Honouring Ruth Walker

Honouring Ruth Walker

Ruth E. Walker

I’m here to pay a bit of tribute to Ruth Walker. No. Not me. The other one. One of two reasons for the E. in my writing name. The international influence that put the “tentative” in my early writing career. My secret nemisis.

PHOTO: John Nordell / The Christian Science Monitor

Because every time I hit up Google for Ruth Walker (go on…admit it…most of us did it when we started out) there she would be: Ruth Walker. Seasoned journalist and editor. Decades of reporting in the U.S. and abroad (including a stint in Canada), and editing for The Christian Science Monitor.

Sadly, Ruth passed away this past September. The Society of Professional Consultants, of which she was the 2017 President, offers up this as part of her obituary:

[Ruth] served as the Monitor’s deputy editor, editorial-page editor, and online news editor before leaving to pursue a freelance career as a writer, editor, and consultant in 2006. Ruth was currently the author of Verbal Energy, a popular weekly column on language and etymology in the Monitor.

Had they asked Ruth, I suspect she might have suggested that “was currently” could be replaced with “was most recently” but that just proves she and I shared some interests.

Adding ink to your porridge

Here’s another reason to like Ruth. From a January 2010 Verbal Energy column, she takes on the misuse of the apostrophe, referencing The Oatmeal and the delightful spelling and grammar posters you’ll find there. There was no link to the Oatmeal from Ruth Walker’s article in the Monitor, likely due to the decidedly non-PG13 state of some of the work there, but I have no such qualms. Nonetheless, she offers:

Ah, thou apostrophe! Thou useful but so oft misused mark! (The foregoing is an example of apostrophe in another sense: “address to an absent person or personified thing.”)

The Oatmeal opus, in the form of a flow chart, walks the would-be punctuator through some basic if/then steps. “Is it plural? DON’T use an apostrophe.”

The misuse of apostophe also makes me crazy. But I know it’s one of many common errors that editors stumble across. So I really liked the quickie grammar references at the end of her column, “How to be possessive about apostrophes:”

In the Oatmeal spirit of “just enough” grammar, here are some hints to use as editorial first aid until a professional can make it to the scene:

1. If you aren’t absolutely sure about who and whom, go with who. Use of whom in the wrong place looks much worse than failure to use whom in the right place.

2. Forgo and forego are both real words; they mean “give up” and “precede,” respectively. But “forego” (as distinct from foregoing) is almost always wrong. “I will forego you out of the room”? Yeah. Right.

3. Both affect and effect can be either a noun or a verb. But you could probably live your whole life without using effect as a verb or affect as a noun. Many people do – and quite happily, too.

I am only sorry that I didn’t actually read her work until now. I rather like her wit and direct style.

Power in a name

At the beginning of this post, I said that Ruth Walker was one of two reasons for the E. in my professional writer’s name. (possessive, not plural.)

Before I discovered my life as a writer in 1996, I spent a couple of decades in Human Resources. Yes. That department. I had a lot of bosses over the years. Many of them women. Some of them so insecure or poorly trained/supported that they made my working life challenging at best, hellish at worst.

But then In the late-80s (plural, not possessive) the hospital hired a new HR manager. A woman genuinely interested in work-life balance long before it was an HR buzzword. A revelation, in fact.

My boss demonstrated the best kind of management qualities for the women and men in her various departments: mentoring and modelling in a positive and instructive manner. I learned how to ask with confidence. She nudged me forward, until I discovered I could actually talk in front of groups without fainting. And I learned that kindness and empathy could open doors in even the most difficult situations.

She was the most self-assured manager I’d ever worked for, so I looked for all the ways she pulled it off. I believed (and still do) that one of her secrets was to use her middle initial in her professional capacity. It was, to me, something of a statement, a Here I am world, more than Mary Smith. I’m Mary D. Smith. How many times in my clerical years had I seen men use their middle initials on the letters I’d typed for them? Lots. And the women? Never. Not until this boss.

Taking on the power

As soon as I had the opportunity to establish myself professionally, I considered the E. I, too, would make that statement. Finding another well-known and respected Ruth Walker in the world of writing sealed the deal.

So there you have it. The desire to be someone different from a noted writer and editor, coupled with my nervousness when I first started writing, drove me to my middle initial. Do I regret it? Not one bit. On the one hand, I feel like I’m honouring a woman who stood out as a wonderful model to the other women in her orbit. And on the other hand, I wanted to stand out in the art of words among other Ruth Walkers as me, the one with the E.

Did You Know?

