Two of my
grandchildren spent a week with me this month and as they always do, asked me
to retell a host of family stories – funny ones, scary ones and ones where they
could see their parents as children and make the genetic connection to their
own character traits.
Then they asked
me to write them down.
I realized at
that moment, that when I was gone, many of the stories would go with me. But
were they important enough, significant enough to make a permanent record? What
did they matter? Why are family stories
Yukon Elder Angela Sidney once said in an interview for the Toronto Star with Dan Yashinsky, “I have no money to leave my grandchildren. My stories are my wealth.”
When I was a
young woman, it seemed to me that biographies and autobiographies were the only
source of “life stories.” And for a life story to make it into book form, the
subject life had to be a famous one: great achievement, great adversity, great
discovery and such. These days, memoirs abound. They are still stories of great
achievement, great adversity and great discovery, but they are stories from
“ordinary” people. The kind of people I might know. The kind of lives I can
What I like about
this trend is the underlying inference that everybody’s life matters. That we
all have something to offer. And in each life I read about I find echoes of my
own. This connection through story can, at different times, inspire, comfort,
educate, amuse, awe or humble me. It’s all good.
That’s what the
grandkids were really asking me for…echoes from the past through which they
could find connection and comfort, inspiration, amusement, awe…
The Power of Story
The International Storytelling Centre (ISC)
based in Tennessee believes that story is the most effective way to communicate
both with others and with ourselves. ISC began a movement to revive oral story
telling over forty years ago. The cornerstone of their belief is that “People
crave, remember and honour stories.” They say, “We are an organization
dedicated to inspiring and empowering people across the world to accomplish
goals and make a difference by discovering, capturing, and sharing their
have a rich and active oral storytelling tradition, and increasingly oral
storytelling groups are forming the world over. Each year, March 20 marks World
Storytelling Day, a global celebration of the art of oral storytelling.
World Storytelling Day began in Sweden in 1991 and Canada joined the event in 2003.
On this day,
people tell and listen to stories in many languages and at as many
places as possible, during the same day and night. This event has been
important in forging links between storytellers and in drawing attention to the
art of storytelling.
said, “To be a person is to have a story to tell.” We all have them, me
stories should I tell?
When I asked the kids what stories I should write down, they fired off a verbal list: How my husband and I met. The story of how and where he proposed. They wanted to know what sports I played, hobbies I had, places I’d lived, what I did in my spare time…
They wanted to hear
tales of my children – their parents- as children.
They wanted scariest moments, most embarrassing moments, proudest moments; favourite pets, favourite school subjects. Had I ever been arrested! (No!) Had any family members ever been murdered! (Yes!)
They wanted details about family members who had served in wars, been in concentration camps, been famous or notorious. Why had I come to Canada? Who were my grandparents?
They left me with
a written list of over 50 topics – “To get me started,” they said.
So, now I’m determined to throw off any thoughts of “my stories aren’t worth recording.” I’m challenging myself to complete their list. The stories don’t have to be literary. They don’t have to be long. I just have to tell them (on the page) as only I can tell them.
How about you? Do
you have stories that only you can tell? Write them down.
Here are some questions to get you started from the genealogy site fortyandlogan.weebly.com
Today’s guest blogger Cheryl Andrew‘s Amazing Moments Journal arose out of this maxim. The idea caught our attention on social media, and we asked her to tell us how it all started and how it’s progressed and developed.
Guest blogger: Cheryl Andrews
The emotional churn of daily living
I find it enormously difficult to identify
and process my feelings. Journaling has been the creative go to for interpreting
the emotional churn of daily living, so I can get on with it, this life. My
life. It’s a writing form I’m righteously passionate about. But my pen faltered
when I tried to write about what was happening in 2020 with the modern plague.
I was snowbirding in Florida when COVID-19 officially moved to pandemic status. Expert advice on avoiding the deadly disease was mixed and contrary, and those who tried were being ostracized in the American news, creating even more panic. The calamitous daily numbers of new cases and deaths soon turned our affable winter community into a ghost town. Locked in and isolated, I went into a tailspin overwhelmed with dread. I had to do something to make it stop, to help myself.
My positive retort to the doom and gloom
A new daily journal would become my
positive retort to the doom and gloom of the pandemic. It would shift my focus away
from the dark side and back to the magic and mystery that exists all around if
I could just shed the emotional paralysis and look. The journal would be dedicated
to tracking only Amazing Moments.
I was afraid to go out to shop
for a journal, so I clawed through the art cupboard and found one that was
pretty banged up. I re-glued the binding and collaged a new cover.
I set myself a writing challenge: paint pictures of amazing moments using only words. A tough contest for an avid artist and photographer. Spring was in full bloom when I finally made it home, the scenery so extraordinary I realized imagery had to be part of this daily writing practice. I loved going back through the journals and hinging in some favourite photos, artwork, doodles, mini collages, slogans, etc. Even my very first attempt at an erasure poem got tucked away in there. As I flipped back through the pages, I was amazed how re-reading the entries continued to bring on the joy.
