Tag Archives: Brenda Sawatzky

A Crash Course on the Best and Worst Elements of Writing

What an enlightening month November has been! If you ever wanted a crash course in what makes writing the best or the worst, this was it.

There is so much to learn about writing craft and storytelling from the masters yet we can learn equally from writing that doesn’t engage us. Deciding on the ‘best’ means we need to understand why we like what we do and what constitutes the best for each of us (Kristin Luna). It also means not disregarding other forms of fiction because the best stories use elements of both literary and commercial fiction and knowing how each works makes us better skilled writers (Susan Forest).

Elements in the best writing includes:
precision of word choice, great imagery and detail plus an author who gets right into his character’s heads (Clancy); a grasp on multi-sensory prose which like a dream, makes the fantastical normal and lifts the reader to a place of wonder (Brenda Sawatsky); cliffhangers and when multiple story lines crash together in a maelstrom of calamity at the end of a book (Evan); well executed diverse fiction that helps the reader understand the world we live in and cultivates respect (Kim May); story matters and being a good storyteller with proper pacing and resolutions is key, but before telling the story, think about how much you can tell us by each word, each sentence, and the beauty you strive for in bringing them together (Colette); it’s not just about the protagonist against the antagonist but about how every character interacts with every other character (Jace Sanders); heroes aren’t heroes all the time. They are just humans with something about them that is extraordinary, and the more flawed a character is, the more human they seem (Leigh Galbreath); the best writing has characters who strive for themselves along with sentences that soar on their own (James Van Pelt); successful prologues convey information without being an info dump and they promise a story/writing style upon which they deliver (Ace Jordyn); a consistent background which functions almost as another character, widening the options for the protagonist’s conflict along with psychological realism where characters behave consistently (Al Onia); the key to the ‘best’ has less to do with perfect prose, and more to do with story impact when what we’re writing matters, emotions rise up, and the reader can feel it (Adria Laycraft).

What constitutes the worst writing includes:
meandering prose that loses the reader and is boring and there’s no beginning, middle or end and no characters to invest in (Clancy); it’s a bad idea to mislead readers about what kind of story you are telling readers for pick up books because they’re hoping for a certain type of experience. (Mary); when writers grab hold of a culture’s cool elements—Samurai swords, martial arts, ninjas—and throw the rest out the window because the history, philosophy, sociology, and traditions are so intertwined and influential on the cool elements that you can’t separate the two and do it justice. (Kim May); it’s not possible to root for a guy who seems like a walking pity party or if the main character lacks any sense of wonder (James Van Pelt); prologues don’t work if they create expectations that the book doesn’t meet either in story content or style, if they’re an info dump or if they are used to foreshadow or tease (Ace Jordyn); when writers betray the promises set in the beginning of the book and shatter the reader’s bond with the story (Frank).

So how can we judge how we each measure up at being the best? We can compare our work to those we admire and like to read or, as Nathan Barra observed, we can learn by comparing our earlier works to our current ones and being motivated by that.

In case you want to follow up on any of the excellent points I’ve summarized, here is a list of November’s blogs. Just click on the title and the link will get you there.

Happy reading and writing!

Lee Child vs the Boring Clancy
Not What I Signed Up For Mary
The Dreamer Brenda Sawatzky
In Loving Appreciation of the Story Swirl Evan Braun
The Emperor and the Impostor Kim May
Kneeling in the Silver Light Mary
The Importance of Word Choice Colette
Learning from the Masters Jace Sanders
A Tale of Two Readers; or, Everybody Wins Kristin Luna
The Not So likeable Hero Leigh Galbreath
Pluck, Pity Parties and Prose – What I Like Best and What Doesn’t Work James Van Pelt
SSWS Writing Scholarship: Should YOU Apply?  Colette
Clive Cussler, Guy Gavriel Kay and DJ McIntosh are Masters at … Ace Jordyn
Writing What I Like to Read Al Onia
Writing Stories that Matter Adria Laycraft
Looking for Progress in a Mirror Nathan Barra
Don’t Break Your Promises Frank
Using the Tools of Both Literary and Commercial Fiction Susan Forest

 

 

 

 

The Dreamer

A guest post by Brenda Sawatzky.

