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

Words For Comfort

Words For Comfort

Ruth E. Walker

On Friday evening April 24, like so many others, I watched the televised vigil for the terrible tragedy in Nova Scotia. Music, prayers and tributes were shared to honour the memories of the 22 people killed in a senseless rampage.

Senseless.

That word goes both ways. We are numbed by the loss and we can never understand the motivation. There’s no making sense of it. And no amount of evocative music or heartfelt prayers will remove how powerless we feel.

Words are just words even with the best of intention.

And then Sheree Fitch read a poem. The words came to her after she heard the news of the mass shooting. The poem arrived unbidden, landing on the page in the morning as if already written, ready to give voice to the unspeakable. Some of us writers know what that is like, when a scene or story comes to us and we are lost in the writing, almost on auto-pilot, possessed.

In these days of social distancing, how can anyone find comfort without a hug or handhold or hot cup of tea in a friend’s china cup? Yet I felt comforted by her reading. Her poem spoke of the child in all of us that when the inexplicable happens, we fall back into that child-place, where the world is strange and frightening and we need a voice that tells us our feelings are okay to have.

Sheree kindly gave Writescape permission to share her poem here. It’s a wonderful example of how words can find a way through the dark.

I hope Sheree’s poem brings the same comfort to any one of you, who, like me, is still trying to process how horrors could happen to ordinary people, living ordinary lives, just like ours.

April 20, 2020

Because We Love, We Cry

Sometimes there is no sense to things my child
Sometimes there is no answer to the questions why
Sometimes things beyond all understanding
Sometimes, people die.

When it hurts like this, my child
When you are scared, suffering, confused
Even if we are not together
Together, let us cry

Remember there is so much love
Because we love, we cry.

Sometimes the sadness takes away your breath
Sometimes the pain seems endless, deep
Sometimes you cannot find the sun
Sometimes you wish you were asleep.

When it hurts like this, my child
When you are scared, suffering, confused
Even if we are not together,
Together, let us cry

Remember there is still so much love
Because we love, we cry.

Pray that I had answers, child
Pray this wasn’t so
There are impossible things, child
I cannot bear for you to know.

When it hurts like this, my child
When you are scared, suffering, confused
Even if we are not together
Together, let us cry

Yes, there is still so SO So much love
Because we love, we cry.

Sheree Fitch by Keith Minchin

Sheree Fitch is the award-winning author of over two dozen books for children and adults, as well as a storyteller, poet and book shoppe owner. She lives with her husband, Gilles, and many critters on Happy Doodle Do Hobby farm in River John, Nova Scotia where they run a seasonal book shoppe, Mabel Murple’s Books Shoppe and Dreamery.

The Unexpected Visitor

The Unexpected Visitor

Gwynn Scheltema

Saturday, April 18 was the third Saturday of the month and the usual day for the breakfast meeting of my Northumberland County writers’ group “Spirit of the Hills”. Each month we meet in person at a local inn to check in on what everyone is doing and listen to a guest speaker. We usually go around the table and everyone has a minute or so to talk about what they are working on, share writing news and events and anything else writing related that might be of interest to the members. After that we have a guest speaker or a discussion. The whole thing lasts about two hours.

This month we tried on a new format—we met on ZOOM.

And I have to give a big shout out to our organizers, Kim, Felicity and Katie who made some interesting choices on the flow and content of the meeting so that it was long enough, but not too long, easily participated in without being a free-for-all and most of all for sending us away with inspiration to keep on writing.

The Guest House

Because April is poetry month, they chose that as a theme for the meeting.

Kim started us off with a reading of Rumi’s poem, “The Guest House”. This was such a good choice, not only because Rumi is much loved by so many, but because this particular poem, even though written in the 13th century, was able to speak to what we are experiencing as creators right now. For many of us, the muse is not showing up as she usually does. This poem reminded us to welcome whatever she brings.

Check-in

In our regular meetings, we would then have proceeded with our round-the-table check-in with everyone. Instead, earlier in the week, Felicity emailed those planning to attend asking them to email their usual personal “minute update” to her by the Wednesday before the meeting. She then compiled the responses into a document and emailed it to the group prior to the meeting.

I found this a great idea, because I find ZOOM meetings require more concentration than meeting in person, and so the meeting wasn’t as long as our usual in-person meeting and I have a copy of what’s going on among my friends and colleagues to read at my leisure.

