15 Minutes No Excuses

15 Minutes No Excuses

Sadly we had to postpone our Spring Thaw Retreat to the fall, but this week we are able to virtually welcome Seana Moorhead , a Writescape retreat alumus. Seana is a fine writer, a lawyer and a blogger at Ascribe Writers. She tells us her story of the old adage: “Write every day”.

Guest Post – Seana Moorhead

When I got home from Spring Thaw, Writescape’s writing retreat at Rice Lake, I committed to writing every day.

I had approximately sixty scenes to edit in my latest project. So I calculated that if I edited one scene every day, estimating to take about one hour each, I would need sixty days or two months.

Since the writing retreat was in late April, this meant that I should be finished by the end of June.

Easy, right?

Plan A in action

To meet my goal, I needed to find about one hour each day to write. At first, I tried to do this in the evening which was a complete fail. I do not have enough brain power and energy to write after a long day of work. Besides, I’m a morning writer. So at the end of May, I decided to add one hour in the morning to accomplish my goal.

I started getting up earlier. This was made easier by the longer days and I tend to get up earlier in the summer months anyway. Still, little to no writing was done. Almost half way through June and I had managed to do only one scene. A dismal failure. Instead I only managed to get to work earlier. Not exactly the result I was aiming for!

The re-think

Although I enjoy writing and wish constantly that I could find more time to write, I still can’t seem to get into a habit of writing every day. I began thinking about how to start a good habit.

For example, every morning before work I take my dogs for a walk. I do not allow myself any excuses. I started this discipline about eight years ago. It does not matter how cold it is outside, if it is raining, if I slept in, or if I feel too tired. When I do feel like skipping the walk, I tell myself, just fifteen minutes. No walk is not an option. So on those very cold winter mornings, it may only be fifteen minutes before the dogs and I run back to the warmth of the house. But on a beautiful spring morning, we take closer to an hour, roaming through the fields and woods. In the eight years of this discipline, the dogs and I complete our walk about 98 % of the time. I realized I needed to approach my writing practice in the same way.

Plan B

 Instead of trying to find an entire hour, I only needed to commit to fifteen minutes. I decided to try that for one week. 15 minutes. Every morning. No excuses.

In preparation, I created a play list that was 15 minutes in length. I also decided my 15 minutes would be after all my other morning routines – ie. Walking the dogs, breakfast, etc, since experience had taught me that I needed to get my regular morning routine done before I could write.

On Monday, I woke up early as per my new routine and walked the dogs. Then the distractions began. I had to take the recycling and compost out, and then the compost bin really needed a good rinse. The bird feeders needed to be filled. It’s amazing how many mundane chores can get done when I don’t want to focus my brain. By the time I did all of those things, I had twenty minutes until I had to leave for work. The excuses started:

  1. What’s the point of fifteen minutes? How much writing can I really get done in fifteen minutes? It’s probably not worth it.
  2. It’s Monday – maybe I should give myself a break and start on Tuesday.
  3. I could make it up tonight. Tonight I will do half an hour to make up for the morning.

I almost didn’t do it. But I started with turning on my laptop and ordered myself to sit down and write for the fifteen minutes. I sat. I wrote. Twenty-two minutes later, I raced to work so as not to be late. I had finished one scene. Yahoo!

The next day was a bit easier as I was prepared for my brain to make the usual excuses. Luckily, number one excuse (how practical is 15 minutes) was already proven wrong. I sailed through the next two days, writing every morning.

Then Thursday hit and my brain thought that maybe we had done so well for three days that maybe we could skip this one? I remembered my dog walking routine. No excuses.

So I squeezed in my fifteen minutes. And then on Friday, I woke up early and actually wrote for an entire hour before work.

Results

After one week of this discipline, I had completed editing ten scenes – more than I had done in the last two months. I found myself turning on my computer in the evening to write for another fifteen minutes and that often turned into half an hour to fifty minutes. I was excited about my novel again and was eager to keep working on it.

Writing takes creativity but it also takes discipline and commitment. But be realistic on goals. I didn’t finish my scene edits by the end of June, but keeping with my new habit, it will be done by the end of the summer. What writing goal do you have to complete this summer?

