Horror week #001: For a creepy effect in horror fiction, ZOOM IN!

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          It’s cinematic, really. To add power to your descriptions and even create a bit of suspense through them, ZOOM IN! Here’s how horror writer Stephen Dobyns does it in his novel, The Church of Dead Girls:

Three dead girls in three straight chairs, collapsed against the ropes, heads tilted, their skin papery, their bare feet on the wood floor looking more like paws than feet, brown and bony. Their mouths were slightly open and their lips pulled back. One could see their small teeth, imagine the dark dryness of their tongues, the darkness of their silent throats. How their teeth must have glittered in the candlelight. And their eyes, half open as if the girls were drowning, they too must have shone.

But there is something else. Their left hands were missing. Each girl had her hand severed at the wrist.

          Notice here, how Dobyns moves from looking at the whole body, from a distance, to the mouth, to inside the mouth, and then slowly backs off again as he describes the missing hands. I admire the technique, but there IS something that I think can be improved in this description. He mentions the mouth first, then the eyes and finally, the hands. This is NOT how a camera would show it…in a movie, we may scroll down the body from top to bottom, eyes, mouth, chin, neck, down the arm to the missing hand. I think it would be improved if he described the look in the eyes first, and then the mouth and stumps, especially if we’re “scrolling down” the body as we’re picturing it. All in all, though, it is still a very creepy opening, and the zooming in adds to the effect.

Try this:

          Do the same, with horror or in another genre. Give us a look at a scene from a distance, and then get more and more descriptive as me move in to focus on one part of that scene.

Coming tomorrow: MISS YOU for mystery… Horror week #002 The Blooding!



Ace Made the Quarter-finals in the Casey Shay Poetry Chapbook Contest!


          Ok, nail-biting time all over again! My chapbook of poetry, Kaleidoscope: Bright Lives, Broken, made the quarter-finals in this year’s Mary Ballard Poetry Chapbook Contest. That’s exciting, but that’s just round one.

          We’ve been narrowed down to about 160, and the semi-finals will cut that number drastically, down to about 30. Fingers crossed as I wait for THOSE results at the end of AUGUST!

July 31st post comes early: A Starter for You from Rachael Frey

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          Ok, I’m getting ready to embark on a 17-HOUR flight to Singapore, so tomorrow’s post is coming, well…tonight. As in just before I leave. As in now.

          It’ll be short and sweet (maybe not so sweet, but short) because of that, too. Here’s the beginning line to Rachael Frey’s “The Lost Twice Legend,” and I have to say, it might just be my new favorite of all time:

The fetus was a legend at my school.

         Just TRY to write a more compelling first line than that…oh, which reminds me…

Try this:

          Today’s “Try this” depends on whether you want to write a little or a lot. If you want to write a little, then challenge yourself and attempt to create the best first line ever. If you want to write a lot, tell me what the rest of the story is for Frey’s first line.

Coming tomorrow: Nothing. This was it for tomorrow, because after a 17-hour flight, I think I’ll want to grab some zzzzzzzzzzz’s…but AFTER that, I think we might be looking at a series for you HORROR writers out there!

A Starter for You from the January, 1921 National Geographic

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          One of my favorite writing exercises is to take a piece of writing I like, clip a piece of it, and try to continue writing in that author’s style. I also love making something nonfiction into fiction. The selection I’ll ask you to try this with today comes from “The Dream Ship,” a January, 1921 National Geographic article by Ralph Stock, where he describes how he, his sister and several buddies, with limited navigational knowledge, set out to explore the Galapagos islands in a fixer-upper ship:


“Come and take a look at this,” whispered Steve, so as not to wake Peter in the opposite bunk.

“This” proved to be a solid wal of mist, towering over the ship like a precipice. The trade wind had fallen to a stark calm, and the Dream Ship lay wallowing on an oily swell. A young moon rode clear overhead, and myriads of stars glared down at us; yet still this ominous gray wall lay fair in our path.

“It ought not to be land,” said Steve, “but I don’t like the look of it.”

Neither did I.

We stood side by side, straining our eyes into the murk. A soft barking, for al the world like that of a very old dog, sounded somewhere to port. Splashes, as of giant bodies striking the water, accompanied by flashes of phosphorescent light, came at intervals from all sides and presently the faint lap of water reached our ears.

“Great Mother of Mike!” breathed Steve, “we’re alongside something.”

At that moment, and as though impelled by some silent mechanism, the pall of mist lifted, revealing. . .

Try this:

          I encourage you to do two things today. The first, complete the scene above any way you wish. Notice, I’ve chosen the passage carefully. If you wanted to write a paranormal tale, a ghost story, an adventure, or the beginning of a horror novel, all are possible, and plenty more. The second is to take a careful look at the publications YOU read and pull a passage that would create a lovely cliffhanger like this. Then give it a go, and let me know!

