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 for more information on our coaching and editing services for writers.

A Writer’s Listening Skills

A Writer’s Listening Skills

Ruth E. Walker

My grandmother wore hearing aids. Bulky beige plastic half-moon shapes sat behind her ears.  They were attached to wires that held a small custom-moulded earpiece to fit into each ear canal.

The aids helped with her hearing but at times the high-pitched whining feedback loop was terrible, and she constantly had to adjust the volume. As a child, I thought it seemed a lot of work just to hear better. As I got older, I wondered what it would be like to have to wear hearing aids.

As fate (and genetics) would have it, I’m about to find out.

Hearing is believing

Why would a writer need to worry about perfect hearing? After all, my work exists between my fingers and the keyboard and/or the page. I don’t need to hear what I’ve written when I’m editing—I just need to know that I’ve used the best possible words in the best possible order.

I write fiction. I am especially drawn to characters—their motivations, fears, desires, idiosyncrasies. And I’m curious about them and love to get inside their heads—in short, how their actions and reactions reveal who they are.

Dialogue is a huge part of revealing character. Through conversations and interior monologue, I get to do a lot of exploring and developing interesting characters. And getting that on the page is what gives readers insights into what makes characters tick. What they say. What they don’t say. And how they say it.

I like to think that I’m pretty good at this part of the writing process. I have, as they say, an “ear” for dialogue, for the way people speak and I’ve learned how to use that in my fiction.

I’ve honed that skill by reading how other writers use dialogue. And I’ve further honed that skill by listening in on conversations over the years, by paying attention to how people speak, and especially if they have an agenda or perhaps something they want to keep private.

But lately, I’ve had some trouble with that listening-in part.

I beg your pardon

Over the past year or so, I’ve gone from occasionally asking people to repeat themselves to missing about 40% of what is being said around me. Phone conversations are more difficult. The television is set at an increasingly high volume. Indeed, our PVR has been a godsend so I can rewind and replay two, three even four times to get what I missed.

Parties are really tough even though I’ve become adept at the “large conversation gathering smile”—the go-to when I can’t hear most of what is being said but don’t want to appear “out of things.”

But does this actually affect my writing? I suspect it does in ways I’ve not yet considered. And most importantly, it’s severely limited my listening-in skills. My gift for dialogue doesn’t rest at my fingertips the same. It’s almost as if I have trouble hearing what my characters are saying.

A hearing loss is isolating and while I can still turn to writing to focus my energy, I am missing out on aspects of life.

Solitary craft still needs the world

What I write and how well I write is directly affected by me living a life outside my writer’s room. I’m inspired by the world around me. From birdsong in the early morning to the river’s gurgling at the cottage to the chatter of people in the grocery story, it all is part of what makes me the writer I am.

Sure, the act of writing is solitary. But for me, it is the result of all the senses in play in the world around me. There is nothing solitary about that.

I’m lucky. I have the means to purchase hearing aids that should help me return to the conversation of the world. And if I’m right, those hearing aids will give this writer a much needed boost of inspiration and life.


In 2015, The Guardian newspaper published an article Hearing Words, Writing Sounds: Examining the Author’s Brain. It’s a fascinating glimpse by Richard Lea into the idea of two kinds of “listening” — writing and reading.

For Pakistani and UK novelist Kamila Shamsie, “It’s about the sound of sentences.” and accordingly, she reads her chapters aloud when she finishes each one. But Booker Prize winner, A.S. Byatt, never reads her work aloud because there are “clearly distinct forms of written and spoken language”.

Professor Brenda Rapp of Johns Hopkins has focused a research study on speech and writing and two regions of the brain: one dedicated to producing and interpreting speech and one to the act of writing. They are, according to Rapp, separated at a very deep level. According the Lea’s article, Rapp’s study followed:

…patients with specific difficulties in speech and writing for 15 years [demonstrating] that writing and speaking are supported by different parts of the brain, not just in terms of the processes controlling the hand and mouth, but at deeper levels of the language system that contain knowledge of how words are put together.

