Originally posted in BookEnds’ blog, the following is such sage and practical advice for writers that we requested and received permission from Jessica to share her words on our Top Drawer blog. This is an unprecedented and uncertain time in modern history. But there are ways we can all keep our creative flames lit. Write on, as best you can, knowing that we hold the mirrors for the world in which they see themselves. Let’s encourage only the best in each other.
There is no doubt that difficult times make writing harder.
When the world seems like it is blowing up, focusing and being creative feels
nearly impossible. And yet, deadlines don’t stop just because the world is
No one thing will work for all people and, certainly,
everyone’s situation will be different. But for those seeking guidance, I have
1. Just keep writing. It doesn’t have to be great. It doesn’t even have to be good, but sitting down every day to put words on paper makes a difference.
2. Shut down social media. When the world is crazy-making we all go to social media for information. It’s useful, but can also be destructive. Pick a few times each day to check-in, limit your time, and get out.
3. Talk about it. If you’re truly struggling, reach out to your agent [or mentors or writing colleagues] and let them know. Sometimes just sharing can release what’s holding you back. It’s okay to admit you’re struggling.
4. Do something else creative–make a cake, knit a scarf, take a photograph, or build a coatrack. Finding something you enjoy outside of writing helps take your mind off what is blocking you.
5. Give yourself a break. Times are tough and it’s okay to acknowledge that you’re struggling. Allow yourself some time if you need it.
I wish you all good health. And promise, the words will come again.
Jessica Faust is President and founder of BookEnds Literary Agency where she represents adult fiction and nonfiction. Her areas of expertise are mystery, suspense, thrillers, women’s fiction, literary and upmarket fiction. She also represents select areas of nonfiction. More about Jessica can be found through her blog, YouTube, and Twitter.
What is I READ
CANADIAN DAY and how did it come about?
While driving to a school visit in one of the western provinces, children’s author Eric Walters had an idea. What if children were encouraged to read Canadian books—starting with just 15 minutes on just one day? A day he called “I Read Canadian Day.” He got on the phone and started calling people, organized a meeting between different organizations to discuss how they could support what they all believed in – Canadian books.
Hundreds of libraries, schools and independent book stores
across Canada participated! People were asked on February 19 to read a Canadian
author or illustrator for just 15 minutes with the idea that if they haven’t
read Canadian this would expose readers to some great reads.
To encourage this, authors attended events, special story
times were held with Canadian themes and guest readers, and scavenger hunts to
find Canadian books were held at libraries.
Also at our library, we extended our “I Read Canadian” promotions to get teens and adults involved. We handed out buttons to people who checked out a Canadian book. We peppered our information desks with maple leaves recording our patrons’ favourite Canadian authors.
We took photos of our local Canadian authors “reading Canadian” and promoted locally.
Blue Heron Books, a local independent book store had a reading corner set up where community members could sit for 15 minutes to read.
What was a highlight for you?
I loved that everywhere people were talking about Canadian
According to Eric Walters, Canadian book sales have declined by 50 percent in the past decade. Fifty percent? That’s terrible. Not just because we aren’t supporting authors, but we aren’t reading books that reflect our culture, our language, and our beliefs.
This doesn’t mean books by authors in other countries aren’t good and don’t deserve to be read, but shouldn’t we want to see ourselves in the stories we read? Shouldn’t our children? We live in a country that is diverse, compassionate, tolerant and welcoming. We need to read and hear the stories that reflect us. We need to read stories that call us to task when we fall down.
Our stories are unique and valid and valuable, and I am so
lucky to work in a place where I stumble on new writers daily, luckier still I
get to champion those writers. Having a day where everyone from libraries to
booksellers to actors to the Prime Minister promoted Canadian books was a lot
What’s next? Will
this be an annual event?
I understand that it will be an annual event. I know my library is planning to participate again, on an even bigger scale, next year. And seeing how successful the event was this year, I’m sure organizers will come up with bigger ideas for next year.
How can readers and writers get involved?
In addition to promoting Canadian work, organizers want to make sure access to Canadian books is possible for children everywhere, including communities where funds are limited. So one component of I Read Canadian Day involved monetary donations. Donations can be made through the I Read Canadian website to help make that possible.
And in the
meanwhile, keep reading Canadian! We don’t need a special day to do that all
year around. Librarians are only too happy to help you find Canadian authors
Last Word from
If you want online help finding Canadian authors, try my favourite: 49thshelf.com
As we said in out post What’s on the 49th Shelf, this website is the largest collection of Canadian books on the Internet. They are also likely the most fully realized collaborative website in the world celebrating one nation’s books and authors.
As mentioned in last week’s blog, The Spirit of Sharing, I was honoured to moderate an unusual literary panel at the Spirit of the Hills Festival of the Arts in Cobourg, Ontario, on October 25, 2019. Four very different poets shared what form their poetry took, what poetry meant to them, what inspired them and what happened when poetry was shared. The Four poets who shared their thoughts on “A Panel of Poets”, were Ted Amsden, Cobourg’s poet laureate emeritis, American/Canadian poet Katie Hoogendam, subversive poet Wally Keeler and performance poet Dane Swan.
