Write a book review

Write a book review

Gwynn Scheltema

Want to do something positive for writers during your time at home? Write a book review! Write a dozen reviews!

A 3/5 goodreads review of the book Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale popped up in my Facebook feed this week from a good friend and fellow writer and reader—and I took note. Why?

I took note, because I find her reviews aren’t like the endless run of promotional 5-star ratings for friends’ books that show up in my feed all the time: gushing reports awash with hyperbole and high praise.

Her reviews are honest and analytical. Even on a 3/5 rating she wrote about what was good. When it came to the aspects that didn’t work for her, she articulated it in that vein—not a trashing by a know-it-all, but considered comments from a genuine reader. She wrote about writing style, story and character problems and all of it couched in the knowledge that her reaction could be to do with what she brings from her own experience to the reading of the book.

So much brilliance: psychological excavations and gorgeous writing, worthy of pencil marks. But ultimately the story weighed me down with its onslaught of details—the kind of notes a diligent writer might keep in a binder called Character Profiles. I wouldn’t have minded had the details bound me to the characters, but in fact I closed the book feeling as though I never really knew anybody, or cared about them all that much..…the trauma that served as the main mystery to be solved over the course of the story, failed to live up to its billing. I suspect this has more to do with the frame of reference I personally bring to the reading room, than it has to do with the writer. Still….Glad to have read it, but left without an appetite for more.

I’m always encouraging writers to help other writers by writing reviews. But I think it’s important that they are meaningful reviews. A writer who reviews with all good intentions to help, but gives a 5-star rating to a book that doesn’t deserve it, diminishes all further reviews from that reviewer. It’s like giving a winning medal to someone who ran only half the course, negates the value of that same medal given to the real winner.

This excerpt from the same reviewer about the book Know my Name: a Memoir by Chanel Miller has me adding this book to my reading list—not just because it got 5 stars, but because it got 5 stars from a reviewer I trust.

A searing, courageous, and articulate stream of social, institutional and legal indictment, emotion, outrage, and love for family — bright red in its flame-throwing honesty and indignation. Chanel speaks for me, and likely for most women I know.

Writing a review

Of course, you can write reviews on many online platforms, but if it’s not something you do often, goodreads is a good place to start because half the “review” is already done for you: title, author, copyright date, genre, price, subject matter of the book, and special features.

Essentially, you need only dwell on highlights of the book and your opinion of its readability. Remember, you are not writing a book report for school, showcasing your knowledge of literature. You are offering a prospective reader reasons to read—or not read—a particular book. Your review should be an accurate, analytical reading but delivered with a strong, personal touch from any reactions and arguments from your unique perspective.

And don’t spoil the book for prospective readers by giving away the ending or unexpected twists. You can say you found the ending satisfying (or not) and you can mention that there were unexpected twists, but hold off on actual details.

As you’re writing, try thinking of your reader as a friend with whom you are having a casual conversation. Use language you would use in conversation rather than trying to be formal.

Review the book you have just read, not the book you wish the author had written. It’s okay to point out areas that were weak, but not to dwell on what you think should have been included that wasn’t.

Questions to consider about your reading experience

A review can be as long or as short as you like. Not all the questions below need to be answered. Pick and choose to highlight what you think is important about the book you are reviewing at the time.

  • Were you engaged from the start or did it take time to get into the book?
  • Will any scenes or characters stay with you for a long time? Why?
  • What aspects were highlights for you: style, characters, world-building, themes, plot? Talk about how well the author dealt with these, what you enjoyed and what you didn’t.
  • Was it an easy read? A wallow in exquisite language? A hard slog?
  • How does it compare with other books in its genre?
  • Did the style and/or content suit the intended audience? What do you think is the ideal audience?
  • Is it a departure from this author’s usual, or what readers would expect? Why?
  • Did the ending satisfy you?
  • Would you read more from this author?
  • Would you recommend this book?

Practicalities

To review a book on goodreads follow these steps:

  • Go to goodreads.com
  • Use the search bar at the top of the page to open up the book’s profile page
  • Scroll down until you see 5 stars and a button Write a Review.
  • Click on Write a Review and type away….
Quaking Before the Query

Quaking Before the Query

Ruth E. Walker

Next to the synopsis, the query letter is one of the biggest challenges writers face. It comes with loads of baggage because it’s the first thing of yours an agent or acquisitions editor will see. As such, it has specific tasks to accomplish and the pressure to get it right can knock the enthusiasm out of any of us.

According to New York Book Editors blog post: In essence, a query letter is a marketing page that talks up your book, without overselling it.

Simple enough on its face but there is an art to querying agents and publishers. And that art looks darn near impossible when faced with boiling down your 85,000-word manuscript into a single “marketing page.”

It’s as hard for me as it is for you. So, like in my post two weeks ago about the synopsis, I broke my query down into manageable steps.

