10 tips on deciphering old handwriting

10 tips on deciphering old handwriting

A trunk of old letters. A pile of postcards tied with string. A paper copy of the will of an ancestor. All can be fantastic primary research or a font of ideas for stories—if you could only read them!

Reading old handwriting on historic documents can be difficult. Just as in modern times, penmanship skills were often poor, or more likely, the script, language and abbreviations used are unfamiliar.

Here are ten tips to help with old documents written in English:

1. Create a clear working copy

To make things easier for you and to minimize any damage to the original document, scan or photograph the original to make a working copy. With all the digital advances at our disposal these days, adjust brightness, deepen colour for faded ink, and zoom in.

2. Identify the historical period.

A quick look at the array of fonts available shows how different the same words can look when written in different styles. Different periods in history had distinct styles and if you can pinpoint the century, you can then focus on that style. You’ll come across old conventions like the “long s” or the old Anglo-Saxon letter thorn, “þ”. pronounced “th” which became a “y” and shows up in words like Ye (The).Below is a visual sampling of scripts used from the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries (photos from www.ancestry.com/) For even earlier scripts the University of Nottingham has a wonderful section on reading old manuscripts.

16th Century – Chancery Script
17th Century – Italic Script
18th Century – Secretary Script
19th Century – Round Hand

3. Print an alphabet sheet

Once you’ve identified the right century, (see tip #2) Google image search and print a reference sheet of the alphabet in typical scripts of the period. “19th century handwriting alphabet” produced this result:

4. Do an initial read through

Read through the whole document (out loud if possible) to get a “feel” for the document in its entirety. Even if you stumble over more words than you decipher, your eyes and ears will start to get familiar with the handwriting, and you will begin to recognize some words. Do it again. And again.

5. Think Phonetically

Spellings, punctuation and capitalizations weren’t standardized until well into the 19th century. Many people couldn’t read or write and scribes or officials wrote what they heard. People’s names and place names in particular can have a wide variety of spellings, even on the same page. Patterns of speech and local dialects would have affected what scribes heard. So, for example, if it’s a Scottish document, “William” may be written “Weelum”; “hundred” may be written “hunnert” and “more” might be “mair”. That’s where reading aloud helps too. (see tip #4)

6. Be aware of abbreviations, short forms and jargon

Every profession and era has its own abbreviations, short forms and jargon. A letter in your grandmother’s time might have said “Thank you for your letter of the 14th inst.”(this month) An email message today might end with “TTYL” or “Thx”. Take time to research the meaning of any unknown abbreviations you come across. A few examples:

  • et al = and others
  • wit = witness
  • do = same
  • w/o = wife of

7. Name shortforms and nicknames

The trend in prior times to use nicknames and to abbreviate names when writing them, while annoying, can be helpful because the short forms are easily recognizable and having deciphered them, it will help with further identification of letters.

Here are two resources to help you:

8. Start with what you can read.

Be a word detective. Remember the movie The Imitation Game about the enigma machine? They broke the code when they realized that the German messages always contained a salute to Hitler, so that gave them 6 deciphered letters to begin with. Use the same idea of beginning with what you can decipher and building on it.

So, if you are reading a will, look for words or phrases that you would expect to be there: “last will and testament” “bequeath” “my wife” my eldest son” “property”. Check the address on letters for familiar place names; look at salutations and sign offs. Words like days of the week, months and seasons or even simple ones like “the” and “and” give you a starting point to see how the writer formed lower case vowels or certain capital letters. Then compare them to your alphabet charts (see tip #3) and other words in the document.

9. Fill in the blanks

Write out the text leaving placeholder blanks for words you can’t read. Then in each blank space put dashes for the number of letters in the unknown words. (Example: “_ _ _ _ _ _”) Next, based on your comparison of known words and letter formations in the document and your reference style sheets, work on filling in partial words based purely on the formation of letters. (Example: “_ _ _ ish”) A hint to help here is knowing that where a letter begins the ink is often thicker and the direction it thins is the direction it was formed. Work on long words first, as having many letters gives more clues to completing the word.

10. Get help from social media.

Genealogy groups on Facebook can be most helpful with reading old scripts. Post a good quality image of the section you want help with and put your incomplete transcript in the message section (see tip #9). Note that having an image of a good chunk to work with is more effective than posting a picture of just a few words, because, like you, your helpers will need context. Don’t forget to say please and thank you, and to limit your ask and expectations. Asking for translation of a highlighted sentence with three important missing words is more likely to get assistance than asking for a full-page translation.

