Saturday, January 31, 2015

Ghosts of Ourselves

“I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.''
                                             A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens


During the month of December, bookstores and televisions reminded us that Charles Dickens’s story about Ebenezer Scrooge, a miserly old man who is redeemed, still haunts us 170 years after it was published. There’s something compelling about the idea of ghosts, past, present and future, changing the trajectory of one’s life for the better. For writers, as we embark upon a new year, and time of resolutions, it is useful to think about our past and present in ways that might translate into progress as writers.

Who are the ghosts of our writing past?  Did they encourage or discouraged us? What praise, guidance, and insights were given? Have we acknowledged and utilized the mentoring we’ve received over the years? Or are we weighed down by doubt?  If we were discouraged, have we been carrying those negative thoughts around, allowing them to affect our perceptions of ourselves and our writing? Other people’s pessimism has nothing to do with our writing abilities. Have we let go of other assessments in light of our own, more accurate accounting?

And what are we writing now? Are we writing now? What encourages us to write? What prevents us from writing? Are we writing what we want to write? Or are we allowing circumstances to dictate? There ways we can modify our surroundings, our circumstances, our time, and our income in ways that allow us to work. But are present ghosts keeping us from doing so? What opportunities have we embraced? What have we let slip because of fear or doubt or lack of effort?  What can we change today so we can write?

Finally, what hopes do we hold for our writing? Do we see ourselves continuing to write just for ourselves, or for an audience? Do we imagine our success? What can we do now to accomplish our writing goals?

Interestingly enough, for Scrooge, it’s only when the ghosts of all three – past, present, and future -- are allowed to “strive within” that he becomes a changed man. Writers know all too well that what we write – our characters, our stories, our settings – are affected by who we have been and who we are. As with Scrooge, these ghosts of ourselves can give us new and valuable perspective.  

Paula Castner is a mother of three and a co-founder of Seven Bridge Writers' Collaborative as well as a freelance writer, writing and baking workshop facilitator, and drama director. She receives emails at

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Read A Good Book Lately?

                                                                           Sue Blackwell Book Art

No, really read it—for structure, impact, word choice? That's how writers learn how to improve their craft. Good writing is more than a set of skills lying on the desk, waiting for you to pick them up and create a masterpiece. It's anything but.

There are tools to help construct good sentences, frame articles with just the right story arc, conduct interviews that contribute meaty bites to your work. Good tools make good work. But you have to know what to do with them. And that's where craft comes in. To my mind, craft is a combination of tools, inspiration and sweat.

It takes longer to read a book while trying to absorb lessons in craft. It harkens back to courses you may have taken that involved analysis. You're looking for the sound of the words, their impact, and their hints about what's really going on, what a character is thinking despite what he's saying. Craft goes beyond the written word, exposing tone and truth. 

Better writing also makes your book a more valued experience for writers. For example: When is the story taking place? Is it all in the present tense, the past tense or is it switching? Does the timing add to the story's impact? Do you like to read it?

Sure writers these days jump into the future and tease us with their leaps of fantasy, but that's not something new. Faulkner could tear narrative structure to shreds and produce a wonderful study of family history and pain.

A source to help: "The Mind of Your Story," Lisa Leonard Cook.

Point of view is the toughest task master in writing. Many writers struggle to stay within the narrator's point of view. If that's an all-knowing narrator (omniscient), the job's a little simpler—but not always. Who's talking, and how much does he or she know? Is it a very close, first-person narrator? Several characters, in sequence? A diary? Is it necessary for more than one person to narrate the story in order for readers to experience it fully? Who is telling it best? Do you end up understanding a character better after reading his or her own point of view? Is the narrator being truthful? —some lie, or deceive themselves. POV is tricky and requires some study.

A source to help: "Writing Fiction Step by Step," Josip Novakovich.

Notice the voice of each narrator, and what kinds of detail that person brings to light. Are the words he uses negative? Notice the world he surrounds himself with, or how she reacts to each situation. Analyze how they differ from each other, because you'll want to do that when you write. There's a world of information in each character's response to the world. You may dislike some of them, or find them untrustworthy. You may, as in "Gone, Girl," the novel by Gillian Flynn, find yourself not trusting anyone in the end. Or, it may be that you will only understand that character when the ending is revealed. Keep a notebook and record what you observe, especially if you want to use the technique.

