Websites for writers can be a treasure trove of inspiration and resources. For this month’s 10 on the 10th, we’ve compiled, in no particular order, a list of ten helpful places for you to visit. These are websites that, as writers, we’ve found useful and upon occasion fun. Happy surfing!
#1 Writers’ Digest has been around for decades, first as a magazine and now also hosting a massive site that’s loaded with articles on just about any topic a writer might want to explore. Sign up for their newsletter — it’s full of advice and ideas. https://www.writersdigest.com/
#2 Literistic. Imagine receiving a monthly list of contests and magazines with upcoming deadlines for submissions. Literistic caters to people who write poetry, fiction and nonfiction in Canada, the United States and Britain. There’s a free shortlist or you can choose the $8.50/month list that is curated with only the markets and topics that you select. https://www.literistic.com/
#3 One Stop for Writers is a great site with a range of tools for writers. Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi (co-authors of six best-selling resource books including The Emotion Thesaurus) joined forces with Lee Powell (creator of Scrivener) to build what they term a “library” for writers. You can register for free and if you like what you see, sign up for a monthly paid subscription. https://onestopforwriters.com
#4 49th Shelf is a website focusing on the books of Canadian writers (but a great discovery for writers outside our borders). Why are we featuring a website about books? Let us quote an American writer here: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.” from Stephen King’s Top 20 Rules for Writers. Yup. We agree. https://49thshelf.com/
#5 Word A Day. Five days a week, 52 weeks of the year, receive the gift of a daily word. Not only do you get a word, you get its pronunciation, meaning(s), and the history of that word. Each week is thematic. Last week’s theme: weird plurals. Who knew more than one charisma are charismata? Or on the theme of words that don’t mean what you think they do, bloodnoun — it has nothing to do with the stuff in your veins; instead, it’s another word for bullfrog. Words, words, words!https://wordsmith.org
#6 GrammarlyThe more you write (and read) the stronger your own store of grammar and spelling know-how should develop. However. There are times when having a quick resource to check for clear writing and correct grammar is appreciated. Like 3 a.m. when the deadline is looming and you need to feel confident. You’re welcome. https://www.grammarly.com/
#7 WorldCat Need an out-of-print book? Researching for a historical novel? Get connected to world-wide library catalogue system. A 3-minute YouTube video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vos5ivBeZ5c gives you a walk-through on how to use WorldCat. Search by subject, title or author. Create your own lists of resources and add or delete items as it suits you. Locate books in a multitude of languages. Read and/or post reviews. A gigantic library at your fingertips. Meow!https://www.worldcat.org/
#8 Poets & Writers Like Writers’ Digest, this is a wide-ranging website for writers, but it’s a non-profit organization. And we like seeing “Poets” listed first and foremost. Yes, there’s lots here of a general note for writers but P&W gives attention to those of us who work with fewer words on the page. The Bard would approve.https://www.pw.org/
#9 The Writers’ Union of Canada This website offers writers some free resources, such as lists of Canadian writing-related associations, literary agents in Canada, award programs for self-published authors, and many more links. In addition, the union’s resource books for writers are low-cost and high-value: for example, negotiating your own contract, or estate and legacy planning for writers.https://www.writersunion.ca
#10 Freerice This fun online word game is perfect for writers who want to challenge their brain while helping out a good cause, The Word Food Programme of the United Nations. The ad-supported site generates words with multiple possible meanings. You contribute 10 grains of rice for every correct answer. Increase your speed to raise the stakes and shift out of your comfort zone. Playtime for writers in English, French, Spanish, Italian or Korean! http://freerice.com/#/english-vocabulary/6116
By no means is this a complete list of useful or interesting writerly websites.
What sites have you discovered that other writers will find helpful? Suggest them in the comments section.
Our congratulations to Helen Bajorek-MacDonald for winning Writescape’s summer Postcard Story Contest, with her story Woman with Cigarette
You can read her winning story below, followed by our comments on why we chose this story as our winner. And after our comments, read why and how Helen wrote this story. Truly inspirational!
If you missed them, please follow these links for the 2nd-place and 3rd-place winning stories and our comments on those.
Here again is the contest image that inspired this story.
Woman with Cigarette
by Helen Bajorek-MacDonald
You think you want to crawl over me, slither across my skin, creep into my soul.
You think you can create a masterpiece with your authoritative direction and with darkroom magic. One that will earn what you expect: praise for your technical skill, for your ability to render beauty.
You think you can possess me, after you gift me with your obsessive eye, and the promise of immortality.
And you think you can do all this with a click of the shutter.
You perform as artiste.
Uncompromising behind the camera, you peer through the viewfinder.
Then the sound of the film advance lever.
Again, again, between prompts and coos and directives barked by a lusty hound.
“Good! Almost there! Lift your face. No, don’t look up. Chin up! A little. Eyes on the camera. Look deep into the lens.”
The staccato rhythm of the shutter-and-advance-lever echoes the intensity of your tone and commands.
“Don’t move. Just look. Right at me.”
My head’s right, but the eyes aren’t.
My neck’s right, but the shoulders aren’t
“Raise your arm over your head.”
Not a question.
I thought it would be easy and fun. First one, then the other, taking photos for our first portraiture assignment. It’s just a few weeks into our photography programme where I am the sole female student, and already it’s all insistent tones and breathless snapping. Just another reminder that I am – merely – subject. For your camera and of your desires.
You complain that there’s not enough light because of the storm.
The rain beating against the window of your shabby one-room apartment makes me shiver, and I wonder … when will you ask me to take off my clothes, for the sake of art?
“Back in a minute,” you announce as you get up from your crouched position on the hardwood floor.
As she stands to stretch, her eyes sweep the room. Her camera waits on its tripod. Atop a beaten dresser, cup circle stains are partially exposed under the clutter of keys, cigarette packs, matchbooks, a brimming ashtray, and other miscellany.
Maybe it was the clatter of thunder that drums an idea into her mind.
She moves quickly and purposefully.
She sets up her camera. Pre-focusses on the couch. One frame left in the roll of film. One chance to get the focus and exposure right, and to coolly pose herself.
