Northshore Wordsmiths is a Burlington, Ontario writing class and critique group composed of novice and experienced writers who meet bi-weekly to share their expertise and passion for the written word.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

8 Questions a Writer Should Consider Before Attempting a Novel

Writing a novel requires commitment. Not only to the writing process, to your agent, editor, critique group, or writing partners; first and foremost, writing a novel requires a commitment to the story you wish to tell.

In an exercise to help writers determine how well they really know the story they wish to tell, I posed the following 8 questions to the Northshore Wordsmiths writing group today:

1/ Living, dead, or imaginary; who is the person you would most like to be, or to spend a lengthy period of time with? While answers ranged from Abraham Lincoln to Mother Theresa to Daisy Duck, each participant gained insight into the type of character they would most want to write about.  
2/ Explain the appeal: The second question followed naturally upon the first and elicited answers that were even more revealing. While I would like to spend time with Daisy Duck because she has a mix of great friends and in her world simple everyday events are exciting, the writer who would choose to shadow Lincoln wanted to learn more about his legendary strange quirks. Elements of theme and detail began to percolate among the group.

3/How would you spend the next year of your life if family and finances were not a concern? By answering this question, writers began to understand that by choosing plot lines and settings that were personally exciting to them, it would be easier to sustain their writing over a lengthy project.   

4/ If you could have 300 of something, what would it be?  One member surprised herself by answering, “dogs”. Do you see a children’s book in her future?  

5/ If you had a staff, what would you have them do? Answers to this question can bring to light those daily activities that steal our time, energy, and joy.

6/What is the most interesting thing you have thought about in the last 3 months? Whatever it is—a stray thought, a news item, or an unusual occurrence—if you found it compelling, others will too.

7/ What is the first thing you remember being curious about? Thinking about this question can bring a sense of wonder to your writing. 

8/ If you had to reread a book a dozen times, which book would it be?  By now you will know what type of story will sustain your interest long enough for you to put pen to paper or fingertips to keyboard until your dream of writing a novel has been realized.   


Friday, September 6, 2013

Ready, Set, Type!

The Northshore Wordsmiths kicked off the 2013/2014 season on Labour Day weekend with the 3-day novel-writing incentive. This was an opportunity to experience an intensive session of free flow writing in a fun and supportive atmosphere.

Members were free to jump-start a new writing project or complete an existing one whether or not they registered for the official 3-day novel writing contest. 

Participants were invited to bring their writing tools, their inspiration or first sentence—“The fridge at work that day held our lunches, a bunch of urine samples, and a severed finger” was mine—as well as their bathing suits, pyjamas and favourite snacks/comfort food.

We convened on Friday evening at 9:00 for a writing stimulation session, and put fingertips to keyboards at 10:21 P.M. resting them 72 hours later, with breaks in between, of course.      

Although my final word count didn't come close to that of participants Bobbie Smith, Diana Walsh, and Jim Shephard, I put in a very productive writing weekend. All in all, a great start to the new season.  

Our hostess, Bobbie Smith (pictured above) gave us the countdown.  

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Sparking the Muse

“Pick it up and write,” I instruct the class as I pass around a late 1930's silver pocket lighter engraved with my mother's initials: I.T.

 “Feel the weight of it in your hand,” I continue. “Run your thumb over the depressed lettering that interrupts the art deco design, flick the thumb-press, and imagine the wick bursting into flickers of white hot flame.”

“Can you catch a whiff?” I ask, “A remnant of butane? Allow the artefact to direct your imagination,” I tell this group of students participating in my Stopwatch-Writing workshop.  

The object feels cold to the touch at first, and then picks up warmth as it is passed from hand to hand. One by one, the members of the class reach for their writing instruments. Soon, the scratching of pens—no clicking of computer keys allowed here—is heard throughout the room.

These advertising-industry creatives know that the best ideas come to them in the middle of the night or on their downtime. Most carry a notebook to the gym, and keep a pencil handy near the bath. Today, they’re learning to provoke the muse during difficult times when the mind won’t co-operate.

Before long, the tactile writing prompt is back in my possession. I examine its decorative monogram: I.T., short for Iris Thomas.

Because I know the story of the birthday-gift lighter that was thrown across the dance floor in a moment of how dare you insist that I can’t dance with anyone but you, my mind’s eye has no trouble conjuring images. I see the men in uniform, hear the big band music, taste the egg sandwiches that have been masterfully prepared by matronly chaperones, anxious about their loved ones heading off to war.

Iris was definitely ‘it’ back then, with five proposals before she married my dad. Hers had been a good decision. “I was fickle,” she used to say, “and it served me well.”  

Mom laughed when she told me how the lighter had come to be dented. We had been going through her jewellery stash one day—a little trip down memory lane we often took together after lunch at Mom’s apartment. “I never allowed anyone to push me around,” said this woman who adamantly refused to accept any secretarial job that involved filing. As I turn the talisman over and slip my thumbnail into the groove of a small screw located on the bottom, I realize that she never refilled lighters either. That was a job for my father.

