Category Archives: Writing Exercise

On Perceptions and Perspectives

I saw this image a few weeks ago on Pinterest, and found it fascinatingly creepy.  It’s a great example of perspective, thwarting assumptions, and the fact that the image automatically raises certain expectations – until you see the caption.  What our minds initially perceive may or may not be accurate; only when we see the bigger picture, or have more pieces to the puzzle, does that perception or perspective change, or get adjusted to a more accurate overall understanding.  Doing this with words is an art form:  It’s about building expectations and thwarting them without making the reader feel like you’ve drawn them in under false pretences.  If they can look back through what they’ve already read and realize that only their assumptions were wrong – that the writer never misled them, but they misled themselves – then you’ve managed to find that fine line!

 

kitchen-sink

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Finding Creative Inspiration Part 1: Notebooks and Sketchpads

Here’s an excellent article on creativity, and how to stir it up! Enjoy!

Janice Duke Illustration

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As a creative that often works to deadlines I am in the business of using imagination and inspiration as tools, rather than viewing them as the rare and fleeting gifts of fickle muses. I see it as entirely possible to produce inspiration and train the imagination, because I do this on a regular basis, as do all creatives. In this series of articles I intend to demystify the idea of the “creative genius” a bit by offering some concrete things you can actually do to find inspiration.

The number one tip should probably be that you want to be inspired, that you crave that fabulous idea so much that a bit of poking and prodding will convince it to scurry out of hiding and harass you like a hungry cat to make it happen. This should really be obvious, but if you try my suggestions and come up empty I’m…

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Novels Worth Reading

As a novel writer, I’m first and foremost a reader; I love to read, I love to buy books, smell them, feel them, upload them… any form is fine by me.  I want the books I read to be witty, intelligent, and well developed in terms of plots, characters and environments.

Kitchen Sink Realism

Everyone has different tastes – that’s why there are so many different genres; but for me personally, there’s also a list of things I don’t want in a novel:  I don’t want to be confronted with messy lives dealing with self-inflicted problem after problem; I don’t want tragic or sad or bitter endings; I don’t want to be confronted with the grit, grime, blood and gore of dysfunctional lives that end up learning nothing, making no character arcs, and end up in the mud by the end of the tale.   This genre description actually has a name:  Kitchen Sink Realism.  It was a cultural movement in Britain back in the ‘50s and ‘60s that was portrayed in films, books, plays, and art – the grit, grime, anger, disillusionment and harsh realities of realistic social scenarios.  It’s what might also be referred to as postmodernism.  My personal response to this kind of novel is, “If I wanted that kind of realistic tension, I could just go hang out at the nearest bar.”

A Tough Nut

I once had an English student, and our focus was medical English in preparation for their upcoming medical exams (two nurses came together for semi-private tutoring).  As part of the lesson we needed to work on basic conversational skills and sentence structures, and I find that the best way to bring in a wide variety of scenarios is usually to do a type of role play – nothing embarrassing, but each person is given a character to put themselves into a situation that they might not normally deal with:  They may be a chef, or a secretary, or a customer in a hardware store.  This particular student, when asked what kinds of books she read, said, “history and autobiographies or biographies”.  When asked what novels she read, she said she found such things ridiculous and a complete waste of time (this was back before I became an author!); she categorically refused to even try to put herself into someone else’s shoes for the scenarios.  My impression of her as a person was that she was narrow-minded, knew it, and was proud of that fact.  She was a hard character, and all the time I knew her or met her afterwards, I never saw a soft side emerge, either toward herself or toward others; I often found myself wondering why she’d gotten into the nursing profession in the first place – as a patient, I wouldn’t necessarily want her working on my ward…  A line from the novel I’m currently writing (Asunder, the third book in the Northing Trilogy) would have fit her life too:  “he has never had the propensity for engendering compassion; I pray he never needs it, as he never gives it.”  An epic love story might do her a world of good.

What’s Worth Reading

What I want when I read a book is to be transported into another life, whether that’s in the past, present or future, on this earth, or on another planet, or in another dimension; I want to be entertained, made thoughtful, learn something about the world around me, and learn something about myself.  Ideally, I will come away from the experience having been changed, in even a small way.  I want to feel connected; somewhere out there is a person I can relate to – whether it be the author, or the character, or other readers that appreciate the same books.

