Submit, I Say

Submit, I Say

Ruth E. Walker

I’ve been quoted more than once as suggesting “If you don’t submit, you’ll probably never be published.” It’s a good line and one that I’ve used in workshops and networking events. But lately, I’ve been thinking maybe I should take my own advice.

Tania Hershman

I subscribe to a few newsletters, some of which share details on calls for submissions. When Tania Hershman’s ShortStops newsletter arrived today, I took a minute or twenty to look at what U.K. magazines and anthologies are seeking these days. Two themed issues caught my attention and I reviewed what unpublished work I had that might fit the themes. Less than thirty minutes later and I had two submissions crossing the Atlantic and arriving in the U.K. for consideration. Confirmation emails back to me in seconds.

So much easier than the old days of printing the submission, finding the envelope, affixing the stamp, ensuring the S.A.S.E. (self-addressed, stamped envelope) was inside, walking to the mailbox and then patiently waiting six months to hear. I sat in self-satisfied reflection for a couple of minutes.

The mirror doesn’t lie

And then I reflected on my submission record for the past six months. And I didn’t go back more than six months because, well, I know I wasn’t doing much better back then either.

Not too impressive:

  • One submission two months ago to an agent that was, in fact, a revised submission from what I sent her in late July. Good news is that the agent was quite happy to receive my revision. Bad news is that I’m still waiting.
  • One submission of three poems to a literary journal last fall.
  • One poem submitted to an online contest last month.

In other words, not much for a working writer to look back on. Sure, I’ve been busy revising my latest novel manuscript. I’ve also been working as an editor and writing coach and, yes, that is demanding but fulfilling work. However, back when I was commuting to downtown Toronto and pulling in a regular paycheque, I was submitting a lot more of my work. Clearly, I needed a self-kick in the pants.

If you don’t submit, you’ll probably never be published.

Well, that is true. And it is also true that sending your work out carries the risk that it will be rejected. That’s the tough part of being a writer who wants their work to be published. So why have my submissions slowed down? Do I not want my work to be published? Or am I afraid of rejection?

I don’t think it’s really any of the above. I just think my focus had shifted to concentrate on other writers and I kind of left me—the writer me—behind. I’ll also admit that finding the ending for the novel has been a lot tougher than I banked on. While I was making those revisions, I didn’t want to think about short fiction, poetry or plays. I just wanted to reach the finish line.

So now, I’m back in the game. While I won’t be submitting weekly, I’m no longer ignoring the calls for submissions. In the past, I’ve often had unpublished material that worked with a particular theme or publication. And just as often, a call for submissions has sparked a story idea in me.

So I’m going to pay attention and, one way or the other, I’m going to remember that I’m a writer—one who plans to submit and craft new material far more often than she has in past year. How about you?


There are plenty of newsletters that can land in your INBOX with calls for submissions inside. Besides Tania Hershman’s ShortStops, here’s a couple more you should consider:

Literistic is based in Victoria, B.C., and offers two monthly submission services. One is free and is what they call their shortlist, arriving monthly with a list of opportunities coming up next month. I subscribe to the shortlist right now but my plan is to upgrade to the annual $58 list. That one is curated to your interests. Here’s how founders Liam Sarsfield and Jessie Jones describe it on their website:

If it’s fiction deadlines for publications that pay and are located in the United States that you’re looking for, well, we’ll keep you on top of those. And if it’s poetry deadlines for publications that pay and don’t have reading fees, that’s no problem, we can keep you on top of those too. Imagine Literistic is your new robotic literary agent (less tweed, more whitespace). You’ll never have to cruise another crappy database again. 

Poets & Writers is a U.S. based writers’ magazine. Their weekly newsletter often has submission information. For example, last month’s weekly newsletters included:

  • 57 Upcoming Contest Deadlines (Feb 1)
  • 480 Small Presses Ready To Publish Your Work (Feb 8)
  • 300+ Writers Retreats Where Your Big Book Could Be Born (Feb 15)*

(*Of course, if you really want a writers’ retreat that’s big on book midwifery and writerly support, you can always consider our Spring Thaw at Elmhirst’s Resort on Rice Lake in Ontario: April 20 – 22 or choose the extend your pen option and stay until April 25)

Facing “The Other” in Fiction

Facing “The Other” in Fiction

Ruth E. Walker

Bias is a tricky frame of mind. As writers, our biases deserve our attention because they affect how we write.