Many writers choose not to publish under their own names, using pseudonyms instead. Their reasons for writing with a pen name are as diverse as their narrative voices. Some, like 19th century French novelist and memoirist Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin wrote under the name George Sand. Canadian author and filmmaker Leslie McFarlane wrote 20 of the Hardy Boys adventure series as Franklin W. Dixon. When he moved on, the Dixon name continued under a series of other Hardy Boys writers.

At our most recent retreat, participants were given a series of clues at every meal, all leading to the final clue and answer. It seemed fitting as our Turning Leaves guest author, Vicki Delany, writes mysteries and thrillers. The answer to each clue was a pen name for a famous author. From Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) to Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling), participants were challenged to use their sleuthing skills to discover the answers.

At each retreat, we find ways to stretch your thinking and take you outside of the box. Next retreat: Spring Thaw, April 20 – 22/25, 2018.

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?”

DID YOU KNOW?

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.

Beta Readers & You

Beta Readers & You

Ruth E. Walker

The writer in the attic garret, a single candle barely illuminating the page, the scratchscratchscratch of the pen crossing the paper. Is this your idea of the writer’s lonely life?

Well, not this writer. Yes, the act of writing is solitary. And some of us do isolate ourselves for short periods of uninterrupted time. Sometimes, even with a candle or two. But eventually, even the most private of writers needs to surface and find readers. Because, with few exceptions, that is what writers crave: a connection to others through the writing.

At a recent workshop, one writer asked the others if they wrote with an audience in mind. The answers were as varied as the participants. Some start out with an “ideal reader” in their head; some brought in the idea of a reader later on, the second or third edit, for example. But we all agreed that eventually we work with the concept of someone actually looking at our words.

An agent. An editor. Readers.

So you have the final draft of your manuscript. Seeking publication and submitting our work is a challenge at best and often, it borders on terrifying. Surely there’s a simple way to feel more confident when you press the SEND button.

I belong to a fairly intense critique group: Critical ms. That intrepid bunch has saved my writerly bacon many times as they gave feedback on chapters and scenes every few weeks. And over the past summer, they all read my final draft manuscript. I know I’m lucky to have them; critique groups rarely look at the complete work.

So what if you don’t have a Critical ms in your life? You have the manuscript in hand, hoping to catch a publisher’s attention. And you want feedback from readers. Here’s where beta readers come in. They are not copy editors or proofreaders. Instead, they will read that entire manuscript and give you a reader’s response.

How to find beta readers

Beta readers often read your work for no charge. But some charge a fee. Decide in advance how you will ask for the favour or if you will pay experienced beta readers for the service. If you decide on paid readers, make sure you ask for and get recommendations on their past performance.

Connect with beta readers through networking, word-of-mouth opportunities and social media:

  • Workshops and conferences for writers are great places to meet other writers working at the craft, just like you. They can be your beta readers or connect you with their beta readers.
  • Offer to be a beta reader: give and you can receive. Besides, a wise writer learns from reading others’ writing.
  • Tell friends and family members you are looking for beta readers (proceed with caution: feedback from people you know and care about can be more emotionally energized than you realize.)
  • Connect through writing blogs, reader/fan-fiction websites, social media such as Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook. You can let others know you want beta readers through these platforms.
  • Be open to readers who are unfamiliar with your genre or topic. They might ask questions and see things that others gloss over when they read your work.

How to treat a beta reader

Once you find a beta reader or two, let them know what you expect. And give them the tools they need to do that.

  1. Don’t offer a rough manuscript to beta readers:
    • A polished manuscript is properly formatted: page numbers, chapter headings/numbers, 2-inch margins, double-spacing and indented paragraphs.
    • Work hard yourself first to ensure few typos, grammar glitches and logic slips
    • Imagine your beta readers talking with others: I just read this really confusing book. I couldn’t make sense of the timelines and the characters were just so flat…
    • Ask yourself: Is this draft complete and ready for readers?
  2. Present your manuscript professionally:
    • Have your polished draft ready in both electronic and hard copy formats.
    • Some want to read it more “book style” — 2 pages per sheet, landscape format; some want it in manuscript format (see point #1)
    • If they want a hard copy, be prepared to print it: don’t expect them to pay for the printing.
    • Ask your reader: How do you want to read this?
  3. Give your readers guidance:
    • Offer at least a cover page, outlining what you are looking for, such as: plot glitches, slow sections, any confusions, characters that don’t connect with the reader, etc.
    • Prepare a checklist if that is simpler for you and your reader, but leave lots of room for comments and questions.
    • Encourage your reader: I welcome any and all criticisms and suggestions, and appreciate your time in reading my book. Don’t worry about hurting my feelings.
  4. Use beta readers to help with your query or marketing:
    • You can include positive comments from your readers in your query letter. But keep it really brief and professional: Beta readers offered excellent feedback that helped refine the final draft.
    • If you’re self-publishing, a snippet of praise on the back cover or inside can help sell your book.
    • Example: A fast-paced and exciting thriller… A timeless love story that kept me reading to the end…
  5. Say thank you:
    • Send a personal note following up after they give you their feedback.
    • When your book is published, it may be appropriate to thank your readers inside.
    • Ask: I’d like to recognize your help. Can I mention your name in my acknowledgement page?

