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.

If it Ain’t Broke…

If it Ain’t Broke…

Gwynn Scheltema

At the start of 2021, I wrote a goal-setting blog that wasn’t focused on lists of things to accomplish, a.k.a. lists of my future failures, lists of not meeting my own expectations.

Instead, because almost a year of COVID had taken its toll, I decided to put kindness to myself first in any plans I made or goals I set and to strive for participation and passion, not perfection. I decided to find joy and fulfilment in the unexpected, big and small. And part of that was the acceptance of self, flaws and all. 

And here we are, at the end of yet another year of pandemic existence. And yet, I feel that I did indeed reach my 2021 goals, and am better for it. And as the old adage says, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

So here was my list for 2021, that I’m going to repeat in 2022:

  • Be kind to myself and don’t expect perfection
  • Do more of what feeds my soul, my passions and my creativity
  • Do less of what others say I should be doing if it doesn’t feel right
  • Be flexible and willing to change direction and do it positively
  • Be present, mindful, grateful, and notice and appreciate
  • Go with the flow

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I’ll continue to put time spent on the things that are important to me first: my health, my family, my creativity. I’ll continue to prioritize using my butterflies and frogs method. I’ll continue making daisies to help me focus.

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I have two large projects to work on this year: completing my poetry manuscript for publication and heading up the Steering Committee for Northumberland Festival of the Arts, taking place September 2022. One will focus me inward, and one will connect me with my community, arts and otherwise. It will be a good balance.

There’s a relief in NOT having a long list of must do’s: lose 10 pounds, finish the ABC project, start the XYZ project etc. etc. etc. Even with just two, I’ll be careful to work on them without compromising my health or family relationships and other important aspects of life. 

And here’s another thing I’ll repeat: my wish for you all:

Take time to live.  Take time to grow. Take time to love. Above all, be kind to yourself and others. Look for the good in everything. Enjoy the writing journey you’ve chosen for yourself. Enjoy life. Be positive and you’ll get there. Have a wonderful 2022.

Six Writing Resolutions For 2022

Six Writing Resolutions For 2022

Ruth E. Walker

Five years ago, we posted some ideas on writers’ resolutions for 2017. With just three days to go before the world shifts into yet another year, I think our suggestions are still valid. I’ve tweaked it a bit to acknowledge that the past couple of years came with pandemic challenges. But honestly, I didn’t need to make a lot of edits.

So here you go: Gwynn and I kept it simple and doable back in 2016 and that much has not changed. Six resolutions to choose from to enhance your creative skills. You only need one commitment for New Year’s Eve:

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1.   To pay attention. Yup. Maybe you think you already do this just fine. We’d like to suggest two very different approaches that maybe you’ve not yet tried:

  • At an Andrew Pyper workshop, he suggested that paying attention without judgement is a great way to develop characters and ideas. He calls it “reportage” — take a seat in a public space and people watch. Simply record the facts of what you see. No emotion. No subjective consideration. e.g.: Young woman without a face mask in red halter top and white shorts pushing dark blue stroller without a baby inside it. Man in N95 face mask, yellow ballcap and biker jacket runs up library steps and goes inside.
  • Gwynn Scheltema suggests that there are benefits to being subjective when noticing, and that it really is a kind of art. Her Art of Noticing in The Top Drawer takes us on a trip in 2016 to her childhood home, Zimbabwe, where she notices everything in a sumptuous five-sense immersion.
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2.   To write while travelling (and yes, we know we’ve not travelled a lot lately)

  • We didn’t say “write a book” when travelling. We only suggested that you write when on a journey. “Writing” can be a restaurant napkin recording a snippet of overheard conversation. “Writing” can simply be notes on a map or guidebook: stopped here and ate weird-tasting burgers at Fast Eddy’s Eatery. Nobody got sick.
  • The point is that there are all kinds of ways to “write” while travelling. And there’s all kinds of travelling: lately, even a stroll to the neighbourhood park, or a trip to the grocery store has become for many of us the most common form of travelling. You’re creative. In 2022, see what you can do to Write While Travelling.  And if we’re lucky, 2022 will be the year that proves Omicron to the be the last blast of COVID so that real long-distance travelling will return.
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3.   To devote at least one day exclusively to the craft

  • Think about it. Just one day. C’mon, you can do it. Pack a lunch and head to the library. Or unplug the phone and the Internet and spend the day writing. Maybe you can pretend it’s a snow day. Or maybe you can book a one-day escape at a local hotel or B&B. Consider what “craft” means: In Old English (pre-900 CE) cræft meant strength. A day to focus on the art and skill of your craft can only strengthen your words on the page.
  • No matter what option you choose, make sure you schedule your day devoted to writing. And then make sure you show up, as scheduled.
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4.   To write something different from your “usual”

  • Step away from the familiar and head down the rabbit hole. If your passion is fiction, go for non-fiction or poetry. If your comfort zone is poetry, try your hand at playwriting. If non-fiction is your go-to, start a graphic novel. Science fiction writers, take the time to meet romance. Mystery writers, shake hands with erotica. There’s a strange chemistry that happens when you shake up your pen and at the very least, you’ll return to your writing nest with some fresh ideas. And maybe you might find that trying something new opened up a whole new “writer” in you.

