The undeniable value of “being there”

Historical research is tricky. For a start, no matter how much you try to research place, language, food, clothing, money and surroundings, you will never actually be there. You can't go back 100 or 300 or 1000 years to know what it was really like. Even the best historians are making educated guesses. But as a historical writer, you know that details are important, and they are what brings your story alive for your readers. Yes, characters and plot are important, but the social restrictions and … [Read more...]

10 steps to develop your idea into a picture book

It’s rare that we come up with a whole picture book text in one try. Usually what we have is an idea that interests or excites us, but we’re not sure where to take it next. Is it really that original? Is it even a story yet? Mostly the answer to both of those questions is NO. But if you go about developing your idea and adding more things to it, you may well end up with something far, far better. One idea is OK, another idea that crashes into it and creates sparks is what you’re after. Often … [Read more...]

Your characters’ backstories – common issues

One of the key pieces of advice we receive when writing a novel (or a screenplay) is to know our characters’ backstories. It’s good advice because without a deep understanding of what has happened to a character before he or she shows up in our novel, we won’t have a grip on something vital – motivation. Everything that has happened to a person in their life goes into making who they are right now. In ten years’ time, something new might have changed them, such the death of a child. We all … [Read more...]

Choosing Point of View

Over many years of teaching fiction writing, I've debated with myself over where and when in the semester to teach point of view. After character? At the end just before theme? Somewhere in the middle, maybe just before dialogue? I've discussed it with other teachers. The impulse is to teach it first, because which point of view you choose to tell your story in dictates so many other things.  It influences description and setting, for example. A first person narrator is only going to notice and … [Read more...]

Using secrets in fiction

There's a writing exercise I've used a few times which tends to strike fear into almost everyone in the class. I first saw it used about 20 years ago, and I admit at the time I "fudged" my contribution. What is it? It requires everyone in the class or group to write down a secret they've never told anyone, and put their piece of paper into a hat, which is then passed around so that everyone receives someone else's secret, and must then write about it. It does have a "get out safely" option - you … [Read more...]

Working with extra-ordinary narrators

Most people struggle with first person point-of-view narrators. Successful first person can make the reader feel close to the narrator, what they’re feeling and thinking. But what about a narrator who is bizarre, mentally ill, or different in a way that affects not only their voice but their whole world-view? How can you write a character like that and convince your reader? How do you stay credible? Ever since The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon, it seems more and … [Read more...]

Writing AROUND Your Novel

It might seem like it's hard enough to write a novel and finish it, let alone do a whole lot of extra writing. But this is the age of the "stand out novel" - you're going to hear that term, and others like it, many times in the coming year. What it means is a novel with depth and resonance, a novel in which characters feel totally real and complex and intriguing, a novel in which the story world is evocative and meaningful. It's pretty hard to write a novel like that by just sitting down and … [Read more...]

Are you stretching your description muscles?

This week I was working with a group of kids (Grades 5 and 6) on poetry, and one thing I like to do is expand their use of language through the five senses. We talk about details and how they bring all kinds of writing alive, both poetry and prose. In poetry it’s often called imagery – I like to call it word pictures. If you can describe something in a way that “transfers” the image from your mind to the page to the reader's mind, then that’s description that enhances your writing. There are … [Read more...]

The hero’s journey structure – what it offers you

One of the main reasons the hero’s journey works so well for writers is because it contains some of the key elements that will help you to create a story full of tension and reader engagement. On the outside, through action, the journey gives you these: A concrete goal the main character is aiming for, whether it’s saving the world, the princess or their own life An inciting incident – the call to adventure has to be so strong that even after a refusal, the main character MUST act and move … [Read more...]

The hero’s journey – introduction

Most writers at some point will have at least heard of the hero’s journey. Its genesis is through a famous mythology scholar, Joseph Campbell, who wrote The Hero With a Thousand Faces, and the structure was morphed into the basic structure for all of the Star Wars movies. George Lucas (the Star Wars man himself) was a protégé of Campbell’s, and there is even a documentary where they discuss how Lucas turned the hero’s journey into his recurring story and character arcs. However, the structure … [Read more...]