10 Tips for Writing Steamy Scenes

10 Tips for Writing Steamy Scenes

Gwynn Scheltema. 

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

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

Check out these 10 tips to help you.

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

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

2. Treat a sex scene like any action scene.

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

3. Make your characters human.

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

4. Keep the sex real.

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

5. Get the timing right.

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

6. Get the choreography right.

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

7. Be careful of metaphor and simile.

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

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

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

9. Keep the scene brief.

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

10. Know the benchmarks

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

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

Put it on Repeat

Ruth E. Walker

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

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

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

The power of repetition              

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

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

The mind is its own place, and in it self

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

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

To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:

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

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

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

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

Hammer or nail?

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

For example:

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

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

Rarely do you want an exact repetition.

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

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

Yuck.

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

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

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

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

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

Now, do the same in action scenes.

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

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

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

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

Drip, Drip, Drip

Drip, Drip, Drip

Guest Post by Heidi Croot

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

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

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

I had reason to be nervous.

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

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

I understood their wariness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My aunts and uncle read the piece and sent congratulations.  

We had taken the first hill.

It was time for the second.

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

They were eager to read.

Good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

No reply yet.

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

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

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

Heidi Croot

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

Broken in a Good Way

Broken in a Good Way

Ruth E. Walker

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

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

Author Frances Peck
Rebecca Blissett Photo

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

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

Sneaking a peek

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

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

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

Leaving the editor behind

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

Vancouver Pixabay

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

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

Delivering satisfaction can be bittersweet

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

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

A last word: typo!

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

10 Ways to Write about War

10 Ways to Write about War

Once again on the eve of Remembrance Day, veterans of war and those who fought and died are on our minds. November 11 is just one day, but the solemnity and memories of the day carries an emotional intensity that many of us bring into our stories.

Writers have been chronicling battle stories since ancient times. Virgil’s epic poem, The Aeneid, offers us a searing immersion: so all had one longing, to let the sword decide.

We’ve been letting the sword (or gun or cannon or bomb or laser beams or…) decide ever since. Naturally enough, we writers have mined (pun intended) humanity’s predilection to fight and there’s no end to the kinds of books – biographies, histories, poetry, stories, novels – that explore that motherlode of emotion and power. Here are ten possible approaches:

1.  Heroic battles – Here the writer has a vast landscape and nobody does it better than the ancient storytellers, such as Virgil, Homer and Sophocles. Their legacy can be found in all the epic scenes of warrior hordes (Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones) with clanging, clashing, slashing swords and axes hacking their way to the castle gates. Those scenes echo into modern history where swords are replaced with bayonets and rifles. Futurists imagine the same scenes but played out with visionary weaponry.

2. One-on-one Combat – Move beyond the broad landscape and get up close and personal with the dance between two enemies. It is a tension-filled moment that deserves a slow burn to reach a full roiling boil. Two characters, circling one another, gauging each other’s weaknesses, holding back until the moment to engage is clear. Now think beyond the battlefield and examine other kinds of fights between two characters: for example, a marriage falling apart. Warren Adler’s The War of the Roses chronicles the emotional costs of the legal battle and the soul-sucking aftermath.

3. The Homefront – Who’s left behind? How are they surviving? Pacifists, injured, too young, too old, too frightened – stories that focus on everyday people who can never forget what is happening in the wider world. Keeping the war in the background has been excellent inspiration for kidlit authors such as beloved writer Bernice Thurman Hunter and her novel The Girls They Left Behind. In adult fiction, the WWI Homefront is explored beautifully in Frances Itani’s Deafening. If you plan to write a novel set during our current and relentless pandemic, reading books about the Homefront might give you some needed distance.

4. From the Enemy’s POV – Writing through the enemy’s perspective is an exercise that can offer writers entry into their antagonist’s motivations. This is an excellent tool to breathe more life into that character. And sometimes, it might be more interesting to write the whole book with the villain as your Main Character. Oscar Wilde did it with the classic novel The Picture of Dorian Gray and more recently Gillian Flynn’s delightful Gone Girl.

