10 Questions to Ask an Agent

10 Questions to Ask an Agent

It finally has happened. An agent is interested in you and your manuscript. But not so fast. Even if you like this agent, does that mean that they will do what you and your manuscript need?

Granted, you’ve done your research, which is how you queried this agent in the first place. But now you need to be certain that this is in fact a partnership that will work for both of you. Getting answers to these questions may help with that decision. And besides – you present as professional. Always a good place to start out from.

1.   Why did you pick me and my work?

This may seem like an ingenuous question, but it’s not at all naïve or simple. What answer you receive sheds light on where your agent will focus. There’s a world of difference between “I love your characters” and “The market is ripe for this type of book.” Neither reply is wrong – it just gives you a bit of insight. However, if an agent can’t answer this question, this isn’t a great sign for a working relationship. It’s an important question to start out with.

2.   What is the plan for the short term?

Sometimes, the short term involves edits directly from your agent that you’ll work on before your manuscript goes anywhere. Other agents may have readers who they send your manuscript out to for editorial feedback. In any case, it’s a rare manuscript that lands on an agent’s desk that needs no feedback and/or edits before going out on submission.

3.   How do you plan to present my manuscript to publishers?

Does your agent have specific editors/publishers in mind? Will this be a one-at-a-time approach or will it be simultaneous submissions? A focus on home turf or international markets? When you get the answer, there’s no reason to not ask why the agent is making this choice. And find out if you will receive a list of submissions for your own records. Open communication means you’re not in the dark about where your manuscript is going.

4.   Which publisher would be ideal for this book?

 This one is especially useful to give you insight into how connected your agent is in the publishing world. And how astute they are about your manuscript and finding it the best home for publication. Ideal doesn’t necessarily mean the biggest fish in the pond if ideal offers your manuscript benefits you hadn’t yet considered.

5.   Do you consult with your clients on any offers?

You want to be consulted and not leave it all to your agent. Given that you are the person who will be signing the publishing contract, you’ll want to have input with your agent beforehand. But even more important to you is to know about offers that your agent doesn’t recommend. If so, you want to know why your agent doesn’t think it’s right for you or the book’s journey. Maybe you have a perspective that could change the agent’s mind or at least suggest ways the publisher might sweeten the offer to your benefit. And just maybe, the agent has information you don’t know about. Remember, it’s all about communication.

6.   How often do you communicate with your clients?

It’s not just whether to send an email or make a phone call – you want to know what is the connection expectation here. Agents are busy and have real lives. But they are also in a working relationship with you. So there needs to be contact and you need to know what to expect. When your manuscript is out on submission, are you expected to wait to hear? Or will your agent send you weekly or monthly updates? Establish what is reasonable for both of you and save yourself one more level of anxiety. (Note: anxiety is a norm for writers but this will at least lessen your hourly need to check your email for updates.)

7.    How will I be represented on the agency website?

When looking for an agent, writers visit agency websites all the time. We’re looking for connections – writers we know personally and can ask about the agent, for example. We can also be looking for comparison writers/titles. Some agencies list their clients alphabetically; some list them by agent and some by genre/title. No matter how you show up, you want to know that you’ll be there, on the website even if your first book hasn’t yet been sold. (Note: have your bio ready to revise to fit the agency’s online style.)

8.   What social media do you use and what do you expect from me on social media?

Coordination is helpful for a great working relationship. While your agent’s role is to find that perfect home for your manuscript, you have a role as well to support your agent. Promoting one another reaps benefits you won’t always know about – but at the very least, it is a tangible approach of working together. Find a common platform or consider expanding your horizons to a platform you’ve not tried before.

9.    What happens when you or I choose to end our contract?

Every good contract is clear about how to end the relationship. But it’s good to hear directly from the agent about what they expect from you, and what you should expect to hear from them in this regard. Agents and clients part ways for many different reasons. In all cases, even if you are not happy with an agent, it is important to be professional and direct. Asking this question sets out that professional relationship before a contract is even signed.

10.   Do you have any questions for me?

Absolutely you need to give the agent the opportunity to ask you questions. Assuming that they haven’t been asking throughout your meeting, this is the agent’s chance to explore areas that are unique to you and your work. It’s a path to making even stronger connections with each other. And that is the foundation of any good relationship.

Ruth E. Walker asked some of these questions of her agent, Ali McDonald of 5 Otter Literary. Some she didn’t need to ask because Ali shared many of these details without any prodding. But Ruth did her research before the meeting and was ready, in case.

Social Media Gifts

Social Media Gifts

Ruth E. Walker

Recently, I attended a webinar put on by CSARN (the Canadian Senior Artists Resource Network.) The webinar was all about social media and presented by Sue Edworthy, a multi-disciplinary arts planner. Sue uses social media as tool for business but she admits limiting both her time and range of platforms to avoid stretching herself too thin.

I picked up some useful tips and ideas, some of which I’ve already put into practice but I’ll readily admit, social media – Twitter and Facebook in my case – is a big rabbit hole I approach carefully. I can disappear in there for hours. So I space out my visits to keep on track with deadlines and remain as positive as possible in my posts and shares. And besides, there can be a lot of negative energy on social media.