She grabs a cigarette from atop the dresser, sets the camera’s self-timer, dashes to her position at the couch.
Pose. Gaze into the lens. Be you!
She and her camera are gone before he emerges from the bathroom.
Later, under her darkroom’s safelight, the image reveals itself in the developer tray.
A whisper: Woman with Cigarette.
Why we chose this entry as the winner
Risk in any art form is part of stretching the creative soul and we feel that in this story, huge risks were taken, and they worked. Risks in POV and content themes.
Narration/voice/POV – the writer took a huge risk in moving from what seems to be second-person narration but what the reader is surprised to realize is first-person narration by the character directed at an anonymous “you” — followed by a full shift into third-person narration at the point the “I” narrator takes control of her movements and poses, makes the decision to photograph herself with the last shot in her film (which means she likely expended all but one on the fellow student who is male.) It’s unexpected and despite common advice to not switch POV in a short piece, in this story it works. It does take time to realize what is happening and may challenge some readers, but the payoff was worth it. The story begs a second read to savour the story again with that realization.
Theme: Tackling a familiar subject — the female as object — is also risky because it has been done and done and done. But this feels fresh, partly because of the intriguing shift in POV.
Intensity of the moment which is always a plus for a postcard story — like the click of the camera, a few minutes only are captured and shared to create an emotional effect on readers. Little is given as background or character relationships, but a lot is implied.
Layers – even though we see only a few moments of story action, there are big issues presented for readers to consider: We’re asked to consider the idea of “subject” as seen through the lens of the camera — and that that lens takes a perspective from the person lining up the shot. We are asked to consider the trope of female model posing equals permission for sex. We are asked who has control – of the art and of the model?
Twist: the tropes of subject and model and control as part of the production of perfect art is upended with the sense of the personal as she takes control of the last photo — she chooses the lighting, the pose and backdrop — all of it her decision.
The style of the first part is staccato like the click click of the camera. Short sentences and paragraphs, sometimes even just one word per line. No descriptions of setting or characters. Everything is focussed, mechanical, shallow, artificial, dehumanizing. In the second half, the writing becomes more fluid and human. We see some of the surroundings and there is character movement and building to a motivated point. The reader is involved in the action and outcome.
Both of us felt that the writer’s attention to craft in this fine story was as strong as any we’ve read over the years in various journals and anthologies.
We asked Helen why she entered and what was it about this photograph that took her into this story…
Over the last two years I have been home ill, battling sarcoidosis. Symptoms include debilitating fatigue and visual and cognitive impairment. Not good for a college professor who teaches communications!
When the Covid-19 quarantine struck, I was already accustomed to self-quarantine. But, my world grew even smaller. While unable to devote more than a few minutes each day to reading or writing, I decided as the quarantine dragged on that I needed something to do. So, I turned to Writescape as I knew of the work of Gwynn and Ruth from Writers’ Community of Durham Region (WCDR). A blog is short, requiring little time and energy, and it is easy to enlarge text on a computer screen. It was something I could give precious time and resources to, without compounding my health challenges.
Ruth’s blog, “Picturing Inspiration” resonated especially strongly. Firstly, because it combined two things I love to do: writing and photography.
Secondly, the image haunted me. Maybe because of the times, but I kept thinking about the masks we wear. Yet, the woman in the photograph seems to be unmasked.
Further, she is in repose, but this didn’t make visual sense to me, so I kept turning the picture around to see what the image might ‘say’ if she were erect.
I was especially struck by the direct gaze of the woman in the photograph. Not blank, I wondered what she was projecting to the photographer. What was the photographer trying to achieve? And who was the photographer? Further, there was a nagging whisper over my shoulder … why was her cigarette unlit?
These and other questions led me to conclude that the woman must be the photographer. Her gaze suggests a certain confidence, defiance, direct communication with the camera’s lens. Though this is no 21st century selfie. It’s a self-portrait. It’s art. But how did she come to take the photograph? And what was her motivation for the self-portrait?
I began to think about the reasons one does a self-portrait. Lots of history and critical mass of the male self-portrait, in painting, photography and in writing. Not so for women. Even less awareness of the female self-portrait.
Perhaps predictably, I imagined the woman in the image to be a student in a photography programme. I determined she was a trailblazer. Defiant. Confident. Keenly aware how others might view her self-portraiture – as ‘less than’ in the art world [yes, I imagined her an artist; she’s got something of a beatnik look to her which helped me determined her era] – similar to the reception given to painters Frida Kahlo and Tamara de Lempicka, who woman-with-cigarette might have known, and photographers Elsa Dorfman and Vivian Maier, who remained largely unknown throughout their lives, and about whom woman-with-cigarette likely would not learn of in a school of photography.
As I thought of the challenges woman-with-cigarette would face in her aspirations to be a photographer, I was reminded of the work of African-American photographer Deborah Willis, who was told when she entered an all-male Bachelor of Fine Arts (photography) program in the early 1970s that she was taking up a man’s seat, when all she’d end up doing was have babies. One of her earliest and most profound works is Willis’ self-portrait triptych, “I made space for a good man.” A direct, confident, and political response to those who would silence her creative voice.
And so, I envisioned the woman-with-cigarette in the late 1960s; maybe early 1970s. A nascent feminist and emerging artist, committed to the study of photography, and most certainly possessing some skill and creative talent. She was going places with her art!
And, I determined, she knew enough about art history to know that Woman with Cigarette is almost a cliché over-saturated subject for painters. The greatest challenge in writing “Woman with Cigarette” was to find a subtle way to expose her ironic joke with self.
Writescape’s contest became a much-needed distraction during challenging times, as well as allowed writing to become part of my wellness plan.
Thank you to Writescape for offering the writing challenge, “Picturing Inspiration”. It’s not easy to write to spec. But, Ruth’s blog and the image were a perfect Goldilocks challenge for me. Absolutely, the right time! Just the right length to manage with my limited personal resources. The image checked all of the right inspirational boxes. And, most important, because I struggle with brevity, clarity, and conciseness in my writing, the postcard parameter of the competition offered a perfect opportunity to wrestle with these skills. As Timothy Findlay once observed, a writer must learn to “kill her darlings”. Not so easy! My first draft was almost 900 words.
