Tag Archives: Writing

Write Like Jose Bautista

Maybe that should be “Write Like Jose Bautista Bats.” I have no idea whether or not he writes. But if he does, I bet he’s good at it. (Spoken like the wife of a true Jays fan.)

So a month or two ago, I found my brother’s Sports Illustrated magazine at the cottage. I noticed a line near the top of the cover: “Slugger Jose Bautista: Do You Believe?” Thinking it might be fun to spout a few sports facts and watch my husband’s eyebrows flip-flop, I read the article.

(For those of you wondering, it’s the June 27, 2011 issue with a giant golf headline on the cover. Joe Posnanski is the writer.)

Jose Bautista plays right field and third base for the Toronto Blue Jays. He has hit about eighty gazillionty home runs this year and is widely regarded as the best player in baseball. Not bad for someone who spent a lot of years being either cut or traded. It’s enough to make people wonder if he’s for real. Steroid rumours… an ugly thing. Or, more poetically as in Posnanski’s article, “Do you believe in miracles?”

Bautista hits the ball like his bat is powered by rocket fuel. He came out of nowhere.

Except he didn’t.

As a teen in the Dominican Republic, he sent videotapes of himself out to major league teams. He played college baseball in Florida and was picked up by the draft (20th round, not spectacular) in 2000. He’s played for a handful of teams, and didn’t land with the Blue Jays until 2008. Even then, he was what Posnanski describes as a “spare part.” There was no indication that he was going to become anyone’s star hitter.

But he worked at it. He had a fast swing, but needed to connect with the ball. The Toronto batting coach told him to start his swing earlier, so he practiced. Vernon Wells told him to start even earlier than that, so early that it felt ridiculous, so he tried it. And that was when the crazy home run streak started.

My point (and forgive me if I’ve gotten some of the baseball jargon wrong) is that Jose Bautista didn’t come out of nowhere. He put in a lifetime of effort. He was drafted eleven years ago, and landed with the Blue Jays three years ago. He had this incredible potential that people caught glimpses of, and he never gave up. He’s been working at this, trying different things, and finally something clicked.

When I was a kid, my piano teacher used to write inspirational sayings in my book. One of them stays with me, never-mind-how-many years later. “You usually find people not very far from where they quit trying.”

That’s the kind of writer I want to be. I love writing. I want to work at it and try new things and get a little bit better with each project. Maybe someday I’ll hit home runs — I don’t know. That would be great. But if I do, I hope no one ever imagines that it came out of nowhere. For me, this is a long-term game.

And I suspect that’s also the case for a lot of so-called overnight successes. Even first books often have a lot of years and a few buried manuscripts holding them up. Not always, but often. There’s that saying, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” And for anyone, wouldn’t it be terrible to feel that your greatest success was behind you? That you had already written your best book, that you had nothing more to say? I think so.

You have to love the process of writing. If you’re really lucky, if you’re having a good day, the “practice” won’t even feel like work. But sometimes it will, and you’ll do it anyway.

And so if you’re writing, even if you’re just starting, feel good about it. You’re making progress. Not every book needs to be published, just like not every swing of the bat needs to hit home. There’s room for misses, and there’s room for getting better.

And someday, when people say that your success came out of nowhere, you can smile and nod politely and say you owe it all to Jose Bautista.

First Impressions

Some advice I’ve heard, and shared with my writing group often enough that I don’t remember where I learned it (Don Maass, I think, but I might have first come across it somewhere else), is to pay close attention to the first impression your character makes.

It sounds obvious, but I think it’s one of those ‘obvious’ things that gets lost while we’re paying attention to everything else. We all know that there needs to be a character arc, right? So it’s okay if my character is a miserable, self-absorbed grump in chapter one. By the end of the book, he’s going to be Mother Teresa! He needs to start off wrong-footed so there’s room to grow, doesn’t he?

Maybe. But the early chapters are also your chance to engage the reader. I don’t know about you, but I need some real redeeming qualities in that miserable, self-absorbed grump before I spend my time reading his story.

I’m reviewing a manuscript for a friend now. Since the story is aimed at kids around my daughter’s age (grade three, strong reader), I armed her with a highlighter and sticky notes and gave her the first chapter to read. It was an experiment, but a lot of her advice was bang on.

The opening paragraph describes a character struggling through the cold. The next line is spoken by the character: “Stupid wind!”

My daughter circled it. On a sticky note, she wrote “That’s not going to help. Doesn’t everybody know that?” (Actually it says “that’s not going to help cdoin’t eveybte know that” but I’m translating.)

