Flesh Out Characters with a Sketch

Flesh Out Characters with a Sketch

Ruth E. Walker

As a character-driven writer, I love discovering the deeper layers of the people I create. Usually, I already have a strong sense of what makes my characters tick—it’s what draws me to the page to explore their lives. But not always. Sometimes, even a “character-driven writer” needs to develop a character sketch to have a better understanding or handle on one or more of the people in a story.

A sketch can be like a quick line drawing or caricature that fleshes character out when you fill in some blanks:

  1. the basics: age, gender, height, weight, hair colour, shoe size…
  2. add a sense of place, both physical and social: home location, job, education…
  3. toss in a bit of “flavour” with likes/dislikes, idiosyncrasies…
  4. go even deeper: fears, longings, secrets (shhhhh!)…
  5. get a clue to motivations: what happened to them before the story starts?

It can be far more detailed, using shadow and light to reveal facets of personality (key for reaction and interaction), motivation (key for tension-building) and subconscious desires (key for thematic development.)

For example, starting with an idea of a character, a person for a story:

Bob is a 47-year-old truck driver for a long distance hauling company. He’s overweight but not obese and his hairline is receding. He drinks Gatorade to stay awake when he drives overnight. Bob likes old movies, baseball and wine gums.

Bob’s name, age, gender, appearance are sketched in. I tossed in a bit about Bob and his likes. A just-the-facts-ma’am approach is fine to start. If you want more than “good enough”, dive deeper. Everyone has a story. Even our imaginary “Bob” has more than one reason for what he does…or doesn’t…do.

A character sketch can offer a writer more than just an outline of the people in a story. In fact, the act of developing a sketch of a character might serve as a springboard of ideas for plot, setting or themes:

Bob, a 47-year-old truck driver has been hauling long distance rigs across the country for over twenty years. These days, even climbing up into the cab is chore; he knows he should drop a few pounds but it’s hard when he keeps getting the inter-province routes and shorter and shorter deadlines. Some guys pop pills to stay away on night runs but he keeps to power drinks, even if it means he has to piss in a bottle to avoid stopping. Besides, even when he does stop these days, sleep won’t come or at least not for long. Even pulling out the tablet and firing up a few old movies doesn’t do it for him anymore. Two Turner Classics and his eyes are still wide open, and then he’s chewing on wine gums for breakfast and pulling on his Blue Jays cap to get back on the road. His cap doesn’t really hide his thinning hair but still, it’s the Jays so that’s gotta count for something. That’s what his dad always said to him. Life, Bob—it’s gotta count for something. That is, until the day his dad hung himself from the barn rafters.

With genre fiction, there are certain types of characters we expect to show up. A cozy mystery needs an amateur, or even reluctant, sleuth. A fantasy should have supernatural or magical characters. A horror works best with a terrifying and evil villain. Etcetera. Of course, a wise writer takes those expectations and plays with them so that the reader gets some surprises. Like villains who turn into heroes or heroes with murderous hearts. And it’s those character surprises that open up tired plots and overused themes and can take your story on a whole new track.

Drawing out personality

There’s another kind of sketch that may prove helpful in understanding your character. In my workshops, I’ve used photos of people to inspire writers to discover new, unexpected characters for their stories. But I have also scoured magazines and photo books looking for faces or expressions that can help me solidify a character in my mind. A couple of years ago, I was a bit lost working on my science fiction novel. My main character had some “wobbly bits” to the person I thought she should be; in other words, she was a bit fuzzy. Never good for a writer.

I turned to a police sketch program online. After several attempts, I finally came up with her face and that helped me firm her up as I continued to write the latter half of the novel.

The free program I used is no longer available but there are several online services that can do similar work. You need to pay for and then download the program, for example, Flash Face and Portrait Pad. I haven’t tried either one but if you have, let us know in the comment section.

For those of you who use Scrivener for organizing and drafting your work, you probably already know the many uses of this program for sketching out characters, from visual aids to templates to file folders. The Write Practice blog shares some of the Scrivener character sketch features. For those of you not using Scrivener, The Write Practice reminds writers that most of these tools can be adapted for use without any specialized software.

And check out the five links to character worksheets in this All Freelance Writing blog. Writers are offered a range of approaches to finding and developing characters: questionnaires, checklists, guides and charts.

A character sketch is useful at any point in writing. From inspiring a new story to adding extra character touches to a third, or fourth or fifth or…later (!) draft, diving deeper into a character’s life is a tool all writers need in their creativity kit. So go ahead. Get sketching.

 

 

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Writer: Who’s in Your Tribe?

Writer: Who’s in Your Tribe?

Ruth E. Walker

Margaret Laurence, one of Canada’s exceptional writers, spoke of the other Canadian writers — friends, colleagues or just-starting-out — as “the tribe.” It was at a time when writing was a lonely business in Canada. When literary prizes were few (let alone boasting glitzy galas and live broadcasting) and especially for women writers, when there were few achieving success and critical acclaim. So for Laurence, she saw the truth behind the word “tribe”: a community of humans.