Among the audience members was Antony Di Nardo, a fine poet I first had the pleasure of meeting during the days when Ruth and I were editors for the literary journal Lichen Arts & Letters Preview. As the event progressed, I saw Antony scribbling notes and taking part in the discussions. Later, I asked him if he would mind sharing his observations with you here on The Top Drawer, and to my delight, he agreed. Thank you Antony, and over to you:
The Poetry Panel
Amsden talks of poetry as a state of rapture; Swan listens for its pitter patter; Keeler playfully recites the poet’s prayer in an Anglican chapel and subverts an institution; and for Hoogendam poetry is a world where time can come to a stop. Four poets, four traditions, four perspectives, four very different ways of understanding and questioning. Of giving poetry a forum for human discourse. And Gwynn Scheltema, our moderator, looks for answers.
Readers, writers, thinkers, talking and reflecting across the arts. A panel of poets, in this case, to ratify the only truth there is in poetry: it’s as subjective as personal experience.
Sure, there’s common context and cultural bias, societal slants and preferences, there’s even the current flavour of the month that contributes to shaping a poet’s voice, their choice of words. Each poet occupying their own seat, their own space in time, like every listener in the room. Who else, I wonder, saw the crucifix in the corner from the same angle that I did? The nail plunged into the heart of where the cedar crossbeams met? The lashing? The angel that appeared as a shaft of light?
“My mind wanders to Joy Harjo,” says Katie Hoogendam before she reads her own sample selection, and Harjo’s poem, she tells us, is about a farm boy who loses his two-year-old sister to a drowning accident and how he sees his mother descend into grief. The poem is called She Had Some Horses, and Hoogendam calls hers, Vitruvian Man, and while I listen to the narrative that unmistakably is the fabric of her poem, my mind wanders to the crucifix in the corner that is unmistakably Vitruvian.
Poetry is play.
Trucks and dolls and Lego blocks, our very first metaphors, our substitutes for making real (or “realer”) our understanding of the world around us. The Poetician, Wally Keeler, says so and I believe every word he says. In a poet’s mind there can be a new world order and it appears on paper and on the sides of transport trucks and as manifestos and in gleeful fabrications like “wire taps” that serve no purpose but to confront and re-imagine. Metaphor: to cross over and go beyond where no one has gone before. Poetry can do that and never hurt a fly.
Poetry is music, rhythm and jazz
And it takes words to do that says, Ted Amsden. It takes words that you might hear at the foot of a master, Earle Birney, say, who also had horses in his poems or Michael Ondaatje who referred to Ted’s first attempts with a manuscript as “half a beer commercial.”
Poetry is everywhere
And there’s poetry in beer commercials and also in Nathan Philips Square where one day Dane Swan looked down at his bare hands and wrote, “do not look at your hand, look at your hand.” Form he says is a function of the poem’s direction. And poetry, says Ted, happens when you treat yourself as a poet. Both rely on the intuitive, a poet’s first faculty.
Poetry also happens when you pay attention.
When she pays attention, Katie Hoogendam
enters another world. The world of the imagination, I suppose, or Wally
Keeler’s Imagine Nation, perhaps. Alien to some, familiar to others. It’s a
good thing we have words in common to know what we mean. Nevertheless, it’s
another place, a place of rescue or a place where you can meet yourself on
different terms. Katie will follow an image to the ends of the earth and bring
it back to put on the page. And sometimes, as it happens, she’ll open her hands
to the sky and the words just fall in.
Poetry is work.
And when we work, we make mistakes, we fail and try again and get it wrong until we get it right. It’s a mind mapping activity, says Dane Swan. He makes a list of themes, supporting images, metaphors, visualizes concepts that fit the tenor of his observations where the poem had its beginnings. It’s a balance of trial and error. Of beauty and terror.
Leave more than you take
Here’s part of a poem by Dane Swan, Soothsayer, that Dane never read:
I am the result of my flaws, mistakes, failures, losses. Yet treated like a snob, judged ornery, misunderstood.
If my destiny is to fall apart I shall give away my limbs after using them to print text hidden under pillows by those who say my name in vain.
I’ll leave more than I took.
It is a
good reason to write poetry, I think. To leave more than you take. One day I
will see Wally’s People’s Republic of Poetry as a Broadway Musical. Vitruvian Man
will come down from the cross and sashay into poetry. Ted will recite the words
vulture and voucher from the back of a motorcycle and Dane will have figured
out how to slip barbed wire into a poem.
But for now, I’ll content myself knowing that poetry is its own rapture.
Antony Di Nardo is the author of SKYLIGHT, which includes the long poem suite, “May June July,” winner of the Gwendolyn MacEwen Poetry Prize. His other books are Roaming Charges (Brick), Soul on Standby (Exile), and Alien, Correspondent (Brick). Born in Montreal, he divides his time between Cobourg, Ontario and Sutton, Quebec.
This week we welcome Seana Moorhead’s thoughts on writing the second book in a series. Seana is a Writescape retreat alumus, a lawyer and a fine writer and blogger at Ascribe Writers. She’s also a fun person to be around.
Guest Post from Seana Moorhead
I’ve been struggling with the second novel of my planned trilogy. I have all the words but it doesn’t feel like it holds together and I have no idea when or how to end it. My two main characters split up and I don’t know how to structurally deal with that. I try to console myself that the middle book of a trilogy is supposed to be the hardest to write.
Here’s my theory on why that is: a common problem with any novel is that the middle can sag. We spend so much time developing a great beginning and the perfect ending that the middle often drags. Magnified into a trilogy, the middle book struggles to compete with the fantastic first book and the final resolution of the third. Like a “middle” child, it can feel neglected, having neither the attention of the first child nor spoiled like the youngest.