Like Shamsie, I often read my work aloud. Does that mean I’m listening for something more than what I see on the page? I think so, even if I’m not too sure what it is that I’m hearing when I read my work.

How about you? Read The Guardian article and think if “listening” comes into your process of writing. Or, like A.S. Byatt, do you keep your focus strictly “on the page” in how the words work?

Paying It Forward: Writers’ Karma

Paying It Forward: Writers’ Karma

Ruth E. Walker

I’m a firm believer in the truth behind the saying: Be kind to others and it comes back to you. I also subscribe to the belief if someone shows you a kindness, do the same for someone else. Pay it forward.

So I was delighted at a recent panel discussion to hear one of the panelists respond to the question: What’s the best piece of writing advice you ever received? 

Heather Tucker, author of the acclaimed novel The Clay Girl, smiled into the audience to reply, “Ruth Walker told me to ‘Get naked, girl, and let the epiphanies fall where they may.'” She went on to explain that she was reluctant to share her work, to submit it for consideration, to let others look at it. My words gave her inspiration and encouragement just when she needed it.

So why did I say that to Heather? The writer I am can be directly linked to a series of kindnesses that supported or encouraged me along the challenging writer’s journey. I can’t begin to recount all the ways in which others have selflessly offered help or support, often arriving at a time when I was ready to give up the dream of publication.

Making the difference

A professor at Trent University’s Durham Campus had a huge impact on my writing career. Adrian Michael Kelly knew my work from his creative writing class a year earlier. He invited me to come and meet respected author and editor, John Metcalf. John offered to read my manuscript at a time I was woefully discouraged about rejections for my novel. A couple of weeks later, he called me. Told me to keep submitting, that the manuscript was good, publisher-ready. And he was right. That novel I was ready to abandon went on to publication with Seraphim Editions and achieved second printing.

It was the support of others that got me there. My professor didn’t have to call me to come and meet John Metcalf. And John didn’t have to look at my manuscript, and then call me. It was all a kindness and I’ll always be grateful.

Ever since, when I hear a writer musing about giving up on a manuscript, I tell them my story. I tell them what John Metcalf told me. Submit, I say. And keep submitting. I pay forward the kindness I’ve received every chance I get.

Spread the support

There are lots of ways to pay it forward. I’ve benefitted from receiving grants and bursaries. They’ve helped me attend conferences and workshops in which I hone my craft. I’ve escaped to write at retreats that I couldn’t have otherwise afforded. So I know the difference it can make in a writer’s life to get a financial boost.

The Pay it Forward philosophy is happily shared by my business partner, Gwynn Scheltema. For several years, Writescape has sponsored a scholarship grant with The Writers’ Community of Durham Region (WCDR). Their scholarship program offers members a chance to apply for a range of awards, up to $500 at the top end. Gwynn and I happen to like the process where applicants don’t need to have a long list of publishing credits to apply. And there isn’t a focus on the literary form. Writers of all kinds and at all levels can apply, as long as they are a member of this 300+ group.

We’ve happily offered the Writescape scholarship each year. And we’ve been delighted to see the recipients use the grant to develop some aspect of their writing goal. This year, the Writescape scholarship went to writer and baker, Rich Helms. He planned on taking a recipe development course at George Brown College, starting in June. Recipe development is not a simple “How to write a cookbook” course. The science in the art of developing a recipe is as precise and vital as the passion needed to create tastebud-exploding foods and then write the recipe.

Rich was deeply disappointed when the June course was cancelled but he didn’t give up. He emailed us recently to announce the course was being run again and he was signed up. We never had a single doubt that Rich would use the scholarship funds to achieve his writing goals.

More than feeling “good”

For Gwynn and me, Rich’s joy in attending his course is a wonderful reminder that paying it forward is an important part of the writer’s journey. Writescape believes in paying it forward, of finding ways to encourage other writers. It can be in small ways, like chatting in networking opportunities and sharing market insights. Or larger efforts, like the WCDR scholarship that we have sponsored for a number of years.

