Category Archives: Writing

You Are What You Read

The thought has crossed my mind a few times lately. Being pregnant, I’ve never been more aware of how the food I eat directly impacts my body and the little (girl!) growing inside of me, and I can’t help but notice a similar trend when it comes to what I read, and watch.

People have compared my writing to CS Lewis’ “Chronicles of Narnia”. Well guess what? I grew up on the stuff. My parents read the entire series to me several times over when I was a kid. These books are so ingrained into my skull that I have to fight to eradicate the kindly English accent in my head that pops up whenever I write.

After that came Madeline L’Éngles’ books and by the time I hit grade three, I tackled Lord of the Rings for the very first time (took me a few years but I did it in the end). While living in Germany, the first English books I encountered were the Harry Potter series. At the time I the Shadowlands books were nothing more than a vague dream but the experience of wandering the German countryside (I read as I walk) with a book of magic in my hand stuck to me more than I’d like to admit.

I picked up a darker satirical edge from Simon R Green. Throw in a pinch of that great TV series ‘Firefly’, and you come out with an adventure fantasy series primarily aimed at pre-teens and teen boys.

The second Shadowlands book does feel different. Probably because it reflects a different time of life. I’ve been married and settled back in my home town for a few years, and I’ve got a baby in the oven. My life experiences revolve less around globetrotting and more around the relational complexities of family. Tavin’s shares a large part of the story with his sister Moreanna. Family loyalty seems to be a major theme in this second book…

But back to reading and eating. I still have to claim my initial influences (Lewis, LÉngle and Tolkien), but I’ve been reading a lot more Anne Rice lately, as well as some other more ‘grown up’ fantasy books. I’m not sure if I should admit it, but I’ve also been hooked on the TV series ‘Supernatural’ lately. The influence on my writing is probably slightly more than subconscious. 😛 If you ever read my next book ‘The Hand of Darkness’ see if you can spot it. Heh heh.

But what about dessert? My guilty pleasure has always been westerns. I know. It seems a little out of left field. But when it’s cold and rainy and I’m feeling down Louie L’Amour is who I reach for. Which is why… against the the strong objections of my husband (who thinks it’s a horrible idea), I’ve begun writing a western. 🙂 The best part is the reactions I get when I tell people. I get these blank looks as they try and process the idea. The conversation usually goes something like this:

“…so… it’s a time travel book?” “Nope. It’s a western.”

“So how do your characters get there?”

“In the west? They are born there.”

“Are there aliens or something?”

“Nope. It’s a western.”

“Do they have superpowers?”

“It’s a western. They shoot guns.”

… you get the idea. Personally, I’ve never had more fun writing a book then when I write this one. I can hardly wait to share it! Vampires? What vampires? Trust me, I’ve decided the market’s ripe: westerns are the new ‘it’. If you’re smart, you’ll write one too. 😛


The Sacred and the Secretarial

Yesterday on Writers and Company (CBC Radio) they brought in two authors to talk about a writer’s changing role when it comes to self-promotion and marketing… specifically in relation to social media. I didn’t hear the entire interview and it hasn’t been posted quite yet, but it struck a tragic chord with me.

You see, I discovered that the two authors were experiencing exactly the same problems that I have.

The best work of any artist is created when we enter this sacred “trance” or “zone” of creativity. When I wasn’t pregnant I generally forgot about the world once I entered in this zone. I forgot to eat, I skipped showers. I didn’t return phone calls… and I could write 4500 a day, easily.

But that was really before I was published, before there was any real need for me to be online for any other reason than reference materials.

As it was pointed out in the interview, writers are famous procrastinators. We used to have to leave the house and go looking for a coffee shop to find distraction, but now, thanks to instant messaging, we don’t even have to leave our desk.

Facebook, twitter, even email provide a type of instant gratification rush that’s similar to pulling the lever on a slot machine. Just hit refresh and who knows what type of distracting email/message/tweet you may have. What’s worse, emptying the email box makes us feel like we’re accomplishing something. It lets us go on to other tasks without feeling too guilty about not actually working on our book.

Being social media savvy is also a quality that agents/ editors/ publishers tend to evaluate. They probably will google your name and take a peek at just how successful you are when it comes to self-promotion. Any why not? The less work that they have to do gets your book that much faster onto the shelf, and it means a cheaper product for them.