Coming tomorrow: another starter to keep you exploring the wonder of words!

Opening paragraphs #005: SUPER CHALLENGE!

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          Let’s do a quick review of our look at beginnings in the past four days:

Day one: sharp contrast: tough, tough soft

Day two: a bit of mystery

Day three: 3-line description that ends with a powerful short line

Day four: help NOT wanted; hesitation at interaction

          And now, on day five, we’re going to look at an opening by another writer, Steven Millhauser, who uses ALL FOUR of those techniques in his opening for “Phantoms”:

The phantoms of our town do not, some think, appear only in the dark. Often we come upon them in full sunlight, when shadows lie sharp on the lawns and streets. The encounters take place for very short periods, ranging from two or three seconds to perhaps half a minute, though longer episodes are sometimes reported. So many of us have seen them that it’s uncommon to meet someone who has not; of this minority, only a small number deny that phantoms exist. Sometimes an encounter occurs more than once in the course of a single day; sometimes six months pass, or a year. The phantoms, which some call Presences, are not easy to distinguish from ordinary citizens: they are not translucent, or smokelike, or hazy, they do not ripple like heat waves, nor are they in any way unusual in figure or dress. Indeed they are so much like us that it sometimes happens we mistake them for someone we know. They themselves appear to be uneasy during an encounter and quickly withdraw. They always look at us before turning away. They never speak. They are wary, elusive, secretive, haughty, unfriendly, remote.

Contrast: the dark and light in the first line

Mystery: who are these phantoms, really?

3 sentences, ending in a short one: Find “They never speak” near the end, and back up two.

Help NOT wanted: “uneasy during an encounter,” “swiftly withdraw,” “turning away,” “never speak,” “wary, elusive, secretive.”

          Millhauser uses all four, to different degrees, admittedly, in his opening, so you know what I’m going to suggest that you do today. . .

Try this:

Combine, two, three, or all four of the techniques in an opening that will captivate your readers!

Coming tomorrow: We’ll be looking at a 1921 National Geographic article to get you doing a bit of creative writing. . . Watch for “The Dream Ship”!

Opening paragraphs #004: Help NOT wanted!

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          Have you ever been in a situation where you want to help someone, but they don’t want to be helped? Take a look at this opening by Jess Row in “The Call of Blood:

Mornings he finds Mrs. Kang upright in bed, peeling invisible ginger with an invisible knife. She watches her hands with rapt attention, picking up the stalks from a pile at her right and dropping the peeled pieces into a bowl on her lap. A cloud of white hair rises from her scalp, fine as spun sugar. The first time he tries to raise her, putting his hands gently beneath her armpits, she bats them away; the second time she forgets to resist. She weighs eighty-eight pounds on a good day. In the wheelchair she sits up, ramrod-straight, and waves a finger at him. E na pun no ma! Her voice like a wind in a crevasse. You are a bad boy!

          The woman here finds herself in a sad situation that’s likely brought on by old age. It’s made worse by the fact that the woman can’t recognize that she does need help and should accept any help she can get. But she’s a fighter, all eighty-eight pounds of her, and she most certainly has her pride intact.

Try this:

Show two people in a very different situation (no dementia, no Alzheimer’s), where one very clearly wants to help and the other very clearly does not want to be helped.

Coming tomorrow: a SUPER CHALLENGE…sleep well and get ready for this one!

Opening paragraphs #003: Shake it up!

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          For day three of our investigation of openings, I thought I’d show you one that is powerful, sarcastic, hilarious, and tragic–all at the same time! Check out the beginning to “Property,” by Elizabeth McCracken:

The ad should have said, For rent, six-room hovel. Quarter-filled Mrs. Butterworth’s bottle in living room, sandy sheets throughout, lingering smell.

Or, Wanted: gullible tenant for small house, must possess appreciation for chipped pottery, mid-1960s abstract silk-screened canvases, mouse-nibbled books on Georgia O’ Keeffe.

Or, Available June 1–shithole.

          Notice the setup that McCracken uses. She writes one fairly long sentence, a second a similar length, and then a really short one to get your attention. Once writers learn how to craft long, complicated, flowing sentences, they often forget about the power of short ones. We don’t see any physical description of the narrator here. Male? Female? No clue. Appearance? No clue. But we KNOW what this person is like, don’t we? Super sarcastic and hilarious to be around–someone not afraid of saying it like it is…

Try this:

          Create a description of a character that is very flattering; do it in two long lines. “Everybody knows _______ is….” and “Everyone can see what ______ has accomplished:”–a few sentences like that. Make them glowing with praise. Then, in a third short sentence, make it very clear that the narrator is jealous or spiteful towards this person. Give it a go!

Coming tomorrow: Another beginning…Help NOT Wanted!

