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.

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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.

Agent Reality Check: 5 Top Things We Learned

Agent Reality Check: 5 Top Things We Learned

Ruth E. Walker

At our annual fall retreat, Turning Leaves, we always invite a special guest to offer a workshop and hold a fireside Q&A session. Usually, we ask an author to join us and our writers have been delighted by the insights and inspiration from our generous guests.

This year, we thought we’d try something different. We invited literary agent Hilary McMahon, Vice-president of Westwood Creative Artists. Come join us, we said.

hilarys-workshop-resizedAnd join us, she did.dinner-resized

From Friday dinner to Sunday breakfast, Hilary was a full participant. She delivered a wonderful Friday evening chat on the role and challenges of the agent and gave a great Saturday workshop on preparing compelling query letters.

We’re happy to share a few tips from the many she offered throughout the weekend:

1  Do your research:

Visit the agency website to get details on each agent’s submission guidelines, and the correct spelling of the agency name and the agent’s name. Pay attention to each agent’s information. You don’t want to send a query about your fabulous fantasy sci-fi steampunk graphic novel to an agent who only is seeking nonfiction manuscripts.

Go to book launches or read the acknowledgment pages of books similar to yours to find out who the agents are who represent those writers. See “Be strategic” at the end of this post.

2  Be professional:

Dear agent — you are writing to a person with whom you hope to have an important relationship, so use their name. But remember that this is a professional relationship, so no first names here. And get that name right. Hilary’s has been sent queries with another agent’s name in the salutation…a copy-and-paste oopsie!

Submit a clean query and clean sample in manuscript format without any typos or grammatical errors. Hilary was clear: it all affects how the agent views your manuscript in comparison with the 500+ others received that year. No agent will ask for the full manuscript if your query doesn’t demonstrate you can write well and convey the flavour of your style. And for the same reason, your writing has to be the best possible writing you can submit. See “Be ready”…

business-19148_640Last, but not least, daily follow-up calls and emails will likely ring warning bells for any agent — it’s annoying and the sign of someone very, very needy. Sure, you’re on pins and needles waiting, but give the agent some time to get to your query.

But Hilary says that if you have a valid reason for a follow-up email, by all means fire away. Valid reason? If you receive a writing award or grant, follow up. If you have a short story coming out in a literary magazine or national publication, follow up. In short, if you have important writing news, follow up. An agent will want to know.

3  Be ready:

It’s a competition and most agents receive hundreds and even thousands of queries each year. Of those, a few dozen get chosen to submit their work. Of those few, even fewer get picked for a second or even third read. Of those, one or two may get a contract. So when an agent asks for your full manuscript, you want to have something that’s polished and ready to submit.

4  Be realistic

A contract with an agent does not equal a contract with a publisher. Agents don’t earn a penny until you do, so naturally a good agent will be working hard to secure the best possible publishing deal. But it’s a tough climate right now, especially for fiction. Hilary talked about having manuscripts that she absolutely loved but nonetheless, couldn’t land a publisher that felt the same. But she offered hope when she recounted the story of one writer. She couldn’t land a home for the writer’s first manuscript but secured a publisher for the next one.

5  Be strategic

system-954972_640An agent can represent a writer for many years. Like a marriage, it is an important kind of partnership, so you want that relationship to be strong and effective. You want an agent who really likes (loves!) your manuscript, and believes in you and your creative ability. Someone you can work with.

So, this is more than just “Do your research.”  Think carefully about who you send your query to. A top literary agent would be a great coup but you will be competing for attention with international bestselling authors. Would an intermediate-level agent have more room and time to focus on developing your career? What about a new agent? They might be even more high-energy on your behalf…but does that agent have the contacts in the publishing field? And the same goes for the agent’s agency.

We know that landing an agent is a goal of most writers, so isn’t the point to get one? Of course. But our weekend with Hilary McMahon gave us plenty to think about and we all left with at least this one piece of advice. The point may be to get an agent, but an even better point is to work at getting the right agent…at least the right agent for you.

Did you know…

Registration is now open for Spring Thaw 2017, our all-inclusive retreat at Elmhirst’s Resort on Rice Lake in Ontario, April 21 to 23, or 21 to 25. Receive feedback from both Gwynn Scheltema and Ruth E. Walker on 10 ms pages submitted in advance, as well as one-on-one consultation on your writing project.

writing-427527_1920Morning warm-up exercises and follow-up private discussions in the afternoon offer support when and if you need it.

