Tag Archives: Writing

On Productivity and Golf Balls

Over the last week and a half, I’ve tried something new. I put writing first.

It was a busy few weeks. I’d been planning the workshop, and judging stories for a contest, on top of my usual writing-related (but never quite writing) commitments. Research, story planning, emails, critique group… you know how it goes. So it would have been really easy to let the writing slide.

Instead, I set word count goals for myself on my current project–a juvenile historical novel (2000 words most days, 1000 on the days when there was a lot going on). I had to meet my word count before I checked email, visited Twitter, or did anything else on my “to do” list.

After my workshop on Saturday (which went wonderfully, by the way!), I chatted about this with two of my writer friends who had attended the workshop. One of them, Susan Blakeney, said that “writing is a golf ball.”

After a statement like that, you can’t really answer. You just raise your eyebrows and hope the person will explain. Or maybe you laugh nervously and wonder what’s in her water bottle.

Luckily, Susan did explain. Her uncle had taught her that life was like a jar. And there are lots of things you want to put in the jar–sand and tiny rocks and shells and, for some reason, a few golf balls. (No, I don’t know why golf balls. The size?) Anyhow, if you fill the jar up with sand and rocks and the tiny things first, the golf balls won’t fit. But if you put the golf balls in first, you can add the tiny stuff later and it will find its way to where it fits. The trick, her uncle says, is figuring out what your golf balls are. For Susan, writing is a golf ball–and she does a good job of organizing her life accordingly.

(Susan’s blog can be found at www.seblakeney.com/blog/, and maybe if we all bug her enough she’ll do a better job of explaining the golf-balls-in-a-jar thing. I have a feeling I’ve muddled it.)

So anyhow. This week, I made my writing into a golf ball. And it worked well. Some other things fell behind, which tells me something about the amount of volunteer work I can take on and still maintain a productive writing life. Lesson learned. (Yeah, right. We’ll see about that the next time someone says “Hey, Erin, would you….?” Still, at least I like to think that I’ll be making a more informed answer than I would have a week ago.)

Everyone writes differently, and everyone is productive differently. Another writer friend and I talked about this recently, outside my daughter’s school. What worked for her was blocking off time to write in her day planner. And I suspect that what makes a person productive one month or for one project might not work for the next. Still, this is working right now, and I’m thrilled.

All that being said, I took today off. It was the first day I’ve done that in a long time. It was also my first day of supply teaching in quite a while; teaching uses up my brain in a way that little else does. But tomorrow, I will write two thousand words before I even think about tackling anything else.

Heck, maybe I’ll make it three.

Poem for Writers

Lots happening lately in my little writing life.

The Mabel’s Fables workshop (aka. George Brown College’s Writing Fiction for Children, level two) started up again last night. It looks like we’re a smaller group than usual, probably because of the winter weather, but there are so many old friends and wonderful writers there, and some new faces as well. It should be a good term. I read aloud the first two chapters of my current project for critique, and got some encouraging (but thorough–believe me, this crowd doesn’t let you get away with anything) feedback.

I’m working on a writing workshop that I’ll be presenting in February. This is one of the Writer’s Circle of Durham Region’s after-breakfast mini-workshops; one hour long. My topic is Writing for the Hi-Low and Reluctant Reader Market. I’ve got lots of good information to share. The hard part will be fitting it all into one hour.

And my husband and I spent last weekend pursuing our respective nerdy passions (mine = writing, his = coding). For Christmas, he gave me a weekend away with him at the Grey Stone Return Bed & Breakfast near Picton, Ontario. It’s gorgeous there.

Grey Stone Return--stone wall
Grey Stone Return

We went last year, too, but I ended up with a ridiculously bad cold and spent the weekend churning out kleenex instead of pages.

This year was different. The B&B is built around a tiny fieldstone home that apparently used to belong to the teacher at the local one-room schoolhouse. You can touch the stones, and see where the (low) roof used to be. I loved feeling so close to history. I think it helped, since it was a historical project I was working on. Anyhow, I came home with 12,000 new words and a feel for the story. So far, so good.

Finally, I leave you with Kate Messner’s beautiful poem for writers, which I discovered through Cheryl Rainfield’s blog. Read the poem. And then go back to your writing and feel good about what you’re doing.

Eight Favourite Books on Writing

Happy New Year!

In honour of resolutions and all that, I decided to start out the new year by sorting through my collection of books about writing. (Okay, the truth is that I need to move the bookshelf so I can plug in a phone cord.) There are some discards — books that never really spoke to me, books about kinds of writing that I’ve decided not to pursue. But there are also some treasures.