Healing the troubled mind
Initially I wrote for my own sake, multiple
daily entries to sooth my troubled mind, aching heart, and grieving spirit. But
others I cared about were hurting too, so I shared a smattering of the journal
entries on social media hoping to alleviate some of their pandemic trauma. Feedback
said those amazing moments succeeded!
It didn’t take
long to fill that first journal. I built and filled Volume Two, then Three and
a Fourth. I continued to use ‘orphan’ journals,
the damaged ones nobody else would want because I discovered that making
repairs and collaging new covers was almost as healing as the writing.
Another amazing discovery, some of the entries had a poetic ring to them. Here’s an example, the only edits being enjambments and a jazzy title:
Bad Ass Beauties
A rare sunlit walk at October’s end. New blooms discovered on the roadside. Fresh. Wild. Fall Asters – bad ass beauties. Harbingers of autumn’s close that keep blooming on brittle, dry stems alongside their dead kin into the first days of frost.
writing in Volume 5. The cover is a tribute to southwest Florida where I’m snowbirding
once again and where Amazing Moments got its roots. God, I hope this is the last volume. The project ends when the pandemic is
This healing, daily writing habit is well engrained. I can’t begin my day without setting up a new page. Over coffee this morning, I started page 720.
Enjoy a few random entries:
Watering the flowers early morning while still in shade, set to ‘rain shower’. A hummingbird joined me. Had a drink ,then flew through the ‘rainfall’ and landed on a tree to finish its bath and preening.
Shockingly soulful wail from
the loon – one long, heart wrenching note echoes off the rocks. Strange.
Incredible sky, each of the four directions display a unique horizon, all the while thunder rumbles and confused crickets sing though sunrise was 1.5 hours ago. South: grey wash; East: white clouds against pale blue sky; North: darkness – trouble comes; West: yellow cream
A black cat sits, alert, focussed on something in the scattered rocks of the ditch beside highway 400. How did this solitary creature manage to be hunting on the wrong side of the doubled layered animal fencing?
In the midst of a steaming hot shower, my cell rang. Sopping wet, I get the news. Staggered by the implications: positive for CoVID (Delta strain). Quarantined with Cid and Bruce. After the emotional ‘dust’ settles Cid & I do what we always do … make art. Bruce digs through his old DVD’s and finds the entire collection of “Third Rock from the Sun”. Add laughter to the CoVID mix. Adult beverages and Third Rock.
I live in Rainbow Country in near-northern Ontario on the shores of a spring-fed lake surrounded by woodlands. My fascination with the magic and mystery of this stunning, natural world invigorates and influences my creative pursuits.
A lifelong passion for artistic expression naturally evolved from the visual arts to include the literary. When writing I slip into a brightly lit and infinite orientation where time doesn’t exist.
I am most fortunate in my development to be surrounded by a tight-knit group of women writers, the “Lifers” (Life Writers Ink), peer mentors. All are on a similar path and a strong bond exists in the mutual desire to move ourselves forward as writers.
The desire to be the best writer I can be means ongoing development will never have an ending.
Often you find yourself with a few spare minutes, but not enough to do anything meaningful with on your writing project—or so you thought.
Here are a few suggestions for how to fit a little more writing-related moments into your day or make better use of your spare moments to stay connected to your writing project. .
Check in with the world
Mindfulness helps to keep you de-stressed and balanced. When you find yourself with a few minutes, check in with your world. Notice, notice, notice. Notice 5 things you can see, 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can smell, 2 things you can taste or touch and 1 description of how you feel. Practicing this often fills your creative well and gives you more to draw from when you get back to writing
Think and plan
I’ve always believed that thinking about my story is part of the writing process. Asking myself character questions, mulling over the why of an action my character just took, working through a plot dilemma, thinking up new characters and plot events….
Stephen King said “If you don’t read, you can’t write.” Fiction, non-fiction, poetry, general news: it is all grist for the mill. Check out the latest posts from your favourite writing blogs, magazines or organizations. Have a “read it later” file to save articles to that you want to read but don’t have time or head-space for right now. Or pick up your present print book and enjoy a new chapter. If you prefer audio, use extra time to download your preferred listening material to use on your daily walk, while cooking supper or just relaxing on the porch with a beer. It’s so much nicer to have it ready to go when you need it, than having to use your walking time (or writing time) to download.
If I’m in the writing zone, and I don’t know a fact, I usually just type a note to myself like this: Conrad drove up in his XXX car (HOTTEST CAR OF 1989) and research it later. Think of how many items you could look up in ten minutes.
Back up your files
Many of us know the awful sinking feeling of lost work. The next time you’re waiting for your lunch to finish cooking, why not take a moment and back up all your files. Better yet, get yourself hooked up to an automated cloud-based backup. There are many out there. I use Dropbox and it’s saved my bacon many times. I also do periodic flash drive back ups of particular files for an extra layer of comfort. Remember, you don’t have to back up everything. Sync only what needs to be backed up. Make yourself a checklist of what’s important if you like.
