Peace Tower - Ottawa
I spent the last three days in beautiful Ottawa. Along with some amazing training I’ve experienced the following things:
- An unexpected snowstorm (there is easily three feet of white stuff in the undisturbed areas);
- A beautifully sunny day;
- Two evenings on the arm of a charming officer;
- Dinners with friends old and new;
- Delicious deserts; and,
- Acting like a child in the snow.
Eating an Icicle
My colleagues here think I’m rather strange. (How did they get to know me so quickly?) I clapped in excitement at the falling snow, plopped down after training (while waiting for a cab) to make a snow angle, and convinced a colleague to help me get an icicle to lick.
Before I leave tomorrow I still hope to cram in a tour of the Governor General’s residence or failing that maybe a quick trip to the War Museum.
For those of you who read my writing goal from a few days ago I wanted to report that the plane trip to Ottawa was very productive for writing and I hope the same will be true of the ride home, but I am still a few days behind. Even with the extra day in February I think my goal will slip. However I may be sent to Victoria on the ferry Friday for work; if so I will have another two hours each direction to work on the writing. My new goal will be to finish by the end of this weekend.
A heavy snowfall can bring out the child in me. Fortunately I live in a warm climate where I do not often have to fight the urge to slide down snow banks and leave my angelic impression everywhere. Imagine that snow has a similar effect on one of your characters, but for them the urge is irresistible. If they see snow, they simply have to play. How would they handle this special challenge? Would they move to a warm climate and avoid snow? Would they give in and become the object of curious attention? How did their drive to play in the snow develop? Aim to write for twenty minutes. Then if there is snow outside where you live make an angel and send me your picture. Happy writing.
Yesterday I spent some time in a shopping mall sitting in a coffee shop writing; working hard to get my second draft of Riveted out on deadline. Sometimes I like to write in a coffee shop or other public place where I can’t get distracted by the laundry, or other chores that seem critical at the time, but are really just excuses to procrastinate.
On the way out I saw this sign in the mall yesterday and had an Army of Darkness moment. “Shop smart, shop S-Mart.” It was a great geek moment I had to share.
Coming full circle is a common idea in books and movies. Beginning and ending a story in the same physical space can help the author illustrate the changes that have taken place in the characters. Think of a place from your past, a summer camp, a school or some other location that was important to you. Pretend you are the character in your story and put yourself back in that location. What changes would be revealed about you in this familiar location? How have you grown since you were last in that place? Aim to write two pages illustrating this change.
Success! In the last three days I managed to push through my second-draft block. On Friday night I took the bull by the horns, or the book by the pages. I finally admitted to myself that part of my procrastination was a lack of research. I knew my book needed structural work, but I didn’t have a complete grasp of what that work entailed. I had been advised that a beat sheet would help me “fix” my problems, but looking at the sheet I realized that (despite earlier confidence) I didn’t really understand how to use it, or frankly even the vocabulary on the sheet.
So I resolved that lack of knowledge. I opened my copy of Story Engineering by Larry Brooks (A brilliant book I wish I had found years ago.) and looked up the meaning of those pesky unknown words. Then, with that new knowledge under my belt, I looked at each sub-section of my book and with the help of Scrivener (see an old post on Scrivener) began dragging and dropping my scenes into the correct sections: set-up, response, attack and resolution. I was merciless, forcing myself to describe each scene and why each scene was where it was in my book.
This wasn’t an easy process. I had to step back from my personal connection with the writing; the voice that cried out “it’s there because I like it there”. However, while it wasn’t easy I now believe it was critical to the future success of this novel. The process pointed out that I had a few scenes that while brilliantly written, did nothing for the story. (I’m crying a little inside.) The process also illustrated where I had holes in my story; where I needed to build more empathy with my protagonist, and more.
Now that I have a better view of the structure of my novel I believe I am ready to address the holes and write those missing scenes. I have a renewed feeling of confidence and excitement.
I now have a new plan for achieving my goal of having a complete second draft by the end of February.