When I think of my most memorable dreams, I remember those that had me ruminating for the entire day. Possibly even for days after. They’re the kind of dreams you can’t wait to share with someone and have them respond, open-mouthed, “Wow. That’s fantastical, creepy, outlandish…”

I love waking on those mornings with a story fabricated from my subconscious. At least the stories that don’t have a sharp macabre edge to them, causing me to spend my day vanquishing the monster that lurks even after I’ve subjected my skin to a series of firm pinches.

I love discussing the varied nature of dreams, too. Do we dream in Technicolor or black and white? Are they multisensory? Where do these preposterous expressions of our imagination originate, and do they have some underlying meaning?

One thing I know for certain: if my brain is capable of concocting sensational stories in my sleep, then there is a way to tap into that vein while conscious, too. Some authors seem to be extraordinarily good at that. The truth is, I’m not particularly partial to fantasy novels or sci-fi. That’s not the kind of sensational I’m drawn to. Rather, it’s the prose that creates a dream-like landscape; a vivid, multisensory experience that takes normal to a different level. Like a being on a psychedelic LSD trip at a 3D movie with surround sound.

One such author I’ve recently discovered is Thomas Trofimuk in his novel Waiting for Columbus. It is a tale of a man, discovered lost on the streets of Spain and committed to a mental institution, who believes he is Christopher Columbus. He regales Nurse Consuela with fantastic stories of ships, conquests, and fifteenth-century adventures. The mystery of his true identity and the wonder of his perceived one holds Consuela captive as she’s swept away in his storytelling.

Trofimuk is a dreamscape artist. From the very first page, he attempts to lift the lackluster veil through which we witness the everyday. For a moment you believe that the moon speaks and you wonder if you just haven’t been listening. He writes, “There is only the sound of distant thunder, a barking dog and the sound of the moon behind the clouds reflected in a puddle.”

Inanimate objects come to life. “There’s some sort of Celtic symbol tattooed on her thigh. One of the lines of this tattooed design has come loose and wrapped itself around her entire thigh.”

His world is wrapped in “yellow-cracked clouds,” “a moon inescapably trapped in the branches of a tree,” and ships whose movements are “but a tickle on the skin, a brush of a finger along the lower back of the ocean.”

Another such poetic author, for me, is Ann-Marie MacDonald. In her beautiful and poignant novel Fall on Your Knees, Ann takes her reader willingly into the early nineteenth century’s exotic Empire Theatre:

“…the silver screen flickered, and down in the orchestra pit so did the piano. Trills and triplets seemed a natural counterpart to the frenetic dance of light and shadow above. A man in evening clothes has cornered a young woman in slinky nightgown halfway up a clock tower. No narrative preamble required, the shadows lurk, the tower lists, the music creeps the winding stair, the villain spies a grace-note of silken hem and he’s on the chase in six-eight time up to where our heroine clings to a snatch of girlish melody, teetering on the precipice of high E, overlooking the street eight octaves below. Villain struggles with virgin in a macabre waltz, Straus turned Faust, until, just when it seems she’ll plummet, dash her brains on the bass clef and die entangled in the web of the lower stave, a vision in tenor crescendo on to save the day in resolving chords.”

Trofimuk and MacDonald have a keen grasp on multisensory prose. Like a dream, they make the fantastical normal and lift the reader to a place of wonder and gratitude for introducing us to a world that is so much more interesting than the one in which we walk daily.

I strive to learn from these masters. To weave into my craft the kind of surrealism that would otherwise belong to dreams. To become a dreamer while I’m yet awake.

 

Brenda PicGuest Writer Bio:
Brenda Sawatzky is a relatively new, unpublished writer hailing from the wide-open prairie spaces of southeast Manitoba. She and her husband of thirty-one years are self-employed and parents to five kids (two ushered in by marriage). She is presently working toward fiction and non-fiction writing for magazines and manages a personal blog.

Inspiration by Imitation

A guest post by Brenda Sawatzky.

The key is to keep company only with people who uplift you,
whose presence calls forth your best.

—Epictetus

I’m relatively new to the world of writing, still a fledgling searching for my deep, commanding, authoress voice, beckoning readers to visit the world as viewed through my eyes. I long to be regarded among the Ann-Marie MacDonalds of fiction, the Erma Bombecks of humour writing. How do they do it? Is it a latent talent bestowed on a few lucky stiffs? A creative gene passed on from the early Neanderthal cave sketchers or Sumerian hieroglyphic scribes?