Thank you, Ruth and Gwynn, for this writing challenge, for your feedback, and for allowing readers to read the three finalist stories. It is inspiring to read the unique approaches to the telling of ‘her’ story.
Helen Bajorek-MacDonald is an educator, writer and photo-text artist, whose writing has been published in books, journals, anthologies, magazines and newspapers.
Helen has exhibited collaborative visual/textual works with partner Jean-Michel Komarnicki, such as “Water and Iron” in Clarington Taken (Visual Arts Centre of Clarington), and in a group exhibition, Reading the Image (Whitby Station Gallery).
Today we continue with our 2nd-Place winner, Lori Twining and her story Smoke Job. Our comments and suggestions appear after the story.
Here again is the contest inspiration image.
by Lori Twining
There’s an off-duty cop in the backyard blowing leaf-litter all over the grey Ford sedan and the black Cadillac SUV, both stolen days before in a violent carjacking. There’s an ex-con sprawled out on the living room floor wielding a highlighter over a set of blueprints. There’s a young techie perched over the kitchen table setting all four watches—stolen in a smash and grab last month—to the same time because seconds are crucial.
Lastly, there’s a liar, a thief, and a snitch stretched across the leather couch enjoying her last dart. She contemplates several of her life choices, especially the ones she neglected to make, and the one she made hours ago, but regrets already.
Individually, the four of them are troubled souls with big dreams, but together, a powerful force.
Stella blows a smoke ring above the ex-con’s head and stares at the clock. In less than two hours, she’ll be celebrating her last heist, boarding a plane, and sinking her toes into the soft sand of the Virgin Islands. Nothing beats the smell of deep-fried conch fritters basted with sweet and spicy sauce wafting from Hemingway’s Caribbean Café unless it’s the salty taste of her forever sea.
* * *
The sedan stops in front of the building. Four individuals touch their watches to begin the countdown. They are clothed in black, wearing balaclavas, with guns firmly gripped in gloved hands. They step out of the car, leaving the doors wide open and rush toward the bank.
Ten seconds later, Techie has them inside. He uses a jamming device to knock out the security cameras, along with the alarm system. Blueprint guy heads to the vault, with off-duty guy hot on his heels. They have five minutes.
Stella stands in the shadows scanning the street for activity. Waits three minutes. She reaches into her backpack and retrieves the item, pulling the pin and tossing the frag into the sedan. She races into the bank, down the hall, and out the backdoor to the waiting Cadillac. She climbs behind the wheel.
Her mind wanders as she tries to remain calm…Serial killers still feed their goldfish, pyromaniacs still swim with dolphins and the president still swears on an upside-down and backward Bible, while spewing lies.
She holds an imaginary cigarette between her fingers and blows another invisible smoke ring. This will be her last. She’ll be sure to tell her offspring she never smoked a day in her life.
Sirens sound. Soon, they’ll be running for their lives from Police with dogs, helicopters with reporters, and grandmas with their I-told-you-so wagging fingers. There are many decisions in life, and now, she wonders, should she stay or should she bolt?
The snitch would kill for another smoke. Instead, she drops her hand to her belly, fingers splayed. She whispers, “Time for Mommy to disappear and time for Daddy to have a 20-year sleepover with all the men who hate him.” She presses the gas pedal to the floor.
Authentic voice — hard-edged and worldly yet tentative. Stella is a complicated narrator telling a tale of betrayal. The slow reveal of her betrayal is tantalizing with tension building nicely and the ending packs a nice punch.
Deliberate attention to detail and word choice – This is a story that invites a second read to look for the clues offered. The two cars: the team think she’s distracting by blowing one up but she’s faster than they are, and the SUV waits at the back door for her to leave the three holding the bag. She’s “the snitch” — and told us so in the beginning. We just didn’t know she was snitching on these particular three at this particular moment. No names here but hers which helps us believe she can be that cool to make this choice. And the coming baby – lots of echoes in the text — “offspring” and “Virgin Islands” for example — that fit with her pregnant state.
The twist: Her motivation for betrayal becomes crystal clear — it’s not the lure of escape for herself but for her baby. After all, she’s already given up smoking for that baby.
Loaded title: Smoke Job. So many definitions for that title and all of them relevant to this story. Smoke job – hiding the truth; smoke job – exposing others; smoke job – sexual heightening by the woman; smoke job – destruction.
There’s subtle, clever and topical humour here. Very difficult to pull off successfully, but well done in this piece. “Serial killers still feed their goldfish, pyromaniacs still swim with dolphins and the president (purposely lower case) still swears on an upside-down and backward Bible (purposely uppercase), while spewing lies.” Or “She’ll be sure to tell her offspring she never smoked a day in her life”
What could be stronger:
In such a tight piece, clarity must be paramount. Readers should not need to re-read a line to be sure to understand the events. The leaf-litter being blown over the cars was intriguing but didn’t seem logical as the heist was “in less than two hours”. Was the leaf-litter to hide the cars? Was the leaf-litter being blown OFF the cars in readiness? They were stolen days earlier.
Postcard stories are stories of the moment – resist long lead- ins and begin “in media res” if possible. We know you wanted the image (like the contest image) of Stella “enjoying her last dart”, but perhaps consider starting instead driving to the bank, and converting the beginning part to her thoughts on the ride.
Naming only Stella was a good choice, but “tag-names” can get confusing. Especially when they change: Off-duty cop became off duty guy; ex-con became blue-print guy. Suggest using consistent tags as names with Caps – still impersonal, but easier to understand: “Off-duty Cop blows leaf-litter …. Ex-con sprawls on the living room floor… Techie perches…..
Passive construction rears it’s ugly head a fair amount in this story. Lots of “to be” verbs keep readers distanced from the rising tension. Look for “was/is/are” and replace with more active verbs or reorder the sentence to avoid them as much as possible.
Also, proofread to catch grammar errors like police vs Police — generic so no capitalization.
