A Great Exchange

swordAn exchange of power between characters is a fantastic way to get a tight rhythm going, whether in dialogue or with a physical struggle.  In Shakespeare’s Rebel, watch how author CC Humphreys handles an exchange of power between his hero John Lawley and John’s friend Will Shakespeare.

At first, John seems stronger than Will:

It was John now who took his friend’s arm. “You have been careful, William?” he asked softly.

“Regarding what?”

“This play.  Its themes.  The times are tender yet and it is only a month since you were called before the Privy Council to answer for Richard the Second.”  He lowered his voice still further.  “They let you off with a warning, I heard. You do not want to test that now.”

“This is different.”

“Indeed?  As I recall the piece, it still features regicide, rebellion, usurpation…”

“All themes well established in Hamlet,”  Shakespeare looked at the activity around him.  “I do but rework an old piece, truly.”

John looked into his friend’s eyes.  “And ghosts, Will?”

“They have always been in the story, too.”

“Not your own.”

Here, John has pushed too far, and now the tables begin to turn as Will shows by his body language as well as his words.

The playwright looked sharply up. “I do not know what you mean.”

Will here takes back his power and now begins to block John at every point. CC Humphreys is a swordsman as well as an author and writer, and he’s skilled at these turnings.  Note that exchanges of power are not limited to struggles between enemies; allies must have them too.

If characters are trading information or threats, if they’re setting up for a trial of strength or a big reveal, writing their meeting with an eye to exchange of power is a mark of exceptional storytelling.

 Shakespeare’s Rebel by CC Humphreys.  Orion Books, London. 2013.



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Writer’s Block: Resources, and Strategies

This week I promised to write up some ways to bypass writer’s block.  If you have more I’d love to hear them. Like sleep mnemonics, it’s wise to change up strategies to keep them effective.

  1. Often “writer’s block” occurs at about a third of the way into the story.  What’s stopping you might well be your own excellent professional intuition, your feel for story.  Because this is where any weaknesses begin to show up and the storytelling energy flags.  Thank your intuition — disguised as “writer’s block” —  because this is the time to address any structural flaws in the first act of your story.  What if you weren’t blocked?  You would have to make changes through the whole thing instead of just the first third or so.  Whew.  Thanks, writer’s block!  To sharpen your first third, here are some strategies and resources:
    • The best way I have found to strengthen Act 1 of a short story or novel is to visit the masters of story structure:  screenwriters.  Visit and listen to the superb five minute talks on Act 1.  Read Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.  Take out your favourite films and examine the first 8 of 24 chapters.
    • Re-outline your first act, and use the screenwriter’s rule of 15:  make a list of 15 different ways you could have opened the story, could have established tone, setting, saved Blake Snyder’s Cat, etc.  That’s 15 each.  You’ll be digging so deep you’ll be sweating.  It’s worth the effort.
    • Cut your story from the beginning, page by page or chapter by chapter, saving all for possible use as backstory later.  Do this until you reach a moment when the energy seems fantastic and your character is making a strong choice, preferably a sacrifice.  This is the point that no matter how irascible, misguided or irresponsible, your protagonist is a hero.  When you and the reader desire what your hero desires it’s easy to write what the hero will do next.
    • Use Donald Maass’s brilliant advice: think what your character would never do, and have her do it — believably.  This is possibly the best recipe for character development ever devised.   And buy his books and attend his talks if you possibly &Pen small
  2. Trust your craft and story prompts.  Record yourself reading story prompts (I record Dale Adams Segal‘s Hour Stories for my own use) and set yourself in your best writing spot with a timer and the knowledge that your talent never has and never will fail you.  The story prompts set your inner writer on autopilot. If you try this and nothing happens, do return to point 1 in this article and try one of the preparations again.
  3. You love writing. Remember what that feels like.  As often as you may, for a few moments imagine yourself where you want to be.  Picture yourself in your best writing spot.  See your hand moving your pen across paper, your fingers tapping at your keyboard.  Feel the smile on your face.  Think, I love writing.  Think, And I’m very good.  And my characters rock.

