There’s Always Something to Write About

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We’re past the age of heroes and hero kings. … Most of our lives are basically mundane and dull, and it’s up to the writer to find ways to make them interesting.
~John Updike, WD

I would not quickly agree with Updike that we’re past the age of heroes and hero kings. While our current world might not warrant wandering about on horses or in armor with swords at our sides or even bows slung across our backs, we have our chariots and our props, tools of the trade that we use to struggle through life. Probably the biggest challenge in contemporary literature is finding characters that are interesting enough to write about. We forget that people are interesting and as writers, we need to learn to bring out everything that is interesting about them. In my memoir writing classes, I have encountered people saying they have nothing to write about because nothing interesting has happened in their lives. Yet, as I guide them with tips, techniques, questions, and prompts, they suddenly find that there are so many interesting things that have happened in their lives. Now, they have more than enough to actually write about. I, on the other hand, have the quandary of what to write about first. I have encountered so many interesting people, places, and events in my modest and not too short life thus far, and the accumulation of memories is startling, when I think of it. People don’t need to be highly imaginative to become writers. They just need to learn how to use vivid descriptions, picturesque language, detailed imagery. It’s the details that make things more interesting. Remember when someone, possibly a grandparent or an uncle or aunt or even your parents, told a story that everyone enjoyed? They remember details that involve all our senses–sights, smells, sounds, textures, feelings–every little detail adds to creating a picture, a painting of something that happened, and if the action is as vividly described, then the painting becomes a movie clip or a staged scene, and when enough of those are strung together, you have a living, breathing movie in words. Isn’t writing grand?

Character Types: Round vs Flat

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We’re past the age of heroes and hero kings. … Most of our lives are basically mundane and dull, and it’s up to the writer to find ways to make them interesting.
~John Updike, WD

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We started talking about character creation and description in our last installment. Creating characters is such an intricate process and I’ve already described how to develop a character profile in “How to Create Memorable Characters” and, more recently, “Writing Realistic Characters.” What many of you might not be familiar with are the different types of characters. Knowing the different types helps you decide how to develop your characters and how much to develop them. I’ve already discussed the most common type, the STOCK character. A stock character is a common type found in literature through the ages. They’re also called stereotypes. Many of these characters came from classical literature and, because they have the same general traits and purpose in a story, they’re easy to integrate in a story. Stock characters are pull-of-the-shelf varieties and if you look at fairy tales, legends, and classical drama, you’ll find a wide variety of stock characters. I remembering describing stock characters in an earlier article, calling to mind Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers, or fairy tale Cinderellas and wicked stepmothers. The next two character types are ROUND vs FLAT characters. Round characters are well-developed characters with complex characteristics. These are the realistic characters I’ve been talking about. They have personalities, quirks, families, histories, and futures. Round characters are like real people because you create them that way. When you include physical, psychological, and biographical information about a character, you have a round character. Your main characters are most interesting when they are round, so you should plan around that. On the other hand, you could have FLAT characters. Flat characters are one-dimensional or, at most, two-dimensional. They are like cartoons on a page, caricatures, because they take the one outstanding trait of a character and you do not see anything else about that character. Flat characters are completely predictable. They always react the same way, they don’t have thoughts, let alone deep ones; they rarely have relationships, deep or complex personalities, histories. You’re probably thinking, why do flat characters exist at all? In short fiction, flat characters are not likely to even exist. In longer fiction, we use flat characters to fill in the role of extras, such as the nosy next-door neighbor, the cranky garbage collector, the crotchety spinster, the 97-pound weakling, the brawny football hero, the dumb blonde. Stock characters can also be flat characters, but don’t have to be. You can take stock characters and give them complex personalities and problems, something you’ll never really find with flat characters. You need flat characters in your stories because your main characters need to interact with those flat characters as they get through their days; you need flat characters to remain flat because they provide your main characters incredible contrast and color; despite their flatness, your flat characters also provide color in your story, albeit background color. Just don’t overdo it. Like a painting, keep your flat characters in the background and your round, three-dimensional characters in the foreground.

