Seven Tips for Finding Inspiration

Seven Tips for Finding Inspiration

Gwynn and Ruth are on vacation for the next couple of weeks. So we’re bringing back a couple of our favourite Top Drawer topics to share with new readers and to nudge long-time followers. This week is Ruth’s May 2016 post on finding inspiration. So get out there this summer and give your muse a change of scenery too.

Ruth E. Walker

I recently delivered a workshop at a writers’ conference: From Inspiration to Publication. In 2.5 hours, I was supposed to shine a light on the path almost every writer dreams about: being published. Frankly, this path can never be illuminated in such a short time. In fact, I could plug in a dozen klieg lamps and have an infinite amount of workshop time, and I’d still leave the bulk of that path in shadows.

No two writers have identical pathstunnel-237656_640

shrine-1031662_640That’s because for each writer, the path to publication is individual and endless. And it is filled with missed opportunities, wrong turns and dead ends. But for successful writers “publication” is not a single event. It is a series of acceptances, right turns and new paths that keep them inspired through all the rejections and disappointments.

Successful writers keep shining their headlights down that path because they know two things:

  1. getting published should not be a one-time goal, and
  2. they only need to shine their light forward to keep going

signs-416444_640For even the best writers, it is a frustrating journey.

It’s beyond discouraging to repeatedly receive rejections. So how to keep your muse motivated? Finding and then holding on to your inspiration can be key to keeping your light shining down the writer’s path.

So let’s get started.

  1. Leave your comfort zone behind: a change of place, space or pace can allow inspiration to sneak up and surprise you; if you can’t change your environment (travel or try out writing in a coffee shop, for example) give freefall writing a try (timed writing with no editing, no stopping, no internal editor allowed.) You’ll be amazed with what happens when you let yourself go to follow the energy.
  2. Visit a used bookstore and browse: old book titles, names of authors, a line from a book and even the smell of old paper can trigger ideas.
  3. Find contests with deadlines: a contest theme can trigger plenty of writing or, even better, remind you that you have a story on file to fit that theme!
  4. People watch with a notepad: keep to reportage (just the facts) to record the behaviour, clothing, dialogue that passes by. Pull it out and flip to a random page when you need to nudge your muse.
  5. Visit graveyards and museums: imagine the stories behind all those dates and names (old gravestones and small local museums can be especially intriguing.)
  6. Read outside your interests: essay collections, science journals, biographies, and so on will let you tap into a rich vein of interesting topics.
  7. Get out into nature and leave technology behind. If the landscape doesn’t trigger your muse, being in the open air with only scenery to distract you just might be the space your creativity needs to surface.

Inspiration for writing can come from so many places that I could keep writing this post for weeks. But what these tips all have in common is encouragement to explore. Writers are the adventurers on the open seas of life: we travel in our imaginations and write all about it. If you keep your light pointed into the distance then you should always be ready to find your stories.

About Freefall Writingtourism-776587_640

Freefall writing was first coined as “Mitchell’s Messy Method” by W.O. Mitchell (Who Has Seen the Wind) when he taught creative writing at university. It became “freefall” over time. There are variations used by many creative writing teachers, but when Gwynn or I lead a freefall, these are our main points:

  • Be present (meditation before you start is helpful) and follow the energy
  • Write what comes up
  • Use the senses — taste, touch, smell, sound and sight
  • Be specific — not “the car” but “the fire engine red two-door convertible”
  • Keep writing even if all you can start to write is: I can’t write. This is dumb. Why am I doing this? –eventually, the tension will trigger new energy for you to follow
  • Resist the editor — don’t stop to “fix” things
  • Go Fearward — W.O. Mitchell’s best advice ever

Freefall prompt and exercise: Set your timer for 20 minutes. Close your eyes and allow yourself to be quiet and still. Count backwards slowly to zero from fifteen. When you get to zero, start your freefall writing with this opening sentence:

The door opened and I stepped inside.

 

 

Writing Contests: One.Oh-oh.One

Writing Contests: One.Oh-oh.One

Ruth E. Walker.

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.

Take this past week. 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 by a group of first readers who eliminated others. 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 am only one of several second-tier readers who are also reading 14 entries. So I’m not reading all the entries that reached the second tier — I’m only reading 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)

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. I know because I’ve had that fantastic feeling many times in my writing career. It’s one I want every writer to experience and it’s why I wrote this post.

