How to give like a writer


Silk’s Post #113 — I always get a little misty when I hear Christmas carols. I think the sound of music is directly hard-wired to our memory banks. I can’t hear “The Little Drummer Boy” without choking up.

It transports me back to a cold, crisp Long Island night years ago. We’re bundled up in boots and scarves, music sheets in hand, the big fir tree in the town plaza winking with coloured lights, singing our hearts out. It’s probably a composite memory, a montage of Girl Scout carolling, school concerts, the car radio in the background of holiday double-dates, the soundtrack for trimming the tree on Christmas Eve.

Age of innocence stuff.

What I especially loved about “The Little Drummer Boy” (written in 1941 by Katherine Kennicott Davis) was its magnificent humility. It was, and is, my favourite carol by far. As all know, it’s a story set in the Christian nativity scene, where a poor drummer boy, who has no gift to give befitting a king, is asked to play his drum as his tribute to Jesus. No gold, frankincense or myrrh. No angels with golden trumpets. No soaring religiosity. Just a kid who knew how to play a drum. That was his gift.

What it means to me is this: if you have a gift, share it. 

This multi-faith season of celebration seems a perfect time to think about what everyone with a gift for writing can share with others. Maybe it’s something you can wrap up and hand to a loved one, or maybe it’s something you can give to many people over time. But if you are lucky enough to be a writer – to be a lover of words – then it’s worth thinking about how you can proactively share your gift with others.

You know I’m going to have some ideas on this … so here are 8 great ways to share:

1. Give books to kids.

If you have children or grandchildren or nieces and nephews, make sure they have books to unwrap every holiday season. Start, if you can, before they know how to read. Engage the adults in their lives to read to them, to make sure they fall in love with storytelling. As they grow, keep their library shelves full. Find out what kids at their age level are reading now. Challenge them to read up a level. Introduce them to the classics. Feed them non-fiction that expands their understanding of the world. Keep them engaged in reading, from nursery rhymes up to YA fiction. Give video games and sports and other time-sucks a run for their money by making sure kids have every chance to become life-long readers. And maybe even writers, someday. (Of course, giving books should be at the top of the list for friends and family of all ages!)

2. Be a volunteer writer.

Every single non-profit organization in the world needs to communicate. Whether they’re raising money to cure cancer, recruiting volunteers for community service, or reporting to members about events, these organizations all run on networks. And words are the glue that hold those networks together. Hey, it’s not literature. But writing is essential to meeting the goals of all these groups. If you have a gift for writing, you can contribute hugely to the success of whatever organization you wish to support. And you also get the opportunity to prove that newsletters can be entertaining and effective, that volunteer-run websites can have pro-quality content, and that even email blasts can be worth reading. And you thought writing a novel was challenging?

3. Write something for someone you love.

Okay, we’re writers. We all want to be read – preferably by millions of people. But sometimes an audience of one is the most important of all. The obvious example is literature’s rich trove of love poems, but there are many other gifts of writing you can give to people you care about. Write a story for your children or grandchildren. Write a family history or a memoir for the generations to come after you. Write about a trip or occasion shared with friends. Now add pictures. Now publish it using iPhoto or Shutterfly or Snapfish – there are lots of resources that are extremely easy to use and economical that allow you to create and print beautiful one-off books of memories. These books are incomparable gifts from the heart.

4. Write book reviews.

In this digital age, when many books are e-published and purchased online, reviews of books by readers are critical to commercial success – especially for writers who self-publish or aren’t yet famous. That’s why so many writers are constantly on the search for reviewers beyond family and friends. Taking the time to write thoughtful reviews of books for websites like Amazon and Goodreads, or on your blog (or someone else’s), is a gift to the author and the writing world as a whole. Reviews written for the wrong reasons – gushes of false praise for a friend’s book, or undeserved and destructive criticism to satisfy some weird urge – do not count as real gifts (at least according to me). But writers who are generous with each other in providing sincere and intelligent reviews online will be rewarded in kind.

5. Write for other writers.

There’s an incredibly rich array of great writer-to-writer blogs (this will be a topic for a future post). Generous writers who share what they’ve learned with other “emerging” writers are creating a new kind of community. We’ve tried to do our bit with 5writers5novels5months, and our purpose has evolved over the past couple of years. It began as a bit of a madcap writing adventure when we challenged ourselves to each write a novel in 5 months, back in 2012. The blog idea was something of an afterthought. Maybe we could engage people to follow our progress. Maybe they’d like to read our resulting books. It was fun. But what we learned from the exercise was that the act of blogging became an education in itself. Instead of our readership disappearing after our 5 month challenge, it continued to grow as we kept writing about our successes and failures as we pursued the dream of becoming published writers. And from our comments, and the great online friendships we’ve made with other writers, we know that, as we’ve shared what we’ve learned, we have also helped others. Even if you don’t blog, your comments on others’ blogs contribute to this community, so join in the conversation.

6. Get involved with literacy.

There are literacy organizations in many communities, from big cities to small villages. Wherever you are, you can probably find an opportunity to volunteer to help promote literacy – and thereby reading. Remember, without readers there’s not much of a market for books (or any kind of writing). And what a sad world that would be. There’s a historical name for it: The Dark Ages. Whether you can teach, coach or contribute in some other way, consider getting involved with efforts to promote literacy. It’s one critical issue in which all writers have an obvious stake.

7. Teach and promote the writing arts.

Hundreds of writers’ conferences, workshops, festivals, organization-led events and other activities are held every year. Often, speakers and workshop presenters are paid. Often they also have some skill, service or book to promote. Wouldn’t you love to get to that elite point in your writing career? Sure. So would I. But these folks are likely not getting rich at it. And there are thousands of other contributors to activities that promote the writing arts who volunteer their time backstage, or provide workshops or presentations without pay. (A great example is the Surrey International Writers’ Conference, with their amazing team of volunteers). Do you have a teachable experience, a skill or some advice that would help develop better writers? Look for an opportunity to share it (and be prepared to spend probably more time than you ever imagined developing a great program).

