Tag Archives: Technique

Character Fairy Dust

by Marcie Schwindt

Image: Nutdanai Apikhomboonwaroot / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

What makes a character unforgettable? You know the ones I mean—the hero who makes you want to be a better, smarter, cooler person; the villain that keeps you awake at night; the side-kick who captured your imagination.
I’ve received tons of advice on how to make a character likeable. I’ve followed all of it, but have never quite been satisfied with the results. And so began my quest for Character Fairy Dust—that magical ingredient to elevate my characters from predictable to iconic. While I’ve yet to find one all-encompassing formula, I have discovered a few truths that work for me.

  • All characters, regardless of hat colour, benefit from being written in “shades of grey”. No one is perfectly good or perfectly evil, or even perfectly stereotypical, so characters shouldn’t be either. Sometimes good people make bad choices. A villain can still antagonize your main character while otherwise seeming an upstanding citizen. Who’s scarier—your kid’s favourite babysitter who is secretly a serial killer, or a known ‘mad-scientist’ who keeps himself locked in his isolated castle in the forest?
  • Contradictions and obsessions create conflict and make characters interesting. For example, my playboy character “kisses like a fish”. Confusion over how that’s even possible makes the reader question their assumptions and guess at what else about him they may be surprised by. What does your ‘neat-freak’ have hidden in his/her junk drawer?
  • I rely heavily on dialogue to move my story along. If each of my characters didn’t have a distinct voice or viewpoint, the text would be littered with he saids and she saids. Some of my characters are witty, some direct, some shy, heavily accented, or speak in clichés or catch phrases. Some are even silent.
  • At least once in my text a main character will solve a problem in an unexpected way—oh the things MacGyver could do with a paperclip and chewed gum…

How do you make your characters live on in your reader’s mind?

Marcie Schwindt loves to read and write fast-paced, character and travel driven stories. She writes under the names Marcie Schwindt, Marcie Walker, and Amber Willow and can be found on Twitter @marcie8

A “Building Block of Verse”

by April Bulmer

I’m not one for traditional rhyme (though no one would suspect given my choice of birthday cards), but do appreciate assonance in poems.

Image: Ventrilock / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

What is assonance?

Technically speaking it is the repetition of a vowel sound with different consonants, or the same consonant with different vowels in lines of literature or poetry. For example stony and holy or mystery and mastery.

But put simply, it is a resemblance of sounds in syllables or words, especially of vowels. Lake and fake demonstrate the concept of rhyme, whereas lake and fate assonance. Thus, it is also referred to as “vowel rhyme.”

Wikipedia tells us that this internal rhyme within phrases or sentences “serves as one of the building blocks of verse…It is used in (mainly modern) English-language poetry, and is particularly important in Old French, Spanish and the Celtic languages.”

It is characteristic of Emily Dickinson’s verse, as well as the work of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Dylan Thomas.

Assonance is used to emphasize the meanings of words or to create a mood. Examples of assonance are sometimes a challenge to locate in a poem because they can operate subconsciously and are often subtle. The long vowel sounds (“o”) can drag the pace and create a sombre tone, while high sounds (“i”) often accelerate the energy of the piece.

I wrote a poem recently in which I utilized assonance more than any other literary vehicle. The repetition of the long “o” sound is intended to underscore the main character’s mourning over her lost child. She is dramatic and vocal and expresses the visceral ache of her grief as a kind of moan. This sound is juxtaposed against the assonance of the final stanza where a long “e” sound is created beginning with the word “heal.” Here, I wished to summon a kind of female energy. A return to life, a zeal.

Lucille Sky: Temple

I rose like dough.
My breasts like loaves.

But Blessed Virgin
took her in swaddling clothes.

Her voice rose
with the lament of crows,
though she visits in dreams
and in the dim.

I packed a soft valise:
flannel blankets, a tortoise comb,
the scent of my shadow–
an offering of sage and tobacco.

My heart the slow root
of sumac.
The seasons of woman-blood:
reap and sow.

I am a half-breed
from the lake’s
wide hip.
I plait my hair,
anoint with the breath
of bonfire
my lobes.

Though the Amen Corner
is the place I heal.
My womb a temple
of ripening fruit,
healthy as an apple.
Red and white root.
Core of flesh and seed
and peel.

