Posts Tagged ‘writing tips’

Everyone Has a Story; Or, Five Things I Learned on a Writers’ Retreat in Italy

By Dale Synnett-Caron


Chiavari retreat writers hamming it up for a tableau on the sun-dappled terrace of Hotel Santa Maria (photo by Rick Brazeau, front centre)


If you’ve ever considered attending an overseas travel retreat that focuses on the craft of writing, here’s my advice: Just do it! 

Having participated in three writing retreats organized by editor and writing instructor Allyson Latta — two in Grenada and one in Italy — I can tell you that these creative adventures rock, whatever your genre, skill level, or writing style. A love of writing and commitment to exploring the world through words is the only real prerequisite.

Envision spending time in an exotic setting with fellow aficionados of the pen, savouring words and indulging in writing as a process of discovery. All this away from the energy-absorbing routines of your day job or home life. This instructional retreat included both skills-building and fear-facing (reading your personal work to others!), but there was also time for exploring, making new friends, laughter, and just kicking back and indulging in great regional food and wine.

Chiavari seaside promenade

The Italian Riviera Writing & Photography Retreat took place in the picturesque seaside town of Chiavari, Italy. This year Allyson teamed up with photographer Rick Brazeau, delivering an eight-day itinerary at Hotel Santa Maria — a real “home away from home,” everyone agreed. The chef and staff of the wonderful onsite Ristorante La Caracca served us delicious four-course evening meals, as well as a special lost-count-of-the-courses dinner on our last night.

Twelve of us took part in lively morning writing and photo workshops, helpful individual consults with Allyson on works-in-progress, and late-afternoon reading salons, an opportunity to read a piece of writing to the group and receive gentle feedback. British Columbia writer Deborah Vail, one of Allyson’s editing clients, happened to be in Lyons, and she drove five hours to join us to talk about her writing background and read from her recently completed novel manuscript Fault Line.

The program also allowed us free time between late morning and late afternoon to spread our wings, alone or in smaller groups — sightseeing, discovering the best lunch spots, writing, snapping photos, and soaking in Italian culture. Our final gatherings featured a showing of “best photos,” a reading salon focusing on flash stories, and, last but not least, the screening of an impromptu video collaboration between writer Catherine Malvern, and Karen Matthews of Edmonton, co-founder of Weasel Tale digital storytelling.

Group excursions included a Golden Hour Photowalk with Rick, a browse through Chiavari’s sprawling weekly town market, a short train trip to the quaint villages of Cinque Terre, and a ferry ride to the picturesque harbour of Portofino.

Here are the top five things, among so many, that I learned during the Italian Riviera Writing & Photography Retreat:

1. Everyone has a story to tell, in their own way.

Some writers have the gift of humour; others are masters of imagery. Still others are good at creating believable dialogue, which helps readers connect with their characters. Hearing and thinking about what other writers have to say — and how they say it — can encourage you to experiment with your own stories and deepen your skills.

2. Never apologize for your writing.

It’s an expression of your experience on this earth, your imagination. Develop grit. Be bold with what comes through your pen; a first draft can always be polished. You may write something and think, Whoa, where did that come from? Explore the bewilderment, as more than one writer has advised. Gems may be hidden there.

3. Be kind to yourself.

On retreat, you will no doubt encounter fellow participants who are at different places with their writing. In Italy, some had already published blog posts, stories, articles, or even novels, while others were just starting out. Comparing where you are in your writing craft with others is as pointless as comparing investment portfolios. Learn from others, but embrace your own style. What you write is an expression of your frame of reference, your imagination, your truth.

4. Your camera too has a story to tell, so let it speak!

Discover a new world when you take your camera off Auto and play with ISO, F-stop, and shutter speed to enhance your images. Absorbing a few basic principles will help you to take a better picture. Like the Rule of Thirds, which identifies the strongest focal points within an image, or the Golden Hours, the first and last hours of sunlight in the day, which lend a magical light to your pics.

5. Be open to trying new things.

This applies not only to your writing and photography but also to your experience while travelling. Immerse yourself. In Chiavari we took long walks along the seaside promenade; wandered the town, discovering medieval architecture, unique shops, and a beautiful botanical garden; and met friendly locals. (One of Rick’s photo assignments was to approach a stranger and ask to take their photo — which resulted in several memorable encounters — mostly positive!) And the group never grew tired of the delights of Aperol spritz — the most commonly enjoyed aperitif in northeastern Italy — and aperitivo, the cordial tradition of a drink and light meal of cheeses, crudités, and bread at the end of the day as a warm-up to dinner. Best appreciated on a sunny patio!

