by Valerie Poulin
Write what you know. This is the advice you get. From editors and writers, in classrooms and email dispatches, in magazine articles, and on websites.
You say what you really know is lost love and regret, but this is not all you know.
You know the restlessness of young adulthood, complacency of job and workplace, unrealized dreams. You know the state of apathy. A long-held position. You know that, too.
If you were to write what you know about work life, it would be about the monotony, the tedium of working at a job filled with routine. Your protagonist would work on the line in a factory, at a desk job, or as a night janitor. She could be a traffic cop, or a toll-booth operator. You would apply what you know about the dissatisfaction of doing unfulfilling work. You would write about job loss. About being outsourced, restructured, eliminated.
You know relationships. You recall successes and failures. You know the relentless hope of dishonest friendship, of hurtful words by teachers, of unkind remarks by pastors and priests. You remember what it felt like to be deceived — by a salesperson, an estranged sibling, a stranger on the street. Anyone on the job site. Everyone in authority.
You know what it is to be an outsider. To feel like the ugliest person in the room, the dullard at a party, the least successful person in your social circle.
And you know what it feels like to be discarded, unwanted, rejected.
You know people: Annoying co-workers, unloving spouses, saucy dependents, secretive neighbours, like-minded board members, political foes.
You know romantic love, and write about hook-ups between social workers and single bar owners, between artists and best friends, and affairs among co-workers. You know about first love, parental love, unrequited love. Self-love. Write about it.
You think of your love for animals and make your main character a zoologist, a veterinarian, a dog-walker. A pet owner.
You know what it is like to lose a child, a brother, a sister, a transgendered friend. You know loss. You know sleepless nights and the truest definitions of “tragedy” and “aftermath”. You know the struggles associated with “survivor” and “suicide,” but you can deal with those words later.
You know emotion: fear, joy, guilt; hostility, curiosity, gratitude. Put your characters in situations you are familiar with: friendships, marriages, divorces, motor vehicle collisions, drug deals, funerals. How they behave in these situations is their business.
You create specific experiences from general ones. That’s what makes your characters—and you— come alive.
Inner life is what you know; it adds to the depth of your characters. You apply the emotion of your experiences and your characters become what you are not: plucky, daring, outspoken; empathetic, trusting. Fearless.
You write what you know, and this makes your telling memorable. That’s when it becomes a story.
Valerie Poulin is an internationally published poet and author of features, profiles, and general-interest articles for a variety of publications. She works as a freelance technical writer. Valerie also self-publishes chapbooks of poetry and small story collections. The Lakehead appears frequently in her work.
By Jayne Barnard
What do fish-gutting, trap-lines, and cross-country skiing have to do with crime-writing?
They’re all ways to think structurally when creating good stories.
A good crime story is, first and foremost, a good story. One of the above is specific to crime writing. During The Crime Writer’s Toolkit workshop on October 3, we’ll talk about all of them, and how they interact for the best possible story dynamics.
Consider how many stories you read that are driven by the pursuit of something—an answer, an object, a person—pulling you through with the gradual revelation of long-kept secrets, or luring you into expecting one ending and then switching it up in the final paragraph. Would you keep reading if there was nothing you wanted to find out? Those are all standard tropes of crime writing, even in the hands of authors who aren’t writing what you might think of as a typical crime novel.
First, for those whose exposure to crime writing begins and ends with Poirot on Netflix, some background on what crime fiction is:
Crime fiction embraces a wide field. It encompasses mystery, suspense, and thriller sub-genres, each with their own sub-genres such as cosy, hard-boiled, political, police-procedural, or slasher/serial killer. Each sub-genre (except the last) might be written for any age group. There might be paranormal elements or a science-fiction setting. It’s a big tent, even without considering another very popular arena of crime writing: true crime, which may be biographical or auto-biographical, strictly factual or verging into creative non-fiction. My quarter-century of published crime writing—and all my awards—are for crime fiction; I’ll be leaving discussions of crime non-fiction to those more skilled in that sub-genre.
Like any other genre, crime fiction has its conventions, the concepts that devoted readers expect to find and will feel cheated if those aren’t presented, or are presented poorly. These conventions include clear victims, villains, and sleuths, the Hook, clues and red herrings, turning points, black moments, and more. Fair Play is the Prime Directive: the reader should be able to arrive at the answer to the central story question through a close reading of the text, and if they are surprised by the solution, they should be able to spot all the well-buried clues on a re-read.