In ancient Rome, the root word of tribe, tribus, meant a division within the state. When European settlers began explorations, they used the word “tribe” to describe any and all cultures they came in contact with. I guess it was a handy, one-size-fits-all way to deal with difference and we’re still dealing with the fallout of that conquer-all mindset.

A Tribe of Writers

But back to Margaret Laurence and her use of tribe. It was a term used in a good way, meant to gather together the group of humans who penned words, often without any hope of recognition or acclaim. Her tribe was other Canadians driven by the passion and need to write.

Some years ago, I had a chat with Linwood Barclay, then a Toronto Star columnist and now a hugely popular author of mystery novels. He told me how Laurence was a mentor to him when he was a student at Trent University.  He never forgot her kindness and direct, unerring eye, and the difference it made to his eventual career and international success.

Linwood was in Margaret’s tribe long before he was selling his books in the millions. And Laurence was in his tribe, long before he realized he had a tribe.

Everyone’s Tribe is Unique

My tribe is difficult to capture in words, mostly because it is a loose-knit connection of all kinds of writers. Sometimes I spend more time with some tribe members than others. My intense critique group, Critical ms, where we give written and verbal feedback to each other, meets every other week, alternating between Peterborough and Whitby. The Writers’ Community of Durham Region counts among its membership many writers who I am so happy to call friends as well as colleagues.

Haliburton Writers

My tribe also includes the Canadian Authors’ Association, CANSCAIP, The Writers’ Union of Canada, the Muskoka Authors’ Association and the Muskoka Novel Marathon group (the photo at the top of this post is from 2014, the year I attended the MNM in Huntsville.) I’ve recently expanded my tribe to include members of the Literary Arts Roundtable of the Arts Council, Haliburton Highlands.

  • Do I know everyone in all those organizations? No.
  • Do I support the work they do and volunteer when I can to help them grow and support other writers? Yes.
  • Do I have members of my writing tribe who don’t belong to any of these groups? Yes indeed.
  • And do I have members of my writing tribe who I value beyond the ordinary? You bet.

I have a core group of writers who I might term My Tribe within My Tribe. My go-to people when the rejections arrive and the first ones to know when I’m celebrating. The ones I will drop almost anything for if they need my help. Some have been in my tribe since 1996 when I started this crazy journey of words. And some are more recent core members. They are more than friends and colleagues, and they know it.

Tribe Members Aren’t Always Writers

My tribe also includes people who are not writers. The people who support and encourage my writing — family and friends who turn out for book launches, readings and events I help organize. And I learn from the non-writing members of my tribe. I learn about books I might not have picked up myself to read. I ask research questions and get directed to places and people who can help. I have beta readers who offer feedback and suggestions.

In short, a writers’ tribe benefits you when it’s not an exclusive group.

So who’s in your writers’ tribe? Is it like my ever-expanding circle of contacts or a more intimate group or a combination? Is your tribe online or face-to-face? Is it just Canadians or does it have an international flavour?

One thing is certain: Writing is a solitary act but it doesn’t have to be a lonely one.

Links to writing organizations in my tribe:

The Writers’ Community of Durham Region

The Writers’ Union of Canada

Canadian Authors’ Association

CANSCAIP (Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers)

Muskoka Authors Association

Muskoka Novel Marathon (Facebook page)

Arts Council ~ Haliburton Highlands

 

 

Back to School: Kids Play?

Back to School: Kids Play?

Ruth E. Walker

Wasn’t it just the other day that all the retail signs announced: Get Ready for Summer!

I just blinked and now what do they say? Get Ready for School!

Once I got over depressing thoughts of our vanishing summer, it got me thinking. Some years back (many years, in fact) I decided it was time to return to school. A high school dropout, I’d left the workforce and a developing career in the human resource profession to stay home with my young family. Getting back into the H.R. game would be tough without a university degree; a sociology or psychology major would be best, I thought.

But I was a bit scared so decided to at least start with something I really liked. English. Books are good. And reading. And talking about books…about reading books…books…

Fast-forward a couple of dozen courses later and somewhat longer years of evening and summer classes at Trent University, Durham Region Campus, and I had my degree. And no, not sociology or psychology.

English. And darn-near a minor in Cultural Studies. Even better: I graduated on the Dean’s List.

What I Learned in School

Study what you enjoy. And be open to stepping beyond what you know you’ll enjoy.

I took an Introduction to Anthropology. In the course catalogue, it all sounded a bit “sciency” but a lot of it focused on the past, so, because I like history, I risked it and I loved it. I even considered changing my major.

During the section with a biology focus, I held a plaster cast finger bone of the famous  “Lucy”, Australopethicus afarensis. Discovered in 1974 in Ethiopia, this hominid’s skeleton is about 3.2 million years old. It blew my mind and created a connection that inspired a thrice-published poem, Lucy’s Bones from Afar.