Create a checklist
Checklists are great for taking advantage of the think-it-out-once, do-it-many-times-efficiently approach to routine tasks (see previous tip) But there are many kinds of checklists, and in a few minutes, you can create one to use later, or refine and update an existing one. You can have editing checklists, marketing checklists and creative checklists like a “Character” list including items like: main external goal, strengths, weaknesses, emotional wound, secrets, greatest fears, favourite colour, phobias etc. etc.
If your journals are anything like mine, there are all sorts of hastily written ideas and beginnings of poems or stories. Some writers even write longhand first for all their writing. Use a few spare minutes to get some of them typed up on your computer. You can save them individually as progress files, or collectively in an ideas file. Or physically tag them with Post-its for transcribing later.
Network on social media
Use your spare moments
to follow a new writer or publisher. Engage with people of all kinds in the
writing world. Find and share a promotional post from a writer you admire, or
research a new market for your own work. Just beware the rabbit hole…..
Run a Google search on your name and /or your book title. I have found articles I’ve written reprinted without permission and then secured reprint fees. I’ve enjoyed and filed away comments or reblogs I wasn’t aware of. Googling also gives me an idea of what comes up first in the SEO algorithms, so I can address that if necessary.
Update your bio
Handy in a computer file, every writer should have several bios (long 100-300 and short 30, 50 and 100-word) ready to go for all the different forms they write in: poetry; short stories, etc. And those bios should be up to date, but it’s amazing how quickly they become stale. Take this time to update a least one. Don’t forget online bios and headshots too.
Why do you write? It seems like a simple question, but it’s not. Why we write (or create in any medium) can be as visceral as an urge you can’t deny, a simple desire to channel creativity, a deep-rooted emotional need to achieve or be accepted, a way to earn a living, or bits and pieces of all those things and more. Over our writing lives we often have different reasons at different times. All are valid.
Today’s guest blog comes from Aprille Janes, who I met over twenty years ago when we attended writing retreats together. These days, Aprille chooses to create through visual and fibre art, at her Stoney Bay Studio in Nova Scotia, but her message is relevant for any creative.
Aprille tells us why her answer to “Why do you create?” may have been wrong all along.
Guest post: Aprille Janes
the Joy Again
I baked a cake from scratch this week and in the process, I
learned something important about why I love making art. One thing that changes
everything for me.
I used to love baking but haven’t done much of it in a long time. However, over the holidays I really got into the Great Canadian Baking Show on the CBC. The fact that bragging rights is the only prize seems to make the relationships more sincere and honest. They weren’t competitors as such but simply people with a common love for baking. Even the judges and show hosts exhibit a warmth and kindness that is an antidote to all the negativity and anger out there these days.
Getting Prepared for Something New
Inspired by the show, I looked for something to bake myself. I
browsed cookbooks, Pinterest and recipe sites. I savoured the time searching
for something special. It’s hard to make plans these days when Covid keeps
blowing them up but this was one thing I could plan with confidence, one thing
in my control. The process gave my outlook a real lift. (BTW – Click on link
below the image if you want the recipe, too. )
After choosing the recipe, I went shopping. I invested in a springform pan and a couple of other tools I was missing and the freshest ingredients. Not rushing the process is a gift whether I’m working in flour, fabric or paint. Taking time to anticipate and choose added to the enjoyment.
The Big Ah-ha!
When I got home, I made my cake, delighting in the scent of the
lemon zest and the colour of blueberries. The warmth of baking filled my
Finally, when the cake was done, I shared it with family and friends. I even posted the photo on social media along with the recipe. Because, in the end, seeing someone else enjoy something I make is why I do it. THAT was my big Ah-ha.
Why I Create
I finally get why I love making things. It’s not just painting
for me. It’s about making art quilts and needle felting, baking and knitting
and just working with my own two hands. I’d been making it hard when really,
it’s so easy.
It’s the pleasure of making and the joy others take in what I’ve
made that motivates me. Looking back, I can track the journey to this point but
it felt like a bolt out of the blue. The business lens that I’d been looking
through isn’t right for me.
I’d been struggling with a decision about Instagram. Marketing
wisdom said I needed multiple accounts to share these other facets but removing
the business mindset provided the answer. Sharing who I am is the common
So I’ll be shifting focus. I will share my art on social media
but I will also share other things that bring me joy and satisfaction. I won’t
be doing a newsletter any longer because I’m ‘retiring’ the business side to
follow my heart.
My wish for you is that you too find something that warms your
heart and gives you deep satisfaction.
Aprille has fond childhood memories of outdoor adventures and time spent near the water. Today, she lives by the Bay of Fundy and her art reflects this love of the outdoors. She divides her time between painting, fibre art, writing and teaching watercolour workshops.
At the start of 2021, I wrote a goal-setting blog that wasn’t focused on lists of things to accomplish, a.k.a. lists of my future failures, lists of not meeting my own expectations.
Instead, because almost a year of COVID had taken its toll, I
decided to put kindness to myself first in any plans I made or goals I set and to
strive for participation and passion, not perfection. I decided to find joy and
fulfilment in the unexpected, big and small. And part of that was the
acceptance of self, flaws and all.
