18 Ways to Choose a Title

18 Ways to Choose a Title

Gwynn Scheltema

 

Your book title is the first impression your readers get of your novel. It’s the first chance to connect, to inform, to intrigue, and to firmly hook readers. A great title will help readers find, remember and buy your book.

You want your title to be representative of your story, to give an indication of content or theme or genre. You want it to be unique but not confusing. You want it to be memorable and easy to spell. If you are writing a series you’ll want something to tie them together.

On a practical level you need a title short enough to fit on the cover or spine, but long enough to not get lost among other titles in computer searches. Consider how it will fit in URLs, tweets and Pinterest posts, how it will read on digital devices. The current trend seems to be single word titles, but five words or less is a good length to aim for.

Because a title is such an important aspect of your book, choosing one can be tricky and even overwhelming. The choice isn’t necessarily one you need make when you are still drafting the manuscript. If you have one in mind when you begin, by all means make it your working title, but reconsider its suitability again when the book is finished.

 So let’s get started…

What is your story about?

  • The Hunger Games
  • Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

A memorable image

  • Little House on the Prairie
  • In the Shadow of the Banyan
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

 Character’s name

  • Carrie
  • Anna Karenina
  • Jane Eyre

 Characters role

  • The Golden Son
  • The Last Emperor
  • My Sister’s Keeper

 When the story happens

  • 1984
  • That Summer in Franklin
  • Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

 Where the Story takes place

  • The Colonial Hotel
  • Treasure Island
  • Jurassic Park

 Genre

  • Murder on the Orient Express
  • A Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy
  • Dracula

 Metaphors

  • All the Light We Cannot See
  • The Nightingale
  • Three Day Road

 A representative line from the text

  • Cutting for Stone
  • Let’s Not Go to the Dogs Tonight
  • Sweetness in the Belly

 Questions

  • They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
  • Who Has Seen the Wind?
  • Are You My Mother?

 Go against expectation

  • Fahrenheit 451
  • The Blind Assassin
  • Slumdog Millionaire

 An important symbol or object in the story

  • The Golden Compass
  • The Book of Negroes
  • Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

 A Play on words: double meanings, puns

  • Living Underground
  • Lifting the Veil
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

 A twist on a known phrase

  • The Wife’s Tale
  • Elementary, She Read
  • By Book or by Crook

 Single words 

  • Divergent
  • Room
  • Silk

 Old titles reworked

  • Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
  • Zen and the Art of Faking It
  • Gnomeo and Juliet

 The promise of a story

  • The Handmaid’s Tale
  • The Girl on the Train
  • Gone Girl

 Theme

  • Infidel
  • Pride and Prejudice
  • Greener Grass

 

There is no ONE right way of choosing a good title. Brainstorm many possible titles, ask family and friends or readers which ones grab them. And when you sign a publishing contract make sure you know who gets to choose the final title.

DID YOU KNOW

When naming Writescape’s annual retreats we chose titles that had double meanings, were metaphors for the act of writing and which evoked a visual image: Spring Thaw and Turning Leaves

Registration is now open for Turning Leaves. We’re celebrating our 10th anniversary in 2018 on November 2 to 4 at Fern Resort near Orillia, Ontario. This all-inclusive retreat includes Friday night fireside chat with our guest, Andrew Pyper, about the writing life and an intense morning workshop with Andrew on Saturday. He’s an award-winning writer, a master of dark and disturbing mysteries and fantasy, and excellent workshop facilitator.

Our limit is 20 participants. A $250 non-refundable deposit will guarantee your spot. We expect there will be a waiting list.

 

Theme and Premise

Theme and Premise

Gwynn Scheltema

I’m often asked what the difference is between theme and premise. Here’s my take—with a comment or two from others:

 What is theme?

A story needs to be unified around something, and that something is theme, a recurrent idea or motif.  You can begin to identify your theme by coming up with ONE word to sum it up. That one word is usually a human quality: Friendship. Love. Trust. Fear. Redemption. Abandonment. Freedom. Motherhood. Truth. Ambition. Justice. Revenge. Confidence.Or a universal quality: Duality. War. Confinement.

But the theme of a novel goes deeper. Theme in a novel is not just that one word, say LOVE, but the statement the author makes about the motif with the story.

FROZEN: sisterly love is greater than power.

Generally, theme is linked to the emotional growth of the protagonist, or the personal vendetta of the antagonist.