5.   To devote at least one day to NOT writing

  • Counterintuitive resolution? Actually, this is a great resolution for those who have trouble leaving their desk or pen or computer. It’s great to be a devoted writer, one who writes every day without fail, one who will forgo lunch if a plot point needs adjustments or a character is sitting a bit too flat on the page. You might be surprised how giving up just one day of writing can do. The tension of staying away from the writing could fire up your pen in ways you hadn’t imagined. The “day after” writing may be something you choose to create more often. At the very least, it’s a worthwhile experiment for the relentless writer to try out.
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6.   To read something different from your usual

  • This doesn’t have to be a big book. How about an article in a bodybuilding handbook or a finance magazine? Or a graphic novel, or modern play, or a children’s board book? Or a corporation’s annual report, or a technical how-to manual. The object of this resolution is to teach your eyes to look for what made it publishable. Where is the strength in the writing? Who is the reader or audience? And why do they need this publication? What changes might you make to improve this?
  • This analytical approach might prove useful in your own writing. At the very least, you introduce your eyes to a way of writing or content that is not what you normally choose to read. An excellent exercise to expand your writing horizons.

As noted, you only need one of these resolutions for midnight on December 31st. But consider holding onto this list and dipping back in from time to time. It may be just the medicine you need to fire up your muse and ignite your imagination.

Here’s to 2022. May the world put COVID to bed at last and may your writing dreams all come true.

Bringing Light through the Dark

Bringing Light through the Dark

Ruth E. Walker

Yesterday was the Winter Solstice. The turning point for the planet where the Northern Hemisphere dips deepest into the dark before moving into a day-by-day increase in daylight. For me, it couldn’t come soon enough. The dark has never been my preference, despite writing some great prose in the wee, dark hours upon occasion. I am someone who is drawn to sunlight.

But the dark is a useful tool in my writing, just as it may be in yours. Darkness finds a place in narrative in different ways.

Beyond the famous opening It was a dark and stormy night, the dark can serve to:

  • set up themes
  • deliver engaging description
  • create foreshadowing
  • inspire resonance in your reader

On that last point, let me assure you that readers can hold onto what you write about when it inspires fear. I am still uneasy next to nighttime windows after reading Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot. My rational mind knows there are no vampires out there but he created such a reality for me that I get dark-window tingles more than 25 years after reading the book.

Here’s a couple of ways to use “dark” as a tool to engage your reader:

Focus on difference

Comparisons are a terrific device for all kinds of narrative needs. A character’s fear of the dark is interesting but intensity grows when that character gets a job in mine. Add in a cave in and you have emotional gold.

Landscape description can make great use of the dark. Even in daytime, shadows offer readers visual textures: caves, alleys, clouds, thick forests, distant mountain ranges – it all needs 3D qualities.

Using the dark to represent villains is cliché but can still be useful if you’re creative. From Snow White’s evil stepmother to every rotten gunslinger to heartless Darth Vader, black is the clothing tone. However, consider Pennywise the Clown from It, and sadistic King Joffrey Baratheon in Game of Thrones.

Similarly, consider superheroes such as Black Panther, Batman and Catwoman. They fight for good but are dressed in black, a counterintuitive representation. And that makes them interesting visually.

Play with expectations

As a kid, I watched westerns a lot on television, including Have Gun Will Travel. The gunslinger named Paladin in this series was always hired by good folks in trouble. And he wore a distinctive black felt Western hat. A hat so distinctive that you can order one of your very own “with the kettle curl and with the pecan crown” from The Last Best West company for as little as $390 US.

Richard Boone as Paladin

I think the reason Paladin’s iconic hat still carries energy is that it represented the complication of the human soul: we are a combination of good and bad — it’s our choices that define who we are. Despite the black hat of this hired gun, his choices were to do good. It’s no coincidence that Paladin, his assumed name, comes from the French Chevaliers of Charlemagne’s 8th century court. He was the classic white knight in a black hat.

As a child, I had no idea of all that history and cultural baggage. But that doesn’t matter. I sure knew that bad guys in all the western movies I’d seen up to then wore black hats and the good guys wore white hats. So this guy, he was interesting. And for a writer, that’s the point of this piece.

Winter Solstice may be the ideal time to explore the energy found in the dark – stretching and trying on ideas often lead to deeper understanding of this thing we do when we put fingers to keyboard or pen to paper. Besides, as of today, we are moving toward the light. Hooray!

Go deeper

If you want to explore both dark and light on your own, here’s a Writescape exercise you might like to try by using an artist’s approach to dark and light:

Artists refer to six basic concepts when describing the behavior of light on a form, listed here in order of brightness: highlight, direct light, reflected light, shadow, core shadow and cast shadow.