Despite knowing that there are so-called “haters” online, some of my best moments have come as a result of social media. For example, a tweet from a reader who missed the local book club visit led to a trip to Michigan for a luncheon presentation with a warm and welcoming women’s club. A Facebook question from a distant American relative led to a lovely book club session tucked away in the autumn-tinged hills of Stafford, Virginia. I’ve enjoyed other great experiences and support through social media.

So, I’m generally a believer in being online for the connections and for creative thinking. But the positive vibe of social media also nourishes others when we all keep that upbeat approach.

A tweet from BC author Frances Peck had a ripple effect that surprised and delighted me.

It started with a Thank You from Frances Peck on Twitter.

Frances was thanking me for my glowing review of her just-released book, The Broken PlacesIt was a well-deserved glow. But still, those comments from Frances made me smile. A lot.

And of course, I had to reply.

A snowballing effect

It could have stopped there. But my tweet reply garnered several “likes” – always a nice response.

And then my friend and colleague Heather O’Connor gave it all a boost by replying to Frances’s tweet. I especially loved the cheerful GIF she added to her post.

Once again, it could have stopped there. But as you likely figured out, it didn’t. And this next one was the nicest surprise of them all.

First, a bit of back story

Long-time readers of Writescape’s Top Drawer may recall how I’ve relished my time working with teens and young adults through the Durham District School Board. The energy and joy the participants of these creative writing workshops offered me can’t be measured. I watched wary students allow their shoulders to drop and their creative souls to escape onto the page.

And I don’t mean they all wrote like geniuses or even that words on the page would be their forever path. It was much more than that. For many of them, it was recognizing that being themselves and taking risks creatively was a doorway to showing them who they were and who they could become, what ever path they chose.

At least, that’s what I hope happened in those classrooms and arts camps over the years.

It’s this tweet that helps me believe that.

Of course, I replied with my gratitude. All the positive tweets from colleagues was, for me, a wonderful reminder that we may write in solitude but we never have to be alone. But this last one is precious: you never know how you can impact another person’s life. And that’s a gift of inestimable worth.

10 Books on Poetry Craft

10 Books on Poetry Craft

As a nod to April being poetry month, 10 on the 10th looks at the craft of writing poetry. So the books below are not poetry collections, but backstage glimpses into how poems are created and why, how they have evolved and how you can write poetry yourself.

Of course, this is not an exhaustive list, nor is it an “approved” or “recognized” list. This is a list of different aspects of writing poetry compiled by a lover of poetry and a work-in-progress poet. (Me, Gwynn Scheltema.) Some of these books I own, others have been recommended by friends and teachers at poetry courses. Be brave. Explore a few.

A Sky Full of Poems – Eve Merriam

This little book for children, is what got me started writing poetry. Eve Merriam explains the elements of rhythm, figurative language and other components of a poem with actual poems. Out of print now, it is still available as a used book.

How to Write Poetry – Nancy Bogen

An adult version of A Sky Full of Poems, this book covers the basics of the mechanics of poetry: meter, rhyme, traditional forms, sonics, tone, and rhythm. It also offers ways to get started.

The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry –  Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux

Want to dive deeper? This is the book I keep handy for its brief essays on the elements of poetry, technique, and suggested subjects for writing, with exercises—a kind of do-it-yourself course—along with tips on getting published and writing in the electronic age.

An Introduction to Poetry – X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia

My well-thumbed textbook from poetry studies at Trent University, this comprehensive yet accessible volume offers everything from how to read a poem, to writing critically about a poem. It explores everything from irony to word choice, from imagery to assonance. All aspects are illustrated with examples, supported with further reading lists, questions and exercises to fully engage.

20th-Century Poetry and Poetics – Edited by Gary Eddes

And just like aspiring artists study art history and the old masters, so modern poets can benefit from a study of how poetry has developed up to the modern day, and what was written by those that came before. Over 70 poet profiles with poems and 30 essays provide fascinating reading. I especially like that a large number of the poets featured are Canadian.

Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World – Jane Hirshfield

A fine poet in her own right, Hirshfield takes the reader through close readings of poems by famous poets from Dickinson and Bashō to Heaney and Bishop, and shows us how poems work.

The Art of Description: World into Word – Mark Doty

A master at evoking emotion in his own poems through description, this is a great book for poets looking to take their craft to another level. He explores the importance of describing the observable world and the inner experience of it, and the informing of each by the other. Doty’s “Description’s Alphabet,” an A to Z of random thoughts on description is just as relevant to prose as poetry.

Best Words, Best Order: Essays on Poetry – Stephen Dobyns

If you want to understand more about communicating with your reader, Dobyns guides the poet through the intricacies of voice and tone, metaphor, and pacing among other things.

In Fine Form: The Canadian Book of Form Poetry – Edited by Kate Braid and Sandy Shreve.

This all-Canadian anthology presents more than 25 forms and 180 poems arranged by section, one for each form, giving the form’s history and variations. Used in classrooms across the country, it covers formal poetry from sonnets and ghazals, triolets and ballads, to villanelles and palindromes and many more.