April Bulmer

poem written with support from

April Bulmer has published six books of poetry. The most recent is entitled The Goddess Psalms (Serengeti Press, 2008). She has graduate degrees in creative writing, religious studies and theological studies and often writes about issues pertaining to women and spirituality. April received Ontario Arts Council funding through Black Moss Press in Windsor for her new manuscript “Temples.” She is grateful for this support. Contact her at aprilb (at) golden.net

On Writing Poetry

Reflections nurture the writing of poems; my poems keep on feeding reflections
by Barbara Lefcourt

Image: Evgeni Dinev / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

My first poem was born one autumn about ten years ago as I studied glorious sunset photos taken the previous summer at our cottage. I was gripped by the notion that the visuals needed words for the complex feelings we had as we sat on lakeshore rocks in the sun’s shifting glow. I continued on to write about many facets of the natural world: homage to other life, connections to eternity, nature’s threatening forces. I also focus a lot on personal relationships paying particular attention to sensual pleasures, regrets and human foibles.

My strategy in creating a poem developed quite unconsciously in those first attempts. There is always a beginning thought that generates deep-seated feelings. The ending comes to mind, often at the same time. Then the process of getting from start to finish by summoning up metaphors and images to flesh out connecting thoughts and feelings becomes most absorbing and satisfying. I often find myself wandering down “side roads” and must decide whether they add to the poem’s strength or are extraneous.

Occasionally I do research if I care deeply about an issue I wish to write about and need to be better informed. However, poems mostly grow from my desire to capture special moments in life’s journey. Early on, I had no strong wish to see my work published but, through membership in the Cambridge Writers Collective, I found encouragement to submit work to many venues and have been gratified to find some of my work well received for publication and in having been awarded a few prizes for poetry.

I treasure human connections that happen from revealing one’s self through poetry. On Sunday, November 1st 2009, as part of a church service in honor of loved ones who had passed away that year, I read several poems that were about aspects of my sister’s recent decline and death. Afterwards, many folks in the congregations hugged and thanked me for sharing thoughts and feelings they too had experienced but had never found the right words for.

by Barbara Lefcourt

of cushy chocolate velvet
that commodious easy chair
in those early years
my favourite focus at home

when little, stretched out
on Mom’s lap, I’d gaze at pictures
in the treasured books she’d read
as we munched peanuts

beneath lamp’s halo, the chair’s
clasping arms and generous breadth
nestled me in adventures, gave solace
through pages and ages of growing up

lengthening, strengthening to finally
fly away, I never noticed its skin thinning
and, once, on a visit home I saw
the carpet there, bare

the chair returned ready to accommodate
in dress of modish design, silky and stiff
a guest’s perch, now in waiting
for polite, casual conversation

By Barbara Lefcourt

the sea is calm today
complacent glass

feather clouds
shoreline trees
cottage retreats
in shimmer

scattered boaters
float to the welcome
dot with colour
the distant blue
glisten beneath
a munificent sun

come into the scene
amble wherever you please
play your games
gorge on the plenty
these sweet moments

waft on the fine
balancing of forces

that inevitable storm
shatters the sea
into an infinity
of crashing
black-white shards

Barbara Lefcourt was born, raised and educated in New York City and moved to Kitchener-Waterloo with her young family in 1964. She had taught elementary school before staying home to raise three children. She became a member of the CWC in 2003 after starting to write poetry around the time she retired from her mid-life career as teacher of Literacy and Basic Skills for Adults.

It’s All About the Art!

by Diane Attwell Palfrey

Image: africa / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A couple of years ago, I was approached by an Oakville artist who wanted me to write her “artist statement”. Most of my recent work was dabbling in poetry and I wasn’t sure I was up for the challenge. The right message was so important to the artist and after some consideration, I agreed to write the text for a specific piece of art that was featured in the exhibition.

I spent a few hours researching “the artist statement”. Ideas on how to write an artist statement are as diverse as writing bios. Everyone has an opinion of content, length and what is considered appropriate. But after several e-mail messages, a few phone calls, several pictures of the work in progress and the finished piece – I was able to construct the first draft.

This artist is known for her work with the model – sculpting and painting the nude. Her work is organic, raw and primal. It was paramount that the statement conveyed her truths, but that the piece be open to interpretation by the viewer. I also had to ensure that I wasn’t putting my spin into the verbiage. I kept reminding myself that my ideas about the huge canvas covered with entwined bodies – were merely my ideas and I didn’t want my thoughts to impact the reader. It was a difficult task with such a beautifully haunting piece of work. During our conversations, I found that the artist’s beliefs and visions for her work are very similar to my ideas about poetry. I like my work to convey who I am, but at the same time I like some ambiguity so the reader can walk away with their own viewpoint.

The final statement was several paragraphs and captured the essence of the
artist and her work – with just enough evasiveness to leave the audience
creating their own opinions. I feel about art the way I feel about poetry. And the late Gilda Radnor summoned it up beautifully in her quote “I always wanted a happy ending… Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious ambiguity.”