Our experiences — from infancy to adulthood — shape how we see the world and the other people who we interact with. Media and popular culture. Schoolyards. Neighbourhoods. Travel. It all reaches our senses and informs us about “the other.” And that drills down to how we write characters, create cultures and societies, and even what parts of the landscape we include in our settings.

But bias is learned. Sometimes, “the other” is not seen as such until something or someone tells us so. I used to think it was a natural human reaction to identify “the other” (the person who is not PLU: People Like Us.)

But I was wrong. That bias of identifying “the other”, turns out to be more socially constructed than a natural human reaction. I know this because it happened to me.

1978: A Hard Lesson

Forty years ago, I was a young bride newly moved to London, Ontario. I got a receptionist job at an employment agency. I started out handing out application forms and giving typing and aptitude tests to people looking for temporary or full time work. I’d usher them in for the interview with the professional interviewer.

Eventually, I started offering up insights and feedback to the professionals from my interactions with the applicants. In a couple of years, I was interviewing the inexperienced applicants. You know…those the professionals didn’t have time for. Persons with disabilities. Persons of colour. In short, the less-likely to be sent on for job assignments, the more likely they got me for an interview. Those days, it was a great example of the need for equity in employment.

By waelder – Own work, CC BY 2.5,

One day, the professionals were away and I got to interview a “walk-in” keypunch operator. Back then, computers needed skilled keypunchers to input data. This young woman had taken all the courses. She completed the co-op training. She was dressed professionally and I enjoyed chatting with her. I sent her for an interview at one of the largest industries in London at the time.

The next day, the boss called me in to her office. The company wanted to hire my applicant. But my boss was distressed and angry. “Why on Earth did you send that woman to X company?” she demanded.

“Because she was qualified,” I answered, flustered.

“But she’s a [the woman’s last name],” my boss said. I wondered what the heck her last name had to do with anything, especially her job skills?  And then my boss continued. “She’s a wahoo from the reservation. She’ll work long enough to collect unemployment and then quit.”

A wahoo? I’d never heard the term before. I didn’t understand why my boss was so annoyed. How could she know what would happen with this woman? Reservation? The light started to leak into my brain and I realized she meant the woman was from a First Nation. But I remained confused.

I came from the suburbs in Toronto. I didn’t know a darn thing about reservations. I’d never interacted with Indigenous Canadians, so there was no framed experience. I had simply interviewed a woman who qualified for a job.

And, by the way, she got the temporary job. She held the job. She got hired on full time. She could be working there still and is maybe a senior executive. Who knows?

Letting More Light In

The experience planted a seed in me about this idea of bias. I held onto this seed during my career in Human Resources. I took HR courses on equity, gender issues, discrimination. I wanted a better understanding of how to move past knee-jerk reaction and find the way to human-to-human connection.

I’ll admit to failing, more than once. But the point is, I hope, that I didn’t stop looking for the human instead of “the other”. And I bring that seed—and desire to connect human to human—to my life as a writer. I don’t want to write stereotypes. I don’t want to assume…I want to know about others.

My current work in progress is a science fiction set off-world among people who hold values and beliefs far different from my experiences. And those people are split into two distinct societies with opposing interests, religions and social/political structures. It’s a mess. And it’s a lot of fun to write because I get to explore the world of bias and misunderstanding.

Of course, it’s fiction so I can imagine all sorts of craziness. But even born out of my imagination, my fiction also carries some of my biases. However, here’s where the awareness comes in: I pull the rug out from under my own ideas of “perfection.” And it taught me things. I have learned that, for example, matriarchal societies are not necessarily all nurture and love. Indeed, given the right ingredients, any perfect world can fall apart in a matter of one or two generations.

Bias. It affects how we see and respond to the world. As writers who want to craft truly human stories, we will be wise to keep our biases in mind.

I encourage you to explore your own biases in fiction. And give them some consideration in your life as well. It might open some doors you never knew were there, just waiting for you to come by.

