
So, as yet another one of my suggested spring ‘cross-training exercises,’ why not pen a six-word bio of your pater? If you catch the ‘six-word memoir’ bug, you could always expand the exercise and write one for each member of your family … then write them on ribbons and tie them to a ‘family tree’ outside your door. (If you’re brave, have your kids or partner write one about YOU … it’s daunting to imagine how your life will look distilled down into six words, especially when they are written by someone else!)
My six-word tribute?
Happy Father’s Day, Dad. You’re missed.
Filed under From Peggy, In the News, Inspiration, Memoir, On Life, Writing Exercises | Comments Off
“How can you make your readers cry?”
That was the question from one of the teens in my Young Writers’ Club. I sent an email back with a quick response, but it made me ponder the issue, and later led to great discussions in both my adult and youth writing workshops.
Of course, we don’t just want our readers to cry. We want them to laugh, to feel joy, to root for our heroes, and to fret, in all the right places. So how do we evoke strong emotions in our readers?
We began by brainstorming the books and movies that had touched us the most; the scenes that had us wiping away surreptitious tears or pumping our fist in the air along with the other theatre-goers. The specific examples boiled down to various universal situations that are sure to tap our emotions – themes such as triumph over adversity, an injustice righted, or an underdog coming out on top. Then we talked about some character types that tend to impact us emotionally, too.
Finally, we discussed the importance of avoiding melodrama and stereotypes and creating believable characters and situations through the use of specific sensory details – the ‘show, don’t tell’ adage.
After we’d finished I asked the kids to pick one of the situations we’d brainstormed, and to spend 15 minutes writing a scene that focussed on the emotion underlying the storyline.
What resulted – even though it was still in rough draft, after only a few moments of writing – was some of the best writing I’d heard from them all year. It was a reminder to me, and an eye-opener for them, that the cleverest, most intricate plot line will fail to grab readers if the humanity of both the characters and the readers is given short shrift.
So next time you feel yourself flagging when you’re in the midst of writing a scene, why don’t you spend a few minutes contemplating the emotional landscape underlying the characters’ actions and dialogue? Are your words resting on a solid emotional foundation? If you’re not sure, it may mean you need to identify for yourself what your characters are feeling inside, what they’re portraying on the outside, and what they are striving for, whether or not they are acknowledging it to themselves or others.
Once you’ve figured this out, and have let your readers glimpse the truth as well (remember, understatement gets you a lot farther than purple prose!) you’ll almost certainly find a new energy coursing through your work and carrying you through to the finish line.Filed under From Peggy, Tips and Tricks, Writing Exercises | Comments Off
Here’s the last exercise I’ve dreamed up for our January weather theme.
This time I’d like you to think of a way the weather might change somebody’s life. Or not change it (or change it by not changing it, if you see what I mean by that…).
Change is really the essence of any story. Setting, situations, characters (both their actions and perspectives) – all these things change to move a story forward. Sometimes it’s something small about the setting (a gentle April rain shower) that starts a major chain reaction of change in a story. Sometimes the event is huge (a destructive record-breaking storm) and the story is about characters trying not to change in the face of it.
At any rate, put this idea of weather-driven change in the back of your mind, let it percolate for a while and see what you get from it.
As a further incentive, why not keep your story short and use it to enter this competition? When I say short, I mean it though; 150 words or less. There’s no fee for entering and being concise is always great practice so I say go for it.
Happy writing and, if you enter the ultra-short story competition, happy editing too!Filed under Contests, Markets & Events, From Tudor, Language & Usage, The Writer's Path, Writing Exercises | Comments Off
OK, so you’ve described your weather to a familiar and a foreign reader. How did that go? What changes did you notice? Was one easier than the other?
The thing that came to my mind when thinking of this exercise was the idea of the shorthand we use to communicate in everyday conversation with those close to us. Much as each family has its own special words not used by other families, we also have this way of talking with those who share our culture (try saying “get me a double-double” or “can I pay in Canadian Tire money?” to an American), those who are part of our generation (my grandmother doesn’t know how to “Google” anyone and my sons will probably wonder why phones have ringtones since most of them don’t even ring) and, yes, those who share our weather.
