Late last September, and very shortly after moving back to the area, I began my search for local NaNo WriMo groups on the internet. Not finding anything in the Kenora area, I extended my search to 'Northwestern Ontario'. I didn't find exactly what I was looking for, but I did come across a Facebook posting for a writing workshop in Dryden. I was cutting it close both for time and space, but I managed to contact the folks at NOWW and snagged one of the last slots for the event.
I was not familiar with the author, and though I gleaned through the event description, I was more excited about the 'writing' part and finding other local writers, more than anything. When I last lived in the Kenora area some 20 years ago there were no writer groups or anything that could be considered a workshop. There was a writer’s conference one year when I came back to visit, but I have not heard much about that since. I tried my best to go with few expectations. The description gave it a very childlike feel where we could 'play' and 'doodle! and 'mess around' and reminded me of all the adult colouring books that have become so popular in the last few years. It promised to be a fun time. Kathryn, a Toronto based writer, has just recently earned her PHD in Philosophy, and has taught her creative journaling and imaginative exercises both in and outside of the academic world. Many of the exercises and topics she covered were your basic categories for first-year writing classes; Characters, setting, POV, scene building, and dialog. Kathryn, though, approached it all with a unique tactic to try and trick the brain that it was doing something fun, and not just tedious work.
If you haven’t been to the Dryden library, I highly recommend it. It is a treasure trove of creativity and artistic expression. Every nook and cranny has an original piece of artwork, including a fireplace with comfy chairs.
Crayons were the first order of business. To heck with the No. 2s and Bic Rollers, we went straight for the colourful and cursive. Kathryn had us write the alphabet, over and over, in the old school style. At least everyone in the class was familiar with cursive, so I don’t know how well this exercise will go over with anyone just graduating high school. Maybe not as exciting as most will think but her theory was sound. By using a very different writing instrument from the beginning of the class, this simple change set off a part of the brain that made you pay close attention to what you were doing. It took us out of our automaton brains and into the more right-side of the creative mind. As well, it takes most adults back to a time when crayons were a staple, and they most likely didn't worry about what it looked like.
This idea of using crayons, or markers, extended to Kathryn’s writing journal. Filled with brainstorm bubbles and landscape sketches, hers is also full of character drawings, doodles, fancy writing, square printing, and all in different mediums: Crayons, watercolor, ink, graphite, markers, coloured pens, and more. We would also be using them for the rest of the day.
A deck of tarot cards was the next rabbit she pulled from her bag of tricks. Though she was not about to read our publishing fortunes over a cup of loose-leaf tea. There is a popular book that uses tarot cards and their meanings to create a character's background, traits, and then build some situations for them. Kathryn took a more visual route with the classic Rider Waite Smith deck and had us draw a character based on the image on the card we each drew randomly. It was an invigorating exercise that ended up going in many unexpected directions, giving us a rockstar angel, a knight’s horse, and a woman playing eternal hide-and-seek. She then had us partner up to create a dialog with a given prompt. This was especially fun when the horse magically began to talk. These exercises for building a character, their voice, and dialog with another person, was fun and put the group in a playful mood that continued for the rest of the day.
My favorite exercise of the day was the Object of Desire. This, like most of the others was multi-stepped. She had us begin like the tarot card exercise with a drawing of something we desired. We made a brief list about how having said object would change our lives. Then, using just the object as subject just start writing. It was an intense writing, quick, timed and without any prompts other than what came to mind with the object.
The final step in this exercise is the one that resonated with me the most – take one line from that last paragraph of intense writing, anything that jumps out at you, something that doesn’t sit well, or you have no idea where it came from. Now, rewrite it for the beginning of the next paragraph and go from there for another minute or two of intense free-writing. Rinse and repeat once more, and however many times you want after that. Basically a 'go deeper' exercise, each paragraph or two building on the last one. Every writer has their own version of free-writing, and Kathryn’s took it up a notch by starting with drawing and growing it with intense micro-bursts, much like watching a sped-up video of a sprouting bean plant.