A quirky and fun ride, Lori. We enjoyed reading this story — congratulations!
That’s two winning stories down and one to go….the 1st Place winner. We’ll publish the winner next week complete with our comments.
In the meantime, perhaps you have a flash fiction piece you can polish up and submit to one of these contests or journals:
Thank you once again to all who entered our contest from Canada and abroad, and to our longlist finalists announced last week.
Today we take great pleasure in announcing and congratulating the top three winners:
Drum roll please……
1st Place: Helen Bajorek-MacDonald – Woman with Cigarette
2nd Place: Lori Twining – Smoke Job
3rd Place: Ann Rocchi – Quarantine Dreams
Beginning today with our 3rd-Place winner, we will share these stories with you over the next three weeks and tell you why we chose them.
Before you read Ann Rocchi’s story Quarantine Dreams, here again is the contest image that served as inspiration.
by Ann Rocchi
Like a bad penny, her smoking returned. It was something to do! Something to fill the empty hours. Adrienne was usually a busy person – too busy, her friends said. This enforced isolation was not going well for her. She was lethargic, unmotivated…she felt like she had a piano tied to her ass. So. Cigarettes. Social media was advising everyone to reach out to connections from the past. She always felt connected when she was smoking. Connected to the cool kids, the ones who wore buffalo plaid shirts over their school uniforms and reigned over the rearmost bench of the bus. Connected to the hip crowd in college, lighting up after one-off sex with whoever you had brought home from the pub. Connected to her ex-husband; even when they could no longer hold a civil conversation, they could sit in silent communion with their smokes. She still smoked when she drank. And her drinking had skyrocketed lately, too. Kool-Aid coloured cocktails with paper parasols in fishbowl-sized glasses. Why, oh why, had she gone through with the whole fortieth birthday trip? Of course, everything was booked and paid for long before a whisper of “pandemic”. But they deserved it, right, she and her posse of single moms? They had worked hard all winter, shoveled their own driveways, carpooled till the cows came home and now it was time to park the kids with the grandparents and party. It felt so good to lie in the sun, a lovely buzz going from that fourth fruity drink, without some sticky little hand grabbing at her. There had been one sticky hand that trip, though, and not so little, either… Brendon? Brandan? One of those boy band names. He was tanned, taut and tattooed. They were partners for the Traditional Firewalking Event at the resort. He had talked her into it, had even done it already as a team building exercise back home with his work, Millennials R Us, or some other bullshit company she couldn’t remember. She was sauced, and when their leader exclaimed how empowered and spiritually connected she would feel afterwards, she ditched her shoes, grabbed the young hipster’s hand, and casually strolled across a fiery path of burning coals. She had ridden him like a goddess that night. Adrienne leaned over, chugged her beer, then tapped her cigarette butt in a houseplant to dislodge the ash. She took a quick peek through the curtains at her kids playing in the yard, then nestled back into the curvature of the couch. She inhaled deeply, held, exhaled. She felt like a lazy, good-for-nothing underachiever. This was her last smoke, she vowed. She would get up and make a healthy dinner for everyone. Baby steps. Just a quick rest first. Resolved, Adrienne finally relaxed. Her head bobbed, her cigarette drooped. Her vision blurred, hazy and ash gray, like the smoke of the firewalk. Adrienne slid into a deep sleep, not even the whiff of charred fabric interrupting her descent.
voice — believable narrator, unreliable and sad – always in character of bargaining, denial, trying to fit in, lacking self-confidence etc.
the ending — oh we fear for her, for the smoking fabric, the fact she’s been drinking, the kids in the yard — it’s all about to go up in smoke.
especially enjoyed that the element of surprise at the end is built logically through the story but is still unexpected. The girls trip and that one night with Brendan/Brandan feels real from risking the firewalking to risking a random one-night stand.
setting the story during Covid19 lends a topical and contemporary feel. We all understand how depression and so many other feelings seem to be heightened in these times. Makes this scenario all the more believable.
good subtle foreshadowing throughout starting with the first line. We know things will not go well: Her smoking returned like a bad penny.This was her last smoke… ash grey, like the smoke of the firewalk.
style — mix of sentence lengths for effect, repetition and sets of 3 for effect, building on ideas such as “connected” from school to adulthood: Connected to her ex-husband; even when they could no longer hold a civil conversation, they could sit in silent communion with their smokes. (Especially effective as this narrator is clearly not connected emotionally to much — a worsening drunk making deals with herself to manage everyday life.)
some fresh and effective figurative language: like she had a piano tied to her ass; her posse of single moms; nestled into the curvature of the couch.
As she begins her final decent into lethargy, the language becomes slower and more lethargic too. No vivid descriptions. Short simple sentences. And one moment of heightened tension (peek at the kids in the back yard) to make the reader want to reach into the story and shake her out of her stupor.
What might strengthen this piece:
While this character is certainly increasingly passive and reflective as she slips deeper into her drink and eventual sleep, we suggest fewer instances of passive verb construction: lots of “to be” verbs, especially at the beginning, keep readers distanced from the rising tension. Look for “was/is/are” and replace with more active verbs or reorder the sentence to avoid it as much as possible: This enforced isolation was not going well for her. She was lethargic, unmotivated. Other possibilities: Enforced isolation left her lethargic, unmotivated. Or Lethargy and lack of motivation had gripped her during this enforced isolation.
Timeline glitch: 40th birthday trip took place “long before a whisper of pandemic”, but she went after “they had worked hard all winter.” The pandemic started at end of 2019. It reached us around end of Jan and into Feb. Lockdown began in March.
Quarantine Dreams was a pleasure to read. Congratulations Ann on crafting such a great story.
Next week we publish the second-place winner along with our comments and suggestions. In the meantime, if you would like to enjoy reading or learning more about flash fiction or postcard stories, check out these links.
In May we invited writers to submit to a postcard story contest based on a visual picture of an interesting face in black and white. All just for fun, no monetary prizes. We’d like to thank all those writers who entered from Canada and abroad. We’d love to give you all a prize just for submitting because often that’s the hardest step, but of course we can’t.