When we “pay it forward” we remember that it was the unexpected and unasked-for time that other more experienced writers gave us that made a difference. Both Gwynn and I have been the recipient of many kindnesses — they certainly soothed the sting of the rejections and disappointments, and fuelled the energy to keep going.

We all benefit when we pay it forward — in this case, Rich’s enthusiasm is contagious. And many writers who are not writing fiction can see that there are grants and scholarships for those “other” writers — the ones who, like Rich Helms, are writing something different but no less worthy of finding a home.

Did You Know

Ways a writer can “pay it forward” are everywhere. Start a writing critique group to share ideas, feedback with other writers. And there are lots of low-cost ways to support writers.

It’s the season of giving, so how about an “unasked for” as a “gift” to fellow writers:

  • write a review
  • like/join an author page
  • comment on a writer’s blog or Facebook author page
  • subscribe to a writer’s blog,
  • ask your local library to get a copy of a book
  • even better BUY A BOOK!! (support independent bookstores too if you can)

If your royalty cheque was especially flush this year, consider donating to an organization that supports writers or give to a literacy program.

Always remember that we all are on the journey together, some further ahead of you and some just behind. Where you are today is not where you will be tomorrow and, more often than not, you moved forward with the help of others.

Places that support writers:

Literacy programs:

Gardening with words

Gardening with words

Gwynn Scheltema

I was out on a walk and practicing the art of noticing, when I was drawn to a garden and stopped to look at it a little more closely. It was functional: a small patio under a huge maple, a swing for the kids hanging from an overhanging branch, herbs growing in an old wheelbarrow, flowers, veg and a patch of lawn.

Given that it’s autumn, the fallen leaves, frosted hostas and general state of waning made it messy and a little sad. But it wasn’t the kind of yard that looked as if it had been delivered from the local big box store: linear and precise, shallow and predictable – in other words: no message, no heart. This garden had soul.

I’m addicted

Whenever I travel, I visit gardens; I seek them out in concrete-jungle cities and have a vast one of my own. My mother and grandmother taught me to create landscapes that worked with nature, not against it. They taught me how to create a green space with soul. And I realized as I looked at this tiny urban gem on my walk, that creating a garden that has a heart is very much like writing.

Let it speak

To create a garden that lives and breathes, a gardener must understand that fine line between control and releasing what is already there. This example on my walk was not about control or even taming the wild. It was about using what was already there, unearthing it and allowing it to blossom. To speak. That maple tree killed the grass but welcomed a small shaded patio sitting area. The overhanging branch was perfect for a swing.

Like writing – don’t control and delineate as you write. Allow your characters to speak as they want to, to do things you could never dream up. Allow the story to unfold. Let the subconscious through.

 Work with what you have

We all have big writing dreams: maybe the next best seller, perhaps an award or earning enough to live on. But on any given day, don’t worry about what seems unattainable. Work with what you have.

This garden made the most of limited space. If you only have limited writing time, write bits that are already in your head, finish something you started, or plan or research or edit. If a novel seems overwhelming, begin with a single scene, or a short story.

If the dialogue you are producing seems flat, or you don’t really know how to punctuate it, write it anyway. You can always read up or take a course on dialogue later. And you can come back to your piece and edit it when your skills improve. But if you are always waiting for the perfect time or the perfect ability or the perfect story, you’ll be waiting a long time. And as Wayne Gretzky famously said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”

And keep things manageable. Better to finish small projects or one large one than to have twenty projects that never see the light of day. There’s nothing like being able to write “The End” to motivate you to write some more.

Don’t throw good bits away

Not everything we write is worth keeping, but often you write a really good scene or stanza that just doesn’t fit with the piece or poem you’re working on. It might even be one of your proverbial “darlings.” Keep it. It may well be the start of another piece or fit into another project. Or it may serve as inspiration and impetus for a new piece that—like the wheelbarrow used as an herb garden—is very different from its original intention.