Writer’s Digest Mystery…Solved! 7th place in Literary Fiction!

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          Ok, while I had hoped it might rank even higher, my short story, “The High Price of Fish,” won 7th place in the 82nd Writer’s Digest Competition. There were a heavy number of entries, so I’m quite happy about this!

          I’ve really been concentrating on reading great short fiction writers this year and learning technique (especially stories by recent UVic grads like Cody Klippenstein and Eliza Robertson, and, most recently, work by Shaena Lambert), so I’m pleased to find a bit of success with this piece.  “The High Price of Fish,” despite having a nautical setting, and not one involving the prairies, was actually inspired by a classic story by Sinclair Ross: “The Painted Door.” The fact that he’s another born and bred Saskatchewanian only adds to his influence on me, I’m sure. Which reminds me, I’m a prairie boy who moved to the coast…it all makes sense now…

ace baker

Opening paragraphs #002: Add a bit of mystery!

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          Let’s jump right into today’s opening paragraph by taking a look at the start of Allegra Goodman’s “La Vita Nuova”:

The day her fiance left, Amanda went walking in the Colonial cemetery off Garden Street. The gravestones were so worn that she could hardly read them. They were melting away into the weedy grass. You are a very dark person, her fiance had said.

          Look at the mystery created in a few sentences. We don’t know why her fiance left, or even what that means. Did he ditch her for someone more positive? Did he get caught cheating? Is he fighting overseas? Did he move? Is he dead? And it seems like his comment about her is on the mark since she’s spending her time “walking in the Colonial cemetery.” Notice how the scenery matches her mood; the writing on the gravestones is “melting away.”

Try this:

          Reverse it. Write about a person who’s super positive and perky, someone like Aimee Pilz, @awakeningAimee on Twitter. But end your description with “But that was all about to change…” and show the person taking a step into a VERY different environment, one that’s not sunshine and bunnies at all.

Coming tomorrow: Shake it up with a three-line frame for your beginning!

Writer’s Digest: I won! So what’s the problem?

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          Ok, so here’s the problem. I won something in this competition (their big one, the one I’ve never placed in before). And then I got an e-mail that said something like, Again, congratulations on your winning entry. Here’s how you access your free subscription, free this, free that, and so on. Again? I DIDN’T GET THE FIRST E-MAIL! 

           No mention of dollar amount (each prize is worth at least a little bit of money). No mention of placing. I could be anywhere from first to tenth, so, in theory, out of thousands of entries, at least I’m tenth…I think. 

          Now, to top it off, I entered one poem, one short story, and one creative nonfiction piece, and they didn’t say which one placed either. They also gave me a download of the seal above so I could have it on my site, but again, no news about which prize. I’m going crazy, and I really, really hope they haven’t made a mistake and sent an e-mail to me that belongs to someone else.


          I e-mailed back, but because it came from their competitions e-mail, I’m not sure how soon (if ever) I may hear back. The original rules said winners would be contacted before October 19th. I certainly didn’t expect anything this early. Hoax, or real? The waiting is killing me…

To be continued…

ace baker

Opening paragraphs #001: Strength AND vulnerability, at the same time!

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          For today’s starting paragraph, I decided to go with one that packs quite a punch. First, read how Megan Mayhew Bergman begins “Housewifely Arts”:

I am my own housewife, my own breadwinner. I make lunches and change light bulbs. I kiss bruises and kill copperheads from the backyard creek with a steel hoe. I change sheets and the oil in my car. I can make a pie crust and exterminate humpback crickets in the crawlspace with a homemade glue board, though not at the same time. I like to compliment myself on these things, because there’s no one else around to do it.

          Notice the pattern of the sentences here: STRONG, STRONG, STRONG, STRONG, STRONG, vulnerable. That last sentence shows readers that even though this woman tries to be strong, she has no one to share her life with. We end up admiring her strength AND rooting for her as the underdog? It takes a very talented writer to make that happen in a single paragraph… so here’s what I’d like YOU to do…

Try this:

Change the age. Make it a precocious child instead of an adult on her own. Give us the strength and the vulnerability. Make it the beginning of a chapter book–a prologue paragraph that will act like an introduction to the star of your series.

Coming tomorrow: Opening with a bit of mystery…Allegra Goodman!

Extra reading assignment if you want it: Here’s a blast for the past in a similar style to today’s post. It’s a classic, that’s quite in-your-face for when it was published: 1972! Judy Syfer’s (Brady’s) “Why I Want a Wife.”

Update: Quick e-mail received from Megan Mayhew Bergman:

An honor!  Thank you so much for featuring my work.

My sincere gratitude!


Poetry from newspapers!