It’s a tiny detail, but a telling one. I think that the reason my daughter found that line jarring is that, in the third line of a novel, our relationship with the character is in its infancy. Heck, it’s barely been conceived. And maybe a pointless exclamation thrown (literally) against the wind isn’t the best way to make a first impression.

In his book on screenwriting, Blake Snyder talks about a “save the cat moment” — a moment of heroism in the opening scene, where we see who the protagonist is and want to identify with him. It gets its name from an old movie where the hero stops to save a cat from a tree in the first scene. Which is kind of like attaching flashing lights and arrows to his head, with a sign that says “I’m a great guy, root for me!” I’m not sure it needs to be anything so blatant (and to be fair, neither is Snyder, if you read his book), but we need a reason to want to spend time with your main character.

Maybe she’s funny and has a great narrative voice. Maybe he’s secretly kind. Maybe she’s shown in contrast to people who are worse than she is. Editor Cheryl Klein explains in her book on writing that the opening scene of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone does just this. We meet the Dursleys and are encouraged not to like them. So when baby Harry shows up, and the Durleys don’t like him — well, we’re already onside with that tiny baby, aren’t we? And he hasn’t even had to do anything yet.

Most of us aren’t starting our main characters out as infants. They’re generally older and able to speak and act for themselves. As writers, we need to make sure they do that. Most of all we need to make sure that there’s something in there, some hint of a characteristic that makes the reader want to spend time with them.

Meeting a character is like meeting a stranger. We form an impression based on the first actions that we observe, the first words we hear. That impression can change over time, but let’s face it — you’re stuck beside the bragging loudmouth at the PTA meeting, but you can set down a book without finishing the first page.

It’s a problem in a lot of ‘new kid’ stories. Your character has just started at a new school. He’s worried and nervous. He misses his old friends. Realistically, he’s probably feeling whiny and resentful about the whole thing. Who wouldn’t be?

But we don’t want to read about the kid who sulks in the corner. We want to read about the one who gets out there and tries to make new friends. The one who chases the soccerball on the field. Maybe he misses it. Maybe he makes a fool of himself. Maybe he ticks off the other kids by messing up their game. But at least he tried.

Pay close attention to the first five, or ten, or fifteen things your character says and does. Look at the impression he makes in the first few chapters. And ask yourself if, not knowing how the story will turn out or how he’ll develop, this is a person you’d want to spend time with.

He doesn’t have to be perfect. Perfect is off-putting, too. But whatever it is that you love about your character, even if it’s just the potential to be more than he is at the start — make sure we get a glimpse of that.

Or barring that, stick a cat in a tree for him to save.

The Right Advice at the Right Time

Shakespeare Statue in Central ParkSometimes things come together. Thanks to my good friend Susan Blakeney, I had an out-of-the-blue opportunity last week to attend a free writing workshop hosted by Driftwood Theatre. I don’t write plays, but I do like to learn about different types of writing whenever I get the chance. You never know what will come in handy. What cinched it for me, though, was the name of the presenter: Rob Corbett.

Rob was part of my first writing group, years ago. We all eventually moved too far away from each other to make meeting up viable, but we keep in touch. Rob wrote novels and plays — really funny novels and plays. Sometimes darkly funny. He’s a talented writer and an insightful critiquer, and someone I like and respect very much. He also lives deep enough in Toronto that we don’t see each other very often. So if he was coming out to Clarington to host a writing workshop, there was no way I was going to miss it.

I don’t want to give away too much of Rob’s talk here. It’s a good one. He gives bits of writing advice that he picked up from reading Shakespeare. True to form, he’s funny and insightful, all at the same time. One awkward bit: he usually uses me as an example when he gives this talk. Something about perseverance and the fact that writers write. I had to correct some of his facts, though; it seems I make a better anecdote when I’m not listening in. Poor Rob.

(Another strange moment: realizing that the two other writers in class with me were the grown children of two of my writing friends. I felt terribly, painfully old.)

I learned some things about Shakespeare that I didn’t know (should have attended that third year Shakespeare seminar more often), and was reminded of some things about writing that I do know. One fun fact: Troilus and Cressida was registered in 1603, but never produced during Shakespeare’s lifetime. Why not? Because it’s just not a good play, and Shakespeare must have known it. Rob spent months of his life trying to prove otherwise for an academic paper and was forced to concede the point. Even Shakespeare wrote a dog now and then.

That’s oddly comforting.

