What’s on the 49th Shelf?

What’s on the 49th Shelf?

Gwynn Scheltema

My spring email notification from the 49thshelf.com arrived today and it got me thinking about what an amazing treasure of Canadian literature this website is—one that every Canadian writer (and reader) should know about.

49thshelf.com is the largest collection of Canadian books on the Internet. They are also likely the most fully realized collaborative website in the world celebrating one nation’s books and authors.

How did the 49th Shelf get started?

Rather than complain about Canadian books and authors often being overshadowed in the marketplace by the sheer volume of books from the US, a community of Canadian publishers of all sizes, across the country, got together and created this site.

Funding came from the Association of Canadian Publishers (ACP), in partnership with the Canadian Publisher’s Council, and from the Department of Canadian Heritage and the Ontario Media Development Corporation (OMDC). Amazon.ca is currently the lead sponsor for the project.

What’s on the 49th Shelf?

The 49th Shelf has one purpose: “to make it easier for readers to discover Canadian books. Canadian books in all genres, from bestselling authors to new talent, from publishers large and small, from all regions of the country.” Each week the homepage highlights new releases.



To date, they have assembled more than 100,000 Canadian titles from all types of authors, publishers, and genres including self-published authors. The search function allows you to search by those categories as well as by region with their Local Map function (which you can add to if you are a member).



Reading Lists

My personal favourite feature on the site is the reading list feature. Everything from 2018 award lists like 2018 Finalists for BC Book Prize and the 2018 RBC Taylor Prize Finalists to perennial genre lists like Cozy Mysteries to lists linked to current happenings in the world like this one in response to #National Walkout Day last week:.

Inspiring Stories of Fighting Injustice

#NationalWalkoutDay, where school children and teachers across the US protested gun violence by walking out of their schools for 17 minutes this morning – part of a larger, powerful movement organized by kids – inspired us to share this list with you. The books are all about recognizing injustice, finding ways to fight it, being inspired by real-life heroes, and becoming powerful in important new ways.

And what I love is that I can create my own personalized reading list to bookmark new releases I’m interested in reading, as well as recommend books to others.

Off the Page Blog

They also have a great blog, “Off the Page” with insights into Canadian authors, books and publishing as well as cool stuff in and around Canadian books. For instance, these new releases included The Apocolypse of Morgan Turner by Edmonton author, Jennifer Quist. The book is set in Edmonton and Jennifer blogs on what other authors, books and literary institutions Edmonton has to offer.

Can I add my book to the site?

49thShelf.com imports publisher-supplied data from the national database: BNC BiblioShare: including eBooks, from all publishers, and self-published titles. There is no charge to have books listed on 49th Shelf.

If you don’t have an ONIX data file for your book, you can find out how to make that happen by going to BookNetCanada.ca. There you’ll find the necessary webform to fill out as well as tutorials and manuals to help you.

Any data that you add to the system via the webform will automatically be imported to 49th Shelf as long as you add the country code for Canada (“CA”) in the Contributor section.

Can I sell my book or buy books on 49thShelf.com?

49thshelf.com does not sell books. Instead it supports bookstores across the country, providing direct buy links to retailers’ sites and publishers’ websites on every book page.


Oh! And one more thing!

Every week, 49th Shelf posts #giveaways and #bookgiveaways on Twitter and also for members on their website. Free books! You gotta love it!


Gwynn recently interviewed Beth Bruder, Vice President at Dundurn Press and a founding member and chair of the ACP committee that launched The 49th Shelf. Listen to that interview on Word on the Hills radio program on Northumberland 89.7FM.

Submit, I Say

Submit, I Say

Ruth E. Walker

I’ve been quoted more than once as suggesting “If you don’t submit, you’ll probably never be published.” It’s a good line and one that I’ve used in workshops and networking events. But lately, I’ve been thinking maybe I should take my own advice.

Tania Hershman

I subscribe to a few newsletters, some of which share details on calls for submissions. When Tania Hershman’s ShortStops newsletter arrived today, I took a minute or twenty to look at what U.K. magazines and anthologies are seeking these days. Two themed issues caught my attention and I reviewed what unpublished work I had that might fit the themes. Less than thirty minutes later and I had two submissions crossing the Atlantic and arriving in the U.K. for consideration. Confirmation emails back to me in seconds.

So much easier than the old days of printing the submission, finding the envelope, affixing the stamp, ensuring the S.A.S.E. (self-addressed, stamped envelope) was inside, walking to the mailbox and then patiently waiting six months to hear. I sat in self-satisfied reflection for a couple of minutes.

The mirror doesn’t lie

And then I reflected on my submission record for the past six months. And I didn’t go back more than six months because, well, I know I wasn’t doing much better back then either.

Not too impressive:

  • One submission two months ago to an agent that was, in fact, a revised submission from what I sent her in late July. Good news is that the agent was quite happy to receive my revision. Bad news is that I’m still waiting.
  • One submission of three poems to a literary journal last fall.
  • One poem submitted to an online contest last month.

In other words, not much for a working writer to look back on. Sure, I’ve been busy revising my latest novel manuscript. I’ve also been working as an editor and writing coach and, yes, that is demanding but fulfilling work. However, back when I was commuting to downtown Toronto and pulling in a regular paycheque, I was submitting a lot more of my work. Clearly, I needed a self-kick in the pants.

If you don’t submit, you’ll probably never be published.

Well, that is true. And it is also true that sending your work out carries the risk that it will be rejected. That’s the tough part of being a writer who wants their work to be published. So why have my submissions slowed down? Do I not want my work to be published? Or am I afraid of rejection?

