Category Archives: Writing

Make Good Art

This past week marked the one year anniversary of my leaving my day job and I am now taking stock of what I have accomplished with my writing. On the surface some might judge, not much, but the truth is I have leaved more in this past twelve months than in the previous decade of studying my craft. Although courses and workshops are valuable there is no substitute for butt-in-the-chair and trial-by-error. By trying different points of view, tenses, and storylines, I have been able to stretch myself as a writer. Last night, I had the opportunity to look over the first pages I worked on last July. I had thought they were pretty good, but now see everything that is wrong with them. For a moment I felt discouraged, then I recognized my growth and I now feel grateful. I’m grateful first and foremost to my family who have allowed me this time to stretch my wings and I’m thankful to my instructors and peers who have held my hand along the way.

So what’s next. Although I will not be getting another job in the immediate future, my time has been redirected and writing full-time is no longer possible (at least for the next few months). I have fought feelings of disappointment for the past week, but am now resigned, maybe even excited about the next chapter in my life. While working full-time I managed to write, a lot it seems in retrospect, and now I’m back to stealing minutes to work. Since I’ve resolved to hold tight to my writing dream, there is no turning back and I will do what it takes to keep up with my work. Who knows, I might become a more focused, and dare I hope, better writer.

Here is a video I have watched over and over again. I can relate too much of what Neil Gaiman speaks about in this commencement speech, particularly his point about making good art when life throws you a curve ball. A curve ball has been thrown my way and I intend to take it and make good art.

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4 Ways Gardening is Like Editing

This post originally appeared on Kate Arms-Roberts’ blog about writing and creativity on April 12, 2011. Now that it is summer and a year later, her garden is in a more mature stage of development and so is her novel, but the analogy remains a good one.

Irises and crocuses are blooming in my garden. Perennial herbs and vegetables are showing signs of life after the dormancy of a Northern winter.

Inside the house, I have completed the first complete critique of my novel. Pages of corrections wait for me to enter them into the computer.

And, as so often happens, these two simultaneous happenings have made me aware of connections I had not previously articulated: parallels between gardening and editing.

1. Location, Location, Location

Plants need the right conditions: soil, light, water all must feed the plant for it to grow. Sometimes you need to move a plant for it to thrive.

Scenes need to fall in the right place. Sometimes you write a scene for the middle of the story and then realize it works better at the beginning.

2. Treatment Matters

Too much water or fertilizer may kill plants as easily as too little.

Backstory needs to be dripped in like irrigation pipes bringing just enough water to the right plant to drive growth without flooding. Action without pauses for reflection may exhaust some readers.

3. Dormancy Can be Good

Last year, I planted rhubarb in my garden. A friend divided hers and gave me half. I knew nothing of rhubarb, but she said it was hard to kill. I planted it, and watered it. A few leaves died, and a few stayed green all summer, but there was no new growth. In the fall, it died back all the way to the ground. Having no understanding of the ways of rhubarb, I watched, wondering if this was, indeed, a survivor. A few days ago, I noticed bright red growth in the midst of the dead material. This morning, there are leaves coming out. This rhubarb will live!

I wrote the first draft of my novel last November. In December, I read it once and noted a few sections that needed to be cut and a few sections that needed to be fleshed out. Then, before I could revise it properly, I needed to let the project go dormant. For three months, I focused on directing a play. As the play neared production, I went back to the manuscript. By leaving it for a time, I was able to come back with a sense of perspective and a deeper understanding of some of the story elements I had glossed over in the first draft. This novel, too, may live!

4. Start With What You Have

The first house I lived in had an overgrown front yard and a mess of a backyard. To quickly beautify the landscaping, there was nothing to do but dig out the front and start again in both areas. So, we did.

Like that house, my first NaNoWriMo manuscript is a mess. Having looked at it through several editing lenses over the past few years, I have concluded there are no more than 3 scenes that might be worth saving, and those probably won′t be usable once I rewrite the rest. If I want to tell that story, I will be better off starting again from scratch.