Rob talked about story structure. It wasn’t new to me, since I’ve done a lot of reading on the subject, but every teacher presents things in a different way. Sometimes old advice can sound new. Rob talked about the midpoint as the point of full commitment. That fits in with other things I had read, but somehow seems clearer.

He talked about focus. The hook of any story is a question, and that question is not answered until the end. If you don’t answer the question, or if you answer it too soon, the reader will be disappointed. For me, this comes back to remembering what the story is about.

He also gave some advice that resonated for me because I’m still struggling with the ending of one of my works-in-progress. For an “up” ending, it’s best if the reader first thinks the character has lost. For a “down” ending, it’s best if the fall comes right after a moment of triumph. The greater the contrast, the greater the impact.

I want an “up” ending, but right now things are just falling flat. Maybe what I need to do is think about what it would look like if the main character lost. Maybe I need to find a way to make that happen, or seem like it does. When we talked about our projects, Rob asked me a question that feels like something straight out of Don Maass. “What is your character most afraid of?” Figure it out, he said, and make it happen.

Wow, I miss having Rob in my critique group.

I’m going away for a couple of days next week, holing up with a friend to write. I’m going to bring that problem manuscript with me, and Rob’s suggestions. Because something about it just feels right, and I think maybe this is the puzzle piece that will solve it.

It’s funny how these chances sometimes come out of nowhere. It was tricky, cramming that workshop into an already-full day, but I’m glad I went, and not just for the chance to catch up with Rob again (although that was lovely). Rob, if you read this, please bring Lou and the kids out to Whitby soon. We can do the Starr Burger thing.

But I digress.

Really, all I can say is, if you have a chance to learn or to do something new, take it. If someone offers you advice, listen. Try it, even it it seems basic or obvious. Hear it, even if you’ve heard it before. You never know when something will click.

Television Drama and Pending Doom

Before I get into today’s thoughts on writing (which are mostly: yay, school’s back in session — I get to write again!), I wanted to share some happy news.

1. Boarder Patrol was selected as  one of the Canadian Children’s Book Centre’s “Best Books for Kids & Teens 2011.” Actually, I think I might have mentioned that in an earlier post. But I’m really, really happy about it, so please bear with me.

2. There’s a nice review of the SkinWalker books on the Keen Readers website (scroll down — it’s about the third or fourth from the top).

3. Next month will be my first time teaching a class for fellow writers. Gwynn Scheltema and I are teaming up to do an introductory course in writing for children, through Writescape. I’m getting excited about it.

4. Things are shaping up nicely on my two books due out next spring. I’ve had good feedback from both editors, and I’m about to plunge into revisions. I’ve even seen a sneak preview of one of the covers, but I don’t think I’m allowed to share it yet.

Okay. On with the pending doom. And the bonus picture of Noah Wylie.

My husband and I are science fiction fans. Not very lucky ones, either. Our favourite shows have a nasty history of being cut down in their prime. (Firefly, anyone? And if you haven’t seen Defying Gravity yet, you need to. Just be prepared to have your heart broken when the lovely, long story arc they were setting up for gets truncated after one season.)

So it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I sat down to watch the first episode of Falling Skies with him. The premise: humans struggle to survive on post-alien-invasion Earth. Timeline is now-ish, and the star is Noah Wylie, as a history professor-turned-military advisor. He’s a father of three. Two of his sons are with him, one a risk-seeking soldier, one a child who’s crayon drawings will sucker-punch your soul before the opening credits have even aired. His middle son was captured by the aliens.

And here’s the thing. I don’t want anything bad to happen to these people. I like Noah Wylie’s character. I want his kids to be safe. I want them to stroll into the alien camp and rescue his missing son (and hey, why not the other kids, too?) with nary a shot fired. I want a happy ending for all, but this is television. We all know the nature of dramatic writing; I doubt there are picnics and pancakes ahead.

Conflict means tension, and tension means readers who keep the pages turning. Or, in this case, viewers who tune in for the next episode. So writers must provide conflict. More importantly: they must provide the possibility of conflict, different kinds of it. And then they must deliver. Two different things, both important.

The thing is, the writers of this show have done a great job of making me care about the characters. I want to write them a polite note suggesting that they leave it at that: compelling people in an interesting situation. No need to separate the family further, or kill anybody off. I’m happy, honest! I’ll tune in again.

(Okay, full disclosure: I’d probably tune in to watch Noah Wylie drink coffee and stare into space for an hour. But the fact that he’s playing an interesting character brings a nice legitimacy to the whole thing.)