Give to get

I belong to online gardening swap sites, picking up free rhubarb plants and giving away hostas. I scour the roadside ditches for day lilies and black-eyed Susans and give them new homes. As a writer, you need to have a writing community—maybe just a writing buddy, maybe a critique group or membership in several writing organizations, or perhaps all of them.

But you’ll find that you get more out of your writing community when you contribute: give of your time, your expertise and your encouragement and support. We all have high and low times as writers and whether you need someone to help you with a practical plot problem, to celebrate a success or just give you a kick in the pants to submit or get writing, your writing tribe are the best people to do it. But, offer the same to other writers. I know that over the years, I’ve learned more about the craft by talking to fellow writers and giving feedback to others than from any book.

Tend and nurture

Without planning and fertilizing, weeding and maintaining, gardens wither or become something else you have no use for. Your writing, like any art form, is the same. You wouldn’t expect to play the piano well without practising regularly. Writing is no different. Write, write and write some more. Plan writing time into your schedule. Fertilize your craft with workshops, reading and communing with fellow writers. Weed out all your negative attitudes about not being good enough. And fill your creative well often.

Dare to be different

The garden on my walk was different from all the others on that street. Not necessarily better or worse, but different. The gardener (maybe a young mother?) created what was personally important and meaningful to her, created what was within her creative and maintenance capabilities at the time, what was pleasant and functional for her family’s lifestyle. I’m sure she also hoped that others would like it, but I doubt she created it based on what others wanted. She followed her creative path, made a garden that spoke with her voice and embodied her heart and soul.  Let your writing do the same.


My garden at Glentula reflects my heart and has served as inspiration to many writers. Custom “Just Write” retreats and one-day escapes are offered every summer. Gather your group, pick your date and contact Writescape to put together what you need to get writing and stay writing.

Reading outside your genre

Reading outside your genre

Gwynn Scheltema

My last post was about defining what genres we write in. Which got me to thinking about what genres we read. And the value of reading outside our usual genres.

Books that move me

I love language and wallowing in words. I love to reread evocative passages, to stop mid story to share a sentence with my husband that I find particularly beautiful or thought-provoking. I like skilled play with fiction forms. Consequently, I often gravitate to literary fiction. Story is important to me, but plot is not. I prefer internal character struggles rather than thrilling events, or fast-paced action. I’m happy to spend time in people’s heads, seeing the world from their perspectives. Recent reads (which I highly recommend) have been: The Orenda by Joseph Boyden. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr and Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese.

I also like the books I read to be set in exotic places, in other cultures, and affected by political or natural turmoil that I am never likely to be faced with. I like to learn about other customs and occupations. The Bonesetters Daughter by Amy Tan (historical fiction), Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenston (non fiction/memoir) and In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner (historical fiction) fit that bill.

Broadening my reading horizons

But I’ve also had to spend a fair amount of time this year away from home, and have found myself reading books passed on to me or chosen for me by others, books I likely would have walked right by in the bookstore.

I learned a lot in the process. Reading time is limited and with the books I have to read for a variety of reasons, the time left for reading for enjoyment is really limited, but I was reminded that broadening my reading horizons was a necessary—and enjoyable— part of being a well-rounded writer and editor.

What I learned from the books that found me

Of the books that found me, let me tell you about just three of them. Turns out, I enjoyed them all, and reading as a writer, I learned a lot too:

The first one: Spud by John van der Ruit is a YA humorous coming-of-age story set in a fictional private boys school in South Africa in 1990 around the time of the release of Mandela. It’s written in a diary style like The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole.

Apart from bringing back a lot of memories of my own schooling in an Anglican Church School in Zimbabwe, Spud reminded me that humour is a great foil for addressing tough and often brutal circumstances. This book tackled bullying, attempted rape, mental illness as well as the usual problems of growing up, boarding school and relationships. It showed me that sometimes less is more, and that young boys and girls face many of the same problems. Structurally, the diary format allowed much to be said without embellishment or long drawn-out scenes. It allowed room for things to be left unsaid.