In a writers’ life as in a writer’s work, pacing is everything, and there have to be times of rest and beauty.  Writer’s block is the eye of the storm.  It’s a moment of reflection, a pause to gather strength.  Don’t worry, because your work has been, will be, and is, wonderful.

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50 Shades of Fan Fiction

I’ll admit I only made it through a quarter of 50 Shades of Grey.  It needed an editor, but more importantly, it needed to be free.  It needed to be free of the patriarchal misogynistic stereotypes that are so easily embraced and overdone by romance fiction writers, but also, it needed to become its own book.  Writing fan fiction is like writing a Hollywood script and labelling the characters as famous actors, or in this case, as “played by Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson.”  It steals backstory from other films, and leaves a void of storytelling so that new audiences are lost and feel something is missing.

I’ve read the Twilight series and enjoyed it.  As a romance reader, I appreciated the uniquely insurmountable barrier between the two lovers.  It was a well designed difficulty: if you kiss, you die.  Nice problem.   Romance is all about love overcoming obstacles, and romance readers want to see that love conquers all, even vampires.  But 50 Shades of Grey is fan fiction that tries to stand on its own feet and fails.  Granted, it has been a huge commercial success because sex sells; but behind the titillation there’s no substance.

Because 50 Shades lost the vampire problem it has much weaker obstacles than Twilight.  It has a less interesting barrier with a messed-up male protagonist/antagonist (I’m not sure which he really is).  After a few more tinkers down the road, the weakened plot and weakened characters have become so watered down that they are fifty shades lighter than the original.

Writing fan fiction can be a fun chance to play in someone else’s universe.  It can also be excellent practice for honing your craft.  And like any craft, writing takes practice.  After all, most composers learn to play other people’s songs before they create their own masterpieces.  However, make sure your borrowed characters face obstacles that are at least as interesting and challenging as those created by their own author.  Otherwise you’ll just be writing fifty shades of bland.




The Love Offices

As a Valentine’s day treat we have an excerpt of the whimisical story ‘The Love Offices, Josephine, and Valentino’s’ by emerging UK author Kirsty Favell.  Kirsty’s first novel, The Magical Adventures of the Oldest Rockers in Town, will be published later this year, and you’ll be able to read all of Amoredo, Josephine and Vinnie’s story very soon in Pulp Literature issue 6.

The Love Offices

You don’t necessarily need a business mind to understand it but it can help.  Amoredo was a long-time employee of Cupid.  It had been suggested that he try for promotion many times over the long years but it had never interested him.  He’d seen the Love Offices tied up in red tape.  People had become so nervous about breaking hearts.  According to the Research Department there was a better chance of success if you let people fall in love gradually over an extended period.  Well, Amoredo thought, you can’t make an omelette without breaking hearts.  Research wasn’t why he had got into this game.  He was an old, experienced angel and they pretty much left him to get on with things.

He could tell Cupid was just toeing the line.  He was always in strategic meetings these days.  His eyes had lost some of their sparkle and the job had lost something important.


Down on earth, Vinnie worked at Valentino’s Bowling Alley, Dance, and Diner, next to the barber shop.  He polished the chrome and attended to the customers very well, but the part of the job he loved most was the Lost and Found shelf.  This was his responsibility.  You would be surprised at the many and varied things the patrons of Valentino’s left behind:   a broken toilet seat, a suitcase full of miniature Statues of Liberty, a photograph album stuffed with pictures of a lady in her underwear.  (Vinnie especially liked his job on that particular shift.)   

The official system was that Vinnie catalogued the date an item was lost and attached a code to it, like a little toe tag.  To ensure that Valentino’s didn’t begin to resemble a junk yard, Vinnie was ordered to throw items out with the garbage when they reached their one-month anniversary on the shelf.  But Vinnie always felt this was a heartless waste, so he had devised a system of his own.  He studied the Items Wanted section of the newspaper.  If an item had reached its lost-by date he saw no harm in selling it on (at a very reasonable price).  He was an honest man and saw this not as a dishonest act but more as a service.  


