If there’s a faster, easier way to do something I’m in. I love life hacks. Here are a few computer hacks I’ve collected to make writing and researching easier. Try them. And if you have other hacks to share, tell us about them in the comments.
When writing or editing
Want to find an opposite, a rhyming word, a word for a phrase? Head to Wordhippo.com. They also have translations and pronunciation help.
Paste your finished prose into “Google Translate” and listen to it. Sometimes hearing sentences uncovers clunky bits and mistakes you might not notice by simply looking at it.
If you don’t have a grammar program, try Grammerly or Hemmingwayapp.com to help uncover passive voice, identify adverbs (so you can decide if you have overused them) and give you an overall reading level. (especially useful for non-fiction article writers).
Looking for a special font? Google.com/fonts is a collection of open source fonts, all optimized for the web.
When reviewing, change your font to something you don’t like. It will force you to slow down and read more critically.
Is your research article “Too Long Didn’t Read” or TLDR? Add Chrome’s TLDR free plugin to your browser screen to be one-click away from getting a condensed synopsis/summary view of news, blog posts, and other articles online. The plugin analyzes content and creates four different-length summaries.
The control key also allows you to keyboard commands without stopping typing. Hold down the control key as you hit the shortcut. The keys themselves are also intuitive as they often stand for what you want to do. S for save. P for print, etc. The ones I use all the time are ctrl + f = find and crtl + z = undo.
Here’s a full list:
There you go. Hack away, writer, and see if all this doesn’t make your writing and researching life easier.
I recently heard from a teen writer who was puzzled about self-publishing. She explained that she was on a committee looking at books to recommend to the Forest of Reading summer program at Ontario libraries. She was especially excited about a book from a local writer and presented it to her committee colleagues to review.
The committee agreed the book was really good and moved it forward as a recommended read to the Ontario Library Association (OLA). But my friend was disappointed to receive an email explaining that the book could not be included. The OLA has a policy to only include traditionally published works in that summer program. A novel, no matter how compelling, couldn’t be on the list if it was self-published by the author.
No matter how you feel about self-publishing versus traditionally published books, the OLA’s policy is not out of line with many organizations. And there is a good historical reason for it: vanity presses.
Feeding the Vanity Machine
Not so long ago, some printing companies called themselves publishers. Writers were attracted to those companies that would quickly publish their manuscripts without long waits to hear from an editor and no questions asked. Writers were guaranteed their book would be published…for a fee, of course. But the writers were confident of being able to sell their finished product. And all the money would go to them, not to some agent or publisher. Once they put out a lot of money to the “publisher.”
It seemed like a great idea.
Of course, the inevitable happened to most of those writers. Basements and garages filled up with boxes of books that, once family and friends had been tapped out, couldn’t be sold to strangers.
Not all vanity publications were in vain
There were amazing success stories: David Chilton’s self-published financial advice book The Wealthy Barber has sold over 2,000,000 copies to date. He even mentored sisters Janet and Greta Podleski, and their Looneyspoons cookbook has sold 850,000 copies to date. Many speakers on the “talk circuits” self-publish companion books that sell very well on the strength of their seminars and workshops.
But they were the exception.
In the past five or so years, the winds have shifted for self-published authors. When Terry Fallis won the 2008 Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour forThe Best Laid Plans, and then the 2011 CBC Canada Reads winner, he raised the profile for self-published authors in Canada. Even The Writers’ Union of Canada now accepts memberships from authors of self-published work (applicants must submit their book for review and it must meet professional standards to be accepted.)
It won’t be long before self-published titles are received everywhere with respect.
Make sure your book deserves respect
So you’ve decided to self-publish. Just because you’ve written a great story doesn’t mean it’s ready to go to press. If you truly respect your own work, you need to give it the time and focus it needs and deserves. If you truly respect your reader, ensure that you’re actually giving your reader a great story in great shape. And if you respect yourself as an author, act like you do.
Hire an editor. No, don’t rely on friends or family for this. A professional and skilled editor will help you refine your manuscript to publishable quality: a logical plot, compelling characters and a clean copy for the proofreader. An editor is not concerned with hurting your ego — an editor wants your book to succeed and if that means giving you tough news, well, that’s what will fix this book and make you an even better writer with the next book.