Note* As payment for my services, the artist let me select a piece of work from one of her collections. It is now proudly displayed in my home. As writers, we have numerous opportunities to use our craft. Sometimes all we need to do is just meander outside of the box.

Diane was born in Toronto and has lived in Cambridge for the past twenty-two
years. She is a poet and prose writer. Diane is a member of the Cambridge
Writers Collective and has poetry published by the Waterloo-Wellington CAA,
Serengeti Press, Craigleigh Press, Hammered Out, The Ontario Poetry Society,
Cruickston Charitable Research Reserve/RARE, & Ascent Aspirations Magazine. Diane is also the first place winner of the Cambridge Arts Festival Poetry Contest for 2009 and 2010.

Bringing Characters to Life

by Michelle Mills

Image: digitalart / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

When I first started writing prose it was like experiencing first-love all over again—the epic kind.  This was not just another creative hobby—one in a long line in which I’d dabbled—I’d found my soul mate in a journal.  I’m going to write a book, I decided after composing my first short story.  My imagination was in over-drive and my determination was fierce, but I’d yet to master some of the critical techniques. I was heavy on the narrative [yawn], and I wasn’t overly skilled at distinguishing my characters through dialogue [dangerous]. I didn’t want to bore and sedate my readers—after all, I quite likemy book club and writing critique group friends!  But I wouldn’t be offended if they ordered take-out instead of cooking dinner, and then stayed up all night because they couldn’t put my book down …  I might not be there yet, but I’ve made some inroads with my dialogue.  Recently, the most positive feedback I’ve been granted relates to my dialogue and character development:  “You have a gift for bringing your characters to life.”  “Your characters are 3D.” These were tremendous compliments, as somehow I’d managed to turn my weakness into what I hope is an entertaining and believable rhythm of dialogue.

How did I transition my writing?  I paid careful attention to the feedback I was getting from my critique group; I read numerous books and articles about my craft, and I continued to write, and write, and rewrite. I am still learning, but I’ve discovered a few things along the way that work well for me:

Get intimate with your characters
In order to express your characters effectively, you need to know them intimately first.  Pretend you are their shrink—go beyond the questions you might ask an interesting new acquaintance, as well as the questions that would get you punched in real life.  The latter is crucial; you need to know what makes them tick, and understand what their motives are.  It is also important to understand the reasoning behind their actions, however delusional it might be.  It could be psychological or circumstantial, or a combination of both.   We all know we should do this, but not everyone does, or we mistakenly focus on character sketches for the protagonist, hero, and villain, and then neglect our supporting characters.

Um, uh …you know what I mean…
Cut this stuff out!  People say these things in real life, but they serve no purpose and will do nothing other than stifle your conversations and bore your reader.  Be realistic, but concise—employ your dialogue to propel your story forward or develop your characters.  Watch out for those “couch potato” words that merely expand the waistline of your novel’s word count, but do little else—they need to go!

Make your reader laugh!
Jeannette Walls, author of the Glass Castle has it right.  Regardless of how serious your topic is, timely injections of humour keep the reader engaged and wanting more.  I like to accomplish this through dialogue.

“For crying out loud—don’t you two have anything better to do than argue over what kind of tea you’re drinking?  It’s EARL GREY for heaven’s sake,” Alice yanked up the label with an arthritic hand—“says so on the tag!”

I envy the writers in my group who put pen to paper and the words flow as delicious and smooth as melted chocolate.  I can only do that if I have solitude, and I’ve played the scene in my mind like a movie first.  I watch the characters, their facial expressions and their movements, and listen to what they are saying—then I write it down.

Strick a balance – Narrative vs. Dialogue
It is important to appeal to the five-senses of the reader, and this is where the narrative plays an important role; dialogue alone cannot accomplish this.  It would be odd—disturbing even—if a character was to say this:

“Claudia, it’s so nice to see you on this exquisite May morning of 2011.  The scent of spring flowers is in the air, tiny birds are chirping a cheerful song and the sky is as lavender as Elizabeth Taylor’s eyes.  Your gold sandals, breezy white sundress and spiraling, raven hair are reminiscent of a Greek goddess—you are beautiful.  I’m guessing you are in your mid-thirties?”

If someone ever said that to me, I would respond like this:

“I have to go …please don’t follow me.”

Having said that, it isn’t a good idea to rely too heavily on the narrative—your prose should not resemble a speech.  There should be a harmonious and effective mixture of dialogue and narrative:

“Hurry, Matt.  My mother’s gonna kill me—I was supposed to be home by nine.”