10 Canadian Autumn Books

10 Canadian Autumn Books

Ah fall! We love this season of harvest and slanted light and cozy fires. What better time to curl up with a good book. As Stephen King so wisely reminds us “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

So here is an autumn tribute to Canadian authors. You’ll find fiction, non-fiction, memoir, short stories, YA, poetry and children’s books, all united by this wonderful season. Happy reading!

Season of Fury and Wonder by Sharon Butala (2019)

This collection of short stories presents the lives today’s old women, who understand that they have been created by their pasts, and that some things cannot be learned when you are young.

All Things Consoled: A daughter’s memoir by Elizabeth Hay (2018)

Winner 2018 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Non-fiction. A memoir about Lizzie the so-called difficult child. By looking after her parents in their final decline, she hopes to prove that she can be a good daughter after all.

Days by Moonlight by Andre Alexis (2015)

2017 Windham-Campbell Prize; Winner 2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize A dark comic novel that explores what is real. Alfred Homer takes a journey during the “hour of the wolf,” that time of day when the sun is setting and the traveller can’t tell the difference between dog and wolf.  It is a land of house burnings, werewolves, witches, and plants with unusual properties.

 Homegrown: Celebrating the Canadian Foods We Grow, Raise and Produce edited by Mairlyn Smith (2015)

More than a cookbook, Homegrown celebrates what makes Canadian products unique and why “Made in Canada” stands as a mark of excellence. Recipes alongside humorous stories and sidebars showcase the best of Canada.

 21 Days in October by Magali Favre (2014)

In this YA novel set during the troubled period of Quebec’s and Canada’s history in October 1970, young people deal with gruelling factory work, unemployment, harsh police and military action, and imprisonment, but also, hope, political commitment and first love.

 My October by Claire Holden Rothman (2014)

2014 Shortlisted for Governor General’s and Longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller. Set in Montreal and told in three voices, My October is the story of a family torn apart by the power of language and of history. Hannah is the daughter of a man who served as a special prosecutor during the October Crisis, and her husband Luc is a novelist. Their troubled son, Hugo, commits an act that sets them on a collision course with the past.

Autumn Leaves by Manolis Aligizakis (2014)

This lyric poetry collection from a Greek-Canadian poet who emigrated to Vancouver in 1973, is about longing and desire through the passing seasons. The poems have a Mediterraean flavour and were originally written in Greek.

Grateful by Marion Mutala, illustrated by E. R.(2014)

Be grateful for all your blessings. A poignant conversation between parent and child across the years.

October by Richard B. Wright. (2008)

Globe and Mail Book of the Year list.  A man accompanies an old acquaintance on a final, improbable journey searching for answers in the autumn of his life.

Autumn Rounds by Jacques Poulin, translated by Sheila Fischman (2002)

On a whim, a man joins a touring marching band he sees from his Quebec city apartment window. Among the troupe is a woman he recognizes and so begins a tale of love that arrives in the autumn of life.

10 Return-to-Workshops Tips

10 Return-to-Workshops Tips

It’s back to school for the kids. And, thankfully, it’s back to in-person workshops and conferences for writers. Some workshops are still virtual, but more and more, we’re seeing hybrid programs where participants can choose to view from home or sit in the classroom.

But it’s been a while, writer. Sitting in your jammies with your camera off has allowed you to be a relaxed participant in virtual events. Maybe too relaxed? Here’s a quick primer to get your head back into the game of learning.

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1.   Physical comfort. The temperature, acoustics and furniture are seldom within the control of the facilitator. Dress in layers to cope with hot/cold. Bring your own water, bring a small cushion if hard chairs bother you. Pay attention to housekeeping information, location of bathrooms, break times and so on.

2.   Follow the health guidelines. If the facility or the presenter asks you to mask, do so. If you are not comfortable without a mask, you are fine to wear one even if everyone else is not. If social distancing is required, don’t be that person who will only sit in the third row, aisle seat, even if it means disrupting social distancing.

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3.   Keep it simple. Avoid covering your area with pencils, pencil sharpener, highlighters, pens, three journals (in case you fill them?), personal fan, five resource books on the topic, water bottle and coffee travel mug. All that stuff can distract others – and maybe, you too. If you need to have them close at hand, put them in the knapsack and pull them out only when required.