Seana Moorhead

Seana Moorhead is an aspiring author 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 on a bush lot near Owen Sound, Ontario with her partner and three dogs.

Snippets of Intrigue at Mudtown Station

Snippets of Intrigue at Mudtown Station

These days more than ever, we need our “writing tribe”. 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. As we wait patiently for the days when we can once again get together with writing friends, we listen in on a gathering of Lori’s writing tribe when they met at Mudtown Station last summer.

Guest Blog – Lori Twining

I’m out tonight with my writing friends. You know them. People who hardly ever escape from their houses. Mostly introverts. But get my Ascribe Writers group to Mudtown Station in Owen Sound on the back patio (reserved for the noisy folks), drinking special beer, eating amazing cauliflower steak covered in almonds and raisins and special sauce, and these people want to tell stories. Their stories.

Storytellers know all the best stories are built around conflict and questions to be answered. Right from the start.

So we play a game:

Assume you only have two minutes to tell your story. Two minutes is generous, because everyone at the table has a story they are dying to tell too, and they want to cut in and interrupt your exciting tale. It’s a competitive world out there, so how do you compete?

You start out with a killer line full of intrigue or conflict. A line that grabs their attention so they want to hear more. They become quiet. They listen.

If you are eavesdropping on these loud and happy writers this Thursday night, you hear first lines of stories that are intriguing. They make you want to pull up a chair and join them:

“Well, the first time I tried Cocaine, it wasn’t good, I mean it was goooood, but…”

“We put in-floor heating in our butcher room.”

“It’s not easy for a woman to ride a crotch rocket at the age of 52.”

 “I made this new friend in Colombia, and I didn’t know he was a drug lord at the time, but he invited us in…”

“An active night of passionate sex is great for sleeping like the dead.”

 “My wife has a conversation with a guy named Rocky every single morning.”

 “My wife removed my island without asking me first!”

 “I might commit murder before I retire.”

“I hate wearing pants.”

 We writers feed off of each other. Our first lines with snippets of intrigue become stories full of conflict—suspenseful or creepy or funny enough to have us laughing until we cry. And keeping to the two minutes forces us to get to heart of the story right away and stay there.

Gather post-COVID

They say introverts are not that fun at parties. We say it’s all in the company you keep. For me, it’s these weird and wonderful people who write and create art in some way gathered here on Thursday night at Mudtown Station. Writing buddies getting together to share our knowledge, experiences and stories with each other.

Writing groups are great, if you keep in mind why you are hanging out with them. If they help you stay positive during your bouts of doubts, if they support you and don’t throw negative toxic comments out about you or your writing, then they are keepers.

These people I hang out with have crazy obsessions, strange thoughts and fantastic storytelling abilities, but they match my own and that makes me smile. Laughter is contagious and sooooo comforting. I think I’m where I want to be… surrounded by conflict and intrigue—and amazing writer friends.

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.

Find more info at www.lvtwriter.com; Twitter: @Lori_Twining

We’re in this together

We’re in this together

We love our local—and indeed all—independent bookstores, and we wondered how they were faring under the impact of COVID-19. We wanted to shine a light on how they were being innovative during these strange times and how you, our readers, could help them to keep the cash flow…flowing.

Shelley Macbeth

Jennifer Bogart

So, we spoke (virtually) to two of our favourite booksellers, Jennifer Bogart of Let’s Talk Books in Cobourg and Shelley Macbeth of Blue Heron Books in Uxbridge:

1.Can you describe an average day prior to COVID and an average day now.

Shelley:  There is no average day! Part of being an indie bookseller is your ability to be nimble and roll with whatever challenge is set in front of you.  Our days now involve working twice as hard as ever before for half the sales. And then at the end of an exhausting day jumping in your car to deliver all the books. With a jaunty cap and a smile.

Jennifer: Days used to involve customers browsing, and perhaps picking up a book or two. At lunch, a “rush” of downtown workers on break and an afternoon of receiving inventory, calling customers about their orders, and of course, helping customers with their book, gift or card selections in person.

