Getting Your Novel Unstuck

Getting Your Novel Unstuck

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:

  1. Create a chart with a column for a character’s self-perception and a column for how they are seen by others.
  2. 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.


Always positive

Never afraid

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.


Rinse and repeat

Rinse and repeat

Gwynn Scheltema

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

Little and often

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

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

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

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

Eat that Frog

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

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

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

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


Make your bed

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

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

All I know, it works for me.

Your frog for today

So there you have it.

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

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

Day after tomorrow, eat frog #2

Rinse and repeat…rinse and repeat…


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

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

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

Brochure-Spring Thaw-2018

Write Away: Highlights From the Poconos

Write Away: Highlights From the Poconos

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

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

Boyds Mills Press

In short, not for writers like me.

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

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

Getting there

The Barn workshop centre

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

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

Writing community magic

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

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

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

More than eurekas

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

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

Time well spent

Stephanie Elise & Chris

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

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

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

Cross-border revelations

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did You Know?

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

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

An Altered Life

An Altered Life

I’ve been to a place where all rivers run north, flowing up to the Arctic. I’ve travelled eight hours by car and then five hours by train to reach a place of six seasons: summer, fall, river freeze up, winter, ice break up and spring. I sat in a wide-bottomed freighter canoe, ferried to where the Moose River empties into the salted waters of James Bay.

Thanks to the kind invitation of the Ontario Writers’ Conference, I came to Moose Factory last month to teach a workshop. It was the first Moose Factory Writers’ Retreat, the brainchild of Jean-Pierre Chabot and the MoCreebec Eeyoud Council of the Cree Nation. I hope it is just the beginning of many more arts-related gatherings.

Imagine taking a workshop in the dining room of the Cree Village Eco Lodge, where the soaring wood-lined structure carries both traditional and modern cultural touches. The natural influences—stone, wood, light—affected every moment of our time in that room.

I’ll never be the same writer. There is an energy in Moose Factory unlike anything I’ve experienced. It is the place. And it is the people.

The Place

Moose Factory is where high school students don’t wait for their yellow buses, they cluster by the shore for water taxis (and during freeze up and break up, they climb aboard helicopters to cross the Moose River, and in winter, drive over on the ice road.) Here, school starts early to allow students time off for the all-important goose hunt each fall.

Here, the bright blue sky is big because the land is flat and the treeline marks the horizon with stunted dark spikes of black spruce. A place where walkways are scarce and no roads are paved, where the province’s Highway Traffic Act is powerless and a taxi ride across town is a flat rate.

I enjoyed fabulous bannock burgers at John T’s Wachay Wagon and great fish and chips at the Treeline Diner next to the Northern Store. At GG’s Ace Hardware, you can buy anything. And I mean anything. From ammunition, bagged candy and condoms to groceries, vacuum cleaners and christening outfits.

Compact, neatly maintained bungalows line many of the roads, like any other subdivision in southern Ontario. Except for spruce log tee-pee frames in backyards, and the occasional wildlife that wander through: an unfortunate moose, lingering tree-climbing bear cubs and the ever-present cheeky red squirrels enrich the stories around backyard campfires.

The People

Where to begin? It would take several blog posts to give you a reasonable sense of the generosity and attention I received from Moose Factory residents. When I say attention, I don’t mean fawning admiration or special treatment. I mean people who are present. With you. In the room. It’s remarkable.

It made for a great workshop. I never worked so hard or felt as satisfied at the end of a session as I did in Moose Factory. Our coffee house event the next day was a community celebration of poetry, song, art and prose. The Big Dipper is now also a furred fisher that sacrificed everything to return water to the land. A section of an old freighter canoe, a canvas for the beautiful art of John Reuben, will soon hang on my cottage wall.

But let me tell you story. I was on this trip with Naomi Mesbur and Barbara Hunt of the Ontario Writers’ Conference. Along with Durham Region writers, Erin Thomas and Adele Simmons, we were treated to many amazing moments by the people of Moose Factory.

When The Past Became Present

photo: Hjvannes
On one of our several wanderings, Norm, a workshop attendee, former Cree chief and teacher, and now minister, took us into St. Thomas’ Anglican Church. Built in 1885 by the Hudson’s Bay Company, it needs to be restored before it can be used again. St. Thomas’ is an impressive structure, the huge timbers and curved wooden ceiling reflecting the skill of HBC shipbuilders. The massive bell was removed from the cupola and waits silent and still, just inside the entrance. Stained glass windows were also removed and sealed in wooden boxes until their return to the original frames.

We all knew we were being offered a privileged glimpse into this locked and vacant building.