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 unnecessary
  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
Did You Know?

Not only is Ruth E. Walker a sought-after judge for writing competitions, she has organized and run writing competitions for fiction and poetry. And Ruth’s fiction, poetry and non-fiction work has also won or placed in dozens of writing contests. Along with contest judge and award-winner, Dorothea Helms (a.k.a. The Writing Fairy), Ruth facilitates Write to Win, a full-day workshop devoted to entering and winning writing contests.

On June 17, Ruth and Dorothea will take Write to Win to Minden in the Haliburton Highlands. With writing, it’s all a contest where the judge can be your next literary agent or publisher. Why don’t you join them. Sign up here.

Submissions: Why We Chose It

Submissions: Why We Chose It

Ruth E. Walker.

I subscribe to the Kenyon Review‘s newsletter, a literary journal out of Kenyon College in Ohio. I enjoy reading “Why We Chose It.” This feature explores some of the reasons why Kenyon Review selected a particular piece to publish in their journal.

Here’s an excerpt of Kirsten Reach’s post about “He Comes to Feed the Horses”, a short story by Mary Terrier:

Our interns were the first to cull this from our submission pile; we had no connection to Mary Terrier before. Within a few paragraphs, I think you’ll find yourself listening closely to the voice she’s found in this tough, nameless narrator. “By the time I was desperate enough to call hospice, you were already pretty far gone,” she says, addressing her late husband. Henry can hardly manage to get a straw into his mouth, and nurses have taken up residence in their house. She needs help, but she hates the help. The bathroom is too small to fit even the two of them, and each body that enters their home seems out-of-place.

Sounds like a good story to me. But it isn’t a new story, is it? So why did Kirsten and the interns pick this one?

Like every magazine that publishes short stories, we get a few dozen stories about unhappy marriages or spouses handling end-of-life care in every submission period...As an editor, you’re looking for an author with style, and a caretaker who makes you care deeply about this story, in the vein of Alice Munro’s “A Bear Came Over the Mountain,” or Helen Garner’s The Spare Room.

Style. Caretaker. How do those two connect? And why do they matter?

Style:

No one writes like you. When you are writing, your words land on the page in the style that belongs to your voice. For a lot of writing, such a corporate writing, you refine your style to fit with expectations. Your own voice is usually restricted in those forms of writing.

Fiction, however, allows you much more freedom to explore how your style works. You can refine your style by editing out weaknesses or even developing them into a strength. For example, relying on too much description slows the pace and you lose your reader. But at a crucial point in your story, perhaps an extended, detailed description is just what you need to bring focus on something vital. Dust off that urge to overwrite and use it to the story’s advantage.

Caretaker:

What does Kirsten Reach mean when she calls a writer a caretaker?

From 1999 to 2008, Gwynn and I were fiction editors for the literary journal LICHEN Arts & Letters Preview. Along with Mark Medley, we had some vigorous discussions championing stories to be included in upcoming issues. Limited journal space combined with hundreds of submissions made our work a challenge. We never referred to a writer as a “caretaker” for their story. But we could tell when a story was finely crafted.

I remember one story in particular. In Volume 8-2, Brian Reynolds’ “First Goose” is told in reverse, slipping back from a dreadful tragedy, hour by hour and layer by layer, peeling away the emotions of a adolescent First Nation boy on the cusp of adulthood.

The caretaker, Reynolds, could have written the story in ordinary linear fashion. Instead, he chose to give us the devastation before forcing us on the backward journey to see how the man rose out of the boy. It was cruel and wonderful because it was completely contrary to expectations. The inescapable ending haunted the reader through every hour revealed.

Do all editors look for a “caretaker”? I don’t know. What I do know is that at our 2016 fall retreat, literary agent Hilary McMahon of Westwood Creative Artists shared what she looks for in submissions. “Really great skill with language, that goes without saying.” And then she added something. “And an original voice telling a really unique story.” Hilary was talking about style and about the craft.

What’s Your Style?

Are you a caretaker for your writing? Before you press SEND on that submission, step back and take a close look at your work.

  • is your voice loud and clear in the style?
  • are you using your style in the best possible way?
  • have you taken care to ensure your story is being told in an original manner?
  • is there another way to lay it out so that readers (and editors) are surprised or intrigued?

Some writers benefit from a writing coach or editor to help take their work to the next level. For other writers, growth comes from paying attention to feedback in a critique group or workshop setting. In all cases, it helps to read other people’s work, especially those stories chosen for a prestigious literary journal.