Next time: Dynamic vs Static Characters

 

Writing Realistic Characters

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Character creation might seem a daunting task to the unseasoned writer, because it isn’t easy to create literary characters who seem real. It’s like creating people on paper, who are real in every way except physically. In fact, truly realistic characters can sometimes feel so alive they could walk out of the pages of their books. There are several ways to create characters, but my recommended method is to create a character profile. Why is this important? There are several reasons: It helps the writer (1) create different individuals, (2) keep those characters separate and different from each other, (3) keep those characters separate and different from the narrator, (4) keep those characters separate and different from the author, (5) define each character’s story more clearly, (6) ensure character consistency from beginning to end, (7) create a source file from which to pull descriptions and even dialogue. While these might not seem particularly necessary when writing short stories, character profiles become extremely useful when writing novels, and practically essential when writing series. For instance, if a character in the first volume of a series is left handed, you can’t have him picking up a pen and writing with his right hand in the third volume. Or, she could celebrate a birthday in December in one novel, then later on, you might refer to her as a Gemini in a sequel. Your profile can be as detailed or as general as you need it; the longer your work, the more detailed it should be, simply because there are more instances for you to reveal your characters and make them as real as possible for your readers. Simply because when your characters are more, they become more believable, more sympathetic, and easier to identify with.

Writing characters is not easy, but there are ways of getting around the problem of how to develop characters. One way is to do what Shakespeare, Gore Vidal, and, I’m sure, many other prolific writers have done: have a repertory company of stock characters. Your stock characters will be general types you can tweak, change a bit, give different names, set in different situations, and otherwise write different stories about. You probably know more stock characters than you think you do. Besides the bard’s works, stock characters can also be found in fairy tales. Some of the most commonly-used stock characters are: the Cinderella character, the cunning villain, the thief with a golden heart, the wicked stepmother, the cuckold husband, the jester, Prince Charming, the orphan boy, the wicked stepsisters–these are characters common in fairy tales and legends. Shakespeare uses quite a few of these, as well as others we all recognize: the star-crossed lovers, the young lovers with feuding families, the megalomaniac, the cheating wife/husband, the seer. He also borrows characters from classical literature, which has many stock characters, such as the wandering hero, the guilt-ridden son/daughter, the adulterous wife/husband, the adventurer in disguise, the benevolent spirit–these also being characters from mythology. Many modern writers have taken advantage of stock characters and rewritten them in a variety of original and interesting ways, including James Joyce’s Ulysses or Arthur Laurents’s West Side Story. It’s a good thing to know all these characters from older literature because people, after all, are people, no matter what the setting. What makes characters more realistic is what makes humans–their foibles and follies, their loves and losses, their lives and deaths.

*coming soon: How to Create Characters

You Can’t Cheat the Muse

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Cheat your landlord if you can and must, but do not try to shortchange the Muse. It cannot be done. You can’t fake quality any more than you can fake a good meal.
—William S. Burroughs

 