Power Up Your Dialogue

Power Up Your Dialogue

Ruth E. Walker

Excerpt from “Shooter”, award-winning Young Adult novel by Caroline Pignat:

I meet his eyes. Hold them for a moment. “Thanks…Hogan.” He shrugs it off like it’s no big deal. But it is, for me, it’s huge.
“Okay–but your brother is definitely dead,” Xander blurts at Hogan. “That I know because–.”
“Xander!” Isabelle cuts him off. “Geeze, don’t you have a filter?”
“No.” Confused, he looks down at his camera. “I never use one. I’d rather see things as they really are.”
We sit in awkward silence, looking everywhere but at each other.
“He’s right. It’s true.” Hogan lets out a deep breath. “It’s been two years. I should be able to at least say it.”
But he doesn’t.
Xander tilts his head and stares at Hogan. “But it’s true that you killed him?”

In fiction, well-crafted dialogue like Pignat‘s can take my breath away. But what if your dialogue is so over-written, unrealistic or dull that your reader wants your characters to stop breathing? Or at least, stop talking.

I get to read a lot of dialogue from writers at all stages of their writing career. For example, I read and assess self-published works from potential members of a national writers’ organization. I’m also a coach and editor working closely with writers seeking to polish their manuscripts. And I teach workshops that focus on crafting excellent dialogue in fiction.

I’ve read some fantastic and engaging dialogue. And I’ve read dialogue that felt like listening to someone recite the nutritional contents of a milk carton. Believe me, you want the words your characters speak to be fantastic and engaging. No 19% of vitamin D for you.

Dialogue has work to do

I’m always surprised when writers miss opportunities to make dialogue work for them. Dialogue is not filler, nor is it secondary. It’s a multi-tasking powerhouse and writers would be wise to remember that.

But even more important, there are technical effects that support and enhance your story. The following are just a few examples of the potential for spoken words:


  • propel your narrative forward with action: “Get up! They’re swarming the gates.”
  • foreshadow, suggest, nudge: “Are you sure the doors are all locked?”
  • establish setting, time, era: “Mistress, your limbs are showing ‘neath your petticoat!”


  • convey emotional state: “Every time I look at you, I see her, alive again.”
  • highlight personality/idiosyncrasies: “Beans can’t never touch meat on my plate. I won’t eat it!”
  • establish culture/social background: “Ach lass, will you no’ be getting down from there?”
The art of character-speak

If we wrote dialogue like true, normal conversations, we wouldn’t have readers. Most real life conversations are a jumbled mess, peppered with ums, ers and ahs, interruptions, half-finished sentences and the shorthand of shared experiences.

For readers, dialogue is the illusion of active listening, of looking from person to person as a conversation unfolds. Readers also enjoy an increase in white space to ‘rest’ their eyes. Conversations create the dynamic that excites readers and keeps the story moving forward.

The job of the writer is to put words in the mouths of our characters and make it all sound natural while making sure it does some of that multi-tasking work we want it to produce.

Here are two approaches to consider.

1. Take out words to give a more natural flow. Start with a basic conversation.

“Did you see that cat get run over by the bus?”
“What cat are you talking about?”
“Frank’s old tabby cat, Tibby.”
“I didn’t see a thing. I guess Frank will be a mess.”

By taking out a word here and there, and giving a bit of a tic to one of the speakers, we also get a bit more flesh on the character.

“You see that cat get runned over by the bus?”
“What cat?”
“Frank’s ol’ cat, Tibby.”
“Didn’t see a thing. Guess Frank’ll be a mess.”

2. Use surprise or the unexpected to up the tension. Real life is often surprising when our conversations with a neighbour or colleagues go off to places we didn’t expect. Do the same thing in your dialogue because there is nothing like potential conflict to tempt your reader.

“Hi, Andrea.”
“Janice? It is you.”
“It’s so good to run into you, Andrea. You look amazing.”
“Why did you hide him from me?”

Knowing when to bring in dialogue

If there is a formula for when and where to use dialogue, I’d love to know what it is. I can say this much: When I look over my fiction, I see that I use dialogue most often when I need to raise the stakes or create conflict or tension in the story.

I don’t mean that the “conflict” or “tension” needs to be dramatic verbal combat. There are gradations and shades to tension and conflict, so sometimes that means being subtle in how I construct those conversations between characters.

Brushstrokes can be more effective than a gallon of paint. With those big scenes of a major reveal or emotion, I will often default to dialogue. But I also use dialogue for subtext and quiet discoveries.