Take your “writer’s paintbrush” and draft a scene, or a poem or whatever you want, using a technique of light and shadow. Choose at least one from light and one from shadow

  • in direct light (out in the open and clear to everyone: just the facts, the obvious)
  • in reflected light (learning from/being gifted with something: mentored, discovered)
  • in highlight (showing/revealing something: sudden reveals or gradual unveiling to ‘ta-da’)
  • in shadow (holding something back/grey areas: unclear, dreams, choosing not to share)
  • in darkest dark/core shadow (so deep s/he may not even know it exists: secrets, evil, fears)

Have fun with this. May your muse be generous and lead you into the dark and light of a great piece of writing.

Drip, Drip, Drip

Drip, Drip, Drip

Guest Post by Heidi Croot

Writing the first-draft hot mess of my memoir was easy—a mudslide down the inky slopes of several thousand journal pages.

  • Rewriting countless drafts, fun—an archeological dig I’ve never tired of.
  • Restructuring the thing, hell—as I struggled to place backstory at the precise moment of reader thirst. 

But none of those ups and downs compared with the anxiety I felt about sending my manuscript to my two aunts and my uncle, who appear frequently in its pages.

I had reason to be nervous.

My memoir is about their eldest sister, my mother—a woman they were estranged from most of their lives, my own longest estrangement from her spanning a mere seven years. My aunts and uncle tried to have my back through the turbulence. An only child, I leaned heavily on their love and support.

Yet as soon as I mentioned I was writing a memoir, I detected frost in the air. Heard rumblings of that old lament, “airing the family’s dirty laundry.”

I understood their wariness.

They were of a generation that preferred to hold troubling family truths underwater with the flat of their palm. I am driven to haul those truths out, towel them down, assess them from every angle. What can they teach us? How might they heal us?

My aunts and uncle don’t read memoir. I knew if they were going to accept my manuscript, I couldn’t just thrust 300+ pages at them and hope for a miracle. I would need to chart a wayfinding course to the genre using signposts and lamplight.

And about two years ago, drawing on what I knew about awareness campaigns from my 35+ years in corporate communication, that’s what I did.

I casually sent them essays by memoirists who acknowledged their vulnerabilities and the challenges of truth-telling.

I sent book reviews and memoir quotations to show what other writers were sharing with the world.

I sent updates on my own project with excerpts from my work-in-progress that I hoped would demonstrate a balanced take on our difficult family circumstances.  

This drip-drip-drip approach paid off when the Los Angeles Review of Books published my essay, “How to Tell Your Mother She Can’t Go Home Again,” describing one of the harshest events of my mother’s life (and mine)—her first day in a nursing home, eight years before she died.

With that, my memoir project could no longer be ignored. Nor could its intent, tone or potential reception in the world.

My aunts and uncle read the piece and sent congratulations.  

We had taken the first hill.

It was time for the second.

By now the manuscript was ready for beta readers. I promised my relatives a copy but kept them waiting while I finished some edits. One aunt in her eighties complained that at this rate she might not be around to finally read the thing. My uncle asked how it was going. I could hear the other aunt’s fingers drumming from her home in California.

They were eager to read.

Good.

I emailed the pdf to the California aunt. She immediately responded with family stories triggered by my chapters, as well as helpful editorial suggestions and a factual correction.

“For the duration of the reading it was as though my sister were alive, in front of me with all of her strife and fury…” she wrote me when she finished reading. “You’ve done yourself proud, Heidi.”

My beloved writers’ groups responded to this news with jubilance.

Meanwhile, I invited my other aunt, and my uncle and his wife of 50+ years, to my home, where I presented them with coil-bound copies. We spent a convivial weekend enjoying a charcuterie board, tacos, wine, and quiet time as they turned pages.

They didn’t offer encouragement, though my uncle remarked that his avid reading signaled his interest, and his wife dissolved into tears at one point, acknowledging the painful path our family had been forced to take in tangling with my mother.

In my beta reader guidelines, a one-page menu of suggestions I developed for first-time readers on what kind of comments would be most helpful, I had asked for their feedback within a month—one week away as I write this. I’ve invited them back for a second weekend to close that loop. After all, this was a business arrangement: their access to my full work in exchange for their editorial catches and family history tweaks.

No reply yet.

Offering feedback can be challenging when you’re not used to it. 

No reason to be nervous, I want to tell them. You’re in safe hands here. It’s going to be all right.

Originally published online in Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction, Writescape is delighted to share Heidi’s practical approach to introducing memoir to family members who could be uncomfortable with the form.

Heidi Croot

Heidi Croot lives in Northumberland County, Ontario, Canada, and is working on a memoir. Her corporate writing has appeared in numerous trade publications, and her creative work in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Brevity, Linea magazine, Writescape, the WCDR anthology Renaissance, and elsewhere. You can reach Heidi on Twitter @heidicroot.