I don’t think it’s really any of the above. I just think my focus had shifted to concentrate on other writers and I kind of left me—the writer me—behind. I’ll also admit that finding the ending for the novel has been a lot tougher than I banked on. While I was making those revisions, I didn’t want to think about short fiction, poetry or plays. I just wanted to reach the finish line.

So now, I’m back in the game. While I won’t be submitting weekly, I’m no longer ignoring the calls for submissions. In the past, I’ve often had unpublished material that worked with a particular theme or publication. And just as often, a call for submissions has sparked a story idea in me.

So I’m going to pay attention and, one way or the other, I’m going to remember that I’m a writer—one who plans to submit and craft new material far more often than she has in past year. How about you?


There are plenty of newsletters that can land in your INBOX with calls for submissions inside. Besides Tania Hershman’s ShortStops, here’s a couple more you should consider:

Literistic is based in Victoria, B.C., and offers two monthly submission services. One is free and is what they call their shortlist, arriving monthly with a list of opportunities coming up next month. I subscribe to the shortlist right now but my plan is to upgrade to the annual $58 list. That one is curated to your interests. Here’s how founders Liam Sarsfield and Jessie Jones describe it on their website:

If it’s fiction deadlines for publications that pay and are located in the United States that you’re looking for, well, we’ll keep you on top of those. And if it’s poetry deadlines for publications that pay and don’t have reading fees, that’s no problem, we can keep you on top of those too. Imagine Literistic is your new robotic literary agent (less tweed, more whitespace). You’ll never have to cruise another crappy database again. 

Poets & Writers is a U.S. based writers’ magazine. Their weekly newsletter often has submission information. For example, last month’s weekly newsletters included:

  • 57 Upcoming Contest Deadlines (Feb 1)
  • 480 Small Presses Ready To Publish Your Work (Feb 8)
  • 300+ Writers Retreats Where Your Big Book Could Be Born (Feb 15)*

(*Of course, if you really want a writers’ retreat that’s big on book midwifery and writerly support, you can always consider our Spring Thaw at Elmhirst’s Resort on Rice Lake in Ontario: April 20 – 22 or choose the extend your pen option and stay until April 25)

  10 Quick—and effective—Edits

  10 Quick—and effective—Edits

It’s Writescape’s 10th anniversary and we have lots of excitement planned for writers in 2018. To kick off the celebration, we’ve launched 10 on the 10th. This series of monthly resources will bring tips, advice and inspiration directly to your inbox. Think of it as Gwynn and Ruth sitting on your shoulder and nudging you along. Share with your writing colleagues and encourage them to sign up for more.

Here are your first 10 tips:

 1. Get the action going

Replace passive, weak verbs, especially forms of the verb “to be”

  • Before:      It was a dark and stormy night.
  • After:        The storm raged through the blackness. 

2. Keep things moving forward by reducing the use of “had”

“Had” refers to “completed’ action. It has no forward movement. Use “had” once or twice at the start of a section/paragraph to establish the time period, then revert to simple past tense.

  • Before:      She had been the only one in the house, and had paid the rent faithfully each month. She                                   had taken care of the place and had put up drapes and painted.
  • After:        She had been the only one in the house, and paid the rent faithfully each month. She                                          took care of the place and put up drapes and painted.

3. Keep the action going

Delete empty words like very/somewhat/really. Energize the word being modified instead.

  • Before:      Despite the very hot afternoon….
  • After:        Despite the afternoon’s sweltering heat…


 4. Keep your actions strong; beware the “-ly” adverb

Can you replace it with a stronger active verb?

  • Before:      He went quickly
  • After:        He ran – or dashed, charged, bolted…


 5. Change up the senses you use in description.

We default to the sense of sight. Try replacing visual details with ones of another sense.

  • Before:      Anita set the gold-rimmed tea cup  on the lace cloth…
  • After:        The tea cup rattled in the saucer as Anita placed it on the lace                             cloth…


 6. Take your reader deeper into the world of the story

Look for named emotions (happy, sad) or physical states (fearful, tired) and replace with concrete and sensory detail.

  • Before:       She felt disappointed
  • After:        She sank onto the bench and hugged her knees


 7. Keep your writing fresh

Look for tired and overused clichés. (Microsoft Word’s grammar checker notes clichés with green squiggly lines.) Create visuals that add to the story or your character.

  • Before:      His beard was as white as snow
  • After:        His beard was as white as his lab coat

8. Eliminate repetition. Eliminate repetition.

Identify any “writer’s tic” that you know you have. Phrases, descriptions, gestures and so on, rapidly  lose their energy when they are overused or placed too closely together.


  • How many times do your characters “roll their eyes” or “take a deep breath?”
  • How many times have your told readers it’s “a red car?”


9. Keep your tricky words tamed

Are there words you constantly mispell…um…misspell? Are you working with strange names or technical terms? Keep them correct and consistent by adding them to your software’s dictionary or AutoCorrect function.

How to:     Right click on the word. Choose either Add to dictionary or AutoCorrect


 10. Know your country

Is it color or colour? Are they good neighbours or good neighbors? Writing for American readers, Australian readers or British readers? Incorrect spelling won’t please your publisher. Make sure your  software is defaulted to the “right” English.

How to:     Most MSWord programs have the language default on the bottom info bar. Left click to select your language.


If you found this helpful, let your writing friends know. Share it!

5 tax questions for writers – answered

5 tax questions for writers – answered

Gwynn Scheltema

At this time of year, writers across Canada are scrambling to organize their receipts and invoices before filing their income tax. I’ve been preparing taxes for several decades. These are five questions I often get asked by writers and artists.