Some of these aren’t the usual writer’s list. I have those, too — Natalie Goldberg and Anne Lamott, and a daunting and as-yet-unread copy of Story by Robert McKee. The copy of ‘A Passion for Narrative’ by Jack Hodgins that I won at my high school graduation. But those aren’t the ones that I find myself going back to. And maybe it’s because my focus of late has been on craft, but I’m tending to choose the books that give me something of the nuts-and-bolts of the whole process, rather than the books that inspire.

Without further blathering, here are the books that I pulled from my shelf that I would not part with.

The Writer’s Journey, by Christopher Vogler. This was the first book that I read that dealt with mythic structure and the hero’s journey. I liked the second edition so much that I bought the third edition when it came out. I haven’t bonded with the new one the same way, though; it doesn’t have that lovely, dog-eared look that the old one had.

Chapter after Chapter, by Heather Sellers. There are some similarities between this book and Bird by Bird, at least thematically. This is the one that keeps me on track, though. It’s a wonderful guide to have with you when you tackle a novel.

Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maas. I hate the title of this one. Hate it so much that I’m tempted to get out my sewing machine and stitch together one of those cutesy, quilted book jackets that are sold at craft fairs in Harlequin sizes, just for this book. But if you can get past the presumption and oily-slick feeling of the title, it’s a great book with some wonderful advice on improving your work.

On Writing, by Stephen King. Okay, so one of the classics made the list. I love this book. It’s the first book that I recommend to anyone who tells me they want to write. I’m not a big Stephen King fan, mostly because I’m a big chicken and reading scary books=sleepless nights, but I love what he has to say about the craft of writing and his own journey.

Room to Write, by Bonni Goldberg. Yup. Not the usual Goldberg. But this is, hands-down, my absolute favourite book of writing exercises.

Novel Metamorphosis, by Darcy Pattison. What I like best about this book? It tells me things that I hadn’t thought of before. Things that, in retrospect, should have been obvious. I discovered this book when I was already partway through a major revision, and I hate to interrupt a revision mid-stream. But once I finish, I’m going back and tackling the manuscript again, with Pattison’s book in hand. (Take that, work-in-progress!)  My only regret is that it’s a workbook, and I refuse to write in the book. I’ve been creating my own set of worksheets to go along with the exercises. It’s a cumbersome process, but at least I’ll be able to use them more than once. (I’d offer them for download, but that’s not exactly fair to Darcy Pattison, is it?)

And of course, the book on character that I’ve already written one post about: Getting Into Character, by Brandilyn Collins. This one takes a look at what writers can learn from the method actor’s craft. I struggle, sometimes, with really getting into a character’s skin, and this book gave me some new ways to approach the problem. Lots of books will give you lists and lists of interview questions and facts that you need to know about your character. Noah Lukeman’s ‘The Plot Thickens’ does that, and does it well, so that the questions force you to really get inside your character’s head. But I’ve never liked the lists of questions. I have trouble taking them seriously. Collins’ book was something new, and I’d recommend it to anyone.

Finally, and maybe it shouldn’t even be on this list because I’m still reading it for the first time, Scene & Structure by Jack M. Bickhkam. I’m pretty sure that I’m driving my husband nuts with this one. I’m working through it slowly, and it seems like every section has a new little gem to offer–which I feel the need to blab about non-stop until I’ve internalized it and worked out how it applies to each one of my seventeen gazillionty works in progress. It will probably deserve its own post, once I’ve finished reading it. At this rate, that should be sometime in 2012…

So there you have it. Many writing books are dear to my heart, but these are my current favourites. If you’re working your way through a new year’s resolution that has to do with finally finishing that novel, or polishing your manuscript so it’s ready for submission, you might want to check them out. Heck, if you live nearby, I’ll lend you my copy. But only if you promise to give it back.

Online Interview, Arthur Slade and PYI Conference

It’s been a busy few days in writing land. Yesterday was the annual CANSCAIP Packaging Your Imagination Conference. The day before that, I had the opportunity to drive one of the PYI speakers (Arthur Slade) to a couple of library presentations. And I should probably draw attention to my author interview on the Teens Read Too website, which just went up.


First the interview: you can find it here. It includes such fascinating trivia as my childhood ambition to be a tightrope walker, my favourite books of 2010, and the fact that I’m a clumsy skier. Also the ten words my younger brother would use to describe me. Don’t worry. I warned him that this was for public viewing, so he kept it clean.

