Thursday, August 09, 2012

The Writers' Trust of Canada ran its Workshop Program from 2006 until 2009. Though the program is now defunct due to lack of funding, we feel the information contained on this blog is still useful to aspiring authors. If you'd like to learn more about the Writers' Trust and our programs to advance, nurture, and celebrate Canadian writers and writing, please visit our website: Thank you.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Excerts from a Workshop with Douglas Arthur Brown

Under the auspices of the National Writers' Workshop Program, I conducted a workshop for the Cape Breton Regional Library System in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. One of the topics we covered during the workshop was how readers approach a work of fiction. The following are excerpts from this discussion.

In writing a short novel, there are several basic principles to keep always in mind. The best way to illustrate this is to consider how readers approach a book or story. Most readers have no expectations other than they hope the story will be good. However, readers make assumptions based on their experience of life and the general patterns of good writing they have read over the years.

Two things quickly become apparent: people read expecting a naturalist unfolding of events and they are conservative in processing information. In other words, if you mention a bird, and the experience of a bird for the reader is a crow, then you should make sure the bird you are writing about is a crow. Otherwise, you confuse and frustrate the reader. Therefore, if you are writing about a stork, then let the writer know that it is a stork and not a crow. It is your obligation as a writer to provide enough information to ensure that they remain engaged and not frustrated.

Writing should progress naturally, and not test the patience of your readers. Readers should never have to turn back in the course of their reading. Books do not come with an instruction manual! Misdirection involving the point of views of characters is fine. Someone may say in good faith that his sister stole the diamond, only to discover later that actually it was wicked cousin Mike. What is not fine is for a reader to make the natural assumption based on what has been provided thus far, that the wicked cousin is a man, only to find out subsequently that she is a woman. Readers, in the absence of directions from the writer, assume something about what a character is like their age, looks, where they are from, where they live now, and so forth. In the absence of directions from the writer, the reader is most likely to assume that the “normal” is in play - that a character called Mike is a man, that someone wearing an Armani suit is not farming, As I have said, the reader has to be assuming something, if the writer isn’t given sufficient direction from the writer.

Here is another basic principle. Readers need to know why they should keep reading: what is coming, what may happen, what problems may be created and perhaps, resolved, what kinds of changes may occur in the characters, why the things that happen to the characters, and the changes that occur in them matter. There needs to be as emotional and thematic indication for readers, to keep them interested.

There should also be reinforcement of information, especially if it is critical to the development of the story, especially a longer piece, to remind us what we are to expect. You might argue that if the reader turned back to page 75, the information is there. Remember, there is no manual. Novels are not written to be taught.

Another basic principle in writing is the development of the protagonists. If the character does not change in the course of the writing, it is not fiction. It is information. In other words, the main character or characters will find themselves in a different place, emotionally or intellectually at the end of the story than from where they began. It is a journey and you ask the reader to join the characters on this journey.

Lastly, you must provide sign-posting to help guide the assumptions and expectations of the reader. Readers must be compelled to continue, to want to know how the story ends. In sign-posting you are showing your ability as a writer, that you know more than the characters do, and if you signpost properly, you keep the reader on track.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Notes from "Re-imagining the Past" by Mary Novik

From Workshop to Writing Group

Leading a workshop for the Writers' Trust last night ("Re-imagining the Past," April 20, 2009) has made me reflect again about the struggle that emerging writers face.

As new writers, we embark on a writing project full of enthusiasm and ideas, but soon discover that the path is strewn with hurdles that we aren't yet capable of jumping. Or we find ourselves at a crossroads with no clue which path to choose. We don't even know which metaphor to pick--cinder track or impenetrable forest. The whole process has ground to a halt. Why is writing so impossibly complicated? It was supposed to be fun, a real ego boost, but we are already confused and depressed. Dare we call this writer's block? No--we haven't even got enough guts to call ourselves "writers" yet.

When I began writing fiction, I worked on one book for several years only to put it aside. Then I started Conceit , my novel about Pegge, the daughter of the 17th-century poet John Donne. I worked on it for a year until I was struck by the sheer enormity of what I had undertaken. I knew I needed help to keep going. In a workshop for new novelists, I was fortunate to meet Jen Sookfong Lee and June Hutton. Highly motivated, we made a commitment to stick together until we'd completed our debut novels. Over the years, we've helped one another evolve from unpublished to emerging to published novelists. Jen's The End of East (Knopf) and my Conceit (Doubleday) came out in 2007, and June's Underground (Cormorant Books) has just been published. After seven years, we are still together and working on sophomore novels. We now have agents and editors to guide us professionally, but we meet regularly to down a bottle of wine and buoy one another up.

The trick to forming a writing group is to find writers working in the same genre who share the same commitment. Different ages and backgrounds don't seem to matter as much. Workshops, such as the ones offered by the Writers' Trust, are excellent places to network in the hope of finding writing partners. It might begin as easily as raising a glass together, as we did at the Subeez after our workshop last night. If you hit it off, you'll soon be encouraging one another to read at open mics, swapping manuscripts, and jumping hurdles together.

Mary Novik at Subeez in Vancouver
April 20, 2009
Photo Credit: Heidi Greco


Heidi Greco's blog about last night's workshop at Out on the Big Limb

SPiN Writing Group websites:,,,

"Raising gems, together: How three Canadian writers banded together to help each other bring their first novels into the world", by June Hutton, Jen Sookfong Lee, and Mary Novik, Tuesday Essay, The Globe and Mail on-line, February 24, 2009.