Aside from places and times that are genre-specific, such as science fiction and alien planets in the future, or London in the 18th century, all of the elements of what I like in novels are universal.  Humans the world over, in every century, want to feel connected; to feel that they can relate to something someone else is going through; even to have parts of their own life’s experiences explained through someone else’s perspectives in similar circumstances.  Above all else, at the heart of every good novel – regardless of the genre – is a story of love; that is the ultimate connection between characters.  It may be a child finding the love of a family after being shoved through the knocks of life too much for their age; it may be the hero or heroine finding love; it may be a widow or widower finding love again, or reuniting with true loves; it may be someone coming to the point in their life that they accept and love themselves just the way they are.

On to You!

When you read novels, what is it you’re looking for?  I would love to hear about it – please comment below, even if it’s just a few key words!

novel-colin-firth

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Just Smile

smileHave you ever stared at a word for days on end?  I have, and coming to the end of the tunnel is bliss.  When writing, I tend to use “place-markers” – anywhere from a single word to a rough-sketch of a scene that I know will need to be fleshed out, moved, replaced or “cannibalized” for a concept.  Some people like to use special writing programs, and I’ve tried a few over the years, but I tend to do all of my writing in Word; it’s got review “post-its” I can type into the side margins, and I’m usually more organized than programs like Scrivener anyway.  When I go back over such sections, I take off my writer’s hat and put on my editor’s cap, and dive in.

I’ve been editing a manuscript, and at the moment I’m focusing on repetitions; the most recent word was smile.  Each time I came across the word, I needed to read the context, think about whether it should be removed, replaced, the sentence reworded, or left as-is.  I’ve discovered that there are not actually that many synonyms for “smile” in the English language; smirk, sneer, grimace, simper, scowl, grin… they each have their own connotations, and are not simply interchangeable – each choice will effect the overall meaning in distinct ways.   as William Blake once said, “There is a smile of Love, And there is a smile of Deceit, And there is a smile of smiles In which these two smiles meet.”  Sometimes it can simply be left out – the context informs the reader about which emotions are being displayed by the characters.  Characters in love have a different smile for each other than for frenemies, or antagonists, or superiors, or subordinates, and each situation in which various characters are combined might result in a different word for smile.  And does one smile warmly, or coldly?  Broadly or tight-lipped?

theoden-king-of-rohan-lord-of-the-ringsSometimes I wonder if I think far too much about such details; but I’d rather think about it once too often and get it right than not.  It might have seemed a tad extravagant for Weta Workshop to emboss the inside of King Théoden’s breastplate armour for the Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, and Return of the King (in which the character appears), knowing it would never actually be seen in the films; but Bernard Hill, who played the king, said that such details helped him easily slip into the role, even feeling the nobility of a king, and it thus enhanced and influenced his performance.  As visuals matter in epic films such as LoR, words matter in writing a novel, drawing the reader into the imaginary landscape of the world the author creates. ever-after

They also matter in script-writing:  In Ever After, starring Drew Barrymore and Dougray Scott, some of the dialogue lines are just downright embarrassing – especially those of Anjelica Huston:  They go to the trouble of being opulent and period-accurate in costumes, locations and scene dressings, and then throw in lines like Relax, child and I’m management!  The editor in me cringes.

One man’s smile is another man’s smirk; one woman’s grin is another woman’s sneer.  Now, on to the next item on my list of editing revisions!

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Say It Well

Let’s face it:  When writing dialogues between characters, repetition can tend to sneak up on us:  He said, she said, he whispered, she whispered, and so on.  There are a few tricks I’d like to share with you that I’ve learned along the way; one is regarding grammar, and the other is my own twist on dealing with the issue.

Regarding grammar, action verbs can often take the place of the more passive verbs (such as said):  “He said, ‘I’d like that.’” can be spiced up by giving him an action to do (“He picked up the travel brochure and flipped through it:  ‘I’d like that.’”)  The second sentence gives more context, and is more visually engaging for the reader.  Keep in mind that every word should count; don’t pad out the sentence just for word count, or make each exchange in the conversation a prop advertisement; but punctuating a dialogue with such moments can bring it to life.

My own twist is a literal one – a CD:  I took an old one, covered both sides with blank CD labels, and wrote all of the synonyms (listed below) for say and said in a spiral, starting in the centre, changing colours for each new letter of the alphabet.  To use it, I just put it on my finger and spin it around as I read through the spiral until I find the word that best fits my sentence.  I have several such CDs within reach of my computer (another CD, for instance, is for walk synonyms, and another for lie/lay); if you make enough of them, you could keep them in a CD pouch.  Here’s my list of the words around Say (click on the image to enlarge):

say-list

A word of advice to those of you for whom English is not mother-tongue:  Depending on the word, the sentence structure may need to be adapted.  If you’re unsure how to use a word, I would recommend looking it up on Wordnik, and reading the examples on the right-hand side of the page; then choose the sentence structure, prepositions, etc. that are more frequent than not.