And here we are, at the end of yet another year of pandemic existence. And yet, I feel that I did indeed reach my 2021 goals, and am better for it. And as the old adage says, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
here was my list for 2021, that I’m going to repeat in 2022:
Be kind to myself and don’t expect perfection
Do more of what feeds my soul, my passions and my creativity
Do less of what others say I should be doing if it doesn’t feel right
Be flexible and willing to change direction and do it positively
Be present, mindful, grateful, and notice and appreciate
Go with the flow
I’ll continue to put time spent on the things that are important to me first: my health, my family, my creativity. I’ll continue to prioritize using my butterflies and frogs method. I’ll continue making daisies to help me focus.
I have two large projects to work on this year: completing my poetry manuscript for publication and heading up the Steering Committee for Northumberland Festival of the Arts, taking place September 2022. One will focus me inward, and one will connect me with my community, arts and otherwise. It will be a good balance.
a relief in NOT having a long list of must do’s: lose 10 pounds, finish the ABC
project, start the XYZ project etc. etc. etc. Even with just two, I’ll be
careful to work on them without compromising my health or family relationships
and other important aspects of life.
And here’s another thing I’ll repeat: my wish for you all:
Take time to live. Take time to grow. Take time to love. Above all, be kind to yourself and others. Look for the good in everything. Enjoy the writing journey you’ve chosen for yourself. Enjoy life. Be positive and you’ll get there. Have a wonderful 2022.
Yesterday was the Winter Solstice. The turning point for the planet where the Northern Hemisphere dips deepest into the dark before moving into a day-by-day increase in daylight. For me, it couldn’t come soon enough. The dark has never been my preference, despite writing some great prose in the wee, dark hours upon occasion. I am someone who is drawn to sunlight.
But the dark is a useful tool in my writing, just as it may
be in yours. Darkness finds a place in narrative in different ways.
Beyond the famous opening It was a dark and stormy night, the dark can serve to:
set up themes
deliver engaging description
inspire resonance in your reader
On that last point, let me assure you that readers can hold onto what you write about when it inspires fear. I am still uneasy next to nighttime windows after reading Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot. My rational mind knows there are no vampires out there but he created such a reality for me that I get dark-window tingles more than 25 years after reading the book.
Here’s a couple of ways to use “dark” as a tool to engage your reader:
Focus on difference
Comparisons are a terrific device for all kinds of narrative
needs. A character’s fear of the dark is interesting but intensity grows when
that character gets a job in mine. Add in a cave in and you have emotional gold.
Landscape description can make great use of the dark. Even
in daytime, shadows offer readers visual textures: caves, alleys, clouds, thick
forests, distant mountain ranges – it all needs 3D qualities.
Using the dark to represent villains is cliché but can still be useful if you’re creative. From Snow White’s evil stepmother to every rotten gunslinger to heartless Darth Vader, black is the clothing tone. However, consider Pennywise the Clown from It, and sadistic King Joffrey Baratheon in Game of Thrones.
Similarly, consider superheroes such as Black Panther,
Batman and Catwoman. They fight for good but are dressed in black, a counterintuitive
representation. And that makes them interesting visually.
Play with expectations
As a kid, I watched westerns a lot on television, including Have Gun Will Travel. The gunslinger named Paladin in this series was always hired by good folks in trouble. And he wore a distinctive black felt Western hat. A hat so distinctive that you can order one of your very own “with the kettle curl and with the pecan crown” from The Last Best West company for as little as $390 US.
I think the reason Paladin’s iconic hat still carries energy is that it represented the complication of the human soul: we are a combination of good and bad — it’s our choices that define who we are. Despite the black hat of this hired gun, his choices were to do good. It’s no coincidence that Paladin, his assumed name, comes from the French Chevaliers of Charlemagne’s 8th century court. He was the classic white knight in a black hat.
As a child, I had no idea of all that history and cultural
baggage. But that doesn’t matter. I sure knew that bad guys in all the western
movies I’d seen up to then wore black hats and the good guys wore white hats.
So this guy, he was interesting. And for a writer, that’s the point of this piece.
Winter Solstice may be the ideal time to explore the energy found in the dark – stretching and trying on ideas often lead to deeper understanding of this thing we do when we put fingers to keyboard or pen to paper. Besides, as of today, we are moving toward the light. Hooray!
If you want to explore both dark and light on your own, here’s
a Writescape exercise you might like to try by using an artist’s approach to
dark and light:
Artists refer to six basic concepts when describing the
behavior of light on a form, listed here in order of brightness: highlight,
direct light, reflected light, shadow, core shadow and cast shadow.
Take your “writer’s paintbrush” and draft a scene,
or a poem or whatever you want, using a technique of light and shadow. Choose
at least one from light and one from shadow
in direct light (out in the open and clear to
everyone: just the facts, the obvious)
in reflected light (learning from/being gifted
with something: mentored, discovered)
in highlight (showing/revealing something:
sudden reveals or gradual unveiling to ‘ta-da’)
in shadow (holding something back/grey areas:
unclear, dreams, choosing not to share)
in darkest dark/core shadow (so deep s/he may
not even know it exists: secrets, evil, fears)
Have fun with this. May your muse be generous and lead you into the dark and light of a great piece of writing.
