Write Away: Highlights From the Poconos

Write Away: Highlights From the Poconos

Guest blogger Stephanie Gibeault writes for children. And lately, she’d been stuck on a novel she loves but couldn’t get liftoff with. A change in locale and working with experienced authors and editors paved the way for some breakthrough work on that middle grade manuscript. She shares her experience with us:

I always heard how amazing writing retreats can be. To learn and write in a resort-like location sounds like a dream. But they’re for people who already have well-developed skills. Right? Not for writers relatively new to their careers or with one unfinished work-in-progress.

Boyds Mills Press

In short, not for writers like me.

Maybe someday I thought I might indulge, but for now, I figured I didn’t have enough ability under my belt. And I didn’t want to be the least-experienced person in the room. Besides, I have a private office for writing, so why would I need to go somewhere else?

Then I stumbled across a five-day workshop I simply couldn’t resist – GettingYour Middle Grade Novel Unstuck at the Highlights Foundation.

Getting there

The Barn workshop centre

The Highlights Foundation is a not-for-profit organization with the mission of improving the quality of children’s literature by helping writers and illustrators hone their craft. They offer more than 40 workshops a year for both  published and novice writers at their retreat centre near Honesdale, Pennsylvania in the Pocono Mountains. Topics range from picture books to YA, and from fiction to the education market. They generously offer over $100,000 in scholarship aid each year to more than 100 attendees, and I am one such grateful recipient.

Despite my reservations about not being ready, I signed up for the workshop last spring because of the teaching staff. I didn’t want to miss my chance to learn from best-selling middle grade authors Elise Broach and Chris Tebbetts. Plus, a guest appearance by Aubrey Poole, editor at Hachette’s JIMMY Patterson Books imprint — too good to pass up.

Writing community magic

It was a magical event and exactly what I needed. Along with 11 other attendees, from a writer with many books under his belt to people just starting out, I learned about both the craft and business of writing, received one-on-one feedback on my work, and left feeling encouraged and inspired. Most importantly, I got “unstuck,” including waking up at 3:00 a.m. and rushing to my computer because I had figured out exactly how to raise my main character’s stakes.

My accommodation was charming, something out of a writer’s daydream. Although there are private rooms in The Lodge, I lucked into a private cabin. Who doesn’t want to write in a quaint little cabin in the woods?

I had twin beds, a desk, my own coffee maker, a mini fridge stocked with pop, and a small bathroom. Everything I needed to nestle in and get to work.

More than eurekas

The days were divided between class time and private writing time. During class, we had lectures, discussions, Q & A sessions, and even writing exercises with the opportunity to share our work with the class. We learned about plot and outlines, the revision process, developing scenes and characters, and how to write gripping first pages. And of course, how to move forward with your writing whenever you’re feeling stuck. (Editor’s note: more on that last one in a future post.)

There was also a one-on-one critique from one of the instructors. This was scheduled on the second day of the workshop, so there was plenty of time to put the feedback into practice. Then, most importantly, we had the opportunity to show the instructor our changes and discuss whether we were on the right track. Both Chris and Elise were incredibly generous with their time, and I took advantage to follow up with my new ideas. That kind of individual attention was invaluable.

Time well spent

Stephanie Elise & Chris

We also ate all our meals with our instructors. It was fun to get to know our teachers better and chat about publishing in such a social and relaxed atmosphere. I don’t know of many events, other than a retreat, that let you so casually interact with publishing professionals and published authors on such an equal footing.

And that private writing time I didn’t think I needed? It was productive, exciting and different from writing at home. A  new view, both from my chair and out my window, inspired me. Fresh off a lecture or critique, I felt motivated to work. No scheduling my writing between chores or other obligations. It was the sole reason I was there and that was liberating.

It was also wonderful to have no other responsibilities than to improve my skills. Other than loading up my plate at mealtimes, I didn’t have to lift a finger away from my pen or keyboard. And that meant more words in less time.

Cross-border revelations

I was the only Canadian at the workshop. I’d heard from other Canadian writers that breaking into the American market is an almost impossible goal. So, during a tour of Boyds Mills Press on the first day, I asked the assistant editor what she thought of working with Canadian authors. I also asked my instructors, Chris and Elise, and the Hachette editor, Aubrey, whether they thought there was such a barrier.

I’m pleased to report they all looked at me like I had two heads. Each one agreed that if the story was excellent, it didn’t matter if the author was Canadian or American.

The issue of setting was mentioned, however. Although a Canadian location was not considered a deal-breaker, it was pointed out that Americans prefer to read about America.

So, if location is not crucial to the story, perhaps moving your setting to south of the border is worth considering if you plan to publish in the States. Of course, this may be specific to children’s literature or these particular editors, but it is still helpful information.

I am so glad I didn’t let my concerns hold me back from attending this writing retreat. I was wrong about the prerequisites and I undervalued the chance to write in a new location. And I wasn’t the only one with those same fears at the workshop.

