The Sound Of Words: Writing Lessons From The Birds

Frigate Bird - Galapagos

When you hear birds singing, do you listen to what they are saying?

I’m no birder. Not me. I can only identify the most obvious – blue jay, cardinal, nuthatch… Even so, my spirits lift every spring when I hear the birds singing again.

I now recognize some of the bird calls even if I can’t match call to bird or identify many of the birds I see.

One bird I call the ‘bath tub bird’ because its burbly, warbly call sounds like one of those old-fashioned whistles that kids used to play with in the bath, filling it with water before blowing. The quick chit-chit-chit of a pair of birds living in the blackberry bushes is a special delight. And the clear liquid song of another bird high in the maple trees.

This last weekend I decided to try and find out what some of these birds are. A lesson in writing humility. Continue reading

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Moving to Write: Exploring Flow For Narrative Energy

The idea of flow in writing is usually associated with ‘being in the flow’, that wonderful sensation when words and ideas synchronize, when your concentration is totally focused, making you lose all sense of time, when everything seems to come blissfully together.

Movement offers writers a different way of looking at flow.

For example, these two contrasting types of flow give interest and energy to movement and written narrative alike: Continue reading

Writing Dialogue: The Oops Factor.

two albatrossDoes your character say the right thing – but it’s understood the wrong way? Or takes something well-meaning in the wrong spirit?

I was given a great lesson in writing dialogue recently. It all started with me being upset by some responses I received to a piece of news I shared with family and friends.

The news was that my husband had been diagnosed with aggressive prostate cancer. It may sound strange that this should be an occasion to gain insights into writing dialogue but, hey, sometimes you have to find small comforts wherever you can.

“Oh, that’s the one that doesn’t amount to much, isn’t it?”

“What a nuisance.”

“But it’s a given that people don’t die of it.”

“Oh yes, I’ve dozens of friends who’ve had it. That was years ago and they’re all fine.”

I got very upset. I felt they were brushing this nasty, threatening disease off as a simple inconvenience, like a sore throat or a headache or the flu. No, my husband said, they’re just trying to be comforting.

Words – those slippery things! One person can use words to mean one thing while another person might understand them in quite another way. Continue reading

Writing Exercise for Narrative Energy: Juxtaposing Multiple Ways a Character Experiences the World

David Moore's 1994 sculpture Site/Interlude, Musée de Plein Air de Lachine

Site/Interlude by David Moore

In life we constantly shift between different ways of experiencing the world – between inner and outer lives, between doing and thinking, dreaming, remembering, talking, between being (in one’s body) and interacting with people, things. We shift between emotions, between judging, enjoying and complaining, between sensing and moving.

Forcing a character to experience similar rapid shifts disrupts linear thinking, often producing Continue reading

Playing With Words: Sentence Experiments – Writing Exercise

Shadows II by Jaume Plensa MMBA on loan from Georges Marciano

Shadows II by Jaume Plensa
MMBA on loan from Georges Marciano

Nothing perks up a piece of prose – and a writer – more than playing around with sentence structures.

A fun exercise I especially enjoy is to take a sentence that feels totally alien and try to write my own sentence in exactly that same style. Why? To surprise myself. To kick myself out of my same old same old ho-hum sentence habits. To discover new rhythms.

“I’m playing with words” Virginia Woolf

The Exercise Continue reading

One Core Essential Of Narrative Energy, And A Writing Exercise

man dancing with feathersYesterday, at the National Arts Gallery in Ottawa, we were walking up the ramp along the glass wall to the galleries behind two young boys with their mother.

An elderly, very smartly dressed couple started down the ramp. The man stopped as he and his wife were about to pass the boys. He leaned towards them. Pursing his lips, he started to Continue reading

Narrative Energy Tip #1: Chameleon Sentence

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A chameleon sentence begins with one energy and ends with another.

Usually it starts off positive with maybe even suggestions of light-heartedness, but then turns into something more ominous. But there’s no reason why one shouldn’t try the reverse.

While chameleon sentences make for terrific beginning sentences, they can shift the narrative, and surprise and engage writer and reader at any time.

Two Examples

  • “It was a summer’s night and they were talking, in the big room with the windows open to the garden, about the cesspool.” (opening sentence of Between the Acts, Virginia Woolf) A pleasant gathering on a summer’s evening …changes to… something dirty and stinky and underground
  • “Edna and I had started down from Kalispell headed for Tampa-St. Pete where I still had some friends from the old glory days who wouldn’t turn me in to the police.” (Rock Springs, Richard Ford) A trip down south to old friends …changes to… on the run?

The Exercise

Write 6 chameleon sentences – each one beginning a new story. Surprise the sentence. Surprise yourself.

What chameleon sentences have you come across in your readings or writings? Please share them in the Comments Box.