Choosing to write scenes primarily through dialogue, action or narrative, is intuitive for most writers. But when looking at your second or third drafts, pay attention to where you’ve made those choices.

It could be that what you’ve shared in a long, explanatory passage of mostly narrative just might be better delivered through conversations between your characters.

Did You Know?

We were recently asked what a writing coach does. A writing coach supports writers at different stages of the creative process. At Writescape, we often work with writers who just want to know if they are on the right track.

Sometimes a writer needs help with specific techniques like Point of View, dialogue or story structure. And sometimes, a discouraged writer just needs someone to prompt or encourage them.

Coaching services should be tailored to your unique needs and timetable. Writescape’s  coaching services combine online, mail and telephone or in-person communications — depending on geographic, time and similar circumstances.

Contact for more information on our coaching and editing services for writers.

A Writer’s Listening Skills

A Writer’s Listening Skills

Ruth E. Walker

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

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

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

Hearing is believing

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

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

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

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

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

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

I beg your pardon

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

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

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

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

Solitary craft still needs the world

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Paying It Forward: Writers’ Karma

Paying It Forward: Writers’ Karma

Ruth E. Walker

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

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

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

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

Making the difference

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

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

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

Spread the support

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

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

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

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

More than feeling “good”

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

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

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

Did You Know

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

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

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

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

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

Places that support writers:

Literacy programs:

Honouring Ruth Walker

Honouring Ruth Walker

Ruth E. Walker

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

PHOTO: John Nordell / The Christian Science Monitor

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

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

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

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

Adding ink to your porridge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Power in a name

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

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

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

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

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

Taking on the power

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

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

Did You Know?

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

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

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

CAA One-on-one Feedback

CAA One-on-one Feedback

November 18, 2017

Gwynn Scheltema and Ruth E. Walker are offering the Canadian Authors’ Association, Niagara Branch, a special extra on November 18. After the 3-hour creative writing workshop (10 a.m. to 1 p.m.), What’s in Your Writer’s Wardrobe?*, this dynamic team of writing instructors and editors will conduct half-hour one-on-one feedback/consultation sessions.

*Workshop details

Contact: Charlotte King at to register for this free workshop

Thanks to Canadian Authors Association, Niagara Branch and St. Catharines Public Library for co-sponsoring this event.

One-on-One Sessions include:

  • written feedback from either Gwynn or Ruth on up to 10 manuscript pages [**see below]
  • a one-on-one session with either Gwynn or Ruth to discuss the feedback
  • an opportunity to ask questions, discuss writing plans and potential markets

Interested participants must:

  • email up to 10 manuscript pages in advance to
  • provide material and payment no later than November 15.

Gwynn’s and Ruth’s feedback sessions are a featured cornerstone of their annual writers’ retreat, Spring Thaw. Skilled editors, they excel at finding a writer’s strengths and offering insights to specific areas that can benefit from further development. Because they are also writers, they understand that the best feedback needs to be specific and constructive.

Maximum of 6 participants.

Fee: $30 + HST includes written feedback from both Gwynn and Ruth

$30.00 CAA Niagara Feedback

Once you select Add To Cart, your shopping cart appears in the right-hand column of this page. You don’t need a PayPal account to use this secure payment method. You will need a credit card.

$3.90 HST will be added by PayPal at the checkout.

**Standard manuscript page:

  • double spaced
  • 12 point font – Calibri, Arial or Times New Roman
  • minimum 1 inch margins all round
  • paginated
  • name and title in header on each page


Serious About Being Funny

Serious About Being Funny

Ruth E. Walker

Every year at Turning Leaves, our fall writers’ retreat, we invite a special guest to join us for the weekend. Usually the guest is an author but we’ve also had one of Canada’s top literary agents.

No matter who we have join us, they always bring inspiration and ideas to our participants. We thought it would be interesting to visit a few of our previous guests’ websites or blog posts, and offer you a peek into the people who bring their magic to Turning Leaves each year. Let’s start today with award-winning children’s author Richard Scrimger (Turning Leaves 2012).

Richard had to be one of the funniest guest authors we’ve had join us, posing in his unique way for our traditional group photo.

His website is a delight, especially his “nothing” link that links to, well, lately, it’s been a crazy excerpt from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing featuring Richard. Sort of.