"Writing Group Makes Good," article on SPiN writing group by Sarah Treleaven in Quill & Quire, March 2007, p. 7.

Selected Resources:

Writers' Trust of Canada, and

Places for Writers,

The Writers' Union of Canada,

The Canadian Authors' Association,

Booming Ground,

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Upcoming Workshop in London, Ontario

“In the Beginning: Popping the Story, Seducing the Reader”
London Public Library – Central Branch
Tuesday, May 26, 2009
6pm – 8pm

The first lines of a story tell a reader whether s/he is likely to be intrigued, repelled, or just bored - whether s/he will keep reading, or set the piece down and move on. Some openings - think Dickens, think Tolstoy - even become iconic. But whether yours reach those touchstone heights or not, they are vital not only to seducing the reader, but to setting out for yourself the tone, themes and sensibilities you're aiming for as a writer. In this workshop, we'll discuss why some story openings work (and some don't), with plenty of opportunity to analyze and hone participants' own kick-off words.

Joan Barfoot has written 11 novels, from Abra, winner of the Books in Canada First Novel Award, to Exit Lines, published in 2008. Her tenth, Luck, was shortlisted for the 2005 Scotiabank Giller Prize and her ninth, Critical Injuries, was nominated for the 2002 Man Booker Prize. Her novel Dancing in the Dark became an award-winning film, and she received the Marian Engel Award in 1992. A former newspaper journalist, she lives in London, Ontario.


To register, or for more information, please email or call 416.504.8222 x 242

Monday, April 20, 2009

Commentary from Ken McGoogan

Revolution, anyone? In praise of literary nonfiction
By Ken McGoogan
(Published in Globe and Mail, Nov. 10, 2008)

Who knew that Edmonton would become a North Star? Certainly not this ex-Calgarian, his expectations diminished by subjection to years of inter-city rivalry. But a literary Polaris, I realized in the heat of a recent panel discussion, is precisely what the Alberta capital has turned into as a result of LitFest. That's the name of the only book festival in Canada devoted to nonfiction: LitFest.

The theme this year was "Hot North." Three authors had said their pieces, and now audience members were rushing to the microphones, bursting with questions to ask and statements to make. The scene brought me back to a recent Melbourne Literary Festival. There, three panels treating history and biography inspired such enthusiastic skirmishing that I could hardly believe it. Audience members challenged speakers and presented arguments. By crikey, they had come to participate.

Both events made the traditional Canadian festival look pallid. And at both I found myself reflecting that, in turning our backs on literary nonfiction, we in Canada have made a serious mistake. We have become a nation of spectators, detached from our own history, our own issues, happy to leave engagement to others while fawning over fiction writers, preferably come from away.

Am I the only one grown tired of listening to fictioneers read to me from books I can read myself? A cabaret of six-minute readings can entertain if the drinks are flowing. But to the conventional, twenty-minute fiction writer's drone, I vastly prefer an on-stage conversation or interview, or better still a no-holds-barred panel discussion. And for that, nothing works better than fact-based literature.

Yet a few days after LitFest ended, a Toronto newspaper reported that Geoffrey Taylor, the artistic director of the International Festival of Authors, was taking flak for opening up a tiny bit of space to nonfiction. And I found myself thinking: this problem is larger than I realized.

October brought supporting evidence. The horse-race mentality pervading the Giller Prize is famously deplorable. But then came the announcement of the finalists for the Governor-General's Literary Awards – and here, again, you would swear that the only GG that matters is the one for fiction. Best illustration: The National Post devoted almost half a page to the fiction finalists, and for the rest, referred readers to a website.

The disparity reminded me of CBC Radio's annual Canada Reads competition. Why, year after year, does it focus exclusively on fiction? In the real world, fiction accounts for less than 35 per cent of the Canadian book market, even if you throw in thrillers and Harlequin romances. Clearly, Canadian gate-keepers have bought into the notion that fiction is the Heavyweight Division and the literary novel is the Main Event.

Sad, sad, sad. In the international arena, no less a figure than Nobel Prize-winner V.S. Naipaul has insisted repeatedly that nonfiction can be just as "literary" as fiction -- just as imaginative, just as important, just as profound. And I smile grimly at the unhappy precedent, from an adjacent realm, of English painter J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), who created countless masterpieces yet received no commensurate recognition because "history painting" was the only high art, don't you know, and he painted merest landscapes.

Quick now, list the ten most important Canadian books of the past twenty years. All done? If your list does not include Frozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition, by Owen Beattie and John Geiger, you have proven my point. One hundred years from now, when most of today's prize-winning novels have been consigned to the dustbin of literary history, people will still be arguing about that book. And Frozen in Time is just one example from the field I know best.

Again, if it's a body of work that counts, consider Charlotte Gray's: Mrs. King, Sisters in the Wilderness, Flint & Feather, Reluctant Genius. Few contemporary fiction writers have produced any comparable run. As for matters of literary craft, well, I refer you to a forthcoming book by Heather Robertson called Measuring Mother Earth: How Joe the Kid Became Tyrrell of the North. It's a narrative nonfiction that will stand, for sheer artistry, against any novel published this season.