1. If a writer has a day job and freelances too, can she claim writing expenses? 

Yes. A freelance writer earning revenue is considered a small business operator or sole proprietor, and therefore can deduct expenses like any other small business owner. Many people work as an employee at one job and run a business on the side. A freelance writer is no different. And the tax department requires you to declare any and all income you earn worldwide from whatever source.

That said, you will notice that I use the phrase “a freelance writer earning revenue.” If you are writing and submitting but not yet earning income, there are still circumstances when you can be considered to be “running a writing business,” but the tax department has guidelines that differentiate a “hobbyist” from a “small business person” that you should check first.

2. What kinds of expenses can writers claim?

Assuming that you are not considered a “hobbyist”, but are a “small business person,” then you can expense anything that you pay out “to earn revenue.”

Some examples would be: all the usual office type expenses like stationery and computer software and postage; also travel and phone costs for assignments; research expenses; professional fees for accounting; editing, transcribing, researching etc.; advertising; a portion of your computer and photography equipment, professional membership dues, professional development courses, conferences and writing retreats; and resources such as subscriptions to trade magazines.


Some meals and some entertainment expenses can be written off too. If you operate out of your home, you can also consider a “use of home” office expense, and if you use your own car you can consider a motor vehicle expense too. All these expenses, however, have rules and limitations attached, so check the Canada Revenue Agency website for details.

The golden rule is that the expense should be incurred to earn revenue and should be “reasonable in the circumstances.” Trying to write off a $4,000 trip to Paris to write an $800 article is not reasonable. But don’t short-change yourself either. Don’t forget the little things like parking and banking fees and taxis. And keep all your receipts!

3. What are the tax implications of a Canadian writer working with a USA  or UK publisher?


Money earned outside Canada will be have tax withheld at source AND must be declared on your Canadian tax return. But, Canada and the USA and UK have “double taxation agreements” in place, so there is a mechanism for you to apply to have your foreign taxes refunded.


4. What are the biggest mistakes you see writers making with their taxes?

Not starting to consider themselves a writing business soon enough. Most writers feel they should either be working full-time at writing to qualify, or that they should be making a profit first.

Also, not keeping receipts. You can’t claim things you have no receipts for, even if you genuinely spent the money on them. A good rule of thumb is to keep all receipts even if you are not sure if the expense qualifies and then decide later.


5. When does a writer need to register for a GST/HST number?

Writers, resident in Canada, are subject to the same requirements as any other self-employed persons or companies when it comes to mandatory GST/HST registration.

So when do you need to register? The simple answer for mandatory registration is: as soon as you hit the $30,000 gross revenue mark.

Image result for hst registrationBut it’s not quite that simple. Timing is everything. When you reach that $30,000 threshold is important. You are required to become a GST/HST registrant once you “exceed the small supplier limit of $30,000 in a single calendar quarter or in four consecutive calendar quarters.”

Say, for instance, you’ve only earned $10,000 by the end of November 2017. Then you land a large contract and they pay you on three separate $15,000 invoices: in December 2017, and January and February 2018. You earn $2,000 in March.

At the end of December 2017, your annual revenue [four consecutive calendar quarters] is $25,000 [$15K plus $10K]. You don’t need to register at this point, because you are under the $30,000 threshold.

By the end of March [1st calendar quarter], however, you exceed the $30,000 limit [January $15K + February $15K + March $2K.] Now you must register, even if you remain at the lower earning levels in April and beyond.

You also have the option of voluntary registration at any time. If you are prepared to do the added bookkeeping required, you can voluntarily register and take advantage of recouping any GST/HST you pay out on your expenses. Sometimes too, if you want to give the allusion that you are a bigger operator than you are, you can register and charge HST from day one. The client will likely assume then that you earn over $30,000 a year.

Useful links:


Writing retreats are allowable expenses for a writing business.

And our next retreat on offer from Writescape is Spring Thaw 2018,. April 20 to 24.This all-inclusive writing retreat is held at the fabulous Elmhirst’s Resort on Rice Lake in Keene. Stay for the weekend or treat yourself to an extra two days of writing.

Looking for writing time? Polishing a project? Looking for feedback from two professional editors? Or just want time to rejuvenate your creativity? Don’t miss Spring Thaw. 



Facing “The Other” in Fiction

Facing “The Other” in Fiction

Ruth E. Walker

Bias is a tricky frame of mind. As writers, our biases deserve our attention because they affect how we write.

Our experiences — from infancy to adulthood — shape how we see the world and the other people who we interact with. Media and popular culture. Schoolyards. Neighbourhoods. Travel. It all reaches our senses and informs us about “the other.” And that drills down to how we write characters, create cultures and societies, and even what parts of the landscape we include in our settings.

But bias is learned. Sometimes, “the other” is not seen as such until something or someone tells us so. I used to think it was a natural human reaction to identify “the other” (the person who is not PLU: People Like Us.)

But I was wrong. That bias of identifying “the other”, turns out to be more socially constructed than a natural human reaction. I know this because it happened to me.

1978: A Hard Lesson

Forty years ago, I was a young bride newly moved to London, Ontario. I got a receptionist job at an employment agency. I started out handing out application forms and giving typing and aptitude tests to people looking for temporary or full time work. I’d usher them in for the interview with the professional interviewer.

Eventually, I started offering up insights and feedback to the professionals from my interactions with the applicants. In a couple of years, I was interviewing the inexperienced applicants. You know…those the professionals didn’t have time for. Persons with disabilities. Persons of colour. In short, the less-likely to be sent on for job assignments, the more likely they got me for an interview. Those days, it was a great example of the need for equity in employment.