Hire a proofreader. Here you might have friends or family with this skill but understand a proofreader is not just reading your story and looking for oopsies. A proofreader takes a different approach to an editor. A proofreader is looking for transposed numbers. Of chapter headings in slightly different fonts. Of two similar but different spellings of the same name. The things that trick the eye of even the best editor.
Put it into your publishing budget: $800 to $2000 for editing and proofreading.
Things are changing
I’m an assessment volunteer for the Writers’ Union, reading some the self-published books submitted for membership. Some have been pretty darn good.
However, a few have been sadly in need of an editor. And a layout professional. And proofreader. The main criteria for acceptance is “would this book be comparable to a traditionally published book, with evidence of editing and professional appearance/layout?”
More often than not, the answer is yes. And that is heartening.
It means that those vanity presses are not getting as much business. Instead, we see quality book printers who also offer editing services to various levels. We see self-published books from writers who hire editors and proofreaders on their own. We see co-operative publishing ventures, where the cost and profits are shared by the printer and the author, and include editorial supports. That’s a nice balance of respect and a much better business model instead mass printing from unpolished manuscripts.
The publishing world is ever-shifting. How readers access their books is also ever-shifting just as the line between traditional and self-published books is blurring. Ultimately, readers — like my young friend — will set the pace and tone for choosing between those two approaches. And it seems that as long as a book captures a reader’s heart, it won’t matter how it made its way onto the bookshelf.
DID YOU KNOW?
Writescape self-publishes on a regular basis. At our Spring Thaw and Turning Leaves retreats, we prepare a 35-page workbook to support writers on retreat with inspiration, ideas, prompts, tips and helpful information.
When Gwynn and I published Inspiration Station, our “retreat in a paperback”in 2010, we paid for a quality layout and print product. And you can bet that book was edited, proofed and re-proofed before it came off the press.
It’s sold out right now but plans are in the works to bring it out in an electronic version. Stay tuned.
As a writing coach and editor, I often remind writers to trust your reader. This is not reserved for those new to the craft. Even writers with published work under their belt will slip into the world of telling when they should be nudging.
Show vs nudge
We writers hear it all the time: show don’t tell. It’s great advice and it means to write so that you keep readers engaged. Show is all part of a writer’s essential toolkit of Active instead of (ho-hum) passive writing:
use active verbs instead of adverbs
watch for info-packed sentences and unnecessary description
keep characters reacting physically
remove repetition (words, phrases, actions) unless it is important to the story/character
avoid clichés and stereotypes—surprise your reader (and yourself)
But it’s not exactly what I mean with “nudge.” I mean something even more subtle, more layered. Something that moves your writing up the ladder. Something that echoes subconsciously for readers.
Imagine you are writing a book about a teenager who is a soccer star. Alexia has all the usual teen angst of being confident and insecure. Everyone tells her she defends the net like a world cup pro, that The Beautiful Game will be her ticket to success. But Alexia fears that she’s only a soccer star on her high school team and will be revealed as ordinary when she joins the provincial all-stars.
But what is your story really about? The desire to be a soccer star is just what Alexia thinks she wants. What she really wants is for her mother coaching soccer in Europe to come back home and show that her own daughter is more important than her mother’s career.
That deep longing that Alexia won’t even admit to herself is your ticket to “nudge.”
Avoid the Hammer
My Writescape colleague Gwynn often refers to tell as a Hammer (as in, hitting your reader over the head and saying, “Hey reader, are you getting this?”) Like me, she sees missed opportunities for subtle hints or when the supposed hint is as obvious as…well—a hammer to the forehead.
Back to Alexia’s longing. We could have her write in her diary: I miss my mother. I wish she’d come home. Nope. Hammer.
We could have her watch the other mothers cheer for her teammates and wipe wistful tears from her eyes. Nope. Hammer with a Sentimental Whack.
We could have sit with her best friend and talk about it:
“Why are you so upset Alexia?”