Where am I taking this? To be blunt, I am calling for a revolution. LitFest is a beginning. Going forward requires a slow-motion, two-step action plan. First step: we divide fact-based literature into two broad categories –narrative nonfiction and polemical nonfiction. The first includes biography, memoir, travel, popular history, true crime, you get the idea; the second comprises thesis-driven works, artful jeremiads – political, scientific, philosophical. Along these lines, we reorganize our book-world.

Second step: we abandon "nonfiction." Yes, you read that correctly. We cease to define countless literary works by what they are not, and in relation to some other genre. As a corollary, recognize that, as a concept, "creative nonfiction" has taken us as far as it can. Let it go. End result: we will be left with two fact-based literary genres, Narrative and Polemic, both on par with Fiction.

Again: where today we have two main categories, Fiction and Nonfiction, tomorrow we have three: Fiction, Narrative and Polemic. And that should translate into three GGs of equal prestige, three Giller Prizes, three Main Events – and ten times the engagement.

What, am I dreaming? Have I gone mad? I know, I know: we face resistance. Vested interests abound -- entrenched, institutionalized, ubiquitous. Ah, but not omnipotent. Revolutions have to start somewhere. Anticipating a long struggle, I offer a battle cry: Viva Narrative! Viva Polemic! Viva LitFest!

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Notes from "The Art and Craft of Historical Fiction" with Fred Stenson


Is it necessary to be authentic?

Two good things to remember about historical fiction are that:
1. Historical fiction can only be written by people who weren’t there.
2. Historical fiction can only be read by people who weren’t there either.

Theoretically this could mean to the writer that he or she is under little obligation to be correct about all the facts, and some writers of historical fiction are very loose with the facts. Whether you try to be very accurate or don’t worry about it is, in my opinion, a matter of choice, not moral duty.

My own way of doing it is to try to stick close to historical fact, if I believe the facts, and to do my creating in the gaps between the historical facts. History is usually more gap than known fact anyway. And the more obscure your topic, the more gap relative to fact.

The reason that I like to stick with the facts, to the extent that they are known and I believe them, is again not because I feel a more duty to be authentic, but that I fear the consequences of being inauthentic. That is, I fear for the success of the fiction I write.

People have a spooky ability to smell that which is untrue, or poorly researched, or where the author doesn’t really know something and is covering up. It really does verge on the uncanny.

I view history as being like a vast Rubik’s Cube. Everything is attached to everything else. You cannot move one thing without making all kinds of other things shift. So, if I decide to change a fact—say if I decide to put a railway where there wasn’t one across the Great Karoo Desert, because I want my men to get somewhere quickly and in a rested condition; or for that matter if there is a railway and I remove it so that I can make the journey more harrowing for them—that fact alters countless things most of which I won’t be aware of.

The reverse is also true, I think. That is, if the writer sticks to known facts, leaves the railways where they were etcetera, a whole range of things attached to those facts also stay in their right places, and the whole is supported by all kinds of bits of information that the writer, again, may not ever know.

So that’s what I want going for me, that Rubik’s Cube of unaltered information. I want that support when I try to make the reader believe what I write.

What about using real people in your fiction?

First off I’m going to paraphrase something that Guy Vanderhaeghe said in an interview for a book by Herb Wyle called Speaking the Past Tense: Contemporary Novelists writing Historical Fiction. It refers to Guy’s novel The Last Crossing.

One of the characters in The Last Crossing is a fictionalized Jerry Potts, the Scottish-Blackfoot mixed blood scout who led the Mounted Police to Ft. Whoop-up, the illegal whisky fort, in 1874. He makes the point that it’s easier to write fiction about Jerry Potts than it is to write fiction about John A. MacDonald, because so very much less is known about Potts. So when he did write historical fiction, he looked for areas that were not too well known, where there was room to roam.

Most of the history-based characters I deal with are from the fringes of history, people who are well on their way to being forgotten, and it is helpful to have all those gaps to work with when creating their character. My own little rule is that I use what I find about them, unless I have reason to believe it is wrong, and if the existing information points in a certain direction as to their character, I go with that. I don’t try to bully them into being something else that might be more convenient for me.

Why I mostly deal with people on the lower rungs of the various societies I’ve written about is another matter. It’s not that I’m raving Marxist, but rather that these are the people I find most interesting and have the most identification with. I was raised on a farm, is part of it.

So my choice to write about fur trade clerks and boat builders as opposed to fur trade governors, cowboys rather than ranching aristocrats, and privates rather than generals, is a matter of instinct. But, having chosen that, I found I did like the idea that by pulling my characters off the forgotten fringes of history to the centre, I was perhaps changing history. Because history viewed through their eyes was a different thing than the usual history written by and about people in positions of power and control.

But what about the morality of making a fictional character out of a real historical person?

Is it really okay to fill all those biographical gaps with made-up things, even if they are made-up things that fit? And, having written three large books of historical fiction, all of which contained fictionalized real people, I have to say I don’t know if it’s morally okay.

Some people have said to me, why don’t you just take a little bit of this person, and a little of that person, mix their biographies together and call them something else? But it finally came to me that I think doing that would be the greater of two minor evils. I think if I am taking somebody’s biography and adding onto it to make a believable fictional character, the least I can do is call them by their name. A lot of these people are on their way to being forgotten even within their own families, and I think that if I build a fictional character out of them, they might hang on into the future.