First things first: I don’t advocate cheating at all, but I will look for the most efficient ways to expedite a job. It’s called looking for shortcuts. This does not apply to skills at all—no less to writing than to any sport that requires athletes to practice up to eight hours a day or more. Granted, some people are more talented than others, their talent is what gives their work an innate grace and beauty that the merely skilled do not have. Some people might be more creative than others and be able to produce work after work after work; that does not mean the work will be outstanding. So many people want to be writers, want to be published, but aren’t willing to put in the work to ensure their writing is of excellent quality. That’s why we have so much pulp fiction on the bookstands. Even if the writing per se is technically excellent, those works do not find their way to the must-read lists. Those works will not win awards or recognition except, perhaps, finding their way to occasional bestseller lists—and disappearing from reading lists as soon as the next new book shows up. These works most likely will entertain readers momentarily, but they are not the works people will want to keep on their limited bookshelf space to read over and over again. The quality of writing begins with a strong foundation in the most basic skill of writing good sentences. Masterful writing necessarily uses masterful sentences, and there are more than enough guidebooks, lessons, tips, and courses that teach us to write masterful sentences. Sometimes, it’s all just a matter of remembering what we learned in school, unless we were not fortunate to have a teacher who ensured we could write really good sentences. To write excellent sentences, we need to know grammar and trust it as well as we know our bodies will function without our having to tell them how. We need to become intimate with figurative language so we can use it at will and manipulate words to create the images we want to paint. We need to accumulate a vocabulary broad enough for us so the words tumble out of our pens and we are not left grasping for ways to describe what we observe. This three-point foundation is what we build our writing on. Lacking that, I suggest always having at hand a good grammar book, a book on writing style (Strunk & White’s Elements of Style is a popular and favourite go-to source for many writers; many more have been written since and can be just as useful as well as entertaining), a good dictionary (I always defer to the Oxford English dictionary, but I also check Merriam-Webster’s localized editions, e.g. a Canadian edition, that includes Can-spelling and Can-idioms), a good thesaurus (Roget’s Thesaurus is the default), and a dictionary of idioms (I collect dictionaries and have several books of idioms, no two of which are the same). Lacking physical editions of these valuable references, you can always check the Internet for unlimited resources. The Internet has several standard online dictionaries (Oxford, Merriam-Webster, and WikiDictionary or Wiktionary), dictionaries of idioms, rhyming dictionaries, and thesaurii. The nice thing about the Internet is the search throws a very wide net and offers answers, suggestions, examples—all in a matter of seconds. Unless your typing takes minutes.

On Writing: Should you talk about your writing?

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I think it’s bad to talk about one’s present work, for it spoils something at the root of the creative act. It discharges the tension.  ~Norman Mailer

It’s called suspense. When you have a big secret and want it to be a surprise, the tension grows and everyone becomes more excited about what’s coming. Sometimes, I feel the same way about writing. I won’t say what I’m working on at the moment because I like running it through my mind over and over again, usually completing the work in my head before I even write anything down. For one thing, it makes the writing a lot easier, because then, the ideas just keep tumbling out. I’ve also tried writing from kernels or what seemed like a good idea, but did not let that foment in my mind at all, and to this day, they’re still just that—kernels. Well, maybe a few popped kernels, but not enough to complete a story. Maybe it’s superstition, too. Maybe some of us writers don’t want to jinx the work. If you’re all excited about what you’re writing and start telling everyone about it, your work might not turn out as good as you hoped or expected. Then, it becomes a big disappointment to everyone. I don’t like disappointing people, so I’d rather not tell until it’s there and ready to show. Maybe when my works are more widespread and well-known, and I’ve established myself as a great writer, then I’ll start talking about works in progress more. Yeah, okay, I do that a wee bit with very select people—okay, one person—but that’s also because I do have that lack of confidence and insecurity about my writing. I still can’t imagine my writing is good enough to put out there, but if I won a national competition, then I guess there’s something good about it. Still and all, I think I need to keep on practicing and improving on my work because I don’t feel it’s “up there” with my most admired works. Does any writer ever get over these insecurities? On the other hand, I have come across several writer-hopefuls who are confident that they’ve got a great story and write it and when I read it or, heaven help me, have to edit it, I find the most atrocious grammar and spelling, terrible sentences, poorly constructed characters, and a story line that’s either all muddled or going nowhere. Maybe I’m just too self-critical, and too critical of other works, as well, but I still believe in certain minimum standards in writing, and bad sentences, poor spelling, and highly detailed graphical descriptions of insignificant events make for poor writing. The only suspense there is in that kind of writing is when it will ever end!

The writer is a gardener and cook…

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The ablest writer is only a gardener first, and then a cook: his tasks are, carefully to select and cultivate his strongest and most nutritive thoughts; and when they are ripe, to dress them, wholesomely, and yet so that they may have a relish.