“Well Pat, I really miss my mother. With her over in Europe coaching that semi-pro team I just feel so alone here. I don’t have any grandparents or other family except Dad. And he’s busy all the time and really, I think they’re separated and just not telling me. The seasons over there are longer than ours here and I want her to come back before my season ends, to see me play just once.”
Nope. More than a Hammer, this exchange also qualifies as an As You Know Bob moment, where a writer has their character say things the person listening would already know but wants to make sure the reader has all the important information. All. Of. It.
This is a prime example of not trusting the reader to either have already figured it out OR (and this is just as important) have the patience to piece it together as the story moves forward.
Don’t poke your reader in the eye
Let’s go back to Alexia’s longing. Would you give her a mother figure in the new coach of the provincial team? That would be kind of obvious. Besides, Alexia needs to learn about the complications of mothering and find a way to connect with her absent mother.
One way to do this is to make Alexia be a mother-figure. A pet perhaps? Too unlikely. Maybe a new teammate who is even more insecure than Alexia and she nurtures her along? Too obvious and lacking in energy.
What if the provincial team requirement is a certain amount of volunteer work? What if the winter before she leaves for training camp she gets stuck with 6 weeks coaching at an inner city community centre. Despite her initial frustrations and lack of empathy, she forms attachments. And then finally, she has to leave for training camp before “the big game/event” of the community centre. She has to choose between her soccer career and the “support your team” mantra she kept telling her young charges.
Maybe all this helps Alexia see her mother in a different light—the pull between family and career that many women struggle with. Maybe this isn’t the most subtle nudge to keep Alexia’s longing a constant theme. But the point here is that I was nudging you to consider ways in which you can adjust a story—pare it, shape it—and eventually move it into thoughtful territory that nudges readers into deeper engagement with your writing.
It’s actually one of the highest compliments you can give a reader: I trust you to understand what my story is about. And frankly, it’s a lot more interesting to write without a hammer in your back pocket. And, as you know Bob, it’s something I encourage writers to remember.
DID YOU KNOW
Gwynn and Ruth are great writing coaches. It’s been their pleasure to work with writers of all kinds and at all levels. At the next Writescape retreat, Spring Thaw, they get to kick off the retreat with some one-on-one consultation with the writers there. Plus they both provide written feedback for work submitted in advance.
Support. Clear and constructive feedback. And the care and feeding of the writer’s soul that comes at all Writescape retreats. April 20 for 3 days or extend your pen for 5 days.
It’s Writescape’s 10th anniversary and we have lots of excitement planned for writers in 2018. To kick off the celebration, we’ve launched 10 on the 10th. This series of monthly resources will bring tips, advice and inspiration directly to your inbox. Think of it as Gwynn and Ruth sitting on your shoulder and nudging you along. Share with your writing colleagues and encourage them to sign up for more.
Here are your first 10 tips:
1. Get the action going
Replace passive, weak verbs, especially forms of the verb “to be”
Before: It was a dark and stormy night.
After: The storm raged through the blackness.
2. Keep things moving forward by reducing the use of “had”
“Had” refers to “completed’ action. It has no forward movement. Use “had” once or twice at the start of a section/paragraph to establish the time period, then revert to simple past tense.
Before: She had been the only one in the house, and had paid the rent faithfully each month. She had taken care of the place and had put up drapes and painted.
After: She had been the only one in the house, and paid the rent faithfully each month. She took care of the place and put up drapes and painted.
3. Keep the action going
Delete empty words like very/somewhat/really. Energize the word being modified instead.
Before: Despite the very hot afternoon….
After: Despite the afternoon’s sweltering heat…
4. Keep your actions strong; beware the “-ly” adverb
Can you replace it with a stronger active verb?
Before: He went quickly
After: He ran – or dashed, charged, bolted…
5. Change up the senses you use in description.
We default to the sense of sight. Try replacing visual details with ones of another sense.
Before: Anita set the gold-rimmed tea cup on the lace cloth…
After: The tea cup rattled in the saucer as Anita placed it on the lace cloth…
6. Take your reader deeper into the world of the story
Look for named emotions (happy, sad) or physical states (fearful, tired) and replace with concrete and sensory detail.