Consider Robin Hood. They say there was a fellow in England who led a gang of rebel thieves who robbed from the noblemen and shared their bounty with the poor. Somewhere along the line, someone took that fellow and made Robin Hood out of him. Without that act of fictionalization of a real person, we would not have the whole myth of Robin Hood.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Winner Annouced for Emerging Writer Award

Winner of RBC Bronwen Wallace Award For Emerging Writers Announced

TORONTO – April 2, 2009 – A literary award with a track record for identifying some of this country’s finest developing writers has been presented to Emily McGiffin, a twenty-eight-year-old from Smithers, British Columbia.

The RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers is given this year to a Canadian author under the age of thirty-five, not yet published in book form, for a sample of poetry. Supported by the RBC Foundation, the prize carries a cash value of $5,000. The prize was presented last night at an event at Toronto’s Royal Bank Plaza.

Emily McGiffin studied biology and geography at the University of Victoria and is currently working toward an MSc in rural development through the University of London. McGiffin’s poetry has been twice shortlisted for the CBC Literary Awards and has appeared in The Malahat Review. Her non-fiction appears regularly in Small Farm Canada magazine.

“This award attracts the attention of publishers and literary agents, and can often lead to a writer’s first book contract,” said Don Oravec, executive director of the Writers’ Trust of Canada. “We applaud the RBC Foundation for getting behind writers at this stage of their career. Support like this helps to develop and promote this country’s next generation of great writers.”

Finalists were selected by a jury of Don Domanski, Jeanette Lynes, and Anne Simpson. They received 135 submissions. Of McGiffin’s poetry submission, “Wokkpash and Other Poems,” they wrote:

"These deeply resonant poems are perceptive, visceral, and steeped in lyrical wisdom. The linguistic orchestrations of this work inhabit a fully engaged intelligence and sensibility. There is heart-seeing here, expressed with an authentic strength and a luminous eloquence. This is poetry linked firmly to the invisible labouring of a raw faith, which has grown out of body and mind. The vision here is one aesthetically grounded in the world, a world that in turn is replenished by these poems, by this poet’s beautifully cadenced work."

Two finalists each received cash prizes of $1,000: Michael Johnson (Vancouver) for “The Minnow and Other Poems” and Jeff Latosik (Toronto) for “How the Tiktaalik Came onto Land and Other Poems.”

This prize was presented for the first time in 1994 and alternates each year between poetry and short fiction. Past winners include Michael Crummey, Alissa York, and, most recently, Marjorie Celona.

Bronwen Wallace was a mentor for many young writers as well as a creative writing teacher at St. Lawrence College and Queen’s University in Kingston. She was also the editor of Quarry Magazine, and during her editorship the magazine gave many writers their first publication. Wallace wrote four books of poetry and a collection of short stories before her death at age forty-four. She felt strongly that unpublished writers should receive recognition at an earlier age.

The RBC Foundation invested $51.5 million in charities in hundreds of communities worldwide in 2008. Its support of this literary award is one of thirty partnerships that constitute the RBC Emerging Artists Project, supporting talented young adults in their development of professional careers in the arts.

About the Writers’ Trust of Canada

The Writers’ Trust of Canada is a charitable organization that supports Canadian writers and writing through various programs, including literary awards, financial grants, workshops, scholarships, and a writers’ retreat.

For further information about the Writers’ Trust and to receive a booklet containing the submissions of this year’s finalists, please visit


For further information, photo requests, or interview opportunities, contact James Davies at 416.504.8222, ext. 245, or

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

April Workshops - Registration Now Open

"The Art and Craft of Historical Fiction"
Saturday, April 4, 2009 1pm - 4pm
Memorial Park Library
Calgary, AB

This three-hour workshop will look at several basics of historical fiction writing, such as creating historical characters and writing historical scenes that readers can watch and listen to, and be engaged by. The question of accuracy will be dealt with, particularly the issues surrounding the fictionalization of actual events and real people. Is historical fiction much different than writing contemporary fiction? Some small exercises will be used, so please bring pen and paper.

FRED STENSON is the author of fifteen books (eight fiction and seven non-fiction). His three most recent novels, The Great Karoo, Lightning, and The Trade, are historical fictions: not a series in the sense of continuing one story, but related through geography, character and theme--and also through their approach to history. The Great Karoo was nominated for the Governor General's Award for Fiction in 2008. Lightning and The Trade both won Alberta's Grant MacEwan Book Prize. The Trade won the WGA's novel award and the Edmonton Book Prize, and was nominated for the Giller Prize. Stenson writes a regular column in Alberta Views Magazine and is director of the Wired Writing Studio at The Banff Centre.


To register, or for more information, please email or call 416.504.8222 x 242

“Discovering Creative Non-Fiction”
Saturday, April 18, 2009 1pm – 3pm
Toronto Public Library – Beaches Branch
Toronto, ON

What is Creative Non-fiction? How does it differ from academic writing? From short stories and novels? From journalism? After earning two degrees, working as a journalist for three Canadian dailies, and publishing three novels, author Ken McGoogan discovered Creative Non-Fiction and began winning awards.

Starting with Fatal Passage, a national bestseller that won four prizes, Ken has applied CNF techniques to four acclaimed books. He will take you behind the scenes of his own work with a slide-show presentation that ranges from London, England to Orkney, and from Tasmania to the High Arctic.