~Augustus William Hare and Julius Charles Hare, Guesses at Truth, by Two Brothers, 1827

I do not believe there is such a thing as a born writer. In the first place, writing is really a skill based on language acquisition and everyone knows how difficult that can be, especially if it isn’t your first language. How many languages you have mastered notwithstanding, people learn to write by (1) being exposed to a lot of writing, (2) learning to put their ideas into written words. Of course, I’m talking about creative writing, but I’d say that extends to any kind of writing. And that’s only learning. There is no such thing as a writer in a vacuum. Writers need a nourishing environment to flourish, and here is where we take the Hare brothers’s metaphor to detail. As a gardener, the writer needs to have a seed to plant: the idea or thought on which to build a composition. Like seeds, they need care and nutrition: they need dirt to grow in, which is akin to our massive bank of knowledge and experience–certainly not acquired in a vacuum–that gives us the words or language to work with. They need water to grow: we need to add to those words, let them expand, add to them, develop them into sentences, paragraphs, chapters, volumes. They need sunshine that allows photosynthesis: we need to provide enhanced language in the form of figurative, picturesque speech, adjectives, adverbs, idioms, and details that create cornucopias of colour in our writing, that make our writing exciting, vivid, alive, colorful. They need pruning and trimming so that only the best fruit and leaves are left: we need to edit, revise, improve, add, and remove, to make sure the writing we have is the best. And then, like many excellent chefs, we need to dress our product and serve it in the most palatable form, whether in verses or prose, in tidbits or tomes. All that care will guarantee a literary banquet that readers the world over are certain to enjoy.

The Silliness in the Looking-Glass: A Review of Alice Through the Looking-Glass

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The Silliness in the Looking-Glass: A REVIEW*

By Cindy Lapeña

I have great memories of Lewis Carroll’s pair of books: Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, which I first read as a very young child in a single-volume Children’s Classics Edition. Back then, I didn’t know what to make of the jabberwocky or brillig and no dictionary search could help me, yet the poems did make sense in my child’s mind. Watching James Reaney’s stage adaption of Through the Looking-Glass as interpreted by directors Jullian Keiley and Christine Brubaker for the Confederation Centre of the Arts’s 2015 Charlottetown Festival brought back wonderful memories of my childhood reading and the zany characters that populated the pages of Carroll’s timeless stories. Kudos to set and costume designer Bretta Gerecke for the amazing and innovative sets. I thought that it was extremely clever to show the scene changes by having the cast wheel them about with bicycles. The stylized and whimsical designs for the sets felt like something out of a cross between Dr. Seuss, Roald Dahl, and Tim Burton—straight out of a child’s imagination.

Admittedly, there was a lot of cheesiness and tongue-in-cheek acting, but it enhanced the story so much so that, instead of the existing film interpretations, which feel like literal and somewhat serious interpretations of the book, the stage production created humour and evoked hysterical laughter from the audience at almost every turn. It was so entertaining with so many surprises dropping down or popping out at the audience that one could not help but be completely engaged with the performance. The use of human Zorb bubble balls was another huge surprise and I could only think of how much fun it would be. There was a great deal of complicated and complex choreography by Dayna Tekatch, interpreted by the Confederation Centre’s resident choreographer Kerry Gage and executed perfectly by the cast.

Speaking of which, the casting was brilliant, and way the chorus was dressed and acted was largely responsible for chortles that broke out from different parts of the audience each time they appeared. I had always read Carroll’s two books as somewhat serious adventures where the well-mannered Victorian Alice just could not understand why everything had to be so illogical and so silly, but this interpretation has given me a totally different and fun perspective on the story. It has made me see this from a child’s point of view, which could be just what the author intended in the first place. That the looking-glass world was also funny was evident throughout and magnified by the silliness of the acting.

I have to admit that I was taken aback by Natasha Greenblatt’s powerful and lower-register voice, which is the opposite of the almost shrill falsetto childishness of the Alices of film, but once you get over the it in the first scene, it grows on you and becomes a warm, conversational tone that does not jar the eardrums. The Red and White Queens, Charlotte Moore and Eliza-Jane Scott were spectacles on their own. Qasim Khan as the White Knight was a walking—or rather, rollicking, bouncing—comedy and the knight’s horses were a riot. While Hank Stinson as the Red King uttered nothing more than snores, his sleeping presence commanded enough attention to keep the audience in stitches. The White King, Rejean Cournoyer, on the other hand, stole his laughter as he executed his single-square moves in his scene.

