What's your secret?

In his book On Writing, Sol Stein urges authors to dig deep into characters’ lives. He suggests that we imagine a photograph our character may have hidden in his or her wallet, a photograph that person doesn’t want to share with the world. An Achilles heel, it reveals a vulnerability that may be masked with denial and lies.

Word count: 433                                 Reading time: 1-2 minutes

He says the secret doesn’t even have to make it onto the page; it only has to be woven into the character’s identity and motivations. To Stephen Sondheim this unsaid quality must be both clear and mysterious which is a harder balance to strike: Narrative art must be clear, but it must also be mysterious. Something should remain unsaid, something just beyond our understanding, a secret. If it’s only clear, it’s kitsch; if it’s only mysterious (a much easier path), it’s condescending and pretentious and soon monotonous.

Sondheim describes the feeling I have when I close a good book and wish there was someone I could discuss it with. That’s the driving force behind book clubs and sites like goodreads. These groups exist for readers who have sucked through the hard candy coating and sunk their teeth into the soft chewy centre of the Tootsie Roll. The best is yet to come. With unanswered questions and varying perspectives they share and clarify their interpretations of stories. Writers who want to attract strong readers must offer complex characters and plots that will stand up to this scrutiny.

Can’t think of any good clues to your character’s behaviour? Visit Post Secret, a community mail art project where you can read what people willingly offer for public contemplation. It features handmade postcards that express people’s hidden longings, fears, and confessions in eloquent language and images.

Recent examples:

  • I’m thankful for the difficult people in my life. They have showed me exactly who I don’t want to be
  • I speak English….bitch (written over images of cleaning tools: mop, bucket, scrub brush)
  • some of my best traits have terrifying origins
  • come home (around the picture of a pretty young woman)
  • my family would be shocked to know I am a grandma with a secret life. I’m having a long time lesbian affair with my best friend

You don’t have to copy what you find on Post Secret but these bared souls may stir the creative juices. Perhaps an element of your character’s hidden life is waiting to be discovered there.

What secrets do you know about your current characters? What are they hiding from the world? How does it manifest itself in their behaviour?


Photo from: Wikimedia Commons

What are you talking about?

Recently I went to see Neil Gaiman at the Vogue. It was festival seating so we arrived almost an hour ahead of time and stood patiently amidst the cigarette butts, blobs of gum, and other detritus that are now a permanent part of the Vancouver cityscape.

Word count: 452  Reading time: 1-2 minutes

The woman in front of me talked, at a high decibel level, about her writing. She spoke in great detail about her characters and plot. Given her volume and side glances, I was sure she wanted to be listened to so, of course, I obliged. All the while I kept thinking about William Baldwin’s adage: empty vessels make the most noise. I wondered if she had actually written a word or if she just loved to contemplate the novel she might one day complete.

The first rule of Fight Club is you don’t talk about Fight Club. That’s the way I feel about writing. If I talk about what I’m doing with more than a very few people, it seems to dissipate before my very eyes, like a breath on a cold winter’s day. It’s as if I’m showing people how the smoke and mirrors work when I don’t actually know yet because I haven’t choreographed the entire magic show.

Years ago, a friend of mine wouldn’t buy a single thing for her first baby’s nursery before the birth because she thought it was bad luck. Somehow preparing for the baby would jinx its healthy arrival. I hold a similar belief about my novels and short stories. If too many people know about them, the spell will be broken and the spark that keeps them alive will be extinguished by the constant breeze of my voice talking about them.

In Gaiman’s The Ocean At The End Of The Lane, the protagonist (who is either unnamed or called George – read and decide for yourself) as an adult artist (unspecified discipline) says his work is doing fine thank you. [I] never know how to talk about what I do. If I could talk about it, I would not have to do it.

That’s the way I feel every time someone says, ‘So. How is your writing going?’ I mumble a vague comment and then redirect the conversation to something about them. That usually silences any further questions.

Howard Ogden said writing is like sex: you should do it, not talk about it. Did he say that because he is as superstitious as I am? Or does he just want to be spared long-winded descriptions of stories that may never be fully realized?

What about you? Can you talk about your writing at length without harming it? Or do you need to be near completion before you share the treasure?


Picture from Wikimedia Commons: Shhhh by Norrie Adamson

Did you hear right?

Writers’ events usually feature many uniquely-dressed people whose quirky styles leave me envious and almost regretting my own pedestrian fashion sense. Almost. If I could have one super-hero power, I’d choose invisibility.

