Writing Short Stories: Beginning with Character


In my short story writing classes this year, I started a new approach that’s working wonders. We started with creating the main character, the protagonist and giving that character a problem. I’m going out on a limb and saying that’s all you really need: a character and a problem. You might wonder how that becomes a story. The story comes from how that character reacts to the problem. Usually, you’d think a character with a problem would want to solve the problem. Not all the time. Sometimes, characters will try to avoid the problem or ignore it. Or they will try to get rid of the problem–not necessarily solving it–but hiding, disguising, or pawning it off on someone else. Does that sound familiar? That’s because that is exactly what people do when they’re faced with problems: they try to solve them, avoid them, or get rid of them. There is a requirement before you can even write how your character approaches the problem: you need to know your character intimately–possibly even more than you know yourself. You need to know your character’s traits, which I identify as physical, psychological, and professional. Remember, not all traits are ideal–just because nobody is perfect. All human beings are complex and have one or more shortcomings, flaws, or faults, and this reality should reflect in your characters. Physical traits include all physical characteristics, down to crooked yellowing teeth and a mole on the left elbow. Psychological traits include personality, emotional profile, even personality types. An easy way to get general psychological traits is using zodiac personality traits or look at personality profiles based on different tests (Enneagram or Myers-Briggs are easy to find). You can also include habits and preferences, similar to a slumbook — favorite color, favorite song, favorite clothes, favorite movie, favorite food, and all other favorites as well as any particular dislikes. Professional traits don’t necessarily mean your character is a professional. This is just a way of describing what a character does–and professional can simply be a housewife or househusband, student, or retired navy captain. After identifying your character’s traits, you need to create a biographical history, a background, family, friends, associates, milieu. You need to know where the character grew up, lives, works, studied. You need to know what your character has for breakfast and where he or she gets coffee. Finally, you need to examine your character’s motivations: Why do they do what they do? Why do they think, act, speak, or feel a certain way? What makes them happy, sad, angry? What are they passionate about? Only when you know how your character feels and thinks will you be able to write how your character will react, what your character will do when faced with a particular problem. Then you will have a story.


Improve Your Writing through Observation


Writing is as technical and scientific as it is creative. Yes, even when you write creatively, there is no end to the use of scientific methods. Those of you who remember science classes will recall the scientific method requires (1) observation, (2) questioning, (3) hypothesizing, (4) experimentation, and (5) conclusion or generalization. We use the same skills when writing creatively. How? Let’s begin with observation. Writers observe the world around them, probably more so than any other people. It is from observation that writers find topics to write about. From observation, writers are able to create detailed descriptions of just about anything. How else would you describe the expressions on a person’s face who receives news of a tragedy—the widening of the eyes, the jaws dropping slightly or more, the blank expression of being unable to comprehend, and then the realization of the actuality. You watch people as they react to different situations and then ask yourself: Does the recipient accept the news, understand it, control emotional responses? Or does the recipient break down in shock, express denial, anger, depression, pain, or anguish? What emotions are expressed or shown? How are the emotions expressed? Some emotions might show similar facial expressions and body language but there are universal similarities in the way people react and the way they express emotions. The next thing you do is make certain predictions or guesses. What will the person do next? Why did the person react that way? What about the news affected the person so much? Experimentation might not be a very evident step, but when you explore the different reactions to the same situation, change certain factors—maybe where or when the news is delivered, or who receives the news, or how the news is conveyed—you could come up with several possible situations you can play around with. When you know how your characters will respond and commit that to your story, you will have come to a conclusion. The whole process of creating stories involves the exact same process in a gazillion permutations and each combination will be a different story. That’s why you’ll never run out of stories to tell.

To writers, though their pens lie still (a poem)


…And though their pens lie still and no new stories unfold
their stories will linger forever and be told and retold
their words will stay alive and leap from every page
forever to regale a reader, no matter what their age,
and while they’ll never leave another footstep on the ground
their words will travel far and wide and circulate around
we’ll always hear their voices whispering softly in our heads
we know they will live on and on as long as they are read.