Arthur Slade

So Friday, I had the wonderful opportunity to spend the day with Arthur Slade, author of Dust and Megiddo’s Shadow and The Hunchback Assignments and at least a dozen other books. I was excited about this. I planned for it. I looked up his work and managed to read Tribes and part of Dust ahead of time (it was a reading time fail because I wanted to get through more, but trust me, the books are excellent. Great voice in Tribes, and absolutely beautiful writing in Dust). I went to Google Maps and created a route plan for each part of the day, then made PDFs and loaded them onto my iPad, maps and all. I spent Thursday night at my cousin’s place in the city, to avoid the morning tangle on the 401.

And then I got to the hotel and spent about ten minutes driving around the block, looking for the passenger pick-up/drop-off zone. Oops. I guess planning only takes you so far.

Anyhow, it turns out that in addition to being a great writer, Arthur Slade is also really friendly. He’s a self-declared Mac geek, so we had that in common. I enjoyed watching him talk to the kids — he has a fancy AV show to go along with his talk, including book trailers and the whole bit. I haven’t gotten there yet, but maybe someday.

For me, the best part was hearing about the seeds that were the beginnings of his stories and seeing how they grew. If you haven’t read his work yet, it’s well worth a read.

Final bit of Art Slade trivia: he writes on a treadmill, slowly walking in place at his desk. You can see a picture of it here. It reminds me of something I read in high school, in a biography of Victor Hugo (I think). He wrote standing up because he wanted his blood to flow to his head, not to his rear. Loosely translated. Anyhow, the idea of writing and walking at the same time sounds pretty good to me. Hmm. Wonder if I can fit a treadmill in here.

Packaging Your Imagination Conference

Now onto the Packaging Your Imagination Conference. As always, it took place in Victoria College at U of T. I guess I’ve been attending the conference and taking courses for enough years that there are as many familiar faces there now as unfamiliar ones. I love catching up with writing friends and meeting new ones.

It’s always tough, choosing which speakers to see. I went with Barbara Berson, Arthur Slade and Norah McClintock. And, of course, keynote speaker Marthe Jocelyn.

Some of my favourite points:

From Barbara: Give thought to what is different about your book. You should be able to say what your book is about in no more than two sentences. (I suspect that “it’s about a little boy and an alien” isn’t exactly the pitch I need for my current wip. Gotta work on that.) And most importantly, if you want to be published, make friends with rejection.

Stay original. The story needs to feel real — it’s fiction, but it needs to be grounded in Truth. Capital T.

It’s not a bad thing, having ideas for a series. The first book should stand alone, but if you have ideas about what might follow, that can be worth mentioning. Sadly, right now I don’t have any series-type ideas. Maybe someday.

Be productive. Know how to tell a great story. And have some marketing savvy, but don’t get lost in the publicity side. It really does come down to the writing.

From Art: Ground your reader. The more realistic the character and emotions in the story, the more you can get away with as far as a fantasy or sci-fi element goes. You need to know the world of the story intimately, to be convincing. If that’s real, and the characters feel real, the story will feel real.

For historical research, reading things published at the time you’re writing about (not just about the time you’re writing about) will help you get the voice right. Newspapers and local writers are great resources.

You have to “prime the brain”, or get the reader ready to accept the fantasy element in your story. This might be done through language choice, or through the introduction of smaller fantasy or hard-to-explain elements until you are ready for the “big reveal”.

Sometimes, talking about real-life things that seem fantastical can help make the made-up stuff easier to swallow. (There was a story about howler monkeys. Trust me, you don’t want to know.)

It’s okay if the reader figures out what’s going on before the characters do, so long as the characters aren’t being obviously dense about the whole thing. (“Gee, my new neighbour Vlad is awfully pale. Funny how I never seem to see him during daylight hours. And what’s with all the bats and coffins?”)

In your description, leave room for the reader’s imagination to do some of the work.

From Norah: When writing a mystery, you need to write two stories. The first is the story of what actually happened–who did it, why they did it, the timeline and so on. The second, the story you’re actually intending to write, is the story of solving the crime.

An unusual setting or “world” for the crime can help keep things fresh. Draw on your own experience. If you know a lot about international guppy racing, well, that probably hasn’t been used before as a setting for a murder mystery.

The sleuth must be the kind of kid who cares about what happened, for some reason. Probably because they have a stake in it. They also have to be tenacious, so they’re the sort of person who’s likely to see the mystery through and want to get to the bottom of things.

Look at the victim’s life (if it’s a murder mystery) to find other suspects and red herrings. Who would have had motive, method and opportunity? Try to give each of your suspects at least two out of the three.