Norm has faith that this historic church will be restored. He asked us to take a seat in the dusty pews. He told us of how the front pews were reserved for management and staff of the Hudson’s Bay Company. The Cree worshippers were kept in the back pews. Norm said, despite all the things his people have endured over the years, they never lost their faith. Just outside, next to the river, they once camped close by.

And then Norm shared something I will never forget. He sang a morning hymn. In Cree. The same hymn sung many mornings by the long ago people camped by the river, the church just steps away. Norm’s words and music soared above and through us as we sat in those pews. Just as they must have done in the 1800s and 1900s, as the mist lifted from the river and the sun coloured the tips of the treeline.

Moose Factory is rich in contradictions. Wi-Fi in the Eco Lodge. Pot holes on the roads that could swallow your shoes. While waiting for my first taste of bannock at the Wachay Wagon, I chatted with members of a movie crew. They were filming author Joseph Boyden‘s Through Black Spruce. They were easy to spot among the locals. More than their big city attire, they carried a kind of out-of-place vibe as they clustered together.

I understood that awkwardness. I, too, felt like I’d fallen through the rabbit hole after stepping onto the Eco Lodge dock. I certainly hope that movie crew allowed the magic of the people and the place to move into their hearts. Like them, I was motivated to come for artistic reasons—my next writing project will explore my ancestral connections to Canada’s fur trade. I hoped for some inspiration.

What I came away with was so much richer. Meegwetch.


Writescape picks its retreat locations carefully. We’ve always chosen settings that are flavoured by the natural world. We look for landscapes that inspire with lakeside sunsets or sunrises. Trees, gardens and winding paths offer gifts to the perceptive writer. Quiet corners, comfortable, well-appointed rooms and healthy foods nourish bodies and imaginations.

Join us on November 3 to 5 at Fern Resort on Lake Couchiching for Turning Leaves. Our guest author Vicki Delany looks forward to chatting on Friday evening and delivering a Saturday morning workshop. With more than 20 books to her credit, Vicki has so much to offer participants. This retreat is suitable for writers at all levels.

Ten Ways to Get the Most from Writing Prompts

Ten Ways to Get the Most from Writing Prompts

Gwynn Scheltema

At the recent Just Right at Glentula Retreat, we used a number of writing prompts. Most writers have tried them at some point in their writing journeys. Some love them; some not so much. I find them invaluable. I’ve used written, verbal, visual, and textural prompts. I’ve even used smell and taste prompts.

Some writers resist prompts, because they feel that their writing time is limited and they should be writing the “real stuff.” But remember that “completing the prompt” is not the object. The goal is to get you writing, to get you writing what has the most energy for you, and to lead you into your writing project.

How do you do that?

Follow the energy

Often when you begin writing about the subject of the prompt — say swimming in a lake — it can take you  somewhere else — say an experience of drowning or crab baskets in Italy or how your father never believed in taking vacations. Go there. Forget the prompt and go where the energy is.

Prompts unlock memories and experiences, and when you write honestly about them, about how you felt, what you observed, and perhaps even capture some of the dialogue that was spoken, you can take that piece and adapt  it later for your “real” writing.

Prompts are not precise nor prescriptive.

Understand the possibilities of “You”

Prompts often use the pronouns “you” or “your”: “Write about your greatest fear” or “Imagine yourself beside a body of water…” Of course, you can write about your own experience, but you can also approach it as if you are one of your characters. And not just your protagonist or your viewpoint character. Often it is more revealing to pick your antagonist, or a minor character.

Switch it up

Try the same prompt from two different characters’ points of view. If the prompt says “What’s your favourite colour?”, get your character to answer. What colours does she/he have an aversion to? Perhaps you don’t know. Write about the fact that you don’t know that about your character. Why don’t you know? What else don’t you know? Or have characters answer that question about each other. What did your protagonist’s mother think were his /her favourite colours? How did that play out in your protagonist’s life? Did the mother always dress your protagonist in blue for example?

If you are a memoir writer, remember that the people in your life are your characters; they are just called Mom, or Dad or Great Aunt Mabel. And like a fiction writer, you can stretch by writing as if you are another character.


Prime the Muse

Prompts take you places you don’t expect, but I’ve also found them useful for getting into scenes that I was planning to write. Start by identifying a scene in your story you want to work on. For instance, you might want to do a scene where one character makes the first show of affection towards the other. Using the prompt “What’s your favourite colour?” as a line of dialogue could take you to a scene at a fair or in a mall where he is buying her something, or in a garden where the flowers are in bloom, or just in the kitchen choosing a coffee mug.