In this case, the tension comes from the nature of the beast: I know that I’ve signed up to watch a story unfold. I know that when a story about aliens and guns and a post-apocalyptic future unfolds, bad things happen. Hunger Games fans, remember Rue?

The writers and actors did the important part of the job: they made me care. They introduced a high-stakes situation. And now I’m feeling the tension in my belly that comes from knowing that this is a story. The medium itself is enough: it sets up the expectation that bad things will happen. And this doesn’t come from a cliffhanger or a hint of what’s coming or anything like that. This just comes from my knowing that it’s a story, and having expectations around that.

When your reader picks up your book, they’re expecting things to happen. It’s what they signed up for. Leaving aside the obvious fact that you have to deliver on that expectation, you can take a certain satisfaction in knowing that the story-ness of your story is going to do some of the work for you. This ain’t your reader’s first rodeo, baby. They’re going to be imagining endings and possibilities and terrible fates with every turn of the page.

Drop hints. Leave openings. Make the reader care about your characters, and let them wonder. Let them put themselves into that story and start writing it for you, a million different ways. That’s where the knotted-up feeling inside comes from. It’s why Hitchcock liked to leave the bad guys hidden. The more the reader brings to the story, the better.

But here’s the trick: the story you write has to be as good as, or better than, the one the reader wrote in her head.

I want everything to be all sunshine and rainbows for Noah Wylie and his fictional sons, but that’s not what I’m expecting. I’m thinking, first, that the gut-wrenchingest thing I would do as a writer would be to separate them. Put them all in danger, and leave the father wondering what’s happened to his sons. And go from there. I don’t know if that’s how the story will play out or not, but if it doesn’t, it better do something at least as compelling.

Your readers have come to you for a roller coaster ride. They want to laugh and cry. Give them conflict. But first, give them a reason not to want it. Give them a reason to care about these people. They’ll tune in for more.

(And hope to heck that your story doesn’t go the way of Firefly.)


“Write what you know.” We’re told that a lot, aren’t we?

Something bad happened in my extended family recently. I’m not going to go into detail because it’s not my story to tell, and never will be. I love and respect the people involved too much for that. But I’ve learned a little about different ways you can lose people, ways I hadn’t thought about before. And I know how it feels when life goes on anyhow, because it has to.

I suppose it will probably surface somewhere. These things usually do. The subconscious is a great big compost heap, and things just roll around in there and grow.

Sometimes, when I sit back and squint at my work, I can recognize the themes and figure out where they came from. It takes time and distance to do that. (I had one story published before I ever figured out what it was really about. Just as well; I might have decided it was too personal.) For the most part, it just happens. Things appear in our stories, and we don’t know why they’re there. Characters grapple with the same issue over and over again, story after story. Stephen King’s “On Writing” discusses this with brutal honesty, and is worth reading for that as well as for all of his insights into craft.

Sometimes I try to “write safe” on purpose. I’m a bit of a coward that way. Still, the world we live in informs the world of our stories. I don’t care how fantastical the setting is or how many eyeballs there are on your slimy alien antagonist. It’s you. In some small way, it’s you. Why yes, your Freudian slip is showing — why do you ask?

Like many writers, I tell a lot of stories about outsiders. Outsiders are usually different, after all, and differences make for interesting characters. I wouldn’t like to say to what extent that tendency draws upon my nerdy, nerdy childhood. Let’s just say that if I ever write a picture book about an ironing board hiding behind thick glasses, there are those who would recognize the character.

“Life gets better,” indeed. That advice can apply to a lot of people, in a lot of situations.

Families matter in my stories. I was asked once why my Boarder Patrol character Ryan keeps coming to his cousin’s rescue, over and over again, even when he’s mad at him. I’d have thought that was obvious. It’s his cousin! That’s what you do.

When family needs you, you’re there. Whenever I’ve needed mine, they always have been, and I’m grateful for that. Right now it’s someone else’s turn, and I’m trying to work out a way to help. I might not get it right; I often don’t. Screw-ups happen. Sometimes they don’t get forgotten or even completely forgiven, but family is family.

That’s going to be in my stories, too, obvious or else buried somewhere. Floating around. Because that’s part of my worldview, the one that comes from deep inside, where all the compost is. And I’m glad it is.

I’m writing something new now. I don’t have much of a plan for this one, which is strange. I tend to be more plotter than pantser. That’s okay. I’ll see where it goes. And later, much later, I might try to look at the story with new eyes and work out where the pieces came from.

Or maybe I’ll choose not to know.