Josephine liked to collect things.  She’d shuffle around crowded thrift stores, pushing past hand-me-down smells, and pick up objects, imagining their past lives and their new home within her home.  Each new piece was another new friend, with a collection of memories and a surface that felt nice to touch.

Today on her lunch break she had found an orange teapot that had probably been used by the Queen of England in the Swinging Sixties, and a heart-shaped brooch which reminded her of some words her daddy, God rest his sweet soul, said to her.  

“Jo-Jo,” he said (because that is what he called her and that is how his voice sounded, real deep and low, like Elvis), “never try to hold onto anything except your heart.  Don’t lose it, little darlin’, and don’t give it away.  But don’t be afraid to let it go”.

She pinned that sparkling heart to her western lapel, and the bell on the door signalled her grand exit into the dust and sun like she was the town sheriff.

Read the rest of ‘The Love Offices’ in the Spring issue of Pulp Literature, due out in April.

Writer’s Block, Logic, and Trust

The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘writer’s block’ as the condition of being unable to think of what to write or how to proceed with writing.

“I haven’t written in a week. It’s like holding your breath under water. You feel an awful constriction and then the instinct to propel yourself.”
-D. A. Botta

“I have found repeatedly hitting my head with a mallet doesn’t help at all, so I am open to suggestions.”
-Steve Merrick

Every successful author is expected to answer interview questions about Writer’s Block.

Read enough of the answers and it’s clear that consensus among writers is that Writer’s Block arises from a crisis of trust in our own writing talent.  And there are useful strategies we can bring to it.  We can deal with the the block on the inside — by acknowledging the talent for writing that has carried us thus far — and on the outside — by working on our WIP outlines.

First, the outer writer:  if you have written an outline, then the difficulty is no longer what you’re going to write but if you’re going to write.

Second, the inner writer:  trust your talent.  You’re a writer because your talent drives you.  It always has and it always will.  Therefore, it’s no longer if you’re going to write but when you’re going to write.

In our ridiculously busy lives, when is not so easy.  Still, time management for writers, as opposed to bugaboo writer’s block (see how I removed the capitals there?) is a much more positive and enterprising problem to think about.

Next time, a couple of tricks for using outlines, story cards, and writing prompts to help stride boldly past the block back into your WIP.

The writing table.  Photo by Rosie Perera

Bowen Island Writing Retreat

Old Dorm

The Lodge at the Old Dorm. Photo by Rosie Perera

The Muse showed up. That’s all you really need to know.  If you’re a writer, you’ll know how that tastes, feel the warmth it creates, know how time stands still as you see the path forward, see the world laid out at your feet…

At the Tuscany Restaurant. Photo by Rosie Perera

At the Tuscany Restaurant. Photo by Rosie Perera

Our weekend on Bowen Island consisted of six participants and four teachers, and using the Hour Stories cards, we shared over 30,000 words of productivity together.  Those words were read aloud in every available space over the weekend, before meals and before ferries.  And that doesn’t even include the time we spent opening our eyes to beauty with Sandra Vander Schaaf, taking walks in the forest, enjoying fabulous food and good company, and winding down over drinks late into the night.

We’d like to thank all our participants for sharing their words and love of stories with us all, Rosie Perera for capturing the memories with lovely photos, and Karen Cowper for opening her beautiful home to us for our first evening meal.

Reading together. Photo by Rosie Perera

Reading in the lounge. Photo by Rosie Perera

photo by Rosie Perera

Photo by Rosie Perera

To give yourself the gift of a retreat is to devote time with the Muse, and protect that time from the distractions of this life.  Our collective writing momentum built during our days together, and it was hard to part with these storytellers, knowing that the words would continue to flow beyond each others’ hearing.

The feedback has been so positive that we plan to have another retreat soon, and not only at Bowen, but in France.  Keep your eyes on our retreats page for details.  Yes, we’re listening to the Muse this year.  She’s calling from far away, and together, we’re going to find her!