This distresses me, since I am a middle child. I am personally invested in having my middle book soar. But here’s the hard truth: I feel like I am failing it. I have read many trilogies where the second book is weak; even with trilogies that I love, I often suffer through the middle book. Their flaws can be many:
(a) often second books read like they have been rushed (which is most likely true in today’s market where a sequel must come out as soon as possible; thus my anguish now before I have even managed to publish the first)
(b) second books read like a rehashing of the first book (in my opinion, book two of the Hunger Games is guilty of this)
(c) they wander, lack structure, have no focus because the middle is treated like a bridge between one and three with no real purpose of its own
(d) In an attempt, to “dark” or “deepen” the conflict of the characters, there tends to be a lot of whining by characters or characters acting poorly towards each other, gratuitous violence, often with torture as a way to “ramp” up the stakes but without any other clear purpose.
I like a well structured book. My first novel is like a well-stitched dress, with its darts and pleats in all the right places, everything hanging properly. Currently my second is like a Raggedy-Ann affair made from patchwork pieces. Typical of a second child, only getting hand-me-downs. Poor thing!
When in doubt, I research.
First, I tried to research how to write a good trilogy. I will summarize the common general advice as follows: an overarching three act structure in the trilogy with each book containing its own three act structure. It helps to add new characters in book two.
Although all very good, but I need more. Why do second books so often fail? Or maybe I should turn this question around: Are there any middle books that outshine their siblings? If yes, what creates this magic?
Since I am writing a fantasy trilogy, I focused my research in this genre. There are likely different answers if you are writing in other genres or a series (instead of a trilogy with an overarching storyline). Two examples came through in my research, one from film: The Empire Strikes Back; and one from the classic book, Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.
Note: spoiler alert ahead in case of the rare possibly that you haven’t actually read or seen the movie versions.
A side note: often Book 4 of the Harry Potter fame, also came out as an example of a middle book that works (although being in a seven part series). However, I wasn’t as fond of book four myself (my fav is still book 3 but that might be because I fantasize about having the cool hour glass time piece featured in book 3).
What is interesting about both Empire Strikes Back (ESB) and The Two Towers (2T), is that neither fit well into the classic three act structure (although you can impose this structure on them). The Empire Strikes Back is often cited as being one of the better films in the Star Wars trilogy. Unlike the first film (the original Star Wars), which followed a classic three act structure complete with a clearly defined inciting incident and climax, ESB, doesn’t fall as easily into that structure. One commenter even suggested that ESB does have a 3 act structure but in reverse order (with the big battle scene at the beginning). I have read analysis that show it has a 6 act structure maybe because one difficulty with ESB is that it quickly divides into 2 subplots – one following Luke as he goes to find Yoda and learn the ways of the Jedi and the other, following the Han Solo’s and Leia’s storyline. It doesn’t have a definite end as Han is left frozen in carbonite and things looks very bleak when the movie ends. I also read a very interesting analysis that shows how the ESB does have a perfect symmetrical structure with mirror scenes between beginning and the end (look this up if you’re curious).
The Two Towers, the middle book of the Lord of the Rings, is divided into two books (“Book III and IV”) and also involved multiple subplots – one of Frodo and Sam as they travel to Mordor; one of Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas and their travels in the Rohan and the battle of Helm’s Deep; and a third subplot with the other two hobbits. Instead of going back and forth between the story lines, Tolkien spends most of book III with the latter two plot lines and then in Book IV, shifting back to the Frodo and Sam plot line. Arguably, each sub-book separately has a 3-act structure within it, but when you examine The Two Towers, as whole, it is hard to impose the classic structure on it. I did notice how spending time with each subplots (instead of the more modern trend of leaping back and forth between chapters in subplots), allows the reader to appreciate the rise and fall of each subplots instead of being yanked back and forth.
Another thing I noticed immediately about ESB is that it does have a clear midpoint / mirror moment. It is the scene when Luke is in a cave and has a battle with a vision of Darth Vader. Luke severs the head of the specter but when Luke pulls off Vader’s helmet, he sees his own face. It’s an omen that Luke could be lured to the dark side. It symbolizes the theme of the story; the struggle between the light and the dark. Also it hints at the big reveal at the end that Vader is his father. In the 2T, I would argue that the midpoint is when Gollum decides to let his evil side take control and betray Frodo (note, this comes a different point in the movie but in the books, this is the midpoint of book IV). This is an important plot point in the books since it is this decision that sets up the plot sequence for the rest of 2T and through to the third book.
The other thing I take from these examples, is that both focus on developing the characters, deepening the readers compassion and connection. Although both also have more dark moments, they are done purposeful. There are also good moments; in 2T, Gandolf returns; there is a celebration of the victory of Helm’s Deep. In the ESB, there is lots of moments of humour; the romance between Han and Leia blooms. All is not doom and gloom. Although there is a tendency for a writer to want to “deepen” the conflict and make the second book all gloomy and black like a rebellious Goth teenager, there must be balance against this darkness.
Finally, both stories lack a solid ending but it’s okay. It’s a middle book and if your readers have stuck with you through another 100,000 words, take them with you to the third book. I am not a big fan of a cliffhanger ending (such as leaving Han in cardonite) but I also don’t have to try to tie up loose strings at the end of book 2. That’s book 3’s job. At the end of Two Towers, things do not look good: although there is victory at the battle of Helm’s Deep, the characters know there is a bigger war to come; Frodo and Sam’s fate appeared completely doomed. For Harry Potter, at the end of book 4, things look very dreary; Cedric is dead, Voldemort is back and powerful. There may not be a cliffhanger but there are many unknowns and we clearly need to pick up the next book and find out what happens.
What does this mean for my problematic second book and me?