Does the non-fiction novel exist? What is immersion reporting? Should we try to distinguish between literary journalism, narrative non-fiction and polemical non-fiction? Ken will explore these questions while leading a dynamic workshop that gets people writing and sharing on the spot.

KEN MCGOOGAN, whose books include Lady Franklin's Revenge and Race to the Polar Sea, teaches Creative Non-Fiction at University of Toronto. A recipient of the Pierre Berton Award for History, Ken is vice-chairman of the Public Lending Right Commission. He lives in the Beaches. For more information visit


To register, or for more information, please email or call 416.504.8222 x 242

“Re-imagining the Past”
Mon. Apr. 20, 2009, 6pm – 8pm
Vancouver Public Library - Central Library
Vancouver, BC

Are you writing a short story or novel based on historical people or events? Pitch your story idea to the group (in two minutes or less) and join us in answering these questions: Are you writing for yourself, or for a specific market? Will this be literary fiction or straightforward narrative? How much research is enough? How much is too much? Which has priority in your story, truth or art?

We will also discuss using facts as triggers to jumpstart fiction, seeing through a character's eyes to improve focus, dealing with readers' expectations, developing good work habits, and encouraging the subconscious to play its part.

MARY NOVIK is the author of Conceit, called "a magnificent novel of 17th-century London" by The Globe and Mail, which chose it as a Book of the Year for 2007. Conceit was long-listed for the Scotiabank Giller and won BC's Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize. For more information visit


To register, or for more information, please email or call 416.504.8222 x 242

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Notes from "When Memoir Inspires Fiction" Part 3

Promoting a book of memoir-based fiction:

1. If your book is historical, a good idea is to tie promotion in with big events, like the anniversary of Vimy Ridge, for example. You’ll have to work with your publisher on that, but it could help get you more media coverage outside of the Books section.

2. Autobiographical fiction is something journalists and readers are really interested in, so you will be asked personal questions. As well, the reality of what book promotion has become is about the persona selling the book (we see this with how authors are using Facebook and other social networking tools). It’s about using your personality to publicize. My advice is to decide ahead of time what you’re willing to reveal and what you’re not. Some things are just off limits and there’s nothing at all wrong with this. But you will have to reveal something of yourself. You do want to seem personable and someone who really wants people to read their book.

3. Easily the best thing I’ve learned in promoting is to tell stories or anecdotes when you’re doing a reading or in response to a question. If your story has to do with your life, or if there’s some touching story related to the book, use it. People are most drawn to stories and will respond well to them.

4. Enjoy the promotion. Don’t get too stressed about it or it will show. Not too many people get a chance to be in the limelight once in a while, so allow yourself to have fun with it. We all like being recognized for our strengths after all.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Notes from "When Memoir Inspires Fiction" Part 2

Tips for making memoir-based fiction work:

1. The most valuable part of any fact or memory is not the material itself, but how much energy it gives you to write it. We talk about inspiration a lot as writers, but in order for inspiration to be truly valuable, it has to sustain you over the years and years you will be spending with this project

2. When we write about characters that are like us or like people we know, we’re always afraid of exposing them too much or airing their dirty laundry out in public. What we should all strive for is to make our characters understood by our readers and we shouldn’t be afraid to lay out everything we know or create about them. Once you make the decision to write fiction, you have to be prepared to expose your characters totally, even if someone you love might recognize themselves, or even if you don’t want to reveal too much.

3. That said, the ethical thing to do when you’re writing about someone you know is to tell them that you’re doing it. This is particularly important if you’re writing about events that are painful. I’ve been known to say that if you’re hanging out with a writer, you should know what you’re getting into, but the truth is that you don’t want your whole family to hate you.

4. You never have to feel that you’re wedded to the facts. Fiction really takes off when we allow ourselves to compress events, or impose a structure to the plot that brings everything together, or increase the drama. Part of the reason we decide to make something fictional is because we want the freedom, so you should use it! Once the characters and events hit the page, they’re no longer real and we can manipulate them as we wish.

5. Structure is easily something that can make or break a book and it’s the thing that most writers hate working on the most. When we’re writing stuff based on reality, our tendency is to follow events as they occurred. Remember though that the structure of your book doesn’t have to work that way. You want the structure to tie themes together and help the reader make sense of the story, and this may not be the way it actually occurred. No matter, just organize it properly and your story will sing.

6. Many people who use fact as inspiration for their fiction have to set their novels in a historical context, war novels are a good example. This means that you really should get your details right--things like what kind of heating did people use, did mean wear boots or shoes. Research is key in these situations. My trick for this kind of research is to write one full draft using details that seem as if they would be right, then I go back through it and double check the facts. Of course, you still have to do some initial research to get the ball rolling, but for small details, this method works well and saves time.