5. Turf War – From schoolyards to neighbourhoods, boundaries real or imagined are instant tension points. Opposing gangs have a long history in literature: Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is a classic example. In Richard Scrimger’s Ink Me, Bunny, a mentally challenged 15-year-old, gets the wrong tattoo and that gives him entry into a gang about to do a high-stakes deal. Often funny but never patronizing, readers get a glimpse into the world of gangs and that of young adults who are differently abled. In Angie Thomas’ debut novel, The Hate U Give, readers get a deep dive into complex issues of racism, police brutality, activism and social justice – all of it framed within the context of boundaries held by gangs, organizations, institutions and families.

6. Civil War – A nation divided, rebellion, cults, rumours and secrets. Any social unrest is pure gold for tension and a fascinating cast of characters. Suzanne Collins dove into that world when she created The Hunger Games and you know how that turned out for her. But if you want a lived-experience to flavour the writing, Civil War Stories by Ambrose Bierce, a veteran of the American Civil War, is great writing. Ahead of his time, Bierce has a speculative fiction touch that offers us more than battle stories.

7.  The Aftermath – From Ancient Greek playwrights (Euripides’ Trojan Women) to cold war novelists (Nevil Shute’s On the Beach) to post-apocalyptic authors (Cormac McCarthy’s The Road) much of post-war life, real or imagined, is never easy. Trauma, starvation and uncertainty can be counterbalanced with resilience, foraging and rebuilding both physically and socially. It’s up to the writer where to place the greatest weight.

8.  The Peacemaker  Diplomats, politicians and kings. Historical fiction is rich with books about peacemaking in world history. Tolstoy’s War and Peace gives us a sweeping saga plucked from history. But writers have a way of taking the known and applying it to the unknown. Erin Bow’s masterful YA novel, The Scorpion Rules, takes diplomacy onto an intergalactic scale that holds hostage the lives of world leaders’ children. No war between worlds and no kids get euthanized. Simple genius.

9. Undeclared War – Nothing underpins a story’s tension meter with more energy than a seething simmering dance between two enemies. As up close as a divorce in the making (The War of the Roses) or as broad as worlds balancing on the verge (Peter George’s Red Alert, inspiration for the classic film Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb). When the threat of war is constant, readers keep turning the page.

10. Tools of War – Speaking of loving the bomb, a war without weapons is a schoolyard turf war. Come to think of it, even that situation has its own weapons: taunts and gestures can ignite a war of words; fists, knees and teeth can up the scale. So, as much as big shiny boom machines can have an impact on a battle, remember that your reader’s emotional journey will accelerate with the smell of sweat, taste of blood, squeeze of skin and screams of battle, not to mention the look on combatants’ faces: jubilant in celebration or horrified in defeat.

No matter how large or how small the scale, a story of war offers writers so many possibilities and these ten musings are merely a long view with a pair of binoculars. It’s up to you to find the emotional heart in your story’s battle and bring it beating and alive for your readers.

On November 11, you will be asked to offer “a moment of silence” at 11 a.m., the date and time the Great War officially ceased in 1918. Writescape suggests that “a moment” as you well know, it merely a breath, a blink of the eye or a swallow. Those who have given their lives for their country need more than a moment to be remembered. War, no matter the cause, is hardly a reason to celebrate because the human cost is far too great and death is forever. Keep that in mind with all your war stories.

Returning from Retreat: Reality

Returning from Retreat: Reality

THE IDEAL

person-110303_640I will go on retreat and when I come back, I will be energized and my writing will be brilliant.

 

We all start a retreat with optimism, plans and hopes and dreams. But on the drive home, or maybe just as you turn the handle on your front door, something hits you.