We all struggle to call ourselves writers. If you are thinking a retreat would be valuable, just not right now, think again. There is no time like the present to improve your skills, receive encouragement, and get inspired. And a retreat is the perfect place to make that happen.

Did You Know?

Writescape has hosted many writers like Stephanie at our retreats. Some of them are writers who say “I’m not sure I’m really a writer.” We’re happy to report that each and every time, those writers leave our retreats knowing they are writers. It is not about the skill level. It is all about owning your true voice and finding the best ways to develop and  express it.

Next retreat: Spring Thaw at Elmhirst’s Resort in Kawartha Lakes. April 20 – 22 or Extend Your Pen until April 24. Includes manuscript feedback and one-on-one consultations. Registration is open now.

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

 

One Woman Crime Wave

One Woman Crime Wave

In Conversation with…Vicki Delany

So many of us dream of being a full-time writer. But how many of us would sell our house and retire early from a job as a systems analyst with a major bank to do it? Vicki Delany made that gusty move in 2007. Now she rarely wears a watch and can write whenever she feels like it. In just ten years, Vicki (also writing as Eva Gates) has more than 20 crime and mystery novels to her credit .

And she finds time to give back to the writing community. For two years she was Chair of Crime Writers of Canada, and is also a member of Capital Crime Writers and Sisters in Crime. Just this last Labour Day weekend she was an organizer for the first festival of Women Crime Writers: “Women Killing It”.

Plus, she’s taking precious time out  to join us as Writescape’s guest at this year’s fall retreat, Turning Leaves 2017.  Perhaps you’ll join us too, but right now, take a glimpse into the writing life of this prolific, energetic and generous crime and mystery writer.

What attracted you to the mystery/crime genre?

Mystery novels really do fill the spectrum from light and fluffy to very dark indeed. Something for everyone in fact. Darker crime novels, such as psychological suspense, show the human psyche under pressure.

They take (usually) normal people and put them through a heck of a lot. Some survive, some do not. Physically as well as mentally or morally.

Crime novels allow the reader to ask him or herself: what would I do in this situation? What would I do if this happened to me? How far would I go to save my child/defeat my enemy/get revenge/save myself? What would I do for money/for love?

I’m not interested, as a reader or a writer, in explicit violence or international spies. I’m interested in character and character development, good and bad. It’s through the lens of the crime novel that we can explore people under extreme pressure. The use of a crime or a mystery allows the author to up the stakes for the characters, but the essential humanity and the complex range of human emotions are what’s all-important.

At the moment, I’m writing mostly cozy books. Cozies are all about friends and family and community. The tone is much lighter, there is never any real danger to the main characters, and not much in the way of tragedy or angst. Sometimes a little dash of romance, but the friendships are all important. People love these books because they come to love the characters and the town they live in. And the food. Food and books are often important in cozy novels.

What books are on your bedside table right now?

I’m reading The Perfect Spy by John Le Carre, recommended by a friend. A powerful, complex, intricate novel by an author at the height of his powers. I’ve just finished Dust and Shadows by Lyndsay Faye. In the Sherlock Holmes Bookshop series, all the books and merchandise for sale in the shop exists in real life. I don’t read everything my fictional character stocks, but I do like to dip my toes into Sherlock pastiche now and again.

Up next? Probably In the Name of the Family by Sarah Dunant. I am not a big historical novel reader, but I have loved Dunant’s books. I’m looking forward to the September release of Collapse of a Country: A Diplomat’s  Memoir of South Sudan by Nicholas Coghlan because I have been to South Sudan and I set one of my adult literacy novellas there. (Juba Good)

Tell us about your most recent mystery book series

The latest series is a cozy series, meaning very light, an easy read. No human tragedy or angst here. Gemma Doyle owns the Sherlock Holmes Bookshop and Emporium on Cape Cod. The first book in the series is Elementary She Read.  When Gemma finds a rare and potentially valuable magazine containing the first Sherlock Homes story hidden in the bookshop, she and her friend Jayne (who runs the adjoining Mrs. Hudson’s Tea Room) set off to find the owner, only to stumble upon a dead body.

elementary-she-read-rgbThe higBody on Baker Street - finalhly perceptive Gemma is the police’s first suspect, so she puts her consummate powers of deduction to work to clear her name, investigating a handsome rare books expert, the dead woman’s suspiciously unmoved son, and a whole family of greedy characters desperate to cash in on their inheritance.

But when Gemma and the ever-loyal, but often confused, Jayne accidentally place themselves at a second murder scene, it’s a race to uncover the truth before the detectives lock them up for good.

The second in the series hit the shelves last week on September 12, and is called  Body on Baker Street. The series is a lot of fun with lots of Sherlock Holmes references, but the books can be enjoyed by people with no interest in the Great Detective at all.

Describe a typical writing day/week

When I am at home I write every day, seven days a week. I get up in the morning and go to my main computer in my office, and read e-mails, read the papers online, spend a bit of time on Facebook or Twitter.