Before: She felt disappointed
After: She sank onto the bench and hugged her knees
7. Keep your writing fresh
Look for tired and overused clichés. (Microsoft Word’s grammar checker notes clichés with green squiggly lines.) Create visuals that add to the story or your character.
Before: His beard was as white as snow
After: His beard was as white as his lab coat
8. Eliminate repetition. Eliminate repetition.
Identify any “writer’s tic” that you know you have. Phrases, descriptions, gestures and so on, rapidly lose their energy when they are overused or placed too closely together.
How many times do your characters “roll their eyes” or “take a deep breath?”
How many times have your told readers it’s “a red car?”
9. Keep your tricky words tamed
Are there words you constantly mispell…um…misspell? Are you working with strange names or technical terms? Keep them correct and consistent by adding them to your software’s dictionary or AutoCorrect function.
How to: Right click on the word. Choose either Add to dictionary or AutoCorrect
10. Know your country
Is it color or colour? Are they good neighbours or good neighbors? Writing for American readers, Australian readers or British readers? Incorrect spelling won’t please your publisher. Make sure your software is defaulted to the “right” English.
How to: Most MSWord programs have the language default on the bottom info bar. Left click to select your language.
If you found this helpful, let your writing friends know. Share it!
Guest blogger Stephanie Gibeault is a freelance writer with a passion for fiction for young readers. She recently wrote a post for Writescape about the benefits of writing away at the Highlights Foundation’s Pennsylvania retreat. As she promised in that December post, she’s here to share what she learned about getting a novel unstuck:
Whether you call it writer’s block, an empty tank or say your creative well has run dry, every writer has days or weeks when putting words on the page is a challenge. This past summer, I found myself stuck on my middle grade manuscript.
I created a storyboard (on my closet doors) to help me see the flow of the plot, only to discover there were structural issues I hadn’t noticed before. I could see what the problems were, but had no idea how to fix them. Thankfully, I had already signed up for a workshop dedicated to getting unstuck.
Stop spinning your wheels
In my recent guest post, I wrote about my experience at the Highlights Foundation workshop Getting Your Middle Grade Novel Unstuck. I learned many things at the workshop, but the main focus was how to deal with being stuck.
Beginning, middle or end of your story—there are great techniques that can help move you forward. Instructors Chris Tebbetts and Elise Broach armed me with loads of options. And many of them don’t even involve working directly on your manuscript.
The most valuable piece of advice I took away from the workshop: there’s always something you can be doing even if it’s not writing.
Experiment with play
Sometimes, it feels like anything other than writing a new scene is procrastination. That’s simply not the case.
Anything that moves you forward with your writing, builds your skills, increases your familiarity with your characters or fleshes out your plot is a productive and effective use of your time. That’s incredibly liberating.
Discovering your characters
Successful middle grade writers create characters their readers connect with—and characters the writers know inside and out. Chris and Elise offered lots of suggestions to get to know our characters better. Here’s a really effective one for me:
Create a chart with a column for a character’s self-perception and a column for how they are seen by others.
The two columns are those perceptions that are true or accurate and those that are false. This provides insight into your character’s psyche – what they hide from others and what they hide from themselves.
HOW BOB SEES SELF
HOW OTHERS SEE BOB
Cute but annoying
Makes light of tough situations
Journal as your character. Get at their innermost thoughts, motivations and goals.Other ways of getting in touch with your characters include:
Fill out a questionnaire or survey as one of your characters. How do they answer differently than you or another character would?
Write about a character’s perfect day. What makes him or her happy?
Create a character profile with details like hair colour, favourite movie and best friend. The more details the better.
Write a letter to yourself from a character about what you are getting right and wrong about him or her in your manuscript.
Stretch some more!
I learned how writing prompts helped uncover details about our characters and plots. I thought it would be limiting because I’d have to go in a particular direction rather than letting my creativity flow.
I was amazed. Forced to explore areas I might otherwise have ignored, I answered questions not directly related to my story but essential to understanding it. Simple questions like, “What does this character want?” or “Why do I love this story?” gave me a great start.
ReVision to move forward
Editing can be as radical as starting from scratch and rewriting a scene entirely from memory. You’ll likely retain your favourite parts while stumbling onto some new descriptions, dialogue and directions at the same time. With track changes in your word processor, it’s easy to compare the two versions, choosing the best sections to keep.