Let’s Talk Books Storefront
at 25 King Street, Cobourg

Now that we’ve turned to delivery only, days start with filling orders—online, by email, or phone messages and a flurry of returning emails and phone calls, making sure to give each customer the time and care we would have given in store, and sometimes more. New inventory is still arriving and afternoons are spent making deliveries all over Northumberland County, and sometimes even a bit beyond. We’re busy because every sale takes three times longer than it did before. But the store is quiet, missing the light conversation of customers, the chit-chat about the books, and that personal connection we all crave.

2. What have you done to adapt?

Jennifer: Our biggest adaptation was opening our website for online orders and payments. It’s been a learning curve, but has helped tremendously with workflow.

Shelley: We’ve turned to e-commerce. The store acts as a fulfilment centre, from which Emily and I valiantly sally forth each day with deliveries hither and yon. 

Parker and Scarlet ready to help you at Let’s Talk Books

Both Jennifer and Shelley have turned more to social media. Jennifer posts what’s in the store and Shelley has done video chats roaming the store, showing books to customers and created in-store videos to show people the store offerings. She’s also created an “order on-line tutorial” for those not familiar with the website.

Shelley normally has regular author visits, so to adapt did a Facebook live storytime with one of the cancelled children’s authors. Shelley says, “We’ll have more of this upcoming — once we straighten out the AV part.  That’s the other thing— we’ve had to learn LOTS of new skills!”

Jennifer has switched in-store book clubs meetings virtual. “Our book clubs have all moved to video conferencing, which in itself was a challenge, but I think we have it figured out now. “

“We’re in this together”

Jennifer tells us she has been connecting with other independent bookstores to share resources, and direct customers to neighbouring towns for inventory she doesn’t have in stock.

Shelley has partnered with the neighbouring natural product/tea/coffee store to send out custom “Bridge Boxes” (short for Uxbridge) Boxes choc-a-block full of toys, games, puzzles and healthy treats.

Shelley has also created a “Trust Us” delivery for gifts. You give them the parameters and the $$ value (e.g. man, likes scifi/fantasy, woodworking and alternative rock – $60 budget) and they send an amazing box full of delights.

Shelley has several teachers who have agreed to help with video lessons using the store’s Canadian Curriculum notebooks.

Jennifer sums it up beautifully: “We’re not in competition with each other; we strive to support each other by sharing online events, videos, and encouraging each other in our endeavours. It’s a pretty amazing thing to see, as we come together to work as a community of booksellers.”

 3. To what extent has this affected your bottom line?

Shelley: The first few days we were holding our own as people rushed to buy things before everything shut down. Now there’s still a steady stream of orders but nowhere near a typical day at this time of year. But we will suffer mostly because we are a big event store and we have lost all the revenue from the season’s events. We have only one full-time employee — Emily — and she is definitely not laid off. The part-timers are all very understanding. For now. The landlord directed me to the government assistance site.

It’s been much the same for Jennifer: Because retail stores are not essential services, even though many consider books to be essential, I had to make some tough decisions. Sales are down because there is no foot traffic. Normally, I sell a lot of greeting cards—close to 30% of my business is cards and gifts, and these are items I select and purchase in advance, which means I’m out of pocket for items that don’t sell, unlike books that can be returned to the publisher.

To reduce costs, I laid off my part-time employees, but they know they will have jobs to come back to when we can reopen to foot traffic. I miss their input and their contributions. They are such an integral part of Let’s Talk Books, and I look forward to them returning to work as soon as it’s viable.

At this time, I don’t qualify for any of the small business loans set up by the banks and government, so I am doing what I can to continue selling inventory so that Cobourg and the surrounding area will continue to have the services of an independent bookstore.

4. What can readers do to help you and all independent bookstores through this?

Jennifer: Shopping local is key to the survival of any small town or independent business that doesn’t have access to the resources that big box stores do and can’t afford to offer huge discounts.

What we offer that they can’t, is a sense of community and belonging, giving each customer a unique shopping experience with care and concern. You’ll find more than books on our virtual shelves; you’ll find individuals who genuinely care about the members of their communities, who try to support their towns, and are working really hard to keep their businesses going in these strange times. Also – it’s safer to shop from home and have us deliver to your door.