  • Basics about the book
  • Special about the book
  • About the author
  • Invitation
  • Double-check

Basics

Genre, word count and title are necessary basics.  In my case it’s a science-fiction YA novel at 98,000 words and set on a terraformed world. I tossed in a bit about setting which, for science fiction, is often a key element.

The basics must appear in your query; if not as part of the opening then just before the closing.

You can, and should, add a bit of flavour to your basic stats especially if you have some way to make a connection with the agent/publisher. For example:

  • I took note of your preference for unreliable narrators OR
  • Your client list includes several YA speculative fiction authors who are favourites of mine OR
  • I heard you speak at last year’s AdAstra Convention and noted your interest in YA series books.

In my case, my most recent query is to a U.S. agent with whom I have no connection. But a bit of research clued me in to what caught her attention in other queries, so I flavoured my query with a teaser: As with Defy the Stars and Enemy Mine, my protagonist is naively wrong about who her enemy is. Her challenging journey is painful but necessary for her to recognize that she alone is her world’s enemy…and its hero.

Will it work? I have absolutely no idea, but I believe it’s worth trying. If nothing else, it got me thinking about how to use comp titles AND boil down the overarching issue of my protagonist.

Special

Here’s the “juice” of your query. It’s what makes your book special and the reason the publisher’s eyes widen and your manuscript gets read. This is the hardest part for me to write. I resist the temptation to cram in details, subplots, minor characters and thematic elements that I love in my novel.

Instead, I must share my main character’s wants and needs, and highlight the obstacles and crises that keep her from getting either. Finally, I have to avoid the telling how it all ends (after all, that is the job of the synopsis)

So just like editing anything else, I pare the Special section to less than 200 words and end up with a full query of 380 well chosen words. I think I still have some trimming to do but my query is now in much better shape because I brought focus to it, especially to the “juice” section.

About you

Keep your bio short but include details that resonate with your book. For example, my query always includes a reference to my creative writing workshop at a school board’s art camp (arts kids read YA) and my stint as an artist in residence primarily working with at-risk teens at an alternative high school (inspiration for my strong-willed protagonist.)

If you have some writing award or genre-specific detail to add here, go for it. But there’s no shame in being a debut author and stating that: This is my first completed novel. You can always add in a bit of branding: I am an eclectic writer who follows inspiration, characters and ideas onto the page.

Invite a response

The closing paragraph is a place to show that you actually read their guidelines without saying so. If the agent only wants the first 3 pages of your ms: I’ve attached the first 3 pages of my manuscript… and to show you are ready, you can add…the full ms and synopsis are available upon request.

Inviting the agent or publisher to contact you if they’re interested is simple enough but remember to say thank you. A simple finishing line: Thank you for your time and consideration acknowledges that you understand that reading your query took effort.

Take a second look

Even one little spelling or grammar error can put off an agent. So take it slow and give your query some cooling off time before you send it. Just like the manuscript you spent years on, a query is not a 30-minute process.

What a query is not

Over one page in length — it is a quick scan process so make sure that agent will read beyond the opening paragraph. In short, keep it short.

A major suck-up to the recipient — While it’s fine to offer some sort of connection or understanding of the agent’s/publisher’s preferences, don’t gush how they’re your dream agent or longed-after publisher. It might bring a smile to their faces…just before they click on the “trash” icon.

A place to show off — promote your strengths but summarize — instead of listing all the journals your work has been published in, summarize: …with fiction and poetry in several national journals. Your literary C.V. is for grant applications, not your query letter.

Cast in stone — An agent who only wants two paragraphs about the book and your contact info won’t look at your four-paragraph query. A publisher who wants the synopsis and no query letter…well, you get the drift. Know your audience and revise each approach accordingly.

More context

Jane Friedman

I’ve already given you a link to New York Book Editors. Here’s a few more websites I’ve found helpful in crafting my query. Jane Friedman set me on the right path to break down my query and Writers’ Digest offered several examples of successful queries.

You can never learn too much in this tricky world we write in. I’ll let you know if my query nets more than a polite no — you let us know how the query process goes for you.

p.s. If you need an escape to focus on your synopsis or query letter, there’s still a couple of spots remaining in this year’s Spring Thaw writers’ retreat. And you get a one-on-one consult plus notes from both Gwynn and me on up to 10 manuscript pages. That’s enough for both your query letter and synopsis.

Synopsis-itis

Synopsis-itis

Ruth E. Walker

A recent session on writing a book synopsis had me take a closer look at what goes into a synopsis and why it’s necessary. Let’s start with the necessary part.

Why start here? Because you need motivation to slog through the process of writing the darn thing right after you’ve spent years reaching the final draft of your beautiful novel. You are now exhausted. Brain dead. Wanting nothing more than getting your novel manuscript out there to eager agents and publishers and–what? You now have to condense 95,000 words into about 700 words?