Or be more conservative and only delete what isn’t completely necessary. Decide what, if any, details need to go back in and what the reader never needed in the first place.
One of my favourite suggestions was when Chris told me to rewrite a section of my manuscript in first person point of view. The purpose was not to rewrite my entire manuscript, (although that is exactly what I will do), but to get me deeper into my main character’s head.
I couldn’t believe the difference it made. No longer hovering over my story, now saw it through my protagonist’s eyes. Changing point of view, or even tense (from past to present, for example), allows you to approach your narrative from a different angle and that can be all you need.
No more excuses
With so many available options, I no longer have any reason to be stuck. Or to use the phrase “writer’s block”. If you’re feeling stuck with a writing project, consider trying some of these suggestions.
Remember to take advantage of workshops and retreats to help propel you forward. My experience at Highlights sure made a difference for me.
Did You Know
Are you stuck? Writescape retreats offer the perfect space to stretch your writing skills, re-imagine your work in new and exciting ways and the safety you need for full-throated expression. Spring Thaw is already half full of eager and focused writers like you, ready to give focus to their work.
Join us for an all-inclusive escape on the shores of Rice Lake. Elmhirst’s Resort boasts cozy fully equipped cottages with fireplaces, private bedrooms and gorgeous sunrise lake views. All you need is your jammies, toothbrush and writing materials; writers at all levels are welcome. Choose either a 3-day or 5-day retreat.April 20-24.
Excerpt from “Shooter”, award-winning Young Adult novel by Caroline Pignat:
I meet his eyes. Hold them for a moment. “Thanks…Hogan.” He shrugs it off like it’s no big deal. But it is, for me, it’s huge.
“Okay–but your brother is definitely dead,” Xander blurts at Hogan. “That I know because–.”
“Xander!” Isabelle cuts him off. “Geeze, don’t you have a filter?”
“No.” Confused, he looks down at his camera. “I never use one. I’d rather see things as they really are.”
We sit in awkward silence, looking everywhere but at each other.
“He’s right. It’s true.” Hogan lets out a deep breath. “It’s been two years. I should be able to at least say it.”
But he doesn’t.
Xander tilts his head and stares at Hogan. “But it’s true that you killed him?”
In fiction, well-crafted dialogue like Pignat‘s can take my breath away. But what if your dialogue is so over-written, unrealistic or dull that your reader wants your characters to stop breathing? Or at least, stop talking.
I get to read a lot of dialogue from writers at all stages of their writing career. For example, I read and assess self-published works from potential members of a national writers’ organization. I’m also a coach and editor working closely with writers seeking to polish their manuscripts. And I teach workshops that focus on crafting excellent dialogue in fiction.
I’ve read some fantastic and engaging dialogue. And I’ve read dialogue that felt like listening to someone recite the nutritional contents of a milk carton. Believe me, you want the words your characters speak to be fantastic and engaging. No 19% of vitamin D for you.
Dialogue has work to do
I’m always surprised when writers miss opportunities to make dialogue work for them. Dialogue is not filler, nor is it secondary. It’s a multi-tasking powerhouse and writers would be wise to remember that.
But even more important, there are technical effects that support and enhance your story. The following are just a few examples of the potential for spoken words:
propel your narrative forward with action: “Get up! They’re swarming the gates.”
foreshadow, suggest, nudge: “Are you sure the doors are all locked?”
establish setting, time, era: “Mistress, your limbs are showing ‘neath your petticoat!”
convey emotional state: “Every time I look at you, I see her, alive again.”
highlight personality/idiosyncrasies: “Beans can’t never touch meat on my plate. I won’t eat it!”
establish culture/social background: “Ach lass, will you no’ be getting down from there?”
The art of character-speak
If we wrote dialogue like true, normal conversations, we wouldn’t have readers. Most real life conversations are a jumbled mess, peppered with ums, ers and ahs, interruptions, half-finished sentences and the shorthand of shared experiences.
For readers, dialogue is the illusion of active listening, of looking from person to person as a conversation unfolds. Readers also enjoy an increase in white space to ‘rest’ their eyes. Conversations create the dynamic that excites readers and keeps the story moving forward.
