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Tasty tips and tidbits about the writing life from the students, alumni, staff, and instructors of The Writer's Studio.

Silence reason, take a risk

September 28th, 2012

I had a little “eureka!” moment I’d like to share with you. Something we’ve all been told countless times, but I keep conveniently forgetting. It has to do with the inner critic. Some days, it’s more like a panel of critics, isn’t it?

While working on a story set in Merritt, I felt compelled to write about a country music festival that used to happen there. For the life of me, I couldn’t come up with any rational reason to include anything about the festival in my story. Even a free write on the subject seemed like a waste of precious time.  After a few days, I’d made no progress on the writing, so I put it away. The chapter sat gathering dust for a month, and I was desperate to get back to it, so one morning I coffee’d up and let fly. Wrote down everything I could remember about the Merritt Mountain Music Festival, from the night Johnny Cash played to the “Walk of Stars” and buildings plastered with murals of smiling country stars in the nearly abandoned downtown core.

Out of this exercise came multiple esthetic and thematic ingredients for my piece, and what do you know, the festival itself did find a place in the story. Maybe it will be cut later. Who cares? Self-critique stopped my writing cold, and taking a risk paid off in spades. Duh.

Post by Carleigh Baker (TWS 2012).

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Chart your territory

September 21st, 2012

Writing a memoir can be a daunting task. Research is key, but how do you begin to organize all the information? How do you remind yourself of pertinent points? A list helps, but where to put it?

One way to do this is to use flip chart paper, the kind with a sticky strip on the back so you can throw it on a wall and leave it there. I have several marching across a hallway wall. As I think of different events or learn something new, I add it to one of these papers where I can see it.

Post by Christine Hayvice (TWS 2012).

Photo courtesy of the author.

Get outside!

September 7th, 2012

Ride your bike, lie on the grass in a park, go for long walks around the city or the forest. Visit new places, observe the things you see, jot down some notes. Fresh air and quiet observation are excellent tools for writing.

Post by Laura Matwichuk, a Vancouver-based writer. She holds an MA in Art History from the University of British Columbia and is currently working on her first collection of poetry.

Photo courtesy of the author.

Tips from Southbank: Send it Out

August 15th, 2012

We’re in our final week of the Southbank Writer’s program in Surrey and what a great time it has been. This weekend our writers will take to the podium to read some of their best work before being let loose with their words.

Heidi Greco, who gave us a great class on poetry, has these final words of advice:

Send it out!

No matter how exciting your writing might be, it won’t find publication unless you send it out. And it won’t be accepted once it gets there unless it has the special something that appeals to an editorial board. They’ll be looking for those qualities that make it a match for their particular print or online publication.

Start compiling a list of places that might provide a home for your work. SFU’s library still subscribes to many periodicals. Often, just a look at what’s inside a magazine can help you determine whether it’s for you.

Visit magazine websites, as that’s where you’ll find more examples and – most importantly – specific guidelines for submission. Do they want 3-5 poems? Stories no longer than 2,000 words? Your name on the work – at the top, bottom, only mentioned in a cover letter?

Although many print magazines now accept electronic submissions, not all of them do. And some that do accept e-submissions want the work embedded in a message, not sent as an attachment. Others prefer an attachment. Some even specify a particular subject header. Online magazines are every bit as specific in their guidelines as print ones.

Whatever the process – electronic submission or paper – do it the way they ask you to. If you don’t, your work probably won’t even be considered.

Don’t bug the editorial staff about your work. Many publications take several months to reply.

If your work isn’t accepted (face it, this is the case with most submissions – or magazines would be bigger than phone books), take it as a sign that you should look at the piece again.

Then, when you’re sure the work is the best that you can make it, find another place where it might make a better fit and send it out again.

If you set yourself a goal – and keep it – of always having something (say, three different submissions) ‘out there’ you’ll not only find that the sending out gets easier, it’s likely that your work will be making it into print.

When the day is done

August 3rd, 2012

Sit in your quiet room at night. Take out your pencil and notebook, listen to the clock click. Not so quiet anymore, is it? Begin listening to the sounds that float up in your body. Before they rise up and away, take your pencil, write them down:  wrench, riddle, rust, mantle. Rumble, rent, harbour of bliss. Blunder. Play with the sounds. Welcome them onto the page. Hear the rustling in the background. Get curious. Who’s out there? Why? With whom? Write it all down, let your pencil glide, explore. Take a swig of tea. Sigh. Celebrate. Keep writing. There’ll be time for editing later.

Post by Barbara Kmieć, TWS 2012.

Photo by the author.