I didn’t know it at the time, but the next section on archaeology was great grounding for my final course before graduation on Greek and Roman Mythology. And from that course, I found my way to a series of poems and flash fiction, powerful characters and a novel that continues to simmer on the back burner.

Suffice to say that just one course outside of my English Literature comfort zone affected my muse, inspiring characters, poems, themes and plots in much of my future writing. I didn’t stop with Anthropology 101: Cultural Studies, Women’s Studies, Ancient History and yes, even a sociology course or two peppered my learning. By the time I graduated, I’d explored far beyond Shakespeare and sonnets.

Continuing that Education

I’m not suggesting that writers need university courses for success. That choice worked out well for me but not because I started out thinking about a career in literature. And it isn’t the only choice that had a profound impact on my writing.

Over the years, I’ve taken more than one writers’ workshop that inspired new and exciting work from me. I had mentors that gave me new perspectives. And there are many books on writing that took my craft on deep and engaging journeys.

Learning for all of us is on offer from a multitude of options: mentoring, workshops, private retreats, resource books, conferences, and so on. But not all conferences or workshops need to be about “writing.” And not all resource books should follow a familiar or safe path.

Some stretching into the unknown can help you reach new heights. It certainly did for me.

If You Read It, They Will Listen

If You Read It, They Will Listen

Ruth E. Walker

A recent invitation to read my work at Tall Pine Tales in Haliburton set me off on a complicated journey. Tall Pine Tales is a collaborative reading series shared by writer organizations in two of Ontario’s cottage communities: Haliburton and Muskoka. Running successfully for the past 5 summers, there are expectations from the audience for this 6th season: plenty of laughter and smiles, along with thoughtful nudges about life’s twists and turns.

For me, an invite to a public reading is an ego-boost (especially useful when my muse opts to dance just out of reach.) It’s an opportunity to share my work with an audience, to feel my words slip among listeners and tempt their interest.

But when I looked at the writing I had on hand, I panicked a bit. I have a rather dark and serious muse, so this was a real challenge. Then I remembered The Perfect Beauty of Yvon Torville, an in-progress manuscript that I plan to return to in 2019.

Choose the right piece
  • think first; read later
    • there’s a big difference between reading your work to a group of colleague writers and reading aloud to an audience that is mostly readers. You need to consider the purpose of the event, the location and the likely audience:
      • indoors or outdoors
      • a library auditorium or a noisy local pub
      • elementary or high school students or adult audience
      • consider the people and the place, then choose: humour, pathos or high-tension drama?
  • pay attention to the tone of the organizers/event
    • I knew that Tall Pine Tales is a charming mix of memoir, humour, children’s authors and local content, so I chose accordingly: Yvon Torville is a revisionist take on an old Breton fairy tale with irony and magic at its heart
Get comfortable
  • practise
    • the more your practise, the more familiar you are with your own work. During readings, you need audience connection…and that means not keeping your eyes fixed firmly on your words. Look up as you read and move your attention throughout the room: help your listeners feel that you are reading to them and not to the podium.
    • the more familiar your are with your reading, the more easily you can govern your pacing. No matter how many times I’ve read publicly, I’m still a bundle of nerves. I channel that nervous energy into my readings and work hard at not rushing through, slowing down and giving emphasis to parts that need it (a lot of character names or unusual settings or a fast-paced scene.)
    • video or record your practice readings to help you hear your intonation, pauses and occasional stumbles. If you don’t want to record yourself, at the least listen carefully as you practise again and again to ensure a smooth and confident delivery
  • reconaissance/research
    • if you aren’t familiar with the location, do what you can to get familiar. Many out-of-town locations can be viewed online (check out the website for the reading event and a list of past readers)
    • ask the organizers: will there be a podium? Does it have a reading light? Is there a microphone? And here’s a really important question: How long do I have to read? (see “Deliver” for more on this one.)
Deliver
  • listen to the other readers
    • not only is it respectful to give your colleagues your full attention, it helps you to gauge the audience. And that helps to prepare you to deliver your work. Even if the audience is not overly receptive, you’ll know you’ll have to step up your game to get their attention.
  • engage your audience
    • if you have practised then you will read clearly and with some variety in your tone and you will be able to at least glance up in their direction. That’s all part of engagement.
  • stick to the time limit.
    • I have been in the audience when readers have gone over their time limit and it’s disrespectful to the organizers, to your colleague writers who keep to their time limit and most especially, to the listeners. No matter how “rivetting” your piece is, don’t do it.
    • At Tall Pine Tales, I cut my reading off at the requested 7-minute mark and then got to hear more than one person call out “No! What happens next?” I won’t have trouble selling them that book, will I?

Accept criticism

  • take stock of success and what still needs work
    • if possible, have someone in the audience you can quietly ask about what worked and what didn’t. At Tall Pine Tales I asked my husband, “So, what do I need to do better next time?” “Nothing,” he replied. But I’m not fooled by that. “C’mon, give it to me.” He let me know that the reading was great but “…next time, give a bit more time to the set up before you read. Tell them a bit about the original fairy tale first.” Bingo. He was right. It was a good reading but would have been even better if they knew why I am compelled to revise this old tale.
    • I like to read my work aloud to an audience, and I’m pretty good at it. But even so, it’s a never-ending journey to refine and improve each time. If I’m lucky, the invitations will continue to arrive and give my muse a kick in the pants just when I need it the most.

