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On Writing

To Outline or Not?

Writers are divided about whether to work from detailed outlines or to “go with the flow” and revise later. In Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success, author K.M. Weiland argues that outlining provides writers with a valuable road map that makes the story-telling journey much easier. By spending time on planning early on, writers can avoid dead-end ideas and produce coherent, balanced and focused stories.  Outlining helps writers understand their main characters before they leap onto the page. This familiarity helps “outliners” create rounded characters who speak with a consistent voice throughout the story.

Weiland’s lively book offers a step-by-step guide to the process she used to outline her own novels. The steps address the critical elements of good story-telling including establishing character, setting, plot, structure, conflict and theme. Each step is illustrated with pertinent examples from her own writing, familiar novels and films and with lists of questions for writers to consider about each topic.

Whether you are an “outliner” or a “seat of your pants” writer, Weiland offers a treasure trove of ideas, probing questions and resources for any writer who wants to keep readers reading!

For more information see

Valerie McDonald
March 28, 2012

Anything that has the word “exercise” attached to it must, by definition, be a chore.


Well, yes and no. It depends on who is doing the exercise. In our group of eight, individual feelings towards writing exercise are as varied as our writing styles. Most of our group can produce a couple of coherent, publication-worthy pages in the space of twenty minutes. Long hand at that. Shot through with luminous humour. (Curiously, the best humour surfaces when writing under duress – but let’s leave that for another post). Invariably, the promise of a yet-to-emerge, fully-wrought narrative tantalises.

Unfortunately, I cannot produce anything tantalising in twenty minutes. I fall in the category reserved for people for whom any form of exercise is traumatic. For the first seven minutes, I obsess over the most creative slant to the exercise at hand. We are to flesh out a loaded one-line starter. Or to take a prescribed setting and pepper it with characters, dialogue, nuance, mood. Foregone trajectories are anathema. So are clichéd comfortable “unexpected” happenings. When the time comes to share the fruits of our labour, banal similes will be met with a sliding away of eyes, as will trite conclusions. That is, if I manage to get to a conclusion. As the minutes tick away, I chew on my virtual pencil.  Finally, I write the first sentence. Twelve minutes have elapsed. I spend the remainder time writing feverishly and then, equally feverishly, rewriting. Just as I get warmed up, the group time-keeper clears her throat. “How’s everyone doing? Show and tell time?”

We put our pencils down or cease clicking, and sit back. In the early life of our group, each member would read aloud the fruits of her twenty minutes of disciplined writing. I am amazed at the creativity that pours forth, especially considering the self-imposed lack of access to the fridge. Each offering is an exciting springboard to a new writing direction. I find myself wondering why I cannot find such a springboard in twenty minutes. I am convinced it has something to do with writing discipline. I have never been disciplined with my writing; never been able to write daily or edit before going to bed. My writing simply…materialises after days of rumination. No doubt the writing group members who spin off twenty minute masterpieces follow the advice of writing instructors to write, write, write – daily. When writing exercise time rolls around, they flex their well-honed creative muscle and dazzle.

Lately, we have decided there is little to be gained by sharing the content of our exercise. Instead, we discuss the exercise and its challenges. I confess I am both relieved and dismayed. Relieved because I do not have to share my abortive attempt, and dismayed because the clever, funny, thought-provoking twenty-minute masterpieces that the rest produce are filed unseen in a password-protected writing exercise folder. I can only hope these marvels get resurrected to fulfil their early promise.

– Shila Desai

Andre Aciman on Memoir

… all memoirists lie. We alter the truth on paper so as to alter it in fact; we lie about our past and invent surrogate memories the better to make sense of our lives and live the life we know was truly ours. We write about our life, not to see it as it was, but to see it as we wish others might see it, so we may borrow their gaze and begin to see our life through their eyes, not ours.

Andre Aciman. “A Literary Pilgrim Progresses to the Past”—Writers on Writing Series. New York Times, April 28, 2000

YouTube video of Aciman on Writing, Created by Stanford University, Uploaded, December 11, 2009

Alison Girling
February 20, 2012

Grace Paley on Plot


In “A Conversation with My Father” [a short story]* you make a lot of disparaging remarks about plot.


Ever since then, everybody says I have no plot, which gets me really mad. Plot is nothing; plot is simply time, a timeline. All our stories have timelines. One thing happens, then another thing happens. What I was really talking about in that story was having a plot settled in your mind: this is the way the story’s going to go. In the next thirty pages or so, this will happen, this will happen, this will happen. That’s what I meant.


So you would never start a story with the ending in mind?


No. When the ending comes to me, that’s when I know I’m going to finish the story. Usually it’s around the middle. And then I write the end. And then I change it.

*Grace Paley. “A Conversation with my Father”, Collected Stories. New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1994

Interview excerpted from Grace Paley, The Art of Fiction No. 131,  Interviewed by Jonathan Dee, Barbara Jones, Larissa MacFarquhar, Available on the Paris Review website

Alison Girling
February 20, 2012

Mavis Gallant’s Modus Operandi

The first flash of fiction arrives without words. It comes as a fixed image like a slide, or closer still, a freeze fame, showing characters in a simple situation. Every character comes into being with a name (which I may change), an age, a nationality, a profession, a particular voice and accent, a family background, a personal history, a destination, qualities, secrets, an attitude towards love, ambition, money, religion, and with a private centre of gravity.

Interview of Mavis Gallant by Christine Evain excerpted in Douglas Gibson. Stories about Storytellers: Publishing Alice Munro, Robertson Davies, Alistair McLeod, Pierre Trudeau, and others. Toronto: ECW Press, 225 Douglas Gibson’s accompanying website has a number of excerpts and editing tips.
Douglas Gibson Editor and Publisher … turned Author and Performer

         Alison Girling
February 20, 2012 

Matt Horne Walks it Out

     … I don’t mind walking with other people, but I get my best thinking done alone. The nicest times are coming back from a party or a club at midnight with a head full of ideas, working them out one the way home and sitting down at the desk to write through the early hours.


Matt Horne. “Walking,” How I Write: the Secret Lives of Authors. Edited by Dan Crowe with Philip Oltermann. New York: Rizzoli, 2007, 122

Alison Girling
February 20, 2012

Gertrude Stein on Commas

 Gertrude Stein said commas were unnecessary, the sense should be intrinsic and not have to be explained by commas and otherwise commas were only a sign that one should pause and take breath but one should know of oneself when one wanted to pause and take breath.

Gertrude Stein. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.  London:  Arrow Books, 1960, 35

Alison Girling
February 20, 2012 

Elmore Leonard’s Basic Rules


1. Never open a book with weather.

2. Avoid prologues.

3. Never use a verb other than ”said” to carry dialogue….

Elmore Leonard. Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and especially Hooptedoodle.”—Writers on Writing Series. New York Times, July 16, 2001 

Alison Girling
February 20, 2012



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