Remember: A beta reader is not there to feed your ego. Don’t take the comments personally. Perhaps you don’t agree; reading is subjective, after all. But always say thank you, nonetheless.

And if you are getting comments or questions from more than one reader on the same topic, perhaps you need to rethink your opinion. This just might save you from having an editor or agent ask you the very same questions.

DID YOU KNOW?
Mark Coker

Mark Coker of Smashwords, the highly successful e-book distributor, has a few things to say about beta readers. He and his wife used a specific process for their novel Boob Tube to ensure their beta readers had the right tools to respond. He shared some great tips in Publishers Weekly online.

Do you use beta readers? Let us know about your experience.

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‽

 

CAPS LOCK DAY

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.          

Think.
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.

 

DID YOU KNOW

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.

Editor Etiquette Starts with You

Editor Etiquette Starts with You

Ruth E. Walker

Last week, I wrote about the role of an editor when working on your manuscript. Editors France Peck and Sherry Hinman shared some ideas on the qualities of an editor that writers should look for.

But what about your role? Do writers have any responsibility in this delicate dance between what you thought you’d written and what the editor discovered?

Yup. And it doesn’t include arguing every little point you think the editor missed or misunderstood. I was once in a critique group with a writer who argued every bit of feedback offered by his colleagues. He felt he was arguing others’ “opinions”. He argued even when those opinions were clearly shared by the majority (“All the characters sound the same in dialogue”; “The pacing is slow in the beginning.”; “Who is the protagonist?”, “What’s at stake for the protagonist?” etc., etc.) No one, apparently, understood his work.

I remember thinking, Oh dear. How will he ever work with an editor? To the best of my knowledge, he hasn’t yet.

Does an editor need to like your manuscript?

Nope. But an editor should understand and support the heart of your manuscript — what you want your manuscript to do, who to reach, etc. A good editor values your intent. And a good editor will let you know if liking your story matters to how they work on it.

Some years ago, I edited a self-help book for men by an American writer. I totally understood his intent and applauded him for it. But in the editing, I discovered that he was quoting some facts and figures that didn’t quite add up. I asked him for his sources. He had none.

So I sent him back to the drawing board and he returned with new facts and figures that did add up. With sources. Reliable sources that offered even better support to his thesis.

I didn’t entirely agree with his thesis. But his heart was in the right place. And I was pleased I could help him enhance his message with solid facts.

Is there any benefit to self-editing if you’re hiring an editor?

So, think of it this way: Would you hand in an essay for marks that you haven’t checked for errors? Of course not. So why would you treat your writing like something that doesn’t really matter? Own your words, writer. And make them the best possible.

There are so many things a writer can do to self-edit a draft manuscript. Here’s a partial list:

  • Use proper manuscript format: double-space, 1-inch margins, pagination
  • Read your work aloud; your ear will catch errors your eyes will often miss
  • Use a ruler to separate sentences for a line-by-line reading; look intensely at each line
  • Try the FIND feature in word processing to look for problem words/phrases; frequent misspellings, typos, etc.
  • Use FIND again to find passive verbs (was/is/were, etc.); replace with active verbs when you can
  • Pay attention to your known “issues”; for me, it’s numbers and I always have to triple check

Why would an editor want to work with you?

Consider my former writing critique colleague. Working well with an editor means you need to actually consider the editor’s notes. Obviously, spelling errors, typos, awkward phrasing — these are clear areas that need fixing. But what about that comment that the spectacular chapter with the choreographed hand-to-hand combat scene is…too long!?! And, in fact, may be unnecessary to the plot. Well, what does that editor know about a great romance with a combat twist anyway?

Step away from the “no” and think for a minute. The editor may have something. Or not.