You can read Kirsten Reach’s full post here. And I encourage you to follow the link and read the excerpt. Mary Terrier has, indeed, been a caretaker with style.

Read the fine print

Read the fine print

Heather M. O’Connor.
I recently stumbled across a contest for writers and artists, run by a well-known government-funded organization. The topic was intriguing. So were the $500 prize and the no-fee entry. Until I read the rules.

By entering this Contest and submitting an entry, you grant to Sponsors the right use to any material related to your entry for use in any and all manner, format, or media whether now known or hereafter devised (which use may include without limitation, editing, reformatting, modifying, publishing, posting, distributing, displaying, and transmitting for print, audio, visual, digital, or broadcast media and the like), for any purpose, including without limitation, the Contest and advertising Sponsors  or Sponsors’ products, services and organization.” 

Hold the phone.

If I entered, I’d surrender ALL RIGHTS to my work. In perpetuity. Contest organizers and even their sponsors could publish my story even if I didn’t win. They could reformat it, modify it, post it or publish it anywhere and as often as they wished.

And remember. This rule doesn’t just apply to the winners. It applies to EVERYONE who enters.

This is the second such contest I’ve seen recently. The other was the Royal Ontario Museum’s (ROM) nature photography contest. Again, ALL entrants (not just winners) must agree to grant:

“…to the ROM a royalty-free, irrevocable, perpetual, transferrable, non-exclusive license to use, reproduce, modify, publish, create derivative works from, and display his/her wildlife photo (the “Work”), in whole or in part, on a worldwide basis, and to incorporate it into other works, in any form, media or technology now known or later developed, including for promotional or marketing purposes; in connection with the Contest.

The Canadian literary magazine Geist, on the other hand, makes a more modest and reasonable rights request:

“Winning entries: Geist takes first serial rights for print and non-exclusive electronic rights to post the text and image at geist.com. All other rights remain with the author. 

All publication rights for non-winning entries are retained by the entrants.”

That’s more like it. So what am I giving up?

  • First serial rights. That’s one-time publication in their magazine, then the rights are mine again. That’s fair.
  • Non-exclusive electronic rights. They can publish it online forever, but it’s still mine.

And there’s none of this “waiving of all rights in perpetuity” nonsense.

Don’t go in blind

Always read the rules when you enter a contest. Then ask yourself the following questions:

What rights am I giving away?

Publication rights can be for a country or a language, (e.g., Canadian, European, world, French language.) They can cover a variety of formats: print and online, audio and visual, or “all manner, format, or media whether now known or hereafter devised.”

Will I ever need the rights again?

I might if I want to publish that story in an anthology, or include it in a novel.

Moral of the story?

When you enter a contest, verify the rights you’re signing away. Even trustworthy organizations can include unfair conditions.

Did you know…

There are plenty of places, in print and online, to find contest listings. Here are a few you might like:

Got a good tip on good contests to enter or your favourite places to find them? Let us know in the comments below.

Learn from two contest insiders when you spend a day with writing contest judges, winners and organizers, Ruth E. Walker and Dorothea Helms. Watch for their always popular Write to Win workshop later this spring.

Agent Reality Check: 5 Top Things We Learned

Agent Reality Check: 5 Top Things We Learned

Ruth E. Walker

At our annual fall retreat, Turning Leaves, we always invite a special guest to offer a workshop and hold a fireside Q&A session. Usually, we ask an author to join us and our writers have been delighted by the insights and inspiration from our generous guests.

This year, we thought we’d try something different. We invited literary agent Hilary McMahon, Vice-president of Westwood Creative Artists. Come join us, we said.

hilarys-workshop-resizedAnd join us, she did.dinner-resized

From Friday dinner to Sunday breakfast, Hilary was a full participant. She delivered a wonderful Friday evening chat on the role and challenges of the agent and gave a great Saturday workshop on preparing compelling query letters.

We’re happy to share a few tips from the many she offered throughout the weekend:

1  Do your research:

Visit the agency website to get details on each agent’s submission guidelines, and the correct spelling of the agency name and the agent’s name. Pay attention to each agent’s information. You don’t want to send a query about your fabulous fantasy sci-fi steampunk graphic novel to an agent who only is seeking nonfiction manuscripts.