I came away energetic and appreciative of the Creative Journal aspect of the workshop. It was more formless, right-brained and less uber-organized, bullet journal left-brain. Kathryn gave the class permission to break rules. Previous workshop teachers I have had had been adamant that rules are cardinal and sacrilege if not followed. One of the major rules she encouraged us to break is the idea of never changing POV mid flow, as in a chapter, or having more than one in a story. Not just character POVs but going so far as going from an 'I' POV to a 'He/Her'. It was refreshing to hear analternative to the normal drone of do's and do-not's and be given a more Why Not! approach. Kathryn Kuitenbouwer knew her subject very well, and you could tell she was having fun while teaching, doing all the exercises, including the dueling dialog, along with us. She answered our questions honestly and with a strong assurance that there is no wrong way, just any way your imagination wants to take you. Allow it to happen. Don't be critical of yourself. And, just get the words flow on the paper. The doodles in the margins are a good thing.
As a side note, when the event was listing ‘different mediums’ to be used, I decided to take along one of my many typewriters. Kathryn promptly laid claim to it and set it up by the fireplace as a ‘line-by-line poetry’ experiment. I can’t say we turned out a masterpiece, but it was fun as people took turns and added their own lines to the crazy poem. And Kathryn has since acquired a typewriter of her own.
I’ve been asking myself different versions of the same question for years: “Could I make money from my writing?” You know, write as a side gig?
Although I’m grateful for the modest sums I receive from my writing, I return to my day job to really pay the bills. Writing for (more) money remains a bit mythical, an idea that generates more questions than actual dollars.
For freelance writers Graham Strong and Bonnie Schiedel, writing isn’t just a side gig, it is their day job. At a NOWW workshop held at the Waverley Library on March 20, 2018, Strong and Schiedel shared their best advice on how to make money from freelance writing, answering some of those many questions in the process.
Although Strong and Schiedel both make their living from freelance work of various types, they’ve taken very different routes to get to that point, proving that there is no “one size fits all” solution to breaking into the industry.
Schiedel was introduced to the world of magazine writing while working for Chatelaine in Toronto. Her articles have appeared in many of the consumer magazines we think of as household staples – Reader’s Digest, Canadian Living, and Best Health. She adapted to a changing economy by writing content for corporations.
Strong’s career began locally by writing for a community newspaper and editing the Robin’s Donuts employee newsletter. Within a few years, with the rise of digital content and internet advertising, Strong had connected with clients all over the world who employed him to write everything from web content to television scripts. Variety is what makes his work interesting. “For me, freelancing is a perfect fit,” he said during the workshop.
As full-time freelancers, being generalists—offering a wide variety of services—has been successful for both Schiedel and Strong. Schiedel recommended specializing in an area of knowledge or interest for writers who are looking to freelance part time. “It’s easier to market yourself if you have an area of expertise,” she said.
Strong and Schiedel quickly confirmed my long-standing hunch that success as a freelance writer requires more than strong writing skills.
Schiedel emphasized accuracy, adaptability, and the importance of having an approachable writing style—one that is easily understood without sounding simplistic. She also cautioned that working freelance does not mean working in isolation. She’s made good use of her ability to work with a team and develop a rapport with interviewees, skills that obviously transferred to her role as a presenter.
Strong emphasized the value of professionalism and good communication. For him, these qualities are even more important than his skill as a writer. He takes deadlines seriously and underscores the need to be self-motivated and to gracefully accept criticism and feedback from clients.
Both presenters conveyed information in a casual and approachable manner, welcoming questions and dialogue with the audience. The fact that they are peers in our local writing community—rather than professionals from faraway cities – made the presentation even more effective. Humour and personal anecdotes added a new dimension to the content of the workshop and to potentially dry topics like negotiating rates and contracts. I was happy to leave with an extensive list of additional resources, not in the form of a stack of handouts, but as a slim business card that directed me online to nowwwriters.ca/workshops.
