Word Works Online

  • 7 Jul 2021 5:36 AM | Anonymous

    By Ruth DyckFehderau


    Invariably, for me, memorable stories have one thing in common: believable, well-developed characters. In fact, I’d say a good story is driven NOT by plot at all, but by a character managing obstacles. “Plot,” Stephen King says, in On Writing, “is…the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice. The story which results from it is apt to feel artificial and labored.” Or, worse, clichéd, brittle, exhausted, and stereotyped.

    If readers are to buy into a character, they need a vivid, utterly convincing, sensory reality. If it’s not specific enough, they won’t buy in. If it’s clichéd, then it’s not specific enough. They need characters complex enough not to be exploited by reductive everyone-in-this-category-is-the-same fantasies, rich enough not to be boring, fleshed out enough that any single event doesn’t define her/him/them. “Nice” is not a detail, and “queer” is not a personality trait.

    ***

    The best technique I’ve found for creating that believable reality is to really know my characters so that I can anticipate what they would do or say in any situation. I do this, first, by researching real people who have a thing or two in common with the characters. People in the same line of work, perhaps, or people who move in similar social circles, or who’ve lived in the same region at the same time. I look at catalogues or newspapers they may have read or television shows/YouTube videos they might have watched. Increasingly, even for researching historical fiction, such resources are online.

    The second thing I do, and which I’ll explain here at greater length, is to create an emotional resumé for each character – an imagined backstory that explains the character’s feelings and mindset and worldview, that drives the choices she/he/they make, that can determine how the character negotiates the obstacles I throw in the path.

    For instance:

    On what side of the tracks was her childhood home? How did that affect her? Does she have siblings? What was the family dynamic? What is it now?

    What was his first summer job? What were his high school grades in chemistry? In music?

    Do their dialogue and diction reflect their hometown? Their reading habits? Their education? Do their gestures and body language reveal their mindset? Or is there something of a disconnect or façade? If so, why?

    Is she articulate? Or does she fumble her words?

    Does he have an iPhone? If so, what colour? How old is it?

    Are they near-sighted? Does their voice take a nasal tone? If so, do they know?

    Is she handy with a spade or an axe? Where did she pick up the skill?

    Has he ever lied on a resumé? About what?

    What does he read/watch? And in what format?

    What do they prefer to wear? How often do they wear hats, and what kind? How do they feel about socks and sandals? About unpolished shoes? About stilettos?

    What kind of car does she want? What kind of car does she drive? How does she feel about standard transmissions? How does she drive? Where on the steering wheel does she place her hands?

    Manwich or croissant? Steak or tofu? Deep-fried or broiled? Beer or prosecco? Food allergies? To what? How do they feel about the Carolina Reaper? Or the much-milder Scotch bonnet? About tartare? About flavoured liqueurs?

    What/who does he really need to control? Or not need to control? What happens when he loses control of something important to him? Does he have vestigial anxieties from formative events in which he was powerless? What does his anxiety look like? White knuckles? A super-human calm? Instant body heat? An addiction?

    How would they defend, say, an act of theft? Or a cheating partner?

    How would they respond to forgetting their wallet? To accidentally emailing the whole listserve? To deadlines? Barking dogs? Snow falling down the collar? Wearing black pants that rip on the day they wear yellow underwear? To Trump being re-elected? To recycling services being shut down? To electricity going down for a week? To missing the last bus?

    Does she ignore or stomp in or prance through puddles?

    How thoroughly does she clean her flat? Does her demeanour change if someone is watching her clean? Or if they’re angry at her?

    Would he use the word “panties”? How does he feel about Bitcoin? Rihanna? Chopin? Board games? Vaccines? Winter camping? The Indian Act? A Black Lives Matter protest? A Pride march? Evangelicalism? The Gaza strip being bombed? About whatever event is in the news right now?

    If they lived next door to you, what would piss you off?

    What are their short- and long-term goals? What are the goals they won’t admit to having?

    What do you see as her strengths/weaknesses? What does she see as her strengths/ weaknesses?

    Do his behaviours make sense to you? To him? To whom might they seem irrational?