7. You have to be aware that no matter what you write, a certain portion of people will always read your life into the story and assume it’s all about you, even if it isn’t. You have to be comfortable with that if you’re going to show your book to the world. As well, if you’re writing something close to you or someone you know, you may scared to have your friends or family read it. You can’t keep it from them once it’s published (I know, I tried), so just brace yourself. They will say things that won’t make you feel good, or they’ll say things that will. Just know that their reactions are coming.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Notes from "When Memoir Inspires Fiction" Part 1

List of novels with memoir elements:

Little Women, Louisa May Alcott

Turtle Valley, Gail Anderson-Dargatz

The Jade Peony, Wayson Choy

Little House series, Laura Ingalls Wilder

Sons and Lovers, D.H. Lawrence

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

The Way the Crow Flies, Ann-Marie MacDonald

Difficulty at the Beginning, Keith Maillard

The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath

Joshua Then and Now, Mordechai Richler

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson

Oranges are not the Only Fruit, Jeannette Winterson

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Upcoming Workshop

“When Memoir Inspires Fiction”
Monday, December 8, 2008 6pm - 8pm
Vancouver Public Library - Central Library
Peter Kaye Room, Lower Level

We’ve all heard the old adage, “Write what you know,” and many of us are taking that to heart, using our memoirs or the memoirs of those we’re close to as springboards for a novel or a collection of short stories. However, using personal experience as fodder for your fiction can be riddled with challenges that most of us never anticipate.

Jen Sookfong Lee will lead a fiction workshop that explores the issues of using what you know to create something entirely new. We will be discussing novels and short stories by established writers who have been open about mining their own experiences for their work; a list of these titles will be distributed to participants during the workshop. As well, Jen will talk about the publishing process and how to manage promotion when your book is intimately connected to your personal life or the lives of people you’re close to. Participants are asked to submit 10 to 15 pages of their current fiction project, a portion of which will be read aloud and discussed during the workshop.


To register, or for more information, please email or call 416.504.8222 x 242

Friday, September 26, 2008

Notes from "Step Over To The Dark Side: The Basics of Mystery Fiction"

Recommended Reading List

Compiled by Mary Jane Maffini and Barbara Fradkin with a little help from their friends.

Kenneth Atchity, A Writer’s Time (Norton, rev. ed. 1995)
-- Thought-provoking and demanding but well worth the read if you are serious about managing yourself and the writing process.

Larry Beinhart, How to Write a Mystery (Ballantine, 1996)
-- Readable and practical by the author of Wag the Dog.

Lawrence Block, Writing the Novel From Plot to Print (Writer’s Digest, 1979)
-- Solid advice from the master.

Renni Browne and Dave King, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers (Harper-Collins, 1991)
-- Editors give you the inside story. Listen to them.

Julia Cameron, The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation in the Writing Life (Putnam, 1998)
-- More of a lifestyle than a manual. Extremely useful approaches to writing and harvesting experience and emotion. Readable for itself.

Theodore A Rees Cheney, Getting the Words Right: How to Revise, Edit and Rewrite (Writer’s Digest Books, 1983)
-- Sound advice throughout.

Connie Emerson, The 30-Minute Writer (Writer’s Digest, 1993)
-- Many of these techniques can be adapted to breaking down the many steps of novel writing into bite-sized pieces. Very useful.

Syd Field, Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting (expanded edition) (Dell, 1984)
-- The structure of screenplays can form a solid backbone to apply to your novel.

James N. Frey, How to Write a Damn Good Mystery (St. Martin’s Press, 2004)
-- Kind of ‘Mystery Writing for Dummies’, practical, humorous and easy to read, but contains gems.

Bonnie Goldberg, Room to Write: Daily Invitations to a Writer’s Life (Tarcher/Putnam, 1996)
-- Lovely. Like having a friend visit.

Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (Shambhala Pocket Classics 1998)
-- This is a goldmine, also available in audiotape.

Karen Elizabeth Gordon, The Transitive Vampire: A Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed (Times Books, 1984)
-- We all need a grammar book, this one is fun.

Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (Scribner, 2000)
-- Highly recommended by mystery writer Sue Pike.

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (Anchor, 1994)
-- Insightful and entertaining inside view of the writing process by one who lives it.

Margaret Lucke, Writing Mysteries (Self-Counsel Writing Series, 1999)
-- Easy to read, lays out the process as well as the business, and includes some worthwhile exercises.

Donald Maass, The Career Novelist: A Literary Agent Offers Strategies for Success (Heinemann, 1996)
-- Solid, practical advice, not always what we want to hear.

Donald Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel (Writer’s Digest Books, 2001)
-- This book has changed the way people write and structure novels and is well worth the purchase price and the investment of working through it.

Eric Maisel, Living the Writer’s Life: A Complete Self-Help Guide (Watson-Guptill, 1999)
-- Of course you’re crazy.

Dick Perry, One Way to Write Your Novel (Writer’s Digest Books, rev. ed 1972)
-- Forget the pub date. This book, if you can still find it, could change the way you approach writing and kickstart your first book.

Gary Provost, Beyond Style: Mastering the Finer Points of Writing (Writer's Digest Books, 1988)
-- The subtitle says it all. This classic is out of print but well worth hunting for.

Gary Provost, Make Your Words Work (Writer’s Digest Books, 1990)
-- One of the best and the most readable overviews of writing the novel. Highly recommended.

Sol Stein, Stein on Writing (St. Martin's Press, 1995)
-- An excellent overview by a successful editor.

William Jr. Strunk and E.B. White, The Elements of Style (Macmillan, 1959)
-- Get the latest copy. It’s still immensely valuable and it all still makes sense.

Dwight V. Swain, Techiques of the Selling Writer (University of Oklahoma Press, 1965)
-- An old book and one that’s hard to find but it deals with matters few others do. Especially strong on character, conflict and underlying story. It is far more intellectually challenging than its title implies. It is out of date in many peripheral ways but not where it counts.

Wilson R. Thornley, Short Story Writing (Bantam 1976)
-- Unfortunately out of print. It is the best guide to writing short stories I have come across. Watch the secondhand stores.

Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters (Michael Wiese Productions, 1992)
-- Superb view of story structure.

Nigel Watts, Writing a Novel (McGraw-Hill Ryerson Ltd. 2003)
-- Deceptively small, but packed with information and answers to practical questions. Part of the Teach Yourself series.

Writer’s Digest, Elements of Fiction Writing Series
-- There are many volumes in this collection of “how-to’s” I found Plot and Dialogue to be the most useful.

Writer’s Digest, Howdunnit Series
-- Everything from poisons to DNA testing to scene of the crime analysis. Check out for individual titles in both these series and others.

Recommended Reference Materials:
A good style manual
A good baby name book
As many dictionaries as you can get your mitts on (CAN, US, UK)
Current Market Guides: Writer’s Market, Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market, etc.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Photos from "Follow the Yellow Brick Road"

Paulette Bourgeois, creator of Franklin the Turtle, gave a workshop on writing for children.

Paulette reads from Katherine Paterson's Bridge to Terabithia to demontrate a classic three-act structure .

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Notes from "Follow the Yellow Brick Road" with Paulette Bourgeois

Using screenwriting techniques to create children’s books

“But suppose, asks the student of the teacher, we follow all your structural rules for writing, what about that “something else” that brings the book alive? What is the formula for that? The formula for that is not included in the curriculum.” --Fannie Hurst

There is no formula for writing good children’s books, or any books for that matter but there are tricks, tips and techniques that one can draw from the world of screenwriting that make facing a black screen and a blinking cursor just a little more manageable.

Tell the story in one line.
Most movies can be summed up in one line and it’s often helpful to do this for a book you plan to write as well.

For example:
  • A young wizard must face his own death in order to save his world.

  • A girl swept by a tornado into a foreign world must save her friends before she can return home.

  • A businessman falls in love with a call girl he’s hired to be his date for the weekend.
*WRITING TIP: Write down your one-line summary and post it where you can see it as you write. If you get “bogged” down check to see if your story still adheres to your own synopsis. If not, ask yourself why. Perhaps you’ve taken a more exciting direction for your story. Change the one-liner to fit the muse. But, if you are going way off-track check to see if you are still heading in the direction you set for yourself.

A good movie, like a good story, explores the universal human condition.
Powerful stories appeal to the most primal human needs. They are about survival, hunger, sex and love, good and evil. In one screenwriting guide, Save the Cat, author Blake Snyder writes that Titanic is not a story about a ship that hit an iceberg with disastrous consequences; it is about the need to survive. Sleepless in Seattle is about the need to be loved. Bridge to Terabithia is about loss and redemption.

*WRITING TIP: Ask yourself, what is this story about? This is not a plot summary but a chance to discover which of the deepest human needs and wants will appear in your story.

A good movie, like a good story, usually follows a classic three-act structure with a beginning, middle and end.
This isn’t as formulaic as it sounds. There’s much room for imagination. Think of the structure as the building blocks of your writing. If you were building a house, whether it is a bungalow, a castle or a Tudor-style home the building blocks are always the same—a foundation, walls, roof and supports that hold everything together.

A writer who learns to pace a written story like a thriller, action or adventure movie with three acts, each with its own twists, turns, conflicts and resolutions, will have a page-turner. Even character-driven stories can follow the same pattern—only the action is smaller and the conflicts and resolutions may be more internal.

You might ask how movie structure differs from novel structure. Remember the graphs teachers used to show the structure of the novel? The line starts much like a road through the prairies that moves into the foothills, scales a coastal mountain and then drops precipitously into the ocean. Movie structure is more like driving through the prairies, riding a roller-coaster through the Rockies, scaling a mountain, falling off the ledge, being saved, crawling over the peak and finally, after a perilous descent, landing on a beach with a clear view of the horizon.

In a typical three-act structure, Act One is the set-up. In most movies, the first fifteen minutes are devoted to learning about the setting, the characters, the direction and the theme of the story. Around 23-28 minutes into the story there is a turning point. Something important happens that changes the story and the plot starts moving. It’s important for the writer to ask a central question – will the boy get the girl, will Dorothy ever get home, will the bad guys be caught?

Most children’s novels are about 120 pages long. Most movies run about 120 minutes long. I’ve noticed that many children’s books seem to follow the breakdown of acts, turning points, climax and resolution. Often, about a fifth of the way through a 120-page book (which is about 23 minutes into a movie) there is the first turning point.

Act Two is the development of your story. In the next 40-65 minutes of screen time there will be twists, turns, conflicts, resolutions, obstacles and action. This is where the bulk of the story is told. Again, this is the same in many great children’s books. In a movie, around 75 minutes into the film, there is a second turning point that changes the direction of the story, raises the central question again and raises the stakes for the characters. This is often the darkest part of a story –where there is a death, or near-death or a sense for the hero that everything is hopeless.

Act Three is usually past-faced and within five pages of the end, there is a climax to the tale. The big question has been answered, there is a sense of relief and the loose ends are being wrapped up.

The next time you watch a movie, check your watch the first time you sense that something really big is happening. It’s usually 22-25 minutes into a typical 120 minute film. In page-turning books for children such as Harry Potter, Tuck Everlasting and The Tiger Rising, the turning point—where everything really starts happening is about a fifth of the way into the tale.