Instead, today we announce our longlist. We originally planned on having five on the long list, but ended up with six.
Longlist (in alphabetical order):
So now what?
Over the next three weeks we will
feature the winning entry and two runners up with comments by the writers on
what inspired them and from us on why we chose them.
But today let’s talk about the
advantages of being on a longlist, a runner up or an honorable mention.
If your submission made it on to a
longlist, it means your entry was among the cream that rose to the top. Even if
it doesn’t ultimately win, the judges acknowledged that it had potential to be
Sometimes you get feedback, and any judge
or editor comment is worth the price of admission. You’re not obliged to take
their advice, of course, but it answers that eternal question: why didn’t it
win? In some cases, it’s good practical advice, and in some cases, it’s
subjective, but at least you know where you stand.
If you don’t get feedback on your
submission, take the time to read and analyze the winning entries. How are they
different from yours? What did they do to really shine? Tighter story? Great
voice? Interesting unique style? Dynamic dialogue? Don’t
get emotional or defensive. Instead, focus on learning what steps to take to
put you on the road to success.
Knowing that you made it into the top group of the entire entry body can be a huge boost to confidence especially for new writers or those who feel like they are in the doldrums. It’s recognition after all. Affirming recognition. When I was a new writer, my creative writing teacher had the class enter the Toronto Short Story contest as an assignment. I’m one of those don’t-share-till-I’m-sure kind of writers and sending in my entry felt like casting a delicate flower onto stormy waters. When I placed in the top 20 in a field of over 4000, I was ecstatic. I ran around the empty house telling every table and cupboard and drapery, then phoned all my writing buddies. Even though I didn’t win, I finally felt like a real writer.
Some contests publish some or all of their longlist winners, and that counts for your writing resume. Even if it isn’t published, the fact that it made it onto the long list is resume worthy. One year I made it onto the Contemporary Verse 2 (CV2) longlist for their popular 2-day poetry contest (again, didn’t win) but received a year’s subscription to the magazine as a reward. Now my longlist success sits proudly on my writing resume. Agents and publishers look for publishing credits, and longlist placings tell them that your work has been judged as worthy of winning.
When my Writescape partner Ruth entered the Montreal International Poetry Prize in 2011, she was thrilled to be placed on the longlist. It meant her poem Gilt made it into the online longlist anthology, and became a proud item in her literary resume.
Exposure to the
Ruth was equally chuffed when her short story entry received an honourable mention in Geist‘s Literal Literary Postcard Story contest. Then the icing on the contest cake: the prestigious U.S. quarterly, Utne Reader, asked for Ruth’s permission to reprint her story in their online magazine. So not winning top spot can give you inroads to places you didn’t foresee.
In our years as editors for the literary journal Lichen Arts & Letters Preview Ruth and I were often asked to be judges and many times, deciding on final winners from the longlist was a painful process. All too often, a great story didn’t win but was eminently publishable. Knowing this, when we received submissions that could boast a longlist placing on the piece, it made it out of the slush pile pretty quickly.
With the ease of modern social media, making
contact with your fellow longlist peers or others following the contest results
can increase your writing network, and suggest possible writers for critique sharing
or beta reading.
Yes, it’s disappointing to be on a longlist and then not make it to the finish line, but the trick is to focus on the fact that the piece had enough merit to make it that far, and let that success propel you forward. Take a second look, edit it or polish it and send it out again. If it’s that close, it will find a home.
So hearty congratulations to our longlist writers! Stay tuned for next week’s announcement and publication of our third place entry.
One of our most popular workshops has been Write to Win, a full-day focus on writing contests with Dorothea Helms and Ruth E. Walker.
Since Writescape is in the midst of wrapping up the first-tier judging of our own writing contest, we thought it might be fun to share one of the tip lists from that workshop.
Here’s the Top Ten Tips to Avoid Winning Writing Contests:
1. Don’t enter. Contest judges can only assess the entries they receive. Have you ever looked at winning entries and thought that your story is just as strong–or maybe stronger? Dorothea and Ruth have both been judges for regional, national and international writing contests. And frankly, we’re not always looking at the very best writing. You never know who has entered, how strong your work is in comparison and what might catch a judge’s eye. In short, you are guaranteed never to win–if you don’t enter.
2. Exceed the word count for prose or line count for poetry. Word counts are there for a reason. No matter how brilliant your words are, if there are more than the contest limit, you are disqualified. Read the guidelines and follow them.
3. Forget to include the entry fee. Online submissions often make this part easy but sometimes paying the entry fee is a separate step. And there are still a few contests out there that ask for mail delivery. IF you do forget after pressing SEND, you can try to contact the contest administrators and ask if they’ll accept your fee arriving late. NOTE: Dorothea and Ruth will tell you that running a professional writing contest takes time and money (advertising, judge honoraria, etc.) and that the entry fee is meant to offset those costs. For literary journals, writing organizations and other non-profits, contests can be part of fundraising. So it’s a good thing to not forget that fee.
4. Send something inappropriate (e.g. poetry for a prose contest or vice versa). In the same way that you don’t send a thriller novel manuscript to a publisher of children’s literature, make sure you have a submission that fits the contest. As an editor for a literary journal, Ruth received fiction entries to the annual poetry contest. Just like exceeding the word-count guidelines will get you eliminated, ignoring what the contest is about moves your entry immediately to the NO pile.
5. Enter with previously published material if the rules specify that it be original and unpublished. Dorothea and Ruth have each experienced this awkward situation in separate contests. In both cases, the top three winners and honourable mention entries were already informed of their status when one of the winning writers revealed their work had been accepted and published elsewhere. Not only did both of these writers get disqualified but some of the other top three entries suddenly found they “progressed” in the contest. While it was good news, finding out you are now getting the gold medal when you were celebrating silver is less than ideal.
6. Put your name on your submission when the rules specify not to. It’s an easy mistake to make as most writers have their name in the footer or header of their work in draft format. But it will probably get you disqualified.
7. Leave out your contact information. Unless the guidelines tell you to, don’t put it on your entry (see #6) but your cover letter needs to have it. With online submissions your contact info is part of the process. But there are still contests that ask for mail delivery so make sure contest administrators have a way to reach you.