8. Share your library.

And by “share”, I pretty much mean “give away”. If you’re like me, you’ve already run out of room for the ever-growing lifetime collection of books you’ve got squirrelled away in every possible corner of your house. And perhaps basement, garage and attic. I’m long overdue for a big book giveaway. Okay, I can’t part with many of them for various reasons, both practical and sentimental. However, hundreds of books sitting on my shelf are doing no one any good. Books are meant to be read, not stashed. So join me in finding a good channel for sharing … and purge. It might be a fundraising book sale, an organization that promotes literacy, or some sort of local library. Get your previously-enjoyed books in circulation and you’ll be promoting reading. Always a good thing.

Like “The Little Drummer Boy”, writers have a unique talent to share. While our main focus is, and should be, sharing our own stories in published form, there are other ways to give that can make a real difference.

And here’s an absolutely knock-out a cappella version of “The Little Drummer Boy” carol by Pentatonix. Give yourself a gift – and a lift. Click on the link.

Happy holidays to all!


We may delay, but time will not

Helga’s Post # 97:  So said Benjamin Franklin, as if to remind us we have scant time left to get organized for Christmas. To make it worse, here at Canada’s west coast, we are battered by storms and daily rain warnings as if to punish late shoppers fighting their way through throngs of fellow shopping-procrastinators. An ugly scene at best in my part of the world as you can see, especially if you have to be out and about.IMG_1230

For those of us who have been better organized and shopped early, or better yet, let their fingers do the shopping with on-line orders and gift-certificates, or best yet, have resolved to forego gift-giving altogether and donate to charities in the name of family members depending on what matters most to them. So here is what I might do: My granddaughter loves dogs (as do I). Instead of buying her ‘stuff’, perhaps I will donate to the SPCA in her name. My son will find a thank-you letter and receipt for a donation to the Food Bank (he is a chef by profession). Just a thought. Of course, with a nod to tradition, there will still be a few ‘real’ gifts under the tree but it will send the message that Christmas is about giving, not getting.

One thing is for sure: I refuse to line up at the malls for those few ‘real’ gifts. Time is too precious. Rather, a click on Chapters’ website checkout button is so much easier and efficient. Books to be delivered directly to a recipient, gift-wrapped if I am in a generous mood.

And shopping from home frees up time for more meaningful projects. The gift of ‘time’ is one of the 10 gifts for writers if you followed Paula’s last post. Time is No. 7 on her list to be precise. For me, it’s Number One, hands down. No surprise there as anyone of a certain age can attest to, or when health issues suddenly put ‘time’ into sharper focus. For all these reasons lineups at busy cash registers are not on my pre-Christmas to-do list. Not this year. Not next year either if I can help it.

What IS on my to-do list however is writing. Not exactly a revelation given that I am a self-proclaimed writer. While the last few months have put a huge dent into my resolution for daily writing, I commit to pick it up again. It has been far too long since I actually wrote a chapter of my new novel. Here is the good news: I have done a lot of plot outlining and character development. Sadly, the result of all this work is not residing on my hard drive, but in the recesses of my brain.

So, the challenge for me is to retrieve my virtual manuscript from its cluttered storage and save it from vanishing into thin air. Meaning, get the darn thing on to my MacBook and stop messing about in my head.

Easier said than done. Time is only one ingredient to make real writing – the type you can share with other humans – happen. Frame of mind is another. Crawling out from under a dark cloud of fear when illness strikes a loved one leaves scant room for the mind to go elsewhere. But when a tiny patch of blue appears, voila, things start to look quite different – in a good sort of way.

While the last many weeks have yielded little opportunity for productive actual writing (not the brain-only kind), I feel the writer’s itch (sort of the opposite of writers’ block) starting to demand attention. A tiny voice to be sure, begging to be heard, but it’s stirring nonetheless. It started with – what else? – my main character and main secondary character. I feel as if I know them well by now, as if they are members of my inner circle of acquaintances. Not directly – some of their attributes are conveyed to me via third parties, but their shape becomes clearer by the day and week.

My objective over the holidays, which will be a quiet season this year, is to carve out some serious writing time. To try and make up for the rollercoaster non-productive time that kept me from doing what I love most. Having moved to a condo from a big house also frees time. Lots of it in fact. An added bonus is our vast view over the mighty Fraser River, which seems to have a positive impact on my writing. It feeds my imagination. As Silk reminds us in her last post, “Imagination is everything. It is the preview for life’s coming attractions.” — Albert Einstein. IMG_1176

Achievements since last post:

Books read: One (in progress). Will Ferguson’s excellent novel ‘419’. Entertaining, plus lots of ideas for my new novel.

Pages written: 0.5 (Opening paragraphs of opening scene)

Chapters planned (in head): at least 4

Early Christmas gift received: iPad Air 2 – an awesome gadget

Early home improvement gift: Nespresso machine. Best coffee ever (Starbucks eat your heart out)

Early best Christmas gift: Hope –at the minimum, guarded optimism

I am a writer of fiction. I have to believe that sometimes miracles do happen.

To all you writers out there, Happy Holidays!IMG_1237

Balancing writing and research

Joe’s Post #123

fireworksOk, here’s the good news. I started my novel. The bad news, it’s still a challenge for me actually writing and not bogging down in research.

I know, big surprise, right?

I did, however, come up with a solution, but first, let me give you an idea of the problem.

bridgeSo my character crosses a bridge in Amsterdam. What did the bridge look like? I looked up maps of Amsterdam, then old maps, then 1940’s maps, then I tried to find pictures, then I tried to find pictures from 1940, then I tried to find a detail that I could haul out, then I tried to link that detail to my character’s past which lead to looking up bridges in Chicago, which led to pictures of bridges in Chicago, which led to looking for 1940’s pictures, which somehow led to research on the districts and areas the gangs controlled.