The French Picture Book

I have a confession to make. My current draft of Haze, an Orca Sports novel slated for publication next spring, is too long. Way too long. Stephen King’s “cut 10%” ain’t gonna do it. So this blog post is advice for me, as much as for anyone else. A few things to think about as I get out my scissors and head into the next set of revisions.

I work as a part-time Occasional Teacher, usually for the primary and junior grades. Not often, but sometimes, I get called in to cover classes in French Immersion schools. This happens only when the school board is very desperate and willing to settle, basically, for any teacher with a pulse.

It’s not that I didn’t try to learn French. I studied it all through high school and up to third year university. But that was a long time ago, and if you’re not using it on a regular basis… well, you find yourself facing first graders who put up their hands and then parlez at a bewildering rate. And you find yourself blinking and translating word by word, and all the while the poor kid just really, really just wants to use the toilette, s’il vous plait, madame. (Fortunately, the pee-pee dance transcends language barriers.)

I made it through the morning. But the afternoon included a science lesson on the water cycle. The teacher had left a fictional picture book for me to read, to set the tone for the lesson.

I couldn’t read it.

At lunch, I stood meekly in the staff room and asked for help from the French-speaking teachers there. One kind soul stepped forward. We translated the book together, me doing my best, she filling in the parts I couldn’t work out. My pronunciation… well, let’s not talk about it. But I had at least an idea of how to say most of the words, and of what the story was to go with each picture. It wasn’t going to be pretty, but I’d get through it.

I met the Principal in the hallway. She asked, in beautifully accented English, how my day was going. The kids were wonderful, and I told her so. Then I laughed and held up the picture book in my hand. “I had to get help,” I admitted.

She studied me for a moment. Then she said, “This is for science. It’s about the water cycle. Use English if you have to.”

Use English. Of course. Because the point of the lesson had nothing to do with French, and only a little to do with the picture book. The point of the lesson, the thing the kids needed to leave with an understanding of, was the water cycle.

So where’s the writing application here? It’s about remembering the point of the book, the story, the chapter, the scene, whatever it is. And not getting carried away by the language.

I know how I’m going to approach this set of cuts. I’m going to go through my book scene by scene, and work out the point of each one. Some of them will probably fail the “justify your existence” test (I got that line from editor Cheryl Klein, but I can’t remember if it came from her book or from the online seminar I just took), and they’ll have to go. Others will be honed so the point comes through more clearly.

And some of the extra stuff, I’ll be sad to see go. It might be funny, or moving, or just plain good. But if it doesn’t serve the story–if it doesn’t help me get to the point–it probably doesn’t belong.

And secretly, I’m excited about this opportunity. I think one of the best things I’ve written is a science fiction short story that start out at 2500 words, then ballooned up to 10,000 words as I explored the world and the characters. The published version is 6000 words, which feels like the right length for the story–but I had to write those 10,000 words to get there and find the right scenes. I’m crossing my fingers that it works out that way for Haze.

Have you every had to grow a story before you could cut it to size?

The End of the World

So I read the other day on Twitter that the world is ending this weekend. And really, if the world were ending, where else would you find out about it? If you can’t trust Twitter, what can you trust?

It reminded me of the last time I heard about the world ending. This happened a little over ten years ago, back when I was a technical writer for a software company. You’ll think I’m talking about the Y2K crisis; I’m not, although I do remember the panic around that. The software company made more than a little money off of Y2K projects.

But no. This is something different.

The company was small enough that we shared office space with another software company. And one of their senior consultants (we’ll call him Bob; plenty of Bobs in this world) was sure that the world was going to end on May 5 (the Cinco de Mayo) of the year 2000.

This was something out of the Mayan calendar. And something to do with the planets all lining up on the opposite side of the sun from the Earth. I didn’t quite follow all of what he said, but I gathered that major tectonic shifts and world-ending weather anomalies were expected.

Bob was a smart guy. Scientific, well spoken, successful. He had a lovely wife and three or four bright, well-behaved kids. And also, he had planned his life around the coming apocalypse.

I hesitate to consider whether the three or four kids were part of the plan, but he had studied local fault lines and predicted the likely outcomes of earthquakes before buying the property where his house was built. Out in the country, of course. I believe that there was some kind of fallout shelter involved, well stocked with water and canned goods. The family was as self-sufficient as possible, at that time, as far as water supply and electricity; they had the land, if not the time, to grow their own vegetables. He was ready for disaster, and he talked openly about it.

