Go Bravely, Pioneer!

Go Bravely, Pioneer!

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

*******

A.B. Funkhauser

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

So much more than words

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

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

Pioneering the next wave

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

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

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

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

What is brand?

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

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

Making connections develops “cred”

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

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

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

Seven years or five books

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

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

Go bravely, Pioneer.

Shine.

 

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

Twitter https://twitter.com/iamfunkhauser

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

 

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.

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.

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.

DID YOU KNOW

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.

 

 

What Genre do You Write?

What Genre do You Write?

Gwynn Scheltema

Seems like a simple question, but increasingly these days it can be confusing. Genres not only have subgenres, but subgenres have sub-subgenres: Steampunk is a sub genre of science fiction (or science fantasy) but steampunk itself has sub genres like steamgoth, gaslight romance, clockpunk and dieselpunk.

Then of course, you have the age cross-overs and cross-genres like paranormal romance, crime fantasy, or action comedy.

The mind boggles.

Why does knowing your genre matter?

Initially, it doesn’t matter. When you begin your first draft, story is key and the story will land in the genre it fits best. But once that draft is done, knowing your genre is important. You’ll need to know so you can fine tune your manuscript and pitch it to the right agent or publisher.

It’s a marketing issue. How many places will your book fit? Knowing your genre shows a better understanding of the market, which can only help your submission. If you don’t know where your book fits, you’re saying you don’t know your target audience.

We all like to think that our book is unique, but the reality is, if we can correctly categorize it, readers can access it and agents and publishers will know immediately whether it potentially fits their market.

Genre and editing

And because knowing genre is a marketing issue, it becomes an editing issue, so you can mould your submission to fit publishing needs and reader expectations.

Let’s take the crime/mystery genre as an example and the typical “dead body”. In a cosy mystery, your readers will expect to spend a few chapters meeting the inhabitants of a cosy community and getting to know the protagonist and her friends before the “dead body” is discovered. The actual killing will be off stage. In a police procedural mystery, the “dead body” is there by the end of chapter one. Readers may even witness the murder. It will be important to follow real police investigative and forensic procedures.

Some publishers have well-defined expectations that can help tremendously at this editing stage. Harlequin, the world’s largest publisher of romance, provides clear, detailed guidelines on their website for each of their genre imprints, from the word count to the level of sexual content.

So what is my genre?

Genre definitions are constantly changing and evolving, but you have to start somewhere.

1. Prepare a book jacket blurb

Once the first draft is done, prepare a book jacket blurb (the paragraphs on the back cover that entice readers to buy because they answer the question “What is this book about?”.)  Writing the jacket blurb helps to distill the thrust of the story: the conflict, the stakes and the character arc.

It also helps define what genre it is, because it focuses on the main thread of the story.

2. Define the main genre

With your book jacket blurb in hand, you have your main dominant story thread. Use that main thread to define the main genre. For instance, if your book involves a mystery and a romance, is the dominant story thread a classic “who done it” with a bit of romance thrown in for character growth? (mystery) Or is it really about a relationship blossoming between two people who happen to be solving a mystery together? (romance)

Here’s a list of some of the main genres to get you started:

  • Action/Adventure — epic journeys, lots of conflict/pursuit, high stakes, some violence.
  • Crime/Mystery — stories that involve solving a crime, usually a murder.
  • Fantasy —magic, other worlds, myths and mythological/mystical figures.
  • Historical — fictional characters and events in an historical setting
  • Horror— stories that invoke dread or fear.
  • Thriller/Suspense — harm/danger about to befall a person or group and the attempts to evade the harm/danger, high tension.
  • Romance —love/intimacy/relationships.
  • Sci-fi —impact of technology, aliens, science-related alternative worlds, often futuristic
  • Women’s fiction — stories about women experiencing emotional growth

Once you have your main genre, you can explore subgenres. This link on the definition and characteristics of the main genres is worth looking into.

3. Define your reader

Nail down the age group your book is aimed at: children, young adult, new adult or adult. If your manuscript appeals to more than one group, you have an age cross-over. (Think Harry Potter (children/adult) or Hunger Games (YA/adult).)

Imagine your ideal reader. If you were that reader looking for your book, where would you look? Again, focus on the main narrative thread. Is your ideal reader looking for a romance with a bit of mystery thrown in, or are they problem solvers who like mysteries and might like some relationship stuff thrown in?