By waelder – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1962578

One day, the professionals were away and I got to interview a “walk-in” keypunch operator. Back then, computers needed skilled keypunchers to input data. This young woman had taken all the courses. She completed the co-op training. She was dressed professionally and I enjoyed chatting with her. I sent her for an interview at one of the largest industries in London at the time.

The next day, the boss called me in to her office. The company wanted to hire my applicant. But my boss was distressed and angry. “Why on Earth did you send that woman to X company?” she demanded.

“Because she was qualified,” I answered, flustered.

“But she’s a [the woman’s last name],” my boss said. I wondered what the heck her last name had to do with anything, especially her job skills?  And then my boss continued. “She’s a wahoo from the reservation. She’ll work long enough to collect unemployment and then quit.”

A wahoo? I’d never heard the term before. I didn’t understand why my boss was so annoyed. How could she know what would happen with this woman? Reservation? The light started to leak into my brain and I realized she meant the woman was from a First Nation. But I remained confused.

I came from the suburbs in Toronto. I didn’t know a darn thing about reservations. I’d never interacted with Indigenous Canadians, so there was no framed experience. I had simply interviewed a woman who qualified for a job.

And, by the way, she got the temporary job. She held the job. She got hired on full time. She could be working there still and is maybe a senior executive. Who knows?

Letting More Light In

The experience planted a seed in me about this idea of bias. I held onto this seed during my career in Human Resources. I took HR courses on equity, gender issues, discrimination. I wanted a better understanding of how to move past knee-jerk reaction and find the way to human-to-human connection.

I’ll admit to failing, more than once. But the point is, I hope, that I didn’t stop looking for the human instead of “the other”. And I bring that seed—and desire to connect human to human—to my life as a writer. I don’t want to write stereotypes. I don’t want to assume…I want to know about others.

My current work in progress is a science fiction set off-world among people who hold values and beliefs far different from my experiences. And those people are split into two distinct societies with opposing interests, religions and social/political structures. It’s a mess. And it’s a lot of fun to write because I get to explore the world of bias and misunderstanding.

Of course, it’s fiction so I can imagine all sorts of craziness. But even born out of my imagination, my fiction also carries some of my biases. However, here’s where the awareness comes in: I pull the rug out from under my own ideas of “perfection.” And it taught me things. I have learned that, for example, matriarchal societies are not necessarily all nurture and love. Indeed, given the right ingredients, any perfect world can fall apart in a matter of one or two generations.

Bias. It affects how we see and respond to the world. As writers who want to craft truly human stories, we will be wise to keep our biases in mind.

I encourage you to explore your own biases in fiction. And give them some consideration in your life as well. It might open some doors you never knew were there, just waiting for you to come by.

GPS for the subconscious

GPS for the subconscious

Gwynn Scheltema

I call it mind mapping. You might call it clustering or brainstorming. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that this visual technique works to generate ideas and get subconscious thoughts down on paper before you lose them.

What is mind mapping?

Mind mapping is a my non-linear way to organizing thoughts without my internal critic getting in the way. At the same time it allows me to link and organize those ideas, so that the finished exercise is something I can work with.

Sound contradictory?

Perhaps, but it is based on some interesting studies on the way we think. Ralph Haber’s study of memory, found that we have nearly 90% success rate recalling images rather than words. Tony Buzan’s research found that those who took notes using key words learned more effectively. Mind mapping combines keywords and visual representation.

Mind map mind set

Start with an open mind and playful attitude. Mind mapping is a “brain dump.” Expect that many of the ideas you produce will not be useful. That’s not important. You can harvest the valuable nuggets later.

Your brain works best in short, intensive bursts (5 minutes or so), so once you begin, work fast and write down only key words, symbols, images, phrases … not sentences. Strive for an explosion of ideas.

Write with a pencil, your favourite pen, coloured markers, crayons or whatever helps to make you feel creative. Same goes for the paper you choose: with or without lines, coloured, big or small.

Where do you start?

Begin with one central keyword or concept in the centre of the page. Starting in the middle of the page gives the creative right brain a head start, as our non-creative left brain is used to starting in the upper left-hand corner.

You can put the keyword in a circle or a cloud shape or not enclose it at all (this is a creative process, so there are no “rules.”)

You can use an idea you want to work with or a random word picked from a book or given to you by someone else.

Then what?

I started with the word GERANIUM.

Write down/draw anything that keyword suggests to you, and then a word or symbol associated with that new thought, and so on, until you have a chain of linked ideas moving out from the central theme. Do not judge your ideas at this stage; simply write them down.

Put an idea down even if it seems unrelated – your subconscious probably knows more than you do.  DOCTORS OFFICE showed up on one of the branches. What does that have to do with geraniums? Seemingly nothing now, but when I organized the ideas afterwards, the link became clear. (I’ll explain later).

Keep your hand moving. If ideas slow down, take your hand back to the central concept and begin a new branch. Draw empty lines, and your brain will move to fill them automatically; or inject more energy with a different colour pen.

Eventually you’ll have several trains of thought, all different from each other and yet linked by the central concept. You can now organize them to fit your purposes.

Organizing and using your mind map ideas

Ways to use the ideas you’ve generated can be as varied as the ideas themselves.

Say I’m looking for an idea for a non-fiction article. Perhaps my first instinct around the word GERANIUM is to do an article on container gardening, I take a highlighter and highlight all the ideas that fit in any way with that slant. In the example, I’d highlight: POTS, RED, HANGING, TRAILING, VERANDAH, PATIO, SUMMER, SCENT. Hmmm….. boring!