‘Tis the season and a time to think about gifts for writing friends. If you’re anything like us, your list of writing friends and colleagues is wonderfully long. Or perhaps you’re not a writer but have one in your life and you want to give that writer a meaningful present at this time of year. We’ve come up with 10 gift ideas, and most of them cost you little more than time and a willingness to help. And bonus–many of them are environment-friendly.
Time to write. With all of life’s commitments, a gift of time can be priceless. Perhaps offer to babysit, to do the grocery shopping, take kids to hockey practice or cook up a few meals for the freezer — any task that will free up time to write.
Used books. Over the years, writer friends and I have had pot luck get togethers during the holiday season. Each person brings a much-loved gently used wrapped book and then we have a draw to chose a package to take home. Not only do you get a new book to read, but the discussion this activity generates is loads of fun.
Help to face fears. Submitting and rejection is one of my fears. One of the best gifts I received was a commitment from a writer friend to help me to submit my work. I picked out three pieces, then she helped me decide on markets, craft the cover letters and actually send the submissions off.
Space to write. I’m lucky enough to live in a picturesque retreat property. I often offer up my home to writer friends who need to get away. I either write with them, or give them their space, whichever they want or need. If you are away at work during the day, is there a writer who would appreciate a quiet space to themselves? Hey, they could even let your dog out for you.
Help to remove a block. One of my writing friends is a bit of a clutter-bug. She was feeling creatively blocked but overwhelmed at the thought of sorting through the clutter. I offered a weekend and my organizing skills to open things up a little for her so she could get creative again.
Promote on social media. Write a review. Subscribe to or comment on a writer’s blog. Like a writer’s Facebook page. Interact on Twitter or Instagram or Pinterest. Repost, repin or share. Circulate blog URLs. Interview a writer on your own blog. Swap links. Encourage others to do the same. The more often the better. Perhaps schedule an hour a month to act to help promote 8 writers. By this time next year, you will have taken 100 promotion actions.
Share a skill. If you are an editor, gift an editing session. If you are a whiz with Scrivener, offer a coaching session. A dedicated brainstorming session for plot building. Share your skills and you share your gifts.
Organize an “inspiration day.” Pack a picnic lunch. Map a trip to visit gravesites, outdoor sculptures, historical sites, a working farm or visit with an expert. Be the chauffeur and tour guide but remember to build in time for note-taking, observations and serendipity explorations that pop up along the way.
Buy their books. Seems obvious, but we tend to think of gift giving as just that. We need to give to the writer. But as a writer, I would happily forego “getting” and know that my book has been bought and is being read. I’d even be happy to sign it. Them. A whole pile of them.
Attend a launch or reading. Virtual launches are the new “thing” and they are great for attracting larger audiences; no more attending readings where the readers and their immediate families are the only ones in the audience. However, showing up online is only half the story. Comment while you are there to encourage and make the recording more worthwhile and ultimately, PLEASE buy the book!
There are other low-cost but appreciated gifts to consider for a writer: a journal (not the fancy expensive kind, just a dollar store purchase that a writer won’t feel too intimidated to “muddy” the pages); an easy-grip pen and/or mechanical pencil; a package of paper for printing.
Many gift ideas could be packaged as “coupons”:
Good for one editing session in March or April for up to 10 manuscript pages.
Redeem for one afternoon of market research to develop submission strategy. Goal: 3 submissions to either agents or publications or contests.
Congratulations! The bearer of this certificate will receive a day of inspiration during summer. Be whisked off to places and spaces that will tickle your muse and inspire some great writing. Provide gift giver with possible free dates to find a mutually suitable time.
So there you have it. Be creative and surprise another writer with a gift on this list this holiday season. Or give the list to friends and family so they can give one to you.
Finally, if you have a big-ticket item on your own wish list–a new laptop, a writing retreat, a professional edit–ask family and friends to contribute to your Writing Dream Fund. Many hands can make dreams a reality.
Some time ago (frankly, too long ago) I wrote about my manuscript being rejected by a literary agent. This wasn’t an ordinary Thanks But No Thanks form letter. It was a thoughtful explanation about why this agent was taking a pass on my Young Adult science fiction novel. She included comments from a reader, noting areas of concern.
It was gold – and not just because I was being provided with
helpful feedback from a complete stranger. Clearly, the agent felt engaged
enough with the story and my writing to have it read for a second opinion. Even
more clearly, the agent felt engaged enough with me to offer these suggestions.
And she left the door open to resubmit.
For most of us writers, and certainly for me, self-doubt is
a constant companion. Sometimes, I can supress the little monster long enough
to finish a third or fourth or fifth draft. But even then, it whispers sweet
nasties from the back of my brain.
So, this agent’s treatment of my novel as something worthwhile
was rocket fuel. However, life got in the way and time to focus on the book
kept getting put aside. In 2019, I finally pulled up my bootstraps and devoted
my full attention to the book once more. By January 2020, I had a revised draft
(thanks members, past and present, of Critical ms, my critique group.)