The problem is the secretarial realm DOES NOT mix well with the sacred realm of deep creativity. At least not for me. I work from home as well and trying to switch back and forth between writing a fantasy manuscript, blogging about outdoor gear (my day job), and keeping on top of my social media demands… well honestly, it’s often my manuscript that suffers the most.

Because of this, the two writers on CBC suggested that writing is getting worse. Unless writers have hours and hours of lonely space to dig down and commune with their soul, the writing we produce only really scratches the surface of what could be… or so I have heard.

Which I guess is why I like to write in the middle of the night, when I can. Sadly to say it doesn’t happen near enough but I did get up an extra two hours early this morning just to work on my manuscript.

What’s your solution? How do you push back the secretarial realm and make space for the sacred?

What Makes us Human: Basic Character Building

Every good story has good characters. Like real characters they must reflex the complexity of real humans. It’s pretty tricky trying to make something that moves and acts human, but the points below outline what I do with mine. Hopefully they will help you get close to developing a character that feels genuine.

Point one:
A fictional character is made up of four layers
1.What you see on the outside. I.e. Appearance, sex, social economic level, health, profession… etc
2.Physical mannerisms I.e. Nervous habits, ticks, stance, etc…
3. Character traits. I.e. Outgoing, extroverted, sensitive, thick-skinned, mischievous…
4.Core values and inner truths Foe example: An unshakable belief in human decency, mistrust of authority, sees value in beauty but nothing else…

Point two:
In fiction we tend to start with the top layer and dig down. We generally know what our character looks like on the outside but usually know little about what goes on beneath the surface.

The best method for discovering this, I’ve found, is the interview method. Sit your character down and ask him some questions. Your ultimate goal is to dig deep enough to uncover a core value/inner truth. Then do it again.

Some questions you might ask are:
What is your deepest fear?
How would someone with this fear act?
What would you do if you won a million dollars?
Is stealing ever justified?
What do you have in your pockets?
Who was your first crush?

The point is to fill in as many details on every character level that you can.

Point three:
The crowning touch of a truly human character is inconsistency. Consider a bank robber that donates to charity, or a prostitute who insists upon a formal wedding. There is something so appealing and intriguing about contradiction!

Hope that helps get the juices flowing!

New Project: The dreaded short story.

I’m about to swim into shark infested waters. My writer’s group has collectively decided that we want to put together a compilation of short stories that we can publish and release in time for Christmas. Don’t see the problem? The trouble is… that I don’t know how. :S

The structure of a short story is bemusing to me. Character development is so important, I just can’t figure out how to do it in a few short pages. I don’t know how to structure the pacing or what to focus on… in short, it’s easier for me to write a whole book!

I’ve decided to start with some brainstorming. The images that flash across my brain have to do with goblins and spiced plum cake (flam kuchen). I’ve got a few weeks to put together and engaging outline. Any advice?

Mmm… flam kuchen.

Changes. Story Structure and Character Evolution.

Firstly, I want to apologize for the wordiness of the blog below. Like so many of us, this merry winter season, I have a head full of snuffles and snot… and when I’m sick I tend to get long winded. 😛 Still, for those of you who are at the very beginning of your novel-writing process, I hope this post will help!

“To be in time means to change.”

I don’t remember exactly where I heard that quote, but it rings very true. The crux of the thing is that there is something commons to us all that ardently resists change… This conflict is at the very core of what it means to be human and is the centre about which all great stories revolve.

I think… I mean if you disagree it’s okay. 🙂

As far as I can tell, a successful story is one that chronicles a characters great adaptation/revelation. If no change happens to your character then you’ve just written either a slapstick comedy or a very cynical tragedy. While both these genres can say something depressingly profound about out tendency towards being obstinate… I prefer a story that inspires us to be more than what we commonly are.

Now I’m going to talk about story structure. I’ve come to the belief that once you know the rules you can break them with intent and purpose. So let’s start with a character-driven plot, built by following a three-act structure: Beginning, Middle, and End.

Like life, the heart of this story revolves around change.

The Beginning is about the “who” of the story. You need to use every trick in your pocket to get your audience to intrinsically connect with your main character within the first 5 pages… within the first five paragraphs is better. You establish the character’s unique way of perceiving the world and their ‘normal’ environment (even if normal for them is fighting aliens or posing as a drug lord… whatever). Be sure to give your character a weakness as well… this is great for story and usually makes her more likable.