10 meaningful writers’ gifts

10 meaningful writers’ gifts

‘Tis the season and a time to think about gifts for writing friends. If you’re anything like us, your list of writing friends and colleagues is wonderfully long. Or perhaps you’re not a writer but have one in your life and you want to give that writer a meaningful present at this time of year. We’ve come up with 10 gift ideas, and most of them cost you little more than time and a willingness to help. And bonus–many of them are environment-friendly.

  1. Time to write. With all of life’s commitments, a gift of time can be priceless. Perhaps offer to babysit, to do the grocery shopping, take kids to hockey practice or cook up a few meals for the freezer — any task that will free up time to write.
  2. Used books. Over the years, writer friends and I have had pot luck get togethers during the holiday season. Each person brings a much-loved gently used wrapped book and then we have a draw to chose a package to take home. Not only do you get a new book to read, but the discussion this activity generates is loads of fun.
  3. Help to face fears. Submitting and rejection is one of my fears. One of the best gifts I received was a commitment from a writer friend to help me to submit my work. I picked out three pieces, then she helped me decide on markets, craft the cover letters and actually send the submissions off.
  4. Space to write. I’m lucky enough to live in a picturesque retreat property. I often offer up my home to writer friends who need to get away. I either write with them, or give them their space, whichever they want or need. If you are away at work during the day, is there a writer who would appreciate a quiet space to themselves? Hey, they could even let your dog out for you.
  5. Help to remove a block. One of my writing friends is a bit of a clutter-bug. She was feeling creatively blocked but overwhelmed at the thought of sorting through the clutter. I offered a weekend and my organizing skills to open things up a little for her so she could get creative again.
  6. Promote on social media. Write a review. Subscribe to or comment on a writer’s blog. Like a writer’s Facebook page. Interact on Twitter or Instagram or Pinterest. Repost, repin or share. Circulate blog URLs. Interview a writer on your own blog. Swap links. Encourage others to do the same. The more often the better. Perhaps schedule an hour a month to act to help promote 8 writers. By this time next year, you will have taken 100 promotion actions.
  7. Share a skill. If you are an editor, gift an editing session. If you are a whiz with Scrivener, offer a coaching session. A dedicated brainstorming session for plot building. Share your skills and you share your gifts.
  8. Organize an “inspiration day.” Pack a picnic lunch. Map a trip to visit gravesites, outdoor sculptures, historical sites, a working farm or visit with an expert. Be the chauffeur and tour guide but remember to build in time for note-taking, observations and serendipity explorations that pop up along the way.
  9. Buy their books. Seems obvious, but we tend to think of gift giving as just that. We need to give to the writer. But as a writer, I would happily forego “getting” and know that my book has been bought and is being read. I’d even be happy to sign it. Them. A whole pile of them.
  10. Ruth reads from “Living Underground”

    Attend a launch or reading. Virtual launches are the new “thing” and they are great for attracting larger audiences; no more attending readings where the readers and their immediate families are the only ones in the audience. However, showing up online is only half the story.  Comment while you are there to encourage and make the recording more worthwhile and ultimately, PLEASE buy the book!

There are other low-cost but appreciated gifts to consider for a writer: a journal (not the fancy expensive kind, just a dollar store purchase that a writer won’t feel too intimidated to “muddy” the pages); an easy-grip pen and/or mechanical pencil; a package of paper for printing.

Many gift ideas could be packaged as “coupons”:

  • Good for one editing session in March or April for up to 10 manuscript pages.
  • Redeem for one afternoon of market research to develop submission strategy. Goal: 3 submissions to either agents or publications or contests.
  • Congratulations! The bearer of this certificate will receive a day of inspiration during summer. Be whisked off to places and spaces that will tickle your muse and inspire some great writing. Provide gift giver with possible free dates to find a mutually suitable time.

So there you have it.  Be creative and surprise another writer with a gift on this list this holiday season. Or give the list to friends and family so they can give one to you.

Finally, if you have a big-ticket item on your own wish list–a new laptop, a writing retreat, a professional edit–ask family and friends to contribute to your Writing Dream Fund. Many hands can make dreams a reality.

When an Agent Says Yes

When an Agent Says Yes

Ruth E. Walker

Some time ago (frankly, too long ago) I wrote about my manuscript being rejected by a literary agent. This wasn’t an ordinary Thanks But No Thanks form letter. It was a thoughtful explanation about why this agent was taking a pass on my Young Adult science fiction novel. She included comments from a reader, noting areas of concern.

It was gold – and not just because I was being provided with helpful feedback from a complete stranger. Clearly, the agent felt engaged enough with the story and my writing to have it read for a second opinion. Even more clearly, the agent felt engaged enough with me to offer these suggestions. And she left the door open to resubmit.

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For most of us writers, and certainly for me, self-doubt is a constant companion. Sometimes, I can supress the little monster long enough to finish a third or fourth or fifth draft. But even then, it whispers sweet nasties from the back of my brain.