Are you kidding me?

Right. So let’s start with why you need a synopsis.

Show you know what a novel needs

Agents/editors need to know you’ve written a beginning, middle and end. No one wants to read your manuscript only to discover you’ve simply stopped writing and tacked on “The End”. Your synopsis needs to present the plot and its arc, offer up the main character arc and convey a satisfying ending.

A synopsis doesn’t play coy by finishing with “And if you want to know how it turns out for Freddie Schmudlump and his hilarious gang of bank robbers, read the manuscript.”

Show you are not an amateur

A synopsis is a timeline presentation of the events and main characters of your novel. So not only do you pare down your glorious prose and engaging subplots, you stick to the timeline as presented in the novel. Don’t summarize with “In a series of flashbacks, we learn that Freddie’s piggy banks were stolen by bullies, so he is forced into a spiralling fall into a life of crime.”

A good synopsis outlines the main characters’ wants/goals (Freddie wants to be financially secure) and needs (Freddie needs someone to show him how to earn a living instead of stealing it.)

And remember that reference to “don’t play coy” by holding back the ending? Do not bury the plot twist, aiming for an “ah-ha!” moment. Like it or not, the synopsis of your novel is not the place for fancy footwork. Think of it as a business document and accordingly, written in clear language with the focus on the main points. No digressions. No layers of subplots and sudden reveals.

How to boil down 95,000 words

I’ve been working on my own synopsis for several weeks and stumbled onto a process that is making all the difference: working backwards.

From a post at JerichoWriters in the UK, I learned to start with the basics and build up the synopsis instead of paring down the novel, as follows:

Status Quo — the main character’s world before the inciting incident that triggers the story

Initiating Incident — the crack in the main character’s world that changes everything

Developments — the series of events that lead the story and characters to the crisis

Crisis — the fireworks, the culminating conflict, the big deal we’ve been building toward

Resolution— the last few pages, the whole end, the part in which you don’t “play coy”

This process is a genius approach because it keeps you on track for the necessary elements of a synopsis. JerichoWriters suggest that Developments should offer up no more than 40% of the synopsis, even though that is the bulk of the actual book.

Jane Friedman, former President and CEO of HarperCollins, in a Writer’s Digest post recommends an opening paragraph “identifying your protagonist, problem or conflict, and setting.”

She also reminds writers that agents and publishers are looking for strong writing skills. While the synopsis is a business document it still needs energy, so use an active voice. If you need a refresher on active voice, you might find our 10 Quick and Effective Edits useful.

But I’m a really good writer…

Lastly, if this is a clear document with a business-like tone and short, declarative sentences how can you demonstrate that you’re a terrific storyteller? How can give any sense of your ability to engage emotions and craft vivid scenes with a just-the-basics synopsis of 500 to 800 words?

By being clever. Sprinkle in those trigger words that evoke emotion. Drop passive language and use that active voice to your advantage. So if you’ve written “Freddie wants to be financially secure” consider “Freddie longs for financial security.” Taking a flat verb and giving it some oomph and energy makes a big difference.

In this case, we’re also giving Freddie some emotional punch. Interesting characters advance any plot when they have emotions and feelings.

A synopsis is just one tool to entice an agent or publisher to ask for the full manuscript. But it’s an important part of the package that includes a compelling query letter and at least one full sample chapter (generally the first chapter) that no agent will be able to resist. More on the query letter in a future post.

Sum Up The Story

Sum Up The Story

Ruth E. Walker

The manuscript is finished. You’ve edited until you can’t look at the words for one more minute. Your beta readers are all giving you the Thumbs Up. It’s ready to go out.

Then you see it. On the submissions page of the publisher you hope will publish your book. They want a synopsis. (Cue Jaws music.)

Good grief. You’ve perfected your manuscript. Shouldn’t that be enough?

Get over it. They want a synopsis and you have to produce one. So let’s cover the main points to help you pull it together.

Just the important bits

A synopsis is a kind of point-by-point outline of the story, summarizing what happens and who is changed by the end.

A synopsis is not a marketing tool but the first paragraph should offer a touch of a hook or any of the unique elements of the story. It’s not written like your novel yet it should hold a sense of your writing voice…your style…and the genre/style of the book. And just as important, it’s not a jacket blurb so be prepared to reveal the ending.

If a synopsis is interesting enough, agents and publishers will want to read the manuscript despite knowing the ending.

Short is sweet

For a novel, a synopsis can be as short as one page or as long as five pages. I recommend going shorter. Ideally, no more than two pages.  Unlike the manuscript, text is single spaced so you have a fair amount of room in those two pages.