It’s over. The planned escape to focus on your writing is done and here you are, back home, facing all that your return will mean. And it ain’t always pretty when you once again face reality.

portrayal-89189_640Some of us easily get past that return to reality and can gather back the positive energy we found on retreat. But others might get mired in one or more of the following disappointments:

  1. NOTHING HAS CHANGED

Right on. Once you add the laundry in your suitcase to the pile you didn’t finish before you left, you realize your life waited for you. And there is no escaping it.

  1. YOU DIDN’T DO ENOUGH ON RETREAT

That’s right. You lazy, good for nothing writer. You spent time staring out the window at the lake or the forest or the desert or…whatever. And some of the stuff you wrote is so lame, you won’t even look at it.

  1. THE RETREAT DIDN’T HELP YOUR WRITING

Oh yeah. This is just like the diet you started in January. Your 3 lb loss turned into a 5 lb gain in April. You are just the same writer you were when you started, so why did you even bother?

THE TRUTHtruth-166853_640

  1. MUCH HAS CHANGED
  2. YOU ACCOMPLISHED FAR MORE THAN YOU REALIZED
  3. YOU ARE A DIFFERENT WRITER

PROGRESS IS NOT ALWAYS RECOGNIZED

Don’t look at that laundry pile the same way. Consider that t-shirt you wore on retreat before you put it into the washing machine. It’s full of your writer’s sweat and you can launder that out. But even if you deleted every single word you wrote, you can’t wash your retreat away. Instead, those words you crafted will percolate in the back of your mind and two things can happen:

  • ONE, you’ll realize the writing wasn’t so awful after all. In fact, those words are looking pretty good again

OR

  • TWO, those less-than-perfect words will inspire fresh ones that will move your work forward (after all, we all know the true work of the writer is in the edit)

FEEDING YOUR CREATIVE SELF

anvil-1169340_640Even if you did very little writing, your retreat was not a waste of time because everything you experience flavours your creative self. Sometimes, we don’t recognize the new ideas and perspective a retreat gives us.  Chats over dinner with the other writers, quiet walks down country lanes, staring out the window at a completely different view — all of this has an effect on you and your writing. While it’s not bum-in-chair writing, it is a legitimate form of creative work. You’re feeding your subconscious.

Your subconscious is your best friend as a writer and none more so than when your main purpose is to create. That’s why you went on retreat in the first place. When you come home, your ugly Internal Editor may perch again on your shoulder whispering negativity into your ear, but your Creative Self is still being fed by your subconscious.  And it’s rich in retreat compost.soil-766281_640

So turn your back on any negative thinking. Start digging into your retreat compost and see what treasures are buried in your mind. And follow that energy!

For more on retreats, see Ruth’s post on preparing for a writing getaway.

Too Good to be True?

Too Good to be True?

Ruth E. Walker

We writers are eager for validation. It’s not an ego thing — it’s more about our insecurities as writers (Am I good enough? Is this the final draft of something people will want to read or is it garbage? And so on.)

So when something lands in your lap that offers an exceptional opportunity, you (and in this case, I mean me) get excited.

The pitch

Hello:

My name is Erica Loberg and I work for Soho Press. We are hiring writers and poets with adequate work-related experience for our upcoming conference. The objective is to have you share your experiences as a writer and/or poet with everyone attending the conference including some of our employees and members of the general public by invitation only. This is to encourage people looking to become new writers. We request for you to work 1 hour on any two days between October 10th and October 30th, 2021. This will be between 12 PM and 1 PM Eastern Daylight Time. We are willing to pay you $1,500 for these two days. If you are interested, please tell us the dates that you will be available for. Thank you so much.

Erica Loberg
Publicist
Soho Press
erica.loberg@sohopresspublishers.com

Oh my goodness. $750 an hour! How did they find out about my workshop and conference experience? And right at lunchtime — even if I was already booked into events, surely I could manage two lunch hour Zoom presentations. I mean, they probably have this conference on Zoom, right? It has to be real because that is Soho Press and that email address looks like a legit email address for Soho Press…and…and…and

Reality bytes

And. That whispering voice in the back of my mind eventually gets loud enough for me to listen.