But in the process, the word SCENT reminded me that geranium leaves can be used to scent and colour sugar. The mind trail on HERBS, TEAS, SPA suddenly becomes more interesting. A non-fiction article on “Using Flowers for Special Teas” now has possibilities. I might do another mind map now with the word TEA in the centre.

Use a mind map over and over

But don’t stop there. The same mind map can be used several times, at different times for different styles of writing.

The phrase DOCTORS OFFICE has me curious. I follow the branch back towards the centre, trying to work out what PINK and SUGAR have to do with it. Then it hits me… when I was a child, our doctor used to hand out tiny cylindrical candies that smelled like scented geraniums. I realize that I haven’t seen them in decades. What other sweeties from that era are no longer around? Hmmm….. Another article? A scene for my novel? A short story? Things are brewing now.

Later, it strikes me as interesting that I have two trails that contain the word VERANDAH, and I’m drawn to the references to LATIN WORD; SECRETS; SCHOOL FRIENDS; IVY; OLD BUILDINGS; ENGLAND. I think I feel a poem emerging…..

Even the trail that started out with the boring POTS; RED, ended with SQUIRREL; CRINOLINE: HIBISCUS. Now I realize, that’s a story my subconscious has unearthed about a little critter that came to my garden last year. He loved hibiscus shoots, and …

When should I do a mind map?

Use a mind map whenever you want to generate new ideas. Use it to focus in on a particular problem area. Use it to expand something you are already working on. Use it to reveal hidden subconscious perspectives on a seemingly boring topic. Or just do it for fun and see where it takes you. Quick. Easy. Worth it!


The perfect spot to be creative – and mind map to your heart’s content – is at Spring Thaw 2018 on beautiful Rice Lake in Keene, Ontario. Come for 3 or 5 days and escape to write with Writescape.Tailor your weekend to suit your needs.There is an agenda and formal programming, but you choose what sessions and activities will work for you.

Getting Your Novel Unstuck

Getting Your Novel Unstuck

Guest blogger Stephanie Gibeault is a freelance writer with a passion for fiction for young readers. She recently wrote a post for Writescape about the benefits of writing away at the Highlights Foundation’s Pennsylvania retreat. As she promised in that December post, she’s here to share what she learned about getting a novel unstuck:

Whether you call it writer’s block, an empty tank or say your creative well has run dry, every writer has days or weeks when putting words on the page is a challenge. This past summer, I found myself stuck on my middle grade manuscript.

I created a storyboard (on my closet doors) to help me see the flow of the plot, only to discover there were structural issues I hadn’t noticed before. I could see what the problems were, but had no idea how to fix them. Thankfully, I had already signed up for a workshop dedicated to getting unstuck.

Stop spinning your wheels

In my recent guest post, I wrote about my experience at the Highlights Foundation workshop Getting Your Middle Grade Novel Unstuck. I learned many things at the workshop, but the main focus was how to deal with being stuck.

Beginning, middle or end of your story—there are great techniques that can help move you forward. Instructors Chris Tebbetts and Elise Broach armed me with loads of options. And many of them don’t even involve working directly on your manuscript.

The most valuable piece of advice I took away from the workshop: there’s always something you can be doing even if it’s not writing.

Experiment with play

Sometimes, it feels like anything other than writing a new scene is procrastination. That’s simply not the case.

Anything that moves you forward with your writing, builds your skills, increases your familiarity with your characters or fleshes out your plot is a productive and effective use of your time. That’s incredibly liberating.

Discovering your characters

Successful middle grade writers create characters their readers connect with—and characters the writers know inside and out. Chris and Elise offered lots of suggestions to get to know our characters better. Here’s a really effective one for me:

  1. Create a chart with a column for a character’s self-perception and a column for how they are seen by others.
  2. The two columns are those perceptions that are true or accurate and those that are false. This provides insight into your character’s psyche – what they hide from others and what they hide from themselves.


Always positive

Never afraid

HOW OTHERS SEE BOB Cute but annoying

Makes light of tough situations



Journal as your character. Get at their innermost thoughts, motivations and goals.Other ways of getting in touch with your characters include:

  • Fill out a questionnaire or survey as one of your characters. How do they answer differently than you or another character would?
  • Write about a character’s perfect day. What makes him or her happy?
  • Create a character profile with details like hair colour, favourite movie and best friend. The more details the better.
  • Write a letter to yourself from a character about what you are getting right and wrong about him or her in your manuscript.

Stretch some more!

I learned how writing prompts helped uncover details about our characters and plots. I thought it would be limiting because I’d have to go in a particular direction rather than letting my creativity flow.

I was amazed. Forced to explore areas I might otherwise have ignored, I answered questions not directly related to my story but essential to understanding it. Simple questions like, “What does this character want?” or “Why do I love this story?” gave me a great start.

ReVision to move forward

Editing can be as radical as starting from scratch and rewriting a scene entirely from memory. You’ll likely retain your favourite parts while stumbling onto some new descriptions, dialogue and directions at the same time. With track changes in your word processor, it’s easy to compare the two versions, choosing the best sections to keep.

Or be more conservative and only delete what isn’t completely necessary. Decide what, if any, details need to go back in and what the reader never needed in the first place.

One of my favourite suggestions was when Chris told me to rewrite a section of my manuscript in first person point of view. The purpose was not to rewrite my entire manuscript, (although that is exactly what I will do), but to get me deeper into my main character’s head.

