A Writer’s Listening Skills

A Writer’s Listening Skills

Ruth E. Walker

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

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

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

Hearing is believing

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

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

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

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

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

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

I beg your pardon

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

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

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

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

Solitary craft still needs the world

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Rinse and repeat

Rinse and repeat

Gwynn Scheltema

Okay, I know; I know. New Year is yelling out “GOALS” and “RESOLUTIONS”, and no one really wants to hear it, least of all me. But when I got to thinking about it, I realized I have a few ongoing goal-setting and goal-achieving tools in place already. And they work! So I thought I’d share them with you.

Little and often

While I’m a great supporter of having big long-term goals and a vision of where you want to go in life, I find that sometimes the big picture can be overwhelming. I believe that those big concepts should be the background canvas on which you paint in the details as you go—and re-paint them if you choose.

The writing critique group I belong to understands this perfectly. We meet every two weeks and at the end of each meeting we all set a writing goal for the next two weeks only. We each set our own goal depending on what we are working on at the time and what is happening in our lives.

We encourage specificity— “5000 words” or “edit 3 chapters” or “fill plot hole in Chapter 7 or “four meaningful bum-in-chair sessions”. At the next meeting if we miss our goal, we pay up to a charity fund. But we also encourage life balance. It’s okay to not set a goal if your life dictates. We also recognize that sometimes “thinking about” a plot or character qualifies as long as sooner or later that turns into “writing about.”

This system works because it is frequent, achievable, and there is accountability. Small goals and small successes that add up over time.

Eat that Frog

Mark Twain once said that if you start the day by eating a frog you will have the satisfaction of knowing that this was probably the worst thing you had to do that day. The frog is a metaphor for your biggest and most important task of the day and has become a popular procrastination-busting technique.

When I’m trying to avoid that “frog”, I play solitaire, disappear into social media or sort the kitchen junk drawer or….. I’m sure you have equally pointless—and time consuming—avoidance tactics.

Learning the skill of attacking the most important task first (writing related or not) and getting it out of the way frees you up. You’ll have more time, less guilt and a clear mind to be creative. It’s a skill that helps you accomplish whatever you set as your priorities—including your goals.

It does take practice, but like anything in life, the more you consciously do it, the easier it becomes. Most writers can perform to a deadline. Perhaps putting your own deadline on your “frogs” will help?


Make your bed

Now this may seem contradictory to the “eat the frog” principle, but getting through your to-do list and achieving your goals begins with making your bed.

Your mom probably drilled that in to you, but the idea came back into popularity with Navy SEAL Admiral McRaven’s speech to grads in 2014: “If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed. If you make your bed every morning, you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task, and another, and another.”

All I know, it works for me.

Your frog for today

So there you have it.

Today, go make your bed, then sit down and decide on a reasonable achievable goal to be accomplished within the next two weeks. Then break it down into what needs to be done first, and then next, and next after that….

Tomorrow, make your bed, look to see what is #1 on that list and eat that frog.

Day after tomorrow, eat frog #2

Rinse and repeat…rinse and repeat…


A writing retreat is a great way to focus on your writing projects and goals and registration for Writescape’s Spring Thaw 2018 is now open, and already half full.

This all-inclusive writing retreat is held at the fabulous Elmhirst’s Resort on Rice Lake in Keene. Stay for the weekend or treat yourself to an extra two days of writing.

    • 10-page manuscript evaluation with written feedback from Ruth and Gwynn
    • one-on-one manuscript consultation with either Gwynn or Ruth
    • private writing time
    • optional daytime creativity sessions to fire up your pen
    • a companion workbook with inspiration, prompts and supports
    • optional evening activities to network and share ideas and inspiration with retreat colleagues
    • comfortable cottages with wood-burning fireplace
    • first-class amenities and delicious meals

Brochure-Spring Thaw-2018

Winter’s Here

Winter’s Here

It’s winter. Ah yes. There’s no escaping it, but guest blogger Felicity Sidnell Reid sees it as a chance to indulge in books. And she tells us how a particular book turned a cold day into a warm experience.

Felicity Sidnell Reid

When the wind is whipping snow around my garden and even my dog is reluctant to brave the cold outside, it’s time to read without guilt. 