So, here in Ottawa, we all know what it means if the freezing rain gets as bad as THE ice storm. In Ontario most everyone’s familiar with the January thaw and, throughout Canada we have multiple references to winter, snow and ice in our vocabulary.
However, I’m not sure you Vancouverites experience a thaw each January and I’m thinking somebody living in Tanzania might not have much of a visual image of what a landscape “thaw” even looks like.
Which is a very long way of saying if my audience knows what I’m talking about (say I’m writing a story for the Ottawa Citizen), two simple words, ”January thaw” serve as a great weather description, conjuring up all sorts of images and feelings. For more global readers, however, I may need to flesh out my description.
Enough about last week’s task. This week I’d like you to describe the same weather (a day, a weather event, whatever) in different levels of detail. If you want a word count for this, I’ll say one description should be no more than 50 words while the other is no less than 150. Really, though, the important thing is that one is brief while the other is lengthier.
Go with that and let’s see what comes from it.Filed under From Tudor, Language & Usage, Tips and Tricks, Writing Exercises | Comments Off
Happy New Year!
I recently told Peggy I’m not into resolutions but I do believe strongly in refocusing. I’m thinking a great source of focus will be to have a writing “workshop” we work on together with a new theme for each month.
I’m not pretending I know exactly how this is going to work out but I think interesting things can come from trying this. First, as I’ve said before, creativity begets creativity, writing begets more writing and you never know what will turn out to be the basis for a new writing project.
Also, I want to try to address topics that come up quite a bit in writing. So, as you can see above, January is going to be about weather. I think it’s fair to say weather is going to come up in a fairly large percentage of writing projects we all might tackle. That’s why it’s probably useful to flex our muscles a bit and think about effective ways to include, describe and just generally handle weather in our writing (especially as Canadians).
One thing to keep in mind during this whole exercise is that originality is great and it’s lovely to find a nice, new way of describing something (like the weather) that’s been done to death. Clearly “it was a dark and stormy night” isn’t going to knock anyone’s socks off. So, yes, be original.
However, please don’t be too original. Don’t be different just for different’s sake. Don’t invent some new and twisted way of describing the weather that, in the end, only you can understand. A simple way of saying this is DON’T BE TOO CLEVER (Mary Kole has a great post touching on too-clever writing on her Kidlit blog). Sometimes the weather is just the weather. Just part of the background. Sometimes it’s OK to describe it simply and clearly.
OK, so on to this week’s assignment. What’s it like outside where you are right now? Briefly (one or two paragraphs) describe the weather to somebody who will totally get it. Somebody who lives or has lived where you do – a familiar reader. Now, describe the same weather to an “alien” reader. It’s winter here in Canada so imagine describing what you see outside your window to somebody who has always lived in a tropical climate.
I’m interested to see how these two descriptions of the same weather turn out. If you participate, and you feel comfortable doing so, please go ahead and post your paragraphs as a comment. If that’s too public, please feel free to e-mail them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here’s my weather photograph taken earlier today in Gatineau Park, QC:
Filed under From Tudor, Inspiration, Language & Usage, Tips and Tricks, Tips on technique, Writing Exercises | Comments Off
I do have lots of ideas of new things to write about (less time to do so, but that’s another story), however, I feel like there’s a continuing discussion to be had with some points Lynn has brought up. Specifically this:
“…I find I am not engrossed in my projects during the week, so on Mondays I’m sitting down in front of the blank white page and hoping for magic. So far the magic words seem to be eluding me…”
I think this is really worth exploring. These days I’m almost always compelled to write because I’m driven by a story but I firmly believe it’s possible to be compelled to write just because you need to write, even without an end goal in mind.
My thinking on this is, yes, by all means still write! I think creativity begets creativity so by writing something – anything – you’re fostering the environment for those great ideas to surface.
I wouldn’t, however, recommend plunging into writing the Great Canadian Novel at this point. There are two main reasons for this. (1) A novel-length work is a major commitment and it’s essential that you feel a connection with your subject matter to make you want to complete it, and (2) the chances are, if you’re just-not-that-into it, you’re likely going to write something your readers will also be just-not-that-into.
So, shorter work. I think you have a great opportunity here to try some things that will exercise your writing muscles, get your brain working creatively and - who knows – maybe one day serve as the jumping-off point for a longer work.