I couldn’t believe the difference it made. No longer hovering over my story, now saw it through my protagonist’s eyes. Changing point of view, or even tense (from past to present, for example), allows you to approach your narrative from a different angle and that can be all you need.

No more excuses

With so many available options, I no longer have any reason to be stuck. Or to use the phrase “writer’s block”. If you’re feeling stuck with a writing project, consider trying some of these suggestions.

Remember to take advantage of workshops and retreats to help propel you forward. My experience at Highlights sure made a difference for me.

Did You Know

Are you stuck? Writescape retreats offer the perfect space to stretch your writing skills, re-imagine your work in new and exciting ways and the safety you need for full-throated expression. Spring Thaw is already half full of eager and focused writers like you, ready to give focus to their work.

Join us for an all-inclusive escape on the shores of Rice Lake. Elmhirst’s Resort boasts cozy fully equipped cottages with fireplaces, private bedrooms and gorgeous sunrise lake views. All you need is your jammies, toothbrush and writing materials; writers at all levels are welcome. Choose either a 3-day or 5-day retreat. April 20-24.


One way I write a poem

One way I write a poem

Gwynn Scheltema

Outside my window the snow is piled layer upon layer. It’s quite beautiful, but it does seem like winter has been here FOREVER. There is a spot near the pathway where bulbs will poke through in spring, and although it is mid-winter, I still look there in the hope of seeing a crocus nudging its way to the sun. But, nope! Not today. It’s as if winter knows how I feel and is teasing me, telling me to be patient. I feel a poem coming on…..

Poems are inspired by many things, and each poet usually has a preferred way of entering into a poem. For me it is an image, often an image from landscape, an image that evokes an emotion in me, an image that begins to tell a story…

Emotion first

Painting a pretty picture with words is all well and good, but if the picture is flat and emotionless, you don’t have a poem. I believe a poem’s prime function is to connect with the human heart, to evoke a reaction in the reader, to find common ground with emotions and experiences we all know.

So I work with the emotion first. I mentally or physically jot down what emotions the scene evokes in me and what that makes me think of. Even if my thoughts don’t seem to “match” or if they “fight” with each other, I just let the random subconscious thoughts bubble and land on the page:

 hope to see a crocus – frustrated with winter already – amazed at how those squirrels survive out there in the cold – awed by the beauty of everything – awed by the determination of a tiny flower pushing through all that snow – anticipation of spring coming in just a few weeks – resignation that there is still winter to live through – teased by winter – foreverness -winter teaching me a lesson in patiencepromise….

Emotion in context

Then I ask myself if there other times in my life that I have felt some of these emotions? This helps me relate what I’m seeing and feeling to “universal” themes.


waiting for Christmas as a child – anticipation of anything exciting – my mother telling me that “patience is a virtue”- watching a small child struggling with shoelaces – waiting for a lover who has gone away – bad dreams and how they are gone in the morning

Sensory details next

Then I list all the specific details I notice about the physical scene or image using all the senses and remembering extensions of the basic five senses like texture, quality of light, and temperature. And I always ask myself “What is missing?”


layers of snow – fluffy – heavy, bare knobbly branches – purple shadows – black squirrels – lake covered in ice that will leave soon – grey sky – cold – no warm sun- no crocus poking through – imagined honey smell of crocus – chatter of squirrels – creaking branches …


Then I ask myself what some of those images remind me of. Again, I don’t worry about it “fitting”. Just let the subconscious thoughts fall on the page

the creaking branches and knobbly branches remind me of my bony arthritic fingers – the squirrels are like busy moms dashing about making sure everyone has the things they need – layers of snow like blankets- ice is a blanket too  – crocus and saffron spice – sun like a returning lover

Finding nuggets

I read through my notes and see what jumps at me; first impressions, no overthinking:

  • hope to see a crocus- foreverness- anticipation of spring
  • waiting for a lover who has gone away
  • bare knobbly branches- ice that will leave soon
  • arthritic fingers – sun like a returning lover – saffron spice

Reading through this list I’m starting to get a feeling about spring being almost human like a lover – how that lover is gone but will return when the time is right if I can just be patient and determined like a crocus. And I really like the word “foreverness”.

First pass

Trees wave knobbly fingers

ice on the lake fades against grey sky

it bides its time

before it moves on

so my love can return

I will be a honey scented crocus

waiting under the purple shadowed snow


waiting for spring and my love’s return

waiting for the saffron sun to warm me

once more


Hmmm. It’s got some decent images, but it’s too wordy and too obvious. I need to let the images speak for themselves. Style is too linear and conversational. I need to get rid of unnecessary articles and other words. Knobbly is too soft a word. Images need focus to give the contrast of cold colourless hard winter (lover gone) and softer brighter spring (person in love waiting and hoping) And as much as I love the word foreverness, I’m not sure it fits. I also need to give it a title (a well-chosen title will set up expectations and help with defining what the poem is about).



Bony tree limbs wave

gnarled knuckled fingers

lake ice stretches to grey sky

bides its time

before moving on


as the patient honey saffron crocus

nudges to the sun

beneath purple shadowed snow

I wait for spring

and your return


So there it is for now. It’s got a way to go, for sure, but it’s started and on the page.  Now, I’ll let it rest a couple of days or weeks and come back to it. Distance will tell me what changes – if any –  to make next.


Image result for saffron crocus flower

Saffron spice is harvested from the stigmas of a crocus flower. Each saffron crocus bulb produces only one flower and each flower produces only three stigmas.  To get 1lb of dry saffron requires 50,000–75,000 flowers which require about 20 hours of labour to pick. 

It reminds me of counting words!