After about 2 hours, I wrote a sentence.

Next week, I’ll talk a bit about research and details, or how much is too much, but it was clear after writing that one sentence in 2 hours (and not even an amazing sentence at that), if I ever hoped to get this novel done, I would have to find way to balance off research and writing.

A part of it was that I was rusty at writing. Yup, flaking-orange-rust-rusty. It happens. It’s like anything. You don’t practice enough, and it’s all kinds of hard to get restarted. Like getting back to exercise. Or getting up at 5am for morning hockey practice.

rustyThe only way to get over being rusty is, wait for it…. Practice. Again, big surprise right?

Sounds like I have a serious case of Captain Obvious, but it’s something that’s easy to forget. It’s like you know you used to be able to run around a football field chasing a ball and god bless us, but we think we can do that again after 20 years of sitting on the couch. Or think of starting a car after it has sat in a field looking picturesque.

So I’ve dedicated myself to writing every day, again. Even at the expense of research. I’m going to try to get that flow back. I’m going to bang off the rust.

It won’t be pretty. And that research-Gollum still clears its throat when it thinks I need to stop and look something up.

Hey, it’s fun to look stuff up. Oh sure, it can be frustrating at times (due to either lack of skill on my part or lack of information in general), but it’s so cool when you find pictures of an old Kirk (not captain Kirk, an old church) that could be a part of your story.

It’s a reward. And we do love rewards. Even us writers.

Hence my new strategy has a twist, a way of not bogging down – I underline something and leave it for later.

So what if I write ‘bridge’? I can look up the details later. If it’s even needed. Hey, sometimes it’s ok to just write ‘bridge’. With that in mind, I can underline cigarettes and look up what the Dutch smoked in the 1930s. I don’t have to know right now. I can plunder pinterest at a later date to find pictures of Dutch prostitutes.

It can all wait.

Really, it can.

It’s all about discipline and focus. I need to get a well-written story done. All I need to do that is to understand and know the basic details of the time. The rest I will have to stuff in a sack, throw that sack in the canal and come to get it at a later date.

Otherwise this novel will never get written.

And I so want to tell this story.


A few questions

Does anyone have a recommendation for a translation program?

How do you decide when to keep researching and when to write?

Best show last week – Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. OMG it’s worth seeing for the special effects!

Book that I’m reading at the moment – In The Shadow of the Cathedral, by Titia Bozuwa. A good book for researching the Netherlands.

Outlines done 0

Pages written on new book  15 (ok, nothing to jump up and down at, but better than 0).

# of new friends made on Twitter  5. Despite the fact I didn’t post anything. I did write 5 posts, so it’s kind of one for one.

Health Mental health took a hit while I dealt with a very painful anniversary.

Best thing last week  Honestly, it was that I got started writing again.

Worst thing – translations of larger Dutch documents is eluding me at the moment. All the programs I’ve tried so far crash my system and make me sad.

And hey, if you like this post, please share it on facebook or twitter or linkedin or just tell a friend.

Top 10 gifts for writers


Paula’s Post #91 —

I have a confession to make.

Sometimes I feel more like a ‘real writer’ than at others. Right now is one of those ‘other times’, when the demands of work and family dictate more time away from an immersive writing experience.

Do you, like me, love the intoxicating rush of finding yourself fully invested and immersed in a new novel? I’ve always enjoyed the ‘beginning’ when I’m just starting out, exploring potential new characters; deciding on settings and scenes that are key to the story; working on plotting, theme and of course everyone’s favourite: research. And no, I’m not being facetious. I love research as much as the actual writing.

But those are the ‘good times’.

What about when you are not caught up in the heady first weeks of plotting your novel. What about when you’ve been at it awhile, and you find, more often than not, you’re contending with the many everyday distractions that threaten to absorb all our writing time: family, work, home, errands and more errands, appointments and other obligations. Not to mention Facebook, Twitter, Google and, at this time of year Amazon.

Perhaps you’ve set a goal for yourself: 1000 words a day? 10 pages a week?

A perfectly modest, achievable goal, but seemingly unattainable when the demands of everyday life and the ever present danger of procrastination rule the writers’ roost.

So what do you do? How do you re-connect with your ‘inner writer’ and recapture that initial giddy enthusiasm that propelled you, headlong, into your current project?

I’m guessing that, like me, more than a few of you are hoping for the gift of ‘time’ this holiday season. But what about the other intangible ‘gifts’ writers so desperately crave? I know for this 5writer, my holiday wish list includes more than a few of these intangible gifts: fresh enthusiasm, motivation, creativity, technique and craft.

Some of these gifts require planning and forethought, some depend on the kindness and consideration of family and friends. But the quest to re-discover your inner writer can be enjoyable and achievable and something you may want too may want to ‘wish for’ this holiday season.

So, here, in no particular order, is a list of my own top 10 gifts for writers. Some are presents that you can give to yourself, others, you may need to enlist the generosity of family and friends. But don’t you deserve at least one or two of these little gifts this holiday season? Even if, like me, you’ve been more naughty than nice?

1. The Gift of a Writers Group.

We 5writers would be lost without one another. After every meeting we come away with new insight, new perspective, new resolve. If you are not yet in a group yourself, I urge you to join an existing writing group or critique group. Failing that, why not form one of your own? It is not hard as hard as it sounds. With the help of social media, you can find other writers in a similar situation. If they are anything like my 5writer colleagues, you’ll also find  the gift of four new friends, for life. How great is that?

2. The Gift of Books.

Okay, so maybe this one is too easy. But if you are on someone’s gift list this year, why not ask them to skip the chocolates and bath soap and instead offer you the ‘gift’ of a writing book? There are many favourite authors represented on the shelves of the 5writers: Donald Maass, James Scott Bell, selected offerings from the people at Writers’ Digest. I’m sure you’ll find one to re-kindle your imagination.