As for the writing, I returned from Italy with renewed enthusiasm, a full notebook, helpful tips, and workable ideas for several new projects. Attending this retreat was an opportunity to share my work and learn from Allyson, Rick and fellow writers, feed my creative soul, and, best of all, make lasting memories. I have the stories and photographs to prove it.


Monterosso, Cinque Terre


♦     ♦     ♦

Dale Synnett-Caron

DALE SYNNETT-CARON is a communications specialist  and certified Kundalini yoga instructor in Ottawa, Canada. The written word is an integral part of her professional and personal life.  In addition to her corporate writing, her work has been published in trade journals and the Globe and Mail‘s Fact & Arguments essays section.  She also helped to bring her father’s memoirs to fruition — editing and coordinating its production on his behalf.  When not working at her day job, Dale enjoys sharing her passion for yoga with others — helping them to build inner strength, manage stress, nurture creativity, and ignite their power to heal and balance. She has taught and practised yoga and meditation extensively in Canada and internationally, including at Allyson Latta’s retreats in Grenada.

Wednesday, December 27th, 2017

Writing from Real Life: Daring to Be Heard, an essay by Ann Y.K. Choi



In high school I worked hard to cover up my depression. My mother was ill, and my family laboured to keep our convenience store open, as it was our only source of income. Because my grades were good and I was quiet, I kept under my teachers’ radar, quietly stabbing push-pins into my thighs during class. I was seventeen when I first attempted suicide. From that moment onward, every counsellor, therapist, and doctor, as part of one treatment plan or another, encouraged me to write. While the advice was well-intentioned and eventually helped, it took decades for me to stop associating writing with pain and anger.

I was in my forties by the time I was ready to share my writing. I wanted to capture my immigrant experiences for my daughter so that she could understand what life was like for her mother and grandparents upon arriving in Canada in the mid-70s. I signed up for a creative writing class through the School of Continuing Studies at the University of Toronto. Because the class was in an “academic” setting, so different from my bedroom where I wrote, I was able to ease into the idea of writing to publish.

Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety is a work of fiction, but at its core are threads of real-life experience. Writing it forced me to confront old hurt. Pain and anger that I had buried long ago, or that I hadn’t even known existed. The early years of struggling to learn English, being picked on at school, and adapting to life in Canada. Fearing for myself and my family in the store where we were regularly harassed and even robbed. Then, there was the violence at home. Even as I write this, my heart is racing, my breathing more rapid. Somewhere a part of me is crying. Some hurts never go away; we can only learn to manage them.

A demanding job as a secondary-school teacher helps, because during the day I am thoroughly distracted by my professional responsibilities. Still, working with at-risk students who also experience trauma, violence, and discrimination of all kinds poses other emotional challenges for me. Using on myself the techniques that also help them, I’ve been able to gain a sense of control. For example, knowing that when I am overwhelmed it’s almost impossible to write, I’ve looked for ways to create safe and encouraging spaces. My writing circle has proven to be one of the most invaluable.

The 11th Floor Writers was born out of a creative writing class I took at the University of Toronto. Eight to ten of us meet every second Saturday of the month. We’ve been together for ten years. This is my safe place to share rough drafts and to receive critical feedback. Now I also turn to my editor and agent, but in the beginning, before the book deal, my writing circle was it. Unlike friends and family, we meet to serve a specific purpose: to talk and listen to each other about our respective writing projects. We also attend literary events, especially supporting one another if a member is participating. I cannot overstate the importance of building relationships with others who write, and becoming part of a writing community.

I still have trouble staying focused for long periods of time when I’m writing anything, be it a poem or a personal essay. I’ve accepted this and allow myself regular unscheduled “brain breaks.” I get up and move away from the computer to recharge. When I’m working on an emotionally demanding scene, I can’t listen to music. It triggers emotions that overwhelm me, especially when I hear songs I used to listen to as a means of escaping or coping. This self-knowledge ensures that I avoid such triggers.

Mindfulness too helps me. When I feel myself inching towards dark places, or if I have a strong physical reaction to something I’m writing, I focus on an object – something I can hold in my hand, like a pen. I focus on the humming of the air conditioner, on things external to my body. Eyes closed, I concentrate on all the subtle flavours of a piece of dark chocolate melting in my mouth. Paying attention to the moment grounds me and allows me to return to putting words on paper.

People are quick to point out how wonderful it is that I can write anywhere, anytime. But when the writing doesn’t serve to relieve pain or bring clarity to internal chaos, this flexibility can feel like a burden. So I do not demand that I write every day. I can’t, and that’s okay. When I don’t want to write, I read. A good novel or poem takes me out of myself and recharges me mentally and creatively. My stress level lowers.