The next: The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling, listed as a contemporary mystery thriller, is a multi-voice fiction about a seemingly ordinary small-town and what really goes on behind closed doors.

Rowling’s dialogue in this book is superb. She handles the dialogue of different ages, cultures and socio-economic characters in way that their speech and dialect is distinct, authentic and utterly believable. I had a hard time getting into the book because there is an enormous cast of characters, and Rowling “head-hops” a great deal, but once in, I was hooked. From this book, I learned that multiple viewpoints can work well as long as each voice has their own story not more or less important than the others.

And the third: Some Girls, Some Hats and Hitler is a memoir by Trudy Kanter, an Austrian Jew who used her connections as a hat designer to escape events in World War II and find safety for herself and her husband Walter. Like Spud, this book handled grave situations with humour. What really struck me though, was how Trudy spent a lot of time talking about hats and fashion and parties and décor and other things that at first seemed frivolous and inappropriate for the dire war situation and terrible and frightening circumstances she was facing. But then I realized that that was Trudy’s coping mechanism. It got me thinking about the different ways different people use to handle a given situation. Just because I might handle a situation one way, my characters (and readers) might do something completely different.

Other reasons to read out of your usual genre

Stephen King famously said, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

Yes, you should read extensively in the genre you write to become familiar with it on all levels, but reading on a regular basis outside your genre, outside your comfort zone, makes you a better well-rounded writer. It clears the cobwebs away in your creative brain. Gets you out of a rut. New perspectives, new craft approaches and new possibilities. Same-old-same-old in your reading leads to same-old-same-old in your writing.

Who knows, you may discover a new genre that really speaks to you. Perhaps that coming-of-age story you’ve been struggling with as an historical romance might be better reworked as a dystopian YA. But you have to read some dystopian YA to find out.

And not just different genres, but different writing forms: short stories, poetry, plays…  Each form can teach you different writing skills that will help with your novel. Plays are excellent for studying dialogue, poetry can remind you about image and metaphor and the economy and power of words.

So take the plunge, be adventurous, make a pact with yourself to include a new genre or new form when you pick up your next book. You’ll be glad you did.


Ruth and Gwynn are off to the Niagara Region this month to deliver a workshop that explores writing in different styles and genres, called What’s in Your Writing Closet. If your group is interested in this or any of our workshops, explore our on demand workshop options.



What Genre do You Write?

What Genre do You Write?

Gwynn Scheltema

Seems like a simple question, but increasingly these days it can be confusing. Genres not only have subgenres, but subgenres have sub-subgenres: Steampunk is a sub genre of science fiction (or science fantasy) but steampunk itself has sub genres like steamgoth, gaslight romance, clockpunk and dieselpunk.

Then of course, you have the age cross-overs and cross-genres like paranormal romance, crime fantasy, or action comedy.

The mind boggles.

Why does knowing your genre matter?

Initially, it doesn’t matter. When you begin your first draft, story is key and the story will land in the genre it fits best. But once that draft is done, knowing your genre is important. You’ll need to know so you can fine tune your manuscript and pitch it to the right agent or publisher.

It’s a marketing issue. How many places will your book fit? Knowing your genre shows a better understanding of the market, which can only help your submission. If you don’t know where your book fits, you’re saying you don’t know your target audience.

We all like to think that our book is unique, but the reality is, if we can correctly categorize it, readers can access it and agents and publishers will know immediately whether it potentially fits their market.

Genre and editing

And because knowing genre is a marketing issue, it becomes an editing issue, so you can mould your submission to fit publishing needs and reader expectations.