3. The Gift of Travel.

Do you have an exotic setting for your new novel? If you do, and assuming it is not some imagined, dystopian universe, maybe it is time for a road trip? Nothing spurs the creative juices like travel, especially if the destination is intrinsic to your plot. I know 5writer Joe is longing for Amsterdam, but how about you?

4. The Gift of Experiential Activities.

We are writers. We ‘imagine’ things. But our craft demands that no matter what our imagination envisions, it must be compelling and believable. This is especially true for crime writers. So what are you waiting for? Get off your duff and get out there, don’t just sit in your office playing solitaire or doing the NY Times crossword puzzle every day. If your hero drives a twin turbo, supercharged Bentley Continental GTS, don’t just look at a pic of it on the internet. Head out to the dealership and take a look for yourself. Maybe they won’t let you actually test drive it, but you’ll at least get to explore the touch and smell of the buttery leather seats and maybe sit in the driver’s seat and check out the instrumentation. Or maybe you need to try skeet shooting, or downhill skiing, or bungee jumping (hey, this is your book, not mine). My point is that, to be a better writer, don’t just make it up. Try it out! Not only will your writing be more authentic, the thrill of the ‘experience’ may also inspire fresh enthusiasm to make the scene the very best it can be.

5. The Gift of Writing with all Five Senses.

And that brings me to this 5writers number 5 on the writers’ holiday gift list. How many of you are writing a book set in an exotic locale? While we can’t all jump on the next plane to Bangkok, nothing is stopping us from finding the most authentic Thai restaurant in town and sampling a few dishes. Maybe chat with the waiters too. Who knows, maybe you’ll find a ‘source’ who can provide advice and insight into the setting for your story. Who knows what you may turn up. Since this is the season of ‘eat’ ‘drink’ and ‘be merry’, I can think of nothing more fun than sampling some of the exotic, enticing dishes featured in our novels. You don’t need to be writing a culinary novel to bring a scene to life with the bustle of a busy kitchen, the fragrance of the spice cabinet, the flavours of an exotic locale. Imagine Ian Fleming writing a Bond novel, perhaps he was inspired by his own ‘shaken, not stirred’ martini. Remember the five senses and get out there and find some inspiration.

6. The Gift of Laughter.

Where do you think comedians get their material from? Sure, some make it up, but most have, yes, you guessed it, writers behind their repertoire of jokes. Writers who squirrel away little nuggets for use at some future date. Your novel may not be intentionally comedic, but even serious novels can benefit from the interjection of humour. Maybe it’s time to go on the hunt and mine some of these nuggets for your own treasure trove. You don’t need to use them now, but isn’t it nice to know they’ll be there for you ‘someday’?

7. The Gift of Time.

Okay, maybe I should move this to the ‘last but not least’ category. Suffice it to say, we all think we could use some more time for our writing. But what’s stopping you really? Are you actually going to sit there and tell me that this past year you didn’t spend an inordinate amount of time on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Linkedin? If not, congratulations, you’re the only writer I know who is able to avoid the distractions of social media. But what if you unplugged for a day? Or better yet a weekend? Or a whole week. How much writing could you get done if you had more time?

8. The Gift of Permission.

And that brings me to a gift that will ensure you have even more quality time for your writing.. You see, I’m a bit of a ‘binge writer’. I need lots of undisciplined procrastination for weeks until guilt threatens to overwhelm me. Then, all of a sudden, Jupiter aligns with Mars and the Moon is in the Seventh House and I’m happy to write like mad. But what provokes these bursts of productivity? Often, it is the mere ability to escape from the demands of everyday life. To toss my usual ‘to do’ list of everyday chores and instead give myself permission to turn to work from a ‘To Do’ list with only one task inscribed: Write. So, this holiday, give yourself permission to leave the dust bunnies under the bed. You can revisit them after you’ve typed ‘The End’.

9. The Gift of Acceptance.

Are you a perfectionist? Have you re-written chapter one so many times you sometimes find it hard to figure out which is the most up-to-date draft? How about you just accept that at some point in the future you’re likely going to get a chance to re-write it in the future and for now, just move on. Write chapter two, and three and four… get to the end of the book and type ‘the end’. Only then will you truly know why and how you need to fix Chapter One.

10. The Gift of a Published Book.

Isn’t this the ultimate gift? The writers’ Holy Grail? But how do  you get there from here? Perhaps you’re discouraged, a thick file of rejection letters tucked away in a file on the floor of your closet. Maybe you didn’t even get that far, afraid to submit your manuscript to traditional publishers for fear of more rejection. But maybe it is time to publish that book yourself? Let’s look at the story of Amanda Hocking. In the spring of 2010, Ms. Hocking was discouraged. Her novels had been rejected, not to put to fine a point on it, by everyone! She was broke. So broke, she couldn’t even afford the gas money to drive to Chicago to see an special exhibition on, of all things, ‘The Muppets’. So, what did she do? She dug out her big file of unpublished novels, determined to self-publish on Amazon and make just enough money to go see ‘The Muppets’. She had a small, achievable goal. What she didn’t expect was that, after all that rejection, her books would end up so wildly successful. By January 2012, in a space of just 20 months, Hocking has sold 1.5m books and made $2.5m dollars. In less than a year. Just because she wanted to see ‘The Muppets’ and had the courage to ‘take a chance’ to achieve that goal.

What about you?

What’s on your list of ‘Gifts for Writers’?

Imagination lessons


Silk’s Post #112 — We don’t take imagination seriously enough. Maybe it’s because we’re born with imagination and don’t have to go to college to acquire it. In fact, imagination is most obvious and charming in childhood, like dimples and a button nose. Then, as we mature, we’re supposed to trade imagination for reality.

No, thanks.

There is nothing childish about imagination. The idea that children live in their imaginations because they haven’t yet learned to distinguish fantasy from reality may be true in one sense, but the implication that imagination is not a vital, life-long skill is profoundly false. Especially for a writer.