Romantic suspense might fall under crime writing or under romance, depending on which tropes carry more of the story. Romance readers will overlook a lot of improbable crime solving if the journey toward true love is holding their interest, while readers of crime fiction will throw a book across the room if the police detective prematurely reveals the progress of an investigation to the adorable love interest. Crime readers may lose patience with the ‘kissing bits’ and want to get on with the mystery. The romantics may baulk at a convoluted plot that makes the crime reader’s heart sing. Getting the balance right is very much a matter of becoming familiar with the conventions of both genres and then choosing which of those to include, ignore, or turn on their heads.
Unlike in pure romance and much of romantic suspense where the central story question is always the same (How will the two protagonists end up together?), the story questions in crime fiction vary by their sub-genre and spread across the full spectrum from frivolous to deadly. Mystery questions might be anything from “Where’s the missing pet?’ through “Who stole the queen’s jewels?” to “Who killed Mr. (or Ms.) Boddy and why?” In a suspense novel, the question is often “Who is behind this peril to me and those I hold dear?” In a thriller we often know who the villain is and the question has become “Can our protagonist evade this clear danger and outwit the villain?” Elements of all three might be combined in a single piece of crime writing.
The elements of mystery are everywhere, almost invisibly underpinning fiction and non-fiction alike. Learning what they are and how to use them effectively allows you to not only write crime fiction, but to shape any piece of writing for maximum reader engagement.
In the October 3rd workshop we’ll develop the main components of a joint crime plot, using easy-to-recall diagrams to shape our story like we’d prepare a fresh-caught fish for the pan, stringing out our clues and red herrings like traps on a line to ensure Fair Play, and pacing the reader’s journey through our story as if they were on a cross-country ski over the knolls and gullies around Thunder Bay.
Join Jayne Barnard on October 3rd, 7–9:00p.m. at the Mary J.L. Black Library in Thunder Bay for The Crime Writer’s Toolkit, a free NOWW workshop.
JE Barnard is a Calgary-based crime writer with 25 years of award-winning short fiction and children’s literature behind her. Author of the popular Maddie Hatter Adventures, she has won the Dundurn Unhanged Arthur, the Bony Pete, and the SWG Award for Children’s Literature. Her works have been shortlisted for the Prix Aurora, the Debut Dagger, the Book Publishing in Alberta Award, and three Great Canadian Story prizes.
Jayne attended high school first on a NATO base in Germany and then in Kapuskasing, Ontario, where her Air Force father was posted next. Her childhood of camping, boating and fishing fostered a love for the wilderness and a passionate respect for the environment. When the Flood Falls, the novel that won the Unhanged in 2016, will be released by Dundurn Press on July 14, 2018. Two more titles in The Falls Mysteries are scheduled for the following years, each rooted in the society, politics, and geography of Alberta’s Eastern Slopes. Jayne is a past VP of Crime Writers of Canada, a founder of Calgary Crime Writers, and a member of Sisters In Crime. She is represented by Olga Filina of The Rights Agency.
By Graham Strong
I took a creative writing class in university, and the second-most important lesson I learned was the power of trying new writing approaches to unlock creativity. Our assignment was to write a poem in the style of e.e. cummings. It was the magician’s classic trick of misdirection – we were so busy trying to write in his distinctive way that we didn’t notice our own creativity at work. Even though I’m not exactly a poet, the highest mark I received in the course was for that assignment.
Why did it work? It’s simple: it helped the writers in the class get out of our ruts.
Ruts are a natural thing. Humans are designed to learn pathways to success by exploring what works and bumping into what doesn’t – and then following those pathways to success over and over again. But as useful as that is for a species, it’s deadly to creativity.
Here’s a secret: that well-worn, rutted path is just one way to the finish line. There are other successful paths yet to be found. As creatives, we need something to knock us out of our cow cart path and find new – and more interesting – directions.
Flash fiction can help us jump the tracks. It is a chance to experiment and grow as writers, no matter what type of writing you normally do. The format is compressed enough that you really have to focus on telling the story in a short amount of space. That in itself forces you to be creative. It also makes you think about different ways of getting your story across to your reader because of the strict confines of the writing form.
Challenge yourself as a writer by giving flash fiction a whirl. Then enter your best story in our summer Flash Fiction contest for a chance to win cash prizes.
You’ll find yourself exploring new fields in no time!
(PS – the most important lesson I learned, in case you were wondering, was how to take criticism. Very important for a writer!)
Some Writing Prompts to Get You Started
Stuck on what to write about? It’s a common affliction – so common in fact that there are dozens of websites out there to help you out with writing prompts and story ideas. Here are a few writing prompts to rev up your imagination:
Nothing tickle your fancy? Check out: http://writingexercises.co.uk/random-words-exercises.php for a nifty little program that generates eight one-word prompts at a time.