Ask your beta readers where they would expect to find your book. Ask your critique group. Tell other writers your blurb and then ask them, “What section of a bookstore would you look in to find my book?”

4. Visit a book store

Go to a bricks & mortar bookstore or hop on the Net. Identify half a dozen books similar to yours and find where they are shelved. Go to Goodreads and check the Listopia recommendations for your main genre, like “Best Science Fiction.” That will lead you to the sub-genres like “Best Steampunk Books.” Read the blurbs on the back covers. Does your book jacket blurb follow a similar pitch?

One way to do this is to have two windows open, one on Amazon and the other on Goodreads. Read the blurb on Goodreads and then search the book on Amazon to see its classification.

I always like the section below the “purchase” button with the phrase “People who bought this also bought….” It’s a great way to find other novels that are categorized the same way. Could your book fit here?

Still not sure?

You’re fine as long as you know your main genre and reader age. Agents will be able to spot a crossover even if you haven’t mentioned it. If your query letter has a good hook and good comparables, the sub-genre will be apparent to them.

However, the time you spend on defining your genre will help you make a better connection between your story and your reader. And your well-crafted blurb will be ready for those moments when someone (maybe an agent or publisher) asks “So what are you writing?”

DID YOU KNOW?

Vicki Delany, our guest at this year’s fall retreat, Turning Leaves  2017, writes in several subgenres of the crime/mystery genre. As  Eva Gates she writes the cosy Lighthouse series, and as Vicki Delany she writes a Police Procedural series featuring Constable Molly Smith.

Deadlines: Motivator or Barrier?

Deadlines: Motivator or Barrier?

Ruth E. Walker

Discovering Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was a thrill. Oh, the combination: wit, satire and science fiction comedy. As a young-ish mother of four, the escape was delicious.

And lately, I’ve enjoyed getting reacquainted with his wacky worldview in the television series Dirk Gently’s Holisitic Detective Agency. But all that is an aside (which is one of things I loved about reading Douglas Adams — the incredible digressions…but then I also enjoy Monty Python.)

What I most admire about Douglas Adams is how often his words (either from his books or otherwise) remain so smart and relevant. Here’s a gem from a speech “Parrots, the universe and everything” at the University of California in May 2001. It was just days before his untimely death at age 49:

We don’t have to save the world. The world is big enough to look after itself. What we have to be concerned about is whether or not the world we live in will be capable of sustaining us in it.

And here’s my favourite because it fits my writing world:

I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by. 

Yes indeed. So today, I have no less than two writing deadlines. First, I need to finish THIS post and get it proofread and ready to launch by midnight. And second, long before midnight, I need to send the last four chapters of my novel to my critique group.

Time Management?

Look at that. My “midnight” deadline is secondary to my “long before midnight” deadline. Well, that must be because my last four chapters are ready to go.

Nope. They are “mostly” ready (Python-esque description, yes?) I’m still agonizing over plot decisions I’ve made. I’m unsure if I’ve overwritten the final few scenes, that I’ve gone for “big” when “intimate” might better serve the story.

Yes. Of course I hear you. Isn’t that what my critique group is for? To offer feedback on the writing? So what is my problem?

It’s the deadlines that are killing me and my creativity today. Add into the mix some background on another deadline, one that I’ve missed. In the past couple of years, I’ve been at a few writing conferences. At those conferences, there were optional pitch sessions with literary agents. I started with the idea that I could use those sessions as a chance to practise a real pitch for when the book is done.

So I paid attention to the questions the agents asked. I noticed what got their interest in the written query and writing sample and what put them on snooze. And I practised being comfortable sitting across from someone who might have a profound effect on my writing career. Believe me, I need that practise.

True confession

I can stand at the front of a room and deliver a workshop with passion and confidence. But offer up that compelling elevator pitch? Describe my book and its themes in 25 words or less? Open my mouth and not jam my foot directly into it?

Something terrible happens to me when I’m talking about my novel to agents and editors. My brain leaves the room. So practise is necessary, in my case.

Last September, I was at a pitch session with a well-known literary agent. I didn’t even have to open my mouth before she let me know how much she enjoyed my writing sample. In seconds, I went from Nervous Nellie to author. We had a great meeting and I imagined how lovely it would be have this woman as my agent. She asked to see the full manuscript in November. “Of course,” I said. I was only a month or so from penning “The End” so that timing was a perfect fit.