But Richard is serious about the craft, and has written lots for adults with an acclaimed novel and recurring appearances in the Globe and Mail, Chatelaine and, most recently,Today’s Parent.

Richard is also a highly successful author of award-winning books for young readers, from picture books to young adult novels. He’s recognized by librarians, booksellers and his many young fans for his snappy dialogue, intriguing characters and courage to take on difficult topics in a refreshing way. His most recent book, Downside Up, explores how a young boy deals with heartbreaking grief by travelling to an alternate universe.

On Richard’s website, the FAQs (frequently asked questions) are rich in humour and his trademark directness. Geared for his younger readers, there are some gems for writers of all ages. Here’s a couple of examples:

9) If you get ideas from other people, isn’t that stealing?

Yes. What’s your point?

9A) Isn’t stealing a bad thing?

No. Of course I don’t steal anyone’s words – that would be plagiarizing, and a very bad thing indeed – but I’m always on the lookout for a good idea. When I come to a really interesting bit in a book or a movie, I think: How did the writer do that? Then I try to figure out a way to use the idea myself.

17) What advice do you have for someone who wants to become a good writer.

This one is easy. In order to write well, you have to read well. Art is derivative. Your teachers are right when they tell you to Write what you know, but part of what you know is what you read, so I’ll say: Write what you read. If you love science fiction, try writing a science fiction story like your favorite author. Read everything. If they tell you to read a book, give it a try. If you like it, read some more by the same author. (If they tell you not to read a book – read it anyway. I’m no good at censorship. Hate literature is evil, but I figure you’re smart enough to spot it when you come across it.)

All right, I have time for one more question …..

18) Where do you get your ideas?

Think of my head like a department store. I go through it floor by floor and pick out what I need to furnish my story. 1st floor: painful camp memories, humorous lunch-room episodes, first love, Christmas Eve, going to the beach. 2nd floor: yesterday’s newspaper, last week’s visit to the dentist, favourite books, meals, Simpsons episodes, dance moves. 3rd floor: that weird thing my friend Fuzz found in his attic, my aunt’s memory of the great depression, Grandpa’s best birthday ever, and so on. You can do this too. Your selection will be different, but the process of idea collection is the same. Don’t forget the Bargain Basement, where all the really scary stuff is.

Needless to say, our weekend with Richard was a learning experience. It was also a lot of fun. In future posts on The Top Drawer, we’ll stop by the websites of some of our other guest authors. Poke around. See what we can find.

And share a few gems with you.


At Turning Leaves writers’ retreat, our guests offer a Friday night fireside chat where we all get to ask questions and learn insights into the craft or the business of writing. And on Saturday morning, there’s always a hands-on workshop, created by our guests especially for our retreat participants.

Our 2017 retreat is nearly full but we still have a couple of spots open. All the lakeview rooms are taken but we have landview options or, if you’re located close by, we have a day rate available.

Courage Writer & Change the World

Courage Writer & Change the World

Ruth E. Walker

There’s all kinds of courage and lately, we’ve been witness to so many types of bravery that it seems the well of human strength could very well be bottomless. Sadly, the well of inhuman cruelty seems equally deep at times. Add to the mix: natural disasters of epic scale and all the chaos is no longer extraordinary…or surprising.

While the world can be a frightening and hope-sucking place, there are ways that writers can power through the mess.

And in the process, not only could you find a prompt for a story, it just might help you stay grounded in a troubled world.

The sanctuary of imagination

What would you do if what you thought were fireworks became bullets? Would you race away? Or stay to apply pressure on a stranger’s wound, never knowing if the next hail of gunfire would reach you? I’d like to think I would stay but there’s a small voice in the back of my head that whispers: who are you kidding?

If your neighbourhood is under military attack and you had only minutes to escape, what would you grab? Me? I’d like to think it would be our passports and survival kit but in reality, it would probably be some token, some useless item like a stone I picked up on vacation or a group family photo.

What if the water is racing up the basement stairs and the torrential rains outside show no sign of stopping? Do you move up to the second floor or head outside and hope to get to higher ground? And do you take anything with you — passport, wallet or a silly sentimental rock?

EXERCISE: Explore your characters: put them in a crisis situation and see how they handle it, watch what their hands reach for as the volcano explodes or the peaceful demonstration becomes a riot. Let the crisis arrive as if it is a film in your mind.  And it is especially interesting when you use a crisis that is not what you or your character would expect.