Add to your word count this spring with 5 days away at Spring Thaw retreat. Get written feedback and a one-on-one consultation with Ruth and Gwynn.  You can tailor your weekend to suit your needs.There is an agenda and formal programming, but you choose what sessions and activities will work for you.

Power Up Your Dialogue

Power Up Your Dialogue

Ruth E. Walker

Excerpt from “Shooter”, award-winning Young Adult novel by Caroline Pignat:

I meet his eyes. Hold them for a moment. “Thanks…Hogan.” He shrugs it off like it’s no big deal. But it is, for me, it’s huge.
“Okay–but your brother is definitely dead,” Xander blurts at Hogan. “That I know because–.”
“Xander!” Isabelle cuts him off. “Geeze, don’t you have a filter?”
“No.” Confused, he looks down at his camera. “I never use one. I’d rather see things as they really are.”
We sit in awkward silence, looking everywhere but at each other.
“He’s right. It’s true.” Hogan lets out a deep breath. “It’s been two years. I should be able to at least say it.”
But he doesn’t.
Xander tilts his head and stares at Hogan. “But it’s true that you killed him?”

In fiction, well-crafted dialogue like Pignat‘s can take my breath away. But what if your dialogue is so over-written, unrealistic or dull that your reader wants your characters to stop breathing? Or at least, stop talking.

I get to read a lot of dialogue from writers at all stages of their writing career. For example, I read and assess self-published works from potential members of a national writers’ organization. I’m also a coach and editor working closely with writers seeking to polish their manuscripts. And I teach workshops that focus on crafting excellent dialogue in fiction.

I’ve read some fantastic and engaging dialogue. And I’ve read dialogue that felt like listening to someone recite the nutritional contents of a milk carton. Believe me, you want the words your characters speak to be fantastic and engaging. No 19% of vitamin D for you.

Dialogue has work to do

I’m always surprised when writers miss opportunities to make dialogue work for them. Dialogue is not filler, nor is it secondary. It’s a multi-tasking powerhouse and writers would be wise to remember that.

But even more important, there are technical effects that support and enhance your story. The following are just a few examples of the potential for spoken words:


  • propel your narrative forward with action: “Get up! They’re swarming the gates.”
  • foreshadow, suggest, nudge: “Are you sure the doors are all locked?”
  • establish setting, time, era: “Mistress, your limbs are showing ‘neath your petticoat!”


  • convey emotional state: “Every time I look at you, I see her, alive again.”
  • highlight personality/idiosyncrasies: “Beans can’t never touch meat on my plate. I won’t eat it!”
  • establish culture/social background: “Ach lass, will you no’ be getting down from there?”
The art of character-speak

If we wrote dialogue like true, normal conversations, we wouldn’t have readers. Most real life conversations are a jumbled mess, peppered with ums, ers and ahs, interruptions, half-finished sentences and the shorthand of shared experiences.

For readers, dialogue is the illusion of active listening, of looking from person to person as a conversation unfolds. Readers also enjoy an increase in white space to ‘rest’ their eyes. Conversations create the dynamic that excites readers and keeps the story moving forward.

The job of the writer is to put words in the mouths of our characters and make it all sound natural while making sure it does some of that multi-tasking work we want it to produce.

Here are two approaches to consider.

1. Take out words to give a more natural flow. Start with a basic conversation.

“Did you see that cat get run over by the bus?”
“What cat are you talking about?”
“Frank’s old tabby cat, Tibby.”
“I didn’t see a thing. I guess Frank will be a mess.”

By taking out a word here and there, and giving a bit of a tic to one of the speakers, we also get a bit more flesh on the character.

“You see that cat get runned over by the bus?”
“What cat?”
“Frank’s ol’ cat, Tibby.”
“Didn’t see a thing. Guess Frank’ll be a mess.”

2. Use surprise or the unexpected to up the tension. Real life is often surprising when our conversations with a neighbour or colleagues go off to places we didn’t expect. Do the same thing in your dialogue because there is nothing like potential conflict to tempt your reader.

“Hi, Andrea.”
“Janice? It is you.”
“It’s so good to run into you, Andrea. You look amazing.”
“Why did you hide him from me?”

Knowing when to bring in dialogue

If there is a formula for when and where to use dialogue, I’d love to know what it is. I can say this much: When I look over my fiction, I see that I use dialogue most often when I need to raise the stakes or create conflict or tension in the story.

I don’t mean that the “conflict” or “tension” needs to be dramatic verbal combat. There are gradations and shades to tension and conflict, so sometimes that means being subtle in how I construct those conversations between characters.

Brushstrokes can be more effective than a gallon of paint. With those big scenes of a major reveal or emotion, I will often default to dialogue. But I also use dialogue for subtext and quiet discoveries.

Choosing to write scenes primarily through dialogue, action or narrative, is intuitive for most writers. But when looking at your second or third drafts, pay attention to where you’ve made those choices.

It could be that what you’ve shared in a long, explanatory passage of mostly narrative just might be better delivered through conversations between your characters.

Did You Know?

We were recently asked what a writing coach does. A writing coach supports writers at different stages of the creative process. At Writescape, we often work with writers who just want to know if they are on the right track.

Sometimes a writer needs help with specific techniques like Point of View, dialogue or story structure. And sometimes, a discouraged writer just needs someone to prompt or encourage them.

Coaching services should be tailored to your unique needs and timetable. Writescape’s  coaching services combine online, mail and telephone or in-person communications — depending on geographic, time and similar circumstances.

Contact info@writescape.ca for more information on our coaching and editing services for writers.