- Today I will write three small scenes that are missing from the story (one coincidentally in each of the first three sections as described by Story Engineering).
- Next week I will write the missing resolution pieces.
- Next weekend I will polish, proof and copy edit and smooth my scene transitions.
I can do this.
The first plot point in any story is a critical juncture. It is the place in your story when we go from setting up the story to really telling it. That point is so important that it can feel intimidating to writers. One way to get around your intimidation is to begin your writing with that very point. Ask yourself what the turning point is for your character. What changed their world so dramatically that they were forced to act? Write that scene. Once you have your first plot point, take a long piece of legal paper and write the title of that scene about 1/4 of the way down the page and start making bullet points about the rest of your story. Everything before your first plot point will be set-up and the rest will be how your character deals with this change; the story. This page now forms the basis of a story outline or beat sheet you can use to guide your writing moving forward. Happy writing.
I’m stuck, and intimidated. I hope that by writing those words down, being honest with myself and the world, that I will get un-stuck.
I need to do some structural work on my novel and my inner voice keeps crying out “You are a fraud!” and “You don’t have the chops to fix this!”.
I know what my next step should be. I need to move some content around in my novel; my big, complete, first draft of a novel. I received wonderful feedback from my first reviewer. Her notes gave me new ideas and the desire to improve upon my work. It sounds so simple in my head. I have the desire to do the work. I know what needs to be done. Now I just need to pick one foot up, put it in front of the other and walk down the path I see before me.
To fight my inner critic I am going to write five positive statements about myself and my writing; overwhelm that negative voice and get myself moving in the direction of my dreams. (This part is embarrassing, but I’m going to do it anyway.)
- An agent called my writing sweet and tender.
- Everyone who has read my novel enjoyed it.
- I set goals and then achieve them.
- People enjoy talking to me. Writing a book is talking on a page. Therefore people will enjoy reading my book.
- I enjoy writing and I deserve to do things I enjoy.
I don’t really hold out much hope that I will ever stop being intimidated, but hopefully the stuck part can pass. Wish me luck. Go me!
Dialogue drives many stories. It can build intimacy and immediacy, bringing readers closer to characters through word choice, tempo and more. Dialogue is also a great way for us, as writers, to get to know our characters. Sometimes when you write a scene and get a character talking, words will “come out of their mouth” that you hadn’t planned. These happy accidents can drive a story in a new direction and free your creativity. Let your characters speak. Write an entire scene exclusively using dialogue. Don’t describe the setting or give any background just let your characters speak to themselves; to each other; or, even to inanimate objects. Aim to fill one page with this conversation.
Today I came home to a surprise. My husband made me a cake. Now Andre is always doing sweet things, but this was a special effort. It is only the second time in two decades (perhaps even in his life) that he has ever baked a cake. I am proud to say that both times were for me. I’m living a love story.
I’m a romantic. I love it when I get special treats; a cake, a wink or a stolen kiss. I’m a sucker for a romantic movie (or even commercial), and as an adult have developed an appreciation for love poems. My favourite is Dylan Thomas’s (And Death Shall Have No Dominion). I like to imagine the love that inspired the poems, and then let my imagination wander into the lives of the poets and their loves. At the moment I’m toying with the idea for a historical fiction based on romantic poetry. So many ideas, so little time.
Love poems come in many forms. They can praise the qualities of a love or tell a tragic tale but they all share the same goal, to express the depth of the word love. Sometimes the word itself is so powerful it gets in the way. The word love is all at once the simplest and most complicated word I know. It’s intimidating in that it perfectly states an emotion that could never be described fully. In poetry (at least for me) the word love can be a barrier to expression so in this exercise, write a love poem without using the word love. Think about love. What does it mean to you. How does it make you feel? Where is it found. Then take thirty minutes and make your readers understand love without ever using the word. Happy writing.
On my desk I have several reminders to live life. Magnets and posters with quotes from Thoreau and Souza share space with a copy of the Serenity Prayer and I keep a Despair.com calendar at my desk to remind me not to take life too seriously.