There are lots of ways to steal ideas if you don’t have them yourself. The best one I’ve learned recently was from a workshop I attended with Brian Henry (if anyone ever has the chance to take a workshop with Brian, it’s well worth it. If not, at least check out his blog now and then). While this exercise isn’t unique to Brian, he had a great way of including it in his workshop so, ’nuff said about that – get thee to a workshop if you can!
At any rate, our assignment was to write a story based on a fortune – as in from a fortune cookie. The one I used was “you should tell her now”. Now, come on, tell me you don’t immediately think of a million possibilites when you hear that? I ended up writing a short story I would never, ever, have written on my own and, actually, it was pretty good.
Another good way to get going is to enter one of the Writer’s Weekly 24-hour story contests. They happen four times a year (on pre-determined dates) and you get a sentence and word count e-mailed to you Saturday at 1:00 (EST) and have until 24 hours later, on Sunday, to submit your entry. The first time I tried this I got an honourable mention and Peggy has also had an honourable mention in this contest.
For those who want to write, but don’t know what to write, I think the key is to just sit down and do it. At first maybe you’ll have to borrow your inspiration from elsewhere but I would be very surprised if quite soon you aren’t flooded with more ideas than you have time to get down on paper.
So good luck and happy writing and, oh yeah, you should tell her now…Filed under Contests, Markets & Events, From Tudor, Inspiration, Organizing our Writing Lives, The Writer's Path, Writing Exercises | Comments (2)
I was a bit bleary eyed last week, thanks to spending an evening teary eyed as a billion people and I watched as the Chilean miners emerge safely from their underground prison.
The next day, I brought a prompt to my writing group that garnered some interesting pieces of work: I suggested we all consider the concept of being ‘trapped,’ in all its variations, and apply it to an image that each person pulled from a deck of picture cards.
I pulled a drawing of an elderly man and woman sitting on a park bench together. In what way did the concept of ‘trapped’ apply? Well, as I started writing their story, I found out!Filed under From Peggy, Inspiration, Writing Exercises | Comments Off
I finally succumbed to the ubiquitous, in-your-face product displays at Indigo and purchased The Book of Awesome by Neil Pasricha. And I’m glad I did – mostly because it’s given me a super tool to bring to writing workshops.
The book was written by a down-on-his-luck fellow who brought joy back into his life by paying attention to those small, wonderful moments that make us smile. He started a list of them on a blog and it hit a chord with millions of readers, and then of course came the book deal.
As you’ll see on his site, the moments he captures are, truly, awesome. Recent ones include “when someone returns your book and they’ve actually read it” and “when you get in the car and notice someone’s filled up the tank.”
The book is full of more little happinesses, like those times “when you get an eyelash out of your eye” or get “the thank-you wave when you let someone merge in front of you.” They really are great.
But the reason I bring the book to writers’ workshops is to illustrate the danger of over-explaining things in your writing. Each of Pasricha’s ‘awesome things’ is followed by his explanation/analysis of the pleasure – text that can run from a paragraph to two pages in length. And the effect, for me at least, is to dilute the power of his original idea.
When you’ve found the perfect detail or descriptor in your writing, let it speak for itself. Attempts to make sure the reader ‘gets it’ saps its initial impact. As publisher Sol Stein put it “one plus one equals a half.”
Comedian Sarah Silverman puts it another way. As quoted by Shinan Govani in the June 23rd National Post, she made a reference at a Nantucket comedy festival to a “hat on a hat.” As Govani explained that’s “a joke that ruins a joke by adding an extra bit of comedy when the joke, as it happens, is simple and clear.”
However you want to phrase it, it’s a lesson worth remembering.
Bonus tip: If you’re looking for a party game for your writers’ group – and who isn’t – try this one: Ask people to write down their top three or four ‘awesome things’ but to keep them anonymous. The group leader reads out the list, and a prize goes to whoever can identify which writer belongs to which list. It’s illuminating! A variation, of course, would be to include two or three anti-awesome things, too, like those times you realize it’s garbage day just as the truck thunders by your house…Filed under From Peggy, In the News, Language & Usage, On Books, Sites We Like, Tips on technique, Writing Exercises | Comments Off
Peggy: As readers, we sometimes gloss over it, but as writers, we ignore it at our peril.