Strong and Schiedel engaged the audience further by presenting an “elevator pitch” exercise, challenging us to think critically about how we would introduce ourselves as freelance professionals if we had only 30 seconds to do so. For me, the exercise brought another set of questions to the surface – “How do I want to present myself?” and “What skills and areas of expertise should I emphasize?”
Ultimately, I walked away from “Side Gig” feeling that many of my questions about a career in freelance writing had been answered. What surprised me was that I valued the questions the workshop posed—bigger, more career-defining ones that only I have the answers to—even more than the information I’d received. Thanks to Strong and Schiedel, the process of writing for money seems a little less mythical and decidedly more tangible.
Emma Christensen contributes regularly to The Walleye and indulges her love of fiction through reading and writing. She’s currently working on the second draft of a novel. Emma lives with her husband in rural Thunder Bay, where hiking, cycling, kayaking and other outdoor hobbies continue to fuel her creativity.
Wondering if you can get paid for your non-literary writing? Join two career freelance writers, Graham Strong [www.grahamstrong.com] and Bonnie Schiedel [www.northstarwriting.ca], as they talk about the ins and outs of a freelance writing business. Meet the speakers:
Laura Myers Photography.
Bonnie Schiedel is a freelance writer, editor, and content consultant. She got her start in the publishing world at Chatelaine magazine where she worked for several years, first as an assistant (lots of fact-checking, faxes and photo shoots) and then as an associate editor. In 2000, she moved to northwestern Ontario and launched her freelance writing business, North Star Writing. Her award-winning work has been featured hundreds of times in national publications such as Best Health, Canadian Family, Chatelaine, Canadian Living, Cottage Life, Today's Parent, Reader's Digest, Canadian House & Home, and Outdoor Canada. Over time, the focus of her business has shifted to corporate clients, and the research and storytelling skills she honed with years of magazine writing work well in the business world too. For the last six years, she’s been doing content marketing, writing, and editing for top brands and agencies like Bravado Designs, PACE Communications, Green Living Enterprises, Scotiabank, TD Bank, fyp.io, and RE/MAX. From 2011-2014 she was a consultant on the Creative Services team for Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts. And while she still writes lots of magazine articles, she now also writes and edits copy and provides content strategy for blogs, websites, business emails, and apps.
Government and corporate clients include the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines, the Ministry of International Trade and Investment, the City of Thunder Bay, Northwestern Ontario Innovation Centre, Mobile Health Network, the Arthritis Society, St. Francis Herb Farm, BillyYTZ.com, RBC, Toronto Hydro, NorthernOntario.travel, and Nishnawbe Aski Development Fund. She also writes for trade and B2B publications like Grocery Business, Ignite (meeting planning, incentive programs and corporate travel), and Adrenalin (sports tourism). In 2016 she was nominated for a Thunder Bay Chamber of Commerce Business Excellence Award in the Tourism Partnership category. Her passion project, Tbaywithkids.ca, a website about stuff to do with kids in Thunder Bay, just celebrated its first birthday.
Graham Strong is a freelance marketing writer, ghostwriter, journalist, and web professional. He started writing as a professional side gig in 1995, though he has been a writer of one sort or another most of his life. He majored in English at Lakehead University where he joined the student newspaper Argus and eventually became Editor-in-Chief. After university – and a lot of travelling – Graham would get the occasional request to do some writing on the side. Most was free work for friends, but some were paid opportunities. It was through one of these freelance side gigs for a local community newspaper that Graham got a job editing the employee newsletter for Robin’s Donuts when its headquarters were still in Thunder Bay. That led to work with the graphic design company on the account, and eventually other organizations as well. It was about that time that Internet advertising was on the rise, and Graham started getting clients from all over the world including Toronto, Calgary, Philadelphia, Boston, New York, Dallas, Los Angeles, London, England, and Frog Pond, Alabama. Most of those clients are still with him today. He writes in almost every format possible including articles, web content, brochure content, catalogue-like descriptions, annual reports, ads, TV and radio scripts, white papers, PDF brochures, and more. He transitioned to writing full time in 2005. Graham also provides web services including website building for small businesses using the WordPress platform. Not only does branching out like this keep his days interesting, it’s another service he can offer to clients. Recently, Graham officially launched his ghostwriting services, providing professional writing for authors who have a great story to tell, but need someone to help write the book. He is also finishing his first novel, Social Grooming for Higher Primates, which is currently in the beta reader stage. Graham will be looking for publishers and agents later in 2018.