Rhyming Dictionary

This list began simply and ends simply, and there are many versions of rhyming dictionaries available including online. All I know is that I have a Pocket Oxford version that has been a mind helper for years and can travel with me easily.

A Starlit Story Gift

A Starlit Story Gift

Ruth E. Walker

Writers discover their stories in so many ways that it isn’t possible to list them all. An overheard conversation, an article in a newspaper, a name on a gravestone, a lived experience, a visual prompt, a first line in a writing exercise…the path to the writer’s muse can appear and take hold without warning. And suddenly–KAPOW!–the pen cannot be stopped until the tale is told.

And sometimes a writer is given the gift of a story. Heather M. O’Connor, a longtime friend of ours at Writescape, received such a gift a few years ago. The result? A timeless and beautiful book that belongs on everyone’s bookshelf.

I asked Heather a few questions about her new book and where it came from. Heather is a natural storyteller but this story wasn’t hers to tell. At least, not hers alone.

Where did you discover this story?

It all started when Ontario Parks asked me to write a blog post about the Ojibwe Horse. I’ve always been a horse-lover, so they had me at “horses.” But when they said, “nobody knows about them”, I knew it would be something really special. 

And it was. The Ojibwe Horse is an endangered semi-feral breed of horses that once lived in harmony with the Ojibwe people. The last four survivors were rescued from extinction, and spirited to safety. It had all the elements of a good story, even a happily-ever-after homecoming. 

Heather at Quetico Provincial Park

I finished the blog post, but the horses wouldn’t let me go. This wasn’t just a cool story. It was an important piece of Indigenous history. So I applied for a Marion Hebb Research Grant from Access Copyright and travelled up to Quetico Provincial Park to meet the horses for myself.

That’s where I met Darcy. As they say in Casablanca, “it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

Why didn’t anyone else write this story? In other words, why did Darcy Whitecrow and Heather O’Connor decide to write this book now?

Darcy Whitecrow
photo credit Ontario Parks

That’s a good question. Darcy is Ojibwe. He started an equine program at Seine River First Nation to help the youth in his community get in touch with their traditional heritage. But it’s just one ranch in one First Nation community. And I thought, there’s only so much Darcy to go around. What about all the other kids? How will they learn about this proud piece of their heritage?

And I wanted to help Darcy spread the word about the horses and the important work he’s doing. There are only about 150 left, and caring for them is very expensive. I couldn’t breed them or train them. But I could help Darcy’s words travel farther.

How difficult was it to write the book? Co-writing is not straightforward and you have a strong narrative voice of your own – did you have to decide on how best to get the story down on paper, writing as a team?

I actually went to Quetico planning to write a middle grade novel about a ranch. But I couldn’t get Darcy’s voice out of my head. He’s a born storyteller.

So I came up with the frame for the story — a grandfather teaching his granddaughter the history of the horses. But the history? That’s all Darcy — sometimes verbatim. And one line comes from an oral history we received from his friend Mike Ottertail.

The oral tradition is very strong in Darcy’s culture. Essentially, he taught me the story until I could tell it myself, very much like the grandfather in the book.

Was it a challenge to find a publisher – the right publisher – to publish this book?

It wasn’t, actually.

Second Story Press was creating these beautifully illustrated dual-language picture books. I’d read a couple — Missing Nimama and Stolen Words, both written by Melanie Florence. They were wistful intergenerational stories about culture and loss, themes that run through Runs with the Stars, too.

When I noticed that Katherine Cole, Second Story’s editor at the time, was doing blue pencil sessions at CANSCAIP’s [Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers] Packaging Your Imagination Conference, I signed up to see her. She loved the manuscript.

Where did the title come from?

Wiijibibamatoon-Anangoonan (Runs with the Stars) is the Ojibwe name given to the foal born at the end of the story. All Ojibwe Horses receive an Ojibwe name to honour their heritage.

Who is the ideal reader for this book?

Runs with the Stars is aimed at kids aged 3-8. But it could also be used to teach Indigenous history in classrooms up to Grade 6. After all, who doesn’t love a good horse story?

What hopes and dreams do you have for “Runs With the Stars”?

This is Indigenous history, so I hope it’s read in First Nation classrooms and used in traditional language programs. I’d love to see elders sharing it with kids, and kids reading it to parents who maybe lost their language in residential schools. I hope it stirs memories and starts conversations.

Anything you’d like to add?

Abbey Gardens Ojibwe Horse

If you’d like to meet two Ojibwe Horses, come to Abbey Gardens in Haliburton on Saturday, June 18. They’re holding a big family event with a book signing. Stay posted for the details.

I’m also having a horsey-themed book launch at Blue Heron Books in Uxbridge on April 30 10:00 to 11:30 a.m. I’d love to see you there!

Where can we purchase the book?

Runs with the Stars and Wiijibibamatoon-Anangoonan come out May 3. They’re both available for pre-order at your favourite independent bookseller.

Heather M. O’Connor is an award-winning freelance writer, editor and author. Her first picture book Fast Friends, illustrated by Claudia Dávila, was published by Scholastic Canada in 2020. Betting Game, her debut novel with Orca Books, was published in 2015. She also writes short stories, fantasy and historical fiction. Heather lives in Peterborough, Ontario.