Sometimes you don’t know what your theme is up front. You might change it, or discover it in the course of storytelling. It evolves. And that doesn’t matter because it isn’t stated anywhere in the narrative. It’s a sense we come away with, a flavour, a key.

Theme can also be several statements/explorations around a human quality. For example, an author could explore different kinds of LOVE through different characters: brotherly love, love of self, absence of love, parental love, love of money over people, love of country etc.

What is Premise

Premise, on the other hand, is the idea behind the story, what the author is writing about, the basic idea and foundation for the plot.

John Truby suggests premise is the simplest combination of character and plot: Some event that starts the action, some sense of the main character and some sense of the outcome.

Author and screenwriter Alexandra Sokoloff talks about the premise being “the pitch” for the story. That works too. After all, a pitch is the one-liner distilled version of your book and introduces us to the main character, what obstacles he must overcome, and why.

 

HARRY POTTER: When boy wizard Harry Potter and his friends at Hogwarts wizard school are threatened by the Dark Lord, Harry must find his magical power to overcome him and become a man and a great wizard.

 

Premise out of theme

Chris Vogler agrees that premise is the basic idea and foundation for the plot but also that it is “a more developed expression of the “theme” idea, beyond just one word. It’s a sentence that you pull out of that one word.”

First be specific.  “LOVE” isn’t specific enough. What kind of love? Brotherly love? Blind love? Love of country? Loving yourself?  What kind of trust? What kind of faith?

And then restate it as a kind of formula:   

X behaviour leads to Y consequences

MACBETH: ruthless ambition leads inevitably to destruction

 

 

Why does it matter?

Premise is useful as you write because it holds the ultimate character transformation in the front of your mind, so you are conscious of your character’s actions and reactions being in step with where he is along the character arc. For instance Harry Potter could never have faced the dementors at the beginning of the series, not only because he didn’t have the wizardly skills, but because he had not yet found his confidence or his loyalty.

As you write, theme doesn’t matter, but when it comes to editing, it provides an umbrella measure to decide which scenes and characters can get cut. Does this scene support the theme better than this one?

One last word

Screenwriter Andrew Oye sums the whole thing up very nicely. He says premise and theme are cousins not twins. That the premise is the subject of the story and the theme is the meaning from the story.

 

Submit, I Say

Submit, I Say

Ruth E. Walker

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

Tania Hershman

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

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

The mirror doesn’t lie

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

Not too impressive:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DID YOU KNOW?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go Bravely, Pioneer!

Go Bravely, Pioneer!

This week Writescape welcomes A.B. Funkhauser as our guest blogger. We first met her in a Writescape workshop where her unique storytelling voice immediately grabbed our attention. She recently launched her third novel at the Indie Author Day in Pickering, and this successful and self-propelled author lets us in on how she sees marketing in the indie world.

*******

A.B. Funkhauser

Recently, I had the privilege of participating in Indie Author Day at the Pickering Central Library. Sponsored by the PineRidge Arts Council, its purpose was to bring independent and micro-published authors together under a single roof to share ideas and lamentations about this journey we call writing.

So much more than words

Writing is so much more than words on a page. We chase character, motivation, arc, pacing and a satisfying resolution, each ideally wrapped tight in a prescient, unique voice that distinguishes the work and acts as a fingerprint for the artist behind it. Finding that combination can take years accompanied by scores of rejection letters that keep fourth-place-finishes in writing contests company.

That’s the trip. Those of us stubborn and committed enough to either win a contract or go boldly into self-publishing know that the second part of the journey has begun, and it is on this that I’d like to focus.

Pioneering the next wave

Writing it all down is a great beginning. It’s the foundation for a finished product that will be advanced by a marketing plan anchored to a brand.

Most of the speakers at Indie Author Day touched on the fact that indie books have a hard time finding a home in libraries and book stores large and small. There is a very good reason for this. Curated decisions at macro and micro levels are always informed by history and convention. What worked last year will continue to work in subsequent years until new factors change the conversation.

The Canadian Big Three and US Big Five publishing houses and their star authors rule the day and there is nothing wrong with this. Success models like these did not appear overnight; they started small and they grew over time. And they will continue to do so.