Had he not fixed a date to the disaster, he would have been prudent. Environmentally friendly, even. But he had a specific date in mind. He knew when, and how, the world would end, and that was the driving force behind many, if not all, of his actions. And that made him interesting. Weird, but interesting.

I was reading something recently about how characters need to have a passion. I believe it. We’re drawn to people who are different, who are passionate, who are motivated. Action is interesting. If Bob had just talked about the world ending and not done anything about it, I probably wouldn’t remember him nearly so well.

So there are a couple of things I want to point out here, from a character development point of view.

1. I know he really believed the world was ending, because he took action accordingly. He didn’t just pay it lip service. He didn’t just think about it. He acted. Makes me want to look at my characters and make sure that, right or wrong, they’re acting on their convictions.

2. The fact that he was wrong didn’t make his conviction any less interesting. In fact, it made it more so. So the take-away there is that it’s okay if your character is barking up the wrong tree, as long as he has a reason for it. And honestly, the more I see him act on it, the less convincing I need that his reasons are valid. I know that he thinks they’re valid, and that carries a lot of weight.

3. Bob was not a paranoid, shelter-building recluse. He was a senior consultant. Good with clients. Friendly. Respected. Extremely intelligent. Which is another reason why he sticks in my memory, and the stereotypical guy on the street corner with a sign that says “the end is near” gets forgotten. Contrast is good.

May the 5th fell on a Friday that year. I think he was off-site, or at least not in the office that Friday. Because I remember the following Monday, the 8th, as being the awkward day. What do you say? “Good morning, Bob. Nice weather we’re having, eh? And hey, look — we still have weather!” Smile.

I think we left it at “Good morning, Bob.” Or at least, I did. I can’t speak for the guys in the stockroom. They were their own sorts of characters, and acted on their own convictions.

It seems to me that as writers, we could do worse than push our characters outside the norm and let them act on their convictions. Let them be different. Let them be weird. Let them be right, or take a real risk and let them be wrong. Let them follow their beliefs and fall on their faces doing it. And learn from it, or not. Either way, it will make them memorable.

P.S. You may gather from this post that I don’t believe the world is any more likely to end this weekend than at any other time. I’m not an expert in these matters, but it has been my experience that apocalyptic events rarely run on schedule. But if it were ending?

I’d want to write. Maybe read a little. Spend time outdoors, spend time with my family. So that’s what I’m going to do. How about you?

Structure, Structure and More Structure

I spent last weekend at a Screenwriters’ Summit in Toronto, with fellow children’s writers Lena Coakley, Cheryl Rainfield, Karen Krossing, Jennifer Gordon and Urve Tamberg. My brain is still on overload. But I learned stuff. Oh, yes, I learned stuff. (No, I wasn’t just there for the movie clips.)

The speakers: Syd Field. John Truby. Linda Seger. Michael Hauge. I felt like I was meeting my movie stars. It was amazing. And the ideas! My hand nearly fell off, I wrote so much.

Here’s some of what I learned:

Linda Seger

Linda differentiates between art, craft and the creative process. All three are important, and all three need to be cultivated.

Art is the “voice” of the writer, which ties in to the writer’s outlook on the world. Is most of what you write optimistic? Pessimistic? Do you have an agenda? Will you use an intellectual tone, a paranoid tone, a warm tone? Voice is something that emerges over years and over a body of work.

Craft is technique. It’s the part of writing that you can learn. It’s reading books on writing, reading books as a writer, not just as a reader. Watching movies and thinking about the structure of them. Trying new things and failing. Trying again.

Creative Process is unique to the writer. The point here is to learn your own work habits — are you most productive in the morning? At night? — and be aware of them, so you can plan your work time accordingly.

Linda had a lot of other great things to say, too, but some of it has already been touched on in Lena’s and Karen’s posts. Make sure you take a look! Linda’s books are also worth checking out.

John Truby

I’d love to write up John Truby’s talk in its entirety and share it here. I think that was the part of the weekend when the hand cramps started. I just couldn’t write fast enough to keep up with all of the fascinating things he had to say. He’s got a book. Trust me, you want to read it.

One thing to start with: differentiate between your main character’s need, and his desire or goal. The character’s need is a weakness. It’s something holding your character back. It’s the root of your character arc.

The character’s desire is specific to your story — maybe she wants to be an astronaut, but if your novel is about striving to get the highest mark on the grade twelve physics exam, that’s the desire. (Obviously, you’d want to put the astronaut thing in there, too, because that’s just cool.)

And your antagonist? That’s the guy who wants to keep your main character from reaching her goal, of course. Probably because he wants it, too.