Someone recently asked, “Why do you keep writing if it poses such challenges?” I didn’t have an answer, and instead took the question to a meeting of my school board’s regional English department heads. There I asked fellow teachers for their help in understanding why so many writers persevere through personal pain to tell their stories. I learned from our conversation that I had been using my writing as a tool to engage others in dialogue around the themes I explore in my work: family, social identity, mental health and well-being, diversity, and immigration. Given my cultural background, the group reminded me, my writing fosters an awareness of voices not necessarily represented in mainstream media or books.

I grew up believing that silence was a strength and that suppressing my anger was proof that I was strong. But now I see the real power comes from sharing a voice and daring to be heard. Wielding that power is therapeutic; it numbs the hurt. More than that, it is my way of giving voice to those who may not have one. This, I realize, is why I keep writing.

♦     ♦     ♦

Ann Y.K. Choi

ANN Y.K. CHOI is an author and educator. Her novel, Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety, was shortlisted for the 2016 Toronto Book Award and named One of CBC Books 12 Best Canadian Debut Novels of 2016. The story was inspired by her family’s immigrant struggles and their lives spent in a family-run variety store. Choi lives in Toronto with her husband and daughter.




Twitter: @annykchoi

Facebook: annykchoi

Ann was guest speaker for Allyson Latta’s sixth annual Turquoise Waters Writers’ Retreat (2017), held in the Kawartha Lakes, Ontario, Canada.

Wednesday, November 1st, 2017

Literary Nude, an essay by Carin Makuz


“Der Bücherwurm” (The Bookworm), by Hermann Fenner-Behmer


Sometime in my early twenties I wandered into a gallery of contemporary abstract art in Edmonton. It’s possible I was just getting out of the cold for a minute. Art hadn’t yet entered my life in a big way, and I’d certainly had no exposure to abstract work. Seeing it fill a room, I was struck by the colours and shapes, intrigued, but I didn’t understand how it could be art … what was artistic about blobbing paint onto a canvas? So with all the smugness of the ignorant, I asked the gallery owner that very question, in pretty much those exact words. I can still remember how earnestly she answered — as if it were very, very important that I understand this.

She began by insisting that any artist worth their pigment would approach the work from a different place than blobbing. That might be how it appeared to anyone watching, and freedom was sometimes the motivation in this work, she said, but the painter would also possess an understanding of the fundamentals, the basics of structure, balance, and light, and they would most likely have studied the classic and most difficult subject: the nude. All this, she said, regardless of their own unique and personal style. That would come later.

I don’t remember many exchanges from my twenties, but I had the feeling that what she was telling me went beyond painting, and I’ve thought about it countless times and in different ways over the years since.

It was the idea of the nude that got to me. Who would ever make the connection between the human body and all those red and orange squares, that splash of green on a canvas? I began to wonder if every discipline had its form of nude. Is it scales to a musician, a basic white sauce to a chef? What is it for a sculptor, a dancer, a glass blower?

A few years later I took my first writing workshop. The instructor talked about the importance of reading. Not a problem, I thought. I like to read. Next! But there was no next. Reading was his sole focus for the entire workshop. How to read. I was stunned. What a waste of time. I already knew how to read. I was there to learn how to write.

He talked about the scope of literature, that everything from Shakespeare to Alice Munro was fodder for study, and that study was less about appreciating collective words on a page than about analyzing the choice of those words, the form of those sentences and paragraphs. He explained how it was these components, not clever-clever ideas, that made the whole thing live and breathe and move, and that the approach to writing had to be from the inside out, which meant an understanding of structure, not merely story.

Once again the nude came to mind.

Reading, of course, was the literary nude. But not just reading. Close reading.

In exactly the same way that it’s not enough to paint or sculpt the human form by merely looking at it, or even admiring it, we can’t learn to write by merely reading. The popular advice to students of writing to Read read read! And then read some more! is excellent, of course, but loving books isn’t all there is to studying craft. Craft is knowing what’s beyond the shape of what we’re reading, looking  past the outer “skin,” the words, and finding the structure that exists in every story — the style, wordplay and rhythm; the cycles of romantic, tragic, ironic, and comedic modes. Where is the tension, and how do scenes shift? How did we get from here to there? It’s finding the bones and the musculature that gives a story the ability to stand on its own before it’s dressed with the details of action, character, and dialogue.

Francine Prose, in her book How to Read Like a Writer, says we’re born with the instinct:

“We all begin as close readers. Even before we learn to read, the process of being read aloud to, and of listening, is one in which we are taking in one word after another, one phrase at a time, in which we are paying attention to whatever each word or phrase is transmitting. Word by word is how we learn to hear and then read, which seems only fitting because it is how the books we are reading were written in the first place.”