You may ask why I need the reminder. The answer is simple and complicated all at the same time. I struggle (and I believe I am not alone) to remember that our daily chores and challenges are not a barrier to our lives; they are our lives. I struggle to remember that I am allowed to be happy and I am responsible for finding that happiness each day.
Sometimes when I’m having a bad day (the words just wont come, or my internal critic is telling me I can’t write) one of these quotes catches my eye and it helps me push through.
“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you’ve imagined.” – Thoreau
“Happiness is a journey not a destination.” – Souza
“WISHES – When you wish upon a falling star, your dreams can come true. Unless it’s really a meteorite hurtling to the Earth which will destroy all life. Then you’re pretty much hosed no matter what you wish for. Unless it’s death by meteor.” – Despair.com
Write a prayer. “But,” you cry in objection. “I’m not the religious type.” This exercise doesn’t have to be about religion. Sure, if you have a faith that inspires you that’s great, but prayer can be about a conversation with yourself; an expression of hope; a reminder to live life and be gentle with yourself. So with this in mind, think about something you hope for in the future. Or think about something that has been troubling you. Now write yourself a message of hope. Happy writing.
A special place.
It’s nearly Spring in Vancouver. The weather is warming, early flowers are creeping up out of the earth and yesterday I took a walk in the afternoon to enjoy the emerging season. I brought my ipod, sang along to a few of ABBA’s greatest hits, and thoroughly enjoyed the break from life.
While I walked I also enjoyed discovering several places that brought back good memories from my childhood. Stands of trees begging to be climbed, fields of grass wet and bowed, and a half dozen creeks running along and under the roadway. I loved creeks as a child (and still do today). I like to look at the colourful rocks just below the surface. I love how the flow of water changes the earth creating valleys, and how plants and trees arch over the water. As a child I would wade through creeks searching for places to be alone with my thoughts; places that felt private and special.
I know if I ever decide to build a retreat for writing it will be on a property that has at least one creek; a burbling, rolling waterway with special places and smooth stones that invite me to sit and write.
Where we grow up is special. The places and things in that environment are tied to memories and lessons. Take a moment to recall a special place from your childhood; a place that you built a relationship with. It could be a quite natural retreat, or maybe a local arcade or sports field. How did that place make you feel? Why was the place special? Were you alone there or amongst a group? Now tell the story of that place. Aim to write for thirty minutes.
Today I practiced restraint. How you may ask? Well by going to one of the most tempting places on earth…a Greek restaurant. I love Greek food. The pita, the tzatziki, the lamb and the large piles of rice and potato. I spent most of the dinner resisting the siren’s call of the delicious food and instead concentrated on the conversation. I would like to report success. I resisted eating everything in site, but still managed to enjoy my meal.
There are several places that challenge my ability to eat sensibly. Rogers’ Chocolates stores rank pretty high on that list, as does my mother-in-law’s house (she is an amazing cook who deeply believes in the power of butter), and of course Greek restaurants (and Indian and Italian…). When I know I am about to enter one of these danger zones I try to make an action plan to enjoy the event without expanding my waistline too badly. Planning is an important part of my life in eating sensibly but it is also important in other areas, like writing.
I try not to have a goal without a plan of action to achieve that goal. For example, my goal for February is to complete the second draft of my latest novel. My plan was to review a chapter each day that I do not have another evening activity. I must admit that I am not on schedule at the moment. Knowing this, I am revising my plan and breaking it down into smaller chunks. For example, tomorrow I will be creating a Beat Sheet for the novel, then I will use what I have learned to develop a better workflow plan for the rest of the month. I may not hit my original goal, but I hope that this new plan will kickstart my writing this month. Wish me luck!