Shelley: If you are ordering a book, game or puzzle, check us first.  We are quicker than Amazon (they have de-prioritized books); we are cleaner than Amazon — a two-person production rather than thousands of employees and—we wear a jaunty cap.

Meet our Booksellers

Blue Heron Books; Shelley Macbeth

62 Brock Street West, Uxbridge

Established in 1989, Blue Heron Books is more than a bookstore. It has twice been awarded Bookseller of the Year Canada and is the hub for all things cultural in the quaint town of Uxbridge and for its many satellite communities. The store services over 100 area schools and an astounding 27 book clubs. Known for its top-notch event series offered spring and fall, as well as the Book Drunkard Literary Festival annually at the end of October, and the numerous classes and programs for adults and children alike, Blue Heron Books offers something for everyone.

Website: www.blueheronbooks.com
Phone: 905-852-4282

Let’s Talk Books; Jennifer Bogart

25 King Street East, Cobourg

Founded in 2016, Let’s Talk Books is Cobourg’s only independent bookstore. In addition to new release books, you can find magazines, greeting cards, puzzles, and a selection of gifts. Special orders are always welcome if the book you are looking for isn’t in stock. The store offers four incredible book clubs, the details of which can be found on the website, and hosts authors, guest speakers, and workshops throughout the year. The store shopdogs, Parker and Scarlet, are usually on hand to greet customers, but you’re better off asking staff for help, as the dogs have limited tastes in reading material.

Writing in Difficult Times

Writing in Difficult Times

Jessica Faust, BookEnds Literary Agency 

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 crazy.

No one thing will work for all people and, certainly, everyone’s situation will be different. But for those seeking guidance, I have some tips.

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.

I Read Canadian Day

I Read Canadian Day

Gwynn Scheltema talks to Andrea Adair-Tippins

February 19, 2020 saw the celebration of the first I READ CANADIAN DAY. I asked Andrea Adair-Tippins, my friend and fellow writer, and librarian at Whitby Public Library, all about it.

What is I READ CANADIAN DAY and how did it come about?

Andrea Adair-Tippins shows off a stack of Canadian books

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.

This initiative is now supported by the Ontario Library Association, the Canadian Children’s Book Centre and CANSCAIP (Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers).

What sort of activities happened on that day?

Whitby Public Library Central Branch

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.

authors Ruth. E. Walker & Bill Swan at Whitby Public Library

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 in Uxbridge shows support

Blue Heron Books, a local independent book store had a reading corner set up where community members could sit for 15 minutes to read.

Shelley Macbeth of Blue Heron Books in the “I Read Canadian” storefront



What was a highlight for you?

I loved that everywhere people were talking about Canadian books!

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 of fun.

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 Gwynn

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.

A Panel of Poets

A Panel of Poets

Guest Blog by Antony Di Nardo

But first a word from Gwynn

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?

Vitruvian man

“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.

Poetency & Apoetasy

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.

Paying attention

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.

Second Book Syndrome

Second Book Syndrome

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)

Image by TréVoy Kelly

(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.

Image by Erik Stein

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.

Image by Gerhard Janson

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

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.

5 Ways to Actualize Your Writing Dreams

5 Ways to Actualize Your Writing Dreams

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.

Visioning

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.

Getting Your Kids to Reach for the Stars

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

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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

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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.

Power to make a difference

Power to make a difference

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!

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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!

Reaching out

Lori Twining ~ #slaughtersquad

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

Lisa Unger & Lisa Scottoline Books
Lisa Unger & Lisa Scottoline Books

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?

MAKE KARMA HAPPEN!

Lori Twining

Lori Twining writes both fiction and nonfiction, with her stories winning awards in literary competition and appearing in several anthologies. She’s an active member of many writing groups: International Thriller Writers, Crime Writers of Canada, Sisters In Crime 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.

The Minimalist Writer

The Minimalist Writer

Bronwyn Hannelas, guest post

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
  • hubby’s office

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.

For Stephen King, it was the laundry room. For me, it’s the kitchen.

Choose your clutter battles

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.