A source to help: "The Making of a Story" Alice LaPlante.

Dialogue can't be wasted with unnecessary comments ("How's the weather, Jeb?" "Oh, I dunno, Mack.") Everything must be included for a reason. Mastering dialogue means mastering flow in a story. These days, writers don't use multiple "he said" and "she said" references as often as they used to. Although readers mostly fly over such references without being bothered, notice how writers do it. Sometimes, it's as simple as this, from T.C. Boyle's "Talk Talk", a novel:

           "I'd love to, but—"
           "But you can't afford it. Because you don't have a job. Right?"
           She dropped her eyes. Used her hands. Right.

It's clear which character is talking, but a whole lot of "said" is not required.
Notice whether the writer even uses quote marks when characters speak. Is the dialogue clear to you, or not?

A source to help: "Revision and Self-Editing," James Scott Bell.

There is so much more one can learn through reading carefully, with an eye to style and technique. In future columns, I'll pursue this area more deeply.

In the meantime, there are other good source materials on the subject, including "Scene & Structure," by Jack M. Bickham and "The Power to Write," by Carolyn Joy Adams, "Stein on Writing," by Sol Stein, "The Art of Fiction," by John Gardner. There are so many good books out there that will help you to understand the art of writing. (See our Writer's Bookshelf page). But you will learn a great deal simply by reading carefully. Give it a go.

Ann Connery Frantz is a cofounder of the Seven Bridge Writers Collaborative in Lancaster, and a retired journalist turned freelance fiction and nonfiction writer and editor. Contact her at

Monday, January 5, 2015

What Is Done In Love

                                       Vincent van Gogh

In celebration of the New Year, and its attendant air of possibility, Seven Bridge Writers’ Collaborative will be hosting its January workshop with a look at inspiration; where it comes from and how we hold on to it.  

Writing is a mysterious process. What sparks our imaginations? How do we optimize creativity? And how do we energize our work and ourselves as writers? Robert Frost once said, “Anybody can get into a poem; it takes a poet to get out of one.” How do you get into a poem or story? What keeps you there? And how do you find your way out again?

There appear to be two camps; those that believe that good writing is a well of inspiration, and those, like E.B. White, who say that writing “... is mainly work, like a mechanic’s job.” For myself, I would say that the division is a false one. Like all the arts, writing is a complex, generative response to being in the world; life itself provides the ingredients, the writer makes the soup.

The word inspiration comes from the Latin, inspirare, to breathe, a useful metaphor for the creative process. As artists we take in; we observe, grasp, savor and smell. And we put out; we imagine, and devise, and construct.  Writing, like respiration, transforms one element into another; the poem, the short story, the novel are master metaphors, translations of life and experience.

Originally, to be inspired, was to be inspirited, that is, to be filled with the spirit of God, to be renewed and enlightened. It is not so far from the classical idea of The Muses, the nine goddess of inspiration, personifications of the human drive for knowledge and artistic expression. As working writers is it comforting to imagine our ideas as somehow outside ourselves, as something found, like a shiny penny, something we can perhaps entice or even control. Insights and ideas are, after all, malleable things, capricious and unreliable. It’s no wonder we attribute human qualities to the artistic process.     

The truth of the matter is that, though we cannot always control, or even recognize inspiration when it strikes, we can optimize our receptivity and work habits. Saturday, January 17th, as part of our Living The Writer’s Life series, we will look at some of the ways writers invite inspiration, how ritual and structure enhance creativity, and how finding our true passions does much of the work for us.

 As Van Gogh said, “Whoever loves much, performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is done well.”  Perhaps the truest route to inspired work is simply that; to love what we do, and to do it as much as we can.

Hollis Shore is a co-founder of the Seven Bridge Writer's Collaborative, and graduate of the Vermont College MFA in Writing For Children and Young Adults program. She was the 2012-13 Boston Public Library Children's Writer in Residence, and a winner of the PEN New England Discovery Award for her novel, The Curve of The World, out for submission shortly. Contact her at