Let’s take the crime/mystery genre as an example and the typical “dead body”. In a cosy mystery, your readers will expect to spend a few chapters meeting the inhabitants of a cosy community and getting to know the protagonist and her friends before the “dead body” is discovered. The actual killing will be off stage. In a police procedural mystery, the “dead body” is there by the end of chapter one. Readers may even witness the murder. It will be important to follow real police investigative and forensic procedures.

Some publishers have well-defined expectations that can help tremendously at this editing stage. Harlequin, the world’s largest publisher of romance, provides clear, detailed guidelines on their website for each of their genre imprints, from the word count to the level of sexual content.

So what is my genre?

Genre definitions are constantly changing and evolving, but you have to start somewhere.

1. Prepare a book jacket blurb

Once the first draft is done, prepare a book jacket blurb (the paragraphs on the back cover that entice readers to buy because they answer the question “What is this book about?”.)  Writing the jacket blurb helps to distill the thrust of the story: the conflict, the stakes and the character arc.

It also helps define what genre it is, because it focuses on the main thread of the story.

2. Define the main genre

With your book jacket blurb in hand, you have your main dominant story thread. Use that main thread to define the main genre. For instance, if your book involves a mystery and a romance, is the dominant story thread a classic “who done it” with a bit of romance thrown in for character growth? (mystery) Or is it really about a relationship blossoming between two people who happen to be solving a mystery together? (romance)

Here’s a list of some of the main genres to get you started:

  • Action/Adventure — epic journeys, lots of conflict/pursuit, high stakes, some violence.
  • Crime/Mystery — stories that involve solving a crime, usually a murder.
  • Fantasy —magic, other worlds, myths and mythological/mystical figures.
  • Historical — fictional characters and events in an historical setting
  • Horror— stories that invoke dread or fear.
  • Thriller/Suspense — harm/danger about to befall a person or group and the attempts to evade the harm/danger, high tension.
  • Romance —love/intimacy/relationships.
  • Sci-fi —impact of technology, aliens, science-related alternative worlds, often futuristic
  • Women’s fiction — stories about women experiencing emotional growth

Once you have your main genre, you can explore subgenres. This link on the definition and characteristics of the main genres is worth looking into.

3. Define your reader

Nail down the age group your book is aimed at: children, young adult, new adult or adult. If your manuscript appeals to more than one group, you have an age cross-over. (Think Harry Potter (children/adult) or Hunger Games (YA/adult).)

Imagine your ideal reader. If you were that reader looking for your book, where would you look? Again, focus on the main narrative thread. Is your ideal reader looking for a romance with a bit of mystery thrown in, or are they problem solvers who like mysteries and might like some relationship stuff thrown in?

Ask your beta readers where they would expect to find your book. Ask your critique group. Tell other writers your blurb and then ask them, “What section of a bookstore would you look in to find my book?”

4. Visit a book store

Go to a bricks & mortar bookstore or hop on the Net. Identify half a dozen books similar to yours and find where they are shelved. Go to Goodreads and check the Listopia recommendations for your main genre, like “Best Science Fiction.” That will lead you to the sub-genres like “Best Steampunk Books.” Read the blurbs on the back covers. Does your book jacket blurb follow a similar pitch?

One way to do this is to have two windows open, one on Amazon and the other on Goodreads. Read the blurb on Goodreads and then search the book on Amazon to see its classification.

I always like the section below the “purchase” button with the phrase “People who bought this also bought….” It’s a great way to find other novels that are categorized the same way. Could your book fit here?

Still not sure?

You’re fine as long as you know your main genre and reader age. Agents will be able to spot a crossover even if you haven’t mentioned it. If your query letter has a good hook and good comparables, the sub-genre will be apparent to them.

However, the time you spend on defining your genre will help you make a better connection between your story and your reader. And your well-crafted blurb will be ready for those moments when someone (maybe an agent or publisher) asks “So what are you writing?”


Vicki Delany, our guest at this year’s fall retreat, Turning Leaves  2017, writes in several subgenres of the crime/mystery genre. As  Eva Gates she writes the cosy Lighthouse series, and as Vicki Delany she writes a Police Procedural series featuring Constable Molly Smith.