To take full advantage of two pages, keep to the main story and the primary characters. You’re outlining the events but this is not a point-form summary. So your creative self needs to come through in how the synopsis is crafted. You can, for example, lift a slice of description or a touch of dialogue right out of the manuscript to use in your synopsis.

For example:  Mary is distraught by her husband’s perceived betrayal. “I’ve wasted years of trusting you!” Little does she realize that she is the one who betrayed them both.

Motivation + action = story

A synopsis needs to introduce the main characters, a touch of character(s) motivation and reveal conflict right from the beginning.

Don’t be coy—set the stage for the rest of the story:  Mary and Omar are the ideal couple, leaders in their rural community and a successful left-leaning political team. Newly re-elected mayor, Mary is confused when Omar opts to resign his council seat without telling her first. But when she discovers he’s involved with a far-right insurgency, she’s horrified and throws him out of their home. Then terrorists take a bus full of school children hostage and Omar is the only person they’ll negotiate with.

Subplots are not part of a synopsis but you can offer a single line or two if it matters to the main story.

For example: The themes of betrayal and loss are mirrored in a subplot involving school friends. In the same way, background or walk-on characters don’t need to be mentioned unless they are integral to the plot. As with subplots, keep it to one line: When the terrorist spokeswoman hesitates, she’s executed by the leader who then gives police 5 minutes before one of the children will be killed.

Zip up the ending

When you get to the ending, don’t short change your synopsis. Demonstrate how your ending has punch or significance: As Mary holds a dying Omar in her arms, she realizes her refusal to listen to the only man she’s ever loved cost him his life. Whispering into his ear, she promises to raise their unborn child with a true understanding of its father and his beliefs.

Check for basics

 There are several ways to tackle a synopsis. A simple approach builds it from listing the major turning points for your main character, then fleshing out a brief summary of the action at each point. Don’t forget to keep the whole narrative arc in mind as you work:

Inciting incident or the crack in the world of your main character that sets them off.

Rising action or the events that add tension and propel the story forward.

Climax or the point of excitement, ultimate change or Oh My God moment.

Resolution or the place that brings the story to a close.

There’s no perfect way to write your synopsis. But if you keep to these four elements, add in a dash of your writerly style and remember to focus on the main story, you should be well on your way to a compelling two-pager.

The Last Word: more synopsis resources

https://blog.reedsy.com/how-to-write-a-synopsis/ — examples and ideas on building a great synopsis.

https://theeditorsblog.net/2012/07/15/clear-the-dread-from-the-dreaded-synopsis/— a detailed analysis of the how and why of synopsis. A long read but packed with things to consider once you’ve got the basics put together.

Publishing LGBTQ

Publishing LGBTQ

Gwynn Scheltema

June is Pride month, so this week I thought I’d take you on a short Canadian tour and introduce you to a few Canadian publishers who regularly publish LGBTQ books by Canadian authors.

Harlequin

First stop: Toronto. Head quartered in Toronto, Harlequin publishes around 100 titles a month. Yes, that’s right…100 books! They publish paperbacks, ebooks and audio books. One of their many niches is one they describe as “gay romance”. June 2019’s titles include a lesbian romance: New Ink on Life by Jennie Davids and a gay romance by Adriana Herrera, American Fairytale.

Submissions Guidelines

Arsenal Pulp Press

Out to the West coast now to meet this Vancouver publisher that regularly publishes LGBTQ work including books by Canadian authors S. Bear Bergman, Ivan Coyote, Amber Dawn, Vivek Shraya, and Kai Cheng Thom.  

They also have a series made up of out-of-print queer titles called “Little Sister’s Classics”. If that name sounds familiar, it’s likely because it reminds you of Little Sister’s Book & Art Emporium, in the heart of Vancouver’s gay district on Davie Street. They have been around for years and were legendary in taking on Canada Customs to have gay literature declassified as porn.

In March this year, five Arsenal titles were nominated for the  Lambda Literary Awards, (writing prize for LGBTQ authors) The nominees were Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead, Little Fish by Casey Plett, Sketchtasy by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, Sodom Road Exit by Amber Dawn, and The Tiger Flu by Larissa Lai.

Submission guidelines

Insomniac Press 

Back to Ontario—London to be precise. Insomniac Press has evolved over the last 25 years from a small press that published poetry chapbooks, to a medium-size independent press that publishes non-fiction titles as well as fiction and poetry sold in 40 countries.

Insomniac has also become known for its special niche areas like black studies, personal finance and gay and lesbian books. They publish two queer mystery series by writers Liz Bugg and Nairne Holtz. Insomniac’s anthology No Margins: Writing Canadian Fiction in Lesbian, features a whole host of LGBTQ authors.

Just released is Rinaldo Walcott’s book of essays Queer Returns.