You do need to research the police side of things, to find out what they’d be doing and what they’d know and when. On the plus side, real-world forensics (as opposed to those on television) take a long time to process. And kids have access to information on the schoolyard and in the neighbourhood that adults don’t know about.

When writing a mystery for kids, keep in mind that a young person’s world is full of firsts. If they’re involved in an extreme situation (crime, murder), the emotion around that might be heightened by lack of experience. It may be their first experience with someone dying, or first experience with the police. What does that feel like?

At the end, the mystery part of the story must hold together. The clues have to have been there. The red herrings must be valid, and the solution has to make sense.

From Marthe: For a writer, lies are “as important a tool as an eraser.” And a writer’s world is full of possibility. And finally, echoing something that Art said, stories depend on the imagination of the reader, as well as the writer.

It was a great conference. Energizing. This morning, I woke up and went straight to my (non-treadmill-affixed) desk this morning and worked through revisions on two chapters before breakfast, and I think that’s because I went to bed with writing on the brain.

And now… back to work.

All on the Same Fuse

The power just went out. No surprise. We’re getting into that chilly time of year, and my husband and I both work from home. Unfortunately, both of our offices, and the space heaters that we’ve squeezed into them to make them liveable, are on the same fuse.

I had a few minutes to stare at my blank monitor while Kind Husband went down to the basement to flip the fuse back on, and in those minutes, I remembered something that I just read.

“The number reason books don’t get finished is this: writers say yes to other things.” (Heather Sellers, Chapter after Chapter)

This time of year, in particular, that’s a problem for me. I’ve been a raving volunteeraholic since my teen years. (Mandatory 40 hours of community service? Please. I used to whip that off in a month.) I hate saying no.

And it’s hard to say no — after all, other than a minimal supply teaching schedule, I work from home. I’m here. My schedule is flexible. No one is beating down my door, asking for those manuscripts I’ve got lying around in various stages of non-market-readiness. So it’s really easy to push the writing aside and make time for other things.

Terry Fox Run committee? Sure. I’m a cancer survivor, and I want to help. SCC meeting? Yeah, I really should be involved in my daughter’s school. Yearbook committee? Girl Guides? It’s so, so easy to say yes, and so easy to watch the minutes disappear. Heck, I even find ways to do extra volunteer work for writing-related organizations — isn’t that kind of like writing?

But here comes the transparently obvious metaphor. All those things run on the same fuse, and so does writing. And — as a recent power outage will attest — they can’t all happen at once.

Writing takes not only time, but mindshare. And for me at least, mindshare doesn’t come easily. (Limited real estate? I hope not.) If I’m going to write, I need to focus on the writing. And that means treating it like a job, and making it clear that writing time is not up for grabs.

I’m working on it. When approached about the yearbook committee yesterday, I didn’t say yes. I didn’t quite manage a complete ‘no’, either, but… I’m working on it.

Any of you more focused, resolved individuals out there feel like sharing some strategies? I’d love to hear them!

Getting into Character

This is a writing book recommendation.

Sometime last year, around the time my husband and I visited Stratford, I started thinking about acting. Not about me acting! No, no, never. I took Drama in grade ten because someone told me it was smart to have an easy course to bring up my average. Ha.

I started thinking about actors and what they have to do. A script is, more or less, just dialogue. Often really good dialogue (okay, absolutely brilliant dialogue), but dialogue nonetheless. Actors move beyond this and add all those tiny details and textures that make a character come alive. From what a character says, they’re able to reach down inside and build a whole person.

It’s not always the same whole person, either. Mel Gibson’s Hamlet is different from David Tennant’s Hamlet is different from Ben Carlson’s Hamlet. But the words are still the ones we studied in high school.

Granted, I know very little about acting (see comment above re: grade ten Drama). I do know what it feels like to watch when a character comes alive, though. It’s that moment when I forget that I’m watching an actor and just start watching the character. The actor becomes invisible.

So since I’m working my way into a line of business where it’s a good thing if characters come alive, it occurred to me that I might learn a thing or two from actors. I even toyed (briefly) with the idea of taking a class, but, well… grade ten Drama. I still have nightmares.

I thought I’d try reading about it instead. In a used bookstore, I found a lovely, red hardcover called “Modern Acting: A Manual.” That sounded like just the thing. It was published in 1936, but the basics couldn’t have changed that much, could they? It’s a dense little book. My bookmark is in chapter four, but I know I waded ahead to other bits as well. I enjoyed the glimpses into an actor’s life (“The actor’s body is his medium of expression”), but this wasn’t a book that was going to change the way I wrote. It drove home the importance of observation, but didn’t give me any new ways to think about it.