Then it’s time to start to write. I walk into the dining room and stand at my Netbook computer which is on the half-wall between the kitchen and the dining room.  As I pass through the kitchen, I put one egg on to boil.  (In the summer, I might sit outside on the deck). I always write, standing up, on the Netbook. I read over everything I did the previous day, doing a light edit as I go. I then take my egg into the study and eat it while checking email.

Then back to the small computer for several writing hours. Discipline is important to me, or I’d never get anything done.

What was the best piece of writing advice you ever received?On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

In On Writing, Stephen King says to be a writer, you have to read and you have to write. Read, and read a lot. It’s the only way you are going to learn the craft of writing.

What are you working on right now?

The fourth, as yet untitled, book in the Sherlock Holmes Bookshop series.  I am about to start going over the publisher’s edits for The Spook in the Stacks, the fourth in the Lighthouse Library series I write under the pen name of Eva Gates.

 

DID YOU KNOW

At Writescape’s Turning Leaves 2017 fall retreat November 3rd to 5th, you can meet Vicki Delany at the author’s chat on Friday evening and take a workshop with her on Saturday morning, as well as enjoy her company at meals and social times.  

Writing Plan Meets Real Life

Writing Plan Meets Real Life

Just a few short days ago, at Spring Thaw 2017, a group of writers tucked themselves away in cozy cottages on the shores of Rice Lake. It’s what Writescape loves about our retreats: the creative energy that comes to writers when the natural world helps them dive deep into their words.

We also know that keeping that energy alive becomes a challenge when bags are packed and the road home is inevitable. So our retreats include built-in tools to help with the transition back to reality. A themed companion workbook offers pages of prompts and inspiration during the retreat and continues that role as needed. A wrap-up session is designed to ease the goodbyes and help with ideas, commitments and plans to “keep the words coming.”

About those plans. They can be general intentions or itemized lists and firmly set timelines. But then reality rears its own set of lists and timelines. Writescape retreat alumnus April Hoeller left Spring Thaw with firm plans that came to a halt the day after returning home. She shared what happened on her blog “What I’m thinking today,” and how she took a roadblock and turned it into a bridge back to her writing. With her permission, we reprint it here:

Guest blogger: April Hoeller
Monday Moanings – May 1, 2017

It’s raining.
It’s pouring.
This old scribe is…

Well, what is she up to on this first day of May?

Get out your smallest violins because I’ve got on a pair of whiney pants for this Monday Moaning.

What, pray tell, is the point of having a plan, a specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-based strategy for getting things done, when something as simple as a telephone call can render it so irrelevant so quickly?  Let me be clear – nobody died or was diagnosed with cancer, or lost a job. World War III has not broken out, though that has been a haunting concern of mine for a few weeks now (a whole other blog!). There is nothing tragically wrong. My world is still turning at a great clip but it’s just not doing so according to my plan.

I arrived home last Tuesday afternoon from an amazing writing retreat.

The most productive retreat ever

I found the doorway into a section of the memoir that I’ve been struggling to get a grip on for months. I not only plotted out my way through it, I also committed some 5000 words to paper, half of the chapters. Woot! Woot!

I am indebted to Ruth Walker and Gwynn Scheltema, the dynamic duo of Writescape, for their encouragement, companionship, and occasional goading.

… and a good sense of fun too!

Indispensable to the retreat is the energy and inspiration that blossoms when a group of writers gets together for a weekend. Good conversations, suggestions, laughter and affirmations abound. A big thank you to all of you!

 

 

Homecoming

I arrived home all fired up, ready to move forward at good pace. I had a plan too – always an important part of a retreat. So there I sat Wednesday at the harvest table in my kitchen with pens, paper, and mind ready, at 1 pm – right on schedule. And then the phone rang.

I ignored it, letting my guy answer it, while I put pen to paper. A whole sentence emerged. With great satisfaction, I tapped a period at the end. The next sentence was spoken by my husband.

“They want to start work on the solarium next week.”

I capped my pen and closed the book. No words have been written since. The solarium construction was not scheduled to begin until the end of June. Nowhere in my plans for the coming week, or even the coming month was there any reference to “The Solarium.” But the contractor had a cancellation and our name rose to the top.  We have been able to put them off for two weeks – because we’ve got prep work to do, none of which was on our radar – until last Wednesday.

 

What’s a writer to do?

This is not a derailment. It’s just a layby in a siding to let a construction train through.

So, throw off those whiney pants.

Make another plan to write my way between, around, over, through the interruptions.

Just think, in a few weeks I’ll have another writing space!

Cheers!

Did You Know?

You can read more of April Hoeller’s words on writing, travel and life at What I’m thinking today, her online blog.

Thanks, April, for reminding all of us that while life may happen (and it always does) we can find ways to keep close our writing goals. A writer needs to be ready to return to the page. Writing time is precious. Don’t waste it.

Writescape retreats are held spring, summer and fall, and deliver inspiration and support for writers.

 

 

Frogging It

Frogging It

Erin Thomas

I’ve often taken satisfaction from the idea that writing, in some ways, is like knitting. Not the following-patterns part, although sometimes in the depths of my writerly frustration, I imagine that would be nice. And it’s not the tangible result, either; a writer goes through many, many iterations before having something tangible to show for her efforts.