      Ruth reads from “Living Underground” in 2012

 

 

Weddings and Writers

Weddings and Writers

Ruth E. Walker

Later this week, I’ll watch my youngest child get married to his beautiful bride. I’ll likely cry a bit — happy tears. And I’ll be relieved that my son is the last one of our children to choose a life partner. That’s it for now, until the grandchildren start the cycle all over again.

Many mothers of the groom will tell you our role has challenges: Will the rehearsal dinner menu be a nice complement to the wedding themes or a mish-mash of wrong choices? Will my dress be appropriate and not clash with the mother of the bride’s chosen colour and style? Will I remember all the names of the large wedding party, their partners and great-aunt whoozits from out West?

For a writer, there are even greater challenges that come with this territory. For example, my husband and I have written speeches together for all the other kids’ weddings. While we rarely write anything together, this one task seems to go quite well. Over four decades of marriage helps with that one. So, no, that’s a challenge but it’s one we manage to pull off. It helps that we love all our kids’ partner choices.

No, this is a different kind of challenge for me. It’s the mother and son song that is making me run around in a conflicted tizzy. I do love to dance. I’m not very good at it and likely show up in a few party videos as the one who doesn’t quite get the beat or the moves but looks happy while she’s messing it up. No. It’s not the dance itself — it’s the song choice that’s so difficult.

Lots to choose from

If you Google “mother and son wedding songs” you’ll get over 8 million hits. And links to hundreds of sites that list the “top” mother and son dances, from country to rock to contemporary to traditional and variations thereof. YouTube is a treasure trove of music videos for this one important dance. One bride website lists 40 Best Mother-Son Dance Songs. So, with so much to choose from, how can this be a problem?

I’m a complete sucker for the sentimental yet charming film, Love, Actually. I tear up at the great airport love-in montage at the end as the Beach Boys sing their hit, “God Only Knows.”

A song about love — all kinds of love. So logical choice, right?

Not the melody; it’s the lyrics

Let’s get real people. I’m a writer. So while I may love the overall sentiment of a song and enjoy a beautiful melody, the words matter. Let’s consider “God Only Knows” — great lines likes God only knows what I’d be without you — so true. Most of the grey hairs on my head can be traced back to life with children, the youngest perhaps accounting for more than all the others put together. But the opening line on that Beach Boys song stopped me cold: I may not always love you.. Nope. Not that song. Because I will always love him.

Surely, with 39 other songs, I will find the perfect song.

“Forever Young” sung by Rod Stewart. Are you going to drop the bomb or not? Bomb? I don’t think so.

“Because You Loved Me” sung by Celine Dion. I’ll be forever thankful baby/You’re the one who held me up/Never let me fall…  Just who are the lyrics meant for — mother or son?

“I Say a Little Prayer” sung by Aretha Franklin. While combing my hair now/And wondering what dress to wear now/I say a little prayer for you… 

As much as I love my son, I don’t stand before the mirror every day and think of him.  Obsessive mama, I’m not.

Who picks these songs, anyway?

Oh the songs I’ve listened to. Some are so sickly sentimental, I need a glass of water to dilute the sugar. Some stretch the boundaries of rhyme and rhythm to excruciating levels. And some make no sense at all. And speaking of “combing my hair and choosing my dress,” exactly what lyrically challenged person thought “Wonderful Tonight” sung by Eric Clapton is an ideal mother-son wedding dance song? How about that last stanza:

It’s time to go home now and I’ve got an aching head
So I give her the car keys and she helps me to bed
And then I tell her, as I turn out the light
I say, “My darling, you were wonderful tonight
Oh my darling, you were wonderful tonight

Good grief. My son’s bride won’t have to worry that Mommy is driving him home after the reception, putting him to bed while he calls me “My darling.” Nope. Not this mama.

So you see my challenge? I can’t tune out the words because they matter. Words mean something. Right now, I’m waffling between two different songs, the sentimental but lyrically true song, The Man You Have Become sung by Molly Pasutti and the sweetly upbeat 93 Million Miles sung by Jason Mraz.

Of course, my son may have some ideas on the song choice. In fact, he’s written a few lovely songs himself. But remember those grey hairs? It will likely be just before the reception before he manages to tell me what those ideas might be. Ah well. I will always love him no matter what song we dance to.

Which brings me to a song I hope we will dance to: “Love is All You Need” by The Beatles. Because, if I had one thing to tell him, it’s this: Love is all you need. Love for yourself. Love for your family. Love for the world and its inhabitants. Remember love my son, especially at times when it is the furthest thing from your mind. It will bring you back to what really matters.