Go to book launches or read the acknowledgment pages of books similar to yours to find out who the agents are who represent those writers. See “Be strategic” at the end of this post.

2  Be professional:

Dear agent — you are writing to a person with whom you hope to have an important relationship, so use their name. But remember that this is a professional relationship, so no first names here. And get that name right. Hilary’s has been sent queries with another agent’s name in the salutation…a copy-and-paste oopsie!

Submit a clean query and clean sample in manuscript format without any typos or grammatical errors. Hilary was clear: it all affects how the agent views your manuscript in comparison with the 500+ others received that year. No agent will ask for the full manuscript if your query doesn’t demonstrate you can write well and convey the flavour of your style. And for the same reason, your writing has to be the best possible writing you can submit. See “Be ready”…

business-19148_640Last, but not least, daily follow-up calls and emails will likely ring warning bells for any agent — it’s annoying and the sign of someone very, very needy. Sure, you’re on pins and needles waiting, but give the agent some time to get to your query.

But Hilary says that if you have a valid reason for a follow-up email, by all means fire away. Valid reason? If you receive a writing award or grant, follow up. If you have a short story coming out in a literary magazine or national publication, follow up. In short, if you have important writing news, follow up. An agent will want to know.

3  Be ready:

It’s a competition and most agents receive hundreds and even thousands of queries each year. Of those, a few dozen get chosen to submit their work. Of those few, even fewer get picked for a second or even third read. Of those, one or two may get a contract. So when an agent asks for your full manuscript, you want to have something that’s polished and ready to submit.

4  Be realistic

A contract with an agent does not equal a contract with a publisher. Agents don’t earn a penny until you do, so naturally a good agent will be working hard to secure the best possible publishing deal. But it’s a tough climate right now, especially for fiction. Hilary talked about having manuscripts that she absolutely loved but nonetheless, couldn’t land a publisher that felt the same. But she offered hope when she recounted the story of one writer. She couldn’t land a home for the writer’s first manuscript but secured a publisher for the next one.

5  Be strategic

system-954972_640An agent can represent a writer for many years. Like a marriage, it is an important kind of partnership, so you want that relationship to be strong and effective. You want an agent who really likes (loves!) your manuscript, and believes in you and your creative ability. Someone you can work with.

So, this is more than just “Do your research.”  Think carefully about who you send your query to. A top literary agent would be a great coup but you will be competing for attention with international bestselling authors. Would an intermediate-level agent have more room and time to focus on developing your career? What about a new agent? They might be even more high-energy on your behalf…but does that agent have the contacts in the publishing field? And the same goes for the agent’s agency.

We know that landing an agent is a goal of most writers, so isn’t the point to get one? Of course. But our weekend with Hilary McMahon gave us plenty to think about and we all left with at least this one piece of advice. The point may be to get an agent, but an even better point is to work at getting the right agent…at least the right agent for you.

Did you know…

Registration is now open for Spring Thaw 2017, our all-inclusive retreat at Elmhirst’s Resort on Rice Lake in Ontario, April 21 to 23, or 21 to 25. Receive feedback from both Gwynn Scheltema and Ruth E. Walker on 10 ms pages submitted in advance, as well as one-on-one consultation on your writing project.

writing-427527_1920Morning warm-up exercises and follow-up private discussions in the afternoon offer support when and if you need it.

Private room accommodations in cozy lakeside cottages: wood-burning fireplaces and full kitchens stocked for in-cottage breakfasts. Join the group for lunch or take it back to your cottage if you’re on a roll. Relax in the casually elegant dining room for candlelight dinners.

Stay for 3 days or Extend Your Pen for 5 days. Either way, you escape to write…with Writescape.

 

Up Close & Personal: Writer Jenny Madore

Up Close & Personal: Writer Jenny Madore

Jenny Madore pictureJenny Madore didn’t always know she wanted to be a writer. It took packing up husband and kids for a move to the rainforest of Panama for a year and a single copy of “Twilight” to nudge out the writer in her. Shifting from “I could write Bella into a better situation” to “I could write my own stories”, Jenny discovered her passion before moving back to Canada in 2008.

Now the author (J.L. Madore) of a self-published, urban fantasy series where alpha women kick butt and devour the gorgeous male warriors around them, Jenny is working on becoming a hybrid writer and breaking into the traditional publishing market. She is also in her second term as President of The Writers’ Community of Durham Region, a 280+ member umbrella organization that offers networking, promotion and education opportunities to its members.