So, this agent’s treatment of my novel as something worthwhile was rocket fuel. However, life got in the way and time to focus on the book kept getting put aside. In 2019, I finally pulled up my bootstraps and devoted my full attention to the book once more. By January 2020, I had a revised draft (thanks members, past and present, of Critical ms, my critique group.)

February 2020: a professional and organized plan

I sharpened and polished my query (thanks Heather O’Connor) and made my synopsis all shiny. I created a spreadsheet to keep track of my submissions and colour-coded each entry’s status (thanks to my Writescape partner and sister-from-another-mother, Gwynn Scheltema.) No colour for open submissions. Putrid peach for rejections. Bright blue for full requests. I had no idea what colour I’d use for “yes.”

I took a much more methodical approach to search agents and started in with QueryTracker, an online list of agents in Canada, the U.S. and beyond. I narrowed the list category to YA and science fiction/fantasy.

Agent Tab on Query Tracker

And then I started to submit to agents who were open to submission. First, I checked out their websites and, where possible, their MSWL (manuscript wish list). I quickly learned that not all YA Science Fiction agents would work for my novel. Mine isn’t “hard science fiction” so I avoided submitting to those agents. And mine isn’t younger-YA-friendly; agents who didn’t like violence or edgy topics came off my list.

I didn’t rely on QueryTracker for all my efforts. I paid attention to blog posts and various “10 Agents Seeking Writers” kinds of announcements (thanks Brian Henry and Writer’s Digest.) Friends and colleagues pointed me in a couple of directions, shared insights and ideas. A couple even went to bat for me, speaking directly to their own agents on my behalf (thanks Tom Taylor and the ever-supportive, Heather O’Connor.)

During 2020, there weren’t many opportunities to attend conferences and writerly events. Basically, once March happened, everything stopped (remember 2020?) But I hoped that agents might be like the rest of us, with strange time on our hands to not go anywhere or meet with anyone. I continued to query, methodically, in chunks of two to four queries at a time.

A tailored submission: snip, sew, snip again

An important note: not all agents want the same thing. For instance, my two-page synopsis had to be rewritten as: a one-page synopsis, a two-paragraph synopsis (yikes!), a 500-word synopsis…if nothing else it was a masterclass in editing. Nobody wanted the outline I’d drafted and redrafted. Darn. And what each agent wanted to see meant carving the full manuscript into custom-order submissions.

Wikipedia: Benihana

From five pages to ten pages to the first three chapters, to the first 50 pages, to 1000 words, to 2500 words – I was slicing and dicing like a personal chef at Benihana. Do I include the epigram page? What about the cover page? Did they count on the number of pages? Or word count? Or, or, or.

For the record, I left out the epigram and cover page and just started with Chapter One. And I noticed a few necessary tweaks as I reviewed some of those submissions. Tweaks that I then incorporated in the full ms. So again, editing masterclass.

Lottery: Losses, close calls and then…

pixabay.com

My first agent query was sent February 10, 2020. My first rejection arrived March 2, 2020. Between February 2020 and November 30, 2021, the majority of my queries resulted in standard, form-letter rejections.

Occasionally, there were personal notes but they were rare. Some agents still haven’t replied.

Fifty-two queries later, I met over Zoom with Ali McDonald from 5 Otter Literary Inc. for a 15-minute pitch session (thanks PYI organizers at CANSCAIP.) The first thing she said to me was: “Ruth Walker. Why haven’t you queried me before? This book is right in my wheelhouse!”

Ali McDonald
5 Otter Literary

More than three weeks later, Ali and I met again. This time, we chatted for more than an hour and a half. That evening, November 30, I had an offer of representation. On December 4, I signed a contract and can announce that Ali McDonald of 5 Otter Literary is representing my YA Science Fiction novel and I could not be happier.

Well, I suppose once she sells my book to a publisher (fingers crossed), I might have to be happier but for now, I’m over the moon. Next step: To infinity, and beyond!

The work ahead

Now I have signed with an agent, I needed to stay professional and focussed. I contacted the U.S. and Canadian agents who asked to see the full ms, along with the others who’d not yet replied. From Rachel Letofsky at CookeMcDermid Agency, I received a gracious reply: “I am delighted to hear this news. I know and respect Ali very much. She has great relationships in the industry, and a deep knowledge of the kid’s book world. You’re in good hands with her and Five Otter Literary.”

I also had to turn my mind to specifics:

  • announcements
    • see this blog post and my social media (personal and professional)
    • family & cheerleading friends
    • critique group
    • writerly contacts
    • writing organizations
  • update my Literary C.V. to include: Ruth is represented by Ali McDonald of 5 Otter Literary
  • revise bio and update headshot for 5OL website
  • clear my calendar and schedule editorial meeting(s) with Ali
  • mothball my Agent Spreadsheet

And one more thing: Allow it all to soak in. I’m realistic enough to know this is not a guarantee that my book will find a publishing home. But it’s a wonderful step into a world of possibilities. And a reminder to everyone who is struggling to find an agent to champion their work: Keep going. Take every opportunity. And know you’re not alone in the journey.