Syd Field

Syd Field talked mostly about setting up and establishing story. A lot of what he had to say was kind of specific to the movie business (voice-overs, anyone?), but here’s one thing that I thought was interesting for the YA writers out there.

What Syd calls a “circle of being” event (sounds a bit California for me, frankly), is a traumatic experience that affects the characters life either emotionally, physically or mentally.

This experience usually takes place between the ages of 13 and 20. That’s important, because those teen years are when the family stops being the absolute centre of life. Teens turn outward and rely more on friends and there social circle. It’s an emotionally charged time.

A “circle of being” event might be the loss of a parent, or a move to another city. It might be an accident that permanently changes the character, as in the movie The Lookout. The ripple effects of this event will follow your character throughout their life.

Sounds like inciting incident material to me.

Syd, of course, has a book as well.

Michael Hauge

Michael Hauge was, I think, a little nervous about following all these giants. He didn’t need to be. His talk was amazing. It was another one of those sessions where I wished I had brought a spare hand along with me so I could write faster. (No, I’m not ambidextrous.)

His book (a new edition!) is on my wish list now.

My favourite part of Michael’s talk, besides the bit where he bribed us with schmancy bookmarks printed with his take on plot structure, was when he lined up the arcs.

Michael has his own take on three-act structure. Now I’ve read a lot of versions of three-act structure, and I had just listened to John Truby explaining that there was no such thing, but I like Michael’s take. I like it because he showed how the outer journey, the external arc of the story, lines up with the character’s inner journey, the inner arc. You don’t just lay a foundation for change and then have the character suddenly flip in the last scene. The change happens gradually. A character wavers back and forth between who he was and who he might be. It made a lot of sense, and helped me understand some issues in my own works-in-progress.

It was an intense weekend, filled with lots of great new information. I was glad to be there with friends. “Pssst — Cheryl! What did he just say? What movie was that?”

It was kind of like university all over again. Except better. Because this version featured Harrison Ford clips.

To learn more about the summit, read what Cheryl RainfieldLena Coakley and Karen Krossing had to say.

Woolly Ragwort in your Nose

One of the perks of being a children’s writer is that you get to go back and read all the books you didn’t get around to as a child. Patricia MacLachlan’s beautiful, sparse novel Sarah, Plain and Tall came out in 1985, just a little bit too late for me. I discovered it a few months ago, when I borrowed a copy from the local library for research.

I borrowed it for research, but I loved it so much that I bought my own copy. Now I’m reading it to my daughter at bedtime. And I can see that, much as I loved the book, I was reading it wrong. I read it with a grown-up’s eyes. My Sarah is hearing it as a child. For her, it’s a completely different book. And I’m learning from that.

She loves the characters, just as I did. But we have completely different takes on Caleb, the younger brother of narrator Anna.

Anna’s mother died when Caleb was born. She, Caleb and Papa live alone on their prairie farm until Papa puts an ad in the paper looking for a wife. Sarah, who lives in Maine and has grown up by the ocean, answers.

The great question of the book is whether Sarah will stay. The family loves her, and she seems to love them, but perceptive Anna can see that Sarah misses the ocean.

Caleb, in particular, seems always to be looking for hints that Sarah will stay with them. He reads promises into her words. “Sarah said winter,” he said to me. “That means Sarah will stay.” Three more pages: “Sarah said ‘later.’ Sarah will stay.”

I found that touching and a little sad. Sarah, my Sarah, thinks it’s little-kid funny. Granted, some of that might be because of her name being in the book. (We often pretend the dog is talking about her. I think there are echoes of that at play. Never mind.)

I guess when I read Caleb’s words, I’m seeing them through a lens of experience… there’s something bittersweet about looking for promises that aren’t stated, because as grown-ups, we know that doesn’t always work out well. I’m worried for Caleb. Sarah, at seven, has less experience of that sort of thing. She just thinks it’s funny that Caleb’s repeating himself and insisting on a meaning that doesn’t match the words. And in a way, I’m glad that she doesn’t get it yet.

Tonight, though, she really drove home the point that she’s hearing a different story than I’m reading. There’s a bit where Caleb makes up a song:

Woolly ragwort all around,
Woolly ragwort on the ground,
Woolly ragwort grows and grows,
Woolly ragwort in your nose.

I don’t really remember that bit from my first reading. I suppose I skimmed over it. “Oh, he made up a song. Cute. Let’s see what happens next.”

Not so my daughter. She burst into helpless, body-shaking giggles. Clutched her sides. Wiped tears from her eyes. Made me sing it three times — and anyone who has ever heard me sing knows that such a request is not made lightly.