4.   Quiet snacks. As above, unwrap the hard candy or granola bar during breaktime to avoid being a distraction. As presenters, Gwynn and I can attest to how noises can disturb others while we’re speaking or in the quiet time of writing exercises. Crunch. Crackle. Pop!

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5.   Be tech-savvy. If you want to work on a laptop or tablet, make sure it is charged and bring your own extension cord if you need to plug it in. Never assume there is Wi-Fi available. And for Pete’s sake, turn off the cell phone. Or at least, put it on silent because others will likely hear “vibrate.” If you must check it occasionally for a vital reason, be discreet.

6.   Consider going “low-tech.” In other words, writing by hand with pen/pencil on paper. We are used to our laptops and tablets, but there is a physical connection with our hands on paper that is missing with the keyboard. Laptop text arrives neat, spaced perfectly and with autocorrect. Getting messy with a pen in an exercise can lead to amazing results.

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7.   Ask for permission to record the workshop. Do not assume it’s okay otherwise because it isn’t. Not every facilitator is comfortable being recorded and we hold the copyright on our material. Indeed, your workshop colleagues may also not be comfortable knowing their questions and comments will be recorded. Better yet, ask at the start if notes/handouts will be shared with participants.

8.   Do the exercise. It doesn’t matter if you don’t like it or think it’s too hard. In fact, it’s important to challenge yourself. You are here to learn and part of that process is to try new approaches, to stretch your pen. And don’t be smug about how this exercise is so basic, you can do it without thinking. The point of all exercises is to tickle your brain. Drop the smug and pick up the pen.

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9.   Ask questions. Do your homework on the topic and/or presenter/facilitator. And prepare at least one question that shows you’ve done so. No question is a dumb question because it’s likely that at least one other person in the room is wondering the same thing as you. Maybe the presenter didn’t explain it enough. Maybe your experience is different from what is suggested. An unasked question doesn’t get an answer.

10.   Be open to the ideas and experiences shared by participants. As teachers, we always learn new things from participants. Even those just beginning the writing journey share remarkable insights and approaches. As participants in workshops, Gwynn and Ruth realize that there is a wealth of knowledge among colleagues and we are eager to learn from them. “I don’t agree” shuts down people. “That’s different to my experience” shows you’re being thoughtful. “I never thought of that before. Can you explain a little more?” opens the door to sharing ideas, inspiration and resources.

C’mon writer, get that writing brain engaged and dive into new networking opportunities. Some workshops, like Ruth’s 3 Steps to Creative Writing series this September at the Haliburton County Public Library, are completely in person.

Organizations like The Writers’ Community of Durham Region are hold hybrid meetings this year. And conferences and festivals, like the upcoming Whistler Writers Festival in B.C. are also going hybrid. Or go all in-person at the Haliburton Arts Council’s Bookapalooza, an all-day, all-genres trade show for readers and writers on September 24.

And there’s a wealth of workshops happening this fall at the Northumberland Festival of the Arts, with a full immersion in all kinds of arts events and workshops. With Gwynn Scheltema-Anderson as Chair, you can imagine the offerings are diverse and exciting.

So, examine your comfort level, prepare what works for you and, if you can, get out there to feed your muse and fire up your pen.

10 Summer Hot Editing Tips

10 Summer Hot Editing Tips

It’s summer and Ruth is buried under a mountain of editing on her novel due to her agent soon soon. Gwynn is buried under last-minute prep for the Northumberland Festival of the Arts  running Sept 16 to Oct 2. Sooo…. we decided that we would rerun one of our most popular blogs because the tips in this list never grow old and we can all do with a reminder now and then.

 1. Get the action going

Replace passive, weak verbs, especially forms of the verb “to be”

  • Before:      It was a dark and stormy night.
  • After:        The storm raged through the blackness.

2. Keep things moving forward by reducing the use of “had”

“Had” refers to “completed’ action. It has no forward movement. Use “had” once or twice at the start of a section/paragraph to establish the time period, then revert to simple past tense.

  • Before:      She had been the only one in the house, and had paid the rent faithfully each month. She                                   had taken care of the place and had put up drapes and painted.
  • After:        She had been the only one in the house, and paid the rent faithfully each month. She                                          took care of the place and put up drapes and painted.

3. Keep the action going

Delete empty words like very/somewhat/really. Energize the word being modified instead.