I’m talking about description. I’m one of those legions of readers who will sometimes let their eyes jump ahead or their brain go into neutral when I encounter passages that wax on about the shades of green in the ocean, or the pedigree of the furniture in a heroine’s mansion.
But when just the right details are told, at just the right time and in just the right quantity, the result is quite magical.
We talk about a story being ‘plot-driven,’ or ‘character-driven’, but your story isn’t driving anywhere if the reader won’t come along for the ride. So how does one persuade them to come aboard? It’s the skilful use of descriptive details that will engage readers’ imagination enough that they are willing to hop in, slam the door, and say “Okay, let’s go!”
And for most of us, that’s easier said than done. When we’re writing our first draft, I think it’s OK to just get the story banged out. Don’t stop the flow by agonizing over just the right posture your protagonist adopts when he’s awaiting news about his son’s surgery, or the title of the magazine he’s reading on the bus. But when we’re revising, we have to jettison lazy scene-setting, stereotypical character appearances, and flabby words that do nothing to feed images onto the movie reel that the reader hopefully has running in his or her head.
Here’s an example. Recently I was listening to a CBC radio interview with Shania Twain, whose upbringing in a family with a limited budget has inspired her to start a children’s charity called Shania Kids Can. When times were lean, she described going to school armed with a “makeshift lunch” – nothing very edible, but something she could use to show the world that she had lunch, just like the other kids.
Now, it would be easy for a writer to describe a low-income child coming to school with NO lunch, or on an empty stomach from having had no breakfast. That’s what I’d call a first-draft sketch; using those images that first come to our mind as we’re pounding out the pages. But it’s the hardworking writer that goes back and strives to conjure up that one telling detail that renders the whole so explicitly – in this case, that child assembling a makeshift lunch that will help maintain their dignity. Immediately, the character escapes the stereotype and becomes a real person, one that has engaged our attention as well as our sympathies.
When I’m desperate to pluck from my head those few, perfect details that will express a person’s character, or the mood in the room, or the way he’s looking at her, I often go dry. The harder I search my brain, the more I come up empty. So I flag it for the next draft, or I ponder it in the bath.
Or sometimes unique descriptive lines or observations come to me, and I don’t have a story in which to put them. So I write them in my notebook and hope they’ll find a home in the future.
Tudor, I know you’re not a fan of doing writing exercises, so I know you wouldn’t try out any of the exercises to strengthen one’s descriptive abilities that we offer here on our Workshop page. So tell me, how do you feel about the role of description in your work, and how do you keep striving to make it better?
Tudor: Oh yes, the dilemma of description. You need enough but can’t have too much and – to make the subject downright impossible – everybody has a different tolerance description and, therefore a different opinion of where the enough / too much line lies.
I’ve talked before about what we can learn from songs and this is another area where excellent songwriting provides a good example.
Last time I was talking about a genre of music in general (country) but today I’d like to focus on one song; the Tragically Hip’s “Thirty-Eight Years Old”.
Here’s why I think the Hip has something to teach us; imagine someone asks you to tell a story incorporating the following events: a rape, a resulting murder, an arrest and incarceration, a jailbreak and the recapture of the escaped prisoner. (In the interests of full disclosure let me admit I have just had major colon / semi-colon angst about the preceding sentence – probably a topic deserving of its own post.)
Imagine you are also told the bare facts won’t cut it; we need to know a bit about the supporting characters. How has the family faced these events? What about the community where they took place? Is the murderer a true bad-ass or is there more to him?
How many words would you need to tell this story effectively and even poignantly? Could you do it in 600 words – a not-unreasonable word allocation in a daily newspaper? Would you prefer to have a couple of thousand words – more like what you’d be given in a monthly magazine? Some people have based entire books on less material.
The Hip do it in 241 words. Two-hundred-and-forty-one. As of now, I’ve already used 249.
By mining the right details and describing them using sparing and sharp language, they deliver a story, fully-formed and give the listener a feeling for all the extras going on around the periphery.
Read it for yourself to see what I mean. And then decide; would the story be told any better with a higher word count? I don’t think there’s much missing and that, to me, is masterful description.