8. “Decorate” your entry, hand-write or use a BOLD or italicized font throughout. Keep your entry professional and simple in appearance and tone. Unless the contest rules state otherwise, default to standard formatting (2-inch margins, double spaced) with Times New Roman 12 pt font. As we’ve noted before : Read the guidelines.
9. Don’t read previous winners to see what a successful entry looks like. Contests are like any kind of submission. You research what the literary agent is looking for in a client. You check out the books a publisher produces to see if your book fits. When you read past winners’ work, you get a sense if your story or poem or novel excerpt might fit.
10. Don’t bother to double check before pressing SEND. Oh the agony. We’ve all done it, haven’t we? Been so confident our work was ready. Or so tired and it’s 10 minutes to deadline. Or so distracted and busy we just want to get it done. And we do. We press SEND. And then we read the entry at some later point and slap the side of our head because the typo in the third paragraph is YELLING at our eyes. So. Stop. Think. If you can, put it away to look at one last time tomorrow. And then press SEND. Or drop the envelope into the mailbox. Because, you know, #1 on the list.
Now that things in Canada seem to be settling back into a form of normal, perhaps it’s time we gave more focus to getting published.
This week we welcome Writescape alumnus, Donna Judy Curtin as she confesses her submitting oops! and shares what she learned from it. You can find other writing-related blogs by Donna at Ascribe Writers blog.
It seems some days, I never learn from my
I come from a long line of bad spellers. My mother has a t-shirt that reads: “Bad spellers of the world, UNTIE!” As much as it is funny, it is true. I come by it honestly.
Combine that with my vivid imagination and
propensity to tell stories and you have a unique situation. If I don’t have the
word in a moment, in life, in my writing—then I just make it up. I figure I can
always insert the proper word later.
You would think, from the number of examples I
can remember of my utterly dismal performance, that I would improve and learn
how to re-read my work before submitting.
However, recent events would suggest otherwise.
I sent in an application for Pitch
Wars, a competition run by an incredibly positive writing community,
where if you are lucky enough to be chosen, a “Mentor” will provide feedback on
your unpublished novel, and then you, the “Mentee”, can pitch your novel in an
exclusive Pitch Wars Twitter party.
Well, on the last day for submissions, I proudly
pressed ‘SEND’ on my application and then a day later, I got a confirmation
email, only to discover, with horror, I had addressed the query letter to ‘Dear
Mentee’ instead of ‘Dear Mentor’.
I may as well have just written: “Go
ahead; press delete now; this dummy doesn’t even know who’s helping who!”
BUT… at least I sent it.
Yes, I submitted something.
And here is what I learned in the process:
Learn from your common mistakes. We all tend to repeat our own tragic stories. Keep a list of your common misdemeanors so that when you are editing that next novel, you can return to that list and clean up those repeating words or run on sentences. Decide what you will do differently the next time and hold yourself accountable
Search out amazing critique partners (CP). Not only do you need to work on your craft, you need CPs who will be your fresh eyes and be honest with you. A fresh perspective can shine light on that plot flaw or incorrectly used word and if they are good CPs, they will tell you when you are ready—or when you are not—to submit.
Fear of making a mistake is a double-edged sword. You need to keep this in balance. This fear pushes me to edit and then edit again. To read and re-read my work. I think we have all heard a published author groan about the mistake they found the moment they opened their shiny new book. But they have a book! Had they never put themselves out there—there would be no book. Don’t let your fear prevent you from ever pressing SEND.
Sleep on it. Although you may think you are ready. Stop. Don’t press that button yet. Take a break. Walk away from it and come back with fresh eyes. It is amazing what you miss, or skip, or spell incorrectly. Let it stew for a bit and come back to it.
Forge ahead. You must press SEND eventually. Do it!
I know my writing will never be perfect.
However, I will keep trying to improve. Cross your fingers for me, as I wait on
that query and hope that at least one of my Pitch Wars “Mentee’s” has
a good sense of humour.
Donna Judy Curtin
Donna Curtin practices veterinary medicine in
Bruce County, Ontario, close to her poultry and cash crop farm where she lives
with her husband and two children. As a compliment to her veterinary career,
she aspires to become a published novelist. In Dr. Curtin’s writing, animals
play important characters just as often as people.
Last week, we looked at underwriting in fiction and focused on underwritten scenes. Scenes are the building blocks of any story and essential for developing forward progression.
As a refresher, if a scene is underwritten, it lacks at least one of three important qualities: a reader’s connection to emotions, sensations and, ultimately, the story.
Most scenes involve the actions and reactions of a story’s characters. And it is here–in how a writer treats character development–that the beating heart of a story is found. Story is what we long for but it is character that embodies that story and leads us through to the end.
More than once, I’ve worked on novels that have underwritten important elements of character development:
physical presence (external = movement & abilities)
moral centre (internal = reactions & decisions)
wants and needs (external vs internal = motivations & goals)
When any one of these is underwritten, writers risk losing vital connections to readers.
The body is alive
The physical presence of your character is much more than describing how they look. How they move is based on their physical capabilities: strengths and weaknesses. And those strengths and weaknesses will change depending on their circumstances.
Big, tall Deshawn has to rescue a buddy trapped in a haunted house. We know he’s afraid of the dark.
Below are three different ways of sharing physical information about Deshawn, from a passive “tell” narrative, to a more active and physically connected narrative, and then finally a physically and emotionally active approach. Consider all three and decide which one is easiest to visualize and believe in the action.
Deshawn is a tall man. The room beyond the doorway he passes through is dark and frightening.
Deshawn stoops to pass through the doorway and looks around the frightening dark room beyond.
Deshawn tucks in his shoulders and lowers his head to pass into the room, his eyes wide and searching for any flicker of movement in the dark.
Unless they’re in a coma, your characters will always have to move their bodies. Those bodies need to act and react as any other body would. They feel the cold. Muscles get tired. Armpits sweat. Stomachs rumble. Eyes strain. Goose bumps appear.