©cindylapeña, 2016

Because we lost so many writers in 2016…


What writers do for the holidays


If you’re like me, you’ll probably be taking advantage of the holiday season to write because it’s a nice chunk off work. Of course, since I’m completely off a regular job, I have all the time in the world to write and paint now, until I find another job. That also means I have all the time in the world to procrastinate. I could make up several excuses not to write or paint: my apartment is a mess, thanks to soon-to-be-gone neighbors; I haven’t decorated for Christmas, although considering it’s two days away, what’s the point in decorating; I’ll be cooking up a storm for Christmas dinner, although considering my apartment is a mess, there’s not much room to debone a turkey, and since all I do is end up eating the same meal every day for the rest of the week until New Year’s, when I’ll probably roast another turkey that’ll feed me until Valentine’s day, so what’s the point, really, of making a huge meal for one person; there are new castle puzzles online and completing them with 500 pieces makes a satisfying couple of hours; I could catch up on tv series and movies I’ve missed and binge watch Fibe On Demand or Netflix; I could try out my brand new Amazon Prime video and catch up on shows that aren’t on Fibe On Demand or Netflix; I could catch up on my reading, finally; I need to finish prepping for my winter courses; I need to clean up my apartment since it’s been a mess for the last three weeks, thanks again to my inconsiderate neighbors; I need to catch up on my advanced courses–and since I haven’t been signing in every week, I’ll need to start all over again just to refresh my memory; I need to resume my French lessons–and since I haven’t touched those books for the longest time, I’ll need to review everything again; I need to update a lot of things on my websites, including adding new content, etc.; I need to continue making and posting online content for sale; I need to make more new crafts for sale; and the list goes on. There are some things I can do at the same time, of course, such as my laundry and anything else; or keep the TV on as I work on my computer–it’s pretty much how I keep abreast with all the shows I want to see; then I’ll watch them all over again because I won’t remember seeing a thing or will forget the stories because I was engrossed with writing or painting. My point is, we writers are probably the most creative people when it comes to thinking of ways to put off writing. Thank goodness for a weekly newsletter that keeps me writing something. It would be just as easy to set it aside, but we don’t want to disappoint.

Whatever it is you decide to do throughout the holidays, may you have the best of the holiday season and wishing you find some time to get a bit of writing in!

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and the Best of the Season to you all!

The Lorax by Dr. Seuss: A Review


The Lorax by Dr. Seuss: A Review

By Cindy Lapeña

*Prepared for Canadian students

What happens when greed drives businesses with no concern for the environment? Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, has once again dealt with a sensitive and important topic in an immensely imaginative story. He is well known for stories like How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Cat in the Hat, among others; and like his other books, this one must be read not just because it is enjoyable, but because it delivers a powerful message we need to learn while we are still very young.

Originally published in 1971 by Random House Children’s Books, Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax was a proverbial warning to care for the environment at the risk of destroying nature. It also suggests that businesses need to assume corporate responsibility for the environment by not exploiting natural resources without replacing them.

The story begins with a young boy seeking the Once-ler on a dank midnight in August in a place that is dismal with polluted air and a wind that “smells slow-and-sour when it blows.” According to legend, the Once-ler is the only one who knows about the Lorax and how it was lifted away one day.

The Once-ler was a newcomer to the place, which used to be a paradise full of green grass and Truffula Trees that bore fruits on which Brown Bar-ba-loots fed. Swomee-Swans flew about singing beautiful songs among clean clouds and Humming-Fish filled the pond.

Discovering how soft, silky, and sweet-smelling the Truffula Tree tufts were, the Once-ler decided to build a small shop to knit Thneeds from the soft tuft. As soon as he finished knitting the Thneed, the Lorax, an unusual-looking creature, appeared, demanding to know what the Once-ler had created and what he intended to do with it. Explaining that he would sell it, the Once-ler immediately sold the Thneed to a passer-by. The Once-ler was happy to sell his ridiculous product so easily and proceeded to invite all his relatives to work for him. He created a large factory to produce more Thneeds. When he wasn’t harvesting quickly enough to satisfy the production, he invented a machine to chop down trees four times as fast.

