Tag Archives: writing process

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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Writing Journal

I am going to try doing something a little different for this blog entry by keeping a journal of my work on this month’s chapter and some of the thoughts I have on the process.

June 15 – Today was our writing circle and I thought my submission was well received. I made the conscious decision not to start the next chapter until after our writing circle because I wasn’t terribly confident in what I submitted and I thought that I might need to fundamentally alter it before moving forward.

After listening to everyone’s comments, I don’t feel like it needs any massive plot-related changes, so I’m comfortable going ahead with my original plans for the next chapter. That being said, my plans are kind of vague. I know where the story is headed, but as far as what I want to do with this chapter in particular, it’s still not fully formed in my head.

I got a couple of points I want to hit on though, scenes that I think will be interesting, but I think the advantage I have is that because I ended the previous chapter with a bit of a cliffhanger, how I’ll start this chapter is fairly obvious.

The harder part will be determining what note I want to end this chapter on – especially seeing as I’m not entirely sure how much time I want this chapter the encompass. I got an idea for that in my head, but I’m just going to sit on that for now and see how I feel about it after a few days. As a general rule of thumb, if an idea is good, it will stick with me and if it’s bad, it will seem silly later.

In the meantime, I need to do a bit of research before I can start writing. One of my characters suffered an injury, which is one I can relate to, so initially I assumed it would be easy to write about. However, living with a problem and adapting to a problem aren’t the same thing and because I have had to deal with this issue my whole life, the transition isn’t something I’m familiar with. Fortunately, this injury is really easy to fake if you don’t have it to begin with (which upon reflection makes me one of the few people that actually can’t write this without help), so my sister has volunteered to pretend to have the injury. She’ll basically tell me about the difficulties associated with it and I’ll use that to help figure out what my character might go through initiall

June 17 – So I still haven’t written anything yet, but I’ve thought about what I want to do a lot. It’s been in the corner of my mind and there’s two different ways I can handle this chapter. One will push the story forward a lot quicker and has fewer potential plot holes that I’ve thought up and thus would need to address before it’s ready for reading.

Still, I think I’m probably going to take the alternative approach, which is slower from a pacing perspective, a bit harder to write, and closer to my original vision. Taking things a bit slower in this chapter will allow me to better address where characters stand and might ultimately make for better drama. Plus there were some significant events in the previous chapter and I think those need time to be absorbed and dealt with, rather than trying to tact on another major crisis before the current one has been more meaningfully explored.

June 25 – I’ve been making good progress lately, but I’m not really at the hard part of this chapter yet. So far it’s mostly been dialogue scenes – and I both gravitate towards those and have a phobia about them at the same time.

The problem with a dialogue-heavy scene is that actual action seems to take a backseat and that puts all the pressure on characters talking. In some cases you can dull that by having a secondary event happening in the background – and that’s often preferable, but not always practical. Instead, I think it can be better to rely on more subtle secondary events. Is there a disconnect between what a character says and what he/she means? Is there a rising tension? Is there different and clashing agendas being played out?

Those things I strive for when writing dialogue – and admittedly I don’t always succeed, but one point I drive home to myself is that everyone has a motivation. We all want something and often times, when we speak it’s commonly in the interest of moving us closer to those goals. It can be small, like just wanting attention, reassurance, or acknowledgement. It can be that we’re just so mad we need to let it out or we could be talking out of a genuine desire to help. I think as long as I stay true to each character’s motivations, the dialogue scenes will have a greater chance of success.

When I write them out the first time, it’s free-flowing. I’ll usually map out a conversation in my head before writing it and most of the lines I come up with won’t actually get used because they don’t naturally bounce off based on the way the conversation is progressing. When I go back for editing, I’ll be doing so with a keener eye on motivation. Does it make sense that he/she said this? It’s not uncommon for me to significantly alter a conversation based on one line that didn’t feel right in the middle of it.

June 26 – Between us having a week less than usual between meetings and how hectic this month has been work wise, I’m worried I’m not going to finish this chapter in time. What I got so far, I’m unsure of mostly because I’m concerned that the pacing is sluggish.

Whenever a big, potentially negatively life-changing event happens, I think it will often consume your thoughts. With regards to storytelling, I feel like you need to acknowledge that because otherwise you run the risk of making your character seem out of touch with reality. At the same time, the plot has to move forward and when you’ve committed to the first-person, it means your main character can’t wallow in self-pity.