Don’t just take it from me. Some of the greatest minds in history have had their say:

“Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine and at last you create what you will.” — George Bernard Shaw

“Imagination rules the world.” — Napoleon Bonaparte

“Imagination is everything. It is the preview for life’s coming attractions.” — Albert Einstein

“You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.” — Mark Twain

“Imagination creates reality.” — Richard Wagner

“You can’t do it unless you can imagine it.” — George Lucas

“Fiction reveals truths that reality obscures.” — Jessamyn West

“Imagination is the eye of the soul.” — Joseph Joubert

“Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were, but without it we go nowhere.” — Carl Sagan

“An idea is salvation by imagination.” — Frank Lloyd Wright

“I imagine, therefore I belong and am free.” — Lawrence Durrell

Imagination is an intellectual need, a driving force, an essential enabler of the learning process, a pathway to inspiration. One way to think of it: imagination is needed to make sense of perceptions.

Yet many of the “real world” lessons we learn as we grow up to become “productive members of society” encourage us to colour inside the lines. Follow rules. Be practical. Yes, there’s lip service paid to imagination and creativity, to “thinking out of the box.” But ask yourself: in most fields, how often is the exercise of imagination really welcomed and rewarded? Not enough, except at the elite level of industries that are, by nature, driven by creativity and innovation – notably the arts and sciences.

Progressive cultures have begun to recognize the value of imagination – sometimes characterized as “right brain”, or non-linear, thinking. A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink offers an encouraging perspective on this trend. Yet the literature on “imagination” still tends to examine it through a psychological lens, with a focus on pathology. In this model, too much imagination equals a break from reality. Otherwise known as craziness. Okay, settle down all you mental health professionals. I imagine I’ve oversimplified this. But my point is that a vivid – even wild – imagination can be a powerfully positive thing, so let’s not give it a bad name.

“I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” — Albert Einstein

In fact, for most of us – especially writers and other artists – imagination needs to be cultivated and polished, lest it dull with the relentless abrasion of reality’s day-to-day grit. This is not a “nice-to-have” option, or a parlour game. Imagination is a vital aptitude that creative people need to take seriously.

Realistically, you can’t be a writer if you don’t have a healthy, limber, well-functioning imagination. It’s more essential than any other skill when it comes to storytelling. It’s what allows you to empathize and get into the skin of your characters. It’s what compels you to ask the “what if?” questions that grow into a plot. It’s what allows you to “symphonize” (a great conceptual term from Daniel Pink, which means the ability to put together many pieces in a pattern and see the relationships between them). It’s what inspires themes and metaphors that bring depth to your story.

So, yeah. You need to exercise your imagination, just like a muscle.

“Imagination grows by exercise, and contrary to common belief, is more powerful in the mature than in the young.” — W. Somerset Maugham

“Imagination does not become great until human beings, given the courage and the strength, use it to create.” — Maria Montessori

“Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and, therefore, the foundation of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.” — J. K. Rowling

“Love what you do and do what you love. Don’t listen to anyone else who tells you not to do it. You do what you want, what you love. Imagination should be the centre of your life.” — Ray Bradbury

“Imagination is like a muscle. I found out that the more I wrote, the bigger it got.” — Philip José Farmer

And to rest my case on the topic, I love this simple observation, which is also a wonderful call to action for writers who want to get in touch with their imaginations …

“Children see magic because they look for it.” — Christopher Moore

Managing the middle

Karalee’s Post #98

I’m well into the middle of writing my new murder mystery, and I must say that the muddled middle really doesn’t need to be so muddled.

I’ve written a few books on this journey of mine. It takes dedication and lots of exploring and, well, writing to learn this craft well enough to become a published author of an awesome well-written story.

Until now writing the middle seems to have gone one of two ways for me:

  1. I’ve rushed all my plot points so I get to the climax and head towards the ending without enough substance to hold the book together.
  2. I’ve written myself into a few corners, make my way out, and then circle around a bit until I feel quite lost.

This isn’t all bad by any means, but rather part of the process of learning how to write an entertaining and engaging story. This time though, my writing process feels quite different, and there are a few reasons for this:

  • My knowledge of the craft of writing has improved. I understand my weaknesses more, and writing those hundreds and hundreds of thousands of words do count!
  • I’ve had experience thinking through my plot-lines and characters and have tried different methods of outlining – from a few bullet reminders to full blown scene-by-scene lay-outs.
  • I’ve found a method of outlining and writing that works for me. I can be creative and keep track of what possibly should happen, what is happening, and what possibly still needs to happen. I’m finding that outlining with what possibly can happen leaves enough doors open for my creativity to work its magic without feeling stifled.

What’s working for me is:

  • Routine. Keeping to a writing schedule without interruption from social media in particular has added immensely to my productivity. No surprise here, other than how difficult it is to keep to my routine!
  • Mind mapping. I use separate ones for developing: characters, character relationships, plot lines, and then a combination to build the story. I’m very visually oriented, so this is a fast exercise for me compared to writing my ideas out long hand. I am fortunate to have wall space in my office to pin up my maps and have reference to them. I also print out and post pictures that are a look-alike of my characters to refer to as I write. (My office is an interesting place to visit.)
  • reviewing in the middle: I’m STOPPING myself for a breather before the climax to make sure I’m staying on track. At this point, by reviewing all the scenes I’ve written, I can update my notes in my table outline. Inevitably things will have changed since the initial brainstorming since my characters “talk” to me and do their own thing their own way. I learn more about my characters, settings, and plot as I write, so it only makes sense that my initial ideas/scene table needs to be updated somewhere in the middle of my story writing.  Where you ask? Well, for me it’s when I am confusing myself in the plot line or I’m stalled and not sure where to continue.

If you think about it, there’s nothing better to jump start the creative process when you are stuck in your writing than to take a look at your scenes and make note of: who, what, where, when and why. Does it all make sense? Keep asking ‘what if’ as you review.

