7 Things I Learned from Barbara Kyle’s Course

First in Kyle’s series of 4, so far.

I first found award-winning and prolific author, Barbara Kyle, online. I digested the free materials, a series of videos with Barbara teaching writing, and then was happy to pay the low price of $10 for access to the rest for a whole year. At the time, I had completed my first draft and was getting feedback that told me I needed to know more. On the web, I found Barbara. She’s a Canadian, lives in the Toronto area, and had been an actor for twenty years before starting to write, all characteristics that drew me to her.

And then I read her first book set in Tudor England, a period I’ve loved for thirty years. That led me to take a face-to-face course with Barbara where we discussed each participant’s first thirty pages over two days as well as had private time with Barbara. That was excellent for talking one-on-one about my book and my hopes for it. I took the course again a couple of weeks ago with my second book and was happy to realize I had learned a lot in the interim.

7 Things I Learned from Barbara Kyle’s Course

1.  Barbara starts her book with writing a few sentences about where the book is going. She keeps adding to this framework as she thinks and researches, changing where warranted, until she finally has about 30 pages. These pages might very well be called the synopsis of her novel. Once she has completed this she starts fleshing out the whole book.

2.  During the course of the weekend we writers learned the difference between the use of  a dash (—) and an ellipsis (…). In dialogue, the dash means the speech has been interrupted. An ellipsis means the speaker just runs out of words.  “Take the cat out and cut off its—”  as opposed to “Take the cat out and cut off its…”  The first would be followed by the interruption and the second would be followed by virtually nothing.

3.  Overwrite your main character at first to get a good feeling for what and who she is, Barbara says. You can always cut back in subsequent drafts. I thought that was great advice as critics often tell me they want to know more about my characters. This is a good way to overcome that problem.

4.  When planning out your book, Barbara told me, think of having five big scenes. That was amazing to me as I have sometimes been guilty of writing episodes rather than having the whole plot planned out in the beginning. So there. Now I know that a book such as mine should have about 5 major scenes. If I have those as the bare bones, then I can easily flesh them out, writing with the goal of getting to and from those scenes.

5.  Give specific details for the reader to better visualize the setting. I had used “the trilling of birds” and “I wish you would let me give you more, Lucy.” Barbara, and others in the group, suggested telling what kind of birds and certainly wanted to know what the ‘more’ might be. And she dinged me for using “small cabins” as small is just too vague. Excellent advice, again.

6.  I struggled with how much detail from the first book needed to be in the second book as each book must be able to stand on its own. Readers must be able to read any book in the series and not feel lost because of references they don’t know. Barbara showed me that I still needed to flesh out characters and their motives in book two. The reader needs to know enough. This is a fine line to walk, indeed, and I am still out there on the high wire.

7.  Barbara talked about managing point of view in one of my scenes where my character, Lucy, is lying in the mud outside her cabin, having collapsed, so weak was she from her illness, but desperately needing to get help for her small son. I started out talking about the empty parade ground and sensible people being inside but my words were more like a narrator’s than Lucy’s. I need to go back and think what Lucy would see as she lay almost senseless in the mud and then describe that.

The writers among my readers will see just why I was so excited when I drove home, exhausted, from Toronto on Sunday night. I knew where to go with my novel in order to make it better. I knew and I started the next morning.

What have you learned from other writers or from courses you’ve taken? If you could only suggest one thing you’ve learned from someone else, what would it be? Kindly leave a comment below and all the angels (and I) will smile on you. 🙂

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28 thoughts on “7 Things I Learned from Barbara Kyle’s Course

  1. Elaine, do you recommend Barbara Kyle’s books? I check her out on Barnes and Noble and there were mixed reviews. Happy writing!

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    • Hi Linda! I do recommend her books if you like historical romance. Her work is not as much historical fiction as I usually read but she writes very well and certainly knows how to keep a plot moving. A Sharon Kay Penman book on the same period will have a very different feel as Penman incorporates a lot of the history into her books. (Can you tell I love her work? Check out The Sunne in Splendour.) In answer to your question, your enjoyment will depend on what you like but Kyle is an excellent writer. The best thing is that she’s written a series of 4 so far, and has contracted for 3 more, I think. Great for following a family over generations. Don’t you just love to find a good writer and read everything they’ve written?