Blog feature image: Ontario Parks

10 Ten-Minute Writing   Tasks

10 Ten-Minute Writing Tasks

Often you find yourself with a few spare minutes, but not enough to do anything meaningful with on your writing project—or so you thought. 

Here are a few suggestions for how to fit a little more writing-related moments into your day or make better use of your spare moments to stay connected to your writing project.   .  

Check in with the world

Mindfulness helps to keep you de-stressed and balanced. When you find yourself with a few minutes, check in with your world. Notice, notice, notice. Notice 5 things you can see, 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can smell, 2 things you can taste or touch and 1 description of how you feel. Practicing this often fills your creative well and gives you more to draw from when you get back to writing

Think and plan

I’ve always believed that thinking about my story is part of the writing process. Asking myself character questions, mulling over the why of an action my character just took, working through a plot dilemma, thinking up new characters and plot events….

Read

Stephen King said “If you don’t read, you can’t write.” Fiction, non-fiction, poetry, general news: it is all grist for the mill. Check out the latest posts from your favourite writing blogs, magazines or organizations. Have a “read it later” file to save articles to that you want to read but don’t have time or head-space for right now. Or pick up your present print book and enjoy a new chapter. If you prefer audio, use extra time to download your preferred listening material to use on your daily walk, while cooking supper or just relaxing on the porch with a beer. It’s so much nicer to have it ready to go when you need it, than having to use your walking time (or writing time) to download.

Research

If I’m in the writing zone, and I don’t know a fact, I usually just type a note to myself like this: Conrad drove up in his XXX car (HOTTEST CAR OF 1989) and research it later. Think of how many items you could look up in ten minutes.

Back up your files

Hurray!

Many of us know the awful sinking feeling of lost work. The next time you’re waiting for your lunch to finish cooking, why not take a moment and back up all your files. Better yet, get yourself hooked up to an automated cloud-based backup. There are many out there. I use Dropbox and it’s saved my bacon many times. I also do periodic flash drive back ups of particular files for an extra layer of comfort. Remember, you don’t have to back up everything. Sync only what needs to be backed up. Make yourself a checklist of what’s important if you like.

Create a checklist

Checklists are great for taking advantage of the think-it-out-once, do-it-many-times-efficiently approach to routine tasks (see previous tip) But there are many kinds of checklists, and in a few minutes, you can create one to use later, or refine and update an existing one. You can have editing checklists, marketing checklists and creative checklists like a “Character” list including items like: main external goal, strengths, weaknesses, emotional wound, secrets, greatest fears, favourite colour, phobias etc. etc.

Transcribe

If your journals are anything like mine, there are all sorts of hastily written ideas and beginnings of poems or stories. Some writers even write longhand first for all their writing. Use a few spare minutes to get some of them typed up on your computer. You can save them individually as progress files, or collectively in an ideas file. Or physically tag them with Post-its for transcribing later.

Network on social media

Use your spare moments to follow a new writer or publisher. Engage with people of all kinds in the writing world. Find and share a promotional post from a writer you admire, or research a new market for your own work. Just beware the rabbit hole…..

Google Yourself

Run a Google search on your name and /or your book title. I have found articles I’ve written reprinted without permission and then secured reprint fees. I’ve enjoyed and filed away comments or reblogs I wasn’t aware of. Googling also gives me an idea of what comes up first in the SEO algorithms, so I can address that if necessary.

Update your bio

Handy in a computer file, every writer should have several bios (long 100-300 and short 30, 50 and 100-word) ready to go for all the different forms they write in: poetry; short stories, etc. And those bios should be up to date, but it’s amazing how quickly they become stale. Take this time to update a least one. Don’t forget online bios and headshots too.

Why do you write?

Why do you write?

Why do you write? It seems like a simple question, but it’s not. Why we write (or create in any medium) can be as visceral as an urge you can’t deny, a simple desire to channel creativity, a deep-rooted emotional need to achieve or be accepted, a way to earn a living, or bits and pieces of all those things and more. Over our writing lives we often have different reasons at different times. All are valid.

Today’s guest blog comes from Aprille Janes, who I met over twenty years ago when we attended writing retreats together. These days, Aprille chooses to create through visual and fibre art, at her Stoney Bay Studio in Nova Scotia, but her message is relevant for any creative.

Aprille tells us why her answer to “Why do you create?” may have been wrong all along.

Guest post: Aprille Janes

Finding the Joy Again

I baked a cake from scratch this week and in the process, I learned something important about why I love making art. One thing that changes everything for me.

I used to love baking but haven’t done much of it in a long time. However, over the holidays I really got into the Great Canadian Baking Show on the CBC. The fact that bragging rights is the only prize seems to make the relationships more sincere and honest. They weren’t competitors as such but simply people with a common love for baking. Even the judges and show hosts exhibit a warmth and kindness that is an antidote to all the negativity and anger out there these days.

