Tag Archives: writing

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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Other Worlds

I recently went to see ‘The Third Space’, an exhibition of work by six artists of Iranian origin at the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto. The term ‘The Third Space’ was used in this case to describe a symbolic and impermanent mental space for integration of experiences, healing and cultural transference.

Being on my leisurely way to Toronto Island to enjoy the pleasant summer day, I was in a contemplative mood. As I left the exhibition, I started thinking about the spaces we each inhabit inside our own heads; the worlds that we carry around and that only we know.

A writer of fiction inhabits a particular sort of space when working. The writer is absorbed in the world he or she is creating, whether that world is based on a real place and, perhaps, real people, or is a newly-minted realm, with characters that spring from the mind of the writer. The writer is also thinking about how to communicate that world, and is driven to construct, through writing, a mental space that can be shared with others. If the construction is successful then the reader can become as involved in the fictional world as the writer was. And almost magically the created world can live on beyond its creator.

As a reader within the shared space, we enter into the lives of the writer’s characters, and see what they see. Think of The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck’s evocation of the desperation of families forced from America’s Dust Bowl. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee presented a setting that may have been familiar to many of her readers, but her created world let them see its pervasive racial bigotry through a child’s clear eyes.

Living in Toronto, it was enthralling for me to be taken by Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion to the Bloor Viaduct during its construction, nearly 100 years ago. I have not been to Newfoundland yet, but in the company of Annie Proulx in The Shipping News I partied on its windswept coast. I have not been to Nunavut either, but led by Rudy Weibe I struggled up the Coppermine River with Franklin and his Tetsot’ine companions in A Discovery of Strangers – a story, incidentally, of cultural exchange, communication, and the creation of a third space.

Theo Kempe

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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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Dream, set goals, celebrate

June and July – the months of graduations, commencements and convocations. Over the years, I’ve attended them as a student, as a teacher, and most recently as a parent and as a guest. This year, I have had the honour of speaking at two ceremonies. The following thoughts highlight the key messages I was trying to convey.

Do take the time to celebrate. Like the Roman god Janus, graduation has two faces – one looking back, the other forward. In other words, graduation marks both an end and a beginning. Celebrate your accomplishments. Doing so will make you feel good, and energize you to be excited about what is to come.

Learn the difference between dreams and goals. Since I was an immigrant child learning English, I have dreamt about publishing a book. It was during my five years in the Creative Writing program at U of T that my outlook and attitude towards writing shifted. I moved from having dreams of writing to having goals of being published. There are significant differences between dreams and goals. Dreams allow you to be lazy; there are no deadlines and no accountabilities. Goals, on the other hand, require focus, action, and adherence to deadlines. It takes little effort to dream and to fantasize. It takes a lot of hard work and planning to reach your goals.

Dream, set goals, celebrate. Repeat.

Ann Y.K. Choi

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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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Pipe fitting

An anecdote from a writer’s workshop I attended some time back: A well-known writer had the misfortune of suffering a severe leak in his basement. The leak was bad enough to flood most of the basement chamber, leaving a knee-high swamp of sullied water in its wake, the flotsam discarded cellar items floating on top like the aftermath of a naval battle. The writer calls a plumber, a robust, salt-of-the-earth, middle-aged man, who unhesitatingly wades in the filthy water with his rubber boots in an effort to find the leak.  While in the water, he asks the writer what he does for employment.

“I write,” he says.

“A writer, huh,” says the plumber. “I can’t believe anybody doing something like that for a living.”

The anecdote was meant as a somewhat cheeky reminder to all in attendance how difficult writing is. It was also, I suppose, a means of encouraging humility, that despite the pretensions many writers may have, the role of “writer” carries no entitlement to praise. The juxtaposition of the plumber and the writer put together in a mundane–if challenging–circumstance also made me think of writing as a vocation very much in line with a plumber’s work. As plumbing requires an understanding of the intricacy of houses’ pipe systems, writers need to have an understanding of every element of their story–detail, atmosphere, characterization–while also understanding how those elements fit together in a self-contained and fully functional unit.

Aside from the nature of fiction’s “structure”, the working mentality of the plumber bears no great difference to that of the writer, at least to the writer who knows the reality of her craft. . Aside from the technical knowledge and precision plumbing involves, vacillating on one’s task, or waiting for the Muse of the Pipes to mystically tell the plumber how the job should be done would be absurd. Tasks are there to be performed, regardless of the hours involved or whether one feels “inspired.” Writing involves the same work ethic. Inspiration is simply showing up for work, opening a word processor, getting the pen and paper ready in whatever nook the writers uses to create. It would be easy if most writers truly feel that ecstatic desire to write every time the blank screen is faced. I suspect that most writers, including those who have won every major literary award in existence, have gone through periods where the creative process is the intellectual equivalent of pipe fitting, soldering words together with whatever tools are at hand.

If this sounds like a belittling of the artist’s task to some, or if demystifies the writing process into something unromantic, I would argue there is nothing wrong with a writer seeing herself as a labourer more than as an intellectual. Read enough reviews of some of the best works of fiction and you will encounter the adjective “workmanlike” as a descriptor of prose. Too often the word is used as a byword for straightforward, banal writing, despite the true meaning of the word to describe something executed with competency and artisanal skill. The days when writing seems like a chore or a quotidian task, as enjoyable as filing an expense report or rotating a tire, are days where the process still must be done, connecting word after word until a greater meaning on the page leaps forth. The stamina to go through that process makes one a true artist, amongst those who are willing to wade through the muck before the work is finally completed.

Saad Omar Khan

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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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