No, it’s more the idea of building something big—a scarf, a sweater, a blanket—out of a series of small steps. It’s holding the “whole” in your mind, when all you can see is a pile of yarn, when all you can do in the moment is make one more tiny stitch towards that whole.

Word by word, or bird by bird if you’re an Anne Lamott fan. Stitch by stitch.

I work away at my shawl; one stitch is almost nothing. It’s a word, a period. An entire row of stitches, maybe that’s something. There’s a sense of completion there. A paragraph, or maybe even a scene. But it takes so many, many rows to make a shawl.

Writers work in “the end” and “the now”

Building a novel, or a draft of a novel, feels a bit like that. You have to split your mind; part of it imagines the finished product, holds the shape of it before you. This, it says. This is the reason you’re working. This is what you’re making.  But that finish line is a long way away, so another part of your mind focuses only on the task at hand, the small piece you’re doing just now. The stitch, the row, the bit of lace. The next twist of the cable.

Maybe you go so far as to admire how it connects to what came before, how the project is growing. What you cannot do is focus on how much there is still to do. That way lies discouragement. In knitting, as in writing, it pays to have something of a zen mindset. Your work is the work of the moment.

Sometimes, though, there’s a mistake. Sometimes there’s a mistake so big, so early in the project, that you can’t work back and fix it. For a while, maybe, you pretend it’s not there. You pretend no one else will see it. It’s okay. It was near the edge, near the beginning, before the pattern really took shape; maybe you can pretend it happened on purpose.

But it nags at you. After all, you started this because you had a vision. And this object in your hands, it doesn’t match that vision.

You work ahead. Maybe you can fix it. Maybe you can repeat it, somehow, or work in a call-back. You’ve made so many stitches since that point. Good stitches. Stitches that look the way they’re supposed to. You keep going, building on those good stitches. But if the initial flaw is big enough, it will affect the whole. The pattern is broken; the count is off. You could push ahead, you could even finish it, but will you be happy with the finished project?

The fix is usually necessary

Sometimes, the answer is no. Sometimes, the only answer is to start over. So you pull on the yarn and all those lovely stitches unravel, and you rewind the yarn, and your project dissolves back to the mistake or even the starting point, and you begin again.

Knitters have a term for this. It’s called “frogging it,” apparently because “rip it, rip it” sounds like the noise frogs make.I’ve used other f-words from time to time.

I’ve frogged novels, too. When something is wrong that’s fundamental to the story, when it’s built into every scene and chapter and fibre of the novel, sometimes it’s best to start over.

Starting over hurts. You’ve written all those lovely words. Your critique partners have helped you hone them. Some of those chapters sing. Starting over feels like a waste.

What remains is priceless

It’s not a waste. When you frog your knitting, you don’t lose everything. You keep the yarn, the substance out of which the project is made. And you keep the knowledge you gained—the new stitch patterns you learned, the deeper understanding of how the garment comes together. This time, you can do it better. You’re aware of the pitfalls. You can work more easily. Maybe you can even add something that will improve it.

Frogging it isn’t always the answer. Sometimes there will be a way to fix what’s wrong without pulling apart the entire manuscript. But sometimes, sometimes, it’s necessary. And when it is, the best thing you can do is grit your teeth and rip that yarn with courage and commitment, knowing that you’re going to tackle this project again, or even build something better out of the same stuff.

And you begin again. Stitch by stitch.

Erin Thomas writes books for children and young adults (and knits compulsively) from her home in Whitby, Ontario. For more information, visit www.erinthomas.ca.

Gift: A writer’s space

Gift: A writer’s space

Heather Tucker

In my family, gifts, for all occasions, were organized by Mom. But once, only once that I can remember, my father gave me a gift. Just from him to me. A desk. A writer’s desk. I loved it. I cherished it. I lost it.

 

Twelve years ago, when I started writing my husband gave me his office, a little 8X10 ft space that inspires and focuses me.
When I started writing 12 years ago, my husband gave me his office, an 8X10 ft space that inspires and focuses me.

First, let me tell you about the desk. “One of the most celebrated artists of the 20th century” (a biographer’s words, not mine) owned this desk. It was given to my dad because he was one of the most helpful people of the 20th century (my words).

Cubbyholes, secret compartments and the marvelous contents of its drawers—skeleton keys, strange coins, mysterious photographs, war ribbons and the clincher, a silk robe, sheer as a summer scarf—had me convinced the desk’s previous owner was Nancy Drew.

Heather at five
Heather at five

Growing up, we (the desk and I) spent a lot of time together in the attic. A blissful escape from the bickering chaos downstairs. Beneath that desk, I was an explorer, an archaeologist, a Jewish girl… Sitting at it, I was a teacher, a president, an inventor…

Colour and whimsy are like espresso for this writer. Does anyone know the best way to hang pictures on the ceiling?
Colour and whimsy are like espresso for this writer. Anyone know the best way to hang pictures on the ceiling?