I had an editor suggest that I had the Canadian army being gassed in WWI too early in the war. I went back to my notes. Nope. My research supported my scene: April 22 – 24,1915. But how I handled it was wrong. I got defensive. Rather like a “know-it-all”, in fact. That editor was hired by an agent to review/recommend my novel. The agent ended up rejecting my manuscript.

Was it because the book wasn’t for her or was it because I was a bit of a jerk with the editor? I’ll never know. But it was something I’ve always remembered and have always worked hard at not reacting to critique but instead, listening, considering and then responding as appropriate.

Good editors are a writer’s gift

I will always thank George Down of The Book Band who edited my novel Living Underground. He was patient with a first-time author, giving me both phone time and endless emails to answer questions or clarify comments. He was encouraging in a quiet and consistent way. And he was so helpful with issues around the German language and culture that helped strengthen my character, Sigmund.

And I will ever be grateful to Peter Carver of Red Deer Press for his wonderful comments on the early draft of my current WIP: The Last Battlewipe. His reading and feedback of my manuscript was part of the first prize I won at the 2014 Muskoka Novel Marathon for my Young Adult novel. Peter’s questions and comments have been a beacon as I’ve worked to make my crazy illogical planet make some kind of sense.

In last week’s post, both Frances Peck and Sherry Hinman noted the importance of the relationship between the writer and editor. By respecting each other’s expertise we create an excellent balance.

When I edit others, I am committed to honouring the words. Technically, I am looking for errors and logic glitches, dropped threads and underdeveloped plots and characters. But emotionally, I’m looking to enhance the words and bring the story’s heart out to where readers can see and feel it too.

It’s only through a relationship with the writer that this editor can get a sense of that heart. And that’s the best part of any editing assignment.

Did You Know?

The first point in self-editing Ruth refers to is proper manuscript format. Is it the same for all manuscripts? Not by a long shot. A manuscript for a poetry collection is not the same as for a non-fiction or fiction manuscript.

Writer’s Digest has a great resource for fiction manuscripts, defining some basic standards. These standards can be applied to non-fiction manuscripts as well. With poetry, the form of the poem is not meant to conform to standard paragraphing, for obvious reasons. But the importance of proofreading and clean copy applies to everyone.

Watch for an upcoming post on manuscript format.

Seeing the Forest AND the Trees

Seeing the Forest AND the Trees

Ruth E. Walker

Jacob took one look at our dying tree and agreed, it had to come down.

As cottagers, we’re always in that delicate balance between celebrating the beauty of nature and needing to keep it manageable. On two acres of riverside property, we have a lovely mix of conifers (majestic white pine, balsam, spruce and fir trees) and deciduous (delicate birch, maples, black cherry, poplar, beech and a few I-Don’t-Know-Whats.) Safety is always a consideration, as in “If that 30′ spruce fell on the cottage, it wouldn’t be pretty.”

So bringing in Jacob Outram and his tree service was the right thing to do. The spruce had to go.

Jacob wasn’t finished. He listened to us and our concerns about another tree. And then, like the certified arborist he is, Jacob walked the property.

“This will need trimming on one side so if it falls, the weight is away from the building.” Check.

“One half of this birch is dead. It’s next to the gazebo. The dead part has to go.” Check.

“Those branches are over the roof. Winter snow weighs them down, right?” Check.

“This one is losing its needles on the lower branches from lack of light. Trim here and it will be fine.” Check.

By the time he was finished, our one dead tree wasn’t the only one slated for removal or trimming. And as he pointed out the issue with each one, I thought how is it he saw so much of what we didn’t? Then one second later, I thought, Jacob is my tree editor!

Trim Trees, Tighten Text

Think about it. We love our forest (manuscript) so much and look at it so often that we failed to notice pressing issues (spelling, grammar, plot, pacing) and future issues (reader expectations, marketability) that Jacob (editor) saw with his fresh eyes and professional experience. His assessment (feedback) gave us insights to our surrounding forest. And while we will pay for his expertise and work, I don’t begrudge a cent of it. We’ll sleep better at night.

A good editor does for your manuscript what a good arborist is doing for my cottage property. We found Jacob through recommendations. But how do you know when an editor is the right one for you?

Expert Advice

I asked professional editor Frances Peck of West Coast Editorial Associates in B.C. about qualities of a good editor.

“For many people, the qualities that first spring to mind are things like meticulousness and perfectionism, being detail-oriented and able to memorize spellings and grammar rules, having the kind of eye that jumps to the error on the page. While those are certainly desirable qualities for the copyeditors and proofreaders of the world, they carry with them the sharp, unpleasant whiff of negativity.