Getting Prepared for Something New

Inspired by the show, I looked for something to bake myself. I browsed cookbooks, Pinterest and recipe sites. I savoured the time searching for something special. It’s hard to make plans these days when Covid keeps blowing them up but this was one thing I could plan with confidence, one thing in my control. The process gave my outlook a real lift. (BTW – Click on link below the image if you want the recipe, too. )

Lemon Blueberry Ricotta Tea Cake

After choosing the recipe, I went shopping. I invested in a springform pan and a couple of other tools I was missing and the freshest ingredients. Not rushing the process is a gift whether I’m working in flour, fabric or paint. Taking time to anticipate and choose added to the enjoyment.

The Big Ah-ha!

When I got home, I made my cake, delighting in the scent of the lemon zest and the colour of blueberries. The warmth of baking filled my kitchen.

Finally, when the cake was done, I shared it with family and friends. I even posted the photo on social media along with the recipe. Because, in the end, seeing someone else enjoy something I make is why I do it. THAT was my big Ah-ha.

Why I Create

I finally get why I love making things. It’s not just painting for me. It’s about making art quilts and needle felting, baking and knitting and just working with my own two hands. I’d been making it hard when really, it’s so easy.

It’s the pleasure of making and the joy others take in what I’ve made that motivates me. Looking back, I can track the journey to this point but it felt like a bolt out of the blue. The business lens that I’d been looking through isn’t right for me.

I’d been struggling with a decision about Instagram. Marketing wisdom said I needed multiple accounts to share these other facets but removing the business mindset provided the answer. Sharing who I am is the common thread.

Processed with VSCO with au1 preset

So I’ll be shifting focus. I will share my art on social media but I will also share other things that bring me joy and satisfaction. I won’t be doing a newsletter any longer because I’m ‘retiring’ the business side to follow my heart.

My wish for you is that you too find something that warms your heart and gives you deep satisfaction.

Meet Aprille

Aprille has fond childhood memories of outdoor adventures and time spent near the water. Today, she lives by the Bay of Fundy and her art reflects this love of the outdoors. She divides her time between painting, fibre art, writing and teaching watercolour workshops.

Find her at:

10 Tips for Writing Steamy Scenes

10 Tips for Writing Steamy Scenes

Gwynn Scheltema. 

It’s February, the month for Valentines and all things romantic: love and…sex.

When I have to face writing sex scenes, I sometimes feel like I’m getting undressed in public. I feel like my mother is watching; like everyone will think I do all the things I describe. Do you ever feel that way? If you’re a writer, you’ll need to get over it!

Check out these 10 tips to help you.

1. Don’t be afraid to write outside your own experience.

Research and write just as you would for any situation you haven’t experienced personally. Read sex scenes by other authors and note which resonate with you. Ask yourself why.

2. Treat a sex scene like any action scene.

Have a reason to include it that involves advancing the plot or illuminating character, or developing a relationship.

3. Make your characters human.

Keep your characters human, flawed people, not a larger-than-life Adonis or Aphrodite. While romance has an element of wish fulfillment about it, if you make it so like a fairy tale, some readers won’t believe it.

4. Keep the sex real.

Sex is not always spectacular; it can be boring, mundane, or unsatisfying too. And it doesn’t always have to be completed. Interrupted sex can be quite a tease.

5. Get the timing right.

Don’t let things get hot and heavy in the most unlikely of moments and places in your plot. Don’t shove sex in because it’s been four chapters since the last tryst. Remember tip #2.

6. Get the choreography right.

Not just on a physically level, but on an emotional level too. Physically, make sure your transitions let us know if someone goes from standing to lying, or from facing to spooned. More importantly, let us know their emotional reactions and changes. The physical act by itself is just porn.

7. Be careful of metaphor and simile.

Clichés about stars exploding” will only undermine what you are trying to do. Find fresh and appropriate comparisons and don’t hide behind them to avoid being explicit or to add drama. And remember that sex involves all five senses. Use them!

8. Use the correct terms and don’t be offensive.

Research if you have to. If euphemisms pepper your scene, you’ll leave the reader giggling or cringing. Also be aware of the accepted sexual practices of your readership—cultural, orientation and age group—and stay within those boundaries.

9. Keep the scene brief.

Sometimes less is more. Subtle hints are often more effective than graphic description. Give readers enough to satisfy the moment, but leave them wanting more.

10. Know the benchmarks

Of course, not every publishing house is the same, but in general, you can follow these benchmarks:

  • Sweet: not consummated; details vague
  • Sensual: consummated, but infrequent – about 5% of word count max; details “fuzzy”, each sex scene about half a page; focusses on emotional impact
  • Steamy: more sensual than graphic, more scenes, language more graphic and direct
  • Hot/Graphic: raunchy, frequent, direct language, about 30% of word count is sex scenes; variety in locations, positions, who initiates etc.; bit of kink
  • Erotic: frequent, anything goes, still includes emotions, solid plot and good characters
  • Porn: focuses on actions only, little to no plot, characters shallow and stereotypical
Put it on Repeat

Put it on Repeat

Ruth E. Walker

It’s Groundhog Day and this morning Wiarton Willie or Punxsutawney Phil will have divined our weather future. Early spring. Late spring. It’s the same thing every year. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

If you know the Bill Murray film “Groundhog Day”, you’ve seen Bill’s hapless weatherman Phil Connors relive the same miserable day, trapped in a time loop he can’t escape – at least, not until he learns some essential life lessons: namely, what it is to be a true human being.