My Christmas, this year, has been filled with books. And the weather is cooperating, encouraging me to stay home and read… and read.

An intimate conversation


Dancing Fish and Ammonites: A MemoirAt present I am perusing Penelope Lively’s memoir, Dancing Fish and Ammonites. Penelope Lively is the author of 17 novels, 3 collections of short stories and several memoirs. She won the Booker Prize for Moon Tiger (1987) and has been awarded many other honours.

Dancing Fish and Ammonites is full of insights for writers, as well as, a passionate defence of reading and books.Its discursive nature demands such attention. Written when she was 80, she reflects, in a series of essays, on Old Age, her Life and Times, Memory, Reading and Writing, and Six “Things”.

Her book is not a chronological narrative, but more of a conversation, which bewitches the reader into silent — or sometimes out-loud debate. I found myself commenting, questioning, agreeing and disagreeing as though she were sitting across from me by a flickering fire, surrounded by her personal library of books—which seemed a little odd because Penelope Lively is not a cosy author.

Sympathetic to the human condition, in her fiction she creates complicated, engaging characters with a masterful brush and brings her narratives to a satisfying conclusion. But a certain detachment and a satiric eye also contribute to the style of her writing. Not surprising then that her memoir turns out to be an examination of the ideas that have shaped her life, rather than a chronicle of it— but, though I’ve finished the book, I still don’t know how she made this discussion so intimate.

A tethered life


Lively has always been deeply interested in time, memory and context. “A lifetime is embedded; it does not float free; it is tethered to certain decades, to places, to people…” Though she read history at University, she has had a life-long interest in archeology. Artefacts and the physical evidence of the past which she examined in The Presence of the Past; An Introduction to Landscape History (Harper Collins, 1979) as well as personal and contextual history, have inspired much of her writing.

She explains that, “age, memory, time and this curious physical evidence of what I’ve been up to—how reading has fed into writing” are the topics of this meditation on her life.

Lively writes passionately about the importance of memory, both individual and collective. Of collective memory she says, “We all need…the ballast of the past, a general past, the place from which we came.” The study of history enables us to see ourselves as part of a narrative; the “understanding of time and a respect for memory…” prevent us from being “afloat, untethered.”

A mass of lurking material


She explores the operation of memory, and how it affects people, in her novels. “You can make lavish use of it, allowing it to direct what happens or simply evoke what has once happened to flesh out a character, or give added meaning to what a person does or thinks. It is the essential secret weapon for a novelist.”

And personal memory is a “mass of lurking material” which frequently inspires or colours one’s fiction. “Time itself maybe inexorable, indifferent, but we can personalize our own little segment; this is where I was, this is what I did.” So is it memory which makes us who we are?

Books are a central part of the writing experience


Then Lively considers the importance of reading and how that has shaped her life. Living, always, in a house full of books, she knows that the “inferno of language” sitting on her shelves, is sorted by the mind; much is discarded, forgotten, but a “significant amount, becomes, that essential part of us—what we know and understand and think about above and beyond our own immediate concerns. It has become the life of the mind.

What we have read makes us what we are…” A survey of a lifetime’s eclectic reading illustrates how it refines a writer’s taste and allows the exploration of a myriad of possibilities. She recalls the wonder of wandering in libraries, of how the “reading of a lifetime—has been [a] marriage of the fortuitous and the deliberate, with the random, the maverick choices tipping the scale and serving up, invariably, the prompts for what would next be written.” This is not to say that writing is a direct response to what we read for it may be years before it becomes the prompt for a story or a novel.

She concludes that we write fiction out of “every aspect of experience” but as far as she’s concerned, “books are a central part of that experience…” Her fear in old age is that, one day, she may not be able to read or keep her books around her, that she may lose her “familiar, eclectic” collection that “hitches me to the wider world; that has freed me from the prison of myself; that has helped me to think, and to write.”

Leap out of your own timeframe


In her final chapter, Lively returns to the topic of identity. In picking out six objects she values and which “articulate something of who I am” she gives the reader another look at herself, the interests of a lifetime and how her imagination works.

None of the “six things” is of great monetary value, but each object, lovingly described, provokes recollections, associations and is a “vivid, tangible reminder of people who have been here before, making things, and using them and discarding them…” for, from ammonites to a sherd of pottery, decorated with dancing fish, these objects have enabled her to make “imaginative leaps out of [her] own timeframe and into other places—places where things were done differently.”