My Digital Idea Archive Project

My Digital Idea Archive Project

A reader left this comment on one of our recent blog posts: “Great blog! I’ll be saving this to my Digital Idea Archive.” What’s a Digital Idea Archive??? We contacted the reader, Leah Murray from BC, and asked her to explain….

Guest blogger: Leah Murray

Do you sometimes need a new idea to get creative and writing again? I do. But now I know what to do about it, thanks to my Digital Idea Archive Project.

I figured my project needed to be tackled in three parts:

  1. Find inspirational ideas I want to keep
  2. Stash ’em someplace safe for future reference
  3. Find ways to retrieve them after we’ve passed through the ancient mists of time (gulp).

Getting the archive set up was straightforward. Sure, it posed a few questions, but I found the solutions and in the end it was worth the effort.

 Find ideas I want to keep

Google’s computerized searches are well up to the work of finding inspiration. If Google could do it online, could I harness that for personal use?

Yes. There’s a handy thing called a Google Alert that will scour the web and bring back whatever it finds about your interests in the form of a daily emailed digest. It took me no time at all to set up Alerts for books, writing tips, photography, farming, small business, and other topics that interested me.

Emailed items turned out to be another piece to the puzzle:  if I can see the original text or image that triggered my idea, I can recreate my train of thought in a flash.  Getting ideas emailed to me or emailing myself and then archiving those emails appropriately seemed a good way to start. My Google Alerts became  part of that

My written work is often triggered by images, so Pinterest was the next stop. There I set up “boards” for books I wanted to read, writing craft, punnies, inspirational artwork/photos, places I want to go, and my perennial interest in self-help/DIY things. Like Google Alerts, Pinterest also sends me a weekly email based on my preferences.

My newest venture is Instagram, a mobile app a lot like Pinterest, but which I find good for sourcing and organizing videos and the people who produce them, like this video on what Instagram can do.

Idea archive part one, check.

Stash ’em someplace safe

I live in a tiny granny suite in the southwestern corner of BC, where space is at a premium. I can no longer keep physical archives, and I didn’t have enough empty file storage space on my existing computer. My archive still had to exist in a form that was

  • accessible with minimal effort,
  • human browsable, for when I’m leisurely searching files for a fresh idea or slant on a perennial topic, and
  • computer searchable, for when I’m working on a broad topic with lots of disparate notes from different times.

A quick poke through Staples and London Drugs websites unearthed the perfect solution: a hefty 2 terabyte Passport drive that plugs in to a USB port on my computer, and holds LOTS of files. All I needed was a sale and less than $100 to end my space challenge.

Most mail programs allow you to print your emails to pdf and put them in disk folders, but I’m lazy-fingered and find that inconvenient. Gmail for example: Right-click on any white space in the email you’re looking at, choose Print, and then use the Change button under Destination to select “Save as PDF”. Most recent versions of Windows and Mac OS have this built in – if yours doesn’t, an Adobe Reader download – – will install it for you.

But my emails get sorted into archive folders under my in-box: I just drag and drop them from inbox to mail folder as I’m checking email each morning. I then use Office 365’s Outlook archiving features to put folder structure and emails onto my Passport drive.

All social media platforms have been known to lose links to information, so things I want to keep, I save to my own archive. In Pinterest I just click on the image, then the “Read It” button at the bottom right hand corner of the image, and copy-paste the article into a Word document and store it in an appropriate folder on my computer. LinkedIn lets me copy and paste entire conversations the same way.

Consistent folder names across the various storage, email, and social media platforms make retrieval much easier. Folder structures work best for me if they are named in the ways that I think, so I created my own. A couple of hours saw my folders labelled and matched on every platform.

I write a LOT about photography and digital imaging, and write poetry, essays, and fiction, so here’s how I organized things.

Occasionally I create a desktop or browser shortcut, aka a bookmark, if I think a topic is a passing fad rather than a long term trend. Bookmarks are easy to create both in Mac and Windows.

For stuff I’ll work on in the next month or two, I save browser bookmarks in folders (yes, you can make – and search – your own folders there too)! ( Chrome does it this way; Firefox this way, )

Idea archive part two, check.

 Retrieve ’em when you need ’em.

Getting things back from storage, of course, is key.

Emails (in individual folders OR across the entire inbox and all sub-folders) are searchable by subject line, content, keyword, date and sender and by some or all of the above in every mail program out there. You just have to learn how. Every email program is slightly different, and not everyone uses my beloved Outlook. For Gmail, I read the search instructions first, learned about search operators next, followed up with a couple of questions in the support chat forum, and I was away to the races.

I then started to learn how to use my File Manager search function to retrieve things. I was astonished to find that my computer has a collection of lovely internal searching systems tucked away in its version of “plain view” – here’s a Windows tutorial on how to find and use those effectively. Macs aren’t wildly different: you use Finder there instead of File Manager, but the principles are identical.

Et voila: one big idea archive, for zero physical space, a few dollars, and a bit of head-scratching.

Digital Idea Archive Challenge conquered!

Meet our guest blogger – Leah Murray

Leah Murray operates byteSMART Strategies from the Lower Mainland of British Columbia, Canada.

Following a career in the Canadian Forces, Leah opened her first technology support business in Oshawa, Ontario.  She closed that business in order to work with scientists in the Research & Development division of an international pharmaceutical company headquartered in Toronto. Several years in rural Ontario developed her passion for small businesses, artisanal, agricultural and otherwise, and today she devotes her energy to helping these enterprises plan, transition and manage their technology.

Today, her raison d’etre is the bringing of technology into the service of the arts, and she writes about it!