As the trees disappeared, the Bar-ba-loots lost their food source and the Lorax sent them away to find another place where they would have food. The Once-ler ignored him and continued his production because he wanted to become richer from the sale of his product. He increased production and began exporting elsewhere. Meanwhile, the factory spewed more smoke into the air so the Swomee-Swans could not sing. As a result, the Lorax sent the Swomee-Swans on their way to find cleaner air. Besides polluting the air, the factory produced waste from chemicals and dyes that were used to color the Thneeds. This waste was disposed of in the pond and soon, the Humming-Fish had to go. Each time a problem arose, the Lorax appeared to appeal to the Once-ler, speaking for the trees and the animals, which could not speak for themselves. Wanting only to get even richer, the Once-ler continued until, at last, he cut down the last tree. With no more trees or animals to protect, the Lorax lifted himself through a hole in the clouds and disappeared forever.

Left with no more trees to supply his factory, the Once-ler’s relatives abandoned him and his factory shut down. The Once-ler locked himself up in his tower-like home and never went out or spoke with anyone else except the occasional person who was willing to pay a bit to listen to his story.

In the end, the Once-ler expressed his great regret after having so much time to think about his actions, concluding that the world needed someone who really cared for it to survive. He gave the young boy charge of the last Truffula Tree seed with the advice to plant it, take good care of it and propagate more trees so maybe, one day, the Lorax would return with all his friends and make the place beautiful again.

Even if this book was written in 1971, it is still relevant today because it reminds us that we need to take care of nature. The Lorax represents all those who speak for nature and advocate conservation, while the Once-ler represents big businesses that exploit the world’s natural resources with no regard for the future. The story tells us how short-sighted big businesses are when their bottom line is profit and how that can destroy resources, which, after all, are not infinite. The young boy represents everyone else, especially young people, who need to assume responsibility for nature because without our natural resources, we will have no resources at all and an earth that is not fit to live in. It is especially meaningful today because of global warming and the greenhouse effect. We all need to understand how important taking care of the environment is for human survival. After all, without a world, there will be no humans.


Our Lady of Lourdes Project


This commission is the restoration and painting of a 4-foot high statue of Our Lady of Lourdes that was recovered from a garbage bin.

2016-08-16 17.48.31I was determined to document the whole project with lots of photographs because I always forget to document what I do. This time, I made sure I had lots of photographs, especially since this would be quite a challenge. I took several photographs from different angles. The photo on the left is from the rear, right.

T2016-08-16 17.48.14he next photo to the right show the back, which was rough, dirty, and had several chips and chunks broken from the cape. A rusty pipe also stuck out from the back, most likely an attachment to a fountain. The pipe had to be sawed off, which also took off a tiny chunk more of concrete, but it didn’t make anything worse than it already was.

The photo below shows the left side of the statue, w2016-08-16 17.48.02here you can see a large crack under the left arm. The photo to the right show the full front.2016-08-16 17.47.412016-08-16 17.45.37

This close-up of the face shows chips on the nose, the corroded front, and hollowed-out eyeballs.


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The photo on the right shows how corroded the base is. This is from the left side of the statue.


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The rear bottom of the statue had a hole where the pipe exited; there were bits of rusted metal inside, most of which I was able to pry away. This is worrisome because there’s no telling how much mold and mildew was inside the statue itself.

Panning out a little in the next photo, you can see the chipped cape and pockmarks, most probably from mold as well as pieces of granite falling out from the concrete. 2016-08-16 17.44.522016-08-16 17.44.46










This close-up of the back shows more cracks across the shoulders and where the pipe came out–about 2 inches of it protruding from the back. There are also cracks across the lower part and several chips out of the folds of the cape, as seen below as well.

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August 16, 2016: This is the statue after it had been scrubbed and hosed down. In its original state, it was cracked, moldy, and had layers of old paint. The first phase would involve removing all the loose paint and cleaning out chips and cracks, and smoothening the surface so there would be as little difference as possible between the original surface and the surface where the old paint would not come off.