Needless to say, my hope of a soothing bedtime story flew out the window.

I managed to get her calmed down and read another chapter. Then, of course, she wanted to hear the song again. She wanted to hold the book herself and look at the words and sing them. More giggles. Absolute joy. You’d think Patricia MacLachlan was the greatest comic writer in the history of jokes.

My daughter loves this book now. I’m not sure that she’s seeing the same thing the Newberry Medal people saw in it, when they granted the award on the cover. I’m not sure she’s as taken with the lovely, spare prose as I was. But she wants to know if Sarah will stay. And she wants to hear about Seal the cat.

And most of all, I think, she wants to know if Caleb will make up any more funny songs.

Is there a lesson in here for writers? I’m afraid to go there, in case it leads to an epidemic of nose jokes. But there’s something to be said, I think, for keeping the reader in mind. For thinking like the reader. For creating characters who are so true to themselves and to their ages that they resonate with a reader… and, maybe, for remembering that nose jokes are funny, and that pure, open joy is a pretty wonderful response to a few typewritten words on paper.

Something I Learned from Carole Enahoro

Last week I found out that my friend, Carole Enahoro, has been shortlisted for a Commonwealth Writers Prize for her first novel, Doing Dangerously Well. Regional winners will be announced in early March and final results in May.

Carole was a member of my writing group here in Whitby. Actually, she was the one who invited me to join, so I owe her a lot. But don’t tell her I said that; it’ll go to her head.

Anyhow, it’s wonderful to see a Whitby writer doing well. (Okay, so she grew up in Britain and Nigeria and even lived in Oshawa for a bit, but once a Whitby girl, always a Whitby girl.)

I read Carole’s book last June. It was my first time reading it; DDW passed through the writing group long before I ever got there. I’ve read friends’ published novels before, but this was different. I’ve taken a couple of writing courses from Carole, so I know something about how she puts her books together. It was incredible, reading her story through that lens.

Here’s something I learned from Carole: words count. (Well, duh, you say. Isn’t that what being a writer is supposed to be about?) But Carole is very particular about word choice. I doubt that there’s a noun or a verb in her book that she hasn’t examined.

An example: she has two sisters in her book, Barbara and Mary Glass. A main theme in her book is water. Think about what glass has in common with water. With ice. With mirrors. A name is such a little thing, but when Carole names a character, it isn’t. You could probably write a whole thesis about the water, glass and ice images in DDW, the ways they’re used, and what that’s meant to reveal about each character and moment in the book.

Here’s the best part of the post: the lesson. This is a tiny snippet of something Carole taught me. I can’t give it all away, or Carole will get mad and use some of her schmancy British insults on me. And since I have to look most of them up, it gets embarrassing. Still, I’m willing to risk it to share this.

Think about your manuscript. Think about a central theme. Now come up with an image or word to represent that theme. Write it in the centre of a blank page. I’m willing to bet that Carole started with “water.”

Brainstorm. Brainstorm off your brainstorm ideas. Don’t stop until your whole page is covered. Get into opposites. Water might lead to wet, which might lead to dry, which might lead to desert, sand, sun, heat. And sun might lead to moon and stars. Or to fire which you might already have on your pages as an opposite of water. Draw a line to connect it to sun. Moon and stars might lead to night, black, ink. Just keep going.

When your pages is covered in spidery scribbles, sit back and look at it. Read the words. Circle the ones that resonate for you — the ones that strike you as particularly strong, or that just feel right for some reason you can’t explain.

Now put it away until your book is written. This isn’t early draft stuff. Wait until you’re pretty sure of your story and ready to think about specific word choices that will make your novel stronger. And then, when you need to introduce a minor character or a town name, take a look at your page. See if there’s a word or an idea that might work. “Smith” is boring. Maybe there’s a name that can link to theme in some way — either by falling in with it or by highlighting its opposite.

When you’re describing something, see if some of those powerful words will work for you. Is that skinny, silvery cat tail curved like a scimitar or like a crescent moon? It depends. But when you choose words that resonate with your theme on that weird, subconscious level that you access when you’re brainstorming, cool stuff happens.

I don’t make a lot of grown-up book recommendations. I write for kids, so most of what I read is written for kids. I will say this, though. Once I started reading Carole’s book, I couldn’t put it down. It was vastly different than anything I had ever read. It was funnier, sadder, richer, and just plan more than I expected. And once you read it, you won’t look at water, or words, the same way again.