And then we grow up. And we get busy. And no one reads to us anymore. And we don’t listen all that well anyway. But so what? I don’t actually think there’s anything wrong with getting through a stack of books a little too quickly, because, well, just LOOK at that stack … or reading simply because we enjoy it … as long as we make time for The Other — the slow, deliberate read. (I’ve discovered that dissecting one short story by Alice Munro is easily worth a month of “pleasure reading.”)

We have the idea we know what an ankle bone looks like, but unless we truly focus on it — and probably for longer than we ever thought necessary — unless we take the time to notice how it’s connected to the leg bone, we run the risk of being a blobber.

Which, I’ve come to realize, is an entirely different thing than blobbing with intention.

♦     ♦     ♦


Carin profile shotWhen not writing, CARIN MAKUZ can be found wandering the shores of Lake Ontario muttering about darlings that won’t take a hint. She is a workshop facilitator for abused women and youth at risk. Her work has been published widely in journals in Canada, the U.K., and the U.S. and broadcast on CBC and BBC radio. She is the creator of The Litter I See Project, and combines text with photography, reviews books, chats with writers, and generally thinks out loud on her blog Matilda Magtree.

Wednesday, March 1st, 2017

Suitcase of Memories: How a treasure trove of family photos led to a published novel


Guest Post by Susan Johnson Cameron

At a family reunion a few years ago, one of my cousins entrusted me with this suitcase, packed with old photos, postcards, and mementos, some preserved since the last century. This collection of keepsakes sprouted the seed of an idea for a story and nurtured a creative writing process that led eventually to the publication of my historical fiction novel, Home Fires.

Inside this suitcase I found a photo of a platoon of men in First World War Canadian Army uniforms. On the back my grandfather had written “No. 5 Platoon, 159th Batt. Haileybury.”

There is a pack of postcards from 1917 showing the devastation from the bombing in Arras, France. My grandfather was there with the Canadian Army, fighting in both France and Belgium. We were blessed that he returned home whole in body, unlike so many others.

As well, in this assortment of family treasures there is a picture of a handsome man dressed in a Cameron Highlander kilt and tunic. He was my grandmother’s younger brother, George. I know that, tragically, he was killed in battle at Passchendaele.

I discovered a photo of another great-uncle, Alfred. In it he is wearing a smart suit, one hand tucked behind his back. My father told me years ago that his uncle had a prosthetic hand. The family story is that after a serious work accident, Alfred received a monetary settlement for his injury. That money helped my grandparents relocate from England to Canada, where they pioneered in “New Ontario.”

Tucked in with the First World War photos and postcards is a more recent colour picture of a summer-dry ditch, filled with white wildflowers and lush green grass. On the back my uncle recorded, “where we spent hiding from the great fire of 1916 with only a tablecloth to protect us.”

All this I wove into my story. Home Fires was published by Iguana Press in November 2015.

Wednesday, January 25th, 2017

The Mirror That Is Memoir — a guest post by Dace Mara Zacs-Koury

Woman Looking at Reflection


My father’s death and burial in 1994 in Latvia, and my subsequent discovery of a dark family secret dating back to the Second World War compelled me to write. I knew little of his or Latvia’s past, and so I set about talking to relatives, revisiting overseas, learning Latvian, and digging into historical research, finally turning up Father’s war records. Little did I know when I began that I was embarking on a twenty-year writing journey.

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Wednesday, January 18th, 2017

On Creating a Goal, and Other Tips for Travel Writers


Hiking in the Cotswolds (Photo ©2016 Allyson Latta)

Hiking in the Cotswolds (Photo ©2016 Allyson Latta)


In “10 Tips for Writing Travel Articles,” Dan Linstead, travel editor of Wanderlust travel magazine, offers some of the best advice I’ve seen. Many of my creative writing students want to write travel memoirs but have trouble finding the “story” in their trip, or identifying and pursuing a goal that the reader will want to see them achieve. Here’s Linstead on creating a goal:

“Some trips have a physical objective (reaching the top of Kilimanjaro, crossing Costa Rica, seeing a tiger) that gives your article direction and purpose. The reader (hopefully) sticks with you because they want to know if you’ll achieve your goal.

“But many trips don’t have an obvious goal; they are more about discovering a place, unpicking its history or meeting its people. In this case, create a personal goal to give your reader a sense of where you’re taking them. Sentences like ‘I wanted to discover…’ or ‘I was keen to understand…’ give readers an idea of what’s to come, instead of you simply plunging them into the unknown.”



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Wednesday, January 11th, 2017