As town councilor Greg Rivard said, it was a bit slow starting but was thoroughly enjoyable and interactive by the second act, so that his kids enjoyed it very much. That children will enjoy it is undoubtable, as one little child yelled out answers to Alice’s questions, adding to the entertainment value. Unless you are an avid reader, I would not suggest reading the books, though, as the turn-of-the-century language lacks the vibrancy, humour, surprises, and pacing that the play brings. The 2 ½ hours it took from beginning to end didn’t seem like 2 ½ hours at all, except, maybe, before Alice stepped through the looking-glass.

I could go on and on about each cast member’s performances and the clever costumes and props, but that would be giving too much away. Suffice it to say, there were surprises in every scene and you just have to see it for yourself. I do not know if the original performance of this play was meant to be interpreted this way, but I couldn’t care less because this version is what I want to remember from now on.

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 *Also available on www.onrpei.ca

The Snowy Owl

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I have seen few large wild birds in their natural habitat and my encounter with a snowy owl was an exception. It was late at night one winter when I was sitting in a car with a friend, chatting and enjoying the view of the frozen river and the white snow around us when a snowy owl landed, seemingly out of nowhere, on the boardwalk a few feet away from the car. It sat on snow, eying its surroundings, its magnificent head turning, its bright yellow eyes blinking occasionally.

For several minutes, it just sat in the cold snow, its wings not tucked in but trailing on the snow. When it finally moved, it was in a waddling walk, one wing tracing a shallow trail in the snow beside it. Clearly, the bird was not made for walking. After walking a bit, it flapped its wings and rose a few meters in air no higher than the top of a lamppost that cast its white glow into the cold air, then settled back on the ground as if exhausted and lost after a long journey from some snowy mountainous region in the Maritimes. Perhaps it had come across the Gulf of St. Lawrence, buffered by the recent snowfall and biting winds.

The owl was a splendid creature with its brown-and-black-tipped white feathers that made it look like it had silvery tufts tucked into its plumage. We assumed it might have hurt its wing and had sought respite on our island, finding shelter under the Hillsboro bridge. Before long, another owl, almost a pure white, landed a few feet farther than the first, but that one did not stay, launching over the frozen inlet and disappearing under the bridge before long. We surmised that the birds were mates and were seeking refuge because one of them had been hurt.

My companion, ever concerned, ever helpful, stepped out to see how badly hurt the bird on the ground might be, approaching it warily. He was concerned the bird might be attacked by a fox that had, only a short time earlier, prowled along the river’s edge on some nocturnal mission. I warned him to take care because owls, after all, are wild birds and predators, their small hooked beaks sharp, their long and threatening talons camouflaged under feathered feet. My friend stopped a little more than an arm’s length from the owl, thinking its wing broken, and for a split second, man and bird stood under the same circle of light, creating a frosty mist in the crisp night air. One second then the bird gathered its wings and lifted them, drawing ever so slightly closer to the man, hovering for but a moment, before it pulled away and lifted into the air, flying after its pair to find shelter under the bridge. Did the bird think it was being threatened? Would it have attacked the man? Perhaps the trailing wing was merely a ploy to attract prey. It could have spotted the fox and planned on abducting it, but encountering a creature larger than it could possibly lift across the icy inlet, it changed its mind and decided to retreat instead. We guessed it must have been that because it spread its majestic wings, longer across than my friend was tall–and he is not a small man–and swooped away, gliding like a white kite in the night without the slightest hint of an injury. It disappeared under the bridge, invisible in the shadows.

It was on the news, the next day, that a pair of snowy owls had taken up residence under the Hillsboro bridge, and after a few more days of being in the forefront of unusual events of interest only to the locals that long winter, the birds were found to have abandoned their temporary shelter. It was my first encounter with a bird that has long enthralled me because of its beauty and wildness and its symbolism as the wisest of creatures. It was more magnificent than any photograph could ever depict and, in making its choice to leave us, undoubtedly wise in choosing the wintry wilderness where it was born and, without human interference, will hopefully live out its life.