February 2020: a professional and organized plan
I sharpened and polished my query (thanks Heather O’Connor) and made my synopsis all shiny. I created a spreadsheet to keep track of my submissions and colour-coded each entry’s status (thanks to my Writescape partner and sister-from-another-mother, Gwynn Scheltema.) No colour for open submissions. Putrid peach for rejections. Bright blue for full requests. I had no idea what colour I’d use for “yes.”
I took a much more methodical approach to search agents and
started in with QueryTracker, an online list of agents in Canada, the U.S. and
beyond. I narrowed the list category to YA and science fiction/fantasy.
And then I started to submit to agents who were open to
submission. First, I checked out their websites and, where possible, their MSWL
(manuscript wish list). I quickly learned that not all YA Science Fiction
agents would work for my novel. Mine isn’t “hard science fiction” so I avoided
submitting to those agents. And mine isn’t younger-YA-friendly; agents who
didn’t like violence or edgy topics came off my list.
I didn’t rely on QueryTracker for all my efforts. I paid attention to blog posts and various “10 Agents Seeking Writers” kinds of announcements (thanks Brian Henry and Writer’s Digest.) Friends and colleagues pointed me in a couple of directions, shared insights and ideas. A couple even went to bat for me, speaking directly to their own agents on my behalf (thanks Tom Taylor and the ever-supportive, Heather O’Connor.)
During 2020, there weren’t many opportunities to attend
conferences and writerly events. Basically, once March happened, everything
stopped (remember 2020?) But I hoped that agents might be like the rest of us,
with strange time on our hands to not go anywhere or meet with anyone. I
continued to query, methodically, in chunks of two to four queries at a time.
A tailored submission: snip, sew, snip again
An important note: not all agents want the same thing. For instance, my two-page synopsis had to be rewritten as: a one-page synopsis, a two-paragraph synopsis (yikes!), a 500-word synopsis…if nothing else it was a masterclass in editing. Nobody wanted the outline I’d drafted and redrafted. Darn. And what each agent wanted to see meant carving the full manuscript into custom-order submissions.
From five pages to ten pages to the first three chapters, to the first 50 pages, to 1000 words, to 2500 words – I was slicing and dicing like a personal chef at Benihana. Do I include the epigram page? What about the cover page? Did they count on the number of pages? Or word count? Or, or, or.
For the record, I left out the epigram and cover page and
just started with Chapter One. And I noticed a few necessary tweaks as I
reviewed some of those submissions. Tweaks that I then incorporated in the full
ms. So again, editing masterclass.
Lottery: Losses, close calls and then…
My first agent query was sent February 10, 2020. My first rejection arrived March 2, 2020. Between February 2020 and November 30, 2021, the majority of my queries resulted in standard, form-letter rejections.
Occasionally, there were personal notes but they were rare. Some agents still haven’t replied.
Fifty-two queries later, I met over Zoom with Ali McDonald from 5 Otter Literary Inc. for a 15-minute pitch session (thanks PYI organizers at CANSCAIP.) The first thing she said to me was: “Ruth Walker. Why haven’t you queried me before? This book is right in my wheelhouse!”
More than three weeks later, Ali and I met again. This time, we chatted for more than an hour and a half. That evening, November 30, I had an offer of representation. On December 4, I signed a contract and can announce that Ali McDonald of 5 Otter Literary is representing my YA Science Fiction novel and I could not be happier.
Well, I suppose once she sells my book to a publisher (fingers crossed), I might have to be happier but for now, I’m over the moon. Next step: To infinity, and beyond!
The work ahead
Now I have signed with an agent, I needed to stay professional and focussed. I contacted the U.S. and Canadian agents who asked to see the full ms, along with the others who’d not yet replied. From Rachel Letofsky at CookeMcDermid Agency, I received a gracious reply: “I am delighted to hear this news. I know and respect Ali very much. She has great relationships in the industry, and a deep knowledge of the kid’s book world. You’re in good hands with her and Five Otter Literary.”
I also had to turn my mind to specifics:
see this blog post and my social media (personal and professional)
family & cheerleading friends
update my Literary C.V. to include: Ruth is represented by Ali McDonald of 5 Otter Literary
revise bio and update headshot for 5OL website
clear my calendar and schedule editorial meeting(s) with Ali
mothball my Agent Spreadsheet
And one more thing: Allow it all to soak in. I’m realistic enough to know this is not a guarantee that my book will find a publishing home. But it’s a wonderful step into a world of possibilities. And a reminder to everyone who is struggling to find an agent to champion their work: Keep going. Take every opportunity. And know you’re not alone in the journey.
Some weeks ago, one of our regular retreatants, Lori Twining, shared her retreating experience at Writescape’s fall retreat. But what if you can’t get away to write on retreat? How else can you keep the words flowing?
Have you ever considered an accountability partner?
Lori wrote about the magic of accountability partners on her blog in August, and we reprint it here today with her permission.