 

May 1979, my dad backed his truck into my driveway. Under a stained tarp was the desk. Piece by piece, he brought it in, reassembling it in my tiny house. The surfaces were newly sanded. Once sticky drawers opened with ease. The roll-top slid in its track (something it hadn’t done since a certain Sea Hunt misadventure.)

My dad said, “Um… a wedding present.” The desk said, All those years when you felt invisible, he saw you and he thinks you’re special.

Two years later, a chair, a single boot and dust occupied the space where the desk had been. So, you wonder, how does one lose such a precious thing? Fire? Flood? A muscled thief? Nope. A toxic tangle of family dynamics, as layered and complex as a soap opera. Details of The Mysterious Case of the Missing Desk, I will leave to your imagination.

~ Oh, the things I've picked from imaginary pockets!
~ Oh, the things I’ve picked from imaginary pockets!

The subjective experience, I’ve left with a few therapists. But, I have to admit, the storyteller in me delights in the whole shimmery shitty thing. Why? Because the bitter-sweetness of it seasons my writing. For the writer, every experience, the divine and hellish, horrors and hallelujahs are a gift.

A few years back, I was introduced at a conference as an expert in grief and loss. I know, right? Kind of a crappy field to be deemed an expert.

At that time in my life I was transitioning from nursing to writing, seeing life less through the clinician’s lens and more through a writer’s eye. My presentation was on resilience and I began by saying that, happily, I saw myself as more of an expert on redeeming grief and loss. That’s what a writer can do, isn’t it? Detangle and reweave hopeless messes into hero tales.

bdt_2016-12-06-16-43-07_0091-on1-2-2-resizedSomeone I loved once gave me

a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand

that this, too, was a gift. 

(The Uses of Sorrow, Thirst by Mary Oliver.)

I love Mary Oliver’s poetry. Admittedly, a box full of ‘dark chocolates’ would be nicer, but it just doesn’t have quite the delicious possibilities for the writer as a box…of darkness.

I face this wall when I work on my laptop. It both delights and organizes me.
I face this wall when I work on my laptop. It both delights and organizes me.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a fan of receiving big boxes of poop, but I do see the fertilizer in it. If I open it up and use it, I might grow an idea, or a story or something as big as hope. I’ve never met a loss that didn’t have a treasure inside for a writer.

I walk. Preferably in the woods or by water. For me it’s more effective than Prozac or alcohol. And I’m a collector of feathers and stones, shells and sticks… I fill my pockets, bring them home and add them to the shelves in my office.

Some remind me of a loss, others, a gratitude. Most do both, like a broken shell showing its pearly centre or a fractured rock revealing amethyst inside. I painted my shelves and wall black because it makes my treasures sparkle. Much like how a writer uses dark threads to startle the reader with light.

I’ve always been a storyteller. It’s how I made sense of internal and external chaos. More importantly, it was how I found my way through loss, to joy and laughter, creativity and playfulness, gratitude and hope…  But a writer? Even in the attic, sitting at that wonderful desk, I never dreamed I could be that.

May 2016, my desk came back to me. I sensed my dad saying, "Um... a writing present. You know, I did always think you were special."
May 2016, my desk came back to me. I sensed my dad saying, “Um… a writing present. You know, I did always think you were special.”

Well, you just never know what is waiting on the other side of a box of darkness. Be brave and open it up. It could be a truck backing into your drive. A bittersweet conspiracy of tragedy and serendipity bringing you a gift.

Did you know:

Heather Tucker‘s first novel The Clay Girl was launched by ECW Press to critical acclaim in October 2016. It’s on the verge of a third printing and is available in bookstores in Canada and the U.S. Heather and her imaginary friends can be found in Ajax and north Kawarthas.

Win a signed copy of The Clay Girl! Tell us about a gift you received that made a difference in your creative life. Maybe it was a journal. Maybe it was an honest critique. Maybe it was some quality you inherited or learned from a mentor. Our lives are full of gifts. Tell us about yours in the comment section. Writescape will randomly select by draw from all comments received up to and including December 23.

In Conversation with…literary agent Hilary McMahon

In Conversation with…literary agent Hilary McMahon

Hilary McMahonToday, we chat with Hilary McMahon, Executive Vice President of Westwood Creative Artists (WCA), one of Canada’s oldest and most respected literary agencies. Hilary maintains an extensive and diverse list of adult and children’s writers. She also represents WCA authors on trips to American and British publishers and the Frankfurt and London Book Fairs. 

Why did you become a literary agent?

I earned a degree in journalism and English, but soon realized that I wanted to read other people’s stories far more than I wanted to write or teach. I’m an obsessive book reader, an extrovert interested in people and relationships, and a tough negotiator with a head for details and numbers. This job allows me to combine all those different skills.                                                                                                    

books-20167_640 (1)Being an agent is a tough job. So what is it that has kept you in the field for more than 20 years?