To move your character from the Beginning to the Middle, you need an ‘inciting incident’. This is something that intrudes dramatically upon the character’s normal world. This inciting incident demands change from the character… normally, the protagonist resists change and needs a very compelling reason to continue. A helpful mentor of some sort is usually inserted here.

By the Middle, your protagonist has a clear goal in mind and a very strong reason to not just get up and walk away from the whole mess altogether. The Middle is a series of obstacles (increasing in difficulty) that your character must overcome to achieve her goal.

I also suggest you use these obstacles as opportunities for reflection and self-evaluation. After an intense action scene, it can be a good idea to insert a short scene of evaluation to develop character and give your audience a short moment to catch their breath.

Everything in the Middle all builds towards a climatic confrontation of some sort. In some of the books I’ve read, this part is called ‘the journey  to the innermost cave.’ Sounds ominous doesn’t it?I think it’s a good idea to kill off that ‘mentor character’ about now but I’ll let you make the choice on that point. 🙂

To end the book, your protagonist must joureny to a place of ultimate testing, often aided by a totem of some sort… anything from a magical sword to an intimate memory to give them strength. This is a place of great temptation as well.

For a happy Ending, I suggest your character has a brilliant revelation of self and makes the necessary changes to overcome this great trial. In doing so, your character evolves to a new level of self-awareness and now becomes the master of the old world they began the story in and the new world they stove to overcome.

Hmmm… like I said. Learn the rules and then break them. If you can detect a note of cynicism in my writing, you’re probably right. All I’m trying to say however, is that this structure works really really well. Just ask George Lucas. Personally, I’m still using classicstory structure myself. One day, perhaps, I’ll be smart enough to go beyond it but I’m not quite there yet. Any ideas?

Okay… now I’m going back to bed. 😛 Happy New Year everyone!

Stuck in the Middle

The manuscript for my second book should be done now… but I’m flagging. I seem to be having trouble sitting still and focusing on my book for long periods of time. I have, I’ve realized, a common case of the horrible middle blues.

There can be many reasons for this, but an interesting one I’ve recently read about is a clash between the outlined plot of the story, and the characters who drive the story. Outlines are a the best way to harness a story, but my experience is that art can be a slippery thing to handle.

Sometimes your characters just don’t want to follow the outline. You spend the whole beginning of your book developing a character, but when you reach the point of enthusiastically releasing him into the middle of the story: he flounders.

Characters may strike out unexpectedly or overreact emotionally… sometimes you are forced to make them do things that seem out of character and then you wast time trying to explain just why they did… all in the name of sticking to your outline.

So if you are like me, perhaps it’s time to disseminate your outline and return to the point in your story that you loved the best. Now listen to your characters. What do they want to do?

Or I suppose,

I could kill them all and start anew.

I bid you now ado.



The Happy/Terrifying Truth about Small Publishing Houses

A friend of mine just emailed me an excellent question about what it is like to work with a small publishing house. For those of you who are thinking about trying it, I thought I might post some insight into just what my experience has been so far…

My publisher is Brighter Books. They are an amazing company with great vision and they are capable of producing a high-quality product. The troublesome part is that as a young publishing house, they don’t yet have the contacts to do much more than sell and promote my book online.

My dreams are bigger, and I’m willing to work and risk for them. If I never took the chance, I think something inside would begin to wither and die.

So I’m working with a publicist I’ve hired on my own dime and have been doing all the legwork myself. This means I’ve been going personally to bookstores, writing other authors/reviewers/book buyers and organizing promotional events myself.

I’ve joined toastmasters to improve my public speaking and I am preparing several educational presentations of creative writing so that I have something to offer local high schools and young adult groups. I’ve also quit my job to give me time to do both writing and promotion (I still have another 3 books coming!).

I work about 1 to 2 days at a retail store and this just barely covers my expenses of working with a publicist and buying pre-release promotional copies of my books from Angela. Fortunately, my amazing husband works hard and covers the basic cost of living or else I would never be able to afford doing what I do.

The good news? Angela (my publisher) created a beautiful product and the hard work of the last few months is really paying off. A lot of people are excited about my book and the word is spreading. My first book signing went amazingly well and I’m actually selling enough promotional copies of my book to help cover some of the expenses. Promotional copies can be bought online, at the Buzz coffee shop in town, and at Alberni Outpost (the retail store where I work. They’ve supported me from the start!)

I’ve just made contact with an interviewer on Check TV and in an amazing breakthrough, Save-On-Foods will be carrying my book once it is released. I think Chapters will carry it locally as well.