Many writers choose to express themselves organically; writing without a defined outline or plan. While this can be a great way to let a story flow onto the page, it can also be a daunting task. This method of creation can also result in a first draft that is crying out for a little structure. A Beat Sheet is an outlining tool that can be used at any point in the writing process to add a little structure to a story. One of the background pieces necessary for a Beat Sheet and the novel itself is the “what if” statement that describes your novel. For example the “what if” sentence for Lord of the Rings could have been “What if a powerful magician created a self-aware ring with the power to enslave the world, and the only way to save the world was to take the ring to the heart of the magician’s stronghold and destroy it, before the magician can find you.” Ok so that was a little simplistic for one of the most complicated (and amazing) plots in move history but I hope you get the picture.
For this exercise, read the Beat Sheet Basics post from Storyfix.com and then try your hand at creating a “what if” statement that describes your story. Happy writing.
When I was a child I always found the somersault a difficult maneuver. Throwing yourself headfirst onto the floor just didn’t seem like a good idea. After years of martial arts training I got better at them, but never did perfect the technique until today. Today I executed the perfect somersault. The trick it seems is to have someone else, or in my case something else do the throwing you to the ground part…
Today during my horseback riding lesson I had just that experience. Well to be fair to the horse, he tripped and tried very hard not to fall. (He is such a wonderful horse he works very hard to keep students from falling, but none of us is perfect.) Long story short, I had just turned the corner after a beautiful series of jumps when the horse stumbled and fell. (We are both fine.) It happened so quickly that the only thought I had during the entire fall was “tuck”. But with only that thought (and the momentum provided by my noble steed) I was able to perform what my instructor described as the “perfect somersault”.
I credit years of practice with providing the muscle memory and instinct to fall correctly. For years instructors have been telling me that if I practice an activity or a move frequently enough the motions will become a natural reaction of my body. It was an amazing experience to see that in action.
So in this case practice (and a little help from the horse) made the perfect somersault.
Practice really can make perfect (or close to it). There’s even evidence to suggest that mental practice can be effective at improving competency in a skill. Imagine an activity that you would like to perfect. Now create a character who shares your goal, but has taken their desire for perfection to a whole new level. The character is obsessed with achieving perfection in this activity. Explore how they pursue perfection. How do they measure their perfection. Are there consequences to the lengths they go to achieve their goal. Aim to fill two pages with your short story “In pursuit of perfection.”.
Window cleaners are hard at work today, riding ropes up and down my building, taking away the residue to city life. I used to be uncomfortable with their presence. My discomfort came from a combination of fear for their lives (as they dangle hundreds of nauseating feet above the ground) and a social awkwardness with their presence just outside of my personal space.
But after having lived in a highrise for a few years I became familiar with their presence. I can even envy their role. I imagine the freedom they must feel, suspended above the earth, swinging and cleaning with no fear that their boss will be hovering over their shoulder.
Now when I see the window cleaners instead of looking away I spend a few minutes in their world. I wonder if they are rock climbers with day jobs and how it feels when a bird flies by at eye level. And even more importantly I wonder if they have any insight into how I should arrange the furniture in my living room…after all they will have seen so many other options.
A window is a portal to another world. A rectangle of information that can lead us to a story. Alfred Hitchcok’s movie Reader Window tells the story of a man who watches his neighbours. His point of view and personal experiences colour the things he sees and his imagination takes flight. For this exercise, let your imagination tell you a story about the world behind a window. You can let yourself be inspired by a real image in a window (the coffee shop you pass every day on the way to work or a department store window being set up for a sale) or an imagined scene. Watch the world through that window for a moment and then imagine the circumstances that led to that point in time, or that will soon follow. Why are the people there? What are their goals? Where will they be an hour from now?
If you are having trouble imagining a scene, take your inspiration from the one below. Aim to write 500 words on the world you discovered.
Imagine that you are sitting in an appartment, looking out the window when a scene catches your eye. You weren’t intending to spy on a neighbour, but a flash of light catches your attention. Across the street a rectangle of light, an illuminated window, shows you a woman stumbling into the room. She throws something overhand that hits the wall and falls out of view. Your eye, drawn in the direction of the projectile notices a figure barely visible in the adjoining bedroom. The figure appears tense and moves to the door but instead of opening it, whoever it is pauses pressing thier back to a wall. What will happen next?