Letter to a Poet

Letter to a Poet

There’s nothing better than words of encouragement that arrive seemingly out of nowhere. That recently happened to me when my long-time friend, Jessica, sent an email with a link to the local online newspaper, in which she had written a letter addressed to me.

What? Was she airing dirty laundry? NO! She was supporting me as a poet. To explain…

Jessica Outram currently serves as Cobourg’s Poet Laureate. One of her projects is an online poetry chapbook called Poetry Presents. I have successfully submitted poems a couple of times. Jessica also writes a poetry column for Cobourg Now, where she engages with a poet and /or a poem and muses on poetry generally. Here is where the stars aligned. Jessica chose one of my submitted poems to feature in her column. Thank you , Jessica!

Story is at the Heart of Poetry

An exchange between Gwynn Scheltema & Jessica Outram, Cobourg Now

(Note from the Poet: I grow as much of my food as possible and forage as well. I love the memories of nature that cooking smells bring forth for me.)

 Dear Gwynn Scheltema,

Your poem ‘Carrot Soup’ invites me to reflect on harvest and a way of looking at the passing of time through the life of a carrot. The food we enjoy today has a story that connects to more than one season. From preparing the soil to planting the seeds to harvesting fully grown crops, a process and patience are paramount to success.

It can be the same with poetry. From preparing to use form to planting phrases and lines to harvesting metaphors, poetry thrives with the use of process and patience. When I was younger, I wrote poetry quickly, usually a poem (and sometimes two!) in one sitting. Over the past couple years, I’ve looked for ways to slow down, to linger in a line, to return to a poem over time to better understand its story. It’s good to give a poem space to change and grow.

Story is at the heart of poetry. Story is who we are and story is how we connect. To prepare to write a poem, I reflect on these questions: What story do I want to share? How will this story connect to others? After writing the poem, I return to the same questions.

In ‘Ars Poetic’ Archibald MacLeish writes “a poem should not mean, but be.” A poet shows a story rather than tells a story, inviting the reader to share the experience. By appealing to the senses (the eye, the ear, our senses of taste, touch, and smell), the poet invites readers into the world of a poem. When reading a poem, rather than ask ‘what does this poem mean?’ Ask ‘what are the stories here?’ Use questions to shift understanding and points of connection.

For those starting to write poetry, begin with your stories. The stories of your life, your every day, and of your imagination. Everyone has stories. What are yours? You may find that you never have writer’s block since our stories can be more abundant than the Fall harvest.

Thank you, Gwynn, for sharing this story of carrot soup with us.

With appreciation,

Jessica Outram

Poet Laureate of Cobourg

About Jessica Outram:

 Jessica Outram is Cobourg’s 4th Poet Laureate. She is a Métis writer and educator with roots in the Georgian Bay Métis Community. Since 2019, her mandate has been to honour and nurture Cobourg’s culturally dynamic community. A resident of Cobourg, Jessica has worked in Northumberland both as a principal and vice-principal and continues to participate in local arts, music, and theatre. Currently, she works as Principal of Indigenous Education K-12 in the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board.

Writing together – and apart?

Writing together – and apart?

Guest Post – Lori Twining

Some weeks ago, one of our regular retreatants, Lori Twining, shared her retreating experience at Writescape’s fall retreat. But what if you can’t get away to write on retreat? How else can you keep the words flowing?

Have you ever considered an accountability partner?

Lori wrote about the magic of accountability partners on her blog in August, and we reprint it here today with her permission.


Accountability Partners: Colleen Winter & Lori Twining

Accountability Partners: Are They Beneficial?

I have a simple goal: I want a writing career.

Unfortunately, it is not as simple as quitting my day job and writing the damn novel. Other things factor into a writing career, besides having money to pay the bills. In 2021, as a writer, it is essential to have a social media presence, network with others, be searchable on Google, be knowledgeable and experienced with the craft of writing, have an agent, have a publisher, and the list goes on and on. It is endless.

Is a writing career something I can do alone?

Somewhat. The writing part falls on the individual writer. However, if you have other people who share your wants, your desires, and your future dreams of a writing career, then you should team up and do it together. Build an army. Challenge each other. Support each other. 

This is where the benefits of having an accountability partner come into play. These people establish a relationship with you to help achieve your goals. They hold you accountable for what you said you would do and try to keep you on track, even if you are experiencing a meltdown of some kind.

Let me explain..

Yesterday, I sent out multiple emails regarding my volunteer role as a Blog Wrangler for my local writing group. Most of my writing group writes novels and short stories as a side hustle to their “other” careers (that pay the bills). All of us write blog posts that relate to our writing lives in some way. As a volunteer, I admit that I get tired and overwhelmed (sometimes cranky) at working behind the scenes for zero money and little appreciation. I’m not complaining; I offered to do this to further my writing career (if it ever gets further than barely existing). I admit that it is a selfish reason. Sometimes, I have days that I question my choices on volunteering. I want to quit everything and just write. But, then something like this happens:

During the frantic emails (and FB messages and text messages) back and forth with my writing tribe, I received a message:

“Has anyone told you that you should be a writer?”