Word count: 465            Reading time: 2 minutes

The problem with wearing a smart or unique outfit is that people notice you. When they notice you they tend to stop talking and that ruins the very best part of being in a public place: the delicious opportunity to eavesdrop. Fortunately I possess well-honed secret agent skills. Because I dress plainly and I’m a woman past middle age, being unobserved is part of everyday life. So much so that in my desk drawer sits a fat file of conversations earjacked in public and transcribed at the first available opportunity, sometimes right as the conversation is going on.

In 2010 The Guardian encouraged writers to create new poems, stories and plays based on overheard conversations. The winners were honoured on a website and in an anthology, called Bugged. I call that basic writer training.

My favourite places to eavesdrop are these:

  • Public transportation: You can’t beat the bus and its equivalents for picking up really interesting conversations. Sometimes it’s only half the story as someone blathers away on their cell phone. Imagining the other side of the conversation can be great fun
  • Coffee shops, restaurants, fast food joints. Coffee shops are particularly good because they usually host short stays. If one conversation isn’t interesting, wait until the people at the table beside you change. It won’t be long.
  • Parks and public trails. Walk slowly. Let other hikers pass you. You may only get a nugget of what they are talking about but sometimes it will be pure gold.
  • Any line up anywhere. Sure there’s may be grumbling but some people can’t resist filling in the waiting time with personal stories and anecdotes.
  • Supermarkets. People have unbelievably candid cell conversations while picking out their frozen dinners.
  • On planes and trains, in airports and ship terminals: listen to fellow travellers as they exchange stories and life histories. Listen for the gentle lies, the slight exaggerations, the improbable victories, and the wistful memories. People give freely when they never expect to see strangers again.

I’m about to go out now. Before I leave the house, I’ll get my sunglasses and my notepad and pen. With luck no one will notice me slip into the back booth of the coffee shop. If someone I know comes and joins me, you can be sure I will keep my conversation quiet. I’m not about to give away some of my best lines.

Where do you go to find inspiration for fresh dialogue and story ideas? Have you ever based a character on someone you’ve heard or seen in public?


Picture from Wikimedia Commons: Secret Agent by Ben Crowther

Feeling Resource-Full


Word count: 268                 Reading time: 1-2 mins.

One spring when I was a teenager, a dream came true with the gift of riding lessons. What I learned about horses in ten short hours stayed with me through my own horse ownership and beyond.

Still, when I started to write fiction, I thought I could do it without the help of good instruction. For one thing, I thought the creative process was meant to be inherently obvious. The other dilemma was the worry that someone would call my bluff; they would say I had no business trying to write.

So I wrote in isolation until I stumbled on a course with Kathy Page on Salt Spring Island. The island setting was magical. Kathy was warm and helpful.  At the end of that workshop, she offered a further online course that was enormously productive. After that I joined a cyber-class with Pearl Luke. Pearl’s weekly lessons were rich in writing technique and involved a group of five critiquing each other’s work. I met my writing partner in that critique group and that was an unexpected bonus.

Currently I’m taking Sarah Selecky’s course, Story is a State of Mind and it’s the best online classroom I’ve found so far. It is also the most reasonably priced and allows a person to work at his or her own pace. Margaret Atwood called this course “smart, encouraging, practical.” How much more of an endorsement does anyone need?

If you’re not in a writing class now, how do you hone your craft? Did you just jump on that horse and ride? Or are you home-schooling yourself with reference books and courses?


Photo by: Melinda Fawver

Spring Growth

Word count: 247          Reading time: 1 min. 

As the local cherry petals drift to the ground, the rhododendrons are starting to open in a riotous display of spring colour. The other day I drove around a corner and a host of golden daffodils almost blinded me. My mistake: it was a thick carpet of dandelions.

Still it’s a season when the world seems bursting with life and new energy and I feel out of sync when my work isn’t infused with the same urgency. As usual, I turned to wiser people for help. Walter Benjamin said, “Never stop writing because you have run out of ideas. Fill the lacunae of inspiration by tidily copying out what is already written.”

I can’t find the full quote to determine whether he meant copy your own work or copy the work of masters of your craft. Some people I’ve spoken to disagree strongly with the idea of copying other people’s work; they suggested it might lead to plagiarism. On the other hand, William Hazlitt maintained that rules and models destroy genius and art.