©Cindy Lapeña, 2015

They Rock! Canada Rocks! The Hits Musical Revue: A Review

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 2014-06-20 03.21.48

by Cindy Lapeña

It might have been a preview night, but the Company of Canada Rocks! The Hits Musical Revue 2014 show delivered a performance that rocked the rafters of the newly-reopened Homburg Theatre in the Confederation Centre of the Arts. A 26-member cast, 14-member orchestra, and 4-man rock band regaled a full house with 74 songs spanning several decades of Canadian hits from the 60s all the way to Paper Lions, PEI’s rock band-winner of the 2014 Independent Music Award for Best EP – Pop (Pop/Adult Contemporary;See more at: http://awardsandwinners.com/ceremonies/12th-independent-music-awards/#sthash.Tvoi3GMH.dpuf).

Musical Director and Arranger Craig Fair led the orchestra and band in an almost non-stop score with only the intermission as a break, showing off not only great musical panache but the excellent new sound system as well. Renée Brode’s lighting design, sometimes intense and emotional, most of the time playful and spectacular, likewise exploited the extensive capabilities of the new lighting system—something I would want to play with myself. I only wish that the two spotlights set in the back of the stage were not so blinding when they were bare—a result of their being set so high on the raised stage they were pointing directly at the audience at the start. The production design by Charlotte Dean was enhanced by 23 screens, on which video images were projected—sometimes to create a single gigantic image, sometimes displaying 23 different images that were entertaining on their own; kudos to projection designer James Nesbitt.

The show was directed and choreographed by none other than long-time Charlottetown Festival Artistic Director Anne Allan, who, along with Doug Gallant, Terry Hatty, Wade Lynch, and Hank Stinson, wrote and conceived the whole musical revue, which took the audience on an East-bound journey from BC to PEI. Overheard from the audience was a desire to see a more consistent story line, with the train-trip theme more evident. That might have made the performance more theatrical than revue-ish, but it could not matter less to me. In fact, I had to look away from certain video footage because they induced a touch of motion sickness. Nonetheless, the projections enhanced the story of Canada’s music industry, creating a more synaesthetic and memorable experience in a way that the songs and narration alone cannot.

While I enjoy a wide variety of musical genres and avoid really loud music and wild concerts, I have to say that the loudness of the sound system was within tolerable levels and not deafening—something I really appreciated. Much more than that, however, is the way Canada Rocks! The Hits Musical Revue is my first real lesson in Canadian music. Not having been born here, I was quite unaware of the who’s who of Canadian music, thinking all the music I heard growing up on the late Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 was American—such was our exposure to the Western world. I was pleasantly surprised to discover, in the few years I have lived on this Island but mostly through this Musical Revue, that so many songs I was familiar with and learned to love are actually Canadian; and so many musicians I liked—both singers and songwriters alike—are Canadian. This knowledge made the show not only enjoyable and educational—it made the show more personal: Canada Rocks! made me feel that I have truly come home.

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Free download! Volume 3 of 101 Fun Games, Activities, and Projects for English Classes

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Hello friends! Please help me again by downloading my Kindle book

It starts tomorrow! August 3 – 7!
Reminder to everyone to take advantage of this free offer: Download Volume 3 of 101 Fun Games, Activities, and Projects for English Classes from Amazon!

US/World: http://www.amazon.com/Activities-Projects-English-Classes-ebook/dp/B00D1FIJ7M/ref=sr_1_5?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1375499182&sr=1-5&keywords=101+fun+games+activities+and+projects

Canada: http://www.amazon.ca/Activities-Projects-English-Classes-ebook/dp/B00D1FIJ7M/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1375499114&sr=8-3&keywords=101+fun+games+activities+and+projects

UK: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Activities-Projects-English-Classes-ebook/dp/B00D1FIJ7M/ref=sr_1_5_bnp_1_kin?ie=UTF8&qid=1375499027&sr=8-5&keywords=101+fun+games+activities+and+projects