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      • Yes, Elaine, several months ago you referred me to Sharon Kay Penman. Her Mysteries are not as enthralling; however, I am now halfway through the last of her books here in the Guelph Public Library system. Now she has to get more published for me to go any farther.

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  2. Thank you so much for sharing and for the good reference to her site. I’ve not taken any writing courses because finances are limited at the moment. Hope to soon, but it seems so many of them are just too expensive. I’m not at a point I can dish out several hundred dollars on the possibility something may help me. Very interested in hers as I love reading historical romance.

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  3. Time in the chair. I heard this advice at a conference. Sounds simple enough, the only way to improve writing skills it to write. Sounds simple, but I really believe in spending time each day writing.

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    • Kristina, you are wise to add that one. Let me add to it, time in the chair actually writing. Not paying bills, looking at emailed photos of your grandkids, or catching up on Twitter. Writing.

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  4. I’m finding my issues with my books are that I write the action of the story and then have to go back to fill in what my main characters think and feel. Sometimes I want to say, “I don’t care what they think; the story holds together with the action.” Of course you can’t do that, but it shows what sort of stories I enjoy reading.

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      • What do you think of people who say writers need to have a “balance” of plot, dialogue, internal thougths, setting, etc.? And where does it break down and become tell rather than show? Don’t you think the type of story sort of dictates which way the pendulum swings in any of these areas?

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      • I say absolutely and you are right that the thrust of the story dictates which element is more important in any given story. As far as tell versus show, most writers talk about the difference between “Lucy was hot working in the fields.” and “Lucy wiped her brow for the hundredth time that day in the fields.” The first is telling it is hot out and the second shows it by the action of wiping her brow so manay times. Of course the argument can be made that the second example is a form of telling as well but if the point you want to make is the heat, show your character doing an action which is reflective of that. Is that what you think, Habisha?

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      • Elaine, that’s what I was getting at. It’s a fine line because it can get a bit stilted or overwrought sometimes, but on the whole I agree our characters need to DO the actions. That’s why I have such a struggle with internal thoughts; it feels like all tell. They aren’t DOING anything.

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    • Oh, Barbara mentioned that as well. Make your characters’ lives difficult and then more difficult. Give them real aching suffering. And then make it worse. I’m sure that is a well-known device, don’t you think, Brinda?

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  5. Oh, and by the way, I downloaded the Queens Lady to my Nook last night and I think I am going to enjoy it. Thanks!

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  6. Hi! I’ve popped in and am now following. I enjoyed reading your post and the tips you passed on…the five great scenes was an eye-opener. Now I’ll be looking at my WIP again…thanks 🙂

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    • Hi Susan! Thanks for your comments and for following my blog. I’ll be looking to hear from you. When other writers comment, the discussion becomes just so much better. Welcome!

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  7. Barbara Kyle was a workshop presentor at CanWrite! last year and I became an immediate fan. Since reading her books, she has become one of my favourite authors, and I look forward to her what she will give us next.

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    • She is a great presenter, as I should have mentioned. I also heard her at the Algonkian-Niagara Conference last year. So organized, so clear, and so helpful. Thanks for mentioning that!

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  8. I heard Barbara present at the CAA in 2011 and also learned a great deal. She is very approachable one on one and from her acting background knows all the tricks that speakers need to have to make an impact.

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  9. Fabulous post, Elaine, thanks for sharing. I like that idea of over-writing your characters too and 5 major scenes. Reminds me of 1st plot point, midpoint, 2nd plot point, crisis, black moment, just a little easier to think of 5 scenes period.

    I have to say it again, I loved Barbara Kyle when she did a day long workshop with the Toronto Romance Writers. She invited me to her May workshop, but I’d just started a full-time work assingnment. You’ve convinced me that her workshops are worth it!

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    • I guess I’m going to have to get to the CAA soon. And the Toronto Romance writers! I keep hearing about all these informative events. Thanks for sharing, Myrtle and Sharon!

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  10. I always enjoy reading your blog, Elaine. So full of helpful tips for all writers. I find that I must constantly remind myself when I am writing that ‘this is only the first draft. Get on with the story’. I get caught up in details and the writing drags. For me, it is better to tell the story and then flesh it out in subsequent drafts.

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