Using a table is invaluable to me to keep track of my scenes, their purpose to push the plot forward, what seeds are planted to follow through on, and other relevant notes such as details that creatively appear and need to be remembered. (they can be added to character sketches later, etc.)

table outline




Who knew that the muddled middle could be a panacea of creativity? It really is a matter of one’s point-of-view, right?

lunch Dec 2014


Our group managed a face-to-face lunch last week. We are spread out more geographically now than a couple of years ago, and I often feel that the organization to get us together is comparable to outlining a novel. Sometimes it seems easier to get my characters where and when I want them to be than get the 5 of us in one room!

There’s nothing like getting together with writers and talk writer’s talk.


Words written in the last 2 weeks:  3,000

Christmas social gatherings attended:  5

Meals cooked:  NONE! Delegating this task so I can fit in writing around the Christmas festivities. Hugs to my family for helping!

Happy writing.

Research – what inspires you to write?

Joe’s Post #122

History is People

soylant greenThe idea that history is people came as a shock to my oldest boy. Sort of like Soylent Green is people came as a shock to Charlton Heston. He (my boy, not CH) thought history was terrible. He hated it.

In part, this is because in school history is about facts. When did the beaver traders first invent beaver pelts? What year did the Romulans build Rome? Where did the Egyptians build the pyramids?

Interesting stuff if you like learning about facts. Certainly valuable in trivial pursuit-type games. But history can be inspiring, and inspiring because of the people in it.

Which leads me to my post this week.

I usually research people by reading about them. I have dozens and dozens of books in my library about historical figures, interesting comedians and odd whackadoodles. But this last week, I spent some time with real people who have actually LIVED history.

It was a transformative moment for me.


I’ll get to that in a minute.

rotterdamSo, yeah, here I am, writing a historical novel set in the Netherlands, circa 1940, and I’ve been gleeful to find old photos, gather up books written about the time (mostly during the German occupation), and find the odd link that reveals some amazing fact I didn’t know.

But the real fun has been talking (or emailing) people who’ve experienced it. Not being a journalist, I’m a little rusty at interviewing. It probably takes me a bit longer to get to the stories and details than someone more skilled or socially awesome.

And, I’ve been surprised that there are people who would rather not talk about what happened. Intellectually, I can understand, like I can understand why some people like cats more than dogs. But deep down, I don’t get it. Good or bad, it’s history. It’s part of their story. If you asked me to talk about my childhood, I would bore you to tears for hours. However, I didn’t see people beaten to death before my eyes or have my house bombed.

So I’m sensitive when someone says they’d rather not talk about something.

anne frankBut what people have talked to me about has made me think about this story in a whole different way. It’s one thing to read Anne Frank. It’s another to talk to someone who’s actually hidden people from the Nazis.

Think about this for a moment. You risked everything. If you were caught, you could be shot, maybe tortured, and your entire family would be sent to a concentration camp (even your children) where they would probably die a very bad death. All it would take would be one wrong sound at the wrong time, a light left on when everyone should be asleep, a traitor speaking to the Germans.

How many of us would risk ourselves today?

For me, it’s that simple bravery that moves me. Not that any of the people I’ve spoken to would think of themselves as brave. In fact, they’d be embarrassed to be called that. But they are.

They risked everything to do something good. Everything.

And that’s transformed my thinking about this book.

dutchThose stories need to be heard. They need to be told.

Because history is not just about the famous people. Hitler. Churchill. Matt Damon. It’s about the lives of regular people as well.



Best show last week – Walking Dead wins again. Spoiler alert. Something bad happens. Wait, that happens every week.

Book that I’m reading at the moment – In The Shadow of the Cathedral, by Titia Bozuwa. A good book for researching the Netherlands.

Outlines done – 0

Pages written on new book  0

# of new friends made on Twitter – 3 (but did manage to create a lively discussion on Linkedin about if research was even necessary – based on my blog of the same title.)

# books ordered for research – They’ve all come in. But I found a great site for finding more information. World History at KMLA

Health - Still hanging in there. Cold gone. Happy to breath again.

Best thing last week – Meet with the 5/5/5 Thursday. Set some serious goals. I’ll write more about that next week.

Worst thing – remains largely untouched and this site needs a bit of work. One more thing to do on a very long list of things to do.

Mary Sue… Who are you?


Paula’s Post #90 – If you’ve been following the 5writers recently, you’ll have noticed the hot topics on our minds these days seem to be ‘research’, ‘character’ and ‘structure’ not necessarily in that order.

To recap, we are all focusing on the new novels we have started, (or plan to start very soon), each of us trying to find a fresh new perspective to the art and craft of writing. For most of us, that means a heartfelt re-examination of the mistakes we’ve made in previous manuscripts (classic and familiar faux pas like ‘the muddled middle’ or the lack lustre protagonist).  For some of us, that means thinking a lot about character and why some of our early protagonists did not come off as compelling or dynamic as we’d hoped they might.

In preparation for this week’s post, I decided that, like it or not, I just had to take a look at my former protagonists to see why my leads had come off well, frankly, less interesting than some of my side-kick’s and villains. This, of course, required not only some soul-searching, but also a little ‘show & tell’. Yes, I’m that brave, (or foolish). I’m going to describe my previous protagonists and, if nothing else, hope you get a bit of a laugh out of this post.

Unmemorable Novel and Character #1

Ms ‘X’?- Yes, I kid you not, I actually cannot recall the name I assigned to my very first mystery novel heroine. Perhaps that says something about how memorable she was (or wasn’t) in my mind. But, although I can’t recall the name of the character that I first created in a universe far, far away, a very long time ago, – I can recall, at least roughly, her back story:

Plot Synopsis:

Disgraced young prosecutor quits her job (or gets fired). She agrees to look for a missing friend who has disappeared from an inn on beautiful Bowen Island, only to end up being hired to be the cook (even though she can’t cook). She manages to pull this off by having several friends cook and bake for her, while buying all the rest at great expense, all the while investigating the disappearance of two missing persons, (one past, one present) on this West Coast cottage country Island. She also finds time to romance the handsome local RCMP officer.