    And then there are all the questions about specific cultural, racial, or religious backgrounds…

    Believable characters grapple with power, with their place in the world, even when they think they’re grappling with the condo board or with dandelion roots. Beyond identity, what does your character grapple with? Why, exactly, do the condo board or dandelion roots stir up emotion? A well-crafted story has no good or bad characters, no sassy gay sidekicks or heart-of-gold sex workers. In their own stories, all the characters are protagonists. So who do they think they are?

    ***

    Obviously, even over the course of a long novel, I’d never use all of this backstory. The point is that, with the answer to each question, I understand a little more about the personality behind the character. And the more I understand, the easier it is to write her/him/them in ways that are credible and compelling.



    About the Author

    Ruth DyckFehderau writes fiction and nonfiction, and teaches Creative Writing and English Lit at University of Alberta. Her shorter pieces have appeared in literary journals and anthologies, her book The Sweet Bloods of Eeyou Istchee: Stories of Diabetes and the James Bay Cree (2017 CBHSSJB, distrib WLUP), written with James Bay Cree storytellers, is currently being translated into five languages, and I (Athena), a novel, is forthcoming in 2023 (NeWest). Currently, Ruth is working on another commission for the James Bay Cree: Finding Our Way Home: Residential School Recovery Stories of the James Bay Cree (Vol 1 forthcoming 2022, CBHSSJB, distrib WLUP). She has won many literary awards


  • 16 Jun 2021 3:41 PM | Jessica Cole (Administrator)

    The Federation’s annual conference for writers is one of the highlights of our year. In 2021, things looked a little different than they have in years past. Due to the pandemic, we were unable to gather in person, so we offered an online event instead: the BC Writers’ Summit. This week of Zoom-based programming encouraged writers to cross genre boundaries, write in new mediums, and engage with new audiences. It was a week of insights and inspiration for attendees and staff alike.

    I caught up with a few of our newest staff members post-event and asked them to share their favourite moments from the Summit. Here are their responses:

    What was the highlight of the Writers' Summit for you? Did you have a favourite presentation, insight, or moment?

    Tara: I loved Nisha Patel's performance!

    Amber: I was brought to tears by two readings over the course of the summit. One was from Angie Abdou during Megan Cole's Creative Non-Fiction Panel. The other was by Vicki McLeod during the closing gala. I can't say why each overwhelmed me. Ms. Abdou wrote about a changing marriage and how to weather the moments of scarcity in a long relationship. Ms. McLeod wrote about her grandfather and what it meant when he brought music to a small town. Each touched me profoundly and surprised me in doing so. The highlight of the summit was the connection between the words and my heart that every reading evoked. It's hard to measure how much it means to connect with someone's work during such a disconnected time but it meant so much to me to be able to absorb so many stories in a deep way.

    Meaghan: Just one? Oh wow, that's a toughie. Top my list was Cooper Lee Bombardier's presentation about the embodied voice in memoir, which included practical ways to write yourself as narrator onto the page by means of vigorous self-examination and questioning. Can't wait to apply some of these techniques into my next project!

    Cristy: I loved everything in which I was able to participate but found the soothing Writing Sprint Serenades really helped me to focus in on my own writing and were wonderfully calming.

    The Summit sessions spanned a range of topics and genres. What did you discover that will inform or alter your writing practice?

    Tara: I really enjoyed Lorri Neilson Glenn's workshop on lyric writing. Her discussion of the different ways lyric writing can work in a narrative were really helpful as I work on a novel in verse.

    Amber: I have never considered myself a writer of creative non-fiction though I've had essays published in a variety of places. My novels have always been what I talk about when I talk about writing. My essays felt indescribable or odd - something I did when I needed to work through something. I didn't really have a category for what I did. Sometimes, I called the work true stories. Other times, I loosely described them as "confessionals". Now, thanks to Megan Cole and the amazing panel, I realize that what I write is aligned with a genre of honest, personal, raw pieces that find truth in the everyday.

    Meaghan: As someone who writes primarily in creative non-fiction but is keen to dip my toes into fiction, I was excited to learn about writing between genres and merging different types of writing. Gail Anderson-Dargatz's session, Crossing Genres to Add New Life to Your Craft, was especially informative. In addition to practical lessons, my biggest takeaway was that writing is a broad, expansive medium - and I look forward to applying my creativity, curiosity, and research to my future endeavours, whatever they may be!