It’s a funny movie with some serious undertones. Phil is an unlikeable narcissist, lacking in compassion and empathy. But his blinders are lifted, through countless February 2nds, again and again, until he finally becomes the person he should have been all along.

The power of repetition              

Skilled writers and especially poets are well-familiar with the repetition tool. Sounds, words, images reappear to make connections, to emphasize or to treat the ear to an echo.

John Milton’s massive poem Paradise Lost has nearly 11,000 lines but the lines he gives to Lucifer ruminating on his kingdom in Hell are effective (and often quoted) repetitions:

The mind is its own place, and in it self

Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.

Milton repeats this idea later in the stanza, underscoring the Devil’s motivation:

To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:

Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.

Lines, stanzas and even separate poems reach out to one another. Even repetition in titles creates connecting threads (Milton’s Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, and the titles of many novels that are part of a series — Harry Potter, for example.)

There are many forms of literary repetition. Google will take you from “7 Types of Repetition” to “25 Literary Techniques of Repetition”, such as alliteration, assonance, negative positive restatement, parallelism, chiasmus – many of them sounding like weird medical conditions.

Whatever the term, repetition in all writing is a power tool. And as with all power tools, caution should be used.

Hammer or nail?

Description often needs a form of repetition to become clear to a reader. But writers can get tripped up when they go from nailing in another foundation board to set a scene or develop a character, to hitting the reader on the head with a hammer of unnecessary repetition.

For example:

               The child’s blue eyes were the colour of the sea, ever changing with the light and shadows.

That’s a lovely image, comparing eyes to the sea. If the child’s eye colour was significant to either the plot or character(s), that image could reappear at key points in the story. But a writer needs to make choices on how and when to repeat an image so that the reader doesn’t roll their eyes and mutter “I know, I know – eyes the colour of the sea – get on with it already…”

Rarely do you want an exact repetition.

“Look dear, the child’s blue eyes are the colour of the sea!”

“Yes my love, and did you notice how they change in light and shadow?”

Yuck.

But a wise writer can play with an image to craft echoes of ideas and add richness to a story.

“I took the stroller out to the boardwalk this morning. When the little one woke and sat up, the strangest thing happened. Just beyond the reef, a whale breached and she laughed. But when I looked at her, she had tears in her eyes. Remarkable.” He paused and glanced away. “And that laugh – at first, I thought I was hearing a dolphin. But it was her. The child.”

Press “repeat” in your story or hit the “delete” button?

Look for repetition in your own writing. Take a close look at narrative scenes, seek out descriptive words ask yourself the following:

  • Does this repetition have a purpose? Are you emphasizing for a reason?
  • If so, is it necessary here? Would it have more impact elsewhere in the story?

Now, do the same in action scenes.

  • Is the repetition adding to rising tension or is it getting in the way?
  • Would it be better to have it later or earlier in the story?

And finally, look closely at dialogue. Repetition in dialogue may relate to the way a character speaks, such as dialect or an idiosyncratic phrase or word (“oy!” or “Well now,…”) Or it may be a hammer, with characters essentially giving the same information that the reader already knows. Either way, it can be too much of a good thing.

  • Am I overusing a repeated phrase? Does it overtake the spoken words and get in the way of important information?
  • Are my characters saying the same thing unnecessarily?

At the risk of repeating myself, repetition is a writer’s tool. It has the power to overwhelm, confuse or bore your reader. Use it wisely, and you will craft unforgettable prose or poetry.

A happy two-fer

A happy two-fer

Gwynn Scheltema

In an earlier blog this year, I mentioned that I was concentrating on two projects this year. One, was to finish my poetry manuscript and get it published, which includes submitting more poetry to hopefully have more publishing credits to add to my pitch. The other was to steer a wonderful group of like-minded artists and art lovers to present the Northumberland Festival of the Arts (NFOTA) in September 2022.

This week I have the opportunity to further both projects at once. NFOTA has TWO calls for submissions open at the moment, and I’m going to submit. Both are free to submit to. I thought I’d share the details with you so you can submit too, and also ask you to spread the word.

The first call for a one-act play has been open since the fall, and will close on January 31, 2022, but you still have 2 weeks to write a play or to dust off a play you’ve already written and fine-tune it for the call.  

The second call is for an anthology of prose and poetry, Hill Spirits V. The first Hill Spirits Anthology was published by Blue Denim Press in 2012. This edition, the 5th in the series, will be launched at the Northumberland Festival of the Arts. The call area includes Northumberland, and all surrounding counties: Durham, Peterborough, Hastings and Prince Edward. The deadline for submissions is March 31, 2022.

Below are the details taken from the NFOTA website: www.festivalofthearts.ca

One Act Play

Guidelines

The Northumberland Festival of the Arts will present 3 staged readings of one act plays in 3 locations during the festival, scheduled for September 16th to October 2nd, 2022.