Our current house had been cared for well by the previous owner, but featured plants I find boring or actively dislike. I have made changes slowly, looking at what is already in place and deciding how to convert it into something I like better without ever going through the completely dug up phase.

My current work-in-progress is similar. The first draft was strong enough that it holds together as a story. It needs major revision, but the core is strong. Editing what is there will work.

Editing a manuscript and gardening are both about looking at what already exists and making changes to bring that reality closer to an imagined goal.

I planted iris bulbs last fall after clearing space in an uninspiring flower bed. Seeing them bloom this year makes me smile. There are small clumps of them now. I hope they naturalize well and create bigger groupings for the future.

It may take time, but editing a garden or a manuscript produces results eventually.

Kate Arms-Roberts is a Toronto-based writer, though she has hailed from various locations in the U.S. and U.K. before landing in Canada. She blogs at http://www.katearmsroberts.wordpress.com and is currently working on a fantasy novel for teens.

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Having a Fling with a Short Story! 8 Points to Remember When Writing a Short Story.

This past week I stepped out of my long-term relationship with my novel to have a fling with a short story.

For the past year I’ve been head down, nose to the grind stone, with my novel. Although I have miles to go before I can type THE END and begin sending it out, I decided as I await word on my first three chapters, to grant myself permission and indulge in my first love—writing short stories.

I love novel-writing. I love the open expanses a novel provides and the thrill of digging deep into character, plot and sub-plots, but I’ll admit the energy of a short story really gets my motor running.

I feel guilty about giving into the itch, but know once I’ve put my new story to bed, I’ll be back messing up the lives of my novel’s misfit band of characters.

So what is it about short stories?

The focus of a short story is almost always a single event and about its immediate surroundings. Short stories don’t allow great gobs of space to establish character, mood, and atmosphere. But that’s what makes them so much fun. Limited space means that stuff happens fast.

As with poetry, the short story writer must know what they want to say and do so with economic precision. When writing a short story, the author is obliged to remember; every word has to count, every sentence has to count, and their inclusion must move the story forward.

A short story is a compressed view into the life of a character at a moment in time when he faces a crisis. We show what led to the crisis and how he resolves his problem. End of story. In the showing of it, we reveal our main character, his strengths and weaknesses, his thought processes, providing insights to the reader who may gain an understanding of this particular element of human nature.

Bess Kaplan: Writing the Short Story

So, how do you write a good short story?

Here are 8 pointers to consider.

Is your narrative voice/ style interesting?

Don’t write a TV drama, i.e. a police interrogation room scene that’s been seen a hundred times. If you are writing a cancer story, or my-man-done-we-wrong story, come at it from an interesting and unique angle. The same old, same old isn’t going to make a publisher stand up and take notice.

Be confident

Have you used vague phrases like a few years ago – how many years ago, are you sure? OR she had golden hair and a pretty face. Golden hair tells the reader you’re sure of the colour of her hair, but pretty doesn’t tell us anything. What’s pretty to you may be butt ugly to the next person. Words like very, really, somewhat, likely, just or quite are vague and not only suck the life out of your sentences, they make you, the writer, seem uncertain of yourself.

Keep your POV consistent

Although it’s perfectly acceptable to write from multiple POVs, you can’t shift the POV for no reason, and certainly not mid-sentence. She watched as the man unloaded his car trunk and the boxes were heavy. How does she know the boxes are heavy? Your character can assume by the way the man braces his back and strains his face that the boxes are heavy, but she can’t know for sure they are heavy because we’re in her POV and she’s not lifting the boxes. She watched as the man unloaded his car trunk and thought the boxes looked heavy.

The tone must be consistent

When you write in a specific POV your prose will have a sound, a rhyme. Unless you are switching POVs, you have to keep to that rhyme. You can’t write a passage in high diction that inexplicably switches to slang and colloquial phrasing.

Character Development

You have to ask yourself:

  • What does your character(s) want?
  • Will my character(s) resonate with a reader?
  • Are they relatable?
  • Is the dialogue believable?