Writescape caught up with Jenny this week to learn more about her as a writer:

What is the most important thing a self-published writer needs to consider?

That creative minds aren’t always the best prepared to tackle marketing, or websites, or newsletters. Points to self. The effective marketing of a novel once you’ve self-published takes a gazillion hours, dedication, and a thoroughness that some of us just don’t come by naturally. It can be learned, or hired out, but you have to identify your weaknesses and make allowances for them.

For example, I know I have to keep current content on my website to sweet-talk the algorithms of online booksellers and search engines, but when I pull up my website, my last post was for May 30th . . . of 2015. Yikes. If earning a living at writing was my goal, I’d be upset at how badly I drop the ball at times. Thankfully, writing is my goal. Growing as a writer. Improving. I’ll get back to marketing at some point. Maybe soon. Maybe not.

What does being a “hybrid writer” mean to you?

Honestly, I picture ‘Hybrid’ as being the best of both worlds but can’t say for sure . . . yet. What I like about the idea of straddling the indie and traditionally published worlds is the freedom of one, while coveting the guidance of the other. I’d like to work with house editorial staff and have people picking at the minutia of a story that they see hitting the mark of the ever-changing market. I want to grow. Know what they know. See the things they’re looking for in my own work for future reference.blaze-ignites-front-cover-promo-image

But not all stories are going to hit the appeal of publishing houses and that’s where indie rules. When I first wrote Blaze Ignites, I shopped it around first. I received rejections saying “great writing but fantasy is in a downturn,” or “Elves just aren’t sexy.”

Hello? Legolas Greenleaf isn’t sexy?

I beg to differ. That’s why I went ahead and independently published that series. I’ve got so many stories circling in my head, I want them out there entertaining people. Well, I hope they’re entertaining people.

What are you working on now and how different is it from the urban fantasy series you started out with?

female-316703_640I’m currently editing the finished first draft of a Roman time-slip historical romance. The working title is, In The Shadow, and I’m very pleased with how it’s shaping up. I found it very different to write historical, because it is an actual moment in time which has been documented and studied by academics and enthusiasts for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

I put a great deal of pressure and author responsibility upon myself to get the details right. Did a Praetorian wear a white toga or a violet one? What flowers bloomed in ancient Rome in 79CE? When would a patrician woman wear her hair down? What did the streets of Pompeii look like, sound like, and smell like before the eruption of Vesuvius?

The dialogue is crucial to selling the time period (Latin sentences often omit pronouns), as is the setting and, most importantly, how the love story evolves under the stresses and strains of a violent and unhindered society (Sin and shame are concepts which evolved much later in history).

The fantasy series I write allows me freedom to make things up to suit the story. As long as I justify what’s happening in the world, there’s really no wrong answer. It’s freeing and fun. Writing historical fiction offers me a sense of personal satisfaction I hadn’t realized before. When I get it right, it’s really right, and even if the reader doesn’t know it, I do.

How do you balance family life, the volunteer leadership role for a dynamic organization and your needs as a writer?

Balance is the operative word, though it has recently become easier. With my kids grown and newly establishingborg_dockingstation themselves out in the world as successful young adults, I’m finding my hours are my own for the first time in 23 years. As a full-time, at-home mother and wife, I became accustomed to working with crazy schedules and multi-tasking for the benefit of the collective.

We are Borg.

Those skills translate perfectly into running an organization like The Writers’ Community of Durham Region (WCDR). I want the members to strive for their dreams and have what they need for success. That’s why I initiated Bookapalooza, Skip The Slush Pile Pitches, Blue Pencil Bonanza, Novel Whisperer, etc. I’m available to help if I can, organize events, make concessions if obstacles arise, and ask for help if things get complicated. I love the WCDR and its members. In my mind, the organization is simply an extension of family.

As for my writing . . . well, I’d like to say I set aside time every day, but that’s not always possible. The WCDR is an active, vital organization and when events approach, there is no end to the preparations to be made or work to be done. I can safely say, that I work on my writing often. Sometimes mornings. Sometimes nights. Sometimes just a few moments before I have to start dinner or leave for a meeting. Stories are always in the back of my mind, ideas, characters, and conflicts percolating until I can get back in front of my laptop.

Describe your favourite writing space — what does it look like?