Submission Guidelines

Metonymy Press

Heading over to Quebec, we find Metonymy, a newish Montreal-based press that publishes literary fiction and nonfiction by emerging writers. Their website explains: “We try to reduce barriers to publishing for authors whose perspectives are underrepresented in order to produce quality materials relevant to queer, feminist, and social justice communities.”

Two of their books were recently nominated for Lambda Literary Awards: Small Beauty by jia qing wilson-yang and Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir by Kai Cheng Thom.

Submission guidelines

Talonbooks

And lastly, I want to head back to the West Coast to tell you about Talonbooks, because as well as literary fiction and poetry, they publish drama (including the amazing queer writer Tomson Highway), and translations of French texts, (including Quebecois lesbian author Marie-Claire Blais.) Recent publications include novels by Karen X. Tulchinsky and Gail Scott and poetry by Daphne Marlatt.

Last Word

If you are looking for more LGBTQ markets or books, here are two blogs you may want to check out:

A Happy Dance for Writers

A Happy Dance for Writers

To win an award is such a fantastic affirmation for writers. I know. I’ve won a few and can confirm that validation kept me energized for weeks. I’ll never forget the exhilaration of first place in a national magazine with my first-ever submission.

My kids had to darn near peel me off the ceiling.

So whenever I hear of a colleague or friend winning an award, I do “the happy dance” in my heart, post congratulations online and try to attend any celebration that honours that win.

But when I’ve had something to do with that reason for celebration, then some of those wins are a bit more special.

The Joy of Editing

As an editor, I’ve loved discovering the stories of others writers in unpublished form. It’s been a privilege to move into the creative process of another writer. Their trust is precious to me and forms the foundation of our working relationship.

And it is wonderful when I can do the happy dance for them: when they are ready to submit or to publish. When they have a launch. And when they win awards.

Just last week, I got to do the happy dance for Pauline Kiely, author of No Poverty Between the Sheets. Pauline had previously published her family memoir but asked me to work with her on a new edition.

That new edition was entered in the 2019 Independent Publisher Book Awards. Known as the IPPY Awards, they were launched in 1996 to “bring increased recognition to the deserving but often unsung titles published by independent authors and publishers.”

So I was thrilled when Pauline let me know that her book won the Silver Medal in the Canada East Best Regional Non-Fiction category! And so grateful that she let me know how much she appreciated my work.


Thank you Ruth Walker your edits made this book a winner
!

Pauline Kiely on Facebook
Terry Fallis

Few award options are available for independently published books. A notable exception is the prestigious Leacock Medal for Humour, where jurists accept entries of self-published books by Canadian authors. Author Terry Fallis sent the last 10 copies of his independently published first novel The Best Laid Plans to win the 2008 medal, well deserved accolades and so much future success.

Make it Award-worthy

There are many other self-published books in the world that deserve success like Pauline and Terry have enjoyed. But just like the world of traditional publishing, few great books win awards.

Nonetheless, books that haven’t been put together in a professional package — self or traditional — are far less likely to win readers, let alone awards. From the cover to the last page, you don’t want your book to be full of errors or amateur missteps.

If you’re fortunate, you may have excellent book designers, copy editors and proofreaders in your circle of family, friends and colleagues. But chances are you don’t. So avoid playing with chance.

Unless you are skilled as an editor, hire one to help you polish the text. Should you choose to go the traditional publishing route, agents and acquisition editors expect professional standards in all submitted material.

If you opt to publish independently, you want readers to stay firmly immersed in your story. Just think for a minute about how little it takes to kick you out of something you’re reading: a typo, a logic glitch or a complicated and confusing scene.

Finding an Editor

Editors Canada has over 400 editors listed online. Most independent publishing/printing services have a list of freelance editors you can hire. And traditional publishers employ staff and freelance editors.

No matter where you find your editor, make sure it is someone who understands your book’s purpose. It is a tender relationship — one that balances collaboration with principles. But when it is the right editor for your book, you’ll find no greater champion, dedicated to taking your book to the best possible form.

No manuscript is perfect. But the right editor can help you come close enough to smell the binding.

The Last Word

Writescape offers both coaching and editing for writers at all stages of the process. It’s been our pleasure to see writers achieve their goals for their books and their careers. Some of our authors:

Sylv Chiang, author of the CrossUps series middle grade novels with Annick Press.

Fred Kennedy, author of Huareo, Story of a Jamaican Cacique

Janet Stobie, author of To Begin Again and Elizabeth Gets Her Wings

Felicity Sidnell Reid, author of Alone, A Winter in the Woods

Librarians & Self-published Authors

Librarians & Self-published Authors

Ruth E. Walker

Recently, I sat in a planning meeting for a writers’ event and the topic of self-published authors came up. The group was considering offering a workshop to help self-published authors produce a better product.

Among our group of planners is a librarian, and she sat quietly while we brainstormed a possible workshop.

After a few minutes, she offered some careful comments. “Our library system has a mandate to have the self-published books of local residents on our shelves. But often they don’t make it easy for us.”