Nothing compares to the magic of being engrossed in a great book. I love being part of the process that begins with an idea or rough manuscript, and ends with a finished product that can be shared, enjoyed, discussed around the world. And working with writers can certainly be challenging at times, but it’s never dull…

If we were to spend some time in a typical day with Hilary McMahon, what would it look like?letters-286541_640

That’s one of the many wonderful things about this job, there is no typical day! It’s an illusion that I read all day. Today for example, I have reviewed a section of an author’s revised novel and then shared it with an interested publisher, worked on some blurbs for our Frankfurt catalogue, checked a film contract and sent it off to the author, given a non-fiction author feedback on her proposal, spent time crafting a tactful rejection letter, done the deal memo for a middle-grade series I’ve just sold, addressed a picture book writer’s concerns about the illustrations for her new book, and followed up on some projects out on submission. I had hoped to make a dent into my towering pile of submissions but I don’t know if I’ll get to it…

What do you like to see in a query from a writer? And is it different for a fiction versus a non-fiction query?

You’d think it’s obvious, but I need to see excellent writing! A skillful, original, compelling pitch.

For fiction, you need to hook me with a brief description of the work and draw me in with a short sample. It certainly doesn’t hurt if you include some details about places you’ve been published and any relevant awards or education.

For non-fiction, your expertise in the field is going to be important, to me and to publishers – I need to know that you have some authority about your subject. Most simply, I need to be compelled to move from the query to a writing sample.

hand-861275_640What is the one piece of advice you want writers to know once they land that elusive agent?

That just because you have an agent it doesn’t guarantee your work will sell! There’s still a lot of hard work ahead, but at least you aren’t doing it alone.

What are you reading now and how do you feel about it?

I’m reading a really intriguing submission, clever and sparely written and definitely original in story and in the telling.  But I’m still trying to decide if it’s something that I could sell…

If time, place and money are no object, who is the one person or character you’d like to have dinner with…and why?Jane Austen

I’d love to have dinner with Jane Austen, after she’d spent a bit of time in 2016 – I would love to hear her take on this modern world!

Want to get up close and personal with one of Canada’s top literary agents? Come to our fall retreat, Turning Leaves 2016.

Hilary is our special retreat guest, joining us for meals, evening chats and sharing insights and expertise in a Saturday morning workshop on catching and holding an agent’s attention. She’ll also review Turning Leaves 2016 participants’ query letters in advance and hold private one-on-one feedback sessions.

 

One Day I Will Write About This

One Day I Will Write About This

Guest blogger: Erin Silver

When my husband left me to be with another woman — when he confessed he was in love with someone else — there wasn’t much I could say. But I do remember telling him one thing: One day I will write about this.

fist-bump-1195446_640At first, I couldn’t write about my experience. The feelings were too raw. The emotions too heightened. I had no perspective on what had happened to me and what it meant in the grand scheme of my life. If I had tried to write about my divorce when the process began four years ago, it would have been an angry jumble of words. Words I may have regretted sharing one day.

Something told me it was time

But within two years, I was ready. Something clicked inside of me. Something told me it was time. By then, I was no longer angry. I had grown as a person and a writer. And suddenly I had a story to tell; a story about someone who was betrayed and bewildered, left to start life over from scratch. Someone who had to rediscover herself and find a way to become happy for the sake of her young boys.

strategise-865006_640I had worked through some real lows with my therapist and eventually came to realize that I wasn’t actually worthless and unloveable. Among the lows were some really bad dates and the feeling that I might never find love again. That was a terrifying thought: not knowing how my story would end or if the eventual ending would be happy. But there were some highs, too: taking my boys on a road trip all by myself, being accepted into a Masters of Fine Art in Creative Nonfiction program, meeting someone special and watching our kids grow to care for one another. I wouldn’t trade these experiences for anything.

Sharing my story

interior-design-1048090_640I began scouring my brain for different angles, different facets of my story to share with new audiences. I pitched certain ideas to certain editors, and I followed up and followed up and followed up until I began selling pieces.

I wrote about taking my son to therapy for Todays Parent, co-parenting for the Globe and Mail and going back to school for the Toronto Star. I pitched a blog, A Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce, to UrbanMoms.ca and write regularly about my everyday experiences. Before I knew it, I had developed a portfolio of articles and blogs related to divorce, single parenting and co-parenting. I’m now writing an intimate and even funny “foodoir” (memoir plus food) about the last four years of my life.

It’s not necessarily been cathartic, as you might think. I’d prefer to describe it as a mandatory part of my existence. I can’t explain it or rationalize it. It’s not like I want to talk about it; I want to move on. I don’t want to confess my private life to people I’ve never met; it’s not pleasant dredging up memories and feelings I wish I’d never experienced. When I get into the thick of it, it’s actually quite painful. I write as I cry and I cry as I write. But I’m drawn to it not because it’s fun, because I have any interest in bashing my ex, or hanging onto the past. No, it’s just something I must do.