Good editors must recognize the risks of being forever in critique-and-correction mode, and must balance that orientation with healthy doses of understanding, patience, diplomacy and—yes—empathy.

In the Editors Canada document Professional Editorial Standards, the “hard” skills and practices for each level are always accompanied by softer skills related to communication and judgment. All the knowledge and critical skills in the world won’t help an editor who takes an “I’m right and you’re wrong” approach to a project. We must be collaborators, not antagonists.

The editor as midwife has become a favourite metaphor in Canadian editing circles. We are there to advise and prepare, to smooth and reassure, to massage and adjust, so that authors can deliver the healthiest, most nearly perfect offspring that they’re capable of producing.”

Frances gave a Writescape workshop a few years ago on editing and it was a smashing success. It might be a good time to invite her back.

Editing Skills Checklist

Next, I turned to a local colleague and professional editor, Sherry Hinman of The Write Angle, for her opinion on what skills a good editor needs. Sherry works with a variety of writers and corporate clients, and she says:

Editing skills do relate to the kind of job an editor is working on. No matter what the task, there are Seven Must Haves for any editor:

  1. Author/Editor relationship: The connection between you and the editor should feel respectful and collaborative. (This one’s #1 for good reason.)
  2. Knowledge of the process: The editor should have a good understanding of the steps involved in editing your project, and preferably beyond that.
  3. Style guides: The editor should have access to a variety of style guides and know how to use them.
  4. Technology: The editor should be able to explain what program(s) will be used to edit your project (editing is almost always done on screen) and how you will exchange versions of your document.
  5. Types of editing: The editor should be able to speak easily about the different types of editing (though not necessarily offer services in them all) and to describe what each type includes.
  6. Understanding of your needs: The editor should know what type(s) of editing your project requires and either offer to edit your work or suggest you seek an editor that offers that type of editing.
  7. References: The editor should be prepared to provide references, preferably from clients with similar projects.

So writer, now you have some ideas about what to expect from a professional editor and what you need to look for. But have you thought about what you, as the writer, need to offer an editor?

Hold that thought. I’ll be exploring your role in all that next week.

Did You Know?

Writescape’s Ruth E. Walker and Gwynn Scheltema have happily served as editors for both fiction and non-fiction writers. They honed their editing skills as senior editors/writers for the Ontario government and as founding editors for the Canadian literary journal, LICHEN Arts & Letters Preview

It’s been their pleasure to work with writers at all stages of the editing process: from a general reader’s report and feedback to copyediting, and intensive, substantive editing. They are also excellent coaches for writers who need support on their way to a polished manuscript.

Both Gwynn and Ruth benefited from having an excellent editor at various times in their writing lives.

The Making of a Short Story

The Making of a Short Story

Gwynn Scheltema

I wrote a short story last week that forced me to write outside my real-life comfort zone. My story was for an anthology being put together as part of the many commemorative events to celebrate Canada 150. The submission call was for an “immigrant story”.

I’m an immigrant. I came to Canada in 1982 to escape a country that had been embroiled in a civil war for more than ten years and which had recently gained independence. Unfortunately for my family, the other side won and leaving seemed the best option on many fronts. But this blog is not about that and I didn’t want my immigrant story to be about that.

The story I wanted to tell was how it’s the little details in a new life that are the hardest. Finding jobs and a place to live are huge, seemingly insurmountable problems, but they are expected hardships, things you can brace yourself for and work to overcome. But just when you think it is all going well, that you’re getting ahead, some small detail surfaces and derails you. That’s what I wanted to write about.

I’m a private person, not given to public displays of affection or emotion. I cry in private. But for this story, I wanted to zero in on an emotional moment and portray it without being melodramatic or cliché. But how to do that?

The emotional mirror

Most readers, even though they may not realize it, read to mirror their own lives. Have they felt that way before? What would they do in a similar situation? How is this situation different from their lives? A story about events of that civil war would be different from an average reader’s life, but would it connect with readers on a human, emotional level? The key to making my story work was to focus not the events the reader couldn’t relate to, but on the emotions the reader could relate to. The emotional mirror.

To resonate with the reader, I had to identify the emotion I wanted the story to illustrate and the reader to feel. In this story, I wanted to show the feeling of being out of control, disoriented and emotionally afraid when the logical mind tells you there is nothing to fear. All emotions that everyone has felt at some point in their lives.