When you have the crisis, begin to write freefall (see About Freefall in Seven Tips for Inspiration.) This works well if you don’t “direct” the action; instead, follow the energy of the scene. Don’t stop to edit. Keep writing and see where your character will take you.

The Human Condition(s)

Every time I follow the news, I am struck by the misery so many people endure. Mass migrations. Earthquakes. Civil wars (though what is civil about any war is beyond me.) The scale is always so overwhelming that I struggle to process it.

But then we see the people who respond with kindness. With practical help. With shining a light on it all so we living-room observers can somehow hope again. Uplifting!

But then we see the people taking advantage of the turmoil. Looting. Profiting. Victim-blaming. Depressing!

But then we see the survivors who, despite everything against them, rise up and move forward. Inspiring!

We are a contradictory, unpredictable, amazing, terrifying, confusing and incredible animal, we humans. Will we ever all learn to be positive, to be present and listen to others, to find a way forward that benefits the world?

EXERCISE: Take a walk in the science fiction and fantasy sections of your local library. Look for Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 or Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The two titles show how from the darkest of times, one person can change the world when they take on an extraordinary burden. It is a theme explored in many works of these genres.

Consider the various Star Trek television series or any of the films in the “Star Trek” universe. The idea of the complexity of human behaviour is explored repeatedly in science fiction and fantasy. Any Trekker will tell you: boundaries are crossed. Preconceived ideas are challenged. There is hope.

Draft a plot outline or write an opening scene for a science fiction/fantasy story that explores human behaviour in an imagined world that is socially broken. Kick the editor off your shoulder and envision another world in chaos. Will you make room for hope? Surprise yourself.

The gift of the writer

Have you ever learned something life-changing from reading a story or book? Indeed, some of the best writing has altered thinking because it caused readers to question what they thought to be true.

Charles Dickens often wrote about the appalling conditions of the poor and working class in 1800s England. Because he created characters that readers cared about, he nudged more than a few into rethinking social responsibility. Consider this scene from A Christmas Carol where the wealthy protagonist is asked to help the less fortunate:

“At this festive season of the year, Mr Scrooge, … it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”
“Are there no prisons?”
“Plenty of prisons…”
“And the Union workhouses.” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”
“Both very busy, sir…”
“Those who are badly off must go there.”
“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”
“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

EXERCISE: Cold words presented from a cold and unfeeling character can help readers take a glance into the mirror. Create a contemporary scene in which a character reveals disdain or disinterest in a social issue of today. Opiod addiction. Famine in a faraway country. Indigenous rights and reconciliation. You pick from the dozens waiting for your attention and write the scene without any emotional embellishment. Just like Scrooge: cold and steely eyed.

Later on, you can opt to give your character a chance to care. But not in this scene. Not one bit.

Remember: the world may be a mess but the pen, and the hand that moves it, can craft stories to change attitudes and ideas. The redemption of Scrooge is a timeless and hopeful tale that continues to resonate more than a century after Dickens put pen to paper.


There’s a way to get a daily dose of positive. Upworthy is an online media company with this stated mission: Upworthy is on a mission to tell stories that bring people together — because we’re all part of the same story.

Here’s a Hallowe’en tale from 2016 that still holds power when two best friends of different faiths discover a way to celebrate their unity. Kids could teach us all.

Upworthy is based in the U.S. but many of their stories are international. Not every story Upworthy drops into your INBOX is a happy one. But they usually bring more than 11,000,000 subscribers a smile and often, offer ideas and inspiration for artists of all kinds. Because, after all, any organization that focuses on story understands its power to persuade and influence thinking.


Beta Readers & You

Beta Readers & You

Ruth E. Walker

The writer in the attic garret, a single candle barely illuminating the page, the scratchscratchscratch of the pen crossing the paper. Is this your idea of the writer’s lonely life?

Well, not this writer. Yes, the act of writing is solitary. And some of us do isolate ourselves for short periods of uninterrupted time. Sometimes, even with a candle or two. But eventually, even the most private of writers needs to surface and find readers. Because, with few exceptions, that is what writers crave: a connection to others through the writing.

At a recent workshop, one writer asked the others if they wrote with an audience in mind. The answers were as varied as the participants. Some start out with an “ideal reader” in their head; some brought in the idea of a reader later on, the second or third edit, for example. But we all agreed that eventually we work with the concept of someone actually looking at our words.