Because if I, a writer, don’t write about it, then everyone else going through the same thing will erroneously believe they are alone.peas-580333_1920

It’s how I felt when it happened to me. Like nobody understood my pain or suffering. Like I was the only one who was ever cheated on, betrayed, and divorced; who had to date after being dumped, put my life back together, and manage as a single mother. If I write about it — all aspects of my journey, my innermost feelings and thoughts — someone else might realize that things happen for a reason and that you must rise above challenges, face disappointments head on, to get to a better place. It’s truly what keeps me going.

Writing your experience

If you feel drawn to a particular or painful topic, like me, here are a few tips that can help you write about it:

  • Wait until you’re ready. Don’t rush the process.
  • Keep a journal, then refer to it later.
  • Take the time to reflect on your experience, even if it’s painful.
  • Be honest with yourself. Is that really how you felt?
  • Don’t hold back. If you’re uncomfortable with what you’ve written or feel too exposed, you can always edit it later.
More about Erin:

erin silverErin Silver is a writer, editor and blogger with work in Good Housekeeping, The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, Today’s Parent, Chatelaine, ParentsCanada, Best Health and Clean Eating magazine, among others. Her blog, “A Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce,” appears on UrbanMoms.ca. Erin also blogs for the HuffingtonPost.ca. She is currently pursuing her Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction at King’s College in Halifax and writing her first book, Burnt: Cooking My Way Through Divorce.

Find Your Way to First Place

Find Your Way to First Place

Dorothea Helms, a.k.a. The Writing Fairy.

Writescape shares sage advice from award-winning humour writer and writing contest judge and administrator, Dorothea Helms, on entering and winning writing contests. Dorothea offers her special branch of magic and insider insights in The Top Drawer.

Winning writing contests is one of the most exciting things I’ve experienced during my career. In addition to validation for my writing from an objective source, the wins have brought money, publication, plaques, prizes and prestige. Oh, and surprise. I once came in third place in a poetry contest with a submission that didn’t begin “There once was a …” Contest wins listed on my writer’s CV have also added credibility.

I don’t know of a magic formula for winning (even though I’m The Writing Fairy), but I do have some tips I’d like to share on how to increase your chances.

  1. Be creative in your approach to the contest topic
  2. Follow the rules
  3. Write with abandon, but polish your writing with care
  4. Follow the rules
  5. Enter
  6. Follow the rules

Sound simplistic? For years, I have served as a writing contest judge from local to national levels, and I have run several contests myself. I’m always astounded at the number of entrants who ignore the rules. To be fair to all competitors, contest judges must eliminate those who don’t follow the rules.

Here are some reminders:

Word Count Maximumsnumbers

If the maximum word count is 2,500 and your entry is 2,501, it will be eliminated before it’s even read. I’ve had to axe entries for this mistake many times. What a shame; often, they are brilliant submissions.

 

Published versus Unpublished

If the rules stipulate that the piece has to be original and unpublished, make sure it is. It’s easy for contest administrators to do a Google search for a sentence and find out if it’s on a website somewhere. I’ve done that and found published work that has been entered as unpublished.

Entry Fee

coins-948603_640Many respected writing contests include entry fees. It costs money to run a contest, even when there are volunteers involved. Some journals give you a year’s subscription to their magazine as part of your entry fee. Some give you feedback on your entry. If you choose to submit to a contest with an entry fee, remember to include your payment. This is part of the rules you need to read.

 

Read, Read, Read Those Rules

referee-1149014_640The best way to start following the rules is to read them. In one of my Writing Fairy contests, after I published the names of the ten finalists, one of them contacted me to say he had just read the rules and that his entry had been previously published in a major US newspaper. I had to eliminate his piece, and it took time and effort to figure out who was next in line to take his spot in the top ten.

 

Enter

When it comes to increasing your chances of winning writing contests, the only thing worse than not following the rules is not entering. If you read winning contest entries and think, I can do better than that, then do better than that and send it in.

Oh, and did I mention—follow the rules?

DorotheaRead more about Dorothea Helms, a.k.a. The Writing Fairy, at www.thewritingfairy.com

Want to know more about entering and winning contests? Dorothea Helms teams up with Writescape’s Ruth Walker for Write to Win, a one-day workshop that covers everything from entering, to judging, to winning, to celebrating. Write to Win is a winner of a workshop.

 

Blogging for Authors: Must We?

Blogging for Authors: Must We?

Guest blogger: Kimberly Moynahan

Back in January, this article came through my Twitter stream: Blogging for Authors: Why You Need a Blog and How to Get Started, posted on the Nonfiction Authors Association website. In that article, e-book author Stephanie Chandler recommends that every author have a blog.

She advises you “contact your webmaster” to add a blog to your site; she talks about “keyword concentration”, how blogs are good for SEO and how content is king; she explains how to choose a blogging platform, why you shouldn’t host on a secondary domain and…well…are your eyes glazing over yet?

Here’s the thing: Starting a blog is like joining a gym. Eighty percent of people who begin will not last three months. Okay, I made that number up. But in fact, the realty for bloggers is probably worse. In 2008, a blog search engine company found that of 133 million blogs only 7.4 million had been updated in the last 120 days.