Let it unfold…slowly

Peter Selgin, writer and professor at Antioch University’s MFA Creative Writing Program, gives his writing students an exercise: Write two pieces each about 250 words long. Piece One should rivet the reader; Piece Two should bore the reader stiff. Each student reads both pieces out loud.

“In almost every instance the result is the same,” he says, “The ‘riveting’ piece bores, while the ‘boring’ piece holds interest.”

Why? Peter explains that, “In their effort to grip us, beginning writers tend to rush: They equate their own adrenaline with that of the reader. Conversely, when trying to bore, the same writers take their time; they don’t hesitate to lavish 250 words on the subject of a wall of white paint drying. And—to their consternation—the result holds our attention.”

So for this story, I chose a small incident that happened over a short period of time, but I slowed down the telling, letting it unfold moment by moment. By not hurrying, there was room for the emotion to build, for inner thought as well as outer action.

Envision it

As I wrote, I closed my eyes and imagined the scene in my mind. What could I see above, below, to the sides? What people and things were in my periphery? What could I hear, smell, touch, what was the quality of the light, temperature of the air? What emotion was I feeling at each point and what did that emotion look like in gestures, actions and reactions? Show don’t tell.

Match style to purpose

Writers have two roles in every piece they write. One to tell a story; two to craft it well. Having decided on the subject matter and how to let the story unfold, I summoned up craft I’ve learned over time.

To heighten the feeling of disorientation, of not fitting into a new world, of being out of control, I edited to make the sentence structure disjointed in places, short and fragmented in others and even syntactically out of step at times.

I made sure to use smell and texture or touch where I could as these senses tend to be more emotionally charged than sight and sound. I used setting details to echo the atmosphere of the fear that the narrator was feeling.

Whether my story was successful, I won’t know until it’s accepted and published, but I felt good about it when it was finished and that’s always a good sign.

DID YOU KNOW

Among the workshops Writescape has offered is one on writing short fiction, “Does Size Matter?” Gather your group. Pick your topic and your date. And we’ll bring Writescape’s workshops to you. Choose from our Workshop Catalogue, or contact us to provide a custom workshop to fill your needs.

 

A (Fairly) Sure End

A (Fairly) Sure End

Ruth E. Walker

How do you know when you have written it? You know, that elusive perfect ending? That Thelma and Louise, Ebeneezer Scrooge, Harry Potter finish that completes the character arcs, ties up all the loose ends and leaves you longing for more but knowing that it’s all over?

Darned if I know.

Well, that’s not exactly true. I have some ideas, most of them gleaned from novels, stories and even poems that I’ve loved over the years. I also have some words of wisdom on the subject from other writers. And maybe, between them and me, you might glean some good ideas that you can use to help with finding a satisfactory ending to your work.

Paulo Coelho, Brazilian writer and philosopher offered me a clue: “It is always important to know when something has reached its end. Closing circles, shutting doors, finishing chapters, it doesn’t matter what we call it; what matters is to leave in the past those moments in life that are over.” (The Zahir) I needed to be ready to leave my novel as if I were leaving the past of my own life: imperfect but inevitable. That led me back to my ingredient list.

Check your ingredient list

In a previous post (Write the Elusive End), I suggested that you need at least one of three essential ingredients for good endings. Either:

  • Change (either your POV character or in the reader themselves);
  • Inevitibility (sure, surprise me but that surprise MUST make sense); or,
  • Tragedy (don’t fear an unhappy ending if it seems right)

I also noted that I had written/sketched out three distinctly different endings. All three had change and inevitability and one was full of tragedy.

I liked all three. So which one is the best one?

I went back to the beginning

An overarching theme in my current WIP is duality. I fretted about the ending until I finally accepted that I am writing a duology. Not a trilogy. Instead, a two-book series.

I know that each book must stand on its own, so I still needed that “perfect” ending. However, I now must ensure that I have planted sufficient treasures in the current narrative that will leave room for readers to achieve their ah-ha moments. And hints that will logically support my plans for the second book.

Accordingly, I’ve been editing.

Surprisingly, many clues were already in my manuscript and I just had to refine here and there. And some of the connections to the second book naturally flow from the ending as I continue to work on it. I just didn’t know it until recently.

Consider your passions

I’m profoundly interested in why people do things. Motivation, yes. But what else is in place to push people into horrific actions? And is there room for forgiveness? Redemption? If so, what must be in place for that to occur?

My character has to undergo a huge arc. From mindless killing machine to a compassionate deep thinker. And I have to show that arc to my readers so that they will know, without question, that she is not the same character as the killer on page one.