Descriptive language

  • Can the reader visualize the scene?
  • Have you paid close attention to the staging of each scene? If your character is holding a spatula in one hand and a pot in the other, without a third hand, she won’t be able to brush a strand of hair off her child’s forehead. I often draw a floor plan, exits, furniture etc. so when I move my characters around the room, they aren’t walking into windows or through walls.
  • Have you included metaphors, similes, symbols?
  • Does the language fit the theme? Don’t write a story about two hillbillies going fishing using high diction.

Logic

  • Does the story flow smoothly or will the reader have to backtrack to pick up a thread you dropped earlier and are now picking up 1000 words later. I often write a collection of scenes, print the manuscript and physically cut each scene off the paper. Then I shuffle the scenes around to make sure they flow together logically. Post-it notes work as well.
  • Each scene is there for a reason: will the reader know why you’ve included them?

Resolution

Have you written a strong ending? It’s as important to leave the reader with a powerful ending as it is to start off your story with a strong opening sentence/paragraph. There’s nothing more frustrating for a reader than to invest time into a story only to be left unsatisfied at the conclusion.

Here is a short video to give you the bullet points of what every good short story needs.

What Every Short Story Needs

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Why Do Writers Write? 5 Reasons Why I Write.

As a writer I’m often asked why, when the prospect of making any money through writing is a long shot at best, do I continue to write? I suppose the best answer I’ve come up with is, because I have to. What does that really mean though? Of course, I’m not going to die if I never pen another sentence. So, I guess the answer is more that I write because I’m compelled to write.

Writing Makes Me Sound Smart

Whether it be a story, or more specifically, a point I absolutely have to get across, it becomes my mission to communicate said story/point to another person. The time I spend in front of my keyboard is time I use to construct an argument or thought. Although some might suggest my snappy, sarcastic wit demonstrates quickness on my feet, I fear my talent is often limited to sarcastic, snappy jabs and not always to well thought out opinions. Writing makes me sound smart. Akin to the frustration you feel after leaving a discussion (most often a heated discussion) and thinking of all the brilliant things you could have said, writing gives me the Do Over moments where I can formulate brilliant thoughts in the comfort of my own space and at my leisure. As an added benefit, once I’ve written my thought down, they seem easier to access when standing in one of those party circles I dread so desperately – leaving me to sound as smart as I think I am.

I’m Some of the Best Company I Know

I write because I like being alone. I need me time, alone time every day. When I close the door to my office and press the power button on my computer, I’m alone.  Although I LOVE to talk, I don’t always like being around a lot of people. Writing suits me down to my shiny red slippers.

I Like To Visit Parallel Universes

I love creating and sharing the people and place that live in my head. While in elementary school, I had a long walk to and from school. Maybe not your six miles in bare feet kind of trip, but still super far for a little kid. (Google map says we lived 1.4 kms from the school. How can that be? It seemed much further than that.) Of course, we’re talking about the days when parents didn’t drive kids to school. On really, really bad – I’m talking snowstorm from hell kind of days, we might each get 10¢ for the bus, but never, ever in ten years of elementary school, five years of high school, and three years of college, an actually drive door-to-door. But don’t worry Mom, I’m not bitter about all those trips since I used them to create imaginary worlds with imaginary people that were way cooler than the actual world I did live in. Often times, when I FINALLY arrived home, I disappeared into my room and wrote down the stories I had just imagined in my mind. I suppose that’s why I still love walking, because with each step, I continue to slip into my parallel universe.

I’m a Control Freak

I love the control. Writing is about crafting sentences and paragraphs that I can move and manipulate anyway I please. Seeing a mish-mash of words and lining them up to form stories and arguments thrills me. I’m queen of my own word kingdom and I get a charge out of ordering my words around.

I’m High on Dopamine

But…at the end of the day, it seems science knows better than me, why I write. Scientists have shown that high levels of the brain chemical dopamine, paired with low levels of serotonin are strongly associated with creative thinking. To put it in layman’s terms, writing (for me) feels good. Writing excites me, not in the same way George Clooney does, but pretty damn close. Even when the writing isn’t going as well as it could, I’m happy, so don’t even talk to me about the charge I get when my writing is flowing. And as everyone at Casa Overend knows – if Mama ain’t writing, Mama ain’t happy!