Maybe I need to stop trying to find the three act structure (Oh, rebellious second child!). I have two subplots and I should embrace them, allow each their own breathing space.
I need to find the crucial midpoint, the centre tie that will allow it to hang properly without sagging in the centre.
Add humour and celebration as well as creating greater odds.
I can let the ending hang loose, like a thread to be pulled later by book three.
Off to write!
Seana Moorhead is an aspiring writer and is working on completing her first fantasy novel. She moved to Grey County in 2002, having a passion for outdoor adventures, including kayaking and wilderness camping. Suffering from a book addiction, she will read almost anything that will grab her attention, lead her into another world or teach her something new. Seana lives in a bush lot near Owen Sound, Ontario with her partner and three dogs.
This week we welcome Writescape alumnus, Donna Judy Curtin as she shares her writing dreams and 5 ways to actualize them. You can find other writing-related blogs by Donna at Ascribe Writers blog.
Guest blogger: Donna Judy Curtin
In Grade Two, I declared I was going to become a veterinarian and even though my personality quizzes in high school suggested I would make a better florist, my heart was set on becoming an animal doctor.
I’m nothing if not determined.
And I’m great at dreaming.
Throughout my gruelling university undergraduate courses, I kept visualizing the moment I would receive my acceptance letter to the Ontario Veterinary College. I could hear the envelope ripping, smell the glue, feel the rasp of the paper between my fingers, see the welcoming words on the page and when I was exhausted and frustrated and about ready to give it all up… I imagined a victorious jump into the air with a viscous fist pump.
This wasn’t actually how this moment occurred. I called the College to check on something and a very kind receptionist informed me, when I wasn’t expecting it, that I was listed as a member of the OVC class of 2002. I think I fell off the phone (if that’s even possible). After picking up the receiver, I remember stuttering out, “What did you say?” as the tears rolled down my cheeks.
These precious moments never happen exactly how we imagine them, but regardless, we need to keep envisioning them.
Since I started writing seriously, I’ve been picturing small successes. At first I dreamed of completing my first novel, then it was editing that novel. When I needed a break from my first story, I started writing the sequel, which led me back to edit the first novel again and again and again. Then I began to dream of completing a trilogy and started to imagine getting all three books published as a series.
Now, my new adventure is QUERYING.
This is by far the scariest thing I have ever done. It is bold, fearless and requires stripping down to bear my heart for all to see… but I know it’s time to get out there and I’ve given myself a very specific goal for this year – to find an agent who loves my story as much as I do.
In order to stay motivated, I’m going to embrace the actualization that helped me to get into Veterinary School, because there is no better time than now to have something to motivate me through the hard work.
I’m going to reach for the moon and grasp onto the stars.
What are your writing goals?
Can you imagine how it will look and feel when you get there?
Have you shared these goals?
Here’s how to get started…. 5 Ways to Actualize Your Writing Dreams
ONE – WRITE IT DOWN
Even if it’s only in your private computer, write your dreams down. Make them real. Live them.
TWO – START SMALL
Pick a fun goal. Something you can completely achieve.
One of my goals is to make the front cover of the Cargill Area News. It started out as a joke about ten years ago, but now, I want this in earnest. The Cargill Area News, locally and lovingly called the CAN, is our village newspaper. The heart and soul of the paper is the editor, Brian, this imaginative and friendly man who still publishes poetry to his now deceased love and wife. Someday, I will make the cover of the CAN as a published novelist. I can see my smiling face in black and white, holding up my book.
THREE – UPDATE YOUR DREAMS
You need to revisit your dreams often – in order to be sure they are still relevant. It won’t do to still dream about sitting on Opera’s couch for a book discussion. She’s moved on and so must you.
My other goal was to see my book on display at our local bookstore. My veterinary practice is located in a pretty small town. We don’t have an Indigo or Chapters, but we have a quality local bookseller. I had this vision of popping into the store to pick up the latest edition of The Selection Series for my daughter or the next Maze Runner for my son, and stumbling upon a desk-top display of my book with a printed sign declaring ‘OUR VERY OWN LOCAL VETERINARIAN and AUTHOR, DR. CURTIN!’
The fact is though, we all need to update our dreams occasionally and create new ones. Sadly, my local bookstore is going out of business. The owner is retiring and our town is losing this quality business.
My new dream is to someday bump into a reader purchasing my book, and then to offer to sign it.
FOUR – SHOOT FOR THE STARS
You need to dream big. Think of the best possible outcome and have some fun.
My current big dream is make a surprise visit to a book club discussing my book. It would be so much fun to be invited as an unknown guest and then part way through the night to reveal my identity by contributing to the discussion, “So, when I wrote that chapter, I actually thought it would end up going like…” and then see what happens.
FIVE – DEVISE YOUR OWN PERSONAL REWARD
Maybe it’s something you want to do with a signing bonus. Perhaps you have a nay-sayer who teased you and you can’t wait to show off your success. Regardless, set a reward and imagine the moment when you will get it.
I’ve had this special evening planned from the moment my first beta reader completed reading my first novel, first draft. How do you reward the time and effort it takes for someone to read your work when it isn’t good? I’m planning a fabulous dinner party. Starting with my high school teacher who read through my very first draft, to the writing partner who read aloud chapters with me for over a year, and many more. When I finally get a signed contract with a publisher, I’m going to pick up everyone in a big-ass limo and we’re going to go for a fancy dinner. It will be an amazing evening of laughter and shared dreams. I better get there soon, because the longer this takes and the more people that help me, the bigger the limo gets… and soon I will need a bus!