While I work out the troubling answer to that, I pen my thoughts, just in case while jotting down my grocery list one day I find myself crafting an exceptionally creative work of genius and say, “Eureka! I think I’ve got it.”

I’m really too new to the craft to be plateauing just yet. From my position somewhere near the base of the steep, craggy hillside, the plateau isn’t even visible. I’m still longing for the plateau. But I do understand what it’s like to desire to do better, to keep my eyes focused on the prize, to search for the genius within. I’ve joined writers workshops, registered with an online writing course, looked to mentors, and created a blog to feel the thrill of finding forty-odd people in cyberspace who want to read my stories.

41WNVSW4JWL._SY300_I’ve read books on writing, editing, and grammar. One of my favourites is titled On Writing Well, by William Zinsser. Zinsser says, “Writing is learned by imitation. If anyone asked me how I learned to write, I’d say I learned by reading the men and women who were doing the kind of writing I wanted to do and trying to figure out how they did it.” And so, I turn to the great sages of the written word, authors who captivate me page after page with descriptive metaphor and sublime prose. Authors who know the craft of taking a simple grouping of alphabets and weaving them into a picture in my head that leaves me breathless and wanting more.

I look to classic novelists like John Steinbeck, carefully analyzing his ability to spend the first four pages of The Grapes of Wrath telling me that there was a drought and the crops were poor, and holding me mesmerized throughout. And I turn to Erma for a whimsical look at the everyday, who teaches me to find the ludicrous in the fundamental truths of life. And on to Ann-Marie for a sensory adventure, first allowing myself to be drawn deeply in, then re-reading, underlining and objectively dissecting under a microscope.

These authors, and others, uplift me; their words call forth my best. In a writing slump, I always turn to a good read, revelling in how their writing speaks to me and how I might imitate what they do.

But at times, even then, when the blank page of the computer monitor stares back at me, when I struggle for the bait to place on the hook of my opening line, when I’ve blown a circuit in my creative juicer, sometimes I just need to walk away. As writers we may not have an “on” button but we do have a “kill” switch, and sometimes it’s best to turn off the computer and get our negative selves out of the way of the creative processes. Invention often occurs when we’re not “in the lab.” Answers often come when we’re not looking.

Author Bertrand Russell described it succinctly: “If I have to write upon some difficult topic, the best plan is to think about it with great intensity—the greatest intensity of which I am capable—for a few hours or days, and at the end of that time give orders, so to speak (to my subconscious mind), that the work is to proceed underground. After [some time] I return consciously to the topic and find that the work has been done.”

I do this by finding a physical outlet where I can quiet my mind from distraction—walking or cooking. Some of my best ideas come to me when lying in bed just moments before my brain shuts off for the night. The key is to have a pen and notepad beside the bed.

Other key creativity boosters are self-imposed exercises, such as focusing on an item in its simplest form and describing it in as many delicious, sentient words as possible.

Recently I discovered the Bulwer-Lytton contest, challenging writers to pen the worst possible opening line to a fiction novel. Entries come in from around the world and it’s truly amazing just how crafty and creative bad opening lines can be. I’ve submitted a few and it’s an enormously fun challenge. This, also, is great distraction that keeps my writing muscles flexed and oiled for the real task at hand—serious writing.

Most important of all is to release the steam from my self-imposed pressure cooker, to take my time, and to remember Zinsser’s words: “You are writing primarily to please yourself, and if you go about it with enjoyment you will also entertain the readers who are worth writing for.”

Brenda PicGuest Writer Bio:
Brenda Sawatzky is a relatively new, unpublished writer hailing from the wide-open prairie spaces of southeast Manitoba. She and her husband of thirty-one years are self-employed and parents to five kids (two ushered in by marriage). She is presently working toward fiction and non-fiction writing for magazines and manages a personal blog.

Towanda!

A guest post by Brenda Sawatzky

Movie poster for Fried Green Tomatoes

“I never get mad, Miss Threadgoode, never. The way I was raised, it was bad manners. Well, I got mad and it felt great! I felt like I could just beat the shit out of all those punks. Excuse my language. And then, when I finish with those punks, I’ll take on all the wife-beaters like Frank Bennett. Machine gun their genitals. Towanda will go on a rampage. I’ll slip tiny bombs into Penthouse and Playboys so they explode when you open them. I’ll ban all fashion models who weigh under 130 pounds. And I’ll give half the military budget to people over sixty-five and declare wrinkles sexually desirable.”