The idea is – if I can sell enough books locally, a bigger distributer may become interested in carrying me. A major distribution company can place my book in stores across the country but first… I need my book to do well here. 🙂

A big happy shout out to my friends and family who have supported me this far. The journey is frightening but the risk is part of the thrill. I feel alive, happy, and terrified all at once.

It’s a good thing. 🙂

Merry Christmas!

How to Write Authentic Characters

Like mine, a book is never better than when it uses a constant supply of raw source material. For me, the gemstones of content are found in everyday life, by watching people and taking note of the strange things we all do and say.

Some people find inspiration in isolation and nature. Nature does help me focus, but at the end of the day, I find that I’m never more creatively primed than in a place buzzing with strangers.

I love trying to figure out who a person is and where they came from. I see a man wearing a curly mullet and a red tie and I wonder what he was he like in high school; I guess at his profession and the type of woman he might marry.

It’s creepy, I know, but I can’t help myself. As I focus on my chosen stranger, my natural curiosity causes me to surreptitiously sidle closer.

Eavesdropping on conversations is pure gold. I can think of no better way to learn to write rich insightful dialogue. If it’s good stuff, I pretend to journal and take notes.

When I get home, I combine my notes and my imagination and come up with a vibrant, living, breathing character for a story. Now I know this is odd, but the next step for me is to seat my imaginary character down and interview him. I never cut him any slack, I probe for the recessed childhood memories and ask him about his secret desires. Some sample questions might be:

Have you ever stolen anything?

Do you have recurring dreams or nightmares?

What’s your greatest fear?

Who is someone you look up to?

You get the idea… the more questions and answers that I come up with the more interesting my character becomes. I might not use everything from the interview in my story, but it helps me to understand my character’s thoughts and actions.

What do you do?

PS This is a funny article on Eavesdropping I came across: enjoy! Authors get the Eavesdropping Bug

PPS I posted a picture of Farley Mowat because he happens to be my favourite ‘character’ author. I love and connect with his characters finding them full of good-natured fun, hopelessly flawed, and wonderfully human.

Youth Literacy: A Discussion with The Book Broads

Here’s a fun link to a podcast between my publicist Kimberly Plumley and Peggy Richardson, another member of the Book Broads. Kim talks a bit about me and my new book about halfway through. Check it out!

Podcast: Youth Literacy

How to Write Great Action Scenes

Whenever I think of an action scene, I see it play out in my head the way it would in a movie: guy jumps from car, pulls out machine gun, blows up tanker.

As you read the previous sentence, what you are visualizing is called “external action”. You know nothing of the internal action in the scene. While pure external action scenes work for movies (supplemented by sexy outfits and special effects) , books simply cannot rely on external action alone to engage the reader. If you do, your writing tends to come across as superficial and mechanical.

Any scene in a book, including action scenes, should propel your story forward and develop character. This is where you mix internal action with external action. Don’t be afraid to write about your character’s internal conflicts. I like to jack up the emotional stakes of an action scene with things like betrayal, lust, and sacrifice. Be sure to work these in!

Another point. If an action scene lacks tension, it’s boring. Trust me, being afraid for your life usually isn’t enough. Once you understand it, tension is easy enough to write. Think of an elastic band being pulled in two opposite directions, the harder you pull the more tension there is. If a character is experiencing a strong emotion (he loves the girl), introduce or suggest an opposite emotion at the same time (he’s afraid she might kill him) and voila! Instant tension.

Finally, pay attention to your pacing. Action scenes tend to be written with short tight sentences to suggest rapid movement. This is entirely appropriate, but if you don’t give your audience a change of pace once in awhile, they’re going to drop out of the race.

You can use longer sentences to highlight points of particular importance to the plot of your book. Below I’ve written a faster-paced sentence:

Tom spun in surprise and Eric hit him on the jaw.

Depending on the story, this might be a really significant event and you may want to spend some more time with it. For instance:

Tom spun in surprise, his expression shocked. Eric, wearing a crooked grin, slung a bloody-knuckled fist into Tom’s jaw.

Notice the tension developed by the fact that Eric is smiling as he punches Tom out.

You can also use longer-paced sentences to build atmosphere and drop in choice bits of description. Because an action scene does tend to be visual, it’s important not to forget about the place where your scene happens.

🙂 In the interests of keeping this blog a reasonable length, I think I’ll stop there. Let me know if you have any questions!