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          Well, after all our serious study of Cody Klippenstein’s amazing fiction, it’s time to take a bit of a break and take a lighter look at that daily newspaper that’s in your hands while you’re drinking your morning coffee…

          First, take a peek at what I did with one headline that I found in our local paper, The Vancouver Sun :

Overfishing of hundreds of thousands of BC-bound sockeye by Alaskan fishers off Noyes Island

–headline in The Vancouver Sun


Overfishing of hundreds of thousands of BC-bound sockeye by Alaskan fishers (off Noyes Island)

Overfishing of hundreds of thousands of BC-bound sockeye (by Alaskan fishers)

Overfishing of hundreds of thousands of (BC-bound) sockeye

Overfishing of hundreds (of thousands) of sockeye

Overfishing (of hundreds) of sockeye

Overfishing (of sockeye)






          I used parentheses () like a net to “catch” words and parts of words until nothing is left. The form matches the content. In the end, all that is left is the empty net. When the spaces between the lines are removed, the shape is that of a fish tail or a seine net. It also looks like water going down a drain, so the shape works on many levels. I don’t usually write concrete poetry, but I saw the possibility in this “found” poem headline.

          The second style I want to share with you comes from Seattle. A writer there used to report the news in “Haiku Headlines.” At the simplest level, haikus are poems with three lines, of 5, then 7, then 5 syllables. Let me show you an example:


Kingdome blown away

Some ten years ago today

Still paying for it…


Try this:

          Grab a copy of a newspaper and start clipping interesting headlines. Get creative and see what you come up with. Go for a Haiku headline about the Royal couple’s new baby? Combine several headlines into an original poem? Manipulate a headline to give it new meaning? Give it a go, and let me know what you did…!

Coming tomorrow: Tomorrow we start a series dealing with beginnings–different beginning PARAGRAPHS (not just first lines), and the techniques writers are using to get going… see you then!

Aimee Pilz: Twitter Champion!

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Twitter Champ: Aimee Pilz @awakeningaimee

          If you’re a writer and you’re on Twitter, you’ve likely met Aimee Pilz. She is, without a doubt, THE most positive person who tweets. I see how she improves the mood of many DAILY, so I thought I’d say thank you through a few words of my own:


Her soft sounds slip

through and over and around,

a thick blanket,

a close embrace,

a smile that spreads –

warm rays that

cover you carefully,

provide some peace

remind you to rest

in a world that’s now,

and right now,

and she holds that globe

for a moment,

stops it from spinning you

out of control,

to remind it, to remind you

that there are those who care,

and it’s all about sharing

what you can

when you can

with the ones you love.

          Thanks, Aimee! People DO notice the efforts you take to make the world a bit brighter for those who meet you…

Cody Klippenstein #005: A gentle touch with personification…

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          Is it day five already? Our final day of looking at some of the writing technique Cody Klippenstein uses in Case Studies in Ascension”? It’s gone by quickly. For today, I decided to end with a tool familiar to most every writer: personification. Let’s read the passage first:

Neither Obaa-san nor I have been in here since my mother ascended. The air is damp—the big bay window through which my mother made her escape was never shut again. The white sheets that hang over the fireplace mantle, the rosewood armchairs, the fainting couch, the baby grand piano—they are all weathered and reek of earth and rot. Even the lacquered floor feels swollen against my wavering feet.

A few beads of cut crystal are scattered across the center of the room, beneath the behemoth chandelier. My eyes float up to its underbelly and trace what I believe to be the thread of a cobweb, twisting through the chains. Yet then I squint and realize it is a hair—long, straight, black.

This room is disturbing, unsettling, uncomfortable. Like the father’s pool table we read about yesterday, this room too has been left alone, untouched after her mother’s ascension. The room has its own personality, and words like “hang,” “fainting,” “weathered,” “reek,” “swollen,” “behemoth,” “underbelly,” and the single, long black hair add to that description. It’s like that person you don’t want to be near, and you find yourself stuck right next to him or her in a crowded elevator. But this is a ROOM we’re talking about, right?

Klippenstein shows a gentle touch here. We don’t see “leaves dancing to the ground,” not anything so overt that an English teacher (ahem) might use as an example. Instead, it’s a series of tiny details—a word here, a word there—that together combine to give the room its personality. That’s the reason I chose to end with this technique—she’s gentle with the personification, but it has a strong effect. Soft and hard, blended together.

Try this:

We’ve seen ugliness with a gentle touch. Your job is to describe a scene from the point of view of a homeless person who sees beauty in a junkyard.

Well, that ends our time with Cody Klippenstein and her award-winning story, “Case Studies in Ascension.” She is certainly one of my favourite short fiction writers, and I encourage all readers to be on the lookout for more of her work. There is much poetry–a bit of painting with prose–in her short fiction. The brush strokes are there, if you look closely.

Coming tomorrow: A break from all this serious study we’ve been doing. I have a VERY gimmicky poetry exercise for you to try that I hope will be a heap of fun! See you tomorrow…