Rumi’s poem in action

Next, Kim called on each of us in turn to read something we had worked on recently (max 4 minutes). We were all prepared, as the Zoom invitation had told us what the plan was.

It was interesting to see Rumi’s poem in action—the muse welcomed no matter what she brought. Several members read pieces in response to the pandemic (prose and poetry); others read pieces as far removed from the pandemic as possible. Some, it was clear, had managed to soldier on with existing projects despite it all.

In their introductions, readers commented on how these strange times had affected them creatively, and again, like the guests at the Guest House, some had found unexpected visits of creativity.

Keep the visitors inspired

Finally, Katie closed the meeting with some comments and resources to check out to keep the visitors to the Guest House inspired. I have shared some of them below for your inspiration too.

Brava Ladies! A job well done.

A poem a day (or week)

  • Poetry Present: If you haven’t signed up to receive or be a part of this delightful project from Cobourg’s own phenomenal poet laureate, Jessica Outram, now’s the time! Residents and friends of Cobourg and the surrounding area are encouraged to send in their own poetry, to be distributed to a growing number of subscribers, one poem a week from a different poet.
  • Poetry Foundation
  • Academy of American Poets’ Poets.org
  • Poetry 180 Project for schools of then-poet laureate of the U.S., Billy Collins:

Other Resources

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.

10 Great Responses to COVID-19

10 Great Responses to COVID-19

Today we focus on how organizations, businesses, authors and artists have stepped up and adapted to respond to the pandemic. We’ve picked 10 but please share other resources you’ve come across in the comments section. Remember to be safe and keep well in the weeks and months to come.

1.  Virtual Book Clubs

Now that we can’t meet in person, Zoom is the new virtual meeting space. It’s free, and all kinds of businesses are turning to Zoom and adapting it to the needs of their customers and clients. Gwynn’s local innovative independent book store, Let’s Talk Books has switched their book club meetings virtual via Zoom.

You can link via cell phone, tablet or laptop and talk face-to-face, meet the author, and stay safe and healthy. NOTE: In response to online trolls and bored fools, Zoom is upgrading their security by April 15.

2.  Virtual Writing in Community

Inkslingers is in its 15th year of providing workshops and guided writing practice programs and travel experiences. Helmed by Sue Reynolds and James Dewar, certified Amherst Writers & Artists workshop leaders, they’ve offered regular Sanctuary Sundays for communal writing at their country home. But they can no longer invite writers to come and immerse in their inspiring landscape so they’ve gone online, offering the same supportive space virtually.

3.  Virtual Critique groups

Not just businesses have turned to Zoom. Gwynn and Ruth’s critique group now meets every two weeks via Zoom. Critical ms is a serious group of serious writers, many of whom write professionally. Pre-pandemic, the group met every two weeks alternating between Whitby and Peterborough for in-person deep critiques of one or two members’ submissions. Now the writers keep to that schedule but see each other’s smiling faces online. Yes. Smiling. Critical ms is a serious group but everyone enjoys a good laugh. And these days, we all need that.

4.  Online Courses

Online courses are nothing new. What is new, is that many providers have recognized that with so many people forced to isolate and with added time on their hands, learning something new is a positive way to cope. To that end they have offered their courses for free or reduced prices for the next few months. A couple you may like to check out as a start are  Coursera and #Stayhome@News18

5.  Online Writing Prompts

Most of us know daily writing prompts are easily found in places like Writers Digestonline. Poets & Writers online is another option. P&W offers a mix of inspirations 3 times a week — poetry, non-fiction and fiction each week gets a prompt. Of course, our current pandemic flavours the prompts, but they are subtle about it. From an excerpt of Samuel Pepys plague-time diary to exploring the small details found places in the world using Google’s Street View, the prompts give writers a multitude of ways to stretch their pens during these distracting days.

Whether you start a new piece, add a scene or chapter to a work in progress or just play with words in a different way, it’s exercise for the brain and a welcome tickle for your muse.

6.   Face-time Learning from Artists

Artists of all kinds are sharing their talents via the internet right now to help teach and entertain people around the world. Best-selling illustrator and graphic journalist Wendy Macnaughton hosts a weekly a live class “for kids of all ages, parents of kids, parents of parents, aunties/uncles, friends and pets.” Canadian band the Arkells host “Flatten The Curve Music Class” sharing the chords and lyrics for their music.