My readers will not be satisfied with a neat bow or happy ending. And my narrative will fall flat if I try to be kind to the characters I’ve grown to care about. So there must be tragedy. And there must be self-sacrifice. And there must be a choice to be made with only two options, neither of them immediately happy ones.

When I accepted that, I knew what had to happen at the end. So, I’ve been busy and by the end of this month, I will be writing those two words on my manuscript. The. End.

And then back to a new manuscript while I wait for feedback from my beta readers. Because, as Frank L. Baum said in The Marvelous Land of Oz “Everything has to come to an end, sometime.”  Of course, this is rather ironic given that Baum wrote 15 more Oz books after that one.

I can only hope to live so long.

DID YOU KNOW

Writescape is on the move this June when Ruth and Dorothea Helms travel to Haliburton County to offer Write to Win, their popular workshop on the art and skill of entering and winning writing contests. These two skilled presenters are writing contest judges, contest administrators and contest winners. It’s a full day of insider tips, resources, hands-on exercises and creative activities. Saturday June 17 at the Minden Library. Come prepared to write and win. Details.

Your Writer’s Voice

Your Writer’s Voice

Gwynn Scheltema

The lake inspires on this beautiful spring day. All around me words spill onto pages, fingers tap-tap on keyboards and there is an electric energy in the room. I’m among people who understand me, the writer.

photo by April Hoeller 2017

I’m here at Writescape’s Spring Thaw 2017.

On Saturday night we shared our work with each other, and as always I was blown away by the stories and the places they took me. And I was struck by the range of voices in the room, each with their own way of telling a story, of painting mood, bringing out emotion, of relaying information. Some voices were a familiar comfortable journey, some a new adventure into story.

But each voice was unique. And I’m not talking character voice here, I’m talking about that elusive quality we call the writer’s or author’s voice. The way readers recognize you as a writer. It’s partly style, partly tone and partly an undefined quality you might call your writer’s personality.

What is your style?

Style is the mechanics of how you write. Do you favour writing in short sassy sentences or long languid, contemplative ones, or something in the middle? Is your default  word choice urban or rural or academic or down to earth? Is your writing spare, with little description or do you use imagery and metaphor with gusto? Style can also be dictated by the market or genre you write in.

What is your tone?

Tone is the attitude of your writing. Do you hit readers between the eyes or are you subtle? Are you passionate, emotional, even evangelistic? Are you formal or friendly or casual? Are you obtuse or matter of fact? Do you teach or argue or merely suggest. Just like style, tone can be influenced by the market you write for.

 

What is your writing personality?

Your writing personality comes from who you are both as a writer and a human being. It’s molded by what you’ve experienced, the lenses through which you see the world, what you believe in, what inspires you, what influences you, your fears, your loves, your passions, your morals. It’s not dictated by anyone, but it is yours alone.

 

Why does it matter?

On a practical level, it helps you hone and edit your work. If you default to introspection in your telling of a story, perhaps you might need to up the energy more in places with more dramatization. If you typically create a first draft that races headlong from plot point to plot point, perhaps you need to give the reader a chance to breathe once in a while. And we all have stylistic tics: insistent words, phrases, constructions or images that bubble too often to the surface and which we no longer notice because they are part of us. I know, for instance, that I tend towards longer sentences and use the words “somewhat” and “little” a great deal in a first draft.

But it’s more than that. Recognizing that you have a voice that is uniquely yours is what helps you write authentically. Trying to write what you think you should write, or what others want you to write, often fights with the way you authentically write. We all have those moments when we feel a piece is not quite what we wanted to say. Chances are you’ve written it in something other than your own authentic voice.

Embrace your writer’s voice

Don’t fight the writer within. Your best, most authentic stories come from that place deep in you and will resonate with readers when you allow the distilled essence of your life, your experience, your passions and your attitudes come through.

The more you write, the more distinct and consistent your voice will become. Don’t worry about “finding your voice”. Just write what you are driven to write, in the way you think it is best expressed and send your writing out into the world. Your voice will be there.

DID YOU KNOW

Spring Thaw is just one of the retreats that Writescape offers each year. You can escape for a day of inspiration or settle in for a weekend or more of focused writing. Learn about what you can expect at at Writescape retreat.

Writing Contests: One.Oh-oh.One

Writing Contests: One.Oh-oh.One

Ruth E. Walker.