The job of the writer is to put words in the mouths of our characters and make it all sound natural while making sure it does some of that multi-tasking work we want it to produce.
Here are two approaches to consider.
1. Take out words to give a more natural flow. Start with a basic conversation.
“Did you see that cat get run over by the bus?”
“What cat are you talking about?”
“Frank’s old tabby cat, Tibby.”
“I didn’t see a thing. I guess Frank will be a mess.”
By taking out a word here and there, and giving a bit of a tic to one of the speakers, we also get a bit more flesh on the character.
“You see that cat get runned over by the bus?”
“Frank’s ol’ cat, Tibby.”
“Didn’t see a thing. Guess Frank’ll be a mess.”
2. Use surprise or the unexpected to up the tension. Real life is often surprising when our conversations with a neighbour or colleagues go off to places we didn’t expect. Do the same thing in your dialogue because there is nothing like potential conflict to tempt your reader.
“Janice? It is you.”
“It’s so good to run into you, Andrea. You look amazing.”
“Why did you hide him from me?”
Knowing when to bring in dialogue
If there is a formula for when and where to use dialogue, I’d love to know what it is. I can say this much: When I look over my fiction, I see that I use dialogue most often when I need to raise the stakes or create conflict or tension in the story.
I don’t mean that the “conflict” or “tension” needs to be dramatic verbal combat. There are gradations and shades to tension and conflict, so sometimes that means being subtle in how I construct those conversations between characters.
Brushstrokes can be more effective than a gallon of paint. With those big scenes of a major reveal or emotion, I will often default to dialogue. But I also use dialogue for subtext and quiet discoveries.
Choosing to write scenes primarily through dialogue, action or narrative, is intuitive for most writers. But when looking at your second or third drafts, pay attention to where you’ve made those choices.
It could be that what you’ve shared in a long, explanatory passage of mostly narrative just might be better delivered through conversations between your characters.
Did You Know?
We were recently asked what a writing coach does. A writing coach supports writers at different stages of the creative process. At Writescape, we often work with writers who just want to know if they are on the right track.
Sometimes a writer needs help with specific techniques like Point of View, dialogue or story structure. And sometimes, a discouraged writer just needs someone to prompt or encourage them.
Coaching services should be tailored to your unique needs and timetable. Writescape’s coaching services combine online, mail and telephone or in-person communications — depending on geographic, time and similar circumstances.
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.
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.
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.
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.
DID YOU KNOW
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.
Seems like a simple question, but increasingly these days it can be confusing. Genres not only have subgenres, but subgenres have sub-subgenres: Steampunk is a sub genre of science fiction (or science fantasy) but steampunk itself has sub genres like steamgoth, gaslight romance, clockpunk and dieselpunk.
Then of course, you have the age cross-overs and cross-genres like paranormal romance, crime fantasy, or action comedy.
The mind boggles.
Why does knowing your genre matter?
Initially, it doesn’t matter. When you begin your first draft, story is key and the story will land in the genre it fits best. But once that draft is done, knowing your genre is important. You’ll need to know so you can fine tune your manuscript and pitch it to the right agent or publisher.
It’s a marketing issue. How many places will your book fit? Knowing your genre shows a better understanding of the market, which can only help your submission. If you don’t know where your book fits, you’re saying you don’t know your target audience.
We all like to think that our book is unique, but the reality is, if we can correctly categorize it, readers can access it and agents and publishers will know immediately whether it potentially fits their market.
Genre and editing
And because knowing genre is a marketing issue, it becomes an editing issue, so you can mould your submission to fit publishing needs and reader expectations.
Let’s take the crime/mystery genre as an example and the typical “dead body”. In a cosy mystery, your readers will expect to spend a few chapters meeting the inhabitants of a cosy community and getting to know the protagonist and her friends before the “dead body” is discovered. The actual killing will be off stage. In a police procedural mystery, the “dead body” is there by the end of chapter one. Readers may even witness the murder. It will be important to follow real police investigative and forensic procedures.