 

When the Agent Says No

When the Agent Says No

Ruth E. Walker

Last December, I put “The End” onto my science fiction/fantasy Young Adult novel I’d been working on for three years. And then I sent it off to an agent* who’d already enthusiastically read a few of the first pages at a writers conference 18 months earlier.

I’ve met a few agents for one-on-ones at conferences and received encouraging words. But this agent, with a large, well-known Canadian literary agency, she and I connected from the start. My latest draft of my novel has been with her since December but I’ll admit by April, I was ready for rejection. To get it over with, I sent an email asking what the status was. And, to my surprise, she wrote back to say that her colleague at the agency was nearly done reading it and then she’d look it over and get back to me soon.

In the Half-life of The Wait

This could now go only one of two ways: an offer of representation or a rejection, and then I’d move on. At least, that’s what I thought. She’d been super enthusiastic both in our initial meet and greet, and subsequently in email correspondence. I was certain we could work well together.

So I dwelt in the half-life of writers who are waiting to hear back on their submission. You know what that means:

  • I burnt a few offerings to the gods of good fortune
  • I played word games on my tablet to avoid checking my emails several times a day
  • I checked my emails several times a day
  • I forced myself not to imagine having an agent
  • I imagined announcing that at last, I had an agent

Yup. I vacillated between positive thoughts and steeling myself for “no”.

The Reply

Last week, I got the email. It was a no.

But wait. Not just any no. This is the kind of no that tortures all writers. It’s a no with an offer of hope. And frankly, even better than the hope, the email was rich in the kind of feedback from the agency reader that some writers would kill for. The agent’s colleague liked a lot about the novel:

This YA fantasy ms has some great strengths, most notably an empowered and compelling female character at the center of this hero’s quest narrative. Garnet’s backstory is complex and her character development is largely convincing.

I was especially invested in feminist leanings and diversity moral that informs this narrative, though therein lies some concern as well…

Oh-oh. I read on and learned that there were areas that kicked this reader out — parts of the story that moved too close to unsurprising. And I failed to make clear some of the central themes from start to finish, dropped a thread or two and, most grievous error of all: failed to make clear the complicated world I had built. In short, I’d left too many dangly bits.

Don’t you just hate dangly bits?

Back to the Beginning

Fortunately, if a writer has some sense of what those dangly bits are, they can be fixed: cut or tied or connected anew. I have options. I sent back an email to the agent that said as much, thanking her and her colleague for the feedback. It’s gold, I wrote — and it is, because it is concrete feedback on strengths and areas to develop.

So, this summer I’ll be focusing on revisions. Deepening characters, enriching the sense of place and pulling apart the cultural norms of my imagined world with two suns and a feral young female who will change everything. And I’ll be doing it with the agent’s words in the background:

If you find that our concerns below hit home, and you decide to revise [your novel], I’d be happy to consider the work again. Either way, I hope to hear from you again in the future, and will be cheering you on from the sidelines in the meantime.

Yup. Just what a writer needs to dive back into a novel that is nearly there. Wish me luck!

*NOTE: I shared this post with Rachel Letofsky of Cooke McDermid Literary Management and she shared it with her colleagues and especially with Kailey Havelock, Agency Assistant who was the reader of my manuscript. They’re happy to be identified as the agent and agency that this blog post is about. And I’m happy to do just that.

DID YOU KNOW?

There are plenty of opportunities to network, workshop & find the agent of your dreams. For sci-fi/fantasy writers, here’s just a taste:

Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Writers gather July 13 to 15, 2018 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada for Ad Astra, a not-for-profit, volunteer-run, weekend-long, science fiction, fantasy and horror event with a focus on authors and other creative professionals.

Fantasy and Horror Writers will travel November 1 to 4, 2018 to Baltimore, Maryland, USA for World Fantasy Convention an annual gathering and reunion of professionals, collectors, and others interested in the field of light and dark fantasy art and literature.

Science Fiction, Fantasy, Gaming, Horror Writers & Good Old Geeks have got together for over 12 years in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada for Sci-Fi on The Rock, a downhome celebration of film, literature, graphic arts and cosplay. We missed this April’s event but that gives you plenty of time to plan for 2019.

To Market, To Market

To Market, To Market

Ruth E. Walker

I recently attended a celebration of local authors in Ontario’s cottage country. Aptly named Kaleidoscope, the book sales event offered a wide range of styles and published works for readers. Intriguing mysteries, fantasies for all ages, beautiful photography collections, wildlife explorations, compelling memoirs and biographies, and children’s picture books filled huge dining tables on two floors of the rustic Wintergreen Maple Syrup and Pancake Barn in Gelert, near Minden.

For readers, Kaleidoscope was a great opportunity to sample works by some of the many writers who call the Haliburton Highlands home. But for writers, it was an even better chance to learn from one another: what kinds of books were being inspired by the rugged natural beauty of the landscape and who are the people behind the titles? And even more important to me, how are those writers sharing their words with each other and their readers?