August 21, 2016: The next stage involved patching up the statue: repairing chips, filling in holes and cracks, and smoothing the roughest parts. This included a little “nose job” as well! I preferred to use my fingers to fill in the cracks with a nice spackle that promised not to expand or shrink. This was important because the statue is going to be put outdoors and expanding or shrinking of the filler could compromise the statue and create worse problems in the future. I’m hoping the product is true to its claim! After the cracks and holes were filled, I applied a sealant to make sure no moisture would get into the really fine cracks and holes left from concrete and granite separation.


August 28, 2016: Finally, the actual painting work could begin! I started with a good primer.

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After the primer, I painted the whole statue white, then applied the base skin color to the face, neck hands, and feet.

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The next biggest swath of color was the blue cape and the sash. I selected a lovely sky blue color for this. I deepened the shadows in the folds of the cape with a bit of purple.

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Then, I decided to work on the base next, painting in the roses on the feet, leaves, branches, and the rock.

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The final touch for the day was a tinge of pink on the cheeks and shaping the lips with the same tinge.

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I planned to work the whole weekend, but the weather was damp and rainy, so I never got to return to the statue that weekend. I finally got back to it the next weekend, which, thankfully, had lovely sunny weather.

September 3, 2016: I worked on details. I started with the face, working on the mouth because that would be the easiest. Then I worked on the eyes, starting with an outline and layering on the white, the pink flesh inside and around the whites, a brown cornea, black for the iris, then the most delicate lines on the cornea with black, white light spots, eyelashes, and the eyebrows. I also added shadows to the face, neck, hands, and feet, then did the fingernails and toenails as well. I used brown on the rosary to simulate wooden beads. Finally, I applied a gold trim on the veil and cape as well as a touch of gold thread/trim on her collar and cuffs. I even touched the cornea with a few very fine gold lines to make them look more real. At the end of the day, I sprayed the whole statue with a layer of non-yellowing transparent matte overcoat.

September 4, 2016: I returned to the statue for finishing touches, retouching spots where there was white on blue or blue on white, brown on flesh, touching up the shadows, cleaning up edges of lines, before the final couple more layers of finish. I wish there was more light from the back so you could see details of the cape, especially where there were chips and chunks gone from it.

The statue will go to St. Francis Church in Cornwall, Prince Edward Island, where I hope they will take good care of her. I have given instructions for them to apply a couple of coats of spray-on finish once a year to preserve the colors.

It’s so satisfying to complete a project and see it turn out so well! I’m always sorry to finally finish a job, but also glad that each commission I complete opens up doors to more similarly satisfying jobs. It’s work I would not mind doing for the rest of my life! The biggest challenge with this project was the restoration first, then working with the rough concrete surface. And then the worries about how the face would turn out and if I could do justice to the subject.I could tell it had a lovely face from the start and I was excited to see what I could do with such a damaged statue. I’m really happy with the finished work.



Writing the Truth


One of the things many of my short story writing students seem to find most difficult is writing fiction based on fact. They try to fit a real story into a short story plot without changing a thing, but want to use the true story as the basis of their short stories anyway, because they want to explore why it happened, help others understand the situation, or just share it because it was interesting to them. The hardest thing to explain is that they do not need to stick to the truth when they are writing fiction. In fact, many times, the truth might seem stranger than fiction. Many things don’t make sense, especially when the writer learns about the story from several different sources. Probably the hardest thing to teach aspiring writers is how to sift through all the details they think they should include to find the greater universality—the truth they want to really write about. Quite often, writers might start out without even knowing what truth they are writing about and go about it in a roundabout way. In fact, we are surrounded by stories, a great deal of them worthy of writing. However, we might not always have enough information to write the story. Thankfully, there is such a thing nowadays as microfiction. If we can’t write that novel, we can find publishing platforms for stories under 1,000 words. All you need to start with is a single event. As a writer, it’s your job to fill in the details that led to that event and the details that ensue from that event. If you were a journalist or a researcher, you would be looking for all the people involved, uncovering motives, personalities, histories. You would look at what happened to the people involved, how each of them felt after the incident, what they did, what they thought, what it did to their lives. Because you’re writing fiction, however, instead of looking for the facts before and after your story event, you weave the stories, inventing lives for each of the characters, giving them motives, personalities, histories so your readers know your characters intimately. You create an ending after the event, allowing your characters to somehow triumph over their situations even if it did not happen that way in real life. You devise some form of closure so your readers will have closure, because readers need that—even if their closure happens several books after the first. When that happens, you can celebrate your success in producing a series.