Some publishers have well-defined expectations that can help tremendously at this editing stage. Harlequin, the world’s largest publisher of romance, provides clear, detailed guidelines on their website for each of their genre imprints, from the word count to the level of sexual content.
So what is my genre?
Genre definitions are constantly changing and evolving, but you have to start somewhere.
1. Prepare a book jacket blurb
Once the first draft is done, prepare a book jacket blurb (the paragraphs on the back cover that entice readers to buy because they answer the question “What is this book about?”.) Writing the jacket blurb helps to distill the thrust of the story: the conflict, the stakes and the character arc.
It also helps define what genre it is, because it focuses on the main thread of the story.
2. Define the main genre
With your book jacket blurb in hand, you have your main dominant story thread. Use that main thread to define the main genre. For instance, if your book involves a mystery and a romance, is the dominant story thread a classic “who done it” with a bit of romance thrown in for character growth? (mystery) Or is it really about a relationship blossoming between two people who happen to be solving a mystery together? (romance)
Here’s a list of some of the main genres to get you started:
Action/Adventure — epic journeys, lots of conflict/pursuit, high stakes, some violence.
Crime/Mystery — stories that involve solving a crime, usually a murder.
Fantasy —magic, other worlds, myths and mythological/mystical figures.
Historical — fictional characters and events in an historical setting
Horror— stories that invoke dread or fear.
Thriller/Suspense — harm/danger about to befall a person or group and the attempts to evade the harm/danger, high tension.
Sci-fi —impact of technology, aliens, science-related alternative worlds, often futuristic
Women’s fiction — stories about women experiencing emotional growth
Nail down the age group your book is aimed at: children, young adult, new adult or adult. If your manuscript appeals to more than one group, you have an age cross-over. (Think Harry Potter (children/adult) or Hunger Games (YA/adult).)
Imagine your ideal reader. If you were that reader looking for your book, where would you look? Again, focus on the main narrative thread. Is your ideal reader looking for a romance with a bit of mystery thrown in, or are they problem solvers who like mysteries and might like some relationship stuff thrown in?
Ask your beta readers where they would expect to find your book. Ask your critique group. Tell other writers your blurb and then ask them, “What section of a bookstore would you look in to find my book?”
4. Visit a book store
Go to a bricks & mortar bookstore or hop on the Net. Identify half a dozen books similar to yours and find where they are shelved. Go to Goodreads and check the Listopia recommendations for your main genre, like “Best Science Fiction.” That will lead you to the sub-genres like “Best Steampunk Books.” Read the blurbs on the back covers. Does your book jacket blurb follow a similar pitch?
One way to do this is to have two windows open, one on Amazon and the other on Goodreads. Read the blurb on Goodreads and then search the book on Amazon to see its classification.
I always like the section below the “purchase” button with the phrase “People who bought this also bought….” It’s a great way to find other novels that are categorized the same way. Could your book fit here?
Still not sure?
You’re fine as long as you know your main genre and reader age. Agents will be able to spot a crossover even if you haven’t mentioned it. If your query letter has a good hook and good comparables, the sub-genre will be apparent to them.
However, the time you spend on defining your genre will help you make a better connection between your story and your reader. And your well-crafted blurb will be ready for those moments when someone (maybe an agent or publisher) asks “So what are you writing?”
DID YOU KNOW?
Vicki Delany, our guest at this year’s fall retreat, Turning Leaves 2017, writes in several subgenres of the crime/mystery genre. As Eva Gates she writes the cosy Lighthouse series, and as Vicki Delany she writes a Police Procedural series featuring Constable Molly Smith.
The writer in the attic garret, a single candle barely illuminating the page, the scratchscratchscratch of the pen crossing the paper. Is this your idea of the writer’s lonely life?
Well, not this writer. Yes, the act of writing is solitary. And some of us do isolate ourselves for short periods of uninterrupted time. Sometimes, even with a candle or two. But eventually, even the most private of writers needs to surface and find readers. Because, with few exceptions, that is what writers crave: a connection to others through the writing.
At a recent workshop, one writer asked the others if they wrote with an audience in mind. The answers were as varied as the participants. Some start out with an “ideal reader” in their head; some brought in the idea of a reader later on, the second or third edit, for example. But we all agreed that eventually we work with the concept of someone actually looking at our words.