7.  Virtual Tour of Museums and Art Galleries

The Guardian newspaper has a list of the “top ten museums and galleries to visit in the world.” There are different ways to virtually tour art galleries and museums but we were intrigued by the British Museum’s virtual Google timeline that users scroll along, choosing time and place in the world to explore the museum’s collection.

Canadian War Museum

In the Canadian War Museum, you can experience trench warfare through an interactive video presentation Over the Top. Narrated voice over leads you to several “choose your own adventure” moments.

Washington’s National Gallery of Art is offering 10 Digital Education Resources that are family friendly. And their online collection highlights is an amazing opportunity for close up views of masterpieces of paintings, sculptures and photographs over the ages.

8.  Copyright Accessing

The Association of Canadian Publishers and Access Copyright announced temporary permissions for online storytime to help educators and librarians connect with students through a program called the Read Aloud Canadian Books Program. Under this program licence fees related to the reading of all or part of select books from participating publishers and posting of the video recording online have been waived.

Publishers who have signed up so far include: Annick Press, ARP Books, Orca Book Publishers, Owlkids Books, Portage and Main Press, Running the Goat, Books and Broadsides, Groundwood Books, and Linda Leith Publishing.

9.  Public Story Time

Educators and Librarians are not the only people who bring stories to kids online. For more than 20 years LeVar Burton has been the star of the show “Reading Rainbow.” During this difficult time for families at home, he decided to do a live-streamed version of #LeVarBurtonReads, but as you see in this twitter exchange, he ran into a problem. One of my favourite children’s authors stepped in immediately with a very generous offer. 

10.  Financial Support for Writers and Artists

Finally, we end on something we know is important to all of us who live by our words.  Our financial position has always depended on our ability to work. For many writers, freelance opportunities have vanished. Publishing houses are looking at their already uncertain bottom lines and must be rethinking their coming seasons. Fortunately, there are extraordinary financial supports for businesses and individuals coming from the Government of Canada — the Canada Emergency Response Benefit for example.

For writers, there’s even more help.  The Writers’ Trust of Canada, The Writers’ Union of Canada and RBC launched the Canadian Writers’ Emergency Relief Fund to support writers and visual artists who are suffering substantial income losses during this time. Applications closed on April 9. On April 8, Access Copyright announced a $100,000 donation to ensure the important financial support offered by the Canadian Writers’ Emergency Relief Fund can continue. The second round of applications open April 10 and close April 20.

The Fund provides grants of $1,500 to those who meet the eligibility criteria. Details are on the Writers’ Trust website. And if you’re in the fortunate position to help out a writer in need, details on donating to the fund are here.

A new take on an old genre?

A new take on an old genre?

Gwynn Scheltema

So much dystopian literature is big on a military or quasi-military response from authorities to a global pandemic. Sheep-like broken people follow orders because of fear of the authorities and are hostile to anyone showing signs of infection.

But here we are in a global pandemic crisis and I’m learning that things can be very different and that there are many facets to consider. I don’t see people locking their doors and guarding their “territory” with a gun. I see instead so many kind and generous actions. I see cooperation and compassion. And I’m wondering if a new dystopian genre will (or should) reflect some of what I’m seeing.

The pace of change

If I had to name one thing about the COVID-19 crisis that really boggled my mind, it was the rapid pace of change. I remember doing the math around projected rates of spread at the beginning of March and rechecking my figures because I couldn’t believe the answers I was getting. What I knew yesterday is different today and who knows what tomorrow will bring– that’s a huge source of tension. Any story that mined and recreated that tension would keep me on the edge of my seat.

The hidden human consequences

I don’t see muscled men riding in jeeps brandishing sub-machine guns, or fenced off confinement areas full of people dressed in grey ragged clothes. I see very little of every-man-for-himself attitude (except around TP!!) But the virus aside, there are a host of dangers to be considered–just more subtle hidden consequences:

  • leaders who won’t heed the advice of experts
  • a lack of resources for frontline workers
  • the effects of isolation.

Yes, isolation is vital to stop the spread of the virus, but what dangers can bubble up:

  • women or children with abusers in the home
  • caregivers who get no respite
  • addicts with no access to their poison
  • street people forced inside
  • people living alone not having human contact for prolonged periods
  • mounting stress levels…

Currency

In this new take on the genre, will military, money and politics talk as loudly as before? Or will human interaction, village co-operative strength and simple needs become the top currency? Already dystopian literature often features barter rather than money as water and food resources become currency. In this revisionist genre will digital communications, farming and medical skills, and even art also play a part?