Overwriting would be to have all those physical actions happening at the same time. But underwriting is to not have any of them ever happen to your characters. Using the senses — taste, touch, sound, smell and sight — will help keep readers physically connected to the people in your stories.
Good vs evil vs a little of both
Morality (beliefs, values, principles) is part of what drives your character’s actions and reactions. Characters make choices and firm decisions based on their moral centre. Underwriting happens when writers either don’t know what their character believes in or doesn’t give characters an opportunity to act on or challenge that belief system.
In Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, we gain insight into the moral centre of Aunt Lydia. A disturbing and evil antagonist in the first book, we discover that she is far more complex. We learn about her life before the extreme right-wing, Christian theocracy takes over part of the United States. If she opted to cling to her values and principles, she would be executed. She chooses life and must suppress her moral centre until she finds her way back to embrace it once more.
While I’m not suggesting that all your characters must have deep-seated values and principles, you will create well-rounded, logical and engaging characters if they act within some kind of moral centre. They won’t be underwritten because their actions and reactions will be logical, consistent and recognizable. And just like Atwood’s Aunt Lydia, there is plenty of room to play with the range of morality from which they operate.
Motivation and goals
Just as characters act from a moral centre, what they want and why they want it forms another part of what drives them and the narrative forward. You risk underwriting your character when goals don’t appear until halfway through the novel. Worse yet, if a character has no goal, they have no reason for motivation. And why will a reader worry about their failures and cheer their successes?
A character’s motivation can change, as can goals. What a character wants at the beginning of any story is rarely what a character needs. In terms of plot, readers want to follow an interesting or intriguing story. They don’t want an aimless meandering stroll through narrative that eventually gives them the ah-ha moment. “Oh, her mother’s disappearance is why she won’t commit to any relationship. Would have been good to get a hint of that long before page 107.”
There are plenty of ways to add a brushstroke or two before page 107. Figurative language is one method: metaphor and symbolism, for example.
a character’s attachment to a mother figure — a Madonna icon, an activist role for “Mother Earth” OR the reverse — disgust of sacred “mother” icons, a pro-development role that dismisses “tree huggers,” etc.
what your character refuses to see — photo album with mom’s pictures removed, flipped over or folded to hide her image. (There’s no need to explain the reason at this point — on page 107, it will support the ah-ha moment that makes the reveal be logical)
a character serving in caregiver (mother) role — a house plant, a pet, a neighbour’s child — and not doing it well at all, gives you lots of room to play: a missing neighbour’s pet — that you lost — is not the same as a missing neighbour’s child — who you were babysitting
In the process of editing, revising, rewriting and second-guessing ourselves, it’s easy enough to pare out elements of character development. A simple method to uncover underwriting for characters is to ask yourself the following:
Is this character physically present, using their senses, filling their space, moving appropriately?
Is this character acting in concert with their beliefs and principles? And if not, is there a reason?
Does this character know what they want? Are they working towards it and, if not, why not?
And, as the author, do I know what they need? And am I moving them (or the plot) towards that?
Tip of the character iceberg
And this is just the start. Characters, like real human beings, are amazingly complex and this blog is really just touching the surface. There are many good books that explore character and how to enrich yours. The more you know your character and how they should be acting and reacting, the less underwritten your characters will be.
We recently featured a series of posts about overwriting. It got me thinking about the opposite issue: underwriting. Writers often don’t notice underwritten scenes and characters but we editors sure do.
Underwriting can be as specific as a scene or part of a scene doesn’t have the impact you hoped for. Or it can be as broad as missing key plot elements that set up events later in the book.
Underwriting is missed opportunities to connect emotionally with your reader by letting them “witness” the story. Would you rather read a single sentence: Dustin yelled at her in his usual hurtful way to get his way“? Or read the scene of actual dialogue and action that took place, so you can “see” and “hear” the nasty words he used, and her cowering, him looming over her …?
Underwriting has several consequences but the most important one is that it doesn’t engage your readers. Underwriting creates:
Today, we’ll focus on underwritten scenes and then follow up with a focus on underwritten characters.
Your novel is full of scenes. Some scenes take up a whole chapter and some chapters carry several scenes. But long or short, all scenes have a purpose: keep the reader engaged and push the story forward.
A scene needs geography
We need to be grounded in place — not nailed in place with every detail revealed but enough setting features that readers can visualize what’s happening. Choose elements that matter to the scene and its purpose. Is it important to the plot to know it’s sunset? Let that blazing orb drop behind something that develops the story — a castle in the distance, a massive range of mountains, a line of camels crossing a dune.
Spotlight: Let the reader’s eye take in the quality of the light and how it plays on an object that has significance. Or use the senses to bring something important into focus: colour, shape, and textures — odours faint or strong — distant noises or booming sounds — flavours and temperatures on the tongue — textures and touches. Put that dried fig in someone’s mouth. Run fingertips along the gladiator’s shield. Create a sensory connection for readers.
A scene needs action
Action comes in many forms: movement (large and small) and dialogue (lengthy or brief). But don’t forget the action found in internal thought (a moment of angst, reaction, an internal struggle or making a decision.) The process of coming to a decision, especially in a key area of the plot/character development, is sometimes given little or no air. And that’s a missed opportunity to bring your reader into a character’s emotional life.
Maybe you think internal thought is “tell” instead of “show.” And sometimes, it may very well be “tell” but, in fact, necessary tell that feels just like show. Not everything needs to framed through movement or dialogue in order to feel active and move the plot forward.
He held the urn in both hands. If he threw it now, all the pain and frustration would be over. So easy. Just drop the thing over the cliff. Watch it smash on the rocks below and then turn and walk away. Let his father’s ashes go and never have to face his mother and sister, or tell them what he’d done, how Dad’s ashes were all that was left. But easy had never been his way. Not then. And not now. He slipped the urn back into the cardboard box and returned to the car. Time to face the family.
A scene needs meaning
If every scene has a job to do, then your role is to make sure it gets that job done. Too often, we see manuscripts where important plot points arrive without any set up. For example, the main character wants forgiveness from her ex-husband but we only discover that halfway through the book. Readers will wonder where that’s coming from. But if you make forgiveness a theme, you can bring in metaphors, images and hints of that want so, for example, the ex-husband element makes sense.