The play selection committee is looking for:

  • one act plays between 20 and 40 minutes long
  • never before produced scripts
  • casts of up to 4 interesting characters
  • strong plot
  • convincing conflict, development, and a satisfactory resolution (Is the protagonist challenged, or does the protagonist grow and/or change in some way, over the course of the play?)
  • gratuitous profanity is not advisable

DEADLINE FOR SUBMITTING SCRIPTS: January 31st 2022.

  • Queries can be sent to felicity936@gmail.com 
  • Email scripts to Jessica Outram: jessica@creativitycoaching.ca 
  • Please put NFOTA Play Submission in the subject line.

Thinking about content…

No tragedies at this time—our theme for the festival is: “Celebrating Resilience.”

Will a Northumberland audience see the play’s relevance to our lives now?

How do we keep the audience’s attention? Certainly not by giving them more information but, on the contrary, by withholding information—by withholding all information except that information in the absence of which the progress of the story would become incomprehensible.”—David Mamet in On Directing Film

Hill Spirits V Anthology

Guidelines

Theme

 In support of the Northumberland Festival of the Arts, the inspiring theme for our fifth anthology is “Celebrating Resilience”.

Consider the way a tree bends and flexes during a violent storm or a flower pushes through the pavement of a parking lot. And in the words of this Japanese proverb: “Fall seven times, stand up eight.” Synonyms for resilience include: flexibility, durability, toughness and strength.

If you are reading these words, you have overcome adversity, loss, disappointment, misfortune, heartache and much more. And if you’re a writer, the beginnings of an inspirational story or poem has already begun to tease your grey cells and fire up your neurons.

Who may submit

Residents of the following eastern Ontario counties: Northumberland, Durham, Peterborough, Hastings and Prince Edward.

When to submit

Submit between now and March 31,2022

What to submit

Submit prose and poetry, fiction and nonfiction. Rather than memoir, please use personal narrative. (A personal narrative focuses on an event while a memoir focuses on the author.) 

Material should be original, in English and preferably unpublished. Previously published is only an option if you own the copyright. No excerpts from longer pieces. Although submissions will be edited, please self-edit your submissions.

Writers may submit a maximum of two pieces; and those submissions may be a mix of prose and poetry.

  • Fiction is limited to a maximum of 3000 words per story. 
  • Non-fiction – a maximum of 2500 words.
  • Poetry up to 50 lines including stanza breaks

Preparing your submission

Be sure to edit your submission – aim for publication ready.

Formatting:

  • typed and double-spaced (EXCEPT POETRY)
  • 12 point font  Times New Roman
  • minimum 1” margins on all sides
  • insert header with name/one word from title/page number

Sending your submission

All work should be submitted as attachments by email to hillspiritsv@gmail.com with the subject heading on the email:  Anthology 2022 (Your Name)

In the body of the email, include: your full name (or pseudonym if applicable), the title(s) of the piece(s) and a press-ready bio [max 50 words]. Do not attach this information in a separate file.

Attach submission pieces as separate documents to a single email in MSWord (PC or Apple platform) saved as .RTF or .DOC or DOCX .

Submitting Cover Art

We are accepting submissions for cover art. Images of (photographs, paintings, drawings, etc.) must be at least 300dpi, apply to both front and back covers and relate to the theme – Celebrating Resilience. Email Anthology 2022 cover art to  hillspiritsv@gmail.com

Author Copies and Copyright

Copyright remains with the author.

Each contributor may buy copies of the anthology at a discounted author rate.

The launch will be held as part of the Northumberland Festival of the Arts (NFOTA) in September 2022.

Simultaneous Submissions

Are accepted, provided that you identify them as such and agree to notify us immediately if a piece has been accepted elsewhere.

Acceptance

If your work is accepted, we will contact you by April 30, 2022 at the email address you provide.  

Any questions?

Email hillspiritsv@gmail.com  and put QUERY ANTHOLOGY 22 in the subject line.

Last Word

So, there you have it. Two chances to submit your work for free. Two ways to support the arts in this region. Two ways to support your own writing journey. And two ways to help me with my projects. It’s a win-win all around.

Help Spread the Word

Please share this post or this poster by email or social media.

10 Musical Gifts for Writers

10 Musical Gifts for Writers

Have you ever watched a movie without music in the background? No? There’s a reason for that. And it’s why even in the silent film era, many theatres had a pianist or organist adding a soundtrack to augment the Keystone Cops shenanigans or tender moments with Chaplin’s Little Tramp. Music has a way of adding emotional heft to what we see on the screen.

Taking that one step further, in this 10 on the 10th we’re offering ways that writers can opt to use music to support, inspire and even direct words on the page.

1.   Mind Cleanse – A focus on music can offer you a type of mindfulness at a time when your muse is obstinate and your creative brain refuses to kick in. Television host Stephen Colbert, in his “Colbert Questionnaire” asks guests “If you could have only one song to listen to for the rest of your life, what would it be?” The answer is likely to change over time for most people but if you were asked this question right now, what would you say? What piece of music brings you joy? What song elevates your mood or deepens your thoughts. Whatever your answer is, that is the song or music that just might be the key to finding your way back to feeling creative.