Even Margaret Atwood has to promote her books

I saw a range of approaches to direct sales of books and each has benefits and pitfalls. Of course, it’s always a personal choice on how one sets up their sales table. And that choice has to suit the writer. Some writers are painfully shy. I can say this because I am exactly that kind of writer. But I’ve put on my “act outgoing” pants so often now that people think I’m an extrovert. Don’t tell anyone — let’s keep it our little secret.

I toughened up my sales approach after a few years of setting up booths at Word on the Street and Eden Mills Writers Festival. I was there with LICHEN, a jewel of a literary journal I’d helped found and edit. Eventually, I learned to accept people walking past our table, avoiding all eye contact. I no longer took it personally when, after talking up a potential buyer, I watched them put the journal back and walk away. And I quietly celebrated those who bought their own copy.

I watched the writers at Kaleidoscope and recognized the many ways we promote our books:

The Quiet Table

This is the simple “here are my books on display” approach. Just the books. Stacked in an attractive display: cover out, at least one in a stand. The writer stands behind/next to the display, ready to chat with anyone with questions. This is a time-honoured marketing approach. Head to any bookstore and you’ll see lots of those display tables. Readers are attracted to quiet displays.

What you need to remember:

  • show the price; if there are specials let visitors know (2 for $xx or BOGO 50% off) Yes, it feels weird but it is part of marketing; most people dislike having to “guess the price”
  • business cards/postcards show readers you’d like to engage, even through an email or note
  • smile and say hello; it can feel unnatural (and really awkward if they ignore you) but you get used to it
  • NOTE: A recent article in Write magazine recommended displaying a question to give visitors a topic to engage with you on: “Ask me about…” — especially effective if your book(s) tackle tough or intriguing subjects that you spent time researching
The Audio-Visual Augmented Table

Video is a remarkable tool for marketing. Just like an illustration in a book, a video attracts passers-by through sound and/or images. It’s easily set up on a laptop or tablet that’s tucked in among the books.

At Kaleidoscope, a writer displayed a video of First Nation drumming scenes to share at his table. He did the following and these were exactly what we fellow writers appreciated:

  • consider your neighbours by watching the volume (but even the fairly low sound attracted visitors from the first floor to climb the stairs and see what was going on the second floor)
  • avoid constant looping to allow your visitors (and those at other tables) time and space in which to chat
  • NOTE: check in advance or arrive early to ensure your electronics are close to a power plug AND watch the cord for any tripping hazard (including for you)
The Multiple Offerings Table

Some readers are attracted to busy tables. And many readers are also writers (and that should not surprise you, writer!) so I make it a point to have material on hand for writers. Sometimes a jar of writing tips to reach in and pick from. Sometimes writing prompts. And, of course, I always have the latest on upcoming Writescape retreats.

  • offer treats or takeaways; even a jar of wrapped candy or bookmark can attract people to your table
  • define your space with a backdrop/tablecloth or banner (especially effective if you can tie it into the book)
  • get creative — for a children’s story about a picnic, use a picnic blanket and display copies of the book in a picnic basket along with picnicky items. If it’s a mystery novel, include a Sherlock Holmes cap and magnifying glass, etc.
  • NOTE: A plastic display stand can hold excerpts of reviews on your books or promote your next reading or event

No matter what kind of salesperson you are, writer, you know that in today’s noisy and crowded marketplace, we need to be prepared to sell our words and find our readership. No matter what, be ready to answer this question: What is your book about? A short one- or two-sentence answer should be on the tip of your tongue.

Like the writing process, marketing your book is a journey. But thankfully, with cooperative sales events like the first-ever Kaleidoscope in the Haliburton Highlands, it’s not a journey we need to take on our own.

DID YOU KNOW
Heather. signing BETTING GAME

Book sales events are just one piece of the marketing pie. Remember that websites and social media can also be a useful tool to introduce readers to your work. Here’s a look at Heather O’Connor’s Top Drawer post on the marketing work she did IN ADVANCE of the launch of her best-selling YA novel, Betting Game.

Invaluable and oh-so-practical advice from a successful author. And, as noted, it’s a journey.

Goodbye Vanity Press Impression

Goodbye Vanity Press Impression

Ruth E. Walker

I recently heard from a teen writer who was puzzled about self-publishing. She explained that she was on a committee looking at books to recommend to the Forest of Reading summer program at Ontario libraries. She was especially excited about a book from a local writer and presented it to her committee colleagues to review.

The committee agreed the book was really good and moved it forward as a recommended read to the Ontario Library Association (OLA). But my friend was disappointed to receive an email explaining that the book could not be included. The OLA has a policy to only include traditionally published works in that summer program. A novel, no matter how compelling, couldn’t be on the list if it was self-published by the author.

No matter how you feel about self-publishing versus traditionally published books, the OLA’s policy is not out of line with many organizations. And there is a good historical reason for it: vanity presses.