But times are changing and Indie authors in the digital age are in a unique position to pioneer the next wave by reaching where they could not before. Heavy oak doors barred, locked and guarded by agents and executives fall away when the author, published or not, has access to millions of readers via Internet platforms. Promoting  in the safety and comfort of one’s home is the best place to start building the profile that grows the brand.

What is brand?

Think of “brand” in terms of an author resume—for how can authors rightly expect to be taken up without an introduction? Many times we hear about great manuscripts going nowhere because the author (the brand) has little or no Internet presence.

The same happens when authors approach libraries and book stores. “Who are you?” and “What are your credentials?” takes the place of “What is the book about?” These questions are not unreasonable.

Making connections develops “cred”

Like a politician with a constituency, independent authors need followers as a first step to developing “cred” for the words they write. As I explained more than once on Indie Author Day, we can write the best novel, screenplay, short story or poem, but no one will know if we do not get out there and let people know.

Standing in front of our book tables trying to engage a busy parent or indifferent teen on their way to the stacks can be soul depleting. But after a handful of books-oriented events, we do get the hang of connecting on a person-to-person level. Many of us tempt with bowls of candies, free key chains, magnets, bookmarks or short story samples. When a conversation goes well, a book or two may actually be sold.

But it is the connection that is key. For every 50 business cards handed out, only a precious few will be retained; even fewer will be used to access the author’s buy links or website. But that is also okay. We’re not only building a constituency of readers and “cred”, but we’re also building a bridge to that first invitation to guest on a podcast, blog or cable show.

Seven years or five books

Publishing models in the Indie world present many formulas. My publisher says “seven years or five books” before anything happens. Whatever is served up, writers should not be discouraged. Time is an opportunity not just to write, but to build brand and the followers who support and advance it.

The times they are a changin’ opines one of my favorite clichés. For those willing to embrace the change, there is much to be done. I’ve only scratched the surface in a handful of words. The rest is up to you.

Go bravely, Pioneer.

Shine.

 

Toronto born A.B. Funkhauser is a multi-published genre-bending author who loves to market as much as she loves to hash out new material. She credits Writescape with helping her find her way. She publishes through Solstice Publishing.

Twitter https://twitter.com/iamfunkhauser

Facebook  http://www.facebook.com/heuerlostandfound

 

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.

Seven Tips for Finding Inspiration

Seven Tips for Finding Inspiration

Gwynn and Ruth are on vacation for the next couple of weeks. So we’re bringing back a couple of our favourite Top Drawer topics to share with new readers and to nudge long-time followers. This week is Ruth’s May 2016 post on finding inspiration. So get out there this summer and give your muse a change of scenery too.

Ruth E. Walker

I recently delivered a workshop at a writers’ conference: From Inspiration to Publication. In 2.5 hours, I was supposed to shine a light on the path almost every writer dreams about: being published. Frankly, this path can never be illuminated in such a short time. In fact, I could plug in a dozen klieg lamps and have an infinite amount of workshop time, and I’d still leave the bulk of that path in shadows.

No two writers have identical pathstunnel-237656_640

shrine-1031662_640That’s because for each writer, the path to publication is individual and endless. And it is filled with missed opportunities, wrong turns and dead ends. But for successful writers “publication” is not a single event. It is a series of acceptances, right turns and new paths that keep them inspired through all the rejections and disappointments.

Successful writers keep shining their headlights down that path because they know two things:

  1. getting published should not be a one-time goal, and
  2. they only need to shine their light forward to keep going

signs-416444_640For even the best writers, it is a frustrating journey.

It’s beyond discouraging to repeatedly receive rejections. So how to keep your muse motivated? Finding and then holding on to your inspiration can be key to keeping your light shining down the writer’s path.

So let’s get started.

  1. Leave your comfort zone behind: a change of place, space or pace can allow inspiration to sneak up and surprise you; if you can’t change your environment (travel or try out writing in a coffee shop, for example) give freefall writing a try (timed writing with no editing, no stopping, no internal editor allowed.) You’ll be amazed with what happens when you let yourself go to follow the energy.
  2. Visit a used bookstore and browse: old book titles, names of authors, a line from a book and even the smell of old paper can trigger ideas.
  3. Find contests with deadlines: a contest theme can trigger plenty of writing or, even better, remind you that you have a story on file to fit that theme!
  4. People watch with a notepad: keep to reportage (just the facts) to record the behaviour, clothing, dialogue that passes by. Pull it out and flip to a random page when you need to nudge your muse.
  5. Visit graveyards and museums: imagine the stories behind all those dates and names (old gravestones and small local museums can be especially intriguing.)
  6. Read outside your interests: essay collections, science journals, biographies, and so on will let you tap into a rich vein of interesting topics.
  7. Get out into nature and leave technology behind. If the landscape doesn’t trigger your muse, being in the open air with only scenery to distract you just might be the space your creativity needs to surface.