Easy, (looks left and right). I’m on my bed, knees up with my laptop in front of me, a mass of pillows behind me, and a dozen reference books and novels scattered across my comforter and end table. Stryder, my Panamanian dingo dog I brought home from living in the rainforest, is lying beside me, snoring through his doggie dreams, the tip of his tongue slightly out. Perfection.

If you could have dinner with anyone (living, dead or fictional) who would that be?amy-sherman-palladino-02

Ooh, tough one. So many names come to mind for so many reasons. I think it would have to be Amy Sherman-Palladino, writer of Gilmore Girls. Not only is she quirky and odd, (which would make dinner a hoot), she wrote one of the greatest, wittiest, fastest paced, most-heart-warming collection of moments ever seen on television. (Newsroom and West Wing also in that category) The writing of Gilmore girls hits all my buttons: intelligent characters, flawed relationships, unconditional acceptance, family love, romantic love, loyalty, off-beat humour . . . the list is endless. Yep. Amy Sherman-Palladino for sure.

Wow, over so soon. Thank you, Writescape, for inviting me to participate, I had a blast. Annnnnd . . . are you arranging my dinner with Amy? I’m really looking forward to that now.

Expert advice

Expert advice

Heather M. O’Connor

When Richard Scrimger came to Turning Leaves a couple of years ago, he told us, “Writers are liars and thieves.”

He meant, of course, that the best stories are partly made up, and partly built on stolen bits of real life. Readers want to believe your lies. You can tell the most outrageous whoppers, from a theme park with cloned dinosaurs to a school for wizards. As long as the stolen bits ring true.

Steal what you know, research what you don’t

Take my novel Betting Game, for instance. It’s the story of an elite soccer player who gets mixed up with illegal gambling.

I could lie and steal with panache about soccer. I play. My kids play. I watch the sport on TV. But illegal gambling? That was a central part of my novel’s plot and characters, and I didn’t know a thing about it. Nada. Zip. How could I make my story believable?

Who ya gonna call?

I needed a subject matter expert. Someone in the biz. But not the gambling biz. A “reliable narrator” if you know what I mean. Someone in law enforcement. It took time to track down an expert, but what he told me was invaluable.

Looking for an expert of your own? Here are the steps to follow.

Go surfing

Begin your search online. I started by studying news stories. Who was quoted on the topic? Who went to court?

Your expert may speak at industry events and conferences. Check continuing education classes and LinkedIn, too.

network of peopleTap your network

Have you asked your friends and family if they know an expert? I was stunned to learn that one of my teammates was once a CSI investigator in New York City. (She now teaches forensic science and invited me to a crime scene class. Coolest writer field trip ever!)

Don’t forget your local librarians—they’re walking encyclopedias.

Do a little diggingman-1483479_1920

Once you locate subject matter experts, don’t waste their time. Pick your own brains before you pick theirs.

Prepare a list of open-ended questions that require more than a yes or no answer. Try to think up a couple of questions they may never have answered.

Email your questions and a short synopsis of your story a day or two before the interview. This gives the person time to mull over answers and think of interesting anecdotes.

Don’t be shy

Relax. Chatting with a subject matter expert is easier than it looks.

People like talking about their jobs. Though they find their work fascinating, their friends and family may not. You provide a rare treat—an enthusiastic audience.

office-336368_1920Take note!

I prefer to interview in person or by phone. People have more to say when they don’t need to write it all down. You also have a chance to ask follow-up questions when you’re talking live. Email interviews are very limiting. They’re best for confirming facts.

I usually record my interviews, as long as there’s no objection. Most smartphones have an app for that. I also take detailed notes.

Say thank you

Remember to thank your expert for taking the time to share their knowledge and expertise. Send a thank you note. If their help was significant, include them in the acknowledgements, and consider sending them a copy of your book.

In Conversation with…literary agent Hilary McMahon

In Conversation with…literary agent Hilary McMahon

Hilary McMahonToday, we chat with Hilary McMahon, Executive Vice President of Westwood Creative Artists (WCA), one of Canada’s oldest and most respected literary agencies. Hilary maintains an extensive and diverse list of adult and children’s writers. She also represents WCA authors on trips to American and British publishers and the Frankfurt and London Book Fairs. 

Why did you become a literary agent?

I earned a degree in journalism and English, but soon realized that I wanted to read other people’s stories far more than I wanted to write or teach. I’m an obsessive book reader, an extrovert interested in people and relationships, and a tough negotiator with a head for details and numbers. This job allows me to combine all those different skills.                                                                                                    

books-20167_640 (1)Being an agent is a tough job. So what is it that has kept you in the field for more than 20 years?