When you complete these five steps, hold them dear to your heart and then… get back to writing. I wish you every success and hope all your dreams come true.
Donna Judy Curtin
Donna Curtin practices veterinary medicine in Bruce County, Ontario, close to her poultry and cash crop farm where she lives with her husband and two children. As a complement to her veterinary career, she aspires to become a published novelist. In Dr. Curtin’s writing, animals play important characters just as often as people.
This week Writescape welcomes guest blogger Lori Twining. She blogs with other writing friends at AscribeWriters.com and adds laughter and inspiration whenever she joins us on Writescape retreats. Her blog today is all about having the power to improve the life of other writers.
Guest Post: Lori Twining
Sometimes, I feel like I have the power to make a difference. Does this ever happen to you? Are you harbouring tiny pockets of power that could be used for something good?
What if YOU could be the reason someone smiled today?
What if YOU could make a small difference in someone else’s life?
What if I finished a novel, published it and it was because of YOU that it hit the New York Times Bestseller List?
Well, don’t get excited, because I didn’t finish writing that New York Times Bestseller… YET! But many other people have. I have read soooo many books by authors that are filled with amazing stories. Stories that deserve recognition. Authors that deserve to be hugged and told that you loved reading their books. Being an author is a tough business. For some, doubt is creeping around every single corner of every single day, so they could use a little reason to smile.
We are lovers. Book Lovers too!
When my husband and I celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary, we went out for a nice surf & turf supper followed by a few hours of hanging out in the bookstore. We trailed our fingers across every spine in the fiction section, smelling the new pages of some of our favourite authors, discovering new authors and being excited about which books we should buy this trip. We met up in different aisles and pretended we didn’t know each other, and then struck up a conversation about random books we had stacked in our arms. We were basically a romcom (Romantic Comedy) happening in real time. Yes, as a couple, we are two book nerds falling in love all over again, not only with each other, but with authors and their words.
Waiting to be loved
I had a few sad moments while I was walking through the 80% off aisles. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE a great bargain but my mind went to the $2 stickers on the front cover and I wondered just how much is the author actually making? The book isn’t even that old. It’s only been in circulation for 12 months? 6 months? Geesh! Then I let my eyes wander around the huge store gazing at all the books waiting for someone to take them home, and yes, like in the movie Bridesmaids, I wanted to have the van full of puppies speeding down the highway after the party. Only, my van would be filled to the brim with all the unwanted books. I would take them home with me—possibly share with my husband—and I would read every single book, trying to make an author happy that their book wasn’t locked inside a bookstore with no one to love it.
Does that sound crazy?
Yeah, I’m sure it does.
But it makes me happy to buy another author’s book, read it and then tell them how much I loved it. This comes full circle back to having the power to make someone smile. When you tell an author how much you loved reading their book, sometimes they surprise you. This past week, I was surprised not once, but TWICE!
During my lunch hour a week or two ago, I listened to a Facebook Live interview between two amazing women authors, Lisa Unger and Karin Slaughter. They were talking about mysteries, suspense and thriller novels (all of which are my favourite). They mentioned that if you commented during the Live interview you might win something. Honestly, I didn’t care if I won anything, I was just hoping to hear some secrets they might share about their process of writing a bestselling thriller novel. I was there to hear about how they research, how they attempt their first draft, how long it really takes to write a bestseller, if they have help editing it into a masterpiece or are they doing everything on their own. These interviews always hold many interesting answers for me. So, I was happy that I listened. I took some notes. I went back to work.
After a week of camping in the woods with my adorable husband, unplugged from the world, I returned home to find my social media had exploded with hundreds of text messages, emails, Facebook messages, etc… and several were from Lisa Unger asking me for my snail-mail address. I had won something and she wanted to send it to me. What? I wanted a copy of her new book, Under My Skin, so my fingers were crossed that it would show up in my mailbox.
Love finds it way home
Fast forward another week… I received PRIORITY MAIL! $24.95 US worth of bookmail. Unfortunately, it was NOT Lisa Unger’s Under My Skin, but it was a short story called The Twenty written by her, and a hardcover copy of Lisa Scottoline’s newest release, Feared. I thought it was weird, it wasn’t even a copy of one of the two women in the interview, but hey, I love Lisa Scottoline and I didn’t have this one. I was excited and happy because who wouldn’t be? Right?
Plus, I already have all of Karin’s books (just finished reading Pieces of Her and it was FANTASTIC). Inside the Feared cover, it was signed with a note, “I love Lisa Unger, too! xoxo! Love Lisa Scottoline.” Oh, these girls know how to warm my heart. A signed Lisa Scottoline book! Sweet.
A couple of days later, I found another Priority Mail package in my mailbox. This time it was from an agent in New York City. Why was I getting mail from a literary agent? It should be the other way around, right? I should be sending out my unpublished manuscript to agents. Ha! That’s a story for another day… However, my package was from Victoria Sanders & Associates in Stone Ridge, New York. That is Karin Slaughter’s agent. Ohmygod! Karin Slaughter is my ab-so-freaking-lute-ly favourite female thriller writer. Seriously, she is the one I want to be when I grow up and figure out how to write a real thriller novel. I. Want. To. Be. Her. … with Lisa Unger and Lisa Scottoline close behind her.
