Introducing Erin Bow

Monday, October 13, 2014 8:08 AM | Lena Coakley

Today we're continuing our series of interviews with 2014 Packaging Your Imagination conference speakers with physicist turned poet turned YA fantasy author, Erin Bow

Erin's first novel, Plain Kate, one of my favourite fantasies, received numerous honours, including the TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award. Her second novel, Sorrow's Knot, is nominated for the Monica Hughes award for Science Fiction and Fantasy and made the Kirkus Best Books of 2013 list. 

Lena Coakley: Hi Erin! Thanks for stopping by the CANSCAIP blog. The topic of your presentation is: Details: How Little Things Bring Your Writing to Life.  Can you give us a little taste of what you'll be talking about?  What's one tip you'll be sharing with PYI attendees?

Erin Bow: Details are a paradox: They are both the thing that bog readers down in boredom, and the thing that makes writing feel real and lively and moving.  This is a workshop about telling the difference between those two.  It’s about where to use details, which ones to use, and what effects to get out of them.

I’ve got one really good concrete tip for you, that I adapted from something I heard from Hugh Cook.  It’s called the ladder of specificity.  For example you could describe a classroom floor as:

The floor

The linoleum floor

The checkerboard linoleum floor

The old, cracked floor, cheap in the seventies and cheaper now. 

My quick advice is to match how high you go on the ladder to the emotional intensity of the scene.   People – and our characters -- notice things more in intense situations.  Say your character is entering a new classroom for the first time.  She’s had to transfer schools because her old boyfriend was killed by a werewolf and she was framed for it.  The HORROR.  Now everyone is staring at her, including the people she suspects are secret werewolves.  She looks down at the floor. 

It’s a cracked linoleum floor, right?  Brown and maybe it used to be cream but now it’s kind of spoiled-milk yellow and one of the bad-milk squares is cracked off at the corner, and the triangle of untiled floor is black with sticky dirt. 

 Whereas the day before she was framed, it was just a floor. 

 What I’m saying is you don’t want an unremitting pile-up of specificity. That’s the kind of thing that makes readers scan ahead and hope for explosions. But you want to build an ebb and flow of specificity that matches the ebb and flow of the story.  A bunch of bottom of the ladder things will breeze by the stage business of the story.  A couple of third-step-of-the-ladder every couple of pages will keep the world seeming real.  Go to the top when you need an emotional punch. 

Lena Coakley: Wow.  Thanks Erin. Now, I’d like to ask you a completely unrelated question, but, as a novel writer, one that’s close to me personally: How do you stay motivated?

Erin Bow: My trouble is not staying motivated, it’s getting started.  I go to the office with lots of amazing ideas and I still end up wondering if maybe I should play solitaire for an hour or two. I have the willpower and attention span of a goldfish. So I have some systems. 

First, I have an office.  I have a place that I go where I don’t (and can’t) do my dayjob.  Where I am not (and can’t be) a hands-on parent.  Where I can’t do the laundry.  I have set hours that I go there, and I go with my figurative writer hat on.  Second, I have rituals that key my tiny goldfish hindbrain that it’s time to write: I have a soundtrack and certain kind of tea and other, sillier things.  If I thought a literal hat would help I would totally get one. Third, I make I deal with myself that I’ll spend 15 minutes working on something small.  Often this is all I need to get going.  Finally, and this has been key to me, I give myself a sticker when I get 1000 words. 

The stickers mark my good days with a wee ritual, and motivate me to at least TRY on days when writing sucks and I suck. They make a book seem more manageable -- 100 or so is a draft, which isn't an impossibly huge number -- and they help me keep track of what I did when.  But mostly , I do stickers because it’s amazing what my tiny goldfish brain will do for a sticker. Honestly, there are days when scrubbing the toilet sounds better than writing, but even on those days, I'll write for stickers.   


  • Wednesday, October 15, 2014 2:46 PM | Ishta Mercurio
    This is fantastic advice, Erin! I'm going to apply it right away. (And if this is a taste of what you'll be talking about, then your workshop looks to be an essential part of anyone's program!)
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