We know that the universal truth conveyed in timeless stories—the classics—is something we seek as writers. To plan a story around this universality is usually not as easy as it is to write about an event and discover the universality from that. The value in starting this way is that the writing can be more spontaneous and less forced. What is important is that the story itself is sound: in plot and structure, language and imagery, characters and motivations. As you develop your story, you need to weave in elements that resonate with the rest of humanity, mostly by working around powerful emotions: love, hatred, triumph, despair, fear, greed, ecstasy. These are what make stories interesting. If your characters don’t feel any of these, your readers aren’t likely to feel much for them, either. You need only read an anthology of short stories from any cross-section of history to find all these emotions. You need only read the winning stories from contests over the last handful of years to get a feel of the emotions that litter fiction and you will understand what makes fiction universal. Everything else can be invented. What will stand out and touch the readers are the emotions. Those are your greater truths.


The Power of Writing, or Why Write?


“I think all writing is a disease. You can’t stop it.”
~William Carlos Williams

I believe that one you are bitten by the writing bug, you’ll never lose your desire to write. There’s something about creating literature, putting words down on paper. It’s a fascinating process that can be extremely complicated if you have no idea what to do, and yet, from the moment each one of us learns to speak, we are equipped with the most important tool for writing: the ability to express ideas in words. This tool of expression is developed to varying degrees in each of us, but not all of us have the urge to express everything we experience in written words. That’s probably because so many people have not had the opportunity to truly appreciate what the written word can convey. People who are exposed to a great variety of written expression, no matter the genre, will realize that they have that same opportunity to express themselves, their ideas, their feelings. If they have been equipped with superior writing skills and understand the effect their words might have on others, it’s as natural as a block of ice melting in heat. Probably the best motivator is knowing you are able to record everything you think, feel, experience in words that you can revisit any time you want to. For others, the best motivator might be knowing that your story, your ideas, your sentiments, and everything you are able to express in words, will be appreciated by someone else. Writers, after all, are people, who need to be heard, who need to connect with other people, who need to know they are not alone in this wide world that can be alienating and difficult to navigate in any given lifetime. In this case, the best motivator is simply needing to make sense of everything, to organize everything into something that is more comprehensible, more tangible, and in doing so, answering important questions that so many people always wanted to ask but were afraid to. Every writer will have a reason for writing, but sometimes, like the mountain that just has to be climbed, we write because we just have to see our ideas as written words.

Like any other form of communication, all writing has a purpose. It doesn’t matter whether that purpose fulfills something writers want only for themselves or for their readers, any writing becomes legitimate once words are committed on paper–or more appropriately nowadays, in a digital file. Like most arts, literature is produced mainly to entertain. However, literature extends beyond a mere art form, because it is also a valuable means of communication. Hence, as written communication, it can fulfill several other purposes: entertain, inform, explain, or influence readers. This is not to say that these purposes are mutually exclusive. While you might set out with a single purpose in mind, in the end, you accomplish all the other purposes to varying degrees. Take fiction writing, for instance. In general, the purpose of fiction is to entertain. In the process of entertaining, however, writers explain many things, inform readers through description and sometimes even provide valuable real-life knowledge, and, in the end, influence readers. Whether the influence simply motivates readers to read more or moves them to step out of their comfort zones and do something new or different, there is no doubt that people have been influenced. Indeed, many a great work of literature has spurred actions and events that are pandemic. The way people think or see things is often influenced by some literary piece, fiction or non-fiction. Literature has the ability to move people so powerfully that societies and religions have been founded on the written word. I don’t need to name books or other works here, because I’m certain you already have some such influential work in mind. In many ways, writers could be motivated by the same singular desire to be immortalized in their works, because otherwise, they would not want a physical record of their work. When successful, it certainly is much better than anyone else’s fifteen seconds of fame!