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Show your love all year

Flowers fade and chocolate disappears all too quickly, but a gift subscription to Pulp Literature lights up your loved one’s face all year with four big issues filled with delicious stories.bedside reading

For the first two weeks of February we’re helping you share the love.  When you order two subscriptions your second one is 50% off.  But hurry, the offer ends at midnight on Valentine’s Day!

Click here for the February Lovebirds’ Special

Seeker's Bane, P.C.Hodgell

Mapping the Action

“Remember in your story that setting is the other character. It is as important to your story as the people in it because it gives them context and can ideally be used to heighten drama and tension, depending on where it is.” — Rob Parnell

And Then There Were None , Agatha Christie

And Then There Were None , Agatha Christie

The best, most effective, time and editor-saving way to make your setting real is to find or draw a map. This holds whether the whole thing takes place in a single room, on an airplane, in Vancouver, in the bowels of the London Tube station, or on an imagined planet in an alternate universe.

There is no better way to keep the action straight. You don’t need to know how to draw—as long as you can scratch and scribble, keep it by you. Draw upon it. Make notes for revision.

And then maybe someday an artist will ink it all in, to make fantastic endpapers for your novels.


Journey Prize

It is a lovely irony of literature that the largest Canadian prize for short fiction was endowed by an American.  James A. Mitchener’s Canadian royalties from his 1988 novel Journey fund the $10,000 Journey prize, or at least they used to, since the prize is now officially called “The Writers’ Trust of Canada/McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize.”  (It is also a literary irony that a man known for his lengthy novels — remember The Source? – endowed a short fiction prize; but Mitchener won a Pulitzer for his excellent collection Tales of the South Pacific.)

The truly fantastic aspect of the Journey prize is that it does not go into the coffers of writers who’ve made it in the publishing world, but to writers just getting started and who need both the money and the encouragement that this prize affords.  Nominees are “new and developing Canadian writers during the early stages of their career…  Writers who have published more than three books of fiction, or who have won national awards for their fiction, or whose fiction has already received substantial attention are not eligible for consideration.”

Part of Pulp Literature’s mandate is to publish works from emerging writers, so we had lots of material to choose from.  It was hard to choose only three stories, but after borrowing editions of past winners from the library, we three editors made our choices as to which stories stood the best chances of winning.  We are proud to announce and congratulate Pulp Literature’s three nominees for the Journey Prize:Mich_journey_1st_ed

SL Nickerson, ‘Only the Loons Know’
Pulp Literature Issue 1, Winter 2014

Trevor Shikaze, ‘The Tun’
Pulp Literature Issue 2, Spring 2014

Ace Baker, ‘Victory Girl’
Pulp Literature Issue 4, Autumn 2014

Best of luck to these deserving authors.  We’re rooting for you!


Swallows Contest Open

The Swallows Sequential Short Story Contest opened on New Year’s Day, and I’m thrilled to announce that the fine folks at The Comicshop in Vancouver will be our judges.  Not only do veteran funny-book connoisseurs Brent, Keith, and Tim have a fine eye for the best in comic book art and storytelling, they’ve been managing my comics reading list for years and I have utter faith in their judgement.

What are we looking for in this contest?  Aside from the nitty gritty details of size and format, which you can find on the Contests page, we are looking for what we always want between the pages of Pulp Literature:  beautiful art and good storytelling.  To give you an idea of our taste here are a few sample pages from previous sequential shorts we’ve published.

mechanics_p1 sample

‘The Mechanics’ by Angela Melick

‘Unwanted Visitors’ by Kris Sayer


‘Dragon Rock’ by Sylvia Stopforth & Mel Anastasiou

'The Wolf' by Kimberleigh Roseblade & JM Landels

‘The Wolf’ by Kimberleigh Roseblade & JM Landels

So sharpen your pencils, get out your brushes and digital pens and send us your best 1 to 5 page long short comic.  The earlybird entry fee is only $20 until January 15th, which includes an e-subscription to Pulp Literature, and the contest deadline is February 15th.  First prize is $500 plus publication in issue 7 of Pulp Literature, alongside feature author Robert J Sawyer!

Contest rules and guidelines are here.