Graham is a full-time freelance marketing writer, journalist, and ghostwriter and has been a writer his entire life. Graham is a former Editor-in-Chief of Argus, the Student Newspaper of Lakehead University, and helped transition it into one of the first digitally produced newspapers in North America. Graham won an Honourable Mention in NOWW’s first writing contest in 1998 for his short story Hat Trick. Professionally, Graham provides marketing writing services to businesses and organizations around the world. He also writes for several news outlets including the Sudbury Mining Solutions Journal and the Northern Ontario Medical Journal, and has written for Canadian Press. In his spare time he is writing his first novel. Graham lives in Thunder Bay with local potter Noël Keag and their three incredible sons. His favourite writers are Paul Quarrington, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Hunter S. Thompson.
By Tim Gwyn
The clearest benefit of my attending writing conventions is that I got a publishing contract through one. But that’s not the whole story, and it certainly isn’t why I started going.
When I first wrote fiction, in my tweens and twenties, I didn’t have a lot of training, just a desire to create stories. When I came back to it later, I realized I needed more skills.
I live in Kenora where there isn’t as much for writers as there is in Thunder Bay or Winnipeg. I found out about a small convention in Kenora called Word on the Water. That was my first exposure to a Blue Pencil Café, a quick critique of a few pages of my writing by an established author. The 15-minute time frame forces the focus onto problems that jump out at the first reading, and often results in bite-size suggestions that are easy to digest. I signed up for a workshop, too.
After that, I went to the C4 LitFest in Winnipeg. This was a small writing convention that spun off from the much larger Central Canada Comic-Con. I went because I had finished my first novel, or at least written it through to the end, and didn’t know what came next. I went in thinking writing the book was the hard part. I attended panels on editing, querying agents, pitching publishers, and self-publishing. I came out stunned and demoralized, but wiser and ready to brace myself for the long haul.
Many conventions offer longer workshops or seminars, in addition to the one-hour panels and presentations. I’ve learned all sorts of stuff, from how to create a story by starting with random characters, to writing for the five senses. Don’t forget the Blue Pencil sessions. They’ve been a powerful tool for me, and it’s fun to get input from famous authors.
I said earlier that I started going to conventions to learn about writing, and I still do. But I have another reason. To meet people. It feels good to have friends and acquaintances in writing circles, and it’s also helpful, often in unexpected ways.
At every stage of my writing, I’ve found help at conventions. People I’ve met have helped me as beta readers, exchanged novels with me for critiquing, offered me a venue for a public reading, invited me to join a critique group, provided a reference so I could take an Odyssey online course, helped me write query letters, given me contact info for agents, offered me tips on reducing word count, explained why my opening pages were not winning over agents or publishers, offered me a publishing contract, and contributed a back-cover blurb to help promote my novel.
I met my freelance editor at a con. You can find one online, but I felt better approaching an editor I had seen speak on a panel. The clean manuscript that came out of our work was much more marketable.
After that, I went to conventions to pitch my novel to publishers. That’s another thing I prefer to do in person. My successful pitch was actually made at a party.
It’s not all business, of course. Sometimes socializing is just being sociable. When I was trying to interest publishers in my novel, my motto was: “I’m going to pitch everybody before I quit, and I still want to have friends when I’m done.” I enjoy having lunch or a drink, even with people who turned me down, because they were willing to take a look at my work. They were on my side, and they still are.
Some of the larger conventions contact me now, instead of the other way around, and I sit on some of the panels or moderate them. I do a slide show on Alternative Aviation in SF, and I try to help people write better aviation scenes, because that’s my specialty. More generally, I advocate joining a critique group and getting an editor.
This winter, I heard that an old friend was setting up an afternoon of writing panels at the library in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba. I haven’t forgotten the people who came to my small town to help writers, so I felt it was worth the drive to give something back.
I’m a regular at Keycon in Winnipeg and Can*Con in Ottawa. The cons I go to lean towards speculative fiction, because that’s my field, but you can find one closer to your own interests, or attend a con that offers thirty-one flavours like Calgary’s When Words Collide, and peruse the programming for your kind of thing.
All the conventions have websites, so you can find them online and see what they offer. I recommend joining a mailing list if you’d like to keep an eye on a convention without signing up right away. That way, you’ll be able to see how the programming is shaping up, and you’ll get advance warning as they start to sell out.