Inspiration for writing can come from so many places that I could keep writing this post for weeks. But what these tips all have in common is encouragement to explore. Writers are the adventurers on the open seas of life: we travel in our imaginations and write all about it. If you keep your light pointed into the distance then you should always be ready to find your stories.

About Freefall Writingtourism-776587_640

Freefall writing was first coined as “Mitchell’s Messy Method” by W.O. Mitchell (Who Has Seen the Wind) when he taught creative writing at university. It became “freefall” over time. There are variations used by many creative writing teachers, but when Gwynn or I lead a freefall, these are our main points:

  • Be present (meditation before you start is helpful) and follow the energy
  • Write what comes up
  • Use the senses — taste, touch, smell, sound and sight
  • Be specific — not “the car” but “the fire engine red two-door convertible”
  • Keep writing even if all you can start to write is: I can’t write. This is dumb. Why am I doing this? –eventually, the tension will trigger new energy for you to follow
  • Resist the editor — don’t stop to “fix” things
  • Go Fearward — W.O. Mitchell’s best advice ever

Freefall prompt and exercise: Set your timer for 20 minutes. Close your eyes and allow yourself to be quiet and still. Count backwards slowly to zero from fifteen. When you get to zero, start your freefall writing with this opening sentence:

The door opened and I stepped inside.

 

 

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.

Submissions: Why We Chose It

Submissions: Why We Chose It

Ruth E. Walker.

I subscribe to the Kenyon Review‘s newsletter, a literary journal out of Kenyon College in Ohio. I enjoy reading “Why We Chose It.” This feature explores some of the reasons why Kenyon Review selected a particular piece to publish in their journal.

Here’s an excerpt of Kirsten Reach’s post about “He Comes to Feed the Horses”, a short story by Mary Terrier:

Our interns were the first to cull this from our submission pile; we had no connection to Mary Terrier before. Within a few paragraphs, I think you’ll find yourself listening closely to the voice she’s found in this tough, nameless narrator. “By the time I was desperate enough to call hospice, you were already pretty far gone,” she says, addressing her late husband. Henry can hardly manage to get a straw into his mouth, and nurses have taken up residence in their house. She needs help, but she hates the help. The bathroom is too small to fit even the two of them, and each body that enters their home seems out-of-place.

Sounds like a good story to me. But it isn’t a new story, is it? So why did Kirsten and the interns pick this one?

Like every magazine that publishes short stories, we get a few dozen stories about unhappy marriages or spouses handling end-of-life care in every submission period...As an editor, you’re looking for an author with style, and a caretaker who makes you care deeply about this story, in the vein of Alice Munro’s “A Bear Came Over the Mountain,” or Helen Garner’s The Spare Room.

Style. Caretaker. How do those two connect? And why do they matter?

Style:

No one writes like you. When you are writing, your words land on the page in the style that belongs to your voice. For a lot of writing, such a corporate writing, you refine your style to fit with expectations. Your own voice is usually restricted in those forms of writing.

Fiction, however, allows you much more freedom to explore how your style works. You can refine your style by editing out weaknesses or even developing them into a strength. For example, relying on too much description slows the pace and you lose your reader. But at a crucial point in your story, perhaps an extended, detailed description is just what you need to bring focus on something vital. Dust off that urge to overwrite and use it to the story’s advantage.

Caretaker:

What does Kirsten Reach mean when she calls a writer a caretaker?

From 1999 to 2008, Gwynn and I were fiction editors for the literary journal LICHEN Arts & Letters Preview. Along with Mark Medley, we had some vigorous discussions championing stories to be included in upcoming issues. Limited journal space combined with hundreds of submissions made our work a challenge. We never referred to a writer as a “caretaker” for their story. But we could tell when a story was finely crafted.

I remember one story in particular. In Volume 8-2, Brian Reynolds’ “First Goose” is told in reverse, slipping back from a dreadful tragedy, hour by hour and layer by layer, peeling away the emotions of a adolescent First Nation boy on the cusp of adulthood.

