Tag Archives: creative writing courses

The Quotable Dennis Bock

dennisbockCanadian author Dennis Bock has penned many highly acclaimed books, including The Ash Gardens. His most recent work, Going Home Again, was short-listed for the 2013 Scotiabank Giller Prize. He also teaches creative writing.

As former or current students in the Creative Writing program at the University of Toronto, School of Continuing Studies, many of us in the 11th Floor Writers writing circle have taken a course or two with Dennis, who teaches, among other courses, “Writing the Literary Novel: Master Class”.

When it comes to offering advice to his students, Dennis doesn’t pull punches. He’s honest and direct, and often says things that linger in our thoughts long after class has ended. As a token of our thanks to Dennis, we’ve compiled a list of our favourites to share.

On storytelling

“I’m a huge fan of something actually happening. Make your character do something.”
“Always dramatize.”
“Always create scenes.”
“Mention all the people in the room at the outset of a scene.”
“Don’t be obscure –mysterious or cagey is not attractive.”
“Never rely on abstractions.”
“Take the reader out of the story sometimes – don’t keep them stuck in the present.”
“Be wary of putting too many plot threads.” (e.g.,“I’m confused,” said a character in one of our stories.
“So am I,” replied Dennis.)

On character

“Send your character up a tree and have him figure out how to get down. This makes your story much more interesting.”
“Don’t be afraid to take risks with your characters.”

On the narrator

“The narrator’s purpose is to give the reader a sense of what will happen, a sense there is a story, and a sense of urgency.”
“The narrator recounts something when time has passed and can comment and add wisdom on the subject.” (Similarly, when introducing a new character).
“The narrator knows the point of the book and should drop this in early on.”
“Find the narrator’s voice to keep the story focused.”
“Establish that the narrator is dead immediately.” (Only when your narrator is dead, of course!)

On dialogue

“Dialogue should be made up of only how the speaker thinks and talks. No information dumping and no stage direction. ” (i.e. “It’s 4:30,” he said.)
“Don’t use dialogue to advance the story.”
“Avoid non-words like ‘huh’ in dialogue.”

On the reader

“A reader will like a fighter, not a sufferer.”
“You have to earn the reader’s confidence.”

On writing

“Keep on writing.”


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Dream Weaving

One source of my inspiration as a writer has always been the lyrics of singer-songwriters, popular poets of the modern age. John Mayer refers at one point to having been “born in the arms of imaginary friends.” Another John – John Denver – earlier referred to having been “born in the summer of his twenty-seventh year, coming home to a place he’d never been before.” Both of these lines have special meaning for me.

Since I was old enough to read, I have wanted to be a novelist. I remember, as a child, drawing countless pictures in crayon in what would now be called a graphic novel format. Unfortunately, the study of literary criticism during my undergrad years stifled much of this burgeoning creativity. Life put paid to the rest – career, marriage, kids – I had given up every realizing my youthful dream. But I never gave up thinking about plot, setting and characters —about story-telling.

In the summer of 2010, I had just celebrated my fifty-fifth birthday. As the result of reading an ad for Continuing Studies’ Summer Writing School at U of T, I decided to bite the proverbial bullet and submit the first chapter of a novel as consideration for acceptance. My attendance at the workshop was approved, tuition paid, vacation arranged at work and off I went to the St. George campus for the first time in more than thirty years.

I loved it.

My instructor for the week was Susan Swan, who convinced me that my book idea had both commercial and literary potential. Together with my fellow students, an eclectic and extremely talented group that included two teachers, a financial analyst and two medical doctors (one of them also a ballerina, if you can dig it), we sweltered all week, both figuratively and literally, in a small Innis College classroom. The end of that workshop was a defining moment for me: I loved the writer’s life, the work, the camaraderie, the mutual support and even the prospect of loneliness and inevitable bouts of rejection no longer appeared so daunting. It was then that I realized that I am a writer – I always have been; it was what I was meant to be. I may not be in a position to write for a living, but I recognize the calling and will practice it for whatever time I am granted.

As a weaver of dreams, I have about twelve novels bouncing around inside of my skull. It’s time to get back to work.

Chris Briggs

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