New sets of characters

In the cast of characters, I hope dystopian writers will give due weight to the “unseen” workers. I’m seeing grocery cashiers, fast-food servers, truckers, delivery people, the “unseen” hospital workers and so on, all being as vital to survival as first responders and lawmakers.

The change in attitudes

My observation has been that many people during the COVID-19 distancing have had very little trouble ditching the malls and stadiums and old “must haves”. Some of us quickly realized that we like the extra time with family, no commuting, less waste, less smog, and simpler expectations.

Shifts in values

I saw a post on Facebook that said “In the rush to return to normal, give great thought to what you want that normal to be.”

For dystopian writers— and indeed for all of us—will we find that more companies will allow work from home? Will retail shift from physical stores to online? Will we continue to take walks in the woods, be grateful for fresh produce, take better care of our planet? Will we take more time to connect with family and friends and be more grateful for what we have?

Write a book review

Write a book review

Gwynn Scheltema

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing a review

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

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

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

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

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

Questions to consider about your reading experience

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

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

Practicalities

To review a book on goodreads follow these steps:

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

My non-journal

My non-journal

Gwynn Scheltema

I’ve just returned from a couple weeks’ vacation in the sun: idyllic ocean vistas, new taste experiences, and cultural delights. Lots to write about in my daily travel journal…except…when I travel, I don’t write a daily journal; I keep a non-journal.

My Non-journal

My non-journal began when I was on an extended trip back to my childhood home in Zimbabwe to look after an ill relative. What should have been a golden opportunity to stir up old memories and write screeds and screeds of material turned out to be a dry well. I had all the physical sensory impetus around me, but emotionally and mentally I was in a very different place, and just couldn’t write a word.

With that came the guilt: “I should be making the most of this golden opportunity”; “If I just start to write- write anything- I should be able to get going, so why can’t I?”; “Is this self-sabotage?”

In the end, I stopped fighting the ideal and just did what I could: lists, photos and language.

Lists

I began to make lists: a list of local flower names, a list of bird sounds; a list of signs of decay in the house where I was staying……

Making lists freed me up emotionally and mentally, because I didn’t have to craft sentences, and I didn’t have to call on memory or emotion. I gave each list its own page and added to it whenever I could. Even travelling back on the plane, I could add to any of the lists.

Now, years later I look at those lists and realize what a goldmine they are. I have details that I likely wouldn’t have recorded had I been writing a prose piece:

  • half a phone book from ten years ago
  • a dried-up bottle of cochineal
  • iron burn marks on the sheets

Photos

Sure, we all take photos, but we live in a social media age that programs us to take pictures of perfection: beauty, excitement and such—all things we would share with others. Or personal moments with people. Or the food we eat. All that is fine, but in my photo non-journal I also take photos of things for my future writing.

I don’t advocate experiencing life through a lens, so I’m not suggesting that you stop just looking and recording in your memory, merely that when you do stop to take photos, you take a full range of the experiences, not just the “nice bits” or the “Facebook worthy bits”.

I take pictures of the dirty back street one block back from the tourist route, close ups of the kind of garbage lying in that street. I take photos of the menu as well as the food. I take close-ups of flowers and leaves of trees. I take photos of oddities, both pleasant and disturbing, like the old lady asleep, wrapped up in a moth-eaten crocheted blanket on a sunny yellow porch on a thirty-degree day.

Language                                                                                    

One of the best ways to make a character or place seem real in writing is to include local idiom and language. Being unfamiliar, I find cultural phrases are easily forgotten, so in my non-journal I keep pages for jotting down things people say and explanations of what they mean if necessary.

  • dumb as a cow’s arse
  • she flapped her lips
  • give it to Old Pisquick over there
Southern ground hornbill walking in the high grass in the Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe.

I also record foreign language words and phrases that locals pepper their conversation with.

  • names of things – utshani = grass
  • exclamations of surprise—ini indaba? = what’s the matter?
  • orders—faga punzi = put it down

Hidden Gold

Initially, I didn’t have great expectations from the jottings in my non-journal. I think I did it more to assuage the guilt of not writing. But I was wrong.