Aside from the dopamine, why do you write?

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To Outline or Not to Outline

When a writer approaches their writing station, about to begin work on a new project, the first thing they must do before hammering out a single word, is decide whether they will, or won’t spend time preparing an outline.

The world of writers is divided into two groups; the outliners and the no outliners. I’m a card-carrying member of the second group, the no outliners. Sort of.

Outlines make absolute sense to me. What’s not to love about a roadmap that focuses a writer and keeps them chugging along a clearly defined path. I imagine an outline as the foundation and framework a contractor must build before constructing a deck. (I know of what I speak when it comes to deck building having watched my contractor husband spend hours, and hours, and hours preparing the foundation and getting the measurements of his deck frames perfect.) Outlines are such a smart idea.

But…

I’ve tried to outline, Lord knows I’ve tried. It’s just that I don’t seem to be able to do it. I don’t know my characters until I meet them and I don’t know what they’ll do until I watch them. In most things I do, I tend to be a jump in with both feet, don’t look before I cross kind of person. So outlines don’t work for me. Not yet.

I start a new piece of writing with the first sentence and I freefall my way along until I run out of things to say. Outline free.

Once I have something to work with, then I start moving and shaking things up. When the story is almost there, but not quite, I do a bullet point synopsis of what I have so far. With my project broken down this way, I can usually see what’s missing or where I’ve gone off track. Starting to sound like an outline.

So, basically, what I’m confessing to you (please don’t tell my no outliner compatriots) is I scramble off the no outliners bandwagon and I cross over to team outliners. It is at this stage of the game, that I, in fact, outline what I need to do to fix/finish my project. Not a true first stage outline, more like a mid-stage, almost finished the project outline. Defector.

With four different coloured markers, I arrive at my new best friend, my whiteboard, where I list scenes and plot points I feel are missing or need work. You’ll see I’ve even drawn a floor plan to help me stage a dinner party scene.

When I look at my whiteboard, polishing and finishing my writing doesn’t seem such a daunting task. Having worked with a piece for some time, I have characters I know, and places to bring them. I’m almost where I need to be before I have to reach for the map. Now when I sit at my laptop and consider what scene or plot point I want to work on, it is there in front of me. At the end of each writing session, I stand before my whiteboard and if it has been a good day, I add a tick beside one (on really good days, two) bullet points. When the board is covered with check marks, I’m able to move on from the current chapter.

Alleluia!

So the question of whether I outline or not, I guess I’ll stick with sort of.

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Ants, Chopin, Newborns and Windows

I had ants in my office this week. I’m happy to report they’ve finally, FINALLY, vacated the premises, but not before their sheer creepiness drove me from my desk for two days. As I setup a makeshift office on our dining room table, I decided to look at my new surroundings as the change I could make instead of the rest I would have liked to take—yup, I’m still polishing those 75 pages for my final project at U of T. So instead of closing the door to my closet-sized office, and disappearing the world outside, I was forced to work among the masses—it’s not a stretch when I call the other six people, one dog and four cats that I live with, the masses. Have you ever tried to write the great Canadian novel while a darling, two-year-old created her unique interpretation of Chopin a mere five feet away from your work station? Trust me as adorable as it—as she—can be, not much work happens during the ensuing thirty minute performance. But plow through I did. To my great surprise, I did manage to rework a tricky section in my latest chapter and was able to send off twelve crisp pages of prose to my bi-weekly writing circle. Not bad.

As it happened during my week of the ant invasion, I also paid a visit to a dear friend and Doctor of Natural Medicine, who over yet another cup of Vanilla Roobios tea, heard all about my continuing struggles to produce writing that guarantees to soar to the top of any bestseller’s list. Three minutes into my rant, she suggested she could ‘fix me’, claiming she had a suspicion of exactly what was at the root of my woes. Feeling I had nothing to lose and everything to gain, I agreed and scheduled an appointment. Basically, her intention was to tap into my subconscious and help me identify my true attitudes particularly around writing and to help me change any self-limiting beliefs that may be holding me back. As with many alternative methods, this latest treatment at first seemed odd, but after an hour with her, I believe I made some inroads toward understanding and dare I hope, overcoming my fears. (Sorry, as much as I’d love to, I’ll keep the specifics of what we came up with to myself.)