That translates to 95 percent of blogs being essentially abandoned, left to lie fallow on the Web, where they become public remnants of a dream — or at least an ambition — unfulfilled. — Douglas Quenqua, New York Times, June 5, 2009

So before you jump onto the “every author needs a blog” bandwagon, ask yourself if blogging is really for you. Because frankly, having a sad neglected blog is probably worse than not starting one at all.

Here is what you need to be a blogger—

 

A Bit of Technical Abilitycrow with tools

Even if you have a webmaster, she’s only going to set up your site. You still have to put up your own post, format it, add graphics and tags, and publish the thing. It’s not difficult, but if you are the kind of person who gets faint at the idea of formatting an Excel column, you might want to think twice about blogging.

Lion sleepingTime. Lots of it.

Stephanie, in her article, advises that you blog five times a week. It’s good writing practice she says.

First off, no, it’s not. You know as well as I do, if you are dashing off five quick posts a week, you are not practicing good writing. You’re just adding “content” which is great for attracting search engines bots and random strangers, but not so much for engaging readers and impressing publishers.

Blogging five times a week is a herculean task. Even filler posts – YouTube videos and “Wordless Wednesday” images – take effort to pull together. Recruiting guest bloggers helps, but there is work around that as well. And these stopgaps will only entertain your readers for so long. Your audience wants to hear from you.

How much time does blogging take?

My advice to potential bloggers is this: Write your first five posts before you commit. Time yourself from the moment you start thinking about what you’re going to write, to the moment all five are written, formatted for the web, proofed, have catchy titles, and have legal-to-use images with credits and captions.

Now add an hour a week for site maintenance and improvement, another hour for responding to commenters, and fifteen minutes a day (at the very least) for promoting your blog on social media. Now how’s your week shaping up?

Social Media SavvyBees

Blogs cannot live in a vacuum. It will be up to you to find your audience and make them aware of your blog. Sure search engines will find your blog so people will stumble upon it, but you will have to do the real work of alerting your followers and attracting new readers every time you post. This means mastering and diligently usingTwitter, Facebook, and other forms of social media.

Herd sheepSomething Unique to Say

What are you going to blog about? Here’s a subject that could take up a whole post. But in short, if your blog is to rise above the babble of a million author bloggers all doing the exact same thing, you are going to have to deliver something unique.

Rule #1 is reward the faithful for showing up. Your readers are your most valuable promoters. Feed and nurture them accordingly. Talk to them. Give them something they can’t get anywhere else. What that is depends on your target audience – readers, writers, or both.

Rule #2 is that blogging is not all about you, The Author. If you want to connect with your readers, you must show a bit of you, The Person.  No need to throw your entire personal life onto the screen (please), but talking about your passion for 1940s jazz, your daytime job as a dog trainer or the crazy thing that happened at the grocery store this morning goes a long way towards making your readers feel special and welcome.

Thick Skinwalruses

You’re a writer. You’re used to editors pointing out flaws in your manuscripts. You’re used to rejection. You might even be used to negative book reviews (if one ever gets used to that). So already you are stronger than most.

But how are you when your ideas are attacked? How will you respond when your credibility is challenged? When a reader comments (shouts!) in UPPER CASE that you are not worthy of the pixels you are printed on?

If you blog well, your comment section is going to be more than just people heaping praise and thanks upon you. It can become the lifeblood of your blog, an exciting place where people debate and discuss ideas. It can also become a place where people criticize, even attack you.

For instance, these are actual comments from my blog:

Are you on drugs? You clearly lack journalistic skills on top of empathy for life… 

This article is the biggest piece of SHIT I’ve read so far …

I leave them on my site for my own amusement and also so I have great examples for posts like this.

KittensYou have many choices in how to handle individual commenters and your comment sections as a whole – another topic that could fill a post. But the two choices you don’t have if you want to build a vibrant community on your blog, are turning off the comment sections and screaming back in UPPER CASE. (This never goes well.)

Stephanie Chandler is right. Blogging can help you connect with your readers. It can be a way to increase your following and possibly book sales. But so can meeting with book clubs, starting a newsletter, giving workshops, having a Facebook page, engaging on Twitter, posting on Instagram and doing the most important thing of all – finishing your book.

In the end, the answer to “Should I blog” is, it depends.
But the answer to “Must I blog?” is, no.
Read More:

L.L. Barkett: It’s Time for (Many) Experienced Writers to Stop Blogging

Jane Friedman: Reasons to Keep Blogging

Kidlit.com: Do Unpublished Writers Have to Blog?

Huffington Post: 5 Reasons Authors Should Blog

Joe Bunting: What Fiction Authors Really Need to Know About Their Platform

 

All images CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay

BIO

 

Kimberly MoynahanKimberly Moynahan is a freelance science, nature, and interpretive writer. She blogs on the natural sciences, animals, and the writing life on her site Endless Forms Most Beautiful. She has been published in Scientific American’s Best Science Writing Online and WOLVES Magazine. Kim serves on the Leadership Team for Science Borealis, the Canadian science blog network and is a regular blogger for the Canadian Science Writers Association. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.