I had a deadline. I had strong interest from an agent. And a manuscript so close to being done, I could taste it. What could go wrong?

The Douglas Adams effect

Whoosh. That deadline went by so fast, I barely heard it. Sure, I have a lot of reasons that the book languished, unfinished. But I suspect that a big part of the missed deadline is related to my lack of confidence in writing the darn thing. That’s not a logical reason. Feedback from agents and editors in my practice sessions, along with my excellent (and tough) critique group’s comments, confirms that the writing is strong and the story original and engaging.

But when are we logical beings? When does our passion for our craft translate into efficiency and organization? In my case, it often doesn’t. Remember those digressions I love? Squirrel! And I’m madly off in several directions, forgetting the original goal.

Nonetheless, I’ve made it to the end of this post so that is one deadline met. As long as no squirrels pass my window and the house remains relatively quiet, I should also manage to meet the next one. And as to that November 2016 so-important-I-shouldn’t-let-it-whoosh-by deadline? I can only hope that literary agent is okay working with authors for whom deadlines are sometimes counter-productive. And that she’ll like the novel well enough to sign me.

I’ll keep you posted.

Did You Know:

You’ve got lots of time before registration deadline for Turning Leaves, our annual fall retreat. But don’t let that stop you from signing up. The first four writers who sign up get a special bonus: a suite room with a lake view. Still waiting for the deadline to creep up on you? With this year’s guest author Vicki Delany ready to share secrets on how she’s one of Canada’s top mystery writers, we expect a full house. Don’t be disappointed. November 3, 4 & 5.

A (Fairly) Sure End

A (Fairly) Sure End

Ruth E. Walker

How do you know when you have written it? You know, that elusive perfect ending? That Thelma and Louise, Ebeneezer Scrooge, Harry Potter finish that completes the character arcs, ties up all the loose ends and leaves you longing for more but knowing that it’s all over?

Darned if I know.

Well, that’s not exactly true. I have some ideas, most of them gleaned from novels, stories and even poems that I’ve loved over the years. I also have some words of wisdom on the subject from other writers. And maybe, between them and me, you might glean some good ideas that you can use to help with finding a satisfactory ending to your work.

Paulo Coelho, Brazilian writer and philosopher offered me a clue: “It is always important to know when something has reached its end. Closing circles, shutting doors, finishing chapters, it doesn’t matter what we call it; what matters is to leave in the past those moments in life that are over.” (The Zahir) I needed to be ready to leave my novel as if I were leaving the past of my own life: imperfect but inevitable. That led me back to my ingredient list.

Check your ingredient list

In a previous post (Write the Elusive End), I suggested that you need at least one of three essential ingredients for good endings. Either:

  • Change (either your POV character or in the reader themselves);
  • Inevitibility (sure, surprise me but that surprise MUST make sense); or,
  • Tragedy (don’t fear an unhappy ending if it seems right)

I also noted that I had written/sketched out three distinctly different endings. All three had change and inevitability and one was full of tragedy.

I liked all three. So which one is the best one?

I went back to the beginning

An overarching theme in my current WIP is duality. I fretted about the ending until I finally accepted that I am writing a duology. Not a trilogy. Instead, a two-book series.

I know that each book must stand on its own, so I still needed that “perfect” ending. However, I now must ensure that I have planted sufficient treasures in the current narrative that will leave room for readers to achieve their ah-ha moments. And hints that will logically support my plans for the second book.

Accordingly, I’ve been editing.

Surprisingly, many clues were already in my manuscript and I just had to refine here and there. And some of the connections to the second book naturally flow from the ending as I continue to work on it. I just didn’t know it until recently.

Consider your passions

I’m profoundly interested in why people do things. Motivation, yes. But what else is in place to push people into horrific actions? And is there room for forgiveness? Redemption? If so, what must be in place for that to occur?

My character has to undergo a huge arc. From mindless killing machine to a compassionate deep thinker. And I have to show that arc to my readers so that they will know, without question, that she is not the same character as the killer on page one.