*WRITING TIP: Divide a work board into three sections. Use index cards of different colours to represent the three acts of your story. Outline the set-up, development and resolution for your story in one-line jots on the cards. As you create your characters, determine the big question, decide upon the turning points, the conflicts, resolutions and obstacles write quick notes on index cards and post them in the appropriate Acts.

The Hero’s Journey,
In a good movie, as in a good story, there is a hero who is ripped from her ordinary world and thrust into a place with dangers and obstacles that must be overcome, often with the help of a mentor or wise-person, to discover some truth about herself or her world. The hero brings back this knowledge or treasure to the benefit of others. That’s it. A journey that is repeated over and over and over again in powerful, memorable movies and books.

The journey is explored in depth by Joseph Campbell, in his seminal work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Christopher Vogler adapted Campbell’s ideas into the highly recommended, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters.

With apologies to both authors for over-simplifying something as complex as universal myth, it can be helpful for the novice writer to go through a check-list before, or during writing.
  • What kind of world does your hero live in and what is his life like there? This can be a fantasy world, a small town in Saskatchewan, an urban centre, an office, a classroom, anyplace, anywhere.

  • What happens to change this world? A flood? A divorce? A new girl in town. A letter?

  • What does your hero want? Does he want to save the world, fall in love, find the treasure, revenge his tormentor? What happens that compels the hero to leave his ordinary world and embark upon an adventure? Are the flood waters rising to dangerous levels? Is his enemy after his girl? Is the quarterback too sick to play the big game? Is there a physical or psychological threat?

  • What stops the hero from getting what he wants? Does the dam break? Is there a conspiracy? Does the rocket-ship fail to launch? Is there somebody bigger, stronger, and more competent who shows up? Does he sense that he lacks courage or compassion?

  • Who helps the hero along the way? A witch, a teacher, a coach, a vagrant? How do they help—with a talisman, with words of encouragement, with physical support?

  • What’s holding your hero back from getting what he wants? Are there physical, or emotional obstacles in his way?

  • How can your hero manage the crisis or overcome the obstacles? Does his mentor help? Perhaps he used the magic sword, or found the treasured object, or discovered a courage he didn’t know he had.

  • What really, really, really bad thing happens next ? Does it seem as if your hero might not make it? Does everything look bleak?

  • What does your hero do to get out of the mess?

  • Has your hero changed because of his journey? What new knowledge does he have to bring back to his “ordinary world”?

*WRITING TIP: Start a writing prompts folder filled with images of places, people and things. Clip stories from magazines and newspapers that take you outside of your imaginary world. Listen to strangers and keep notes about their conversations and speaking style. When you’re struggling for a turning point in your story, or wondering how your characters might act, or searching for an obstacle to overcome, this idea folder can jumpstart your creative process.

So many writers get discouraged about half-way through writing their books. In my case, it is usually at this point that I realize that the book I have in my head is not the book I’m actually writing. The book in my head has well-rounded characters, a strong story, a compelling theme, beautifully crafted prose and page-turning drama. The book I find on my screen is, instead, wooden, predictable and dull. How to get over the hump?

Linda Seger writes in her book, Making a Good Script Great, this is the time for some cinematic techniques. Try a reversal in the storyline—have the good guy do something bad, have the crusty old guy show a soft side. Throw in a new complication, or add a new barrier that stops the hero from getting what she needs. Add a new character to a scene of dialogue to up the conflict. Remember that in every scene, an action needs a reaction. Try not to be predictable and you will gain momentum not only in the story, but also in your desire to write that story.

*WRITING TIP: Don’t give up. Write one sentence at a time. Keep on writing until you are finished your first draft. The best writing happens in the rewrite.

Some last thoughts...

Whether you are writing a picture book or a novel for children there is always a hero’s journey and three acts. Even my 32-page picture book, Franklin in the Dark uses the most basic elements of the hero’s journey and has three acts. We meet our hero, Franklin in his ordinary world of home with Mom. He is called to adventure when he realizes that he cannot continue to live with an overwhelming fear—monsters inside his own shell. He journeys through the land seeking advice and guidance and meeting obstacles. Finally his mother, acting as a wise sage, gives him the knowledge he needs to change. In the climax of the story, Franklin faces his greatest fear—crawling into his shell, but with a new awareness that allows for a resolution to the conflict. When Franklin turns on his night-light, the story ends.

Was I thinking of the hero’s journey as I wrote? Absolutely not. Was I thinking that a fifth of the way into the story, there should be a turning point? Absolutely not . And yet even in this little picture book there is a hero, a journey and a three-act structure and indeed, almost exactly one fifth of the way into the tale, there is a turning point that forces the hero out into a different world. As storytellers you will find that most of what you want to write and to say will find this form naturally—our brains are hard-wired for story, but if you run into a problem with the momentum of your story, it is helpful to know that there might be a “fix” by knowing where your hero is in his journey and where you are in your story.

*WRITING TIP—I’ll say it again. Just write your story. Just keep writing it until you have a first draft. It’s easier to see the problems and to find the solutions when you are looking at the “whole picture”. And if you’re really stuck? Get some popcorn, put up your feet and watch the Wizard of Oz...the perfect hero’s journey in three amazing acts.

Grateful acknowledgements to the classroom teachings of Sara Graefe, Gail Anderson-Dargantz, and to Linda Seger and Christopher Vogler whose books are a constant reference and resource.