Write what you know  

The facts of your life may not be the stuff of wild imaginative novels, but your human reaction to events is as valid as any character in any novel. Perhaps you haven’t been in a dugout canoe in the Amazon Jungle, but you know how it feels to sweat. You also know how helpless you can feel in a strange place. Could the feeling of being swept down the river with the jungle crowding in also feel like being swept along in a crowd at a frenzied rock concert or at busy subway station? It’s not the facts from your life that connect with readers, it’s the emotions and commonalities.

The Senses

Like the things you feel, what you see, hear, touch, taste and smell also relate to what we all know. When writing from prompts, the senses will always ground you and lead you forward. Make use of ALL five senses. Also consider the temperature, the quality of the light, time of day, the weather, the seasons, the historical period.

Move into Metaphor

When you have considered the senses, move into metaphor. Ask yourself: What does this remind me of? What is it like? What is it not like? Explain it to someone who’s never seen, heard, touched, smelled or tasted it before. What would a child relate it to? What would your character compare it with?

Be specific

As you write, imagine being in your scene. Notice and write about specific sensuous details: not “a car” but “the dented yellow Edsel-Ranger taxi.” Write about unusual details, incongruous details. Write about what’s missing. Imagine the scene with and without people — general people, specific people. Listen for snatches of remembered or overheard conversation.



Turn the prompt around and do the opposite. Substitute “hate” for “love”, try “old” in place of “young”, use “like least” instead of “favourite”. Write using both approaches and consider the similarities or juxtapositions created. If you can’t remember, start with “I don’t remember.” If you’ve never experienced the prompt, say singing for a crowd, start with “I have never sung in front of people because …” or “I have never sung in front of people but I have …”


Sometimes a topic seems too big to approach with authenticity. For instance, if the prompt asks you to write about someone you fear, and you’ve always feared your father, you may not feel comfortable diving into writing about him. Instead make a list of all the people you fear. Try to make the list really long. The items you add to the list last are often the ones buried deep. At the end of your list may be a kid from grade school. Write about him. Chances are you’ll find you feared him for many of the same reasons you feared your father.

Or make a list about all the emotions you feel about your father, and write about any one of them.

Give it a go

Prompts have been the source of many of my “keep” scenes. I may end up only using a portion of what I wrote, perhaps just one paragraph, but the prompt usually takes me where I’ve been resisting going and anything that gets me writing is a good thing.

Need a prompt now? There are lots of online sites. Here are a few for fiction, non-fiction and poetry:

Now, go and write, write, write ….


At Writescape retreats, we provide optional creativity sessions to tickle your muse and a companion work book full of prompts and ideas to take your writing to places it hasn’t gone before. Join us at our next retreat: Turning Leaves 2017.

Writing Plan Meets Real Life

Writing Plan Meets Real Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The most productive retreat ever

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

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

… and a good sense of fun too!

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




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

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

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

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


What’s a writer to do?

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

So, throw off those whiney pants.

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

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


Did You Know?

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

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

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



Sharpening your creative edge

Sharpening your creative edge

Gwynn Scheltema

This weekend, Ruth and I spent a few hours with a motivated and talented group of writers in St. Catharines. Some were beginners, some seasoned professionals, but all of them dived in and challenged themselves and took creative risks. It was thoroughly energizing.

boots on rail lineWriting is, for the most part, a solitary act. Sometimes lonely, sometimes blissfully peaceful. But I find that too much alone time as a writer is not always good. Yes, I might get more written, but it can also sometimes skew my writing perspective.

I can get rooted in bad writing habits, forgetting to use fundamental writing skills I have used before. My writing challenges can start to feel insurmountable. Or I can relax into my writing comfort zone and stop taking risks…dulling my creative edge.

Being with other writers this weekend, feeling that energy that emerges when writers get together, reminded me that I need to build that into my writing life. I also need to hone my creative edge by deliberately taking regular creative risks.

So how can you take regular creative risks and re-energize?

Give voice to non-POV characterseyes-141363_640

Write a scene from a non-POV character‘s perspective. This reminds you that each character has their own motivations. You don’t have to use the piece you write, but in the act of writing it, that character may give you insights about your regular POV character or about the events in the scene. Perhaps there are even connections to other characters you were missing.

Approach description differently

addict-84430_640Challenge yourself to use visual description sparingly, and increase the use of the other senses instead. Try also to limit scene description to just two or three details. (And make sure that the details are ones that the characters would naturally notice and not just things the author wants the reader to notice.)


Use prompts

Using prompts forces you to come at things from different entry points. They stimulate memories and experiences that can be adapted to fiction and can be a springboard to new ideas. Here are three links to get you started.