Whoa! – yes, this one was bad! Even I knew it had to go straight under the bed, never to be seen again. No wonder I can’t recall my protagonist’s name. But, for the sake of reference, let’s just call her ‘Nancy Drew, Too!’.

More Memorable Novel #2 – Taste of the Past

Cat Castelli – now, how I love Cat. And so does Helga, my co-author of this wonderful, history/mystery culinary novel that is a self-described cross between Under The Tuscan Sun and Gosford Park. So even though my first novel was so-less-than-memorable-I-can’t-recall-the-protagonist’s name. I do recall dear Cat.

Plot Synopsis – sorry, this one is going to be published, one day. You’ll just have to wait until the book is available via traditional, indie, or online publishing. I will say that dear Cat was a mite more mature than poor Ms. ‘X’ my first protagonist. A sexy forty-something prosecutor with more than a few murder prosecutions in her rear-view mirror. But wait, do you see a pattern here?

More Memorable Novel #3 (Unfinished Novel about Child Prostitution)

Protagonist ‘X’ (again) – my third novel was loosely based on a real life jury trial I was involved in where four adults were accused of coercing 2 underage girls into prostitution. Now, it’s not that I don’t recall the name of the protagonist, (I do, or rather several) – the problem is I could never figure out who the protagonist actually was in this novel. I stopped writing it two-thirds of the way through, when it seemed to be turning out to be mostly a rather depressing YA novel. For what it’s worth, friend and 5writer Helga thought I should finish it, (and I may someday). I think I have enough distance to make it a better book, but I’d still need to find a protagonist in there, somewhere.

Novel #4 – Burnt Cookie (retitled ‘The Poppy Paradox’)

Mila MacKenzie – aka – Mila the Menace, a train-wreck disgraced prosecutor.

Plot Summary: Mila loses her job when she unwittingly consents to bail for a man she later learns is a suspected terrorist. After several terrible, horrible things happen, she actually tracks him to Afghanistan, where many more bad but also exciting things happen and she meets a number of colourful characters in her pursuit to make right what she has done wrong.

Somehow, this book ended up as muddled a train-wreck as Mila. No one in our group has suggested I return and re-write this one, (though I did have a lot of fun – including a great pen-pal relationship with a ‘boots-on-the-ground’ RCMP officer seconded to Afghanistan). Did I mention that by the time I wrote this, I’d switched from the Provincial Crown to Federal Crown and become a ‘drug prosecutor’. See any pattern here?

Novel #5 – Lonely Orchid – working title only.

Protagonist – Kane (John) MacLeod – half Scottish, Half-Hawaiian Police Detective in 1930’s Honolulu.

Plot Summary – Can’t tell you; everyone in my writing group LOVES this novel and wants it to be ‘the one’ I work on as my current project. Problem is, from the feedback so far, everyone thinks my protagonist should not be ‘handsome John’ but his superior.


Novel #6 5writers5novels5months YA Novel

Kaylie – Kaylie is a sixteen year old athletic honour student at an elite military prep school who participates with several of her similarly gifted classmates in a Jr. Navy Seal program.

Plot Summary:  Kaylie and her ‘friends’ discover some disturbing things about themselves and head off cross country on an epic journey/adventure to stop the bad guys and make things right. This is the YA Novel I wrote for our 5writers5novels5months challenge (researched and outlined for 3 months; manuscript written in the following 2 months). No one is our writers’ group is suggesting I revive this novel.

So there you have it.

But why?

Why am I laying bare my soul, so to speak, and revealing my inner-most secrets?

My flawed heros and heroines?

Why am I  holding up these pathetic characters and their equally pathetic back stories for your ridicule and derision?

Why, well to learn something of course!

That what we 5writers are trying to do here. Not just in our writers group, or in this blog, but in all the writing and reading we do each week. And that’s why this week, when thinking about how to strengthen my protaganist(s), I came across a marvellous blog post by Anne R. Allen, entitled 5 Protagonists Readers Hate.

Seriously, this is great stuff, and I commend it to all you fiction writers out there.

Curiously, not being too familiar with ‘fan fiction’, I’d never even heard of a ‘Mary Sue’ before reading Ms. Allen’s article. But guess what? I recognized the ‘pitfall’ and that I’d fallen into it on more than one occasion.

According to the Urban Dictionary:

A Mary Sue character is usually written by a beginning author. Often, the Mary Sue is a self-insert with a few “improvements” (ex. better body, more popular, etc). The Mary Sue character is almost always beautiful, smart, etc… In short, she is the “perfect” girl. The Mary Sue usually falls in love with the author’s favorite character(s) and winds up upstaging all of the other characters in the book/series/universe. 


So, touché, Anne R. Allen, you hit a nerve. More than ever, I’m leaning toward my next protangonist being anything but a ‘bio-copy’ of me and my life. But first, I need to go back and read more of Ms. Allen’s blog, and find out more about Mary Sue and Marty Stu. Not to mention Victim Sue, Warrior Sue, Punk Sue…

How about you?

A very sweet deal

Elfie's baking

Elfie’s baking

Helga’s Post # 96: I found it somewhat challenging to strike a positive note in this post, but be assured I will try to find a few morsels.

Many, if not most of us are busy trolling the malls for bargains to find ‘stuff’ for loved ones and not so loved ones alike, the latter commanding we do so because it’s expected and they will probably show up on our doorstep with a beautifully wrapped box of something smelling of roses or lilies of the valley or some such.

The magic season for our part of the world is upon us with full force. Buy, buy, buy the latest and the greatest. Gadgets on offer are more tempting than ever before. Who could possibly do without a wrist health monitor? For sure, every niece, nephew, grandchild, cousin and respected neighbour has to have one. How could we ever have survived as long as we did without such a thing of beauty? For folks inclined to something a little racier, how about a copy of ‘Let’s Get Naked: Sexy Activity Book for Couples’ for a mere $14.95 from shop.