Accountability Partners: Are They Beneficial?
have a simple goal: I want a writing career.
it is not as simple as quitting my day job and writing the damn novel. Other
things factor into a writing career, besides having money to pay the bills. In
2021, as a writer, it is essential to have a social media presence, network
with others, be searchable on Google, be knowledgeable and experienced with the
craft of writing, have an agent, have a publisher, and the list goes on and on.
It is endless.
writing career something I can do alone?
The writing part falls on the individual writer. However, if you have other
people who share your wants, your desires, and your future dreams of a writing
career, then you should team up and do it together. Build an army. Challenge
each other. Support each other.
This is where the benefits of having an accountability partner come into play. These people establish a relationship with you to help achieve your goals. They hold you accountable for what you said you would do and try to keep you on track, even if you are experiencing a meltdown of some kind.
Let me explain..
I sent out multiple emails regarding my volunteer role as a Blog Wrangler for
my local writing group. Most of my writing group writes novels and short
stories as a side hustle to their “other” careers (that pay the bills). All of
us write blog posts that relate to our writing lives in some way. As a
volunteer, I admit that I get tired and overwhelmed (sometimes cranky) at
working behind the scenes for zero money and little appreciation. I’m not
complaining; I offered to do this to further my writing career (if it ever gets
further than barely existing). I admit that it is a selfish reason. Sometimes,
I have days that I question my choices on volunteering. I want to quit
everything and just write. But, then something like this happens:
the frantic emails (and FB messages and text messages) back and forth with my
writing tribe, I received a message:
anyone told you that you should be a writer?”
laughed. Reading this message broke the stress and frustration I had been
holding tight inside. My shoulders released the tension, and I relaxed a bit. I
wrote back to say, “Not lately. I’m too busy wallowing in a puddle of
self-doubt right now.” I often wonder if all this writing is simply a
time-waster, and I’m going nowhere. Several text messages followed to say they
appreciated my time and effort, and I need to keep writing. This is one writer
supporting and encouraging another writer. I love it.
later, the following email came in from another accountability partner. It
I am late in responding to you. Thank you so much for your accountability email
(you were on time, I’m two weeks late). Ha! I’m never on time. At the moment,
I’m sitting on my couch crying about not making any progress during July. I
decided to email you and tell you the small amount that I did manage to find
time to do. Then, I surprised myself with what I actually got done. This makes
me happy. Writing it down, so I can see the progress. Yes, I was still a couch
slug for most of the month, but I did submit two short stories, sent ten
queries to agents, and updated my website so that if the literary agents ever
decide to google me, I will look important! I might even fool them into knowing
what I am doing! Thank you for this. I love you! Talk to you in a month. Or
After reading this message, it reminded me to check in with a few of my other writing buddies. I have multiple people that I keep in close contact with, where we exchange emails on the first of every month (with many emails in between, just to keep us motivated). I keep a list of excerpts from their emails to encourage me, so I remember that working toward a writing career is not a waste of time. People do get something out of this. It keeps me moving forward with my goals.
My partners are inspiring
are a couple of example messages from them:
I did awesome on my goals! I really want to say thank you for this. Having
these goals keeps me motivated and helps to keep me working on all aspects of
excited and scared and motivated and terrified all in one. I am so thankful for
you and this accountability thing we do together. I have WORK TO DO… so here
are my new goals.”
How I stay accountable
I write an accountability email at the beginning of the month describing everything I accomplished (or didn’t accomplish) from the previous month, and add my goals for the following month.
I exchange these emails with a few different writers to encourage them (or challenge them) to do “something” to further their writing career. And they do the same for me.
Here are a couple of examples that show progress in someone’s future writing career:
Woke up at 5 am for two weeks straight. Butt in chair. Writing.
Published four book reviews for novels in my genre on Goodreads.
Posted five Instagram photos of books I purchased written by my
#5amwritersclub writing buddies.
Submitted my short story to a contest.
Attended Inkers Con virtually.
Finished the Dan Brown Master Class on Mystery Writing.
Ran a giveaway on Goodreads. Sent out the print copies to the
Attended two virtual book launches this month.
Signed up for a 7-day IN-PERSON writing retreat.
Took a course online, “How to Nail Writing Multiple POVs &
Timelines” (this one is something I’m doing this month).
All of these examples keep you in the writing game. You are supporting other writers, networking, learning your craft, or writing the book—all good things.
Cutting Yourself Some Slack
The end of my July accountability email listing all my goals was this:
August goals are to tackle as much as possible with my writing, without
breaking down and bawling like a baby because I don’t have enough time to do
ALL THE THINGS that I want to do this summer.”
received this immediate response from one of my accountability partners:
have a similar goal for August and the rest of the year. Now that I’ve had a
vacation, I will try to go several days in a row without yelling/swearing at my
computer screen. And that’s just for work. It doesn’t include the head-hanging
despair during the writing sessions. Maybe we should ease up on our
expectations of ourselves? Just a thought.”
excerpt above is from an experienced published writer, and she has made a good
point. I have high expectations for myself. Maybe this is why I am biting my
nails to the quick? I’m walking the fence between giving up (by sitting on the
couch watching every Harlan Coben Netflix series and not writing) and moving
full force ahead with writing every chance I get, hoping my novel gets a little
better with each pass through of edits.
is an evil monster, and accountability partners can help with that. They remind
you that you are not alone on this path to a future writing career, and
everyone struggles with so many things (and I don’t even have to mention the
pandemic and all the stay-at-home orders that interfered with our mental state
for writing over the last 18-months). They are full of motivation and
inspiration. They can help you plan and strategize how to approach editors or
agents. They can advise on improvement on your query letter or book blurb.