I laughed. Reading this message broke the stress and frustration I had been holding tight inside. My shoulders released the tension, and I relaxed a bit. I wrote back to say, “Not lately. I’m too busy wallowing in a puddle of self-doubt right now.” I often wonder if all this writing is simply a time-waster, and I’m going nowhere. Several text messages followed to say they appreciated my time and effort, and I need to keep writing. This is one writer supporting and encouraging another writer. I love it.

Minutes later, the following email came in from another accountability partner. It said:

“Sorry, I am late in responding to you. Thank you so much for your accountability email (you were on time, I’m two weeks late). Ha! I’m never on time. At the moment, I’m sitting on my couch crying about not making any progress during July. I decided to email you and tell you the small amount that I did manage to find time to do. Then, I surprised myself with what I actually got done. This makes me happy. Writing it down, so I can see the progress. Yes, I was still a couch slug for most of the month, but I did submit two short stories, sent ten queries to agents, and updated my website so that if the literary agents ever decide to google me, I will look important! I might even fool them into knowing what I am doing! Thank you for this. I love you! Talk to you in a month. Or sooner.”

After reading this message, it reminded me to check in with a few of my other writing buddies. I have multiple people that I keep in close contact with, where we exchange emails on the first of every month (with many emails in between, just to keep us motivated). I keep a list of excerpts from their emails to encourage me, so I remember that working toward a writing career is not a waste of time. People do get something out of this. It keeps me moving forward with my goals.

My partners are inspiring

Here are a couple of example messages from them:

“Overall, I did awesome on my goals! I really want to say thank you for this. Having these goals keeps me motivated and helps to keep me working on all aspects of writing.”

And, this one:

“I am excited and scared and motivated and terrified all in one. I am so thankful for you and this accountability thing we do together. I have WORK TO DO… so here are my new goals.”


Accountability Partners: Donna Judy Curtin, Lori Twining and Seana Moorhead.

How I stay accountable

I write an accountability email at the beginning of the month describing everything I accomplished (or didn’t accomplish) from the previous month, and add my goals for the following month.

I exchange these emails with a few different writers to encourage them (or challenge them) to do “something” to further their writing career. And they do the same for me.

Here are a couple of examples that show progress in someone’s future writing career:

  • Woke up at 5 am for two weeks straight. Butt in chair. Writing. 2-hr sessions.
  • Published four book reviews for novels in my genre on Goodreads.
  • Posted five Instagram photos of books I purchased written by my #5amwritersclub writing buddies.
  • Submitted my short story to a contest.
  • Attended Inkers Con virtually.
  • Finished the Dan Brown Master Class on Mystery Writing.
  • Ran a giveaway on Goodreads. Sent out the print copies to the winners.
  • Attended two virtual book launches this month.
  • Signed up for a 7-day IN-PERSON writing retreat.
  • Took a course online, “How to Nail Writing Multiple POVs & Timelines” (this one is something I’m doing this month).

All of these examples keep you in the writing game. You are supporting other writers, networking, learning your craft, or writing the book—all good things.

Cutting Yourself Some Slack

The end of my July accountability email listing all my goals was this:

“My August goals are to tackle as much as possible with my writing, without breaking down and bawling like a baby because I don’t have enough time to do ALL THE THINGS that I want to do this summer.” 

I received this immediate response from one of my accountability partners:

“I have a similar goal for August and the rest of the year. Now that I’ve had a vacation, I will try to go several days in a row without yelling/swearing at my computer screen. And that’s just for work. It doesn’t include the head-hanging despair during the writing sessions. Maybe we should ease up on our expectations of ourselves? Just a thought.”

This excerpt above is from an experienced published writer, and she has made a good point. I have high expectations for myself. Maybe this is why I am biting my nails to the quick? I’m walking the fence between giving up (by sitting on the couch watching every Harlan Coben Netflix series and not writing) and moving full force ahead with writing every chance I get, hoping my novel gets a little better with each pass through of edits. 

Self-doubt is an evil monster, and accountability partners can help with that. They remind you that you are not alone on this path to a future writing career, and everyone struggles with so many things (and I don’t even have to mention the pandemic and all the stay-at-home orders that interfered with our mental state for writing over the last 18-months). They are full of motivation and inspiration. They can help you plan and strategize how to approach editors or agents. They can advise on improvement on your query letter or book blurb. Also, they can help you stick to your commitments and expectations, so you can continue to make progress. 