How so, we wanted to know.

“An ISBN for one,” she offered. “At least then we can process it for cataloguing. And binding! Spiral binding is a real challenge to label. And some binding falls apart.”

The self-published authors in her community are fortunate to have a library system open to their books. Many larger libraries have no such mandate to guarantee local books on their shelves.

Wooing the libraries

In 2017, the Toronto Public Library (TPL) had more than 17.3 million visits to their 100 branches. That’s a lot of readers, so getting your book on those shelves would be pretty amazing. But you better have a polished and professional product to interest their collection department in purchasing your book.

Besides the usual information–title, author’s name, type of binding, etc., the TPL Collection Department needs your book to have, among a number of things, the following:

  • ISBN (International Standard Book Number) Canadian authors of self- published books can get their ISBN for free through Library and Archives Canada.  (You know, that barcode and number thingie on the back cover of books – it identifies the book and the publisher.) The ISBN is necessary if you want your book sold in bookstores, to libraries or through online retailers.
  • a brief summary of the book’s contents (they emphasize “brief” so keep it short — like a synopsis, one page at most is best.) Read the inside jacket of successful books for ideas. Here’s a great example from HarperCollins Publishing’s Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard:
    • Girl Mans Up is a brave and authentic debut…In Pen, Girard has create a kick-ass character who makes tough choices, has her friends’ backs, and is done feeling bad about who she is. Old-world parents, disintegrating friendships, and strong feelings for other girls drive Pen to see the truth–in order to be who she truly wants to be, she’ll have to man up.
  • why your book would be of interest to TPL patrons (this is your sales pitch so think this one out carefully.) Again, I turn to Girl Man’s Up — this time a review, but it captures some of why a public library would want this book — to reach young, diverse readers:
    • This is a fresh title in the growing sea of LGBTQ YA literature. Pen and her peers are neither quirky nor whimsical… There is no sugarcoating in this very real portrayal of an aspect of teen life that many experience.

You can find these details and more on the TPL website.

But getting your book on the shelves of libraries is more than having an attractive cover, good binding and an ISBN on the jacket. The stuff inside has to be professional as well. That includes layout, thorough proofreading and fact checking and, of course, a book’s contents edited for structure, continuity, style, and story and character arcs.

But that, as they say, is for another blog from our Top Drawer. Stay tuned.

The Last Word

There’s still time and a few spaces left in our April writers’ retreat, Spring Thaw 2019. Bring that work in progress and devote a weekend or more to feeding your muse. All-inclusive means you can focus on writing and let the creative juices flow.

Choose from the 3-day or 5-day options. Workshops, one-on-one consultation, group sessions, full resort amenities and fine dining at Elmhirst’s Resort. Stay in your private bedroom in cozy lakeside cottages. For more than 10 years, it’s been a true escape to write…with Writescape.

Romance: sweet or sizzling?

Romance: sweet or sizzling?

Gwynn Scheltema. 

Many years ago, as a beginning writer, I decided that the easiest fiction to write was romance. After all, I reasoned, it was shallow and formulaic. It would be easy.

So one summer, I conducted an experiment. I ordered four books in four different imprint series from Harlequin and read them all over July and August. I figured that by the end of summer, I would have that formula down pat!

Dead wrong!

I was wrong. Romance books are not shallow and formulaic. To be sure, they do follow an underlying expectation that the hero and heroine will get together in the end, but that’s where the formula ends.

They span many genres: mystery, suspense, historical; the plots are varied and complicated; the settings global; the characters believable and fascinating. And the writing was, for the most part, good. Some books were stronger than others for me, but I can say that about any genre I read. I realized very quickly that I would have to learn a whole lot more before I ever… if I ever… tackled a romance novel of my own.

Digging Deeper into Romance

red valentine graphicSo where do you go to find out more about the genre? The Romance Writers of America, (RWA) website gives a good overview of the genre as well as information on the romance sub-genres. They describe themselves as “dedicated to advancing the professional interests of career-focused romance writers through networking and advocacy.” There you can also find information of RWA chapters throughout North America including Canada, where you can meet other romance writers and attend workshops and conferences.

Sweet, saucy or sizzling?

One of the things I learned from my experiment was that not all imprints are the same. Some were sweet and innocent, some were downright racy. I wondered if I would ever be able to  write the sex scenes effectively and how to know how much was enough or too much.

Harlequin, the world’s largest publisher of romance, provides clear, detailed guidelines on their website for each of their imprints, from the word count to the level of sexual content. For example, Blaze editors ask for sensuous, highly romantic, innovative stories that are sexy in premise and execution. The tone of the books can run from fun and flirtatious to dark and sensual. Writers can push the boundaries in terms of explicitness…an emphasis on the physical relationship…fully described love scenes along with a high level of fantasy, playfulness and eroticism BUT not erotica. The Blaze line must still uphold the Harlequin promise of one hero and one heroine and an implied committed relationship in the end.