Feeding the Vanity Machine

Not so long ago, some printing companies called themselves publishers. Writers were attracted to those companies that would quickly publish their manuscripts without long waits to hear from an editor and no questions asked. Writers were guaranteed their book would be published…for a fee, of course. But the writers were confident of being able to sell their finished product. And all the money would go to them, not to some agent or publisher. Once they put out a lot of money to the “publisher.”

It seemed like a great idea.

Of course, the inevitable happened to most of those writers. Basements and garages filled up with boxes of books that, once family and friends had been tapped out, couldn’t be sold to strangers.

 

 

Not all vanity publications were in vain

There were amazing success stories:  David Chilton’s self-published financial advice book The Wealthy Barber has sold over 2,000,000 copies to date. He even mentored sisters Janet and Greta Podleski, and their Looneyspoons cookbook has sold 850,000 copies to date. Many speakers on the “talk circuits” self-publish companion books that sell very well on the strength of their seminars and workshops.

But they were the exception.

In the past five or so years, the winds have shifted for self-published authors. When Terry Fallis won the 2008 Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour forThe Best Laid Plans, and then the 2011 CBC Canada Reads winner, he raised the profile for self-published authors in Canada. Even The Writers’ Union of Canada now accepts memberships from authors of self-published work (applicants must submit their book for review and it must meet professional standards to be accepted.)

It won’t be long before self-published titles are received everywhere with respect.

Make sure your book deserves respect

So you’ve decided to self-publish. Just because you’ve written a great story doesn’t mean it’s ready to go to press. If you truly respect your own work, you need to give it the time and focus it needs and deserves. If you truly respect your reader, ensure that you’re actually giving your reader a great story in great shape. And if you respect yourself as an author, act like you do.

Hire an editor. No, don’t rely on friends or family for this. A professional and skilled editor will help you refine your manuscript to publishable quality: a logical plot, compelling characters and a clean copy for the proofreader. An editor is not concerned with hurting your ego — an editor wants your book to succeed and if that means giving you tough news, well, that’s what will fix this book and make you an even better writer with the next book.

Hire a proofreader. Here you might have friends or family with this skill but understand a proofreader is not just reading your story and looking for oopsies. A proofreader takes a different approach to an editor. A proofreader is looking for transposed numbers. Of chapter headings in slightly different fonts. Of two similar but different spellings of the same name. The things that trick the eye of even the best editor.

Put it into your publishing budget: $800 to $2000 for editing and proofreading.

Things are changing

I’m an assessment volunteer for the Writers’ Union, reading some the self-published books submitted for membership. Some have been pretty darn good.

However, a few have been sadly in need of an editor. And a layout professional. And proofreader. The main criteria for acceptance is “would this book be comparable to a traditionally published book, with evidence of editing and professional appearance/layout?”

More often than not, the answer is yes. And that is heartening.

It means that those vanity presses are not getting as much business. Instead, we see quality book printers who also offer editing services to various levels. We see self-published books from writers who hire editors and proofreaders on their own. We see co-operative publishing ventures, where the cost and profits are shared by the printer and the author, and include editorial supports. That’s a nice balance of respect and a much better business model instead mass printing from unpolished manuscripts.

The publishing world is ever-shifting. How readers access their books is also ever-shifting just as the line between traditional and self-published books is blurring. Ultimately, readers — like my young friend — will set the pace and tone for choosing between those two approaches. And it seems that as long as a book captures a reader’s heart, it won’t matter how it made its way onto the bookshelf.

DID YOU KNOW?

Writescape self-publishes on a regular basis. At our Spring Thaw and Turning Leaves retreats, we prepare a 35-page workbook to support writers on retreat with inspiration, ideas, prompts, tips and helpful information.

When Gwynn and I published Inspiration Station, our “retreat in a paperback” in 2010, we paid for a quality layout and print product. And you can bet that book was edited, proofed and re-proofed before it came off the press.

It’s sold out right now but plans are in the works to bring it out in an electronic version. Stay tuned.

The Gift of Flaws

The Gift of Flaws

Ruth E. Walker

“Everybody loves a flawed character.” That’s a truism we hear often. A character with a flaw is, of course, channelling human qualities. After all, even the people we love the most in our lives carry “the stuff” that makes them imperfect.

My beloved aunt, who reads all kinds of books, loves Alice Munro, P.D. James and Margaret Atwood, and is in her happy place with a challenging crossword puzzle yet lacks the confidence to attempt to understand poetry. “I’m not clever enough,” she says.

The woman who loves language and words can’t understand poetry? But I cut her some slack because I love her.

So, too, will your readers cut you some slack when your characters reveal their flaws. But you want more than a reader’s understanding. You want those idiosyncrasies, characteristics and flaws to benefit your story. And they will when you use them deliberately to affect aspects of your story.

The following is by no means a full list of flaws. It’s a sampling just to give you something to think about as you work with your characters. Flaws affect actions, reactions and interactions:

Physical Flaws

Genetic or resulting from an injury, a physical weakness creates opportunities in your story

  • contrast (self against a perceived perfection in other characters)
  • sympathy (plays on your readers’ emotions — especially useful for villains)
  • motivation (especially strong when the flaw relates to character goals)

Consider Shakespeare’s Richard III; a villainous King of England but his motivation for power has a natural home in his deformity and how others treated him. Superman is invincible…except around Kryptonite.