Every one of us could name an all-time favorite movie. They move us, uplift us, make us laugh and sometimes cry. They resonate with us long after the closing credits roll, finding a nesting spot deep within us from which they’ll surface from time to time to bring a smile to our faces. For me, the movie was the 1991 dramedy Fried Green Tomatoes. With award-winning actresses such as Jessica Tandy, Kathy Bates, Mary-Louise Parker, and Mary Stuart Masterson, the stage was set for a parallel story about women, friendship, and finding strength and solidarity in a man’s world.

As writers, we know the importance of storyline, plot, and setting. But in my opinion, a great story is character-driven. Movies and books can take on a variety of milieus, drop us into different time periods, and deliver us to places we’ve never been before, but the characters are what stay with us long after we’ve turned the closing page or returned the TV set to its primordial state of blackness. When we can connect and find symbiosis with a character, we are drawn into their life, regardless of where they live, their age, or what they look like.

In Fried Green Tomatoes, we are introduced to Evelyn, a timid, middle-aged housewife desperate to save her vapid marriage from complete stagnation. A fortuitous friendship develops with Ninny, a soft-spoken, lonely woman in a nursing home who regales Evelyn with stories from her past, giving Evelyn a reason to return time and again, the story developing with each visit. Evelyn has made numerous failed attempts at restoring the sexual fire in her marriage-dieting, wrapping herself in cellophane (you have to see the movie), and attending a class where she’s encouraged to explore her female sexuality.

 Ninny: Now you tell me what’s botherin’ you, sugar.
Evelyn: I just feel so useless. So powerless.
Ninny: Everybody goes through that, but you can’t stop eatin’.
Evelyn: Every day I try and every day I go off. I hide candy bars all over the house.
Ninny: A candy bar ain’t gonna hurt you none.
Evelyn: Oh, no. But ten or eleven? (sigh) I can’t even look at my own vagina.
Ninny: Well now, I can’t help you on that one.

Evelyn eventually discovers self-empowerment by making a connection, vicariously, to an obstinate character in Ninny’s story-Idgy Threadgoode. The movie jumps from Evelyn and Ninny’s 1980s suburbia to a tumultuous 1930s Alabama, linked by Ninny’s story. Ninny, oftentimes in narrative format, draws us into the lives of two young friends, Idgy and Ruth, brought together by chance and inexplicably connected by the powerful love that develops between them.

The movie’s characters are deep yet vulnerable, sucking the viewer into every fragment of their topsy-turvy lives until we and they are intrinsically joined.

As writers, this is our challenge: to create characters that share a humanity with our readers, that demand the reader’s loyalty and make them desire to develop a relationship with them. In part, Fried Green Tomatoes does that by cloaking each character in an attribute or idiosyncrasy that is unique to them, characteristics that we can identify with. Ninny is witty and kind, Evelyn insecure and self-depracating. Ruth is innocent and trusting to a fault while Idgy has developed a thick skin of self-preservation, keeping the world at arm’s length. When thrown together in one story, these characters build on each other’s strengths and break down impenetrable walls. They allow us to believe that anything is possible with a good friend at your side.

The movie also dabbles heavily in the “stuff of life,” the experiences that are the great equalizers of humankind. Idgy’s heart breaks over the death of a brother, and then a best friend. Ninny reconciles herself with aging and mortality. Ruth finds strength in the face of marital abuse, single parenting, and oppressive religious dogma. And Evelyn, of course, finds her spirit, previously lost in disappointing relationships. These, too, are the things that connect us to characters and make us rally around them.

Finally, for me, a memorable movie or book will always include great quotes, little truths surreptitiously wrapped up in humor or acumen. It’s these words of wisdom that linger with us, that come out in colloquial moments among friends, that build our own character.

“After Ruth died and the railroad stopped runnin’, the café shut down and everybody just scattered to the winds. It was never more’n just a little knockabout place, but now that I look back on it, when that café closed, the heart of the town just stopped beatin’. It’s funny how a little place like this brought so many people together.”

* * *

Brenda Sawatzky is a relatively new, unpublished writer hailing from the wide-open prairie spaces of southeast Manitoba. She and her husband of thirty-one years are self-employed and parents to five kids (two ushered in by marriage). She is presently working toward fiction and non-fiction writing for magazines and manages a personal blog.

A guest post by Brenda Sawatzky.