Perhaps early in the story a small transgression is forgiven. Is she a character who often says “sorry” over little things then waits to hear “that’s okay”? Maybe something gets broken and she’s more upset than the owner of the broken item. Maybe a favourite film is “Unforgiven” or a favourite Mark Twain quote is Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.
A useful approach to make sure your scenes are doing their job is to ask yourself: What is the point of this scene? It’s a simple question but an important one. Are you developing character motivation, introducing a new character, raising the stakes, revealing a new plot element, establishing time and place, showing conflict, etc.? When you know the purpose of each scene you can make vital editing decisions:
Eliminate or combine/conflate scenes that do the same work
Energize flat scenes with action
Slow down a scene for emotional impact
Reorder scenes for more logical progression
When you analyze the purpose of each scene, you gain a better understanding of your novel. And that makes for a confident writer.
Find the balance
Avoid a laundry list of setting description but ground readers in the scene with just the right brushstrokes of important details about place.
Avoid too much chatter and physical action but feed the emotional connection with characters by letting readers hear their thoughts at important moments.
Avoid packing in too much figurative language but enrich the story with metaphor and subtle hints, especially where it’s missing in a key scene.
A writer is like a movie director, deciding who and what to include in the scene, where to aim the camera, how to light the scene, etc. Fortunately, you don’t have to call in the crew and actors to re-shoot your scene. Instead, you choose whether to trim or embellish on the page. And that’s the beauty of our craft: until it goes into the hands of the publisher, it’s all up to us to make those choices.
Sadly we had to postpone our Spring Thaw Retreat to the fall, but this week we are able to virtually welcome Seana Moorhead , a Writescape retreat alumus. Seana is a fine writer, a lawyer and a blogger at Ascribe Writers. She tells us her story of the old adage: “Write every day”.
Guest Post – Seana Moorhead
When I got home from Spring Thaw, Writescape’s writing
retreat at Rice Lake, I committed to writing every day.
I had approximately sixty scenes to edit in my
latest project. So I calculated that if I edited one scene every day,
estimating to take about one hour each, I would need sixty days or two months.
Since the writing retreat was in late April,
this meant that I should be finished by the end of June.
Plan A in action
To meet my goal, I needed to find about one hour
each day to write. At first, I tried to do this in the evening which was a
complete fail. I do not have enough brain power and energy to write after a
long day of work. Besides, I’m a morning writer. So at the end of May, I
decided to add one hour in the morning to accomplish my goal.
I started getting up earlier. This was made
easier by the longer days and I tend to get up earlier in the summer months
anyway. Still, little to no writing was done. Almost half way through June and
I had managed to do only one scene. A dismal failure. Instead I only managed to
get to work earlier. Not exactly the result I was aiming for!
Although I enjoy writing and wish constantly
that I could find more time to write, I still can’t seem to get into a habit of
writing every day. I began thinking about how to start a good habit.
For example, every morning before work I take my
dogs for a walk. I do not allow myself any excuses. I started this discipline
about eight years ago. It does not matter how cold it is outside, if it is
raining, if I slept in, or if I feel too tired. When I do feel like skipping
the walk, I tell myself, just fifteen minutes. No walk is not an option.
So on those very cold winter mornings, it may only be fifteen minutes before
the dogs and I run back to the warmth of the house. But on a beautiful spring
morning, we take closer to an hour, roaming through the fields and woods. In
the eight years of this discipline, the dogs and I complete our walk about 98 %
of the time. I realized I needed to approach my writing practice in the same
of trying to find an entire hour, I only needed to commit to fifteen minutes.
I decided to try that for one week. 15 minutes. Every morning. No excuses.
In preparation, I created a play list that was
15 minutes in length. I also decided my 15 minutes would be after all my other
morning routines – ie. Walking the dogs, breakfast, etc, since experience had
taught me that I needed to get my regular morning routine done before I could
On Monday, I woke up early as per my new routine
and walked the dogs. Then the distractions began. I had to take the recycling
and compost out, and then the compost bin really needed a good rinse. The bird
feeders needed to be filled. It’s amazing how many mundane chores can get done
when I don’t want to focus my brain. By the time I did all of those things, I
had twenty minutes until I had to leave for work. The excuses started:
What’s the point of
fifteen minutes? How much writing can I really get done in fifteen minutes?
It’s probably not worth it.
It’s Monday – maybe I
should give myself a break and start on Tuesday.
I could make it up
tonight. Tonight I will do half an hour to make up for the morning.
I almost didn’t do it. But I started with
turning on my laptop and ordered myself to sit down and write for the fifteen
minutes. I sat. I wrote. Twenty-two minutes later, I raced to work so as not to
be late. I had finished one scene. Yahoo!
The next day was a bit easier as I was prepared
for my brain to make the usual excuses. Luckily, number one excuse (how
practical is 15 minutes) was already proven wrong. I sailed through the next
two days, writing every morning.
Then Thursday hit and my brain thought that
maybe we had done so well for three days that maybe we could skip this one? I
remembered my dog walking routine. No excuses.
So I squeezed in my fifteen minutes. And then on
Friday, I woke up early and actually wrote for an entire hour before work.
After one week of this discipline, I had
completed editing ten scenes – more than I had done in the last two months. I
found myself turning on my computer in the evening to write for another fifteen
minutes and that often turned into half an hour to fifty minutes. I was excited
about my novel again and was eager to keep working on it.
Writing takes creativity but it also takes discipline and commitment. But be realistic on goals. I didn’t finish my scene edits by the end of June, but keeping with my new habit, it will be done by the end of the summer. What writing goal do you have to complete this summer?
Seana Moorhead is an aspiring author working on completing her first fantasy novel. She moved to Grey County in 2002, having a passion for outdoor adventures, including kayaking and wilderness camping. Suffering from a book addiction, she will read almost anything that will grab her attention, lead her into another world or teach her something new. Seana lives on a bush lot near Owen Sound, Ontario with her partner and three dogs.