What to expect from the Side Gig workshop: • an overview of skills that make a must-hire writer • the wide variety markets out there • money—what you can make, and how to keep the cash coming in • tested tips on marketing yourself as a writer • our top picks for helpful websites, books, and other resources
Date: Tuesday March 20, 2018 Time: 7:00 pm to 9:00 pm Location: Waverley Resource Library Auditorium Registration: Not required Fee: Free and open to the public
By Jodene Wylie, NOWW Writing Contest Co-ordinator
It’s the beginning of March and Spring is in the air. The temperature dips above and below zero and the snow shows signs of melting. With Spring comes the closing of the 20th Annual NOWW Writing Contest. There’s something special in the air this year. Perhaps it’s because we’ve been doing contests for two decades and we have an exciting set of judges. Perhaps it’s because we have a new category (Historical Fiction) and that we have three prizes being offered in every category (more than in any previous year). Either way you’ve found your way to this blog post and, maybe, you’re interested in participating this year. I hope you do.
First of all – if you’re a NOWW member then entering is free. That’s right – F.R.E.E. So why the heck wouldn’t you? Second of all – you can technically enter ten times and you guessed it – it’s still free. You can enter each category twice. That’s a whole lot of writing goodness.
As for non-members, we want to hear from you too! NOWW is a wonderful community of writers that hosts workshops, readings and contests that teach, support and celebrate writing here in Northwestern Ontario. Entering the contest this year (for the low price of $10) is your first opportunity to get to know NOWW and its community. Come join us for the Write NOWW LitFest on May 5th and you’ll see that community come together and celebrate all the writers and winners who participated this year.
I’m excited about each of our judges. Heather O’Neill (who you may have heard is also judging the CBC’s Short Fiction contest in the Fall) is serving as our Short Fiction judge. She is joined by Ross King and Helen Humphreys who both have made incredible strides in their genres of Historical Fiction and Creative Nonfiction. We are honoured to have George Elliott Clarke who was the Parliamentary Poet Laureate of Canada (!) judging the Poetry category and our own Michael Christie serving as the judge of the Bill MacDonald Prize for Prose (in Nonfiction). These Canadian Greats may read your writing and award you a writing prize. That’s right – you.
I love writing contests because they offer an opportunity to challenge ourselves as writers. They come with a deadline which is something that most writers (myself included) need. They come with word limits and line limits so that we must force ourselves to focus our writing, make each word count and avoid unnecessary details that may not add to our entry. They also come with multiple categories. NOWW’s Writing Contest has five categories that are distinctly different from one another. You may not typically write Creative Nonfiction but perhaps you have a story that’s been floating around your mind and this gives you motivation to step away from your normal style and try something new.
I hope you enter the contest this year. I hope you try something new and challenge yourself. The contest closes on March 31st , so you still have some time to gather your thoughts and start writing and rewriting. I look forward to seeing your entry.
by Joan M. Baril (3rd place winner in the NOWW Summer Flash Fiction Contest)
After the first few years, I never told my husband about the dream. I had seen him wince when I described the garden house. I realized he considered my dream an unconscious reproach against him for our crazy nomadic marriage. Neil is a mining engineer and we travelled the world together. But buying a house was impossible, not in the jungles of Ecuador or the mountains of Tasmania or the deserts of Arizona. So, for twenty-five years, I never mentioned the dream again even though its occurrence, every few weeks or so, gave me a happy-morning feeling.