Only on PEI in Harbourfront’s Lights, Camera, Island!


A Review by Cindy Lapeña

What happens when big time movie stars from Toronto come to small town PEI to shoot a film? To find out, you really have to see Island author Karen Slater’s Lights, Camera, Island! The Harbourfront Players’ latest offering is a charming comedy that had just the right mix of Island humour and sentimentality. It’s a full-blooded Island production that can only be pulled off by an Island cast and crew. It’s great community theatre that no one will appreciate more than Islanders, as evidenced by the laughter and enjoyment elicited from a highly appreciative opening night audience. Harbourfront Theatre’s relatively new Executive Director Kieran Keller welcomed the audience back to what promises to be a wonderfully entertaining season and it was good to come back and be welcomed by Slater’s ribald slice of Island life.

What makes the script more delectable is how Slater adopted the classic plot of cross-dressing and mistaken identities, not unlike Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, or What You Will. That, coupled with your friendly countryside folk and the small town gossip mill, became the grist for Lights, Camera, Island! While anyone will enjoy the classic humour, only islanders will immediately pick up on certain jokes such as the gasps and the real reason for the big surprise kitchen party. That said, more of the jokes would have had greater impact if there were much quicker pick-up between lines. Or is that an Island thing as well? One sign of experienced stage actors is how well they are able to ad lib when they forget lines or cues and there is no dead air between lines. Nonetheless, recovery was successful, the audience clearly overlooked those few moments, and a good night was still had by all.

Director Marlane O’Brien must have had as much fun as I hear the cast and crew did while rehearsing this play, which they started working on in workshops, until it finally shaped up into this rollicking piece. What gave the performance that great community theatre flavour is probably the fact that the cast was not comprised of professional actors, just a big group of friends having great fun together. It’s completely plausible some added humour came from the mixed identities that extended to a general confusion in almost interchangeable names of two brothers and brother-like cousin—who sometimes reminded me of the Three Stooges—that added to the merry mix-up that became all the more confusing until it was all sorted out in the end. It’s the kind of play I would have loved to be part of!


On Writing: Voice and Theme


To gain your own voice, you have to forget about having it heard. —Allen Ginsberg, WD


Some amateur writers launch into writing with a purpose, the determination to be heard by sharing their knowledge with the world and hoping to impart their ‘wisdom’ through their works. This might be fine when writing non-fiction, although it could border on preaching. As a writer, you might sometimes feel you are full of ideas that you need to share and want to share, so you try to cram everything you have to say about just about every topic under the sun into your writing. This results in several problems, the first being that the writer’s personality projects onto everything written and the whole tone of the work, including the characters, take on the writer’s personality. This eventually becomes boring and leads to bad writing because there is no distinction between characters, nor between the characters and the narrator, nor the works and the author, especially if the author has more than one work. One of the most difficult things to do, as a writer, is to achieve distance between you and your work, so that your work becomes an entity that is not you, the writer. One way to solve this problem is to learn to focus. Each piece of writing you create should focus on a single theme if it is a short piece, or a very limited selection of related themes for longer pieces. The less themes you include in your work, the more focused it becomes; limiting yourself to one theme automatically gives your work unity of theme. Many times, in fact, it is better to write a work of fiction without thinking of a theme first, because the actions and choices of your characters will carry the theme and neither you, as a writer, nor your narrator, will need to worry about sending any message at all. In many great works, the protagonist often personifies the theme or message the author wants to convey, and it is the protagonist whose words, actions, and thoughts say whatever it is the author wants said. The ability to do that creates a voice, the author does not need to explain any further.