Nothing compares to the magic of being engrossed in a great book. I love being part of the process that begins with an idea or rough manuscript, and ends with a finished product that can be shared, enjoyed, discussed around the world. And working with writers can certainly be challenging at times, but it’s never dull…

If we were to spend some time in a typical day with Hilary McMahon, what would it look like?letters-286541_640

That’s one of the many wonderful things about this job, there is no typical day! It’s an illusion that I read all day. Today for example, I have reviewed a section of an author’s revised novel and then shared it with an interested publisher, worked on some blurbs for our Frankfurt catalogue, checked a film contract and sent it off to the author, given a non-fiction author feedback on her proposal, spent time crafting a tactful rejection letter, done the deal memo for a middle-grade series I’ve just sold, addressed a picture book writer’s concerns about the illustrations for her new book, and followed up on some projects out on submission. I had hoped to make a dent into my towering pile of submissions but I don’t know if I’ll get to it…

What do you like to see in a query from a writer? And is it different for a fiction versus a non-fiction query?

You’d think it’s obvious, but I need to see excellent writing! A skillful, original, compelling pitch.

For fiction, you need to hook me with a brief description of the work and draw me in with a short sample. It certainly doesn’t hurt if you include some details about places you’ve been published and any relevant awards or education.

For non-fiction, your expertise in the field is going to be important, to me and to publishers – I need to know that you have some authority about your subject. Most simply, I need to be compelled to move from the query to a writing sample.

hand-861275_640What is the one piece of advice you want writers to know once they land that elusive agent?

That just because you have an agent it doesn’t guarantee your work will sell! There’s still a lot of hard work ahead, but at least you aren’t doing it alone.

What are you reading now and how do you feel about it?

I’m reading a really intriguing submission, clever and sparely written and definitely original in story and in the telling.  But I’m still trying to decide if it’s something that I could sell…

If time, place and money are no object, who is the one person or character you’d like to have dinner with…and why?Jane Austen

I’d love to have dinner with Jane Austen, after she’d spent a bit of time in 2016 – I would love to hear her take on this modern world!

Want to get up close and personal with one of Canada’s top literary agents? Come to our fall retreat, Turning Leaves 2016.

Hilary is our special retreat guest, joining us for meals, evening chats and sharing insights and expertise in a Saturday morning workshop on catching and holding an agent’s attention. She’ll also review Turning Leaves 2016 participants’ query letters in advance and hold private one-on-one feedback sessions.

 

Prenatal care for your book baby

Prenatal care for your book baby

Last fall, Orca Books published my debut novel Betting Game. I had nine months between signing a contract and delivering my book baby. It seemed like plenty of time. It wasn’t.

Here are a few lessons I learned along the way.

Start earlyPregnant woman with a journal

Next time I’m expecting a new book baby, I’ll sit down right away and make a plan of action.

What do I need to do, and when? How much time will it all take? What are my priorities?

Get organized

scrivener logo

Keep everything. Edits. Images. Ideas. Promo materials. Information from your marketing team. You will use, reuse, rework and re-purpose these files again and again, so find a logical way to organize them for easy retrieval.

Scrivener worked for me. I stored all the flotsam and jetsam in one project, using labels and keywords to make the project super-simple to view and search. Of course, you can also store everything traditionally in folders and subfolders. Just be sure to file and label wisely.

Sure, it takes a little longer to be meticulous, but it saves you time every time you need to find something. And bonus! The next time you publish, you have a ready-made road map instead of starting from square one.

Gather the building blocks

wooden block towerThe first items my publisher asked for were basic promo items: an author bioback-cover blurb and a professional author photo (more on author pics in a future post.)

I tucked these items in my Scrivener project, and as time went on, I added more elements:

I also collected a variety of links and bits of code:

Raise your profile

My memberships came in handy. I belong to national writers’ organizations like CANSCAIP, SCBWI, The Writers’ Union of Canada and the Canadian Children’s Book Centre, and locally, to the Writers’ Community of Durham Region. They offer a variety of promotional opportunities.

  • book and event pages
  • school visit and speaker pages
  • member profiles

You can also create author pages on GoodReads and Amazon.com, as well as social media channels like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Prepare these pages and profiles well in advance. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as uploading the same bio and photo to each site. But they all start with the same basic building blocks.