Let’s take a closer look at this fabulous email. Using my editor’s eye, I see a number of things that my first quick read failed to consciously register.

#1 Hello: — this is a group email that doesn’t address me individually. Even if a group email was real, a publicist for a niche , respected publishing house wouldn’t start out with such a generic salutation opening and corporate-style tone. So try this edit: Hello. My name is Jane Doe and work for Microsoft. we are hiring software engineers with adequate work-related… Good grief. I think this is a plagiarized phishing email.

#2 We are hiring writers and poets. Hmm. Poets are writers. And why not editors, too? What kind of writers/poets? And adequate work-related experience? As demonstrated in #1, that kind of language is more related to corporate job searches than to those committed to the craft of writing excellence.

#3 This is to encourage people who want to become writers. Huh? “This”? As an editor, I always caution about vagueness in writing. Unexpected from a industry professional. And do publishers “encourage” those “who want to become writers”? Indeed, the closer I looked at “Erica’s” invitation, the more I considered the overall lack of logic and the vague language:

A conference? What kind of conference? Attended by some of our employees and members of the general public by invitation only. Really? A successful niche press is inviting “some” of its employees and a special list of people wanting “to become writers” to some unnamed online conference? (I guess that last bit is meant to cover the lack of any mention of the conference on the Soho website. Yes. I did my research. Eventually. For tips on research, see our August 25 post, Research Redux.)

#4 We request for you to work… significant grammar glitch here with a whiff of English-as-a-second-language. The latter is not a big issue unless you consider the source: a well-respected North American press. And isn’t Erica a communications expert as the Publicist for said press? So her grammar should be spot on.

Cue balloon deflating

There are several other clues that this amazing opportunity isn’t real but I should have immediately digested the biggest of them: $1,500 for two hours work. (It’s true that any presenter at any conference knows there are hours of prep that go into those two hours but $1500-worth?)

Logic said this is way too good to be true. And that was confirmed by the September 1 post (research – remember?) on the Soho Press website and Facebook page:

BEWARE: We are aware of an ongoing scam using real publishing industry employee and company names as well as faked company websites to solicit speakers for a conference. Soho Press is not involved with any such conference nor is there any such conference being planned. These emails are scams.

Soho Press

Moral of the story

Even a smarty pants like me, who frequently points out the scams that well-meaning friends excitedly send my way, we smarty pants can start down the path blinded by the light (in this case 1,500 dollars-worth of brilliance.)

It also shows that criminal phishers are getting more clever in their pitches. Erica Loberg checks out as Soho’s publicist. Her email appears legit but a closer look (research strikes again) reveals the press’s address for all emails are “X”@sohopress.com — minus the “publishing” (which is a dog whistle word for most of us writers but I digress.)

So moral of the story? It’s bad enough having to deal with rejection, missed deadlines and the cold echo of nothing from that agent in your INBOX but this is truly devious.

One good thing perhaps, it might just spark a tale or two for me and maybe for you, too.

For more ideas, check out Will Ferguson’s 419 — a beautiful and tragic novel about the complex reality for poverty-driven scammers and the phish who bite on the hook.

Binge-worthy Podcasts for Writers

Binge-worthy Podcasts for Writers

Guest blogger – Lori Twining

Some of my writing buddies have been struggling to find the words lately. I’m no different. There are days I sit at my desk and stare at a blank page and wonder why I am even bothering to get up. Seriously, I could be sleeping right now. I never get enough sleep.

The thing is, I have found a way to get my writing mojo back. I’ve been multi-tasking. While I paint or quilt or indulge in other other creative pursuits, I’ve been listening to podcasts specifically for writers. They are so engaging that it has turned me into a BINGER! I have become a person who exhibits excessive or uncontrolled indulgence in podcasts—a podcast binger who often listens to four podcasts in one single day.