“I’m coming.”  Matthew assured, springing to her side.  “But no one’s going to kill you,” he chuckled, “at least not today.  These are for you.  Happy Birthday.”  Matthew pressed the flowers into her hand with a shy grin before turning away.

“They’re beautiful, thanks.”  Emily’s cheeks grew warm.

Matthew shrugged his shoulders, “You’re welcome.”

Emily narrowed her eyes mischievously when he wouldn’t meet her gaze.  “Do you always blush this much when you give flowers to a girl?” She smiled at him when he dared to face her once again, her silver braces reflective in the sunlight.

Sources of Inspiration
Dialogue should be interesting and dramatic.  As a writer, I feel as though I’m always collecting tidbits and storing them in my mind or inside a journal.

  • Reminisce:  Dig deep into the attic of your mind.  You’ll find all kinds of characters, anecdotes, sights, sounds and smells.  Why not build that weird uncle or neurotic cousin into your story?
  • Eavesdrop:  I was at Starbucks once and a lady described a baby as “a cottage-cheese factory.”  I thought it was a gem, and her comment made its way into the dialogue of a short story I was writing
  • Dreams:  I feel especially creative in the morning when my mind is fresh from dreams.  A journal and pen are always beside my bed
  • The News:  They say that truth is often stranger than fiction—so true.  The news is also an excellent source of determining how the law deals with crimes in specific regions.
  • Media:  Our world is saturated with media—it’s everywhere.  Take advantage of the inspiration that is available at your fingertips, whether it’s in the form of Google, or a glossy magazine.
  • Pay close attention to your surroundings: I once saw an older man who walking through the streets alone, wearing a gaping hospital gown that revealed his underwear. From this I formed the character of a man with Alzheimer’s and a big secret.
  • Read often:  You will be influenced by what you read, so read books from authors that inspire you in the genre of which you are writing.  Take note of what bores you and what captures your interest.

Michelle Mills resides in South Western Ontario with her family and is a member of the Cambridge Writers Collective.  She is excited to be working on her first romantic suspense novel.

What Makes A Good Ending to a Poem?

by Elizabeth McCallister

photo from FreeFoto.com

The first thing to remember when writing any poem is that each and every word is significant. Every poem should be an organic whole. A good ending is no more or less important than a good beginning. One image or series of lines does not make a poem no matter how good they might be. The poem needs to be built around them.

A second step to understanding what makes a good ending might be to examine some of your favourite pieces of poetry. Are the endings effective? Analyze how the poet built up the poem to its ending. If I look at two of my favourite poems, I can see how each poet has crafted the ending. First, “Mia Carlotta” by Thomas Daly is a comic piece about a barber who has his choice of many women except the narrator’s Carlotta. Daly used a dialect to help create the voice of the narrator and the poem ends with the lines:

“But notta –
You bat my life, notta –
I gotta!”

The ending of the poem suits the rest of the poem. The narrator’s voice and point of view are consistent and the poem ends on a triumphant note.

The second poem is “Bishop Hatto” by Thomas Southey. This ballad tells the story of a bishop who burns the starving in a barn and calls them rats. Southey takes the reader on a journey from the bishop’s actions to his flight to his final judgement.

Both of these poems are older but if you look at modern poems; you’ll be able to see how modern poets craft great endings. Some that I’ve read recently are in Dave Margoshes’ collection The Horse Knows the Way, specifically, the endings to the poems “To The Station” and “Scars”. Also, I like Ann Joyce’s ending to her poem “Her Six Sons Carried Her” in her collection Watching for Signs.

Most of us write lyrical or narrative poetry. If poetry is a new way of looking at something through a series of images creating a specific rhythm, beat and sound, a good ending must match the rest. Remember what kind of poem that you are writing. If you’re writing a humorous poem, don’t end it on a serious note or vice versa. If you’re writing from a particular point of view, remain in that point of view throughout the poem. While the ending of a poem is its climax, avoid hitting the reader over the head with the moral or meaning you’re trying to get across. If you find yourself doing that as I do, take out those last few lines and see what happens. Sometimes, the image before the “I’m going to tell you what the poem is about” lines is the best ending.

Finally, in all the great endings that I’ve read, I find usually the poet has taken me on a complete journey through the poem that ends in a crescendo. I’m left feeling only “yes” and “perfect”.

Elizabeth McCallister grew up in Scarborough now resides in Brantford. She is currently a member of the Cambridge Writers Collective, enjoys poetry readings and has been a winner in Cambridge Libraries’ Poem A Day contest.