Also, they can help you stick to your commitments and expectations, so you can
continue to make progress.
are all in a different place with our writing careers. Some writers are already
published, and some of us are still struggling with that first novel (that
would be me). But, overall, we are suitable matches for being accountability
partners. We strive to be full-time writers and are putting in the work to get
there. We all struggle with time management, primarily since we all work
full-time or part-time for other people. So, being able to discuss it with each
other is a bonus. It echoes the reminder that we are not alone.
little thing you can manage to do (writing, networking, reading, promoting
yourself & your writing friends) proves that you are showing up for
yourself and committing to the work. The best part of having accountability
partners is that you can share your progress and celebrate everyone else’s
progress too. There is no need for jealousy; it is all a wild and fun
experience of living life to the fullest and conquering that writing dream.
If you are struggling with pulling your butt off the couch back to your writing chair, maybe you should look for an accountability partner? They are perfect for brainstorming and bouncing ideas around, supporting each other, motivating, and inspiring you to continue with your dream. Plus, they are there if you want to cry or rant about something when you are grumpy or extremely pissed off. They are also there to laugh with you, and everyone needs a good chuckle from time to time.
If you don’t have one and would like one, just ask another writer if they would be interested. It is as simple as that. Good luck on your path. Baby steps will get you there. Eventually.
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, 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
While we are cautiously optimistic that the worst of the pandemic is behind us, and we slowly return to some semblance of how the world used to be, I hope we don’t discount everything that happened in the past year. I’d like some elements, of the virtual kind, to carry over into the future.
What? Haven’t we’ve all had our fill of Zoom and Webex and Facetime and whatever else people have found to connect with one another when we couldn’t attend in person? But there are some really good things that have come out of doing things virtually.
A virtual win
I work in a library and for each author
visit I’ve hosted in the past year, I reached over 2,000 views on Facebook
live. Two thousand views! In-person events max out at the room limit of 70
people. Going virtual has been a huge win for the library and my guest authors.
In future, I intend to do a hybrid: in-person events while streaming on Facebook
live. Something I hope organizers of writer conferences will consider.
Having just attended my second fabulous virtual Surrey International Writers Conference (SIWC) there are some things I’ve embraced about attending conferences this way that I hope will continue in some fashion.
Conferences: a virtual plus
Attendance: You can attend any virtual conference you want no matter where you live. I tried to attend SIWC in person three years ago but it sold out so quickly I didn’t have to worry about convincing my husband I should go! When it switched to virtual last year organizers opened it up to more people and I had no problem getting in.
This year alone, I’ve gone to When Words Collide in Calgary and Write Now!, a crime writing conference in Arizona. It’s a big world but virtual conferences make it feel smaller.
Events are recorded: Many conferences are recording the sessions held over Zoom and it’s fantastic! If you attend a conference in person, unless like Hermione Granger you have a time turner, you can’t physically be at every session.
But with recorded events, you can hit any session you want. With SIWC for instance, the recordings are up for a month and I can watch them at my convenience – even while making dinner!
Transcripts: With live events on Zoom or recorded, transcripts are easily available. While watching live, you can enable the transcript right away and follow along (or go back if you miss something). Zoom also gives you an option to save it. Save the transcript? Yes please!! Save my hands from cramping for an hour and a half session.
And with recorded events, you are able to copy and paste the transcript. You might get 46 pages and some odd interpretations of words but it helps you catch the gist of anything you missed.
You can duck out of recordings: Not every session you attend at a conference is perfect for you. You may be looking for nuts and bolts about how to do something and the presenter takes more of a theoretical approach. It can be awkward to walk out halfway through — but virtually, not so much. It’s even better when it’s a recording. Just end it. Or skim the transcript to see if it does get into more of what you are looking for.
Even more pluses
Pitching: Pitching your book to an editor or agent is nerve wracking, virtual or in person. Doing it over Zoom however, there is a good chance they aren’t going to see how nervous you may be. Yes, you have to remember to look at the camera but sweaty armpits aren’t going to show up across the internet. And pitching, just for the experience alone, is always a win – virtual or otherwise.
Cost: Conferences can be expensive, from airfare to accommodations to meals. Virtual? Well, you miss the adventure of a trip and restaurant meals and hanging out at the bar. But do you?
Many events have set up virtual bars to hang out in. Order food in and mingle. Network. Meet and greet online.
While I hope in-person conferences will resume again soon (New England Crime Bake in November is doing a hybrid event) — I am soaking up everything I can online whenever I can. And having a lot of fun while I’m doing it!
Andrea Adair-Tippins is a children’s librarian assistant. She is currently working on a historical mystery, attending conferences and taking online classes to improve her craft.