Private room accommodations in cozy lakeside cottages: wood-burning fireplaces and full kitchens stocked for in-cottage breakfasts. Join the group for lunch or take it back to your cottage if you’re on a roll. Relax in the casually elegant dining room for candlelight dinners.

Stay for 3 days or Extend Your Pen for 5 days. Either way, you escape to write…with Writescape.

 

Up Close & Personal: Writer Jenny Madore

Up Close & Personal: Writer Jenny Madore

Jenny Madore pictureJenny Madore didn’t always know she wanted to be a writer. It took packing up husband and kids for a move to the rainforest of Panama for a year and a single copy of “Twilight” to nudge out the writer in her. Shifting from “I could write Bella into a better situation” to “I could write my own stories”, Jenny discovered her passion before moving back to Canada in 2008.

Now the author (J.L. Madore) of a self-published, urban fantasy series where alpha women kick butt and devour the gorgeous male warriors around them, Jenny is working on becoming a hybrid writer and breaking into the traditional publishing market. She is also in her second term as President of The Writers’ Community of Durham Region, a 280+ member umbrella organization that offers networking, promotion and education opportunities to its members.

Writescape caught up with Jenny this week to learn more about her as a writer:

What is the most important thing a self-published writer needs to consider?

That creative minds aren’t always the best prepared to tackle marketing, or websites, or newsletters. Points to self. The effective marketing of a novel once you’ve self-published takes a gazillion hours, dedication, and a thoroughness that some of us just don’t come by naturally. It can be learned, or hired out, but you have to identify your weaknesses and make allowances for them.

For example, I know I have to keep current content on my website to sweet-talk the algorithms of online booksellers and search engines, but when I pull up my website, my last post was for May 30th . . . of 2015. Yikes. If earning a living at writing was my goal, I’d be upset at how badly I drop the ball at times. Thankfully, writing is my goal. Growing as a writer. Improving. I’ll get back to marketing at some point. Maybe soon. Maybe not.

What does being a “hybrid writer” mean to you?

Honestly, I picture ‘Hybrid’ as being the best of both worlds but can’t say for sure . . . yet. What I like about the idea of straddling the indie and traditionally published worlds is the freedom of one, while coveting the guidance of the other. I’d like to work with house editorial staff and have people picking at the minutia of a story that they see hitting the mark of the ever-changing market. I want to grow. Know what they know. See the things they’re looking for in my own work for future reference.blaze-ignites-front-cover-promo-image

But not all stories are going to hit the appeal of publishing houses and that’s where indie rules. When I first wrote Blaze Ignites, I shopped it around first. I received rejections saying “great writing but fantasy is in a downturn,” or “Elves just aren’t sexy.”

Hello? Legolas Greenleaf isn’t sexy?

I beg to differ. That’s why I went ahead and independently published that series. I’ve got so many stories circling in my head, I want them out there entertaining people. Well, I hope they’re entertaining people.

What are you working on now and how different is it from the urban fantasy series you started out with?

female-316703_640I’m currently editing the finished first draft of a Roman time-slip historical romance. The working title is, In The Shadow, and I’m very pleased with how it’s shaping up. I found it very different to write historical, because it is an actual moment in time which has been documented and studied by academics and enthusiasts for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

I put a great deal of pressure and author responsibility upon myself to get the details right. Did a Praetorian wear a white toga or a violet one? What flowers bloomed in ancient Rome in 79CE? When would a patrician woman wear her hair down? What did the streets of Pompeii look like, sound like, and smell like before the eruption of Vesuvius?

The dialogue is crucial to selling the time period (Latin sentences often omit pronouns), as is the setting and, most importantly, how the love story evolves under the stresses and strains of a violent and unhindered society (Sin and shame are concepts which evolved much later in history).

The fantasy series I write allows me freedom to make things up to suit the story. As long as I justify what’s happening in the world, there’s really no wrong answer. It’s freeing and fun. Writing historical fiction offers me a sense of personal satisfaction I hadn’t realized before. When I get it right, it’s really right, and even if the reader doesn’t know it, I do.

How do you balance family life, the volunteer leadership role for a dynamic organization and your needs as a writer?

Balance is the operative word, though it has recently become easier. With my kids grown and newly establishingborg_dockingstation themselves out in the world as successful young adults, I’m finding my hours are my own for the first time in 23 years. As a full-time, at-home mother and wife, I became accustomed to working with crazy schedules and multi-tasking for the benefit of the collective.

We are Borg.