Freefall writestamp-895380_640

Freefall writing is one of the best and most satisfying ways I know to stay ahead of your internal editor and left analytical brain and give your right creative brain and your subconscious a chance to surface. By writing without stopping for a set time, and having no expectations of what will be written is extremely freeing, and time and time again I’ve seen wonderful writing emerge from the practice.

Get together with other writers
Dining at Turning Leaves
Dining at Turning Leaves

Even if you have a wonderful writing space at home, getting together with other writers to write is a different and energizing experience. I live next to a lake, but look forward to going on retreat whenever I can. It allows me to “leave the world behind” for a short while and concentrate on being creative. Being with a group of people who understand the writing world is invaluable and seeing others around me writing motivates me to write too. Try it. Join Ruth and me at our annual fall retreat Turning Leaves 2016 this November.





In Conversation with…literary agent Hilary McMahon

In Conversation with…literary agent Hilary McMahon

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

Why did you become a literary agent?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Returning from Retreat: Reality

Returning from Retreat: Reality


person-110303_640I will go on retreat and when I come back, I will be energized and my writing will be brilliant.

We all start a retreat with optimism, plans and hopes and dreams. But on the drive home, or maybe just as you turn the handle on your front door, something hits you.

It’s over. The planned escape to focus on your writing is done and here you are, back home, facing all that your return will mean. And it ain’t always pretty when you once again face reality.

portrayal-89189_640Some of us easily get past that return to reality and can gather back the positive energy we found on retreat. But others might get mired in one or more of the following disappointments:


Right on. Once you add the laundry in your suitcase to the pile you didn’t finish before you left, you realize your life waited for you. And there is no escaping it.


That’s right. You lazy, good for nothing writer. You spent time staring out the window at the lake or the forest or the desert or…whatever. And some of the stuff you wrote is so lame, you won’t even look at it.


Oh yeah. This is just like the diet you started in January. Your 3 lb loss turned into a 5 lb gain in April. You are just the same writer you were when you started, so why did you even bother?

THE TRUTHtruth-166853_640




Don’t look at that laundry pile the same way. Consider that t-shirt you wore on retreat before you put it into the washing machine. It’s full of your writer’s sweat and you can launder that out. But even if you deleted every single word you wrote, you can’t wash your retreat away. Instead, those words you crafted will percolate in the back of your mind and two things can happen:

  • ONE, you’ll realize the writing wasn’t so awful after all. In fact, those words are looking pretty good again


  • TWO, those less-than-perfect words will inspire fresh ones that will move your work forward (after all, we all know the true work of the writer is in the edit)


anvil-1169340_640Even if you did very little writing, your retreat was not a waste of time because everything you experience flavours your creative self. Sometimes, we don’t recognize the new ideas and perspective a retreat gives us.  Chats over dinner with the other writers, quiet walks down country lanes, staring out the window at a completely different view — all of this has an effect on you and your writing. While it’s not bum-in-chair writing, it is a legitimate form of creative work. You’re feeding your subconscious.

Your subconscious is your best friend as a writer and none more so than when your main purpose is to create. That’s why you went on retreat in the first place. When you come home, your ugly Internal Editor may perch again on your shoulder whispering negativity into your ear, but your Creative Self is still being fed by your subconscious.  And it’s rich in retreat compost.soil-766281_640

So turn your back on any negative thinking. Start digging into your retreat compost and see what treasures are buried in your mind. And follow that energy!

For more on retreats, see Ruth’s post on preparing for a writing getaway.

Writescape retreats this summer and fall:

Just Write at Glentula. July 15: 3 or 5 day retreat, Perfect for the budget-minded writer seeking a lakeside all-inclusive escape.

Woods, Water and Words. August 21. A one-day writing adventure at beautiful Glentula in Northumberland County. Lunch & dinner included.

Turning Leaves 2016. Nov 4 – 6. with special guest literary agent Hilary McMahon. All-inclusive, optional workshops, and a fireplace in every room at the Fireside Inn at Fern Resort on Lake Couchiching.

Registration for Turning Leaves 2018

Registration for TURNING LEAVES from November 2 to 4, 2018.

Note: Writing Organization Discounts are offered to members of WCDR, WCYR, WCSC, HHWEN, SOH, TWUC, PWAC, MAA and CAA. Other groups please query.


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Section 1 

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Landview Room Single Occupancy

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$555.00 Balance Landview Room Single with Writing Organization AND alumni discount

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$485.00 Balance Landview Room Double with Writing Organization AND alumni discount

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