The caretaker, Reynolds, could have written the story in ordinary linear fashion. Instead, he chose to give us the devastation before forcing us on the backward journey to see how the man rose out of the boy. It was cruel and wonderful because it was completely contrary to expectations. The inescapable ending haunted the reader through every hour revealed.

Do all editors look for a “caretaker”? I don’t know. What I do know is that at our 2016 fall retreat, literary agent Hilary McMahon of Westwood Creative Artists shared what she looks for in submissions. “Really great skill with language, that goes without saying.” And then she added something. “And an original voice telling a really unique story.” Hilary was talking about style and about the craft.

What’s Your Style?

Are you a caretaker for your writing? Before you press SEND on that submission, step back and take a close look at your work.

  • is your voice loud and clear in the style?
  • are you using your style in the best possible way?
  • have you taken care to ensure your story is being told in an original manner?
  • is there another way to lay it out so that readers (and editors) are surprised or intrigued?

Some writers benefit from a writing coach or editor to help take their work to the next level. For other writers, growth comes from paying attention to feedback in a critique group or workshop setting. In all cases, it helps to read other people’s work, especially those stories chosen for a prestigious literary journal.

You can read Kirsten Reach’s full post here. And I encourage you to follow the link and read the excerpt. Mary Terrier has, indeed, been a caretaker with style.

Read the fine print

Read the fine print

Heather M. O’Connor.
I recently stumbled across a contest for writers and artists, run by a well-known government-funded organization. The topic was intriguing. So were the $500 prize and the no-fee entry. Until I read the rules.

By entering this Contest and submitting an entry, you grant to Sponsors the right use to any material related to your entry for use in any and all manner, format, or media whether now known or hereafter devised (which use may include without limitation, editing, reformatting, modifying, publishing, posting, distributing, displaying, and transmitting for print, audio, visual, digital, or broadcast media and the like), for any purpose, including without limitation, the Contest and advertising Sponsors  or Sponsors’ products, services and organization.” 

Hold the phone.

If I entered, I’d surrender ALL RIGHTS to my work. In perpetuity. Contest organizers and even their sponsors could publish my story even if I didn’t win. They could reformat it, modify it, post it or publish it anywhere and as often as they wished.

And remember. This rule doesn’t just apply to the winners. It applies to EVERYONE who enters.

This is the second such contest I’ve seen recently. The other was the Royal Ontario Museum’s (ROM) nature photography contest. Again, ALL entrants (not just winners) must agree to grant:

“…to the ROM a royalty-free, irrevocable, perpetual, transferrable, non-exclusive license to use, reproduce, modify, publish, create derivative works from, and display his/her wildlife photo (the “Work”), in whole or in part, on a worldwide basis, and to incorporate it into other works, in any form, media or technology now known or later developed, including for promotional or marketing purposes; in connection with the Contest.

The Canadian literary magazine Geist, on the other hand, makes a more modest and reasonable rights request:

“Winning entries: Geist takes first serial rights for print and non-exclusive electronic rights to post the text and image at geist.com. All other rights remain with the author. 

All publication rights for non-winning entries are retained by the entrants.”

That’s more like it. So what am I giving up?

  • First serial rights. That’s one-time publication in their magazine, then the rights are mine again. That’s fair.
  • Non-exclusive electronic rights. They can publish it online forever, but it’s still mine.

And there’s none of this “waiving of all rights in perpetuity” nonsense.

Don’t go in blind

Always read the rules when you enter a contest. Then ask yourself the following questions:

What rights am I giving away?

Publication rights can be for a country or a language, (e.g., Canadian, European, world, French language.) They can cover a variety of formats: print and online, audio and visual, or “all manner, format, or media whether now known or hereafter devised.”

Will I ever need the rights again?

I might if I want to publish that story in an anthology, or include it in a novel.

Moral of the story?

When you enter a contest, verify the rights you’re signing away. Even trustworthy organizations can include unfair conditions.

Did you know…

There are plenty of places, in print and online, to find contest listings. Here are a few you might like:

Got a good tip on good contests to enter or your favourite places to find them? Let us know in the comments below.

Learn from two contest insiders when you spend a day with writing contest judges, winners and organizers, Ruth E. Walker and Dorothea Helms. Watch for their always popular Write to Win workshop later this spring.