  • Before:      Despite the very hot afternoon….
  • After:        Despite the afternoon’s sweltering heat…

 4. Keep your actions strong; beware the “-ly” adverb

Can you replace it with a stronger active verb?

  • Before:      He went quickly
  • After:        He ran – or dashed, charged, bolted…

 5. Change up the senses you use in description.

We default to the sense of sight. Try replacing visual details with ones of another sense.

  • Before:      Anita set the gold-rimmed tea cup  on the lace cloth…
  • After:        The tea cup rattled in the saucer as Anita placed it on the lace                             cloth…

6. Take your reader deeper into the world of the story

Look for named emotions (happy, sad) or physical states (fearful, tired) and replace with concrete and sensory detail.

  • Before:       She felt disappointed
  • After:        She sank onto the bench and hugged her knees

 7. Keep your writing fresh

Look for tired and overused clichés. (Microsoft Word’s grammar checker notes clichés with green squiggly lines.) Create visuals that add to the story or your character.

  • Before:      His beard was as white as snow
  • After:        His beard was as white as his lab coat

8. Eliminate repetition. Eliminate repetition.

Identify any “writer’s tic” that you know you have. Phrases, descriptions, gestures and so on, rapidly  lose their energy when they are overused or placed too closely together.

  • How many times do your characters “roll their eyes” or “take a deep breath?”
  • How many times have your told readers it’s “a red car?”

9. Keep your tricky words tamed

Are there words you constantly mispell…um…misspell? Are you working with strange names or technical terms? Keep them correct and consistent by adding them to your software’s dictionary or AutoCorrect function.

How to:     Right click on the word. Choose either Add to dictionary or AutoCorrect

 10. Know your country

Is it color or colour? Are they good neighbours or good neighbors? Writing for American readers, Australian readers or British readers? Incorrect spelling won’t please your publisher. Make sure your  software is defaulted to the “right” English.

How to:     Most MSWord programs have the language default on the bottom info bar. Left click to select your language.

If you found this helpful, let your writing friends know. Share it!

10 Agent Feedback Tips

10 Agent Feedback Tips

This month’s 10 on the 10th is from Ruth Walker, a partner in Writescape and author, poet & creative writing teacher:

I’m fresh from over two hours of a one-on-one Zoom meeting with my agent, Ali McDonald of 5 Otter Literary. She’s had my Young Adult Science Fiction manuscript for a few months and, at last, she’s finished her editorial read and response. Thank goodness, she still loves the story. But—and you know there’s always a but – the MS is not yet ready and I have a boatload of work to do to send her something she can share with editors and publishers this fall.

Our discussion was not all book, book, book. We both have busy lives and spent some time being a bit social. But the majority of our chat focused on strengths along with logic glitches, character development, questions, a bit of copyediting and the several substantive changes I’ll need to add new scenes, cut others and arrive at the sweet spot of 90,000 words (currently at 94,000.)

Besides the MS covered in Track Changes edits and highlighted Comments, my agent also sent me 10 pages of notes. Narrative issues. Sensitivity issues. Dropped threads. Confusion. Suggestions. Questions. And, fortunately, many nice things said as well.

Ali did a terrific job. As we chatted and exchanged ideas and asked questions of each other, I realized the old saying: Choosing to write with hopes of publication is not for the faint of heart. For better or worse, here are some of the qualities you’ll need to have on hand during “that talk” with your agent or your editor:

1   Patience – your agent has spent a lot of time with your words, so you need to give your agent time to explain why – why that edit, why that question, why that isn’t clear, etc. Don’t rush this opportunity to absorb and consider how you can further hone your masterpiece.

2   Focus – early on. I failed miserably at this in our meeting.  I actually allowed myself to be interrupted by a call on my cell. Nothing should be more important than having my agent’s time. I hope I made up for it for the rest of our time together. Cell turned off. Eyes on Ali. Listening.

3   Curiosity —  your curiosity needs room at the table. If a note or edit does not make sense to you, don’t pretend to know it all. Further and Farther came up with a note I needed to be consistent. I thought I understood the meaning of each and I was right. But obviously I used them incorrectly often enough to deserve a mention.

4   Commitment – set boundaries on your time for revision work and stick to it. “No, I’m sorry. I’ll have to miss the BBQ”, etc. Then set and stick to a deadline. But also be clear with your agent about your timelines and intentions. Make room in your calendar to produce.