But, why? How could they be that good?

All of the podcasts listed below inspire me. Authors explain how they balance their family life with their writing life, what time of day works better for them, or how they came up with such brilliant story ideas. I love hearing how my favourite authors churn out bestsellers one after another.

Whether these podcasts help you improve your craft or help you understand how other people are making a living doing the one thing you are passionate about, I should warn you that you have hours of binge-worthy episodes waiting for you.

Here are a few of my absolute favourite writing podcasts:

“The Shit No One Tells You About Writing” with Bianca Marais.

This podcast has a segment called “Books and Hooks” featuring two Literary Agents as cohosts: Carly Watters and Cecilia Lyra. Writers are encouraged to send in a query letter and the first five pages of their manuscript. They discuss what the writer did well, what the agents were confused about, and suggest what the writer could do to improve it. I have listed some examples of their podcasts to try, but you can find hundreds to choose from on their website. Following the Books and Hooks, Bianca interviews an author about a specific topic such as:

How Writers Write hosted by Brian Murphy

How Writers Write is a podcast for creative writers to learn how their favorite writers tell their stories. The podcast’s host, Brian Murphy, interviews world-class writers to decode their tips, routines, and motivations for producing bestsellers.

The Crew Reviews Podcast

Thriller Talk Podcast with K.J. Howe and Ryan Steck (YouTube Channel)

The Writer Files: Writing, Productivity, Creativity, and Neuroscience with Kelton Reid

The Creative Penn Podcast: Writing, Publishing, Book Marketing, Making A Living With Your Writing with Joanna Penn

The Writer’s Digest Podcast with Gabriela Pereira:

If podcasts are not for you:

If you have tried listening to podcasts and they are not lighting a fire under your butt, then perhaps you should try listening to author interviews. Live events are happening across the globe almost every single night. Most of these events can be listened to while you lounge in the bathtub, eating cookies (meaning your face will not be on ZOOM camera). This is always a plus because no one needs to comb their hair during a pandemic if they don’t want to.

Live Events (Live Facebook or Instagram Events):

  • Murder By The Books ~ Live Author Interviews via Facebook Live
  • Anderson’s Bookstore ~ Live Author Interviews via Facebook Live
  • Genre Masters ~ Live Interview via ZOOM
  • Day Drinking with Authors with Molly Fader~ Live Interviews via Facebook
  • First Chapter Fun with Hannah Mary McKinnon and Hank Phillippi Ryan

*NOTE: Many live interviews are archived online after the event and are available to listen to at any time.

Last Words:

After binging on a few podcasts or author interviews, I am positive you will be inspired and motivated to write your own words down on the page. There is no stopping you now. Get to it. Just put your butt in the chair and write all the words. I can’t wait to read them.

Meet Lori Twining

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

Research Redux

Research Redux

Ruth E. Walker

History holds so much richness for writers. It’s a deep well many of us dip into, finding inspiration, surprises and mysteries. And it’s why we call it a rabbit hole–wander in and you might find it tough to resurface.

As I work on the second book of my speculative fiction, I research ancient (and not-so-ancient) history to strengthen plot developments and character actions and reactions. I look for the sparks that ignited revolutions, for the leaders and strategies behind uprisings, and for the willful blindness of those in power.

Good grief, we humans are ridiculous when it comes to willful blindness. From aristocrats to bureaucrats to potentates, the “safe” bubble that power, influence and wealth creates is the reason so many of them are in shock when the masses are at the gates.

Similarly, we humans are one hot mess when we are that angry mob. Just wander through social media of all stripes to find postings of extreme outrage, disgust and threats. And algorithms make sure that like feeds like, so travelling down that rabbit hole is risky business.

Frankly, it’s why I barely dip my toe into that form of fury. Give me instead human interest stories or pics of your grandkids any day.