The dream starts with an ordinary Canadian street and a front garden of foxglove, daisies, and roses. I love flowers. I always attempted a garden wherever we lived. At our mountain house in Kashmir, I grew blue poppies in painted ceramic tubs but abandoned them when we fled the insurrection. The nasturtiums beside our stone cottage in Scotland cheered a drizzly landscape. In eastern Turkey, I defended my plants from wandering goats. In truth, I loved the challenges of life with my handsome, adventurous husband.
As I breathe the scent deep of the flowers into my lungs, I admire the tall, stately house of cream stucco and green shutters. I drift towards it along the garden path. I mount the wide steps, and gently open the front door. All is silent. Sunlight dapples the hardwood floors leading to a comfortable living room with blue Oriental rugs, deep bookcases and pale leather furniture.
Here the dream ends. Happiness flows through me when I wake, ready to embrace the challenges of a new day.
But now, in Ottawa, I’m up early to drive Neil to the airport, his last northern trip. In a month, our wanderings end. Our condo in Vancouver, bought for our retirement years, awaits us.
Halfway back to our apartment, I brake hard. Is it possible? The house is identical. Lacy dawn shadows cross cream stucco, green shutters, and wide welcoming steps. Dazed, I get out and walk toward the garden. The honeyed smell of flowers enchants me. I float up the path.
An elderly woman in a long blue nightdress appears in the doorway, her face contorted, her hand over her mouth.
The spell shatters.
“I know you,” she says, pointing her finger. “You live in my dreams. Year after year, you walk through my garden straight into my house.”
We stare at each other. “Why not come in,” she says with a half-smile, holding open the door. “You’ve been here before. Maybe now you’ll find what you’re looking for.”
I step forward. I’m shaking. My dream has become a mystery, a strange step into another dimension. My Buddhist friends would call it a rare glimpse into “the reality beyond reality”. The early sun brightens, outlining the woman on the steps as fixed and immobile as a figure in a tapestry.
Her hand beckons. I turn and run for the car.
Joan M. Baril is a Thunder Bay native whose stories have been widely published in Canada, mainly in literary magazines. Recently, she placed her sixty-first piece. Her prize-winning stories appeared in the compilations Twenty Miles on Snow Shoes and Canadian Shorts. This year she received the Kouhi Award for “outstanding contribution to the literature of Northwestern Ontario.”She believes Thunder Bay hides many ghost stories still to be discovered. She herself has lived with a ghost, discovered a ghost next door, and found a ghost in her dreams. Joan’s blog, “Literary Thunder Bay”, follows the Thunder Bay literary scene.
by Sue Blott (2nd place winner in the NOWW Summer Flash Fiction Contest)
Yahtzee with you is no longer fun. Drunk and blinded by the stinging smoke from your cigarette, you make stupid choices.
I cry out, “Wait!” but you roll again.
“What?” You rub your forehead, study the dice.
“You had Yahtzee! Five fives. Jeez, Larry!”
You giggle-snort and collapse back onto the couch.
I shake my head, sling the dice into the box, shimmy the lid on. I like winning but not at the expense of watching you spiral into stupidity. Together for seven years and you drink more and more until you flake out, leaving me to stub your stinking cigarette out so our house doesn’t burn down.
Time after time, you remember nothing.
I remember everything.
You exhale. “Let’s play that other game.” Smoke coils towards me like a snake about to strike. “Lists.”
“Lists. Okay.” A game that originated from counselling, a way of sharing and learning about each other. On a deeper level, the counsellor suggested.
I’m delaying going to bed. Why I don’t know. You’ll fall asleep in no time, perhaps in the middle of an embrace so I have to push the weight of you off me, your hand slapping my stomach as you roll over. Not on purpose, of course. That’s a no-brainer for me. Never physical abuse, just a gradual withering of love and respect.
When you choose a list, your favourite, I know I can’t tell you the last thing on mine.
“Hhmmm, let me think. I need tea. I’ll make you coffee—”
“ ’Sokay.” You point to the half-full scotch glass.