Twelve men broke loose in Seventy-Three
From Millhaven maximum security
Twelve pictures lined up, across the front page
Seems the Mounties had a summertime war to wage
The Chief told the people they had nothing to fear
Said, “The last thing they wanna do is hang around here”
Most of them came from towns with long French names
But one of the dozen was a hometown shame.
Same pattern on the table
Same clock on the wall
Been one seat empty, eighteen years in all
Freezing slow time, away from the world
He’s 38 years old, never kissed a girl
We were sitting round the table, heard the telephone ring
Father said he’d tell ‘em if he saw anything
Heard the tap on the window in the middle of the night
Held back the curtain for my older brother Mike
See my sister got raped, so a man got killed
Local boy went to prison, man’s buried on the hill
Folks went back to normal when they closed the case
But they still stare at their shoes when they pass our place
My mother cried, “The horror has finally ceased!”
He whispered,”Yea for the time being, at least”
Over her shoulder, on the squad car megaphone
Said,”Let’s go Michael, son, we’re taking you home.”
Peggy: Every couple of weeks I come up with a writing skill for my Willowtree Writers’ group to focus upon. This week, I went back to the basics and pulled out my copy of Natalie Goldberg’s well-loved Writing Down the Bones, which was probably the first writing book I ever owned.
She shares a very good exercise that forces you to see subject-verb pairings in a whole new way. Everyone who tried it found themselves writing sentences that sizzled. Here’s what to do (and for full effect, don’t read ahead, just do the steps in order). Tudor, grab your pen!
Write a list of ten random nouns, say: leaf, rat, bus, newspaper, notebook, race car, popsicle, teenager, priest, kettle.
Got it? Good.
Now think of an occupation, and in a second column write down 15 verbs you associate with that trade or profession.
For a painter, for example, I might write swirl, mix, study, thought, think, risk, experiment, splash, electrify, illustrate, animate, dabble, dilute, brighten, shade.
Now create subject-verb pairings between the two columns. What nouns/verbs fall together naturally? Which create unexpected and exciting new connections? Write some sentences around the combinations you’ve created:
The popsicle electrified my tongue. The teenager diluted her demands. The decayed leaf illustrated the pavement with its skeletal arms and ribs. The newspaper shaded the truth under a banner of hyperbole. The humble priest animated my cold, dead faith.
It’s fun, isn’t it? You can’t do this for every sentence in your novel, but it’s a good reminder to look beyond the ordinary in our writing. Tudor – your turn! Let’s hear both your lists, and see what you do with them.
Tudor: I’m going to have to ask you to bear with me. Because not only am I not going to answer Peggy’s challenge, I’m going to go off on a wild tangent.
All will become clear later – at least I think it will…
I love running. I log in the neighbourhood of 1,500 kilometres each year on my own, just putting one foot in front of the other and going. I also love skiing – free skiing, that is. Long ago when my parents signed me up for a racing program I used to fake falls so the rest of the group would get ahead of me, then I’d pretend I couldn’t find them again and do my own thing for the rest of the day.
I also love am compelled to write. I’ve written for as long as I can remember. And, for a very long time nobody but me ever saw any of it. Just like with my running and my skiing, I attained a certain level of proficiency by just getting it done. Putting in the miles / turns / words.
Which is a very long way of telling you, I’m not an “exercise” person. And I’m not saying that’s a good thing. Sometimes I’m panicked at the thought of all the writing exercises I’m not doing that might make me a better writer. Yet, I sit down and try to do a pretty simple and straightforward one such as Peggy’s above and I just can’t hack it.
And, yes, that makes me feel bad.
The good news is I recently joined a Runner’s Boot Camp. This involves running with a group, thinking about pacing and technique and incorporating drills and exercises into the run. And I signed up again at the end of the first session and I’ve just signed up one more time. And guess what? I think I’m faster. A bit anyway. So maybe I’m coming around to the idea of cross-training.
And that’s not all. Through my j-school buddy Katie Bowden’s blog, I have just found / fallen in love with Kidlit.com; an amazing writing resource on which is featured an intriguing exercise called “100 Declarative Sentences”. I’m not going to try to describe it because Mary Kole, who writes the blog, does a great job herself and you can check it out here.
I’m thinking I may try it; maybe one night after Boot Camp…we’ll see!Filed under From Peggy and Tudor, Language & Usage, Writing Exercises | Comments (3)