    Cristy: The Darling Axe 'Setting the Stage - World-Building' session helped me hone in on the layers of world building and will further inform my writing practice as I edit books one and two in my trilogy, and as I set out to write book three.

    How will your experience at the Writers' Summit inform your work with the Fed as you go forward?

    Tara: It's always helpful to know there are other writers out there working through some of the same questions as I am. Connecting with community at the Summit helps me to feel less alone in the process!

    Amber: Starting this position with a jaw-dropping showcase of the talent, depth and diversity of our writing community in BC was inspiring and energizing. My role at the Fed is largely fundraising which can be a bit dry at times but knowing the incredible people and programs for which I am raising money is majorly motivating and extremely exciting.

    Meaghan: The Summit was a reminder of the value of community, and the importance of coming together to share knowledge, ideas, and experiences. Departing, I felt motivated. Excited to dive back into my writing life with renewed enthusiasm. Hopefully, my work compiling contest bank listings for FBCW members will continue to spark creativity in the coming months, and keep the momentum rolling.

    Cristy: I loved meeting so many people over the course of the Writer's Summit; the energy and positive vibe was contagious! I plan to seek out future events from the Fed and to engage with more writers across BC.

    About our Staff

    Tara Borin is a poet and writer living in the traditional territory of the Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in, Dawson City, Yukon. They are the membership associate at the Federation of BC Writers. Tara's debut poetry collection, The Pit, is out now with Nightwood Editions. You can find Tara online at taraborinwrites.com and @tara_borin on Twitter.

    Amber Cowie is a novelist living in a small town on the west coast of British Columbia. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Salon, The Globe and Mail, Crime Reads, and Scary Mommy and has been endorsed by numerous bestsellers including Samantha M. Bailey, Shannon Kirk, Kerry Lonsdale, Catherine McKenzie, Robyn Harding, and Blake Crouch. Her first novel, Rapid Falls, was a Whistler Book Awards nominee, hit number one overall on Amazon, and was a top-100 bestselling Kindle book of 2018. Her next book, Last One Alive, will be released by Simon and Schuster Canada in the summer of 2022. Her work can be found at ambercowie.com. Amber is also a devoted (if slightly distracted) mother to two awesome kids and a partner to the amazing head brewer of Andina Brewing in East Van. She enjoys skiing, running and securing funding for awesome organizations like the Federation of BC Writers.

    Meaghan Hackinen is a west coast writer, ultra-endurance cyclist, and contest bank compiler for the FBCW. Meaghan's two-wheeled adventures have taken her from Haida Gwaii to Mexico’s high plateaus, across Canada and the United States, and from North Cape to Tarifa along Europe’s highest paved roads. Her debut travel memoir, South Away: The Pacific Coast on Two Wheels (NeWest Press, 2019) was shortlisted for two Canadian book awards. Find Meaghan at meaghanhackinen.com.

    Cristy Watson has eight published novels for MG and YA readers. She loves entering writing contests and was pleasantly surprised to receive Editor’s Choice in the CV2, 2-Day Poem Contest in 2013, where contestants have 48 hours to write a poem using ten selected words. She also regularly participates in the Poetry Marathon in June, preferring the half-marathon where she writes twelve poems to twelve prompts in twelve hours. She is currently the Committee Chair for a secret, but very exciting, project that will be announced in the coming days. You can find Cristy here: cristywatsonauthor.wordpress.com and facebook.com/watsoncristy.

    Jessica Cole is the Managing Editor of WordWorks Magazine.

  • 2 May 2021 1:28 PM | Bryan Mortensen (Administrator)


    The Federation of BC Writers is excited to announce the expansion of our WordWorks Magazine into the digital realms.  We are still producing our magazine as normal, but wanted to offer more opportunities for members to learn and more opportunities for members to be published.

    Check back over the coming weeks as our first articles land here.

    Bryan Mortensen

    Executive Director

Supported by the British Columbia Arts Council

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