Unagented submissions

Some of Harlequin’s imprints require agent representation, but unagented submissions are welcomed for Harlequin Series. Harlequin Series Books (aka “Series Romance” or “Category Romance”) publishes more than 85 titles each month over a wide range of genres.

Your romance

Want to give writing romance a try?

This infographic from Harlequin’s website will help you decide where your romance fits in their imprint series.

Harlequin infographic



Did you know…

Registration for our Spring Thaw 2019 retreat is well underway. Save your spot now!


When the Agent Says No

When the Agent Says No

Ruth E. Walker

Last December, I put “The End” onto my science fiction/fantasy Young Adult novel I’d been working on for three years. And then I sent it off to an agent* who’d already enthusiastically read a few of the first pages at a writers conference 18 months earlier.

I’ve met a few agents for one-on-ones at conferences and received encouraging words. But this agent, with a large, well-known Canadian literary agency, she and I connected from the start. My latest draft of my novel has been with her since December but I’ll admit by April, I was ready for rejection. To get it over with, I sent an email asking what the status was. And, to my surprise, she wrote back to say that her colleague at the agency was nearly done reading it and then she’d look it over and get back to me soon.

In the Half-life of The Wait

This could now go only one of two ways: an offer of representation or a rejection, and then I’d move on. At least, that’s what I thought. She’d been super enthusiastic both in our initial meet and greet, and subsequently in email correspondence. I was certain we could work well together.

So I dwelt in the half-life of writers who are waiting to hear back on their submission. You know what that means:

  • I burnt a few offerings to the gods of good fortune
  • I played word games on my tablet to avoid checking my emails several times a day
  • I checked my emails several times a day
  • I forced myself not to imagine having an agent
  • I imagined announcing that at last, I had an agent

Yup. I vacillated between positive thoughts and steeling myself for “no”.

The Reply

Last week, I got the email. It was a no.

But wait. Not just any no. This is the kind of no that tortures all writers. It’s a no with an offer of hope. And frankly, even better than the hope, the email was rich in the kind of feedback from the agency reader that some writers would kill for. The agent’s colleague liked a lot about the novel:

This YA fantasy ms has some great strengths, most notably an empowered and compelling female character at the center of this hero’s quest narrative. Garnet’s backstory is complex and her character development is largely convincing.

I was especially invested in feminist leanings and diversity moral that informs this narrative, though therein lies some concern as well…

Oh-oh. I read on and learned that there were areas that kicked this reader out — parts of the story that moved too close to unsurprising. And I failed to make clear some of the central themes from start to finish, dropped a thread or two and, most grievous error of all: failed to make clear the complicated world I had built. In short, I’d left too many dangly bits.

Don’t you just hate dangly bits?

Back to the Beginning

Fortunately, if a writer has some sense of what those dangly bits are, they can be fixed: cut or tied or connected anew. I have options. I sent back an email to the agent that said as much, thanking her and her colleague for the feedback. It’s gold, I wrote — and it is, because it is concrete feedback on strengths and areas to develop.

So, this summer I’ll be focusing on revisions. Deepening characters, enriching the sense of place and pulling apart the cultural norms of my imagined world with two suns and a feral young female who will change everything. And I’ll be doing it with the agent’s words in the background:

If you find that our concerns below hit home, and you decide to revise [your novel], I’d be happy to consider the work again. Either way, I hope to hear from you again in the future, and will be cheering you on from the sidelines in the meantime.

Yup. Just what a writer needs to dive back into a novel that is nearly there. Wish me luck!

*NOTE: I shared this post with Rachel Letofsky of Cooke McDermid Literary Management and she shared it with her colleagues and especially with Kailey Havelock, Agency Assistant who was the reader of my manuscript. They’re happy to be identified as the agent and agency that this blog post is about. And I’m happy to do just that.

DID YOU KNOW?

There are plenty of opportunities to network, workshop & find the agent of your dreams. For sci-fi/fantasy writers, here’s just a taste:

Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Writers gather July 13 to 15, 2018 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada for Ad Astra, a not-for-profit, volunteer-run, weekend-long, science fiction, fantasy and horror event with a focus on authors and other creative professionals.

Fantasy and Horror Writers will travel November 1 to 4, 2018 to Baltimore, Maryland, USA for World Fantasy Convention an annual gathering and reunion of professionals, collectors, and others interested in the field of light and dark fantasy art and literature.

Science Fiction, Fantasy, Gaming, Horror Writers & Good Old Geeks have got together for over 12 years in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada for Sci-Fi on The Rock, a downhome celebration of film, literature, graphic arts and cosplay. We missed this April’s event but that gives you plenty of time to plan for 2019.