Because I needed help, I made a decision and started copy-typing pages from Marge Piercy and Margaret Atwood. The sensation of such polished prose flowing off my fingertips invigorated me. I returned to my novel freshly inspired.

When ideas fail or your prose writhes flat and lifeless on the page, how do you encourage new growth? When you aspire to daffodils but dandelions keep invading your space, how do you get back on track?


Photo by: Andrey Prokurononv

How do you know? When do you know?


Word count: 248                                   Reading time: 1 minute 

How did best-selling writer Jodi Picoult know that she was a good writer? Okay there were those degrees from Princeton and Harvard, along with the sales of two short stories to Seventeen magazine while still in college. All of that probably persuaded her she knew something about the world of fiction. Still the question is: after she’d received one hundred rejections of her first manuscript, what made her keep trying?

It’s hard for an emerging writer to stay confident when working in isolation with only a select few friends and even fewer relatives (if any!) to offer encouragement. Low moments have crept into my life and made me consider giving up writing altogether. However, I can’t do that because my head will explode if all these stories and characters aren’t released.

So I’ve searched for methods that might help me determine if I have the stuff of a true writer. I scored high on Caro Clarke’s Am I Really a Writer test. Pamela Redmond Satran offers some reasons that a person might quit here and Adam Heine adds more to the list. I’ve considered all of their arguments but none of them have persuaded me to throw in the towel. Then there’s that exploding head problem after all.

Without encouragement, without a note of music to play for your family, without a dance step to show them or splashy canvas to wow them, how do you keep moving forward? How do you stay motivated in this solitary endeavour?


Photo by: Juliasha

Once more - with feeling!

Word count: 329                                                   Reading time: 2-3 mins

Australian author P.L. Travers said, “A writer is, after all, only half his book. The other half is the reader and from the reader the writer learns.” She learned so much that her Mary Poppins book series has realized every author’s dream: it thrives long after her death.  

World Read Aloud Day came and went this week and I wondered how many writers were even aware of it. [I wasn’t until today.] Its primary focus is global literacy and surely that is important to writers. Who are we without readers? Who are we without listeners?

Reading aloud lets writers pick up weasel-words that sneak in and repeat themselves monotonously. It lets us hear the flow. It’s difficult at first so when we sit down in writing groups and stumble through our stories and poems, we hope our listeners are forgiving. A reasonable expectation for emerging writers.

What about readings by professional writers? Surely they work to a higher standard. On our epic Outback adventure a few years ago, my husband and I took along Bill Bryson reading his book Down Under. His wry style enlivened hundreds of miles of long dusty roads. When Angie Abdou read at the Vancouver International Writers’ Festival last October her quarrelling characters sprang to life around her.

But I’ve also squirmed through sessions where it sounded like the writer was seeing the words for the first time. One writer in particular turned her head to the page and obscured any view of her face with a broad-brimmed hat. She didn’t lift her eyes once as she mumbled her way through pages of prose. Shouldn’t writing professionals polish their reading before they step in front of a mic? After all, a writer is only half the performance, the other half is the audience.

Have you read your work aloud recently? Did you discover things in it that you hadn’t seen before? Have you heard a writer bring their work to life with a spirited reading?


Photo: somethingway

Getting there (I hope)

Word count: 252               Reading time: 1-2 mins.

“How long does getting thin take?” asked Pooh anxiously. He’s stuck in the door of Rabbit’s house and wants to be free.

I’m suspended in the land of commercially unpublished authors and I want to be free of this place. How long does getting published take? How long should it take?

 In the book Outliers Malcolm Gladwell asserts that acquiring greatness demands a huge investment of time, about 10,000 hours. Okay maybe I can’t aspire to greatness but I do want to create the very best fiction I can. Perhaps my apprenticeship isn’t complete yet.

Gladwell also points out that success "is not exceptional or mysterious. It is grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky.” Maybe 2012 will be the year when the planets will align in my favour.

When I am discouraged at how long the getting-published process takes, I search for perspective. The Crime Fiction Blog has a list of ironically-named overnight success stories that can take the edge off an emerging writer’s anxiety. Another source of comfort is reading rejection letters that were sent to famous authors. In the meantime I remind myself of Robert Heinlein's fifth rule of writing: keep it on the market until it is sold.

So I look to the shiny New Year with fresh hope and determination. Something’s got to give.

All you struggling apprentices out there, are you in it for the long haul? How do you handle those bruising rejection letters? 


Artwork: E.H. Shepard