Meet our guest blogger – Felicity Sidnell Reid

Felicity Sidnell Reid is an author, poet, artist and broadcaster. Her historical novel Alone: A Winter in the Woods was published in 2015. She is a co-host on the radio program “Word on the Hills” on Northumberland 89.7FM .



Title picture of cardinals courtesy of Anne Sidnell

When we came from away

When we came from away

Gwynn Scheltema

The first blizzard of the season descended a few weeks ago, but it didn’t matter. I was in the company of heart-warming people from all over the world and their stories.

We were gathered at the Art Gallery of Northumberland for the official launch of 150 Stories and Images of Arrival. This book of immigrant stories and photographs was a Canada 150 project undertaken by Northumberland County, Ontario and I was privileged to be part of it.

The call for submissions asked for first- or second-generation immigrants in Northumberland County to identify a memento brought to Canada from the immigrant’s birthplace that represented the intersection between a former way of life and a new beginning as each individual integrated into a new community. Then to tell the story of that memento’s symbolism in the transition.

A gift from the past

The objects chosen by the contributors ran the gamut of wooden carvings to a chess set; from a mason’s picks to a hand-made hammered brass coffee pot; from a document of Settlers’ Effects to a framed record of a family tree going back seven generations to 1730.

Some of the accompanying stories were tragic, some amusing, some incredible. But all of them spoke to the importance of connection and family and an overwhelming gratitude for the chance to live in Canada.

It wasn’t the object itself that had value, but its connections to the past—and the present. For the people in that room, the opportunity to live here in Canada was the greatest gift.

A little green frog

I am a person deeply affected by landscape. I need a connection to the earth wherever I go. So for my memento, I chose a small green frog sculpted by my mother.

My mother is an artist, so a piece of her art became a connection to family left behind. The frog sculpture also represented a connection to the African landscape as well as the new Canadian landscape I have come to love.

A humbling experience

The whole process of choosing my symbolic object and then writing the story of how it had formed a transition from one period of my life to another was humbling. I was forced to strip way so many layers, to decide what was important to me—then and now.

It confirmed, as I said before, the importance of family and connection. It confirmed that my decision to leave what I knew and loved for the unknown was a good decision. It confirmed that Canada has indeed become my home. And it confirmed that safety, hope and peace trump any item that you could possibly find under a Christmas tree.

The Canada 150 year has had its controversy, but it has also sparked a lot of creative efforts and brought a lot of people together. And hopefully, it has reminded all of us what a wonderful country we live in. As Joni Mitchell so rightly said, “You don’t know what you’ve got. Till it’s gone.” So this Christmas perhaps give a thought to gratitude not so much for what is or isn’t under the tree, but for what you already have.


The exhibit ‘When We Came From Away’ is being featured from November 10th to December 31st at the Art Gallery of Northumberland, located in Victoria Hall, 55 King Street West, Cobourg. For more information:  www.ArtGalleryOfNorthumberland.com.



Paying It Forward: Writers’ Karma

Paying It Forward: Writers’ Karma

Ruth E. Walker

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

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

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

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

Making the difference

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

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

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

Spread the support

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

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

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

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

More than feeling “good”

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

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

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

Did You Know

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

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

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

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

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

Places that support writers:

Literacy programs:

Honouring Ruth Walker

Honouring Ruth Walker

Ruth E. Walker

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

PHOTO: John Nordell / The Christian Science Monitor

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

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

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

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

Adding ink to your porridge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Power in a name

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

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

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

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

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

Taking on the power

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

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

Did You Know?

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

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

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

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.



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


Gardening with words

Gardening with words

Gwynn Scheltema

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

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

I’m addicted

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

Let it speak

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

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

 Work with what you have

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

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

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

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

Don’t throw good bits away

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

Give to get

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

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

Tend and nurture

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

Dare to be different

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


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

Reading outside your genre

Reading outside your genre

Gwynn Scheltema

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

Books that move me

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

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

Broadening my reading horizons

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

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

What I learned from the books that found me

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other reasons to read out of your usual genre

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

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

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

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

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


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