5   Critical thinking – making revisions is more than chopping out words or fixing typos, as you know. But using your critical thinking skills as you discuss big (and small) changes to recognize the ripples it will have on the whole narrative. A deleted scene in Chapter 2 could leave characters talking later on about something that’s no longer in the book. Discuss this with your agent and leave reminders for yourself right in the MS so you won’t make that mistake.

6   Humility – maybe this should be number one but I’ve left it down here on the list for a reason: so you won’t skip it. Most writers carry some level of insecurity. We’re often in a tug of war between feeling we’ve written something brilliant and feeling that we are useless hacks. But we also have an ego and sometimes that ego needs to be reminded that it doesn’t know absolutely everything. (Case in point: further/farther and other embarrassing typos.) So be prepared to be educated about what you missed. Fortunately, you’ll likely also get some lovely ego strokes.

7   Kindness – of course, you need to show kindness to your agent. As noted in the preamble, Ali and I both have busy complicated lives. I could have been all “What took you so long?” or “This better be worth waiting for” and so on. But I already knew she’d been dealing with a lot personally. The fact that she was meeting with me despite working through COVID-19 showed her commitment to me and my book. So, I really appreciated all the effort on her part. But I also will remind you to be kind to yourself. This is tough work, writer, so go easy on yourself. Treats go a long way to ease difficult times.

8   Acceptance – “gird your loins” is an old saying that might be useful here. You are receiving gold even if it is hard to swallow. Let’s face it – it’s your baby we’re talking about and somebody is telling you what needs to change. (Thanks goodness, I haven’t had to send any characters off to the Island of Unwanted Characters…yet.) But you are getting professional advice, writer, and you need to accept it. It does not mean that you need to MAKE all those changes but you do need to accept that the suggestions are coming from someone who knows the industry. So don’t dismiss the feedback – use patience, humility and critical thinking as you consider.

9   Fear – this may feel contrary but a good dose of healthy fear can be the ticket to keep you on the job. Yes, there will be obstacles. Yes, you may think you’ll never overcome them. And yes, your story may never find a publishing home, even with an agent on your side. It can all be paralyzing. But only if you let it take over. Consider the edge that racers feel revving their engines just before the starting pistol or the nerves that fuel actors before they walk into the spotlight: fear can be useful as motivation. Don’t let fear of failure take hold: instead, harness it and ride that energy to “The End”.

10   Love – oh my god, there have been days when I thought I could dump my book and its characters into the storm sewer and be done with it. But those days are rare. It’s been a long haul since my story’s first steps at the 2014 Muskoka Marathon. I loved my characters even back then and as I worked and reworked Garnet’s story and those she lived among, I kept loving her story. Year after year. Edit after edit. Until it became a chore and not a joy. I put Garnet away for a time. When I could love her and her story once more, I started up again. And remember writer, it isn’t just your story or characters that you need to love. Love yourself by doing things that support your writing journey, that help you keep on track and offer you inspiration exactly at the time you need it.

My commitment: a finished next draft of 90,000 words with copyedits incorporated and substantive edits made to Ali by August 31, 2022. If I’ve done a thorough job and stayed true to the sacred heart of Garnet’s story, we might be ready for our close up.

If not, I might have to pull out all ten of these qualities once more to keep on track for the next draft. Wish me luck!

10 Ways to Show Ukraine Some Love

10 Ways to Show Ukraine Some Love

Many of us have been dismayed by the invasion of Ukraine and the relentless destruction of infrastructure and cultural sites, and the horrific loss of ordinary citizens’ lives. We are distant geographically but this undeclared war’s impact has extensive global reach. We may feel helpless but we can take small actions that will make a difference. Here’s a list of 10 things ordinary people can do:

1   Read Good Citizens Need Not Fear by Maria Reva, the winner of the $25,000 KOZBAR Book Award. Presented biennially, this award recognizes outstanding contributions to Canadian literary arts by authors who write on a topic with a tangible connection to the experiences of Ukrainian Canadians.  

2   And then read some more: there were two finalists in the KOZBAR competition: Fields of Light and Stone, a poetry collection by Angeline Schellenberg, and Enemy Alien: a true story about life behind barbed wire, a graphic novel by Kassandra Luciuk.

3. Create art. Even better create art and then use it to shine a light on the invasion of Ukraine and maybe raise some funds to support non-profit groups providing support inside the country. For example, Bekky O’Neil and Keith Del Principe, artists and farmers in Northumberland County, created a lino print of the words spoken by an elderly Ukrainian woman as she gave sunflower seeds to Russian soldiers who captured her city. Writer Diane Taylor blogged about it and what it means to her.