Back to reality, I pulled out a Karin Slaughter t-shirt. Yep! I’m in love all over again. Then, I started surfing the internet for other #SlaughterSquad or #UngerSquad t-shirts… no luck. My mind started racing about telling these girls they could make money with selling their merchandise to crazy fans, such as myself. Now, I want a “The Good Daughter” t-shirt that will make my mother frown! Maybe, I should make one myself? Or send Karin Slaughter a crazy fan email requesting such an item. I’ll save that for another day, as well. Ha!
Bottom line, I made Lisa Unger and Karin Slaughter smile because I listened to their Facebook Live interview, because who wants to have a Live event that no one comes to? In return they made me smile by rewarding me for listening by sharing secret info, PLUS I was extra-smiling when I received gifts! I feel the power of making a difference here… I’m so busy telling everyone I know on social media and in person about how awesome these two authors are, which is a bonus for them. Plus, I will be extremely happy about walking around with my Karin Slaughter t-shirt on for years to come, thanks to Lisa Unger for picking my name out of a list of random people. It is hard to tell which of us are smiling bigger today.
Having the power
Imagine having that much power… here’s the thing, I think YOU do.
Support an author today. Listen to their podcast. Buy their book. Read it. Tell everyone about it. Word of mouth is a wonderful tool that is one of the easiest ways to make someone smile.
If you are a writer, a day will come when you’ll be begging for someone to make you smile. What if YOU could be the reason?
Lori Twining writes both fiction and nonfiction, with her stories winning awards in literary competition and appearing in several anthologies. She’s an active member of many writing groups: International Thriller Writers, Crime Writers of Canada, Sisters In Crime International, Toronto Sisters In Crime, Romance Writers of America, Toronto Romance Writers and Ascribe Writers. She’s a lover of books, sports and bird watching, and a hater of slithering reptiles and beady-eyed rodents.
Open concept is a must in all modern IKEA-catalogue-worthy homes. The glossy photos selling Swedish furniture promise you zen and relaxation. The reality is, unless you are living in a staged home, the open-concept layout likely means you’re being more overwhelmed by constantly looking at your overstuffed abode.
And for some writers, that can be deadly.
When you don’t have an uncluttered space to disappear to, your ability to hunker down and write can be seriously hampered.
Yes, you can write amid household chaos, but on some level you will always be fighting the distraction. It’s something I’ve had to struggle with until I found a solution.
Writer in a small house
Without a basement rec room, our main floor living space does triple duty:
toddler jungle gym
adult relaxing space, and
Our cozy open concept dining room/living room always contains a lot of noble to-dos. The clean laundry waiting to be folded, the out-grown toys that can be donated or sold, the droopy plant begging for some water, and a thousand other half-finished projects that “will only take a few minutes.” You can’t feel guilty about not writing when you’ve tackled a stack of six months’ worth of unfiled health insurance claims.
But that’s exactly why we need to create a dedicated writing space. It should be a firm barrier against the rest of our lives’ clutter. No bake sale reminder notes or unpaid electricity bills allowed.
Even on our messiest kitchen days, we can get that sucker clean in about twenty minutes.Thanks to minimalizing purges and keeping things simpler, the countertops are clear once devoid of dirty dishes. Just don’t peek in the odds and ends drawer that every kitchen seems to harbour. (Editor’s note: That odds & ends drawer image is what inspired Writescape’s weekly blog for writers: The Top Drawer.)
The chairs may not be the comfiest ones in the house, but my kitchen has a good sized — and most importantly — empty writing surface. The best part? There is no sightline to the main living area — a minefield of emotional and physical clutter despite our best efforts. Once the crushed Cheerios and glitter have been swept up, the kitchen feels light and clear, and so does my mind.
Plus, the kettle is very handy for a cup of tea.
Clear off other distractions
Clutter goes beyond the tangible mammoth expresso machine and stack of Keurig cups eating up half your counter. Better turn off the data on your phone too when you want to have the space to write. The reminder pings of library books to renew and notices of who’s commented on your status go a long way to derail your week’s word count goal.
If you are fortunate enough to have a dedicated writing space, it’s well worth the time-investment to apply a Marie Kondo approach to that room. In a nutshell, keep only items that you consider beautiful or useful (i.e. research is informing your novel – but really, can’t you just digitalize that and recycle the folders?).
Even tackle that mug of twenty random pens picked up from conferences and hotel stays. Yes, pens are useful. No, you don’t need twenty of them stuffed into a coffee mug with an undecipherable dishwasher-faded logo. We all work best when not distracted and stressed by our things.
Sometimes though, life’s clutter can be a welcome creep into our writing havens. The other night, both kids ended up in the kitchen with me for cups of cocoa after a thunderstorm had them calling for “Ma!” Their presence — a lovely distraction that left sticky cocoa rings and dirty mugs on the table — provided the bones for this post. So, some distraction can give birth to inspiration.
Just make sure the laundry hamper is tucked out of sight. It’s hard to write a bestseller while folding undershirts.
Bronwyn Hannelas is a blogger at Small House Big City where she writes about her family’s adventures in minimalism.
Two-time Governor General Award winner, author of 7 books and our delightful guest author at our 2015 fall retreat, Caroline Pignat shares an epiphany on her creative process. As anyone who was at that retreat can tell you, Caroline was pure inspiration and what she has to say as our guest blogger continues to inspire:
A few years ago, I started collecting acorns on my morning walks. It became a thing to find that perfect seed: that cute little nut capped in its tiny beret. As a kid, I always loved acorns: the look of them, the weight of them, the wonder of holding the promise of an oak in my palm.