On the morning of day two out of my office (one day after seeing the good doctor), I had what I can only describe as a surreal, out-of-body like experience. As I glanced around the dining room table, I saw pages and pages of my work spread about. On those pages were words, lots of words, and those words were strewn together into sentences, and the sentences were arranged into paragraphs. They were my words. They were words that had never existed in precisely that configuration before. I had created something that hadn’t existed before. Whether those words, in exactly those sentences and those paragraphs, are ever published didn’t matter in that moment, because those little darlings were mine and the gratitude I felt overwhelmed me. They had given me the greatest gift I’ve received in a very long while. Those pages, with all those words on them, gave me hope and filled me with immense pride. They represented a window into my future. Just as when I peered into the wrinkled faces of my newborn babies, I saw the path I will walk for the remainder of my days. I can never stop being a mom now that my babies are here, and I can never stop being a writer now that I’ve sat at a computer and pounded out so many newborn pages filled with newborn words.

This weekend I moved back into my office and it seems, just as my ant problem has disappeared, I feel I’ve banished some old and useless feelings that have weighed me down for too long. The words are definitely flowing more easily and I’m able to ‘stick to it’ longer.

So, thank you ants for forcing me back with the masses, for showing me the benefit of toddler style Chopin and for words scattered over a teak table.

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Where Do You Find Stories?

So suppose you’ve run out of crazy people in your life to draw inspiration for your stories. Where would you look? I’m one of the those fortunate people who has an abundance of crazy around me, and rarely do I have to search out story ideas, but occasionally, when I want to look outside my suburban, middle-class, Canadian life to offer a twist either in character or setting, I’ve hit a roadblock and felt lost for new inspiration.

That’s when my ‘Story Ideas’ file comes in handy. In this folder are pictures and articles I’ve cut out of magazines and newspapers. I’ve also included photos I’ve taken. Here’s one of my photos. This is a carnation I found on the beach. As I snapped the picture my brain went everywhere wondering how that carnation came to be on the beach, and more importantly, why was it left at the beach. You bet I wrote a story about it. Yet another story came to me when I read an article in the newspaper that profiled the smallest retail store in the country. What a great setting for a short story.

My story ideas file has helped me with setting, character, as well as character names, titles and opening sentences.

These pictures and articles act as kick starters, but can also lead to the question; And then what? Don’t forget about what follows. Ask yourself what happened the day after. What happened the day after the carnation was left on the beach, the week after, the month after?  There may be a story hidden in the after events.

As most writers do, I carry a notebook everywhere I go. When you see an interesting sign, or overhear a conversation, jot it down. My notebook isn’t very organized, but I’ve known other writers who divide their notebooks into sections—conversations, observations, signs and billboards. Separating where you record your thoughts will make it easier to locate quirky habits and tics to flesh out your characters, or when you’re looking to incorporate interesting turns of phrasing and dialogue.

The internet is a holding ground for millions of stories. While looking  where other writers find their inspirations, I came across a video featuring Jonathan Harris. In this video Jonathan shares how he collects his stories.  Not satisfied with waiting for stories to find him, he’s developed a computer programme called We Feel Fine. The program snatches sentences that include I feel or I am feeling from worldwide blog postings. Each individual sentence is represented by a floating blob that travels across the screen and that the viewer is able to snatch and read. In some cases, you’ll find accompanying photos. A constantly changing virtual treasure trove of story ideas for a bard like me. I can’t tell you how excited I was to find this program. Although the video is several years old, the website is still available. I’ve bookmarked the page and suspect I’ll never run out of story ideas again.

http://www.wefeelfine.org/wefeelfine_pc.html

Stories are everywhere. Establish a story-finding mindset, keep your eyes and ears open and set up a story idea collection to keep your imagination sparked at all times.

http://www.ted.com/talks/jonathan_harris_collects_stories.html

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