It’s been my pleasure (mostly) to serve as a judge on a number of writing competitions. I’ve also been both a first-tier and second-tier reader, helping to cull the entries down by eliminating entries with problems. And I’ve been a final judge for regional, national and international writing contests, choosing winners from 15 or 20 of those final top entries. Each and every time, it’s been a thrill to read creative work that made me feel “as if the top of my head were taken off” (to quote Emily Dickenson.)

I wish I could say it is true for all contest entries. But it is not.

Take this past week. A national organization of professional writers asked me to be a second-tier reader. This means I read stories that had already been reviewed and moved forward by a group of first readers who eliminated others. This should mean I would be reading stories that were pretty darn good. I was looking forward to making my notes.

All the entries I read had a great story idea. But not all of them were great stories. Not even pretty darn good.

For this contest, I am only one of several second-tier readers who are also reading 14 entries. So I’m not reading all the entries that reached the second tier — I’m only reading a fraction of them. But of my 14 entries, there were only 6 that I would have recommended as a first-tier reader.

The other 8 all had problems in terms of technique and execution. Here are just four of the many issues I encountered in the stories I scored in the bottom 8:

Don’t tell me, show me. This is a familiar refrain from creative writing instructors. But what do we mean by that? It’s more than the difference between I feel cold versus I shiver and rub my arms, although that is a good beginning. It is equally an issue if the writer shows us something — The cold crept under my flesh and into my lungs and then in the next line continues to tell us about it: It was below zero and I felt so cold.

The need to tell, especially after a show, is a sign of a writer who doesn’t trust themselves or their readers. Does this mean that every line needs to be a show versus a tell? No. But any story that relies on tell is a story that soon bores its readers.

 

Description is great. But if you have to hit your reader over the head with a hammer to ensure they are “getting the picture”…well, it’s soon painful. Definition of Adverbitis: excessive use of adverbs, especially when a great verb is the better choice: swiftly ran = raced/rushed/galloped — any of those three options create great visuals. The same goes with unnecessary adverbs: hurriedly, loudly, slowly…crept slowly = crept carries the whole image. I mean, can you ever creep fast? And how about plummeted swiftly? Ever seen anything plummet slowly?

And a quick note on adjectives. Use them, sure. But think before you dip your creative paintbrush three times too many: A charming, vivacious redheaded librarian is way too much for any brain to unpack and visualize. Stick to the essential descriptions of your character or the setting — leave room for your reader to fill in the rest.

Passive writing: boring, boring and more boring. Be ruthless in seeking out and eliminating passive writing wherever you can. Look for the “to be” construction: was, is, were, has/had been, will/would be…etc. You can’t avoid passive verbs but they should not dominate the page. The same goes for passive sentence construction, where the object of an action becomes the subject of a sentence: The writing group was disturbed by the brass band. (passive) The brass band disturbed the writing group. (active)

Proofread. And proofread again. Best not to write your entry six hours ahead of the deadline because chances are you will miss mistakes. Put the story in a drawer for at least a day, longer if you can. Then use a ruler to focus your eye on a line-by-line check for errors or omissions. Why does this matter? One of the top three entries I read this week was tied, in my mind, with two others for first place. But it wasn’t error-free. So while I loved it, it made it easier for me to place it lower than the other two that didn’t contain errors.

Writing contests give writers an excellent opportunity to submit their work. Unlike the slush pile, writers know someone will actually read their entry. To be a finalist or to win is a validation of your craft and I can say it’s one of the best moments for any writer. I know because I’ve had that fantastic feeling many times in my writing career. It’s one I want every writer to experience and it’s why I wrote this post.

Quick Tips
Before pressing SEND:

  1. Telling us a story is not as interesting or engaging as showing us a story
  2. Lots of adverbs and plenty of adjectives are signs of a writer who doesn’t trust themselves or readers
  3. Passive writing is boring and often unnecessary
  4. Spelling mistakes and typos affect how a judge reads your entry
  5. A great story idea may get you past first-tier readers but 1, 2, 3 or 4 will not get you to the final judge
Did You Know?

Not only is Ruth E. Walker a sought-after judge for writing competitions, she has organized and run writing competitions for fiction and poetry. And Ruth’s fiction, poetry and non-fiction work has also won or placed in dozens of writing contests. Along with contest judge and award-winner, Dorothea Helms (a.k.a. The Writing Fairy), Ruth facilitates Write to Win, a full-day workshop devoted to entering and winning writing contests.

On June 17, Ruth and Dorothea will take Write to Win to Minden in the Haliburton Highlands. With writing, it’s all a contest where the judge can be your next literary agent or publisher. Why don’t you join them. Sign up here.