Acorns, to me, were like ideas, so full of possibility. I fancied myself some kind of modern mystic (read: hoarding squirrel) as I collected them in the jar on my desk. They were the perfect metaphor for my creative potential. Still, like most ideas found and treasured as I walked, these little seeds were soon forgotten in the busyness of my days.
Until the maggots
“Umm…why do you have a jar of maggots on your desk?” my young niece asked, in a mix of wonder and disgust. Sure enough, she was right. My poetic potential had become infiltrated with a mass of wriggling, white worms.
On my desk!
The horror! I wish I could have given her some inspired response. It’s a science experiment? Novel research? Pets? A snack? Any one of those answers would have been better, I suppose, than admitting that all this time, I did not see what was wriggling before my eyes.
With great dismay and even greater heebie-jeebies, I tossed the lot into the woods behind our house. So much for my profound metaphor.
But now that I think of it, my little acorns taught me another truth. Ideas, like seeds, are not meant to be hoarded. Sure, there is something comforting in filling files and notebooks with ‘what ifs’, plots, and projects. I sure feel productive squirrelling ideas between the covers of my journal.
But then… what?
I have to actually do something with that seed. That creation, invention, process, product, insight, voice — that inspiration — whatever it is, I have to let it go.
Why is that so difficult?
Maybe it’s because I like feeling the weight of its potential in my pocket. I could plant it here. I could plant it there. This could be the next big thing. That sense of could-ness makes me feel all powerful. In seed form, that idea doesn’t have to face the axe of rejection or ridicule. In seed form, perfection is still possible and so I like to hold on to it just a little longer.
But as I learned, nothing good comes from hoarding ideas — and that’s the cold, wriggling truth.
Sowing that idea takes courage. The courage of letting go. The courage to be patient and to trust in hidden growth, when all I see is dirt. Anxiety and doubt threaten to choke all hope, especially during those times when it feels like all I am growing is impatient.
Planting more seeds
And here’s another thing my acorn taught me: I’m an idiot if I think by will or worry I can make it grow any faster or become what it isn’t. I’m finally coming to realize that there is a natural process, cycles and seasons to my creative self. Just as there is a natural process for every seed of an idea.
Of course, I wish each one will sprout into a mighty oak, but the truth is many will never quite get their moment in the sun. Some will languish in the shadow of someone else’s great idea. And more than I’d like to admit, are just duds destined to rot away.
But, you know what? I’m finally okay with that. I’m starting to realize that even the duds serve a purpose. Often they make the fertile ground for a new premise to flourish.
So to you, maggots, who wriggled your way into my writer’s block and opened my horrified eyes — thank you, I think. Thanks for helping me learn to seek, sow, and let it go knowing there are always more acorns waiting on the path ahead.
About our guest blogger:
Caroline Pignat is a teacher, a two-time Governor General’s Award winner, and a best-selling author of seven novels, including Egghead and Shooter. Known for her lyrical style and varied forms, Pignat explores the cycles and seasons of life through acrostic poems in her latest release and first picture book, Poetree.
She has written teachers guides for many books including her own novels, Egghead, Greener Grass, and The Gospel Truth. In her upcoming Poetree Activity Guide, Pignat offers resources for nature journalling and poetry with students. Links to these free downloads at www.carolinepignat.com
Writescape was delighted to host Caroline as our guest author at Turning Leaves 2015. She brought her excellent workshop skills and generous spirit to the writers on retreat with us. This year’s retreat is November 2- 4; there are still a few spots left to join guest author Andrew Pyper and Writescape for another inspiring writers’ weekend.
June is Pride Month, so Writescape celebrates this week with local LGBTQ YA author Kevin T Craig. We ask him about his experience as an author and around publishing as a gay author. But first, let’s meet him:
1. When David Leviathan wrote Boy Meets Boy in 2003, many school libraries refused to carry it. Have things changed?
Kevin: Things have definitely changed. Librarians across North America are actively seeking to populate their libraries with LGBTQ sections. On Twitter in the YA community, there are often book-drives for LGBTQ library sections. Librarians feel that need to have the books in stock for those who are seeking them. Nothing is more powerful to a high school student than recognizing themselves in the fiction they read. This is true for all marginalized people, not just the LGBTQ community.
2. Of his book The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley, author Shaun David Hutchinson says, “Drew was just gay. None of his many problems revolved around his sexuality. And I wasn’t exactly sure how readers would respond.” Comments?
Kevin: I’m familiar with Shaun and his book. It’s true that he was one of the forerunners with this trend. But I promise you, this is something that agents and publishers are now actively seeking. For a couple of years now, agents have been asking for YA stories where the sexuality of the LGBTQ characters is NOT the story focus. They want books where the LGBTQ characters’ sexuality is simply a part of who they are…not what the story focuses on.
3. What’s something you’ve seen in LGBTQ lit that’s really stuck with you, for better or for worse?
Kevin: For better- People are now able to see themselves represented. I looked for a long time for the book that would have saved me. It simply wasn’t there. Today’s LGBTQ teens have a wide variety of young adult books to choose from in which “their” stories are being told. The mainstreaming of LGBTQ literature is most assuredly saving lives.
For worse- It’s still a little difficult to write an LGBTQ story and not have the expectation that it will include one or all of the following: Romance, Sex, Erotica. But, our stories do not need to have a tunnel-vision focus on sexuality and love life. I came face to face with this frustration recently during a #PitMad event on Twitter. I wrote a literary novel with LGBTQ characters. I had a few likes, but they were all from publishers who only publish gay romance with degrees of sex. I even tagged the novel as literary. They are not yet looking for gay novels that don’t include these things.