Fun with Terminology

Fun with Terminology

Gwynn Scheltema

National Punctuation Day

“Yes, Virginia, there really is a National Punctuation Day!”

National Punctuation Day (NPD) claims September 24 for a celebration of punctuation and its importance—a sentiment close to this editor’s heart. Founded by Jeff Rubin in 2004, he encourages people who value correct punctuation and spelling to post pictures of errors spotted in everyday life.

Just a bit of fun, to be sure, but good things have come out of NPD too. StudioSTL,(a non-profit that brings together authors, educators and artists with youth ages 6–18 to develop writing skills to be used in life, work, and school) raises money each National Punctuation Day for their free writing programs and raises awareness for the value of correct punctuation.

The return of the interrobang‽

FontFeed credits National Punctuation Day with the revival of the interrobang. For those, like me, who have no idea what an interrobang is, Wikipedia defines it thus: “A sentence ending with an interrobang (?!  or  !? or ‽ ) asks a question in an excited manner, expresses excitement or disbelief in the form of a question, or asks a rhetorical question. For example: You call that a hat‽” To create one in calibri, press alt8253. Well, who’d’ve thought‽



And as if that’s not enough, on October 22, it will be CAPS LOCK DAY?! This day was the brainchild of Derek Arnold of Iowa who was peeved by people using ALL CAPS to emphasize themselves on the web. He proposed that on this day EVERYONE USE ALL CAPS FOR EVERYTHING TO SHOW HOW ANNOYING IT IS and to poke fun at people who use this annoying typing style, in the hopes of bringing some sanity to the Net.

Of course, CAPS LOCK DAY has an underlying humour, but as with a lot of humour, there is a kernel of truth (sometimes a whole nut tree) to be unearthed.

A Sky Full of Poems

The use of humour reminded me of a poetry book I had as a child called A Sky Full of Poems by Eve Merriam (American poet and writer; 1916 – 1992). She had a series of rhymes and poems to help understand grammar and poetic terms.

Here are a few excerpts for you to enjoy that speak to homonyms, homographs, cliché, simile and metaphor:

From the poem “Nym and Graph”

A sound-alike is a homonym
Sing a hymn, Look at him.

A spell-alike is a homograph
A general staff, A walking staff.

Said Homograph, “From my point of view
I once saw a saw saw then a sink sink,
I saw a fly fly and a rose that rose up,
I sat down upon down,
I felt a felt hat,
And met a fair maiden at the fair.”

“Now tell me Homograph, can you
See things from my point of view?
For I, sir, aye, yes I eye a dear deer
And a hare with hair that is half of a pair
While I pare a pear beside a new gnu
And shoo a bare bear away from my shoe—
And all this I do at ten to two, too!”

From the poem “A Cliché”

Warm as toast, quiet as a mouse
Slow as molasses, quick as a wink.          

Is toast the warmest thing you know?
Think again, it might not be so.

Is a mouse the quietest thing you know?
Think again, it might not be so.
Think again: it might be a shadow.
Quiet as a shadow
quiet as growing grass
quiet as a pillow
or a looking glass.

From the poem “Simile: Willow and Ginkgo”

The willow is like an etching,
Fine-lined against the sky.
The ginkgo is like a crude sketch,
Hardly worthy to be signed.

The willow’s music is like a soprano
Delicate and thin.
The ginkgo’s tune is like a chorus
With everyone joining in.

My eyes feast upon the willow,
But my heart goes to the ginkgo.

From the poem “Metaphor”

Morning is
A new sheet of paper
For you to write on.

Whatever you want to say,
all day,
until night
folds it up
and files it away.

The bright words and the dark words
are gone
until dawn
and a new day
to write on.



Eve Merriam was a pen name. She was born Eva Moskovitz. Another author who writes under a pen name is our guest author at Turning Leaves 2017, Vicki Delany who also writes under the pen name Eva Gates.