The online anger is nothing new. The difference is the speed and volume that social media platforms provide. And while they can offer insights into discontent, there is no lack of page-by-page context available in physical text. That’s why I like to research through books and magazines. Just one phrase or footnote can launch a whole new idea.

When you write with history in your back pocket, your characters, plots and themes carry a truth. Truth grounding any fiction creates reality for the reader – and most importantly, confidence for the author.  And that, dear writer, is pure creative gold.

Revisit Research

Research is a topic we’ve covered in previous Top Drawer posts. So I’ve gathered a collection of some of our more popular posts on that topic because, after all, they’re still useful and timely. You’ll notice that most of them are written by Gwynn. She is known for bringing her analytical mind to the creative table, and for that I am grateful, as are her readers.

Let’s start with the treasures found in archives. In a well-received two-part series, Gwynn explores where and how to dig in:

Digging up Archives – Part I — an overview of where to find archives in Canada and beyond.

Always thorough, Gwynn followed that post with the answer to “Now what?” in Digging up Archives – Part 2 Top Drawer readers told us they had a much better understanding of where and how to use archives for research after reading Gwynn’s posts.

I chronicled my own experience with Canada’s National Library and Archives, researching my great-great-great-grandfather’s book about the Hudson’s Bay Company in the late 1700s. Holding History in My Hands shares what that moment was like.

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And more recently, Gwynn posted a number of computer hacks that make writing — and researching — easier and faster.

In Computer Hacks for Writers and Researchers, she offers up a taste of ways writers can make the work less onerous.

Access is key

A final note – many of the featured sources are online. Given that we are still treading a careful line between in-person and virtual activities, what was convenient less than 18 months ago is now pretty much a lifeline.

We writers know that library and archive staff are incredibly helpful when doing our research. Express your appreciation when they go that extra mile and be kind when health and safety regulations limit their efforts.

Writing in the time of the pandemic…that has an interesting ring to it, don’t you think? I wonder what the textbooks, novels, poetry, lyrics and archives of 2020 will reveal to writers in the year 2220 and beyond?

LAST WORD: OUR FALL RETREAT

Re-emerging, our all-inclusive writing retreat in October is now fully booked except for one single cottage available at a premium rate. OR if you’re a cottager/resident nearby, we have a couple of spaces for day-rate participants.

Email us at info@writescape.ca for details.

Wait List:

We are launching a Wait List for anyone who’d like to join us at Elmhirst’s Resort this fall. Email us at info@writescape.ca with the subject line: Wait List Fall Retreat and if we have any cancellations, we’ll let you know in the order your email was received.  

Revisting Contest One. Oh-oh. One.

Revisting Contest One. Oh-oh. One.

Ruth E. Walker

Just last week, I received some great news. PRISM International selected my entry “Exit” for their longlist in the Grouse Grind short fiction contest. It’s been a bit of a drought for me over the past year or so. I’ve struggled with producing creative work and when I manage to actually submit anything, rejections have been the result.

No matter how polite and encouraging a rejection might be, it gets a writer down, you know? So hooray for writing contests for providing the spark that gets this writer back up again and writing.

This whole adventure reminded me of a blog post I wrote back in 2017. Looking at it now, I see that it’s still a valid and useful resource, especially as with Writescape’s recent poetry contest, we received a number of excellent poems which could not be considered as they didn’t fit the required parameters. Rule #1: follow the guidelines.

The following is a slightly updated version and, I trust, something that may inspire other writers with a spark or two of ideas.

Prepare to be judged

It’s been my pleasure (mostly) to serve as a judge on a number of writing competitions. I’ve also been both a first-tier and second-tier reader, helping to cull the entries down by eliminating entries with problems. And I’ve been a final judge for regional, national and international writing contests, choosing winners from 15 or 20 of those final top entries. Each and every time, it’s been a thrill to read creative work that made me feel “as if the top of my head were taken off” (to quote Emily Dickenson.)