Then I came across “Getting into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn from Actors,” by Brandilyn Collins. This made me very happy because, you see, someone had done the hard work for me. I love it when that happens.

This was the book I wanted. She draws on Method Acting (which I had heard of only in the sense that Viggo Mortensen is apparently a method actor and insisted on carrying his sword around New Zealand for four years) and applies it directly to writing. She uses examples from books, everything from David Copperfield to modern thrillers. And she gave me a new way to think about observation. Several new ways, actually.

She talks about Personalizing, a way to avoid stereotypes and make characters memorable. The chapter on Inner Rhythm was an eye-opener for me, as was the one on Action Objectives. Of everything in the book, I think it’s the action objectives (a driving power behind every action, every scene) that I’m going to keep foremost in my mind when I’m editing down my current project.

I can’t claim to have internalized everything in the book yet, or to be doing it right. I wish! I do know that I drafted a new novel shortly after reading this book and I did it differently because of what I had read. Better? Worse? It’s a new draft. Hard to tell. But I certainly have a better handle on this main character then on some I have written, and for me that’s rare in a first draft. My “bad guy” insisted on becoming more complex than planned, as well. I like him much better for it, although I’m not sure that my editor will.

I read a lot of writing books. This one stands out for me. I feel a bit guilty, actually, because I’ve told my writing group about it but not offered to lend out my copy yet. I’m not ready to let it go.

And the best part? Now I don’t have to take that drama course I was considering.

Holly Lisle and First Drafts

I just stumbled across Holly Lisle’s novel-in-progress, Talysmana. Holly is an established fantasy writer who is sharing the first draft of her latest novel scene by scene, as she writes it.

Incidentally, she is currently running a contest, if anyone wants to become a character in her book. Not my cup of roiboos, but it’s an interesting idea.

Full disclosure: I’ve never read anything by Holly Lisle. My love affair with fantasy is hit-and-miss (although I’m currently enjoying Kathleen Duey’s Skin Hunger). And seeing as how I just signed up for the Talysmana mailing list moments ago and haven’t received a chapter yet, I can’t comment on it as a story.

I’m going to read it, though.

I liked Holly Lisle’s post on what constitutes a first draft. As as writer, I’m impressed and not a little grateful that she’s willing to share hers, because it’s always helpful to get a window on someone else’s work process.

My first drafts tend to be skeletal, heavy on action and dialogue and light on setting and texture. My plots get messy. However much time I spend outlining before I write, by the time I reach the midpoint, things have usually diverged enough from the outline that I’m no longer sure of the ending.

I have novels that have been in progress for years; the shape consolidates after a few drafts, as they get closer (I hope) to being finished, but they bear very little resemblance to what I wrote in that first draft.

I’m not likely to post a first draft here anytime soon. I share them with my critique group, and sometimes a draft is so sketchy that even my critique group must be spared. But I appreciate that Holly Lisle is willing to share hers.

It’s not a bad promotional idea, either. I’m already planning to read the finished book when it comes out, if only so I can compare it with the draft. One new reader, just like that. I’m sure I’m not the only one.

On the downside, she has already been criticized by one reader who apparently didn’t understand exactly what ‘first draft’ meant. That’s unfortunate. Kind of like going to the first reading of a play and then asking why the costumes weren’t pretty and no one knew their lines.

As an “emerging” (that seems to be the polite term for rookie) writer, I hear more and more about the importance of building a platform and reaching out to readers. I think Holly Lisle has chosen an interesting way to do that. I’ll be watching to see what happens.

Anyone read or can recommend any of her published novels?

Sold a Story!

I’m very excited that my short story, “Julia”, sold to On Spec magazine. I’m not sure when it will be out; I received the acceptance last week, so I’m guessing it will be in the next issue.

I’ve written a few incarnations of this story about a mother who is forced to choose between her children. The first draft, less than 2000 words, was based on a prompt from the NYC Midnight short story contest. After that, I stretched the concept out to short novella length, to explore it better. That draft was close to 10,000 words. Too long; it felt bulky. I’m pretty happy with the current draft, at just under 6000 words. 

Peter Carver, a former editor with Red Deer Press, teaches a course on writing for children through George Brown College in Toronto. He always talks about a work being “the right length for itself”–not the usual length for that genre, or the size it should be to make a picture book, but the number of words it takes to tell the story properly, without a lot of extra fluff in there. I feel like I finally got “Julia” to the right length for itself. It took a lot of trying, though.