We are all in a different place with our writing careers. Some writers are already published, and some of us are still struggling with that first novel (that would be me). But, overall, we are suitable matches for being accountability partners. We strive to be full-time writers and are putting in the work to get there. We all struggle with time management, primarily since we all work full-time or part-time for other people. So, being able to discuss it with each other is a bonus. It echoes the reminder that we are not alone.

Every little thing you can manage to do (writing, networking, reading, promoting yourself & your writing friends) proves that you are showing up for yourself and committing to the work. The best part of having accountability partners is that you can share your progress and celebrate everyone else’s progress too. There is no need for jealousy; it is all a wild and fun experience of living life to the fullest and conquering that writing dream. Together.

Bottom line

If you are struggling with pulling your butt off the couch back to your writing chair, maybe you should look for an accountability partner? They are perfect for brainstorming and bouncing ideas around, supporting each other, motivating, and inspiring you to continue with your dream. Plus, they are there if you want to cry or rant about something when you are grumpy or extremely pissed off. They are also there to laugh with you, and everyone needs a good chuckle from time to time. 

If you don’t have one and would like one, just ask another writer if they would be interested. It is as simple as that. Good luck on your path. Baby steps will get you there. Eventually. 


Early morning ZOOM meeting with #5amwritersclub

Lori Twining

Lori Twining writes both fiction and nonfiction, with her stories winning awards in literary competition and appearing in several anthologies. She’s an active member of many writing groups: International Thriller Writers, Crime Writers of Canada, Sisters In Crime, Toronto Romance Writers, and Ascribe Writers. She’s a lover of books, sports and bird watching, and a hater of slithering reptiles and beady-eyed rodents. Find more info at www.lvtwriter.com; Twitter: @Lori_Twining

Broken in a Good Way

Broken in a Good Way

Ruth E. Walker

In marketing a new book, there’s always groundwork to do well in advance of publication. Having early readers can help create word-of-mouth interest in upcoming titles. I had the great fortune of receiving an advance peek at Frances Peck‘s debut novel The Broken Places, coming from NeWest Press in April 2022.

Frances was a special guest at our recent retreat, arriving via Zoom from her Vancouver home for a Q&A session, followed by a short reading from the book. Frances surprised us by admitting it was her first time reading from her own novel to an audience. You wouldn’t have known it.

Author Frances Peck
Rebecca Blissett Photo

Frances’ reading was terrific and the writers at the retreat also enjoyed the opportunity to glean some insights from Frances into the process of getting published.

Networking is what Frances said made a difference for her and it is something we at Writescape encourage writers to do. You just never know who you might be seated next to.

Sneaking a peek

I didn’t want to wait to read the ARC (advanced reader copy) so the NeWest publicist sent me the book in final manuscript form, held together by a big black binding clip. This version was getting ready for a last fine-tooth comb proofreading before layout to print. Frances said I was welcome to make note of anything that needed attention, typos and so on. But I think she was more interested in my response to her book overall.

I wasn’t far into The Broken Places when I lost all interest in looking for typos. I was hooked by the preface.

The Broken Places is a rare treat. In lesser hands, it would be a great beach read or diversion for a long airport layover. But this multiple POV novel combines high-tension narrative with true literary craft, delivering characters readers will love to love, hate, pity and grieve.

Leaving the editor behind

As an editor, I am attuned to kick-out moments – those “oh dear” bits where the author shows up and the story gets lost. This is not the case in The Broken Places. It’s been a while since I’ve read a book that didn’t allow me to easily put it away and move on to other tasks. Sleep was low on the priority list when I had to read just one more chapter before turning out the lights. I shifted deadlines to let more of the characters show me their strengths and failings. And yes, all the characters have failings. Secrets. Longings. And regrets. There is laughter. And there are tears.

Vancouver Pixabay

Set against the backdrop of a devastating earthquake that rocks Vancouver, the west coast and the islands, the story of how this diverse group of people react to their new reality is beautifully delivered.

The novel is intense, the situations extreme and yet so many moments of masterful writing and sensory engagement are on offer for readers.

Delivering satisfaction can be bittersweet

The author holds her novel’s cards close to her chest, revealing layer by layer the motivations, fears and desires of her characters, doling out tidbits and clues that culminate in an explosive and heartbreaking climax. Yet the novel ends with hope. Not a sweet-sugary treat, but a hope grounded firmly in believable characters and situations that resonate.

In our lives, we all undergo change. Some of it subtle and slow. Some of it dramatic and sudden. This is a novel about all kinds of alterations – upheavals and shocks and the gradual groundswell of near imperceptible difference. It is the result of all those changes that matters. And that’s abundantly clear in The Broken Places.

A last word: typo!

A last word about typos. I actually did find one, almost at the end of the novel. The last couple of chapters of a book you don’t ever want to end are the hardest to finish. I put it down a few times, actually went about my business until I couldn’t stand it any more. That mildly distracted state is maybe why I noticed “wallking” in one sentence. It kicked me out for a few seconds. But then I dove back in and rode the pages to the very end where I reluctantly put the book away. I wish all books held that kind of pleasure.