Emotional Flaws

So much of what we do is driven by our emotions. Your characters are no different.

  • baggage (Mother always liked you best — affects every action/reaction)
  • weakness (from dieting failures to adultery — endless plot possibilities)
  • neediness (operating through others’ approval fuels relationships)

The strongest characters in fiction are most successful when they have an emotional weakness of some type. In Game of Thrones, Ser Jaime Lannister is motivated by his forbidden love of his sister, Cersei. Despite his strengths, this one passion affects all of his decisions.

Behavioural Flaws

From obsessive compulsive to egomaniacs, personality flaws drive characters to extremes. And those extremes can form some of the most intriguing characters.

  • focus (sees the trees, sees the forest, sees how it’s all connected)
  • restrictive (painting self into that corner and struggling to escape)
  • creative (artist, scientist, surgeon, magician…endless character options)
  • social (friendly, adulterer, won’t keep their subdivision garden neat)

Sherlock Holmes, anyone? Dozens and dozens of books, movies, television series…all from just one fascinatingly flawed character.

Applying the Flaws

Consider a character that you’ve already started to work with. Add a flaw — physical, emotional, or behavioural.  What changes? Can it affect your plot? Does it enhance your themes? Has the tension gone up a notch? What about relationships — any shifts in how characters interact with each other?

And what if you change up the flaw? A whole new ballgame? Oh, the possibilities are as limited as your ability to experiment.

 

Turning Leaves 2018

Turning Leaves 2018

November 2 – 4, 2018

It’s our tenth anniversary and Writescape is celebrating in style! Our guest author this fall is…

Andrew Pyper: Canada’s answer to Stephen King

Bestselling author Andrew Pyper’s books expertly explore the mysteries of the dark and disturbing. His short stories and novels have thrilled readers in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K.

Among his many prizes, he’s been awarded the Arthur Ellis Award, the International Thriller Writers Award for Best Hardcover Novel, the Grant Allen Award for contributions to Canadian crime and mystery literature, and been listed in The New York Times Notable Books and The Globe & Mail‘s 100 Best Books of the Year.

Andrew is also a dynamic creative writing teacher who routinely sells out his workshops. Enjoy a Friday evening fireside chat with Andrew and a Saturday morning workshop to focus on your skills and move your writing to a whole new level.

Andrew’s latest book is The Only Child:

 Andrew’s most recent novel:…radically reimagines the origins of gothic literature’s founding masterpieces – Frankenstein, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Dracula – in a contemporary novel driven by relentless suspense and surprising emotion. This is the story of a man who may be the world’s one real-life monster, and the only woman who has a chance of finding him.
 
Other books by Andrew Pyper: The Damned, The Demonologist, The Guardian, The Killling Circle, Lost Girls, Kiss Me (stories), The Trade Mission, Wildfire Season

 

TURNING LEAVES 2018 BROCHURE

REGISTRATION IS NOW OPEN

A $250 non-refundable deposit will secure your place in this retreat.

Fall 2018, we’re celebrating our 10th anniversary with a special discount of $100 for anyone who has attended five or more Writescape residential retreats (Turning Leaves or Spring Thaw.)

At Turning Leaves, we build a retreat for the writer and the writing:

  • workshops to fire up your pen
  • creativity and group sessions to inspire you
  • private, uninterrupted writing time in cottage country setting
  • tailor your retreat to suit your needs
Chatting over dinner in the Heritage Dining Room
Chatting over dinner in the Heritage Dining Room

 

Meals and accommodations:

Turning Leaves 2017 with Vicki Delany
  • lakeview dining in the Heritage Dining Room
  • private or shared accommodation in Fern’s Fireside Inn
  • rooms have wood-burning fireplace, fridge, free WiFi
  • Fern Resort is 90 minutes from Toronto in a quiet bay on beautiful Lake Couchiching

Resort amenities:

  • indoor pool, Jacuzzi, steam room, sauna
  • exercise room
  • nature trails, outdoor jogging track
  • spa treatments (by appointment, extra charge)
  • onsite pub (additional charge)

Fees 

  • Lakeview Room Single Occupancy $895
  • Landview Room Single Occupancy $865
  • Landview Room Double Occupancy $795
  • Day Rate $475

Discounts

  • Retreat alumni $30
  • Members of writing organizations $30
  • Anniversary special discount $100

REGISTER NOW A $250 non-refundable deposit will secure your place in Turning Leaves 2018

PLEASE NOTE: When you hit the “Add to Cart” button, the PayPal order will show up at the top of the column to the right. To be taken to the secure PayPal to finish your purchase, click on the yellow PayPal button. You can use a credit card on the PayPal site – you do not have to have a PayPal account.

Questions? info@writescape.ca