“So not okay,” I mumble as I walk into the kitchen, considering my list. The first things are a given. The cats. Marmalade—he’d never make it out on his own with that lame hind leg—then Tinkers and Siam. My journals, photo albums … Once you were my first thing on “A List of Things I’d Rescue From Our Burning House”. You still assume you are.
I know I’m top of your list. I am your list. You’ve never cared much for the cats.
I pour my tea, stir your coffee, my thoughts swirling with the dark liquid. How can I tell you that the last thing on my list is you? Until I can, all we’ll do is play games with each other.
In the living room, you’re sprawled on the couch, your lips strumming to snores. Drool glistens at the corner of your mouth. The cigarette has burned itself out in the ashtray. I watch you, know the peace a mother feels when her child is asleep at last. I cover you with the woollen throw scattered with blue hearts, your favourite from our Maritime trip. I tuck in your toes. You hate your feet to be cold. Leaving your coffee on the table, I carry my tea to bed where Marmalade will have warmed my pillow.
Tomorrow, I think, maybe tomorrow I can tell you the last thing on my list.
Sue Blott just loves writing! She is a member of a few Thunder Bay writing groups. AlthoughSue writes in many genres, she particularly delights in the challenges of flash fiction: how toconvey so much in so few words. Not unlike this bio.
by Lisa N. Jones (1st place in the NOWW Summer Flash Fiction Contest)
“There’s a reservoir in New Mexico,” she says, her eyes searching the harbour, watching the waves as they wrinkle under a heavy sky. “They flooded the area a hundred years ago. I think they were trying to irrigate the desert. Anyways, it was there a long time, and people forgot how it came to be there in the first place. Because really, why would it matter? It was just there.”
I nod absently. We are sitting on a bench at the Marina, watching sailboats tack gracefully out of the breakwater and into the open lake. Against the slate blue of Superior, the sails are stark wings drifting effortlessly. There’s no sense that they are struggling against the chop, even as they pass the lighthouse at the end of the breakwall. It all seems too easy, I think. I shift on the bench, uncomfortable on the hard seat.
”A few years ago,” she continues after a pause, “there was a drought. Not sure why, but it happened. All this water, gone. Must have terrified the locals.”
She pauses again; I wait. I know there’s a reason for this story. The best I can do for her is wait and listen. I am helpless to do otherwise.
“And you know what?” she asks, turning to me suddenly. Her voice is choked with trapped emotion suddenly released, the edges raw and sharp. “When the fucking thing dried up, guess what they found?”
I shake my head; I still don’t understand where this is going. My throat is tight and sore. I will not cry, I think. I cannot cry.
“They found a fucking town!” Her volume rises, her voice almost frantic. “A whole bloody town! No one knew it was there, not for a hundred years. Who forgets a fucking town? It even had a fucking church!”
I shift to face her, trying hard to meet her eyes. All I see are tiny cells, moving slowly but relentlessly, shape-shifting, gathering, splitting, attaching themselves to any available surface. For her, it is her pancreas. Terminal, they said. Treatment will prolong life, but not give any quality. Time to make decisions.
The tears fall freely down her cheeks: she who remained calm in the doctor’s office, thanked the oncology team, walked with quiet poise as we left the hospital. Now comes the wave of despair, and her words are gasps between sobs that grow louder.
“It’s not dying that scares me – I get that. I just don’t want to be forgotten. Promise you’ll never forget me.”
What can I say? I will always remember her voice? Her face will stay fresh in my mind? As long as I live, I will tell her story? It’s not enough. In this moment, I can promise nothing, so I nod, my own tears uncontrollable. Her head sinks as the sobs come harder, and I hold her, shaking with my grief, as we watch the water begin to rise slowly, steadily.
Lisa N. Jones:Born and raised in Dorion, Lisa has been a teacher for 30 years. She currently teaches International Baccalaureate English and Philosophy at Churchill High School. Along with four cats, three deer, and at least five raccoons, Lisa lives in Shuniah with her husband and daughter. Reservoir is the first piece of writing she has ever entered in a writing contest.
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.
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.
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.
(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:
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.