For those who believe in the gift of reading, (and luckily there are still a fair number of those around), and in the event you are still pondering what to put under the tree for loved ones, AND if you are the kind of reader or writer of those genres, you may get inspiration from the CBC’s list of ‘Best Books of 2014’.

Regardless, for most of us, readers, writers or simply consumer freaks, temptations of every kind abound. Whether we like it or not, time spent on preparing for the holidays takes over a major chunk of our lives. Sure, we may spend a few moments perusing the news flashes appearing on our iphones, such as news about yet more US hostages killed by Isis, and we glance quickly and spend a few moments or perhaps longer commiserating with the families. We may change our shopping plans and decide to pledge money on our loved ones’ behalf to deserving charities. Especially those that work towards peace on earth.

But reality remains. The world, as 2014 draws to a close, is in a huge mess, globally speaking. No, not in our part of the world, thank you very much. Apart from a few little hiccups, US and Canadian stock markets have done very well, and oil can’t drop much further, right? So all is well in our own backyard. We can decorate our house for little money with Christmas lights that could make it look like out of a futuristic movie, and we could, realistically speaking, roast half a dozen turkeys without breaking the bank if that’s what we feel like doing.

But seriously, isn’t that the time of year when we should take stock of what we have been doing all this past year to make the world a better place? Even just a tiny, miniscule bit? Even in our own little pathetic backyard?

There is no shortage of people who have done, and continue to do, exactly that. Even though it’s on a micro-level, taken together, these people are improving lives everywhere, in a most meaningful way.

Take instances of illness. From daily calls and texts of encouragement from friends who find the time in spite of busy days, to flowers and heartfelt messages sent to a hospital bed, and pre-heated soft blankets to ease the chill of chemotherapy while holding the hand of a loved one – all of it counts. Gratitude goes to the countless nurses who offer sincere and never-ending empathy and patience beyond the call of duty and sincere words of caring and hope.

Kindness that knows no boundaries. Family members stepping up to the plate when illness strikes, easing a move to a new place, tool box in tow, hanging favorite paintings and art on the few wall spaces modern condo living provides.

One of the sweetest treats?

The picture above says it all. Home-baked Christmas cookies, prepared by a family member from traditional Viennese recipes of decades, if not centuries, ago. Labour-intensive, sweet and delicious beyond words, sure to ease the side-effects of the strong toxins. I believe that this, together with all the caring and love we have received from everyone, are worthy of writing about in a novel. You know who you are. The plate of delicacies above is a symbol of your love. It won’t make the world a better place, but it surely brings joy where it’s welcome, needed and appreciated most at this time.

Thank you.

Researching no research

Joe’s Post #121

Research – is it even necessary?

Ok, here’s the thing. I’ve always believed in making sure you got it right. Like measuring twice before banging your finger with the hammer. Or ensuring the porn you download doesn’t have a virus.

You know, the important things.

So getting the research right on any novel is very important to me. For my mystery in the California desert, I went down there, stood in the baking sun, tasted the dust, smelled the creosote, listened to how people spoke and even talked to a cop or two.

veniceFor my fantasy novel, I drew on Venice’s amazing history and deliberately stole all the details I remember (or imagined) from when I visited the place.

Easy stuff, really.

This new novel, though, I have some work to do. Holland. 1940. Gosh. The list of what I don’t know is massive. So my research began.

As part of it, I began to read books written about that time. Tamar was one of them, the book I’m currently reading.

Here’s the thing.

It has no world building. It could be England. It could be the 50s or 60s (except for the fact the hero is parachuting into Holland and is afraid of being killed by Germans). The extent of the details are things like, he saw a rook. He went to the Maartin’s farm. She put on a coat. They went into the barn. He turned on the wireless.

Are the German uniforms described? The bikes they ride? The feel of heat after a cold night?

Is anything described through the eyes of the character?

No, not really. He’s almost comatose.

And this book became a best-seller?


Maybe it was the characters.

Nope, pretty standard fare. Nothing outstanding. No real personalities, just, you know, normal people (which is very accurate, historically, but boring as hell).

So, if you pardon my language, what the fuck?

This one is a complete mystery to me. I’d like to show this to Don Maass and say, for the love of God, why did this one sell? I want to know. I really want to know.

But, in the end, it’s a lesson in book publishing. I must remember, I must have this tattooed to some part of my body normally covered by a bathing suit, that this is a subjective business. Someone, somewhere, loved this book, bought it, edited it, marketed it and sold it. Readers loved it. Or at least enough of them for it to do well.

tamarIf someone has read Tamar, please let me know what you thought. Maybe it was something I missed. Like a secret code or something.

For me, however, books like this bother me. I’ve been told that I have to build a world that my readers can immerse themselves in, that take them to another time and place. And that’s why this one bugs me. It breaks that rule in a big way.

It’s like you’ve been told if you’re good, Santa will bring presents. Then you see someone who’s peed on the teacher’s cat and set fire to the Smokey the Bear sign, and HE got a present from Santa, too???


So, let me ask you, is it really necessary?


Best Show Last Week – “Interstellar”. However, it was a movie too complex for my small brain. Event horizons. Black holes. Time dilation. Still, it had moments of sheer brilliance and I hate to say it, but Matthew McConaughey acts his balls off.

Book That I’m Reading At the Moment – Tamar – In a perfect world, I would set this aside and read something else, but my OCD is bad when it comes to my need to finish a book (or movie.)

Outlines done – 0

Pages written on new book  0

#Class taken on blogging - 3

# of new friends made on Twitter – 7 (hmmm, have I neglected twitter? She is such a needy thing, she is.)

# books ordered for research – 1

Health - Better.

Best thing last week – Connecting with people who have been in Holland during the war. More of that this week, and I’ll be writing about that experience next week.

Worst thing – Still be massively confused about It is a serious time-sink to get all the widgets and plugins and and SEOs and themes all figured out.