Tips from Southbank: Change Hats to Self-Edit

July 31st, 2012

This great tip comes from Caroline Adderson who teaches the self-editing course in the Southbank Writers program:

To most effectively edit your own writing you have to change the way you read and respond to it. You have to take off the Writer Hat. When you’re wearing the Writer Hat your experience of writing, positive or negative, imbues your perception of the text. On a good day, when the words pour forth and the characters are obedient to you, you feel that the writing itself is good. On bad days, when each word you put down seems to fly back off the screen and smack you between the eyes, when your characters ignore you and open doors you didn’t even know were there or lean over and kiss a stranger on the bus, creating implications that you suspect are merely useless tangents, you feel the writing is terrible. A mess. You’re the worst writer ever.

The truth is that the process of writing is completely separate from the finished text. To actually see that text for what it really is, you have to take off the Writer Hat and put on the Reader Hat. You have to engage with the text as it is without the emotional baggage that belongs to the wearer of the Writer Hat, not the story. You have to read it as though you didn’t write it.

Not so easy. The best way to do this is to put the darn thing away. File it. For how long? Six months is a start, but some people don’t have six months to wait. You can speed up the hat-switch by immediately writing something else. This way, you begin to attach to the new text and gradually forget about the other one. When you finally come back to the other after a month or two, the hat-switch is as natural as pulling off the toque at the end of winter and putting on the ball cap.

Image: Flickr.com (creative commons license)

Let it sit

July 27th, 2012

You’ve just spent hours, days or months finishing your first draft. Now, put it away and forget about it. Don’t look at it. Don’t read it. Don’t show it to anyone. Just let it simmer. Give the work, and yourself, some time to breathe.

In a few weeks, pick up your draft and read it. Being further removed from it, you’ll be able to see what works and what doesn’t. You’ll be able to cut redundant sentences, fix grammar mistakes and slash those beautiful lyrical sentences that unfortunately just don’t belong.

Editing is never easy, but putting away your first draft is.

Post by Erica Simmonds (TWS 2012). Erica likes to let her first drafts sit, and has been letting one sit for maybe just a little too long now.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Tips from Southbank: On Writing for Children

July 17th, 2012

Here’s a great tip from Ellen Schwartz, Instructor of SFU’s Southbank Writer’s Program on Writing and Illustrating a Children’s Picture Book:

The great children’s writer Christie Harris once said: “Plot is character in action.”

This sums up what we, as writers, strive to do every time we set out to write a story. What readers – not just children, but especially children – want is an engaging story about characters they care about. What happens to those characters has to spring from who they are – their insecurities, their strengths, their sense of humour, their fears, and, most of all, what they want. Some stories focus more on character development and some focus more on plot, but the best ones intertwine the two in an inseparable marriage.

Image credit: Flickr.com By Foto_di_Signorina

Something to be said for slothing

July 13th, 2012

When I heard published authors joke about spending all day in their pyjamas, I knew I had found a kinship. Later, I would discover that it is precisely this quiet state of doing nothing where inspiration for creative thought emerges. Try lying in bed for a few hours longer than usual in the morning, and think of an area where you are stuck in your writing. You’ll be surprised at how your mind begins to tie the threads together. And, if you are a writer who views sloth as one of the deadly sins, try thinking of it as strategic discipline instead.

Post by K. Lorraine Kiidumae, an adjunct in TWS 2012 and a writer of both fiction and non-fiction. She shares her time between Vancouver and her home in Nanoose Bay on Vancouver Island.

Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Southbank Writer’s Program: On Reading a Poem

July 9th, 2012

We’ve been learning a lot about poetry lately south of the Fraser River. This week Poet Heidi Greco has been offering her insights on process and form. Here is just one of her many tips on reading a poem. If you’re anything like me and sometimes have no clue what it’s all about, this might help…

My friend Bernie is the person who taught me the best way to eat a mango: sitting in a stream, naked. While we don’t always have access to a warm, tropical stream – or the opportunity to get naked in one – his lesson applies to more than justmangoes.

Reading a poem can be as juicy and delicious (and sometimes as messy) as eating a mango.

First reading sees you peeling back the skin, admiring the flesh, taking in the scent of the fruit. Then, it’s bite after scrumptious bite, each one providing a new rush of flavour. The further you poke your face into it, the messier it gets, all those juices dribbling down your chin and between your fingers. And there at the middle, that nugget of almond-shaped pit, worth scraping clean between your teeth.

But, look out. It won’t be long before you find your tongue worrying some thread of mango string, caught between your teeth– a little something to take you back to the experience of enjoying the fruit.

Eating a mango is a whole lot like reading a poem. Both can leave you with something to think about later on. But the bits left behind by a poem are so much less annoying than strings caught between your teeth. Besides, with a poem, you don’t need a stream to wash up in afterwards.