Those “meaningless” jottings have a peculiar effect when I reread them. Even the smallest snippet has the power to take me back to the time I wrote it. If I open my mind, whole scenes and sequences come back to me. I can use my lists or photos as prompts to write.

And it goes beyond that. For instance, that item in the list above “a dried-up bottle of cochineal” doesn’t just take me to the house where I observed it, but also back to memories of days doing ballet and using cochineal to dye our pointe shoe ribbons pink.

Each non-journal entry is a quiet tendril, moving slowly through my mind encircling memories for me to use now that I am home from my travels.

Crybaby for Characters

Crybaby for Characters

Ruth E. Walker

Life of Pi movie still

True Confession: I cry in the sad parts. Tears trickle down with a good book. Louisa May Alcott’s Beth in Little Women, again and again with Jeannette Walls’ memoir The Glass Castle (alternating with laughter, of course), the tiger at the end of Life of Pi.

So many books have brought me to tears. I’m also a sucker for a well-acted stage production, movie or TV show.

It’s the characters

I invest in characters. I cheer for them and I admonish them and I cry for, or with them. Of course the story matters because that’s where the characters come to life. But the most compelling actors or characters in a story won’t move me if I don’t believe in the truth of their situation.

Captain Picard of the USS Enterprise

Star Trek is a television series I’ve followed since the early days of Captain Kirk. I watched every single television incarnation or reboot. And the movies. I don’t have a room full of Trek memorabilia but until my doggie decided to chew off his leg, I did have a tiny Captain Jean-Luc Picard on my office windowsill.

I’ll admit that some of the stories are not especially well drawn. And especially in the early days of limited FX options, those alien masks were, shall we say, rudimentary?

But it’s always been the characters for me: how they act, react and yes, occasionally, over-act (sorry Bill.) Because I believe, on some level, that they are real and the situation they are facing is founded in reality.

A learning moment

A recent story-time session with my 2-year-old granddaughter Clara reminded me that characters — even non-human ones — can have an emotional impact on readers.

One of her favourite books when she comes to visit me is Snow by P.D. Eastman. It’s an early reader in the Seuss series and frankly, the text could use some work: What is snow? I do not know. I do not know what is snow. and  Do you like it in your face? Oh yes, I like it anyplace. Suffice it to say, while I like repetition for word recognition, encouraging snowballs to the face is problematic. And yes, Grandma does know what is snow and explains it. But I digress.

Clara loves the book, always asks for it and so we read it. Until last weekend.

My granddaughter immerses in books. In the case of Snow, when we reach the pages where they building a snowfort and make snowballs, her fingers are all over the page, gathering imaginary snow to add to the construction.

But then we come to the snowman

At first, everything is fine. Just like every other time, she gathers the snow with the book characters, rolling each one into a three-tiered figure. Adds the glasses, pipe, coal smile and the ubiquitous hat. We turn the page.

The sun comes out.

The snowman melts into a slushy puddle.

And this time, for the first time, her face is stricken. “I don’t like it,” she says, her face now on the verge of tears. “I don’t like it,” she repeats.

What? This never happened before. Not with her. Not with any of my other grandchildren. I shift into hyper-vigilance and flip over the page. Distract her with the kids putting snowballs into the fridge freezer to keep them from melting. Suggest the snowman could go there as well.

Then I say, “We don’t have to read the snowman part again.”

Clara looks up at me, thoughtful. “Okay,” she says. But I’m pretty sure what she means is that we won’t read the book again. Ever.

Mending a broken heart

An illustration on two pages of a simple early reader book came to be absolutely real for her. And she was heartsick for the melting snowman.

It was a beautiful moment for me and a teaching one, at that. I was the learner and she, the instructor. Characters can be beloved even before words on the page are familiar.

I always thought that stories were favourites of very young children because the rhythm of the words and engaging illustrations caught their attention. But I hadn’t thought about a relationship with the characters. I thought that was something that grew as toddlers became more self-aware primary kids.

Pixabay

I also recognize that despite my love and frequent interaction with dozens of very young children over the years (my own, my daycare charges and my grandchildren), I had more to learn about the way story characters impact them. That even toddlers can have sufficiently developed empathy to be moved by characters.

It will be some time before I’ll be introducing Clara to Star Trek. But in the interim, I’ll be looking for additions to my children’s library at home. Suggestions, as always, are welcome.