I hope that this list helps you say what you want with the variety and precision you’re aiming for!  Feel free to reblog!  Feel free to print this list out and use it; if you pass it on online please put a hyperlink back to this blog, or recommend my blog if you pass it on by word of mouth… thank you!

If you can think of any words or phrases to replace say or said that I missed in the list above, please put them in the comments below!  Keep writing!

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Musings on the A-Z Challenge

After a month of daily posts, A to Z plus weekend excursions into “Odd Jobs”, I can say that it was worth it; I’ve enjoyed the challenge of writing to a word limit, which meant that I could really only focus on one aspect of any given topic… that’s not something my brain does by nature, as it’s usually deep into networking ideas and possibilities long before I’ve finished typing the first sentence.  Along the way I’ve enjoyed spending more time surfing around cyberspace, discovering other WordPress blogs, reading into what makes others tick.  At the same time, I’ve felt the detour of time usually spent in writing manuscripts, editing, researching, and even housework and administration bits and bobs.

Would I do it again?  Probably.  When?  After my next novel is published, and I have more time again!  The feedback from my beta readers is starting to come in, and my own read-through has begun with the fresher eye of passed time and distance, so some other things in life will slide onto the back burner once more.  Through the challenge, I’ve been reminded of why I only post 1 or 2 blogs per week:  Real life is busy!

I hope you enjoyed the challenges along with me, and the breathing room once again afforded by my resumed “schedule”!

blogging-quote

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Musings A to Z Challenge: Z

Challenge:  Write a short paragraph (100 words or less) daily on a topic beginning with the sequential letter of the alphabet.

Zenith

Astronomical zeniths are easy enough to calculate; it’s the metaphorical ones that get tricky.  How do you know when someone is at the pinnacle of their career, or their success?  If someone could precisely know the zenith of stock prices and when to buy and sell, they’d make a handsome fortune.  The thing about zeniths, on a personal level, is that the word implies an end to growth or progress, and as such, is not something to be desired.  When we stop growing, learning, and maturing, we die.  Seen in that light, I suppose you could classify know-it-alls as zombies.

Zenith

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Musings A to Z Challenge: Y

Challenge:  Write a short paragraph (100 words or less) daily on a topic beginning with the sequential letter of the alphabet.

Yarn

To spin a yarn, in the meaning the quote implies, comes from the literal act of spinning a yarn; first recorded in the early 1800’s, sailors would tell tales as they worked on sedentary tasks such as spinning yarns for ropes, or strands of oakum to ram into the cracks between deck boards.  Sailors could tell tall tales, and as they were generally superstitious, those tales could grow; most firmly believed in mermaids and sirens and Davy Jones’ locker, and the old sailors would spin yarns to strike terror (or at least respect) into the hearts of the Johnny Newcomes.

Yarn

 

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Musings A to Z Challenge: X

Challenge:  Write a short paragraph (100 words or less) daily on a topic beginning with the sequential letter of the alphabet.

X

It’s interesting that no other letter in the English alphabet has so many meanings attached to it than the simple X:  It marked buried treasure on pirates’ maps (that’s debatable, but it’s one of those urban myths, like horned Viking helmets, that everyone “knows” is true); it provided a legal signature for an illiterate; it’s the symbol of a kiss; it denotes strongest quality, whether on liquor or films; it’s the unknown quantity in algebra, and from there became the symbol for any unknown value or thing (as “A,B,C” represent known, “X,Y,Z” represent unknown); and the list goes on.

X 2

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Musings A to Z Challenge: W

Challenge:  Write a short paragraph (100 words or less) daily on a topic beginning with the sequential letter of the alphabet.

Wiring

Mark Twain once said, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn’t.”  Life is usually smoother than its fictional counterpart; true stories made into film, such as It Could Happen to You (Nicholas Cage, 1994) would be “too boring” if they only told the truth.  But wires need to be crossed… relationships gone stale must be electrocuted back to life, communication hampered by misunderstandings, and obstacles placed in the path of the hero/heroine to make it more interesting.  Crossed wires are the bedrock of most tales, no matter the genre.

Wiring

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