An agent. An editor. Readers.
So you have the final draft of your manuscript. Seeking publication and submitting our work is a challenge at best and often, it borders on terrifying. Surely there’s a simple way to feel more confident when you press the SEND button.
I belong to a fairly intense critique group: Critical ms. That intrepid bunch has saved my writerly bacon many times as they gave feedback on chapters and scenes every few weeks. And over the past summer, they all read my final draft manuscript. I know I’m lucky to have them; critique groups rarely look at the complete work.
So what if you don’t have a Critical ms in your life? You have the manuscript in hand, hoping to catch a publisher’s attention. And you want feedback from readers. Here’s where beta readers come in. They are not copy editors or proofreaders. Instead, they will read that entire manuscript and give you a reader’s response.
How to find beta readers
Beta readers often read your work for no charge. But some charge a fee. Decide in advance how you will ask for the favour or if you will pay experienced beta readers for the service. If you decide on paid readers, make sure you ask for and get recommendations on their past performance.
Connect with beta readers through networking, word-of-mouth opportunities and social media:
Workshops and conferences for writers are great places to meet other writers working at the craft, just like you. They can be your beta readers or connect you with their beta readers.
Offer to be a beta reader: give and you can receive. Besides, a wise writer learns from reading others’ writing.
Tell friends and family members you are looking for beta readers (proceed with caution: feedback from people you know and care about can be more emotionally energized than you realize.)
Connect through writing blogs, reader/fan-fiction websites, social media such as Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook. You can let others know you want beta readers through these platforms.
Be open to readers who are unfamiliar with your genre or topic. They might ask questions and see things that others gloss over when they read your work.
How to treat a beta reader
Once you find a beta reader or two, let them know what you expect. And give them the tools they need to do that.
Don’t offer a rough manuscript to beta readers:
A polished manuscript is properly formatted: page numbers, chapter headings/numbers, 2-inch margins, double-spacing and indented paragraphs.
Work hard yourself first to ensure few typos, grammar glitches and logic slips
Imagine your beta readers talking with others: I just read this really confusing book. I couldn’t make sense of the timelines and the characters were just so flat…
Ask yourself:Is this draft complete and ready for readers?
Present your manuscript professionally:
Have your polished draft ready in both electronic and hard copy formats.
Some want to read it more “book style” — 2 pages per sheet, landscape format; some want it in manuscript format (see point #1)
If they want a hard copy, be prepared to print it: don’t expect them to pay for the printing.
Ask your reader:How do you want to read this?
Give your readers guidance:
Offer at least a cover page, outlining what you are looking for, such as: plot glitches, slow sections, any confusions, characters that don’t connect with the reader, etc.
Prepare a checklist if that is simpler for you and your reader, but leave lots of room for comments and questions.
Encourage your reader: I welcome any and all criticisms and suggestions, and appreciate your time in reading my book. Don’t worry about hurting my feelings.
Use beta readers to help with your query or marketing:
You can include positive comments from your readers in your query letter. But keep it really brief and professional: Beta readers offered excellent feedback that helped refine the final draft.
If you’re self-publishing, a snippet of praise on the back cover or inside can help sell your book.
Example:A fast-paced and exciting thriller… A timeless love story that kept me reading to the end…
Say thank you:
Send a personal note following up after they give you their feedback.
When your book is published, it may be appropriate to thank your readers inside.
Ask:I’d like to recognize your help. Can I mention your name in my acknowledgement page?
Remember:A beta reader is not there to feed your ego. Don’t take the comments personally. Perhaps you don’t agree; reading is subjective, after all. But always say thank you, nonetheless.
And if you are getting comments or questions from more than one reader on the same topic, perhaps you need to rethink your opinion. This just might save you from having an editor or agent ask you the very same questions.
DID YOU KNOW?
Mark Coker of Smashwords, the highly successful e-book distributor, has a few things to say about beta readers. He and his wife used a specific process for their novel Boob Tube to ensure their beta readers had the right tools to respond. He shared some great tips in Publishers Weeklyonline.
Do you use beta readers? Let us know about your experience.