I wish I could say it is true for all contest entries. But it is not.

A few years ago, a national organization of professional writers asked me to be a second-tier reader. This means I read stories that had already been reviewed and moved forward. This should mean I would be reading stories that were pretty darn good. I was looking forward to making my notes.

All the entries I read had a great story idea. But not all of them were great stories. Not even pretty darn good.

For this contest, I was only one of several second-tier readers who were also reading 14 entries. So I wasn’t reading all the entries that reached the second tier — only a fraction of them. But of my 14 entries, there were only 6 that I would have recommended as a first-tier reader.

The other 8 all had problems in terms of technique and execution. Here are just four of the many issues I encountered in the stories I scored in the bottom 8:

Don’t tell me, show me. This is a familiar refrain from creative writing instructors. But what do we mean by that? It’s more than the difference between I feel cold versus I shiver and rub my arms, although that is a good beginning. It is equally an issue if the writer shows us something — The cold crept under my flesh and into my lungs and then in the next line continues to tell us about it: It was below zero and I felt so cold.

The need to tell, especially after a show, is a sign of a writer who doesn’t trust themselves or their readers. Does this mean that every line needs to be a show versus a tell? No. But any story that relies on tell is a story that soon bores its readers.

Description is great. But if you have to hit your reader over the head with a hammer to ensure they are “getting the picture”…well, it’s soon painful. Definition of Adverbitis: excessive use of adverbs, especially when a great verb is the better choice: swiftly ran = raced/rushed/galloped — any of those three options create great visuals. The same goes with unnecessary adverbs: hurriedly, loudly, slowly…crept slowly = crept carries the whole image. I mean, can you ever creep fast? And how about plummeted swiftly? Ever seen anything plummet slowly?

And a quick note on adjectives. Use them, sure. But think before you dip your creative paintbrush three times too many: A charming, vivacious redheaded librarian is way too much for any brain to unpack and visualize. Stick to the essential descriptions of your character or the setting — leave room for your reader to fill in the rest.

Passive writing: boring, boring and more boring. Be ruthless in seeking out and eliminating passive writing wherever you can. Look for the “to be” construction: was, is, were, has/had been, will/would be…etc. You can’t avoid passive verbs but they should not dominate the page. The same goes for passive sentence construction, where the object of an action becomes the subject of a sentence: The writing group was disturbed by the brass band. (passive) The brass band disturbed the writing group. (active) And avoid long digressions and backstory. It’s a short story or excerpt, not a history lesson.

Proofread. And proofread again. Best not to write your entry six hours ahead of the deadline because chances are you will miss mistakes. Put the story in a drawer for at least a day, longer if you can. Then use a ruler to focus your eye on a line-by-line check for errors or omissions. Why does this matter? One of the top three entries I read this week was tied, in my mind, with two others for first place. But it wasn’t error-free. So while I loved it, it made it easier for me to place it lower than the other two that didn’t contain errors.

Writing contests give writers an excellent opportunity to submit their work. Unlike the slush pile, writers know someone will actually read their entry. To be a finalist or to win is a validation of your craft and I can say it’s one of the best moments for any writer. It’s a fantastic feeling that I want every writer to experience and it’s why I wrote this post. (And why I re-posted it.)

Quick Tips
Before pressing SEND:

  1. Telling us a story is not as interesting or engaging as showing us a story
  2. Lots of adverbs and plenty of adjectives are signs of a writer who doesn’t trust themselves or readers
  3. Passive writing is boring and often includes unnecessary information
  4. Spelling mistakes and typos affect how a judge reads your entry
  5. A great story idea may get you past first-tier readers but 1, 2, 3 or 4 will not get you to the final judge

Last word

As of this writing, I don’t know if my story Exit made it beyond PRISM’s longlist. But here’s the link to their website so you can check out what happened. While you’re at it, check out PRISM’s other contests — creative non-fiction and poetry, for example.

May your muse be ever-present and generous.