“Time!” I announce to the class.

I’ve gone back decades as the stopwatch marked ten minutes.

The group shares their inspirations, I pontificate, and soon it is time to leave. “Take a familiar object out of its usual environment and place it in an unexpected setting,” I tell my students, assigning their homework.

Driving home, I look forward to passing the lighter on to my sister. What magic, what images will it conjure for her I wonder. Barely through the door, I place the lighter within her reach. “Remember this?”

Elizabeth, her nose scrunched, shifts the shiny silver object from hand to hand. She tosses it back. “Sure do. One night I snuck in late. Dad was waiting up on the couch, his pillow in flames. Why?” she asks with a shiver.  

“No reason,” I say, and pocket the lighter. “Let me take you out for lunch.” 

Friday, March 8, 2013

Award Nominations for Empty Cradle by Diana Walsh

Empty Cradle, Diana Walsh’s nightmare account of the kidnapping of her infant daughter, has received two prestigious literary award nominations; the Governor General’s Award for non-fiction & the Arthur Ellis Prize for crime writing.
Anyone who has lived in Burlington long enough to remember the kidnapping of a newborn infant from Joseph Brant hospital two days before Christmas in 1993, may remember what they were doing when they heard the news, as well as how they felt the following day to learn the child had been returned to her parents. Stranger abduction in Canada is a rare occurrence, say authors of an RCMP study.  "Each incident, however, tends to shock the nation," says author Marlene Dalley, of the National Missing Children Services. 
This may account partially for the growing popularity of Diana Walsh’s true crime memoir, Empty Cradle, but a good story doesn’t always guarantee a good book. “Walsh is more than a writer with an interesting story to tell, she is a natural storyteller,” says Jim Shephard, co-founder of Northshore Wordsmiths, our critique group where Walsh honed her writing skills. “I’m not surprised to hear that so many groups are making Empty Cradle a book club selection,” says Shephard, author of the P.E.Eyes detective novel series.
While there are still aspects of the event that Walsh finds too sensitive to discuss, in Empty Cradle, she writes openly and honestly about the most excruciating aspects of her ordeal. The public has responded by buying the book—one tea room in Stoney Creek placed an immediate order for 500 copies—and readers are sharing their own hurts with the author through her website.
I sat down with Diana recently to quiz her about the writing process.  
Q: Why did you write Empty Cradle?
A: So many people over the years have wanted to learn the details of my daughter’s kidnapping, but it was too difficult a subject for me emotionally. By writing about it, I was able to give the story a voice without feeling so vulnerable. I can now put the horror of those eleven hours in perspective.
Q: In the book, you touch on the subject of post traumatic memory loss. How did you deal with this as it relates to the writing of your book?

A: Memory recovery is a gradual process. I liken it to opening a filing cabinet. As you slowly open the drawer and remove each file, you focus on individual sheets, and as you do, others fall into place. That being said, I do have a complete 2 hr. blackout period. I don’t remember anything about being moved from the crime scene to another location within the hospital. And, of course, I have relied upon court records and other official documents as well as family members to fill in some of the details. 
Q: Your infant daughter was abducted from the maternity ward of a hospital, a presumably safe environment. What advice would you give to new parents?
A: Be empowered. Follow your instincts. We have a transparent health care system and educational system. Be involved.

Q: Burlington is home to a number of experienced and novice writers. What advice would you offer your colleagues?
A: Prioritize your time and fiercely protect it. Do your research. Join a writers group.  Believe it can happen. 

Northshore Wordsmiths member, Diana Walsh, will be appearing at a Book Lovers Tea:
Date: April 6th, 2013
Time: 2 - 4 p.m. 
Location: St. Matthew's Church
                126 Plains Rd. East, Burlington

Refreshments: First & Forever Cakes

Tickets:$10 - Call 905.220.2762, or email nshephard@cogeco.ca to reserve   

Empty Cradle

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Stop-watch Writing

“Quiet! And smile.”

POOF! Sparks showered everywhere, as the magnesium camera flash exploded in a blinding eruption of light. I slid the sepia slide out of the camera. There she was, one of the first female prospectors and her family. The travels she must have been on; steamboat, bus, dogsled…

What can you create in five minutes?

At Northshore Wordsmiths, we often preface our writing critique sessions with a five minute free-flow exercise using a variety of prompts to trigger the creative process. 

The prompt is presented, the stop-watch engaged, and the class is off and writing. That is, until Jim yells "Stop". The sound of scratching pens turns to sighs and expressions of regret that there is no more time to write; we have each gone to a place of inspiration that we don't want to leave. As we round-table the reading of our work I am always surprised that the prompt has taken us in so many different directions. 

The excerpt above was written by John Wilkinson in response to a photographic image prompt. As in this example, so many of these triggered writing spurts result in quality stuff that we did not set out intentionally to write. 

These can be set aside as fodder for future short stories, or integrated into our major work. So, if you havn't tried this type of triggered free-flow writing exercise, get out a stop-watch and a random photograph or other prompt, and see what you can write in five minutes.