So it’s a balancing act between taking in what’s happened and not overdoing it to the point of repetition or at worst, turning what could have been an impactful event and making boring to read. I worry that I might have crossed that threshold, but I need a fresh pair of eyes on it so I asked someone to read it. I’ll see where that leads.

July 3 – Miraculously, I’m actually done the chapter with a little time to spare. I’ve been working a ton of extra hours over the last week or so and I honestly wasn’t sure I’d be able to finish it in time. Now I’m going to spend tomorrow trying to polish things. I’d like to have more time for that, but unfortunately, I’m almost at the deadline.

For me, I would think that writing with emotion is at the very core of the profession – but my understanding is that’s not a fundamental truth. I’ve been led to believe that other authors actually try to detach themselves emotionally from what they’re writing, while I kind of try to let my emotions color a scene. I’ll definitely try to adopt emotions that are relevant to what’s happening – by listening to appropriate music for example – but I usually feel like a scene will come across as more genuine if you can, on some level, channel what your characters must be feeling.

The obvious drawback from that is that, if I’m not careful, it can lead to schizophrenic results because the characters emotions need to flow naturally from the events that immediately proceeded while my own feelings might be related to real world events that have no bearing on the story.

I’ve been pretty stressed this week and while I can use that to an extent in my writing, I think that state of mind tends not to be very conducive to writing, if for no other reason than you’re typically not in the mood to write in that state. It’s a good thing that I’m in a writing group though, because that’s pretty much what drove me to work on my story during a period of time where I might have otherwise just ignored it entirely.

July 8 – So my chapter has already been submitted to the group, but I figured I might as well go full circle with this blog post and talk about the lead up to the next meeting.

For the next week, I won’t be writing anything more related to my book because I want to get feedback before moving forward. That said, I’m already second guessing what I submitted – which is very common for me.

There are parts of it I like. I’m pretty happy with the dialogue, especially in the first half of the chapter, and I feel like this chapter did a good job of going over a sizable period of time with relative ease. In the past, I really have struggled with encompassing significant periods of time in a single chapter and just hitting the highlights and I feel like I’ve done that here.

At the same time, I worry that elements of this chapter, particularly in the second half, aren’t clear enough and will lead to reader confusion. I worry that the final scene will come off as jarring and rushed. My other fear, which is bigger than the others, is that a key payoff in this chapter will be unsatisfying compared to the buildup. Other problems are fixable with the right amount of polish, but if the payoff doesn’t work, then that might be the symptom of a bigger problem that might force me to go back and rewrite significant portions of this chapter before going forward and potentially compounding the issue.

Of course, those are the potential problems I anticipate. When you’re working on something, you get awfully close to it and at times that makes you blind to the obvious. There might be other issues that other people will see that didn’t even occur to me. Either way, I’ll know more this weekend.

July 17 – We had our writing circle and while there were flaws with the chapter, and there will always be, my biggest fears didn’t really play out. Although, because of other obligations, this was perhaps not the ideal month to do this type of blog, I did enjoy writing it.

Maybe I’ll attempt this again sometime.

Ryan Dadoun

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How to Hook Your Reader

Every scene, every plot, every novel that is to be successful follows an arc of some kind.  A work of fiction typically unfolds with scene setting exposition, followed by a rising action, a climax, and brief falling action to wrap up the plot.  Although not all successful pieces of literature have followed this formula, it is one that has proven potent for as long as stories have been told.  Each scene of your work should follow a similar pattern, echoing the rising and falling actions of the larger body.  Below is a summary of six cyclical points necessary to intensify your plot, engage your reader, and hold their attention through each scene and chapter.

The Set Up

  1. Goal––Begin with a specific/definable goal your POV character wants.
  2. Obstacles ––Set up obstacles or conflict your character must face before reaching their goal.
  3. Disaster––Don’t let them have their goal right away.  Let the reader see them struggle.

The Consequences

     4. Reaction––Show your characters emotions and actions as a result of the Disaster.

     5. Dilemma––Force your character to wrestle with his next move.  There will be no good options to choose from.  Let them deliberate.

     6. Decision––The decision should involve risk and a slim chance for success.  This decision leads into the character’s next goal, conflict, disaster, and so on.