If you joined NOWW to meet people and gain skills, those might also be good reasons to consider attending a convention or two. Expenses are tax deductible if you have a business, by the way. Yes, you can learn about that at a convention, too.
Good luck, and have fun!
Timothy Gwyn is the pen name of Tim Armstrong, a professional pilot in Kenora. His speculative short story, “The Emperor’s Dragon” will be in the June issue of NewMyths.com, and Avians, his young adult science fiction novel, is being released by Five Rivers Publishing on August 1st. His website is at timothygwyn.com and on Twitter he is @timothygwyn.
Before You Submit
Jean, along with Heather Dickson, will be presenting a workshop on the Business of Writing on November 19th. Registration is now full.
Jean E. Pendziwol is an award winning author of books for adults and children. She was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award and the 2014 TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award for Once Upon a Northern Night. Her children’s books include the critically acclaimed No Dragons for Tea: Fire Safety for Kids (and Dragons), which is an all-time bestseller for publisher Kids Can Press. Her debut adult novel, The Lightkeeper’s Daughters will be published by HarperCollins US/Canada in 2017 and has been picked up by publishers in twelve other countries including the UK, Germany, Italy, China, Brazil, Norway and the Netherlands. Jean's ninth children's book, Me and You and the Red Canoe, will be released in 2017 by Groundwood Books. She lives in the shadow of the Nor’Wester Mountains near Lake Superior and draws inspiration for her stories from the rich history, culture and geography of northwestern Ontario. She has three adult children, a loveable mutt, and a coop of temperamental chickens, all occasionally tormented by visiting deer, foxes, wolves and bears.
Jean is represented by Jenny Bent of The Bent Agency.
By Tessa Soderberg
In 2010 I discovered that I could. I was trying to write a novel about civilians during World War II. I already had half a dozen false starts. NaNoWriMo was about to begin, and I thought why not try it? I've never been a disciplined every day writer. When an idea grabs me I sit down and run with it, leaving the editing for later. First, I get the whole gory mess on the computer.
So NaNoWriMo was perfect: it provided incentive in the form of the daily word count. I was also hoping NaNoWriMo would provide the kick I needed to start writing every day throughout the year. I signed up, filled out my author profile, and registered my vaguely formed idea of a novel. On November 1st I put fingers to keyboard and got on with it. Twenty-five days later, what I ended up with was raw, cliché-ridden, full of spelling and grammatical errors and plot holes you could drive a tank through. But I had done it—50,000 plus words and the seed of a story. This year, after much editing, the first chapter of that story won first prize for novels in the NOWW Writing Contest. My 2014 NaNoWriMo first chapter placed third in the same contest. I've taken part every year since.
Why do it? NaNoWriMo makes me write. Have I become the disciplined writer I'd like to be? No, not yet, but perhaps this year. It provides me with first drafts to struggle over throughout the rest of the year. The online word counter lets me track my progress to see how I'm doing compared to others who are taking the challenge. It's not about having the highest word count; it's about having one and adding to it.
In September I start getting excited: what will I write about this year? I brainstorm, running plots and characters through my head. In October I begin tearing my hair out trying to come up with an idea that will sustain over 50,000 words. On November 1st I sit down with my keyboard, and with luck the words will be there. One then two then three, and suddenly I've got 1000 words. I sign in and put my first word count into the counter. I've begun: I'm a participant once again. Now the challenge is to keep up the momentum.
In November I admit I am slightly distracted. Every waking thought and some sleeping thoughts are about my novel. What will happen next? Last year I agonized for days whether to murder my main character. It would play hell with the tentative ending, but it was an option. I decided against homicide. A wounded and suffering heroine would make a much longer tale than one suddenly dead, with only details of who what when and why to tidy up. Besides, I liked her. I had already done terrible things to her and I felt that murder was going too far. I know, some of you are wondering about my sanity. In November my characters kind of take over the place. So the October question is: “Who am I going to meet this year and what am I going to do to those poor souls?”
The point is to focus on character and plot. Ignore your inner editor completely. Misspellings—you can fix them in December. Write “I am” instead of “I'm” because it's two words and every word counts. I love watching my word count grow from five thousand to the half way mark and then fifty thousand. I validate my word count, and get my winner certificate.
I also enjoy the online contact with local writers. It's nice to see what other writers in the region are doing, thinking, and writing about. We have write-ins—get-togethers to meet, write, and share encouragement.
NaNoWriMo is my excuse to sit down and write. The first draft may be awful, but I've got the whole year to edit it.
Welcome to our NOWW Blog, made up of a collection of stories, reviews and articles written by our NOWW Members.