My readers will not be satisfied with a neat bow or happy ending. And my narrative will fall flat if I try to be kind to the characters I’ve grown to care about. So there must be tragedy. And there must be self-sacrifice. And there must be a choice to be made with only two options, neither of them immediately happy ones.

When I accepted that, I knew what had to happen at the end. So, I’ve been busy and by the end of this month, I will be writing those two words on my manuscript. The. End.

And then back to a new manuscript while I wait for feedback from my beta readers. Because, as Frank L. Baum said in The Marvelous Land of Oz “Everything has to come to an end, sometime.”  Of course, this is rather ironic given that Baum wrote 15 more Oz books after that one.

I can only hope to live so long.

DID YOU KNOW

Writescape is on the move this June when Ruth and Dorothea Helms travel to Haliburton County to offer Write to Win, their popular workshop on the art and skill of entering and winning writing contests. These two skilled presenters are writing contest judges, contest administrators and contest winners. It’s a full day of insider tips, resources, hands-on exercises and creative activities. Saturday June 17 at the Minden Library. Come prepared to write and win. Details.

Frogging It

Frogging It

Erin Thomas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The fix is usually necessary

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

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

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

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

What remains is priceless

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

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

And you begin again. Stitch by stitch.

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

Plotting a Search for Structure

Plotting a Search for Structure

Ruth E. Walker

At my critique group last night, we did a bit of dissection on the plot of a member’s novel in progress. Sounds scary, doesn’t it?

Here’s a bit of background. One of our members has a great story for middle grade readers. It has lots of elements that the age group enjoys:

  • a relatable POV character with a problem to solve
  • some simmering tension with a member of the opposite sex
  • a science fiction backdrop that is fun and fantastical
  • a school full of goofy rules, and
  • a dastardly villain bent on stopping our POV character dead in his tracks

All the right ingredients. But the novel wasn’t quite working the way the writer hoped it would. So he continued to work on the story and recently sent us a revised synopsis.

Our role, as with all submissions, was to look at the synopsis, mark up the copy with questions and notes, and bring it to the session for discussion. Questions and detailed notes are important but the discussion in our critique group is widely considered the true gold of membership.

Our critique group collectively has some wide-ranging skill sets and expertise. This we all bring to the table. But a couple of us (not me!) are exceptional in the plot department. One, in particular, often brings visual aids, related reading and notes from research and workshops.

Last night, I suspect Christopher Vogler’s ears were burning. And the meeting room’s white board was a colourful palette of ideas and plot points.

How it worked for one writer:

Our two-hour session focused on reviewing our colleague’s current plot structure as outlined in his synopsis and getting to the heart of his story.

It was brilliant. Dividing the basic plot into three main acts and then placing the existing story into that structure allowed the writer to consider changes that simplified areas of the story. Some parts were more complex than they needed to be. At least one character needed to be shipped to the Island of Unwanted Characters.  And some goals needed to be adjusted.

The writer had some significant ah-ha! moments. He left the meeting with a renewed sense of where he wanted his story to go. What started out like a last-ditch revision became the groundwork for a new vision and plenty of possiblities.

And, as a side benefit, I found it all immensely helpful in looking at my own work in progress.

The basics of the Three-Act Structure:

Act I sets the stage, introduces the POV character with a problem(s) to overcome and the inciting incident.

Act II is the meat of the matter and has its own moment of crisis in the mid-point. As our colleague explained, “It’s like in the Wizard of Oz where they reach the Wizard, and Dorothy thinks he’ll send her home. But no. First they have to complete this impossible task: kill the Wicked Witch of the West.

So using Dorothy and Wizard, Act II is divided into two sections: Act II a (following the yellow brick road to see the Wizard) and Act II b (kill the witch before she kills Dorothy, Toto and her three companions)

And then, of course, Act III. This final act has the crushing disappointment of learning the wizard is not all-powerful after all, quickly followed by a joyful realization that everyone had what they needed all along, the journey home and most important, the POV character’s completed arc of understanding or change. (There’s no place like home…)

Can this approach work for you?

So, looking at your plot, are there areas in your story that you think could use a bit of tightening up? Could a three-act structure overview give you clues about needed changes? Or does it confirm that you have all the necessary ducks in a row? Good for you if that’s the case!

A word of caution. My critique group example is just a simplified version of one approach to looking at plot. Screenwriter and script consultant, Christopher Vogler, has a popular book The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers (which, strangely enough, had a cameo in our session yesterday.) Vogler’s 407-page book is only one of the many great resources for writers on structure and storytelling.