Those skills translate perfectly into running an organization like The Writers’ Community of Durham Region (WCDR). I want the members to strive for their dreams and have what they need for success. That’s why I initiated Bookapalooza, Skip The Slush Pile Pitches, Blue Pencil Bonanza, Novel Whisperer, etc. I’m available to help if I can, organize events, make concessions if obstacles arise, and ask for help if things get complicated. I love the WCDR and its members. In my mind, the organization is simply an extension of family.

As for my writing . . . well, I’d like to say I set aside time every day, but that’s not always possible. The WCDR is an active, vital organization and when events approach, there is no end to the preparations to be made or work to be done. I can safely say, that I work on my writing often. Sometimes mornings. Sometimes nights. Sometimes just a few moments before I have to start dinner or leave for a meeting. Stories are always in the back of my mind, ideas, characters, and conflicts percolating until I can get back in front of my laptop.

Describe your favourite writing space — what does it look like?

Easy, (looks left and right). I’m on my bed, knees up with my laptop in front of me, a mass of pillows behind me, and a dozen reference books and novels scattered across my comforter and end table. Stryder, my Panamanian dingo dog I brought home from living in the rainforest, is lying beside me, snoring through his doggie dreams, the tip of his tongue slightly out. Perfection.

If you could have dinner with anyone (living, dead or fictional) who would that be?amy-sherman-palladino-02

Ooh, tough one. So many names come to mind for so many reasons. I think it would have to be Amy Sherman-Palladino, writer of Gilmore Girls. Not only is she quirky and odd, (which would make dinner a hoot), she wrote one of the greatest, wittiest, fastest paced, most-heart-warming collection of moments ever seen on television. (Newsroom and West Wing also in that category) The writing of Gilmore girls hits all my buttons: intelligent characters, flawed relationships, unconditional acceptance, family love, romantic love, loyalty, off-beat humour . . . the list is endless. Yep. Amy Sherman-Palladino for sure.

Wow, over so soon. Thank you, Writescape, for inviting me to participate, I had a blast. Annnnnd . . . are you arranging my dinner with Amy? I’m really looking forward to that now.

Expert advice

Expert advice

Heather M. O’Connor

When Richard Scrimger came to Turning Leaves a couple of years ago, he told us, “Writers are liars and thieves.”

He meant, of course, that the best stories are partly made up, and partly built on stolen bits of real life. Readers want to believe your lies. You can tell the most outrageous whoppers, from a theme park with cloned dinosaurs to a school for wizards. As long as the stolen bits ring true.

Steal what you know, research what you don’t

Take my novel Betting Game, for instance. It’s the story of an elite soccer player who gets mixed up with illegal gambling.

I could lie and steal with panache about soccer. I play. My kids play. I watch the sport on TV. But illegal gambling? That was a central part of my novel’s plot and characters, and I didn’t know a thing about it. Nada. Zip. How could I make my story believable?

Who ya gonna call?

I needed a subject matter expert. Someone in the biz. But not the gambling biz. A “reliable narrator” if you know what I mean. Someone in law enforcement. It took time to track down an expert, but what he told me was invaluable.

Looking for an expert of your own? Here are the steps to follow.

Go surfing

Begin your search online. I started by studying news stories. Who was quoted on the topic? Who went to court?

Your expert may speak at industry events and conferences. Check continuing education classes and LinkedIn, too.

network of peopleTap your network

Have you asked your friends and family if they know an expert? I was stunned to learn that one of my teammates was once a CSI investigator in New York City. (She now teaches forensic science and invited me to a crime scene class. Coolest writer field trip ever!)

Don’t forget your local librarians—they’re walking encyclopedias.

Do a little diggingman-1483479_1920

Once you locate subject matter experts, don’t waste their time. Pick your own brains before you pick theirs.

Prepare a list of open-ended questions that require more than a yes or no answer. Try to think up a couple of questions they may never have answered.

Email your questions and a short synopsis of your story a day or two before the interview. This gives the person time to mull over answers and think of interesting anecdotes.

Don’t be shy

Relax. Chatting with a subject matter expert is easier than it looks.

People like talking about their jobs. Though they find their work fascinating, their friends and family may not. You provide a rare treat—an enthusiastic audience.

office-336368_1920Take note!

I prefer to interview in person or by phone. People have more to say when they don’t need to write it all down. You also have a chance to ask follow-up questions when you’re talking live. Email interviews are very limiting. They’re best for confirming facts.

I usually record my interviews, as long as there’s no objection. Most smartphones have an app for that. I also take detailed notes.

Say thank you

Remember to thank your expert for taking the time to share their knowledge and expertise. Send a thank you note. If their help was significant, include them in the acknowledgements, and consider sending them a copy of your book.