4. What are your challenges and triumphs as a gay author?
Kevin: Just to be adding my voice, and to be finding a level of success. I know how barren the field of gay literature used to be. I know how badly the representation was needed. The young adult community went mad this past spring when Love, Simon was released in theatres. A gay teen who just happens to be gay having a sweet romance on the big screen? Not in my day. If I can add my voice to that kind of inclusion, I’m happy to do so.
5. Anything else you’d like to say to the reading/writing world?
Kevin: Just that there is a place for everyone. If you are looking for a book and you can’t find it…it may be time to write it. Chances are, there’s someone else out there looking for it. Literature is an ideal place in which to find ourselves and tackle our differences. To read is to gain understanding.
To mark Pride Month, why not add a Canadian LGBTQ novel to your reading list. Read a book by Kevin Craig or choose one from 49th Shelf’s list of LGBTQ authors and/or LGBTQ issues. Their list “includes fiction, poetry, memoir, nonfiction, and books for young readers—not to mention books by award-winning authors and some of the most buzzed-about titles of the season.”
Guest blogger Stephanie Gibeault is a freelance writer with a passion for fiction for young readers. She recently wrote a post for Writescape about the benefits of writing away at the Highlights Foundation’s Pennsylvania retreat. As she promised in that December post, she’s here to share what she learned about getting a novel unstuck:
Whether you call it writer’s block, an empty tank or say your creative well has run dry, every writer has days or weeks when putting words on the page is a challenge. This past summer, I found myself stuck on my middle grade manuscript.
I created a storyboard (on my closet doors) to help me see the flow of the plot, only to discover there were structural issues I hadn’t noticed before. I could see what the problems were, but had no idea how to fix them. Thankfully, I had already signed up for a workshop dedicated to getting unstuck.
Stop spinning your wheels
In my recent guest post, I wrote about my experience at the Highlights Foundation workshop Getting Your Middle Grade Novel Unstuck. I learned many things at the workshop, but the main focus was how to deal with being stuck.
Beginning, middle or end of your story—there are great techniques that can help move you forward. Instructors Chris Tebbetts and Elise Broach armed me with loads of options. And many of them don’t even involve working directly on your manuscript.
The most valuable piece of advice I took away from the workshop: there’s always something you can be doing even if it’s not writing.
Experiment with play
Sometimes, it feels like anything other than writing a new scene is procrastination. That’s simply not the case.
Anything that moves you forward with your writing, builds your skills, increases your familiarity with your characters or fleshes out your plot is a productive and effective use of your time. That’s incredibly liberating.
Discovering your characters
Successful middle grade writers create characters their readers connect with—and characters the writers know inside and out. Chris and Elise offered lots of suggestions to get to know our characters better. Here’s a really effective one for me:
Create a chart with a column for a character’s self-perception and a column for how they are seen by others.
The two columns are those perceptions that are true or accurate and those that are false. This provides insight into your character’s psyche – what they hide from others and what they hide from themselves.
HOW BOB SEES SELF
HOW OTHERS SEE BOB
Cute but annoying
Makes light of tough situations
Journal as your character. Get at their innermost thoughts, motivations and goals.Other ways of getting in touch with your characters include:
Fill out a questionnaire or survey as one of your characters. How do they answer differently than you or another character would?
Write about a character’s perfect day. What makes him or her happy?
Create a character profile with details like hair colour, favourite movie and best friend. The more details the better.
Write a letter to yourself from a character about what you are getting right and wrong about him or her in your manuscript.
Stretch some more!
I learned how writing prompts helped uncover details about our characters and plots. I thought it would be limiting because I’d have to go in a particular direction rather than letting my creativity flow.
I was amazed. Forced to explore areas I might otherwise have ignored, I answered questions not directly related to my story but essential to understanding it. Simple questions like, “What does this character want?” or “Why do I love this story?” gave me a great start.
ReVision to move forward
Editing can be as radical as starting from scratch and rewriting a scene entirely from memory. You’ll likely retain your favourite parts while stumbling onto some new descriptions, dialogue and directions at the same time. With track changes in your word processor, it’s easy to compare the two versions, choosing the best sections to keep.
Or be more conservative and only delete what isn’t completely necessary. Decide what, if any, details need to go back in and what the reader never needed in the first place.
One of my favourite suggestions was when Chris told me to rewrite a section of my manuscript in first person point of view. The purpose was not to rewrite my entire manuscript, (although that is exactly what I will do), but to get me deeper into my main character’s head.
I couldn’t believe the difference it made. No longer hovering over my story, now saw it through my protagonist’s eyes. Changing point of view, or even tense (from past to present, for example), allows you to approach your narrative from a different angle and that can be all you need.
No more excuses
With so many available options, I no longer have any reason to be stuck. Or to use the phrase “writer’s block”. If you’re feeling stuck with a writing project, consider trying some of these suggestions.
Remember to take advantage of workshops and retreats to help propel you forward. My experience at Highlights sure made a difference for me.
Did You Know
Are you stuck? Writescape retreats offer the perfect space to stretch your writing skills, re-imagine your work in new and exciting ways and the safety you need for full-throated expression. Spring Thaw is already half full of eager and focused writers like you, ready to give focus to their work.
Join us for an all-inclusive escape on the shores of Rice Lake. Elmhirst’s Resort boasts cozy fully equipped cottages with fireplaces, private bedrooms and gorgeous sunrise lake views. All you need is your jammies, toothbrush and writing materials; writers at all levels are welcome. Choose either a 3-day or 5-day retreat.April 20-24.