2.   Main Character – Many movie heroes have some form of theme music that plays when they show up on screen. So, what about your main character? Does she have a theme song? Is he pensive and brooding? Are they powerful and energetic? Doesn’t your main character deserve to have their own theme music? Ask Spotify to play mood music that matches your character’s qualities. Or spin the dial on your radio and discover a song that represents the power (and weakness) of your main character.

3.   Villain – This one may be more important than a music theme for your Main Character. Many writers have to work harder at their antagonist character. Developing the Main Character for readers to cheer for and worry about is usually not a problem. But villains – human or otherwise – are often more of a challenge to peek inside and figure out their innards. They don’t always cooperate or want their story to be told. Finding a theme song or piece of music might be the ticket to open up the inner workings of the one who opposes your Main Character. For example, when Darth Vader shows up in the Star Wars films, you know from the music that this is not a good thing for the heroes.

4.   Plot Structure – The three-act structure (beginning, middle and end) is a common plot form. The beginning is short, the middle holds the meat and is longer that the first and final acts, and the end often carries echoes from the beginning as well as the climax. Similarly, classical music structure has three basic elements: Exposition (begining): The material is presented for the first time. Development (middle): It’s where the music in the Exposition is transformed (key changes and modulations) through various movements, pulling the threads along. Recapitulation (end): Here, the music in the Exposition appears again but in a slightly different and shorter form. If you’re having trouble with your plot, consider yourself to be the conductor of your symphony and apply the basic elements of classical period music. It won’t hurt to listen to a Mozart or Bach symphony to hear the “plot structure” play out and then you can play on with your own plot.

5.  Scene Development – Similar to using music in plot structure, a song might be key to deepening a scene or increasing the pace. Seek out emotional, haunting music such as John Williams theme for the film Schindler’s List (featuring the amazing Itzhak Perlman) to heighten your own response and it may find itself embedding into the scene you write. If you want some mood music for a high-energy or battle scene, treat yourself to Richard Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, part of his four-opera Ring Cycle

6.  Jazz It Up – During the Beat era of poetry, jazz figured largely in coffee houses and poetry readings. It’s no coincidence – the energy and the surprises that jazz delivers is a lovely match to way a poem builds through rhythm and wordplay to reach audiences. Successful writers recognize that prose needs to offer varying rhythms and unexpected developments to keep readers engaged. So before you put fingers to keyboard next time, try a little Charlie Parker or Billie Holiday or Benny Goodman. The genius of drummer Gene Krupa in Goodman’s Orchestra’s Sing Sing Sing should wake up your muse and get your creative toes tapping.

7.   Speculative Reset – Science fiction, fantasy, surrealism – it’s all weird and wonderful forms of fiction. If you can fall easily into that different place, if you never find yourself with a flat brain that gets stuck in the linear, well you can skip this one. But, if you ever struggle with finding the sweet spot of sci-fi in your writing, try a little musical medicine: go alternative. And not just a gentle slip into alternative rock of the 90s – instead, go deep into experimental sounds and compilations. Just as speculative fiction pushes boundaries, musicians and composers who experiment to create new unexpected combinations push the boundaries of traditional music. Marcus Layton’s YouTube channel offers a taste of experimental music and samples a range of approaches.

8.  Time and Place Immersion — Maybe you’re writing a historical novel set during Prohibition. Or a biography of a 1960s Civil Rights activist. Or a story located in contemporary England. What music was common in historic settings? What are the kids listening to today in the West End of London? And that last question sets up an important point. Be careful about your “generic” ideas of music. Sure, in North America jazz was popular during the Roaring Twenties but there was all kinds of music playing on the radio and in performance places: old time music, Christian music, country music, and so on. Listening to the music of a particular era can give you a “feel” for the time and place, and that “feel” can help you recreate the setting. And it can be used directly in the story. Just watch you’re not being stereotypical in what you choose or how you deliver it.

9.   Absence – When music is stilled by decree or when the opportunity to learn a musical instrument is kept from certain members of society, that is powerful energy. What about a world in which music never existed? Or simply could not be allowed? We often forget the power of absence to energize a story. Consider Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and the oppressive decrees of Gilead — no buskers on street corners, no concerts for ordinary folks. Or the alien invasion in the movie, A Quiet Place, in which the characters had to remain silent to avoid being killed. We take our access to music for granted, don’t we?

10.  You in Music – Finally, here’s another way to use music: your own theme. Each of us approach the page differently — we have our own take on the craft: pantser, plotter, researcher. Our inspirations are also individual: an overheard conversation, an article in the paper, a deadline in a contest, and so on. You may have a theme song for each character. Or you may choose music to echo the emotion in a scene or to recreate the feel of a setting. But what about you, as a writer, as a creative person? Why not choose a piece of music that somehow reflects you? A pop song or a classical piece or theme music from a movie or something you composed yourself. Use it before you start a writing project. Use it when you finally put The End on the last page of your current work in progress. Use it when you sign that publishing contract. Use it any way you want and see if it gives your inner self a truly good feeling.