Don’t forget to update them along the way. I kept the most recent version of each profile in Scrivener. It was easier than viewing each website one by one. (Aren’t you glad you started Scrivener project or folder system now?)

Ways to work smarter

Front-end-load the tasks. For example:

  • write newsletter announcements and media releases early so they’re ready to go
  • prepare your website, blog and social media platforms so you can trickle out your good news

Make a book trailer

One of my best investments was Rich Helms’s Book Trailers 101. This 5-week workshop taught me the elements of a successful trailer, as well as the specialized knowledge to make one. Basic tech like how to use Animoto and Movie Maker. A bit of Audacity. Where to find reasonably priced voice talent, music and images. Tricks for uploading the final product to YouTube.

Step by step, my book trailer grew from concept to finished video. The weekly group critique helped me figure out what worked and what didn’t. I came out with more than a video. I also came up with strong tag lines and blurb text. Which, of course, I tucked away in my promo folder.

Book a launch dateBetting Game book launch

Book your launch as soon as you get a publication date. I launched Betting Game at Blue Heron Books in Uxbridge. They’re one of Canada’s best independent booksellers. As a result, they get booked up quickly.

Like many indies, Shelley Macbeth and her staff really care about promoting Canadian books and authors. They gave me great advice and support. But that’s a post of its own!

Got any prenatal advice of your own for authors expecting their first book baby? Please share it below!

Find Your Way to First Place

Find Your Way to First Place

Dorothea Helms, a.k.a. The Writing Fairy.

Writescape shares sage advice from award-winning humour writer and writing contest judge and administrator, Dorothea Helms, on entering and winning writing contests. Dorothea offers her special branch of magic and insider insights in The Top Drawer.

Winning writing contests is one of the most exciting things I’ve experienced during my career. In addition to validation for my writing from an objective source, the wins have brought money, publication, plaques, prizes and prestige. Oh, and surprise. I once came in third place in a poetry contest with a submission that didn’t begin “There once was a …” Contest wins listed on my writer’s CV have also added credibility.

I don’t know of a magic formula for winning (even though I’m The Writing Fairy), but I do have some tips I’d like to share on how to increase your chances.

  1. Be creative in your approach to the contest topic
  2. Follow the rules
  3. Write with abandon, but polish your writing with care
  4. Follow the rules
  5. Enter
  6. Follow the rules

Sound simplistic? For years, I have served as a writing contest judge from local to national levels, and I have run several contests myself. I’m always astounded at the number of entrants who ignore the rules. To be fair to all competitors, contest judges must eliminate those who don’t follow the rules.

Here are some reminders:

Word Count Maximumsnumbers

If the maximum word count is 2,500 and your entry is 2,501, it will be eliminated before it’s even read. I’ve had to axe entries for this mistake many times. What a shame; often, they are brilliant submissions.

 

Published versus Unpublished

If the rules stipulate that the piece has to be original and unpublished, make sure it is. It’s easy for contest administrators to do a Google search for a sentence and find out if it’s on a website somewhere. I’ve done that and found published work that has been entered as unpublished.

Entry Fee

coins-948603_640Many respected writing contests include entry fees. It costs money to run a contest, even when there are volunteers involved. Some journals give you a year’s subscription to their magazine as part of your entry fee. Some give you feedback on your entry. If you choose to submit to a contest with an entry fee, remember to include your payment. This is part of the rules you need to read.

 

Read, Read, Read Those Rules

referee-1149014_640The best way to start following the rules is to read them. In one of my Writing Fairy contests, after I published the names of the ten finalists, one of them contacted me to say he had just read the rules and that his entry had been previously published in a major US newspaper. I had to eliminate his piece, and it took time and effort to figure out who was next in line to take his spot in the top ten.

 

Enter

When it comes to increasing your chances of winning writing contests, the only thing worse than not following the rules is not entering. If you read winning contest entries and think, I can do better than that, then do better than that and send it in.

Oh, and did I mention—follow the rules?

DorotheaRead more about Dorothea Helms, a.k.a. The Writing Fairy, at www.thewritingfairy.com

Want to know more about entering and winning contests? Dorothea Helms teams up with Writescape’s Ruth Walker for Write to Win, a one-day workshop that covers everything from entering, to judging, to winning, to celebrating. Write to Win is a winner of a workshop.