4   Rent a B&B in Ukraine. There are over 11,000 B&B rentals which gives a sense of how popular this country was to visit before February 25. Visit the European B&B site and rent a room for a night or two to help add needed dollars to the Ukrainian economy. Let the hosts know you won’t go there to stay but it’s a good thing you’re doing. We might be dealing with inflation, but imagine what happens to a nation’s economy with mined blockades at seaports and targeted infrastructure missile hits.

5   Purchase tickets to Ukrainian zoos.  Imagine the challenges of keeping animals healthy and safe in a war zone, including non-indigenous animals with specific diets. You can help feed the animals (and the local economy) by buying entrance tickets online. Here’s three zoos in Ukraine that would appreciate your support. The Mykolaiv Zoo is close to the active war zone. You can read about the zoo in Оleksii Platonov’s article in Geneva Solutions and then buy entrance tickets. Check out the Kiyv Zoo in the nation’s capital. And the Kharkiv Zoo, in a city recently retaken by Ukraine, has an direct link on their site for donations. No matter how you feel about zoos, the immediate need should take precedence.

6   Write a letter of encouragement to President Volodomyr Zelenskyy sharing your support. This media savvy politician has used his skills as a writer, comedian and actor to keep his citizens’ morale high. He’s also kept his country’s peril in the spotlight internationally. We don’t know for sure but we do think some direct “Good for you, Mr. President” might help keep his morale high.

7   Create a collective project. For example, Penn Kemp, poet, playwright and dedicated activist, has gathered the voices of 48 prominent Canadian poets to produce an anthology with profits going to PEN Ukraine, to support the cultural community. Poems in Response to Peril features Gary Barwin, George Elliott Clarke, Kim Fahner, Tanis MacDonald, Daphne Marlatt and Goran Simić, among the 41 contributing poets. As these poets know, words are powerful.

8   Download the Ukrainian Flag. Add a show of support to your social media. This Kapwing Resources blog shows how you can add the flag, or its distinctive blue and yellow colours, to your Facebook, Twitter or TikTok profiles.

9   Research how we got here. There’s a lot of background on how Ukraine became an established country and why it has attracted the interest of surrounding countries, especially Russia, over the centuries. Here’s a list of 20 books from Book Therapy on understanding the history of Ukraine and Russia. And here’s a list of 12 essential books from the L.A. Times newspaper.

10   Write a poem or essay about how you feel. Writescape’s Ruth E. Walker wrote a prose poem entitled “Shell Shock” and it’s being published this fall in Beyond Words magazine. She wrote the poem to deal with her distress of what ordinary people were living — and dying — through in this senseless war. As happy as Ruth is that the poem is going into an international journal, she wishes with all her heart that the inspiration for the poem was not real.

Of course, Ukraine is not the only country dealing with warfare. There are conflicts all over the world and these examples of support — and others — can be used and customized as your creative and thoughtful mind can manage. We can make a difference, not matter our distance. Peace.

10 Questions to Ask an Agent

10 Questions to Ask an Agent

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

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

1.   Why did you pick me and my work?

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

2.   What is the plan for the short term?

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

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

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

4.   Which publisher would be ideal for this book?

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

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

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

6.   How often do you communicate with your clients?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10.   Do you have any questions for me?

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

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

10 Books on Poetry Craft

10 Books on Poetry Craft

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

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

A Sky Full of Poems – Eve Merriam

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

How to Write Poetry – Nancy Bogen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Art of Description: World into Word – Mark Doty

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

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

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

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

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

Rhyming Dictionary

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

10 Ten-Minute Writing   Tasks

10 Ten-Minute Writing Tasks

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

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

Check in with the world

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

Think and plan

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


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


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

Back up your files


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

Create a checklist

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


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

Network on social media

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

Google Yourself

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

Update your bio

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

10 Tips for Writing Steamy Scenes

10 Tips for Writing Steamy Scenes

Gwynn Scheltema. 

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

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

Check out these 10 tips to help you.

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

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

2. Treat a sex scene like any action scene.

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

3. Make your characters human.

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

4. Keep the sex real.

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

5. Get the timing right.

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

6. Get the choreography right.

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

7. Be careful of metaphor and simile.

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

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

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

9. Keep the scene brief.

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

10. Know the benchmarks

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

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