Have you struggled with structure? What did you do to help you get past the challenge of plotting? If you have suggestions, let us know what resources and approaches you recommend for other writers.

Write The Elusive End

Write The Elusive End

Ruth E. Walker

Oh, the love affair of writing the novel. The first blush of an idea. The rising heat as you pound out page after page of an unfolding story. You don’t want it to stop.

You constantly think about your novel, about your characters, your plot, your wonderful, endless possibilities… Until you find yourself without an ending.

Yeah, End-less: Your sense of dread when you need to finish your novel but there is no ending in sight.

Or End-less: Your sense of disappointment with an ENDing that is LESS than satisfying.

Poet and playwright Y.B. Yeats referred to the ending of a poem like a “click”:

The correction of prose, because it has no fixed laws, is endless, a poem comes right with a click like a closing box. (1935 letter to Lady Dorothy Wellesley)

While I might argue with him that prose indeed has many fixed laws for its “correction”, I’ve always liked Yeats’s idea of a “click like a closing box.” In my opinion, not just poetry needs to possess that “click” at the end.

No matter the issue, if you come to the end of your novel with a whimper instead of a bang, or at the least, the lovely satisfying “click”…your readers will be unhappy. And nobody wants unhappy readers.But if you’ve written a great beginning, do you need to give the same focus to the end? Prolific crime novelist Mickey Spillane said:

Your first chapter sells your book. Your last chapter sells your next book.

Click

Spillane’s not talking about sequels. A wise writer remembers that a disappointing or weak ending will undo all the joy your reader got at the beginning.

So what inspired this post? I’m working on the ending of my novel. I have three written (or at least, sketched out.) One tragic. One that leaves room for a sequel. And one that ends more positively. I’m undecided but I feel that I’m getting closer to the right ending. To help me work through the possibilities, I did some exploring on what a good ending needs. I’m sharing some highlights here:

A good ending needs:

To show change
  • Growth/change in your POV character is a common expectation for readers. But you could have a POV character who is “static” and remains unchanged right to the end. In that case, your reader must somehow be changed, have a new/deeper understanding of the impact of that character’s lack of change.
To be inevitable
  • This is not the same as predictable; no reader wants an ending that has been hinted at in every chapter since page one. And no reader wants deus ex machina endings with the ‘gods’ suddenly appearing and fixing everything.

To read something brilliantly written with an inevitable yet often unexpected ending, check out any of Alice Munro’s stories. I can re-read one of her stories and still get that yummy satisfaction from an inevitable, but often surprising, end. Munro’s “Dance of the Happy Shades”, about an uncomfortable children’s piano recital, has a masterful and quietly profound ending.

Not to be afraid to be unhappy
  • Who doesn’t want a happy ending? But if Romeo and Juliet ran off and lived to a ripe old age, how memorable would that be? Theirs was an “inevitable”, if tragic, ending. We may want a happy ending, but our lives (and some good stories) don’t always comply. And really, they are often better stories if the ending is not all rainbows and sugar plums.

In sum, a good ending needs to be satisfying for the reader…and for the writer. Whether it is a “click” at the end, or a sunset being ridden into with the future uncertain, a good ending needs to make sense. But how do you know if you’ve written the right ending?

In a later post in The Top Drawer, we’ll explore techniques and tips for knowing when you’ve achieved the best possible “The End.” Hopefully, by then, I’ll have found mine.

Did you know:

From endings come new beginnings. Writers in Ontario (and beyond) learned at the Ontario Writers’ Conference that it would be the last such gathering. Gwynn, Heather and I were so sad to hear that. We’d been at every OWC since its launch in 2006. But then the OWC announced an exciting new start. It wasn’t ending after all, just changing format and exploring how to offer writers its signature networking and education opportunities in new and exciting ways.

While it retools, OWC is still holding its monthly Story Starters contest, using images to spark the imaginations of writers. There are prizes to be won and bragging rights to add to your bio, so check out Rich Helms’ quirky and fun image and enter.

 

Gift: A writer’s space

Gift: A writer’s space

Heather Tucker

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

 

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

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

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

Heather at five
Heather at five

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand

that this, too, was a gift. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did you know:

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

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