 

These six steps produce the foundation for realistic and psychologically viable responses from your character.  When one fails, one doesn’t just jump on the next bus.  We stew, we agonize, and then we plot anew.  These struggles and successive approximations toward the characters goals are captivating because they are human; they inspire empathy and hope within the reader.  For optimal results use these steps in a cyclical fashion, increasing the risk and dilemma as you rise to meet the climax of the broader arc of your main plot.

M. B. Russell

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You Can’t Edit a Blank Page

“Easy reading is damn hard writing.” – Nathaniel Hawthorne

The story I am writing exists, written in absolutely perfect fashion, some place, in the air. All I must do is find it, and copy it – Jules Renard, “Diary” 1895

That’s the number one rule of writing. This brings me to my next point, that for most writers first drafts are pretty crappy. They are just you telling your story. They are called ‘first’ drafts for a reason. They aren’t meant to be perfect. They are just meant to be written. Every writer writes them and most of the time no else should see it. Just know that the second draft will be better than the first, and that the third might even be amazing.

This brings me right back to my opening premise. You can’t edit a blank page, you have to have something there to edit. You can’t fix it till it’s written, so just get it down, full of flaws and imperfections. You can keep writing knowing that fixing something that is there will always be possible.

So, my advice as a writer, who’s been there time and time again, is to trust that something is always better than nothing, and from that something will often be those gems that you will keep forever. Try to remember that almost all of the books and stories that you have treasured and appreciated also began as terrible first drafts. Don’t let your fear of failure, or even your fear of success, stop you. Everyone has to make that scary trip from the first page to the end. If you don’t produce something on that blank page you’ll never know how great you might have been.
Once you have a presentable draft, the key to editing is getting lots of feedback. More is always better than less. Trust others to tell you what works, what doesn’t, what’s clear, what isn’t. I have been part of this writers’ group for the past few years and it’s making a big difference in my writing. I can always trust the group to tell me what’s working or what’s not, what to take out, what to leave as it is. Today I love hearing what others have to say. They are sure to catch all that I have lost sight of as a result of simply being too close to my own work.

So, take on that blank page. By writing this blog I did!

Maureen Lynch

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We’re all different

It fascinates me how the writing each person brings to our group is so different from everyone else’s. We share, obviously, a common language, and, from our background in University of Toronto writing classes, most of us have access to a common body of writing technique – the ‘craft’. Yet our work is so varied. I also observe that each of us is driven to write. We’re not searching for inspiration; we each already have a story, fiction or ‘true’, that we want to tell. The problem sometimes, as Andrew said last month, is getting down to it. 

As an aside, I wonder about my colleagues’ writing spaces. The Guardian newspaper in the UK once ran a series of little vignettes in which established authors shared a photo and some notes on where they wrote. I used to pore over those photos, looking for clues to their genius, ideas that I could copy. They mostly had a study or office, with objects that grounded them and perhaps gave a cue to their writing muscle that when they sat down there it was time to start writing. Although, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal, Hilary Mantel writes at least some of her work in the shower. Presumably not on a laptop. 

Personally, most of the material for my novel so far was written on the subway. Pieces of it came to me while I was walking, often up to the subway on my way to work, and I’d have to scribble the words down as soon as I could. Makes me wonder about Jane Austen, writing at the table in the family’s drawing room. Did her family just ignore her, like my fellow commuters ignored me? Who needs a room of their own? 

I’m trying to be more disciplined now as I map these pieces into a structure, and fill it all in. It’s instructive here to read how established writers work, what their method or style of writing is. Again, there are so many variations. I was thrilled when a writing instructor at U of T said one author wrote their scenes on index cards then shuffled and assembled them – kind of what I’ve been doing…  And apparently Margaret Atwood plays with the order of her chapters by printing them out and shifting the piles around. But some writers have everything plotted out before they start filling in. It seems that J.K. Rowling spent five years planning the Harry Potter books. That was after the inspiration just came to her – on a train journey. 

What is surprising is how many well-known authors write longhand, at least for their first draft. Even with a specific type of pen, like Amitav Ghosh, or in particular makes of notebook, like Michael Ondaatje. 

Someday I’ll ask my group where and how they write. And when. In our time together we’re usually too busy reviewing and discussing each other’s stories. After all, that’s what it’s all about.

Theo Kempe

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