An agent. An editor. Readers.

So you have the final draft of your manuscript. Seeking publication and submitting our work is a challenge at best and often, it borders on terrifying. Surely there’s a simple way to feel more confident when you press the SEND button.

I belong to a fairly intense critique group: Critical ms. That intrepid bunch has saved my writerly bacon many times as they gave feedback on chapters and scenes every few weeks. And over the past summer, they all read my final draft manuscript. I know I’m lucky to have them; critique groups rarely look at the complete work.

So what if you don’t have a Critical ms in your life? You have the manuscript in hand, hoping to catch a publisher’s attention. And you want feedback from readers. Here’s where beta readers come in. They are not copy editors or proofreaders. Instead, they will read that entire manuscript and give you a reader’s response.

How to find beta readers

Beta readers often read your work for no charge. But some charge a fee. Decide in advance how you will ask for the favour or if you will pay experienced beta readers for the service. If you decide on paid readers, make sure you ask for and get recommendations on their past performance.

Connect with beta readers through networking, word-of-mouth opportunities and social media:

  • Workshops and conferences for writers are great places to meet other writers working at the craft, just like you. They can be your beta readers or connect you with their beta readers.
  • Offer to be a beta reader: give and you can receive. Besides, a wise writer learns from reading others’ writing.
  • Tell friends and family members you are looking for beta readers (proceed with caution: feedback from people you know and care about can be more emotionally energized than you realize.)
  • Connect through writing blogs, reader/fan-fiction websites, social media such as Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook. You can let others know you want beta readers through these platforms.
  • Be open to readers who are unfamiliar with your genre or topic. They might ask questions and see things that others gloss over when they read your work.

How to treat a beta reader

Once you find a beta reader or two, let them know what you expect. And give them the tools they need to do that.

  1. Don’t offer a rough manuscript to beta readers:
    • A polished manuscript is properly formatted: page numbers, chapter headings/numbers, 2-inch margins, double-spacing and indented paragraphs.
    • Work hard yourself first to ensure few typos, grammar glitches and logic slips
    • Imagine your beta readers talking with others: I just read this really confusing book. I couldn’t make sense of the timelines and the characters were just so flat…
    • Ask yourself: Is this draft complete and ready for readers?
  2. Present your manuscript professionally:
    • Have your polished draft ready in both electronic and hard copy formats.
    • Some want to read it more “book style” — 2 pages per sheet, landscape format; some want it in manuscript format (see point #1)
    • If they want a hard copy, be prepared to print it: don’t expect them to pay for the printing.
    • Ask your reader: How do you want to read this?
  3. Give your readers guidance:
    • Offer at least a cover page, outlining what you are looking for, such as: plot glitches, slow sections, any confusions, characters that don’t connect with the reader, etc.
    • Prepare a checklist if that is simpler for you and your reader, but leave lots of room for comments and questions.
    • Encourage your reader: I welcome any and all criticisms and suggestions, and appreciate your time in reading my book. Don’t worry about hurting my feelings.
  4. Use beta readers to help with your query or marketing:
    • You can include positive comments from your readers in your query letter. But keep it really brief and professional: Beta readers offered excellent feedback that helped refine the final draft.
    • If you’re self-publishing, a snippet of praise on the back cover or inside can help sell your book.
    • Example: A fast-paced and exciting thriller… A timeless love story that kept me reading to the end…
  5. Say thank you:
    • Send a personal note following up after they give you their feedback.
    • When your book is published, it may be appropriate to thank your readers inside.
    • Ask: I’d like to recognize your help. Can I mention your name in my acknowledgement page?

Remember: A beta reader is not there to feed your ego. Don’t take the comments personally. Perhaps you don’t agree; reading is subjective, after all. But always say thank you, nonetheless.

And if you are getting comments or questions from more than one reader on the same topic, perhaps you need to rethink your opinion. This just might save you from having an editor or agent ask you the very same questions.

Mark Coker

Mark Coker of Smashwords, the highly successful e-book distributor, has a few things to say about beta readers. He and his wife used a specific process for their novel Boob Tube to ensure their beta readers had the right tools to respond. He shared some great tips in Publishers Weekly online.

Do you use beta readers? Let us know about your experience.