Goodbye Vanity Press Impression

Goodbye Vanity Press Impression

Ruth E. Walker

I recently heard from a teen writer who was puzzled about self-publishing. She explained that she was on a committee looking at books to recommend to the Forest of Reading summer program at Ontario libraries. She was especially excited about a book from a local writer and presented it to her committee colleagues to review.

The committee agreed the book was really good and moved it forward as a recommended read to the Ontario Library Association (OLA). But my friend was disappointed to receive an email explaining that the book could not be included. The OLA has a policy to only include traditionally published works in that summer program. A novel, no matter how compelling, couldn’t be on the list if it was self-published by the author.

No matter how you feel about self-publishing versus traditionally published books, the OLA’s policy is not out of line with many organizations. And there is a good historical reason for it: vanity presses.

Feeding the Vanity Machine

Not so long ago, some printing companies called themselves publishers. Writers were attracted to those companies that would quickly publish their manuscripts without long waits to hear from an editor and no questions asked. Writers were guaranteed their book would be published…for a fee, of course. But the writers were confident of being able to sell their finished product. And all the money would go to them, not to some agent or publisher. Once they put out a lot of money to the “publisher.”

It seemed like a great idea.

Of course, the inevitable happened to most of those writers. Basements and garages filled up with boxes of books that, once family and friends had been tapped out, couldn’t be sold to strangers.

 

 

Not all vanity publications were in vain

There were amazing success stories:  David Chilton’s self-published financial advice book The Wealthy Barber has sold over 2,000,000 copies to date. He even mentored sisters Janet and Greta Podleski, and their Looneyspoons cookbook has sold 850,000 copies to date. Many speakers on the “talk circuits” self-publish companion books that sell very well on the strength of their seminars and workshops.

But they were the exception.

In the past five or so years, the winds have shifted for self-published authors. When Terry Fallis won the 2008 Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour forThe Best Laid Plans, and then the 2011 CBC Canada Reads winner, he raised the profile for self-published authors in Canada. Even The Writers’ Union of Canada now accepts memberships from authors of self-published work (applicants must submit their book for review and it must meet professional standards to be accepted.)

It won’t be long before self-published titles are received everywhere with respect.

Make sure your book deserves respect

So you’ve decided to self-publish. Just because you’ve written a great story doesn’t mean it’s ready to go to press. If you truly respect your own work, you need to give it the time and focus it needs and deserves. If you truly respect your reader, ensure that you’re actually giving your reader a great story in great shape. And if you respect yourself as an author, act like you do.

Hire an editor. No, don’t rely on friends or family for this. A professional and skilled editor will help you refine your manuscript to publishable quality: a logical plot, compelling characters and a clean copy for the proofreader. An editor is not concerned with hurting your ego — an editor wants your book to succeed and if that means giving you tough news, well, that’s what will fix this book and make you an even better writer with the next book.

Hire a proofreader. Here you might have friends or family with this skill but understand a proofreader is not just reading your story and looking for oopsies. A proofreader takes a different approach to an editor. A proofreader is looking for transposed numbers. Of chapter headings in slightly different fonts. Of two similar but different spellings of the same name. The things that trick the eye of even the best editor.

Put it into your publishing budget: $800 to $2000 for editing and proofreading.

Things are changing

I’m an assessment volunteer for the Writers’ Union, reading some the self-published books submitted for membership. Some have been pretty darn good.

However, a few have been sadly in need of an editor. And a layout professional. And proofreader. The main criteria for acceptance is “would this book be comparable to a traditionally published book, with evidence of editing and professional appearance/layout?”

More often than not, the answer is yes. And that is heartening.

It means that those vanity presses are not getting as much business. Instead, we see quality book printers who also offer editing services to various levels. We see self-published books from writers who hire editors and proofreaders on their own. We see co-operative publishing ventures, where the cost and profits are shared by the printer and the author, and include editorial supports. That’s a nice balance of respect and a much better business model instead mass printing from unpolished manuscripts.

The publishing world is ever-shifting. How readers access their books is also ever-shifting just as the line between traditional and self-published books is blurring. Ultimately, readers — like my young friend — will set the pace and tone for choosing between those two approaches. And it seems that as long as a book captures a reader’s heart, it won’t matter how it made its way onto the bookshelf.

DID YOU KNOW?

Writescape self-publishes on a regular basis. At our Spring Thaw and Turning Leaves retreats, we prepare a 35-page workbook to support writers on retreat with inspiration, ideas, prompts, tips and helpful information.

When Gwynn and I published Inspiration Station, our “retreat in a paperback” in 2010, we paid for a quality layout and print product. And you can bet that book was edited, proofed and re-proofed before it came off the press.

It’s sold out right now but plans are in the works to bring it out in an electronic version. Stay tuned.